Willie Kamm

There’s a San Francisco baseball name that even most San Francisco baseball fans don’t remember.  Willie Kamm was probably the best defensive 3B man of the first half of the 20th Century.  He was also an effective offensive player to an extent that was recognized in his own day in spite of having very little power.

One of the things that got me interested in Willie Kamm was going out to the Musee Mechanique when it was still at the Cliff House.  They had a pin-ball type baseball game, one using a pin-ball which you hit with a mechanical bat to try to get hits while avoiding the fielder holes.  At 3B was Willie Kamm, going along with top major leaguers and Pacific Coast League (PCL) stars who also had big years in the major leagues like Winters‘ finest Frank Demaree.

I can’t recall if Joe DiMaggio was in CF — anyone been to the Musee Mechanique lately?  The table game I would date to the mid-1930’s.  If DiMaggio is in the game, then the machine probably would almost certainly have to date no earlier than Spring of 1936, when DiMaggio was coming off his huge final season for the San Francisco Seals and had long since been traded to the Yankees.  I also don’t recall if Paul Waner was in right field, but he’d be a good guess because he starred for the San Francisco Seals before reaching greater fame with the Pirates.

Willie Kamm was from San Francisco, although he started his PCL career with the Sacramento Senators at the age of only 18.  He went 2-for-9 in his first four games and was summarily released.  Then the Seals signed him.

It took two years for Kamm to develop both his bat and his glove.  He had a fine season in 1921, and then was completely off the charts at age 22.  He batted .342 with 56 doubles, nine triples and 20 HRs in 650 at-bats and 170 games, while playing elite major league defense for the second year in a row.

He was such a hot prospect, he commanded a then still astounding $100,000 purchase price from the Chicago White Sox, who were looking to replace Buck Weaver, alleged leader of the 1919 Black Sox and also a former Seal, who was banned for life in late September 1920.  The Seals also received Doug McWeeny (great name) and two players to be named later.  McWeeny went 55-24 for the Seals over three seasons between 1922 and 1925 before returning to the majors for good with the Brooklyn Dodgers, so this was a great deal for the Seals on multiple levels.

The deal was so good for the Seals in fact, that even though the transaction was completed on May 29th, they got to keep Kamm for the rest of the 1922 season before sending him east, while McWeeny went 15-7 for the rest of the year in San Francisco.  Impossible to imagine a deal like that today.

Kamm was immediately one of the Junior Circuit’s best defenders at the hot corner in 1923, and he remained such for the next 11 seasons.  He defensive excellence is easy to explain: he consistently made the most plays per game while making the fewest errors per chance.  Of course, some ChiSox fans complained if he made any errors, given how much the team had payed for him.

I would rate Brooks Robinson as a better defensive 3Bman, mainly because he had a longer major league career and was better at turning the double play, but Kamm and Robinson had in common that they made the most plays while making the fewest errors in their respective versions of the American League.

Kamm’s defensive prowess at third base was so well recognized in his own day that, while he could almost certainly have held down SS or 2B as needed, he played every single game of his professional career at 3B.  That is similar to Robinson, who played a total of 30 games at SS and second between 1956 and 1963, but never played another position in the field for the last 14 years of his career.  What you could call the “don’t mess with a good thing” principle.

Kamm’s hands were so good, he claimed he could consistently catch two base runners a season with the hidden ball trick.  I have no reason to believe he was exaggerating.

Kamm couldn’t hit home runs in the majors, finishing his career with a grand total of 29, which was a problem in the lively ball era.  However, Kamm did have the advantage that the 1920’s still valued 3B defense as a hold-over from the 1910’s, when 3B defense was very highly valued indeed.

As such, Kamm’s contributions were appreciated in a way they would not subsequently be appreciated for some time.  Kamm ran well, but was not an effective base-stealer, another holdover from the 1910’s.  Kamm had alley power, hitting between 30 and 39 doubles seven times and between nine and 13 triples four times.  He also walked a lot, including leading the AL with 90 in 1925.

One way to compare Kamm is by comparing him to the Washington Senator’s Ossie Bluege (pronounced Blue-jee) another long-time 3Bman who was about the same age and started his major league career at about the same time.  Bluege played on all three Washington Senators World Series teams (1924, 1925 and 1933) and was generally regarded as a fine defensive 3Bman and valuable major league regular.

In the ten American League seasons both Kamm and Bluege both played at least 800 innings at the hot corner, Kamm bested Bluege to the tune of 21-8-1 in the three major categories of chances per game, fielding percentage and DPs.

Over roughly the same number of career major league plate appearances (7,454 for Bluege, 6,945 for Kamm) Kamm slashed .281/.372/.384 while Bluege slashed .272/.352/.356.  Both played in what were regarded as pitchers’ parks in their era, but I don’t know which was worse for hitters.

Kamm was clearly the better player on both sides of the ball, but he’s no better remembered today than Bluege, because Kamm never played in the World Series and played most of his major league career for White Sox teams that never once made the first division (his last fourCleveland Indians teams finished 3rd or 4th every season).  It’s hard to be seen as a great player when your team never wins.

A couple of other stories from Kamm’s career and later life I found interesting were that, while he was generally considered a good teammate, he got in trouble late in his career with the Indians for giving young players too much advice.  The new Cleveland manager was Walter Johnson — that Walter Johnson.  Apparently, Johnson, like a lot of formerly great players was not a great manager.  I don’t know whether how Kamm delivered his “advice” or whether Johnson thought Kamm was a threat to his leadership, but it in interesting fact for someone who seems to have been a pretty sober ballplayer.

Kamm’s playing career ended with the Mission Reds back in the PCL in 1936, a team he managed in 1936 and 1937.  He was then at age 37 reportedly able to retire on his investments, having been told at some time presumably early in his career by Seals owner George Putnam to invest in Pacific Gas & Electric and General Motors stock and holding on the stock even when the stock market crashed in 1929.

An earlier Seals owner C.H. Strub in September or October of 1918 had convinced Kamm to sign a contract with the Seals rather than enlisting in the navy by telling him that the war would be over in a month based on how the stock market was performing.  The war ended approximately one month after Kamm signed his contract, and he apparently never forgot the lesson.

Kamm passed away in Belmont, California at the age of 88 in 1988.  At least in  my little corner of the Bay Area, Willie Kamm has not been entirely forgotten.

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Explore posts in the same categories: American League, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Minor Leagues, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Washington Senators

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