This annotated week in baseball history: Dec. 9-15, 1909

Inspired by the birth on December 12 of “Flea” Clifton (1909) and “Bugs” Reisigl (1887), Richard looks throughout baseball history and creates the “All-Pest” team.

One of the things I did on my own blog—probably too much—was create “all-time” teams based on pretty much any theme I could come up with. For St. Patrick’s Day I did an “All-Pat” team. I did a listing of the best players I had ever seen with my scorebook. (This year I went the more conventional St. Patty’s route and did an all-Irish team.) I think at one point I even created the “All-Holiday Name” team.

I tried to stay away from doing that sort of nonsense too much here, but being that the year is almost over, and I managed to find a day with two different pest nicknames, I decided to go for it. So without further ado, let’s introduce the Hardball Times faithful to the team pest nicknames can provide:

Catcher: Mike Ulisney (Nickname: “Slugs”): Speaking from experience, there is no rhyme or reason to positions when creating these teams. Some have a surfeit of one position while others lack them completely. Catcher is a weak spot for the pest team. Ulisney, a native of Pennsylvania, appeared in just 11 games over his Major League career, all for the Boston Braves in 1945. Only four of those games saw Ulisney at catcher, as he was more commonly used as a pinch-hitter. He did hit .389/.421/.611 in his limited time, however, so perhaps on the All-Pest team Ulisney will finally be getting the chance he deserves.

First base: Jack Burns (Nickname: “Slug”): I think “Slug” as a nickname is a pejorative, referring to the player’s presumed lack of food speed. (Although I think of snails being the standard for slow insects, but no players are so nicknamed.) This makes Jack Burns’ nickname all the more puzzling. Burns was a regular for the Browns then Tigers during the 30s. He didn’t have the kind of bat you like to see at first base, having an OPS+ of just 87 for his career. But he did have some decent foot speed. For a man who was only a regular for six years, Burns managed to place in the top ten in steals three times, ranking as high as third. So how did a weak-hitting, fleet-a-foot man end being nicknamed “Slug”?

Second base: Jay Partridge: So there’s a couple of ways I could go here. I could claim, to probably mixed results, that a Partridge is itself a pest. Or I could point out that our second baseman’s full given name was James Bugg Partridge, so that’s where the pest comes from. I’ll probably go with that, given I’m not looking to get 200 angry e-mails from the Audubon Society.

Like catcher, second base is a weak position for the team, but Partridge is the best of a pretty terrible lot. He played two seasons in the Majors—appropriately enough as a member of the Brooklyn Robins. He was unable to manage an OBP over .299 or a SLG over .350 in those seasons. He also made 52 (52!) errors at second base during his only full season there in 1927, so I think I can safely say that the keystone will not be the strongest position on the All-Pest squad.

Shortstop: Freddie Patek (Nickname: “The Flea”): In contrast to his double-play partner, Freddy Patek is one of the best talents on the squad. A three-time All-Star, Patek helped anchor the Royals’ defense through the 1970s. (Though he also had the bad fortune of leaving the Royals just before they finally beat the Yankees in the playoffs.)

Patek was never a great hitter, but he produced enough given his place on the field and his defensive skills. Patek was widely seen as a great gloveman—Whitey Herzog rated him as a superior to Ozzie Smith at playing short on Astroturf, though he never won a Gold Glove owing to Mark Belanger‘s stranglehold on the award.

Finally, the nickname came about because Patek was a small man, usually listed at 5-foot-4 or 5-foot-5. He supposedly disliked the name, but had something of a sense of humor about it. When asked by a reporter how he felt about being the smallest player in MLB, he replied that it was better than being the smallest player in minor league ball.

Third base:
Gary Gaetti (Nickname: “The Rat”): We ought to deal with that nickname first. Gaetti was known as “The Rat,” because, well, because he looked like a rat. He really did. If you really don’t believe that, a perfunctory Google image search will show you just what I mean.

But while Gaetti might not have been winning beauty contests, he was a pretty good player. Although Gaetti was never big on taking a walk—he averaged just 40 per season for his career—he was capable of hitting for power with more than 350 career homers. He also earned four Gold Gloves for his work at the hot corner.

Left field:
Fred Kommers (Nickname: “Bugs”): Although the best player on the team resides in the outfield, it was otherwise something of a difficult space to fill. Bugs Kommers played in two separate majors league, the National League in 1913, and then jumped to the Federal League in 1914. He wasn’t much of a hitter in the former but was hit a combined .294 for the St. Louis Terriers and Baltimore Terrapins in the latter.

Kommers was actually a center fielder by trade, but since he saw time in both corner outfield positions, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he can handle left field.

Center field: Frank Welch (Nickname: “Bugger”): Having lived in London for a year, I’m aware that “bugger” is more traditionally used in a non-insect context. But the outfield is slim pickings, so we’ll just pretend.

Welch spent most of his career with the Philadelphia A’s during what might be diplomatically called their struggling period during the early part of the 1920s, but lasted long enough to see the team climb to the first division. Welch was a bit below average as a hitter, and actually saw more in right than center, but given his more than two hundred games at this position, he should be able to hold it down.

Right field: Harry Heilmann (Nickname: “Slug”): First things first. He was called “slug” because he was slow, and he was slow. In his debut year of 1914, Heilmann stole one base—and was caught eight times.

But if that was the weakness in Heilmann’s game, he had many strengths to make up for it. He was a career .342 hitter over 17 seasons, still good for twelfth all-time and won four batting titles. He was also a doubles-machine, hitting 40 or more eight times and in the top 25 all-time. After his career he worked as a Tigers’ broadcaster for many years. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1952, a year after his death.

I guess this team would have Bugs Raymond on the mound, and perhaps “The White Rat” Whitey Herzog as the skipper. It’s actually not a bad team, all things considered. Probably not a pennant winner, but I bet they could be competitive.

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