June 23rd, 2011

My 19th Century Pantheon

Before I provide my list of personal pre-1900 household gods, let me run through a brief history of baseball fame to show why we might reasonably be dissatisfied with the nineteenth century’s representation in Cooperstown.  I do not propose that the Baseball Hall of Fame remove any plaques or install any; I am wholly content to create an imaginary pantheon all my own, with the hopeful belief that others may be interested in my views. For some years I was consternated that Morgan Bulkeley was in and William Hulbert was not, but that has been remedied.

In populating my personal pantheon of pre-1900 baseball worthies, I have evaluated not greatness as might be measured by modern statistics, but importance: Could the history of the game, I ask, be written without this figure’s contributions? For some individuals, the findings detailed in my new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, will tend to make my case; I am hoping you will read it, although none of what follows was directly addressed there.

The phrase “Baseball Hall of Fame” made its first appearance in the December 15, 1907 Washington Post, in a story about the top managers of the day, “the greatest galaxy of baseball brains.” Barely three years later, Baseball Magazine announced its intention to form (in print, anyway) “The Hall of Fame for the Immortals of Baseball; Comprising the Greatest Players in the History of the Game.” Inspiring the magazine’s editors, no doubt, was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, founded in New York City in 1900 (many mistakenly think that the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was the nation’s first such institution).

In the previous century, Henry Chadwick had often rambled about the best players he had seen in his long exposure to the game, and he had done much to espouse statistics as the superior way to judge a player: “Many a dashing general player, who carries off a great deal of éclat in prominent matches, has all ‘the gilt taken off the gingerbread,’ as the saying is, by these matter-of-fact figures,” he wrote in 1864. “And we are frequently surprised to find that the modest but efficient worker, who has played earnestly and steadily through the season, apparently unnoticed, has come in, at the close of the race, the real victor.”

Chadwick’s statistics, rudimentary as they were, were a necessary corrective to the flowery praise that came to so many early players for their pluck, their headiness, their dash and daring. As the number of statistics exploded in the 1870s, it became increasingly difficult to credit such intangibles; who was the greatest hero of the age might still be left to those of a poetic bent, but identifying the best batter or fielder at a position was now a matter of record, in the New York Clipper and elsewhere. Not until the 1890s did newspapers begin to conduct surveys among veteran players as to who had been the top player of all, and the answers were most often King Kelly, Buck Ewing, and Cap Anson. The Reach Guide of 1894 featured a section entitled “Who Is the King Player?” that contained the opinions of such stalwarts as George Wright, Al Spalding, Fred Pfeffer, and Frank Selee, supporting the claims on fame of, respectively, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, Ewing, Kelly, and Wright himself.

“The problem of selecting [a current] All-America nine,” Baseball Magazine’s editors wrote in the January 1911 issue, “is a slight one compared with the task of picking out the greatest players in history. Here it would seem that the most ardent fan has the haziest kind of a notion, and the conflict among such opinions as are expressed, is very great. The older generation of fans is pretty much of the opinion that the old-time ball players were in a class by themselves, while the younger generation can see nothing but the brilliant feats of some of our present-day stars. The real unprejudiced truth, we imagine, lies somewhere between these two extremes. . . .” 

Over the next six months, Baseball Magazine named 18 men to its Hall of Fame, beginning with “three names of famous ball players who, we feel sure, would be entitled to almost universal consent, to a place in our list.” These three were Cap Anson, Ed Delahanty, and King Kelly. The last three named were the first whose careers were principally if not entirely in the new century: Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb. Of the twelve in between, six may come as a surprise to modern fans: pitcher Charlie Ferguson and outstanding fielders Ed Williamson, Charlie Bennett, Fred Pfeffer, Jerry Denny, and James Fogarty. Although these six were all well known to fans of 1911, only 25 years later, when Cooperstown began its election process, all of them were consigned to the dustbin of history, their reputations never to revive (as those of, for example, Roger Connor, Mickey Welch and Sam Thompson would do in the 1970s, thanks to The Baseball Encyclopedia’s unearthing of their expanded statistical records).

In 1936 the Baseball Hall of Fame conducted its first elections, polling 226 members of the Baseball Writers Association as well as an old-timers’ committee of 78. The writers elected the “founding five” of Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson; failing to get the required 170 votes were Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young, all of whom were elected the following year. Grover Cleveland Alexander made the cut in 1938 and George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Willie Keeler, and Lou Gehrig entered in 1939. (Keeler thus became the only nineteenth-century player to be elected to the Hall; all the others were selected by committee.) In the veterans’ election of 1936, no one garnered the necessary 75 percent. The two top vote-getters (tied at 40) were Anson and Ewing. By the time the Hall opened its doors on June 12, 1939, they were joined by old-timers Morgan Bulkeley, George Wright, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Henry Chadwick, Charles Comiskey, Candy Cummings, Al Spalding, Ban Johnson, and Alexander Cartwright.

Where Baseball Magazine had tabbed 18 men in 1911, Cooperstown welcomed 25 . . . but only 8 were honored in common. The early candidates for baseball’s best appeared to have been placed on not marble pedestals but greased poles.

When the Associated Press conducted a poll in 1950 to select the “Ten Most Outstanding in Sports,” four were baseball players, if you count Jim Thorpe, the leading vote-getter; the three fulltime players were Ruth (second), Cobb (fourth), and Gehrig (ninth). When the AP conducted its Athlete of the Century poll in 1999, Ruth stood atop the heap, with Thorpe dropping to third. No other baseball player made it into the top 10. Of the 100 athletes named, the only baseball players who commenced their careers after 1965 were Cal Ripken (82) and Mark McGwire (84). The message was clear: baseball is your father’s game.

ESPN’s Sports Century poll of that same year seconded the sentiment. Of the top 100 athletes, 20 were selected for their baseball accomplishments alone, while three were multi-sport stars whose baseball exploits would not have been enough to place them on the list. Although 20 is a very respectable number, more than that for any other sport, this was a list topped by Michael Jordan and included many athletes only recently retired; ESPN’s baseball players all had commenced their careers before 1965.

But 1999 also produced another poll, one unconcerned with other sports and designed to display the diamond of the present amid the glories of the past: Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. In a dry run in 1969, the centennial of professional baseball, the Baseball Writers Association had named Ruth the game’s all-time outstanding player, outdistancing Cobb, Wagner and Joe DiMaggio, who was named the greatest living player. Thirty years later Joe was gone from the scene and, at a memorable All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park, an ailing Ted Williams, surrounded by the giants of the game, was its heartwarming embodiment of greatness.

A “blue-ribbon panel” (on which I served) had selected the 100 all-time greats from whom the fans, in a nationwide poll, would choose 25. Then, because the popular vote had predictably given short shrift to some indisputable luminaries of yore, the panel added five more (Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Stan Musial, Mathewson, and Wagner), plus four stars to honor the Negro Leagues (Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard; Satchel Paige somehow integrated himself into oblivion by pitching in the “big leagues” after the age of 42).

The outcome was fascinating, as much for who was out as who was in, and for the disparities in vote totals among players who were statistically quite comparable. The Hall of Fame’s founding five all made the team (though Wagner and Mathewson required a boost from the panel). One active player made it (Ken Griffey Jr.) and six others who had commenced their careers after 1965. Of the original pool of 100 players, 6 were active and 18 others had commenced their careers after 1965. The undertow of baseball’s past was strong but the modern generation held its own. Ruth pulled in the most votes, with 1,158,044, but Henry Aaron trailed him by less than 1,300.

However, an asterisk attaches to Ruth and it may not be blasphemous to think that Williams, Mays, Aaron, Pujols, and Bonds may have been greater players. Reflect that Ruth faced pitchers who threw complete games about half the time (today it is 3.4 percent), and thus faced the same delivery through four to six plate appearances; he faced no relievers as we understand them today. Reflect that Ruth never had to hit at night. Reflect that African Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they done so, many white players would have lost their positions and the overall level of competition would have risen. One could add that Ruth never faced a slider or a split-fingered fastball; rarely faced a pitcher who would throw a breaking ball when behind in the count, and on. Ruth may have been better than any baseball player ever was or will be; however, it defies reason to claim that Ruth’s opposition was likewise better. Ruth’s dominance was not only the measure of Ruth; it was also the measure of the competition he faced. To the extent that the league performs at an average level that from a later perspective seems easily attained, a colossus may so far outdistance his peers as to create records that are unapproachable for all time.

When Williams retired in 1960, it was beyond imagining that we could reasonably compare batters of one era against batters of another simply by measuring the extent to which they surpassed the league average; now it is a commonplace. But the large question that remains unanswered, and is perhaps not perfectly answerable, is: how to compare one era’s average level of play to that of another. In swimming, track, basketball, football, hockey, golf—any sport you can name—the presumption is that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, better trained, and, on average, more proficient. World athletic records—in such competitions as the 100-meter dash, the 1500-meter run, the shot-put, discus, javelin, high jump, 100-meter freestyle in swimming—have all been bettered by at least 15 percent and in some events by far, far more.

Only baseball, with its Punch and Judy battle between pitcher and batter to entertain the public while rules makers and ballpark architects invisibly pull strings from above, labors to maintain the illusion that nothing changes in the grand old game. A dollar in 1900 may not bear much resemblance to a dollar in 2011, but a .300 batting average remains the mark of a good hitter. Only in baseball do fans bemoan expansion, deride talent dilution and deteriorating fundamentals, and imagine that a legendary team, such as the New York Yankees of 1927, would defeat all comers if they could be teleported to the American League East of 2011. This idea is patently silly—the game on the field today is better than it ever was—but it testifies to the grip of the past in this sport and this sport alone. And that is a great thing.

So here is my personal Hall of Fame for the years prior to 1900, listed alphabetically.  Anyone currently enshrined in Cooperstown is enshrined for me, too—even if the basis of his support may today be seen as questionable—but these immortals are not listed below; for a full list of Cooperstown’s elite see: http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/all/Documents/hofers_alphabetical4.pdf.

Recall that my principal criterion is importance rather than playing statistics, especially given my belief that the average level of skill in the period was low, and you will understand why many of the era’s best players (Bob Caruthers, Tony Mullane, Pete Browning, George Van Haltren, et al.) are not represented in Cooperstown’s hall or mine. The importance of most of those named below will be evident from a reading of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, but I encourage you to poke around the web, too. Queries and objections may be addressed to me in the Comments section; certainly my views are arguable.

Thorn’s Hall of Fame

Doc Adams

Ross Barnes

Esteban Bellan

Charlie Bennett

Jim Creighton

Bill Dahlen

James Whyte Davis

Bob Ferguson

Bud Fowler

Joe Leggett

Bobby Mathews

Cal McVey

A.G. Mills

Dickey Pearce

Frank Pidgeon

Lipman Pike

Al Reach

Joe Start

Harry Stovey

William C. Temple

Louis F. Wadsworth

Fleet Walker

William R. Wheaton

Deacon White



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