Keltner List: Deacon White (by sansho1)

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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:

    1. Cap Anson (HOF) 91.1
    2. Roger Connor (HOF) 80.6
    3. Dan Brouthers (HOF) 77.0
    4. “Pebbly” Jack Glasscock (NO) 59.2 (note: much of his value was defensive, as yours would be too if you played shortstop and your name was…)
    5. Jim O’Rourke (HOF) 50.0
    6. Bid McPhee (HOF) 48.3
    7. Buck Ewing (HOF) 45.7
    8. White, 44.2
    9. Paul Hines (NO) 42.9
    10. King Kelly (HOF) 42.4

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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).

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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 SABR biographies, as well as this Baseball Historian entry, and the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Much obliged.)

46 thoughts on “Keltner List: Deacon White (by sansho1)”

  1. What a fun read!

    For my money, sansho is the best writer this community has to offer. There, I said it.

  2. Well, I don’t know about that, but thanks, Stu. I do know that if the headline “Keltner List: Deacon White (by sansho1)” doesn’t get people to start tearing their hair out begging for spring training to start, I don’t know what will….

    Also, it should be said that Alex continues to do yeoman’s work on the site. I turned in a Word document with no formatting and only a couple of hyperlinks, and now look at it.

  3. sansho,

    Awesome! Just the thing to take the chill off a dreary winter’s day.

    Bill James may need to look at this tool he created again.

    For example, if people give heavier weight to standards in above question 13 (team’s best player good enough to carry a team to a pennant), then the HOF might not induct many.
    Few players can put their team on their back.
    And it might ignore Andre Dawson winning MVP for a losing club.

    But if you use Q14, Deacon White had a tremendous impact on pro baseball and now that I know his story, I think the Hall is better for his inclusion.

    I wish they’d use sansho’s write-up as the basis of an exhibit on Deacon White. I’d pay to see it.

  4. From the last thread: If there’s a better baseball book than “The Glory of Their Times”, I’m getting a copy, muy pronto.

  5. Great job, sansho1. To be completely honest, I’d never heard of Deacon White before he suddenly surfaced… and I’m not completely ignorant of the early days. I feel I now have some idea who he was… and that’s what good writing does. What’s the Bill James (or anybody else’s) argument against him?

  6. The Bill James argument goes something like this: yeah, he was good, but against incredibly weak competition. The National Association is generally not considered a major league because so many of the players were so weak, and the early NL was awfully dicey as well. White was a good player but not a meteoric talent; he may have been better than the majority of players, but the majority of players were pretty awful. There were only a few players in that era who were truly historically great, and White wasn’t one of them. (Neither was Hall of Famer George Wright, who is in the Hall in large part because he is Harry Wright’s brother.

    However, Sansho makes the best pro-White argument I’ve ever seen. He was clearly influential in his time, very good as backstops went, and generally speaking, I tend to support endorsement for any player who was best in his era at a particular position, even if that position was relatively weak at the time. White’s greatness may as much have to do with his off-field and in-clubhouse influence, as it did with his raw batting and fielding. But he was clearly great. Kudos to the Hall for recognizing him, even if the writers were too cowardly to vote for Biggio.

  7. I know Deacon White was supposed to be squeaky clean, but do we know for sure that he never messed with deer antler spray???

  8. I think you had to put the whole antler under your tongue in those days as aerosols weren’t invented. Which he could have done I suppose.

  9. Mark Bowman thinks that if Teheran pitching better than JJ last year he will be 5th starter. I think he needs to pitch better and should.

  10. sansho and AAR,

    I meant it when I said this post should be the basis for a HOF exhibit. I sent them a note and a link here and below is their response. I hope this doesn’t mess with anybody’s copyright.

    Bottom line: Mac’s site is now in the HOF.

    Dear Kevin,

    Thanks for your note. As we do every year, we will create an exhibit for
    all of our new inductees. This will include Deacon White, Jacob Ruppert,
    and Hank O’Day for 2013. This exhibit will be installed sometime in May
    and will remain on display for one year.

    Deacon White was a remarkable player, and we are excited to be able to
    tell his story and bring him to life for all our visitors. I appreciate
    you taking the time to send us a note and the attached article. We will
    make sure to add the article to his player file in the Research Library,
    which is available for all visitors to see upon request.

    Hope you have a chance to come visit us in Cooperstown sometime soon.

    My best wishes,


    Erik M. Strohl
    Senior Director of Exhibitions and Collections
    National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
    25 Main St.
    Cooperstown, NY 13326

  11. Kevin, I’m completely stunned and beyond grateful for that gesture. If I’m ever in Cooperstown I’ll be the one climbing over the throng at the Deacon White exhibit! Thanks a lot, really.

  12. @22, That’s freaking awesome.

    Studying it out, can they add some of Mac’s writings on other HOF’ers to the archives? That would be a great tribute to the man himself.

  13. The only reason I need to hate dookies (notice the spelling, I wish all you guys would learn the proper way to spell dook, sheesh) is for it to be a day whose name ends in ‘y’.

  14. td @ 20,

    I know lots of people that work animals that use the same thing. There is the transdermal type mentioned, and there is also an oral steroid. The horse / cow steroids come in big jugs and a dose that would cost $2 in human form costs 2 cents in vet supply form. A lot of guys would slug a capful every morning. That way, they bounced on and off of horses all day and could get out of bed tomorrow.

    And, a lot of those I knew that did it haven’t shown side effects and they are in their 50’s and 60’s. Healthier than ex nfl playes of the same age, anyway.
    [got to use the new “edit” button, and I loved it]

  15. With Evan Gattis surviving the Upton deal, it seems as though the organization is legitimately high on the young slugger. Any thoughts on whether he should be groomed to slide into the catcher’s role in 2014 or if he should start getting reps at 3B for the sake of putting fans out of the misery of Chris Johnson ABs by mid season?

  16. I feel like someone with the skill set to play catcher, even if at a mediocre level could learn to play 3B. He theoretically has an arm and footwork ability and doesn’t have the miles of most catchers his age that would lead to knee/agility problems. I suppose the answer to my query hinges on how the team feels about Bethancort and whether or not they plan on retaining McCann’s services.

  17. @34, I’ve read quite a few differing opinions on his ability to play catcher at the MLB level. Most scouting types say that he just doesn’t have the capability, but I did run across this quote from an article:

    He’s not a bad catcher, and Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez and roving catching instructor Joe Breeden rave about his work habits and desire to improve behind the plate. But Gattis might only be adequate defensively at catcher, and with cannon-armed Bethancourt waiting in the wings, Gattis would likely be better suited in left field in the Braves organization.

    It would be tremendous if he could make the C to 3B switch (like Pablo Sandoval). However, that would mean that he would probably need at least another season in the minors (meaning that he wouldn’t debut until early 2014, at age 27). I think his bat is close to being ready, and it should be said that even fantastic players like Ryan Howard (age 26) and Chase Utley (26 years also) didn’t get a start until much later and turned out fine.

  18. Both of the players you mentioned could’ve been in the majors two years earlier than they were. Howard was blocked by Thome, and Utley was blocked by… organizational unwillingness to go with a younger guy? That or Polanco, I think.

    I really don’t think Gattis will be a C, and if moving him to 3B was an option, they’d have done it already, I think. It’s somewhat of an awkward thing now that the OF is on solid lock-down, as is 1B. If he can’t catch, I don’t see where this leaves Gattis, except maybe as a bench bat. I dunno. We’ll have to see.

  19. @37, Yeah, they were, but the statement was more to illustrate that hitting the majors that late isn’t a death sentence for a player’s career. Even if they were completely ready two years before they actually debuted, it’s still quite a miracle that Gattis is conceivably in the same position after missing 4 whole years of development (whereas Utley and Howard had the full development time).

    I think you’re right, the Phillies had a weird philosophy at the time of bringing their top prospects up late so that they could get the best seasons at team-controlled prices rather and Arb years rather than FA prices. The consensus was that they’d let go of these players once they hit that declining state in their early thirties. At least, a lot of people that that was the idea. Apparently the Phillies didn’t get the message.

  20. @37
    Well if they don’t see him as a C, but like his bat he’s blocked at 1b and any OF positions for 3 years. With the Jupton acquisition, third makes far more sense than it did during winter ball or 2012.

  21. Brandon INge moved from C to 3b and became an elite defender there. Johnny Bench and Joe Torre also made the move effectively, as did Pablo Sandoval. He could be in a platoon with Francisco, perhaps with Janish or Pastornicky in for late inning defense.

  22. Completely off topic, but I’d like to throw it out there:

    Have you ever heard that double-A is meant to be for prospects and people with a future, whereas triple-A is meant to be for has been’s and never will be’s? If that’s the idea, then is there any difference in the quality of talent? If not, then is it just a culture thing? How does a league for younger, up-and-coming players contrast with a league of quad-A or former major leaguers?

    Any thoughts on this?

  23. @41, This is probably an incomplete and over-simplified answer, but I think that the purpose of a minor leagues is to fill two goals for the major league team: first to serve as ‘training ground’ for prospects to work on mastering their abilities in a situations of negligible importance; and second, to provide a reservoir of players for the major league team in case of injury/ineffectiveness.

    Additionally, most organizations would rather keep younger players in their system (young=potential, as a general rule, it seems) that may actually become good someday. So you’re never going to want to fill your system with guys that have already proven they aren’t good at 29,30.

    I think that the competition at Triple-A is certainly stiffer. If you have a 25 or 26 year old player that you, as the organization, see as nothing more than a backup for your backup, you definitely want him playing at AAA. You’re not going to stash him at AA because: a, he won’t get the same type of competition in AA; and b, if he can’t cut it in AAA and necessitates a move to AA, he’s not good enough to be anywhere near a MLB field. So, the roster makeup for AAA teams may (hypothetically) be somewhere around 20% veterans, 50% fringe backup-backup players, and only 30% actual prospects. In AA, you’re only looking for kids with potential, so that swing may (hypothetically) be 20% veterans and 80% prospects.

    My understanding of it, anyway.

  24. One of the stories that got by me last week was the problems for Mark Grace.
    He’s been one of my favorite competitors and seemed to be making a good career after ball.
    Anybody know the story of what happened?

  25. @41, I think I more often hear it put as “if you can succeed at AA, you can succeed at the ML level”. By extension I suppose, you can make the argument that the top tier of prospects spends little time at AAA compared to generally at least a full season at AA, and as a result there are a greater percentage of “organizational soldiers” at the higher level. Still, while they say you are more likely to run into the next great pitcher at AA, there are far more actual pitchers at AAA, who may not be ML quality, but consistently better than AA. Todd Redmond may not get Pujols out, but he can get guys at AAA out all the time, and there are a fair amount of Redmonds in AAA.

  26. @43, Multiple DUIs and failure to install an interlock device on his car. Or were you referring to something else? I believe his behavior tendencies have been well known for some time.

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