Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Roger Maris’ Asterisk

Maris Ruth

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Next in Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics Series: Part 8: Women Do All the Work but Men Keep All the Money
Previous in Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics Series: Part 6: Male-Female Wage Gap

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We at SwiftEconomics.com enjoy sports quite thoroughly, as you can see from our discussion on the economics of the Florida Marlins and Brett Favrenomics. So I try to link economics to sports whenever possible. And luckily, given that this series is about bogus statistics, sports offer me an array of possibilities from which to choose from.

It’s always a bit perplexing to me how athletes are often judged almost solely by their statistics. This assumes that their statistics are accumulated on their own, when in reality their statistics are closely tied to how talented their teammates are (same with how successful their team is, obviously). One great example is Tom Brady. Take a look at his statistics from 2006 and then 2007:

Source: ESPN.com, http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/players/stats?playerId=2330

Source: ESPN.com, http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/players/stats?playerId=2330

What happened? In 2006, Tom Brady was pretty good, but then in 2007 he launched off the charts and was awarded the NFL MVP award, (given to whichever quarterback or running back on one of the top five teams has the best statistics). What happened was actually quite simple: before the 2007 season, the New England Patriots acquired superstar wide-receiver, Randy Moss, and the perennial possession receiver, Wes Welker. In 2007, Randy Moss had 98 receptions for 1493 yards, and an NFL record 23 receiving touchdowns. Wes Welker had an NFL leading 112 receptions for 1175 yards, and 8 touchdowns. (1) Do you think that may have had something to do with Tom Brady’s statistical explosion? Did Tom Brady really deserve the MVP for 2007 given the playmakers he was lucky enough to work with?

There are some sports, such as track and field or tennis, in which individual statistics are all that matter. Baseball is another sport where statistics would presumably show how good a player is in and of themselves, since, for the most part, it’s batter vs. pitcher. But even in baseball, statistics can be misleading.

And with the playoffs rapidly approaching, baseball is where we now turn, to the asterisk Roger Maris received after he broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 1961 (since broken twice, by steroid assisted performances from Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds).

Rarely does a record-breaking performance draw anything but applause, but that wasn’t the case for Roger Maris in 1961. Babe Ruth was obviously beloved in New York, so I can see why Yankee fans would be irritated by Roger Maris’ chase of history, except for the inconvenient fact that Roger Maris also played for the New York Yankees! What angered people so much, aside from their love of Babe Ruth, was that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in a 162 game season, whereas Babe Ruth had only 154 games to hit 60. It got so ridiculous that Roger Maris and his family received multiple death threats during the season! (2) I’ve never understood death threats in sports… it’s just a game for crying out loud!

Major League Baseball wasn’t particularly happy with him either. Even before the record was broken, MLB commissioner, Ford Frick, announced that unless Ruth’s record was broken in 154 games, the record book would show the new record was set in 162 games. After 154 games, Roger Maris had but 59 home runs. Now, it’s true that Major League Baseball never actually put an asterisk by Roger Maris’ record; that is just an urban legend, probably invented by sportswriter Dick Young. (3) However, the nonexistent asterisk had about the same effect as a real one would have, as no one seemed to accept Roger Maris’ record as the ‘real’ record. In some ways, this seems to be a case of statistical justice; but in my humble opinion, Babe Ruth’s record should be the one with the asterisk (be it real or of the urban legend variety), not Roger Maris’.

It is true that Roger Maris had eight more games, and had Babe Ruth had those eight extra games, the statistical trend says he would have hit 63.1 home runs.* However, what does the asterisk actually represent? To me, it’s an attempt to show that Roger Maris had an unfair advantage setting his record; namely, eight more games. What this ignores is that Babe Ruth had a significant advantage, too: he didn’t have to play against a significant number of the best athletes.

Gibson

Josh Gibson: Known as the "black Babe Ruth"

Jackie Robinson is often celebrated for breaking down baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, and he deserves to be. (4) What is rarely discussed is the affect this had on the game before 1947. If we were discussing the NBA, every Hall of Famer from the previous era should probably just be thrown out. With baseball, maybe we can be a little more forgiving. Still, the Negro Leagues had a host of great players, including Josh Gibson, who some credit with hitting as many as 800 home runs from 1931 to 1946. (5) Babe Ruth hit his 60 home runs in 1927, comfortably avoiding integration of the leagues and thereby, the best black pitchers in the country. Roger Maris hit his 61 in 1961; 14 years after the color barrier had been broken.

In 2008, 10.2% of professional baseball players were African-Americans. (6) We cannot assume the same numbers would have applied when Ruth was playing, but we can assume the percentage would have been above zero. How many bad, white pitchers did Babe Ruth hit a home run off of, that he wouldn’t have hit if a better, black pitcher had been allowed to play? There’s no way to know. So maybe, instead of erasing the record, we should just put a little asterisk next to it, so everyone knows the advantage Babe Ruth had.

Furthermore, Babe Ruth also avoided the large influx of Latin-American players. While Hispanics were not prohibited from playing in the MLB, like African-Americans were, it’s well accepted that the color barrier was enforced in a de facto way against Hispanics. There were certainly very few Hispanics in the league when Ruth was playing. However, by 1951, four years after integration, both Venezuelan-born Chico Carrasquel and Cuban-born Minnie Miñoso were elected All Stars. (7) Today, almost 30% of the players in the MLB are Hispanic. (8) It wasn’t as high of a percentage in 1961, but it was much higher than in 1927, when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.

The point isn’t to blame Babe Ruth for anything; he didn’t make the rules. But then again, Roger Maris didn’t add eight games to the schedule either. The lesson is that statistics, be they sports or economics or whatever, can be very misleading. And in this case, if Roger Maris deserves an asterisk for the advantage he had (eight extra games), then Babe Ruth should have one for his advantage (not having to play against many of the best players). And while we’re at it, let’s give Barry Bonds an asterisk for his advantage (anabolic steroids, HGH, eight more games than Ruth, etc.).

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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics Series

Part 1: A Primer
Part 2: Income Stagnaton
Part 3: All Fiat Currencies Fail
Part 4: Iraq War Casualties
Part 5: Female-Male College Gap
Part 6: Male-Female Wage Gap
Part 7: Roger Maris’ Asterisk
Part 8: Women Do All the Work but Men Keep All the Money
Part 9: The BMI
Part 10: A College Degree is Worth One Million Dollars

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*You could argue that the NFL should do this as well for many records, since the schedule was changed from 14 games to 16 games in 1978.

(1) NFL Player Receiving Statistics- 2007, ESPN.com, retrieved September 28, 2009, http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/player/_/stat/receiving/sort/receivingYards/year/2007/seasontype/2
(2) Stephen Borelli, “Remember Roger Maris,” USA Today, January 17, 2002, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/comment/borelli/2001-10-04-borelli.htm
(3) “Roger Maris: 1961,” Wikipedia.org, Retrieved September 28, 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Maris#1961
(4) For more on Jackie Robinson, see James Lincoln Ray, “Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Season,” Suite101.com, April 4, 2007, http://baseball.suite101.com/article.cfm/jackie_robinsons_legacy_part_one http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h3778.html
(5) Larry Schwartz, “No joshing about Gibson’s talents,” ESPN.com, Article not dated, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016050.html
(6) Alden Gonzales, “Study: Percentage of blacks in MLB rises,” MLB.com, April 15, 2009, http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090415&content_id=4280320&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb
(7) See “Baseball: Rise of Ruth and racial integration,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved September 28, 2009, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball#Rise_of_Ruth_and_racial_integration
(8) Matt Simpson, “Number of American blacks playing baseball declines,” East Valley Tribune, April 15, 2007, http://www.eastvalleytribune.com/story/87851

7 Comments

  • mlage


    Two other facts ignored by Maris’ uninformed detractors is that 1: Maris played a significant number of game at night. It is almost universally acknowledged that the ball is harder to see in artificial light. And (more importantly) 2: Maris was playing in much larger ballparks. Even the right field fence in Yankee Stadium was 20 feet deeper in 1961 than in 1927. Hell, most of 1927′s stadiums would have fit in the men’s rooms of later parks.
    Maris is the single season unjuiced record holder. Case closed.

    • morpheus


      Maris played in larger ballparks? Both Ruth and Maris hit more dingers on the road. Albeit that both players were also left-handed hitters and had more plate appearances on the road. However, looking at a few numbers, you might want to re-think the “smaller” ballpark of Yankee stadium. When Ruth was playing, here were the numbers at Yankee stadium:

      Ruth Maris
      far left: : 280-301 301 change was made in 1928
      left (power alley): 407 402
      left center : 490 457
      center : 487 461
      right (power alley): 429 407
      right : 350 367
      far right: : 294 296

      Most people think that Ruth simply pulled the ball over the right or far right field porch. However, most of Ruth’s home runs at Yankee stadium were between the power alley in right and center field. The 487 feet at center made for a lot of long outs (or triples if it went over the fielder’s head). This is not to take anything away from Maris’ accomplishments, but it may put a different perspective on Ruth’s. The ball parks in Ruth’s time were much larger, hence the high batting averages may also account for that since fielders had to cover more ground or were more willing to let a single bounce in front of them rather than having the ball skirt by for extra bases. With that said, pitchers in Ruth’s time did not always throw as hard like those in Maris’ time. There are so many circumstances that each player is trapped in his own time period, and can be a good thing. Whether or not an asterisk is given to Maris or not, so be it. He hit 61 round trippers in eight more games, everyone knows that. Still -aside from the HGH users and Roiders- he has hit the most homeruns in a 162 game schedule. Well, Maris played 161 games that year.

  • Andrew


    Good points, the stadium size is a huge issue. That’s true even when it comes to whoever leads the MLB in home runs. It’s quite the advantage to hit in a smaller park where what would have been a pop out fly ball becomes a home run. It always puzzled me why there wasn’t a regulation size for a Major League Baseball field.

  • Pingback: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Women Do All the Work, But Men Keep All the Money - Women Do Two Thirds of Work, Earn One Tenth of Income, Own One Hundredth of Wealth | Swift Economics

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