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Couple of News Items

April 11, 2019

Yesterday, I read two bits (still $0.25) about the same phenomenon, old-time MLB records that have been changed slightly, Hoss Radbourn’s single-season record for wins and Ty Cobb’s lifetime hits total. The Radbourn bit was published yesterday on in Sports, and the Cobb bit appeared in Herm Krabbenhoft’s somewhat lengthily entitled "How Many Hits Did Ty Cobb Make in His Major League Career? What Is His Lifetime Batting Average?" in the Spring 2019 edition of the Baseball Research Journal, which SABR members got in their e-mails, also yesterday.

Both articles, and the entire concept of revising and updating records based on scrupulous research, would be unexceptional, I believe, if not for a thoroughly wrong-headed pronouncement by the unfailingly pompous Bowie Kuhn, as Commissioner of Baseball, some years ago, to the effect that there is, or ought to be, a statute of limitations on baseball records, preserving in stone their sanctity, or their immortality, or—well, who the hell knows what Kuhn was ever talking about? Mr. Krabbenhoft ends his article with an apt quotation from MLB’s Official Historian, John Thorn, to wit: "A statute of limitations on the truth? When you discover truth, you have to report it."

MLB has been dragging its heels on changing its records, probably as long as it’s had records. Human nature, I suppose. No one likes the need to change a long-memorized trivia answer, which is what drives this fanatical adherence to preserving incorrect records. After all, could anyone possibly care less if it were discovered that Dick Calmus threw 43 pitches and not the 42 he was credited with throwing in a meaningless game between the Dodgers and the Pirates in 1964? That’s impossible, and not least because I didn’t even look up whether Calmus was on the Dodgers’ roster in 1964. We don’t have such records memorized, and therefore don’t give a good goddamn whether that number is 43 or 42 or 0. But somehow, according to Kuhn, records by Cobb or Ruth or Rose, when entered incorrectly, cannot exit. They are stuck in place, in perpetuity.

I probably wouldn’t give a hoot, probably have no hoots to give, here if Kuhn had simply said "Oh, who cares? It’s just a game, nothing to get worked up about," but the legalisms he employed tick me off. "Statute of Limitations," my eye, like he’s carefully adjudicating a thorny problem by applying some carefully considered point of law to settle it. I don’t really mind lazy slobs who don’t enjoy exerting their brains unnecessarily, but I do mind pompous snobs like Kuhn pretending they’re thoughtful jurists.

Anyway, for the both of you who aren’t members of SABR, I’ll sum up Mr. Krabbenhoft’s detailed research: Cobb is traditionally credited with (all together, now) 4,191 hits, in 11,429 at-bats, for a .367 lifetime mark, but through a careful analysis of dozens of contemporary sources (scorecards, newspaper articles, etc.) submitted to Retrosheet and other authorities for their unanimous approval,  it is more accurately rendered as 4,189 hits in 11,434 at bats for a .366 mark.

This, too, is subject to change, of course, pending further research, and MLB ought to be grateful that people like Mr. Krabbenhoft are willing, nay eager, to devote hours of their lives and skill to tracking down this sort of thing (for free). I suppose, since Thorn is MLB’s Official Historian, that MLB is Officially Coming Around to a position of gratitude in place of Kuhnian Disrespect, and that is progress.

Knowledge is elusive. It’s a slippery thing, difficult to grasp, challenging to hold in place. New facts, and new ways to interpret facts accurately, keep cropping up, and that’s why historians will never run out of work. I find it funny, for example, that according to a 2015 article by Kirk Kenney mentioned in the SABR article, the whole to-do about Pete Rose breaking Cobb’s hits record against the Padres, with all its hoopla, and ceremony, and suspense, and cap-doffing, might all have taken place on the wrong day, and the actual breaking of the record might have taken place during a different game against a different opponent with no one playing the slightest attention to it.

To me, that’s funny. Anything that undercuts pomposity is funny, and personally I wish all sorts of ceremonies during games that take an extra second from the game itself were mocked more often. A warm round of applause for a player who accomplishes some significant mark, or even the hoarding of the ball in some rookie’s first MLB hit, or the scoreboard flashing that "THAT WAS JOE BLTZVIK’S 200TH STRIKEOUT OF THE YEAR" doesn’t really take up that much time. If we made a mistake with them, who notices or cares, but when we turn these things into major productions, halting the game, presenting players with trophies, getting executives to deliver speeches, well, we had damned better be right in marking the moment as THE moment because we look kind of silly if it turns out differently. As it often does.


COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

Simple question - is it true? Is it accurate?

Hard to argue against that proposition, IMO​
7:28 PM Apr 18th
Steven Goldleaf
But you do agree, don't you, Marc, that it's better to celebrate the occasion on the actual day rather ignoring the actual day and celebrating a week earlier or later?
7:48 AM Apr 18th
Marc Schneider

I'm not saying we want NO specificity. But researching the difference between 4189 and 4191 decades after the fact seems unnecessary. Now, sure, if it was a matter of 50 hits or something, that's one thing. But you were talking about looking silly. I don't see why celebrating Rose's hit record a couple of days later than it should have been really brings disrepute on baseball.​
8:38 AM Apr 17th
Technically, a hit is an event resulting in the batter reaching base that the official scorer scores as a hit. There is and will always be a subjective factor in determining how many hits Ty Cobb or Joe Slubotnik got in their careers.

It is possible to know with exactitude how many hits someone got IF we remember that a hit is something scored a hit.

So adjusting the "magic numbers" should be seen in that light.
8:39 AM Apr 15th
Steven Goldleaf
Marc, if it comes to that, do you really need to know more than "Cobb had over 4,000 hits" or "Cobb had a lot of hits" or "Cobb--wow, great hitter"? Why the niggling specificity at all?
11:21 AM Apr 12th
Marc Schneider
"If we made a mistake with them, who notices or cares, but when we turn these things into major productions, halting the game, presenting players with trophies, getting executives to deliver speeches, well, we had damned better be right in marking the moment as THE moment because we look kind of silly if it turns out differently. As it often does."

Why do we need to be right? So we don't look silly? Who cares? I hate to come across as anti-truth because, god knows, we are in an anti-truth age now and we do need to value facts. But there is also something that bothers me about a sort of scholasticism toward meaningless precision. I almost found it offensive that this researcher spent all this time trying to determine if Cobb has 4191 hits or 4189, not because I think the number itself is sacred but because it's such a waste of time. (Granted, it's his time to waste.)

10:11 AM Apr 12th
Steven Goldleaf
Tangerines and pears here, here? I think totting up the raw numbers, Don, is WAY different from imposing new standards on old ones for judgment calls on who’s eligible for which championship, although I’d reserve the right to re-jigger championships subjectively, particularly when they did something grossly unjust or colossally stupid or downright demonic, like the whole Sammy Stewart/Steve McCatty ERA controversy (where the rules called to round one pitcher’s ERA up and the other one’s down, based on the 1/3 and 2/3rds of IP, actually awarding the ERA title to the pitcher with the worse ERA if no rounding was done).

There have been so many rules changes over the years that it’s pretty arbitrary which standard you choose to apply for things like BA champs, etc. Better in my view to asterisk the heck out of listings of such things. Some of those BA championships, as I recall, were just arbitrary judgments by the League President or Commish, anyway. Bill praised them for their bravery, I think, in flat-out choosing to disregard the technical requirements for eligibility in some cases, and just declaring the champion whichever player they felt was most deserving, or most legitimate, despite what the written-out rules called for. Any way you slice it, it’s a mess, ain’t it?

3:03 AM Apr 12th
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Dutton Peabody, Editor: The Shinbone Star. "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
11:38 PM Apr 11th
Here's the one that bothers me...

In the old days, the standards for being identified as the "batting champion"--the player with the highest batting average wandered somewhat,; here's what BBRef has to say on the matter:
Prior to 1920, a player must have appeared in 60% of the team's games to qualify for a title. This number was rounded to the nearest integer.

From 1920-1937 (unclear, and previously thought to be until 1944), a player must have appeared in 100 games.

From 1938-1944, the AL used 400 at bats and the NL stayed with 100 games, as discovered by Paul Rivard of SABR.

From 1945-1956, a player must have 2.6 at bats per team game. Note, however, that from 1951-1954 a player could lead if they still led after the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to their at bat total.

From 1957 to the present, a player must have 3.1 plate appearances per team game. Note, however, that from 1967 to the present a player could lead if they still led after the necessary number of hitless plate appearances were added to their at bat total.
So, when the eligibility standards change, do we go back and re-assign batting championships? (Under the 3.1 PA per team game standard, Ernie Lombardi would not have been the batting champ in 1942, Enos Slaughter would have won (with his .328, compared with Lombardi's .330--if you add the (roughly) 100 ABs he would have needed to meet the current standard...about .250).

We don't make those changes (although I think there was some controversy about NOT making that change). And I don't think we shoul...
7:01 PM Apr 11th
I'm not sentimental myself, to be honest. When Ty Cobb's hit total was adjusted, I did not turn to drugs or gamble on baseball. Or did I?

No, I didn't. Well, I occasionally bet on baseball, but the results are between me and my bookie. Who also sells drugs. But not to Eric Show. And he stopped taking calls from Pete Rose years ago.

To stretch the analogy a little further past "stupid" to somewhere approaching "please stop," I was married to a distant cousin of Jack Webb. Our relationship lasted 714 days, ironically. But I forgot to count a meeting later, after we had split up. That might make it 715. I'll alert Joe Friday's Wikipedia page.
6:21 PM Apr 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Terry, while your loyalty to the numbers you've got memorialized in your head is admirable, I suspect you think (as I did) they are much more permanent than they are in reality. I commend to you this article (and its attached sequel) showing how recently derived some of those numbers are, how they're based on very sloppy reasoning to begin with, how the definitions of terms like "win" have changed over the course of the twentieth century, when they came into existence for the first time. As naive lads, we clung to that raft of concepts before we could swim, never realizing how shoddily it was constructed, nor how recently, and have remembered it as a battleship. The truth is, these figures were hastily thrown together, they have always been a work in progress, constantly subject to revision, and it is pure sentimental attachment to them that elevates them to eternal verities.
4:25 PM Apr 11th
As we all know, Scrooge McDuck has cash on hand (in his money bin) of one multiplujillion, nine obsquatumatillion, six hundred twenty-three dollars and sixty-two cents. Of course the prosaic truth is that the numbers towards the right end change by the second. But the magic number is as stated, and cannot be changed despite boom, bust, depression, bull or bear markets, rain, snow, sleet, hail, earthquake or famine, or even climate change. It is impervious to change.

With this in mind, I would tend to side with ventboys comment. But if you believe that a single point of batting average alters your opinion of Ty Cobb...well, feel free to defecate in your pants, a la Jerome Holtzman.
4:22 PM Apr 11th
Wilbur: Yes, I think Bill used that wording.
He also used this wording:
"Well, Jerome Holtzman just about ____ in his pants." :-)
2:05 PM Apr 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, and Detective Friday, hate to be the one to break it to ya, but uh, your badge number? [shakes head from side to side/] Sorry.

That wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.
1:09 PM Apr 11th
Steven Goldleaf
Damn, Wilbur! I KNEW I'd read this article somewhere before.....
12:48 PM Apr 11th
I wouldn't hammer Kuhn too hard for using the lingo of his trade, but that's a taste thing. I see his point, in that baseball history is riddled with magic numbers. I mean, go tell Joe Friday his badge number is wrong. Send a scuba team to Puerto Rico to tell Roberto Clemente he still needs one more hit. I can see why he thought "eventually these numbers should harden, like the statues they represent."

Consistent with that thought, I think "statute of limitations" was actually a pretty slick way to say it myself, Lube. I think it accurately represents what Kuhn wanted it to represent, that there should be a time limit to editing the past.

Do I agree with him? I guess yes and no. I don't really have a strong opinion about the numbers themselves. I'm a pretty adjustable guy, and I'm old enough that I know things change. But I'm absolutely NOT a fan of revisionist history. If what happened changes, based on new evidence, I say update the facts. If someone wants to apply current moral or technology to the past, though, I can get pretty shirty about it. Don't try to update the conditions; Ty Cobb was not living in 2019; let his attitudes stay where they were developed.

12:03 PM Apr 11th
So I suppose Pete Rose's actual record-breaking hit came not vs. Eric Show in Riverfront Stadium on 9/11/85, but vs. the Cubs' Reggie Patterson at Wrigley Field on 9/8/85. (Although had they known back then how close Rose was to the record, he likely would've sat out that game vs. the Cubs - it was the last game of a road trip - so Rose could break the record at home. So it may have ended up against Show anyway.)

11:50 AM Apr 11th
Interesting read, as is the norm, Steven.

Didn't Bill James write about this many years ago? My memory says he titled it "Jerome Holtzman Has a Cow" or something similar.
10:43 AM Apr 11th
Sorry, another apology:
The hit record wasn't ever 4192. While I see that some articles and the like do show that number, I can only guess that it comes from a confusion with Cobb's old stolen-bases number, which was 892.
(I see it now seems to be 897.)
10:30 AM Apr 11th
.....Well I'm the one who committed the crime. I didn't read the rest of the sentence before posting.

BTW, the old venerable number of Cobb''s hits was indeed actually 4192. It's still the main number in my head, together with the .367.
The 4192 got revised down to 4191 -- and then to the current 4189, which I'd forgotten.

About the main subject: I'm of 2 minds. At least. :-)
While in principle it's hard to argue against correcting errors that are found, to me there's an argument on the other side besides stubborn adherence.

Things get measured at any given time according to the means of measurement that were used. Everybody got measured according to that same method, with all the same factors of accuracy and inaccuracy. If you start correcting some people's number but not others, you may be changing how they relate to one another. That's not an issue if we're talking about a factoid that has no relation to anything except one person or one completely isolated phenomenon, but it does when we're talking about baseball players. BTW I do realize that when Cobb's hit total gets corrected, presumably so does the record of the pitcher(s) who were involved. I'm not talking about some lack of symmetry there.

I don't mean to imply either that the accuracies and inaccuracies would tend to be in the same direction (as it might seem to be saying); maybe they would be, maybe they wouldn't. All I'm saying is what I'm saying.

If it were up to me, would I advocate changing the numbers?
I wouldn't discourage trying to find out something like how many hits a player like Cobb really had, but I wouldn't change the official record.
I'm very sorry to see that this means I have some Ford Frick in me.
10:14 AM Apr 11th
You're not as up on the news as you thought! :-)

You give a multi-chronologic amalgam of Cobb's currently accepted record.
You give the number of hits as 4191, which is the 'current' number (and has been for, I think, a couple of decades), but you say it together with the old batting average of .367, which was revised to .366 -- I think a couple of decades ago.

BTW, need I say, it's no crime. :-)
10:00 AM Apr 11th
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