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August 18, 2005

An Objective Hall of Fame

Part Four, 1944-1946

by Clay Davenport

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We're continuing through the 1940s in our attempt to construct an Objective Hall of Fame. Be sure to check out the earlier parts of the series, especially the first one, for more information. The information presented below is the player's name, position, Career MVP score, and, in parentheses, the year he was elected to the real HOF.

In the mid-1940s, the real Hall of Fame went on an induction spree, adding a raft full of players from the early 20th century. The mid-40s extravaganza is one of the two periods when the Hall made most of what are regarded as its poorest selections. Regrettably, the objective Hall is going to go meet a similar fate at a similar time. I noted, in the beginning, that there was going to be a fixed allotment of Hall of Famers, based on the number of team-seasons that have been played in major league history. The objective Hall is close to catching up to all of the obviously qualified players of the past, but still has a considerable quota to fill. The players inducted in the seasons right before we catch up to the quota are going to be among the least qualified in the Hall. In addition, as we go down the lists, the players are ranked closer and closer together, so there is less difference between those who just barely make it in and just barely get kept out. These are points to keep in mind as we work through the next couple of articles.

Anyway, on to the class of 1944.

The real Sam Crawford holds the major league record for triples in a career, with 309. Older sources say 312, and I honestly don't know how triples from 1899, 1902, and 1904 did their "socks in the dryer disappearing" trick. The translation routine takes that information and decides that he was great power hitter, and converts those to 684 modern-era home runs. The translation context being something akin to the year 2000, when home runs were cheap, that only ranks him 14th all-time. The fielding ratings are unkind to him at -42, but virtually all of that comes from three years he spent in center--as a corner outfielder he was fine.

One thing we're seeing with this system is a fondness for pitchers who have one or two big years. Red Faber had two huge seasons, conveniently back-to-back in 1921 and 1922, worth 13.9 and 10.6 WARP3. He earned 290 of his 502 career MVP points in those two years, and never had another year better than 6.1. Faber was a spitballer, one of the ones allowed to continue throwing it after 1920, and he kept going until 1933, when he was 44 years old. With the exception of the big years already mentioned, he was an extremely consistent pitcher, throwing 150-200 innings a year with an adjusted ERA just a little bit above average. He missed the 1919 World Series with an ankle injury; since it was the worst season of his career, there's pretty much no way that he would have gotten a start and complicated the gamblers' plans.

Fielder Jones, in today's game, would have been a solid leadoff hitter, although his accomplishments are disguised by playing in the deadest of the dead-ball era. "Fielder" was not a nickname, but was given to him by his parents, and as far as I can tell he lived up to it as a player. For the last five years of his career he was also the manager of the White Sox, and he was just as good a manager--.592 winning percentage in those years, one World Series title. He was innovative and intelligent--he had an engineering degree--and was at least as well regarded as his cross-town rival, Frank Chance. So why isn't he in the real Hall as well? It might be because of the way his career ended, when he started Doc White (on one day's rest) instead of Frank Smith (on two day's rest) on the last day of the 1908 season. The Sox were a half game behind Detroit, and the missing game would not be replayed, so it was a winner-take-all game. White lost, badly, Jones was vilified for his choice, the memory of him tarnished--especially since he decided to retire in the aftermath.

Paul Hines was a center fielder from the earliest era, breaking in with the National association in 1872. A slugger in a game that didn't reward it, Hines was one of the best players of the National league's first decade, and was a big part of the Providence Grays' two titles. He was 32 years old before he ever played a 100-game season, making him one of the biggest beneficiaries of translating everything out to 162 games. Hines was hit in the head by a pitch in 1886, and lost his hearing; coincidentally or not, his fielding statistics tanked at the same time.

Ross Youngs. Had I continued with my initial plan, without awarding extra credit for an untimely death, Youngs would not make it; his actual MVP career score only comes to 415. However, making everybody else give up their entire post-30 career moves him up to the point where the real Hall of Fame made a justifiable selection, if you are willing to accept death as a mitigating factor. If you factor in that he was already feeling the effects of his illness in his last two years, then he'd move up even higher. Youngs died of Brights' disease, which isn't something you'd hear in a modern hospital; what a 1920's doctor called Brights would now be differentiated into one of a dozen types of nephritis, all characterized by the symptom of having protein in the urine. It isn't at all clear that a player today, stricken with the exact same ailment as Youngs, would be able to continue playing. It isn't a simple matter of taking an antibiotic, because this is an inflammation, not an infection, and depending on which type he had would not have been curable.

Class of 1945

By a strange twist of the translation program, it is Lou Gehrig's 1927 season, not Babe Ruth's, which ends up with the single-season home run record. Ruth had the 60 home runs in real life, but only 29 doubles and 8 triples; Gehrig capped his 47 homers with 52 doubles and 18 triples, and the translation loves that power. What's the highest single-season triple total by a player with 40 home runs? The 18 Gehrig hit in 1927. What's the second-highest? The 17 Gehrig hit in 1930. Fourth-highest? The 15 he hit in 1931, although he shares that spot with Joe DiMaggio (1937) and Jim Rice (1978). Nobody else in history combined home runs and triples like Gehrig did. If the program evaluated him as a fast player, like it did for Ty Cobb, it would retain more of those triples; but he doesn't show up as someone with speed, so it turns him into the sixth-best home run hitter of all time.

The real Hall of Fame inducted Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance as a team unit. None of those three are going to make my cut. They missed a chance to bring in Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, and Joe Kelley as a unit, as the three of them were the heart of the 1890s Baltimore Orioles; I'll call John McGraw the brains and Wilbert Robinson the, uh, stomach. Jennings already went in with my class of 1939. Keeler was a small man, famous of course for his "hit 'em where they ain't" line, and a leadoff hitter from the Rod Carew/Tony Gwynn mold: it was a high batting average, rather than any tendency to work a walk, that made him a worthwhile player. His 1897 and 1898 seasons are the fourth- and sixth-best translated batting averages in history, and I think it is safe to say that any real player with 3000 hits, 9 straight 200-hit seasons, and a .330 career average would have had no problem getting in. Another thing about Keeler: if he had the sense to retire at the end of the 1900 season, he would have had a career batting average of .381. No one else in history has had that high an average at the end of any season with 4000 or more at bats.

Joe Kelley was a very different type of player, with all-around baseball skills that Keeler couldn't match; he typically hit third, cleaning up the table that Keeler had set. To the ladies of Baltimore he was considered a fine piece of eye candy, much as Brady Anderson (in left field, in Baltimore) would be a century later, and he was very much aware of it. He parlayed his looks into marrying the daughter of a local politician, and after his playing days were over he was always able to get a job from the political machine.

George Gore succeeded Paul Hines as Chicago's center fielder. Gore was a leadoff man, good at working a walk--which is really something, when you consider that it took nine balls to get one when he broke in in 1879. Of course, fouls weren't considered strikes, so he had that going for him...By 1882 it was down to seven balls for a walk, and his 29 walks led the league. In 1884 they cut it to six balls, and he promptly set a league record with 61. In 1886 he became the first player to draw 100 walks in a season, even though they had moved it back up to seven, and he spent a few years as the career walk leader, not relinquishing the title until after they were practically giving walks away with a measly four balls. I'd be willing to bet that he was a much better base stealer in the years when that statistic wasn't officially kept; the way his fielding numbers drop off suggests some sort of slowing down, either from injury or the cumulative effects of his drinking.

Clark Griffith was named to the Hall of Fame as an executive, but had a very distinguished playing career, far and away the best of anyone named as a manager or owner. He had an eight-year run, from 1894 to 1901, as a top-notch pitcher, with a great season in 1898; unfortunately, that season, like all the rest of his pre-1901 career, was wasted on a mediocre Chicago team. Griffith was one of the first players to jump to the AL in 1901, giving instant credibility to the Chicago White Sox as both their pitcher and manager. In 20 years of managing, 1901 would be his only title, despite having the luxury of managing Walter Johnson through the teens. He would eventually leave the field to be a full-time owner of the Senators, running the club until his death in 1955. Like Connie Mack, owner of the A's, he had a last gasp of success in the early 1930s followed by two decades of refusing to change with the times while his club sank to the bottom of the league and stayed there.

Class of 1946

Wally Berger is a rare bird, a genuine star of the 1930s who hasn't been inducted into the real Hall of Fame. He had the misfortune to have played for Boston, which meant, a) that he was playing in the best pitchers park of his day, suppressing his stats; b) that he was never a teammate of Frankie Frisch. Berger's career was on the short side; a shoulder injury at 31 reduced him to a part-time role for the remainder of his career. On the front side of his career, he probably deserved to be called up from the PCL in 1929, but was blocked in the majors (he was Cub property then).

Eddie Plank was a steady, reliable pitcher for the Philadelphia A's for fifteen years, churning out one season after another that translated to 200 innings and 15 wins. He never played for any organized team until he was 21, when he joined the Gettysburg College team; he came straight from college to the A's and never played a day in the minors, before or after his major league career. He was the Steve Trachsel of his day, in the sense that he worked very sllllloooooowwwllllyyyy; he said it was to throw the hitters' timing off.

If you didn't know why batters get up in arms about pitchers scuffing the ball or spitting on it, here's another piece of evidence. Urban Shocker is yet another pitcher on my list who relied on the spitball, about a quarter of the ones I've inducted so far, although he wasn't as completely dependant as others. He had a great four-year stretch with the Browns, from 1920 to 23; being with Browns, though, meant no World Series appearances. He was still a very good pitcher when he joined the Yankees in 1925, but his career was clearly winding down. So was his life; his declining performance was apparently related to a heart condition, which killed him during the 1928 season. As he was already 35, the death benefit to his MVP score was only 14 points, and he would have still made the objective Hall without it.

That's not the case with Charley Ferguson, who represents an extreme example of the objective system run amok. Ferguson only pitched four years in the majors, killed at the age of 25 by typhoid fever. Today, improved sanitation has virtually eliminated this disease outside the Third World; even if you should contract it, antibiotic treatment has a 99%+ success rate. He was a good hitter as well as pitcher, and had just turned in consecutive seasons with 10+ WARP3. His actual career only amounts to 328 MVP career points. Running the system for some weird Logan's Run world where no one gets to play past the age of 24 turns Ferguson into the 55th best player of all time, with an implied score of 625; the only reason it shows up here as 493 is that I restrict the bonus to 50% of reality.

There is some sort of strange connection between me and Frank Baker, who died while I was in utero. For years I've played NTN games in bars, and I used to play under a variety of handles related to old-time ballplayers. I played as TYCOBB, and I played as GRYEGL in honor of Tris Speaker, and BIGTRN for Walter Johnson, and SHULSS for Joe Jackson, but the one I used most often was HRBAKR. I don't know why; it just struck me as a cool name. I'd been playing as HRBAKR for years before I met the woman who would eventually be my wife; she was working at a bookstore in Easton, Maryland. If you walked out the back door of that store, cross maybe sixty feet of parking lot and a low wire fence, you would find yourself standing in front of a granite monument engraved with a baseball bat and the words John Frank Baker. You can call it coincidence, or synchronicity, or just plain spooky, but like I said, for some reason I've always liked Home Run Baker.

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