The all-decade team: the ‘30s

A couple of weeks ago we ran through the best players of the 1920s, and this week we jump forward into the 1930s. Though not the best decade for America (or the world) it remains to be seen if baseball talent could nonetheless flourish.

Before we find out, a quick digression to discuss the Negro Leagues. As several commenters have pointed out, these teams do not feature any Negro League players. Obviously, there is no denying the talent of many in the Negro Leagues—or the injustice of their exclusion from the major leagues. Nonetheless, rating Negro Leaguers is difficult and somewhat subjective at best, even for those with a strong knowledge of Negro League history. (That’s a group which, regrettably, does not include me.)

Presented with the rock-and-a-hard-place choice of making badly educated guesses, or no guesses at all, I choose the latter. This should not be taken to mean that the best of the Negro Leagues would not qualify for these teams, but is a reflection on the difficulty of evaluating their quality and—above all else—my ignorance on the subject.

Let’s quickly review the rules used to select the players. 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, to appear on the team requires 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.

Catcher: Bill Dickey.
A six-time All-Star during the decade, and 11-times overall, Dickey was the backstop for seven World Series winning teams. During the 1930s he hit .320 with a .902 OPS, and led all catchers in home runs, runs, hits, doubles, triples and RBIs. Though the decade saw some other excellent catchers—not the least Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett— there is no question this position belongs to Dickey.

First base: Lou Gehrig.
No, wait, Jimmie Foxx. No, never mind, it’s Gehrig. Really, there is no “right” answer here. For the decade, Gehrig and Foxx each put up a 1.091 OPS. It is true that The Iron Horse did it in a tougher hitting environment (his OPS+ is 181 to Foxx’s 173) but then, Double X played in more games.

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Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and others at the 1937 All-Star Game (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The difference between the two is razor thin. WAR says that the difference between the two was less than half a win for the course of decade. WAR also ranks the best season of the decade for each as equally valuable. For each point in favor of one player, there is a point in the other’s favor: Foxx hit more home runs, but Gehrig drew more walks and so on. In the end I flipped a coin in my (Yankees fan) head, and it comes up heads. Gehrig gets the spot.

Second base: Charlie Gehringer.
Gehringer—as I’ve probably said before—,has one of my all-time favorite nicknames: The Mechanical Man. It was so coined by Lefty Gomez, based on Gehringer’s consistency. The 1930s were the Mechanical Man’s best decade, including his brilliant 1937 season. That year he hit .371 to lead the league and won the MVP award. He might have been even better in 1934 when he led the league in runs and hits and was edged out for the MVP by teammate Cochrane.

Third base: Harlond Clift.
Poor Clift is the only non-Hall of Famer in the infield. I hope the other guys don’t make him feel bad. If we’re being honest, Clift is the best of a relatively uninspired collection. Other prominent third baseman in the decade include Red Rolfe and Stan Hack—certainly above-average players but not Hall of Fame quality.

For his part, Clift posted an .886 OPS during the decade, in large part thanks to his slugging 123 home runs. No other third baseman reached even 90.

Shortstop: Arky Vaughan.
Another good battle for a position here between Hall of Famers, with Vaughan narrowly outdoing Joe Cronin. Vaughan did not debut until 1932 but was a brilliant player almost instantly, posting seasons with a WAR better than six and a half in five of his first seven seasons.

Cronin was nearly as good—and he played every year of the decade. He probably deserves some credit for not only playing a brilliant shortstop but also managing for most of the decade. (He led the Senators to the World Series in 1933 and would finish under .500 just twice in the decade.)

Despite this, ultimately the position must go based on what each man did on the field and since we already have a manager—more on him coming shortly—shortstop belongs to Vaughan.

Left field: Joe Medwick.
And here we are at another close-run thing between two Hall of Famers. In one corner is Joe “Ducky” Medwick, winner of the 1937 MVP. That year Medwick won the Triple Crown while leading the league in doubles for the second of three consecutive years. Despite not playing 100 games in a season until 1933, Medwick was third in the decade in doubles. Plus, he’s got that awesome nickname—shortened from “Ducky Wucky”—based on his style of walking.

In the other corner is Al Simmons. The 1930 and ’31 batting champion (he hit a combined .385 those years), Simmons led the decade’s left fielders in runs, hits, home runs, doubles and RBIs. While he can’t compete with Medwick in the nickname department, it is also true that his given name was “Aloysius,” which has to count for something.

While Simmons and Medwick are close in overall value, in the end of the position has to go to Medwick, who accumulated the same value in almost 225 fewer games.

Center field: Earl Averill.
Known as “The Earl of Snohomish,” one of the great nicknames in baseball history, Averill spent most of his career in Cleveland. The topic of this 2011 column I wrote, Averill was a six-time All-Star and nearly won the 1936 batting title, falling short despite a .378 average. Averill made his debut at age 27, though he was probably ready before that; he hit nearly .350 at age 24 for the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League.

Because he started late, Averill’s career numbers are understandably low. Despite being a .318 career hitter, he had just over 2,000 hits, but he nonetheless earned Hall of Fame election through the Veterans Committee in 1975.

Right field: Mel Ott.
As with Averill, I wrote a whole column on Ott, a truly great player whose greatness has faded somewhat into obscurity. At one point, Ott was the Bryce Harper or Mike Trout of his time. In fact, until Harper’s season last year, Ott could lay claim to the greatest age-19 season in baseball history. Trout’s brilliant season last year also knocked Ott off the top of the list for greatest players through age 20.

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Joe McCarthy with Giants’ skipper Bill Terry (Library of Congress)

Of course, Ott was a great player past age 20, leading the league in home runs five times. In the 1930s, no National League player had more homers, runs, RBIs or walks than “Master Melvin,” which gives him this spot with little question.

Starting pitchers: Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Mel Harder, Lefty Gomez, Dizzy Dean

There are a lot of choices for the greatest pitcher of all time. Walter Johnson certainly has a case, as do modern pitchers like Tom Seaver and Greg Maddux. Whoever’s on your short list for that title, however, Lefty Grove has to be one of them. Grove led the league in ERA an incredible nine times, including six times during the 1930s. Over his career, he won exactly 300 games, against just 141 losses. No pitcher with at least 400 decisions has a better winning percentage. Perhaps most incredibly, Grove led the league in strikeouts in each of his first seven seasons in the league. When he retired after the 1941 season, only Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson had more strikeouts, and both did it with more than 4,500 innings, while Grove pitched fewer than 4,000 in his career.

Known as the “Meal Ticket,” Hubbell was the ace of the great Giants teams that went to three World Series in the ‘30s. During the decade, Hubbell led the National League in wins, strikeouts and ERA—essentially a pitcher’s Triple Crown for an entire decade.

Mel Harder is something of an obscure name on this list. The career-long Cleveland Indian was nonetheless an often excellent pitcher during the decade, winning 158 games and shining for some often-mediocre Tribe teams. A four-time All Star, Harder’s had his prime from 1933 to 1935 when he won 57 games with a 2.96 ERA.

If Harder has fallen into obscurity, Lefty Gomez is perhaps the best remembered winner of 189 games in baseball history. Of course, Gomez worked hard at being remembered. He is, at least according to widely accepted legend, the man who said that Jimmie Foxx has “muscles in his hair.” More than anything else, Gomez is remembered for his wit at his own expense: “One rule I had was make your best pitch and back up third base. That relay might get away and you’ve got another shot at him,” and so on. Of course, despite the self-deprecation, Gomez was pretty good, twice the American League’s ERA winner and owner of a 2.86 ERA and 6-0 record in the World Series.

And speaking of people better known for their talking than the pitching, here’s Dizzy Dean. At his prime, Dean was an overwhelmingly dominant pitcher. From 1932 through 1936 Dean struck out 970 batters, while other pitcher topped 800. For good measure, he also led the league in both wins and saves during that period. Dean was injured in the 1937 All-Star Game and out of the major leagues by the 1942 season. It was then that Dean began his broadcasting career, in which he would be (in)famous for his exaggerated struggles with the English language.

Relief pitcher: Johnny Murphy.
Firpo Marberry may have been the first man regularly used a reliever, but the role did not truly stick. After Marberry’s 22-save season in 1926, there was not another season of greater than 20 saves until 1949. That does not mean the idea was totally forgotten. During this decade, “Grandma” Johnny Murphy—supposedly so nicknamed from his “incessant complaining about meals and accommodations”—recorded more than 50 saves, a total greater than the 39 games he started during the decade.

Murphy’s performance out of the bullpen earned him three trips to the All-Star game in the decade, and he posted a 1.10 ERA with four saves in eight postseason appearances.

Despite his feats on the mound, his greatest fame came later. In 1967 he took over as the general manager of the Mets and served in that role through their title as the “Miracle Mets” in 1969. He died of a heart attack early the next year.

Manager: Joe McCarthy.
In his career, McCarthy never managed a season with a team under .500, winning nine pennants, and seven World Series titles. One could argue that McCarthy had the most successful decade of any manager in baseball history during the 1930s. After one season during which he posted a .573 winning percentage with the Cubs, McCarthy took over in New York. For the next nine seasons, the Yankees averaged more than 98 wins. They never finished worse than second and won all five of the World Series in which they appeared, including four in a row from 1936 to 1939.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    I have no quarrel with your choice of Mel Harder but propose an alternative to consider-Lon Warneke. Like Harder, he has faded some into obscurity but was a fine pitcher throughout the decade. And as you like nicknames, I think “The Arkansas Hummingbird” is quite poetic.

    Like Harder he was a 4 time all-star and also received MVP votes 6 times, one year coming in second. (Harder received votes 4 times with a high mark of 16.)

    Warneke’s peak was probably 1932-35 when he won 82 games with an ERA of 2.66. His ERA+ those 4 years were 160, 165, 122, 129 while Harder’s were 152, 133, 137. Harder won 14 more games during the decade but also lost 38 more, albeit pitching for poorer teams, it is true.

    I can’t assert he deserves the spot over Harder, but wanted to mention him as a reasonable choice.

  2. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Most of these choices are straightforward. Stan Hack was better than Clift, who is indeed undeservedly unknown.As the previous comment noted, DiMaggio was a better choice for center field- in his first four years he was widely regarded as Babe Ruth’s successor, and of course helped the Yanks to four WS titles. Red Ruffing and Wes Ferrell should have been considered as pitchers. Hank Greenberg, Bill Terry, and Johnny Mize would have been automatic First Base choices in many decades, but are left out here.

  3. Jerry Wood said...

    I like the series – keep it coming.  I think the problem of judging the players in the negro league is a part of a bigger issue. When we view the pre WW II era of MLB the tendency is to view it, as it is today, the ultimate baseball league.  I think as we come into the 1930s that we can begin to see this happening, but really that only happens in 1950s.  Earl Averill, as you point out, thrived in the PCL.  I kind of suspect there were some great players in the early era, who chose not to play MLB, for various reasons, who could have been very competent players – but now are forgotten (or else at the very least remembered as career ‘minor leaguers’).

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    You mention that Ott’s greatness has faded from memory to some extent. The other great 1930s right fielder who has also been largely forgotten is Paul Waner. Ott certainly should be the pick for the all 1930s team, but Waner also deserves to be remembered as a truly great player.

  5. 87 Cards said...

    Charlie Gehringer’s numbers and character impress me.  His first manager, Ty Cobb, a man of few positive words about players said of Charlie “He’d say hello at the start of Spring Training and goodbye at the end of the season and the rest of the time he let his bat and glove do all the talking for him.”

  6. Dave said...

    Wasn’t Earl Torgeson the Earl of Snohomish?  I know they are both from Snohomish, WA, but I didn’t think the name had been used for Averill.  Maybe Averill had other notable things so writers don’t mention it so much.

    I guess that makes Torgeson the 2nd best baseball playing Earl that was born in Snohomish and died in Everett in MLB history.  Kind of like being the 2nd best left-handed hitting OF born on November 21 in Donora, PA, in MLB history.

  7. A different Dave said...

    Ducky is a great nickname, but don’t forget that Al Simmons was “Bucketfoot Al”, so named for his batting style.  That’s not a bad nickname either.  Nice article, keep ‘em coming.

  8. Carl said...

    Richard,

    Awesome series of articles. 

    As the CF position is relatively weak, does Mr. Dimaggio not deserve the position, despite missing half the decade?  From 36-39 he was pretty dominent and already had led the league in runs, BA, TB, SLG, triples, won an MVP and had not one but two 8.0+ WAR seasons.

  9. northern rebel said...

    Kudos for picking Harland Clift! He was the first power hitting 3bagger, walked a ton, and was by far the best fielder at his position.

    In 1937, Clift produced an astounding 4.1 total chances per game, with 405 assists! These totals are more often than not found in the 1890’s, when fielding percentages were under.900.

    Clift is truly a forgotten man, and it’s nice to see him recognized for his considerable talents.

  10. Bill Rubinstein said...

    One interesting point about Charlie Gehringer which has not been widely noted is that in interviews with former Negro League players (conducted many years later) Gehringer was often said to be the best white Major League hitter they played against in exhibition games. I think Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell said this,among others. Gehringer must have read Negro League pitching very well.

  11. Philip said...

    To answer Dave’s question:

    Averill’s obit in the The Spokesman-Review on Aug 18, 1983 led with the title, ‘‘The Earl of Snohomish.”

    Later, Torgeson acquired the nickname, too.

    Just a thought about third base without delving in too much:

    Clift played full-time at 3rd the last six years of the decade, hitting .300 twice, received MVP votes in two seasons and was an All-Star in 1937. His net WAR for the decade was

    Hall of Famer Pie Traynor, however, played full-time the first five years of the decade and had 220 at bats in 1935. He hit .300 four times, received MVP votes in three different seasons and was an All-Star twice. His net WAR for the decade was 13.2.

    A statistical argument can certainly be made for Clift. Richard acknowledged that ‘‘Clift is the only non-Hall of Famer in the infield.’’ Yet, the hot corner need not be missing its Hall of Famer if Traynor is the choice.

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