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April 12, 2004

You Could Look It Up

One False Move

by Steven Goldman

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This is the 12th installment of You Could Look It Up at baseballprospectus.com. YOU's ongoing mission is to take the Hubble telescope of the mind and aim it at the distant spark of fading thoughts, better to understand how the events of baseball present relate to the fads, fallacies, foibles and Frankie Frisches of the past.

Last week's rather long-form adventure in defense of critical thinking, peace, love, and Moneyball took us as far back into the past as two Thursdays ago. This week we cast a wider net over the deep and dark, starting with a catalogue of boo-boos and the unknowable ramifications of a castrated future.

1: IMPORTANT READING YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED

In DC Comics' All-Star Squadron Annual #3 (1984), set in 1942, writer Roy Thomas challenged his stable of golden-age heroes to defeat a villain named Ian Karkull, who had divined the names of the next nine presidents of the United States, all of whom were kicking around at that time, and intended to kill them all. The good guys had a great batting average, saving eight of nine. Who the lone fatality was, where he would have fit in amongst Ford, Carter, Reagan, et al was left open by Thomas. Whoever he was, he was dead, his future precluded, leaving behind only unexploded potential.

2: THE M & M BOYS - MANTLE AND MAUER

"He was the best one-legged player I ever saw play the game."
- Casey Stengel on Mickey Mantle.

Yankee Stadium, October 5, 1951, Game Two of the World Series between the Yankees and the Giants: Nineteen-year-old rookie Mickey Mantle was playing right field for the Yankees. Lightning fast, he should really have been in center field, but Joe DiMaggio, 36, the center fielder since 1936, was unwilling to accept that his legs were shot. Prior to the Series, manager Stengel took Mantle aside and told him to go for every ball hit more than a yard from DiMaggio.

Batting against Yankees southpaw Eddie Lopat in the fifth inning, Giants rookie Willie Mays sliced a fly ball to right-center. Mantle took off after the ball, remembering Stengel's orders. Somehow, impossibly, the gimpy Clipper was there. Mantle slammed on the brakes, catching his cleats in a sprinkler cover. That was all she wrote for his knee, and Mantle's health went downhill from there.

He still had a fantastic career--you can make an argument that Mantle was the most valuable player in the American League for at least 10 years (he was first or second in runs created/game in 1952-1958, 1960-1962, and 1964, while playing a key defensive position), but many, including Stengel, were left wondering what the boy with the power of Ruth and the speed of Cobb would have done had he been completely healthy for even one season. His 1957-1958 performance, 358/.487/.686 in a league that hit .266/.343./.404, seemed only to scratch the surface. No one will ever know if their expectations were too high. Once Mantle's knee was damaged the opportunity to find out vanished.

Earlier this week, 20-year-old Twins rookie catcher Joe Mauer tore medial meniscus cartilage in his left knee sliding after a foul ball on the hard Metrodome turf. It is said to be a minor injury, though it still required surgery to repair. The catcher will be back on the field in about a month, and there are not expected to be any lingering consequences to Mauer's assumedly glorious future. Yet, any sudden disruption of a young player's career can have unanticipated consequences.

3: INTRODUCING INJURY ANALOGUES TO DAVE DRAVECKY, KIRBY PUCKETT, AND OTHERS, NOT TO MENTION A LOOK BACK AT THE WAY THE TWINS TREAT PROSPECTS TODAY

The historical poster child for missed opportunity is a first baseman named Joe Hauser, whose brief moment in the sun came with the Philadelphia Athletics of 1922-1924. A left-handed hitter, Hauser was purchased by A's owner-manager Connie Mack for $25,000 and four players after hitting .316, 20 home runs, 93 walks as a 21-year-old member of the Milwaukee Brewers (American Association). In the seven years since Mack had broken up his three-time championship club of the teens, the A's had been anchored to the AL basement, losing 100 or more games five times. Hauser was part of the first wave of a revitalizing youth movement that helped the club back into the first division.

Not an automatic star, Hauser, who rapidly became known to German fans as "Unser Choe" (a few years earlier he would have been called "Joe Salisbury," "Liberty Joe," or drummed out of the majors) picked up steam as he went along, improving as the Athletics improved. In his first season he hit .323/.378/.481, a good season in a league which hit .285/.348/.398. The next season the Teutonic Titan (sorry, couldn't resist) improved his walk rate, leading to a .307/.398/.475 season which included double figures in doubles, triples, and home runs. Hauser was now the leading first baseman in a league which was missing the two dominant first sackers of the period; Lou Gehrig had yet to establish himself, and George Sisler, who had hit .420 in 1922, missed the entire season with a severe sinus infection that blurred his vision.

The league heated up to .290/.358/.397 in 1924, but the Hammering Hun, now 25, heated up as well. In 1924 he finished second in the American League in home runs, albeit by a wide distance; Babe Ruth licked him 46-27. At Cleveland on Aug. 2 of that year he poked three home runs and a double, setting a single-game record, since broken, of 14 total bases. He finished seventh in the MVP voting, the top first baseman mentioned. He was the only one of the league's eight regular first sackers to hit more than nine home runs. Heading into his peak years, the future seemed wide open.

On April 7, 1925, just one week prior to Opening Day, the A's and Phillies met in an exhibition contest. On the first play of the game a ball was tapped to short. "It was a routine play," Hauser told Tom Meany, "and I started to cover first, I suddenly found myself flat on the ground. My kneecap had broken." No one had touched him; the left knee had suffered a spontaneous lateral fracture. Translation: it had split down the middle. "You could lay a couple of fingers in the gap," Hauser told Eugene Murdock. Hospitalized for over a month, doctors drilled a hole in each section of the player's kneecap and bound them with gold wire. There was no question Hauser would miss the entire season, if not the rest of his career, and even his ability to walk normally was in doubt.

Connie Mack would later claim that the loss of Hauser cost him the pennant, and he may have been right. Hauser's replacements, minor league veterans Jim Poole and Red Holt, were not much better than replacement level; a healthy Hauser might have pushed the Athletics into the World Series. The A's held first place through mid-August with a terrific .654 winning percentage before collapsing down the stretch (16-26, including 12 straight losses from August 24 to September 7) and finishing 8.5 games behind the pennant-winning Washington Senators.

Hauser was thought to have been healed up in time to pinch-hit in the fall, but Connie Mack decided to keep him on the disabled list so as to ensure his readiness for 1925. Hauser returned on schedule. He still complained of pain in the knee, and there was great doubt that he would be able to field his position. In actuality, his glove was fine but his bat disappeared. Hauser struggled at the plate and was frequently benched for Poole, who still wasn't much better than free talent. In late April, The Sporting News reported that Hauser was making steady gains. "He seems to be getting better every day...his playing has been on a crescendo of improvement. He makes the stops and gets the throws he used to...As soon as Joe convinced himself that he could field as well as ever, he became so much encouraged that his batting improved." The report was premature; unable to flex his knee, Hauser hit .192 with eight home runs in 275 plate appearances. Once again, Hauser had helped to sink Philadelphia's pennant chances; the A's had a strong pitching staff headed by Lefty Grove but could not hope to hit with the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees and finished six games out.

The next spring, Mack farmed Hauser out to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. Mack didn't have a replacement first baseman ready right then; supersub Jimmy Dykes played the position for about half the schedule. Mack's ulterior motive was to eventually clear the way for Jimmie Foxx, 19. Foxx had had cups of coffee with the A's in 1925 and 1926, and Mack was now almost ready to give him a regular job. Putatively a catcher, Foxx was blocked off by Mickey Cochrane and Mack needed a place to put the hulking teenager.

Perhaps trying to prove that his legs were sound, Hauser went crazy on the basepaths in Kansas City. Not only did he bat .353, pop 20 home runs, and lead the league with 96 walks, but he also ran out 49 doubles, hit a league-leading 22 triples, and stole 25 bases. Mack did not call him at that point. Hauser finally did return to the A's in the spring of 1927; Mack once again had room for a first baseman because he decided that Foxx might have the makings of a third baseman. Mack rotated Foxx among his three positions and Hauser had to content himself with only part-time play and pinch-hitting appearances. Hauser went 0-for-7 pinch-hitting that year, but he was a good deal more successful when he got to start. Appearing in 95 games, he averaged just .260 in a league that hit .289, but slugged .517 against a league average of .410 and chipped in 52 walks. On a per-at bat basis, he was more productive than any first baseman in the league except Lou Gehrig. Still, the image that lingered was of a ballplayer in decline: Hauser's batting average was an indictment. Hauser blamed Ty Cobb, then finishing out his career with the A's, for his problems; the first baseman's batting average had been higher in the early going, before Cobb insisted that Hauser pull more pitches.

4: HAUSER IN EXILE, OR, JUSTIN MORNEAU'S GREATEST NIGHTMARE

Hauser failed to make the A's in 1929; Foxx was now entrenched at first base. Mack sent him back to the Brewers, then sold his contract to the Cleveland Indians for the waiver price. Cleveland's first baseman was Lew Fonseca, a mediocre player having the best year of his career. Driven out of Philadelphia by a future Hall of Famer, Hauser now had to contend with a journeyman on his way to the league batting title. No better at pinch-hitting than he had been the year before, Hauser was cut.

Cleveland marked the end of Hauser's time in the big leagues, but not his career as a baseball player. Moving to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in 1930, Hauser took that season's rabbit ball and turned it into hasenpfeffer. Switching to a lighter bat, Hauser launched 39 doubles, 11 triples, and 63 home runs. Among his gaudy statistics were 175 RBI and 173 runs scored. When Hauser tied Ruth's record 60 home runs on Sept. 7 it rated a front-page mention in The Sporting News, but none of the big league clubs asked the Orioles for his contract.

Hauser lost over half his home runs in 1931 but still led the International League with 31. Moving on to the friendly confines of the Minneapolis Millers' Nicollet Park (just 279 feet down the firth-field line and 328 to the right-center-field wall), Hauser rebounded to lead the American Association with 49 home runs, then climaxed his career in 1933 by hitting four home runs in April, 13 in May, 15 in June, 20, in July, 10 in August, and seven in September for a total of 69. Hauser's 69 stood as the professional record until Mark McGwire, 65 years later (in 1954, Joe Bauman hit 72 home runs for Roswell of the Longhorn League, but Roswell was about as far from the majors as Jersey City is from Betelgeuse; the American Association of 1933 was highly competitive, with a number of outstanding major league pitchers of both the former and future variety). Hauser's season was not solely attributable to his friendly environment; though the Association did hit .291, its power numbers were not equally lavish. The league as a whole hit just 716 home runs, meaning that Hauser himself was responsible for nearly 10% of its total output. "The distance in right field there was misleading as far as my home runs were concerned," Hauser said. "There was a 30-foot screen and most of my drives were well above the screen and onto the rooftops of houses across the street."

Hauser was now 34 years old. No one from the majors offered him a job, though more than half the big league clubs were so weak at first base that they would have been well-advised to take the gamble.

It initially appeared that Hauser might again exceed himself in 1934. He hit 21 home runs in his first 20 games and had his batting average up to .348. But on July 20, Hauser was given a stop sign while rounding third base on a single. He stopped short, then collapsed. His right knee had fractured just as the left had nearly 10 years earlier.

Hauser returned to play two more seasons with the Millers, and though his hitting was never quite the same, he still managed to put 57 balls in the seats over his next 846 at-bats. In 1937, Hauser signed with the Sheboygan club of the unaffiliated Wisconsin State League and became a player-manager. He was still playing about half the time when the league went on wartime hiatus in 1942. Hauser was back as Sheboygan manager when the league returned in 1946, but his playing career was over.

5: THE WRAP-UP, WITH NARRATOR ROD SERLING

In all, Hauser hit .284 with 79 home runs as a major leaguer, .299 with 399 home runs as a minor leaguer. It is clear that he was a very good player who lost his place in the majors due to the timing and severity of his initial knee injury--though we will never know for sure. Though the majors, and in particular the National League, were short of first basemen at the time of his minor league renaissance, fears about his mobility and post-injury showing kept the A's from offering him even an audition. The Twins of 2004 have Justin Morneau in the minor leagues and Jose Offerman as the everyday designated hitter. Henry Blanco hit two home runs on Saturday. You would think that a 32-year-old career .219 hitter couldn't Wally Pipp the consensus top prospect in the game, but the way the Twins have treated young players over the last few years, anything is possible. Get well soon, Joe Mauer. The restless shade of Joe Hauser is watching you.

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

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