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.
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.