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December 7, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

Under the Knife, circa 1948

by Jim Baker

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The Flatiron Building--one of the coolest structures yet conceived by man--is at 175 Fifth Avenue in New York City. At one time, it housed the offices of Baseball magazine within its triangular confines. Baseball was a monthly that had a 50-year run beginning in 1908. The miracle of this publication is that there are any left as historical documents. Never in my life have I seen anything published on more ephemeral ephemera. Take the paper on which your daily newspaper is printed and reduce the thickness by 75% and you'll have some idea as to how pulpy it was. Fortunately, with scanners, the contents of Baseball will live on long past the time the last issues have returned to dust.

Lately, I have been thinking about how hectic baseball offseasons are compared to what once was, when there was no free agency to worry about. I thought that looking at some wintertime issues of Baseball--my vast personal holdings include 11 copies of this publication dating from the late '40s--would confirm my suspicions that the game pretty much went into stasis in the cold months. Naturally, as soon as I cracked the first one, I got into reading and forgot about what I was looking for in the first place. Instead, I began focusing on an uncredited editorial in the January 1948 issue, the thesis of which was that returning players with injury questions would attract more attention in spring training than would new players.

The piece lists a number of players who had physical troubles in 1947 or immediately thereafter. This is interesting only as a moment in time--a crossroads for a group of players who were suspect physically at that point in time. You could draw up a similar list in any given offseason, really. Either in spite of or because of the eternal nature of this topic, I thought it would be interesting to see how well the men they mentioned got on with their careers from that point forward. Let's take them in the same order in which Baseball presents them:

  • "Charley (sic) Keller of the Yankees was out of action most of last year with a bad back. He was operated upon…nobody knows at this writing if his attempted comeback will be a success."

    Keller was 31 at the time and did not mount the comeback he had hoped for. He got into 83 games in '48 and drew his usual good number of walks. His power was going, though, and he never got more than 144 plate appearances again. Interestingly, his son was done in by a bad back as well. The junior Keller had some great success in the minors but never made it to the bigs.

  • "The progress of Spurgeon Chandler will also be followed closely by the Yankee scribes. Spud, 38 years old…had some bone chips removed from his hurting elbow. Will he come back?"

    In a word: "no." Chandler was done. He retired with the best winning percentage in modern baseball, a record he still holds and will continue to unless Pedro Martinez goes 18-2 in 2005. Also, Spud was 40 at the time the article was written, not 38 as Baseball reported. He didn't make the majors until he was 29, after a so-so minor-league career that saw him lose nearly as many games (41, versus 47 wins) as he did in the majors. After retiring, he was a Yankee scout, a manager in the Florida State League and then returned to scouting with the Kansas City Athletics.

  • "Down at Washington, the speedy George Case…was so discouraged over a bad back…that he announced his retirement last fall. But Case will try again this spring."

    This one didn't take, either. Case was a fairly decent player known almost entirely for his speed. In fact, as evidenced above, you probably couldn't write his name without preceding it with the word "speedy." In his nine full years in the majors he either came in first or second in stolen bases in eight of them. He stole at a good clip, too (76% for his career). In fact, Case was the one man keeping the stolen base flame alive between the retirements of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker and the breaking of the color barrier. Even now, Case is clinging to a tie for 100th on the all-time stolen-base leader board. He is the only man in the top 100 outside of Frankie Frisch (tied for 58th) who played between the two eras described above.

    Case was pretty much done by the age of 30. This was not a Hall of Fame career interrupted, but it's safe to assume he'd be about 50 places higher on the all-time stolen base chart had his back not quit on him.

  • "Chicago will be watching Taft Wright closely this spring. The slugging outfielder of the White Sox was the club's top thumper in 1947, with an average of .324. He went barnstorming after the season's close and fractured an arm in an exhibition game."

    My understanding of the old-timey word "thumper" is that it describes somebody who hit for power, not average. (One of Ted Williams' 36 nicknames was, in fact, "The Thumper.") Taffy Wright may have had the fourth-best batting average in the American League in '47, but it was not achieved by thumping the ball. His isolated power was a scant 63 points. (The closest the Sox had to a thumper that year was Rudy York.) Wright was an acceptable offensive force, though, with a career EqA of .287. Unlike the three players above, he did make it all the way back in 1948, although he did post the worst EqA of his career (.259). What Baseball failed to mention was that he was 36 at the time of the writing and did not stay in the bigs past 1949.

  • "Then there is Whitey Lockman, fleet, hard-hitting [Giants] outfielder, who broke a leg and twisted an ankle in an exhibition game against the Indians last spring. He was out of action for practically the entire year. How he shapes up this spring will be big news."

    Finally, a happy ending! Lockman was just 21 when the article was written and had just 150 big league plate appearances to that point. He recovered nicely, posting the best EqA of his career (.289) in 1948 and went on to play all or part of 13 more seasons.

  • "In 1946, pitchers Tex Hughson, Mickey Harris and Dave Ferriss won 62 games among them for the Boston Red Sox. In 1947, the trio bagged only 29 victories. Ailing flippers was given as the cause of their decline. Have they recovered their former form?"

    If just one of the three had returned to form, the case could be made the Red Sox would have won the pennant outright and not had to trifle with the Indians in the infamous tie-breaker loss. Then we would have had an all-Boston World Series and, given the Indians' success against the Braves, perhaps no accursed curse to talk about. Instead, all three posted ERAs over 5.00, with Hughson not even starting. He was confined to 15 games of short relief and only threw another 77 2/3 innings after 1948. Ferriss walked twice as many men as he struck out, yet managed to go 7-3 in spite of this and his high ERA. Those were his last big-league decisions. Harris saw the most action, providing the bulk of the decisions in the trio's combined 17-14 record. His career lasted the longest: he went 18-32 beyond 1948.

  • "At the St Louis Cardinals' training quarters, manager Eddie Dyer will carefully observe veterans George Munger, Howie Pollet and Stanley Musial, all of whom have been under surgery this past winter."

    "Stanley?" Lest we think being mentioned in this particular Baseball editorial was some sort of jinx, Musial, of course, recovered quite nicely. In fact, he had his best year ever in 1948 (.371 EqA) and went on to play another 15 years. Between World War II and the rise of offense in the 1990s, only three men managed to slug above .700 in a season and Musial's '48 was one of those instances. Mickey Mantle in 1956 was one and Ted Williams in '57 were the others. (Both Red Munger and Pollet were fairly well recovered but both had much better years in '49 than they did in '48.)

    It must be pointed out that Musial's maladies were nothing more serious than a troublesome appendix and tonsils. These are not the things of which wrecked baseball careers are made. A bad appendix can punch a hole in a season, though, especially back then when recovery time for an athlete might be more than a month. Appendectomies have come a long way since then, but, as we learned with Bernie Williams in 2004, it can still cause a player to miss a couple weeks. That's why I suggested at the time of Williams' procedure--and still maintain--that all professional athletes should have theirs removed as a precautionary measure so as not to sideline themselves in midseason with such a medical triviality.

If Baseball still roamed the earth and wrote the very same editorial today, which modern players would they be discussing? BP's injury go-to guy, Will Carroll, suggests the list would probably contain a still-fragile J.D. Drew, Andy Pettitte, Brad Penny, Kevin Brown, and, of course, Joe Mauer and Jason Giambi. We can only hope their fate is a healthier one than the ones experienced by most of the men in that article.

Related Content:  The Who,  Time,  Year Of The Injury

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