The Overlooked Legends Panel at The Fred

Apr 30, 2017 by Adam Darowski

A little over a week ago, I attended the SABR Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Base Ball Conference at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The conference, known simply as “The Fred”, featured a panel on SABR’s Overlooked Nineteenth Century Base Ball Legends project. Since I’m the chair of the project, I was invited to speak on the panel.

I’m not going to lie—it was both thrilling and intimidating to take part. The panel was moderated by Major League Baseball’s historian John Thorn. John’s work, of course, played a huge part in igniting my interest in the 19th century game. The panel also included my friend Joe Williams (who I succeeded as chair of the Overlooked Legends project) and Michael Haupert.

The panel seemed to go quite smoothly and was very well-received. It was a great experience and I’m glad I did it. It was an honor to be invited and I’d like to thank Peter Mancuso and everyone involved for thinking of me.

I also would like to share some of the questions that John directed towards me and write about my responses.

Bill James wrote, only a couple of months back, the greatest impediment to Hall of Fame quality players of any generation getting into the Hall of Fame is the 75% standard. “If we assume,” Bill wrote, that (a) the standard for future Hall of Fame selections is an average Hall of Famer, and (b) different voters will have different opinions of each candidate, then what that means is that an average Hall of Famer will be rejected in future voting.” Bill was writing about the general election by eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association, but might this shoe fit for the Veterans Committee, too?

I think this is definitely applicable to the various Veterans Committees. In fact, the more I think about it the more I realize what a minor miracle it was that three inductees were chosen in 2013 (Deacon White, Hank O'Day, and Jacob Ruppert—with Bill Dahlen almost making it as well). There are sixteen committee members. Each is allowed four votes. Right there, there’s a maximum of 64 votes to go around. Each ballot has ten carefully chosen candidates (who are either strong sabermetric or traditional candidates). At least twelve votes are needed to induct a single player. The arrangement makes it very hard to see any inductions at all.

It has seemed to many of us that two positions most respected in their day—catcher and shortstop—are not well represented in the Hall. Shortstops Jack Glasscock and Bill Dahlen seem at least the equal of George Davis, elected in 1998. Catchers’ defensive contributions have long hard to quantify but Charlie Bennett and Silver Flint were the glory of their times for standing in when others went to the sidelines. How can we evaluate the defensive contributions of these two positions today, and allow for their lesser contributions to offense?

Charlie Bennett: Photo Credit

As the resident “stat guy” on the panel, this one was right in my wheelhouse. I began by talking about Total Zone, which uses the rudimentary fielding statistics of the day (putouts, assists, errors, fielding percentage) to construct fielding runs above average. Those stats aren’t great, but over the course of a career they do tend to surface the better fielders. Look at the 19th century players near the top of the Total Zone list—Glasscock, Dahlen, Davis, Bid McPhee, Bennett, etc.—all players with tremendous defensive reputations. This is consistent with the 20th century leaders. Nobody is going to argue with a list topped by Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, and Ozzie Smith.

I then took an opportunity to expand on Charlie Bennett, who has been on my mind lately. Yes, Silver Flint and Charlie Bennett were below average hitters by the metric of the day—batting average.

The thing is, we now know that batting average isn’t the only way to evaluate a hitter. On-base percentage and slugging percentage are not new-fangled metrics. They have been standards for quite some time. And look at what happens when Flint and Bennett are evaluated by those metrics:

When comparing to league averages, we see that these players really weren’t similar at all—and Bennett looks quite impressive. Not only was he an elite fielder sabermetrically (his 142 fielding runs above average rank second all-time among catchers, just four behind Ivan Rodriguez), his reputation matches the numbers. He even dominated by the metrics of the day, leading catchers in fielding percentage seven times. No catcher in history has led the league more often.

At this point, I borrowed a line from Brian Dees on Twitter that I’d like to credit here.

I used the Pudge Rodriguez comparison (which elicited nods of agreement) and then added Mickey Tettleton (which elicited some skeptical looks). I made the point that both were hitters ahead of their time and the audience seemed to like it.

I finished by bemoaning the fact that Charlie Bennett is such an overlooked legend that he had not yet been named an Overlooked Legend.

Who for you is the most egregious omission from the Hall of Fame among 19th century players and pioneers, and why?

You would think I’d have an answer for this ready to go at all times. Given all we’ve learned since 1980, I would have to say Doc Adams gets the nod. But from the statistical perspective, I’m a huge supporter of Dahlen and Glasscock.

Those are just the questions I was asked directly. There was a lot of free-flowing conversation on a variety of different topics, which made for an interesting and (I hope) entertaining panel. It was a great experience and I’m proud I was a part of it.

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