Sometimes, I simply cannot let go of something. That's kind of strange because I hardly am the type of person who holds on to things. Most of the time I don't have the patience to hold on to anything. I don't do puzzles. I'm not the type of person who needs to make the last basket I shoot before leaving the court, or the type of person who avoids stepping on cracks in the sidewalk or even the type of person who cares that a chewed piece of gum has been on my desk for three months. Hey's IT'S WRAPPED.
But every now and again, something gets stuck in my head and I have to try and solve it or it drives me bonkers. This was the case a couple of years ago with the Stan Musial story about the umpire overruling a key Musial hit. The story was relayed several different ways in the various books and magazine articles I read about Musial, and I retold the story as it was recorded, and then someone pointed out that it couldn't be true as published. So I scoured -- and I do mean scoured -- old newspapers accounts for a long time before I finally found the true story, which was similar but not exactly the same.
Were the stories different enough that it REALLY mattered? I guess it depends on your point of view. Like I say, my crazy mind wouldn't let go.
So, my mind is stuck on another one: The 1955 MVP race between Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. I must find an answer. And so ... I started looking.
I mentioned the controversy of 1955 in my long Duke Snider piece but I can't ask you to go back through that whole thing, so I'll retell it at some length here. Feel free to skip ahead. In 1955, Duke Snider led the National League in runs and RBIs and was up there in pretty much every offensive category. For much of the year, he looked like he might win the triple crown. On July 29, he and Richie Ashburn were tied for the league lead in batting average, Snider led Ted Kluszewski in homers by two, and he had 23 more RBIs than anyone in the league.
Snider promptly hit .189 over his next 23 games, which led Brooklyn fans to boo, which led the Duke to say that they were "the worst fans in the league." Everything righted at that point, Snider hit .356 the rest of the way, that fans tentatively loved him again, but the triple crown was lost. He ended up fourth in homers and a distant ninth in average -- which was still viewed then (and to some people, now) as the most telling of all baseball stats.
So Snider had a great year, but he was not DECISIVELY the best player in the National League. I don't even think he WAS the best player in the NL (that was Willie Mays). But he was pretty clearly the best player on what was BY FAR the best team, which will get you the MVP Award pretty often. My point here is that Snider's MVP case was no knockout case, which means it went to the judges.
And Snider was not especially well liked by those judges.
And, predictably I suppose, those judges gave the MVP to the more approachable and more likable and, well, sturdier Roy Campanella.
"It is pretty far-fetched to argue that Campanella was better than Snider," Bill James says. "You would have to exaggerate his defensive value to heroic proportions."
Well, we baseball writers -- as we have seen through the years -- are more than capable on certain occasions of stretching some vague quality like leadership or presence or defensive value to GARGANTUAN proportions.
Here are Snider's and Campanella's offensive numbers from 1955 -- you decide:
Snider: .309/.418/.628, 34 doubles, 6 triples, 42 homers, 126 runs, 136 RBIs.
Campanella: .318/.395/.583, 20 doubles, 1 triple, 32 homers, 81 runs, 107 RBIs.
WAR (Baseball Reference)
It really wasn't especially close between the two players. That Campanella had already won two MVPs while Snider had not won any despite fabulous years in 1953 and '54* also might have swayed the voters toward Snider had they wanted to be swayed. But there was a clear and present undervaluation of The Duke in his prime -- whether this was because the writers didn't like him or because they thought his numbers were empty or because they thought him too flawed emotionally to be seen as a leader and star is unclear. It's probably all that and more. But year after year, Duke Snider was clearly one of the best players in the National League. And year after year, the writers found a way to vote someone else MVP.
*Snider probably had a better year than Campanella in Campy's '53 MVP season too -- though that one was closer. Snider's great 1954 was (methinks) rightfully beaten by a legendary season from Willie Mays, though Snider's value was closer to Mays that year than you might have guessed.
OK, so there's the background. Both players got eight first place votes, but the arrangement of the remaining votes gave Campanella a five-point victory and his third MVP trophy. The points break down as follow -- 14 points for a first place vote, 9 points for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth and so on down to 1 point for a 10th place vote.
In this case, the breakdown looked like so:
-- 8 first place votes (112 points)
-- 6 second place (54)
-- 3 third place (24)
-- 4 fifth place (24)
-- 3 seventh place (12)
Total: 226 points.
-- 8 first place votes (112 points)
-- 4 second place (36)
-- 2 third place (16)
-- 5 fourth place (35)
-- 3 fifth place (18)
-- 1 seventh place (4)
Total: 221 points.
This is one of the closest MVP victories ever -- it might be THE closest, I've seen conflicting reports. You probably notice a couple of things right away ... Campy got more second and third place votes, which gave him the victory. Snider got five fourth place votes, though, and Campy didn't have any -- he had seven votes that were fifth or seventh place.
But there's one other thing that you already know if you've followed this story at all -- Campy was named on all 24 ballots while Snider was only named on 23. Someone left Duke Snider entirely off his ballot ... this in a year when Frank Thomas got a vote while hitting .245 for 94-loss Pittsburgh, in a year when Del Crandall hit .236 in part-time duty for also-ran Milwaukee and got eight MVP points, and ESPECIALLY in a year when rookie reliever Jack Meyer got three points for going 6-11 and throwing 110 innings as a reliever for a mediocre Philadelphia (he did lead the league in saves, though Jerome Holtzman had not yet invented saves). Jack will reappear in our story, I predict.
How could this happen? Certainly NOBODY could have thought Duke Snider was not one of the TEN most valuable players in the league, or even one of the FIVE most valuable. If that ballot had him in the Top 5, he would have beaten Campy.
Well, from what I can tell little was said about all this after the vote itself. There was no real outrage on behalf of the Duke. The New York writers, who were the dominant sportswriters of the day, were likely plenty happy about Campanella beating out Snider. That is certainly the vibe I picked up. The most direct column about the subject was written by the New York Times Arthur Daley who essentially came to the conclusion that Campy was the right choice for various intangible reasons.
This quote from an unnamed Brooklyn Dodgers official about the close MVP vote appeared in Marion Jackson's "Sports of the World" column in the Atlanta Daily World: "In 1954, Snider had a great year and Campanella a poor one and we didn't win. In 1955, Snider slumped slightly and Roy had a great season and we won. Does that answer it for you!!!"
Yes ... THREE exclamation points, though it should be said that the Daily World was Atlanta's black newspaper with the Civil Rights movement gaining steam and had a rooting interest in Campanella.
The Pittsburgh Courier's legendary Wendell Smith had a go as well after Snider was quoted in an article about how much he didn't like the baseball life. "Where Snider finds baseball comparable to slavery," Smith wrote, "Campanella has played and loved it for more than 18 years."
And so on. Point is, even though it was mentioned now and then that Snider was completely left off a ballot and that the vote was somewhat controversial, nobody seemed to care enough about Snider to make a fuss about it.
And it might have been left that way ... except many years later Duke Snider wrote an autobiography called "The Duke of Flatbush." And when it came to the 1955 MVP voting, well, the Duke had a story to tell:
"There was a controversy about the voting ... The reason for all the fuss was the ballot was cast by a Philadelphia writer who was sick and in the hospital. On his list of ten candidates for the award, he put Campy down twice and didn't put me down at all. The argument was the ballot was invalid and the Baseball Writers Association of America, which conducts the voting among its members, should have thrown the ballot out. No one knew if the writer did it accidentally or on purpose, but instead of voiding the ballot, the officials counted the writer's first place vote for Campy and simply disregarded the fifth place vote for him."
Wow. What a story. It has a little bit of everything ... a sick writer, a vague scent of corruption, a powerful scent of incompetence and so on. If the ballot had been disqualified, Snider would have won. If the ballot had been accepted except that the Campanella names canceled each other out, Snider would have won. If the judges had given the first place spot on the ballot to Campanella and the fifth place spot to Snider (assuming the writer mistakenly repeated Campy in the fifth spot where he meant to put Snider) then Snider would have won. It seems like a major accounting error took place here.
But much of this story seems confusing. What does the writer being "sick and in the hospital" have to do with things? Why didn't they just ask him what his intentions had been? Was the guy dying? Was he in a coma? How could the BBWAA make a decision THAT stupid? Like I say, it's baffling. But, hey, baffling things happen all the time.
Over time, this story has become more or less accepted as fact, though nobody seems able to point to a source beyond Duke Snider's own memory. Wikipedia makes a strong mention of the story in a section on Snider's bio page titled "1955 Most Valuable Player balloting controversy." It sources Tracy Ringolsby's fine story on the Duke. But when I emailed Tracy to ask where he heard the story, he at first sent me a link to ... Wikipedia.*
*Let me quickly point out that Tracy sent me other stuff later that was crucial and ... well, stick with me.
I had heard that Bill James first reported this story of the sick writer, but Bill said he had never heard of it or at least had no memory of it. He too linked Wikipedia. I heard Rob Neyer was the first to report it outside of Duke's autobiography, but in his memory his source WAS Duke's autobiography. Round and round we go.
So I went to the papers. And I searched. And I picked. And I searched more. I have real work to do, you know, but I was on the trail. And then. I found my first actual source of the story. You won't believe who it was. No. really, you won't believe it.
The source was: Bob Feller.
Yep. Bob Feller wrote a column in 1956 that was syndicated in various papers. And he wrote this column under the headline "Most Valuable Player Awards? Let me tell you ...": "Well in 1955, one writer accidentally named Campanella twice -- for first and sixth place -- but left out Duke Snider, whom everybody else mentioned. ... Not wanting to be accuse of tampering, the committee didn't check back with the writer, gave Campy 14 points for the first place vote, nothing to Snider. Campy beat Duke by five points -- five that Snider probably would have had gotten if the writer hadn't erred."
AHA! Wouldn't you know that behind every good story, there's my old friend Bob Feller. He finished off his column with the kicker: "If that's the way the Awards are going to be determined, I'm almost glad I never won."
Even in a joke, he had to put the word "almost" in there. That's the beautiful Bob Feller.
But, anyway, this story has a bit more of a ring of authenticity. For one thing, in this version the second Campy appears sixth on the balloting -- which means if you just replaced him with Snider the two would have tied. That feels a little bit less like myth (it always bothered me that the ballot just HAPPENED to have Campy's second name fifth, the spot where Snider would have won by one point). For another, Feller reporting this in a syndicated column that appeared in small papers (I found this one in the Roanoke paper) tells me the story was somewhat well known, at least among baseball insiders and players. I felt confident that Bob Feller did not break this story.
Even though the Feller version sounds a little bit better, the story still had two major problems for me:
1. It still didn't add up why they didn't just go to the writer ... the "tampering" charge makes no more sense to me than the "sick Philadelphia writer in the hospital thing" did. You go to the guy, say "Buddy, you put Campy down twice" and go from there. It doesn't seem that hard.
2. There is a major mathematical problem with the whole story, as pointed out to me by brilliant reader Hizouse. The problem: The numbers add up. With 24 ballots and the scoring system in place there were 1,416 possible points. And if you add up all the points on the Baseball Reference Awards Page you get ... 1,416 points. There was no dropped fifth or sixth place vote. There was no switcheroo by the Baseball Writers. There was no story, or at least no interesting story.
Except ... there WAS an interesting story.
The break was sparked by Tracy Ringolsby, who sent me to Duke Snider's Baseball Library chronology page which mentioned a story by Sid Keener in The Sporting News. I could not get to the Sporting News story because the archives weren't working right -- a horribly frustrating moment, I must say -- but I kept searching for Keener and The Sporting News and finally, finally, finally ran into a little box in SABR's The National Pastime from 1990. The box is under a story by Michael Burke, but it does not have a tagline or byline and I'm not sure who wrote it, but I want to thank him or her with everything I've got. Because this box was like Jed shooting for some food and up through the ground came 'a bubbling crude.
Here's is what the box says happened: There was indeed a writer who put Roy Campanella first and also sixth on his ballot, just like Feller said. Whether this was done by a writer who was sick and/or from Philadelphia is not made clear, and is probably not important. The BBWAA could have invalidated the ballot, and it must have been considered. But they did not. And they also did not just give Campanella the top spot and erase the fifth spot.
What they did was this: They moved everybody below five up a spot -- six to five, seven to six, and so on. And for the bottom spot they inserted, yep, our favorite Philadelphia relief pitcher Jack Meyer.
Why did they do this? Well, the box doesn't say because nobody knows for sure because the BBWAA never would acknowledge that the event even happened. But I have a pretty strong guess what happened. I would guess they DID contact the writer and tell him about the mistake. I would also guess that Bob Feller was right -- they probably did not want to tamper by saying something like "You know you left Duke Snider off our ballot" or "Did you mean to put Duke Snider down the second time?" They probably just said: "Hey, you put Campy down twice, how do you want to handle that?"
And the writer, either with disdain for Duke Snider or with sheepishness that comes from being a goofball or with the incompetence that had inspired him to write Campy's name twice in the first place, said something like: "Oh, move everybody up one and put Jack Meyer on the bottom ... I was thinking hard about voting for him."
THAT all makes sense to me. THAT all adds up mathematically. And what we have here is not so much a clerical error by the BBWAA but either an error of stupidity or a deliberate effort to keep Snider from winning the MVP. Duke Snider was right to be mad about not winning the MVP award in 1955, but he was pointing in the wrong direction. I don't think it was because of some vague and somewhat incomprehensible ruling. I don't think it was because some writer MEANT to put him on but put Campy down twice instead. I think it was because of some bungling writer messing up his ballot ... probably twice.
And with that I can finally sleep easy having found the answer -- or at least a sensible answer -- to the 1955 MVP balloting. And so what's the takeaway? Well, in 1956, Duke Snider had a great year though nobody seemed to notice it. He led the league in WAR (both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference) and Win Shares, led the league in homers and walks, scored and drove in 100 runs, played terrific defense in center field. Bill James thinks Snider was CLOSE to the best in '53, '54 and '55 but never quite the best in the league. He feels pretty strongly Snider was the best player in the National League in 1956.
Duke Snider finished 10th in the MVP voting that year.