This annotated week in baseball history: May 3-May 9, 1931by Richard Barbieri
May 08, 2009
On May 6, 1890, Walton Cruise was born. Eight years later on the same day Al Wingo came into the world. In 1921 it was Dick Wakefield’s big day. These May 6 men are among the players dwarfed by Willie Mays, born on this day in 1931.
In the past, I’ve written columns about days with an embarrassment of riches in talent born that day. May 27, featuring both Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell is perhaps the most notable. And of course, some days have no talent of any particular distinction.
But then, there are also days like May 6 which have one superstar, one of the greatest players ever—maybe the greatest post-integration player—and a selection of players who are lapped, almost collectively, by Willie Mays.
There is virtually nothing about Mays that hasn’t already been said. He was a two-time National League MVP, a Rookie of the Year, a 24-time All-Star. He led the league at various times in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, runs, hits, triples, walks and steals. And he did all this while playing center field spectacularly. Even by the standards of elite players, Mays was elite.
Meanwhile, everyone else born on May 6 was, well, not elite. There are many ways to measure this—and we’ll get to most of them—but the most succinct is perhaps that Mays had 24 All-Star game appearances and was one man. The other 44 players born on May 6—from 1846 (Harry Deane) through to 1981 (Dustin Nippert)—have made a grand total of one All-Star team.
But All-Stars aren’t flawless, so let’s look at this issue more closely. Let’s start with one of Mays’ (relative) weaknesses, the stolen base. Although he stole more than 330 in his career, that still puts him outside the top 100 all-time. So how does Mays compare to his birthday mates in what is arguably the least of his many skills?
Pretty well, as it turns out. Mays’ 338 are not just more than the No. 2 men (Artie Clarke and Walton Cruise each with 49) but he actually has more stolen bases than everyone else born on May 6 combined. And Mays isn’t ahead by a little bit, he almost laps the field in this department.
So let’s move on and see if the Birthday Bunch can do any better in different categories. Over his 22-year career Mays accumulated 3,283 hits. That is quite a lot. The man in second place is once again Walton Cruise, who had 644, just edging Mike McCormick’s 640. In fact, Mays has more hits than “only” the top nine other celebrants, a figure that looks unimpressive only by comparison to his stolen base dominance.
Leaving out the cup of coffee sorts, Mays faces his first genuine competition in batting average. The memoriably named Al Wingo hit .308 for his career, six points higher than Mays. Wingo’s .404 on-base percentage was also 20 ahead of Mays, while Dick Wakefield came in 12 points ahead of the Say Hey Kid for OBP.
(It is Dick Wakefield, by the way, who has the only other May 6 All-Star appearance. He earned it in 1943, playing weakened wartime competition, which accounted for the best years of his career.)
But not surprisingly, these figures suffer when compared in perspective. Most obviously, Wingo played in fewer than 500 games, and did not suffer the decline Mays did (covering the same age period as Wingo’s whole career, Mays hit .320). Moreover, Wingo played in an environment where the league batting average was .294, so his .308 was just 14 points higher. Mays, meanwhile, had a league average of .264 for his career, 38 points higher.
Put another way, over the course of 600 at-bats, Mays had 23 more hits than a league average batter while Wingo would have just nine.
A similar principle applies to the differences in on-base percentage, Mays is 54 points higher than the league OBP for his career, better than Wingo (41) or Wakefield (48).
And truthfully, Wakefield’s number is as close as anyone gets to Mays in quality. Before we get to his most dominant stat (I’ll give you a hint, he has 660 of them) it is only fair to spend a little time on the pitchers. Obviously hitter/pitcher comparisons are not as easy to make as straight hitter-to-hitter ones. Nonetheless, it is plainly apparently that none of the May 6 hurlers come close to Mays.
The most wins belong to Bill Hands, who has 111. That’s not a bad total for the man known as “Froggy,” but it also comes with 110 losses. Hands did once rank in the top 10 in ERA, for the NL in 1969 and remains just outside the top 200 in ERA+ with a 114. (As of this writing, he is actually tied with Josh Beckett, to give you an idea of where that number falls.)
The best ERA actually belongs to Ed Karger, who posted a 2.79 over nearly 1,100 innings in the early part of the 20th century, although thanks to the adjustments for era Hands’ performance is actually more impressive in context.
Finally we come to home runs. Mays was the active leader in home runs from 1965 through 1971 and retired in third place all-time. (He has since been passed by Barry Bonds, of course.) Not surprisingly, 660 home runs is a lot more than anyone in the Birthday Club. In fact, it is almost 12 times more than the second leading home run hitter, Wakefield. In total, Mays has two-thirds as many more home runs as everyone else born on May 6.
Whether in homers, steals, or batting, Mays clearly towers over the men who share his birthday. This is not to pick on those players; there is little shame in being outmatched as a ballplayer by Willie Mays. But while some days have two (or more) players battling for superiority, it is worth remembering that sometimes a day is owned, completely and totally, by one man.
Finally, on a brief personal note, the estimable Chris Jaffe informs me that this is my 100th column at The Hardball Times. I knew I was coming up to that figure, but pleased to have reached it. So thank you to everyone here at THT who helps me in the process, and thank you especially to all of you who read it. Let’s hope I have a couple hundred more.
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