With seemingly every statistic ever compiled by every Major Leaguer a few keystrokes and clicks away at indispensable sites like baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org, it's hard to imagine a time when even the most basic of numbers -- batting average -- was a fairly well-kept secret. But in 1910, though dozens of newspapers faithfully carried box scores and game recaps, some even compiling aggregate totals and averages unofficially, the practice of publishing official composite statistics was limited to the season's end.
What made 1910 different was the introduction of a prize -- a new automobile by the nascent Chalmers motor company. In a master stroke of marketing genius for its time (versions of the promotion are common even 100 years later), Hugh Chalmers, with full endorsement of the Major Leagues and its overlord Ban Johnson, offered a new "30" model sedan to the overall batting average leader for the American and National leagues (one winner).
It seemed pretty straightforward -- in the previous two seasons, the overall leaders had won by fairly distinct margins of 20 and 30 points. And batting average was the generally accepted standard for Offensive supremacy. Of course, the 1910 race would be a much tighter affair, with fan and player favorite Napoleon Lajoie of Cleveland and the brash young Ty Cobb of Detroit battling it out until literally the last day.
In The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession, (Univ. of Nebraska press, 328 pp., $29.95), Rick Huhn chronicles the race, the personalities involved, and the behind-the-scenes dealing that gave the whole incident a life of its own. What role did the Naps' final day doubleheader opponent, the St. Louis Browns, play in the race, specifically its rookie third baseman Red Corriden and first-year manager Jack O'Connor? And how would it affect their lives?
Many see the recent PED controversy as having been exacerbated by baseball's reliance on statistics and history for a large part of its identity. Sacred numbers like Cobb's 4191 hits, Babe Ruth's 60 and 714 home runs and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak were standards for decades. Later research found errors in the 1910 calculations, all done by hand, further clouding the actual result.
What is left is Huhn's breezy writing which tells the story in a way that doesn't bog the reader down in statistics, but that has enough meat in that area to keep the SABR crowd more than interested. Baseball devotees may know the surface story -- Lajoie went 8-for-8 in the doubleheader, with Corriden playing a prohibitively safe distance from third so as to have no chance to reach seven bunts/slaps in his general direction. But the stories behind are well worth the read, deftly placed in historical context.
As individual season races go, the Cobb-Lajoie dual is right up there with the most fervent. Ruth and Lou Gehrig staged a heretofore unseen home run race for the first 130 or so games of the 1927 season before Ruth won going away for the round 60 and a new record. Famously, Yankee teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle waged war on the Babe in 1961, with the then unpopular choice of Maris edging Ruth's mark. Chicanery and charges of favoritism marred the three-way batting title race in 1976 between Royals teammates George Brett and Hal McRae and Twins magician Rod Carew, as Huhn notes. And in 2011 the Mets' Jose Reyes earned some scorn by laying down a bunt then removing himself from the season's final game to ensure his batting crown.
Although it remains a black mark on the early 20th century game, the Cobb-Lajoie affair led directly to more oversight and auditing of statistics, even more craving by fans in the era for accurate, updated numbers to follow and a call for more standardized official scoring. The Chalmers Award was amended, with designated writers in each city voting for the top player, a precursor to the MVP award a few years later.