Fun With Retrosheet: Come-From-Behind Batting Champions
Trent McCotter sent me a note yesterday pointing out that Matt Kemp has very nearly closed a recent 19-point gap in the NL batting race as part of his three-prong effort to capture the triple-crown. Which got us to wondering about the largest deficits overcome by batting champions. Since 1918, here they are:
Days ToGo Gap Date Leader AVG Champion AVG 1 .0042 10- 2-1976 Ken Griffey .3375 Bill Madlock .3333 2 .0065 9-27-1935 Joe Vosmik .3514 Buddy Myer .3449 4 .0103 9-25-1935 Joe Vosmik .3514 Buddy Myer .3411 6 .0097 9-22-1958 Pete Runnels .3235 Ted Williams .3138 8 .0086 9-23-1944 Bob Johnson .3286 Lou Boudreau .3200 10 .0105 9-19-1935 Jimmie Foxx .3513 Buddy Myer .3408 11 .0116 9-18-1926 Eddie Brown .3351 Paul Waner .3235 12 .0138 9-17-1926 Eddie Brown .3339 Paul Waner .3201 13 .0138 9-21-1925 Tris Speaker .3902 Harry Heilmann .3764 9-14-1931 Chuck Klein .3448 Chick Hafey .3309 14 .0217 9-13-1931 Chuck Klein .3437 Chick Hafey .3220 16 .0271 9-11-1931 Chuck Klein .3437 Chick Hafey .3166 22 .0235 9-12-1925 Tris Speaker .3888 Harry Heilmann .3653 28 .0262 9- 7-1981 Richie Zisk .3542 Carney Lansford .3280 29 .0219 9- 2-1967 Frank Robinson .3307 Carl Yastrzemski .3088 32 .0220 9- 1-1976 Hal McRae .3515 George Brett .3296 33 .0307 8-25-1931 Bill Terry .3484 Chick Hafey .3176 36 .0388 8-22-1931 Chuck Klein .3465 Chick Hafey .3077 39 .0403 8-19-1931 Bill Terry .3485 Chick Hafey .3082 42 .0343 8-18-2002 Mike Sweeney .3552 Manny Ramirez .3209 43 .0339 8-17-1968 Tony Oliva .3041 Carl Yastrzemski .2702 44 .0499 7-20-1918 Heinie Groh .3608 Zach Wheat .3109 47 .0600 7-17-1918 Heinie Groh .3649 Zach Wheat .3049 50 .0829 7-14-1918 Heinie Groh .3659 Zach Wheat .2830
In general, the missing days are very similar to the previous entries (same players, similar or smaller gaps).
One thing I should point out right at the beginning is that I used the modern standards for qualifying for these kinds of things. So if you go looking for Paul Waner’s name at the top of a list of 1926 NL batting average leaders in most reference works, you’ll find him listed behind four part-time players who, while they did manage to appear in at least 100 games, wouldn’t come close to meeting the current criteria of 3.1 plate appearances per game. So if this kind of historical revisionism bothers you (and I know it drives some people crazy), whenever I use the words “batting title,” “batting champion” or the like, please pretend that I substituted a phrase like “batting average leader by modern standards” instead.
And one more thing I should point out is that this batting-average-centric post is in no way an endorsement of that particular measurement. People do care about batting average out of line with its importance, and when it looks like someone might be able to win the first triple crown since 1967, people perhaps care more about batting average (and RBIs) than reason tells them they should.
Now where were we?
Bill Madlock went 4-4 on the last day of the 1976 season to overtake Ken Griffey, who was sitting out the game. Once word of Madlock’s preformance reached the Reds, the right-fielder was rushed into the game only to strike out in his two at-bats. Of course, that is only the record since 1918. On the last day of the 1910 season, Nap Lajoie got eight straight hits, most of them very questionable, against the Browns in a double-header to make up a .0078 deficit and slip past Ty Cobb. It’s a famous story and doesn’t need retelling here, but one of the outcomes of those hits gifted to Lajoie on the last day of the 1910 season was that Ty Cobb was officially credited with two more hits than he actually had. Which means that major league baseball picked the wrong hit by Pete Rose to celebrate and he actually broke Cobb’s hit record three days earlier.
Ted Williams went 12-19 in his final four games of 1958 to raise his average fourteen points and win his last batting title. At the time, it must have been heart-breaking for teammate Pete Runnels. After all, Williams had already led the league in batting average six times; how many chances was Runnels going to get? The story had a happy ending, however, partly because of a rule change. After the games of September 25, 1960, Runnels had a .317 average. This was higher than anyone in the American League except Ted Williams, who had picked up the last two singles of his career that day to boost his average to .318. Up to that point, he had played in 111 games that year, more than enough to qualify for the title by the standards of the 1920s or 1930s. Fortunately for Runnels, the rules had been changed in the meantime, and Williams’ 383 plate appearances at the end of that day were not close to qualifying. So Williams played in only two more games, hitting a homer in his final at-bat, and Runnels had the first of what would turn out to be two batting crowns.
Bob Johnson played in three straight All-Star games during the Second World War, each time representing a different team, and seemed poised to lead the AL in average in 1944 when Lou Boudreau strung together six straight multi-hit games to overtake him in the final week. Johnson had a pretty good year in 1945 as well, but he had the misfortune of playing left-field for the Red Sox, who had a pretty good left-fielder returning from the war, and he was released.
Tris Speaker was hitting .391 when he was hit by a pitch on August 20, 1925. The injury relegated him to occasional pinch-hitting duty the rest of the way. While he was sidelined, Harry Heilmann had a hot streak for the ages. It began on September 13th with four hits, and ran through a six–hit day that closed out season. During those final 21 games, Heilmann had 46 hits in 83 at-bats, good for a .554 average. Speaker could only sit back and watch while his lead evaporated, disappearing for good only on the last day of the season.
Chuck Klein and Bill Terry were in the midst of a close batting race at the end of the day on September 5, 1931. Klein had a one-point lead, but he also had one serious disadvantage. His team, the Phillies had just completed their last home game of the season, and Klein was only a great hitter within the very friendly confines of Baker Bowl. So things were looking up for Bill Terry and, sure enough, Klein slumped during that final road-trip, his average dropping ten points to finish at .337. But Terry still ended up in an incredibly close batting race, it just didn’t include Chuck Klein. Chick Hafey, who was hitting under .300 as late as July 26th, wasn’t even among the league leaders until he collected 27 hits in 39 at-bats during a 12-game stretch in September. Hafey had a slim lead entering the final day of the season, but he almost lost it entirely when he went 2-8 in the final double–header. Terry couldn’t take advantage, however, going 1-4 to finish at .3486 to Hafey’s .3488. Had Hafey one more or Terry one less at-bat, the results would have been reversed. The Giants attempted to play one more game that day, but it was called due to darkness in the middle of the fourth with New York ahead 6-0. I’m not sure whether Terry had collected a hit before the game ended, but a single hit in two at-bats would have also given him the title.
Most of these are stories of a hitter who got incredibly hot down the stretch. But in the case of Richie Zisk, it’s a story of a hitter going extremely cold. Despite hitting over .300 twice early in his career with the Pirates, I doubt many thought of Zisk as a .354 hitter, his average at the end of play on September 7, 1981. The pendulum would swing back the other way after that, however, and a .174 average over the final four weeks dropped his average over forty points, below Carney Lansford, Tom Paciorek, and four others.
I pointed out in another article how the 1918 baseball season almost came to a close in late July. Heinie Groh probably wished it had, since it would have meant a batting crown, albeit in an abbreviated season. Instead, he stuggled in August while Zach Wheat finished off a 26-game hitting streak that raised his average from .275 to .334 and helped him narrowly edge Edd Roush (Groh slipped down to third) for the title. In that same article, I also discussed a host of “what-ifs” that might have given Roush the title instead.
Carl Yastrzemski makes two appearances on the list above, coming from far behind to take batting titles in consecutive years. He used strong final months of the season to win both. The first gave him the American League’s first triple crown since 1966, and the second spared the league the embarrassment of a season without a .300 hitter. I wondered if Yastrzemski had a habit of hitting well in the final month of the season, but his career splits show that he actually hit better during June.
During 2002, both Mike Sweeney and Manny Ramirez missed at least a month of the season with injuries, making it somewhat easier for Ramirez to close the 34 point gap that existed on August 18th. As a matter of fact, two big games helped Ramirez raise his average 25 points in a week, and that, combined with a huge September, was enough to bring him his only batting title.
And finally, Hal McRae and George Brett’s battle for the batting championship is well-known today for the controversy surrounding Brett’s decisive hit in his final at-bat. After the game (actually, even during the game), McRae accused Minnesota Twins‘ manager Gene Mauch of ordering left-fielder Steve Brye to play too deep, permitting Brett’s fly-ball to fall (and eventually be scored an inside-the-park home run). Which brings us full circle, I suppose, since those questionable hits that Lajoie received back in 1910 supposedly were the result of Browns’ manager Jack O’Connor ordering his third-baseman, rookie Red Corridon, to play too deep.
The above was originally posted by Tom Ruane at Retrosheet.org.