Jigger Statz goes west

When Ichiro Suzuki got his 4,000th professional hit recently, it sent the baseball writers scurrying to the record books. In this case, the level of achievement is so elite, it makes research relatively easy. One of the bonuses of these benchmark achievements is the attention paid to old-timers who got there first. Sometimes a forgotten player is exhumed, and a history lesson ensues.

No surprise that at the 4,000-hit level, familiar names predominate. Only Ty Cobb (4,189) and Pete Rose (4,256) have passed that total in the major leagues. Adding minor league totals to major league totals, a few more familiar names appear on the list. Hank Aaron had 3,771 in the majors and 324 in the minors for a total of 4,095. Stan Musial barely made the cut with 3,630 in the majors and 371 in the minors for 4,001.

It’s a bit of a surprise to see Julio Franco, who had “just” 2,586 hits in major league baseball, on the list. Before he made the big leagues, however, he accrued 618 hits in the minors. Thanks to his rigorous conditioning program, he was able to extend his career in the Mexican and Japanese leagues and end up with a grand total of 4,229 hits.

The final name that appears on the list likely was an unfamiliar one to casual fans, but in the 1930s, Pacific Coast League fans were well acquainted with Jigger Statz—a great name for a ballplayer, by the way. As for his given name, Arnold Statz … well, with a moniker like that, one might make a crackerjack grocery clerk or shoe salesman. A good nickname makes all the difference.

Given the alcohol consumption of ballplayers in Statz’s day, one might assume that the name Jigger pertained to his tippling. Actually, it was a variation on Chigger, which apparently was bestowed on him during a family sojourn in Alabama.

Much like the little mites themselves, Statz was a pesky sort, at least in the batter’s box. Of the 4,093 hits he accrued as a pro, almost three out of four (3,038) were singles. Given that he was 5-foot-7 and weighed 150 pounds, that is hardly surprising. Out of that massive accrual of hits, only 77 were round-trippers.

Born on Oct. 20, 1987 in Waukegan, Ill., Statz played ball at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. (where Hall of Fame member Jesse Burkett was his coach). He won a couple of conference batting titles and was reported to be as proficient on the golf links as he was on the baseball field.

As a pro, Statz first surfaced at age 21 with the New York Giants in 1919. He was one of those rare players who broke into the majors without playing a day in the minors. This would prove to be ironic, as Statz holds the record for most seasons (18) played with one minor-league club (the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League).

In 1919 and 1920, Statz had the ultimate summer job for a college boy: he played with the Giants while completing his degree at Holy Cross. His rookie experience was just fine, as he hit an even .300 (18 for 60), but the sophomore jinx hit him hard, as he was just 4-for-33 with the Giants and Red Sox.

But Statz was only 22 and showed promise. Some minor league seasoning appeared to be in order, so the Red Sox sold him to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Though the plan was to get Statz some experience so he could work his way back to the big leagues—which he did—it also marked the beginning of a very long minor league career.

Statz didn’t appear to have much of a future during his first season in Los Angeles in 1920 (.236 in 101 games), but the next season was a big improvement (.310 in 153 games). The Angels had been purchased by William Wrigley Jr., who also owned the Chicago Cubs, so it was no surprise when Statz resurfaced in the major leagues with the Windy City north-siders in 1922.

Still only 24 years old, Statz hit .297 in 462 at-bats. The next year, he had his best big league season, playing in all 154 games, hitting .319, and even reaching double figures in home runs (10). This was hardly a Ruthian achievement, but it was the only time he reached double figures in homers in the majors. He also did so once in the minors, albeit while playing 182 games for the Angels in 1933.

His efforts in the field indicated Statz had good range and a strong arm, as he was among the NL leaders in the esoteric statistic of center fielders who participate in double plays. He was tied for second with four in 1922, tied for first with seven in 1923, and tied for second with five in 1924.

As one might expect, this also placed him in good stead among NL center fielders in assists: he was tied for fifth with 16 in 1922, tied for second with 26 in 1923, and led the league with 22 in 1924.

Curiously, Statz was not a great base-stealer, though he did filch 29 in 1923.

Offensively and defensively, at age 25, Statz appears to have peaked as a big leaguer. In 1924, he tailed off to a .277 average, followed by .257 in 1925. So it was back to the minors. His .264 with the Angels that same season didn’t turn any heads, but in 1926 his .354 average (based on 291 hits in 823 at-bats!) earned him a ticket back to the big leagues, this time with the Brooklyn Robins.

In 130 games, he hit .274 in 507 at-bats. Not great, but neither was Brooklyn in those days (the team finished in sixth place with a 65-88 record in 1927), so Statz was asked back for another season.

In 1928, the Robins remained in sixth place but actually finished on the plus side of the ledger (77-76). A team on the rise doesn’t need a veteran on the way down, so Statz’s .234 average (40 for 171) made him expendable. At age 30, his major league career was over.

His cumulative big league average of .285 (737 for 2,585) was nothing to be ashamed of, but his slugging average was a mere .373. During the 1920s, slugging became fashionable, and a contact hitter who couldn’t hit for a high average (and set the table for the sluggers) was not in demand.

But Jigger Statz was not washed up. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald never met Jigger Statz, though he might have seen him play.

As was the case with many a 30-something veteran in those days, Statz returned to the minor leagues to finish out his career. There wasn’t any particular stigma attached to that career move. Better men than Statz had done the same.

Given major league salaries in those days, it would have been impossible for a player of Statz’s stature to salt away a pile of money. But the salary differential between the majors and the minors was nowhere close to what it is today, so the minor leagues represented an opportunity to continue playing baseball for a living.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in Statz’s career is that as the nation was on the cusp of the Great Depression, his job security was outstanding, though it’s certainly possible he might have taken a salary cut or two.

Returning to the Angels in 1929, Statz continued as a player through 1939 and as a player-manager from 1940 to 1942. Given his total of 18 seasons in the minors, and the fact that Pacific Coast League seasons were longer (he appeared in more than 180 games each season from 1931 through 1934), Statz had an opportunity to really pile up the base hits.

When Statz finally retired, 3,356 of his hits had come in the minors. Of that total, 707 had come before his major league career was over. So that means he racked up 2,649 hits after his major league career was over. I don’t know if anyone keeps track of that statistic, but if anyone has more than Statz, I’d be surprised.

It would be interesting to know if Statz had any more major league offers while he was playing in Los Angeles. Given his age, probably not, but if he did, he might not have bothered anyway, as the Pacific Coast League was something of a parallel universe in those days. Major league ball stopped at the Mississippi River, but baseball itself did not. Though geographically remote from the big time, the PCL was about as prestigious as minor league ball got in those days.

When Statz first played in Los Angeles in 1920, the city was a hotbed of boosterism, but the Chamber of Commerce wasn’t just blowing smoke. In those days—before traffic, before freeways, before smog, before graffiti—it really was something close to an urban paradise.

After spending all those winters in the northern tier of states, Southern California must have looked pretty darn good to Statz. Go back to Chicago? To Brooklyn? To Worcester? To Waukegan? No orange blossoms in those climes.

For all practical purposes, Statz was at home in Los Angeles. For one thing, he had married a local girl. As an avid golfer, the year-round possibilities for same in Southern California doubtless played a part in his decision to make his home there.

And let’s not forget the famous Los Angeles neighborhood of Hollywood. In 1929, Statz appeared in Fast Company, the first baseball film of the sound era. Statz appeared along with Irish Meusel, who had also retired from the majors and was now in the Pacific Coast League (Oakland in 1928, Sacramento in 1929). Statz and Meusel were chosen to play—what else?—themselves!

I’ve not seen the movie, but based on the early sound films I have seen, I’m guessing its value today would be as a curiosity piece. At the time, it was certainly an “A” production, as it was based on Elmer the Great, a Broadway play, written by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, and starring Walter Huston.

The film was directed by Edward A. Sutherland, a veteran silent movie director, who is best known today for his work with W.C. Fields. The script was augmented by a neophyte screenwriter named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, then only 20 years old and embarking on a four-decade-plus career as a screenwriter and director. A remake with Joe E. Brown as Elmer was released just four years later, using the same name as the play. Statz and Meusel did not reprise their roles.

If Statz’s fling with Hollywood was a one-shot deal, his tenure with the Angels was anything but. During the final 14 seasons of his career with them, he was a model of consistency. As a player (as opposed to a player-manager), he never hit less than .290 and had more than 200 hits in all but two seasons (1937 and 1939).

There was a slight drop-off, however, during the last three seasons (beginning in 1940) when he was player-manager. But when he assumed double duty, he was 42 years old!

When all was said and done, Statz’s grand total of hits for the Angels was 3,356, a Pacific Coast League record, to accompany his .315 batting average. He also holds the PCL record for games (2,790), doubles (597), triples (136), and runs (1,996).

Had World War II not intervened, Statz might have been a wall-to-wall baseball man. After spending three years working for a manufacturer of military supplies, he returned to the Cubs, serving as West Coast scout for 25 years, as well as two years (1948-1949) managing the Visalia Cubs of the Class C California League. Fittingly, given his career longevity, he lived to the age of 90, passing away on March 16, 1988.

The nature of minor league ball today all but assures that Statz’s stats will not be surpassed. With the Pacific Coast League firmly enmeshed at the top of the food chain of major league affiliates, there is simply no way a player could hang around that long. With the annual flow of new players from the lower minors and the periodic demotions from the big club, the Triple-A player is in a holding pattern, waiting to move up to the majors or to return to Double-A.

Or one simply moves out … to the Atlantic League, the American Association, or some other independent minor league, where any player is welcome so long as he is productive—and willing to work for a fraction of his former salary.

Given his major league career, Jigger Statz’s likeness will never grace the halls of honor at Cooperstown. But he was good enough for the inaugural class of the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 1943, just one year after he retired.

Literally or figuratively, Statz was not in the same league as his cohorts in the 4,000-plus hits club. But his career was lengthy and distinctive, and for that, he deserves to be better known. Certainly, it’s hard to forget anyone, ballplayer or civilian, with a distinctive nickname like Jigger.

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Comments

  1. Englebert Pony said...

    Jigger had 466 stolen bases in his minor league career, and he led the PCL in 1931, 1935, and 1936. It’s a shame he didn’t reach the threshold for being a great base stealer, but perhaps he qualifies as above average for a 38-year-old.

  2. John Gearan said...

    For you Crusaders who like swapping stories in the Hot Stove League,  let me tell you the Legend of Two Jiggers, a baseball yarn guaranteed to take the chill off.
      The first Jigger is a Holy Cross Hall of Famer who now resides in Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles. The other Jigger, another terrific Holy Cross athlete, is buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Worcester. The dearly departed were brothers, both known in their rich lifetimes as Jigger Statz.
      Arnold “Jigger” Statz ’21, aptly interred in City of Angels, may be the most overlooked Crusader superstar ever. Indeed Jigger’s 4,093 base hits during his pro career aren’t even etched into his plaque that graces the HC’s Wall of Fame at the Hart Center.
      In 1917, Jesse “The Crab” Burkett, who resides in the baseball Hall of Fame, coached at Holy Cross and recruited Statz. In 1918, the Crusaders won the New England baseball title and the next season captured the Eastern Intercollegiate Championship as Statz, Rosy Ryan and their mates posted a 47-4-1 record during those two campaigns.
     
      “That old Angels’ centerfield who had a hole cut into the pocket of his glove could really catch the ball,’’ once recalled Ted Williams, who started his career in the Pacific Coast League.
      Statz, along with Joe DiMaggio, was voted to the Pacific Coast League All Century (1903-1955) team. With good reason. Now for the rest of the story…
      The other Jigger was born John Statz, in Worcester in 1915, the bookend brother as five Statz sisters were sandwiched in between the two Jiggers. Because he was 18 years younger than his well-known brother, John was quickly tagged with the nickname Jigger too.
      In his own fashion, John Jigger Statz ’37 became a star too. He played second base for Worcester’s North High and served a senior class president. “My dad played in his brother’s shadow. I think he decided to concentrate on golf so he could outdo his older brother at something. He was very competitive,’’ John’s son Bob Statz told me at the time of his dad’s death in 1998.
      At Holy Cross, his dad did become a golfing standout. A member of the Crusaders New England championship team of 1936, Statz was elected Captain of the 1937 team, which featured Crusader Hall of Famers’ Willie Turnesa ’38 and Gerry Anderson ’38.
      John idolized his only brother. Though separated by years and often 3,000 miles, the two Jiggers remained very close. John, a successful businessman with U.S. Steel, would talk much more about his brother than would about himself. He would recall his brother bringing him to games and letting him sit on the bench next to the game’s legends such as Giants manager John McGraw or play catch with the likes of Grove Cleveland Alexander.
      The two Jiggers lived interesting and rewarding lives. John and his wife of 58 years had three sons. Arnold and his wife had three daughters and a son. Both were very decent men, devout family men and always-proud Crusaders. And, lest we forget such trivia, Arnold had 4,093 base hits as a pro.

  3. Cliff Blau said...

    You can be pretty sure Statz didn’t get offers from any MLB teams after he went back to LA, since that would have been tampering.  The Angels might have gotten offers for him, but if an MLB team wanted him, they could have just drafted him.

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