Blast From The Past: Wally Berger

Wally Berger was born on October 10, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois but grew up in San Francisco where he played sandlot baseball. In high school he played third base sharing the infield with future Hall of Fame shortstop and American League president Joe Cronin who manned second base. In 1927, Berger entered the professional ranks, signing a contract with Pocatello of the Utah-Idaho League and converted to the outfield. When he hit .385 and slugged .687 with 21 doubles, 8 triples and 24 home runs in 92 games (361 AB), he was brought back home to play for Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. In his 14 games that completed his ‘27 campaign, Berger added three more home runs to his total while batting .365 (.540 SLG) in 63 AB.

Berger continued to pound the ball for LA in 1928, batting .327 with 20 HR while slugging .529. He went off the charts the following year, scoring 170 runs, 249 hits, 41 doubles, 40 HR, 166 RBI while batting .335 (.565 SLG) in 744 AB. His heroics went for naught since his rights were owned by the Cubs who boasted an outfield of Riggs Stephenson, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler, all of whom were .300 hitters/100 RBI men (in 1930).

However on November 14, 1929, the Braves sent outfielder George Harper, pitcher Art Delaney, and cash to Los Angeles (PCL) for Berger.

It didn’t take long for Berger to make his presence felt. On May 1, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, he went deep in both in the 7th and 8th innings to lead the Braves to a 4–3 win over Larry French. At the end of August, he blasted a pair at the Polo Grounds in a 14-10 slugfest against the Giants and ripped three more in a doubleheader against the Reds on September 17th. Berger set the rookie record for round trippers with 38 on September 27th at Ebbets Field, which was tied by Frank Robinson in 1956 and later obliterated by Mark McGwire in 1987. Berger still holds the NL record (with Robinson) for home runs by a rookie. Other rookie kudos included a .310/.375/.614 line that included 27 doubles, 14 triples, and 119 RBI (137 adj OPS+; 34 RCAA).

Although he didn’t follow up his spectacular debut season with similar numbers, it would be unfair to characterize 1931 as a case of the sophomore jinx. Berger continued to pound the ball, but his distance was off. His home runs dropped by 17, but his doubles increased by the same total. The Braves’ phenom’s extra base hits only fell from 79 to 71, which partly accounted for his 100-point dip in his slugging percentage. However, Berger increased his batting average from .310 to .323. Interestingly, when you adjust for park and league averages, Berger actually had a more productive year, as his adj. OPS+ rose to 142, and he weighed in with 38 RCAA. Some highlights from 1931 include a record-tying four-assist game against the Phillies on April 27 and became the first player to clear the stadium wall at the Baker Bowl since 1922 on May 30.

After an unremarkable 1932 campaign, Berger finally received some recognition the following year when he was named to his first of four straight NL All-Star teams (three as the starting CF). When adjusting for league and park effects, 1933 was Berger’s finest year (adj OPS+ 172; 56 RCAA) despite leading the NL in strikeouts (77) and missing three weeks of the season due to illness. Berger posted a fine .312/.365/.566 record, belted 37 doubles, 8 triples, 27 HR (finishing second in the loop … and was half of the Braves’ total for the year) and enjoyed his second 100 RBI campaign (106). His efforts led the Braves to fourth place (their highest finish in years) and led to his finishing third in MVP voting behind Carl Hubbell and Chuck Klein.

It should be noted that 1933 was the year of the first All Star Game and, interestingly, when Babe Ruth was asked once again to make his annual selection of the game’s best, he named Berger as his centerfielder.

Berger continued to shine in 1934, and 1935 would prove to be the final year where he would be considered among the game’s elite. He enjoyed his second consecutive 34 HR seasons which lead the league and Berger’s 130 RBI — his third straight 100 RBI campaign and fourth (and final) overall — also topped the senior circuit’s leader board. Some highlights for Berger included a four-extra-base-hit game (1 HR, 2 2B, 1 3B) on August 11; denying Jesse Haines his 200th win (his 11th attempt at the milestone) on September 4 when he ripped his 30th dinger of the year off of reliever Bill Walker who came in for Haines; and a three double game on September 16th against the Pirates. Despite a sixth place finish for the Braves, Berger’s heroics earned him sixth place in MVP voting.

Things started to unravel for Berger in 1936. A shoulder injury slowed his bat and reduced his playing time. While in the lineup, he continued to be effective (.288/.361/.483; 25 HR). The following year he turned 31 and due to his age and injury, he was dealt to the New York Giants after 30 games for $35,000 and pitcher Frank Gabler. Although he got less than 200 AB Berger nevertheless went yard a dozen times while batting .291/.359/.548 helping the Giants to the NL flag. He saw only three AB in the Fall Classic as the Yankees rolled over the Giants in five games. After a terrible start to the 1938 season Berger was dealt to the Reds for Alex Kampouris on June 6th. The hospitable climes of Crosley Field were much to his liking as he batted .307/.356/.501 with 16 dingers in 99 games.

Reduced to a part time role, Berger nevertheless contributed 14 HR to the Reds successful pennant drive, yet was skunked in the World Series (0-for-15) as he was once again victimized by the Bronx Bombers. His major league career ended in 1940 — he was released by the Reds two games into the season, signed with the Phillies, played well (.317/.378/.439 in 20 games), but didn’t finish the season.

If you were to look at the bottom line of Berger’s career, you’d think that he was damned good ballplayer. He only had 5163 AB, was a lifetime .300 hitter with a solid .300/.359/.522 line. He ripped 299 doubles, 59 triples, and smashed 242 homers. However, calling him a “damned good ballplayer” would be selling him short. For the first six years (1930-35) of his career he was the best centerfielder in the National League:

     Name             RCAA    
1    Wally Berger      195   
2    Hack Wilson       100   
3    Len Koenecke       46   
4    Mel Ott            44   
5    Danny Taylor       42   
6    Chick Hafey        38   
7    Johnny Frederick   32   
8    Hank Leiber        29   
9    Kiki Cuyler        25   
T10  Ernie Orsatti       7   
T10  Johnny Moore        7

And the second best in major league baseball:

     Name             RCAA    
1    Earl Averill      224 
2    Wally Berger      195 
3    Hack Wilson       100 
4    Earle Combs        93 
5    Len Koenecke       46
6    Mel Ott            44   
7    Sammy West         43 
8    Danny Taylor       42
9    Carl Reynolds      39   
10   Chick Hafey        38

Other factors make Berger’s record over this span all the more impressive. One, during his entire time with the Braves, he had almost no “protection.” Pitchers could always pitch around Berger because there was never a long-ball threat hitting behind him. Only two other batters had seasons in which they reached double digits in home runs. His 105 home runs in Braves Field is best of all time, and only in recent years have some of his achievements been matched. In 1993, Mike Piazza became the first National League rookie to hit .300 with 100 RBI since Berger, and in 2001, Albert Pujols broke the NL rookie record for RBI that was set by Berger.

Wally Berger was on track for a Hall of Fame career before his injuries. Had he not been injured or even played his career on a contender, he would be likely had a plaque in Cooperstown. Berger certainly would’ve been an MVP once, or even twice in his career on a team that copped a pennant. Wally Berger is that rarest of beasts; he does not belong in the Hall of Fame yet he was too outstanding a player for the Hall of the Very Good. Unfortunately he belongs in the saddest of the memorials alongside men like Minnie Minoso, Pete Reiser, Cecil Travis and a few others … in the Hall of What Might Have Been.

(Message to Dan Szymborski: Here‘s the Berger you ordered back on April 20, 2005)

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