Designated HitterMay 04, 2006
Who Was Really the 1979 NL MVP?
By Bill Deane

Only once in the history of the Most Valuable Player Award has there been a tie for the honor. In 1979, the Pirates' Willie "Pops" Stargell and the Cardinals' Keith Hernandez wound up with 216 points apiece in the Baseball Writers' Association of America voting, so each was awarded a plaque.

For the third-place Cards, Hernandez led the National League in runs (116), doubles (48), and batting average (.344), ran a close second in hits and on-base percentage, and won his second Gold Glove Award at first base. Stargell, who had finished second in controversial balloting in both 1971 and 1973, was the clean-up hitter (32 homers) and inspirational leader of the "We Are Family," world champion Bucs. Hernandez was listed by all 24 voters, while Stargell was omitted entirely from four ballots; however, Pops got ten first-place votes as compared to just four for Hernandez. When it all shook out, they came out even.

However, it is quite possible that there wasn't really a tie after all.

In my 1988 Society for American Baseball Research book, Award Voting, I addressed and criticized the phenomena of split votes - writers dividing votes in half between two players in the voting for major awards. Between 1959 and 1984, there were split votes in 33 different MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year elections (possibly because of my book, they have since been outlawed). The biggest impact of a split vote may have been in the 1968 NL Rookie caucus, when one writer split his vote between Johnny Bench and Jerry Koosman, and Bench won by one point, 10 1/2 - 9 1/2.

The biggest farce may have been in the 1979 NL MVP race, where one voter split his fourth-place vote between pitching brothers Phil and Joe Niekro (evidently under the impression that they were identical twins), but was still permitted six more selections. Under the 14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 system used for the MVP Award, a fourth-place vote is worth seven points - and, in this case, those seven were split between the Niekro brothers, giving them just 3 1/2 points apiece. In other words, that writer's fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-place nominees each received more points than his fourth-place co-selections!

Assuming the acceptability of the split vote, the ballot in question should have been adjusted so that the Niekros were tied for fourth/fifth, receiving 6 1/2 points each, with the remaining selections moved down a notch (thus losing one point) each. One thing that did not occur to me until recently was that this mess-up conceivably could have created the tie for first place between Stargell and Hernandez: if either player was listed lower than fourth on that writer's ballot, he should have received one point less, swinging the election to the other player.

Stargell received ten first-place votes, three seconds, four thirds, a fourth, and two sixths, being left off the other four ballots. So, there is a two-in-23 possibility that he was listed on the Niekro ballot lower than fourth place.

Hernandez got four first-place nominations, eight seconds, seven thirds, two fourths, and three fifths. So, there is a three-in-22 possibility that he was listed on the Niekro ballot lower than fourth place.

The way I figure it, the probability is 20% that either Stargell or Hernandez (but not both) was listed lower than fourth on that writer's ballot. If so, and if the votes were counted correctly, that would have broken the tie between the two.

I talked to Jack Lang, former Executive Secretary of the BBWAA, about this. He says that the MVP ballots are shredded a few years after the elections, so there is no way to retrieve the ballot in question. Off-hand, Lang doesn't think this ballot affected anyone's standing in the race.

So, while it apparently can't be proven one way or the other, there is a one-in-five chance that one of the co-winners of the 1979 NL MVP Award got a gift he didn't deserve.

Bill Deane has authored hundreds of baseball articles and six books, including Award Voting, winner of the 1989 SABR-Macmillan Award. He served as Senior Research Associate for the National Baseball Library & Archive from 1986-94. He has since done consulting work for Topps Baseball Cards, Curtis Management Group, STATS, Inc., and Macmillan Publishing, and also served as Managing Editor of the most recent Total Baseball.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]


None of this matters much, as the best player in the National League in 1979 was Dave Winfield.

Winfield may well have been the best player in the NL in 1979 but Keith Hernandez was certainly worthy of being in the discussion.

In addition to being the Gold Glove first baseman, Hernandez led the league in AVG (.344), was second in OBP (.417), and ninth in SLG (.513). He led the loop in runs (116) and doubles (48) and was second in times on base (291) and hits (210).

Remember voters didn't have access to park-adjusted stats, such as OPS+. The concept was, at best, in its infancy. Players, for the most part, were judged on their raw stats and how their performances helped or hurt their teams.

Winfield had a fantastic season, especially when we adjust for playing in a pitcher-friendly ballpark like Jack Murphy Stadium. Unfortunately, there was little, if any, weight given to such disadvantages and advantages.

I'm not saying that Hernandez *deserved* to win the MVP that year; rather, I'm only explaining *why* he won the award.

I'm not saying this is any justification, but when you think of baseball in 1979, you think of the Pirates "Family" winning the Series in a dramatic 7 games. The leader of that Family was Wilver Dornel Stargell, so maybe it just puts the year in a better historical context that Stargell will live on in the award records.
On second thought, though, Keith Hernandez' winning did give us a memorable "Seinfeld"...

I for one would have voted for Biff Pocoroba :)