In response to:
Up Against the Wall from the October 17, 1996 issue
To the Editors:
Steve Jones endorses [NYR, October 17] Stephen J. Gould’s claim that the lack of .400 hitters in baseball over the last half century is not attributable to a lack of great hitters, but to improvements in fielding and pitching. The consequence of overall improvement is a reduction of the standard deviation of batting averages amongst professional baseballers.
Jones is mistaken, however, when he goes on to claim that a “glance at the cricket figures gives just the same picture. The high scorers of the late nineteenth century are simply not around in such numbers today.”
In fact a glance at the cricket figures shows nothing of the sort. The high scorers of today are around in greater numbers (and with higher scores)than they were a century ago. W.G. Grace, usually considered the greatest batsman of the nineteenth century, averaged 32.29 in international cricket. This figure is surpassed by contemporary batsmen in every major cricket playing country, including England. Furthermore, I know of no evidence that the standard deviation of batting averages amongst professional cricketers has declined.
New York University
New York City
Steve Jones replies:
My ignorance of cricket is almost as profound as Stephen Jay Gould’s knowledge of baseball. Mr. Coady disputes my claim of a parallel decline in high scoring levels in both of them. I am, though, right in at least the limited set of figures I looked at. They came from the records of 570 English test players over the past century and more. (For those not in the know, tests are the World Series of cricket; and unlike their American equivalent they do involve the whole world, or at least the Empire.) Twelve players born before the First World War had an average above fifty, a distinction achieved by only three of those with a birth-date after it. The famous W.G. Grace, with his average of 32, was low in the lists. R.H. Ward (born 1853)did more than twice as well, with a batting average of 68 (never since surpassed in English test cricket).
However, Mr. Coady is right in one regard. I have now worked out the spread in individual average scores, using the statistic used by Stephen Jay Gould in Full House to reveal a startling parallel between baseball and life itself. He found a great decline in the variation in batting averages, suggesting that baseball had evolved into a leaner and meaner game. Everyone has been pushed by competition more or less to the limit of perfection. I regret to have to report that there is no sign of such an effect in cricket. Far from rivalry leading to an escalation of excellence our national sport is at an evolutionary dead end. The amount of variation in batting averages among cricketers has scarcely changed since the game began.
What this says about the sporting psyche of the two nations I dare not say.