A Case For Deacon White

Players who split their career between positions have had a difficult time making their way to Cooperstown.  For whatever reason, voters prefer position players with a set station, which accounts for the absence of Deacon White and Joe Torre in Cooperstown.  There have been players like Rod Carew and Robin Yount make the Hall of Fame, but both men are members of the 3,000 Hit Club, so their enshrinement was a given.  Deacon White, one of baseball’s early legends, falls into this bracket of undesignated position players since his career was split between catcher and third base.  Although White played more games at third he was a much better backstop than he was a hot corner custodian.  He caught in baseball’s early days, well before catchers donned masks and shin guards, before he shifted to third base.  When he was an everyday catcher, the schedule was significantly shorter than when he made the shift to third base, so Deacon spent more years behind the dish but played more games at third.

Deacon and his brother Will were professional baseball’s first brother battery as the White Boys were elite players at their respective positions: Will being the Greg Maddux of his time, complete with pinpoint control.  When baseball became a professional enterprise, Deacon was on the ground floor.  Of all the players who participated in the inaugural season of professional baseball only Hall of Famer Cap Anson has more career hits, runs and RBI than Deacon.  There were some exceptional players in baseball’s first season, such as Hall of Famers George Wright and Anson, as well as other forgotten stars like Cal McVey, Ross Barnes and Tom York.  But White’s career 1,140 runs, 2,067 hits and 988 RBI eclipsed every player from the game’s infancy not named Anson.

Deacon White often played with powerhouse teams during his career.  He was a member of the three-time champion Red Stockings in the mid 1870s and teamed with Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers, and stars Jack Rowe and Hardy Richardson to comprise the Buffalo Bisons’ fabled “Big Four.”  His status as one of the game’s elite stars during the early days of the game was unquestioned given his production from the catcher position: a post that caused severe bodily harm to many men of the period.  The Hall of Fame has done little to recognize players of the game’s early years, having enshrined the Wright Brothers, Al Spalding and Cap Anson from the original 1871 professional ranks.  Deacon White, who tallied the first base hit in Major League Baseball history–off of right-hander Bobby T. Mathews–may have been a better player than the lauded George Wright.

Over the course of White’s lengthy career in the Major League ranks he nabbed a pair of batting titles and led his league on three separate occasions in the RBI department.  George Wright, the Derek Jeter of his time, never once won a batting title.  Deacon was able to accumulate more career hits, runs and RBI than the star shortstop.  Taking into account each man’s slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging average) Deacon has a clear advantage over Wright the Younger as well.  White ended his career with a solid slash line of .312 BA/.346 OBP/.393 SA compared to George Wright’s .301 BA/.318 OBP/.398 SA.  When one takes into consideration that White played a more physically demanding position than Wright, the impression that the lesser ballplayer resides in the Hall of Fame is presented.

In order to make a convincing case for a player’s Hall of Fame enshrinement, one must compare the player to his position peers–those men who played the same position in roughly the same era.  Deacon White’s closest peers are King Kelly and Buck Ewing–both catchers of baseball’s early years who also saw plenty action at other posts on the diamond.  Neither Ewing nor Kelly played at the outset of baseball’s professional status, like Deacon White, as the enshrined duo debuted several years after White when schedules had lengthened.  But White’s durability allowed him to post career numbers on par with the enshrined catchers.  Their career stats are in relative proximity to one another.

Both Deacon White and King Kelly won a pair of batting titles in their careers.  All three players caught for an extended period in the Majors with White besting the Cooperstown gents in longevity.  Like White, Kelly saw more action at another post than catcher but many historians view Kelly as a catcher rather than an outfielder, where he settled after his days backstopping.  White’s career totals in the major categories of hits, runs, RBI and batting average outdistanced Buck Ewing, and the same can almost be said of Kelly, but King tallied a slightly higher total of career runs scored.  Despite Kelly’s career runs total eclipsing White’s, Deacon had a better career WAR than Kelly: White posting a 44.2 to Kelly’s 42.4.  Behind the dish, Kelly’s arm was superior to White’s but Deacon was a more reliable receiver.  White had three Top Two finishes in fielding percentage at the catcher post while Kelly never had a whiff of leading catchers in fielding percentage. 

Inducting players from the 1800s into the Hall of Fame picked up a little steam a few years ago when slick-fielding second baseman Biddy McPhee was enshrined, but the coals have since gone cold.  One of the main factors in White’s Hall of Fame absence is the lack of knowledge concerning baseball’s early days.  When the game became a professional enterprise, teams did not engage in 162 games–far from it.  Thirty games seemed an ample amount of contests in the game’s early stages before the schedules began to expand courtesy a semblance of league stability.  Exceeding 2,000 career hits in White’s day is akin to reaching 3,000 in modern times.  The legendary Cap Anson was the only player from the 1800s to reach 3,000 hits.  White was analyzed a few years ago by the modified Veteran’s Committee, but he was, for whatever reason, found wanting.

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1 comment
  1. Adam Darowski said:

    I wholeheartedly support the Deacon. Here’s something I wrote not too long ago about him:

    There’s another player I mentioned earlier, but didn’t follow up on. That’s Deacon White. The Deacon’s wWAR is a very impressive 92.2. That’s Hall-worthy no matter how you look at it. Despite a solid defensive reputation, his Total Zone hovers right around league average. If anything, I would guess it underrates him. As a result, I have no problem trusting his wWAR total and strongly supporting him for the Hall.

    Deacon White

    Why he should be in: While his 2067 hits don’t seem all that impressive, White began his (Major League) career in 1871 and was stuck playing the short schedules of the day. It wasn’t until his age 36 season that he played 100 games for the first time. If you prorate his team’s schedules to 162 games (something I do via the wWAR component WAR/162), his raw WAR total of 42.6 becomes 74.9. His .312/.346/.393 slash line gave him an OPS+ of 127, a figure that puts him in the ballpark with Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto Clemente, and Eddie Murray. White also primarily played high value positions—first catcher and then third base. Add that his Major League career lasted 20 years (and he even played a few seasons before the advent of the National Association) and you have what I consider an easy choice for the Hall.

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