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Hugh Duffy

Batting averages soared from the year before, runs were scored at a record pace, and pitchers’ ERAs jumped. Something had changed in the game of baseball. What was it? Steroids? A new ball? Actually, the year was 1894, and baseball was in the middle of its second full season with the pitcher’s mound at 60’6” from the plate, a full 5 feet further back than it had ever been before.

Just ten years earlier, something similar had happened: the hitters had been getting too good, so the rules were changed to help out the pitcher: they were allowed for the first time to throw overhand (hard to believe, isn’t it?) From that point on, run scoring declined, and as we’ve seen consistently over the last century, when runs decline, so does attendance. In order to even things out again (and boost attendance), baseball decided to push the mound back. If it was run scoring they wanted, they sure got it.

Why did the drastic change in offense happen in 1894, rather than 1893, which was the first year the mound was pushed back? Well first off, batting averages and runs did increase in ’93, it’s just that ’94 was the year they exploded. Second, I’m not sure of the date that the new rule was implemented in ’93, or how quickly it was adopted across the leagues. Third, perhaps it was simply a year of adjustment that allowed hitters to fully take advantage.

Billy Hamilton

Billy Hamilton

Whatever it was, 1894 saw the first – and to this date, only – league wide batting average of .300 or higher. Hitters as a league hit .309 in 1894, which was 29 points higher than 1893, and 64 points higher than 1892. League ERAs climbed from 3.28 to 4.66 to 5.31 over the same span. Hitters didn’t strike out as much, and they walked more. The nearly absurd, “video-game” home run numbers we saw in the 1990’s-2000’s may have been matched in baseball history only by the video-game Batting Averages of 1884.

Billy Hamilton (the original) hit .404 for the Philadelphia Phillies that year. Sam Thomson hit 27 triples. Ed Delahanty had a .478 OBP. And none of them were good enough to lead the league. In fact, Hamilton’s .404 BA was only 4th best, a whopping 36 points behind Hugh Duffy’s insane .440 average for the Boston Beaneaters.

Twenty-two players hit .350 or higher that year, and 38 had an OBP of .400 or higher. In addition to his .440 average, Duffy lead the league with 237 hits and 51 doubles. By the way, that was in 125 games. The League Champion Baltimore Orioles had a “weak link” at second base that year, Heinie Reitz. He “only” slashed .303/.372/.504, the lowest BA and OBP of all starting position players on the team.

Ed Delahanty

Ed Delahanty

Pitchers must have been up in arms (no pun intended). Only one pitcher, Amos Rusie, had an ERA under 3.00, and only four (including Cy Young himself) were under 4.00. The league walk rate for pitchers was 3.81, higher than the strikeout rate (2.17).

As has so often happened, though, baseball corrected itself (as it would over and over again). By 1905, the league ERA was down to 2.66, virtually half of what it had been in 1894. While .400 hitters were not yet extinct in the early 20th century, they became very special, and nobody has ever again come close to .440. Only the offensive bursts of the 1920’s and late 1990’s were to see that kind of surge in run scoring again.

Interestingly, baseball has very recently corrected itself yet again. Strike zones and drug testing have expanded, leading to a massive drop-off in run scoring post-Steroid Era. Of course, baseball is staying true to form: people are already starting to discuss moving the mound back (again).

Top Offensive Performers in 1894
~ 130 Games
Hugh Duffy
Billy Hamilton
Ed Delahanty
Joe Kelley