Chin Music’14: When .400 Was Fashion

23 Jul

Note: This write is dedicated to actor James Garner (b.1928) who died Saturday at his Brentwood home in Los Angeles.






A sport enthusiast, Jim was a movie star of the first order (Grand Prix, The Children’s Hour, Murphy’s Romance, Fire in the Sky) but will be best remembered for his game-changing TV series “The Rockford Files (1974-80).” By all accounts, Jim was as likable & loved in real life as his fictional private-eye character, tailor-made to his talents. “Rockfish” or “Jimbo” was a knight-in-shining-Pontiac: street-smart but kind, cautious but brave, ladies man with taste for beer & burrito whose guest list was a hallmark of class that included starry names like Bacall, Cotton, Selleck, Reiner, Hayes, Moreno, Beatty, Cooper, Hartley, Gossett, Towers, Fix, Woods, Warwick, Fix, Powers, Strasberg and Elizondo, among many others.

Pure Baseball

You wouldn’t be going too far out on that proverbial white ash limb in predicting nobody in the major leagues is ever gonna’ hit .400 again.

The 30 win season (McLain ‘68), maybe.

Knocking over 262 hits (Ichiro ‘04), possible.

But to bat .400 today is about as likely as a 2014 sports page sans Manziel, LeBron or Tiger: not very.

About once or twice a decade a player will hover around the mark for a time, then fade away around the All-Star break. After the festivities, the grind sets in, a few bumps & bruises and the hopeful is out of the running by late July.

Ted Williams was the last to achieve the magical mark when he batted .405 in 1941, and did it in style. “The Splendid Splinter” looked Mr. chance straight in the eye and said, ‘(Flip) you, fella! I’m gonna’ hit .400 and that’s that! Now give me a bat.’







With his Red Sox slated to play a double-header to close it out, Williams sat on a batting average one ten-thousandth of a point under .400 which would technically qualify one for the hallowed mark, had he opted to ‘discover’ an ailment that would sit him for the final two and preserve the achievement. Not an option for “Teddy Ballgame.”

Williams went 5 for 8 and became the stuff of greatness.

His bold nonchalance and respect for how revered marks should be attained, puts Ted’s day on par w/Jackie’s debut (4-15-47), Ruth’s called shot (‘32), Larson’s perfecto (‘56), Gehrig’s farewell (‘39) and Ed Reulbach’s stretch-run, twin-bill shutouts (9-26-08).

The last man to flirt with .400 was another San Diego stalwart (Ted’s POB), the late, great Tony Gwynn (d. 2014). Mr. Padre batted .3938 in 1994.

If one as dedicated to his craft as was Tony, a man with 8 batting titles to his credit, could fall short when so close, that tells you just how tremendously difficult .400 becomes.

A player today could give his spring blood sample by way of baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and later that same day begin a juicing regimen until it comes out his ears, heaven forbid, and yet still never get close to the big four hundred.

Some records were easy prey. Power marks proved highly susceptible to the PED cheats.

Others appear pretty safe & sound, like Hack Wilson’s 1930 RBI mark of 191, Billy Hamilton’s 198 runs in 1894 and Jack Chesbro’s modern era wins tally of 41 (1904).

But what seems out-of-reach today wasn’t always the case.

For a 40 year period starting in the late 1890s and running up to 1930, hitting .400 was in vogue. Not as common as a curious no-hitter but about on par with the 100-win season.






If you read what Babe Ruth said on the subject, you’d think it was a cinch. When pressed on whether he’d have hit .400 if not for his home run swing, Bambino brashly responded, “Four hundred, hell, I coulda’ hit .500!” And he probably could’ve (‘23 – .3927)!

It’s a very special stratosphere these 20 men inhabit.

And to those who would besmirch these early years of baseball, declaring them unworthy of inclusion, I’d say that MLB and Elias chose long ago to bestow major status on these formative years (1876 – 1900) and their five leagues (National, AA, Players, Federal & Union), not just for color & tradition but because these body-armor & cortisone free days were as challenging, skillful and visceral a time as any in the history of our great sport.

The .400 breakdowns:

By the decade:

1880s: 4
1890s: 11
1900s: 1
1910s: 3
1920s: 7
1930s: 1
1940s: 1







Highest figure: .439, Hugh Duffy, 1894

Repeaters (5 players):

Rogers Hornsby (3): 1922 (.401); 1925 (.402); 1924 (.423)
Ty Cobb (3): 1922 (.401); 1912 (.408); 1911 (.419)
Ed Delahanty (3): 1894 (.404); 1895 (.404); 1899 (.409)
George Sisler (2): 1920 (.407); 1922 (.419)
Jesse Burkett (2): 1895 (.405); 1896 (.409)

First Achiever: Ross Barnes: 1876, .428
Last: Ted Williams: 1941, .405







Lefties: 9

Righties: 10

Switchies: 1 (Tuck Turner, 1894, .417)

Tallest: Ted Williams: 6’3”
Shortest: “Wee” Willie Keeler: 5’4”

AL (1901®) 6
NL: 2

Hot-beds of Hit-Machines:

St. Louis: Dunlap (1-UA), Hornsby (3-NL), O’Neill (1-AA) & Sisler (2-AL): 7
Philadelphia: Thompson (1-NL), Turner (1-NL), Delahanty (3-NL) & Hamilton (1-NL): 6
Detroit: Cobb (3-AL) & Heilmann (1-AL): 4
Boston: Duffy (1-NL) & Williams (1-AL): 2
Chicago: Barnes (1-NL) & Jackson (1-AL): 2
Cleveland: Burkett (2-NL): 2
Baltimore: Keeler (1-NL) & Jennings (1-NL): 2







Philadelphia on Fire!

In 1894, four Phillies topped .400: Bill Hamilton (.403), Sam Thompson (.414), Fred Dunlap (.412) and Ed Delahanty (.404) for a whopping .350 team BA.

Oh so close:

Cap Anson, .3994, 1881
Frank O’Doul, .3981, 1929
Harry Heilmann, .3980, 1927
George Brett (#48), .3898, 1980
Rod Carew (#55), .3880, 1977

That’s the history. Question for the here & now, can it be done again?

I wouldn’t bet the farm on it but there is reason for some optimism.

Teddy (MLB 1939 – 60) was a wizard with the bat and one unique individual but he did put his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. If he could do it, others can too.

As that “mighty warrior” of Wales and the Arabian desert once said, “Nothing is written (T.E. Lawrence),” i.e., we, not fate, control our destiny.







So, what would be the trademarks of a batsman to hit the big four double-zero?

1) It starts with the brain: having the mindset, the desire, the dedication to hit .400. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Post-WW2, power-ball’s been the norm, for hitters, pitchers and managers alike (See: E. Weaver). It’s how the biggest money deals get gotten and keeps kids oogling & googling.

2) You needn’t sacrifice the long-ball. Look at Ted (521 hr / .634 slg / .482! ob%), Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Pujols, all crushin’ it w/ regularity and getting’ on base w/ habit. But don’t live in the weight room, either.

3) Contact, not slugging, is key. That means patience at the plate. Selectivity. A command of the strike zone, i.e., a keen batter‘s eye. No more than 30 – 40 whiffs a season.

4) The best hitters never stop being students of the game, which is why every name listed here was head of his class.

Steven Keys
Can o’ Corn
Photo Credits: T.Cobb & J.Jackson / 1913 – wc.cca – LoC;  C.Stevens & J.Garner / 1959 -wc.cca;  T.Williams / 1940 – wc.cca – Bowman;  G.Sisler, B.Ruth & T.Cobb / 10.4.24 – wc.cca – LoC;  H.Duffy / 1902 – LoC;  R.Hornsby / 7.9.28 – TIME – wc.cca;  E.Delahanty / 1903 – wc.cca;  N.Lajoie & H.Wagner / 1904 – BPL – wc.cca


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