10 a.m. Recently I remarked on a poll that the NY Daily News had in which fans voted on the greatest Yankees at their respective positions. Although Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth should have been unanimous choices at 1B and RF, some fans still voted for the Mattingly’s, Skowron’s, Tino’s, Maris’s and Reggies. Ok, fine. Gehrig and Ruth were still runaway winners, as they deserved to be.
Even this week, we see polls asking if the Patriots are the best-ever. The results don’t surprise me. People either don’t know, don’t study up on, or don’t CARE about history. Maybe the Patriots of this decade are better than the Steelers of the 1970s. Maybe not. The point is that with these polls, the more recent vintage will almost always come out on top because people won’t look up or investigate the old-time player.
In the recent Daily News poll, I believe Willie Randolph was leading at second base. Willie was a fine 2B, a six-time All-Star who hit .276 with over 2200 hits. He stole over 270 bases. But is he really better than Hall-of-Famer Tony Lazzeri or Joe Gordon? Lazzeri, a key member of the 1927 Murderer’s Row, hit .292 and drove in 100 runs in a season seven times. In 1927, he hit 18 home runs, which may not sound like much, but did you know that those 18 HR ranked Lazzeri THIRD in the league that year behind Ruth’s 60 and Gehrig’s 47? Did you know that Lazzeri had 60 HR and 222 RBI in the Pacific Coast League in 1925? In his rookie year of 1926, “Poosh ’em Up” was tied for 2nd in the league in RBI, behind only Ruth (Tony had two more than Gehrig). Lazzeri had three top-10 MVP finishes in his career. Lazzeri’s career went downhill at the age of 33, but twice during his career he ranked # 1 for power/speed combination. Did you know Lazzeri was an epileptic? A seizure cost him his life at the age of 42 when that seizure occured at home. Lazzeri was at the top of the stairs and apparently broke his neck in the fall. But how many people know about Lazzeri? Another thing to remember about Lazzeri and our next topic, Joe Gordon, is that both were right-handed power hitters in the old Yankee Stadium, where it was 402 to the bullpen on one side, 415 to the other (straightaway left) and LCF was 457 feet away.
As for Joe Gordon, he won the 1942 MVP award in a year where Ted Williams won the Triple Crown. He drove in 100 runs in a season four times–three times with the Yanks and once for Cleveland. He and Joe DiMaggio were the only righty-hitting Yankees to hit 30 HR in a season while playing in the OLD Stadium. Since moving in the fences, we’ve seen others, like Winfield and A-Rod do it. Granted that Winfield and A-Rod would probably have done it anyway, but you can see that outside of DiMaggio, only one Yankee in the OLD stadium did it, and that was Gordon, and he only did it once. Gordon was a seven-time All-Star who only hit .268, but who had 253 HR in eleven seasons. WWII cost him two full years, and probably the Hall-of-Fame. Although the average isn’t impressive, those two years may have cost him 300 HR for his career. 300 HR for a righty-hitting second baseman is impressive. Throw in Death Valley, and you can see Gordon’s value. Five times he finished in the top 10 for MVP voting–three times as a Yankee.
We’ve seen the lack of knowledge or caring about history before. The results of the “Team of the Century” poll were very disheartening, but expected. Once again, someone of a more recent vintage–whose stats don’t match up to the star of long ago–wins the poll. Here is another example. Jackie Robinson. I’m not going to disparage Robinson’s achievements, for how can I? An excellent ballplayer who helped bring the running game back into baseball, Robinson was a .311 career hitter. He won the 1947 Rookie of the Year award (the first one given) and was the 1949 MVP (the first black to win). We all know about his heroic struggle to break the color barrier in baseball. The problem is knowing how great he really could have been. Even if there was not a color barrier in baseball, and Robinson would have been major-league ready in say 1942, when he was 23 years old, WWII still would have cost him three or four years of his career. He only played ten years, and the last two seasons, 1955 and 1956, weren’t that great (OPS+ of 96 and 107), batting averages of .256 and .275. So you are going by his best years, 1947-1954. Still, Robinson was voted the starting second baseman on the All-Century team over Rogers Hornsby, who hit .358 with 301 home runs in his career. Hornsby, although by most accounts not a great fielder, hit .400 three times in his career, including an amazing .424 in 1924. He had a career OPS+ of 175, FIFTH all-time. His stats could have been far better, except for the fact he more or less shut his career down at the age of 33 (and after a .380-39-149 season that brought the Cubs the 1929 pennant and Hornsby the MVP!) in order to concentrate on his managing. For only once since 1929 did he play in over 57 games in a season. .358, 301 HR, 2930 hits (apparently Mr. 3000 meant nothing to him), two MVP’s, another runner-up finish, second behind Cobb in all-time batting average. Yet voters chose Jackie over Hornsby. I can see the sentiment, I can see bringing in all that Robinson went through. But I wonder if those voters ever looked beyond that at Hornsby’s stats? Or is he just forgotten by today’s fans?
Another I felt who got the shaft and should have finished above Robinson was Eddie Collins. Collins is mostly forgotten about by today’s fans, and it’s a shame. After Cobb and Wagner, Collins was probably the third greatest everyday player of the dead-ball era, as I’d rank him above Joe Jackson, albeit slightly. Maybe I drop Collins to fourth and put Tris Speaker over him. You get the point. Collins hit .333 for his career, which spanned 25 years. He was a significant figure on two should-have-been dynasties, the 1910-1914 Philadelphia Athletics, broken up by the Federal League and cheapskate Connie Mack, and the 1917-1920 Chicago White Sox, which were broken up by the 1919 World Series Scandal. Collins had over 3300 hits and 700 stolen bases in his career. He won the Chalmers Award (forerunner of today’s MVP) in 1914. The Chalmers Award only lasted four years, and Collins finished third, sixth, third and first. There was no MVP given out from 1915-1921. Who knows how high Collins (or Cobb, Johnson, Speaker or Ruth) would have finished then. He finished 5th in 1922, and was the runnerup for the League Award (another forerunner of today’s MVP) in both 1923 and 1924—on teams decimated from the expulsion of players such as Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson. Collins played in six World Series from 1910-1919 and was an integral part of all those teams. Were it not for Mack on one hand and a scandal on the other, he might have played in more. His OPS+ was 141 for his career, better than Robinson’s excellent mark of 132.
This isn’t to disparage Robinson. Not in any way, shape or form. You do have to wonder what people were thinking about either when voting for the All-Century team in 1999, voting for an All-Yankee team in 2008 or voting for any who’s the greatest team or individual. Recently, for example, someone made a comment about Michael Jordan being the all-time best basketball player. Maybe, maybe not. After all, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game in the 1961-1962 season.
The point is, all too often, people only look at their own generation or what they saw when voting in these polls. The results are skewered toward the more recent team or athlete because people won’t Google the past or look up something in an encyclopedia. They won’t read a biography about someone. As a result, you get people who think Bo Jackson was a greater all-around athlete than Jim Thorpe, without knowing much about Thorpe.
And that’s a shame.