Posts Tagged ‘Frank Grant’

Narrowing my Options

December 1, 2016

As I’ve mentioned before I used to be one up on the Hall of Fame. For years I spouted on and on that the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame was Deacon White. I was right. I was sure I was right. And I was sure the Hall of Fame committees were a bunch of idiots (maybe I’m still right about that one). Then the damned Hall elected the Deacon and there I was without a best player of the 19th Century not in the Hall of Fame.

So I’ve been on a multi-year quest to find the current best 19th Century player not enshrined in Cooperstown. I’ve periodically kept you up on this trip through that far gone time. And now it’s time to do so again. I’ve gotten it down to two players. But first, I want to discuss a possible third candidate for the job.

Bud Fowler

Bud Fowler

Bud Fowler is easily, at least in my opinion, the best Negro League player of the 19th Century not in Cooperstown. I use the words “Negro League” but I am referring to the segregated teams and leagues that flourished (or didn’t) in the 19th Century, not the more familiar “Negro Leagues” of the 20th. There are other contenders like George Stovey, Fleet Walker, and others (Frank Grant is the only 19th Century black player currently in the Hall of Fame), but Fowler seems to be the best. As with all black ball players of the era there is almost no information of a statistical nature available to compare him to his contemporaries, either white or black. So his record is unknown, and probably unknowable. Is he the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame? The answer is “possibly.” But I can’t prove it. It requires an amount of intuition I’m not willing to use to state “yes,” so he remains the great unknown for me in dealing with this project.

Now, the final two contenders, in alphabetical order:

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes was one of the finest players in the era of the National Association (1871-75) and for a couple of years in the National League. It’s easy to argue that Albert Spaulding was the finest of all NA players, but Barnes was only a small notch below him. Along with guys like Andy Leonard and Cal McVey, Barnes ranked as the best hitter in the NA. His career prior to 1871 is a bit foggy, but it is evident that he was a good player and his NA stats are excellent. He flames out after a couple of NL years (the reason is somewhat murky and is ascribed to a couple different causes), but what stats we have show he was not done when the NA collapsed. Because almost all his great seasons are with the NA and the powers-that-be in baseball don’t want to recognize the Association as a big league, he’s gotten scant support for the Hall. Hopefully the new Vets Committee that now begins in 1871 will change that at least a little.

Joe Start

Joe Start

Joe Start both predates Barnes and plays long after Barnes is gone. If Barnes’ stats are foggy, Start’s are absolutely pitch black. He begins his career in the 1860s with the Atlantic of Brooklyn, helps lead them to championships in the era of the American Civil War, then joins the National Association with the Mutuals, and finishes with the Providence Grays in 1886 at age 43. He stays in baseball at the highest level from prior to the Civil War through the first of the 19th Century’s playoff series’ in 1884. His NA stats are good, his NL stats even better. What’s missing are his pre-1871 stats. There is general agreement that he was one the best players the Atlantics had in the 1860s, but there’s no information to indicate just how good he was in the period. The team won a lot, but Start wasn’t their only good player and exactly how much influence he had on the team’s ability to win is debatable. Of course we also have to deal with the problem that the Atlantic played fewer than 50 games a season.

So that’s where I am now. Hopefully, I can make a final call at some point, but I wanted to keep you advised on an issue I’m certain you were just dying to know how it was going. I’ll get back to you when/if I know more. You may feel free to disagree (and be wrong).

 

 

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Midway

July 3, 2015

The selection of the Class of 1917 marks the mid-point of the My Own Little Hall of Fame project. I began it last year in March and intend to go through this year and finish in December next year with the 1934 class. Here’s a summary of some of the things I’ve discovered.

1. I have a much greater appreciation of how hard it is to be a Hall of Fame voter. I fully expected I would be able to simply look through some newspapers, a few journals, the contemporary guides, and come up with a quite obvious Hall. Oops. It actually takes a lot to make the determinations necessary to elect a Hall of Fame. If you do it right, or at least attempt to do it right (which is all I’ll admit to) it gets complicated fast. What stats are available? Which matter? Why? I’ve been very critical of the Hall of Fame voters on a number of occasions. I’ve discovered that it’s harder than it looks (which doesn’t mean the actual voters haven’t made mistakes). I have a new respect for those voters who are trying to get it right (which is different from all voters).

2. So far I’ve elected 52 members, or about 3 a year. By contrast the real Hall of Fame elected 62 members in its first 17 years (about 3.6 per year). So I’m actually being a bit more conservative than the real Hall voters. That kind of surprises me. I thought I’d probably end up adding more than the real Hall.

3. The number of people added each year has dropped. That makes sense. Any newly established institution like the Hall of Fame is going to begin with a backlog of quality candidates for membership. It takes a few years to clear that backlog, but once it’s gone, then the number of newly eligible quality candidates should, in most years, be considerably fewer. In my case that’s been absolutely true.

4. I’ve made it a point of  doing two things that the real Hall doesn’t do. First, I elect at least one for each class. There is no requirement the real Hall do so. Second, I’ve added three Negro League players already (Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, and George Stovey). I know that probably wouldn’t happen in 1917 and with the rise of racial tensions after World War I  it certainly wouldn’t happen between 1920 and 1934. However, I still intend to buck that and add Negro League players as I feel appropriate. It just seems like the right thing to do.

5. I was initially concerned with the number of “Contributors” I was adding. These are people added because of something they did for baseball other than play the game (William Hulbert, founder of the National League, is an example). Then I got to looking over the real Hall’s inductees in the first several years and noted they also added quite a number of “contributors” early. The number of contributors elected by Cooperstown has decreased in the last 40 or so years (although there are still several). As I look at my preliminary list of contributors going out to 1934, I note that I’ll probably be electing fewer also because the first couple of generations of contributors will be pretty much gone and the new group is, as a whole, less impressive (which does figure).

6. It’s interesting, and frankly obvious, how uneven the quality of players available in a given year becomes. Some years there are an entire list of quality candidates, not all of which will make it, but all of which will deserve study. Other years I simply want to say, “Yuck.” Of course that was destined to be true, because all the good players don’t retire at once and not every year has a bunch of good players leave the game. It does help to clear some of the backlog, but I’ve found it too tempting to simply add someone because he’s the best available guy not because he’s truly a Hall of Fame caliber player. I’m sure I’ve slipped up a time or two and let someone in based on that, but I try to watch it closely.

7. I knew that statistics were going to vary, but, frankly, was surprised by how much. From a preliminary look forward, that seems to start changing in the 1920s, especially with the Elias Sports Bureau’s arrival (maybe I should look at Al Munro Elias a bit more closely as a Hall of Famer). It does make it difficult to determine exactly who should get in my Hall because every time I look to hang my hat on a particular stat it changes. For instance, RBIs aren’t yet an official statistic and what I find concerning RBIs changes. I have to admit I sometimes go to Baseball Reference.com to determine which number is the one I should use. It’s not quite fair, but it does make it easier for me. When I do, I have to resist the temptation to look at the newer stats (OPS+, WAR, etc.). They weren’t even thought of yet and I don’t want to be influenced by them.

8. It has been an education for me to do this. I’ve had to read stuff I didn’t know existed, had to sort through things that sometimes were contradictory, had to almost flip a coin occasionally as to what do I believe. And it’s astounding how quickly the pioneers (pre-1876) guys have disappeared.

9. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve had to determine how much “fame” mattered over “greatness”. I’m still not sure I know the answer to that last. Go back a couple of months and look at my comments on John McGraw and you’ll get a feel for the structure of the question itself. It first manifested itself in trying to determine why Bill Lange, a 19th Century outfielder with Chicago, was so utterly famous (he’s now very obscure). I looked at his numbers and they were good (I even fiddled around with his newer SABR-style numbers, which aren’t bad–123 OPS+, five years of 3.5 or more WAR in a seven year career) and he came off as a very good player, but I wasn’t sure he was great. It began to dawn on me that the two things (famous and greatness) were not interchangeable and that came to a head in the John McGraw problem. That may be the most profound observation I’ve discovered on this project (and profundity from this site should scare you to death). If I ever figure out the complete answer, I’ll have a book (and a number of you telling me I got it wrong).

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1909

November 3, 2014

And now the monthly update of My Own Little Hall of Fame. Drum roll, please, for the Class of 1909.

"Big Ed" Delahanty

“Big Ed” Delahanty

Edward Delahanty starred in the Major League from 1888 until his untimely death in 1903. Playing mostly for Philadelphia in the National League and later for Washington in the American League he led his league in hitting twice, with a .410 average being his career high. He also led his league in home runs and hits once each, in triples twice, and in doubles five times. His career .346 average is among the highest in Major League history.

Frank Grant

Frank Grant

Noted colored second baseman Frank Grant was a stalwart of numerous integrated Minor League teams in the era of the 1880s and 1890s. He later played for a number of colored teams. An excellent fielder he also became a superior hitter over a 20 year career.

And now the commentary:

1. “Colored”? As I said when I added Bud Fowler to the Hall, I’m not comfortable with the word, but a look at contemporary articles in magazines and newspapers shows that “colored” was far and away the most commonly used word in the 1909 era. I was reminded by my wife that the “C” in NAACP is for “colored” and then recalled the NAACP was founded in 1909. So apparently it was accepted by the local black community as the best they were going to get. Later, about 1920, I’ll begin to replace it with “Negro” as Rube Foster did.

2. You did notice that Frank Grant was “colored” didn’t you? Yeah, I did. And, yeah, I know that there is no chance a 1909 Hall of Fame was going to elect a black man to its list of greats. Where I live, he wouldn’t have been able to enter the building in 1909 unless he was the janitor. But it’s my Hall and Frank Grant is one of the two best black everyday ball players of the 19th Century (with Fowler) and I think he deserves to be included. I’m currently mulling over whether George Stovey, the acknowledged best black pitcher of the age, should be enshrined or not. Will let you know.

3. With Delahanty dead from an accident in 1903, why didn’t you elect him in 1904? Well, I felt as if an accidental death was not sufficient cause to put a man in my Hall. Lots of players died in accidents, some while still playing. To me it just isn’t the same as a major disease (Lou Gehrig, Addie Joss) or loss in war (Eddie Grant). Having said that, Delahanty was a shoo-in when 1909 came around.

4. Just two this time? Yep. Again, there are a lot of really fine players eligible, but they are, in my opinion, “really fine”, not “great”. When I finish the year with next month’s list (1910) I’ll post just who I’m considering. Hopefully, you’ll see what my problem is when adding more. And Frank Grant is in as a contributor, not a player. I also have this funny feeling that I’m adding too many too soon and feel as if the 1909 writers might have brought things to something just short of a standstill at about this point (the 1930s writer’s certainly did).

5. It’s still difficult to find what are now common stats. For instance the Reach Guide still doesn’t have either RBIs or caught stealing. It does, and I find this strange, list the pitchers in order of winning percentage, not wins (with another list doing it in innings pitched order). It’s not a bad thing, we just don’t do it that way now.

The Grand Experiment

February 1, 2013
Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third ffrom left top row)

Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third from left top row)

It’s now black history month in the USA, so it’s time for my annual journey into black baseball. For this blog it’s a very successful month. I’ve noted a major uptick in hits during February. Most of the hits are on articles involving black baseball. I ascribe this to a bunch of school kids trying to find something to write about or present for black history month. So, I think I’ll oblige all those students who need the help. Don’t take it too badly, kids, you’ll survive even this.

When Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924, the Brooklyn Eagle commented that his one year in the Major Leagues in 1884 was a “Grand Experiment.” Walker was black and played a single year in the Majors. The 19th Century was a tough century for black ball players. They were allowed to play, they were excluded, they were cheered, they were vilified. It was, in other words, a fairly standard period of black Americans.

The close of the Civil War may have changed the nature of freedom in the US, but it didn’t do much for the acceptance of Black Americans in baseball. Many universities were open to integrating teams, some not so much. The newly emerging professional teams and leagues tended to follow current trends. Some teams were integrated, others segregated. Some leagues were integrated, others segregated. The first truly professional league (and quasi-major league), the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, had no black players in its 1871-75 existence. I can find no evidence it was official policy to segregate the league, but when players the quality of Bud Fowler aren’t playing in the league you have to wonder.

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

The National League replaced the National Association in 1876 and things improved (sorta). As early as 1879 a black player may have been on a Major League team. On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays first baseman, Joe Start, was unable to go. The team added a one-day replacement named Bill White to the team. White went one for four and scored a run. In 2003 SABR research noted that the Brown University baseball team had a player named William Edward White on its roster. White was of mixed race (which in 1879 American made him “black” regardless of his skin tone). They concluded that the two White’s were probably the same person, thus making White the first Black American (and only American born a slave) to play in the Majors. There is much speculation about this so don’t take it to the bank just yet.

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

By the mid-1880s black players like Frank Grant, a middle infielder who is in the Hall of Fame and pitcher George Stovey were excelling in minor leagues. Neither ever got a chance to play in the Majors. Fleet Walker did. He was a catcher for the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings when Toledo made the move from the Northwestern League (a minor league) to the American Association (a Major League) in 1884. Toledo finished eighth, Walker caused a great deal of controversy for not only the opposition but also within his own team. As a catcher he was supposed to be superior. If you line up his hitting stats with the other first string catchers in the 1884 American Association he ends up firmly in the middle of the pack. In 1885 Toledo, and Walker, along with his brother who played a handful of games with Toledo in 1884, were back in the minors. As a short aside, Hank O’Day, who was just elected to Cooperstown as an umpire, was a teammate of Walker’s.

After 1884 the National League (followed by the American League after its founding in 1901) became a segregated league. There was never an official written policy excluding Black Americans, but none ever showed up on either an NL or AL field during a game. Cap Anson of the Colts (now the Cubs) gets much of the blame for this. He was apparently an ardent racist and led a move to exclude blacks from the game. But it’s a little unfair to blame Anson for the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” (considering what was being agreed to the word “gentleman” certainly seems out-of-place here, doesn’t it?). It’s not like Anson was a bastion of reaction in a sea of tolerance. The mass of players, executives, owners, and fans had to acquiesce to Anson’s views or they could not have prevailed.

By 1890, segregation in both baseball and the United States in general was firmly in place. There were still a few places where a black ball player could join an integrated team, but the number of such places was dwindling. The black response was to form all black teams that would play either independently or in leagues of their own. Some of them did well, others poorly. This system was to remain in place in to the 1940s when it would be broken down gradually and a modern integrated Major Leagues would emerge.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Frank Grant

June 27, 2011

Frank Grant while at Buffalo

1. He was born in 1865 in Massachusetts and named Ulysses Franklin Grant. Being black and born immediately after the Civil War, it is possible he was named for Union General U.S. Grant, but that can’t be confirmed, at least as far as I can determine.

2. His parents were both from Massachusetts and freemen, an unusual combination for 1860s America. Both were alleged to be of mixed race, which in 1860s American made them “colored” (bet you can guess which color).

3. He was 5’7″ and weighed 155 pounds, making him big for a middle infielder of the era.

4. He joined the Eastern League’s Meriden, Connecticut team in 1886, one of three black players in the league (Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey were the other two). He hit .316 over 44 games, most at second base (although he pitched three times going 0-1). The team disbanded in July and Grant ended up with Buffalo, playing in Olympic Park at the Northeast corner of Richmond and Summer Streets (I know some people in Buffalo and thought they might like to know the location of the park.).

5. Race was already becoming an issue. He was refered to by his own team as either “Spanish” or “Italian” in order to lessen the problem. As an aside this seems to be a subterfuge as late as the early 20th Century when John McGraw hired at least one black player and called him an “Indian.”

6. In May 1887, Grant hit for the cycle. That same season, the International League (Grant’s league) voted to ban the hiring of more black ball players, but “grandfathered” Grant and the handful of blacks already in the league. Most leagues began banning black players about the same time and didn’t bother with the “grandfather clause.”

7. In 1888 Grant held out for a salary of $250 per month (not bad pay in 1888), which is great chutzpah considering the just completed vote on race. He got the money and ended up playing 84 games and hit .346.

8. In 1889 he joined the Cuban Giants, one of the first Negro League teams. The Giants wandered in and out of the minor leagues for the next several seasons. Grant stayed with the Cuban Giants off and on into 1891, when he signed with the Gothams, another black team. He went back to the Cuban Giants in 1892 and remained there through 1897. This kind of team jumping was fairly common among Negro League players of the era. And here I’m using “negro league” in a more generic sense, rather than refering to the more well established leagues that begin in the 1920s.

9. The end came at age 38 after the 1903 season. At the end of the season he participated in what some refer to as the first Negro League World Series (it isn’t generally credited as such). His team lost.

10. He’s credited with inventing shin guards in order to keep white players from ripping up his legs when they slid into second base. Unfortunately, a couple of other black players (Bud Fowler is one) are also credited with the invention. I have no idea who really did it.

11. He died in 1937.

12. The Hall of Fame selected him for enshrinement in 2006, one of several Negro League players brought in at the same time.

As is usual with black ballplayer who spent their careers in the Negro Leagues, stats are hard to come by. That’s especially true for 19th Century players who only had options in the black leagues or the minors. There’s not much in the way of statistical information on Grant, but there seems to be a consensus that he was among the finest black players of the century, if not the finest (it’s usually a fight between supporters of Grant and supporters of Fowler with a smattering of Walker fans thrown in). Second base was a weak enough position in the 19th Century anyway (except for Nap LaJoie at the very end of the century), so some people make the case for Grant as the best second baseman of the century. Maybe, but I’d like to see a little more statistical information before I buy off on that.

My Best Negro League Roster

February 28, 2011

A friend of mine who reads this blog called me up the other day. He suggested I post what was, in my opinion, the best Negro League team. I went into a long discourse about why that wasn’t possible because of lack of stats and collaborating info and anything else I could come up with to get out of it. He finally cut me off with a simple, “Wing it.” So for the edification of anyone who happens to run across this, and to cap a long group of Negro League posts, here’s my list of the best Negro League players, with appropriate caveats (You knew those were coming, didn’t you?).

First, I took only guys who played the majority of their careers in the Negro Leagues. In other words guys like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were out, as were Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. Second, I did a 25 man roster with a manager and an owner, and a couple of special add ons. I included 2 players at each infield position, 6 outfielders, 3 catchers, and 8 pitchers (at least two of which had to be left-handed). I know that almost no Negro League team ever actually had 25 men on its roster and that if they did they weren’t aligned as I’ve aligned my team. But this is the way I wanted to do it. I have an aversion to comparing players in the pre-mound era with those whose career is mostly after the advent of the mound and the 60’6″ pitching distance.  I simply think the game is so different you can’t compare players (feel free to disagree). That led to a real problem for me, Frank Grant. I think he is probably one of the half-dozen or so greatest black players ever, but that’s unquantifiable to me. So I had to leave him out, and wish I didn’t.

So here we go. All players are listed alphabetically by position. That means there is no indication that I think the guy listed first is better, although he may be a lot better. Don’t expect a lot of surprises, and keep the snickers to yourselves.

Catcher: Josh Gibson, Biz Mackey, Louis Santop. This was actually pretty easy. There seems to be a consensus between statheads, historians, and old Negro League players that these three were head and shoulders above the other catchers in Negro League play. Fleet Walker was also a catcher, but I don’t think he was the quality of these three and he also fails to meet the post-mound criteria. Sorry, Fleet.

1st Base: Buck Leonard, Mule Suttles. There were two problems here. The first was the necessity of leaving out Buck O’Neill. I don’t suppose there is a more important Negro Leaguer (except for Jackie Robinson), but the information on him makes it evident that he wasn’t really at the top of the line of Negro League first basemen. The second problem is that Mule Suttles spent a lot of time in the outfield. But it was common for Negro League players to do “double duty” in the field, so Suttles at first isn’t actually a bad idea.

2nd Base: Newt Allen, Bingo DeMoss. I think I had more trouble settling on the second basemen than on any other position (OK, maybe pitcher). First, I wanted to put Grant in, but just couldn’t because of the problems mentioned above. I also think it might be the weakest position in Negro League play. The list of truly great players here is awfully short. I think these two are probably the best, but I could be talked into someone else.

3rd Base: Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson. Again an easy pick. There seems to be universal agreement that Dandridge was a fielder unlike any other in the history of the Negro Leagues, and that Johnson could outhit anyone who played the position. Who am I to argue with universal agreement?

Shortstop: John Henry Lloyd, Willie Wells. Lloyd was an easy pick. If Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop who ever shortstopped, says he’s pleased to be compared with Lloyd, I’m gonna take him at his word. Wells was also pretty easy. Again there seems to be a consensus among the sources that he was a terrific shortstop.

Outfield: Cool Papa Bell, Willard Brown, Oscar Charleston, Martin DiHigo, Turkey Stearnes, Christobal Torriente. First, I didn’t worry about getting two each Right, Center, and Left. I ended up with two Right Fielders (Brown, DiHigo), one in Left (Stearnes), and the rest are Center Fielders. One of the things about studying and researching for this list is how quickly you find out Bell is seriously overrated. Now I don’t mean to imply Bell wasn’t a heck of a ballplayer; he was. He may have been the very best Negro League outfielder ever. But there seems to be this idea that he was just head and shoulders above the others (Charleston and Torriente). From what I read, I just don’t see that. Maybe he was better, but if so not by much. Certainly he wasn’t better by the amount a lot of people seem to want to think. It reminds me of what I call the “Derek Jeter Aura”. Is Jeter the best shortstop who started his career in the last 15 or so years? Yes. Is he the  greatest since the position was invented (as some would have us believe)?  Not even close, but try telling that to legions of his fans. And Bell seems to be running through that same situation. Personally, I think Charleston was better (and again that’s a personal opinion, not bolstered by much in the way of facts) and I’m not sure that DiHigo wasn’t the finest Negro League outfielder of the lot (or maybe he wasn’t, it’s tough to tell). I am fairly sure that DiHigo is the most under appreciated of the lot.

Pitcher: Ray Brown, Andy Cooper, Leon Day, Bill Foster, Luis Mendez, Satchel Paige, Joe Rogan, Hilton Smith. This may have been the hardest of the lists to determine. First, there aren’t a lot of really good left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues, so finding two (and one-quarter of the list being left-handed didn’t seem unreasonable) became a pain. Next, there were more than six righty’s that had to be considered. I hated to leave any off, but this list is my best guess.

Manager: Rube Foster. OK, he had to be here somewhere. He seems to have been a better pitcher than manager and a better manager than executive, but the founder of the Negro Leagues ought to be here.

Owner:  Cum Posey. I said that both second and pitching caused me the most problem. That’s true of players, but finding the best owner to put on the team was almost a nightmare. Who do you take? J.L. Wilkinson owned the most famous team (the Monarchs), Effa Manley of Newark was probably the most famous owner, Gus Greenlee owned the best team (the Crawfords). I looked at all of them and chose Posey, the man who owned the Grays. I think the Grays were the most consistantly successful team in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. I decided that made Posey the owner.

One of a kind: Double Duty Radcliffe. Radcliffe was known to pitch one game of a double-header, then catch the other game. You have to be kidding me. 

Post Negro League Career: Charley Pride. One of the great things about being married to my wife is that every morning I get to “Kiss an Angel Good Morning.” Now I may be wrong about this, but “Just Between You and Me,” as far as I can tell, Pride had the best non-sports related career of any Negro Leaguer.

A Charley Pride baseball card

The musical information shown here tells me this card is a fake, but I just couldn’t resist putting it up for show and tell.

Here’s hoping you’ve learned something from this sojourn into the Negro Leagues and black baseball in general. Failing that, I hope you enjoyed them. With the end of Black History Month, I’ll think I’ll take up something else.