Cobb almost lost his third .400 season due to a scorekeeping controversy

A disputed infield hit almost cost Ty Cobb a .400 batting average in 1922.

A disputed hit on May 15 at the Polo Grounds in New York almost cost Ty Cobb a .400 batting average in 1922.

Only three players have hit over .400 in a season three times: Rogers Hornsby, Ed Delahanty, and Ty Cobb. The Georgia Peach hit .420 in 1911, .409 in 1912, and .401 in 1922.

That last one, however, almost didn’t happen, and was the subject of controversy at the time.

Rewind back to May 15, 1922, at a rainy Polo Grounds in New York. The Detroit Tigers were playing the New York Yankees. Cobb hit a ground ball to shortstop Everett Scott. According to one newspaper account, Scott “fumbled and kicked the ball into center field.” Official scorer John Kieran of the New York Tribune ruled it an error. Also in attendance that day was sportswriter Fred Lieb, who put it down in his scorecard as a hit. Unaware of the discrepancy between his scoring and Kieran’s, Lieb sent his box score, giving Cobb two hits on the day, to the Associated Press. Kieran’s box score, showing Cobb as getting only one hit, was delivered to the Tribune.

At season’s end, the official batting averages showed Cobb finishing with a mark of .401 (19 points behind batting champion George Sisler). However, American League statistician Irwin Howe admitted that in figuring Cobb’s average he had used Lieb’s unofficial box score, rather than Kieran’s official one. This was a big deal, because without Lieb’s extra hit, Cobb’s numbers would have stood at 210 hits in 526 at-bats, an average of .39923. Howe reasoned that Lieb was the president of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), and had a more trustworthy reputation than Kieran when it came to scoring a game. Besides, Kieran had supposedly left the rain-soaked press box just before the play occurred, in order to seek shelter under the grandstand. To top it off, Kieran’s box score had never been officially “authenticated” back in May, as it routinely should have been. Howe’s decision to use Lieb’s box score seemed reasonable enough, right?

No so fast, wrote W.O. McGeehan of the Tribune: “The grounder was scored on May 15 as an error for Scott and so reported, with no idea of its possible place in baseball, and (Cobb) should decline a record thus acquired. It is unfortunate (for Cobb)…but why pick on one doubtful play of an entire season and take it for granted that it was scored incorrectly while everything else was scored correct? If this hit is to be held up for review, why not submit the remaining hits in Cobb’s 1922 collection to the same procedure? There must have been…a few drives of the doubtful class. Perhaps Ty was credited with a hit here or there in which the unofficial score did not agree with the official.” Reports swirled that the New York chapter of the BBWAA was preparing a formal protest against the use of Lieb’s unofficial box score.

It was up to American League president Ban Johnson to render a decision, which he did, in favor of Cobb. Johnson’s investigation found that of the 12 writers who were at the game in question, and who had kept a scorecard, 11 of them had given Cobb a hit. In giving his rationale behind his decision, he also blasted Kieran. “I asked Mr. Howe to bring me the official score sheet for that game. It was a sad-looking document. I found, first of all, that the official scorer had been so careless that he had forgotten to sign his name.” Johnson also noted sloppy inconsistencies in Kieran’s scorecard, the likes of which “hardly could be excused in a twelve-year-old boy.” On the other hand, he extolled Lieb’s experience and ability as a scorer of games. “If I accepted the scoring of the official scorer, who was not in the press box at the time the play was made and who was so slovenly that he had failed to sign his name…it meant that I would deny Ty Cobb of a .400 batting average for 1922.”

Johnson admitted that the New York chapter of the BBWAA “insisted that I must accept the official score, because if I didn’t, the entire foundation upon which official scoring rests would be shattered.” Johnson found this logic “mystifying and extremely peculiar,” citing that it was an established fact that official scorers often showed up late for games, left early, and sometimes didn’t show up for “several games in a row,” and relied on “hearsay” in the scoring of contests.

Ironically, Lieb himself deplored Johnson’s decision. “(Nobody) begrudges Cobb a .400 batting average, but the use of baseball records will be undermined when records are deliberately tampered with in order to favor any batsman, whether he be a star or a mediocre player.”

Still protesting the decision, the BBWAA put the matter to a vote of the writers. Lieb, as president, had to preside over the vote, putting him in the awkward position of having to argue against his own box score. In a close vote, the BBWAA chose not to accept the additional hit. Nevertheless, Cobb’s .401 average remained in the record books. Later, Lieb pointed out that the whole brouhaha never would have happened if Howe “hadn’t been so darn honest” in admitting he used the unofficial box score. Ironically, years earlier, there had been controversy surrounding Cobb and the 1910 batting title, resulting in rulings from the league office that awarded the crown to The Peach.

In the end, Cobb had his 211 hits for 1922, but a statistician’s honesty nearly cost him his third .400 season.

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