The past few Hall of Fame votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America have looked a bit chaotic, with steroid users and a number of other holdover candidates glutting the ballot. By historical standards for Cooperstown, though, the present chaos pales in comparison to some of the early votes when few if any players had been inducted and everyone in baseball history was eligible. Out of this time comes one of the more unusual stories of Hall of Fame voting.
Most modern fans are probably not familiar with Herman Long, who played shortstop in the majors from 1889 to 1904 and died of tuberculosis in 1909. Statistically, there isn’t much to support a Hall of Fame case for Long today, though he was held in high esteem by a number of his contemporaries. Their esteem may have been the reason Long finished eighth in the first Veterans Committee election in 1936, drawing nearly 20 percent of the vote. More unusually, Long never again received even one percent of the Hall of Fame vote.
I read of Long’s unusual showing in the votes a few years ago when Keith Olbermann wrote a blog post on it. Olbermann’s piece, while interesting, didn’t delve too deeply into how Long got as much support as he did without ever receiving it again, so I recently decided to do some more digging. What I found isn’t conclusive, but it sheds a bit more light.
Before we get too far into Long’s story, some background is in order. There were two Hall of Fame votes held in 1936, the first year for elections. A BBWAA vote on players since 1900 resulted in Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner being honored. A special committee of 78 members was set up to vote on players from before 1900, and while Baseball-Reference.com refers to it as the Veterans Committee, it was a one-off meeting that bore little relation to the continuing committee that came into existence in 1953.
The Sporting News noted on January 2, 1936 of the Veterans Committee:
Writers, managers, officials and players who are qualified by first-hand information and personal observations will choose the five who will represent that early period at Cooperstown. The maturity of this committee’s personnel assures careful consideration of all eligibles [sic] and there should be little criticism of their choices.
The initial plan was for the committee to select five pioneers for Cooperstown. But a wide dispersal of votes and some confusion over voting resulted in no players receiving the necessary 75 percent of votes from the committee for induction. Part of the confusion lay in the fact that several players who’d played in the 19th and 20th centuries received votes in both elections. Voters were also requested to vote for five players, but some voted for 10, leading to half points being awarded for the players on those ballots. [There was confusion among the BBWAA, too: Some voters mailed in All Star-style ballots, with one player at each position. These ballots were returned.]
Out of this confusion, Long received 15.5 votes. The election wound up being treated as a nominating vote, with the top 12 finishers advancing for more consideration. All but Long have since been enshrined, with 10 of the 12 getting in Cooperstown within the decade. Here’s a list of the top 12 finishers in the 1936 Veterans Committee election that breaks it down:
- Cap Anson: Enshrined in 1939 through the Old Timers Committee
- Buck Ewing: Enshrined in 1939 through the Old Timers Committee
- Wee Willie Keeler: Enshrined in 1939 through the BBWAA
- Cy Young: Enshrined in 1937 through the BBWAA
- Ed Delahanty: Enshrined in 1945 through the Old Timers Committee
- John McGraw: Enshrined in 1937 through the Veterans Committee
- Old Hoss Radbourn: Enshrined in 1939 through the Old Timers Committee
- Long: Not enshrined
- King Kelly: Enshrined in 1939 through the Old Timers Committee
- Amos Rusie: Enshrined in 1977 through the Veterans Committee
- Hughie Jennings: Enshrined in 1945 through the Old Timers Committee
- Fred Clarke: Enshrined in 1945 through the Old Timers Committee
So there are two questions before us: 1) How Long did so well in 1936; and 2) Why never again?
It’s hard to know what exactly went on among the 1936 Veterans Committee. I’m not sure who was on it and couldn’t find anything through the Sporting News archives listed on SABR.org. It’s uncertain, too, if Cooperstown keeps records for this. Former Hall of Fame senior research associate Bill Deane told me by phone Saturday that he had to start from scratch in the early 1990s in making a list of committee members from 1953-2001, piecing together results from Hall of Fame yearbooks which begin in 1980 and The Sporting News. I was curious if Deane got any resistance from the Hall of Fame in his research. “I didn’t encounter resistance,” Deane said. “I just encountered ignorance.”
While the specifics of how Long got as many votes as he did in the 1936 election might be lost to history, we can deduce a fair amount. From my research, I suspect longtime Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith may have had some influence on voting. While I don’t know for a fact that Griffith was one of the 78 members of the 1936 Veterans Committee, it’s logical he would have been on it and wielded some influence. After Connie Mack, Griffith might have ranked as the most esteemed figure from 19th century baseball at the time, and the committee’s stated task, after all, was to consider pre-1900 players.
Griffith paid tribute several times to Long, with whom he had a personal connection. The two were teammates on the 1903 New York Highlanders. They also faced one another in the National League of the 1890s, when Long helped the Boston Beaneaters win five pennants. Bill James wrote in his 2001 historical abstract that Griffith named Long to his all-time team in 1914. Two weeks before the Veterans Committee vote was announced in January 1936, Griffith included Long on an all-nineteenth century team. And in 1938, Griffith considered Long for a “most graceful all time baseball team.” Griffith told Grantland Rice:
There’s more of an argument at short. Herman Long was a good one. Hans Wagner was the best of all the shortstops but you’d never ship Hans a medal for grace. Dave Bancroft of the Giants ranks high and Jack Berry [sic] of the Athletics was another.
Griffith isn’t the only baseball person who held Long in high esteem. Wagner narrowly chose Joe Tinker over Long for his all-time squad in March 1936. Wagner and Long have a couple of connections worth noting here. Long was actually the first player nicknamed “The Flying Dutchman.” As others like Olbermann have noted, Wagner was given the nickname in tribute. Long also gave Wagner one of his gloves in 1902, an over-sized glove with a large hole in the middle that became a Wagner trademark.
Long figured into other all-time discussions as well. In 1939, Long was named an alternate for an all-time team voted on by players from 1870-1939. Rice wrote of Long and 1890s Boston Beaneater teammates Fred Tenney, Bobby Lowe and Jimmy Collins as the best infield in baseball history. John Thorn made note of the celebrated Boston infield, too, when I emailed him about Long. Interestingly, Long has the most errors in baseball history, though historian David Nemec told me that in Long’s era, any player who got a hand on a ball but didn’t make an out was charged with an error. Nemec also said that Long had more errors because he got to more balls due to his speed.
Long was celebrated during his lifetime, too. While he was dying of tuberculosis in the summer of 1909, one Kansas newspaper wrote of him as having been regarded as the greatest shortstop in baseball. A 1911 piece in the Arizona Republican, two years after Long’s death, noted:
In every one of the championship years, Herman Long was a prop. Some justice would seem to suggest that much of the credit for the record wins belongs to the memory of Herman Long. Memory, in this instance, is unfortunately accurate, Herman being no longer with those who run the bases and kill the hits. While he lasted, however, there was none beside him, and when he went to Boston from the west he carried with him his wonderful gifts of fielding, of hitting, of base-running and of generalship, and thus became a permanent sensation of which the Boston team and the Boston fans were justly proud, and in whose achievements sportdom [sic] generally was interested.
It’s odd Long never again figured prominently in a Hall of Fame election after 1936. But as much as anything, Hall of Fame votes are a barometer of opinion and how it shifts over time. By 1943, Wagner spoke of Hughie Jennings as the best shortstop in baseball history. While he said Long and Bobby Wallace were “a couple other dandy old-time shortstops… they didn’t quite come up to Jennings.” Jennings and 20 others were enshrined by a special Old Timers Committee between 1945 and 1946. A 79-year-old Wallace was enshrined by the Veterans Committee in 1953.”I’d rather have Long on my team in his prime than Wallace,” Nemec said. “I’d also rather have him than Hughie Jennings.”
Fellow baseball history blogger Verdun2 has been conducting an experiment over at his site, creating a Hall of Fame based on information available from 1901-1910. “I submit it would be quite different,” he writes of his Hall. Indeed. No one talks much about Herman Long anymore, but if the Hall of Fame had existed when he last played in the majors in 1904 or if the voting process had been better established in the 1930s and ’40s, he might long since have his plaque.