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Friday, August 26, 2011
Does Hall overlook 19th century guys?

By David Schoenfield

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:

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.