On April 10, 1897, Ross Youngs was born. By the time he was 21, he was a major league regular. Just more than 10 years later, Youngs was dead. In that short time, however, he managed to construct a career deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.
The rules that require any Hall of Fame candidate to play at least 10 seasons have done to a lot to keep high-peak candidates out of the Hall. There’s a deserving handful of exceptions, including Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella, but generally voters ask for not only the 10-year minimum, but for quality years beyond that.
Another exception is Ross Youngs. Like Campanella, Youngs played just 10 major league seasons, but Youngs actually played in even fewer games than the Dodgers great. His election to the Hall of Fame is owed to a combination of factors, including the career he managed prior to his death, the circumstances of his death and the political situation of the Hall.
While I do not think Ross Youngs belongs there, there is little doubt he possessed Hall of Fame talent. He played just nine full seasons—the Hall generously called the seven games he played in 1917 a “season”—but accumulated impressive totals. Debuting at 21, Youngs was a career .322 hitter, still in the top 50 all-time. He placed in the top 10 in hitting in six of his nine full seasons. His was a diverse talent. He had enough power to lead the league in total bases twice, in 1920 and ’23, and place in the top five three other times. He combined speed with base running skills to place in the top 10 in stolen bases five times.
Youngs was also well-heralded in his time. His manager with the Giants, John McGraw, hailed him as the “greatest outfielder (he) ever saw.” McGraw backed this up, repeatedly making favorable comparisons of Youngs to Babe Ruth. Youngs was a long-time favorite of the legendary manager, who had just two photos in his office, one of the outfielder and one of Christy Mathewson. After McGraw retired, he supposedly never again set foot in the Giants clubhouse, but did send someone to retrieve the photos.
Of course, McGraw’s sentimentality as it pertains to Youngs was not solely based on his talents as a ballplayer. During a routine health check in 1926 doctors diagnosed Youngs with Bright’s Disease, a now-obsolete term for a rather nasty and debilitating kidney illness. Young played his last game in August of that year and he was dead just over a year later. Youngs’ obituary included from McGraw many glowing words, including his assessment that Youngs “could do everything a baseball player should do and do it better than most players.”
Unlike the case when Lou Gehrig died prematurely almost 15 years later, there was no Hall of Fame, so honors bestowed upon Youngs were verbal rather than actual. Youngs was on the inaugural Hall of Fame ballot, drawing less than five percent of the vote. (These days, of course, that would drop him off the ballot entirely.) Excluding the years during World War II when the Hall did not conduct elections, Youngs was on the ballot every year until 1956. He peaked at just over 22% of the vote in 1947, but never came close to election.
After all those years, it appeared that Youngs would remain, metaphorically, on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame. In 1967, however, Frankie Frisch was appointed to the Veterans Committee. Frisch, a great player just a couple of years younger than Youngs, arrived with the Giants as a rookie in 1919, and would be Youngs’ teammate for the rest of the latter’s career.
Frisch was a firm believer in the “baseball was so much better in my day” school of thought. (On an unrelated note, this is what caused his demise as a manager.) In accordance with this theory, he determinedly went about installing into the Hall as many players as he could from his era, aided by a number of cronies on the committee.
Many of the weaker Hall of Fame members were elected in this period, including Jesse Haines (who has fewer wins and a lower ERA+ than David Wells), Dave Bancroft (a poor man’s Phil Rizzuto) and George Kelly (a 1920s Bob Watson).
Another beneficiary of Frisch’s machinations for the Hall was Youngs. He was elected in 1972. His Hall of Fame plaque cites his hitting prowess and performance in outfield assists. More telling, however, is his Hall of Fame web page, which includes a quote from Frisch himself, crediting Youngs with being “the hardest-running guy (he) ever saw, the best at throwing those savage crossblocks (sic) to break up attempts at double plays.”
There are any number of reasons why Ross Youngs is not Hall of Fame material. Obviously, his short career, though no fault of his, is a major hurdle. Unlike Gehrig, Youngs didn’t put together an extensive career before the illness that would take his life began to affect his career. He was basically mediocre in his last two years.
Given that his first season was not even 10 games, that leaves just seven years to make a Hall of Fame career. As good as those seven years were, they simply did not constitute a Hall of Fame resume.
Despite Youngs’ status as an undeserving Hall of Famer, his presence does have the benefit of making him a more prominent figure in baseball history. As a star who shone brightly, if briefly, Youngs is worth remembering, and if that is the ultimate legacy of Frisch and his pals’ attempts at enshrining tributes to their nostalgia, it serves to mitigate somewhat their corruption of Hall of Fame standards.