Three Guys You Never Heard Of

It’s been over a century since the National Association flourished. In that time even the greatest players of the era have faded into obscurity. The Hall of Fame commemorates a handful but most of those are after thoughts among visitors. Let me take a second here and resurrect three of them for you, three of the non-Hall of Famers, men who were household names among the baseball fans of the era.

Cal McVey

Cal McVey was one of the original 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team. When the National Association was formed, he went with Harry Wright and a group of the Cincinnati team to Boston where they formed another team called the Red Stockings. McVey started as their primary catcher, but moved to third base and the outfield on occasion. In 1873, the Red Stockings picked up Deacon White to catch and McVey moved on to Baltimore where he played all four infield positions and the outfield. In 1874, he was back with Boston as the right fielder, switching to first base in 1875. With the death of the Association, McVey moved to Chicago and became the primary first baseman for the team that won the first National League pennant and would eventually be called the Cubs. In 1877, he was back behind the plate for Chicago, then moved onto Cincinnati in 1878 and 1879 playing third and first. His big league career ended at this point.

Levi Meyerle

Levi Meyerle was the star of the first year of the National Association. He led the league in home runs, batting average, slugging prcentage, on base percentage (and obviously OPS), and total bases. He was a third baseman, and was awful at it. His fielding percentage was .646 (some sources will go as high as the .690s, but nobody’s willing to try for .700). To go with his hitting, and in spite of his fielding, his team (the Athletics) won the pennant in 1871. After that he moved to the outfield, second, pitched a little, seemingly anywhere to keep him from fielding too much. He did manage to get his fielding percentage over .800 a couple of times, generally when he played second base but he was never great with his hands (Geez, where’s the DH when you need it?). When the Association folded he ended up with Philadelphia in the National League , then went to Cincinnati in 1878, his last real season. Out of the Major Leagues after 1878, he appeared in three games for Philadelphia of the Union Association in 1884 at age 39, He was awful. Meyerle was called “Long Levi”, apparently because he was a big man for the era. The baseball encyclopedias list him as 6’1″ and 177 pounds, which is huge in the 1870s.

Troy Haymakers; Pike at lower left

Lip Pike was the last great star before the founding of the professional leagues. In another article I wrote about The Pike Case and how it changed the nature of baseball, but here I want to look at his pro career. He played all five years in the National Association, never winning a pennant. His teams were in Troy, where he managed the first four games, Baltimore, Hartford, and St. Louis. When the National League replaced the Association in 1876, Pike stayed at St. Louis for a year, then moved on to Cincinnati for 1877 and part of 1878. In late 1878 he was in Providence, then out of the National League until he played six total games for Worcester and the New York American Association team.

Their stats:  GP/AB/H/R/2B/3B/HR/RBI/BA/OPB/SLG/OPS 

McVey: 530/3513/869/555/133/44/11/449/346/354/447/801

Meyerle:307/1443/513/306/86/31/10/278/356/360/479/839

Pike: 425/1983/637/433/120/53/21/385/322/339/468/807  

So now you’re asking yourself, why all this fuss over these three guys? Those aren’t bad numbers, but… Frankly, they illustrate some of the major problems in assessing the players of baseball’s Paleolithic Period (1871-1881).

1. The problem of beginnings. All three men were major players prior to the first easily available records beginning in 1871. How good were they? Got me. Obviously they were very good as McVey was a highly sought out member of the 1869 Red Stockings, Pike was getting in trouble for professionalism as early as 1866, and Meyerle tore up the National Association in its initial year. But that’s the problem of beginnings. The information starts in mid-career for both Meyerle and Pike. Both were age 26 in 1871 (Pike being a couple of months older). There are years prior to age 26, and judging by their later numbers those were pretty good years, but it’s difficult to find the info. One source gives Pike six home runs in a single game in the pre-1871 period. McVey at least is only 21 so we may have most of his productive years available to study.

2. The length of schedules. I’ve touched on this on the first post about the National Association. For his career, McVey led his league in games played exactly once , but never played more than 82 games in any season. That’s roughly half a current season. For their careers McVey’s 530 total games are equally divided between the Association and the NL, Meyerle plays 73% of his in the Association, and 68% of Pike’s games are in the Association. The man with the most games played (McVey)  plays just a little over three modern seasons, but his career stretches from 1871 through 1879, nine seasons. (BTW if you’re thinking of Hall of Fame credentials, Pike is the only one to play 10 years.) What kind of numbers can you put up in half a season? Actually pretty good ones. Except that, as I said on another post, anybody can get hot for a handful of games. Look at all the Rookies of the Year that have put up good 150 or so game seasons, then flamed out and never did another thing worth recalling. Heck, look up Hurricane Hazle in 1957.  

3. The differences in the game. I’ve hit this before, probably enough to bore readers to tears, but I don’t think I can stress it too much. The game was just very different in the era. How do you determine exactly how good they were when you have such different rules to deal with in making your assessment? As a simple example, none of the men ever faced a pitcher standing at 60’6″ and throwing off a mound. How would they have done? Again, got me, coach.

So there they are, three guys you’ve probably never heard about. How good were they? I’d say pretty good, but I have the objections noted above. Are they Hall of Fame quality? Again, I’m not sure. I think that if I were made a committee of one and told to assess, for the Hall of Fame, players whose primary playing years were the old National Association I might vote McVey up and the other two down. I am not rigid about that because it’s always possible new ways of assessing these guys may show up soon (and of course the 10 year rule would have to be vaived for McVey and Mayerle).

However good they were, they were good enough to be remembered if for no other reason than the fact that modern ballplayers stand on their shoulders. Without them, there’s no Ty Cobb, or Lou Gehrig, or Jackie Robinson, or Barry Bonds, or Sandy Koufax. We owe them at least a moment of memory.

This concludes, for a least a while, my journey into the mists of the National Association. As usual it’s been a profitable journey for me because I learned a great deal. Hope you can say the same.

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