“The Case of the 1947 MVP Ballot,”
by Glenn Stout
originally published in ” The Sporting News, December 20, 1993, and updated in 1999
Everybody knows the story.
When Pedro Martinez lost the 1999 MVP award, because, in part, two writers left him off the ballot altogether, many recalled ta similar incident in 1947 involving Boston’s Ted Williams. In that season, triple crown winner Williams lost the Most Valuable Player award voted by the Base Ball Writers Association of America to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio by one vote, 202-201. Of the twenty-four writers who voted for the award, one left Williams off his ballot altogether, failing to give him even a tenth place vote. Melville Webb of The Boston Globe, a confirmed Williams’ hater, reportedly clashed with Ted early in the 1947 season then extracted his revenge in the MVP balloting.
It’s a great story.
But that’s all it is; a story. Because, in truth, Ted Williams didn’t lose the 1947 MVP award because Mel Webb refused to vote for him. Mel Webb didn’t even vote for the 1947 American League MVP. True, one writer did leave Williams off the ballot. But the guilty party wasn’t Webb or any other writer from Boston. The oversight didn’t cost Williams the election, anyway. The reason why Williams lost the 1947 MVP award may be a little more unsavory than the simple bias of a single writer. It is certainly more complicated.
In 1947, the defending champion Red Sox sputtered early and never got back on track, Red Sox pitchers Boo Ferris, Tex Hughson and Mickey Harris, who combined for 62 wins in 1946, all came up with arm trouble and won only 35 games in 1947. The Sox finished third, two games behind second place Detroit, fourteen games out.
The New York Yankees won the 1947 American League pennant. In the off-season between 1946 and 1947, center fielder Joe DiMaggio underwent surgery to remove a painful bone spur from his left heel. DiMaggio missed the first month of the season and the Yankees struggled to stay above .500. But Joe returned to the New York line-up on May 4, just in time to lead the Yankees against the Red Sox in a key early season meeting a week later. DiMaggio sparkled in the series while Williams slumped, drawing the wrath of the Boston fans, and the Yankees moved ahead of Boston. With DiMaggio back in the lineup, New York surged and couldn’t be stopped. Over a sixteen-game stretch in late May and June, DiMaggio hit .488 as the Yankees passed Detroit, then pulled away on the strength of a 19-game winning streak. DiMaggio, despite a late season injury, received full credit for the turnaround. He finished the season with a .315 batting average, 20 Home runs and 97 RBI.
Williams, meanwhile, hit .343 with 32 home runs, 114 RBI and an astounding 161 walks for the disappointing Red Sox. Although Williams’ numbers were a notch below his usual standard, and some griped that his huge number of walks hurt the team, he still won the AL triple crown.
The American League MVP race was wide open. Most observers felt the award would go to a member of the Yankees. First baseman George McQuinn enjoyed some support due to his surprising .304 average and 80 RBI while plugging a trouble spot in the Yankee defense. New York manager Bucky Harris openly campaigned for Yankee reliever Joe Page on the basis of his 14 wins and 17 saves. And DiMaggio was, well, DiMaggio.
Despite winning the triple crown, Williams was favored to win the award only in Boston. But Ted wanted the award badly. He had been disappointed with his second place finish to DiMaggio in 1941, as voters had been more impressed by DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak than Ted’s .406 batting average. And although Williams was named MVP in 1946, DiMaggio had already won the award twice. Williams believed he was the best hitter is baseball and felt he deserved the recognition the award offered, admitting, “I want this more than anything in the world.”
The existing Most Valuable Player Award, represented by the Kenesaw Mountain Landis award plaque named after baseball’s first commissioner, was created in a 1930 meeting of the Base Ball Writers Association of America, who voted to appoint two committees to elect the MVP in each league. The Sporting News selected its own MVP from 1930 thru 1938 before joining with the BBWAA and awarding the “Sporting News Trophy” to the winner of the BBWAA ballot. The Landis trophy was created in 1944 to honor then ailing former commissioner, who died shortly thereafter. The Sporting News went back to making its own selection in 1944 and 1945, before agreeing to a request by baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler to withdraw “from the field to cooperate in making the Landis Awards, provided by the major leagues, the official designations of the year.” As part of the agreement, TSN received the right to be the first to announce the winner of the award each year.
In 1947, twenty-four members of the BBWAA, including three representatives of each team in each major league city, had the right to vote for the award. Selected by BBWAA president Tommy Holmes of the Brooklyn Eagle, with help from the chairman of the local chapter, each writer was instructed to vote for ten players, ranked according to place. A first place vote was worth 14 points, while a second place vote was worth 9 points and value diminished with each place so that a tenth place vote was worth only a single point.
The results of the 1947 AL MVP vote was announced in TSN on November 28. TSN published a breakdown of the entire vote, but unlike other years, did not release a list of the voters.
In the closest ballot ever, Joe DiMaggio, with eight first place votes, edged Ted Williams 202-201. Williams collected only three first place votes. The Indians’ Lou Boudreau finished third with 168 points, Joe Page finished fourth with 167 points, and Detroit’s George Kell was fifth with 77 points.
The results were front page news in Boston. The Boston baseball writers, despite their legendary battles with Williams, either publicly supported Williams or kept silent. Most, like Joe Cashman of the Boston Daily Record and Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald, blamed Williams’ defeat on the Yankees’ first place finish. Both men wrote that they personally felt Williams deserved the award. Cashman, toward whom Williams later express expressed affection, went so far as to write “I have a hunch that if you [Williams] had a vote you would have cast it for Big DiMag… he furnished a spark without which the Yankees couldn’t have won the pennant.” But others were less accepting of the result. John Drohan of the Boston American wrote “There hasn’t been so much indignation since George III put a tax on tea that resulted in the Boston tea party.” Williams made no public comment.
Only Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe bothered to examine the vote. Kaese noted that one writer didn’t vote for Williams at all, and that three writers overlooked DiMaggio. In a column on November 28, Kaese suggested that Williams’ three first place votes “were probably from the Boston representatives.” He reiterated his claim in a front page follow-up story two days later, and took the entire balloting process to task. Kaese questioned several recent voting irregularities. In 1946, Stan Musial was selected National League MVP in a landslide with 22 votes first place votes, one third, and one inexplicable ninth place tally.
Furor over the award soon died. But in 1948, Kaese published a story about the MVP awards voting procedure in Sport Life magazine entitled “Baseball’s Biggest Joke.” He blasted the BBWAA for sloppy voting procedures, identified the voters in the upcoming 1948 election, and stated that the writer who left Williams off the ballot in 1947 was “a Mid-Western writer who couldn’t even see Ted ranked with the top ten!” Later that year, Kaese went even farther. In an insert to the Red Sox program entitled “Red Sox Notes,” Kaese identified the three Boston voters in 1947 as Joe Cashman, Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald, and Jack Malaney of the Boston Post, the same three Boston writers TSN identified as voters in both 1946 and 1948. All three were among Williams’ most vociferous supporters in the Boston press. The culprit, according to Kaese, was still that mysterious “Mid-Western” writer. The much-maligned Mel Webb, a colleague of Kaese’s at the Globe, wasn’t ebven mentioned.
Unfortunately, the BBWAA does not retain records of the voters in 1947 to back Kaese’s claim. But Kaese, winner of the Hall of Fame’s Spink award in 1976, was widely considered the most accurate and just baseball writer in Boston. While he, too, battled with Williams, Kaese backed up his criticism with facts. Kaese’s archives, now on deposit at the Boston Public Library, reveal several occasions where he apologized to Williams for errors of fact or kept unsavory stories out of print. In 1993 Jack Lang, then executive secretary of the BBWAA and a contemporary of Kaese, concurred with his conclusions. Lang said “I’m sure he knew what he was talking about… If Kaese identified the writers, if he states those were the three men who voted, Harold was probably 100% correct.”
Kaese simply reported. He surely knew who voted in 1947. It is difficult to imagine that Kaese had any motive to protect Webb, who had not been publicly identified by anyone as the recalcitrant voter. In fact, no one had written a word intimating that any Boston writer was the voter in question. Kaese had no reason to create a cover-up because there was nothing as yet to cover.
Webb, a charter member of the BBWAA since its founding in 1908, was considered a curmudgeon and roundly disliked by almost everyone. Both Jack Lang and Dave O’Hara, a Boston AP sportswriter from 1942 thru 1992, recall that Webb’s principal duty appeared to be checking the credentials of young writers in the press box at Fenway Park. At age 71 in 1947, Webb’s membership in the BBWAA in 1947 was essentially a courtesy. Work under his byline virtually never appeared in the Globe anymore and he hadn’t covered baseball on a daily basis for years. It seems extremely unlikely that the geriatric Webb would have been selected to vote for the MVP in 1947.
How did the story get started that identified Webb as the recalcitrant elector? It first appeared in Williams’ own biography, written with John Underwood, entitled “My Turn At Bat,” published in 1969. According to Williams, “Then it came out that one Boston writer didn’t even put me in the top ten on his ballot. A tenth place vote would have given me two points and the Most Valuable Player Award… the writer’s name was Mel Webb.” Williams goes on to recall a tiff with Webb early in 1947 and claim that Webb retaliated in the MVP vote.
While “My Turn At Bat” is one of the most entertaining autobiographies of a baseball player, and gives a fine sense of Williams personality, it is also occasionally inaccurate. In one example, Williams recalls that the Red Sox lost the famous 1948 play-off against Cleveland 5-1. The actual score was 8-3. In the passage cited above, Williams incorrectly notes that a tenth place vote was worth two points, when in fact it was worth only one. The story started with Ted, or at least with his book.
Williams genuinely believes the story, and has refused to comment on this story. Apparently, another writer apparently told Williams Webb was responsible for his loss, and Ted never questioned the source. Today, it seems likely that Ted was either hoodwinked by another writer eager to curry Williams’ favor, or simply mistaken.
Since the publication of My Turn At Bat, the story has been repeated in virtually ever subsequent biography or profile of Williams, embellished by journalists much kinder to Williams than those of his own era, taken at face value and without question, as fact. Some contemporaries of Webb, like Clif Keane, sportswriter for the Globe from 1929 thru 1976, still cling to the story. But even Keane admits he didn’t witness the tiff between Williams and Webb, but “someone told me about it.” No one challenged Kaese’s explanation at the time. The identification of Webb is revisionist history at its’ worst.
Why then, did Williams lose the election by one point, and who was to blame? As Kaese suggested, a Midwestern writer may have been at fault. Williams’ had many enemies among the sporting press, and he had particular trouble in Detroit and Cleveland. A voter may also have left him off the ballot by mistake. But to focus on the single missing vote at the expense of the 23 known votes is to miss the point. Had Williams received one additional first place vote, worth 14 points, he would have won the award easily. If any of the other twenty voters placed Williams one or two places higher, Williams would have tied DiMaggio or won the award outright. The phantom 24th vote was less significant than at least 20 others. The same point is just as valid in regard to Martinez.
Two years later, in 1949, Ted Williams was named American League MVP for the second time. He beat Phil Rizzuto of the pennant winning Yankees, 272 votes to 175, and collected 13 first place votes to Rizzuto’s five. Sportswriters were surprised at the size of Williams victory. Rizzuto had been a slight favorite going into the election due to Williams’ poor performance in a critical two-game series against the Yankees at the end of the season.
A few days after the vote, Ken Smith, executive secretary of the BBWAA, announced a change in BBWAA policy made at the request of National League president Ford Frick. In the future, instead of releasing the results of the voting to newspapers a week in advance of the public announcement, the selection of the MVP would be kept secret until the time of the announcement. Frick, a former sportswriter, had heard rumors of widespread betting on the AL prize.
The Sporting News broke the story a few days later in a front page story by Dan Daniel. A number of unidentified newspapermen, armed with the advanced knowledge of Williams’ surprising victory, had placed bets on the MVP balloting at favorable odds. Some bookies found out about the scam and were refusing to pay up. In New York alone, Daniel estimated that as much as $500,000 was involved, with one bookie supposedly out $40,000. While other writers scoffed at the figures, Daniel was moved to write, “Skulduggery in connection with the most valuable player business is not precisely new. However, the efforts to get at the inside dope in the Ted Williams selection were without precedent in their extent. The writer knows of a publisher who was offered a Cadillac car if he would reveal the American League winner some days in advance.” While Daniel failed to cite any further examples of such “skulduggery,” he did note that “In 1947 Joe DiMaggio nosed out Ted Williams by only one point, and there was no known betting.” It is odd that Daniel felt it necessary to absolve an election that no one, as yet, had called into question.
MVP voting rules were changed. Major league baseball suspected the BBWAA sent out and received completed ballots before the season was over, and before Williams’ dismal performance in against New York in the last two games. The BBWAA promised that in the future no ballots would be distributed before the end of the season. The Sporting News relinquished its exclusive right to first announce the winner, and the BBWAA stopped distributing the results in advance of their official announcement. Furthermore, beginning in 1949 the BBWAA decided that the identity of the voters would remain confidential. Individuals could reveal themselves if they chose, but the BBWAA would keep their identity confidential.
The gambling scandal raises questions over the results of the MVP vote in several previous seasons. A newspaperman armed with advance knowledge of the result could have made a killing. In theory anyway, a voter could have further skewed the odds by voting with his wallet instead of according to a ballplayers performance. A conspiracy by one or more writers could change the outcome of the election. A writer could, for example, leave triple crown winner Ted Williams off the ballot and vote for Joe DiMaggio.
No direct evidence exists that confirms the theory, but MVP balloting from 1946 through 1949 appears suspicious. In 1946, Stan Musial was named on all 24 ballots and received 22 first place votes, yet one voter ranked him ninth. In 1947, the Braves’ Bob Elliot was a shocking winner in the National League. While he did benefit from an organized public relations campaign by the Braves, Elliot led the league in no offensive categories and like the Red Sox, the Braves finished third. 1949 NL MVP Jackie Robinson was also left off the ballot by a writer, although Robinson may have been the victim of prejudice. But the voting pattern in the 1947 American League MVP race is the most curious of all.
Apart from the omission of Williams on one ballot, DiMaggio was left off three ballots and received one vote each for 8th, 9th and 10th place. In any unbiased election, both DiMaggio and Williams had to be considered as one of the ten most valuable players in the league, if not the top five.
The Yankees’ Yogi Berra finished fifteenth in the balloting with only 18 points. He received only two votes, each for second place. Berra was a rookie and appeared in only 85 games for New York, batting 293 times and hitting .280. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could sincerely have believed he was the second most valuable player in the league.
Athletics’ shortstop Eddie Joost finished 11th with only three votes. Yet Joost received two first place votes, only one fewer than Williams. While Joost was a fine player, in 1947 he hit .206 and led the league in strikeouts.
No one has ever pursued these questions. It was against the baseball writers’ own interest to investigate their own, and major league baseball ignored the matter. The scandal was forgotten. Most of the principals of the story are long dead. Mel Webb passed away in 1961, Harold Kaese in 1975.
Fifty-two years later, what really happened is still a mystery. Perhaps Joe DiMaggio won an MVP election that he shouldn’t have in 1947, and Ted Williams won one he didn’t deserve in 1949. In the end, maybe the question cancels itself out. Precisely what happened in the MVP balloting of 1947 remains a secret. But the smell it left behind can still be detected some 46 years later. The much maligned Mel Webb, the old curmudgeon, probably had nothing to do with it.
Don’t feel too bad, Pedro.