Position Players by WAR: Deadball Era

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

Last week we covered the position players of the 19th century. Our next stop is the Deadball Era. In 1901, the American League was formed, making it the second major league along with the National League. That is the beginning of the two-league system we still enjoy today.

As we know, the game itself has changed over the last century. Originally, foul balls were not counted as strikes. Intrepid batters (like King Kelly) would foul off pitches until they could draw a walk. In 1894, the rules were changed to call fouled-off bunts as strikes. In 1901, all fouls became strikes in the National League, followed by 1903 for the American league. That year would also see the first World Series, held every year (except 1904, and other strike years).

But the owners were cheap back then. The balls the pitchers used were supposed to last an entire game, as they were quite expensive, and apparently some owners would hire security guards specifically to retrieve foul balls. That cheapness led to the first players’ strike in 1908, and may have contributed to the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Further, the environment that these players grew up in was advantageous to pitching.

 Check below:

There were still tremendous players in that era. Of the 65 Position Players in the top 500 Wins Above Replacement, 21 are in the Hall of Fame. I’ve heard of some of them, like John McGraw (though he played half his career in the 19th century), Frank Chance (from the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” combo that marks the last time the Cubs won the World Series in 1907 1908), Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Sam Crawford. But that leaves 16 players in the Hall of Fame that I can’t recognize by name, and another 50 players or so that are among the 500 best that I have never heard of. With no further adieu, here is the graph showing the best position players of the Deadball Era:

When I changed the methodology, I updated the above graphic. The old one is here Also, a hearty thanks to bcp33bosox for suggesting outlines to give a point of reference for each shade. I’ve updated this (and the previous graph) based on his suggestion. If you have ways you think I can improve this graphic, please let me know.

If you had a Hall of Fame ballot for this period, which 21 players would you pick? Did the writers and the Veteran’s committee make the right choice? Did any of these players catch your eye as particularly good or bad choices?

Next week we will tackle the Liveball Era, the emergence of Babe Ruth, and the first Hall of Fame balloting process.

Links to player pages (career WAR in parentheses):

Ty Cobb (163.9) Honus Wagner (149.8)
Tris Speaker (142.6) Eddie Collins (134.2)
Nap Lajoie (108.2) Fred Clarke (81.6)
Sam Crawford (76.5) Sherry Magee (74.1)
Zack Wheat (70) Bobby Wallace (68.4)
Joe Jackson (67) Max Carey (66.6)
Frank Baker (65.8) Jimmy Sheckard (65)
Harry Hooper (62.3) Joe Tinker (62.2)
Tommy Leach (60.8) Elmer Flick (59.4)
Ed Konetchy (59.2) Johnny Evers (57.6)
Larry Doyle (56.8) Jimmy Collins (54.6)
Heinie Groh (54.2) Frank Chance (53.3)
Bobby Veach (52.8) Larry Gardner (52.5)
Roy Thomas (51.8) Fred Tenney (51.6)
George Burns (50.7) Rabbit Maranville (50.5)
Jake Daubert (49.7) Art Fletcher (49.6)
Fielder Jones (49.3) Roger Peckinpaugh (48.9)
Del Pratt (48.4) Miller Huggins (48.1)
Wally Schang (47.1) Roger Bresnahan (46.8)
Donie Bush (46.5) Art Devlin (45.8)
Clyde Milan (45.1) Harry Davis (44.1)
Dan McGann (41) Heinie Zimmerman (40.9)
Gavvy Cravath (40.2) Cy Seymour (40.1)
Bill Bradley (39.8) Ginger Beaumont (39.5)
John Titus (39.4) Danny Murphy (39)
Topsy Hartsel (38.8) Claude Ritchey (38.4)
Benny Kauff (38.4) Mike Donlin (38)
Frank Schulte (38) Freddy Parent (37.4)
Terry Turner (37.1) Stuffy McInnis (36.6)
Jimmy Williams (36) Dode Paskert (36)
Harry Steinfeldt (36) Chick Stahl (35.4)
Kid Elberfeld (35.2) Buck Herzog (34.4)
Ray Chapman (34.3)


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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

47 Responses to “Position Players by WAR: Deadball Era”

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  1. t ball says:

    Looking at that runs per game chart makes the whole kerfuffle over the so called steroids era seem pretty overblown.

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    • Topher says:

      Yeah it really puts it into perspective. Although there was a massive jump around 1992. That jump looks to be about as large as the jump from 1968′s “Year of the Pitcher” to 1969, when the lowered the mound in response.

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  2. Chris K says:

    How did you arrive at fielding metrics for all of these players? Did fangraphs incorporate the baseball-reference data? Otherwise, it seems to me that batting runs above average would be the superior metric. Not to question that you’ve done your due diligence, I’m sure that the fielding data used to generate these WAR numbers is the best we can do at educated guessing, but what kind of information could even exist about deadball era players’ defensive capabilities other than sports columnists’ anecdotes?

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    • hunterfan says:

      This question was asked by myself and several others when the initial article came out. Namely, how do you get the defensive component of WAR for players of this era, and what’s the confidence interval for the results?

      The author never responded which leads me to believe he simply doesn’t know.

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    • I’ll ask around and try to figure out how it was determined. I personally have no idea and didn’t do any due diligence, I trusted people smarter than me to make that determination and used their numbers.

      Give me some time (I’m on vacation in the US right now) and I’ll either send you an e-mail, include it in a future column from this series, or otherwise give you a heads up.

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    • alskor says:

      In the past, Total Zone has been used to estimate historical players’ defensive contributions.

      I have no idea if that was the data Josh used here, though.

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  3. Dash says:

    What about Ty Cobb? He played 1905 – 1928. He played a majority of his (and his best) baseball in the Dead Ball era. Does he get included in the Liveball era instead?

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    • Sorry about that — he’s in the Liveball era. My methodology (to save me work, though clearly unfair) is to make the cutoff at a year — in this case 1925 — and throw all players who played past that date to the next era.

      Regardless, since each player is compared against his peers to determine his WAR, being thrown into another era doesn’t actually hurt him in any way but perception. So feel free to lay the blame at my feet, and include him in Deadball where he rightfully belongs.

      I can try to do a better job in a couple articles by making per-player distinctions, but chances are there will be problems with that method too. If it would make you feel better, I could include the “on the cusp” players in both eras, or something like that, so that you can throw them wherever you think they best belong.

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      • Dash says:

        Your method is fine so long as it is consistent. Keep it the way it is, just make a note of it somewhere.

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      • I’ll toss that in as a note. Sorry ’bout the confusion.

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      • Richard Gadsden says:

        A better approach (admittedly more effort) would be to put each player into the era that they got the most WAR in. But you’re putting a lot of effort into this, and I’m happy just to get the article, so don’t feel obligated to go to even more work.

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      • fredsbank says:

        despite the fact that cobb is probably the defining player of the deadball era, he’s included in the liveball era with his homeboys ruth, hornsby, gehrig, and foxx?

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  4. James III says:

    I love these historical articles! Thanks.

    One suggestion for the display might be sorting the last list and/ or the graph by lifetime WAR. We’re always interested in who’s the best….

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    • I can give that a shot for the Post-war era article in 2 weeks (I am away from my home computer for the next couple weeks). I’ll also update the old lists at that time for you.

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  5. Ahem. No mention of Mordecai Centennial “Three Finger” Brown — my all time favorite Cub?

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  6. DL80 says:

    The graph makes it so clear how amazing Wagner was. Nap Lajoie was an amazing player with an amazing career, and yet Wagner dwarfs him. I wonder if the common fan even knows anything about Wagner beyond the baseball card?

    He’s got to be one of the top 5 of all time, right? Wagner, Ruth, Cobb, Williams, Mays in some order? Bonds once we have some perspective? Pujols and/or ARod maybe someday?

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  7. Rafael J says:

    I thought Ty Cobb played in the Deadball Era,,,,,,,where is he?

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  8. hunterfan says:

    Why is John McGraw tops on the chart showing the best deadball ERA players when Honus Wagner and Nap Lajoie (for example) blew him away in terms of career WAR? I think there may be something wrong with the chart.

    Also, as another posted asked, where is Ty Cobb? Cobb was a contemporary of Lajoie (the whole flap over the batting title and the Chalmers automobile comes to mind.)

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    • Okay, here was my basic methodology:

      - Get list of top 500 position players by WAR
      - Sort by retirement year
      - Separate list by era by arbitrary year played

      Prehistory: Retired in 1905 or before
      Deadball: Retired in 1925 or before
      Liveball: Retired in 1950 or before
      Post-War: Retired in 1965 or before
      Expansion: Retired in 1980 or before
      Free Agency: Retired in 2000 or before
      Modern: The rest

      So this is not ideal for players that skirt eras, obviously. And it leaves a bad taste in the mouth for some. My apologies. I arranged it this way because I plan to do the next series looking into timelines for these players to see where the overlap was, and who the superstars of various eras were.

      That is a poor excuse for not doing a good job on these, so I apologize. Can you forgive me?

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      • hunterfan says:

        As a previous poster stated, I was confused because I didn’t quite understand what the methodology. Now that I understand, things make much more sense. :-)

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      • Rally says:

        I can see using those cutoffs Cobb gets lumped into the liveball era. But you know that isn’t right – he exemplified the way to play baseball in the deadball era. His peak years were all deadball.

        I suggest using age of birth to set your cutoff points so that a guy who hangs on for a few years well past his prime can still be counted with the group of players he mostly played against.

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      • Yeah, I screwed the pooch on that one. Let me see if I can grab the ages of players from the database easily and go from there.

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  9. The link to baseball prehistory isn’t working.

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  10. Chad says:

    Biggest Hall snubs to me seem like:

    “Bad Bill” Dahlen, who seems to have had a reputation as a good fielding SS (collecting the career record for total chances along the way, which still holds) and managed a .360 wOBA (2500 hits, 1600 runs, 550 sb).

    “Jimmy” Sheckard, also with a reputation as a slick fielder (mostly LF), holds the single season MLB record for double plays at BOTH LF and RF, and put together a .371 wOBA as a leadoff hitter (2100 hits, 1300 runs).

    and Sherwood “Sherry” Magee, a LF who collected over 2100 hits with a .385 wOBA, including a .291 average (pretty good for the era I think).

    Its harder to point at those in the Hall on the list who may not belong, but first glance I would point at Hughie Jennings and Miller Huggins…

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    • Rally says:

      Huggins has got to be in more for managing than he is for playing. Jennings has a pretty good managerial career too. As a player he kept putting himself in a game every now and then until age 49 but for all intents and purposes he was done as a regular at 31.

      His peak, age 25-29 is pretty impressive. 41 of his 46 career WAR, and monster league leading HBP every year.

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      • Chad says:

        Have to admit after looking at it a bit more that Jennings belongs among the greats (his ’94-’98 seasons may be the greatest stretch ever by a shortstop, an accumulative 38 war over 5 years if you believe the fielding values – he certainly had the fielding reputation), and he cemented his fame as a manager (leading the tigers to three consecutive pennants right after he took over the helm).

        Miller (“Mighty Mite” Ha!) Huggins doesn’t impress me that much as a player (beyond the ability to get a walk, probably helped by being 5’6″), but he did manage the 20′s yankees, through Ruth’s amazing rise and three World Series rings, so he may belong in the Hall for that reason alone.

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  11. Eric R says:

    Also note Dahlen’s line compared to anyone but Lajoie and Wagner… Someday he has to end up in the HoF, right??

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  12. Mike says:

    Brett Favre could be Hughie Jennings reincarnated.

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    • hunterfan says:

      How so? I wiki’d it, and I’m not sure I see the comparison.

      Although the wikipedia entry did relate the following anecdote, which I find hilarious if true :

      ‘In 1912, during a game in which “pick-ups” played for the Tigers when the regular team went on strike to protest the suspension of Cobb after an incident involving a fan in the stands whom Cobb assaulted, Jennings, who also sent his coaches in as substitute players, came to bat himself once as a pinch hitter. According to one source, when the umpire asked him for whom he was batting, Jennings answered, “None of your business.” The umpire noted on his lineup sheet, “Jennings–batted for exercise.”‘

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  13. SF 55 for life says:

    I don’t think there are 21 worthy hall of famers from this group. I would put the following players in the hall of fame:
    Hughie Jennings, George Davis, Elmer Flick, Bill Dahlen, Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Frank Baker, Frank Chance, Joe Tinker, Sam Crawford, Sherry Magee,

    That’s ten right there. Some guys are pretty close like Bobby Wallace, Roger Bresnahan, and Larry Doyle.

    As you can see the middle infield positions were very well represented during this era. I wonder if any other era will have this many middle infielders worthy of the hall of fame.

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  14. baycommuter says:

    This graph really shows the tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Carry his career out to the logical endpoint, and he’s right there with Honus Wagner.

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    • Scout Finch says:

      Eight Men Out was on the tube a week ago. Better depiction there than Field of Dreams. Great to look those guys up on baseball reference: see also Bucky Weaver and Eddie Ciccote.

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  15. williams .482 says:

    You neven seem to hear anything about McGraw other than his managing, but a .466 OBP (3rd best all time)? Wow.

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  16. bcp33bosox says:

    Joshua, I appreciate the recognition and glad I could help. These posts are really great and a lot of fun. I just noticed in the short bio that you are an expat living in Japan…me too. I just moved to Kita-Kyushu last summer after 10 years in Tokyo. I have to say I am pretty psyched on fangraphs so far. I will check out your blog sometime later this week as well. Enjoy your vacation back home!

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  17. ibn Bob says:

    ” That year would also see the first World Series, held every year (except 1904).”

    Who won in 1994?

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  18. dorasaga says:


    1908, the last World Series win of the Cubs, 1907.

    Wow, after 66 years without a WS appearance, now nobody respect my team, and its history.

    Sad, really, sad.

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    • dorasaga says:

      *1908, the last World Series win of the Cubs, not 1907.
      (I guess both of us need a new, more presopnsive keyboard.)

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    • Many apologies. I’ve fixed it in the article. I have trouble remembering what I did 3 weeks ago — please don’t judge me too harshly for forgetting the details of what happened decades before I was born.

      (but please do continue to fact-check me so that I can fix things that people smarter than I remember properly)

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