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Elgin Baylor's "Phantom" Points
Trying to solve the mystery of Elgin Baylor's point total in his rookie season.
How many points did Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor score in the 1958-59 season, his rookie campaign? Every source I have checked — Official NBA Guides, Los Angeles Lakers Media Guides, Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com, etc. — lists Baylor with 1,742 points that season. Those same sources credit Baylor’s teammate, Vern Mikkelsen, with 992 points. After doing some detective work, I believe those sources are incorrect.
I was motivated to look into this because the game-by-game scoring totals I have for Baylor in my personal database are missing 12 points. That is, if you sum Baylor’s points by game you get 1,730, not 1,742. On the flip side, Mikkelsen’s game-by-game scoring totals give him 12 extra points compared to his official season total (i.e., they sum to 1,004 rather than 992).
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Digging in to each player’s scoring components, I found Baylor’s game-by-game totals to be three field goals made and six free throws made short of his official season totals, while Mikkelsen’s game logs credit him three field goals made and six free throws made too many. To summarize:
Baylor (Game | Season)
1,730 PTS | 1,742 PTS (–12)
602 FGM | 605 FGM (–3)
526 FTM | 532 FTM (–6)
Mikkelsen (Game | Season)
1,004 PTS | 992 PTS (+12)
356 FGM | 353 FGM (+3)
292 FTM | 286 FTM (+6)
I looked for games that season where Mikkelsen scored exactly 12 points more than Baylor did and found only one such contest: Feb. 7, 1959 versus the Philadelphia Warriors. Here’s the box score for that game from the Philadelphia Inquirer:
And here’s the box score printed in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Note that in each box score, Mikkelsen is credited with three more field goals made and six more free throws made than Baylor. That matches the discrepancy between each player’s game-by-game totals and their official season totals.
Further evidence for this being the point in the season when the discrepancy occurred comes from the NBA scoring leaders that were published in many newspapers on a weekly basis. Here are the scoring leaders from the Feb. 4, 1959 edition of The Lexington Herald, before the aforementioned Lakers-Warriors game:
In my database, I have Baylor with 390 field goals made, 356 free throws made, and 1,136 points through 48 games, matching the figures that appear above.
Now, here are the scoring leaders from the same newspaper just six days later, after the Lakers played the Warriors:
My totals for Baylor through 50 games are 404 field goals made, 370 free throws made, and 1,178 points. What’s the difference between my figures and the ones above? Three field goals made, six free throws made, and 12 points. Bingo.
If I just flip their totals in the game in question, everything adds up. But should I really do that? I think one of two things has to be true:
The statistics for Baylor and Mikkelsen were accidentally reversed in the newspapers. In other words, Baylor’s name was printed beside Mikkelsen’s numbers in the box score, and Mikkelsen’s name was printed beside Baylor’s figures.
There was an accounting error made when each player’s season totals were updated. That is, Baylor’s statistics for this game were accidentally added to Mikkelsen’s season totals, and Mikkelsen’s statistics were mistakenly added to Baylor’s season totals.
The evidence for number one above seems flimsy. First, I find it highly unlikely that both local papers would make the same error in the box score. Second, the game accounts in both local papers made a big deal about Mikkelsen’s performance:
Thirty-year-old Vern Mikkelsen almost scored his age Saturday night. The veteran great Dane hit 27 points to pilot the Lakers’ 109-97 victory over Philadelphia at the Auditorium before 6,371 persons. — Minneapolis Tribune
Veteran Vern Mikkelsen, playing his finest game of the season—his tenth in professional basketball—scored 27 points tonight to pace the rallying Minneapolis Lakers to a comfortable 109-97 win over Philadelphia. — Philadelphia Inquirer
The AP’s game account also led with Mikkelsen’s performance:
Nine-year veteran Vern Mikkelsen poured in 27 points Saturday night to lead the Minneapolis Lakers to a 109-97 National Basketball Association victory over Philadelphia.
The game was played in Minneapolis, so I assume the staff writer for the Minneapolis Tribune — a man named Tom Briere — attended the game. Would he really get this important detail so wrong in his game summary? I just can’t find any evidence to support an error being made in the box score.
That leaves option number two above, an error being made when the season totals were updated. Keep in mind, this was well before the age of computers, so everything was kept by hand. A transcription error does not seem far-fetched.
I’d love to check rebound and assist totals for Baylor and Mikkelsen as well, but unfortunately I don’t have complete game-by-game figures for those statistics. The numbers in my database were mainly compiled using newspapers, many of which did not publish anything close to complete box scores (sometimes just listing field goals made, free throws made, and points).
That said, based on what I’ve found I’m 99.9% confident Baylor’s numbers from this game were added to Mikkelsen’s season totals coming in, and Mikkelsen’s figures were added to Baylor’s ledger. In other words, the totals from the game logs are correct, while the official season totals are incorrect due to an accounting error.
So what should be done about this? I know some people are quite opposed to historical changes made after the fact, but I disagree with that stand. If it can be shown an error was made, then the figures should be adjusted. The NBA’s official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, would have the final word on the matter. I have reached out to them for comment and will add their reply to this post if/when I receive one.