Eddie, Eddie, Eddie and the American League Walkathon

Eddie Yost was nicknamed “The Walking Man” during his career as a third baseman in the American League from 1944-62. Yost is widely remembered today as an excellent leadoff man by virtue of his extremely patient approach at the plate that yielded lots and lots of bases on balls, giving him an outstanding On-Base Percentage despite rarely achieving a good Batting Average. Here is Yost’s career batting line per 162 games:

  G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG
162  564  93  143  26   4  11   52  124  71   6 .254 .388 .371

What is less widely known today is that Yost wasn’t the only leadoff man of nearly exactly that type active in the American League in the late 1940s and early 1950s – in fact Yost wasn’t even the only one of that type who was an infielder, and with the first name of Eddie. Here’s the per-162-game record that shortstop-second baseman Eddie Lake put together while playing for the Red Sox and Tigers in 1943-49:

  G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG
162  538  92  127  22   2   8   41  114  59  11 .236 .369 .330

And here’s Eddie Joost per-162 as the Athletics’ shortstop from 1947-53:

  G   AB   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO  SB   BA  OBP  SLG
162  599 112  148  25   3  21   77  136  96   6 .248 .387 .406

Certainly, the Eddies were extreme examples of this type of low-average, high-OBP leadoff man. But their capacity to draw walks wasn’t nearly as unusual as it would have been in any other major league at any other time, because the American League of the late ’40s and early ’50s featured the most walk-laden mode of play in all of major league history. Here are the top eleven leagues in MLB history in terms of bases on balls per game:

Rank    Year   BB/Game
  1.   1949 AL   4.55
  2.   1950 AL   4.37
  3.   1948 AL   4.23
  4.   1956 AL   4.06
  5.   1938 AL   4.02
  6.   1951 AL   3.96
  7.   1936 AL   3.92
  8.   1955 AL   3.89
  9.   1937 AL   3.84
10T.   1947 AL   3.81
10T.   1941 AL   3.81

The highest BB/G ever occurring in the National League was 3.80, in 2000. In the 1947-56 period, when the AL was achieving seven of the top eleven BB/G rates, the NL never exceeded 3.67. For 1947 through 1956, American League walk rates exceeded those of the National League by an average of 15% per year.

The AL Walkathon of the late ’40s and early ’50s was remarkable, therefore, not only in its magnitude, but in its uniqueness: whatever was going on was a league-specific phenomenon. Whether viewing the extremely high walk rates as a crafty triumph (from a batters’ perspective) or a shameful failure (viewed from the pitchers’ mound), it wasn’t to be seen in the NL.

In the ten seasons of 1947 through 1956:

- An AL batter drew 140 or more walks 6 times
- An NL batter did this once

- An AL batter drew 120 or more walks 17 times
- An NL batter did this 6 times

- An AL batter drew 100 or more walks 39 times
- An NL batter did this 27 times

- An AL pitcher surrendered 140 or more walks 9 times
- An NL pitcher never did this

- An AL pitcher surrendered 120 or more walks 26 times
- An NL pitcher did this 7 times

- An AL pitcher surrendered 100 or more walks 79 times
- An NL pitcher did this 26 times

The 1949 Yankees were World Series champions, despite a pitching staff that surrendered 812 bases on balls, the second-most of any team in ML history (the most ever was 827 by the 1915 Philadelphia A’s). The ’49 Washington Senators gave up almost as many free passes, at 779, and the Senators’ staff only struck out 451 batters, giving them a ratio of 1.73 walks for every strikeout – the all-time record. The Philadelphia A’s that season – whose staff walked a mere 758 – featured five primary starting pitchers, each of whom walked at least 115 batters – no other team in ML history has ever had as many as four pitchers with as many as 100 walks allowed.

Meanwhile, in the 1949 National League, only one team surrendered as many as 600 walks, and only three pitchers in the entire league walked as many as 100 batters.

Let’s Stop This Before We Lose Control

So, most emphatically, nothing really close to the AL Walkathon of 1947-56 has ever happened before or since. The question is: just what the hell was going on there? Why did it come about, and why did it stop?

One might imagine that a phenomenon as stark and unusual as this would have stimulated significant inquiry and analysis, with lots of learned opinions presented in explanation. But it simply isn’t the case; the AL Walkathon remains rarely commented upon, and largely unexplained by baseball historians and analysts.

One might imagine that Bill James, particularly in his Historical Baseball Abstracts, would take on the issue and offer some stimulating research and insight – but he hasn’t. His treatment of the subject is presented in the chapter “The 1940s,” in the “How the Game Was Played” section on pp. 183-185 in the original 1985 edition, and with minimal revision on pp. 197-198 in the 2001 edition. Here is the gist of it, from the 2001 book:

The offensive philosophies of Babe Ruth, as espoused by Ted Williams, dominated the latter part of the decade: Get a pitch you can hit and uppercut. As batters declined to swing at any pitch the couldn’t hit into the seats, walks per game reached astonishing levels … [James then details the high walk totals of the 1949 Yankees' pitching staff, and then adds the factually incorrect statement that the 1950 Yankees' staff issued even more walks, when in truth the '50 team walked 104 batters fewer than in '49.]

The definitive player of the era was Pat Seerey, who in 1948 hit .231 with 102 strikeouts in 105 games, but also drew 90 walks and drove in 70 runs in 105 games. I could recite odd combinations like that for paragraphs, but instead I will recommend that you look up Eddie Joost, Eddie Lake, Eddie Stanky, and Ed Yost in a baseball encyclopedia. Multiply the result by Tom, Dick, and Harry, and you’ll get the idea.

Baseball boomed in the late forties, but this kind of baseball would drive a purist nuts – in fact after a while it would start to drive me nuts. Run production was high, but they were doing it all wrong. At its best, it was the baseball of the ticking bomb, the danger building up and up until somebody finally put one in the seats. At worst it was station-to-station baseball with the trains running late, baseball with no action except the few seconds of the long fly.

After 1950, home runs became even more plentiful but the walks became much more scarce. It is hard to say why. The strike zone was redefined in 1950, but the change went the other way. Perhaps what happened is that baseball moved from the Bob Feller generation of pitchers to the Robin Roberts generation – that is, toward a reliance on control pitchers, rather than on pitchers who lived by fire. A manager in 1949 could reasonably have said to himself, “Look, if these guys are going to stand there and wait for my pitcher to get himself in a hole and make a mistake, I’ll just go find some pitchers who aren’t afraid of the strike zone. If the hitters want to hit 0 and 2, we’ll let them.” Whatever, the basic trends both of this generation and the next were in line with those of the entire period beginning in 1920 and not ending until the late sixties – more home runs, more strikeouts, and lower batting averages

You won’t find a bigger Bill James fan than me, but I’ve always found this particular analysis to be disappointingly shallow, and really just not very fact-based. There are some interesting thoughts here, but overall James botches several key points:

- He misses entirely that the Walkathon was almost entirely an American League-only phenomenon; NL walk rates in the period were only slightly above historical averages.

- James’ choice of Pat Seerey as the emblematic player of the era is way off the mark. Seerey’s high-strikeout proclivity made him extremely unusual for the 1940s. The heart of the AL Walkathon took place without a corresponding increase in strikeouts; in both leagues strikeouts didn’t begin to ramp up until the mid-’50s.

- His assertion that the 1940s walk-heavy style of offense was home run-dependent is also just factually wrong. Home run rates in the AL in the late ’40s and early ’50s were no higher than they had been ten years earlier, and were distinctly lower than those of the NL: year after year in 1947-56, the AL hit 15-35% fewer homers, while drawing 5-25% more walks than the NL. James conflates the two leagues’ very differing modes to describe a style of offense that didn’t really exist in either place. The AL in its Walkathon years was distinctive for its very high OBP and fairly low home run rates.

- James properly brings up the curious issue of the change in the rule book strike zone following 1950 – the ML strike zone was officially decreased in size beginning in 1951 – but his flip comment that “after 1950 … the walks became much more scarce” isn’t very accurate: the AL Walkathon slowed from its frantic 1948-50 pace, but the AL walk rate remained historically very high through 1956. An actual MLB-wide dramatic reduction in walk rates did take place, but not until the late 1950s (and then it went into hyperspeed in 1963, when the rule book strike zone was restored to its pre-1951 larger dimensions).

James’ explanation of the phenomenon and its demise is wholly unsatisfactory. What are we left with instead as a better description of what the AL Walkathon was, and why it ended?

The Men in Blue

First off, the fact that walk rates were so disparate between the two leagues strongly suggests that there was some important factor impacting each league differently. To explain that I think we need to look beyond the rule book strike zone, and consider the de facto strike zone.

Today there’s a single unified MLB umpiring crew rotating between both leagues, but in those days this wasn’t the case at all. In the 1940s and 1950s each league not only had its own distinct crew of umps, but each league also had its own distinct protocol of home plate umpire equipment and technique. In the NL, home plate umps wore the chest protector buttoned inside the uniform jacket, while the AL chest protector was loosely strapped outside the umpire’s jacket, and held in front of the chest in the manner of a shield.

Moreover, the practice of AL umps was to position their head directly behind and above that of the catcher, while the NL technique was for the umpire to crouch a bit lower, and position his head over the catcher’s shoulder nearest to the batter, that is, over the catcher’s left shoulder for a right-handed batter, and over his right shoulder for a left-handed batter.

These formal differences may or may not have been instrumental in causing distinctly different modes of calling the strike zone; I think they could hardly help but have had some impact. But perhaps more importantly, they’re indicative of two distinct umpiring cultures, with distinct sets of ideas about how an umpire should best prepare to go about calling balls and strikes. With each league developing and sustaining a unique style of home plate umpiring, it’s highly likely that the leagues developed different de facto strike zones.

Each league’s stylistic norms probably waxed and waned over the years as different umpires came and went, and the evidence suggests that in the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the difference in umpiring style between the leagues was at one of its highest points, and among the differences was a more hitter-friendly zone prevailing in the American League – perhaps the most hitter-friendly de facto strike zone in MLB history. (This raises the issue that perhaps the phenomenal performance of Ted Williams needs to be considered in this light, and adjusted accordingly, even if only slightly – but so be it. If that’s where the evidence takes us, that’s where we must go.)

The Men at Bat

Second, I think the points James makes about prevailing approaches by both batters and pitchers are valid, but he has the details wrong. The distinctive approach by AL batters in the Walkathon years wasn’t the Ruth-Williams mode of waiting for the perfect pitch and then uppercutting it. Rather, it was much more the mode exemplified not only by the Eddies, but also by many other extremely-high OBP hitters such as Ferris Fain, Elmer Valo, Roy Cullenbine, Johnny Pesky, Gene Woodling, Floyd Baker, and Luke Appling: by and large, these hitters weren’t waiting the pitcher out in order to get a pitch they could hit out of the park – they were trying to work out a walk, for its own sake, trying simply to avoid an out and get on base.

As the home run actually did become more and more fashionable and prevalent across the decade of the 1950s, the predominant style of power hitters was not the patient Ruth/Williams/Mickey Mantle approach, but was instead the much more aggressive free-swinging mode prominently featured by such National Leaguers as Ted Kluszewski, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Hank Aaron, and exemplified toward the end of the decade increasingly by American Leaguers as well, such as Yogi Berra, Roy Sievers, Bill Skowron, Rocky Colavito, and Roger Maris.

The Men on the Mound

Finally, it’s undoubtedly true, as James suggests, that many AL teams had adopted an extraordinarily cautious, walk-tolerant philosophy of pitching in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and found hitters like the Eddies taking full advantage of it. I think it is the case that a more aggressive mode of challenging hitters eventually did take hold in the AL – the Feller style giving way to the Roberts style, as James puts it – but this change, championed by the very successful and influential AL manager Paul Richards, took hold slowly, not nearly as the immediate reaction to 1949 events that James implies.

This meant that batters without much power, who still were just focusing on getting on base, found it less and less feasible after the mid-1950s to go looking for walks – increasingly, after the mid-1950s, the league’s best leadoff batters, such as Billy Goodman, Nellie Fox, Harvey Kuenn, and Pete Runnels, generally had to hit their way to first base.

The Payoff Pitch

The American League Walkathon was a unique event in history, something of a perfect storm of conditions, involving umpires, batting approaches, and pitching approaches never seen before or since. A particular mode of playing the game was pushed about as far in a particular direction as it could be pushed, and the system gradually corrected itself back to historical normality. Bill James misinterprets the specific events and their causes, but he correctly characterizes one effect: though fascinating to contemplate, this brand of baseball had to have been agonizingly slow and dull to watch. May we never see its like again.

References & Resources
THANK YOU to alert reader Dan Coomer, who provided the information that the team with the all-time most walks allowed was the 1915 A’s.

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