Bob Lutz: Baseball’s Triple Crown has always been elusive

There have been only three Triple Crown winners in the major leagues in my lifetime. And let me tell you, that’s a lot of lifetime.

But we could be on the cusp of a fourth as the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera chases the elusive TC and, as a bonus, tries to help his team reach the American League playoffs.

For those who don’t know, the Triple Crown categories are batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

The 29-year-old Cabrera, who also happens to be locked in what is perceived to be a tight race for AL Most Valuable Player with Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout, leads in two of those categories and is just behind Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton in the home run race.

Cabrera, a third baseman who defensively is, um, a really good hitter, led Trout by .005 in the hitting race before Wednesday’s games and had a comfortable lead over Hamilton (133 to 124) for the RBI lead in the American League.

But going into Wednesday night’s game against Kansas City, Cabrera had been homerless in four consecutive games. And when you are in need of home runs as you attempt to do something no player has done in 45 years, no homers in four games qualifies as a drought.

Cabrera also had just six hits in his previous 31 at-bats, so perhaps the pressure of the Triple Crown chase, the AL Central crown and the MVP battle with Trout are wearing him down.

Trout, too, is struggling, having hit only .268 in September with six extra-base hits.

The last Triple Crown winner was Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski, who in 1967 batted .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs. Actually, Minnesota’s Harmon Killebrew tied Yaz with 44 homers, but I guess ties are good enough when you’re awarding Triple Crowns.

Here and there, a few players have been in the hunt for the Triple Crown since. But Cabrera is making the most serious run at the feat in nearly a half century. Yet it’s not like Cabrera’s chase is front and center with the national sports media, which has for the most part rid itself from baseball banter because there’s so much NFL to talk about.

There have been only 16 Triple Crown winners in baseball history, dating back to the first winner in 1878. During that season, which consisted of 60 games, Providence Grays outfielder Paul Hines batted .358 with four homers and 50 RBIs to lead the National League in each category. His four home runs were one more than Cincinnati outfielder Charley Jones and he was one of only four players to hit more than one home run that season.

What I’m trying to say here is that home runs were difficult to hit in 1878.

In 1894 the Boston Braves’ Hugh Duffy hit .438 with 18 homers and 145 RBIs. In 1901, Philadelphia’s Nap Lajoie won a Triple Crown and batted .426. Detroit’s Ty Cobb was next in 1909, when he batted .377 with nine homers and 107 RBIs. And in 1912, Cubs third baseman Heinie Zimmerman became the fifth player to accomplish the feat.

And as any baseball stat geek will tell you, the RBI wasn’t an official statistic until 1920.

Rogers Hornsby of the St. Louis Cardinals won the Triple Crown in the National League in 1922 and 1925. And he came close a bunch of other times. Hornsby isn’t often mentioned when baseball’s all-time greats are being discussed, but the numbers he put up during the 1920s are incredible.

During a 10-year span from 1920-29, Hornsby, who spent seven of those seasons in St. Louis and one each with the New York Giants, Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs, led the National League in average seven times, in home runs twice and in RBIs four times. He was the league leader in runs five times and also a multiple-time leader in hits (four), doubles (four), on-base percentage (eight), slugging percentage (eight), total bases (six) and OPS (nine).

Hornsby finished first in homers and RBIs in 1920, but was tied for sixth in home runs. He was first with a .297 batting average in 1921, when he finished second in home runs and RBIs. He was first in average and second in homers in 1924, but only seventh in RBIs. He was second in average and third in homers and RBIs in 1927. He was third in average and RBIs and tied for third in homers in 1929.

Hornsby, as far as I’m concerned, is Mr. Triple Crown.

The only other player to win two Triple Crowns is Ted Williams, who did so for the Boston Red Sox in 1942 and 1947 and might have won another one or two had it not been for his military service in World War II.

Other winners include: Jimmie Foxx with the Philadelphia Athletics and Chuck Klein of the Phillies, both in 1933; the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig in 1934; Joe Medwick in 1937 with the Cardinals; Mickey Mantle with the New York Yankees in 1956 and Frank Robinson with Baltimore in 1966.

Cabrera could join some elite company, but he needs to finish strong, especially in the power department. As the Tigers play their most important games of the season, Cabrera is threatening history. It’s been 45 years since someone won a Triple Crown. It’s about time.