This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 22-Nov. 28, 1951by Richard Barbieri
November 25, 2009
On November 25, 1951 Bucky Dent was born. Dent had his brief, memorable moment in the sun, and of course, that is practically the only thing people know about him. Richard looks at other players.
Earlier this summer, I produced the "One-Thing" team, a list of players known in history for—you guessed it—just one thing. That includes names like Bill Buckner and Don Larsen, players whose careers varied in length and success, but which were lost to history behind their one event.
Baseball history being what it is, there are many players who could belong to such a team, so today we unveil the second grouping. A quick review of the rule: first, no Hall of Famers can be included. Hall of Famers are often defined by one outstanding characteristic (such as Nolan Ryan and his strikeouts) but they are not known for that alone.
Moreover, the one thing has to be something for which the players themselves are known based on their own actions. It can be anything from a single event to a career-long attribute (Jim Abbott pitching with only one hand) to off-the-field troubles, but it has to be the player's own doing.
This means no hilariously named but inept siblings (sorry, Butts Wagner) and no players flipped in ill-conceived trades for obviously superior talent (sorry, Ed Hearn). Some cold week this winter I will get around to making each of those teams, but it isn't this week. Those ground rules established, let's start with the team.
Catcher: Marty Bergen
Nothing like an uplifting story to get us started. Bergen was a 19th-century catcher, who played for the Boston Braves. Never much of a hitter—his career .646 OPS was poor even for the era—Bergen was regarded as a strong defender by his peers. Modern detractors point to his high passed ball numbers (he led the league with 38 one year), but that total is not notably out of line for other catchers of the time.
But Bergen’s place in history lies with the events of January 19, 1900. On that day, Bergen murdered his wife and children, a three-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, with an axe before slitting his own throat. While the exact circumstances can never be known, it seems sure Bergen was suffering from depression at the least, and more likely suffered a profound psychotic break.
|Bobby Thomson sending the Giants to the World Series, and himself to this list (Icon/SMI)|
In seasons prior Bergen had paranoid delusions that teammates, fans and his personal doctor were attempting to kill him, but turn-of-the-century medicine was ill-equipped to diagnose, let alone treat, whatever plagued him. It is unfortunate the failures of medical care led to such a tragedy and gave Bergen his unfortunate place in baseball history.
(On a side note, his brother Bill could earn a spot on this list for his famously useless hitting. He is, by leaps and bounds, the worst hitter to come to the plate more than 3,000 times, finishing with a career .170/.194/.201 line. That’s an OPS+ of 21; the next-lowest number is Hal Lanier at 49.)
First Base: Sid Bream
Here’s something I didn’t know: Sid Bream wasn’t a bad player. Perhaps because I link him inexorably with Francisco Cabrera—who drove Bream in to win the 1992 pennant for the Braves and is another candidate for a spot on this team—I assumed he was a bench player at best.
He was not. He wasn’t a consistent All-Star or anything, but he would take a walk and could hit some doubles in his best years, ranking as high as third in the league. He started for some pretty good teams and had a career 1.072 OPS in four LCS appearances. Some other names on this list should be so lucky.
Second Base: Steve Sax/Chuck Knoblauch
Modern players are hard to categorize as “one-thing” players because they are much fresher in our minds. So I might be jumping the gun a bit on these players, but I believe history will vindicate me. (Always a risky proposition.)
In any case, besides playing second base for the Yankees, you probably know what Sax and Knoblauch have in common. Both went through extended periods when they were unable to make a routine throw to first base. The problems effectively ended Knoblauch’s career—he moved to left field where his bat simply didn’t play, and he was out of baseball shortly thereafter—but Sax recovered sufficiently to lead the league in fielding percentage.
Third Base: Harry Steinfeldt
Here’s something I’m not sure about: can you be known for just one thing if that one thing is not being known? Steinfeldt exists in baseball history as the answer to a trivia question: who was the third baseman in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield?
Steinfeldt hit like an absolute beast for the 1906 Cubs (an .825 OPS being far more impressive in 1906 than it is now) and is sometimes credited as the MVP of that team, but it was out of line with his career, when he was generally an average hitter.
Shortstop: Bucky Dent
“Deep to left! Yastrzemski will not get it, it's a home run! A three-run home run by Bucky Dent, and the Yankees now lead it by a score of 3-2!”
Left Field: Bobby Thomson
“There's a long drive, it's gonna be, I believe…The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!”
Center Field: Fred Snodgrass
Fred Snodgrass played nine years in the major leagues, hit as high as .294 in regular action, was nicknamed “Snow,” appeared in three World Series and was both scouted and signed personally by John McGraw. Looking back at his career, he would say that “those were wonderful years, and if I had the chance, I’d gladly do it all over again.”
But he isn’t here for any of those things; he’s included because of the 1912 World Series. In the eighth game—game two having been declared a tie after 11 innings due to darkness—the Giants took a 1-0 in the top of the 10th on a run-scoring single by Frank Merkle. In the bottom half of the inning, pinch hitter Clyde Engle led off with a fly ball to center field. Snodgrass dropped it, and Engle went to second.
Though Snodgrass recovered to make a game-saving catch on the next batter, Giants’ ace Christy Mathewson could not hold the Red Sox down, and the Giants would lose the game. When he died in 1974, Snodgrass’ New York Times obituary was titled “Fred Snograss, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”
Right Field: Al Gionfriddo
Lots of players are known for famous fielding errors, but Gionfriddo is in far rarer company: players known for a great play. In the sixth game of the 1947 World Series Gionfriddo made a tremendous catch in front of the 415 foot sign at Yankee Stadium to preserve a Dodger lead. The play is even more famous for the reaction by the batter, Joe DiMaggio, who kicked the dirt near second base in frustration.
This is already a good deal over my usual word count, so I will save the pitching staff for another day and instead wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, and hope that whatever your chosen profession, you are someday remembered for more than just one thing.
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