The 1979 Batting Title (An Off-Day Diversion)

Thursday, September 05 2013 @ 09:21 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

This is just an exercise in checking an old ballplayer's memory against the record. The record always wins, of course.

I've been re-reading Keith Hernandez's second book Pure Baseball. I highly recommend it, by the way - it's just chock full of baseball. The frame for the book is Hernandez watching two games, one at the ballpark (Philadelphia-Atlanta) and one on the television (Detroit-New York) while providing a detailed commentary on what's happening. This often veers into intense and detailed discussions on how to hit against RH sinker-ballers, how to defend a rundown with runners on the corners, and so on. I love this sort of stuff. Along the way, Hernandez passes along anecdotes from his own career - and as this book was written long before the advent of Retrosheet and, one assumes that the author is relying largely on his memory for some of these tales. I enjoy checking those tales against the record. It's a pleasant change from the Annual Report Card.

So here's one. Hernandez has been discussing how veteran hitters depend on their knowledge of the pitchers they face. Because of this, they are often uncomfortable facing all the unknowns they tend to see in September. He remembers battling Pete Rose for the batting title in 1979, and going into Shea Stadium that September:

The first night was Roy Lee Jackson. Remember him? He was a pretty good reliever for five or six years, but in 1979 he was just starting out... I went 5-5 off Roy and two relievers, including a three-run dinger off Roy. Rose went hitless that night, I jumped eight or ten points ahead of him, and that was all she wrote for the batting championship that year.

The point of the story for Hernandez is that Rose came up to congratulate the next spring, and to shake his head over Hernandez managing a 5-5 night against a bunch of September callups. Because Rose knew how difficult that was.

Anyway, it's easy enough to check this one out. There some pretty obvious problems. Keith Hernandez had four 5 hit games in his career, but only one while he was with the Cardinals, and that came in 1980 in Philadelphia. And Roy Lee Jackson didn't start any games at all for the 1979 Mets.

Those are some of the details he got wrong. There are more, of course. The batting title race wasn't quite as close as Hernandez remembers. Hernandez remembers hitting around .340 all year while Rose was "down around .295 in July" before starting his charge for the batting title. Hernandez didn't exactly hit .340 all year - he hit just .232 in April. He did hit .365 over the rest of the season, but it took him until August to get his season average up above .340 after that slow start. Meanwhile Rose was down to .301 in July, and in early September he was still hitting just .308 and thereabouts. But by September 22 1979, Hernandez was hitting .342, and Rose was now hitting .334 - Rose had gone 30-50 (yup, .600) over the previous two weeks. Which safely qualifies, I would think, as making a charge for the batting title. The Cardinals went into Shea Stadium that night and knocked out starter John Pacella (second major league start) in the first inning (Hernandez himself hit a single to load the bases.) Pacella was relieved by Roy Lee Jackson. Hernandez had two hits off Jackson, including a two-run homer, and got a fourth hit off second year reliever Dwight Bernard.

Meanwhile Rose wasn't going hitless, but he was losing ground, going 2-9 in a double-header. At the end of the day, Hernandez had stretched his lead to 13 points (.346 to .333) and with just over a week left in the season, the fight for the batting title (which used to matter a whole lot more than it does now) was more or less over.

This was just a passing anecdote, of course, and certainly some of the details are off. But I'd say the basic shape of the story, and thus the point Hernandez was making, essentially holds up. If you were doing such a project today, it would be far easier to consult the actual record rather than rely on a fifteen year old memory. Not bad.