[Baseball History] The 19th century
tribeca : June 19, 2007 10:03 AM

When talking about baseball records, why are accomplishments from the 1800's ignored, such as Hugh Duffy hitting .440 in 1894 or Hugh Nicol stealing 138 bases in 1887? At the same time, CY Young is recognized as winning 511 games even though he only won 244 games in the 20th century. Shouldn't Walter Johnson be the all-time win leader with 417?

Ford Fricks Asterisk : June 19, 2007 03:49 PM

I think it depends on both the stat and the measurement.

Using your examples... season batting average, season stolen base total, career wins:

Batting Average: there were almost yearly rule changes for most of the 19th century that affected the components that determine batting average. Some of them had a drastic effect, others not so much.

There actually weren't any major rule changes to spike batting average in 1894. The one thing that helped was crediting a batter with a sacrifice in no out situations (for some reason it had only been awarded for one out situations before). The other rule change -- counting foul balls on bunt attempts as strikes -- should have nullified any advantage of the other rule change.

However, the league as a whole batted .309 in 1894, and for some reason it seemed to be a delayed effect of moving the pitchers back to 60'6" the previous season. Boston (Duffy's team) batted .331 as a whole, and scored an amazing 1220 runs in 133 games.

Stolen Bases: This is much the same as batting average, although the benefits in the 19th century are even more clear. In 1887, Hugh Nicol was getting credit for a stolen base every time that he moved up an extra base on a hit (such as going from first to third on a single). This was the case until the modern stolen base rule went into effect in 1898, so for most of the 19th century, the stolen base rule wasn't even vaguely what it is today.

There were also two major rule changes for the 1887 season that helped Nicol set his mark:

1. The rules regarding a pitcher's delivery became much more strict. The pitcher now had to have his rear foot on the rubber (55'6") when he released the ball, and running deliveries were outlawed. All of this made the pitcher more stationary and reduced his ability to trick both the hitter and opposing baserunners.

2. The ball/strike count was set at 5 balls for a walk and 4 strikes for an out. So baserunners had more pitches to run on.

Wins: There haven't been a lot of rules changes that would make a win in the 19th century any different than one in the 20th or 21st century (in fact, since pitchers were expected to pitch complete games in the 1800s, there's little mystery over win totals).

The other thing is that when you look at career stats, it's basically impossible to go back and adjust all the totals to fit today's standards. Rules changed constantly and the necessary details of the games just don't exist to tell us how something would be ruled under today's guidelines.

As a result, we have to take the stats that haven't changed much (like wins) at face value, while disregarding the ones that changed all the time (like stolen bases or walks) entirely.


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