Hugh Chalmers (b. 1873) was that most authentic American construct: The brazen, huckster industrialist. Part Henry Ford, part P.T. Barnum, the self-made Chalmers began his career at the age of 14 as an office boy at the National Cash Register Company; by the time he was 35, he owned an eponymous automobile manufacturer, the Chalmers Motor Company, renowned for building “medium-priced” cars aimed at a burgeoning and aspirant middle class.[i]
The charismatic Chalmers was a born salesman who saturated newspapers with ads for his cars (“Not How Large but How Good” was a tagline). He sponsored road races and exhibitions to showcase his merchandise, and became something of an authority on marketing and promotion. He was a popular speaker on the Chamber of Commerce circuit, giving countless talks on the art of selling, which he described as “simply influencing the human mind.” His speeches were reprinted in newspapers, advertising books, and educational pamphlets – required reading, it seemed, for industrious young men. In a chapter he contributed to Advertising Methods and Mediums (1910), Chalmers wrote: “The relation of salesmanship to advertising is the closest relationship known. Closer than friends; closer than a team under a single yoke; closer than brothers; closer than man and wife, as there can never be separation and divorce.”
Which is to say, Chalmers gave a lot of thought – a lot of thought – to how he might sell his cars to people who might not have known they wanted one. He came to an inescapable conclusion: “The automobile business more than any I know lends itself to advertising,” he wrote in the New York Times. “I … sincerely believe that the business owes much of its … prosperity to newspaper publicity.”
The automobile man was also a baseball fan, and keenly aware of the sport’s immense and growing popularity in the early years of the 20th century (he was fond of peppering his speeches with baseball metaphors and imagery). In 1910, he hatched a marketing campaign that would dominate the summer headlines and become the progenitor of the modern MVP award:
“Fans all over the country are turning their attention to the battle which is being waged between the leading batters of the big leagues for a motor car, which has been offered for the batting championship this season.”--Milwaukee Journal, August 25, 1910
The motor car on offer was a Chalmers-Detroit Model 30. The man doing the offering was Hugh Chalmers.
Outside of the world’s heavyweight boxing title, the batting championship was probably the most prestigious individual accomplishment in professional sport during the first decades of the 20th century. With home runs few and far between prior to the live-ball era, the annual batting races were followed with keen interest by the sporting populace – an interest heightened in 1910 by a glamorous new prize. Prior to the start of the season, Chalmers had announced he would award a Model 30 of the player’s choice (the car was made in both hard-top and convertible versions) to the “champion batsmen of the National and American leagues for the season.” The batting titlist would be a star, and that star would be the de facto brand ambassador of Chalmers-Detroit.[ii] For the cost of some parts and labor, the Chalmers Motor Company was guaranteed annual and protracted visibility with American sports fans.
The 1910 AL batting race turned out to be a spirited affair between Napoleon Lajoie, the popular and admired second baseman for Cleveland, and Ty Cobb, the popular and maligned centerfielder for Detroit. Chalmers couldn’t have scripted it better himself: Baseball’s two biggest names vying for the most glamorous prize ever offered a player. Between them, they had logged seven batting titles and two Triple Crowns. Cobb was anything but circumspect in his desire for the car. “I would much rather win an automobile than any other prize,” he said.
What followed became the most famous, contentious, and absurd batting race in baseball history.
Lajoie sprinted to a sizable early season lead, but gradually surrendered his advantage to Cobb as the summer wore on. Cobb finally surged ahead on the strength of a late-September hot streak, setting up a highly anticipated showdown for the season’s final weekend.
A showdown the Georgia Peach decided to avoid.
Cobb benched himself for the final two games of the season, a prudent if not especially honorable approach to securing that new car. In order to catch Cobb, Lajoie would need a finish for the ages. Entering the season’s final day with 219 hits in 583 at bats (.376), he trailed Cobb by six or seven points in average (the leagues didn’t provide daily statistics in those days, so the newspapers of the time had to make their best guess based on their own running tallies). Lajoie was a baseball immortal, but even gods don’t go eight-for-eight without some help.
Turns out, help was on the way.
Cleveland closed its season with a double header against the St. Louis Browns, managed by Jack O’Connor. In his first at-bat, Lajoie hit a fly ball that was played into a triple by the Browns’ centerfielder. On his next trip to the plate, Lajoie spied Browns third baseman Red Corriden playing out of position (O’Connor stationed him in short left field). One of the best bunters of his or any day, it was little effort for Lajoie to lay one down the third-base line and trot to first.
Third at-bat, more of the same: Corriden played a hybrid third base-left field, Lajoie deadened one down the line for a “hit.” This pattern would repeat itself for the rest of the day: Corriden gave Lajoie acres of space, and Lajoie took it. At the conclusion of the doubleheader, Lajoie had collected eight hits in eight at-bats, with a ninth plate appearance recorded as a sacrifice (it was later revealed that Browns scout Harry Howell attempted to bribe the official scorer into changing the sacrifice to a base hit, giving Lajoie a nine-for-nine day; the scorer refused).
Even with his dubious eight-for-eight day, it wasn’t clear if Lajoie had overtaken Cobb for the batting title. Some sources had Lajoie edging Cobb by a point; others had Cobb edging Lajoie by the slimmest of margins. As noted, record-keeping in those days, like Jack O’Connor’s ethics, was inexact and unreliable. It was often months before the official league numbers were released.
Word of the travesty in St. Louis quickly spread, and the press covered the scandal with a vigor and relish usually reserved for affairs of state. Chalmers was surely delighted at the controversy and its prominent placement on the front page of every newspaper in America. As drama it had everything: outsized personalities; intrigue; deception; conspiratorial scheming. And at the center of the storm, mentioned in every story, sermon, and summary, was Chalmers’ American-made, 30-horsepower, $1500 object of desire.
With customary promotional flair, Chalmers gave cars to both Cobb and Lajoie – an act of largesse that fueled additional press coverage.[iv] While the press (and countless fans) decried the collapse of integrity and sportsmanship, Chalmers considered the award a smashing success as his automobile company was now known to every sports fan in the country. For a few bucks worth of merchandise, Chalmers received millions of dollars in publicity. In terms of return on investment, it’s probably unmatched in the annals of sports advertising.
Of course, any publicity is good publicity … until it’s not. A well-timed scandal was priceless, but Chalmers understood that for the award to have any credibility moving forward, he would have to avoid a repeat of the 1910 batting-race fiasco.[v] The following season, he broadened the parameters of the award and empaneled a “Chalmers Commission” (comprising baseball writers from each major league city) to choose the player deemed “most useful to his club.”
The MVP award was born.
Now given to a player based on his entire body of work for the season, Cobb was the easy AL pick in 1911, leading the league in batting (.420), runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, stolen bases and slugging; Chicago’s Frank Schulte was named the inaugural winner in the National League, pacing the senior circuit in home runs, RBI, and slugging.
Lacking a tabloid-ready controversy, Chalmers was never able to replicate the frenzy generated by the 1910 batting race, and his trophy failed to recapture the attention or the imagination of the public.[vi] Chalmers continued giving away cars for another three years, but he recognized a moribund campaign when he saw one. He ended the program after the 1914 season with a short letter to the Chalmers Commission: "With the presentation this year of the Chalmers trophy to Eddie Collins and John Evers, the work of the commission comes to an end. It seems unlikely now and undesirable also that we should continue these awards."
And that was that. His marketing campaign had run its course, and it was on to the next project for Chalmers.[vii] It would be nearly a decade before one of the major leagues resuscitated an award for individual player achievement.
Hugh Chalmers died of pneumonia in 1932, at the age of 58. Obituaries at the time focused on his days as an auto man, accurately describing him as an industry pioneer and visionary. Scant mention is made of his short-lived foray into baseball. His impact, however, is undeniable: He is the architect of the modern MVP award. The Chalmers Trophy established baseball writers as the arbiter of player value; it used a weighted point system to rank players (first-place votes were worth 10 points, second-place votes nine points, third-place votes eight points, etc.); and in decoupling the prize from statistical benchmarks (such as a batting title), it clearly established that value was a judgement call.
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[i] This was at the dawn of the automotive industry, when cars were still replacing horses as the primary mode of transportation. Chalmers was content to leave the masses to Henry Ford and his Model T; his aim was to capture what automakers today call the “entry-level luxury market.” In contemporary terms, Chalmers built cars for people who couldn’t afford that high-end BMW, but didn’t want to drive an entry-level Toyota.
[ii] Timing is everything: Honus Wagner took seven batting titles from 1900 - 1909; I don’t know what he drove after 1910, but I’ll bet it wasn’t a Chalmers.
[iii] There’s more – much more – to the story (gambling, game fixing, lies, damned lies, and statistics), and readers are encouraged to seek out some of the many resources available on the subject. Rick Huhn’s book, “The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title That Became a National Obsession” is recognized as a definitive recent account.
[iv] The batting title was officially awarded to Cobb (.385 to Lajoie’s .384) when Hugh Fullerton, official scorer for the New York Highlanders, claimed he had failed to credit Cobb with a hit that had been changed from an error. However, that wasn’t the end of the intrigue: Seventy years later, the Sporting News discovered that Cobb had been credited twice for a two-hit game. Removing the extra game from the ledger dropped Cobb one point behind Lajoie. Despite a 1981 commissioner’s ruling that Cobb, despite this new evidence to the contrary, was still the batting champion, Lajoie is routinely recognized as the AL’s leading hitter in 1910.
[v] In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Johnson declared that “from now on, no more individual contests for prizes will be allowed."
[vi] Despite some serious star power in the American League: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, and Eddie Collins each claimed a car. The NL roster of Schulte, Larry Doyle, Jake Daubert, and Johnny Evers was anemic in comparison.
[vii] Chalmers, ahead of his time in many ways, was never able to translate his marketing acumen into profits. After years of underwhelming sales, Chalmers Motor Company was eventually purchased by the Maxwell Motor Corporation (1924), which was in turn combined with several other manufacturers and renamed the Chrysler Corporation. Hugh Chalmers went on to head several other companies, including a defense contractor that manufactured anti-aircraft guns.