This annotated week in baseball history: Nov. 22-Nov. 28, 1951

On November 25, 1951 Bucky Dent was born. Dent had his brief, memorable moment in the sun, and of course, that is practically the only thing people know about him. Richard looks at other players.

Earlier this summer, I produced the “One-Thing” team, a list of players known in history for—you guessed it—just one thing. That includes names like Bill Buckner and Don Larsen, players whose careers varied in length and success, but which were lost to history behind their one event.

Baseball history being what it is, there are many players who could belong to such a team, so today we unveil the second grouping. A quick review of the rule: first, no Hall of Famers can be included. Hall of Famers are often defined by one outstanding characteristic (such as Nolan Ryan and his strikeouts) but they are not known for that alone.

Moreover, the one thing has to be something for which the players themselves are known based on their own actions. It can be anything from a single event to a career-long attribute (Jim Abbott pitching with only one hand) to off-the-field troubles, but it has to be the player’s own doing.

This means no hilariously named but inept siblings (sorry, Butts Wagner) and no players flipped in ill-conceived trades for obviously superior talent (sorry, Ed Hearn). Some cold week this winter I will get around to making each of those teams, but it isn’t this week. Those ground rules established, let’s start with the team.

Catcher: Marty Bergen

Nothing like an uplifting story to get us started. Bergen was a 19th-century catcher, who played for the Boston Braves. Never much of a hitter—his career .646 OPS was poor even for the era—Bergen was regarded as a strong defender by his peers. Modern detractors point to his high passed ball numbers (he led the league with 38 one year), but that total is not notably out of line for other catchers of the time.

But Bergen’s place in history lies with the events of January 19, 1900. On that day, Bergen murdered his wife and children, a three-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, with an axe before slitting his own throat. While the exact circumstances can never be known, it seems sure Bergen was suffering from depression at the least, and more likely suffered a profound psychotic break.

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Bobby Thomson sending the Giants to the World Series, and himself to this list (Icon/SMI)

In seasons prior Bergen had paranoid delusions that teammates, fans and his personal doctor were attempting to kill him, but turn-of-the-century medicine was ill-equipped to diagnose, let alone treat, whatever plagued him. It is unfortunate the failures of medical care led to such a tragedy and gave Bergen his unfortunate place in baseball history.

(On a side note, his brother Bill could earn a spot on this list for his famously useless hitting. He is, by leaps and bounds, the worst hitter to come to the plate more than 3,000 times, finishing with a career .170/.194/.201 line. That’s an OPS+ of 21; the next-lowest number is Hal Lanier at 49.)

First Base: Sid Bream

Here’s something I didn’t know: Sid Bream wasn’t a bad player. Perhaps because I link him inexorably with Francisco Cabrera—who drove Bream in to win the 1992 pennant for the Braves and is another candidate for a spot on this team—I assumed he was a bench player at best.

He was not. He wasn’t a consistent All-Star or anything, but he would take a walk and could hit some doubles in his best years, ranking as high as third in the league. He started for some pretty good teams and had a career 1.072 OPS in four LCS appearances. Some other names on this list should be so lucky.

Second Base: Steve Sax/Chuck Knoblauch

Modern players are hard to categorize as “one-thing” players because they are much fresher in our minds. So I might be jumping the gun a bit on these players, but I believe history will vindicate me. (Always a risky proposition.)

In any case, besides playing second base for the Yankees, you probably know what Sax and Knoblauch have in common. Both went through extended periods when they were unable to make a routine throw to first base. The problems effectively ended Knoblauch’s career—he moved to left field where his bat simply didn’t play, and he was out of baseball shortly thereafter—but Sax recovered sufficiently to lead the league in fielding percentage.

Third Base: Harry Steinfeldt

Here’s something I’m not sure about: can you be known for just one thing if that one thing is not being known? Steinfeldt exists in baseball history as the answer to a trivia question: who was the third baseman in the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield?

Steinfeldt hit like an absolute beast for the 1906 Cubs (an .825 OPS being far more impressive in 1906 than it is now) and is sometimes credited as the MVP of that team, but it was out of line with his career, when he was generally an average hitter.

Shortstop: Bucky Dent

“Deep to left! Yastrzemski will not get it, it’s a home run! A three-run home run by Bucky Dent, and the Yankees now lead it by a score of 3-2!”

Left Field: Bobby Thomson

“There’s a long drive, it’s gonna be, I believe…The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant! The Giants win the Pennant!”

Center Field: Fred Snodgrass

Fred Snodgrass played nine years in the major leagues, hit as high as .294 in regular action, was nicknamed “Snow,” appeared in three World Series and was both scouted and signed personally by John McGraw. Looking back at his career, he would say that “those were wonderful years, and if I had the chance, I’d gladly do it all over again.”

But he isn’t here for any of those things; he’s included because of the 1912 World Series. In the eighth game—game two having been declared a tie after 11 innings due to darkness—the Giants took a 1-0 in the top of the 10th on a run-scoring single by Frank Merkle. In the bottom half of the inning, pinch hitter Clyde Engle led off with a fly ball to center field. Snodgrass dropped it, and Engle went to second.

Though Snodgrass recovered to make a game-saving catch on the next batter, Giants’ ace Christy Mathewson could not hold the Red Sox down, and the Giants would lose the game. When he died in 1974, Snodgrass’ New York Times obituary was titled “Fred Snograss, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”

Right Field: Al Gionfriddo

Lots of players are known for famous fielding errors, but Gionfriddo is in far rarer company: players known for a great play. In the sixth game of the 1947 World Series Gionfriddo made a tremendous catch in front of the 415 foot sign at Yankee Stadium to preserve a Dodger lead. The play is even more famous for the reaction by the batter, Joe DiMaggio, who kicked the dirt near second base in frustration.

This is already a good deal over my usual word count, so I will save the pitching staff for another day and instead wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, and hope that whatever your chosen profession, you are someday remembered for more than just one thing.

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Comments

  1. Matt said...

    Agree with Bob regarding Mazeroski.

    Suggestions for the bench:
    Sandy Amoros, OF – one-handed catch saved Brooklyn’s 1955 championship
    Ken Keltner, 3B – 2 great plays ended DiMaggio’s hitting streak

    Was Rick Monday omitted because he has multiple moments that could be the “one thing?”
    -first pick in the first draft
    -saved the American flag from burning
    -homered on “Blue Monday” to win 1981 pennant

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    I should have linked my first team here, Amoros made that one as the LF.

    Maz is very, very close to being there, and would be on the team had he not made the Hall. Roger Maris probably deserves a spot too, I’m surprised I’ve left him off twice.

    Wally Pipp definitely counts. First baseman seem to represent a higher-than-average number of these players: Pipp, Buckner, Merkle, Bream.

  3. Jason S. said...

    Chuck Knoblauch’s fake of receiving an outfield throw fooled Lonnie Smith in the 1991 World Series and kept him from scoring what would have won game 7 for the Braves.  As a Braves fan you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t feel very sorry for how his career ended.  Plus he ended up playing for the hated Yankees – 2 strikes against him so far.  If only Kent Hrbek had faced some similar cosmic justice for pushing Ron Gant off 1st base and getting away with it for an out in that same World Series.

  4. Chris J. said...

    Another possible pitcher: Carl Mays.

    For that matter, Ray Chapman could edge out Dent at short, though that will kill the point of this week’s column. 

    Then again, you could dang near field an entire team with guys from the losing end of the 1919 World Series.

  5. Richard Barbieri said...

    Vander Meer and Mays actually made the first team, as did Chapman.

    Shore is a really good one, I hadn’t thought of him.

  6. Jake said...

    I never fail to note the coincidence that Snodgrass is linked so closely to the other deadball-era Boner player: Merkle.

  7. Bob Rittner said...

    I will argue with you about Hall of Famers being known for more than one thing, at least in one case. My submission is Bill Mazeroski. I know the argument for his induction was his defense, but I think the reason for his induction was the home run.

    Now I know that he was a fabulous fielder, perhaps the best ever at 2B and maybe among the best ever period. And that might justify his enshrinement. But how often is a player without some other distinguishing characteristic remembered purely for his fielding, and especially at 2B? Hughie Critz? Ski Mellilo? 

    Paul Blair was a great center fielder but has never sniffed the HOF. Tom Seaver called Jerry Grote the best catcher he ever saw. They are fading from memory. Ozzie is remembered primarily for his fielding, but there are other factors (stolen bases, leadoff hitter, flamboyance) that make him memorable.

    Perhaps Mazeroski would have gotten into the HOF anyway, but it wouldn’t surprise me if plenty of people know the home run and are surprised to learn he is already in the Hall.

    I think another candidate for CF is Curt Flood. Not that I disagree with Snodgrass, an excellent choice, but I think Curt also is remembered primarily for his challenge to the reserve clause, and although a fine player would otherwise be anonymous by now.

  8. Josias Manzanillo said...

    Per his Wikipedia entry:

    In 1997, Manzanillo suffered a grisly injury while pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Not wearing a cup, he took a Manny Ramírez line drive to the groin that led to an operation to remove one of his testicles.

  9. Xerac said...

    A few of pitchers:

    Orval Overall, the only pitcher ever to strike out 4 batters in a single inning in a World Series game (Game 2 of the 1906 Series for the Chicago team that plays on the North Side).

    Barney Schultz, who was called up in August in 1964 and at the age of 37 got 14 saves.  This was in an era when getting 20 saves in a season was a real accomplishment and Barney did it in just 2 months, helping the Cardinals win the pennant that season.

    Harvey Haddix, who on May 26th, 1959, pitched 12 perfect innings before succumbing in the 13th and losing 1-0 on an out-of-the-park single by Hank Aaron.  What made that even more amazing is the Braves, starting in the 3rd inning, had been stealing Smokey Burgess’ signs to Haddix and still the Braves could not hit Haddix despite having a some excellent batters, such as Aaron, Matthews and Adcock.

  10. carter richard carter said...

    How about Shoeless Joe? I know you put in Buck Weaver but Shoeless Joe is the biggest name in the Black Sox scandal.

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