When Tyrus Raymond Cobb was born in 1886, the Worcester Ruby Legs had just folded, the Detroit Wolverines were on their last legs as a franchise, and baseball pitchers had been allowed to throw overhanded for all of two years. Cobb, that notorious asshole, made his National League debut with the Detroit Tigers in 1905, at which point he played in no fewer than two ballparks that would burn the hell down during the course of his career, all while the New York Yankees still went by the New York Highlanders.
Baseball, you see, has been around for a long damn time. Along the way, it has changed quite a lot.
We're here in 2016 talking about Ty Cobb because Cobb, that asshole, at one point had more professional baseball hits than any other player who had ever played the game. In his remarkable and racist 24 year career, Cobb amassed a whopping 4,191 career hits, or at least that's what most all of us were told for a half-century. It's now more likely than not his career total was just a meager 4,189 - one game in which he had played was double counted at some point along the way - just one indication that the baseball world of way back when wasn't exactly the digital, to-the-minute database it exists as today.
Heck, as Rob Neyer informed us back in 2003, a player who debuted nearly a decade after Cobb's playing days ended never actually existed until 1992 thanks to the kind of accounting oversight modern baseball just cannot fathom.
As for Cobb, well, by the time we all were aware that his career hit total was murkier than probably wanted it to be, it wasn't as important as it had been. Pete Rose, a son of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Reds legend, had - at age 44 in 1985 - poked a single into left field off Eric Show in a September game against the San Diego Padres, the 4,192nd hit of his eventual 24 year career. Pete was now the rage, the Hit King, and while also doubling as the manager of the Reds at that time he returned for the 1986 season at age 45 on a $1,000,000 salary - just a hair behind MVP runner-up Dave Parker's $1.1 million and recent 3-time All Star 29 year old ace Mario Soto's $1.15 million.
It was pretty clear after Rose "slugged" .286 as a 43 year old sub-par defensive 1B with the 1983 Philadelphia Phillies that the primary reason he was still playing was to break Cobb's decades old hit record. It became more obvious when he finally returned to the Reds to do it in front of his hometown crowds, the ones that had watched Rose and the Big Red Machine win back to back World Series titles a decade prior. That was fine then, as the Reds were still competitive, people actively bought into the sideshow, and it was relevant enough that I'm here blabbing about it 30 years later. Really, it's fine now, too, since it's clear that was the exact legacy that Rose intended to leave, a singular chase of a singular objective statistic.
Rose, of course, can't claim ownership of that intended legacy anymore, as decades of cheating, lying, and exploitation have left the subjective memory of the man in a much grayer light. Objectively, though, 4,256 was still "Pete Rose, Hit King," at least until yesterday. Ichiro Suzuki smacked a pair of hits for the Florida Marlins on Wednesday afternoon, bringing the total number of professional hits in his illustrious career to 4,257 between his time in Japan and his years in MLB.
It's as if thousands of folks had calendar alerts with "four thousand two hundred fifty seven ASTERISK YELL YELL SCREAM YELL" scheduled for years, and the moment Ichiro safely touched first base yesterday they all went off in an angry chorus. Here's a Twitter search for "hits in Japan don't count." It's lengthy. Here's "Ichiro not hit king." It's lengthy, too.
And no, Ichiro isn't now suddenly the Hit King. Pete Rose wasn't really ever the Hit King to begin with, either, since that's nothing more than an arbitrary, made up title the way that Rickey Henderson is the Stolen Based God. (Wait, Rickey Henderson isn't the Stolen Based God? But I can already see the logo an the t-shirts!)
Rose's 4,256 Major League Baseball hits stand as the most in Major League Baseball history, and Ichiro's two Wednesday singles don't change that. They won't change spreadsheet columns on Baseball Reference. What those two singles did do, though, is make us ask questions that we didn't automatically have answers to, questions about the same baseball history that was once murky and quirky enough to not be able to know how many hits the previous Hit King, Ty Cobb, even possessed.
Ichiro's two Wednesday singles mean countless people now know that Rose collected 427 minor league hits before being called up by the Reds at age 21, just like many folks stumbled into discovering that Rose needed some 2600 more plate appearances to get to 4,191 than that asshole Cobb required. The more you stare at the page, the more things become visible, too, such as Rose's career .303 batting average being lower than, say, Joey Votto's career .307 mark, or that dang, Tony Gwynn hit a ridiculous .338 for his career. (Both of which pale in comparison to that asshole Cobb, whose .367 career mark means he's still the Hit Percentage King...if he wanted to be.)
Until I sat down to write this, I had no idea that Rose ranked only 27th on the career extra-base hits leaderboard, one in which Hank Aaron sits loftily atop with some 446 more than Rose. That makes Aaron, I guess, the Really Big Hit King, though he's far from the kind of person who would opt to demand that title.
And that's really the point, I suppose. Numbers are statistics, objective as their descriptors make them, and Ichiro's two Wednesday hits don't change that premise. You can still add numbers together in as many ways as you want - thanks, Hindu-Arabic numeral system - as long as you know what it is you're adding together. You can also jump up and down and make a spectacle of yourself for any reason you want to, should you choose. Two singles in a mostly empty Petco Park in the middle of an afternoon don't change that, either. Jack Morris wasn't more of an almost Hall of Famer than David Cone because Morris, and others, made a big deal about it, but hopefully me mentioning that will send you on a search to look back at their careers for a bit of perspective.
As always, context is what's important, and in the great history of baseball, Ichiro's two Wednesday singles provided a whole world of that.
Maybe that's it. Ichiro Suzuki - Context King.