Third Base:  The Crossroads, Part Four

Last time we looked at The Crossroads from the perspective of the many players who were converted either to or from third base (or both) at the major league level. This time, we’ll begin to assess the even-longer ledger of diversely talented players who didn’t necessarily play much third in the majors, but for whom at least the distinct possibility of doing so was apparent.

First Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

George Kelly (0.1% of his major league defensive appearances were as a third baseman, between 1915 and 1932). Kelly played some outfield in the minors, but he was primarily a first baseman, and he played no minor league third base (and almost none in the majors). He was very tall (6’4”), but “Highpockets” (great nickname) was slim, and essentially a first baseman in the prevailing Dead Ball mode, mobile and tremendously sure-handed. He was a terrific defensive first baseman, and it’s worth noting that John McGraw always favored defense in his choice of first basemen (which explains McGraw’s decision to go with the notorious Hal Chase in 1919).

Kelly was so adept defensively that he played 145 games at second base in the major leagues; although he appears to have been a decent defensive second baseman, his deployment there, even though it occurred in the 1920s, was very much an “old school” Dead Ball-style move. In a later era, with a different appreciation of the costs and benefits of balancing skills at first base, second base and third, it’s easy to imagine Highpockets playing a lot of third base, and playing it well. The election of Kelly to the Hall of Fame is properly derided, but the fact that he really doesn’t belong in Cooperstown doesn’t mean he wasn’t an outstanding ballplayer.

Jimmie Foxx (6.4%, 1925-45). “The Beast” is properly famed for his prodigious feats of slugging, but he was a superb all-around athlete. He was originally a catcher, and the quality of his throwing arm is suggested by the fact that at the age of 37, thoroughly broken down by alcoholism, Foxx was deployed as an emergency pitcher in nine games by the war-depleted Philadelphia Phillies—and he put up a 1.59 ERA, surrendering just 13 hits in 23 innings. Yes, it’s a tiny sample size, and yes, it was wartime baseball, but still, 13 hits in 23 innings—I think this guy must have really been able to throw when he was a young man, and reasonably sober.

The young Foxx’s path at catcher was blocked by some guy named Cochrane, so in 1928 Connie Mack logically chose third base as the primary place to break his powerfully throwing prodigy into the regular lineup. But in 1929, the 21-year-old Foxx was made the regular first baseman. It isn’t obvious why. Foxx doesn’t appear to have been a bad fielder at third, and it wasn’t as though the Athletics had tremendous third base alternatives: Sammy Hale and Jimmie Dykes were solid, but both were 32, and neither had ever been a star. For the rest of his career, his teams used Foxx as an occasional fill-in third baseman (and in fairly extended emergency stints at catcher and in the outfield), but he was forever primarily a first baseman.

But Foxx might have been primarily a third baseman, at least for a significant part of his career, and he might well have been a good one. The reasons he didn’t play third are probably these: (1) as of the late 1920s, the model of the third baseman was still the quick little version, and Foxx wasn’t slow but he sure didn’t fit that model, and (2) similar to the cases of so many other great young sluggers (for instance, Kevin Mitchell and Gary Sheffield, whom we discussed last time, and others we’ll be discussing this time and next), Mack just decided it made sense to allow the kid to move to an easier position and focus his energy on hitting.

Gil Hodges (1.5%, 1943-63). Like Foxx, Hodges was a big, strong catcher when he reached the majors, but he found his path there blocked by a truly great young catcher (in Hodges’s case, Roy Campanella). Like Foxx, the next position it would seem to have made sense for his team to try would be third base. And like Foxx, his team instead chose to deploy him as their regular first baseman, and there he emerged as a power-hitting star.

Unlike Foxx, though, Hodges displayed particular defensive aptitude; Foxx was never considered anything special as a defensive first baseman, but Hodges was considered brilliant, as outstanding with the glove as any first baseman of his era. Gold Gloves weren’t awarded until Hodges was 33, but he still won the title three times; he unquestionably would have filled a huge mantelpiece with them if he’d had the chance. Hodges was so adept defensively that the Dodgers found a way to use him in the outfield in 79 games over four different seasons (including one appearance in center field), and—significantly—at third base in 29 games at the ages of 34, 35 and 36.

The Dodgers’ decision to send Hodges to first base rather than third upon Campanella’s arrival is odd (yes, I find it conceivable that Branch Rickey could have been less than perfect), and odder still is their decision to never deploy Hodges in a single game at third base through the heart of his peak capability seasons. Instead their primary third baseman through that period was Billy Cox (whom we considered in Part Two), a great-fielding, marginal-hitting option. Obviously, with Cox at third and Hodges at first, the team was presenting a sensational defensive alignment, but at what offensive sacrifice? Did Cox at third truly save more runs with his glove than a typically good-hitting first baseman (and the Dodgers had the resources at their disposal to yield any number of good-hitting first base options) would have generated with his bat? It’s a particularly interesting question, given that there’s every reason to believe that Hodges, who displayed tremendous hands and range, a strong arm and general defensive excellence (and a calm, warm, team-oriented selflessness that made him, sincerely, universally beloved), would almost certainly have developed into a fine defensive third baseman, quite possibly a great one.

We’ll never know, of course; the Dodgers did what they did. We’re left with Hodges as a first baseman, and while he put together a terrific career, it’s one that the Hall of Fame voters haven’t seen fit to enshrine—a decision most serious analysts support. He’s a Hall of Very Good guy. But his bat, good but not great in the first base context, would have been great in the third base context, and I suspect he’d have been a terrific fielding third baseman too—all told a player seriously comparable to Ron Santo or Scott Rolen.

Vic Power (5.4%, 1954-65). If Billy Cox can properly be described as a Dead Ball style third baseman playing decades into the Live Ball era, then Power is his counterpart at first base. The typical first baseman in the 1900-20 period wasn’t the lumbering slugger he’s since become, but, reacting to constant bunts, was instead very often a mobile, agile singles-hitting type. Power was that kind of first baseman.

The adjective most often heard to describe Power’s defensive work is “acrobatic,” a term rarely applied to first basemen. Then again, rare is the All-Star first baseman whose next-most-played position was second base, and who, when deployed in the outfield, was most frequently in center field.

Power played quite a bit of third base in the minors and 89 games there in the majors (as well as eight major league appearances at shortstop). There’s simply no question that, given the opportunity, Power could have been an excellent defensive third baseman. Though he was spectacular with the glove at first base, given his modest first baseman’s bat, I’ve always felt his talent was misapplied as a full-time first baseman. Power would have been better leveraged in a different role, as either a second baseman or third baseman, or better yet as a Chone Figgins-style supersub.

Orlando Cepeda (0.2%, 1958-74). As we examined here, Cepeda played more than 150 games at third base in the minor leagues, and it made abundant sense for the Giants in 1959-60 to give him a serious shot at third in the majors. The failure to do so ranks as somewhere around number 38 on the list of Major Opportunities Blown by that franchise in that period.

Deron Johnson (22.7%, 1960-76). A minor league outfielder and third baseman. Johnson’s major league career went through a series of fits and starts, but in the lone season in which he was a full-time third baseman, he led the major leagues in RBI and finished fourth in the NL MVP voting.

George Scott (11.0%, 1966-79). Everyone knows that “Boomer” was, um, quite large, and that he was an eight-time Gold Glove winner at first base. But did you know that in his four years in the minor leagues, Scott played first in only one season, and in fewer than 10 games at that? He was a third baseman in the minors, and also spent time at second and even at shortstop.

Clearly it’s true that Scott at that point wasn’t carrying nearly the bulk he would later amass (Dick Williams quipped that Scott demonstrated the amazing ability to actually gain weight during each game). But it’s also the case that the skills he flashed at first base—the quick reactions and butter-soft hands—served him very well at third too. He played mostly third base in 1969 and 1970, while he was rebuilding his batting stroke following his total offensive collapse of 1968.

Steve Garvey (8.4%, 1969-87). Not tall (5’10”) and built like a wrestler, Garvey looked the part of the power-hitting third baseman. And he had some of the attributes of a superior defender at third: great hands and quickness. Unfortunately, he simply couldn’t throw at all, and if the Dodgers hadn’t then been willing to take the chance on Garvey as a vertically challenged first baseman, his major league career might well have been brief and undistinguished.

Dave Kingman (10.9%, 1971-86). As we discussed here, Kingman’s failure to make it as a third baseman is equally the fault of his own sullen uncoachability, and of the Giants’ appalling indecisiveness. The young Kingman, all 6-foot-6 of him, was surprisingly quick on his feet, and he had a very powerful arm.

Dan Driessen (13.0%, 1973-87). He wasn’t tall (5’11”), but he was originally a first baseman in the minors and was converted to third in 1972-73 because that was where the Reds had a need for him. Driessen battled the position, and though he certainly didn’t play it well, I always thought the Reds gave up on him there a bit hastily (though their eventual solution of moving Pete Rose to third worked out beautifully).

Eddie Murray (0.2%, 1977-97). Always mostly a first baseman, but Murray played a bit of third in both Double-A and Triple-A, and in a handful of major league games. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which he would be deployed fairly extensively at third base when he was young and such a good fielder.

Mark McGwire (1.3%, 1986-2001). A pitcher in college who arrived in the majors as a very tall, gangly third baseman with a strong and wild arm. Remember that?

Gregg Jefferies (20.2%, 1987-2000). When Jefferies arrived in the majors at the age of 20, I (and just about everyone else) felt sure he was going to be a major star, the next Pete Rose. For whatever combination of reasons, we were largely proved wrong. But I remain convinced that the potential was there for a 3,000-hit, Hall of Fame career, and the defensive position that always seemed the best fit for his set of attributes was third base.

Jeff Bagwell (0.0%, 1991-2005). A minor league third baseman, blocked (wisely or not) by Wade Boggs in the Red Sox’s organization and by Ken Caminiti in the Astros’ organization, under many circumstances Bagwell would have been a major league third baseman. Given his skill profile, he quite possibly would have been a good defensive third baseman. Think about what kind of value that would have generated.

Jason Giambi (6.1%, 1995-2005). He wasn’t exclusively a third baseman in his minor league career, but he was close to it. Believe it or not, Giambi also appeared as a shortstop in Triple-A.

Paul Konerko (3.0%, 1997-2005). The cleanup hitter of the World Champs was a catcher originally and then played quite a bit of third base in the minors and majors before settling in as a regular first baseman after arriving in Chicago. He isn’t light on his feet at all, but Konerko can throw.

Albert Pujols (11.4%, 2001-05). Prince Albert played only one season in the minor leagues. He played in 133 games and made only one appearance anywhere other than third base. There’s every reason to believe that Pujols would have become a regular major league third baseman and probably a fine fielder there, were he not such a stupendous hitter. The Cardinals have made the understandable decision to allow as little as possible interfere with his focus on offense.

Second Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

Napoleon Lajoie (0.9%, 1896-1916). Obviously an all-time great second baseman, but as we discussed in Part One, Lajoie, at 6’1”, 195, displayed the burly, powerful athletic profile that would very likely have made him a third baseman in a later era.

Del Pratt (0.9%, 1912-24). The poor man’s Nap Lajoie, if you will: not as big and not nearly as good, but the same basic melody played in a minor key.

Rogers Hornsby (8.9%, 1915-37). As a minor leaguer and young major leaguer in the 1910s, Hornsby was primarily a shortstop, but he also played quite a bit of third. He didn’t become a second baseman until 1920, when he was 24. He came to be regarded as a reasonably good defensive second baseman, though with a particular weakness at going back on pop-ups. The Rajah wasn’t big (5’11”, 175, though photos suggest that he was carrying more weight than that later in his career), but he was obviously very strong, and with never more than average speed: given the entire skill profile, it’s isn’t hard at all to conceive of a scenario in which Hornsby spent most of his career as a third baseman.

Frankie Frisch (20.0%, 1919-37). Exceptionally fast and agile, it was a measure of the still-prevailing defensive spectrum wisdom that in his first few years, “The Fordham Flash” played quite a bit more third base than second. McGraw eventually deployed him primarily at second base (where by all accounts he was tremendous), but it’s interesting that Frisch never settled in as just a simple regular second baseman: for his entire career, he could frequently be found at third base, and more than occasionally at shortstop. I’ve never grasped the wisdom of deploying a star second baseman in a dual role as utility infielder, but that’s what Frisch was, and 20 years later the Cardinals would spend several years using Red Schoendienst in much the same manner.

Buddy Myer (12.1%, 1925-41). A quick, nimble little guy who played a few years at shortstop, then was converted to third base before finally settling in as a full-time second baseman at the age of 26. An entirely comparable talent to contemporaries such as Ossie Bluege and Willie Kamm, who in the holdover fashion of the day were third basemen, as we discussed in Part Two.

Jackie Robinson (18.8%, 1947-56). He was a fine defensive second baseman until he was in his mid-30s, and was then shifted into a left field/third base role. But there’s a logical scenario under which Robinson—whose breadth of physical and mental gifts would likely allow him to excel at any position except shortstop, catcher or pitcher—never plays second base for the Dodgers.

Robinson was used exclusively at first base in his rookie year, primarily because Brooklyn had an established standout veteran already at second base (Eddie Stanky) and something of a hole at first. The Dodgers then traded Stanky to make room for Robinson at second. But, no offense to the likes of Spider Jorgensen, Eddie Miksis and Tommy Brown, but Brooklyn didn’t have an established talent at third base in 1947 or 1948. I’ve often thought it would have made a lot of sense for the Dodgers to neither mess around with Robinson at first base nor rid themselves of Stanky (who was a very fine player), but instead to just simply play Robinson at third from the get-go.

Branch Rickey is generally regarded as the greatest general manager in baseball history, with good reason. But that doesn’t mean every move he made was optimal. Passing up both Robinson and Gil Hodges as third base options, and opting for Billy Cox as the regular instead, wasn’t necessarily the best course of action.

Tony Taylor (20.5%, 1958-76). Even though it was the 1950s, the young Tony Taylor was deployed in the Dead Ball mode: in his four seasons in the minor leagues (in the Giants’ organization), the 5’9”, great-speed, little-power Taylor played third base and never an inning at second. Only upon being Rule V drafted by the Cubs was he converted to second base, at the major league level. After being a regular second baseman for several years, in the 1966-71 period the Phillies deployed Taylor quite a bit at third, in a supersub role.

Dave Johnson (2.8%, 1965-78). Mostly a shortstop in the minors, Johnson (who was usually called “Dave” rather than “Davey” during his playing career) was moved to second because the Orioles had Luis Aparicio. Johnson was an excellent fielder, winning three Gold Gloves at second, but he wasn’t fast; he was big for a second baseman (6’1”, 180) and strong. As the 1970s progressed, so did Johnson’s waistline, and while the added bulk did wonders for the power in his bat, it also robbed him of range in the field. In his age-31 season, Johnson was moved to first base. It’s very easy to imagine circumstances under which he would have played a lot of third.

Bobby Grich (2.4%, 1970-86). Better than Johnson (indeed, worthy of a fairly serious Hall of Fame case), but built along the same lines, and with almost the exact story: minor league shortstop, blocked at the position by a Baltimore defensive wizard (at this point, Mark Belanger), shifted to second base instead (indeed, replacing Johnson), where he became a star. Given his size and strength, if Grich had come along in an organization without a Brooks Robinson at third, he might very well have wound up at the Hot Corner.

Ryne Sandberg (6.2%, 1981-97). Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: big, strong minor league shortstop, converted to second base at the major league level, emerges as a star. But unlike Johnson and Grich, Sandberg’s shortstop path by a still-in-his-prime Aparicio or Belanger, but instead, weirdly, by a 35-to-38-year-old Larry Bowa, with whom Sandberg was traded from the Phillies to the Cubs. And also unlike Johnson and Grich, Sandberg spent a full season as a major league regular third baseman before being switched to second.

Sandberg was obviously a brilliant second baseman, but it’s by no means obvious that he should have landed there, and it’s even less obvious that the reasons he landed there were good ones. He might well have become a great major league shortstop or a great major league third baseman.

Tony Phillips (18.5%, 1982-99). A severely underrated player, for all the reasons Darrell Evans was an underrated player (see pages 546-548 in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract). Phillips was terrific in his essentially career-long supersub role, but he easily might have been a regular third baseman (which he never was, even though he played 428 games at third), and a very good one.

Jeff Kent (8.1%, 1992-2005). With each succeeding highly productive season, Kent makes what would have been a hopeless Hall of Fame case several years ago into a more and more serious one. But that he’s done it as a second baseman rather than a third baseman is quite peculiar.

Kent has all of the attributes we’ve seen in so many great-fielding modern third basemen, the members of the venerable and still-highly active “Keltner Line” we discussed in Part Two: he’s big (but not too big), with limited range, sure-handed, very strong and with a tremendous rifle arm. Moreover, Kent comes off as nasty-tough, fearless, the kind of guy you’d expect to eat up, with relish and mustard, the most wicked shots batters could send his way at the Hot Corner.

You’d expect that, but you’d be wrong. Kent was given two separate, extensive chances to make it as a major league third baseman, with the Blue Jays in 1992 and with the Mets in 1996. On both occasions, he fielded quite poorly, kicking the ball all over the place. And following the second experience, he made it quite plain that he never wanted any part of third base again.

In 1997, the Giants acquired Kent in a blockbuster (and highly controversial) trade in which they surrendered their star third baseman, Matt Williams. Nevertheless, the Giants accommodated Kent’s desire and played him at second, while deploying two erstwhile second basemen (Bill Mueller and Mark Lewis) at third base. Kent responded (whether coincidentally or not) with a breakout power-production year, and proceeded to blossom into a major offensive star in his 30s. And despite his ever-advancing age and ever-diminishing second base range, Kent has never spent another inning at third.

Shortstops Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

George Davis (22.3%, 1890-1909). A guy who didn’t do any one thing brilliantly, but he did everything well. He didn’t become a regular shortstop until he was 26, and he was primarily a third baseman until then. His 1998 election to the Hall of Fame was long overdue; like other well-rounded talents, Davis is generally overlooked.

Bobby Wallace (18.0%, 1894-1918). Eerily comparable to Davis, playing in almost precisely the same number of career games, Wallace was also a regular third baseman before being converted to shortstop in his mid-20s. If anything, Davis was the slightly superior player, yet Wallace has been in the Hall of Fame since 1953. Go figure.

Hey, Wallace and Davis … White Christmas, anyone?

Honus Wagner (7.5%, 1897-1917). I don’t know quite what the deal was with the 1890s/1900s era, but here’s another guy who was a third baseman (and an outfielder) before being moved to shortstop. It is interesting to contemplate that the player universally hailed as the greatest shorstop in major league history didn’t become a regular there until he was 29.

Wagner didn’t look like a typical shortstop of that or any era: he was 5’11” and 200 pounds, with huge hands, arms and shoulders. We’ve imagined before that if such an athlete came along today, he’d very likely be a third baseman.

Joe Cronin (3.4%, 1926-45). Cronin didn’t play much third in either the minors or the majors, but given his muscular physique (5’11½”, 180, undoubtedly heavier than that later in his career) and moderate speed, it isn’t difficult to imagine him as a third baseman. In their splendid book Paths to Glory, Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt present a case (in Chapter 6) that Cronin, at least in his Red Sox days in the mid-to-late 1930s, was a dreadful defensive shortstop, and they present a quote (page 120) from Red Sox’s owner Tom Yawkey speculating on a shift of Cronin to third base in 1936. I think these authors greatly overstate Cronin’s defensive limitations, as they focus on the number of errors he committed, while Cronin’s shortstop fielding percentage was generally about league-average, or slightly better. But it is rather clear that if the Gold Glove had been awarded in his day, Cronin never would have won it.

Arky Vaughan (11.3%, 1932-48). Unlike Cronin, Vaughan was a great-hitting shortstop who was generally considered to be pretty good with the glove. But still, the Dodgers converted him to third base in his age-30 season. That move can be explained by the presence of Pee Wee Reese, but the following season, despite Reese’s wartime absence and the lack of anything resembling another good shortstop alternative, the Dodgers still used Vaughan at third base in 55 games.

For a combination of reasons, Vaughan’s career largely ended at that point. But we can imagine circumstances under which Vaughan would have instead enjoyed a long second phase of his career, playing extensively at third base.

Cecil Travis (37.4%, 1933-47). A fairly good-sized guy (6’1″, 180), Travis arrived in the majors as a third baseman. But when Buddy Lewis (whom we examined in Part Two) came along, Travis was moved to shortstop. That seemed to work out pretty well, but four years later, in 1940, apparently dissatisfied with Lewis’ defensive progress, the Senators shifted the 23-year-old Lewis to right field and the 26-year-old Travis back to third.

Lewis would stay mostly in right field, but in 1941 Travis was back mostly at shortstop, and he had his best season (indeed, one of the better years any shortstop has ever put together). But then he was off to war, and suffered badly frostbitten feet during the Battle of the Bulge, and his baseball career—which had genuine Hall of Fame potential—was ruined.

Lou Boudreau (3.5%, 1938-52). A minor league third baseman shifted to shortstop because of the presence in Cleveland of Ken Keltner. Boudreau was a rather stocky fellow (5’11″, 185) with average-at-best speed, yet he was highly regarded as a defensive shortstop, at least until he passed the age of 30, at which point he pretty quickly broke down. His extreme contact-oriented, singles-and-doubles offensive profile doesn’t look like a modern third baseman’s, and he enjoyed obvious success as a shortstop, but physically Boudreau seems better suited to third than short—not unlike Miguel Tejada (see below).

Vern Stephens (19.4%, 1941-55). Even more muscular (5’10″, 185) than Boudreau, and displaying the home-run-centric offensive approach one associates with modern third basemen, yet Stephens was always a shortstop, in the minors and into the majors. Most interestingly, when Stephens was acquired by the Red Sox in a blockbuster deal, Boston manager Joe McCarthy opted to shift incumbent star shortstop Johnny Pesky—the quintessential quick little middle infielder—to third base, and deploy the bigger, stronger, slower Stephens at short.

Whatever the wisdom of that choice, once Stephens reached 30, injuries began to hit him pretty hard, and he was mostly a third baseman for his last few seasons.

Ernie Banks (2.8%, 1953-71). In 1957, the Cubs deployed Banks, their 26-year-old superstar shortstop, at third base for about one-third of the season, despite the fact that they had utterly no viable alternatives for him at short. (They weren’t exactly loaded at third base either, but still.) Whatever that was about, it didn’t last long, as in 1958 Banks was back at shortstop full-time, where he would win MVPs in ’58 and ’59, set a record for shortstop fielding percentage in ’59, and win a Gold Glove in 1960. By 1961, when Banks’s knees began to go bad, and the Cubs looked around to decide where to shift him, Ron Santo had arrived and third base was no longer available, so Banks wound up at first base.

Woodie Held (10.2%, 1954-69). Originally an outfielder, converted to a shortstop/third baseman in the minors. Held was a medium-sized guy (5’11″, 180) with a low-average, high-power bat that one rarely finds in shortstops, yet he played shortstop regularly for Cleveland in his prime years. His defense at short was generally considered nothing more than adequate, but to be fair the Indians had no better alternatives. Following that, Held proved to be very useful for several seasons as an infield-outfield utility guy. He was a good player and he had a fine career, but it’s easy to conceive of circumstances under which Held would have been a regular third baseman, and likely a member in good standing of the Keltner Line.

Maury Wills (18.9%, 1959-72). He really doesn’t belong in this category precisely, but I’m not sure where to put him, and we can’t cover this subject without addressing Maury Wills.

He’s listed in Baseball-Reference.com as 5’11″, 170, and in the 1960 Who’s Who in Baseball as 5’10″, 160. I suppose both of those might be somewhat accurate. But those of us who watched Wills play will readily believe that those figures aren’t anything close to the truth, that he was actually something more like 4’11″, 70, if not 4’10″, 60.

Wills was a spidery wisp, paper thin, all knees and elbows, faster than frightened lightning, and utterly devoid of power. That he played anywhere other than shortstop or second base is amazing, but but he did. In his nine-year minor league career, he was occasionally found at third base, the outfield, and even, weirdly, catcher and pitcher.

But here’s the even weirder part: the Dodgers deployed Wills at third base in 43 games between 1963 and 1966. Weirder still, the Pirates traded for Wills, and installed him as their regular third baseman (retaining incumbent Gold Glover Gene Alley at shortstop) for two full years.

Wills was a very fine fielder, but the single most anachronistic third baseman of the modern era. He would have been an extreme Dead Ball style of third baseman even in the Dead Ball era.

Ron Hansen (6.6%, 1958-72). One often hears Cal Ripken, Jr., described as “the first big shortstop.” While Ripken’s case is hugely interesting (see below), the notion that he was the first really big, tall guy to be deployed at shortstop isn’t close to being true; Ripken wasn’t even the first really big, tall shortstop to be deployed at shortstop by the Baltimore Orioles.

Granted, he wasn’t quite as king-sized as Ripken, but at 6’3″, 200, Ron Hansen was pretty close. As with Ripken, lots of experts said Hansen was too big to handle the range demanded of a major league shortstop, and as with Ripken, they were quickly proven wrong, as Hansen, despite a lack of speed, came to be a highly regarded defensive shortstop. Indeed, quite unlike Ripken, after a promising rookie year Hansen generally struggled with the bat, yet despite that and despite some significant injuries, Hansen’s strong fielding kept him a regular into his 30s.

Had he broken in with a team that didn’t have Brooks Robinson, it’s entirely likely that Hansen would have become a third baseman, and given his offensive problems, probably would have enjoyed a far less extensive major league career.

Jim Fregosi (10.3%, 1961-78). Another big (6’1″, 190), strong shortstop, Fregosi was solid defensively and a very fine hitter. He played in a lousy context to show off his bat (not only the American League of the mid-1960s, but Chavez Ravine and Anaheim Stadium). Playing in a different ballpark (such as, say, Fenway Park; the Angels took Fregosi from the Red Sox in the 1960 expansion draft), and/or a different era, Fregosi could very well have put together some .300, 30-homer type seasons. And if circumstances had called for him to play third base instead of shortstop in his prime years (not an implausible notion), he’d very likely have been a major defensive star as well.

Infamously, the Mets gambled that Fregosi’s age-29 knee trouble would be temporary, and traded a package featuring Nolan Ryan to acquire him. But as in the case with so many other big-framed shortstops, Fregosi was pretty much worn out by the age of 30, and the shift to third base didn’t revive his career.

Rico Petrocelli (48.2%, 1963-76). His spectacular 1969 performance was clearly something of a fluke, but Petrocelli could hit. He wasn’t a bad defensive shortstop either, though certainly it was his power production that earned him a regular job. By the age of 28, the Red Sox moved him to third base; under other circumstances, Petrocelli might have been a third baseman much earlier than that.

Cal Ripken (22.7%, 1981-2001). As noted above, Earl Weaver’s decision to shift the big, strong (listed at 6’4″, 200 in the 1982 Baseball Register) rookie Ripken from third base to shortstop on July 1, 1982 wasn’t as groundbreaking as it’s often described. Guys close to Ripken’s size had played shortstop before (Tony Kubek, Andre Rodgers, and Roy Smalley the elder come to mind, along with Hansen). Power hitters with little speed had performed fine at shortstop (Stephens, Held, and Petrocelli come immediately to mind), and even a couple of non-power hitters were famously accomplished shortstops despite being rather slow (Boudreau, and Dick Groat).

What made Ripken’s case so notable wasn’t so much that he was the first of his type, as it was these issues:

- By 1982, Weaver had developed a reputation for genius, so his decisions gained extraordinary media attention, and this particular one was loudly played up as a risk and a controversy, as that made the best story.

- Ripken didn’t come to the majors as a full-time shortstop (in the minors, he played mostly third base, but also quite a bit of shortstop and second), but was made one at the big league level, and in mid-season to boot.

- Ripken was such a tremendous player, and of course his consecutive games streak made him spectacularly famous.

So Ripken wasn’t truly a pioneer, and despite his huge notoriety and success, his case hasn’t even been all that influential. One is often directed to “look at all the big shortstops” who’ve come along in Ripken’s wake, but factually, there have been very few. Two sky-high-profile big shortstops are obvious—Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter—but there simply haven’t been any others of note. (Can you name another? Didn’t think so.) Moreover, the pace of big, young shortstops being transferred to third base has continued as regularly as ever: Matt Williams, Gary Sheffield, Travis Fryman, Chipper Jones, Vinny Castilla, Tony Batista, et cetera. All told, it isn’t at all clear that today’s average shortstop is signficantly bigger than the average shortstop of 30 or 40 years ago, and it remains the case that no shortstop quite as big as Ripken has followed him.

One thing is crystal clear: unlike so many of the larger-sized shortstops who preceded him (including Boudreau, Stephens, Banks, Hansen, Fregosi, and Petrocelli), Ripken most emphatically did not hit an injury wall in his early 30s. While he didn’t display quite the amazing longevity of Honus Wagner, Ripken in that regard did resemble that particular big shortstop more than the others, and in terms of durability (as distinct from longevity), it’s simply the case that Ripken was the most durable player in all of history.

Miguel Tejada (0.0%, 1997-2005). Being far too young to have seen Lou Boudreau play, I always wondered how it was that a guy with his physical characteristics (not tall, not fast, quite muscular) could have played shortstop as well as he apparently did. I think Tejada shows us how.

A fellow without the athletic gifts of speed or arm we tend to find in good shortstops, Tejada still just gets it done anyway, through some combination of positioning, balance, strength, and sure-handedness. He isn’t flashy in the least, and he isn’t great, but he’s nonetheless a consistently good-fielding shortstop. I suspect that was the Boudreau defensive package.

And like Boudreau, it’s easy to imagine circumstances under which Tejada wound up at third base instead of short, and while like Boudreau he wouldn’t have been able to provide as much value as a third baseman, he clearly would have been outstanding at the position.

Next Time

We’ll conclude our long tour of The Crossroads, by considering the many Outfielders Who Might Have Been Third Basemen, and we’ll also speculate on what the future may hold.

References & Resources
This isn’t a Reference or a Resource, just a footnote …

Ever since I saw, in my copy of the original 1969 MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, the notation that Dick Stuart had played one game at third base in 1965, the question had intrigued me: what the hell was that all about? Why in the world would you choose to deploy Dr. Strangeglove at third base — because to do so, that means you’re putting someone else at first base? Who could possibly be less deployable anywhere other than first base, than Dick Stuart?

I later learned that Stuart had played mostly outfield in the minors, only switching to first base shortly before he reached the majors in 1958. I also discovered that Stuart had actually played a bit of third base in the minor leagues, albeit a tiny bit, and certainly not well: 10 games in the double-A Southern Association in 1957, in which his fielding percentage was .808.

But that was a long time before 1965. By ’65, Stuart was more huge than ever before, and dreadfully slow. From time to time the question would come across my mind again: what was the story behind Stuart playing a game at third base in 1965?

While researching this piece, without even looking at Stuart, it suddenly hit me: aha! Who was Stuart’s manager in 1965? Gene Mauch! And no manager in history has likely been more creative – one might even say hyperactive – about defensive alignments than Mauch. So I suddenly realized that Stuart hadn’t actually played third base in the truest sense in 1965, but had rather been deployed there, for probably a single batter, in some kind of a zany Mauch maneuver.

What kind of a maneuver? A stack-the-right-side-against-a-lefty-slugger maneuver, of course. I hypothesized that Mauch had moved Stuart to third, and probably swapped his surer-handed third baseman (Tony Taylor, maybe?) to first while defending against an extreme pull-hitting left-handed slugger, probably somebody like Willie McCovey, or Willie Stargell.

Thanks to the miracle of Retrosheet, I looked it up the other day. Lo and behold, I was almost exactly right, and the batter was indeed McCovey.

August 14, 1965, bottom of the sixth inning at Candlestick Park, Phillies leading 1-0, with ace Jim Bunning pitching against Giants’ ace Juan Marichal. Matty Alou leads off the inning with a double. Up next, Willie Mays lays down a bunt (almost certainly on his own; Mays would do stuff like that from time to time) that was fielded by, of all people, Stuart, and Mays was retired unassisted, and given credit for a sacrifice.

So now it’s one out, Alou representing the tying run on third (and with these guys pitching, every run is enormous), McCovey up, and Jim Ray Hart on deck. So what does Mauch do? Rather than what would seem to be the obvious – have his right-hander Bunning walk McCovey intentionally, and then face the right-handed-batting Hart with the chance for an inning-ending double play – Mauch instead has Bunning face McCovey, but radically realigns his infield defense. Shortstop Bobby Wine is moved over to cover Stuart’s first base territory, and third baseman Richie Allen (as he was known then) covers Wine’s (against McCovey, that probably meant somewhere behind the second base bag). Stuart is deployed in such a way that the official scorer deems him the third baseman – I suspect he may have actually been more or less holding Alou on the third base bag, to prevent a steal of home. Such an alignment pretty much begged McCovey to bunt to the left side (which he did occasionally against the shift), but I guess Mauch figured he’d try to entice McCovey to bunt (and likely surrender the tying run) instead of swing away (and perhaps hit a home run).

McCovey might have attempted to bunt, and fouled it off, I don’t know. But he did swing away at some point, and hit a sacrifice fly to center to tie the game. For Hart’s at-bat, Stuart went back to first, Wine back to shortstop, and Allen back to third.

The Giants took a 2-1 lead in the seventh, only to see the Phillies tie it, and then break the tie with a two-run homer by Allen in the eighth, and the Phillies won, 4-2.

http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/B08140SFN1965.htm

Mystery solved! THANK YOU, RETROSHEET!!

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