Who is Best from the 19th Century?

Top Ten 19th Century Ballplayers

I have been reading the Roger Kaln book “Who’s Better Who’s Best in Baseball”.  Not a bad work, it is mostly just discussion and reads like an ESPN.com article.  He outlines the top 75 players according to him.  I immediately noticed a lack of 19th century players. 

Mr. Kaln doesn’t include any.  Only some crossovers who spent time in the 19th C as well as being stars in the 20thC. 

It is hard to judge players from 100 years ago.  No living person will remember these players in action, there is no video of them, action photographs are rare and many statistical categories are questionable and inconsistent.  Most of these players died while Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Walter Johnson were breaking their records.  Few living people would remember when Babe Ruth broke Roger Connor’s all-time home run record.    All of these players are in the Hall of Fame, yet none of them were alive to give an induction speech. 

The game was different then, especially for pitchers.  Pitchers would put up 600 innings and complete almost all of their starts.  Good pitchers would usually throw 80-90% of the teams games.  Also, before 1887 they were pitching from 50’.  Hitters did not have as many chances to put up the huge numbers that have been present since the time of Cobb, Speaker and Jackson.  Seasons were typically around 70-130 games.  Many of the players included in my list have had less than 5000 at-bats.  That would be like stopping Albert Pujols’ career after next year when he reaches 1000 games and 4000 at bats and trying to compare him with the Ruth, Aaron, Cobb, Williams and Bonds. Some of these players put up outstanding numbers but for only a short time.  Very few played past their mid-30s.  However, I am sure that all these stars in the early days of baseball would have been able to compete with today’s Major Leaguers.  Yes, few of them were over 6’ tall, yes few of them weighed over 180lbs but most of them were born before or during the American Civil War.  These stars would have been different men.  They would have been bigger, healthier – in others words – they would have adjusted.

So here is my list, no real surprises.
    
1. Cap Anson, a Hall of Famer since 1939.  The first superstar in the Major Leagues and should be considered as an all-time great.  He played an amazing 27 seasons in the National Association and the National League, spending more than 20 years with the Cubs.  He could do it all and he did it for a long, long time.  He is one of only 3 players with more than 2000 RBI’s, he amassed 3418 hits, a record for right handers until Hank Aaron came along.  Aaron had 20% more at-bats.  Anson was consistently among the leaders in total bases and slugging.    To go along with the playing feats Anson managed the Cubs from 1879-1897 and won 5 pennants in that time.  His 1296 wins as a manager was the most in the 19th century and is still in the top 30 all-time.  The Cubs had winning teams under Anson’s watch and he is probably the greatest player to play with that storied franchise.

2. Dan Brouthers, a Hall of Famer since 1945, Big Dan was the ultimate slugger and most dominant player of late 1880s early 1890s.  He was consistently amongst the top 3 in RBI, HR, TB, SLG, OPS and OBP.  If they had awarded MVP awards in the 19th C, Brouthers would have had quite a collection.  He could also hit for average.  His career mark of .342 is good enough to put him in the top 10 of all time.  Despite his success Dan was a journeyman, in his 19 seasons he suited up with 10 teams in 3 leagues.  If Brouthers had played 20 years I have no doubt he would be mentioned in the same breath as Ruth, Bonds and Cobb. 

3. Al Spalding, a Hall of Famer since 1939 and founder of the sporting goods brand that still carries his name.  Spalding led the Boston Red Stockings to four consecutive titles in the National Association from 1872-1875.  In his last full season he led the Chicago entry in the newly founded National League to a pennant with a 47-12 record. After this season Spalding pitched in only 6 games.  He was virtually retired by the time he was 25.  His career record was 253-65 an ERA of 2.14 and a WHIP of 1.18,

4. Ed Delahanty, a Hall of Famer since 1945, Ed, was the best of five brothers to make the major leagues in the 19th century.  This Phillies star was known for his hitting prowess he also posted several season with an OPS of over 1.000.  He died prematurely in 1903 with suspicion before his playing days were up.  He was just shy of 2700 hits and his .346 career average put him in the top 5 all time – just ahead of immortals, Speaker, Williams and Ruth. Delahanty would be a Tony Gwynn type player. 

5. Charley Radbourne, a Hall of Famer since 1939, in 11 seasons he was able to pick up 309 wins.  In 503 starts he completed 489. Old Hoss’ 1884 Triple Crown season with the Providence Grays is astounding and perhaps the best performance of a pitcher of all time 59-12 record, 441 Ks, 1.38 ERA.  In the 1884 Playoffs he won all three games and shut out the New York Metropolitans for 22 innings.  Charley did not adjust to the movement of the mound to 60’6” and is probably the second best pitcher after Spalding to pitch at the shorter distance.  Although he didn’t have the same longevity, he would be most like Pedro Martinez as they both had the ability to be completely dominant.
6.  Roger Connor, a Hall of Famer since 1976, he was the original slugger.  His career home run mark of 138 stood for almost a quarter century until someone called Ruth destroyed it.  A huge threat, always in the top 5 in OPS, he would have been similar to Carlos Delgado, also a first basemen.  His 1889 season was a career year in which he knocked in 130 runs in 131 games for the NL champs Giants.  He produced into his late 30s at a high level.  A career average of .317, OPS of .887 which puts him in the top 100 of all time.  Conner died in 1931 and never played a game in the 20th century.  Connor and Brouthers were always 1-2 in offensive production during the 1880s and 1890s.  They would best be like the Sosa-McGwire battles of the last 1990s    

7. Billy Hamilton. A Hall of Famer since 1961.  Billy swiped 912 bases.  His .344 lifetime average puts him 8th All-Time, he was second to Delahanty when he retired in 1901.  Had 2100 hits over 14 seasons in which he averaged only 113 games.  He could be counted on to get on base a tonne, score a tonne and have a high OPS, going over 1.000 twice in his career.  He was an average outfielder with the Phillies and Braves.  While he didn’t produce runs at the same rate he can be called an early Rickey Henderson. 

8. Sam Thompson, a Hall of Famer since 1974.  Simply an RBI machine.  1300 career RBIs in just over 1400 games.  He coupled this production with a .889 career OPS and a career average of .331.  All those numbers put him in the top 100 of all time whilehaving only half the at-bats that Henry Aaron had.   He was a great outfield as well fielding .935 in his career against a league that fielded .908.  In 1894 he batted .401, 131 RBIs and 300 TB in only 99 games and less than 450 AB.  If playing today he would have a lot of hardware, Gold Gloves, MVP’s All Star selections.  He would be most like Manny Ramirez if he played today.  

9.  King Kelly, a Hall of Famer since 1945.  He was an offensive stand out with the Chicago and later Boston National League entries.  A feared slugger, Kelly was usually amongst the leaders in most offensive categories.  He could steal, he could hit for power he could do it all offensively.  His game lacked a touch in the field.  He was moved around constantly but his career .820 fielder vs a league that fielded .872.  If he were a player today he would be a DH, a Jose Canseco type player.

10. Pud Galvin, a Hall of Famer since 1965, his durability is his most enduring stat.  He played on some terrible teams and is one of a handful of players to play in 4 Major Leauges.  He was the first dominant strikeout pitcher.  Radbourne and some others often overshadowed his other stats.  His 364 wins put him 5th all time, he is also one of only 2 players to lose 300 big league games.  He would bear a modern likeliness to Nolan Ryan, lots of numbers but never dominated a season or won anything.

Honourable Mention

Tim Keefe
Deacon White
John Clarkson
Jesse Burkett
Hugh Duffy
Charley Jones
Tip O’Neil
Ross Barnes

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  • Great article. I am somewhat fascinated by baseball players from a bygone era. Good insight into present-day comparables.

  • Agree with Callum, super article and a great primer for people that aren’t familiar with 19th century ball players.

    As with all lists, there are a few points of contention here or there (Big Ed would probably be a power hitter, not a Gywnn type) but minor points. Again, great article!

    Do you think that Big Ed’s death wasn’t on the up and up?

  • How about Pud Galvin, the steroid pioneer who used to inject monkey testosterone into his posterior?