The Worst of the Best, Part III: RBIs
Continuing on with my series on players with the lowest career totals in major offensive categories in which they led their league on or more times, the category in this post is RBIs. You can find Part I of the series here, and Part II here.
Fewest Career RBIs by a One-Time League Leader. Joe Nealon: 83 NL 1906; 130 career RBIs. Nealon’s league leading figure is low even for the dead-ball/dirty-ball era, but the reason he didn’t put up bigger career numbers is that illness ended his career and then his life very young.
A Northern California product, Nealon not surprisingly started his professional career playing for teams in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose in the California State League. A big year for the San Francisco Seals of the higher level Pacific Coast League in 1905 (Nealon had 208 hits, 64 for extra bases, fine numbers for the aught years of the 20th century), and the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired the young 1Bman’s rights at the tender age of 21.
Nealon rewarded the Pirates with a fine rookie season. While he batted only .255 with a .679 OPS in 1906, the league averages were .244 and .620. He finished tied for third in triples (12), tied for tenth in HRs (3), eleventh in doubles (21) and eight in total bases (196). With the league’s best hitter Honus Wagner batting earlier in the Pirates’ line-up, Nealon had plenty of RBI opportunities, and he finished tied with the Cubs’ Harry Steinfeldt for the league lead. [Steinfeltdt is best remembered today as the answer the to the trivia question “who played third base for the Cubs when Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance was the Cubs’ famous double play trio?”]
It is worth noting that RBIs did not become an official major league statistic until 1920 — Nealon’s and Steinfeldt’s league-leading figures were calculated years after the fact and they received no acclaim at the time they actually accomplished their league-leading feats. Nevertheless, the Pirates had to be thrilled with the promise of their slugging young 1Bman.
Nealon didn’t hit with quite the same power in 1907, but he was still above the league averages in batting and OPS. However, his season ended early when he developed tuberculosis. This ended his major league career, but Nealon was able to recover and resume his professional career back home in Sacramento for the town’s California League franchise in the second half of the 1908 season. He batted .362 in 62 games and played a full season for the California League’s Oakland franchise the next summer. Still only 24 years old, it looked like Nealon might work his way back to the majors or at least become a Pacific Coast League star.
Instead, Nealon contracted typhoid pneumonia in the late winter or early spring of 1910 and died on April 2nd at the age of 25. Nealon isn’t remembered at all today, but he serves as a reminder of just how fragile life can be.
Honorable mention. Dutch Zwilling: 94 Federal League 1915; 202 career RBIs. One of the Federal League’s top sluggers, Zwilling retroactively led the Feds in RBIs in 1915 after finishing tied for third the year before. A career high minor leaguer who played 12 seasons in the American Association and the Western League, Zwilling failed in brief trials for the 1910 White Sox and the 1916 Cubs but blossomed for the Chicago Whales during the Feds’ two year existence. If you don’t already know, the Cubs’ current ballpark Wrigley Field was originally built by the Whales and sold to the Cubs when the Federal League collapsed.
Ken “Hawk” Harrelson: 109 AL 1968; 421 career RBIs. The lively-ball/clean-ball record holder in this category, Ken Harrelson was a man ahead of his time. He hit for power and drew a lot of walks but his career batting average was very low. 1968, the year he led the league, was far and away his best season as a major leaguer. Harrelson is currently a long-time broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox.
Fewest Career RBIs by a Two-Time League Leader. Buck Freeman: 121 AL 1902, 104 AL 1903; 713 career RBIs. One of the great home run hitters of the dead-ball era, Freeman belted 64 round-trippers during the six seasons from 1899 through 1904, including 25 in 1899 alone. Freeman’s ability to slug ’em long wasn’t fully appreciated in his day and thus didn’t establish himself as a major league player until age 27. His hitting also fell off dramatically after age 32, although he had one final hurrah at the age of 35 for the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers in 1907.
Honorable mention. Al Rosen: 105 AL 1952, 145 AL 1953; 717 career RBIs. Al Rosen appeared in Part I of this series as a result of leading the Junior Circuit in home runs in 1950 and 1953, while slugging only 192 in his career. Rosen was a tremendous player for a short period of time.
Gavvy Cravath: 128 NL 1913, 115 NL 1915; 719 career RBIs. Cactus Gavvy also appeared in Part I of this series for his record-setting home run excellence. As I said in Part I, he would have been a Hall of Famer if born 20 years later. However, even as it was, he had a pretty good life, spending 36 years as a Laguna Beach, California judge after his playing days were over.
Fewest Career RBIs by a Three-Time League Leader. Jackie Jensen: 116 AL 1955, 122 AL 1958, 112 AL 1959; 929 career RBIs. Born in San Francisco, Jensen attended Oakland Technical High School and UC Berkeley, where he starred in football and baseball, before his professional career began — he was the first and only player to play in the Rose Bowl, the College World Series, the World Series and an MLB All-Star game.
Jensen started his professional career with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League and was sold, along with fellow East Bay product Billy Martin, to the Yankees before the 1950 season. The Yankees of that era were so overloaded with talent, however, that Jensen couldn’t break into the starting line-up despite his obvious talents. In May of 1952, the Yankees traded Jensen to the Washington Senators in a six-player deal with Irv Noren as the main piece going to the Bombers.
The Senators’ Griffith Park was an extremely bad park for home run hitters, and while Jensen showed promise, he hit only 20 HRs for the Senators over two seasons (four at home, but 16 on the road). Jensen’s physical talents (he was a true five-tool player) were enormous and after the 1953 season, the Red Sox traded pitcher Mickey McDermott, who was coming off an 18-10 season for the Crimson Hose and was not yet 25 years old, and their starting center fielder as a 23 year old rookie Tom Umphlett for the soon to be 27 year old Jensen. It turned out to be a much better deal for the Sox.
Jensen was fantastic for the Red Sox for the next six seasons, driving in more than 100 runs five times and 97 in the other year. However, at the young age of 32, he announced his retirement from baseball in January 1960, both because he had a fear of flying (air travel had become a fact of MLB life by this time as teams moved to Kansas City in 1955 and Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958 and the American League’s further expansion in 1961 was anticipated) and also because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and young children. Jensen came back from retirement in 1961, but his fear of air travel had not dissipated, and he retired for good after the 1961 season.
Fewest Career RBIs by a Four-Time League Leader. Sherry Magee: 85 NL 1907, 123 NL 1910, 103 NL 1914 and 76 NL 1918; 1,176 career RBIs. Another great player you may never have heard of, Magee was the best player on the Philadelphia Phillies for most of the period from 1904 through 1914 at least until Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander joined the team in 1911. Magee went straight to the Phillies from semi-pro ball at the age of 19, which was extremely rare even in those days, and he quickly became a star as a corner outfielder.
Magee also quickly developed a reputation as a hot-head and a guy who “crabbed” at teammates when they made mistakes. Veteran player and future Black Sox manager Kid Gleason kept a leather belt in his locker which he administered to wayward young players on occasion, and Gleason took the belt to Magee more than once in the latter’s first few years with the club. In 1911, Magee was suspended for 29 games after he knocked out umpire Bill Finneran with a short left after Finneran threw Magee out of the game for throwing his bat after a third strike call Magee didn’t agree with.
After 11 seasons as a Phillie, Magee was traded to the defending World Series champion Boston Braves in December 1914. The Phillies promptly won the pennant in 1915 for the only time between 1900 and 1949. However, Magee finally got to play in a World Series in the last year of his major league career with the Reds in 1919. Although he had skipped the minor leagues on the way up, when his major league career ended, Magee spent seven years playing in the high minors. He then briefly became a National League umpire in 1928, an irony given his reputation as an umpire-baiter during his playing days. However, he developed pneumonia in the late winter of 1929 and died on March 13, 1929 at the relatively young age of 44.
Aside from the fact that he died young, Sherry Magee also has the misfortune of having a name very similar to Lee Magee, another player of the same era, who was banned for life from organized baseball after the 1919 season because of his involvement in game fixing. I know that I have a habit of confusing the two, and I’m sure I’m not the only baseball fan who has done so.