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Bubbles Hargrave is one of major league baseball's more obscure batting champions. That he didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the title by rules established a few years later added to the impression the Cincinnati catcher didn't deserve the honor he received after he batted .353 in 1926.

However, Eugene Franklin Hargrave may have a stronger claim to his batting title than did two batting champions who preceded him, two players later inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Napoleon "Larry" Lajoie is generally recognized as the American League batting champion for the 1902 season. He batted .378, but did so in only 352 at bats. There was no rule about it at the time, only a general understanding that players had to appear in 60 percent of the games. Lajoie's 87 games qualified during this 136-game season.

Lajoie missed several games because he was subject of a lawsuit. His former team, the Philadelphia Phillies, like other members of the National League, tried to prevent players from jumping to the American League, which emerged in 1901. Lajoie played the 1901 season in Philadelphia, but with the Athletics of the new league. A lawsuit filed by the Phillies slowly made its way through the courts. In 1902 a decision finally was handed down by the state Supreme Court. Lajoie was told he could not play baseball in Pennsylvania unless he did so with the Phillies.

American League president Ban Johnson's solution: he sent Lajoie to Cleveland to play for team then known as the Blues. Can you imagine of today's owners agreeing to send their best players to a rival to help the league? For the rest of the season Lajoie stayed of Pennsylvania, thus missing the games Cleveland played at Philadelphia against the Athletics.

LIKE ELECTIONS, baseball has recounts. When the 1902 season ended, unofficial statistics showed Lajoie had won the batting title by a comfortable margin over runner-up Ed Delahanty of Washington. However, official statistics, released a few days later, declared Delahanty batting champion. Much later there was a review of scorecards which resulted in a new set of statistics and Lajoie being named the 1902 American League batting champ with a .378 average. Many continue to insist Delahanty was more deserving, having batted .376 with 473 at bats in 123 games. (Delahanty would be killed during the 1903 season after his disorderly behavior got him kicked off a train at the Canadian-United States border as it was about to cross the Niagara River. Moments later Delahanty fell from the bridge.)

While Delahanty and Lajoie were teammates with the Phillies, Lajoie had gotten a promise from team owner John Rogers that he (Lajoie) and Delahanty would be paid the same. Later Lajoie discovered Delahanty was making $400 more. That prompted Lajoie to join the American League.

In 1914 Ty Cobb was declared American League batting champion though he played only 98 games in a 154-game season. He had 345 at bats and a .368 average. Philadelphia Athletics second baseman Eddie Collins played in 152 games, had 526 at bats (and more than 650 total plate appearances, counting bases on balls and sacrifice hits), and hit .344.

The fact Cobb had a significant edge over Collins and had won the previous seven batting championships, twice hitting higher than .400, minimized protests on Collins' behalf. There was one slight hitch – Cobb might not have deserved one of those previous championships, the one he was awarded in 1910.

THAT WAS baseball's most controversial batting race. Cobb and Nap Lajoie entered the last week of the season virtually tied. At stake was the Chalmers luxury automobile promised to the 1910 American League batting king.

By the final day of the season Cobb had pulled ahead. Lajoie, playing a double-header against the St. Louis Browns, would need a hit in every at bat in order to have a shot at the championship. Turned out that wasn't difficult, thanks to St. Louis manager Jack O'Connor, who, like many, despised Cobb.

O'Connor ordered his rookie third baseman Red Corridon to play deep whenever Lajoie was up, giving him an invitation to bunt, which the player did – eight times. He reached base every time, though one bunt was ruled a sacrifice. In one other at bat Lajoie lined a hit over the center fielder's head for a triple, though some observers felt the ball could have been caught.

The Brown fired manager O'Connor for tampering with the integrity of the game. (He had even offered a bribe to the official scorekeeper to change the sacrifice to a hit.) O'Connor probably would have been canned anyway since his team had finished in eighth place.

SEVERAL of Cobb's Detroit Tiger teammates added fuel to the fire by sending Lajoie a congratulatory telegram. Disharmony on the Tigers was no secret, but this was a blatant slap at the team's superstar. The telegram was premature because league president Ban Johnson declared Cobb the batting champion with a .385 average, to Lajoie's .384. The Chalmers company ducked the controversy by giving a car to each player, though Lajoie was so upset he considered refusing the gift, finally yielding to the cooler judgment of his wife. Lajoie was convinced he had won the batting championship.

Turns out he was correct, though it didn't do him any good. Baseball researchers never let sleeping dogs lie. When the 1910 scorebooks were reviewed it was discovered Cobb had erroneously been credited with two extra hits. When those hits were subtracted, Cobb's average dropped to .383, making Lajoie the winner (if you ignore his tainted hits against the Browns).

Perhaps baseball officials were too embarrassed to overturn the 1910 batting race. Cobb retained his batting champion. A final appeal was made on Lajoie's behalf in 1981, but baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn wouldn't budge.

In 1929 a hitting machine named Dale Alexander rose from the minor leagues and took over as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers of the American League. Alexander had played five season in the minors, never hit below .323, and was coming off a season with Toronto where he won the International League's triple crown with a .380 batting average, 31 home runs and 144 runs batted in.

Alexander batted .343 in his first year with Detroit, hit 25 home runs, and set a rookie record by driving in 137 runs. (In 1939 Ted Williams' 145 RBI would break this record.) Alexander also led the league in hits, with 215, and he played every game, something he also did in 1930 when he batted .326 and drove in 135 runs. But the following season, 1931, he hit only three home runs to go with his .325 average. He did hit a career-high total of 47 doubles, but his runs batted in dropped to 87 and he missed about 19 games.

THEN THINGS really got bad. Alexander was in such a slump at the beginning of 1932 that the Tigers got rid of him. By June 12 Alexander had no home runs and only four runs batted in to go with his .250 batting average. On that day he was traded to the Boston Red Sox who also received outfielder Roy Johnson in exchange for outfielder Earl Webb, also in a slump after batting .333 with a major league record of 67 doubles the season before.

Alexander turned things around immediately and by the end of the season raised his batting average of .367, best in the league. He qualified for the batting title because he played in 124 games, though he had only 392 at bats. Many felt the title should have gone to Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx, who didn't miss a game and had 585 at bats and a .364 average, not to mention 58 home runs and 169 RBI.

For Alexander 1933 would be a nightmare. He injured a leg on Memorial Day sliding into home plate. The team doctor, using a new deep-heat treatment, badly burned the already damaged leg. (In an interview several years later one of Alexander's sons put it this way: "They just barbecued his leg.")

He returned to action, but for the first time failed to clear .300, though his .281 batting average was respectable. Boston, however, must have felt Alexander was damaged goods. They released him and the player spent 1934 with Newark of the International League, hitting .336 with 123 RBI. He hit well for the next few seasons, but he remained in the minors, eventually becoming a player-manager, then a manager, finally a scout. When he retired Alexander returned to the Tennessee farm that had been in his family since 1796 and died of prostate cancer in 1979. He was 76.

Jimmie Foxx, who won the batting title in 1933, did it again in 1938 because American League officials wisely chose to ignore the 100-game rule. Taffy Wright, rookie outfielder for the Washington Senators, played in exactly 100 games, but 40 of those appearances were as a pinch hitter. Result: He had only 263 at bats. Still there were some folks who thought his .350 batting average deserved to be recognized as the best in the league.

DEBS GARMS was not considered a starter when he wound up with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1940 after playing four seasons with the St. Louis Browns of the American League and three with the Boston Braves of the National League. Garms started as an outfielder, but as his career continued he was used a lot at third base. He was the back-up at both positions for the Pirates, and when the season ended he had a pair of statistics with numbers that very nearly matched – 358 at bats and, more importantly, a .355 batting average. Garms played only 83 games in the field, but had enough pinch-hit appearances to be credited with 103 games, which qualified him for the batting title.

Garms was a most surprising batting champion, but there really was no alternative. His average was 36 points higher than the next closest player, Ernie Lombardi, who had just 376 at bats and would be involved in his own controversy two years later. The third highest batting average was posted by Boston's Johnny Cooney, who hit .318, but had only 365 at bats. The highest average among full-time players was .317, achieved by Chicago Cubs third baseman Stan Hack. But Garms could have been charged with 42 additional at bats – to reach what for awhile was considered the magic number of 400 – and STILL have beaten out Hack. So hail the king, Debs Garms.

Ernie Lombardi is the only major league catcher to win two batting titles, a remarkable accomplishment when you consider he was one of the slowest runners of all-time. He started his major league career in 1931 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but a year later was part of a six-player trade that sent him to Cincinnati. Lombardi hit better than .300 in seven of his ten seasons with the Reds, his career high coming in 1935 when he batted .343. Three seasons later his .342 batting average was the best in the league. He played 129 games and had 489 at bats. No argument; he was the champion.

Four years later, however, when Lombardi won his second batting title, the matter wasn't clear cut. He batted .330 and appeared in 105 games, though 20 of those were pinch-hitting appearances. He had only 309 at bats. Lombardi missed several games because of a split finger suffered while trying to catch what was termed a "flutterball" or fast knuckleball thrown by pitcher Jim Tobin.

He finished the season 12 points better than Enos Slaughter of St. Louis who batted .318 and played in 152 games, with 591 at bats and a league-leading 188 hits. Many felt Slaughter deserved to be the National League batting champion that year.

BUBBLES HARGRAVE'S .353 average won a batting title in 1926, a very strange season, at least in this one statistical category. Hargrave's closest competitor was a rookie teammate who batted .350 in 114 games and 329 at bats. This rookie's name was Cuckoo Christensen, real first name Walter, alternate nickname Seacap. He disappeared from the major leagues a year later. (Can you picture it – the chairman of a special committee appointed by the league president to determine the batting champion. "Gentlemen, our choice is between Bubbles and Cuckoo.")

Finishing third was another catcher, Earl ("Oil") Smith, who batted .346, appeared in 105 games but had only 292 at bats. Behind him was outfielder Cy Williams of Philadelphia who hit .345 with 336 at bats. Never had so many players hit so well without registering full-season numbers. Perhaps the batting title should have gone to Pittsburgh rookie (and future Hall of Famer) Paul Waner who hit .336 with 536 at bats.

Forgotten was the fine season of Boston Braves outfielder "Glass Arm Eddie" Brown, a player whose reluctance to take a walk gave him 612 at bats. He responded with 201 hits, tops in the league, and a .328 average.

THERE HAVE BEEN other controversial batting races. In 1954 Boston's Ted Williams batted .345, but had only 386 at bats. The title went to Cleveland second baseman Bobby Avila who hit .341 with 555 at bats. Williams played enough games and had 522 plate appearances, but 136 of them resulted in bases on balls. This was during an 11-year period when players needed 400 at bats to qualify for the title.

The rule was changed in 1957 and under those rules Ted Williams would have been the American League batting king in 1954.

(In 1949 William lost the closest batting race of them all, hitting .3427, while Detroit third baseman George Kell won the title with an average of .3429.)

In 1959 Tito Francona of the Cleveland Indians batted .363. He played 122 games and had 399 at bats. The American League batting championship that season was awarded to Harvey Kuenn of the Detroit Tigers who batted .353 in 139 games with 561 at bats. Rules previous to 1957 would have given Francona the title.

Finally, there was the American League's 1976 batting race which some felt harkened back to 1910. Hal McRae of the Kansas City Royals was leading teammate George Brett going into the final game of the season against the Minnesota Twins. Brett got two hits in the game and beat McRae for the title, .333 to .332. After the game McRae declared racism was a factor, claiming Minnesota outfielder Steve Brye intentionally misplayed a Brett fly ball that resulted in an inside-the-park home run. The charge was never proven, but neither has it ever gone away.

— JACK MAJOR
 
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