This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 3 – Jan. 9, 2010

As the first week of 2010 begins, Richard rolls back the clock to look at what stories might be news around this same time a century ago.

Among the many other things I like about baseball above all other sports—even soccer, which is the only sport I will actually schedule watching—is that the season is contained within a single year. The Yankees began in spring training in February of 2009 and ended in a dog pile on the Yankee Stadium mound in November of 2009. That makes them the World Champions of 2009.

In football and others, it is less clear. If the Colts were to celebrate with a confetti shower in Miami this year, it will be in 2010. Are they the 2009 champions? The 2009-10 champions? This has always bothered me.

Of course, we have a number of talented and statistically inclined people here at The Hardball Times to tell you what to expect in 2010. And I wouldn’t think of treading on their ground. Instead, since baseball allows for such neat one-year comparisons, I will be comparing the state of baseball and some of its teams in this first week of 2010 with the first week of 1910. So, without further ado, let’s begin:

World Series teams

The 1909 World Series was the first series to reach seven games, and while the seventh game was a blowout, it was a good sign for baseball heading into the decade. The Pittsburgh Pirates, led by the ageless Honus Wagner, defeated the Detroit Tigers, led by a young and fiery Ty Cobb.

The Pirates won their place in the World Series by winning an absurdly talented but top-heavy National League (the Giants played at the equivalent of a modern 97-win season and finished more than 30 games behind the Bucs), while the Tigers eked out a pennant over the Philadelphia A’s.

While neither team would return to the World Series in 1910 (replaced by the Cubs and A’s, respectively), both were logical picks to do so.

Most valuable players

They didn’t actually give out the MVP Award for the 1909 season, so I’ll have to do it myself. It is not a difficult choice in either league. In the Senior Circuit, the award goes to Honus Wagner. The Flying Dutchman, at age 35, played in only 137 games. But he did so entirely at shortstop and hit .339 to lead the league, a feat he also managed in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, RBIs and total bases. His 176 OPS+ remains the fifth best ever for a shortstop, and all but one of the seasons ahead of it are other Wagner seasons.

Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, at the 1909 World Series (Icon/SMI)

In contrast to the aging star putting up another great season, the American League MVP would go to a young star cementing his place among the game’s elite. If anyone had any doubts about Ty Cobb as the 1909 season opened, his year put them to rest. Cobb led the league in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, steals, home runs, slugging percentage and RBIs. Cobb was a right fielder at this point, but no doubt had his center field skills.

The fact that Ty Cobb fell somewhere between “asshole” and “genuine sociopath” on a personality chart sometimes obscures that he was, incredibly, as great—maybe greater—at playing baseball as he was bad at being a human being. 1909 started a six-year stretch when Cobb would post a ridiculous 197 OPS+ while stealing 317 bases.

For the 1910 season, Cobb seemed a strong pick to repeat his MVP performance (and indeed, he surely would have won the award in 1910, and finally did when the award began in 1911), while the aging Wagner would seem more of a question mark. Wagner declined somewhat in 1910, but would bounce back in 1911 and remain a valuable player until he was 42.

Cy Young Award

Cy Young was still pitching as the 1910 season opened, having won 61 games the previous three seasons, so they weren’t giving out awards named for him just yet. But had the award been distributed then, it would be a tough choice in both leagues. In the National League, Christy Mathewson went 25-6 with a 1.14 ERA in 275.1 innings, while Mordecai Brown was 27-9 with a 1.31 ERA in 342.2 innings. Mathewson has the makings of a case, but ultimately I believe the award belongs to Three Finger, who had maybe the greatest year of his career.

In the American League, the situation is even more muddled. Harry Krause had the only good season of his career, leading the league in ERA (1.39) and ERA+ (172) while wining 18 games and pitching 213 innings. Big Ed Walsh meanwhile was second in ERA+ at 167 and pitched 15 more innings, but went just 15-11. The wins leader with 29 was Wabash George Mullin, who also threw more than 300 innings, but had a pedestrian 113 ERA+.

Ultimately, I would give the honor to Chief Bender. Bender went 18-8 with a 1.66 ERA (145 ERA+) in 250 innings for the Athletics. In his mid-20s, Bender seemed prime to continue his performance and would, going 91-31 with a 2.15 ERA the next five years. Brown, meanwhile, was on the downswing of his career; 1910 was effectively his last great season and the next great generation of NL pitchers began to emerge.

The game and the era

Of course, the differences between baseball in 1910 and 2010 are profound, and too numerous to list. In addition to the obvious—the exclusion of non-white players, the extremely low run environment, no Western teams—it was a different game in other, less-thought-of ways. The Giants led the league in attendance, drawing 10,178 per game for a total of 783,700. Even the lowest 2009 attendance, the Oakland Athletics’ 17,392 per game, dwarfs that.

But baseball was making other strides as 1910 rolled around; President William Howard Taft threw out the first presidential first pitch that year. This marked another bit of credibility for a game that once had a (somewhat justified) seamy reputation.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
A tight race shows no signs of letting up.

A century is a long time, and one can only imagine what baseball will look like in the year 2110, if any of us are lucky enough to be there to see it. But if nothing else, the past 100 years can tell us that, as Heraclitus says, nothing endures but change.

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You can see in the photo how Cobb holds the bat an inch off the knob with an inch between hands rather than hands together like now; would be interesting to have the angle on Wagner’s hands.  I would suspect that if the two batting champs did that then everyone would copy that style.  Maybe part of the reason the old parks with the close foul territory didn’t have more fans hurt was that hard hits went more up the middle. Possibly a total of chances handled by 3b compared to other fielders would reflect this, but they would have… Read more »
Fred Lizzi
Fred Lizzi

This article states that 1909 WS was first to reach 7 games.  Not truie.  the 1903 WS went 8 games ????

Richard Barbieri
Richard Barbieri

I should have said it was the first World Series to play its full length, the 1903 World Series being Best-of-Nine, and going “only” eight games