Conditions made Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night a bit of a sham

To commemorate Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night that took place 50 years ago tonight, the radio show Mike and Mike in the Morning asked its audience to rank Chamberlain’s performance alongside other great individual efforts in a single sporting event.  Two of the events that the audience was asked to compare against Chamberlain’s point output were baseball’s two most immortal “perfectos”, Don Larsen’s perfect game pitched against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series, and Harvey Haddix’s incredible, tragic 12 innings of “perfect game that wasn’t” against the 1959 Milwaukee Braves.

Numbers say Chamberlain’s “Honey Spot” came under “All Star Game-Like” defensive conditions

Now, anyone who knows this blog knows I am anything but a Chamberlain basher.  I believe that, by the comparative statistical numbers, Wilt was either the most valuable NBA player of all time (in terms of wins plus wins above 0.500%), or he was the second most valuable player of all-time behind Russell (my tentative belief is that he was second behind Russell).  That said, a cursory look at the incomplete box score data from the 100 point game in the Chocolate City of Hershey, Pennsylvania (it was a home neutral game for Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors) shows that neither the Warriors nor the lowly Knicks (the Knicks finished the season 29-51) put out any defensive effort on that mythical March night in the year of American Graffiti.

How do I know?  I don’t… there’s no existing footage of the game.  But I can surmise with some degree of certainty what happened by examining the box score and comparing it to the story the existing data from the 1961-62 NBA season tells us about the scoring trends in that season.

In the ’61-’62 season, the NBA average “Effective Points” per game (meaning Points – FGAs – 0.5FTAs) was (-7.5), meaning there was not a lot of efficient scoring that season.  And neither the Warriors (-6.2) nor the Knicks (-10.7) bucked the trend (I don’t think any team produced more points than scoring attempts per game).  And when one considers that Wilt himself WAS an efficient scorer (+2.5) points per game, that means everyone NOT named Wilt would not have been expected to score the ball effectively. All in all, if the two teams were putting out an average defensive effort, one would have expected a total of (-16.9) effective points from the two teams and (-19.4) effective points from everyone not wearing #13.  That’s not what happened.

Instead, the two teams combined to score (+37) effective points — a whopping 53.9 effective points above what should have occurred under normal defensive circumstances.  Even more tellingly, when one removes Wilt’s (+21) effective points, one is still left with (+16) effective points from a bunch of players who should have produced (-19.4), another whopping total of 35.4 too many “effective points”.

So there was absolutely no defense being played on that night, and there is evidence of a farce.  The Knicks effective scoring total (+9) suggests the Warriors may have been actively “giving up” hoops to get the ball back so that the team could feed the ball to Wilt to get him to 100.

This blog is sub-titled “Evidentiary Sports Analysis”.  While its a clumsy phrase, I try to live by the proposition. In sports, the numbers usually provide the most objective description of what really happened. And in the case of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point night, the evidence suggests to me that his accomplishment might have been slightly undercooked.

By contrast, the numbers tell a different story for the Perfect Games. In fact the numbers suggest that those performances may have been even better than I imagined.

Haddix a bit better than Larsen… maybe

To pitch any perfect game, one needs a lot of luck.  No matter how great you throw, balls will be put in play, and one has to have a situation where the balls that would normally fall do not.  That’s a given.

So to compare the perfect games by Larsen and Haddix, I removed the element of defense.  Instead I examined the exact lineups each pitcher faced on the particular night and compared those two lineups according to the number of “pitcher bases” (meaning bases that can be exclusively charged to the pitcher — 4 bases on homers, 1 base on walks, and 1 base per hit bats men) each would be expected to produce for every “pitcher out” (meaning strikeout) the lineup would yield.  What I wanted to know was which lineup was filled with the “tougher” outs.

Before I answer that, let me say that both lineups, the ’56 Dodgers and the ’59 Braves, can be called “historically great”.  On those grounds alone, each pitchers accomplishment on his particular perfect or near perfect day was remarkable. The 1956 Dodger lineup featured the immensely underrated Duke Snider, the much appreciated Jackie Robinson, and Gil Hodges and others.  There was only one “easy” out in the Brooklyn lineup, and that was the pitcher Sal Maglie.

By contrast, the power in the Milwaukee Braves formidable lineup was concentrated in Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews (along with Joe Adcock and Del Crandall).  Remember, it was a regular season game late in May.  It wasn’t the World Series.  And so the Braves lineup that night had several holes or “banjo” hitters: SS Johnny O’Brien, RF Andy Pafko, and the pitcher Lew Burdette.

Even so, when you judge each lineup by its overall strength, you end up with a pretty even distribution of hitting weight.  In absolute terms, the Dodger hitters were a bit tougher, but not by much.  The Dodgers lineup in Game 5 produced 1.737 Pitcher Bases per Strikeout in 1956, while the Braves lineup that took the field at old County Stadium produced 1.615 Pitcher Bases per Strikeout in 1959. In short, both lineups were awesome.

Braves Lineup a bit stronger (in relative terms)

However, those numbers were produced in separate seasons.  They may, therefore, have been “pitcher quality” or park effect induced.  So, the true comparison ought to be against the average in the National League in the particular season.

If one does this, one finds that the ’59 Braves were quite a bit stronger and tougher to get outs against.  The 1959 Braves lineup, as presented to Harvey Haddix at County Stadium on that Tuesday May 26th evening, was +0.250 points above the 1959 National League average, whereas the Dodger lineup presented to Don Larsen at Yankee Stadium on that Monday afternoon, October 8, 1956 (YES… Game 5 of the ’56 Series was played on a weekday afternoon!) was “only” +0.025 points above the 1956 National League average.

So the relative edge would go to Haddix.  Then you consider that he retired 9 more batters without giving up a base than Larsen was required to retire, and I have to give the edge in “greatest” accomplishment to Haddix.

Of course, Haddix’s performance occurred during an ordinary weeknight game early in the baseball season, whereas Larsen’s happened on the largest stage in American sports at that time (with the possible exception of a Heavyweight Championship Fight).  That does lean toward Larsen, but I still give the slight edge to Haddix.  Indeed, Haddix performance came against a Brave team playing at home (where half of the above Braves statistics were produced), whereas Larsen was pitching at cavernous Yankee Stadium against a team that produced half of its 1956 numbers at their bandbox home park called Ebbets Field.

Slight Edge to Harvey

So, all in all, edge to Haddix.  But no one can doubt the accomplishments of himself and Don Larsen.  Both have earned and rightfully deserve their glorious status.

The main point of this post is that Chamberlain’s 100 point performance has not.  It was a lot less than the glittery three figure point total would suggest.  There was a bit of a sham going on that night in Hershey, Pennsylvania… the numbers sometimes lie, or rather the numbers sometimes get misinterpreted.


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