For some inexplicable reason, I’m just now reading Bill James’ The Politics of Glory : How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works for the first time. Early in the book, James claims the original Hall of Fame class of 1936 was supposed to include five stars of the 19th century, in addition to the five “modern” greats who were so honored: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. In fact, James goes on to say that, according to the Spalding Official Base Ball Guide 1936, the 19th-century greats were intended to be the Hall’s first five inductees.
Well, things didn’t quite work out as originally planned, as the old-timers were voted on but left out of the inaugural class, mainly because the two leaders in the voting were named on only 50.6% of ballots. Of course, with 57 names—including 30 eventual Hall of Famers—receiving at least one vote on a total of 78 ballots, it’s not difficult to understand why. That’s why I’ve decided to try and determine who those five would have (or should have) been.
The distinction between would have and should have is an interesting one. Determining the former would probably be the simple exercise of looking at what five old-timers received the most votes in that 1936 election, or were the first to be elected after the first class. But, that wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun now, would it?
Deciding who should have been elected seems to be a more interesting exercise, but I’m going to add one distinction. Because advanced metrics didn’t exist back then—heck, there wasn’t even a baseball encyclopedia—I’m not going to use them. Instead, I’m going to rely solely on traditional statistics, although I may try to consider context where it seems appropriate.
I’m also making an attempt to be realistic here. No one was talking about George Davis and Deacon White, let alone Bill Dahlen and Jack Glasscock, as potential Hall of Famers back in 1936, so I don’t see them as part of this discussion. Although I might add that Glasscock received two votes, and Dahlen and White one each, while Davis—who was elected to the Hall 15 years prior to White—received none.
Cy Young (1890-1911)
Young actually finished 8th in the 1936 baseball writers voting and 4th on the Veterans Committee ballot. I suspect his status as a bit of a crossover candidate is the reason why he didn’t fare better. For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve conveniently decided to consider all players who’d been out of the game for at least 25 years at the time of the election.
I don’t think there’s even a question Young (511-316, 2.63 ERA over 7356 IP), the all-time wins and innings leader, was the greatest pitcher of the first 40 years of the game’s existence, so he’s unquestionably the first player I’d induct from that time period.
Cap Anson (1871-1897)
Arguably, the three best hitters of the 19th century were all first basemen. But, it would be unrealistic to consider them three of the five best players from that era. Besides, they certainly weren’t thought of that way, as Dan Brouthers and Roger Connor received a combined two votes—both of them going to the former—in the inaugural election. Brouthers would get into the Hall pretty quickly, in 1945, but it would take the electorate another 31 years to come around on Connor, the career home runs leader from 1895 to 1920.
It’s pretty much not debatable that Anson was the best position player of the 19th century and, with the possible exception of Young, the most deserving of inclusion here. Not surprisingly, he was one of the two players who received just over 50% of the vote in 1936, and his Hall call would come just three years later.
Buck Ewing (1880-1897)
With apologies to Deacon White (and Adam), Ewing was probably the first great catcher in baseball history, and the greatest of all-time as of 1936, with a still-active Mickey Cochrane probably the only other player who would enter into the latter debate.
Because he played a significant portion of his career when seasons were half as long as they’ve been throughout most of history, and due to the demands of the position in his day, Ewing only caught 636 games. More than a few 19th-century catchers logged more games at the position, but most were the likes of Pop Snyder (.235 BA, .254 OBP, .299 SLG), Deacon McGuire (.278/.341/.372) and Wilbert Robinson (.273/.316/.346).
Not all were weak offensively—Charlie Bennett and Jack Clements were both quite good in that department—but none could compare to Ewing’s overall game. Over 5772 career plate appearances, Ewing’s triple slash line was .303/.351/.456 and his reputation was that of a Gold Glove receiver with an exceptional throwing arm. According to historian John Thorn, “…the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez.” Also, while there’s no stolen base vs. caught stealing data for most of his career, the one thing we have to go on is Ewing’s career fielding percentage of .931, which was considerably better than the league average (.905) at his quite-demanding position.
Ed Delahanty (1888-1903)
Among outfielders, Willie Keeler finished higher in the 1936 voting, and was inducted six years earlier than Delahanty (1939 to 1945), but I don’t think I need sabermetrics to show Delahanty was a better player.
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I added Billy Hamilton for good measure, but other than stolen bases and the fact he was a center fielder, it’s hard to see that a case could be made for him over Big Ed.
Beyond what the statistics tell us, we know Delahanty was a feared hitter with power, whereas Keeler could probably best be described as “pesky,” albeit to an exaggerated degree. You would think Keeler had a better defensive reputation–the advanced metrics don’t confirm this, but that’s a moot point as far as this post is concerned–but that’s really not the case. Delahanty was considered a great all-around player who was good enough to play center rather than left, while Keeler was a converted infielder who held his own in the outfield, but didn’t necessarily shine.
Of course, most of us probably know how Delahanty’s career (and life) ended, so perhaps his tragic downfall—pun intended—was held against him by the voters.
Kid Nichols (1890-1901, 1904-1906)
Perhaps the best pitcher of the 19th century if you discount the fact half of Young’s career occurred after 1900, Nichols was passed over by the Hall’s electorate five times (with very minimal support) before finally getting the call in 1949. Fellow 19th-century pitcher Old Hoss Radbourn got in 10 years earlier, so perhaps I should justify my choice.
In fact, let’s take a look at all of the 300-game winners from the 19th century to see if one of them stands out:
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It’s hard to really find much separation between these guys when looking at the traditional statistics.
Pud Galvin‘s significant edge in innings pitched also gives him an advantage in complete games, shutouts and wins, but he also has clearly the lowest winning percentage of the group.
Tim Keefe tops them all in ERA and strikeouts, but certainly not overwhelmingly, and I’m otherwise not seeing a compelling reason to favor him. The latter sentiment also applies to Mickey Welch and Radbourn, although Old Hoss does have his 678-inning/73 CG/59-win 1884 season going for him. Beyond that campaign, though, the full body of work is a little underwhelming–certainly Hall-worthy, but not inaugural-class-worthy.
I added ERA+ to the chart, although I’m aware voters didn’t have this statistic at their disposal in 1936. But, were they able to recognize that only one guy on this list didn’t pitch in the low run-scoring environment of the 1880s? I’m not sure they were making such comparisons back then, but they were certainly capable. Considering their collective experience seeing any of these guys play was pretty minimal, it seems pretty irresponsible for them not to.
Looking at just the National League, here are unweighted average ERAs, breaking the era out into four smaller sub-eras which reflect significant statistical shifts:
Of course, frequent rule changes throughout the era come into play, but the most significant one is the change in the distance between the pitchers’ mound and home plate. In 1893, it moved from 50 feet to its current 60 feet, 6 inches.
More than half of Nichols’ career was during the 1893-1900 stretch in which the league average ERA was well over 4. In fact, the NL’s composite ERA fell below 3 in only one season during his prime (1904). With the exception of John Clarkson, the remaining pitchers played about half or more of their careers in the 1879-1885 period where the league average was almost a quarter run below 3. Additionally, all of them—except Nichols, but including Clarkson—were done by 1893, the year the NL allowed earned runs at a rate of 4.66 per nine innings.
It becomes pretty clear by even this simple analysis taking into account the years each pitcher played, that Kid Nichols was the best 19th-century pitcher not named Cy Young.