On Monday, Kevin Goldstein wrote about a talent drought as far as the lack of prospective left-side infielders coming into the minor leagues in recent years. While Kevin’s article suggests that this may be the result of systemic changes in the way young players are treated before turning pro, it is also true that such fluctuations in the player supply have happened before. In the 1980s it was catchers; for a brief period it seemed as if the future of backstopping was going to look like Ron Karkovice and not Joe Mauer, so few were the attractive prospects at the position.
In the period immediately after World War II, the shortage came at the easiest position of all to fill, first base. In the Hall of Fame, there are first basemen representing the nineteenth century (Cap Anson, Jake Beckley, Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor), the 1910s and 1920s (Frank Chance, George Kelly, George Sisler), the 1930s and 1940s (Jim Bottomley, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize, Bill Terry), the 1960s and 1970s (Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Tony Perez), and the 1980s and 1990s (Eddie Murray so far). Good luck finding a first baseman whose career was centered in the immediate postwar period, 1946-1959. Consider the career performances of first basemen from the postwar years with 700 or more games played in terms of their triple-slash stats:
# Player G AVG/ OBP/ SLG 1 Mickey Vernon 1732 .289/.364/.439 2 Gil Hodges 1659 .279/.364/.498 3 Earl Torgeson 1397 .266/.385/.419 4 Ted Kluszewski 1376 .301/.355/.502 5 Eddie Robinson 1124 .268/.354/.440 6 Ferris Fain 1116 .290/.424/.396 7 Walt Dropo 1095 .270/.325/.435 8 Eddie Waitkus 1040 .286/.345/.375 9 Stan Musial 987 .328/.411/.548 10 Dee Fondy 874 .286/.324/.413 11 Whitey Lockman 766 .273/.335/.379 12 Joe Adcock 754 .288/.341/.515 13 Johnny Mize 721 .287/.376/.528 14 Joe Collins 715 .256/.351/.421
Given the 154-game schedule in use at the time, five years of full-time play is equivalent to 770 games. Only ten players got there. If you want to stretch, you could choose to see the Cardinals‘ Mize and Musial as Hall of Fame first basemen from the period, but they were just passing through. Musial played 2,907 games, 1,016 of them at first base, and the Hall of Fame views him as an outfielder as a result. Mize played only 721 of 1,667 games in this period, putting the bulk of his career in the prewar years.
With the exception of Musial and Mize, this group isn’t much by the standards of the immortals. All had their moments, but most of them, for reasons of injury or the war or simple inconsistency, didn’t have enough of them to sustain great careers. Adcock played in a tough park and was relentlessly platooned out of some of his best seasons. Vernon was famously variable, for example bouncing from .353/.403/.508 in 1946 to .265/.320/.388 in 1947. Judged by WARP3, he had three seasons mid-career that are indistinguishable from the replacement level. Kluszewski had three 40-homer seasons but was done at 32. Dropo led the AL in RBI in 1950 while batting .322/.378/.583 as a 27-year-old rookie, and then never came close to those numbers again. Eddie Waitkus got shot.
One effect of the weakness of the postwar first basemen was that, for a brief period, American League shortstops were offensively competitive with the league’s first basemen, and in one year actually surpassed them: 1948. That season the league’s first basemen batted roughly .257/.342/.362, while the shortstops hit .267/.358/.376. In 1949, the shortstops again came close to out-hitting the first basemen again, losing the lead .262/.366/.371 to the first basemens’ .268/.359/.389.
To go deeper into this historically anomalous season, let’s dip into the American League of 1948, team by team and from the bottom to the top. Note that the league-average hitter batted .266/.349/.382 in an environment in which teams averaged 4.7 runs of offense per game:
White Sox: Shortstop was split between Cass Michaels and Luke Appling. We don’t have splits as yet (Get along, ye good men of Retrosheet!) but Michaels hit .248/.344/.329 on the season, while Appling hit .314/.423/.354. First base was the sole domain of Tony Lupien, who played in every game and had 700 plate appearances, hitting .246/.327/.316 (-1.0 WARP).
Senators: Shortstop was shared between two journeymen, Mark Christman and John Sullivan. Christman hit 259/.303/.318, while Sullivan hit only .208/.297/.243. Both are miserable, but Mickey Vernon didn’t give them much of a challenge. He had one of “those” years, hitting only .242/.310/.333.
Browns: First base was owned by the tandem of Chuck Stevens and Hank Arft (one of the really descriptive baseball names). Shortstop was covered by Eddie Pellagrini and Sam Dente. Pellagrini hit .238/.320/.327, while Dente hit.270/.328/.326. Stevens, a switch-hitter, batted. .261/.354/.351, and Arft barked his way to a .238/.355/.363 season. Browns first basemen weren’t very good, but they were better than their shortstops.
Tigers: The Kitties were experimenting with a rookie first baseman, George Vico, who hit .267/.326/.392. The main shortstop was Johnny Lipon, normally not much of a hitter, but a relative slugger in ’48, batting .290/.384/.397. He was supported by Neil Berry, who hit .266/.358/.305.
Athletics: The Mackmen of Philadelphia were 32 flavors of good at getting on base in ’48 thanks to a plethora of patient hitters. First baseman Ferris Fain, whose post-career adventures would include marijuana farming, batted .281/.412/.396, but shortstop Eddie Joost was right behind him at .250/.393/.395. Both hitters drew over 100 walks.
Yankees: George McQuinn had been a late-career find for the Yankees as a 37-year-old for the champion 1947 Yankees (hitting .304/.395/.437), which is ironic given that he had spent years in the Yankees system and had been left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft at a moment when Lou Gehrig must have seemed immortal. In 1948, McQuinn slumped to .248/.336/.421; given the league’s cohort of first basemen, this was poor only by traditional Yankees standards. Steve Souchock, who would later hit well as a platoon player for the Tigers, batted only .203/.248/.322 as a McQuinn sub, but he was likely offset by Tommy Henrich, who played 52 games at first and batted .308/.391/.554 on the season.
Red Sox: Rookie first baseman/utilityman Billy Goodman gave the Red Sox the first of several good seasons, batting .310/.414/.387, but the position was dragged down by execrable work from journeyman Jake Jones (.200/.276/.267 in 27 games). Shortstop was the domain of Vern Stephens, and Junior batted .269/.350/.471 with 29 home runs. Goodman and Jones hit one home run a piece.
Indians: The World Series-winning Indians had left-hander Eddie Robinson as their primary first baseman. Thought a good hitter in his career, he wasn’t one in ’48, batting just .254/.307/.408. The shortstop was Lou Boudreau, who was the league MVP after hitting .355/.453/.534-still one of the greatest seasons ever recorded by a shortstop.
By 1950 the traditional order had reasserted itself, although the cast at short in the junior circuit remained strong. Yankees shortstop Rizzuto won the MVP after hitting .324/.418/.439 while playing his usual strong defense, Junior Stephens hit another 30 home runs for the Red Sox, and Johnny Lipon batted .293 for the Tigers, but the first basemen had been reshuffled and the quality of play at the position improved, while a key player in the shortstop surge, Boudreau, had succumbed to injuries and wasn’t far from an early retirement. Simultaneously, Dropo was having his Rookie of the Year season for the Red Sox, an the Yankees had acquired Mize and were using him in a platoon role where he would pop 25 home runs in only 274 at-bats. The Indians had pulled slugger Luke Easter from the Negro Leagues, and he hit .280/.373/.487 with 28 home runs as a 34-year-old rookie; his career would be brief but memorable. Elsewhere, Eddie Robinson (now with the White Sox) had remembered how to hit, the Browns got excellent work from rookie Don Lenhardt (supplemented by a rebounding Arft), and Vernon hit a survivable .291/.379/.400.
One possible explanation for the subpar population of first sackers at this time is the war. Shortstops were generally little guys, the types who were not going to be prioritized for recruitment into the armed services. In contrast, first basemen, strapping alpha males, were less likely to be rejected on physical grounds. Potentially more young first basemen had their careers aborted by the fight against fascism than did young shortstops. No such explanation is available for the decline in young infielders today (they haven’t been shipped to Afghanistan), so it may be the golden age of shortstops that seemed to begin with Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, and Alex Rodriguez will peter out with Stephen Drew and Troy Tulowitzki. Bring on the next generation of slugging first basemen and right fielders.