Willard Marshall’s Record Can’t Be Broken

There are some seemingly impossible single-season records to beat in baseball: Most stolen bases (138); most complete games (75); and Hugh Duffy’s .440 batting average. These are highly unlikely to be challenged in the game’s present form, but it is not impossible. There are, however, some more mundane records that are impossible to surpass. Boston Braves outfielder Willard Marshall appears in the 1952 Topps set fresh off one such accomplishment.

Always known as a capable defender, Marshall did not commit an error for the entire 1951 season. He cleanly generated 220 putouts with 11 assists across 136 games for a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage. With fielding percentage calculated as (putouts+assists)/(putouts+assists+errors), there is no way to improve the figure. The mark has been tied by other outfielders on 124 occasions but Marshall’s effort was just the second time it had occurred and predated the third instance by a decade.

Statistical methods have improved in the decades since Marshall’s perfect season. Fielders that can cleanly handle a batted ball are still respected, though the focus has shifted in favor of defenders who exhibit extensive range and an ability to read where a ball is about to go. Marshall’s statistical profile is a bit less impressive in this light, actually subtracting a half point of WAR per 162 games over the course of his career. Nevertheless, he still leaves the game with a stat that still impresses: He struck out only 4.6% of he time.

Fielding average 1.000 on the back of the 1952 Topps #96. Note the not terribly impressive acting job in the posed swing on the front of the card. The oddly-shaped hole punch bugs me.