The National Baseball Hall of Fame held its first election in 1936, and the backlog of worthy players quickly became apparent. Although 40 future Hall of Famers received at least one vote for Cooperstown in 1936 from the Baseball Writers Association of America, just five were enshrined. Legends like Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker and Grover Cleveland Alexander needed multiple tries with the writers for a plaque. Earlier stars needed their own committee.
Between 1939 and 1949, 30 long-retired baseball greats were enshrined by an Old Timers Committee. Twenty-one of these inductions came in 1945 and 1946, nearly doubling the Hall of Fame in size. Early stars like Ed Delahanty, King Kelly, and others received their busts this way, and it may have seemed most Cooperstown-worthy players from 1920 and before were recognized.
More than 60 years later, another backlog is apparent.
The evolution of baseball research in recent decades along with the rise of Web sites like Baseball-Reference, Retrosheet, and Baseball Think Factory has made it easier to study and compare long-dead players who might otherwise be lost to history or only the most ardent baseball historians. There are dozens of notable baseball figures from 1920 or earlier who might merit induction to Cooperstown.
Here are eight men I would enshrine:
- Doc Adams: I emailed John Thorn for his picks, and he replied less than 30 minutes later with Adams and two other men he called “early giants,” Jim Creighton and William R. Wheaton. Adams is mentioned in Ken Burns’ Baseball (for which Thorn served as senior creative consultant) and was president of the New York Knickerbockers ball club from the 1840s to 1862. Adams helped devise the rules for the first official baseball game in 1846, pioneered the position of shortstop, and even sewed early balls himself.
- Pete Browning: Named the 2009 Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend by the Society for American Baseball Research, Browning hit .341 in a career than spanned 1882 to 1894, leading the league in batting three times. One of my regular readers let me know that Browning also was the first player to use a Louisville Slugger bat.
- Ray Chapman: A serviceable Cleveland Indians shortstop for nine seasons, Chapman was just entering his prime at 29 when he was killed by a pitched ball in August 1920. His death led to the banning of the spitball pitch, which helped end the Deadball Era.
- Bill Dahlen: From 1891 to 1911, Dahlen was a mainstay at shortstop, accumulating 2,461 hits and a career Wins Above Replacement rating of 75.9, tops of any eligible, non-enshrined player.
- John Donaldson: In June, I chronicled this Negro League and semi-pro hurler who won 363 games between 1908 and 1940 and was later the first black scout in the majors.
- Shoeless Joe Jackson: He’s in the Hall of Merit, the Hitters Hall of Fame, and he far surpassed Cooperstown playing standards. I’ve said it before: Why not forgive Shoeless Joe? With his .356 career batting average, Jackson would’ve had a plaque decades ago had he not helped throw the 1919 World Series. He’s inspired literature, film, and remains a tragic figure. If there were a mass induction of Old Timers, Jackson might be the only name most fans would know or care about.
- Bobby Mathews: Bert Blyleven has nothing on this guy as an underrated hurler long denied Cooperstown. Mathews went 297-248 with a 2.86 ERA, playing from 1871 through 1887, his 4,956 career innings 15th most all time. I recently looked at the Hall of Fame candidacy of Blyleven who has a few more career innings and a lot more strikeouts than Mathews. But Mathews has the most wins of any eligible pitcher not in Cooperstown.
- Spottswood Poles: A reader told me of Poles, who’s been described elsewhere online as “the black Ty Cobb.” In the midst of his 15-year career, Poles earned a Purple Heart in World War I as a sergeant in the 369th Hell Fighters. My reader told me this unit “had the Germans running in fear, since the 369th had many ball players that could throw grenades twice as far as any German had ever seen.”
Beyond this, there are many other players at least worth mentioning here. Ten men appeared on the ballot for 2010 Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend (side note: does anyone know who won?) Beyond Adams, Dahlen, and Mathews, the nominees were:
- Ross Barnes
- Bob Caruthers
- Jack Glasscock
- Tony Mullane
- Harry Stovey
- George Van Haltren
- Deacon White
Browning, Caruthers, Dahlen, Glasscock and Jackson are in the Hall of Merit — the Baseball Think Factory-version of the Hall of Fame — but not Cooperstown. Others in this class include:
- Cupid Childs
- George Gore
- Paul Hines
- Home Run Johnson
- Charley Jones
- Sherry Magee
- Hardy Richardson
- Joe Start
Beyond this, here are a few names I found studying WAR rankings and batting similarity scores on Baseball-Reference:
- George Burns
- Lave Cross
- Herman Long
- Dave Orr
And here are six more players who don’t rate as high for career stats but each achieved some renown in their day for various reasons:
- Babe Adams
- Mike Donlin
- Dummy Hoy
- Duffy Lewis
- Deacon Phillippe
- Frank Schulte
I think it would be overkill to offer my opinion on all the players here though if anyone wants to take up the torch for any of these men or lobby for a ballplayer I didn’t mention, please feel free to add a comment or email me.
Who knows, maybe the Hall of Fame will take notice.