Superdupersubs (Part 2:  1941-1970)

In the opening entry in this series, we met the superdupersubs of 1901 through 1940. Now we’re ready for our second batch of players who combine the defensive versatility of the multi-position substitute with the superior skill of the regular starter: the unusual player who’s in the starting lineup most days, but without a regular defensive position.

To qualify as a superdupersub, a player must have more than one season which meets these criteria:

- He must appear in at least 100 games in a given season, and come to the plate at least 300 times;
and
- He must appear in at least 20 games at three or more defensive positions (and if it’s just three positions, they can’t all be in the outfield);
and/or
- He must appear in at least 10 games at four or more defensive positions;
and/or
- He must appear in at least five games at five or more defensive positions;
and/or
- He must appear in at least one game at six or more defensive positions.

Jimmy Wasdell

Wasdell’s superdupersubdom is almost certainly a product of World War II. Prior to the war, he was a rather marginal utility man, but he was 4-F for some reason and got a chance to play regularly on draft-depleted wartime ballclubs. His capacity to handle center field at least reasonably well made Wasdell more useful than the typical first baseman-outfielder. Following the war, he disappeared from the majors pretty quickly.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1943 PHI       141  574  96   12   1B 82  LF 39  CF 22  RF 5
1945 PHI       134  540  113  15   1B 63  RF 37  LF 17  CF 13

Sid Gordon

This guy had two portions of his career about as distinct as any you’ll ever see. In the first half, through age 29, he was a semi-regular, a good contact hitter but without significant power, a useful guy to have on your roster, especially because of his defensive versatility, but hardly a star.

But overnight at the age of 30 Gordon developed excellent power, though he remained quite difficult to strike out, and was a good hitter for average. For five years he was an outstanding all-around player, not quite great but very close to it, most definitely a star. He then delivered three more highly useful seasons in a gradually diminishing role.

Like many players who are skilled at lots of things but not exceptional in any single facet of the game, Gordon was generally overlooked when he was active, and is pretty much unknown today. He belongs on any all-time “most underrated” list.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1943 NYG       131  528  98   10   3B 53  1B 41  LF 28  2B 3
1951 BSN       150  641  143  22  LF 103  3B 34  RF 23

Monte Irvin

The arrival of this guy from the Negro Leagues was one of the reasons the Giants were able to spare Gordon, packaging him as the centerpiece of the big trade following the 1949 season that netted the Giants Alvin Dark and Eddie Stanky. Irvin essentially duplicated Gordon’s well-rounded skillset, only he was even better.

Irvin had been a shortstop in his earliest professional days, and also played quite a bit of Negro League third base. By the time he reached the majors Irvin was in his early 30s and had no doubt lost a step or two, but was handy with the glove at either an outfield corner or at first base.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1950 NYG       110  432  131  16   1B 59  RF 30  LF 20  3B 1
1951 NYG       151  657  147  29   LF 89  1B 39  RF 27

Billy Goodman

In the 1970s, long before the Red Sox had become ultimately successful and “Red Sox Nation” even existed, let alone had become a sanctuary for self-satisfied smugness, Red Sox fans were a largely bitter and frustrated lot—you know, like the fans of most every other team. Here was one such fan longing for a lineup containing a larger component of old-fashioned Billy Goodman grit:

For some reason or another, we are always about four guys short of nine guys who breakfast on fish hooks and broken glass before afternoon games, and snack on barbed wire before the ones at night. We get a Billy Goodman … who dines on carpet tacks and washes them down with piss from his own horse, and team him up with some rump-sprung relic going through the motions.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1950 BOS       110  485  117  16   LF 45  3B 27  1B 21  2B 5   SS 1
1951 BOS       141  638  98   17   1B 62  2B 44  RF 36  LF 2   3B 1
1954 BOS       127  552  97   13   2B 72  1B 27  LF 13  3B 12

Stan Musial

And I bet you thought Honus Wagner was the only inner-circle all-time great who also happened to be a superdupersub!

Musial’s defensive versatility was yet another among his multitude of qualities that made just about as fine a player as ever comes along. Musial wasn’t a defensive star per se, but he was more than adequate at either outfield corner or at first base, and didn’t embarrass himself in center field either.

I’ve not completely convinced that the way the Cardinals were forever moving Musial around defensively was the smartest thing for them to do; I’m kind of partial to the idea that when you have a superstar of Stan the Man’s stature, you shuffle the lesser players around to accommodate him. But on the other hand, it’s clear Musial was fine with it, and obviously it didn’t have the slightest bit of impact on his hitting, so it’s hard to conclude that it was a problem, either.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1952 STL       154  676  167  37  CF 106  1B 25  LF 21  RF 9    P 1
1955 STL       154  656  156  29  1B 110  RF 33  LF 21

Vic Power

Here’s what we had to say about Power when discussing him within the context of his capacity to handle third base, in our Crossroads series on THT a few years ago. It seems appropriate to repeat it here:

If Billy Cox can properly be described as a Dead Ball style third baseman playing decades into the Live Ball era, then Power is his counterpart at first base. The typical first baseman in the 1900-20 period wasn’t the lumbering slugger he’s since become, but, reacting to constant bunts, was instead very often a mobile, agile singles-hitting type. Power was that kind of first baseman.

The adjective most often heard to describe Power’s defensive work is “acrobatic,” a term rarely applied to first basemen. Then again, rare is the All-Star first baseman whose next-most-played position was second base, and who, when deployed in the outfield, was most frequently in center field.

Power played quite a bit of third base in the minors and 89 games there in the majors (as well as eight major league appearances at shortstop). There’s simply no question that, given the opportunity, Power could have been an excellent defensive third baseman. Though he was spectacular with the glove at first base, given his modest first baseman’s bat, I’ve always felt his talent was misapplied as a full-time first baseman.

I then concluded that probably the most effective deployment of Power was when his versatility was best leveraged, as in these seasons. He wasn’t a great player, but he was a good one, warmly regarded by the fans who watched him play, and he presented a quite singular combination of talents.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1954 PHA       127  485  78    7   CF 56  LF 33  1B 21  RF 12  3B 1   SS 1
1958 KCA-CLE   145  620  124  22   1B 91  3B 42  2B 28  SS 2   LF 1

Tony Kubek

The contrast in managerial style between Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk, who immediately succeeded him as skipper of the Yankees, could hardly have been more stark. Stengel was probably the most enthusiastic tinkerer of all time, while Houk was an extreme believer in carving a lineup into stone.

Stengel never locked Kubek in as his full-time shortstop, but instead preferred to weave the young left-handed hitter into the mix in the outfield and at third base as well. Stengel made similarly creative use of the superb infielder Gil McDougald, who didn’t quite qualify for inclusion here but whose overall career was absolutely of superdupersub character: 599 games at second base, 508 at shortstop and 284 at third base. Indeed throughout his entire 12-year tenure with the Yankees, Stengel never truly used anyone as a full-time regular at second, short or third other than shortstop Phil Rizzuto in 1949-52.

Houk’s approach was completely different. Upon taking the Yankee reins in 1961, he immediately cemented Kubek into shortstop, alongside the light-hitting Bobby Richardson at second base and Clete Boyer at third. While this made for an outstanding defensive infield set, overall it wasn’t as good as its fabled reputation, and certainly not as flexible and productive as the constantly-juggling infield alignments featured by Stengel.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1957 NYY       127  475  98   14   SS 41  3B 38  LF 29  CF 23  2B 1
1959 NYY       132  553  95   14   SS 67  RF 26  LF 22  3B 17  CF 15  2B 1

Frank Thomas

He played mostly center field in his first few seasons with the Pirates, and although that’s mostly an indicator of just how talent-starved those early-’50s Pittsburgh teams were, it’s also evidence that the power-hitting Thomas brought some defensive chops to the table. Beginning in 1956, the Pirates began to deploy Thomas in the infield as well as the outfield, and he would never really be settled at one position again.

That defensive versatility added a significant dimension to Thomas’ value. When he fell into a two-year-long hitting drought in 1959-60, it was his fielding utility that sustained Thomas’ status as a regular, and gave him the chance to bounce back into prominence in 1961.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1957 PIT       151  658  114  16   1B 71  LF 46  3B 31  RF 19  CF 2
1960 CHC       135  509  85    8   1B 50  LF 44  3B 33  RF 6

Joe Cunningham

As though heeding the suggestion I made above regarding their usage of Musial, when Cunningham came along the Cardinals shuffled him around plenty, frequently as Stan the Man’s late-inning caddy. But Cunningham was such an on-base machine in those years that he eventually forced the team to figure out some way to get him in the starting lineup on a regular basis.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1958 STL       131  424  147  17   1B 67  RF 42  LF 24
1959 STL       144  556  143  20  RF 109  1B 35  LF 20

Dick Williams

His terrific managerial career would obscure his status us a player, but Williams had been a good one. The 1961 Major League Baseball Handbook summed him up aptly, if tersely: “Considered best fill-in man in majors, a guy who hits well and plays competently at any spot on diamond.”

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1958 BAL       128  462  93    9   3B 45  CF 41  LF 34  1B 26  RF 15  2B 7
1959 KCA       130  538  101  12   3B 80  1B 32  LF 13  RF 8   2B 3   CF 2
1960 KCA       127  466  113  14   3B 57  1B 34  LF 25

Lee Thomas

As we’ve discussed a couple of times, this guy’s hitting performance whipsawed all over the place. But as far as defensive deployment went, Thomas was extremely predictable: he was never just an outfielder, and never just a first baseman, but always both an outfielder and a first baseman.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1961 LAA       130  504  114  12   RF 65  1B 34  LF 26
1962 LAA       160  652  123  22   1B 90  RF 42  CF 18  LF 17

Harvey Kuenn

Bill Wise on Harvey Kuenn in the 1964 Baseball Almanac: “Good Old Harv, 33, sometimes looks like he could use a week in a health salon, but he’s a mean and competent athlete once the game starts.” That was Wise’s coy way of saying that Harvey, oh, maybe took a wee nip now and then.

Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges was fond of calling him “blue-eyed Harvey Kuenn,” and he was a leather-tough ex-shortstop who could still handle a few other positions, and reliably lay out a line drive.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1961 SFG       131  529  87   10   LF 61  3B 32  RF 31  SS 1
1963 SFG       120  469  113  14   3B 53  LF 45  RF 27

Don Demeter

When I conceived of identifying and commenting upon all these superdupersubs, Demeter wasn’t a player I had in mind at all. The two guys who immediately follow him here were among those I was specifically thinking about, but their contemporary Demeter wasn’t one I’d ever perceived as that sort: I had him tucked away in memory just as a power-hitting center fielder who never achieved the stardom predicted for him, and who then played out the string as a mild disappointment.

While that characterization holds some degree of merit, it sells Demeter far short. While he never made quite his anticipated splash—and that could simply be a function of the Dodger prospect hype machine, running in high gear even in the 1950s—Demeter remained a productive hitter even though he couldn’t sustain the performance he reached in 1962. And his defensive versatility was extraordinary: though I hadn’t expected Demeter to qualify here at all, he superduperqualifies with a five-spot. Clearly, Demeter’s managers found him to be an extremely useful guy to have on hand.

Demeter did have his loyal fans:

Later we got to reminiscing about funny remarks we’d heard in the stands and elsewhere in regard to baseball …

The Old Timer laughed, then said: “Sometimes the fans are very funny. Most of the time of course they merely yell the usual stock remarks. But when I was going to practically every Dodger game (1958/59), there was a straight-faced needle artist who used to come to the park a little worse for bourbon; both his seat and mine were in the fifth or sixth row, right close to the Dodger dugout …

“In the front row there was a group of young girls who had their favorites among the Dodger players—one of them was Don Demeter. They swooned a little when he came to the plate. Now Don, one of the finest center fielders in the game (though playing third base now for the Phillies, and you might say it figures!), is about six feet three or four and at the time couldn’t have weighed over 165 dripping wet. The needle artist had noticed the girls’ interest in Don, so one night when he came to bat the needle artist, ribbing, leaned over and asked the girls who the batter was. They all turned eagerly to give information. ‘Why, that’s Don Demeter. Isn’t he wonderful?’

“The needle artist seemed astounded. ‘Are you sure that’s Don Demeter?’ The girls were very much put out. As if they didn’t know Don Demeter when they saw him!

“‘That’s Don Demeter!’ cried the needle artist, as if he couldn’t believe it. ‘The guy who hit forty home runs in the Texas League? Why, he looks like a flavor straw.’

“Have you ever seen murder in the eyes of teen-age girls? I saw it that night. I expected the needle artist to get his eyes scratched out, but I laughed so hard the girls turned their attention to me, too. I shut up—quick.”

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1961 LAD-PHI   121  444  100   9   CF 47  RF 29  LF 23  1B 22
1962 PHI       153  617  137  25  3B 105  CF 42  LF 23  RF 4   1B 1
1963 PHI       154  560  112  17   CF 80  3B 43  LF 41  1B 26
1964 DET       134  470  104  12   CF 52  LF 24  1B 23  RF 13
1965 DET       122  424  121  13   CF 56  1B 34  RF 25  LF 1

Woodie Held

As we said in Crossroads regarding Held:

Originally an outfielder, converted to a shortstop/third baseman in the minors. Held was a medium-sized guy (5-foot=11, 180) with a low-average, high-power bat that one rarely finds in shortstops, yet he played shortstop regularly for Cleveland in his prime years. His defense at short was generally considered nothing more than adequate, but to be fair the Indians had no better alternatives.

Following that, Held proved to be very useful for several seasons as an infield-outfield utility guy. He was a good player and he had a fine career, but it’s easy to conceive of circumstances under which Held would have been a regular third baseman ….

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1963 CLE       133  493  120  19   2B 96  CF 12  RF 12  LF 12  SS 5   3B 3
1964 CLE       118  415  108  13   2B 52  3B 30  CF 19  RF 18  LF 5
1965 WSA       122  390  127  14   LF 57  RF 50  CF 43  3B 5   2B 4   SS 2

Chuck Hinton

Lo and behold Held was traded for this guy, marking the only time in history in which superdupersubs were swapped. So why not sustain the symmetry by including our Crossroads perspective on Hinton:

He didn’t reach the majors until age 27, which is curious, because Hinton was an amazingly well-rounded talent. He wasn’t great at anything, but he was good at, literally, everything. He was originally a catcher in the minor leagues, and he played every defensive position except pitcher at the major league level (and not just as any kind of stunt: Hinton really played them).

Hinton appeared in only 51 major league games at third base, and only on a fill-in basis; it may well be the case that by leveraging his versatility and deploying him as a supersub, Hinton’s teams derived more value from him than they would have if they’d allowed him to focus on any specific position. But Hinton likely had more than enough physical and mental skill to have become an excellent defensive third baseman, if allowed to do so.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1963 WSA       150  646  114  20   LF 86  RF 45  3B 19  CF 7   1B 6   SS 2
1965 CLE       133  493  120  17   CF 43  1B 40  LF 33  2B 23  RF 4   3B 1

Jim Hickman

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was delighted when Hickman came out of nowhere at the age of 33 to put together that brilliant season with the bat in 1970. He’d always been a rather obscure player, but somehow was one of those guys you root for, even when he’s on the opposing team: He just seemed to be an unassuming hard worker who never had a bad word to say about anyone, and for whom nothing ever seemed to go right.

That said, though it is the case that it was Hickman’s bad fortune to be stuck on those terrible early Mets teams, it was in another sense his good fortune: Since those rosters were perennially bereft of a legitimate center fielder, the ever-juggling Casey Stengel gave a lot of playing time in center to the not-exactly-swift-afoot Hickman. “Gentleman Jim” gamely gave it his best effort, but alas here was Roger Angell’s 1963 description of the results:

Hickman … can be frighteningly uncertain in the field. More than one shallow fly has dropped in front of him because of his slow, thoughtful start in center field. (In a recent game against the Reds, on the other hand, he got a fine jump on a line drive hit by Vada Pinson and thundered in at top speed; then he had to stop and thunder out at top speed as the ball sailed over his head for a triple.)

And thus I guess it was also Hickman’s good fortune to eventually wind up with the Cubs, who were a good team otherwise but exposing a huge vacancy in center field. By this point the over-30 Hickman was even further out of his element in center field, but his experience in center granted him the opportunity for plate appearances, and therefore helped enable his improbable late-career star turn.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1963 NYM       146  546  95   13   3B 59  CF 42  RF 22  LF 19
1965 NYM       141  400  98    8   CF 44  LF 35  1B 30  RF 16  3B 14
1970 CHC       149  613  154  24   1B 74  CF 53  RF 28  LF 2

Denis Menke

He hit better than most shortstops, but Menke’s range was just limited enough that no team was ever comfortable fully settling with him at the position. But he was good enough to usually play short, and also to be put to handy use filling in here and there. Menke was the sort of player who didn’t do any one thing especially well, but didn’t have a real weakness, either.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1963 MLN       146  572  83   13   SS 82  3B 51  2B 22  LF 1   1B 1
1970 HOU       154  665  127  24  SS 133  2B 21  3B 5   1B 5   RF 2   LF 1

Felipe Alou

The Braves’ deployment of Alou always struck me as kind of strange. As a young player with the Giants, he was highly regarded defensively, and would have been a regular center fielder for a lot of teams (when Willie Mays was given a rare inning off, it was almost always Felipe who filled in for him in center).

Thus, when the Braves traded for Alou in 1963, it was for the stated purpose of once-and-for-all resolving their difficulties in center field that had persisted ever since they’d traded Bill Bruton several years earlier. But then, for a variety of reasons, the Braves wouldn’t settle in with Alou in center field until 1968, when he was 33 and lacking the range he’d once displayed. Instead, until then they rotated him all over the place.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1965 MLN       143  599  127  21   1B 69  LF 66  CF 24  RF 9   3B 2   SS 1
1966 ATL       154  706  143  28   1B 90  LF 47  CF 40  RF 4   3B 3   SS 1
1967 ATL       140  617  108  15   1B 85  CF 30  LF 24  RF 5

Cookie Rojas

Rojas was basically your garden-variety good-glove, light-bat second baseman, and under most circumstances, that’s all he would have been. But these weren’t most circumstances, these were the particular circumstances of a team managed by Gene Mauch, who was never one to settle for the simple, direct approach.

Mauch loved to maneuver, to make the in-game substitution (it was he who conceived of the double-switch accompanying a pitching change, which has since become unquestioned routine in non-DH baseball). Mauch had the motive, and in Rojas he had the means to get all kinds of creative, because Rojas wasn’t only a good-fielding second baseman, he was so defensively adept he could calmly and efficiently handle any position Mauch’s energetic strategems entailed. As we see, Mauch wasn’t even hesitant to use the slightly-built Rojas as his emergency catcher.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1965 PHI       142  578  110  19   2B 84  CF 41  SS 11  LF 11  RF 5    C 2   1B 1
1966 PHI       156  679  79   13  2B 106  LF 30  CF 28  RF 3   SS 2
1967 PHI       147  578  79   12  2B 137  LF 8    C 3   SS 2   3B 1   CF 1   RF 1  P 1

Danny Cater

He was a good, consistent line-drive hitter, but Cater didn’t hit for power or draw many walks. His offensive contribution, then, was quite useful when combined with a not-bad glove at whatever corner position happened to need a hand on a given day, but not as more than that. As his career progressed Cater would edge closer to a full-time first base role, where his bat couldn’t really pull the weight.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1966 CHW-KCA   137  524  101  15   1B 53  3B 42  LF 37  RF 4
1967 KCA       142  573  97   11   3B 56  LF 55  1B 44

Cesar Tovar

Tovar’s extraordinary versatility was obviously an asset. But there’s a school of thought that contends that within the context of those very-good-but-not-quite-great late-’60s Twins teams, it was counterproductive to be deploying him in this frantic manner year after year. I’m not quite convinced, but here’s how Mark Armour and Dan Levitt put it, in their fascinating chapter in Paths to Glory that focuses on the Twins in that period:

One year of Tovar-like versatility can be extremely valuable to a team filling in-season holes resulting from injuries or slumps, but when it shows up over an extended period of time, it more likely signifies a team unable or unwilling to make decisive player personnel decisions.

I do agree that the Twins did some silly things in those years, such as hanging on to washed-out third baseman Rich Rollins far too long, and then deciding that Rich Reese’s modest talent at first base was a sufficient reason to shift the well-past-30 Harmon Killebrew to third.

But I would maintain that the issue of deploying a player in the supersub mode isn’t a bad thing, or a good thing, in itself. The quality of a team’s decisions can be and should be assessed on their particular merits. The Yankees in the Stengel era are an excellent case of a team that leveraged defensive flexibility as a competitive advantage.

Year Club       G   PA  OPS+  WS         Games by Position
1966 MIN       134  527  86   14   2B 76  SS 31  CF 20  LF 4
1967 MIN       164  726  98   21   3B 70  CF 64  2B 36  LF 10  SS 9   RF 5
1968 MIN       157  673  107  22   3B 75  LF 39  SS 35  CF 34  2B 18  RF 10  1B 1  C 1   P 1
1969 MIN       158  591  110  19   CF 70  2B 41  LF 39  3B 20  RF 8
Next installment

The superdupersubs of the 1970s and 1980s.

References & Resources
George V. Higgins, “Ballpark: Fenway, with Tears,” in The Ultimate Baseball Book, edited by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, p. 345.

Don Schiffer, editor, The Major League Baseball Handbook 1961, New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961, p. 66.

Bill Wise, editor, 1964 Official Baseball Almanac, Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1964, p. 160.

W.R. Burnett, The Roar of the Crowd: Conversations with an Ex-Big Leaguer, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1964, pp. 30-32.

Roger Angell, The Summer Game, New York: Popular Library, 1972, p. 62.

Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2003, p. 200.

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