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RICHARD MAUNDRELL AND DAVID FLAGEL Painting, Music, and Baseball: Creativity and the Passing of the Age of Giantsl There is too much commotion ill our century. STANLEY ROSEN Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard biolOgist, has made the observation that within the last generation or so we have begun to witness the realization of essentially biological or 'evolutionary' limits to human performance in certain areas.2 The argument for limits to performance is grounded in the recognition that people in advanced industrialized societies have already realized the potential set by evolutionary history in respect to such dimensions as average life span and average height. Further, Gould argues, we may be approaching evolutionary limits to certain dimensions of human performance; hence, male athletes, for example, like thoroughbred horses before them, appear to be approaching the natural limit represented by the time it takes to run a mile (Kentucky Derby winners averaged 2:06.4 during the 1910'S and 2:02.0 for the past ten years).3 The question of limits to athletic performance is, of course, complicated by the intrusion of psychological factors which might serve to delay or frustrate the realization of athletic potential; for example, an Olympic athlete might retire from competition with a gold medal rather than the achievement of his or her own absolute best. Indeed, whatever the physiological limits to athletic potential, one might expect track and field records to continue to be broken ad infinitum on the basis of improvements in coaching and training methods, increasing knowledge concerning nutrition - even advances in shoe technology. Gould's point, however, remains cogent. As athletes approach the relatively unchanging limits to athletic potential set by evolutionary history, improvement in performance will become subject to the law of diminishing returns: greater expendituresof time and effort in trainingwill result in smaller increments in performance gain. However, Gould's favourite illustration of the Significance of limits to performance is to be found in his account of the disappearance of the'.400 hitter' from the sport of baseball. He is concerned with accounting for the fact, long regarded as mysterious in baseball circles, that the last baseball player to 'hit .400,' Ted Williams, did so in 1941.4 Interpreting statistical measures of performance in baseball is, of course, fraught with difficulty UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 57, NUMBER 4, SUMMER 1988 530 MAUNDRELL AND FLAGEL as it is a sport which consists of a confrontation between batter and pitcher, rather than athlete and stopwatch. Hence, hitting .400 is a 'relative performance' in the sense that it is largely a function of the defensive ability of the batter's opponent rather than the 'absolute performance' which is the result of the runner's confrontation with the clock. Nevertheless, one can assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that today's baseball players are unlikely to be inferior athletically to their counterparts of the early part of the century - and are probably significantly better. The disappearance of the .400 hitter becomes even more puzzling, then, when it is noted that the mean batting average has remained remarkably constant since the inception of the modern game of baseball in 1876. That the average player today is batting .260, just as his counterpart in 1876 did, means that we can safely preclude the possibility that the disappearance of the .400 hitter is simply a function of relative improvement in the defensive aspects of the game: the advent of relief pitching, rule or equipment changes, and so forth. 5 The statistics, and baseball is one of the most thoroughly statisticized of all sports, present a paradox which, as Gould observes, might tend at first glance to lend credence to the 'myth of ancient heroes.' Gould's solution to the paradox contains an important lesson concerning the assessment of human performance. The mystery concerning the departure of the .400 hitter dissolves once we shift our attention from individual performance, particularly in respect to the phenomenon of the .400 hitter considered as a 'natural kind: to the variation between the highest and lowest batting averages for a given year. What becomes clear when one adopts a biologist's-eye view of baseball as a developing 'system' is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 529-541
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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