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Baseball, as they say, is a talkin' sport. That's how sites like this one become popular. Baseball is also, however, a countin' sport.

The "magic numbers," even as they change for era adjustments, are a familiar part of the rhythm of the game. You all know the value of "a 20-game winner," and more recently, "a 40-save guy." Our own recent Chasing 300 article and ensuing discussion demonatrates that the numbers reach to career plateaus -- 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, someday not far off, 500 saves.

And don't think it's all about pitching -- the hitting stats are even more familiar. A free Hall pass for 500 homers? Or is it 600 now? Then there's 3,000 hits, 500 steals, 1500 or perhaps coming soon, 2000 RBI.

It has not always been thus.

As I was preparing the "All-Sam" Hall of Names team, which will appear here Friday as a sidebar to Mike Green's Hall Watch piece on Corky Sosa, I was struck by the oddity of the two men named Sam, both Hall of Famers, who are also the two men to come closest to 3000 hits without actually getting there.

Here are the men who reached 2900 hits without getting to 3000:

26. Sam Rice: 2987
27. Sam Crawford: 2961
28. Frank Robinson: 2943
29. Willie Keeler: 2932
30T. Jake Beckley: 2930
30T. Rogers Hornsby: 2930
32. Al Simmons: 2927

Notice a pattern? With the exception of Frank Robby, who finally gave up playing to focus on his pioneering role as a manager, not a single one of the men listed played a single game after the conclusion of World War II, and most of them were of an even earlier era.

Can anyone here imagine Rafael Palmeiro, who currently sits just behind Simmons with 2922 hits, not sticking around to hit The Big Number? For that matter, if Craig Biggio, currently with 2639 were to repeat his 344-hit total of the last two years in 2005-2006, can you imagine him retiring with 2983?

Turning from the base hit to the long ball, former Jay Freddie McGriff is currently stuck on 493 homers -- that's a number that historically belongs to another pretty fair first baseman, Larrupin' Lou Gehrig. Sure, Gehrig was sick when he quit -- but even without raising the ridiculous notion that 500 homers could have somehow made Gehrig a better player in the eyes of the history books, why does McGriff hang on for The Big Number?

After all, Al Kaline quit with 399 homers (although to be fair, he did just glide by that other Big Number, with 3007 career hits), and even growing up 90 minutes from Detroit, I don't remember there ever being any commentary suggesting he hang around for the Big Number (and 400 was a much Bigger Number in 1974 than it is now) ... yet, Andres Galarraga, also with 399 right now, still talks of making a comeback to get that "last homer" while there is speculation that another two homers for Dale Murphy (398), or another four for Joe Carter (396) just might have given an uptick to their Hall of Fame candidacies.

Even the lesser statistical milestones appear to have their "just short" crowd populated by old-timers, with nary a modern ballplayer to be found. Eddie Collins had 9949 at-bats; Willie Mays, the closest we have to a modern ballplayer in this discussion, played 2992 gaames. Okay, nobody cares about games played or at-bats. But Cap Anson scored 1996 runs; you think Barry or Rickey would have stopped there? Conversely, and this is asked in all sincerity, do you think Anson even knew he was at that number, or considered 2000 to be a "milestone"?

On the other hand, do you think Rusty Staub occasionally looks longingly at the "499" under "2B" in his career stat line? Kaline, back for another mention in this discussion, apparently loved living on the mileston edge, and had 498 two-baggers. And speaking of repeat customers to this conversation, did you know that Lou Gehrig retired with 1995 RBI? Do you think he knew? Cared?

On the pitching side, the "close calls" seem much fewer -- is there something inherently different about pitching milestones? -- but one that jumps off the screen is Bobby Mathews retiring in 1887 at the age of 35 with 297 career wins.

Admit it -- you've never heard of Bobby Mathews. But you've probably at least heard of his contemporary, and one of his "most similar" players, Mickey Welch. You might not know much about Welch, but you've seen his name near the bottom of the "300 Game Winners" list that gets play every time a Clemens or a Maddux grabs headlines. Welch won 307 games; was he demonstrably better than the 297-game winner Mathews?

It's hard to say. What's not hard to say is that if Randy Johnson or Tom Glavine gets to 297 wins, they will find a way to get to three more, pretty much barring rotator cuff surgery. Just ask Early Wynn or Lefty Grove; for that matter, talk to Bert Blyleven, Tommy John and Jim Kaat about The Big Number.

Back in the day before Adam Dunn became a star while striking out 200+ times in a single season, a pitcher's career total of 2000 or more strikeouts was considered quite a milestone, a Big Number. Only 58 men have crossed that barrier so far. One who didn't is Billy Pierce, a fine, All-Star quality hurler who hung'em up with 1999 (insert obligatory "Artist Formerly Known as Tom Prince" joke here) punchouts. Meanwhile, Kevin Appier is still bouncing around somewhere with 1994. Do you want to bet he knows he needs that half-dozen K's to get to The Big Number?

It's not traditionally a Big Number, but as far as milestones go, only 37 pitchers have crossed the finish line with at least 4000 innings pitched. Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez, he of the perfect game, couldn't get the one more out he needed to be the 38th ... he retired with 3999 2/3 IP.

There are literally dozens of similar examples on both sides of most Big Numbers. (Hmmm ... the fact that there are so many examples itself proves the point about baseball being a countin' sport.) But the question before us, really, is this ...

When did the attention to these things change? And why?

Chasing The Big Number | 13 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Magpie - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 01:43 AM EST (#104254) #
It began to change in the late 1930s. Baseball suddenly became aware of its own history, as the first generation of players began to pass away. The Hall of Fame was founded then. The first baseball histories began to be written. I remember reading when I was very young some superb books that had been handed down to me by my father: a history of the Detroit Tigers (that was his team) through 1945; Arthur Daley's "Inside Baseball" which roamed through the first half of the 20th century.

The past of the game had begun to change from something that had always been recollected to something that you had to look up and read about. Famous, iconic players like Mathewson and Waddell were long dead - their achievements were now just a record, a stats line. Especially as the men who had known them grew old and passed from the scene as well.

Great question, this is a fascinating subject.

gv27 - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 02:02 AM EST (#104255) #
The importance we place on certain milestones is indeed fascinating. Is there a Canadian baseball fan out there who hasn't wished Ferguson Jenkins could have hung around a few more years to reach 300 wins?
Mike Green - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 09:29 AM EST (#104260) #
I searched a number of American newspapers for references to Ty Cobb's 3,000th and 4,000th hit in 1921 and 1927, through the sabr website. There was no reference to the 3,000th hit in the New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles papers of record, but there were references in the July, 1927 game report in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune to the 4,000th hit. Ty was not the first to pass 3,000, but was the first to 4,000. I guess it took a lot to get the writers excited back then.;)

I tend to agree with Magpie that the establishment of the Hall of Fame was a key factor in awareness of career statistics.

Interesting topic, Mick.
Magpie - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 09:45 AM EST (#104261) #
It also occurred to me - I wonder when baseball cards began providing a player's statistics on the flip? Because that was the first place I actually encountered the numbers of the game.

This might be a chicken or the egg kind of query - stats on baseball cards reflect the interest as well as foster it.

John Northey - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 12:26 PM EST (#104276) #
I'm kind of glad Jenkins didn't hang around as he is the only guy with 3000+K and under 1000 BB - just. 997 BB vs 3192 K's. One or two more games and he'd have just been another great pitcher, this way he is unique.

Hmm, just double checked, Maddux is at 871 walks and 2916 strikeouts and it will take about 4 seasons for him to crack 1000 walks so Fergie might have company soon and forevermore. Schilling is at 638-2745 while Pedro Martinez is 615-2653. Dang. I liked having the Canadian as the only one there.
Craig B - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 02:53 PM EST (#104286) #
Magpie asked : I wonder when baseball cards began providing a player's statistics on the flip?

The 1952 Topps set was the first to feature statistics in the way we know them today (they had 1951 stats plus career stats). Not only did the stats on the cards boost the profile of stats, the stats actually drove sales of the cards. The '52 set was by far the biggest seller in history to that date; the cards were terrifically popular.

Some older cigarette cards had statistical information on them, but not (to my knowledge) in tabular format like the cards of the 50s and subsequently. I have some pictures of "Miner's Extra" cigarette cards from 1911 on my walls (among other old cards) that have statistical information in the player bio on the back of the card.

Magpie - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 03:28 PM EST (#104290) #
Craig, you are a wonder! I didn't actually expect anyone to know that!

I had cards in the 60s when I was a wee small tyke, and not being a shrewd investor, jammed them all into my bicycle spokes. Wheee!! If I only knew then what I know now.

It occurs to me that there was certainly some sense of historic numbers by 1941. The DiMaggio streak helped feed the interest - it sent people back to the books, to dig up Wee Willie Keeler.

Geez, that sounded horrible. My bad.

After that, can I just say that from everything I know about him, Willie Keeler sounds like one of the most attractive and admnirable human beings to ever play the game? My unintended bad taste notwithstanding?

Anyway... aside from Joltin' Joe, one of the sidebars to the 1941 season was Lefty Grove trying to nail down his 300th career win.

And maybe we can walk it back a little earlier. When Pete Alexander retired in 1930, he thought he held the NL record for wins with 373. It was subsequent research that unearthed another Mathewson victory in 1902. I don't know that this was big news in 1930 - I doubt it very much - but Alexander himself was aware of it.

Mike Green - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 03:51 PM EST (#104296) #
Magpie, I checked 1929 and 1930 records, and Pete Alexander's 373rd win wasn't a big story. All I could find was a year-end wrap story in 1930 in the Chicago Tribune- Dazzy Vance leads ERA race is the header, which ends with the prosaic:

"Although he failed to win one, Old Pete recorded his twentieth National League season and piled up a lifetime mark of 696 games. This, with his total of 373 victories, gave him a pair of league records."
Magpie - Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 04:06 PM EST (#104301) #
Makes sense. Alexander was trying to overtake his old rival, whom he played against. It mattered to him, but not much to anyone else.

But 11 years later, after the Hall of Fame, Lefty Grove trying and trying and trying to get to 300 so he could retire - that was a story.

baagcur - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 07:48 AM EST (#104337) #
Yep, I came up with the same figures a few days ago after attending a meeting Fergie was at. I don't think he was that aware, or at least concerned about, the stat at the time. Probably more interested in 300 wins. He tried out in Spring Training 1984,I believe, but didn't have the stuff anymore
daryn - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 09:20 AM EST (#104342) #
It's hard to say. What's not hard to say is that if Randy Johnson or Tom Glavine gets to 297 wins, they will find a way to get to three more, pretty much barring rotator cuff surgery.

I think that Round Numbers are a Media creation... instead of having to decide if 517 is more significant that 512, and after 80 years of trying to come up with a better word than "BIG NUMBER", the media and the land of Head-line Customers have settled on the common milestones.. that being said, if Randy Johnson gets to 297 Wins and his left arm falls off... you'll see him out there pitching right handed for a couple months...
Mick Doherty - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 12:43 PM EST (#104396) #
Here's a thought spurred by a comment Mike Green made in today's Hall Watch thread. If McGriff were to sign with, say, Colorado, and hit his last seven dingers, while hitting a robust .188, and retired at 500, would that HURT his Hall chances for the hanging-around perception? And could a situtation like that turn the tide of focus on Big Numbers somewhat.
John Northey - Friday, March 04 2005 @ 01:01 PM EST (#104403) #
If McGriff gets 500 HR's, even if he hits .100 while doing it, he will not be hurt in his HOF effort, but helped. Hanging around will make a few writers put out columns that are negative but I have to think making it to 500 and not ever being accused/seen as a steroid user would be a plus too.
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