Though it would not be until 1947 that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, the 1940’s were already an unusual decade in baseball history. Though the game continued through the Second World War, numerous players missed part or all of multiple seasons. Five different teams won the pennant in each league, including the Boston Braves (making their last World Series appearance in that city) and the Chicago Cubs, making their last World Series appearance to date.
The question has to be raised then, with the parity prompted by players missing time and the Yankees going through—by the standards of the surrounding ones—an off decade, would that produce a less talented team?
Before we get to answering that question, let’s do a brief once-over of the rules for picking 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: Walker Cooper
A seven-time All-Star during the decade, Cooper wins the position in a narrow race over Ernie Lombardi. Lombardi was a superior hitter—he won the 1942 batting title and put up an OPS+ nearly 10 points higher—but was a catcher in name only for much of the decade. Meanwhile, Cooper was well-regarded defensively, a fact backed up at least in part by his strong caught stealing numbers—better than league average for his career. Also, Walker’s brother Mort made the team as the fifth starter, and I will admit the idea of a brother battery appeals.
First Base: Johnny Mize
Mize was known as “The Big Cat,” (a nickname later passed on to Andres Galarraga), and put up a .954 OPS for the decade. Only three players put up a higher number during the decade, all of them teammates on the decade squad. Mize’s overalls numbers in the decade, 217 HR, and 744 RBI, may seem relatively low but it must be remembered that he spent three full seasons of baseball in military service. Despite that, Mize still slugged the second most home runs of any player in the 1940s and was in the top 10 for RBI.
Second Base: Joe Gordon
The first “Flash” Gordon, Joe made his debut in 1938, and by the time the 1940s had rolled around, was into his prime. In 1942 he won the American League MVP, and though Ted Williams was probably the best player in the league that year, Gordon was still excellent. He posted a .900 OPS, good for fourth in the league and did so while playing a strong second base.
|Great hitters get honors, like a Stan Musial statue(US Presswire)|
After returning from wartime service—Gordon missed the 1944 and 1945 seasons—he struggled in 1946 and the Yankees sent him to Cleveland for Allie Reynolds. Gordon rebounded in Cleveland, posting two of the best seasons of his career, and helping the Indians win the World Series, along with a player we’ll hear more about shortly.
Third Base: Bob Elliott
The subject of this 2010 column by your humble correspondent, and recipient of one of my all-time favorite nicknames—Mr. Team—Elliott led third basemen in every major offensive category throughout the decade except home runs. Elliott won the 1947 MVP, a year in which he batted .317 with 35 doubles, both good for second in the league. Overall, no one drove in more runs during the ‘40s than Elliott’s 903.
Shortstop: Lou Boudreau
And here we meet Gordon’s teammate referenced above. Boudreau timed his career nearly perfectly for the purposes of the team, playing his third season—but first full one—in 1940. That season he finished fifth in the MVP voting, the first of eight top 10 MVP finishes he would post during the decade. The best of those seasons came in 1948 when Boudreau batted .355 and posted a WAR of 10.4—still one of the five or 10 greatest shortstop seasons of all-time.
Even more impressive was that Boudreau accomplished all that he did as a player-manager—in fact, he won nearly 1,200 games for his managerial career and remains the last player-manager to win a title.
Left Field: Ted Williams
I’m just going to go ahead and say this now so no one has to act surprised later: the outfield for his team is just insanely talented. I haven’t done all the outfields yet, but the chance of a decade topping this one is basically none.
While this is good for the team, it makes my life difficult. There’s not a lot of insight one can offer on Ted Williams that hasn’t already been said. The man could be an indifferent defender but was an astonishing hitter. Despite missing three full seasons thanks to military service, Williams led Major League Baseball in home runs, runs and walks during the decade.
Center Field: Joe DiMaggio
Like Williams, “The Yankee Clipper,” lost three seasons of the decade to wartime service. And like Williams, though it held his totals down, he still ended up with numbers most players would be thrilled to have. For the decade, despite playing just seven full seasons, DiMaggio won two MVP awards, a batting title, and a home run title.
Of course, DiMaggio put up those numbers playing the cavernous original Yankee Stadium and did it all while patrolling center field in a brilliant manner. There are a lot of great center fielders, but Joe DiMaggio deserves to be on the short list for the greatest of all-time.
Right Field: Stan Musial
I’m aware that no one really thinks of Stan Musial has a right fielder. And it is true he played far more games at first base (1,029) and in left field (929) than he did in right (785). The rules say, though, that a player is eligible at any position in which he played 500 games. As great as Musial is, he would not push Ted Williams out of left field. And though Musial is a superior player to Mize—something that tells us more about Musial than Mize—there’s no reason to knock The Big Cat off the team. So instead The Man slots into the right field.
For this decade, Musial put up an OPS over 1.000, won three batting titles, the 1948 Triple Crown award and three MVP awards. Musial might be slightly out of position in right field, but with offensive production like that, I imagine the team can live with it.
Starting Pitchers: Hal Newhouser, Bob Feller, Dizzy Trout, Mort Cooper, Dutch Leonard
I suppose there must be some fans who know Hal Newhouser only as the Astros’ scout who resigned in protest when the team drafted Phil Nevin over his preferred choice of Derek Jeter. At least he got the last laugh. Nonetheless, Newhouser deserves to be remembered more for his feats on the mound. Four times a 20-game winner, he was brilliant through the decade, winning the MVP award back-to-back in 1944 and ’45, years during which he went a combined 54-18 with a 2.01 ERA while averaging 313 innings.
|Or a Ted Williams stamp (US Presswire)|
During the decade 2000-09, only four players (Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and Roy Halladay) won more than 137 games. That happens to be the exact total Bob Feller posted during the 1940s. And that was despite Feller serving during the 1942 through 1944 seasons and pitching in only nine games during the ’45 campaign.
Of course, the game has changed a fair amount but Feller’s greatness—he led the AL in strikeouts in all but one of his full seasons—is worth remembering.
The number two pitcher behind Newhouse on many of the great Tiger teams of the decade, Trout here slots in to the number three spot in the rotation. For the decade, he won 126 games and his brilliant pitching in the 1945 World Series—just one earned run in nearly 14 innings—helped the Tigers to the title.
Brother of Walker, Mort Cooper threw 31 shutouts during the decade, a number bettered by no pitcher. Cooper’s feat is even more impressive when you consider the rest of the top five in shutouts for the decade (a list that includes Newhouser, Feller and Trout) averaged more than 250 starts, while Cooper had just 210.
Recently played by former Major Leaguer CJ Nitkowski in 42—though the actual Leonard was a righty—“Dutch” spent time with four times over his 20 year career. He spent most of the 40s with the Senators, winning as many 18 games and making the All-Star team three times on the strength of his knuckleball.
Relief Pitcher: Hugh Casey
This is the first decade in which there are multiple good choices as a reliever who were well and truly relievers. In addition to Casey, there was Johnny Murphy, the choice of the last decade who remained effective until his final Major League season in 1947. There’s also Joe Page, who twice finished in the top five in MVP voting and was christened “The Gay Reliever,” thus reminding us that meant something else back then.
Casey spent all of the 1943-45 seasons in military service, but still managed to record 54 saves in the decade, second only to Page. He was particularly brilliant in 1946; returning to the game, Casey threw an eyelash shy of 100 innings with a 1.99 ERA and finished 27 games for the Dodgers.
Manager: Billy Southworth
Possibly because his greatest success came during 1942-44, a period when baseball was viewed (correctly, to some extent) as weakened by players serving in the Second World War—and the country was a little more focused on that anyway—Southworth is largely forgotten in popular baseball history. When it comes to managing in this decade though, no one had more success. During that ’42-44 period, Southworth’s Cards won either 105 or 106 games, and overall he posted a .615 winning percentage for the decade—the equivalent of a nearly 100 wins in a modern schedule. Of course, Southworth wasn’t just winning games, he also took teams to four World Series during the ‘40s, twice ending the year as World Champion.