National Pastime Museum: Birth of the Cy Young Award

By Marty Appel

The only problem with the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award and the Jackie Robinson Award, is that no baseball fans call them the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award or the Jackie Robinson Award.

Unlike National Hockey League awards, (like the Conn Smythe Trophy for the MVP), which all have enduring names easily recognized by hockey fans, baseball was never able to make “The Landis” or “The Robinson” part of the game’s talk.  

They are, and apparently always will be, the Most Valuable Player Award (Landis) and the Rookie of the Year Award (Robinson).  There has never been a movement to call them by their correct names, nor do fans particularly care for the formal names. (The Rookie award, of which Jackie was the first winner in 1947, had his name added to the title in 1997.  The MVP was always the Landis Award, at least since the baseball writer’s awarded it).

It’s like trying to name the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel after Hugh Carey, the former New York governor.  Changing Idlewild Airport to John F. Kennedy Airport worked, but no one in New York talks about the Hugh Carey Tunnel.  It either clicks or it doesn’t.

All of which brings us to the Cy Young Award.  This one resonates. There is a pretty good chance that many recent winners could not tell you one thing about Cy Young, but oh, they know that award.  Roger Clemens won seven of them. I wonder if he knows that Cy Young never won any.

How did the award come to be?  And why did the name stick so well?

Ever since the Baseball Writers Association of America decided to vote for the leagues Most Valuable Players starting in 1931, there had been suggestions that a separate award was needed for pitchers.  The call for this would mount as the years went on, and as such a small percentage of pitchers would win it.

Of course, a small percentage of catchers won it too.  Not until Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella won three each in the 1950s did catchers seem to get their full appreciation.  But catchers are hitters, and in the minds of voters, pitchers and hitters are judged on different criteria.

The Sporting News began to champion a separate award editorially in the 1950s, often citing the “frequent discussion” after the MVP was announced, about a separate recognition.

Starting in 1936, The Sporting News,  gave a Player of the Year Award, and beginning in 1944, a Pitcher of the Year in both leagues, but their acknowledgment of the fact that there was “frequent discussion” was also an acknowledgement that their awards weren’t perceived with the same enthusiasm as the BBWAA awards were.  (They still give those awards, as well as manager and executive of the year, but since they ceased being the “Bible of Baseball” and are now an online only entity covering all sports, the importance has further diminished).

On November 4, 1955, Denton True “Cy” Young died at 88.  It had been 44 years since he threw his last pitch, (and he was age 44 when that happened), but that was recent enough for many fans, especially those over 50, to have remembered him.  He was still part of the discussion about greatest pitcher ever, along with Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (who preceded him into the Hall of Fame), along with Grover Cleveland Alexander.  (Interestingly, in the 1936 election – the first – the baseball writers gave him only 49.1% of the vote, while Johnson {83.6%} and Mathewson {90.7%} eased in. This was probably due to voters already acknowledging that 19th century baseball, covering Young’s first ten seasons, was “different.”)

But Young had accomplished things that even in the 1950s, people acknowledged would never be approached, especially winning 511 games, completing 749 games, starting 815 games, hurling 7,356 innings, and winning 30 games five times over 22 seasons.  He also had ten 20-win seasons.

The Commissioner of Baseball, Ford C. Frick, was the champion of creating a pitching award, as he had been the champion of establishing a Hall of Fame 20 years earlier while serving as National League president.  His chief aide, Charlie Segar, a former head of the BBWAA, was a critical voice in all things Frick proposed, so a tip of the cap should go to him, even if he wasn’t named in the news stories of the day. Frick didn’t do much without Segar.

With the passing of Young clearly on their minds, the 16 Major League owners approved the establishment of the Cy Young Memorial Award at their owners meeting in the Commodore Hotel in New York City on February 4, 1956.  It was to be awarded to one pitcher only, covering both leagues, and would still need approval by the BBWAA to be a “writer’s award” with equal standing to the MVP award. No one could win more than once, according to the early protocols, which was the way the MVP voting had first begun too.

While one for both leagues would come to be seen as harsh, one must remember that relief pitchers had little standing in those days, and the voting was essentially among some 32 candidates – the top two starters per team, with occasional exceptions.

The baseball writers convened in Washington, DC at the time of the 1956 All-Star Game, (July 9), and approved the award, dropping “Memorial” from the title.  Much was made of the honor of remembering Cy Young, as well as the acknowledgment that it was time for the pitchers to have their own award.

With quite a bit of irony, Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe was the first winner – and he was announced just nine days after he was announced as the National League MVP.  So of all things, the very reason for the award – so that pitchers wouldn’t be shortchanged in MVP balloting – was a non-issue in the very first year.

A single winner would be named for 11 years, or until Frick retired.  Then Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert, no doubt counseled by his aide, Joe Reichler, called for two awards, one per league.  The BBWAA approved it, and since 1967, there have been two awards given. And without any fading recognition, it continues to be the Cy Young Award, and no one objects or calls it anything but.  (The idea of “can’t win twice” was quickly discarded).

In 1988, SABR announced the results of several years of polling among its membership to determine MVP and Cy Young Awards retroactively, and guess what – Cy Young would have won the first three given in the American League.  The question could now be “answered.”

Don Newcombe’s win set the stage for a dozen victories to date by Dodger pitchers, the most of any team.  The Cincinnati Reds (along with Washington Senators/Texas Rangers, Florida/Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies) have never won.  The Reds have had five second-place finishers, with Tom Seaver in 1981 coming the closest to winning.