Posts Tagged ‘Ross Barnes’

Leftovers

April 26, 2018

Urban Shocker as a Yankee

Every so often the Hall of Fame decides to revamp the Veteran’s Committee. Currently there are four of them and I wouldn’t hold my breath if they moved that to five or to three between now and the next meeting later this year. That alone should tell you how difficult it is to determine exactly what the parameters are for electing members of the Hall.

One of those committees, which is supposed to meet only once in 10 years, is the really old timers committee that looks at players prior to the advent of Jackie Robinson in the big leagues. You might name it for me, the Geezer Committee. But the very fact that it is meeting only once in 10 years is to me a hopeful sign that the Hall has finally determined that they have, more or less, all the people from the pre-Korean War period that should be enshrined in Cooperstown. But of course, you know the committee is still going to meet and we also know that the Hall of Fame gives the committee a ballot (almost always with 10 names on it) to vote on. So I began to wonder what that list might look like. Yeah, I know I have too much time on my hands, but having just dodged the end of the world (or missed the rapture) I’m free again to take that time to think about such things as the veteran’s committee, Geezer edition. Here’s something of a semi-educated guess that may or may not have much to do with what the real ballot will look like (Is that wishy-washy enough for you?). This is strictly a guess and you may feel free to snicker at it, laugh aloud, curse it, or comment on my sanity as appropriate. In this I make no comment on whether the person should be or should not be in the Hall of Fame. In no particular order:

1. Daniel “Doc” Adams-is one of he founders of the sport and seems to be the most well-known. Duncan Curry, William Rufus Wheaton, and a host of others could be here as representing the people who codified the game, but Adams is probably the best know and hence most likely to be on such a ballot.

2. Bud Fowler-is probably the best 10th Century black player currently not in the Hall of Fame.

3. or maybe it’s George Stovey. Fowler was an infielder, Stovey a pitcher.

4. As the committee is now allowed to look at the period beginning in 1871 rather than 1876, it opens up the list for Ross Barnes. Barnes was a terrific hitter in the old National Association and for a few years in the new National League.

5. Joe Start played for the Atlantic in the 1860s (they were the Yankees of their day) and was one of their stars. He moved to the Association, then to the NL and continued playing into his 40s and into the 1880s. Helped Providence to a pair of pennants and to a victory in the first ever postseason series against the American Association in 1884. It was sort of an early version of the World Series. Very few players can say they gave quality play for three decades.

6. Sam Breadon owned the Cardinals from 1920 through 1947. When he took over they hadn’t won a championship in the 20th Century. By the time he retired, they were the dominant franchise in the NL.

7. Wes Ferrell is probably not in the Hall of Fame because he has a huge ERA. But the new fangled stats make it easier to see that he was a very good pitcher in a hitting era (and he could hit a little too).

8. Bucky Walters was one of those guys who started at one position (third base) and transitioned into a quality player at another position (pitcher). He won an MVP, a World Series, and, like Ferrell, could hit a little.

9. Urban Shocker may be the most overlooked pitcher of the late 19-teen and the 1920s. He pitched well enough in the Deadball Era, then moved successfully into the hitting era of the 1920s (and he played for the ’27 Yankees who have everybody else except the batboy in the Hall).

10. Candy Jim Taylor was a superb player, then became a manager and ultimately took over the reins of the Negro League Homestead Grays during their most successful period in the 1940s. Obviously he should not be confused with Jim Taylor, the fullback for the Vince Lombardi Packers of the 1960s.

So there it is, a solid guess at what the really Old-Timers Veteran’s Committee list will look like when it’s published a couple of years from now (and the least likely players to actually show up are probably the Negro League guys). By then, this should be well hidden on this blog and most of you will have forgotten you ever saw it. That may be for the best.

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).

 

 

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 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.

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.

Old Guys; New Stats

December 21, 2012

The proliferation of new statistics in the last few years has been a mixed blessing. Some of them are pretty good, others not so much. In studying 19th Century baseball I’ve used both the traditional stats (ERA, BA, hits, runs, etc) and the newer stats (OPS+, ERA+, WAR, etc) to look at the players. The newer stats present something of a conundrum.

Below I’ve listed the OPS+ of two players. Their stat is for a five consecutive year period at the peak of each man’s career (all stats below from Baseball Reference.com):

player 1: 186/175/184/147/142

player 2: 211/207/143/176/235

Now the WAR for a five consecutive year period during the career peak for two players:

player 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8

player 2: 4.7/5.2/2.5/5.8/6.1

Next the ERA+ of two pitchers, again for a five consecutive year period during their peak years:

pitcher 1: 155/149/185/217/160

pitcher 2: 167/143/135/115/129

Finally the WAR for two pitchers over a five consecutive year period at their peak:

pitcher 1: 7.9/6.8/8.6/5.7/4.8

pitcher 2: 12.3/10.2/11.3/13.4/14.0

First, the obvious question, “who are these guys?” The first player in both OPS+ and WAR is Joe DiMaggio in the years 1939-42 and 1946 (Joltin’ Joe lost two years to World War II). The second player in both stats is Ross Barnes in the years 1872-76. And here a caveat. I realize that Barnes is in the National Association in 1872-75 and the National League only in 1876, but as his stats are available I’m going to use them. The first pitcher in both ERA+ and WAR is Lefty Grove in 1928-1932 and the second pitcher for both stats is Tommy Bond in 1875-1879 (and, again, Bond is in the NA in 1875).

Notice a few things? First, the two hitters are pretty comparable, aren’t they? According to OPS+ Barnes is better than DiMaggio three times, and in WAR is better twice. In fact, other than Barnes’ third number in both lists, they are pretty much a wash. And somehow we all know that’s just wrong. Does anyone seriously consider Ross Barnes as good as Joe DiMaggio, even if for only a five-year period? I doubt it. 

Now take a look at the pitchers. The two men are roughly comparable for the first two years of ERA+, then Grove really takes off. In WAR, Bond is consistently better. Really? Would you truly want Tommy Bond over Lefty Grove? Again, I doubt it.

So what’s going on here? Surely a number of things. First, the 19th Century players are involved in a lot fewer games played and anybody can get hot for a few games. Look up Bob Hazle in 1957 if you don’t believe me. Secondly, the nature of the way pitchers are used in the 19th Century, especially early, is so utterly different that it blows statistics completely out of kilter. Sticking with Grove and Bond, if you look at one single stat, batters faced, you see the problem immediately. In his career, the most batters Grove faced in any season was 1191 in 1930. Bond, on the other hand, faced 1408 as his low in 1875 (his high was 2189 in 1879). Think that fact alone doesn’t skew the stats? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “you betcha.” (My, God, I’m quoting Sarah Palin. Yutz.)

And these two things alone make it imperative that the newer stats be used carefully when looking at 19th Century players. I’m not suggesting they be ignored. What I am suggesting is that a slavish devotion to any of the stats is a mistake, particularly in the world of 19th Century baseball, where even the word, base ball, is different.

The Star of the National Association

October 29, 2010

Major League baseball is in denial about a lot of things. Things like drugs and gambling and corked bats make a little sense. but strangely enough it is at odds with its own beginnings. MLB says that the National Association, which flourished from 1871-1875, wasn’t really a major league. Now let me see if I have this straight. Professional ball players are playing ball at the highest available professional level, right? That sounds to me like a “Major League”. Does it to you? As long as they refuse to admit the National Association into the fraternity of major leagues the players of that era are going to be even more obscure than they would otherwise be. That includes the undeniable star of the National Association, Ross Barnes.

Ross Barnes

Barnes was born in New York in 1850. He played league baseball beginning in 1868, becoming a professional in 1869. In 1871 with the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, Barnes joined the Boston Red Stockings, splitting time between second base and shortstop. He settled in at second base and became the dominant player in the league for the rest of its existence. In the five years Barnes played for Boston, the team finished a contested second in 1871, then rolled to four consecutive pennants.

With the collapse of the Association after the 1875 season, Barnes joined the Chicago White Stockings of the fledgling National League. As usual for his team, it won the pennant in 1876. So far so good for Barnes. Then came 1877.

 There are two versions of what happened to Barnes. In 1877 the NL changed the rule that allowed a bunted ball to be declared fair or foul depending on where it first landed. Barnes was a master of chopping the ball so that it landed fair, then slid foul. By the time the fielder caught up to it, Barnes had a hit. If the fielder played to take away the fair-four bunt, then Barnes would swing away. With this play now being simply a foul ball, Barnes’ ability to use it caused his career to crash. The second story is that in 1877 Barnes caught a fever (type undetermined) and simply never recovered. I’m not sure which is true. The first presupposes that Barnes simply couldn’t adapt to a new style of hitting, the second that he couldn’t recover his health enough to play. Both are a little far-fetched. Most good hitters (especially in the era before home run specialization) can do more than one thing well, and if the fever weakened him that much he still managed to live another 38 years. My best guess, and that’s all it is, is that his problem was a combination of the two. Physically weakened and without his best hitting weapon, his career sagged.

Barnes hung on through 1881, missing all of 1878 and 1880, then retired. He did some umpiring between 1874 and 1890. I’m not sure how you ump when you’re an active player, but it seems to have been considered acceptable in the earliest years of Major League baseball. Several people other than Barnes also do it. After retirement he spent time working in Chicago. He died in 1915 and is buried in Rockford, Illinois (later home of the Peaches).

Between 1871 and 1876 Ross Barnes’ numbers are astounding. Even in an era of high hitting stats, his are over the top. In five years in the Association, he hits above .400 three times and hits in the .360s and .340s the other two. He leads the league in on base percentage (OBP) twice, in slugging twice, and in total bases three times. He leads the league in hits and runs three times; in doubles twice; and in triples, stolen bases, walks and singles once each. In the NL’s rookie campaign he leads the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases (add Al Spaulding on the mound and you see why Chicago won the first NL pennant). For his career he hits .391 in the Association and .319 in the NL with OBPs of  .415 and .356. His OPS (on base plus slugging) is .933 and .757.  There are all sorts of variation in the numbers for Barnes’ era. The stats above are from Baseball Reference.com.

Barnes played a total of four years in the NL, making him ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Even if you add in his Association numbers he only has nine years. I’m going to argue that for guys who were in at the beginning of professional baseball the ten year rule should be waived. Barnes played prior to the formation of the NL and those years have to count for something. In my opinion the Association is a Major League and in the years prior to 1871 Barnes is a productive player for the teams of the era. I know it won’t happen, but it should.

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.