Every ballplayer makes errors. Some players make a lot. Then there’s Herman Long, who muffed more chances than anybody in the entire history of baseball. Across 16 big-league seasons—which included a stint with the Detroit Tigers in 1903—the Chicago-born shortstop averaged one error every other game. This actually was a testament to Long’s fielding prowess, not an indicator of ineptitude.
The old adage that you have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games is applicable here, as you have to be a pretty good player to have the opportunity to make 1,096 errors, as Long did. His 6.4 chances per game is the best of all time among shortstops, meaning he went after everything hit his way—and then some. He had great range, a lightning-quick release, and a cannon for an arm.
“Herman Long was one of the most brilliant shortstops that ever made a throw,” Chicago sportswriter Billy Phelan eulogized upon Long’s death in 1909, “and also one of the most reliable. There he was, year after year, somersaulting and leaping, gathering the miraculous plays with either hand, chasing the long flies, working in the double plays and the hurried pinches, holding up his end with the bat, stealing his full share of bases.”
This wasn’t hyperbole. Long was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the finest shortstop of the 19th century, a key member of the Boston Beaneaters team that won five National League pennants. After breaking into the majors in 1889 with Kansas City of the American Association (where he committed a league-high 117 errors), Long spent the next 13 years in Boston. The left-handed batter was a career .277 hitter who exhibited a nice blend of power and speed. He had a string of .300+ seasons and led the circuit with a dozen home runs in 1900.
“Off the field,” Phelan wrote, “Long was a simple-hearted, jovial German, well liked by all who ever met him.” Long, the first big leaguer to be dubbed “The Flying Dutchman,” used an oversized glove with a hole cut into its pocket. Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner, who came along in 1897, got one of Long’s gloves as a gift in 1902 and later inherited his nickname.
As so many other players did during the early 1900s, Long took advantage of the war then taking place between the established National League and the upstart American League, jumping leagues to sign with the New York Highlanders in 1903. He played just a couple months at old Hilltop Park before being traded to Detroit on June 10, 1903, for Norman “Kid” Elberfeld, the Tigers’ hotheaded and troublesome shortstop. Swapping shortstops didn’t seem to make much sense to Detroit fans, especially since the 37-year-old Long was nearly a decade older than “The Tabasco Kid.” However, the Tigers also got Ernie Courtney in the deal, a young infielder still recovering from a bout with malaria.
“Detroit strikes me as a good town,” Long said upon his arrival, “and the Detroit club is one that should be in the race. I will give the team the best that I have, and that is all that any man can do.”
Long, like Courtney, was damaged goods. Long had an injured hand, which delayed his debut at Bennett Park for a few days while he soaked in the local mineral baths. While his gung-ho style of leadership impressed manager Ed Barrow once he finally took the field, it soon became evident that the newcomer was having problems with his once-powerful throwing arm. He was shifted to second base, where the throws were easier. Long wound up splitting his time between shortstop and second base, committing 32 errors and batting .222 in 69 games for the fifth-place Tigers.
Long suffered other setbacks during his few months in Detroit. That summer his brother died in Chicago while a saloon that Long owned in Boston went belly-up, bankrupting him. Long, never a spendthrift but a notoriously poor businessman, would struggle during his few remaining years to provide for himself and his wife and child.
Long’s chronically ailing wing made it hard to hold down a job. He was hired as player-manager of the Toledo Mud Hens in 1904, then released just a few weeks into the season. He spent the rest of the year working out for skeptical big-league clubs and inquiring about managing jobs in the minors. He played a single game for the Philadelphia Phillies in midsummer before being released, ending his major-league career with one last base hit and one final error.
Long spent the next few years bouncing around the minors, leading Des Moines to a Western League pennant and playing briefly for Barrow again, this time in Toronto. He spent his winters managing a bowling alley. When the Tigers played the Cubs in the 1907 World Series, a Chicago reporter discovered Long hospitalized and destitute. He was dying of tuberculosis, though he would hang on nearly two more years before passing away inside a Denver sanitarium. Friends had to pay to bring his body back to Chicago.
Herman Long’s reputation was strong enough that in 1936, nearly three decades after his death, he received almost 20% of the vote when the first group of pre-1900 players was considered by a special veterans committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, support quickly fell off, even as every other player on that final 12-man nominating list eventually was inducted. Ironically, some have since pointed to Long’s record number of errors as the reason behind his continuing exclusion. Today, the man once considered by his peers to be the best shortstop in the country enjoys little name recognition among modern fans and even less support for a plaque at Cooperstown, an error that one day may still be corrected.