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SABR’s Next Overlooked 19th Century Player

Overlooked? We don't think so.

Overlooked? We don’t think so.

There was a time in the mid-1980s when friends and I used to say that Harold Baines got so much attention for being underrated that he became overrated. Truth be told, Baines was never underrated to begin with. He was a negative on the bases, grounded into too many double plays, was a butcher in the field, and you know the rest. But it was 1986. We didn’t know what we were talking about. And if in 100 years kids are ever discussing baseball of a century earlier, they won’t identify Baines as underrated or overlooked. They’ll identify him as a guy who reached 3.0 WAR only twice ever. But mercifully, this post isn’t about Harold Baines.

SABR’s 19th Century Committee recently announced their finalists for their Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend. This is a little game this committee has been playing since 2009, and it’s one in which they’ve largely done a fine job. Today we’re going to review their past honorees and offer our pick for the 2015 winner.

In 2009 they selected Pete Browning, a center fielder who was at his best for Louisville in the American Association. Depending on how you adjust for schedule and competition, Browning might rank right on the HoME border or several slots behind, either at the George Gore/Mike Griffin level or the Jimmy Ryan/Vada Pinson level. Either way, it’s nice that The Gladiator got some press, though he was the recipient of a HoME obituary in our 1997 election.

Speaking of press, the SABR folks called Deacon White overlooked in 2010, and the Hall called him a new member just three years later. Resting somewhere in between Home Run Baker and Ken Boyer among third basemen, White’s career spanned 20 seasons, with his best campaigns at the very close of the National Association and the opening of the National League. He made it to the HoME quite easily, as one of our first trio of awardees in 1901.

Harry Stovey took their award in 2011. If classified as a first baseman, he’s roughly equivalent to John Olerud or Will Clark and similarly overlooked. If we consider him a left fielder, we might rank him with someone like Joe Medwick or Jim O’Rourke. In other words, though he’s not a HoMEr, he has a nice case. By our 2000 election, we decided we had reviewed his case enough, thus his obituary.

Their favorite selection of ours through six elections has to be their 2012 overlooked player, Bill Dahlen. Dahlen was a shortstop who crossed into the 20th century but whose best work came for the Chicago Colts in the 1890s. We think Dahlen is one of the five to seven best shortstops ever, and he made it into the HoME the first time he was eligible in 1916. Dahlen fell two votes shy of election to the Hall when his case was last reviewed in 2012. With three candidates getting in that time, perhaps the election this December will see Bad Bill become a Hall of Famer.

When describing 2013 winner, Ross Barnes, “overlooked” is an understatement. Miller admits being almost completely unfamiliar with Barnes before starting this project, and that explains why it took six ballots before he joined Eric in voting for the guy to hit the first homer in NL history. Barnes did most of his best work in the National Association, and he hit .400 or better four times from 1871–1876. With all sorts of needed adjustments adjustments, we rank Barnes right around the Joe Gordon/Craig Biggio/ Willie Randolph level at second base. Barnes only played nine seasons in the majors, so he would seem to be ineligible for the Hall, but an exception was made for Addie Joss, and we’re convinced Barnes was a superior player to Joss.

Perhaps the least well know winner of SABR’s award came last year when they bestowed their honor upon Doc Adams. Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams might just be one of the fathers of baseball. He was born in 1814, played his last game in 1875, and is almost entirely forgotten today. Check out John Thorn’s SABR Biography Project piece linked above for more detail.

You’d think that after six years, they would have uncovered all of the critically overlooked from two centuries ago. Not at all. A perusal of the eleven players on their 2015 ballot, as well as some who didn’t make the cut (George Gore, Joe Start, and Jim McCormick to name just three), tells us that there’s still a lot to discuss about players whose great grandchildren have passed away.

We love 19th Century Committee chairman Adam Darowski’s work at the Hall of Stats, and the work this committee does. So our opinions are offered in the spirit of friendly discussion, not snarky criticism. Because of a tie in voting, there are eleven finalists this year instead of the usual ten. Three of those players are in the HoME, and all were supported by Eric on our first ballot in 1901. Miller got one right from the start, but it took him eight and ten ballots for the other two. From the bottom up, let’s take a look.

Charlie Bennett 2Charlie Bennett, elected 1946

Nearly every 19th Century player is overlooked, period. But catchers especially. None more so than Bennett. He was the ironman backstop of his time, and he hit very well until the grind of catching without much protection finally slowed him down. Probably one of the top dozen or fifteen catchers of all time, Bennett is already a member of the Halls of Merit, Stats, and Miller and Eric, and he would improve the quality of the Hall of Fame’s catching corps. He would be a fine choice to receive this award.

Bob Caruthers, obituary 1985

We cast aside Caruthers because you can’t have that many 1870s pitchers. Parisian Bob is the flipside of Monte Ward and Babe Ruth, a great hitting pitcher who played a bit in the field. Ultimately, we preferred Pud Galvin and Jim McCormick (who didn’t make the final ballot) to Caruthers. The Hall of Merit is the lone institution to have elected him.

Jim Creighton

As a pioneer, Creighton has a case. As a romantic story with his young death being a key ingredient in baseball’s early mythology, he’s pretty awesome (he herniated himself on a homerun swing, leading to hemorrhaging that killed him a few days later). Hard to say much more than that about a figure shrouded by time, but we can see where he’s an attractive candidate for this honor.

Jack GlasscockJack Glasscock, elected 1901

Glasscock got the most votes on the 19th Century Committee’s cut-down ballot. And rightly so. Glasscock and Dahlen are the best two eligible shortstops not in the Hall of Fame, and like Bad Bill, Pebbly Jack is in the Halls of Merit, Stats, and Miller and Eric. Dahlen is better and should go in first, but Glasscock is right behind him, and both would raise the standard of the position in the Hall. Just between us, we’re a little concerned that the Hall of Fame might be avoiding him due to his surname. We hope they are above that.

Paul Hines, elected 1936

The longest-lasting star-level centerfielder of the 19th Century, and an excellent player. Depending on how you adjust for shorter schedules, Hines is among the top ten or at worst the top 15 at his position. In other words, he would be a fine choice for this award. Or for the Hall of Fame. He’s in the Hall of Merit and HoME, and he’s the first centerfielder off the bottom of the Hall of Stats, but its formula may be a little tough on the 19th Century.

Dummy Hoy, obituary 1911

This one we don’t get. He’s the sixth best centerfielder among the six considered for the cut-down vote. Easily. While he may get some credit for being the first deaf star in the big leagues, claims that he influenced the spread of umpiring hand signals are very much debatable, and Hall of Fame historian Bill Deane has noted that no contemporary accounts support the assertion. Great story, and surely a legend, but with players like Joe Start, Jim McCormick, George Gore, Mike Griffin, Cupid Childs, Cal McVey, and Dickey Pearce falling below the cutline, we find his inclusion dubious.

Bobby Mathews, obituary 1926

Speaking of dubious inclusions. Mathews won 297 games. That’s his big claim on this or any honor. He had some fine seasons, but some really awful ones too. He did his best work in the National Association and the American Association in what were essentially expansion seasons. His career ERA+ of 104 says a lot about his performance, as does his 86 ERA+ in the NL. Pass.

Tony Mullane, obituary 1978

A longer-lasting and more pitching-oriented version of Caruthers. Two of his best seasons and three of his best five seasons occurred in the 1882–1884 American Association, which expanded from six to eight to twelve teams respectively in those years. He was a very good pitcher, but his performance wasn’t as strong as Caruthers’, and his league contexts drop him below McCormick.

Reach GuideAl Reach

While we didn’t give Reach an official obit, we essentially killed him off in our first election because we don’t include accomplishments off the field. He would make sense for the Hall of Fame, which is empowered to consider those things. Taken as a whole, his life in baseball might merit a plaque, though we’re not sure how many sporting goods magnates need to be lionized (Spalding and George Wright being two others).

Jimmy Ryan, obituary 1980 and George Van Haltren, obituary 1966

We stuck these two together because of their similarity: long-time, contemporary centerfielders who spent a fair amount of time on the mound (GVH more so). Ryan is the better of them, but neither gets close to Hines. A part of their appeal likely lies in some fine offensive career totals. Each has more than 2500 career hits, 1600 career runs, 450 steals, and a batting average above .300. The problem here is simply that these figures aren’t all that special for the 1890s. If you think the 1990s featured a lot of offense, you ain’t seen nothing. When the mound moved back in 1893, offense exploded to 6.6 runs per game. In 1894 it shot up to 7.4 runs per game. It was 6.6 runs per game in 1895, 6.0 runs per game in 1896, and 5.9 runs per game in 1897. To give some context, the crazy, steroid-fueled, small-ballpark, tiny-strike-zone NL of the 1990s topped out at 5.0 runs per game in 1999 and 2000. And that’s with Colorado in the league! We’d prefer to see George Gore and maybe Mike Griffin ahead of these two who are the very definition of the Hall of the Very Good.

So how would we have narrowed the ballot to ten?

    Miller            Eric
1.  Charlie Bennett   Charlie Bennett
2.  Cupid Childs      Cupid Childs
3.  Jim Creighton     Jim Creighton
4.  Jack Glasscock    Jack Glasscock
5.  George Gore       George Gore
6.  Mike Griffin      Mike Griffin
7.  Paul Hines        Paul Hines
8.  Jim McCormick     Jim McCormick
9.  Joe Start         Joe Start
10. Bud Fowler        Dickey Pearce

Not surprisingly, we see things pretty similarly. That’s why we’re blogging partners. The only difference is Miller preferring early African-American player Bud Fowler, while Eric went with the diminutive 1860s star shortstop, Dickey Pearce.

The hard part for both of us was narrowing to ten. To choose just one, we both go with Jack Glasscock. He’s likely one of the three-dozen or so best non-pitchers ever. We both see him ranking right around Bill Dahlen, Buck Ewing, Ed Delahanty, and Joe DiMaggio. And it’s our hope that he’s recognized by SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend vote and soon thereafter by the Hall of Fame.

Miller and Eric

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “SABR’s Next Overlooked 19th Century Player

  1. Creighton is, to me, the most intriguing individual of the lot. He’s much more myth than man In many ways he’s a classic mythic hero, young, handsome, struck down at the height of his fame and glory. He’s supposed to have invented something akin to a fastball. One legend says he made only one out all season (admittedly a short season) and that was on the bases. I have no idea how you judge a character like that.
    Briefly in defense of sporting goods magnates, both Wright and Spaulding were pretty fair players. I think both were better than Reach (as players). I’m going to be really interested to see how you guys deal with owners, umps, managers, Negro League players, etc. when you get beyond the 2014 election. I enjoy your posts explaining your rationale for putting in players and will be interested to see it for the contributors. Keep it up, team.
    My personal choice from the list above is Hines.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | February 11, 2015, 9:05 am
  2. You look forward to our next step, and I sort of dread it. That’s not because it won’t be fun, but because I’m a guy who likes things to be black and white. I have a lot of confidence that there are some clearly “right” answers when it comes to players. If you’re putting 215 in the Hall, about 150 players should be no-brainers. Regarding contributors, very little is black and white. With so much opinion, the defense thereof is going to be really nuances and up for debate.

    Thanks for the info on Creighton. Fascinating indeed.

    Posted by Miller | February 11, 2015, 10:50 am

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