Alternate baseball: chapter three

In my two previous installments looking at alternate historical tracks baseball could have taken, one common theme has connected the scenarios. The changes I’ve postulated have come about due to human agency. Someone remembers to pack a jersey, or forgets to mail a letter, or awards a basketball expansion franchise rather than allowing a team to move. These events don’t just happen; they are done.

This is entirely normal for alternate history, but there are people who think it’s like playing baseball without the foul lines. (I was going to say “playing tennis with the net down,” then remembered where I am.) Acclaimed history writer Stephen Ambrose expressed this very opinion when writing for an alternate-history anthology. “For ‘what if’ history to work,” he wrote, “there has to be a real chance that things could have turned out differently because of forces beyond human control.”

I don’t subscribe to this myself. I think it’s more interesting and meaningful to show how a very small, or very distant, action by one person can affect a great deal more than is immediately apparent. Maybe it’s natural for a writer to think that we’re the authors of our own stories, even if we don’t recognize the plot twists we’re setting up for ourselves and others.

Just because I believe in branch points due to free will, though, doesn’t mean that branch points due to random chance don’t exist, or that they cannot produce interesting stories. It would feel a bit like cheating to make something wildly unlikely be the focal point of an alternate baseball story. Ted Williams isn’t going to get hit with a falling piano, not while I’m writing these scenarios. (Not unless I learn that he actually was almost hit by a falling piano. Then we’ll see.)

But to take some highly unlikely incident and erase it from existence is much more natural. To use an advanced sabermetric term, it feels like a regression to the mean. Baseball history may thrive on all those unlikely events, but surely it won’t miss just one, right? Especially when I’m reversing one of the saddest events the game ever knew, restoring a man’s life and vitality unfairly, inexplicably robbed from him.

To an athlete not dying young

Scenario No. 4
Change: Lou Gehrig lives.
Result: The Yankees dynasty lives. Then it dies. Then everything changes.

It is, thankfully, a rare few baseball players who are defined as much by how they died as by how they lived. Ed Delahanty; Ray Chapman; Willard Hershberger; Roberto Clemente; Thurman Munson; Lyman Bostock. A few others, surely, but the litany already feels too long. Atop that list, probably for all time, is Lou Gehrig, lost to a rare disease that not only took his life but claimed his name as a trophy.

The story is too familiar to need an extensive retelling. His ineffective play in the first eight games of the 1939 season led to the end of his consecutive-game streak (voluntarily, we are told, though there are hints manager Joe McCarthy gave him a “quit or be fired” ultimatum), and sent him to the doctors to discover what was wrong. The answer was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degeneration of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. There was, and is, no cure. The news was soft-pedaled, to the public and to Gehrig, but in truth it was a death sentence.

His benching became a retirement, even though there was wishful talk about a comeback once he was treated, and the Yankees held a day for him at the Stadium on the Fourth of July. The images and words of that day have stood in the top rank of baseball iconography ever since, elevating Gehrig from merely a great ballplayer to a great man, humble and brave in the shadow of his own mortality.

(The famed ceremony came between games of a double-header against Washington. One might expect a Yankees squad wrung out by emotion to have played the nightcap at half-strength. Instead, coming off a narrow 3-2 defeat in the first game, they demolished the visitors 11-1 in the second.)

Gehrig’s story is so bound up with the ALS that took his life, it’s hard even today to separate him from it. But let’s try. Let’s imagine a world in which the first games of 1939 were only the start of a new season, and not the beginning of the end.

This scenario fits Ambrose’s criteria well. Despite a lifetime’s worth of medical progress, we still do not know what causes most ALS cases. (A few are hereditary, but that doesn’t seem to have been Gehrig’s case.) We can’t say why Gehrig contracted it, and can’t say what little different thing would have spared him. It’s not just “beyond human control,” it’s beyond our understanding.

Whatever hidden thing happened in Lou Gehrig’s body, now it didn’t. So what happens?

First off, the changes won’t begin as late as 1939. A consensus has formed in recent years that Gehrig was already suffering the initial deterioration from ALS in 1938. His on-field performance did take a sharp dip that year, his OPS+ dropping from a league-best 176 to 132. For context, it was the first time Gehrig’s OPS+ had finished below 152 since 1925, his first full-time season at age 22.

So Gehrig’s alternate-1938 would have been better than his real-1938, and the following years obviously far better. As for offering specific numbers, here I hesitate. Specific projections are fraught with pitfalls, a thousand little things that could intervene and make a monkey of anybody offering exact numbers. Even approximations are dubious, but I have to try something.

Rather than put every statistical category through the wringer, I will begin with something comfortably fuzzy: Bill James’ Win Shares. Win Shares measure the total contribution of a player to the wins his team gains, each Share equal to one-third of a win. For example, Lou Gehrig’s 1937 season has a value of 36 Win Shares, meaning his presence gave the Yankees 12 victories over the presence of a sub-replacement non-entity (say, me) taking all his plate appearances and defensive innings. There’s a kinship to Wins Above Replacement here, especially in gauging the margins between one player and another.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

The first comparison is between real-life sick Gehrig in 1938 and his alternate healthy counterpart. The real Gehrig produced 25 Win Shares; we can project what alt-Gehrig would have done from his ’37 performance and his age. One-time Baseball Prospectus writer Nate Silver once calculated the year-to-year change in offensive performance for players as they age*. I will use those numbers to project Gehrig’s performance.

* Silver calculated the changes in Equivalent Runs, not Win Shares. Since both use a scale with zero meaning total ineptitude rather than replacement-level performance, the ratios should correspond from one system to the other. I am also assuming that defensive and base-running performances track with the decline numbers for a player in his latter 30s, which is a reasonable estimate.

Silver determined that a player in his age-35 season, as Gehrig was in 1938, will have his performance decline 11.1 percent on average from his previous year. For alt-Gehrig, that takes him from 36 Win Shares to 32. That’s seven Win Shares, or a fraction over two wins, better than our Gehrig did. His Yankees, instead of finishing 99-53, would have gone 101-51. This wouldn’t have affected the pennant race—they outpaced Boston by nine and a half games in reality—but the 1936-1939 dynasty would look a little neater with four 100-win seasons in a row.

Before I proceed, here’s a table showing the differences between what real-Gehrig and the Yankees did at first base, and what alternate-Gehrig is projected to have done. Alt-Gehrig’s decline feels a little steep, but I am following Silver’s numbers. If they create a conservative projection, that’s not such a bad thing in tamping down the magnitude of the changes I am creating.

Season Win Shares   1937  1938  1939  1940  1941
ALS Gehrig           36    25     0    --    --
Yankees at 1B        36    25     8    11     8
No-ALS Gehrig        36    32    28    24    19

Then there’s 1939. Between Gehrig and Babe Dahlgren, who took over from him and played every game for the rest of the season, the 1939 Yankees got eight Win Shares out of first base. Alt-Gehrig, following Silver’s age-curve, would have produced 28. That’s a difference of 20 Win Shares, six and two-thirds wins. I rounded down before; now I’ll round up and call it seven.

The ’39 Bombers as we know them are on the short list for the greatest baseball team of all time, starting with their 106-45 record. Add a healthy Gehrig, and they go 113-38. That outdoes the 1927 Yankees by four and a half games; it gets within hailing distance of the 1906 Cubs’ astonishing 116-36 mark. Their 17-game cushion against second-place Boston grows—assuming the added wins are distributed evenly and one comes against the Red Sox—to a jaw-dropping 25 games.

The prime thing the ’27 Yankees would have over the ’39 Yankees would be the mystique of Babe Ruth. Aside from that, the ’39s would have them matched, or bettered, all the way down the line. Getting performance from every position regular, and from a remarkably deep pitching staff, they would have no holes. In the minds of baseball fans, it would be an even fight at worst, but the more knowledgeable ones would probably anoint the 1939 Yankees as the greatest team that ever played.

The 1940 Yankees stumbled early and often. Several key players had big drop-offs in performance; Dahlgren, while playing every day like his predecessor and nudging his triple-slash numbers up a bit, was still nowhere near the player Gehrig had been. In the first close AL pennant race in some time, the Yankees finished third, a scant two games behind the Tigers and one game behind the second-place Indians.

In a race that close, it’s easy to postulate how one thing done differently could have produced a different result. The presence of a healthy Lou Gehrig, even in natural decline, is more than enough. He’s projected to produce four more wins, rounded down, than Dahlgren did at first base. From two wins down, the Yankees go two wins ahead, and take their fifth consecutive pennant. Forecasting the 1940 World Series is dicey, with the tiny sample size, but it’s tough to see the Reds breaking the pattern of dominance. We can assume the Bombers took their fifth straight there, too.

The next season, 1941, was a bounce-back year for the real Yankees; they roared ahead of the pack to win the pennant by 17 games. By now, they had given up on Dahlgren, selling him to the Boston Braves, and installed rookie Johnny Sturm as their first baseman. He’d play 124 games that season … and never play in the big leagues again. He was as big a disaster as that implies: He posted a mere four Win Shares on the year, four more at first base coming primarily from Joe Gordon doing some duty there.

Again, alt-Gehrig provides a four-win improvement at first base. This involves rounding up, but we probably redeem that fractional value by moving Gordon back to second for a couple dozen games. No big change: it turns a huge margin of victory into a really huge one. This table encapsulates the changes an ALS-less Gehrig makes to the Yankees’ records:

                           1938    1939    1940    1941
Record (ALS)              99-53   106-45   88-66  101-53
Pennant margin (ALS)       +9.5    +17      -2     +17
Record (no ALS)           101-51  113-38   92-62  105-49
Pennant margin (no ALS)   +11.5    +25      +2     +21

That’s 17 additional wins, plus one more pennant and probably world’s championship, in four years. Even for a team at the top of the baseball world, that’s a pretty good gain.

What is this doing for Gehrig’s personal numbers as a player? Bill James chips in on this, as on most things baseball. He formulated a projection of an uninterrupted career for Gehrig, and the numbers are astonishing. The highlights: 3,928 hits; 689 home runs; 2,879 RBI. He wouldn’t catch Babe’s titanic 714, but he’d set an RBI mark that our real RBI champion, Henry Aaron, would miss by 582. “But these are not unreasonable numbers,” James told author Jonathan Eig. “They just look unreasonable because they are so extraordinary.”

I’m being much more cautious, and much more simplistic, with my projection than James’ solid-gold effort. The Silver-plated forecast for a healthy Gehrig gives him 102 Win Shares from 1938 to 1941, almost exactly four times the 25 that an ailing Gehrig put up in 1938. Close enough for first-order approximation: I’ll multiply his real 1938 by four to represent his alternate 1938-41.

The numbers that gives us are still very nice. He’s the seventh player to collect 3,000 hits, finishing 1941 with 3,227. His 580 home runs put him 11th all-time. His RBI total of 2,336 still edges out Hammerin’ Hank by 39, giving him the crown. These are all approximations, of course, so better to say he probably would hold the career RBI title and probably have close to 600 long balls.

Also, I am giving him credit for extending his consecutive-games streak. Here approximation is impossible: How could I guess the exact day some injury or illness finally kept him off the field? The most probable specific event is that he plays them all, and I’ll go with that. Counting all the official games the Yankees played, he would have gotten to 2,585 at the close of the 1941 season.

By now some of you are all but screaming at the screen, demanding to know why I’m cutting off my projection at 1941. Some others have guessed the reason by now: That little dust-up called the Second World War.

Lou Gehrig had no love for Hitler, deploring what the dictator had done to Gehrig’s parents’ homeland. What’s more, he would have remembered the last time America went to war with Germany, and the dire mindset it instilled. He would have remembered how his immigrant parents were treated, with suspicion and contempt, as enemy aliens guilty of sympathy with the Kaiser until proven innocent. He would have been ready to provide the proof right off the bat this time, for his sake and hopefully for theirs.

I’ll skip all the hedging this time, and say it with confidence. Lou Gehrig wouldn’t have waited for a possible draft notice; he would have volunteered. He was 38 years old? So what? Older and more famous celebrities would do the same: Ask buck private Clark Gable. He would have pressed for actual duty rather than being a baseball exhibitionist, though the service of his choice would have wrung some ball out of him for war-bond and morale purposes.

Four years of serving would have taken him past the point of any reasonable comeback: He’d be 42 on V-J Day. So 1941 would have been the end of his professional career. Gehrig liked his numbers as much as the next player, or more; he believed they were how he’d be remembered (at least until something more memorable came along in our timeline). They’d be frozen forever at where they were in October 1941. His RBI tally would be most gratifying—RBIs were his favorite stat—but he might regret not having a full chance to chase down Babe’s 714.

Fans would remember this, and they would remember why. They’d know he could have stayed out of the fight, padded his stats against depleted wartime teams. But he didn’t. In place of the sentimentalized honor we give him for fortitude in the face of death, he’d be honored for forgoing his shot at the home run record, sacrificing personal gain for a greater cause. Others did likewise, but with the goal seemingly within his reach, he’d be honored first and foremost among them, the standard-bearer for all ballplayers’ service. He’d be lionized as a great man much as he is with us, just for a different reason.

He would still have his share of records. His RBI mark would be unlikely to fall to Aaron’s assault, and he likely would have padded his record of 23 grand slams. As for The Streak, if 2,130 was considered unbreakable, 2,585 would be thought monumental, Olympian, utterly untouchable. And yet … one can almost, through a murk of decades, see through to Baltimore on July 30, 1998, as a banner unfurls down the brick facade of the B&O Warehouse, changing a “2,585” to a “2,586”.

Ignore it. It’s a mirage. The reason for this begins with a little-remembered phase in baseball history, when the cry of “Break up the Yankees!” was put into official practice.

Restraint of trade

Even without Gehrig, the 1939 Yankees dominated the American League, then beat the NL pennant-winning Reds for their fourth straight world championship, and second Series sweep in a row. The Yankees were a juggernaut, one that some baseball executives meant to stop by any means necessary.

Philadelphia Phillies president Gerald Nugent offered a very modern idea: playoffs between the top four teams in each league (back when there were only eight apiece) to determine who would play in the World Series. Random chance in a short series might accomplish against the Yankees what 154 games could not. Owner Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators went for prior restraint rather than jumping through hoops. His idea was that a league champion should be barred from buying or trading for other major-league players, unless they cleared waivers, to keep them from restocking an already loaded lineup.

Proposals like this were cheap: All sorts of notions came bubbling up in the weeks before the December league meetings. Larry MacPhail of the Dodgers came up with his own strange one, proposing a full slate of inter-league series after the regular season. The champions would still play in the World Series, while the teams in second place, third place, and so on would face each other, down to the cellar. The NL actually voted to form a committee to study this proposal, but the AL would have nothing to do with it, and it died.

Nugent’s idea similarly went nowhere. Griffith, however, found a receptive audience for his restriction, that being the entire American League. There was one obvious exception, but Yankees team president Ed Barrow couched it in defiance rather than persuasion.

“There is little that can be done to improve this Yankee club,” he declared, all but saying such a ban would have no effect. He said everyone was finally realizing his was the greatest team put together, and continued, “No club can remain static. The price of victory is eternal vigilance. But the idea that any club can be broken up and the respect of the game maintained is plain bunk.”

(The same issue of The Sporting News that carried this quote also ran a blurb stating that Vitamin B-1 had been found to be a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease. This panned out worse than most baseball rumors, and that is saying something.)

The other AL teams didn’t share Barrow’s opinion on the respect of the game. They voted unanimously to implement Griffith’s rule, the Yankees abstaining in an act of passive resistance. The National League put a crimp in Griffith’s plan by rejecting a similar measure, but as inter-league trades already needed to clear waivers, this gave the Yankees scant relief.

The rule as passed read thus: “The championship club in [the American League] shall not be permitted to acquire player contracts within its own league, except on waivers, so long as it retains the league championship.” The bar held until the defending pennant winner was mathematically eliminated from contention.

St. Louis Cardinals president Branch Rickey was quite unhappy. The meeting had gone badly enough when Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis rejected proposals to limit the restrictions he was putting on farm systems, Rickey’s invention and the underpinning of the Cardinals’ organization. Now the American League pulled this trick, limiting another team’s efforts to put and keep itself on top. Rickey may have been thinking of his own problems when he poured out his invective on the AL’s trade bar,

“The American League sold everybody, including itself, short. … Sure, the National League wants to beat the Yankees in World’s Series competition. And the Cardinals will do it in time—perhaps next year. [He was off by two.—ST] But that type of legislation is not on the square. It destroys initiative and puts a penalty on enterprise. … They’ve gone communistic in that league. Socialistic, I should say—trying to curtail enterprise. … Ed Barrow is a great baseball man. A thinker and a worker. He has built up the Yankees. Now his own associates are trying to destroy that great club, or at least hold it back.”

The rule did draw public disapproval, at least in print. John Drebinger of The New York Times praised the National League for declining to help tie down the Yankees, despite the World Series trouncings it had taken, in an article titled “Winning One on the Moral Side.” The Sporting News editorialized against it, saying “It may be one thing to talk about breaking up a championship outfit, but it is plainly evident that neither the public nor the press will stand for inequitable methods.” Not that they thought it mattered: Reporter Dan Daniel (whom we last saw torpedoing Hank Greenberg with the Tigers) predicted a fifth straight Yankees pennant.

This didn’t happen, at least in our timeline—and the rule is probably directly responsible. When the axe fell, the Yankees had been pulling together a trade with Detroit to acquire pitcher Bobo Newsom. This now didn’t happen, to the Tigers’ great benefit. Newsom reeled off a 21-5, 2.83 season in 1940, finishing fourth in MVP voting. With Newsom a Yankee, it’s tough to imagine what Detroit could have gotten back for him that would keep New York from overhauling the Tigers for the pennant. (The Yankees would finally acquire Newsom in 1947, but he never won a game for them.)

I did say it was easy to imagine one thing that could change this race. So easy, I’ve now done it twice, which is enough for one article.

With the Yankees thrown off their pedestal, the Griffith rule had accomplished its purpose. But now it threatened to accomplish a different purpose: wrecking the Tigers. Detroit had narrowly won with an old team, and needed to supplement its roster to make another run in 1941. The trade bar prevented this, so perhaps it was time for the trade bar to go.

This made for awkward appearances. Ditching the rule after one year made it look like the AL hadn’t been guaranteeing competition, but just discriminating against the Yankees—which, quite arguably, it had been. Interest and image clashed when a repeal of the rule came up for a vote at the 1940 winter meetings.

This time the Yankees did speak up, voting to drop the rule even though it would help them for a year. Detroit voted its obvious interest. The Red Sox, perhaps seeing they had the cornerstone of a potential dynasty in Ted Williams, also voted to repeal. The other five teams stood fast, however, and the trade ban remained in place.

The result for the Tigers was even worse than expected. Charlie Gehringer‘s batting average dropped more than 90 points in 1941, “The Mechanical Man” finally breaking down. Bobo Newsom staggered to a 2-7 start, his ERA at that time ballooning past 6.00: he’d lead the A.L. in losses that year. Dick Bartell fell so far and fast, he was released outright in May. Worst of all, Hank Greenberg got drafted. The Tigers were 11.5 back by the All-Star Game, in fifth place and below .500, their chances shot.

Fortuitously, the All-Star Game was in Detroit that year, putting the Tigers’ plight in the forefront of owners’ minds when they arrived for the festivities. An impromptu meeting at Briggs Stadium the day before the game produced a new vote. The White Sox and Browns switched sides, and the 5-3 result produced a repeal, to take effect at the end of the season. It was already too late for the Tigers, and some owners were apparently afraid they’d conduct a fire sale and send all their best players to, yes, the New York Yankees.

That last twist only seemed to confirm that the rule was aimed at one team alone. Still, it was gone, and for good. Not even future Yankees dominance would spur the owners to put it back in place.

The ultimate dynasty

In the world where Lou Gehrig lived and thrived, however, continued Yankees dominance would have insured its permanence. I’ve shown that his healthy presence on the 1940 squad would have edged them into a fifth consecutive pennant. With that happening, there would have been no groundswell to repeal the Griffith rule. The Yankees’ hands would have remained tied, however much that mattered.

For 1941, it wouldn’t have mattered much. An offseason trade of bench players with the White Sox would have been erased, to no significant effect for either club. Other moves they made were waiver deals with National League teams, or permitted sales of their own players. A September 1941 waiver trade with Detroit would still have come off (the Tigers were the ones restricted in real life at that time), but again it meant next to nothing. The Yankees’ dominance of the 1941 pennant race would be unimpeded, their string now extended to six.

One can imagine AL owners turning frantic by now. What could they do to stop the Yankees? Whatever notions would have circulated before the winter meetings, the trauma of Pearl Harbor would have smashed them aside, turned owners’ thoughts to how baseball would cope with the war. The playing field would have stayed tilted, but no more so.

There still would have been trouble for New York. Gehrig’s enlistment would have left a sudden hole at first base. In real life, the Yankees made a waiver trade with the Braves two days after Pearl Harbor, getting journeyman Buddy Hassett to replace Sturm. In our alternate timeline, with an unplanned absence occurring some time after, I don’t think the Yankees would have been able to swing this trade to replace Gehrig.

The alt-Yankees, probably having sold off an unused Dahlgren at some point, would have had their Johnny Sturm ready to fill in. Presumably, this would have been as bad a train wreck in alt-1942 as in real-1941. The Yankees would have had a solution at hand, though: move Tommy Henrich from the outfield to first. Henrich played some first base in the minors, but he preferred the outfield. Necessity makes its own law, though, and the Yankees needed Henrich to make the move.

They could afford taking Henrich out of the outfield because they had a candidate to replace him, the player that in real life they sent to the Braves for Hassett: Tommy Holmes. Holmes was good from day one with Boston, posting three-plus bWAR his first seven seasons, including eight bWAR in 1945 and second place in the NL MVP race. He would have filled in satisfactorily for the shifted Henrich, and the Yankees, winners by nine in our 1942 A.L., would have weathered the Sturm for half a season to finish on top again. Seven straight.

The talent shortage bit baseball hard in 1943, many players entering the service. The effect of one serving player, Gehrig, would be drowned by all the others gone from the game. New York would lose Henrich at first, but in real life they got Nick Etten in a trade with the Phillies that the AL ban didn’t cover. I’ll have that happen in the Gehrig-verse, too. Etten will do okay, but even if he hadn’t, the 13.5-game cushion the Yankees had in our reality would be in no danger in the other one. Eight straight pennants.

Any reticence to re-visit the rules caused by the onset of the war would be long gone by now. The AL owners would have done something, anything, to check the Yankees’ utter dominance. Imagining what that would be is total speculation, but I suspect the hammer would have come down against their farm system. They’d have Commissioner Landis, who had never liked this system of control of minor-league teams, on their side in implementing it.

So the 1943 winter meetings bring a restriction on the AL pennant winner’s—meaning the Yankees’—minor-league system. And apparently, it finally works. The real-life trades the Yankees made in the first years after the brief 1939 ban never did much to strengthen them, so the continued bar wouldn’t have hurt them badly. The farm restriction, though, will coincide with a down year for the Bronx Bombers. Never mind the actual causation: The AL can claim victory over the now third-place Yankees.

So will all the anti-Yankees rules be thrown down so as not to impede the champion Browns? No. Less entrenched rules stayed in place for the Tigers, at least for a time. And the rules have only had half their desired effect—because a new dynasty is growing. In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals have won their third straight pennant, this one by 14.5 games, and show few signs of stopping.

Back in 1939, inter-league rivalry had been intense: Whatever one league proposed or passed, the other almost reflexively rejected, but 1944 was a different time, the dominant ethos being pulling together for a common cause. More, the NL would have seen the example of the Yankees: eight straight pennants, seven of eight World Series. The fears of the American League owners had been borne out, and now the same thing might happen to the National League.

The Cardinals would have resisted, naturally. The Dodgers, Branch Rickey’s new team and with a similarly strong farm system, would have joined them. They would be outnumbered. The other NL owners would adopt the slate of restrictions on trades and minor-league operations for their pennant winners. Pulling down the king of the mountain would be official policy across the majors.

A whole new ball game

Baseball thus would have stumbled into an effective anti-dynasty policy. The minor leagues were the true strength of the Yankees and Cardinals in that era, feeding fresh talent to already strong teams. Pinching that pipeline might not prevent back-to-back pennants, but it would forestall the spectacle of another eight-straight skein, or even five straight.

The older anti-trade policy, though, might have given the Yankees an extra pennant. In our 1945, they finished in fourth, 6.5 games back. In the alternate 1945, they still would have had Tommy Holmes when he had his near-MVP year. Compared to their most disposable starting outfielder, Bud Metheny, the Yankees would have gained six games by Win Shares, eight and a half by bWAR, or nine by fWAR. They might have grabbed the 1945 flag—and earned themselves another year of trade and farm restrictions in the bargain. Oh, and on a pennant winner rather than the sixth-place Braves, Tommy Holmes would have gotten that MVP award.

The weight of years of restrictions on the Yankees would take time to finally wear them down. Their pennant win in 1947 was too wide (12 games) to expect it to be overturned, but their one-game squeaker against the Red Sox in 1949 is different. Ted Williams would get his second bite at the World Series, and New York sportswriters would dismiss new Yankees skipper Casey Stengel as a clown after all, possibly running him right out of town. The new Yankees dynasty would be stillborn.

The real-life Cardinals might well not lose their 1946 pennant (won by two games) due to just one year of restrictions, and as they wouldn’t finish first again for 18 years, they wouldn’t suffer later, either. If they did get held back enough to lose in ’46, though, the beneficiary would be the Brooklyn Dodgers. That would attach the drag chain to their franchise a year early in what would have been its superb 10-year run, to a reaction from Branch Rickey one can only imagine.

Actually, one can imagine what Rickey might have done in response, in ’46 or ’47: He could have accelerated his sweep of the Negro Leagues for new talent. Jackie Robinson was already on the way, but even more great black players could have been behind him, heading for Brooklyn, than in real life. Integration could have been Rickey’s sally port against the siege of the “socialistic” rules working against him.

To an ownership culture now accustomed to hamstringing its great teams, this would have looked like a direct challenge to authority. There might have been a call from the more segregationist members to prohibit the signing of black players as an anti-competitive dodge. More likely there would have been a “compromise”: a ceiling on the number of black players on one team’s roster. In our reality, some teams were suspected for years of adhering to secret quotas on the numbers of blacks they played at one time. This would have made the system explicit, and much uglier.

Baseball would still be there, but it would be changed. Fair play would have been modified, systematically penalizing the successful as Rickey had stated years back. In the atmosphere of that era, the question would have simmered, and eventually bubbled up: Was baseball Communist?

There’s no telling who would have flung the first accusation, but it would have been acutely uncomfortable for America even to think about. Even in our timeline, the Cincinnati Reds changed their nickname to “Redlegs” for several years to avoid association with the Soviet Union. (I wish I could remember the name of the Red who had the perfect rejoinder: “We had the name first: make them change!”)

It wouldn’t have stuck. Such accusations were made against every institution from the U.S. Army to Lucille Ball, and history shows how self-discrediting Sen. McCarthy turned out to be. But the episode would have reflected, even magnified, the unease with baseball that the new rules fostered, the sense that it wasn’t quite fair any more. Distrust would have been revealed as much as it was created.

It is in this environment that politicians would have seen a chance to take matters in their own hands. In our reality, there was serious talk in the latter 1950s about removing baseball’s anti-trust exemption. It ended up amounting to nothing, notably when Casey Stengel’s famous testimony to a Senate subcommittee made it all seem ridiculous.

In this new timeline, however, there would have been more people ready to listen, and act. The awe of the institution of baseball would have been diminished. Anti-trust zealots would have been emboldened to do away with their exemption. Anti-trust skeptics would have seen the irony of baseball using monopolistic powers to break up a monopoly of pennants, and been less interested in defending this hypocritical privilege. And had the racial quotas gone through, dedicated integrationists would have joined the cause to strike a blow for equal rights.

Baseball wouldn’t have seen what was hitting it. It made these incremental changes for what seemed all the right reasons, and found it had advanced into an exposed position, vulnerable to attack. Owners presumably would hunker down and stand on their Supreme Court-given rights. Baseball as an organization likes hunkering down, as long as it can.

It wouldn’t be enough—and this time, Casey wouldn’t be around to make a great comedy routine of the Senate hearings and divert everyone’s attention. In the late 1950s, Congress would vote to strip baseball of its anti-trust exemption.

This is what science-fiction fans and other futurists call a “singularity”: a change so massive, it is impossible to project what lies on the other side. That’s why you can’t rightly see that “2,586” outside Camden Yards, or whether Henry Aaron could make a run at Lou Gehrig’s augmented career RBI total. There’s no telling what general shape baseball takes after that event, and absolutely no projecting any individual career. In a real sense, God only knows what baseball would be like today.

And who would get the blame, or credit, for that immense change? The 1936-1943 New York Yankees, probably: Their pennant string set the machinery in motion. If any particular Yankee was tabbed, it’d likely be Joe DiMaggio rather than Lou Gehrig. Joltin’ Joe was with the dynasty longer, and Gehrig was always overshadowed by his superstar teammates. A few might name Gehrig the cause, but no one would trace it to the completely natural act of not contracting a rare and fatal disease.

And that’s fair. You can’t blame a man for living, after all.

References & Resources
Baseball Fever
J. Gordon Hylton, “Regulating the Yankees: Baseball and Antitrust in 1939”, Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog
What If?, Robert Cowley, ed.
Bill James, Win Shares
Baseball Between the Numbers, Jonah Keri, ed.
Jonathan Eig, Luckiest Man
The New York Times
The Sporting News

One of the joys of researching a piece is the fortuitous stuff you find along the way. Since it fits nowhere else here, I had to mention stumbling across a picture of an aged Connie Mack giving the “hang loose” sign in 1939. Or was he signaling “two outs”? Actually, he was conversing with old-time player William “Dummy” Hoy, and was signing the letter “Y.”

So Connie Mack knew sign language. Didn’t know that before, did you?

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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this…is actually pretty engaging.  nice job, man..


I’ve always thought Gehrig was the greatest ever.  Just think if any of this had happened and what his numbers would show.  I rest my case.

Johnny P
Johnny P

Minor quibble- had this happened, Ripken would’ve broken the record in Detroit, not Baltimore:


As a die-hard Yankee fan, this was incredible. Will definitely read the others.

Paul G.
Paul G.

Pure awesomeness.

So would Lou have a beard in this alternate reality?  Everything has been turned sideways so it would seem appropriate.

@Kenneth Matinale: Lou Gehrig as manager is intriguing but far from a sure thing even in alternate world.  Ask Babe Ruth how that worked out for him.  HINT: Not well!

Kenneth Matinale
Kenneth Matinale

The Yankees could easily distinguish Gehrig from Ruth on managerial qualifications on the number of times the team suspended each.  There’s a reason Gehrig was captain for so many years and Ruth was not.

Gehrig with a beard?  Cool.

Imagine if the original Sweet Lou were still alive on September 6, 1995 when Cal Ripken broke his record for consecutive games played?  Gehrig would have been 92.  Gehrig would have been baseball’s most heroic figure of all time, pride of the Yankees and the entire nation.

Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte

Johnny P.  And if this had happened, the schedule-makers would have counted up the dates and made sure 2,586 came in Baltimore.  They did the same in 1995, scrambling after the strike was ended.

And while I’m thinking of it, I should have credited Jim Henzler as co-author of Win Shares.  Not easy being a Watson to Bill James’ Holmes.  Sorry, Mr. Henzler.

Kenneth Matinale
Kenneth Matinale

Gehrig might not have had ALS.  He may have suffered from multiple concussions.

Had he lived the Yankee captain would have become manager.  That would have impacted the dynasty differently with a war hero leading the Yankees after WWII.  I’m surprised you missed that.

Philadelphia Phillies president Gerald Nugent offered a very modern idea: playoffs between the top four teams in each league (back when there were only eight apiece) to determine who would play in the World Series. In other words, the Shaughnessy playoff system which the high minors had adopted in the 1930s a) during the Depression and b) after the farm system began in earnest. All sorts of notions came bubbling up in the weeks before the December league meetings. Larry MacPhail of the Dodgers came up with his own strange one, proposing a full slate of inter-league series after the… Read more »
Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman

Without the farm system, perhaps organized baseball would have adopted the promotion-relegation system in use in English football (soccer), with the lowest teams being demoted a classification and the highest teams being promoted. This would have eliminated the need for moving teams and expansion. In the alternate reality the top AAA teams get advanced to the major leagues especially with west coast capital getting plowed into teams with a chance of advancing, building new stadiums etc. Go, Shane, we want more!

Shane Tourtellotte
Shane Tourtellotte
Kenneth:  I did miss the potential for Gehrig to become manager, but it probably wouldn’t have come off.  Such a promise would have come either from owner Jacob Ruppert (a new Cooperstown inductee) or GM Ed Barrow.  But Ruppert died in early 1939, and Barrow gave way to Larry MacPhail before the end of the war.  The new bosses would not have been bound by that old commitment. AndrewJ:  Yes, it was the Shaughnessy system.  One of those details that falls through the cracks, even when I’m writing one of my monster pieces. Yehoshua:  I’ll try to write you more! … Read more »