The 1912 Triple Crown: And The Retro-Active Winner Is…

It is said to be one of baseball’s most coveted titles. The player who leads the league in HR, RBI and AVG at the end of a season wins it. This title I’m referring to is none other than professional baseball’s offensive version of the Triple Crown. And Major League Baseball has declared just twelve official winners since 1922. Rogers Hornsby won it primordially with a staggering 42 HR, 152 RBI & .401 AVG, while the award’s most recent recipient, Miguel Cabrera, won it in 2012 with 44 HR, 139 RBI & .330 AVG — wow!

However, just like universities do with those dusty history books, MLB might have to do some revising of their own. Why? Because the retired scientist and renowned sabermetrician, Herm Krabbenhoft, is about to drop a peer reviewed paper in the April edition of Baseball Research Journal. His research claims Honus Wagner, who’s alleged to have led the league in RBI, did not, in fact, lead the league that year, and that Heinie Zimmerman should, as a result of his discovery, be the retro-active winner of the 1912 NL Triple Crown.

Let’s take a look at their updated stats:

Heinie Zimmerman

Heinie_ZimmermanChicago Cubs, 3B & 2B
Batted: R | Threw: L
- Finished 6th in 1912 MVP voting 
- #98 on the "Top 100 Cubs of All Time"
- Traded to NY Giants in 1916
- 2x World Series Champion: 1907, 1908
                                            
Year    Tm Lg   G  AB   H HR RBI   BA Awards
1912   CHC NL 145 557 207 14 104 .372  MVP-6

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com

Honus Wagner

Honus_Wagner_(crop)Pittsburgh Pirates, SS, RF & 1B
Batted: R | Threw: R
- Finished 2nd in 1912 MVP voting
- T206 BB card: very expensive
- World Series Champion: 1909
- His #33 retired by the Pirates
                                            
Year    Tm Lg   G  AB   H HR RBI   BA Awards
1912   PIT NL 145 558 181  7 101 .324  MVP-2

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com

Verdict

Clearly, Zimmerman led Wagner in all three of the necessary categories. What’s striking about the stats especially when viewed side-by-side is, both men batted an almost identical number of times (Z: 557, W: 558) and played in the same number of games (145). So there’s no reasonable argument supporting the two played on unequal footing, or, more importantly, that either held any special advantages over the other.

Moreover, Major League Baseball does not officially recognize a Triple Crown winner in 1912 at all! Why? Because Wagner had more RBI than Zimmerman, or so it was thought, that is, until Herb Krabenhoft took a stubborn second look at how scorekeepers kept track of RBI — at the time. And, there’s a caveat to this as well. RBI did not become an official stat until 1920. But even then, Rule 86, Section 8, was remarkably vague, instructing scorers in the following manner:

“The summary shall contain: The number of runs batted in by each batsman.”

That left plenty of room for interpretation of the scoring rule. In the absence of a strict definition, scorers across both leagues were inconsistent in recording what they considered a legitimate RBI. This inconsistency polluted numbers for a decade, despite the fact that the statistic was finally “official.”

It wasn’t until 1931, when Rule 70, Section 13 defined the rule more explicitly:

“Runs Batted In are runs scored on safe hits (including home runs), sacrifice hits, outfield put-outs, infield put-outs, and when the run is forced over by reason of the batsman becoming a base-runner. With less than two outs, if an error is made on a play on which a runner from third would ordinarily score, credit the batsman with a Run Batted In.”

While this particular definition has since evolved, for the first time official scorers had a clear definition of what should be tabulated as RBI, though recording errors remained a problem in the pre-computer era.

Fortunately for baseball enthusiasts, sabermetricians have been devising ways to calculate more accurately these magic baseball numbers, such as RBI, and doing it specifically from the era — the Dead-ball era– in which Zimm & Wagner played. Somewhere in that dark process you’ll find Mr. Krabbenhoft violently crunching these newer numbers and canonizing them perhaps in his highly anticipated paper. Will he be correct in claiming that Major League Baseball needs to add a lucky 13th Triple Crown winner to their official list?

I’m all for it if he’s right.

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