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April 19, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Dead Player of the Day and Other Controversies #15

by Steven Goldman

DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY #15 (Taylor Douthit Edition)

In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find.

Taylor Douthit CF 1923-1933 (1901-1986)

He’s still a record-holder. There have been eight seasons in which an outfielder had 500 or more putouts in a season. Four of them were put in by Richie Ashburn, and Dom DiMaggio, Chet Lemon, and Dwayne Murphy had one each, but the granddaddy of them all was put in by Cardinals center fielder Taylor Douthit in 1928. Douthit caught 547 flies that year on the way to a St. Louis pennant.

The pitchers on the 1928 Cardinals were, by today’s standards, a pitch-to-contact group, striking out just 422 batters all season long, 2.7 per nine. Of course, K rates were far lower then; the Cards were third in the league in total strikeouts and strikeout rate (trailing the Dodgers, who had Dazzy Vance, and the Cubs, who had Pat Malone and Charlie Root). Still, it seems as if a good part of the plan for what was an excellent staff featuring Bill Sherdel, Pete Alexander, and Jesse Haines was to pitch up and let “Ball Hawk” Douthit run it down.

If only Douthit had been as good a hitter as he was a fielder. He hit over .300 three times, but this was the late ‘20s and early ‘30s and in a hitter’s park to boot, so the feat wasn’t all that impressive. In his big fielding year he hit .295/.384/.372, which, when park adjustments are added in, was just about even with the league-average player. His only really notable offensive season came in 1929, when he hit .336/.416/.471 with 42 doubles and scored 128 runs. Consider it a mark both of how unremarkable Douthit’s hitting was and how offensively fecund were the times that seven players crossed the plate more often than he did. In 1926, he did lead the league in sac bunts with 37. This is actually sort of strange in that Douthit was the leadoff hitter. The spots that batted in front of him was the eighth spot, primarily occupied by hitless shortstop Tommy Thevenow, and the ninth spot, which went to the pitchers. The former averaged .255/.291/.309, while the latter hit .210/.245/.271. Who the heck was Douthit pushing over with all those bunts?

The Cards signed Douthit out of the University of California in 1923; he had been recommended by one of his professors, a friend of Branch Rickey’s. He had studied agriculture with the intention, according to one source, of going into the canning business. He spent three years primarily in the minors, getting some big-league time in each season (hitting .267/.324/366 in 92 total games). He reached the top of the system in 1925, hitting (approximately) .372/.433/.572 in 92 games for the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association. That got him called up for good, and in 1926 he took over the middle pasture for a team hungry for a regular center fielder.

The Cards were very successful with Douthit, winning pennants in 1926, 1928, and 1930 (their first pennants of the 20th century) and beating the Yankees in the World Series in the first year. Douthit didn’t help them much in the postseason. After hitting .267 in 1926, he went just 3-for-38 in his two other World Series, though his fourth-inning solo home run off of the A’s Rube Walberg in Game 3 of the 1930 Series gave the Cardinals all the offense they needed in a 5-0 whitewashing pitched by Wild Bill Hallahan.

As the 1920s turned to the 30s, Rickey felt that Douthit was losing a step. He also had the speedy Pepper Martin ready to take over in center. Douthit later suffered from an arthritic hip, and it’s possible that this injury, which would be crippling for a speed player, was already playing a part in his decline at age 29. His career with the Cardinals came to a rather spectacular end. On June 13, 1931, Douthit started and went 2-for-4, making those last two hits in his final two trips to the plate. The next day, June 14, the day before the trading deadline, the Cardinals had a double-header with the Phillies. In Game 1, Douthit went 4-for-4 with three RBI. In Game 2, he  went 3-for-4 with another three RBI, making those three hits in his firs three at-bats. With nine consecutive hits, perhaps Rickey might hesitate to deal Douthit... But no, the deal had already been made, it just hadn't become official yet. Douthit was gone the next day, traded to the Reds for a mediocre former Cardinals farmhand, Wally Roettger.

The Cardinals went on to win the 1931 pennant and beat the A's in the World Series. Douthit's time with the Reds, and subsequently the Cubs, was brief and disappointing, Douthit hitting only .253/.327/.289 for Cincinnati. His major-league career was over at 32. He headed back to California. After retirement, Douthit went into the insurance business, his dreams of canning things unfulfilled.   

There's Always an Applicable Casey Quote

Re Alfonso Soriano (h/t Rob Neyer):

Cubs manager Lou Piniella heartily endorsed Alfonso Soriano's decision to scrap "the hop" while catching fly balls in left field.

[snip]


"...If you can keep stable and catch it conventionally, I think it will help him, I really do." Soriano vowed to make the change from his patented hop after committing his third error in 11 games on Saturday.

Rob wrote, "it's stuff like this that ages those poor managers prematurely (except Joe Torre...)." I was put in mind of this statement by Casey Stengel, which I included in Forging Genius:

“This is what drives managers nuts. As a manager, you work hard, analyze the game, study your players, learn the weakness of every team in the league, and think and sweat all day long. And once every four or five days you have to trust your job and reputation to a lunkhead like that.”

Don't Touch That Dial!

The world will note that your host (your ghost-host, he said, borrowing liberally from Disney World) now has a home page here at BP. All your Dead Player of the Day and other fat, bearded guy needs can now be appropriated at this one-stop shopping location. I thank you for your patronage. One exception: There's a new song today up at Casual Observer, which I hope you enjoy. Next week, our first baseball song of the season.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year

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