On August 26th, 1939 the Reds took the field against the Dodgers in a doubleheader. Calling the game was radio announcer Red Barber, also at the game were two cameras, as the game was broadcast over the airwaves making it the first major league game broadcast on TV. If we were to see the game today we would notice that when each batter stepped to the plate, the game was void of graphics, missing was the standard scroll at the bottom that informs the viewer of the batters current batting skills.
My, my, my how things have changed.
Looking around the game today you can see that the same basic stats that grace the back of our baseball cards that lie in the darkness in our basements (or perhaps your parents basement) still find their way into our baseball world and nowhere is it more prevalent than on all the games we watch on the tube.
Since the so called “Moneyball” revolution you would have thought that we’d see some more teams trumping *new* stats like on-base percentage, or pitches per plate appearances as the batter strolls to the plate.
These are but simple pipe dreams in stat boy heaven and useless information in the world of our detractors. Make no mistake the cult of the batting average survives today and can be found all around the game, in the daily leader boards, in the newspaper and the stats that appear beneath each player that steps to the dish on your television, with them linked hand and hand are its brothers, home run and runs batted in (also known as HR and RBI, or Ribby)
But how’d we get here?
During the era of no gloves or kid gloves, placement hitting was extra important, putting the ball where a good play was the only way to ensure that the hitter was out was the goal, and error totals were incredible compared to today’s game.
Here’s an example of the National Leagues Shortstops errors in 1888
PLAYER E PCT G Monte Ward 86 .857 122 Jack Rowe 72 .861 105 Ned Williamson 65 .884 132 Arthur Irwin 64 .900 122 Jack Glasscock 59 .901 110
Prior to the 1870’s a box score would often only display the outs a player made and the errors he committed, this focused on the battle between the batter and the fielders, as the game quickened the battle became more between the batter and the pitchers, with this came the need to measure the batters ability to succeed against the hurler.
In 1871 H.A Dobson of Washington devise a formula that he used to measure the effectiveness of batters in single contest or over a span of contests. So enamored with his formula he sent a letter to Henry Chadwick the preeminent Baseball statistician and the inventor of the box score. Within a year Chadwick fully endorsed the formula, a simple one that divided the players hits into their total at bats for a sum called “batting average” In the 1872 Beadle Guide of Baseball Chadwick wrote of batting average, “One is erroneous, one is right.”
And so the battle and the obsession began.
By 1874 base hits were showing up in box scores.
By the 1880’s claims that bunts were being eschewed in hopes of not dropping ones batting average lower led to the instruction of the sacrifice bunt in 1889. Still in the following decade heavy scoring led some quotes like this one.
“It is high time that a protest was entered against the growing and prevalent custom of the paper printing the averages of the players.“
Of course others had opinions about batting average that would be very at home in today’s statistical revolution (obsession?)
“Would a system that placed nickels, dimes, quarters, and 50-cent pieces on the same basis as be much of system whereby to compare a mans financial resources? “And yet it is precisely such a loose, inaccurate system, which obtains in baseball… Pretty poor system isn’t it. To govern the most popular department of the most popular of all the games.”
F.C. Lane 1916
HR (Home Runs)
Why the Home Run?
Why not ask why oxygen or water?
Babe Ruth is probably the quickest and shortest answer to the above question.
AMERICAN LEAGUE 1920-1929 HOMERUNS HR 1 Yankees 1211 2 A's 757 3 Browns 710 4 Tigers 527 5 Indians 410 6 Senators 387 7 White Sox 367 8 Red Sox 315
During World War One Babe Ruth first exceeded single digits in home runs, over the wires his progressed was relayed to France where doughboys talked of Ruth in the land that knew no baseball.
Prior to Babes emergence as a hitter the single season record for home runs was a crapshoot of players who played in odd parks (Williamson – Lake Front 196 to RF) or Gavy Cravath at Baker Field, also prominent is 1890’s players playing in massive fields with pasture like outfields where balls rolled for what seemed like days. Some men enhanced their record with ground rules that counted balls that reached the stands on a bounce as a home run.
The home run took place of the triple as the most exciting play in the game when Ruth came around and it’s had a stranglehold on the game since then as well.
Prior to Ruth only 36 times had a player hit 15 or more home runs in a season.
1876-1918 HOMERUNS YEAR HR 1 Ned Williamson 1884 27 T2 Fred Pfeffer 1884 25 T2 Buck Freeman 1899 25 4 Gavvy Cravath 1915 24 5 Abner Dalrymple 1884 22 T6 Wildfire Schulte 1911 21 T6 Cap Anson 1884 21 8 Sam Thompson 1889 20 T9 Billy O'Brien 1887 19 T9 Bug Holliday 1889 19 T9 Harry Stovey 1889 19 T9 Ed Delahanty 1893 19 T9 Gavvy Cravath 1914 19 T9 Gavvy Cravath 1913 19 T15 Jerry Denny 1889 18 T15 Hugh Duffy 1894 18 T15 Fred Luderus 1913 18 T15 Sam Thompson 1895 18 T15 Vic Saier 1914 18 T20 Jimmy Ryan 1889 17 T20 Hal Chase 1915 17 T20 Jack Clements 1893 17 T20 Bill Joyce 1894 17 T20 Bill Joyce 1895 17 T20 Roger Connor 1887 17 T20 Bobby Lowe 1894 17 T27 Fred Pfeffer 1887 16 T27 Sam Crawford 1901 16 T27 Harry Stovey 1891 16 T27 Fred Luderus 1911 16 T27 Mike Tiernan 1891 16 T27 Jimmy Ryan 1888 16 T27 Socks Seybold 1902 16 T27 Charlie Duffee 1889 16 T27 Dutch Zwilling 1914 16 T36 Sherry Magee 1911 15 T36 Jimmy Collins 1898 15 T36 Sherry Magee 1914 15 T36 Bill Dahlen 1894 15 T36 Duke Kenworthy 1914 15
In 1930 as many as 32 players would have 15 or more home runs in a season, 42 in 1960, 64 in 1990 and 115 in 2005.
Home runs are now as much part as baseball as bases and sunflower seeds.
But a line score wouldn’t be a line score without RBI’s
RBI (Runs Batted In)
First debated as a viable stat in the 1880’s the run batted in disappeared into the background of baseball stats until the 1920’s. However it was adored and kept alive by one Ernie Lanigan, New York Press baseball editor, who labeled them as “Runs Responsible For” and kept track of them in the daily sports section of the Press. Ernie also is credited with starting “This Day in Baseball” as a newspaper item. A true stats nut, Ernie is responsible for keeping track of every player in baseballs RBI’s from 1907-1920.
He also had this to say about the game:
“I don’t really care much about baseball, or looking at ballgames. All my interest in baseball is in statistics.”
I find a certain irony in this, for if any stat is held in disdain by us “pencil necked geeks” (That folks conjure up in their head when they read quotes by men such as Mr. Lanigan) I would have to say that RBI’s is the winner without a doubt.
Of note – It’s easy to see the gaudy RBI numbers of the 1920’s and 30’s and think they are the norm, however that would be a fallacy since they occur when offense is at its peak and before Babe Ruth (there’s that guy again) came around only Sam Thompson of the Phillies could claim to have driven in more than 150 runs, and that was during the 2 biggest offensive years of the 19th century. Only 44 players have had RBI’s of 150 or more in a season, and only 7 of them have occurred since division play started, that’s a mere 16%.
To simplify my feelings on RBI’s this is what Dayn Perry at BP had to say about them.
“The thing to understand about counting stats is that, absent supporting information, they’re really only useful at the margins. That’s to say, it’s hard to rack up 140 RBI and somehow stink. Conversely, it’s difficult to log a season’s worth of plate appearances, total 40 RBI and somehow be any good. The flip side of this is that it’s entirely possible, especially in eras conducive to run scoring, to break the vaunted 100-RBI barrier and still be an ineffective player. It’s debatable what the worst 100-RBI season is, but Ruben Sierra in 1993 may be hard to beat.”
By the 1970’s RBIS were a daily part of the box scores.
Slowly we are starting to see the addition of on base percentage in more television broadcasts. ESPN runs them with each player’s at bat, and the Indians, Yankees and Cubs (on WGN) show the stat as well. With on base percentage the viewer gets quick idea of the percentage of outs a player makes, one that is clean in its display of the players attempt to avoid all outs.
Many have noted this in the history of the game, including Branch Rickey and even F.C. Lane the deadball era writer recognized the disrespect on base percentage received, calling it “The orphaned child of the dope sheets.”
Even now as the flame flickers and the stat creeps to being part of out daily baseball diet we have to realize that it’s a baby in the game to the regular fans out there.
Long the red headed stepchild of baseball statistics, statistician, radio guy and baseball junkie Eric Walker helped fuel the revolution of on base percentage with his collection of essays “The Sinister First Baseman” his conduit was A’s GM Sandy Alderson who stumbled across the book in a San Francisco bookstore, and eventually spread his philosophy around the game through his position within the Oakland A’s front office.
And as they say, the rest is history.
By the late 1990’s instead of OB% players walks were showing up in some box scores, this recognized the walk as a weapon and a tool that enhanced the players attempt to avoid outs. It also filled in alot of unanswered questions in the morning boxscores.
Below is a list of the stats run beneath a players name when he comes to bat on the local TV broadcast.
===================================== Yankees BA/HR/RBI/OB% Boston BA/HR/RBI Toronto BA/HR/RBI Baltimore BA/HR/RBI Devil Rays BA/HR/RBI ===================================== White Sox BA/HR/RBI Detroit BA/HR/RBI Indians BA/HR/RBI/OB% Minnesota BA/HR/RBI Royals BA/HR/RBI ===================================== Texas BA/HR/RBI Oakland BA/HR/RBI Angels BA/HR/RBI Seattle BA/HR/RBI ===================================== Mets Season BA + Game AB Phillies BA/HR/RBI Atlanta BA/HR/RBI Nationals BA/HR/RBI Florida BA/HR/RBI ===================================== Cincinnati BA/HR/RBI Houston BA/HR/RBI St.Louis BA/HR/RBI Milwaukee BA/HR/RBI Cubs BA/HR/RBI/OB%-WGN only Pittsburgh BA/HR/RBI ===================================== Arizona BA/HR/RBI Colorado BA/HR/RBI San Diego Season BA + Game AB Giants BA/HR/RBI Dodgers BA/HR/RBI =====================================