Transaction of Today…January 5, 1890 – The Boston Beaneaters purchased Herman Long from the Kansas City Cowboys for $5000 to $6000. (Date given is approximate. Exact date is uncertain.)
For 13 seasons, Herman Long was an essential component on dominant Boston Beaneaters teams. Yet, as accomplished as his career was, what happened after his death may have been even more fascinating. Of the top 15 players who received votes for the first-ever Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee vote in 1936, the only person who wasn’t later enshrined was Long – who finished 8th in the vote. Nevertheless, it all started 127 years ago today. Or thereabouts as the major league baseball transaction page wasn’t quite that thorough back then.
Born in Chicago, Illinois on April 13, 1866, to German immigrants, Long’s road to the majors was typical of his time and took him through a series of local stops in the Western League and Western Association. His first real break came in 1889 when he landed a job with the Kansas City Cowboys of the American Association. Just 23, Long hit .275 with a .358 on-base percentage for the Cowboys, whose roster included a future teammate of Long’s in Boston named Billy Hamilton.
After just one year with the Cowboys, Long’s contract was purchased by the Boston Beaneaters for between $5,000 and $6,000. Whatever the final tally, Long would prove it to be a bargain.
After a tough first year in Boston, Long broke out in 1891, hitting .282 with a .377 on-base percentage and 60 steals. It would be the first of an excellent seven-year run in which Long would post a triple slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .306/.365/.428 with 275 steals. His 25.0 WAR (Fangraphs version) was the 17th highest in baseball during that time frame. His amazing individual accomplishments aside, Long was also instrumental to the 1890’s Braves, who won five pennants from 1891 to 1898. Only two players were part of the entire run – Long and Hall of Fame right-hander Kid Nichols.
Some refer to the 1897-1900 infield of Fred Tenney at first, Bobby Lowe at second, Jimmy Collins at third, and Long playing shortstop as one of the best infields ever constructed. All four were premier players for their time and Long helped to make everything run. Long would later be known for his errors as he’s one of just three players to ever commit a thousand errors and nobody committed more than Long. It’s worth mentioning that Long’s defense was well thought of at the time. Richard Bak of Detroit Athletic Company pointed out that his 6.4 chances per game is the best of all time among shortstops. By comparison, the incredible Andrelton Simmons currently averages 4.6 chances per game over his career. Granted, it was a different game then where infielders fielded more plays, but Long’s rate still reigns supreme.
Long would also have a connection to one of the greatest players to ever play the game – Honus Wagner. The later arrived in the National League in 1897 and a few years later, Long gave the youngster one of his oversized gloves to help Wagner when he became an everyday starter at shortstop in 1903. Wagner would also inherit one of Long’s nicknames – The Flying Dutchman.
Also known simply as German, Long’s play began to drop off in 1901 with the then-35 years-old struggling to a .216 average and striking out more than he walked for the first time. After a second disappointing campaign the following season, Long sought to cash in his remaining star power as he jumped from Boston to the upstart American League’s New York Highlanders (later changed to the Yankees). His time in New York was short and he was later dealt to the Detroit Tigers, but his career was effectively over. He would continue to play until he was 40, spending time with Toledo, Des Moines, Omaha, and Toronto, but he struggled to hold down a job in any city for long.
With Long’s business ventures going belly-up, Long also struggled to provide for his family until contracting tuberculosis a few years after his career officially ended. He passed away in Denver in 1909. Friends paid to bring him to Chicago, where he was buried at Concordia Cemetery, about 45 minutes southwest from Wrigley Field.
Long’s name is all over the Braves’ franchise record book. He played in the 8th most games, had the fifth most hits, the sixth most doubles, the third most triples, and his 434 steals rank as the top total in franchise history.
Twenty-seven years after his death, the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its doors for the first time and several players were inducted, including Wagner. Long would not receive a vote as part of the regular voting but finished eighth in the Special Committee’s voting. The entire system was needlessly complicated from the get-go. The Special Committee was made up of 78 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America and they were given the task of electing “five pioneers.” Baseball-Reference refers to this committee as the Veteran’s Committee, though it was more of a special one-time committee that the Hall of Fame hoped would elect a group of players that needed to be enshrined beyond the headliners like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. The hope was in addition to the five megastars that would be enshrined during the first year, another five pioneers would join them. The problem was that there was great confusion among the 78 members as to how many people to vote for, what even constituted a pioneer of the game, and whether choices should be made for every position. Wagner, who was a first-ballot choice, still received 5 points from the committee for some reason. Long received 15.5 votes or 19.9% of the tally.
Because of the confusion of the first Special Committee ballot, it was treated as a nomination ballot. The top dozen players, who received between 50.6% and 11.5% of the vote, were kept around for a second ballot the following year – including Long. They would only induct one player – John McGraw – in 1937. Over the years, the remaining eleven players from the first ballot were enshrined through the Old Timers Committee and Veterans Committee with the exception of Long. In fact, the next three players who missed the nomination ballot in 1936 would also be elected to the Hall of Fame. That includes Long’s partner on the left side of the infield for the last great run of the 1890’s Beaneaters, Jimmy Collins, who finished 13th in the initial ballot but was selected by the Old Timers Committee in 1945.
Not only was Long never enshrined in Cooperstown, he never again received significant consideration. A year after finishing 8th in the Veterans Committee ballot, he received just one vote each year from 1937 until 1939. After the Hall of Fame only had one election for the next five years (Long was shut out), the original Flying Dutchman received one more vote in 1945 and another in 1946. After that, nothing. One of the best shortstops of the 19th century had been refused entry into the Hall of Fame.
You could point to the errors or the underwhelming hitting stats, but I think Long’s biggest problem was that he was a distant memory by the time the Hall of Fame opened. He had been dead for nearly 30 years at that point so many of the sportswriters he had played in front of had long retired. If the Hall of Fame had been opened 15 or 20 years before that, possibly players like Long would have received more consideration from the people who had watched them more. The blog Baseball Past and Present points to Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith as a possible reason Long received so much support in 1936. Griffith held Long in high esteem and was immensely influential during the mid-1930s. Wagner also was a big supporter of Long and likely lobbied hard for him. As the years transpired and more uniformity was gained among Hall of Fame voters, Long’s case widdled away.
In the end, Long would be known more for his support during the first year of Hall of Fame voting than his career, which is sad. He played shortstop on five pennant-winning Boston teams and was a key contributor to a dynasty. He swiped 30 or more bases seven times, was durable enough to play in 100 or more games for the first 13 years of his career, and truly was a pioneer for his time.