Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 11, 2000
BASEBALL: Bid McPhee, Hall of Famer?
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website
Who was the greatest second baseman of the 19th century? It may seem like a very academic question, but for one of this year's Hall of Fame inductees it was critical.
Taking a break this week from the hubbub of the pennant races, I'm going to take an overdue look at the Hall of Fame Class of 2000. Part 2, later today, will focus on Tony Perez, and I'm skipping over Norman "Turkey" Stearns. I have no more idea than the man in the moon how good Turkey Stearns really was; the Negro League stats (including several consecutive home run titles and a career batting average of .359) are too spotty to be conclusive but they certainly don't contradict his case for the Hall. According to the HOF web page, his contemporaries compared him to Al Simmons.
First, though, let's start with the little-analyzed selection of John "Bid" McPhee.
Sometimes a particular position will have a wealth of talent -- first base in the AL of the 1930s, shortsop in the AL now. And sometimes there's a real dearth. Dominance during a weak era for first basemen might be an argument for Perez, although the best first baseman in the NL between 1972 and 1980 was probably Steve Garvey or Willie Stargell. But for an everyday player to be the best at his position over a span of a quarter century or more... to me, that's a definition of a Hall of Famer. And that's Bid McPhee’s argument in a nutshell.
Until this year, the Hall had not found room for a single second baseman whose prime years were in the 19th century. The only three second basemen in the Hall to play their prime years before 1920 were Nap Lajoie, who broke in in 1896 but played 100 games at second only once (1898) before 1900; Johnnie Evers, who became a regular in 1903; and Eddie Collins, who cracked the lineup in 1908. That’s one reason I’ve generally been in favor of Evers as a Hall of Famer, since he was the only NL second baseman enshrined from the league’s first forty years or so. The only credible challenger to Evers as the best NL second baseman of his era would be Larry Doyle.
The first candidate for second baseman of the century would have to be Ross Barnes. In the National Association, the first professional league, which ran from 1871 to 1875, Barnes was the league's dominant offensive player, batting .379 and scoring the preposterous total of 462 runs in 266 games (the seasons were shorter then). Over that period, Barnes outpaced his closest competitors by 17 points in batting and by 63 runs. In 1876, the National League’s inaugural season, Barnes batted .429 (the league hit .265), led the league in walks, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, slugging and on base percentage, and scored a staggering 126 runs in 66 games, leading the league by a margin of 54. No one in the 124 seasons since has approached this ratio of runs scored per game, not even close. Barnes led all second basemen in fielding percentage for good measure, 46 points higher than the average second baseman.
Barnes' career was derailed the following season when the rules were changed, making his signature play, the fair-foul bunt (i.e., bunting with the ball landing in fair territory and rolling foul before crossing the first or third base bag) a foul ball. He played just 168 more major league games over three seasons, never again hitting above .272.
After Barnes came McPhee, the Reds’ regular second baseman from the modern franchise’s inception in 1882 (when they won the American Association pennant, the only one of McPhee’s career) until 1899. In the years 1876-1900, only 15 men played 700 games at second, and only 7played 1,000 games; McPhee played 2,126 games at the position, more than 500 more than Fred Pfeffer, the nearest competitor, and eighth on the list to this day. After retirement McPhee managed the Reds; in 1901, his only full season at the helm, he led the Reds to the worst record in franchise history.
McPhee was a good, not a great, hitter, over a long period of years. Typical of his day, McPhee was speedy but with limited power, although his 53 career home runs were quite a respectable total. He stole a ton of bases, although stolen bases were counted differently then. He drew a fair number of walks starting with 59 in 1886, when the number of balls for a walk was seven. His career batting average of .271 looks weak when one thinks of the high-octane 1890s, but the league average in the AA was often very low, bottoming out at .238 in 1888, and McPhee's on-base percentages were routinely 20-30 points above the league, very good for a middle infielder.
McPhee’s most impressive credential is his 1,678 runs scored, 23nd the all-time list; McPhee scored 28 more runs than Joe Morgan, 174 more runs than Lajoie. The runs scored total should be taken with a grain of salt, as with Barnes: in an era when the league fielding percentage hovered around .900 and about two-thirds of all runs were unearned, players scored a lot. Still, McPhee scored 155 more runs than Big Dan Brouthers, the dominant hitter of McPhee’s era, and just 12 fewer than Sliding Billy Hamilton, the greatest leadoff man of the century.
On a year-in-year-out basis, though, McPhee was only occasionally among the league leaders in any batting category, despite mostly playing in a good hitters’ park. He led the league in games, triples, and homers (with 8) once each, and on two occasions was in the top five in runs, once in steals. There always seemed to be a better hitter in the league at his position; the STATS All-Time Sourcebook does an annual retroactive All-Star team based largely on batting stats, and McPhee is always ranked behind people like Sam Barkley, Yank Robinson and Cupid Childs.
For his career, the Runs Created/27 Outs method, used in the STATS, Inc. books, estimates that McPhee was 17.8% better than the league average hitter for the balance of his career (before adjusting for his park). Not counting Rod Carew, who I regard as a first baseman, that puts him 11th among the 13 Hall of Fame second basemen, ahead of only Red Schoendeinst (who ,s in partly as a manager) and Nellie Fox.
On the basis of his bat, McPhee falls a little ahead of Perez (by the standards of his position) in the category of good, long-time hitters who don’t quite have what Cooperstown requires. Oh, but his glove. McPhee was a legendary glove man, or rather, hand man; he was one of the last men to play the field barehanded, resisting the widespread adoption of gloves in the late 1880s. The numbers back up his reputation: McPhee led his league in double plays his first nine straight seasons, and 11 times in 12 years. He led in putouts 8 times, assists 6 times, fielding percentage 7 times, and range factor (then an unknown measurement) 8 times. When he switched to a glove in 1896, his fielding percentage jumped 23 points, setting a record that would stand for 25 years.
There were a few other good ones, like Fred Pfeffer and Bobby Lowe. Fred Dunlap hit .412 and led the league in nearly everything in 1884, but that was in the one-year Union Association, barely a major league; only two other times did he bat above .280. McPhee’s only real competition for the position on the team of the century would be Cupid Childs.
Childs was a legitimately outstanding hitter, a lifetime .306 hitter and 21st all time in on-base percentage at .416. He scored over 135 runs 3 straight years, leading the league in 1892 and finishing third in 1891 and 1893. Childs was in the top ten in the league in walks eleven years running and top ten in OBP 7 times in 8 years (leading the NL in 1892); he was probably one of the game’s top 5 hitters between 1890 and 1892. He was also a fine fielder in his own right, twice posting league leading range factors (although with below-average fielding percentages), and he played for a perennial contender.
Nonetheless, I would give it to McPhee, as I will explain more below. McPhee played longer, and was good hitter in his own right. Also, Childs’ teams (unlike McPhee’s) never did win a pennant despite their many stars (Cy Young, Jesse Burkett, Childs, Ed McKean), and he was basically washed up after 30.
I was initially opposed to the McPhee selection. His batting stats look so unimpressive, and if there is little point in immortalizing a guy like Tony Perez for longetivity when he is here to enjoy it, there is less so for a guy who’s been dead for 57 years and who no one alive saw play. It is nearly time to close the Hall doors to any new entrants from any earlier than the mid-1930s; personally I think the Veterans Committee should only be allowed to elect players that at least one member played with or against.
But somebody has to be the best at the position over so many years, and while McPhee was not a great hitter, he was good enough, like Ozzie Smith or Dave Bancroft; he was never a liability like Rabbit Maranville. And McPhee’s defense was truly exceptional. In an era when walks and extra base hits were rare and errors and aggressive baserunning were common, infield defense meant more than it does today; McPhee was clearly the best in the business, and for a very long time.
Finally, I wonder about Ross Barnes. He played for only ten years and unlike contemporaries Al Spalding and Candy Cummings, he was no innovator (his signature play was outlawed 123 years ago). But Barnes was the best position player in professional baseball for its first six seasons, and the second most valuable behind Spalding. Maybe it’s not long enough to make a real Hall of Fame career, but you have to think that there would at least be some way to honor a guy who dominated the game like that. Remember, if Tony Perez can make the Hall of Fame, anything's possible.
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK'S TRIVIA QUESTION