The best rookies of the ‘50sby Chad Dotson
November 01, 2013
Few decades are remembered with more romanticism than the 1950s. Marilyn Monroe. Sinatra reemerged, in the wee small hours. James Dean didn’t have a cause. Muddy Waters was the original Hoochie Coochie Man, and John Lee Hooker was Boogie Chillen. Captain Kangaroo. Hula hoops, Radio Flyers, Mr. Potato Head. Everyone got a bang out of Holden Caulfield. The Earth stood still.
It was an exciting time in Major League Baseball, as well. The league expanded westward. Bobby Thomson hit his memorable homer, and the Giants won the pennant (!). Next year finally came for Dem Bums. Don Larsen tossed a perfect game in the World Series.
The baseball world also saw debuts from a number of future Hall of Famers. Some all-time great hitters reached the big leagues, such as Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Billy Williams, and Harmon Killebrew, among others. Who can forget pitchers such as Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning?
Some of those players had very good rookie seasons. But none were quite good enough to be named in the latest installment of our continuing series: the best rookies of the 1950s.
Remember, we are talking about the best of all qualified rookies from the years 1950 to 1959. A quick note about the qualifications. The standards for determining who was a rookie have changed over the years; in fact, the term “rookie” wasn’t even defined until 1957. At that time, the requirements were that a player had to have fewer than 75 at-bats or 45 innings pitched in any previous season in order to qualify as a rookie. Currently, the standard is 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched, or 45 days on an active roster.
Since we’re talking about a shifting standard, I’ve made the executive decision to use the current “rookie” qualifications when preparing the top ten. Thus, at least a couple of players mentioned below didn’t qualify for the Rookie of the Year award under the standards that existed at the time; since they would have qualified under the current rules, I made them eligible for the unparalleled honor of being included in this list.
Okay, without further ado, just received from the home office in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, it’s the top ten rookies of the 1950s:
1. Frank Robinson, Reds (1956). Robinson debuted as a 20-year-old in 1956, and immediately set the National League ablaze. In his rookie season, Robinson hit .290/.379/.558 with 38 home runs (which tied a rookie record) and 83 RBI. He led the league in runs scored (122) and HBP (20). Robinson posted 6.5 wins above replacement, and was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year.
After that rookie campaign, Robinson put together an inner-circle Hall of Fame career. That came as a surprise to Reds owner Bill DeWitt, who traded Robinson to the Orioles a decade later, in exchange for Milt Pappas. DeWitt’s explanation: Robinson was “an old 30.” Maybe DeWitt was correct; Robinson only hit 262 more homers after leaving Cincinnati.
2. Al Rosen, Indians (1950). Rosen had appeared in parts of three seasons for Cleveland before emerging as a 26-year-old star in his first full campaign. In 1950, Rosen (who didn’t qualify as a rookie, but would have under existing standards) hit .287/.405/.543 with a league-leading 37 homers, 100 bases on balls, and 116 RBI.
As a rookie, Rosen compiled 5.8 WAR, which would be the second-highest total of his career, topped only by his remarkable 1953 season. That year, Rosen was the unanimous MVP after hitting .336/.422/.613 and leading the league in homers (43), RBI (145), runs scored (115), and adjusted OPS+ (180). Unfortunately, Rosen was out of baseball after three more seasons, retiring at age 32 because of a number of chronic injuries.
3. Herb Score, Indians (1955). The 22-year-old Score was named Rookie of the Year in 1955 after putting together a 16-10 season, with a 2.85 ERA, an adjusted ERA+ of 141, and 5.6 WAR. His strikeout total of 245 not only led the American League, but broke Grover Cleveland Alexander’s rookie record that had stood for 44 years.
Score followed that up with a 7.3 WAR, 20-9, 2.53 ERA season in which he struck out 263 hitters. The following spring, however, Score was struck in the eye by a Gil McDougald line drive (for what it’s worth, McDougald’s 1951 rookie season narrowly missed this top ten) . Upon his return, arm troubles set in, and Score was never the same. Truly one of the great “what might have been” stories in major league history.
4. Vada Pinson, Reds (1959). Often described as a deserving Hall of Fame candidate by wistful (and overly sentimental) Cincinnati fans, Pinson and Frank Robinson made quite the dynamic duo for seven seasons. In his rookie campaign, at age 20, Pinson hit .316/.317/.509 with 20 homers and 84 RBI (his 6.5 WAR matched Robinson’s rookie total). Pinson led the league in runs (131), doubles (47), and plate appearances (706).
He may not be a Hall of Famer, but his ten full seasons in Cincinnati (through age 29) were awfully good: .297/.341/.471, 185 homers, 335 doubles, 219 stolen bases, 47.8 WAR.
5. Minnie Minoso, Indians/White Sox (1951). Everyone’s favorite White Sox player (other than Ron Kittle, of course), Minoso actually began his rookie season as a Cleveland Indian. At the end of April, he was traded to Chicago as part of a three-team deal, and Minoso took off. When the dust settled on the campaign, Minoso had hit .326/.422/.500 with 10 homers, 76 RBI and 5.5 wins above replacement. He led the American League in triples (14), HBP (20), and stolen bases (31).
We all know about the Bill Veeck-inspired publicity stunts that brought Minoso back to the majors for abbreviated stints in 1976 and 1980. Still unexplained after all these years, however, is why Minoso would have preferred “Minnie” to his given name: Saturnino Orestes Armas (Arrieta) Minoso.
6. Harvey Haddix, Cardinals (1953). I’ve had Haddix as high as #3 on an earlier version of this list, but I keep dropping him because he was 27 years old as a rookie. Perhaps that’s unfair (Haddix had served in the military), but Haddix certainly had a brilliant debut season: 20-9, with 19 complete games, a 3.06 ERA, and a 139 ERA+, while leading the league in shutouts (6).
Haddix, of course, is remembered for having an exceptionally cool name (though not as cool as Minoso, I concede). Oh, and Haddix is remembered for something else, too. On May 26, 1959, while pitching for the Pirates, Haddix took a perfect game into the 13th inning against Milwaukee before losing. That’s the very definition of a “tough luck loss,” I’d say.
7. Walt Dropo, Red Sox (1950). The third consecutive super-cool name on this list, right? Dropo’s rookie season was largely an aberration, as he never again approached the same heights, but 1950 was special. Dropo hit .322/.378/.583 with 34 HR and a league-leading 144 RBI in just 136 games. (A beautiful RBI total, no doubt, but remember that the 1950 Sox had four guys with OBPs north of .400. Somewhere, Brandon Phillips is salivating.)
8. Willie Mays, Giants (1951). Mays didn’t make his major league debut until May 25, then promptly collected one hit in his first 26 at-bats. The 20-year-old Mays soon found his groove. He finished the season hitting .274/.356/.472 with 20 homers and 68 RBI in 121 games, and was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year.
No one knows what happened to Mays after that rookie season. One presumes he kept playing baseball, but I’ve never seen any breathless accounts of his career by adoring sportswriters.
9. Saul Rogovin, Tigers/White Sox (1951). Rogovin had appeared in five games for Detroit as a 27-year-old, permitting 15 runs and seven walks in 24 innings, when the Tigers placed him on waivers. Ultimately traded to the Chi Sox, Rogovin pitched beautifully the rest of the way. He finished with a 12-8 record, 17 complete games (in 22 starts for the Sox), a league-leading 2.78 ERA, and a 146 ERA+ (which also led the league). Rogovin’s career was pretty inconsequential after 1951, but wow, what a debut.
10. Joe Black, Dodgers (1952). The 1950s presented a difficult choice for the “honorary relief pitcher” spot on this top ten list. I almost went with Hoyt Wilhelm (1952; 159.1 innings, 15-3, 2.43 ERA,+, led league in games (71), ERA, ERA+, and winning percentage). But no, Hoyt fell just short.
Meet Joe Black. In 1952, Black was magnificent in 142.1 innings pitched. He won Rookie of the Year by going 15-4 with a 2.15 ERA, 15 saves, 171 ERA+ and 4.4 wins above replacement. Interestingly, though Black only started two games all season, he started Game 1 of the 1952 World Series, and picked up the victory, tossing a complete game.
More interesting: Black appeared in a 1991 episode of The Cosby Show.
So there you have it, the top ten rookie seasons of the fifties. A bunch of Rookie of the Year winners didn’t make the cut, including Harvey Kuenn, Tony Kubek, Sam Jethroe, Bill Virdon, and the immortal Wally Moon. Moon, of course, had a good rookie season, but an all-time great unibrow.
Two Hall of Famers that haven’t been mentioned yet merit special attention. Whitey Ford and Willie McCovey were brilliant as rookies, in abbreviated seasons. Ford (who very nearly made the top ten) only pitched in 20 games in 1950, making 12 starts. He went 9-1 with a 2.81 ERA, 153 ERA+ and seven complete games. He finished second to Walt Dropo in Rookie of the Year voting.
McCovey was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year, despite only playing in 52 games. He hit .354/.429/.656 in 1959 with 13 homers and 38 RBI. He went 4-4 with two triples in his first game (on July 30), and compiled a 22-game hitting streak in August. The next 21 years weren’t so bad, either.
For those of you who may have missed the earlier installments of this series, here the the top rookies of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Next up will be a decade I’ve been looking forward to examining: the 1940s.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can find him on Twitter as @dotsonc.