Al Spalding

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Jim Creighton and the Best Pitchers of the 1860s

Jim CreightonThe ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat; and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, or moves with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it, and he must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the ball; and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk.”

That was section 6 of the rules of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1860. Section 5 included the line, “The pitcher must deliver the ball as near as possible over the center of the home base and for the striker.” The game in 1860 would hardly be recognizable for us today.

In fact, baseball’s historian, John Thorn, says that the pitcher and batter were something akin to allies, helping to put the ball in play for the fielders to show their stuff. Things really began to change when Jim Creighton entered the game in 1858. He used spin on the ball. And he got paid to do it! The game was changing. Pitchers, at least the best of them, would no longer bu just initiators of play, but defensive weapons.

Sometimes in life you decide to do something because it seems a good idea at the time. And then you get into it. Well, near the beginning of the project, a couple of readers asked that I investigate pitchers of the 1860s, which I thought was a royal idea at the time, but the research has proven problematic for someone like me. If I’m going to say something, I like to know what I’m talking about. I can say with a great deal of confidence, for example, that Rick Reuschel is criminally underrated and belongs in the Hall of Fame. I have little such confidence in this post.

I’m generally going to be guessing as to greatness and rankings today, though I think I did my due diligence. I consulted John Thorn and Bill James (who doesn’t say a lot on the subject). I also used data from Marshall D. Wright’s The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 quite extensively. In fact, that’s where I began this project. Wright’s book provides the most comprehensive statistical accounting of the early days of baseball (er, base ball) that I know. However, since most pitchers weren’t as important as other players, only offensive statistics are listed until 1870. Wright does, thankfully, share positions. So I started this project by building a spreadsheet of all players he identified as pitchers from 1857-1870. To make my work easier, if Wright’s work didn’t uncover a first name, I didn’t include the player. It’s hard to believe the name of one of the best pitchers of the decade hasn’t been revealed in 150 years of research, right? This tactic saved considerable time, likely at the expense of nothing.

When I completed my tour through Wright’s work, I was looking at was 206 player seasons. Since there’s no shot someone who pitched only one season is among the top-10, the next thing I did was delete those seasons. That got me to 167 player seasons from 47 pitchers. So I eliminated all of those pitchers with data in just two campaigns, which allowed me to work with a very manageable 26 hurlers. Then I felt my way through as best as I was able. Did I miss someone? Quite possibly. Still, I think my list is generally good, though clearly imperfect.

If you want to learn what pitching was like in the early days, check out this quick and dirty primer written by William Ryczek, or this historical look at pitching by John Thorn.

The Series

Explanation and 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s

Missing the Cut (or include them if you like)

Charley Bearman: He pitched for four teams in the years right before the NA, and perhaps he was a bit of a carouser.

Candy Cummings: Cummings may or may not have invented the curve ball after years of experimentation, which is said to have been borne out of seeing the motion of clam shells thrown into the ocean. If I had to make a call, I’d say that Jim Creighton was the first to throw a curve, but Cummings is notable nonetheless. He had more of a career in the NA than the NABBP. Otherwise he may have made the list.

Ed Leech: It’s possible he was the pitcher in the second game between nine white and nine black players when his Olympic team of Washington faced the Alert club from the same city. Leech and the Olympics won 56 to 3.

Mattie O’Brien: Separate reports have him throwing 264 pitches in seven innings in an 1858 game and over 330 in six innings in 1860.

Ed Pinkham: Getting into games with teams from Brooklyn, Greenpoint, and Chicago, Pinkham was like a lot of early pitchers. He converted to the NA, but just for a bit – just three outings on the mound. Trivially, he did lead the 1871 National Association in walks drawn.

Tom Pratt: A part-time pitcher with several teams, Pratt is one of only three players to bat six times in his only major league game. I think.

Al SpaldingAl Spalding: He led the NA in wins in every season of the league’s existence, including its inaugural 1871 campaign when he was just 20. And he had a bit of a career before that too, pitching at age 16 for Rockford in 1867.

Dick Thorn: I don’t claim to know much about Thorn, but he did have nine seasons when Wright listed him as a pitcher in the NABBP.

Charley Walker: The hyperlink suggests there’s not a ton of information out there about Walker. He was said to be a talented hurler for the 1864-1868 Brooklyn Active, so talented that his delivery was questioned. It was also said that he essentially stalled during games, refusing to throw pitches where batters asked for them. And maybe he was the first baseball player to wear knickerbockers.

The Best Pitchers of the 1860s (possibly)

#10 Harry Wright: I list Wright here for a couple of reasons. First, he seemed to follow the rules on the mound, using techniques he learned while playing cricket, and largely throwing a slower ball than those considered the best in the era. The second is that he basically invented relief pitching, coming into games to give hard-throwing Asa Brainard a break and to mess with the timing of opposing hitters.

#9 Levi Meyerle: John Shiffert’s Base Ball in Philadelphia: A History of the Early Game, 1831-1900 highlights Meyerle’s great hitting. However, the guy who led the NA in homers and batting average in the league’s first season started his baseball career as a pitcher at age 17 for the Geary club in 1867. He would continue to pitch for a few years but reached the height of his fame in the NA playing pretty much everywhere and pitching only three times.

#8 Cherokee Fisher: Another cross-over to the NA, Fisher was actually a full-time pitcher, giving up the first home run in National Association history to Ross Barnes. He jumped from team to team throughout his career, possibly because of his excessive drinking.

#7 Charlie Pabor: When you tell all of your friends about this post, I ask that you not cite it as the gospel. Pabor doesn’t have a page at the SABR Bio Project, and his Wikipedia page calls him a left fielder and manager, ignoring his time in the NABBP. Marshall Wright lists him as the main pitcher for the Union of Morrisania from 1866-1868, a team that went 83-17, as well as a less successful 1870 squad.

#6 Al Martin: It appears Al Martin did a lot of pitching. I think. He spent two years first with the Empire of New York, then with the Mutual of New York, and finally the Brooklyn Eckfords from 1864-1869. Perhaps this is a good time to note that teams of the 1860s were usually called the ____ of ____, like the Padres of San Diego rather than the San Diego Padres. My brain reads team names as we do today, even if that’s not proper for the era. Of course, the Cincinnati Cincinnatis and the Philadelphia West Philadelphias are sort of odd no matter how you say them. Anyway, Martin’s 1866 Mutual club was excellent. So was the team in 1867, though I don’t think he was a full-time pitcher that year. The Eckford teams were also outstanding, with Martin seemingly doing most of the pitching.

#5 Jim Creighton: Using a throw with a snap of the wrist, rather than a pitch in alignment with the wishes of batter, as per the rules of the day, Creighton was the best pitcher in the land in for a few seasons, starting in 1858. Depending on your perspective on his pitching motion, he may have been baseball’s first innovator or first cheater. To be fair though, his wrist movement was examined, but nobody ever stopped him during his time with the Star and Excelsiors of Brooklyn from 1859-1862. Tragically, baseball’s likely first professional and possibly first superstar died when he was just 21, the result of a ruptured inguinal hernia incurred on a swing of the bat in an October 14, 1862 game against the Union of Morrisania. Had he not met such an untimely demise, he would rank higher on this list, and he might even be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

#4 Rynie Wolters: Wolters was either the first major leaguer born in the Netherlands or about the 100th born in New Jersey. Even facts as simple as those are in conflict in my readings. He got his start with the decent Irvington club of Irvington, NJ in 1866 and 1867 before moving to the excellent 1868-1870 New York Mutuals, a team that went 135-43-3 over the three seasons he was there. It could be said that he pitched for the best or second best team in the game in the final year before the organization of the NA. His obituary says that he may have pitched baseball’s first shutout in 1870, but I don’t know that I believe that. He did have one on 1871 to tie for the National Association lead though. That’s something.

#3 Dick McBride: Like many others, McBride took his first turn in a NABBP mound when he was just a teen, starting his career off at 16 with the 1863 Philadelphia Athletics. In his first stint in Philadelphia, which lasted three years, his teams went 30-9. He made stops for a year with the New York Eckfords and another with the New York Empires in 1866 and 1867. And then he went back to Philly, pitching for teams that went 224-27-1 over the final five seasons of the league. When the NA got started, he remained in Philadelphia and led the circuit with a .783 winning percentage for the A’s. He led the NA in ERA and ERA+ in 1874, and even managed to hang on for the first season of the NL in 1876.

#2 George Zettlein: Aside from Creighton, Zettlein is the first pitcher on this list who I am convinced was great at his craft. He was said to be able to throw the ball 80 miles per hour, and when we’re looking at only 45 feet away from the plate, that’s about the equivalent of someone throwing 100 mph today. He started his NABBP career for the mediocre Eckford club of Brooklyn in 1865. He must have shown something though, as the 17-3 Brooklyn Atlantics gobbled him up the next season to share mound duties with Tom Pratt. For the next two years, he was really the only pitcher for an Atlantics club that went 66-12-1. In his final two seasons, sharing a bit more of the mound duty, Brooklyn went 81-23-2. When the NABBP folded and the NA sprung up in 1871, Zettlein didn’t miss a beat, leading the circuit in ERA and ERA+ for the Chicago White Stockings.

Red Stockings#1 Asa Brainard: If you are looking for an ace, this is the guy. Literally. The term “ace” came from his nickname, “Acey”, which first appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1864. Brainard may have been the game’s first Doug DeCinces or Didi Gregorius, the guy who replaced “the guy.” Indeed, had pretty big shoes to fill as the man who followed Jim Creighton on the mound for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Brainard threw harder than almost anyone, threw a mean curveball, and as a natural second baseman was an excellent defensive moundsman. From the time of Creighton’s death in 1862 through the 1866 season, Brainard was the main pitcher for the Excelsiors. From there, he spent some time with the Knickerbocker club of New York and the National club of Washington before the money started to flow in Cincinnati. Brainard pitched for all of Harry Wright’s great teams, including the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 for which he was the main pitcher.

Well friends, that’s the series. Thanks for reading!



The Best Pitchers Ever, the 1870s

Monte Ward, 1887So you’ve probably heard by now that Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer. That’s right, the guy who’s 139th in career pitching WAR is among about 70 pitchers in the Hall. The reason? Aside from maybe one single game where he was simply awesome, he’s a Hall of Famer because, to many, he’s considered the pitcher of the 1980s.

For some time many of us have argued that Morris isn’t the pitcher of the 1980s, though he did win the most games in that decade. What I’d like to do in this series of posts is to try to systematically (kind of) determine who the pitcher of each decade is.

I’m trying to identify the best pitcher of a decade rather than just the best in the decade. That’s a small but significant difference. The best pitcher in a decade would only focus on those years; for Jack Morris we’re talking about 1980-1989. But when we look at something in such a manner, we’re using sort of strange start and end points. There’s just no reason 1980-1989 is any more significant a decade than 1977-1986, for example.

With that conundrum in mind, I reviewed Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein’s book, Baseball Dynasties, where they tried to determine the best team of all time. They didn’t just look at a given year. They also considered surrounding years. I realized I should do the same, though at somewhat reduced strength. That adjustment should cover for the fact that there’s nothing special about start and end points of xxx0 and xxx9.

Also, given that we’re looking at the best pitcher of a particular decade rather than just the best pitcher for those ten particular seasons, I’m including a small career measure as well. So here’s my process.

Step 1: Do a BBREF search for the most innings pitched in a given decade. Get 40-60 pitchers or so for each decade. I want to err on the side of reviewing too many guys. After all, if I look at the top-40+ in innings for a decade, I can be pretty confident I’m discovering the best five or ten.

Step 2: Since I’m a bWAR-based thinker, I use my adjusted WAR for each of the pitchers in Step 1 for each year in the decade. Then, sort of based on the theories from Neyer and Epstein, I add the year before and after the decade (say 1979 and 1991) at 90%. Then I add then next year in both directions (1978 and 1992) at 70%. And finally, I add the next year in both directions (1977 and 1993) at 50%.

Step 3: If we were looking only for the best pitcher in a particular decade, we could be done now. However, I want to determine the best pitcher of a decade. Thus, there has to be a career factor that helps to articulate “best”. The whole story isn’t told by the false-construct start and end points of a decade. So careers will be added to the calculation at 10% of value. If 10% proves to be too high, I’ll adjust.

Step 4: I will rethink things, subjectively, based on post-season performance and, perhaps, other things that seem out of place.

The Best Pitcher of the 1870s

The National Association, which many consider the first “major” league, got started in 1871. Thus, I couldn’t count 1870 or a percentage of the three years before. This decade saw a lot of uncertainty, so while I like my WAR adjustments, I admit that the error bar for the 1870s is wider than for that of any time in our game’s history. Further, though six pitchers reached 2000 innings in the decade, there were only six others who reached even 700. Perhaps for this decade the 10% career adjustment overestimates where players should rank. Without an adjustment, Pud Galvin ranked ninth on my list. He drops off since he really only played one year in the decade. And Jim McCormick finished fifth by the numbers. He’ll drop a few slots as well.

With no further ado, let’s look at the ten best pitchers of the 1870s.

#10 George Bradley: Aside from an insane 1876 season when he won 45 games while leading the NL in ERA and ERA+, Bradley was a below average pitcher in the decade. If you’re looking for a bit of trivia, on July 15, 1876, it was Bradley who threw the NL’s first ever no-hitter against the Hartford Dark Blues. Bradley isn’t even in my database. I’m just guesstimating his value, which clocks in at about 27% of our decade’s leader.

#9 George Zettlein:  Charmer, as he was known, is in my database of adjusted seasonal and career WAR, as is everyone else on this list. Zettlein’s career lasted for the 1871-1875 span of the National Association and then a year in the National League. In six years, he switched teams six times, and he may have been the best pitcher in the first year of the NA, leading the circuit in ERA, ERA+, and pitching WAR. That’s a nice distinction, though his value for the decade is only about 40% of our 1870s leader.

#8 Dick McBride: McBride’s career mirrored Zettlein’s – all five seasons in the NA, the first season in the NL, and that’s it. He was a shade better though – 48% of our leader. Unlike Zettlein, his NA career was quite stable, playing for nobody other than the Philadelphia Athletics.

#7 Jim McCormick: The righty from Glasgow was truly an excellent player, twice leading his league in ERA+ and three times winning his circuit’s pitching WAR title. McCormick drops from where the formula puts him since his only work in the 1870s was a partial season in 1878 and a 40 loss campaign for the Cleveland Blues in 1879.

#6 Monte Ward: Strictly by my formula, our only HoMEr on the list finished third in the decade. However, much of the value of this “pitcher” came at the plate. In fact, pitcher was only his third most common position during his impressive career. As far as his mound work, we’re looking at just two seasons in the decade with the Providence Grays. Granted, he did win 47 games in 1879, but there were clearly more important 1870s pitchers.

Candy Cummings, Plaque#5 Candy Cummings: Did Cummings invent the curveball? I don’t know. The truth, perhaps, is lost to history. What’s not lost is that Cummings is almost certainly in the Hall because it is believed he invented the pitch. His Hall plaque says as much. He was the most prolific hurler in the 1872 NA, though not really the most effective, and he clocks in at 55% of our winner’s total “value”. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that he either invented the curve, or he has absolutely no business in the Hall.

#4 Jim Devlin: To get him to this level, which is a shade better than Cummings at 57%, we’re looking at just three seasons. He was particularly good in the first two of the NL’s existence, leading the league in games, innings, and losses both years. He was also the most valuable by WAR in both. His career ended abruptly after the 1877 season when he and three other players were among the first group banned from the sport for throwing games. Of course, even if he weren’t banned, he’d have been done soon. He died six years later. A combination of consumption and alcoholism will do that to a guy.

#3 Bobby Mathews: A winner of 297 games and not in the Hall of Fame. Even as I write that, I’m surprised he’s not in the Hall. Of course, he shouldn’t be. His wins are a product of his time, as is his ability to reach such a height on this list while clocking in at just 69% of our leader’s total. While he won 29+ six times, only once did he top 30 wins, posting 42 for the New York Mutuals of the 1874 NA. Mathews was possibly the most durable pitcher of his era. Of those who appeared in the NA in 1871, only Mathews, Cherokee Fisher, and Al Spalding lasted until 1878. Kind of amazingly, Mathews made it nine years after that. Whenever I read posts from the SABR Bio Project, which I highly recommend, I’m reminded of what difficult lives these men led, and how different times are now. It seems that Mathews’ syphilis led to mental decline during and after his playing days.

#2 Tommy Bond: Continuing with detail from the SABR Bio Project, Bonds’ entry reminds us that our decade was a time when batters could request high or low pitches from a hurler throwing underhand. At that time, pitchers essentially just initiated play rather than attempting to control it. Bond, I suspect, helped to advance the game by throwing sidearm, probably in an effort to deceive hitters. For his efforts, he led the NL in strikeouts the first two years of their existence and finished at 97.3% of our decade leader. Also, he posted at least 10 unadjusted pitching WAR every season from 1875-1879. Unlike most players of his era, and most people of his era, Bond lived until the age of 84. In and of itself, that’s an impressive statistic.

#1 Al Spalding: Better known for his sporting goods company than his pitching, I’m dubbing Albert Goodwill Spalding the best pitcher of the first decade of organized baseball. Though he only pitched six full seasons, we’re talking full seasons here, five times topping 400 innings. He also led the league in wins in each of those years, and he was in the top-4 in pitcher WAR all six years he pitched over 11 innings. It’s very close between Spalding and Bond, but I feel comfortable giving the Hall of Fame righty the edge.

One week from today, we’ll take a look at the marginally more stable 1880s.


Pioneer/Executive #10, Al Spalding

Al SpaldingAccording to the CANA Cremation Statistics Report of 2011, more than two in five people who die in the United States are cremated, a number that’s rising. We crossed 30% for the first time in 2004, 20% for the first time in 1994, 10% for the first time in 1981, and 5% for the first time in 1973. I bring this up because today’s inductee into the Hall of Miller and Eric, Al Spalding, a man who died in 1915, was cremated.

How rare was that? First, it’s rare enough that CANA doesn’t have great numbers on it. But extrapolating what they have, Spalding was one of about 13,000 Americans in 1915 to choose cremation. And he is one of ten men in the Baseball Hall of Fame to choose cremation. They are Al Barlick (1995), Roy Campanella (1993), Mickey Cochrane (1962), Larry Doby (2003), Bob Lemon (2000), Phil Rizzuto (2007), Bill Veeck (1986), and Early Wynn (1999). I bring this up for no reason other than I find it fascinating.

PioExec, 10Al Spalding was a pretty great pitcher in the game’s early days. In fact, he led the National Association in wins in every year of their existence, and he was the NL’s win leader in their first year. To help put in perspective how great he was, for pitchers with a fifth best season as great as Spalding’s, only he and Hippo Vaughn are outside the HoME. Until now. Of course, it’s not Spalding’s pitching prowess that gets him enshrined into the Hall of Miller and Eric.

When William Hulbert conceived of the National League, he knew he needed players, and Spalding, who was like Hulbert and against drinking and gambling, was one of the first. Additionally, Spalding became White Stockings President in 1882, deserves tremendous credit for starting spring training in 1886, and sponsored a world barnstorming tour in 1888. He also fought against history, calling together the Mills Commission, the group who determined that Union general Abner Doubleday invented baseball. And he helped to take down one of the first player unions when he used strong-arm tactics to help bring Monte Ward’s Players’ League to a close after just one year.

However, these accomplishments, such as they were, were only part of the story. Spalding opened a sporting goods store with his brother as his professional career developed, something they grew and grew. Showing the acumen of many great business leaders, he diversified, founding a “Baseball Guide” and publishing the first ever baseball rules. The Guide became widely read; the rules said only his baseballs could be used. He was one of the first great pitchers to wear a glove, a Spalding glove. Today, 140 years after its opening, the company is still thriving.

Overall, Spalding was a force of nature. As a player, owner, sporting goods magnate, promoter of the game, or a man looking to create baseball mythology. It’s his overall and varied contribution to the game that makes Albert Goodwill Spalding the tenth man to enter the Pioneer and Executive wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Next week, we’ll reveal out eleventh inductee.


How the Hall Failed: Pioneers

Is this what the Hall of Fame means by Pioneers?

Is this what the Hall of Fame means by Pioneers?

And the Pope wears a pointy hat. And the sun rises in the east. And a bear drops a deuce in the woods. What I’m saying is, it’s yet another installment in the Coop Poops the Bed. Usually Miller covers this beat, but today you’re stuck with me, and I’m on something of a rant.

See I’m a word guy. Here’s how the word pioneer is defined at

  • a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.

  • someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area.

When we look at the Hall of Fame’s pioneers, it’s not entirely clear which use of the word the electorate has made its decisions by. The Homestead Act of 1862 ushered in one of America’s greatest periods of westward expansion and pioneering, and just happened to coincide with baseball’s great Civil-War period expansion and eventual professionalization. I went to and looked at the actual plaques of the 28 me enshrined under the label pioneer/executive. Things are awfully hazy, especially because the Hall’s site considers everyone in this category an executive.

  • Alexander Cartwright’s plaque says only “Father of Baseball”
  • George Wright’s plaque refers to “baseball’s pioneer years”
  • Harry Wright’s plaque lists lots of firsts associated with those same pioneer years
  • Candy Cummings’s plaque says he invented the curveball in the 1860s
  • Al Spalding’s plaque mentions those same pioneer days.
  • Morgan Bulkeley’s plaque talks about the founding of the NL
  • So does William Hulbert’s
  • Hendry Chadwick’s plaque also talks about pioneer times.

So eight of the 28 fellows in this wing of the Hall (about 30%) are people from the Pioneer Era in American history. But as our first definition above indicates, pioneering is about ideas, not just settling open spaces (or taking them from the natives). Heck, on Roger Bresnahan’s plaque, no mention at all is made of his equipment innovations, which have saved countless games of wear and tear across time.

This is not well reflected in the Hall’s Era Committee voting rules. Here’s what they say about this group of potential honorees:

Executives retired for at least five years. Active executives 65 years or older are eligible for consideration.

So, nothing about pioneers at all.

Now, we should probably interpret Larry MacPhail’s plaque as bearing some pioneer status (“originated” appears in it) and Branch Rickey’s (“brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn”). And if we do, we might be led to believe that all innovation in baseball stopped in 1947. An idea that seems as foolish to write as it is for you to read.

The truth, of course, is that baseball is constantly evolving, and that many evolutions and revolutions have shaped its path. If you don’t like today’s high-strikeout, pitching-dominated brand of the game, you won’t have to wait long. The competitive nature of the game demands that individuals and teams find ways to beat the prevailing conditions, and when they do, everyone else adopts their idea or method (in time). Just look at the sabrmetric revolution. No front office now, not even the Phillies, lack a statistical analyst. On the field, pioneers exist in equipment, tactics, styles of play. Off the field in safety and injury prevention or intervention. Around the field in things like stadium building, lighting, and more. Innovations occur frequently and with lasting results.

Consider something as subtle as the webbed glove. Its introduction in the early 1920s coincides with a rise in double play rates and the resultant swapping of second and third basemen on the defensive spectrum. It also helped cut down error rates, driving down unearned runs. One might argue that it allowed more athletic players to get at more balls because they no longer required two hands to corral the ball. Error avoidance becomes less important when webbing provides extra insurance against fumbles. Cardinals pitcher Bill Doak is widely credited with introducing the idea of the webbed glove, and we’ll be considering him. Whether we elect him or not, this kind of seemingly small innovation leads to changes in the very engine of the game. Imagine what baseball would look like today if we still used those old-fashioned puffy gloves with no pocket and webbing!

The Hall of Fame has failed repeatedly with pioneers. It has failed primarily by not defining what pioneer means and by defaulting to a definition that appears in most cases time bound. It reserves the idea of pioneering for baseball’s primordial era and strangely avoids seeking those whose changed things for the better. When suggestions about people like scouts or Frank Jobe come up, they are quickly brushed aside with “there’s no defined path for them.” Rubbish. They may very well fit under the pioneers rubric, if the Hall would simply start using it again.

So that’s where we’re coming from. We see pioneering not as a thing done at a certain time but a certain thing done that has an effect for all time. We want to identify and honor those people whose ingenuity has led to the best game on Earth being what it is today. We hope you’ll agree that by doing so, we make the category of pioneers a more exciting, living document of what’s important in baseball.

I haven’t even addressed the quality of the Hall’s selections. In the interest of brevity, let us simply say that of the eight men bulleted out above, two (the Wrights) are already HoME members and can’t be elected to this wing by our decree, and three of the remainder are complete wastes of bronze. We think Spalding, Hulbert, and Chadwick are all reasonable selections. Well, 38% ain’t that bad, I guess….

Eric’s 25 Most Important People in Baseball History

branch rickeyGraham Womack of Baseball: Past and Present has a cool project going on: The 25 Most Important People in Baseball History. I thought I’d share my ballot as a way to encourage others to vote.

Well, there’s 18,000+ players, several hundred managers, all kinds of execs, writers, even fans to choose from, and I needed to choose twenty-five. Graham doesn’t define “Most Important” for us:

Babe Ruth“most important” is a deliberately subjective term and I’m interested to see what direction people go with it.

For me, it’s about impact. Lasting impact. For me, there are three names that stand above all others, and that any baseball fan should know: Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. Without them, major league baseball as we know it today simply would not exist or would be limping toward its death. Ruth who ushered in the modern mode of play, an offensive-minded game with greater mass appeal. Rickey who is the pivot man in at least three of modern baseball’s most important innovations—the farm system, the use of analytical statistics, and equal opportunity for all races—and who played a role in expansion by his attempt to organize the Continental League. And, of course, Robinson, whose success cemented the status of African Americans (and all other peoples of color) in sports, transcending the game and pointing us toward the civil rights era.

jackie robinsonAfter that to understand the lasting impact a person has on the game, we can look at some of the major themes of baseball’s history. These are the major story arcs since the 1840s. They continue to unwind themselves today. The flashpoints among them constitute game-changing moments. So as we sift through the games’ most important people, they should have some kind of prominent role in short- or long-term movements that have brought us to the present day.

  • Team-building/managing strategies
    Harry Wright was the first manager and was the first great team architect. These roles would eventually split apart in the 1930s and 1940s and have continued to speed away from each other since then.
  • Capital vs. labor
    Monte Ward
    did more than fashion a HoME-worthy career. A smart, smart man, he obtained a legal degree in 1885 from Yale and become an organizer of the Brotherhood of Baseball Players. As its president, he led the player revolt against the reserve clause that resulted in the formation of the Player’s League. That league’s brief existence hastened the downfall of the American Association and left the NL weakened to the degree that a decade later Ban Johnson could form the AL. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s moment was brief but profound. In 1921, he wrote the opinion that granted baseball its legal monopoly. Its antitrust exemption has proven an excellent tool in reaping profits in all kinds of ways and is a lynchpin in MLB’s operations. Of course, the exemption also paved the way for fifty more years of indentured servitude for players. Marvin Miller led the players out of that and into the free agent era. In so doing, he turned baseball’s salary structure and competitive landscape over, leading to the game’s most profitable decades. But first came the courageous stand of Curt Flood. The Flood case ultimately allowed Miller to devise the strategy that led to Peter Seitz’s decision to overturn the reserve clause. That decision is similar to Holmes’ in its far-reaching impact on how the game is operated today.
  • Race and ethnicity
    Rube Foster
    was the Negro Leagues. The brains behind its success and its acknowledged national leader. The Negro Leagues are vitally important to the story of race in baseball, but as a pipeline of talent, they also fed the likes of Robinson, Mays, Aaron, Banks, Doby, Paige, and many others into the league. Foster’s leadership led the way.
  • Equipment, safety, and injury prevention
    Roger Bresnahan
    invented shin guards, improved the catcher’s mask, and introduced other equipment innovations. The ability of catchers today to play as much as they do is a direct result of his inventiveness. We get to see more of them, and they have longer, more productive careers thanks to the Duke of Tralee. When you think about it, his ideas, mocked in his day but quickly adopted, have had a positive effect on 13 percent of all big league players (probably 2,000 or more men), and at the end of their careers, his catching brethren don’t have to have hands that look like your 90 year-old grampa’s. In terms of seeing more of our most talented players, Frank Jobe’s Tommy John surgery has given us the chance to witness hundreds of thousands more innings from players whose careers would have been over in yesteryear.
  • Organization and professionalization
    William Hulbert
    reorganized baseball from a chaotic, player-partnership into an effective, corporately owned, and stable financial structure. This is one of baseball’s and sports’ most important innovations. When Hulbert died shortly thereafter, Al Spalding saw to the game’s care and feeding, held it together after the Brotherhood revolt, and was the power behind the league for decades—and, of course, a publisher of annual baseball guides and the most important producer of baseball equipment in the game’s early decades. Finally, Ban Johnson is the man responsible for our modern two-league structure, and whose insistence on a clean and family-friendly product helped clean out hooliganism from the game.
  • Rules of play
    You probably don’t know Doc Adams’ name, but John Thorn’s book Baseball in the Garden of Eden can tell you all about him. Big takeaway: Adams was there at the beginning, working out the rules, helping to organize the Knickerbocker Club, then leading the National Association of Base Ball Players—the first national-scope league-like entity.
  • The influence of gambling
    Kennesaw Mountain Landis
    —you might not like his position on race, but he got rid of the corruption that threatened to topple the sport and created a clean backdrop for Ruth’s meteoric rise. He actually did restore faith and hope to the game.
  • Coverage, analysis, and documentation of the game
    Henry Chadwick
    created the box score, popularized the game with his Beadle Dime Base-Ball guides, and derived ERA and batting average. Not bad. The Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink award signals Spink’s importance to the game. The owner-editor of the Sporting News (“Baseball’s Bible”) from 1914–1962, he was a mover and shaker in his own right who figured in numerous important episodes in the game’s history, including the settling of the Federal League war. Bill James, of course, ignited the sabermetric revolution that has changed the game both on and off the field. Sean Forman has gone far beyond anyone’s dreams in making the source of stats, enabling all kinds of research to be done in minutes that was impossible as recently as the 1990s or that would take years to accomplish. That level of access has ultimately allowed non-baseball people to enter the game’s front offices and make sweeping changes in the way the industry operates.
  • Growth and Expansion
    Walter O’Malley
    led the move to sunny California. His decision decentralized baseball as a primarily Eastern Time Zone phenomenon and allowed the game to grow in other regions. The move has ultimately led to several expansions and booming popularity. I hate to say it, but the man who canceled the World Series, Bud Selig, belongs on this list. This is not a vote for whom I like or respect the most; it’s a vote for who has had the most impact. Revenue sharing, sports-drug testing, playoff expansion, instant replay, and interleague play—like ‘em or hate ‘em they are here to stay and represent important facets of today’s game.

That’s another twenty to add to Ruth, Rickey, and Robinson for twenty-three total. Two more.

A lesser theme in baseball’s history is the ascendency of the Yankees. While Ruth accounts for much of it on the field, much of the rest can probably be laid at Ed Barrow’s feet. Barrow first built the twice-champion Red Sox of the late 1910s. Then, moving to the Bronx after the 1920 season, he took advantage of Sox owner Harry Frazee’s debt problems to build the Yankee roster into a perennial winner, thus starting The Evil Empire. Barrow continued on into the 1940s, overseeing the DiMaggio/Gehrig era as well, so this wasn’t a one-time thing. The Yankees are the game’s most loved and most hated team, and they occupy a special place in history thanks to Barrow.

Another team builder had a different kind of perennial influence. Ned Hanlon built the 1890s Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Superbas into a two-part syndicate dynasty. But as Bill James points out in his Guide to Baseball Managers the players on those teams went on to influence the game like no other team. John McGraw managed 33 years in the majors, Wilbert Robinson nineteen, and Hughie Jennings sixteen. Fielder Jones skippered for ten seasons, Joe Kelley for five seasons, and Bad Bill Dahlen for four. Jack Dunn became famous as the manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles of the teens and twenties…the team that sold Lefty Grove and numerous other players to the majors. Hanlon also managed Miller Huggins for two years. All those guys exerted influence over subsequent generations of outstanding managers, including Stengel, Lopez, and Durocher. You can trace Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and virtually any great contemporary manager’s lineage back to Ned Hanlon’s Orioles.

Here’s my final ballot. After the big three, there’s any number of orders we could settle on. I’m looking for far-reaching, long-lasting, high-impact contributions. Your mileage may vary.

1. Branch Rickey
2. Babe Ruth
3. Jackie Robinson

I could have put Ruth first for creating interest at a time when the game’s gambling problems came to light. But the sheer number and breadth of Rickey’s innovations tipped the scales in his direction.

4. Kennesaw Mountain Landis
5. Walter O’Malley
6. Henry Chadwick

I’m pretty sure these are the next three. I put Landis first because rooting out gambling’s influence and restoring the integrity of any given game was far more important to the survival of the game than anything anyone below him could have accomplished. O’Malley is next because of the extreme importance of his vision and its affect on expansion. Chadwick was “Father Baseball” for a reason.

7. Doc Adams
8. William Hulbert
9. Ban Johnson
10. Marvin Miller
11. Bill James

Another tough group. As a founder of the game, I give Adams precedence and Hulbert’s corporate-ownership innovation is absolutely huge. Johnson and Miller could be swapped, but Johnson’s impact is still felt more than 100 years later, while Miller’s is more recent. James’ is more recent yet and just as widespread as Miller’s.

12. J.G. Taylor Spink
13. Rube Foster
14. Harry Wright

We’re getting into a place where everyone’s slot is up for debate. The Sporting News was almost an arm of Major League Baseball and affected its fanbase deeply. Foster’s role as a league architect trumps Wright’s as a team architect.

15. Peter Seitz
16. Al Spalding
17. Monte Ward

Ward turned the game upside down for a year, Spalding held it together for a decade, but Seitz has had the greatest total impact of the three. I ding him a little for being a one-trick pony, but it’s one hell of a trick.

18. Ed Barrow
19. Bud Selig
20. Roger Bresnahan
21. Ned Hanlon
22. Sean Forman
23. Curt Flood
24. Frank Jobe
25. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Among this final group of eight, we really are drawing straws. Barrow’s success laid the groundwork for almost 100 years of Yankee success. Selig has made numerous, though dubious, innovations…and helped to rob a lot of taxpayers of their money. I thought about putting him last simply because of his friendships with Jeffrey Loria and the Wilpons. Bresnahan has helped catchers for more than 100 years. Hanlon’s reach has been incredibly deep, though of course diluted over time. Forman’s reach is still growing. Flood and Jobe could be anywhere in this group, but Holmes I’m solid on for #25 because of the one-trick thing but also because I’m skeptical about the positive value of the anti-trust exemption.

There are some notable omissions. For example, I only have two men on this list for their playing careers. No Dickey Pearce nor Hank Aaron. I don’t have John McGraw or Connie Mack or Joe McCarthy or Joe Torre or Tony LaRussa on this list. No Bill Veeck or Billy Beane. Maybe I could have considered HOK architects or Hillerich & Bradsby. Negatory on George Wright, Al Reach, Everett Mills. Nor Fred Lieb or Ring Larnder.

There’s one other guy I didn’t touch on that I thought a lot about and is worth a mention.

I’m not entirely sure who had the most impact on bullpens, but their evolution is also a key theme in baseball history. Bill James suggests that McGraw rolled out the first relief specialist, Doc Crandall, but McGraw didn’t really follow up that innovation. Joe McCarthy was the first manager to split his moundsmen into starters and relievers. Herman Franks in 1979 announced that Bruce Sutter would only pitch in save situations. Although the Cubs canned Franks a year later, this innovation has had startling implications. Before this, relief aces could enter in any inning with any score when the manager felt it necessary. Other bullpen roles were therefore only vaguely defined. The sharp redefinition of the ace into the closer created a cascading effect. As closers threw fewer innings in save situations, managers needed a set-up man for the eighth inning. Since most late-inning relievers were righties, skippers soon found they also needed a lefty specialist to get that one big out in the seventh or eighth, enter the LOOGY (lefty one-out guy). Since then bullpens have become increasingly hierarchical, and include seventh-inning specialists and even the ROOGY. All of this spilled out of Franks’ decision to limit Sutter to save situations. Franks was not great, he wasn’t even a good manager. But his impact is still reverberating through baseball today as we see twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen-man pitching staffs.

This has been a fun exercise. Make your own ballot and vote!


RIP, Players Falling Off the 1951 Ballot

Ray Chapman's Grave

Ray Chapman’s Grave

After each election, once we realize that there are certain players who will never receive our vote for the Hall of Miller and Eric, we pay tribute to them through these obituaries. We remove them from intellectual consideration, though not actual consideration so that our process going forward is a bit easier. Their tribute is a brief write-up in this column along with a little trivia about their careers or lives.

There were 733 players we considered for the HoME as we began. With eleven elections complete, we’ve elected 61 and put to rest 161 others, as you’ll note by looking over our RIP category and reading below. That leaves us with 511 players for our remaining 157 spots in the HoME. In other words, we can elect a smidgen less than 29% of the remaining players we’re considering.

And after each election, I’ll offer the following chart to keep you apprised of our progress.

Year    Carried       New       Considered   Elected   Obituaries    Continuing
         Over       Nominees      this                                to Next
                                Election                              Election
1951      93           27         120           9          20            91
1946      94           26         120           8          19            93
1941      82           29         111           5          12            94
1936      75           29         104           8          14            82
1931      69           17          86           2           9            75
1926      71           25          96           9          18            69
1921      66           27          93           4          18            71
1916      53           31          84           5          13            66
1911      47           20          67           5           9            53
1906      33           28          61           3          11            47
1901  1st election     54          54           3          18            33

Dead in 1951

For just one data point on how great scouts are or are not, Johnny Allen was a hotel bellhop who met New York Yankee scout Paul Krichell while at the hotel. Allen asked for a tryout and got one. The rest, as they say, is forgotten history. Allen pitched in the bigs from 1932-1944, won 20 games in 1936 and made his only All-Star team in 1938. His 15-1 mark in between those two seasons was a record of sorts that stood until Elroy Face went 18-1 in 1959.

Dick Bartell was a National League shortstop whose aggressive style of play sat well with few opponents. And he was a hated man in Brooklyn. Whether it was spiking Joe Judge and Lonny Frey or brawling with Van Lingle Mungo, Bartell gave them reason to hate him. The story of the Mungo fight, as it’s told, says a lot about the state of the game in 1936. Mungo knocked Bartell down. Bartell bunted down to first base hoping to start an altercation. Unfortunately, the first baseman handled the bunt unassisted. Fortunately, Mungo hip checked Bartell as he ran to first and the fight was on.

The only player in major league history to die after being hit by a pitch, Ray Chapman was a shortstop for the Indians from 1912 until the day that Carl Mays hit him with that fateful offering in 1920. The incident, of course, helped to bring about a critical rule change in the game. No, batting helmets weren’t adopted. It was a full quarter of a century before anything like that happened. Rather, baseball banned the spitball. Except for one guy on every team. You know, for safety. In terms of the record books, Chapman set the single-season mark with 67 sacrifice hits in 1917, and he is sixth on the all-time list.

As we move through our HoME elections, you’d like to think society progressed as well. About that progression, I have to wonder. Harlond Clift, a third baseman who played a dozen years for the Browns and Senators, was known as “Darkie,” possibly because teammate Alan Strange believed his first name to be “Harlem.” Clift might have been baseball’s best 3B from 1934-1941. But that was a down time for the hot corner – trailing him were Stan Hack, Billy Werber, and Red Rolfe. Also, Clift had the mumps, which was a more common thing than we might imagine today before 1967.

Curt Davis won 158 games over a 13-year career in the majors that didn’t start until he was 30. He made a couple of All-Star teams in his career, and his 22-16 performance in 1939 placed him fifth in the MVP race. He opened the 1941 World Series presumably as the Dodger ace, as the Dodgers hadn’t had a game they needed to win in the previous six days. Davis didn’t deliver. The Yankees got to him for single runs in the second, fourth, and sixth, including a Joe Gordon homer. Davis was pulled in the sixth and didn’t pitch to another batter in his postseason career.

Big brothers always win. Rick Ferrell was a catcher and is in the Hall of Fame for all of his greatness. Baby brother Wes was a pitcher, and a very good one. Plus, he was a better hitter than his big brother. Yet, Wes isn’t in the Hall. In Rick’s defense, he had caught more games than any catcher in AL history at the time he retired. Plus, he was named to eight All-Star teams, despite putting in a few years before the first such game was played. As testimony to how he was perceived in his time, he caught all nine innings of the first All-Star game, while Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane watched from the bench.

Everything is relative, right? Freddie Fitzsimmons, who won 217 for the Giants and Dodgers from 1925-1943, was known at “Fat Freddie.” Freddie is listed at 5’11” and 185 pounds. According to the CDC, the average height for an American male today is just over 5’9”, and the average weight is over 195 pounds. So “Fat Freddie” might be known as “Flaco Freddie” today.

Lefty Gomez has tremendous baseball credibility. He was basically a career Yankee who reached the Hall of Fame in 1972. His winning percentage of .649 ranks him #16 among retired starters who were regulars on the mound for at least a decade. Among lefties, he trails only Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, and Ron Guidry. Plus, he started the inaugural All-Star Game and garnered three wins in the mid-summer classic. But the truth is that he wasn’t that great. He was very much a product of his teams and teammates. In terms of career WAR, he’s tied with Lonnie Smith and just a shade ahead of Howard Ehmke.

Charley Jones was the National League’s all-time leader in home runs when the league opened the 1880s. And he was the first player ever to homer twice in an inning. Jones might have been able to build a better HoME case had he not been blacklisted during the 1881 and 1882 seasons for refusing to play. If Jones is to be believed, he refused to play because his Boston Red Stockings hadn’t paid him. The jury didn’t believe him, apparently.

If your name is Rabbit Maranville, I think you should be fast. Ranking #17 in career triples suggests that Maranville was. Ranking #170 in career steals suggests something else. What’s clear is that he was a below average hitter over the course of his career. His putrid ERA+ of 82 indicates that he was 18% below league average at the plate. Of course, he’s in the Hall of Fame because of a spectacular glove at shortstop, a glove so respected that he received MVP votes on six occasions, including second and third place finishes in 1914 and 1913 respectively.

Buddy Myer was a second baseman for the Senators and Red Sox from 1925-1941. In 1935, he and Ben Chapman, who was killed by a Carl Mays pitch more than a decade later, took part in one of the most incredible brawls baseball has ever seen. There are at least two reasons the brawl was unbelievable – the scope and part of its genesis. The brawl went on for 20 minutes, and it is said to have included 300 fans. If that weren’t enough, some say that part of the reason for the brawl is that anti-Semitic epithets were launched by Chapman at Myer. Of course, at least according to Bill James, Myer said that he wasn’t Jewish, but German.

Roger Peckinpaugh won the 1925 American League MVP Award. And as much as some of us complain about the state of MVP voting and the like today, it was far worse in 1925. Peckinpaugh totaled 2.54 WAR that season. Of the 29 men who received MVP votes, he was actually more valuable than only eight of them. If we just look at players on his Washington Senators team, he was less valuable than Goose Goslin, Stan Coveleski, Walter Johnson, Sam Rice, Dutch Ruether, Joe Harris, Joe Judge, and Muddy Ruel. The man who the writers called the best in the AL was probably only the ninth best on his own team.

I don’t know what would make someone choose to race a horse – not on one – against one. Apparently Lip Pike had such a desire. And in 1873, he beat a horse in a 100 yard race. What kind of horse are we talking about here? I don’t think Secretariat would go down easily. Glue Boy, on the other hand, would lose to Lip Pike or just about anyone else. In this case, Pike bested Clarence and was said to have earned $250 for the victory. Now I know why someone would race a horse.

Charlie Root will be forever remembered as the man who surrendered Babe Ruth’s called shot in the third game of the Yankee/Cub World Series of 1932. Root always objected to the assertion that Ruth called his shot, but let’s face it, the narrative that he did is just glorious. Root was actually a decent enough pitcher, winning 201 games for the Cubs, including an NL leading 26 in 1927. In fact, in the long and storied history of the franchise – one that included the likes of Three Finger Brown, Fergie Jenkins, and Greg Maddux – not a single Cubs pitcher has won as many as Root.

Better known for co-founding A.G. Spalding Sporting Goods, Al Spalding was also an outstanding player in baseball’s early days. He was the dominant pitcher in National Association history, leading the league in wins every year of its existence. For good measure, he also led the National League in its first season. Then he started just one more game before his retirement. One of the reasons his sporting goods company took off is that in the official rules of the game that he published, he mandated that only Spalding baseballs could be used.

When he started in the American Association Jack Stivetts was really good. Then he moved to the more challenging National League, and was less good. Then the mound moved on him, and he was even less good. For a pitcher, he was a heck of a hitter tough. The seven home runs he hit in 1890 remained the top mark in baseball history until Wes Ferrell smacked nine in 1931.

Just for some perspective, there have been only 18,174 players ever to make it to the majors. In this study, we’re looking at fewer than 800 of them. What I mean to say is that reaching the majors is really difficult and that getting onto our list is even harder than that. Does it matter that Lloyd Waner has been killed off in this process? Well, sure. But even though the Hall really messed up by electing him, Waner totaled 2459 major league hits and is still probably one of the 800 or so best players ever to suit ‘em up. That’s not bad.

Lon Warneke has one of my all-time favorite nicknames, “The Arkansas Hummingbird”. If you’re wondering, he was from Arkansas, and I’m guessing he threw hard. For fun trivia, he has the first triple in All-Star history, and he scored the NL’s first ever run in the mid-season classic. His best season was 1932, when he led the NL with 22 wins. His proudest and his most disappointing season may have been 1935. His Cubs went to the World Series, where he pitched them to two complete game wins, including a shutout in the opener. However, pitching in relief in the third game, Warneke gave up a couple of runs. Had he not, they would have won that game and perhaps the Series that the Tigers took in six games.

Earl Whitehill, at least according to Time magazine, might have had nearly as much to do with the aforementioned Myer/Chapman brawl as Myer or Chapman. They wrote that Whitehill called Myer a “bad name” helping to fan the flames. Also notably, he once knocked Lou Gehrig unconscious with a pitch as the Iron Horse approached Everett Scott’s consecutive games played streak. This event and others like it has led to speculation that concussions, perhaps, led to the ALS that killed Gehrig. Also, Whitehill was a decent pitcher – 218 wins and double figures every season from 1924 through 1936.

Before anyone knew what a 30/30 player was, Ken Williams became baseball’s first player with 30 homers and 30 steals in a season when he smacked 39 and stole 37 in 1922, a season when he led the AL in HR, RBI, TB, and less positively, CS. In fact, only Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano have had individual seasons where they’ve topped Williams in both HR and SB. He was a powerful hitter whose full-time play didn’t begin until age 30, but from age 30-35, he was more valuable than any hitter in the game but Hornsby, Ruth, Speaker, Heilmann, Collins, and Cobb. Pretty good company. Had he been able to sustain that excellence, a place in the HoME might have been his.

Institutional History

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