Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about players from long ago, save the ones who are famous for one reason or another (I hope I’m not alone). If they weren’t in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, then I probably don’t know much much about them. Sometimes I’ll see an article like this one by Steve Treder that brings an older player to light. And sometimes, usually around this time of the year, someone will talk about Hall of Fame snubs, like in this article by Adam Darowski about the best players not in the Hall of Fame. But for the most part, I’m willfully ignorant.
Looking at all the players in baseball is a daunting task. There are a lot of them. There are a lot of eras. How do you judge people who played back in the 19th century when you are only familiar with the players of more modern eras? Even if I look at the player page for someone like Cupid Childs, what can I really figure out? He is totally removed from context; how can I judge a guy who played so long ago against his peers if I’m not familiar with them? I get lost easily in the numbers. I can look and stare at stats until the cows come home, but not get anywhere because of the lack of context.
Over the next several weeks, I want to take a look at the top 500 position players of all time by career Wins Above Replacement. I have split them in to seven different eras:
- Baseball Prehistory (1871-1900)
- Deadball Era (1900-1920)
- Liveball Era (1921-1945)
- Post-war Era (1945-1960)
- Expansion Era (1961-1976)
- Free Agent Era (1976-1995)
- Modern Era (1995-Present)
Here are the eras shown by runs scored per game:
From 1871-1900, baseball was a wild and crazy changing game. There were five different leagues: National Association (which evolved into the National League in 1876), the American Association (which evolved into the American League in 1901), the Union Association, and the Players League. The number of games in each season varied wildly by league and by team, and the whole era is just a giant mess to try to sift through. There are eleven Hall of Fame position players from that era, and the only one I’ve ever heard of is Cap Anson.
In addition to the eleven Hall of Famers, there are twenty other position players in the top 500 for Wins Above Replacement. The following chart shows all 31 players and their results by age. The darker the square, the more WAR they received that season. I intentionally left out total WAR for each player because the goal isn’t to rank these players, but to see how they matched up to each other, in the context of the great position players of their day.
I edited the images when I updated the methodology, the old image is available here.
Above is what the best position players of the 19th century looked like. If you had a Hall of Fame vote, which 10 players would you put on your ballot? In many ways, this is a lot easier than later eras. There was no World Series (started from 1903), no MVP Award (started from 1931), no All-Star Game (started from 1933), and no Gold Glove (started from 1957). All we have to go on is the record they left on the field. So let your eyes wander, come to your own conclusions, and let me know if you find anything.
Links to Player Pages (Career WAR in Parentheses):
|Cap Anson (88.7)||George Davis (86.4)|
|Roger Connor (86.3)||Dan Brouthers (80.1)|
|Bill Dahlen (80)||Jesse Burkett (72.8)|
|Ed Delahanty (71.7)||Billy Hamilton (68.9)|
|Jake Beckley (59.6)||Willie Keeler (59.3)|
|Jack Glasscock (58.7)||Joe Kelley (57.5)|
|Jim O’Rourke (52.2)||Bid McPhee (51.4)|
|John McGraw (50.7)||Cupid Childs (48.4)|
|Harry Stovey (47.7)||Buck Ewing (47.5)|
|Hugh Duffy (46.5)||Paul Hines (45.4)|
|King Kelly (45)||Hughie Jennings (44.9)|
|Lave Cross (44.5)||Hardy Richardson (43.7)|
|Jimmy Ryan (43.4)||George Van Haltren (43.2)|
|Mike Griffin (43.2)||Mike Tiernan (42.9)|
|George Gore (42.8)||Deacon White (42.4)|
|Pete Browning (41.6)||Sam Thompson (41.2)|
|Ed McKean (40.2)||Charlie Bennett (39.6)|
|John Ward (39.1)||Kip Selbach (38.8)|
|Herman Long (37.6)||Fred Dunlap (37.6)|
|Ned Williamson (37.3)||Dummy Hoy (35.2)|
|Billy Nash (33.8)||Bill Joyce (33.7)|
- Fangraphs Career WAR Leaders