How many batting titles does Ty Cobb really have?

Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie inspect the sweet spot on a bat in the early 1910s.

No sport has tabulated their statistics for as long as baseball. If you wanted to, you could find out how many wild pitches Cy Young threw in 1890, or how many times a man named Oscar Bielaski touched home plate for the 1876 Chicago White Stockings. That was 136 years ago! I mean, Larry king was just in diapers.

The answers are 7 (wild pitches by The Cyclone) and 24 (runs scored by Oscar), by the way.

Which proves my point that almost everything in baseball is counted and recorded, no matter how important or who the player was. If you do something between the white lines in big league baseball, someone with a pencil is keeping track.

Which makes it so puzzling that there’s such confusion over how many batting titles were won by the greatest hitter who ever lived. You’d think that would be something that the beancounters could agree upon. But depending on what source you ask, the answer is quite different.

The confusion traces back to the last day of the 1910 season, when Cobb was in a struggle with Napolean Lajoie for the batting crown. Normally, such a distinction wouldn’t big a big deal, especially in those days, but in 1910 – wouldn’t you know it – the owner of the Chalmers Motor Car Company promised a shiny new roadster to whichever man led his league in batting average. Chalmers was a Detroit based city, and given the fact that Cobb had captured the previous three batting crowns, it seemed like a hometown deal. But Lajoie, who was so good that his team was named after him (the Cleveland Naps), was having a great season.

With one day left in the season, Cobb held a seemingly insurmountable eight-point lead and decided to sit out Detroit’s final game, which was meaningless in the standings. Meanwhile, Lajoie and his teammates were in St. Louis to play the Browns in a doubleheader. Lo and behold! Lajoie got eight hits in the two games and edged the Georgia Peach for the title. Six of Lajoie’s eight hits were bunts, placed neatly down the third base line. Obviously something seemed fishy, and it was soon learned that St. Louis manager Jack O’Connor had ordered his young third baseman Red Corriden to play deep and take it easy on the bunts off the bat of Lajoie. Everyone, it seemed, wanted Lajoie – not Cobb – to win the automobile. As famed sportswriter Heywood Broun wrote at the time:

As the world knows now, Tyrus Raymond Cobb is less popular than Napoleon Lajoie. Perhaps Cobb is the least popular player who ever lived. And why? Whether you like or dislike this young fellow, you must concede him one virtue: what he has won, he has taken by might of his own play. He asks no quarter and gives none. Pistareen ball players whom he has “shown up” dislike him. Third basemen with bum arms, second basemen with tender shins, catchers who cannot throw out a talented slider—all despise Cobb. And their attitude has infected the stands. Why do they so resent Cobb when he plays the game at every point on the field, giving his best at every moment, and makes life miserable for those less willing?

There was outrage as the story unraveled. There were even rumors that some of Cobb’s teammates sent a telegram congratulating Lajoie after he “won” the crown. But before the dust could settle too much, in stepped American League president Ban Johnson, a man never accused of being not stern enough. His default mood was set to “crotchety.”

Johnson threw O’Connor out baseball, castigated and fined Corriden, and ordered that Cobb would be the official winner of the batting title, regardless of the eight “hits” Lajoie accumulated on the season’s final day. In those days, for some reason, it took months for the “official” statistics to be tabulated, but when they were released that winter, presto! Cobb was one point ahead of Lajoie.

In a move right out of “PR 101”, Chalmers gave cars to both Cobb and Lajoie, though that didn’t stop Napolean from taking a little jibe at Ty.

“I’ve always understood,” Lajoie said, “that the automobile I got ran a lot better than the one they gave to Ty.”

Nice one, Nap.

For the rest of his life, Cobb assumed he had won 12 batting titles, and every publication that listed his feats agreed. Then, in 1982, a statistical researcher armed with a new-fangled computing machine found that league officials had counted one of Cobb’s games twice in 1910, so Lajoie should have won the title anyway! Regardless, Major League Baseball did not officially recognize this revelation and their official record books still had Cobb with 12 titles.

Now, 30 years later, it’s a muddied situation. The “official” statistician of MLB (Elias Sports Bureau) has Cobb with 11 titles, choosing to acknowledge the findings of that researcher in the 1980s. The National Baseball Hall of Fame, always trying to rigidly adhere to the rules and history of the game, has Cobb with 12, per Johnson’s ruling. But the MLB website has a different set of numbers (how they can have different stats than the “official” statisticians of the game, confounds me), and not only that – shows Cobb as having won only nine batting titles! And believe it or not, they award the 1910 crown to The Peach! It’s his titles in 1914, 1918, and 1919 that MLB has a problem with, for some reason. Most likely, is not awarding Cobb the three titles that no one has ever taken from him because they’re arbitrarily applying modern rules of eligibility. In 1914, Cobb only played in 98 games and failed to reach the number of plate appearances that are required under modern rules of the game. But under the rules of his day, Cobb easily qualified. I’m not sure why MLB is not awarding Cobb the titles of 1918 and 1919, when he had plenty of appearances to qualify under any rules of any era. Maybe they’re trying to punish Ty for some perceived transgression. They wouldn’t respond to my emails or phone calls on the subject, and let’s face it – MLB doesn’t really care too much about stats from 100 years ago, they’re too busy selling memorabilia from last week’s Mariners/Rangers game and inviting celebrities to something called “The Fan Cave.”

So, here we are, 102 years later, in the age of computers, an era where my laptop has more computing power than the machines used to send men to the moon. An era where I can look on my cell phone to see how many pitches Justin Verlander has thrown while I am watching him pitch on my Hi-Def television set. But, we can still get things wrong, can’t we? It seems that way.

One reply on “How many batting titles does Ty Cobb really have?

  • Glenn Prezocki

    Boy we think things are corrupt today-this stuff has been going on since the beginning of the sport. What ever Ty and Nap are two of the best to ever play “The Game”.

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