Leveling the 1930s Playing Field, Part 2:  The Careers

Last time, we introduced a methodology to re-cast the stat lines of players from 1931 through 1941, normalizing everyone away from the extremely different offensive conditions that prevailed between the American and National Leagues into a major-league-standardized environment. We looked at the leading performers for each season. This time, we’ll assess the performances of the top players over the period as a whole.

(The multipliers by which all these players’ stat lines have been adjusted are detailed in the References and Resources section at the bottom of this article.)

The Catchers

The 1930s boasted two of the catchers who have often been regarded as among the greatest of all time – Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey – and two others, Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi, who are generally considered authentic Hall of Famers, but a notch below the first pair. Given that Cochrane and Dickey were American Leaguers, and the latter pair were National Leaguers, let’s see if we can determine to what degree the reputations of these four are a function of league offensive environments.

Here are the top fifteen OPS seasons (minimum 400 PAs) achieved by any catcher in our adjusted 1931-41 era:

Year  Player            AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1937  Gabby Hartnett   359   51  129  23   7  14   89  49  19 .359 .436 .574  1.010
1936  Bill Dickey      420   91  150  24   7  20   98  40  16 .357 .413 .590  1.003
1935  Gabby Hartnett   414   70  143  33   6  13   95  49  45 .345 .414 .552   .966
1938  Ernie Lombardi   493   66  171  32   1  23  105  46  14 .347 .403 .554   .957
1931  Mickey Cochrane  457   81  158  30   6  16   83  52  21 .346 .412 .541   .954
1937  Bill Dickey      526   81  172  32   2  26  124  65  22 .328 .401 .543   .944
1938  Rudy York        460   77  135  26   2  28  116  81  73 .293 .399 .542   .941
1932  Spud Davis       402   47  135  23   5  15   75  48  40 .336 .407 .529   .935
1938  Bill Dickey      451   77  139  26   4  23  105  66  22 .308 .396 .536   .932
1933  Mickey Cochrane  426   93  135  28   4  13   54  88  21 .317 .434 .492   .926
1932  Mickey Cochrane  518  111  152  35   4  22  105  85  21 .294 .394 .503   .897
1933  Spud Davis       499   58  177  30   3  11   73  40  26 .354 .402 .492   .894
1936  Ernie Lombardi   390   46  132  25   2  14   75  22  16 .338 .374 .518   .891
1940  Ernie Lombardi   378   53  122  23   0  16   79  34  15 .322 .378 .511   .889
1939  Bill Dickey      478   91  143  23   3  22   97  70  36 .299 .388 .494   .882

Spud Davis was with the Phillies in ’32 and ’33, so his numbers need to be seen through the Baker Bowl filter, but clearly he could really hit. Rudy York was such a bad defensive catcher that despite this kind of hitting, the Tigers made him a backup the following season, until they could find room for him at first base by shifting Hank Greenberg to left field.

But the “big four” dominate the list: Dickey appears four times, Cochrane and Lombardi three times each, and Hartnett twice – but Hartnett claims two of the top three seasons.

I’m not sure this suggests that any change to the conventional wisdom is warranted, but it does make it clear that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between any of the “big four” in terms of peak offensive contribution. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a bit surprised here at just how good a hitter Hartnett was. (And Wrigley Field didn’t play as a particular hitters’ park in this era.)

The First Basemen

We’ve long understood that in all of baseball history, there’s never been a better era for first basemen than the 1930s. You’ve got the greatest of all time (Lou Gehrig), alongside two in the same league that aren’t all that far behind (Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg). How does this conventional wisdom stand up to our league-condition adjustments?

Let’s take a look at the top fifteen OPS seasons by first basemen in our 1931-41 era (minimum 475 PAs; for all positions other than catcher we’ll use 475 PAs):

Year  Player         AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1932  Jimmie Foxx   585  142  213  33   8  56  159   99   94 .364 .456 .734  1.191
1934  Lou Gehrig    580  123  211  39   6  48  158   93   31 .364 .452 .701  1.154
1939  Jimmie Foxx   464  120  165  30   9  32   97   81   71 .356 .452 .666  1.118
1936  Lou Gehrig    575  153  201  34   6  44  139  113   47 .349 .456 .661  1.117
1938  Jimmie Foxx   561  127  193  31   9  43  160  105   75 .344 .447 .660  1.106
1939  Johnny Mize   567  113  200  45  15  31  117  102   50 .353 .452 .651  1.103
1933  Jimmie Foxx   569  112  200  35   8  42  146   80   88 .351 .431 .661  1.092
1938  Johnny Mize   535   94  183  36  17  33  113   86   48 .342 .433 .653  1.087
1940  Johnny Mize   581  118  184  33  14  49  146   90   51 .317 .409 .676  1.085
1934  Jimmie Foxx   540  115  181  28   6  43  124   95   74 .336 .435 .648  1.083
1937  Dolf Camilli  478  109  164  25   8  31   86  103   81 .344 .460 .621  1.081
1931  Lou Gehrig    617  153  209  30  15  43  172  108   55 .338 .437 .643  1.080
1935  Jimmie Foxx   534  114  184  32   7  36  111   98  100 .345 .446 .630  1.076
1936  Dolf Camilli  533  117  170  31  15  32  112  137   82 .320 .459 .611  1.070
1937  Lou Gehrig    565  129  196  34   8  33  148  113   50 .347 .455 .612  1.067

Yep, that’s right. Greenberg has no season that makes the top fifteen (and his 1940 1.062 season as a left fielder, his career-best OPS by this reckoning, wouldn’t make it either). I didn’t see that coming, did you? Greenberg’s best season as a first baseman (1937, 1.055) comes in at seventeenth best in the era (Mize slips another one in there at number sixteen, with 1.059 in ’37).

Of course Gehrig has several peak seasons not captured in this time frame; he’s still number one. But he is a bit diminished; in this universe he winds up with 471 career homers, not 493.

Foxx comes across as amazing. But, spectacular though his peak remains, here he loses 35 career homers, leaving him with the unlucky total of 499.

And welcome to the pantheon, Johnny Mize. Sportsman’s Park was a good place to hit, but it was no Baker Bowl, and it was very comparable to Briggs Stadium as a hitters’ park. This exercise adds 23 homers to Mize’s career total, giving his war-shortened career a total of 382; Greenberg, meanwhile, loses 21, to drop down to a career mark of 310 (in an even more severely war-shortened career, of course). Just who was that third greatest first baseman from the 1930s again?

And: how about Dolf Camilli? Even factoring in Baker Bowl, that was some great hitting he was doing in 1936-37, as well as subsequently with the Dodgers, all the way through 1942. It’s awfully impressive to be rubbing OPS elbows over a several-year period with Gehrig, Foxx, Mize, and Greenberg.

The Second Basemen

Conventional wisdom holds that Charlie Gehringer was the second baseman of the era, with Billy Herman a distant second. How about we look at the top fifteen OPS seasons from second basemen in our 1931-41 era:

Year Player              AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
1934 Charlie Gehringer  603  128  216  49   7  11  122  85  25 .358 .437 .516 .953
1936 Charlie Gehringer  637  132  223  56  11  13  106  72  13 .350 .416 .534 .950
1937 Charlie Gehringer  560  124  205  37   1  12   89  80  25 .366 .445 .502 .947
1939 Charlie Gehringer  404   80  130  28   6  15   80  62  16 .322 .412 .527 .939
1937 Billy Herman       568  114  193  38  12   9   70  64  22 .340 .407 .497 .904
1935 Charlie Gehringer  609  118  200  31   7  19  104  68  16 .328 .396 .496 .892
1936 Billy Herman       636  111  215  62   8   6  103  70  29 .338 .404 .487 .891
1938 Buddy Myer         434   72  144  21   8   5   65  82  31 .331 .437 .451 .888
1935 Buddy Myer         615  111  214  35  10   5   96  82  40 .348 .425 .462 .887
1932 Tony Lazzeri       510   74  153  28  15  14  106  70  63 .300 .385 .498 .883
1935 Billy Herman       667  118  228  59   6   7   86  50  29 .342 .388 .482 .870
1938 Charlie Gehringer  564  121  170  30   5  17   98  98  21 .302 .405 .464 .869
1932 Charlie Gehringer  618  105  184  44  10  18  100  58  33 .298 .358 .491 .849
1940 Charlie Gehringer  513  102  159  31   3   9   76  93  16 .310 .416 .433 .849
1939 Billy Herman       626  121  194  35  20   8   76  73  31 .310 .382 .466 .848

Well, then. It looks like the CW has this one pretty much nailed.

What a tremendous player Gehringer was.

The Shortstops

Okay, let’s see … shortstops from the era who have made the Hall of Fame have been Joe Cronin (elected 1956), Luke Appling (1964), and Arky Vaughan (1985). Why don’t we take a look at how that rank ordering looks against our top fifteen list:

Year  Player         AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1935  Arky Vaughan  500  112  193  35  11  19  103  116  18 .386 .502 .615  1.116
1936  Arky Vaughan  572  134  194  32  13  10   86  140  21 .339 .469 .493   .961
1934  Arky Vaughan  557  120  185  42  11  12   98  113  38 .332 .445 .513   .957
1936  Luke Appling  522  102  200  29   6   5  117   74  25 .383 .459 .493   .953
1938  Joe Cronin    526   89  168  48   5  15   86   80  59 .320 .409 .513   .923
1938  Arky Vaughan  545   98  178  37   5   8   75  121  21 .327 .449 .460   .909
1933  Arky Vaughan  577   96  184  31  22  11  109   80  24 .319 .401 .504   .905
1941  Cecil Travis  604  100  214  37  16   6   96   49  25 .354 .402 .501   .903
1941  Joe Cronin    515   93  158  36   7  15   90   77  55 .307 .397 .488   .885
1937  Arky Vaughan  472   77  154  19  18   6   78   62  22 .327 .405 .480   .885
1939  Joe Cronin    517   90  157  32   3  17   99   79  47 .304 .397 .477   .874
1940  Arky Vaughan  596  120  180  42  17   8  101   96  26 .303 .400 .470   .869
1932  Joe Cronin    557   89  177  43  17   6  109   56  44 .318 .381 .487   .867
1931  Joe Cronin    609   96  185  43  13  11  118   75  51 .304 .380 .471   .851
1940  Joe Cronin    546   98  154  33   5  21  105   76  62 .282 .370 .480   .850

As another famous shortstop might say: Holy Cow! The Hall might have gotten the right three shortstops in, but they sure didn’t get them in the right order.

I know I’m far from the first person to say this, but Arky Vaughan is one of the most underrated players of all time. He was far and away the best shortstop of his era. He was pretty much the Joe Morgan of his day: true, he didn’t steal bases like Morgan, but then Morgan didn’t have the arm to play shortstop, either. Their overall profiles were remarkably similar: compact left-handed-hitting middle infielders with excellent speed, surprising power, and uncanny on-base ability.

Vaughan didn’t have a real long career; it pretty much stopped after age 31 due to the complications of World War II (though it appears he still had a lot of mileage left). Under circumstances more favorable to show him off, Vaughan would have become generally regarded as the all-time great he genuinely was.

The Third Basemen

This wasn’t much of an era for third basemen, probably because the practice still prevailed of deploying mostly good-field-no-hit types at the Hot Corner. The only Hall of Fame third baseman from this period is Pie Traynor, and he doesn’t really count, since he only played for a few years past 1930.

I’ve generally considered Harlond Clift to be the best of a lackluster bunch from the period. Let’s see what our top fifteen OPS exercise shows us:

Year  Player          AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1938  Mel Ott        531  129  168  24   6  43  129  137  48 .316 .456 .630  1.087
1938  Harlond Clift  531  108  152  24   7  29  108  104  66 .286 .402 .521   .923
1937  Harlond Clift  567   96  171  33   7  26  110   87  81 .302 .395 .520   .915
1936  Harlond Clift  573  133  171  37  10  18   67  100  69 .298 .402 .491   .893
1934  Mike Higgins   544   85  180  36   6  16   86   48  69 .331 .385 .506   .892
1933  Pepper Martin  603  138  193  39  14   9   64   83  49 .320 .403 .477   .879
1939  Red Rolfe      645  129  210  45   9  13   74   74  40 .325 .394 .483   .877
1938  Stan Hack      613  121  199  36  11   5   74  109  40 .325 .427 .444   .871
1941  Stan Hack      590  118  190  35   6   8   48  106  40 .322 .425 .440   .866
1935  Stan Hack      428   78  134  24  10   4   67   78  17 .313 .418 .442   .860
1934  Bill Werber    624  123  201  40  10  11   64   66  37 .323 .387 .471   .858
1936  Odell Hale     616  115  192  46  12  13   80   55  44 .312 .369 .486   .855
1939  Buddy Lewis    533   81  168  23  15   9   69   65  27 .316 .390 .464   .854
1936  Red Rolfe      564  106  177  36  13   9   64   59  39 .314 .379 .474   .853
1939  Ken Keltner    584   78  188  34  10  12   90   46  40 .322 .372 .476   .848

What’s that? What’s Mel Ott doing in there, you ask?

Well, Master Melvin did play regularly at third base that year – or in 113 games, anyway, which certainly qualifies him as his team’s regular. I don’t know what kind of a defensive third baseman Ott was, but this makes it clear that he sure hit a hell of a lot better than anybody else playing third in those days (or any other days, for that matter).

Clift is indeed the best of a rather motley crew, none of whom are in the Hall of Fame (besides Ott, obviously), and none of whom deserve to be. Clift himself had the first half of a Hall of Fame career, but that was it.

What a remarkably great player Mel Ott was. Don’t believe me? Read on …

The Right Fielders

Let’s give them a whirl:

Year  Player         AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO    BA   OBP   SLG    OPS
1931  Babe Ruth     532  139  197  30   3  43  153  118  50  .370  .484  .679  1.163
1932  Babe Ruth     457  113  156  13   5  39  129  111  61  .342  .470  .648  1.119
1936  Mel Ott       538  132  179  30   7  37  149  131  40  .332  .463  .621  1.085
1933  Chuck Klein   611  114  228  47   8  33  135   70  38  .373  .437  .638  1.075
1932  Chuck Klein   650  163  226  50  16  40  146   72  50  .348  .413  .657  1.070
1939  Mel Ott       398   92  124  23   2  30   87  111  51  .312  .462  .608  1.070
1932  Mel Ott       566  127  180  30   9  40  132  120  40  .318  .438  .612  1.049
1934  Mel Ott       581  125  189  29  10  36  141  102  43  .325  .426  .595  1.021
1939  Ted Williams  562  121  182  43  10  28  134   97  63  .324  .424  .587  1.010
1936  Paul Waner    589  118  222  57  10   6  104   88  28  .377  .458  .538   .996
1935  Mel Ott       594  118  192  34   6  31  119   98  57  .323  .419  .560   .980
1934  Paul Waner    597  128  215  33  16  14   94   82  24  .361  .438  .541   .979
1937  Mel Ott       548  107  163  31   2  35  103  117  68  .298  .421  .555   .977
1933  Babe Ruth     456   87  135  20   3  30   92   95  85  .296  .418  .546   .963
1932  Babe Herman   577   93  188  38  20  17   93   72  46  .326  .401  .549   .950

That’s right, The Splendid Splinter played right field his rookie year.

Chuck Klein was a legitimately tremendous hitter (who waited far too long to be elected to the Hall of Fame), but you do have to knock his stats down a peg or two for the Baker Bowl factor. And Ott, as we know, spent perhaps his best offensive year playing third base.

All things considered, the only better-hitting right fielder than Mel Ott in this era was Babe Ruth. And if the only better hitter than you is Babe Ruth, you might have to be considered a pretty fair hitter. (Ruth, incidentally, emerges here with 705 career homers rather than 714.)

Ott is the single player upon whom this exercise shines the most favorable light. His two particular strengths were hitting home runs and drawing walks, and those are the two things the National League, through the great heart of his career, most suppressed. This exercise credits him with 33 additional career homers and 162 additional career walks; had he actually hit the 544 homers (way ahead of the 499 that this exercise indicates for Jimmie Foxx, remember) and drawn the 1,870 walks (currently fifth on the all-time list, vaulting him ahead of Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, and Joe Morgan) that a neutral 1931-41 major league environment would suggest, Mel Ott would reside on most short lists of all-time greats.

In his day, Ott was hugely popular and very highly regarded, but it’s pretty clear that even then, few people really comprehended just how tremendous he truly was. He didn’t do nearly as well in MVP voting as he should have; I think it’s fair to conclude that the walks (as they so often are) were either taken for granted or overlooked entirely. And in recent decades, Ott’s 511 home runs have come to seem a less towering achievement than they once did (he was third all-time in homers when he retired), and in general he’s sort of receded into the background.

When Ott’s name does come up these days, he often seems to be dismissed as something of a Polo Grounds oddity, a beneficiary of a flood of cheap home runs: of his 511 career total, 323 were hit at home, by far the highest proportion of any great slugger. Clearly his pull-hitting swing was a great fit for his home ballpark. But I think this is a faulty premise upon which to dismiss Ott: while the Polo Grounds giveth home runs, it also significantly taketh away batting average (Ott hit .311 lifetime on the road versus .297 at home). Overall, the Polo Grounds was not a high scoring environment; Ott created tremendous offensive value over a long period of time. Hopefully this little exercise will help to give his reputation the some of the luster it deserves.

The Center Fielders

The Hall of Famers from this era are Joe DiMaggio (1955), Lloyd Waner (1967), and Earl Averill (1975). And, sort of Earle Combs (1970), who was a regular in 1931-33.

Here’s our top fifteen OPS list:

Year  Player         AB    R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1939  Joe DiMaggio  459  100  173  31   6  27  117  47  20 .377 .435 .647  1.083
1941  Joe DiMaggio  537  115  189  41   9  27  118  71  13 .352 .428 .616  1.044
1937  Joe DiMaggio  617  141  211  32  14  41  156  57  38 .342 .397 .638  1.036
1936  Earl Averill  609  124  227  36  13  25  115  56  36 .373 .426 .600  1.027
1940  Joe DiMaggio  506   88  177  27   8  28  125  56  29 .349 .414 .598  1.012
1941  Pete Reiser   540  124  188  41  21  16   81  49  71 .348 .402 .586   .989
1933  Wally Berger  532   95  169  40   9  32  120  51  82 .317 .377 .605   .982
1934  Earl Averill  599  123  188  47   6  30  108  85  44 .314 .399 .565   .964
1931  Mel Ott       499  112  147  24   8  31  123  88  45 .294 .400 .563   .963
1931  Earl Averill  625  131  207  35  10  30  134  63  37 .331 .392 .561   .953
1932  Earl Averill  631  109  198  37  13  31  116  64  39 .314 .377 .560   .937
1938  Earl Averill  479   92  156  26  14  12   85  71  47 .325 .412 .514   .927
1938  Joe DiMaggio  595  118  190  30  13  27  128  52  21 .319 .374 .551   .924
1935  Wally Berger  590   95  175  41   4  34  135  60  79 .296 .361 .554   .915
1931  Wally Berger  619  101  201  45   8  21   90  60  72 .325 .385 .524   .909

That’s right, Ott played mostly in center field in 1931. Did I mention what a great player he was?

Joltin’ Joe comes through this exercise looking pretty darn good, doesn’t he? So does Averill. It’s sure easy to see why everyone made such a fuss about Pete Reiser. And how about a little love for Wally Berger, putting up those numbers in a lousy hitters’ park.

Oh, by the way: Lloyd Waner’s best OPS in the 1931-41 period, as indicated by this exercise? .807, in 1932. “Little Poison” indeed.

The Left Fielders

The list of Hall of Fame left fielders from this era is long, but it requires a number of caveats: Al Simmons (1953), Hank Greenberg (1956), Heinie Manush (1964), Ted Williams (1966), Goose Goslin (1968), Joe Medwick (1968), Chick Hafey (1971), and Chuck Klein (1980). Of all these, only Greenberg, Medwick, and Klein were elected primarily for what they did between 1931 and 1941, and neither Greenberg nor Klein was primarily a left fielder.

Year  Player           ABl   R    H  2B  3B  HR  RBI   BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG    OPS
1941  Ted Williams    452  128  181  30   3  34  114  136  27 .401 .539 .700  1.240
1937  Joe Medwick     638  120  242  61  11  35  166   47  49 .379 .422 .676  1.097
1931  Al Simmons      511   98  198  36  13  20  120   43  44 .387 .435 .628  1.063
1940  Hank Greenberg  570  122  192  47   7  37  141   86  72 .337 .424 .638  1.062
1931  Chuck Klein     596  130  202  35  10  34  130   65  50 .339 .404 .601  1.005
1940  Ted Williams    558  126  190  41  13  20  106   88  52 .341 .431 .570  1.001
1936  Joe Medwick     641  127  228  69  15  20  152   40  32 .355 .393 .604   .998
1931  Chick Hafey     452  101  159  36   8  17  102   43  44 .352 .408 .582   .990
1932  Lefty O'Doul    595  128  219  32   9  22   96   60  20 .368 .426 .561   .987
1935  Joe Medwick     635  137  225  48  14  23  131   36  58 .354 .389 .583   .972
1939  Bob Johnson     541  107  181  29   8  21  106   90  58 .335 .430 .535   .965
1941  Charlie Keller  504   97  148  23   9  30  115   96  65 .294 .406 .551   .958
1938  Jeff Heath      498   95  168  29  17  18  102   29  54 .338 .374 .575   .949
1938  Joe Medwick     594  111  194  50   8  25  135   49  42 .327 .378 .566   .944
1931  Goose Goslin    589  107  192  41  10  22   98   74  40 .326 .401 .542   .943

There’s quite a bit of terrific hitting going on here, but no one really stands out as dominant over the breadth of the period. Forced to choose one, I would take Medwick.

He wasn’t able to sustain his peak production for a very long time, but this exercise dramatically illustrates that for a few years there, Joe Medwick was one astonishing hitter.

The Pitchers

The list of Hall of Fame pitchers from this era is quite lengthy. However, many of them, while they pitched some in the early ‘30s, are really in for what they did in the 1920s (leaving aside the question of how deserving they might be): Herb Pennock, Dazzy Vance, Burleigh Grimes, Waite Hoyt, and Jesse Haines. They really don’t register on the radar screen here. (Neither, very regrettably, does the guy who was very possibly the best pitcher of the era: Satchel Paige.)

Ted Lyons is an odd case. He was past his peak by 1931, yet pitched all through this era, and had some remarkable years in the late ‘30s/early ‘40s as a limited-workload “Sunday only” pitcher. But he was never a top ace in this period.

This leaves us with six Hall of Famers who had a good number of peak seasons in 1931-41: Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Red Ruffing, and Lefty Gomez.

There’s a stat I play around with to try and capture the combination of pitching effectiveness and durability: innings pitched minus earned runs. How about we take a look at the top fifteen adjusted 1931-41 seasons by these six Hall of Famers according to this stat:

Year Pitcher        G   IP   W   L  Sv    H   BB   SO  HR   ERA   H/9  BB/9   WH/9  SO/9 IP-ER
1933 Carl Hubbell  45  309  23  12   5  262   59  166   7  1.88  7.63  1.71   9.33  4.83   244
1940 Bob Feller    43  320  27  11   4  242  109  250  12  2.46  6.79  3.05   9.85  7.03   233
1941 Bob Feller    44  343  25  13   2  278  182  260  14  2.98  7.31  4.77  12.08  6.81   229
1934 Carl Hubbell  49  313  21  12   8  284   45  119  17  2.41  8.17  1.28   9.45  3.43   229
1931 Lefty Grove   41  289  31   4   5  246   57  171   9  1.93  7.67  1.78   9.45  5.33   227
1936 Cark Hubbell  42  304  26   6   3  270   67  121   8  2.55  8.01  2.00  10.00  3.57   218
1934 Dizzy Dean    50  312  30   7   7  286   90  197  14  2.78  8.26  2.61  10.87  5.69   215
1934 Lefty Gomez   38  282  26   5   1  225   82  156  12  2.23  7.17  2.62   9.80  4.99   212
1937 Lefty Gomez   34  278  21  11   0  228   83  197   9  2.17  7.38  2.67  10.05  6.38   211
1935 Dizzy Dean    50  325  28  12   5  326   92  188  16  3.17  9.01  2.55  11.56  5.20   211
1939 Bob Feller    39  297  24   9   1  223  129  242  12  2.64  6.77  3.92  10.69  7.35   210
1932 Lefty Grove   44  292  25  10   7  269   67  184  12  2.67  8.31  2.08  10.39  5.67   205
1932 Carl Hubbell  40  284  18  11   2  260   48  140  21  2.68  8.23  1.53   9.76  4.45   200
1935 Lefty Grove   35  273  20  12   1  268   56  122   6  2.60  8.82  1.84  10.66  4.04   194
1936 Dizzy Dean    51  315  24  13  11  316   63  191  24  3.50  9.04  1.79  10.83  5.47   193

Ruffing doesn’t make the top fifteen. In fact he doesn’t come close; his best performance was 177 in 1937.

Now let’s compare this list against the top 15 IP-ER adjusted 1931-41 performances by all pitchers other than Hubbell, Feller, Grove, Dean, or Gomez:

Year Pitcher          G   IP   W   L  Sv    H   BB   SO  HR   ERA   H/9  BB/9   WH/9  SO/9 IP-ER
1939 Bucky Walters   39  319  27  11   0  254  121  139  17  2.49  7.17  3.42  10.59  3.92   231
1941 Thornton Lee    35  300  22  11   1  253   86  130  16  2.24  7.59  2.59  10.18  3.89   225
1940 Bucky Walters   36  305  22  10   0  244  101  120  22  2.64  7.21  2.97  10.18  3.55   215
1933 Lon Warneke     36  287  18  13   1  268   93  141   9  2.27  8.39  2.93  11.32  4.32   215
1932 Alvin Crowder   50  327  26  13   1  319   66  101  16  3.13  8.79  1.81  10.60  2.77   213
1941 Whitlow Wyatt   38  288  22  10   1  228   88  176  11  2.48  7.11  2.75   9.86  5.51   209
1941 Bucky Walters   37  302  19  15   2  298   94  129  11  3.00  8.88  2.81  11.69  3.85   201
1935 Wes Ferrell     41  322  25  14   0  334   93  111  16  3.39  9.34  2.59  11.93  3.11   201
1932 Lon Warneke     35  277  22   6   0  247   77  109  13  2.53  8.02  2.51  10.52  3.53   199
1940 Claude Passeau  46  281  20  13   5  263   65  130   9  2.66  8.41  2.07  10.48  4.15   198
1938 Paul Derringer  41  307  21  14   3  322   57  134  24  3.25  9.45  1.67  11.12  3.94   196
1938 Bill Lee        44  291  22   9   2  287   86  123  22  2.95  8.89  2.66  11.55  3.81   196
1939 Paul Derringer  38  301  25   7   0  326   39  130  17  3.18  9.76  1.16  10.92  3.89   195
1933 Bump Hadley     45  317  15  20   3  302  118  141  15  3.51  8.59  3.34  11.92  3.99   193
1934 Van Mungo       45  315  18  16   3  298  125  186  15  3.53  8.51  3.58  12.09  5.32   191

Ruffing doesn’t even sniff this list either. So the first conclusion we can draw here is that if Red Ruffing hadn’t pitched for the Yankees, he almost certainly wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.

What else does this suggest … sorting on the IP-ER stat doesn’t show the 1930s Grove off to his best advantage, but he still comes out looking awfully impressive. Feller was amazing too, but I think that all things considered, Carl Hubbell was the greatest (white, at least) pitcher of the 1931-41 era. Grove, of course, has the better full career.

Of the non-Hall of Famers, Walters certainly had the best peak, but I’m inclined to say that given the shortness of that peak (and the wartime-padded stats that followed it), he’s appropriately not ensconced in Cooperstown. And the Hall of Fame case for Wes Ferrell doesn’t gain any ground from this exercise (sorry, Dick Thompson); I don’t see Ferrell as Hall-worthy on either peak or career grounds, purely on the basis of his pitching. The best case for Ferrell comes from his pitching-and-hitting total value package, but metrics that attempt to account for the whole player – WARP, or Win Shares – peg him as very impressive, but with only a few seasons as an elite player.

“What it All Means”

The issue we presented last April was this:

We may tend to see the best hitters of that time as being in the AL (Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, etc.), with the NL’s best hitters (Ott, Klein, Medwick, etc.) as not quite measuring up. Maybe the best hitters were American Leaguers, but a careful scoring-environment context assessment needs to be applied in order to be certain.

What light has this exercise shed upon it?

1. The very best hitters of the era were indeed all American Leaguers. No National Leaguer was as good a hitter through the breadth of the period as Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx, nor as good as Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were at its very beginning and end.

2. But National Leaguers Johnny Mize and Mel Ott, while not quite in the class of Gehrig, Foxx, Ruth, or Williams, were better hitters than anyone else in the A.L. at the time, including Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio. In addition, Arky Vaughan, Joe Medwick, Chuck Klein, and Dolf Camilli were extraordinarily good hitters, comfortably within the elite class of the era.

3. National League catching stars Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi may not have been the defensive equals of American Leaguers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey, but all four were very comparable in peak offensive value.

4. Charlie Gehringer was clearly the best hitting second baseman of the era. The only better-hitting middle infielder was Vaughan.

5. The very best pitchers of the era were equally distributed between the leagues. Carl Hubbell was probably the best overall pitcher through the particular 1931-41 seasons, but in those years the trio of Hubbell, Dizzy Dean, and Bucky Walters wasn’t meaningfully better or worse than the trio of Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, and Lefty Gomez.

6. Mize, Ott, and Vaughan tend to be severely underrated by most of us. Other stars from the era who tend to be overlooked and underappreciated include:

- Dolf Camilli
- Wally Berger
- Buddy Myer
- Stan Hack
- Bucky Walters
- Tommy Bridges

7. Less prominent players whom I discovered to be quite a bit better than I had realized:

- Ival Goodman
- Gus Suhr
- Mike Higgins
- Elbie Fletcher
- Johnny Allen
- Bump Hadley
- Alvin Crowder

8. Whether it sheds any light on anything at all, it was a whole lotta fun.

References & Resources
Here are the actual major league average per team/game rates for 1931-41:

Year     R      H    2B    3B    HR    BB    SO
1931  4.81   9.72  1.82  0.43  0.43  3.10  3.20
1932  4.91   9.78  1.86  0.43  0.55  3.06  3.19
1933  4.48   9.37  1.61  0.39  0.44  3.00  3.03
1934  4.91   9.80  1.76  0.36  0.55  3.21  3.45
1935  4.90   9.80  1.74  0.40  0.54  3.19  3.26
1936  5.19  10.04  1.81  0.40  0.55  3.40  3.33
1937  4.87   9.59  1.70  0.40  0.58  3.40  3.63
1938  4.89   9.52  1.65  0.38  0.60  3.53  3.41
1939  4.82   9.49  1.68  0.37  0.59  3.44  3.46
1940  4.68   9.31  1.66  0.38  0.64  3.34  3.66
1941  4.49   9.06  1.59  0.35  0.53  3.57  3.55

In order to adjust both leagues to these average rates for each season, each player’s stats were multiplied by the following factors:

American Leaguers

Year      R      H     2B     3B     HR     BB     SO
1931  0.936  0.989  0.971  0.994  0.928  0.920  0.978
1932  0.939  1.001  0.999  0.938  0.958  0.854  0.977
1933  0.896  0.979  0.936  0.880  0.872  0.833  0.944
1934  0.957  1.007  0.984  0.988  0.982  0.856  0.989
1935  0.962  0.995  0.959  0.935  0.994  0.857  1.012
1936  0.915  0.980  0.930  0.892  0.898  0.866  1.019
1937  0.932  0.980  0.923  0.929  0.891  0.887  1.016
1938  0.912  0.978  0.951  0.966  0.856  0.878  0.983
1939  0.926  0.984  0.981  0.919  0.907  0.909  0.985
1940  0.942  0.987  0.948  0.907  0.891  0.921  0.959
1941  0.946  0.980  0.958  0.853  0.907  0.937  0.998

National Leaguers

Year      R      H     2B     3B     HR     BB     SO
1931  1.074  1.012  1.031  1.006  1.084  1.095  1.024
1932  1.069  0.999  1.001  1.070  1.046  1.205  1.024
1933  1.129  1.022  1.072  1.155  1.169  1.245  1.063
1934  1.048  0.993  1.017  1.013  1.019  1.205  1.011
1935  1.041  1.005  1.044  1.073  1.006  1.198  0.989
1936  1.102  1.021  1.081  1.138  1.127  1.183  0.982
1937  1.080  1.021  1.092  1.084  1.141  1.147  0.984
1938  1.108  1.023  1.055  1.036  1.204  1.162  1.018
1939  1.086  1.017  1.019  1.097  1.114  1.111  1.015
1940  1.065  1.014  1.059  1.115  1.140  1.095  1.045
1941  1.060  1.020  1.046  1.208  1.115  1.072  1.002

And the adjustment of batters’ at-bats followed the same principle as we did here. An impact of a greater/lesser rate of hits is an increase/decrease in at-bats. Every batter’s at-bats were increased/decreased by his number of increased/decreased hits. Outs are constant, and I assumed as well a constant rate of double plays and other baserunning outs – probably not exactly proper assumptions, but close enough for our purposes.

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