Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 23, 2003
BASEBALL: Baseball's Underappreciated Great Teams, 1900-1949
Originally posted on Projo.com
Starting this week: a three-part history column. Let's take a look back at successful teams from each decade of the 20th century that have fallen away a bit from popular memory or haven't been given their due:
The 1900s: The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates
103-36 (.741), First place by 27.5 games, no postseason, 5.58 R/G (runs scored per game), 3.17 RA/G (runs allowed per game), league average 3.98/G.
Histories of the game tend to leave off 19th century baseball with the 1897 pennant race and pick up 20th century baseball with Christy Mathewson throwing three shutouts in five days in the 1905 World Series, filling the interregnum with accounts of the crises and interlocking ownerships that led to the contraction of the National League from 12 teams to 8 after the 1899 season, the founding of the American League in 1901, the jumping of players like Nap Lajoie to the AL and the litigation that sprang up in their path, the refusal of John McGraw's Giants to play in a World Series in 1904, and the ultimate peace between the leagues under which the 1905 Series kicked off the new era. The game on the field underwent a number of dramatic changes in this era, with several developments, most notably the foul strike rule (in the 19th century, a foul ball was not a strike) leading the transition from baseball's highest-scoring era in the 1890s to its lowest in the following decade. Mathewson's throttling of Connie Mack's A's signaled the arrival of that era as well.
But if the game was in transition, there was still some darn good baseball being played. The Hall of Fame recognized this a few years back when it inducted one of the biggest stars of the era, George Davis. The dominant team, led by the game's biggest star in the 1898-1904 era, was the Pirates, and perhaps their best team was the 1902 squad that finished 103-36, winning their second of three straight pennants by 27.5 games, the largest margin of victory in baseball history. They buried the competition early and never let up: the Pirates roared out of the gate to the tune of a 25-4 record and an 8 game lead on May 20. They were trashing their opponents, scoring 6.69 runs/game while allowing just 2.79 runs/game, a ridiculous margin; an 1890s offense with 1900s pitching. By June 13 they were 11 games out in front. They kept at it as well, adding 12 games to their lead after August 1, and outscoring their opponents 5.58 runs/game to 3.17 runs/game on the season. Nearly the entire roster was players in their prime, ages 24-30, with players heavily concentrated in the 27-29 bracket; the only exceptions were two grizzled veterans among the team's three catchers.
The Pirates had three Hall of Famers -- Honus Wagner, age 28, who hit .330 and led the league in (among other things) slugging, runs scored, RBI, steals and doubles; outfielder and manager Fred Clarke, age 29, who hit .316 and finished second to Wagner in runs and third in slugging; and pitcher Jack Chesbro, age 28, a bogus Hall of Famer but a great pitcher at his peak (he would jump to the AL the following year and go on to win an AL-record 41 games for the Yankees in 1904), who went 28-6 with a 2.17 ERA. The Pirates' rotation featured four pitchers who won between 189 and 198 games and won at least 60% of their decisions in their careers (Chesbro, Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe and Jesse Tannehill), all between the ages of 27 and 30 and with ERAs between 1.95 and 2.39, plus a spot starter who went 16-4. Pinpoint control artists Leever, Phillippe and Tannehill walked just 82 batters in 725 innings; the Pirates didn't lose a game Leever started until July 5. The lineup added outfielder Ginger Beaumont, age 25, a lifetime .311 hitter who had a career year, winning the batting title (.357) and finished third in the league in runs scored, and 24-year-old third baseman Tommy Leach, a versatile star who would play 19 years in the majors; Leach finished fourth in the league in runs, second in RBI, and led the league in triples and home runs.
The really interesting and important development on this team was Fred Clarke's decision, at some point in 1902 or the beginning of 1903, to make Wagner -- now 28, a 6-year veteran and already the best player in the league -- into a shortstop. To this point in his career, Wagner had been a sort of everyday utility player, playing anywhere from 25 to 75 games a year at first, third, shortstop and the outfield. The exception was in 1900, his first on arriving in Pittsburgh with Clarke, Leach and Phillippe when the Louisville franchise was contracted; that season, he played almost exclusively in the outfield, hit a career-high .381, and led the league in nearly everything. I don't have the box scores, and Wagner's 44 games at short in 1902 may well have been scattered throughout the season. But when 1903 opened, Wagner was Pittsburgh's regular shortstop, appearing in 111 games at a position he would not relinquish until he was 43 years old. Wagner would go on to have his best seasons as a shortstop, including his best year at age 34. For many years, in fact, Wagner held the career record for games played at short.
Wagner is what would have made this team so interesting to watch - he was then at the peak of his powers, the best hitter for average in baseball, the best hitter for power in baseball, the game's best base thief, tough as nails and unafraid of anyone, and the nicest guy in the game to boot. The decision to take this superstar and enhance his value even further by planting him at the game's key defensive position was a visionary move, and Wagner's willingness to make the move speaks well of his own character.
Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein, in their book Baseball Dynasties, discount the 1902 Pirates for the fact that the American League had apparently made a deliberate strategic decision to wreck the National League pennant race by raiding all the teams other than the Pirates. That may be true -- though, as I have noted, the team's winningest pitcher jumped to the AL after the season -- but the collection of talented players in the prime of long and successful careers on this team make it truly memorable as one of the monumental teams of the 20th century.
The 1910s: The 1918 Chicago Cubs
Baseball in the teens had a lot of problems, one of which was the imbalance of talent between the two leagues. Young players who reached stardom in the AL between 1910 and 1915 included Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, Smokey Joe Wood, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. A's, Red Sox and White Sox dynasties combined to make the World Series a joke; with the exception of a shocking sweep by the "Miracle Braves" in 1914, the overmatched NL representatives won just 13 World Series games between 1910 and 1918. With the collapse of the Giants in 1914, the NL pennant rotated among a series of 1-year wonders from six different franchises between 1914 and 1919, which didn't earn them a lot of respect at the time -- there's a reason the 1919 Reds were such underdogs in the World Series despite having a great regular season record -- and hasn't helped their memory since then. On top of that, the decade was riven by a third major league (the 1914-15 Federal League), a world war that intruded on the game in 1918, and of course the eventual fixing of the World Series in 1919.
I've already written about the 1916-17 Giants (see here and here), and much more could be said about the contestants in the 1915 World Series, which matched a "changing of the guard" Red Sox team featuring Speaker, Wood and Ruth (among many other famous and talented players) against a Phillies team that mixed a hitter (Gavvy Cravath) who swatted 24 home runs with a pitcher (Grover Alexander) who allowed just 3 longballs in 376 innings. But I'd like to add a few words here about one of the most obscure pennant winning teams of all time, the 1918 Cubs.
The Cubs of 1917 were not an impressive team; they finished 24 games out of first place and six games under .500. They even had a losing record at home, and finished the season in an 18-27 funk. The team's only star was Jim "Hippo" Vaughn, one of the NL's best pitchers at 23-13 with a 2.01 ERA. So you can imagine the excitement when the team announced, in the spring, the acquisition of Alexander, by far and away the dominant player in the National League the prior three seasons, in which he'd won more than 30 games with an ERA in the ones each year, leading the league in numerous key categories, usually by large margins. But there was a catch: although the Phillies, contenders in each of those three seasons, were in the midst of a fire sale that would leave the team with a losing record each of the next 13 straight seasons and 29 of the next 30 seasons, Alexander was available on the cheap only because he had a high number in the draft, and was likely to be sent to war. And so he was: Alexander was 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA in three complete game starts for the Cubs when he was shipped out to the front lines in France.
Yet, while the Alexander acquisition got them nowhere, other offseason moves paid off better. 30-year-old Larry Doyle, the team's RBI leader in 1917 (with 61) but a leaden glove at second base, was dealt to the Braves with 31-year-old catcher Art Wilson, who had hit .213 the previous year (the Braves then moved Doyle back to the Giants, where he'd starred earlier) in exchange for 28-year-old starter Lefty Tyler, one of the heroes of the 1914 Miracle; Tyler responded with his best season, going 19-8 with a 2.00 ERA.
In 1917, the Cubs had scored 3.58 runs/game and allowed 3.68 against a league average of 3.53, so as you can see, their improvement was substantial on both offense and defense, although more heavily in the pitching department. The 1918 team lead the NL in both runs scored and runs allowed. How? Partly, they just got good years from incumbent veterans like Vaughn (at 22-10, 1.74 ERA the NL's best pitcher), Fred Merkle (still just 29 a decade after his famous flub, Merkle batted .297 on the way to his fifth pennant with three franchises), and 28-year-old right fielder Max Flack, who improved from .248 to .257 and cut his strikeouts in half. Veteran acquisitions also helped: besides Tyler, the Cubs brought in 36-year-old center fielder Dode Paskert from the Phillies, and Paskert's .362 OBP was second on the team. Near season's end, 30-year-old Charlie Pick replaced light-hitting Charlie Deal as the everyday third baseman; Pick batted .326 with a .417 OBP in 29 games
The crucial element, however, was the maturation of two young hitters, 24-year-old left fielder Les Mann, who finally lived up to his Federal League form of four years earlier by hitting .288, boosting his on base percentage by 30 points and staying healthy all year, and most critically, 22-year-old rookie shortstop Charlie Hollocher, who batted .316, good for second in the league in OBP and first in total bases. Hollocher had a 20-game hitting streak as the Cubs stretched their lead from 3 games to 8 in late July and early August; they clinched the pennant a week later.
Hollocher was an error-prone fielder even by the standards of the day - 53 errors - and despite being ideally suited to the high-average 1920s, his career would fall apart when he abruptly left the Cubs on his way to his second straight .340 season in 1923 at age 27, complaining of a recurrent illness. (Hollocher killed himself with a shotgun at age 44; read his obituary here).
In the World Series, of course, the Cubs would be throttled by the brilliant pitching of Babe Ruth and Carl Mays, despite some equally brilliant work by Vaughn and Tyler. Pick (.389), Merkle and Flack continued to hit well in the Series, but Hollocher and Paskert both batted .190, and the Red Sox added yet another championship banner to what looked, at the time, like an endless succession.
Of course, the war-shortened 1918 schedule helped the Cubs - they played 74 home games and just 57 road games, although they were 35-20 (2 ties) on the road. And they may have benefited as well from some depletion of talent around the league. The following season, Paskert and Pick hit the wall, Tyler missed most of the season, Mann spent half the year in a .227 funk and was traded, and Hollocher and Merkle fell off; even with Vaughn repeating his success and Alexander winning the ERA title, the Cubs wouldn't finish within 12 games of first place again until 1926, when the last link to the 1918 team - Alexander - was released in mid-season. Still, in 1918 the Cubs had by far the best team in the National League, and if the best player in the league (Alexander) had been available to them, who knows how many more games they would have won -- assuming they would have acquired him at all, that is. Another example of a team for which, despite a big loss early on, almost everything went right for just one season.
The baseball history books of my youth, when they discussed the Pirates of the 1920s, focused on the Waner brothers and the 1927 team they anchored, which was squashed in the World Series by the legendary Ruth/Gehrig Yankees. But before the Waners hit town, there was the mercurial Hazen Shirley "Kiki" Cuyler. This was his team, and a fearsome team it was.
I'm tempted to say that the Pirates of 1925 -- team batting average .307, a starting lineup featuring five .320 hitters, two other .300 hitters and a .298 hitter -- prove that, at least in the high-average, low-walk, low-strikeout, relatively low-HR 1920s National League, you can, too, win championships by building around high-average hitters. But the fact is, except for the home run ball, this team -- in the image of Cuyler, its biggest star -- did it all. The Pirates led the league in batting average, slugging, OBP, doubles, triples, walks, steals, and stolen base percentage, in many cases by huge margins (the Pirates were fifth in the league in homers, with only Cuyler and shortstop Glenn Wright in double figures at 18 apiece, but homers were rare; Gabby Hartnett was second in the league with 24). For good measure, the Pirates allowed the league's third-fewest runs on the second-best team ERA.
Cuyler is sometimes thought of as a borderline Hall of Famer, and maybe given the brevity and inconsistency of his career (he was benched for half of the 1927 season for not hustling) that's a fair characterization. But at his best, he was a major impact player, Ichiro with twice the power. Inserted in the Pittsburgh lineup partway through the 1924 season at age 25, he batted .354 with speed and power; he finished 8th in the NL MVP voting while playing in just 117 games, on the way to the Pirates' third straight third place finish behind the dominant Giants. In 1925, Cuyler had a real MVP-type season, although he (justly) finished second in the balloting to Rogers Hornsby, who batted .403, led the league in HR by 15, and drove in 152 runs. Cuyler just did it all: hit .357, slugged .598, a .423 OBP, 18 homers, 43 doubles, 26 triples (!!), a more-than-respectable 58 walks (remember, walks were scarce; the league leader had 86, and 66 was good for fourth place), and 41 steals in just 54 attempts (a 75.9% success rate compared to 56.5% for the league). He was even hit by 13 pitches, and had 21 assists in right field. By the end of the year, Cuyler's career averages were a .352 average, .562 slugging and .410 OBP.
Around Cuyler were a battery of other hard-hitting athletic types. The two Hall of Famers in the lineup had fine years: 25 year old Pie Traynor, at third, had emerged as a star in 1923; in 1925 he batted .320 with 39 doubles and 14 triples. 35 year old center fielder Max Carey batted .343, was fourth in the league in walks, and stole 46 bases in 57 tries. Wright drove in 121 runs and added 60 more extra base hits of his own. Many of the hitters were young (6 regulars between 24 and 26); the only over-30 hitters were Carey and backup first baseman Stuffy McInnis, who hit .368.
The pitching staff was older and less glamorous, even for a team with a five-man rotation in a hitters' park in a hitters' era. Vic Aldridge was a power pitcher -- top 5 in the league in most walks, most strikeouts, and fewest hits/IP -- but his numbers look like those you would expect today from a 40-year-old finesse pitcher: 213.1 IP, 218 hits, 74 walks, 88 K. Ray Kremer had a brilliant career, 143-85 record including averaging a 19-8 record and 2.99 ERA from 1924 to 1927, but at age 32 he was only in his second season. The best-known pitcher on the staff was Babe Adams, the hero of the 1909 World Series, but Adams was 43 and finished, to the tune of a 5.42 ERA in mostly long relief work.
Although they were forced to rely on their pitching while the team was twice handcuffed by a 37-year-old Walter Johnson in the World Series, the Pirates' knack for hitting the ball with authority finally paid off handsomely in one of the wildest Game 7s in World Series history, played in a torrential downpour at Forbes Field without the benefit of lights. The Pirates mauled Johnson, battering out 15 hits, including 8 doubles and two triples (the 25 total bases absorbed by Johnson in going the distance is a World Series record unlikely to be broken), including the game-winner, a 2-run ground rule double by Cuyler into the darkness in right field with two outs in the bottom of the eighth (Goose Goslin said later that he never even saw where the ball went).
The 1930s: The 1934 Detroit Tigers
The media story of the 1934 season - the one passed down in the books - was the "Gashouse Gang" Cardinals, a voluble and mischievous group led by a brash 24-year-old 30-game winner, Dizzy Dean, and a feisty veteran player-manager, Frankie Frisch. The Gashouse Gang had just everything that media darlings would want: Dean, the lovable hick and pitching superstar; a brother act (Dean and brother 'Daffy'); Frisch, a veteran New Yorker who had been in many World Serieses; goofy nicknames (Ripper, Pepper, Ducky Wucky). You name it. Several members of the team stayed in baseball forever (Frisch hung on as a manager, broadcaster and the dominant force on the Hall of Fame Veterans committee; Dean became a broadcaster; shortstop Leo Durocher managed into the 1970s). And, they won the Series.
But the Gashouse Gang was just a very good team, not a great one and not the beginning, nor really the end, of a dynasty. Their opponents in the World Series were another story. Because the 1934 Detroit Tigers were a juggernaut, and when they came back to win the World Series the next year, they looked for all the world like the coming power in the American League. The fact that many of the Tigers' stars were quiet men like Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg -- and the team's unraveling in a disastrous Game 7 rout in the World Series -- shouldn't let the team's memory slip from view.
Like the 1918 Cubs and the 1925 Pirates, these Tigers arose rapidly from a team that had not been a serious contender the pervious year; the 1933 team finished 25 games behind the first place Senators, with a losing record and a subpar offense. With the exception of the emergence of 23-year-old submariner Eldon Auker, who stepped up to replace fading star Firpo Marberry, the pitching staff didn't change much from the prior year; the team's other second year pitcher, 24-year-old Schoolboy Rowe, went 24-8, but he wasn't markedly more effective than in 1933, just in more innings. The other star, curveball specialist Tommy Bridges, had a better year in 1933. The Tigers improved from third in the league to second in ERA.
Offensively, though, they became a monster overnight, scoring 235 more runs than in 1933 and posting one of the highest run totals of the 20th century. Fiery catcher Mickey Cochrane, as good in his prime as any catcher in major league history, arrived from Connie Mack's fire sale in Philadelphia, took over as manager, and posted his usual .428 on base percentage; he was named the league's MVP. Hank Greenberg, a 22-year-old rookie who played 117 games in 1933, became a fixture at first, cracking 63 doubles, 7 triples and 26 home runs. The Tigers learned an important lesson from the prior year's champs: get Goose Goslin. Over Goslin's 18-year career in the American League, the Yankees won 10 pennants and Mack's A's won three; the other five were won by teams with Goose Goslin in the outfield. Arriving from Washington in exchange for John Stone, six years his junior (the Senators had overloaded themselves with veterans the prior year), Goslin churned out his usual 100-RBI season, whacking 38 doubles along the way. In fact, 7 Tigers hit more than 30 doubles in 1934, and the two outfielders who spilt playing time in center field hit 38 between them. Charlie Gehringer, a star second baseman in his twenties, took his game to a new level in 1934 at age 31, batting .356 with 50 doubles, 99 walks, 134 runs and 127 RBI; he would continue to improve throughout his thirties. Gehringer was the one real surprise; the rest of the lineup was either the newly arrived veteran stars or young players coming into their own.
As was much heralded at the time, the Tigers' starting infield drove in 462 runs in 1934; they also scored 445 runs. Even near the pinnacle of a hitters' era, these were eye-popping numbers. The team had more good young players on the way in 20-year-old masher Rudy York and Luke "Hot Potato" Hamlin, who would later win 20 games for Durocher's Dodgers. But a few things went wrong. First, after a bitter and hard-fought World Series featuring some surprisingly low-scoring games, the Tigers unraveled in Game 7, as 3 errors contributed to an 11-0 thrashing highlighted by a 7-run Cardinals third inning and Dean tossing a 6-hit shutout. Auker, Bridges and Rowe were among the six Tiger pitchers that day, the first five of them horribly ineffective. The team basically reprised its dominance in 1935, with nearly everyone having another good year (Greenberg started pulling those doubles over the fence and wound up driving in 170 runs), and this time they finished off the Cubs in October.
The Tigers couldn't stay longer than that, though. Greenberg went down for the season after driving in 16 runs in 12 games. Cochrane was beaned in early 1936, nearly dying and effectively ending his playing and managing career while at the top of his game. Auker and Rowe had bad years, and the entire rest of the staff beyond them and Bridges went to pieces. Joe DiMaggio arrived in the Bronx, and the Yankees started a run of 409 wins in 4 seasons. In 1937, Goslin got old pretty much overnight and Rowe blew his arm out, although he would recover by 1940. Besides York, who made only a token appearance in 1934, the 1940 pennant winners featured only Greenberg, Gehringer, Bridges, Rowe, and outfielder Pete Fox from the 1934 team.
But for two years, this was one of the all-time great teams.
The 1940s: The 1948 Cleveland Indians
Few teams have been more storied, at the time, than the 1948 Indians, baseball's first integrated World Champions and the last Cleveland team to win it all, and their memory was bandied about again in 2001 when shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau, the man completely identified with this team, died at age 84. But Boudreau was only one part of a most memorable team, and if you don't hear about these guys as much anymore, you should.
The Indians won just 80 games in 1947, 17 behind the first place Yankees, with an apparently mediocre offense (actually, Cleveland Stadium in those days was a pretty severe pitchers' park) and only one pitcher (Bob Feller) winning more than 11 games or throwing more than 200 innings, and only second baseman Joe Gordon driving in or scoring more than 79 runs. Partly they were just unlucky, winning 8 fewer games than you would project (by Bill James' Pythagorean theory) for a team with their runs scored and allowed.
The Indians' great leap forward in 1948 was a combination of new arrivals and career years. The returning veterans first (and in 1948, the veterans were also Veterans, with the exception of Boudreau, who'd managed the Indians without interruption since he was 24 in 1942). The Indians, like the 1934 Tigers, had a great infield; some said the greatest ever, although Bill James, ranking the best infields with his Win Shares system, found the Indians' to be far off the pace of the best ever because Eddie Robinson was a weak link at first base. Boudreau had a career year at age 30, hitting .355; he drew 98 walks and struck out just 9 times all season and went 4-4 with a pair of home runs in the 1-game playoff that sent Cleveland to the World Series for the first time in 28 years. Third baseman Ken Keltner, 31, best known for two diving stops that ended Joe D's 1941 hitting streak, had a year even further out of line with his career, smacking 31 homers (compared to 11 in 1947) and driving in 119 runs. Second baseman Joe Gordon, had his best year since he stole Ted Williams' MVP award in 1942; Gordon hit 32 homers and drove in 124 runs. All three were fine defensive players as well. 26-year-old left fielder Dale Mitchell was Boudreau's equal in making contact (17 whiffs that season and a career high of 21 in 7 seasons as a regular, although he is most famous for striking out looking in his last major league at bat to end Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956); Mitchell hit .336. On the pitching side, Feller had his first real off-year -- just 28, he was never the same pitcher after 1948, having given nearly half his prime years to the war -- but Bob Lemon, age 27, entered the rotation full-time for the first time and responded with a 2.82 ERA and the first of seven 20-win seasons in 9 years on his way to Cooperstown. Veteran Steve Gromek also stepped forward to lead a deep bullpen.
Then there were the new arrivals. One of those signaled the new era: 24-year-old centerfielder and future Hall of Famer Larry Doby, who'd played briefly the previous year to become the American League's first black player. Doby was an instant star, hitting .301 with patience and line-drive power. One was a living reminder of the old era: Satchel Paige. Satchel Paige was, I have no doubt, one of the handful of the greatest pitchers ever; we'll never know, but he may have been the best. Paige may have been 41 or 43 in 1948, nobody seems to know for sure. He certainly had many miles on his legs and many innings on his arm, but Paige could still pitch; not only did he post a 2.48 ERA in 72.2 innings and throw two shutouts in 7 starts, but Paige even struck out 5.57 batters per 9 innings compared to a league average of 3.53. However old he was, in other words, Paige entered major league baseball as a power pitcher. (His strikeout rate would go even higher as he approached 50). The other sensational newcomer was the ERA champ (at 2.43), 27-year-old rookie knuckleballer Gene Bearden. Bearden finished 8th in the MVP voting, although behind teammates Boudreau (the MVP), Lemon and Gordon; he went 20-7, including a complete game victory over Denny Galehouse and the Red Sox in the decisive playoff game. Other acquisitions also contributed: left field was an effective platoon of Allie Clark and Thurman Tucker, newly arrived from the Yankees and White Sox, and relief ace Russ Christopher was picked up from the A's.
The pennant race that season was scalding; on August 1, the Indians, Red Sox (the 1946 pennant winners) and Hated Yankees were all tied. For second place. In first, a game ahead, was the surprising Philadelphia A's, skippered by 85-year-old Connie Mack. The Mackmen were 65-43 (.601) and tied for first place as late as August 11 before collapsing down the stretch. The Indians' pitching was the hottest when it counted, 44-20 after the first of August, allowing just 3.03 R/G in that stretch. They leaned even more heavily on their staff as they moved to the other side of Boston in October, as the team batted .199 against the "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" Braves and Feller got clocked in two starts. Bearden and Lemon came through in the clutch, though, 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA and a seventh game save (Bearden relieving Lemon) between them.
Bearden and Keltner never had another good year; Gordon and Boudreau were done after 1949 (Boudreau stepped down as manager after 1950), and Paige left town after that season as well, and the Indians wound up finishing second to the Yankees nearly every year for the next decade, with the exception of another magical year in 1954.
Glory, on a team level, is fleeting.