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Neyer's Wrong, Neyer's Right, A-Rod
2003-04-09 12:01
by Mike Carminati

Neyer's Wrong, Neyer's Right, A-Rod May Be Best SS, II

Neyer followed up his A-Rod vs. Hans Wagner debate with a response to some email yesterday. Here's the argument from his reader:

My contention is that any modern-day offensive superstar would blow away any old era player...[P]layers like Honus Wagner quite possibly were not tested against the best players of their day.

This is a very popular argument today and frankly I don't buy it. Let me first say that I have read the seminal Sol White's History of Colored Base Ball (see below) cover to cover along with Robert W. Peterson's Only the Ball Was White, SABR's encyclopedia, and a number of John B. Holway's works as well as others I can't think of now (and by the way, White was a middle infielder in his youth and a first baseman in his advanced years, not a pitcher as Neyer indicates). Rube Foster and Jackie Robinson are the closest things I have to role models.

Now, Honus Wagner played major-league ball from 1897 to 1917. There is a lot that has been said about Negro League baseball that just isn't true. Cap Anson was a bad guy, but he had no more to do with banning black players than Dixie Walker had in barring Jackie Robinson. In both cases, the owners made the decisions. The players expressed their opinions and they may have been used to the owners' advantage. White pins the blame on Anson, and he may have seemed the culprit to the players on the field, but other than being a tremendous egomaniac and exhibitionist who brought the issue to the fore, Anson's actions were relatively meaningless. Here's what I wrote about the pre-history of the Negro Leagues back in August:

It's 1887 and Moses Fleetwood Walker is the catcher of the Newark, NJ, International League and has had to endure years of abuse on and off the field because of his race. Technically, he was the first African-American major-leaguer in 1884 when his Toledo Blue Stockings moved from the Northwestern League to the major-league American Association. His brother Welday played the outfield for the club for a handful of games that season but decided that his baseball career was not worth such a continual onslaught and retired to become a barber. They are to be the last black major-leaguers until Jackie Robinson.

In 1883 Walker's Toledo club had an exhibition with the Chicago National League team. When White Stocking team captain, Cap Anson, refused to play due Toledo due to Walker's presence and the Toledo club refuse to have their player decisions dictated to them. When the decision was made that if Chicago did not play, they would forfeit their claim to the gate, Anson reneged on his refusal to play.

After his one major-league season, Walker turned to the minor leagues. Bud Fowler (2B-P), another African-American ballplayer, had been finding success in the minors as well. 1886 saw five black men playing professional baseball in the minor leagues (Walker, Fowler, George Stovey, Frank Grant, and Jack Frye). Also in 1886, an all-black team named the Cuban Giants defeated the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the National League. The Cuban Giants would almost defeat the NL champ Detroit Wolverines the next year, but would loss 6-4 on an error in the ninth. 1886 also witnessed the birth of the first black league, the Southern League of Colored Base Ballists, though it was a regional league and is short-lived.

1887 becomes the apogee of this early African-American renaissance with 13 players on twelve different teams in five different minor leagues. In the International League, the highest minor league, seven African-Americans toil (Walker, Fowler, Stovey, Grant, Robert Higgins, William Renfro, and Randolph Jackson). Sol White in his Rosetta Stone of black baseball history, The History of Colored Base Ball, states that there are in total 20 black professional players throughout the country in 1887. Also, an all-black league consisting of six teams (league of Colored Base Ball Players, a.k.a., the Colored National League) is created in 1887 but only lasts 13 games. This league has been recognized by organized ball's National Agreement.

In 1887 Walker forms an all-black battery with 34-game winner (still the International League record), George Stovey, on the Newark club. The influx of blacks has not gone on unnoticed. The Sporting News says on June 11, "A new trouble has just arisen in the affairs of certain baseball associations [which] has done more damage to the International League than to any other we know of. We refer to the importation of colored players into the ranks of that body."

On July 14 the Newark club is scheduled to play an exhibition game with the Chicago White Stockings and Cap Anson. Walker, perhaps because of the 1883 incident, is not scheduled to play. George Stovey, however, is scheduled to start even though Walker is his regular catcher. This is when Cap Anson makes his famous utterance, "Get that nigger off the field!" Anson refuses to play unless Stovey is taken out of Newark's lineup. Newark refuses to allow Anson to dictate the use of their personnel. The game is declared a forfeit to Chicago.

On the same day the directors of the IL act to bar teams from signing African-Americans in the future. The confluence of these two events cannot be merely a coincidence. Sol White states that, "All the leagues, during the Winter of 1887 and 1888, drew the color line, or had a clause inserted in their constitutions limiting the number of colored players to be employed by each club."

White also claims that New York Giant captain John Montgomery Ward will try to acquire Stovey from Newark later in 1887 but is barred from doing so when Anson speaks out against integration.

Just why Adrian C. Anson, manager and captain of the Chicago National League Club, was so strongly opposed to colored players on white teams cannot be explained. His repugnant feeling, shown at every opportunity, toward colored ball players, was a source of comment through every league in the country, and his opposition, with his great popularity and power in base ball circles, hastened the exclusion of the black man from the white leagues.

White probably overstates Anson's influence. There are reports that the Newark manager refused to sell Stovey and Walker to the Giants, something that is within the rights of the minor-league clubs of the day. Anson probably becomes a lightning rod for these issues to serve the purpose of more powerful men. Whatever the reason, the Giants never sign Stovey, and major league baseball instead institutes the ironically designated "Gentleman's Agreement" not to sign African-American players. This apartheid lasts until Jackie Robinson.

Due to the new policies, the number of black players dwindles in 1888 to six in four leagues.

1889 introduces the concept of an all-black team in a white organization, a new answer to the segregation pressures. The great Cuban Giants represent Trenton (NJ) and the New York Gorhams represent Philadelphia (?) in the Middle-States League. There are seven other African-Americans in organized ball. By now, only Fleet Walker is left in the renamed International Association.

This trend of all-black clubs continues until 1898 when Celeron (NY) fields the last such team in white minor-league history, playing in the Iron and Oil (I&0) League. Only two other African-Americans play minor-league ball that year. They will the last two black players to play in white organized ball on American soil until Jackie Robinson debuts for the Dodgers nearly fifty years later.

In 1899, Bill Galloway becomes the last African-American to play in white organized ball appropriately in Canada (for Woodstock, Ont., of the Canadian League) until Jackie Robinson starts to play for the Montreal Royals of the International League in 1946.

Fleet Walker eventually will become the editor of a black paper and in the end an advocate of black migration back to Africa publishing a book called Our Home Colony in 1908. Had the owners acted to reverse the on-field decision to forfeit the 1887 game and to abolish the decision of the IL directors to bar blacks in the future, Walker's fate, as well as a good deal other black players', would have been different. The IL was in baseball's National Agreement and the major-league owners help sway in this organization. Their decisive action would have stemmed proliferation of segregationist leagues. The only negative result would have been that Jackie Robinson would have only been a hero to his family and friends instead of to the world.

For over sixty years a group of owners colluded and conspired to prevent black Americans from having an equal, or for that matter any, chance to play in the major leagues. Some found employment elsewhere on their own teams and in their own leagues to varying degrees of success. MLB chose to present an inferior product to their consumers, and individual owners chose to be less competitive than they might have otherwise been. Cap Anson is now demonized as the man who created the Color Line, and deservedly so, but the owners allowed him to do it. Teams changed hands over he course of those sixty years, but no new owners employed blacks, at least not as players.

I am convinced that a few black players around the turn of the century would have been stars: Bud Fowler, Frank Grant and definitely the incomparable Rube Foster. But I am not so fully convinced that blacks had the experience in the game to make a large impact until after Foster founded the first (successful) black league, the Negro National League. He helped build baseball interest, coaching, player development, etc. in the African-American community. The NNL, however, was not founded until 1920, three years after Wagner retired. African-Americans had been turned away from organized ball even before professional baseball became the norm in the early 1870s. So one could argue that they were prevented from participating from the start. But there isn't a lot of evidence that there were that many major-league caliber African-American players before the 1920s.

The twenties also found baseball shunning foreign-born players. I am, therefore, convinced that the majors did not necessarily represent the best players in the world in the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, but am unconvinced that this holds true during Wagner's career.

The argument that, as Neyer puts it, "It's generally more difficult to dominate in 2003 than it was in 1903," is a good one, but I think that it has to do more with coaching, scouting, training, nutrition, a large talent pool, and a myriad of other issues.

I agree with Neyer that this is taken too far:

But we can take this line of reasoning too far. In 20 years, will we be downgrading the players of the 1990s because they didn't have to compete with the best Japanese players? Today, should we downgrade the players of the 1960s because the majors weren't yet populated with large numbers of players from the Dominican Republic?

If you went back in time and kidnapped Babe Ruth, a la Bill and Ted, while he was in his prime, he probably could not compete with today's bigger, stronger players. That's not to say that if Ruth had grown up in today's environment, he would not have been a baseball star. Surely, someone with his innate skills would have excelled in the game; he would just have enjoyed the same advantages that today's players do.

Also, as Stephen Jay Gould discusses in Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, as the average talent within the baseball world improves, the extremes start to disappear. So maybe a Ruth or a Wagner would not have dominated the way that they did in their day. But they would still be excellent players.

Besides, players must be viewed in their context. Given the bazillions (I've counted) of changes in baseball rules and strategies since the 19th century, who can evaluate throwing in a couple more like adding African-Americans and foreign-born players to the talent pool? There's no fair way to do it, and it's just a means for someone (like me) to get up on his soapbox.

That said, I disagree that:

Sure, it's pretty obvious that if Wagner had been forced to face all of the best pitchers, his amazing numbers wouldn't be quite so amazing. And I suppose that if he played today, he might not even be good enough to play in the majors.

I don't have a problem with a time-line adjustment... I still say that Honus Wagner is obviously the greatest shortstop who ever played the game.

Well, that's largely a matter of opinion, but I just want to point out again that Wagner was not a shortstop until age 29. Are his seasons from age 29 to 42, his shortstop years, are superior to A-Rod's career numbers so far? I'm not sure, but that's the real debate. As to who's the better player, Wagner wins hands down. Of course, that may change in 15-20 years after Rodriguez has finished his brilliant career. I'll get back to you then.

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