July 15, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Horton Hears an All-Star
Since All-Star Games are nearly always anti-climactic, one of the only real pleasures offered by the exhibition is combing through its past rosters. While the series of teams going back to 1933 has certainly been populated by legitimate stars and formative Hall of Famers, there have also been many attendees who made such a small impact on history that their inclusion induces head-scratching and trips to the Baseball Encyclopedia to satisfy one's curiosity. One can try to do this in a forward-looking way, trying to guess which players on this year's rosters will be inexplicable obscurities ten years from now-pitchers, being so variable, are always safe bets, but position players land their share of one-hit wonders too, making Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth fair game.
As both celebration of fleeting glory and as a cautionary note, here's my All-Star team of the Unknowns.:
C Don Leppert, 1963: This Washington Senators II part-time catcher was a 31-year-old journeyman having a decent first half, hitting .262/.326/.431. He hit .195 in the second half and was gone from the league at the end of the next season. He was the only Senator to make the team-the 106-loss unit didn't offer many choices beyond the sentimental inclusion of Minnie Minoso, who was more of a mini-Minoso at age 37, or the satirical inclusion of Don Zimmer. Starting pitcher Claude Osteen would go three times as a Dodger in later years.
1B Willie Montanez, 1977: Montanez was the sole All-Star rep for the 1977 Atlanta Braves; Jeff Burroughs, on his way to a 41-homer season, didn't make it. There are probably some reading this column who will argue that Montanez deserves more respect than most of the other players on this list, based on a 1,632-game career and his ability to hit for the occasional decent batting average. However, his value is better defined by the eight trades he was part of-he was always some team's desperation choice for first base, and as soon as they found something better, they moved him. Moreover, the teams that dealt him nearly always got the better of the teams picking him up, acquiring Garry Maddox or Darrell Evans or Gaylord Perry or Tony Phillips. As a hitter he had a 30-homer season as a rookie, but never came close to that kind of production again; as a fielder he was flashy without necessarily being good.
2B Emil Verban, 1947: Verban was actually a three-time All-Star, first making it as a Cardinal in the talent-starved season of 1945 (he was named but the game was not played due to travel restrictions). However, he returned in peacetime, twice making it as a Phillie after being traded for immortal backstop Clyde Kluttz in a three-way deal which also had Vince DiMaggio going from the Phillies to the Giants. With a .226 career EqA, Verban's offensive talents were solely contained in his glove. He did, however, go 7-for-17 (.412) in the winning effort in the 1944 World Series.
3B Lew Riggs, 1936: Riggs joined catcher Ernie Lombardi as the only members of the Reds to make the NL squad, coming from a Cincinnati team that fielded a slugging outfield of Kiki Cuyler, Ival Goodman, and Babe Herman, a unit that deserved elevation just for its complete refusal to countenance standard first names. Riggs was a solid fielder but was a terrible hitter. He batted .257/.314/.372 in 1936, numbers almost identical to his career line. He had only four seasons as a regular.
SS Frankie Zak, 1944: A list like this has to be home to at least one war-time ballplayer. Pirates rookie Zak, 22, didn't even make the team under his own power, coming on board as a replacement for the more justifiable All-Star Eddie Miller of the Reds. (Miller was ultimately a six-time All-Star, but hit only .209/.269/.289 in 1944, though he was generally better than that and had a terrific glove.) Zak received all of 16 at-bats from the Buccos that season; there were just 36 games and 48 at-bats remaining in his big-league career before it was back to Passaic, New Jersey to stay.
OF Myril Hoag, 1939: Hoag came up with the Yankees in 1931 but was never much more than a platoon player or one of Babe Ruth's caddies. Traded to the Browns after the 1938 season, he finally broke through to something like regular status, and hit .295/.329/.421-not enough to be a corner outfielder at that moment in time. Hoag was one of two Brownies selected that year, accompanying the much superior first baseman George McQuinn, another ex-Yankee who had spent a half-century in the minors waiting for Lou Gehrig to take a day off. Third baseman Harlond Clift and his 111 walks didn't get any respect; he'd had his turn to carry the tattered Browns banner in 1937.
OF Walt Moryn, 1958: Moryn turned pro in 1948, then got marooned in the Dodgers organization and didn't become a big-league regular until he was 30. He was a slow corner outfielder who could hit a few balls out at Wrigley Field-in '58 he hit .284/.362/.538 at home, .432/.338/.448 on the road. He joined Ernie Banks and another fluke All-Star, outfielder Lee Walls, on the roster.
OF Richie Scheinblum, 1972: Scheinblum was one of five Royals who made the team in 1972 (though two, Amos Otis and Freddie Patek, had to be replaced), so it's not like anyone was trying to make their quota when they put Richie on the squad. A pure singles hitter who never successfully stole a base in 462 major league games, Scheinblum was in his first and only season as a regular, having failed major league tests with the Indians and Nationals beginning in 1965. As a defender, he was restricted to right field, a real problem when your slugging percentage is .352. Apropos of nothing, Scheinblum was once traded for a guy named Thor. Maybe they put you on the All-Star team just for that.
RHP Ken Schrom, 1986: There is a long list of pitchers to choose from, but Schrom is a special case, as his selection added an extra bit of pointless drama to what was already shaping up to be one of the great seasons. The Indians, who had been in a slump for nearly 30 years, were actually a decent team in 1986, going 84-78. They had a number of good hitters, including Julio Franco, Brett Butler, and Joe Carter, who would finish ninth in the MVP voting after hitting .302/.335/.514 (one of the few seasons in that player's career when he was actually worth the hype). Even Mel Hall was having a great year, the fact that he was Mel Hall notwithstanding. Cleveland's problem that season was that it had a staff of fifth starters plus Tom Candiotti. For reasons that weren't any clearer at the time, it was decided that Schrom, a highly mediocre pitcher who had gone 14-23 over the previous two seasons, just had to be on the staff. It wasn't to satisfy the every-team-gets-one-rep rule, because another Indian, third baseman Brook Jacoby, was named as a reserve. Schrom was 10-2 at the time, but with uninspiring peripherals and a 4.17 ERA. His selection was very, very upsetting to Boston's Oil Can Boyd, who was 11-6 with a 3.71 ERA at the time. He felt disrespected, and he also had a contractual bonus coming and he really needed the money. The dis' led to a complete unraveling for Boyd, who wound up off the team, accused of drug use, and loitering at the Tom Yawkey Memorial Funny Farm. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyd was never the same, and all because someone thought that Ken Schrom just had to make an All-Star team.
Unlike most All-Star teams, if actually assembled, this one would go 70-92 in a good year. Still, they were All-Stars, the best in the game, and no one can ever take that away from them-because if baseball says so, it must be true.