19th-Century Baseball Deserves Equal Time

This article was written by Art Ahrens

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

On April 22, 1980, Chicago Cub shortstop Ivan DeJesus became only the tenth player in that team’s history to hit for the cycle, collecting a single, a double, a triple, and a home run during a 16-12 win over St. Louis. The following morning, the writeup in the Chicago Sun-Times listed every Cub player of the so-called “modern” era (i.e., since 1901) who accomplished this rare feat. The Cub who pulled it off in the nineteenth century Jimmy Ryan (twice) – was not given a syllable. Once again, baseball’s formative century was left on the back of the shelf to gather dust. Exclusion of nineteenth-century baseball from its rightful place is equivalent to saying that American history prior to 1776 should be discarded because our country was led by King George rather than General George. Once upon a time there was only one set of records, including both centuries. By the mid-1930s, however, most baseball writers who had been active in the old century were either dead or retired. It was during this era that the nebulous term “modern baseball” came into existence. A kind of “newspeak” was born. During all the years that this distinction has been in vogue, no one has ever explained what revolutionary metamorphosis at the turn of the century rendered pre-1900 or pre-1901 records unworthy of consideration. All the artificial demarcation provides is a convenient excuse for incomplete research.

This all too dominant attitude has resulted in a near-total ignorance of nineteenth-century baseball on the part of fans and writers alike. The casual fan is likely to be familiar with such players as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and Walter Johnson, even if he is not well versed in their accomplishments. Why? Because they all played wholly or primarily in the twentieth century. If the same individual is confronted with the names of such nineteenth-century giants as Cap Anson, Amos Rusie, Ed Delahanty, Jake Beckley, and Jesse Burkett, his mind is apt to go blank. Even among baseball fans who display some interest in history, it is probable that 90 percent believe Rogers Hornsby (.424 in 1924) rather than Hugh Duffy (.438 in 1894) holds the record for highest batting average in a season.

Example after example of slightings to nineteenth-century ball can be cited. Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig’s otherwise marvelous volume The Image of Their Greatness makes no bones about being a pictorial history of twentieth century major league ball exclusively. The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball, while not ignoring the nineteenth century entirely, devotes only limited coverage to the years 1876 through 1900, thereby giving the era second-class status. Annually, Baseball Digest prints listings of the season leaders in all major batting and pitching categories, but only from 1900 to the present. (It is curious that the year 1900 is included since that season was actually part of the nineteenth century: centuries begin in 01 and end in 00, contrary to popular belief.) Scores of other instances could be mentioned.

The effects of the “modern base ball” syndrome on Hall of Fame  balloting have been sickening. For the  first three years of voting – 1936, ’37,  and ’38 – no players who performed  entirely or mainly in the nineteenth century were elected save Connie  Mack and John McGraw, both of  whom were installed because of their  achievements as twentieth-century  managers (though McGraw was a  formidable player). Not until 1939,  after a huge outcry from elderly fans,  did the first crop of nineteenth century immortals receive the honors  due them.  

In the ensuing years, the Cooperstown Veterans Committee dragged its feet when it came to enshrining nineteenth-century stars. Such heroes of the previous century as Jake Beckley, Mickey Welch, Sam Thompson, Joe Kelley, and Amos Rusie did not enter baseball’s Valhalla until the 1970s. All the while, twentieth century players with lesser qualifications were being whisked in right and left.

Particularly glaring was the case of Roger Connor, who played from 1880 to 1897, enjoying his best years with the Giants. Elected to the hall in 1976, he was a .325 lifetime batter with 2535 hits and an incredible (for that era) 138 home runs. The last figure was a major-league record until broken by Babe Ruth with a livelier ball. Connor’s home-run record alone should have elected him 30 years earlier. And while it is gratifying that he has finally been honored, injustices continue. The exclusion of such greats as George Van Haltren (2573 hits, .321 average) and Jimmy Ryan (2577 hits, .314 average, plus 113 homers) while the doors are opened for such “modern” lesser lights as George Kelly (1778 hits, .297 average) and Dave Bancroft (2004 hits, .279 average) is inexcusable. Apparently all ballplayers are created equal, but those who played in the twentieth century are more equal than others.

To set an arbitrary cut-off date of 1900 or 1901 defies all logic. The game as it was played in 1901– and for years thereafter – bore a far greater resemblance to that performed in 1899 than to the baseball of 1980. Players still wore small gloves, high-topped shoes, wide belts, collared jerseys that laced up the middle, and flat-topped caps, while fans rode to wooden ballparks in horse-drawn carriages or streetcars. One or two umpires did the law enforcement: relief pitching was virtually nonexistent, batting helmets unheard of, and night ball inconceivable. With the ball as dead as it ever was, the psychology of the base hit, the bunt, and the stolen base remained in style until the advent of the lively ball in 1920. It was Ring Lardner’s hated ‘Jackrabbit,” not the turning of the centuries, that brought in the long ball to alter the game irrevocably. This was probably the single most revolutionary change in baseball historyyet no one has ever suggested that 1920 replace 1901 as the demarcation line of the “modern” era.

Those few changes which did take place precisely at the turn of the century were generally minor. In 1900, the five-sided home plate replaced the square form previously in use, hardly an earth-shaking development. The same year, the National League shrank from twelve clubs to eight, which was nothing new since an eight-city circuit had been the rule prior to 1892 (except for 1877 and ’78, when it was a six-team league).

In 1901 it was written into the rulebook that the catcher must remain right behind the batter, but this had already been the common practice for roughly a decade. In another minor change, the infield-fly rule was extended to apply when there were no outs as well as one. That year also witnessed the emergence of the American League as a major circuit, which did not alter the way the game was played. Finally, the year 1901 saw the introduction of the foul-strike rule in the National League, although the junior circuit did not adopt it until 1903. This change was of considerable significance, as the cumulative National League batting average dropped from .279 in 1900 to .267 the following year. In and of itself, however, the rule could not be considered dynamic enough to render the previous conditions “a whole different ballgame.”

At this point it will be conceded that distinctions should be allowed in certain narrowly defined areas, namely pre-1893 pitching records and pre-1898 stolen-base statistics. From 1876 through 1880, the pitching distance was only 45 feet. A 50-foot distance was in effect from 1881 through 1892, after which the interval was extended to its present length of 60 feet, six inches. Yet until 1887, batters could call for high or low pitches and until 1884, pitchers’ motions were restricted. Consequently, early pitching feats are somewhat difficult to assess. Prior to 1898, a player was credited with a stolen base if he advanced from first base to third on a single. Hence the stolen base totals for the early years are a bit dubious also. Nevertheless, these reservations should apply only to those particular categories, not to the entire sport. Let it be observed also that neither of these rule changes involved an 1899-1900 or 1900-1901 date break.

Then comes the touchy question of World War II baseball, well into the “modern” era. With most of the genuine talent being drafted into the army, major-league rosters filled up with 4-F’s, fuzzy-faced teenagers, aging veterans attempting comebacks, and Triple-A lifers who never would have made it to the majors otherwise. Granted, wartime baseball was an aberration. But can any serious student of baseball history believe that the playing quality of 1945 was superior to that of 1899, when Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, Cy Young, Willie Keeler, Kid Nichols, Honus Wagner, and Nap Lajoie were in their prime? I think not.

One cannot help but worry that after the year 2001, twentieth-century baseball will be accorded the same shabby treatment that our era has given the nineteenth century. What then will constitute the beginning of “modern” baseball: the introduction of night games in 1935? The desegregation of the major leagues in 1947? The beginning of divisional play in 1969? Marvin Miller’s birthday? It is something to think about.