How Many Hits Did Ty Cobb Make in His Major League Career? What Is His Lifetime Batting Average?
This article was published in the Spring 2019 Baseball Research Journal.
Among baseball’s most iconic career numbers are 714 and 4,191, the first Babe Ruth’s official career home runs total and the second Ty Cobb’s official career hits total. But if you look at many baseball statistics sources today, including websites and encyclopedias, you will find Cobb’s number has been altered. This paper seeks to use all available evidence to determine the most accurate total for Cobb’s lifetime hits, at-bats, and batting average.
According to the most-recently published baseball encyclopedias and 2019 baseball websites, Ty Cobb's lifetime hit total is unofficially 4,189 — two fewer hits than the 4,191 obtained from his originally-generated official Day-By-Day (DBD) records.1 In addition, Cobb’s total at bats total has been changed from the official 11,429 to the unofficial 11,434 — five more than before.2 This was the state of affairs in fall 2018, prior to the completion of my research to ascertain accurate runs-scored numbers and runs-batted-in numbers for the players on the 1908 Detroit Tigers.3 These unofficial changes in Cobb’s hits and at bats also precipitated a lowering of his career batting average — from a rounded-up official .367 (.36670) to an unofficial as-is .366 (.36636).
As summarized in Appendix 1, these changes to Cobb’s hits and at bats are attributable to the corrections of errors in Cobb’s official DBD records for three seasons:
- 1906 (the games on April 22 and April 23)
- 1910 (the second game of the doubleheader on July 24)
- 1912 (the first game of the doubleheader on July 12)
There have been numerous other reports of discrepancies. Two other games from 1910 (May 26 and August 10) had been reported previously as containing at-bat errors — by Paul MacFarlane in the 1981 Daguerrotypes record book published by the The Sporting News.4However, the requisite supporting documentation for these alleged at-bat errors was not provided and were completely ignored by Total Baseball, The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball Almanac, and Retrosheet. The Retrosheet “Discrepancy File” listed five other games which, according to the Retrosheet box scores, contained discrepancies with the originally-generated DBD records for Cobb’s at bats: 1905 (September 13), 1911 (May 20), 1913 (August 09), 1916 (June 06), and 1919 (the first game of the double header on July 4).
Again, the requisite supporting documentation (i.e., batter-by-batter play-by-play details) for these alleged at-bat errors was not provided. And, while doing my research on the 1908 season, I discovered yet another at-bat error in the official DBD records for the Genius in Spikes — in the Boston-versus-Detroit game on May 15.5 I made it my goal to search out and compile all the requisite documentation to corroborate or to refute each of the above-mentioned alleged discrepancies in Cobb’s at bats.
For the May 15, 1908, game between the Tigers and Red Sox in Boston, I obtained ten game accounts, six from Boston, and four from Detroit. In Boston I used the Globe (BG), Herald (BH), Post (BP), Daily Advertiser (BDA), Journal (BJ),and Traveler (BT). From Detroit the accounts came from the Free Press (DFP), Journal (DJ), News (DN), and Times (DT). From these accounts I was able to construct an unambiguous record of Cobb’s at bats and hits in the game.
I provided this documentation to Retrosheet’s Tom Ruane and Dave Smith for their review, upon which we achieved 100% agreement and the at bats and hits for Cobb were incorporated in the Retrosheet Box Score File (and Cobb’s derived Player Daily File).6 John Thorn and Pete Palmer also concurred with my conclusions for Cobb’s at bats and hits.7 I also ascertained the complete details for each of the plate appearances Ty Cobb had in the 1910 games on May 26 and August 10 and in the five above-mentioned games from Retrosheet’s Discrepancy File. I also provided this information to Ruane, Smith, Palmer, and Thorn, who concurred with each of my conclusions for Cobb’s at bats and hits in these seven games.8
Two independent batter-by-batter play-by-play descriptions of the May 15, 1908, game were provided in the BP and BJ game accounts. While similar, these “scorecard” summaries are not identical. Based on these two scorecards, here’s what Cobb did in each of his four plate appearances:
- Second Inning — Cobb flied out to the right fielder (Cravath).
- Fourth Inning — Cobb doubled. He was subsequently retired on a play from the left fielder (Thoney) to the second baseman (McConnell). Boss Schmidt flied out to Thoney who then threw to McConnell, catching Cobb off second.
- 7th Inning — According to the BP scorecard, Cobb was safe on an error by the pitcher (Young). Cobb advanced to second and to third on a base hit by the first baseman (Rossman). Cobb advanced to home on a fielder’s choice and scored. According to the BJ scorecard, Cobb singled and advanced to third on a base hit by the first baseman (Rossman) and then scored when Schmidt hit into a 4-3 groundout.
- 8th Inning — With Schaefer on third base with one out, Cobb was retired on a flyout to left. Schaefer advanced from third to home and scored on Cobb’s flyout [which, according to the official 1908 scoring rules, was a sacrifice hit (fly)].
Thus, for the entire game, according to the BP scorecard summary, Cobb achieved one hit (a double) in three at bats and one sacrifice hit (fly). However, according to the BJ scorecard, Cobb collected two hits (one double and one single) in four at bats (and no sacrifice hits). According to the official DBD records, Cobb had two (2) hits in four (4) at bats and no sacrifice hits (i.e., the May 15 cell in the “SH” column was left blank).
The 1908 season was the first season in which run-scoring flyouts were officially scored as sacrifice hits (flies) and, therefore, a player was not charged with an at bat when he batted in a run on a flyout. (See Appendix 5 for the relevant official scoring rules before and after 1908.) Therefore, the BJ scorecard summary is not accurate since Cobb’s eighth-inning performance should have been recorded as “sh F7” as it was in the BP scorecard summary. Thus, the official DBD record, which shows Cobb with four (4) at bats, is also not accurate. That the official DBD record and the BJ account are identical suggests that the official scorer was the BJ journalist. (See Appendix 6 for definitive information on this.) With regard to Cobb’s seventh inning performance — safe on a fielding error by the pitcher according to the BP scorecard or safe on a base hit according to the BJ scorecard, the official DBD records show Cobb with two (2) hits and Young with no errors. Additional discussion of Cobb’s seventh-inning performance is provided in Appendix 6.
To further investigate the eighth-inning at-bat discrepancy between the official DBD records and the “scorecard” summaries given in the BP and BJ game accounts, I examined the game accounts presented in several other newspapers. Here are the text descriptions for the run scored by Detroit in the eighth inning given in the various daily newspapers published in Detroit and Boston:
DFP — “Detroit fetched another run in the eighth, on a hit by Schaefer, [first baseman] Unglaub’s poor throw off Crawford, and Cobb’s out to [left fielder] Thoney.”
DJ — “Schaefer hit safely. He went from first to third on Unglaub’s poor throw to first on Crawford’s grounder. Schaefer scored on Cobb’s fly to Thoney, but the Boston scorers failed to give Cobb a sacrifice which he was entitled to.”
DN — There was no mention of the eighth-inning run.
DT — “The Tigers got another [run] in the eighth just to give Killian an easy margin.” No further details were provided in the DT game account.
BG — “The Tigers scored their sixth run in the eighth on Schaefer’s single, a putout [i.e., Crawford’s sacrifice and subsequent out for interference], and Rossman’s single.” [NOTE: The BG description is not in alignment with the BP and BJ scorecard summaries and omits what Cobb did — Cobb was the player who batted immediately before Rossman
BH — “In the eighth a single by Schaefer, a sacrifice hit by Crawford, and a long sacrifice fly by Cobb added another run.”
BP text description — “In the eighth Schaefer’s hit, Crawford’s sacrifice and Unglaub’s error, followed by Rossman’s third hit, made the score 6 to 4.” [NOTE: The BP text description is not in alignment with the BP scorecard summary and does not include what Cobb did (following Crawford’s at bat and preceding Rossman’s at bat).
BDA — There was no mention of the eighth-inning run.
BJ text description — “In the eighth the Tigers made another run on Schaefer’s hit, Crawford’s sacrifice and Unglaub’s accompanying error, and Cobb’s fly out.” [NOTE: The BJ text description is in perfect synch with the BJ scorecard summary.
BT — “Detroit added another run in the eighth on Schaefer’s single and Unglaub’s error on Crawford’s bunt, and Cobb’s fly to Thoney.”
The DFP, DJ, BH, BJ, and BT text descriptions and the BP and BJ “scorecard” summaries are in complete alignment with each other and state that Cobb batted in Schaefer with a flyout — which according to the official scoring rules for 1908 means that Cobb should have been credited with a sacrifice hit (fly) and should not have been charged with an at bat. The BG and BP text descriptions, however, state that Schaefer scored on a single by Rossman (but make no mention of what Cobb did in his plate appearance immediately before Rossman singled).
Examination of the box scores reveals numerous inconsistencies between a given box score and the accompanying text. And comparison of one box score with another reveals that there are several inconsistencies, especially with respect to players being credited with sacrifice hits. Appendix 6 provides transcripts of the various box scores along with a synopsis of the sacrifice-hit numbers for all players and the base-hit numbers for Cobb.
How does one deal with the conflicting information? From my perspective, the most important information is that presented in the batter-by-batter play-by-play scorecard summaries provided in the BP and BJ game accounts. As documented in these scorecard summaries for the eighth inning, Schaefer got a base hit, advanced to second on a sacrifice hit by Crawford, took third on an error by the first baseman (which also allowed Crawford to reach first base, but who was then called out for interference by umpire O’Loughlin), and scored on a sacrifice hit (fly) by Cobb, who was retired on a flyout to the left fielder. That Schaefer scored on Cobb’s flyout to left is also stated in the BH, BJ, BT, DFP, and DJ text descriptions.
Indeed, as indicated in the Results section, the BH and DJ text descriptions specifically mention that Cobb hit a sacrifice (fly). The BH writer (no by-line given) stated, “and a long sacrifice fly by Cobb.” The DJ author (no by-line given) wrote “… but the Boston scorers failed to give Cobb a sacrifice which he was entitled to. ” Thus, I contend that Schaefer did score in the eighth inning as a consequence of Cobb’s plate appearance, which was a sacrifice fly to the left fielder. With regard to the statements given in the BG and BP text descriptions that Schaefer scored on a single by Rossman, I contend that they are erroneous — chiefly because they are not supported by the batter-by-batter play-by-play summaries in the BP and BJ “scorecards” and they do not mention what Cobb did, Cobb having batted immediately before Rossman singled.
My conclusion is that the preponderance of the evidence is that in the game on May 15, 1908, Germany Schaefer scored from third base in the eighth inning on a one-out sacrifice flyout hit by Ty Cobb. Cobb should not have been charged with an at bat in his eighth-inning plate appearance, Therefore, Cobb actually achieved two (2) hits in three (3) at bats, not two (2) hits in four (4) at bats as given in his official DBD records.
The appropriate changes have since been made in Retrosheet, which now shows Cobb with three (3) at bats and one sacrifice hit. Pete Palmer has also made the appropriate corrections in his database of baseball statistics. These changes are visible on Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com.9
Turning now to consideration of the documentation collected in Appendices 1-3, Table 1 summarizes the corrections of the errors in at bats and hits in Cobb’s originally-generated official DBD records for the eleven games with errors in hits and/or at bats investigated for this article.
Table 1. Corrections of Errors in At Bats and Hits in Ty Cobb’s Official DBD Records
(Click image to enlarge.)
Among the changes made at Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference, one exception that has not been made visible to the public yet is the 1905 correction which I completed in December 2018, after Retrosheet’s Fall-2018 Update and after Palmer’s Fall-2018 Update.10 Table 1 shows that the corrections of the errors in Cobb’s hits and at bats result in small changes in his relevant full-season batting averages. For his career, Cobb amassed 4,189 hits in 11,439 at bats (not 4,191 hits in 11,429 at bats), which affords him an unofficial .366 batting average (.36620), not a rounded-up .367 (.36670) as obtained from his official DBD records.
Two important questions emerge from the correction of these errors in the official DBD records for Cobb’s at bats and hits:
- Is the number of errors, consisting of twelve games with fourteen errors (three errors in the number of hits and eleven errors in the number of at bats), extraordinary?
- Are these corrected numbers the final-absolute values for Cobb’s at bats, hits, and batting average, particularly for his career?
The answer to the first question is “No.” Several years ago, Steve Hirdt, executive vice-president of the Elias Sports Bureau (the official statistician for Major League Baseball) stated, “Around the time that Rickey Henderson was challenging Ty Cobb’s all-time runs-scored record, there was some focus on someone’s claim that, by God, a mistake had been found in Cobb’s game-by-game statistics and that Cobb should be credited with one more run than Elias showed [i.e., 2246 vs. 2245]. I say it’s amusing, because we knew not only of that particular error, but more than a dozen [errors] dealing with Cobb’s run-scored total.”11 The fourteen instances of errors in Cobb’s hits and at bats identified in this paper are in line with the “more than a dozen” errors for his runs-scored.
The answer to the second question is “Hopefully.” Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Retrosheet volunteers, Retrosheet has generated balanced box scores for every game that Cobb played in his major league career. As presented in Appendix 3, my research has conclusively resolved each of the five games which had at-bat discrepancies between the Retrosheet box scores and the official DBD records. Likewise, as presented in Appendices 1 and 2, each of the other six previously-identified games with errors in Cobb’s official DBD records for at bats and/or hits has been conclusively resolved. And, as described in this article, the correction of Cobb’s 1908 at-bat error has been accepted by Retrosheet and Pete Palmer.
So, I am optimistic that all of the errors in Cobb’s official at bats and hits (and derived batting averages) have been discovered and corrected. However, it is possible that future research could turn up additional errors in Cobb’s at bats and/or hits — like the missed 1908 non-at-bat sacrifice fly described in this article. Nonetheless, it can be stated right now that — based on the research described in this article (including Appendices 1, 2, and 3) — the at bats and hits (and derived batting averages) for Ty Cobb are the most complete and most accurate they have ever been.
The 2018 edition of The Elias Book of Baseball Records shows Ty Cobb having the record for the highest lifetime batting average in the major leagues with a .367 mark.12 Similarly, Elias shows Cobb having the record for the most hits, lifetime, in the American League with 4,191 hits.13 However, it no longer shows the number of at bats Cobb accumulated in his 24-year career (1905–28). According to the 1982 edition of The (Elias) Book of Baseball Records, Cobb was the AL record holder in career at bats with 11,429 — the number obtained from the official DBD records.14 Since Elias still uses 4,191 for Cobb’s lifetime hits and .367 for his lifetime batting average, Elias apparently also uses 11,429 for Cobb’s lifetime at bats. With 4,191 hits, the number of at bats needed to yield a .367 batting average is between 11,405 (which gives a batting average of .36747) and 11,435 (which gives a batting average of .36650).
Since Elias has declined to incorporate corrections to the previously-documented errors in Cobb’s official DBD records for 1906, 1910, and 1912, it seems unlikely that they will incorporate the correction of the at-bat error discovered in Cobb’s official DBD record for the 1908 season (or the other at-bat errors shown in the Appendices). Although Elias has not corrected the at-bats and hits errors in Cobb’s 1906, 1910, and 1912 seasons, they did correct Cobb’s runs-scored errors for the years 1909 and 1911 — seasons in which Cobb topped the AL in runs scored.15
Elias’s strict adherence to the previously derived statistics may stem from a directive issued by MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1981 which stated, “The passage of 70 years, in our judgment, also constitutes a certain statute of limitation as to recognizing any changes in the records with confidence of the accuracy of such changes.”16 Kuhn’s declaration has caused an intriguing dilemma, as Kirk Kenney points out in his 2015 article, “Did Rose Really Set Hits Record Against Padres?” SABR, Total Baseball, Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball Almanac, and Retrosheet list 4,189 hits for Cobb, while MLB and the Elias have 4,191 hits. Kenney summarizes dilemma thus:“Total Baseball is MLB’s official encyclopedia and historical record. Elias is MLB’s official statistician. And they don’t agree. What the heck?”17 Kenney concluded his article with a quotation by MLB’s Official Historian, John Thorn which makes a fitting conclusion for this article, as well: “A statute of limitations on the truth? When you discover truth, you have to report it.”
HERM KRABBENHOFT, a SABR member since 1981, is a retired research chemist. His baseball research has included ultimate grand slam homers, leadoff batters, five-tool players, President George H.W. Bush’s collegiate baseball career at Yale, quasi-cycles, the uniform numbers of Detroit Tigers players, consecutive games on-base-safely streaks, and the RBI records achieved by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg.
- Online appendix: Click here to view supplemental research related to Ty Cobb's hit totals and lifetime batting average
I gratefully thank Pete Palmer and John Thorn for their inputs and guidance on the discovery of errors in Ty Cobb’s official DBD records for at bats and hits for the 1906, 1910, and 1912 seasons. I gratefully thank Dixie Tourangeau, Gary Gillette, and Jerry Nechal for providing photocopies and scans of articles from various Boston and Detroit newspapers. I also wish to thank Steve Elsberry for providing me with Ty Cobb’s hits for the 1912 season as given in the second and third editions ofTotal Baseball. And I thank Retrosheet’s Tom Ruane and Dave Smith and Pete Palmer and John Thorn for reviewing the evidence I collected on the May 15, 1908, game and the games in Appendices 2 and 3.
1 John Thorn, Phil Birnbaum, Bill Deane, Total Baseball (New York: Sport Media Publishing, 2004); Gary Gillette, Pete Palmer, The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008); Baseball-Reference.com — accessed on October 10, 2018; Baseball Almanac — accessed on October 10, 2018; Retrosheet — accessed on October 10, 2018.
3 Herm Krabbenhoft, “Accurate Runs-Scored Records of Players of the Deadball Era: The Players on the 1908 Detroit Tigers,” The Inside Game, Volume XVIII, Number 5 (November 2018) 10; Herm Krabbenhoft, “Accurate RBI Records for Players of the Deadball Era: Part 16 — The Players on the 1908 Detroit Tigers,” The Inside Game, Volume XIX, Number 1 (February 2019) 9.
4 Paul Mac Farlane, “Lajoie Beats Out Cobb,” The Sporting News, (April 18, 1981) 3.
5 Krabbenhoft, “Accurate Runs.”
6 Tom Ruane and Dave Smith, email correspondence with Herm Krabbenhoft, September 3, 8, and 9, and October 12-15, 2018. I submitted supporting documentation for RBI statistics for 66 games for which Retrosheet had no RBI numbers and 18 games for which my evidence disagreed with the RBI statistics shown in the Retrosheet box scores — including the May 15, 1908, game for which I wrote, “Also consider crediting Cobb with a sacrifice fly and one less at bat.” On September 8, Ruane replied, “That was it. In all the other cases [i.e., with the exception of the second game of the July 7 double header (for which I had made a transcription error)] I concur with your conclusions.” The corrected box score for the May 15, 1908, game for Boston-vs.-Detroit on Retrosheet (Figure 12 in Appendix 6) was accessed October 1, 2018.
7 Pete Palmer, email correspondence with Herm Krabbenhoft, October 10, 11, 13-16, 2018 — On October 10, Palmer wrote to Krabbenhoft, “You have done very detailed analyses of these games. I would certainly be willing to make any changes that you have verified, as I have done with the runs and RBI research you have done on the Tigers and Lou Gehrig.” On October 11, Palmer wrote to John Thorn and Krabbenhoft (and four others), “My position is for the most part to accept the original records as close approximations. However, if someone like Herm does the necessary research or prove a particular cause, I am happy to include the change.”
8 Email correspondence, as previously cited.
10 Tom Ruane and Dave Smith, email correspondence with Herm Krabbenhoft, December 2-9, 2018 and February 6-8, 2019. Ruane and Smith agreed 100% with my deduced PBP description of the September 13, 1905, game and have incorporated the information in the Retrosheet box score and derived player daily file, which is expected to be included in Retrosheet’s Spring-2019 release of updated information; Pete Palmer and John Thorn, email correspondence with Herm Krabbenhoft, February 8, 2019. Palmer agreed 100% with my deduced PBP description of the September 13, 1905, game and will incorporate the information in his database of baseball statistics in the fall of 2019.
11 Steve Hirdt, The SABR Bulletin, (July-August, 2006) 6.
12 Seymour Siwoff, The Elias Book of Baseball Records, (New York: Seymour Siwoff, 2018) 7.
13 Ibid, 13.
14 Seymour Siwoff, The Book of Baseball Records, (New York: Seymour Siwoff, 1982) 12.
15 Krabbenhoft, “Accurate Runs.”
16 Mac Farlane, “Lajoie Beats Out Cobb.”
17 Kirk Kenney, “Did Rose Really Set Hits Record Against Padres?” The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 11, 2015, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/padres/sdut-pete-rose-ty-cobb-hit-record-4192-2015sep11-story.html — accessed October 6, 2018.