Remembering Bill Terry and Elmer Flick

The Hall of Fame has three new members today. On this day in history, two other members of the Hall of Fame passed away, Bill Terry in 1989 and Elmer Flick in 1971. So much has been written in recent days about the best players not in the Hall of Fame and the worst players in the Hall of Fame that it’s worth remembering two men who were neither.

Terry and Flick finished with 56-57 WAR in a little more than a decade of play. Judging by today’s standards, that seemed like fine work, if hardly extraordinary. The writers of their day mostly agreed. They finally allowed Bill Terry to enter the hall in 1954, in his 14th year on the ballot. The Veterans Committee finally decided in 1963 in order to induct Flick, whose last season was 1910, 26 years before the first Hall of Fame class.

Terry and Flick represent a number of things mostly missing from our annual Hall of Fame debate. First, the fact that hope springs eternal: no matter how long a player has waited, the Hall may call. It’s undoubtedly true that recent Veterans Committees have shown very little interest in electing players, unlike Veterans Committees of the past, but trends in Veterans Committees tend to run in cycles.

Second, putting borderline players into the Hall doesn’t harm the Hall. It doesn’t particularly lower standards, it doesn’t poison the well, and it doesn’t hurt anybody either outside or inside.

Anyway, you’ve probably heard of Bill Terry: he’s the last National Leaguer to hit over .400, having done so in 1930, and he’s one of 11 players whose numbers have been retired by the Giants (not including Jackie Robinson). You may not have heard of Flick, who played for the Phillies around the turn of the century, then went to Nap Lajoie‘s Cleveland Naps, retiring five years before they changed their name to the “Indians.”*

* Traditionally, the Indians have claimed that they renamed themselves in honor of Louis Sockalexis, an American Indian who played for the team in the late 1890’s. Many others, including Joe Posnanski, have suggested that story is “complete bullcrap,” and that the Indians were merely trying on a name that sounded like that of the 1914 Miracle Braves, who were themselves named after the mascot of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, which was itself named after a chief named Tamanend.

Terry was a career New York Giant, playing for the team from 1923 to 1936 and managing them from 1932 to 1941. He took over first base from High Pockets Kelly and took over managing from John McGraw, both Hall of Famers. Winning a World Series in 1933 and losing four more in 1923-24 and 1936-37, Terry was part of the last Giants dynasty until Buster Posey joined the team, and both he and Kelly were elected in the rosy afterglow of the memory of the superb Giants teams helmed by McGraw, the Little Napoleon, and by Terry himself. (Kelly was elected by the 1973 Veterans Committee and is assuredly one of the worst players in the Hall of Fame, but I promised I wouldn’t wade into that discussion.)

Flick never played in a World Series, though he played with stars like Big Ed Delahanty and Lajoie. Instead, his career was partly overshadowed by the massive interleague battles that took place between the National League and the just-established American League. As retells, Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics raided the Phillies by ignoring the reserve clause and signing away Flick and a teammate, just a year after the A’s had signed away Lajoie from the same team.

The Phillies sought relief in the Pennsylvania courts, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with them, ordering the players back to the Phillies. So the American League itself intervened, keeping the players in their new league by shifting them to a new team outside the state of Philadelphia Pennsylvania: Cleveland, whose team was formerly called the Bronchos and would become known as the Naps after their new stars.

Despite losing these players, Mack’s 1902 A’s finished first, an achievement none of Flick’s teams ever matched. (Flick only played 11 games for the 1902 A’s.) But due to the all-out war between leagues, there was no official postseason that year. Only in 1903, after “the NL legally cried uncle and sued the AL for peace,” would the first official World Series take place.

Elmer Flick was a speedy outfielder who led his league in triples three times and steals twice. His career was only ten full seasons long. As SABR writes, his last three seasons were plagued by gastrointestinal illness so bad that “he lost weight, his power and speed declined, and the pain was so severe there were times when he thought that he would die.”

But it’s probably better to remember him as something like an early version of Shin-Soo Choo, an all-around outfielder who took walks, had pretty good power, and was a fine baserunner. Or, to quote the beginning of his SABR bio, “as the player who Cleveland would not trade for the young Ty Cobb or as the man who won the American League batting title with the lowest average prior to 1968.”

Terry was equally valuable but in a very different way: less speed, less defense, more batting average, more power. He was a first baseman who had a career batting average of .341 with a lot of doubles and a few more homers. And of course he was a player-manager who won a World Series, which holds weight with voters even though it isn’t reflected in WAR. Flick played before the All-Star Game and MVP, but Terry went to three All-Star games and finished top-three in the MVP three times, and it’s likely that Flick would have done the same.

Terry and Flick were two pretty good players from the first half-century of the modern era. They were great in their time, and though by modern standards they wouldn’t be considered all-time greats, they are well worth remembering. Thankfully, their enshrinement will forever provide a chance to do so.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

16 Responses to “Remembering Bill Terry and Elmer Flick”

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  1. Ryan says:

    A shame that Elmer’s career was afflicted with gastrointestinal illness, he clocked off between 4 and 7 WAR in his 10 healthy seasons
    (save 1902), for 56 WAR by the age of 31…anyone have a quick query on how many other position players have accrued 56 WAR by that age?

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  2. Bill Rubinstein says:

    Flick is probably the most underrated player in the HofF- he had amazingly good
    relative statistics, like relative BA and SA. Probably the closest comparison today would be with Mike Trout- I’m not exaggerating.

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  3. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Great article!! This is why we love baseball so much.

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  4. Steve says:

    But were either of them killed by a bartender?

    Also, I know it was old timey, but I didn’t know that Philly was ever a state.

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  5. ken says:

    “…putting borderline players into the Hall doesn’t harm the Hall. It doesn’t particularly lower standards, it doesn’t poison the well, and it doesn’t hurt anybody either outside or inside.”

    Thank you for these words of reason Alex

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  6. james wilson says:

    That’s funny, I was struck by the lack of reasons in that declaration.

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    • Well, the reason is the empirical experience of a Hall of Fame that has contained both of these players for most of the last a half-century. Elmer Flick and Bill Terry aren’t hurting anybody, because they haven’t hurt anybody over the past 40-50 years. QED.

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  7. JimNYC says:

    After I first became a baseball fan, when I was about five, I read everything I could about baseball, and was of course fascinated by baseball history. One of the first books I can remember reading — I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old or so — was a book on the history of baseball. It was chronological, of course, starting in 1871 and going forward, and so one of my earliest “favorite players” was Ross Barnes… and then, when I got to that period, Bill Terry. I couldn’t get enough Bill Terry; I thought he was an amazing player, reading about his life and the story of his playing style. For the longest time — I’m talking well into my late 20’s, after advanced analytics was already a thing — I stubbornly insisted on keeping Billy Terry in my personal list of the top 25 players ever.

    That was unrealistic, of course, but it’s great to see him recognized here.

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  8. Armour T. Unrue says:

    It is rather misleading to say Terry hit for a better batting average than Flick. Most of the difference is due to Terry playing in the live ball era while Flick played in the dead ball era. Terry was regarded as an excellent fielder at first, while Flick was nothing special in the field.

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    • Obviously, Flick played in the deadball era and Terry played in the liveball era. Flick’s rate-adjusted hitting stats are better than Terry’s. But much more of Terry’s value was tied to his batting average than was Flick’s. For example, Flick had a .313 career BA with a .389 career OBP; Terry had a .341 career BA yet a .393 career OBP.

      I’m not trying to give Terry credit for being a better hitter, just noting that most of his value was tied to his BA.

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  9. Armour T. Unrue says:

    Also, the 1903 World Series was no more (or less) official than the seven played from 1884-1890. The 1905 series was the first played under rules adopted by the National Commission:

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