From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at Grantland on October 1, 2015, with mention of SABR members Pete Palmer, Craig Muder, Dan Hirsch, and Dave Studeman:
If you’re tired of hearing and rehashing baseball’s unresolvable MVP arguments — best vs. most valuable, context-independent vs. context-sensitive, Bryce Harper vs. Yoenis Cespedes — you can probably blame the St. Louis Browns.
In its current, BBWAA-bestowed incarnation, the MLB Most Valuable Player Award dates back to 1931. Even in Year 1, the preference for winners was firmly in place: The American League award went to Lefty Grove of the A’s, who won the AL pennant by 13.5 games, and the National League award went to Frankie Frisch of the Cardinals, who won the NL pennant by 13 games. Grove was a good pick by any measure, but the selection of Frisch — a deserving Hall of Famer whose best days were behind him — came down to his team and his reputed intangibles, which the voters valued more highly than the production of leading statistical candidates like Giants slugger Bill Terry.
But if we can trace the 21st-century MVP voter’s still-strong impulse to look at the top of the leaderboard and say, “No, not him” to Frisch, then we can trace the Terry snub to an even earlier lineage. Although the BBWAA award was the one that stuck, it was preceded by two proto-MVP awards, the first of which was established by Hugh Chalmers in order to sell some cars. The Chalmers Award, which debuted in 1910, was intended to go to the big leaguer with the highest batting average, a one-dimensional stat that might as well have been WAR for the contemporary reverence it received. Naturally, there’s a book about this — in baseball, there’s always a book — but the abridged version is that the competition between the Tigers’ Ty Cobb and the Indians’ Nap Lajoie came down to the last two days of the season. Cobb benched himself, believing his lead was secure, but Lajoie went 8-for-9 in a season-ending doubleheader, bunting for several hits with the help of Browns manager Jack O’Connor, who reportedly told third baseman Red Corriden to play back. The country believed that Lajoie had won by one point — until the AL announced that Cobb had finished ahead, .385 to .384. Chalmers foreshadowed Oprah and gave a car to each candidate.
Record-keeping being what it was at the time, this wasn’t easy for third parties to fact-check: Lajoie actually finished on top, but the truth wasn’t known for more than 70 years, when Pete Palmer discovered that the league had double-counted a Cobb 2-for-3. Statistics clearly couldn’t be trusted, so the following April, Chalmers changed his award to instead go to the person who “should prove himself as the most important and useful player to his club and to the league at large in point of deportment and value of services rendered” — more or less the MVP we love and hate today.
Read the full article here: https://grantland.com/the-triangle/2015-mlb-mvp-debate-bryce-harper-yoenis-cespedes-anthony-rizzo/
Originally published: October 2, 2015. Last Updated: October 2, 2015.