We’ve just selected Judge Landis as the second Pioneer/Executive member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. It’s as good a time as any to consider what makes a league executive potentially worth of our brand of recognition.
When it comes to league-level execs, we’re in something of a minefield. As you know from just about every other article we’ve ever written, we seek objectivity as much as we are able. As part of our understanding of baseball’s history, we tend to rely on what’s measurable as much as we can. With league executives, we can’t measure much. League attendance figures? Lots of noise, not much signal. Team by team franchise values? Awfully hard to find before recent memory and lacking a lot of signal as well.
So we must turn to narrative, and we must weigh achievements that come from meeting rooms and fountain pens against those that we can measure. The case of Judge Landis provides some helpful insight into how this works. In essence, we elected Landis because he saved the major leagues. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s entirely possible that a commissioner with a weaker spine would have failed to root out gambling from the game. Landis recognized immediately that it was better, nay necessary, to err on the side of ruthlessness. To say that gambling was a cancer or virus on the game is apt. If Landis tossed someone out for suspected gambling who was innocent, this was far better than allowing one rogue cell to stay in the game and spread the sickness again. His plan worked. He didn’t pull a James Buchanan and “meh” the league into complete turmoil.
Now we might dicker over his legacy. He was against farm systems, and he was immovable on the race question. But consider that the 1919 fix called into question whether the pitch-by-pitch integrity of any given game could be saved, and Landis’ achievement is obvious.
So when we talk about league executives, we need to consider first whether the implications of their actions are still felt today. With the executive elections that we’ll be rolling out over the next weeks, this will be clear. We might categorize those who receive strong consideration this way:
An even simpler definition: Those without whose vision or achievements we couldn’t imagine the game today.
We must take care, of course, to look critically at what’s been written about the men in the league-executive category. With precious little objective information to counterbalance the narrative, we must remember that the winners write history, and that everyone loves a winner.
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What roles fit under the category of league executives? Evidently we believe that commissioners do. Similarly, league presidents, especially before Bud Selig consolidated power under MLB’s home office. There are a couple other categories, however, that make sense in this catchall bucket. Baseball’s union leaders are the most obvious. But are also some insiders who are outsiders. The Spinks, for example, owner/operators of The Sporting News, who not only ran baseball’s paper of record but were also frequently consulted by league officials when issues were afoot.
Things get a little hazy when we talk about people such as Bill James, Sean Forman (founder of BBREF, not eligible but helpful as an example), David Smith (founder of Retrosheet), and SABR founder Bob Davids.
James is clearly not a league executive, and as a consultant, it’s not clear he’s a team executive. As a writer, of course, he’s not an executive. In reality, we’d probably call him a Pioneer. Forman (when he becomes eligible) is an executive in the same way the Spinks are, with one big difference: He has no ties to MLB. He could certainly be a Pioneer for making data accessible, but there’s a way to see him as exec as well. Similar claims can be made for Smith and Davids, both executives, neither officially linked to MLB.
But other than Pioneer, we have no place to stick them, which makes it a little harder to compare them against other candidates. Or maybe not. Maybe I just like to categorize stuff.
So it’s pretty simple, really. Did the executive do something hugely important, and can we substantiate that contribution well? If so, he’s got legs as a candidate. Because, to be honest, neither Miller nor I thinks a strong league balance sheet is enough. Baseball, for us, is bigger than the money.
A couple of weeks ago, in association with Graham Womack’s work over at Baseball Past and Present, Eric shared with you his 25 most important people in baseball history. And today I have my chance. But first, I love Womack’s idea here. It’s fun. It starts conversations. And that’s exactly why so many of us love the game.
In his post, Eric said that Womack’s deliberately subjective term “most important” meant “lasting impact” for him. I completely concur. Yet Eric and I have pretty different lists. Mine is peppered with more players than his. His contains more pioneers, shall we say. On one hand, without these pioneers, we might not have the game we have today. On the other, it’s not incredibly easy to say that people many fans haven’t heard of have had such a lasting impact. These points are debatable. These lists are so debatable. And that’s why they’re great.
Eric puts three men at the top – Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. I’d have just two men there – Ruth and Rickey. Don’t misunderstand. Robinson is huge. Robinson is critically important. But I believe there’s a bit of distance between him and the top two. I’ll get to that distance in a moment.
#1 Babe Ruth: He is baseball. Without him, home runs wouldn’t have taken on the life they did. The Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees. Hell, baseball wouldn’t be baseball.
#2 Branch Rickey: Add his role in baseball’s integration, plus his role in the establishment of farm systems, plus his role in the establishment of spring training, plus his role the use of statistical analysis, and you have the most important non-player in baseball history.
#3 Henry Chadwick: Surprising and disappointing many, I’m not going with Jackie here. Chadwick created the box score! If you grew up a baseball fan, you grew up pouring through box scores. Even if you don’t know Chadwick, you’ve looked at his work thousands and thousands of times. More than any non-player in baseball’s early days, he helped to popularize the game.
#4 Kenesaw Mountain Landis: I had a very tough call between him and Chadwick. On one hand, were it not for the strong first Commissioner of the game, I don’t know if we’d have a game today. On the other, were it not for love of statistics, I wouldn’t be writing this. Since it’s my list, I’m going with what’s important to me. But without Landis, the game could have lost all credibility at the hands of gamblers. It’s possible he saved the game from extinction.
#5 Jackie Robinson: In most baseball circles it’s sacrilege to suggest that baseball could have gone on without the great #42. Robinson debuted on April 15, 1947. Larry Doby played in the majors less than two months later. Were it not for Robinson, some would say, Doby wouldn’t have existed when he did. And perhaps that true. But I think that the repulsive practice of barring black players from the game was going to end with or without Robinson, probably in 1947 or 1948. Robinson might have been the perfect first player, but I’m not convinced that he’s the only person who could have played that role.
#6 Marvin Miller: For generations of baseball players, he’s the most important ever. Were it not for his leadership, players might still be tied to their teams for life. And they might still be making a pittance relative to the owners. Okay, they’re still making a pittance, but it’s a bigger pittance.
#7 Stephen C. Clark: This is, perhaps, a selfish choice. Clark is the founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s the reason for this blog and the thing I treasure most about the game.
#8 Bill James: More selfishness? Before Bill James, I didn’t read. I knew how and all; I just didn’t. James made reading fun for me. He made statistics fun for me. Were it not for Bill James, it’s possible I wouldn’t have attended college, and today I’m a college professor. Hmm, maybe he should be higher on my list.
#9 Harry Wright: This is the level at which things get dicey for me. Wright put together the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first fully professional team. He made baseball a business. And he also introduced on-field innovations like backing up plays.
#10 Monte Ward: He was a Hall-level player and was the leader in the construction of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the game’s first labor union. He also formed the Players’ League, a rival major league.
#11 Pete Rose: A baseball pariah and mass autograph signer today, Rose was once the game’s greatest asset. He’s one of the most important players on one of the most important teams ever. Oh yeah, and most hits in history. Plus, through Rose we can talk gambling and Hall exclusion. Those things are important to me.
#12 Peter Seitz: I chose Seitz for this list rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes. Seitz was the arbitrator who overturned baseball’s reserve clause, a decision that ushered in free agency. While Holmes did write the decision that basically said baseball was a game rather than a business, allowing it to exist as a monopoly, he wasn’t the only Supreme Court justice involved in that decision. And since he wasn’t Chief Justice, it’s quite possible the decision to take the case was someone else’s. After Seitz’s decision, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free. And ballplayers began to earn their fair share of the game’s profits.
#13 J.G. Taylor Spink: Spink followed Chadwick in promoting the game to the masses through The Sporting News. If baseball weren’t brought to the people by that “Bible of baseball”, it wouldn’t be the game it is today.
#14 Barry Bonds: Let the controversy begin! Like it or not, he’s the game’s all-time leader in its most treasured stat. And he’s an incredibly important figure in the telling of the game’s steroid story.
#15 Roger Bresnahan: He invented and improved on so much of a catcher’s equipment that the term “tools of ignorance” applied much less after his time than before it. Eric’s words here are eloquent. “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)…”
#16 Ed Barrow: It’s possible the Yankees never would have become the Yankees without him. Of course, my favorite thing about him is that he managed the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series title.
#17 Frank Robinson: All-time great player, MVP in both leagues, triple crown, and first African American manager ever. I like putting players on this list more than many would. Robinson makes it as a player, a manager, a pioneer, an executive, and an icon.
#18 Frank Jobe: I think they should call it “Frank Jobe surgery”. Tommy John didn’t do much, really. Jobe did. And millions of fans have him to thank for putting their favorite pitchers back together.
#19 Ted Williams: It’s possible he understood hitting as well as anyone ever has. Through Williams, one can tell the story of .400, military service by MLB players, and even recognition of Negro League players by the Hall of Fame.
#20 Frankie Frisch: The Giant and Cardinal has four World Series rings and a Hall of Fame plaque. But the reason he makes this list is the leadership of the Hall’s Veterans Committee during a time they polluted the Coop with cronies and some pretty undeserving players. You can’t tell the story of the Hall without discussion of Frisch.
#21 Curt Flood: Flood is lower on this list than some might suggest. But when he challenged baseball’s reserve clause, he lost his case. He’s on the list because he got the ball rolling though, and there might not be a 10/5 rule without Flood.
#22 Sean Forman: If Bill James ushered in the analytics revolution, it’s Forman’s baseballreference.com that has made it possible. People who understand statistics and mathematics now often understand the game better than baseball insiders. Partly because of Forman, front offices are littered with brainiacs and not grizzled old baseball men.
#23 Cal Ripken Jr.: The man who topped Lou Gehrig’s iron man streak also helped baseball through one of its darkest times, the cancellation of the 1994 World Series due to labor strife. Ripken was a positive and popular player, someone who the fans could look up to as a beacon of excellence when so many others disappointed.
#24 Hank Aaron: Aaron makes my list because of homers, Ruth, race, Bonds, and his ambassadorship to the game. The story of the game can’t be told very well without Aaron.
#25: Abraham G. Mills: And the story of the game wouldn’t be the story of the game without Mills, the guy who led the commission that ridiculously credited Abner Doubleday as the founder of the game. For so many to believe something so wrong for so long makes Mills quite important in my estimation.
That’s my list. What’s yours? Vote here. Voting closes at Sunday at 8 p.m. Pacific Time.
When I think of the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’m sometimes reminded of Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way”, at least a couple of lines from it. Sinatra sang,
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
Bold, right? And for an individual, it’s a pretty impressive mantra. To be audacious, to be a trailblazer, to do things your way – that’s pretty impressive for a life.
Not so impressive for a Hall of Fame.
Eric and I undertook this project because we believe the Hall of Fame has gotten it wrong. They have done so and continue to do so with the audacity of Sinatra.
In this, the first in an occasionally recurring series, we’re going to explore players who were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame but have received an obituary in the Hall of Miller and Eric. We’ll offer some simple measures to explain how the Coop erred, share some recent(ish) comparable players to put the failure in perspective, and try to explain the reason(s) the Hall failed.
Tommy McCarthy was a right fielder and left fielder who played parts of 13 seasons for five teams in three leagues. Really though, his career was just the nine seasons he topped 53 games, from 1888-1896. And he was about a league average hitter, posting a career OPS+ of 102.
For some perspective, let’s consider his career WAR of 14.7. That’s less than Mike Trout has had in his first two seasons, a lot less. He’s tied for 1914th place in history. He’s tied with such greats as Ralph Garr, Ron Karkovice, and Rick Waits. Of course, none of them belongs in the Hall.
I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes looking at so many players obscures things. How does McCarthy rate just among right fielders? Well, he’s tied for 147th place. Tony Armas, Ruben Sierra, and Bernie Carbo are all ahead of him.
Clearly, Tommy McCarthy isn’t qualified to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. So why is he? How did the Hall go wrong? For this and many other Hall questions, I refer you to Bill James’ book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (The Politics of Glory).
The truth is that James doesn’t answer this question about McCarthy, at least not directly and specifically. So we’re left to speculate.
From what I’ve read, McCarthy was quite well respected as a person. And as Roger Clemens, for example, will tell you, character seems to matter to Hall voters. But Dale Murphy might tell you otherwise. And Ty Cobb would say that it doesn’t f’ing matter. Except Cobb might punch you as he’s saying it.
Fine, McCarthy was a nice guy. But there’s certainly more to it than that. Some, including baseball historian Dave Fleitz, have said that McCarthy’s induction was more about his contribution to the strategic aspects of the game than about his statistical performance. Well, it would have to be, right?
Monte Ward credits McCarthy with the invention of the hit-and-run. And Bill Lamb’s article at the SABR Bio Project touts McCarthy’s early adoption of the outfield trap play and sign stealing. I’m just going to eliminate out of hand trapping a ball to deceive runners and stealing signs from the opponent as paths to the Hall. But maybe there’s something to the hit-and-run point.
Bill James seems to agree that McCarthy was its most likely inventor. He also explains in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that John McGraw took part in a 30-year campaign to say the play was invented in Baltimore, not Boston (where McCarthy played). And Cap Anson said that it was used by his White Stockings – prior to the time McCarthy was said to have invented it.
So here’s what Dave Fleitz wants us to believe – that the Veterans’ Committee, which elected McCarthy in 1946, a half century after the hit-and-run was created, credited McCarthy rather than the historically great Anson or the vocal and ever-present John McGraw who spent 40+ years in the game. Really? I just don’t buy that.
But just in case you do, there’s one additional problem you have to consider. McCarthy was elected to the Hall as a player, not as a pioneer. As such, he was elected based on his play, not based on his innovation. Just to clarify, he was elected based on a career WAR relatively equivalent to Walter Johnson’s 1912 season, not his hit-and-run innovation.
To understand how that’s possible, we have to consider a group called the Permanent Committee, or the Old-Timers Committee. They were established in 1939 to consider the careers of overlooked 19th century contributors. And in 1939, they elected five guys. Three were players, and all three – Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, and Old Hoss Radbourne – were fine selections. Then things changed. The baseball writers couldn’t elect anyone, and the Hall wanted elections. In 1944 Judge Landis expanded membership on the committee to six and gave them the power to dictate the rules for selection. That newfound authority didn’t impact McCarthy, but it did have a huge institutional impact, which we’ll discuss in coming articles in this series.
There was an Old-Timers lull until 1944 when they elected, you guessed it, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Sketchy, but fine. After that, however, the flood gates opened. Ten more were put in the next year, and McCarthy joined ten others in 1946. Twenty-one guys in two years, many of whom you’ll hear about in future articles in this series.
All I can do is guess to the thought process of a group working nearly 70 years ago. Tough, huh. It’s basically as tough as the job the committee had in 1946 – fifty years after McCarthy retired. This might be hard to believe, but there was no Internet in 1946. Which means there was no baseballreference. The horror!
The Old-Timers Committee was evaluating players either on their own or on the reports of experts. Those experts included historians, of course, and they also included players. Historians were operating with far less information than we are today. Players were operating with tremendous bias and often lacked expertise in evaluation. If you doubt that, listen to Harold Reynolds and Mitch Williams on the MLB Network sometime.
Just taking a guess, it’s possible McCarthy was lumped in with 1945 Old-Timers inductee, Hugh Duffy, in the minds of some voters. Duffy and McCarthy were known as the Heavenly Twins in the Boston Beaneaters’ outfield. Off the field, the two were business partners, friends, and, well, twins. I guess. Duffy wasn’t as miserable a selection as McCarthy, though he was far from an ideal one. And by 1946, Duffy was a Hall of Famer! Surely if McCarthy was Duffy’s twin, he’s deserving too.
The more insidious among us might guess something else. There were only six members on the powerful Old-Timers Committee. They included Connie Mack, Yankee President Ed Barrow, Hall founder Stephen C. Clark, and three others. Let me introduce those three. First, there’s Boston baseball writer, Mel Webb. Second, we have and a man who previously owned the Boston Red Sox and at the time had ownership interest in the Boston Braves, Bob Quinn. And finally, there’s one-time writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and road secretary for the St. Louis Browns, Sid Mercer. Almost all of McCarthy’s career was for the Boston Beaneaters and St. Louis Browns. Interesting.
You think it’s a stretch that he was lumped in with Duffy or that there was some sort of nepotism? Maybe, maybe not. But neither theory is as big a stretch that a full review of his playing record and subsequent determination that his statistics merited inclusion with Eddie Collins, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby would have been.
I don’t have a better answer, and it’s too bad the Hall doesn’t either. Yes, the Hall has some regrets. Or at least they should.