It’s time for my monthly foray into the mind of Baseball Writers in the early 20th Century. I’m hoping to determine, at least to my own satisfaction, what a Hall of Fame established in 1901 rather than the mid 1930s would look like. Specifically I’m wondering how much it would differ from the current Hall. Here’s the Class of 1907, a class that adds a pair of greats that were overlooked for years.
Oops, that’s Clifton James, Hollywood’s version of Charley Comiskey
OK, that’s the right one.
Charles Comiskey was a player, manager, and owner who changed the game. As a stellar first baseman he invented playing off the bag thus cutting down the “hole” between first and second. As manager of the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s he had all his infielders follow suit thus cutting down on the number of hits available. His team won four consecutive pennants and four consecutive post season tournaments, winning one of them and tying a second. He helped found the American League by creating a team in Chicago. His “White Stockings” won the first ever American League pennant and in 1906 won the third World Series.
Slidin’ Billy Hamilton
William “Slidin’ Billy” Hamilton is the career leader in stolen bases, his totals peaking at 111 in both 1889 and 1891. His career average of .344 is among the highest in the 19th Century. In 1594 games he scored 1697 runs, with 198 in 1894 being the all time record.
Amos Rusie was a strikeout machine between 1889 and 1901 he struck out 1950 men, with a high of 341 in 1890 for New York. In 10 seasons he won five strikeout titles and led the National League in wins in 1894. His 246 wins are among the highest in National League history.
And now the commentary you’ve all been waiting for all this time.
1. Comiskey? It is incredibly difficult to like Comiskey, but this isn’t about likeability. His contributions to the game are significant. We was a successful manager with an very impressive record and winning percentage (.608). In 12 years managing he finished below fourth twice (the last two seasons). He was considered an excellent first baseman for his era, but didn’t hit much. The info about inventing playing off first was around in 1906. By that point there were already disputes about Comiskey inventing the action. Frankly, I doubt he did, but he was getting at least a little credit for it so I mentioned it. Ban Johnson is the primary mover in creating the American League, but Comiskey is a close second. He deserves credit for that. He was also one of John Montgomery Ward’s earliest followers in the Brotherhood (which makes his later career as a parsimonious owner even more awful). The early teams he owned were good and won it all in 1906 (and in 1901 when there was no World Series). My son suggested I hold until after the 1906 World Series to add Comiskey to my Hall. Considering the positive press he would have gotten in late 1906 and early 1907 that was a really great idea (and my son gets the credit for it). We do have to remember that the anti-Comiskey feelings most of us have relate to a much later time in his ownership. And BTW, doesn’t Clifton James look like what you want Comiskey to have looked like?
2. Billy Hamilton is a classic case of why I’m doing this entire exercise. He died in 1940 and made the Hall of Fame in 1961 (Vets Committee). Are you kidding me? Hamilton was one of the greatest players of the 19th Century, but by 1935, 1936, 1937, etc. had utterly disappeared from memory. I submit that in 1907 he would still be well-remembered and get a free pass into any Baseball Hall of Fame existing then. His games to run ratio was known as was his average. Having said that, as far as I can tell, there is almost no reference about how unusual it was to have fewer games played than runs scored. As mentioned in last month’s My Own Little Hall of Fame post Pete Browning was considered the man with the highest batting average in the 19th Century for much of the 20th Century. Baseball Reference.com, however, gives that title to Hamilton. The 1907 crowd most likely would accept a Browning answer as correct. And finally the way stolen bases were counted differed from the modern definition for most of Hamilton’s career.
3. Amos Rusie was the 19th Century’s version of Nolan Ryan. A lot of wins, a lot of losses, a lot of walks, and a heck of a lot of strikeouts. His career was short, but he successfully got through the mine field of changing the pitching distance and adding a mound to prove he could pitch at both distances and with different motions. He took even longer than Hamilton to make the Hall of Fame (1977), and I can’t imagine that would be true if there was a Hall of Fame set up within 10 years of his retirement, although I’d guess that Hamilton would gain the greater share of the vote total (but that’s only a guess).
4. Again no fourth or fifth player? Nope. I’ve got a list of nice eligible players and I keep looking at it and think “Wow this is a list of nice eligible players but not a list of great players.” And there’s not much coming along next year (1908). I will have to deal with Wilbert Robinson as a player. He’s in the modern Hall, but primarily as a manager, not a player. He’ll be one of the first people I will have to look at and seriously separate his playing from managing skills (McGraw will be another). At this point I’m more inclined to put McGraw in over Robinson based solely on playing skill (which doesn’t mean I’ll put McGraw in as a player).
5. Learning anything? Yes, quite a bit. As mentioned in 2 above, Hamilton is a great example of how this exercise is supposed to work. He was well-known and appreciated just after his retirement and within a few years (say 1920 or even earlier if you’d like) he’d dropped into obscurity. I haven’t done a lot of looking at the 1920s view of 1890s players because I’m supposed to be looking at 1907 views of players, but I wonder if the advent of Ruth and the homer relegated a lot of these guys to the dustbin of history (Is that a neat phrase or what? Wish I’d invented it). The great change in stolen bases that began in the late 1950s brought his name back to prominence and you’ll note he finally makes the real Hall of Fame in 1961, which is way too late. Also I’m noting how much the modern stats change the way we look at players. Again using Hamilton, I note the modern stats concentrate his numbers in such a way as to emphasize he scoring ability and his general hitting skills much more than his stolen bases, which predominate in the 1905 period. I’m also noticing, as I’ve mentioned before, how absolutely random the available stats are in the first decade of the 20th Century. They’re all over the place. Some players have a lot, others not so much (and it’s particularly true in the American Association) and sometimes one guy will have a stat and another guy on the same team won’t have that same stat. Makes it difficult to compare directly, so I’m finding myself using more reporting than I might normally use. Additionally it’s interesting how much the statistics differ in the era. By that I mean that I find one player credited with a specific number for a stat, then later find the same player with a different number of the same stat. Makes it kind of interesting to figure (so I tend, if there is a discrepancy, to go to Baseball Reference.com and use whichever number they use).
6. I’m also noticing the amount of mythology growing up about the game. The Comiskey story about inventing playing off the base is one example. Of course we’re reaching the period of the rise of the “Doubleday Myth” for the invention of baseball, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.