Rosters contain lots of kinds of players. There are stars and superstars. There are role players and hangers on. There are has beens and never was types. The 19th Century had the same kinds of players. Most, even the greatest superstars of the era, are lost in the mists of time. No one who saw them play is alive to tell us what it was like to see them. Let me introduce you to three 19th Century stars, all named Bill.
Bill Joyce made is debut with the fledgling Player’s League in 1890. He played third base in Brooklyn hitting .252 and leading the league in walks with 123. It was good enough to get him a job when the Player’s League folded. He caught on with Boston in the American Association. In 65 games he hit .309, had 63 walks, and had 15 triples, good for third on the pennant winning Reds. Here he set a record not equalled until 1941. He reached base in 64 consecutive games (of the 65 he played). At the end of the season, the Association folded, and Joyce had to look for his third team, and third league, in as many years. In ’92 he caught on at Brooklyn where he led the team in home runs (6). He sat out 1893, then popped up at Washington for the next three years. These are the heart of his career. He hit .355, .312, and .313. He had 17 home runs in ’94 (tied for second in the league), 17 again in ’95 (again second, then led the league in home runs with 13 in 1896. His on base percentages also ranked in the top five in the NL during this period. Late in 1896, Washington traded him to the Giants. He had a good 49 games at the end of ’96, hit over .300 again in 1897 and led the Giants in triples, then closed out his career in 1898 by moving to first base where he hit .258 and led the team in home runs. He retired with a .293 average, 70 home runs, 609 RBIs, a .453 OBP, and 106 triples in 906 games. He died in 1941.
Bill Lange was THE phenom of the 1890s. He was big for the era, had great speed and power, and seemingly had an aversion to playing in the east. The Colts (now the Cubs), spotted Lange and brought him from California to Chicago in 1893, where he stayed (at least when he wanted to stay) until 1899. He was an outfielder noted for his ability to track down anything in the field. The great story about him is that he crashed through a wall at full speed tracking down a fly ball which he caught. Most modern scholarship debunks the story, but it’s emblematic of how he was viewed, tough, determined, and fast. For all that, he never led the league in anything (except maybe handwringing on when will Lange report?). He played 813 games (never more than 123 in a season), hit. .330 with a .400 OBP, and a .458 slugging percentage. He tallied 1056 hits, 691 runs 350 stolen bases, and 579 RBIs in his seven year career. But every season the Colts had to wait on Lange. Seems he didn’t want to leave California for Chicago (there’s a joke there, and I’m not going to offend Chicago by using it). so he’d report late every season. Some of it had to do with not wanting to mess with training, some of it was a hold out for more money, some seems to have been a genuine dislike for the “East.” All that being said, he was a heck of a player. He holds the Cubs record for batting average at .389 in 1895. He retired in 1899 to get married. Apparently his father-in-law didn’t want his daughter to marry a ballplayer (there’s another gag there). The marriage didn’t work out, but Lange stayed retired. He went into the insurance and real estate business and did well. He died in 1950.
Bill Shindle was a third baseman noted for his range (His 4.34 in 1892 is still the record for third basemen). He came to the majors in 1886 with Detroit, played on the 1887 pennant and “World Series” winning Wolverines, then went to the Orioles in the American Association when Detroit collapsed. He jumped to Philadelphia in the Player’s League revolt of 1890, remained in Philadelphia with the Phillies in 1891, was with the Orioles, now in the NL, in 1892 and 1893. When the Orioles moved John McGraw from short to third, Shindle went to Brooklyn where he finished his career in 1898. He hit .269 for that career, with no power, 759 RBIs, a .323 OBP, and 1564 hits in 1424 games. Not a great hitter, but Shindle was regarded for his glove (or hand as he seldom wore a glove). As mentioned earlier, he had great range numbers, leading the league three times, and leading in fielding percentage once with .922 in 1888. But that’s a little misleading. He had 122 errors in 1890 (when he played most of his games at short). So he could get to the ball, but throwing it seems to have been a problem. Other than the .922 in 1888, his highest fielding percentage was .895, until very late in his career when his range factor decreased. He was slowing down and unable to get to as many balls. He retired in 1898 aged 38 and died in 1936.
Ok, so what? Except for Lange they aren’t particularly superior ballplayers, you note. True. What they are is fairly representative of the kinds of players who wandered through the big leagues in the 1890s. You have a solid role player who finally achieves a few years of greatness. You get a phenom who lives up to his billing but tends to regard baseball as a bit of a lark. And you have a slick fielder who doesn’t hit badly, but doesn’t tear up the league either. Those should all sound familiar to you. Look around. Baseball is full of them today. Those players are the descendants of the three Bills of the 1890s.