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Baseball fans love numbers. Sixty: the Babe's home runs. Fifty-six: Joe D's hitting streak. Five hundred eleven: Cy Young's career victories.
Perhaps the most impressive stat of all is .367, Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average. Over 24 seasons (1905-1928) Cobb hit at a pace that would have won every one but four of the 76 National and American League single-season batting championships since 1941.
Hitting a baseball is often called the most difficult endeavor in sports. The pitcher stands only 20 yards from the batter and throws the ball at speeds approaching 100 mph. He can make the ball veer in or curve away, shoot downward or explode upward. Yet the average major league batter, taking all this in and quelling whatever fears he may feel at the approach of the speeding ball, is able to get a hit slightly more often than once every four times at bat. Cobb's gifts were so extraordinary that he did it substantially more often than once every three times.
A batting average, times at bat divided into the number of hits, is not a measure of power—there are other statistics for that—but it is baseball's most respected measure of proficiency with the bat. To be a ".300 hitter" is to be somebody. It was considered a minor tragedy that low batting averages during his last two seasons—when he was semicrippled—dropped Mickey Mantle's lifetime mark from .305 to .298.
Lifetime averages measure a hitter's true ability. The really fine ones establish their superiority year after year. With his .367, Cobb stands alone as the best of all time, followed by Rogers Hornsby (.358), Joe Jackson (.356), Ed Delahanty (.346), Willie Keeler (.345), Ted Williams (.344), Tris Speaker (.344), Billy Hamilton (.344), Dan Brouthers (.343) and Pete Browning (.343).
But are these 10 really the best ever? The modern fan, thinking of Pete Rose's .312, which puts him 69th on the lifetime list, or Rod Carew's .333, which barely makes the top 25, may well wonder if lifetime averages aren't misleading. It is obvious to anyone who studies the lists of batting champions that there have been remarkable variations in winning averages. For example, Nap Lajoie won the American League title in 1901 with a .422 average. Four years later Elmer Flick won it with a .306. A year after that, George Stone took the title with a .358. In the 11 seasons from 1920 through 1930, an average of .400 or better was attained eight times. In 49 seasons since then, .400 has been reached only once. In the mid-1890's there was an efflorescence of .400 averages, 12 in six seasons, but much lower batting percentages prevailed in the decades preceding and following. Obviously, the true value of such figures rises and falls like the price of gold.
One way to compare batting averages from different periods is to measure how well a man does in relation to the "aggregate batting average" of his time, the combined percentages of all players in his league when he was in the majors. When Carl Yastrzemski won the American League title in 1968 with a .301, the lowest winning average in major league history, he finished 71 points higher than the league aggregate of .230, also the lowest in history. Ten years later, when Carew won with a .333 average, his percentage was 72 points more than that season's aggregate of .261. Thus, although Carew outhit Yaz by 32 points, their seasons were remarkably similar.
An examination of the variations in aggregate averages shows that, although baseball likes to think it has had only a few "eras"—e.g., dead-ball, lively-ball; pre-1900, post-1900—a complex pattern exists, with eight distinct epochs. Averages vary markedly from era to era.
In Era One (1876-1892), playing rules were routinely altered; franchises were added and dropped with startling frequency; and the fields barely exceeded sandlot quality. Pitchers stood only 45 feet—50 feet after 1887—from home plate, and the overall aggregate major league batting average during the 16-year period was a low .254.
Era Two (1893-1900) began when the pitcher's box was moved back to its present 60 feet 6 inches from home plate. The effect on batting averages was astonishing. The aggregate jumped from .245 in 1892 to .280 in 1893, and then to .309 in 1894, the highest ever. It was a hitter's paradise. Five men batted .400 or better in 1894. The aggregate average for this brief explosive period was .287, later equaled but never surpassed.