What he did: Many fans probably know the story of Michael Jordan’s first retirement from the NBA, how he quit basketball in October 1993 and resurfaced the following spring as a 31-year-old minor league baseball player. Jordan spent one season with the Double-A affiliate for the Chicago White Sox, the Birmingham Barons, managing 30 stolen bases, a .202 batting average, and a .556 OPS. He looked so out of place Sports Illustrated put out a cover that screamed, Bag It, Michael! and while Jordan quit talking to SI thereafter, he abandoned baseball and returned to the NBA in early 1995.
Successful transitions from basketball to baseball are rare for professional athletes with success stories like Dick Groat, George Crowe, and former Harlem Globetrotters Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Ferguson Jenkins few and far between. In Jordan’s case, there was simply no hope of a light-hitting outfielder debuting in the majors on the wrong side of 30, not now, not in any generation of baseball since 1920 when the livening of the ball shifted the balance of power in the game from pitchers to hitters. But what if Jordan played before all this?
Era he might have thrived in: In 1906, the Hitless Wonder Chicago White Sox won 93 games and a World Series title despite hitting .230 as a team, scoring just 570 runs, and having two outfielders with OPS ratings under .600. The thought here is that Jordan would be an upgrade on either man and offer a perfect style of play for these White Sox, assuming of course we suspend disbelief about him being able to play in the majors as a black man prior to 1947 and Jackie Robinson.
Why: There’s a scene in Major League where manager Lou Brown barks at wannabe power hitter and leadoff man Willie Mays Hayes, “With your speed, you should be hitting them on the ground and legging them out.” The same goes for Jordan, who didn’t benefit facing the modern, tightly-wound ball. Playing in the Deadball Era with a softer ball that rolled slower, I can only wonder how many more hits Jordan would have had. His average still might not have been much higher than .202 but that could have been enough for these White Sox, whose best batter hit just .279. Imagine if Jordan learned to bunt proficiently as well.
Jordan’s speed would endear him on a team that stole 216 bases and boasted five players with at least 20 steals. It could help Jordan in the field, too. Deadball Era outfielders played much shallower, which is why there are a lot of these men near the top of the outfield assists leader board almost a century later. With Jordan’s legs, he could play as close to the infield as he liked and cover enough ground to compensate, and he wouldn’t need much arm strength to make a difference.
It goes without saying that Jordan may have benefited, too from playing baseball in an age before basketball could have caused him to abandon his efforts. I think success in life is partly about persisting in the face of adversity, blinding ourselves to would-be detractors, and ignoring distractions. That was a lot easier in the days before Sports Illustrated and seven-figure basketball contracts. Any of us would struggle in Jordan’s shoes, really. That he even lasted a season in 1994 Double-A ball is, at least to some degree, a feat in itself.
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, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays