There once lived a fascinating man named Ferdinand Cole Lane, who for much of his life went by the initials “F.C.” because, well, his name was Ferdinand Cole.
F.C. Lane lived to be 98 years old, and in his long life did a great many things. He wrote a book about insects, another about trees, another about flowers, another about mountains, another about lakes*, another about the earth’s grandest rivers. He taught journalism. He taught history. He wrote poetry. He lived, for a time, in a Canadian log cabin. He once traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in steerage for the experience. He was married to the same woman for 70 years, and 10 months after he died in 1984 his wife Emma passed away.
*He begins his book about lakes — “The Worlds Great Lakes” — like so: “Lakes!” No one could charge F.C. Lane with a lack of enthusiasm.
I suggested right at the top that Lane went by his initials because, well, wouldn’t you if your name was Ferdinand Cole? But that’s not the whole truth. Later in life, when Lane was teaching and writing about his lifelong love of biology and poetry, he did, in fact, go by his given name, by Ferdinand C. Cole. It was only early in his life that he used the initials F.C., and the reason for that in his early life he was a baseball writer. And F.C. Lane sounds a whole lot more like a baseball writer.
He wandered into baseball writing by accident. Lane had just left the log cabin when in 1911, though a series of coincidences, he ended up getting a job with Jacob C. Morse’s, “Baseball Magazine.” The early baseball writers all seem to have fascinating stories. Jake Morse had been a lawyer who, some years earlier, had fallen in love with baseball. And so instead of going into law — he was a Harvard graduate — he wrote about baseball. He became sports editor of the Boston Herald in the mid-1880s and wrote one of the first histories of baseball books called “Sphere and Ash.” In 1907, he got canned by the Herald and decided to start his own baseball magazine, which he creatively called, “Baseball Magazine.” Lane was hired ostensibly to help Morse run Baseball Magazine. But after only a few months, Lane became the editor, and the magazine would carry his vision for a quarter century.
Lane would say later in life that he did not love sportswriting — that editing Baseball Magazine was more of a job than anything else. This may be true, but F.C. Lane did not do anything half-heartedly, and Baseball Magazine was a lively, interesting, controversial, fascinating and passionate look at the game. If you have numerous hours/days to kill, I heartily recommend going over to the Baseball Magazine Archives (The wonderful LA84 Foundation has many of the magazines from 1908 to 1920) and just typing in any keyword at all.
I first went over the to those archives because of a story that appeared on Fangraphs a few weeks ago with the nerd-friendly title, “Was wOBA actually invented nearly 100 years ago?” Fangraphs’ author Sam Menzin refers to a story that F.C. Lane wrote in 1916 called “Why the system of batting averages should be changed.” Having written more than a few blog posts that could have been filed under that precise title, I wanted to read it.
What I found, however, is a lot greater than that just one story. Baseball magazine was obviously conceived and written and printed long before Bill James, long before Pete Palmer, long before sabermetrics, long before Branch Rickey hired statistician Allan Roth. And yet, because F.C. Lane was a biologist by nature, with a scientific mind that longed for data and things that could be proved, his magazine had story after story that would look perfectly in place on Fangraphs of in the pages of Baseball Prospectus.
Some article titles:
— Batting or Fielding – Which?
— Why Great Fielders Don’t Hit
— The Art Of Working The Pitcher
— Does It Pay To Hit The First Ball?
— Who is the Greatest Third Baseman and Why?
— How Much is a Major League Manager Worth?
— A Batter’s Prime
And so on. Baseball Magazine did not stay exclusively with statistical stories or insider stuff — in fact, that was just a tiny part of what they did. Most of their articles were interviews with great players, predictions for the coming season, historical profiles … Lane wrote an amazing story about the tragic failings of Shoeless Joe Jackson (The Man Who Might Have Been The Greatest Player In The Game) — amazing because he wrote it in 1916, three years BEFORE Jackson took the money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.
In other words: Yeah, I wish I could start Baseball Magazine all over again.
Back to batting averages. It turns out that the flaws of batting average was not a one-time topic of F.C. Lane … but something of an obsession of the entire magazine. In a quick search, I found a half dozen stories about why batting average is a poor way to judge baseball players, all of the stories written before 1920.
But the focus here is on Lane. The article referenced by Fangraphs first appeared in March of 1916 and began with the basic point that hits, like coins, have different values. He made the point that if someone has a 50-cent piece, a quarter, three times, four nickels and three pennies, we would say he has $1.28 and NOT that he has 12 coins (“Anyone who offered such a system would deserve to be examines as to his mental condition,” Lane wrote — he did not suffer fools).
What Lane believed is that every hit has a VALUE. He conceded that finding that value would not easy and he wasn’t even entirely sure how to do it. A double was OBVIOUSLY worth more than a single. A triple was OBVIOUSLY worth more than a double. A single with a man on third was OBVIOUSLY worth more than a single with nobody. A home run with the bases loaded was OBVIOUSLY worth more than a home run with the bases empty.
But how much more? Well, Lane admitted this was a challenge. He worked up some calculations involving the percentages of hits and percentages of runs — you could almost tell in the writing that even Lane wasn’t convinced by what he had come up with. But what Lane WAS convinced about was that there had to be a way to determine the value of individual hits. And once you did that, you could find the TRUE VALUE of a hitter by adding up those values. This first article, the one that Fangraphs found, showed that Lane understood that there was a better way. But he doesn’t really find a better way in it.
But here’s the thing: This article was only the BEGINNING of Lane’s quest to find a better way to measure hitting.
* * *
Two months later — in May of 1916, Lane’s second batting averages article appeared, and it is even more fascinating than the first. It is called: “An Improved System of Batting Averages.” And it is a point-counterpoint between F.C. Lane and an old sportswriter named William Phelon. Remember how I said that those early sportswriters tended to have fascinating backgrounds? Well, Bill Phelon was one of the BBWAA founders, but he was also a poet and satirist who, according to Red Smith, lived with a 5-foot alligator and carried a tiny squirrel around with him into press boxes.*
*I will pause here to share the story of Bill Phelon’s ashes — told by Red Smith himself and quoted in Ira Berkow’s wonderful biography called “Red.” It seems that Phelon loved Havana, and he would go there every year to be with his friend Pepe Conte, a Cuban sportswriter. Well, when Phelon died, he sent his ashes in a small urn to Pepe Conte with the note, “Hello Pepe, this is Bill.” He asked to have his ashes scattered over Morro Castle.
Conte was so distraught over the death of his friend, though, he decided first to take Phelon’s ashes and have a few drinks at a bar called the El Floridita. Pepe told everyone that Bill Phelon was dead, his ashes were in the urn, and he bought drinks for everyone Phelon’s honor. Conte then took the ashes to a bar called Sloppy Joes and, once more, bought drinks for the house in honor of Bill Phelon. He repeated this again and again, bar after bar. At some point, in Red Smith’s glorious phrase, Pepe “mislaid Bill Phelon.” And Phelon was “undoubtedly swept out the next morning with the cigarette butts.”
“I tell this story,” Red Smith told his audience, “to make it clear that sportswriters lead glamorous lives and come to unexpected ends.”
In any case, Bill Phelon wanted to stand up for batting average. Well, that’s not exactly right … Phelon believed batting average was an absurdly weak way to judge baseball players. He just didn’t think there was any BETTER way to do it. He certainly did not like Lane’s way of giving more credit to doubles, triples and homers than singles.
While this may sound illogical, Phelon, in his own way, was also well ahead of his time in baseball thought. Phelon was probably the first baseball writer to OBSESS over park effects. In Lane’s words, “All sports writers, through the nature of their calling, are apt to be unbalanced on some particular subject … Mr. Phelon is a ‘bug’ on short fences and circumscribed grounds.” Phelon just could not stand the idea that one player would get more credit for hitting more home runs when he played in a smaller ballpark. It drove him nuts.
“No average based on extra base hits — long smashes for doubles, triples and homers — can be in any way fair under the present conditions of parks and fences,” Phelon wrote.
It wasn’t only park effects that bothered Phelon. It was MOSTLY park effects, but he too was bothered that Lane’s new system would not consider clutch hitting (how, Phelon wondered, could you judge the value of a meaningless home run in a 7-2 game against a sharp two-run single that won the game). And, at exactly the same time, he did not believe that any fair system WOULD consider clutch hitting because, in his words, “opportunity would count more than real merit — for it’s opportunity, and certainly not your own ability, that brings you up with the bases full.”
Phelon also thought any even reasonably fair system would be pathetically and self-destructively complicated (he was probably the first writer to invent a mock statistic which he called IR for Influence on the Result — he was decades ahead of columnists who make fun of VORP). Basically, Phelon just had a lot of problems with any kind of new system and, as such, determined that it would be best to just stay with batting average and forget the whole thing.
Phelon did call a baseball team “co-laborers in the vineyard,” which I thought had a nice ring to it.
Lane did not care much for Phelon’s phrase-making and even less for his argument. Phelon made some very good and interesting points that would have made for a good article on its own. But as an argument against Lane’s ideas, well, I’ve always thought that the “Well, we can’t make it perfect so let’s not try to make it better,” arguments are among the worst. And this is exactly what Lane said in his response:
“(Phelon argues that) because we can’t have a perfect system let’s not make any effort to improve the present system which Mr. Phelon admits is grossly inaccurate. If there is any logic in this contention, it escapes our feeble intellect.”
Lane does briefly try to counter Phelon’s individual points. He states that short fences provide certain advantages but also certain DISADVANTAGES — for instance, doubles and triples in other parks can become singles against a short fence (he does not also point out that infielders can play shallower in short outfields and therefore take away more singles). He forcefully points out that his system isn’t COMPLICATED in the slightest. He admits that coming up with the value for each hit is complicated (and had, thus far, eluded him). But once those values were determined, it would be no more difficult to figure out the value of a player than to it is to figure out how much money a person with several coins had.
Lane finalizes his counter-point with a pretty savage four-punch combination
Punch 1. Question: Is a scratch single with nobody on base worth as much as a grand slam?
Punch 2: Batting average says yes.
Punch 3: Phelon says batting average can’t be improved upon.
Punch 4: Phelon is saying that a scratch single with nobody on base is worth as much as a grand slam.
And that’s how the article ends: “Is a scratch single equal to a home run? We contend that it is not. Mr. Phelon, reducing his maze of rhetoric to its simplest terms, contends that it is. Take your choice.”
* * *
The third F.C. Lane article about batting averages appeared less than a year later — January of 1917 — and it is the most complete and involved of them all. In this one, Lane turns to experimentation.
Well, the first thing he does is reprint a bulk of the first article, the one that explains the problem of batting averages using coins. But when he gets to the part where he tries to actually come up with a value for each hit, he breaks off and admits: “At this stage in the article we were obliged to forsake fact for theory. We had no exact statistics on the comparative value of singles, doubles, triples and home runs, and we were forced to supply conjectural figures which were naturally inaccurate.”
But this time, Lane believes, he had come up with a better way through “observation of a sufficient number of actual contests.”
What does that mean? Well: Lane and the people at Baseball Magazine had watched and carefully compiled the records of 1,000 hits in games during the 1916 season played by every team (and including one World Series game). “Our sole object,” he wrote, “was to find the exact value of a single, a double, a triple and a home run.”
One thousand hits, if you think about it, is not a lot. There were more than 20,000 hits in 1916 alone. But, to do this kind of research in 1916, was astonishingly difficult. I have to say that in I am thrilled to find that people were doing this kind of stuff in back then. One of the real misconceptions is that this search for baseball knowledge is NEW (going back to Moneyball) or at least KIND OF NEW (going back to Bill James and Pete Palmer). But it’s apparent, going back to Baseball Magazine, that people have been thinking about these sorts of things for at least 100 years, and probably a lot longer than that. And it was a lot more challenging to break through baseball’s myths — this was long before Retrosheet and Baseball Reference and Fangraphs and numerous other data troves where you could find much of the information you wanted INSTANTLY. For instance, in 1916 finding out the player with the longest hitting streak was a Herculean task. Now, it literally means four clicks of the mouse.
Longest hitting streaks since 2000:
1. Jimmy Rollins, 38
2. Chase Utley, 35
(tie) Luis Castillo, 35
4. Dan Uggla, 33
5. Five players tied at 30
That list would have taken F.C. Lane or Ernie Lanigan or John J. Ward or John Lawres or any of the other early writers who loved this kind of stuff months, perhaps even years, to compile. It would have taken Bill James, in his early years of clipping out box scores from the Sporting News, an astonishingly long time too. But they STILL did it because there have always been those people who want to get at the heart of baseball, get beyond the cliches and the opinions and the things that SOUND right and to something resembling truth.
To quote our guy F.C. Lane again: “There are many men who are fond of making an unsupported statement under the apprehension that they have posited an argument.”
Baseball is 90% pitching … He does things that don’t show up in the box scores … He is an RBI man … He is a good teammates … He is always in the right place … He is a winner … Every baseball team wins 50 games and loses 50 games and the other 62 are what make the difference … You never want to make the third out at third base … You never want to put the tying run on base … If you want to get to this pitcher you better get him early … Good pitching stops good hitting … This guy saves a hundred runs a year with his glove …
Some of these may be true. Some may not. But the point is that when people in baseball say them — these and many other things — they don’t KNOW if they’re true. They just think they’re true. So they say them. And they will insist (often angrily insist) that they are right even if facts emerge that favor the opposite position.
Of course, one response to all this is: So what? It’s just baseball. It’s just fun. Why do we have to be precise — we’re not defusing a bomb or building a bridge. No, we’re not, and that’s why batting average — which excludes walks, which counts every kind of hit the same, which sometimes count people out even when they made it to first base safely — has stood as the dominant statistic in baseball for so many decades. Because, in the end, we’re not defusing bombs.
But, there have always been people who have known that batting average is the wrong way to judge players. And they love baseball enough to look into it.*
*We will finish with F.C. Lane in just a minute, but I do want to point out that among the many anti-batting average articles in Baseball Magazine was an absolute classic called “What the Records Cost Me” written by Cactus Gavvy Cravath, a Deadball Era slugger who led the league in home runs six times in seven years between 1913 and 1919. He also led the league in runs scored once, in walks once, in RBIs twice, in slugging twice, and in OPS+ three years in a row from 1913 to 1915. His 24 home runs were the “modern” record until Ruth came along.
But, of course, nobody really cared about any of that because batting average ruled the times. And Cravath never led the league in batting average.
“Very likely many people will look upon what I am going to say as the crabbing of an old fossil,” Cactus Cravath wrote (undoubtedly in the words of F.C. Lane. “It makes very little difference to me however what they think.”
Well, that wasn’t true. He obviously did care. Cravath believed he should have been better respected (and better paid) as a player but wasn’t because everybody kept looking at batting averages instead of player value.
More: “There is a certain charm about the phrase ‘.300 hitter’ which seems to appeal to the crowd. If a man is a .300 hitter he is a star. … I am not a statistician myself. I claim no ability to advise a system of batting averages which would be perfect or anywhere near it. But I do think that batting averages should do more than record the mere frequency of hits. They should do something to record the quality of hits. I do not even suggest that the present system should be discontinued. But I do claim that some system ought to be put in operation which would indicate a player’s actual batting ability as expressed in the length as well as the number of hits made.
“It is the the real batter, according to my way of thinking, the man who wins games with his bat, who is being discriminated against by the present system.”
Cravath proceeded to explain why he, and not Jake Daubert, should have won the Chalmers Award in 1913 (The Chalmers Company would give a car to the best hitter in the league as expressed by the highest batting average). Jake Daubert hit .350 to Cravath’s .341. But Cravath hit 19 homers to Daubert’s 2, drove in 128 to Daubert’s 55, and outscored him. What Cravath really was suggesting was some kind of slugging percentage, and he was smart to suggest it — he outslugged Daubert by 145 points.
“Someone will say I am complaining because I didn’t get the automobile,” Cravath wrote. “True, I think I earned it, but that isn’t the main thing.“
Let’s get back to Lane. In 1916, he looked at those thousand hits and he tried to break down the value of a single, double, triple and home run by (1) The value to the hitter; (2) The value to the player on bases; (3) The value to the player who reached base later by fielder’s choice. I think this third one is a fascinating step because it’s one that we don’t think about much. A player reaches on a fielders choice and scores, he gets credit for the run. Nobody even talks about the guy who, by reaching base, actually ALLOWED the runner to reach. It just goes to show how deeply Lane thought about these things.
Lane looked at each hit, first by bases advanced and then by runs scored. And he calculated.
For example, 789 of the 1,000 hits were singles. He figured out that on those 789 singles:
The hitter advanced 789 bases (obvious)
The runners on base advanced 603 bases
The fielders choices who followed advanced 154 bases — meaning, I will assume, that 154 players reached base on fielder’s choices after those singles.
That’s a total of 1,546 bases. Lane figured that it four bases to score a run. So he calculated:
789 singles times four equals 3,156 bases.
The singles actually led to 1,546 bases.
A single is worth 48.97 percent of a run (1,546 divided by 3,156).
Lane was obviously no mathematician … his system here is all over the place. But I would argue that the numbers themselves are not important here. What is important was how he thought about the problem and that he was trying to come up with a value system for hits. Anyway, he was very, very close to something. And he hit upon it in his next effort. He looked at “runs scored.”
The 789 singles scored 182 runs.
The runners on bases scored 163 runs.
The players who reached on a fielders choice scored 16 runs.
That’s a total 361 runs. Divide 361 into 789 and, voila, according to this system a single is worth 45.7% of a run. Lane figured that this system, the runs scored system, was better than the first. As you will see: He’s right.
Using his “how many runs scored on each hit” system, he figured out that:
A single is worth .46 of a run.
A double is worth .79 of a run.
A triple is worth 1.15 of a run
A home run is worth 1.55 of a run.
Pause once more to think about this. He only looked at 1,000 hits in 1916. He came up with a quirky system to figure out how many runs scored. Now, jump ahead 50 years. John Thorn and Pete Palmer wrote “The Hidden Game of Baseball,” an all-time classic. In it, they introduced the Linear Weights system. For it, they used computer simulations and ALL the data available going back to 1901.
And this is what they determined.
A single is worth .46 of a run.
A double is worth .80 of a run
A triple is worth 1.02 of a run
A home run is worth 1.40 of a run
Numerous other people — Friend of Blog Tom Tango among them — have looked at Linear Weights, tweaked it, worked with it, and the numbers move a bit here and there. But the point here is that what F.C. Lane did through sheer will power, limited data and some rudimentary math skill was REMARKABLY accurate and at least a half century ahead of its time.
Lane promised to put his numbers into action to see who were really the best hitters … but I could not find that article. In intend to keep looking. I did find articles in 1917 about how Nap Lajoie held his bat, why Ferdie Schupp was baseball’s most effective pitcher, a story about the amazing battle between Addie Joss and Ed Walsh called “The Greatest Game Ever Pitched,” a story about Honus Wagner’s comeback, a story by Ty Cobb on placing your hits, a story about writer Ring Lardner, a little bit about how you can use Shakespeare to understand baseball better … yes, I really do wish I could have been F.C. Lane.
I also ran across this classic baseball poem by sportswriter W.R. Hoefer, which appeared in Baseball Magazine that same year.
A fair fanette sat
On a ball player’s knees
He’d made a nice hit
And was working the squeeze
He won on to her curves
And was winning this dame
When old umpire Dad
Threw him out of the game.
Imagine that — more than a half century before Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.”