Old-Time Baseball Statistics: Merely An Approximation

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees follows through on a fifth inning RBI double against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

With each Run Batted In, Alex Rodriguez inches closer to Lou Gehrig? Exactly how close, though? That depends on your source. And then there's Babe Ruth ...

Despite what you might have heard, most members of the Society for American Baseball Research actually love actual baseball games. They don't just hunker down in the basement, noses buried in dusty old record books, compiling arcane lists of statistics that nobody cares about.

Rather, some of them (or rather, us) compile statistics that everybody cares about.

Case in point: Herman Krabbenhoft, long-time SABR member and indefatigable researcher.

Officially, Alex Rodriguez stands No. 2 on the American League's all-time RBI list. Here's that list, all up-to-date and everything, according to the Elias Sports Bureau:

1. Lou Gehrig - 1,994
2. A. Rodriguez - 1,928

According to Elias, then, Rodriguez is only 66 RBI behind Gehrig on the all-time list, and probably will catch and pass Gehrig next spring. This fact will be trumpeted by the New York Yankees, to be sure. If not by many others. So yes, someone cares.

But Herman Krabbenhoft has reviewed every game in which Lou Gehrig ever played -- all 2,164 of them -- and determined that Gehrig actually drove in 1,995 runs. So that's the figure that appears at Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com and even MLB.com.*

* Krabbenhoft presented his research at the annual SABR Convention, held this year in Minneapolis. Your intrepid reporter was there.

Some years ago, Krabbenhoft completed his research on the first half of Gehrig's career, having found a number of errors in the official numbers; eventually, his corrections were incorporated. Recently he finished checking the second half of Gehrig's career. This led to a net change of just one RBI. But that's misleading; of the nine seasons Krabbenhoft checked, seven contained errors. It's just that all those errors almost canceled each other out.

The point is that when we talk about baseball statistics before World War II, we're essentially just talking about approximations. Yesterday I was writing about Ossie Bluege, who spent nearly two decades with the Washington Senators. I could have written that Bluege finished his career with 848 RBI ... but it would have been more accurate to write that Bluege finished with approximately 848 RBI, or that he was credited with 848 RBI. Because the odds are terribly slim that he actually drove in 848 runs on the nose. And because Ossie Bluege is not Lou Gehrig, it'll probably be a while until someone gets around to checking.

Some of the more sharp-minded of you might be wondering something ... What about Babe Ruth?

What about Babe Ruth, indeed.

The Elias Bureau doesn't count Runs Batted In before 1920, because it was not an official statistic until then.

Others have counted, though. Which is why if you actually go to MLB.com, you'll find this list instead of Elias's ...

1. Babe Ruth - 2,201
2. Lou Gehrig - 1,995
3. Ty Cobb - 1,938
4. A. Rodriguez - 1,928

Is Ruth's figure off some? Almost certainly. But I believe that Herm Krabbenhoft is working on that one, too.

If the Yankees try to tell you, sometime next spring, that Alex Rodriguez is the all-time American League RBI king, don't believe them. Because nobody drove home more runs than Babe Ruth, in the American League. Approximately.

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