This annotated week in baseball history: July 26-August 1, 2004

On July 31, 2004 Dave Roberts was traded to the Red Sox. Though he would play only 45 games in a Boston uniform, it is his one moment in the 2004 playoffs that is remembered, to the exclusion of the rest of his career. Richard looks at similar players.

Only thing that anybody seems to remember is that once I made an unassisted triple play in a World Series. Many don’t even remember the team I was on, or the position I played, or anything. Just Wambsganss—unassisted triple play! You’d think I was born on the day before and died on the day after.

—Bill Wambsganss, quoted in The Glory of Their Times

Such are the vagaries of fate, Bill. Some players—even pretty good ones—are almost entirely forgotten after their playing career ends. Others like, Bill Wambsganss are remembered for one thing, and one thing alone. This week, we construct the “All One Thing” team, an entire lineup and pitching staff constructed of players like Wambsganss.

Before we do so, a few ground rules. First, no Hall of Famers. A lot of Hall of Famers are defined by one thing, Hank Aaron and his home runs, for example, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, known for only that.

Second, no relatives. Dale Berra was known as Yogi’s son (well, that and his fondness for cocaine) and Mike Glavine is Tom’s brother. But that’s a different list. Finally, everything has to be on the field. Doyle Alexander is the guy traded for John Smoltz and Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock. But that’s also a different list; we’re focusing today on players known for things, good and bad, done on the field of play.

Catcher: Mickey Owen: Owen was a four-time All-Star; he finished fourth in the 1942 MVP voting. But in the 1941 World Series he dropped a third strike that would have been the last out to tie the series at 2-2. Instead, the Yankees rallied to win the game. When Owen died in 2005, the New York Times headline summed up his place in history: “Mickey Owen Dies at 89; Allowed Fateful Passed Ball.”

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Dave Roberts, securing his legacy in the 2004 ALCS (Icon/SMI)

First base: Bill Buckner: “Little roller up along first; Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Second base: Bill Wambsganss: If you’re curious, there were runners on first and second. “Wamby” caught a line drive, stepped on second and tagged the runner. It remains the only unassisted triple in postseason history.

Shortstop: Ray Chapman: Easily the saddest item on this list, Chapman remains the only major league player killed by a pitched ball. Obviously the tragedy of a baseball career cut short cannot compare to the loss of a life in a greater sense but Chapman was just 29 and a fine hitter for a shortstop at the time of his death.

Third base:
Buck Weaver: Actually, the whole left side of the infield is kind of a downer. Weaver, depending on your view of things, was either rightly barred from the game for knowing about—but not participating in—the fix of the 1919 World Series or a prime example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In any event, that has entirely overridden his actual career.

Left field: Sandy Amorós: On a happier note, there’s Sandy Amorós. His Baseball-Reference sponsor declares that it is “for making THAT catch,” emphasis included. The catch in question came on a shot off the bat of Yogi Berra, which Amorós tracked down in deep left in Yankee Stadium. That helped the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series, their only title in Brooklyn.

Center field: Dave Roberts: A journeyman center fielder, Roberts played for five teams across a 10-year career. His best talent was stealing bases: He recorded almost 250 at a better than 80 percent success rate. Nonetheless, were it not for his steal in the 2004 ALCS, Roberts’ career would likely fade into obscurity.

Right field: Vic Wertz: Talk about your bad breaks. Wertz was a four-time All-Star, finishing the top 15 in MVP voting five times. And he did everything right in this at bat in the 1954 World Series. With two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game, Wertz crushed a ball to deep center field. Thanks to the unique configuration of the Polo Grounds and the exceptional defense of Willie Mays, he was rewarded with nothing more than a fly out.

Designated hitter: Fred Merkle: And on the topic of really, really bad breaks, there’s poor Fred Merkle who did nothing more than follow the conventions of the time and earned himself a career’s worth of scorn for it. That’s a tough thing to handle for the youngest player in the league. If anything, Merkle should be remember for his bouncing back. But life is not fair.

Starting rotation:

Jim Abbott: I suppose we can accept two answers here, which is kind of cheating, but they’re related. Either Abbott is the guy who pitched despite only having one hand, or he’s the guy who pitched a no-hitter despite only having one hand. In any event, that’s all about pitching with one hand, which is a terrific feat on Abbott’s part, probably the single greatest accomplishment on this list.

Johnny Vander Meer: This week Mark Buehrle set the major league record for consecutive batters retired. But Vander Meer remains the only man to pitch back-to-back no-hitters. This means that unless someone manages three in a row, he will continue to be known for only that.

Carl Mays: Chapman’s opposite number; consensus is that Mays intended to throw inside to Chapman but was not head hunting. Mays pitched for nine more years after killing Chapman, and won 27 games the next year, leading the league.

Don Larsen: Probably the single greatest single-game accomplishment on the list, there’s not much about Larsen’s World Series perfect game that hasn’t already been said. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting Larsen was a solid postseason performer; his 0.96 ERA helped the Yankees win the 1958 World Series.

Steve Blass: Remember when Chuck Knoblauch couldn’t throw the ball to first? Or when Rick Ankiel couldn’t throw strikes, or even get the ball within a mile of home plate? They had Steve Blass Disease, named for the unfortunate Pirate right hander who inexplicably lost his ability to throw strikes.

Bullpen:

Ralph Branca: It is true that Branca started almost 60 percent of his career games. Nonetheless, the moment that everyone remembers came while Branca was pitching in relief, so he’s in the bullpen. Chances are when you give up a home run named for a landmark event in American history, that’s going to be your legacy.

Byung-Hyun Kim: And speaking of relievers who give up home runs in big moments, here’s Byung-Hyun Kim, who came into the 2001 World Series with the apparent goal of creating as much agony for Diamondbacks fans as possible. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling managed to overcome the combined ineptitude of Kim and Bob Brenley, but the Korean’s place in history was secure.

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Comments

  1. Bob Rittner said...

    You might consider Fred Snodgrass for CF. He was a pretty good ballplayer, but in 1912 he dropped a fly ball that opened the inning and ended with the Giants losing that final game of the World Series. It came to be called the “Snodgrass Muff”. I think that when he died, the NY Times obituary headline was “Fred Snodgrass Dies: Muff loses 1912 World Series”, or something like that.

    In “The Glory of Their Times”, Snodgrass admits to the error but denies that he was the cause of the loss and points out that on the next play he made a spectacular catch in deep CF to keep the run from scoring. But a pretty good ballplayer is forever known for that error much as Buckner is.

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    Snodgrass is another good choice. Bobby Thomson could probably go in the outfield as well.

    Francisco Rodriguez probably saved Bobby Thigpen from appearing on this list, we’ll see if K-Rod has enough of a career to keep himself off it.

  3. Gilbert Chan said...

    Single season anything is too long for this team so no Thigpen, or else you let in Roger Maris.  But put in Harvey Haddix and you don’t need a bullpen.
    If we thought hard enough we could eliminate all the 1 gamers like him and Larsen (or one series like Buck Weaver) and see if it could be all one-play like Buckner and Amaros.  So we need a new 3B and possibly a few pitchers.
    Wamby=triple play is probably a better choice than Maz=1960 walkoff but no other one play infielders come to mind.

  4. Detroit Michael said...

    Great, fun topic today.  I’ve read during the past 6 months Crazy ‘08 and The Pitch That Killed and would recommend them both.

    If you want a less macabre choice for shortstop, the Royals have a couple candidates:  Freddie Patek (photo after losing ALCS) and U.L. Washington (toothpick).

    I think I’d put Kirk Gibson ahead of Vic Wertz but it’s hard to say.  Because Gibson is a more recent player, our memories of his other accomplishments haven’t faded as much as is true for Wertz.

    You could add Al Downing (gave up #715) to your bullpen, although it would be nice to pick a reliever famous for something other than a particular homer.

  5. Bob Rittner said...

    If you want other infielders, I think Bucky Dent might qualify. After all, it is the “Bucky Dent home run” or in Boston Bucky F*#%*&%# Dent. Why else would anyone remember him although he did play for 12 seasons and made 3 all-star teams.

    I think Joe Carter/Mitch Williams may also be candidates along the lines of Thompson/Branca.

  6. Trinian said...

    Here are two Cardinals to consider.

    Fernando Tatis who hit two grand slams in one inning.

    Mark Whiten who hit four home runs and had 12 RBIs in one game, both tie MLB records.

    Both players had otherwise undistinguished MLB careers, brightened by one spectacular game!

  7. Richard Barbieri said...

    Lot of good suggestions, sounds like I might even be able to produce a second column of “One Thing” players.

    Bream was actually on the team at one point, but I decided Bruckner and Merkle were more widely know.

  8. Adam (from Oakland) said...

    Here’s a reliever for the One Play team who’s remembered for something positive: Rick Camp.  He hit his only career home run to tie the game in the 18th inning of the marathon Mets-Braves game in 1985.  (I liked THT’s article on that game a while back, by the way.)  If only he could have done it a second time!

    A bit weaker choice, but if you need a third baseman for the One Play team, there’s Heinie Zimmerman.  In the 4th inning of Game 6 of the 1917 World Series, the Giants caught Eddie Collins in a rundown between 3rd and home.  But, depending on whose version you believe, either no one covered home, or Zim decided that he was faster than Eddie Collins.  He wasn’t, and ended up chasing Collins across the plate for the first run of the White Sox’ series-winning victory.  (I say weaker because Zim is also remembered for being banned from baseball for allegedly trying to fix games.)  Anyway, fun article.

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