Third Base:  The Crossroads, Part Two

Last time we introduced the idea of the position of third base as being The Crossroads of the diamond. Its placement in the exact center of the defensive spectrum leads it to become the position most likely to be played, a place where many, many players have spent at least some time, at some point in their careers.

This time we’ll take inventory of the most prominent major league third basemen, the stars of the position. Next time, we’ll begin to examine an interestingly long list of prominent players who played some third base, or not much third, or who played none—but who might plausibly have spent quite a bit more time manning the Hot Corner.

Our first category will be star third basemen in the mold of the first superstar third baseman.

Third Basemen: Great Glove, Good Bat

Jimmy Collins (97.9% of his major league defensive appearances were as a third baseman, between 1895 and 1908). Collins was a good hitter, not an outstanding on-base guy, but a powerful line-drive hitter, an excellent RBI man. (Interestingly, his offensive profile was quite similar to that of both Pie Traynor and Brooks Robinson.) But, as we discussed last week, it was his defensive ability that knocked everyone out, especially his quickness in handling bunts. That ability became the model, the standard defining third base excellence, for decades to follow.

Harry Steinfeldt (84.4%, 1898-1911). The member of the great Cubs’ infield not memorialized in poetry. Shuttled between second base and third as a young player, showed the defensive chops to become a full-time third baseman. An inconsistent hitter, but in his good years, a productive RBI man.

Hans Lobert (80.1%, 1903-17). The Cubs traded Lobert to make room for Steinfeldt, but Lobert turned out to be at least as good. Extremely fast, and a pretty good leadoff hitter, but prone to injury.

Larry Gardner (89.9%, 1908-24). Very quick and agile, the type who would be more likely found at second base than third today.

Heinie Groh (79.0%, 1912-27). An outstanding on-base specialist (as we saw here), and yet another in the mode of small, quick third baseman who would be a middle infielder today.

Jimmie Dykes (55.2%, 1918-39). A fine player, but essentially a career-long Supersub who rotated all over the infield as needed.

Pie Traynor (97.3%, 1920-37). Taller and leaner, but for all practical purposes, the second coming of Jimmy Collins. When I was a kid in the 1960s, the books were pretty much unanimous in considering Traynor the greatest third baseman of all time. That’s nonsense, of course, but there’s no reason to doubt that he was a terrific fielder, and a durable, consistently good hitter; a deserving Hall of Fame talent.

Ossie Bluege (81.9%, 1922-39). Spent his entire major league career in the “live ball” era, but clearly a third baseman in the “dead ball” model: a little guy, a singles hitter, very adept defensively.

Willie Kamm (100.0%, 1923-35). A near-exact contemporary of Bluege, and pretty much his clone, except that Kamm, interestingly, never played an inning anywhere other than third base, in the minors or majors.

Billy Werber (88.6%, 1930-42). Another smallish guy, a shortstop converted to third. Blazing speed and a decent bat; the Hans Lobert of the 1930s, you might say.

Red Rolfe (94.4%, 1931-42). Came to the majors as a shortstop, but moved to third because the Yankees already had Frank Crosetti. A good hitter, but another in the fielding-first mode.

Stan Hack (97.5%, 1932-47). It’s the 1930s, and the frequency of bunting is drastically reduced from what it had been a decade or two earlier, but third basemen are still coming along in this mold: slender, fast, slick-fielding, generating little power. Hack was one of the best of this type, and indeed a very reasonable argument can be made that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. A quote attributed to him is of Hall of Fame caliber, for sure: “I’m from such a small town, we didn’t have a town drunk. We all had to take turns.”

Ken Keltner (99.9%, 1937-50). Arrived in the majors in the late 1930s, and while he was a defensive whiz, it was a distinctly new and different mode of defensive excellence. Keltner was big (190 pounds) and strong, not as adept as the littler guys on bunts, but terrific at handling the hard smashes behind the bag and making the long throws. He was a powerful hitter, but too inconsistent to merit the Hall of Fame—though his name is memorialized on Bill James’ famous Hall of Fame qualifications test.

Billy Cox (66.5%, 1941-55). Quite different from Keltner, Cox was a Dead Ball style third baseman in the extreme. A skinny (5’10″, 150) shortstop through age 27, the Dodgers converted Cox to third base in 1948 and played him there in a more or less regular mode for many years—a strongly defense-first choice we’ll examine (in Part Four) through its impact on the career of Gil Hodges.

George Kell (94.6%, 1943-57). Another throwback to the old style, a smaller guy (5’9”, 175), a high-average contact hitter with little power, a quick and agile fielder. A splendid player, but his Hall of Fame selection is off-the-wall.

Eddie Yost (98.7%, 1944-62). His offensive profile was extreme, and it’s what grabs our attention: “The Walking Man,” drawing gazillions of bases on balls, while hitting for a very modest batting average. (He had good power that was completely masked by Washington’s Griffith Stadium; until the left field dimension was shortened in 1956, Yost hit 7 home runs at home versus 66 on the road.) But when he was young and healthy, he was highly regarded as a fielder, too.

Willie Jones (99.9%, 1947-61). A decade younger than Keltner, and not quite as good, but a third baseman very much in that mode. “Puddin’ Head” was a big guy, slow, strong, with soft hands and a great arm.

Don Hoak (99.8%, 1954-64). Slender and fairly fast, a very highly regarded fielder in the old-fashioned mode. By every account, an extraordinarily all-out, intense, hustling player. Inspired some classic dialogue in one of my favorite movies, City Slickers:

Attractive Woman character: I mean, I like baseball, I love baseball, but that doesn’t mean I know who played, you know, third base for Pittsburgh in 1960.

Bruno Kirby, Daniel Stern, and Billy Crystal characters, in unison: Don Hoak.

Frank Malzone (100.0%, 1955-66). They started awarding Gold Gloves in 1957, and Malzone won it in ’57 (major league-wide), ’58 (AL), and ’59 (AL). A slow runner, but sure-handed and strong-armed.

Brooks Robinson (99.0%, 1955-77). The Collins/Traynor of his day; the model of live-ball third base mastery. A slow runner, but with astonishingly quick reactions and incredible hands. The one element his defensive game lacked was a strong arm.

Clete Boyer (85.2%, 1955-71). Overshadowed by Robinson, but probably every bit his equal defensively, as Boyer’s arm was vastly better. He was a middle infielder shifted to third, and his hitting was—how best to say it—a study in inconsistency.

Ken McMullen (93.1%, 1962-77). Turned out to be a nice player, but not quite the one expected. When he arrived in the majors in his very early 20s, McMullen was a tall (6’3″, 195) third-base-first-base-left-field guy, who nobody thought would provide much defensive value, but was considered a good bet to develop into a serious hitter. That hitting ability never really materialized (he was all right, but nothing special), but after several years he had developed into a very sound defensive third baseman.

Doug Rader (96.0%, 1967-77). Another in the Keltner mold, although Rader was really big: 6’3”, 215. Won five straight Gold Gloves.

Aurelio Rodriguez (98.4%, 1967-83). Okay, his bat wasn’t anywhere close to “Good.” But his fielding was so tremendous that he appeared in over 2,000 major league games anyway. Would have been a multiple Gold Glove winner if he didn’t play in the same league as Brooks Robinson. Rodriguez played a fair amount of shortstop in the minors, and might well have become a major league shortstop had he not been in the Angels’ organization, which had Jim Fregosi ensconced in the position.

Don Money (66.0%, 1968-83). Came up as a shortstop, and was mobile enough to play quite a bit of second base also, even when he was past 30. Extraordinarily sure-handed, was honored with the semi-serious nickname of “Brooks”.

Graig Nettles (96.3%, 1967-88). You can argue that his bat was more than “Good,” and you won’t get much resistance from me. You can also make a Hall of Fame case for Nettles that has a lot of weight behind it. Despite playing many years with the Yankees, and despite being a glib, quotable personality, he somehow always remained in someone else’s shadow. A spectacular fielder; in addition to third he played second base and right field in the minors.

Toby Harrah (51.0%, 1969-86). Never especially highly-regarded defensively, but he was a fast runner, with enough range to play shortstop in over 800 major league games. Mostly a third baseman from age 28.

Buddy Bell (92.0%, 1972-89). An impressive enough fielder that the Indians felt they could expend Nettles. Even though these were the Indians, that says a lot. A few years later, was traded straight up for Harrah in a classic “challenge” deal. Defensively, a big, strong-armed guy in the Keltner tradition, but with the bat more of a contact hitter than a power guy; a skill profile very comparable to that of Frank Malzone.

Doug DeCinces (94.8%, 1973-87). Had the unenviable task of following Brooks Robinson, but was a fine player in his own right. Never won a Gold Glove, but he was an excellent fielder, and a player pretty thoroughly in the Keltner mold, which had fully taken hold by the 1970s.

Tim Wallach (93.7%, 1980-96). A three-time Gold Glove winner, and a powerful but inconsistent hitter. In every way, a very similar player to DeCinces, Rader, Puddin’ Head, and Keltner.

Gary Gaetti (93.0%, 1981-2000). Won four Gold Gloves. Eerily comparable to Wallach, and therefore also to DeCinces, Rader, Puddin’ Head, and Keltner; the Keltner Line was fully operational. Once they figured this formula out, they stuck with it.

Terry Pendleton (99.9%, 1984-98). Pendleton was different. Breaking in with Whitey Herzog’s mid-1980s go-go Cardinals, he was very much a throwback: a second baseman in the minors, small of stature, highly mobile, defense first, a line-drive hitter without much power (though he developed decent power later, and won a fluke MVP).

Ken Caminiti (98.1%, 1987-2001). Had the very best arm of any third baseman I have ever seen; a wicked instrument, scarily powerful and precise, a laser-guided missile launcher. I always wondered what kind of a pitcher he might have been. Caminiti’s steroid- and cocaine-laced story was ultimately a very sad one, but his intensity and relentless commitment to improvement also need to be understood as part of the tale. Caminiti was, in every good and bad sense of the term, a driven man.

Matt Williams (92.9%, 1987-2003). Came up as a shortstop, and though he was big, always retained remarkably nimble footwork. Williams was a one-dimensional offensive player, but really good at that one dimension (home runs), and poetry in motion on defense. The best player yet in the Keltner Line.

Robin Ventura (92.0%, 1989-2004). A six-time Gold Glover, and as a left-handed power hitter with a good number of walks, Graig-Nettles-lite. A terrific player, too often overlooked.

Travis Fryman (80.0%, 1990-2002). The very essence of a Keltner Line third baseman, though others were better. Kind of broke down all of a sudden in his early thirties.

Vinny Castilla (90.7%, 1991-2005). He’s been an excellent fielder; combining the quickness of a shortstop (which he originally was) with excellent hands and a powerful arm. At the plate, Castilla’s been up and down, but at least some of the time hit genuinely well; like so many Colorado players, his offensive worth has been tricky to determine. He’s in the Keltner Line, obviously not as good as Williams, but somewhere amid the rest.

Eric Chavez (99.2%, 1998-2005). Heir apparent to the elegant Nettles-Ventura tradition. A smooth, easy, left-handed uppercut swing, and a smooth, exquisite manner at the Hot Corner.

Adrian Beltre (99.4%, 1998-2005). His offensive output has been crazily inconsistent, but it’s pretty clear he’s the latest member of Keltner Line: snazzy fielding, low-OBP-high-SLG hitting. This model appears to have lots of life in it yet.

Third Basemen: Great Bat, Good Glove

Frank Baker (100.0%, 1908-22). A fascinating player: not simply great (which he was), but a true anomaly. Baker was a devastating left-handed power hitter, as destructive as any slugger of his day. But though a fast and aggressive baserunner, he wasn’t regarded for especially quick-footed defense; he was generally considered a good but not great fielding third baseman. In all these regards, he’s a dead ringer for Eddie Mathews. He is, in fact, far more similar to Mathews than to any of his contemporaries, and was in general a player decades ahead of his time.

Heinie Zimmerman (67.5%, 1907-19). A very good (though inconsistent) hitter who consorted with Hal Chase and came to a bad end. He played quite a bit of second as well as third, which in those days meant that he was probably in the lineup for his bat more than his glove.

Mike Higgins (99.8%, 1930-46). A pretty big guy (6’1”, 185), not that mobile, decent power at the plate: a true modern-style third baseman. He was traded straight-up for Billy Werber in 1936.

Harlond Clift (99.6%, 1934-45). A star-crossed career that saw him stuck with a terrible St. Louis Browns team, then stricken with testicular mumps (I don’t even want to think about that), then thrown from a horse. With better luck Clift might well have been a Hall of Famer; a truly outstanding hitter for several years (as we saw here). Was the first third baseman in major league history to hit 30 home runs in a season, and he did it ten years before anyone else.

Whitey Kurowski (97.7%, 1941-49). Another muscular guy with a very productive bat; by the 1940s this was finally becoming the dominant third base mode. Blew out his arm at age 30 and prematurely ended his career.

Ray Boone (40.5%, a plurality, 1948-60). Took a very weird route to third base. Boone was a minor league catcher—and built like one—but nevertheless the Indians got it into their heads that they should convert him to shortstop, and they had him take over the regular job from Lou Boudreau. Unsurprisingly, Boone struggled defensively there, and the stress of that plainly impacted his hitting as well. Finally at the age of 29, he was traded to Detroit; the Tigers immediately shifted him to third base, and Boone immediately began hitting up a storm.

Al Rosen (90.4%, 1947-56). Few teams in history have had the concentration of third base talent that Cleveland did in the late 1940s, with Keltner in place, and Boone and Rosen coming up. Rosen didn’t emerge as the regular until he was 26, but then proceeded to hit spectacularly, literally just about as well any third baseman has ever hit. But at age 30 his back went bad, and he was forced to retire at 32. Despite his slugging prowess, Rosen wasn’t very big (5’10″, 180), and played more than a bit of shortstop in the minors.

Eddie Mathews (93.0%, 1952-68). The utter complete package of athletic tools, it’s easy to imagine Mathews spending his career as a right fielder, or even a center fielder. Not exactly a stickler for conditioning (Braves’ shortstop Johnny Logan joked that he decided how far to play in the hole based on how late Mathews stayed out the night before), he went downhill pretty rapidly in his early 30s. A very great player.

Jim Ray Hart (72.1%, 1963-74). We’ll suspend that “Good Glove” requirement for just a moment. Let’s just say he could really, really hit. Extremely similar to Bob Horner (see below).

Sal Bando (98.1%, 1966-81). A very solid player in every phase of the game. He wasn’t fast at all, but still managed to go 20-for-26 base stealing one year.

Bill Melton (87.6%, 1968-77). A big fellow, an undistinguished fielder (he played mostly outfield in the minors) but a terrific young power hitter, until back trouble messed him up.

Richie Hebner (73.8%, 1968-85). Average at best with the glove, but this guy could swing the bat. I clearly recall watching Hebner take batting practice one day at Candlestick Park, sometime in the late 1970s. It’s batting practice pitching, of course, and most everybody hits the ball hard, but most guys, then and now, will hit a lot of home runs and deep flies, but also pop some balls up. Not Hebner. He hit nothing but line drives that day. No home runs, no fly balls, no pop-ups; just line drive, line drive, line drive. It was distinct, and even though it was just BP, extremely impressive.

Darrell Evans (60.0%, 1969-89). The case that Bill James makes in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (pp. 546-548) for Evans as the single most underrated player of all time, is entirely compelling. As a third baseman, Evans was anything but smooth, but the results were always there. He did nothing brilliantly, but Evans did an amazing breadth of things well, for a remarkably long time.

Ron Cey (99.6%, 1971-87). The only thing that Cey looked more like than a third baseman was a catcher. (Well, that and, of course, a penguin.) He was slow, but very strong, and quite sure-handed.

Bill Madlock (85.5%, 1973-87). Another guy never mistaken for graceful, but until his weight got away from him in his 30s, he wasn’t a bad defensive infielder. The Giants shifted Madlock to second base in 1978-79 (in order to get him and Evans in the lineup together), and he didn’t embarrass himself there. Madlock had played a lot of second, as well as shortstop, in the minors.

George Brett (76.9%, 1973-93). Yet another who dazzled no one with defensive aptitude (though he was briefly a shortstop in the minors), but he worked as hard on his fielding as he did his hitting—in other words, extremely hard—and Brett even snagged a Gold Glove at the age of 32.

Bob Horner (67.5%, 1978-88). Things Jim Ray Hart and Bob Horner had in common: round-bodied right-handed hitters who could roll out of bed at midnight in January and go yard, check. Couldn’t spell “defense,” check. Lackadaisical attitude drove management to distraction, check. Never met a pound they didn’t want to keep, check. Physically broken down by their late 20s, check.

Carney Lansford (93.0%, 1978-92). Great hands, but absolutely, positively, no range at all. Another Oakland A’s third baseman (like Sal Bando, see above) who figured out how to steal bases despite no real speed: in 1987-89, from ages 30 through 32, Lansford went 93-for-124 (75%) as a base stealer. A high school contemporary of mine, he’s coached youth baseball in our hometown for many years.

Wade Boggs (96.9%, 1982-99). Even though Boggs had languished in their minor league system for six years, the Red Sox traded the 25-year-old, five-season-major-league-veteran Lansford to make room for him: an amazingly good call. Like Brett, Boggs wasn’t satisfied with simply being a hitting star, and his dedication to continual improvement paid off with the remarkable feat of back-to-back Gold Gloves—the only two he ever won—at ages 36 and 37.

Howard Johnson (67.2%, 1982-95). A completely bizarre career. Suddenly went from humdrum utility man to major power-speed star at age 26, and then just as suddenly hit the wall at 31. All the while, spent significant time at shortstop and center field, despite not being regarded as more than an adequate third baseman.

Bobby Bonilla (46.2%, a plurality, 1986-2001). A huge guy (6’3″, 240), Bonilla never even attempted to kid anyone that he was a good third baseman, but neither did he ever surrender to the notion that he couldn’t be. He always took it seriously, worked very hard, gave it his best. Bonilla was assuredly slow, but he had quick hands and a passable arm, and maintained himself as a presentable enough third base defender to appear there in nearly a thousand games in thirteen separate major league seasons.

Troy Glaus (98.9%, 1998-2005). The hugest guy (6’5”, 245) in history to play as a sustained regular at third base, he actually moves quite well, and has even appeared at shortstop in ten major league games. He may be breaking down, however, and it’s questionable how much longer he’ll play third.

Aramis Ramirez (100.0%, 1998-2005). A big guy who’s defensively challenged, rather injury-prone, and a very fine hitter, and another who may be soon to embark upon the “former third baseman” phase of his career.

Third Basemen: Great Bat, Great Glove

Ken Boyer (89.6%, 1955-69). Ron Santo is generally regarded as the third baseman who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but ought to be. But Boyer was almost as good. A big guy (6’2”, 210) who ran extremely well, Boyer played 31 major league games at shortstop, and was even deployed as a regular center fielder in his age-26 season. The strength of his arm is suggested by the fact that he was a minor league pitcher. Never had a single great year, but won five Gold Gloves (and might have won another in 1956 had the award existed) and had a seven-year stretch of sustained offensive excellence.

Ron Santo (96.8%, 1960-74). Not fast at all, but quick and with a very strong arm. The decision by the White Sox to try to convert him to second base at age 34 was daft, and it’s an open question how much that stress ruined his hitting and prematurely ended his career. But even with that humiliating finish, the only rational argument that Santo doesn’t deserve to be in Cooperstown is an argument that says the Hall of Fame is substantially too big already.

Mike Schmidt (92.2%, 1972-89). A big guy who didn’t move like a big guy at all; he was impeccably smooth and light on his feet. Schmidt was a shortstop and second baseman in the minor leagues. A stunningly gifted athlete as well as a hard worker, he certainly might have been a standout major league center fielder, and in a league without as much artificial turf as the 1970s NL, a fine shortstop.

Scott Rolen (100.0%, 1996-2005). At 6’4”, 240, he’s not quite as huge as Glaus, but close, yet he’s graceful and anything but slow. Has already won more Gold Gloves than Boyer or Santo. Still, his Hall of Fame chance will likely depend on what he does from here on out, and given his injury history, there’s good reason to be worried about that.

Still to Come

Third Base to First Base Conversions
Third Base to Outfield Conversions
Outfield to Third Base Conversions
Catcher to Third Base Conversions
First Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Second Basemen Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Shortstops Who Might Have Been Third Basemen
Outfielders Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

And much more!

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