When, early on Sunday morning, it was revealed that Ryan Zimmerman had signed a contract extension that had the potential of keeping him in Washington until 2020, I predicted that Kevin Goldstein would spend his day answering questions about the future of Anthony Rendon, a fine third-base prospect to be sure, but not one who would seem likely to be dogging Zimmerman’s heels anytime soon given that he has yet to play a professional game.

Kevin’s predictable response to those easily-predictable questions was that a lot can change between now and 2020, or between now and next year, including our entire view of both Zimmerman and Rendon. In fact, the potentialities of either could be radically altered as soon as… now. Or now. And also now. Entering 1971, the syndicated columnist Jimmy Cannon asked Casey Stengel for his opinion on Johnny Bench, then entering his age-23 season and coming off an MVP-winning campaign in which he hit .293/.345/.587 with a National League-leading 45 home runs and 148 runs batted in.

“I’ve had Al Lopez and Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, which goes to show you,” the old man said. “But at his age, which is young, Johnny Bench is the greatest catcher I ever seen. But he could fall out of an airplane or his eyes could go bad, which could happen to a young catcher.”

“The scars on Bench’s legs remind him how fast it all can vanish,” Cannon wrote, “and Stengel verifies the apprehension by identifying Bench as the greatest catcher because he might fall out of a plane.” It sounds funny until you consider that the 1970s saw two prominent players, Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, killed in plane crashes. It saw Pete Rose risk another young catcher’s career to score a run in an exhibition game. Think of J.R. Richard and his 1980 stroke. Heck, think of Buster Posey on May 25 last year. Stuff happens. It could happen to any of us, at any time.

Think of Lou Gehrig, perhaps blocked by Wally Pipp, and then Gehrig, immortal, immovable, invulnerable, playing in 2,130 straight games, only 36 in 1939, never going anywhere, not going to need replacing for years, then clumsy, sick, very sick, dead. He’s going, he’s going, he’s a goner. The Yankees could not have known this, of course, so they weren’t particular about keeping prospective first basemen around.

Down in the minors they had a good-fielding first baseman named George McQuinn. McQuinn probably belongs somewhere in the outer branches of the Keith Hernandez family tree. He hit for high averages, but the Yankees had no use for him with Gehrig around, so they shipped him off to the Reds. He hit .331 for Toronto of the International League in 1934. The Reds had a future Hall of Fame first baseman (albeit a Frankie Frisch Hall of Famer) in Jim Bottomley, but he was cooked at 34; he had hit .250/.311/.395 in 1933, and would hit .284/.324/.439 in 1934, which wasn’t a great deal better. Somehow McQuinn wound up back with the Yankees, back behind the Iron Horse. He was subsequently sent to the Reds again. This time they gave him a trial. He failed it, hitting only .201 with no home runs in 38 games. He claimed to have been over-coached into altering his swing.

Back to the Yankees. In 1937, he was the first baseman for the legendary Newark Bears team, winner of 109 games with such future stars as Charlie Keller and Joe Gordon. The left-handed McQuinn hit .330 and slugged .576 on 30 doubles, 10 triples, and 21 home runs.

The first baseman was now 27, beyond prospect age, but teams had finally noticed him. Out of options, he was subject to the Rule 5 draft and was snatched up by the St. Louis Browns. His first full year in the majors he hit .324/.384/.477 with 42 doubles and 12 home runs. The next year, he hit .316/.383/.515 with 37 doubles, 13 triples, and 20 home runs, and made the first of six All-Star game appearances.

Lou Gehrig stepped out of the lineup that season, and died in 1941. The Yankees were caught flatfooted, and had to go with journeyman Babe Dahlgren, 27. A few years earlier, they had sold Buddy Hassett, another viable major-league first baseman, to the Dodgers. Hassett was at best a placeholder, a good fielder whose only major-league skill was his ability to hit for average, but they could have used him. In 1942, having watched Johnny Sturm put together one of the worst offensive seasons by a first baseman (and leadoff hitter) in the history of man, a you-rub-my-back trade was arranged by Yankees farm director George Weiss and Braves manager Casey Stengel which returned Hassett to the Bronx, a deal which only cost the Yankees a five-time .300-hitting outfielder, Tommy Holmes.

Hassett spent a year with the Yankees and then went into the Navy, so the Yankees had to send two players and $10,000 to the Phillies for Nick Etten, and on and on… They spent years, decades looking for something like a long-term solution at first base. It wasn’t until the farm produced Moose Skowron in 1954 that they really got anything like a grip on the situation—though there were some players who did well in their brief stints at the gateway. One of those was McQuinn. He stuck with the Browns throughout the war years. Already in his 30s, his production ebbed downward as injuries set in. He had his moment of glory in the 1944 World Series, batting .438 with a home run in six games. The Browns lost. Traded to the A’s for the 1946 season, he hit .225/.317/.316. Connie Mack released him, saying, “I’m sorry to lose George, but I really believe he has played baseball one year too long.”

Nick Etten had been an asset to the Yankees during the war, but his bat died with the return of the regulars, so the Yankees figured, what the heck, let’s sign McQuinn again-again. The 37-year-old suffered from sciatica and tended toward heat stroke in the midday sun. Yet, he responded to his last major-league chance. He played in 144 games in 1947, hitting a very solid .304/.395/.437 with 13 home runs and 78 walks. The Yankees had been a third-place team in ’46, but with McQuinn chipping in, they won 97 games, the pennant, and the World Series. By 1948, McQuinn was done and the Yankees finished third again. Still, he wasn’t supposed to have been there at all, because of Gehrig.

Along these same lines, I sometimes like to think of all the catchers the Yankees traded off because they had Yogi Berra. They were good players. Depending on how you count, they included Aaron Robinson, Sherm Lollar, Gus Niarhos, Clint Courtney, Gus Triandos, and Lou Berberet. Berra had his injuries, but he never had the big Posey breakdown, the collision that put him out for the season (and who would wish that on so benevolent a figure as Yogi?). If he had, they might have found themselves regretting their faith that things were going to be okay.

Life just isn’t that predictable, and it’s rarely as safe as we pretend it is. Thus, my advice to Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon is to look both ways before crossing the street, floss after every meal, and, as Stengel himself suggested, “stay away from fish, because them bones can be murder.” Oh, and Master Rendon, you might consider a move to another position. And if you don’t, maybe Mr. Zimmerman will, or none of the above. Meteor strike! Duck!

As for the rest of you, keep safe until next time; there might be a Rendon coming up behind you, too. Or a garbage truck. It’s probably not worth worrying about, but you can, you know, if you really want to.

Thank you for reading

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Great article, but a bit of a quibble...I didn't think there was a Rule 5 Draft back in 1938. And IIRC from my long-ago reading of Bill Mead's Even The Browns, what happened was that AL President Will Harridge persuaded several of the AL contenders to take pity on the woebegone, operating-on-a-shoestring Browns, and offer up a decent player or two from their farm systems for a bag of balls; the Yankees offered up McQuinn. I may not have it right, but you could look it up.
I checked a couple of sources on that--the piece came together quickly so I didn't have time to go to primary sources as I often do, but I do have a contemporaneous book of profiles on the Yankees and it came down half between your version and half between what's on BB-Ref, which called it the Rule 5. It seems clear he was eligible to be drafted, being out of options, and there was a statement from the Yankees that it would just be so unfair to keep him behind Gehrig anymore. It's pretty clear he wasn't traded, he was just sent--the Yankees didn't even get that bag of balls. Also, there have always been winter drafts of various kinds, and I admit to always having to refresh my memory as to which was which. It is possible either I or BB-Ref have the nomenclature wrong, but there definitely was an opportunity to pick off players from other organizations.
The Rule 5 draft, in one form or another, has been around in MLB for over 100 years; this is how the the Giants lost Hack Wilson to the Cubs in the 1920's. A writer named Steve Treder wrote an outstanding series about the Rule 5 draft for The Hardball Times several years ago. I can't post a link to them but if you are interested I'm sure they are readily available in the THT archives.
And of course in the real world, unlike baseball, there aren't prospect lists available about who's about to do your job better than you do. So you better get better.
This was a dazzling tour of baseball history, a poignant reflection on our mortality, and a prudent reminder of the constant need to have a backup plan. Thank you.
Cool stuff. You really, really love baseball and it shows. My kind of guy.
Thank you so very much. I really, really do.
The Goldman Touch- a prime examplar. You made my day. Thanks
Steven, fantastic article. Love the historical aspect...I know it doesn't always get the page views, but reading stuff like this is one of the main reasons I'll always subscribe to BP. Thanks.
Very nice of you to say. Thank you.
Wow... this article WAY more depressing that I thought it would be. That's not a bad thing, it really made me think.