I was combing the list of all-time best career batting averages on Baseball Reference when I noticed an unfamiliar name: Riggs Stephenson. I had come upon a few unknowns already and saw they were men who’d played mostly before the modern era, a time I don’t take too seriously in baseball’s history. However, a glance at Stephenson’s page revealed that he played from 1921 to 1934 with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs. The sponsor ad on his page proclaimed, “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!”
I don’t know if I would go that far. If we are talking every single player in baseball history, the best man not in the Hall of Fame is Pete Rose. The second best is Joe Jackson. However, the equation changes if we consider that Rose and Jackson were both banished from the game for sports betting and cannot be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Among eligible players not yet in Cooperstown, Stephenson might well be the best. He’s definitely the best player I had never heard of. (This is why he’s not among “The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame.”)
Stephenson’s credentials include a .336 lifetime batting average, 22nd all-time, better than Al Simmons, Honus Wagner or Stan Musial. Not an everyday player until after he was traded to the Cubs in 1926 at age 28, Stephenson hit his prime thereafter, averaging .346 from 1926 to 1930. His best year came in 1929, when he hit .362 with 17 homers and 110 runs batted in, helping the Cubs to the World Series, which they lost 4-1 to the Philadelphia Athletics.
The big knock against Stephenson could be the shortness of his career. He played at least parts of fourteen seasons but only had four years with at least 500 plate appearances (though he had nine years with at least 300.) Overall, he had just 1,515 hits in 4,508 at bats. Stephenson also played in the greatest age for hitters in baseball history, aside perhaps from the Steroid Era. I could have hit .300 in 1930.
Still, it’s a little surprising that Stephenson never got more than 1.5% of the Hall of Fame vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, dropping off the ballot after his fourth try in 1962. He certainly appears better, on paper, than a lot of the players in Cooperstown now. As he died in 1985, at 87, he wouldn’t make a bad posthumous pick for the Veterans Committee.