Before the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Most Valuable Player award began in 1931, there were various other awards given in honor of the equivalent of an MVP. There was the Chalmers award from 1911–1914, and another award given from 1922 to 1929, for “the baseball player who is of the greatest all-around service to his club”. The Chalmers award was really a thinly veiled business promotion for a car company, and the second award was tarnished by a bizarre rule in which a player could only win the award once in a lifetime.
Besides the quirky particulars of each of those awards, you will notice the gap from 1915 to 1922, in which there was no MVP-type of award given. I would like to remedy that here on this site, to recognize in some small way some of those “lost” achievements.
Below are the main statistics (that most people use) to determine MVP candidates. I will explain below why these numbers separated these players from the rest. Cobb is the winner from the American league, Cravath the winner from the National League, and Kauff is from the short-lived Federal League.
In 1915, Gavvy Cravath would likely have won unanimous NL MVP, even by today’s divided standards. To please the old-school voters, he hit cleanup for the pennant winning Phillies and lead the league in HR, Runs and RBI. To gain the Sabermetrics vote, we can point to the the fact that he lead the NL in OBP, SLG, wRC+ and fWAR.
The case was nearly identical for Ty Cobb in the AL. He was on the 2nd place Tigers, lead the league in BA, Runs, Hits and Stolen Bases. He finished second in SLG, but lead in wRC+ and fWAR. While Cravath was a cleanup hitter, Cobb hit 3rd, in front of AL RBI champ Sam Crawford.
Benny Kauff also hit third, but for the Federal League’s Baltimore Terrapins. The Terrapins finished with a losing record, so based on classic voting, he likely wouldn’t have been elected. But he lead the Federal League in BA, OBP, SLG, stolen bases and fWAR. He missed 15-20 games, leaving him 4th in Hits, Runs and RBI and 3rd in Homers. Still, his Batting Average was .342, nineteen points higher than the second best .323 (Lee Magee), and his 8.4 fWAR was 2.2 higher than Ed Konetchy’s second place 6.2. Though he was still above average, Kauff’s massive success in the Federal League didn’t carry over to his time in the National League, but in 1915, he was the best.
To put some of these numbers in perspective, let’s look at numbers that compare the player to the rest of their own league during that specific year, namely wRC+ and WAR.
Cobb: 184 wRC+, 9.8 WAR
Cravvath: 167 wRC+, 7.0 WAR
Kauff: 175 wRC+, 8.4 WAR
Now let’s look at 2014’s unanimous AL MVP, Mike Trout:
Trout: 167 wRC+, 7.8 WAR
And Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 MVP Triple Crown year:
Cabrera: 166 wRC+, 6.8 WAR
So you can see that Cobb, Cravvath and Kauff all were to their leagues what Trout and Cabrera have been to the current American League.