You can find error records by position at Baseball-Almanac.com. The most recent such record was set in 1929 when Roy Johnson of the Tigers committed 31 errors in the outfield. Using the Historical Stats feature at mlb.com, it's possible to figure out that Johnson was an outlier among outfielders (the runner up in errors committed by an outfielder that season was Russ Scarritt with 19), but he wasn't the only guy with a bunch of errors. In fact, his teammate Heinie Schuble committed 46 errors in 86 games at shortstop that year. Joe Cronin led the league with 62 errors.
To give another idea of how bad fielding was, I've put the record for errors at each position into a table, along with each player's games played at that position in that season and their fielding percentage. I've only listed the AL & NL records, just to keep things simpler:
|1st Base||AL||Jerry Freeman||1908||154||41||.975|
|2nd Base||AL||Kid Gleason||1901||135||64||.925|
|3rd Base||AL||Sammy Strang||1902||137||64||.890|
I know Sullivan committed more errors, but I think Gochnauer's mark is pretty amazing. The only player close to him in 1903 was Rudy Hulswitt of the Phillies with 81 errors. The only American Leaguer besides Gochnauer to reach even 80 errors in a season during the first decade of AL play was New York shortstop Neal Ball in 1908 (he had exactly 80). Gochnauer was maybe even worse with a bat in his hands: he hit .185 in 1902 and 1903. His career batting line wound up at .187/.258/.240 in 1030 PA, good for a 46 OPS+...in the early 1900's! His career wasn't completely forgotten, however: over a century after his last major league game, he was talked about in Congress.
Anyway, the point isn't to laugh at Mr. Gochnauer's historic ineptitude at short, it's that errors were commonplace back in the early days of baseball. Since errors were so common, so too were unearned runs. After all, most unearned runs come about because of errors. That's how you can get years with a league average of four runs per game but a league ERA of under 3.00. One example of that is the 1888 National League. The league average was 4.54 runs per game, but the league ERA was 2.83. When you hear of great pitchers from long ago with miniscule ERA's, chances are they gave up a ton of unearned runs. For example, Cy Young gave up 1020 unearned runs in his long career. Christy Mathewson gave up nearly 500. Addie Joss gave up 241 unearned runs in 286 career games.
This certainly doesn't take anything away from those guys. After all, the playing field was even and everyone had to deal with abysmal defense so putting up a tiny ERA is still impressive. It does explain how an era with such dominant pitching wasn't completely overrun by 1-0, 2-1, or other low-scoring games. Runs were still scored, though not as much as today, but many of them were unearned.
Using the total runs scored and ERA of each league from 1876 through 2007, it's possible to estimate the number of earned and unearned runs. It's not perfect since the ERA rounded to only two decimal places leaves a lot of leeway over, say, 30000 innings, but it's close. I did that and then made a chart showing the percentage of runs scored that were unearned (UER%) over that span. As expected, the percentage has decreased over time:
I started looking all this up after realizing Cy Young had allowed more than one thousand unearned runs. I was curious about who else was high on the list of the most unearned runs allowed. Obviously, it was guys who pitched a lot back in the early days of baseball. Since most people (including myself) aren't hip to the pitching stars of the 1880's, I've made a separate list of pitchers who debuted in 1900 or after.
Debuted Before 1900
Debuted in 1900 or After
There's perhaps a few more recognizable names on the second list. They're all still early-century pitchers, which prompts a question about where more recent pitchers fall. Three long-time hurlers that pitched as recently as the 1980's show up in the top 35 of the list of pitchers to debut since 1900. See if you can think of who they might be while looking at the list of the active career leaders in unearned runs allowed. Through last night's game, fifteen players who have pitched in 2008 have allowed more than 100 unearned runs over their career. There's still a few games left, but the only guy on the list who has a good shot to change his position is Jeff Suppan, pitching tonight for the Brewers.
Active Players (through 9/25/08)
- Greg Maddux, 225
- Randy Johnson, 186
- Tim Wakefield, 177
- Kenny Rogers, 171
- Tom Glavine, 166
- Jamie Moyer, 138
- Andy Pettitte, 128
- Derek Lowe, 116
- Jon Lieber, 115
- Steve Trachsel, 108
- John Smoltz, 107
- Jeff Suppan, 107
- Julian Tavarez, 104
- Mike Mussina, 103
- Miguel Batista, 100
Finally, to answer the question I posed above: the three guys who pitched into the 1980's while finishing in the top 35 were Phil Niekro (325 UER - #16), Jim Kaat (300 UER - #23), and Gaylord Perry (282 UER - #34). If you got all three, have an iron glove. In case you're wondering, Greg Maddux's 225 UER allowed puts him at #70 on the list, tied with Charlie Hough.