It can be very easy for a modern baseball fan to write off the players of the 19th century. After all, the game was very, very different then, and almost none of the stars of that day are still household names (Cy Young being the only one, and people know much more about the Award given in his name than about the player himself).
Most of the time, we hear about records that were set “in the modern era”. This alternately means “post-1900” and “post-1920”; both are legitimate cut-off points that indicate major changes in the game. Yet when we all agree to those dates, we are in a sense implicitly agreeing to forget – or at least ignore – the achievements of the 19th century.
I am not saying that helpful comparisons can be found between Zack Grienke’s 2015 ERA, Bryce Harper’s HR total and the league leaders in 1883. The rules and the players are too different for direct comparison. After all, that is why we recognize records within their own eras. Most good baseball fans know that Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner were the kings of the Deadball Era. Most would agree that Babe Ruth was the greatest hitter ever, at least up until Ted Williams in the 1940’s… or until Barry Bonds in the Steroid Era (it’s all how you want to look at it). But what about before Cobb and Wagner? Who talks about (or even knows) the Kings of the 19th Century game? The game that was so different, but was nonetheless the same game at its most basic level, the game that evolved into the game we know?
An obstacle to recognizing those old stars is the relative lack of stability in baseball at the time. There were many different leagues (of varying quality), many different rule changes (some hitters had careers that spanned the changes of the distance of the mound from home plate from 45 ft. to 50 ft. to 60 ft. 6 in.) and players’ careers were often very short, especially pitchers. Since the players had few rights as employees and there was relatively little money to go around, players would sometimes come and go dependent on an owner’s wishes, or on the necessity of income from another job. Still, there was enough organization and record keeping for us to have a pretty clear idea of who the best players were.
Luckily, we also have two statistical advantages on our side:
- We have advanced stats that give us ratings of players’ performances compared to their own league and year. Hitting stats like wRC+ and OPS+, pitching stats like ERA- and FIP-, and overall ratings like WAR can give us an idea of how great a player was compared to his contemporaries.
- Although there are obvious trends in baseball over the decades either toward more or less run scoring, more or fewer home runs, more or fewer games played, there are a few basics that have held true from the very beginning. A .300 batting average has always been considered to be good. A .400 batting average has always been considered to be great. Likewise, an ERA under 2.00 has always been the mark of a star. Leading the league in extra base hits or in fewest walks as a pitcher has always been recognized as an excellent achievement.
So while we can’t make many direct comparisons between then and now, we can nonetheless appreciate the great players of the time as they would have been seen and talked about in the 19th century. As fans, we can remember that the stars of the 19th century were the engine behind the business that lead to the creation of the National and American Leagues as we know them. Some of their names might be worth knowing.