On June 13, 1953, Bob Elliott was sent to the Chicago White Sox. This was the last major league franchise the man known as “Mr. Team” would play for, but that does not mean his story is worth passing up.
This kind of goes without saying, but those players who win the Most Valuable Player award are, as a group, pretty good. While there are a handful of poor choices, and even the occasional bizarre selection—Jim Konstanty, I’m looking at you—the overwhelming majority of MVPs are, at worst, very good players who have great seasons.
Despite this, a small number of MVPs fall into historical obscurity for one reason or another. Some, like Konstanty, are players whose award was the result of a fluke set of circumstances, or a wildly out-of-character career season. Others, like Elliott, are just forgotten as time goes on.
This is a shame, because Elliott’s seems a story that deserves hearing. Elliott was born in 1916 in San Francisco, part of the ballplayer baby boom in that area in the early part of the century, which also included the DiMaggio brothers, Joe Cronin and Babe Dahlgren.
Elliott played baseball at junior college and drew the eye of a scout for a local semipro team. After some oddly cloak-and-dagger machinations to inform Elliott of their interest—he was summoned to a police station without being told the purpose for the trip—he signed up for the club. By 1936 he entered professional baseball and began working his way up to the major leagues. After making the All-Star team of his minor league in 1936, the Pirates took his rights and he repeated the performance as a member of their organization in the same league the next year.
By 1939, Elliott’s hitting in the minors convinced the Bucs he was ready for the big leagues. He made his major league debut in September of that year and played regularly the rest of the month, batting .333 and endearing himself to Pirates fans with a home run in his debut game.
Elliott earned a regular place in the lineup the next year, and while he didn’t quite match his level of performance from his trial month in ’39, he was still a strong player. Playing exclusively in the outfield alongside fellow San Franciscan Vince DiMaggio, he hit .292, finishing second on the team with 34 doubles and led the way with 13 steals.
Elliott was not quite as good in 1941—getting beaned in the head in late May probably did little to help—but nonetheless made the All-Star team. He rebounded to post another strong season the next year, which included a return trip to the All-Star game, 89 RBIs—good for sixth in the league—and a top-10 spot in the MVP voting.
|Mike Schmidt, one of the few third baseman better than Elliott (Icon/SMI)|
In ’42, Elliott moved to third base, filling the hole left by Lee Hadley who had departed to fight in the Second World War. When told he was being moved by manager Frankie Frisch, Elliott is said to have asked if he was “that bad an outfielder.” By most accounts, he was not, but the team had a problem, and Elliott—the man who would come to be known as “Mr. Team”—was willing to do what he could to solve it.
The transition to third base was, despite his best efforts, not an easy one, as Elliot made 36 errors his first season. Though he never came near that total again, he would make 20 or more errors at third regularly through the rest of his career.
Moreover, compounding the injury he suffered from the beaning in 1941, in the course of his move to third base Elliott was twice struck in the head by batted balls. At least one version of these stories claims that the collective effect of the blows was enough to exempt Elliott from service during the war. Whatever the reason, Elliott never served on active duty, though he did work in a factory building aircraft for the war in the offseason.
As he approached age 30, Elliott’s play seemed to be declining in quality; he went from posting an .848 in 1944 to a .709 in ’46. In September of that year, Elliott was dealt to the Boston Braves as part of a six-player trade.
Whether the change in scenery inspired Elliott, or perhaps the entering of a new decade of life, he was a revived presence in Boston. His first season he posted a 147 OPS+, easily the best of his career. Slugging 22 home runs while driving in 113 runs, Elliott was voted MVP as the Braves improved by five wins and finished third.
The next season, Elliott had another great season, hitting a career-high 23 homers while drawing 113 walks as the Braves improved even more with 91 wins and the National League pennant. Elliott did all he could for the Braves in the World Series, hitting .333 and leading all players with 10 or more at-bats with a 1.010 OPS. Unfortunately for Elliott and the Boston fans, it was not enough to overcome Bob Lemon (2-0, 1.65 ERA in two starts) and the team fell to Cleveland in six games.
Elliott’s career never again reached the highs of the late ‘40s, but he continued to play effectively into 1951. Widely praised for his hustle throughout his career, Elliott was hailed by “Trader” Frank Lane as “one of the greatest hustlers I ever saw.”
Still among the best 25 third baseman to ever take the field, Elliott finished his career with 170 home runs, more than 2,000 hits and a .289 average. At the time of his retirement, among third baseman who saw at least two-thirds of their career at the position, only Harlond Clift had more homers than Elliott, one Pie Traynor had more RBIs and no one had more doubles. To this day, he remains among the top 15 in doubles by third baseman with more than players like Eddie Mathews, Ron Santo and Graig Nettles.
Elliott spent one season as the manager of the Kansas City A’s, suffering through a 97-loss campaign. (The team averaged 87 losses the three years before and 93 the three years after; it was hardly Elliott’s fault.) He thereafter retired to San Diego, but sadly died young in 1966.