Breaking down the Hall of Fame's Pre-Integration Era ballot, Part 1
In politics and business, the timing of the release of news is often revealing, with the worst of it often coming forth on a Friday afternoon so that it will receive less attention over the weekend. The Baseball Hall of Fame didn't officially announce its 10-candidate Pre-Integration Era Committee ballot on a Friday (though they did date its press release accordingly). Instead, the Hall issued it on Monday, Oct. 5, the day between the end of the 2015 regular season and the start of the postseason, where it was guaranteed to slip below the radar and avoid instant analysis because of the buildup to the volume of playoff action to follow.
Given the timing (which was more than three weeks ahead of last year’s post-World Series release), only the most charitable reading can counter the inference that the Hall isn't exactly bursting with pride over this election. Not because there are glaring faults with its candidates, but because the era-based process means shining yet another spotlight on the game's interminable all-white period, and because the process itself hardly looks like a winner, particularly with the institution having apparently closed the book on candidates from the Negro Leagues. At a time when Major League Baseball is justifiably coming under fire for its lack of diversity among managers and general managers, it's difficult to miss the fact that the three-for-one split of the Veterans Committee starting with the 2012 induction year has produced a lack of color, to say the least.
2012 Golden Era (1947–72): third baseman Ron Santo
2013 Pre-Integration Era (to 1946): umpire Hank O'Day, owner Jacob Ruppert, third baseman Deacon White
2014 Expansion Era (1973 onward): managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre
2015 Golden Era: none
In the 2015 balloting, the top minority candidates, Dick Allen and Tony Oliva, both fell one vote short of the 75% needed from the 16-member committee, with Maury Wills and Minnie Minoso falling three and four votes short, respectively. Allen and Minoso were two of the four candidates I found worthy of the honor via my JAWS system. Meanwhile, not since 2001 has a candidate of color been elected via such a process, except for the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues' '06 election of 17 players from the 1860–1960 period. While that group of inductees was of substantial size, that committee drew justified criticism for its omission of Buck O'Neil, whose post-Negro Leagues contributions as one of MLB's first black scouts, its first black coach—he discovered Lou Brock, Lee Smith and Joe Carter and played a pivotal role in the early careers of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams—and an important ambassador for the game were off limits for consideration. Likewise for Minoso, the only other living candidate on that slate. Sadly, both have since passed away.
You’d think that O'Neil and/or other Negro Leagues stars such as Spottswood Poles and Quincy Trouppe (to name just a couple) would merit inclusion within a Pre-Integration format, but no. Instead, an era that's already over-represented in the Hall of Fame in terms of players per year per team relative to the Golden and Expansion eras (which have their own drawbacks as far as time periods and designations) gets another shot with five holdovers from that 2013 ballot: players Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Marty Marion and Bucky Walters, plus owner Sam Breadon; of that group, only Dahlen received substantial support last time. The newcomers are players Frank McCormick and Harry Stovey, pioneer Doc Adams, executive Garry Herrmann and owner Chris Von der Ahe.
At least it’s a slightly more lively bunch than the 2013 honorees, given that O'Day died in 1935, White and Ruppert in 1939; along with the BBWAA's shutout, that made for a particularly grim induction day in Cooperstown. Among this year's slate—which will be voted on at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on Sunday, Dec. 6, with the results to be announced the following day—the last candidate to shuffle off this mortal coil was Marion, who passed away in 2011, but before that you have to go back to Walters, who passed away in 1991. Six of the current candidates have been dead for more than half a century, all of which means that any conferring of baseball immortality next Monday will be done on the all-too-mortal. No matter who gets elected, the outcome will by definition be much less satisfactory than the chance to watch a living man accept the honor and share his joy.
It's high time for the Hall to reconfigure this process yet again. Even a simple split of candidates (including Negro League players) into pre- and post-1960 periods (using MLB's first wave of expansion as the line of demarcation) who are voted on in alternate years would be a significant improvement, avoiding yet another celebration of the period when segregation was the rule. Alas, change isn't likely to come before the Expansion Era gets its second turn at bat next year, and there’s no hint that it's in the immediate offing beyond that. But having damned the process, the Hall of Fame completist within mandates that I address the candidates on this ballot on their individual merits. I'll tackle the first four of those, alphabetically speaking, here, with the remainder coming later this week.
Doc Adams, pioneer
Roll over, Abner Doubleday, and tell Alexander Cartwright the news. No less an authority than MLB official historian John Thorn called Daniel Lucius Adams "first among the Fathers of Baseball" in a 1993 essay for Total Baseball and "the most significant figure in the early history of baseball" in his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden. Adams—who lived from 1814 to 1899, graduated Yale and Harvard Medical School and practiced medicine (hence the nickname)—is the man who bears the true responsibility for setting the bases 90 feet apart and for creating the shortstop position. Additionally, he helped to standardize nine-man lineups and nine-inning games—innovations inaccurately credited to Cartwright on his Hall of Fame plaque—as well as the "fly rule," which eliminated balls caught on one bounce from being automatic outs.
Adams began playing base ball (distinct from rounders or town ball) with the New York Base Ball Club as a bit of post-work exercise with fellow medical professionals in 1839. He joined Cartwright's New York Knickerbockers in 1845, and from '47 to '61, he served in various executive capacities (president, vice president, treasurer or director) for the club, via which he introduced changes in rules and equipment. Via Thorn in his SABR profile of Adams (a revised version of the aforementioned 1993 essay):
The advent of the short fielder, or shortstop—the position created in 1849 or '50 by Adams—was a crucial break with rounders. "I used to play shortstop," he reminisced, "and I believe I was the first one to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered." But when Adams first went out to short, it was not to bolster the infield but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knickerbocker ball was so light that it could not be thrown even two hundred feet, thus the need for a short fielder to send the ball in to the pitcher's point.
Adams oversaw the making of balls via scraps of horsehide wrapped around cut up rubber from galoshes, and of bats as well. The standardization and refinement of these things is what helped make baseball a national game. "[W]e pioneers never expected to see the game so universal as it has now become," he said in 1899, shortly before his death. While Thorn made clear in Eden that other men such as Louis Fenn Wadsworth and William Rufus Wheaton also played crucial, underappreciated roles in establishing the basics once attributed to Cartwright, it's clear that Adams's pioneering work has been overlooked for far too long. If he's good enough for Thorn, he ought to be good enough for Cooperstown.
Sam Breadon, owner
Breadon's claim to fame is as the owner under whom the Cardinals developed into a baseball powerhouse. His shrewd decisions enabled the team to win nine pennants and six World Series during his 28 seasons (1920–47) as principal owner. When he died in 1949, The Sporting News' obituary of him declared, "His name was synonymous with baseball success."
Born in New York City in 1876, Breadon moved to St. Louis in 1902, earned enough money to open a garage by selling popcorn at the 1904 World's Fair and became a millionaire via his Pierce-Arrow automobile dealerships. In 1917, he paid $2,000 for shares of the Cardinals; by '20, had become the team's principal owner and club president. To that point, the Cardinals, who had joined the National League in 1892, had rarely finished in the first division and had never won a pennant. On Breadon's watch, the team became the Senior Circuit's top team, posting a .574 winning percentage during his tenure. Only the Yankees (15 pennants, 11 World Series and a .616 winning percentage) were more successful in that span. By comparison, the Giants won seven pennants and three World Series during the same period, winning at a .545 clip.
Breadon's first major act as owner was to sign a lease to play in Sportsman Park, home of the St. Louis Browns, and to sell Cardinals Park, a firetrap whose property and land fetched $275,000—enough to get the team out of debt and on firm financial footing. His second was to move field manager Branch Rickey (in place since 1919) to the front office in '25, where his mastery of scouting and player acquisition made him the prototype for the modern general manager. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, appointed player-manager, won the Triple Crown and led the Cardinals to their first pennant in 1926, while Rickey began realizing his vision of building a farm system, saving the Cardinals money by signing and developing players on club-owned minor league teams instead of paying independent operators much higher prices for near-ready players. Breadon bankrolled the endeavor, which saw the Cardinals own or have working agreements with as many as 32 minor-league teams at once, controlling more than 600 players. He had to battle other MLB owners for the right to maintain that system.
As historian Mark Armour wrote in his SABR bio of Breadon, "Rickey generally got all the credit for the moves that worked out well, but he also developed a reputation from his players and the press for being cheap or heartless. But Breadon, who gave little indication that he desired more attention for himself, deserves to share both the credit and the reputation—he set the salary budgets and approved the ballplayer sales Rickey was praised or derided for." Breadon had the final say on Rickey's moves; among those he notably rejected was the sale of Marion to the Cubs in 1939.
Alas, Breadon's tenure had its rocky moments, and his relationship with Rickey soured as the owner got more hands-on. In 1932, the owner was unhappy enough with the farm system's impact on the Cardinals' finances to consider moving the team to either Montreal or Detroit. In 1938, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis freed 70 players in the Cardinals' system because they controlled players on multiple teams in some leagues, causing embarrassment for the team and a rift with Rickey, who wanted Breadon to fight the ruling. Ultimately, Rickey left for the Dodgers after the 1941 season, and while the Cardinals won four pennants from '42 to '46 with the groundwork that he laid, Breadon's penny-pinching led to holdouts and player defections to the Mexican League. In November 1947, he sold his 75% share of the Cardinals for a record $3 million. He died of cancer two years later.
I'll be honest: While I'm very comfortable with what JAWS says about player candidates, I'm not sure what makes for a Hall of Fame-worthy owner. Breadon's teams won, and in the end, he made a ton of money, but separating his accomplishments from those of Rickey is difficult, and the list of enshrined owners is a short and spotty one. I don't suspect Breadon will get in this time. When he fell short of election on the 2013 ballot, the Hall didn't announce his actual vote total, instead reporting that he got three or fewer votes, and I don't sense that a groundswell of support has materialized since.
Bill Dahlen, shortstop (75.2 career WAR/40.1 peak WAR/57.7 JAWS; avg. HOF SS: 66.7/42.8/54.7)
According to JAWS, Dahlen is the best of the players on the ballot and the best eligible shortstop outside the Hall of Fame, 10th at the position, a whisker ahead of BBWAA candidate Alan Trammell (70.4/44.6/57.5)—who's been so shamefully neglected that he's in his 15th and final year of eligibility on that ballot—and far ahead of the aforementioned Marion (31.6/26.2/28.9). "Bad Bill" spent 21 years (1891–1911) with four different NL teams, three of whom played under different nicknames than they carry now: the Chicago Colts (briefly renamed the Orphans, and now the Cubs), Brooklyn Superbas (now Dodgers), New York Giants, and Boston Doves (now Braves). He was a heady player known more for his fielding, his temper and his carousing than his hitting; in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James called him "a high-living, hard-drinking player with a great fondness for horse races," who would regularly call Hank O'Day (the top umpire of his era) "Henry" so he could get ejected and accelerate his opportunity to go play the ponies.
Dahlen was a good hitter in the context for the Dead Ball Era, batting .272/.358/.382 for a 110 OPS+ with 2,461 career hits and 84 career homers. Three times during his run in Chicago, he ranked among the league's top 10 in slugging percentage, and he briefly held the NL record with a 42-game hitting streak in 1894, reeling off a 28-gamer immediately after that one was stopped. While his 975 errors are the second-highest total by a shortstop, that was a product of his durability (he was the all-time leader in games played at the position when he retired and is still seventh), his great range and the era's relatively primitive equipment. He ranks 12th all-time in fielding runs among shortstops at +139 runs. While he never led his league in WAR, he ranked in the NL's top five five times and in the top 10 eight times. His career WAR ranks seventh among shortstops, and his peak ranks a still-respectable 21st.
After eight seasons in Chicago, Dahlen helped the Superbas to a pair of NL championships in 1899 and 1900, them did the same for the Giants in '04 and '05, with John McGraw calling his acquisition "the most successful deal I ever made." Hall-wise, he slipped through the cracks, receiving only token support on the 1936 Old Timers ballot and '38 BBWAA one, but the sabermetric revival put him back on the docket. While he fell short on the 2009 Veterans Committee ballot and '13 Pre-Integration one, he received 10 of 16 votes for the latter, aided at least somewhat by SABR acknowledging him as 2012's “Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend." If I were on the committee, I'd give him my vote, and the bet here is that he'll get to 75% this time.
Wes Ferrell, starting pitcher (61.6/55.0/58.3, average HOF SP 73.9/50.3/62.1)
The younger brother of Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell is arguably the one more qualified to be enshrined. In fact, the hoariest joke in my Hall of Fame collection—one I'll soon send on a Jeter-esque retirement tour, I swear—is that the hearing aids might not have been working all that well on the wintry 1984 day when the Veterans Committee met and voted in the seven-time All-Star backstop, who ranks just 45th among catchers in JAWS and last among the Hall of Fame ones, thinking they were voting instead on his brother. As for Wes: In his heyday, he was regarded as the equal of Hall of Famer Lefty Grove, though his career stats (193–128 with a 4.04 ERA and 116 ERA+) during his 15 seasons (1927–41) are far short of Grove's numbers.
Thanks to award-winning research by SABR scholar Dick Thompson, we know that Ferrell at his peak faced much tougher competition than Grove, who consistently feasted on the league's lesser. Ferrell’s biggest years came with the Indians, for whom he debuted in 1927 and became a mainstay two years later. He reeled off four straight 20-win seasons from 1929 to '32. In 1934, he was traded to the Red Sox, joining Grove. From 1929 through '36, Ferrell won 161 games with a 3.72 ERA, which in that high-scoring era was still 28% above average. Six times he ranked among the league's top five pitchers in WAR, four of them as runner-up to Grove. In by far his best season, Ferrell finished second in the AL MVP vote in 1935 via an 11.0-WAR showing, having pitched 322 1/3 innings of 3.52 ERA ball (134 ERA+) en route to 25 wins and accompanied by a .347/.427/.533 (!) line with seven home runs in 179 plate appearances.
On that note, Ferrell was an outstanding hitter who batted .280/.351/.446 with 38 homers for his career (his brother hit just 28 and had lower a batting average and slugging percentage); those numbers chip away at the fact that his 4.04 ERA would be the Hall's highest mark were he to gain entry. The 12.8 WAR he generated with the bat—including over 150 pinch-hitting appearances—is included in his pitching WAR and JAWS totals; separately, that component ranks fourth among pitchers, about 11 wins more than the average Hall of Fame hurler. Including that, his peak is nearly five wins above the Hall standard for pitchers, ranking 24th all-time, ahead of many 300-game winners including Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Warren Spahn. While he's still short on career WAR and JAWS, the latter ranks 39th among starters, just ahead of Hall of Famers Bob Feller (whose military service took a bite of his career), Hal Newhouser (who peaked against lesser competition during the war), Juan Marichal and Carl Hubbell.
I've always advocated further consideration before dismissing the high-peak/short-career types as simply below the standard—being deprived of the undignified denouements to otherwise impressive careers can be a blessing. But I’m more open-minded for Ferrell's inclusion than ever.