When I think of the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’m sometimes reminded of Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way”, at least a couple of lines from it. Sinatra sang,
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
Bold, right? And for an individual, it’s a pretty impressive mantra. To be audacious, to be a trailblazer, to do things your way – that’s pretty impressive for a life.
Not so impressive for a Hall of Fame.
Eric and I undertook this project because we believe the Hall of Fame has gotten it wrong. They have done so and continue to do so with the audacity of Sinatra.
In this, the first in an occasionally recurring series, we’re going to explore players who were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame but have received an obituary in the Hall of Miller and Eric. We’ll offer some simple measures to explain how the Coop erred, share some recent(ish) comparable players to put the failure in perspective, and try to explain the reason(s) the Hall failed.
Tommy McCarthy was a right fielder and left fielder who played parts of 13 seasons for five teams in three leagues. Really though, his career was just the nine seasons he topped 53 games, from 1888-1896. And he was about a league average hitter, posting a career OPS+ of 102.
For some perspective, let’s consider his career WAR of 14.7. That’s less than Mike Trout has had in his first two seasons, a lot less. He’s tied for 1914th place in history. He’s tied with such greats as Ralph Garr, Ron Karkovice, and Rick Waits. Of course, none of them belongs in the Hall.
I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes looking at so many players obscures things. How does McCarthy rate just among right fielders? Well, he’s tied for 147th place. Tony Armas, Ruben Sierra, and Bernie Carbo are all ahead of him.
Clearly, Tommy McCarthy isn’t qualified to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. So why is he? How did the Hall go wrong? For this and many other Hall questions, I refer you to Bill James’ book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (The Politics of Glory).
The truth is that James doesn’t answer this question about McCarthy, at least not directly and specifically. So we’re left to speculate.
From what I’ve read, McCarthy was quite well respected as a person. And as Roger Clemens, for example, will tell you, character seems to matter to Hall voters. But Dale Murphy might tell you otherwise. And Ty Cobb would say that it doesn’t f’ing matter. Except Cobb might punch you as he’s saying it.
Fine, McCarthy was a nice guy. But there’s certainly more to it than that. Some, including baseball historian Dave Fleitz, have said that McCarthy’s induction was more about his contribution to the strategic aspects of the game than about his statistical performance. Well, it would have to be, right?
Monte Ward credits McCarthy with the invention of the hit-and-run. And Bill Lamb’s article at the SABR Bio Project touts McCarthy’s early adoption of the outfield trap play and sign stealing. I’m just going to eliminate out of hand trapping a ball to deceive runners and stealing signs from the opponent as paths to the Hall. But maybe there’s something to the hit-and-run point.
Bill James seems to agree that McCarthy was its most likely inventor. He also explains in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that John McGraw took part in a 30-year campaign to say the play was invented in Baltimore, not Boston (where McCarthy played). And Cap Anson said that it was used by his White Stockings – prior to the time McCarthy was said to have invented it.
So here’s what Dave Fleitz wants us to believe – that the Veterans’ Committee, which elected McCarthy in 1946, a half century after the hit-and-run was created, credited McCarthy rather than the historically great Anson or the vocal and ever-present John McGraw who spent 40+ years in the game. Really? I just don’t buy that.
But just in case you do, there’s one additional problem you have to consider. McCarthy was elected to the Hall as a player, not as a pioneer. As such, he was elected based on his play, not based on his innovation. Just to clarify, he was elected based on a career WAR relatively equivalent to Walter Johnson’s 1912 season, not his hit-and-run innovation.
To understand how that’s possible, we have to consider a group called the Permanent Committee, or the Old-Timers Committee. They were established in 1939 to consider the careers of overlooked 19th century contributors. And in 1939, they elected five guys. Three were players, and all three – Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, and Old Hoss Radbourne – were fine selections. Then things changed. The baseball writers couldn’t elect anyone, and the Hall wanted elections. In 1944 Judge Landis expanded membership on the committee to six and gave them the power to dictate the rules for selection. That newfound authority didn’t impact McCarthy, but it did have a huge institutional impact, which we’ll discuss in coming articles in this series.
There was an Old-Timers lull until 1944 when they elected, you guessed it, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Sketchy, but fine. After that, however, the flood gates opened. Ten more were put in the next year, and McCarthy joined ten others in 1946. Twenty-one guys in two years, many of whom you’ll hear about in future articles in this series.
All I can do is guess to the thought process of a group working nearly 70 years ago. Tough, huh. It’s basically as tough as the job the committee had in 1946 – fifty years after McCarthy retired. This might be hard to believe, but there was no Internet in 1946. Which means there was no baseballreference. The horror!
The Old-Timers Committee was evaluating players either on their own or on the reports of experts. Those experts included historians, of course, and they also included players. Historians were operating with far less information than we are today. Players were operating with tremendous bias and often lacked expertise in evaluation. If you doubt that, listen to Harold Reynolds and Mitch Williams on the MLB Network sometime.
Just taking a guess, it’s possible McCarthy was lumped in with 1945 Old-Timers inductee, Hugh Duffy, in the minds of some voters. Duffy and McCarthy were known as the Heavenly Twins in the Boston Beaneaters’ outfield. Off the field, the two were business partners, friends, and, well, twins. I guess. Duffy wasn’t as miserable a selection as McCarthy, though he was far from an ideal one. And by 1946, Duffy was a Hall of Famer! Surely if McCarthy was Duffy’s twin, he’s deserving too.
The more insidious among us might guess something else. There were only six members on the powerful Old-Timers Committee. They included Connie Mack, Yankee President Ed Barrow, Hall founder Stephen C. Clark, and three others. Let me introduce those three. First, there’s Boston baseball writer, Mel Webb. Second, we have and a man who previously owned the Boston Red Sox and at the time had ownership interest in the Boston Braves, Bob Quinn. And finally, there’s one-time writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and road secretary for the St. Louis Browns, Sid Mercer. Almost all of McCarthy’s career was for the Boston Beaneaters and St. Louis Browns. Interesting.
You think it’s a stretch that he was lumped in with Duffy or that there was some sort of nepotism? Maybe, maybe not. But neither theory is as big a stretch that a full review of his playing record and subsequent determination that his statistics merited inclusion with Eddie Collins, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby would have been.
I don’t have a better answer, and it’s too bad the Hall doesn’t either. Yes, the Hall has some regrets. Or at least they should.