Electing players from the 19th century carries two very difficult challenges. The first one is merely cosmetic. The Hall of Fame survives and thrives based on the number of visitors it has each year. Induction weekend is the biggest money maker for them by far. Fans from far and wide travel to see their favorite player inducted. That creates revenue for the Hall of Fame. How many people are going to show up to watch the great grandson of someone you’ve never heard of make a speech on behalf of their long lost relative?
Therefore, the votes of the BBWAA and Veterans Committee have always been biased towards the living. This hasn’t completely shut out those from the game’s first century, but they have been few and far between. Bill James successfully lobbied for George Davis in the late 1990s, but since then we have heard crickets.
Public relations is not the only problem. The rules of the game changed drastically between 1870 and 1890. The game we recognize didn’t really come about until that time and even then competition was very uneven. So, when you look at numbers for anyone (even the more sophisticated ones) you have to wonder what you are looking at. Furthermore, a lot of our uber stats have problems because they did not keep accurate records of statistics like caught stealing, walks, or hit bit pitches. So, someone like Davis that played a number of years after the turn of the century comes out looking good. We generally hate to use the if this guy then that guy approach but when you put in Davis it makes you wonder about other guys like Bill Dahlen and Jack Glasscock. Let’s compare them.
Glasscock is a problematic candidate. On the one hand, his career value is well within the range of those selected by the BBWAA. Admittedly, it is on the lower end, but it is well within the range. However, he suffers from both areas of bias. First, his children’s children are getting long in the tooth. More importantly, he played a good portion of his career in the 1880s. This becomes a quandary when we discuss concepts like replacement level. What does that even mean in the 19th century?
The distance between the best teams and the worst teams was far greater than in the modern game. It stands to reason the same would be true for the players as well. This is particularly true when we look at fielding numbers. Advanced math always confused me in school, but there is a popular notion that performance (or numbers themselves) gravitate towards the mean. This is particularly true on the lower end of performance. Why bang your head against a wall repeatedly with a player that truly sucks? In the modern game, it becomes increasingly difficult to gather high end talent together for an extended period of time because of the cost of keeping that talent together. So, we get a drive to the mean.
Dahlen on the other hand overlapped with Davis. It’s hard to deny that Davis was better overall, but how much better was he really? 17 wins in the index world really amounts to less than six wins overall. Over the course of a 15 to 20 season career that’s not a whole lot. I certainly hate making an argument I normally detest, but Dahlen is ever bit as fit to be in the Hall of Fame as George Davis.
It can be dizzying following the tortured logic of arguing for or against a 19th centuplayer. We’ve already talked about the problems with competitive balance and with the loss of important statistics we hold dear today. The flip side could argue that it is harder to accumulate numbers like WAR and win shares when those players played in fewer games. Teams back then played in as few as 100 games overall. So, statistics like above can be a bit deceiving and this is particularly true when Glasscock is concerned.
So, I’m not sure what these index scores really mean in the grand scheme of things. Glasscock’s score would put him in the borderline category anyway even without the various considerations on each side. Dahlen is clearly in if we use the same standard as everyone else. So, with Glasscock we have to ask if there is a compelling reason to add him. Is the Hall of Fame really missing something there? I’d argue they aren’t. In the case of Dahlen they are definitely missing someone they probably should add. However, we should take a look at the offensive and fielding numbers.
Davis is a cut above the other two, but we also have to remember what we are dealing with. Davis is a top five shortstop in the history of the game according to the index scores. Only Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken, and Alex Rodriguez stand in front of him, so Dahlen’s numbers have to be seen in that context. Dahlen’s numbers place him solidly in the top ten historically. His offensive numbers (and Glasscock’s) may not be overwhelming here, but shortstops aren’t expected to be their team’s best hitters.
Speaking of Glasscock, his numbers are an example of the problem with evaluating the game’s early players. Players came and went from team to team and league to league. Pay for players was horrible, so it wasn’t uncommon for even good players to quit suddenly in the prime of their career. So, we have to ask who we are comparing Glasscock to. That’s decidedly different than Dahlen because he played when the game had at least stabilized to a certain extent.
This is a perfect example of how little we can gleam from some numbers. If you look at the numbers above you might be tempted to think these were some of the best fielding shortstops in the history of the game. In point of fact, a solid defensive shortstop that plays a long time could rack up numbers like these during that time. Being solid for a long time is valuable, but it isn’t going to make anyone forget Ozzie Smith.
So, based on every bit of information we have here we have to come to the conclusion that Bill Dahlen belongs in the Hall of Fame. Whether this situation will ever be rectified remains to be seen. Dahlen’s great grandchildren probably shouldn’t be dusting off their acceptance speech any time soon. If there are any huge Dahlen fans out there they can probably wait too, but we can honor him here.