Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Those of you who cannot let go of the past may not be doomed to repeat it; if you're lucky (and Clint Eastwood over there on the left--who'd have thought he'd lean that way??--is here to remind you that the correct line is "Do I feel lucky?") you will simply be allowed to embrace it.

And baseball fans whose turn of mind leads them to look back in time cannot/should not be without what is arguably David Nemec's magnum opus, Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, recently published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Nemec and his team of writers/researchers have created a two-volume extravaganza of nineteenth century baseball biography that will be the definitive work for the foreseeable future and beyond.

An interesting decision in the formatting of the 1000+-page, two-volume blockbuster is the separation of certain players from what would otherwise have been a straightforward encyclopedia. (This may have been something of a marketing decision by the press, as a look at the pricing for the individual books tends to indicate.) In the second volume (the one that costs more to buy individually...) Nemec & Co. examine the Hall of Fame players from the era, and identify twenty players, founders, and executives whom they advocate for enshrinement. Volume 2 also includes bios for the most colorful (read: "criminous") characters in early baseball.

Naturally, we are interested in the "should be in Hall" list, even though we're on record (previously) as being more than a bit tired of the ongoing Hall of Fame contretemps. With players from so long ago, however, there's something less fraught about such discussions (though we know that this isn't the way the die-hard nineteenth-century aficionados feel about it!).

We don't think that reprinting the list will prevent anyone from buying the book, as it's the biographical contents that matter most--and believe us when we say that this is some of the very best work of this type to be found anywhere. What we'll do here is cross-reference Nemec and Co.'s list with the work of the Hall of Merit, whose effort in constructing a more rigorous set of enshrinees began with an exhaustive examination of nineteenth-century players.

As the chart shows, the Hall of Merit folks selected nine of the names from those appearing on Nemec's list, and added four of their own who aren't in the Hall and aren't on the "twenty for the Hall" list. For those who aren't familiar with all that many of the individuals on the list, you are cordially invited to examine their player pages at Forman et fil, where many have SABR biography links that can be easily accessed. And, of course, all two dozen of these players, founders ("Doc" Adams) and executives (A.G. Mills) have biographical entries in Volume 2 of Nemec's Profiles.

The Nemec list seems to us to favor players from the left side of the defensive spectrum (catchers, middle infielders, center fielders)--which is by no means a bad thing, but we think that the Hall of Merit did an especially fine job in selecting the four "unique" players--Jones, McVey, Pike and Sutton--whose presence on Nemec and Co.'s list would arguably make it definitive.

Daniel "Doc" Adams, credited with
inventing the SS position...
Bill James, in one of his strangest pronouncements (one which he continues to make, perhaps as some kind of residue from the extremes of cynicism that still waft from the slowly decaying carcass of his Politics of Glory), is on record as saying that it won't do anyone any good to put any of these folks into the Hall of Fame.

While it's undeniably true that there are no fans who were alive when these players were active whose socks will be animated by an induction ceremony, what's far more important is that the Hall of Fame continues to expand its exploration of baseball's past.

"Parisian" Bob Caruthers, the American
Association's great "double threat..."
Under no circumstances should anyone think that we already know all we need to about the formative years of baseball. The efforts of Nemec, of John Thorn and William Ryczek, of Peter Morris and David Ball--and many other researchers whose names we are regretfully omitting--are proof positive that there is still a great deal to discover about the origins and early years of the game. An ongoing enshrinement of nineteenth-century players is vital to the ongoing historical credibility of the Hall, and it's one of the easiest ways that the organization can stay credible in an era of out-of-control skepticism.

A nineteenth-century Veterans' Committee needs to be reactivated, and every other year two nineteenth century players should be enshrined. Our votes for the first two would go to Daniel "Doc" Adams (as John Thorn so forcefully argues, the man who really invented baseball as we know it today) and Bob Caruthers (the early game's greatest two-way player).