That (1927) was my last season. I knew it would be. So I just sat back on the bench and watched the Waners go to it. Boy, that’s the way for an old guy to pass the time of day. Watching two beautiful ballplayers like Paul and Lloyd starting out on what you just know are going to be real great careers.
– Heinie Groh, The Glory of Their Times
Fandom has several aspects. We can bask in seasonal glory—batting titles, Cy Youngs, winning 11 games in October—but I think we also want to watch players who’re making a mark on the game, creating a legacy. Unlikely heroes are fun, but we really want to see as much as possible of the guys our grandkids are going to ask us about. I wondered: Which team had the greatest concentration of legends? What’s the most significant lineup of all time?
One big caveat to start with: My unit of measurement here is plate appearances, as opposed to WAR or another value-based stat. The calculations were much easier, and I also think it’s actually the best way to quantify what I’m looking for; “impact on the game” feels at least as much a function of service time as value delivered. That said, as soon as I figure out how to get WAR integrated into my databases, I’ll probably run the numbers a second time.
For every team since 1871, I figured the lifetime plate appearances of the players on the roster and turned that into a weighted average, something like so:
Name PA for the '89 Isotopes Lifetime PA Former * latter A. Aaronson 400 8,000 3,200,000 Hans Moleman 200 6,000 1,200,000 Zukowski 100 4,000 400,000 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Team Totals 700 4,800,000
I then divided the index by the current year plate appearances (4,800,000 divided by 700) to derive a “Significance Score” for the team (in this case, 6,857).
I used this approach, instead of simply calculating lifetime plate appearances, to give some weight to playing time in the current year. The weighted average means that, for example, Cal Ripken and his 12,883 lifetime PA have virtually no effect on the total of the 1981 Orioles, because he only had a cup of coffee that year.
Now, Stargell Stars for anyone who thought this metric might need some normalization. Here’s a graph of every team and its Significance totals:
To paraphrase a purple dinosaur, Sally the scatterplot has two humps. There’s a general upward trend, presumably due to improved health and conditioning causing longer careers, but also a pronounced dip surrounding World War II, when the typical team was playing guys who couldn’t find the batter’s box with both hands and a flashlight.
I decided the best idea was to divide the sample into two halves, 1871-1945 and 1946-2010, and give leader boards for each. When I looked at these lists, I realized that a bunch of teams had “repeats” a slot or two below, which makes sense, given that rosters generally don’t turn over too quickly. It also means that Top 10 lists for the two historical eras comprise only six and four distinct teams respectively. Without further kerfuffle:
9. 1916 Tigers
87-67, third in AL
Hall-of-Famers: Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann
Cobb finished second to Tris Speaker in the batting race this year; if not for 1916 and the venomously disputed 1910 results, he’d have won every single batting title from 1907 to 1919.
6. 1889 White Stockings (Cubs)
67-65, third in NL
Hall-of-Famers: Cap Anson, Hugh Duffy
This team essentially played ball for a year and a half straight, due to Albert Spalding’s “globe-spanning goodwill tour,” and its 1889 record may indicate that the players’ tongues were hanging a bit.
5. 1940 Red Sox (1938 No. 8)
82-72, fourth in AL
Hall-of-Famers: Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams
A fairly unremarkable year for this bunch. However, Foxx’s last home run of the season was his 500th, a number which only Babe Ruth had reached previously.
3. 1933 Senators (1929 No. 4)
99-53, lost World Series
Hall-of-Famers: Joe Cronin, Goose Goslin, Heinie Manush, Sam Rice
This was the 26-year-old Cronin’s rookie year as manager, and just as “boy wonder” Bucky Harris had done in 1924, he piloted Washington to a World Series against the Giants, falling just short of a championship.
2. 1933 Yankees (1932 No. 7)
91-59, second in AL
Hall-of-Famers: Earle Combs, Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Babe Ruth, Joe Sewell
Murderer’s Row at last; there can’t be too many teams that ran six Hall-of-Famers out on the field every day.
1. 1900 Superbas (Dodgers) (1899 No. 10)
82-54, first in NL (won unofficial postseason series)
Hall-of-Famers: Hughie Jennings, Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley
The National League shrunk from 12 teams to 8 for the 1900 season, causing a glut of good players. Bill Dahlen should’ve gotten a plaque in Cooperstown years ago, and Jimmy Sheckard and Fielder Jones wouldn’t be embarrassments either.
5. 1982 Angels
93-69, lost ALCS
Hall-of-Famers: Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson
Reggie won the home run title in his first year with California, and there were three other former MVPs (Carew, Fred Lynn, and Don Baylor) rounding out the supporting cast.
3. 1996 Orioles (1998 No. 7)
88-74, lost ALCS
Hall-of-Famers: Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken
Murray came over midseason in a trade with the No. 1 team on this list; the O’s were bumped from the playoffs by the yin to Steve Bartman’s yang.
1. 1996 Indians (1997 No. 6, 1995 No. 10)
99-62, lost ALDS
Hall-of-Famers: Eddie Murray
A mind-boggling lineup; youngsters Brian Giles and Jeff Kent were on the bench. The amazing thing is, Omar Vizquel and Jim Thome are still accumulating significance today.
Astute readers might’ve noticed another feature of the scatterplot from earlier—teams on the ends of the timeline are much less significant, because their players have only one side of history on which to rack up playing time. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at prior and future PA totals, which will allow these teams on the margins to get in on the action (spoiler alert: The Cleveland Spiders weren’t always terrible). See you next time!