Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on May 22, 2017, and is reprinted here by permission.
No one who knew him would have been surprised to learn that Hugh S. Fullerton was in the middle of the fracas that led to the formation of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America during the 1908 World Series. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the Chicago-based newspaper and magazine writer played a significant role in just about every major story involving the baseball media. His impact on sports and how we analyze the game is still felt today.
Modern fans may know Fullerton best for his role in investigating the Black Sox Scandal. He was memorably portrayed by another Chicago icon, Studs Terkel, in the film Eight Men Out, in which he and colleague Ring Lardner (portrayed by director John Sayles) agreed to highlight any suspicious plays they saw on the field. In real life, Fullerton spent many years before and after the 1919 World Series as the leading voice in shedding light on baseball’s gambling epidemic. Without his tenacious efforts, it’s unlikely the game’s powers that be would have been motivated to clean up the National Pastime and hire their first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Fullerton’s legacy can’t be reduced to a few circles on a World Series scorecard, however. He had a deep impact on the game in many other ways, which led to his being posthumously honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame with the J. G. Taylor Spink Award in 1964. He was one of the game’s first statistical analysts, devising an elaborate sabermetric-like system that allowed him to compare players against their peers with more detail than anyone had ever done before. He was also a leading figure in the “Chicago School” of baseball writing, a contemporary and mentor to the likes of Ring Lardner, Irving Sanborn, Charles Dryden, Arch Ward, and many other influential reporters.
But Fullerton was most known in his own time for his prognostications; he had an uncanny knack for predicting the World Series winner every fall. This was how he first made his name nationally, during the 1906 World Series, when he called for the lowly Chicago White Sox, the “Hitless Wonders,” to upset the 116-win Chicago Cubs in six games. It was such an unlikely result that his editors at the Chicago Tribune refused to run his lengthy prediction column before the games were played. Following the White Sox’s historic victory, the newspaper apologized and published his article “just as it was written.”
For nearly two decades afterward, Fullerton supplied hundreds of newspapers around the country with an annual series of articles analyzing the matchup and predicting that year’s champion. He was baseball’s version of Carnac the Magnificent, and his detailed articles covering position by position inspired plenty of water-cooler conversations every year—and also gave fans interested in making a wager on the World Series an inside scoop before placing their bets.
In his prime during the height of the Deadball Era, rarely did he miss. In 1912, the young Boston Red Sox of Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood squared up with the powerhouse New York Giants, managed by John McGraw. Fullerton rated six of the eight Red Sox position players as better than their Giant peers, and selected Boston in his final analysis. The Red Sox won one of the closest and most thrilling World Series in history. Afterward, Fullerton wrote, “While we made good as a prophet, we are not particularly proud of the feat. New York outgamed and outgeneraled the Red Sox through the entire series.” In 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1920, he not only got the winners right but also correctly foresaw the number of games it would take.
On the few occasions when Fullerton was forced to eat crow, there were usually extenuating circumstances. In 1914, the “Miracle Braves” of Boston were in last place on the Fourth of July before making a surge to the National League pennant. Fullerton wrote before the Series that the Braves pitchers might give the Philadelphia A’s hitters a challenge, but ultimately he picked the A’s in six games. Instead, the Braves swept Connie Mack’s defending champions—the first-ever World Series sweep. The lead to Fullerton’s story the next day opened this way: “The thing that couldn’t has occurred. The utterly absurd has become a reality. The impossible and vain is true. Boston’s Braves are world’s champions.”
In 1919, Fullerton predicted that the American League champion White Sox would finish off the Cincinnati Reds in eight games (it was a best-of-nine affair then). Instead, the Reds shocked all of baseball by winning four of the first five games and then completing their victory in Game 8. Later, the truth came out: eight White Sox players had conspired to throw the Series to the Reds in the Black Sox Scandal.
Fullerton’s fame as a great seer, soothsayer, and sage did not exactly give him a glowing reputation among fans. Mocking Fullerton’s predictions, and especially his convoluted rating system, which relied on mathematical equations that he never fully explained and only he could seem to understand, was a favorite pastime for many. A Baseball Magazinereader once complained in a letter to the editor, “[Fullerton] would have us believe that good ball can be played only by those men who . . . work with the assistance of a tape-measure, a tee-square, and an intimate knowledge of algebra and fractions.” Sabermetrically inclined writers of the twenty-first century may cringe when reading that all-too-familiar rant!
But if Fullerton was the recipient of Moneyball-style criticisms a century before that book was published, he also was a pioneer in the kind of statistical analysis that permeates the game today. His famous 1906 World Series prediction relied on factors that would not look out of place in a Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs article, such as spray charts and lefty/righty splits.
He also called attention to an early form of “park effects,” noting that the White Sox’s home ballpark was more conducive to pitchers, contributing to the Sox’s reputation as the “Hitless Wonders.” He guessed they would not have nearly as much trouble hitting at the Cubs’ more neutral West Side Grounds. He also tried to calculate more sophisticated measures, such as how the Cubs and White Sox batters fared against “clusters” of pitchers grouped by their style of pitching, despite having only rudimentary data that he had to compile by hand.
In 1910, Fullerton published a groundbreaking article in American Magazine titled “The Inside Game,” which was more widely distributed when it was reprinted in his bookTouching Second, written with Cubs star Johnny Evers. The article included his study of defensive ranges and several diagrams examining where fielders were positioned and then moved during various plays.
Fullerton also conducted a massive study of 10,000 batted balls from the previous season to determine ground-ball, fly-ball, and line-drive ratios, information that wouldn’t be readily available for decades afterward. While Fullerton’s article focused more on defense, his data called into question the style of downward-plane hitting preferred by coaches at the time in favor of a swing that produced more line drives and thus more base hits. A generation later, Ted Williams came to the same conclusion and preached it to hitters for the rest of his life.
Fullerton was far from the only writer conducting this kind of statistically based analysis in the 1910s; it was really the first golden age of sabermetric writing in a way, although few fans appreciated it at the time. F. C. Lane, the longtime editor of Baseball Magazine, was a proponent of such advanced concepts as linear weights and runs created. William Phelon of Sporting Life also argued for the existence and impact of park effects. Ernie Lanigan of The Sporting News was keeping track of RBIs and caught-stealing data years before either stat was recognized by Organized Baseball, and he also published the first baseball encyclopedia in 1922.
During his own time, however, Hugh Fullerton was arguably the most famous baseball writer of them all. His work “evoked more comment than that of any other contributor to the game’s literature,” Fred Lieb wrote upon his death in 1945. Fullerton took his analysis seriously, but he also had fun making his predictions and hearing the feedback, both good and bad. He relished the story of when the New York Times published nearly a full page of letters blasting his World Series picks—but he called that one right on the money, too.