Remember the 1930s?
Okay, full confession: I don’t remember that decade either. That’s probably a good thing, as much of the decade was forgettable. The stock market crashed in 1929, leading to the Great Depression of the ‘30s. The world saw the rise of the Third Reich, leading to the beginning of the Second Great War by the end of the decade. An increased emphasis on the passing game allowed American football to surge in popularity. (No, that last one doesn’t rank with the first two but still, it’s a regrettable development.)
That decade was memorable to my grandmother for other reasons. Radio ruled the roost. King Kong, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz thrilled audiences. Amelia Earhart captivated the world before disappearing in July, 1937. Scotch tape and Kodachrome were invented. Robert Johnson became a blues legend, as did Django Reinhardt in the jazz world. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney terrified children. The world was blessed with “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Tender is the Night,” and “To Have and Have Not.” The Marx Brothers ate Duck Soup.
In the world of sports, Jesse Owens stared down Hitler during the 1936 Summer Olympics. The first World Cup was held. Attendance in baseball was down, but the product was often outstanding, even though some of the greatest players in history weren’t allowed to compete at the highest levels. Ivy was planted at Wrigley. Lou Gehrig’s speech didn’t leave a dry eye in the house that Ruth built. The Reds played the first night game, and the first Hall of Fame class was inducted.
Let’s get to the point. We are gathered today to continue our examination of the top rookies in each decade. You may have already guessed, from some contextual clues above, that we are going to focus on the 1930s. The list below ranks the top ten MLB rookie seasons (as defined by the current standards) from 1930 to 1939. As you well know, this was a hitter’s era, as will be reflected in the statistics below. It was a strange, interesting decade for baseball.
Without further ado, just received from the home office in Elephant Butte, New Mexico, I present the best rookies of the 1930s:
1. Ted Williams, Red Sox (1939). Perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived, The Splendid Splinter emerged as an almost fully-formed star in his rookie season. Williams hit .327/.436/.609 with 31 homers and a league-leading 145 runs batted in. Toss in 107 bases on balls, 44 doubles, 11 triples, 131 runs scored, and 6.7 wins above replacement…well, not bad for a 20 year old kid.
Through his age-23 season (his fourth in the big leagues), Williams had compiled a slash line of .356/.481/.642 with 127 homers, and an adjusted OPS+ of 190. Amazingly, he averaged 9.0 WAR per 650 plate appearances. Yeah, Ted Williams could hit a little bit.
2. Cy Blanton, Pirates (1935). Though three other pitchers received more MVP votes in 1935, Darrell Elijah Blanton was almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League that year. The 26-year-old screwballer went 18-13, led the league in ERA (2.58), adjusted ERA+ (159), and WAR (7.2). In thirty starts, Blanton tossed a 23 complete games and a league-leading four shutouts.
In a nine-year career, Blanton made two All-Star teams, and compiled a 68-71 record with a 3.55 ERA. He was out of baseball by the age of 33.
3. Curt Davis, Phillies (1934). Curt “Coonskin” Davis makes the upper echelon of this uber-exclusive list on the strength of 8.3 WAR and a brilliant nickname. In 1934, Davis won 19 games and lost 17 while posting a 2.95 ERA and a 160 ERA+. Davis made 31 starts, and completed 18 of those, with three shutouts. He also pitched 20 games in relief, and collected five saves; Davis’ 51 games led the National League.
Interestingly, ol’ Coonskin was 30 years old when he made his major league debut. He kept pitching until he was 42, and put together a nice little career: two All-Star selections, two top-ten MVP finishes, 158-131 record, 3.42 ERA, 116 ERA+, 37.3 career WAR.
4. Jim Turner, Bees (1937). Another old rookie with a great nickname (“Milkman”), Turner was 33 when he went 20-11 with a 2.38 ERA for the 1937 Boston Bees. That ERA led the National League, as did Turner’s ERA+ (149); Turner also topped NL leaderboards in complete games (24), shutouts (5), and wins above replacement (5.4). Interestingly, in 256.2 innings,Turner only struck out 69 batters all year.
You know, baseball was a lot different eighty years ago.
5. Hal Trosky, Indians (1934). Finally, a properly-aged rookie. Trosky was 21 in 1934, with only 11 big league games under his belt, when he played every inning of every game for Cleveland. He hit a little bit, as well: .330/.388/.598 with 35 home runs, 142 RBI, 45 doubles, and 5.5 WAR.
Two years later, Trosky put together what was, in many respects, an even better season, hitting .343/.382/.644 with 42 homers and a league-leading 162 RBI. Unfortunately, Trosky was beset by chronic headaches and lingering injuries after the age of 28, and a very productive career was effectively over far too soon (only 223 games played after he turned 30).
6. Wally Berger, Braves (1930). Berger actually held out prior to spring training, demanding a better contract offer. That may seem like a strange decision for a 24-year-old with no prior major league experience, and the holdout was ultimately unsuccessful, but Berger quickly proved that he was the real deal. In that inaugural campaign, Berger hit .310/.375/.614 in 151 games, mostly in Boston’s left field. His 38 home runs that year established a new rookie record that wouldn’t be broken until 1987, when Mark McGwire obliterated the mark. Berger’s 119 runs batted in was also a rookie record, and that mark stood for 71 years.
From that point, Berger was a bona fide star for a short period. Ultimately, Berger would be selected to represent the National League in the first four All-Star Games, starting the first two of those games in center field. Though he was finished before he turned 35, Berger had a good 11-year run, hitting .300/.359/.522 with 242 career homers.
7. Cliff Melton, Giants (1937). Melton took New York by storm in 1937, going 20-9 with a 2.61 ERA. The lefty tossed 14 complete games as the number two starter behind Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, but Melton also led the league with seven saves. The season ended on a sour note, as Melton lost two games in a five-game World Series loss to the cross-town Yankees.
Legend has it that Melton’s career hit the skids after he pestered teammate Hubbell to teach him Hubbell’s famous screwball sometime after his brilliant rookie season. That’s not quite the case, as Melton pitched somewhat effectively for much of the rest of his career, and even made an All-Star team in 1942. But the screwball, and its effect on Melton’s elbow, no doubt contributed to arm injuries that required surgery and limited Melton’s career to eight seasons.
8. Joe DiMaggio, Yankees (1936). You may have heard of Joe DiMaggio. The skinny kid from San Francisco put together the first of 13 superb seasons in his inaugural campaign, hitting .323/.352/.576 with 44 doubles, 29 homers and 125 RBI. Joltin’ Joe’s 15 triples led the American League, and his 132 runs scored were the most by any rookie in the thirties. In contrast to Ted Williams’ rookie year, however, DiMaggio walked only 24 times (Williams collected 107 bases on balls as a freshman).
Also, he married Marilyn Monroe. That’s much more impressive than some dumb ballgame.
9. Monte Pearson, Indians (1933). In a cup of coffee the year before, Pearson gave up nine earned runs in eight innings of work. In 1933, however, Pearson was very, very good: 10-5, 2.33 ERA (which led the American League) and a 194 ERA+. Here’s what is astonishing: Pearson only appeared in 19 games, starting 16 of those (with ten complete games), but despite the abbreviated season, he compiled 5.0 wins above replacement. Dominant pitching in a hitter’s era.
The following season, of course, Pearson won 18 games while allowing more earned runs than any other pitcher in the league. Have I mentioned that baseball is a funny game?
10. Charlie Keller, Yankees (1939). King Kong Keller is another rookie who impressed in a short season. In only 111 games, the 22-year-old hit .334/.447/.500 with 11 homers, 83 RBI, and 4.6 WAR. That .447 mark was the highest on-base percentage achieved by any qualified rookies in the decade. It wasn’t a small sample size fluke, either; Keller twice led the American League in walks, and finished his career with a .410 OBP.
Keller also played a big role in New York’s World Series sweep of Cincinnati, collecting seven hits (including three homers) in sixteen at-bats. He would win two more World Series rings in the ensuing years, and finished his career as a five-time All-Star.
So there you have it. As always, the Honorable Mention list is longer than the actual top ten, though I can’t mention them all here. Excluding Rudy York (Tigers, 1937, .307/.375/.651, 35 HR, 103 RBI) or Hugh Casey (Dodgers, 1939, 15-10, 2.93 ERA, 139 ERA+, 15 CG, 5.3 WAR) or Jeff Heath (Indians, 1938, .343/.383/.602, 21 HR, 112 RBI, AL-best 18 triples) was difficult.
As always, I love guys like Bob Bowman, who put up some great numbers (13-5, 2.60 ERA, 158 ERA+, 4.8 WAR) in 51 games for the Cardinals in 1939, but only pitched 58 games after that season. And what about Bobo Newsom? Bobo led the National League in losses for the Browns in 1934, had a 4.01 ERA, issued more bases on balls than any other NL pitcher, yet compiled 5.9 wins above replacement.
Finally, a number of future Hall of Famers made their debut during the ‘30s, which shouldn’t surprise you, since this era is over-represented in the Hall. Two of those future inductees made the list above (you won’t have any trouble picking out the two players of whom I am referring). A handful of others will have to settle for Honorable Mention status, including Dizzy Dean, Johnny Mize, 17-year-old Bob Feller, Arky Vaughan, and Billy Herman. Some other all-time greats enjoyed less impressive debut seasons; I’m looking at you, Hank Greenberg, Lefty Gomez, Hal Newhouser, Early Wynn, Joe Gordon, Enos Slaughter, Lou Boudreau, Ernie Lombardi, Luke Appling, and Bobby Doerr.
I suppose that’ll do it for the ‘30s. This series will continue (for which I apologize to most of you), but for those of you who may have missed the earlier installments, here the the top rookies of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. I haven’t begun to examine the 1920s, but you have to believe Jay Gatsby will top the list, right?