The Original Big Mac

Cal McVey

Most fans know about the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. It’s claimed they were the first all professional team, which may or may not be true (the records are pretty scant on some of the teams of the era). They were a pretty typical team for the era. You had ten players and most guys were asked to play multiple positions. For the Red Stockings the most famous are Harry Wright (who played center and managed) and his brother George (who played shortstop and did some work at second). Both are in the Hall of Fame: Harry as a manager, George as a player. But easily the most versatile was Cal McVey, who was probably never really called “Big Mac”.

McVey was born in 1849 in Iowa. That alone makes him fairly unusual for the era. Most of the better players were from the East Coast (Cap Anson was another exception) but there was a growing contingent of Midwestern players that was making their mark in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players. McVey, by now relocated to Indianapolis, was one of them. By 1868 he had spent time with both the Actives and the Westerns (local teams that were NABBP members) as a pitcher and a better than average hitter. He was 18 during the bulk of the 1868 season. He came to the attention of Harry Wright who watched him pitch in a losing effort to the current Cincinnati team (not the Red Stockings). When the Red Stockings were formed the next year, Wright brought him on as the right fielder at a salary of $500 to $700 dollars (the sources vary).

McVey was recognized immediately as one of the Stockings’ finest players. He fielded well for the day (no gloves yet), could pitch a little, and hit well enough to frequently take the cleanup spot. The Red Stockings went 65-0 and showed just exactly how good an all professional team could be. The next season they were 24-0 before they lost to the Atlantic (and Lip Pike, the subject of the post on 14 September). The streak broken, the team began losing fans (and five other games) and folded at the end of the 1870 season.

McVey joined the Wrights as the cornerstones of the new Boston franchise of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They finished second in 1871 on a disputed claim about how many games were considered “championship contests” and thus counted for pennant purposes. McVey was terrific in the five years of the National Association, all but 1873 with Boston. In 1871 he led the league in hits (with 66), In 1874 he led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. In 1875 he had a career year leading the league in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. His OPS+ was 195. When the NA folded after the 1875 season, McVey held the record for RBIs with 277. During his tenure in the NA McVey played catcher, right field, and first base for most of his games, but saw time at second, third, short, and pitched three games (going 1-0). It was common for players to slide from position to position, but few could play three well. 

With the founding of the National League in 1876, McVey joined the team in Chicago (now the Cubs) and helped lead them to the first National League pennant. He hit .347 and was easily one of the ten best players in the league. He put together the first 30 game hit streak in the NL that season (1 June through 8 August) and set the record for hits (12) in consecutive games.  He stayed in Chicago in 1877, then moved to Cincinnati for his final two seasons. He retired after the 1879 season. He was thirty. The reserve rule was adopted after the ’79 season and speculation is that McVey wanted nothing to do with it and left the Majors.

McVey moved to California, did a lot of local baseball work in the San Francisco area (Pacific Coast League), both playing for and managing local Minor League clubs through the 1880s. The numbers here get pretty obscure, so it’s tough to tell how good he was in California. In other words, it’s difficult to assess how quickly his skills eroded. After retirement he worked as a night watchman at a lumber yard, which considering he how well wielded baseball “lumber” is kind of appropriate. He died in 1926.

Because of the way McVey’s career breaks out, he has three sets of numbers: his National Association numbers, his National League numbers, and his combined numbers. Because Major League Baseball does not consider the Association a Major League, McVey’s “official” numbers only include his NL stats. I’m going to give you all three here. McVey plays nine years (5 in the NA, four in the NL). He plays 530 games (265 in each league–bet that took some doing), had 869 hits (476 NA, 393 NL), 1123 total bases (635 NA, 488 NL), 133 doubles (81 NA, 52 NL), and 449 RBIs (277 NA, 172 NL). He hit .346 (.362 NA, .328 NL), slugged .447 (483 NA, 407 NL), with an OBP of 354 (366 NA, 340 NL) for an OPS of .800 (849 NA, 747 NL) and an OPS+ of 152 (162 NA, 141 NL). As a fielder he wasn’t  bad for the era. There are some better, but a lot are much worse. As a pitcher he made a heck of a hitter. He wents 9-12 (1-0 in the NA) with 16 walks and 37 strikeouts (1 of each in the NA),, and gave up 75 earned runs (6 in NA) in 176 innings (11 in the NA).

For my money, McVey is either the best or second best player on the Red Stockings. George Wright is his only competition. McVey is also younger by two years than Wright. In the Association they’re pretty much a wash, but by the time the NL is formed, McVey is much better.

Because he plays the same number of games in both leagues over approximately the same number of years (5 to 4) one can compare McVey in the two leagues. He’s clearly better in the Association than in the League. That may reflect his aging (although he’s only 30 when he retires) or it may reflect that the NL was a tougher league than the NA. It would take more time to research this than I’m willing to devote, so I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which is true and just how much better one league was than the other.

Is McVey a Hall of Famer? Well, there’s the little issue of the 10 year rule that keeps him out no matter what you think of his stats. And if you recall that MLB doesn’t recognize the Association as a Major League, then he only has four years in the Majors. But I also think that the Hall should consider waiving the ten-year rule in the case of players who spent significant time in the National Association and time in the pre-Association leagues. Other than that he still faces the two problems players of his era face: the number of games in a season and the nature of the rules differences between the era and the modern game. So I don’t think he’ll ever make it, but I would be willing to vote for him. Having said that, he wouldn’t be my first choice among 19th Century players for enshrinement in Cooperstown (Deacon White would be).

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2 Responses to “The Original Big Mac”

  1. sportsphd Says:

    McVey definitely highlights just how strange 19th-Century baseball was. In a 9-year career, he averaged less than 60 games per season. He left the majors because he had better opportunities in the PCL. Imagine Prince Fielder coming out after the season and saying, “I don’t want to play for the Brewers any more. My contract is up, so I think I’ll go play for Tacoma.” Like you, I’m not sure he is a Hall of Famer, primarily because I am not sure exactly what a Hall of Famer should look like in his era.

  2. William Miller Says:

    I find it amazing that baseball records can be found as far back as the 1870’s, so that we know who the stat leaders of their day are. Obviously, the stats back in those days have somewhat different meanings than they do today, but it’s still interesting.
    Bill

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