Stories You Should Know: Frank Selee

Frank Selee was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, 90 years after his death and more than 100 years after his accomplishments on the baseball field that earned him that honor. Did the Hall’s Veteran’s Committee correct a wrong and get this one right? We’ll let you decide.

Frank Gibson Selee was born October 26, 1859 in Amherst, New Hampshire. Raised in Massachusetts, Selee loved baseball, but he wasn’t very good at it. He played briefly in the 1880s, but prudently turned to managing when it became obvious that his playing career was going nowhere. His first opportunity to manage was in the Massachusetts State League in 1885 and 1886. From there he moved to Oshkosh of the Northwest League in 1887 and promptly won the pennant. He was promoted to the Omaha Omahogs of the Western Association and they won the Association Championship in Selee’s second season. When the Boston Beaneaters managerial job came open in 1890 due to player defections to the new Players League, Boston went with the local boy, Frank Selee.

Selee took over a team that had just lost five of their best players to the new league (Dan Brouthers, Old Hoss Radbourne, Hardy Richardson, King Kelly, and Billy Nash) and led them to a 76-57 record and a 5th place finish. He was a great judge of talent, adding stars like Kid Nichols, Bobby Lowe, and Herman Long. 

In his second year the team came together and captured the National League title with a record of 87-51 (.630). Thus began a string of 10 straight seasons that the National League pennant would be won by a team managed by either Frank Selee or his arch-rival Ned Hanlon. 

Selee’s Beaneaters would win again in 1892 and 1893, but then drop below Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles for the next three years. After adding future Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy, Jimmy Collins, and Billy Hamilton, along with first baseman Fred Tenney and outfielder Chick Stahl, the Beaneater dethroned the Orioles in 1897 and repeated as champions in 1898. 

Selee was a player’s manager, “(Selee) let his players figure out their own plays. He didn’t blame them if they took a chance and failed. He believed in place-hitting, sacrifice-hitting, and stealing bases. He was wonderful with young players,” explained his outstanding second baseman, Bobby Lowe. 

His genius with player evaluations was verified again after Boston released him as manager after the Beaneaters were decimated by the new American League in 1901. Jim Hart, who Selee replaced as manager of the Beaneaters in 1890, now owned the Chicago Cubs. He hired Selee to rejuvenate a franchise that had fallen on hard times since the exit of Cap Anson in 1897. 

Selee’s first move was to make a decision at catcher. He had two to choose from, Johnny Kling and Frank Chance. He chose Kling and moved Chance to first base. He then brought in two shortstops, Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers. He installed Tinker at short and moved Evers to second base. In two quick moves he created the most famous double play combination in baseball history. In his first season the team improved from 53 wins to 68 wins.

In 1904, he saw a pitcher with a mangled right hand who had a wicked breaking ball. He traded his #1 starter (Jack Taylor) to St. Louis for “Three Finger” Brown. Brown would win 183 games in the next eight years. By 1904, the Cubs had climbed to second place with 93 wins. In 1905, he added another quality pitcher, Ed Reulbach, (who would go 125-56 in the next seven seasons) and the team was on the verge of greatness.

Selee’s philosophy about handling young men was simple, but effective, “If I make things pleasant for the players, they reciprocate.” he said. “I want them to be temperate and live properly.” 

Selee’s chance to see the fruition of his second great team was shortchanged by tuberculosis. 90 games into the 1905 season he was forced to step down due to his failing health. He handed the reins to his first baseman, Frank Chance, who would go on to lead one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history. From 1906 until 1910 the Chicago Cubs won four out of five pennants and two World Series, while compiling the best 5-year record in baseball history.

“Selee built the team that won three straight pennants in Chicago, and Chance got all the credit,” said Selee’s first baseman in Boston, Fred Tenney. Frank Selee lived to see his team win three straight pennants before his death in Denver, Colorado on July 5th, 1909. 

Is that a Hall of Fame resume?  

The five most successful managers of the 19th century were; Harry Wright, Cap Anson, Charles Comiskey, Ned Hanlon, and Frank Selee. Their respective records were 1,225-885 (.581) and six championships for Wright, 1,295-947 (.578), and five National League Championships for Anson, 840-541 (.608), and four American Association Championships for Comiskey, 1,313-1,164 (.530) and five National League Championships for Hanlon, and 1,284-862 (.598) and five National League Championships for Selee. So Selee is tied for third in championships and second in winning percentage. In Bill James’ Baseball Managers book he ranks Harry Wright the 7th most successful manager of all time, Anson the 14th most successful, Comiskey the 28th most successful, and Hanlon the 17th most successful. Frank Selee is ranked 12th. 

Cap Anson was one of the first inductees into the Hall of Fame, selected by the Old Timers Committee in 1939 as a player, the same year Charles Comiskey was enshrined as an executive. Harry Wright was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953 by the Veterans Committee as a Pioneer/Executive, and Ned Hanlon by the Veterans Committee in 1996 as a Manager. So Hanlon was the Hall of Fame benchmark for 19th century Managers. Ned Hanlon was Selee’s chief rival in life, and now 100 years later he’s the benchmark for his enshrinement in Cooperstown.   

In the years that followed Hanlon’s and Selee’s careers, Ned Hanlon was much more famous than Frank Selee. Three of Hanlon’s disciples (John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, Hughie Jennings) managed in the big leagues for 66 years praising the genius of Ned Hanlon and the greatness of the Baltimore Orioles. The Baltimore Orioles were undoubtedly the greatest team before the 1927 Yankees. Well, not so fast. Here’s what Bill James has to say about that statement, “the 1894 Orioles were not the greatest team before the 1927 Yankees, nor even the greatest team of their own generation. The 1897 Boston Beaneaters were the greatest team of the 19th century, and the 1906 Chicago Cubs were the greatest team before the 1927 Yankees. What those teams have in common is that both teams were built by Frank Selee.”

That settles it. We’ve been somewhat critical of selections made by the Veterans Committee through the years, but this time they got it right. 

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