The Top Ten Catchers of Whenever

December 7, 2017
 2017-63

The Greatest Catchers Ever

Catchers

Part 1.  The Grady-McFarland Years

              I don’t know anything about Mike Grady.   Do you know anything about Mike Grady?  Apparently he was a hell of a catcher. 

              In 1900, the first year that we are going to rate catchers, Grady had a bad year, so he doesn’t rate first.    After hitting between .275 and .363 every year from 1894 to 1899, including four seasons over .318, Grady hit just .219 in 1900, and thus allowed Ed McFarland to rank as the #1 catcher for 1900.   After 1900 Grady had several more good years. 

              Grady and McFarland just caught 80, 90 games a year; that was about the most anybody caught in that era.   They might catch 110, 120 in a big year.   Without shin guards, and with primitive mitts and face masks, catchers did not expect to be in the lineup every day.  

              McFarland and Grady are among the best players ever that I know virtually nothing about.  Straddling the line between the centuries, they missed the canon of 19th century greats, but are never mentioned that I recall in the books about the great catchers (Ira Smith) or the Dead Ball era.   They just basically got overlooked.   These are the top catchers of the years 1900 to 1902:

YEAR

Rank

First

Last

1900

1

Ed

McFarland

1900

2

Mike

Grady

 

   

 

1901

1

Mike

Grady

1901

2

Ed

McFarland

1901

3

Boileryard

Clarke

1901

4

Ossee

Schreckengost

1901

5

Duke

Farrell

 

   

 

1902

1

Ossee

Schreckengost

1902

2

Heinie

Peitz

1902

3

Johnny

Kling

1902

4

Boileryard

Clarke

1902

5

Bob

Wood

 

Part 2.  The Kling-Bresnahan-Gibson Era

              In the era 1903 to 1909 the National League divided into three dominant franchises and five weak sisters.   The three dominant teams were the Cubs, Pirates and Giants.   They finished 1-2-3 in the National League in some order almost every season, and had several legendary pennant races. 

              They also had the three best catchers in baseball in that era—Johnny Kling, Roger Bresnahan and George Gibson.   After the development of shin guards and other protective equipment the number of games caught by the top catchers shot up for a few years, although it then went backward in the next decade.  These are the top catchers of the 1903-1910 era:

 

YEAR

Rank

First

Last

1903

1

Johnny

Kling

1903

2

Heinie

Peitz

1903

3

Pat

Moran

1903

4

Ossee

Schreckengost

1903

5

Boileryard

Clarke

 

   

 

1904

1

Mike

Grady

1904

2

Johnny

Kling

1904

3

Heinie

Peitz

1904

4

Pat

Moran

1904

5

Harry

Bemis

 

   

 

1905

1

Roger

Bresnahan

1905

2

Mike

Grady

1905

3

Red

Dooin

1905

4

Frank

Bowerman

1905

5

Ossee

Schreckengost

 

   

 

1906

1

Johnny

Kling

1906

2

Mike

Grady

1906

3

Admiral

Schlei

1906

4

Red

Dooin

1906

5

Ossee

Schreckengost

 

   

 

1907

1

Roger

Bresnahan

1907

2

Johnny

Kling

1907

3

Nig

Clarke

1907

4

Larry

McLean

1907

5

Ossee

Schreckengost

 

   

 

1908

1

Roger

Bresnahan

1908

2

Johnny

Kling

1908

3

Nig

Clarke

1908

4

Red

Dooin

1908

5

Boss

Schmidt

 

   

 

1909

1

Roger

Bresnahan

1909

2

George

Gibson

1909

3

Red

Dooin

1909

4

Larry

McLean

1909

5

Ted

Easterly

 

   

 

1910

1

Johnny

Kling

1910

2

George

Gibson

1910

3

Roger

Bresnahan

1910

4

Larry

McLean

1910

5

Ted

Easterly

 

              Bresnahan, of course, is in the Hall of Fame, and Kling is a well-known figure to many of you. 

 

3.  First Explanation

              We are in the Hall of Fame debating season, and one of the arguments that you will hear most often in this season is that Scott Rolen was (or was not) the top third baseman of his era, or that he did (or did not) have "many" seasons as the best in baseball at his position.  Using Scott Rolen as a stand-in; it could be Jim Edmonds or Lou Whitaker or Harold Baines.  In theory I regard this as a legitimate argument, a legitimate analytical approach.   Some of you will remember the Keltner List.   The Keltner List was an effort to break the large, unmanageable question of "Does this player belong in the Hall of Fame" down into smaller, more manageable questions, one of which was "Was this player the best player in baseball at his position?", and another of which might have been "For how long was this player the best player in baseball at his position?

              A relevant and valid approach, but needing more some precision.  There are no real lists of the top players at each position each year, to begin with, and if there were, how many top flight seasons are enough?   How many years do you have to be the top player are your position?  How many years do you have to be in the top two, or the top three?  

              Let’s try to make a little progress on those issues.

              We are using Win Shares here; the basis of all of these rankings is Win Shares.  However

              (a) It’s not always actual Win Shares; it’s a mix of actual and estimated Win Shares, and

              (b) We don’t base the rankings for any year just based on that year’s Win Shares.   We look at multi-year Win Shares, and make some adjustments for missed playing time.

 

Part 4:  The Chief Meyers-Jimmy Archer Era

              In this era catchers almost always hit 8th.   The tradition was that the pitcher always hit 9th, and the catcher always hit 8th.   Chief Meyers, who was the best hitting catcher of this era, hit 8th all of 1911 but moved to 7th in 1912 and 1913.   He hit .332, .358 and .312 over those three years, and his Giants won the pennant all three years.  Meyers lived to recite "Casey at the Bat" on national television more than 50 years later.   You can still find it on You Tube, I think.

YEAR

Rank

First

Last

1911

1

Chief

Meyers

1911

2

Ted

Easterly

1911

3

Roger

Bresnahan

1911

4

George

Gibson

1911

5

Larry

McLean

 

   

 

1912

1

Chief

Meyers

1912

2

Jimmy

Archer

1912

3

Ted

Easterly

1912

4

George

Gibson

1912

5

Oscar

Stanage

 

   

 

1913

1

Chief

Meyers

1913

2

Jimmy

Archer

1913

3

Jeff

Sweeney

1913

4

Wally

Schang

1913

5

Ivy

Wingo

 

5.  The Federal League Insurrection

              In 1914 and 1915 there was a third major league, an upstart league which attempted to lure as many stars away from the National and American Leagues as they could and become a third major.   The league was reasonably successful; it attracted a good number of stars, got the media attention that an upstart league needs, and drew pretty substantial attendance.  It was costly, of course—starting a war is always costly—and after two years some of the Federal League owners were ready to give up.   Those who were ready to give up sold out and made a deal with the American and National Leagues, which led to a lawsuit by those Federal League owners who were not included in the deal, which led to the famous Supreme Court decision that baseball was not covered by anti-trust law.

              This preface is relevant because in 1914 and 1915 the highest-ranking catcher in baseball is a Federal League catcher who had been Chief Meyers’ backup before the Federal League, and who went back to being a backup after the Federal League folded.  This may or may not be an error, a flaw in the ranking system; I don’t know whether it is or not, and you can decide.   I’ll give you the rankings first:

YEAR

Rank

First

Last

1914

1

Art

Wilson

1914

2

Ted

Easterly

1914

3

Chief

Meyers

1914

4

Wally

Schang

1914

5

Ray

Schalk

1914

6

Hank

Gowdy

1914

7

Fred

Jacklitsch

1914

8

Ivy

Wingo

 

 

 

 

1915

1

Art

Wilson

1915

2

Bill

Rariden

1915

3

Ray

Schalk

1915

4

Ted

Easterly

1915

5

Frank

Snyder

1915

6

Chief

Meyers

1915

7

Grover

Hartley

1915

8

William

Fischer

 

              Art Wilson had been Chief Meyers’ backup in New York before the Federal League.   Ted Easterly, the #2 catcher of 1914, was also a Federal League catcher, but his ranking is less problematic because Easterly had made the lists of the top catchers in 1911 and 1912.  Anyway, Wilson’s spot at the top of the list can be interpreted in either of two ways:

              1) Wilson was a talented player who just needed a chance to play, and who proved to be outstanding when the Federal League gave him a chance to play, or

              2) Wilson wasn’t really that good, but posted good stats in an inferior league. 

              I am certain that most people interpret Wilson’s success and that of other Federal League stars, mostly notably Benny Kauff, as evidence of the weakness of the league, thus as evidence that our ranking system fails (in this case) because it fails to adjust for the quality of the competition.   This could be a correct interpretation, but it may not be.   The same thing happens without upstart leagues; players who are backups in one place get a chance to play and turn out to be really good.   The Dodgers in 2017 had a bunch of them, most notably Justin Turner and Chris Taylor.   Their success does not prove that it was a weak league; it just happens.   Roy Campanella was a backup catcher for several years in the Negro Leagues, backing up Biz Mackey.   Elston Howard wasted more than half of his career as Yogi Berra’s backup, and was past 30 by the time he got a chance to play, but played at a Hall of Fame level for four years when he finally got the chance. 

              Wilson was a backup in the National League, but (a) he was backing up the best catcher in baseball, and (b) he actually played very well, hitting .303 in 1911 and .289 in 1912 in an era in which many catchers were hitting under .250.  There is no doubt that the Federal League was SOMEWHAT weaker than the established leagues, but it is my judgment, based on what I know, that the league was actually pretty comparable to the other leagues, and that the better interpretation was the first one, that Wilson and others just needed to a chance to play.   But I’ll leave that up to you. 

 

6.  Second Explanation

              You may wonder why there are only two catchers listed in 1900, but eight listed in 1914 and 1915.   It’s based on the number of teams.   We do Top Tens now; in a month or so I’ll probably be on MLB television giving you my top ten players at each position, although we haven’t made definite plans to do that yet.  Obviously being Top Ten now, with 30 teams, is not the same as being Top Ten in 1900, when there were only eight teams.

              We’re looking for the best players at each position; let us say the best one-third or a little less.   I will present for each season the list of the top players, based on one-third of the number of teams in that season, rounded down.  In 1900, when there were only eight major league teams, that makes two players at each position who can considered to be elite players.   From 1901 to 1960 (except 1914-1915) there are sixteen teams, so we will consider five players per season to be elite players.   In 1914 and 1915, when there are 24 teams, that makes eight elite players.  Some of them less elite than others.

              Ranking systems are efforts to create the exact right pathways to summarize the data (a) consistent with the best analysis, but also (b) consistent with the way that your mind would do it.   We want the player to rate first that YOU would rate first, if you were there at that moment.   The key word is "effort"; it never EXACTLY works perfectly.  It’s fine if you disagree.   I disagree sometimes myself.   

 

7.  The SchalkSchang Redemption

              By the period of the Federal League we are entering the Schalk/Schang era, actually the Schalk/Schang/Bob O’Farrell era.  Ray Schalk and Wally Schang were the two top catchers of the World War I era.   They were alphabetically listed next to each other in the old McMillan Encyclopedias, appearing on the same page, and by some weird coincidence they had exactly the same number of major league at bats, 5,306 each.   It is as if history was demanding that we compare and contrast these two players.   

              Schalk is in the Hall of Fame, Schang is not, but it is not actually clear that Schalk was the better player.  Schalk was the better defensive player; Schang was a better hitter.   Schalk is one of the worst hitters to be elected to the Hall of Fame—perhaps the worst—and was elected to the Hall of Fame based on his reputation as a defensive marvel.   I agree that Schalk was a great defensive player; in fact, an analysis of defensive statistics that I published here perhaps three or four years ago concluded that Schalk was the greatest defensive catcher of all time.  

              But Schang was a better hitter, and it’s not like he wasn’t a real catcher; he caught for no less than seven teams that won the American League pennant—the A’s in 1913 and 1914, the Red Sox in 1918, the Yankees in 1921, 1922 and 1923, and the A’s again in 1930.   His career was a long tour of the best teams in the American League. 

              Schang was born in 1889 and Schalk in 1892.  Bob O’Farrell was born in 1896, so he was a few years younger, and when his moment came he was the top catcher in baseball.  He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1926, and rates as the #1 catcher in baseball as early as 1922. 

YEAR

Rank

First

Last

1916

1

Ray

Schalk

1916

XX

Wally

Schang

1916

2

Art

Wilson

1916

3

Bill

Rariden

1916

4

Frank

Snyder

1916

5

Hank

Gowdy

 

   

 

1917

1

Ray

Schalk

1917

2

Wally

Schang

1917

3

Ivy

Wingo

1917

4

Hank

Severeid

1917

5

Bill

Rariden

 

   

 

1918

1

Ivy

Wingo

1918

2

Ray

Schalk

1918

3

Mike

Gonzalez

1918

4

Wally

Schang

1918

5

Steve

O'Neill

 

   

 

1919

1

Wally

Schang

1919

2

Steve

O'Neill

1919

3

Ray

Schalk

1919

4

Eddie

Ainsmith

1919

5

Ivy

Wingo

 

   

 

1920

1

Wally

Schang

1920

2

Steve

O'Neill

1920

3

Ray

Schalk

1920

4

Patsy

Gharrity

1920

5

Ivy

Wingo

 

   

 

1921

1

Wally

Schang

1921

2

Steve

O'Neill

1921

3

Patsy

Gharrity

1921

4

Hank

Severeid

1921

5

Cy

Perkins

 

   

 

1922

1

Bob

O'Farrell

1922

2

Wally

Schang

1922

3

Steve

O'Neill

1922

4

Ray

Schalk

1922

5

Hank

Severeid

 

   

 

1923

1

Bob

O'Farrell

1923

2

Bubbles

Hargrave

1923

3

Hank

Severeid

1923

4

Wally

Schang

1923

5

Cy

Perkins

 

   

 

1924

1

Bob

O'Farrell

1924

2

Bubbles

Hargrave

1924

3

Johnny

Bassler

1924

4

Gabby

Hartnett

1924

5

Hank

Severeid

 

 

 

 

1925

1

Gabby

Hartnett

1925

2

Glenn

Myatt

1925

3

Johnny

Bassler

1925

4

Hank

Severeid

1925

5

Butch

Henline

 

   

 

1926

1

Bob

O'Farrell

1926

2

Gabby

Hartnett

1926

3

Bubbles

Hargrave

1926

4

Muddy

Ruel

1926

5

Earl (Oil)

Smith

 

              Schang was not actually catching in 1916; he caught 36 games that year but was mostly playing the outfield, which is why he is not rated as a catcher.   If rated as a catcher he would rank second, behind Schalk, but he was mostly an outfielder.  His .778 OPS that year doesn’t look like much to modern eyes, but was the eighth-highest OPS in the American League that season.   

 
 
 
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