This article was written by Bill Felber
Among more than two dozen men credited with at least 3,000 career base hits, the first to do it is also easily the most controversial. Cap Anson broke through the 3,000-hit barrier in 1897. Or did he?
More than any other achievement in the statistically obsessed game that is baseball, Anson’s hit totals are subject to debate. The most respected statistical references in the game disagree on how many hits the 19th-century Chicago star actually had … or whether he even reached 3,000. The Hall of Fame credits Anson with 3,081 hits. But The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia gives him 3,012. Baseball Reference says Anson had 3,435 hits. Project Retrosheet accepts both the 3,012 and 3,435 figures, while the Macmillan Encyclopedia gives him an even 3,000. Total Baseball credits Anson with 2,995. Anson biographer David Fleitz puts the figure at 2,995 or 3,418.[fn]Hall of Fame data from http://www.baseballhall.org/hof/anson-cap; Total Baseball data from Total Baseball, Revised and Updated, 2004. ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia data from 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia by Gary Gillette and Pete Palmer; Baseball Reference data from http://www.baseballreference.com/players/a/ansonca01.shtml; Fleitz data from David Fleitz, Cap Anson, The Grand Old Man of Baseball, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005). Macmillan data from The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, 1996. The Fleitz hit total discrepancy is attributable to the author’s ambivalence on the question of whether to count the 423 hits Anson is credited with during his years playing in the National Association.[/fn]
There are as many reasons for the differing totals as there are totals themselves. One relates to the 423 hits Anson achieved while playing for National Association teams in Rockford and Philadelphia between 1871 and 1875. The National Association was a precursor to the National League, and whether its statistics are counted hinges on who’s doing the counting.
But the legitimacy of the Association as a major league is hardly the only question. The keeping of statistics was an imprecise science in the 19th century, occasionally flavored by favoritism depending on who was keeping the stats. In no case was this truer than with Anson, whose presence engendered strong sentiments, both favorable and unfavorable. There is evidence that scorekeepers and league officials tampered with the record books to inflate his hit totals. Although Anson was the game’s first great star, the major reference works today agree on his hit totals for a mere nine of his 22 seasons. For example, in 1894 Total Baseball, Macmillan, and Fleitz credit Anson with having made 132 hits. But ESPN, Baseball Reference, and Retrosheet say he made 133, and the Hall of Fame puts the total at 137.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Changes in rules contribute another source of controversy. In 1887 the National League adopted a rule counting bases on balls as hits. Anson had 60 walks that year, and the Hall of Fame counts those walks as hits because that’s how they were recorded in 1887. None of the other major references do.[fn]The Hall of Fame’s inclusion of the 1887 walk totals as hits (see the citation above), is not decisive to Anson’s 3,000-hit total, since even if those 60 walks were subtracted from his career hits the Hall would still credit him with 3,021 hits.[/fn]
Those difficulties in verifying Anson’s achievement are magnified by the fact that at the time he did it, nobody paid the slightest attention to his career hit total, or to the notion that he might be approaching a milestone.
In short, it is today impossible to reconstruct exactly how many hits Anson made, or say with certainty whether and when he reached 3,000. We can, however, fashion some sort of consensus or estimate out of the cumulative judgments of the major reference works. When you delete Anson’s performance in the National Association as well as the 60 walks he got in 1887, then examine the various versions of his remaining hit record side by side, the expert consensus arrives at 3,012 hits. Although it’s coincidental because the year-by-year figures don’t track, that sum happens to be precisely the number put forward by The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball Reference, and Retrosheet (in the case of the latter two, minus the NA games).
If we accept the 3,012 hit total as a best estimate, then Anson reached 3,000 during the last game he ever played in Chicago. The date was September 19, and the Colts—preparing for a season-ending road trip to Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis—were hosting Louisville’s Colonels in what gave every appearance of being an insignificant game between the ninthand eleventh-place teams.[fn]The game account is based primarily on reporting from the Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1897, supplemented by the Baltimore Sun, September 20, 1897.[/fn]
A good crowd of 6,000 showed up on a Sunday afternoon at West Side Park for what was presumed to be, if not officially designated as, Anson’s final home game. What they witnessed could hardly be termed an artistic success, given that the eight errors—six by Louisville—led to all of the runs in the 5–2 Colts victory being unearned.
Nor was there anything remarkable about the “3,000th” hit. It was a second-inning lead-off single, and although the Chicago fans cheered their hero lustily for it, that amounted to more of a “lifetime achievement” recognition than any response to a batting milestone. He got an equally enthusiastic ovation following an uneventful double later in the game.
The precise date—and even the legitimacy—of Anson’s achievement is still debated today. But Anson was the most consistent and durable hitter of the 19th century. Whatever his final hit total, it remained a record for 17 years. Not until 1914 did Honus Wagner and Napoleon Lajoie join him in what would eventually become recognized as the 3,000-hit club. (Wagner, by the way, played in center field for the Colonels in the September 19 game and had one hit, a single.)
This essay was originally published in “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century” (2013), edited by Bill Felber. Download the SABR e-book by clicking here.
Chicago Colts 5
Louisville Colonels 2
West Side Grounds
If you can help us improve this game story, contact us.