Thinking About Ross Barnes

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ross Barnes. Who was Ross Barnes? He was a baseball player who played from 1871 to 1877 then had comeback efforts from 1877 , 1879, 1881 but for the most part he was a player who was great for 6 years then got sick and dropped off.  Within the time he played, however, he was very good as he lead the National Association (the major league that existed before the National League) or the national league in batting average 3 times, OPS three times, OPS+ three times, hits 4 times, runs 4 times, doubles 3 times, triples 2 times and stolen bases once.

Anecdotes from the time period also spoke very highly of him as The Boston Braves 1871-1953 by Harold Kaese states the he was so fast that he would never dirty his pants when stealing second or third, just when he stole home plate.

1875 Boston Redstockings
Credit: Boston Public Library, Flickr

King Kelly in his autobiography Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field states that Barnes is the best player he ever saw play as did Hall of Fame player and famous business owner Albert Goodwill Spaulding in the same book.

In modern days, Nate Silver is very complimentary of Barnes’ play considering him one of the most dominate players from the time he played.

Bill James historian and statistician, however, is less complimentary of him stating that he isn’t one of the best players at his position due to taking advantage of the early baseball rule of the ball being a fair ball as long as it hits inside fair territory initially. The argument is that his production dropped significantly once that rule disappeared from the game.

Barnes is also not in the baseball Hall of Fame.

I think he should be. I don’t love the argument that he should be discredited because of a rule change within the game. The fact is, even if he only excelled because of the rule change, he still excelled. Even if the rule change caused him to drop off he still competed within the confines of the rules that were presented to him and there’s lots of evidence to say he was the best to do it in his day.

This is more of a larger point as well, as analytics and stats tell bigger stories of the game the first hand opinions of people who played the game seem to be valued less and less. I have been trying to pay more and more attention to individual anecdotes of the men who played because they actually saw them play and they know the skills they see. If King Kelly, a hall of fame player and a great player himself, said Barnes was good I am inclined to believe he was good. The same goes for Spaulding as well.

Barnes is an interesting figure in general. He hit the first home run in National League history. He was very dominant, played for such a short time due to illness and had drop off that happened to coincide with a major rule change. He also is one of the greats in a less known time period of the game and within the very early days of professional baseball.

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