Year Inducted: 1945 (Veterans Committee)
Baseball, more than other sports, seems to have difficulty balancing being entertainment with advances in the game. The stolen base, for example, is an exciting part of the game, but research and analytics have led to the reduced importance of the steal (since it’s been shown to only be valuable if a player is successful 75% of the time). Similar things have happened to the sacrifice bunt and the hit-and-run play. Perhaps the best example from the last few seasons has been instant replay. Proponents both in and out of the league value making the right call despite how much time it may take. Opponents think that it takes too much time and miss the arguments between managers and umpires (if a manager argues a replayed call he gets ejected immediately). Teams especially valued the combative nature of players back in the early years of the game, and one of the players that embodied that nature was Roger Bresnahan.
Bresnahan was the primary catcher for John McGraw’s Giants in his career, and took after his manager’s personality. Bresnahan got ejected and suspended a lot, so despite playing in 17 seasons he only appeared in under 1500 games. So, similarly to Frank Chance and others, Bresnahan’s score gets hurt by not being on the field very much.
When he was on the field, he was a very effective player. He hit a robust .279/.386/.377 for a wRC+ of 128. Among his fellow Hall of Fame catchers, he ranks third in wRC+, which helps to illustrate just how good of a hitter he was. He also offset his lack of power (only 200 doubles and less than 30 home runs) by stealing over 200 bases in his career. Unfortunately, his low amount of playing time suppresses his counting stats and limits how high up he can rank.
Defensively, Bresnahan’s biggest achievement was being the first catcher to regularly wear shin guards behind the plate. The shin guards helped him be a roughly average defender in his career, being worth roughly -7 runs defensively in his career. Once again, his defensive numbers suffer due to not being on the field enough.
Bresnahan never got much attention from the BBWAA on the ballot, getting at most 67 votes on a ballot from 1936-1942. However, his vote total spiked to 133 in 1945, when the elections occurred one month after his death. Despite being lower than the necessary amount, the Veterans Committee took notice of the increased vote tally and elected Bresnahan in their April 1945 meeting. Noted baseball historian Bill James said of Bresnahan’s induction “…for the first time [the Hall of Fame] selected a player who clearly had no damn business being there.” And, it’s hard not to disagree. Bresnahan made important strides by introducing protective gear into the game (not just the shin guards but he also developed the first batting helmet) and popularizing it, but that alone shouldn’t warrant induction.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck: 7/18/16 this Hall of Famer was the first African American player in the American League.