Posts Tagged ‘Joe Start’

And We Have a Winner

May 18, 2017

Joe Start

Back in 2012 I was happily going along content to know that I had Deacon White pegged as the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame. I’d been going along with that knowledge for years, then the Hall struck and in 2013 elected the good Deacon to the Hall. Well, that created a problem for me, I no longer had an acknowledged, at least by me, best 19th Century player not in Cooperstown. So I began to look for a replacement. I’ve been fairly public in my quest, occasionally letting readers in on how my search was going. I’ve narrowed the list down a couple of times right here on this site. And now it’s time to announce my newest pick.

The picture above should tell you I went with Joe Start. Ultimately my choice came down to a pick ’em between Start and Bud Fowler. Fowler was the first prominent black player. He played on several high level teams in the era when integration of baseball teams was still possible. It finally came down to the simple fact that his numbers are so hard to verify that I had to decide he simply couldn’t be my top choice. I’m reluctant to make that statement because I’m aware that I might just be wrong and Bud Fowler is indeed the best 19th Century player not elected to the Hall of Fame. It’s just that I can’t prove it.

Start has some of the same problems. He began his career with the Atlantic (Brooklyn) in 1862 and apparently wasn’t a rookie even then. He was born in 1842 and joined the Enterprise, one of the lesser Brooklyn teams in 1860. He remained with the Atlantic until the forming of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871. The Atlantic refused to join the league and Start jumped to the Mutual (New York) where he stayed through the rest of the Association’s years, then moved with the Mutual to the newly formed National League in 1876. With Hartford and Chicago in 1877 and 1878, he ended up with the Providence (Rhode Island) Grays in 1879 and helped them to two National League pennants (1879 and 1884) along with a victory in the 19th Century’s version of the World Series in 1884. Providence folded after 1885 and he spent his last year with Washington in 1886. He was 43 when he retired. He died in Providence in 1927.

The years with both the Enterprise and the Atlantic are not well documented. Anecdotal evidence indicate he was one of the premier players on a team that regularly won the National Association of Base Ball Players pennant in the 1860s, but exact numbers are unavailable. Once we get to the professional Association in 1871, better number are available for us. His NA numbers (all from Baseball Reference) include a triple slash line of .295/.302/.363/.665, an OPS+ of 110, 386 hits in 272 games, 262 runs scored, and 187 RBIs. In the NL his triple slash line comes in at .300/.330/.370/.699 with an OPS+ of 125, 1031 hits in 798 games, 590 runs scored, and 357 RBIs. His overall WAR is 32.2 with a peak of 4.1 in 1882 (82 games).

So there he is, my answer to the best non-Hall of Famer of the 19th Century. Start was a premier player as early as 1862 and remained a fine player through 1885 (his last year when he was 43 is the only year he shows a minus WAR of -0.1). Now I have to hope the Veteran’s Committee isn’t reading this.

 

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).

 

 

The Best Team Prior to Professionalism

April 11, 2016
The 1865 Atlantic

The 1865 Atlantic

Professionalism was probably more common in baseball quicker than we’d like to believe. In the 1860s Jim Creighton was being paid under the table. He’s frequently called the “first professional” but there’s no evidence he was actually first. Lip Pike was also being paid under the table, but Pike was more open about taking the money (leading to a famous case that could have destroyed the first league had not common sense intervened). But it was still an era when many of the players were indeed amateurs. It was the period of the National Association of Base Ball Players (to be differentiated from the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players that existed from 1871-75). It’s a sport we would recognize as baseball (sorta) and it was dominated by one team, the Atlantic (of Brooklyn). They won several Association titles (they weren’t pennants yet). For my money the best of the team prior to the 1869 Red Stockings and avowedly professional teams was the 1865 version of the Atlantic, the team in the picture above (you can click on it to see it larger). Although I’ll have to admit I don’t have the statistical evidence (the traditional way baseball arguments are solved) to prove they were better than the 1866 version, they still get my vote.

The 1865 Atlantic went 45-0 with a tie. Now you can argue it’s not a lot of games, but it was a fairly standard amount for the era. They scored a lot of runs. While 30 runs in a game was not uncommon in the age, they did it with disturbing frequency. They hit well up and down the lineup and fielded well, again for the era. There aren’t a lot of stats available, but from the box scores I can find and the articles I read, it is evident that they were just head and shoulders above the competition.

All that leads to the very obvious question, “just who were these guys?” That’s what I’m setting out to discover. If you recall, a few months ago I took the picture of the 1860 Excelsiors and looked up what I could find on the nine players on the team. It took a long time and so will this. So don’t expect the next five or six articles to be about the 1865 Atlantic. Some of them (three in particular) are easy to find because they went on to make a mark in the world (especially the baseball world) while others are, at this point, total unknowns (again, three). Hopefully I’ll be able to find out as much as I did about the Excelsiors, which in a couple of cases was admittedly almost nothing. If you go to an article from 13 December 2010 titled “‘Start’-ing at First” you’ll find my look at first baseman Joe Start (in the above picture he’s the man on the right end of the middle row), the player who had the best post-Atlantic baseball career. So one down.

And so far, and I’ve only begun, they aren’t nearly as colorful a group as the Excelsiors (no one seems to have ended up in prison or manufactured baseballs), although as a rule they went further in baseball (but it’s also five years later). But hopefully, they’ll still be interesting.

Finding the Best 19th Century Player not in Cooperstown

December 28, 2015

As I mentioned several years ago I had the great joy of being able for a long time to know that I was smarter than the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee. For years I argued that Deacon White was the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame. Then the committee agreed with me and White was enshrined. Great for him, lousy for me. I now had to come up with a new choice. Well, I still haven’t quite honed in on the guy, but I’m now down to five guys that get my vote for best 19th Century player not in Cooperstown’s gallery of greats.
Knowing you just can’t wait to find out who they are (still your beating hearts, team) I’ll get to them in a few sentences. But first I want to make clear this is supposed to be the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame, not the best 19th Century player eligible for the Hall of Fame. There’s a difference in those two categories and in makes a great deal of difference when you look at two of my five finalists (Five finalists? Geez, I feel like I’m doing the Miss Universe Pageant and know it’s Phillippines.). And remember this is players, not “contributors,” which to me is a different category. Also be aware that there is much speculation here because statistics for the period prior to 1870 are almost non-existent and it surely colors my choices. So having said all that, here we go (alphabetically).

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes

Ross Barnes is one of the players who isn’t exactly eligible for the Hall of Fame. Barnes was a star prior to the founding of the National Association in 1871, then was arguably the best player in the Association. When the NA folded after 1875 he moved to the new National League, had a couple of good years then it was over (sources vary on if what happened was age, illness, or a rule change). MLB does not recognize the NA as a “Major League” so Barnes doesn’t have 10 years in the “Major Leagues”, which makes him ineligible for the Hall of Fame. None of that means he wasn’t a heck of a player. He, along with Lip Pike, Cal McVey, and maybe Andy Leonard all have the same problem. They have career too short in the NL to make the Hall of Fame. For my money Barnes is the best of that lot.

Bud Fowler

Bud Fowler

To be absolutely honest I don’t know if Bud Fowler is one of the five best 19th Century players not in the Hall of Fame or not. His stats are almost completely non-existent. I do know that with Frank Grant in the Hall of Fame, Fowler is the best black player of the era (George Stovey and Fleet Walker not withstanding). How good was he? No one really knows, but the stories of his ability are formidable. Some of them are surely exaggerated (but so are some of the stories about the white players). It is reasonable, after noting the quality of black ball players in the 20th Century, to presume that a fairly significant number of black players would be of Hall of Fame quality in the 19th Century. So far the Hall has let in Grant and exactly no one else who plays the bulk of his career in the 19th Century. And with the current Hall of Fame mantra that they’ve got all the Negro League players they should have there’s little chance of him being added to the Hall (Did you see any Negro Leaguers in the last two Segregation Era Veteran’s Committee ballots? Neither did I.). My candidate for best black player left out is Fowler. I wish I could prove he fits in the top five, but frankly it’s just a feeling.

Jack Glasscock

Jack Glasscock

Jack Glasscock is arguably the best shortstop not currently in the Hall of Fame and eligible; with suitable apologies to Bill Dahlen, who spends too much of his career in the 20th Century to make this list. Glasscock played from 1879 through 1895 and died in 1947. He hit .290, had an OPS+ of 112, 61.9 WAR (BBREF version) along with 22.3 dWAR, which is terrific for 19th Century players without gloves. He won a batting title (1890–the Player’s League year) and two hits titles (1889 and 1890), didn’t strikeout much, and led the league in a bunch of fielding categories during his career. So far he’s been totally overlooked by the Hall of Fame (he appeared on the ballot once, in 1936, and garnered all of 2.6% of the vote). The Hall really needs to look at him again.

Dave Orr

Dave Orr

Dave Orr is one of the best first basemen of the 19th Century. He has one significant problem. He doesn’t get 10 years in the Major Leagues. He plays from 1883 through 1890, almost all of it with the American Association (which was generally considered the weaker of the two big leagues), then suffers a stroke and is through. So he’s one of those players I mentioned as being ineligible for the Hall of Fame (the other is, of course, Barnes). He leads the league in hits twice, in triples twice, in RBIs once, wins a batting title, two slugging titles, and lead the league in total bases twice. His OPS+ is 162. In other words, he’s really good, but he doesn’t have the 10 years. It seems to me that a physically disabling thing like a stroke should be considered when a player is up for Hall of Fame consideration. They let Addie Joss in with nine years (although he died rather than be disabled) so there’s nothing sacred about 10 years if the Hall decided to waive it. In Orr’s case they should at least consider a waiver.

Joe Start

Joe Start

Then there’s Joe Start who might actually be the best of the lot. He’s a major player with the Atlantic when they dominated baseball (that’s Civil War era, people), then he plays in the National Association, hits .295, has an OPS of .665, an OPS+ of 110. Then at age 33 he moves to the National League where he hits .300, has an OPS of .699, an OPS+ of 124. His team (Providence) wins two NL pennants and wins the first postseason series against the American Association. He’s 41 when his team wins in 1884 and still a significant force on his team (although no longer the big star). He plays his last game at 43 (when he’s over the hill). His putouts, assists, and range indicate he was also a very good first baseman.

So there they are, the five guys that I’ve decided include the best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame (with something of a tip of the hat to Cal McVey as the last guy I eliminated). At this point only Glasscock and Start are strictly eligible (Fowler is technically, I guess, but the Hall doesn’t seem to think so). I suppose that both Barnes and Fowler could be put in as “pioneers” or something and Orr needs the Hall to waive its 10 year rule for an extraordinary circumstance. I’m still trying to put a finger on which of these five is the best. Will let you know when I figure it out.

 

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1906

August 4, 2014

Here’s the latest installment of My Own Little Hall of Fame:

Pete Browning

Pete Browning

Louis Rogers “Pete” Browning has the highest batting average in the 19th Century. He won three batting titles, two with Louisville and the other with Cleveland in the Player’s League. Meticulous about his bats, he became the original “Louisville Slugger” when he ordered bats from a local company.

Frank Selee

Frank Selee

Selee was a premier manager in the 1890s. Leading Boston from 1890 through 1901, his Beaneaters won five pennants, including the split season 1892 pennant. He later managed the Chicago National League team, retiring in 1905. His .598 winning percentage is among the highest in professional baseball history.

Joe Start

Joe Start

Premier first baseman for the Atlantic in their championship years of the 1860s, Joe Start made the transition to the National Association in 1871, playing for the New York Mutuals. He moved to the National League playing for the Mutuals, Hartford Dark Blues, and Chicago White Stockings. In 1879 he moved to the Providence Greys and helped them to pennants in both 1879 and 1884. He retired after the 1886 season at the age of 43.

And now the commentary you always expect.

1. What took so long on Browning? Pete Browning raises a number of questions. I’ve decided most of them are modern questions. In 1906 when baseball wasn’t very far from some really short seasons, the fact that Browning plays few games and get s few hits shouldn’t have been the problem to contemporaries as it is to us. It took a while to figure that out. Also Browning never plays for a winner, not even in the Player’s League. Further, he plays his truly best years in the American Association, by general consensus the weaker of the two leagues. BTW, it turns out (according to Baseball Reference.com) that Browning doesn’t have the highest average of 19th Century players. Both Billy Hamilton and Dave Orr are listed as higher. But in the period I’m researching (and in a lot of modern stuff too), Browning is listed higher, so I used what was received knowledge at the time in my initial comment above.

2. Selee was the manager of the best of the 1890s teams (sorry Baltimore fans) and his winning percentage is still fourth all time. BTW he would die only a couple of years later.

3. Joe Start? It seems to me that the pioneers of the game should be recognized, particularly in a year when there are no overwhelming candidates for a Hall of Fame. I looked at several candidates (Lip Pike, Bob Ferguson, etc.) and finally decided on Start. He had three things going for him. First, he was a member of the Atlantic, the best team of the pre-professional leagues and somebody from there had to be good enough to make it. Second, Start has a pretty good National Association and National League career. Easily the best of any of the old Atlantic players and arguably the finest of any of the 1860s era players. Finally, he’s a major contributor to two pennant winners in the NL. I simply couldn’t find anyone from the 1860s period with that kind of career. My guess is that Start would never receive 75% of the vote in the era (75% of the voters probably never heard of him), but I’m also presuming a Veteran’s Committee type organization that would be tasked with looking for people like Start.

4. No fourth or fifth inductee? As I said last time, the pickings are getting kind of thin. This is a list of the pitching candidates I haven’t put in who are eligible and who I consider worthy of consideration: Bob Caruthers, Dave Foutz, Bobby Mathews, Jim McCormick, Tony Mullane, Gus Weyhing, Will White. Not a bad list, right? But also not just a really first-rate list either, right? I’m beginning to see why Hall’s frequently put in a bunch of people quickly then start to slow down. Next year Amos Rusie shows up, but he’s not eligible until then. My guess is most of the Caruthers-White list is going to fail (although Mullane and Matthews might slide over the top in some year in which there aren’t a lot of really good candidates).

5. Same problem with everyday players? Yep.  Cupid Childs, Jack Glasscock, George Gore, Paul Hines, Charlie Jones, Bill Joyce, Bill Lange, Arlie Latham, Andy Leonard, Tommy McCarthy (who is actually in the Hall–and his name here should tell you what I think of that), Cal McVey, Dave Orr, Hardy Richardson, Mike Tiernan are the guys I’m looking at. Not a bad lot of players, but Hall of Fame quality? Maybe I’m viewing them from too far away in time, but they just don’t look as good as I thought they would. I’m beginning to see why it took so long for guys like Eppa Rixey and Max Carey to get elected to Cooperstown. Once they were initially overlooked, they were overrun by a later generation who looked at least superficially better (and maybe not so superficially either). If I do this right, I’ve discovered it’s a lot more difficult than I expected. I’m beginning to understand why “marginal” Hall of Famers get elected. I’m also noting a temptation to put in someone, anyone. That also helps me understand why that same group of “marginal” people are elected. I’m also learning a new respect for the writers who seriously look at the candidates before voting (and even less respect for those who just haphazardly fill out a ballot). It’s a lot harder than I thought. Next year I get lucky and Billy Hamilton shows up.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Bobby Mathews

May 5, 2014
Bobby Mathews

Bobby Mathews

1. Robert Mathews was born in Baltimore in 1851.

2. In 1869 he became both a professional and the main pitcher for the Marylands of Baltimore, one of the first professional clubs in Maryland.

3. With the forming of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, Mathews joined the Keokuk Westerns in 1871. On 4 May he threw the first pitch in a fully professional league (and to some people’s thinking, the first Major League) game. His team won 2-0 making him the first pitcher to win a game in the National Association.

4. After one season at Keokuk, he joined the Baltimore Canaries as their primary pitcher in 1872, then joined the New York Mutual where he pitched from 1873 through 1875.

5. In the NA he won 131 games, lost 112, gave up 2593 hits in 2221.2 innings, struck out 329 men while walking 196. His ERA was 2.69 with an ERA+ of 107 and a WAR of 39.7 (all stats from Baseball Reference dot-com and WAR is BR.com’s version).

6. He stayed with the Mutual in 1876 when they joined the newly formed National League. With the Mutual being tossed out of the league at the end of 1876, he joined Cincinnati in 1877.

7. In 1878 he pitched for the independent Brooklyn Chelseas until tossed from the team for public drunkenness (a recurring problem for Mathews throughout his career). He was later reinstated.

8. In 1879 he got a chance back in the National League with Providence as the backup pitcher to John Montgomery Ward. Mathews won 12 games and Providence won the pennant by five games. In  1880 he went west to play in the Pacific League (not the Pacific Coast League of later fame). The league folded before the year ended. In this period the NL was not considered, by many players, to be significantly superior to other leagues, some of which paid better. So Mathews’ actions in 1880 were not uncommon.

9. He was back in the National League in 1881 pitching for Providence and later for Boston.

10. With the establishment of the American Association, Mathews jumped to Philadelphia in 1883 where he stayed through 1887, his final season. He helped Philly to the AA pennant in 1883.

11. During the offseason Mathews, with no college education and a serious drinking problem, became an assistant coach for the University of Pennsylvania. Some sources credit him as the first college pitching coach.

12. By 1895 he was working for Joe Start (Providence first baseman in the 1870s and 1880s) at a “roadhouse” near Providence. His drinking was catching up with him and he died in 1898 at age 47.

13. For his career (NA, NL, and AA combined) Mathews won 297 games, lost 248, gave up 5601 hits in 4956 innings. He walked 532, struck out 1528, had an ERA of 2.86, an ERA+ of 104, and a WAR (BR.com version) of 62.2. He’s never gotten a lot of backing for the Hall of Fame. Primarily because he is 60-75 in the National League, 106-61 in the AA, and 131-112 in the NA. The latter two leagues are almost totally forgotten today with MLB not even recognizing the NA as a Major League.

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 Hall of Fame is out to GET Me

December 9, 2012
Pete Browning about 1877. Is this the best 19th Century player not in Cooperstown?

Pete Browning about 1877. Is this the best 19th Century player not in Cooperstown?

Alright, I’ve had enough of this. I’ve decided the Hall of Fame is picking on me specifically. They chose Deacon White for the Hall of Fame. “But, wait,” I hear you say, “Didn’t you support White for the Hall? Didn’t you call him ‘The Best 19th Century Player not in the Hall’?”  That’s exactly the problem.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to pick a “Best 19th Century Player not in the Hall”? Do you? For 10 years I could wake up with the comfort of knowing I had White and the Hall didn’t. I wasn’t going to have to sweat over a big thick book of  stats or stare at long columns of numbers online. I wasn’t going to have to read florid journals written in 19th Century style about base ball (19th Century spelling). I was able to simply get up in the morning and go about my business.

But then the Hall of Fame struck. It aimed its barb directly at me and elected White. My God, Cooperstown, how fair was that? What were you thinking?

Now I have to go back to the books, the long columns of figures, the 19th Century journals, and start a new search for “The Best 19th Century Player not in the Hall.” Do you have any idea how hard that’s going to be? I’ve going to have to go over the career of the likes of  Tommy Bond and Bob Carruthers, of Mike Tiernan and Harry Stovey, of Pete Browning and Cal McVey. And that’s assuming I leave off guys like Bill Dahlen who spent about half their career in the 20th Century or guys like Joe Start who played for the Atlantic in the 1860s.

Curse you, Cooperstown, for complicating my world. I take it personally (there’s no paranoia in my family; I have it all).

The Mighty Atlantic

January 14, 2011

1860 game between Atlantic and Excelsior at Excelsior Grounds

Since its beginnings, baseball has been dominated by great teams. Back in the Deadball Era there were the Cubs and Athletics. Since 1920 the Yankees have dominated. In the 1880s, there were the Browns. And before any of these, all the way back in the 1850s and 1860s there were the Atlantic.

The great hotbed of 1850s and 1860s baseball was Brooklyn. At this time Brooklyn was an independent city, not one of the boroughs of New York. It had its own civic pride, its own commercial district, and more great baseball teams than anywhere else. The best of these were the Atlantic. The singular form of the word is  correct, but as it sounds absolutely goofy to the modern ear, I’ll begin calling them the Atlantics. They were occasionally known as the Atlantic of Brooklyn and they were far and away the best of the era.

The Atlantics were founded in 1855 and joined the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players that same season. BTW Base Ball as two words is correct for this era. The modern Baseball comes later. They were a typical club of the period, all amateurs (at least officially), men who worked a day job and used baseball as a hobby and medium for exercise. I’m not sure of the initial roster, but I was able to find the following list of players for the 21 October 1855 game, so let’s celebrate them:  Caleb Sniffen (P), Willet P. Whitson (C), Thomas Powers (1B), Tice Hamilton (2B), Isaac Loper (3B), William Babcock (SS), William Bliss (LF), John Holder (CF), and A. Gildersleeve (RF). The Atlantic defeated the Harmony (of Brooklyn) club 24-22 that day. Can you imagine a “Harmony” team in this day and age?

The Association  was a consortium of teams and players that met to create a uniform set of rules, and ultimately to choose a winner for the league. They did not crown a champion from 1855 through 1858, but the Atlantics did well, producing a 7-1-1 record in 1857 and going 11-1 in 1858. Beginning in 1859, the Association decided to determine a champion and did so through 1869. In those 11 years, the Atlantics won seven titles: 1859, 1860, 1861, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1869. No other team won more than two (Brooklyn Eckfords).

In their seven titles, the Atlantics never played more than 21 championship caliber games prior to 1868, so they are dominant over a small sample of contests and thus it’s difficult to gauge their true abilities. Another problem is the rapid turnover of players. By the first championship team of 1859, not one player from the 1855 team was still around. It seems that’s true to a great degree for most teams of the era. It’s not exactly “free agency”, after all no one is supposed to be paid, but it does appear that the clubs had very open membership and that good players tended to gravitate toward the better teams. This begins to change in the early 1860s when you begin seeing a lot of the same names on the same clubs. Here’s a picture of the 1865 Atlantcs:

1865 Atlantics

From left to right, the players are Frank Norton, Sid Smith, Dickey Pearce, Joe Start, Charlie Smith, John Chapman, Fred Crane, John Galvin, and Tom Pratt. The man in the middle in the civilian suit is manager Peter O’Brien. The association winning team of 1860 included Pearce, Charlie Smith, and Peter O’Brien as a player. In 1869 Pearce, Start, Chapman, and Charlie Smith were still around for the final championship team. Here’s another view of the 1865 team. If you click on it, it blows up so you can read who’s who:

1865 Atlantics

As the reigning league champions in 1869, the Atlantics drew the attention of the all professional Cincinnati Red Stockings team. They engaged in a match for the ages in 1870. It’s nicely detailed at Kevin’s excellent DMB Historic World Series Replay site (link in the blogroll), so I’m not going to go over it except to say the Atlantic won in 11 innings. It was their high point. In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed to play professional games. The Atlantic decided to set it out and most of the great players jumped to other teams in the new league. In 1872 the Atlantic joined the new league, but with all their good players gone, they floundered, never finishing higher than sixth (of eight). When the National League was formed in 1876, the woeful Atlantics were left out. They hung around trying to play good ball with little success. In 1882, the newly formed American Association wanted a team in Brooklyn. They chose the Bridegrooms. It was the end for the Atlantics. They folded, although the name hung around for a while as the Bridegrooms were informally know at the “Atlantics” for a number of years.

It was a sad end to a great team, but the Baseball God’s weren’t quite through with them yet. In looking for info on this team, I ran across a site dedicated to a modern team called the Atlantic that plays 1860s style Base Ball in honor of the old team. In the words of a contemporary of the old Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that they do this.

“Start”ing at First

December 13, 2010

Joe Start

A few years back my son suggested I sit down and began trying to find out who were the best players in the old National Association (1871-5). Most of the guys I came up with were the usual suspects: Cap Anson, Al Spaulding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, etc. But the more I looked the more I kept coming back to an obscure player neither my son nor I had ever heard of in all our baseball reading, Joe Start. He turned out to be a heck of a player.

Start was born in New York in 1842. He was a good enough teenage player that he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Enterprise Club in 1860 and in 1861 joined the  Brooklyn Atlantics, one of the major amateur teams of the era. He played first base for them all the way into 1871, including during the American Civil War. Remember, that the initial couple of years of the Civil War, volunteers comprised the Union Army. The draft began only in 1863, leading to riots in New York, among other places. As he was playing in 1862, he obviously didn’t volunteer. He was still with the Atlantics, helping them to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, so he also missed the draft (I don’t mean to imply he “dodged” it.).  In an 18 game season in 1864, Start clubbed 11 home runs and led the team. On 6 September 1869, he had one of the great days in amateur baseball. He is credited with hitting four home runs, notching seven hits, and 21 total bases in a game against the Eckfords (also a Brooklyn club). Between 1861 and 1869, Start helped lead the Atlantics to five championships (1861, 1864-6, and 1869). In the famous 1870 game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Start knocked in the first run in the 11th inning and scored the game tying run. The Atlantics won, upending the previously undefeated Red Stockings (For a good overview of this famous game, see DMB Historic World Series Reply’s 29 November post. You can find the link to the site on the blogroll at right.).

With the formation of the National Association in 1871, Start jumped to the Mutual of New York, where he played for entire life of the Association. He hit .295 with an OPS of .665, 475 total bases, and an OPS+ of 110. He had 187 RBIs and 262 runs in 272 games. The Mutuals finished as high as second (1874). While with the Mutuals, one source credits Start with originating the practice of playing off the bag at first to cover more ground. There are a number of other sources that credit a number of other players with inventing this, now common, practice. Frankly, I don’t know who started it.

In 1876 the National League replaced the Association and Start moved with his team to the new league. In 1877 he went to Hartford, then to Chicago in 1878. In 1879 he settled in at Providence where he stayed through 1885. While at Providence, he helped lead the Grays to National League pennants in 1879 and again in 1884. In September of the latter year, he hit his only home run of the season, a three run shot that clinched the pennant for Providence. The year 1884 saw the first “World Series” played between Providence and the American Association team in New York. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games. Start didn’t do well, managing one hit and one RBI in ten at bats. In 1886 he played his last season for Washington at age 43. He hit a miserable .221 with 17 RBIs in only 31 games. For his NL career he hit .300 with a .700 OPS (125 OPS+), 1031 hits, 590 runs, 257 RBIs, and 1269 total bases in 798 games, all but one at first base (plus a couple of pinch-hitting performances).  In all he played from 1860 through 1886 inclusive, a total of 27 years. I’m not sure that a record for the 19th Century, but it has to be close.

After his retirement, he moved to Warwick, Rhode Island where he ran a hotel. He died in March 1927 at age 84. He’s buried in Providence.

It’s difficult to evaluate Start, as it is all the players of the era. To begin with, he’s 29 when the National Association begins play. His best years, which must have been pretty good if you believe the handful of reports available, were behind him. And that’s the crux of the problem. His best years are behind him and the record of those seasons is spotty. He’s a good enough player in both the Association and the NL, but not spectacular. Maybe he was spectacular in the 1860s, but we simply don’t know enough to make an informed statement. All we can honestly state is that he was a good enough player to hang around 27 years. That alone means he was pretty good.