DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY (Earl McNeely Edition)
In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find.
Earl McNeely OF 1924-1931(1898-1971)
Quite often, baseball’s worst seasons are more interesting than its best. There is a certain pleasure in observing the march of folly (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Tuchman) that led teams down the path to oblivion, and you don’t even have to feel guilty that you’re enjoying an accident scene because usually the only thing injured was the owner’s wallet. In this case, we are looking at one of the worst single-season right fielders of all time.
How badly can a player be miscast in a power position? We actually know that answer from observing players in our own time. In 2008, Jeff Francoeur, then of the Braves, had what was probably the worst season ever by a player tasked with starting in right field, hitting .239/.294/.359 over 155 games. Given his subsequent performance with the Mets, Francoeur is arguably alive, so he doesn’t qualify for this feature. Senators and Browns outfielder Earl McNeely, however, does. Playing right field for the St. Louis Browns in 1928, McNeely hit .236/.299/.319 in 127 games. His season was 3.3 wins below the replacement level.
The Orioles, in their St. Louis Browns phase, didn’t have too many memorable seasons. There was the 1944 pennant-winner, of course, and the 1922 team that finished just one game behind the Yankees. Despite McNeely’s terrible season, the 1928 club, at 82-72, would rank somewhere on the second tier. The roster had some good, watchable players like the switch-hitting catcher Wally Schang, Lu Blue, a Lyle Overbay-style first baseman, Red Kress, a shortstop with good power for the day, future Hall of Famer Heinie Manush, who hit .378 and led the league in hits and doubles, and an excellent pitcher in starter Alvin Crowder. Given how good the Yankees and A’s were that year, even a solid season from McNeely probably wouldn’t have gotten them out of third place, but they might have been a bit closer to 90 wins than they ultimately were.
McNeely had an unusual career. He didn’t play baseball in high school, having been more interested in basketball and soccer. He served in the First World War, and didn’t take up the pro game until 1922, when he was 24 years old. Somehow the Sacramento native walked on to the hometown Senators of the Pacific Coast League. Even more amazing, after this over-aged, inexperienced outfielder hit .213 in 106 games his first year, he was allowed to come back. This time he hit .333. In his third season of 1924, he was hitting .333 and slugging .474 when Clark Griffith, casting about for outfield depth, purchased his rights and brought him to the majors.
The Senators, racing the Yankees for the pennant, had terrific players in left and right fields (future Cooperstown types Goose Goslin and Sam Rice, respectively) but needed help in center. The position was being split between Nemo Leibold (one of the “Clean Sox” of 1919 and one of the few not inducted into the Hall of Fame) and the diminutive Wid Matthews, better remembered, if at all, for being a future general manager of the Cubs. Ironically, neither of the center fielders was among the club’s biggest offensive problems, but with an infield largely composed of light-hitting defensive specialists, center was the one position open to remediation. On August 8, Griffith acquired McNeely. As always, there is some dispute about what the actual cost was. It seems that he spent $35,000, loaned Wid Matthews to Sacramento, and there were supposedly two players to be named, although I am not certain if they were ever delivered (the Senators apparently had the option of sending $5,000 a piece for each player not sent, which explains why the terms of the deal were reported as $50,000 in some places.
Shirley Povich’s Putnam history of the Washington Senators tells a great story about McNeely’s acquisition, saying that when Griffith went to shake his new player’s hand, McNeely pulled away, “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t raise my right arm above my hip. Dislocated my shoulder last week in a game in Frisco.” Griffith, afraid he’d been ripped off, withheld payment of the $35,000 until McNeely proved healthy. That much is true, but Povich kept going:
McNeely got into the game on the day he reported, but as a pinch hitter. Harris called on him in the ninth, and he rapped a two-bagger over third base with two on that won the game. Griffith was interested now. For seventeen days McNeely was used as a pinch hitter and delivered consistently.
It’s a nice story, but thanks to Retrosheet (long may they wave) we know it’s inaccurate. McNeely went right into the lineup, bum shoulder and all, and hit .382 in the first 10 games. He also impressed with his speed in the field and on the bases. The announced plan was for the right-handed McNeely to platoon with Leibold, but that didn’t happen; Nemo just sat. Parenthetically, there was some grousing from fans over the temporary loss of Matthews in the deal. A scrappy, dirty uniform type who had told his first manager, Connie Mack, “I’m not looking for any utility job,” and had proceeded to nettle his way out of Philadelphia (Connie sent him to Milwaukee as part of the payment for Al Simmons), Matthews wasn’t a great talent, but his hustle endeared him to spectators if not his managers.
The ’24 Senators eclipsed the Yankees by two games and headed off to the World Series to do battle with the Giants. McNeely started and led off six of the seven games for the Nats, but he saved his big moment for Game 7. It was one of the great postseason games and one of the strangest ends to a World Series. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 12th at Washington and one out, catcher Muddy Ruel hit a pop foul behind the plate, in play. Giants catcher Hank Gowdy lined it up, caught it, and fell over, dropping the ball—he had tripped over his mask. Given a second life, Ruel doubled to left. Next up was pitcher Walter Johnson, a fine hitter for his position (.235/.274/.342 lifetime), pulled a ball to short, which Travis Jackson bobbled. Now there were runners on first and second (with the play in front of him, Ruel had to hold).
The lineup turned over, bringing McNeely to the plate. He ripped a grounder at Giants’ third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. Lindstrom, an 18-year-old rookie, went to make a play on the ball. As he did, the ball hit a pebble and took off over his head and headed into left field. There might have been a play on Ruel, who ran like the veteran catcher he was, but left fielder Irish Muesel didn’t bother to throw home. McNeely was credited with a double and the Series-winning RBI.
McNeely lasted three more seasons with the Senators, starting in the first two. In 1927, he was forced to sit when Washington acquired the 39-year-old Tris Speaker as part of the fallout from the Dutch Leonard/Ty Cobb betting scandal. Even pushing 40, Speaker was a better player than McNeely, so Earl probably didn't get to complain too much. That fall, Griffith dealt him and young pitcher Dick Coffman to the Browns for pitchers Sad Sam Jones and Milt Gaston, a steal of a deal on paper and a good one in actuality, even though Gaston pitched poorly for Washington. McNeely had his miserable year, slipped into part-time work through 1931 (hitting just .252/.304/.319 in 194 games) and headed back to the minors. In later years he coached two seasons for the Senators, was president and manager of the Sacramento club that had been so good to him, and also raised cattle. He died in 1971.
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To the Mats with Reader Mail
Reader D.M. reacts to our last installment:
Love your writing. But GMs can lose their jobs with bad choices. Stat writers keep writing despite bad, for lack of a better word, predictions. Stat writer have nowhere near the same accountability as a MLB GM. Does't mean stat guys don't know what they're talking about. But hey, let's get real, stat writers don't have a win loss record, every bad opinion is lost in the ether and re-write for them. I'd love some real scrutiny on stat writers to show their 'team' wouldn't have ended up 72-90. It's an impossibility of course, but also how BP can crow superiority over the average GM.
I wrote, "You can understand MacPhail’s perspective on this in that if he is the one guy to get burnt because he made Kyle Farnsworth his $1 closer instead of K-Rod his $10 million closer, it’s his job… In the end, general managers and the analytical community have their guns pointed in slightly different directions in that the former must exercise a certain caution in order to keep his job… There are times that we may be correct about certain things, as with closers, but that truth may not be useful to the general manager because it places him at unacceptable risk." That was me talking about the heavy scrutiny under which a GM must do his job. "Superiority" didn't enter into the discussion. Rather, it was an exploration of differing motives, goals, purposes. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they don't, even if ideally they always would (and that's true from both sides). It's very similar to government. You can tell any president, Democrat, Republican, or Whig, "Objectively, scientifically speaking, you should do X, Y, Z," but if the political support for X, Y, Z isn't there then the advuce is, on a practical basis, useless. Again, this is not a question of superiority, or crowing (neither of which is an accurate reflection of our attitude).
To the Mats with Mike Ferrin
If you look back at the comments section of that same blog installment, you will note the comments by Friend of BP Mike Ferrin. I'm not going to reprint his whole note here, but rather will try to boil things down tso as to respond economically to his two main points.
1. Regarding the formulation "not everyone can close, but most pitchers can," my rationale goes something like this, and forgive me for not citing every number now (if I do all the homework again this already-overdue post will never see the light of day): the save conversion rate from the best to the worst closers is not that wide. It differs by a few lost leads a year. Yes, every once in awhile you get a Ron Davis '84, but those are outliers. Those lost games may be significant to the Yankees or Red Sox or a team likely to be in a close race, but for a team with scarce resources that is rebuilding, say the Royals, they don't make much of a difference. While I'm sure the closer mentality exists, and may even be important if you're going to be finishing games in the World Series, the narrow spread between, say, Mariano Rivera and everyone else argues against its having a decisive impact. Over the last three years, counting pitchers who had a total of at least 15 saves and blown saves per season, the overall conversion rate is 84 percent. If there have been failed closers, teams have been very successful in yanking them quickly and replacing them with pitchers who can actually get the job done. This has been in evidence this season, as we've already seen several closers who were annointed in spring training lose their jobs. Far from treating the closer as a star, teams have begun to regard them as if they're as fungible as kickers in the NFL: miss a couple in a row and you're out of a job.
2. Regarding the Garrett Atkins signing, Mike is right that I overlooked part of the rationale offered for the signing. However, I'm a bit skeptical that they apply in this case. The Giants example he gave is quite right–even a small offensive upgrade could be decisive for that team in that division. The same is probably not true of the Orioles given the nascent state of their pitching and the level of competition. As for flipping Atkins for prospects, it remains a possibility, but in order to do so, MacPhail will have to reply both on Atkins out-performing reasonable expectations as of this date as well as the credulity of some GM who is willing to overpay based on the possibility of Atkins continuing in that vein. Having both happen in a way that garners the O's a prospect of real merit seems unlikely.