Was it some altitude-enhanced squad from Colorado during the Blake Street Bombers era? Or maybe one of those high-octane Indians lineups from the late 1990s? What about the speedy Cardinals from the ’80s, known for slashing base hits on the rock-hard fake turf at Busch Stadium? And let’s not forget the Big Red Machine of the ’70s, with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, George Foster, and Ken Griffey Sr. Surely that team must have hit .300 a couple of years?
The truth is we have to go back much further than that to find the answer. It has not happened since the Boston Red Sox hit .302 in 1950. That is an incredibly long time.
Since 1901, which historians have (somewhat arbitrarily) designated as the beginning of “modern” baseball, a team has hit .300 in a season 40 times. That Sox club in 1950 was nothing if not balanced: Only Vern Stephens and Bobby Doerr, at .295 and .294, respectively, failed to reach .300. The irony is that they did it without much help from 31-year-old Ted Williams. Entering the season with a .353 career mark, the Splendid Splinter injured his elbow in the All-Star Game and started only 16 games in the second half. He finished at “only” .317. As for the Sox, all their hitting could not overcome truly ugly pitching. They won only 90 games and had to settle for third place, four games behind the New York Yankees.
Indeed, the 1950 Red Sox were something of an outlier. Before them, you have to go back to 1936 to find a team that hit .300. Three teams did it that season: Cleveland (.304), the defending world champion Detroit Tigers, and the eventual world champion Yankees, who both came in at .300. That means that of the 40 teams that have hit .300, all but one of them did it before 1937. American League teams get a slight edge here, accomplishing it 23 times to the senior circuit’s 17. The team with the most .300-hitting seasons is the Tigers, who turned the trick on six occasions. The only three franchises never to achieve it are the Braves, White Sox, and Reds.
Surprisingly, no Deadball Era club ever hit .300. It was not until 1920 that two teams succeeded in first shattering the ceiling. Cleveland, with Tris Speaker roaming the outfield, hit a collective .303 and won the World Series. The St. Louis Browns hit .308, led by George Sisler’s .407 mark. It would be logical to assume .300-hitting teams historically have gotten big bumps from the presence of a .400 hitter in the lineup. This, however, was rarely the case. Of those 40 teams, only six featured a .400 batter. By necessity, balance was the byword.
The age of Babe Ruth saw not merely an increase in home runs, but in batting average, as well. From 1920 to 1930, at least one team hit .300 every year, with the exception of 1926. In 1925, the Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates became the first .300-hitting teams to face off in a World Series. The Yankees and Pirates did it again two years later, the last time it has happened.
The hitting orgy that was 1930 saw no fewer than nine major league clubs bat at least .300. The New York Giants set a modern major league record by hitting an incredible .319. The entire National League batted .303, while the junior circuit, apparently made up of a bunch of scrubs, could only manage a .288 mark. The Philadelphia Phillies were second in the NL with a .315 average but were undone by possibly the worst pitching staff in the history of the game. Surrendering 1,199 runs and posting a 6.71 team earned run average, the Phils lost 102 games and finished dead last.
It was definitely a freakish year, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. A partial explanation may have been a suspected rabbit ball introduced by the owners, who were banking on high-scoring games to reverse dwindling Depression Era attendance. By season’s end, most fans had seen enough of the carnage. A correction in the ball resulted in an 18-point drop in major-league batting average in 1931.
But what about the dark ages before so-called “modern” baseball? The National League in the 1890s was a circus of sluggers and high-scoring games. Several teams hit well over .300 in a season. Perhaps no club hit at such a dizzying clip as the 1894 Philadelphia Phillies, at a whopping .350 (the league average was .309). That is the highest team mark ever, if you include nineteenth-century baseball. All three of Philadelphia’s outfielders (Ed Delahanty, Sam Thompson, and Billy Hamilton) are in the Hall of Fame, and all three hit over .400 that year. The Phils also had a reserve outfielder, Tuck Turner, who chimed in at .418 in 348 at-bats. All it got the team was a fourth-place finish (out of 12 teams), as the mound corps was awful.
I would like to believe some time in the future a team is going to hit .300 over the course of a season, if only because it would be cool to witness. The way the game is now, however, I am not going to hold out much hope. There simply are too many relief specialists throwing 100 miles per hour and too many strikeout-prone sluggers sacrificing batting average for power. Heck, no team has hit even as high as .290 since the 2007 Yankees. But then again, I never thought the day would come when middle-inning setup men were prized commodities capable of scoring fat contracts.
Nevertheless, trends develop, strategies change, and hitting and pitching philosophies evolve. Who knows what the future holds?
Hitting .300 is not the magical number it was decades ago. I get it. We have newer and better ways to quantify value and productivity at the plate. Still, hitting .300 as a team deserves to count for something. It has not happened in over 65 years, and we may never see it again.