To some Yankees’ fans, Derek Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000 hits has seemed to last an eternity. Although the Captain isn’t far off preseason projections, many have been awaiting the moment since his rookie year, so some impatience is understandable. Compared to Cap Anson’s wait, however, 17 years is a piece of cake. Even though the former White Stockings legend surpassed the 3,000 hit plateau sometime in the 1890s, it would take over a century before a consensus was reached regarding the legitimacy of his membership in the club.
Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson was one of baseball’s first superstars. His career started in 1871, when baseball’s first professional league, the National Association (NA), was formed. Over the next five seasons, the first baseman pounded out 423 hits, mostly for the Philadelphia Athletics, but the NA folded following the 1875 season. In its place, however, the present day National League (NL) was formed, and Anson was one of the most highly sought after recruits.
Pops, as he would later be called, joined the NL’s Chicago White Stockings in 1876 and immediately continued his prolific hitting. Over his 22 seasons in Chicago, Anson compiled what must have seemed like a countless number of hits. The exact number probably seemed inconsequential at that time, but over the next 100 years, that figure would be hotly debated.
In addition to the official records compiled and published by the National League, several newspapers also endeavored to maintain baseball’s statistical history. The result was a process prone to contradiction because of both inherent bias (each team was responsible for compiling the official records of the official scorer designated at its home ballpark) and the inevitable errors associated with manual record keeping. As the sport progressed through its professional infancy, these inconsistencies didn’t really matter much, but as the record book became more sacred, discrepancies became the source of great controversy.
In 1914, Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie were both knocking on the door of 3,000 hits. Beforehand, there was never much reason to actually tally Anson’s hit total. However, with two of the National League’s best hitters approaching such a lofty milestone, a frame of reference was needed to help define their pending accomplishments.
In newspaper accounts chronicling Wagner’s and Lajoie’s pursuit of 3,000 hits, there was little agreement on just how many hits Anson had amassed. The New York Times gave Anson credit for 3,047, but other accounts cited totals that were lower. What all the scribes agreed upon, however, was Anson had over 3,000 hits in the National League, and that’s all that really mattered. Anson was now established as the founding member of an exclusive club that was about to welcome two more players into the fold.
As more hitters joined the 3,000 hit club, Anson’s total also continued to grow. By the time Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins became members in 1925, Pops was being credited with anywhere from 3,400 to 3,600 hits. The former Chicago first baseman was a great hitter, but 500 hits added after his retirement? Not even the legendary Anson was capable of that.
For 17 years, the 3,000 hit club remained closed to new entrants until Paul Waner was admitted in 1942. By this time, Anson’s hit total was reigned back to a widely reported figure of 3,081 (a number compiled by The Sporting News). The same total was also cited when Stan Musial reached the milestone in 1958. Finally, it seemed as if a consensus had been reached.
In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of professional baseball (the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first pro team in 1869), Macmillan Publishing produced the sport’s first encyclopedia in 1969. While compiling the book, the publisher not only made revisions intended to correct errors in the statistical record, but also decided to nullify an 1887 rule that counted walks as hits. As a result of the changes, Anson’s hit total was now listed at 2,995.
The decision to evict Anson from the 3,000 hit club was controversial, but short lived. In 1974, the same year Al Kaline joined the fraternity of 3,000, the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia restored Anson to his throne by revising his total to 3,041. Over the next 15 years, a variety of different publications, including different editions of Macmillan, continued to tinker with his statistics, but at no point did a respected source lower his total below 3,000. However, Anson’s reprieve was lifted in 1992, when Total Baseball, which had bumped him back down to 2,995 hits in 1989, became baseball’s official record book. So, in the same year that Robin Yount and George Brett were added to the list, Anson was once again removed.
Although the statistics of several players were affected by the constant reexamination and reinterpretation of baseball’s historical record, the revisions made to Anson’s totals seemed to inspire the most controversy. For over 100 years, baseball historians could not come to an agreement on whether or not Anson was, in fact, a member of the 3,000 hit club. So, in 2001, major league baseball finally decided to settle the debate by restoring the rules that applied in 1887. In addition to the 60 walks that were once again added to the hit column, researchers also uncovered a single from a protested game that had previously been omitted. When combined, Anson’s “new” hit total was set at 3,056. Case closed? Not quite.
On MLB.com, Cap Anson is currently listed at 3,011 hits, a figure that now conforms to original statistics published by the league, but with walks from 1887 excluded. Meanwhile, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which relies on stats from the Elias Sports Bureau, credits Anson with 3,081 tallies. Finally, baseball-reference.com, which has become the de facto authority on baseball statistics, lists the Hall of Famer at 3,435 hits, a figure that takes into account his years in the National Association. Clearly, modern historians are no closer to a consensus than their counterparts from 100 years ago.
A century after the fact, there is still disagreement about where Anson should rank on the all-time hit list. What can’t be denied, however, is his status as one the best players and most influential figures in baseball’s 140-year history as a professional sport. No one can take that away.