In the titanic team-up you asked for but never thought you’d get, the current members of Baseball Prospectus have crossed dimensional boundaries to meet their predecessors from Golden Age Baseball Prospectus. The resultant “Crisis on Earth-BP” had many ramifications, not the least of which was the recovery of BP player comments for players who predated the first Baseball Prospectus book in 1996. These are those comments.
The previous installment featured players from the K through O section of the alphabet. This week, we’re departing from the format slightly to take an extended look at one player from the land of P. In the next chapter, which you should see before the next Harry Potter book, we’ll resume with shorter observations of players from Q through U.
OF/C ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, 1937-1941
There is a reason catcher isn’t on the defensive spectrum.
When Bill James laid out the defensive spectrum, he left catcher off. The positions, in order of difficultly, went:
Players could move leftward along the spectrum but rarely moved rightward. As for catcher, it was a box of its own that required special skills. Getting out once you were in was difficult. Getting in if you weren’t born there was nearly impossible. Trying can destroy your career. This is the story of Don Padgett.
Padgett, 25, hit his way onto the St, Louis Cardinals’ roster in spring 1937, after only two years as a pro. The outfielder was signed out of Lenoir Rhyne College of Hickory, North Carolina as a 21-year-old in 1935 and rapidly ascended through the Cardinals chain, making stops with Bloomington, Beatrice, Sioux City and Houston (where he hit an uninspiring .268) before rising to Columbus of the American Association midway through the 1936 season. Padgett batted .329 and slugged .461 with an approximate on-base percentage of .347 (just ten walks in 81 games) for the Columbus Redbirds of the American Association in 1936. This is based on six home runs in 362 at-bats; another source claims that Padgett hit 22. Just to place that offense in context, the league as a whole batted .295/.350/.431. Padgett’s teammate, Tom Winsett, batted .354/.417/.731 with a league-leading 50 home runs (a season that would help to firm up Winsett’s standing as one of the great busted prospects). Whatever his numbers, the lefty, pull-hitting Padgett had established himself as a top prospect in the eyes of Cardinals’ mastermind Branch Rickey.
Padgett had a promising National League debut, batting .314/.357/.457 with 10 home runs (.284 EqA) against league averages of .272/.332/.382. He played 102 games in right field, pushing the incumbent, the popular Pepper Martin, into a part time role.
After the season, Padgett was secure enough in his major league career to think about taking up golf in the off-season. What he didn’t quite realize was that 102 games in right field was enough to convince Rickey that he should never be allowed to play there again. Padgett showed off a good arm, killing eight base runners. He had five double plays, just one short of tying for the league lead. Still, ten errors in so few games was off-putting (siding with Rickey, BP’s Davenport translations show Padgett to have been worth -10 runs on defense). Two days after Christmas 1937, a crate filled with catching gear was delivered to Padgett’s house. This was his first notice that he was changing positions. The day after that, Padgett received a letter from Rickey suggesting that he get out in the backyard and practice.
The Cardinals had a strange spring in 1938. They were trying to make a shortstop out of third baseman Don Gutteridge, a catcher out of right fielder Padgett, an infielder out of center fielder Terry Moore, and a third baseman out of Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh. Padgett was made to catch two games a day so as to speed up his learning curve. He was virtually never seen without the tools of ignorance. Teammate Martin once asked him, “Hey, how do you sleep in those things?”
Padgett’s primary instructor that spring was Mike Gonzalez, the longtime National League catcher, coach and manager. Yankees catcher Bill Dickey also tutored Padgett informally, and even gave him a pair of his shin guards. Dickey later taught Yogi Berra as well, “learning him” all his experiences. The lesson backfired. “Put me back in the outfield!” Padgett told manager Frankie Frisch. “After watching that guy, I know I’ll never be anything but a clown behind the plate.”
Padgett proved to be adept at calling a game and made strong throws to second base. Pop-ups, though, were an adventure, and balls in the dirt inevitably got by him. “Of course you can’t make a catcher in two weeks,” Rickey temporized. “It takes time, and if Don does catch this year, it may be some time before he gets on to all the fine points of the position. But he has made progress, decided progress. He likes to play the position.”
That was a lie. Padgett hated catching. His move was complicated by his own reluctance and manager Frankie Frisch’s resistance to it; Rickey had come up with the transfer without consulting his skipper. On opening day, Padgett played right field; that’s what you call a vote of confidence. By mid-April, the Cardinals were on their way to another experiment. Moore, the strong defensive center fielder (+28 FRAA career), was moved to third base. Padgett went to center field. Mickey Owen, who would shortly become to the Dodgers of the 1940s what Joe Girardi was to the Yankees of the late 90s (or at least what those teams claimed they were besides out sponges) got to catch. Stress or sophomore slump, Padgett slumped to .271/.303/.425 and lost playing time to rookie Enos Slaughter.
Held back by Frisch, Padgett caught just six games that year. When Frisch attempted to move Padgett from right field to catcher as part of a late-inning switch in one contest, Padgett even refused to come in from the outfield. But Frisch was let go late in 1938. The new manager, Ray Blades, was more amenable to the Rickey plan, and the Cardinals revived the experiment in 1939 despite Padgett’s protests. “I think Branch is right in his plans for Padgett,” said Cards owner Sam Breadon. “We’ve got too many outfielders and there’s no chance for him in that department. Of course, Padgett doesn’t have to catch if he doesn’t want to.” Yes he did, as long as Rickey was convinced. “If Blades can keep that fellow behind the bat for 100 games this year, we’ll win the pennant,” Rickey said.
The prospect mavens, such as they were, were split on Padgett. “His .271 batting average last year makes one wonder why the powers-that-be insist on finding a spot for him, either behind the bat or in the outfield, both of which he plays with only fair success,” wrote The Sporting News editor E.G. Brands that spring. Yet that same spring, in that same paper, J. Roy Stockton wrote, “Padgett has many advantages over any other receiver candidates on the squad. He is highly intelligent, on and off the field. He has splendid team spirit, loves to play every day, and most important, he can rattle base hits against the most distant fences.”
The second iteration of the catching experiment was delayed when Padgett fell on his left elbow while rounding second base in a spring training game, dislocating his shoulder. Though there was no break, he would miss the first 62 games of the season. Simultaneously, Padgett was effectively frozen out of the Cardinals outfield. He was not going to displace veteran left fielder Joe Medwick, the 1937 MVP and Triple Crown winner. Center fielder Terry Moore could hit and was considered one of the premier ballhawks in the league. Right field was manned by sophomore Slaughter, who was rapidly establishing himself as both and offensive and defensive threat. With the benefit of hindsight it is apparent that Padgett was a corner outfielder of moderate skills who was blocked by an older Hall of Famer at one possible position, and he had been passed by a younger Hall of Famer at another. First base was covered by Johnny Mize, another future Hall of Famer. It was a bad time to be Don Padgett.
Stymied, he rededicated himself to catching. “I’m going to make it, accident or no accident,” he said, referring to catching. “I didn’t care about it all last year, but I like it fine now. And I think I can do everything. You know, I wasn’t a helluva an outfielder. I know that. But I think I can whip this catching business.” (TSN, 3/23/39). When he made his 1939 debut on June 11 he had two singles and threw out a basestealer. That was merely the beginning; Padgett initially had trouble getting into the lineup, but he rapidly hit himself into a starring role. By July 20 he was hitting .427 (32/75). A month later, he was up to .431.
The Cardinals now had Mize, Medwick, Padgett, and Slaughter in the middle of their order. This was potent stuff. On June 10, the team was 25-20 (.556), but as Padgett heated up so did the team, pushing its overall batting average to nearly .300 and going 44-19 (.698) in August and September.
On September 26, 1939, the Cardinals were 3 1/2 games behind the front-running Reds with just seven games to play, but the two teams had four head to head contests remaining. That day at Cincinnati the Reds carried a 3-1 lead over the Cardinals into the ninth. With two outs, Johnny Mize singled, bringing Padgett to the plate. Pitcher Gene Thompson was on the mound. Just as Thompson was going into his motion, Cards manager Blades decided he’d better use a pinch-runner for the Mize. “Time!” he shouted. The umpires heard him, but Thompson was already pitching. He fired to the plate. Padgett laced a single to right field, keeping St. Louis’s pennant hopes alive. The umpires conferred. Time had been called. The single hadn’t actually happened. Padgett got back in the box, swung, and grounded out 4-3. Ballgame over. Season, for all intents and purposes, over. The Cardinals finished second, 4 1/2 games behind the pennant-winning Reds.
Padgett had cooled slightly in September, batting .359 over his last 20 games. He finished the year at .399/.444/.554. Though he didn’t qualify for the batting title (Mize’s .349 won it), no other player was close to him. He did this while catching 61 games and making no appearances in the outfield. Rickey’s mission, it seemed, had been accomplished.
Manager Blades lasted a year and change with the Cardinals. Early in the 1940 season he was fired and replaced by Billy Southworth. Blades had gone along with Padgett as his catcher though he generally sent in a defensive replacement in the late innings. Southworth was different. Like Frisch, he refused to buy into Rickey’s experiment and declared that Padgett was, had always been, and forever more would be, an outfielder. Midway through the 1940 campaign, Padgett had lost his job. There was still no room in the outfield. Nor was Padgett making the case that he could out-hit his glove if assigned to the pastures. For the season he batted a weak .242/.321/.388, never raising his averages far above that level. Padgett never made an appearance in the outfield in 1940. Once Southworth had formed his opinion he mostly sat, watching proto-Girardi Mickey Owen get most of the playing time behind the dish.
For reasons known only to himself, Rickey decided that he wouldn’t give in that easily. On December 4, 1940, he traded Owen to Larry MacPhail’s Brooklyn Dodgers for veteran catcher Gus Mancuso, a minor league pitcher, and cash. Mancuso, 35, hadn’t been a regular in years and lacked power. As Rickey had deprived Southworth of his one viable catcher, this should have made Padgett a backstop again. It didn’t. Southworth stuck to his guns. He preferred to start Mancuso and a rookie catcher named Walker Cooper.
Padgett was a homeless man on the Cardinals. What to do with him was something of a mystery, as New York Times columnist John Kieran observed that spring: “He used to be an outfielder and a hitter. As a catcher last season he wasn’t much of a hitter. Or much of a catcher, either, if it comes to that. He doesn’t like the job. He was in it with both feet but no part of his heart. His heart was in the outfield all the time they had him shackled behind the plate with a lot of cumbersome upholstery draped over his manly form.”
Walker Cooper would soon prove to be a very effective hitter, but not in 1941. He struggled at the plate, then broke his shoulder, leaving the field to Mancuso, who batted .229/.309/.293. The Cards finished second to the Dodgers that season, missing the pennant by 2.5 games. Padgett played the outfield occasionally, caught 18 games, and didn’t hit, got sick, sulked. With tonsillitis, inactivity, depression, he gained weight.
MacPhail, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a former Rickey associate, openly coveted several Cardinals, including Medwick and Padgett. It was expected that the two would go together in any trade, but when the trade for Ducky Wucky had finally been swung on June 12, 1940, Padgett was not included. A trip to Brooklyn waited for over a year. On December 10, 1941, Dodgers bought Padgett for $30,000. Padgett promised MacPhail he would slim down, but in the end the Dodgers got their money back: Padgett was called into the military and the contract stipulated that if he didn’t start the season with the team, the deal was off. Inducted into the Navy, Padgett joined the Great Lakes Baseball team under manager Mickey Cochrane. He would remain in the military for the duration of the war.
The war accomplished one thing: it made Padgett a catcher for good. There were 174 games left in his career, and he never played at another position. The Dodgers welcomed him back in 1946, decided he had nothing left and quickly sold him to the Braves. Branch Rickey had by this time moved from the Cardinals to the Dodgers, so he got the opportunity to pull the plug on his Frankenstein’s monster for a second time. The Braves traded Padgett to the Phillies for pitcher Andy Karl. Padgett played parts of two seasons in Philadelphia and was gone from the majors for good.
There are many morals to this story. One is that not even Branch Rickey knew everything. Second, unremarked upon here, is that poor plate judgment/high batting average players are going to suffer wide fluctuations in performance. Padgett fits that description. Third, in baseball, as in life, it is very easy to fail to appreciate what you have. Finally, while one may doubt Bill James on many things, the defensive spectrum is not one of them.