Sports Legend Revealed: Did Ted Williams lose an MVP award because a Boston voter left him off the ballot?
BASEBALL LEGEND: Ted Williams lost out on the 1947 AL MVP because a voter from Boston left him off of the 10-person ballot entirely!
STATUS: I'm Going With False.
With the Major League Baseball season coming to a close, thoughts begin to turn to who will win the major individual player awards in each league like the Cy Young, the Rookie of the Year and, most importantly, the Most Valuable Player Award. Famed Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox won a pair of American League MVPs during his career, but he is perhaps more famous for the MVPs he did not win! In 1941, he hit .406, the last person to hit over .400 in a season. However, Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees had his 56-game hitting streak that season and the Yankees won the American League pennant, so DiMaggio won the MVP. In 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown in the American League (leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average), but the voters went with Joe Gordon of the Yankees, who once again had won the AL Pennant. In 1947, a year after finally winning the MVP, Williams once again won the Triple Crown in the American League, but he still managed to lose the closest MVP race in the history of Major League Baseball, coming short by a single point to the eventual winner, Joe DiMaggio's, 202-201.
Williams' poor showings in the MVP voting has often been attributed to his poor relationship with the media (who vote for the award), and that led to the most amazing story about the 1947 MVP race - that Williams had been left off the ballot completely by Boston sportswriter Melville Webb and that had Webb simply given Williams a 10th place vote, Williams would have won the award. That story has become part of baseball history.
And it's also almost certainly false.
The story was obviously greatly helped by Williams, himself, spreading it. In his 1969 autobiography, My Turn At Bat, Williams recounted: "then it came out that one Boston writer didn't even put me in the top ten on his ballot. A tenth-place vote would have given me two points and the Most Valuable Player award.... the writer's name was Mel Webb." It's a notable enough story that many renowned sports writers repeat it as fact. The great Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated mentioned it in a column a few years ago as if it were clear that the story was true.
First of all, no matter what else happened in the voting, it appears as though it definitely was not Webb who cast the vote. Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote an article on the 1947 MVP voting in 1948 and he identified the three voters from Boston (each of the eight American League teams had three local sportswriters vote) as Joe Cashman of the Boston Daily Record, Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald and Jack Malaney of the Boston Post (all three voters had separately been identified as having been the voters for Boston in 1946 and as being the voters for 1948, as well, making it seem quite likely that they were, indeed, the three Boston voters in 1947). In addition, in 1947, Melville Webb was 71 years old and had not covered baseball regularly in years. He certainly HAD written some pieces in 1946 and 1947 and was critical of Williams, but there is effectively no chance that he had a ballot in the 1947 American League MVP voting.
All three of the aforementioned writers who likely did vote in the 1947 MVP race had been vocal public supporters of Williams after the results of the vote were given out, and it was not that any of them were close friends of Williams, they all had had their clashes with the hitter, as well, but they also all felt that he had been robbed of the award. While I wouldn't necessarily say that all of them voted Williams at number one on the ballot (Williams finished first on three ballots to DiMaggio's eight), none of them expressed any indication that they had left Williams off of their ballot completely.
Furthermore, Kaese had written an earlier piece in 1948 as a magazine article blasting the Baseball Writer's Assn. of America for how they handled the 1947 MVP voting. In that article, Kaese declared that it was "a Mid-Western writer who couldn't even see Ted ranked with the top ten!" Kaese had a great deal of access to the voting, so it's very likely that he knew what he was talking about.
The "Mid-Western" writer that Kaese referred to has never been identified, but it really does seem that the best answer to the voting is something that is still present to this day - sometimes sportswriters cast dumb votes. To wit, in that very same election that Williams was left off of a ballot, DiMaggio was left off of three ballots! And on three other ballots, DiMaggio got a third-to-last vote, a second-to-last vote and a last place vote. Whatever you thought of DiMaggio in 1947, he was clearly one of the top seven players in the American League, so to be left off of three ballots and finish between eighth and tenth on three others is ludicrous, as well.
In the same election, Yogi Berra, a rookie that year who had roughly 300 at-bats, received two second-place votes!
Eddie Joost, a shortstop for the Philadelphia Athletics who hit .206 with little power but played great defense (he was one of those guys who covered so much ground that he ended up making more errors than most shortstops) received two first-place votes!!!
So there did not have to be some specific incident between Williams and a Boston writer to explain seemingly illogical votes - they happened all over the voting that year. In fact, as I mentioned before, voting like that continues to this day on occasion (like in the 1999 AL MVP voting where two voters left Pedro Martinez off of their ballots entirely, with one of the two reasoning that pitchers shouldn't win MVPs despite that same voter having both David Wells and Rich Helling on his ballot the previous year! I detailed that story here).
So when you combine Haese's 1948 research, Webb's position in the sportswriting community in 1947, Cashman, Whitman and Malaney's vocal support of Williams along with all of the other sketchy seemingly "locale-biased" voting (like Joost's two first-place votes) and it seems evident that Williams is mistaken about how he lost the 1947 AL MVP. Then again, I don't know if "some writer thought that the White Sox's Taffy Wright was better than you" or "some writer felt that the Browns' Vern Stephens was better than you" is really all that more comforting.
Thanks to Glenn Stout's seminal Sporting News article, "The case of the 1947 MVP ballot," for much of the above information, plus, of course, thanks to those sources (such as Harold Kaese). And a special thanks to reader Jorge, who suggested that I feature this one!
-- Brian Cronin
Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! I have archives up for a number of sports, so you can easily browse through past legends. For instance...
Check out the baseball legends archive to read about legends like: What baseball All-Star was dropped by his own agents on moral grounds?
Check out the football legends archive to read about legends like: What Super Bowl-winning coach was the defendant in a landmark insider training legal decision?
Check out the Olympic legends archive to read about legends like: Was Gold Medalist Picabo Street really named after the "Peek-a-Boo!" game?
Check out the basketball legends archive to read about legends like: What future NBA Hall of Famer was the star player at the center of an attempted coup against the then-nascent NBA?
Also be sure to check out my Entertainment Legends Revealed for legends about the worlds of TV, Movies, Music and more!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And buy my book, "Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed! here.
Photo: Ted Williams in 1956. Credit: AP.