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Sunday, December 28, 2014

3 Obscure Players Who Deserve Closer Scrutiny for the Baseball Hall of Fame

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is in the thick of its annual season. The 2015 ballot was recently released and the Golden Era Committee did not elect any new members to the hallowed museum. There is no tried and true formula to determine who is worthy and who is not, and there will always be arguments about those who have been passed over. However, some are so far back in the rearview mirror that their obscurity generally prevents them from eliciting the support other similar candidates might receive.

Here are three largely forgotten players who deserve closer scrutiny when it comes to their respective case for the Hall of Fame.

Jim McCormick, Pitcher/Outfielder: The Glasgow, Scotland-born right-hander last threw a major league pitch when Grover Cleveland was still in office, so his obscurity is understandable. At 5’10” and 215 pounds, he was built more like a stevedore than a hurler, but he sure could pitch. In his 10-year major league career (1878-1887), he was a combined 265-214 with a 2.43 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 33 shutouts. Of his 485 career starts, he failed to complete just 19 of them.

During the 19th century, pitchers were used about as often and indiscriminately as a favorite bat, so their numbers dwarf anything one might expect to see today. For instance, McCormick’s arguably best season came in 1880 with the Cleveland Blues in the National League, as he went 45-28 with a 1.85 ERA in 74 starts. He not only led the league in wins and starts but also innings with a whopping 657.2.

Naturally, playing in the dead ball era means McCormick’s statistics were achieved under much different circumstance. Nevertheless, he was a dominant performer whose production in comparison to his peers is still very distinguishable today. He led the league in wins, ERA and innings pitched twice, and complete games three times. His 118 ERA+ is the same as Hall-of-Famers Bert Blyleven, Tom Glavine and Ted Lyons. It also bests Hall-of-Famers like Nolan Ryan, Dennis Eckersley and Waite Hoyt. Additionally, McCormick’s career WAR of 75.5 ranks as the 27th-best mark for pitchers of all time.

McCormick’s resume as a part-time outfielder does little to boost his Hall-of-Fame case, as he was a below average hitter, batting just .236. However, he did own one of America’s first sports bars with a teammate (in Paterson, New Jersey).

Having passed away in 1918, McCormick never even knew about the Hall of Fame, which first opened in 1936. Pitching in a different era under much different circumstances should not veil his greatness. As one of the best pitchers to ever step on a mound, he clearly deserves enshrinement so he can be brought back to the common baseball memory.

Bill Dahlen, Shortstop: A reputation for enjoying adult beverages didn’t stop the right-handed hitter from having one of the longest and most productive careers in baseball history. Over 21 years (1891-1911) spent with four National League teams (Chicago Colts, Brooklyn Superbas/Dodgers, New York Giants and Boston Braves). He accumulated a .272 batting average, 84 home runs, 1,234 RBIs, 548 stolen bases, 2,461 hits and 1,590 runs scored in 2,463 games.

In 1894, he had a 42 game hit streak. Upon that ending, he promptly went out and rang up another 28 game streak to give him at least one hit in 70 of 71 games—putting him in the same stratosphere as Joe DiMaggio when it comes to hitting streaks.

Playing in an era when shortstops were generally known for their gloves, and any offense was an added bonus, Dahlen excelled in both regards. He was an elite defender who is still among the most proficient to ever play the position. When he retired he was first all-time in games played and among the leaders in a number of other categories.

Incredibly, “Bad” Bill Dahlen is 46th all-time in WAR for position players with 75.2, just ahead of Sam Crawford and Johnny Bench. The only players to play the majority of their career at shortstop who rank ahead of him are Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., George Davis and Ozzie Smith.

A good bet as to what helped relegate Dahlen to his banishment to obscurity is that he was viewed as extremely moody and surly throughout his career. A passage in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract gives an idea of how the shortstop was regarded:

"Shortstop Dahlen… was a heavy-set, moody, surly man, seemingly lazy and indifferent, who kept mostly to himself, glowering into space like a sick cat. But the seeming indifference, said [manager John] McGraw years later, “made him an iceberg on the field, keeping others cool in the tightest situation.” – John Devaney, Sport Magazine, October, 1963.

Dahlen also lived quite a bit harder than many of his peers, enjoying horse racing and drinking to the point that it nearly took his baseball career. He gave up drinking for a time to get back in baseball’s good graces but relapsed following his retirement from the diamond—to the point that he was nearly destitute. It was McGraw who helped get him back on his feet, including giving him a job as a night watchman at the Polo Grounds.

There is a very reasonable argument to be made that Dahlen has a much better resume than a number of those who entered the Hall of Fame through the ballot system. It’s a shame that such a significant contributor to an earlier era is still on the outside waiting for his ticket to be punched.

Bob Johnson, Outfielder: “Indian” Bob Johnson, who claimed one-quarter Cherokee lineage, was given the type of nickname bestowed on just about every player with Native American heritage during his time. He compiled one of the most consistently impressive resumes during his 13-year major league career, yet is virtually forgotten today.

Playing primarily for the Philadelphia Athletics between 1933 and 1945, the right-handed hitting leftfielder hit a combined .286 with a .393 OBP, 288 home runs, 2,051 hits and 1,283 RBIs. He hit at least .290 with 21 home runs and 92 RBIs in each of his first seven seasons and made seven All Star teams. Additionally his 139 career OPS+ is tied with Reggie Jackson for 81st all-time, and is better than many other Hall-of-Famers, including Carl Yastrzemski (130), George Brett (138) and Billy Williams (133). Shockingly, the two years (1948 and 1956) that he was on the Hall-of-Fame ballot, he failed to get even one percent of the vote.

There are three likely factors that have contributed to Johnson slipping into the shadows. First, his counting statistics are not quite as high as one might expect from a player with his resume because he didn’t break into the majors until he was 27. An extra four of five of his typical seasons would have made his case much tougher to ignore.

Johnson also toiled in relative baseball purgatory throughout his career. The Athletics were putrid during his time with the team, finishing last or second-to-last in eight of those 10 seasons.

Some might also discount Johnson’s production as being a product of hitter-friendly Shibe Park. While the park may have played to the hitters, it was definitely no band box, as evidence by its measurements of 334 down the left-field line, 331 feet down the right-field line and an exhausting 468 feet to center during the time he played. He did hit .302 with 149 home runs in 747 career games in Philadelphia home games, but his .293 average with 139 homers in 1,116 games in other venues is hardly anything to sneeze at.

Baseball has always had the silent toilers who produce year in and year out, yet see other players receive greater attention because of the market they play in or their ability to be better at self-promotion. Johnson seems to be a classic example of this. In a 1985 article for the National Pastime ("For the Hall of Fame: Twelve Good Men"), Bob Carroll observed. "Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it can also make certain ballplayers nigh unto invisible. Indian Bob Johnson never had one of those super seasons that make everyone sit up and whistle. While phenoms came, collected their MVP trophies, and faded, he just kept plodding along hitting .300, with a couple dozen homers and a hundred ribbies year after a guy punching a time clock." (Bill James, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (Fireside, 1995).

Part of the beauty of the Hall of Fame is that there is no perfect set of inductees. The museum will always spark debate about the worthiness of candidates. That doesn’t mean that such conversations and arguments shouldn’t take place, as it keeps the spirit of the game and the players in a perpetual stream of consciousness. Fortunately, no doors at the Hall are truly closed forever, and perhaps one day McCormick, Dahlen and Johnson will have plaques commemorating their careers on the premises. 

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew


  1. Hello,
    I am an avid sports cards collector and recently pulled a heine groh game used bat knob card. I have been researching him much and am confused to why he has not been considered for induction into the hall of fame. Do you have information on this and what is your thoughts?

    1. Hi Sam,

      Thanks for reading and for your question. In my opinion, Groh was a very good but not great player. I suspect his resume has always fallen a bit short for those handling Hall-of-Fame voting. Although he played 16 years, he was really a regular for just `0 of them. He did hit any of the typical HOF benchmarks like a .300 batting average, 3000 hits (he didn't even have 2000). Deadball Era players are also discounted a bit because their numbers are so modest. Ultimately, I don't think it is a travesty that he is not in.

      That all being said, sounds like you pulled a very cool card. Have any pictures of it?

    2. Yes I cannot add an attachment to the comment section I don't think. I'm trying to figure out if someone can tell me the approx years the bat could be from as well (teens or twenties).

    3. The company that made the card should have that information. If they are marketing it as a game-used bat, they must know its origins.

    4. Your right I'll call them and see if they can tell me