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September 8, 2011

The Lineup Card

9 Forgotten Players from Defunct Franchises

by Baseball Prospectus

1) Harry Heitmann, Brooklyn Robins
Harry Heitmann is not as forgotten as he might have wished. For decades after his death, his career stat line was one of the worst in baseball history: one start, one batter retired, four runs allowed, and an ERA of 108.00. But baseball never forgets anybody, and a SABR researcher discovered in 2004 that Heitmann didn't actually get that one out. In fact, in his lone start for the Brooklyn Robins, he allowed a single, then a triple, then a single, then a triple to Rogers Hornsby, and was pulled. "The poor start made by Harry Heitman in the second game should be discounted and the 'Iron Man' of the International League given another big league trial," wrote the Brooklyn Eagle, blaming shoddy umpiring. But he went back to the Navy instead and never got another chance in an 11-year minor league career. He is one of 14 pitchers with an infinite ERA in the post-1903 Baseball-Reference era and the only pitcher who faced at least four batters and allowed every one of them to score. Does that make his the worst career in Major League history? It might. —Sam Miller
 

2) Mike Hegan, Seattle Pilots
Mike Hegan has a few claims to fame for someone who was primarily a first baseman yet managed to play 12 seasons in the major leagues despite hitting just 53 career home runs. He made his major-league debut with the Yankees on Sept. 13, 1964 and was pinch-hitting in the World Series less than a month later. He also won a World Series ring as a reserve on the 1972 Athletics. Furthermore, Hegan made a highly successful transition from player to broadcaster after his career ended in 1977 with the Brewers and is now a member of the Indians' radio team at age 69.

Hegan's greatest claim to fame, however, is that he was the greatest player in Seattle Pilots history. OK, the Pilots played only one season as an American League expansion team in 1969 before Bud Selig bought them out of bankruptcy court and relocated them to Milwaukee, where they became the Brewers. And Hegan played in just 86 games and had 334 plate appearances. Still, he led the Pilots in WARP (3.2), VORP (30.8), and True Average (.332) while hitting .292/.427/.461. And if advanced metrics aren't your thing, then consider that Hegan was one of two players to represent the Pilots at that year's All-Star Game at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington along with Don Mincher, who played first base in 1969 while Hegen played in the outfield. Yes, the 64-98 Pilots had two All-Stars! Hegan had 3.5 WARP for the Brewers in 1970 but then faded into the background as a bench player. He’ll always have 1969, though, and forever holds the title as the best Pilot there ever was. — John Perrotto
 

3) Francis Beltran, Montreal Expos
If it weren’t for the fact that Francis Beltran is the answer to a fairly obscure trivia question, his MLB career would likely not be remembered at all. In parts of three seasons with the Cubs, Expos, and Tigers, Beltran appeared in 67 games, pitching to a 5.67 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in just 74.1 career innings. On October 3, 2004, however, Beltran pitched the bottom of the 8th inning in an 8-1 Expos loss to the Mets, making him the final pitcher in the history of the Montreal Expos. By the time Beltran replaced Jon Rauch, the Expos were already facing a virtually insurmountable deficit. He entered with the Mets’ win expectancy at 100 percent and was actually able to retire Jose Reyes and David Wright while giving up hits to the immortal Daniel Garcia and Wilson Delgado in his only inning of work. Delgado’s RBI single pushed the Mets’ lead to 8-1, but after inducing a Craig Brazell ground out to second, Beltran jogged back to the dugout—the last time any pitcher would do so while wearing an Expos uniform. In the context of the game and the MLB season as a whole, Beltran’s inning meant very little as the Mets and Expos combined to finish 54 games out of first place in the NL East. Beltran would not appear in the majors again until 2008 and had short stints in the Giants and Astros organizations, released as recently as this June. Though his career never amounted to much, Beltran will always be part of bookending the history of the Expos due to one mop-up appearance. —Sam Tydings
 

4) Bobo Newsom, Washington Senators
Professional baseball is both a competition and an entertainment, and for a wide assortment of now-defunct second-division ballclubs in the thirties and forties, no one provided as much of both as pitcher Bobo Newsom. Pretty much everyone called Louis Norman Newsom “Bobo” because, well, he called pretty much everyone Bobo—perhaps because, during his much-travelled twenty-year career, he rarely stayed anywhere long enough to learn people’s names. Bobo was a very good pitcher and a legendary innings-eater, posting ERAs near or above league average in 14 of his 17 full seasons, placing in the top three in strikeouts nine times and garnering MVP votes in four separate seasons, earning more than token support for the Hall of Fame. He was a big man who often posted big numbers, but it was Bobo’s big yapper that made him truly memorable. Newsom was quirky, superstitious, talkative, and bombastic, ever-willing to crow about his talent and achievements. Nowadays, those traits might have made him a successful rapper, but in his more reticent era, they led to a long list of organizations that first cheered but then soured on his act, most of them perennial also-rans.

Less than a year after breaking in for good with the St. Louis Browns in 1934, he was purchased by the Senators, the first of Newsom’s five stints in Washington—more terms than FDR, as Bobo was fond of saying. He and Clark Griffith were the Burton and Taylor of their generation, as that first honeymoon was the only one that saw Newsom play a full season with the Senators while Bobo wore out his welcome often enough to play for multiple teams in eight different years, including two more stints with the Browns and time with the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Athletics. He also pitched for the Cubs, Red Sox, and Yankees, but his season in the sun was 1940 when he went 21-5 for the Tigers and overcame the death of his father to win two World Series games before going the distance but losing a memorable Game Seven. Tales of Bobo finishing games after fracturing his kneecap on a comebacker and his jaw on a throw from third base speak to his competitiveness, and his 211-219 career record illustrates both his own talent and that which his teammates often lacked. When your club was going nowhere, it was entertaining to have someone as quotable as Bobo Newsom around—at least for a while. —Ken Funck
 

5) Charlie Bennett, Detroit Wolverines
Before Ty Cobb… before Al Kaline… before Alan Trammell… “the corner” belonged to Charlie Bennett. The 19th century catcher was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers of his century—not just his decade, but his century. The acknowledgement of his prowess behind the plate would culiminate74 years after his death in 1927 with his inclusion at number 49 on Bill James’s list of all-time catchers—one of two 19th century players to make the Top 50. Bennett led the National League in fielding percentage seven times as a Wolverine (1881, 1883, 1886, and 1888-1891), won a World Series ring in 1887, and is widely credited with inventing the “chest protector.” This first chest protector was made by his wife and was worn underneath his uniform.

The casual fan will have no clue who this career .256 hitting catcher was, but the true Detroit Tigers fan will. They will know because the first field built at the iconic corner of Michigan and Trumbull was named Bennett Park in honor of the Wolverines catcher. The honors for Bennett would continue as he would throw out the first pitch on Opening Day for the Tigers for the first 26 years that the team played ball at “his park” until his death in 1927.                                                                             

Not every light-hitting catcher gets remembered, and even fewer get Ballparks named for them, but Charlie Bennett is the exception. He invented the chest protector, mastered the glove, and christened the historical baseball shrine that would become Tiger Stadium.—Adam W. Tower
 

6) Clyde Milan, Washington Senators
The modern day single-season stolen base record belongs to Rickey Henderson, who swiped 130 bags in 1982, breaking the record (118) previously established by Lou Brock in 1974. Brock, in turn, had bested Maury Wills's total of 104 in 1962. Wills broke Ty Cobb's old mark of 96 steals, established in 1915. The man whose record Cobb broke? That would be Clyde Milan (aka “Deerfoot”), who stole 88 bases for the Washington Senators in 1912.

Milan (pronounced “millin”) played from 1907 to 1922, spending his entire career with the Senators. He was overshadowed by the great Walter Johnson (whom Washington catcher/scout Cliff Blankenship “discovered” during a trip to watch Milan) and played for some terrible teams, including the 1909 squad that went 42-110. If Milan was overshadowed, though, he didn't seem to mind; he and Johnson spent 14 years as roommates in the big leagues.

A younger brother, Horace, briefly played alongside Clyde in 1915 and 1917. Another brother, Frank, was a stage actor who appeared in the The Petrified Forest with Humphrey Bogart in Bogart's final Broadway role.

Milan served as player-manager in 1922, leading his team to a 69-85 record. He then managed in the minors for a few years before returning to Washington in 1928 as a coach. After a subsequent eight-year run managing in the Southern League, Milan again returned to Washington as a coach in 1938, where he remained until he died of a heart attack in March 1953 after hitting fungoes to infielders during spring training.

In nearly 2,000 games, Milan batted .285/.353/.353 and collected exactly 2,100 hits. He led the American League in stolen bases in 1912 and 1913, breaking the 40-steal mark in five different seasons. Milan's career total (495) places him 38th all time (tied with Willie Keeler), behind Paul Molitor and ahead of Omar Moreno.

Among current players, Milan's closest comp is Juan Pierre, but accounting for context, Milan was much better. Going back a little further, Willie Wilson isn't a terrible analog, although Wilson lacked Milan's on-base skills. Poor-man's Brett Butler? That isn't quite right either. However you choose to view him, Milan was a fine ballplayer (ranked 35th in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract among center fielders) that often gets overlooked due to his terrible teams and more famous teammates (Johnson, Sam Rice). —Geoff Young
 

7) Carl Furillo, Brooklyn Dodgers
No defunct franchise has been eulogized quite like the Brooklyn Dodgers, so calling Furillo forgotten might be overstating the case. Still, it’s easy to wonder whether he might have been better-remembered had he played for a less-lionized team, since his efforts were so often overshadowed by those of his immortal teammates. Furillo topped 4.5 WARP in four different seasons during the late ’40s and early ’50s, but he couldn’t climb above third on the Dodgers’ WARP leaderboard in any one of them. No matter how high the right fielder’s average ascended—it rose all the way to .344 in 1953, tops in the Senior Circuit—his overall contributions in those campaigns lagged behind the likes of Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese, as well as borderline candidate Gil Hodges.

As a teammate, a talent evaluator, and a thinker, Furillo might have slipped even further down the list. Despite some attempts at image rehabilitation, the Pennsylvanian is remembered for having initially opposed Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the majors. He described a young Sandy Koufax as “some Jew kid who’ll never learn to pitch as long as he has a hole in his ass,” suggesting either that he wasn’t much of a scout or that Koufax underwent a radical anatomical realignment after 1960. He also inspired manager Charlie Dressen to intone, “All ballplayers is dumb, but outfielders is the dumbest” after striking out three consecutive times on the same pitch. Still, when he wasn’t sidelined by injury, Furillo numbered among the best of the “Boys of Summer” by virtue of a fearsome bat with little platoon split to speak of (despite the belief of his first manager, Leo Durocher—who later broke Furillo’s finger in a brawl—that he couldn’t hit righties) and an arm that earned him both the nickname “The Reading Rifle” and a favorable comparison to Clemente’s from Vin Scully. —Ben Lindbergh
 

8) Bob Cerv, Kansas City Athletics
Between their five World Series titles in Philadelphia and their four titles in Oakland, the Athletics spent 13 forgettable years in Kansas City, finishing last or next-to-last 10 times. To the extent the stretch is remembered at all, it’s notable for the regrettable stewardship of owners Arnold Johnson and Charlie Finley. Among the players who paraded through Kansas City was Bob Cerv, a slow-footed 30-something left fielder from the Yankees—one of several players who shuttled between KC and New York as the A’s served as a glorified pipeline for the Bronx Bombers under Johnson.

In three-plus seasons with the A’s, Cerv found regular playing time, hitting 75 home runs. And in an era when a one-time “career year” did not raise questions about performance-enhancing drugs, Cerv put together a memorable 1958 season. In 141 games, he crushed 38 home runs and produced a slash-line of .305/.371/.592—good enough for a place on the American League All-Star team, fourth place in the AL MVP vote, and an impressive WARP of 7.3. Within two years, the A’s had shipped him back to New York, where he returned to a reserve role and helped the Yankees make back-to-back World Series appearances. Cerv closed out his 12-year career with the Houston Colt 45s, but his 38 home runs in 1958 remain a record for a Major League player in Kansas City. —Jeff Euston

9) George J. Burns, New York Giants
Outfielder George J. Burns was doomed to be hard to remember because there was another George Burns, George H, who played at the same time he did and won an MVP award for the Indians in 1926, the year after his namesake left the big leagues. Then, just a few years after both Burns had left the scene, the comedian George Burns (nee Nathan Birnbaum) proceeded to appear in popular movies, radio, and television shows and went on almost forever, working almost until his death at 100.

His career straddling a changing game, George J. was the cleanup hitter for the pennant-winning 1913 Giants and the leadoff man for the champion 1921 club. He was the same player in 1921 that he had been in 1913, but in the interim the lively ball had come in and Burns’ skill set, which focused on talking walks and stealing bases, suddenly looked more like it belonged at the top of the order. For a player who has been mostly forgotten, Burns (career .287/.366/.384) had a ton of black ink: he led the National League in runs scored five times, walks five times, and stolen bases twice. In the ’21 World Series, the last of Burns’ three, he hit .333/.389/.515 in eight games. Burns died in 1966, George H. in 1978, leaving Nathan Birnbaum with a monopoly until his passing in 1996.—Steven Goldman

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