The most underrated player of each decade: Early 20th century

1900-09: George Davis

Anytime someone says there can’t be any worthy Hall of Fame candidates remaining after several decades of voting, point them to George Davis. The Veterans Committee more or less exists to honor players like Davis, notable in their time but forgotten by baseball history. The committee gave Davis a plaque in 1998 after Bill James devoted a chapter to him in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?

Davis was winding down his career by the early 20th century with younger stars like Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson garnering more attention. Nonetheless, Davis finished strong. His 41.8 WAR for the decade, spanning his 11th to 20th seasons, ranked sixth-best among position players then. He may have been the best bat on the Hitless Wonder 1906 Chicago White Sox. He also saved 91 defensive runs, fourth-best for the decade, while playing every infield position between two teams.

Honorable mention: Iron Man Joe McGinnity, who deserved many more years in the majors than he got

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10329v1910-19: Art Fletcher

Fletcher ranks as a historical curiosity, one of a small number of players who got votes in several early Hall of Fame elections but never built momentum toward enshrinement. If Gold Gloves had existed in the 1910s, Art Fletcher’s Hall candidacy may have received more support.

In a decade where slipshod defense was the norm, Fletcher’s 133 defensive runs saved and 25.1 defensive Wins Above Replacement were by far best in baseball. The longtime New York Giants shortstop led the National League in dWAR four times and was second twice more. He provided with the bat as well, hitting .277 with a 102 OPS+ for the decade and helping the Giants win four pennants.

Honorable mention: George McBride, another Deadball Era defensive great no casual fan has heard of

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rogershornsby-featured1920-29: Rogers Hornsby

Ty Cobb was famously resentful of Babe Ruth obscuring his star. Hornsby has better cause for grievance. While the Georgia Peach was fading by the 1920s, the Rajah totaled 93.1 WAR, second-best in a decade for a modern position player. The only problem for Hornsby was that Ruth was even better in the 1920s with 102.3 WAR.

To be clear, no one’s ever done what Ruth did in those years, out-homering entire teams and forever transforming baseball while becoming the sport’s first marketing star. Even in the absence of Ruth, Hornsby wouldn’t have changed the game. He wasn’t that kind of player or man. He just would have been in a class completely his own.

As it stands, Hornsby’s accolades as the second-best player of the 1920s mesmerize. His stats for the decade are a sea of black ink on Baseball-Reference.com: seven batting titles, two Triple Crowns, and National League highs for OPS+ nine of ten seasons. Hornsby hit .382 for the 1920s (.390, if his pedestrian 1926 season is omitted) and famously batted .402 from 1921 through 1925. Somehow, his abrasive personality led to him playing for four teams through the course of the decade.

Honorable mention: Urban Shocker, who might be in the Hall of Fame if his career and life hadn’t ended at 37 due to a congenital heart condition

Coming tomorrow: The 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

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