What he did: I got a timely reminder of Harry the Hat earlier this week in Bobby Bragan’s 1992 autobiography. Bragan spoke of the players he encountered as a Phillies minor league player in 1939, writing:
And there was Harry ‘The Hat’ Walker. He was one of the greatest hitters I’ve ever seen, or that anyone’s ever seen. Harry was on loan to Pensacola from the St. Louis Cardinals, so he was really up on the rest of us. Teams would sometimes lend minor league players around to be sure all their top prospects got to play every day. Harry was a treat to watch when he was hitting. I’d say he was a lot like Rafael Palmeiro of today’s Texas Rangers, a guy who sprayed his hits from foul line to foul line. Palmeiro does have a little more power. But he and Harry could both hit a given pitch to any part of the field. That’s a tremendous advantage to a batter, and pitchers can’t ever find one pitch or location the guy can’t handle.
Walker won the National League batting championship in 1947 when he hit .363, and he batted .296 overall in his 11-year career. He played more seasons in the minors, 14 in all and posted a better batting average, .315 and over 1,200 more at bats in the bushes. It wasn’t uncommon in his era, when the minors were far deeper and sweet swinging outfielders with questionable fielding abilities, such as Walker, sometimes made long careers outside the majors. I got to wondering: What if Walker had some of the same opportunities as Rafael Palmeiro? I’m guessing Walker would have come out far better in Hall of Fame voting than the 11 percent Palmeiro just posted.
Era he might have thrived in: Because Walker had just four seasons in the majors with at least 500 plate appearances, I’ll forgo converting his stats to the years Palmeiro played, 1986 through 2005. Instead, we’ll take Walker’s 1947 season and convert it to 1999, when Palmeiro hit .324 with 47 home runs and 148 RBI for the Rangers. At least for batting average, Walker would trounce Palmeiro.
Why: On the surface, a .363 batting average in any year seems plenty high. But baseball immediately following World War II favored pitchers. And Walker spent most of 1947 with the Phillies, a seventh place club that hit .258 and posted an OPS+ of 81, meaning they were worse offensively than their already anemic league. For Walker to bat .363 in these circumstances is kind of amazing. Since 1900, there has only been one batting champion on a team with a worse OPS+ than the ’47 Phillies: Dale Alexander who somehow hit .372 for a 1932 Red Sox club that had an OPS+ of 75 and finished 43-111.
So it’s not surprising Walker’s numbers would rise with the ’99 Rangers who hit .293 and had an OPS+ of 108. Using the conversion tool on Baseball-Reference.com, I have Walker hitting .395 with 223 hits for the ’99 Rangers. He wouldn’t offer much power, with one home run and 53 RBI, though he would have 19 triples and a .997 OPS. If he could combine this with several seasons of at least All Star-level contact hitting, he might have a shot at Cooperstown. It worked for Rod Carew; Paul Waner, too.
The key would be for Walker to make the majors sooner than he did in real life and DH at the end of his career instead of returning to the minors and starring once more. Ralph Branca noted in the Branca autobiography, “Minor league success was in no way a guarantee of ever playing in the big leagues. Many guys against their will made careers out of playing in the high minors…. The guys heading up the organizations thought having veteran players around on the Triple-A teams and lower ones was good for the young kids.” This generally doesn’t happen anymore.
And of course, Walker could never have a finger wagging performance in front of Congress, a la Palmeiro. I’m giving Walker the benefit of the doubt here.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays