You Can’t Have George Ruth Without George Smith

Yesterday 91 years ago, the first inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame were announced. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson went in. While the Hall arguments have become rather… divisive, it’s hard to argue with any of those choices.

And then there’s George Smith, a pitcher in the 1920s who was a rare concrete example of a “replacement-level” player. Smith’s most notable career feat was giving up a really long home run to Babe Ruth in spring training. Then there’s another George Smith, another pitcher in the 1920s who was also replacement-level, although this George Smith was primarily a reliever (and a wild pitcher, as his walk rate even by the high standards of the time shows).

While the ceiling and the basement can draw interest, the most fascinating historical players for me are those in the so-called “Hall of Very Good”, the kind that make the Hall ballot, get single-digit support at best, yet still had excellent careers by “normal” standards. In some way it’s unfair to them, as some of them do, to actually make the Hall of Fame, as they go from “great player” to “bad Hall of Famers”.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.