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September 7, 2010
Flooded with Choices
“These are names only from earlier years. By mentioning some, one risks unintended omission of others equally celebrated.” —Justice Harry Blackmun
One of the crueler residues of the solar calendar and the agricultural roots of the United States is that the end of the baseball season comes after most students have already gone back to school for the fall. Of course, intrepid young people have been figuring ways to get game updates since before the days of the transistor radio, and it’s easier to stay up to the moment now than it ever has been before. But with a return to school comes divided focus, and it just isn’t as easy to spend hours pouring over box scores as it was during the dog days.
We owe particular sympathy to one type of student: the first-year law student. There is a substantial amount of overlap between the law and baseball. According to The Brethren, Justice Potter Stewart kept a run expectancy chart, clipped from a newspaper, in his wallet. Justice Stewart—a Reds fan—also liked to keep the other Justices up to date during the baseball playoffs: In 1973 he sent this note to Justice Blackmun during oral arguments (the Supreme Court’s term begins each year in early October, just in time for the playoffs). More recently, the Court’s resident Red Sox fan, Justice Breyer, arranged for the Phillie Phanatic to make an appearance at Justice Alito’s welcome party. But it isn’t all fun and games.
Thousands of American law students have begun classes in the last two weeks; they have now been exposed to the Socratic method and seating charts. But one aspect of law school stands out in particular: the case method of study. Primarily, law students are expected to learn the material by reading exemplary cases. Many of these cases are dry and difficult to understand. But at least one case that is commonly assigned in various law school classes allows the baseball-loving law student to indulge her passion: Flood v. Kuhn*.
The facts surrounding the case are familiar to most baseball fans: During the 1969-70 offseason, St. Louis traded center fielder Curt Flood to the then-miserable Philadelphia Phillies. Refusing to play for the Phillies, Flood challenged the Cardinals’ right to assign his contract pursuant to the reserve clause and took his protest to the Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn. Flood sought to be declared a free agent; Kuhn refused. After losing in both federal trial court and on appeal in the Second Circuit, Flood appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case. Despite sympathetic facts and star witnesses Jackie Robinson and Bill Veeck, Flood lost in a 5-3 decision.
In many ways, the legal issues involved in Flood were settled. Not once but twice before, the Supreme Court had held that baseball was not subject to federal antitrust laws**. It was therefore a relatively straightforward matter to adhere to the principle of stare decisis, or respect for precedent. The majority opinion authored by Justice Blackmun, however, gained notoriety because it began with a controversial opening section that quite poetically sang the praises of baseball’s noble history. (In fact, Chief Justice Burger and Justice White both joined every section of the opinion save the first.) I very highly recommend you read that section of the opinion.
In the fifth paragraph of the decision, Justice Blackmun named 84 of the players who, in his view, had “sparked the diamond and its environs and that [had] provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season.” There is no question that Blackmun named most of the stars of the game’s early years, but he famously regretted the omission of the great Giants slugger Mel Ott. There are, however, other names that arguably deserved mention.
In honor of the law students just beginning their first year, I thought it would be fun to see how Blackmun went about selecting the players for his list. You can find the full list at the link above, but first let’s look at the players who had accumulated the most career WARP in the seasons prior to 1972.
* Indicates that the player was not included on Justice Blackmun’s list
Notice that, as Blackmun says in the footnote quoted at the outset of this piece, he is primarily selecting players from the game’s early years, and he excludes all active players. If we exclude all active players and any players who were active within the 20 seasons prior to the 1972, we get the following list.
* Indicates that the player was not included on Justice Blackmun’s list
It seems to me that Arky Vaughan got pretty badly snubbed by Justice Blackmun. Vaughan was one of the greatest shortstops of all time. In ranking him the second-best ever, Bill James wrote in his New Historical Baseball Abstract that the selection “was as much a surprise to me as it is to you” and that Vaughan “was not a fan favorite or a flashy defensive player,” which helps to explain why Justice Blackmun overlooked Vaughan on his list. Nevertheless, Vaughan had a career .318/.406/.453 batting line, and in 1935 he hit .385/.491/.607 (leading the league in each category). Did I mention he was a shortstop?
The omission of Eddie Plank is somewhat understandable. The way in which he accumulated WARP was through a combination of a few exceptional seasons (10.1 in 1904 and 8.2 in 1905) and then a long string of slightly above league-average seasons. His high innings pitched totals and relative health had as much to do with his career WARP as his dazzling stuff. A native of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Plank became a tour guide at the battlefield there, which is oddly fitting given his relatively forgettable style and personality.
Really, though, I don’t understand how you leave off Joe DiMaggio. Maybe he was just a little too fresh in the mind of the Justice—he would have been the most recently active player on the list except for Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, who are obviously special cases. But the Yankee Clipper is rightly celebrated as one of the great ones, and no one, not even a Justice on the United States Supreme Court, would dare omit his name now.
Roger Connor is a bit of an oddball. He finished his career at age 39 in 1897, yet he also was the career home-run leader before Babe Ruth (with, ahem, 138). Statistics from the 19th century are tough to get your mind around, though Blackmun did include such players as Big Ed Delahanty, Big Dan Brouthers, King Kelly, and Old Hoss Radbourn. Seems to me like the trick to getting mentioned as a 19th century ballplayer was to have an awesome nickname. (As a side note, from now on, please call me Big Tommy Bennett.) As for George Davis, well, not only did he not have a cool nickname, his middle name was Stacey. Better luck next time.
There are a few players on Blackmun’s list who showed up for one particular reason rather than a career’s worth of greatness. The Waner (Lloyd and Paul) and Coveleski (Harry and Stan) brothers make the cut by virtue of their sibling status. Rube Bressler was both a pitcher and a hitter, which is a nifty trick, and Bill Wambsganss turned an unassisted triple play, in the World Series no less (Mickey Morandini is jealous). John McGraw makes the cut by virtue of both his playing and his managing. Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance make the list as the most famous infield combination in baseball history. Connie Mack, Branch Rickey, Bill Klem, and Charles Comiskey are listed for their exploits off the field. A few Negro League stars get a mention (Robinson, Paige, and Campanella) as well.
Question of the Day
In the great Socratic tradition, we ask whether there are other deserving players who were left off the list that you would add, or players you think could have been omitted to make room for some of the players discussed above. (In fact, Blackmun included 23 players who had WARP totals lower than Curt Flood’s 35.7—is this sound given the result in the case?)
*407 U.S. 258 (1972).
**See Toolson v. New York Yankees, 346 U.S. 356 (1953); Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922). For more background, see Justice Alito’s speech on the subject, reprinted in the December 2009 issue of the Baseball Research Journal.