June 19, 2013
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Monday, December 03, 2012
50,000 days ago, a Hall of Fame outfielder was born: Elmer Flick.
No, he isn’t an especially well-known name, but he could play.
Born Jan. 11, 1876 (yep, that’s how far back you have to go to make it to 50,000 days), Flick made it to the majors in 1898 and immediately became an everyday starter for the Phillies. As a rookie, Flick finished fifth in the league in on-base percentage with a .430 mark. He could hit, he drew walks, he had speed, and he had some power.
Fick kept that pace up for a decade. Three times he led the league in triples, twice in stolen bases, once in RBIs, and once in runs. In 1905, he topped the league in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, and OPS+.
From 1898-1907, he likely was the best outfielder in all baseball. WAR credits him with 49.8 wins in that span, trailing only shortstop Honus Wagner and second baseman Nap Lajoie. Both Wagner and Lajoie were among the first men elected into Cooperstown in the 1930s. In that span, Flick was third in hits, third in extra-base hits, eighth in walks, and fourth in stolen bases. Yeah, that’s doing it all at the plate.
Flick’s tremendous achievements led to the most famous story of his career. Around the end of his tremendous first decade, the Tigers tried to get him in a trade. At that time, Flick played for the Cleveland Indians, and the Tigers made quite an offer: they’d send young star Ty Cobb to Cleveland straight up for Flick. The Indians turned down Cobb, preferring to stick with Flick.
When that story is told, it’s often told as an example of how Cobb’s personality and abrasive nature hurt his standing among his peers. At least that’s how it often is retold in the accounts I’ve seen.
Perhaps. But there’s another way of looking at it. Now we hear the names Elmer Flick and Ty Cobb, and it’s not even a question who the bigger star was. Yeah, but that’s looking back 105 years later. Flick was the established hero, while Cobb was just emerging in 1907.
Branch Rickey once famously said it’s better to unload a player one year too early than a year too late. Flick was over a decade older than Cobb and heading out of his prime, while Cobb still hadn’t entered into his. While it’s always dangerous to trade the star away, looking back, Detroit was quite lucky that Cleveland turned the deal down.
All this is another way of saying that the story I’ve heard about the trade isn’t a very good story. The real story is that the Indians made a bad move, preferring to cling to past production instead of go for future production.
And sure enough, Flick cratered. Well, that isn’t fair to Flick. That makes it sound like he just couldn’t hit or got old fast. Actually his problems were much worse and more serious than that. Flick developed serious stomach problems. He played in just nine games in 1908. (Meanwhile, Cobb led the league in hits, doubles, triples, RBIs, and batting average, all that at age 21, younger than Flick was when he debuted).
Flick never really recovered and soon was out of baseball. That’s why someone as great as he was for 10 years is so obscure now.
If Cleveland had accepted that trade, it would’ve been one of the all-time great heists in big league history. They’d have Cobb, perhaps the greatest pure hitter in baseball history, and all they’d have given up was a former star who played in fewer than 100 games from 1908 to 1910 before retiring.
Flick still had two thirds of his life ahead of him when he left the big leagues, dying in 1971, two days before his 95th birthday. But it all began for him in 1876, 50,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their “day-versary” or anniversary. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim through things.
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