Right away in our first election, we encounter three candidates who test the limits of our preferences, analysis, and confidence.
- Peak vs. Career: Barnes is among the ultimate peak players; Start (aka: “Old Reliable”) is among the ultimate career cases; Pearce…who knows?
- Advanced defensive metrics: Their degree of accuracy is a matter of debate—Barnes is given high, high marks by all defensive systems; Start’s defensive stats are decidedly mixed; Pearce has good defensive numbers
- Career length: Barnes 9 big league years; Start 16; Pearce 7
- Pre-MLB play: The 1850s and 1860s are sketchily documented with stats that look different than those we use today—Barnes appears to have 1-2 pre-National Association (NA) seasons in the National Association of Baseball Players (NABBP), about one-tenth of his likely career; Start as many as 10 seasons, about 40% of his likely career; Pearce perhaps 15, about 75% of his likely career; in each of their cases, those seasons could put them over the line for one or both of us.
- Schedule length: This trio played most of their careers during a period with schedules under 100 games…how do you compare Barnes dominating a 30, 50, or 70 game schedule to similarly dominant players with longer schedules…or less dominant players with longer schedules? Or Start and Pearce in NABBP seasons as short as 6 or 10 games (during Civil War travel restrictions)?
- League quality: The early leagues (and before them NABBP club circuits) varied widely in the quality of their teams
- Expert historical opinion: None of these three guys is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Bill James’ recently expressed his feeling about Barnes as a Hall of Fame candidate in this word: “Yecch!”—he was more expansive on why in the New Historical Abstract. John Thorn, who knows more about that era than damn near anyone, feels the opposite way, and the Hall of Merit elected Barnes in its very first (1898) election; Start eventually made the HOM as well and there are experts who mention him as one of the three best players of the 1860s (along with George Wright and Dickey Pearce), and Thorn would induct Start too; Thorn would take Pearce as well, the HOM took a while but eventually voted him in.
- Expert contemporary opinion: How much can we trust contemporary opinion? We know today that sports writers and players are often flat wrong or extremely biased in their observations of players. Yet, we also know that these guys were each hailed by their contemporaries as superstars in their time.
These are just a few of the issues that these three players (and to a lesser degree George Wright, Cal McVey, Lip Pike, and Ezra Sutton) force us to consider. But we’re in good company, because it’s what anyone that creates a Hall has to do.
Even if it isn’t easy.
Hell, if it was easy, what would be the value in it?