Posts Tagged ‘Buck Ewing’

The Catcher Question

October 27, 2016
Buck Ewing's Hall of Fame plaque

Buck Ewing’s Hall of Fame plaque

Recently somebody asked me who I thought were the greatest catchers ever. I made the appropriate reply, “Got me.” I think that rating catchers is the hardest rating job in baseball (well, maybe pitchers). The position is so different and so many factors that don’t weigh on other positions come into play that I don’t think any of us have yet come up with a definitive set of statistical information to answer that simple question.

There are a lot of reasons this is true. Let me give you one quick example: Buck Ewing. How good was he? It is evident from the information we have that he was a great, great player. But he was a great, great player in a game that was different from the modern game. Ewing’s career spans the 1880s and 1890s and for almost all the 1880s and the first part of the 1890s pitchers were restricted on how they could throw, and however they threw, they didn’t do it from a mound 60″6′ away from a home plate that was shaped differently than the modern one. Also, Ewing is a catcher. And that really does matter. “The tools of ignorance” are still evolving today and in the 1880s were in their infant stage. His glove might have kept his hand warm in winter, but wasn’t going to do much else. There was some padding, but not much. According to SABR, the catcher’s mask was an Ivy League invention of the mid 1870s and was essentially an adaption of the fencing mask. The chest protector comes in the early 1880s and is sometimes credited to Deacon White (again according to SABR). Flimsy is the operative word here. So how good was Buck Ewing at doing his fielding job? Well, the numbers show him not bad for 1880, but simply lousy for today. And part of that has to do with the equipment he’s using. And that’s a major problem with comparing catchers. The equipment today is just better.

We also have to deal with a factor of American history: segregation. By general consensus the best Negro League catchers were (alphabetically) Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, and Louis Santop. How good were they? Again, “Got me.” I have some records available, but they are spotty and almost all of them are hitting, not fielding records. At the current stage of our knowledge we can determine that the Negro League catchers were good, but exactly how good is still a question.

And for course for catchers, fielding matters. Most people who saw both Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski play will tell you that Yaz was the better fielder. And nobody cares. If you hit like Williams no one cares if you can catch, they’ll find a place to play you (Hello, Harmon Killebrew). Greg Maddux was a superior fielding pitcher and no one ever said that about Randy Johnson. Why? Because deep down inside no one cared. Maddux was there to pitch and if he could field well then that was gravy. Johnson had less gravy but did his main job more or less as well and that’s what mattered. It doesn’t work that way with catchers (and shortstops). You have to be able to field your position and with all the work that SABR and Bill James and the various stat guys have done, fielding stats are still a work in progress, and catching stats are less far along than other positions (probably because there are so many more to consider).

Until these problems are solved answering the “greatest catcher” question is at best a crap shoot, although by now we can call it a more “educated” crap shoot than it used to be when I was a kid. I am comfortable in saying that almost all the “greatest” catchers played since World War II (with possible exceptions like Ewing, Gabby Hartnett, and the 3 Negro Leaguers I mentioned above). Beyond that I’m shooting craps with everyone else.

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My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1903

May 1, 2014

After a couple of posts that I’d done earlier and saved for a rainy day, the eye is better and I’m back with new stuff finally.  So it’s time again for the newest inductions to My Own Little Hall of Fame. This is, for those of you who have forgotten, a once monthly exploration of how the Hall of Fame might look different if it had been started in 1901 rather than in the 1930s. First, a reminder of who’s in from the Class of 1901 (Ross Barnes, John Clarkson, William Hulbert, Tim Keefe, George Wright) and the Class of 1902 (Dan Brouthers, King Kelly, Charles Radbourn, Albert Spaulding, Harry Wright). Now the latest class with commentary below.

Cap Anson

Cap Anson

Adrian “Cap” Anson was a career .300 hitter who became the first player to amass 3000 hits. He won four batting titles in his 27 year career. As manager of the Chicago National League team, he won five pennants.

Roger Connor

Roger Connor

Roger Connor is the all-time leader in home runs. In 1890 he won the Player’s League home run title but his peak was 17 in 1887. A solid first baseman, he led the Giants to consecutive pennants in 1888 and 1889, helping his team to capture both postseason matches against American Association opponents. Additionally, he won a batting title in 1885.

Buck Ewing

Buck Ewing

Greatest catcher of the Nineteenth Century. Captain of the Giants when they won back-to-back pennants in 1888 and 1889. In 1883, became the only catcher to win a home run title. Served as manager of the Cincinnati team at the end of his career.

Bud Fowler

Bud Fowler

Considered the first “Colored” professional. Credited with inventing shin guards. Played for a number of integrated minor league teams and for many of the premier “Colored” teams of the Nineteenth Century. Helped form the first all black league.

Now to answer your questions before you ask them:

1. You did notice you only put in four, didn’t you, Dummy? Yeah, I noticed that. My feeling was that a 1903 voting group would be so overwhelmed by the numbers and legends of Anson, Connor, and Ewing that there would be a tendency to vote only for the three of them and leave off everyone else. You’ve seen this happen recently a lot and I decided it probably wouldn’t be any different back in 1903. So I went with four inductees.

2. Fowler? Really? OK, I know there is no chance that a black ball player in 1903 is going to be elected to a Hall of Fame. I’m sure that in some areas where I’ve lived he’s not even going to be allowed into the building except maybe for an hour our two every other week, but I stipulated when I set up this Hall that I would allow in black players despite the mores of the day. And Fowler is the first (expect Frank Grant when he becomes eligible). Fowler could have gone in earlier, but I put him off until 1903 for a reason. With all the fuss Anson made about playing against black players in the 1880s, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put a black player at the same time. I’d love for this to have really happened. I would love to see if Anson would even show up for the ceremony or appear on the same stage with Fowler. I call it a bit of poetic justice. I know that has no place in a real Hall of Fame, but I just couldn’t resist.

3. “Colored”? Most of the documentation of the era used “colored” more often than “Negro” “black” “African-American” or any other word to describe black Americans. The term “Ethiopian” also shows up a lot. I went with “colored” as the word most likely to be used despite my own misgivings about the use of the word. Expect to see it replaced by “Negro” as we get deeper into the 20th Century.

4. Again, the statistics are all over the place. Anson won several RBI titles but I find almost no contemporary record that acknowledges that, so the stat wasn’t mentioned. I’m not sure, from what I’ve read, that they even knew Connor had more homers than anyone else (especially Brouthers) but I listed it anyway.

5. I’ve made one change in how I categorize my Hall. I’ve lumped everyone not an everyday player or a pitcher into the contributors category. So it’s now owners (Chris von der Ahe, William Babcock), managers (Jim Mutrie, Charles Comiskey), players with a major career prior to 1870 (Jim Creighton, Candy Cummings, Bob Ferguson, Lip Pike, Joe Start), writers (Henry Chadwick), pioneers (William Wheaton, Monte Ward) umpires, etc. all in one group. I have to admit I’m woefully uninformed about very early umpires, so I’m just beginning research on them. Also, I’m finding that after compiling my initial lists, I’m only adding one or two new players each year to the list. That seems to be about on par with what the real Hall adds. I know the real Hall puts out a lot of new names, but there are really only a couple or so that have a chance at getting in. As an example in 1908 Dummy Hoy and Wilbert Robinson are the only everyday players new to the list worth even a quick list and there are no significant pitchers. But in 1907 you have Billy Hamilton, Cupid Childs, and pitchers Amos Rusie and Gus Weyhing to look over. That seems to fit in pretty well with how the real Hall works.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Buck Ewing

August 5, 2013
Buck Ewing as captain for the Giants

Buck Ewing as captain for the Giants

1. William Ewing was born in October 1859 in Hoagland, Ohio, which is southwestern Ohio.

2. A catcher, he spent 13 games with minor league Rochester, before joining the Troy Trojans (then a National League team) in 1880.

3. He remained in Troy through the 1882 season, when the franchise folded. He, along with many of his teammates, were transferred to New York to play for the newly formed Gothams (now the Giants).

4. In 1883 he became the first Major League catcher with 10 home runs. It led the NL and was the first time a catcher led the league in home runs. It also set the NL record for homers in a season (Harry Stovey hit 14 the same year in the American Association).

5. In 1884 he led the NL in triples with 20. He never led the league in any other major hitting category.

6. As a fielder he led the league in most catching stats at least once and was considered one of the finest fielding catchers in the NL.

7. As team captain he led the Gothams, now called the Giants, to consecutive pennants in 1888 and 1889. In both years the 19th Century version of the World Series was played. New York won both times with Ewing putting up the following triple slash numbers .290/323/468/791.He had 18 hits in 19 games, scored 10 runs, drove in 13, stole six bases (1880s definition), had two triples and a home run.

8. In 1890 he jumped to the Player’s League where he managed the New York entry to third place. He returned to New York the next season following the demise of the PL.

9. In 1893 he went to Cleveland where he had one final really good season. He was sent to Cincinnati in 1895 and finished his career there in 1897.

10. Between 1895 and 1899 he managed the Cincinnati team. In both 1896 and 1898 he finished third, his highest spot as a National League manager. He also managed New York in 1900. They finished last.

11.He died of diabetes in Cincinnati on 20 October 1906. He was 47.

12. In 1939 he was elected to the Hall of Fame, the first catcher enshrined.

Ewing's grave

Ewing’s grave

Big League, Small Town

January 29, 2013
Troy, New York

Troy, New York

Did you ever notice how Major League teams gravitate toward big cities? There simply are no teams in middle-sized towns. Those towns are reserved for the farm teams. That wasn’t always so. Way back in the beginning of professional baseball, medium-sized cities also played Major League baseball. For instance, there was Troy, New York.

Troy was founded in the early 1700s, grew up during the 1830s and by 1860 was a prosperous industrial town just north of Albany. By 1860 it had a population of 39,000 (56,700 by 1880) and was becoming a hotbed for baseball.

In 1860 the Union club was established. It played at a high enough level that it soon gained the attention of the powerful teams that played in Brooklyn, New York City, and Philadelphia. They played games against the teams from the larger cities and held their own through most of the 1860s. By 1869 they were part of the National Association of Base Ball Players. They participated in 21 championship games going 12-8-1, good enough for fifth place (The Atlantic of Brooklyn won the pennant). In 1870, they were 11-13-1, again good for fifth place in a fifteen team league.

In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. Troy was one of the teams joining the first fully professional league. They managed a coup when they picked up perennial all-star Lip Pike to both play and manage the team. Pike led the National Association in home runs, extra base hits, and finished second in a number of other categories. Unfortunately for Troy, he wasn’t much of a manager and the Haymakers, as they were now called, finished 13-15, eight games out of first and good enough for sixth in the nine team league. The next season the Haymakers finished fifth (of 11 teams) with a 15-10 record. Pike, their best player was gone, and despite a winning record, the team wasn’t making money. At the end of the season the team folded.

Troy was without a Major League team until 1879 when a new team was formed. The National League had replaced the National Association and was looking to expand. It chose Troy for one of the teams. It might strike us odd today that Troy was getting a team while both New York and Philadelphia were shut out of the NL. It was personal. William Hulbert, founder of the NL, was angry at both cities for failing to complete a western swing in the inaugural NL season of 1876. He vowed never to allow either city back in “his” league. When expansion time came, Troy was close to New York City so it became a chosen team.

The new team was called the Trojans (although some news accounts still refered to them as the Haymakers). It played its home games at the Putnam Grounds, then moved to Haymakers Grounds in 1880. It remained there until making a final move to the Troy Ball Club Grounds (which was in Watervliet, not Troy) in 1882.

They finished dead last in 1879, going 19-56. They did, however, produce one good player. Future Hall of Fame first baseman Dan Brouthers made his Major League debut for the Trojans that season. He hit .274 with four home runs.

The 1880 season was better for Troy. They finished fourth at 41-42. Much of the increase in wins can be attributed to the rookie campaigns of Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, Mickey Welch, and Tim Keefe, all Hall of Fame players. In 1881, they were back to fifth and had lost Brouthers to Buffalo. The 1882 season saw the team continue to plunge, this time finished next to last.  Despite the record, the team drew moderately well.

But it wasn’t enough. By 1883, William Hulbert was dead, the American Association was flourishing and the National League needed teams in New York and Philadelphia in order to compete. The team in Worcester, Massachusetts (which finished last in 1882) was dropped. A new team was established in Philadelphia. Now only New York needed a team. Troy was closest, it was also falling in the standings, but it had a number of good players. The NL decided to drop Troy and set up a new team in New York. A number of Troy players, including Connor, Ewing, Keefe, and Welch, ended up with the new team (now the San Francisco Giants) and Troy was done as a Major League town.

The town continued to provide good quality Minor League teams and players. There is still a team around today. But the experiment of Troy as a Major League city was over.  

Buttercup Dickerson while a member of the Troy Trojans

Buttercup Dickerson while a member of the Troy Trojans

The Original Giant

October 26, 2012

Jim Mutrie

With the Giants up in the World Series, this seems like a good time to talk about the history of the team. It goes back to the 1880s, although almost no one knows anything that happened in Giants baseball prior to John McGraw. So let me introduce you to Jim Mutrie.

Mutrie was born in Massachusetts in 1851. He worked for his father, attended school, and played cricket. The latter got him interested in baseball. By 1867 he was catching for local clubs and making his name as a leading sportsman of the region. Besides proficiency in baseball and cricket he was known as a champion cycler (this is the old bicycle that had the giant wheel in the front and a small one at back) and won some distance races on the bicycle, including a 50 mile distance race in 1879. But baseball was where the money was and Mutrie was good enough to make it onto some minor league teams in the area. By 1880 he had quit as a player and was managing the Brockton team.

Baseball in New York City had fallen on bad times. One of the great cradles of Paleolithic baseball, New York hadn’t had a Major League team since just after the founding of the National League when the Mutuals were tossed out of the league for failing to make a late season Western (read Chicago) swing. Brooklyn, another hotbed of  early baseball also was  without a team, the Dodgers (originally called the Atlantics after a famous 1850s-60s team) weren’t formed until 1884. Mutrie saw the need and potential for a Major League team in New York. He got in contact with John B. Day, a successful tobacconist (the stories of how they met vary), convinced Day to invest in a baseball team, and found a suitable area to build a stadium, the initial Polo Grounds (not to be confused with the more famous one in Queens). He recruited players, named the team the New York Metropolitans (Mets) and joined the Eastern Championship Alliance (a minor league). They won championships in both 1881 and 1882, earning them an invitation to join the newly formed American Association (a new Major League). The team accepted and Major League baseball was back in New York in 1883.

And it was back in a big way. Not only did the Metropolitans join the Association, but Day formed a new team called the Gothams and managed to get them into the National League. So from having no teams between 1877 and 1882, New York now had a team in both Major Leagues.

The Mets won a pennant in 1884. That allowed them to participate in the first primitive World Series against the National League’s Providence Greys. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games.  But the Gothams made more money, had more panache, and finished fourth. Day approached Mutrie about changing teams, Mutrie agreed, and in 1885 he became manager of the New York Gothams. He brought with him Tim Keefe, the Mets best pitcher. It began a steady rise for the Gothams. By the end of the 1885 season they had a second place finish and a new nickname, the Giants.

There is some debate about the origin of the name. We know that P.J. Donohue, a reporter for the New York World used the term “Giants” in an article on 14 April 1885. Later Mutrie claimed that he’d refered to his team as “My big fellas, my Giants” to Donohue and thus deserved credit for the name. Donohue never commented one way or the other as far as I can tell. This brings up an issue when dealing with Mutrie. His nickname was “Truthful James”, but it was meant in the same ironic way that a 6′ 6″ 250 pound linebacker is called “Tiny.” Apparently Mutrie liked to brag, to take credit for things whether he did them or not, and inflate his importance, and let his stories improve with age (He’d make a great “booster” in the town where I live). So you should take his assertion about the “Giants” nickname with something less than 100% confidence.

Whatever Mutrie’s veracity, his team was good. They won pennants in 1888 and 1889, then swept to “World Series” wins in both seasons. It was a great team, one of the best of the 19th Century. Hall of Famers Roger Connor, Monte Ward, Jim O’Rourke, and Buck Ewing played in the field. Keefe and Mickey Welch, both Hall of Fame members anchored the pitching staff.  Mike Tiernan and George Gore also played for the team and were household names in the era.

But all was not well with the team. The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was heavily represented on the team (Ward was the Brotherhood founder and leader). In 1890, fed up with low salaries and contract restrictions, the Brotherhood formed its own league (the Player’s League). It devastated the Giants. Of the 1889 starting fielders, only Tiernan remained with the team. Keefe also left the team, although Welch remained. The team finished in sixth at 63-68 (the only losing season in Mutrie’s career). They got back to third in 1891, but the team was in trouble. Day was broke and sold the team. Wanting a fresh start, the new ownership fired Mutrie.

For Mutrie it was the end. He never got back to the Major Leagues. He moved to Staten Island with his wife and daughter, survived doing odd jobs, and was largely forgotten. The Giants had an occasional reunion of the old teams and Mutrie was there. They eventually gave him a small pension, but he was never associated with the team again. He died on Staten Island in relative obscurity in 1938.

For his career, Mutrie won three pennants, two “World Series”, and finished with a losing record once. He managed nine years, won 658 games, lost 419, and ended with a winning percentage of .611. Know how many managers with 200 games have a better winning percentage? One, Joe McCarthy (.615) of the 1930s-1940s Yankees. You’d think that would get people’s attention, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Mutrie has had almost no support for the Hall of Fame.

Jim Mutrie is one of those guys that early baseball seems to run across with frequency. Part showman, part genius, part fool. We’ve lost something with the modern ballplayer and manager. We’ve lost the Mutrie “character”. Ain’t that kind of a shame?

Rating Catchers

February 21, 2012

The "Tools of Ignorance"

With the sad and untimely death of Gary Carter, there’s been a lot of chatter about his place in the pantheon of Major League catchers, so i’m taking a short semi-break (you’ll see why “semi” in a few paragraphs) from my look at black baseball to make a few comments. I’m certainly not going to argue with those that place Carter in the top ten of catchers, because I agree with them. But I noticed a problem (actually problems) developing when I started to put together my own list of the ten greatest catchers.

The first problem of course is fairly self-evident. It’s the question of equipment. Take a look at the rudimentary equipment worn by guys like Buck Ewing way back. Basically, it’s an oversized work glove with some extra padding and a lot of prayer. Take a look at the equipment today. Which would you rather have if you were going to try to catch a Roy Halliday fastball? And that makes a world of difference in evaluating catchers. John Sayles when he did the movie “Eight Men Out” took great pains to be authentic. Take a look at the equipment Ray Schalk wears. Now Schalk was considered a tremendous catcher (without reference to his hitting) in the era. So was Johnny Kling a dozen years earlier. Give them a chance to use modern equipment and they might name their first-born after you. Give someone like Gary Carter a chance to use the old equipment and my guess is that after calling you things you didn’t know you could be called, he’d figure out how to make the best use of what he has available and still be a good catcher.

I remember listening to an interview with Roy Campanella way back in the 1950s. He didn’t particularly like the big “pillow” mitt in use then. He complained that it kept his right hand in constant danger of injury (and it was ultimately a hand injury that curtailed his stats in the year or so before his accident). I’m not sure Johnny Bench was really the greatest fielding catcher ever, but the innovation of the hinged mitt to replace the “pillow” certainly gave him advantages that other catchers had never had before. Now the right hand could be tucked behind the body when the bases were empty (and I’m astounded at the number of catchers who still don’t do that). Now it was possible to squeeze a pop foul rather than two-hand it. It helped Bench, along with his natural ability, to revolutionize the game.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with hitting a baseball. Guys who are good catchers and hit well tend to go to the Hall of Fame. I might argue that the two best catchers I ever saw were Jim Sundberg and Bob Boone. Neither hit much, but were tremendous catchers. I don’t know many people who think either should be considered in the top 10 of a catching list. So we come again to a problem we see a lot. I mentioned it in a much earlier post on shortstops. It’s the question of how much reliance is to be put on fielding in establishing a player’s greatness. If the guy plays left field (Hello, Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez) no one cares if he’s a good, or even overly acceptable, fielder, when establishing his credentials for greatness. With catcher you can’t do that. It puts a burden on catchers (and shortstops also) that a lot of outfielders don’t have to carry. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s the nature of how the game is played. If I could hit, you could get away with me in left field. If I could hit, you could never use me behind the plate.

Finally, there’s the obvious question of segregation (see what I mean about “semi”?). Most lists of Negro League catchers put Josh Gibson, Louis Santop, Biz Mackey, and Campanella at the top of the charts at the position. We have some idea of the quality of Campanella (although he spent a lot of time in the Negro Leagues). The others never got to play in the white Major Leagues (Santop was dead by 1947). As usual for Negro League players, you’re stuck with anecdotes, not full statistical evidence, in trying to determine the quality of a player. So we make judgement calls (“Do I see a ’10’ from the Bulgarian judge?”) and hope we get it right. Considering that I’m certain that Campanella is a top 10 all-time catcher, I am confident in adding Gibson to a list of the best catcher, but I have no idea how you rate either Santop or Mackey. Maybe they’re in, maybe they’re out.

So having  just put all those caveats out there for you to read, here’s my list of the 10 best catchers ever in alphabetical order: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez. With suitable apologies to Gabby Hartnett and to Joe Mauer, both of which might slip into the list. I think it’s the best list I can put together at this time. Notice that it’s full of modern guys (seven are post 1945). I think that the equipment has a lot to do with that.

The Deacon

September 16, 2011

Deacon White with the Wolverines

To be an 19th Century ballplayer is to live in obscurity. Even Hall of Famers are obscure. Ask someone to name a 19th Century ballplayer. Most people, even fans, can’t. They might, if they’re very clever, remember that Cy Young and Honus Wagner played a little in the 19th Century and a civil rights person might know the name (but not the stats) of Moses Fleetwood Walker, but most people are going to zero out. That’s a great shame because the modern players stand squarely (and sometimes a little wobbly) on their shoulders. Give me a minute here to rescue one from deepest obscurity to simply obscurity, Deacon White.

James White was born in Caton, New York on 2 December 1847. His family was farmers and he wanted to be one also. But it turned out that both he and his younger brother Will were terrific baseball players. By 1868 Jim White was with the Forest City of Cleveland (from here on the Cleveland Forest Citys). He was a catcher, a heck of a hitter, and something of an anomaly. He didn’t play cards, and worse, he went to church. The “Deacon” nickname was obvious and it stuck with him for the rest of his career.

In 1871 Cleveland joined the fledgling National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional league and in some ways (professionals playing at the highest level possible) the first Major League. Two games were scheduled for opening day. One was rained out; Cleveland played in the other. White led off the game with a double, was later doubled off second. If you want to consider the National Association a Major League, then White has the honor of registering the first at bat, the first hit, the first extra base hit, and be involved in the first double play. For what it’s worth, Cleveland lost 2-0. Cleveland finished 10-19 for the season, but White hit .322, had a home run, and led the team with 40 runs scored.  He did well again in 1872. That got him out of Cleveland and brought him a job with Boston, the premier Association team and 1872 champion. In 1873-1874, Boston won consecutive championships with White as the primary catcher.

In 1876, he joined the National League where he played through 1889. He won pennants with Chicago in 1876 and Boston in 1877.  Already a prime catcher, in 1882 he moved to third base becoming arguably the finest third baseman in the NL. After several years in Buffalo and Cincinnati, he ended up in Detroit in 1886. In 1887 the Wolverines won the NL pennant, then won the 19th Century version of the World Series against the American Association’s St. Louis Browns. 

During the latter part of his career, White was a staunch supporter of John Montgomery Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union of any consequence. Although almost through with his career, he joined the 1891 player’s revolt and finished his career with the Player’s Association team in Buffalo. It made him well liked by other players despite his insistence on attending church on Sundays.

After retirement he managed a series of Minor League teams in the Southwest, then settled in Buffalo where he worked for an optical company, then ran a stable on Auburn Avenue which later became a garage. When he died in 1939 he was 91 and the oldest living ballplayer. He is buried in Illinois.

Let’s start the look at his career stats with an obvious caveat. He played a few years prior to the establishment of the National Association, so the numbers we have a slightly incomplete. He is already 23 when the Association is formed and something like reliable statistics are available. For his career White hits .312, slugs .393, with an OBP of .346 for an OPS of .740 (OPS+ of 127). He plays 1540 games, a lot for the era, has 2067 hits, 1140 runs, 988 RBIs, 2605 total bases, 24 home runs, 308 walks, and 221 strikeouts. He also is a major component on five pennant winners. For the pre-1893 era, those are good numbers. He leads both the Association and the NL in batting once (1875 and 1877), leads the NL in OPS, hits, triples, total bases and RBIs in 1877. He’s also a pretty good catcher for the era, but only a so-so third baseman.

If I had to pick one player and call him the most overlooked great player of the 19th Century, it would be White. He’s a heck of a hitter. At a position where the game is totally different today than in the 19th Century (catcher), he excels. It’s a weak enough position (along with second base) to make the argument that there are no truly great catchers in the 19th Century (Buck Ewing’s presence in the Hall of Fame not withstanding), but I think that misses the point that it was a very different job to be a catcher in 1880 than it was in 1980. There are no gloves to speak of, no catching equipment we’d recognize, and pitchers were much closer to home than today. To excel there in those conditions is worth comment (frankly, to be brave enough to play the postion in those circumstances is worth noting). Is White a Hall of Famer? In my opinion yes, although I won’t be surprised if he never gets invited inside.

The Brotherhood Revolts

March 26, 2010

Sometimes you’ve just had enough. You’ve had those days, right? It’s one damn stupid thing after another. It’s one thing too many, it’s…well, you know, it’s your Howard Beale moment, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” (See the movie Network). The same kind of thing happened in baseball way back in 1889. It was just one too many slaps at the players by the owners. They responded by forming a new league, the last league run by players.

During the late 1880s the leaders of both major leagues, the National League and the American Assoiciation, tried to control costs by setting the equivilent of the modern salary cap. They announced that no player could earn more than $2500 a season. It’s not a great salary in 1890, but not an awful one either.  Just prior to this announcement, John Montgomery Ward had formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union (love it or hate it). Many, but certainly not all, the players joined. Their anger at the salary cap was such that they decided to act.

The late 1880s is not a particularly good time for labor unions. They were seen as rabble rousers, as anarchists (The very idea of Monte Ward as an anarchist is laughable.), as not knowing their place, etc. There were no federal laws protecting them, no law granting a right to strike in certain circumstances, no binding arbitration. So many of the modern ways a union can attack what it perceives as an evil were not available or were illegal at the time. Ward came up with an alternative. They players would form their own league and would call it the Player’s League.

The Player’s League began operation in 1890 in the following cities: Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Every team except Buffalo was in direct competition with a National League team, and Brooklyn had three teams. With only a smattering of new players, the new league drew most of its players from the established Major Leagues. As an example of what happened here’s the starting eight for the 1889 winner of the “World Series,” the New York Giants: Jim O’Rourke, Mike Tiernan, and George Gore in the outfield; Roger Connor, Danny Richardson, Monte Ward, Art Whitney in the infield; and Buck Ewing catching. In 1890 only Tiernan was still with the Giants, who slipped all the way to sixth. Connor, Richardson, Whitney, O’Rourke, Gore, and Ewing were now all with the Player’s League team in New York, with Ewing as manager. Ward was the manager of the Player’s League Brooklyn entry.

The team from Boston, the Reds, won the pennant going 81-48 and winning by 6.5 games over Brooklyn. Hall of Fame players Dan Brouthers, King Kelly (who also managed), and Charles Radbourne played for Boston along with a number of stars of the day. Pete Browning won the batting title, Billy Shindle led in total bases, Connor in home runs, Harry Stovey in stolen bases, Mark Baldwin in pitching wins, and Silver King in ERA. King also threw the only no hitter in the league (besting Brooklyn).

In the stands, the new league did well, sort of. By June the Player’s League led in attendance by about 10,000 over the NL (and almost 20,000 over the Association). The gap, particularly with the Association continued to grow. But there was a problem developing. The United States of 1890 simply couldn’t sustain three Major Leagues. Most teams were hemorraging money, especially the bottom few teams in all three leagues. Salaries were up, especially among the Player’s League teams, and there just weren’t enough fans in the stands to pay for it. In the National League in particular, the owners had much larger sums of money to weather the storm than the players. When the season ended with a World Series between NL winner Brooklyn and Association winner Louisville, the Player’s League was shut out, thus losing another source of revenue.

The Player’s League went under 14 January 1891. The Brotherhood simply didn’t have the funds to keep going. They managed to get, everything considered, a reasonably good deal. Most of their players got back into the two established leagues (but more of the truly superior players ended up in the NL, to disastrous consequences for the Association). Brotherhood president Ward became the new manager of the NL team in Brooklyn (I guess that means he didn’t have to move). Two teams, Boston and Chicago, were not scrapped. They shifted into the Association. They were the final pieces of the Player’s League. They, like the American Association, lasted one more season.

The Player’s League was the second league formed by the players. It met the same fate as the 1870’s National Association. The  players, even with well educated men like Monte Ward leading them, simply lacked the expertise to make a league go. They also lacked financial backing to survive. Before we take too much time and criticize the players, it should be noted that there were five “Major” Leagues formed in the 19th Century: National Association, National League, American Association, Union Association, and the Player’s League. Only the National League survived. If both player organized leagues failed, so too did two of the three owner organized leagues. It was a tough business, owner or player.