19 to 21
Baseball 2015

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at jas2baseball@gmail.com

19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History

Volume 13, #9, May 26, 2015

AA MVPs, Part I

  Having previously introduced the Beer & Whiskey League into the conversation through the means of Edward Achorn’s book on the 1883 season, it’s a logical segue to take a broader look at the late, lamented American Association; 1882 to 1891.

  In the history of what is now euphemistically called “Organized Ball,” no other “major” league, save the currently existing two organizations, AKA the National and American leagues, managed to last as long as the AA. And while 10 seasons may not seem like much of a history, it’s a lot better than the National Association (five years), the Union Association (one year), the Players League (one year) or the Federal League (two years). And it’s certainly more successful than say, the Continental League and the 1894 and 1900 attempts to revive the American Association, none of which ever made it onto the field.

  There are a lot of angles to potentially explore about the American Association, an organization which did have a lot of teams that were backed by various aspects of the liquor industry (everything from brewers to saloon keepers to bartenders), as well as such other interesting individuals as popular minstrel performer Lew Simmons, who was one of the original owners of the AA’s Philadelphia Athletics (not to be confused with the dominant 1860s and 1870s Philadelphia Athletics.) And while the AA may not have quite reached the level of play of the established National League, its 10 years were also populated with some fine players.

  How fine? Despite the fact that the AA has been almost totally overlooked and forgotten by the baseball establishment – that’s what happens when you lose a war or an election – there were first rate talents that played for the Athletics, St. Louis Browns, Louisville Colonels/Eclipse, Cincinnati Reds, the original New York Metropolitans, and even the Kansas City Cowboys.

  Maybe the AA’s status as the Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis or Bob Dole or Al Gore of 19th Century baseball has caused collective amnesia among all but a handful of baseball historians. Or maybe losing the trade war (to use Harold Seymour’s term) to the NL after the 1891 season has reduced the AA to the status of France after the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars or the Franco-Prussian War (do we sense a trend here?), thus depriving ALL of the Association's primary stars of membership in the Hall of Fame (no player whose career was centered in the AA has ever been inducted). Still, there were some superstars in the AA, and this might be a good place to recall some of them, through the means of picking the Most Valuable Players of the 10 AA seasons.

  Picking MVPs will always be a subjective exercise, however, we will try to bring some statistical merit to the task by instituting a simple ranking system based on yearly leadership in various batting categories… batting average, slugging, on base, total bases, home runs, runs, hits and, for the later seasons, RBIs and stolen bases (which were not kept, or have not been reconstructed, for the early years.) Borrowing from track team scoring, we’ll give a player six points for leading the AA in a category, four points for second, three points for third, two points for fourth and one point for fifth. Of course, no such system is perfect, and, in this case, it’s even less-perfect than most. That’s because the 1880s, especially in the AA, was an era of good hitting pitchers, so much so that a couple of hurlers, Guy Hecker and Parisian Bob Caruthers, who are also two of the AA’s potential Hall of Famers, made a significant impact on this very unofficial MVP voting.

  For example, the AA’s first season in 1882 was dominated from a hitting perspective by three players, the Eclipse’s Pete Browning, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys’ Ed Swartwood, and the Reds’ Hick Carpenter. However, a strong case can be made for Louisville pitcher Hecker, who was second in ERA, and led the AA in opponents batting average (OOBP) and opponents on base average (OBA). That’s in addition to finishing fifth in home runs (that’s hit, not allowed), seventh in runs scored and ninth in slugging, total bases and hits.

  Still, Browning is a better choice for MVP, since he led the AA in batting, slugging, on base average and also finished in the top five in home runs (second), hits (second), total bases (fourth) and runs (fourth). That gave him 30 points under the system previously described, just edging out Swartwood’s 29 points, which were built primarily on leading in total bases and runs. Browning’s extra point, and leadership in an extra category, make him the 1882 MVP by the narrowest of margins, with Swartwood second, Hecker third and Carpenter (who led in hits) fourth.

  The 1883 season saw the luckless Swartwood just miss another MVP award, but this time to arguably the AA’s greatest player, Athletic’s Harry Stovey, who not only led his team to the pennant, but also led the AA in slugging, total bases, home runs and runs, totaling 26 points to beat Swartwood’s 24, which was built on leading in batting, on base and hits. Keep Stovey’s name in mind, he’ll re-appear again in this saga as the ultimate power/speed player of the 19th Century.

  Long John Reilly of the Reds, another player who would be heard from in the field in the future (he was also a professional baseball cartoonist), finished in the top five in batting, slugging, total bases, home runs, runs and hits, but missed out on third place because the Mets’ Tim Keefe, though not much of a hitter, had a pitching year to remember, (Yes, Keefe is in the Hall of Fame, but most of his career was in the National League), leading in innings, complete games, strikeouts, OOBP, OBA and finishing second in wins, fifth in ERA and sixth in won-loss percentage.

  Reilly made up for his near-miss in ’83 (he had 20 points) by taking what would be the first of his two AA MVP awards in 1884, leading the league in home runs, total bases and slugging while finishing second in hits and batting average, plus fourth in runs and fifth in on base for 29 points. If someone had a year like that now, he’d be Albert Pujols in his prime.

  And yet, big Dave Orr of the Mets gave Reilly a run for his money, leading in batting, total bases and hits while finishing third in home runs and slugging for 24 points. Behind these two hitters was that Guy Hecker again. This time he was ninth in slugging and led in almost every pitching category – wins, innings, complete games, strikeouts, ERA and OOBA. (He was second in OBA and W-L percentage). The best reining MVP Stovey could do, despite leading the league in runs and finishing in the top five in five other categories, was fourth overall.

  The 1885 season saw the return of Pete Browning to the top spot, beating out two Athletics, Stovey and Henry Larkin, by leading the AA in batting, on base, total bases and hits and finishing in the top five in slugging, home runs, RBIs and runs. Yes, “The Gladiator,” as the original “Louisville Slugger” (the bat was named after him, since he had the first one custom-made) was known, could hit, 34 points worth in 1885. Although Stovey totaled 25 points, one more than teammate Larkin and led in home runs and runs, Larkin had a better slash line, .339/.372/.525 to Stovey’s .315/.371/.488 and a higher OPS .897 to .859, giving him second. Next was Orr, who actually had a higher OPS than either of the Athletics (.901) but scored fewer points (20).

  The culmination of the Good Hitting Pitcher Era (or at least said era after the 1860s, when the game was much different) was the 1886 season, when Hecker became the only pitcher to win a batting title and the Browns’ Caruthers won the MVP award, as well as leading the AA in on base average. In fact, Hecker’s and Caruthers’ offensive seasons were quite similar. The latter led the AA in on base, and was second in slugging and fourth in batting. Hecker led in batting, was second in on base and fourth in slugging.

  However, Caruthers’ better season in the box earned him the MVP. He finished second in ERA, W-L percentage and OOBP and fifth in OBA, as well as eighth in Ks. The best Hecker could do was sixth in ERA. In case you’re interested, Hecker was 26-23 and Caruthers 30-14. In general, 1886 was quite a year for pitchers, as rookie Matt “Matches’ Kilroy set the all-time strikeout record with 513 and won 29 games for an awful Baltimore Orioles team (everyone else won only 19 games) and Toad Ramsey K’ed 499 for Louisville.

  It wasn’t a bad year for hitters, either. Hecker could only get third in the MVP voting because Orr had another monster year, leading in slugging, total bases and hits and actually far outpacing everyone in the offensive points total, with 27. Fourth was Tip O’Neill… no, not THAT Tip O’Neill (neither the congressman nor the hasher, take your choice), this was the baseball player, who was beginning a run of four great seasons in a row, which we will explore further in the next installment of AA MVPs.