Jeff Mordock / Hall of Fame
[Editor's Note: The following article received lots of feedback from knowledgeable baseball fans, including several members of SABR. Please read their comments for additional points of view. You can also email Jeff directly at JMordock@baseballguru.com with any new comments.]
THE PHORGOTTEN PHILLIES
by Jeff Mordock
Contrary to popular myth, Babe Ruth did not usher in the home run era, he merely understood how to popularize it. He possessed an attitude as long as his titanic blasts, a sense of the dramatic, and four World Series rings and his media-obsessed hometown ate it up. Together, the New York press and Ruth were able to cast a shadow that extended beyond the sports world and obscured the great home run hitters before him. As Ruth's legend continued to grow, previously feared sluggers were forgotten.
Two of these unheralded hitters--Gaavy Cravath and Sherry Magee--actually deserve credit for ushering in the home run era. While Babe Ruth was still pitching for Boston, these two were mercilessly punishing National League pitchers. Both pounded extra base hits with such tenacity, one would think they were offended by the term "dead ball era."
However both players were teammates on the lowly Phillies. Magee and Cravath were far from the bright lights of Broadway or even the perennial championships enjoyed by the cross-town A's and the media ignored their exploits.
Cravath was a slugger in every sense of the word. He hit more home runs than any other player in the period from 1910 to 1920, leading the NL in homers six times. Among Hall of Fame members, only Ruth (12), Mike Schmidt (8) and Ralph Kiner (7) accumulated more home run titles. Harmon Kilabrew and Mel Ott are the only players to match this feat. Among Cravath's contemporaries, only Ed Delahanty managed to lead the league in home runs twice. Cravath was more than just consistent; he was capable of producing monster seasons. In 1915, he reached his career high of 24 home runs, which stood as the major league record until Ruth inched past it with 29 in 1919. Four years later Cravath managed to lead the league in home runs in with 12, despite being limited to only 83 games--an incredible accomplishment.
The only way to place Cravath's numbers in a proper prospective is to compare them to other players of his era. During the 1913, 1914, and 1915 seasons, Cravath was on the only National League player to reach a .900 OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage). In fact, in 1913 his OPS was .974, more than 100 points higher than second-place finisher, Heinie Zimmerman. During the 1914 and 1915 campaigns, Cravath was the only player to reach .500 in slugging percentage a, period in which the League's average slugging percentage hovered around .350.
Critics charge that the Baker Bowl's short left field porch provided him with many cheap home runs. However, Cravath batted right handed, so any blasts to left would have been opposite field. Plus, no other Phillie matched Cravath's power numbers, until Hall of Famer Chuck Klein arrived a decade later. Another popular argument is that Cravath didn't start producing his awesome numbers until he joined the Phillies at age 31. Yet Cravath spent his 20s becoming a legend in the Pacific Coast League and American Association. The Hall of Fame always examines a players' performance in the minor and Negro Leagues before inclusion. Cravath deserves the same courtesy.
There are two major barriers to Cravath's induction. One was his failure to properly market himself. He didn't have the boastfulness of Ruth. In fact, his easygoing nature cost him jobs as the Phillies' manager and later as a California Justice of the Peace.
The second barrier is the fact that his career was overshadowed by playing in an era that produced four other Hall of Fame Centerfielders---all of whom played on world championship teams in more media savvy cities. Tris Speaker won three titles, but has fewer home runs and a similar slugging percentage, despite playing 11 more seasons than Cravath. Harry Hooper has four rings and six additional seasons, but a lower batting average, home run total, slugging percentage, and only a few more RBIs. Max Carey only beats out Cravath in number of seasons played and championships won. Cravath has a higher batting average, home run total, and slugging percentage, and similar RBI numbers. Zack Wheat is the only Centerfielder whose numbers outshine Cravath in almost every category, but Cravath still maintains a higher slugging percentage (.478 to 450.)
Sherry Magee carved out a nice career by doing what a Hall of Famer is supposed to do---creating runs. Magee used every tool in his vast arsenal, including prolific speed, dynamic power, an eye for average, and a keen understand of how to take an extra base. No matter how Magee's career is viewed, it's obvious that he was a four-tool player before that term was slapped on every September call-up.
In 1906, Magee's Phillies finished 45 games out of first, yet that failed to deter him from giving his team every opportunity to win. Playing for pride against the Cardinals, Magee swiped second, third, and home in the ninth inning to give his team a win. Later that year he would help the Phillies upset the first-place Cubs by swiping home twice in the same inning. Stealing home was among Magee's favorite tricks and he accomplished this feat 23 times in his career. He finished slightly behind Max Carey, who holds the NL record with 33 steals of home.
Much like Cravath, the only way to truly appreciate Magee's accomplishments is to examine him within his own era. In 1910 and 1914, Magee was the only player to pass the .500 mark in slugging percentage. In 1914, his OPS was .80 higher than runner-up Fred Snodgrass. Magee also produced two of the greatest seasons in the dead ball era. During the 1910 campaign, Magee lead the league in average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, runs, total bases, extra bases, and RBIs. That year he drove in 123 runs-35 more than any other National Leaguer. In 1914 Magee paced the league in hits, doubles, RBIs, slugging percentage, and extra-base hits.
Mage was also consistent. He enjoyed 11 seasons finishing in the top ten in slugging percentage, 10 seasons ranking among the extra base hit leaders, and nine seasons among the league leaders in RBIs, total bases, doubles, and triples. Magee is also one of four players to win the NL RBI crown in four separate seasons. The other quadruple RBI champs are Hank Aaron, Rogers Hornsby, and Schmidt---very impressive company.
Unlike many of Magee's contemporaries, he still remains among the career leaders in several categories. Currently, Magee ranks 27th all-time in triples (166), 51st in stolen bases (441) and 93rd in doubles (425). In the categories of triples and doubles, the majority players ahead of Magee are enshrined in Cooperstown. This clearly proves that Magee's efforts have withstood the test of time. Yet Magee remains overshadowed by world champions from more populous cities. In another parallel to Cravath, Magee has a higher batting average, more home runs, more RBIs, and a higher slugging percentage than both Carey and Hooper. Wheat is ahead of Magee in home runs, RBIs, and slugging, but only slightly. Only Speaker and Cravath are the only outfielders in that era to top Magee in home runs, RBIs, and Slugging. With the exception of the Cravath, all of the above mentioned players all endured much longer careers.
If the revised Veteran's Committee wants to make a statement it should elect both Cravath and Magee in 2003. Instead of finding some obscure player from the 1800s, that no one has heard of and everyone will forget about, the Committee will have elected two players who are both deserving and symbolic of baseball's constant evolution. Their election will remind fans that at one time slugging 20 home runs was an accomplishment and there was even a time when hitting 9 home runs stunned fans. It will also help fans understand that without Cravath and Magee, there would be no Ruth and Gerhig, Kilabrew and Mays, or McGwire and Bonds. Now that's story worthy of media attention.