Although Koppett’s concern is a serious one, historians continue to delve into old records and many more discrepancies have been discovered. It is hard to rank the differences that have been found as to their relative importance since one could argue that it is appropriate to get ALL records to be accurate, no matter the category or the player.
A watershed in the visibility of these issues was the 1969 publication of the first edition of the MacMillan “Baseball Encyclopedia.” This volume represented thousands of hours of work by researchers combing through old record books and newspapers and was a gigantic advancement in the presentation of baseball statistics. It was warmly received by baseball fans, but generated its own storm of controversy as it presented career totals for several prominent players that differed from the previously accepted values.
Perhaps the two that drew the biggest attention were the totals hits for Cap Anson and the number of games won by Christy Mathewson. Anson’s hits were lowered from 3,081 to 2,995 and Mathewson’s wins from 373 to 367 as a result of the detailed reviews conducted by the MacMillan researchers. Major League Baseball got formally involved so that subsequent editions of this encyclopedia had altered numbers, many of which were inspired by the politics of the records.
Other encyclopedias, notably Pete Palmer’s “Total Baseball,” filled the gaps and provided data that were based on empirical evidence. But the numbers continue to change. Anson’s hit total, for instance, has been listed as no fewer than seven different totals in encyclopedias over the years.
The story of Mathewson’s win total has a bit of irony to it. When he retired in 1916, Mathewson was credited with 372 wins. In 1929 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 373rd game to apparently set the record for wins by a National League pitcher. However, an early historical review in the 1940s discovered that Mathewson actually had one more win, so these two Hall of Fame right-handers are now both officially credited with 373 wins.
Part of the issue is basic rules changes. The MacMillan researchers proposed a change for the first edition of the book – one that was nixed as the book was undergoing final reviews before publication – to alter Babe Ruth’s home run total from 714 to 715. The reasoning was that Ruth had been penalized by a rule that was in place in 1918, but has since been changed: The rule determining the value of game-ending hits. Ruth hit a ball over the fence to end the game of July 8, 1918 and give the Red Sox a win. Under the rules of the day, he was not credited with a home run, but only a triple, since the man who scored the winning run had advanced three bases on the play. In modern times, of course, the hit would be a home run.
In an effort to apply rules in an even-handed way and thereby improve the validity of inter-era comparisons, the decision was made to change all of those hits to homers, effectively applying the modern rule retroactively. There are a lot of “sacred” numbers in baseball history and 714 has been one of them for a long time. That proposal was rejected, and all of those newly credited homers were changed back to their previous values. Of course, none of the others was nearly as dramatic as making a change on Ruth.