“It makes little sense, but apparently that is just the way it is.”
So went the response I received from another member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) when I polled over 1,200 baseball historians asking about the incongruity over how stats from the 1882-1891 American Association (AA) are handled.
Individual players’ results are included while their team results are excluded from the history books.
As you already know if you are a regular reader here, the issue surfaced when the St. Louis Cardinals recently won their 10,000th game as a franchise. The club disagreed, reiterating an earlier position that they do not recognize their years during the 1880s as a member of the AA.
The team’s position is a consistent one as none of the other three former AA teams still surviving in today’s National League consider their AA years to be part of their respective histories, either.
Complicating matters is the fact that major baseball history sites such as Retrosheet.org and Baseball-Reference.com include the AA standings in team records; hence the attention over 10,000 wins, about 800 wins sooner than the Cardinals recognize.
Since my last post, I have confirmed that MLB does recognize player stats accrued during the years of the American Association. So what we have here is a league whose individual stats are ok, but their teams’ results are not.
In 2007, an MLB.com article about the AA (a good summary read) made this very definitive statement:
“Eventually, the American Association was recognized as a full-fledged Major League and all of its players’ statistics and career highlights are counted accordingly in the annals of Major League history.”
I made what would prove to be an incorrect assumption that MLB would be the ones to define the details of their own history. To that end, I contacted a friend, MLB.com Director of Stats Cory Schwartz. My intent was to learn the logic behind this decision from the guy who controls the numbers.
Cory begged off, saying that the Elias Sports Bureau “maintain the historical records and are the final arbiters of what is ‘official’ or not”.
At that point, I grabbed my copy of the Elias Book of Baseball Records off the bookcase shelf. The confirmation was instant. The very first record on the very first page is held by an AA player. Deacon McGwire owns the official record for the most major league seasons with 26. He spent his first, in 1884, and four of his 26 campaigns playing in the AA.
My next call was to Elias researcher Ken Hirdt, who seemed to be the right person when he acknowledged he knows “as much or more than anyone around here about 1800’s records”.
Hirdt understood the inconsistency, but wrote it off as being “lost to history”, going on to characterize the late 19th Century as “a murky time” for baseball records.
From there, my last stop was the esteemed members of SABR, as noted above. None of the game’s most avid historians could shed any more light on the situation.
And with nowhere else to turn, that is where I left it – a most dissatisfying conclusion.
My guess, and it is a guess only, is that when the four American Association clubs were accepted into the National League, the NL made a decision not to recognize the AA, considered an outlaw league. This would explain the consistent posture by all four teams to not accept their AA results, including the Cardinals.
Later on, perhaps the decision to count AA player stats was made independently from the NL, maybe by Elias. As an aside, for most of baseball’s history, the league offices had considerable power. Only in recent years was all decision-making consolidated in the MLB offices.