Bare Hands and Kid Gloves: The Best Fielders, 1880-1899

This article was written by William Akin

This article was published in 1981 Baseball Research Journal

SABR members have selected all-star fielding teams for each decade since 1900. Wary of the dangers lurking for the baseball researcher, they have not ventured into the poorly charted territory of the 19th century. But the urge to explore is irresistible to those willing to rush in where wise men fear to tread.

The selections below represent an individual attempt to fill a void. They are based primarily, but not exclusively, on fielding statistics. As every student of the game knows, fielding stats are less than exact measures of a fielder’s quickness, range, and arm, but over a decade they usually indicate clear patterns. The judgments of contemporaries have been used to balance the quantitative indicators.

The same requirements have been imposed as in the official SABR selections. A player must have logged in at least six major league seasons during the period, including five in one league.

The existence of the American Association from 1882 through 1891 and the formation of the National League in 1876 necessitates uneven periods. It is logical to include the entire decade of the AA’s life even though to do so carries into the 1 890s. Rating NL players for the l880s and 1890s still leaves the first four years of the league uncovered. That anomaly, however, will not be resolved here.

National League, 1880-1889

The Chicago Colts captured five pennants in the 1880s and finishing second twice. Their “Stonewall Infield” was the first great infield combination. Three of its members, Cap Anson, Fred Pfeffer, and Ned Williamson, ranked as the best at their positions.

Hopelessly immobile by today’s standards, Adrian “Cap” Anson learned the game when first basemen seldom ventured away from the bag. But in that tradition, he perfected all the plays. He made a big target, caught anything near him, and innovated the long stretch. At the end of the 1880s, Anson held career and season records for putouts, assists, and double-plays, and had led the league in fielding average five times.

Fred Pfeffer covered the ground that Anson left unprotected. None played with greater abandon or ranged as far as the scrappy Pfeffer. Although “Sure Shot” Fred Dunlap may have had surer hands (his .950 fielding average of 1889 was the decade’s single season best), Pfeffer owned NL season records for putouts, assists, and double-plays at the decade’s end. He led the league in putouts and DPs on six occasions, and in assists four times.

In the first six years of the eighties, before Anson switched him to shortstop, Ned Williamson had no peer at the hot corner. He topped the league in percentage four of those years, and in the two years when his average slipped he led in assists and DPs, setting league records in both. His later success at shortstop, 1886-88, attests to his range and mobility.

Jack Glasscock earned the sobriquet “King of the Shortstops,” and none challenged the title. Surehanded and possessing great speed, exceptional range and a strong arm, he led in average and assists six years each. His season marks for POs, assists, and DPs were league records for the era, as were his decade totals. He dominated his position more completely than any National Leaguer of the period.

In the outfield there was no surer fielder than Joe Hornung. It is certain that his .257 career bat did not keep him in the majors for 12 seasons. His fielding average bested all outfielders from 1881-1883, and he stood next to the top on three other occasions.

Philadelphia’s center fielder, Jim Fogarty, set the season high for the decade with a .961 fielding mark, and his decade average ranked second to Hornung. Al Spink wrote in 1911 that “the people of the Quaker City who knew Fogarty best insist to this day that he was the greatest outfielder that ever lived.” He possessed speed to steal 101 bases in one season, and to chase down enough flies to average more putouts per season than anyone else in the decade.

Despite his praise for Fogarty, Spink thought Paul Hines excelled all other center fielders. Hines, who played most of the decade with Providence, shifted to his native Washington, D.C. in 1886. For many years he was credited with pulling an unassisted triple play from center field. Actually he made a spectacular double play unassisted but had thrown out the other baserunner. As Spink remembered, “He had splendid eyes and was a magnificent judge of light and difficult flies.”

Behind the plate the choice is between Buck Ewing and Charlie Bennett. John Montgomery Ward rated Ewing the greatest player of his day, but he gave Bennett the nod for defensive skills. Bennett, remembered as the Detroit Wolverines’ receiver, caught more games than anyone else before his career tragically ended when a train accident cost him both legs in 1895. Had there been gold glove awards, Bennett would have been the recipient of at least seven.

In days when pitchers stood closer to the plate, they needed quick reflexes. The fastest belonged to James “Pud” Galvin, Tommy Bond and John Clarkson, fine pitchers who also played numerous games at other positions. Galvin, baseball’s first 300-game winner, played longer than the other two, led in fielding percentage more times and set assist and double-play records.

American Association, 1882-1891

Not surprisingly, the St. Louis Browns dominate the American Association fielding team. The Browns were the first club to capture four straight pennants, winning consecutive titles 1885-88. In addition, they finished second three times.

Charles Comiskey, the American Association’s answer to Cap Anson, managed and played first for the Browns. His playing style differed sharply from that of Anson. Comiskey revolutionized first base play by positioning himself far off the bag, and is also credited by some with being the first to have the pitcher cover first on ground balls hit to the first baseman.

No Association player so thoroughly dominated a position as did Cincinnati’s second baseman Bid McPhee. In all eight seasons he played in the Association, 1882-89, he led second basemen in double-plays. Six times he placed first in average and putouts, and in four seasons he stood first in assists. Along the way he set 12 season records.

The Browns’ Arlie Latham played more spectacularly than any third baseman of his time, but Warren “Hick” Carpenter and Denny Lyons fielded the position better, or at least steadier, than the mercurial Latham. Carpenter of Cincinnati is the choice because he performed eight years as a regular compared to five for Lyons. The remarkable feature about Carpenter, and one which did not impede his ability, was that he threw with his left hand.

It is virtually impossible to isolate an individual fielding star at shortstop. In the AA’s ten seasons, a different player led in fielding average each year. McPhee’s DP partner, Frank Fennelly, warrants consideration, but he committed over 90 errors on four occasions. “Germany” Smith also fielded well. But Bill Gleason, the Browns’ strength in the middle, is the pick on the basis of a better career average and the fact that he was a winner.

Curt Welch may have been the most spectacular outfielder in either league. Al Spink, for one, thought that “no man that ever played at center has excelled Welch.” The fastest outfielder in the Association, he also possessed a great arm, leading the league in assists in each of his St. Louis seasons and recording the AA putout record of 336 in 1887.

When the quality of play in the Association was at its zenith, 1884-1889, either Welch or John Corkhill led outfielders in fielding average with the other usually finishing a close second. Corkhill spent most of his career as the Cincinnati right fielder. There his chances were limited, but when shifted to center in 1888 he covered enough territory to lead the league in putouts and total chances.

The third outfield selection is less obvious than Welch and Corkhill. Jim McTamany, Hugh Nicol, and Joe Sommer rate consideration, but William “Chicken” Wolf has to be included. Wolf, alone, was a regular in every Association season, all with Louisville. He piled up the highest career fielding totals, and was a steady fielder whose career fielding average bettered McTamany, Nicol and Sommer.

The Association was loaded with fine receivers: Pop Snyder, Kid Baldwin, Bill Holbert, Doc Bushong, and Wilbert Robinson. Bushong stood above the others during the AA’s strongest years. The only catcher to compile the highest fielding average more than once, he holds the AA season record for double plays and for putouts. His 647 putouts in 1887 held up as the major league mark for 19 years.

Guy Hecker excelled at pitching, fielding and batting. He began his career as a first baseman, slick enough to post the best marks for assists and DPs. Switched to a pitcher, he became the loop’s finest in 1884 when he led the AA with 52 victories and a 1.80 ERA. Splitting his time between the pitcher’s box, first and the outfield he copped the batting crown in 1886 with a .341 average. In the field he set Association records for pitchers with 50 assists and a .951 average.

National League, 1890-1899

The expansion of the National League to 12 teams made it difficult for anyone to dominate fielding statistics.

First baseman Jake Beckley’s Hall of Fame plaque is one of very few that notes fielding accomplishments: “Holds record in majors for first base – for chances accepted 25,000 [and] most putouts 23,696.” At the turn of the century, he also held the season records for putouts and for assists. It should be noted that Fred Tenney, the SABR first base selection for 1900-1909, played six years in the 1890s, but did not become a first baseman until 1897.

Bid McPhee is the only player selected as a fielding all-star in both the 1880s and 1890s. Already 30 in 1890, he, nonetheless, ranked among the top three second basemen in fielding average for every year of the decade, and he recorded the decade’s highest season marks for putouts and DPs. When the splendid infielder retired, he held major league season and career records for putouts, assists. DPs, and percentage.

The Baltimore Orioles so dominate baseball mythology that it is easy to forget that Boston won five pennants in the nineties to three for the Birds. The Beaneaters’ third basemen led them at bat and in the field, first Billy Nash and then Jimmy Collins. Collins played only five seasons, so Captain Billy, the only third baseman to lead in putouts and average more than twice, is the selection.

The Orioles are remembered for their dirty play, baserunning, bunting, and “hitting them where they ain’t.” It should be remembered here that they were also a great fielding club. Hughie Jennings provided the glue. He was the finest shortstop in the field and at bat in the Birds’ championship seasons between 1894 and 1897. He led shortstops in total chances each season, and in FA except for one year in which an aging Jack Glasscock bested him.

No decade had more great outfielders than the nineties. Jesse Burkett, Fred Clarke, Ed Delahanty, Joe Kelley, Jim O’Rourke, Hugh Duffy, Billy Hamilton, Willie Keeler, Tommy McCarthy, and Sam Thompson are in the Hall of Fame. The finest fielding outfielder, however, was Brooklyn’s little center fielder, Mike Griffin. Spink remembered that Griffin “was at that time given credit for being the greatest and best at the position in America.” He led the circuit in fielding average no less than five times in the decade while no one else led more than once.

The fielding stats yield no clear selections for the final two outfield slots, although strong cases can be made for Steve Brodie, Willie Keeler, Sam Thompson and Tom Brown.

In the absence of logically compelling statistical evidence, the impressions of contemporary observers must be given greater weight. The evidence points to Bill Lange of Chicago. His contemporaries compared him with the recognized greats. Tony Murname’s all-time outfield consisted of Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, and Lange. Francis Richter, editor of Sporting Life, listed Lange with Delahanty, Hamilton, Burkett, and Keeler. Spink thought him equal to the young Cobb. Lange had size, speed, and unequaled desire. It was long held that he once crashed through an outfield fence to catch a fly. That the story was believable, and was repeated as gospel truth for over two generations, tells more than statistics can about Lange’s image among his contemporaries as a fiercely competitive defensive outfielder.

Contemporaries seldom rated Tommy McCarthy with Lange, but McCarthy is in the Hall of Fame. McCarthy’s fame rests on two fine seasons as one of Boston’s “Heavenly Twins” and his fielding ability. Bob Quinn credits McCarthy with perfecting the trapped ball “which had players of his day standing on base after the ball was hit. If they ran, Tommy caught the ball and doubled them up. If they failed to run, he picked the ball on the short hop and made them run.”

Charles “Chief” Zimmer of Cleveland was the first iron man catcher. He startled baseball players and fans by catching an unheard of 125 games in a season, only to go behind the plate in more than 100 games the following two years. As reliable as they came, he led receivers in fielding average six times during the decade, including the three best marks recorded (his best being .985).

Ted Breitenstein toiled outside the limelight for St. Louis and Cincinnati. As a southpaw pitcher it can be said that he won 20 games three times, and that he lost 20 or more games four times. As a fielder, he led in putouts three times (no one else led more than once), and he was the only pitcher to lead in percentage more than once, or to be among the top three more than twice.

Here are the top fielders of the 19th century, listed in the format of previous SABR selections.

NL 1880-89             Pos.                 AA 1882-91

Cap Anson                  1B                   Charles Comiskey

Fred Pfeffer                 2B                   Bid McPhee

Ned Williamson          3B                   Hick Carpenter

Jack Glasscock           SS                    Bill Gleason

Joe Hornung              OF                   Curt Welch

Jim Fogarty                 OF                   John Corkhil

Paul Hines                   OF                   Chicken Wolf

Charlie Bennett          C                     Doc Bushong

Jim Galvin                  P                      Guy Hecker

  NL 1890-99

Jake Beckley               lB

Bid McPhee               2B

Billy Nash                   3B

Hugh Jennings            SS

Mike Griffin               OF

Bill Lange                   OF

Tom McCarthy          OF

Chief Zimmer             C

Ted Breitenstein         P