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January 8, 2010

You Could Look It Up

First-Base Horrors

by Steven Goldman

I had a brief moment of confusion when the Braves said they'd be signing Eric Hinske earlier this week. "Is he going to be the regular first baseman? Man, they've really gone cheap," I thought, having momentarily forgotten the existence of Troy Glaus after his finally signing earlier this week. I don't feel embarrassed about this at all, because it's easy to forget Glaus, given that he played only 14 games last year. With Glaus' health history-he also spent extensive time on the shelf in 2003, 2004, and 2007-and Chipper Jones' reliable fragility, it is not at all unreasonable to ask how often Hinske might play, and if a team that intends to compete for a division title can live with having him as a regular bat.

If your brain works like mine (and if so, let me just say that I'm sorry), this line of thinking leads directly to questions like, "What's the worst production a pennant winner ever got from its first baseman?" From there, it's a short, ineluctable journey to Johnny Sturm, first baseman and leadoff man for the 1941 Yankees. The basic, almost uninteresting part of the Sturm story is that the 25-year-old rookie hit .239/.293/.300 (or a .210 EqA) in 124 games for the Bombers team that, galvanized by Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak, went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. That's not such a big deal; there are many rookies who don't make it, plus there were some extenuating circumstances in Sturm's case. He might have been hampered by an injury; in a 1980s interview with Jack Etkin, Sturm claimed he hurt his back about halfway through the season, but kept playing. World War II then came along to deprive him of another chance. Not only did he get hurt in the service, but he was in for the full duration of hostilities, which meant he had to try to make the majors in 1946 as a 30-year-old sophomore. No, the interesting thing about Sturm's career is how he illustrates how even a team run by intelligent baseball men, in this case Hall of Famers Ed Barrow and Joe McCarthy, can make mistakes by failing to think laterally.

The Yankees entered 1941 having failed to win a pennant for the first time since 1935. The 1940 team had not been especially potent (.271 EqA) due to injuries and sub-par years from several regulars, but especially because of the failure of first baseman Babe Dahlgren to supply much production at first base, but also because of the expiration of Frank Crosetti's bat, a condition that ended Cro's career as a regular at 29. For 1941, the team planned to completely reconfigure its infield, leaving only third baseman Red Rolfe in place. This turned out to be a mistake, as Rolfe was done, too, but the Yankees couldn't have been sure of that-even though he had hit only .250/.311/.366 in '40, he was only 32 and had been a career .305/.379/.433 hitter through 1939. However, they were sure about Dahlgren, who McCarthy personally disliked (saying his arms were too short to play first base and spreading rumors that he was a secret pot smoker, and about Crosetti, who was well liked but had never been much of a hitter. Crosetti's .194/.299/.273 season from the leadoff spot that year transcended personal feelings in any case.

The Yankees had a farm-based plan to reinvigorate the infield. Since 1938, they had been grooming a new double-play combination in the minors, putting the 20-year-old shortstop Phil Rizzuto and the 18-year-old second baseman Gerry Priddy together at Norfolk of the Piedmont League, and keeping them paired for an additional two years of apprenticeship with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association in 1939 and 1940. In the former season, Priddy batted .333/.381/.584 with 24 home runs, while Rizzuto hit .316/.362/.412. In the latter, Priddy and Rizzuto hit .306/.382/.493 and .347/.397/.482 respectively, with Rizzuto also leading the league with 35 stolen bases (OBP rates are approximate). As Bill James wrote in his chapter on Priddy in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, Priddy turned 140 double plays, 40 more than any second baseman in the league, and Rizzuto turned 130, leading the league by 46. The Scooter, as Rizzuto was becoming known thanks to teammate Billy Hitchcock (he came up with the name), was voted the American Association MVP.

The Yankees wanted to bring the Priddy/Rizzuto combo to the big leagues as a pair, but they didn't have two openings. You can't call second baseman Joe Gordon the best player on the team, as the Yankees had Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, and Tommy Henrich. However, the future Hall of Famer would have been the best player on many teams, a Ryne Sandberg-type second baseman with power, speed, and flashy defense. "Gordon is the greatest second baseman we have seen in the last ten years," A's manager Connie Mack told Dan Daniel of The Sporting News in 1941. "I wish we had him… He is in a class by himself, a whole club in himself, a marvelous play-maker, a driver in the clutch, a marvelous individual, and a wonderful team player." Only 25 and coming off of a .281/.340/.511 season as a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, it seemed like Gordon would be keeping Priddy in the minors indefinitely. However, McCarthy had another problem, and moving Gordon seemed like a promising way of solving it.

Two years after Lou Gehrig had been forced out of the lineup by the illness that would ultimately kill him, the Yankees still hadn't found a new first baseman. Dahlgren was sold to the Boston Braves in February. No team was eager to trade with the Yankees at this time; there had even been a rule against trading with them adopted after the 1939 season. The Yankees had kept Sturm with Priddy and Rizzuto in Kansas City in 1939 and 1940, but he didn't fit the model of a slugging first baseman, having hit a total of 11 home runs in his two seasons there to go with .310/.352/.412 rates.

McCarthy had made halting attempts to turn Henrich into a first baseman in both seasons. He had the bat for the position, and opening up a space in the outfield would have given him a place to play veteran outfielder George Selkirk. However, Henrich looked uncomfortable defensively, and chronic ankle injuries had meant that Selkirk wasn't available anyway, so McCarthy quickly backed off the plan. Gordon, though, was commonly referred to as an acrobat; surely he could handle the reduced responsibilities of playing first base. Here, then, was a way for the manager and longtime minor-league second baseman to turn two on the same play: Gordon would move to first, giving the team a solid heir to Gehrig, while Priddy would take over at second, allowing the perpetuation of the Kansas City double-play combo.

The foregoing is a condensed version of the machinations of that spring. There were other issues that had to be worked through before McCarthy could arrive at his solution: Rolfe held out, creating the possibility of Priddy moving to third; Rizzuto was due to go before his draft board and might not be granted a deferment; McCarthy also considered benching Rizzuto and moving Gordon to short to team with second baseman Priddy, but that was before Dahlgren was sold and Rizzuto hit .420 in spring training.

As this story opened with Johnny Sturm at first base and not Joe Gordon, you've probably surmised that very little went the way McCarthy planned it. Gordon was uncomfortable at first base. Early on, Rizzuto had rookie jitters in the field and Priddy didn't hit. McCarthy benched them both, bringing Crosetti back off the bench to play short, moving Gordon back the keystone, and sliding Sturm in at first base. Gordon reverted to his All-Star ways at his old position. Crosetti was still finished, but that problem solved itself when the veteran was spiked on June 16. Rizzuto got back in the lineup, found his confidence, and but for his World War II service would have a stranglehold on the position into the 1950s. A game behind in the standings when Crosetti was spiked, the Yankees ultimately won the pennant by 17 games. They led the league in Defensive Efficiency, also turning 196 double plays, 27 more than the next-best club. This not only remains a high total, but also must have represented a very high percentage of opportunities converted, because the Yankees also had the second-lowest WHIP in the league.

They did this in spite of Sturm, who hit very well at first before his bat quit as the injury set in and the league caught up to him. McCarthy kept him in the lineup because the Yankees just didn't have any choice but to live with him. The problem is that's not actually true. They had another alternative, one that's never discussed in relation to the 1941 season. Unlike today's clubs, which maintain only one team at Triple-A apiece, the Yankees had two, one the aforementioned Blues club in the American Association, the other the Newark Bears of the International League. Having graduated three players to the majors, the Blues didn't have much to offer the big club, but the Bears still had prospects. The best of these was center fielder Tommy Holmes, 24.

Holmes had been in the Yankees' system since 1937. From the very start, the Brooklyn native had proven to be a consistent .300 hitter (.326 in 702 games) with tremendous ability to make contact. In 1938, he led the Eastern League in batting average (.368), hits, and doubles. He hit .330/.393 /.466 at Newark in 1939, struck out just 14 times in 386 at-bats, and had another 20-game hitting streak. In the playoffs, he set a league record with 25 hits in 13 games. With no openings in New York, he returned to Newark in 1940 and hit .317/.379/.420, leading the league in hits and runs, hitting in another 20 straight games, and striking out only 13 times in 665 at-bats. Back at Newark for a third year in '41, he hit .302/.363/.394 and again led the league in hits.

The problem was that the Yankees didn't like Holmes. It wasn't personal, it was just that they had one of the greatest outfields of all time in Keller/DiMaggio/Henrich and had nowhere to put him. McCarthy was also a power fanatic, wanting his left-handed hitters to pull the ball and hit home runs, especially in Yankee Stadium. Just a couple of years earlier, he had insistent that Keller, a .334 hitter in his rookie year, start swinging for the fences or risk losing his job. The shame of it was that Holmes would prove to be a very solid major-league hitter. In December, the Yankees, still trying to solve their first-base problem, traded him to the Braves for one of their former farmhands, Buddy Hassett, ironically a singles-hitting, no-power, low-OBP first baseman. Even the manpower shortage created by World War II couldn't keep him in the majors after 1942.

Holmes went on to be a minor star. He struggled to put up big numbers at first, but he broke through in 1944, hitting .309/.372/.456 with the deadened balata-ball. The next year, he hit .352/.420/.577, leading the National League in hits, doubles (47), home runs (28), and slugging percentage. He continued to be a productive player after the war, though not quite at that level, hitting .305/.365/.426 (.287 EqA) from 1946 through 1950. Whatever the value of those numbers when delivered by a corner outfielder (Holmes wasn't going to displace DiMaggio, at least not before or after the war), it's a heck of a lot more than Sturm was able to deliver. Given that Henrich was able to play first base successfully beginning in 1946 (after his own time out of the majors for the war), it seems certain that McCarthy gave up too quickly on shifting Old Reliable to the infield. This was in large part how Casey Stengel saved the Yankees' offense in 1949, moving Henrich to first so he could get young players Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling into the lineup.

Even a team with resources can become hamstrung by not considering all of their options. In the late 1980s, the Mets struggled to find a leadoff man after the ill-advised trade of Lenny Dykstra. They tried Gregg Jefferies, Juan Samuel, Keith Miller, Mark Carreon, Howard Johnson, Daryl Boston, and Darren Reed. Ultimately they signed Vince Coleman, who was an expensive disaster. The one player they never tried was their first baseman Dave Magadan, the one guy on the roster with a .390 on-base percentage. Magadan didn't fit the image, just as Holmes didn't fit McCarthy's image of what a Yankees outfielder should look like. He couldn't get over that prejudice, so he lived with the worst first baseman ever to play regularly for a championship team.

Of course, the important thing is that the Yankees won. They were strong enough on pitching and defense to overcome the presence of a replacement-level player in the lineup. Yet, we know from history that this is rarely the case, that the players that Jay Jaffe called "The Replacement-Level Killers" in our book It Ain't Over can very easily cleave a team from a pennant it would otherwise have won. The Braves found that out last year, when they elected to kneecap their offense with Garret Anderson. We'll see if the Chipper-Glaus-Hinske axis leads them to the same bitter end.

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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