Why Is the National Association Not a Major League … and Other Records Issues

Ross Barnes, 1876.

Ross Barnes, 1876.

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.

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1969.

The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1969.

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
(first game)
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
(second game)
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

Total Baseball, 7th edition (2001).

Total Baseball, 7th edition (2001).

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.



“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.”

BRILLIANT!! Another gem from John Thorn.

Glad you enjoyed the post, but the quotation is from Jerome Holtzman.

Yes, I know. I was referring to the entire post. But that is why I read your blog: ALL of what you post is great.

Thanks for these two documents. I have the Total baseball edition in which Holtzman’s comments appear but I have not seen the SBRC rulings of 1968-69, at least not in full. Very helpful. I am curious about your statement : “Today Holtzman’s edit is observed largely in the breach…” Why is this the case? Sources such as Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, etc stay with the revised numbers (e.g., Tip O’Neill’s 1887 batting average is listed as .435 not .485). The desire to have comparable numbers (in the Tip O’Neill example, by using the same scoring procedure for walks across all seasons) seems more important than respecting the rules of the day. To respect the rules of the day inevitably seems to lead to the proliferation of asterisks, footnotes, etc to alert readers to such anomalies…something many of us like to avoid. So I appreciate the conundrum here, but I am still puzzled by the disregard of Holtzman’s declaration ( not much of an edict).

Jerome Holtzman’s edict turns out to have been regarded more as a guideline, with Elias or Baseball-Reference.com or even MLB.com free to go their own way. On 1876/1887 I agreed, and continue to agree, with my esteemed predecessor as OHMLB, but don’t look for me to issue any edicts. I see my job as to persuade via best evidence and argument but what others may do is up to them.

I can see Dennis’ thinking about this. If a child asks me, “Who had the highest batting average in one season?”, I still get to answer “Tip O’Neill”. But when he asks me what his BA was, I have to give him two answers and explain why. If he asks me how many BA titles Cap Anson won, same problem. However, I also can see John’s thinking. Integration and uniformity is a dream, a vision, and doesn’t correspond to the known universe. I’ve always disliked the DH, but I don’t want to see the rule changed in either league. At this point, it helps to preserve what little distinction remains between the two leagues. I fear the Naturalistic Fallacy (what is, ought to be), but unless there are profound moral implications, I can live with it. So I can live with the fact that a simple problem of timing seems to stand between Babe Ruth and 715 homeruns.

I really like this column, BTW.

Thanks, Mark. As you probably know, Total Baseball (and I as its principal editor), went along with the SBRC decision #8 above, until Jerry persuaded me of the rightness of reverting to the custom of the day. Neither he nor I ever advocated, however, for memorializing errors of arithmetic or transcription.

Just to be clear, when we read that bases on balls were counted as outs, this should be understood to refer to how they were counted for purposes of calculating batting average. It would probably be more accurate to say that they counted as errors, but this amounts to the same thing for this purpose.

On a different note, is it just me or has William Eckert fallen into the memory hole? I couldn’t have identified him as a former commissioner of baseball to save my life. I just looked at the list, and he is the only one this is true of. Partly it was his short tenure, but Happy Chandler (for example) wasn’t commissioner that much longer, and his name is perfectly familiar to me.

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