Friday, January 1, 2016

The bizarre 1926 NL batting championship

If you look at the National League batting champions in the 1920s, you will see, for the most part, a litany of familiar names.
Rogers Hornsby leads the parade, unsurprisingly, considering that his batting average for the decade was a lofty .382. Hornsby took seven of the ten batting championships available in the 1920s. (Astoundingly, that gave him neither the record for the highest batting average, nor the one for the most titles, in a decade. Ty Cobb batted .387 in the 1910-1919 period, leading the league in nine of the ten years.)
Two of the other championships went to superstars as well:
Paul Waner, a Hall of Famer with a .333 lifetime average, won in 1927, when Hornsby slumped to a mere .363 and had to settle for second place behind Waner's .380.

Lefty O'Doul won in 1929. Hornsby hit .380 that year, but O'Doul went hog wild and batted .398.

This brings us to the first of what will undoubtedly be many digressions: the saga of Lefty O'Doul. He had a lifetime batting average of .349. Outside of the Negro Leagues, only three men in the 20th century finished with a higher average. You've heard of them: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby and Shoeless Joe Jackson. Yet O'Doul is not in the Hall of Fame. You are wondering why, because he did not play in a distant time with different rules, but alongside Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby and the other great stars of the 20s. It's because his career was quite short. In fact it didn't really start until he was 31 years old.

You see, Frank O'Doul came up as a pitcher. From 1917 until 1924, including four different major league seasons during that period, he was struggling to prove his merit on the mound. It just never worked out for him. In those four major league seasons he pitched a total of only 77 innings, although he was on the major league roster for the entire year in each of those seasons. He always showed enough in spring training to make the teams, but spent those summers on the far end of the bench. One of the great stories O'Doul told on himself involved a day when he went to the race track in a rainstorm, assuming that day's doubleheader would be cancelled. When he saw the early baseball results posted at the track, he realized he had already missed most of the first game, so he dashed from Belmont Park down to the Polo Grounds and got his uniform on, fearing draconian retribution from manager Miller Huggins. No need to fear. He joined the team in the locker room between games, and Huggins was completely unaware that his player had been missing. Judging by how much Huggins used him in 1919-1920, a whopping eight innings in two years, O'Doul could probably have taken another full-time job and still collected his Yankee paycheck. I doubt that Huggins knew his name.

The Yankees eventually let him go to the Red Sox, where he got a little more work, but failed to impress anyone sufficiently to get called back for a second season, so it was back to the minors for O'Doul in 1924, where he experimented with playing the outfield on some days when he wasn't pitching. His outfielding was notably awful, but how that man could hit! He went 7-9 as a pitcher, but batted .392 for the season. Finally, somebody seems to have looked him in the eye and said, "Frank, you suck as a pitcher, but you're about the greatest hitter I've seen." I'm assuming that happened because O'Doul came back in 1925 as a full-time outfielder in the Pacific Coast League. In his very first full season as a batsman, he had 309 hits, including 63 doubles, 17 triples and 24 dingers. Only the minors? Hardly. His first full season as an outfielder in the major leagues, at age 32, was the .398 season mentioned above, with a power kicker of 32 homers and 122 RBI.

Should he be in the Hall of Fame? He would have my vote. His lifetime average of .349 was not an empty one. It was backed by a .945 OPS, which is just a bit higher than Willie Mays, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb. That's an impressive trio to equal, let alone top. His power stats did benefit from playing in tiny Baker Bowl, and that park did inflate his overall performance substantially in 1929, but his lifetime road batting average was just about as good as his home mark (.347, .352), so he was just plain good.

His overall contribution to baseball was as important as his performance with the bat, particularly in the San Francisco area, where he played ball in high school and with the minor league Seals, then worked as a player/manager with the Seals for years, and then later became a hitting instructor with the major league Giants. And he was good at those jobs! The following is cited from his SABR bio:

"O'Doul managed the Seals through 1951. On November 3, 1937, San Francisco owner Charlie Graham gave him a contract to manage the club 'for life.' The Seals won the championship in 1935 and took four straight pennants from 1943-1946. O'Doul was mentioned many times as a potential major league manager, but it never happened. He was named Minor League Manager of the Year in 1945 by The Sporting News. After the National League Giants relocated to San Francisco, O'Doul served as a part-time hitting instructor from 1958-1961. He was a renowned baseball teacher, especially of hitting. Over the years, O'Doul tutored some of the best in the game. Joe and Dom DiMaggio started their careers with his San Francisco clubs. His many other pupils included Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. In 2002 O'Doul was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame for his promotion of the sport, particularly in helping to restore friendly relations between the United States and Japan after World War II."

When O'Doul wasn't managing or teaching baseball, he was promoting it in his famous sports bar. To this day, nearly 50 years after his death, Lefty O'Doul's is still promoting baseball, and is one of the landmark watering holes in the San Francisco Area.

In essence, this guy was a great hitter and everything baseball is supposed to be about, in my opinion. Give me a Hall of Fame ballot, and he'll be at or near the top of my list.

Man, that digression went on a lot longer than I expected, but we have finally come back to the point. Nine of the ten NL batting championships in the 1920s have been accounted for, all properly meted out to guys with lifetime batting averages of at least .333.

And then there was 1926, in which the batting race was one of the all-time baseball flukes.
Hornsby is nowhere to be found, having had a freakishly bad year (.317 with eleven homers) immediately following the famous period when he averaged better than .400 over five full seasons, including batting championships in all five years and triple crowns in two of them. His poor hitting performance that year is attributed in baseball's conventional wisdom to the pressure of having been hired for the first time as the Cardinals' player/manager for the entire season. That may well be, because for the remainder of his career, the only monster Hornsby-like year he had was 1929 (.380 39-149), which also happened to be the one year when he had no managerial responsibilities. Over the course of his career he wasn't much of a manager, either, and was generally disliked by management and players alike, but he was awesome in that one full season as manager of the Cardinals. He won the pennant, the only one of his career, then defeated the mighty 1926 Yankees in the World Series. (That's the same Murderer's Row Yankees whose contingent in the following year is generally regarded as the greatest team ever assembled.) The story of that World Series is told in a movie called The Winning Team, in which Frank Lovejoy plays Hornsby and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan plays baseball legend Pete Alexander, the oft-inebriated hero of the series.

As a reward for beating the best team of all time, the Cardinals traded Hornsby to the Giants, replacing him at manager with a one-year wonder who guided the team down into second place.

Back to the story.

If Hornsby didn't win the batting championship, why wasn't it Waner or some other all-time great? The short answer is that Waner would have won under the modern guidelines, but the rules for eligibility were different then. To qualify for any percentage-based leaderboard in today's game, a player must have 3.1 plate appearances for every game his team schedules. Practically stated, he must come to the plate 502 times in a 162-game schedule. In contrast, the National League of the period 1920-1949 required only that a player appear in 100 games. In theory, a defensive replacement with a 1.000 batting average in one at-bat could have won a batting crown. Nothing that weird ever happened, but the 1926 leaderboard was just about the weirdest thing that could have happened in the real world. All four of those league leaders were part-timers by today's standards!

Bubbles "Call Me Gene" Hargrave was the Reds' #1 catcher for about a decade. Born Eugene Franklin Hargrave, he hated the nickname "Bubbles," which he got because he stuttered when saying words starting with "B." He is in the Reds' Hall of Fame, although he never batted as many as 400 times in a season. That was typical for catchers back in the day. Teams usually platooned at least two men at this demanding position. Hargrave actually was a pretty damned good hitter with a lifetime batting average of .310 over a twelve-year career, but he had only 326 at-bats in 1926.

Earl Smith was the Pirates' main catcher, with a career very similar to that of Hargrave. He played 12 years, never batted as many as 400 times in a season, but compiled a solid lifetime .303 batting average. He played on five teams that won pennants, of which three went on to win the World Series. He played in all five of those fall classics, coming to the plate 49 times. He was one of the stars of the Pirates' 1925 World Series victory, playing in six of the seven games and batting .350. He was a fine player, but had a measly 292 at-bats in 1926.

Fred "Cy" Williams, a former football and track star during his undergrad days at Notre Dame, is the only one of the four who was not normally a part-time player. Before he became a successful architect, he was in the majors for 19 years, mostly with the Phillies, as a regular centerfielder with a .292 lifetime batting average and, most impressively, four home run crowns. He was a powerful left-handed dead pull hitter whose high fly balls had usually been long outs in the dead ball era, so his lifetime batting average through 1919 was a lowly .260, and he had hit only 49 homers in eight seasons. Although his skills were just not configured right for small ball, he became a star when the livelier ball was introduced in the 1920s, and his towering wallops started clearing the friendly right field fence in the Baker Bowl. Throughout his career he had the most extreme ratio of home/away blasts among all players in major league history with 250 homers or more. He hit 167 homers at home, only 84 on the road. From 1920 onward, he batted .311 with a .909 OPS and more than 200 homers, and those stats are rendered even more impressive by the knowledge that he was already 32 when that period began. According to his SABR bio, he was the National League's all-time home run leader at one point! In 1926, however, he was fighting injuries and had only 336 at-bats.

Cuckoo Christensen was a Cincinnati outfielder who really was a part-time player in every sense of the word. He was essentially a one-year wonder, maybe not even that, since he had only 329 at bats in 1926, his first in the major leagues, and was out of the majors less than a year later. He never hit a major league homer, but even without any power, his having batted .350 while leading the league in on-base percentage still represented an impressive level of achievement for a rookie. Because he batted so well that season and so infrequently after it, his lifetime major league batting average never dropped below an impressive .315!

He got his nickname ... well, to be blunt, because he deserved it. The history of the minor league St Paul Saints recounts, "One of the Saints’ impressive youngsters was 22-year-old, 5’6 ½" center fielder and leadoff batter Walter (Seacap) Christensen. Christensen also was known as 'Cuckoo Christy,' an extrovert whose antics pleased the fans, but sometimes drove managers up the wall. He enjoyed doing somersaults in the outfield, usually when the ball was not in play. Sometimes, however, he would somersault while waiting for a lazy fly ball to come down."

Cuckoo also tried that stunt in the majors, and lost at least one game in the process, which may go a long way to explain the brevity of his career. In "Nuggets on the Diamond", Dick Dobbins wrote, "With the Reds leading by one run in the bottom of the ninth and runners on base, Christensen went after a fly ball, did a somersault, then dropped the ball. The Reds lost the game, and an angry (Manager Red) Killefer chased Christensen all the way into the centerfield clubhouse."

If we recalibrate the 1926 batting championship based on the modern requirements for eligibility, players would need 477 plate appearances over the 154-game schedule of the day, making Paul Waner the true batting champion at .336, which would have been an extraordinarily cheap title by the standards of those days. Even the official leader, the .353 figure posted by Bubbles Hargrave, was far lower than the second-lowest average to capture a NL batting title in the 1920s, which was Hornsby's .370 in 1920.

Imposing the same eligibility requirement to all percentage-based categories across the board would depose Cuckoo Christensen as OBP leader, again replaced by Waner; and would allow Hack Wilson to usurp the slugging lead from Cy Williams. Wilson, like Waner, is in the Hall of Fame, so the recalculated championships would make much more sense to modern eyes ...

... but would be so much more boring than letting Cuckoo Christensen keep his crown.

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