Sunday, November 29, 2015

Harry Stovey: Pre-Integration Era Ballot Hall of Fame Candidate


Hall of Fame candidate Harry Stovey

Nineteenth century slugger Harry Stovey is eligible to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the Pre-Integration Era ballot which is comprised of ten candidates who made their biggest contributions to the game prior to 1947.  Voting will take place on December 7 at the Baseball Winter Meetings.  Stovey shares the ballot with fellow player candidates Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Marty Marion, Frank McCormick, and Bucky Walters along with non-player candidates Sam Breadon, Garry Herrmann, and Chris von der Ahe as well as pioneer candidate Doc Adams.  Stovey played the bulk of his major league career in the American Association, which was a rival league to the National League.  Stovey dominated the game with power and speed and was arguably the greatest player in the American Association's ten-year history.  Stovey's career may have taken place over a century ago but his significant accomplishments make him worthy of election into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Stovey was born Harold Duffield Stowe in Philadelphia on December 20, 1856.  Stowe loved baseball and took to the game at an early age.  However, Stowe's mother was not fond of the sport so at age 20, he changed his last name to Stovey to keep her from learning that he had embarked on a career as a professional baseball player.  After spending three years in the minors, Stovey made his major league debut in 1880 with the Worcester Ruby Legs during the team's inaugural season in the National League.  Stovey made an immediate impact during his rookie campaign, leading the NL in home runs, triples, and extra base hits while also finishing runner-up in runs scored and total bases.  Stovey's league-pacing total of six round-trippers is low by today's standards but at the time home runs were an extremely rare occurrence because the baseball itself was softer and ball fields of the day were vast.  In addition, teams only played around an 85-game schedule.  Moreover, Stovey's six home runs represented nearly a tenth of the 62 longballs hit in the NL that year and his one-man total was higher than the team totals of three of the eight NL clubs.  On defense, Stovey split his time between first base and outfield. Stolen base records were not kept for the first six years of Stovey's career but his speed not only made him a constant threat to swipe a bag but also enabled him to hit inside-the-park home runs, extend drives into doubles and triples, and make the opposition pay for errors and wild pitches.

Following the 1882 season, the Worcester Ruby Legs disbanded and Stovey was quickly signed by the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association--which had just completed its first year as a direct competitor to the National League.  Stovey took the AA by storm, pacing his new league in several categories, including runs scored, doubles, slugging percentage, and total bases--in addition to setting the major league record for home runs with 14.  The young power-hitter once again towered over the league in longballs with his round-tripper total making up nearly an eighth of the 114 homers hit in the AA and equaling or bettering five of the eight AA clubs in four-baggers.  Stovey led the Athletics to a first place finish in a close race over the St. Louis Browns with the speedster even scoring the go-ahead run against the Louisville Eclipse in the Pennant-clinching game.  What's more, Stovey accomplished all this despite battling serious ankle injuries during the latter part of the season.      

Stovey was a fleet-footed power-hitter
After leading the Athletics to the Pennant, Stovey continued to dominate the AA with a series of strong campaigns.  Stovey's potent power and electric speed continued to be hallmarks of his game.  As the AA proved to be a formidable competitor to NL, the two leagues expanded their schedules from just under 100 games in 1883 to nearly 140 by the end of the decade.  In his first few seasons with Philadelphia, Stovey saw most of his time at first base before being used more regularly in one of the three outfield positions.  In 1886, the AA and NL both started keeping stolen base records.  During this time, the definition of what constituted a stolen base was more liberal than what it is today.  Nevertheless, the documenting of stolen base records showcased the speed part of Stovey's game and he is recognized as the AA's initial leader in swiped bags with 68 in 1886.  Three seasons later, Stovey paced the AA and set personal bests with 19 home runs and 119 RBIs.  Stovey's excellent 1889 campaign proved to be his last with Philadelphia as the fleet-footed slugger joined the Boston Reds of the Players League--a rival league that the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players formed because they were fed up with the reserve clause which bound a player to one club and kept salaries low.  Many of the AA's and NL's top players jumped to the Players League.  Stovey remained a standout talent in his new league--leading the PL with 97 stolen bases and ranking third with 12 home runs.  Stovey's stellar year helped Boston win the Players League's only Pennant as the new league folded after one season.

With the folding of the PL, Stovey's rights as a player laid with the Philadelphia Athletics in the AA.  However, in an apparent oversight, the Athletics had failed to include Stovey on their reserve list--unintentionally making him a free agent of sorts.  Stovey opted to stay in Boston to play for the Beaneaters of the NL.  Now a 34-year old veteran, Stovey proved he could still dominate at the plate as well as on the basepaths--leading the NL in a slew of categories including home runs, triples, and extra base hits while also stealing 57 bases--good for fifth highest in the league.  Stovey's potent bat and quick feet proved key to the Beaneaters who captured the NL flag--giving the veteran the interesting accomplishment of having won three Pennants in three different leagues.

Stovey got off to an uncharacteristically poor start the following season and, with the Beaneaters looking to cut their payroll, the veteran was released in June.  Stovey was signed by the Baltimore Orioles a couple of weeks later.  Perhaps the time off helped Stovey, as the slugger rebounded in Baltimore--hitting at 140 OPS+ clip over the balance of the season.  However, Stovey struggled to start the 1893 campaign.  After seeing a drop in his playing time, he asked for and was granted his release from Baltimore in late May.  Stovey then caught on with the Brooklyn Grooms in what would ultimately be his last year playing major league baseball.  Stovey played professionally in 1894 for former teammate King Kelly's Allentown club and later that season as player-manager for a team in New Bedford, Massachusetts--the same town where the slugger had met his wife, Mary, while playing for the city's minor league club in 1879.  Stovey joined the New Bedford Police in 1895 and made news again in 1901 when he jumped into the water to save a 7-year old boy from drowning while patrolling the waterfront.  Stovey was named Police Chief in 1915, a position he held until he retired in 1923.  Stovey passed away at age 80 in 1937.

At the time of his retirement from major league baseball, Stovey was the career leader in home runs.  Stovey initially set the career home record while still active in 1885, then was briefly passed by Dan Brouthers in 1887, before recapturing the top career mark during his stellar 1889 campaign.  Stovey's final career total of 122 was ultimately overtaken in 1895 by Roger Connor, who retired with 138 round-trippers.  Despite playing during an era of 85 to 140-game schedules, Stovey still ranked fourth in career home runs in 1921 when Connor was finally surpassed for the career longball mark by Babe Ruth.  Stovey's speed also played a key role in his ability to hit home runs as 27 of his 122 round-trippers were of the inside-the-park variety.  Not surprisingly, Stovey retired as the career leader for inside-the-park home runs and more than a century since his final game, still ranks tied for 15th all-time.

Stovey retired as the career leader in HRs
In addition to setting the career home run and inside-the-park home run marks, Stovey's 509 swiped bags placed him second to only Arlie Latham in career stolen bases when he played his final major league game in 1893.  While Stovey's stolen base totals may be incomplete due to the statistic not being recorded until his seventh major league season, the speed aspect of his game is also highlighted by his ability to hit triples and his incredible runs scored totals--two categories in which the fleet-footed slugger ranked number three all-time when he hung up his spikes.  Because the baseball itself was softer and the playing fields were vast, triples were much more common than home runs during the nineteenth century.  Stovey smacked 174 triples during his career and with 1,492 runs scored in just 1,486 games, Stovey holds the distinction of being one of only three players--Billy Hamilton and George Gore being the others--to play more than 600 games and finish their career with more runs scored than games played.  The speed and aggressiveness with which Stovey took to the basepaths were undoubtedly key factors to how he was able to amass such amazing triples and runs scored totals.  During the era in which Stovey played, baseball equipment was archaic compared to what is used today so fielding errors were much more common.  Errors themselves were tracked but many other important details such as reached on errors, stolen bases, and extra bases taken from errors and wild pitches were unrecorded during all or much of Stovey's career.  Stovey's quickness and daring put pressure on opposing defenses, causing them to make errors and pay significantly for them.

Stovey is also notable for being recognized as either the inventor--or at the very least an early adopter--of base running advancements such as sliding into bases feet first, wearing sliding pads to combat injuries, and using the pop up slide to better position himself for advancing to the next base.  Stovey played during an era plagued by poor sportsmanship.  That said, despite his propensity for sliding into bases feet first, Stovey was recognized as one of the game's cleanest players, earning him the nickname "Gentleman Harry."  Alfred Henry Spink, author of the book The National Game, wrote this of Stovey in 1910: "He always slid feet first but was not "nasty" with his feet in the way of trying to hurt the baseman, as some of his imitators were."

On the defensive side of the diamond, Stovey played the bulk of his games in the outfield but also saw time at first base.  During Stovey's first three major league seasons with the Worcester Ruby Legs, he split his time between the outfield and first base.  In his first two seasons in Philadelphia, the Athletics almost exclusively used Stovey at first base, then rotated him back and forth between the outfield and first for the next three years, before settling on using him in the outfield for his final two campaigns with the club.  After moving on from Philadelphia, Stovey was primarily used in the outfield for the remainder of his career.  In 1888, Stovey showcased his arm strength in a distance-throwing contest held by the Cincinnati Enquirer, finishing second to only Ned Williamson with a mark of 369 feet, 2 inches.  Overall for his career, Stovey played 550 games at first base and 944 in the outfield with 519 of those in left field, 251 in right, and 176 in center.  During Stovey's time, first base was considered a much more defensively challenging position than it is today, while the three outfield positions were considered the least demanding on the diamond.  Unlike shortstop Bill Dahlen, who also appears on the upcoming Pre-Integration Era ballot, Stovey's defensive prowess does not greatly strengthen his Hall of Fame case.  However, in contrast to his defensively challenged American Association peer Pete Browning, Stovey's fielding does not detract from his Hall of Fame case either.

Stovey was a five-time league leader in HRs
Stovey's overall dominance as player is underscored by the regularity in which he led his respective league in a variety of important categories:  Stovey was a five-time leader in home runs and extra base hits.  Stovey stood atop the league leaders chart in triples and runs scored on four occasions.  Stovey also ranked first in total bases and slugging percentage three times. Although stolen base totals were only recorded for the final eight seasons of Stovey's 14-year career, the daring speedster led twice in swiped bags.  Stovey also paced the league in doubles, RBIs, and OPS+ on one occasion each.  In addition to setting the record for career home runs, Stovey also set single-season records for home runs, extra base hits, triples, and stolen bases.  Stovey's dominance was not limited to just his time in the American Association as the fleet-footed power-hitter led the National League in home runs and triples on two occasions and also paced the Senior Circuit in total bases and slugging percentage one-time each--all despite spending only the first three and the final three years of his career in the NL.  Moreover, Stovey was the most prolific base stealer in the sole campaign of the Players League.

Stovey's dominance is further showcased by the Black Ink Test metric designed by sabermetrician Bill James which measures how often a player led their respective league in important offensive categories.  Stovey ranks 23rd all-time in position player career Black Ink--ahead of many Hall of Famers and trailing only three players--Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, and Ross Barnes--who are all retired but not in Cooperstown.  In addition, Dan Brouthers, Cap Anson, the aforementioned Barnes, and Ed Delahanty are the only nineteenth century position players ahead of Stovey in Black Ink.  However, the Black Ink Test somewhat favors players of Stovey's era since they played in leagues with 8 teams as opposed to players in later eras who played in leagues with 10 or more teams.  Regardless, Stovey's Black Ink totals are impressive and his career also looks strong by another James metric, the Gray Ink Test, which measures how often a player finished in their league's top ten in important categories.  Stovey is tied for 36th all-time among position players in Gray Ink, once again ahead of many enshrined players, with Bonds and Rose as the only retired non-Hall of Famers ahead of him.

Despite holding the career home run record for several seasons and regularly leading his respective league in several important categories, Stovey has yet to be honored with a bronze Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.  Stovey was arguably the greatest player in the ten-year history of the American Association--ranking as the defunct league's all-time leader in position player WAR, home runs, extra base hits, and runs scored even though he only spent seven seasons in the AA.  However, having played a significant portion of his career in the AA has likely hindered Stovey's Hall of Fame case.  Fifty-six percent of Stovey's career plate appearances took place in the AA.  Thus far, the only players in the Hall of Fame who have anywhere near that high a percentage of their career plate appearances in the AA are Tommy McCarthy and Bid McPhee, who each had just over 40 percent of their career plate appearances in the defunct league.  McCarthy was voted in by the Old Timers Committee in 1946 as a player but was largely elected due to the innovative strategies he devised such as the hit and run.  McPhee's career is less associated with the defunct league because the Cincinnati Reds franchise where he spent his entire career joined the NL when the AA dissolved and because his years in the Senior Circuit took place during the high offense 1890s.  Although McPhee made it into the Hall of Fame, his time in the AA may have delayed his election to Cooperstown, which finally came by way of the Veterans Committee in 2000--more than a century after he played his last major league game.  Perhaps because the AA folded after ten seasons while its direct competitor the National League survived and continues to thrive, the accomplishments of its players have been discounted by Hall of Fame voters.

Another factor that has hurt Stovey's Hall of Fame case is the fact that his career took place during an era with shorter schedules.  Stovey spent most of the first half of his career playing between 83 to 113-game schedules before the ledger finally expanded to around 140 games at the outset of his seventh season.  The timing of Stovey's career also worked against his Hall of Fame case as during his final season the pitching distance was moved from 55 feet to 60 feet 6 inches.  This change resulted in a significant increase in scoring that--along with playing their career under longer schedules--helped strengthen the Hall of Fame cases of hitters who played their prime years in the 1890s and made sluggers from Stovey's era look weak by comparison.

The upcoming election will mark the second vote held for Pre-Integration Era candidates.  In the previous election three years ago, the Pre-Integration Committee voted owner Jacob Ruppert, umpire Hank O' Day, and slugger Deacon White into the Hall of Fame.  Like Stovey, White was a dominant player in the nineteenth century who made notable innovations to the game.  The Hall of Fame cases of White and Stovey have long been championed by writers and historians familiar with the early days of baseball.  Moreover, the Society for American Baseball Research selected White and Stovey as Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legends in 2010 and 2011, respectively.  Stovey's incredible combination of power-hitting and base running gave him the ability to regularly lead his respective league in a number of important categories and dominate the game like few players have.  Although Stovey's career took place more than a century ago, his significant career accomplishments make him worthy of election to the Hall of Fame.

----by John Tuberty

Sources:  Baseball Reference, Baseball Reference Play Index, Baseball Hall of Fame, SABR, 19th Century Baseball, Baseball Almanac, Philly.com, The Roanoke Times Virginia Chronicle, SouthCoastToday.com, David Nemec and Mark Rucker-The Beer and Whiskey League (Globe Pequot), Edward Achorn-The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (PublicAffairs), David L. Porter-Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Q-Z (Greenwood Publishing Group), Alfred Henry Spink-The National Game (National Game Publishing Company), Norman L. Macht-Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball (University of Nebraska Press), John Thorn-Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Volume 7 (McFarland)

Photo credit:  National Baseball Hall of Fame Library engraving originally published in the New York Clipper August 7, 1880; National Baseball Hall of Fame Library circa 1888 Old Judge Cigarettes Card; Headshot from 1883 Philadelphia Athletics team picture used in Philly.com article via Robert Edward Auctions and Stovey's Baseball Reference player page headshot; 2013 Upper Deck Goodwin Champions card  

Other Tubbs Baseball Blog Articles:
Holding Separate Elections For Player and Non-Player Candidates Would Greatly Improve the Hall of Fame's Era Ballot Vote Process

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately no one was elected on the Pre-Integration ballot. However, Harry Stovey wound up picking up 50% of the vote, four tallies shy of gaining the necessary 75% for election from the 16-member panel. Stovey was tied with fellow 19th century slugger Bill Dahlen for second most votes behind only 19th century pioneer candidate Doc Adams who came the closest to election, collecting 62.5% of the vote.

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