19 to 21
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #14, July 30, 2015
AA MVPs (Part 2)
Having previously discussed the MVPs of the first five years of the American Association (1882 to 1886), we now turn to the second half of the AA’s 10-year existence, the 1887 to 1891 seasons.
As the 1887 season began, the St. Louis Browns were in the middle of an, if not unprecedented, at least impressive run of four straight pennants. While historians may recall that Harry Wright’s Boston Red Stockings had swept four consecutive National Association pennants just a dozen years before, from 1872 through 1875, the Browns’ run from 1885 to 1888 was more impressive, as the AA was a much better-balanced aggregation than “Harry Wright’s League.” Indeed, “Mein Prowns,” as St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe was fond of calling them, were pursued by several other AA teams during their run, notably the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Alleghenys, Brooklyn Bridegrooms (they wouldn’t become the Dodgers for a few years) and Philadelphia Athletics.
(A brief aside… it’s too bad audio recordings did not exist in the 1880s. It has been universally assumed for years that von der Ahe spoke with a Katzenjammer Kids accent, sounding like he’d just gotten off the boat from Heidelberg. Inevitably, he was quoted in the newspapers as saying things like he was “der Poss Bresident” of the Browns. And, maybe he did make statements like that, or maybe he didn’t. In reality, the same stories have been repeated over and over again through the years, even though there’s really no way to be sure how Chris spoke, or how obvious his accent was manifested.)
(Let us also not forget that newspaper writers at this time, and indeed through the first couple of decades of the 20th Century, were notorious for making up quotes to “enliven” stories and even making up entire stories out of whole cloth. While Charles Dryden’s tale of a Rube Waddell foul ball setting off an explosion in a Boston bean factory is the best known example of something that would either get you fired or sued for libel today, it was hardly the only one. The accuracy of sportswriting in this era was, at best, highly questionable. Well, maybe this highly unprofessional trend hasn’t disappeared entirely… let us not forget Sports Illustrated’s inexcusable “joke” story about Sidd Finch.)
But, we digress. Suffice it to say that the Browns were, over the course of the AA’s 10 years, the circuit’s top team, although that dominance didn’t really show in the virtual MVP standings. Bob Caruthers and Tip O’Neill won back-to-back virtual MVP awards in 1886 and 1887, at the height of the Browns’ run, but the team was so well-balanced that those two worthies are the only Browns to finish in the top four in any of the yearly MVP tallies.
The second of those MVP titles was O’Neill’s in 1887, when he put together one of the great years in baseball history. Although this was the year that walks counted as hits, even if the normal scoring rules are superimposed on the ’87 season after the fact, the “Woodstock Wonder,” as he was known, had himself a year, leading the AA in runs (167 in 124 games), hits (225, the first time anyone had topped 200 hits), doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, batting (.435), on base, slugging, OPS (1.180), OPS+, total bases (357, a major league record that would last until 1894) and exclamations from old Chris.
It’s also worth noting that Caruthers, having won the virtual MVP award in 1886, was second this year, with a season that would have won him the award under almost any other circumstances – he was second in slugging, third in on base, fourth in home runs, sixth in batting AND led the AA in winning percentage, won 29 games and finished in the top five in three other pitching categories. Wow. The Browns won by 14 games that year.
O’Neill won his second straight batting crown in 1888, but the Reds Long John Reilly won his second MVP (his first was in 1884) with a much better year across the board, leading the AA in slugging, total bases, home runs and RBIs... piling up 32 points (to O’Neill’s 19) via the system previously described. Actually, Browns pitcher Silver King was second in the MVP race this season, since he had a pitching season to almost match O’Neill’s 1887 hitting campaign; leading the AA in wins, innings, complete games, ERA, and both opponents’ on base percentage and batting average. And, he was second in strikeouts and third in won-loss percentage.
The 1889 season saw the return of another familiar name to the top spot in the MVP rankings… Harry Stovey. Having previously finished first in 1883, third in 1885, and fourth in 1884 and 1888, the home town hero, who is still the best 19th Century player NOT in the Hall of Fame, showed off his power game in his final AA season by leading the league in slugging, total bases, home runs, RBIs and runs, totaling 30 points to beat out one of the best seasons ever by a switch-hitter, an outstanding performance by Baltimore’s Tommy Tucker, who set a switch-hitting record with a .372 mark that is, in fact, still a record for switch-hitters. Tucker also led the AA in on base average and hits.
Although it was still the American Association, the AA’s last two seasons were much different than the first eight, including an almost completely new cast of characters. Thanks to the Players League, the AA lost much of its top talent – including Stovey – and a whole new cast of characters came to the fore.
For 1890, the top dog was a wolf, Chicken Wolf, that is. The only player to appear in all 10 AA seasons, Wolf led Louisville to the 1890 pennant, and, thanks in part to that accomplishment, won out in a very tight three-way race for the MVP award, edging out Athletic’s Denny Lyons and the Browns’ Tommy McCarthy. The latter, who thanks to his association later on with Hugh Duffy was voted into the Hall of Fame as one of the Veterans Committee’s classic mistakes, actually led under the point system with 26, up one point on Wolf and seven on Lyons. However, Wolf led the AA in batting, total bases and hits, in addition to leading the Cyclones to the pennant, and Lyons (the leader in on base and slugging) led both Wolf and McCarthy (who only led in steals) in OPS, .989 to .900, to .897.
The AA’s final season saw four Boston Reds finish one through four in the MVP race; in order, Tom Brown, Dan Brouthers, the aforementioned Mr. Duffy, and Duke Farrell. Brown led in points (29) and statistically in total bases, hits, runs and steals. Brouthers who, like Duffy, had a HOF career in the National League, led in batting, on base, slugging and, naturally, OPS.
In bringing down the curtain on the AA MVPs, the question must naturally be asked, who was the AA’s best player? If you’ve been following along, you know the answer – Harry Stovey.
Using a point system of five points for first in a yearly MVP
vote, three points for second, two points for third and one point for fourth,
the top scorers in MVP voting in the AA were…
Harry Stovey - 14
Pete Browning - 12
Long John Reilly - 11
Tip O’Neill - 9
Bob Caruthers - 8
While subjective, this ranking does make some sense, since Stovey, Browning and Reilly were the only two-time MVPs. Stovey is the only player to make the top four five times (in only seven years – 1883 to 1889) with two firsts, a third, and two fourths. Browning had two firsts and a third, and Reilly (who’s basically been forgotten even more than Stovey and Browning, and that’s too bad; from 1883 to 1890 he had an OPS+ of 140) two firsts and a fourth.
O’Neill finished in the top four four times, and over four straight years (1886 to 1889), with a first, a third and two fourths. Honorable mention goes to Guy Hecker (three thirds) and Dave Orr (two seconds and a fourth) as the only other players to finish in the top four in the yearly voting three times.
While there certainly is plenty of room for argument among how these seven AA stars could be ranked overall, the most important point is that they all deserve Hall of Fame consideration (with the exception of Hecker, who only played nine seasons and Orr, who only played eight -- he suffered a stroke after the 1890 season)… they were all first rank stars of a major league.