Photo: T206 George Davis, front and back.
For those interested, I bought this card for $36.33, including shipping. T206.org says it's been selling recently at about $43, which is a very common value for a Hall of Fame T206 of a nondescript player in Poor condition. (Poor condition T206s of the big boys--Cobb, Young, Walter Johnson, etc.--still run a couple hundred bucks.) Anyway, that's a profit of $6.67. Not much. The Beckett Graded Card Price Guide (7th Ed. 2015) says it's been selling at about $50, which is a little high, on Ebay, anyway. That's a value of $13.67, which is a little better.
I'm just happy to have a T206 HOFer. I have about 15 of those now, most of them in Poor or Good condition, because that's what I can afford, ya know? This card is in good condition, for a Poor.
The Player / The Person
Photo: George Davis, while with the Chicago White Sox, from The Sporting News
Shockingly, the Veterans' Committee got it right when they inducted this guy into the Hall. Normally the Committee's inductions are abysmal, especially players inducted from this era. I've looked at a few of those lately, and when I checked Davis's card in my collection and I looked at his stats (via baseball-reference.com, just click it here to see), I was expecting more of the same.
But I was pleasantly surprised. You may have to know a bit about the time to appreciate Davis's stats. At a glance, they're not impressive. He led the league in an offensive category exactly once: 135 RBIs in 1897 for the New York Giants. (McGraw and Mathewson wouldn't join the Giants until later.) This is a lot, but for the 1890s, pretty common for a league leader. What impressed me a lot more was that between 1904 and 1908, the Chicago White Sox let him play full-time, in most of the team's games, although his offensive stats were way below the league's norms.
There's only one reason possible for this: Defense. From 1890 through 1902, Davis's offensive stats are good, but not great. They are, though, impressively consistent. And consistency in 1890s baseball, for 12 years, is very rare, whether it's offense or defense. The stats will pile up, as they did. So for peak value, Davis was not one of the best players in the league. But in career value, he was.
And then came 1904-1908 with the White Sox, and those rather unimpressive numbers. True, the game changed a little, but those are still bad stats. Why would he still be allowed to play full-time? Could his defense have been that good?
Yes. Turns out, it was.
His overall WAR (wins above replacement; click on the stat on the webpage if you're unfamiliar with it) was higher in 1904, 1905 and 1906 than it had been in any of his more impressive offensive years. This can only be due to his defense. Any dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) in the positive is good. (This happens a shockingly low amount of times, even for good players today.) Anything above 1 is really good; anything above 2 is Gold Glove worthy. Davis was a very good defensive player during his good offensive years (consistently between 1 and 2), but when his offensive skills eroded after 1903, when he sat out, due to problems with injury, salary, and constantly jumping between the Giants and the White Sox, and back (jumping teams was VERY common in the early 1900s, but his case was still odd. Read about it at his Wikipedia page here), he must've realized that if he was going to still play, his defense had to get even better.
And for a few years, it did. His defensive WAR, from 1904-1908, when his offense was terrible: 3.4; 2.8; 3.0; 2.9; 1.3. With his average to below-average offense, but his incredible GG (before there was a Gold Glove Award) defense, his overall WAR from 1904-1908: 7.2; 7.2; 6.3; 4.6 and 2.1. A 5+ is all-star worthy, and his defense alone made him 2 levels above that.
Over his 16-year career, the league averaged a .919 fielding percentage for the positions he played. Davis's fielding percentage was .936. At shortstop, the league's was .923 and his was .940.
If you're defending 17 percentage points higher than everyone else in the league, that's HOF exceptional. Combine that with 1,545 runs scored (56th all-time), 2,665 hits (69th all-time), 453 doubles (100th all-time), 163 triples (33rd all-time), 619 stolen bases (17th all-time), and 1,440 RBIs (63rd all-time), and you're a Hall-of-Fame player. JAWS says he's the 4th-best shortstop of all-time, and that's going head-to-head with Honus Wagner (#1), A-rod (#2) Cal Ripken (#3), Robin Yount (#5), Arky Vaughn (#6), Ernie Banks (#7) and Ozzie Smith (#8). Derek Jeter, if you're curious, is #12, ahead of Barry Larkin, Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese and Bobby Wallace (a contemporary of George Davis's)--but behind Alan Trammel (#11)! [Take a look at Trammel's stats here and you'll be as amazed as I was. I assure you, nobody--including the announcers and players who were around him--realized he was that good. Alan Trammel, shockingly, is wildly deserving of the Hall of Fame. But that's another blog entry for another time.)] All of these guys, by the way, were way above the average HOF shortstop's stats. Normally shortstops can field, or they can hit, but they can't do both.
So why a blog entry about George Davis, who nobody in this generation (and in this century) has ever heard of?
Because he wasn't inducted into the HOF until 1998, and he died in 1940. It came 58 years too late, but finally someone dusted off his stats and saw the HOF.
Well, it started with Bill James, as these sabermetric things often do. I'll let the Wikipedia page tell it:
In a 1995 book, baseball author Bill James referred to Davis as baseball's best player who had not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.Also in 1995, Davis was featured in David Pietrusza's television film "Local Heroes" in the segment "Knocking on Cooperstown's Door."
In 1997, baseball researcher Frederick Ivor-Campbell said that Davis was "the most neglected player of the 19th century. He's definitely the best eligible player not in the Hall, and he's a lot better than a lot of guys already in." Around the same time, Davis was rated the 21st best baseball player of all time in the official baseball encyclopedia, Total Baseball.
Davis was up for a vote before the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1998. Before the committee voted, sportswriter Dave Anderson wrote an article in The New York Times on Davis's Hall of Fame candidacy. He pointed out the work of Cohoes city historian Walt Lipka, which favorably compared Davis to almost all of the shortstops in the Hall of Fame. Anderson supported Davis's election, saying, "It's as if he were discarded nearly a century ago into a time capsule that was forgotten until now... For too long, George Stacey Davis has been his era's most forgotten best player." He was selected for induction that year.
Prior to his Hall of Fame induction, a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) chapter in New York put out a call to locate a descendant of Davis to be present at the induction ceremony and announced plans for a historical marker in Cohoes. As a great deal of time had passed since his death, no relatives could be located, but a group of about 50 people from Cohoes traveled to the ceremony in support of Davis.
Me again. I don't know if George Davis was the 21st best player of all-time, but he certainly belongs in the Hall. He was light years better than Phil Rizzuto, Joe Tinker, Rabbit Maranville, and lots of other marginal candidates who probably shouldn't be in the Hall, but who are. Davis got in so late that nobody was around to even honor his plaque.
And why was that? Well, that's not so Hall-of-Fame worthy, but hey, don't judge:
Davis returned to the minor leagues for one season as player-manager of the 1910 Des Moines Boosters. He managed a bowling alley in the early 1910s. He was the Amherst College baseball coach from 1913 to 1918, then he became a car salesman.
The circumstances of his death remained a mystery until baseball historian Lee Allen discovered its details through a campaign to track down historical baseball players, run in part in The Sporting News. Davis was admitted to a Philadelphia mental institution in 1934 suffering from paresis due to tertiary syphilis. He died in the institution in 1940. Davis was survived by his wife Jane, who was said to have been angry at him when he died. They had no children. His wife spent $41 to have him buried within a day at nearby Fernwood Cemetery.
Me again. Yeah, so no kids to have kids to honor his HOF plaque 58 years after he died of syphilis. Of course, you can get syphilis many ways, then and now, but...well, his wife was really pissed at him, and buried him the day after he died, apparently sans wake and funeral. And it was a quickie burial, costing just $41, which sounds to me like someone dug a hole in the cemetery, threw him in, and filled up the hole. Maybe even without a coffin, and definitely without a chaplain or onlookers.
And that pretty much says it all.