This annotated week in baseball history: Sept. 11-17, 1941

On September 17, 1941, Stan Musial made his debut for the St. Louis Cardinals. That was the only franchise for which Musial would ever play. Richard looks at other similar players.

One of the prime complaints from the “good ol’ days” crowd of baseball fans is that player movement has eliminated the loyalty that once existed between a player, a team and the fans that supported both. Of course, a big part of “loyalty” was the force of the Reserve Clause, but that tends to be swept under the rug in the name of nostalgia.

Nonetheless, Musial’s debut today, wearing the only uniform he would ever wear, got me thinking about what kind of team you could construct entirely from players who spent their entire careers with only one franchise.

For the purposes of this exercise—excluding the DH spot—I required the player to see at least 51% of their time at the position. And the player could only have played for one team. Any appearance, no matter how brief, disqualified the player from the list.

Catcher: Johnny Bench

The greatest one-team catcher of all-time: Johnny Bench (Icon/SMI)

But for four games Yogi Berra played for the Mets in 1965, this might be a highly debated position. But instead it is Bench running away.

Most other great catchers, including Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez and Carlton Fisk, played for at least two teams, and sometimes many more.

Of some note is that the sole-team list of great catchers, Bench aside, is dominated by Yankees.

None of Bill Dickey, Thurman Munson nor Jorge Posada—to date—played their home games anywhere but the Bronx.

First Base: Lou Gehrig

This is the only position under serious attack right now, although the 2011-12 offseason will go a long way to showing us just how perilous Gehrig’s position is.

At the moment, the Iron Horse is ahead of Albert Pujols, both in performance and length of career. However, Pujols is fewer than 500 games behind Gehrig, and figures to play for at least another decade.

Should Pujols sign a long-term deal with the Cardinals and finish his career in St. Louis, he has a reasonable shot at taking over this position.

Second Base: Charlie Gehringer

Taking nothing away from Charlie Gehringer— and more about him more in a moment—this is one of two positions where the team has a player who is ordinarily brilliant, rather than an all-time elite player.

Dubbed “The Mechanical Man” by Lefty Gomez for his consistency, Gehringer spent 19 seasons in Detroit. During that time, he led the league, at various times, in batting, runs, hits, doubles, triples and stolen bases. He helped drive the Tigers’ back-to-back pennant winners in 1934 and 1935 and won the American League MVP in 1937. The award represented the peak of a career which saw him finish in the top ten for MVP voting ten times.

Third Base: Mike Schmidt

Like Gehrig, Schmidt would have this spot no matter how many teams other third baseman played for. This is not to knock the other one-team third baseman, including the likes of George Brett, Chipper Jones (to date, but a fair assumption, I think) and Brooks Robinson.

Also an interesting note is that Eddie Matthews—arguably the second-best third baseman of all-time—called five different cities his home: Boston, Milwuakee, Atlanta, Houston and Detroit. But the first three of those all came with the Braves franchise that couldn’t stay put during Matthews’ time with the club.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the rarity of truly great shortstops, a substantial majority of them played with only one team: Ripken, Derek Jeter, Robin Yount, Luke Appling, Barry Larkin, Pee Wee Reese and Alan Trammell.

Even Honus Wagner sort of counts on this list, since although he played the first three seasons of his career with the Louisville Colonels, he was transferred to the Pirates when owner Barney Dreyfuss bought that franchise as well and moved most of Colonels there.

Indeed, Alex Rodriguez and Arky Vaughan are the only truly elite shortstops to switch teams, in the conventional sense, in their prime.

Left Field: Ted Williams

Poor Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz is an unquestionably brilliant player, and for virtually any other franchise he would be the finest left fielder ever to take the field. But when it comes to the Boston Red Sox, the list starts with Ted Williams and that’s that. And, of course, Williams also sends Yastrzemski to the bench on the one-team team. Teddy Ballgame also does the same to a pair of Pirates who played decades apart, Willie Stargell and Fred Clarke.

Center Field: Mickey Mantle

Just as Yankees dominate the one-team catchers, they have a similar stranglehold on the center field list. Of the top 30 center fielders by Baseball-Reference’s WAR listings, all have played for more than one team save five: Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Bernie Williams, Kirby Puckett and Earle Combs.

Of those men, only Puckett played for a team other than the Yankees. In addition to the Yankees’ strong place on the list, the DiMaggio brand does well, with both Joe and Dom DiMaggio occupying spots as center fielders on the squad.

Right Field: Mel Ott

Excluding players who appeared on more than one team is about the only way a list like this will end up without Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron in the right field spot. But if the end result of such exclusion is giving credit to players like Ott, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente, one could certainly do worse. For his part, Ott debuted at age 17 playing for John McGraw and played well enough—and long enough—that by the time of his last active season he was managing the Giants.

Designated Hitter: Stan Musial

Musial was never actually a designated hitter, of course, but he earned this place as the best one-team player not otherwise in the starting line-up. Other notables who only played for one team but didn’t make the starting line-up include Jeff Bagwell, Ernie Banks, Jeter, Bill Terry, Tony Gwynn and Jackie Robinson, In fact, it should be no surprise that you could form a pretty good squad with the bench of the best of the one-team players.

Starting Pitcher: Walter Johnson

The rest of the one-team rotation, for the record, is Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell and Jim Palmer. Those men averaged 291 wins for their career—anchored by Johnson’s 417—and all five are in the Hall of Fame. That list leaves a few very solid one-team pitchers, including the likes of Whitey Ford and the player who was probably the toughest omission, Sandy Koufax.

Relief Pitcher: Mariano Rivera

I don’t—really, I don’t—pick my column topics just to give me an excuse to write more great things about Rivera, but it does seem to work out that way a lot. Relievers, being a relatively modern concept and subject to swings in performance even among the greats, probably switch teams more frequently than any other position. In the top 25 of relievers by WAR, only three (Rivera, John Hiller and Bob Stanley) spent their career with just one team. That’s fewer than the number who played for four or more teams.

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  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    Aw, nuts. I did mean Dom DiMaggio. Hard time keeping those DiMaggio’s straight, they’re almost as bad as the Alous.

  2. Detroit Michael said...

    If we limit DH to someone who actually spent half or more of his career games as a DH, Edgar Martinez is the runaway winner of a spot in this line-up.  Next closest is Troy Neel, who played parts of three seasons with Oakland.

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    I am not sure why you excluded DH from your criteria (unless, of course, it was to find a spot for Musial given his inspiration for your article), but I think if you are selecting players who actually played the position or role more than 50% of the time, you have to replace Musial with Edgar Martinez.

    I certainly don’t like to leave Stan off any all-time team, but as he should not replace Ted Williams or Gehrig nor did he ever DH, Edgar probably has to fill the DH role.

  4. db said...

    The difference between Piazza’s career OPS plus and Johnny Bench’s is about the same between Bench’s and Tim McCarvers or Sherm Lollar’s.  His catcher era is about the same as his team’s pitcher’s ERA, even though teams routinely would have a defense-first back-up.  His weak throwing probably does not detract nearly as much as people believe.  A strong argument exists that, notwithstanding his defensive shortcomings, he was the greatest catcher ever.

  5. kds said...

    Under CF I think you meant Dom DiMaggio to join Joe, not Vince, who played for 5 NL teams and wasn’t as good as his brothers.

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