The following is from Pirates Prospects contributor John Dreker, as part of his ongoing Pirates History feature. The feature focuses on the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and every Sunday, John will take a look at a different piece of that history. This week John looks at Deacon White, and why he should be placed in the Hall of Fame.
Despite his rather rough start with Pittsburgh and the fact he spent just one season with the team, I’m going to focus this article on Deacon White and why he should have been inducted into Cooperstown years ago.
Major League baseball, as is now accepted, began in 1871 with the formation of the National Association. If you look at any list of stats for White, it starts with his 1871 season and that is the first problem with using his stats alone to make his case for the Hall. He has a .312 career average over 1560 career games with 1140 runs scored, 2067 hits, and 988 RBI’s. All very good stats, but most people look at them and see a guy who played a majority of his career at 3B and can find players on the outside of the Hall’s doors with what they consider better overall stats.
As I mentioned, starting at 1871 for White is his first problem and one that he had no control over. In 1868 he was already good enough to be paid to play baseball, but he gets punished by the fact there was no major league at the time and therefore no stats associated with his career before 1871. One can safely assume he lost 4-5 years at the beginning of his career due just to the date of his birth.
The second problem when looking at his stats is that he played a majority of his career in an era where they played less than 100 games per season. His first two pro seasons they played just 51 games…combined! He was 36 years old before he ever had the chance to play 100 games in a season and back in the 19th century most players were done by age 32.
The third problem with comparing his stats to other 3B is the fact he was a catcher early in his career and being a 19th century catcher was a dangerous profession due to the insufficient and substandard equipment they used, including no glove at all when he first started. Not too many men made a living at it and only one so far has made a Hall of Fame career out of it, Buck Ewing, and he regularly played other positions, catching just 636 games in his career. White was not only catching games regularly until he was 31, he was winning a batting title and two RBI titles while doing it.
Just how good White was in his prime might be summed up by his 1877 season, the only one before age 32 that he did not spend as a full-time catcher. That year while playing 1B and some outfield, while still occasionally put on the catching “gear”, Deacon hit a career high .387(winning his 2nd batting title) while leading the league in RBI’s for a third time and also led the league in hits, triples, slugging, OPS and total bases.
You now can see you have a star player who sacrificed batting stats to stand behind the plate and take a beating daily. You have to judge a catcher from that era against other catchers, especially when that player proves what he can do when he’s not catching everyday.
It should also be noted that on the defensive side, he was recognized as one of the best catchers around. One could only imagine the stats he may have been able to put up had he had the chance to play a full major league season from 1867 on and not have to play the role of a catcher until he was 31. Yet he was still able to post a .312 career average, still able to surpass 2,000 hits despite playing just 1,560 games, still scored over 1,100 runs, and drove in just shy of 1,000 runs.
It seems to me that the voters have no idea what they are really looking at with White. They seem to judge his career based strictly on the offensive stats he put up and take nothing else into consideration, especially the stats beyond his control such as the shortened schedule and timing of his birth. They don’t see a pillar behind the plate who led the league in games caught five of his first six seasons. They see a guy who led the league in RBI’s three times and batting average twice and then just hung around for another thirteen seasons not realizing that only the great players of the era were able to keep up well into their 30’s and he did it until he was forty-two.
Most people would rather focus on the more recent players and ignore the 19th century players who set the foundation for the game, letting them fall further into the past as if they don’t deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments. There are plenty of legit HOF candidates from the 1800’s and the hall itself has been inducting players since 1936 so you would think at some point they could finally get around to the players that started it all. In my mind, Deacon White is near the top of the list of deserving pioneers of the game.
It’s about time the committee in charge of electing 19th century players put the effort into getting their job right and it starts by understanding what they are looking at when they see a bunch of numbers in front of them. They need to stop looking at Deacon White as the above average 3B who just falls short of greatness and look at the man who far exceeds the Hall of Fame standards of what is truly a great player.
Editor’s note: This article was from 2011. White was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013 by the Veteran’s Committee.