The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 7

Because I am a both a baseball and an American history geek, back in 1994, a few months before the MLB lockout, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a tour of both the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Baseball Hall of Fame (it’s amazing what you can get away with when you don’t yet have kids.)

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA (Photo credit: Don & Suzan)

We had a great time, of course, standing on top of the summit of Little Round Top, then, a couple of days later, viewing Lou Gehrig’s address book (behind a glass case, of course.)  Somewhere along the way, between all the beer, baseball, and bullet holes in Gettysburg’s buildings, I happened to notice that the name of one baseball player seemed to pop up from time to time in both venues.

It was “Gettysburg” Eddie Plank.  Allow me to tell you a little bit about him.

Eddie Plank was born in Gettysburg, PA, just twelve years after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Raised on a family farm just north of the battlefield, it was not unusual in those days for a farmer to uncover the remains of a lost and forgotten soldier who died in a lonely location on the vast battlefield.

Plank didn’t even start playing baseball until he was seventeen.  Trying out as a pitcher for the Gettysburg College team, he made the squad as a left-handed pitcher (yes, another one in this series) who threw the ball awkwardly across his body.  He never actually attended Gettysburg College, but eventually harnessed his delivery enough to become a decent pitcher for their team.

Having gotten something of a late start, he didn’t make his MLB debut until 1901, when he was already 25-years old.  He then went on to pitch in the Majors, primarily for the Philadelphia Athletics, for the next 17 seasons.

In his rookie campaign, he posted a very decent 17-13 record.  He then went on to enjoy eight 20-win seasons over the next sixteen years.  In fact, only once in the next eight years did he fail to win at least 19 games in a season (he was injured in 1908.)

Plank helped lead Philadelphia to a pair of World Series triumphs over the Giants in 1911 and 1913.

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewar...

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the statistics that impress me the most about Eddie Plank:

1)  He was the first left-handed pitcher to top 300 wins.  No other southpaw reached 300 wins until Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton came along several decades later.

2)  His 69 career shutouts are the fifth-highest total of all-time, and the most ever by a lefty.  He threw as many shutouts in his career as HOF pitchers Sandy Koufax and Dazzy Vance combined.

3)  His career WAR of 82.0 ranks 17th best all-time among pitchers.  His career WAR is higher than HOF pitchers John Clarkson, Steve Carlton, Pud Galvin, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Robin Roberts, Old Hoss Radbourn, Carl Hubbell, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and many others.

4)  Over the last 15 seasons of his 17-year career (he also pitched for the Terriers and the Browns), his highest ERA in any season was 2.87, and in his final season, at age 41, he posted a 1.79 ERA in 131 innings pitched.

5)  In six World Series starts, he posted a 1.32 ERA across 54.2 innings.

Eddie Plank finished his career in 1917, just as young American Doughboys were being sent overseas to fight the War to End All Wars.  He returned to his family farm in Gettysburg, leading tours across the old battlefield.  At age 50, just nine years after he retired from baseball, Eddie Plank suffered a stroke and died.  He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg.

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC)

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Eddie Plank posted a career record of 326-194 with an ERA of 2.35.  Of the 24 pitchers who have won at least 300 games in their careers, just six pitchers other than Plank avoided also losing 200 games.

Those six pitcher are Christy Mathewson, John Clarkson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Lefty Grove.  That’s some pretty impressive company to be associated with.  And only Johnson and Grove were also left-handed.

About a decade after Plank died, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened for business up in Cooperstown, NY.  After five years on the ballot, Plank never topped 27% of the ballots submitted by the BBWAA.  Eventually, it would take the Old Timers Committee to elect Plank in 1946, along with ten other players, some of whom actually belonged in the HOF.

So Eddie Plank joins Kid Nichols and Hal Newhouser as the third pitcher on my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame squad.  I will be adding two more pitchers to my rotation.  I hope you’ll come back to find out who they are.

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21 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 7

  1. Great post! I’ve always thought “Gettysburg Eddie” to be one of the great nicknames in the game. And that trip to the battlefield and Cooperstown sounded fascinating. I posted something a while back on my blog about Connie Mack’s unusual decision to start Howard Ehmke in Game 1 of the 1929 World Series. Among other thimgs, Mack certainly did have a keen mind for the talent on his roster. Keep up the great work!
    Rob N

    • Rob, Yes, it was a great trip. I’d love to do it again someday. I also read, though didn’t include it in my post, that there is a Gettysburg Eddie Plank diner somewhere in Gettysburg. I don’t think it was there when I visited the place, so I guess now I have to go back and have a cup of coffee in his honor.
      Thanks for reading, and for the kind words,
      Bill

  2. Another fascinating post on baseball’s past. You’d think I’d have known more about Eddie Plank. Now I do!

  3. Bill, I’ve loved this series, and your writing shine here as always, but I think you’re starting to stray from underappreciated greatness. Mathews, Vaughan, and Heilmann were unquestionably the best choices, and I loved your shout-outs to Carter, Newhouser, and to some extent Nichols. That said, I have a hard time accepting a deadball pitcher with a lot of wins and a great ERA as underappreciated. He’s been forgotten by the casual-to-moderately-obsessed fan (that’s bound to happen after 100 years), but a glance at the all-time win or ERA leaderboards instantly overrates him. I believe pretty strongly that it’s gotten harder to pitch to major league hitters just about every decade of baseball’s existence, and that a pitcher like Plank would be unlikely to be a star today. The truly underappreciated pitchers are the David Cones and Orel Hershisers who pitched in the last few decades and may never make the Hall.

    The facts are stacked against you, of course, given the BBWAA’s utter failure to evaluate pitchers over the past several decades. Bert Blyleven would be an obvious choice, but he’s been fawned over by so many SABR types these last few years and now that he’s in the Hall, he’s probably appropriately appreciated. I won’t tell you who should be in this series (you’re doing a great job of that yourself), but it’s a shame that you can’t write about Kevin Brown or Luis Tiant here. Or, for that matter, Billy Pierce or Eddie Cicotte.

    • Hi Bryan, I, too agree that the BBWAA has short-changed modern pitchers like Brown, Cone, Hershiser, etc. They had excellent careers that should not so easily be forgotten or overlooked. Yet because I’ve limited myself to players who are in The Hall, I can’t do much about that. It is true, also, that the further back in time you go, the probability that the old-timers who made it into The Hall very likely would be average players, at best, in today’s game.
      I also agree with you that stats such as wins and ERA don’t always (to say the least) accurately evaluate a player’s true greatness. Having said all that, if a modern stat like WAR (or ERA+) indicates that a particular player was among the best of his, or any, era, who are we to say, “Yeah, well, but….”? And what would be the appropriate cut-off date where we could justifiably claim a player was greater than we thought? Ironically, I have some readers who don’t think I’m giving enough credit to the old-timers.
      My goal in this series has been to try to balance the players from different eras because in every era there are players who are highly successful, but whose reputations don’t seem to match their “greatness” (however one arrives at that concept, which, of course, also changes over time.)
      Lately, I’ve been re-reading Bill James book, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame.” One thing he has to say about the players from the 19th and the early 20th centuries is this:

      “Many of the best candidates for the Hall of Fame…are players from the 19th century — George Davis, George Van Haltren, Bob Caruthers, Jimmy Ryan. The fact is that we can’t honor these people; they’re dead. We can’t honor their memory, because we don’t remember them.
      So if we honor them, what are we honoring? Are we honoring a line of statistics?
      We can say that we are honoring great ballplayers, but I think we want to be damn sure that they really were great ballpalyers.
      Then there’s another problem. It is likely, I think, that the quality of play in major league baseball has improved steadily over the last century, and is considerably better than it was in 1885. When you reach back a long way in history for somebody to honor, you have to overcome that. Bob Caruthers (for example) was certainly a more dominant player in his league in his time, certainly a more dominant player than a more recent player like Don Drysdale. On the other hand, that was 110 years ago, and he did weigh 138 pounds. And he died in 1911.”

      So you can see that even Bill James is somewhat conflicted about what to do about these guys. Therefore, I see no reason not to include at least some of the players from baseball’s dinosaur days while giving my overall nod to the relatively more modern players. And, as I’ve stated in previous posts, who or what counts as “under-appreciated” is a pretty subjective standard anyway.
      I will say that the final two pitchers whom I will feature in this series both played post-Dead Ball era, one as recently as the 1980’s.

      Anyway, I appreciate you reading my stuff in the first place, and I do also appreciate your thoughtful comments.
      Cheers, Bill

  4. I’m just stoked that I’d heard of Eddie Plank. I was surprised that there was such a gap (Plank-Spahn) in left-handed 300 game winners. When you pointed out that the only other lefties to win 300+ while keeping under 200 losses were Johnson and Grove, I thought you’d neglected Tom Glavine. However, I looked up his stats, and you were right. Still, if there were an “almost” category…

    I’ve never been to either Gettysburg or Cooperstown, but would like to see both some day. I’ve been RIGHT by Gettysburgh on the way to a wedding, but the driver didn’t feel we had time to stop (we did). To make matters worse, he kept telling me how much I would appreciate the battlefield and that the next time I’m Pennsylvania, I must go. That was in 1999.

    • William Miller on said:

      Hey man, You do need to put aside an entire day for both Gettysburg and the HOF. I’ve been to both a couple of times, but as I stated in the post, not since ’94. So it’s been way too long.
      Want to go on a road trip?
      Bill

      • Smaktakula on said:

        Damn, man–that would be pretty cool. I haven’t been on a road trip in a couple of years, and never really been on an East Coast road trip worth a damn (in that it was very long Albany to Boston & Newark to Scranton).

      • Newark to Scranton? Sheesh, man. We could do better than that.

      • Smaktakula on said:

        Ironically, it was on that trip that I came closest to Gettysburg. We were on our way to a wedding, and because it was sixty miles out of our way, my buddy refused to stop. “You should go sometime, though,” he said, “It’s really neat.”

  5. footinthebucket on said:

    Additionally, I just want to say that I remember a pitcher on the A’s (I think it was in the 80’s) named Eric Plunk. Well, the first thing that crossed my mind was the similarity to the name “Eddie Plank”, and the fact that they were both pitchers for the Athletics.

    I realize that that’s kind of a non-sequitor, but I just thought I’d share that with all of you’s.

    Glen

  6. footinthebucket on said:

    Nicely written, Bill. The whole recollection about the trip to Gettysburg and Cooperstown was a nice lead-in paragraph to a well-written and enjoyable article.
    In my opinion, both you and “V” should try some freelance writing. You both know your baseball and you both write well.

    Glen

    • Thank you, Glen. This is as far as I will probably go in my writing career, and that’s O.K. with me. I’m lucky if I can get out 2-3 posts per week. A real writing career would mean I’d A) Have to become more disciplined and B) Sell off my two boys to a circus (do people still do that?).
      But I do appreciate the kind words.
      Bill

  7. Another great choice. Honestly, it’s one I overlooked. I’m still pushing for Phil Niekro next, though. 😉

  8. Another good choice, Bill, and one I would have probably overlooked. As I recall, Chief Bender was Mack’s personal favorite of the men on his staff and like to give him game one of the Series if possible.
    v

    • Yeah, I think you’re correct about Chief Bender and Mack. Poor Plank, overlooked to a certain degree even on his own team. Still, if you have to be the number 2 man in a rotation, that was a pretty solid rotation to be a part of.
      Thanks again,
      Bill

  9. I think I remember reading that Plank was not Mack’s first choice to pitch in big games, so maybe he was under-appreicated on his own staff. He’s certainly got the profile for an under-appreciated HOF type: more consistently very good than great, no Alexander-esque historical anecdotes, and long since long gone from the game and the land of the living.

    • I think you’re right on all counts. Quiet guy who didn’t call a lot of attention to himself. I guess in a way it didn’t really matter who the A’s ace was in those days. You had Plank, Chief Bender, Cy Morgan, Harry Krause, Jack Coombs. It was pretty much pick your poison. So I guess not being considered the leader of the staff probably made him more easily forgotten as well.
      Regards, Bill

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