When thinking about Detroit’s most influential sports figure, names like Joe Louis, Barry Sanders, Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Al Kaline, and Bobby Layne probably come to mind. Nobody thinks of Henry Ford. Many people today believe that Ford invented the automobile, but he actually pioneered something that team sports as well as virtually every type of manufacturing organization has benefited from: division of labor. When the car manufacturer invented a moving assembly line that realized the potential of the established principle of division of labor, he allowed for a very complex machine to be made in as efficient a manner as possible. He set the stage for both the manufacturing world and the sports world for the next century. Division of labor lets each team member do one thing extremely well and exclusively, and Henry Ford showed that it could be used to create very complex machines.
The team sports organization has often been referred to as a machine, and division of labor has been a big player in organized sports since the days of the Model T. But along with the physical advances we have seen players make in recent years has come a general decline in the division of labor in major team sports. In other words, players are able to do more things, so the need for concrete, limited roles has diminished or disappeared.
If football players can be measured on just two characteristics, those characteristics would be speed and strength. Anyone who has seen clips from the early days of football has probably noticed that there were generally two types of players: big, plodding linemen and smaller, faster running backs and receivers. The “skill” players had a monopoly on gridiron speed, but they don’t anymore. Modern linemen are larger than their predecessors, and they are much faster as well. But they still don’t handle the ball. Quarterbacks, who used to stand in the pocket and hurl passes across the field, have used their newfound speed to take some of the rushing duties from their fellow backs. Michael Vick, the quintessential “new” quarterback, has blurred the line between passer and runner and, at times, created the impression that he could handle both responsibilities at the same time.
In the 1950’s, the NBA was characterized by George Mikan, who stood in the middle and blocked shots, Bob Cousy, who handled and passed the ball, and Dolph Shayes, who was a great shooter and scorer. And as recently as 1993, the University of North Carolina fielded a championship team that divided almost completely the passing (Derrick Phelps), outside scoring (Donald Williams), athleticism (Brian Reese), rebounding (George Lynch), and inside scoring (Eric Montross) duties. In the past few years, with the increased accessibility and popularity of the game, the influx of versatile international players, and the de-emphasizing of fundamentals, both the college and professional game have seen players who defy traditional roles.
Only recently has the NBA seen seven footers who are able to make a living behind the three point line; the expectation of the big man was once so limited that Bill Russell’s participation in fast breaks was considered an epiphany. Now, the scoring abilities of big men have become so comprehensive and thus so homogeneous that several NBA front lines feature three players who can shoot from the outside, rebound, pass, and do just about whatever else is required of them. And with the NBA’s defensive rules being the way they are, point guards like Mark Jackson can go inside and post up, further blurring basketball’s once unmistakable division of labor.
For almost the entire 20th century, the prototypical baseball lineup has been as follows:
1) A speedy player who gets on base a lot
2) A contact hitter with a high batting average
3) A player with a high batting average who can produce runs
4) A power hitter
5) A run producer
6, 7, and 8) Three players with less hitting ability, placed in descending order and usually ending up with a light-hitting middle infielder or catcher
9) A pitcher
Though this type of plan is still in effect to a certain extent, the game has changed in such a way that the ideal baseball lineup has morphed to something resembling this:
1-9) A power hitter
So as football and basketball’s changes have preserved the basic functions their participants must master, baseball has lost a large part of its skill set, namely base stealing, baserunning, and other “small ball” pursuits. The configurations of ballparks haven’t helped this problem: cavernous turf stadiums with plenty of foul territory have given way to smaller grass ballparks that reward eschewing ground balls in favor of fly balls.
Oddly, though, what has been lost on the offensive side of the ball has been made up for on the defensive side. The starting pitcher, for most of the 20th century, was much better than his counterparts in the bullpen. Today’s relief pitchers are much different, with the ability to get people out in very specific, well-defined situations. Major league bullpens have a closer, a set-up man, and a lefty who specializes in facing tough left-handed batters and who may appear only for one batter. This convergence of disparate pitching talent creates a formidable pitching “machine” on the mound, which would make Henry Ford smile.
When contemplating most of the rest of the sports world, though, Mr. Ford must be turning in his grave. Sports teams are losing the rigid roles that have made them productive for so long, mainly because they haven’t needed to. Players have become better conditioned and more talented, so the decline of division of labor has diminished not the quality of play but the variety of many people doing many different things. Not that homogeneity is all that bad. After all, Ford’s greatest creation, the Model T, came famously “in any color, so long as it’s black.”