Fox and the Doc

Getting voted into the Hall of Fame during one’s first year of eligibility is the ultimate tribute. Actually, getting named on 100 percent of the ballots would be the ultimate tribute, but no one’s ever done that (Tom Seaver came closest at 98.8 percent).

When a shoo-in is out (Pete Rose, Joe Jackson), it is due to extenuating circumstances. The steroid era has already given us two rejects (Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro), and others are sure to follow in the years ahead.

Generally, the most passionate Hall arguments concern players who aren’t in, but whose stats are comparable to those of players who are. In recent years, for example, Bert Blyleven, Jim Rice, and Andre Dawson were subject to the time-honored reasoning of “So-and-so is in the Hall and he’s done X, Y, and Z; my guy isn’t in the Hall, even though he has done X, Y, and Z.”

Sometimes a player on the cusp needs help. If the statistical arguments play themselves out without result, it’s time to try another strategy. Certainly, one of the most effective ways to get a marginal candidate enshrined is continual campaigning and refusing to take no for an answer. Friends in high places don’t hurt either.

For example, when Bill Terry and Frankie Frisch were on the Veterans Committee in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a number of good but not necessarily great players were named to the Hall. Rumors of cronyism tarnished the selections. The poster boy for these questionable selections was Freddie Lindstrom, who was inducted in 1976.

Lindstrom retired in 1936 with 1,747 hits, 103 home runs and 779 RBIs. Not bad for a 13-year career, but it didn’t reek of Cooperstown. The Baseball Writers of America obviously felt the same, as no more than 4.4 percent of them had ever voted for Lindstrom during his period of eligibility.

To be sure, there were players who didn’t make the cut who were worthy of attention from the Veterans Committee. A case in point was Nellie Fox.

Fox was a 19-year veteran, a contact-hitting second baseman, who finished with a.288 batting average and 2,663 hits. Named to the All-Star team every year from 1951 to 1961, he was the preeminent AL second baseman during the 1950′s (apologies to fans of Gil McDougald). When Rawlings started giving out Gold Glove awards in 1957, Fox was the first AL second baseman to receive one. He got two more in the next three seasons. Yet HOF voters were initially underwhelmed.

Fox retired at age 37 during the 1965 season, but he didn’t live long enough to enjoy his enshrinement. In fact, he didn’t even come close. Ten years after he retired, he died of lymphatic cancer, but his family and fans kept his memory alive and lobbied for his election. After Fox narrowly missed election in 1985, the last year of his eligibility via BBWAA voting, the lobbyists moved to the Veterans Committee. Fox finally made it to Cooperstown in 1997, 22 years after his passing.

Now I’m not saying that Fox doesn’t deserve a plaque in the hallowed halls, and I’m not saying that people shouldn’t mount campaigns to promote their favorite players. But there is an ironic twist to Fox’s enshrinement. Namely, his career statistics are remarkably similar to the man who mentored him, and that man is no closer to Cooperstown now than he was when his major league career ended in 1948. He did, however, outlive Fox, not passing till 1990 at the age of 85. The man in question is Roger Maxwell “Doc” Cramer.

A child of the Jersey Shore, Doc (the nickname derives from his tagging along on house calls with a local physician) Cramer graduated from Atlantic City High School and played semi-pro ball in South Jersey, where he was discovered by Cy Perkins, a reserve catcher with the Philadelphia A’s.

Cramer broke in with a bang, hitting .404 at Martinsburg in the Class D Blue State League in 1929. That was good enough to get him a cup of coffee with the A’s at the end of the season. He began the next year with Double-A Portland in the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .347 in 74 games. The A’s brought him up in mid-season and he was in the big leagues to stay, or at least until the end of his career. He played 65 games for AAA Buffalo in 1949 and two games for Triple-A Seattle in 1950 at age 44.

Aside from his minor league sojourns, Cramer spent 20 years in major league baseball (A’s, 1929-1935; Red Sox, 1936-1940; Senators, 1941; and Tigers, 1942-1948). At the conclusion of the 1948 season (part of which he spent as a coach), he had 2,705 hits. That achievement alone doesn’t mandate enshrinement, but it does get your attention. I don’t know that I would go so far as to describe a 20-year man with 2,705 hits as obscure, but I don’t think Doc Cramer resonates with contemporary seamheads, despite his longevity.

When his playing days were finally over, Cramer became a full-time coach for the White Sox (he was a former teammate and friend of Paul Richards, who had just been named the Sox manager) in 1951. He took an interest in a diminutive young player named Nellie Fox.

Cramer noticed that Fox was trying to pull the ball, and he just didn’t have the power to make that style worthwhile. So Cramer took the thin-handled bat out of Fox’s hands and introduced him to something closer to a bottle bat. As a result, Fox began to spray the ball all over the field, and a perennial All-Star was born.

Though from different generations, Cramer (born 1905) and Fox (born 1927) had remarkably similar offensive careers:

                           Cramer       Fox
Seasons                 20             19
Batting average     .296           .288
Hits                     2,705          2,663
On-base pct         .340            .348                    
Slugging              .375            .363
OPS                     .715            .711
Doubles                396             355
Triples                  109             112
Home runs             37                35
RBIs                     842             790
Runs                   1,357          1,279
Stolen bases            62               76
Strikeouts              345             216
Sacrifice hits          180             208

Both profiles paint a picture of a prolific contact hitter. Particularly notable was Fox’s record of one strikeout for every 48 plate appearances. Given that Cramer and Fox played “strength up the middle” positions (center field and second base, respectively), power-hitting was not a requirement. Surprisingly, neither man was a big stolen base threat, even though both typically batted at the top of the order.

Fox and Cramer are also joined at the hip in their Similarity Scores. This statistic is a Bill James innovation, and if you want to know what’s involved in compiling this score, there is an explanation on the Baseball-Reference web site. The end result is a list of players whose careers are comparable to the subject player. If you’ve never heard of Doc Cramer, you can look at the players he resembles and get some idea of the kind of player he was. In Cramer’s case, the top five in his Similarity Score are:

{exp:list_maker}1. Richie Ashburn
2. Nellie Fox
3. Harry Hooper
4. Max Carey
5. Lloyd Waner
{/exp:list_maker}
So Fox is not the closest match to Cramer, though he’s not far behind. More to the point, all five men listed are in Cooperstown.

This is not to say that Cramer should be there with them. For one thing, he has no batting titles on his resume. Seven times he led the American League in at bats, but only once did he finish first in hits.

Some baseball historians feel he padded his statistics by continuing to play during the World War II years when the talent level was minimal. In truth, at age 36 he hit only .273 for the Senators in 1941, the last pre-war season. This was his lowest average as a full-time player to that point in his career. Nevertheless, he played full-time for the Tigers for the duration. Certainly, there is a good chance he would not have been a regular player during this period, if he had remained in the major leagues at all.

Cramer capped off the World War II era by playing center field for the Tigers in the 1945 World Series. This is the Fall Classic which subsequently achieved renown as the last Series appearance for the Chicago Cubs.

To be sure, World War II World Series match-ups suffer the same stigma as the regular season games during the WWII years, but Cramer did lead the Tiger regulars in hitting (.379 based on 11 for 29) during the seven-game series. He scored seven runs and drove in four while batting in the number three slot.

Unlike most of the mature World War II era players, Cramer continued his playing career after the war, albeit in a part-time role. At age 41, he batted .294 in 204 at bats in 1946. True, the war might have enabled him to extend his career, but he wasn’t just taking up space. Admittedly, if you excise his record after 1941, he would have finished with less than 2,000 hits (but with a slightly higher batting average), and he would not be a realistic candidate for Cooperstown.

Speaking of Cooperstown, Cramer shares a rare achievement with several players in the Hall of Fame. That is getting six hits in one game—twice.

Much like pitching a no-hitter, getting six hits in one game is the sort of thing that a mediocre player can achieve on a day when everything is going his way and all the planets are in alignment. A cursory glance at the list of players who did it once reveals not just stars but a number of lesser names (e.g., Chone Figgins, Damion Easley, Kevin Reimer, Johnny Briggs, Jim Fridley, George Myatt) who will never have to worry about preparing an induction day speech for Cooperstown.

When you look at the list of modern-day ballplayers who have twice achieved six hits in one game, it soon becomes apparent that we are dealing with an elite crew.

Kirby Puckett, Jimmy Foxx, and Jim Bottomley are all in the Hall of Fame. Bottomley gets extra credit because in a Sept. 16, 1924 outing against the Dodgers, he garnered 12 RBIs, setting a major league record for RBIs in one game (since tied by another Cardinal, Mark Whiten, in 1993). Also, unlike Foxx and Puckett, he did not require extra innings to reach six hits.

Doc Cramer, while playing center field for the A’s, did it twice in two nine-inning contests, as follows:

1. Six singles against the White Sox at Comiskey Park on June 20, 1932. He only had one RBI, however, in the A’s 18-11 victory.

2. On July 13, 1935, he had five singles, one double, and 5 RBIs in an 18-5 rout of the Tigers at Shibe Park.

I mentioned earlier that Cramer is perhaps the most “obscure” modern-day MLB player with 2,700+ hits, but he is not the only one who is not in the Hall. We know why Rose and Palmeiro aren’t there, and Barry Bonds is hardly a lock. Biggio is a bona fide shoo-in, likely in his first year of eligibility in 2013.

But Harold Baines, Vada Pinson, Al Oliver, Rusty Staub, Bill Buckner, and Dave Parker are also on the outside looking in. And I have no doubt that we could take a close look at their careers and come up with reasons why they don’t belong in Cooperstown… which would just lead us back to the men who have been inducted and a round of “What’s so-and-so got that Baines (or Pinson, Oliver, Staub, Buckner, or Parker) doesn’t have?” arguments.

And that may be why Cramer is on the outs. He retired from the major leagues in 1948, and there just aren’t many people around who remember him any more, and hence no one to argue his merits. I’m sure the members of the Veterans Committee study the statistics carefully, but I’m also sure that it helps if they saw a candidate play in person.

Any way you look at it, Doc Cramer is not in bad company. He just isn’t in the Hall of Fame. But he does have a boulevard and a youth baseball tournament named after him in Manahawkin, N.J. At least that keeps his name alive.

To get your kisser on the wall in Cooperstown, you have to be a champion. It helps if you played for a champion. And it certainly helps if someone champions your cause.

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Comments

  1. Detroit Michael said...

    Thanks for the profile.  I had heard of Doc Cramer, but didn’t know much about him.

    Today’s advanced metrics don’t view his career very kindly.  Cramer’s career WAR is either 4 or 20, depending which version of WAR one prefers.

  2. Paul G. said...

    Outfielders with a career 87 OPS+ do not tend to get much Hall of Fame consideration, especially when the number is boosted by wartime play.  And it is never a good sign to compare an outfielder’s bat, even a center fielder, to a middle infielder.  Doc simply has no case.

    To go a bit further, look at the OPS+ and WAR of Doc and his top 5 similar players:

    Player OPS+/bWAR/fWAR
    Cramer 87/4.2/20.1
    Ashburn 111/60.2/67.7
    Fox 93/46.3/55.5
    Hooper 114/49.4/61.7
    Carey 108/51.1/66.1
    Waner 99/22.0/28.1

    The only player he really has anything in common with is Lloyd Waner.  That actually weakens his case as (1) Lloyd’s selection is generally considered a mistake and (2) Lloyd is still significantly better.

    I will point out that I do not agree with bWAR’s severe rating for Doc.  Cramer had an excellent defensive reputation and bWAR seems to think he was terrible.  He was a good player but highly overrated due to empty batting averages.  Actually, he might be the poster boy of the empty 300.  Value-wise he was a sort of a mirror universe Brandon Inge, assuming one of them grew some facial hair.

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    Cramer may have been a pretty good hitter when he came up.  He was having a fine year with the Athletics in 1932 until he broke his leg and missed the rest of the year.  He was never much good after that.  Of course, having his first year as a regular at 26 wasn’t suggestive of a HoF career.

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