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The History of the RBI

We certainly know of its importance in fantasy baseball, but just how did the RBI become an official baseball statistic?

Matt Kemp with Rihanna

SQUEEZE PLAY: Matt Kemp, shown here with Rihanna, led the Majors with 126 RBI in 2011.

The evolution of the RBI rule has never been fully documented, according to an article in the Baseball Research Journal.  Henry Chadwick, a famous early baseball writer came up with the concept of the RBI as early as 1879, but Major League Baseball did not officially establish rules for the RBI until over forty years later.

In 1891, baseball’s governing board adopted “a new and most important rule” that specified that all baseball games should include “the number of runs batted in by base hits by each batsman.”  The proviso didn’t stick.  National League and American Association averages of 1891 failed to contain any RBI statistics.

Ernest J. Lanigan, another baseball writer for the New York Press, suggested in 1907 that the paper’s sports editor Jim Price to compile and publish RBI data.  The proposal was accepted and Lanigan compiled RBI figures for players in both leagues from 1907 through 1919.  Lanigan began his compilation with the Press and then moved on to the Tribune, World, and finally the New York Sun.

The RBI became an official statistic in 1920, but the rules for qualifying for a RBI were not clear.  The rule read that: “The summary shall include…the number of runs batted in by each batter.”  No details of what qualified as a RBI, however, were noted.

It wasn’t until 1930 that the rules committe finally rectified the sitaution.  In December, 1930, the description of a RBI was created and that rule is essentially the same today.  The only major change to the rule occurred in 1939 when the rule was changed to not allow a RBI when a player hits into a double play.  Later, that rule was enhanced to not allow a RBI when an error occurred on the second half of the double play like in the case of a bad throw to first.

Some records continue to be reviewed by baseball historians.  In fact, Hack Wilson, who had 190 RBI in the 1930 season, had a RBI added in 1977 thanks to the research done by James Braswell of Chicago.  Hack Wilson’s RBI total of 191 in 1930 still stands today as the most ever by a MLB player.  You can see all of the Major League Baseball RBI records  here.

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