With the AL MVP Award announcement coming later today, talk has heated up about whether Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout should take home the hardware. Detroit Tigers fans who believe the Triple Crown should cinch the honor for Cabrera shouldn't be so fast to celebrate.
Ted Williams, a Hall of Famer acknowledged by many as the greatest hitter who ever lived, twice led the American League in homers, runs batted in, and batting average during the same season—and was runner-up in the MVP race both times.
In 1942, Williams hit .356 with 37 homers and 137 RBI, topping the majors in all three categories and helping the second-place Boston Red Sox to their most wins (93) in 27 years. Long before sabermetrics came on the scene, Teddy Ballgame was tops in OBP (.499), OPS (1.147), and WAR (10.2) as well, in each case distancing himself from the field like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes.
It wasn't good enough. In a vote that shows even mid-20th century sportswriters didn't always choose the guy with the gaudiest "traditional" numbers, Williams was runner-up to New York Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon for MVP.
A future Hall of Famer in his own right, Gordon hit .318 with 18 homers and 103 RBI, and was strong if not spectacular in the field. New York did win its second straight AL pennant, but Gordon was far from a one-man gang with Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Keller preceding him in the Yankees lineup.
Some blamed the vote on Williams' sour relationship with the press, but the unfairly lofty expectations fans and sportswriters had for Ted undoubtedly played a part. He hit .406 in 1941, after all, so .356 was considered quite a drop-off. (Ironically, Williams finished second in the MVP race to Joe DiMaggio in '41, when Joe D. put together his 56-game hitting streak.)
Five years later, in 1947, it happened again. Williams paced the AL with 32 homers, 114 RBI, and a .343 average, along with otherworldly OBP (.499) and OPS (1.133) totals. The Red Sox, however, finished a disappointing third after winning the AL pennant in 1946—when Williams did win the MVP.
The Yankees finished first in '47, as in 1942, and also as in '42 a New York player (Joe DiMaggio) took home the MVP with far more modest (.315, 20, 97) totals. DiMaggio was certainly a superior defensive outfielder to Williams, and was clearly the leader of his team, but the vote still seems unfair.
While legend has long dictated (and Ted long thought) that a Boston sportswriter left Williams completely off his 10-man MVP ballot, this was actually not the case. As historian Glenn Stout later uncovered, Williams appeared on 23 of the 24 ballots, and it was a Midwestern writer who deemed him unworthy of his top 10.
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking that 10 players had a better season than Williams in '47, or for that matter Cabrera this year. The number of voters who believe Mike Trout's overall performance as a hitter, fielder and baserunner makes him more valuable than a Triple Crown winner will be the key.
And if Cabrera is the runner-up? Well then he should think about finishing just short of a Triple Crown next year. Williams did that in 1949—when he paced the AL in homers and RBI but finished behind George Kell in batting, .34291 to .34276—and it was good enough for his second MVP honor.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at http://amzn.to/qWjQRS, and his Fenway Reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @saulwizz.