The all-decade team: the teens

For our third consecutive week, we are selecting the team for a decade. In fact, we’ve now covered the entire period of 1876 through 1919 in less than a month—that’s the kind of rate Doc Brown would be proud of.

We will be following the same rules laid out for previous weeks: 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.

Besides those rules, we are only seeking quality. So let’s see which players rose to the challenge:

Catcher: Chief Meyers
Meyers was called “Chief,” because he was Native American. Of course. I miss the old school quality nicknames as much as the next person—more, probably—but I suppose we are obliged to remember every now and then that sometimes they could be just as unoriginal as modern nicknames, with the added benefit of light racism.

On the field, Meyers was one of the first great hitting catchers in baseball history. He was the only catcher to post an OPS+ higher than 140 for the first two decades of the century—excluding Art Wilson, who accomplished the feat in the far less competitive Federal League. Though he did not debut in the Major Leagues until he was 28, Meyers played nine full seasons and twice finished in the top five in MVP voting, including third during his excellent 1912 season.

First Base: Stuffy McInnis
On the other hand, if we’re talking about excellent nicknames, there’s “Stuffy” McInnis, born as John. The nickname came, so the story goes, from his play as a young man when fans would shout “That’s the stuff!” I had always imagined that to be a modern expression, but apparently not.

Through his career, there were many reasons for McInnis’ fans to shout his praises. He never hit less than .272 in any season throughout the decade, and batted over .314 five times. For good measure, McInnis also played on four pennant winning teams during the decade, winning the 1911, 1913 and 1918 World Series—though he did struggle in the postseason, hitting just .176/.232/.216 in the Fall Classic.

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Home Run Baker (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Second Base: Eddie Collins
As with the previous decade, there is real quality at second base. A four-time World Series winner (twice as a teammate of McInnis) Collins was also the 1914 American League MVP. For the decade, Collins was second in runs and walks, and third in hits. He was also first in sacrifices for the decade, which is logical given that Collins remains the all-time leader in that statistic.

Though arguments can certainly be made for other players (Joe Morgan chief among them) there is also one to select Eddie Collins as the greatest second baseman to ever live. He is still tenth all-time in hits—though Derek Jeter is just a dozen hits away from taking that spot.

Third Base: Frank “Home Run” Baker
Though the nickname actually came during the 1911 World Series when he hit a go-ahead and game-tying home run in consecutive games (which is a pretty good trick these days, let alone back then) Baker certainly could have earned it for his home run prowess in the decade. He led the league in home runs 1911-1914, and might have done it again in 1915 had he not sat out the entire season. Baker would never again led the league in home runs, though he would hit another 48 after returning to the game in 1916, including 32 in the 1916-1919 period. For the decade, he was third in home runs, which is pretty good for a man who missed a full season during that time.

Shortstop: Art Fletcher
If you want an idea of how great Honus Wagner is, incidentally, he nearly won this spot despite not playing in the Major Leagues after 1917, and playing 130 or fewer games in four of the seasons he did play. However, the place goes to Art Fletcher. The shortstop for the Giants most of the decade, Fletcher was a part of four pennant-winning teams (with no titles, unfortunately) including three straight from 1911 to 1913.

For his part, Fletcher was the perfect John McGraw player—inevitably, and invariably described as “fiery”—and was well-regarded for his defense though he could be a useful offensive player as well, seven times posting an OPS over .700 or higher.

Left Field: Zack Wheat
The 1918 batting champion, Wheat spent all but a single season of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Though he finished the decade just four hits shy of being at exactly .300, he was still a reliable performer for what were often very mediocre Brooklyn Dodger teams—they finished in the second division eight times during the decade, though they did make it into the 1916 World Series. (He also can claim to have played for the Brooklyn franchise while they were known variously as the Superbas, Dodgers, and Robins.)

For the decade, Wheat finished in the top 10 in hits and triples, was just outside in both doubles and home runs. When considering those numbers, it should perhaps be no surprise that he was sixth for total bases in the teens. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1959.

Center Field: Ty Cobb
As mentioned previously, I have a fairly enormous collection of baseball books. And Cobb is a figure of such stature that they (and me) have written about him extensively. Here is a representative sample of phrases used, presented to you, Zagat’s review style:

“For something like half a century” this “strangest of all our national sport idols” was “considered the game’s greatest player.” True “it isn’t that stories of Ty Cobb has a violent racist are false” but one must also consider history has somewhat turned him into a “caricature villain.” Fellow players might have thought he was a “prick” and he considered them all “damn Yankees” but you tolerate that from the man who “led the American League in slugging percentage and hits eight times, in steals six, in runs five, in triples and RBI four, in doubles three, and in homers once.”

Right Field: Joe Jackson
How many great players are known primarily for something other than their greatness? I’m not talking about someone like Joe Morgan who is almost certainly more widely known now as a broadcaster than a Hall of Fame talent. I’m also not speaking of those players touched by the PED scandals; in that regard their greatness—and how much of it was driven by PEDs—is the heart of the question. Rather, I’m thinking of players who were great, Hall of Fame-level great, but are not remembered as such. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three: Jackson, Pete Rose, and Jackie Robinson. Robinson is a different category than the other two, of course, but other than that they are all the same. Their legacy is defined entirely by something which is parallel to what they did on the field.

In any case, Jackson was unquestionably on a Hall of Fame path at the time of his banishment. He led the league, variously, in hits, triples, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases. At the time of the ban, Jackson was a lifetime .356 hitter, a number behind only Cobb and Rogers Hornsby all-time.

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Hippo Vaughn, looking–by modern standards, anyway–rather svelt (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Starting Pitchers: Walter Johnson, Pete Alexander, Eddie Cicotte, Hippo Vaughn, Babe Adams
Depending on your view of adjusting for era (and performance enhancing drug use, I suppose) Walter Johnson might be the greatest pitcher of all-time. At the very least, he is seriously in the conversation. Winner of 417 games, The Big Train led the league in ERA four times, and threw 74 shutouts in the teens—a large portion of his all-time leading 110.

The gap from Johnson to Alexander is a large one, though that tells you far more about the Senator ace than it does about the man born Grover Cleveland Alexander. For his part, Alexander also led the league in ERA four times during the decade and was one of just two pitchers—the other is Johnson, of course—to win more than 200 wins in the decade. As for Eddie Cicotte, well, you don’t have to admire someone to put him on the team. One of the ringleaders of the 1919 Black Sox World Series fix, when he was on the level he was one of the best pitchers in the league, putting up a 2.29 ERA for the decade, including a league leading 1.53 ERA in 1917.

Five-time a winner of 20 games, Hippo Vaughn had the misfortune of arriving in Chicago just as the Cubs’ great dynasty was falling apart. Those 20-win seasons are a testament, largely, to Vaughn’s own performance rather than that of his team. In 1917, he went 23-13 for a Cubs’ squad that was otherwise 51-67. For many years, Babe Adams held the all-time record for games pitched; a fact which makes sense when you consider not only his performance but also that one of Adams’ last teammates was Joe Cronin—who was born nearly six months after Adams made his MLB debut. For the teens, Adams, long noted for his fine control, won almost 120 games and did so while posting a BB/9 behind only Christy Mathewson. Adams was particularly brilliant in 1919 when he led the league in BB/9, WHIP and K/BB, all while winning 17 games for an otherwise below .500 Pirates team.

Relief Pitcher: Slim Sallee
Sallee is listed on BaseballReference as 6’3” and 180, which I suppose counts as slim. Pictures certainly make him appear to be all arms and legs, anyway. You have to admire that the team features both someone named Hippo and someone named Slim.

Sallee actually appeared as a reliever nearly 175 times over the course of his career, and recorded 36 saves. Three times he was the league leader in saves and no pitcher recorded more saves over the course of the teens.

Manager: John McGraw
Besides seeing which players emerge as the best of the decade, these columns are also interesting to track the way the game evolves. In the first two columns, the manager was also a full-time player. McGraw represents the first all-decade manager who never took the field. And what a decade it was. The Giants won four pennants and finished second four other times. The Giants averaged nearly 89 wins through the decade, an accomplishment all the more impressive with the shorter schedule.

Though Connie Mack can match McGraw’s pennants in the decade—and beat him twice in the World Series for good measure—Mack the manager was undercut by Mack the owner, who deprived his Athletics’ teams of their talent and averaged (averaged!) nearly 101 losses from 1915 to 1919. It is probably true that while Mack was doing the best he could with the talent he had, such poor performance means McGraw is the man for the decade.

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Comments

  1. Bill Rubinstein said...

    These choices are defensible, but there are some alternatives. George Sisler pre-Lively Ball from 1915-19 put together some impressive statistics and was arguably better than McInnis. Tris Speaker would obviously be a choice except for Ty Cobb. Among the pitchers, there is not really a large gap between Johnson and Alexander- Alex was almost as good, and missed time in World War One. Cicotte and maybe Marquard should be mentioned. Maranville or Bancroft were probably better than Art Fletcher.

  2. John Proulx said...

    Not to start a political discussion, but if Bunning’s Wikipedia page is to be trusted, I’m pretty confident his political career will be quickly forgotten.

  3. Joe Runde said...

    No Babe Ruth on the mound?  He was a big winner for three Red Sox World Series winners, and he set the record for consecutive scoreless World Series innings that stood for decades.

  4. Keith said...

    Shoeless Joe was primarily a left fielder.  If you want to honor the three best outfielders of the era, it should be him, Cobb, and Tris Speaker.  If you want to do it by position, it should be LF-Jackson, CF-Cobb, RF-Gavvy Cravath.

    I’d have a hard time selecting Meyers over Ray Schalk and Wally Schang, but I can see the argument.

    Kudos on Art Fletcher – I’d never even heard of the guy.  He’s as good of a choice as anyone in a weak decade for shortstops.

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