Sat, Aug 20, 2011 - Page 19 News List

Barely legible number means Counsell has actually tied 1909 hitless record

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during their game in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 18.

Photo: AFP

Baseball is dependent on its numbers and has legions fascinated with its statistics, but it turns out some of those numbers were written in pencil; more than 100 years ago.

Such was the case with Bill Bergen’s epic hitless streak in 1909. The researcher who dug up the streak, Joe Dittmar, who was vice chairman of the records committee for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) for 18 years, originally counted Bergen’s string of offensive ineptitude as no hits in 46 consecutive at-bats.

That number was reported as the record in the New York Times and many other news media outlets as Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell recently bore down on Bergen with a hitless streak that reached 0 for 45.

However, the Elias Sports Bureau weighed in, saying that Bergen’s streak had reached 0 for 45, but not 0 for 46, which meant that Counsell had tied the mark and now shared it with Bergen and Dave Campbell, a former infielder and current baseball broadcaster who reached that peak of futility while playing for three teams in 1973.

In a humorous twist, not only did Campbell’s streak get no notice when it happened, but Campbell also said he had no idea how long his streak was and he didn’t know it was any sort of record until the recent debate over Bergen and Counsell.

Elias’ assertion prompted Dittmar to go back and scour the records again. He concluded that his research — done in 1997, when he wrote a piece on Bergen for SABR — was flawed. On one game scorecard, on July 14, 1909, the numeral that marked Bergen’s at-bats in the game was unclear. He initially thought it was a “3,” but after double-checking against play-by-play records, he now thinks it was a “2.”

Thus, Bergen’s streak was 45 at-bats without a hit.

“Player records of 100 years ago were kept manually, of course, and were prone to more human error than we come to expect in the digital age,” Dittmar said in an e-mail. “Even 14 years ago, there were fewer methods to confirm or deny research done using microfilm that often was blurred and streaked. For years my research was unquestioned until Craig Counsell became a contender. Even today, every AB by Bergen in his streak cannot be definitively confirmed, but as best as can be presently determined, it does appear Counsell has tied Campbell and Bergen for that infamous mark.”

To determine that there were no other streaks in Bergen’s time — after all, it was the dead-ball era — Dittmar said he had to go back and manually dig through the records, some of which were as hard to read as Bergen’s. For now, everyone seems to agree that Bergen had the deadest of the dead-ball records.

Such things were not widely debated in 1973, when Campbell was going hitless for a good stretch of his season, which stretched over two trades, first from San Diego to St Louis and then to Houston.

Campbell’s streak ended in a memorable doubleheader (he was 4 for 8 in the two games) for Houston on Sept. 19, 1973.

When Counsell finally broke his streak with a pinch-hit single to right field on Aug. 4, he said: “It’s been ugly, it’s been bad. Just to do something right, it’s good.”

Unfortunately for Counsell, it turns out that he already held part of the record by the time he got a hit. His current batting average is just .151 and if it sags much more it will be in Bergen territory once again. Bergen also owns the record for lowest batting average in a season by a regular player, at .139.

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