Set the record straight

Even Pete Rose's career-defining record is a fake

Getty Images

With Pete Rose back in the news, it’s a good time for a simple trivia question. Who was pitching when Pete Rose cracked the hit that broke Ty Cobb’s all-time record?

That’s too simple, right? Everyone knows it was Eric Show of the San Diego Padres. That’s one of the most famous videos in baseball history. Show pitched, and Rose lashed that singled to left-center on September 11, 1985. Heck, it’s the third sentence of Show’s Wikipedia page. Show was a brilliant, interesting and tortured soul who studied physics in college, played jazz guitar, was a member of the John Birch society* and died of a drug overdose when he was just 37 years old.

*Graig Nettles joked that after Rose got the hit, Show would get booted from the John Birch Society because he had made a Red famous.

Show loathed being the pitcher who gave up the big hit. He angrily crossed his arms that day as Rose celebrated the hit. Rose played it to the hilt — he hugged his son, and then he looked up to the heavens and, as he said, saw the driving force of his life, his father Harry, standing above the clouds with Ty Cobb himself.

“Regardless of what you may think,” Rose said, “Cobb is up there.”

Show looked furious and frustrated as the celebration dragged on. He sat on the mound — “bush league,” Show’s teammate Garry Tempteon said of Show’s churlishness — and a bit later in the game, Show got into a near-fight with teammate Carmelo Martinez after a hit dropped in. Show did not answer questions after the game. Later, he said of Rose’s hit, “I don’t care.”

Like I say, he loathed being that pitcher.

Here’s the craziest part of all: He wasn’t.

No, Eric Show was not the pitcher who gave up the hit that broke Ty Cobb’s record. The baseball that wrote its own story in Sports Illustrated the following week (“I was so excited I was nearly bursting at the seams”) was not the record-breaking ball. That magical number of 4,192 that Pete Rose spent a lifetime of hustle and muscle chasing was not magical at all.

And the titans of baseball knew it all along.

* * *

Baseball statistics comfort us. They are reliable in an unreliable world. In other sports, it’s all so much fuzzier. When do you credit an assist in basketball or hockey? What am I counting for offensive linemen? What is or isn’t an unforced error? In baseball, though, everything can be counted — it’s a sport from the dreams of The Count from “Sesame Street.” Three hundred wins. Ah ah ah! Five hundred homers. Ah ah ah! Three thousand hits. Ah ah ah!

Hits are especially satisfying to count.

Steve Garvey used to write the number “200” in his glove because he intended to get 200 hits every season. He had a strange formula how to do it, one he never fully shared, but we know it included a certain number of bunts, a certain number of hit-and-run chances, a certain number of line drives, a certain number of homers. Between 1974 and 1980, Garvey had 200 hits in a season six times. Three times, he hit 200 right on the nose.

Derek Jeter had exactly 200 postseason hits.

Stan Musial, you might know, had 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road, a perfectly balanced career.

Yes, it is satisfying to count hits, and the most cherished of all hit numbers was Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hits. It was a mind-blowing number, seemingly untouchable. Henry Aaron was able to break Babe Ruth’s home run record, but even he fell 400-plus hits shy of Cobb. Musial fell more than 500 hits short. Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, the hit machines of their time, did not get within a thousand hits of Cobb.

Only Pete Rose, with his relentlessness and shameless stubborness, dared fly that close to the sun. It was a lifelong pursuit. Rose through age 30 had only had 1,724 hits, 600 less than Cobb at the same age.

Through age 35, Rose had cut the gap to less than 500.

Through age 40, Rose was still about 400 hits behind.

But this is when Rose’s resolve strengthened and he finally wore down Cobb’s ghost. Cobb retired at 41 after hitting a mere .323. He did not want to be less than himself. Rose had no such misgivings. At 41, he hit just .271 and managed just 32 extra base hits all year. But he played all 162 games. A year later, he was worse, hitting .245 and with the lowest slugging percentage (.286) for any first baseman since World War II.

But through sheer obstinance he pushed his hit total to 3,990. True, he was no longer a viable everyday player, but there was no way he was going to stop just 10 hits shy of 4,000 even if the Phillies did release him.

He went to Montreal and got his 4,000th hit there, a double off Jerry Koosman. After playing 95 mostly ineffective games in Montreal, he managed to get himself traded back home to Cincinnati where he could become a player/manager/drawing card for a terrible Reds team that had lost its way.

And for the next two-plus years, Rose inserted himself into the lineup on a regular basis and chased Cobb’s mythical 4,191. Some thought it unseemly. Some thought it admirable. Of course, it didn’t matter what anybody thought. Pete Rose was going to break that record.

* * *

So … the story of Ty Cobb’s 4,191 hits.

In 1910, future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie famously battled to the final day for baseball’s best batting average. Automobile titan Hugh Chalmers promised a brand new Chalmers Detroit Model 30 to the champion, a $1,500 car (about $40,000 in today’s money).

Cobb was the clear favorite; he won batting titles in 1907, 1908 and 1909. But Nap Lajoie was a longtime star, and at age 35 he had a renaissance season. With a month left in the season, he was threatening .400 and seemed to have the title and the car wrapped up.

But then Lajoie slumped and Cobb got hot. The nation cared a great deal about batting races in those days — there were daily updates in papers across the country — and with a car at stake everyone watched breathlessly. It added something to the drama that nobody quite knew what either player was hitting — this was almost a century before Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. American League president Ban Johnson was the only man to have the official numbers, and he would not announce the batting champion until the FEBRUARY after the season.

Still, the papers estimated that Cobb’s average was about .383 and Lajoie’s was about .376 going into the final day, and the papers were just about right. Cobb was secure enough in his lead that he chose to sit out the last couple of games, claiming that his eyes were bothering him.

No, nobody covers themselves in glory in this story.

Lajoie and his Cleveland Naps, meanwhile, played a doubleheader at St. Louis that final day. What followed remains one of the most shameful displays in baseball history. The Browns decided to help Nap Lajoie win the batting title.

And here’s how they did it: They put a rookie named Hub Northen in center field and when Lajoie hit a fly ball his way in his first at bat, as the wire services reported, “Northen either intentionally or unintentionally misjudged it and it went for a triple.”

The Browns pitchers threw meatballs in both games — as the papers reported, Lajoie didn’t even hit one foul ball.

More directly, the Browns had rookie third baseman Red Corriden playing way back. Way back. How far back? The most charitable accounts had him standing “just on the edge of the outfield grass.” The less charitable ones had him playing “short left field.” Either way, Lajoie bunted eight consecutive times toward third and was safe all eight times (one of them was called a sacrifice — we’ll get back to that).

Add it all together, and Lajoie went eight for eight and pushed his batting average all the way up to .384. And that was good enough to give him the batting title and the new car.

It was a nasty scandal. “Never before in the history of the game,” wrote the Washington Post, “has the integrity of the game been questioned as it has by the 8,000 fans this afternoon.”

“The honesty and squareness which has won hundreds of thousand of admirers for America’s great national pastime was entirely erased,” wrote United Press International.

As the days went on, more bits of nastiness came out. For instance, it turned out that throughout both games the Browns kept sending coach Harry Howell up to the press box to make sure that official scorer E.V. Parrish was crediting Lajoie with hits. When Parrish declared one of those bunts a sacrifice — apparently the ball was bobbled by shortstop Bobby Wallace — he was handed a note that read:

“Mr. Parrish — If you can see where Mr. Lajoie gets a B.H. (Base hit) instead of a sacrifice I will give you an order for a $40 suit of clothes — Sure. Answer by boy. In behalf of — I ask it of you.”

Most believe that note came from Browns manager “Rowdy” Jack O’Connor, but O’Connor never admitted sending it. And it’s possible he did not. Parrish would say later that when he got home he received a phone call from Lajoie himself.

Lajoie asked, “There is no chance for you to make it nine hits?”

When Parrish refused, Lajoie attempted to get Parrish to meet him for drinks a bar for them to talk about it. Parrish refused again, so maybe I was a bit off when I said NOBODY covered themselves in glory.

Now, here’s the real puzzle: Why did the Browns care THAT MUCH about getting Lajoie the batting title? The immediate story line was that the Browns hated Ty Cobb that much. “Cobb is Not Popular” was a subhead in the Washington Post story the next day, and that has remained the popular reason.

“The Browns,” wrote Charles Alexander in his classic, Ty Cobb, “at least most of them, out of their hatred for Cobb and their liking for the good-dispositioned Lajoie, undertook to fix it so ‘the Frenchman’ would win the Chalmers.”

Yeah. You know what? That story doesn’t make any sense. True, many people didn’t like Cobb. But as Charles Leehrson writes in his recent excellent biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, it is almost impossible to believe that the Browns hated Cobb so much that all the players would agree to a fix, that they would send a coach to the press box after every hit to check on things and that they would attempt to bribe the official scorer to change a call. To go to THOSE extremes and risk their future in the sport, right, there had to be something much bigger going on.

It’s obvious: People on the Browns bet on Lajoie.

Well, of course they did. Bookies across the country were taking bets on the batting race — it was getting more action than any of the games — and with Cobb having such a commanding lead going into the final day, you can bet there were astonishingly high odds on Lajoie. As Leehrsen points out, the Browns’ manager, O’Connor, readily admitted after the season that he was planning to bet on the World Series. That’s just how baseball was then. Everybody bet. Gamblers were everywhere.

Think about it: The Browns did not make a mockery of the game because Ty Cobb was a big meanie. They cashed in. And Lajoie, well, the unseemly way he kept bunting and then tried to influence the official scorer (he later admitted making the call) suggests he wanted that car pretty badly.

* * *

Ban Johnson ran the American League like it was his personal play thing. He did not answer to anyone, did not care for public relations and did not tolerate appeals. Years later, his secret maneuvers in a gambling scandal — ironically involving Ty Cobb* — would get him shoved out of baseball and taint his reputation in the game.

In that scandal, by the way, Cobb admitted betting twice on the 1919 World Series (on the wrong side) and he admitted that he intended to bet on a game he was playing in, a game he seemed to feel certain was fixed. But that’s another story.

In 1910, Ban Johnson was still all-powerful and he went to work to make the stink of Nap Lajoie’s 8-for-8 day go away.

First thing he did was make sure that some of the people involved on the Browns made a quiet exit from the game. O’Connor and Howell were dismissed and never again coached or managed in the Major Leagues. Red Corriden and Hub Northen sort of disappeared for a year, reappearing on different teams. It was like a much less violent version of the Layla piano scene in “Goodfellas.”

But Johnson also did not want to create a scandal or give even the slightest impression that his pristine league had any issue. So the big names — Lajoie and Wallace in particular — were completely left alone. Johnson launched a full investigation which (surprise!) found that nothing untoward had happened. Yes, Lajoie had simply outfoxed those St. Louis Browns with all those bunts. In fact, according to some reports, he gave Lajoie that ninth hit instead of a sactifice to remove all doubts.

But this still left Johnson in a bind: He certainly didn’t want Lajoie to get the batting title. But the numbers were impossible to get around:

Lajoie: 227 of 591, .384 average.

Cobb: 194 of 506, .383 average.

Well, wait, not IMPOSSIBLE to get around. All he needed to do was find a couple more hits for Cobb. And, coincidentally, he found that official scorer Bob McRoy somehow had “forgotten” to enter the stats from a game on September 24 against Boston. Cobb had gone 2-for-3 in that game. Add that day in and voila …

Cobb: 196 of 509, .385 average.

Well, what do you know about that? Ty Cobb won the batting title! How convenient. The announcement was made. Both men ended up getting cars. “The Cobb-Lajoie affair,” Ban Johnson said, “is a closed matter.”

* * *

The ruse held up for almost 70 years. Then a man named Leonard Gettelson got involved. Gettelson was one of those people — there have been a few dozen through the years — who connected deeply with baseball statistics. He began collecting box scores when he was young, and he added up things, and he came up with all sorts of fascinating statistics that he would put into an annual book he called One for the Book.

Gettelson came across many quirks in baseball’s statistical record. He found, for instance, that the Hall of Fame and everyone else got the date wrong for Eddie Collins’ 3,000th hit. He also found that people didn’t particularly like his monkeying with the defined world of baseball statistics. The Eddie Collins date was not changed.

And then, he found that according to boxscores, one of Ty Cobb’s games in 1910 had been double booked. And he had no idea what to do about it. By then, Cobb’s 4,191 hits had become gilded in the same way as Ruth’s 714 homers and Cy Young’s 511 victories. Gettleson did not want to mess with that.

But Pete Palmer did. Palmer was a computer programmer and he remains one of the most influential baseball thinkers of the last half-century. And Palmer felt like: What’s right is right. He corresponded with Gettelson about the Cobb mistake. And then, he went into the microfilm of the American League’s official scorer sheets. He proved, conclusively, that Cobb had been credited for two extra hits.

His total was 4,189 and NOT 4,191.

And Major League Baseball ignored him.

Bowie Kuhn, then commissioner, said that the statute of limitations had passed. He really said that about baseball, the timeless sport where history is more or less everything. Kuhn added that unless a complete and thorough review of ALL statistics was done, you couldn’t make individual changes. He added, as an aside, that a thorough review “is not practical.”

Then I like what American League president Lee MacPhail said even more. “Ban Johnson certified Cobb as the champion,” was MacPhail’s official word, “and I’m sure he had good reasons for it.”

There you go.  Cobb’s hit total was sacrosanct. It would stay in the record books as 4,191, even though this wasn’t an error someone discoverd. This was a purposeful manipulation. To this day, Ty Cobb’s Hall of Fame plaque credits Cobb with 4,191 hits.

Bowie Kuhn, Lee MacPhail, Ban Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb and Bobby Wallace are all in the Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose, of course, is not, because he hurt the integrity of the game.

* * *

Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hit record on September 8, 1985 in a game that ended in a tie. The whole thing was weird. Rose believed he started that day two hits shy of tying Cobb and not tied with him. He planned on resting, at least in part so that he could tie and break the record in his hometown Cincinnati.

Then, fate stepped in. Cubs lefty starter Steve Trout cut up his arm when he was out biking with his family. The Cubs, without any other options, replaced him with a pitcher named Reggie Patterson. And Rose, seeing an inexperiened right-handed pitcher, could not help himself. He immediately grabbed the lineup card, crossed out his longtime pal Tony Perez, and inserted himself at first base.

In his first plate appearance, he cracked a single to left-center before 28,269 Cubs fans who were suddenly Rose fans. That was the one that broke the record. The game wasn’t stopped. The ball wasn’t collected. “1 to Ty!” it said on the scoreboard. The moment passed.

Later, Rose got his 4,191st hit, also against Patterson, and everyone did get excited about that one since it supposedly tied him with Cobb. Then, astonishingly, Rose stayed in the game and actually tried to get the record-breaking hit in Chicago rather than wait for the return to his hometown of Cincinnati. He grounded out against Lary Sorensen and struck out against Lee Smith.

Dick Young, the abrasive and powerful sportswriter, was in the Chicago pressbox that day. He was uncharacteristically touched by Rose’s decision to stay in the game and try to break the record in Chicago rather than wait for his return to Cincinnati. It seemed honorable to Young.

“That’s Pete Rose, the working man’s player,” Young wrote. “He doesn’t forget the bleacher fan. Many newsmen thought Pete would remove himself from the game at that point and thus assure that the biggie would be saved for Cincy.

“But Pete Rose, the man of indisputable baseball integrity, proved himself once again.”