On the Dregs of Cooperstown

Catcher: Rick Ferrell

The Hall of Fame has historically had a hard time dealing with catchers, and for pretty good reason – they’re difficult to judge. Backstops play fewer games than other position players and rarely have the opportunity to accumulate Hall of Fame counting numbers. They’re considered defense-first players, but their contributions on defense are notoriously difficult to quantify. Even so, there are a few less-than-deserving catchers who’ve slipped through the Hall’s cracks, and Ferrell* is one of them.

*Ferrell, by the way, does not have the worst WAR among Hall of Fame catchers – that “honor” goes to deadball-era White Sox backstop Ray Schalk. However, Schalk was evidently the most highly regarded defender of his time and revolutionized the way the position was played, so he gets a pass from me.

Again, Ferrell wasn’t a bad player by any stretch of the imagination. He caught in the major leagues for 18 years, and he was a valuable player in most of those years. He benefited, however, from playing in one of the most offense-heavy eras in baseball history.

In 1932, Ferrell posted a .315/.406/.420 line for the St. Louis Browns – basically a typical Joe Mauer year. In 1932, though, the league hit so well that those excellent numbers were “only” good for a 110 OPS+. He was just 10 percent better than league average.

In 1936, Ferrell had a very similar year, batting .312/.406/.460 for the Red Sox. Again, that was just 9 percent better than league average.

That was basically the story of Rick Ferrell’s career. In over 7,000 plate appearances, he batted .281 and posted a sharp .378 on-base percentage, yet by the standards of his era, he was actually a below-average hitter. His career OPS+ is 95 – respectable for a catcher, but not Hall of Fame-worthy. By WAR, he’s in the same neighborhood as Javy Lopez, Mickey Tettleton and Jack Clements. Roy Campanella, who only played 10 years in the big leagues because of segregation and a freak injury, was worth almost five wins more than Ferrell.

Ferrell made eight All-Star appearances in his career, and he probably deserved most of them. He was a great player, as was his brother Wes. By the numbers, though, he was probably the third-best catcher of his era, and he’s probably the worst in the Hall of Fame.

First Base: George “High Pockets” Kelly

Kelly, let’s face it, is probably the poster boy for undeserving members of the Hall of Fame. His name comes up in discussions of bad Hall of Famers more than any other, and for good reason. He’s far and away the worst player at a position, first base, that otherwise has a very high Hall of Fame standard.

Of course, even the weakest players in the Hall of Fame had their moments. In 1921, Kelly batted .308 for the Giants and led the National League with 23 home runs. In 1924, he batted a career-high .321 and got on base at a .371 clip. Those were legitimately great offensive years, and he was no slouch in the field as well.

On the basis of his full body of work, though, Kelly falls well short. Even by traditional measures – 1778 hits, 148 home runs – he’s among the least productive Hall of Famers. His career OPS+ is 109, making him just 9 percent above league average. That’s a good career, but a first baseman needs to rake to be worthy of Cooperstown.

Among Kelly’s comparables by WAR are Ryan Klesko, Tino Martinez and Joe Harris. Heck, Carlos Pena has (slightly) more WAR than George Kelly, and his career isn’t even over.

Kelly owes his Hall of Fame induction almost entirely to his former teammate Frankie Frisch, who basically ran the Veterans Committee in the 1970s. Frisch himself was a great second baseman and a worthy choice for induction, but as we’ll see as this list goes on, he probably did more to erode the Hall’s standards than anyone else. Kelly was just one of several otherwise undeserving players who got to Cooperstown because they played with Frisch.

High Pockets Kelly deserves to be remembered as a fine player, a great contributor, even a star. Instead, he’s a symbol of cronyism in the Hall of Fame. That’s not fair to anyone, least of all Kelly himself.

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