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Deacon White: The Hall of Fame Induction Countdown

What, you were expecting Bonds, Clemens, and Bagwell?

Following last year’s induction of Barry Larkin, the 2013 Hall of Fame class was bound to be anti-climatic for the Reds’ faithful. Regrettably, the disappointment isn’t limited to just Reds fans. Tomorrow, Cooperstown enshrines one player, one owner, and one umpire - posthumously, as all have been dead for over 70 years. The player is Deacon White, considered the best Catcher of professional baseball’s first decade, a fine Thirdbaseman for another, and the owner of an epic mustache.

I didn’t know much about James Laurie White before this election cycle except that he played a long time ago. REALLY long ago, as it turns out:

  • Born in 1847 in Caton, New York, White learned baseball from a soldier returning from the Civil War.
  • White actually played against the original 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings for the Forest City of Cleveland, then nominally an amateur club. In 1871 he cracked the first hit in the history of the National Association for Forest City, considered the first major league hit.
  • As a part-time pitcher in his early years, White invented the then-controversial windup.
  • He lived to 91 - passing just three weeks after the opening of baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1939.
  • He thought the earth was flat. Seriously, this isn’t a strained metaphor for guilded age globalization. To demonstrate the truism to skeptical teammates, White would throw a ball straight over his head. The ball would then land at his feet - ta da! - proof that the earth did not rotate.

White was also ahead of his time, becoming perhaps the first Catcher to receive directly behind the batter. Since Catchers adopted mitts in the late 1880s, White is considered the greatest of all bare-handed Catchers. Bill James confirmed that White was the best Catcher of the 1870s and called him the decade's most admirable superstar (the teetotaler earned his nickname) in the New Historical Abstract. Between 1873 and 1877 - most of them with Harry Wright's Boston Red Stockings - White thrice led the league in RBIs and won two batting titles.

In 1878 White jumped ship to Cincinnati to join the pre-ban Reds, where he and the younger Will formed the finest sibling battery until Dottie and Kit joined the Rockford Peaches. Deacon taught Will an early form of the curveball that helped him lead the National League in innings in 1879, when he threw 680 frames. Deacon was by all accounts a master handler of pitchers, earning high praises from former battery mates and distinguished hurlers Albert Spalding (HOF) and Tommy Bond.

White played well in his three Cincinnati years, his final seasons spent primarily as a Catcher. He hit .318 for a 143 OPS+ as a Red. Prorated to a modern schedule, White tallies about 13 WAR in just his first two seasons. Not far off Johnny Bench's peak, actually. While it's tough for Cincinnati to claim White as one of their own (besides, we already have one Deacon in the HOF), neither can anyone else. White split his 20-year career with nine teams, and his top six seasons by WAR all came with different franchises. The extinct Buffalo Bisons enjoyed White for the longest period (5 years), though White's best seasons probably came in Boston.

White jumped around partially because of the fiscal instability of pro baseball's nascent years. The Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) raided Boston before the NL's inaugural year to take White, Spalding, and two other stars in a coup that helped kill the National Association. White may have been a straight arrow among his peers, but he was also nobody's pushover. At the end of his career, he and a teammate refused to report after being sold to the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. White acknowledged that "we ain't worth it ... But I will say this: no man is going to sell my carcass unless I get half."

White played mostly Thirdbase after leaving Cincinnati and hung around well into his forties, which Rob Neyer notes "says as much about baseball at that time than about his talents." And that's the crux of the HOF question - was the competition so watered down as to render his performance meaningless? I can't speak to the level of the competition, but I tend to not hold that against players because it's completely out of their control. All White could do was the play the schedule assigned to his team against the other teams in his league. To me, it's mighty impressive that he was able to accumulate over 2,000 hits and 45 WAR despite not having more than 100 games on his team's schedule until he was 36. Considered in sum with his reputed leadership and being the answer to several trivia questions, he's a more than defensible selection.