Baseball: Past and Present

What he did: I sometimes talk up the late 1930s, an offensive Golden Age for first basemen in the American League when Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, Hal Trosky, and Zeke Bonura created perhaps the greatest depth ever at the position. I’ve written about how other lumbering sluggers like Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard would boost their stats, particularly batting average, playing in the era. Add Prince Fielder to their ranks. A .279 lifetime hitter mostly known for his power, Fielder might hit .330 in a season and challenge for the home run record on the right 1930s team.

Era he might have thrived in: The Boston Red Sox resided in the bottom half of the American League every season from the time Babe Ruth left town in 1920 until the mid-1930s, finishing last nine times in 15 years. Things began to turn around after Tom Yawkey bought the team in 1933 and started buying future Hall of Famers like Lefty Grove, Joe Cronin, and prior to the 1936 season, Foxx. For our purposes, we’ll suspend disbelief about Fielder playing in the majors as a black man prior to 1947 and substitute him for Foxx. Statistically, he’d have a historic season.

Why: I don’t know if anyone could have hit .330 with 40 home runs and 130 RBI in the 1930s but it sometimes seems like it, be it for the majors’ lack of good pitching in those days, a higher average of runs per game, or other factors I’m not aware of. Whatever the case, taking sluggers from less hitter-friendly eras and running their numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com can yield some cartoonish results, especially in a notorious hitters enclave like Fenway Park. Fielder has averaged 38 home runs each of his full seasons in the majors, but that’s nothing compared to what he might do decades prior with Boston.

Of his six seasons in the majors to date, Fielder converts best to 1936 for his 2007 and 2009 efforts. For 2007, he’d have more home runs, 58, though his production is best converted for 2009. The converter has the Fielder of 2009 on the 1936 Red Sox with 55 home runs, 181 RBI, and a .346 batting average and 1.161 OPS, which trumps Foxx’s 1936 numbers of 41 home runs, 143 RBI and a .338 batting average and 1.071 OPS. Of course, Foxx rose to hit 50 home runs with 175 RBI and a .349 batting average and 1.166 OPS, so Fielder would have to sustain his production, but it doesn’t seem outlandish to suggest he might have been an upgrade over Foxx.

It’s a shame blacks weren’t allowed in the majors until 1947, and a part of me wonders how ’30s sluggers like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard might have done on a team like the Red Sox (which was pathetically slow to add black players even after the majors finally integrated.) I can’t help but wonder if black position players missed out on more offensive records by being kept from the majors until after World War II when the game had shifted to favor pitchers. It makes me respect legends like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson all the more. In a sense, they’re underrated.

I don’t mean to suggest any black player would put up insane numbers in the 1930s (Harold Reynolds would still be Harold Reynolds in any era), and there are plenty of white players like Killebrew or Howard who could have benefited playing in the greatest offensive period in baseball history short of the late 1990s. Still, I have to wonder. Maybe Gibson, who was considered the “Black Babe Ruth” or Leonard, the “Black Lou Gehrig,” could have had Fielder’s projected numbers from 1936, maybe better. We’ll never know.

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 MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays



4 Comments so far

  1.    Devon & His 1982 Topps blog on February 10, 2011 6:28 pm      

    Woah, Fielder would’ve been massive in 1936!

    I’d love to see you drop Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds into a pitchers park in the deadball era. It’d be fascinating to see just how they would’ve done if it was all stacked against them. Maybe you already have done this & I missed it somehow.

  2.    Graham Womack on February 10, 2011 6:57 pm      

    That’s hard to say how Pujols or Bonds might do. I don’t trust the stat converter for going from the modern to Deadball Era and vice versa. It has Pujols hitting more than 30 home runs on the 1906 Hitless Wonder White Sox, or: more than four times as many as Chicago hit as a team.

  3.    Alvy on February 10, 2011 10:01 pm      

    “he might have been an upgrade over Foxx”
    Jimmie Foxx has been used as a barometer of excellence for a few of these comparisons to modern beefy sluggers from the 60′s through present day. While I can appreciate the speculation of what a given player might have accomplished in another time period– and this converter that is mentioned at BBR.com sounds like something I could spend hours pouring over and wondering “what if”. But I do so disagree with the comparisons to Jimmie Foxx with these albeit talented (and in some cases old time favs of mine like Hondo Howard and the great and gentle Harmon Killebrew) but one dimensional players who could only really hit the ball with power and nothing more.

    Younger people do not have a true recollection of what Foxx was. In many ways he himself should be at the very top 5 of the all time greatest all-round players ever. Foxx could do it all, and was a five tool player long before the term was coined. Jimmie Foxx could: hit for average, hit for power, was an excellent fielder at a variety of positions, could run like a deer and was one of the fastest men in the pros and the fastest big man in pro history maybe, and I do say maybe, until Mickey Mantle came along. If Mickey Cochrane was not already an established star on the Athletics, Foxx would have been their catcher and most likely would have been known as the best all-time catcher ever, far eclipsing even Johnny Bench in all round play. As it was Foxx went to first base, where he played most of his time at with excellence. But Foxx was so also valuable and exceptional as a third baseman and in all the outfield positions as well as a back-up catcher for Cochrane and later on for other teams. In one instance when he was on the Red Sox and much older, Foxx filled in for a major part of the season in 42 games as catcher after only catching 1 game in the previous five years. Foxx fell back into that position like he was there yesterday.

    Foxx moved around to varying positions in almost every season he played and his hitting or fielding never suffered at all. Foxx was also often used when taking a day off from a start as a pinch runner. Not to mention at the end of his career, Foxx even displayed great skill as a pitcher.

    Foxx was like a combination of: Mickey Mantle with his amazing natural strength and speed, Joe DiMaggio in his ability to hit with not only power but for high average and Jackie Robinson with his ability to play a number of positions (with excellence) in order to help the team win and doing so without his offensive game suffering.

    There are few players in the history of baseball with that combination of talent, skills and versatility. Mays, Aaron, Robinson and Mantle were not that versatile at other positions and Foxx could offensively do whatever they did any day of the week. As much as I respect and revere Howard and Killebrew, even if the conversions came to be true– and we really can’t know that, they were not the all-round player that Foxx was.

  4.    true on July 24, 2011 8:17 pm      

    Alvy you are right on the money about Foxx. Foxx was considered one of the fastest guys in the league. Joe Cronin said Jimmie was as good an all around player that baseball ever had.

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  • Written by Graham Womack