Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The truth is always being rewritten
The particulars aren't particularly exciting. But the impact is worth mentioning, I think ...
Thanks to the diligent work of someone named Ron Rakowski, it's now established -- to the extent that something like this can be established -- that in 1961, Roger Maris was credited with an "extra" RBI and that Mickey Mantle was credited with an extra run scored.
The impact? Maris drops into a tie for the American League RBI lead with Jim Gentile, and Mantle drops out of a tie with Maris for the American League scoring lead. Maris and Gentile both drove in 141 runs; Maris scored 132 runs (vs. Mantle's 131).
I suspect that some of you don't really care. But those of us who write about baseball have to care. When we're writing about Mantle, we don't want to write that he co-led the league in runs in 1961 if he didn't, you know, actually co-lead the league in runs. So while this might seem somewhat esoteric, if not downright trivial, much of the discussion on this page and others involves esoterica and trivia.
Anyway, when researchers like Rakowski find these things, if they're high-profile (as these are) it can take years (as these did) to become official (whatever that means). It's finally happened, though. Here's Lyle Spatz, chair of the Records Committee:
I am pleased to see that Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Almanac, and the Elias Sports Bureau all recognize these numbers.
I know there are people who object to these types of corrections, even when they are done to rectify an obvious error such as a faulty computation or putting a number in a wrong column. This is especially true when the correction changes a league leader in a particular category. For those of you that do (I hope there aren't too many on the Records Committee) let me restate an obvious truth. Mickey Mantle was one of the game's great players. Does finishing his career with 1,676 runs scored rather than 1,677 make him any less a great player. Will anybody's assessment of Mantle's place in history be changed by the fact that he did not lead the league in runs scored in 1961? I don't think so.
We should try to get the numbers as accurate as we can, but we must also, as Neil Postman, a Professor at NYU and critic of technology run wild, said, "free ourselves from the belief in the power of numbers and not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth."
Most of you will have trouble believing this, but there really are people who think that if a guy won a "batting title" in 1910 because everybody in 1910 thought he led his league in batting average, and later we discover he didn't lead his league in batting average ... We should ignore the new information!
Putting it bluntly, most of the people who think that way have died off. But some of them are still out there, and fortunately they're now routinely shouted down by other people who think that when your facts change, you follow them where they take you instead of pretending something never happened because it's ever so slightly inconvenient.
There is one argument that should, I suppose, be addressed. Some of those guys will ask, "If you start changing the numbers, where does it all stop?"
It doesn't. Not long ago, the casualty figures for the carpet bombing of German cities during World War II was revised downward. By one authority, anyway. Mind you, this is 65-plus years after the fact. For many decades, writers in good conscience, and only some of them with ideological axes to grind, relied on the old figures. Now we have new figures, and the historians who trust them will use them ... until somebody comes up with something better.
It doesn't stop. It's not supposed to stop. This is the way it works. We go with what we've got, while acknowledging that what we've got today won't necessarily be what we've got tomorrow. For many years, Royals infielder Frank White was credited with an appearance as a catcher, even though he never actually appeared in a game as a catcher. It was a simple mistake, and nobody noticed for a long time.
It's finally been "fixed" ... but there are many more just like it, especially as you travel back into history.
We go with what we've got, while we try to get more. As someone once observed, "There's no statute of limitations on the truth."
Thank you, Ron Rakowski. Some of us care an awful lot.