Deacon White was one of the earliest baseball stars, and thanks to the Veterans Committee he is the only player in the Hall of Fame class of 2013 (a mere 145 years after drawing his first baseball paycheck). Braves connection – he was the batting star of the 1877 champion Boston Red Stockings! No, this doesn’t take the sting out of Murph’s continued exclusion, but it’s something, right? So let’s run Deacon White through the ol’ Keltner List gauntlet and see how he fares.
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Batting average held a lot of sway in the formative years of professional baseball (and, since nobody walked or hit home runs, they were probably on to something). White, primarily a catcher early in his career, won two batting crowns: he led the 1875 National Association with a .367 mark and the 1877 NL at .387, both while playing for the Red Stockings. Also, his .392 mark in 1873 trailed only Ross Barnes and Cap Anson. He also paced his league in RBI three times (’73, ’76, ’77). White was also a part of two distinct groups of teammates known by scribes as a “Big Four” – first alongside Al Spalding, Barnes and Cal McVey for Boston’s NA entry in 1871-1875, then again with Dan Brouthers, Hardy Richardson, and Jack Rowe for the 1882 Buffalo Bisons.
Was he the best player on his team?
Freed for the 1877 season from the rigors of catching (to make room for the 19-year-old lesser light Lew Brown), White was clearly the best player on the Red Stockings, primarily playing first base and leading the NL in hits, triples (the power stat of the day), batting average, total bases, RBI, slugging, and OPS. Over the first half of his career he was typically the second- or third-best player on his teams. In addition to those names already mentioned, White played on teams with Anson, King Kelly, Pud Galvin, and other enshrined players.
Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
He was in fact the FIRST best player at his position, and was far and away the greatest catcher of the first decade of pro baseball. As far back as 1868, with a Cleveland Forest Citys team constructed to give the Cincinnati Red Stockings a little competition, he and pitcher Al Pratt were known as “the first famous battery”, and White was also Al Spalding’s batterymate for much of Spalding’s mercurial career. Spalding, Henry Chadwick, and Pud Galvin all called him the greatest catcher they ever saw.
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
He was a mainstay on teams which won their league pennant every year from 1873-’77. He was still playing regularly for an 1887 Detroit Wolverines team which outlasted the St. Louis Browns in the longest “World Series” in history, 10 games to 5. He played for several teams that finished second or third, as well.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
White was a proto-Johnny Bench, moving from catcher to third base in his early thirties. Unlike Bench, he was able to remain a regular at his new position for another decade, and played regularly until 1890 when he was 42, and was able to keep his batting averages in the .290-.330 range into his late 30s. Counting his 1860s Forest Citys days, he could be said to have been the very first player to play in four decades at the highest available level of baseball.
Is he the very best player in baseball history who (was) not in the Hall of Fame?
Well, no. It’s here we must pay some heed to Bill James, who believes that players from the formative years are already grossly over-represented, and has said he would not have voted for White. However, given that the HOF has seen fit to elect such players, you can certainly make the case for White as being the top pioneer player not previously enshrined. Of all players whose career concluded by 1890, White’s 44.2 career WAR was the highest (which would have been news to him).
Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame? Again going by WAR, White’s 44.2 ranked eighth among all position players who played exclusively in the 1800s (also including those players who made the occasional 20th century cameo, which many of the early greats did). Here is the top ten:
Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
White’s counting stats suffer in comparison to all later enshrinees, as he spent the early part of his career playing 60-80 game seasons. Had he come along 10 years later (and presuming he’d stayed healthy), he would have cleared 3000 hits with ease, and might have gotten to 3500.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Uneven competition in the early years meant that the top players of the time fattened up on some weaker talent.
Is he the best player at his position who (was) eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Even an early history buff would certainly say that Piazza has a better case – probably Torre and Ted Simmons as well.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
They weren’t giving out hardware back then, but White surely would have won the 1877 MVP, and would probably have had 3 or 4 more top-8 finishes (if you exclude the outsized influence of starting pitchers in those days).
How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame?
Would have been a perennial All-Star at catcher, and was probably the best NL 3rd baseman 2 or 3 times as well.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Well, he was clearly the best player on the 1877 Red Stockings, and they finished in first by seven games. Later in his career he was the best player on some teams who weren’t particularly close.
What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
See, here we go. Deacon White was one of baseball’s original freethinkers, and would tinker and concoct with the nascent norms of the game to find advantages wherever he could. He would pitch occasionally in the late 1860s, and developed a pitching motion similar to the fast-pitch softball motion of today. Pitching to that point had required an underhand motion in which the pitching arm remained stiff and the throwing hand remained below-waist from start to finish. White incorporated a windmill windup, while keeping his underhand release point below-waist. The rule was amended to allow this windup, and it became the standard pitching motion until 1884.
He’s also said to have been one of the few players instrumental in inventing a curve ball and getting it legalized. He taught it to his brother Will, who found it most useful in posting three 40-win seasons and two other 30-win seasons.
White is also credited by some research (though it is disputed) to have been the first catcher to set up just behind the hitter, so as to catch the pitch on the fly and return it quickly. Catchers previously had set up several feet behind the batter, and would catch pitches after a bounce. But in 1873 White and Spalding discovered that they could keep hitters off- balance by quickening the pace of play, and this new strategy played a significant role in Spalding becoming the first real professional star of baseball.
White’s innovations were not limited to on-field tactics. He chafed at the notion that players were the owners’ chattel, and would repeatedly assert his right to chase a bigger payday, using tactics ranging from threatening retirement (which he did repeatedly) to jumping teams outright. The original Big Four’s jump from the National Association’s Boston entry to its Chicago team prior to the 1876 season precipitated a coup that resulted in the formation of the National League. And many years later, while White’s good friend John Montgomery Ward was responsible for the creation of the wildcat Players League in 1890, it was the 42-year-old White who, in joining up, provided the new league’s animating quote:
We are satisfied with the money, but we ain’t worth it. Rowe’s arm is gone. I’m over 40 and my fielding ain’t so good, though I can still hit some. But I will say this, no man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half.
Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Uphold the standards? Deacon White practically invented the standards, being one of the few players in the rough-and-tumble early days to eschew drinking, smoking, and gambling, and kept himself in good enough physical condition that he was still playing professionally after many of his early contemporaries were already in the ground. And he was, after all, an actual church deacon.
Conclusion: The more I read about the life and times of Deacon White, the more amazing it became to me that his Cooperstown bust hadn’t been commissioned decades ago. The objections of the inventor of the Keltner List notwithstanding, White merits his induction by a wide margin. (This post borrows heavily from two SABRbiographies, as well as this Baseball Historian entry, and the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Much obliged.)