This is the third in a series of posts on the 1890s Baltimore Orioles by HHS contributor e pluribus munu. if you’ve written something you’d like to share with the HHS community, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1897, Oriole manager Ned Hanlon was quoted in The Sporting News, saying: “We didn’t play ball in 1889 as we play it now.” Although the pitching change of 1893 had been made midway in that eight-year interval, the article went on to specify something entirely different as the point of Hanlon’s remark. “In the old days, once a man got to first base the next batter walked to the plate and promptly attempted to knock the cover off the ball.” By 1897, however, teams were increasingly playing what was called “scientific baseball” or “inside baseball”: they were focusing on complex one-run-at-a-time tactics that required hitters to execute their at-bats in support of team strategies, rather than swinging away to try to build up their individual batting records.
I don’t know of any reason why a baseball person in, say, 1905, might have said, “We didn’t play ball in 1897 as we play it now.” The leagues in 1905 were much different from those in 1897, but the game was basically the same. “Inside baseball” continued to be thought of as the “modern” game until Babe Ruth and the Lively Ball era ushered in a dramatically new style of play, one that we might see as setting the norms of the game for as long as forty years, until the 1960s swing towards pitcher dominance produced a richer hybrid of the strategies of the Dead and Lively Ball eras. (I’m using the term Deadball Era a bit loosely. The transition period of 1899-1901, including the creation of the AL, produced a few atypical seasons. The Deadball Era is usually dated from the return to late-1890s norms, about 1902-3, through the years of even weaker offense, ending in 1918 or 1919.)
The premise of this series of posts is that the tradition of regarding the “modern era” of baseball as beginning with the 1901 creation of the AL is historically misguided, and that our own Circle of Greats has made an error in using that milestone as its qualifying period (although a reasonable error, since the original goal was to replicate the assumptions of the BBWAA Hall voters, who were largely responsible for that historical narrative). In fact, the game’s “Rubicon”, the dividing line between early and modern baseball, was crossed in the early 1890s. At that time, changes that had been gradually building led to the sudden rise and dominance of the Old Baltimore Orioles, a team embodying the systematic adoption of those new, “modern” trends, and establishing new baseball norms that would last for a quarter century. That Ned Hanlon’s “scientific” baseball had become the respected standard of the game is evidenced by the initial reaction to the Babe leading the majors into a new era of free-swinging; many stars of the preceding period were appalled, as the 1880s style of trying to knock the cover off the ball had come to be seen as primitive and unworthy of “scientific” major league professionals.
The Rise of “Inside Baseball”
“Modern” baseball – that is, the baseball we associate with the early 20th century – emerged gradually. I don’t know enough to outline a detailed history, but it seems clear that in the mid-1880s, Charlie Comiskey’s American Association St. Louis Browns exemplified a number of “modern” traits. Those teams were associated with revival of the bunt hit and a fundamental emphasis on superior fielding (as well as raucous rowdyism, prefiguring the Orioles). However, the Browns became so dominant over other AA teams that it may be that the contributions of small-ball elements did not stand out to contemporaries. In the late 1880s, a respected manager, now forgotten, named Gus Schmelz, built a small-ball strategy for his clubs that featured aggressive use of the sacrifice bunt (it was no secret as The Sporting News ran multiple columns on the “Schmelz System”). But Schmelz’s teams generally had mediocre or poor talent; he may have gotten the best out of those teams, but the success of his “system” was modest.
It’s common to view Frank Selee, the manager of the Boston Beaneaters from 1890 to 1901, as the first “modern manager,” a team leader who put a comprehensive strategy of “inside baseball” together. Selee was a terrific manager, the architect of the great Cubs teams of the 1900s (Selee fell ill from tuberculosis in 1905, the disease that claimed his life four years later, so his protégé, Frank Chance, got to harvest those fruits). But, before Chicago, Selee’s Beaneaters won five pennants during the 1890s. I think that if we’re looking for a “First Modern Manager” candidate, he’s a good choice.
Selee adopted the “Schmelz System,” though in much greater depth, going beyond bunt strategies to emphasize bat control, base-running, and well drilled execution on offense and defense. Players had to master the hit-and-run and the outfield cut-off throw (a Selee innovation) while being drilled in other fielding skills, resulting in teams that were consistently at the top of the fielding stats. The Beaneaters won pennants in ’91, ’92, and ’93 (though the first was tainted by rumors of games thrown to deny victory to Chicago and its anti-union manager and owner, Cap Anson), and in two of those years they led the league in the small-ball stat of ~BBIP (explained in earlier posts and calculated as ~BBIP = (BB+SB+HBP+SH)/PA)). If Ned Hanlon had a model when he turned the Orioles into a small-ball club, it was surely one established by Selee.
But Selee managed a team that should have won pennants. Boston was one of the perennial powers of the NL, a league that did not have a history of upwardly mobile upstart teams. Selee’s teams featured terrific rosters, anchored by the greatest pitcher of the decade, Kid Nichols (297 wins and 98+ WAR in the ‘90s alone). Other teams surely saw the approach Selee was emphasizing, but likely would have been intimidated by the Boston rosters, whatever their style of play.
Hanlon’s Orioles were different. Although many of his players became stars as the team rose to dominance, the Orioles’ were initially a team of nonentities (with the exception of one year with an aging Dan Brouthers aboard). Hanlon and his methods appeared to have transformed them: for inside baseball, the Orioles’ success was proof of concept. My basic claim is that this is what boosted the prestige of inside baseball and led to widespread adoption of its methods.
The “Modernity” of Hanlon and the Orioles
Examining some contrasting features of Selee and Hanlon, we can measure the degree to which we might consider each to be “modern” in a more expansive sense. Over the course of 1891-1900, Selee and Hanlon each managed five pennant-winning NL clubs (the only partial break in their dominance was in the split 154-game season of 1892, when Patsy Tebeau’s Cleveland Spiders, led by Cy Young, posted the best record in the season’s second half, thereby earning the right to be whitewashed in a postseason series with the Beaneaters). Both Selee and Hanlon prevailed using small-ball strategies. But their managing styles were nevertheless very different.
Selee was a conspicuous believer in baseball as a gentleman’s game: when it came to Beaneater players, no ruffians need apply. He could say, “It was my good fortune to be surrounded by a lot of good, clean fellows who got along finely together. To tell the truth, I would not have anyone on a team who was not congenial.” To follow such a criterion in the hard-drinking culture of 1890s baseball placed an enormous handicap on the Beaneaters, but Selee made it work. He was admired for his intelligence, diligence, and honesty, and was clearly a terrific manager of men, in addition to being first rate in technical command.
But, where Selee’s technical command was “modern” and his exemplary leadership style adhered to traditional values, Hanlon was utterly different. His earliest managerial job came with the 1891 Pittsburg club; it was not a success and Hanlon was soon gone. But, during his short tenure, Hanlon was so unscrupulous in using devious means to plunder contracted players from other teams that his mark remains on the Pittsburgh team to this day: Hanlon was the “Pirate” that became the team’s nickname starting in that season (making fun of complaints by the Philadelphia Athletics that Pittsburg’s acquisition of A’s star player Lou Bierbauer was “piratical”).
When Hanlon came to Baltimore, he not only hired ruffians, his team became famous for successful cheating, on-field confrontation, and umpire intimidation, all in the service of unnerving opponents and making them easier to beat. As a team executive, Hanlon used the desperation of Orioles owner Harry von der Horst to bargain for exceptional control over team decisions when he signed on as manager; a year later, he bailed von der Horst out financially in return for the title of Club President and full general manager authority (at League meetings, von der Horst wore a pin that read, “Ask Hanlon”). He built the team acquiring players on his own initiative, and was so shrewd in his dealings that he earned the nickname “Foxy Ned.” Hanlon was as good or better than Selee as a student of the emerging modern game, but he was clear about the bottom-line value of his efforts: “I decided early in the game that there was money to be made in baseball if it was studied seriously. After I took hold of the Orioles, I often got out of bed in the night to jot down a play that might be worked out.” His playbook produced results, and, indeed, baseball made him a very wealthy man.
In 1899, Hanlon was the driving force behind the brief and corrupt emergence of “syndicate baseball”, the control of multiple clubs by a single ownership group. He negotiated a deal whereby Baltimore would consolidate with the Brooklyn club, shifting resources from the smaller city to New York in order to maximize total attendance revenues. Hanlon himself moved north to manage the Brooklyn team, which was renamed the Superbas, because “Hanlon’s Superbas” was the well-known name of a popular vaudeville troupe (Hanlon is the only man I’m aware of to have two teams named after him). He persuaded the Orioles’ principal owner von der Horst to go along with this arrangement, and on the Brooklyn side, the new partners were explicit in stipulating that, as in Baltimore, Hanlon’s authority in matters pertaining to personnel and daily team management would be absolute. After transferring Baltimore’s better players to the Superbas, Hanlon won pennants in his first two years in Brooklyn.
Frank Selee may have been the first modern manager in terms of his commitment to inside baseball, but Ned Hanlon and the Orioles embodied a much broader scope of baseball modernity in methods and values, the latter to a degree incompatible with Selee’s admirable traditionalist character.
Forestalling the “Era of the Hitter”
Before concluding this series with a section on the legacies of Ned Hanlon and the Old Orioles, I’d like to step back and look a bit more globally at the major theme that introduced the initial post: the transience of the impact of the 1893 pitching changes. My goal here is to sort out the causes that may be directly tied to the rise of inside baseball and the influence of men like Selee and Hanlon, and other factors that may have been essentially independent of them.
The 1893 pitching changes were intended to rebalance baseball to the advantage of the hitter, and for a brief time this was the result. However, as we have seen, that interval lasted no more than five years. By 1898, offense had fallen below 1892 levels: although batting and slugging averages were still considerably higher than before the pitching change, teams were averaging fewer runs per game. This does not seem to have been a matter of pitcher improvement over 1892: ERA levels were still significantly higher in 1898. Rather, the drop in R/G seems to be attributable to a sharp decrease in Unearned Run Averages (UERA), reflecting major fielding improvements.
As we have seen in the cases of the Beaneaters and Orioles, mastery of inside baseball tactics entailed high standards of fielding excellence. The Orioles went from the worst fielding team in the league in 1892 to a record-tying (I think) fielding average of .944 in 1894, topping that mark by two points the following season. While Selee’s Bostons led the league in DER five times in the decade 1891-1900, the Orioles’ DER over the 1893-1900 period was even better than the Beaneaters. But, it wasn’t just the leading clubs, as improved fielding became a league-wide phenomenon. Apart from a brief bump in the Error Rate in 1894 and a residual effect the following year (the possible cause for which I won’t argue here, having done so in previous comments), the years after the 1893 pitching change saw the continuation of a long-term trend of improvement in fielders’ ball handling skills.
Between 1892 and 1898, the league-wide error rate decreased almost 20%. The combination of the growing prestige of inside baseball’s one-run strategies, and its focus on fielding skills, were probably the two biggest factors forestalling any long-term effects of the ’93 pitching change on the balance of the game.
Ironically, the inside baseball of the 1890s led – after a short period of disruption as the NL regrouped and the AL suddenly expanded the talent pool – to a period of depressed offense, with batting stats and R/G well below pre-1893 levels. The following chart illustrates the fall-off in these categories from their 1894 peaks to a nadir in 1908:
I believe we are seeing two distinct stages in this trend. The initial decline after 1894 seems to me to be the product of one-run inside baseball and the defensive improvement already identified. But a second significant drop a decade later may be connected to changes in pitching that began with the new century. The early 1900s was an era of pitching innovation, with dramatically effective new deliveries being introduced by young stars, such as Christy Mathewson (the fadeaway/screwball, 1901), Jack Chesbro (the spitter, 1904), Nap Rucker and Eddie Cicotte (the knuckleball, 1907/8), and others (the emery ball, the shine ball, etc.). (I have to credit Peter Morris’s Game of Inches for alerting me to the timing of these innovations.) These new pitches often involved illegal doctoring of the ball, but they were effective, and they seem to have been a key factor in ushering in the true Deadball Era, just a decade after the greatest of hitting years. With increasing numbers of pitchers learning to add one or more of these deliveries to their repertoires, innovative pitching ultimately joined improved fielding in erasing all traces of the advantages hitters received from the 1893 move to 60’6”.
I don’t think this second wave of defensive adjustment can be directly connected with the rise of inside baseball and the Old Orioles, but should rather be seen as magnifying the effects of their influence.
Hanlon’s Legacy and John J. McGraw
In his book on baseball managers, Bill James begrudgingly acknowledges that Ned Hanlon established the single most dominant lineage of managers in Major League history. It is obvious, of course, that the outstanding managerial career of John McGraw, Hanlon’s protégé, is seen as a facet of Hanlon’s legacy, but James – who does not like Hanlon – lists him beside historic managers such as Miller Huggins, Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Tony LaRussa . . . The list is enormous, far overshadowing other important managerial “lineages,” such as those of Frank Selee and Connie Mack, and other sources echo James’s judgment. In my view, this type of assessment is interesting, but misses the main point: Hanlon and the Orioles influenced all managers by validating the new “inside baseball.”
Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the judgment that Hanlon’s impact on baseball was greatly magnified by the role John McGraw went on to play, and McGraw’s style of managing, while ultimately changing with the times, was clearly anchored in Hanlon’s approach. Consider, for example, the records of NL teams in 1899, the year of syndicate baseball:
Hanlon was managing Brooklyn, having taken along with him the greater portion of the Orioles’ best talent, and as we might expect, Brooklyn had been transformed in the Hanlon mode – here are the team’s 1898 numbers for contrast:
Brooklyn’s ~BBIP went from the lowest in the league to twenty percent above league average, as Hanlon’s discipline and the Oriole refugees brought Brooklyn a pennant as a small-ball team. But for the first time since 1893, Hanlon’s team did not lead the league in ~BBIP: it was his old team, the Orioles, who continued to excel in that category, even though inside-baseball stalwarts like Willie Keeler and Hughie Jennings were now in Brooklyn. The reason is that Brooklyn/Baltimore co-owner Hanlon (unwillingly?) left 26 year-old McGraw in charge of the Orioles and, despite a roster only half-Oriole in background, McGraw’s managerial leadership resulted in a genuinely Oriole team profile. More convincing evidence of the start of a legacy would be hard to find – but it exists. Consider the eight-team NL in 1900, Baltimore having been dropped from the league along with three unsuccessful franchises (two were Baltimore’s AA brethren Senators and Colonels, while the last was the unfortunate Cleveland club which died after switching identities with its syndicate partner, the fourth AA survivor and formerly disastrous St. Louis Browns, now renamed the Cardinals):
In this chart, I’ve included the stat category 1BE (One-Base Events: ~BBIP plus singles), because the Cardinals, in 1899 a league-average team in this category, have somehow been able to challenge Hanlon’s Brooklyn Superbas in this typically small-ball category. The reason is because McGraw had joined the Cardinals, along with Oriole refugees like Dan McGann, and they drove the team stats in a Hanlonesque direction (while driving the very non-Hanlonesque Cardinals manager, Patsy Tebeau, permanently out of baseball at midseason).
This seems to follow the story line, that Hanlon’s legacy begins with his disciple McGraw, but I think the reality was actually more complex and interesting. When Hanlon first inherited McGraw as a 19 year-old, he recognized McGraw’s talent, but needed his roster slot for a more mature player. He proposed sending McGraw to the minors on a “farming” contract, ostensibly so McGraw could get in more playing time. But McGraw dug in and eventually managed to change Hanlon’s mind. One factor may have been that Hanlon observed McGraw taking batting practice and hitting consistently to the opposite field. He asked McGraw who had taught him to do that and McGraw said that he’d taught himself: it allowed him to cross up any defensive shift the opposition adopted when he came to bat. According to one account (from the old sports writer Fred Lieb), this left a major impression on Hanlon: McGraw had been practicing Hanlon’s strategy of striving to confuse the opposition before Hanlon arrived to preach his new doctrine. In a comment on my last post I went into detail about another exceptional example of McGraw’s role: how it was that over the winter of 1893-94 McGraw, not Hanlon, transformed Hughie Jennings from a hopeless hitter (.241/.290/.301 thru 1893) into one of the best in the league (.335/.411/.479 in 1894, and .361/.449/.474 for 1894-98). This is another example of McGraw’s precocious appreciation of baseball methods and his leadership abilities.
There is no question that McGraw learned an enormous amount from Hanlon. Connie Mack, who played under Hanlon in Pittsburgh, said, “I think it’s safe to say [Hanlon] knew more about baseball than any other man of his day. And he knew how to teach the game to young players. He talked about it from morning until night, on the bench, on the field, in hotel lobbies, at meals, aboard trains. . . .” But no one seems to think Hanlon was much of a field general. He infused his players with baseball knowledge and was relentless in demanding they master the skills, but then he left it to them to implement these lessons as they saw fit in game contexts. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that, at least in Bill James’ analysis, McGraw’s profile as a manager was similar to Hanlon’s in this respect, despite their differences in temperament.
McGraw seems to have been on track to become a baseball leader and mastermind as a teenager. Hanlon certainly was a mentor to McGraw, and he clearly arrived in Baltimore with his unusually large ambitions already set. However, the highly idiosyncratic team profile that emerged as the Old Orioles clearly reflected the character of its ruffianly spark plug to an unusual degree. Hanlon appears to have decided early to give the kid his head, and to make sure that in designing his ideal team, he kept it a good fit with McGraw.
Given McGraw’s enormous influence on both leagues during the early part of the 20th century, perhaps instead of seeing McGraw and the teams he managed as the most prominent immediate legacies of Hanlon and the Orioles, we should see Hanlon and McGraw as authoring a joint legacy from the beginning.