Part II: Fits and Starts
Click here for Part One, "Born from Scandal"
The League Awards (1922-1929)
Eight seasons had passed since Hugh Chalmers discontinued his annual prize, and AL President Ban Johnson thought it high time the AL introduced some form of recognition for individual accomplishment.
A skilled executive, accomplished orator, and overwhelming physical presence, Johnson attended the 1922 Owners Meetings with two grand proposals for a new award: 1) The player deemed most valuable would have a bronze bust placed in the Smithsonian Institute; or 2) The league would erect a monument to itself in Potomac Park, Washington D.C., with the name of the annual MVP inscribed on a continuously evolving tableau.[i]
Credit Johnson with thinking big – but in the end, the owners decided to go with a more modest approach: Players received a “championship button” (and later, a diploma of sorts) citing their accomplishment.
And that wasn’t the least underwhelming aspect of this ill-conceived award, which never attained a veneer of legitimacy. Blame the voting rules and eligibility requirements: As with the Chalmers Trophy, the league’s most valuable player would be determined by a vote from select baseball writers in each AL city. Writers were permitted to vote for only one player per team; a player could only win the award once over the course of his career; player-managers were not eligible.
These restrictions meant that from an available talent pool of more than 200 players, only a handful would realistically be considered for the award in a given year – and if you were good enough or lucky enough to capture the award once, you were never again nominated for the distinction (this also meant, among other things, that Babe Ruth would claim a single MVP despite being the best player in baseball a dozen times). After a few years, the award was regarded as desultory at best.
Brooklyn Robins ace Dazzy Vance (28-6, 2.16 ERA, 262 K) was the inaugural recipient, and his selection generated immediate controversy. Writer Jack Ryder, a recalcitrant sort from Cincinnati, couldn’t find space on his 10-player ballot for the Cardinals’ Rogers Hornsby, the NL’s biggest star and best player. Explaining his snub of the St. Louis icon, Ryder is alleged to have said “Hornsby is a valuable player to himself, but not a valuable player to his team.”
The Vance selection generated discussion and debate – and kindled fan interest – long after the season ended. It also prompted, for the first time, the now perpetual argument over whether a pitcher should be considered for the award (the creation of a separate “Most Valuable Pitcher” award was suggested as early as 1925; it would be 31 years before the Cy Young award was introduced to recognize pitching excellence).
The AL award lurched along for seven seasons, generating little in the way of acclaim or outrage, before it was abruptly cancelled in 1929. AL ownership claimed that the award failed to capture the interest of the fans (which was partially true – the award was tantamount to taking your cousin to the dance), and “was not in the best interests of baseball because it tended to create jealousies and disappointments” among players.
News stories of the day cited another reason for the award’s demise: The owners nixed the MVP because the winners had the audacity to cite their performance when negotiating next year’s contract (which in turn emboldened other players to cite their own MVP-caliber performance when it came time to haggle). The American League owners would have none of that, and terminated the award. The National League followed suit a year later, with the press rolling their eyes at the absurdity of it all: “Of course, now that the award was abolished,” wrote John Kieran of the New York Times, “the players will have no way of knowing how valuable they are, and they won’t be able to ask for higher salaries. Clever people, those [owners].”
Filling a Void (1929-1930)
In the absence of a legitimate league award, The Sporting News offered an ersatz MVP for the American League in 1929, and both leagues in 1930. The award, based on an informal poll of baseball writers, was strictly honorary, and never caught on with the players or the fans. Philadelphia’s Al Simmons and Washington’s Joe Cronin took AL honors in 1929-1930, respectively; New York’s Bill Terry was named the honorary NL standard-bearer in 1930.
The Sporting News wasn’t the only media outlet looking to appropriate the award: The Associated Press also commissioned a poll of “a committee of baseball writers representing each city in the circuit.” Cleveland’s Lew Fonseca took 1929 AL “MVP” honors in this vote (he was a terrible choice for the award, so it’s probably best for all involved that it’s been stricken from history). Cronin was named AL MVP in 1930, with Chicago’s Hack Wilson taking NL honors.
If you’re counting, that’s five MVPs in two years – none of which are recognized as “official.”
Despite the owner’s objections to the contrary, there was clearly an interest on the part of the fans and the press in recognizing a league’s most valuable player in a given year. Informal polls by competing media outlets had little claim to legitimacy, so in 1931, with the blessing of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the Baseball Writers Association of America became the official stewards of the award.[ii]
The BBWAA modeled its voting system on the National League award of 1924-1929 (without the $1000 bonus); in 1944, the MVP was officially renamed the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award, in honor of baseball’s first and most powerful commissioner.
The first modern MVP vote was also the very first “what were they thinking?” vote.[iii] Philadelphia’s Lefty Grove was a sound choice in the American League (31-4, 2.06 ERA, 175 K), but things were a bit muddled in the senior circuit, with St. Louis second baseman Frankie Frisch claiming the honor over statistically superior candidates Chuck Klein, Bill Terry, and Frisch teammate Chick Hafey (in a voting oddity never since repeated, no player on the ballot received more than a single first-place vote).
The Frisch appointment as most valuable established the precedent that the MVP was as much a team award as an individual honor. Over the first decade of ballots, 13 of 20 MVPs (65%) came from championship clubs; 100% of MVP winners played for winning teams. The “champion bias” would only intensify over ensuing decades:
- 81% of MVP winners since 1931 have come from pennant-winning or playoff teams; it seems certain that this percentage will only increase with the expanded playoff format introduced in 2012.
- 97% of MVPs have come from winning teams, with almost all of these from serious contenders. Of 169 total awards granted since 1931, only five have gone to a player from a losing team.[iv]
The full text of the BBWAA MVP ballot instructions reads as follows:
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.”
With the average major league salary exceeding $4 million in 2015, it’s doubtful that players will miss the bonus clauses – but the days of honoring a player with a simple trophy are long gone. Major League Baseball’s ‘awards season’ is now an annual promotional event generating massive media coverage.
The MVP debates (via social and traditional media) usually commence in early September, a juicy storyline attendant to what is now a frantic, multi-team scramble for a chance to enter the post-season tournament to crown a world champion. “The MVP will likely be decided over the final month of the season as Team X and Team Y jockey for position” is an autumn theme as reliable as turning leaves.
The rhetoric and speculation ramp up after the final out of the World Series, reaching a fever pitch in early November: In the days before the awards are announced, the three “finalists” (simply the top-three vote-getters) for each of the awards are revealed. The awards are then announced, one per day, with a televised press conference, starting with the Rookie of the Year. The grand prize, the MVP, is announced last. Official presentation of the awards – in days past, a phone call to the winner from the head of the BBWAA – is now a televised event on the Major League Baseball network, with live streaming over the MLB.com website and mobile app. Immediately following the announcement of the awards, the annual second-guessing of the selections commences, with (seemingly) every media outlet questioning the sanity and sapience of the voters.
Hugh Chalmers would delight in the spectacle. A century after he introduced his most valuable player award, baseball is taking a page out of the great promoter’s book with an annual media blitzkrieg beyond anything even he could envision or imagine.[v]
[i] Which of the following is unlike the others? A) Thomas Jefferson; B) Abraham Lincoln; C) Martin Luther King; D) Rogers Hornsby. While the idea of a publicly funded baseball monument in the nation’s capital today seems far-fetched, it gained a measure of traction in its day (speaking to the immense popularity of the sport during the 20s). The American League earmarked $100,000 for the project, and in 1923 the U.S. Senate drafted a joint resolution granting permission to begin construction (the House of Representatives later rejected the proposal). The scope and design of the monument was discussed and debated in the press (“Ruth or Cobb?”), but the initiative collapsed when the owners withdrew financial support in 1925.
[ii] There was also an element of self-interest involved: Overseeing the annual award gave the BBWAA undeniable clout and cache within the game. And then there was the practical consideration that the MVP award gave baseball reporters something to write about – never underestimate the need to feed the beast.
[iii] We’re applying hindsight here. At the time, the Frisch vote wasn’t considered controversial (or even notable). Frisch’s reward for being named MVP? The Cards asked him to take a pay cut after the season
[iv] There were three total MVPs awarded in 1979: Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez tied for the NL vote. Percentages have been adjusted to account for the two 1979 NL awards.
[v] He’d also love the fact that All-Star Game and World Series MVPs receive a car along with their trophy.
Photo: (1924) Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/npc2008006201/.