Before Juan Soto finished with the National League’s highest batting average in 2020, playing in 47 of Washington’s 60 games, four players with the original Washington Senators had won American League batting titles.
One of them – Mickey Vernon — did it twice: in 1946 and 1953. Unlike the other three winners, his batting titles, reviewed retrospectively, are not in doubt, despite the second one being just a point higher than the runner up.
Vernon’s .337 average in 1953 denied Cleveland’s Al Rosen, the A.L.’s home run and RBI leader, the Triple Crown. Rosen had nine hits in his last 15 at-bats to close in on Vernon. It’s widely believed that two Senators players let themselves be tagged out in the eighth and ninth innings of the final game to keep Vernon from having to bat again. In any case, no one can say what Vernon might have done with one last plate appearance.
In 1928, the Senators’ Goose Goslin, in his last time up, was in jeopardy of losing the batting title to the Browns’ Heinie Manush. Goslin was fractionally ahead – .3780 to Manush’s .3777 – when his teammates goaded him into taking his turn, but he quickly fell behind in the count with two called strikes. As he told author Lawrence S. Ritter for the seminal The Glory of Their Times, in the 1960s, Goslin decided he’d begin loudly jawing with the umpire, hoping to get ejected. Umpire Bill Guthrie knew what was going on and told Goslin to get back in the batter’s box, and “you better be in there swinging, too. No base on balls, you hear me?”
As luck would have it, Goslin hit a sinking liner that the fell for a hit just short of the diving outfielder’s glove. So, for posterity, Goslin remains the 1928 A.L. batting champ with a .379 average.
Buddy Myer needed a hit is his last at-bat in 1935 to pass Cleveland’s Joe Vosmik for the batting title. Myer began the day at .345, to Vosmik’s .349, and figured he’d have to get four hits to take the lead, according to Warren Corbett’s SABR BioProject essay. Myer had three hits in his first four at-bats. In his fifth time up, he fouled off an outside 3-2 pitch because he didn’t want to walk. He doubled on the next pitch to raise his average to .34902.
In Cleveland, Vosmik’s manager didn’t play him in the first game of a double-header. When word reached the Indians bench that Myer had gone 4-for-5, Vosmik pinch hit in the ninth, but was retired. He was 1-for-3 in the second game before it was called by darkness, and finished at .3483.
What complicates Goslin’s title and that of Myer in 1935, is the sacrifice-fly rule, which was vastly different in both seasons. If the scoring rules in effect then were the same as the one that has been in effect since 1954, neither Goslin nor Myer would have led the league. Vernon, on the other hand, would have finished a bit further ahead of Rosen in 1953 if the current sacrifice-fly rule had been in place a year earlier.
In 1946, Vernon won his first title, finishing comfortably ahead of Ted Williams with a .353 average to .342 for Williams. Neither man had the help of the current sacrifice fly rule. Back in 1941, Williams would have hit .413, rather than .406, had he not been charged with a time at bat when his eight fly balls scored runners.
The other batting title won by a Washington player came in the American League’s second season. Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, who led the National League with a .410 average in 1899, is credited with hitting .376 in 1902. This figure was announced by league officials a month after the season ended, even though Nap Lajoie was listed at .378, ahead of Delahanty’s .372 when the last game was played. How Delahanty’s average rose to .376 also remains a mystery.
It’s unclear what standard the new league was applying to determine the batting championship, but under standards adopted in the 1950s, Lajoie’s 381 plate appearances would not have qualified him for the title. In additional, Lajoie appeared in just 87 of his team’s 136 games.
BaseballReference.com lists Lajoie as the batting champ because he appeared in more than 60 percent of his team’s games, which the esteemed web site says was the standard for the league leader prior to 1920. Nonetheless, MLB.com still credits Delahanty with the batting title, making him the first man to lead both league in batting average.
The sacrifice-fly rule has been changed several times in different ways. From 1908 through 1925, the scoring rule was essentially the same as it is today. From 1931 to 1938 and from 1940 to 1953, if a runner on third tagged up and scored on a fly out, the batter was credited with a run batted in but was charged with a time at bat. (In contrast, no at-bat was charged to a batter who put down a sacrifice bunt.)
Game accounts on Retrosheet show that Vernon had six run-scoring fly balls in ’53. Rosen had five. Subtracting those six at-bats would send Vernon up to .341. Five fewer ABs for Rosen leaves him at .338. The opposite was true for Myer in 1935. Vosmik had nine run-scoring fly balls to Myer’s six. Removing those at-bats from their averages, Vosmik would have finished at .3535 to Myer’s 3524.
The 1928 season was played under an overly generous sacrifice-fly rule in place from 1926 through 1930. Not only did the batter avoid an official at-bat when he hit a run-scoring fly ball, he was not charged with an at-bat if his fly out advanced a runner from second to third or first to second. Retrosheet game accounts show Goslin had nine sacrifice-fly balls that did not score a run; Manush had six. So under the standard in effect for all but those five years, nine outs would have been added to Goslin’s season total, pulling his average down to .372. Adding six outs to Manush’s total would leave him at .374.
In fact, no separate statistic for the sacrifice fly existed before the 1954 season. Before then, in the years in which a player was not charged with an at-bat, those productive fly-ball outs were lumped in with sacrifice bunts. But for most of the 1930s, all of the 1940s and the first four years of the ’50s, no such thing as a sacrifice fly was tabulated. A run-batted-in and a time-at-bat were all that resulted, effectively lowering batting averages a few percentage points.
Aside from both types of sacrifice hits – bunts and fly balls – not costing the hitter a time-at-bat, there remains one weird difference: the impact on consecutive hitting streaks. A batter who, for example, walks twice, is hit by a pitch and has a sacrifice fly would see any active game hitting streak end, but if the same plate appearances included the two walks, the HBP and a sacrifice bunt, the hitting steak would remain intact – no official at-bats. In this instance, the sacrifice fly is considered an official time at bat – but not for the batter’s game and season total. Got that?
A version of this appeared in the April 2021 Squibber, the quarterly online newsletter of the Bob Davids Chapter of SABR.