Baseball, Statistical Truth, and the Return of History

“I’m not smart enough to have the words to really describe my feelings. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like a man looking for a hole to jump into. I was looking for someone to talk to. That was the first time I was ever on a baseball field and didn’t know what to do. I can’t explain my feelings. I’ve never had feelings like that before.”

-Pete Rose 9-11-1985

Pete Rose

In April 1981, Sporting News announced that baseball historian Pete Palmer had discovered the American League office had double-counted a two-hit game by Ty Cobb in 1910, and thus contended that Cobb’s career hit record be revised to 4,189, from the well-known total of 4,191.

The source of the discrepancy was the disputed 1910 AL batting race. Napoleon Lajoie and Ty Cobb were in a dead heat for the title that year. On the last day of the season, an opposing manager who hated Cobb, ordered his third baseman to play deep; allowing Lajoie to easily beat out bunts, giving him a 6-6 batting line, therefore denying Cobb the coveted batting title. AL president Ban Johnson unilaterally decided it was cheating, and gave Cobb a statistical double-count from a game he went 2-3, raising his batting average from .383 to .385, and edging Lajoie.

In response, with baseball preparing to promote Pete Rose’s pursuit of Cobb’s mark, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced, “The passage of 70 years, in our judgement, constitutes a certain statute of limitation as to recognizing any [statistical] changes.” MLB decreed Pete Palmer’s correction to be officially ignored. The issue was then passed to Elias Sports Bureau; the NL’s official record keeper since 1918, and the AL’s since WW2.

Founded in 1913 Elias, notorious for their conservative nature and hostility to independent baseball research, refused to recognize and re-tabulate mistakes in time-honoured records; and still does so up to this writing. Most errors occurred before Elias’ higher standard of baseball statistical accounting. The American League remained slipshod through WW2, with thousands of mistakes in baseball’s ledger sheets; later to be uncovered and corrected by independent baseball researchers. [1]

In 2004, Trent McCotter was looking through Babe Ruth’s 1926 official sheets when he noticed that some late-season games credited him with home runs but no runs batted in. Apparently the scorer in St. Louis for the final six weeks, did not know what an R.B.I. was, and for every player he put either runs scored or some other variant in the ledger. McCotter contended that Ruth led the American League with 150 R.B.I., not 146.

Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of Elias, was quoted on the Babe Ruth 1926 RBI controversy in the NYT 2005 article, “What we’re trying to do is get the play-by-play accounts so we can figure out how all the runs were scored in those games. I don’t want to rush out the minute Ruth is involved here and say we’ve got to change Ruth’s R.B.I., because we know we’re going to get to it [sic]. We want to be able to have a reasonable expectation of some sense of completeness with regard to the topic we’re talking about.”

Today, every baseball stat tracker recognizes the correction of Ruth’s 1926 RBI total to 150, except MLB.

In reality, Pete Rose actually broke Cobb’s record on September 9th, 1985, when he got hits 4,190 and 4,191. In 1989, evidence was released to the public, proving the bat Pete Rose used on Sept. 11 1985, as well as the ball he hit, and the red corvette he received from MLB; all had been sold to bookies to cover gambling debts.

Incidentally, this correction lowers Cobb’s career batting average to .366. MLB still lists it at .367.

When a college student discovered in 1977, that Hack Wilson actually had 191 runs batted in, in 1930, not the 190 that had been known for years as the major league record; Major League Baseball deferred to Elias, who required that not just every one of Wilson’s games be triple-checked against newspaper box scores and written accounts; but also every appearance by each of Wilson’s Chicago Cubs teammates. Finally in 1999, the official MLB record was changed to 191, after being recognized for years by all other trackers. [Source: NYT, 2005]

Eddie Collins’ HoF plaque says he collected 3,313 hits from 1906 to 1930, but the record-keeper accidentally switched one game of Collins’ statistics with those of his teammate Buck Weaver, so he actually had 3115. credits him with 3114.

Different sources list Cap Anson’s career hit total as: 3,435 (Baseball-Reference), 3,418 (Fangraphs), 3,081 (National Baseball Hall of Fame, which uses statistics verified by the Elias Sports Bureau), and 3,011 (MLB, which also uses Elias [?]).

Part of the controversy over Anson’s hits total has to do with his five years in the National Association (NA), where he collected 423 hits, mostly with the Philadelphia Athletics. Major League Baseball does not recognize the National Association (1871-1875) as a true major league.

“It [the NA] succeeded and incorporated several professional clubs from the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP); in turn several of its clubs created the succeeding National League…The NA was the first professional baseball league…comprised most of the professional clubs and the highest caliber of play then in existence. Its players, managers, and umpires are included among the “major leaguers” who define the scope of many encyclopedias and many databases developed by SABR or Retrosheet.” [2]

The evolution of Cap Anson’s career hit total provides an illustration into bourgeois political expediency, the pesky nature of facts, and the return of history.

In 1914, newspaper accounts chronicling the pursuit of 3,000 hits by Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie, there was much contention over exactly how many hits Cap Anson had amassed. His career was set entirely in the 19th century, and baseball statistical accounting had been notoriously unreliable in that era.

The New York Times seemingly settled the issue by giving Anson credit for 3,047 hits. By 1925, Anson was being credited with anywhere from 3,400 to 3,600 hits. In 1942, Anson’s hit total was 3,081 as compiled by the Sporting News. Macmillan Publishing produced the baseball’s first encyclopedia in 1969. While compiling the book, the publisher not only made revisions intended to correct errors in the statistical record, but also decided to nullify an 1887 rule that counted walks as hits. As a result of the changes, Anson’s hit total was listed at 2,995. In 1974, Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia restored Anson to 3,041. Ever since and up to this day, a variety of different publications and reference sites continue to make corrections to his statistics. [3]

Cap Anson in 1875


Why is any of this important?

Because it has everything to do with being honest about history and ourselves. It’s about questioning sacred institutions and traditions, out of greater respect for the truth. No player is above the game, and no game is above the truth.

It’s about history being written by the winners, and what winning really means in the real world.

Often it is an ugly thing to “win.” We have too many examples thrown in our faces every day. If we are rational adults, we can look at the history written by past winners, and make revisions in the name of historical truth.

When sacred records and idols fall under the millstone of history, which grinds slowly but exceedingly fine; we cast off illusions and see things more clearly, as they really are. In the process, we become wiser and more human.