Liveball to Integration (1921-1960)
I elected ten shortstops to the Hall of Very Good from the middle era of baseball. But I still didn’t close the gap on the Hall of Merit as they elected ten of their own: Dick Lundy, Dobie Moore, Joe Sewell, Joe Cronin, Arky Vaughan, Willie Wells, Luke Appling, Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese and Ernie Banks.
Dave Bancroft (1915-1930), Travis Jackson (1923-1936) and Dick Bartell (1928-1943) took turns as New York Giants shortstops in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Bancroft started with the Phillies before being traded to New York. Four years later, he was traded to the Braves to make room for the younger Jackson. In the eight seasons from 1919 to 1926, Bancroft had a 111 OPS+ in 4466 plate attempts. He finished with a 98 for his career. He was also an excellent defender with +93 fielding runs. Jackson spent his entire career with the Giants. He was another great defender with +139 runs, though he spent some time at 3B at the beginning and end of his career for 307 games total. Jackson has a 102 OPS+ for his career including 3 seasons over 120 in ’26, ’27 and ’30. Bartell started out with the Pirates and Phillies before being coming to the Giants in 1935. Bartell had a 96 OPS+ for his career, with a career-best season of 124 in 1937. Bartell was another very good defender. He’s credited with +40 runs for his career and he had back-to-back seasons over 20 in 1936 and ’37. Bartell missed the ’44 and ’45 seasons due to World War II though his career was already winding down by that point.
Sam Bankhead (1930-1950) was an incredible athlete who played six different positions and even pitched briefly. He was also an incredible nomad, playing in Birmingham, Nashville, Louisville, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Santo Domingo, Memphis, Toledo, Monterey and Canada. However, he was most often associated with the Homestead Grays for whom he played from 1942 to 1950. Bankhead had a bullet arm and a big bat, with multiple seasons hitting .350 or higher.
Cecil Travis (1933-’41, ’45-’47) was one of the best hitting shortstops in the American League. He spent his entire career with the Washington Senators. He had a 108 OPS+ in 5400 plate attempts. However, Travis lost out on his age 28, 29 and 30 seasons to military service during World War II. Before leaving for the war, Travis led the AL in1941 in hits with 218 and posted an impressive 150 OPS+.
Bus Clarkson (1937-’42, ’46-‘56) was one of the overlooked stars of the Negro Leagues. He’s underappreciated partly because he played for the Philadelphia Stars and not one of the era’s dynasties. But he’s also responsible for his own lack of reverence as he frequently jumped back and forth between the US and Mexico. After integration, Clarkson played in the high minors in Milwaukee and Dallas. He also had a short stint with the Boston Braves at the age of 37.
Phil Rizzuto (1941-’42, ’46-’56) and Johnny Pesky (1942, ’46-’54) are two of the most famous post-war shortstops, playing for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox respectively. Rizzuto was the better defender, with +115 fielding runs for his career and +20 seasons in his first two years. Pesky was the better hitter, with seasons of 119 and 125 OPS+ on either side of his military service. Pesky led the American League in hits three times (’42, ’46 and ’47). Rizzuto had the best individual season when he combined a 122 OPS+ with +11 defense in 1950.
Vern Stephens (1942-1955) was a big hitting shortstop for the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox. He led the American League in RBI in 1944 and in home runs in ’45. Then, he proved that he wasn’t a wartime fluke by leading the league in RBI again in’49 and ’50. Stephens finished his career with a 119 OPS+ in 7200 plate attempts.
Artie Wilson (1944-1957) was the last great shortstop of the Negro Leagues. He was named to the East-West All-Star game in four of his five seasons and he led the Birmingham Black Barons to pennants in 1944 and ’48. That latter team also featured a young Willie Mays. Wilson is credited with a .375 career batting average for his Negro League play. After integration, Wilson went to the west coast where he played for Oakland, San Diego, Seattle, Portland and Sacramento. He also had a cup of coffee with the New York Giants in 1951.
Lingering Doubts and Second Guesses
There’s not a lot to second guess with this group. I suppose it looks a little odd that I elected three straight shortstops from the same franchise (New York Giants). That’s going to jump to four when I elect Art Fletcher who preceded Bancroft. But that’s a testimony to manager John McGraw’s eye for talent, not a prejudice on my part. They’re all solid candidates, with 46.4, 43.3 and 37.7 WAR.
The biggest difficulty with this group was the issue of war credit. That was another debate in the early days of the Hall of Merit. This time, the founders came down in favor of war credit. The issue was being “fair to all eras.” It’s not fair to compare Pesky, Rizzuto or Travis to shortstops of other eras without accounting for the fact that they missed several seasons due to military service. They may look like short career candidates with 10, 12 and 13 seasons but their career totals would look a lot better if they hadn’t been prevented from playing those years.
As you can tell, I agree with the idea of war credit. It isn’t going to turn a nobody into a Hall of Famer or elevate a scrub into the Hall of Very Good. The player had to establish a certain talent level before or after a war in order to earn commensurate credit. Yet war credit evens the field when comparing players across eras. It can show that an otherwise borderline candidate is actually a deserving one. Cecil Travis’ 26.6 career WAR looks a little light until 3 years worth of credit bumps him up to a clearly worthy 38.3. And it can show that an otherwise middle-of-the-pack inductee is actually one of the best players at his position. Phil Rizzuto’s 41.8 career WAR is already good enough for the HoVG but, with three years of credit, his 53.1 WAR becomes the highest for all eligible shortstops.
I also took an additional look at the Negro League inductees although I didn’t sweat it too much. Clarkson finished 19th in the last Hall of Merit election, landing him between Rizzuto and Pesky. Wilson was another easy selection, having received HoM support in the past. The only question mark for me was Bankhead. My second look confirmed that I was right the first time. Bankhead received 32% of the vote in the Cool Papa candidacy poll, placing him ahead of Wilson, Clarkson and even HoMer Dobie Moore. Plus, Bankhead had the numbers to back up the reputation.
Surprising Omissions and Near Misses
Once again, there are a lot of shortstops to talk about- players I might have missed, players who are sabermetric favorites, players who got Hall of Fame attention, and players who toiled in Latin America or the Negro Leagues.
I’ll start with the sabermetric favorites. Eddie Joost is one of the three “Eddies” along with Stanky and Yost. All three played in the infield in the post-war era and drew a lot of walks. Joost is the shortstop and yes he drew a lot of walks. His on-base percentage is 122 points higher than his batting average. However, even with those walks, his career OPS+ is only 99. That’s not enough for an average defender. Fielding runs has Joost with a slight positive (+5) and WAR has him as a slight negative (-1.5). His career WAR is below 30, even with war credit.
Gil McDougald is another sabermetric favorite, though he’s not actually a shortstop. I classified McDougald at short because that’s where he had his best year but that was a goof on my part. He spent twice as much time at 2B. However, that’s a question of category not of quality. McDougald hit for a 111 OPS+, nice for any of the glove positions. Initially, I wasn’t impressed with McDougald because of his short career (10 seasons and less than 5400 plate attempts). I also graded McDougald out as an average defender but newer statistics cast him in a better light. He ranked in the top four in total zone runs every year from ’53 to ’60 and is 25th all-time at 2B. That level of defense makes McDougald an intriguing candidate. He has an even 40 WAR for his career, well within the range of the Hall of Very Good.
The Hall of Fame favorites are Marty Marion and Harvey Kuenn. Marion had a reputation as one of the all-time great defensive shortstops and was a part of three World Series champions for St. Louis. That helped him earn as much as 40% in Hall of Fame voting. The defensive rep is deserved. His +130 fielding runs ranks as one of the highest marks in this era. But without Maranville’s career length or Aparicio’s baserunning, it’s not enough to turn a player with a career OPS+ of 81 into a credible candidate. Harvey Kuenn played in 10 All-Star games and topped out at 39.3% in the Hall of Fame vote. But his All-Star case is artificially bolstered by a couple of years in which the league had 2 games. Plus, he was a brutal defensive player, who spent more time in the outfield than at short and was still -87 fielding runs for his career. They each had their value, but not enough to make the Hall of Very Good.
Then there are the two players I probably missed: Al Dark and Dick Groat. Dark is yet another Giants shortstop though he doesn’t follow immediately after Bartell. He does follow the same mold though. His OPS+ of 98 is in the same neighborhood as Bancroft (98) and Bartell (96). Plus, he’s an above-average defender (+33). Dark’s 38.6 WAR is well within the HoVG range. Dick Groat is a different specimen. His OPS+ looks a little low at 89, but it’s comparable to shortstops from the next era like Campaneris or Concepcion. He was also an excellent fielder (+48 fielding runs). Furthermore, I missed it initially but Groat deserves a little bit of war credit early in his career as he missed two years due to service in Korea. That little bump helps separate Groat from his peers.
I also look another look at shortstops from the Negro Leagues though I didn’t change my mind on any of them. They’re still mostly guys with one good year or with a good glove but no bat. It’s possible that new information from Seamheads.com will uncover a player I previously disregarded but for now I’m in good shape with the shortstops I have.
The Latin players, however, came out better than I expected. Silvio Garcia looks very similar to his contemporaries, Dark and Groat. Depending on the source, his offensive numbers are either a little better or a little worse than those two. His slash line in two seasons with the New York Cubans is an impressive .325/.374/.513 (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) though his MLEs have him slightly lower for his career. One of the things holding me back in regards to Garcia is that he didn’t play in the top leagues after integration. He went to the independent Provincial League in Quebec and wasn’t facing the same competition as Clarkson in the American Association or Wilson in the Pacific Coast League. Even so, Garcia’s resume is good enough that he cracks my top ten for eligible shortstops.
The top of the list, however, belongs to Perucho Cepeda. I didn’t induct Cepeda for a simple reason: I didn’t think he was eligible. The Hall of Merit rules stated that international players are eligible only if they played part of their career in North America. Cepeda played all over Latin America but never in the US. It was a principled stand against segregation and I felt bad for holding it against him. However, I was told in a recent HoM discussion that I misinterpreted the rule. It was designed as a fence against Japanese and Cuban players for whom MLEs (major league equivalencies) would be impossible. It shouldn’t be held against Cepeda who played against Hall of Famers like Josh Gibson and Roy Campanella. I was happy to be corrected. If Cepeda is eligible, he’s an automatic inductee. He was a great hitter at a premium position. He beat Josh Gibson for one batting title and hit .400 twice.
In fact, I’m declaring Cepeda retroactively admitted to the Hall of Very Good since it was a question of eligibility instead of quality. I did the same thing with Tony Perez when I inadvertently missed his eligibility. The Hall of Very Good just grew by one.