The Worst of the Best, Part I: Batting Average, Home Runs & Stolen Bases
I thought it would be fun to do a series on players who led their leagues in major performance categories who went on to have less than stellar careers, or at least had the lowest career numbers in the categories in which they led the league at least one time. If nothing else, I hope it will provide you, gentle reader, with some good baseball trivia with which to challenge and/or stump your friends.
In this Part I, I will identify players who had the worst career numbers after leading their leagues in batting average, home runs and stolen bases one or more times. [A few notes here — only retired players are considered; also, I don’t consider the Union Association of 1884 a “major” league (not enough major league caliber players), and I decided to leave out Federal League leaders because, while I consider it a major league caliber league, it only lasted two seasons and many of its stars didn’t have substantial major league careers before or after their time in the Federal League. Instead, I will simply note if a Federal League leader would otherwise qualify.]
Lowest Career Average by a One-Time Batting Leader. Snuffy Stirnweiss: led AL with .309 average in 1945, .268 career batting average. Stirnweiss had two terrific seasons for the Yankees as their starting 2Bman during the War years of 1944 and 1945 while Joe Gordon was in the service. Offense was way down during the heart of WWII, and Stirnweiss’ .309 average is one of the lowest ever to lead a major league season. Aside from being a good hitter, Stirnweiss was a great base stealer. When the regulars came back in 1946, Stirnweiss’ offensive production declined considerably.
Honorable mentions: Terry Pendleton: .319 NL 1991, .270 career average. Pendleton was a great defensive 3Bman, who had only two really great years with the bat (1991 and 1992) in a fifteen year career.
Norm Cash: .361 AL 1961, .271 career average. In an American League expansion year, Cash had a breakout season at age 26. He never hit higher than .286 in any other season of his 17 year major league career. Cash was still a great hitter, hitting with power and drawing a lot of walks, particularly after the strike zone was lengthened before the 1963 season and offense plummeted in both leagues.
Guy Hecker: .341 American Association 1886, .282 career average. Aside from having the lowest career batting average of any batting title winner in the 19th century, Hecker is also the only regular starting pitcher to win a batting title. Hecker played first base when he wasn’t pitching. Hecker also led the American Association in wins and ERA (52 and 1.80 respectively) in 1884.
Lowest Career Average by a Two- or More Time Batting Leader. Carl Yastrzemski: .321 AL 1963, .301 AL 1968, .326 AL 1969; .285 career batting average. Yaz’s peak seasons were played during the worst period for batting averages in major league baseball’s long history. His .301 average in 1968 is the lowest average ever to lead a major league. Yaz was also something of a good-year-bad-year hitter, particularly when it came to his batting averages. He also played well into his 40’s, putting in nine seasons after the last time he hit .300 or better in 1974.
Honorable mention. Mickey Vernon: .353 AL 1946, .337 AL 1953; .286 career batting average. Playing in the previous era when batting averages were still fairly robust, Vernon was one of the all-time great good-year-bad-year hitters. He hit .300 or better four times in his career and hit .290 or better in five other seasons. However, he also had seasons during his prime when he hit .242, .251, .265 and .268. Vernon’s home park was Griffith Stadium, one of baseball’s worst hitters’ parks, and that had a lot to do with Vernon’s strange stats. Vernon played in 20 major league seasons in spite of missing two years to WWII, finishing his career at age 42.
No player has ever led his league in batting average four or more times and finished with a career average below .300.
Fewest Career HRs by a One-Time League Leader since 1900. Fred Odwell: 9 NL 1905; 10 career. The answer here (and for all multiple-time winners) was obviously going to be from the dead-ball/dirty-ball era between 1900 to 1920. Even so, Odwell’s record is particularly striking. A 31 year old rookie outfielder for the 1904 Cincinnati Reds, Odwell hit .284 with 22 doubles, ten triples and one HR. The next season, he led the NL with nine dingers, but nobody took notice in an era when HR leaders got about as much attention as triples leaders do today.
More importantly, Odwell batted only .241 with few walks and not a lot of stolen bases, a statistic highly valued in the dead-ball era. Odwell looks to have been a platoon player for the Reds in 1906 and 1907, playing in 154 games but hitting no more home runs before returning to the minors for the last five seasons of his professional career.
Fewest Career HRs by a One-Time League Leader since 1920. Tommy Holmes: 28 NL 1945; 88 career. During the War years of 1943-1945 with rubber being rationed, the baseballs in use didn’t have the same resiliency of the pre- or post-war balls and home run totals were way down. Also, the league leaders during these seasons tended to suffer drop-offs after the regulars came back in 1946. Holmes hit 13 HRs in 1944, 28 in 1945 and never hit more than nine in any season before or after. Holmes also famously set the modern National League record with a 37 game hitting streak during the 1945 season, a record which Pete Rose broke in 1978.
Honorable mentions. Nick Etten: 22 AL 1944; 89 career. Same story as Tommy Holmes above.
Ripper Collins: 35 NL 1934; 135 career. Collins was a fine player who didn’t reach the majors until age 27. However, he played on three Senior Circuit pennant winners between 1931 and 1938. He also hit 193 minor league home runs and recorded a total of 2,958 hits as a professional ballplayer.
Fewest Career HRs by a Two-Time Leader since 1900. Tim Jordan: 12 NL 1906, 12 NL 1908; 32 career. Jordan was a strong offensive 1Bman for the era, but his defense probably wasn’t good enough at a time when 1B defense was a lot more important than it is today. He played regularly for the Brooklyn Superbas (now Dodgers) for four seasons from 1906 through 1909 and that was it.
Fewest Career HRs by a Two-Time Leader since 1920. Al Rosen: 37 AL 1950, 43 AL 1953; 192 career. Rosen’s career was negatively affected by the Second World War, and he was a major league regular for just seven seasons between 1950 and 1956, after which back and leg problems ended his playing career. Twenty years later he went into baseball management, ultimately serving as the Giants’ president and general manager from 1985 to 1992, a period of great success for the San Francisco club.
Fewest Career HRs by a Three- or More Time Leader since 1900. Harry Davis: 10 AL 1904, 8 AL 1905, 12 AL 1906 and 8 AL 1907; 75 career. A great star for the Philadelphia Athletics in their first decade of existence, Davis’ league leading HR totals probably had a lot to do with the dimensions of the Athletics’ ballpark of that era, although the same can probably be said for a majority of league leading home run hitters in any era.
Fewest Career HRs by a Three- or More Time Leader since 1920. Hack Wilson: 21 NL 1926, 30 NL 1927, 31 NL 1928, and 56 NL 1930; 244 career. One of the great early sluggers of the lively-ball/clean-ball era, Wilson’s career was cut short by alcoholism.
Fewest Career HRs by a Five- or More Time Leader since 1900. Gavvy “Cactus” Cravath: 19 NL 1913, 19 NL 1914, 24 NL 1915, 12 NL 1917, 8 NL 1918, and 12 NL 1919; career 119. Cravath would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he were born 20 years later than he was. He didn’t establish himself as a major league regular until age 31. As a major leaguer, his home run totals benefited enormously from playing half his games in Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, a true band box of a baseball park, at least to right field. Since Cravath was a right-handed hit, I have to think that he was extremely good at hitting the ball deep the other way.
Fewest Career HRs by a Five- or More Time Leader since 1920. Ralph Kiner: 23 NL 1946, 51 NL 1947, 40 NL 1948, 54 NL 1949, 47 NL 1950, 42 NL 1951, 37 NL 1952; career 369. Kiner’s career was short (ten seasons), but while it lasted few hit ’em deep as often as he did. Other than for his home runs, Kiner is remembered today as the only great player on a long string of pretty bad Pittsburgh Pirate teams and also for being a former radio broadcaster for the New York Mets known for his malapropisms.
Fewest Career Stolen Bases by a One-Time League Leader since 1900. Danny Murtaugh: 18 NL 1941; 49 career. A light-hitting middle infielder mostly for the Phillies and Pirates during his playing days, Murtaugh went on to much greater success as a long-time Pirates’ field manager, winning two World Series crowns (1960 and 1971) and making the play-offs three other times.
Fewest Career Stolen Bases by a Two-Time League Leader since 1900. Pete Reiser: 20 NL 1942, 43 NL 1946; 87 career. Pistol Pete lost three seasons (1943-1945) to WWII and his career ended early due to his bad habit of running into and sometimes through outfield walls. Otherwise, he’d have stolen a lot more bases.
Fewest Career Stolen Bases by a Three-Time League Leader since 1900. Bob Dillinger: 34 AL 1947, 28 AL 1948, 20 AL 1949; 106 career. A fine player whose major league career didn’t begin until he was 27 years old because of the War, he played only six major league seasons. His last great professional hurrah was leading the Pacific Coast League with a .366 batting average in 1953 while playing for the independent Sacramento Solons. His lack of power was probably a bigger reason for his short major league career than his late start.
Fewest Career Stolen Bases by a Four-Time League Leader since 1900. Ben Chapman: 61 AL 1931, 38 AL 1932, 27 AL 1933, and 35 AL 1937; 287 career. A long-time major league outfielder who also pitched in 25 major league games late in his career, Chapman, a born and bred Southerner, is best known today as the manager who led the racial abuse of Jackie Robinson spewing from the Phillies’ dugout when Robinson and the Dodgers came to play in Philadelphia in 1947.
Fewest Career Stolen Bases by a Five- or More Time League Leader since 1900. George Case: 51 AL 1939, 35 AL 1940, 33 AL 1941, 44 AL 1942, 61 AL 1943 and 28 AL 1946; 349 career. Case was far and away the best base stealer of the era I’ll describe below. He had a sudden drop-off as a hitter at age 29 in 1946, and he retired early the next season because of chronic back problems that had plagued him for years.
It’s worth noting that everyone of the base stealers listed above led his league at some time between 1931 and 1949, the era with the least base stealing since stolen base records began to be kept in the late 1880’s. While it is commonly asserted that black players starting with Jackie Robinson brought base stealing back to major league baseball and there is some truth to that proposition, it is also true that the way the game was played on the field also dictated how much or how little base stealing was attempted.
The period between 1920 and 1950 was one of tremendous offense in major league baseball. Once the hold-over dead-ball era stars had all retired by 1930, there was little reason to risk getting thrown out trying to steal when the next hitter was relatively more likely to get a hit and hit with power.
During the dead-ball era, when players ran all the time and the game was dominated by one-run strategies, stolen base success rates appear not to have been particularly high (although it’s hard to tell because caught stealing was not consistently kept as an official statistic). With the catcher’s equipment improving steadily from the dead-ball era into the lively-ball era, it seems likely that catchers got better at throwing out base runners as time passed.
What black players most likely brought back to the major leagues in the late 1940’s was using base stealing as a weapon to distract and unhinge the pitcher and the defense and also more players who could steal bases at a rate high enough (at least 70% success) to make base stealing a positive contribution to scoring runs in a game dominated by the long ball. As offense began to decline sharply after 1950, first due to parity in the major league game and then after the 1961-1962 expansion by lengthening the strike zone, the relative value of base running increased again.
From 1943 through 1945, when the war-time baseball killed offense, stolen base numbers rose and then dropped again when the war ended and offense rebounded (teams averaged 58.2 stolen bases per season from 1940-1942, 60.5 stolen bases per season from 1943-1945, and only 51.2 stolen bases per season from 1946-1948). This is likely no coincidence and would have been more pronounced if the decrease in offense associated with the war had lasted longer than three seasons.