Thorstein Veblen, Ty Cobb, and the Evolution of an Institution

By Peach, James | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Thorstein Veblen, Ty Cobb, and the Evolution of an Institution

Peach, James, Journal of Economic Issues

A thorough examination of the by-laws of the Association for Evolutionary Economics revealed no prohibition against having a little fun during a presidential address. So, this is a perfect occasion to say a few words about two of my long-time intellectual passions: institutional economics and the institution of baseball. The professional careers and contributions of Thorstein Bunde Veblen and Tyrus Raymond Cobb are obvious choices to help structure these remarks.

Veblen and Cobb

Veblen (1857-1929) and Cobb (1886-1961) were professional contemporaries even though Cobb was born nearly three decades after Veblen. Cobb began his major league career in 1905, when Veblen was at the height of his career, and continued to play ball until 1928, the year before Veblen's death. Cobb has been described frequently as the all-time meanest man in baseball, and there is little evidence to contradict that assertion. Veblen had his own peculiarities. Cobb made a fortune from product endorsements, cotton futures, and Coca Cola stock. Veblen had a great deal to say about sports and the stock market.

Veblen's contributions need little or no elaboration for this audience. In one form or another, Veblen's evolutionary analysis of dynamic economic process is the distinguishing feature of institutionalism. The Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE) would have few members today if Veblen had not produced his convoluted prose and remarkably astute theoretical insights. Veblen wrote only a few pages on sports ([1899] 1953, 168-182), but his analysis of the topic reads well more than a century later.

Cobb, like Veblen, made extraordinary contributions to his profession. Biographies of Cobb by Al Stump (1994), Charles Alexander (1984), David McCallum (1975), Gene Schoor (1952), and Richard Bak (1994); his autobiography ghost written by Stump (1961); a novel titled Tyrus (Creevy 2002); and the statistical record document his achievements both on and off the field. When he retired in 1928, Cobb held forty-three major league records and atone time had set more than ninety records. Many of Cobb's records have since been surpassed, but not by a single player. His lifetime batting average of 0.367 over twenty-four years will not fall any time soon.

Between 1903 and 2002, the mean batting average in major league ball has been 0.261 with a standard deviation of 0.0391. (1) Cobb's record was 2.679 standard deviations from the mean. Nothing like this record has ever been seen. Among currently active players, Todd Helton (first base) of the Colorado Rockies has the highest lifetime batting average (0.337), and only once in his seven-year career (0.372 in 2000) has he had an average higher than Cobb's lifetime average (Major League Baseball). Helton would need to hit over 0.400 for the next six or seven years to top Cobb's 0.367 lifetime average, and no one has hit over 0.400 since Ted Williams (0.406) in 1941. Even if Helton could hit 0.400 for six or seven years, he would need to hit at least 0.367 for another decade to match Cobb's twenty-four-year batting average.

Dennis Clason, a statistician and colleague at New Mexico State University, commented that these numbers "imply that Cobb came from a different distribution--a different planet, if you prefer." The probability that a randomly selected ballplayer would have a batting average 2.679 standard deviations above the mean in a single year is 0.0037. Assuming that the player's batting average in a year is an independent event, the probability (2) of matching Cobb's record is 0.0037 raised to the 24th power, or 4.3 x [10.sup.59]. This calculation does not take into account the fact that only forty major league ballplayers (including Cobb) out of 15,816 who played between 1903 and 2002 played for twenty-four years or more.

Cobb would have been a fascinating economist. He understood economic power and once testified before the U.S. Congress on that topic.

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