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Tracing the Evolution of the MLB MVP Award

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Tracing the Evolution of the MLB MVP Award

The history of Major League Baseball's Most Valuable Player award is pretty good fodder for a Dan Brown novel.

It started with a conspiracy. Then there was a power struggle. Then the award found itself in the hands of a semi-secret society and came to be surrounded by unwritten codes. Last year, the award damn near caused a war that could have meant the utter destruction of the baseball world itself.

That's the short version of the tale. Go, tell the people.

Either that, or you can stick around for the long version. 

If you'll follow me this way into the TARDIS, we can go relive the evolution of baseball's MVP award.

 

1910-1914: Chalmers Award Sparks Controversy, Doesn't Get Far From Drawing Board

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The great Ty Cobb was a central figure in the first ever MVP race.

The National League and American League merged together in 1901, but Major League Baseball didn't have a Most Valuable Player award until 1910. 

And it was all thanks to a guy willing to pony up a car.

The somebody was Hugh Chalmers of the Chalmers Automobile Company, and the idea he had was to offer one of his company's finest models to the hitter with the highest batting average that year.

Here's the official announcement, courtesy of The New York Times:

The best batsman in the two major leagues this year will be presented with an automobile. The Chalmers-Detroit Automobile Company has offered one of their best cars to the major leaguer who has the highest batting average for the season. Last season Ty Cobb of Detroit was the premier batsman of both leagues, with Hans [presumably Honus] Wagner of Pittsburgh second. Both players are automobile enthusiasts and will make a strong bid for the new prize. If they keep up their gait it seems likely that one of these two players will get the machine.

Ah yes, nothing beats a bit of old-timey baseball writing. 

Well, except for maybe an old-timey baseball conspiracy.

As expected, Ty Cobb made a spirited push to win the car, but it was Cleveland's Nap Lajoie who was hot on Cobb's heels. He had a good shot to beat Cobb fair and square too, as Lajoie had the three-time batting champ in his sights at the very end of the season.

That's when things got weird. Here's the story as told by SABR's Daniel Ginsburg:

Cobb sat out the final two games of the season in order to preserve his lead. But Browns manager Jack "Peach Pie" O'Connor, who hated Cobb, decided to make sure that Lajoie caught Cobb in a season-ending doubleheader between St. Louis and Cleveland, by ordering rookie third baseman Red Corriden to "play back on the edge of the [outfield] grass." Lajoie responded by dumping seven bunt singles down the third base line, as part of an 8-for-8 day that seemingly gave him the title. 

Cobb's teammates wired Lajoie their congratulations, but the press railed against the obvious fraud. American League President Ban Johnson investigated the matter but, in typical fashion for baseball officials of that day, decided to sweep the scandal under the rug. 

Ginsburg is right about the press being suspicious of Lajoie's apparent victory, but the players played dumb. As The New York Times noted, Lajoie and others claimed that there "was no trickery whatever, merely cleverness, and misjudgment combined."

Sure there was, guys...

Cobb was eventually recognized as the batting champ after it was determined that there had been some scoring errors along the way, but Baseball-Almanac.com claims that both he and Lajoie got cars out of the whole mess. What was supposed to be one giveaway turned into two, which was probably not what Chalmers had in mind.

That was it for the car idea. In 1911, the Chalmers award became just an award and was handed over to the writers to vote on.

The writers tended to go for star hitters, as six of the seven hitters who won the award between 1911 and 1914 hit over .300 with slugging percentages over .400. The only exceptions were 1914 NL MVP Johnny Evers, who was a light-hitting and slick-fielding second baseman, and 1913 AL MVP Walter Johnson, who was the first pitcher to ever win the MVP.

The award was discontinued after 1914, apparently because no player was allowed to be voted a winner twice and because the public just plain wasn't interested (bad for Mr. Chalmers' business).

The award would come back again...only to be discontinued again.

 

1922-1929: American and National League Form an MVP Contest

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
MVPs won by Babe Ruth in his career: one.

When the notion of having a Most Valuable Player award resurfaced, it wasn't because some business mogul got a bright idea. It was because the American League got a bright idea.

According to The Associated Press, the AL wanted to grant an award to "the player who proved of greatest service to his team." The voting was handed off to writers, with the only restrictions being no player-managers and no repeat winners, a la the Chalmers Award.

The first winner was George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns, who hit .420 with 51 stolen bases in the 1922 season.

He got a mere diploma for his efforts, as well as something else. Here's the AP:

Sisler’s name will be the first inscribed on the $100,000 baseball monument to be erected by the American League in East Potomac Park, Washington D.C. and presented to the Government as a memorial to the national sport and a hall of fame for perpetuating the memory of its greatest players.

It didn't take long for the National League to figure out that it could do better for an MVP award.

After Babe Ruth won the MVP (his first and last) in 1923, the powers that be in the Senior Circuit got together and designed the league's own MVP award. From The New York Times:

The National League has now gone even further than the American in recognizing and rewarding the most valuable player in its ranks during each season. The American League contented itself with merely awarding a diploma of merit, but the National will go further by giving not only the diploma but also a cash prize of $1,000, which is sure to stimulate the players to their greatest efforts.

The voting for the NL MVP was also different. Voters for the American League award were permitted to vote for one player from each team. Voters for the National League award were allowed to pick 10 players total with no requirements concerning which teams they came from. Also, repeat winners were permitted.

If the idea behind the cash prize was to "stimulate the players to their greatest efforts," the plan certainly worked with Brooklyn Robins hurler Dazzy Vance. He was a fine pitcher before 1924, but the 1924 season saw him win a career-best 28 games while pitching over 300 innings with a 2.16 ERA. He won the NL MVP award over Rogers Hornsby, who hit .424.

Walter Johnson won the AL MVP award in 1924, making him the only player to win both a Chalmers Award and one of the new league awards. He got his name on the memorial and his diploma.

The American League award only lasted a few more years. After Philadelphia's Mickey Cochrane won the MVP in 1928, the AL decided to discontinue it. The AP claimed it was because the award "tended to create ill-feeling among the players."

The death of the AL MVP award left the NL MVP award standing alone, but it only took one year for it to join the AL MVP in the grave. When the NL MVP was abolished in 1929, the AP cited the same reason for the AL MVP's death: the “tendency to promote ill feeling among players.”

It's understandable that the two awards were discontinued. They were being run by the league, and it makes sense that neither league would want to be responsible for unrest among its own players.

However, it didn't take long for the writers to stand up and say, "Uh, why don't we just take care of it?"

Something like that, anyway. Whatever the exact words, it would be the last birth/re-birth of baseball's MVP award.

 

1931 to Now: BBWAA Takes Charge, and Things Have Been Mighty Interesting Since

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Pictured: People who did not get their wish in 2012.

It wasn't a big undertaking for the writers to revive the MVP award. They were the ones doing the voting in the first place, so all they really had to do was start voting again.

It was in 1931, two years after the National League discontinued its MVP award, that the Baseball Writers' Association of America announced its MVPs for the season: Philadelphia left-hander Lefty Grove in the American League and St. Louis second baseman Frankie Frisch in the National League.

The voting was done the way the Senior Circuit used to do it: 10 players from any team ranked according to each writer's individual preferences. Repeat winners were permitted.

After Grove won the award in 1931, the writers began to favor power hitters in the American League. Jimmie Foxx won it three times in the 1930s, with notables like Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio also taking home the award.

The National League award also tended to lean toward sluggers, but the 1930s also saw the award go to pitchers on four occasions: Carl Hubbell in 1933 and 1936, Dizzy Dean in 1934 and Bucky Walters in 1939.

Pitchers continued to enjoy success in the MVP voting in the early 1940s. St. Louis' Mort Cooper won the NL MVP in 1942, and pitchers won the AL MVP three years in a row between 1943 and 1945. The Yankees' Spud Chandler won the first and Detroit's Hal Newhouser won the next two. 

It wasn't just pitchers and sluggers who hogged the award. The voters showed a willingness to give the award to scrappy, light-hitting middle infielders, such as St. Louis shortstop Marty Marion in 1944 and Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto in 1950.

That same year in the National League, the voters broke new ground by voting Philadelphia reliever Jim Konstanty the MVP as a reward for a season that saw him win 16 games and save 22 others (though nobody had any idea what a save was at that point).

It was in 1951 that the voters began their love affair with the two big catchers in New York. Yankees catcher Yogi Berra won three AL MVPs between 1951 and 1955, and Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella won three of his own in that same span. The two of them were darn good players, and they also had the benefit of playing on same darn good teams in those years.

Speaking of that, you might be sitting there wondering precisely when it became an unwritten rule for the voters to favor great players from winning teams.

I can't give you an exact date. What I can say is that the voting tended to go that way pretty much by default from the very beginning, and that Arthur Daley of The New York Times was writing about the tendency as far back as 1963:

Although there is not even an unwritten rule that the winners should emerge from the roster of the league champions, the tendency is overwhelming to look in that direction. Important performances and important contributions take on extra significance when they lead to a pennant. Value is obscured when buried in the second division.

Sounds familiar, right? The part about "important contributions" and "extra significance" might as well be tattooed on writers who vote for the MVP today.

Elsewhere, it's easier to get a grip on the precise time the tendency to overwhelmingly favor RBI men for the award was born. 

That would be the year 1956, the year the Cy Young Award came into existence. Dodgers hurler Don Newcombe won both the Cy Young and the NL MVP that year, but there wouldn't be that many more pitching MVPs in the years to come. 

Daley also explained that tendency in his 1963 column. Once again, the rationale should sound familiar:

"[There] always has been a reluctance on the part of the electors to go for pitchers over day-in-and-day-out operatives. This reluctance has increased since the establishment of the Cy Young Award for the top pitcher in the majors."

Since the Cy Young Award arrived in 1956, there have been seven American League pitcher MVPs and only two National League pitcher MVPs. In between have been many, many RBI men.

Don Malcolm of Hardball Times crunched the numbers in 2008. What he found was that between 1956 and 1989, the NL MVP went to the league RBI leader 50 percent of the time and the AL MVP went to the league RBI leader 47 percent of the time.

Getty Images/Getty Images
Mike Schmidt led the National League in RBI four times. He won the NL MVP in three of those years.

Among the other voting trends that emerged in that span, by far the strangest when viewed through a modern lens is the obsession with relievers in the 1970s and 1980s. Mike Marshall and Sparky Lyle won Cy Youngs in the late '70s, and Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez took home AL Cy Youngs and AL MVPs in 1981 and 1984, respectively.

It was a sign of the times. Murray Chass of The New York Times summed it up best when he wrote in 1979 that "no self-respecting team would be caught without at least one prominent [reliever]."

By far the biggest breach of character to occur in the MVP voting between 1956 and 1989, however, was the selection of Andre Dawson as the NL MVP in 1987.

Dawson's Chicago Cubs had finished in last place that year, and Michael Martinez of The New York Times pointed out that Dawson was the first player to play for a team that placed lower than fifth to be awarded the MVP since the writers started handling the award in 1931.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Dawson had never hit more than 32 homers in a season before going to Chicago.

The reason for Dawson's win, according to Martinez: "Dawson's numbers, despite the Cubs' 76-85 record in the National League East, were simply too impressive to disregard."

He did have some impressive numbers. Dawson hit .287/.328/.568 with an NL-best 49 homers and 137 RBI. Those latter two numbers said he was the best player in the National League, so why not vote him for MVP?

Dawson also had a feelgood story thing going for him. He had only ended up on the Cubs because he hadn't received interest from any other team following his exit from the Montreal Expos. That was mostly due to collusion on the part of the owners, but it didn't help that Dawson's health was a question mark after playing so many years on Olympic Stadium's turf.

In short, things got complicated when Dawson won the MVP in 1987. He proved that the best player can be an MVP even if he's coming from a losing team, and he also opened the door for voters to seriously consider other narratives besides just team success.

A couple years later in 1989, there was Chass of the Times trotting out a few more thought experiments in regard to the NL MVP race between Kevin Mitchell, Will Clark and Pedro Guerrero.

Dominant hitters though they were, Chass argued that Mitchell and Clark both played for the Giants, and were thus able to support each other in the lineup. Guerrero didn't have a partner in crime as good as he was in the Cardinals lineup, and thus had to handle a greater responsibility.

The first column of its kind? I doubt it, but certainly that I could find, and it just so happened to be written on the eve of a noticeable shift in the MVP voting.

Malcolm's research on RBI leaders and the MVP found that the voting hasn't been nearly as friendly to RBI leaders since 1990. Between 1990 and 2008, only four RBI leaders from each league were voted MVP. Since 2009, the only RBI leader to win MVP was Miguel Cabrera last year.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Oddly enough, the 2003 season was not A-Rod's best as a Ranger.

Part of that can be chalked up to the dominance of Barry Bonds, who led the league in RBI only once in his record seven MVP seasons. Along with his importance to his teams, Bonds' non-RBI numbers were simply too good to ignore. All of Alex Rodriguez's numbers, meanwhile, were too good to ignore when he won the AL MVP in 2003 on a last-place Texas Rangers team.

Then there are the assorted narrative MVPs. Chipper Jones helped put the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs with an insane second-half surge in 1999. Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan and changed the culture of the Seattle Mariners in 2001 after A-Rod had left. Dustin Pedroia had a little-guy thing going for him in 2008. And so on.

And yes, what Malcolm called the "stathead backlash" has been a factor too. Bill James published his first Baseball Abstract in 1977, and the sabermetric movement built and built until it found its way into major league front offices and into the public consciousness by way of Moneyball in the early 2000s.

However, it was made loud and clear in 2012 that new-age stats have only entered into the MVP discussion, and no further.

We all lived through the war between Mike Trout supporters and Miguel Cabrera supporters. On one side were those who argued for Trout to win the American League MVP on the basis of his insane all-around value to the Los Angeles Angels. On the other side were those who argued for Cabrera on the basis of his busting of the Triple Crown drought and the fact that his Detroit Tigers actually made the playoffs.

Going back and forth were the barbs. People like Bill Madden of the New York Daily News condemned the "ludicrous" Wins Above Replacement metric and all new-age stats. ESPN's Keith Law provided a rallying cry for Trout supporters by referring to sabermetrics haters as "Luddites."

What exactly did we witness? I liked the phrase used by CBS Sports' Matt Snyder: "the slow death of respectful disagreement."

It all ended when Cabrera won the MVP in what was pretty much a landslide. It wasn't a surprise, and it signified the same thing to both crowds: The MVP voting has changed over the years, but it's not ready to lean toward new-age stats.

For the traditionalists: fist pumps. For the geeks: grumbles.

 

The Wrap-Up

And that, as things stand now, is the end of the story.

Yeah, I know. Sort of a cliffhanger, but what are you going to do? We may be talking about a Dan Brown-esque tale, but this one's a serial.

It's been a good one so far, though. The story of the Major League Baseball MVP in old-timey days really couldn't be more of an old-timey baseball story. Ever since the writers took over in 1931, the MVP has essentially served as a reflection of popular opinion. Last year, there was an all-out war over what the popular opinion was supposed to be.

What's in store for its next adventure?

Well, I don't want to spoil anything, but Mr. Cabrera has a pretty decent shot at another Triple Crown, and he and Mr. Trout just so happen to be tied for second in the American League in FanGraphs WAR behind only Evan Longoria.

Who's up for a grudge match?

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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