Re-examining the Chalmers Award

Ty Cobb, along with Frank Schulte, were, essentially, the first MVP award winners. (via Sporting News, public domain)

The greatest trick Major League Baseball ever pulled was convincing the country it was a public entity, rather than a collection of private enterprises, concerned with making a buck. It’s disheartening to think of all the ways MLB sneaks advertising in front of our eyes and into our ears. Every part of the game, from the pregame show to the first pitch to the pitching changes to the postgame celebration, is sponsored by somebody, such that it barely registers until this postseason, when Fox was literally airing commercials between pitches.

That’s why I love the Chalmers Award, one of the first official prizes specifically given to baseball’s best players. I’m reminded of it today, as Major League Baseball and MLB Network prepare an entire night of programming and commercials queued up around the announcement of the MVP winners. The Chalmers Award, on the other hand, never tried to pretend it wasn’t, in large part, a car commercial, that the sweet luxury automobile that served as its prize wasn’t the main attraction. And, when it ran its course, the whole enterprise was unceremoniously dumped by the man and company that created it.

That man was Hugh Chalmers. He was born in Dayton, Ohio on October 3, 1873, the son of a Scottish immigrant who was working as a stonecutter. Young Chalmers proved to be an excellent student in Dayton area schools, and took up bookkeeping and stenography in his spare time. While that probably didn’t make him a hit at parties, it did make him a pretty great office boy for the National Cash Register Company at the age of 14. By the time he turned 28, he was making $70,000 a year as the vice-president and general manager of the company and was one of the highest paid executives in America.

But after seven years more years in what I’m sure was the thrilling business of cash register sales, Chalmers yearned for a more exciting venture. In 1907, he was approached by representatives of the E.R. Thomas-Detroit Motor Company with an offer. They had a luxury car line ready to go and needed help selling it. So they not only offered Chalmers the job of president, but also an ownership stake in the outfit and renaming the company Chalmers-Detroit in his honor.

Gradually, Chalmers bought up more and more of the stock until, in December of 1909, he had a controlling interest. He changed the company’s name outright to the Chalmers Motor Company in 1911. One of his first efforts to market his cars widely was entering the Glidden Tours racing circuit in 1910. The Glidden Tours were a cross-country road race in the style of a Cannonball Run, where teams drove thousands of miles over the course of weeks.

In 1910, the route was laid out over more than 2,800 miles, beginning in Cincinnati on June 14, winding through the South and the plains states before reaching Chicago on June 30. The event ended in a controversy, as Chalmers finished second but protested that the winners’ car should have been ruled ineligible. The rules committee agreed, and Chalmers-Detroit was awarded the trophy. And after a great deal of legal wrangling, Chalmers got to keep it and the associated bragging rights.

Chalmers’s other marketing innovation that year was attempting to make the Chalmers name synonymous with the national pastime. In February, August Herrmann, the president of the Cincinnati Reds and the National Baseball Commission, announced that the automaker had proposed “offering a Chalmers ‘30’ motor car to the champion batsman of the two major leagues for the season,” and that the proposal was accepted. “As chairman,” Herrmann wrote, “I was directed to extend to you our sincere thanks and appreciation for your kind action in this matter. The conditions under which the award is to be made will be formulated by the commission in the near future.”

In 2016 on this site, Wayne Epps recounted the weird fiasco that surrounded the initial award, in which the St. Louis Browns conspired to let Napoleon Lajoie pass Ty Cobb in the last day of the season for the batting title by playing deep and allowing Lajoie to beat out eight bunt hits over the course of a doubleheader. Eager to avoid controversy, Chalmers awarded cars to both players, as well as NL batting champ Sherry Magee.

But Chalmers wasn’t happy with the result. He resented that the Chalmers name had been sullied by the Browns’ dirty play. And, of course, he was not in the habit of giving away more cars than absolutely necessary. So he took steps to make sure he’d only be on the hook for two in 1911. He announced in February that his company would be creating a Chalmers Award, providing a trophy and car to a player in each league in each of the next five years, and that Chalmers himself would devise a new method of choosing winners.

“The awarding of prizes purely on the basis of batting averages restricted the contest to a few players of natural ability in a special department of the game,” he told reporters. “It seems to me that it would be a good thing if we could broaden the field so that every player on a big league team could feel that he had a chance to win, no matter whether he was on a championship team or not.” At the end, he hoped to have a “hall of fame” of sorts (halls of fame at the time being more conceptual than possessed of physical edifices), of the best players in the game.

To diffuse responsibility for any controversy, he tasked former baseball writer Ren Mulford Jr. to create a committee “of newspaper men whom he considered the most competent in each city” to choose “the man who was of most value to his team from every angle of the game.” The members of the committee would then each vote for eight players on a weighted ballot similar to the one used today, with the winners being the players in each league who tallied the most points.

“The idea,” wrote I.E. Sanborn in the Chicago Daily Tribune, “is to eliminate the question of batting, fielding or pitching averages as arbitrary determining factors and to reward he players who do the most to advance the best interests of their respective teams in the two pennant races. In addition to taking into consideration the performances of a player in batting, fielding, pitching, base running, and other departments, it is intended to include loyalty, deportment, and adherence to discipline both on and off the field.”

Because “the manager of a team is its most valuable ‘asset’ in many cases,” however, Chalmers made all skippers, even player-managers, ineligible for the prize, which would be presented to the winners before Games Three and Four of the World Series.

In that inaugural season, Ty Cobb made the decision an easy one in the American League by hitting .420 and leading the AL in batting average, hits (248), runs (147), RBI (127), stolen bases (83), doubles (47), triples (24), slugging percentage (.621) and OPS (1.088). He collected his second Chalmers car by securing all eight first place votes to easily outpace 27 game-winning spitballer Big Ed Walsh and the excellent second baseman Eddie Collins, who hit .365 for the World Champion Philadelphia A’s.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But the NL picture was far more complicated. The most valuable players in the league were probably pitchers Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander, both of whom won more than 25 games and threw  more than 300 innings. Mathewson’s performance came with a sparkling 1.99 ERA, but Pete tallied 60 more innings and almost 90 more strikeouts for the Phillies than the Giants’ ace did in New York. Mathewson’s teammates Larry Doyle, Rube Marquard, and Fred Merkle all finished in the top eight of the voting, as did Honus Wagner of the Pirates and Miller Huggins of the Cardinals.

But it was Frank Schulte of the Cubs who wound up on top, narrowly edging out Mathewson for the title. Schulte hit .300 on the year, and led the NL with 21 homers and 107 RBI. And, with no other teammates at the top of the ballot to split the vote, he won the car even though he got no more than three of the eight first place votes (official ballots weren’t released). He was reportedly floored by the decision, telling the Tribune, “I can’t quite realize it yet, but I do know that I never felt prouder of anything in my life than I do right now.”

The whole thing was a massive success, garnering a lot of good free press for Chalmers and his cars; plans were made to repeat the process in 1912. The committee deciding the winners was almost exactly the same, with just a single writer swapped out from the year before. The only question was what to do about Schulte and, especially, Cobb. It was unclear whether players who had won previously would be eligible to win again. Cobb was the Mike Trout of his day, except if Trout was a jerk, and there was a very real possibility that the Chalmers Motor Company would just have to keep handing him car after car into the foreseeable future.

Cobb and Schulte themselves, believe it or not, were credited with stoking the controversy, suggesting they not be awarded another vehicle. Cobb, especially, by this point was something of an auto enthusiast, had already won two Chalmers roadsters, and owned his own car dealership, so didn’t see the need of being greedy.

The voters themselves were split on the question. M.F. Parker, one of the committee members from St. Louis, wanted to bar previous winners from upgrading to the latest Chalmers model, but noted “The Chalmers trophy is popular because it is the best method yet employed to decide the real supremacy of baseball in an individual way. To do anything to impair this feature would lessen its value.” He wanted to make sure the voters could still vote for previous winners, but if, say, Cobb won again “he should be awarded a cup, shield or medal suitably inscribed so that he would get the honor of his achievement, and the machine would go to the nearest man to him.”

Cincinnati’s representative, however, vehemently opposed the idea, saying “The object of this competition is to determine who is the best all-around man in each league year after year. If the same man, in the judgment of the commission, is the best man in his league for two or more years, he should be entitled to the honor which comes from being so chosen…. If the purpose of the commission is to be preserved, I think it is essential that all players should have a chance at the trophy each year, without regard to previous winnings.”

In the end, they didn’t change the rules at all. Schulte made the issue a moot point in the National League by dropping off significantly in his age-29 season, and never matching his career year. Cobb, on the other hand, hit .409. But Chalmers had expresed “the desire…to improve the conduct of the players” and hoped that writers would take character into account. That summer, Cobb had famously gone into the stands to attack a fan named Claude Lucker, who had reportedly called him a racial epithet. Cobb was roundly criticized in the press, especially after it became clear that Lucker had lost a hand and two fingers on the other hand in a printing accident. So Cobb was out of the running too, and would finish tied for seventh in the voting.

But Tris Speaker hit .383 and, probably thanks to Boston’s 105-win season, took home the award with 59 out of a possible 64 points, with Ed Walsh and Walter Johnson finishing second and third. On the NL side, Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, who hit .330 for the pennant winners, narrowly eked out a win over Honus Wagner, who batted .324 for the 93 win Pirates in what was to be the last great season of his career.

Finally having a handle on this whole process, the 1913 awards went much more smoothly. Walter Johnson rode his signature 36 win, 1.14 ERA season to the award, becoming the first pitcher to do so, over the efforts of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who hit .373 and led the AL in hits, doubles, slugging percentage and OPS, and second baseman Eddie Collins of the pennant-winning A’s, who hit .345 and scored 125 runs on the year.

The vote in the NL was, once again, much closer, with Brooklyn’s star first baseman Jake Daubert taking home the car by dint of his .350 even though the then-Superbas lost 84 games and finished more than 30 games out of the pennant race. His only real competition for the award was Gavy Cravath of the Phillies, who hit 19 homers and drove in 128 runs thanks to the short right field wall at the Baker Bowl. The only irregularity came when the committee members voted for Johnny Evers of the Cubs and George Stovall of the Browns, who were player-managers, and thus ineligible.

There was a great deal of uncertainty going into the 1914 season. Hugh Chalmers had initially intended to have his award go for five years and this was the fifth year he’d be awarding cars. But it was just the fourth year of the so-called “Chalmers Award,” for which the committee of sportswriters determined who were the “most valuable” players in the game.

“Mr. Chalmers’ idea in offering these annual awards,” The Atlanta Constitution reminded its readers, “was to establish a sort of baseball hall of fame. He felt that in the period of five years, the trophy awards would automatically create such a hall of fame. It is generally conceded by both followers and critics of baseball that Mr. Chalmers’ original idea has worked out in the most satisfactory manner. The Chalmers trophy has been awarded to the most famous baseball players in the country, and almost without exception the decisions…have been favorably received by the baseball public.” That sounds like a far cry from our MVP debates — how fortunate!

Eddie Collins finally broke through to win the award that year, batting .344 for the A’s, who again won the AL pennant, with a .452 on-base percentage, 58 stolen bases and 122 runs scored. It was an easy win for the future Hall of Famer, as he finished first on seven of the eight ballots cast, and was listed second on the other.

The Miracle Braves, who were last in the National League as late as July 4, dominated the voting after finishing the season 68-19 and taking the pennant by more than 10 games over the Giants. Pitcher Bill James finished third and shortstop Rabbit Maranville finished second. While you might have expected that to split the vote, Johnny Evers, who had been acquired that offseason from the Cubs, was awarded the car despite hitting just .279. While his .390 on-base percentage probably was not taken into consideration, his perceived leadership was. Apparently, nobody asked the Braves what they thought of Evers’s leadership, as the Boston Globe reported that “the consensus of opinion among the Boston players was that Maranville was entitled to it rather than Evers.”

In December, Chalmers confirmed the rumors that his contest was coming to an end. “The proposal of having a baseball Hall of Fame, as proposed by me, was to run for five years. With the presentation this year of the Chalmers Trophy to Eddie collins and Johnny Evers the work of the commission has come to an end. It seems unlikely now, and undesirable too, that we should continue these awards.”

The idea was shelved until 1922, when the American League revived it to celebrate their best players, with the National League following suit in 1924. And then, after those awards petered out in 1928 and 1929, respectively, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America took over the responsibility in 1931 and has not relinquished it.

The end of Chalmers’s awards in 1914 has led some to speculate that the efforts were not successful. I’d argue the contrary. They led to massive publicity for his company, for cars in general, and for baseball itself. It established the Chalmers cars not just as a luxury brand but as a prize to be fought over and won. Rather, like any successful ad campaign, Chalmers simply knew when it had run its course. Publicity was down and the press was less excited by something that was no longer novel. It was the Wazzup or dilly-dilly campaign of its day; but that day ended. Chalmers and his company still reaped the benefits. By the end of 1914, Chalmers Motor Car Company was shipping more than $3 million worth of product per month, the equivalent of almost $76 million today. It continued to prosper until World War I, when it was taken over by Maxwell Motor Co to produce trucks for the war effort.

With his company effectively shuttered, Chalmers sold aircraft guns as the President of Chalkis Manufacturing and raised money for Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross. In 1919, Chalmers’s health took a turn and he underwent what was described as a serious operation at the Mayo Clinic; he took a step back from business. After the war, the company merged with Maxwell, and stopped manufacturing the Chalmers line altogether in 1923 before the whole thing was taken over by Chrysler.

Appropriately, Hugh Chalmers was on a road trip in 1932 when he contracted pneumonia and passed away in New York on June 2. His contemporaries recalled that “Hugh Chalmers did more than any other man to market the motor car. Preceding his advent into the industry, it was largely in the hands of the inventors and manufacturers. That was natural, and necessary. Hugh Chalmers brought his personal magnetism and his vast knowledge of selling into the field then largely neglected–merchandising….His greatest contribution was the vision of the salesman.”

Indeed, that vision and penchant for merchandising would forever associate his cars with baseball excellence. It’s the reason why we can say that Cobb, Speaker, Johnson, Collins, and Evers won MVPs at all, and it’s the reason his name and the name of his product live on today. But perhaps his most important legacy, and the biggest thing he ever sold, was the idea that sponsorship and baseball were intrinsically linked. More than a century later, Major League Baseball and its advertisers continue to follow his lead. They just don’t do it with as much class.

References and Resources

  • “Chalmers Defends Glidden Cup Award.” The New York Times. July 31, 1910.
  • “Chalmers Dies in East After Heart Attack.” The Detroit Free Press. June 3, 1932.
  • “Chalmers Trophy Awards Cause Much Discussion.” The Atlanta Constitution. May 19, 1912.
  • “Chalmers Trophy Commission Named for 1914 Campaign.” The Atlanta Constitution. April 26, 1914.
  • Committee at Work on the Exposition.” The Detroit Free Press. Feb 27, 1910.
  • Wayne Epps. “The Chalmers Award Had a Memorable Debut.” The Hardball Times. Dec 1, 2016.
  • Handy Andy. “Sanborn to Pick Baseball Stars.” Chicago Daily Tribune. June 25, 1911.
  • Handy Andy. “Schulte Chosen Best in National.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 12, 1911.
  • Handy Andy. “Speaker-Doyle Get Motor Cars.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Oct 4, 1912.
  • “Official Route for Glidden Tour.” The New York Times. May 29, 1910.
  • W.C. O’Leary. “Evers and Collins Get Cars.” Boston Daily Globe. Oct 4, 1914.
  • I.E. Sanborn. “Motor Car Prize to ‘Best’ Player.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Feb 3, 1911

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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Dennis Bedard
3 years ago

This is a fascinating article and should be read by any sports fan who thinks commercialism and sports crossed the line of propriety and good taste the day he or she turned 21. One’s youth was not as pure and idyllic a world as memory might say otherwise. While penning this piece, you inadvertently (or purposely) stumble onto a topic that could merit its own essay: the relationship between sports and cars. I remember as a kid in the late ’60’s when Sport Magazine awarded a Dodge Charger to the MVP of the WS. And you cannot turn on a golf tournament these days without seeing the obligatory shiny new car sitting on some prop in the middle of a lake to be awarded to whomever gets a hole in one. While ads in the middle of pitches might seem crass, they are downright understated compared to what is coming: bases labeled with beer logos or the pithing mound surrounded with A T & T or Verizon verbiage.