So your dad’s a famous baseball player, or maybe your brother?

Baseball is an elite profession. For every player who makes it to “the show,” countless aspiring players fall short. A recent post here raised the question of whether growing up as the son of a famous player makes for an even more difficult path to the big leagues. As Graham Womack stated in his March 28 post, “children of top ball players have tough standards to live up to.”

Searching and, I can find only ten sons of Hall of Fame players who have ever made it to the major leagues. If not for their famous fathers, we would have little reason to discuss these players, most of whom played at or near the replacement level. Interestingly, two sons of George Sisler, Dick and Dave, account for more than half of the collective WAR of the group. Please note that Earle Mack is not on this list, although he would fit right in with his -0.2 WAR. His father Connie is enshrined as a manager, not a player.

Player Years WAR HoF Father Years WAR
Dick Sisler 1946-1953 5.8 George Sisler 1915-1930 50.4
Earl Averill, Jr 1956-1963 4.1 Earl Averill 1929-1941 45.0
Dale Berra 1977-1987 3.7 Yogi Berra 1946-1965 61.9
Dave Sisler 1956-1963 3.2 George Sisler 1915-1930 50.4
Tony Gwynn, Jr 2006-Present 1.0 Tony Gwynn 1982-2001 68.4
Eduardo Perez 1993-2006 0.2 Tony Perez 1964-1986 50.5
Charlie Lindstrom 1958 0.1 Freddie Lindstrom 1924-1936 29.2
Queenie O’Rourke 1908 -0.4 Jim O’Rourke 1872-1904 53.9
Eddie Collins, Jr 1939-1942 -1.0 Eddie Collins 1906-1930 126.7
Ed Walsh, Jr 1928-1932 -1.1 Ed Walsh 1904-1917 54.8
Total 15.6

In all fairness, Tony Gwynn, Jr, is young and still an active player. Currently with the LA Dodgers, he could rise to the top of this list with one or two solid seasons.

In contrast to the above group, brothers of Hall of Famers are much more accomplished. Lloyd and Paul Waner are both in Cooperstown, making them both brothers of Hall of Famers. Wes Ferrell and Dom DiMaggio are not enshrined, but each has a camp of fans advocating for his candidacy. Jim Perry and Joe Niekro were each superb pitchers in their own right, even if they were overshadowed by their more famous brothers.

Player Years WAR HoF Brother Years WAR
Paul Waner 1926-1945 73.8 Lloyd Waner 1927-1945 24.3
Wes Ferrell 1927-1941 41.3 Rick Ferrell 1929-1943 22.9
Jim Perry 1959-1975 33.3 Gaylord Perry 1962-1983 96.3
Dom DiMaggio 1940-1953 31.9 Joe DiMaggio 1936-1951 83.6
Joe Niekro 1967-1988 30.2 Phil Niekro 1964-1987 96.8
Lloyd Waner 1927-1945 24.3 Paul Waner 1926-1945 73.8
Vince DiMaggio 1937-1946 17.2 Joe DiMaggio 1936-1951 83.6
Jim Delahanty 1901-1915 15.8 Ed Delahanty 1888-1903 74.7
Sandy Alomar, Jr 1988-2007 13.2 Roberto Alomar 1988-2004 63.5
Harry Coveleski 1907-1918 12.8 Stan Coveleski 1912-1928 54.0
Ken Brett 1967-1981 11.3 George Brett 1973-1993 85.0
Paul Dean 1934-1943 11.0 Dizzy Dean 1930-1947 39.6
John Ewing 1883-1891 10.8 Buck Ewing 1880-1897 51.8
26 others 0.8
Total 327.7

The list of brothers has some lesser lights, too. Larry Yount and Joe Evers epitomize the expression “cup of coffee.” Billy Ripken played above the replacement level (2.1 WAR), but Tommie Aaron, Chris Gwynn, and three more Delahanty brothers didn’t. Also included is Hall of Fame manager Harry Wright, who played briefly in the 1870s and whose brother George is in the Hall as a player. In all, 39 brothers of Hall of Famers have made it to the big leagues, and they have accumulated more than 300 WAR.

In short, Major League Baseball has employed nearly four times as many brothers as sons of Hall of Famers, and the brothers’ accomplishments, as encapsulated by WAR, are approximately 20-fold greater. Even if you have objections to distilling a player’s performance to a single number, you cannot quarrel with the notion that the Waners, Vince and Dom DiMaggio, Jim Perry, and Ken Brett are a cut above the likes of Dale Berra and Eduardo Perez. Are the sons underachievers, or have the brothers performed above expectations? Or perhaps is it some of each?

I do not know whether there are simply many more brothers of HoF players than sons. If true, this could account for the difference in numbers of major leaguers that have emerged from each group. However, this idea seems remote to me. As a group, men have about the same number of brothers as sons, perhaps somewhat fewer sons as family sizes have steadily shrunk over the past hundred years. If there is a difference in the case of Hall of Famers, though, I’ll wager it is nowhere near 4-fold.

What’s striking to me is not so much the absence of Hall of Famers among the sons, but the absence of even solid, steady, double-digit WAR players. Why there are no equivalents of Harry Coveleski and Sandy Alomar, Jr among HoF sons, I can only speculate.

While a host of social and family factors might play into the disparity between the brothers and sons, the way that I can best reconcile the different accomplishments of the two groups is by drawing a parallel to coaching. It is often said that star players typically do not make good coaches or managers. There are exceptions of course, such as Joe Torre, Frank Robinson, and perhaps Tony Gwynn, who has had success coaching at the college level. However, the accepted wisdom is that the game comes easily for star players and, as a result, they do not relate well to the struggles of the majority of players for whom the game brings its usual challenges. Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Tommy Lasorda, for example, are all great managers, and they all have enormous personal insight into the struggles of the marginal player.

A good coach teaches, nurtures, offers encouragement, and does an array of other things to maximize the abilities that his players bring to the sport. It might be that Hall of Famers in general are at a disadvantage in fulfilling this role. And when it comes to baseball, often a son’s first and most influential coach is his father.

5 Replies to “So your dad’s a famous baseball player, or maybe your brother?”

  1. Great article, Brendan. I’m flattered you’d expand upon my idea. Good thought to look at brothers as well.

    I think the difference in playing abilities between brothers and sons of Hall of Famers is partly due to economic factors. Brothers can be side-by-side in poverty or working class conditions, looking at a baseball career as a ticket to a better life. But sons of well-off players likely don’t have that same incentive to put in the long hours required to make it. Their may be some genetic advantage, but it’s no golden ticket.

  2. Great article Brendan. Thanks!

    Great point too Graham about the economic issues. It reminds me of a quote by the actor Kirk Douglas; “I’ve told my sons that they missed out on a lot because they were not born poor” A paragraph later after explaining the things he experienced growing up that he was able to protect his sons from he says;
    “I was already down. I had nowhere to go but up. I do think that you have more of an incentive to achieve your goals when your born poor.”

    I think it is true as well what Brendan says about some of those HOF Dads may not have been the best coaches. I’d also add that perhaps many of them were not around enough to help their sons as they’d be busy playing when their sons were playing as well.

    There also has to be a great deal of pressure being the son of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio (as Joe G. pointed out so well), Ted Williams, etc. Some sons might just be overwhelmed with that pressure and may have been hounded by their peers in little league and turned off from the game totally.

    Then there is the one intangible of talent. Mickey Mantle had brothers who did not play pro-ball. Was it that Mickey’s Dad, Mutt who saw the talent in Mickey only and then combined with day in and out coaching and practicing that Mantle had to do, he just blossomed. Joe and Frank Torre both played pro ball for the same team with Frank paving the way for Joe. But it was younger brother Joe who far surpassed his older brother’s career. Imho, talent more often than not is not inherited.

  3. Cool article! It reminds me of some goofy Bill James thing in either his Win Shares book or the New Baseball Historical Abstract where (using win shares) he ‘ranks’ baseball families. It was very silly but I thought a lot of fun (although, at least in my edition of whichever book it was in, I remember there being a typo in the list of leaders so that some families’ numbers end up being wrong). Somewhere I have updates to it I’ve done (adding in recent seasons)… I’ll list them here if I manage to find them!

  4. I think two pairs of fathers and sons that were forgotten were Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. and Bobby and Barry Bonds. My non-expert sense is that Barry and Jr. were better players than their fathers even with factoring any PED use. In Junior’s case it seemed like his Dad was a big help to him in learning the game. But if I remember correctly wasn’t Bobby Bonds kind of an absent Dad for much of Barry’s youth? Do you think there was less pressure on these guys as while their Dad’s were stars in the game they were not Superstars or Icons?

  5. @Graham: Brothers typically share a lot of things in their upbringing that can be dissimilar between father and son, not only economic status, but educational opportunities, influence of parents and community, and more. So perhaps it should not be surprising that brothers have come closer than sons to equaling the accomplishments of their HoF family members.

    @Alvy: I like the Kirk Douglas quote; sounds like some things my dad used to say to me.
    To whether athletic talent is inherited, one advantage of comparing brothers of HoF to sons of HoF is that if there is a genetic component – large or small – it is controlled for, since the biological similarity between brothers (what a geneticist would call identity by descent) is the same as between father and son, at 50%. In compiling the list of brothers of HoF players, I did not take note of how many were older and how many younger, but clearly there are examples of each (Ken Brett older, Jim Delahanty younger).
    As for your mention of the Bonds and Griffey families, they are among the many father-son (but not HoF) MLB pairs. How many such pairs there have been, I don’t know, but maybe hundreds. For example, I only recently learned that Mel Queen (Cincy, 1960s) had a father, also named Mel, who pitched for the Yankees in the 40s. Hall of Fame fathers are a special case, but they are relatively few. Perhaps more can be learned from looking at the larger set of noteworthy players like Bonds and Griffey (and Dizzy Trout and Gus Bell) who have had sons who have achieved some greater or lesser level of success in the game.

    @Bob: I vaguely recall the Bill James passage you are referring to, and I’m almost certain it’s in the Historical Abstract, but I don’t remember the particulars (which families were considered and by what criteria James ranks them).

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