Welcome to the 1940s. Rick and Ilsa and letters of transit. Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald. Sam Spade sought a falcon. Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. Radar was developed, and so was The Slinky, and velcro. George Bailey never got to shake the dust of that crummy little town off his feet. Betty Grable. America learned for whom the bell tolled. Rosebud.
It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. The decade was dominated by World War II and, later, the beginning of the Cold War. The world was transformed by these events, and baseball was no exception. Some of the biggest stars in the game, such as Ted Williams, Bob Feller, and Joe DiMaggio, missed prime seasons of their careers in order to serve their country. As a result, the talent level in the majors was thinned out for a time.
We’re here today to talk about the rookies of that crazy decade. In some ways, evaluating the best rookie seasons of the 1940s was more difficult than previous decades. Thanks to the thinning of talent due to the war, a number of players had big rookie seasons, followed up by less-than-stellar careers (when the real players returned). Also, later in the decade, there was an influx of elite talent that had been unfairly kept out of the game. More on that in a moment.
Also, baseball was simply a different game in the ‘40s than the game we watch on our touch screen devices here in the future. You already knew that, right? Just to demonstrate, however, consider this: of the top ten WAR totals by rookie non-pitchers in the 1940s, five were posted by shortstops. (And we aren’t talking about slugging shortstops like we saw in the ‘90s.)
A number of eventual Hall of Famers made their debuts in the decade, though only two made the final cut on the top ten list. Some, like Richie Ashburn, Ralph Kiner, Robin Roberts, and Phil Rizzuto had decent cases for inclusion on this list. Others, such as Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Warren Spahn, Hal Newhouser, and Bob Lemon had less-stellar initial campaigns before going on to fame and glory.
Before we get to the actual list, a quick note about Jackie Robinson. Everyone knows the story of Robinson’s 1947 rookie year, the hateful nonsense he was forced to endure, and the grace and dignity with which he broke the color barrier. I did not consider Robinson for this list. His rookie campaign was easily the most important rookie season in history, and it seems unfair to compare him to other rookies strictly on the basis of numbers (though Jackie’s numbers were very good: .297/.383/.427, 12 homers, 48 RBI, 3.1 wins above replacement, led league with 29 stolen bases, winner of the first Rookie of the Year award.) Consider Jackie Robinson the de facto number one on this list.
Let’s get on with it. Just received from the home office in Sweet Lips, Tennessee, here are the top ten rookies of the 1940s:
1. Johnny Pesky, Red Sox (1942). John Michael Paveskovich, the son of Croation immigrants, won the Boston shortstop job as a 23-year-old in the spring of 1942. His rookie campaign was amazing: .331/.375/.416 with 29 doubles, 9 triples, and 51 RBI. Pesky’s 205 hits not only led the American League, but also set a rookie record at the time. His .331 batting average was second only to teammate Ted Williams, and Pesky finished third in MVP voting after the season.
Pesky actually led the league in hits each of his first three seasons, but his sophomore campaign didn’t happen until 1946, as Pesky spent three seasons serving in the Navy. Ultimately, Pesky (who legally changed his name in 1947) played ten seasons with Boston, Detroit, and Washington, but he’s most fondly-remembered in Beantown.
2. Elmer Riddle, Reds (1941). Riddle, a lanky right-hander from Georgia, had played a bit part on the Reds 1940 championship squad. When he got his opportunity to start the following season, Riddle wasted no time. He won his first eleven decisions en route to a 19-4 season, tossing four shutouts and fifteen complete games. Riddle led the league in ERA (2.24) and adjusted ERA+ (161). His 5.8 WAR was the best total compiled by any 1940s rookie.
Although he enjoyed two other decent seasons, Riddle’s ten-year career was largely undistinguished. These days, he’s remembered mostly for being the younger brother of one of history’s great villains. I think.
3. Don Newcombe, Dodgers (1949). A former Negro Leaguer, Newcombe emerged onto the big league scene two years after his teammate Robinson. Like Robinson, Newcombe earned the Rookie of the Year award. He went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA, a 130 ERA+, and 5.6 WAR. Newcombe led the league in shutouts, with 5, and tossed 19 complete games while striking out 149 hitters.
During that rookie year, Newcombe became the first black pitcher to start a World Series game. In 1956, he won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards, becoming the first pitcher to win those two along with a Rookie of the Year trophy (only Justin Verlander has matched that accomplishment since.).
4. Stan Musial, Cardinals (1942). Stan was The Man from day one, hitting .315/.397/.490 with 32 doubles, 10 triples, 10 homers and 72 RBI as a 21-year-old rookie in 1942. The following season, Musial won his first MVP award by hitting .357/.425/.562 and leading the league in almost every offensive category.
Let’s not waste much time talking about Musial; he’s an inner-circle Hall of Famer, one of the best of all time. He’s even the best player ever to emerge from Donora, PA (home of Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr.).
5. Gene Bearden, Indians (1948). Really, 1948 was Bearden’s only successful season in the big leagues, but what a debut. A 27-year-old knuckleballer who had almost been killed in action five years before while serving on the USS Helena, Bearden became the ace of a Cleveland pitching staff that included Feller and Lemon. On the season, Bearden was 20-7 with a league-leading 2.43 ERA, 15 complete games, and six shutouts (his 168 ERA+ was also best in the AL).
Even better, Bearden was manager Lou Boudreau’s choice to start the one-game playoff against the Red Sox. He won, then pitched twice in the World Series, picking up a win and a save (in the clinching game) without allowing a run as the Indians won the championship. Cleveland hasn’t won one since. A storybook season, indeed.
6. Larry Doby, Indians (1948). We remember him now as the first black player in the American League, and he made his debut in July of 1947 (a few months after Robinson had broken the color barrier). The following season (which still qualifies as his rookie campaign, for our purposes), the 24-year-old Doby won a starting spot in Cleveland’s outfield and responded with aplomb: .301/.384/.490, 14 homers, 66 rbi, 4.6 WAR.
Over the next 12 seasons, Doby would make seven All-Star teams. He was named to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998. We can argue about whether his statistics merit inclusion in the Hall, but there’s no question that Doby faced the same hate and prejudice that Robinson faced, and he played brilliantly nonetheless.
7. Alvin Dark, Braves (1948). A college football star who had been drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Dark was already well-known when he reached the major leagues. As a rookie shortstop in 1948, Dark won the Rookie of the Year award by hitting .322/.353/.433. His 39 doubles were the most of any rookie in the decade, and he finished third in MVP voting behind Musial and teammate Johnny Sain.
8. Mike Garcia, Indians (1949). Though he didn’t make his first start until June 12, Garcia quickly established himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League. When the dust settled on the season, Garcia was 14-5 with a league-leading 2.36 ERA and a 170 ERA+ (which also led the league). He pitched eight complete games and five shutouts in twenty starts; Garcia also relieved in 21 games.
9. Les Fleming, Indians (1942). As a rookie first baseman, Fleming hit .292/.412/.432 with 14 home runs, 82 RBI, and 106 walks. Fleming’s .412 on-base percentage was the best of any qualified rookie in the 1940s. Six years later, however, Fleming turned his back on Doby in the clubhouse as he was being introduced to the young player. And that’s all I’m going to say about this mouth-breather.
10. Joe Berry, Athletics (1944). Jittery Joe Berry was a 39-year-old rookie in 1944, a veteran of 18 minor league seasons who finally got a shot at the big leagues thanks to the war. Berry responded by winning ten games with an ERA of 1.94 and an impressive ERA+ of 178. He led league in games finished (47) and saves (12), while posting 3.1 WAR. The following season, Berry led the league in games while recording a 2.35 ERA, but his career was over by 1946.
Okay, maybe Berry isn’t top-ten material, but he has a great nickname and a great story. He’s a perfect fit for the Honorary Bob Hamelin spot on this list.
So there you have it. As always, there are plenty of names I wish I could have included on the list. Lou Klein, for instance, who hit .287/.342/.410 with 28 doubles and 14 triples in 1943, posting 5.8 WAR as a middle infielder for the Cardinals. Or what about Bobby Thomson? In 1947, Thomson hit .283/.336/.508 with 29 homers, the highest home run total for any rookie in the decade. Dick Wakefield (Tigers, 1943) hit .316/.377/.434 and led the league in hits (200) and doubles (38). Other rookies of note: Del Ennis (Phillies, 1946), Wally Judnich (Browns, 1940), and Babe Young (Giants, 1940).
A number of pitchers deserve an honorable mention, as well. Ernie White was spectacular for the Cardinals in 1941, going 17-7 with a 2.40 ERA, 12 complete games, and 5.3 WAR. Larry Jansen (Giants, 1947) finished 21-5, with a 3.16 ERA and 20 complete games, and finished second to Jackie Robinson in rookie award voting. Hal White posted 5.6 WAR as a rookie for the Tigers in 1942, going 12-12 with a 2.91 ERA and four shutouts.
Finally, there are two rookies who merit special mention. Nate Andrews had kicked around the league for a few cups of coffee before the war. In 1943, he got a shot with the Braves and, at age 29, responded by leading the league in losses (20) and hit batters (6). He also won 14 games with a 2.57 ERA, a 131 ERA+, and 5.1 wins above replacement. Not too shabby. (For what it’s worth, Andrews’ 2.57 ERA remains the lowest ERA in post-dead ball history for a 20-game loser.)
Let us not leave without mentioning the immortal Tiny Bonham (who was anything but tiny, evidently). His abbreviated rookie season for the Yankees in 1940 wasn’t enough to get him in the top ten, but for a short time he was magnificent: 9-3, 1.90 ERA, 213 ERA+, ten complete games in 12 starts, with 3 shutouts and 3.2 WAR.
That’s all for today. For those of you who may have missed the earlier installments of this series, here the the top rookies of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Next up, we return to the age of the Great Depression: the thirties.