Posts Tagged ‘Albert Spaulding’

The Pitching Problem

July 3, 2014
Tim Keefe

Tim Keefe, the proud owner of the greatest season ever

In a comment on my 1905 Hall of Fame class post, Kortas commented on how difficult it is to determine the quality of pitching in 19th Century baseball. You’ll note I didn’t contradict him. The reason for that is simple. I agree with him.

Pitching in the 19th Century can be quickly divided into three periods: the opening period when the pitcher stood 45 feet away and had to throw underhand, the 1884 period when the pitching box moved back to 50 feet and the pitcher could do a short run, and the modern period where a mound exists. I have never been able to determine how you compare pitchers over those eras. The rules are different, the pitching motions are different, the distances are different. How do you compare Al Spaulding whose career is entirely within the 45 feet era with Charles Radbourne who pitches at 50 feet but never on a mound or with Walter Johnson who never pitches anywhere except from a mound? They say there are stats that level the field, but do you level a field when there’s a mound for one player and no mound for another?

I looked at Baseball Reference.com and combed through a lot of stats over the last couple of days. I’ve been critical of WAR as a definitive stat because it exists in several different versions, but for this purpose I’m going to use Baseball Reference.com’s version to make a point. If you go to the list of leaders and look at the stat for most WAR in a given season, pitchers hold the top 15 slots (Ruth’s 1923 is the first hitting season). Amos Rusie has one and Walter Johnson two of the 15. All 12 of the others are from prior to the invention of the mound.

Now ask yourself a simple question, do you really think that 12 of the 15 greatest seasons ever were by pre-1890 pitchers? Well, of course in many ways your answer has to be “yes,” because of the way pitching was used. But those can never be replicated because pitching is totally different today and that means that we will always know that no matter how good a player is he can never best Tim Keefe in 1883 (20.0 WAR).

So it means that even the most sophisticated stats have trouble differentiating the changes made in pitching. Forget the lousy fields and the jokes they had for gloves, just know that the use of one pitcher in 80% of the games (and I don’t mean a reliever who pitches to one batter in 100 games) simply isn’t comparable to a modern hurler who gets 33 or 34 games tops. Tommy Bond, who started this conversation, won 40 games twice, Greg Maddux never pitched more than 37 in a season.

I hope that when we try to compare pitchers over eras we keep this in mind.

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1902

April 1, 2014

Another month, another look at My Own Little Hall of Fame. It’s time for the class of 1902. For those of you who’ve forgotten (or don’t know how to scroll down the page), the class of 1901 was: Ross Barnes, John Clarkson, William Hulbert, Tim Keefe, and George Wright. With all appropriate bells and whistles, here’s the class of 1902.

Dan Brouthers

Dan Brouthers

Dan Brouthers was arguably the finest hitter of the 19th Century. He had a career average of .342 with 2292 hits, 771 for extra bases. He led the National League in hits three times, in doubles twice, and in both triples and home runs once each. He led his league in total bases four times. In 1887 he helped his Detroit team to both a pennant and a win over the American Association champion Browns in a postseason series. His team also won the 1890 Players’ League championship and the 1894 National League championship. From 1892 through 1894 he was the all time Major League leader in batting average.

 

King Kelly

King Kelly

Mike “King” Kelly was one of baseball’s first superstars. During his career he played every field position, including pitcher, where he posted a 2-2 record. Primarily known as a hitter he hit .308 for his career with 1813 hits and 1357 runs scored. He led his league three times in runs scored, once in doubles, and twice in average, peaking at .388 in 1886. He helped Chicago to pennants in 1880 through 1882 and again in 1885 and 1886, then won pennants again with the 1891 and 1892 Beaneaters. He also managed Boston in the Players’ League to the league’s only championship. He is additionally famous for having invented the hook slide for baserunners, racking up 84 stolen bases in 1887.

 

Charles Radbourne

Charles Radbourn

Charles “Ole Hoss” Radbourn was the ace pitcher for 1884 pennant winning Providence. Won 60 games for the team, then three more in postseason series against the Gothams. He led the National League in wins twice, in ERA once, in winning percentage twice, in strikeouts twice, and in shutouts once. Never threw from a mound, but was a master of the box. Except for a stint in the Players’ League he won all his game in the National League.

 

Al Spaulding

Al Spaulding

Albert Spaulding was the premier pitcher in the National Association, leading the Association in wins each year of its five year existence. He also led the National League in wins its opening season. He led his league in shutouts four times and his .795 winning percentage is the highest ever. His team won four consecutive pennants in the Association and the first NL pennant in 1876. After his career ended he managed and owned the Chicago National League club. His sporting goods company published the first official Base Ball rule book.

Harry Wright

Harry Wright

Harry Wright was the premier manager from the origins of professional baseball into the 1890s. He managed and played center field for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. With the founding of the National Association his teams won four consecutive pennants. In the National League he won pennants in 1877 and 1878 and finished second three more times.

And now some thoughts on this list.

1. Brouthers was the easiest choice. When I initially planned this project, I presumed my first class would be Anson, Brouthers, Connor, Ewing, and either Clarkson or Keefe. Then I discovered that none of the position players would have been eligible in 1901. So as soon as Brouthers became available, he went in without a qualm. I believe he is one of the two or three best hitters in the 19th Century.

2. I didn’t realize I was putting in three members of the Players’ League Boston team until I began to look up the specifics on my preliminary list. It’s a fluke that three people from that team are on this list. It did ease any questions I had about choosing Harry Wright over John Montgomery Ward. With Ward’s association with the union and the Players’ League, I decided to put him off for another day lest this list look like nothing more nor less than an homage to the Players’ League.

3. Having said that, I was fairly sure Wright was going to be my contributor. He’s the first great manager and is credited with a number of innovations (cut off men for instance). I couldn’t find anything like definitive proof that he’d done any of those things, so they were not listed in my short comment on him.

4. Spaulding? Well, he’s a major contributor, but I’d already put Wright in that spot (although by rule I’m allowed two). But Spaulding was also a heck of a pitcher in a league where his team dominated and the pitcher wasn’t the factor he is today. But he was still the best pitcher in the Association, so he went in.

5. I found a bunch of stuff dedicated to Kelly. I don’t mean modern sites, but articles and commentary of a contemporary nature that made me believe he was easily the most well-known player of his era. He was also good, so that got him over the hump. As to whether or not he invented the hook slide, he certainly was getting credit for it in the era.

6. Which leaves Radbourn (whose name is spelled a couple of different ways). What  I could find (like Reach Guides, etc.) that actually gave him a number in 1884 gave him 60 wins. I know that number is no longer accepted, but it seems that when a number was given in 1902 it was 60. So I used it. I’ll remind you that there are plaques currently in Cooperstown that have erroneous info on them (for instance, Walter Johnson’s win total).

7. All of which brings me to two items that are unique to the era and to trying to do my Hall this way. First is the entire question of Monte Ward. The year 1902 was a year in which labor unions were looked upon with utter disdain. That means the idea of adding to a Hall of Fame a rabble rousing union organizer is about as absurd as adding a black man. But we all know Ward is terrifically important. If I’m to keep with the policy of putting in people who might reasonably get into a Hall of Fame in 1902, Ward can’t make it (and can’t get in until sometime in the 1930s, probably). The 1903 class is pretty much set in stone (Heck of a class), but 1904 is the next time I have to look at Ward and as much as I think he deserves to be remembered, I doubt he’ll get in. The other issue is what to do with Billy Sunday. A friend of mine dropped me an email asking if I’d considered Sunday as a contributor. Frankly, I hadn’t. But Sunday was one of the most well-known ball players of the era. He was instrumental in convincing people that a ballpark was a proper place to take your wife and children (although Mathewson was probably more important in this regard) for an afternoon’s entertainment. Is that enough to put him in? I still don’t think so, but it did remind me how differently people in 1902 looked at ball players and baseball than we look at them today.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Al Reach

September 12, 2013
Al Reach while playing with the Athletic of Philadelphia

Al Reach while playing with the Athletic of Philadelphia

1. Alfred James Reach was born in London in 1840, but came to the US as a child. He lived in New York.

2. Between 1861 and 1864 he played second base for the Eckford of Brooklyn, one of the three premier Brooklyn teams of the era (the Atlantic and Excelsior were the others).

3. In 1865 he joined the Athletic of Philadelphia as their second baseman. He was paid $25 for “expenses” when he joined the Athletic. Sources speculate that he was the first professional player (others choose different players as the first professional).

4. He led the National Association of Base Ball Players in runs scored in 1868 and finished second in 1867.

5. In 1871, the initial year of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, he hit .353 and helped lead the Athletic to the first championship.

6. His career tailed off from there, ending after 1875 with a .247 average, no home runs, 89 runs scored, and an OPS+ of 73.

7. In 1874, while still active, he opened a sporting goods store. By 1883 it was the largest sporting goods store in the US.

8. In 1883 the Worcester, Massachusetts team moved to Philadelphia. Reach purchased the team (now the Phillies) and ran it through 1899. In 1890 he served as manager for 11 games (he went 4-7).

9. He became a millionaire and sold his firm to the A.J. Spaulding Co. in 1892. Spaulding ran both companies, but kept the name of each, thus managing to monopolize the sporting goods world while not running afoul of the anti-trust laws being touted at the time.

10. After 1900, the company produced the official American League baseball while the Spaulding Company produced the official National League ball. Both were made by the same people in the same factory.

11. The Reach Guide was the official publication for the American Association from 1883 through 1892 (when the Association folded), then was semi-official until 1902, when it became the official American League publication. It remained official through 1939. Reach’s company published the Guide until 1927 when Wright and Ditson (the company run by former star and Al Reach opponent, George Wright) took up publication.

12. Al Reach’s brother Bob played a couple of years in the National Association, didn’t do much, but did invent an improved catcher’s mask that Reach marketed. Reach’s son George helped Ben and Daniel Shibe perfect the modern cork-centered baseball.

13. Al Reach died in New Jersey in 1928. In 2012, he appeared on the Veteran’s Committee Hall of Fame ballot. He was not elected.

The Original Big Red Machine

March 28, 2013

We all know “The Big Red Machine.” It played in Cincinnati in the 1970s and won the World Series twice. It featured Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and an entire slew of pitchers no one ever heard of, right? But 100 years prior to the Cincinnati team, there was another Big Red Machine that utterly dominated its league. It was the Boston Red Stockings of the 1871-1875 National Association and featured the likes of Harry and George Wright, Deacon White, Cal McVey, and the most dominant pitcher of the age, Albert Spaulding.

In the 1860s Boston was known as a decent baseball town, but not the hotbed that Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia were. It certainly hadn’t known the success of those three towns (Brooklyn was still an independent city in the 1860s). When the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in 1871, Boston was included in the league, but needed talent to be able to compete at what was now the highest level. The first thing the team did was reach out to Harry Wright of the defunct Cincinnati Red Stockings. Wright agreed to join the new Boston team, also nicknamed the Red Stockings, and brought with him several members of the old Cincinnati ball club: Cal McVey, Andy Leonard, and his brother George Wright. the team was an instant success. It rolled through the 1871 season going 20-10 and finishing a disputed two games behind league leader Philadelphia. Boston claimed that a couple of games Philly played didn’t count, Philly claimed they did, and a meeting of the league leaders awarded the pennant to the Athletics. It was the last time the Red Stockings would lose anything major.

In 1872, they started strong, won 22 of 23, including 19 in a row, and won the pennant by seven and a half games. Second baseman Ross Barnes won the batting and slugging titles, and led the league in hits and doubles. Pitcher Spaulding was 38-8 on a team that went 39-8 (Harry Wright won the other game).

The 1873 team went 43-16 and won the pennant by four games. It may have been the best of the Boston dynasty. Hall of Famers the Wrights, Deacon White, Jim O’Rourke, and Spaulding dominated the league. Good players that are forgotten today, Andy Leonard, Barnes, Harry Schafer, and Bob Addy put together a team that won 16 of 17 games down the stretch (before dropping the final two meaningless games). Barnes won the batting title, led the league in OBP, slugging, OPS, runs, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, and walks (heck of a year, right?). White won the RBI crown. Spaulding was 41-14 and Harry Wright led the NA in saves with four (something he never knew). Here’s a picture of the 1873 team:

1873 Boston Red Stockings

1873 Boston Red Stockings

George Wright is in the front row on the left with the cap in front of him. Harry Wright sits in the middle of the second row (the man with the beard). Deacon White is second from the right on the back row.

In 1874 they won their first 13 games and rolled to a 52-18 record. The won the pennant by seven and a half games, winning a game in October by a score of 29-0. This time Cal McVey, who had departed and returned, led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. O’Rourke won the home run title with five and George Wright led the NA in triples. Spaulding was 52-16 and led the league in shutouts. Harry Wright had three saves (and the other two Boston losses–get that bum off the mound). So far the Red Stockings had won three of four pennants in the NA and still disputed the initial pennant.

By 1875 the Red Stockings were so dominant that the pennant race became a joke. They started the season 26-0-1 and scored in double figures in 18 of those wins (the tie was 3-3 against the Athletics). By the end of the season they were 71-8 and coasted to the pennant by 15 games. For the season they had a run differential of six and scored in double figures 46 times, including a 10-10 tie against the Athletics (bet you have it figured that the Athletics came in second). Deacon White won the batting title and O’Rourke repeated as home run champion. Barnes led the NA in runs, hits, and OBP while Cal McVey won the slugging, OPS, total bases, doubles, and RBI titles. Spaulding was 54-5 (a .915 winning percentage) and led the league in both saves and shutouts.

But success had its price. Boston was so dominant by 1875 that attendance was falling in the rest of the league. Fans weren’t coming out to see teams they knew had no chance of winning a pennant and even the arrival of Boston in town wasn’t helping attendance much as fans understood their team had little chance of winning against the Red Stockings. In the entire 1875 campaign, Boston only lost two in a row one time–5-3 on 21 August to St. Louis and 13-11 on 23 August to Chicago (both were road games).  At the end of the season the league was in trouble financially and franchises were failing. There were a lot of reasons, but Boston’s continued dominance was one of them. Prior to the 1876 season, the National Association collapsed.

That same year, the National League was formed. Boston was a first year member (and is still around, although moved to Atlanta via Milwaukee). It was expected to win, but lost to Chicago. They were back in 1877 and 1878, but were never as much a lock as they had been in the Association days.

The Chairman of the Board

September 26, 2012

Whitey Ford during the 1950s

I note that the Atlanta Braves have tied the mark for the most consecutive wins by a team with a particular pitcher starting the game. One of the reasons I love baseball is this kind of esoteric stat. Kris Medlen now joins the ranks of all-time greats Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford.

It’s amazing to me how very obscure Ford has become over the years. He is the greatest starter, and Mariano Rivera not withstanding, arguably the greatest pitcher on the greatest team (the Yankees) in Major League Baseball history and he’s sort of fallen off the face of the earth. You wonder how that happens.

I was, as a Dodgers fan, not a big fan of Ford. He played for the wrong team. But as I grew older, I began to understand exactly what the Yankees had. They had a solid starter who ate innings, gave them a chance to be in a game, won a lot of them, and year after year was there to count on. He was an American League version of Warren Spahn in his consistency. And part of Ford’s recognition problem is that much of his career is contemporary with Spahn (and the latter part overlaps Sandy Koufax).

Having said that, he wasn’t just Warren Spahn light. He had a great winning percentage. His .690 winning percentage is third among pitchers (according to Baseball Reference). The two guys ahead of him are Spud Chandler, whose career was about half as long; and Al Spaulding, who never once pitched at 60’6″. That’s pretty good for a guy that’s gotten really lost in the shuffle.

Part of Ford’s problem is that he only won 20 games twice (1961 and 1963), led the AL in shutouts twice, in wins three times. He also won the Cy Young Award in 1961 when they only gave out one award, not one per league.  Above I compared him to Warren Spahn, and those wins certainly aren’t Spahn-like numbers. But the basic career type still holds. Ford’s other problem, besides that it’s a long time ago now, is that the 1950s early 1960s Yankees were not seen as a pitcher’s team, but were viewed as a bunch of bashers. It’s the team of Mickey Mantle (who plays almost exactly the same years as Ford), of Yogi Berra, of Billy Martin, and Roger Maris. It’s also the team of Casey Stengel. Behind that crew, Ford sort of gets lost.

There also aren’t a lot of Ford stories. There are a handful of drinking stories, but not much else. A couple of stories emphasize Ford cutting the baseball to make his pitches move more. One has him using Elston Howard to cut the ball with his shin guards. Another says he filed down his wedding ring and used it. Don’t know if the latter is true, but wouldn’t you love to know Mrs. Ford’s reaction when she found out? Also Ford is supposed to have told the grounds crew to keep the area right behind the catcher moist so Howard and Berra could rub mud on the ball before they tossed it back to him. Those are about it on Ford.

And that’s despite some of the records he holds. He has more wins in the World Series than any other pitcher, and also more losses. He has the most consecutive shutout innings among starters in World Series history. He leads in inning pitched, in games started, in strikeouts (and walks), and at one time was the youngest pitcher to win a World Series game (game four of 1950). I don’t know if that last stat is still true. He pitched some truly fine World Series games. Some were blowouts like games three and six in 1960. Others were tight duels like game four in 1963 against Sandy Koufax or game six in 1953 against Carl Erskine.

Ford was the mainstay of the most consistently victorious team ever, the 1950-1964 Yankees. His last good year was 1965, the year the Yankees dynasty stumbled. I think it’s important to note that when Ford fell off so did the Yankees. It wasn’t just him, Mantle got old also and Berra retired. The loss of the three was devastating to New York.

As I grew, I grew to appreciate Whitey Ford more and more. I’m sorry he’s sort of gotten lost in the shuffle by now. He shouldn’t, he was a great pitcher and I was privileged to see him throw.

The Association’s Ace

December 15, 2011

Albert G. Spalding as a Red Stocking

Way back when the 20th Century ended, the SABR people got together and picked the most significant contributors to Baseball in the 19th Century. Henry Chadwick won, there was a tie between Harry Wright and Albert G. Spalding for second. I’m not sure I’d place Chadwick above Wright and Spalding, but it’s a matter of taste. There’s certainly no argument that Spalding was a major contributor to the origins of Major League Baseball. He owned the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs), promoted a 19th Century around-the-world tour to tout baseball, founded a major sporting goods company that bore his name, was instrumental in forming and promoting the Abner Doubleday myth (OK, so not everything he did was positive), led the attack that crushed the Brotherhood union (see what I mean about not everything being positive), and finally made the Hall of Fame. But that’s not what I want to dwell on. Spalding was also a heck of a ball player.

Spalding was an early amateur and later professional who caught the eye of Harry Wright. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed and Wright took over as manager of the Boston team. He convinced Spaulding to come on board as the team’s pitcher. It was a great choice, because Spalding became the premier pitcher in the Association and dominated the league in a way that no other pitcher has ever duplicated.

In the five years the Association existed, Spalding pitched in 282 games, starting 264. His record? How about 204-53 for a winning percentage of .794? Now this was an era when there was only one pitcher and he threw from 45 feet away, but those are still astounding numbers. In the five years of the Association Spaulding won, in order, 19, 38, 41, 52, and 54 games. He lost, again in order, 10, 8, 14, 16, and 5. Read that last pair closely. In 1875, Spaulding went 54-5 (.915 winning percentage). There are some caveats here. His team, the Red Stockings, were a lot better than their competitors and the number of games played by the team increased every year. But part of the reason the team was a lot better than everyone else is because they had Spalding and no one else did. His ERA for the five seasons was 2.21 (ERA+ of 131). He struck out only 207 men in the five seasons, topping out at 75 in 1875. But the pitching rules were different then and there simply weren’t a lot of strikeouts.  He has one of my favorite set of numbers that, to me, help illustrate just how different 1870s baseball was from the modern game. For the life of the Association he gave up 1552 runs, only 577 earned (37%). That means a lot of guys were hitting the ball off him, and a lot of his teammates weren’t catching them. As a hitter he averaged .323 with an OPS of .721 (OPS+ of 121).

He pitched one complete season in the newly formed National League (1876). He went 47-12 for the White Stockings (Cubs), had an ERA of 1.75 (ERA+ of 140), completed 53 of 60 starts, plus one relief job (he didn’t get the save), had eight shutouts (which was tough in 1876), and the Cubs won the first NL pennant (wonder if the Cubs could use Spalding today?). The next season he appeared in four games, started one, won it, picked up a save, but spent most of the season as the first baseman. In 1878 he played one game at second base, became club secretary, then he took his money and bought the club and went on to glory (or infamy if you were a Brotherhood fan).

Spalding is  one of those guys that it’s difficult to like. He was cold, aristocratic, tough-minded, and in the minds of many of his players a tough SOB. But he was, despite all that, one great pitcher.