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Bill Conlin: MLB should raise the mounds and lower the ERAs

FOR 66 YEARS - 1903 to 1968 - major league pitchers conducted their business from a turtle-backed office roughly 15 inches higher than home plate.

FOR 66 YEARS - 1903 to 1968 - major league pitchers conducted their business from a turtle-backed office roughly 15 inches higher than home plate.

I say "roughly" because dirt being dirt no two "mounds" were built to spec. The Dodgers were often accused of tacking as much as 5 inches onto the legal standard after moving to Los Angeles.

Babe Ruth had his 60-homer season facing pitchers throwing off 15-inch mounds. Ted Williams hit .406. Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games. Great pitchers also thrived in an era when each league had eight teams, many of them perennially lousy. Lefty Grove led the American League with 28 victories in 1930 and also led it with nine saves in 17 relief appearances. Teammate Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers in 1932 - at age 24.

With the 15-inch mound a constant, good hitters hit, good pitchers thrived, and the pastime thrummed along through three wars, a cruel Great Depression, and crowned its World Series champions.

So why did the Lords of Baseball decide in a fit of panic after a 1968 season known as "The Year of the Pitcher" that after 65 years of baseball's rhythmic swings they needed to lower the mounds by 26.6 percent to 11 inches?

It's an easy answer when the third-most radical rule change of the 20th century - behind creation of the designated hitter and the ban of the spitball - is viewed through the prism of 40 years.

The mound was lowered in an attempt to restore competitive balance to a game where the once-mighty AL had become decidedly inferior to the National.

How and why? Well, let's take a look at that so-called "Year of the Pitcher":

* Five American League pitchers - Luis Tiant, Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, Denny McLain and Tommy John - had ERAs under 2.00. None is in the Hall of Fame.

Now, let's check the hitters they faced that season:

Carl Yastrzemski led the AL with a .301 batting average. At No. 10 at .274 was Rick Monday. Only Yaz is a Hall of Famer.

Now let's check the National League:

Pete Rose won the batting title at .335; Roberto Clemente was 10th at .291. The NL produced below-average but not anomalous offense in a season when Bob Gibson's ERA was a modern-era record 1.12. Willie McCovey led the NL with 36 homers.

But the most telling numbers in the power stats were these: Six of the top 10 NL home-run leaders that year went to the Hall of Fame; all six were players of color. Just two of the top 10 AL home-run leaders, Yaz and Reggie Jackson, are HOF members. Just two, Willie Horton and Jackson, were players of color. Therein lies the real story.

By the late 1960s, the integration of African-Americans and Hispanics into MLB had become imbalanced. The National League had more talent and diversity, pure and simple. A rare confluence of peaking pitchers had driven the AL's offensive wing to its knees. But it had damn little to do with a mound that was the same height in 1961, when Norm Cash hit .361, Roger Maris hit 61 homers and six AL sluggers hit more than 40 bombs.

Same damn 15 inches . . .

The Lords of Baseball wanted to restore offensive balance. That's what they said at the winter meetings. What they didn't mention was that they really wanted to prop up the AL.

And, wow, look how it worked. In 1969, five AL sluggers, led by Harmon Killebrew's 49, hit more than 40 homers. Offense was up in both leagues. What the Lords didn't say was that the diluted pitching supplied by expansion teams in Seattle, Kansas City (replacing the A's' carpetbag move to Oakland), Montreal and San Diego might have had as much effect as the lowered mounds.

So here we are in 2009, and most games it takes at least four pitchers working off those itty-bitty mounds to seal the deal - or blow it. Know how many extra beers and hot dogs all those pitching changes sell?

The hitters are in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Era - blown up and going for the downs. And the new wave of retro parks would have been perfect for Willie - Keeler, not Mays. Imagine Mike Schmidt hitting in the Bank - and he'll turn 60 next month. Picture DiMaggio's elegant swing in Yankee Stadium Lite. Al Gionfriddo would have to play him on the subway platform.

The game has gone full-tilt. Now that the orthopedic surgeons have done enough Tommy Johns and labrum debridements to retire on Hobe Sound, it's time to restore the 4 inches of dirt the Lords bulldozed away for no good reason after the 1968 season. Reverse the moundectomy.

Tim Lincecum might be a scary sight, long-striding off a 15-inch mound, but I think Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA is safe. Expansion to the current 30 teams - come on, AL, you're two light - has added so many high-ERA pitchers to the talent pool, a few less runs and trips to the mound per game won't make a dent.

Ruben Amaro Jr. took a few minutes on a busy Monday to ponder the question.

"I like the idea of raising the mound a little," the Phils' general manager said. "Too drastic a move could prove to be too big of a change to the players."

Hmm . . . Too big of a change?

There's one they should have thought of in 1973 when the AL, still losing ground and paying customers, decided pitchers would be replaced in the batting order by piano movers.

Get 'er done, Bud.

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