Monday, April 16, 2007

An era of Slick Fielding Anemic Hitters

I ran across a website that had photos of ballplayers and it reminded me of my youth when I collected baseball cards. Those same cheesy photos (ball in front of glove, but instead of fielder looking the ball into his glove he's smiling for the camera) and I got to thinking about the shortstop position.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was all about the slick-fielding anemic hitting shortstop.

So I dug a little deeper to find some interesting tidbits.

In 1969, Boston Red Sox shortstop, Rico Petrocelli, at 26, had a break out season in which he hit 40 homers. Up until that season 18 was the most HRs he hit. He tailed off to 29 in 1970 and 28 in 1971. I mean he wasn't a Brady Anderson, a player who had the most dramatic home run change in the history of baseball. (Anderson hit 50-HR in 1996. Up until that season 21 was his career best. After that monumental season he hit 18 in 1997-98. In 1999 he hit 24. In 2000 it was back to 19 and in 2001 he hit 8, right there with the shortstops of the 1960s and 1970s.)

Up until Petrocelli's monstrous season, the best home run hitting shortstop was Cub great (in fact he was referred to as Mr. Cub) Ernie Banks. The two-time MVP winner (1958 and 1959) had a run where from 1955 to 1960 he hit at least 40 homers every year but 1956 when he only hit 28.

Dagoberto "Bert" Campaneris, the shortstop for the KC/Oakland Athletics was very representative of the shortstop of his era. Slick fielding and base-stealer. When it wasn't him leading the American League (Junior Circuit) in stolen bases it was Luis Aparicio. (Even in recent history the leading base-stealers- Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Tony Womack- are shortstops.
But, in 1970, Campy cranked out 22 homers. Up until that season 6-HRs had been his career best.

I picked two years (1969-70) to just look around the major leagues to check out who the shortstop was and it was unanimous...slick fielding anemic hitting. In alphabetical order here's a list of the names and the teams for whom they played.

Atlanta Braves: Sonny Jackson, the former base coach for Dusty Baker's Giants,
was the starting SS for the lowly Braves. His best season was 1966, as a Houston Astro when Joe Morgan was his second-baseman sidekick. In that campaign he hit 3-HR , batted . 292 and scored 80 runs. He never came close to these numbers again.

Baltimore Orioles- Mark Belanger

Boston Red Sox- Rico Petrocelli

Chicago White Sox- Luis Aparicio. Led in stolen bases quite often, like Campy Campaneris.
His best production year was in 1964, 10-HR, 57-SB. The player nowadays who best resembles Luis Aparicio is none other than Omar Vizquel.

Chicago Cubs- Don Kessinger

Cincinnati Reds- Woody Woodward in 1969. Dave Concepcion shared SS with Woodward in 1970. But with Concepcion, a slick fielder who could hit, the Big Red machine would evolve.
With the help of a blockbuster trade that brought Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham and Cesar Geronimo to Cincinnati.

Cleveland Indians- Jack Heidemann, Larry Brown and Eddie Leon.

Detroit Tigers- Tom Tresh, Mickey Stanley. Tom Tresh was the next New York Yankee star.
When Lou Gehrig left there was Joe DiMaggio. When DiMaggio departed there was Mickey Mantle and then came Tom Tresh. And in the beginning all the hoopla was accurate.
His home run totals: 1962-20, 1963-25, 1964-16, 1965- 26 and 1966-27. But to sum up his career, he was a shortstop converted into an outfielder. So while he accumulated good power numbers his fielding was anything but slick.

Houston Astros- Denis Menke. Good power numbers but again, lacked defensive skills to be thought of as a shortstop. I always thought of him as a third-baseman because that's where he ended up playing in Cincinnati. (My father got a kick out of his name because the pronunciation of Men-Key was the way the Peter Sellers' character- Inspector Clouseau- of the Pink Panther series, would say monkey. )

Philadelphia Phillies- Don Money in 1969. Larry Bowa in 1970.

Pittsburgh Pirates- Freddie Patek in 1969. Gene Alley in 1970. Alley and Bill Mazeroski were considered the best double-play combination in the majors.
Note: Mario Mendoza, of Mendoza Line line fame didn't arrive in the Steel City until 1974.

San Diego Padres- Enzo Hernandez in 1971.
San Francisco Giants- Hal Lanier in 1969 and 1970. In 1971 came Chris Speier.
St. Louis Cardinals- Dal Maxvill
WashingtonSenators/Texas Rangers- Eddie Brinkman
New York Yankees- Gene Michael
New York Mets- Bud Harrelson. A San Francisco State graduate.
California Angels- Jim Fregosi. A San Francisco native. May be best known for being the guy the Angels traded to NY Mets for Nolan Ryan, Leroy Stanton, Don Rose and Frank Estrada. Four for one and one of them went on to Cooperstown, NY.

Some managers will sacrifice the leather for a good stick. But it doesn't get you to the World Series and history proves it. Ernie's Cubs never won anything. Alex Rodriguez, a prolific home run hitter who has had his troubles in big games, is currently playing third base because Derek Jeter cannot be replaced as New York Yankee shortstop.

Since the game of baseball's inception it seems there has always been this understanding that a roster spot will be open for players who can hit. But that may be a bit overrated. Being able to hit keeps you on the roster and if you're in the Junior Circuit it may get you a spot as a designated hitter, but being able to catch and throw, doing what it takes to get outs, will get you onto the field of play.

How else can you explain the longevity of players like Dal Maxvill, Mark Belanger, Dick Schofield, Don Kessinger, Larry Bowa, Bill Russell and all of the other anemic hitters who were slick fielders?

The shortstop position is for someone who makes plays that result in getting the opposing team out. Hitting can be stopped by able-bodied defenders and crafty pitchers. Who can forget Ozzie Smith? A player, who was a pretty good hitter when it was all said and done, but it was his defensive wizardry that earned him entry into Cooperstown. He made believers out of all of us who saw his wizardry at the shortstop position.

Giant fans have had the luxury of watching a pretty good shortstop in Omar Vizquel. In his only two seasons- in the orange and black- he has captured the gold glove each season. I personally would like to see him finish his career as a San Francisco Giant.