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The 19th Century’s Most Overlooked

It's not a reach to say that these guys were heroes in their day…it's a Reach.

It’s not a reach to say that these guys were heroes in their day…it’s a Reach.

Notice that headline says most overlooked. Nearly every baseball player or personality before 1901 is overlooked, especially those not in the Hall of Fame. It’s merely a question of degree. Many, perhaps most, died before the Hall of Fame opened.

Let’s face it, these guys aren’t just dead—their sons, grandsons, great grandsons, and possibly great-great grandsons are dead too. Who’s left to advocate for those 19th Century greats who the Hall of Fame hasn’t sworn into the club yet? SABR, that’s who!

This week SABR conducted its annual Overlooked 19th Century Legend voting. The key criteria: active as a player, manager, executive, etc predominantly in the 19th Century and not an elected member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Past winners:

M&E = Hall of Miller and Eric
F = Hall of Fame, elected after winning the SABR award
M = Hall of Merit
S = Hall of Stats

Here at the Hall of Miller and Eric we have previously covered the Hall of Fame’s 2014 elections. So now we’ll answer in our way the question posed by SABR’s 19th Century Baseball Committee.*

*Shout out to our Twitter friend Adam Darowski of The Hall of Stats who is a member of this committee!

The ballot

This year’s ten-man ballot as determined by the SABR 19th Century committee:

Miller and I are not well qualified to speak on Adams and Creighton (pioneers) nor on Reach whose achievements are many, diverse, and include only a little ballplaying. Setting them aside, who would we vote for given the criteria for election? Jack Glasscock in a landslide. We must vote for five, and my personal ballot would read in rank order, holding my nose over the last three:

  • Glasscock
  • Hines
  • Caruthers
  • Mullane
  • Van Haltren

Is that your final answer?

Based on the precedent of the award and its broad instructions, we might have chosen some other names to appear in the player slots. With heaps and heaps of respect directed toward the committee and its members, after retaining the well-chosen Adams, Creighton, Reach, Glasscock, and Hines we’d probably round things out this way:

  • Charlie Bennett
  • Cupid Childs
  • George Gore
  • Ned Williamson
  • Mike Griffin

Realistically, none of these guys probably has Glasscock’s visibility (such as it is) and in that sense seem more overlooked. But only Charlie Bennett’s performance gets close enough to Glasscock’s to make things interesting. Bennett ranks right inside of the top 10 catchers for Miller and I both, and he’s the only career-long catcher of any merit from the 19th Century. Bennett hit well enough that he could have moonlighted elsewhere to save his legs and hands, just like Buck Ewing, King Kelly, and Deacon White. But in an era that ground up catchers and spit them out, he stuck it out behind the dish. But not behind a mask. Or shinguards. Or a chest protector. Or much of a glove really. The complete catching ensemble wouldn’t emerge until ten or fifteen years after Bennett’s career ended.

Glasscock clearly has better career stats and lots of good career fielding numbers. But when it comes to overlookedness, good luck beating a catcher. Even without the Tools of Ignorance obscuring his identity, Bennett remains stubbornly invisible. He has found his way into the Halls of Miller and Eric, Merit, and Stats, but it’s a small, very small group of folks that know his name, let alone his excellence on the field.

When it comes to push and shove, you can’t lose with Glasscock or Bennett. Generally, I feel like there’s more groundswell around Pebbly Jack with Ozzie Smith having broken many of his career fielding records and providing a link that interested fans can latch onto. It’s hard to find comps for Bennett. Reviewing catchers of his period requires a deeper interpretative look into the stats and context: catching was just so different then. His stats don’t look sexy because backstops played many fewer games. I’d call it 52:48 in “favor” of Bennett as the most overlooked 19th Century player, with the balance tipping toward him because SABR’s own 19th Century committee didn’t nominate him.

And by the way, I disagree with love and respect because this committee does good work such as this, on their own time and dimes, to raise awareness of these obscure legends and many others.

Thanks to them for stoking the conversation!

—Eric

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “The 19th Century’s Most Overlooked

  1. I find it interesting to note the absence of Tip O’Neill from their already chosen few or from this year’s ballot. I did a blog post on Creighton a couple of years back. It’s amazing how well known he was in his day. He had about him that Koufax air as someone who’s career was cut short and we never saw him as a has-been.
    BTW you might want to take a look at a guy named Charley Jones. Probably not someone you’d put in your Hall, but certainly a fascinating career.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | June 27, 2014, 8:40 am
    • V2, I’m something of a Charley Jones fan. Ever since I first saw his name in late-1980s book title A Chronological History of Major League Baseball Records, I’ve found his mysterious career interesting. Like you said, a very interesting story, and one of the accidents of history who played a small but important role in the reserve clause’s bleak narrative. Until recently was also one of the SABR bio committee’s most wanted. Anyhow, I’m glad you mentioned him. He’s in the Hall of Merit, and I voted for him then. But, as you smartly note, our rule set won’t give him the same interpretive room that the HOM does. Good to see there’s others out there who like him and want him to get a little extra sunshine.

      Posted by eric | June 27, 2014, 9:30 pm
      • Glad to hear you’re a Jones fan. Sometimes I think I’m the only person who has ever heard of him. 🙂
        v

        Posted by verdun2 | June 27, 2014, 11:23 pm

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