Last week we covered the position players of the 19th century. Our next stop is the Deadball Era. In 1901, the American League was formed, making it the second major league along with the National League. That is the beginning of the two-league system we still enjoy today.
As we know, the game itself has changed over the last century. Originally, foul balls were not counted as strikes. Intrepid batters (like King Kelly) would foul off pitches until they could draw a walk. In 1894, the rules were changed to call fouled-off bunts as strikes. In 1901, all fouls became strikes in the National League, followed by 1903 for the American league. That year would also see the first World Series, held every year (except 1904, and other strike years).
But the owners were cheap back then. The balls the pitchers used were supposed to last an entire game, as they were quite expensive, and apparently some owners would hire security guards specifically to retrieve foul balls. That cheapness led to the first players’ strike in 1908, and may have contributed to the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Further, the environment that these players grew up in was advantageous to pitching.
There were still tremendous players in that era. Of the 65 Position Players in the top 500 Wins Above Replacement, 21 are in the Hall of Fame. I’ve heard of some of them, like John McGraw (though he played half his career in the 19th century), Frank Chance (from the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” combo that marks the last time the Cubs won the World Series in
1907 1908), Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Sam Crawford. But that leaves 16 players in the Hall of Fame that I can’t recognize by name, and another 50 players or so that are among the 500 best that I have never heard of. With no further adieu, here is the graph showing the best position players of the Deadball Era:
When I changed the methodology, I updated the above graphic. The old one is here Also, a hearty thanks to bcp33bosox for suggesting outlines to give a point of reference for each shade. I’ve updated this (and the previous graph) based on his suggestion. If you have ways you think I can improve this graphic, please let me know.
If you had a Hall of Fame ballot for this period, which 21 players would you pick? Did the writers and the Veteran’s committee make the right choice? Did any of these players catch your eye as particularly good or bad choices?
Next week we will tackle the Liveball Era, the emergence of Babe Ruth, and the first Hall of Fame balloting process.
Links to player pages (career WAR in parentheses):
- Fangraphs Career WAR Leaders