Mr. Cub, Mr. Tiger, and Mr. Padre. Brooksie! Edgar. And, of course, the Captain. Players who no one can imagine in another team’s uniform for one simple reason: they never played for another team.
Well, I keep standings of how many members of the Hall of Miller and Eric have played for each team, and I’ve gotten curious about players who only don one team’s livery, the one-team wonders. So I did a little digging about how many star players have played for just one club. By star I mean guys who were at the worst solidly above average with some All-Star seasons mixed in and at the best (spoiler alert!) Walter Johnson or Ted Williams.
I’ve got a few questions I want answered about this phenomenon.
What teams have the most of these guys?It turns out that some teams have a long history of one-team wonders, and some not so much. Here’s a list by team of 105 of these players that I gleaned from a few hours at Baseball-Reference.com (yes, I don’t have children). Players in bold are HoMErs, those in parenthesis are not yet eligible:
- YANKEES (19): Yogi Berra, Earle Combs, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Lou Gehrig, Ron Guidry, Tommy Henrich, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Don Mattingly, Gil McDougald, Thurman Munson, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Phil Rizzuto, Mel Stottlemyer, Bernie Williams, Roy White
- RED SOX (8): Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Tex Hughson, Mel Parnell, Rico Petrocelli, Jim Rice, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski
- SENATORS/TWINS (8): Bob Allison, Kent Hrbek, Walter Johnson, Clyde Milan, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett, Brad Radke, Cecil Travis
- DODGERS (7): Roy Campanella, Don Drysdale, Jim Gilliam, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Nap Rucker
- GIANTS (7): Carl Hubbell, Travis Jackson, Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Robby Thompson, Mike Tiernan, Ross Youngs
- TIGERS (7): Tommy Bridges, Bill Freehan, Charlie Gehringer, John Hiller, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker
- INDIANS (6): Ray Chapman, Bob Feller, Mel Harder, Addie Joss, Bob Lemon, Al Rosen
- REDS (6): Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion, Barry Larkin, Bid McPhee, John Reilly, Mario Soto
- CUBS (5): Ernie Banks, Stan Hack, Charlie Hollocher, Bill Lange, Ryne Sandberg
- PIRATES (5): Roberto Clemente, Ray Kremer, Sam Leever, Willie Stargell, Pie Traynor
- BROWNS/ORIOLES (4): Chris Hoiles, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson
- WHITE SOX (4): Luke Appling, Red Faber, Ted Lyons, Jim Scott
- ASTROS/COLT 45’S (3): Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Don Wilson
- CARDINALS (3): Bob Gibson, Whitey Kurowski, Stan Musial
- BREWERS (2): Teddy Higuera, Robin Yount
- PHILLIES (2): Charlie Ferguson, Mike Schmidt
- ANGELS (1): Tim Salmon
- ATHLETICS (1): Eddie Rommell
- BRAVES (1): Chipper Jones
- DIAMONDBACKS (1): Brandon Webb
- EXPOS/NATIONALS (1): Steve Rogers
- MARINERS (1): Edgar Martinez
- PADRES (1): Tony Gwynn
- ROCKIES (1): Todd Helton
- ROYALS (1): George Brett
These teams await the appearance of their version of Mr. Cub: Blue Jays, Marlins, Mets, Rangers, Rays.
You may disagree with my choices or those I didn’t include, of course. It’s not a science. The big picture here? MLB’s crown jewel franchises dominate four of the top five spots on this list. That some of them have also been some of the league’s best capitalized teams (for most of their histories) is no coincidence. The ability to win a lot and pay well are two very attractive reasons to stick around your team. Also, the money to buy amateur talent and to set up strong farm systems helps too.
For the opposite, see the Philadelphia teams. The Athletics under Connie Mack had two major fire sales after stretches of dominance. After the second one Mack was too old to keep up with the Branch Rickeys of the baseball world and the team fell into the second division for four decades. Yeah, decades. Two of them under the aging Mack, the other two as, in essence, a Yankee farm team. They endured yet another fire sale when Charlie Finley broke up the Moustachioed Gang of the 1970s. Nowadays, the A’s are the poster child for small market success with Billy Beane, but that success comes with his shuttling players out of town when they get expensive.
In the Phillies case, you might recall it took about 100 years to win their first championship. They weren’t great until the 1910s. Then they fell into one bad ownership group to another. Including one so bad he was forced to sell by the league. They also spent 30 years between contenders. The Phillies have also managed to run a lot of great players out of town or pick the wrong ones to keep. Dick Allen was a tough personality, and they handled him poorly. I think they’d like Ryne Sandberg and Julio Franco back. They fought bitterly with Mike Schmidt in the 1980s, and they couldn’t wait to ride Scott Rolen out on a rail. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps players from sticking around.
Perhaps the most surprising team in this group is the Braves. They are the longest-tenured team in baseball, and only Chipper Jones has been a one-team wonder for them. Despite lots and lots of long-term stars.
Are there fewer one-team wonders than before?
Free agency has been around long enough now that, mostly, we don’t think twice about it. In its first twenty or thirty years, however, lots of writers and fans bemoaned the loss of one-team stars. Googling “free agency ruined baseball” today returned 279,000 results in 0.21 seconds. Were these gripes legitimate? The answer is yes…and no.
If we divide the big list above between players who played before the advent of free agency, those who straddled it, and those who started afterward, we get this:
- Before free agency (1876–1966): 66
- Straddled free agency (1967–1976): 12
- After free agency (1977–2014): 27
The period from 1876 to 1966 includes 1376 team seasons. The ten years from 1967 to 1976 include 232 team seasons. From 1977 through Derek Jeter’s retirement, we have another 1036 team seasons. If we simply allotted our 105 players according to this, then 55 would be before 1966, nine from 1967 to 1976, and 41 after 1976. So, yes, in this broad sense, we might see a dearth of one-team wonders after free agency. Especially since active players haven’t yet clocked out.
As we look back on the list of players, we can see that there are very few 1800s players (four) and relatively few deadball players. That means the purists bewailing the ruination of the game at the hands of those greedy free agents are really talking about a 45 year slice of the game’s first 90 years. Some quick history:
- From 1876 to 1900, three leagues and three dozen teams started up and folded, making it very difficult for the average player to stay in one place, or more accurately, making it easier for him to jump to a more lucrative offer.
- Same for the Federal League in 1915.
- Trade rules from the 1920s until 1986 tamped down trading, especially outside the league: the trade deadline was much earlier in the year (June 15th), and for many years a player had to clear waivers in his current league for any out-of-league trade.
- The reserve clause bound a player to his team indefinitely.
- On the flip side, today impending free agency makes a losing team more likely to trade a walk-year player, and the relaxation of trade rules makes it easier than ever to deal him.
- Salary arbitration has made teams more likely to release a player early in his career or to trade him if they can’t agree to an extension or if they choose not to go to arbitration.
So the answer to the question is that, yes, they are right that fewer players stick with one team. However, it’s apples to oranges because the rules are so vastly different now that it’s pointless to compare.
Who has the HoME team advantage?
Let’s restrict the list to HoMErs, players still in serious contention, and future eligibles with a great shot. How well do teams do at keeping the most transcendent talents?
- YANKEES: 11
- DODGERS: 5
- TIGERS: 5
- BROWNS/ORIOLES: 3
- REDS: 3
- RED SOX: 3
- WHITE SOX: 3
- ASTROS/COLTS: 2
- CARDINALS: 2
- CUBS: 2
- GIANTS: 2
- BRAVES: 1
- BREWERS: 1
- INDIANS: 1
- MARINERS: 1
- PADRES: 1
- PHILLIES: 1
- PIRATES: 1
- ROCKIES: 1
- ROYALS: 1
- SENATORS/TWINS: 1
Still hoping…Angels, Athletics, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Mets, Nationals/Expos, Rangers, Rays
That shifts things a little. In fact, the Tigers prompted me to write this ditty. We’ve recently elected Whitaker and Trammell, which made me think of Kaline, which made me wonder about one-team wonders to begin with. The O’s rise up a bit, too, and the Reds. But one thing I see is that it’s not just the greatest of players that matter. If so, the Tigers would have won a lot more often. No, the Yanks, Sox, Dodgers, and Giants have also held onto top-level complementary parts to surround their core players. We could nearly make an All-Star lineup out of the Yankees’ secondary players that would beat damn near any team.
How many active players are in a position to be one-team wonders?
These guys are among the top-100 active players in career WAR. They have all played for just one team and are still property of that team (so no Jimmy Rollins). Some are signed to lengthy extensions. Here’s the details ranked by their current age:
2015 SIGNED OPTIONS NAME TEAM AGE THROUGH THROUGH ================================================ Chase Utley PHI 36 36 39 Adam Wainwright STL 33 36 ---- Joe Mauer MIN 32 35 ---- Yadier Molina STL 32 34 35 Justin Verlander DET 32 36 37 Jered Weaver ANA 32 33 ---- David Wright NYM 32 37 ---- Ryan Braun MIL 31 36 37 Brett Gardner NYY 31 34 35 Alex Gordon KCR 31 31 32 Cole Hamels PHI 31 34 35 Dustin Pedroia BOS 31 37 ---- Joey Votto CIN 31 39 40 Matt Cain SFG 30 32 33 Troy Tulowitzki COL 30 35 36 Ryan Zimmerman WAS 30 34 35 Felix Hernandez SEA 29 33 34 Evan Longoria TAM 29 36 37 Andrew McCutchen PIT 28 30 31 Buster Posey SFG 28 34 ---- Clayton Kershaw LAD 27 30 32 IF NO OPT OUT Chris Sale CHW 26 28 30 Giancarlo Stanton MIA 25 37 38 Mike Trout ANA 23 28 ----
Recent changes to baseball’s CBA limiting how much teams can spend on draft picks and international signees has caused them to drive more money into long-term extensions. Still, there’s nothing that says that any of these players will remain with their teams. Just this winter, trade rumors swirl about Hamels and Tulo and Mauer has been subject to rumors in the past. Utley is, obviously, the smart money at this juncture, but baseball history is littered with guys who played for fifteen years or more with their first team only to spend their last season or two elsewhere. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, Eddie Plank, Harry Heilmann, Frank Thomas, Harmon Killebrew, John Smoltz, Dwight Evans, and Ron Santo to name a dozen.
Feel free to pin the list to your fridge and cross them off as time goes on….
One last question.
Is it ever a good idea for a team to make a big-bodied first baseman who has trouble hitting lefties and can’t field a lick an extension offer two years before free agency for mega-mondo bucks that will keep him in your team’s colors for the remainder of his career?
Ask Ruben Amaro, Jr. He’ll know.