The Greatest Teams of All Time
by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein
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WAY BACK WHEN
The Best of the Nineteenth Century
The great hitting aggregation of today, known as the Yanks, have to go a few more years at the pace they displayed in 1927, to class with the Baltimore club -- the famous Orioles of the nineties.Talk about trying to hit a moving target. Major league baseball changed dramatically for much of the late nineteenth century. In 1890, there were three "major" leagues. In 1892, there was one. In 1881, a walk took seven balls. In 1884, the National League dropped it to six, but returned to seven in 1886 while the American Association dropped to six the same year. The four-ball walk (sounds like a dance, doesn't it?) didn't make its first appearance until 1889. Starting in 1885, the National League allowed one side of the bat to be flat, but not the American Association. As far as we can tell, flat bats were not made illegal until 1893. In 1876, the first year of the National League, the pitcher's box was 45 feet from home plate. That was changed to 50 feet in 1881, and to the modern distance of 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893. Until 1887, the batter could call for a high or low pitch.
Maclean Kennedy in The Great Teams of Baseball (1929)
The point of all this trivia is that trying to determine which were the best teams of the nineteenth century is made very difficult by all of the changes. Besides the rule and league changes (and changes in strategy) were the changes that occur in an industry, or any entity, in its early years, a maturation process if you will. I don't want to get too arcane, but the differences between the ability and performance of players and teams were almost certainly changing much more from year to year than at any time since. Changes of that nature can render almost any analytical tools useless.
Those warnings out of the way, we'll begin where most people think this should start, with the Orioles' teams of the mid-1890s. Baltimore joined the National League in 1892, after the demise of the American Association, which had included a Baltimore franchise in most seasons since 1882. The Orioles brought up the rear in 1892, their first season in the National League, with a splendid 46-101 record. They allowed 1,020 runs; the league average was 782. Their rise to the top was quick from there, however, just as their exit out of the National League would be quick.
Ned Hanlon was elected club president of the Orioles in 1893. To quote James H. Bready from his wonderful book on the history of baseball in Baltimore, The Home Team: "In judging men, and swapping ballplayers, Hanlon had moments akin to clairvoyance." Hanlon was field manager, general manager, director of scouting-you name it-only without all of the titles. He wasn't unusual in that regard at that time, of course, but the rise to power of the Orioles is directly attributable to him. Hanlon traded for many of the players who would turn the team into a powerhouse.
The Orioles won three straight National League pennants, 1894-96, and finished a strong second in 1897 (90-40, two games out of first) and 1898 (96-53, six games out). Their run differentials were far and away the best in the league in each of their pennant-winning seasons:
Year Team Run Differential 1894 Baltimore +352 Boston +218 Philadelphia +177 1895 Baltimore +363 Cleveland +197 Philadelphia +111 1896 Baltimore +333 Cleveland +190 Cincinnati +163
Their SD scores were also outstanding (you didn't think we had forgotten those, did you?). As an aside, we were amazed at the stability of SD scores for the nineteenth century. We calculated them only for leagues in which every team played around 100 games or more. However, the best (and worst) SD scores of the nineteenth century look like those of the twentieth century. Here are the Orioles' SD scores for 1894 through 1898, including three pennants and two second-place finishes:
Year SD Score Next-Best SD Score 1894 +2.93 +1.70 1895 +3.17 +1.64 1896 +3.08 +1.69 1897 +2.46* - 1898 +2.97* +2.48* Orioles finished second in 1897 and 1898. They didn't have the top SD score in 1897, which is why no next-best score is listed.
Baltimore's five-year SD score, 14.60, is better than any twentieth- century team except the 1935-39 Yankees. In 1895, Baltimore's SD score was better than the next two best teams combined, and this was almost true for the 1894 and 1896 teams. All but one of the twentieth-century teams with a higher SD score than the 1898 Orioles finished in first place (the exception being the 1905 White Sox). The 1895 Orioles featured many players who would end up in the Hall of Fame: John McGraw, Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, Dan Brouthers (who was with the team in 1894 and part of 1895), and Wilbert Robinson. This may have been the most famous baseball team until the 1927 Yankees, known as much for their rough play as for their playing ability.
From Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein.
Copyright © 2000 by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. Reprinted with permission.