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Hack Wilson 56 HR, 191 RBI

Hack Wilson
56 HR, 191 RBI

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 set the United States on a path of economic destruction, one that would devastate the country for the entire decade of the 1930’s. Yet in 1930, before the worst of it had spread and fans would have no spare cash for games, Major League Baseball set an attendance record and saw one of the greatest offensive explosions in the history of the sport.

I have read in several places – though never seen any definitive record – that the owners met in the Winter Meetings of 1929 and decided to change the baseball. As they had learned in 1920, more offense equals more attendance. According to legend(?) they decided to lower the seems on the ball (thus making it harder for pitchers to get movement on the ball, and providing less wind resistance on fly balls) and also make the leather cover thinner (more “pop” off the bat). When we look at the numbers, it certainly looks like something strange happened.

Babe Ruth 49 HR, 153 RBI

Babe Ruth
49 HR, 153 RBI

But we can more legitimately look to the introduction of the “cushioned cork-center ball” rule in 1926. And we can track a gradual increase in offense from that point: league SLG% and ISO (Isolated Power) both rose each year from 1927-30. Certainly, those numbers peaked in 1930 – and they fell off immediately in 1931 – but it wasn’t an utter anomaly (like 1987). In fact, there was another rule change in the Winter of 1930 that might explain a bit (though how much is debatable) of the drop off in runs in 1931: “A fair ball that bounces through or over a fence or into the stands is considered a ground-rule double instead of a home run. [6.09]” That’s right, what we call ground rule doubles counted as home runs before 1931. Yet one has to wonder how many ground-rule doubles there really are in a season? Probably not enough to change league-wide averages.

Bill Terry .401 BA

Bill Terry
.401 BA

Whatever the reasons, 1930 was the crowning year of a decade of crazy offense. Some of the numbers are almost as mind-boggling for the time as the steroid-era numbers we saw in the late 1990’s.

  • League ERA was 4.81. That is the highest in the modern era (1900-2014). Not even 2000 was quite that high (4.77).
  • 13 players had an OPS of 1.000 or higher (only 9 players have done this over the last five years, 2010-14).
  • 5 different players scored 150 or more Runs
  • 6 different players had 150 or more RBI, including 2 players that had 170+ and lead by Hack Wilson’s 191
  • 5 different players hit .380 or higher, lead by Bill Terry’s .401
  • 10 players had 35 home runs or more, including 3 with 40+ and lead by Hack Wilson’s 56

To put some of this in perspective, I have listed below the Top 10 hitters in OPS for 1930. Those are the ones that are numbered. In between, I have placed three modern hitters on the list to demonstrate the sheer enormity of the offense in 1930. Mark McGwire’s record-breaking 1998 campaign, Albert Pujols’ 2008 – which was his career high in OPS, and Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown 2012. Imagine a year with 8-10 performances all equal to or better than those notable seasons.

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Al Simmons .381 BA, .708 SLG

Al Simmons
.381 BA, .708 SLG

I realize, of course, that OPS is not the same as wRC+, and so therefore doesn’t adjust for league and year. So it isn’t fair to say that those batters in 1930 were more valuable hitters than the modern ones I put in the list. Rather, this is an example of how much offense the fans actually saw that year.

It was the last time attendance was so high, or so many runs were scored, until after WWII. Players like Babe Herman (.383, 35 HR in 1930) would never again hit like this. (Herman’s career highs from 1931-36 were .326 BA and 19 HR.) Babe Ruth would only lead the league in homers one more time. Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell’s ERA dropped from 3.87 to 2.65 in 1931, and would never again get that high in a full season.