“The Golden Age of Baseball” is, in addition to being an incredibly loaded term, also a hotly debated one. If there is one decade to which the term applies, for better or worse, that would be the 1950s. By the end of the decade, every team had integrated and though it was dominated by the New York teams—who would win 14 of the 20 pennants—it remains the image of idealized baseball.
But does being in many a mind’s eye baseball perfection mean that the 1950s can produce a team better than that of any other decade? We’ll attempt to answer that question momentarily. First, we shall once again review the rules selecting this team: 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 pattern (and we’re getting close) relief pitchers will be selected at my discretion, with no game or inning requirements.
Catcher: Yogi Berra
In 1950, Yogi Berra finished third in the American League’s MVP voting. It would not be until 1957 that he finished outside of the top four—including winning the award in 1951, ’54 and ’55. Only six other players, including Berra’s runner-up at catcher, Roy Campanella, ever won three MVP awards within a single decade.
Berra led ‘50s catchers in literally every offensive counting stat: runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, and walks. Though his reputation as a defensive catcher is somewhat mixed, Berra still anchored the Yankees by playing a huge number of games behind the dish, six times playing 135 or more games there.
First baseman: Stan Musial
Musial earns an unusual distinction, the first player to appear on two different all-decade teams in different positions. Musial actually played more games at first base in his career than anyone else; he is—I believe—widely regarded as a left fielder but actually appears on neither team at that spot. That is the consequence of playing an outstanding career parallel to that of Ted Williams.
|Noted wordsmith and sometimes catcher Yogi Berra (US Presswire)|
Among first basemen in the decade—a list that also includes names like Gil Hodges and Ted Kluszewski—Musial was first in hits, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. History may not think of Musial as a first baseman, but there is no question that this spot belongs to him for the decade.
Second baseman: Jackie Robinson
More than just about any player, there is nothing to be said about Robinson that hasn’t already been said. There was a time, perhaps, when one could have at least said that Robinson was an underrated player—Hall of Fame induction notwithstanding—but that has passed. In fact, given that Robinson ranks 11th on Baseball-Reference’s Fan ELO Rater, higher than the likes of Hank Aaron and Rickey Henderson, one might even argue Robinson is slightly overrated.
Of course, not being quite to the level of Hank Aaron isn’t much of an insult. Robinson was a fantastic player, and having him at second base is an easy choice for the decade.
Third baseman: Eddie Mathews
Eddie Mathews does not lead 1950s third baseman in hits; that honor belongs to Eddie Yost. In fact, Yost leads all third baseman during the decade in runs, doubles and walks. So why does Mathews rank as the decade’s best third baseman—and do so by nearly 20 WAR? The short answer is power. Mathews hit just shy of 300 home runs over the decade. No other third baseman came within 100 home runs of that total and just two—Al Rosen and Willie Jones—hit more than 150. For his career, Mathews slugged 512 home runs, with only Mike Schmidt hitting more from the hot corner.
Mathews may not have led third basemen in many categories during this decade (though he is high on the list for virtually every offensive statistic) but his elite power gives him the position.
Shortstop: Ernie Banks
Let’s Play Two!
Sorry, I’m required by federal law to start any story about Ernie Banks with that quote. Having gotten that out of the way, we can discuss Banks in earnest. Although not a regular until 1954, and playing fewer than 1,000 games in the decade, Banks is a no-doubt selection at shortstop.
Twice the National League’s Most Valuable Player during the decade, Banks slugged nearly twice as many home runs as his nearest competitor. For the ’50s, he posted four seasons—out of just six as a regular, bear in mind—with a WAR better than seven. For good measure, Banks is also the best shortstop seen on any team since Honus Wagner on the 1900s team.
Left field: Ted Williams
You may remember that last month I said that “the chance of a decade topping [the All-40s outfield] is basically none. “ Oops. I don’t know if this month’s outfield is better than one featuring Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Musial, but it is seriously talented.
Though Williams did not miss quite as much time in the 1950s due to military service as he did in the previous decade, it still cost him all but a handful of games in the 1952 and 1953 seasons. Despite missing that time, Williams was still the dominant left fielder of the decade. He won two batting titles—coming within five hits of hitting .400 in 1957—and putting up nearly an 1.100 OPS for the decade.
Center field: Mickey Mantle
There are a lot of decades stacked with talent at a certain position, but the ’50s are in a class all themselves when it comes to center field. In addition to Mantle—who had nearly 1,400 hits and scored nearly 1,000 runs in the decade—the decade saw four other Hall of Fame center fielders in their prime: Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn and Larry Doby. That is an absolutely astonishing collection of talent at one position in a 10-year period, and a fine endorsement of Mantle’s talent that he wins out as the best of that bunch.
Right field: Hank Aaron
This may just be me, but here we go: somehow, I have a hard time imagining Hank Aaron playing in the 1950s, let alone being the best right fielder of the decade. I think the explanation for this is that the image of Aaron after his 715th home run is not only so iconic, but so very 1970s. Aaron is wearing that horrendous ‘70s Braves uniform, and even the fans who come out of the stands to run the bases with him are wearing lapels you could land a small plane on.
|Hank Aaron enjoys a laugh (US Presswire)|
Nonetheless, Aaron was terrific in the 1950s, winning the 1957 MVP and finishing third in ’56, ’58 and ’59. Overall, he hit .323 and despite playing fewer than 900 games in the decade, he ranked 15th in WAR.
Starting pitchers: Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Billy Pierce, Early Wynn, Sal Maglie
In 1950 Robin Roberts, in his third major league season, threw 304 and a third innings. He would not go below 300 until 1956—when he came within less than five innings of hitting that total once more. It is not a surprise that no one threw more innings than the Phillies’ ace. It also not surprising that he won 20 games (or more) in each of those seasons. Roberts was more than a just a horse, though. His ERA+ for the decade was nearly 120, and twice he bettered 140.
Warren Spahn, meanwhile, was no slacker in the innings pitched department, throwing more than 2,800 across the 10 years. Like Roberts, Spahn also actually performed in those innings. Despite being nearly 40 by decade’s end, he was still outstanding, winning 64 games with a 2.91 ERA in the last three years. It was also in 1957 and ’58 that Spahn helped pitch the Milwaukee Braves to the World Series, including a brilliant, though losing, effort in the ’58 World Series when he started Games One, Four and Seven and put up a 2.20 ERA.
Compared to the huge inning totals raked up by the likes of Roberts and Spahn, Billy Pierce might seem unimpressive. He never topped 275 innings in any season in the ’50s and his total of less than 2,400 innings through the decade puts him closer to the inning total of Lew Burdette (11th in ’50s innings) than the average of his rotation mates. This might seem like an insult but in fact it is a testament to just how well Pierce pitched to earn this spot.
Among those pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, only Hoyt Wilhelm and Whitey Ford posted a better ERA+ than Pierce, and he remains one of just 10 pitchers—along with names like Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Bob Gibson—to post a season with ERA+ better than 200 while throwing at least 200 innings.
Early Wynn is almost inevitably described as “glowering,” and from this I had somehow always imagined that he was of the Bob Gibson, brush-‘em-off-the-plate type. In fact, though Wynn threw more than 4,500 career innings—he is still in the top 25 all time—he hit just 64 batters in his career, and never reached double-digits in a single-season. I guess the glower did the work for him. Whatever it was, at his peak Wynn was a tremendous pitcher, twice leading the AL in wins during the ’50s and anchoring the staff of the 1954 Indians who won 111 games.
In some ways, the last starter spot was the hardest choice for any on the team. On the other one hand, you could argue it should go to Bob Rush, who pitched more than 2,000 innings in the decade, highlighted by his 1954-55 seasons when he totaled 10.7 WAR. (And went a combined 26-26 thanks to the ineptitude of the Cubs.) One could also make a strong case for either Don Newcombe or Whitey Ford. Both were brilliant when they took the mound throughout the decade, but missed two full seasons due to military service.
In the end, though, the spot goes to Sal Maglie. Though it took until he was 33 to become a regular starter—which means he was essentially finished as an effective pitcher by 1957—“The Barber” put up a 126 ERA+ for the decade and threw a shutout in nearly 10 percent of his starts. Others may have a good case, but the last rotation spot goes to Maglie.
Relief pitcher: Hoyt Wilhelm
I haven’t looked it up, but I’m guessing no player to this point played on as many teams during the decade as Wilhelm, who plied his trade for the Giants, Cardinals, Indians and Orioles. Despite bouncing around, “Old Sarge” was excellent at nearly every stop. He led the league in ERA for both the Giants (1952) and Orioles (1959). Though his 58 saves rank him tied for fourth in the decade, he was more effective than any other pitcher on the saves list outside of Ellis Kinder, who pitched substantially fewer innings in the decade.
Manager: Casey Stengel
Many managers have had a great decade at the helm of a team. In the 1920s, Miller Huggins won six pennants and three titles. In the 1990s, Bobby Cox took the Braves to five pennants and one title. Despite this, no manager ever had a better decade than Casey Stengel. Managing the Yankees, of course, “The Old Professor” won eight of the 10 pennants in the decade. Cementing Stengel’s status as owner of the best managerial decade ever, the Yankees won six of those World Series, losing only in 1955 and 1957.
The Yankees won fewer than 92 games just once during the decade—even during the 1954 season when they did not make the World Series, they still won 103 games. Stengel most assuredly had talent to work with, but his success cannot be disputed.