Analyzing the "Giant" Controversy Surrounding the Indians' 22-Game Winning Streak

0:43 | MLB
Walk-Off Win Pushes Indians' Historic Win Streak to 22 Games
Friday September 15th, 2017

By the time Jay Bruce's double brought home Jose Ramirez to give the Indians their 22nd consecutive victory, a controversy had erupted over whether their winning streak was actually a major league record. As they approached the mark, first setting an American League record by surpassing the 2002 Oakland A's 20 in a row and then the 1935 Cubs' 21 in a row, it appeared to be a simple matter. The 1916 Giants strung together 26 wins in a row, but one game was suspended and eventually made up. However, the Elias Bureau, MLB's official statistician, has weighed in to emphasize that it still regards that century-old streak as the record.

Back in 1916, ballparks had no lights; the majors' first night game didn't happen until May 24, 1935. Games were commonly suspended due to darkness, and in those days, if one ended when the score was tied, the game was replayed, though the stats counted. Such was the case with the nightcap of the Giants' September 18 doubleheader against the Pirates at the Polo Grounds.

Though they had won 17 in a row (without interruption) in May, those Giants—managed by the great, fiery John McGraw—had carried a meager 56-58 record into September, good just for fourth in the eight-team National League that year. On July 20, they traded the iconic but fading Christy Mathewson to the Reds, a move made so that the 35-year-old hurler could begin his managerial career. Coming into September 7, the Giants were still 60-62, but that day at the Polo Grounds, they erupted for four sixth-inning runs to back Ferdie Schupp's complete-game two-hitter, beating the pennant-bound Brooklyn Robins (now the Dodgers) 4-1 and salvaging a split of their four-game series.

The Giants beat the Phillies the next day and in a doubleheader the day after. They had won 12 in a row through the September 18 opener, a 2-0 win via Schupp's three-hit shutout of the Pirates, completed in a crisp one hour and 35 minutes. Play was similarly brisk in the nightcap, but with the score tied 1-1 through eight innings, rain interrupted play. By the time it cleared up, home plate umpire Bill Klem ruled that it was too dark to continue.

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Under the rules at the time, there was no provision for a suspended game to be resumed; that wasn't implemented until 2007. Instead, the game was replayed the next day as the opener of yet another doubleheader, one of nine (!) included in the 24-day streak. The Giants won 9-2, then took the regularly scheduled game 5-1, and peeled off another dozen wins through the opener of their September 30 game against the Boston Braves before falling 8-3 in the nightcap.

Here's the thing about that suspended game: the statistics, including Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes' eight-inning three-hit complete game for Pittsburgh and Benny Kauff's sixth home run of the year for New York, counted. But the game was not considered a tie in the sense of a football, hockey or soccer game that goes through overtimes and shootouts Here's what Steve Hirdt, the executive vice president of Elias, told the Associated Press on Wednesday:

“A tie was never an acceptable result of a baseball game. If one happened because of darkness or rain or some certain circumstance, the game was played over.

“Sports fans are used to the nuance in hockey and football of the difference between a winning streak and an unbeaten streak or consecutive games streak without a loss. Baseball has never had those two different records. They would replay the game until a legitimate won or loss result was achieved.”

Pictured is Giants' legend Christy Mathewson, who was traded on July 20 before New York started its 26-game winning streak.
AP

Baseball-Reference lists the September 18 game as a tie in the Giant's 1916 game log, however, complete with the box score, but as powerful and incredible as the site is—the best invention since penicillin, for my money—it's not Major League Baseball's official standard, and sometimes there are discrepancies. B-Ref includes statistics for the National Association, the first professional baseball league, which ran from 1871-75 before folding. Many consider it to be the first major league, but Elias and MLB do not, which produces a head-scratching moment when, say, Derek Jeter's placement on the all-time hit list comes up. Cap Anson, who began play with the NA's 1871 Rockford Forest Citys [sic], is credited by B-Ref with accumulating 3,435 hits in a career that ran through the NA's lifespan and through 1897 in the National League, which places him seventh on the all-time hit list, 30 hits and one spot below Jeter. In the eyes of Elias and MLB, his career didn't begin until 1876, the NL's inaugural season, and only his 3,011 hits there count (even then, B-Ref tallies 3,012, and we haven’t even touched the weird 1887 rule where walks were counted as hits), good for 28th all time, 22 below Jeter.

Until Hirdt's declaration, the Giants' streak didn't come up in B-Ref's Play Index searches, but via the site's manager of baseball operations Hans Van Slooten, "B-R has been updated to reflect MLB's view of the streak." MLB official historian John Thorn is on board as well with recognizing the Giants as the record holders.

To these eyes, if the stats from that suspended game count, a game producing no winner or loser should be counted as a tie even if not officially designated as such. As somebody who included NA stats in my book about the Baseball Hall of Fame, The Cooperstown Casebook, I'm #TeamBRef all the way, but if the site and Thorn are on board with this decision, that's the ballgame, regardless of those who disagree.

And so the Indians' 22-game winning streak is rightly credited as the AL record and the longest in the majors in 101 years, but it's not yet the major league record. To get that, they'll have to win their next three games against the Royals at Progressive Field, then head to Anaheim to beat the Angels a couple of times.

Still, there are many reasons to regard the Indians' streak as the more impressive one. For one thing, the entirety of the Giants' streak came at home as part of a 31-game homestand (their 17-game streak from earlier took place entirely on the road), while the Indians have played 11 at home and 11 on the road (all consecutive, in games 5-15). Over a century later, home-field advantage is virtually unchanged; in the 1916 NL, the home team won at a .539 clip, this year's AL is at .540. Granted, if my math is right, the odds of the Giants winning 26 straight with a 53.9% chance of doing so are about one in 9.5 million, while those of the Indians doing their 22 straight with a 54% chance for 11 and a 46% chance for the other 11 are one in 4.5 million, but with one more win at home, those rise to one in 8.3 million, and with two, they're one in 15.4 million.

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For another thing, in 1916, MLB's color line was still 31 years away from being broken. Many of the best players were excluded due to the color of their skin, and the game had only barely opened even to light-skinned Latin American players. Cuban-born Dolf Luque debuted with the Boston Braves in 1914 but made just four appearances between that year and the next before gaining a true foothold with the 1918 Reds and attaining stardom in the next decade. Mel Almada became the first Mexican major leaguer in 1933, Alex Carrasquel the first Venezuelan in 1939, Hiram Birthorn the first Puerto Rican in 1942 and Ozzie Virgil the first Dominican in 1956, that nine years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. The game has come a long way in the past century.

Third, salaries were a pittance then; Ty Cobb, the game's highest-paid player in 1916, made $20,000, and the average player far less, so baseball's talent pool was further narrowed by the realities of making a living, whether on the farm or in the coal mines or the big city. With the benefit of a much larger player pool, not to mention proper nutrition and advances in health care and training, the caliber of play today is much, much higher than it was a century ago.

Finally, these Indians have dominated their opponents to a greater degree than the Giants did. The Indians have outscored their competition by 105 runs (142-37), an average of 4.77 per game, while the Giants outscored opponents by 86 runs (118-32, or 117-31 without the tie), an average of 3.31 runs per game. Their Pythagorean winning percentages are nearly equal (.936-.934), but statheads have adopted more advanced versions of the formula that estimates a team’s winning percentage from runs scored and allowed in part because it tends to break down at the extremes. Via Pythagenpat (for a sabermetrician who goes by Patriot), the Indians hold a .920-.896 advantage over the tie-less Giants.

All of which is to say that while the 1916 Giants still officially hold the record, it's fair to regard the Indians' accomplishment as the greater achievement. We just can't call it the major league record quite yet. And for what it’s worth, despite their two epic winning streaks, the 1916 Giants finished 86-66, fourth in the NL, while these Indians could soon have a whole lot more to celebrate.

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