This set of 11 retired players who were active after the dead ball era ended enforces Mark McGwire‘s 70-homer season in ’98 as the upper limit for candidacy. Eight of them are in the Hall of Fame, a ninth is in for his playing and managing record, and a 10th probably should be in. And yet hardly any of them ever managed to have a double-digit homer season. Here’s the list, in descending order, with sketches of each player:
Lou Boudreau, 68. In his Historical Abstract from the ’80s, Bill James points to a type of player fairly common in the ’30s and ’40s: small, drew lots of walks, hit .300 or more, didn’t have home run power, typically played up the middle, and scored lots of runs. Some of those players, including Boudreau, are on this list. He averaged nearly 40 doubles annually, hit around .300, drew another 70 walks or so, and what’s more, Boudreau led AL shortstops in fielding percentage seven times.
He played only nine full seasons, but he managed the Indians as well from the age of 24 onward. His managing career was finished after he turned 42, but Boudreau had already led the Indians to their last World Series title to date. Later, he became part of the Cubs broadcast team and the father-in-law of Denny McLain.
Earle Combs, 58. Although Bill James calls him a no-power hitter in the Hall of Fame only because he was a starter for the ’27 Yankees, Combs posted a .462 slugging percentage (currently good for about 260th on the all-time list) that’s the best of any of these players, so he obviously did hit for power, just not home runs.
I don’t know, maybe he still doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. After all, in his induction speech Combs said, “I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like I was.” He did have a very, very good ’27 season, and Combs was the guy Ruth and Gehrig were driving in much of the time—often enough to score 1,186 runs in his short career, and over .8 per game.
Stan Hack, 57. The plain-named Hack manned third for the Cubs during their last four pennant-winning seasons, which in itself deserves acclaim. His numbers in those four World Series are quite good as well. He followed Pie Traynor as the best third baseman in the NL. In six straight years he posted over 100 runs scored and, for his career, had almost twice as many runs scored as RBIs. As an older player, Hack remained stateside during World War II, and he put together an extremely good year in 1945.
Al Lopez, 52. Lopez is better known for his managing than his playing, and rightly so. Still, he held the record for most games caught for several decades. Lopez’s anemic home run power extended to his doubles and triples totals. Lopez was rarely a truly poor offensive force though, and he managed to hit .307 with a .390 OBP in his best season, playing part-time for the Pirates as a 37-year-old in 1946.
Joe Sewell, 49. Renowned for the difficulty pitchers had striking him out, Sewell, a reliably excellent hitter, peaked in 1923. That year with Cleveland, his .353 average, .479 slugging percentage, and .440 OBP placed him among the AL leaders. Sewell was good for close to 40 doubles, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs over a full season. It’s no surprise that his RBI to homer and walk to strikeout ratios are awfully high. Joe’s the leading figure in the four-member Sewell family of baseball players from Alabama.
Luke Appling, 45. He’s most famous, at least among sub 40-year-olds, for hitting a homer as a 70-some-year-old at the Old-Timers Game in 1982 off Warren Spahn. But before that he racked up 2,749 hits and nearly .400 on-base and slugging percentages as the man at short for the White Sox in the ’30s and ’40s. Despite some frightening error totals—55 in ’33, 49 in ’37, 42 in ’41—Appling committed about as many errors per season over his career as many of his contemporaries at shortstop did.
Another hitter whose ability to draw walks partly made up for a lack of power, Fox was also good for a decent number of triples and some doubles each year. He actually came up with the Philadelphia A’s to make his debut at 19 before becoming a beloved White Sox, and then went to first Colt Stadium and then the Astrodome for his last two seasons, with Houston. Fox’s five homers at home, compared to 30 on the road, show that some of his power was lost in his home parks.
Sam Rice, 34. Rice consistently hit for B-level power playing for the Washington Senators in the ’20s and ’30s, with over 30 doubles and 10 triples per year, but he comes up short in the home runs category. Part of that was because Griffith Park had an exceedingly deep left field and quite deep center field. His 2,987 hits give Rice barely more than one homer per hundred hits.
A decent base stealer (his 63 in 1920 were the most by anyone that decade) and the only 40-year-old with a 200-hit season in major league history, Rice was effective for many years and helped the Senators to three World Series and one title. He started out as a two-way player in the mid-1910s, pitching an above-average 39.1 innings in his first two seasons. Replacing his seven-game 1918 season (I assume due to service in World War I with his normal season gives Rice close to 3,200 hits lifetime, despite not playing a full season until he was 27.
Richie Ashburn, 29. Ashburn was a solid performer offensively, occasionally getting 100-plus walks, reliably hitting .300, and hitting his share of triples. His peak offensive season of 1955 included just 42 RBIs set against 91 runs scored and on-base and slugging percentages of nearly .450.
During the mid-’50s stretch when he was at his hitting peak, Ashburn had not a single homer at his home park, and had just four at home from 1950 through 1961. That’s including two seasons at Wrigley Field. Ashburn was Harry Kalas’s partner broadcasting Phillies games before dying from a heart attack on Sept. 9, 1997.
Ozzie Smith, 28. Like a lot of players on this list, Smith hit significantly more triples than homers. The extra offensive value Smith provided usually came from his walks and steals, although he peaked at 40 doubles in 1987.
That year is one of the best test cases for the relative values people assign to defense and offense, because Ozzie, playing for a much better team, lost out to Andre Dawson in the MVP voting, 269 points to 193, and got nine first place votes to Dawson’s 11. Putting his fielding statistics and Gold Gloves aside, has there ever been a more memorable shortstop in the field than Ozzie?
Maury Wills, 20. Ashburn has his fame as perhaps the greatest defensive center fielder ever to offset his lack of power, and Wills has his two Gold Gloves and two spectacular base-stealing years, the first of which got him an MVP in 1962, to offset his even worse power numbers. Wills, though, also played for some great Dodgers teams, while Ashburn was in the World Series just once and wound up his career with maybe the worst team of the century: the 1962 Mets.