The all-decade team: the ‘20s

After an extended break—but continuing our pace of a team per month—we come again to the best players from each decade. This week we look at the best of the 1920s, a decade that saw an offensive explosion. We shall see if that leads to a great team.

As a quick reminder, to qualify for any non-pitching position, a player must have played at least 500 games there during his career—though not necessarily during the decade in question. For starting pitchers, we require at least 200 starts in a given decade. Until we hit the more modern usage patterns, relief pitchers will be selected at my discretion, with no game or inning requirements.

Those requirements aside, all that matters is greatness. So let’s proceed:

Catcher: Wally Schang

Overhis career, Schang won four World Series (1913, 1918, 1923 and 1930) with three different teams (Athletics, Red Sox and Yankees). He was also part of three other pennant winning teams. On the other hand, Schang was part of the 1916 Phillies (losers of 117 games) and St. Louis Browns teams that lost more than 90 games in back-to-back seasons.

For his part, Schang was a pretty good player, able to contribute to World Series winners, but not so good as to make up for the failings of his less talented teammates on losing squads. Schang was six times a .300 or better hitter, and at the time of his retirement, he was one of just five catchers with over 100 stolen bases. He remains eighth all-time in catcher steals.

Three members of the all-’20s team, honored in Yankee Stadium (Richard Barbieri)

First base: Lou Gehrig

There’s not much to say about Gehrig that hasn’t already, so instead I’ll talk a bit about Joe Judge who was the second best first baseman of the 1920s. Just for the record, the distance between Gehrig and Judge is predictably large, nearly a win per year.

Like Gehrig, Judge was born in New York City and grew up on the Upper East Side. Also like Gehrig, Judge established himself as a regular at age 22, playing 103 games in 1916 for the Senators. His numbers somewhat held down by the hitting environment of Washington’s Griffith Stadium—in 1917 Judge’s 140 OPS+ translated to just a .783 OPS—Judge was still never a truly great player. Nonetheless, he was consistent, dropping below a 2.5 WAR just three times from 1917 through 1930, while never topping 3.9 WAR in those years.

Judge’s finest moments came in the 1924 World Series, when he batted .385 with a .907 OPS, helping the Senators win their only World Series in Washington.

Second base: Rogers Hornsby

Hornsby’s domination over the other second basemen of the ’20s is notable. While Gehrig is almost a win per season higher over Joe Judge, Hornsby’s competition includes Hall of Famers like Frankie Frisch, Eddie Collins and Tony Lazzeri. When it comes to this decade, Hornsby simply laps the field. By WAR, he was almost four wins per year better than any other second baseman in the decade. Even cutting that number in half gives Hornsby a ridiculous advantage over some truly excellent players for a decade.

Third base: Pie Traynor

This is a close thing. Willie Kamm, who spent the decade playing for the White Sox, was almost as great a player as Traynor by some measures, and did it despite not debuting until 1923. Nonetheless, those measures give Kamm a large amount of defense credit, which I am not fully confident about given the nature of the statistics.

“Pie” is not a given name, of course. Traynor earned the nickname as a child—it was originally “Pie Face”—because of his constant requests for pie from a local shopkeeper. A lifelong Pirate who settled in the city and stayed long after his career ended, Traynor led third basemen in the ’20s in runs, hits, RBI, triples and batting average.

Shortstop: Joe Sewell

Like Rick Cerone and an unfortunate handful of others, Joe Sewell earned his starting job replacing a player—in this case, Ray Chapman—who died in the midst of his career. There’s not really a nice way to put this, but it must be conceded that the Indians were lucky to have Sewell waiting. Just 21 when he made his debut, he was a major league caliber player and would end up with a Hall of Fame career.

Joe Sewell, by the way, is the best of the Sewell Clan, which had three others in the major leagues: brothers Luke and Tommy and cousin Rip. Rip Sewell, a two-time 20-game winner for the Pirates and three-time All-Star, was the second best, followed by Luke Sewell (an All-Star in 1937 but otherwise a relatively mediocre player) with Tommy Sewell—owner of just one major league at-batr—bringing up the rear.

Left field: Babe Ruth

You’ve probably heard of this fellow. Ruth actually qualifies as both the left and right fielder for this team, but he slots into left because the second place man in right—about whom more momentarily, of course—is superior to the second place man in right. Also because we can’t have Ruth trying to man both outfield corners; even for the younger, thinner Ruth that’s probably a bridge too far.

Tris Speaker’s 1911 baseball card (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

1920 was Ruth’s first full-season as a position player, and he predictably dominates the offensive leader boards for the decade. He hit 217 more home runs than second place Rogers Hornsby, which is the same as the gap from Horsnby to Bernie Freiberg, who hit the 38th most home runs in the decade. Ruth is also the decade leader in RBI, runs, walks and—by nearly 150 points—OPS.

Center field: Tris Speaker

Known as “The Grey Eagle,” apparently for his hair color, Speaker was a dazzling center fielder and outstanding offensive player. Eight times the league leader in doubles (he is still first on that list with 792—no active player is within 200 of that number) Speaker was a lifetime .345 hitter, good for sixth all-time. Perhaps the greatest testament to Speaker’s abilities is that while he was finished as a full-time player after the 1927 season, and did not play in the major leagues at all in 1929, his performance earlier in the decade was still good enough to earn him the spot on the team.

Right field: Harry Heilmann

Heilmann, as I mentioned above, slots into right field while Ruth mans left. Despite being nicknamed “Slug,” owing to his slow foot speed, Heilmann was a terrific player. A four-time batting champion, he hit a collective .364 in the decade, while recording nearly 650 extra base hits. Over his career, he logged 542 doubles, at the time of his retirement the third-most all-time behind only Tigers teammate Ty Cobb and all-’20s teammate Speaker. His doubles total remains in the top 30 all-time, while his career .342 average is good for 12th.

Starting pitchers: Dazzy Vance, Pete Alexander, Red Faber, Eddie Rommel, Urban Shocker

Prior to the 1922 season, Dazzy Vance had not appeared in the major leagues since 1918, having put an ERA of nearly five across parts of several seasons. He spent the 1920 and 1921 seasons pitching for the likes of the Memphis Chickasaws and New Orleans Pelicans. In 1922, he returned to the majors for Brooklyn, a team in need of pitching after giving most of its starts the season before to players with a worse than average ERA. It was a revelation. It would not be until 1928 that a player other than Vance led the league in strikeouts, and from 1922 through 1930 he averaged 18 wins and led the league in ERA three times. In 1955, he was voted into the Hall of Fame, an unlikely ending for a man who had seemed—less than 35 years earlier—doomed to a career in the minors.

I covered Alexander—brilliant on the mound, furiously and emphatically alcoholic off it—last month, so we’ll move on to Urban “Red” Faber. The career-long member of the White Sox was a terrific pitcher, twice the American League ERA leader during the decade and winner of nearly 150 games.

In 1921, Eddie Rommel—sometimes credited as the “father” of the modern knuckleball—led the league in losses with 23. The next season, he won 27 games to lead the league. In 1923, he lost 19 games to once again lead the league in losses. That’s a pretty remarkable three-year stretch. Even with his rough loss seasons, Rommel was a strong pitcher through the decade, finishing with 154 wins and an ERA+ of 123.

Urban Shocker is not, as I claimed in an earlier column this year, the all-time home run leader whose names starts with “U.” He was still a terrific pitcher, though. From 1920 through 1923 the St. Louis Browns won 324 games. Urban Shocker accounted for more than a quarter of those wins, work for which he was twice rewarded with MVP support. Overall in the decade, he won more than 155 games, doing so while walking just two men per nine innings.

Relief Pitcher: Firpo Marberry

Marberry is the first time we have had a player in this spot who was, in any meaningful sense of a term, a relief pitcher. By 1926, Marberry owned both the single-season and career saves record. He would hold the dual title until 1945 and the single-season reason until 1949. At the time his retirement in 1936, his 101 saves were 44 ahead of second place Jack Quinn, and Marberry was the only player to appear in 500 games while starting fewer than 200.

Of course, Marberry would not have had a chance to earn all those appearances were he not effective in relief. In Washington’s World Series winning 1924, he recorded 15 saves while throwing nearly 200 innings (he also started 14 games) with a 132 ERA+ and allowed just one earned run in eight innings during the World Series while recording two saves.

Manager: Miller Huggins

Standing at either 5-foot-5 or 5-foot-6 and known as “Mighty Mite,” Huggins represents the first all-decade manager who never played for the team he managed. Over the decade with the Yankees, Huggins won the 1923, 1927 and 1928 World Series, as well as the 1921, 1922 and 1926 American League pennants. Six times the Yankees won 90 or more games.

Including an earlier stint managing the St. Louis Cardinals, Huggins won just over 1,400 games. His total still puts him in the top-25 all-time, but it is likely he would be far higher had he not died at age 50 while still Yankee manager. He was honored by the team by having the first monument installed in Yankee Stadium.

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  1. Paul Moehringer said...

    Only addition thing I really question is why Dolf Luque or Burleigh Grimes aren’t on the starting staff.

    If your just looking at the 1920’s, I’ll take either of those two over anybody with maybe the exception of Dazzy Vance.

    Think everything else though is pretty much right.  Good note on Marberry.  That’s the true modern styled relief pitcher that I’m aware of in baseball history.

  2. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Mickey Cochrane is a strange omission, also Al Simmons. Grimes should be one of the pitchers. Otherwise, no one can really argue.

  3. Paul Moehringer said...

    The tough part with guys like Cochrane and Simmons for lists like this is their career is too spread out over two decades.

    Neither one gets going until the middle of the decade which unfortunately I think has to be held against them.

    They still have enough years to make a strong and in terms of all-time I don’t think anyone would argue Shang over Cochrane and most people I would think most would put Simmons over Heilmann. (assuming Ruth moves to right if Simmons is in the lineup)  But if your just looking at the 1920’s I have to give the edge to Shang over Cochrane and with Heilmann its not even close with Simmons.

  4. Red Nichols said...

    I love reacquainting myself with heroes of the distant past.  No quibbles with Gehrig, obviously, but I would’ve gone with George Sisler as backup at first.  Joe Judge? Don’t think so.  Sisler hit better than .400 in both 1920 and ‘22 and, granted that his numbers declined in the later years of the decade, was a far superior hitter (and presumably fielder) than Joe J.  .  .

  5. dildo baggins said...

    simmons and cochrane don’t show up in mlb til the middle of the decade.

    grimes, on the other hand, is an obvious oversight…

  6. Ivan_Grushenko said...

    I’m not sure why you’re not including black players, but if you did, Biz Mackey, Dick Lundy, Jud Wilson, Oscar Charleston and Cristobal Torriente might be better than their white counterparts at their respective positions.  For that matter Dobie Moore, John Beckwith, and Turkey Stearnes might also have been better than any white player at their position.  Mule Suttles and George Scales may have been better than any white player at their position other than Gehrig and Hornsby.  Martin Dihigo might have improved that pitching staff.  I suppose you probably explained your exclusion in an earlier article, but this one says “we come again to the best players from each decade” and “all that matters is greatness”.  I’d add skin color to that.  BTW, among whites, Gabby Hartnett deserves some sort of mention.

  7. NastyNate82 said...

    Ivan, some good points on black players. I think lots of people know Satch, Gibson, and Buck Leonard (deservedly so) but the 20’s really was their Golden Age. Probably moreso with the position players than the pitchers, though as the later Negro Leagues seemed to have better pitching.
    I’d argue you you’re right on Biz, Beckwith, Lundy and Charleston (and thats a LOADED OF to break into). But I don’t think Torriente or Stearnes bests Heilmann or Ruth, and I’m not sure where Wilson plays, as he kind of struck me as a butcher wherever he played.

  8. Paul Moehringer said...

    The problem with putting Negro League players on any list like this is you don’t know if an Oscar Charleston was better then a Tris Speaker.  You can’t make much of an argument either way.  All you can say is person X saw him and said this player was better.

    But that’s the real lasting tragedy of the Negro Leagues.  All you have to go on is myth and legend with these guys.  You know guys like Charleston, Paige and Gibson were great.  You just don’t know how great.

  9. Ivan_Grushenko said...

    “But I don’t think Torriente or Stearnes bests Heilmann or Ruth, and I’m not sure where Wilson plays, as he kind of struck me as a butcher wherever he played.”

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear on this, but I wasn’t including Ruth when I said Torriente and/or Stearnes might have been better than the white players at their position.  I meant they might have been able to break into the OF at the other two positions.  Regarding Speaker, his best years were in the ‘10s so if you just count his ‘20s years I’m not sure whether he would or would not have been better than Charleston, Torriente or Stearnes.  In any case if black players were going to be excluded, I would have liked to have seen the author state that the article was only about white players.

  10. Bill Rubinstein said...

    One of the worst aspects of excluding black players is not that we don’t really know how good they were, but how bad they were, so every Negro League player, it seems, would have hit .450 with 75 home runs, or gone 28-2 with an 0.75 era.Obviously they wouldn’t. My guess is that Charleston, Stearnes, Bell, and Bill Foster might have made the 1920s All Star team, but who knows? Also, I agree that Gabby Hartnett, a really underrated player, should be considered. Another very underrated player was the pitcher Stan Coveleski, who should also be considered- another underrated player.

  11. northern rebel said...

    Dude, I’m so aware of the negligence, if that word can compensate for the evils of segregation.

    But we are talking about history, and nothing can change history.

    So…… let’s discuss major league baseball.

  12. AndrewJ said...

    Interesting Joe Judge fact: His daughter dated a young novelist named Douglass Wallop, who would later write The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (a/k/a Damn Yankees). Apparently Joe Judge—a .300 hitter who led the lowly Senators to a real-life World Series title—inspired the name Joe Hardy.

  13. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Another pitcher worth considering for this team is Carl Mays. Whatever his personal deficiencies, he was a great pitcher.

  14. Cliff Blau said...

    The Indians didn’t have Joe Sewell waiting when Chapman died.  They had to go out and get him from New Orleans, meanwhile using Harry Lunte.

  15. NastyNate82 said...

    I understand, thanks for the clarification. And you’re probably right on Speaker, as effective as he was thru much of the 20’s, he wasn’t quite as good as he was in the 10’s. Interesting, I think from what I’ve read about Charleston, he seems very similar to Speaker as a player: lefthanded, very fast, very good fielder, great all-around hitter. Speaker would certainly be much better remembered had he come into playing 10-15 years later with the lively ball.
    As far as other players mentioned…Sisler really doesn’t fit. He had three monster years at the beginning of the decade, then got some sort of odd eye ailment that impaired his vision, I believe. Anyway, from 1924 on, he was not that great. Gehrig, even though he was a regular for the last 5 years, was very good from the moment he started. Hartnett definitely deserves a mention, as basically the first power-hitting catcher AND a defensive standout.

  16. NastyNate82 said...


    Interesting point on the Negro League statistics. The quality of play seemed to vary greatly: while you may have 2-3 players on a team who could actually be MLB regulars, the rest of the team may be equivalent to a high A minor league team.
    Currently, I’m reading Buck Leonard’s autobiography and he touches on this somewhat. He mentions in some of their spring training games, they played some MLB teams and states that even though the Negro League players had players who could certainly play in the majors, if the Negro League TEAMS played regularly against them, they would have been beaten fairly often.
    As far as including the Negro League players into a conversation like this, I don’t really mind it. A little inclusion of myth and legend doesn’t hurt.

  17. Coach T said...

    Not sure, how you leave Ty Cobb off this list. Not sure how he wasn’t mentioned in comments yet. Best lifetime avg of any player. WAY more RBI than Tris. Same HR total. Maybe not the fielder that Tris was, but no question the better overall player.

    Negro leagues while shameful that it happened, cannot be compared. For the same reason we can’t compare today’s players to the past. Competition was not the same.

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