Posts Tagged ‘Vic Willis’

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1919

September 3, 2015

By 1919 World War I was over. The Treaty of Versailles was signed; but the United States refused to ratify it, causing a huge split in the government. There were race riots in the streets as a combination of black Americans moving into the North and rising expectations by blacks because of their support of the war effort (both at home and in France) bumping up against an economic downturn fueled by racism led to clashes in a number of towns. A lot of Americans just wanted a “return to normalcy” as future President Warren G. Harding put it. Into all of this I drop My Own Little Hall of Fame‘s class of 1919 (with commentary to follow).

Frank Leland

Frank Leland

After spending time as a player in late 19th Century Negro baseball, Frank Leland became an entrepreneur and formidable force in Negro baseball. His Leland Giants were one of the strongest teams in Chicago and helped set the standard for competition among black teams. He worked tirelessly to form a Negro league that could last and could showcase Negro baseball at the highest level.

Al Reach

Al Reach

After leading his team to the first American Association pennant, Albert Reach became the founder of a major sporting goods company. Later he owned the Philadelphia National League team and became a major power among the league owners. His Reach Guide is a primary source for baseball statistics and information.

Vic Willis

Vic Willis

Star pitcher for several National League teams, Vic Willis amassed 249 wins over a 13 year career, gaining over 20 wins on six occasions. He led the National League in strikeouts once, and helped is team to a World’s Championship in 1909.

And now the commentary:

  1. When and where I grew up, all public accommodations came in pairs, one marked “white” and the other “colored”. I’ve always been offended by the “colored” label, but until now have used it because it seems that it was the most common word of the day. By 1919 the word “Negro” appears to supplant it a lot. Although “negro” has its own negative connotations, it seems the newly acceptable word of the day, so I will now use it in comments on Negro League players and executives. Frankly, I’m much more comfortable with it than with “colored” and am glad to make the move.
  2. Willis has taken a while to get into the mythical 1901 Hall of Fame. His numbers aren’t bad, but the big numbers of the day (wins, strikeouts) aren’t as high as other pitchers and as mentioned in a previous article I think his loss total, especially the 2 years he led the NL in losses, would hurt him. I think that would have made it difficult for him to show up in a Deadball Era Hall of Fame. Additionally, he led the NL in losses twice and that, combined with the lack of 250 wins would have, in my opinion, hurt his chances. BTW, the 249 isn’t written in stone yet in 1919, but it appears to be taking hold as a consensus.
  3. Al Reach is, in my opinion, one of the more overlooked people in Neolithic baseball. He was a good player, not a great one. He was a successful owner, although the Phils never won while he owned them (which is true of most Phillies teams without regard to owner). His business was successful and for years he provided official baseballs. Finally the Reach Guide was the premier baseball guide for half a century (more or less). The Guide was Reach’s baby, but he didn’t actually write it (Henry Chadwick was a primary mover in the earliest years of the Guide). Nonetheless, Reach’s sponsorship of the Guide helped his case for this mythical Hall of Fame.
  4. Leland? In an era of increasing racial tension, the election of a black man to a baseball Hall of Fame is utterly unlikely. But I also think 1919 is probably the last chance to put in a leader in Negro League baseball for the next several years. There’s really no chance he gets in in a 1919 Hall of Fame, but as I’ve stipulated I’ll be willing to elect Negro League players and executives, I’m letting him in, knowing that the next time there’s even a chance of it would be about 1924 or 1925 (give or take). And as for him as a Hall of Famer, I’m quite comfortable suggesting he should be in Cooperstown (where he isn’t).
  5. Two execs and just one player? Right now a Hall of Fame in the era is in something of a trough. There’s a long lull that lasts through 1921 when the quality of players retiring, quite frankly, isn’t all that great. In 1920 Frank Chance becomes eligible, in 1921 there’s Fred Clarke, Danny Murphy, and Roger Bresnahan. Among pitchers only Clark Griffith shows up. Griffith is perhaps better looked at as a manager and owner. Bresnahan and Chance are at best people I’m going to think long and hard about. Clarke is probably a keeper and Murphy should have no chance. That’s basically it until 1922 when we find peoples with names like Mathewson, Brown, and LaJoie. So this year (and the next two) is an opportunity for me clear out some holdovers and a number of contributors. As mentioned above, I’m quite comfortable with adding Leland (despite the obvious truth that a black man wasn’t going to get into a real Hall of Fame) and Reach.
  6. The quality of the statistics available is getting better. The 1920s see the beginning of something like a consensus about which stats were important and what specific numbers specific players put up. Remember this set of statistics is the old one that most of us grew up using, not the newer information that has become available only recently. It’s important to recall that even the so called “traditional” statistics took a while to be accepted and standardized. So don’t be surprised at the opposition to the more modern ones.

And now back to the 1963 Series.

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Deadball Losses

August 18, 2015

By way of something of a sneak peek at my next My Little Hall of Fame class, here’s a line of stats on three different Deadball Era pitchers. The stats in order are Wins/Losses/ERA/Strikeouts/ERA+/WHIP/WAR (BBREF version)

373/188/2.13/79/2507/135/1.058/95.3

249/205/2.63/50/1651/118/1.209/67.1

239/130/2.06/55/1375/139/1.066/55.1

Take a second and look over all three lines. Good pitchers all, right? All are in the Hall of Fame. All of them pitched at least part of their careers at the same time in the same league. One of them took a lot longer to get into the Hall than the other two.

The guy on top is Christy Mathewson. By anyone’s reckoning a Hall of Famer. In fact he got in on the very first election ever. The Third guy is Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, the ace of those Chicago Cubs teams that won a slew of games in the 1906-1910 era. His last game was 1916 and he made Cooperstown in 1949 (a year after he died). The middle guy is Vic Willis. His last game was 1910 and he finally made the Hall of Fame via the Veteran’s Committee in 1995.

You really don’t have to look too closely to see that Matty is better than the other two, although Brown won an inordinate number of their head-to-head confrontations including their most famous matchup, the replay of the “Merkle Boner.” But in ERA Brown is better, his WHIP is almost equal. Willis is the weakest of the three, especially if you use the newer SABR style statistics. But he’s not significantly weaker. Well, except for one big number, he’s the only one with 200 losses.

We’ve decided over the last couple of dozen years that wins and losses for pitchers aren’t really that important a statistic. And that’s probably true, especially in an era of five or six inning starters and lefty-specialist relievers and closers who can’t throw more than a dozen or so pitches without needing a week and a half off. But I think it’s less true of Deadball Era pitchers.

It’s an era when pitchers were expected to go nine innings (or more in case of ties) and bullpens were the place they put the washed up has-beens, or the new guys, or some guy just coming off an injury. So the starter in 1915 had a lot more influence on the entirety of the game than does the starter in 2015. So maybe a “win” or a “loss” isn’t the best way to measure a pitcher in any era, but in the Deadball Era it had a lot more resonance.

All of which brings me to Willis’ loss total. It’s bigger than the others by quite a lot. More significantly he leads the National League in losses twice: 1904 and 1905. His win-loss totals for those two seasons are 18-25 and 12-29. Just looking at those numbers tells us that Willis is a bum, right? But that’s the problem with looking at wins and losses. His ERA’s are 2.85 and 3.21 (in order). Those aren’t great ERA numbers for the Deadball Era, but they’re not terrible either (the 3.21 is the third worst of Willis’ career). His WHIP is 1.331 and then 1.307. Again, neither are the worst of his career. In both years his strikeouts are greater than his walks (you noticed the WHIP and figured that out, right?) and his innings pitched are more than his hits allowed (also reflected in the WHIP) in 1904, but that’s reversed in 1905. His BBREF WAR for the two years are 3.0 and 3.2 (again in order). Those are greatly inferior to the years around them (8.8, 8.4, 6.1 in the three years prior and 8.2 the year after–Willis’ last big year).

My point here is that Willis has a good career with two weak years, one with a bad Boston (Braves, not Red Sox) team and a rebuilding Pirates team, and those two years give him 54 losses (151 in all other years combined). I think those loss numbers made it much harder for Willis to get into the Hall of Fame than they should. Although I believe that win-loss records are more significant for Deadball Era pitchers than for modern pitchers, the overemphasis on them created a problem that hurt Willis is the long run. I guess all that means that in general I agree that too much time is spent looking at win-loss records and not enough time looking at other things when evaluating a pitcher.

1910: Pirates Postmortem

October 1, 2010

When the 1910 season began, Fred Clarke’s Pirates were defending champions of both the National League and the World Series. When the 1910 season ended they were third, 86-67, 17.5 games out of first. What went wrong?

First, it should be noted that 1909 was something of a fluke for Pittsburgh. They finished 110–42 for the season. But in 1907 they were 91-63. In 1908 they were 98-56. That’s a 12 game improvement in 1910, but only seven games in 1909. Secondly, the team was aging, especially the big names. Honus Wagner, who won the batting title 1906-09 (and would win again in 1911) was 36. Clarke was 37, Tommy Leach was 32, and 1903 World Series hero Deacon Phillippe was 38. Both Clarke and Leach had noticeably weak years and Phillippe, although 14-2, only started eight games. And Wagner? Well, Wagner was Wagner. He hit .320, led the NL in hits (tied with teammate Bobby Byrne), and slugged .432. All were fine, but both the average and the slugging were down.

The rest of the team was younger, but not all that good (except for Byrne). Twenty-two year old Vin Campbell hit .326 off the bench, but no one else, starter or substitute, with 20 or more games played hit above .276. The team slugging average dipped to third in the league.

The pitching was down. Babe Adams had a good year at 18-9, but the other three starters were all barely .500 pitchers (with Howie Camnitz actually going 12-13). Vic Willis, who was 22-11 in 1909 was in St. Louis. He went 9-12 for the Cards, but the 22 wins weren’t made up in Pittsburgh.

By 1910, the Pirates were on a downward spiral. They were still competitive, and would remain so for the next two years before the wheels fell off, but you can see age and talent issues beginning to crop up. It will be 15 years (1925) before they will be back in a World Series.

Opening Day, 1910: St. Louis (NL)

April 12, 2010

Miller Huggins (1910)

I asked myself one day which National League team had the worst overall record in the Deadball Era. Answer: the St. Louis Cardinals. Considering what they’ve meant to baseball since, I find that a lot strange. By the start of the 1910 season, the last time they’d seen the first division was 1901. In 1909 they finished 56 games out of first.

In 1909 they picked up a new manager, Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan. He immediately inserted himself as the backup catcher and almost as quickly came into conflict with most of his players. He was from the Giants, had been Christy Mathewson’s catcher, and was a student of John McGraw. The Cardinals weren’t very Giantlike and it created problems for Bresnahan.

The team, as befits a seventh place finisher, underwent major changes going into the 1910 season. Half the starters were new. Ed Konetchy was still at first and hitting cleanup, but Miller Huggins was over from Cincinnati to play second and leadoff. Arnie Howser was now the shortstop and eight hitter, with Mike Mowrey, a previous backup, taking over at third and hitting seventh.

The outfield consisted of holdovers Rube Ellis in left and Steve Evans in right, They hit second and fifth. The new guys was Rebel Oakes, like Huggins, from Cincinnati. He took the three hole. And the regular catcher was seven hitter Ed Phelps.

The bench was Bresnahan catching, Rudy Hulwitt the backup middle infielder, Frank Betcher another backup infielder, and Ody Abbott as the fourth outfielder. It wasn’t much of a bench,, Bresnahan being the only one to manage .250 during the season.

The pitching staff of 1909 consisted of six guys who failed to break even on the mound. Fred Beebe, Johnny Lush, Slim Sallee, Bob Harmon, Charlie Rhodes, and Les Backman are all pretty obscure, and there’s a reason for that. Only Sallee would ever do much. By 1910 Beebe was gone, replaced by Vic Willis who came to St. Louis from pennant winning Pittsburgh. Eddie Higgins, 1909’s bullpen man, managed only two games in 1910 and was ultimately replaced by committee. There just wasn’t much of an improvement for the staff over the offseason.

There was very little reason for hope in St. Louis as the 1910 season began. The changes were insignificant, but at least the average age of the pitchers had gone from  23 to 26, so the added maturity might be a blessing. Also Huggins appeared to be a real player and Bresnahan’s fire was encouraging. But when you’ve just finished 56 games out, you need more than maturity and fire. You need talent.

Next: Boston

The Dutchman vs the Peach

January 19, 2010

By general consensus the two great position players of the Deadball Era are Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Two people more unalike is tough to imagine. Wagner was from the Pennsylvania coal fields. He was quiet, dignified, admired by his teammates, apparently relatively free from racism (when told John Henry Lloyd was being called “The Black Wagner”, Honus was supposed to have said he was honored to be compared with Lloyd). Cobb, on the other hand, was from Georgia. Quiet would never describe him. He was brash, angry, violent, tolerated rather than liked by his teammates, and violently racist. The did have one thing in common, they were great ballplayers. For fans who wanted to see both in action against each other, there was a problem. Wagner (“The Flying Dutchman”) played in the National League while Cobb (“The Georgia Peach”) played in the American League. The only way they could be on the same field in an meaningful game would be in the World Series. In 1909, that finally happened.

Cobb’s Detroit Tigers swept to the American League pennant by 3.5 games over the A’s. Led by Cobb, who hit league leading numbers of 377 in batting, 107 RBI’s, and 9 homers to become the second American Leaguer to win the Triple Crown (Nap LaJoie in 1901), the Tigers had future Hall of Famers Sam Crawford and manager Hughie Jennings on the team. The leading pitchers were George Mullin (29 wins) and Ed Willett (22 wins).

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who knocked off the Cubs by 6.5 games, had Wagner who led the league in hitting at 339 and in RBI’s at 100, along with a league leading 39 doubles. They also had future Hall of Famer and manager-left fielder Fred Clarke and got good seasons from Bill Abstein (1st base), Dots Miller (2nd base), and Tommy Leach (center field). The pitching was led by Howie Camnitz (25 wins) and future Hall of Famer Vic Willis (22 wins).

It was a good series, the first to go the full compliment of 7 games (The 1903 Series was a best of nine. There was a game 7, but it was the penultimate game.) The Pirates won all the odd numbered games, the Tigers the even numbered games (what are the chances of that?). Neither Wagner nor Cobb were the stars. Cobb hit only 231, stole only 2 bases, but led the team with 5 RBIs. Wagner did better hitting 333 with 6 stolen bases and 2 RBIs. But the big stars were Clarke who hit both Pirates home runs and tallied 7 RBIs with only a 211 batting average, Leach who hit 360, and an obscure pitcher named Babe Adams who won 3 of the Pirates 4 games (13 game winner Nick Maddox won the other game). Adams put up a 1.33 ERA and struck out 11 in 27 innings. He pitched three complete game victories, including game 7.

When the Series ended, Pittsburgh had its first championship, the Tigers had lost 3 World Series’ in a row. Neither Cobb nor Wagner would ever make it back to a Series as a player. Both men would be in the initial Hall of Fame class.