Yesterday, I posted an All Non-Hall of Fame National Association team to Twitter:
Here's a Nat'l Ass'n squad of non-HOFers: C White 1B McVey 2B Barnes SS Force 3B Meyerle OF Hines Pike Hall P Mathews Zettlein McBride.— Adam Darowski (@baseballtwit) November 27, 2012
It was a quickly-researched tidbit (as I’ll often throw out there on Twitter). I looked a bit closer tonight, though. I've researched some of the players quite a bit (like Deacon White and Ross Barnes). But I wasn’t very familiar with some—and they turned out to have some really interesting numbers and stories.
So, let’s go back and take a quick look at each player on this “team”.
Deacon White, Catcher
If you know me, you know I’m in love with Deacon White (pictured above on the left). He’s a current candidate on the Pre-Integration ballot and I really hope he’s elected. White owns a 116 Hall Rating and was the top catcher in the National Association, with a 146 OPS+ and 11.6 WAR. I won’t say too much here about White… just click through to his player page. I wrote quite a bit about him there.
Cal McVey, First Base
While Cal McVey only played first base in his final year in the NA, he did play first more than any other position in his career. McVey, a member of the famous undefeated 1969 Cincinatti Red Stockings, retired at 30 as a .346 hitter with a 152 OPS+ in organized play. He accumulated 20.5 WAR in just 2543 plate appearances.
Ross Barnes, Second Base
Ross Barnes (pictured above on the right) was the greatest hitter in the National Association. Like McVey, he packed a lot of value into a short career (27.9 WAR in 2507 plate appearances). His NA slash line was .391/.415/.518 with a 185 OPS+. Barnes was a force in the National League’s first season, but was merely an average player from that point forward. He played inconsistently and was finished at 31. Still, his dominance of the National Association is evident in his Hall Rating of 86.
Levi Meyerle, Third Base
Levi Meyerle sure could hit. He hit .492 in the NA’s first season. He won another batting title again in 1874. But boy was he a butcher in the field. The same year he hit .492, he had a .646 fielding percentage. By Total Zone, he was six runs below average—in just 26 games. Prorate that over a full 162-game season and he’s 37 runs below average.
Davy Force, Shortstop
Davy Force posted a 134 OPS+ in his National Association years and also grades as an excellent defensive shortstop by Total Zone (77.0 runs above average). Force is most well-known for being a “contract jumper”. He signed two contracts for the 1875 season with different teams. The case was the beginning of the end for the National Association.
George Hall, Left Field
George Hall hit well in the National Association, posting an OPS+ of 133. Unlike many others on this list, he was even better in the National League (albeit in just two seasons) with a 166 OPS+. Hall was banned from the baseball in the same gambling scandal that Jim Devlin was involved with.
Dave Eggler, Center Field
Dave Eggler had an OPS+ of 133 in his NA seasons, but just 56 after that. His National Association WAR of 10.2 was powered by 62 batting runs and 35 defensive runs. Eggler played with the New York Mutuals as early as 1868.
Lip Pike, Right Field
Lip Pike is considered the first professional baseball player (although that honor is disputed) and was also the first Jewish pro ballplayer. Pike’s career began in 1866 (if not earlier) and he was 26 when the National Association began play. He raked at the plate, compiling an OPS+ of 162. Pike was worth 14.2 WAR in 2030 plate appearances for his career.
The toughest omission from the starting lineup was Ezra Sutton. If we were to add a DH, we would put Meyerle there and give third to Sutton. He posted a 125 OPS+ and 8.0 WAR in his National Association years. He went on to an excellent career with a Hall Rating of 72. Because of his career length (5537 plate appearances), he is among the leaders on this team in Hall Rating.
Shortstop Dickey Pearce was 35 when the National Association began. His career started in 1856 with Brooklyn. Originally a “short fielder”, he essentially invented the shortstop position. He wasn’t much of a hitter in the NA (84 OPS+), but his defense helped him to 8.7 WAR.
First baseman Joe Start also makes the reserve list, thanks to his 27-year career that began in 1860. He played eleven seasons before the National Association formed, five seasons in the NA, and then another eleven in the National League, active both before the Civil War and alongside Old Hoss Radbourn in his famous 1884 season for Providence. Despite having no data for his first eleven seasons (and the short seasons played throughout his organized career), Start is still credited with 1417 hits and a 121 OPS+. He had a 110 OPS+ and 7.6 of his 32.2 WAR in the NA and was the circuit’s top RBI leader.
Lastly, Paul Hines was on my original list, but I removed him because not much of his career value (5.1 of his 44.6 WAR) came in the NA. Granted, he was 17 when he debuted in 1872. He went on to play 20 seasons and post a Hall Rating of 97.
Dick McBride, Pitcher
Dick McBride pitched and managed Philadelphia to the first National Association championship in 1871. Despite being 24 when the National Association was formed, McBride was already a veteran of ten seasons (pitching before, during, and after the Civil War). McBride trailed just Al Spalding in Wins during the NA’s existence and he won the ERA crown in 1874. His only National League action was four starts in 1876 (he lost all four).
George Zettlein, Pitcher
George Zettlein is notable for allowing the first home run and grand slam in NA history. Already a six-year veteran when the league formed, Zettlein led the league in ERA and pitching WAR in its first season. Like McBride, he was through after giving one National League season a try, going 4–20 with an ERA+ of 61, a far cry from his NA totals of 125–92 and 124.
Bobby Mathews, Pitcher
Bobby Mathews is probably the most well-known of the three pitchers and had the longest career. He won 297 games—the most for a pitcher outside of the Hall—and has a Hall Rating of 115. Mathews had a .539 winning percentage and an ERA+ of 107 in the National Association, more or less emblematic of his career. No doubt he was a “compiler”, but the question is whether or not he was enough of a compiler to be a Hall of Famer.
So, who belongs in the Hall of Fame?
I’m still far more comfortable assessing a player’s Hall of Fame criteria based on statistics over importance (and other reasons for induction). From a purely statistical standpoint, I advocate for the induction of Deacon White quite heavily. I would also take no issue with the inductions of Ross Barnes, Paul Hines, and Bobby Mathews.
When going beyond statistical merit, I look to the expertise of MLB historian John Thorn. Thorn wrote an excellent article called My Nineteenth Century Pantheon in which he lists his personal 19th century Hall of Fame. Thorn gives this disclaimer:
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.
We’ll ignore, for a moment, that Thorn doesn’t think a personal favorite of mine, Caruthers, belongs. Let’s focus on who he does list from this team:
He doesn’t list Hines, but he does list some non-NA players who do make the Hall of Stats (Bill Dahlen and Charlie Bennett). I would have no issue with any player from the list above getting in the Hall of Fame. Barnes, McVey, Pike, and Start have excellent playing records for the data we have. Pearce is trickier—he was already older when the NA started, but his pioneering contributions are well-documented. I need to further research some of the other players on John’s list.
We’ll find out next month if The Deacon makes the Hall of Fame. It’s something I’d really like to see happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
Besides, what would I do with my time if he did get in?
Note: Since the publication of this article, Deacon White was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Note: The Hall Rating formula has changed slightly since this article was published. The Hall Rating figures used are from the time of publication.