Dan Lewis
Tuesday January 7th, 2014


On November 3, 1948, the headline of the early edition of the Chicago Tribune famously read “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune, based on polls and conventional wisdom, determined that New York governor Thomas Dewey had defeated incumbent President Harry Truman in the prior day's presidential election. This, of course, was wrong, and Truman pulled off an improbable upset.

In 1951, baseball had its own Dewey Defeats Truman moment, which is why you’ve likely never heard of St. Louis Browns pitcher Ned Garver.

That year, the Browns went 52-102 en route to a last-place finish, 46 games behind the eventual World Series champion Yankees. That season the Yankees roster included 36-year-old star Joe DiMaggio and 19-year-old newcomer Mickey Mantle, the only time two would play together. But the leader of the Bombers' offense was catcher Yogi Berra, who paced the team in both home runs (27) and runs batted in (88). Arguably the best hitter on the league’s best team—there were only eight in the AL at the time—Berra figured to pick up a lot of MVP votes.

Still, Berra’s hold on the award was tenuous. Many other batters put up more impressive numbers: Gus Zernial of the Philadelphia Athletics (and, for four games that year, of the Chicago White Sox) paced the AL with 33 homers and 129 RBI. Boston's Ted Williams had 30 homers and an insane .464 on-base percentage. Even Berra’s teammate Gil MacDougald, the eventual 1951 AL Rookie of the Year, nearly matched the catcher in slugging while besting him by over 40 points in OBP.

To make matters worse, there was no Cy Young Award back then, and there were three Yankee pitchers worthy of awards consideration. Two of them—Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat—won 21 games apiece, with Raschi leading the league in strikeouts and Lopat coming in second in ERA. The third, Allie Reynolds, won 17 games, led the league with 7 shutouts, tossed two no-hitters, and added 7 saves for good measure. Any reasonable observer would assume that New York voters would split their ballots among Berra and the pitchers, and that turned out to be right: Berra and Reynolds each received six first-place votes, while Lopat took one. Raschi and MacDougald both found themselves with significant down-ballot support, as did Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto (who also received a first-place vote).

That divide seemingly paved the way for the aforementioned Garver, whose claim to fame was two-fold: First, his record sat at 20-12, impressive for a team that won only 52 games. Second, Garver could hit like a non-pitcher. He had a .305/.365/.421 line, good enough for 1.2 bWAR at the plate (not that bWAR existed at the time) to go along with his league-leading 5.6 bWAR from the rubber. He was such a good hitter (for a very bad team) that he often batted sixth on the days he started. He, too, was expected to receive a significant amount of MVP support, and sure enough, like Berra and Reynolds, Garver received six first-place votes.

Unlike the two Yankees, though, Garver received a phone call the night before the award was to be announced publicly. It was a reporter from the Associated Press, informing the Browns pitcher that he had been named MVP. One hopes that Garver made the most of that night, because the next day the AP called back to inform him that they were mistaken—Berra had 184 total points to his 157. Apparently, the three New York-based writers decided not to include him on their ballots at all, likely in an effort to guarantee that Berra (or perhaps Reynolds) won the trophy.

It was a heartbreaking mistake by the AP, and one that's hard to excuse: The vote differential between Berra and Garver was 27 points. A second place vote was worth 9 points, so even one third-place vote on any of the three New York ballots would have doomed Garver’s MVP hopes. Much like the Chicago Tribune from the fall of 1948, the AP simply got the story wrong.


Bonus fact: Last year, the Baseball Writers of America famously failed to elect a new member of the Hall of Fame. Craig Biggio appeared to be the most likely new inductee, and like many in his shoes, he was waiting by the phone in hopes of getting a call from the Hall with good news. Reportedly his phone did, in fact, ring just before the official announcement was made. Unfortunately, it was a reporter, cluelessly requesting an interview.

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know, which delivers the stories behind interesting facts. Sign up here for free. He also wrote a book of the same name.

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