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The Schalk-Schang Redemption

Two Men Who Prove That The Hall of Fame Veterans Committee Was a Sham
by Paul White (Shawnee, KS)


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Very recently, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced sweeping changes to its format for electing veteran players, those who were passed over by the writers. The consensus seems to be that this new system will cut down on the number of veterans' selections, but that's pure speculation. We really don't know what's going to happen.

What we do know is that old system was broken on an epic, mind-boggling scale. Anyone seeking to prove that fact need go no further than the story of two men.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ray Schalk and Wally Schang.


Their careers paralleled each other almost exactly. Ray Schalk broke in with the White Sox in 1912, but it was just a September cup of coffee, so his first full year as the Sox starting catcher was 1913. That same year, the Athletics called up Wally Schang to be their regular backstop. Both men celebrated their first birthday in the big leagues that August, though Schang was three years older.

For that year and fifteen more, the two were rivals for the title of best catcher in the American League, though their styles were widely divergent. Schalk was an average hitter, at best, but he was the premier defensive catcher of his day. He caught a record four no-hitters and is widely credited as the first catcher to hustle down the line to back up first base on a ground ball.

Schang was decent defensively, but he made his mark as a hitter. He swung the bat well enough to get a fair amount of playing time at third base and in the outfield on days he rested his legs from catching. Though Schalk is the more famous runner for setting the major league record for steals by a catcher, Schang ran just as well. He stole a third fewer bases over his career, but at the same success rate, 71%, as Schalk.

Remarkably, in sixteen years of direct competition in an eight-team league, their teams never finished next to each other in the standings. The White Sox of Schalk's first years were mediocre, then enjoyed a six-year run as one of the best teams in baseball. They won the World Series in 1917, and threw it in 1919. After eight of their best players were banned for life, they settled back into mediocrity. In his final eight seasons in Chicago, Schalk never played on a first-division club. After two at-bats for the New York Giants in 1929, he retired.

Schang's Athletics were the best team in baseball his rookie year. They won the World Series in five games and returned the next year only to be swept. Then the bottom fell out as Connie Mack sold his talented players for cash. Schang played for three last-place teams in Philly before finally being sold to the Red Sox before the 1918 season. He was the regular catcher for that club, the last Sox team to win it all.

Soon thereafter, of course, Harry Frazee earned his spot as one of the most hated men in Boston sports history by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Schang followed him in 1921, and served as the Bombers' regular backstop for three straight pennants. Two years later he moved again, this time to the baseball Siberia known as the St. Louis Browns. In Schang's four years there, the Browns actually improved greatly, managing first-division finishes in 1928 and 1929. By the end of this time though, Schang was done as a regular player. He returned to the Athletics to serve as the backup catcher on perhaps the greatest team in baseball history. The A's of 1930 were coming off a World Championship and repeated that year. It was the fourth title of Schang's career, which ended the next season as the backup for a terrible Detroit team.

Schalk's mediocre teams, with one brief span of excellence, compile a .518 winning percentage during his career. Schang's clubs varied much more, swinging from dominant to dreadful. Combined, they were very average, posting a .503 winning percentage. In the sixteen years they competed in the American League, either Schalk's or Schang's team reached the World Series eight times.

Here's how their career numbers compared, first offensive, then defensive:


Schalk
Schang
G
1762
1842
AB
5306
5307
R
579
769
H
1345
1506
2B
199
264
3B
49
90
HR
11
59

Schalk
Schang
RBI
594
710
SB
177
121
AVG
.253
.283
OBP
.316
.393
SLG
.340
.401
OPS
.656
.794
 

Schalk
Schang
G
1727
1435
PO
7168
5202
A
1811
1420
E
175
223
DP
226
149
FLD
.981
.967
RF
5.20
4.61

Assuming numbers never lie, which Hall of Fame voters usually do, Schang was a better hitter and Schalk a better fielder. Now, we can debate the relative weights of these two facets of the game for the next hundred pages or so. Obviously, catcher is a defense-oriented position, so it could be argued that Schalk was more valuable. At the same time, it can be said that a good offensive catcher is so rare, particularly in the dead-ball era, that Schang was actually more valuable.

Personally, I don't care which side you land on, I guarantee there will be just as many people on the other side of the argument when we're through. So let's cut through all that and say they were equally valuable. Quibble away if that's your wont, but the difference in overall value between these two players is negligible any way you slice it.

Both Schalk and Schang separated by one career at-bat and three alphabetical lines in the "Total Baseball" player index ended their careers just before the Hall of Fame opened. Each man was eligible in future years of voting. In five separate elections, Schang received a total of 22 votes. Half of these came in his final election, 1960. Schalk, conversely, was voted on fifteen times. In all but two of those elections he received at least as many votes as Schang's combined total. He peaked at 113 votes in 1955, his final year of eligibility. This total was short of the number he needed to be elected, but it turned out not to matter. The Veteran's Committee decided that same year to induct Ray Schalk, the sixth catcher enshrined.

For the life of me, I can't see the difference between Ray Schalk and Wally Schang. In parallel careers they each posted respectable numbers, one mostly in defense the other mostly in offense. They each enjoyed post-season success. Had there been an annual All-Star game during their career, I'm sure one or both of them would have represented the American League each year from 1913 through 1927. Neither was a controversial figure. Schalk gained some fame for being one of the honest Black Sox, Schang received attention as the first man to win a World Championship for three different franchises. Neither man qualified for any "pity" votes from Hall voters, as both were still alive and well for their respective stays on the ballot. Why on earth then is Ray Schalk in the Hall of Fame while Wally Schang had to buy a ticket? Beats the hell out of me.

I can't think of a more telling demonstration of the problems in selecting members to baseball's Hall of Fame. The Schalk-Schang scenario has it all poor vote totals for a somewhat deserving player, the election of an extremely borderline player by the Veteran's Committee, lack of support for a candidate during his first year on the ballot, and the uneven distribution of votes between two very similar players. It's a cornucopia of narrow-mindedness and misperception.

This problem reached it's apex during the 1960s and 1970s, when the infamous Frankie Frisch clique on the Veteran's Committee infused the Hall with a truly mediocre group of baseball players. Beginning in 1967 with the selection of Lloyd Waner and continuing through the 1976 selection of Fred Lindstrom, this period saw the induction of the worst group of players in the Hall. Waner, Lindstrom, Earl Averill, Jim Bottomley, George Kelly, Ross Youngs, Chick Hafey, Harry Hooper, Earle Combs, Kiki Cuyler and Goose Goslin have no business in the Hall of Fame.

In and of themselves, these selections would have been poor but not problematic. Unfortunately, Hall of Fame voters are a curious lot. Rather than compare eligible players to all Hall of Famers at their position, they instead focus on the worst. Hence, George Kelly is now the low bar that all future first basemen must clear in order to be worthy of selection. This, of course, allows another round of borderline players to sneak in, a la Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda. The likes of Don Mattingly and Steve Garvey may soon follow. It's a farcical, self-perpetuating circle.

And yet, in many glaring cases, it doesn't work even when it should. Gary Carter recently received a large increase in support because Carlton Fisk was elected. Obviously, the argument goes, Carter and Fisk were similar enough during their careers that if one is inducted the other should be. Well, this hasn't worked so far. Carter still sits on the outside, despite the fact that he's arguable one of the best five catchers in the history of the game. Why? I have no clue. My guess is that voters in general think Fisk was better, but that Fisk himself was a borderline guy. Therefore Carter, a slight cut below, is a questionable call for many. What they fail to realize, since they don't take the time to look, is that Fisk was not a borderline guy, at least he shouldn't have been. He's quite arguably the best catcher in history after Bench and Berra.

The old system was horribly broken. Ray Schalk and Wally Schang, among many, many others, demonstrate that clearly. Neither man should be in the Hall of Fame, and yet one the poorer one in my opinion is. Let's all hope that this kind of glaring inequity is a thing of the past. But until the newly redesigned system proves it works, I'll continue to have my doubts.

Paul White dearly loves arguing about the Hall of Fame. You can read more of his work at www.lostinleftfield.com


Copyright 2001 by Paul White. Posted September 19, 2001.