Chasing The Big Number

Thursday, March 03 2005 @ 12:27 AM EST

Contributed by: Mick Doherty

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?