Stovey just might be the greatest overall talent in baseball history. He was a star of the 1800s and spent his glory years in the now defunct American Association, which must be the reason he has gone unnoticed by Hall of Fame voters for decades. Despite playing in the AA, Harry combined speed and power better than any star of his time. The single season stats Stovey left behind are awe-inspiring.
Extensive research has altered many of Stovey’s career stats, but in his day, there were none to compare with him. He once held the single season records for both stolen bases and homeruns. In fact, Stovey was once credited with stealing in the excess of 150 bases in one season, but the alteration done to his stats has brought that total done significantly. There are several seasons in which the stats are sketchy from Harry’s time – much like the Negro Leagues – which forced statisticians to render his total of steals as zero: or not recorded. This places Stovey’s legend more in the lore department than in some historical context. But there are many stats that display Harry’s greatness.
Some texts list Stovey and Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton as the only two players in baseball history who averaged more than a run scored per game. But another 1800s star, George Gore of the Chicago White Stockings, also achieved this feat. Harry scored 1,488 runs in 1,482 games (there are varying stats here too, but all have Stovey scoring more runs than games he appeared in) during his career. Also, Stovey can’t be lumped into any one category as far as positions are concerned. For this blog, I have put Harry down as a right fielder, but he also saw extensive time in left field and first base.
Stovey made his Major League debut with the Worcester Ruby Legs in 1880. The schedule was more relaxed in those days – the Ruby Legs played in only 83 games – but Harry led the league in both triples and homeruns. One of Harry’s many specialties, the stolen base, wasn’t recorded as a stat back then, and his career numbers suffer because of it. It is my firm belief, after viewing many newspaper archive clippings on Stovey, that Ty Cobb never held the single season nor career stolen base records, but that Stovey held them and still holds them to this day. Maybe, Rickey Henderson has him beat in the career department, but Rickey never stole 150 bases in a single season, like Harry has been said to have accomplished.
Harry played with Worcester for three years before he embarked on his American Association career. He joined the old Philadelphia A’s in 1883 and promptly led the circuit with 110 runs (in only 94 games), 31 doubles, 14 homers and a .506 slugging percentage. He was even better the next year, raising his batting average 22 points and leading the league with 23 triples and 124 runs scored. This was a time when the stolen base stat still wasn’t kept on a sound basis and Stovey is listed as having zero thefts when he probably had close to 100 – if not plenty more.
Harry scored 130 runs in 112 games in 1885 while also leading the league in homeruns. The next year, stolen bases were kept in the stat books and Harry is listed as leading the American Association with 68. This began a string of seasons in which Stovey stole 55 or more bases for six straight years. He paced the circuit in triples in 1888 and followed up his solid ’88 season with a better 1889 year, leading the AA with 152 runs scored, 19 homeruns, 119 RBI and a slugging percentage of .525.
With the Player’s League formed in 1890, Harry jumped the A’s and joined the upstart circuit’s Boston Reds club. Stovey led the new league in stolen bases with 97. When the Player’s League collapsed after the season, Harry remained in Boston, signing on with the National League’s Beaneaters. In his first year back in the NL, Harry led the circuit with 20 triples, 16 homeruns and a .498 slugging percentage.
1891 proved to be Harry’s last great year as he was in his mid 30s by then – an era where physical conditioning isn’t what it is like today. But Stovey ended his career as the homerun champ until Roger Connor bested his record. The record has only been topped three times since: by babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. And unlike the men who broke Stovey’s record, Harry was exceptional in all departments. He wasn’t just a long ball swatter – he combined the power of Ruth with the wheels of Cobb. There has been no other player like Harry Stovey before or since.
Harry Stovey’s career stats*: G 1,482/R 1,488/H 1,866/2B 348/3B 185/HR 121/RBI 907/BA .307/SA .485
* there are varying career stats for Harry Stovey – much like many early 1800s stars.