Position Players by WAR: 19th Century

Baseball Prehistory | Deadball Era | Liveball Era | Post-War
Expansion | Free Agency | Modern Era

We’re pleased to welcome Joshua Maciel to the site, and today marks his first post here as an author. Josh designed the original graphic that eventually turned into WARGraphs, and we look forward to more of his interesting visualizations going forward.

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)

References:



Print This Post



I'm an expat living in Japan since 2003, doing sales and marketing work. More of my work is available on Henkakyuu, my personal blog. Also feel free to inspire me to use twitter more often @henkakyuu


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Blue
Guest
Blue
5 years 6 months ago

To my eye, it looks like O’Rourke isn’t at the same level as the other inductees.

Williamson, Richardson, Tovey look like early guys who might have gotten missed. Glasscock looks like a clear snub.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick
5 years 6 months ago

Glasscock may be the best name of all time. Should be in the hall-of-fame for his name alone, since I don’t think anyone in recent history could get away with that stitched on their back.

Griggs
Guest
Griggs
5 years 6 months ago

Yeah Glasscock probably got shafted. I would have to check his facial hair to be sure though.

I’m looking forward to the series Joshua, thanks!

Rich
Guest
Rich
5 years 6 months ago

FWIW, the American Association and American League aren’t related at all other than similar names. American League was originally called the Western League.

J.Ro
Guest
J.Ro
5 years 6 months ago

The thing that immediately jumps out to me is Roger Connor’s regular 4-year pattern — good, great, good, off. Maybe he was also a politician, going through campaign cycles.

Chad
Member
Chad
5 years 6 months ago

I notice that SBs were not counted between ’76 and ’85 (and no CS stat for the entire period). Are SB/CS included for these older WAR calculations? If it is, I wonder how much we might be relatively undervaluing some of those early base-stealers (Paul Hines and Hardy Richard both look they had some speed toward the end of their careers, once the SBs were counted).

How is fielding included in WAR for these players? Herman Long and Glassock both seem to be earning a significant amount of value from their gloves at SS, based on “TZ” (no UZR of course). (despite ~70 errors a year! wonder if those were counted differently back then…).

Wish I were more enlightened on some of these details, perhaps someone else can illuminate us?

Heather
Guest
Heather
5 years 6 months ago

I have asked a few times how the defensive part of the WAR is figured out for these old-time players and never gotten an answer.

Also, can we estimate how certain we are of these WARs due to the defensive component.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life
5 years 6 months ago
steve mc
Guest
steve mc
5 years 6 months ago

Is there a reason for Sam Thompson left off the list?

Rusty
Guest
Rusty
5 years 6 months ago

Nice work. I liked this piece and encourage you in the analysis that you’re doing here.

BTW, you only recognize Cap Anson’s name? Ken Burns made a pretty big deal about King Kelly.

Adam
Guest
Adam
5 years 6 months ago

My list of prehistory players for the HOF would start with the best two players in the first six years of organized league play: Ross Barnes and A.G. Spalding. Neither is in the HOF as a player (Spalding is in as a pioneer as he later founded the company that bore his name), which isn’t surprising since MLB does not recognize the National Association as a major league. I say screw MLB and put the dominant hitter and pitcher for the Nation Assocation in.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
5 years 6 months ago

A lot of the HOF selection is, well, fame, along with personal connections and reputation (the veterans’ committee). Anson (first to 3000 hits), Kelly, Delahanty, Ewing, Burkett, maybe Brouthers, were huge stars. Monte Ward, in multiple roles, was one of the most important figures in early baseball history. Billy Hamilton’s numbers are just ridiculous in a short career. Connor finally made it (1976) because he was the top HR hitter before Ruth. I don’t see Glasscock as better than, or as good as, O’Rourke; but in any case O’Rourke was apparently popular and respected.

This is one of the better (more consistent) eras in terms of HOF representation, I’d think.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life
5 years 6 months ago

With 10 votes I would go:
Cap Anson, Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, Billy Hamilton, Ed Delahanty, Dan Brouthers, King Kelly, Jack Glasscock, Deacon White, and Cupid Childs.

BTW, this was a really great article and I can’t wait to see how the rest unfolds.

Mike Rogers
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Cap Anson was kind of a Babe Ruth before Babe Ruth in how much he separated himself from his peers. Anson could’ve retired after 1889 with 19 seasons under his belt, he would’ve had 76.3 rWAR (baseball-reference as a source since I have that data handy) and no one else through 1889 in their careers had more than 54.4 (Roger Connor). That’s quite the feat considering from 1871-1879 he averaged only 295 PA’s due to the shorter seasons. Absurdly good.

I really liked Deacon White’s numbers because he was a very good all-around player. Very good hitter, but one of the best defenders of the era and above-average on the bases according to B-Ref WAR, as well.

Dan Brouthers was 6-foot-2, and around 215-pounds which I’d guess was what would be the equivalent of when Frank Thomas broke on the scene — huge dude playing baseball compared to the average citizen. He was one of the best offensive players of the decade.

Also, Brouthers and Roger Connor are kind of a 19th century Frank Thomas-Jeff Bagwell in that they have a few weird connections. Born around 6th months apart, I think, finished near one-another in WAR, both big time sluggers for the era and bigger-than-average bulks and played first base.

Thomas and Bagwell, of course, were born on the same day of the same year, nearly equal in B-Ref WAR, perhaps the best first basemen of their eras, etc etc.

Love this stuff.

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life
5 years 6 months ago

Cap Anson pretty much established the segregated nature of baseball. Crazy that his intolerance towards other races kept the game separated for over 60 years.

baycommuter
Guest
baycommuter
5 years 6 months ago

If Anson hadn’t, someone else would have within a few years, given the era (Jim Crow really came into force in the 1890s). Ty Cobb certainly wouldn’t have played with blacks.

Alex Remington
Member
5 years 6 months ago

For a great book about baseball in the late 19th century, I recommend Burt Solomon’s Where They Ain’t, about Ned Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles, one of the first baseball dynasties.

KJOK
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

One thing you’ll need to adjust for in the 19th century is length of season. Teams thru the early 1880’s played 80 game seasons or less, then they bumped up to arouns 140 games thru about 1903.

Josh Gibson
Guest
Josh Gibson
5 years 6 months ago

What constitutes replacement level for WAR when potentially some of the best players in baseball were excluded? Is it lowered, thus making a good player artificially higher in value?

bcp33bosox
Member
bcp33bosox
5 years 6 months ago

Cool article and welcome to fangraphs, I am relatively new as well. I have been reading articles for a couple months now (Chad Finn and his readers had mentioned you guys quite a bit), but I just made my account this week to start posting.

My comment, maybe I am in the minority here and I know you don’t want to list the totals to discourage straight ranking of players, but I have trouble differentiating the shades of blue, i.e. 2-4 and 4-6 or 4-6 and 6-8. Obviously if they are all lined up in a row in descending or ascending order I can distinguish them just fine, but where they are so scattered it makes it a bit difficult for me (though it should be known I have never been able to do a stereogram, I *could* however, surprisingly always find Waldo…lol).

Were different colors objected to, due to not wanting us to rank them? If completely different colors are out, would it be possible to at least use a wider range of color to make each value a bit more visible or would a different color allow for more definitive shading?

Also, I assume less than 2 (10 is amazing just about any way you look at it. Plus it seems to be, at least in this group of names, much less likely than a <2, so the high end is fine. However, a 1.9, though not very good, is still helping the team win and therefore is better than any negative WAR even if it is -0.1. Stiil, with the intended ambiguity there has to be some cut off point, but if all negatives at least had their own value/color it *might* make for an interesting for argument sake.

bcp33bosox
Member
bcp33bosox
5 years 6 months ago

Not sure what happened to the last part of my post, but it should be:

Also, I assume less than 2 (10 is amazing just about any way you look at it. Plus it seems to be, at least in this group of names, much less likely than a <2, so the high end is fine. However, a 1.9, though not very good, is still helping the team win and therefore is better than any negative WAR even if it is -0.1. Stiil, with the intended ambiguity there has to be some cut off point, but if all negatives at least had their own value/color it *might* make for an interesting for argument sake.

bcp33bosox
Member
bcp33bosox
5 years 6 months ago

Also, I assume less than 2 could also be negative WAR…which might not be so common with the all-time 500, but it would be interesting to see which players actually had seasons of negative WARs. Which again, maybe I am in the minority, but to me, seems much worse than just having a low positive WAR.

Obviously, not listing the exact numbers and totals, some vagueness is intended. On the other hand, my reasoning is, >10 is amazing just about any way you look at it. Plus it seems to be, at least in this group of names, much less likely than a <2, so the high end is fine. However, a 1.9, though not very good, is still helping the team win and therefore is better than any negative WAR even if it is -0.1. Stiil, with the intended ambiguity there has to be some cut off point, but if all negatives at least had their own value/color it *might* make for an interesting for argument sake.

bcp33bosox
Member
bcp33bosox
5 years 6 months ago

Yeah, now that I see it, the outline is exactly what I was looking for…Thanks for working it out with me. I am actually quite surprised how much better I can *see* the chart. Anyway, as I said, I am happy you took the time…so again, thanks and now I seem to be able to fully appreaciate the chart…

Boog
Guest
4 years 9 months ago

I’d vernute that this article has saved me more time than any other.

delv
Guest
delv
5 years 6 months ago

cool article and great discussion. there are gonna be problems with these analyses, but it’s worth the effort!

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

For the best analysis of 19th century baseball, and any era, visit:

http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/

Post 93 gives an approximate ranking:

http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/hall_of_merit/discussion/personal_hall_of_merit/

10 best:
1 Cy Young
2 Cap Anson
3 Kid Nichols
4 Roger Connor
5 Dan Brouthers
6 Ed Delehanty
7 George Davis
8 Bill Dahlen
9 Billy Hamilton
10 Amos Rusie

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

11 Buck Ewing
12 John Clarkson
13 King Kelly
14 George Wright
15 Deacon White
16 Jesse Burkett
17 Jack Glasscock
18 Paul Hines
19 Charley Radbourn
20 Jim O’Rourke

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

21 Tim Keefe
22 Al Spalding
23 Ross Barnes
24 Hughie Jennings
25 John Ward
26 John McGraw
27 Willie Keeler
28 Joe Kelley
29 Jimmy Collins
30 Charlie Bennett

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

31 Ezra Sutton
32 George Gore
33 Bid McPhee
34 Clark Griffith
35 Joe Start
36 Dickey Pearce
37 Pud Galvin
38 Bob Caruthers
39 Ed Williamson
40 Hardy Richardson

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

41 Cal McVey
42 Charley Jones
43 Frank Grant – Negro who played in International Association
44 Jim McCormick
45 Jake Beckley
46 Lip Pike

Pioneering great:
Jim Creighton – amazing as a teen, passed away at 21.

In my estimation, The 46 players I have ranked meet or exceeded the standards for election into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.

Spots 1-10 could fit nicely into a small Hall, consisting of ~100 members.
Spots 11-21 are better than the average hall of famer, and have no blemishes large enough that they should be omitted from cooperstown.
Spots 22-38 easily meet the hall standards in my world, but there resumes are not as strong, and or, there is not as much evidence to support greatness (Spalding, Barnes, Start, Pearce)
Spots 39-46 are more subjective and are more open to debate, but I ultimately find them worthy.

Players who are close and notable:
Tommy Bond
Fred Dunlap
Davy Force
Harry Stovey
Sam Thompson
Jim Whitney

Terrible Hall of Fame mistake:
Tommy McCarthy – arguably the worst player selected.

Worst Hall of Fame oversight:
Bill Dahlen – great hitter and fielder of the 1890s and 1900s criminally overlooked. Similar in career value to Robin Yount.

Ryan
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

Oops…I failed to mention Cupid Childs…who would slot in at 46, ahead of Lip Pike.

al baseball
Guest
al baseball
2 years 8 months ago

I think John Ward is unfairly scored. He was a star pitcher and than a star infielder. I think the scoring system has trouble dealing with his dual talents. He [I think] is the only player in history with 200 wins & 2,000 hits!]

wpDiscuz