Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Last Of The Real Men

Jerry Denny played third base for the Maroons in 1886. According to Rick Stattler, in a series of biographical notes on members of the 1884 Providence Grays, "Denny was born in New York City as Jeremiah Dennis Eldredge to a poor Irish immigrant family in 1859. His parents moved to California when he was young, and died soon after, so young Jerry was raised in west coast orphanages. He began playing minor league ball in San Francisco in his teens under the name Jerry Denny, and came to the Grays as their third baseman in 1881."

One of the greatest of the greatest third basemen of his day was Jerry Denny, who covered that bag for the Providence Champions and then for Cleveland, St. Louis and other teams.

In the early eighties Denny was often referred to as the king of the third base players of his day.

He was a lightning fielder and thrower and a batsman of the first class.
-From The National Game

1894: The Last Real Man Retires

The last position player who did not wear a glove in the field was Jerry Denny, an ambidextrous third baseman who retired from the Louisville team following the 1894 season. Though a right-handed batter and thrower, Denny could catch the ball with either hand, and, if the pressures of time required, fire it to first with whichever hand it happened to be in.
-From The Historical Baseball Abstract

Bill James lists Denny, in the Abstract, as the ninety-ninth greatest third baseman of all-time and states that he recorded the most putouts per innings played at third. He also writes that "Apart from the large number of putouts credited to him there is little evidence that Denny was an outstanding defensive player." Of course he also writes, in his essay on Paul Molitor, that Denny has the best range factor (based on defensive games played) of any third baseman. Make of that what you will.


David Ball said...

The James quote on Denny appears on page 68 of the Historical Baseball Abstract. On page 502, James says, "[Bid] McPhee never wore a glove until 1896; he was one of the last players to play barehanded." The Denny quote is carried over from the first edition of HBA, and I believe the McPhee item is a new edition to the second.

Most people identify Bid McPhee, not Denny, as the last barehanded infielder. Denny did play in the minors after 1894, and perhaps he went on playing barehanded down there after McPhee took up the glove in early 1896. Likelier, James just found new information on McPhee for the second edition but didn't notice it contradicted what he was writing elsewhere -- which is understandable, because it's a very big book with a huge number of facts to check.

However, on page 537 James, after stating that put outs by a third baseman have no value in judging the effectiveness of his play, concludes, "Apart from the large number of putouts credited to him there is little or not evidence that Denny was an outstanding defensive player." Two pages before that, he mentions four (very roughly) contemporary third baseman, George Pinckney, Billy Shindle, Ezra Sutton and Denny. He says he believes Shindle was the best fielder, but "I don't have immense confidence that my defensive evaluation system works well for players of that era."

In the late 1880's, qualified observers pretty agreed more or less unanimously that Denny was the best third baseman in the game. As smart a baseball man as John Ward, for example, gives Denny pride of place in the chapter on third base of his book "Base Ball."

To be fair, Sutton was a fine fielder who was almost a decade older than Denny and well past his prime when Denny was peaking. Still, whose word are you going to take, some guy who never saw Denny play and judges him by a statistical system even he doesn't have full confidence in? Or knowledgeable observers who saw him play on a regular basis?

Jeff Kittel said...

Thanks for pointing out the thing about McPhee, David. I don't remember ever reading that.

I honestly don't know a whole lot about Denny. Found the picture and started pulling books off the shelf and googled his name to see what I could put together.

Your point about statistical systems vs. contemporary observations is something that always creates a nice argument. Over at Baseball Fever, I've seen discussions devolve quickly over the issue. The obvious answer is that both have a place in historical analysis. When the two are in conflict, as someone with a history rather than a mathematical background, I tend to go with contemporary observations, especially if the contemporary opinion is almost unanimous in its conclusions. Of course, if I were a polemicist with a statistical background, things would be different (and I'd be a bigger pain in the butt than I already am).