When the Mets' John Olerud raised his average to .352 last week to move past the Rockies' Dante Bichette (.345 at week's end) in the National League batting race, he put himself in position to achieve a feat no one has accomplished in this century: winning batting championships in both the American and the National Leagues.
Whether or not it has ever been done before is a matter of statistical argument. The Phillies' Ed Delahanty, the 1899 National League batting champ with a .410 average, also is generally credited with having won the American League crown in 1902, with a .376 mark while playing for the Senators. The Elias Sports Bureau, baseball's official stats keeper, gives Delahanty the '02 crown, but in 1995 Major League Baseball recognized Total Baseball as its "official" encyclopedia and Total Baseball recognizes Cleveland's Nap Lajoie as the AL batting champ that year with a .378 average.
This historical conundrum aside, it's safe to say that Olerud, who won his AL crown with Toronto in '93, is hitting in rarefied circles. Only twice has the batting champ of one league followed up with even a second-place finish in the other, and Willie Keeler did it both times, winning National League crowns in 1897 and '98 and then finishing second in the American League twice, behind Lajoie and his Cleveland teammate Elmer Flick in 1904 and '05, respectively.
Flick is that rare player who finished second in one league's race (the NL in 1900) before winning a title in the other. The only others to do it were the Reds' Frank Robinson, runner-up in the National League in '62 before winning the American League championship with Baltimore in '66, and the Rangers' Al Oliver, who finished second in the American League in '78 before taking the NL crown with the Expos in '82. Only three other batting champs (the Reds' Hal Chase in '16, the Browns' George Sisler in '20 and '22, and the Angels' Alex Johnson in '70) came as close as third or fourth in hitting in the opposite league.
Usually, of course, batting champs tend to stay put. Since 1901, 21 title winners, with 51 championships among them, have spent their entire careers with one team. Thirty-one more champs, with 67 titles, spent their entire careers in one league.
Asked by a reporter about chasing Ed Delahanty, the sharp-witted Olerud replied, "I could become a household name like his." Steady, John. You don't want Delahanty's kind of fame. Apart from a .346 career batting average, Delahanty is known for having fallen, jumped or been pushed to his death off a bridge at Niagara Falls on July 2, 1903—nine months after he accomplished what Olerud is trying to do now.