Fie on Figure Filberts: Some Crimes Against Clio

This article was written by David Q. Voigt

This article was published in 1983 Baseball Research Journal

SABR’s phenomenal membership rise is indeed a testimony to the burgeoning numbers of dedicated baseball researchers about the land. However, a menacing schism, one pitting baseball historians against baseball statisticians, bids foul to disturb the tribal unity.

As a precipitating cause of this fratricidal struggle, baseball historians point to the distortion of historical records done by the Special Baseball Records Committee back in 1968. That year Commissioner William Eckert appointed the committee at the behest of the Macmillan publishing company whose exhaustive Encyclopedia project was in the works. Once credentialed, the committee met twice in 1968 and proceeded to revamp baseball records in the light of present day practices. Predictably, the committee’s temporocentric stance, based as it is on the wrongheaded assumption that the present is all that there is, upset many records, especially those of the 19th century. In unbaring what they saw to be nearly 40 instances of erroneous record keeping between the years 1876 and 1920, the committee simply rewrote them in their zeal to pin modern standards on the past. One such correction had the committee awarding a 715th homer to Ruth, a ploy that stirred a hornet’s nest of protests from historically minded sportswriters. For one, Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times scored the “numbers gaming,” sneering that “First players, then entire rosters will be deleted from the record books,” including perhaps all references to the tabooed Chicago Black Sox!

Forced to back down, the committee beat a graceless retreat. Although Ruth’s 714 homer total stood the same, other examples of ham-handed tampering got into the Macmillan Encyclopedia, making that “official” tool a bad road map for any baseball historian seeking to reconstruct the early years of what was always a changing major league game. Indeed, only the fact that so few baseball historians seemed to be working the early years of major league history concealed the committee’s effrontery. For me, their crimes against historical canons lay buried for 15 years in the cold type of various editions of the Macmillan Encyclopedia. Recently, an assignment to do a one-volume history of the major league game sent me back to 19th century sources and alerted me to the statistical crime of these figure filberts. Comparing stats on early ballplayers culled from the official guides of their times with their “Big Mac” records alerted me to the doctoring job. At that point I was thankful that my earlier work on 19th century baseball had been published back in 1966, three years before the first “Big Mac” hit the stalls.

Thanking the gods for so dubious a blessing is to cast the impending battle between historians and statisticians in Olympian terms. Back when the world was young, as told in Greek mythology, Father Zeus spawned many children; included were the nine muses who were charged with gentling the lives of men. One muse, Clio, became goddess of history. In serving her, baseball historians have learned to respect the past by selecting data which fairly reflects the rules and lifestyles under which past peoples lived out their lives. In short, historians must reconstruct the past by keeping faith with the logic system under which their subjects lived.

Guided by such principles, baseball historians at their best recognize the different forms of the major league game and their flood of histories and biographies have far outnumbered those by any other sports historians, save chess writers. Moreover, baseball historians can take credit for securing the mighty hold which American baseball imposes on citizens of the Republic. However, they must gratefully share honors with statisticians who from the earliest times have also served Clio well. Some, like Chadwick and Jake Morse, were able historians in their own right. Paced by such records keepers as these, other figure filberts like Clarence Dow, Munro Elias, Ernie Lanigan, Frank Marcellus, C.S. Thompson, Seymour Siwoff and Bill James have formed a lengthy chain of statistician priests in service to the baseball history cause. Their labors raised baseball records and other sports records to awesome significance in our time. To be sure, these statisticians reflected the tenor of their times as banks, office buildings and the like were becoming symbolic temples, indicative of an all-out worship of measurements. So powerful did the quantification trend become that Japan now celebrates an annual statistical holiday in addition to an abacus holiday!

Nevertheless the soaring popularity of statistical measuring poses a threat and a challenge. The question is how to keep stats in a proper place and to prevent their over-ardent devotees from wreaking havoc with historical principles. Sooth to say, in some ways, the overblown claims of stat freaks have them resembling reincarnated Gnostics. It will be recalled that the Gnostics were intellectuals of ancient Greece who took their cult name from the Greek word meaning knowledge. An arrogant lot, they regarded themselves as wiser than ordinary men and claimed that their intuitive insights gave them the monopoly on truth and certitude.

Sad to say, some modern baseball figure filberts seem hell-bent on smuggling the same kind of certainty into record-keeping. Thanks to box scores and measurements of prowesses like team standings, batting averages, saves, homer totals, pitching ratings, and a host of lesser devices, some number nuts think that they can recreate games in toto. Worse, by deigning to impose their own definitions of proper baseball on past eras of baseball history, they seek to define what form of baseball should apply to all times.

Call them heretics! It’s as if modern stat freaks have forsaken Clio for some idolatrous muse   of their own shaping. Call her Statistia, although she was not born of Zeus nor has she any place among the Olympians. Nor are baseball statisticians alone in panting after this bitch goddess. Sober social critics now warn that ours is becoming a numbers-worshipping society wherein family life, leisure, work, sickness, rearmament, and virtually any behavioral area, is subjected to the tyranny of statistical measurements. For one, Alvin Toffler spoke of our “blip world” of today whereby bits of information strike us in random fashion, telling us not to smoke, eat bacon, wear tampons, use unleaded gas and the like; however, counter “blips” flit by telling us to do precisely the opposite. Fearing the irrational consequences of this trend, the late C. Wright Mills wrote that “It is not too much to say that . . . the choice to reason in most men is destroyed as such rationality increases. . . . There is, thus, rationality without reason. Such rationality is not commensurate with freedom but the destroyer of it.”

In Mills’s telling phrase “rationalism without reason” is embodied the dangers of the confrontation between Clio and Statistia. To rationalize without reason is to run the risk of turning consumers into cheerful robots who are easily seduced by the next statistical blip that comes along. Such blips abetted by television seemingly rob us of the qualitative sense of the past. Without a sense of the ever changing past we succumb to the bias of present-mindedness which statisticians seem to purvey. By contrast, a faithful work of history, concerned with the realities of past eras, is a refuge from the mindless horrors of quantifications; to read such a work is to receive a private and uniquely qualitative experience.

Certainly, baseball historians need to face up to dangers stemming from presumptuous statisticians. Forewarned is forearmed, and baseball students need to defend against notions of certainty and temporocentrism fobbed off by Statistia’s modern priests. One must take with a healthy dash of salt such utterances as James Michener’s in his book Sports in America where he exults that “one of the permanent delights of baseball is the minute accuracy of the mathematical data.” Likewise don’t swallow completely Bill James’s recent claim that statistics have “powers of language” or that they serve as “a literature and poetry,” or that “without their statistics, athletes . . . have no history,” or that “statistics give texture, form, focus and history to a conflict that is, on its own, devoid of context.” Likewise I would discount Paul MacFarlane’s paean; after seeking to rob Cobb of his 1910 batting crown, MacFarlane crowed that Sporting News readers “have known for decades that this paper provides the most accurate. . . news possible. The revisions in the Cobb and Lajoie records are in keeping with TSN’s philosophy.”

Happily a few apostates have backed off from earlier conversions to Statistia. For one, Len Koppett  recently admitted that stats have historical value, but not in themselves. Some things never get counted; baseball has always had its non-statistical dimensions. And the late Lee Allen, who succumbed to a temptation to change baseball records, told this writer in the last year of his life that past records ought not to be tampered with.

While freedom of religion also protects Statistia’s worshippers, violence done to baseball records is just cause for declaring war on perpetrators. What follows is a starter set of outrages which show how stat freaks have savaged baseball’s past by proclaiming their modernistic interpretations to be the only proper ones. But let not my love for Clio persuade you; rather hearken to each of the following crimes and judge for yourselves.

1. The Crime of Rejecting the National Association as a Major League

Any baseball historian must be mightily impressed by the National Association of 1871-1875 which profitably served American fans with first-rate baseball. However, the 1968 records committee airily dismissed the major league claims of this pioneer circuit on grounds that it had “erratic schedules and procedures.”

And what, pray tell, is a major league? To the objective historian the answer comes that such recognition depends on the times. A major league is one that is regarded as such by the fans of a generation; however, there are legal avenues to major league recognition, such as when the status is bestowed under one of the National Agreements. While no National Agreement existed in the    1871-1875 era, the fans of the times knew that the best players played in the Association. Moreover, the Association’s annual profits and salaries outstripped those of the National League for the first seven seasons of the latter’s existence. Nevertheless, the 1968 committee refused to award major league status to the National Association. Citing the circuit’s annual dropout problem and its lack of fixed playing schedules, the 1968 committee made its determination;

however, the group blithely afforded major status to the Union Association despite the fact that only five of its 13 clubs finished schedules in the circuit’s 1884 season.

More than likely the 1968 committee was motivated by major league politics as played out in the 1960s. In pandering to the values of present-day owners, it is probable that the committee took note of the Association’s player-run structure. It was a player-run league, with a player president, and its stockholder “owners” functioned mainly as patrons. That major league baseball was born of such parentage must have been anathema to modern owners and the sort of heritage one seeks to conceal. Especially would modern owners want to conceal another Association heritage – that of open access. In those days of the early 1870s any franchise could be admitted into the major league by merely paying a ten dollar fee.

2. Rewriting the 1887 Seasonal Records

Anyone familiar with 19th century baseball history knows that the decade of the 1880s was a wonderfully experimental decade. Recognizing this fact, no historian would agree with the notion that baseball is a changeless spectacle in which nothing new transpires.

In endeavoring to balance the pitching and hitting equation, rules-makers of the l880s tinkered constantly. In 1887 they hit on the idea of fixing a single strike zone for pitchers; in return, hitters got four strikes (if the third was called), and credit for a base hit for each base on balls received. While this radical change lasted only the 1887 season, it was official baseball and records dutifully reflected the interpretation.

So what did the 1968 committee do? Brushing aside the reality of baseball’s dynamic character, they robbed Cap Anson of a National League batting title fairly won, cutting him from .421 to .347; at the same time Tip O’Neill’s American Association leading figure of .492 was cut to .435.

Confronted by such wrongheaded tampering, historians are advised to use the “Big Mac” with great caution. A better source, certainly more faithful to standards of the times, is the Turkin-Thompson Encyclopedia. Of course the very best sources are the annual official guides. In 19th century times the Spalding, Reach, Wright & Ditson, etc., guides were “official.” How dare a modern pundit aver that his definition of “official” overturns those of the past?

The logic behind the 1968 committee action can be reduced to absurdity by asking why they did not go back and revamp all batting averages before the present-day custom of four balls was instituted; or rewrite records before 1887 when hi-low strike zones existed! Far out, you may say, but the Big Mac’ers did impose saves,  ERAs, RBIs and the like on 19th century players despite the fact that neither players nor fans played under such standards. One can only speculate if the Big Mac group, or some other certainty-minded figure filberts, will decide to rewrite all American League records since 1973, the year designated hitters came in!

3. Compressing the 1892 Split Season

Having bested the Players League in 1890 and the American Association the year following, the National League embarked upon its monopolistic, 12-club “big league.” Loosed in 1892, the 12 teams lugged heavy war debts and high payrolls. To stimulate profits, the owners voted to split the playing schedule into halves. Boston won the first, but Cleveland stormed from a fifth-place, first-half finish to win second-half honors. In a playoff series to settle the League championship, Boston swept to victory.

In brief outline this was the official major league scenario of 1892, but Big Mac stat freaks saw this as an abomination and simply merged the two halves into one in their coverage of the 1892 season. Ironically, in 1981 another split season occurred. This raises the interesting dilemma of how the stat freaks can accept the 1981 abomination without resuscitating the 1892 forerunner.

4. Tampering With Cobb’s 1910 Batting Title

While the 1968 committee’s tampering with Anson’s batting efforts and those of O’Neill, Jake Stenzel, Billy Hamilton and others may have escaped notice because of the remote time factor, a recent attempt by The Sporting News to divest the late Cobb of his 1910 title stirred  a tempest of controversy. In a banner story, Paul MacFarlane told a tale of chicanery that allegedly handed Cobb the title by a single point over Nap Lajoie. By discounting phantom hits allegedly credited to Cobb, MacFarlane dropped his average from .385 to .382 and reduced his lifetime hit total from 4192 to 4190.

But MacFarlane gave little consideration to the anti-Cobb sentiments of the time, or to Red Corriden’s failure to field seven bunts by Lajoie in his last game, or to reported bribery attempts by two St. Louis players who were anxious to see Cobb lose the title. Persuaded by factors, President Ban Johnson chose to award the title to Cobb; however, he also persuaded the Chalmers Company to award promised automobiles to both men for their batting heroics.

This case highlights the fact that record-keeping errors have always been rife. That this is still the case, even the conservative-minded C.C. Johnson Spink of TSN admitted, pointing to the 1978 American League records that contained 213 errors and three misspellings of names. So much for the “minute” accuracy of modern data. Indeed, who dares cast the first stone in the name of absolute accuracy.

5. Exaggerating Rose’s 1978 Consecutive Hitting Streak

The year 1978 also saw doughty Pete Rose of the Reds compile a 44-game hitting streak, a feat hailed by some temporocentric writers as a new National League record. But when baseball historian Marc Onigman demurred, pointing out that Rose must share his record with Willie Keeler, the old Oriole, who hit in the same number of games back in the late 1 890s, some statisticians waxed wrathful. Angered by Onigman’s disclosure, writer Dick Young and statistician Seymour Siwoff retorted that Keeler’s achievement was stone-age stuff. Siwoff even argued that one must regard major league baseball as falling into two separate eras – ancient and modern.

However, Onigman hoisted his assailants on their own petard by quoting a ruling by the 1968 Special Records Committee which decreed that “Major League baseball shall have one set of records starting in 1876, without any arbitrary division into nineteenth and twentieth century data.”

This confrontation was just another example of statisticians attempting to impose present-day standards upon all baseball ages past. There are others, including some sportswriters who touted the 1981 strike as baseball’s greatest, and others who touted the 1981 Oakland and 1982 Atlanta breakaway win streaks as the longest ever. In rebuttal, the great strike of 1890 certainly eclipsed the 1981 strike in longevity. As for the breakaway win streaks, the recent ones were overshadowed by the 21 victories compiled by the Union Association’s St. Louis Maroons in 1884; indeed, was not the 1869-70 breakaway gait by the Cincinnati Reds the ultimate one?

Revelations like these point to a menacing conflict between baseball historians and baseball statisticians. Something like a rapprochement between Clio and Statistia is sorely wanted, lest great harm be done to the baseball information enterprise. If baseball historians can be faulted for smugness and vainglorious claims of definitiveness, such sins pale before the terrible charge of distorting the past which can be laid at the feet of some statisticians. Words like hubris, effrontery, chutzpah are inadequate to describe such a crime. To assuage its stain and to restore the brotherly bond between historians and figure filberts, let the two factions meet to revise, the Macmillan Encyclopedia along historical principles. Such a summit meeting must take care to decide on the meaning of terms like “the first,” “official,” “major league” and “modern.” Once such guidelines are vouchsafed, figure filberts are free to continue worshipping Statistia. But only by undertaking such necessary reforms can the blasphemies against Clio, the Muse of History, be redressed. Meantime, while awaiting such unlikely penance from zealous numerologists, historians can only pray, “Forgive them, Father Zeus, for they know not what they do.”