Robert L. Minteer                          Sports/Baseball             

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Introduction: Definition of The Triple Crown

       Watching Albert Belle’s great come-from-behind effort in 1998 made me wonder how long it had been since anyone had come as close to winning the Triple Crown and how he and other current players compared with great hitters from the past.

        How to rate them for purposes of comparison—that is the problem. There are so many factors to consider in determining whether or not a player is a superstar.  They’re all great players. Anyone who can make it to the Major Leagues is, in my estimation, a great baseball player. They’ve got to be better than the thousands of players in the Minor Leagues, or they wouldn’t even be given a chance to play in the Majors.

        Then, if a player is good enough to stay in the Majors for three or four years, he’s excellent—he excels. If he can play nearly every day and come close to leading the league in some offensive category, then he’s a star. Many stars burn bright but then fizzle after just the three or four years that made them stars. But to do better than 90% of all the players in the league for an entire year—that’s quite an accomplishment.

        And to excel seven years, ten years, fifteen years, even in some cases for twenty years—that is almost superhuman! And to many young boys these Major League stars were and are gods. A closer, rational, adult look at the statistics, at their numbers, reveals pretty much the same thing. So this book could be called The Gods of the Lumber or something similar. But The Triple Crown Contenders is more quantifiable.

        It is my hope that this book will appeal to rabid fans, casual fans, and non-fans alike. Therefore, with the latter two types of fan in mind, first this book must answer the question, “What is the Triple Crown?” In order to answer that, we must first talk a bit about batting average, runs scored vs. runs-batted-in, and home runs.

        After the shattering of Ruth’s and Maris’ records by McGwire and Sosa in 1998, not too many people don’t know what a home run is. Over the fence, out of here, round-tripper, four-bagger, hit the ball and touch ‘em all. What a thrill it must be to hit the ball farther than the length of a football field, often one and one-half times that length or, in McGwire’s case, something approaching twice the length of a football field, which is more than one-tenth of a mile!!!

        So, we all know what a home run is. Let’s familiarize ourselves with the other batting statistics. Anyone who ever had baseball cards as a kid is familiar with the following table:

 G   AB   R   H   2B   3B   HR   BB   SO   RBI   Avg.

          Here’s what all those odd-looking letters and numbers mean:

 G — Games Played.  If a player is on the field defensively for one pitch or at the plate offensively for one pitch, it’s one in the G column. 162 games is a full schedule, and one or two more may be necessary in case of a tie, as happened in 1998 with the Giants and the Cubs.

 AB — At Bats.  This figure is used to compute batting average. Not to be confused with PA (Plate Appearances, sometimes shown now as TPA, Total PlateAppearances, which is the same thing). PA is just what it sounds like:  how many times a player appeared at the plate. PA includes walks (BB), sacrifices (SH—sacrifice hits or bunts, and SF—sac. flies), and hit-by pitch (HPB), none of which count as AB. However, if a player reaches first base on an error (E) or fielder’s choice (FC), he is charged with an AB.

 R — Runs Scored.  Not to be confused with Runs Batted In (RBI). In May of 1998 I made it to my first Major League game in about thirteen years. A couple of nights later I went again, and when the batter’s stats flashed on the scoreboard, the guy sitting in front of me—a guy in his 30s—turned and asked me the difference. I was a bit taken aback that any man sitting in a Major League ballpark would not know the rudimentary stats. But that may be quite common, so I hope this will help. Chalk up a run scored (R) whenever a player touches home plate safely (after touching the other three bases safely first, of course). It doesn’t matter how the player got to first, or how he got from there home. Any combination of hits, walks, errors, sacrifices, stolen bases, wild pitches, passed balls, can accomplish the same thing. If a player scores a run for his team, add one to his R total.

 H — Hits. Really total hits. This includes all singles (1B), doubles (2B), triples (3B), and home runs (HR). Hit the ball in fair territory and reach first base safely without any errors or force-outs on the play, and you’ve got yourself a hit. If, however, there is an error on the play, or if it’s a fielder’s choice, it’s not a hit, but it is counted as an at-bat. A fielder’s choice is just what it sounds like.With a runner on first base, or runners on first and second or first and third, or bases loaded, the batter hits a ground ball. The player who fields the ball could easily throw the batter out at first, but instead chooses to throw to another base to get a force-out, usually the lead runner. That’s a FC.

 2B — A two-base hit.  A double. Hit the ball into a gap between the outfielders and make it to second base without there being any errors on the play, and it’s a double. But if you get a single and there’s a bad throw in from the outfield and you get to second base on the throw, it’s just a single.

 3B—A three-base hit.  A triple. Usually a hit into one of the corners of the outfield or off the wall, sometimes just deep into a gap in the outfield to the wall. As with a double, however, there must be no errors that allow you to reach third in order for you to be credited with a triple.

 HR—A home run.  Most often over the fence these days, but occasionally still inside-the-park. Inside-the-park homers were much more common in baseball’s early years, for a variety of reasons:  bigger ballparks, taller grass and uneven outfields, balls used for entire games, and more aggressive base running, to name a few.

 BB—Base on balls.  A walk. IBB= intentional walk. In 1887 a player who got a walk was charged with an at bat and credited with a hit. In 1888 that rule was reversed—no hit, no at bat. The number of balls required for a walk had started out at nine, been reduced to eight in 1880, to seven in 1881, to six in 1884, five in 1887, and finally to the familiar four in 1889. Walks don’t affect a player’s batting average, but they can be a big contribution to a team’s winning a game. You can’t score a run unless you get to first base. Also, being patient and running up the count can force the starting pitcher out of the game sooner, which may also be an important factor in winning the game.

 SO—Strikeouts.  Most often shown as K these days, to avoid confusion with a pitcher’s shutouts, although in a batter’s stats SO can only mean strikeouts. In 1876 the rule was that after two strikes a batter got a warning on the next “good ball”. If he swung and missed or failed to swing at the next good pitch, he had to run to first as if he had hit a fair ball, and the catcher had to throw him out at first. Starting in 1887, the batter was declared out after the fourth strike, and no longer had to be thrown out at first. Then in 1888 the number of strikes required for a strikeout was reduced to three. Not until 1894 were balls batted foul counted as strikes. Not until 1910 did the National League begin keeping track of SO as a batting statistic, and the A.L. didn’t follow suit until 1913. “Three strikes and you’re out!” But there are really four ways to strike out, and three of them make the batter appear rather foolish:

 1.        Caught looking. Not swinging at a pitch in the strike zone.

 2.        Chasing a bad pitch, usually low and away. This is the “sucker pitch”, and catches even the best hitters now and then.

 3.        Swinging at and missing a pitch in the strike zone. This isn’t as bad as just watching a good pitch go by, but so often a batter can be seen heading back to the dugout shaking his head, obviously thinking,“I should’ve been able to hit that pitch!”

 4.        Hitting a foul tip that the catcher catches. This isn’t so bad a way to strike out—at least the batter got a piece of the ball.

 (And, as my son Chad recently pointed out, there really is a fifth way to strike out: by bunting foul with two strikes.)

 RBI—Runs batted in.  “Ribbies”. These are those runs which the batter causes to score, and there are many ways to accomplish that. If there’s a runner on second and the batter hits a single to the outfield, he gets credit for an RBI, as well as an AB and a H. If the bases are loaded and the batter draws a walk, the runner from third scores, and the batter gets an RBI, but neither a H nor an AB. Or if the bases are loaded with nobody out and the batter grounds into a double play and the runner from third scores, the batter gets charged with an AB, but doesn’t get credit for an RBI. Or if there’s a man on third with less than two out and the batter hits a long fly ball to the outfield—the runner tags and scores:  Sac. Fly, RBI, no AB, no H. If the batter hits a home run with the bases empty, he gets a R, an AB, a H, and an RBI. If there’s one man on base when he hits a HR, it’s the same as before, but 2 RBI. Two men on, 3 RBI, and with the bases loaded it’s a grand slam—4 RBI with one swing of the bat!

 Avg.—Batting Average.  This is calculated by dividing the number of hits by the number of at bats. For example, 150 hits in 500 at bats gives a batting avg. of 150 divided by 500, which equals .300. For .300 say “three hundred”, which is an excellent batting average in any professional league, although it’s not always good enough to make a player a Triple Crown Contender. A batting avg. of .350 (say “three fifty”) is certainly approaching god-like, and .400 (“four hundred”) has only been done thirteen times in the 20th Century in the Majors, and by just eight different hitters, while eleven different players did it fourteen times in the 19th Century—that’s using today’s qualifications for the batting title to figure averages for those with not enough plate appearances. More on that shortly.

         With all that introduction out of the way, it’s time to explain just what the Triple Crown is. The Triple Crown is awarded to a hitter who leads his league in HR, RBI, and Avg.—all in the same year. If you miss the batting title by just one point (for example .337 to .336),or the HR title by one, or the RBI crown by one, then no Triple Crown is won. If a player ties for the lead in any of the three categories (or any two or all three, although one has been the max to date), then he still wins the Triple Crown.

         There have been sixteen Triple Crowns won in the Majors—seventeen if the rules for winning a batting title are applied retroactively (more on that in a bit). Only fourteen different players have won Triple Crowns—eight in the American League, five in the National League, one in the American Association. It is the rarest of batting achievements, akin to pitching a perfect game (only 13 times in this century) or completing an unassisted triple play in the infield (just ten times in 100 years). As a measure of hitting prowess, the Triple Crown is IT.

        Of course there are other measures of players’ talents—doubles, triples, Slugging Pct., On-Base Pct., stolen bases, and fielding. I believe that all everyday Major Leaguers are excellent fielders—otherwise they wouldn’t be playing every day. The variation in fielding percentage is not very large. A below average fielder is still an excellent fielder. Just like if you take a list of the world’s richest 1000 people—number 950 on the list would be way below average for those on the list, but still an extremely rich person.

        So this book will be about the Triple Crown Contenders, who are those players that finished in the Top Ten in the three Triple Crown categories each year. This should eliminate some of the arguments about ballplayers from different eras being better than each other. Third place in the league is third place, no matter whether it be for a .375 average or for an avg. of .310. Fourth place in home runs is just that, no matter whether it’s 16 or 40. Likewise with RBI.

        I’m sure I’ll get arguments about giving all 3 equal weight. Usually power hitters have high HR and RBI totals, giving them an edge over guys who hit mostly for average. That’s most often the case, but as the book unfolds there will be hitters with high averages and RBI totals who hit few home runs, and other interesting combinations. A lot goes into RBI production:  being on a good team that gets lots of guys on base ahead of him, where he bats in the order, and so on. But much of it is up to the hitter himself. In order to get a lot of RBIs, a player must get quite a few hits. Some ballparks through the years have been favorable to left- or right-handed batters for hitting home runs. But if a player is on a losing team and there’s rarely anyone on base when he bats, another six or eight or ten home runs in a year won’t help his RBI totals much, or his batting average either. And on and on—but all things considered, this system for ranking the Triple Crown Contenders has this in its favor:  simplicity. It’s something anyone can understand. Whether or not it’s the best or fairest way of ranking the lifetime hitting prowess of the greatest Major Leaguers, I don’t know. But these are the men who won the Triple Crown or got closest to it.

        I lament the fact that fifty years of Negro League play is not included. The excuses I’ve read are that no accurate records were kept, that the teams were poor and couldn’t afford to pay statisticians, or that gamblers and other shady characters controlled many teams. Poor excuses all. I’ve seen videos made from film footage of some games, and the people at the games sure don’t look poverty stricken to me. And to suggest that no accurate records were kept is to imply that black folks were incapable of keeping such records. Ridiculous! There were black newspapers in most big cities—surely they published Box Scores. It’s true that many teams barnstormed and often played three or even four games in a day. But in order for them to have had a Negro World Series, there must have been two leagues with official schedules. Someone needs to find those official schedules and the box scores from those games and compile the stats.

        Unfortunately, I have a pretty good idea why that has never been done—the sad reasons surfaced when Hank Aaron was approaching Home Run #714. Some white folks—and they’re not the only group of people to have felt this way—didn’t want to believe that someone different from them could surpass their talents, abilities, or achievements in any way. So sad. But I think a tally of the stats would show that Satchel Paige out-pitched Cy Young, and that Josh Gibson hit more homers than either Ruth or Aaron in his career, and more than McGwire’s 70 in a year. How he would rank on the Triple Crown Contenders list would be very interesting to see. Aaron would quite possibly top Ruth if his Negro League years were added, but would Gibson or someone else top them both?

        Whatever the outcome, I would very much like to see a table like the following in a future edition of The T.C.C.:

                                         Team and First Year TCC

Player               NL           OL            BL               pts.

Smith               BOS’41    NY’50       PIT’42          400

NL is, of course, the National League.

OL is the Other (white) Major Leagues .

BL would stand for Black (Negro) Leagues. Possibly EBL and WBL (for East and West) would also be necessary.

  That said let me explain the system I used to calculate the TCC points. For each year, I listed the Top Ten players in Avg.,HR, and RBI. Then I assigned point values for each place—10 for 1st, 9 for 2nd, 8 for 3rd, and so on down to 1 point for 10th place. In the case of ties, I added the points for the tied places together, then divided them evenly amongst the tied players. The number of tied players ranged from two to twelve. Here’s what a very tie-prone year’s HR list might look like: 

Player   Team    HR        pts.


A          BOS        37        9.5

B          DET        37        9.5


(10 points for 1st place plus 9 for 2nd divided among the two players tied gives 9.5 to each)

C           NY         32           7

D          CHI         32           7

E          CLE        32           7

(8 points for 3rd plus 7 for 4th plus 6 for 5th makes  21 total for these three places; divided three                          ways gives 7 points to each)

F          PHIL        29          5

G           SL          25          4

H         WASH      22          3


I             NY         18         .6

J          BOS         18         .6

(2 points for 9th place plus 1 for 10th is three total; divide five ways and it’s .6 points apiece)

3 others tied with         18            .6


       Just a little more on the subject of ties. In the early years of the game it was common for four or more players to tie for the bottom places in HR. Other two- or three-way ties are sprinkled throughout the years. On the lists of the Top Ten in RBIs there are a fair number of two-way ties, and a three-way tie now and then. But on the lists of the Top Ten in Avg., in 100 years in the American League there have been just two ties:  for 9th place in 1952 and for 7th place in 2000.  In the National League,  in the 125 years from 1876 through 2000, there have been only four ties: for 9th place in 1876,  for 4th place in 1934, for 6th place in 1942, and for 3rd place in 1963. In the other Major Leagues—the Union Association, Players League, American Association, and Federal League—there have been no ties for any of the Top Ten places in batting average.

        Now for a few words about the batting title and the retroactive application of today’s rules for qualifying for that title. With the HR and RBI titles it doesn’t matter how many at bats a player has—if he can get 20 HR or 90 RBI in just 300 AB and thereby make the Top Ten for the year, then he has earned the TCC points for whatever place he finishes in for the year. But the rules for qualifying for the batting title have evolved through the years, with some interesting consequences.       

        In 1932 Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics hit .364. Dale Alexander of the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox batted .367, but had only 392 AB. Alexander was awarded the batting title, and Foxx missed a Triple Crown. In 1936 the American League owners ruled that players must have at least 400 AB to qualify for the batting championship. In 1952 that rule was modified slightly—the requirement then became 2.6 AB for every game the player’s team played. In 1954 Ted Williams hit .345, but only had 386 official AB, while leading the league with 136 BB. But Bobby Avila of the Cleveland Indians hit .341 in 555 AB, so he won the title. This didn’t cost Williams a Triple Crown, just a batting title.

        By the time the leagues had expanded to ten teams and a 162-game schedule, the current requirement had been adopted. It produced a number I became familiar with as a kid:  502. That’s 502 Plate Appearances, not AB, which is 3.1 PA per game a player’s team plays (3.1 times 162=502.2). Now fast-forward to 1996. Tony Gwynn hit .353 that year, but had only 498 PA. Runner-up Ellis Burks hit .344. What to do? The qualification for the batting title now reads:  “A player who falls short of the required 502 PA can still win the title if the difference between his PA total and 502 can be added as hitless at-bats and he still has the highest average.” So, add an 0-for-4 to Gwynn’s 159-for-451 and you get .349. He’s still the batting champ and the .353 avg. goes into the record books.

        I’ve incorporated that most recent requirement into figuring the Top Ten in Avg. for each year. Pre-expansion, with a 154-game schedule, 477 PA was the requirement. In strike years or early years or war-shortened 1918 (when the World Series was played Sept. 5-11) fewer PA were required. Only forty or so players of the thousands of Major League players have made the Top Ten in batting average without having enough PA to qualify. That makes sense, since if a player is hitting well he’ll be playing as much as possible. So for those forty-odd players I multiplied the number of games that their team played that year by 3.1, and then added the necessary number of hitless AB to bring them up to the required number of PA. So the rule for this book would read something like this: “ A player who falls short of the required number of PA can still earn TCC points if the difference between his PA total and the required number can be added as hitless at-bats and he’s still in the Top Ten in batting average”.

        So then it was simply a matter of adding the numbers—30 points in one year for a Triple Crown, 20 points for a slugger leading in HR and RBI, but with a low average, 10 points for the hitters-for-average winning the batting title but not placing in either HR or RBI, 1 point for the rookie just getting into the Top Ten (actually very few rookies made the Top Ten—usually it took about three years to get that good) or an older player bowing out, and many numbers in between for various combinations, and as low as .14 for a seven-way tie for 10th place in HR in the A.L. in 1902. Any errors in calculating the TCC points are strictly mine, and I would welcome having them pointed out to me so that I can correct them in future editions. Also, you may disagree with my method of calculation—that’s OK with me. But if you admit that this method makes some sense, then the results are indisputable. The next section will list the Triple Crown Contenders.

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