The best rookies of the 1800s

No, really: this is the end of the road.

I’ve had a blast putting together this series, in which we examined the top rookies from each decade of baseball. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed it, as well. Sure, we’re using selective end points, and the whole thing is a bit arbitrary, but it’s been a great deal of fun, too.

This series has ended twice before. Originally, I thought it made sense to stop before we got to the Dead Ball era. You convinced me otherwise. So I thought we might as well just keep going until the end of the last century before calling it quits.

Like Michael Corleone, however, you guys pull me back in.

So let’s finish this by reviewing the top rookies of the 1800s, when baseball was base ball, and pitchers were required to throw underhand until 1884. We are looking at all rookies from 1871 (when Baseball-Reference’s play index begins tracking stats) until 1899. Yes, that’s more than a decade. You’re just going to have to deal with that problem.

Let’s do this. From the home office in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, here are your top ten rookies of the 1800s:

1. Billy Rhines, Reds (1890). He was born before the Civil War, but by the time he turned 21, William Pearl Rhines was ready to be a baseball star. In 1890, Rhines went 28-17 while leading the National League with a 1.95 ERA and a 186 adjusted ERA+. He pitched 46 games, but only 45 of those were complete games. Only. Rhines tossed six shutouts and posted 11.4 wins above replacement.

Rhines would go on to a nine-year career with the Reds, Pirates, and Louisville Colonels, in which he won 113 games. In 1898, he pitched 258 innings and didn’t surrender a single home run. Did I mention that baseball was a different game in those days?

2. Kid Nichols, Boston Beaneaters (1890). The first and only future Hall of Famer on this list, Nichols was only 20 years old when he debuted for Boston in 1890. As a rookie, he was 27-19 with a 2.23 ERA, 170 ERA+, 47 complete game, and a league-leading seven shutouts. In seven of the next eight seasons, Nichols would win at least 30 games. He was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 1949.

Importantly, Nichols’ wife’s name was Jane Curtin. As far as I know, however, she never actually appeared on Saturday Night Live, having passed away decades before the show premiered on television.

3. Bill Hoffer, Baltimore Orioles (NL) (1896). Hoffer was great as a rookie: 31-6, 3.21 ERA, 149 ERA+, four shutouts (which led the league), 32 complete games. He compiled 8.7 bWAR that season, then followed it up with a 7.1 WAR season. Unfortunately, Hoffer only accumulated 3.5 WAR for the rest of his career (perhaps as a result of throwing 926.1 innings in his first three years), and he was out of the big leagues by 1901.

Hoffer’s claim to fame, as it were: he was the losing pitcher in the first game ever played in the American League.

4. Jimmy Williams, Pirates (1899). Williams spent most of his 11-year career as a second baseman, but he broke in the bigs as a third baseman for Pittsburgh in 1899. It was a brilliant season, in which Williams hit .354/.416/.530 with 28 doubles, 27 triples (which led the National League, and was the highest total for any rookie in the 1800s), nine homers and 116 RBI. His 220 hits was also more hits than any other rookie before 1900.

In May and June, Williams put together a 26-game hitting streak, which is still tied for the second-longest streak in Pirates franchise history. The longest streak in Buccos history? Yep, you guessed it: Williams, who hit in 27 straight games later in his rookie year.

5. Cupid Childs, Syracuse Stars (AA) (1890). One of the best second basemen of the late 1800s, Childs arrived with a bang. In 1890, he hit .345/.434/.481 with 56 stolen bases. His 33 doubles and 6.3 WAR were the best marks in the old American Association. The following year, Childs signed with Baltimore, but after the Orioles left the AA, he voided his own contract. Baltimore sued, Childs won, and he moved on to the National League’s Cleveland club.

Over a 13-year career, Childs played for teams named the Quakers, Spiders, Perfectos, Orphans, and Stars. Forget the statistics; that’s a career that may never be matched.

6. George Derby, Detroit Wolverines (1881). He only played three seasons in what we would now call the major leagues, but Derby’s first year with the NL’s Detroit club was superb: 29-26, 2.20 ERA, 131 ERA+. Derby led the league in strikeouts (212) and shutouts (9, which remains the all-time baseball rookie record), with 55 complete games and 8.8 WAR. Two years later, Derby went 2-10 with a 5.85 ERA for the Buffalo Bisons, and his big league career was over.

7. Dave Orr, New York Metropolitans (AA) (1884). Seriously, look at this guy. Looks like the prototype of a pre-1900 ballplayer, doesn’t he? Well, in his rookie campaign, he mashed the baseball to the tune of .354/.362/.539 with 32 doubles and 13 triples. Orr led the league in batting average, hits (162), RBI (112), and WAR (5.8).

A prolific hitter who was considered one of the best in the game, Orr’s career ended at the age of 30 after he suffered a stroke. Over eight seasons, he hit a robust .342/.366/.502 with a 162 OPS+.

8. Sam Weaver, Milwaukee Grays (1878). Weaver led the National League in losses as a 22-year-old rookie, with the astounding total of 31 (with only 12 wins). If you can believe it, he also collected 10.3 wins above replacement that season, while posting a 1.95 ERA, 135 ERA+, 39 complete games, and a league-leading 1.023 WHIP. Baseball is a funny game.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have John Coleman, who lost 48 games in his rookie season for the Philadelphia Quakers (1883). Coleman led the league in hits, homers, and earned runs allowed. Even worse, he got 369 plate appearances that season, and posted an OPS+ of 82. One of the least productive seasons ever, yet Coleman somehow managed to play seven more seasons in the big leagues.

9. Larry Corcoran, Chicago White Stockings (1880). Corcoran went 43-14 with a 1.95 ERA and a 123 ERA+ in leading the White Stockings to the National League championship. He pitched in 63 games, with 57 of those being completed games, and led the league with 268 strikeouts. In his first five seasons, through age 24, Corcoran averaged 34 wins, a 2.23 ERA, a 129 ERA+, and 456 innings pitched. Not surprisingly, his arm died shortly thereafter.

10. Buck Freeman, Senators (1899) and Pete Browning, Louisville Eclipse (AA) (1882). I’m cheating here, mostly because I wanted to discuss both these players. I beg your indulgence.

Freeman actually debuted as a pitcher with the Washington Statesmen (in the American Association), playing five games as a 19-year-old in 1891. Eight years later, he finally had what would be considered his rookie season, playing 155 games for the NL’s Washington Senators. By this time, he was an outfielder, and a productive one, at that: .318/.362/.563, a league-leading 25 home runs (the league runner-up only had 12 homers), 25 triples, 122 RBI, and 107 runs scored. His homer total was 6 more than any other rookie would hit in the 1800s, and his RBI were the highest total for rookies, as well.

Browning is supposedly the inspiration for the “Louisville Slugger” line of baseball bats. The moniker is appropriate; as a rookie, he hit .378/.430/.510, with a 223 OPS+ and 4.4 bWAR. Browning led the league in each of those categories and, frankly, he’d be higher on this list if it weren’t for the fact that his season only consisted of 69 games. He was illiterate, an alcoholic (reportedly), and suffered with a number of physical maladies, but Browning was one of the better hitters in pre-1900 baseball. Over 13 seasons, he hit .341/.403/.467 with an OPS+ of 163.

There you have it. I know some of you are going to be really upset that I didn’t make room on the list for Roy Thomas, Jimmy Cooney, Elmer Flick, or Sam Barkley. I wish I could have spent some time discussing Matt Kilroy, who struck out 513 batters in 68 starts for the 1886 Baltimore Orioles, yet lost 34 games and surrendered more earned runs than any pitcher in the league.

A number of future Hall of Famers were just on the brink of making the top ten, as well: Joe McGinnity, Mickey Welch, Vic Willis, and Monte Ward among them. Other future Cooperstown honorees didn’t begin their careers with a bang, but went on to great careers: names like King Kelly, Hugh Duffy, Cy Young, Rube Waddell, Jake Beckley, Cap Anson, the original Billy Hamilton, and the constantly-tweeting Old Hoss Radbourn.

Now we’ve come to the end of the line. If I haven’t exhausted you by this point, feel free to check out the previous installments in the series: 19-aughts, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Once again, thank you for your indulgence.

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  1. Cliff Blau said...

    One of Weaver’s teammates was nicknamed Alamazoo.  I think that deserves a mention.

    Another rookie who merits consideration: Browning’s teammate Guy Hecker.  A 124 OPS+ and a 191 ERA+.

  2. Michael Searls said...


    Great job! I enjoyed the ride and am sorry it’s over.

    Any love for Grasshopper Jim Whitney? 1881 he won 31 games with Boston but lost 33!

    I’ve always said, I’d love to see an early 1880’s game and a 1911 one too. Reading these last couple of articles strengthened that belief.

    Again, well done & thanks,

    M. Searls

  3. Jim said...

    Michael Searls, I don’t know where you are located, but do a search on google for a vintage baseball association or league in your area.  Then go to one of their games.  They usually play for fun and don’t charge for admission, but they do try to follow the rules and customs of the era they represent.  And, they will give you a page of information about that era.  It’s not quite 1880’s, but it is close enough to give you a flavor for it.  Who knows, you may even join them.

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