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The evolution of the single-season hit record

Once upon a time, it changed hands frequently. Since 1920, only two men have held the record: George Sisler for 84 years, and Ichiro.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

When Ichiro Suzuki reversed a 3-2 pitch from Ryan Drese into centerfield for a base hit in the third inning of the Seattle Mariners' October 1, 2004 game against the Texas Rangers, he surpassed George Sisler's 1920 mark of 257 hits in a season. Ichiro would collect four more hits in the final two games and six innings of the 2004 season to finish with 262 hits - a Major League Baseball record that has stood for the past 11 seasons.

It took 84 years for a player to beat Sisler's former record, and with the evolution of baseball, it may take at least another few generations before anyone challenges Ichiro's mark. It's not inconceivable that a player can pass 262 hits - as it is that anyone will win 59 games in a season like Old Hoss Radbourn in 1884, or throw 75 complete games like the bespectacled Will White in 1879 - but it will take a special kind of talent that doesn't exist currently in today's MLB.

But the single-season hit record wasn't always this way.  In the nineteenth century, the hits record was often surpassed every few seasons.  From the formation of the National Association in 1871, the professional baseball hits record changed hands 11 times before the turn of the twentieth century.  From 1900 on, the record has only changed hands three times.

For the purposes of tracing the record's history, I will include the National Association totals in this article.  It should be mentioned that Major League Baseball and the National Baseball Hall of Fame do not consider the National Association, which lasted from 1871-1875, to have been a major league. But if we're going to count the Union Association as a major league, then for the non-consequential nature of this article, the National Association gets to be included, too.

That being said, it's time to meet the first-ever single-season hits king - Cal McVey. McVey played in 29 games for the Boston Red Stockings (now Atlanta Braves), and collected a NA-high 66 hits in 154 PA, good for a .431 batting average. McVey drew one walk that season and struck out two times. As wildly unreliable as they are, nineteenth-century baseball statistics are hilarious in the context of today's game.

McVey's reign did not last long, as Ross Barnes, Dave Eggler, and 20 other players surpassed his total in 1872.  Barnes was the leader of the pack with a whopping 99 hits in 45 games played for the Red Stockings.  But 1872 was another in a series of very silly years for the National Association. Since the league had no real governing power over its member clubs, who were required to schedule their own games, the clubs all played a different number of games.  The New York Mutuals had 54 games scheduled, while the Washington Olympics played nine games. This was also the year that it became legal to use your wrist to pitch, effectively legalizing the curveball, though hurlers were still required to throw underhand. For more on some of the rule changes that took place during these formative years of professional baseball, see this article by Mike Rogers from 2011.

As the 1873 season rolled around and teams not named the Baltimore Marylands continued to compete in more games each season, the hit record once again fell, as five players surpassed the 100-hit plateau.[1] Barnes led the way with 137 hits in 60 games, followed by George Wright (126), Deacon White (121), future sporting goods magnate Al Spalding (106), and noted racist Cap Anson (101).  The record held for the 1874 season, but in 1875, both Barnes (143) and McVey (138) broke the mark again.

But alas, that would be the last year of existence for the NA, as the National League would rise to take its place in 1876.  For what it's worth, Barnes led the NL with 138 hits in 1876.  Barnes never eclipsed 86 hits in a season after 1876, as baseball scrapped the old fair-foul rule, of which Barnes was a master.  It used to be that if the ball touched down fair anywhere on the field and then skipped foul, it was a fair ball. Barnes hit over .400 four times before the rule was scrapped, and never hit above .272 after. John Duxbury at SABR got a little more in depth on Barnes here.

But Barnes' record of 143 hits would stand until Paul Hines of the Providence Grays had 146 hits in 85 games in 1879.  Four years later, Dan Brouthers of the Buffalo Bisons of the NL would collect 159 hits in 98 games to take over the crown.  Ed Swartwood of the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the American Association passed Hines that year as well with 147 hits in 94 contests.

The 1884 season saw the formation of the Union Association as a major league, and Brouthers' mark was shattered by seven different players.  Fred Dunlap had 185 hits in 101 games with the St. Louis Maroons, while his teammate Orator Shaffer (or Shafer) had 168 hits.  In the American Association, Dave Orr of the New York Metropolitains (for whom the modern team derives its name from) collected 162 hits. The National League saw "Orator" Jim O'Rourke of Buffalo and Ezra Sutton of the Boston Beaneaters finish with 162 hits, while Abner Dalrymple (161) and King Kelly (160) of Anson's Chicago White Stockings finished right behind.  A lot of this had to do with the formation of the third major league and an overall diminished level of competition across major league baseball.

Two years later in 1886, four players would pass Dunlap's mark - Orr (193 hits) led the way, followed by Tip O'Neill of the St. Louis Browns (AA, 190), Hardy Richardson of the Detroit Wolverines (NL, 189), and Anson (187). One year later there was another explosion of hits, as five players passed Orr's mark, including four who would break the 200-hit plateau for the first time.

Single-Season Hit Leaders
Year League Player Club Hits
1871 National Association Cal McVey Boston Red Stockings 66
1872 National Association Ross Barnes Boston Red Stockings 99
1873 National Association Ross Barnes Boston Red Stockings 137
1875 National Association Ross Barnes Boston Red Stockings 143
1879 National League Paul Hines Providence Grays 146
1883 National League Dan Brouthers Buffalo Bisons 159
1884 United Association Fred Dunlap St. Louis Maroons 185
1886 National League Dave Orr New York Metropolitians 193
1887 National League Tip O'Neill St. Louis Browns 225
1894 National League Hugh Duffy Boston Beaneaters 237
1896 National League Jesse Burkett Cleveland Spiders 240
1911 American League Ty Cobb Detroit Tigers 248
1920 American League George Sisler St. Louis Browns 257
2004 American League Ichiro Suzuki Seattle Mariners 262

The Woodstock Wonder Tip O'Neill led the way with 225 hits for the St. Louis Browns, while playing in only 124 of the team's 135 games. Pete Browning of the Louisville Colonels had 220 hits that year, while Denny Lyons of the Philadelphia Athletics had 209, Sam Thompson of the Detroit Wolverines finished with 203, and O'Neill's teammate Arlie Latham collected 198.

But 1887 was a funny year, for that season and that season only, walks were counted as hits. In 1968, the MLB formed a Special Baseball Records Committee which ruled that walks from that year should not be counted as hits in any official records, but in 2000, MLB's historian Jerome Holtzman overruled the decision.

"Revisionist history is admirable when new and undisputed evidence is brought forth. But this was an abomination, an absolute falsehood and twisting of the known facts for the singular purpose of regulating history to conform to previous and subsequent standards. It was a grievous corruption. If a walk was a hit in 1887 it should stand as a hit forevermore," he wrote. But that being said, the statistical totals on MLB.com, Baseball-Reference, and Fangraphs all show O'Neill's hit total and season batting average (.435) as interpreted by the 1968 Committee, and that is what was used here.

Things stabilized for a short time before Hugh Duffy of the Boston Beaneaters had 237 hits in 1894, and was surpassed by Jesse Burkett of the Cleveland Spiders had 240 hits in 1896.  Burkett's mark stood until 1911 when Ty Cobb smacked 248 hits, then nine seasons later Sisler had his 257. Eighty-four years later, Ichiro passed Sisler and the mark has remained at 262 ever since, and with the stabilization of the rulebook and the season length at 162 games, it should stay there for years to come.


[1] The 1873 Baltimore Marylands played in six games, going 0-6.

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Joe Vasile is a contibutor at Beyond the Box Score and the Broadcasting and Media Relations assistant for the Salem Red Sox, the High-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Follow him on the Twitter: @JoeVasilePBP.