Players worth remembering, 1947-1968

I hadn’t planned on this being a series, but folks seemed to enjoy the first installment (as did I), so why not keep moving backward through time? In this episode, we examine players whose careers fell within the years 1947 (when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier) to 1968 (Year of the Pitcher).

As a refresher, we’re essentially identifying some good players from the era who maybe don’t get a lot of attention nowadays. The methodology is crude—basically the top OPS+ and ERA+ of guys who played during the time frame and who aren’t in the Hall of Fame. The point isn’t so much to rank these players as it is to highlight their accomplishments.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the names.

Catcher

Smoky Burgess
Career: 5013 PA, .295/.362/.446, 116 OPS+
’54 Phi: 392 PA, .368/.432/.510, 147 OPS+

Burgess’ main problem was that he didn’t play much. His career lasted parts of 18 seasons, and he got into nearly 1,700 games, but he broke 400 plate appearances just three times. And it’s not like he stunk in those three seasons:

’52 Phi: 421 PA, .296/.380/.429, 125 OPS+
’55 Phi/Cin: 500 PA, .301/.369/.495, 124 OPS+
’59 Pit: 416 PA, .297/.349/.485, 121 OPS+

When Burgess played, he produced. Named to six All-Star teams, Burgess won a World Championship with the 1960 Pirates.

Burgess’ most similar player according to Baseball-Reference is Spud Davis, although Thurman Munson, who checks in a little further down the list, seems a better choice. Among more recent players, Burgess hit kind of like Roberto Alomar or Barry Larkin (albeit in far fewer opportunities).

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Burgess as the #28 catcher in big-league history. Fun fact courtesy of that fine tome: Burgess caught Harvey Haddix‘s famous 12-inning perfect game that ended in defeat.

Honorable mentions: Elston Howard (TNBJHBA #15), Sherm Lollar (#31; technical note: he played 28 games in ’46)

First base

Joe Adcock
Career: 7304 PA, .277/.337/.485, 123 OPS+
’56 Mil: 500 PA, .291/.337/.597, 152 OPS+

Ted Kluszewski
Career: 6470 PA, .298/.353/.498, 123 OPS+
’54 Cin: 659 PA, .326/.407/.642, 167 OPS+

Adcock made only one All-Star team (1960). He reached double digits in homers in 16 of 17 seasons (knocking just eight in his rookie campaign). His OPS+ was 105 or better in each of his final 15 seasons. Adcock’s best year, in terms of OPS+, was his last. It was only 265 plate appearances, but he hit .273/.355/.576 as a 38-year-old in ’66.

Adcock hit 336 homers in his career, and according to Bill James, he “lost more home runs to the parks he played in than anyone in history except Joe DiMaggio and Goose Goslin.” James also points to Adcock’s four-homer game in 1954 and notes that he is the man who broke up Haddix’s aforementioned perfect game. Adcock won a World Championship with the Braves in ’57.

Adcock’s most similar player according to Baseball-Reference is Willie Horton, which seems about right to me. There aren’t really any current players that hit like Adcock. Maybe Jermaine Dye, but Adcock was better. TNBJHBA ranks Adcock as the #43 first baseman in big-league history.

Kluszewski enjoyed five monster seasons in the middle of his career, surrounded on either side by a few years of mediocrity:

1947-1951: 2174 PA, .286/.322/.437, 101 OPS+, 0 All-Star games
1952-1956: 3096 PA, .316/.383/.571, 148 OPS+, 4 All-Star games
1957-1961: 1197 PA, .275/.329/.427, 100 OPS+, 0 All-Star games

It’s as though Bret Boone suddenly morphed into Vladimir Guerrero for five years before remembering who he was. His home park helped. According to James, the Reds moved in their left field fence by more than 50 feet in 1953, and Kluszewski’s home run total at home jumped from 4 to 23.

Kluszewski and Adcock were teammates from 1950 to 1952, with Adcock seeing action in the outfield. Kluszewski finished second to Willie Mays in the NL MVP voting in 1954. Kluszewski hit .391/.440/.826 with three homers in his only World Series action (his White Sox lost to the Dodgers in ’59).

Kluszewski’s most similar player at B-R is Kent Hrbek. Among current players, he matches fairly well with Paul Konerko and Carlos Lee. TNBJHBA ranks Kluszewski as the no. 34 first baseman of all time.

Honorable mentions: Bill Skowron (no. 75), Gil Hodges (no. 30), Bill White (no. 39; technical note: he played 49 games in ’69), Earl Torgeson.

Second base

Bobby Avila
Career: 5343 PA, .281/.359/.388, 104 OPS+
’54 Cle: 638 PA, .341/.402/.477, 139 OPS+

Not a lot to choose from here. Red Schoendienst and Nellie Fox are in the Hall of Fame, leaving precious few viable candidates.

The Mexican-born Avila didn’t make his big-league debut until age 25, when he got into a handful of games for the Indians. The next year he backed up Joe Gordon before taking over at second in ’51 after Gordon retired. Avila hit .304/.374/.410 that season and finished 10th in the MVP voting.

After a few more solid seasons (including his first of three All-Star appearances in ’52), Avila broke out in 1954. That year, he led the AL in hitting and sacrifice bunts. He also finished third in a tight MVP race, receiving 203 vote points—behind only Larry Doby (210) and winner Yogi Berra (230).

Avila’s most similar player at Baseball-Reference is Gil McDougald. Among more recent players, Avila’s game calls to mind those of Bill Doran (less the stolen bases) and Randy Velarde. TNBJHBA ranks Avila as the no. 36 second baseman in baseball history. Actually, that book has a great deal to say about Avila, including this little nugget:

Avila reported to spring training in 1954 with ulcers, and was ordered to drink milk. He drank two quarts a day, and it turned out to be a power lunch. Avila scored 112 runs that year, went three-for-three in the All-Star game, and hit fifteen home runs, thirteen of which either tied or won the game.

Milk. It does a body good.

Honorable mentions: Jim Gilliam (no. 27), Johnny Temple (no. 52).

Third base

Ken Boyer
Career: 8268 PA, .287/.349/.462, 116 OPS+
’60 StL: 616 PA, .304/.370/.562, 144 OPS+

Ron Santo would be the obvious choice, except for two things:

  1. He played until 1974.
  2. Thanks to his continued exclusion from the Hall of Fame, he is in no danger of being forgotten.

Boyer had 36 plate appearances in 1969, but I’m feeling generous today so we’ll go with him. Besides, the productive part of his career ended in ’64.

A native of Missouri, Boyer didn’t reach the big leagues until age 24, when he became the Cardinals’ starting third baseman. Boyer did okay as a rookie before blossoming the following year. After a down season in 1957, Boyer embarked on an eight-year rampage that culminated in his being named NL MVP in 1964. From 1958 to 1964, Boyer hit .303/.372/.500 (128 OPS+) and pounded 179 home runs.

Boyer’s older brother, Cloyd, pitched for the Cardinals in the early-’50s, with limited success. His younger brother, Clete, was a defensive whiz at the hot corner who popped the occasional homer for the Royals, Yankees, and Braves.

Ken Boyer’s most similar player at B-R is Bobby Bonilla, although two other guys on the list—Robin Ventura and George Hendrick (whom I inadvertently left out of the honorable mentions in our previous installment)—might be better comps. Bonilla was a better hitter but couldn’t play third base to save his life; Boyer won five NL Gold Glove awards and checks in as the no. 12 third baseman in TNBJHBA.

Honorable mentions: Eddie Yost (#24; technical note: he played 15 games before 1947), Willie Jones (#65).

Shortstop

Alvin Dark
Career: 7829 PA, .289/.333/.411, 98 OPS+
’52 NYN: 649 PA, .301/.357/.431, 117 OPS+

Dark is probably better remembered nowadays as a manager (he won a World Championship with the A’s in 1974), but he was an accomplished infielder in his day, playing shortstop for most of his career before shifting to third base toward the end. Dark played 15 games in 1946, but again, with so few good players to choose from, we’ll cut him some slack.

Dark was named NL Rookie of the Year in 1948 and finished third (behind teammate Johnny Sain and winner Stan Musial) in MVP voting. Dark hit .322/.353/.433 (113 OPS+) that year.

Despite the fact that he didn’t see regular action at the big-league level until age 26, Dark managed to collect 2089 hits. His single-season high came in ’51, when he knocked 196. He also led the NL with 41 doubles that year and broke 100 runs scored for the first of two times in his career. Dark stopped being a serious offensive threat after age 31:

Through age 31: .297/.341/.436, 107 OPS+
After age 31: .282/.325/.387, 89 OPS+

Dark was named to three NL All-Star teams, all during his time with the New York Giants (he had won the Rookie of the Year award as a member of the Boston Braves). He once was traded for Richie Ashburn, toward the tail end of Ashburn’s career.

Dark’s most similar player according to Baseball-Reference is Edgar Renteria, which except for the stolen bases (Dark didn’t run) looks about right. TNBJHBA puts Dark at #27 all time.

Honorable mentions: Johnny Logan (#39), Dick Groat (#30).

Left field

Minnie Minoso
Career: 7710 PA, .298/.389/.459, 130 OPS+
’54 ChA: 675 PA, .320/.411/.535, 155 OPS+

Minoso might be too famous for this list, but if he is, it’s likely for the wrong reasons. And for those same reasons, he technically misses our date range. Minoso, you see, logged 8 plate appearances in 1976 and 2 more in 1980. In his final big-league at-bat, Minoso pinch-hit for Chet Lemon and grounded out against California’s Dave Schuler. Minoso was 54 years old.

During the non-sideshow part of his career, the Cuban-born Minoso could flat rake. He qualified for the batting title 11 times and broke .300 in eight of those seasons.

As a rookie, Minoso hit .326/.422/.500, leading the AL with 14 triples, 31 stolen bases, and 16 hit by pitches (a category in which he would lead the league in 10 of his first 11 seasons). He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting (behind the Yankees’ Gil McDougald) and fourth in MVP voting (behind Allie Reynolds, Ned Garver, and winner Yogi Berra).

Minoso was named to seven All-Star teams and won three Gold Glove awards. His most similar player according to Baseball-Reference is Carl Furillo, but Minoso was a better hitter. Tony Oliva might be a better comp. Among more recent players, he was kind of like a less batting-average-dependent Tony Gwynn or a faster John Olerud.

None of these comps really works, but the point is, Minoso was a heckuva ballplayer. According to TNBJHBA, he is the no. 10 left fielder in MLB history.

Honorable mentions: Hank Sauer (no. 60; technical note: Sauer got into 47 games before 1947, including nine as far back as 1941, but he gets extra credit for not really beginning his career until 1948, at age 31).

Center field

Jim Landis
Career: 5025 PA, .247/.344/.375, 99 OPS+
’61 ChA: 618 PA, .283/.362/.470, 122 OPS+

Center field is a tricky position. The most accomplished candidate is Bobby Thomson, but everybody remembers him because of a certain home run.

Landis had a terrific defensive reputation (and five Gold Gloves—in consecutive seasons—to go with it). He made just one All-Star team (’62) and never led his league in anything except sacrifice bunts (’59).

Landis’ best seasons came from 1958 to 1961, when he hit .272/.362/.419 (113 OPS+) in 579 games. From age 28 onward, he hit just .227/.327/.340 (88 OPS+) in 671 games.

B-R identifies Lee Mazzilli as Landis’ most similar player. Among more recent players, he’s sort of like Chad Curtis. TNBJHBA rates Landis as the #88 center fielder of all time.

Honorable mentions: Bill Bruton (#73), Jimmy Piersall (#92, although he is famous for other reasons).

Right field

Rocky Colavito
Career: 7559 PA, .266/.359/.489, 132 OPS+
’58 Cle: 578 PA, .303/.405/.620, 180 OPS+

It’s too bad Colavito’s career effectively ended at age 32. Give him four to five more good seasons, and he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Colavito first arrived on the scene in 1956, when he hit .276/.372/.531 (135 OPS+) as a 22-year-old. He hit 21 home runs that season, the first of 11 straight in which he would break the 20-homer mark.

Colavito hit 40 home runs or more three times, including 42 in ’59, which led the AL. He led the league in slugging percentage a year earlier, and in ’65, paced the AL with 108 RBIs and 93 walks.

According to Baseball-Reference, Andruw Jones is Colavito’s most similar player, but that’s not right at all. Better comps on the list are Boog Powell, George Foster, Greg Luzinski, and Jack Clark. TNBJHBA rates Colavito as the no. 26 right fielder in history.

Honorable mentions: Roger Maris (no. 28; famous for one reason, but a better player than many remember), Jackie Jensen (no. 57), Hank Bauer (no. 80).

Right-handed pitcher

Mike Garcia
Career: 2174.2 IP, 142-97, 3.27 ERA, 117 ERA+
’52 Cle: 292.1 IP, 22-11, 2.37 ERA, 141 ERA+

Garcia didn’t make his big-league debut until age 24 and didn’t stick with the Indians until the following year, when he went out and led the AL in ERA as a rookie. He won double digits every year from 1949 to 1957. All but four of his big-league victories came during that stretch.

Garcia led the AL in ERA in ’49 and ’54, and led in shutouts in ’52 and ’54. Granted, the game was a little different back then, but Garcia allowed just six homers in nearly 260 innings in 1954.

Rip Sewell is Garcia’s most similar pitcher according to Baseball-Reference. Garcia doesn’t rank among the top 100 pitchers listed in TNBJHBA but is mentioned in the discussion on Mel Parnell, who checks in at no. 100. As James notes: “…most people would rate Garcia ahead of Parnell. They’re close, and I certainly wouldn’t try to tell you that that was the wrong answer.”

Honorable mentions: Don Newcombe (no. 46), Frank Lary, Larry Jackson (no. 89), Ned Garver.

Left-handed pitcher

Billy Pierce
Career: 3296.2 IP, 211-169, 3.27 ERA, 119 ERA+
’55 ChA: 205.2 IP, 15-10, 1.97 ERA, 201 ERA+

Pierce, a Detroit native, was signed by his hometown Tigers in 1945. After starting that season in Buffalo of the International League, He worked 10 innings for the big club at age 18. He didn’t return until ’48, so although technically Pierce’s career stretches beyond our period, more than 99.5% of his innings pitched fell in that range.

Pierce won in double digits every year from 1950 to 1962, except 1954, when he went 9-10 for the White Sox. He spent most of his career in Chicago, winning 186 games for the Pale Hose (good for fourth all time in franchise history, behind Hall of Famers Ed Walsh, Red Faber, and Ted Lyons).

Pierce won exactly 20 games twice, in ’56 and ’57. He led the AL in strikeouts with 186 in 1953 and was named to seven All-Star teams.

B-R lists Vida Blue as Pierce’s most similar pitcher. Their unadjusted numbers are frighteningly close, but Pierce’s ERA+ is better. There aren’t really any good current analogues. Maybe a left-handed Derek Lowe? Pierce is the no. 59 pitcher in MLB history according to TNBJHBA (although the man behind him, Tom Glavine, has won 97 games since then).

Honorable mentions: Curt Simmons.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The New Bill James Historical Abstract.

In my discussion on Kluszewski, I neglected to verify Bill James’ information regarding Crosley Field’s dimensions. On page 445 of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract , the author states that in 1953, “Kluszewski’ s power numbers exploded when the Reds moved in their left field fence from 382 feet to 328.”

Several readers have pointed out that this did not happen and that furthermore, if Kluszewski benefited from anything as a left-handed hitter, it was the right field fence being moved in. According to several sources that I’ve since examined, the left field fence was, at its furthest, 360 feet from home plate. However, in 1921, it was brought in to 320 feet and moved a few more times before settling at 328 feet in 1938 until the park closed in 1970. In other words, the distance didn’t change during Kluszewski’s career.

Right field, on the other hand, was moved in from 366 feet to 342 feet prior to the ’53 season, to accommodate additional seats in front of the bleachers. Presumably this is what James was referring to in his book.

Thanks to readers for alerting me to this error. Thanks also to Ballparks.com, Baseball Almanac, and Clem’s Baseball for providing additional information about Crosley Field. I regret that I did not corroborate my findings earlier and apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

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Comments

  1. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    Will we get articles focusing on players whose careers fell between 1936 and 1957, or 1958 to 1979? You seem to be excluding players with more than a few games of overlap between your arbitrary “eras”.

  2. Geoff Young said...

    Bob: Thanks for the suggestions. Those two definitely merit consideration.

    Ed: The plan is to do two or three more going back to 1901, then another that covers players who don’t fit neatly into our little boxes and/or that I missed (e.g., Gentile and MacDougald).

  3. tom hagerty said...

    Colavito played LF when he came over from the Indians to the Tigers. Detroit already had a pretty good right fielder: Al Kaline.

  4. Bill McKinley said...

    Grew up watching Jim Landis and the rest of the Go Go Sox. Landis was special in center field and might well have been faster than Louis Aparicio though not as good or prolific a base stealer. He won those 5 consecutive Gold Gloves entirely on merit since his bat didn’t give him any extra wotes……good choice

  5. Bob Rittner said...

    I think your choices are good. You might want to look at Jim Gentile for at least an honorable mention at 1B. And I think MacDougald, as you mention the most comparable to Avila, might also be in that honorable mention list.

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