Counting Stars

The hardened baseball fan's devotion to statistics--most home runs hit, most hot dogs eaten--has long since taken on the unearthly glow of religion. A thirsty man can no longer enter his corner saloon without being accosted by some bright-eyed wonder stuffed full of minutiae from The Baseball Encyclopedia--a glut of doubles struck, walks yielded and trades endured--but little else. And make no mistake. Our friend simply must unburden himself of this stuff, lest he burst.

"What did Dummy Hoy hit in 1898?" the lad is likely to ask. Your tormentor, of course, has just refreshed his mind in regard to Hoy's batting average. He also knows you haven't thought about the guy since Warren Harding got elected, if ever. Little matter that hordes of heavily armed Serbs may be slicing up babies on the TV screen over the bar or that CNN is reporting that President Kennedy has materialized on Mars wearing a lavender prom dress. Our man wants his answer.

What did Dummy Hoy hit in 1898? Who's the only guy who's pitched two no-hitters in each league? How many twenty-win seasons by National Leaguers in the 1990s? How many of those pitchers were NOT Atlanta Braves?

For the statistics nut, these are questions for the ages--the only questions. Matters like the ill health of a first-born child or whether God exists pale in comparison to the burning issue of Miller Huggins's managerial record. Why, only recently I ran into an old acquaintance at the supermarket, an obsessed ball-fan type I hadn't seen in more than a year. The very first words out of his mouth were these: "You made a mistake on those Rockies and Dodgers home-run numbers you printed blah blah blah. You should know better blah blah blah. By the way, how many games did Don Drysdale win in 1965?"

Nice to see you, friend. If I get my name in the papers by beating up a couple of old ladies down at the neighborhood rest home, it won't matter. As long I know my victims' 1937 slugging averages, my old acquaintance won't bat an eyelash the next time we meet.

I bring this absurdity up today because the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America--seamheads of no small dedication--have just picked the All-Time All-Star Team. Babe Ruth is out there in right field. Fine. The luckiest man on the face of the earth, Lou Gehrig, is at first, and slugging Mike Schmidt's over at third. All fine and good.

But some of the choices have inflamed baseball fans who consider themselves in the know, and their inflammations are based largely on--what else?--statistics. Forget what Dummy Hoy hit in 1898 or any other year. The reporters' choice of Willie Mays as the all-time greatest center-fielder has in recent days provoked more outrage than Hitler's invasion of Poland.

Clearly, the protesters have plenty of time on their hands. Mays, they note, hit just .302 in the course of his 22-year major-league career-- peanuts compared to the batting averages of the other two prime candidates for best-ever center-fielder. Joe DiMaggio hit .325 lifetime, the number-crunchers are quick to point out, while Ty Cobb led all hitters in the history of the game with .367. I heard one baseball fan shout Cobb's numbers with such vehemence one night last week that the veins in his neck popped out in Dan Reevesian red ropes. Loving the game is one thing, I thought: Inflicting a myocardial infarction on yourself because some newspaper guys dissed a psychopath who could hit the fastball is quite another.

The heated arguments in barrooms and on sports pages show no sign of abating. Ty Cobb stole 554 more bases than Willie Mays, Cobb partisans want you to know, and 862 more than the slew-footed DiMaggio. Yankee Clipper fans crow that in his thirteen seasons, DiMaggio hit 361 home runs while striking out only 369 times, a ratio of power to failure that no other player will ever be able to match. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Mays fundamentalists will shout, but Willie had the best throwing arm, and he was the real power guy at the plate: He hit 660 homers in 22 years--third on the all-time list.

The Cobb man with the exploding veins is not about to be silenced, of course. The Georgia Peach played in the dead-ball era, which accounts for a home-run total of just 118. But no player before or since has ever displayed such winning ferocity on the field. Little matter that Cobb once beat the living daylights out of a heckling fan who had no hands or that he was so detested by his own teammates that when arch-rival Napoleon Lajoie edged him out for the 1910 batting crown, eight of Cobb's fellow Detroit Tigers fired off a congratulatory telegram to Lajoie.

Yeah, he was one mean sumbitch, the Cobbians acknowledge. And that's the only reason those ink-stained morons picked Mays! He couldn't carry Ty's spikes!

In the great scheme of things, it probably doesn't matter very much whether Ty Cobb was a finer player than Willie Mays. In fact, it doesn't matter very much in the small scheme of things, either. If Joe Morgan was actually a more skilled second baseman than the guy the writers picked, Rogers Hornsby, an asteroid isn't going to hit the earth because of it. The Cy Young-versus-Walter "Big Train" Johnson debate (Best Right-Handed Starter), which also continues to rage over countless schooners of Bud Light, cries out for no solution at all. And those who feel like getting themselves all worked up arguing the merits of Dave Parker over Paul Molitor in the red-hot Best Designated Hitter fight would probably do well to head home, take an overdose of Darvon and go straight to bed.

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