As I introduced last week, the year-long series for 2013 will be creating a team featuring the best players from each of baseball’s past 11 decades before running the traditional comparison column in December. (Well, two years in a row makes it a tradition, right?)
Last week I began with a team from the best players of the period prior to 1900, which will not be eligible for comparison purposes. Nonetheless, it followed the same rules as all future teams will. To wit, 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.
Other than that, the only rule is that quality is king. So let’s see who sits on the throne for the decade:
Catcher: Roger Bresnahan
This might have been the easiest choice of any position. When it comes to catchers in the Aughts, Bresnahan towers over his contemporaries. He is the decade leader in, among other things, home runs, hits, runs, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, OPS—by nearly one hundred points—and stolen bases.
To some extent, Bresnahan’s place atop those lists comes from his ability to man positions besides catcher (at one time or another in his career, he would play every position on the diamond) and his willingness to use equipment like shin guards while catching which allowed him to catch a far greater number of games than many contemporaries. Nonetheless, he is unquestionably the best backstop of the decade, and well-deserving of this place.
First base: Frank Chance
Though he doesn’t quite do enough to earn managerial honors—about which more in the Fred Clarke section—fans of the Peerless Leader can at least take comfort in knowing his place at first base is secure. Here’s something I did not know about Frank Chance until I started writing this column: the man had good speed. He led the National League twice in stolen bases—1903 and 1906—and finished his career with more than 400 steals. He was behind only Honus Wagner as the decade’s most successful stealer of bases (at least in raw totals, caught stealing was not recorded at the time) and among those who played at least two-thirds of their games at first, he remains the all-time and single-season SB leader.
|The Peerless Leader (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)|
Second base: Nap Lajoie
Lajoie was one of the great second baseman to ever play the game, and comfortably one of the 50 greatest players to ever live. A three-time batting champion, Lajoie was nearly a .340 career hitter, and led the American League in doubles during the Aughts, was second in Major League OPS, and third in hits. Lajoie was one of the first true stars of the then-new American League, and his influence was tremendous. His .426 average in 1901 remains the post-1900 record and helped him earn him election to the Hall of Fame in its inaugural 1937 class.
Perhaps no sign of Lajoie’s status is greater than that after his arrival in Cleveland—itself something of an ordeal involving multiple court orders—the team was almost instantly renamed the “Naps,” in Lajoie’s honor.
Third base: Bill Bradley
No relation, I imagine, to the forward/Senator Bill Bradley. Third baseman Bill Bradley was, according to Bill James “a quiet, well-mannered and popular player.” He was also a strong defensive player and solid hitter. No third baseman in the decade had more hits, and as an added bonus he appeared in the Federal League late in his career, meaning I get to mention there were actually teams called the Kansas City Packers and—even better—Brooklyn Tip-Tops.
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
The Aughts team does not have a great player at every position, but it will take some serious talent for any decade to outdo the middle infield combination of Lajoie and Wagner. In the all-Month series I said that Wagner “stands alone as the greatest” shortstop in history. That still holds true, of course. As for this decade, he is the leader in hits, runs, RBI, stolen bases, doubles and OPS and put up offensive numbers like that while manning shortstop.
Left field/manager: Fred Clarke
At the tail end of 1899, Fred Clarke was traded to the Pirates as part of a trade involving 16—16!—other players and $25,000 which was quite a lot of money in those days. The deal had some real talent involved, including Wagner, Rube Waddell, Jack Chesboro, Chief Zimmer and Tommy Leach. During the decade, Clarke ranked second in runs, fourth in triples and was in the top ten in hits.
It was perhaps a harder decision to make Clarke the manager than the left fielder. During the same period, Frank Chance only managed just four full seasons, but recorded a World Series victory, two additional pennants and averaged more than 106 wins in those seasons. John McGraw had more 90-wins seasons in the decade than Chance had full years managing and led the Giants to two consecutive pennants.
Nonetheless, the position goes to Clarke. Managing the Bucs through the whole decade, Clarke won four pennants, including the 1909 World Series. The Pirates won 90 or more games eight times during the decade, and never had a winning percentage below .568—equivalent to 92 wins with the current schedule.
Center field: Roy Thomas
Some players—all across the spectrum of quality—are clearly illustrated by their statistics. If one sees that Victor Zambrano once led the league in walks, hit batsmen and wild pitches, that gives a pretty good idea of what kind of pitcher Zambrano was. Roy Thomas is another such player. Thomas led the National League in walks seven times during the decade—with over 100 six-times. For the decade, Thomas drew 912 walks; no other player even drew 750.
The huge walk totals, however, were strictly a matter of being able to work the count, as Thomas was, even by the standards of the time, not a player with any kind of power. For his career, he recorded just 160 extra-base hits, a total far below his 244 stolen bases. No player with as many trips to the plate as Thomas—more than 6500 across his career—had fewer RBI. Indeed, he is the only player with at least 6500 plate appearances to fail to record 300 RBI.
|Honus Wagner (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, courtesy of Chicago History Museum.)|
Statistics can never tell you everything about a player, but when it comes to someone like Roy Thomas—owner of 1537 career hits and 1377 career singles—they can tell you an awful lot.
Right field: Sam Crawford
Widely known, of course, as “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, which was the name of his hometown. Wahoo is still around, incidentally, about 35 miles west of Omaha, and named, apparently, for a kind of shrub. Its other claim to fame, of course, was as the “Home Office” of David Letterman’s Top Ten during the NBC days.
Back to Crawford, though typically overshadowed in history by his Detroit outfield mate Ty Cobb—with whom he had a relationship that might be charitably described as difficult—he was an indisputably great player in his own right. Still the all-time leader in triples (he also led the league six times for good measure) Crawford was also, by the standards of the day, a home run threat. Only two players hit more home runs in the decade, and he twice led the league in home runs while ranking in the top five in homers eight other times. At the time of his retirement, Crawford was the home run leader among post-1900 players.
Starting pitchers: Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Rube Waddell, Eddie Plank, Vic Willis
I covered Young in the pre-1900 section, so I won’t say much about him other than that it is a testimony to both his greatness and longevity—particularly the longevity—that he made the starting rotation for two different decade teams. There have been a number of great World Series pitching performances, but Christy Mathewson’s absolute domination of the Philadelphia A’s in the 1905 World Series—three complete game shutouts (13 H, 1 BB, 18 K) in six days—will likely never be topped. That was the likely pinnacle of a brilliant career by “Big Six” that also included 373 career wins and two pitching Triple Crowns and three other seasons leading the league in ERA.
Though nearly as brilliant a pitcher, it is hard to imagine someone more different from Mathewson than Rube Waddell. Which Waddell stories are fact, which are legend and which are somewhere in between is virtually impossible to say. Did Waddell truly spend his off-seasons as an alligator wrestler? Was he really prone to being distracted on the mound by opponents holding up puppies? Did he really lose track of how many women he married? Whatever the case, Waddell was unquestionably a great pitcher, particularly during his 1902-05 prime: 97-52, 1.88 ERA (158 ERA+), 1312 IP.
Speaking of different but equal, there’s Eddie Plank, Waddell’s real-life teammate for the A’s. Described by Bill James as “a thin, gentlemanly left-hander” and by another source as the “tortoise to Waddell’s hare,” Plank was remarkable consistent. He won 17 games during his rookie season in 1901 and would drop below 15 just once (in 1908, he went 14-16) before his final season. By the time his career was over, Plank won 326 games.
Vic Willis lacks the instant name recognition of many of his all-Aughts teammates—he did not even earn Hall of Fame election until 1995, nearly 50 years after his death. In part this is because he had a relatively short career—he won just 249 games. When it comes to this decade though, Willis’ spot is well-deserved. He threw 43 shutouts, more than men like Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Plank and Ed Walsh. It is true that Willis twice led in the league in losses (he went 30-54 for two dreadful Boston teams) but he closed the decade winning nearly 90 games in four seasons for the Pirates and Fred Clarke. There may be “sexier” names for the last spot, but on actual merit it belongs to Willis.
Relief pitcher: Joe McGinnity
I concede it seems odd to use the man known as “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity, a pitcher who threw 400 inning seasons back-to-back for the Giants as a reliever. Nonetheless, he is actually a strong choice. Though his legend as a workhorse grew primarily from his exploits as a starter—notably by starting both games of a double-header—he was often used by John McGraw in relief. In fact, McGinnity thrice led the National League in saves, including during his brilliant 1904 season. Though he is no doubt the equal of some of the men in the starting rotation, for the Aughts team, McGinnity’s best role is in the pen.