Baseball’s Most Valuable Player Award began in Detroit

Ty Cobb Nap Lajoie 1911 batting champions american league chalmers automobile

Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb sit in a Chalmers automobile in 1911.

Today we’ll find out if Justin Verlander will win baseball’s most coveted prize: the Most Valuable Player Award. If he does he’ll bring the honor full-circle, since the MVP was the brainchild of a Detroit businessman and the first award was won by a Detroit ballplayer.

In the spring of 1910, Hugh Chalmers had a brilliant notion to capitalize on the popularity of baseball in the city of Detroit. As president of the Chalmers Automobile Company, he decided to give away one of his prized automobiles to the batting champion in the American League. He hoped the publicity would propel his company to the front of a growing pack of auto companies in what was fast becoming “Motor City”.

famously (or infamously depending on who you were rooting for), the 1910 “Chalmers Award” brought controversy. On the final day of the season, St. Louis Browns manager Jack O’Connor ordered his infielders to play deep, allowing Cleveland’s Napoleon Lajoie to accumulate eight hits in a doubleheader, winning the batting title by a slim margin over Detroit’s Ty Cobb.

O’Connor, like many in the American League, was not a big fan of “The Georgia Peach” because of his style of play and brash demeanor. Nevertheless, what O’Connor and his Browns did was unfair, and AL president Ban Johnson quickly interceded, awarding Cobb the batting title. He also banned O’Connor and his coach Harry Howell (who tried to bribe the official scorer to change an error to a hit for Lajoie) from baseball for life.

Ironically, the scandal was good press for Chalmers, who gave a car to both Cobb and Lajoie, orchestrating an elaborate photo opp with both. In 1911, however, Chalmers and Johnson would have a better idea for the award.

Starting in 1911, the Chalmers Award would be given to the player “most important and useful player to the club and to the league”. A group of sportswriters would do the voting.

It so happens that Cobb had his best season in 1911, batting .420 while leading the league in almost every offensive category. Not only did he hit for an amazingly high mark, he swiped 83 bases and drove in 127 runs. One observer noted that Cobb played as if he had “brains in his feet.”

There was an unwritten rule that a player could not win more than one Chalmers Award, so Cobb never received another, though he could have won three or maybe even four in the four years it was given, though 1914.

After the 1914 campaign, having seen little increase in his sales due to the award, Hugh Chalmers halted the program. The last winners were Eddie Collins and Johnny Evers. In all, five of the eight Chalmers Award winners would go on to be elected into the Hall of Fame.

It wouldn’t be until 1922 that the idea of an MVP Award would come back, but there has been at least one honor given every year since, except in 1930.

Thanks to one of Detroit’s savviest businessmen, the MVP was born 100 years ago, and it was a Detroit superstar who won the first award.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @twebman or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.