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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:

Luis Aparicio
  Ernie Banks
  Pee Wee Reese
  Cal Ripken Jr.
  Phil Rizzuto
  Ozzie Smith
  Honus Wagner

  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 1970’s. Could   the Wiz have performed those same feats on uneven pebblyinfields with 1920’s   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)

     
  1. George Wright
  2.  
  3. Monty Ward
  4.  
  5. Ed McKean
  6.  
  7. Jack Rowe
  8.  
  9. Pebbly Jack   Glasscock

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)

     
  1. Honus Wagner
  2.  
  3. George Davis
  4.  
  5. Bill Dahlen
  6.  
  7. Bobby Wallace
  8.  
  9. Dave Bancroft
  10.  
  11. Freddy Parent
  12.  
  13. Ray Chapman
  14.  
  15. Kid Elberfeld
  16.  
  17. Joe Tinker
  18.  
  19. Rabbit Maranville

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 1910’s.   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 1910’s 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. I’m 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 Bancroft’s   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 don’t think that his hitting numbers would   have increased to the level of Bancroft’s 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)

     
  1. Joe Cronin
  2.  
  3. Joe Sewell
  4.  
  5. Luke Appling
  6.  
  7. Arky Vaughan
  8.  
  9. Cecil Travis
  10.  
  11. Travis Jackson
  12.  
  13. Dick Bartell
  14.  
  15. Glenn Wright

During the 1920’s, 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 1930’s 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.   Vaughan’s career was shorter than Cronin’s 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):

     
  1. Ernie Banks
  2.  
  3. Lou Boudreau
  4.  
  5. Harvey Kuenn
  6.  
  7. Johnny Pesky
  8.  
  9. Vern Stephens
  10.  
  11. Dick Groat
  12.  
  13. Marty Marion
  14.  
  15. Alvin Dark

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 weren’t 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:
  Reese 9
  Kuenn 8 (5 at SS)
  Marion 7
  Groat 5
  Rizzuto 5
  Carrasqual 4
  Logan 3
  Dark 3

  World Series Appearances:
  Rizzuto 9
  Reese 7
  Marion 4
  Dark 3
  Groat 2
  Kuenn 1

  MVP Awards:
  Marion 1
  Rizzuto 1
  Groat 1

  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 1950’s. 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)

1. Luis Aparicio
  2. Maury Wills
  3. Jim   Fregosi
  4. Bert Campaneris
  5. Rico Petrocelli
  6. Dick McAuliffe

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)

     
  1. Cal Ripken
  2.  
  3. Robin Yount
  4.  
  5. Ozzie Smith
  6.  
  7. Barry Larkin
  8.  
  9. Alan Trammell
  10.  
  11. Dave Concepcion
  12.  
  13. Tony Fernandez
  14.  
  15. Larry Bowa
  16.  
  17. Walt Weiss

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)

     
  1. Alex Rodriguez
  2.  
  3. Nomar Garciaparra
  4.  
  5. Derek Jeter
  6.  
  7. Miguel Tejada
  8.  
  9. Omar Vizquel
  10.  
  11. Rich Aurilia
  12.  
  13. Jimmy Rollins

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 1910’s and   20’s, and Wells the top one during the 1930’s and 40’s. 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:
  George Wright
  Honus Wagner
  Ernie Banks
  Alex Rodriguez.

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 SS’s 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.

 

Jim Bennett Posted: August 07, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Reader Comments and Retorts

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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Rob Wood Posted: August 07, 2002 at 12:39 AM (#605772)
What do you see in Walt Weiss that most do not see? When you commented about HOF chances, you didn't really mean to put Weiss in a group with Alan Trammell, did you? Trammell deserves serious HOF consideration whereas Weiss deserves none. Anyway, I enjoyed the journey through the shortstop position even if I disagree with many of your rankings.
   2. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: August 08, 2002 at 12:39 AM (#605775)
He would surely have won it in the NL for nine straight years, 1901-1909, and perhaps a few more times in the early 1910?s.

I doubt it. There would have been times that some lesser being would have won it, just as during Cobb's, Mantle's and Bond's eras. I would be shocked if he won it five times.
   3. Repoz Posted: August 09, 2002 at 12:39 AM (#605782)
In your Pre-Modern Era listing,how can Dick McAuliffe (one of my favorite players)even make the list when he only played 666 (there's that darn Truby influence again)or 4 years at SS when Leo/Chico Cardenas spent 11.5 years (1,843 G's) at short with surprising power numbers(118 career HR's)when considering the era.
   4. Jim Bennett Posted: August 12, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605813)
It ain't me, babe-

with all due respect to this author, I think some of the respondents (like Joel Wertheimer and Mark Armour) are getting him confused with me- the "other" John Bennett. I'm the other John Bennett, the one is a SABR member in Vermont and a contributor to the 2000 and 2001 Big Bad Baseball Annuals. Since this article was posted, I've been barraged with emails about it- and it is not my work.

I applaud this other John Bennett's efforts and wish him further and future success.

"I'm out Jerry- and I wasn't even in".
   5. Eric Posted: August 15, 2002 at 12:40 AM (#605853)
"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 1910?s. No player, let alone a SS, ever dominated the game like that."

Only 2 players that I can think of - TY COBB, AND BABE RUTH.
Cobb would have won at least 3 MVP's during the 1907-1912 seasons.

Also, I have a problem with the Alan Trammell snub. He does deserve serious HOF consideration. His stats compare favorably with Younts. And please don't put Larkin in the same boat, he is playing in a totally different era, a juiced era. Injury considerations should not be taken. A HOFer is an All-Star over a considerable period of time, not just 6-8 years.

   6. Marc Posted: August 15, 2002 at 12:41 AM (#605863)
Your 1946-60 rankings are certainly eccentric. Groat and Kuenn ahead of Rizutto and Reese? Your appeal seems to some degree to be to All-Star Game selections--this is a weak basis for ranking. All-Star selections are too much based on the competition--there have at times been many good shortstops but rarely five on a team like this year, and at other times the competition is weak as you yourself say about the 1950s. That's why Kuenn was selected five times at SS. Weak competition.

One other quibble--Boudreau was essentially a singles hitter? He didn't hit a lot of HR it's true, but he led the league in doubles what, three times? He was also a very sure fielder though not of great range.

Someone wrote in about Junior Stephens. I don't know how high he should rank or if he's a HOFer, but he is surely one of the most underrated SSs of them all. Not just a good power hitter (I said "good" not great, I know he benefitted tremendously from Fenway but his numbers with the Brownies were pretty good too) but good enough in the field to move Pesky to 3B. Look at his record year-by-year with Boudreau's and the difference is nothing like you'd imagine based on Lou being in the HOF and Stephens never getting any consideration at all.

Also, thanks for remembering George Wright, whom many don't consider simply because he peaked prior to 1876.

Bill James wrote once that after Wagner rating the shortstops is "desperate work." That's what makes it so much fun.

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