The best rookies of the ‘20s

We have finally reached the end of the road in our look back at the top rookie campaigns of each decade. Back in August, we began with the 2000s, a list topped by the greatest rookie season of all time (Mike Trout’s 2012). The decade-by-decade tour then looped through the 1990s (Mike Piazza), 1980s (Mark McGwire), 1970s (Mark Fidrych), 1960s (Dick Allen), 1950s (Frank Robinson), 1940s (Johnny Pesky), and 1930s (Ted Williams).

And now we look at The Roarin’ Twenties. The first commercial radio stations appeared, and the country was hooked. Flappers were doing The Charleston. “Wings” won the first Oscar for Best Picture. Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was a smash hit long before Woody Allen used it. Pablo Picasso or Rene Magritte? A cultural renaissance flowered in Harlem. Moviegoers heard the actors speak for the first time. William Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis ruled the literary world. Charlie Chaplin was the biggest star on earth.

The ‘20s were a fascinating time in the world of baseball, as well. Late in the decade, Babe Ruth might have objected to my line about Charlie Chaplin above, and he would have had a good argument. Ruth and Lou Gehrig anchored Murderer’s Row. The Negro National League was established. Ray Chapman was killed by a Carl Mays fastball. Ty Cobb’s brilliant career came to a close.

Let’s talk about the rookies of the decade. This has been such a fun series, for me, at least; why stop at the 1920s? Well, once we get back to 1919 or so, we’ve stepped into the dead ball era. Seemed like the ‘20s was a good place to draw this series to a close. Yes, it’s an arbitrary decision, but there’s always a chance that, much like C. Montgomery Burns, I’ll have one of my patented, unpredictable changes of heart. Stay tuned.

For now, let’s dig in. Just received, from the home office in Possum Trot, Kentucky, I present the top ten (or more) rookies of the Jazz Age:

1. Wilcy Moore, Yankees (1927). The most productive rookie on the legendary 1927 Yankees was a 30-year old pitcher. Of course. Moore was brilliant in that memorable season, compiling a 19-7 record with a league-leading 2.28 ERA, while appearing in nearly a third of New York’s games (50 games, 213 innings pitched, 5.6 WAR). His adjusted ERA+ of 171 led the AL, as well.

Moore pitched in a variety of roles; he led the league with 13 saves, but he also started 12 games, completing six of those (one of which was a shutout). In the World Series, after collecting the save in Game 1, Moore started the decisive Game 4 and tossed a complete game, allowing one run as the Yankees finished a sweep of Pittsburgh.

2. Dale Alexander, Tigers (1929). The Moose played every game for Detroit as a 26-year-old rookie, hitting .342/.397/.580 with 43 doubles, 15 triples, 25 home runs, and 137 RBI, and 110 runs scored. Alexander’s 215 hits led the American League), and no rookie in the 1920s accumulated more homers or RBI.

Three years later, after a trade to Boston, Alexander would hit .367 to lead the AL, in the process denying Jimmie Foxx his first Triple Crown. Two years after that, he was out of baseball, the victim of a leg injury and faulty experimental treatment.

3. The Waners. Yes, I’m cheating here, but the Hall of Fame Waner brothers each had superb rookie seasons for the Pirates. Paul Waner (“Big Poison”) debuted in 1926, hitting .336/.413/.528, led the league in triples (22; the highest total of any rookie in the ‘20s) and WAR (5.3), and tossed in 35 doubles for good measure.

The following year, Lloyd Waner (“Little Poison;” you could have guessed that, right?) had a slightly less-productive season than his older brother’s rookie year, but still excellent: .355/.396/.410, with 223 hits, 133 runs scored and, get this: 198 singles! No rookie in the decade compiled more hits or runs in their initial campaign.

4. Whitey Glazner, Pirates (1921). Glazner was a 5’9” right-hander who went 14-5 with a 2.77 ERA, and a 138 ERA+. In 25 starts as a rookie, Glazner pitched 15 complete games and compiled 5.1 WAR (the best total on a 90-win Pittsburgh club).

Glazner pitched three more seasons, all nondescript, and he was out of baseball after 1924.

5. Earl Averill, Indians (1929). The third future Hall of Famer to appear on this list, Averill was 26 years-old when he finally hit the big league scene. And that’s what he did from day one: hit. As a rookie, Averill posted a slash line of .332/.398/.538, with 43 doubles, 13 triples, 18 homers, and 96 RBI.

Over 13 big league seasons, primarily as a center fielder, Averill hit .318/.395/.534, and played in the first six All-Star games. Sure, he’s likely one of the least-qualified players to be enshrined in Cooperstown, but Averill has the plaque and you don’t. Don’t be a hater, as the kids might say (or as they might have said five years ago).

6. Del Bissonette, Robins (1928). Delphia Louis Bissonette was 28 years old when he finally reached the majors, and he put together quite a freshman campaign. Bissonette hit .320/.396/.543 with 25 homers (no rookie in the twenties hit more), 106 RBI,and 70 BB, while accumulating 4.4 WAR. Only one Brooklyn/Los Angeles rookie has ever hit more homers: the aforementioned Mike Piazza.

7. Wes Ferrell, Indians (1929). His brother (Rick Ferrell) was the Hall of Famer in the family, but Wes put together a pretty good 15-year career in his own right. As a 21-year-old rookie in 1929, Wes went 21-10 with a 3.60 ERA and an ERA+ of 123. Ferrell’s 6.1 WAR was the best total for any rookie in the 1920s.

Arm problems forced Ferrell out of baseball before he turned 34, but he retired as a two-time All-Star with 193 career victories. His best season was 1935, when he accumulated 8.4 WAR by going 25-14 with a 3.52 ERA, completing 31 of his 38 starts, and finishing second to Hank Greenberg in MVP voting.

8. Glenn Wright, Pirates (1924). Wright’s 5.7 WAR was the best of any 1920s rookie hitter. The 23-year-old shortstop hit .287/328/.425 with 28 doubles, 18 triples, 7 home runs, and 111 RBI in that initial season. Wright was considered an elite defensive shortstop throughout his 11-year major league career, and was named to the very first The Sporting News post-season All-Star team.

9. Kiki Cuyler, Pirates (1924). If your name was Hazen Shirley Cuyler, I bet you’d go by “Kiki” too. Despite only playing 117 games as a rookie, Cuyler finished eighth in the balloting for National League MVP after hitting .354/.402/.539 with 27 doubles, 16 triples, and 32 stolen bases. The following season, Cuyler finished second in MVP voting (to the immortal Rogers Hornsby) after leading the league in triples and runs scored, while hitting .357/.423/.598. Forty-three years later, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

10. (tie) Herman Pillette, Tigers (1922) and Pat Malone, Cubs (1928). It’s difficult to distinguish between these two. Pillette went 19-12 with a 2.85 ERA, 136 ERA+, 18 complete games and four shutouts. Malone was 18-13 with a 2.84 ERA, 137 ERA+, 16 complete games and two shutouts. Pillette had a higher WAR (5.6 to Malone’s 4.1), but Malone’s 155 strikeouts were the highest total of any rookie in the 1920s. Suffice to say: both were very good.

So there you have it. (Yes, there are 12 players on my top ten list. Chalk one up for the Virginia public school system.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room to include some great rookie seasons, such as that of Harry Rice, who only played 103 games, but hit .359/.450/.568 with 25 doubles and 8 triples for the Browns in 1925. Or Johnny Frederick, who, as a 27-year-old rookie for Brooklyn in 1929, hit .328/.372/.545 with 52 doubles and 24 homers. Or future Hall of Famer Joe Sewell, who hit .318/412/444 with 101 runs, 36 doubles, and 12 triples as the Cleveland shortstop in 1921.

Plenty of other Hall of Famers made their debuts in the ‘20s; too many to list, in fact. Guys like Earle Combs, Bill Dickey, Carl Hubbell, and Lou Gehrig had strong cases for inclusion. Others, such as Tony Lazzeri, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Pie Traynor, and Lefty Grove, weren’t particularly impressive as rookies, but put together fine careers anyway.

Finally, my favorite aspect of putting together this series has been the fascinating stories you run across. Dazzy Vance, for example. During his twenties, Vance kicked around the minors, getting a couple of cups of coffee with the Pirates and Yankees, with little success. Then, during a poker game with some minor league teammates, Vance banged his arm on the table. He had surgery, his chronically-sore arm found life again, and Vance got one more shot. As a 31-year-old rookie with Brooklyn, Vance won 18 games and led the league with five shutouts and 134 strikeouts. He would go on to lead the National League in strikeouts for the next six seasons, as well, and he ultimately pitched in the big leagues until age 44. Vance was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1955.

Finally, consider the case of St. Louis’ Jesse Haines. As a rookie in 1920, Haines threw 301.2 innings, completed 19 games, and posted a 2.98 ERA…but was only able to accumulate 1.8 wins above replacement. You know, baseball was a different game in the 1920s.

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Comments

  1. Mike Searls said...

    Great job! I discovered players I hadn’t heard of and learned things about players I was aware of!

    Thanks,

    M. Searls

  2. Steve Millburg said...

    Nice piece; thanks. One small correction: Wes Ferrell’s arm problems didn’t force him out of baseball. He was a player-manager for several minor-league teams, playing outfield and second base and hitting as many as 31 home runs (in 123 games with the Class C Lynchburg (Virginia) Senators in 1942).

  3. Ian R. said...

    I’m curious: why is this the last installment? Couldn’t you also look at the best rookies of the 1900s and 1910s? I can see not wanting to go all the way back to 19th-century players, but baseball was pretty much baseball by the turn of the century.

  4. Chad Dotson said...

    Steve—

    That was poorly worded by me. I should have said Ferrell was forced out of big league baseball.

    Ian—

    I made the arbitrary decision to stop at the dead ball era, but now I can’t remember why. I may keep going. I’ve had a blast doing these.

  5. Cliff Blau said...

    Bissonette had the distinction of being intentionally walked with the bases loaded as a rookie; May 2, 1928, to be precise.  It was just his 16th big league game.  He already had 16 RBIs to his credit.

    Wright set an assist record as a rookie in 1924 that lasted until 1980.

  6. Spa City said...

    Surprising the Pirates only had two world series appearances in the 20s (a win in ‘25 and a loss in ‘27-though nobody else had a chance against the ‘27Yanks).  The Pittsburgh franchise was great in the early ‘00s, the 20s and the 70s…  I hope they keep it rolling the rest of this decade.

  7. Paul E said...

    I believe Johnny Frederick’s 342 total bases was the rookie NL record until 1964. Dick Allen (352-1964) and Albert Pujols (360-2001) have surpassed Frederick

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