As everyone knows, Bryce Harper is a free agent after the 2018 season. So is a guy named Manny Machado. They both entered the majors when they were 19, and they both turn 25 this season. At times, they’ve both had ups and downs, fits and starts, but for their careers, they’re within four games played of each other. As close as they are in games, Machado has produced 28.0 WAR compared to 26.1 for Harper. Though a relatively small one, it’s a lead nonetheless.
On Machado’s side, he has had a great glove. He also have a better health record than Harper. But I worry about Machado on a couple of levels. First, the glove appears to be in decline already. Second, as a young player to have such negative value on the bases makes me think he’s going to become a bat-only guy when he hits about 30. Third, he has awful GIDP numbers, losing seven runs in those situations. In combination with his questionable baserunning, his DP rate makes me worry a tiny bit about what’s in his future.
Machado may already have a bit of an old-player body. Only seven other guys were at least -5 on the bases and grounding into two in their first six years through age 24. One is Miguel Cabrera, which bodes well. And another is Joe Torre, but I suspect teams are hoping for more than a Torr-like career for Machado. The other five are Brian McCann, Jim Presley, Lance Parrish, Billy Butler, and Ken Reitz. That’s a much less positive group. Of course, when I narrow to such poor speed numbers through a young age, I’m doing a couple of things. First, I’m eliminating many of those who didn’t start as early as Machado. Second, I’m including somewhat older players who were really slow. But the list is the list, and it doesn’t make Machado look so great.
So for the first time, I’m a little worried for the 3B I rank 70th and Eric ranks 74th.
To better follow this series, check out how we rank players and the early posts in this series below.
Obviously, I’ve already got him over my personal line by all indications. I’d prefer he tacked on some more bulk to his resume, however. In 2018, Longoria escapes the anonymity of Tampa Bay, moving over to the Bay Area to see if the Buster Posey/Madison Bumgarner Giants have one last gasp in them. Four years ago, at age 28, Longoria appears to have made a conscious decision to swing a lot more often, especially on the first pitch. He suddenly went from about a 22% first-pitch swing rate to 30%. Consequently, he sees fewer and fewer deep counts, walks about half as often as he did five years ago, but still strikes out just as often. Scary thing is that his power seems to be dribbling away. Maybe that’s why he made that switch? Or maybe it results from it. Or maybe that’s what it’s like when you’re the only threatening hitter in your batting order? I guess we’ll find out this year. The Giants have more good hitters in their lineup than the Rays have recently. Perhaps a change of organizational philosophy and lineups will rejuvenate him. He’ll make it HoME, though.—Eric
Longoria is not yet a HoMEr for me, and Eric is right that he’s no longer the player he once was. But he’s a sort of metronome. He plays every day, and he’s put up 3.3-3.9 bWAR each of the last four seasons. My translations suggest a bit more of a decline though. Plus, he’s 32 now, and further decline may be coming quickly. Still, seasons of 3, 2, and 1 WAR get him past Sal Bando on my list. That means he’s very likely getting in. My call is that he’s a bit better than that. Let’s say he gets past Bando and McGraw but falls short of Tommy Leach at #20. Of course, I’ve been overrating Longoria most of this decade. Maybe I’m underrating him now?—Miller
I don’t know. I submit. Sadly, I think Wright does too. He was such a no-brainer Hall of Famer until injuries pretty much ended him in 2015. I still have a dream that he’ll come back, which I suspect he shares. It’s nice to dream. As far as the HoME, he’s going to fall short.—Miller
David Wright’s got to be done, right? By signing Todd Frazier this off-season, the Mets all but publicly acknowledged it. Wright leaves behind a career this close to the in/out line. Actually, he’d do a lot to improve the Hall of Fame’s standards at third base. For our little reliquary of greatness, he probably falls a tad short, but he’s in the gray zone.—Eric
This fella is perhaps the most interesting player on the list above. For me he’s #41, and even a decent campaign this year will shoot him up my list. Three WAR buys him 8 spots and ahead of Larry Gardner. Four WAR adds another four slots, tying him with Stan Hack. A five-WAR, All-Star level season would slide him between Toby Harrah and Bob Elliott for 28th place. Six WAR nudges him past Elliott. Donaldson’s put together 85% of a strong peak, and he needs to keep producing at a high rate and stay on the field more often if he’s going to make a serious run at the HoME. He’s really not that far off, but his age, his late start, and his injuries last year make his path very uncertain.—Eric
I like Donaldson more than Eric does at this point, which surprises us. But I’ve modified my position over the years to favor peak more than I once did (see our Machado rankings above). Donaldson, of course, is a perfect peak candidate, great on a per-game basis every year from 2013-2017. Last year, though, he was hurt. Guys who play their first full season when they’re 27 can’t afford to get hurt. Ever. I’m hoping for Donaldson; I’m not expecting any sort of real run toward the HoME though. Like Eric, I think a 6-win season shoots him up the rankings, into 27th place, just behind Ron Cey. One more after that means he’s pretty much in. Still, I’ll take the under.—Miller
Depends on whose wisdom. The wisdom of the ancients said that Pie Traynor was the best third baseman ever. We know now that’s not true or close to it. In analytical circles it’s no surprise that Traynor finishes nearer to forty than to the HoME, for those of a certain age, it may be shocking. By Sabrmetric wisdom, Tim Wallach’s high finish might raise eyebrows. He didn’t walk much, and folks really don’t think about him much thanks to a career spent mostly in French-speaking areas. But the power was strong, and the glove too. But by my own conventional wisdom, Ron Cey ranks as one of the most pleasant surprises of this whole exercise. He’s very, very close to electable, which I would never, ever have predicted when we started. If he hangs onto his game just one or two years longer, it’s a different story.—Eric
Do people think Ken Caminiti has a position even in the Hall of Very Good? I don’t think so. More than Caminiti, however, I think Toby Harrah had a career that would surprise a lot of people if they took a close look. And friends, this isn’t a DRA thing. Using that measure, Harrah looks worse than he does by my ratings. So why was he so valuable? First, he drew a ton of walks, 80+ on eight occasions. He could also run the bases like few others. Would you have guessed we was in the top two dozen from 1961-1990? I don’t think I would have. But he’s there. He’s even better in terms of walks, ranking 11th in unintentional passess. Only Pete Rose had more with fewer homers.—Miller
Curiously, I tend to be more interested in peak performance than Miller, but we appear to have swapped predilections with Stan Hack and Bill Bradley. The former’s career-oriented case plays better in my system than Bradley’s more peak-centered case. The latter of which plays up for Miller.—Eric
Shh, don’t tell Eric. I’ve tilted quite a bit toward peak myself.—Miller
Yes. In Stan Hack’s case, we suspect that once BBREF crunches its PBP numbers for the 1930s and early 1940s, the Cubbies third baseman will pick up 20 or 30 runs. His current baserunning value is depressed by his awful stolen base rates, but his advancement rates once on base are good. Even more so, as a somewhat quick, lefty hitter, he probably has a lot of hidden GIDP-avoidance value. The combination of these positive upgrades on his value could push him beyond Elliott and near to Cey in my rankings. Harlond Clift and Traynor, himself, might also gain.—Eric
Please join us a week from today when we share with you Honus Wagner and the next 19 shortstops.
Because they came so close but didn’t pull through last season, the 1948 and 1920 champs have the longest current drought in the game. Known as the Blues in 1901, the Bronchos in 1902, and the Naps from 1903 through 1914, the Indians are the only team, I believe, whose Rushmore all played the same position. And much to my surprise, they’re the third best team in AL history in winning percentage.
By WAR, the greatest Indian ever is Nap Lajoie. However, he played parts of eight years with AL and NL Philadelphia clubs. Second on the Indian list is Red Sox great Tris Speaker. And fourth is another who played for the Red Sox, Lou Boudreau. Stan Coveleski is fifth on the Indian list, but he played for the A’s, Sens, and Yanks. Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome also put up great numbers while in Cleveland, but they both played everywhere. Earl Averill held on with the Tigers and Braves, and Joe Sewell was a Yankee for three years.
Al Rosen is the best hitter in Indian history never to play elsewhere, posting 32.6 WAR over seven full seasons before retiring because of issues with his back and legs. He’s 23rd in Indian history in WAR, but that’s not enough. There were four Cleveland pitchers who topped him, making them the only team without a hitter on their Rushmore.
Bob Feller: Rapid Robert was a hit after joining the Indians at age 17 in 1936. If we replace the three seasons and the one partial season he missed due to WWII with the average of the two years before and the two full years after he left, he moves from 63.6 WAR to an insane 84.4 WAR. That would move him from a tie for 144th with Richie Ashburn and Billy Williams to 53rd, just ahead of Pedro Martinez and Ken Griffey. I’m not saying this would have happened, just giving an idea about what might have been.
Bob Lemon: With 48.8 WAR, Lemon is the sixth best Indian ever. Of course, less than 77% of Lemon’s value was on the mound. He was truly an excellent hitter, adding 0.6 WAR to 1.9 WAR every year from 1947-1956 at the plate. From 1948-1950 he averaged six homers and 22 ribbies with a .334 OBP. With just pitching value, there are only two years when he threw like an All-Star. He’s in the Hall, which is quite a surprise given that Hall voters must look at pitcher offense less than I do, and Lemon is only 117th all-time among pitchers, right between Frank Viola and Ron Guidry.
Mel Harder: Eleventh on the all-time Indian WAR chart, Harder was a better pitcher than Lemon, putting up 47.9 WAR on the mound but giving back 4.2 at the dish, for 43.7 total WAR. During his 1932-1935 peak, he trailed only Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean in WAR among hurlers. Expanding things to 1939, and only Lefty Grove also gets past him. We’re looking at a star here.
Addie Joss: With similar star power to Harder, Joss nevertheless is in the Hall. Tied with him on the Indian WAR list with 43.7, Joss and his 160 wins are in the Hall due to a 1.89 career ERA. Even though he played only nine seasons, the 1977 Board of Directors passes a special resolution to waive the ten-year rule for him. There was no good reason for that decision. BBREF neutralizes Joss’ career ERA at 2.88, still a fine number, but c’mon. Imagine 170 wins and a 2.88 ERA in the last fifty years. Such a pitcher would have no chance at the Hall. If he pitched in the run environment of, say, 2004, his ERA would be 3.75. Kevin Brown pitched around that time. He finished with 211 wins and a 3.28 ERA, and he hasn’t sniffed the inside of Cooperstown.
My Indian Rushmore
Nap Lajoie: Yes, he had a significant enough career with the A’s, but he’s Cleveland’s all-time leader in WAR, and he had nine of his ten best years by WAR with the Indians.
Lou Boudreau: I’m not going to hold his short period of time in Boston against him. Speaker played in Boston too, but he had quite a significant career there. Each of Boudreau’s ten best seasons were with Cleveland.
Kenny Lofton: I’m skipping a couple of guys on Cleveland’s all-time WAR list to get to him, namely Stan Coveleski and Bob Lemon. My favorite Lofton memory is how he ran the bases like a brilliant madman in the 1995 playoffs, tripling twice and stealing 11 bases in the ALCS and WS.
Tune in next week for a look at the Cincinnati Reds.
Sometimes I just like to play around with numbers. So what I did was look at my data at each position to see which players had the most MVP-level seasons (8 WAR), the most All-Star-level seasons (5 WAR), and the most seasons at the level of a starter (2 WAR), with my adjustments included, of course. I also wanted to see, pretty unscientifically, whose MVP-level seasons were most surprising. I don’t know that the lists below are necessarily telling of anything, but I do think they’re fun. Aside from the surprising seasons, my favorite numbers are the 2-WAR seasons. There are some players on those lists who can lay claim to being all-time greats even though we don’t necessarily think of them as such.
Best Above Above Rank 2nd 5th at Best Best Pos. C Darrell Porter 6.71 2.65 3.22 25 1B Norm Cash 9.00 3.83 5.07 30 2B Fred Pfeffer 8.30 2.97 4.70 34 3B Al Rosen 9.63 3.15 5.35 35 SS Rico Petrocelli 8.80 4.26 5.80 48 LF Tip O’Neill 8.10 2.97 5.63 57 CF Willie Wilson 9.33 2.60 5.39 26 RF Sammy Sosa 10.07 3.59 4.71 20
Okay, just looking at the numbers, I think we can eliminate Sosa (20), Porter (25), and Wilson (26) as too good historically for us to be so shocked that they had one season that would jump out as even greater. That leaves us with five guys. Among the remaining, Pfeffer is last in the difference between his best and second best seasons, and he’s also last in the difference between his best and fifth best seasons. He’s out too. And let’s dump O’Neill. He put up his season in the AA at a time, well over a century ago, when baseball wasn’t really the baseball we know today.
Let’s look at a chart with just our remaining three candidates.
Best Over Over Rank 2nd 5th at Best Best Pos. 1B Norm Cash 9.00 3.83 5.07 30 3B Al Rosen 9.63 3.15 5.35 35 SS Rico Petrocelli 8.80 4.26 5.80 48
You know what? It seems like a relatively clear call when we see these three players together, and that’s surprising to me. I went into this thinking it was a battle between Cash and Rosen. At their best, all were truly great. But when they weren’t at their best, both Cash and Rosen were better than Petrocelli.
The most frequently incredible players might have been our 8-WAR leaders, Ruth, Mays, and Speaker. We could call our 5-WAR leaders the most frequently great players – Cobb, Speaker, and Ruth. And the most frequently productive players were Anson, Bonds, and Cobb, our 2-WAR guys.
In an upset, the award for the most surprising MVP-level season goes to Rico Petrocelli, Red Sox shortstop from 1969.
Novelist George Eliot was once credited with saying, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” That’s why we write these obituaries. Let’s not forget these guys.
After each election, once we realize that there are certain players who will never receive our vote for the HoME, we pay tribute to them through these obituaries. To make our process going forward is a bit easier, we remove them from intellectual consideration, though not actual consideration. Their tribute is a brief write-up in this column along with a little trivia about their careers or lives.
There are 744 players on our list for HoME consideration. With fourteen elections complete, we’ve elected 81 and put to rest 227 others, as you’ll note by looking over our RIP category and reading below. We now have 436 players to consider for our remaining 128 spots in the HoME. In other words, we can elect a bit more than 29% of the remaining players we’re considering.
And after each election, I’ll offer the following chart to keep you apprised of our progress.
Year Carried New Considered Elected Obituaries Continuing to Over Nominees this Election Next Election 1966 94 26 120 7 26 87 1961 91 24 115 6 15 94 1956 92 32 124 7 26 91 1951 93 27 120 9 19 92 1946 94 26 120 8 19 93 1941 82 29 111 5 12 94 1936 75 29 104 8 14 82 1931 69 17 86 2 9 75 1926 71 25 96 9 18 69 1921 66 27 93 4 18 71 1916 53 31 84 5 13 66 1911 47 20 67 5 9 53 1906 33 28 61 3 11 47 1901 0 54 54 3 18 33
Dead in 1966
Only nine catchers ever participated in more All-Star games than Walker Cooper’s eight. More interesting about Cooper is that he was the first player ever to hit grand slams for five different teams. Sure, Dave Kingman and Dave Winfield have since matched that feat. All that means is you have a good trivia question to use to stump your friends. You’re welcome.
It’s kind of surprising that Lave Cross isn’t in the Hall of Fame. When he retired, he was fifth in hits and runs batted in and third in games and at-bats. As far as third basemen go, he has more putouts, assists, chances, and a higher fielding percentage than anyone at the time he hung ‘em up. Maybe voters failed to take notice because Cross moved around a lot. He played for nine different franchises, in only six different cities though. He suited up for the Philadelphia entry in the National League, American League, American Association, and the Players League. Fifth in hits among all players when he retired, he now stands sixth among 3B, behind Molitor, Brett, Boggs, Brooks, and Chipper. Not bad.
Known as “Swamp Fox” because he once tried to flood the Candlestick Park infield to slow Dodger runners, Alvin Dark was a 1950s National League shortstop who won the 1948 NL Rookie of the Year Award. He might have excelled as a person more than as a player, becoming the first person ever to win the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award for exhibiting Gehrig’s character on and off the field. Not that it’s so important, but at different times in his career, Dark was a teammate of Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, and Ernie Banks. And he managed Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield.
Was World War II important? Murry Dickson, a righty starter and winner of 160 games in the bigs, was drafted into the army in 1943. But since his Cardinals were in the World Series and Hitler, I suppose, just stopped killing, Dickson was given a special furlough so he could pitch. And pitch he did! Down 2-0 in the ninth inning of the all-important fifth game, Dickson entered with two on and only one out. He induced a harmless foul pop to the dangerous pitcher, Spud Chandler. He walked Frank Crosetti. And all poor Bud Metheny could do was ground to first. Dickson did it! He preserved the 2-0 deficit, which would become the final. Dickson didn’t pitch again, and the Cards lost. Luckily he got that furlough.
“Dom DiMaggio was a Boston Red Sox great who many baseball insiders argue should be in the Hall of Fame.” That’s a line from a YES Network article by Matt Hughes from May. I take no issue with Mr. Hughes himself, whose other work, no doubt, is outstanding. But I don’t think he should be allowed to make such unsupported generalizations. Who are these insiders? If you ask me, a guy who loves DiMaggio and owns an autographed ball of his on which I spent far too much, “The Little Professor” is about the 50th best center fielder in history. Conservatively, a person who wants that many center fielders in the Hall likely wants about 600 players in Cooperstown. Rick Rhoden is tied for #596 in career WAR. Congrats, Rick!
Quick, who drove in the most runs in baseball over the 14 seasons from 1946-1959. If you really thought about it, knowing that it was Stan Musial wouldn’t be such a tough get. Okay then. Who’s second? Somehow, it’s Del Ennis, a corner outfielder who spent most of his career with the Phillies. He hit 20 homers nine times and drove in 100 runs seven times, but he only made three All-Star teams. His one World Series appearance saw just two hits in 15 trips to the plate, as the Yankees swept Ennis and the Phillies in 1950.
Primarily a first baseman for five teams over fifteen years, Jack Fournier was a lefty hitting slugger who won a HR crown in 1924 and finished in the top five in his league five times. He was reputedly a terrible fielder, said to let in as many runs with his glove as he provided with his bat. As a hitter, think Jim Rice. As a fielder, think again about how we evaluate defensive statistics. Michael Humphreys, author of Wizardry, and inventor of Defensive Regression Analysis, finds Fournier to be about average. Perhaps the last two sentences say more about the election of Rice to the Hall than they do about Fournier.
Carl Furillo or “The Reading Rifle”, as he was sometimes known, played his entire career for the Dodgers, the first dozen years in Brooklyn and the last three in Los Angeles. He won the 1953 NL batting title and was a solid all-around player with a fine reputation. His career, however, didn’t end positively. He tore a calf muscle in 1960 and was released by the Dodgers. Because it was a baseball injury, he sued, saying the release wasn’t justified. The courts agreed and awarded Furillo $21,000.
George Kell is in the Hall of Fame, and you’re not. But it’s not like Kell has a much better claim to it. He belongs about as much as Bobby Bonilla does. He did make ten All-Star teams, which is nice. Career highlights include winning the 1949 AL batting title so Ted Williams couldn’t win his third triple crown, having his jaw broken by a Joe DiMaggio line drive, and working more than 30 years as a Tiger television broadcaster.
Open heart surgery is sort of common today. For those unfamiliar with the term “open”, well, it actually means that the chest is cut open. That’s what happened to relief great Ellis Kinder in 1968. He died. Do you know why? Because it was 1968 and doctors cut open his chest. Yikes! Not quite as scary, while pitching for the Red Sox in 1947, a seagull flew over Fenway Park and dropped a fish on Kinder. He still got the win, something he did 101 other times during his dozen years in the majors.
It was a fan who gave Tony Lazzeri his nickname, “Poosh ‘Em Up” encouraging the Yankee 2B to get a hit to advance the runners. Lazzeri is remembered for that nickname, for his role with the Murderers’ Row Yankees, and perhaps for his natural cycle, when he hit for the cycle in order. Other highlights include being named to the first All-Star team in 1933, driving in an American League record 11 runs in a 1936 game during which he became the first major leaguer with two grand slams in one game, hitting the second grand slam in World Series history later that year, and scoring the deciding run in the 1937 World Series.
Not to be confused with the already dead lefty pitcher Dutch Leonard, this Dutch Leonard threw from the other side and won 191 games in a career that stretched from 1933-1953. He threw a great knuckleball that allowed him to pitch in the majors until he was 44, but he twice led the AL in losses without ever topping 20 wins. Of note, he won the first game of the July 4, 1939 doubleheader after which Lou Gehrig delivered his famous speech.
Sal Maglie owned the plate when he was on the mound. The righty was known as “The Barber” because he didn’t mind throwing at batters who crowded at the plate. He only reached double figures in wins five times, most notably when he led the NL in ERA in 1950 and wins the next season. As a bit of trivia, he was the pitcher on the mound for the opponents when Don Larsen threw his World Series perfect game in 1956. Maglie gave up five hits that day, including a solo home run to Mickey Mantle in the 2-0 loss.
1951 AL Rookie of the Year, Gil McDougald, is best remembered for hitting the line drive that struck Cleveland pitcher Herb Score in the right eye during a 1957 game. Two years earlier, he was struck in the left ear by batting practice liner by teammate Bob Cerv. Score regained his sight, though he was never the same pitcher; McDougald eventually lost his hearing. He made five All-Star teams during his ten years in the majors, and he reached the World Series eight times. However, he hit just .237 in 215 trips to the plate. His career highlight may have been in Game 6 of the 1958 fall classic. In the tenth inning, McDougald homered against Warren Spahn to help provide the Yankee edge; they ended up winning the seventh game and their 18th World Series.
Don Newcombe won both the MVP and Cy Young Awards for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers. Because he also won the 1949 NL Rookie of the Year Award, he’s the only player in the game’s history to win each of those three trophies. In the post-season, Newk really struggled. In five World Series starts, he posted a record of 0-4 with an ERA of 8.59. After retiring, Newcombe went to Japan to play for the 1962 Chunichi Dragons – as a first baseman and outfielder who his .262 with 12 homers.
Bobo Newsom was one weird dude. He called nearly everyone, himself included, Bobo. Perhaps that’s why he played for Robins, Cubs, Browns, Senators, Red Sox, Browns, Tigers, Senators, Dodgers, Browns, Senators, A’s, Senators, Yankees, Giants, Senators, and A’s in that order. He and Jack Powell are the only two pitchers in MLB history with 200+ wins and even more losses. He never led the league in wins, though he won 20 or more three times. However, he led the league in losses on four occasions, losing 20 three times.
Andy Pafko had a fine career playing all three outfield positions as well as third base. In 17 seasons, he made four All-Star teams and hit 213 homers. He was the left fielder who watched Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World fly over his head. And of note, his is the #1 baseball card in the first set produced by the Topps company in 1952.
A starting pitcher for the Red Sox from 1947-1956, lefty Mel Parnell led the AL in wins and ERA in 1949. He won 123 games, but his greatest contribution to Red Sox lore was dubbing the right field pole in Fenway Park the “Pesky Pole” after weak-hitting shortstop Johnny Pesky homered around the pole to help Parnell to a win.
Phil Rizzuto was a career Yankee, an outstanding defender at shortstop, a seven-time World Series winner, and a colorful broadcaster who had a wonderfully effective Hall of Fame campaign that got him inducted. It shouldn’t have. He’s a reasonable comp for Dave Concepcion, I suppose, which says about all that’s necessary. He won the 1950 AL MVP and made five All-Star teams, but Hold Cow!, his selection makes the 1994 Veterans Committee look like a bunch of huckleberries.
Al Rosen played only ten seasons – and reached 50 at-bats only seven times – for the Indians from 1947-1956. During that time, he led the AL in both homers and ribbies twice. Were it not for Mickey Vernon’s .337 batting average in 1953, Rosen and his .336 mark would have won the triple crown. Rosen was hitting just .329 with three games left, but he shellacked Tiger pitching to the tune of 9-15 to make it close. His 10.1 WAR that season makes it one for the ages and make Rosen one of only nine AL hitters since 1950 to post as many as 10 WAR.
Bob Rush was a righty pitcher from 1948-1960, mostly for the Cubs. He won 127 games and made a pair of All-Star teams, but his most interesting contribution to baseball history came on the bases. On June 11, 1950, he and Brave starter Warren Spahn stole bases against each other. It was the only time in baseball history that happened other than May 3, 2004 when Jason Marquis and Greg Maddux did the same.
Vern Stephens could hit like very few shortstops ever, and he holds the record for RBI by a SS in a single season, 159 in 1949 for the Red Sox. Looking at our database of shortstops, only Nomar Garciaparra among those not in or going into the HoME had a higher career OPS+ than Vern’s 119. For the 30 years from 1941-1970, he trails only Ernie Banks and Pee Wee Reese in offensive WAR at his position.
Best known for the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, the home run against Ralph Branca that capped the amazing Giant comeback to beat the Dodgers for the 1951 NL pennant, Bobby Thomson, “The Staten Island Scot”, wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He homered 264 times in his 15-year career, made three All-Star teams, and led the NL in triples in 1952. In spite of never reaching even 5% of the vote, Thomson managed to remain on the Hall of Fame ballot for fourteen years.
The 1952 season was an odd one for Virgil Trucks, a righty who spent 17 years in the majors and won 177 games. That season Trucks pitched a pair of no-hitters for the Tigers. And he won only three other games. In fact, Trucks had a record of 3-0 with one no-decision when he pitched at least nine innings without allowing a run. When he allowed a run, he went 2-19. The Tigers repaid him the next season by helping him to win 20 games for the only time in his career.
The career of George Van Haltren spanned 17 seasons, from 1887-1903. He was in the Players League and the American Association, he played with the mound at two distances, and he was around for the formation of the American League, though he never played in it. He’s tied for fourth in outfield assists with Tom Brown, trailing only Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Jimmy Ryan.
Mickey Vernon had a fine bat, though he didn’t really have the power we think of from a 1B. In a 20-year career lasting from 1939-1960 and interrupted by military service, the sweet swinging lefty stroked 2495 hits to go with three doubles titles, a pair of batting titles, and seven All-Star games. No slouch at all in the field, Vernon holds the major record for participating in the most double plays – 2044.
That’s our death toll this election. Please visit our Honorees page to see the plaques of those who have made it into the HoME, and check back here after the 1966 election for more obituaries.
On Monday we saw how the Axis powers screwed entire generations of major leaguers. Today, we get down to cases. Who exactly got screwed, and in what ways?
One thing to know is that while many players saw battlefields, many also saw baseball fields. The branches each had numerous baseball teams. The squads boosted morale and built good will in foreign lands. Some teams were better than others, but in most cases there were smattering of minor leaguers, guys who had played ball in school, and once in a while a genuine big leaguer. Other than occasional special-event All-Star squads and special touring teams, these teams were probably not close to big league caliber.
And when they got back, players such as Joe DiMaggio were often underweight or malnourished, others like budding star Wally Judnich couldn’t find their stroke, and still others such as Dick Wakefield and Buddy Lewis found that baseball didn’t mean to them what it used to.
The effect on players who went into the service and their HoME-worthiness might be broadly classified in a few ways.
Barely affected the guy’s ability and HoME chances
This is Stan Musial or Ted Williams. Or Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, or Bob Feller.
Reduced the odds of election
Just as there’s a continuum between Williams and, say, Dickey, above, in this category there’s a continuum from the Hank Greenberg and Johnny Mizes on one hand and Phil Rizzutos or Bobby Doerrs on the other. With the Gordons and Enos Slaughters somewhere between. Greenberg and Mize are solid HoMErs, Rizzuto and Doerr probably slip to the wrong side of the in/out line, and Gordon and Slaughter might go either way.
Truncated what had the makings of a HoME career
Cecil Travis is the classic example here. Leading up to his induction into the service prior to the 1942 season, Travis, a shortstop, had reached his baseball peak. As a 27-year-old he hit .359 and led the 1941 AL in hits. He’d batted over .300 seven of eight full-time seasons. He had nearly 1,500 hits in just eight years and change. According to BBREF, his most comparable players through age 27 included Hall of Famers Billy Herman, Frankie Frisch, Joe Sewell, Eddie Collins, Robbie Alomar, Arky Vaughan, and Bobby Doerr. During the war, Travis played Army baseball for two years before seeing battle in Europe. Two toes frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge had to be amputated. He returned to the Senators full-time in 1946, found he had balance problems and that he had nothing left.
Stopped a HoME career before it started
God only knows. This is every 18 year old high-schooler who got drafted and never found a pro diamond and every young minor leaguer who got plucked from some Class-C farm team to become a Private First Class. (Not to mention every teenager who had to work to help his family instead of playing ball.)
Impacted the development of possibly HoME-worthy talent
This is, perhaps, the most interesting category. For these players military service came early in their MLB career or even just before it. That is, while they were still developing as players. It’s reps, countless, endless repetitions combined with good coaching that help players turn talent into runs and wins. And so the question isn’t only whether guys in this category suffered shortened careers in length, but also whether the break in their development cost them height at their peaks of performance.
Let’s look at five examples.
Hodges is famed as the player closest to gaining Hall of Fame membership without getting in. Someone has to be that guy. Could the War have cost him what he needed to make it? As a hot nineteen year-old hitting prospect without a position, he signed with the Dodgers as a college sophomore and played one game with Brooklyn in 1943. He spent 1944 and 1945, ages 20–21, in the service. In 1946 he was farmed to the Piedmont League and hit .278 and slugged .438 as a twenty-two year old. At age twenty-three in 1947 he finally stuck with the big league team but played only 28 games as Dem Bums’ backup catcher. To get his bat in the lineup, the Dodgers in 1948 transitioned him to first base as a 24 year old. Hodges hit only .249 while slugging .376. It was only in 1949, at age twenty-five, and with Branch Rickey’s infinite patience, that Hodges finally emerged as the offensive force he is known for being. The War appears to have affected Hodges in two ways: 1) making it difficult for the Dodgers to find him a position and 2) delaying his emergence as a hitter. Most guys aren’t Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. They need those age 20–21 seasons to learn how to hit good breaking balls and field their position. Hodges didn’t get those seasons.
He’s most famous for his homer against Ralph Branca, but “The Flying Scotsman” was a very good player. In wonder, could he have been great? As an eighteen year old in 1942, Thomson signed with the Giants after his June graduation, appearing in 34 games in the deep minor leagues. He flashed good power for an 18 year old but otherwise didn’t do much. Then he went to war for three years. He didn’t play any ball while in the service, but as he awaited discharge in the San Diego area in 1945, he got into some semi-pro action, played well, and the Giants noticed. As a twenty-two year old in 1946, the team promoted him all the way to the highest rung in its minor-league system, Jersey City of the International League. Thomson broke the club record for homers. He forced his way into the Giant’s lineup by September, hitting .315, slugging .537, and never looking back en route to 264 homers. Yet, even though he debuted at 22, missing three years of prime development time must have cost him dearly. He topped out as a 6 WAR player, but it seems like the skills and talent were there for much more.
Rosen’s road to the majors followed a similar trajectory to Thomson’s. He played half a year as an 18 year old then went into the service. When he got out in 1946, he tore up a minor league (.323 average, .600 slugging). Unfortunately for Rosen, the similarities to Thomson’s road to glory ended there. The Cleveland Indians had Ken Keltner at third base and chose to ignore Rosen’s subsequent similarly outstanding performances at higher and higher minor league levels. He finally got a full-time job in 1950 and was one of the AL’s best players for half a decade before a bad back did him in. The War’s primary effect on Rosen was not allowing him to showcase his talents and force the departure of Keltner more quickly. But also, while Rosen became an All-Star (and in 1953 had an all-time great year), it’s an open question whether “Flip” could have been even better with three years of development. Or whether he simply would have arrived more quickly.
Modern prospect watchers love to see guys who can hold their own at young ages against older competition. It’s usually a sign of transcendent talent. As an eighteen year old, Furillo was the youngest regular on a low minor league team and finished ninth in the league in average (.319) and fourth in slugging (.523). Everyone ahead of him was four to six years older. In 1941 as a nineteen year old in the Dodgers’ chain, he was again the league’s youngest regular, finishing twelfth in hitting (.313) and fifth in slugging (.490). Then in 1942, he was once again the youngest regular on his team, this time at the Dodger’s top affiliate, a much better league. One of only seven players twenty years old or younger, he struggled a bit against advanced competition but nonetheless hit for an average and a slugging percentage above the league’s average. Then came the War. When Furillo returned, he was a twenty-four year old and hit about as well compared to the National League as he had three years earlier against the International League. That’s saying something, positive, it’s true. But today, given what we know about the success of players who hold their own as the youngest in their leagues, we can see that his career is something of a disappointment. His best seasons were quite good, but they aren’t what we would have hoped for from a young player like him.
This guy was tough. After a year in an unaffiliated minor league as an eighteen year old, Bauer went into the service in 1942 as a Marine. First he contracted malaria on Guadalcanal—and he beat it. Then he merely won eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. His second Purple Heart came in 1945 from a shrapnel wound in his thigh that removed him from the field of battle permanently. In 1946, he got a tryout with the Yankees. Three strong minor-league seasons later, at age twenty-six, he was their right fielder. Bauer’s career doesn’t look like much, 1,400 hits, 164 homers, a 113 OPS+, 26.5 WAR, no seasons with 150 games played. But consider that he got started at an age when most players enter their peak seasons. Take those three injury and illness riddled war seasons away. Replace them with three years of coaching and development. Replace them with a body that never had to fight off a jungle-born disease or enemy shrapnel. And for that matter replace the loaded Yankees with an opportunity from some other team. See, Bauer in 1941 was owned by an unaffiliated team and his services would have been available to any bidder. Instead, after the war, his 1946 tryout with New York happened merely because he had been at a bar where a regional Yankee scout was having a drink. Had the opportunity he got been with a less loaded team, they may not have taken three years to make room for him. That’s how Hitler and Tojo screwed over Hank Bauer in three ways.
The question with these guys will never be whether they would have had HoME careers. We can’t answer that. In the end, however, even if they had an opportunity for normal careers, it’s all a numbers game. The HoME will likely have several fewer players from the World War II generations than other eras. Maybe one or all of these five players I’ve just mentioned would have plugged that gap. More likely it would have been Johnny Pesky, Rizzuto, Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, or any number of others. Or maybe it would have been Earl Torgeson, Sid Gordon, Roy Sievers, Barney McCosky, Wally Judnich, Sam Chapman, or a dozen other guys that no one remembers.
The point is that they got cheated out of better things on the ball field, and the baseball community got cheated out of seeing them strive for those things. So at this moment, during Veteran’s Day week, we remember them for contributions to a greater glory they didn’t ask for instead of whatever more minor glories we wish we could honor them for.