If the Hall of Fame had elected the right guys to begin with, the Hall of Miller and Eric wouldn’t have to exist. As it is, however, there are some guys in the Hall who don’t belong there. And as a result, deserving players don’t get elected. Such deserving players, we think, include Ross Barnes, Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock, Paul Hines, and of course Joe Jackson. The Hall prefers Tommy McCarthy and Jack Chesbro. Go figure.
In the second piece in this series, we’re going to explore the reasons Jack Chesbro might have been elected. After all, he’s already received a HoME obit. So what did the 1946 Old Timers Committee see in the good but not great righty starting pitcher who threw for the Pirates and Highlanders (along with a game for the Red Sox) from 1899-1909? To put it bluntly, he’s not deserving of the honor. So there must have been something specific about his career that attracted voters.
To start, we have to consider the motivation of the Old Timers Committee. To perhaps over-exaggerate what might be quite a nuanced point, if nobody gets elected to the Hall of Fame, people stop caring about the Hall of Fame. And in 1940 the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) elected nobody. They repeated that in 1941. In 1942 Rogers Hornsby was elected. Then the BBWAA chose not to elect a single player in 1943, 1944, 1945, or 1946.
Out of self-preservation, the Hall had to do something. So the Old Timers Committee elected Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944. They brought in 10 more the next season, and 11 were added in 1946. Yes, the 1946 Old Timers Committee royally screwed up the election. You might remember them from our last piece on Tommy McCarthy, a truly mediocre player who they elected. They also elected a poem – Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers and Frank Chance – three guys about whom we’re not sure just yet. On the other hand, had they not elected anyone, perhaps we wouldn’t even be discussing the Hall today. Maybe people would have just stopped caring.
It’s not like the 1946 Old Timers Committee was all wrong. They did elect five current HoMErs – Jesse Burkett, Joe McGinnity, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, and Ed Walsh. But c’mon.
To digress for a moment, let’s hope someone with a Hall of Fame vote reads this piece in the next few years. Given the current glut of players, the BBWAA should take notice. Choose not to do your job, and someone else might do it for you. Poorly.
If we’re being fair here, Chesbro is no Tommy McCarthy. The righty from Conway, MA compiled 41.4 WAR, which is two and a half times what McCarthy put on the board. But 41.4 isn’t close to a number that we’d call great. As I type this, he’s 158th in career WAR if we’re only looking at pitching. Not even half that many pitchers are in the Hall. His WAR total is a shade better than Charlie Hough’s but not quite as good as Tom Candiotti’s. If we’re thinking about non-pitchers, consider guys like Doug DeCinces, Andy Van Slyke, and Placido Polanco. That’s the company we’re discussing. And nobody is confusing any of them with Hall of Famers.
Establishing that Chesbro isn’t qualified is pretty easy. What’s a bit harder to explain, beyond the politics of the time, is why he’s in. As always in this series, I’ll refer to Bill James’ book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, (also known as The Politics of Glory).
One chart that James lists is just too fascinating not to reprint here with a bit of extra data. He looks at Chesbro and three of his 1901 Pittsburgh Pirate teammates. It’s pretty interesting to see how similar they are. James included each of the first four columns. I added the last two.
IP W-L % ERA ERA+ WAR Jack Chesbro 2896.2 198-132 .600 2.68 111 41.4 Jesse Tannehill 2759.1 197-117 .627 2.80 114 48.7 Sam Leever 2660.2 194-100 .660 2.47 123 41.3 Deacon Philippe 2607.0 189-109 .634 2.59 120 34.2
What we see is four pitchers who threw nearly the same number of innings and had pretty equivalent career W-L records. So considering just the numbers available to experts at that time, there’s nothing that really separates Chesbro from his mates. If I had to elect one pitcher from these first four, having no more statistical information than what was available then, I think I’d have gone for Sam Leever. But I’d only do that if I were required to elect one of them. Not being so required, Eric and I stopped considering the apparently superior Leever after his first election in 1916.
If we consider the two categories I added beyond which James considered, ERA+ and WAR, Chesbro doesn’t have a better argument. You’re familiar with WAR – the number of wins a player is worth beyond those that would be put up by a replacement level player. And ERA+ attempts to adjust ERA for league quality and park factors. Average is 100, and higher is better. Adding these measures, Chesbro seems clearly behind Jesse Tannehill too. Maybe he’s better than Deacon Philippe? So what.
Interested in another chart? It could be that Chesbro was a lot more dominant than the others.
Chesbro Tannehill Leever Philippe Win titles 2 0 0 0 ERA titles 0 1 0 0 K titles 0 0 0 0 20 win seasons 4 6 4 6
Nothing to see there.
But there had to be something else that made voters choose Chesbro. Take a look at the following series of numbers to see if one jumps out at you: 41, 25, 25, 25.
See anything? I sure hope so. The first number is Chesbro’s highest single-season win total. The other numbers represent the single-season high for his 1901 teammates. Maybe we’re on to something. Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’re on to something, even though we shouldn’t be.
In 1904 Jack Chesbro won 41 games for the New York Highlanders. That’s over 20% of his career total. Naturally, New York won the pennant that year. Except they didn’t. And the reason? Jack Chesbro. He threw a wild pitch on the last day of the season that cost his team the pennant. So in his very best season, the season that likely got him elected to the Hall, Chesbro was a goat.
Other goats include the men who elected him.
Jack Chesbro doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. He’s there because of the politics of the times, an inappropriate weighing of his 1904 season, and perhaps selective forgetfulness about how that season ended. On behalf of the members of the 1946 Old Timers Committee, I apologize.