This annotated week in baseball history: May 15-21, 1902by Richard Barbieri
May 19, 2011
On May 21, 1902 Earl Averill was born. Before his career was over, "The Earl of Snohomish” would be a six-time All-Star, a .318 lifetime hitter and earn election to the Hall of Fame. Richard looks back on his time in baseball and life outside it.
As of 2010, despite producing 15 players who have made a combined 54 All-Star teams, Washington state has produced just two Hall of Famers. One of these is Ryne Sandberg, a player whose distinguished career is recent enough to be well-remembered. The other is Earl Averill, who last played in 1941, long enough ago that even my father never saw him play. Averill, therefore, seems a logical candidate for my occasional series looking back at the career of Hall of Fame players.
Born in Snohomish—later the source of his outstanding nickname—Averill spent his childhood in Washington and later played semi-professional ball there before signing with the San Francisco Seals in 1926. In San Francisco, Averill was an instant success, batting .348 to lead a team that featured future Major Leaguers like Lloyd Waner and Dolph Camilli.
Averill stayed with the Seals two more seasons, hitting .324 and .354. The latter season was especially impressive. Playing the Pacific Coast League schedule—more than 180 games at the time—he recorded 270 hits, including 53 doubles and 36 home runs, and totaled more than 450 total bases.
Before the 1929 season, the Indians bought Averill’s contract. (He, therefore, missed, by a few seasons, playing with the San Francisco Seals’ most famous find, Joe DiMaggio.) But just as he had in San Francisco, Averill made a strong first impression with the Indians, batting .332 while ranking in the top ten in the American League in doubles, triples and home runs and manning center field to boot.
Thanks in no small part to Averill’s addition—the team’s starting outfielders in 1928 had hit a combined eight home runs, while he slugged a then-club record 18 the next season—the Indians jumped from seventh place to third in 1929. Averill took a small step back in 1930 but was about to enter his prime.
And it was an impressive prime. From 1931 through 1938, Averill averaged nearly 75 extra-base hits a season, including double-digits in all three types. He racked up more than 1500 hits while batting .320 and scored almost 1000 runs. Averill had probably his best season in 1934. He played in all 154 games that year and dotted the AL leader boards—top five in doubles, home runs, walks and runs, top ten in RBI, hits and WAR.
In 1936, he put up more good numbers, leading the league in hits and triples while batting a career-high .378. Unfortunately for Averill, he still lost the batting title by ten points, as Luke Appling hit .388 for the White Sox.
Speaking of unfortunate, that also describes many of Averill’s Indian teams.
|Kenny Lofton, nearly Averill's equal in CF for the Tribe. (Icon/SMI)|
He debuted, of course, at the tail end of the first Babe Ruth-led Yankee dynasty and played in his prime for a team that had little chance of surpassing any of the dominant teams of the era, whether the Philadelphia A’s during their brief reign over the American League in the early 30s, or the Yankees and Tigers who dueled for AL supremacy throughout the middle and late part of the decade.
For Averill’s entire career, the Indians were just a few steps behind teams of that quality, finishing either third, fourth or fifth in each of the ten full seasons he spent there. To some extent, the first division finishes mask how far back the Indians were; during Averill’s time they never finished closer than 12 games back of first and were 19 or more games back six times.
Though the Tribe could run out talented players like Averill at some positions—including Wes Ferrell on the mound—their efforts were too often undermined by mediocrities like Bill Knickerbocker and Roy Hughes.
Although Averill’s prime was impressive, like many players, its end was followed soon thereafter by the end of his career. After putting up a .965 OPS—with a .330 average—in 1938, Averill was hitting just .273 with fewer than ten extra-base hits when the Indians dealt him in mid-June to the Tigers as part of a deal for pitcher Harry Eisenstat, who had a 6.98 ERA at the time.
Moving to a new city did little to revive Averill’s bat; he would stay in Detroit through the end of the 1940 season and post just a 93 OPS+ in the Motor City. But it did give him a chance at finally seeing the postseason, as the Tigers won the American League in 1940. Averill batted only three times as the Tigers—who were leading 1-0 in Game Seven, needing just nine outs to secure the title—fell to Cincinnati.
After a brief but disastrous stay with the Boston Braves where Averill hit just .118 before being released, his career was over.
Averill’s career numbers do not jump out as impressive—he is on the top 100 all-time only in triples when it comes to meaningful offensive statistics—but it must be considered that he was likely a ready-for-the-majors player during the latter part of his Seals tenure. Averill also battled back problems his entire career; he would later have surgery to correct a lifelong issue related to the connection between his spine and tailbone.
Following his playing career, Averill, appropriate given his name, retired to Snohomish, where he ran several local businesses. He also helped to cultivate the career of his son, Earl Averill, Jr., who played seven major league seasons in the '50s and '60s. The younger Averill never reached the heights his father had, though he did win an MVP Award in the Pacific Coast League, dominating the league his father had years before.
Averill was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975 by the Veterans Committee. He is a somewhat questionable case but hardly disgraces the Hall with his presence. Averill died in 1983 at age 81, having lived to see both his Hall induction and the Indians retire his number three.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com