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Bus Clarkson

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Evaluating More Negro Leagues Shortstops Part 2

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates(c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

Now in Act II of our shortstopian drama, we have rising action as we roll out MLE for three more fellows, including one who is well known candidate over at the Hall of Merit. We bring you frank assessments of Messers Clarkson, Garcia, and Riggins. We thought that would be more topical than our assessment of longtime Yankees broadcaster Frank Messer. Also, if your hair doesn’t need washing, your sock drawer rearranging, or your dust any busting, devote some quality personal time to the explanation of our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters and see if you can stay awake for as long as it takes to read through it.

Bus/Buzz/Buster Clarkson

Or James or Jim if you’d rather. We’ll go with “Buster” for our purposes. Clarkson had a whole bunch of monikers, sobriquets, and nicknames, and he had a whole bunch of skills on a ballfield too.

Most obviously, Clarkson had some sting in his bat. Not surprising because he was built like a tank. Or maybe a bus: 5’11” and 210 pounds.He had enough power to earn respect and enough respect to earn his share of free passes. For the seasons we have complete data for, Clarkson batted 4690 times, hit 172 homers and 191 doubles (nearly .200 ISO), and he walked 621 times (13% of PAs). For good measure he’d steal about a dozen bases a year.

In the field Buster appears best described as up to the challenge, though our data there is a bit limited. It seems like he probably hovered around average, and he was slowly transitioned to third base after age 30.

About the only place where Clarkson struggled was durability. His currently available games totals and team totals imply that he played about 126 games a year (in 154-game notation or 132 in 162-game notation). But we are missing a few years from his prime. Actually, Clarkson, himself, is missing a few years from his own prime thanks to military service.

By the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Buster was 32. He didn’t break into Whiteball until 1948 in the Provincial League, which wasn’t exactly a great league. He finally hitched on in AAA in 1950, at which point he was 35 years old. He got a cup of coffee in 1952 with the Braves, then finished things out mostly in the PCL and the Texas League.

Buster Clarkson
Negro Leagues Stats | Major League Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1938–1956
Destination: NL 1938–1956
Missing data: 1948–1950

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1938  23 NL SS    490  - 3    0    0     0     7    3   0.3   15   19   2.0
1939  24 NL SS    550   13    0    0     0     8   21   2.4   17   38   4.0
1940  25 NL SS    550   19    0    0     0     8   26   2.7   17   43   4.6
1941  26 NL SS    520   18    0    0     0     7   26   2.7   16   42   4.5
1942  27 NL SS    570   18    0    0     0     8   26   3.0   18   44   5.1
1943  28          MILITARY SERVICE
1944  29          MILITARY SERVICE
1945  30          MILITARY SERVICE
1946  31 NL SS/3B 570   25    0    0     0     4   29   3.3   18   47   5.3
1947  32 NL SS/3B 580   23    0    0     0     4   27   2.7   18   45   4.6
1948  33 NL SS/3B 540   21    0    0     0     4   25   2.5   17   41   4.3
1949  34 NL SS/3B 540   20    0    0     0     4   23   2.4   17   40   4.1
1950  35 NL SS/3B 570   17    0    0     0     4   20   2.0   18   38   3.9
1951  36 NL SS/3B 430   12    0    0     0     3   14   1.5   13   28   2.9
1952  37 NL SS/3B 410   14    0    0     0     3   27   1.8   13   30   3.2
1953  38 NL 3B    420   21    0    0     0     0   20   2.0   13   34   3.3
1954  39 NL 3B    360   19    0    0     0     0   19   1.9   11   30   3.1
1955  40 NL 3B    150    5    0    0     0     0    5   0.5    5   10   1.0
1956  41 NL 3B    100    2    0    0     0     0    2   0.3    3    5   0.6
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 7350  245    2   -3    -3    63  304  31.8  229  533  56.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 126th
Rbat: 87th
WAA: t-46th
WAR: 52nd

As you can see, we’ve split Clarkson’s time between shortstop and third base in his early 30s. It’s kind of dollar cost averaging against knowing when he really would have cut over to third. We split his Rpos between those two positions.

This is an impressive player. Clarkson has no upward headroom really because there’s nothing more to know about his 1947 and 1948 seasons. He spent them in Mexico and Canada respectively. Unless he did a little time in the Negro Leagues those years too, we know as much as we can about him until such time as someone goes up north to dig up more stats from the Provincial League. Bonne chasse!

Silvio García

Maybe it was because he was conscripted for a few months in the Cuban army. Maybe it was because he couldn’t pull the ball. Maybe it was because he drank a little. Or maybe it was because he had turned thirty in 1944. But one way or another, Silvio García did not break the color barrier.

You see, the Dodgers scouted García heavily in the mid 1940s, on the sly, of course, and ultimately decided against signing him. Various stories offer various reasons why, but ultimately the whole thing turned out OK. Well, maybe not for García. He never made the majors and barely made a dent in the white minors.

Cuba Libre spent his first few years as a pitcher. But around 1940 he became a full-time position player. One story has it that while sitting in the dugout, he was struck on his pitching arm by a line drive, which ultimately caused a permanent move to the everyday lineup. Another account goes that he hit a batter in the head and soured on pitching. Either way, it was fine because García had played shortstop when he wasn’t pitching, and he could hit. He had a big body for a shortstop of the time, and little is said about his range. He was widely praised for his arm.

García played relatively little in the Negro Leagues themselves, only four seasons. The rest he spent in the short-lived 1937 Santo Domingo league, the Mexican League, the indy-then-C-level Canadian Provincial League, and the Florida International League to round things out in 1952. He played winters in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Everywhere he went, he hit, and in the mid 1940s was considered one of the best players outside organized baseball.

He was eventually enshrined in the Dominican Baseball Hall of Fame and died in the late 1970s.

Silvio García
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1932–1952
Destination: NL 1936–1952
Missing data: 1932–1935, 1937, 1947, 1949–1952
Honors: Dominican Baseball Hall of Fame

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1936  22 NL SS    600  - 1    2    0     0     8    9   0.9   19   28   2.8
1937  23 NL SS    610   12    2    0     0     8   22   2.3   19   41   4.3
1938  24 NL SS    620   17    2    0     0     9   28   2.9   19   47   5.0
1939  25 NL SS    620   16    2    0     0     9   27   2.7   19   46   4.8
1940  26 NL SS    620   16    2    0     0     9   26   2.7   19   46   4.8
1941  27 NL SS    640   16    2    0     0     9   27   2.9   20   47   5.1
1942  28 NL SS    630   23    2    0     0     9   34   3.8   20   54   6.1
1943  29 NL SS    540   14    2    0     0     8   23   2.6   17   40   4.5
1944  30 NL SS    640   16    2    0     0     9   27   2.8   20   47   5.0
1945  31 NL SS    650   17    2    0     0     9   28   2.9   20   49   5.1
1946  32 NL SS    610   19    2    0     0     8   30   3.3   19   49   5.5
1947  33 NL SS    620   15    2    0     0     8   25   2.6   19   45   4.6
1948  34 NL SS    580    7    2    0     0     8   17   1.8   18   35   3.7
1949  35 NL 3B    530   11    2    0     0     0   13   1.4   17   30   3.1
1950  36 NL 3B    520   12    2    0     0     0   14   1.4   16   30   3.1
1951  37 NL 3B    480   12    2    0     0     0   14   1.4   15   29   3.0
1952  38 NL 3B    150    4    0    0     0     0    4   0.5    5    9   1.0
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9660  225   31    1     0   111  368  38.8  301  669  71.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 31st
Rbat: 102nd
WAA: 32nd
WAR: 26th

García appears to have owned a wide range of talents, though none was necessarily transcendent, the whole package was very valuable, indeed. We’ve made him an average fielder in deference to the lack of fielding information about him combined with the fact that in the little lore at our fingertips, his range is not described but his arm is lauded.

We’ve run his MLE as though he’d always played shortstop rather than started out as a pitcher. We can argue the merits of that approach, but the gist for me goes like this:

a) He was reputed to be a good pitcher, so the overall value might well be similar anyway

b) After 1939, he played thirteen years as a shortstop/third baseman anyway, so it’s not like this is a stretch.

Bill Riggins

His first name was Arvell sometimes spelled Orville. He played the classic shortstop: Little guy, didn’t hit much, could run a little, but could really pick it, which kept him in the lineup for a long time. He rarely missed a game.

Bill Riggins
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1920–1935
Destination: NL 1920–1935
Missing data: 1926, 1927, 1929, 1933, 1934

Year Age Lg Pos  PA  Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos RAA  WAA Rrep  RAR  WAR
===========================================================================
1920  20 NL SS     90     0    0      1     1     2   0.3    3    5   0.6 
1921  21 NL SS    490     0    0      5     7    12   1.3   15   27   2.8
1922  22 NL SS    650  - 12    0      7     9     4   0.4   20   24   2.4
1923  23 NL SS    650  -  4    0      7     9    12   1.1   20   32   3.2
1924  24 NL SS    630     0    0      7     9    16   1.7   20   36   3.7
1925  25 NL SS    650  -  7    0      7     9     9   0.9   20   30   2.9
1926  26 NL SS    620  -  5    0      7     9    11   1.1   19   30   3.1
1927  27 NL SS    620  -  5    0      7     9    10   1.0   19   29   3.1
1928  28 NL SS    630  -  7    0      7     9     8   0.8   20   28   2.8
1929  29 NL SS    640  -  5    0      7     9    11   1.0   20   31   2.8
1930  30 NL SS    620  -  3    0      6     8    12   1.0   19   31   2.8
1931  31 NL SS    620  -  5    0      7     9    10   1.0   19   29   3.1
1932  32 NL SS    550  -  4    0      6     8    10   1.0   17   27   2.8
1933  33 NL SS    610  -  4    0      7     9    11   1.3   19   30   3.4
1934  34 NL SS    570  -  4    0      6     8    10   1.0   18   28   2.9
1935  35 NL SS    270  -  2    0      3     4     5   0.5    8   13   1.3
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 7460  - 56    2     79   103   127  12.6  233  359  36.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 118th
Rbat: hundreds down the list
Rfield: 21st (shortstop only)
WAA: 206th 
WAR: 173rd

A couple notes here. One is that while Riggins occasionally placed highly in stolen bases, his overall baserunning, adjusted for the tendencies of his leagues and teams to run are only slightly above average. Well, actually, that’s not the whole story. In reality, his baserunning through 1928 is excellent. But we lack data for 1926 and 1927. Then we lack 1929 as well, but in 1930 and after, his baserunning stinks. James Riley reports that Riggins broke his leg in winter of 1925 in a California Winter League game and that he never ran as well again. Could be, though, as mentioned, he did great in 1928. So what we’ve done here is to give him +2 runs/154 games for his running through 1928 and -1 runs per 154 thereafter.

Riggins’ position was considerably more fluid than it appears in our MLE. He played a lot of third base, especially in 1928 and 1932, for reasons unknown. It’s unclear whether he could have stayed in the big leagues at third, however. Between his batting, the fact that his third-base fielding stats are poor, and his loss of speed, he may not have had enough to keep him above replacement. He certainly would have been below average. But we’ve kept him at shortstop, so you can consider this MLE his upside scenario.

* * *

Next time polish off our shortstops with Act III and a look at Hank Thompson, Dick Wallace, Artie Wilson, and our denouement Lightning Round.

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Thinking About the Negro Leagues: 5 Questions

This is not an announcement of action. But Miller and I are trying to wrap our very limited brains around the very complex question of whether we can do a high-quality job of electing Negro Leaguers to the Hall of Miller and Eric. So this is the first in a series of articles about how dudes like us could go about this process, what hurdles we’d face, and what degree of rigor we think we could bring to the job. If by the end, we feel pretty good about things, we may take on the challenge. If not, well, we may have to leave it go. We don’t like lousing things up.

Here are five questions we’ve been asking ourselves. We’ll explore them in greater depth in the weeks to come, but these are the big-picture items that we’re wrasslin’ with right now.

  1. How many Negro Leaguers should we elect?

The Baseball Hall of Fame is our guide for all other electoral questions, so this one’s easy. They’ve elected 29 Negro League players, 5 executives, and 1 manager. That’s our goal. Next!

  1. Who qualifies as a Negro Leaguer?

Things were so easy in our first question…. See, this stuff gets sticky fast. Take Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso, two candidates very close to the borderline at their respective positions. They played most of their careers in MLB, had some seasons in the Negro Leagues, and spent some time in the minors as well (Doby very little, Minoso, a couple seasons). Does that mean we should only count them as Major Leaguers? We don’t think so. The larger point isn’t who was a Negro Leaguer and who wasn’t, but rather who had his career disrupted or distorted by the color line? That’s every player who only played in the Negro Leagues and every player whose path from the Negro Leagues to the Majors went a little sideways because of their skin color. Other folks in this camp include Elston Howard, Toothpick Sam Jones, and Luke Easter.

It turns out that, like nearly everything in human life, players fall onto a continuum of experiences. After experience in the Negro Leagues, Bus Clarkson, Willard Brown, and Artie Wilson, for example, got cups of coffee in the big leagues but spent nearly all their post-Integration careers in the high minors. Others like Marv Williams never got to MLB and bounced up and down the minors. Since many teams were slow to integrate, and since it appears that most integrated teams may have informally kept the number of black players artificially low well into the 1950s or 1960s, we can’t even say that Negro Leaguers got the same opportunities as their white counterparts to participate in the baseball market, suppressing their ability to get MLB jobs.

Even before the Integration generation, there are strange exceptions. Dark-skinned Latino players who competed against Negro Leaguers but rarely played in the Negro Leagues themselves. Careers like Dobie Moore’s, Bullet Rogan’s, and Heavy Johnson’s that included playing top-level baseball in the army. There’s weirder stuff yet, such as Quincy Trouppe taking a year off after a boxing injury.

So earlier our rule of thumb helps here: Who had their career disrupted or distorted by the color line? Dobie Moore played top-level baseball in the army for good money prior to the formation of the first Negro National League and came over to the new league as soon as the war was over. He was playing at the or at a top level available to him. Same goes for Trouppe, really. He was an amateur and met Joe Louis just before the Brown Bomber went pro. Boxing was more lucrative in 1937 in depression-era America, especially with Louis paving the way for black athletes to earn bigger paychecks as pugilists. Trouppe’s decision to box in the offseason was radically different than one faced by his white MLB counterparts whose incomes were very safe. Trouppe was playing summers for an All-Star independent team in Bismarck, North Dakota. Independents could fold up shop at any time. Even were Trouppe with a league team, the Negro Leagues frequently had capitalization issues and were more vulnerable to bad economic times. MLB players were not in danger of such instability, so Trouppe’s boxing dalliance makes sense as a young man trying to find the best way to earn a living. We have to answer the question, then, should we give Trouppe some credit for a hypothetical 1937 season?

Oh, and I have no idea what to do with Bobby Estalella.

  1. In which case, how do we integrate Negro League data with Major League data?

Over at Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit, you’ll see a lot of discussion about Negro Leaguers, which includes translations of stats into Major League contexts. Yours truly (as Dr. Chaleeko) did a lot of that work with Chris Cobb doing the most important thinking and work with big assists from KJOK, Brent, and other members of that online community.

And we did all that work before WAR was a thing and before Gary Ashwill had published out more than 10% of his body of work.

So those translations are old and in need of updating. We need a new protocol for translation to get into the WAR era. With translation, however, comes a host of necessary calculations:

  • Park effects
  • League-quality conversion factors
  • League-level origination and destination information
  • Possibly even information about standard deviation.

That’s big-picture stuff, and there’s tons of nitty-gritty details too.

But what should be clear is this: Our goal must be to get as accurate a look at how a Negro Leaguer would have performed in MLB as possible because in some cases we must meld big league and Negro League information to evaluate the career of a player.

  1. What qualifies as a Negro League?

The short answer: any league that allowed dark-skinned people to play in it. In addition to the Negro Leagues themselves, prior to Integration that includes various Caribbean winter leagues, the Mexican league of the 1930s and 1940s, the integrated California Winter League of the 1920s, and occasionally the minors. There existed minor blackball circuits as well, and only in a precious rare instance do we include them. In addition, and especially prior to 1920, there were loose affiliations of independent teams that barnstormed and scheduled games against one another. Even thereafter, in the heart of the Great Depression when the leagues broke apart for a couple years, surviving independent teams continued to loosely affiliate in this way. All these and some others count.

  1. What sources of information can we trust?

This is one of the key questions, and we fortunately live in a time when Negro League information has become more plentiful and more trustworthy. Here’s a list of helpful sources we’ve already discovered.

There are more but that’s a great starting list. That said I’m not so willing to trust some sources:

  • The Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract: At about 17 years old, the statistical information James used is out of date, and he relies heavily on anecdotal research, which is often at odds with the statistics that we now have (and which he didn’t in fairness). It’s good, however, for jumpstarting some outside-the-box thinking about certain players.
  • Various sources by John Holway: I don’t mean to be a jerk about this, but Holway seems to have fallen too deeply in love with his subject. I appreciate his passion, but he often makes claims that feel hyperbolic, decontextualized, and less objective than feels safe for me to rely on.
  • The opinions of former players: Just like with Major League players, only worse. There’s lots of grade inflation. If someone says that so-and-so was the greatest fielder he’d ever seen, that probably means the guy was above average with the glove. If they say he was about average, that probably means he was below average. That sort of thing.

This article shows you why I’m skeptical of anecdotal information about the Negro Leagues.

We’ll be investigating most of these questions and some important details within them in future posts. They will be our pathway toward making our final decision about whether or not to pursue this wing of the HoME.

 

 

Institutional History

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