The mythology of baseball holds a cherished place for the one-year wonder. A new player comes up to the majors, maybe quite young, maybe quite old, and starts tearing up the league. His name becomes a meteor blazing across the sky—and then like all meteors, he burns out, or crashes to Earth. He disappears, never to play again, at least not where it matters.
Baseball writing has a pretty fair number of these prodigies. The most famous is probably Roy Hobbs, the anti-hero of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, who gets his late second chance and makes the most, and least, of it. (I understand they made it into a movie, too.) Douglass Wallop took a more fantastic route, having Joe Boyd make a deal with the Devil to become Shoeless Joe Hardy in The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. (They made a play and a movie of that one.) And just this year, prolific novelist John Grisham chimed in with Calico Joe, involving the incredible rise and fall of almost supernaturally successful Cubs rookie Joe Castle. (I haven’t looked, but odds are 50-50 that’s already been optioned for a movie.)
We respond to tales like this, the brief taste of glory followed by a plunge back into obscurity. So what about its parallels in real life? What players have followed the same trajectory, getting their season in the sun and no more?
Following the leads of our Richard Barbieri and Chris Jaffe (who may be even more prolific than John Grisham), I’ve put together my own All-Star team of one-year players in the modern era, 1901 and after. I was strict on this point: a single appearance in a second season was an automatic disqualifier. Tempting as it was to tab someone like Mark Fidrych as a one-year wonder, he struggled through his subsequent injuries to post a 10-10 record for several seasons after his magical 1976. I required the genuine article: one and done.
Chasing down the best in this category was a balancing act between the objective and the subjective. I let Baseball-Reference’s WAR numbers guide me to a large extent, along with metrics like OPS+ and ERA+, but I also gave consideration to the players’ stories. An interesting narrative advanced a player’s cause. After all, I want you to keep reading. I did some light fiddling with outfielders to fill left field and DH with non-regulars at those spots, but nothing that would raise eyebrows if a manager did it.
I deducted for a player’s lone season coming against a diminished talent pool—wartime or an upstart league—but as you will see this didn’t constitute a total bar. Also, I tried to stay away from pure September call-ups having a hot couple of weeks, though again this made passing my muster difficult, not impossible. Very recent and still active players are left out for obvious reasons.
All that said, here is my roster (with a one-year manager thrown in for completeness):
The position players
Catcher: Bob Henley, 1998 Montreal Expos
(41G-132PA; .304/.377/.470; 124 OPS+; 1.1 WAR)
Called up in mid-July, Henley became a late bright spot on a sorry 65-97 Expos team. A strong, accurate arm and some good stretches of hitting gave him a broad base of value. When starting catcher Chris Widger went out with a sprained thumb ligament, Henley took over as No. 1 for the final month, cementing his future place in Montreal’s plans.
What one injury gave, though, others would take away. Henley had a bone spur removed from his elbow after the season, and worse was to come. By the end of spring training in 1999, he was beset with serious elbow and shoulder problems. He would play all of two rookie ball games that year, one more minor-league game in 2002, and that was it. Henley had become one more line on the list of this snake-bitten franchise’s woes.
First base: Bucky Jacobsen, 2004 Seattle Mariners
(42G-176PA; .275/.335/.500; 117 OPS+; 0.5 WAR)
Bucky Jacobsen looked every inch a modern slugger: 6-foot-4, 255 pounds; bald dome, blazing red goatee, arms somewhere between Mark McGwire and Popeye. He hit the bigs in mid-July, and I mean hit. Midway through his seven-week stint, he already had seven home runs and a slash line above .300/.400/.600. He seemed like a Mariner mainstay for years to come, if you didn’t look at his age (28) … or his right knee.
A tarp collision in 2001 had injured the joint, and in the middle of this run, it began betraying him. His performance degenerated as fast as his knee until the Mariners shut him down, diagnosing arthritis and getting him surgery. He strove to come back, ranging as far afield as the independent Long Island Ducks (where he played well) and Tabasco of the Mexican League (where he didn’t) before hanging up his spikes. It’s a cruel irony that, as I write, his Baseball-Reference page is sponsored by a worker’s compensation concern. (Now that’s targeted advertising.)
Second base: Jim Baxes, 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers/Cleveland Indians
(88G-308PA; .246/.310/.471; 113 OPS+; 0.9 WAR)
Baxes flashed good numbers early for the Dodgers, but with their established infielders blocking him, L.A. traded him to Cleveland on May 22. Baxes’ numbers fell off some there, but he still had power, hitting 17 homers total in basically half a season. By July, he had managed to wrest the second baseman’s job away from Billy Martin. He would make the All-Rookie teams of both Topps and The Sporting News.
It all came crashing down after that. Baxes played Cuban winter ball but in December got cut by Almendares, the last-place club. By February, 1960, Martin was able to gloat that Cleveland had “got rid” of Baxes, though by now he was gloating as a Cincinnati Red. Jim joined his brother Mike as someone who got a good look at the majors but didn’t hang around very long.
Third base: Ed Taylor, 1926 Boston Braves
(92G-327PA; .268/.368/.313; 92 OPS+; 1.0 WAR)
Taylor had the wrong skill in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a left-side utility infielder for the ’26 Braves, spelling third baseman Andy High and sometimes shortstop Dave Bancroft. He was little threat with his bat to knock either established player out of his job, though with his eye he should have been at least some risk to High. A total of 38 walks in 327 plate appearances gave Taylor a fine on-base percentage, 30 points above the league average and 17 better than High’s number.
But this was long before on-base percentage got its due. Worse, it was during the Ruthian 1920s, and Taylor’s lack of power (zero home runs) sealed his fate. He was sent to Buffalo of the International League, where he had a good 1927 and a bad 1928. He would never get the chance to parlay his patience into a second stint in the majors.
Shortstop: Otis Johnson, 1911 New York Highlanders
(71G-262PA; .234/.363/.378; 102 OPS+; 1.0 WAR)
Johnson had the same problem as Taylor, and worse. His great walk numbers would have been discounted a hundred years ago, and his nice isolated power came during the oasis years of the Deadball Era, shaded by the short-lived boost in offense. Many observers would have gotten no further than his laggard batting average and missed that he was a league-average offensive performer playing in the middle infield—shortstop and some second base.
John Knight was New York’s starting shortstop, and despite a worse OPS than Johnson and being no obvious defensive standout, he actually managed to garner slight consideration that season for the Chalmers Award, the MVP of its day. Earle Gardner was even worse at second base, but the Highlanders plucked ex-Tiger Hack Simmons from the minors to try to fill that hole. (He’d do as badly as Gardner.) This left no place for Johnson, except Rochester. He would die in a hunting accident in 1915, still playing minor league ball, still dreaming of a second chance.
Left field: Red Massey, 1918 Boston Braves
(66G-231PA; .291/.363/.340; 119 OPS+; 1.1 WAR)
Massey’s season may merit an asterisk due to wartime conditions, but his performance still gets him on the team. (He also played more center field than left, but center’s crowded here.) At 27, he was quite young for a Braves team heavy with veterans (not the military kind). He left the team in early August as the “Work or Fight” order began shutting down baseball, but he was well poised to return for another successful campaign. (Sorry, the war metaphors keep sneaking in.)
The seventh-place Braves greeted the peace, though, with a thorough purge of their roster, especially the outfield. Seven Braves outfielders had more than 100 at-bats in 1918 (in a truncated season). Two of them played for Boston in 1919. Their three best offensive outfielders were swept away, including Massey. He was fetched up in Columbus, and played on the Double-A level for five more years before calling it a career.
Center field: Harry Armbruster, 1906 Philadelphia Athletics
(91G-330PA; .238/.353/.306; 104 OPS+; 1.1 WAR)
Armbruster came up as the fourth outfielder for a pretty good Athletics team, eleven games over .500. He spent most of his time spelling center fielder Bris Lord and right fielder Socks Seybold. He was no threat to Seybold’s offensive numbers, but Lord’s were another matter. The two had nearly identical batting averages and similar power, Armbruster ahead a hair on both counts. However, as you might guess from the OBP number, Armbruster was far ahead in drawing walks.
This tale ends the same old way. Connie Mack missed his on-base skills like most people did then; Lord kept his job and Armbruster lost his, ending up in Toledo. It was Bris Lord who, after a sojourn with Cleveland, tasted World Series glory in 1910 and 1911 with Mack’s champion A’s teams. And somehow it was he who ended up with the nickname “The Human Eyeball,” though he never did draw all that many walks. (If it wasn’t a batting eye comment, I hate to think why they really called him that.)
Right field: Irv Waldron, 1901 Milwaukee Brewers/Washington Senators
(141G-651PA; .311/.356/.378; 106 OPS+; 1.8 WAR)
Waldron didn’t get promoted to the majors: his whole league did, when the AL began its direct challenge to the NL. Despite the third-best bat work on a terrible Brewers squad, Milwaukee released him on July 7. (His dubious fielding may have been the cause.)
Washington snapped him up the next day, and Waldron’s batting didn’t miss a beat. Due to the change in teams and schedule quirks, he played 141 games that season when no team played over 139. This helped him lead the American League in plate appearances and at-bats, though his solid offensive performance that kept him in the lineup surely helped.
The AL began seriously raiding the NL for talent that offseason, and Waldron got lost in the shuffle (though, if anything, his glove had gotten worse in Washington). He ended up with Kansas City in the Western League for 1902 and resumed a long minor league career—though not as long and productive as our next player.
Designated hitter: Buzz Arlett, 1931 Philadelphia Phillies
(121G-469PA; .313/.387/.538; 138 OPS+ 2.6 WAR)
He was called “the Babe Ruth of the minor leagues,” once holding the minor league record of 432 career homers (since broken, and not by Crash Davis). SABR voted him the greatest minor league player ever. Buzz Arlett was a star of sorts even before the Phillies gave him his chance at age 32. He promptly went about proving he had always belonged. He cracked 10 home runs in his first 33 games, and his batting average peaked early in June at .378.
Then he hurt his leg sliding against Cincinnati, and his numbers started slipping. A broken thumb against St. Louis cost him two weeks, and more. When he came back, he couldn’t swing properly from the left side, and thus could no longer attack the Baker Bowl’s short right fence. His batting numbers began a skid that wouldn’t stabilize until September. Worse, his attitude curdled. His defensive play, always poor, turned indifferent and brutal, even as bad as fellow Phillie slugger Chuck Klein‘s.
Overall, he still put in a good year, the best by WAR that any single-season player ever produced, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. The Phillies waived him good-bye, and he returned to building his minor league legend.
On the bench:
Backup catcher: William Outen, 1933 Brooklyn Dodgers
Backup infielder: Harry Pattee, 1908 Brooklyn Superbas
Backup infielder: Del Paddock, 1912 Chicago White Sox/New York Highlanders
Backup outfielder: Tony Walker, 1986 Houston Astros
Pinch hitter: Luis Silverio, 1978 Kansas City Royals
Outen had good walk numbers, but not enough to threaten Al Lopez‘s job, and incoming manager Casey Stengel went with a younger prospect as backup in 1934. Pattee could walk, and he could field at second, but a weak bat cost him (even though his .216 batting average was better-than-average on the Superbas). Paddock could walk (again) but struggled defensively at third and couldn’t unseat New York’s Roy Hartzell. Walker lacked power and average but was a fine center-field glove—and, yes, he lived up to his surname.
As for Silverio: what’s a guy with just 14 plate appearances doing here, you ask. I reply, he’s getting three singles, two doubles, a triple, and two walks (plus a sac bunt), for a .545/.615/.909 line. A hot streak of 29 hits in 18 games at Omaha earned him his chance, and he kept some of that lightning bottled for his trip to The Show. Manager Whitey Herzog meant to ripen him in Triple-A for a year then unleash him again. But Luis injured his knee in winter ball, needed surgery, played just five games of rookie ball that year and never got his return ticket punched. Still, we’ll always have that lovely small sample.
Starter: Henry Schmidt, 1903 Brooklyn Superbas
(40G-301IP; 22-13, 2 Sv; 3.83 ERA/84 ERA+; 1.5 WAR)
Today’s analysts will glance briefly at the ERA+, recoil like Dracula from garlic, and bemoan the eternal fixation on pitcher wins. Fair enough, but Henry Schmidt performed at above-replacement levels for over 300 innings, and that accumulates value. Also, he pitched five shutouts, tied for second in the whole league, and he had a good bat for a pitcher, enough so that he played one game in the outfield. And true, it doesn’t hurt that he won 22 games when no one else I considered for this list even reached 10.
Brooklyn wanted him back for 1904, sending him his contract to sign. He wired back to say he didn’t like living out East and would not report. He signed with Oakland in the Pacific Coast League instead, and never returned to the majors. Of course, he had once played three years in the minors in Pennsylvania, and would later play minor league ball in North Carolina (does that count as East, or as the South?). Could it be that the Oaks just offered Schmidt a better salary?
Starter: Paul Edmondson, 1969 Chicago White Sox
(14G-87.2IP; 1-6, 0 Sv; 3.70 ERA/105 ERA+; 1.4 WAR)
Edmondson is the mirror-image of Schmidt: good underlying numbers betrayed by his record. He won his very first game against California, 9-1, but never won another. The White Sox managed only 42 runs for him that season, three per game (the league average was 4.1, and the Pale Hose overall scored 4.5). Manager Don Gutteridge voiced confidence in Edmondson going into 1970. The record was deceptive, he said. Paul had just been a hard-luck pitcher. He didn’t know how true that was.
A few days before spring training began, Edmondson’s car spun out on a wet California highway, struck another car, and burst into flames. Paul and his girlfriend both died in the wreck. He would never get the chance for his record to match his peripherals, or his potential.
Starter: Tacks Neuer, 1907 New York Highlanders
(7G-54IP; 4-2, 0 Sv; 2.17 ERA/130 ERA+; 1.0 WAR)
Neuer reached the majors in late August, making only six starts. He pitched shutouts in three of them, including his first and last games. (He must have known the old showbiz injunction to open big and close big.) He was a feast-or-famine pitcher, giving up five, 10, and five runs in his other three starts, but the feasts had the Highlanders expecting great things in his sophomore campaign.
Unfortunately, Tacks (also called “Tex”) was a mercurial fellow. In our age, we might call him a head case. Rather than use spring training of 1908 to sharpen his repertoire, he obsessively worked on trick pitches, to the extent that his control fled him. The Highlanders farmed him out, and he began bouncing down the minors, walking whole ballparks all the way.
Starter: Jim Neidlinger, 1990 Los Angeles Dodgers
(12G-74IP; 5-3, 0 Sv; 3.28 ERA/113 ERA+; 1.1 WAR)
Injuries decimated the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 1990, shoulder woes claiming first Orel Hershiser and then Tim Belcher. Neidlinger was one of the hurlers called up to fill the gap, and in his two-month stint he was more than adequate. No showy drama, no shutout numbers like Neuer or Schmidt, just good steady performance.
Neither was there drama comparable to those starters explaining why he didn’t get a second season. With Belcher back in the rotation to start 1991 (Hershiser would come later), the Dodgers didn’t have a place for Neidlinger except Triple-A. He did okay there but never put up numbers that screamed, “Call me up again!” Stints in the Minnesota and St. Louis systems fared no better, and his career ended quietly in 1994.
Swingman: Tommy de la Cruz, 1944 Chicago Cubs
(34G-191.1IP; 9-9, 1 Sv; 3.25 ERA/108 ERA+; 2.1 WAR)
Speaking of a big WAR (ow, the puns!), World War II gave this 32-year-old Cuban hurler his chance in the bigs. He won his first two decisions, then fell into a terrible 0-7 slump that lasted through June and got him moved to the bullpen. He straightened himself out there, got back into the rotation, and went 7-2 the rest of the way. He won his last three starts, including a one-hitter against Pittsburgh, and the Cubs were looking forward to having him back.
But the war took back the chance it had granted. Called up for U.S. military service, he entered the Cuban Army instead, which was much more forgiving about letting him play baseball. He couldn’t play it in America, though, not with a war on. He went to the Mexican League in 1945 and never returned to organized U.S. ball.
Swingman: Joe Bonikowski, 1962 Minnesota Twins
(30G-99.2IP; 5-7, 2 Sv; 3.88 ERA/106 ERA+; 1.0 WAR)
A hot spring got “Bongo” the call to Minnesota, and his good fortune held for a time. His first game was 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, earning him a win, and his first start was a fine 10-3 victory against Kansas City. Reversion hit in mid-May, a hard-luck 2-1 loss to the Yankees triggering a 1-6 slide. He saw pen duty and then a demotion in July but returned in September for four perfect relief outings.
His youth (21 that year) and underlying numbers showed he still had bright promise, but it got derailed. He was drafted into the army after the season, was late to spring training in 1963 after being discharged, and was optioned down to Dallas-Fort Worth, along with Tony Oliva. Oliva would get back; Bonikowski would not. The numbers never came together again in the minors, and he was done by 1965, still only 24.
Filling out the pitching staff:
Ramirez and Morogiello did some good pitching, but they are perhaps most notable for being fellow one-shotters on a championship team. Baxes was traded off the World Series-winning 1959 Dodgers, but these two Orioles were around to get a (small) piece of the winner’s share. Sadly, neither one got any postseason play. Shifflett put up a fine ERA but had a mixed record in high-leverage situations, so he served substantial garbage time. Boston sent Brickner up and down despite some great numbers, then bursitis the next spring pushed him toward retirement.
Manager: Jack Barry, 1917 Boston Red Sox
Alone on this team, Jack Barry didn’t lack for big-league playing experience. He had a dozen seasons in the majors, notably as shortstop on the fabled “$100,000 Infield” of the early 1910s Philadelphia Athletics. He won three World Series there, got sold to the Red Sox as Connie Mack dismantled his franchise, and won two more titles the next two years in Boston.
That’s when player-manager Bill Carrigan retired to Maine, and Barry got tapped to fill his spikes. He did well, the Red Sox finishing 90-62, just a game shy of 1916′s pace. Too bad the Chicago White Sox won 100.
The First World War swept up Barry, and he missed the whole 1918 season. When he returned to Boston, the manager was Ed Barrow, who had won the Series the year before. They weren’t going to drop Barrow to reinstate a manager who was the only one in four years to fail to win it all with the Red Sox. Barry saw limited playing action for a couple months, then retired.
He was done with the major leagues, but not with managing. He had once played at Holy Cross (coincidentally, so had Carrigan, his managing predecessor), and he caught on as the Crusaders’ head coach in 1921. He ran that team for forty years, compiling a career record above .800, and winning the College World Series in 1952. So yes, he likely would have done fine managing in the bigs, given a second chance.
We have some interesting narratives on the Roy Hobbs All-Star team, but what we do not have is a true Roy Hobbs. We don’t have any player who demolished the league for even a majority of his lone season. Buzz Arlett came closest: through forty games, he led the National League in batting, and was on pace to lead the circuit in home runs, before injuries and demoralization took their toll. The second-best contender (by WAR) got in through the wartime side-door; number three got released (and promptly picked up) midway through the year.
This isn’t so surprising. Anybody who really shows excellence in his first year is going to stick around if it is at all feasible. There are too many teams hungering for talent to let a proven performer slip through the cracks. That’s even truer today, with more teams and more intensive scouting and analysis. You’ll get sad tales of career-wrecking injury as with Henley and Jacobsen (and worse, with Edmondson), but if he can still play, and still has any interest in playing, nowadays he’ll get his second season somewhere.
Roy Hobbs, Joe Hardy, and Joe Castle appear only in fiction perhaps because only fiction can provide the contrivances necessary for their stories. Of course, if someone had matched their brief, meteoric careers in the real game, we’d be cherishing and recounting that tale. We wouldn’t need Wonderboy or Mr. Applegate so much to fill that niche. (Okay, some of us might need Lola.)
One closing point: some attentive readers surely have noted that this All-Star team has 24 players, when the standard modern roster holds 25. I am accounting for the fact that I may not be perfect, and some worthy man may have slipped through the sieve. So the 25th roster slot is for you. Find your forgotten player, the guy who came through in his one and only shot, and let your fellow readers and me know about him.
He won’t be a Roy Hobbs, but that’s okay. Nobody has been. Yet.