A few weeks ago when Eric suggested to me that we reach out to some of our favorite people in the industry, I immediately agreed. That he should do it. I don’t mind admitting that I’m intimidated by these folks, just as I am my favorite baseball players. But somehow I’ve tried, and the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Last week I shared a conversation with Ryan Thibodaux of the Hall of Fame Tracker. Today it’s Adam Darowski of the Hall of Stats and SABR’s Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends Project.
Adam inspires us at the HoME with his depth of thought about how players should be evaluated and who should be in the Hall of Fame, he treats us with rankings of players on our favorite teams, he motivates us to help keep the past alive at the HoME – it’s not just players in our lifetimes who have been overlooked, and he helps un-muddy the waters, if you will, with a Hall of Consensus, which compares the Halls of a number of experts against that of the Hall of Fame.
If you’re not familiar with Adam’s work, or if you are, I’m excited to introduce you to him here. And if you think he’s awesome at baseball and suspect he might also be awesome at music too, check out his 2015 punk rock album, YAY!.
What made you start the Hall of Stats?
When the 2013 Hall of Fame results came out (and nobody was elected by the BBWAA), I wrote a manifesto of sorts about this topic. From a very young age, my specific baseball interest has been this intersection between baseball history and baseball statistics. It’s really no surprise that I’d eventually become deeply interested in Hall of Fame metrics. That naturally led to me identifying and researching the players with strong statistical cases who have been overlooked by Cooperstown. The more I learned about these players, the more attached I became. And the more they were overlooked, the more it affected me. The Hall of Stats is essentially a reaction to that. As I wrote in The Hardball Times in 2015, I just want to see my generation adequately represented.
The Hall of Stats originally started as a book project, but I got about ten pages into it before discovering I’m really not a writer. What I do is make digital products on the web. I decided that was probably a better medium for the Hall of Stats anyway, since it would allow me to constantly tinker and update things year after year. I enlisted the help of my friend Jeffrey Chupp and we built it and launched almost five years ago. Since then another friend of mine, Michael Berkowitz, helped me build out additional features (most notably positional pages and franchise pages).
Do you have a favorite feature at the Hall of Stats website?
Oh boy, that’s like picking my favorite kid. The one I’ll go with is the most recently I added. The Upcoming Elections page presents the players eligible for every Hall of Fame election (BBWAA, Today’s Game, Modern Baseball, Golden Days, or Early Baseball) between 2018 and 2031. For players like Alan Trammell who could appear on one of two ballots, we opted for the era in which the player earned the most Hall Rating.
There has likely never been a time when the Hall of Fame’s election process has been so influenced by outsiders’ opinions. How do you think the Hall of Stats is contributing to the discussion that is changing the Hall’s elections?
I’m just a guy who runs a small site, so I don’t think the impact is too huge. But I’d be lying if I said there was no influence at all. I know that my research made it into the room for at least one of the Era committee elections. I don’t know if it was considered, but at least it was there. I noticed that after I made an impassioned plea for the candidacy of Charlie Bennett at SABR’s 19th Century Base Ball Conference, he jumped from a tenth place finish in the 2016 Overlooked Legend voting to fifth this year. I think I may have helped raise awareness of Bennett, but he still remains a long way off from Cooperstown.
Who’s your favorite Hall of Famer?
It’s going to be hard not to go with Nolan Ryan (since I named my son Nolan). But Deacon White’s induction was a big deal for me.
Did you really name Nolan after Nolan Ryan?
I would say his name was inspired by Nolan Ryan. I pushed for the name early on because Nolan was my favorite player of all time. Eventually, my wife came around
How about a favorite who clearly doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall?
I’ve always been enamored with Pete Incaviglia. He just seemed like the everyman who tried hard and achieved some success with his brute strength. Long ago (I mean really long ago) I created a site dedicated to him. I must have done a decent job with it, because for a while Pete was using the bio I wrote about him on his own official site (which has since been taken down).
You’re also head of the Overlooked Nineteenth Century Base Ball Legends Project of SABR’s 19th Century committee. How did you receive that honor?
I became the project’s chair in September of 2013, taking over from Joe Williams. Joe co-founded the project and did an amazing job—eventually getting to see Deacon White (the project’s second selection) inducted to the Hall of Fame. As Joe was looking to scale his role back some, he took notice of my contributions to the group and thought I could handle it (I had only joined the group three months earlier). Luckily, he’s been there as a resource to help me every step of the way. I’m very proud of the selections the group has made, most recently Bob Caruthers this year and Jack Glasscock in 2016.
If you had a magic Hall of Fame wand to add 19th Century players to the Hall, which player would you add first?
I was asked this on the panel at the SABR Conference, too. I went with Doc Adams because his contributions to early baseball were far more significant and impactful than the playing careers of anyone still on the outside. In terms of players, I’m quite partial to amazing all-around shortstops Bill Dahlen and Jack Glasscock.
And what player on the outside looking in (19th or 20th Century) is most deserving in your estimation?
The easy answers here are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, but I think you’re looking for straight up overlooked players, rather than punished ones. Among 20th century overlooked players, I really have a “Big 6” that it’s tough to choose from. They’re all modern stars who played since 1970, which I think says something about how much higher the standards for the Hall have gotten. They are (in alphabetical order because it’s hard to pick just one): Bobby Grich, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, and Lou Whitaker.
Strangely, there aren’t a ton of players I lobby for who played in between Dahlen (retired in 1911) and Grich (debuted in 1970). Those who I strongly lobby for include Dick Allen, Wes Ferrell, and Minnie Miñoso.
Do you put Miñoso in without consideration for what he did before he reached the majors?
If we’re removing Miñoso’s Negro League career (and the fact that he was kept out of MLB by the color line), then yes… he’s borderline. But I think those are certainly enough to push him over the line.
Who has the best Hall Rating who wouldn’t get your vote?
Per the Hall of Consensus project I put together, I would have to say it is Kevin Appier. With a 112 Hall Rating, maybe I should be more sympathetic to his case. I haven’t given him the close inspection like I gave Rick Reuschel, David Cone, Larry Walker, and others. Maybe doing so would convince me.
Who has the worst Hall Rating who would get your vote strictly on his playing career?
That’d be Joe Start (76). The reason is because his prime came in the decade before the National Association. He was one of the biggest stars of the 1860s, but none of that is included in his statistical record (and therefore his Hall Rating). The fact that he reached 76 without the benefit of his prime speaks to his overall longevity and dominance.
All modesty aside, would the Hall’s voting process be improved if you and folks who did work like yours had a vote?
I’ll come right out and say “yes” and here’s why—even if I don’t agree with your Hall of Fame vote, if you have a system or a consistent standard that you apply, I’m good with it. I have one of those. Jay Jaffe has one of those. Other historically-focused friends of mine like Graham Womack and Joe Williams have their systems. They’re organized about it.
I want to stress that there are many, many BBWAA voters who put a great deal of thought into this, though. They have their consistent standards and apply them well. Take Barry Bloom for example. His real Hall of Fame vote and my fake one don’t overlap a whole bunch, but every year I feel like we have constructive (and civil, that’s a key) conversations about our choices. I respect the amount of thought he puts into it—which is indeed quite a bit—even though I don’t agree with where he ends up with all of his votes. That’s what we need more of and I think that has gotten better over the last couple of years as only people still close to the game can keep their votes.
This is fun! Happy to do it. Please let me know if any follow-up questions came from the answers above.
As I did last week, I’m including that last line, which is kind of outside the Q & A, because it offers a sense of what a good guy Adam is. I don’t know that I can articulate just how much fun it was for me.
Yes, I’m still intimidated talking to these folks, but there seems no reason to be. As Ryan was, Adam was awesome. Humble, thoughtful, and willing to share his time with someone he doesn’t know to discuss the game he loves.
A few weeks ago in class, a student brought up the idea of free community college tuition. Another chimed in by saying that all Florida colleges are free. That’s clearly not true. Right? So I did some quick research using my favorite search engine, looking up something like “Florida State University tuition”. Numbers came out – numbers indicating that school in Florida is not free. I expected my student would be soothed.
No such luck. She noted that I wasn’t even looking at Florida State’s official site. Okay then! To me this was a win because she was questioning the credibility of my source. But then it took only a few more seconds to get to Florida State’s official site to find that in-state tuition is $215.55 per credit. For a student taking a full load, that’s in excess of $3200 per semester, not including room, board, books, fees, etc. It’s not so expensive relative to other colleges. But it’s not free!
So I checked in again with my student. Nope. She still said something like, “But I heard that…”
Sometimes we get things wrong. The reason isn’t a surprising one; we’re not perfect. Imperfect beings make mistakes. But here’s what I don’t understand. I don’t understand why, when faced with fairly incontrovertible evidence, she didn’t change her mind. One of the lessons I try to impart to my students – and usually fail in doing – is that it’s tremendously more valuable to be right tomorrow than it is to have been right yesterday. In other words, never argue to prove your point; only argue to find truth. Once you find truth, you can be right every day going forward.
Regarding baseball, the truth is that somebody, or more likely a group of somebodies, invented the game. And it’s no surprise, really, that for a time in our nation’s history we believed that Abner Doubleday was that somebody. After all, the most credible source one could find, the Mills Commission, found Doubleday to be the creator.
Over at 19cBaseball, we see part of the reason why. The Mills Commission was launched after a dispute between Henry Chadwick and Albert Spalding. Notice that it wasn’t launched to find truth, but to settle a dispute. In short, Spalding appointed the Commission. Does anyone read a bias there? And their findings came almost exclusively from the testimony of a 71-year-old, a guy who was just five years old at the time in question. So it’s dubious testimony, for sure. But it proved Spalding’s point, dammit!
As you might expect, many baseball historians questioned the validity of the Mills’ findings. Some championed Alexander Cartwright as the true “father of baseball”. And they won part of this war. Doubleday isn’t in the Hall, and Cartwright’s plaque calls him “Father of Modern Base Ball.” It also says that he set the bases 90 feet apart and made baseball a 9-inning game. Pretty important stuff, right? Well, it’s important only if it’s true.
So in continued search for “truth”, baseball’s case got to Congress. Now those guys, they only care about truth, right? No political bias or motivation there… In 1953, Congress credited Alexander Cartwright with the invention of baseball. So Cartwright would seem to be the answer, right?
Sadly, no. What we think we know about Cartwright isn’t exactly true. John Thorne, the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, can and does tell the story better, so I recommend you click through. Briefly though, in his outstanding book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Thorn calls Adams “the most significant figure in the early history of baseball.” In Total Baseball, Thorn says that Adams “may be counted as first among the Fathers of Baseball.”
And that’s it, at least for us. That’s the truth as we know today. We might be wrong. And if Miller and Eric were in charge of the Hall, believing what we believe today, we wouldn’t boot Alexander Cartwright out. We wouldn’t even change his plaque. But we would induct Doc Adams. And we would tell the story of how the wrong answers came to be and how we’ve worked to do better.
Doc Adams isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He should be. And today he’s the sixth member of the Pioneer/Executive wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric. In a week well continue to work to do better, and we’ll learn about pio/exec inductee #7.
Last time out, we took a close look at the Pre-Integration-Era committee’s 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. If you missed that, the short answer is votes for Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, and Bucky Walters, all of whom are in the Hall of Miller and Eric, work for us. Doc Adams certainly belongs on this ballot too. Oh, and spit takes that this committee would include Marty Marion and Frank McCormick.
One of us (read: Eric) tends to get huffy about the idiocy of including the likes of Marion and McCormick when literally dozens of better candidates remain outside the Hall. The other of us (read: Miller) doesn’t care as much about the entirety of the ballot. He doesn’t get huffy at incorrect nominees anywhere near as much as he does by incorrect inductees.
So today, Eric gets to grind his annual Veterans Committee axe to a fine point, and Miller gets to tell the screeners who would simply have been fine additions to the ballot.
Miller: You don’t like the ballot and I do. Surprise! Okay, both perspectives make sense given our individual worldviews. Let’s do what we can to put together what we think the ideal ballot would be.
Eric: Right! Let’s make a ballot that actually contains nothing but people who deserve induction. We’ll start with this—Dahlen is my favorite candidate outside the Hall from this era, and I know he’s right there for you, so he’s on board. And we both think that Adams has strong credentials to represent the pioneers and execs and deserves our vote. That means we have eight slots to fill with people better than Garry Herrmann and Marty Marion. We also noted in our last little ditty that the managers of this period are picked clean, so nothing to see there. Do any other pioneers or execs belong on this ballot?
Miller: No. There are soooo many players who belong that I feel fine (quite good, actually) filling the other slots with players.
Eric: For giggles, I looked into the qualifications of some of the pioneers that John Thorn advocates for at his website. Among them, I could only really see a path for Louis Wadsworth, Duncan Curry, and Jim Creighton. None of them is a clear-cut choice like Adams. I mean he’s got A. G. Mills on the list, and that guy shackled players to the reserve clause and later made a mockery of early baseball with that preposterous, jingoist propaganda about Abner Doubleday. No more execs/pioneers.
Miller: Simmer down, man. We need eight others beyond Adams and Dahlen. Here are my fifteen favorite players from this era, in rank order, who I would put in the Hall. And just to confuse things, I’ll include my MAPES scores for each.
Eric: Shockingly, my list is very similar…after all we voted these guys into our own Hall.
Miller: So we agree on the top four. Alphabetically, Bennett, Dahlen, Ferrell, and Glasscock make our ballot for sure. And since you know how I love to narrow, and we have the exact same guys in our top-15 just in a different order, let’s see how our combined lists rank them:
Eric: So our top four plus Adams plus Hines, Veach, Sheckard, Barnes, and Fletcher would round out our ten slots. We would be recommending:
The Hall is a little short on catchers. Maybe the Schanger should replace Fletcher since we’re already recommending two other shortstops?
Miller: While I prefer Fletcher, it’s fine by me to go with Schang. Now I could craft an argument for Fletcher, but the truth is that any ballot is good enough for me if only deserving guys get in. So I’m certainly not going to quibble about one deserving guy over another. This makes our ballot:
I really think Bill Dahlen is going to get into the Coop in 2016, and that makes a good turn for the Pre-Integration folks. As long as they don’t also vote for Marty Marion.
Eric: Or Frank McCormick. Or Gary Herrmann. I actually have a feeling that Doc Adams is going to get a lot of votes. Maybe he won’t be elected, but his sudden rise in stature augurs well in my opinion. Then again, when you get sixteen old men in a room, anything can happen. As the screeners proved. It’s irritating to see supposed historians so utterly swing and miss on not one (Marion), not two (McCormick), but three (Herrmann) candidates. I mean, I don’t see the need for four off-the-field dudes on this ballot, but reasonable people can have their own opinions. And Stovey is a pretty reasonable choice on the field; he’s not that far from the in/out line for the HoME and would be just fine in the Hall. But those other three (you know, 30% of a carefully screened ballot) are such dogs. Please, Hall of Fame, can’t you ease slowly away from these crazy writers and let some real historians come to the table?
Miller: Now we completely agree.
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, 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.
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 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.
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).
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
Graham 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:
“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.
After 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.
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!