Debunking At Least One Myth

On an extremely quiet and uncomfortably lonely July 4th, where every MLB team that at least I remotely care about lost save for the Mariners (sorry to offend, any Cubs diehards out there, but let’s face it, even the best of you are losing hope), I turned to my second favorite passion–research–to at least try and answer a burning question that always seems to crop up when that date hits the calendar.   Is the myth of whomever is in first place on July 4th winning the pennant actually true?

I’m apparently not the first who’s had that thought cross his mind.  It seems to be prevalent among folks who’ve written for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.  In the magazine’s second year of existence, 1955, that very question was raised to a number of celebrity fans, many of whom showed little more than blind faith and burning allegiance:

ROBERT SHERWOOD, New York
Author and playwright
“The Dodgers will be on top July 4 and will win the pennant. The Yankees may be on top but won’t win. I’ve been a rabid Yankee fan since childhood when they were known as the Highlanders. I don’t like to predict misfortune for them, but they haven’t got the pitching.”

MRS. ARCH WARD, Chicago
Housewife
“The World Series will be between the Chicago White Sox and the Brooklyn Dodgers, no matter who leads on July 4, and it may be the White Sox. My husband reminds me about the Boston Braves who came from last place on July 4 to win the 1914 National League pennant.”

PAGE BROWNE, Boston, Mass.
Vice-President
Sheraton Hotels
“No. If I were to believe that, I’d have to concede the Red Sox haven’t a chance. With Ted Williams playing like the Williams of old, our team may duplicate the feat of the 1914 Braves, who were last on July 4 but won the pennant. The Red Sox are now playing the same kind of baseball.”

CARY GRANT, Hollywood
Movie star
“Probably. Percentagewise, a team leading on July 4 has a better than an even chance to win the pennant. I don’t see how the Dodgers can be stopped. As for the Yankees, they’ve won 20 pennants. 16 of these pennant teams were in first on July 4. They play best when the chips are down.”

For the record, the fans of both Sox were dead wrong; Sherwood was only half-right and Grant showed that he clearly was following whatever sources for betting information were available at the time as clearly in baseball as he did in horse racing.

57 years later, a successor writer named Ted Keith revisited this with some detailed research of his own and did much of the heavy lifting:

Years ago, I researched that claim, and found that it went back at least as far as a 1934 TIME Magazine cover story. More than three-quarters of a century later, the schedule has lengthened from 154 to 162 games, the majors have expanded from 16 teams in two leagues to 30 spread out over six divisions, and the playoffs now include 10 teams in a four-tiered system including this year’s addition of the Wild Card play-in. Still, the old saw still has teeth: A team leading its division on July 4 will win it roughly 60 percent of the time, and including the Wild Card, will reach the postseason more than two-thirds of the time:

Years Divisions Per League Teams in 1st on July 4 Won Division Pct Won Wild Card Total Pct
1901-1968 1 142 (6) 89 62.7  — 62.7
1969-1993 2 101 (5) 57 56.4  — 56.4
1995-2011 3 109 (7) 65 59.6 10 68.8

But wait!  Keith’s cutoff just happened to occur when the era of a single wild card ended; when the siren’s song of increased post-season revenue opened up multiple wild cards in each league.  Surely, with another chance to increase the likelihood of this adage proving to be accurate, there would be a significant shift upwards, no?

Well, depends if you consider 2.3 percentage points to be significant or not:

2012-2023 3 55 (1) 30 54.5 9 71.1

 

And yep, I know, it’s a REALLY small sample size but the early returns on the three wild-card era have effectively negated even that modest bump:

2022-23 3 12 6 50.0 8 66.7

No, this doesn’t take into account the jockeying for those wild card positions among other contenders, and this year more than ever, especially in the National League, one could contend that adding to the post-season pot is keeping more teams’ fan bases at least somewhat hopeful for a second-half turnaround.  I mean, even the Cubs are still within six games of a post-season berth.

But it does seem to point out that the adage that transcended generations was only somewhat true even back when only the league leader went to a post-season, and over more than a century, with six times as many teams eligible, the needle has moved grand total of four percentage points.   And the likelihood of that July 4th leader being able to fly an actual pennant has diminished by more than triple that amount.

Which leaves me with still one burning question:

Where, if anywhere, do you think Cary Grant’s touts are these days?

Courage…

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