Does Hall overlook 19th century guys?

While hosting the Baseball Today podcast this week, Jim Caple and myself got into a discussion about the Hall of Fame, prompted by a letter from Brian in Pittsburgh about inducting 19th century ballplayers. I wanted to go into a little more depth than I did on the show, especially since Brian took the time to write an an excellent note. Here's Brian's email:

    Dear Mr. Schoenfield,

    Since you are hosting the podcast this week, I thought I'd write in about a blog post you made last week, listing 10 players who should be in the Hall of Fame. It was a good post, and I mostly agree with your choices, but I thought it lacked a bit of historical perspective. None of your choices started playing before 1960 and most well after that. While the BBWAA has neglected some modern candidates who deserve entry, the era that the Hall as a whole has done the worst with is the 19th century, leaving out many worthy players while inducting poor choices like Candy Cummings, Tommy McCarthy and Hugh Duffy. And nowadays the Veterans' Committee lacks the knowledge to evaluate these players, many of whom played when seasons were much shorter, leaving them with career counting stats that appear to be nothing special when compared to modern players, but that were excellent in their day.

    So here are nine choices for the Hall (no DH obviously) that I think were just as good, if not better, than your choices:

    C Deacon White -- Third-highest career OPS+ of 19th century players who played at least 400 games at catcher (behind two Hall of Famers, King Kelly and Buck Ewing).

    1B Joe Start -- Turned 28 in 1871, the year the National Association was formed, so a good portion of his prime was played in underdocumented era. Tenth in career OPS+ for 19th century players from ages 28-43 (min. 1,000 games played).

    2B Ross Barnes -- Played four years of pre-National Association ball, and dominated the National Association. Earned more WAR than any other player in the league's tenure, leading Hall of Famer George Wright 30.5 to 22.3 (according to Baseball-Reference), and finishing first 4 out of 5 years. Also lead the NA in OPS+ by 30 points (195 to Levi Meyerle's 165, min. 100 games).

    SS Dickey Pearce -- Started playing in 1856 for the Brooklyn Atlantics, was one of the game's earliest stars, and was 35 in the National Association's first year (the second-oldest player at the time, behind only Hall of Fame Pioneer Harry Wright). Generated more WAR (accounting for the extremely short seasons during his playing days) than any SS in their age 35 to 41 seasons until Honus Wagner.

    3B Ezra Sutton -- Second-most WAR of any 19th century player who played at least 600 games at 3B, behind only the aforementioned Deacon White (who split time between C and 3B, as essentially no players played a whole career at C during this era). An even better choice would be John McGraw, who was a dominant player in the 1890s, and whose .466 career OBP is third all time, but since he's in the Hall as a manager, even though he absolutely deserves recognition for his playing accomplishments, I'll stick with Sutton.

    OF George Gore -- Got an extremely late start to his career by the standards of the era (he didn't play in MLB till age 25 during a time when many stars still started as teenagers), but lead all OFs in WAR during his career (1879-1892) by a comfortable margin.

    OF Paul Hines -- Played for 19 years during an era when careers were typically much shorter than they are now, and led all OFs in career WAR at the time of his retirement in 1891.

    OF Pete Browning -- He led all 19th century OFs in career OPS+ (min. 1000 games), and still ranks seventh all time among OFs in OPS+, behind Cobb and ahead of Speaker, Aaron and Mays.

    P Bob Caruthers -- While his career was short, he was probably the second-best position player/pitcher combo player in MLB history, behind only Ruth. He twice led his league in WAR, and is still 78th in career WAR in spite of a short career during an era when seasons had many fewer games. In 1886 he led his league in OPS+ and finished third in ERA+. He and Ruth are the only players ever to lead their leagues in both ERA+ and OPS+, though neither were able to do both in the same year.

    Thanks for hopefully reading,

    Brian in Pittsburgh

First off, Brian clearly knows his stuff. And I agree with him on one major point: The early voters of the Hall did a poor job in electing some of the best players of the 19th century. Candy Cummings, for example, basically got elected primarily based on the unprovable and unlikely case that he invented the curveball. An outfielder named Tommy McCarthy got elected in 1946; he was basically a league-average hitter. Pete Browning and Bob Caruthers were superior players.

Now, my argument on the podcast against electing more 19th century players was essentially that they're long deceased and there are many deserving modern players. What good does it to elect players who have been dead a hundred years? But maybe that's not a fair argument for those fans of 19th century baseball. So here are a couple more.

(A) The quality of play was vastly inferior to even that of just a few years later in the early 1900s, let alone the modern game. The sport was still in its relative infancy, leagues were disorganized, teams would drop in and out of leagues; equating Pete Browning's dominance in the 1880s to the play of Jeff Bagwell or Alan Trammell or Tim Raines is an argument I have trouble accepting. Basically, it's easier to dominate inferior competition; as the overall quality of the game improves, it becomes more difficult to surpass your peers. His argument about Bob Caruthers being a dominant two-way player is actually proof of this; it's no different than a high school kid being the best hitter and the best pitcher in his league. You see that all the time. You'd never see that in the modern major leagues; the competition is too difficult to be that good at both disciplines.

(B) Brian argues that the 19th century is underrepresented. But is it? By my count -- and not including Hall of Famers chosen as managers or founders or executives -- I have 26 players in the Hall of Fame who made their mark primarily in the 19th century, and that doesn't count Cy Young or Willie Keeler, whose best years straddled the century line. Now, consider the U.S. population from 1875 to 1900. The population grew from about 38 million in 1870 to 76 million by 1900. We'll set the average population over that span to 57 million. That gives us one Hall of Fame player for every 2.19 million people.

Now compare to the years 1960 to 1990, with an average U.S. population of about 214 million. I'll be generous and count 50 Hall of Famers who played primarily during those 30 years. That's one Hall of Famer for every 4.28 million people. Even if you add 10 more Hall of Famers, that's one for every 3.5 million people. (And that's not including the populations of other countries major leaguers were drawn from.)

OK, maybe that's a goofy way of calculating representation. It's difficult to break down the number of Hall of Famers as a percentage of players in the league, since so many 19th century guys played just a few games or had short careers. But remember that rosters back then were much smaller -- as few as 12 to 15 players per team, so there weren't nearly as many players back then.

Anyway, it's a good discussion and something we can address in greater detail in the offseason, but I'll continue to give my support to the 20th century.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.