Best of the decade: The 19th century

Last year, as you no doubt recall, I spent a column each month reviewing the best players born in each month. Seeing how much I enjoyed the format, I am continuing that in 2013. Having done birthdays, 2013 will see a creation of the best players from each decade. At the end of the year, of course we will compare the teams and see which decade can lay claim to the best team. (Or so one might argue; we’ll cover that come December.)

Before we begin each decade though, we’ll start with a team constructed from the pre-1900 period of baseball. Owing to the profound differences between this era and the “modern” history of baseball—to say nothing of erratic record keeping and wildly erratic levels of competition—this team will not be considered in the final comparison across eras, but is nonetheless worth examining.

Now, the rules: to qualify for any non-pitching position, a player must have played at least 500 games there during his career—though not necessarily during the decade in question. This replaces my riotously unpopular “50 percent of games played” requirement from the All-Month team series. For starting pitchers, it requires at least 200 starts in a given decade. We’ll cover relievers later in the essay. And getting this question out of the way early, yes, a man can qualify for a position on two different All-Decade teams.

With all that out of the way, let’s begin:

Catcher: Buck Ewing

According to Wikipedia, Ewing is “widely regarded as the best catcher of his era,” and that’s good enough for me! Actually, Ewing’s numbers speak more to his quality than any crowd-sourced encyclopedia could. Playing from 1880 through to 1897—for the likes of the Troy Trojans and New York Giants—Ewing was a lifetime .303 hitter and slugged nearly 500 extra base hits in his career. Even better regarded than his performance at the plate were Ewing’s abilities behind it: he was the finest defensive catcher of his era, and ahead of his competition by an enormous margin.

First Base/Manager: Cap Anson

Anson is one of the finest pre-1900 players to take the field, arguably the greatest ever. A longtime member of the Chicago Cubs franchise—though they were known primarily as the “White Stockings” in Anson’s day—he was the first player to record 3,000 hits, a career .334 hitter and is the nineteenth century leader in hits, doubles, runs and RBI. For good measure, Anson was also the manager for most of his Cubs franchise tenure, during which he won nearly 1,300 games and five National League pennants, which is enough to secure him the skipper’s spot on this team.

(On the downside, no honest profile of Anson can be written without noting that he was a virulent racist, the kind who made Ty Cobb look like Branch Rickey when it came to race relations in baseball. Anson repeatedly refused play against any team fielding black players and was one of the leading figures responsible for the racial segregation of the game.)

Second Base: Cupid Childs

This is a close-run thing between Childs and Bid McPhee. McPhee was a brilliant defensive second baseman—Bill James lists him as worthy of nine Gold Gloves in the pre-1900 period. Childs was not quite the brilliant glove of McPhee, but was a brilliant hitter, and despite a career nearly 700 games shorter than McPhee, earned more value at the plate.

Childs played primarily in strong offense eras, so his numbers must be taken with a small grain of salt. Nonetheless, even when normalized to a reasonable level and adjusted for season-length, Childs comes out very favorably.

(The nickname, incidentally, is much argued over by the kind of people who argue over such things. Our own Bruce Markusen covered the debate this column and I leave it to him to sort things out.)

This photo of the Cy Young Award is the closest I could get to a photo of a player on the team (US Presswire)

Third Base: Deacon White

White is receiving a (very small) revival in his career having been selected for Hall of Fame induction this coming year by the Veterans Committee owing, one assumes, to his performance on his field rather than his outstanding mustache. White was indeed an excellent player, twice a batting champion (1875, .367 and 1877, .387) and thrice the league-leader in RBI. That being said, if we’re honest, White earns this position more for having played his career entirely in the nineteenth century while some rough contemporaries—John McGraw, Lave Cross and others—crossed into the twentieth.

White is also credited with being the innovator of catchers squatting directly behind the batter—though it would not catch on widely for several years—and upon being sold from one team to another famously told a reporter that “no man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.”

Shortstop: Jack Glasscock

Teams in the 1800s, it seems, sure loved to name themselves after colors. Over the course of his career, Glasscock played for, variously, the Blues (Cleveland), Maroons (St. Louis), Reds (Cincinnati) and Browns (St. Louis). That’s a good chunk of the color wheel right there. For good measure, he was also a Giant, Colonel, Senator, Hoosier and Pirate. And while we’re on the subject of odd names, Glasscock’s nickname was “Pebbly Jack,” supposedly owing to his dedication to clearing the area around shortstop of pebbles. I don’t know, I just write the column.

The league’s leading hitter of 1890, and owner of more than 2,000 career hits, Glasscock’s endless tidying of his position did him well; per Bill James he was worthy of NL’s Gold Glove at shortstop four times over his career.

Left Field: Ed Delahanty

A brilliant player, Delahanty debuted at age 20 for the Philadelphia Quakers in 1888 and by 1892 had established himself as a genuine star. In the pre-1900 period, Delahanty played just over 1400 games, and accumulated nearly 2000 hits, nearly 400 doubles while putting up a collective .345/.410/.505 line, including the 1899 batting title.

In 1903, at age 35, Delahanty was still an excellent player when—in what remains one of baseball’s strangest deaths despite having taken place more than 100 years ago—he was ejected from a train near Niagara Falls, evidently for being drunk. Whether in drunken pursuit of the train, or simply from disorientation, Delahanty attempted to cross the International Railway Bridge over the Niagara River. This was a very poor decision and his body was found the next day by the operator of the Maid of the Mist tour boat.

Center Field: Billy Hamilton

As great players go, Billy Hamilton is one of the most obscure in baseball history. To this day, Hamilton remains the all-time leader for runs scored in a single season with 198—no one in history is within 20 of that. Despite playing in fewer than 1,600 games, Hamilton scored nearly 1,700 runs, just out of the top 25 all-time. Of course, his runs per game number is even more impressive, no player with a similar number of games comes with 200 runs of Hamilton’s total.

As you might expect for someone who scored runs at that rate, Hamilton was a speedy guy; he led the NL in stolen bases five times, stealing 96 or more six times. He also led the league in walks five times and was the game’s first dominant leadoff hitter.

Right Field: King Kelly

According to Bill James, to tell “the true story of Mike [King] Kelly is impossible, and even to summarize all of the legends would require at least three books.” As such, I’ll focus on Kelly’s career on the field, in numbers, which includes two seasons leading the National League in hitting (1884 and ’86), three straight years leading the league in runs scored and three times in doubles. At the time of his retirement, only nine men—including teammates Anson, Glasscock, Ewing and White—had more WAR.

Starting Pitchers: Kid Nichols, Cy Young, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Pud Galvin

Kid Nichols currently ranks seventh in the Baseball-Reference Fan EloRater and was ranked by Bill James as the ninth best pitcher of all-time. Nonetheless, he is fundamentally unknown by casual fans, having won 297 of his 361 games prior to 1900. Nichols’ huge win totals are a reflection of the age in which he pitched of course—as are his ridiculous inning totals, averaging exactly 400 over the course of his career. He was also a great pitcher beyond the wins though, finishing his career with a 140 ERA+, and leading the league in pitching WAR four times in the 1880s.

You all know about Cy Young, 511 wins including his ridiculous 1892-93 seasons when he won a total of 70 games with a 156 ERA+ while pitching 875 total innings. Unlike Young, who pitched more-or-less forever, Tim Keefe—known as both Smiling Tim and Sir Timothy—pitched just 14 seasons and three of those were 230 innings or less. When on the mound, though, Keefe was brilliant, leading the league in ERA three times.

I’ve written extensively about John Clarkson in this column, so here’s the quick version: debuted at 20, won 53 games in 1885, was out of baseball after the 1894 season, ran a cigar store until he suffered a nervous breakdown and died young in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Pud Galvin was just 18 when he made his debut in 1875 and by the time he was 27, he had won more than 200 games, including 92 in 1883-84. The 1884 season was, by WAR, the greatest pitching season in history: 19 WAR, 46 wins, 1.99 ERA (155 ERA+) and 636.1 IP. It was a different game then, but Galvin had it mastered.

Relief Pitcher: Tony Mullane

As you probably know, the relief pitcher is essentially a modern concept. Prior to 1950, there were a grand total of 29 seasons in which a pitcher appeared in relief 50 or more times. In 2012 alone, 134 pitchers appeared in 50 or more games. This being the case, with a couple of exceptions as we move through the decades, until roughly the last 50 years of baseball history anyone selected in the reliever role is basically just a starter who is slotted into the role.

For the pre-1900 team, that’s Tony Mullane. It is true that Mullane—nicknamed “The Apollo of the Box” for his good looks—appeared in relief in just 51 games across his 13 year career. It is also true that he is not the best pitcher not to make the starting rotation.

Nonetheless, Mullane gets this spot. For one thing, though 51 games in relief across a career isn’t much of a total by modern standards, it’s actually pretty impressive for the 19th century. Moreover, he recorded 15 saves in his career, second only to Nichols for pitchers prior to 1900. In fact, Mullane led the league in saves five times—albeit three of those coming with just one or two saves in a season.

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  1. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Did Cap Anson “repeatedly” refuse to play with Black players? The one instance which is cited is, I believe, in aan exhibition game with an American Association team with a black player. Anson played his whole career in the National League and presumably had no influence on racial policy in the rival American Association. Also, your choices are very good, but might have included Al Spalding, absolutely dominant in the NA.

  2. Triston said...

    Deacon White was actually ‘almost’ elected a few times in the first decade or so of the Hall.
    According to the Wiki page for the 1945 election (yes, yes…), Deacon White was strongly considered by the Old-Timers Committee, but they’d already picked ten older players like they were asked to, and decided to give him another look the next year.
    But when 1946 came around, the focused more on 1890s/1900s/1910s guys- only one of their selections started their career before 1890. This was in response to the BBWAA having elected ‘one’ player since 1939, so they made some eligibility changes and picked the older guys the writers had voted for. White again got lost in the shuffle.
    (It seems this “let’s wait until next year to look at these guys, oh crud, we have to change the entire system” thing is also why Abner Doubleday was never elected.)

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    I don’t quite get your selection of Deacon White over McGraw. I think McGraw was a significantly better hitter in his career, and he played over 700 games at 3B as well as 593 games there before 1900. Are you giving extra credit to players whose career does not span 2 decades?

  4. Richard Barbieri said...

    The big deciding factor for White was the time actually on the field prior to 1900. McGraw played in fewer than 850 pre-1900, whereas White is over 1550.

    At his best (1888-89) McGraw was probably better, but in my mind if you’re reviewing the whole period (and not giving credit for time outside of it) then you have to give the nod to White.

  5. chief said...

    I believe you should be allowed to have two utility spots on an All-time team. Guys who played any position, but were not the number one player at the position, but would have been on the list if they played another position. Most recently I saw an example of this on the All-Gotham team which pushes out either Mays, Mantle, or Snider depending on who you pick.

  6. TomH said...

    Roger Connor was also a fine 1Bman; there were 3 outstanding first sackers pre-1900.
    Brouthers was the best slugger (see leaderboards) but missed time. Anson played forever; look up’s RBI career leaders, and be stunned that the man drove in 2000 runs. Connor was a mix between the two.

  7. AaronB said...

    You want a player who could do a bit of everything, although only in a fairly shot career, how about Bob Caruthers?  40.1 WAR for his pitching including a high of 8.8, plus he could hit:  another 18.6 WAR earned for his bat.  All of this in a little over 9 years. 

    Pitching he was 218-99 with an ERA+ of 122.  Batting:  OPS+ of 134 for his nearly 2500 AB’s. I’d pick him for one of those utility spots mentioned by Chief.

  8. Paul G. said...

    One of the tricky things about 19th century baseball is the length of schedule varied tremendously as time went on.  The National League in 1876 had a 60+ game schedule while in 1899 it was a modern 154 games.  It can make comparisons of accomplishments rather perilous.  Just saying.

    At first base, I probably would rather have Dan Brouthers than Cap Anson.  Anson had a longer career and Dan never did manage, but the offensive numbers are just wow.  (@Bill: When I had the opportunity to visit the Negro League Museum years ago, Cap Anson is mentioned so often in the early history area that you could think it was the Cap Anson Museum.  He comes across like a comic book villain, twirling his mustache.  I would dare say that his influence in this area was rather large.)

    At third base, I would prefer McGraw over Deacon and make Little Napoleon the manager in place vacated by Cap.  Also of note is Bill Joyce who was a tremendous hitter but had a short career and was very much a student of the “Chicks Don’t Dig Fielding” school of thought.  Bobby Bonilla probably would have been a defensive upgrade over him.

    At shortstop, Hughie Jennings would probably be the more popular pick.  Short career but a great peak, the only shortstop to bat over 400, defensively excellent.  Also has both the career HBP record (287, 2 ahead of Biggio) and single season record (51, 1 ahead of Ron Hunt).  But Glasscock is certainly defendable as a choice, given his greater longevity.

    And, what?  No love for Old Hoss Radbourn?  59 wins with a 1.38 ERA in a season is not enough?  (It is also baffling to see Pud’s 1884 with a higher bWAR for than Radbourn’s 1884.  Old Hoss had more wins, a lower ERA, a better ERA+ (by a lot), pitched more innings, more strikeouts, and he was a better hitter.  It’s the same 1884 NL.  How does that work?)

  9. Jon L. said...

    Paul G.: According to, Radbourn actually does have more WAR than Galvin, once hitting is taken into account.  But without hitting, they estimate an average pitcher in Radbourn’s shoes (his park, defense, etc.) would let up 4.48 runs per game, as opposed to 5.53 for Galvin.

  10. Paul G. said...

    @ Jon L.: Ah, yes, I read the page wrong.  Thank you.  Still, there must have been an incredible disparity in defense between the two teams for Galvin to make up 50 points of park-adjusted ERA+.  Wow.

    Amazingly, assuming I am reading it right (no guarantee on that, obviously), pitching fWAR not only has Galvin (11.2) better than Radbourn (9.7) but also places Charlie Buffington (10.9) ahead of Old Hoss as well.  Win 59 games, rank as the third best pitcher in the league.  It boggles the mind.  Assuming that I would add the batting fWAR to get the overall value, Radbourn (10.5) does move ahead of the weak hitting Galvin (10.1) but Buffington surges into first with 12.3.  Old Hoss’s ERA+ was 205.  Buffington’s ERA+ was 133.  Old Hoss threw 91 more innings.  Am I wrong, or does this indicate an absolutely enormous difference in team fielding?  What, did the Grays have all of the gold gloves in 1884?  Did the Bison’s fielders regularly abandon the field to go smoke?

  11. Cliff Blau said...

    You seem to be conflating the 19th century with the 1800’s, rather than the actual period of 1801-1900.  Since you are only discussing the 1800’s, you shouldn’t use the term 19th century in the article.

    How did you determine that Buck Ewing’s fielding was ahead of Charlie Bennett’s by “an enormous margin”?  Bennett’s teams averaged 37 passed balls and wild pitches below average over the course of his career.  In 10 of his 15 year career, his team had the fewest passed balls in the league.  Add to that the he caught 954 games while Ewing only caught 636.

    Teams didn’t name themselves after colors in the 1800’s; they generally named themselves after the city they called home.  It was unimaginative sportswriters who nicknamed them after colors.

    If you are going to go the utility player route, you might consider Jim O’Rourke, who could catch as well as play CF and LF, with some first and third thrown in for good measure.

    Negro Leagues Museum notwithstanding, I don’t see where Anson had any more to do with segregation than Doug Crothers did; he was just more famous.

    A good list overall.

  12. Paul G. said...

    King Kelly would also make a good utility choice if he was not the starting right fielder: 750 games in the outfield, 583 at catcher, 200+ at the various infield positions, 12 games pitched.  For that matter Honus Wagner was basically a utility guy for the early portion of his career playing in the outfield, third, short, and first until settling at shortstop.  Of course he started too late to be considered for this team.  I suspect he will be in the next update.

  13. Michael Anderson said...

    My problem with your list is that is mixes players before 1893, when the pitching distance was 50 feet, with players in 1893 onward, when the pitching distance extended to the modern distance of 60 feet six inches.

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