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As ever when anyone bats close to .400 after the All-Star break, baseball analysts have been dwelling on John Olerud's flirtation with Ted Williams in '41. Well, they've been missing the story. O.K., as of Sunday the Toronto Blue Jay was hitting .402. But what's amazing is that he is flirting with Webb in 31.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta there is a man who, if he ever becomes a regular as well as a superstar (who else but Neon Deion Sanders?), stands the best chance in this century of surpassing an even more astonishing single-season performance: Wilson's in '12.
What are we talking about here? Two major statistical categories about which too little has been said—until now. Categories into which fall many if not most of baseball's sweetest drives, headiest cornerings and rousingest clouds of dust. We are talking about doubles and triples.
And who is this Webb? And this Wilson, who? Obscure men who hold obscure records that have outlasted several Hall of Famer-held standards in more glamorous categories, such as strikeouts and home runs.
In 1931 Earl Webb of the Boston Red Sox hit 67 doubles. No one else in major league history has ever hit more than 64. In this century only five players besides Webb, all of them dead, have hit as many as 60 doubles. Only four players in the last 30 years have hit as many as 50. The closest anyone has come to threatening Webb's record since 1950 was when Hal McRae (now the manager of the Kansas City Royals) hit 54 doubles with the Royals in 1977. As of Sunday, Olerud had 42 and was still on a pace to catch Webb.
In 1912 Owen (Chief) Wilson of the Pittsburgh Pirates hit 36 triples. With regard to this record Bill James, the eminent Sabermetrician (from SABR, the acronym for Society of American Baseball Research), has made the following judicious statement: "That's just impossible." The next-highest single-season total is 26 triples, and the closest to that since 1949 has been Willie Wilson's 21 with the Royals in 1985. Last year, however, Sanders led the big leagues with 14 triples in only 303 at bats, which projects to 28 over a full season. And he's still learning the game.
It is startling how little media pressure the Webb chase and the potential Wilson chase have put on Olerud and Sanders. Asked in July to comment upon his pursuit of Webb's mark, the 25-year-old Olerud said he had never heard of Earl Webb or his mark. Sanders, as usual, was out of sorts—not because of any barrage of triples-related questions, but because he kept being left out of the Braves' starting lineup. Asked whether he realized what a potentially historic pace he had laid down last season, the 26-year-old Sanders said, "I don't care about junk like that." Asked whether he had heard of Chief Wilson, he responded, "Who?"
A good question. One of several that we will attempt to answer by means of a system of research called, let's see: BATSABListics, for Baseball Answers Through Stats, Annals and Biographical License, plus-istics for good measure.
One day this spring David Lowman, proprietor of the Southfield Store in Southfield, Mass., asked me to explain for him a small historical item in a recent edition of The New York Times: Exactly 40 years earlier, the paper noted, Paul Richards, then managing the Chicago White Sox, had sent in a pitcher, Tommy Byrne, to pinch-hit for Vern Stephens, a good hitter, with the bases loaded in the ninth and the game on the line. Byrne hit a grand slam. Why had Richards made such a move?
Simply by employing phase one of BATSABListics—consulting Stats (in this case, in Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia)—I was able to answer the question in such detail and at such length (it finally boiled down to Byrne's being lefthanded and a good hitter, while Stephens was righthanded and in a slump) that Lowman said to me, "Enough already." Had he wanted more, and had anyone been paying me, I could have moved on to Annals (loosely, anything like history books and old newspaper accounts) and Biographical License.