When a more lively baseball helped Larry Doyle become an MVP

Helmar T206 card featuring Larry Doyle.

It may seem like baseball has been a constant in America for more than a century and a half, but the baseball itself has not. It might, in photos, seem like Warren Spahn was holding the same ball that Justin Verlander throws, but he wasn’t.

Like the game, like America, the baseball itself has changed quite a bit over the years. One of the most radical changes to the ball came before the 1911 season, and the impact was so remarkable that the league was forced to acknowledge something had changed. Several of the batting records set that season still remain among the best of all-time.

The 1911 baseball contained something new: a cork center. With a lighter, less dense center, the baseball traveled faster and farther. But the change proved to be too much.

“We actually had to tone it down,” said George Reach, the president of Reach Co., the official supplier to both leagues. “We were making infielders out of outfielders.”

In addition to the cork center, the wool yarn (which surrounds the cork) was wound much tighter, making the 1911 baseballs livelier. In actuality, the new baseballs had been used the previous fall during the 1910 World Series.

According to Reach, no one in baseball knew that Reach had changed the balls. Not Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, and not John McGraw, the most powerful man in the National League. McGraw’s team, the New York Giants, benefited from the change. The Giants dethroned the Cubs to win the pennant in 1911, fueled by the best offense in the league. McGraw’s team scored nearly five runs per game, Larry Doyle hit .310 with a league-best 25 triples. League-wide, extra-base hits rose fifteen percent. Overnight, baseball became a much different game.

In 1911, the National League scored one more run per game, and the AL increased scoring by half a run. That season, Ty Cobb batted .420 and had 248 hits. Shoeless Joe Jackson, in his first full season, batted .408 for the Indians. Before long, the baseball was adjusted to take some of the “jackrabbit” out of it, but thanks to changes in the baseball itself, the game was leaving the deadball era behind.

How good was Larry Doyle? Was he a one-year wonder, aided by a juiced ball? At the height of his career, McGraw said of Doyle, “I would not trade him for any man playing baseball.” Doyle won a batting title, he stole more than 30 bases in five straight seasons, he retired as the all-time leader for second basemen in hits, runs, extra-base hits, total bases, and RBIs. Also in double plays and total chances. Pretty damn good.

Doyle was important to several great teams, starring for the Giants when they won three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, though they pulled a Buffalo Bills move and lost the World Series each year.

In 1912, Doyle was named Most Valuable Player of the National League. Johnny Evers won it two years later. There’s no evidence that shows Evers was a better player than Doyle, yet the former is in the Hall of Fame, and Doyle is not. You can measure with Win Shares or use Wins Above Replacement, or take more traditional stats, and the two are indistinguishable. Doyle had more career hits, runs, extra-base hits, and far more RBIs than Evers.

Ultimately, a poem by Franklin Pierce Adams is probably the difference between Evers having a plaque in Cooperstown and Doyle being largely forgotten. But “Laughing Larry,” the guy who spent years as Christy Mathewson’s roommate, was an excellent player, and for one season, he was crowned the best player in his league.

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