How many hits did Cap Anson have? That sounds like an easy enough question to answer, but historians have been arguing about it for quite a while. Cheryl Wright enlightens us on the career of the first great hitter in baseball history.
Baseball is a game built on numbers. Baseball fanatics can recite from memory many of baseball’s most impressive statistics: Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Bonds’ 762 or Aaron’s 755 home runs, Pete Rose’s 4,256 hits. We treat these numbers as gospel, and whenever one is approached we watch in breathless anticipation, wondering if a new number might be added to the scripture.
This frenzy was not the case for baseball’s first career hits leader, Adrian Constantine Anson. Nicknamed “Pop” and “Cap,” Anson was born on April 17, 1852 in Marshalltown, Iowa. During a 22-year National League career, Anson compiled a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career before retiring in 1897 with four batting titles and the most hits in the major leagues. In fact, Anson was the first member of Major League Baseball’s 3,000-hit club – or was he? Anson’s exact hit total is unknown, and his membership in this exclusive club has been a source of debate for nearly a century.
Anson’s baseball career began in 1871 with the Rockford Forest Citys of the National Association, the first professional baseball league. After a last-place season in which the team fell into debt, it was disbanded. Anson signed with another National Association team, the Philadelphia Athletics, with whom he remained through the 1875 season. His five seasons in the National Association yielded more than 400 hits and an impressive .359 average, and established Anson as a star.
When the National Association folded after the 1875 season, Anson signed with the Chicago White Stockings of the National League, officially beginning his Major League career in 1876. (Major League Baseball gets its statistical information from the Elias Sports Bureau, which does not consider numbers accrued in the National Association to be ML statistics.) Anson would play his entire 22-year Major League career with the White Stockings (which changed names to the Colts in 1890). He served mostly as a first baseman, but also played third base and catcher. In 1879, Anson became “captain-manager” of the team in addition to his playing duties, leading to his enduring nickname of “Cap.”
During his Chicago career, Anson batted over .300 nineteen times, including fifteen consecutive seasons over .300. His ability to make contact was extraordinary: Anson struck out only once in 1878, and never more than 30 times in a season. When the Chicago Tribune piloted ‘Runs Batted In’ as a statistic in 1880, Anson appeared as the league leader in that category. Although the stat was quickly abandoned by the Tribune, researchers later concluded that Anson led the National League in this category eight times, with a total of more than 2,000 RBIs.
Unfortunately, no discussion of Anson’s career would be complete without mentioning the uglier part of his legacy. On August 10, 1883, Anson’s White Stockings were scheduled to play an exhibition game against Toledo. The opposing roster included African-American catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker, and Anson refused to take the field. After an hour of arguments, Anson finally agreed to play when faced with the prospect of forfeiting gate receipts. A similar incident occurred in 1887 involving Newark Little Giants pitcher George Stovey, with Anson reportedly yelling “Get that nigger off the field!” This time, Anson refused to back down, and Stovey was forced to watch the game from the bench. Anson’s popularity and influence led other white players to follow his example. As a result, by the early 1890s no African-American players remained in the major leagues.
When Anson retired in 1897, there was little doubt that he had surpassed 3,000 hits. However, his exact hit total was unknown. In those days, each team employed its own scorer who was responsible for maintaining the team’s statistics, and many newspapers also kept track of statistics on their own. Arithmetic errors, hard-to-read box scores, and generous scoring decisions were all potential sources of error, and there was little interest in resolving these discrepancies at the time.
1914: A Season of Milestones
Anson remained the sole member of the 3,000-hit club until 1914, when both Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie approached the milestone. Fans throughout the country took notice. Bill Francis, a researcher for the Baseball Hall of Fame, explains:
“By then, every time somebody was approaching that record, it was newsworthy. Major-league baseball had been around 40, 50 years by then, and you were starting to get a sense of what numbers were significant. When major-league baseball first started, who knew what was going to be considered a significant milestone number?”
In addition, baseball’s record-keeping had become more reliable, making it possible to anticipate and identify a player’s 3,000th hit. Newspapers around the country chronicled the two ballplayers’ progress. For example, the October 2, 1914 edition of the Wichita Daily Eagle proclaimed, “Lajoie One of Great 3: Enters Immortal List Composed of Pop Anson and Hans Wagner When He Gets 3,000th Hit.”
This season-long saga highlighted the inaccuracy of 19th century statistics. There was no consensus on Anson’s career hit total, so each newspaper selected its own number to use. Consider the following three newspaper accounts of Wagner’s progress:
“The former record was made by Adrian “Pop” Anson of Chicago, who in his twenty-two years on the diamond made 3,013 hits.” NY Times on 6/14/1914
“Only one other player, Cap Anson, passed that mark, and Honus this season undoubtedly will exceed Anson’s total of 3,017.” Washington Post on 8/16/1914
“In twenty-two years old “Pop” Anson managed to total 3,047 safe bingles. Now, when you happen to think it over, 3,047 bingles is some total in the big show.” Washington Times on 6/13/1914
As you can see, there was no single “bingle” number used for Anson’s career total. One thing these numbers had in common, however, is that they all acknowledged Anson’s membership in the 3,000-hit club.
The Evolution of Statistics
In 1919, the National League appointed brothers Al Munro Elias and Walter Elias as its official statisticians. The two had been selling scoresheets with player data to New York fans since 1913, and in 1916 the New York Telegram began publishing their weekly batting and pitching averages. The newly-formed Elias Bureau eventually took over the International League and American League’s statistics as well. The Elias brothers are credited with organizing and maintaining the first reliable records for Major League Baseball. However, their statistics for 19th century baseball were taken from official team guides. The process of finding earlier inconsistencies would be left to later researchers.
One such researcher was Holyoke, MA, native John Tattersall, a lifelong baseball fan who was fascinated by early baseball statistics. In 1941, Tattersall bought a collection of sports pages and box scores from the Boston Transcript, which was going out of business. After years of collecting and organizing, he had compiled virtually every box score in major league history by utilizing the detailed work of 19th century Boston reporter Clarence Dow. The work begun by Tattersall was continued by a number of researchers, notably Pete Palmer and John Thorn, who entered these box scores into a computer database and published a compilation titled Total Baseball.
The work done by these researchers led them to discover a number of potential sources of error. For example, Tattersall believed that the 1889 White Stockings had been given credit for an extra 67 hits (16 by Anson), because the league totals did not match the box scores. Tattersall also granted Anson an additional 6 hits from tie games that had not been counted in official statistics, subtracted 18 hits from 1879 to correct a league error, added 19 hits in 1877 from games against Cincinnati that had not been included, and subtracted 17 hits from 1891-97 that were erroneously credited to Anson. Various later publications have included all, some, or none of these corrections.
Each source of baseball statistics also has to decide what to do with Anson’s National Association totals. MLB’s Special Baseball Records Committee decreed in 1969 that, “The National Association, 1871-1875, shall not be considered as a “major league” due to its erratic schedule and procedures, but it will continue to be recognized as the first professional baseball league.” Therefore, Elias includes only National League statistics in Anson’s total, ignoring his 400+ hits from 1871-1875. Baseball-Reference, on the other hand, includes National Association hits in Anson’s career totals.
Is a Walk as Good as a Hit?
The above discrepancies help to explain why Anson’s statistics provided by Elias (3,081), Baseball-Reference (3,435 total; 3,012 from National League games), and other sources are different. However, Anson’s most controversial hits came to light in 1969. In 1887, for one season only, the league decided that all bases on balls should be counted as hits. Anson’s 60 walks had therefore been added to both his season and career hit totals. The Special Baseball Records Committee (which had banished National Association statistics from major league totals) ruled that the 1887 records should be adjusted to exclude walks from hits totals. When baseball’s first encyclopedia, The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, was published in 1969, its publisher followed the committee’s guidelines and subtracted those 60 “hits” from the previous total of 3,055. Anson’s total now stood at 2,995. Nearly fifty years after his death, Anson lost his membership in the 3,000-hit club.
Macmillan Publishing stood by this controversial total for five years. In 1974, however, Anson’s hit total was changed to 3,041, with the explanation that the publishers had reversed their decisions on some of Tattersall’s corrections, adding 46 new hits. In 1990, they dropped Anson’s total to exactly 3,000, reverting to the earlier 2,995 and then arbitrarily adding 5 hits to his 1894 total without explanation.
When Palmer and Thorn published Total Baseball for the first time in 1989, the authors believed that the 2,995-hit total was most accurate. When Total Baseball became baseball’s official record book in 1992, Anson was out of luck again. He remained below 3,000 hits until 2001, when MLB’s official historian Jerome Holtzman reversed the committee’s 1969 decision. Said Holtzman:
“Revisionist history is admirable when new and undisputed evidence is brought forth. But this was an abomination, an absolute falsehood and twisting of the known facts for the singular purpose of regulating history to conform to previous and subsequent standards. It was a grievous corruption. If a walk was a hit in 1887 it should stand as a hit forevermore.”
Armed with this justification, Total Baseball’s 2001 edition listed Anson with 3,056 hits. The 60 walks were added back in, along with one previously-undiscovered hit. Over thirty years after his eviction, Cap Anson was welcomed back into the 3,000 hit club.
Have we finally reached the end of a century-long saga? Not exactly. A quick web search reveals the following hit totals for Anson:
Elias/Baseball Hall of Fame: 3,081
Baseball Reference: 3,435 (3,012 in the NL)
Which one is correct? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
*A number of the links in this article point to resources which are behind paywalls