I very recently joined SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) and one of the main reasons was to join the 19th Century Committee. I joined at just the right time as the Committee just released the preliminary ballot for the 19th Century Overlooked Legend award, an annual honor bestowed upon a 19th century player or pioneer not currently recognized by the Hall of Fame.
Past winners include Pete Browning, Deacon White, Harry Stovey, and Bill Dahlen—all solid choices, statistically. The current preliminary ballot contains 25 names and committee members must vote for ten. The top ten will then be on the final ballot, which will be distributed to all SABR members for the election.
As my interest in baseball history has always had a strong statistical focus, this type of vote is actually pretty difficult for me. We can assess modern players (almost exclusively) on their on-field performance. There haven’t been too many “pioneers” in baseball since the game was integrated.
But this 19th century ballot is littered with pioneers and they coexist with other players who have rich statistical records. Additionally, there are players who were important for both their performance and their importance. It’s not the easiest thing for me to wrap my head around, but I’m going to try.
I’m including the bios that were provided on the preliminary ballot. They’re so good that I had to share them. I’m doing so with permission from Joe Williams, Chair of the Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend Project, Nineteenth Century Committee, SABR. The bios were compiled by Joe while fellow committee members Charles Faber and Bob Gregory were instrumental in getting the process going.
Here are my ten…
It seems crazy to think about honoring players who were active in 1839, but we only recently found out (in 1980) how significant Adams’ role was in establishing the game. I recommend reading John Thorn’s SABR bio on Adams. In cases like this one, if he’s good enough for the Thorn stamp of approval, he’s good enough for me.
Adams most certainly was more of a father to baseball that Cartwright or Doubleday. We’ll never be able to identify just one father of the game… not even Adams. But he probably comes the closest.
- Born: November 1, 1814
- Died: January 3, 1899
- Years: 1839-1862
- Position: Player/Executive/Pioneer
It would be fair to bestow the title of “Father of Baseball” to Adams. He played a form of baseball as early as 1839 and became a member of the Knickerbockers in 1845. As a player, Doc played in the famous “first” game between clubs at Elysian Fields and has been credited as being the first to play shortstop. The lefty batter played regularly and productively into his forties. Off the field, he took a leadership role with the Knickerbockers, including two terms as president. In 1848, he headed the committee to revise the rules and by-laws of the club. At his suggestion, the first baseball convention of ball clubs met in 1857 to formalize set rules between clubs which led to the formation of the National Association of Base Ball Players. Adams was elected president of the convention and was the first chairman of the Rules Committee. Doc played a crucial role in the establishment of several key aspects that make up the game of baseball, which include nine players per team, the nine-inning game, ninety feet between bases and catching the ball on the fly to record an out. Adams was an Overlooked Legend finalist from 2010-2012, finishing fourth last year.
Ross Barnes is a fairly easy choice for me. He was the best player in the first Major League (the National Association) but has escaped induction because his career was so short. The Hall of Stats has him very close to worthy statistically, even with the short career. That and his role in shaping and popularizing the game are more than enough for me.
- Born: May 8, 1850
- Died: February 5, 1915
- Years: 1866-77, 79, 81
- Position: Second Base/Shortstop
Barnes may have been the most exciting player of the 1860s and 1870s. First a star with the Forest City Club of Rockford, Illinois, Barnes joined the Boston Red Stockings of the new National Association in 1871 and quickly established himself as one of the NA’s stars. Over the next five seasons, Barnes would lead the NA in at least 18 offensive categories while becoming the NA’s career leader in runs, hits, doubles, base on balls, stolen bases, batting average and on-base percentage. Barnes, the premier fair- foul hitter, won batting titles in 1872 (.430) and 1873 (.431). Also a defensive standout, Barnes was one of Boston’s “Big Four” that led the Red Stockings to the championship each year from 1872 to 1875. When the National League was formed in 1876, he became a member of the Chicago White Stockings and led them to the NL’s best record while leading the NL in almost every offensive category. He finished his “major league” career with the all-time records for batting average (.360) and runs scored (698). Barnes was an Overlooked Legend finalist from 2009-2012, finishing second last year.
One of my most-visisted pages on the Internet is John Thorn’s 19th Century Hall of Fame. There, he lists 19th century non-Hall of Famers he would like to enshrine. But he states:
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.
Let’s ignore for a moment where John and I disagree about enshrining 19th Century players based on statistics. I still strongly support the best players of an era, regardless of how that era may compare to the game of today. If he was significantly better than his peers, I like him for the Hall.
That said, Detroit catcher Charlie Bennett appears not just on Thorn’s list but also in the Hall of Stats. That double-whammy of importance and performance has to be included here.
- Born: November 21, 1854
- Died: February 24, 1927
- Years: 1878,80-93
- Position: Catcher
Bennett was one of the greatest catchers of the Nineteenth Century, starring for Detroit and Boston of the NL. He was a powerful hitter who often ranked among the leaders in homers and slugging percentage while finishing in the top ten in bases on balls six times. His defense was stellar and he was a leader on the field. He led NL catchers in fielding percentage seven times, putouts three times, and ranked in the top five in games caught ten times. He caught Lee Richmond’s perfect game in 1880, the first perfect game in baseball history. He was also an innovator in the use of equipment by popularizing the use of a chest protector and the catcher’s mitt. During the offseason in 1894, he had an accident trying to catch a train and lost both of his legs, thus ending his career. He retired with the most games caught in history with 954. In 1896, Detroit’s new ball park was named after the city’s beloved hero.
Bob Caruthers has always been a personal favorite. I used to be incredibly high on him since his wWAR and Hall Rating numbers were rather dazzling. Since then, I’ve taken steps to eliminate some 19th Century pitchers from the Hall by making the standards stricter. As a result, Caruthers has also taken some serious hits. His Hall Rating sits at 101, right on the borderline. But I still love him and his Hall of Fame case for two reasons:
- He was so damn unique. The list of players with 15 or more WAR as a pitcher and position player includes Caruthers, Babe Ruth, and Monte Ward.
- His career was so damn short. He reaches that borderline Hall Rating despite a career that barely reaches the 10-year minimum for the Hall.
- Born: January 5, 1864
- Died: August 5, 1911
- Years: 1884-93
- Position: Pitcher/Outfield
Caruthers was among the greatest all-around players of his day. He was an outstanding pitcher and a hard-hitting outfielder who had a solid reputation as a defensive player and a base runner. As a member of St. Louis of the American Association, he led the Browns to the pennant in 1885, going 40-13 and leading the league in wins, winning percentage and ERA. The Browns won the pennant again in 1886 with Caruthers going 30-14 with a 2.32 ERA while hitting .334, slugging .527 and leading the league with a .448 OBP. The 1887 season was much of the same with a pennant, a 29-9 record and a league- leading .763 winning percentage, at the same time hitting .357, slugging .547, scoring 102 runs, stealing 49 bases and a .463 OBP. After the season, Caruthers was traded to Brooklyn of the AA where he would play for four seasons, winning 29, 40, 23 and 18 games, respectively, while contributing to pennant winners in 1889 and 1890, Brooklyn’s first season in the NL. In 1892, he went back to the Browns, now a NL team, and played primarily in the outfield, having career highs in games, at bats, hits and walks. He finished with a 218-99 record, an ERA of 2.83 and a .391 OBP for his career. Caruthers was an Overlooked Legend finalist from 2010-2012, finishing sixth last year.
Jim Creighton is another that I support thanks to the Thorn factor. After reading about Creighton through his SABR bio and in Baseball in the Garden of Eden (both authored by Thorn), I have to include him. I still struggle a bit with how a player can be Hall-worthy despite not living past the age of 21, but it was a different time. For Creighton, it’s not about how much he did in his career—it’s what he did at the right time. He transformed the relationship between the batter and pitcher. That’s huge.
- Born: April 15, 1841
- Died: October 18, 1862
- Years: 1857-62
- Position: Pitcher/Pioneer
Creighton was baseball’s first superstar and possibly its first professional. His life came to a tragic end just six months after his twenty-first birthday, making the young ballplayer a baseball legend and fueling the lore that makes baseball our national pastime. He was a tremendous hitter but made his mark on baseball history by revolutionizing the pitcher position with his swift and accurate pitching that didn’t allow batters to get a solid hit on the ball. Prior to Creighton, the focus for pitchers was to toss the ball to the batter so they could put the ball in play. In 1860, he joined the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn and became the game’s most dominant pitcher while teaming with catcher Joe Leggett to form the best battery in the nation. On November 8, 1860, Creighton pitched the first recorded shutout against the St. George Cricket Club‚ 25-0. Creighton was an Overlooked Legend finalist in 2012, finishing fifth.
Before reading this ballot, I had never heard of Bud Fowler. And now he’s on my list.
Fowler was the only African-American player to play ten professional seasons before Jackie Robinson did, doing so in a career that lasted from 1878 until 1904. I decided to include him because of the name of this award—the Overlooked Legend. Fowler has been overlooked so often in his career. First, he was not allowed to play in the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin. He bounced from one Minor League club to another as they decided they didn’t want a player of his kind (despite often being his club’s top player).
But he kept going. He was buried in an unmarked grave until SABR gave him a new headstone in 1987. When the Hall of Fame was given a grant to research potential African American and Negro League candidates, Fowler was not one of the 39 names on the ballot. He was the first African-American professional baseball player. That in itself would be enough to warrant inclusion on this list. But his perseverance and (minimally documented) success really pushed me over the edge.
- Born: March 16, 1858
- Died: February 26, 1913
- Years: 1878-1909
- Position: Player/Manager/Executive/Pioneer
Fowler, who grew up in Cooperstown, was a pioneering African-American baseball player and promoter. He was primarily known for his play as a catcher, pitcher and second baseman. He traveled the country for 30 years, playing at all levels of baseball except in the majors--not because he wasn’t talented enough but simply because of the color of his skin. He was the first African-American in Organized Baseball when he played with the Lynn Live Oaks in the International Association in 1878. Fowler faced racism from fans, team administrators and teammates, thus making each stop usually a brief one despite often being the best player on the team. As early as 1883, he tried to form a “colored league” and in 1887 formed the first successful African-American barnstorming team, the New York Gorhams. In 1894, he would be the driving force behind the establishment of the famed Page Fence Giants.
I recently wrote a huge article about The Hall of Fame Case for Jack Glasscock. Clearly, I’m a big fan and all the reasons are contained within that article. He may not get any points for "importance", but he was the best shortstop in the 19th century. I feel he and Bill Dahlen are the two most egregious pre-integration Hall snubs and I’d put them in the Hall in a heartbeat. Going into this ballot, I assumed Glassock would be #1 on my list. I don’t think that’s changed.
- Born: July 22, 1857
- Died: February 24, 1947
- Years: 1879-95
- Position: Shortstop
Considered by many historians as the greatest defensive shortstop of the Nineteenth Century, Glasscock played the majority of his career without a glove. He led the league in fielding percentage and assists six times, double plays four times, putouts two times and had the most range of any shortstop of his era. He retired as the career leader for shortstops in games, assists, double plays, putouts, total chances and fielding percentage. At the bat, he got better with age. A career .290 hitter, he led the NL in hits in 1889 and 1890, winning the 1890 batting title with a .336 average after finishing second the previous year with a .352 average. He finished his career with 1,164 runs, 2,041 hits and more than 827 RBI. Striking out around just 200 times in his career, Glasscock was also one of the toughest hitters to strikeout, leading the league three times in at bats per strikeout. The “King of Shortstops” played for nine teams in seventeen years. Glasscock was an Overlooked Legend finalist from 2009-2012, finishing seventh last year.
Paul Hines was actually the final addition to my list. I included Hines because he is one of the few players on the list who had a long career as an offensive player, finishing with borderline Hall of Fame stats (his Hall Rating is 98). I also exercised the “overlooked” description a bit more here because you never really hear Hall cases for Hines.
He was the game’s first Triple Crown winner in 1878 and could have reasonably had a shot at 3,000 hits, were his leagues’ seasons longer. He collected 2,133 hits despite only playing 100 games in a season six times (and not until his 13th year in the league). His high WAR total (compared to his peers) is not aided by questionable fielding metrics, either. He is given 19.0 by Total Zone while he had a strong defensive reputation. Seems very reasonable to me.
- Born: March 1, 1855
- Died: July 10, 1935
- Years: 1872-91
- Position: Outfield
Hines, an outstanding defensive centerfielder, was among the best all-around players in the game for 20 seasons. He started his career with Washington of the NA before becoming a member of the Chicago White Stockings in 1874 and playing for the first NL champion in 1876. In 1878, he joined Providence and became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner when he led the league with 4 homers, 50 RBI and a .358 batting average. He followed his historic season with another batting title in 1879, while also leading the league in games, hits and total bases as the Grays won their first NL championship. In 1884, along with Old Hoss Radbourn, Hines led the Grays to the NL pennant before defeating the AA’s New York club to win the first “World Series.” Hines ended his career with 1,217 runs (sixth all-time), 2,133 hits (third), 549 extra-base hits (fifth), 855 RBI (seventh) and a .302 batting average. Hines was an Overlooked Legend finalist in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Do I think Cal McVey should be in the Hall of Fame as a player? That would be a stretch. His Major League career lasted just nine years (and, because of the short schedules of the day, just 530 games). During that time, however, he compiled 19.2 WAR and and OPS+ of 152. He could clearly hit a ton.
Thorn actually lists McVey on his 19th Century Hall of Fame list, so that’s a vote of confidence that seals his inclusion on this list.
- Born: August 30, 1849
- Died: August 20, 1926
- Years: 1866-79
- Position: Outfield/First Base/Catcher
McVey was a premier batsmen and versatile ballplayer during his playing days. He gained prominence as a member of the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 and 1870. He joined Boston in the NA for the next two seasons as catcher, helping the team win the NA championship in 1872. He played and managed Baltimore in 1873 but returned to Boston for two more seasons and two more NA championships. When the NA was no more, McVey was the league’s third leading career hitter with a .362 average while being third in hits (476), tied for fifth in homers (8), and first in RBI (277). In 1876, he joined the NL’s White Stockings as their first baseman and change pitcher as the team won the pennant. After a stint with Cincinnati, McVey gave up the majors and headed westward at the age of 29. When he left, he was the career leader in hits (869) and RBI (449), third in runs (555), and fourth in games played (530) and batting average (.346).
Lip Pike had a similar Major League career to McVey, as they both played a minimal number of games (425 for Pike) and dominated (14.3 WAR and a 158 OPS+ for Pike). Both also appear on John Thorn’s 19th Century Hall of Fame list for their contributions to the game.
Pike, however, was considerably older than McVey (26 when National Association play began). He was a five-year veteran by 1871. He was also the first Jewish star and considered by some to be the first professional ballplayer.
- Born: May 25, 1845
- Died: October 10, 1893
- Years: 1866-78, 81, 87
- Position: Outfield/Infield
Pike has been referred to as the first great Jewish baseball player and one of the first known paid players. Pike bounced around from team-to-team during his entire career despite being one of the game’s most powerful hitters. In 1866, he slugged six homers in one game while a member of the Athletics of Philadelphia. In 1871, he joined Troy of the NA and led the new league in homers with four. He played the next two seasons with Baltimore, again leading the league in homers both seasons. He would lead the NL in homers in 1877 as well. His 17 homers in the NA are ranked first in the league’s five-year existence and his 294 RBI are tied for third. Other than a brief appearance for New York of the AA in 1887, Pike’s major league career ended in 1881, leaving with the second highest career slugging percentage (.469), third most homers (21), and seventh highest batting average (.323).
Clearly, my list focused on both performance on the field and importance to the game. I’m actually surprised by how many players with high Hall Ratings I left off my list. Here are the fifteen names I did not select (with their Hall Ratings, if applicable):
- George Gore: 83
- Mike Griffin: 75
- Billy Hoy: 50
- Joe Leggett (pre-1871 star who caught Creighton and revolutionized the position)
- Bobby Mathews: 90
- Dick McBride: 47
- Jim McCormick: 105
- Tony Mullane: 103
- Jim Mutrie (manager in the 1880s who won two championships with a .611 winning percentage)
- Dickey Pearce: 25
- Al Reach: 4
- Jimmy Ryan: 72
- Joe Start: 79
- George Van Haltren: 72
- Chris Von der Ahe (owner of the St. Louis Browns, who won four straight American Association championships)
The most difficult omissions for me were probably Leggett, Mathews, McCormick, and Mullane. I’m only starting to learn about Leggett. He was really close, but I still need to do more research on him. It’s tough without numbers to go by. But the anecdotes show that he was one of the game’s top hitters while also revolutionizing catching by setting himself up right behind the plate. He did this in order to catch Jim Creighton’s lightning-fast pitches. Soon, other catchers followed suit.
I would not actually consider Mullane and Mathews "overlooked". They get a fair amount of publicity, even today. They are what they are—borderline Hall of Fame pitchers. In fact, I kind of look at Tony Mullane as the Tommy John of the 19th century while Bobby Mathews is the Jim Kaat. Jim McCormick came a bit closer to making my list as he is generally overlooked despite an obscene WAR total.
Agreements? Disagreements? Did you vote? I’m curious about your thoughts.