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THE NUMBERS GAME
Savoring the Georgia Peach
By William J. Melzer
Few things in life are supposedly as certain as reference guides and scholarly research. They are considered unimpeachable, cited as final authority whatever the subject or question. Baseball is no exception: it has accrued more related data than any other sport. Yet for all of this, misinformation continues to be given.
In 1997, evidently to take advantage of the fiftieth anniversary of the breaking of the color line in Major League Baseball, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., published Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, an English professor at Princeton. It was billed as the definitive work on its subject since Robinson's widow had given the author access to her husband's private notes and papers. Though Robinson's baseball career was certainly covered, the main thrust of the book was his lifelong civil rights activism.
On page 267 the text reads: "Another goal was to break Ty Cobb's career record for stealing home (twenty-one times); Jack now had sixteen."
I wrote the professor explaining Cobb actually had thirty-six home plate steals and enclosed a photocopy of "Ty Cobb's Unbroken Record of Home Plate Steals" taken from Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump (1994; pp. 42122). The list details the date of the game, opposing team and battery, final score, and inning of the steal; thirty-five in regular season, one in the World Series of 1909. They begin in July 1909, Cobb's fourth full season, and end in 1928, his final year in organized ball, when he was nearly forty-two.
Since Robinson thought he was five steals away, did he go to his death thinking he was but two from the record when he retired with nineteen? Professor Rampersad promptly wrote back an apologetic note. He was quite gracious, obviously embarrassed. Accordingly, Knopf was to have done all the research and simply botched it. His comments reaffirmed my first thoughts: that while the biography was scholarly written, Rampersad was no baseball man.
In the spring of 2000, my wife gave me as a gift a copy of Total Baseball (sixth edition; 1999), 2,538 pages strong. First published in 1989, it touts itself as "the most complete, most authoritative, and most informative . . . baseball book ever published." It is an ambitious tome of great magnitude. Among its heralded highlights is a chapter entitled "The Greatest 400" that tersely describes the best who ever played.
On page 135, concerning comments on Ty Cobb, the editors state: "He collected 10 AL batting titles." It was really twelve. Cobb won nine straight AL batting titles, from 1907 to 1915, and three more between 1917 and 1919. He lost to Tris Speaker in 1916, whose .386 batting average was the highest Speaker ever attained. Cobb roared back to average over .380 for the next three years, and still later hit over .400.
While it seemed a mere oversight, I wrote a gentle note to the editors apprising them of the error. They never replied.
The Wall Street Journal "Weekend" issue of 4 December 1999, published an article in its "By the Numbers" column, entitled "All-Stars for All Time" by Allen Barra, purporting to show the best player of each decade of the century. Honus Wagner was the player selected for 190009, Babe Ruth for the twenties. No one was mentioned in the "Era by Era" list for 191019, the only decade bereft of selection.
Barra, a versatile and, at times, creative writer, appeared knowledgeable of the game in the past. The gist of his column is to substantiate the weekly topic with statistical data. He devised "SLOB"SLugging average times On Base averagefor it represents "the two hitting stats that best correlate with winning."
My aim was simply to ask why he had not chosen Ty Cobb as the best player for the second-decade slot. The man dominated the period, capturing all batting titles save one, hitting over .400 twice in that time span, typically batting 100 to 140 points higher than the league average; he was also the periodic leader in stolen bases, hits, and runs.
When I reached the columnist at his home in New Jersey, he was awaiting a radio interview. He disagreed outright with my position, grudgingly gave any credit to Cobb's performance, and seemed unaware of any slight in his article. He yielded nothing.
Barra felt a player's basestealing percentage should be at least 75 percent to be effective, stated that Cobb's success rate was well below that, and was totally unimpressed with the home plate steals record ("I don't give a crap about it"). He believed Rod Carew to be the all-time leading basestealer of home plate. He kept attempting to direct our talk to how much better he thought Honus Wagner was than Cobb. Barra became increasingly defensive as we spoke, finally telling me to send anything I had to him by mail.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library maintains a remarkable reference section that seems to always find answers to any game-related question regardless of how trivial. They informed me that Cobb's basestealing percentage was almost 81 percent (892 stolen of 1,104 attempts), and his career record of home plate steals was now documented at fifty! This information was easily enough obtained; why hadn't Barra made the effort?
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2001 issue.
WILLIAM J. MELZER is a municipal broker and investment banker who lives with his wife and two daughters in Mendocino, California. He is a graduate of the University of South Carolina.© 2001 William J. Melzer
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