Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Who Were the First?

It is now possible that Roger Clemens could be elected to the Hall of Fame since it has been conclusively proven that he never took steroids (right!!!) At a time like this baseball history buffs like me consider how tough it must have been in 1935 to decide who should be the charter members of the Hall. No performance enhancers in those days.

The baseball writers had fifty years of stars to consider. There had been great hitters like Dan Brouthers (pictured at left), Cap Anson, King Kelly, Jesse Burkett, Wee Willie Keeler, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, and Tris Speaker. (Rogers Hornsby was still playing in '35.) And awesome pitchers like Hoss Radbourn, Jack Chesbro, Cy Young, Joe McGinnity, Rube Waddell, Ed Plank, and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

The criterion was the same as now – a player's name had to appear on 75% of the ballots. In spite of all that talent the five men selected were fairly obvious choices. The total number of votes cast was 226 and Ty Cobb's name appeared on 222 of them. (Apparently four of the writers just couldn't get over what a son-of-a-bitch Cobb was.) Tying for second were Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner with 215 each, Then came Christy Mathewson, the sensational and gentlemanly New York Giant hurler, with 205. He was the only one not to appear at the opening ceremonies having died ten years before. And last came fireballer Walter Johnson with 189 votes.

Cy Young, with 511 wins to his credit, may now seem a more logical choice than Mathewson, but while Cy had some great years (36-12, 34-16, 35-10, 28-15, 25-13, 33-10, 32-11, 28-9), he also had a lot of mediocre ones (27-22, 26-21, 21-19, 19-19, 18-19, 13- 21, 19-15).  His lifetime winning percentage was .613 and his ERA was 2.62. 

Whereas Mathewson's winning percentage was a wondrous .665 thanks to consecutive seasons of 30-12, 33-12, 31-9, 22-12, 24-12, 37-11, 25-6, 27-9, 26-13, 23-12, 25-11, and 24-13. Talk about consistent. It helped that he was playing for a great team (the Giants) and manager (John McGraw) but his ERA was a measly 2.13, helped by 79 shutouts. Then there was the 1905 World Series in which he threw two 4-hit shutouts and then had an off day – a 6-hit shutout. 

As for Walter Johnson, he had the misfortune to play for the Washington Senators, who were only a good  team in 1912 and '13 and 1924 and '25. Take a look at these ERAs and won-lost records. 14-14, 1.65; 13-25, 2.22; 25-20, 1.90. But he had some pretty great won-lost records in other years, including a stretch of 25-13, 33-12, 36-7, 28-18, 27-13, 25-20, 23-16, and 23-13. Imagine if he'd played for a better club.

You don't hear much said about the other charter member, Honus Wagner, but when you get as many votes as the Babe you must have had a pretty good career. The 'Flying Dutchman', who spent his whole career with the Pirates, was the best fielding shortstop of his era,. He stole bases and he was okay with the bat too. While his numbers don't look great compared to Ruth, Bonds, Williams, etcetera, you have to take into account that he played in the dead ball era, when you were about as likely to see a sacrifice hit as an extra base hit.

Consider that in 1908, when Wagner led the National League with 109 runs batted in, only five players had as many as 68! His slugging average of .542 was 90 points better than the player who finished second that year. Oh, and he led the NL in stolen bases, hits, doubles, triples, (second in home runs), on-base average, and total bases too. In all, Wagner won seven batting titles, hit 640 doubles, 252 triples, and stole 722 bases. 

In conclusion ... I've written a couple of times about amazing pitching staffs – I may have found the best ever. Here is the 1901 Pittsburgh Pirate staff.  (The photo is of the 1903 Pirate pennant winners.)

Deacon Phillippe (22-12) career  189-109   .634   ERA 2.59
Jesse Tannehill    (18-10) career  197-116   .629   ERA 2.79 
Jack Chesbro     (21-10) career  198-132   .600   ERA 2.68
Sam Leever        (14-5)   career  194-100   .660   ERA 2.47
Rube Waddell      (0-2)   career   193-143   .574   ERA 2.16

Can anybody top that?

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