The League Award, 1931-69

To the surprise of no one, Albert Pujols won his third MVP award this year. Since entering the majors, Pujols has more or less been in the award-winning business, and those MVPs will count nicely toward a Hall of Fame induction. (I could be presumptuous here, but as Albert’s about to enter his 10th season, I can’t imagine him not making it off his accomplishments to date.)

But what if those awards couldn’t count for anything? Babe Ruth won only one MVP because the bulk of his career was spent under the League Award, an AL-only version of the MVP in which there were two main rules: no repeat winners, and no player-manager winners. Obviously, having just one MVP didn’t count against him when it came time to put him in the Hall. (I’d love to see some random voter defend a nonvote off that fact…)

Because of its restrictions, the League Award was not looked upon kindly, and by 1931 the “modern” MVP voting process was established in both leagues. But let’s pretend for two articles that the League Award instead was adopted in both leagues and existed today. Who would the altered winners be? I just went with the simplest process of eliminating ineligibles until finding a potential winner. Though it is likely that some of the votes cast in actuality on repeat winners would go to a teammate, just taking the first possible winner and crowning him MVP will do fine for this exercise.

Of the 158 MVP awards from 1931 to 2009, 23 NL and 24 AL awards get changed. I’ll list all the ones in the time period (I chose 1969 just because it cuts the changed awards in half) and then pick my favorites to discuss.

1933 AL Heinie Manush over Jimmie Foxx/Joe Cronin
1936 NL Billy Herman over Carl Hubbell/Dizzy Dean
1938 AL Bill Dickey over Jimmie Foxx
1940 AL Bob Feller over Hank Greenberg
1941 AL Ted Williams over Joe DiMaggio
1945 AL Eddie Mayo over Hal Newhouser
1946 AL Bobby Doerr over Ted Williams/Hal Newhouser
1946 NL Dixie Walker over Stan Musial
1947 AL Joe Page over Joe DiMaggio/Ted Williams/Lou Boudreau
1948 AL Vern Stephens over Lou Boudreau/Joe DiMaggio/Ted Williams
1948 NL Johnny Sain over Stan Musial
1949 AL Phil Rizzuto over Ted Williams
1950 AL Billy Goodman over Phil Rizzuto
1953 NL Eddie Mathews over Roy Campanella
1954 AL Larry Doby over Yogi Berra
1955 AL Al Kaline over Yogi Berra
1955 NL Duke Snider over Roy Campanella
1957 AL Roy Sievers over Mickey Mantle/Ted Williams
1959 NL Wally Moon/Sam Jones over Ernie Banks/Eddie Mathews/Hank Aaron
1961 AL Jim Gentile over Roger Maris/Mickey Mantle
1962 AL Bobby Richardson over Mickey Mantle
1965 NL Deron Johnson over Willie Mays/Sandy Koufax/Maury Wills
1966 AL Boog Powell over Frank Robinson/Brooks Robinson

1945 AL: Mayo over Newhouser

Top five eligibles: Mayo, Snuffy Stirnweiss, Dave Ferriss, George Myatt, Vern Stephens

Mayo was the Sporting News MVP for the year and was reasonably close to Newhouser in first-place votes that year. Maybe it was the war, or defense that I obviously wasn’t around to see, but I have a difficult time seeing how Mayo’s 113 OPS+ (.285/.347/.405) and defense compared even remotely to Newhouser’s 25-9, 1.81 ERA season (313 IP) in the minds of the voters.

The whole thing mystifies me, really. The Tigers were one of the worst pennant-winners ever to that point, which seems like prime fodder for just naming the best player in the league. Aside from Newhouser, who thoroughly deserved this MVP, the best candidates were either Snuffy Stirnweiss, who led the league in average, slugging, runs, hits, triples and stolen bases, or Mayo’s teammate Roy Cullenbine, whose walks-centered game was not as appreciated then as maybe it should have been. Cullenbine was only fourth on his own team, behind Newhouser, Mayo and part-time catcher Paul Richards of the .670 OPS. (Even White Sox catcher Mike Tresh of the .617 OPS got more votes than Cullenbine. Newhouser’s OPS was higher than Tresh’s. 1945 was weird.)

Why the voters were so keen on voting for a souped-up Orlando Hudson prototype, I don’t know. What I do know is that Mayo likely is the only player to get serious MVP consideration after being Rule 5 drafted twice in his career (and both times in his 30s). Shane Victorino, here is your role model.

1947 AL: Page over three

Top five eligibles: Page, George Kell, George McQuinn, Phil Marchildon, Luke Appling

This year and the next are the only times you have to go to 10th place to find five eligible players. While the AL outscored the NL 30-10 in All-Star games of this era, the NL may have been in better shape in terms of depth. Yes, there were DiMaggio and Williams, all-world talents who deserved to be at the top of the voting every year. But past that, you get down to Page, whose MVP would have robbed Jim Konstanty of his claim to fame with a less impressive season.

Then again, while Bob Elliott was a worthy pick for NL MVP, the four after him were Ewell Blackwell, Johnny Mize, Bruce Edwards and Jackie Robinson—a mixed bag of amazing talents and shortened careers. The war may have returned a few stars in 1946, but it also curtailed many chances for prospect development. Without integration, the ’50s would have been one of the least talented decades of major league play, thanks to wartime and some incompetent organizations in the forties. Looking at that list of eligibles—by 1950s vote, only Kell was even in the majors—is almost as much of an indicator of wartime problems as wartime play itself. Besides the moral oughtness of the thing, baseball needed integration just to play quality baseball.

1961 AL: Gentile over two

Top five eligibles: Gentile, Norm Cash, Whitey Ford, Luis Arroyo, Frank Lary

Gentile strikes me as an earlier version of Ryan Howard—a big lefty first basemen who got a late start and then hit the snot out of the ball. Like Howard, Gentile parlayed a strong rookie season (he was one of three Orioles who swept the Rookie of the Year voting in 1960) into an MVP-caliber season. Gentile faded early, so we’ll see how the Howard parallels draw out from here. I could be seeing things, but they seem similar to me.

I was about to write how this was a clear case of League Award restrictions being foolish, as Gentile’s season shouldn’t have dwarfed Maris’ or Mantle’s. But the writers of the time disagreed, giving five first-place votes to Gentile, along with one for Cash and one for Arroyo. Ranked by OPS+ top to bottom, it’s Mantle, Cash, Gentile and Maris, and the voting reflected that closeness generally. The League Award clearly has flaws, but surprisingly, given the usual impressions of 1961 as a Maris/Mantle lovefest, this is one season where the voters were at least aware of other performances.

While I didn’t have the chance to look this up, I suspect that Maris’ 16 doubles are the lowest total ever for a position player MVP. Mantle and Maris combined for 115 home runs and 32 doubles. I can’t read that sentence without wanting to correct it.

1962 AL: Richardson over Mantle

Top five eligibles: Richardson, Harmon Killebrew, Leon Wagner, Dick Donovan, Norm Siebern

Richardson must have made some impression to be a seven-time All-star, winner of five straight Gold Gloves, and a near-MVP in the only season his OPS+ was above 99 (and here it was only 102). He led the AL in hits, but with a near-record 754 plate appearances, so could many players. Richardson was sort of a lesser Jimmy Rollins in this way, though Rollins’ MVP season was significantly better than Richardson’s.

Maybe it was just the oddity of the year that led to this result. Mantle was injured for a good chunk of the year; Killebrew hit .243 and fielded like Killebrew; Leon Wagner was his oddly personable self, perhaps a hard person for some writers to digest; and 20-game winner Donovan had a rather high ERA for a mediocre Indians team. Those kinds of mixed bags seem to be the ones where high-average middle infield whizzes get their due, so that could explain Richardson. It at least makes more sense to me than Mayo in ’45.

1965 NL: Johnson over three

Top five eligibles: Johnson, Don Drysdale, Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal

Besides that I wanted an NL vote in here somewhere, Johnson was a definite surprise in this exercise. Johnson and Versalles would have been one of the strangest sets of MVP winners of all time, looking back at careers. That’s not to say Deron wasn’t a good choice, although I suspect with Mays out of the voting, more Giants support would have gone to Willie McCovey‘s season. Regardless, Johnson had the RBI title by a long shot (130 to Frank Robinson‘s
113); only he and Hank Aaron in 1963 would reach that total in the shrunken-strike-zone era. RBI is a siren statistic for MVP voters, and so Johnson did well enough.

As another trivia question I don’t know the answer to, had Johnson won this MVP, he may have become the only MVP never to appear on an All-Star team in his career. I have yet to find an actual MVP who was never an All-Star; Terry Pendleton was an All-Star only once, and that’s as close as I can find.

Next time

1970 to the present, with some ’80s surprises and a clean slate in the Bonds-Pujols era.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference all the way. I also looked at a bunch of general player biographies to try to gain some insight on voting; none of that information made it in here, but was fascinating regardless. I had known nothing of Phil Marchildon’s bittersweet life adjusting after the horror of his combat experience, but I recommend you look up a bio or two, as his story was not unique in his time, and it probably isn’t in ours.

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Comments

  1. Tom Keyser said...

    Very interesting read. I love these historic ‘what if’ speculations.

    Richardson was highly overrated at the time as a scrappy hustler who made things happen, a major offensive force. Hence the AS votes. Master revisionist Bill James helps us realize how ineffectual guys like Bobby R. really were, with the exception of the 1960 WS that is.  .  .

  2. Brandon Isleib said...

    Fred,

    In a world where MVP winners couldn’t repeat, Mantle couldn’t win after his award in 1956.  Richardson was second-place in real-life MVP voting in 1962, so he wins in this alternate reality.  That’s the thrust of the article.

  3. fred forscher said...

    thanks for clearing it up but richardson wasnt ever a real mvp canidate and i am a yankee fan any ofthe other 3 would be better

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