We continue with my list of the best players born on each month, building to this December when we will see which month can claim… monthly superiority, I guess. That sounded a bit grander in my head. In any case, if you would like to check out the previous squads, they can be found at the links at the end of the column.
As usual, the rule remains that to qualify for any position, a player must have played 40 percent or more of his games there. With that done, let’s see what kind of squad the April Showers are putting on the field:
Catcher: Gary Carter
I don’t know why it is that some months, like March, can only produce Terry Steinbach as their best catcher but others could practically construct an entire line-up of backstops. April is a month with a plentiful supply of men to play behind the plate. In addition to Carter—whose death this past February from cancer took him much too soon—April is the birth month of two other Hall of Fame catchers: Mickey Cochrane and Ernie Lombardi. And if all that were not enough, April can also lay claim to Joe Mauer, who might yet end up holding this spot by the time all is said and done for his career.
First Base: Mark Teixeira
Subject of endless debates these days about whether or not he will spend the rest of his Yankee contract popping up and hitting ground balls into the shift, Teixeira wins this position over the likes of Don Mattingly, Gil Hodges and Dolph Camilli on the theory that—still just in his age-32 season—he likely has enough career value yet to come to end up a clear choice here. You could make the argument for any of those others’ names. Teixeira also adds another name to rather modern flavor of the all-April team. Four of the starting eight non-pitchers were active in the ‘90s or ‘00s (or both), more than any other month yet unveiled.
Second Base: Rogers Hornsby
Hornsby has—by far—the highest OPS among second baseman in baseball history. His 1.010 towers over that of Charlie Gehringer’s second place .884. In fact, Hornsby’s lead over second place is as large as the difference between second and thirty-ninth. Of course, this is something of a fluke of Hornsby’s era compared to that of other great hitting second baseman—and Horsnby gave some measure of his value back with subpar defense. (To say nothing of his personality which would charitably be described as difficult.) Nonetheless, Hornsby remains one of the greatest hitting second baseman of all-time, and easily earns this spot.
|How can I not use this photo of Chipper Jones? (US Presswire)|
Third Base: Chipper Jones
Speaking of modernity ruling in April, the top three April third baseman of all-time, in addition to Jones the others are Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre, are all active this season. And the fourth man—Ken Caminiti—was active as recently as 2001. Despite the greatness of those men, in particular the defensive wizardry of Beltre, this spot is Jones’ with ease. Now in apparently the last year of his career, Jones should be a first ballot Hall of Famer and probably ranks as the second greatest switch-hitter of all-time.
Shortstop: Barry Larkin
It is a close-run thing for this position between Larkin and Luke Appling. You could very easily make a case for Appling—his peak was probably a shade higher, and he accumulated slightly more career value, albeit with an extra 1000 plate appearances. On the other hand, I’m a believer that the quality of play has risen over the years so that pushes Larkin over the top. But then, you could argue that Appling’s year missed due to war service, coming off a season when he finished second in the MVP vote, needs to be given more weight. Let’s just move on before I change my mind and end up having to rewrite the whole section.
Left Field: Jeff Heath
No, I’d never heard of him either. Heath had a 14-year career, mostly with the Indians and finished as high as eighth in the MVP voting. That came in 1941 when Heath posted a 162 OPS+ as a bright light on an otherwise ordinary Indians team. To this day, only Larry Walker, Matt Stairs and Jason Bay are ahead of Heath on the list of home runs hit by Canadians, and he held the title for many years.
Center Field: Tris Speaker
April has produced some pretty good center fielders—including Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones—who would likely move over to left in a real world situation. (Although describing anything where Jones or Beltran could play with Speaker, who has been dead for more than 50 years, as “a real world situation” might be missing the point a bit.) Maintaining the standards of this exercise though, there can be only one man chosen, and there is little doubt center belongs to The Grey Eagle. To this day, Speaker remains the all-time leader in doubles (no active player is close) and one of the true all-time greats.
Right Field: Sam Crawford
That’s “Wahoo Sam” to his friends and admirers. One notable absence from the former group is Crawford’s longtime teammate Ty Cobb. Though the two played together for years—and were one of the great outfield combinations of all time—their relationship was chilly at best. By the time both were retired, it had disintegrated into petty squabbling, with Cobb going so far as to write a letter to The Sporting News accusing Crawford of intentionally fouling off pitches when Cobb tried to steal a base.
Of course, as evidenced by my leading with that, this tends to overshadow Crawford’s brilliant career. He is the all-time leader in triples—and nearly two hundred ahead of the active leader—and comfortably one of the ten best right fielders in baseball history.
(It is, on another note, a pretty neat trick that the all-April center fielder and right fielder are the all-time leaders in doubles and triples, respectively. I wish I could say I knew that going in, but I discovered it mid-column just like all of you.)
Pitchers: Greg Maddux, Phil Niekro, Warren Spahn, Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton
Spring is apparently a very, very good time for pitchers as this rotation is almost as good, if not better, than that of March. As group, these men averaged—averaged!—almost 330 wins. April can also claim to four (Maddux, Niekro, Spahn and Blyleven) of the 13 pitchers with more than 90 WAR in this career.
“Mad Dog” needs no introduction to most fans. His four-year reign as National League Cy Young winner, covering 1992 through 1995 is astonishing. In that time, Maddux averaged almost 20 wins—despite being victimized by two strike years—and had an ERA+ greater than 200. Phil Niekro was another man, like Maddux, who relied on guile (a knuckleball in his case) than power, but this allowed Knucksie to have a career lasting nearly forever; he was 48 when he won his final game.
Speaking of pitching forever, there’s Warren Spahn who came up with the Boston Braves and retired the year before that franchise moved to Atlanta. In that time, Spahn won 20 or more games 13 times—including 23 at age 42 in 1963—for a grand total of 363 wins. Blyleven has been written about extensively of late; I’ll say only that his Hall of Fame induction is well-deserved. That statement is perhaps less true for the likes of Don Sutton, though he did win 324 games in his career. Sutton also has going for him one of the game’s best recent nicknames: “Black and Decker,” given for his alleged propensity for doctoring baseballs.
Reliever: John Hiller
In 1973, John Hiller recorded 38 saves for the Detroit Tigers while pitching more than 125 innings, and winning 10 games for good measure. It was a great year—he finished fourth in both Cy Young and MVP voting, which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, but there you are—but more important historically, it would remain the single-season saves record for nearly a decade until broken by all-February reliever Dan Quisenberry.
Manager: Joe McCarthy
Joe McCarthy—Marse Joe, for those looking to easily distinguish him from the execrable Senator of the same name—managed all or part of 24 seasons. During that time, he won seven World Series and nine pennants, including a run of six titles in eight years. That is pretty impressive. On the other hand, even more impressive, at least for me, is that in those 24 seasons McCarthy never had a team with a losing record. Never! It is true that none of those Yankee squads he managed were at much risk of falling under .500, but McCarthy also took over the 1926 Cubs, a team which had gone 68-86 the previous year and had them over .500 his first year in charge, and winning the pennant by 1929. Naming someone the best manager of all-time is an inherently subjective thing, but Joe McCarthy must be considered on anyone’s shortlist.