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2 Million Runs: Baseball on the Verge of Mile

For 145 years, players have stepped, slid, walked, tumbled and jumped on white rubber slabs all over the continent. It is the act of scoring a run, the objective of baseball, and it is adding up to an impending milestone.

From the reign of Queen Victoria to the era of launch angles, a parade of ballplayers crossed home plate 1,999,610 times through Monday’s games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statisticians for Major League Baseball.

That means that in the coming days — no one knows exactly when — some lucky player will set spike to rubber and score what will officially be the two millionth run in M.L.B. history.

Cue the confetti and strike up the band?

In reality, the feat has hardly drawn any attention. The lack of fanfare stands in stark contrast to the events around the millionth run, which stirred national interest amid a contest sponsored by Tootsie Roll and Seiko watches. These days, most people are blissfully unaware of the approaching landmark, which stands as a testament to the enduring output of the national pastime — at least to some of those who helped amass the total.

“Wow, that’s a big deal,” Pete Rose, who scored 2,165 of those runs, said. “Two million is a ton. I’m just glad I don’t have to keep track of it.”

Pete Rose scored 2,165 runs in his long career. He cites his base running as a key reason for his prolonged success. 
Al Behrman/Associated Press

That responsibility lies with Elias, which last week convened an audit to confirm the exact figure with the milestone approaching. Baseball Reference has its own handy tabulator, which counts almost everything done in the sport daily. That website has emerged as the bible of statistical information for many fans, thanks in large part to ancient numbers provided by Retrosheet, another reliable historical tabulator.

But the totals at Elias and Baseball Reference differ ever so slightly, with Baseball Reference’s being 97 runs higher than Elias’s. That discrepancy will lead to Baseball Reference recording the feat slightly before Elias, with the two millionth run expected to cross the plate this week, most likely Wednesday or Thursday based on teams producing an average of about 130 runs a day this season.

That the Elias and Baseball Reference figures are fewer than 100 runs apart after more than 221,000 games is remarkable, particularly because record keeping before 1900 was a little murky. At least these massive numbers are, if you’ll forgive the expression, in the same ballpark.

“It shows that baseball has been around for a very, very long time,” said John Labombarda, Elias’s director for research, who has been with the sports bureau for 41 years, during which most of the second million runs were scored.

A reason for the discrepancy is that M.L.B. traces its origin to the 1876 National League season. That’s a lot of baseball games, and there have been debates about which leagues and years should be counted. There are also questions over protested games, no-decisions and forfeits. Fresh research occasionally surfaces new runs and expunges others.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, via Getty Images

“The whole brier patch of baseball statistics is more interesting for being messed up,” John Thorn, M.L.B.’s official historian, said. “It’s like, how many stars are there in the sky? There are so many anomalies in our record keeping that, who really knows? But it’s still a great milestone.”

A similar uncertainty cropped up overseas in 2012 when test cricket reached two million runs in 2012, and two different players were said to have scored the landmark run.

In baseball’s official accounting, the first run scored in the lineage of today’s Major League Baseball came on April 22, 1876. According to new research this month conducted by Thorn, the run was plated by Tim McGinley, a catcher for the Boston Red Stockings, the forebears of today’s Atlanta Braves. Historians are not certain whether he batted right- or left-handed, but we know he scored in the top of the second inning at Philadelphia, as Boston beat the Athletics (no relation to the current club), 6-5, in the first game of the first season (as recognized by M.L.B.).

The league consisted of eight teams, but they combined to score 3,066 runs in the inaugural season. Over parts of three centuries, they and their ball-playing descendants have added hundreds of thousands more.

In reality, the two millionth run has already been scored. Sometime in the near future — perhaps in the next off-season — M.L.B. will incorporate statistics from select Negro leagues into the historical record, making the actual two millionth run one that was scored several years ago.

Similarly, the millionth run was credited to Bob Watson of the Houston Astros on May 4, 1975 — but that turned out to be wrong as well, for almost the same reason.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Watson’s run was the culmination of a century of baseball, capped by a weekslong promotional campaign that featured countdown clocks in stadiums across the country, great speculation about who would score the run and a million Tootsie Rolls (and a watch) for whomever achieved the feat.

Unfortunately, Thorn said, that figure was based on only the National League and American League. In 1969, M.L.B. officially recognized several other leagues, like the Federal League, the Union Association and more, adding several seasons of runs. If the other leagues had been counted, the millionth run would have scored far earlier.

Today, Elias and Baseball Reference have properly included those old leagues in the M.L.B. databanks, so the two millionth run — beyond the Negro leagues additions — can be accurately verified. Sort of.

“Absolutely, it can,” Thorn said, “as long as you do so with a carload of salt, not just a grain.”

Now, throw this onto the salt pile: An unofficial audit of M.L.B.’s database came up with a third number that is about 500 runs higher. That would suggest the two millionth run actually scored somewhere on the West Coast late Sunday afternoon. But Elias is M.L.B.’s official statistician for all records before 2001, so their number — which closely mirrors the Baseball Reference number — is the one that stands.

Regardless, it took a little less than 100 seasons for baseball to compile one million runs, but it will have taken just 46 seasons for the second million. The doubled pace is a result of many factors, but mostly expansion. There are 30 clubs now, all churning out multiple runs a game in a 162-game season. From 1916 to 1960, 16 teams played 154 games each.

Other factors, like a livelier ball, the introduction of the designated hitter rule in the American League, smaller ballparks and bigger players may have helped ramp up run production, but it did so marginally. The average runs scored per team per game — it was 4.39 through Sunday — has remained relatively constant since 1900, most often falling from 4.0 to 4.9 runs per team per game.

“The only thing that has changed significantly is how they score,” Thorn said.

Today’s teams rely heavily on home runs, but for years the focus was on getting hits and working your way around the bases. Rose was great at that. He says his huge tally is a credit to the sluggers batting behind him in the lineup. Rose was later barred from M.L.B. for betting on his own team as a manager, and now works with the gambling website UpickTrade. But on the field, he was best known for setting the career hits record, with 4,256.

Despite that record, Rose said the most important statistic in baseball is runs, where he sits sixth. Rickey Henderson is first, with 2,295.

Jon Soohoo/Getty Images

“Scoring runs is why you play the game,” Rose said. “Rickey had a knack, but I have to believe that I was one of the best at it. I scored a lot because I knew how to run the bases. I was the best guy ever in baseball going from first to third.”

The active leader for runs scored is Albert Pujols with 1,853. But it will be difficult, without a concerted effort, to determine this week who actually steps safely on home plate for the two millionth time, whether going by the figures produced by whether going by the figures produced by Elias, Baseball Reference, M.L.B.’s unofficial database or fans scoring at home. In 1975, there were spotters in all the stadiums linked by telephone to determine who scored what they considered the millionth run.

Forty-six years later, it seems it will be more of a communal effort by all of baseball to reach this more genuine landmark. And then it will be on to three million.

“What does it mean, two million runs?” Thorn said. “Absolutely nothing. But that’s what makes it fun.”

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