Baseball’s record books are changing, and that’s nothing new

May 29th, 2024

When the great Christy Mathewson reclaimed his share of the National League’s wins record, he did not revel in the achievement. Others might have celebrated the man known as “Matty,” but he did not boast or strut or even smile.

Such humility comes easy when you’ve been dead for more than 20 years.

Mathewson passed away from tuberculosis on Oct. 7, 1925, and was believed at the time to have won an NL-record 372 games in the legendary career that would land him in the inaugural Hall of Fame class. But on Aug. 10, 1929, another all-time great named Grover Cleveland Alexander notched the final victory of his career to edge Matty in the record books:

Alexander 373, Mathewson 372.

The story might have ended there, if not for a sportswriter named Joe Reichler. In 1946, Reichler, then working for the Associated Press, did some digging (not into Mathewson’s grave, thankfully, but into his box scores) and found a game from May 21, 1902, in which Matty had allowed one unearned run in 2 2/3 innings in a 4-3 victory for the New York Giants over the Pittsburgh Pirates and had not been credited with the win, as he would have had the game taken place in 1946. This was before the five-inning minimum for a win was established, and so Reichler compelled the Sporting News, which at the time served as baseball’s Bible, to alter the record:

Alexander 373, Mathewson 373.

This, too, might have been the end of the story, if not for the research done by a company called Information Concepts Incorporated (ICI) in advance of the 1969 publication of the first edition of “The Baseball Encyclopedia.” ICI’s squadron of statistical sleuths did their own digging and found six instances in which Mathewson had been credited with victories that he would not have received under modern practices and that Alexander had actually been shorted a win. And so came another scoring change:

Alexander 374, Mathewson 367.

Ah, but if you’ve looked at the record book lately, you know the story doesn’t end there.

The release of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” caused an uproar among traditionalists who did not take kindly to the idea of hallowed numbers being altered. ICI’s initial decision to award Babe Ruth a 715th home run based on a retroactive rule application received so much pushback that the committee recanted prior to publication. But the Mathewson change went forward, prompting Robert Creamer to write in Sports Illustrated that the revision was “illogical, historically invalid and personally insulting to Christy Mathewson fans.”

Conveniently or otherwise, the second edition of the Encyclopedia, published in 1974, undid many of the controversial revisions, the Mathewson win total included. Subsequent research in the 1980s by a bank accounting officer and Society for American Baseball Research member named Frank J. Williams also helped restore the tie with which we are familiar:

Alexander 373, Mathewson 373.

We’ll let you know if we hear of any more updates.

The Mathewson modifications are worth remembering in light of MLB’s newly announced revision of the record books to make room for the Negro Leagues.

While the recognition that seven Negro Leagues from 1920-1948 were of a quality worthy of Major League status is long overdue, shoehorning “new” data into the well-worn pages of the record book (which, for the record, is not an actual book but, like so much else in our world, a computer database) is an admittedly tricky exercise. But it’s one that serves an important role in bringing great Black players the recognition they were denied by the sin of segregation, and it’s also one that is in keeping with the malleability of MLB history.

Numbers are baseball’s backbone. They drive the game’s narratives more than words ever could, because numbers are what players chase and what fans commit to memory.

But numbers can also be flawed, fudged or fragmentary, especially in baseball’s earlier eras. As such, there has always been an understanding -- and appreciation -- that those numbers could change, and thanks to the dedicated work of some inquisitive minds and masters of microfiche, new stuff, amazingly, continues to come to light from baseball’s bygone years.

Only through retroactive research, for example, did we learn that an obscure figure buried in an unmarked grave in Queens was actually MLB’s first Latino player. Eighty years after his death, Luis Castro was finally saluted with a proper headstone.

Only through retroactive research did Retrosheet credit a left-hander named Pete Dowling with a no-hitter, 119 years after he supposedly threw it.

And only through retroactive research did the research site come up with a collection of Negro Leagues stats rich and reliable enough to ultimately be incorporated into the MLB database.

That leads to changes. But changes are a constant in baseball’s living, breathing statistical record.

Over the years, Lou Gehrig’s RBI total was listed in “The Little Red Book of Baseball” and “The Elias Book of Baseball Records” (both published by the Elias Sports Bureau, which since 1987 has served as MLB’s official statistician) anywhere from 1,990 to 1,996, as researchers pored over game accounts and discovered errors on the part of official scorers and other discrepancies. Officially, Gehrig’s RBI total now stands sixth all-time at 1,995.

Again, though, we’ll keep you abreast of any updates.

So change can come often, as is also the case with Hall of Famer Cap Anson’s career hits total being listed at no fewer than seven different totals in various encyclopedias (including his official total of 3,011) or Walter Johnson’s win total being listed in various places at 413, 414 or his official total of 417.

Change can also come with subtlety, such as when Baseball-Reference, in 2014, disassociated the original Baltimore Orioles of 1901-02 (not the current O’s) from the New York Yankees franchise after consideration of research that showed the Baltimore franchise had not relocated to New York but, rather, been disbanded and sold to the league before being flipped to New York investors. (This had relevance a year later, when the Yankees notched what they declared to be their 10,000th franchise victory. None of the Orioles wins had enabled that total.)

Or change can come too late, as was the case in 1981, when researcher Pete Palmer discovered a serious error in which a two-hit game by Ty Cobb had been counted twice, meaning the then-Hit King’s total ought to have been 4,189, not the celebrated figure of 4,191. With Pete Rose’s chase of Cobb’s record in the media spotlight at the time, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not allow an alteration to the official record.

“The passage of seventy years, in our judgement,” said Kuhn, “constitutes a certain statute of limitations as to recognizing any changes in the records with confidence of the accuracy of such changes.”

Because of such devotion to certain sacred statistical cows and because of the many clerical and mathematical mistakes in the handwritten ledgers of the early 20th century, MLB’s record books are nowhere near the exact science many fans might believe them to be. (To wit: The aforementioned researcher Williams convincingly claimed his study of the official scoring sheets housed in the Hall of Fame’s library found 510 wins for Cy Young, not the 511 listed in the official record and on Young’s gravestone. But at least it’s an all-time record, either way.)

That’s why the sudden influx of Negro League numbers into the register should be met with celebration, not consternation.

We should celebrate the fact that a number of Negro Leagues legends -- most notably Josh Gibson, your new all-time leader in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS -- are finally being thrust into the statistical limelight, with the understandable caveat that their statistical samples are smaller given the erratic schedules of Black leagues that were merely trying to stay afloat. We’ve long known the likes of Gibson, Oscar Charleston and Mule Suttles were among the best ballplayers of their time, regardless of race. Now, we have the numbers to prove it.

Updating the books with “new” old data might seem an odd enterprise. But it’s one we are familiar with in baseball, where legends like Mathewson may die but their numbers often take on an active afterlife.