When and how did modern rankings emerge? This paper aims to answer that question by taking a closer look at the history of American baseball. In the 1870s, baseball was the first team sport to introduce a competitive system, the league, that determined the champion based on teams’ overall number of wins and losses. The in-depth analysis of the baseball discourse from the 1850s to the 1870s shows that leagues were introduced as a solution to a specific problem: how to identify deserving champions that had proved their ability again and again over the course of a season. The rising awareness of this problem was due to a shift in the baseball discourse of the 1860s, which established a new, statistical understanding of athletic achievement that demanded consistency of performance together with an acceptance that even champions lose a game once in a while. Rankings and other statistics, based on constant scoring of individual plays and increasingly sophisticated methods, helped institutionalize this new understanding of achievement and, in so doing, made the introduction of the league system possible. Moreover, the league system proved to be dependent on rankings – in the form of league tables – that made it possible to observe and experience the championship race, making rankings an essential element of modern competitive sports. Given that today’s rankings apply similar ideas of achievement to other fields (e.g., the “excellence” of universities), the story draws attention to the history of a specific imaginary of achievement that transcends the field of sports and should be studied more widely to understand the institutionalization of rankings in other fields.
Minnetian, C. and Werron, T. (2021), "Redefining Achievement: The Emergence of Rankings in American Baseball", Ringel, L., Espeland, W., Sauder, M. and Werron, T. (Ed.) Worlds of Rankings (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 74), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 127-151. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0733-558X20210000074031
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