Livingston County native Roscoe Conkling "Ross" Barnes had a brief -- but acclaimed -- professional baseball career. A technicality has kept him ineligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, but a Mount Morris man wants to change that.
CALLING THE HALL
Campaign renewed to get Livingston native into baseball Hall of Fame
One of the 19th century’s greatest baseball players was born and raised in Livingston County.
Roscoe Conkling “Ross” Barnes, born May 8, 1850, spent his childhood on River Road in the Town of Mount Morris. Barnes and his family relocated to the Town of Lima about 1856, where they lived until 1865, the last year the family is listed in the local census. Very shortly afterward, the Barnes family moved to Rockford, Illinois.
Barnes is documented as playing with the amateur Rockford Pioneers in 1866 at age 16 with a teammate of the same age, Albert Spalding. Spalding was destined for baseball immortality as an outstanding pitcher and hitter, then as a manager, team owner (Chicago White Stockings), manufacturer and seller of sporting goods, and publisher of sporting record books.
In 1916, one year after the deaths of both Spalding and Barnes, Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide referred to Barnes as “one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived.”
Remarkably, however, there is no plaque for this greatest player in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The oversight has been cause for Gary Passamonte, a Mount Morris mailman, to wage a 20 year campaign to have Barnes rightfully recognized among baseball’s best at Cooperstown.
Passamonte calls attention to the fact that a recent change in the rules for considering veteran players for Hall of Fame membership may give Barnes a better shot when pre-1946 players come up for election in 2015. Indeed, under the new rules another of Barnes’ teammates, James “Deacon” White, will be the only player inducted in July ceremony at Cooperstown.
Four .400 years
As 17-year-olds in 1867, Barnes and Spalding played for the adult Rockford Four Cities. Playing the barnstorming Washington Nationals, featuring the great George Wright, the Four Cities dealt the Nationals their only defeat of the season.
Nine years later, 1876, Barnes would be playing second base for the Chicago White Stockings in the very first season of National League play. He led the league with a lofty .429 batting average, 60 points higher than anyone else, and also had the most hits, runs, doubles and triples. On May 2 of that year Barnes slammed the first home run ever hit in the National League, in the fifth inning of a game with Cincinnati off pitcher “Cherokee” Fisher.
That remarkable Chicago team featured three Hall of Famers — the iconic Spalding on the mound, Cap Anson on first base and just-voted Deacon White catching.
Many baseball historians will tell you there should be two other members of that team in Cooperstown: Cal McVey who played every position — pitcher, catcher, infield and outfield — and batted .346 over nine seasons, and Ross Barnes, whose .360 batting average over nine seasons and 499 games puts him second on the all-time list, just below Ty Cobb and above Rogers Hornsby.
Barnes’ .429 B.A. in 1876 was the fourth time he exceeded .400 in what was then a six year career. In his first three seasons with Boston, in the old National Association, Barnes batted .401, .430 and .431.
No other player in the entire history of professional major league baseball has had four .400 years.
Furthermore, Barnes’ average of 1.4 runs per game remains the best of all time.
Barnes was also one of the great defensive players of his time. In that gloveless era he was an ambidextrous thrower. Whichever hand caught the ball, that same hand would throw out the batter at first. He had the league’s highest fielding average for second basemen in 1876 — .910 (remember, with no glove.)
With Boston, Barnes had won the National Association batting title and led the league in hits and runs in 1872, 1873 and 1875. Barnes led his teams to league championships over five consecutive years: 1872 to 1875 in Boston and 1876 in Chicago.
Barnes could hit with power, as his record of extra-base totals attests. However, he was also a master of the fair-foul, a bunt-type hit which first struck the ground in fair territory, then rolled into foul territory, but, by the rules of the day, was in fair play as determined by where the ball first touched the ground.
The rule changed in 1877, making the fair-foul into a foul.
Sadly, Barnes contacted a malaria-type illness after the 1876 season and was never again able to perform in such outstanding fashion. He played just 22 games for Chicago in 1877, batting .272. While Barnes’ illness was the largest factor diminishing his performance after 1876, the ‘fouling’ of the fair-foul may also have had an effect.
In 1878 Barnes played for the London, Ontario Tecumsehs in the International Association, a supposed “minor” league although I.A. teams would frequently defeat National League teams in head-to-head contests. Barnes returned to the National League in 1879 with the Cincinnati Red Stockings, batting .266.
Barnes sat out the 1880 season while living in Denver Colorado. He returned for a final season in 1881 with Boston in the National League, batting .271.
Ross Barnes had no children and never married. He died of heart disease on Feb. 5, 1915.
Not counting his so-called minor league year in London, Barnes played a total of nine years in recognized major leagues — leaving him one year shy of the ten year total required to qualify a player for Hall of Fame membership.
Barnes had also played professional baseball in the five years preceding 1871, but no league is recognized as a professional major league until the National Association in 1871. Still, if you count his year in London, Ontario in 1878, Barnes had a 15 year career in the highest caliber leagues that existed at the time. But because of the arbitrary rules of what counts and doesn’t count for a major league, he gets credit for only nine years — and that is one year short of qualifying for the Hall of Fame.
In the very first Hall of Fame selection in 1936, Ross Barnes received three votes. Later, there was a “pioneer” category in which Barnes might have qualified. Candy Cummings, inventor of the curve ball, who played just six major league seasons, was inducted as a “pioneer.”
But after the “pioneer” category was eliminated and the ten year rule imposed, Barnes’ chances for Hall of Fame recognition evaporated.
Still, the rule was waived in the case of Addie Joss, whose nine year pitching career in Cleveland ended in 1910 and who died of tuberculosis meningitis the following year. By special permission of the Hall of Fame Board of Directors, Joss was inducted at Cooperstown in 1978.
A different game — and the Hall of Fame
The baseball played by Barnes and his colleagues 135 years ago was a different game than the one we are familiar with today. No one, not even catchers, wore gloves. (Albert Spalding is credited with bringing the glove to baseball when he began wearing one in the 1877 season.) A season was only 50-to-80 games. The distance from the pitcher to home plate was just 45 feet. The pitcher threw underhand with his elbow locked — although this rule had loosened in the 1870s, and would prompt the increase in pitching distance to 60.5 feet in 1892. The second baseman stood at second base, not always assisted by the shortstop, who roamed about the infield.
“You can’t compare numbers (from era to era) because the game does change,” Gary Passamonte says. “The best indicators of who is a Hall of Famer are those that show how that person performed among his peers.”
Now retired from the job of Mount Morris postmaster, Passamonte continues to promote Ross Barnes for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Memorabilia in the den of Passamonte’s Barone Avenue home pay tribute to the glorious sport of 1800s “base ball” — as it was known at the time — and to Ross Barnes in particular.
On the wall is a replica of a steel print portraying the 1877 Chicago White Stockings, including Barnes, Spalding and Anson. 2013 Hall of Fame inductee Deacon White is given wall space as well. Also on display are carte de visite photographs-on-cardboard, the first baseball cards.
Passamonte acknowledges that his own lobbying and letter writing campaign to get Barnes properly recognized was preceded by an earlier campaign conducted by the late Mount Morris historian and journalist Fred Beuerlin. Passamonte’s efforts peaked in the mid-1990s, but yielded no results. One of the Hall of Fame nomination committee members, Buzzie Bavasi, did write back, expressing regret that an exception could not be made for Barnes.
The new rules for selecting Baseball Hall of Fame veteran inductees went into effect in 2011 and they have been a factor in putting Barnes’ teammate Deacon White, a 19-year player, in the Hall of Fame. The same new rules may give Ross Barnes a better chance in 2015, which is when a special committee will again consider and vote on ten candidates.
Under the new rules, during interceding years, there are nominating committees for players from the “Expansion Era” (after 1972), followed by the “Golden Era” (1947-72), and finally “Pre-integration Era” (before 1946). The latter committee votes again in 2015 and, in theory, might consider Barnes — although the ten year rule remains in effect.
The three historic era bodies are in place to nominate the ten candidates, while an entirely separate 16-member body does the voting. A candidate must receive at least 12 of the 16 votes to be certified for Hall of Fame membership.
(The Baseball Writers Association, mired down in the steroid issue, failed to pick any recent retired/contemporary players for 2013, but the Pre-integration Committee gave the nod to Deacan White, team owner Jacob Ruppert and umpire Hank O’Day.)
A straw poll separate and outside of the official Hall of Fame votes, but nonetheless having persuasive influence, is one conducted by the Society for American Baseball Research for “the most overlooked 19th century legends.” In the most recent vote among these baseball scholars, Barnes was in second place. The organization’s nod apparently influenced the Deacon White nomination as well as the chances for another old-timer, Bill Dahlen, who lost out in 2012 by just two votes.
“I think it’s a good time to start a new lobbying campaign,” Passamonte suggests. “Ross Barnes was always regarded as one of the best, if not THE best, players of the 19th century. It makes absolutely no sense to exclude from the Hall of Fame the only guy to hit .400 four times.”
Plenty of praise
In a contemporary publication, “The Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball” by David Nemec, an early chapter is titled, “Ross Barnes Emerges as the National Association’s First Great Star.”
In the historic record, there is no shortage of accolades from those who were witness to Barnes’ performance. Cap Anson, in his autobiography, wrote, “Ross Barnes was one of the best ball players that ever wore a shoe… I do not know of a single man on the diamond at the present time that I regard as his superior.”
Former teammate Spalding’s publications rank Barnes among the best. The 1916 edition of “Spalding’s Official Baseball Record,” noting Barnes’ death the previous year, stated, he was “by many considered the best second baseman in the history of baseball.”
The “Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide” for 1916 which called Barnes, “one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived” also included an accompanying article emphasizing Barnes’ fielding prowess. It ventured, “He (Barnes) was almost Base Ball perfect in everything.”