Posts Tagged ‘George Wright’

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1901

March 19, 2014

If I knew how to add ’em in I’d put all sorts of bells and whistles into this post  to announce the inaugural class of My Own Little Hall of Fame. But I don’t so you’re just going to have to put up with typed words on-screen. Knowing you just can’t wait, here’s the list first (alphabetically) followed by commentary. With only one vote, all winners are unanimous (ain’t that great?).

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes is the finest hitter in the National Association. In the five years of its existence, Barnes hit .391, scored 459 runs in 265 games (1.73 a game), had 532 hits, 101 doubles and 30 triples. He won two batting titles, led the NA in runs scored and in hits three times, in doubles twice, and in triples once plus a lot of other stats that no one in 1901 would have known (I’m not even sure they would have known all the stats I just listed). With the formation of the National League he won the first batting title, and led the NL in runs, hits, doubles, triples, and walks (I could find no contemporary info that indicated anyone knew that Barnes led the NL in walks).

John Clarkson in the 1880s

John Clarkson in the 1880s

John Clarkson won more games in the National League than any other pitcher in the 19th Century. His 328 wins were mostly bunched between 1885 and 1892 when the pitching distance was fifty feet and there was no mound. He led the NL in wins three times, including the second highest total ever with 53 in 1885. A workhorse, he led the NL in innings pitched four times, peaking at 623 in 1885. He also won the strikeout title three times, including in 1889 when he won the pitching triple crown. In both 1885 and 1889 he led the NL in shutouts (I’m not sure they knew that in 1901). He led his team to three postseason clashes and retired soon after the move to a mound and 60’6″ for pitchers.

William Hulbert

William Hulbert

The driving force behind the founding of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs in 1876, Hulbert was a grocery and coal magnate who owned the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs). With the folding of the National Association, Hulbert spearheaded the move to form a new league, this one headed by team owners rather than players. His team won the first NL pennant and in 1877 became President of the NL, a position he held until his death in 1882. During the 19th Century his league became the only professional league to survive more than 10 years. (And he gets this great grave site).

William Hulbert grave, four blocks from Wrigley Field

William Hulbert grave, four blocks from Wrigley Field

the teams listed on the ball in the picture above are those teams existing in the NL in 1882, the date of Hulbert’s death.

Tim Keefe

Tim Keefe

Keefe pitched from 1880 through 1893, winning 342 games. He spent time with both New York teams, the Mutual of the American Association and the Giants of the National League. In 1888 he won the pitching triple crown. He led his league in both wins and strikeouts twice, in ERA three times, and in shutouts once (again, not sure they would have known the shutout total in 1901). He participated in three postseason series helping his team to wins in the latter two, going 4-1 in them. He spent most of his career throwing sidearm from less than 60’6″.

George Wright

George Wright

Wright, younger brother of manager Harry Wright, was the first great shortstop in professional baseball. He played for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings hitting .633 with 49 home runs. Later he anchored the infield of four pennant winning Boston teams in the National Association, then helped the Boston franchise of the National League win pennants in 1877 and 1878. In 1879, as manager of the Providence team he led it to its first NL pennant.

So there it is, the first class of My Own Little Hall of Fame. First a couple of comments, then I’d like to answer a few questions prior to them being asked. I initially, when I thought up this project, presumed my first class would be Anson, Brouthers, Connor, Ewing, and Clarkson. Then I discovered that only Clarkson was retired five years prior to 1901. That, frankly, surprised me a little. I guess I knew that, but as I almost always associate all four of the hitters with the 1880s, I’d forgotten they played as late as the mid-1890s. That meant I had to find four more candidates for the first class. There are a lot of decent candidates available and these are the five I picked.

Now to answer a few questions.

1. Why Hulbert over any of the Knickerbockers? Actually it was pretty easy to pick Hulbert. First he invented a system of control that made professional baseball both profitable and stable. Well, stable if a team could stay on his good side. In other words he came up with a formula that worked and in inventing the first modern professional league he set the format for not just baseball but for football and basketball also. But why not one of the Knickerbockers? First, it’s difficult to really accept that the Knickerbocker rules are the first rules, especially as William Wheaton, one of the members of the Knickerbocker rules committee, stated he had assisted in forming a set of rules for the Gothams in 1837, a decade before the Knickerbocker rules. Now I’ll admit that a voter in 1901 might not know that, but as neither the Alexander Cartwright story or the Abner Doubleday myth were current fodder for voters I don’t know that any Knickerbocker would be seen as the obvious candidate to represent the founding team. And I can’t see electing the “Knickerbocker Rules Committee” (5 members) as a whole. And as for Wheaton, he does not, in the interview I read, claim that his rules were the first.

2. Why Keefe over Pud Galvin? This is kind of complicated, but it seems from what I can find, that Keefe was a lot more well-known than Galvin in 1901. Among other things, Keefe was still alive and had done some coaching in college. Galvin was also still alive (he died in 1902) but appears to have fallen almost totally out of the public eye. Additionally, Keefe pitched for both New York teams while Galvin toiled in Pittsburgh and Buffalo for teams that never won a thing. As I’m trying to do this the way it might have been done in 1901, I’m actually quite comfortable guessing that Keefe would have made the Hall of Fame before Galvin (as he did in the real Hall).

3. Ross Barnes? When the decision was made to count playing time in the National Association as Major League time, Barnes became the obvious candidate. He was easily the finest hitter in the NA. the waiving of the 10 year rule also made it possible to insert him into my Hall (he played 9 years in both the NA and NL). The two rules were not designed especially for Barnes or guys like Cal McVey (who I’m not sure is going to get invited to my Hall) but was designed to help players from an era when careers were shorter, the NL was not the juggernaut it became, and some players (Lip Pike, Joe Start) were already established players prior to 1871 and thus older and prone to leave the game before having 10 years NL service.

4. George Wright over Harry Wright? Well, George was the better player and I’d already decided on Hulbert as my contributor for this group. Harry probably makes it next time (but don’t hold me to that).

5. Running into problems doing it this way? Yes, two in particular. First, it’s very hard to determine exactly what a prospective 1901 voter would know. What sort of stats are available and what newspapers are accessible are two questions that are proving difficult to answer. There are Reach Guides available but their stats vary and include such things as sacrifices and times reaching first, but some stats like RBIs are missing. That’s why in the summaries above I didn’t put in a player’s RBI total. The second problem is that I’m so aware of the new stats (WAR, Peace, JAWS, Paws, WHIP, Chains, OPS+, NOPES-, etc.) that it’s tough to ignore them when I’m looking over a player. I’m trying to ignore them, but I can’t help but notice.

A cursory look at the class of 1902 looks interesting with only one sure to be elected player. I have to be careful and avoid putting in five each time just to pump up the numbers. The class will show up here in April.

Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

August 12, 2013

It’s a date and a place that is of great historical significance for baseball, maybe (or maybe not). There’s some dispute about who played first base for the Providence Grays that afternoon. Maybe it was just some guy named Bill White. But maybe it was the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. If it was, he was the only person born a slave to play in the Majors. Normally I would hold this until February when the US celebrates Black History Month and I do posts on the Negro Leagues, but I wanted to get it out so a few more people would know about it. Also I hope that by February the info will be more firm.

On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays had a home game. For reasons that aren’t exactly certain, first baseman Joe Start couldn’t start that game. He was ill, but I’ve been unable to find out what was wrong. Someone, who shows in the box score a “B. White” stepped in to play first for Start. White went one for four (a single), struck out once and scored a run. He successfully fielded 12 chances without an error. That was the total of his Major League career. Some baseball scholars and SABR researchers believe that “B. White” was William Edward White, who just happened to be of mixed race, which in 1870s America made him black.

William Edward White was born into slavery in Georgia in 1860. His father was the plantation owner and had 70 slaves, including William White’s mother (her name was Hannah). Unlike most slaveholders, White’s father acknowledged his son and provided for both the son and the mother in his will. There was enough money for White to enroll at Brown University where he began playing first base on the University baseball team. After graduation, White moved to Chicago and became a bookkeeper. He was apparently very fair-skinned and most acquaintances thought he was white. A couple of black friends of mine tell me this is called “passing” in the black community. So it’s entirely possible that Providence manager George Wright (Harry’s bother) did not know he’d chosen a mixed race man to hold down first base on 21 June 1879.

All of which brings us to a real problem. There is no actual proof that “B. White” in the box score in William Edward White. The box simply reads “B. White” and the accompanying story (which I haven’t seen, but have read articles by guys who did) does not refer to the first baseman as “that noted collegiate colored player” or words to that effect (and sorry to offend anybody, but “colored” is probably the word that would have gone in that sentence). It’s reasonable to presume that if George Wright knew he was going to have to replace Start for the game he would have used the local college first baseman on a temporary basis and didn’t know (or care) about White’s color. You have to presume that Wright had seen a couple of college games and knew what kind of first baseman the local team had available. The problem is we really can’t prove that’s what happened. It’s not like “Bill White” is that unusual as a name. I’ve known at least two that I can recall (one back in high school, the other in the Army). Between 1883 and 1888 there was a Bill White (William Dighton White) who played for four different Major League teams. He would have been the same age as William Edward White (both born in 1860). William D. White was from Ohio and first shows up in 1883 at Pottsville (he’s primarily a shortstop) and I frankly have no idea where he was in 1879. I doubt he was in Providence in June, but he’s simply a quick reminder that there are other people named “B. White” who play baseball. Having said all that Baseball Reference.com accepts that William Edward White is indeed the “B. White” indicated on 21 June 1879.

My best guess is that we are dealing here with the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. There’s just enough question to make it difficult to assert that the last sentence is true. Whatever the case, Providence ended up winning the National League pennant in 1879 (by 5 games over Boston). Just maybe an ex-slave helped them along the way.

“The Father of Professional Baseball”

April 24, 2013
Aaron B. Champion

Aaron B. Champion

There are a bunch of debates over who is the father of baseball. Most of you know the Abner Doubleday myth. Some of you know about Henry Chadwick and his efforts; others know of Alexander Cartwright, Duncan Curry and the rest of the Knickerbockers. You might decide you pick one over the other and I wouldn’t argue with you about which you picked (except maybe Doubleday). But the creation of a solely, openly acknowledged professional team goes back to a specific man, Aaron B. Champion of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Aaron B. Champion was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1842. His family was wealthy enough for him to attend Antioch College from 1856 to 1860. He studied law (law schools were a thing of the future in 1860s Ohio) being admitted to the bar in 1864. He moved to Cincinnati and opened a law office. He was immediately successful. he also was interested in baseball. He joined the ownership of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, becoming second president of the club. the Red Stockings were good, but shared city prominence with the Buckeyes. Champion, looking to build a winner, hit upon an idea that would revolutionize the game. He hired 10 men and paid them to play baseball.

Let’s stop a second and go over a couple of things. Champion did not invent professional baseball, so to call him “the father of professional baseball”, as one article I read did(it’s where I got the title for this little commentary), is technically incorrect. Ballplayers were being paid at least as far back as Jim Creighton in 1860 and probably prior to that. There were generally two ways of doing this. One was to pay the guy under the table and hope no one found out (Lip Pike was paid this way in the late 1860s). The other was for some company to hire a guy, pay him a salary for a particular job, then make sure he spent most of his time working for the local ball team (Harry Wright made money this way). What Champion did was to jettison the under the table aspect of salaries, dump the fiction that the town’s star player was really just a clerk at the bank, and openly pay the entire team. It made for a fully, and acknowledged, professional team. His reasoning seems to have been that if you openly paid players, you could get the very best to come play for you because you could offer top dollar.

It worked. With Champion as owner and Harry Wright taking care of the baseball duties (managing, making hotel arrangements, etc), the team flourished. With George Wright the highest paid player ($1400) and utility sub Dick Hurley the lowest paid ($600), the team proceeded to run off the only undefeated season in professional baseball history. They began playing local and regional teams, went East later in the season, and dominated the best teams in New York, Philadelphia, and the other Eastern cities. Finally they moved West to take on the best teams in California. They were 57-0 when their season ended. Their undefeated streak finally came to an end at 81 games.

Things went south in 1871. Two cliques developed on the Red Stockings, causing the team to split. The Wrights, Cal McVey, and first baseman Charlie Gould left for Boston. The others joined the Washington Olympics in the fledgling National Association of Base Ball Players.

Champion, seeing the team falling apart, and noting declining revenues, resigned as chairman and went back to his law firm. He dabbled in politics, serving as a delegate to the 1876 Democratic Convention. It nominated Samuel Tilden, who lost one of the more famous  American Presidential elections (try finding info on “The Compromise of 1876” or sometimes it’s dated 1877). Champion became a leading Cincinnati “booster” and died in 1895 while on a visit to Great Britain. He was buried in London.

Andy Leonard

April 17, 2013
Andy Leonard

Andy Leonard

One of the best overlooked players of the mid-19th Century in Andy Leonard. He starred prior to 1869, he starred for the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 and 1870. He was a major player in the National Association. By the time the National League arrived, he was on the wane. Here’s a look at this interesting player.

Andrew Jackson Leonard was born in Ireland in 1846, his parents immigrating to Newark, New Jersey  shortly afterward. This begs the question is he named for the United States President Andrew Jackson? If so, is this an indication that his parents were contemplating leaving Ireland and named their son after Old Hickory?  It makes a good story, but I don’t know if it’s true.

Leonard was a prodigy on the diamond. By 1864 he was playing for Newburgh in New York. He played several infield positions, but his arm made him a natural in the outfield. Although an amateur, he was gaining national attention. In 1868 he was one of two players coaxed west to play for the Cincinnati Buckeyes, a local team. It’s unknown if he was paid to move or if he was offered a job that would pay him while he played ball. That was fairly common in the era and helped maintain the illusion of amateurism in the sport. Today, we call those guys “ringers”.

By 1869, the other Cincinnati team, the Red Stockings, were creating the first avowedly professional team. Manager Harry Wright approached Leonard offering him the left field job for $800. He took the offer and became one of the better players on the team. One source indicates that he was the third best player on the team (behind George Wright and Cal McVey). The Red Stockings were dominant in 1869 and 1870 and Leonard was part of the reason.

With the forming of the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1871, Leonard moved to the Washington Olympics. The Olympics were the premier team in Washington so Leonard was joining an established team. They finished 15-15 with Leonard being their best player. In 1872 Leonard jumped to the new team in Boston, also called the Red Stockings (no idea if he brought his old Cincinnati socks with him or not). There he rejoined Harry and George Wright along with Cal McVey of the old Cincinnati team. They rolled to a pennant with Leonard hitting .349. One great statistical oddity shows up in Leonard’s 1872 campaign. He didn’t walk one time in 46 games, making his OBP also .349 (don’t see that often).

Leonard remained with Boston through the remaining life of the National Association (1873-5), putting up quality numbers and helping them to four consecutive pennants. For his Association career his triple slash numbers are .320/.324/,397/,721 (OPS+ 122). Over 286 games he had 456 hits for 60 doubles, 20 triples, and three home runs, amassing 565 total bases. He scored 326 runs, had 256 RBIs, and 74 stolen bases (28 caught stealing). He struck out 11 times and walked nine (about two strike outs per season and less than two walks a year).

With the death of the Association, Leonard and Boston joined the newly formed National League in 1876. He was already 30 and was slipping. He never hit .300 in the NL, but helped Boston to consecutive pennants in 1877 and 1878.  He retired at the end of the 1878 season claiming his eyesight was weakening and he was having trouble seeing the ball, especially in the field. He played one season at minor league Rochester, then tried to get back to the Majors in 1880. He played 33 games in Cincinnati, wasn’t very good, and was released. He worked for Wright and Ditson, a sporting goods company formed by his old teammate George Wright and died in Boston in 1903.

Leonard is given credit as the first Irish born professional. He did play in the first National Association game and repeated the feat in 1876 when he played in the first ever National League game.

The Little Brother

April 16, 2013
The 1869 Red Stockings, George Wright at top center

The 1869 Red Stockings, George Wright at top center

I’m an oldest child so that means I have my own particular problems. But I know several people who are youngest children. Each of them has in common the desire to keep up with their elder siblings, sometimes to absurdity. If you look at George Wright’s career, you wonder sometimes if it wasn’t all an attempt to show up his older brother, Harry.

George Wright, unlike older brother Harry, was born in the United States. He was born in New York in 1847, 12 years after Harry. Dad was a cricketer (as was Harry), but George took to the more American game of Base Ball. He was good. By age 15 he was playing with the Gothams, one of the earliest New York teams. At 18 he was their regular catcher. He moved to shortstop the next season and began a migratory period in his career. He played in Washington, D.C. where the local team, in lieu of paying him outright, managed to find him a job in the Treasury Department. He played for the Gothams again. Back in New York he played for the Unions.

By 1869 he was established as one of the finest shortstops in baseball. Older brother Harry had moved to Cincinnati and was in the process of putting together the first acknowledged all-professional team. He called on George to come west and anchor the infield. George Wright did so, becoming the star of the team. For a salary of $1400 the Red Stockings got a .633 batting average and 49 home runs over 57 total games (all victories). I looked all over but could find no other stats for George Wright for the 1869 season.

The Red Stockings folded after the 1870 season, but professional baseball was moving toward forming an all professional league. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players opened its first campaign. Wright (along with bother Harry) moved to the Boston team, also called the Red Stockings. In 16 games, Wright hit .413, stole nine bases, scored 33 runs, and struck out once. Boston finished a disputed second.

From 1872 through the remainder of the life of the Association (1875) Boston dominated the league. Wright was one of the mainstays of the team. He led the league in triples once and, as the lead off hitter, led the league in at bats twice. Other players proved more dominant with the bat, but Wright was considered the premier shortstop in the National Association. If you look at his numbers they don’t look all that great today, but are very good for the era. He is supposed to have invented playing deep in the hole at short and charging the ball. A number of other players are also supposed to have done this, so I have no idea who really did it first.

With the end of the Association, Wright set up shop with the Boston team in the new National League. He was 29, and never did as well in the NL as in the Association. He helped his team to pennants in 1877 and 1878, then was offered the job as player-manager of the Providence Grays in 1879. He led the team to its first pennant. It was also his last big year. 

By this point, Wright was moving into the sporting goods business fulltime. He played sparingly (and did not manage at all) in 1880 and 1881, preferring to work at his business, Wright and Ditson. Ditson was Henry Ditson and the company is still around. In 1882, Harry Wright became manager at Providence and asked George to play fulltime one last season. He did so, getting into 46 games and hitting a buck-62. He retired after the season and was through with playing baseball.

But unlike a number of former ball players who have no idea what to do with themselves when their career is over, George Wright flourished in retirement. Wright and Ditson was successful, he played cricket locally and he got into golf and tennis. He designed Boston’s first public golf course in 1890. He donated the land for the second (which became the George Wright course, in his honor). His sons won both doubles championships and one US Championship (now the US Open) in tennis, with Beals winning an Olympic gold medal. In 1906 he was part of the Mills Commission that determined baseball began in Cooperstown with Abner Doubleday. Apparently Wright’s role on the committee was minimal and I’ve been unable to determine if he agreed with the commission findings. In 1937 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died, a wealthy man, later the same year. He was 90 and outlived Harry by 42 years.

George Wright's grave in Brookline, Mass

George Wright’s grave in Brookline, Mass

For his career (National Association and National League) Wright hit .301, had an OBP of .318, slugged .398, and ended with an OPS of .715 (OPS+ of 125). He led the Association in triples once, but has the Association record with 40 triples. He played 591 games, had 866 hits, 124 doubles, 60 triples, and 11 home runs for 1143 total bases. He scored 665 runs and knocked in 326. He stole 47 bases in the Association (his National League totals are unavailable). As a fielder he leads his league in assists, double plays, putouts, and fielding percentage several times, giving proof to his reputation as a great middle infielder.

One of the things you always ask yourself about 19th Century players is “how good were they?”. With George Wright you face the same problems you always face: few games, wretched fields, poor equipment. Unlike the other brother combination (the Waners), I think it’s fair to put both Wright’s in the Hall of Fame. George deserves it as a pioneer (which is technically why he got in). He’s also a pretty good player, one of the better fielding middle infielders in early baseball.

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 Original Big Mac

September 21, 2011

Cal McVey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Subs

March 20, 2010

I wonder how modern managers would handle old time rosters. Tony LaRussa seems to think a 25 man roster ought to include 19 pitchers and six others (I guess two pitchers go in the corners of the outfield.). But way back when rosters were much smaller, the 1927 Yankees had 25 men total on their roster for the entire year. The prize here has to go to the 1878 Boston Red Caps who managed to win a pennant with a ten man roster. With appropriate apologies to Alfonso Bedoya, their motto might have been “We don’t need no stinkin’ subs.”

The Red Caps won the National Association pennant by four games over Cincinnati going 41-19 in a 60 game season. They loaded up on the bottom teams winning eight of 12 against Chicago, 10 of 12 against Indianapolis, and all but one against Milwaukee. As mentioned in the post on Louisville’s 1877 scandal, both Indianapolis and Milwaukee were new to the league. They included a number of players from the defunct Louisville and St.. Louis teams, but hadn’t spent time working the pieces together. A further group of their players were NL rookies. Against the stronger teams, Providence and Cincinnati, Boston went 6-6.

They did it all with ten men. Harry Wright managing his last pennant winner, pulled all the right levers and won without substituting. Imagine that today.  Here’s the roster.

John Morrill played at first (and one game at third and in the outfield) hitting .240 with 23 RBIs and 26 runs scored.

Jack Burdock was at second for every inning of every game. He hit .260 with 25 RBIs and 37 runs.

George Wright was Harry’s younger brother and a future Hall of Famer. He played shortstop for 59 games hitting .225 with 12 RBIs and 35 runs. He was one of two players who “wimped out” and sat out a game.

Ezra Sutton played third for 59 games (and short the day George Wright sat out) going .226, with 29 RBIs, and 31 runs.

Andy Leonard was in left every game hitting .260 with 16 RBIs and 41 runs.

Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke played center field (plus one game at first and caught two more). He led the team with a .278 average, and in runs scored  with 44. He tied with Sutton for the team lead in RBIs with 29.

Jack Manning was in right except for pitching three games (only one of which he started). He was a .254 hitter, with 23 RBIs, and 41 runs scored. Pitching he went 1-0 in 11.33 innings with two strikeouts, five walks, and an ERA of 14.29.

Pop Snyder was the catcher. He hit .212 with 14 RBIs and 21 runs scored. He spent two games in the outfield.

Tommy Bond was the workhorse pitcher. He hit .212 with 23 RBIs and scored 22 runs. In the field he was 40-19 with a 2.06 ERA, 33 walks, and led the league in strikeouts with 182 and 9 shutouts. The 40 wins also led the league. He, like George Wright, took a day off.  Both times he was relieved from pitching duties, he went to the outfield.

Which brings me to the tenth man. Drum roll please for substitute Harry Schafer. The supersub played in two (count ’em) games, both in the outfield. He was one for eight ( a .125 batting average) with no RBIs or runs scored. The hit was a single. I’ve always wondered if Schafer travelled around with the team or if Harry Wright just called him up a couple of times and asked him to come to the park so he could give someone a rest.

A couple of things to notice here. First, there are a lot more runs than RBIs. It was an era of small or non-existent gloves and terrible fields so there were a lot of errors and unearned runs. Second, the batting averages are pretty low, O’Rourke’s .278 leading the team. Boston finished fourth in hitting in the league (six teams), but was second in pitching with a 2.32 ERA. Obviously they were winning a lot of close games. Additionally, Burdock, George Wright, Snyder, and Bond all led the league in fielding at their position. The fielding numbers aren’t great by modern standards, but are very good for the era.

I’ve always been fascinated by this team since I first discovered it years ago. I wondered how you won with only one sub (playing only two games). I’d like to see the least number of players a modern (21st Century) team used over a sixty game period.

The Scandal at Louisville

March 19, 2010

I really wish I didn’t have to say this, but it’s true. The Black Sox are not completely unique. OK, they threw a World Series and no one else did, but the idea of throwing away a game or a season isn’t unique. Players have been accused of it for a long time. There have been questions of players taking money to lose games, of them playing less that 100% because the hated the owner or the manager. The Black Sox may have been the worst case, but they weren’t first.

By the middle of the 1877 season it became evident that the National League pennant was a two team race: Boston vs. the Louisville Grays. The Red Caps (Boston) was managed by Harry Wright. They had essentially the same team that won the last four National Association pennants then lost the first National League pennant by finishing fourth. Deacon White, George Wright (Harry’s brother), Ezra Sutton, and John Morrill handled the infield; Lew Brown caught; Andy Leonard, Harry Schafer, and Jim O’Rourke patrolled the outfield; and Tommy Bond did the pitching (both Wright’s and O’Rourke are Hall of Famers). Louisville finished fifth in 1876, but produced a strong contender the next season. The Grays featured Juice Latham, Joe Gerhardt, Bill Craver, and Bill Hague were the infield: the catcher was Pop Snyder; the outfield consisted of George Hall, Orator Shaffer, and Bill Crowley; and Jim Devlin pitched.

Th race was tight into late September, then Louisville lost four in a row at Boston, lost three of  four in Brooklyn (the other game was a tie), then dropped the final game of the season to Chicago. Boston won the pennant by seven games after Louisville led for most of the year. The official reason was that Devlin tired and the team just quit hitting. In an era of one pitcher teams, that sounded reasonable.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t so, Joe. It seems that a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, who happened to be the son of the team owner, started asking questions. Little used player Al Nichols (he played six games) was serving as a conduit for gamblers to fix games. Pitcher Devlin, outfielder Hall, and third baseman Craver were the other men accused. For money, they had thrown an unspecified number of games allowing Boston to win the pennant.

The accusations and the proof, in the form of telegrams to Nichols, landed on the desk of league president William Hulbert. The National League was Hulbert’s baby and any chance that gambling was occuring was sheer anathema to him. Any chance that games were being fixed was equally anathema. In looking at his comments, it’s as if he took it as a personal affront to his honor. He moved immediately, banning all four players from the game. None ever played a Major League game again.

As a result of the castastophe, Louisville dropped totally out of the NL the next season. St. Louis attempted to sign two of the “outlaws” and was shown the door also. So the scandal had produced a questionable pennant and cost the NL two teams (which were replaced by Milwaukee and Indianapolis). At least in 1919 the AL lost no teams.

Interestingly enough Devlin, who died in 1883, found another line of work after his banishment. He became a policeman in Philadelphia (go figure).

The Red Stockings of Boston

March 7, 2010

Boston, unlike New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington had not been a major player in the 1860s baseball world. That changed in the 1870s. The National Association had five pennant winners. Four of them were the team from Boston, the Red Stockings. The other year they finished second. They dominated this league the way the New York Yankees dominate the modern American League.

The game, as I’ve emphasized before, was different in the 1870s. Among other things the rosters were much smaller. In 1871 the Red Stockings had only 11 men on their roster for the season. In 1872 it dropped to 10, was 13 in 1873, back to 11 in 1874, and ended at 13 in the National Association’s final year. That meant that players need to be versatile. Most players could be plugged into different spots in the field, so the idea of a dominant third baseman is not something that happened in the Association. As we look at the individual players, all (except McVey who truly did utility work) were plugged into a primary position, but all were to a degree something akin to modern utility players.

In 1871 the Red Stockings ended the season with the most wins of any team, 22 (tied with Philadelphia) but had 10 losses and ended in second place (Philly had only seven losses). There was some confusion about an illegal player and forfeits involving him. So under one scenario the Stockings actually end up in first place with a record of 20-10. Modern baseball acknowledges the Philadelphia team as the winner. Obviously it was a season in which the team played few league games.

Over the next four seasons the Red Stockings were dominant, winning the pennant by 7.5 games in 1872, four in 1873, 7.5 again in 1874, and 18.5 in 1875. If you were a Boston fan, this was great, but if you were a fan of another team, well, you were just out of luck. Boston’s dominance is generally cited as one of the reasons the Association folded. The pennant races just weren’t competative enough.

So who were these guys?  Here’s a brief rundown of the major players on the Red Stockings.

Harry Wright was the manager and occasional center fielder. His major contributions come from his managerial abilities which I touched on in an earlier post.

Al Spaulding was the pitcher. During the life of the Association, the Red Stockings played 294 games, winning 227 of them (a .772 winning percentage). Spaulding won 204 of them (89.87%) while never leading the league in either strikeouts or ERA. In some ways it’s fair to say that no pitcher ever dominated a league quite like Spaulding dominated the National Association. In defense of more modern pitchers it’s fair to point out that Spaulding never pitched overhand and stood only 45′ away from the batter.

Cal McVey was one of the best hitters in the game and I’m saving him for a later post.

George Wright was the shortstop and Harry Wright’s younger brother. He was considered the premier shortstop of the era and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Ross Barnes was a second baseman who led off. He won two batting titles, was second once, and was a decent (for the era) middle infielder.

Harry Schafer was the third baseman and in the lineup primarily for his glove. OK, it was his hands, they didn’t use gloves that far back.

Deacon White came over from Cleveland after 1871 and became the catcher. He was the most prolific hitting backstop for the entire period of the National Association and a player I would support for inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Andy Leonard also came over from Washington and became the regular left fielder. He ended up becoming the all-time games played leader for the Association.

There were other players, but these were the centerpiece players. Both Wrights, McVey, and Leonard  played for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team making them already familiar with each others skills. That, along with great talent, made the Boston team the greatest team of the era.