Great Platoons:  1914-1948

The concept is a very old one: alternating two players at a given position, one a lefthanded batter, the other a righthanded batter, on the basis of which arm the opposing team’s starting pitcher uses.

Platooning on this basis certainly wasn’t invented by Yankees manager Casey Stengel in the 1950s, though his liberal use and great success with the tactic was surely a leading factor in its blooming popularity in that period. Left-right platooning goes back to the early part of the 20th century, as outlined so well by Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract article, “A History of Platooning.”

Switch-hitting began as early as the 1870s, and, of course, where there is switch-hitting, there is a keen perception of the deep importance of the platoon advantage. By the 1900s, regular platoon arrangements began to appear in the major leagues, and by the 1910s the practice was quite common.

There are, of course, plenty of clever and sensible ways in which to alternate players beyond the strict left-right basis; Stengel in the 1950s, for example, brilliantly deployed multi-position platoon arrangements that took into account many factors beyond left-right. And regardless of their left-right focus, plenty of smart and successful platoon arrangements over the decades didn’t yield impressive offensive stats: Many good-field, little-hit types have been employed as platoon players.

But we’re going to keep it pretty simple here. What we’ll be exploring are more-or-less pure left-right platoon setups. Within those, we’re going to be giving the spotlight to the best hitters, regardless of their defensive and baserunning skills. We’re simply going to have some fun identifying those instances in which left-right platoon arrangements delivered the most robust offensive punch.

So, we’re going to concentrate on platoons that have most clearly met the following criteria:

- They must have been entirely or significantly structured upon the left-right-batting basis.

and

- Both platoon partners must have hit well, not just one or the other.

Something to remember as we proceed is this: Most pitchers are righthanded, usually by around two-thirds to one-third. So the signature aspect of the most strict left-right platoon partnership is that the lefthanded batter will get around twice as many plate appearances as the righthanded batter, give or take for particular circumstances.

Here we go!

1914 Boston Braves: Left field

The “Miracle Braves” were the sensation of baseball in 1914, thanks to their incredible second-half surge, and their stunning World Series sweep of Connie Mack’s heavily favored defending champion Athletics. Among the other features of those Braves was the significant degree of platooning presented by manager George Stallings, and it seems likely his prominent success with the tactic helped propel its growing popularity among managers.

In left field, then as now an offense-first position, Stallings got the biggest bang from his platooning buck: leveraging strong-hitting, defensively challenged journeyman Joe Connolly with obscure scrubeenie Ted Cather, and yielding abundant production.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Joe Connolly     L   120  399   64  122   28   10    9   65   49   36 .306 .393 .494   164
Ted Cather       R    50  145   19   43   11    2    0   27    7   28 .297 .338 .400   120
Total                     544   83  165   39   12    9   92   56   64 .303 .381 .469   155

1915-16-17 Boston Red Sox: First base

First base in that era was still not particularly an offense-first position, as for a variety of reasons the defensive challenge and importance of first base were greater than they would later become. In 1915 Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan engineered a platoon between journeymen Dick Hoblitzel and Del Gainer, and found splendid success with it. Their combined OPS+ of 131 out of the first base position in that period was enormously valuable, and the Red Sox won 101 games and the pennant.

Carrigan maintained the platoon the following season, and though the offensive production of both Hoblitzel and Gainer dropped, that level of production from first base wasn’t the major problem it would be today, and the Red Sox repeated as champions.

Jack Barry replaced Carrigan as manager in 1917, but he left the first base arrangement just as it had been, and the platoon duo responded with another terrific performance. The left-right platoon had now been demonstrated as a platform that could deliver strong performance over a multi-year span.

1915:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Dick Hoblitzel   L   124  399   54  113   15   12    2   61   38   26 .283 .351 .396   127
Del Gainer       R    82  200   30   59    5    8    1   29   21   31 .295 .371 .415   138
Total                     599   84  172   20   20    3   90   59   57 .287 .358 .402   131

1916:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Dick Hoblitzel   L   130  417   57  108   17    1    0   39   47   28 .259 .338 .305    93
Del Gainer       R    56  142   14   36    6    0    3   18   10   24 .254 .303 .359    99
Total                     559   71  144   23    1    3   57   57   52 .258 .330 .318    95

1917:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Dick Hoblitzel   L   120  420   49  108   19    7    1   47   46   22 .257 .336 .343   108
Del Gainer       R    52  172   28   53   10    2    2   19   15   21 .308 .374 .424   144
Total                     592   77  161   29    9    3   66   61   43 .272 .348 .367   121

1921 Cleveland Indians: Right field

Tris Speaker had played under Carrigan for several years in Boston, and now as player-manager for the Indians, Speaker was an ardent platooner at several positions. Here’s the one from which he got the most remarkable production.

Yes, that Joe Wood is “Smokey Joe,” his once-sensational pitching career cut short by arm trouble, and now forging a second career as a hard-hitting corner outfielder.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Elmer Smith      L   129  431   98  125   28    9   16   85   56   46 .290 .374 .508   121
Joe Wood         R    66  194   32   71   16    5    4   60   25   17 .366 .438 .562   151
Total                     625  130  196   44   14   20  145   81   63 .314 .396 .525   132

1921-22 New York Giants: Catcher

The great Giants manager John McGraw hadn’t been one of the earliest adopters of platooning, but by the 1920s he was among its more enthusiastic practitioners. This split of the catching duties wasn’t a full-fledged left-right platoon, as the righthanded-hitting Frank Snyder was getting most of the playing time. But Earl Smith was getting more plate appearances than he would have as just a normal backup catcher; it’s clear that “Oil” was getting the playing time against the toughest righthanders.

1921:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Frank Snyder     R   108  309   36   99   13    2    8   45   27   24 .320 .382 .453   120
Earl Smith       L    89  229   35   77    8    4   10   51   27    8 .336 .409 .537   148
Total                     538   71  176   21    6   18   96   54   32 .327 .394 .489   134

1922:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Frank Snyder     R   104  318   34  109   21    5    5   51   23   25 .343 .387 .487   123
Earl Smith       L    90  234   29   65   11    4    9   39   37   12 .278 .383 .474   119
Total                     552   63  174   32    9   14   90   60   37 .315 .385 .482   121

1922 New York Giants: Center field

Stengel plainly didn’t invent platooning: he was himself extensively platooned throughout his playing career, and here was paired up by McGraw with a productive partner in Bill Cunningham.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Casey Stengel    L    84  250   48   92    8   10    7   48   21   17 .368 .436 .564   155
Bill Cunningham  R    85  229   37   75   15    2    2   33    7    9 .328 .350 .437   101
Total                     479   85  167   23   12    9   81   28   26 .349 .401 .503   135

1921-22-23-24 Detroit Tigers: Catcher

The Tigers’ manager through these years was none other than Ty Cobb, and here he invoked an extraordinarily elegant platoon pairing: Bassler-Woodall remains the longest-lasting and most consistently productive left-right catcher platoon in history.

1921:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Bassler   L   119  388   37  119   18    5    0   56   58   16 .307 .401 .379   101
Larry Woodall    R    46   80   10   29    4    1    0   14    6    7 .363 .407 .438   116
Total                     468   47  148   22    6    0   70   64   23 .316 .402 .389   104

1922:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Bassler   L   121  372   41  120   14    0    0   41   62   12 .323 .422 .360   108
Larry Woodall    R    50  125   19   43    2    2    0   18    8   11 .344 .388 .392   106
Total                     497   60  163   16    2    0   59   70   23 .328 .415 .368   108

1923:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Bassler   L   135  383   45  114   12    3    0   49   76   13 .298 .414 .345   103
Larry Woodall    R    71  148   20   41   12    2    1   19   22    9 .277 .371 .405   106
Total                     531   65  155   24    5    1   68   98   22 .292 .403 .362   104

1924:

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Bassler   L   124  379   43  131   20    3    1   68   62   11 .346 .441 .422   125
Larry Woodall    R    67  165   23   51    9    2    0   25   21    5 .309 .387 .388   102
Total                     544   66  182   29    5    1   93   83   16 .335 .426 .412   119

1925 Philadelphia Athletics: Second base

Connie Mack didn’t do a lot of platooning, but he seems to have done so on a fairly regular basis with “Camera Eye” Bishop. Whether it was a function of Bishop not hitting lefthanders well, or just being the sort who needed periodic rest, Mack never played Bishop fulltime, always giving one or another righthanded hitter a meaningful role in Bishop’s support.

Mack deployed the versatile Jimmy Dykes as an infield supersub, in the lineup most days but without a regular position. The line we see for Dykes below shows his 1925 full-season stats prorated to the 58 games he played at second base. The combined OPS+ of 104 between Bishop and Dykes was then, as it would be now, quite good production from second base.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Max Bishop       L   105  368   66  103   18    4    4   27   87   37 .280 .420 .383    99
Jimmy Dykes      R    58  221   44   71   15    5    2   26   22   23 .323 .393 .471   112
Total                     589  110  174   33    9    6   53  109   60 .296 .411 .416   104

1925 Pittsburgh Pirates: First base

A modern player with quite a bit in common with George Grantham would be Todd Walker: A second baseman with such defensive limitations that he winds up playing quite a bit of first base, but swinging a sweet lefthanded bat wherever he plays. Here Grantham was paired by manager Bill McKechnie (who in his playing days had, tellingly, been a switch-hitter) with the veteran Stuffy McInnis. Together, they delivered a lot of value as the Pirates won the pennant.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
George Grantham  L   114  359   74  117   24    6    8   52   50   29 .326 .413 .493   124
Stuffy McInnis   R    59  155   19   57   10    4    0   24   17    1 .368 .437 .484   129
Total                     514   93  174   34   10    8   76   67   30 .339 .420 .490   126

1925 Philadelphia Phillies: Right field

Cy Williams was one of those guys who, it seemed, the older he got, the better hitter he became. Here he was 37, and no longer capable of full-time play, but quite capable of being a first-rate platoon partner.

It should be noted that the journeyman Johnny Mokan usually played left field, and Phillies manager Art Fletcher slid either George Harper or George Burns over to take Williams’ place in right.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Cy Williams      L   107  314   78  104   11    5   13   60   53   34 .331 .435 .522   135
Johnny Mokan     R    75  209   30   69   11    2    6   42   27    9 .330 .417 .488   122
Total                     523  108  173   22    7   19  102   80   43 .331 .428 .509   130

1928 St. Louis Cardinals: Right feld

Bill McKechnie was now managing the Cardinals, and here he continued the platooning tendency he’d demonstrated in Pittsburgh.

Harper was generally a platoon player throughout his career, and a very good-hitting one, a stocky little guy with outstanding power. Here McKechnie matched him with the rookie Wally Roettger, and coaxed near-career-best performance from both outfielders. “Deacon Bill” captured his second National League pennant.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
George Harper    L    99  272   41   83    8    2   17   58   51   15 .305 .418 .537   146
Wally Roettger   R    68  261   27   89   17    4    6   44   10   22 .341 .372 .506   126
Total                     533   68  172   25    6   23  102   61   37 .323 .398 .522   138

1930 St. Louis Cardinals: Left field/Right field

By 1930 McKechnie was gone from St. Louis, now managing the Braves. But new Cardinals manager Gabby Street outdid McKechnie in deploying a complex rotation among four guys between the corner outfield spots. Note that between them the lefthanded hitters George Watkins and George “Showboat” Fisher got most of the plate appearances. It obviously wasn’t a pure left-right arrangement, as Chick Hafey (who was a very fine player but never really an established regular; his Hall of Fame status is hysterically wrong) played a lot against righthanders, and the robust-hitting veteran Ray Blades was often kept in reserve even against lefties.

Note as well that even though this was the 1930 National League, the highest-scoring environment in the entire 20th century, the gaudy figures in the OPS+ column demonstrate that these fellows were delivering genuinely sensational offense. Rack up another pennant for GM Branch Rickey’s Cardinals.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Chick Hafey      R   120  446  108  150   39   12   26  107   46   51 .336 .407 .652   148
George Watkins   L   119  391   85  146   32    7   17   87   24   49 .373 .415 .621   143
Showboat Fisher  L    92  254   49   95   18    6    8   61   25   21 .374 .432 .587   140
Ray Blades       R    45  101   26   40    6    2    4   25   21   15 .396 .504 .614   165
Total/2                   596  134  216   48   14   28  140   58   68 .362 .426 .625   147

In the 1930s, the practice of platooning suddenly and dramatically declined. Exactly why this happened isn’t obvious, but two possibilities seem apparent.

The first was structural: As a cost-cutting measure in response to the Great Depression, the major league roster size was reduced in the early 1930s. A shorter bench necessarily inhibits the flexibility of managers to platoon. The second, obviously more speculative, is cultural: There might have been a backlash against the practice of platooning that had become so widespread in the 1920s.

In every era there has been a school of thought that asserts platooning isn’t really the “right” way to play the game; platooning has often been vaguely seen as fussy, overly complicated, rather effete. If a player can’t hit both righthanded and lefthanded pitching equally well, so goes this argument, then he shouldn’t be in the lineup anyway. It may be that the mindset among managers swung in the direction that platooning wasn’t respectable, and this fashion prevailed through most of the 1930s.

1931 St. Louis Cardinals: First base

These Cardinals instances may or may not have been left-right platoon situations. Both simply may have been cases of a young player gradually taking over for a veteran over the course of the season: the rookie Ripper Collins easing out the veteran star Jim Bottomley in 1931 …

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Jim Bottomley    L   108  382   73  133   34    5    9   75   34   34 .348 .403 .534   146
Ripper Collins   B    89  279   34   84   20   10    4   59   18   24 .301 .350 .487   119
Total                     661  107  217   54   15   13  134   52   58 .328 .383 .514   136

1936 St. Louis Cardinals: First base

… and the now-32-year-old Collins in turn passing the baton to the rookie Johnny Mize in ’36. On the other hand, the very fact that Collins was a switch-hitter is prima facie evidence that his team was acutely sensitive to the platoon advantage.

Player           B    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Mize      L    97  383   70  126   28    7   18   86   46   30 .329 .402 .577   161
Ripper Collins   B    61  241   42   71   13    3   11   42   42   26 .292 .399 .509   143
Total                     624  112  196   41   10   29  128   88   56 .315 .401 .551   154

But though platooning was almost absent through most of the 1930s, it gradually began to reappear.

Witness the two cases below. Neither was a pure left-right platoon, but they both included much of that element. And both became prominent, and rather controversial, situations.

At that time, the qualifying rule for each league’s batting average championship—a very big deal in those days—wasn’t based on a player’s times at bat, but on his having played in at least 100 games. The assumption was that any player in 100 games would amass at least 400 or so at-bats, and thus his batting average could be reasonably compared against those of the league’s regulars. That assumption clearly didn’t anticipate the frequent in-game substitutions associated with platoon arrangements.

1938 Washington Senators: Right field

Taffy Wright’s .350 average was the highest in his league among players in 100 or more games. But Wright, with 100 games exactly, barely qualified, and his pinch-hit-heavy usage had him falling far short of the number of plate appearances typical of batting champions.

The American League arbitrarily ruled that he didn’t deserve the batting crown. The league asserted that the qualifying rule was actually 400 at-bats, although, for reasons unexplained, the league had never actually, you know, said so. Until now. On this basis, the league awarded the title to Jimmie Foxx (who hit .349) instead.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
George Case      R   107  433   69  132   27    3    2   40   39   28 .305 .362 .395    95
Taffy Wright     L   100  263   37   92   18   10    2   36   13   17 .350 .389 .517   132
Total                     696  106  224   45   13    4   76   52   45 .322 .372 .441   112

1940 Pittsburgh Pirates: Third base

Debs Garms’ average was also the best in his league, with 358 at-bats. Having played in 103 games, Garms was declared his league’s champ, but in the wake of the Wright decision his status was seen as rather flimsy.

The Wright-Garms situations led both the American and National Leagues in 1944 to adopt a qualifying standard of 2.6 at-bats per team game (400 at-bats for a 154-game season; in 1957 it would be changed to 3.1 plate appearances, in reaction to the Bobby Avila-Ted Williams batting crown controversy of 1954). The leagues’ addressing of the issue recognized that teams could now be expected to deploy high-performing hitters in roles that would limit their times at bat to significantly fewer than those of a full-time regular—in other words, platoon roles. Though platooning had taken a siesta, it had reawakened, and was now being accommodated as part of the normal scene.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Debs Garms       L   103  358   76  127   23    7    5   57   23    6 .355 .395 .500   146
Lee Handley      R    98  302   50   85    7    4    1   19   27   16 .281 .340 .341    89
Total                     660  126  212   30   11    6   76   50   22 .321 .372 .427   126

1941 New York Yankees: Catcher

When I was a kid in the 1960s, Bill Dickey was petty much universally presented by the pundits as the greatest catcher in history. That was an egregious overrating, of course, but the recalibration in recent decades has tended to err too far in the opposite direction, and present Dickey as just a very good catcher. He was in fact a great player: by all accounts a fine defensive receiver, a highly productive hitter with very good power, and remarkably durable and consistent. Dickey was, in many respects, a very comparable talent to a modern Yankee who, oddly, seems quite underrated: Jorge Posada.

In Dickey’s later career, manager Joe McCarthy adroitly phased him out of his regular role by pairing him with righthanded-hitting catchers in platoon arrangements. In this season, partner Buddy Rosar hit nearly as well as Dickey.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Bill Dickey      L   109  348   35   99   15    5    7   71   45   17 .284 .371 .417   109
Buddy Rosar      R    67  209   25   60   17    2    1   36   22   10 .287 .355 .402   101
Total                     557   60  159   32    7    8  107   67   27 .285 .365 .411   106

1944 Chicago Cubs: Left field

While the shortages of World War II might have made platooning a problematic concept, the ’44 Cubs, at least, took the opportunity to leverage a couple of good-bit-limited talents. Outside of the war years, “Dim Dom” Dallessandro and Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff were colorful and popular longtime minor leaguers.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Dom Dallessandro L   117  381   53  116   19    4    8   74   61   29 .304 .400 .438   137
Lou Novikoff     R    71  139   15   39    4    2    3   19   10   11 .281 .329 .403   106
Total                     520   68  155   23    6   11   93   71   40 .298 .385 .429   131

1946 Boston Braves: Left field

In the immediate post-war period, many teams suddenly had a welcome problem on their hands: how best to accommodate a sudden surplus of equivalently talented players. Platooning was an obvious solution, and its prevalence mushroomed in the late 1940s.

Danny Litwhiler was an outstanding hitter, and had been a regular in the early part of the decade. But he didn’t provide much defense or speed, so a couple of National League teams made good use of him as a platoon player over the second half of his career.

(Despite his lackluster defensive reputation, Litwhiler was the first regular major league outfielder to record an errorless season, in 1942. Of course, in 1941, he’d led all major league outfielders in errors, with 15.)

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Bama Rowell      L    95  293   37   82   12    6    3   31   29   15 .280 .345 .392   108
Danny Litwhiler  R    79  247   29   72   12    2    8   38   19   23 .291 .347 .453   125
Total                     540   66  154   24    8   11   69   48   38 .285 .346 .420   116

1947 Boston Braves: First base

This one might be seen as something close to The Perfect Platoon. It was almost completely pure in its left-right two-thirds-to-one-third dimension, and matched two players of nearly equal ability, but entirely complementary skillsets: the patient, power-hitting rookie Earl Torgeson with the free-swinging, line-drive-hitting veteran Frank McCormick.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Earl Torgeson    L   128  399   73  112   20    6   16   78   82   59 .281 .403 .481   136
Frank McCormick  R    81  212   24   75   18    2    2   43   11    8 .354 .386 .486   132
Total                     611   97  187   38    8   18  121   93   67 .306 .398 .483   135

1947 St. Louis Cardinals: Right field

Like Litwhiler, Ron Northey came up with the Phillies in the early 1940s, and established himself as a fine-hitting regular corner outfielder. But Northey was sort of a lefthanded-hitting version of Litwhiler: His best position was batter’s box. So Northey as well spent several years delivering value as a platoon player, and eventually became deployed as a pure pinch-hitting specialist.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Ron Northey      L   110  311   52   91   19    3   15   63   48   29 .293 .391 .518   135
Joe Medwick      R    75  150   19   46   12    0    4   28   16   12 .307 .373 .467   118
Total                     461   71  137   31    3   19   91   64   41 .297 .385 .501   130

1948 New York Yankees: Left field

Please note that this is the season before Casey Stengel took over as Yankees manager. Here his predecessor Bucky Harris wasn’t deploying a pure left-right platoon, but that may be a function of the sore-backed Charlie Keller’s need for frequent time off at this stage of his career.

Player           B     G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS+
Johnny Lindell   R    88  309   58   98   17    2   13   55   35   50 .317 .387 .511   139
Charlie Keller   L    83  247   41   66   15    2    6   44   41   25 .267 .372 .417   110
Total                     556   99  164   32    4   19   99   76   75 .295 .380 .469   127

Next installment

We enter the 1950s, and platooning becomes far more pervasive than ever before.

Print Friendly
« Previous: Joe Crede’s back
Next: The Psychology of Fantasy GMs on Minor Leaguers »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *