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:
Pee Wee Reese
Cal Ripken Jr.
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
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)
- George Wright
- Monty Ward
- Ed McKean
- Jack Rowe
- Pebbly Jack
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)
- Honus Wagner
- George Davis
- Bill Dahlen
- Bobby Wallace
- Dave Bancroft
- Freddy Parent
- Ray Chapman
- Kid Elberfeld
- Joe Tinker
- 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 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
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)
- Joe Cronin
- Joe Sewell
- Luke Appling
- Arky Vaughan
- Cecil Travis
- Travis Jackson
- Dick Bartell
- Glenn Wright
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):
- Ernie Banks
- Lou Boudreau
- Harvey Kuenn
- Johnny Pesky
- Vern Stephens
- Dick Groat
- Marty Marion
- 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
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
Rizutto, and Pee
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
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:
Kuenn 8 (5 at SS)
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)
1. Luis Aparicio
2. Maury Wills
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,
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)
- Cal Ripken
- Robin Yount
- Ozzie Smith
- Barry Larkin
- Alan Trammell
- Dave Concepcion
- Tony Fernandez
- Larry Bowa
- 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
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
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)
- Alex Rodriguez
- Nomar Garciaparra
- Derek Jeter
- Miguel Tejada
- Omar Vizquel
- Rich Aurilia
- 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 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.
Posted: August 07, 2002 at 05:00 AM | 6 comment(s)
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