Transaction of Today…December 21, 1891 – The Boston Beaneaters obtained Hugh Duffy who was previously under league control.
WAR was not around in the 1890’s. Well, not the all-CAPS, baseball version of WAR. But we have gone back and calculated WAR as if Fangraphs was around back then. Just imagine Dave Cameron’s great-great-great granddaddy hammering away on his typewriter suggesting that assists were more of a sign of defensive ability than errors. With that in mind, on this day in 1891, the Boston Beaneaters acquired one of the best hitters of his era in Hugh Duffy. During the last decade of the 19th century, only four hitters had a better fWAR than Duffy.
A son of Irish Catholic immigrants, Duffy began his career, as an 18-year-old, in the semipro Rhode Island State Association. He earned $5 a week. A couple of years later, he signed his first professional contract with the Hartford Dark Blues of the Eastern League. He would struggle to stay employed the next couple of years as teams folded nearly as quickly as they were put together. That was until landing a job with the National League Chicago White Stockings after the ’87 season. Hall of Famer Cap Anson took one look at the young 21-year-old and said, “What are you doing here? We already have a batboy.” Anson’s disbelief that Duffy was the big-time recruit a scout informed him of led to Anson leaving the rookie on the bench for the first few months of the ’88 season before being forced to give him a shot after right field opened up.
Duffy would excel down the stretch and was a regular for the White Stockings the following year, hitting .312. That was the first of eleven seasons Duffy hit .300 or better. He hit a dozen homers, good for 12th in the league, and stole 52 bases. However, like many of the NL’s top players, Duffy grew frustrated with the low pay he received. Two years after joining the NL, Duffy jumped to the Players League and the Chicago Pirates. At the time, the Players League was like a league of All-Stars as many of the best players from the National League had also jumped. Despite playing against top competition, Duffy only improved, leading the league in runs scored and hits while hitting .320/.384/.470. He also swiped 78 bases.
Spending all of that money to attract so much talent was a bad business model for the Players League. After one year, the new league was dead. Duffy, who burned bridges with Anson and Al Spalding, the owner of the White Stockings, wasn’t about to head back to Chicago. Instead, he signed a big contract with the Boston Beaneaters. However, his rights were held by Chicago and Spalding wouldn’t allow his former star the opportunity to play with another NL team. Duffy took his talents to the American Association and the Boston Reds as a result.
Duffy continued to excel, hitting .336/.408/.453 for the Reds, who finished 92-43. As had been the case for many teams Duffy played on, the Reds folded after 1891 and again, Duffy was unemployed.
Once again, Duffy signed with the Boston Beaneaters. This time, the move was allowed and on this day in 1891, Duffy came back to the NL after a two-year absence. He joined a team stacked with talent, which had finished 87-51 the previous year. The arrival of Duffy only made them better. In 1892, the then 25-year-old hit .301/.364/.410, which was almost disappointing for Duffy. He’d make up for it the following year by winning his first batting title with a .363 average. Boston won the pennant in both seasons.
1894 was Duffy’s best season statistically, but it began on a somber note. His wife, Katie, had struggled with her health for a number of years. After spending most of the offseason out west to take advantage of the warmer climate, the couple returned home in advance of the season. Sadly, Katie didn’t make it. She passed on March 31, 1894. Duffy was given a leave of absence and missed a few games to open the year. When he returned, he was slow to get back into things. Over the first 20 games, he hit only .265. Shaking off the cold start, Duffy turned his grief into something special. In his 21st game, he started the first of two different 20+ game hit streaks during the year. By the time the season was over, Duffy had hit .440 – still the best batting average in baseball history and unlikely to ever be truly challenged. He finished just shy of taking home the triple crown, as he led the league with 18 homers, but finished second with 145 RBI. Duffy OPS’d 1.196 for the season. It was good for a .526 wOBA and 7.5 fWAR.
Despite Duffy’s excellent season, Boston finished just third. They would finish no better than fourth the next two seasons as well, though Duffy hit .326/.396/.436 in those two seasons. In 1897, Boston replaced Tommy Tucker with Fred Tenney and added young Chick Stahl to the mix. The pitching staff was still iffy behind Kid Nichols, but the new roster was good enough to finish 93-39 and hand Boston its fourth pennant of the decade. They would tie a franchise-best with 102 wins the following season for their fifth and final pennant during the dynasty. They wouldn’t win another until 1914.
Duffy’s numbers began to decline as the new century approached. His OPS slipped to .738 in 1898 and .705 the following year. He bounced back slightly in 1900, hitting .304/.360/.409, but injuries limited him to just 55 games. His time with Boston was done, but Duffy wasn’t finished. As he had done a few times before, he jumped ship, landing in the new American league with the Milwaukee Brewers. He served both as an outfielder and manager, hitting .302 for a team that finished in last place. After the team was moved to St. Louis, he remained and took charge of the Western League Milwaukee Creams.
In 1904, Duffy returned once more to the National League – serving now as the Philadelphia Athletics manager and occasional outfielder. They would finish no better than fourth during Duffy’s three seasons with the club. Duffy was let go and bought a share of the Providence Greys in the Eastern League, becoming their manager. Three years later, he was hired by Charles Comiskey to take over the White Sox, though that lasted just two seasons. Duffy continued to manage minor league teams until getting another shot in the American League in 1921 with the Boston Red Sox. The team had been decimated by its penny-pinching owner, Harry Frazee, and after two years, Duffy was again let go. It would be the last time he managed, though he remained a figure with the Red Sox for many more years.
In 1945, Duffy was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans’ Committee. That same year and a year before the Dodgers came calling, Duffy was one of the Boston executives on hand during a tryout for Jackie Robinson. Duffy was sold on his playing abilities, loudly declaring “What a ballplayer!” He then added, “Too bad he’s the wrong color.” While he urged the Red Sox to sign Robinson, it was to no avail.
Duffy would also serve as a mentor to Ted Williams, cheering on the young outfielder to try to break Duffy’s own batting average record.
During his 17-year career, Hugh Duffy hit .326/.386/.451. He was a part of three pennant-winning Boston clubs and one of the premier players of the 1890’s. It took a bit longer than they had hoped, but once Boston finally added Duffy, it turned into a big move for their dynasty before the turn of the century.