Why Is the National Association Not a Major League … and Other Records Issues
On Twitter last week (on May 2, to be precise) I posted: “On this day in 1876 Chicago’s Ross Barnes hits first MLB homer, off Cherokee Fisher at Cincinnati.” In response I was asked, by Michael Mengel: “As I expect you well know, Barnes was best player in NA. Why doesn’t MLB recognize NA as a ML (better than UA)?” To which I tweeted, “MLB Special Records Committee Ruling of 1968-69 defined major leagues as: NL, AA, UA, PL, AL, FL.” To which Mr. Mengel replied, quite reasonably: “Thanks for the reply. Do you know their reasons for excluding the NA? Is a formal report of the committee available online?“
Well, no … until I go on to provide it below. In 1968–69 MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee (SBRC) ruled on a number of disputed points, including the major-league status of the NA and later rival leagues. MLB was henceforth defined as having commenced with the first game of the National League, played on April 22 between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics. The SBRC also ruled on how walks were to be counted in the record books for the years 1876 (when they were originally counted as outs) and 1887 (when they were counted as hits).
The SBRC decision on this point was reversed by my predecessor as MLB’s official historian, Jerome Holtzman, in 2001, with a position paper that I published in the seventh edition of Total Baseball, which was MLB’s official encyclopedia. I wrote:
Following the long-standing directive of the Special Baseball Records Committee, we [Total Baseball] did not count walks as hits, the practice which had been the sole basis of Anson’s fourth batting championship. Note that only for this year, in which walks were aberrationally recorded as hits, and 1876, when they were aberrationally recorded as outs, did we overturn the scoring practice of the time in favor of a modern reinterpretation of who was the batting leader. However, when Jerome Holtzman, MLB’s official historian, ruled to reverse the Special Records Committee, we saw reason in his stance and went along.
Today Holtzman’s edict is observed largely in the breach, but I still believe his reasoning was correct. So, without further ado, the two central documents, heretofore unavailable on the web. First, without my editorial annotation, the SBRC rulings of 1968-69, as published in the first edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia (ICI/Macmillan, 1969).
Decisions of the Special Baseball Records Committee
In 1887 eleven men had batting averages higher than .400. It is an astonishing feat, until one learns that bases on balls were counted as hits in the official averages that year. There are other such records based on definitions which were either incomplete or inconsistent with the rest of baseball history. It was because of these factors that it became necessary to draw up a code of rules governing record-keeping procedures. A group was formed for this purpose and was called the Special Baseball Records Committee.
It should be noted that the committee’s concern was not with laying future ground rules, which is the duty of the Baseball Rules Committee, but rather to establish the rules governing record-keeping procedures that mostly concern past play.
David Grote. director of public relations for the National League, and Robert Holbrook. executive assistant to the president of the American League, served as co-chairmen of the Special Baseball Records Committee.
Other members included Jack Lang, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Joseph Reichler, director of public relations of the office of the Commissioner of Baseball, and Lee Allen, historian of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Committee met twice in 1968. At the first meeting, which took place in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 5, they voted on the issues in question. The committee met again in New York City on November 14, and reviewed their decisions after they were given an opportunity to see what changes had resulted in the records after much of the research was completed. In addition to these meetings, the Committee is continually informed of all errors found in the official records.
Most of the important issues concerned the period before 1920. a time that was somewhat chaotic in baseball for record-keeping procedures. The following is a list of the decisions on seventeen issues as voted by the Committee:
1. The following leagues are defined as “major”:
National League, 1876 to the present
American League, 1901 to the present
American Association, 1882-91
Union Association, 1884
Players’ League, 1890
Federal League, 1914-15
The National Association, 1871-1875, shall not be considered as a “major league” due to its erratic schedule and procedures, but it will continue to be recognized as the first professional baseball league.
2. Major league baseball shall have one set of records, starting in 1876, without any arbitrary division into nineteenth- and twentieth-century data.
3. There shall be no change in rules used in past years governing the minimum appearance necessary for recognition as a league leader for averages (batting average, slugging average, fielding average, earned run average, and pitchers’ winning percentage).
4. For all-time single season records, no asterisk or official sign shall be used to indicate the number of games scheduled.
5. Performances in all tie games of five or more innings shall be included in the official averages. (Before 1885 this was not done.)
6. Several games in the National League in 1877, 1879, and 1899 that were subsequently declared “unofficial” for varying reasons, shall now be counted as “official.”
7. All appearances by a player in an official game shall be counted as a game played. (Before 1912 many pinch hitters, pinch runners, and substitutes who did not bat were not credited with a game played.)
8. Bases on balls shall always be treated as neither a time at bat nor a hit for the batter. (In 1887 bases on balls were scored as hits and in 1876 bases on balls were scored as outs.)
9. A distinction shall be made in the definition of stolen bases. Before 1898 stolen bases were credited any time a runner advanced an extra base on a hit or out. Since these bases advanced cannot be separated from bases stolen, according to the modern definition, there shall be two sets of records, one starting with 1898 and the other before 1898.
10. Bases on balls, wild pitches, passed balls, balks, and hit batsmen shall not be counted as errors. (These items were frequently scored as errors before 1889.)
11. A pitcher shall not be credited with an assist on a strike-out. (Before 1889 pitchers were usually awarded an assist on a strike-out.)
12. Scoring rules governing won and lost decisions by a pitcher did not become official until 1950. It was decided that all pitching decisions during the period 1920—49 shall stand as they are in the official records, but that for the period 1876—1919 the 1950 ruling shall be in effect. The reason for this was that since 1920 the official scorer did exist, and he had the explicit authority to award the victory based on common practice, which was very close to the rule adopted in 1950. In the pre-1920 period, however, there was no official scoring rule or common practice for wins by a pitcher and for many years no official scorer.
13. The present definition on earned runs, as was established in 1969 by the Baseball Scoring Rules Committee, shall be effective from that date on in defining earned runs. Prior to that date, the 1917—68 definition of earned runs shall be applied to the years 1876—1911, and to the American League in 1912. (Before 1912 there was a period when there was no official compilation of earned runs, and a time where bases on balls, hit batsmen, and wild pitches were considered errors in the computation of earned runs.)
14. Fractional innings pitched shall be used in the calculation of earned run averages.
15. The earned run average of a pitcher who allowed one or more earned runs during a season without retiring a batter shall be “infinity.”
16. 1894 shall be considered the starting date for exempting a man from a time at bat for a sacrifice bunt hit. Before 1894 a batter was credited with a sacrifice hit and charged with a time at bat every time he advanced a runner on any type of out.
17. Sudden Death Home Runs. Before 1920, when the team batting last won the game in the ninth or in an extra inning, the ruling was that the team could not win by more than one run. If a man hit an outside-the-park home run, which, under present rules, would have resulted in a victory by more than one run, he was given credit for a lesser hit and only the winning run counted. The committee originally voted that before 1920 any ball hit outside the park in a sudden death situation should be counted as a home run. However, after the committee had a further opportunity to review their ruling and polled their colleagues on the issue, they reversed their decision on May 5, 1969. Because the reversal of the committee’s decision occurred when a good portion of this encyclopedia had already gone to the printer, it was possible to include the necessary changes for only eight of the 37 cases where a home run was originally credited to a player. Appearing first are the eight instances where all records were retained in accordance with the scoring procedures in effect at the time:
|June 17,1884||Roger Connor||N.Y.||N.L.||Bos.||Single|
|Sept. 6, 1884||Hardy Richardson||Buf.||N.L.||Bos.||Triple|
|July 30, 1885||Tommy McCarthy||Bos.||N.L.||Det.||Double|
|Aug. 20, 1885||Paul Hines||Pro.||N.L.||Bos.||Single|
|July 7, 1892||Buck Ewing||N.Y.||N.L.||St. L.||Single|
|May 13, 1893||Lou Bierbauer||Pit.||N.L.||Lou.||Single|
|Aug. 9, 1893||George Van Haltren||Pit.||N.L.||Chi.||Double|
|July 8, 1918||Babe Ruth||Bos.||A.L.||Cle.||Triple|
The following are the 29 cases where the records were changed from a lesser hit to a home run. The information shown in the last column under hit indicates the type of hit for which the player was originally credited:
|April 21, 1885||Fred Mann||Pit.||A.A.||Lou.||Double|
|June 5,1890||Sam Thompson||Phi.||N.L.||Bkn.||Single|
|July 30, 1890||Al McCauley||Phi.||N.L.||Chi.||Triple|
|June 17,1890||Mike Griffin||N.Y.||P.L.||Phi.||Double|
|May 7, 1891||King Kelly||Cin.||A.A.||Bos.||Single|
|Sept. 13, 1891||George Wood||Phi.||A.A.||Mil.||Double|
|Aug. 27, 1895||Bill Lange||Chi.||N.L.||Was.||Single|
|Sept. 2, 1895||Mike Tiernan||N.Y.||N.L.||Cle.||Triple|
|Sept. 27, 1895||Duke Farrell||N.Y.||N.L.||Bal.||Triple|
|July 27, 1896||Charlie Irwin||Cin.||N.L.||Cle.||Triple|
|June 4, 1897||Parke Wilson||N.Y.||N.L.||Lou.||Double|
|July 15, 1899||Jimmy Collins||Bos.||N.L.||Pit.||Single|
|July 24, 1899||Ginger Beaumont||Pit.||N.L.||Phi.||Triple|
|July 24, 1900||Jimmy Collins||Bos.||N.L.||St.L.||Single|
|July 27, 1900||Chick Stahl||Bos.||N.L.||Pit.||Single|
|May 17, 1901||Bill Coughlin||Was.||A.L.||Phi.||Single|
|Sept. 1, 1902||Ed Gremminger||Bos.||N.L.||Cin.||Double|
|June 26, 1903||Pat Moran||Bos.||N.L.||Chi.||Triple|
|Sept. 10, 1904||Roger Bresnahan||N.Y.||N.L.||Phi.||Double|
|May 5, 1906||Sherry Magee||Phi.||N.L.||Bkn.||Triple|
|June 2, 1906||Tim Jordan||Bkn.||N.L.||Bos.||Double|
|May 25, 1908||Joe Tinker||Chi.||N.L.||N.Y.||Double|
|Sept. 28, 1908||Cy Seymour||N.Y.||N.L.||Phi.||Single|
|April 23, 1910||Doc Crandall||N.Y.||N.L.||Bkn.||Single|
|Aug. 24, 1911||Tex Erwin||Bkn.||N.L.||Chi.||Triple|
|June 17,1914||Sherry Magee||Phi.||N.L.||St.L.||Double|
|April 19, 1917||Ping Bodie||Phi.||A.L.||Bos.||Triple|
|July 18, 1918||Frank Baker||N.Y.||A.L.||Det.||Single|
|April 19, 1918||Irish Meusel||Phi.||N.L.||Bos.||Triple|
Next, Jerome Holtzman’s adjustment of 2001, likewise presented verbatim and without comment.
An Important Change to the Official Record of Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball is pleased to announce that, beginning with this seventh edition of Total Baseball, all batting averages are recorded as they were at the time they were reported, and not in accordance with the decision of a 1968 Special Baseball Records Committee. For the sake of conformity, the committee ruled that the 1887 batting averages be recalculated and that walks not be counted as base hits (as they were that year) or as outs (as they were in 1876).
John Thorn, the eminent editor of Total Baseball, has described it as an attempt to normalize baseball’s “gloriously messy” statistical history and bring the abnormal 1887 season in line with modern statistics. It was the only season when walks were considered hits and hence skewed the averages upwards.
For example, there were eleven .400 hitters, all properly listed in the 1888 Spalding and Reach guides, the official statistical compendiums of the time. (An arithmetic check has revealed that Paul Radford, the eleventh and final such batsman, in fact batted “only” .397.) The acknowledged batting champions were Tip O’Neill, at .492, for the St. Louis Browns of the old American Association, and Cap Anson, .421, for the Chicago National League entry. (As with Radford, an arithmetic correction reduces O’Neill’s average to .485, still the all-time record).
The special committee, in deciding walks were not hits, took 50 hits away from O’Neill, dropping his average to .435. Anson, stripped of 60 hits, fell to .347 and lost his batting title, fairly won. Worse, he no longer qualified for the 3,000 Hit Club of which he was the first member.
Revisionist history is admirable when new and undisputed evidence is brought forth. But this was an abomination, an absolute falsehood and twisting of the known facts for the singular purpose of regulating history to conform to previous and subsequent standards. It was a grievous corruption. If a walk was a hit in 1887 it should stand as a hit forevermore.
The committee was formed by General William Eckert, baseball’s fourth commissioner. Eckert always had good intentions but was ill-equipped and didn’t have a schoolboy’s knowledge of the game. The day after he took office in 1965, during his first press unveiling, it was painfully apparent he was unaware the Los Angeles Dodgers had been transplanted from Brooklyn.
The committee was co-chaired by Dave Grote, public relations director of the National League and Robert Holbrook, his American League counterpart. Neither was qualified to rule on such matters. The other members were Jack Lang, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America; Joseph Reichler, director of public relations of the Commissioner’s Office; and Lee Allen, the historian of the Hall of Fame.
Why the committee was formed remains a puzzle. The general belief is that it was at the request of the Macmillan Company, which was preparing a new encyclopedia, trumpeted as better and more complete than any of its predecessors. It went on sale the next year.
To heighten the launch, the committee mostly reviewed statistics accumulated in the period before 1920, “a time that was somewhat chaotic for record-keeping procedures.” Perhaps the encyclopedia’s editors were eager to find previously published errors; adjustments would strengthen the authenticity and value of the new enterprise.
The only established historians on the committee were Joe Reichler, who had been the national baseball writer for the Associated Press, subsequently elected to the writers wing of the Hall of Fame; and the distinguished Lee Allen, widely respected, the author of a half dozen noteworthy books, including delightful histories of the American and National Leagues.
Reichler knew his stuff. A stickler for accuracy at any cost, he had edited an earlier encyclopedia, published in 1962 by Ronald Press. Allen was a compulsive researcher and known for his fascinating player anecdotes of the late 19th and early 20th century. He also wrote a wonderful weekly column, “Cooperstown Corner,” for The Sporting News and was not concerned with current events. They agreed to the changes. However, a year before he died, Allen admitted to historian David Voigt that “past records ought not to be tampered with.”
The change in record-keeping procedure that commences with publication of this edition of Total Baseball should not be interpreted as a blanket damning of Macmillan’s The Baseball Encyclopedia. In mid-life, it became known, fondly, as the “Big Mac,” and was the final statistical authority, an enormous aid to sportswriters, book-writers, researchers, and super-fans. There were 10 editions. Sales may have approached a million copies.
Nor is this a total condemnation of Eckert’s Special Baseball Records Committee. The committee voted on 17 thorny issues and responded with good reason, with two exceptions: the 1876 scoring of walks as an at bat (if a player drew four walks he was 0 for 4), a practice that has also been restored in this edition; and the 1887 statistical butchery. A listing of the significant 1887 batting averages restored to their proper dimension follows.