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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, August 07, 2002
The Greatest Shortstops: A Historical Perspective
Where do the Big Three fit in?
An Internet Provider recently published a poll to go along with the induction of Ozzie Smith into the Hall-of-Fame. The ballot asked the question, Who was the greatest Shortstop of All-Time? It gave the following choices:
Naturally, the most recent guys won, but the question was intriguing, as were the list of choices.
The question is not an easy one to answer. Ozzie won the poll, of course, but only because he was one of two players that most respondants had ever seen play. He was a true wonder to behold, but the wizardry we saw was very much a result of changes to the game that came about during the 1970s. Could the Wiz have performed those same feats on uneven pebblyinfields with 1920s gloves?
There is, of course, no real answer to that question, which is most of the fun of trying. It’s impossible to compare players between different eras with any degree of certainty.
19th Century (1800s)
Of this group, Wright was one of the greatest players ever. Ward played many positions, including pitcher. The rest were the best of the era, but except for Wright, shortstops in this era were primarily good fielders.
Dead-Ball Era (1901-1919)
During this era, only Wagner and Davis were big hitters. The rest made their reputations on good fielding, decent hitting, and baserunning. Six of the 10 listed are in the HOF. It is difficult to compare hitters from this era with others because there were no power numbers of any consequence. Of note, Dahlen, Chapman, Parent and Elberfield were probably considered better than some of the HOF selectees from this era during the particular time that they were playing, but did not establish career numbers worthy of the Hall.
Wagner was the dominant player of the first decade of the 20th Century. Had there been an MVP award then, He would surely have won it in the NL for nine straight years, 1901-1909, and perhaps a few more times in the early 1910s. No player, let alone a SS, ever dominated the game like that.
The low ranking of players like Bancroft and Maranville here is certainly controversial. Unlike the others on this list, their careers were more/less evenly split between the dead ball era and the new live-ball era. As deadball hitters, neither stood out from a group of good late 1910s shortstops that included guys like Roger Peckinpaugh, Art Fletcher, Donie Bush, Wally Gerber, Buck Weaver, and Swede Risberg. Indeed, the two best Shortstops in baseball during the period 1915 to 1919 were Chapman and a young gun by the name of Rogers Hornsby, who came up as a SS with the Cards.
Bancroft had his best years from 1920 to 1925, during which time he rivaled young players such as Joe Sewell, Glenn Wright and Travis Jackson who are discussed in a later era. So although he played more games in the deadball era, his career numbers cannot be compared with other deadball hitters equitably, since his success did not come until the advent of the lively ball. In many ways, Bancroft was trapped in the wrong era.
The reputation of Maranville is puzzling to me. He was always a fan favorite, photogenic and clowning. He was a showman, not unlike Ozzie Smith in some ways, and he fielded his position with great flair. Im not sure that his reputation was as accepted among fellow players as by the press and fans. He was a flake and a drunk and frequently traded (he eventually played for 6 of the 8 NL teams over his career). He was flashy and fast, but I cannot include him among the top shortstops of either the deadball or lively ball eras.
Joe Tinker too, made it to the Hall largely for reasons beyond his merit as a player. He was, of course, inducted as part of the great Cubs double play combination, but whereas both Frank Chance and Johnny Evers were also meritable hitters at their positions, Tinker was not.
Many claim that Ray Chapman was heading toward a HOF career had he not been killed at the plate in 1920. If you project his career like Bancrofts then I suspect this presumption is true. He did hit over .300 twice during the deadball era (1917 and 1919), but his batting success was based more on speed than hitting. Based on this, I dont think that his hitting numbers would have increased to the level of Bancrofts with the lively ball.
Wallace was one of those guys whose numbers at the end of his career seemed to add up to more than the sum of his seasons. He was very steady in all respects, but if you look at the era, guys like Dahlen, Davis, Elberfield and Terry Turner were always having better seasons than him.
Inter-War Era (1919-1941)
During the 1920s, the top Shortstops were Sewell, Dave Bancroft (see deadball era), Jackson and Wright. Sewell was the most consistent of the bunch. Wright was the better fielder, nicknamed Buckshot because of his arm. His career was cut short due to a hand injury in 1929. Jackson too had his career shortened by chronic knee injuries, and was on the downward slide of his career by the age of 27.
Cronin, Bartell, Appling and Vaughan came on the scene at roughly the same time around 1930. The 1930s were a very hitter-friendly era, and there were many other Shortstops who hit .300 for a year or two over this time frame, but none so consistently as these four. Bartell was a notch below the others, hitting slightly above .300 six times, but never having the peaks that the others did. Its really impossible to choose one or the other as being better than any other. Vaughans career was shorter than Cronins or Applings, but hit for higher lifetime average. Cronin had slightly more power.
Of interest, Cecil Travis inherited the SS job for the Senators when Joe Cronin was sold to the Red Sox in 1935. He was certainly a peer of this group during the last half of the 1930s. Here are his numbers up to WWII:
Year Avg HR RBI 1935 .318 0 61 1936 .317 2 92 1937 .344 3 68 1938 .335 5 67 1939 .292 5 62 1940 .322 2 76 1941 .359 7 101
At age 27, in his prime, he went off to war, and was never the same when he returned. He played two seasons after the war, then retired at the age of 32.
Of note, two names that will come to mind as SS’s in this era, Frank Crosetti and Leo Durocher, played in New York. They were really mediocre at best, but their names are as familiar as Cronin or Vaughan simply because of the Gothamcentricity.
Post-War Era (1946-1960):
This was clearly a very weak era overall for shortstops. After the war, Boudreau, Pesky and Stephens picked up where they had left off. Boudreau and Pesky were both primarily singles hitters. Stephens had more power. None were better-than average fielders.
Marion missed the war altogether. He was considered the greatest defensive shortstop of his era, but his offensive numbers werent great. He was a bottom of the order hitter.
By 1950, however, shortstops did well to hit .250. The prototype shortstop during this era was a little, scrappy guy who made things happen on the field. Included in this group were guys like Marion, Dark, Johnny Logan, Phil Rizutto, and Pee Wee Reese.
Its difficult to choose between these guys, because of all the media hype during this era. Marion, Rizutto, Dark and Reese were famous for being the SS of record on some very good teams, but in general, they were no better than the likes of Logan, Solly Hemus, or Chico Carrasquel. Dark was clearly the best hitter among this bunch, and no slouch defensively either.
The 1950’s were very much a New York centric era of baseball. It was all Yankees, Giants and Dodgers for the most part. MVP and all-star selections were biased by this, as was most of the baseball literature. Why Reese and Rizutto got into the hall instead of Alvin Dark is a complete mystery to me. Here are the career numbers for the mid 1950s shortstops:
Name G BA HR RBI Dark 1828 .289 126 757 Rizzuto 1661 .273 38 562 Reese 2166 .269 126 885 Logan 1503 .268 93 597 Groat 1929 .286 39 707 Carrasqual 1325 .258 55 474 Kuenn 1833 .303 87 671 Marion 1572 .263 36 624
All Star Appearances:
World Series Appearances:
To me, the only intangibles were the fact that Rizzuto and Reese played for the Yankees and Dodgers, who dominated the decade.
Kuenn, Groat and Banks came along in the early 1950s. Groat was a singles
hitter. Kuenn was a very successful line-drive hitter. Banks was an abherration.
He was not only the first black shortstop of consequence, but also the first
true power-hitting shortstop. Neither Kuenn nor Banks is given a lot of credit
for defense, but this is probably retro-analysis. Banks made a lot of errors
as a rookie, but improved steadily over the years and won a gold-glove eventually.
He was moved to First Base in 1962, mainly because of his knees. Kuenn was a
smooth fielder in the Ripken mode. He was moved to CF in 1958 to accommodate
the acquisition of Billy
Martin and to cover a glaring offensive hole in the outfield.
Pre-Modern Era (1961-1972)
The idea we have of slick-fielding, non-hitting Shortstops really had its roots from about 1950 onward. During that time, Hitters like Banks and Kuenn were moved to other positions, and we were left with the likes of Aparicio, Mark Belanger, Zoilo Versalles and Campy Campaneris as prototype shortstops. Teams were happy with this. Of this group, only Groat ever hit .300 with any consistency, and only Petrocelli hit with consistent power.
Wills, Aparicio and later Campenaris revolutionized the position by adding a degree of speed to the game not seen since the deadball era. In many ways, this was a reflection of two aspects: the free inclusion of players of color into the game, and the return of pitching dominance. Speed becomes an asset in baseball only during eras of pitching dominance.
Fregosi and McAuliffe were similar players. They were probably the best all-around shortstops of the era, although that translates into average power, average hitting, and average defense in comparison with other eras.
Modern Era (1973-1996)
With the mound re-claimed from the pitchers, hitting began to surpass speed and defense as desired traits again. By 1980, shortstops again began to become hitters as well as fielders and fielding became spectacular.
Yount, and later Ripken became the first true power-hitting Shortstops since Banks had been moved to 1B. They proved that big, strong players could again be trusted to play the position, and both fielded the position very well, if unspectacularly.
Ozzie took fielding to a new level, replacing the term slick fielding with the superlative spectacular. In many ways, this was aided by the advent of Astroturf infields, and the general advances in grooming of infields on grass fields. At any rate, he was a true joy to watch, and impacted the game in a very positive way. Like Maranville and Marion before him, he was an attraction based mainly on his glove work alone.
Barry Larkin may very well have been the best all-around shortstop of this era, or at least the most talented of the bunch, but history will record that injuries truncated what could well have been (and may still be) a Hall-of-Fame career.
Trammel, Concepcion, Bowa and Weiss were also very good all-around shortstops from this era. None probably have Hall numbers, but those of us who watched them play certainly enjoyed their games.
Future Era (1997-Present)
Certainly, the first three will, barring catastrophe, head onto HOF careers. This is clearly an era of athletic shortstops who combine both awesome power and slick fielding into a total package which sets them apart from everyone.
Are they better than Wagner, Cronin, Vaughan, Wright, or Banks? Its impossible to say. To understand the game, one must always look in the context of the respective player’s eras. Its always fun to debate, though.
Shortstops are funny birds. Along with catchers, their contribution to the game has always been full of intangibles. Fielding is very hard to categorize. There have been some very spectacular fielders who stand out, such as Maranville, Marion, Roy McMillan and Ozzie. Shortstops are often on-field leaders. This was certainly true of Wagner, Tinker, Cronin, Boudreau and Reese. There is simply no way of including that in an article such as this.
Another exclusion is, of course, the Negro Leaguers. There are two Shortstops from the Negro Leagues in the Hall-of-Fame: Pop Lloyd and Willie Wells. Lloyd was considered to be the the top SS in the 1910s and 20s, and Wells the top one during the 1930s and 40s. Still there were countless other good ones, toiling away in anonymity who could rightly have made this list.
Who was the best of all time? There were, in the history of baseball, only four
shortstops who could be considered to be the best player of their era:
Its hard to say much about Wright. He only played in 262 games in the N.L., his career having been prior to the formation of the N.L. After that, he was devoted mainly to management. Reputation aside, it is difficult to say how long he was on top of his game.
Not many know this, but Ernie Banks hit more homers between 1955 and 1960 than anyone in baseball, including Mantle, Mays and Aaron. He was voted MVP in 1958 and 1959 while playing for dismal Cubs teams. He was very probably the best player in all of baseball for about 5 years.
A-Rod is as close to being the top player in the game right now as any SS since Banks. It’s too early to tell how history will treat him, but its fair to say that he may soon have claim to being one of the best SSs who ever played.
The only choice, over time, however, has to be Wagner. Stories of his fielding and hitting prowess are truly amazing. The telling fact, however, is that he was certainly the best player in all of baseball for at least 10 years.
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