Posts Tagged ‘Levi Meyerle’

Where’s a DH When You Need One?

October 3, 2011

Levi Meyerle

Throughout its history, baseball has been full of really good players who had bad gloves, or in the case of earliest baseball, bad hands. These guys still get jobs because they can hit anything thrown at them. One of the earliest of these was Levi Meyerle.

Meyerle was born in 1849 in Philadelphia and rose to prominence as an amateur in late 1860s Philadelphia baseball. He was considered a fine batter, but was something of a liability in the field (which is a gross understatement). He played for the local Athletics team in 1869 as a professional and moved to Chicago for the 1870 season.

In 1871 the National Association of Profession Base Ball Players was formed and Meyerle went back to Philly to star for his hometown team. Taking over as the primary third baseman, Meyerle led the team to the Association title in 1871. The title was disputed because of some ties and a team being thrown out of the league, but the league owners declared the Athletics the winner. There was no disputing Meyerle’s greatness with a bat. He hit .492 with an OPB of .500, a slugging average of .700, and an OPS of 1.200 (OPS+ of 237). He led the Association in all those categories plus in home runs, total bases, and was second in hits, and third in RBIs. Now all of this was in a  full season that lasted 26 games. He also played a horrendous third base. His fielding percentage at third was .646 (I didn’t think it was possible to have that low a percentage) with a ranger factor of 3.15 (which ain’t good for a third baseman).

All this got him another job in 1872. With that bat Philly hung on to him in both 1872 and 1873 but stuck him in the outfield for ’72. He was terrible and went back to third for ’73, where his fielding percentage jumped all the way to .746. But with his bat, it didn’t matter. He hit .329 in 1872, .349 in 1873, and continued to be one of the half-dozen or so best hitters in the Association. In 1874 he went to Chicago where the change of team rejuvenated him. He hit an Association leading .394, had an OBP of .401, a slugging percentage of .488, an OPS of .889, and an OPS+ of 181. All except the slugging percentage led the Association. The slugging percentage was third and he was second in home runs.  He split time between second and third showing a fielding percentage of .833 at second and .671 at third (apparently someone still thought he could play third). This time he played 53 games. Back with Philly in 1875 he had another good year before the Association folded.

The Athletics joined the new National League in 1876, staying most of one year before being tossed out. Meyerle hit .340 in 55 games, had an OPS+ of 159, and still couldn’t field the ball, but he was getting better at third. His fielding percentage went up to .791. With Philly out of the league in 1877, he played for Cincinnati, hit .327, slugged .430 and moved to second and shortstop where he finally got his fielding percentage over .800.

In 1878 he played for Springfield, Massachusetts and for the Washington Nationals (not the current team) in 1879. In 1880 he was with Rochester in a newly minted National Association. Although his numbers are incomplete, it’s evident that Meyerle was fading by the 1880 stint in Rochester. All three were “minor” league teams at the time and Meyerle’s presence in them points up a difference between 1870s baseball and the modern game. The National League had not yet established itself as the premier league in the sport so great players were spending significant amounts of time in what you and I would consider lower levels of the game (see the earlier article on Cal McVey, who went to California). At the time, that simply wasn’t the way it was seen. They were playing the game at a high level and some teams of the era were as good as some of the National League teams (certainly as good as some of the weaker NL teams). So it’s not like Meyerle is being sent “down” to the minors as we think of it today, but rather that he is still playing top-notch baseball.

He got back to a Major League (sort of) in 1884 when he played three games with the Union Association’s Keystones (of Philadelphia). He was 35, went 1 for 11 (a double), and retired. He lived until 1921 when he died in Philadelphia. He’s buried there.

For an eight year career Meyerle hit .356 with an OBP of .360, a slugging percentage of .479, and an OPS of .839 (and OPS+ of 162). His raw numbers show 513 hits, 86 of them doubles, 31 triples, and 10 home runs, for 691 total bases. He scores 306 runs and knocks in 278. Altogether he plays in 307 games in both the Association and NL.

As usual for a player in Meyerle’s era his percentages look much better than his raw totals. Much of that has to do with the shortness of the season. Part of it is also the relative significance of the “minor” leagues of the era. The International League and the Pacific Coast League are considered in the era (but not today) as equally important leagues with the NL and players moving there were advancing their careers, not fading away as would be the case today. Again, I have to emphasize the rules differences also matter.

But if there was ever a player destined to serve as a designated hitter, it’s Meyerle. In an era when fielding numbers were awful anyway, his are downright hideous. Wonder if anyone thought about a DH way back then? If they did, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t Meyerle’s manager. But as a hitter he’s first-rate for his era.

Three Guys You Never Heard Of

March 8, 2010

It’s been over a century since the National Association flourished. In that time even the greatest players of the era have faded into obscurity. The Hall of Fame commemorates a handful but most of those are after thoughts among visitors. Let me take a second here and resurrect three of them for you, three of the non-Hall of Famers, men who were household names among the baseball fans of the era.

Cal McVey

Cal McVey was one of the original 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the so-called first professional team. When the National Association was formed, he went with Harry Wright and a group of the Cincinnati team to Boston where they formed another team called the Red Stockings. McVey started as their primary catcher, but moved to third base and the outfield on occasion. In 1873, the Red Stockings picked up Deacon White to catch and McVey moved on to Baltimore where he played all four infield positions and the outfield. In 1874, he was back with Boston as the right fielder, switching to first base in 1875. With the death of the Association, McVey moved to Chicago and became the primary first baseman for the team that won the first National League pennant and would eventually be called the Cubs. In 1877, he was back behind the plate for Chicago, then moved onto Cincinnati in 1878 and 1879 playing third and first. His big league career ended at this point.

Levi Meyerle

Levi Meyerle was the star of the first year of the National Association. He led the league in home runs, batting average, slugging prcentage, on base percentage (and obviously OPS), and total bases. He was a third baseman, and was awful at it. His fielding percentage was .646 (some sources will go as high as the .690s, but nobody’s willing to try for .700). To go with his hitting, and in spite of his fielding, his team (the Athletics) won the pennant in 1871. After that he moved to the outfield, second, pitched a little, seemingly anywhere to keep him from fielding too much. He did manage to get his fielding percentage over .800 a couple of times, generally when he played second base but he was never great with his hands (Geez, where’s the DH when you need it?). When the Association folded he ended up with Philadelphia in the National League , then went to Cincinnati in 1878, his last real season. Out of the Major Leagues after 1878, he appeared in three games for Philadelphia of the Union Association in 1884 at age 39, He was awful. Meyerle was called “Long Levi”, apparently because he was a big man for the era. The baseball encyclopedias list him as 6’1″ and 177 pounds, which is huge in the 1870s.

Troy Haymakers; Pike at lower left

Lip Pike was the last great star before the founding of the professional leagues. In another article I wrote about The Pike Case and how it changed the nature of baseball, but here I want to look at his pro career. He played all five years in the National Association, never winning a pennant. His teams were in Troy, where he managed the first four games, Baltimore, Hartford, and St. Louis. When the National League replaced the Association in 1876, Pike stayed at St. Louis for a year, then moved on to Cincinnati for 1877 and part of 1878. In late 1878 he was in Providence, then out of the National League until he played six total games for Worcester and the New York American Association team.

Their stats:  GP/AB/H/R/2B/3B/HR/RBI/BA/OPB/SLG/OPS 

McVey: 530/3513/869/555/133/44/11/449/346/354/447/801

Meyerle:307/1443/513/306/86/31/10/278/356/360/479/839

Pike: 425/1983/637/433/120/53/21/385/322/339/468/807  

So now you’re asking yourself, why all this fuss over these three guys? Those aren’t bad numbers, but… Frankly, they illustrate some of the major problems in assessing the players of baseball’s Paleolithic Period (1871-1881).

1. The problem of beginnings. All three men were major players prior to the first easily available records beginning in 1871. How good were they? Got me. Obviously they were very good as McVey was a highly sought out member of the 1869 Red Stockings, Pike was getting in trouble for professionalism as early as 1866, and Meyerle tore up the National Association in its initial year. But that’s the problem of beginnings. The information starts in mid-career for both Meyerle and Pike. Both were age 26 in 1871 (Pike being a couple of months older). There are years prior to age 26, and judging by their later numbers those were pretty good years, but it’s difficult to find the info. One source gives Pike six home runs in a single game in the pre-1871 period. McVey at least is only 21 so we may have most of his productive years available to study.

2. The length of schedules. I’ve touched on this on the first post about the National Association. For his career, McVey led his league in games played exactly once , but never played more than 82 games in any season. That’s roughly half a current season. For their careers McVey’s 530 total games are equally divided between the Association and the NL, Meyerle plays 73% of his in the Association, and 68% of Pike’s games are in the Association. The man with the most games played (McVey)  plays just a little over three modern seasons, but his career stretches from 1871 through 1879, nine seasons. (BTW if you’re thinking of Hall of Fame credentials, Pike is the only one to play 10 years.) What kind of numbers can you put up in half a season? Actually pretty good ones. Except that, as I said on another post, anybody can get hot for a handful of games. Look at all the Rookies of the Year that have put up good 150 or so game seasons, then flamed out and never did another thing worth recalling. Heck, look up Hurricane Hazle in 1957.  

3. The differences in the game. I’ve hit this before, probably enough to bore readers to tears, but I don’t think I can stress it too much. The game was just very different in the era. How do you determine exactly how good they were when you have such different rules to deal with in making your assessment? As a simple example, none of the men ever faced a pitcher standing at 60’6″ and throwing off a mound. How would they have done? Again, got me, coach.

So there they are, three guys you’ve probably never heard about. How good were they? I’d say pretty good, but I have the objections noted above. Are they Hall of Fame quality? Again, I’m not sure. I think that if I were made a committee of one and told to assess, for the Hall of Fame, players whose primary playing years were the old National Association I might vote McVey up and the other two down. I am not rigid about that because it’s always possible new ways of assessing these guys may show up soon (and of course the 10 year rule would have to be vaived for McVey and Mayerle).

However good they were, they were good enough to be remembered if for no other reason than the fact that modern ballplayers stand on their shoulders. Without them, there’s no Ty Cobb, or Lou Gehrig, or Jackie Robinson, or Barry Bonds, or Sandy Koufax. We owe them at least a moment of memory.

This concludes, for a least a while, my journey into the mists of the National Association. As usual it’s been a profitable journey for me because I learned a great deal. Hope you can say the same.