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Bob Ryan

In defense of batting average

Red Sox great Ted Williams won six batting titles, when a batting average really meant something.
Red Sox great Ted Williams won six batting titles, when a batting average really meant something.Associated Press

Remember baseball? Bat and ball? Three strikes and you’re out? Peanuts and Cracker Jack? I don’t care if I ever get back? (Oops, might have been true in 1908, but nowadays it’s a different matter.)

Anyway, baseball. Of course, you remember. So, quick: Who won the major league batting titles last year?

The answers are the White Sox’ Tim Anderson in the American League with .335 and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich in the National League with .329. And did you know that Yelich only edged out Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks by less than a point (.3292 to .3286)? Probably not. I’m not even sure people in Milwaukee and Phoenix know. I mean, does anybody care about the batting title anymore?

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Why should they? Baseball has gone about the business of downgrading the entire concept of batting average. Forget about the oft-quoted observation that, “Baseball is the only sport where you’re considered good if you succeed 30 percent of the time,” or some variation thereof. Today’s breed of baseball folk don’t give a darn about someone hitting .300. It’s all about on-base percentage. Given the current climate, instead of a daily listing of the top 10 hitters it really should be a listing of the top 10 on-base percentage chaps. That would be more in tune with the modern game.

Once Upon A Time, winning the batting title was a Very Big Thing. The résumés of many greats were festooned with multiple batting titles. Ty Cobb led the way with 12, including an incredible run of nine straight from 1907 through 1915, when he was beaten out by Tris Speaker (.386 to .370). An obviously miffed Cobb came back with three more in a row. There was also an issue in 1910 we shall address.

The NL record-holders are Tony Gwynn and Honus Wagner with eight. Included among Gwynn’scampaigns was the big one in 1994, when he was hitting .394 when baseball ceased functioning that Aug. 12. This stands as the highest NL average since Bill Terry hit .401 in 1930.

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Rogers Hornsby won seven, a tough guy to beat from 1921-25 when he averaged .402. He won his last right here as a Boston Brave in 1928, hitting .387 in what was considered to be a pitchers’ park.

Stan Musial had seven, his first coming in 1943 (.357) and his last coming 14 years later (.351). Our Ted? The Thumper won six, with an even more impressive span, winning his first in 1941 (bet you know what he hit that year), and his next to last in 1957, when the 38-going-on-39 marvel hit an astonishing .388, all of it, as the legend goes, without the benefit of a single “leg” hit. If someone can contradict that last point, let he or she speak now or forever holdeth thine tongue. Ted was also involved in one of those squeakers, losing a possible seventh crown in 1949, when he lost out to George Kell, .3429 to .3428.

Rod Carew was another seven-time winner. He took a pretty good run at .400 with a .388 in 1977. And talk about dominance … six of those seven crowns were in a seven-year span from 1972-78.

The narrow Yelich margin over Marte was not even the closest race ever. Quite a few batting races have gone down to the last day, with the closest battle taking place in 1945 when Yankees second baseman George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss defeated White Sox third baseman Tony Cuccinello, .3085 to .3084.

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One of the great last day controversies took place in 1970. Carl Yastrzemski went down to the final day of his season in a struggle with Alex Johnson of the California Angels. Now you young’uns may not know much about Alex Johnson, but let’s just say he was Albert Belle before Albert Belle. “Cantankerous” would be a polite way to describe his demeanor, and though it is rumored he actually uttered a few pronouncements that did not include a hyphenated word beginning with an “M” that also featured an “F,” some people aren’t so sure. At any rate …

Yaz didn’t want to lose a chance for a fourth batting title (1963, ’67. ’68) to anyone, and he sure as heck didn’t want to lose it to Alex Johnson. Things were different then. The Red Sox finished up on Wednesday, Sept. 30 at home against the Yankees. Yaz went 1 for 4 against southpaw Fritz Peterson. The Angels finished up the next evening at home against Chicago. Johnson was 1 for 2 when he came up for a third time and beat out a chopper to third baseman Bill Melton. Angels skipper Lefty Phillips pulled him immediately from a game that would eventually go 13 innings. And thus did Alex Johnson (.3290) defeat Carl Yastrzemski (.3286) for the 1970 AL batting title.

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Ooh, here’s another good one. On Sept. 27, 1953, Cleveland’s Al Rosen, already the home run and RBI champ, went 3 for 5 off Detroit’s Al Aber to finish at .33555. But Washington’s Mickey Vernon, father of longtime Boston radio newscaster Gay Vernon, went 2 for 4 off Philadelphia’s Joe Coleman Sr. (a Medford native) to finish at .33717. Sorry, Al. No Triple Crown for you!

Now let’s suppose they did decide to go with OBP rather than BA. You know who’d look even better? Well, Ted, of course. Mr. Williams had a lifetime on-base percentage of .482. Yup, .482! Babe Ruth’s, if you were wondering, was .474. Ted got there with fewer than 3,000 hits, largely because he had such walk totals as 136, 144, 145, 147, 156, and 162.

But who else would look pret-ty darn good? Wade Boggs, of course.

Wade won five batting titles between 1983 and 1988. He also led the league in on-base percentage six times. His great contemporary bat magician rival was indeed Gwynn, and in terms of on-base percentage there was no comparison. Wade’s lifetime BA was .328, but his OBP was .415. Gwynn did lead the league in OBP during that truncated 1994, but while his career BA was .338, his career OBP was a somewhat modest .388.

Winning a title can be so circumstantial. Your highest average may not get it done. Mickey Mantle’s best was .365 in 1957. He lost to Ted’s .388. Willie Mays’s best was .347 in 1958. He lost to Richie Ashburn’s .350. Or how would you like to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, hitting .408 in 1911 and losing by 11 points to Cobb?

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Sadly, batting titles have lost their cachet. You’d win a lot of bar bets if you knew that in recent times we’ve had such National League batting champs as Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Dee Gordon, DJ LeMahieu, and Charlie Blackmon.

Here, however, is one thing that won’t surprise you. The best way there’s ever been to win a batting title in either league is to play 81 games, or, at least, as many as possible, in Coors Field. Since the Rockies began play in 1993 they have spawned nine different batting champs, totaling 11 crowns. The list: Andres Galarraga (1993), Larry Walker (1998, 1999, 2001), Todd Helton (2000), Matt Holliday (2007), Carlos Gonzalez (2010), Cuddyer (2013), Morneau (2014), LeMahieu (2016), and Blackmon (2017). The Coors thing is no myth.

Of course, the greatest batting crown brouhaha took place in 1910 when St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor tried to throw the title in favor of Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie, a popular figure engaged in a battle with the hated Cobb, who was sitting out the final two games of the season to protect his slim lead. O’Connor had his third baseman John “Red” Corriden play back on the grass each time Lajoie came up, and the second sacker complied by beating out eight bunts in a season-ending doubleheader. In his final at-bat, Lajoie grounded to shortstop Bobby Wallace, who booted the ball. O’Connor dispatched a coach to bribe the scorer into calling it a hit. The scorer refused.

Manager O’Connor was thrown out of baseball by AL president Ban Johnson. As far as the batting title was concerned, the actually numbers favored Lajoie, .384094 to .383992. But Johnson couldn’t abide the chicanery and declared Cobb the winner.

I’d love to know what would have happened if Jack O’Connor had tried that on Alex Johnson.


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com. Follow Bob on Boston.com at Globe 10.0.