Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 26, 2003
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame Outfielders, 1920s-1930s
There are many, many, too many outfielders in the Hall of Fame from the 1920s and 1930s. Just counting the white Major Leagues, there are 20 outfielders who are in the Hall of Fame largely or entirely for their play in those two decades, and four others who were active and in their primes for a substantial number of seasons in those years. 24 outfielders -- 12 who played mostly or entirely in the NL, 12 mostly or entirely in the AL -- at a time when there were but 16 Major League teams. Hit a fly ball in those years, and the chances were good that a future Hall of Famer would catch it, and the chances decent that to do so he'd call off another future member of the Cooperstown fraternity.
This, by any standard, is too many. Greatness should not be so commonplace; when it is, it's not greatness anymore. Careful inspection makes clear that no use of the term "great" can have meaning if it's stretched so far as to cover all 24.
So, which ones were the true greats? There are many ways to answer that question, but one simple way is to look at each season and figure out who the best in the business were. These guys were competing with each other to see who could help his team win more games. There were winners, and losers. In 1923 or 1937, who was the best in the business, and who was just another one of the guys?
The simplest credible way to measure value is Bill James' Win Shares system, with which many of you will no doubt be familiar. In a nutshell, James measures the number of runs a player is worth to his team offensively, and his share of the runs his team saves defensively, and computes a “share” of the team’s overall wins, with each share worth 1/3 of a win. There are two main sanity checks on the system: (1) most teams have a similar relationship between their runs scored and allowed and the number of games they win; and (2) a team’s total Win Shares are always equal to three times its wins, so the system can’t over- or under-value players by that much, since the total Win Shares on the roster have to add up to a real-world measurement of success.
For a general idea of standards, 20 Win Shares is a real good player, 30 (worth 10 wins a year) is a “major star” type season for an everyday player, 40+ is “superstar having a career year” territory, and 50 puts you with a handful of the best seasons ever. (Over 60 in a season is territory reserved exclusively for pitchers who threw 5-600 innings a year before they moved the mound back in 1893). 348 career Win Shares and above is almost all Hall of Famers, 291-347 is more Hall of Famers than not, 256-90 is still well-populated with Hall of Famers, and below that is mostly the rare player who’s been immortalized.
What I decided to do, besides just looking at career totals, was figure out the top 6 outfielders in each league, each season from 1913 to 1942, ranked by Win Shares. I then added up the total times a player finished in each position, and assigned a scoring system. The scoring was somewhat arbitrary, but I awarded 10 points for being the best outfielder in a league, 8 for second (the gap reflecting the value of being the best), 7 for third, 5 for fourth (another gap when we reach the second team), 4 for fifth, and 3 for sixth (I didn’t start at 1 because I didn’t want a 1st place finish worth 8 times that of sixth; just over 3 seemed fairer for these purposes). If two players tied for a rank, they each got full points. The goal was to measure, in essence, comparitive Peak Value. You can re-score the results yourself if you like, but I think this ranking at least tells us a little. Here we go:
1. Babe Ruth, 149 points, 756 career WS. Best in league: 13 times. Top 3: 15 times. Top 6: 16 times. (I’ll render this as 13-15-16 as I go).
I didn’t spend all those hours with the Win Shares book to prove that Babe Ruth belongs in the Hall; the main point with Ruth is that the scores of all the AL outfielders are lower because the Babe, cranking out 45 WS seasons like clockwork, never gave anyone else the chance to finish first as they might in the NL.
2. Mel Ott, 113 points, 528 WS, 6-12-13.
Not Ruth, but plenty dominant.
3. Tris Speaker, 100 points, 4-10-13
I’ve undervalued these guys because I started counting in the middle of their careers, but, again, there’s no controversy yet.
5. Paul Waner, 82 points, 423 WS, 3-8-12
Averill was the dominant outfielder in the AL for two years between Ruth and Joe D, and the second fiddle to those guys for 7 other seasons. This study confirmed for me that, despite the shortness of his career, Averill was the type of major star who belongs in Cooperstown.
7. George Burns, 66 points, 290 WS, 3-6-10
Yes, for all its profligacy, the Hall missed one. This was George Burns the Giants leadoff man, not the 1926 AL MVP. Burns, a prototypical leadoff guy, played for 3 pennant winners (1913, 1917, and 1921), and the Win Shares system ranks him as the best outfielder in the NL in 1914, 1917 and 1918, the best defensive outfielder in the league in 1922, and the best hitter in the entire league in 1914 and 1919. His career wasn’t that long, and the limited CS data available suggests that he was a terrible percentage base thief, but Burns would certainly not embarrass the Hall by his presence.
8. Al Simmons, 64 points, 375 WS, 2-5-10
I would have expected Simmons to do better, but he and Harry Heilmann suffered from the inability to lead the league in the presence of Ruth, and Simmons’ peak wasn’t really that long. We’re still in Cooperstown territory here, though; Simmons’ numbers are so titanic that you can let out a lot of air and he’s still a great player.
9. Joe DiMaggio, 63 points, 387 WS, 4-7-7
And this is just the first half; I stopped counting in 1942.
10. Zack Wheat, 62 points, 380 WS, 2-6-9
These six all hold up well to scrutiny; each spent about half a decade as one of his league’s first-team outfielders and another half in the second team, and most of them managed a year or two as the best in the circuit. I’m still skeptical of Roush, who never batted .360, hit 10 homers, drove in 90 runs, scored 100, stole 40 bases or drew 50 walks in a season. But the Win Shares system recognizes him as a defensive stud and a guy who had many of his best years before scoring got out of hand. Reluctantly, I guess I’d say he’s been properly enshrined.
16. Ross Youngs, 46 points, 206 WS, 1-4-7
Youngs almost stacks up with the group above in peak value, but he had his last star season at age 27 and died of a degenerative disease at age 30. He was generally the best player on a team that won 4 straight pennants and 2 World Championships. I can live with giving him the benefit of the doubt. But now we’ve got one Hall of Famer per each major league outfield for the two decades; let’s cut the line here.
17. Hack Wilson, 44 points, 224 WS, 2-5-5
I like Cuyler’s package of skills and find it hard to believe he wasn’t more valuable than Roush, but both Cuyler and Wilson had too many holes in their careers, in some cases self-inflicted, to give them the benefit of the doubt in a crowded field.
19. Shoeless Joe Jackson, 42 points, 294 WS, 1-5-6
We’re cutting off Jackson’s prime a bit here; he’d be in the Hall of Fame if he deserved a shot, and he would have been way high on the list if he hadn’t been banned after 1920.
20. Benny Kauff, 41 points, 175 WS, 2-4-5
Another guy who was banned; Kauff is overrated here because he gets credit for being the best player in the Federal League for two years, but he was still a star in the NL for a few more years.
21. Bobby Veach, 37 points, 265 WS, 0-3-7
No immortality for these numbers, although Williams was just 23 when I stopped counting; remember that when you look at the guys below him on the list.
25. Heine Manush, 30 points, 285 WS, 0-3-5
Two guys who got into Cooperstown on batting average and little else, Manush and Combs were stars in their day, but rarely among the real elite and not long enough in the next tier. Johnson, a player of similar value but for bad teams and with a broader package of skills, is today a completely forgotten man.
28. Chuck Klein, 23 points, 238 WS, 0-1-5
Leaving aside Slaughter, who went to war for 3 years and then had the rest of his career outside the scope of this study, you’ve got 3 guys -- Klein, Herman and Williams – who put up numbers that looked much more impressive before we saw with our own eyes what an extreme hitter-friendly context could do for a guy like Dante Bichette. Klein was indeed the best of the bunch, but it’s hard to reconcile the appearance of a high peak with a guy who but once (1933) belonged in the league’s best outfield. Keller, on the other hand, was 25 and just getting rolling in 1942, and would have had a serious Hall of Fame case had he stayed healthy and out of the military.
33. Sherry Magee, 19 points, 354 WS, 0-2-3
Is there no justice? Remember that Magee’s best years were before 1913; he was the best player in the National League in 1910. Waner was . . . well, a guy who hit some singles, occasionally a star-caliber player but often not a particularly good player at all.
35. Lefty O’Doul, 18 points, 144 WS, 1-2-2
I dunno, when I think “Hall of Fame,” I don’t genereally think “Ival Goodman.” Like O’Doul, Goodman was momentarily a major star, and the moment passed quickly, although in Goodman’s case it did get him to two World Serieses with the Reds. As you can see from the career totals, Harry Hooper was twice the player these guys were over the course of his career, and he might have scored a little higher if I’d gone back a few more years. But Hooper as a Hall of Famer is ridiculous; Hooper was an outstanding defensive outfielder and an all-around fundamentally sound player, and he was steady and durable for 17 years. But besides his glove and a knack for drawing walks, Hooper didn’t do anything outstandingly well, and he wasn’t a huge walks guy either (career high: 89). I dare you to explain how Hooper should be in the Hall of Fame while George Burns and Dwight Evans aren’t.
38. Sam Rice, 16 points, 327 WS, 0-0-5
Rice, like Hooper, was incredibly consistent and durable, and Rice has some added footnotes – he missed a year after being drafted into the Army in World War I and also got a late start in the majors because he’d joined the Navy at age 23 after his parents, wife and two children were killed by a tornado (Rice saw combat in the Navy, landing at Vera Cruz in 1914). When he did reach the majors, it was as a pitcher. Without those interruptions, Rice could easily have had 3700 hits in the major leagues, and maybe you’d have to consider him as a Don Sutton type candidate, a minor star of truly exceptional consistency over an exceptionally long time. But as far as peak value, Paskert and Vosmik, two truly unmemorable players, were among the many better than Sam Rice. I think I’d leave Rice out, although it does bother me that I’d basically be counting him out for years that he was wearing his country’s uniform.
41. Pete Reiser, 15 points, 125 WS, 1-1-2
(Zwilling only scores for his Federal League years).
There you have it: Chick Hafey, Hall of Famer, the 44th most dominant outfielder of his era. It must have been the durability he showed over his, er, 13-year career, in which he appeared in more than 138 games twice, both when past his prime. In 1928, Hafey’s best season (138 games, .337, 27 homers, 111 RBI), he finished 12th in the NL MVP voting; teammate Rabbit Maranville got more votes as a 36-year-old, .240-hitting shortstop who batted just 366 times. Hafey was a lesser player by far than Pedro Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, or Fred Lynn. He’s the last Hall of Famer on this list, so I’ll stop here.
24 Hall of Famers; for opposite reasons, I’d maybe keep Sam Rice and Ross Youngs, and I’d maybe put in George Burns. But the guys who clearly just don’t cut it: Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler, Heine Manush, Earle Combs, Chuck Klein, Lloyd Waner, and Harry Hooper, and Chick Hafey. They were good, very good; but they were never close to the best of their generation. The Hall of Fame should demand that.