Lyle Overbay has never had an at-bat in the postseason. Some would say that this is not a coincidence, that a team operating with a de-powered first baseman is working under a handicap compared to those teams that carry hulking sluggers at the gateway. Yet, you can win a championship with Overbay. The Washington Senators did it three times.
Ballplayers have types. Similarity scores, be they Bill James-style or the more sophisticated version employed by PECOTA, can help us identify those types, but sometimes you can see ballplayer families with the naked eye. In real life, you don’t get to choose families. You’re born into one, and if your family is rich, poor, nurturing, rejecting, comforting, violent, it’s not your call. Similarly, an ugly set of in-laws might be a disincentive to a marriage, but typically the identity of the potential spouse trumps concerns about having to endure Thanksgiving dinner with Mort and Bunny-Sue.
Baseball teams are a different matter, since the composition of the roster is a matter of choice. Embracing a member of the Overbay family is an elective choice. As we said in last year’s annual, Overbay is an adequate hitter and a fine fielder, but he’s not productive enough to give his team an advantage at his position. The Jays traded David Bush, Gabe Gross, and Zach Jackson for Overbay and pitcher Ty Taubenheim in December 2005. In January 2007, as Overbay was coming off of what proved to be an uncharacteristic .312/.372/.508 season, then-GM J.P. Ricciardi opted to buy the then 29-year-old out of arbitration and free agency with a four-year contract which peaked at $7 million last season.
Overbay followed the signing by hitting .240/.315/.391, a 0.5 WARP season prompted by a broken hand. Two years ago, he rebounded to a still-inadequate .270/.358/.419. Last year was really the first season of the four-year deal that Overbay’s hitting was close to first-base expectations, in large part because Cito Gaston elected to platoon him with Kevin Millar, sparing him from the nasty southpaws who have held him to .265/.309/.401 lifetime.
Thus the Blue Jays, misled by Overbay’s 2006, married into the family of underpowered first basemen. Their acquisition of Brett Wallace to be Overbay’s heir suggests they intend to maintain family ties even after Overbay moves on: PECOTA‘s weighted mean forecast for Overbay is .259/.352/.421; for Wallace, it calls for .266/.342/.444. Sometimes, a franchise just develops a fetish.
One club that shared the Jays’ lust for underpowered first basemen was the Washington Senators. It was a love affair that lasted decades. Actually, let’s pull back the focus a bit and say that the Senators’ taste in first basemen was simply bizarre. Their 1911 first baseman was Germany Schaefer, an occasionally productive hitter who is best remembered for being an on-field joker who caused a rules change when he stole his way back to first base after the opposing catcher failed to throw through on the back end of a first-and-third double steal. The notorious Chick Gandil, who held the position for four seasons, succeeded Schaefer. Gandil, a miserable hitter with the White Sox, whom he would soon destroy by being one of the instigators of the selling out of the 1919 World Series, was actually a fairly productive first sacker with the Senators, hitting .293/.344/.397. Keep in mind, it was the Deadball Era; his EqA for the Washington years was .272. Gandil was acquired from Montreal of the International League in May 1912. Soon after, the Senators went on a 17-game winning streak, with Gandil getting a good deal of the credit, although having Walter Johnson at the peak of his powers probably had more to do with it.
Owner Clark Griffith loved Gandil’s defense at first base, but sold him to Cleveland in the spring of 1916 because he had bought a better prospect. Joe Judge would be the regular first baseman for the Senators for all or parts of 17 years. Griffith purchased Judge from the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in 1915 when he was 21 years old, and they held on to him until he was 38. Judge still holds the record for games played by any Senator-or Twin-with 2,025. An excellent player praised for his glove work, a common theme with Senators first sackers, Judge would probably have been a Hall of Famer had he been a second baseman. Built like a middle infielder at 5-foot-8
Still, an 800 OPS and good defense (when Judge retired he held just about every defensive record at first) will get you somewhere most seasons, especially if you play the first five years of year career with a dead ball. Unfortunately, Judge was inconsistent, perhaps because he was also prone to injury, and the introduction of the lively ball and the rise of the traditional beefy first baseman relegated him to the second rank of performers, even in the eight-team American League of his day. George Sisler has taken a lot of heat from revisionist historians due to his lack of power and patience and short peak, but during that peak, 1917-22, he was clearly the class of the American League at first base. These years coincided with Judge getting established in the majors. During those half-dozen years, Sisler hit .377/.420/.541; Judge hit .291/.362/.420.
In Judge’s favor, park adjusting these numbers would narrow the gap a bit, because there was a large difference between Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, one of the best hitter’s parks in the game, and Griffith Stadium in Washington, a pitcher’s haven. For most of Judge’s career, it was 407 feet down the left-field line, 383-393 feet in left-center, 421 feet to center field, over 400 feet to right-center, and 320 feet down the right-field line. Yet, we should not overrate Griffith’s effect on Judge’s power production. He just wasn’t a slugger under any conditions. Even after 1919, when the lively ball was introduced, Judge never hit more than 10 home runs in a season for the Senators. The park had a lot to do with that, but even on the road, Judge was far from a power hitter. From 1920-32, he hit 14 home runs at home, 52 on the road.
Judge put up respectable numbers for a first baseman of the period, and in 1924 his .324/.393/.450 and defense was good enough to help a pitching-oriented Senators team break the Yankees‘ three-year hold on the pennant. They would go on to beat the Giants in the World Series, Judge batting .385 in the seven games, albeit without an RBI. During this period, he could often be rated the second-best first sacker in the league, but not always. Frequently a Joe Hauser, Joe Harris (more on him presently), Frank Brower, or George Burns would sneak in front of him. These were not great players. In recognition of Judge’s lack of punch, as well as his fragility, in 1925, owner Clark Griffith swung a deal with the Red Sox for Joe “Moon” Harris, who would steal playing time from Judge.
Harris continued the Senators’ obsession with unusual first basemen in that he was a tremendous hitter whose career failed to happen due to a combination of bad luck and history. He was a career .317/.404/.472 hitter (.297 EqA), but didn’t get to play even a thousand games. He came up for a cup of coffee with the Highlanders/Yankees in 1914 as a 23-year-old after hitting .379 with a .587 slugging percentage for two minor-league teams, but somehow didn’t impress and they sent him back down. At this stage, he had the only slump of his career, which kept him out of the majors for an extra season. He resurfaced with the Indians in 1917 and hit .304/.398/.385. Then the First World War hit. Unlike most major leaguers, he didn’t hang around for the 1918 season waiting for the government to compel athletes to fight, but went right into the service. Depending on who you read, he was wounded, gassed, or in a severe car accident while in the service. Given the effect on the rest of his career, all three seem like a distinct possibility. It is safe to infer that this is the reason he only got in 62 games with the Indians in 1919 despite hitting .375/.472/.489. The Indians had a truly terrible first baseman named Doc Johnston (career .263/.319/.351) in front of Moon, but at this point it seems that Harris’s war injuries (the gassing apparently destroyed his sinus) put what must have seemed like a permanent end to his career.
Harris was out of baseball in 1920 and 1921, but he came back in 1922 with a Red Sox team that was taking any warm bodies it could find. Incredibly, the 31-year-old went right back to hitting, averaging .315/.393/.475 with the Sox. He would play 100 games for the Senators in 1925, tearing the cover off the ball and helping them successfully defend their pennant. His .323/.430/.573 rates translate to .284/.390/.582 with 23 home runs in 299 at-bats. It was one of the greatest offensive performances in the history of a team that received relatively few notable seasons at the plate. He put a bow on it by hitting .440/.500/.880 (11-for-25, two doubles, three home runs) in the 1925 World Series.
Harris split time between first base and the outfield in 1926, still hitting very well by the standards of the team (.307/.405/.486) but apparently losing the battle for playing time to Judge’s glove and his own frailties. Griffith waived him after the season and he was claimed by the Pirates, who went on to win the NL pennant with him as their primary first baseman. Meanwhile, Judge rolled on in DC, batting .313/.392/.444 (about a .279 EqA) until an attack of appendicitis shelved him in 1931. In the interim, the franchise of Goose Goslin kept trying to goose Judge to greater heights. Clark Griffith said that Judge didn’t perform “unless he has got competition around. I have to keep two first basemen on the payroll to get the best out of Judge.” To this end he brought in Sisler, now a shadow of his former self, and another strange player, boxer/brawler/boozer/publicity slut Art Shires. Neither contributed much.
Let us pause here and consider the state of first-base play in the American League as of the fourth decade of the 20th century. The Deadball years are long gone. Clark Griffith can survey the landscape and see that he is in competition with teams using Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Morgan, and Dale Alexander. By 1933, Hank Greenberg is in the league, and by 1934, Hal Trosky and Zeke Bonura have joined the crowd. Even taking into consideration the difficulties of hitting for power in Griffith Stadium, this is not an environment where playing some primordial Doug Mientkiewicz is a competitively savvy thing to do.
And yet, Griffith opted to stay within the Overbay family of first-base options. Joe Kuhel was a clone of Joe Judge, but with a weaker bat, purchased from the Blues for $65,000, one of the highest bonuses the Grey Fox ever paid. Like Judge, Kuhel had a Gold Glove-type reputation but wasn’t up to hitting with the best first basemen of the era. His career .277/.359/.406 rates translate to .268/.344/.424. As with Judge, some of this was the park-in 1933, the year the Senators won their third and last pennant, Kuhel hit .278/.344/.430 at home, .362/.422/.500 on the road-but not all; in his first, seven-year stint with the Senators, Kuhel hit .285/.355/.389 with 13 home runs at home, .298/.363/.450 with 37 home runs on the road. Though not a slugger, Kuhel did have a notable home-run event in his career. On September 7, 1945, Kuhel hit an inside-the-park home run at Griffith Stadium. It was the only round-tripper the Senators hit at home that year.
To get a sense of what truly powerful first basemen could do in spite of the limitations of Griffith Stadium, consider the park-by-park splits available at Retrosheet, incomplete though they are in many cases. Gehrig played the equivalent of a modern full season at Griffith, hitting .319/.426/.532 with 41 doubles, 10 triples, and 22 home runs in 596 at-bats. Foxx, whose splits cover almost all of his prime, hit .303/.388/.537 with 25 home runs in 501 at-bats. Greenberg and Trosky, whose splits are sketchier than those of the Iron Horse and Double-X, hit .323/.410/.558 and .290/.350/.519 respectively, according to the data available (good years are missing for each).
Better yet, look at what Bonura did there. Griffith finally broke with his preferred style of first baseman in 1938, when he swapped Kuhel to the White Sox for Bonura. Even now this would qualify as an unusual trade, a good glove chasing a bad one; Bonura was a famously poor defensive first baseman. His manager, Jimmy Dykes, called him the worst first baseman who ever lived. “He doesn’t wave at the ball,” he said, “he salutes them.” Bonura rarely made errors and led the league in fielding at his position. “You can’t miss what you can’t get to,” Dykes scoffed.
Dykes should have been kinder to his first baseman, because he got to dine out on Bonura stories for the rest of his life. He had a series devoted to how Bonura was too dumb to get the hit-and-run sign, so they tried less subtle methods of communication, like semaphore. Finally, Bonura supposedly had an inspiration, telling Luke Appling to forget the signs, they’d have a simpler system: “From now on, any time I run, you hit.” Parenthetically, I was initially skeptical of this story because given two players like the singles-hitting Appling (career .310/.399/.398) and Bonura (.307/.380/.487), 9.98 managers out of 10 would bat Appling first or second, ahead of Bonura. However, a peek at Retrosheet revealed that Dykes was among the .02 who would not. In their four years together, Bonura batted cleanup while Appling batted fifth.
Another footnote to this story is that Comiskey Park was also a very difficult home-run park, but apparently not as difficult as Griffith. In four seasons as the White Sox’ first baseman, Bonura had hit 79 home runs. That made him the franchise’s career leader. He also held the single-season record with the 27 he hit in his rookie season of 1934. Kuhel didn’t explode with power as soon as he got there; he hit eight homers the first season, 15 the second, but in 1940 he hit 27 home runs to tie the team record, a relative power explosion that would probably have led to accusations of juicing. He dropped down to 12 in 1941 and four in 1942, no doubt lending credence to the “Kuhel is cheating” crowd.
As for Bonura, after getting off to a slow start, he hit 22 home runs for the Senators in 1938: .274/.325/.442 with 11 home runs at home, .305/.366/.504 with 11 on the road. Bonura now held the single-season home run record for two clubs. Despite this, in his history of the Senators, Shirley Povich wrote, “Griffith never made a worse deal,” and described Bonura as “a bumbling first baseman with an infectious enthusiasm and an overrated batting capacity.” In fairness to Povich, (a) he had no home/road splits to work from, and (b) this was still the league of Foxx, Gehrig, Greenberg, and Trosky, so Bonura was still miles behind the competition.
Griffith and manager Bucky Harris had little patience with Bonura, and during his season-opening slump, he was briefly benched for a young player named Jimmy Wasdell, a more typical Senators-style first baseman-he hit .273/.332/.365 with 29 home runs in nearly 900 career games. After the season, Bonura was traded to the Giants for two players and $20,000. The Senators moved on to Mickey Vernon, who wasn’t quite ready at 21, so in 1940 Griffith bought Bonura back and farmed Vernon out. Bonura, though, was about to hit a career-ending wall, hitting only .273/.358/.373 before being sold to the Cubs in July.
In 1941 it was back to Vernon. But for war-time service, when he was replaced by the reacquired Kuhel, and after a brief sojourn in Cleveland, Vernon would hold the position through 1955. At times, Vernon was a better hitter than the Overbay types, but he was also often worse, which is why his translated stats come out to .290/.353/.472, which puts him squarely in that family. He averaged 11 homers per 154 games played. During the Cleveland period, the Senators’ first baseman was Eddie Robinson, more of a power hitter than the Senators were used to. After he clocked 18 homers in 1949, the team rushed out and reacquired Vernon, who would surpass that figure just once in his career.
Vernon’s last year in Washington was 1955. Griffith died after the season and the franchise was taken over by his nephew, Calvin. Initially, the team seemed set for more of the same, with Vernon’s replacement being Pete Runnells, a singles-hitting former shortstop. Yet, changes were already being worked. Calvin brought in the fences and suddenly the Senators could hit home runs. Roy Sievers was over 20 home runs every year from 1954-59, climaxing with a league-leading 42 round-trippers in 1957. He would be joined by Jim Lemon, Bob Allison, and a young bonus baby on the bench since 1954, Harmon Killebrew, in rewriting the franchise’s record books in the few years between the elder Griffith’s death and the team’s move to Minnesota. Since then, the Twins have had more Judge-style first basemen, like Rod Carew, more Kuhel types, like Mientkiewicz, and of course a few seasons from all-around hitters like Kent Hrbek and Justin Morneau. The club hasn’t been as religious about glove men as it was in the Washington years.
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