The Worst Hitting Position Player Ever

The extreme offensive ineptitude of the free agent catchers (as a group) available this year has got me to thinking about the catcher who was almost certainly the worst hitting position player ever to have a significant major league career.  That player is catcher Bill Bergen, who played semi-regularly for eleven seasons for the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Superbas/Trolley Dodgers between 1901 and 1911.

This was during major league baseball’s greatest pitchers’ era, even better for hurlers than the years from 1963 through 1968.  Even so, Bergen’s batting totals were just astoundingly bad.  Bergen had a career .170 batting average, a career .201 slugging percentage, and (according to Baseball Almanac) a career .395 OPS.  Wow!

What’s even more amazing is how regularly Bergen played.  His hitting was so poor that he was never a true starter.  However, except for 1907 when he was limited to 138 at-bats (was he injured that year?), he accumulated between 207 and 353 at-bats in ten different seasons.

To give Bergen his due, in 1903 he hit a lusty .227.  It was the only season in his career in which he hit better than .190.

It goes without saying that Bergen must have been one of the three or four best defensive catchers anywhere in organized (white professional) baseball.  While the period from 1901 through 1911 seems early in major league baseball’s history today, at that point even the worst major teams didn’t have to put up with a catcher who hit like Bergen unless he brought a lot to the table defensively.

Needless to say, however, the teams on which Bergen played were not good teams.  In his eleven seasons his teams finished with a record above .500 exactly once and finished at .500 one more time.  No matter how good his defense was, it’s hard to win when you are giving hundreds of plate appearances each season to player who hits as poorly as Bergen did, even in the dead-ball era.

To give you a more accurate idea of just how bad Bergen was as a hitter, even in his own era, I decided to compare him to every National League pitcher (Bergen played exclusively in the NL) who played at least semi-regularly (roughly 100 IP) for eight or more seasons between 1900 and 1919.  (Please note my selection criteria is not perfectly exact: I may have missed a couple of pitchers who should have qualified and was perhaps a bit too lenient in allowing in others.  However, it will give you a general idea of what the longer lasting National League pitchers of that era hit.  Also, I excluded players like Walter “The Big Train” Johnson (note that Johnson played his career in the AL), who met the ten year criteria, but got a lot of at-bats in the lively-ball era beginning with the 1920 season, at least if it seemed obvious they hit better in the lively ball era. I also excluded pitchers who played significantly before 1898, which was about the time the batting numbers really started to drop.)

Here’s what I found (players are rated in terms of career OPS):

1. Claude Hendrix .640   2. Jack Taylor .564   3. Lefty Tyler .557   4.  Christy Mathewson .544   5. Hooks Wiltse .521   6. “Long” Bob Ewing .485   7. Larry Cheney .484   8. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown .483   9. Dick Rudolf .482   10. “Hickory” Bob Harmon .470   11. Deacon Phillippe .469   12. Sam Leever .463   13. Chick Fraser .461   14.  Hippo Vaughn .454   15. “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity .446   16. Nap Rucker .443   17. Slim Sallee .412   18. Rube Marquard .410   19. Vic Willis .399   20. Bill Bergen .395 21. Ed Ruelbach .387   22. Red Ames .363   23. Dummy Taylor .362   24. Tully Sparks .315   25. Togie Pittinger .280

As you can see, there weren’t a lot of good hitting pitchers in the NL during this era.  The AL appears to have had better hitting pitchers at this time, particularly because Al Orth (.663 career OPS) and Jesse Tannehill (.650) jumped to the new league in 1902 and 1903, respectively.  Also, some of the big stars who split their careers between the deadball era and the lively ball era, were pretty good hitters even before clean baseballs were always in play.  Walter Johnson (.616 career OPS), Babe Adams (.532) and Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander (.517) got left out of my list, because, while their hitting did not improve tremendously in the lively ball era beginning in 1920, their hitting definitely did improve.  I most notably left in Rube Marquard among pitchers whose careers spanned both eras, because his hitting didn’t improve significantly, unlike most pitchers and position players in the 1920’s.

Just how bad is finishing 20th out of 25 in my list above.  Pretty bad.  Pitchers as a group were much better hitters than they are today, both because starters got a lot more plate appearances than they do today and also because the overall quality of major league play is much higher now than it was then, no matter what the old-timers will have you believe.

Nevertheless, by at least 1885, professional baseball teams had realized pitchers who could get hitters out were a lot more valuable than pitchers who could hit.  By 1900, pitchers were expected to be able to pitch, and if they could hit a little too, well, that was gravy.  If a pitcher was good on the hill but couldn’t hit a lick, that was O.K., so long as he was at least capable of laying down the sacrifice bunt to push the runners up a base.  In short, by 1900 no teams were choosing their pitching staffs based on which pitchers could best swing the stick.

Another thing to note is that while pitchers got a lot more plate appearances per season than they do now, Bill Bergen still got between 100 and 200 more plate appearances per season than any of the pitchers he played with or against.  You have to figure that if even the worst hitting pitchers of that era got as many plate appearances as Bergen got, they would have come close to his numbers.

It would be interesting to read what the Reach Guides of that era thought of Bill Bergen’s defense (SABR’s bio says his defense was impressive).  Because of all the bunting and chop hitting that took place in the deadball era, the best catchers had to be very mobile, and third base and particularly first base were much more important defensive positions than they are today.

On August 23, 1909, Bergen throw out six would-be Cardinal base stealers, and his career average of 1.53 assists per game is probably the highest of any catcher who has played at least 900 games at the position.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, National League, Uncategorized

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