April 11, 2014
Updating the Encyclopedias, One Baseball Card at a Time
Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers, and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Tom Shieber is Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where he has worked since 1998. Shieber founded SABR's Pictorial History Committee in 1994, serving as chair of the committee until 2000, and served on the Board of Directors of SABR from 1997 to 2000. He blogs about baseball history and research at Baseball Researcher.
At last count, over 18,000 individuals had played in the major leagues. And for each and every one of these privileged men, the members of the SABR Biographical Committee have made it their mission to determine vital statistics such as birth date, death date, playing height and weight. Additionally, the committee attempts to determine each player's handedness: with which hand they throw/threw and which way they bat/batted.
I recently contacted longtime SABR Biographical Committee chairman Bill Carle, who graciously supplied me with a list of every big leaguer for whom batting and/or throwing handedness is currently unknown. Of the over 1,200 players on the list, the vast majority played in the 19th century, and most had very brief major league careers. It should come as no surprise that determining handedness for these fellows is no easy task.
However, thanks to an absolutely invaluable reference work, I was able to determine the batting handedness for 30 of these players and the throwing handedness for 21. The tool that helped fill in the missing information is a spectacular compendium of early baseball cards titled The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin & Company (1886-1890) and co-authored by Jay Miller, Joe Gonsowski, and Richard Masson. The publication came out in 2008, and while it’s tough to find, you may be able to track down a copy at Amazon.com. I'd like to thank Jay, Joe, and Richard for sharing some images of their cards for this article.
For those unfamiliar with "Old Judge" baseball cards, I highly recommend reading the book's extensive and entertaining history of the set. In short, "Old Judge" baseball cards feature photographs pasted onto cardboard, each measuring about 1½" × 2½" and placed as an insert in packages of cigarettes manufactured by Goodwin & Company. Distributed over a five-year period from 1886 to 1890, the set is made up of approximately 2,500 different baseball cards (the exact number of cards is known, as new discoveries are still being made). Well over 500 baseball players are pictured in the set, with most players appearing on numerous cards, each featuring a photo of the player in a different pose.
While some of the players for whom I was able to determine handedness information from these cards are quite obscure, other players fashioned significant careers. Here are just a few of these more significant players:
Cornelius "Con" Daily played 12 seasons of big league baseball, participating in 628 games from 1885 to 1896, mostly as a catcher. While he has long been known to be a left-handed batter, his throwing hand has remained a mystery until now. While this "Old Judge" baseball card misspelled his name "Daley," it clearly reveals that the catcher threw right-handed:
Pitcher John Ewing, the younger brother of Hall of Fame catcher Buck Ewing, won 53 games in four seasons in the big leagues. His peak came while pitching for the New York Giants in 1891, as he posted a 21-8 mark with a league-leading .724 winning percentage. Though it was not an official statistic at the time, historians have calculated his ERA in 1891 to have been 2.27, the lowest in the majors. Historians have long known that Ewing threw with his right hand, but it was not until this new research was conducted that we've been able to state without a doubt that he batted right-handed. Here's the card of Ewing (while with Louisville of the American Association) that solved the mystery:
Franklin "Gid" Gardner logged seven seasons in the big leagues, taking part in 199 games and playing every position on the diamond except for catcher. However, from which side Gardner batted and which hand he used to throw has remained unknown for well over a century. These "Old Judge" baseball cards show that he was a righty all around:
(Note that the photographs used in these cards show Gardner in a Washington uniform, but text at the bottom of the card lists him with Philadelphia. This is because the photo shoot took place early during the 1888 season, before his May 1st trade to Philadelphia. The cards were produced after the trade.)
Frank Gilmore made a splash in his first big league game, September 11, 1886. The Washington pitcher topped the Phillies, 4-3, while striking out 10 batters, at the time a National League record for most K's in a debut. Gilmore went on to play three major league seasons, taking part in 50 contests, yet historians never knew with which hand he threw. As is seen in this "Old Judge" card of Gilmore, he was a righty:
An outstanding pitcher who participated in over 160 games over six seasons, Tom Lovett had his best season with Brooklyn in 1890, posting a 30-11 record and a major-league-leading .732 winning percentage. That season he set a record by winning 24 straight games at home, from May 21 to September 3. When he tossed a no-hitter against the New York Giants the next season (June 22, 1891), it marked the first time a National League pitcher had held a club hitless in nearly six years. Despite Lovett's high-profile success, historians had been unable to determine his throwing handedness. Thanks to this "Old Judge" card, we now know he tossed right-handed:
Like Tom Lovett, Al Mays pitched for six seasons in the big leagues. Unlike Lovett, Mays never had much success. Twice he lost over 20 games in a season, leading the majors with 34 losses for the 1887 New York Metropolitans of the American Association. Despite pitching 150 games in the big leagues, his pitching arm has remained a mystery ... until now. Mays was a righty, as revealed in this "Old Judge" card photo of him while he pitched for Columbus of the American Association:
Thomas "Parson" Nicholson played just three seasons in the big leagues, but in 1890 he was the starting second baseman for Toledo of the American Association. In fact, no one played more games at second base that season than Nicholson (134), who appeared in each and every regular-season contest for Toledo. His .268 batting average was second-highest in the league among second baseman, but which way he batted has long remained a mystery. This baseball card of Nicholson (shown with St. Louis of the minor league Western Association in 1888) reveals that he batted right-handed:
Hank O'Day was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as an umpire in 2013. However, prior to his distinguished career as an arbiter, O'Day was a pitcher for seven big league seasons. O'Day's greatest success came in 1889, when the New York Giants purchased him from Washington in mid-season. After his move to New York, O'Day fashioned a 9-1 record, helping the Giants top Boston by one game for the National League pennant. O'Day won two games to help New York beat Brooklyn in the World Series that year, giving up just 10 hits in 23 innings pitched during the post season. While historians have long known that O'Day pitched with his right hand, the Hall of Famer’s batting handedness was not known. However, this "Old Judge" card of O'Day clearly shows him batting right-handed, solving that Hall of Famer mystery:
William Dighton "Bill" White played five seasons in the majors, working as a starting shortstop in four of those campaigns. His final big league stint was with the 1888 St. Louis Browns, where his solid fielding helped the club to the American Association pennant. Despite his appearances in 467 big league games, historians were unable to determine with which hand White threw and from which side of the plate he batted. These baseball cards, however, reveal that White was a righty on both counts:
The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin & Company (1886-1890); card of Bill White as a batter courtesy of Bob Richardson
It should be noted that this photographic method of determining handedness is not absolutely foolproof. For example, Joe Gonsowski alerted me to the fact that the acknowledged right-handed batting Mike "King" Kelly is shown batting right-handed on one of his "Old Judge" cards and lefty on another.
Still, we must recognize that other methods of determining handedness (text references, for example) are also not infallible. So, with the absence of proof otherwise, I'd suggest we accept what handedness information we can glean from these "Old Judge" cards as the best evidence to date, while keeping our eye out for additional corroboration in the future.
Here's the entire list of the new throwing and batting handedness information I was able to discover by examining "Old Judge" baseball cards. I've submitted the list to Bill Carle of the SABR Biographical Committee for his review.