By David Shoebotham
Who has the highest single season batting average in major league history? The modem fan would probably say that Rogers Hornsby’s .424 in 1924 is the highest. Old timers would point out that Hugh Duffy hit .438 in 1894. But the correct answer is Ty Cobb with .385 in 1910.
How can .385 be higher than .438? The answer is when it is compared to the average of the entire league for the year in question. This is the only way performances from different seasons and leagues can be compared. Thus a hitter’s relative batting average, which is the true measure of his ability to hit safely, is computed as follows:
As a further refinement (since it is unfair to compare a player to himself) the player’s own hits and ABs can be subtracted from the league totals, thus giving an average relative to the remainder of the league.
As an example, compare Bill Terry’s National League leading .401 in 1930 to Carl Yastrzemski’s American League leading .301 in 1968. At first glance the 100point difference would make it appear that Yastrzemski’s average should not be mentioned in the same breath as Terry’s. But look at the calculations of relative averages:
The relative averages are almost identical, meaning that had the two performances occurred in the same season, the batting averages would have been within a few points of each other. The big difference, of course, is that in 1930 the National League had a combined average of .303, the highest of any major league in this century (and two points higher than Yastrzemski’s 1968 average), whereas in 1968 the American League had a combined average of .230, the lowest for any major league ever. (A relative average of 1.30 indicates that a player’s batting average was 30% higher than the remainder of his league.)
The following two graphs show league averages since 1900. It can be seen that the 1920s and ’30s, following the introduction of the lively ball, were fat times for hitters. Both leagues reached their recent lows in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” Note that for the last three seasons the American League’s Designated Hitter rule has artificially raised the league’s average and thus lowered individual relative averages.
The table below shows the highest single season relative averages since 1900. The list is clearly dominated by Ty Cobb, who has 10 of the top 19 averages, including the highest of all: 1.594 in 1910. Interestingly, the second highest relative average is Nap Lajoie’s 1.592, also in 1910. That epic batting race, enlivened by the offer of a new car to the winner, resulted in a major scandal, the awarding of two automobiles, and incidentally the two highest relative averages of all time. Rogers Hornsby’s .424 produced the highest National League mark of 1.51, but this ranks only 14th on the list. (Duffy’s .438 reduces to a relative average of about 1.42.) Note that five of this century’s .400 averages do not qualify for this list.
Single Season Relative Average Greater Than 1.45







Lea.

Rel.

Rank

Player 
Year 
League 
AB 
Hits

Avg.

Avg.

Avg.

1

Ty Cobb 
1910 
Amer. 
509

196

0.385

0.242

1.594

2

Nap Lajoie 
1910 
Amer. 
591

227

0.384

0.241

1.592

3

Nap Lajoie 
1904 
Amer. 
554

211

0.381

0.243

1.570

4

Tris Speaker 
1916 
Amer. 
546

211

0.386

0.247

1.570

5

Ty Cobb 
1912 
Amer. 
553

227

0.410

0.263

1.560

6

Ty Cobb 
1909 
Amer. 
573

216

0.377

0.242

1.560

7

Ty Cobb 
1917 
Amer. 
588

225

0.383

0.246

1.560

8

Ty Cobb 
1911 
Amer. 
591

248

0.420

0.271

1.550

9

Nap Lajoie 
1901 
Amer. 
543

229

0.422

0.275

1.530

10

Ty Cobb 
1913 
Amer. 
428

167

0.390

0.254

1.530

11

Ted Williams 
1941 
Amer. 
456

185

0.406

0.265

1.530

12

Ted Williams 
1957 
Amer. 
420

163

0.388

0.254

1.530

13

Ty Cobb 
1918 
Amer. 
421

161

0.382

0.252

1.520

14

Rogers Hornsby 
1924 
Nat. 
536

227

0.424

0.281

1.510

15

Joe Jackson 
1911 
Amer. 
571

233

0.408

0.271

1.510

16

Joe Jackson 
1912 
Amer. 
572

226

0.395

0.263

1.500

17

Ty Cobb 
1916 
Amer. 
542

201

0.371

0.247

1.500

18

Ty Cobb 
1915 
Amer. 
563

208

0.369

0.247

1.500

19

Ty Cobb 
1914 
Amer. 
345

127

0.368

0.246

1.490

20

Honus Wagner 
1908 
Nat. 
568

201

0.354

0.237

1.490

21

Cy Seymour 
1905 
Nat. 
581

219

0.377

0.253

1.490

22

George Sisler 
1922 
Amer. 
586

246

0.420

0.283

1.490

23

Joe Jackson 
1913 
Amer. 
528

197

0.373

0.254

1.470

24

Tris Speaker 
1912 
Amer. 
580

222

0.383

0.263

1.450

25

Stan Musial 
1948 
Nat. 
611

230

0.376

0.259

1.450

26

George Stone 
1906 
Amer. 
581

208

0.358

0.247

1.450

27

Joe Torre 
1971 
Nat. 
634

230

0.363

0.251

1.450

28

George Sisler 
1920 
Amer. 
631

257

0.407

0.282

1.450

29

Honus Wagner 
1907 
Nat. 
515

180

0.350

0.242

1.450

With the modem preoccupation with home runs, high relative averages (not to mention high absolute averages) have become rare. The only relative average over 1.45 in recent years is Joe Torre’s 1971 mark.
For a look at other recent high marks, the next table shows the highest relative averages of the last 20 years. It is interesting to note that Rod Carew’s 1974 and 1975 marks would probably be well over 1.45 except for the Designated Hitter rule in the American League.
The final table shows the alltime leaders in career relative average. Not surprisingly, Ty Cobb tops the list with an average that is just a few hits short of 1.40. Close behind Cobb is Shoeless Joe Jackson, though the closeness of their averages is deceptive. Jackson’s career was abruptly terminated while he was still a star performer, and therefore he did not have the usual declining years at the end of his career that would have lowered his average. During the years that Jackson averaged 1.38, Cobb was averaging a fantastic 1.50.
It can be seen that despite the preponderance of pre920 hitters in the single season leaders, the career list contains players from all periods since 1900, including four who are active. Rod Carew, who in 1975 moved past Ted Williams into third place, seems destined to be one of the alltime leaders in relative average. Whether all four active players will finish their careers among the leaders is an open question, but at least they show that hitting for high average is not altogether a lost art.
Highest Single Season Relative Averages During Last 20 Years (19561975)







Lea.

Rel.

Rank

Player 
Year 
League 
AB 
Hits

Avg.

Avg.

Avg.

1

Ted Williams 
1957 
Amer. 
420

163

.3S8

0.254

1.530

2

Joe Torre 
1971 
Nat. 
634

230

0.363

0.251

1.450

3

Roberto Clemente 
1967 
Nat. 
585

209

0.357

0.248

1.440

4

Mickey Mantle 
1957 
Amer. 
474

173

0.365

0.254

1.440

5

Rico Carty 
1970 
Nat. 
478

175

0.366

0.257

1.420

6

Norm Cash 
1961 
Amer. 
535

193

0.361

0.255

1.420

7

Rod Carew 
1974 
Amer. 
599

218

0.364

.257*

1.410

8

Harvey Kuenn 
1959 
Amer. 
561

198

0.353

0.252

1.400

9

Rod Carew 
1975 
Amer. 
535

192

0.359

.257*

1.400

10

Pete Rose 
1969 
Nat. 
627

218

0.348

0.249

1.390

11

Carl Yastrzemski 
1967 
Amer. 
579

189

0.326

0.235

1.390

12

Ralph Garr 
1974 
Nat. 
606

214

0.353

0.254

1.390

13

Pete Rose 
1968 
Nat. 
626

210

0.335

0.242

1.390

14

Roberto Clemente 
1969 
Nat. 
507

175

0.345

0.250

1.380

15

Bill Madlock 
1975 
Nat. 
514

182

0.354

0.256

1.380

16

Hank Aaron 
1959 
Nat. 
629

223

0.355

0.259

1.370

17

Matty Alou 
1968 
Nat. 
558

185

0.332

0.242

1.370

18

Tony Oliva 
1971 
Amer. 
487

164

0.337

0.246

1.370

19

Roberto Clemente 
1970 
Nat. 
412

145

0.352

0.257

1.370

20

Ralph Garr 
1971 
Nat. 
639

219

0.343

0.251

1.370

*Designated Hitter rule in effect
Lifetime Relative Average Greater Than 1.20 (Over 4000 ABs)






Lea.

Rel.

Rank

Player 
Years 
AB 
Hits

Avg.

Avg.

Avg.

1

Ty Cobb 
19051928 
11429

4191

0.367

0.263

1.390

2

Joe Jackson 
19081920 
4981

1774

0.356

0.258

1.380

3

Rod Carew 
19671975* 
4450

1458

0.328

0.247

1.330

4

Ted Williams 
19391960 
7706

2654

0.344

0.261

1.320

5

Nap Lajoie 
18961916 
9589

3251

0.339

0.258

1.310

6

Rogers Hornsby 
19151937 
8173

2930

0.358

0.275

1.300

7

Tris Speaker 
19071928 
10208

3515

0.344

0.266

1.290

8

Stan Musial 
19411963 
10972

3630

0.331

0.258

1.280

9

Honus Wagner 
18971917 
10427

3430

0.329

0.258

1.280

10

Eddie Collins 
19061930 
9949

3311

0.333

0.265

1.260

11

Rob.Clemente 
19551972 
9454

3000

0.317

0.254

1.250

12

Tony Oliva 
19621975* 
6178

1891

0.306

0.246

1.240

13

Pete Rose 
19631975* 
8221 
2547

0.310

0.251

1.230

14

Harry Heilmann 
19141932 
7787 
2660

0.342

0.278

1.230

15

Sam Crawford 
18991917 
9579 
2964

0.309

0.252

1.230

16

George Sisler 
19151930 
8267 
2812

0.340

0.278

1.230

17

Babe Ruth 
19141935 
8399 
2873

0.342

0.279

1.230

18

Matty Alou 
1960 1974 
5789 
1777

0.307

0.252

1.220

19

Joe Medwick 
19321948 
7635 
2471

0.324

0.266

1.210

20

Paul Waner 
1926 1944 
9459 
3152

0.333

0.275

1.210

21

Lou Gehrig 
19231939 
8001 
2721

0.340

0.281

1.210

22

Bill Terry 
19231936 
6428 
2193

0.341

0.282

1.210

23

Joe DiMaggio 
19361951 
6821 
2214

0.325

0.269

1.210

24

Hank Aaron 
19541975* 
12093 
3709

0.307

0.254

1.210

25

Jackie Robinson 
1947 1956 
4877 
1518

0.311

0.260

1.200

*Active player 
Fascinating!
Well, well, well finally a stat that has some serious validity not the usual sabr gimmick stat. Now the thing that sticks out is the prevalance of one Roberto Clemente here! Now subtract the fact that his own pirate squad never had a hall of fame pitcher and imagine how much stronger his numbers would have been if he got to hit against his own pitching. Truth be told not that much better ’cause he was the most NATURALLY GIFTED hitter and his hitting against HOF pitchers is the highest of ALL TIME …only about 8 or 9 points less than his total avg. If we combine this with his BEST DEFENSIVE outfielder ever(stats or anecdotal) we have an individual that would be the best EVER…in other words what we saw first hand was indeed what Bowie Kuhn and others have said he gave the term COMPLETE a new meaning. Sabermetrics will say otherwise but we know that they have their own agenda and the truthful evaluation of Clemente doesn’t promote that agenda. In short Sabr has helped identify what’s wrong with baseball’s format, but they need to STAY OUT of the who’s BETTER who’s BEST pecking order business. Mel Ott better than Clemente? Really?
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