Players worth remembering, Others (Part 1)

Had I started with a view toward writing a series (as opposed to the one-off it was intended to be, before people began expressing their appreciation for this stuff), I probably would have taken a different approach and considered players for whom the majority (rather than entirety) of their careers occurred during a given period. But I didn’t, and so we’re left with something of a mess. The final two installments attempt to clean up that mess.

We’ve examined players from 1969-1989, 1947-1968, 1925-1946, and 1901-1924. These are arbitrary dates, and the methodology has been crude—basically the top OPS+ and ERA+ of guys whose entire career falls within the time frame and who aren’t in the Hall of Fame. The intent hasn’t been to rank these players, but rather to highlight their accomplishments.

This time, rather than focusing on one particular era, we’re honoring the many worthy players from the entire period 1901-1989 that did not see their entire careers fit into arbitrarily constructed boxes. We’ll cover the catcher and infield spots here, wrapping up with outfielders and pitchers next time.

Catcher

Wally Schang
Career: 6,423 PA, .284/.393/.401, 117 OPS+
’20 BsA: 466 PA, .305/.413/.450, 132 OPS+

We touched on Schang in the previous installment, but now we’ll give him the full treatment. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Schang as the No. 20 catcher in big league history. That slots him behind Lance Parrish and ahead of Bob Boone.

Schang’s most similar player according to Baseball Reference is Tim McCarver, which isn’t a horrendous fit except for the huge discrepancy in OBP (McCarver is at .337 for his career). Thurman Munson (.292/.346/.410, 116 OPS+), who appears at No. 3 on the list, makes more sense to me.

Schang was athletic enough and his bat potent enough that he occasionally played third base or the outfield. He won three World Championships—one each with the A’s, Red Sox, and Yankees—hitting .287/.362/.404 in 32 postseason games. He did most of his damage as a rookie, in 1913, batting .357/.438/.417 and collecting seven RBI in Philadelphia’s five-game triumph over the New York Giants.

Honorable mentions: Walker Cooper (No. 33), Stan Lopata (No. 92), Tom Haller (No. 26), Bill Freehan (No. 12; he was inadvertently listed in our first installment but properly belongs here), Andy Seminick (No. 57), Hank Gowdy (No. 77), Gus Triandos (No. 56; an omission from earlier), John Stearns, McCarver (No. 24), Manny Sanguillen (No. 42)

First base

Jack Fournier
Career: 6033 PA, .313/.392/.483, 142 OPS+
’24 Bro: 669 PA, .334/.428/.536, 160 OPS+

Norm Cash
Career: 7,910 PA, .271/.374/.488, 139 OPS+
’61 Det: 672 PA, .361/.487/.662, 201 OPS+

Boog Powell
Career: 7,810 PA, .266/.361/.462, 134 OPS+
’64 Bal: 506 PA, .290/.399/.606, 176 OPS+

I couldn’t decide, so I’m listing three players here.

Fournier checks in at No. 35 according to TNBJHBA. I’ve called 1924 his best season, mainly because he had the most plate appearances here, but Fournier actually had three seasons where he posted a higher OPS+. The guy could hit—James notes that a certain Walter Johnson once identified Fournier as the toughest hitter he ever faced.

B-R lists Irish Meusel as Fournier’s most similar player, but that’s not quite right. Fournier is more like the No. 9 player on his list of comps, Pedro Guerrero. Like Guerrero, Fournier was a notoriously poor defender.

Fournier’s career numbers could have been even better if not for the fact that he spent much of his prime (ages 27 to 30) playing in the Pacific Coast League despite having hit .282/.367/.422 (135 OPS+) in nearly 1,600 big league plate appearances to that point.

From 1917 to 1919, Fournier hit .319 with 22 homers for the Los Angeles Angels before re-establishing himself with the St. Louis Cardinals at age 30. From the time of Fournier’s return to the NL until his retirement, only Rogers Hornsby had a higher OPS+ in that league.

Cash, meanwhile, is No. 20 in TNBJHBA. Among other accomplishments, he knocked 15 or more homers in 14 straight years (1960-1973), and 20 or more in nine straight (1961-1969).

In his career year, 1961, Cash finished fourth in MVP voting. Talk about bad timing. Perhaps you are familiar with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris?

Cash also gained notoriety for admitting after his career that he used corked bats. My colleague Steve Treder addressed this and other aspects of Cash’s fine ’61 campaign in an article back in 2006. Corked bat or not, the man could play.

Gil Hodges is Cash’s top comp, although further down the list, Frank Howard and Jack Clark are better fits.

Powell is No. 27 in TNBJHBA. He had the old players skill set (power and patience). At age 22, he hit a career-high 39 homers and led the AL in SLG despite not playing every day. Powell kept going strong until age 33, when he fell off a cliff (see Greg Luzinski, among others). Powell won the AL MVP in 1970 after finishing second (to Harmon Killebrew) a year earlier.

Honorable mentions: Jim Gentile (No. 94), Joe Harris, Bob Watson (No. 33), Mike Epstein, Don Mincher (No. 97), Rudy York (No. 56), Nate Colbert

Second base

George Grantham
Career: 5,897 PA, .302/.392/.461, 121 OPS+
’26 Pit: 522 PA, .318/.400/.490, 134 OPS+

Grantham had a qualitatively better season in 1929 (.307/.454/.533, 141 OPS+), but played in just 110 games that year. In fact, he exceeded 600 PA in a season just three times.

Grantham’s most similar player at B-R is Jackie Robinson, but Robinson was a better hitter. Irish Meusel, an outfielder whose career overlapped Grantham’s checks in at No. 9 on the list of comps and is a better fit. Among more recent players, Jeff Cirillo and Jose Vidro are in the general vicinity, although neither hit as well as Grantham. Actually, Derek Jeter is a decent offensive analog:

Player            PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
George Grantham 5,897 .302 .392 .461 121
Derek Jeter     9,809 .317 .388 .459 121

Jeter has enjoyed a more distinguished career, but those rate stats are pretty close. Grantham’s problem is that his last productive year came at age 32. Well, he had another problem, which we’ll get to in a moment.

TNBJHBA rates Grantham the No. 62 second baseman in big league history. In that fine tome, Bill James notes that Grantham’s poor defensive play earned him the nickname “Boots” and compares him to Juan Samuel:

As a rookie in 1923 he won the Juan Samuel triple crown, leading the National League in Strikeouts (92), Errors (55), and Caught Stealing (28), in spite of which he was the best rookie in the National League.

I believe the word I’m looking for is, “Ouch.”

Honorable mentions: Davey Johnson (No. 46; not that he’s in danger of being forgotten, thanks to his managerial exploits), Dick McAuliffe (No. 22), Eddie Stanky (No. 34), Ron Hunt (No. 57), Mike Andrews (No. 91), Jim Lefebvre (No. 84), Lonny Frey (No. 32), Snuffy Stirnweiss (about whom Steve Treder has written), Max Bishop (No. 43; one of my personal favorites), Marty McManus (No. 58), Jerry Priddy (No. 73), Johnny Hodapp

Third base

Al Rosen
Career: 4374 PA, .285/.384/.495, 136 OPS+
’53 Cle: 688 PA, .336/.422/.613, 179 OPS+

Bob Elliott
Career: 8,190 PA, .289/.375/.440, 124 OPS+
’47 BsN: 645 PA, .317/.410/.517, 147 OPS+

I went with two players here because one had the superior qualitative numbers, while the other lasted longer and was pretty darned good in his own right.

Rosen didn’t get a regular gig until age 26 (being blocked by Ken Keltner), and he was done by age 32, but what he did in between… oh, my. He led the American League in home runs twice (1950, 1953), led in RBI twice (1952, 1953), was named to four All-Star teams (1952-1955), and won the MVP (1953). From 1950 to 1954, only Stan Musial had a higher OPS+ among players with at least 2,500 plate appearances. It’s a nice top 10:

  1. Stan Musial, 170
  2. Al Rosen, 150
  3. Larry Doby, 147
  4. Ralph Kiner, 147
  5. Duke Snider, 146
  6. Jackie Robinson, 144
  7. Minnie Minoso, 140
  8. Sid Gordon, 138
  9. Gil Hodges, 137
  10. Yogi Berra, 136

Six of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and of the top six on that list, Rosen is the only player not enshrined. His career didn’t last long enough, of course, but that is one heckuva peak. What is it with guys named Albert having short but brilliant careers in Cleveland?

Rosen’s most similar player according to B-R is Bob Horner, and that’s not a bad comp, although Rosen had better on-base skills. Jason Bay shows up a little farther down the list.

According to TNBJHBA, Rosen is the 14th best third baseman of all time, behind Graig Nettles and ahead of Pie Traynor. James notes that, in addition to being stuck behind Keltner, Rosen also spent three years in the Army and was forced to retire early due to back problems.

Elliott was, more or less, a contemporary of Rosen. Elliott never had a season like Rosen’s ’53 (although Elliott’s ’47 was good enough for an NL MVP), but he was playing regularly by age 23 and remained effective into his mid-30s.

Elliott made six All-Star teams and led the NL in walks in 1948. He hit .333/.391/.619 with two homers in that year’s World Series, which the Braves lost to Keltner’s Indians.

The list of comparables at B-R doesn’t do Elliott justice. Pinky Higgins tops it, but he wasn’t nearly the hitter that Elliott was. Dixie Walker and Jose Cruz Sr. are closer, but both played the outfield. Bill Madlock doesn’t show up on the list, but he’s probably a better fit:

Player         PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bob Elliott  8190 .289 .375 .440 124
Bill Madlock 7372 .305 .365 .442 123

Elliott also led MLB with 903 RBI in the 1940s, besting fellow San Diegan Ted Williams (who famously missed three seasons due to World War II). TNBJHBA ranks Elliott at No. 18 among third basemen, behind Jimmy Collins and ahead of Buddy Bell.

Honorable mentions: Horner (No. 82), Whitey Kurowski (No. 50), Sal Bando (No. 11), Stan Hack (No. 9), Hank Thompson, Heinie Groh (No. 21), Pete Ward (No. 84), Bill Melton (No. 70), Keltner (No. 35), Bob Bailey (No. 79), Nettles (No. 13), Eric Soderholm, Larry Parrish (No. 53)

Shortstop

Vern Stephens
Career: 7,240 PA, .286/.355/.460, 119 OPS+
’43 SLA: 571 PA, .289/.357/.482, 142 OPS+

For those who think that Cal Ripken Jr. paved the way for Alex Rodriguez, let me introduce you to Vern Stephens. He led the AL in homers in 1945, and was the RBI king three times (1944, 1949, 1950). Stephens topped 20 home runs six times in his career, peaking with 39 in ’49.

Although Stephens never won the MVP, he placed in the top five on three separate occasions. He also was named to seven All-Star teams. If Stephens had done anything in his 30s, he probably would be in the Hall of Fame. Through age 29, his career numbers were .289/.360/.472 (124 OPS+) and he had 207 home runs to his credit. From that point forward, Stephens hit .276/.337/.418 (103 OPS+) with just 40 homers.

How good was Stephens in his 20s? Here’s a fun comparison:

Player           PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Vern Stephens  5,694 .289 .360 .472 124
Cal Ripken Jr. 6,375 .274 .347 .456 122
Derek Jeter    5,523 .317 .389 .462 121

That is some nice company to keep.

Among Stephens’ 10 most similar players at B-R, four (Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, and Travis Jackson) are in the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to tell just from looking at the numbers which of these guys actually belongs there:

Player           PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Vern Stephens  7,240 .286 .355 .460 119
Bobby Doerr    8,028 .288 .362 .461 115
Tony Lazzeri   7,303 .292 .380 .467 121
Joe Gordon     6,536 .268 .357 .466 120
Travis Jackson 6,679 .291 .337 .433 102

Aside from peaking early (his monster ’43 campaign came at age 22) and leaving too soon, about the only thing Stephens did wrong was not spend enough of his career in Boston or New York. Otherwise, there isn’t much to distinguish him from the Hall of Famers.

TNBJHBA rates Stephens No. 22 among shortstops to have played the game. James notes that Stephens “has not been treated kindly or even fairly by baseball historians,” a sentiment echoed by Mark Armour, who laments that “history ought to remember him.” After examining the numbers, I find it hard to disagree.

Honorable mentions: Jim Fregosi (No. 15), Charlie Hollocher (No. 66), Cecil Travis (No. 29), Denis Menke (No. 62), Eddie Joost (No. 54), Eddie Bressoud (No. 86), Ron Hansen (No. 58), Eddie Lake, Bert Campaneris (No. 25), Daryl Spencer

* * *

Those are the catchers and infielders that slipped through the proverbial cracks. Next time, we’ll wrap up this series with some overlooked outfielders and pitchers, including a slugger whose career ended prematurely due to back problems, a man best remembered for a patriotic act, and another who “missed” World Warr II because he was color blind.

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

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Comments

  1. Steve said...

    Good stuff, again. But you need a little correction. You’ve got someone’s 1912 Chicago Cubs campaign in their as Bob Elliott’s best season, rather than one of his late 40s (likely ‘47) gems.

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