What he did: Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful, to have gratitude. So what might Ollie Carnegie have been grateful for? Carnegie is perhaps the best American baseball player never to appear in the majors, one of a small group of players who carved out a good, long career exclusively in the high minors. If Carnegie had played in a more recent era than his own, one can only wonder what might have might been.
A Pennsylvania Railroad worker and semi-pro ballplayer, Carnegie started playing in the International League at 32 in 1931 after losing his job with the railroad. His age kept big league clubs from pursuing him, though Carnegie played from 1931 until 1941 with the Buffalo Bisons of the IL and spent 15 seasons all told in the minors, hitting .309 with 297 homers and more than 1,000 RBI. He was a man born at least 30 years too soon. In an era with expansion teams, Carnegie would have reached the majors, even if he’d been over 30 when it happened. And in the American League, with the opportunity to DH, Carnegie could have been a star.
Era he might have thrived in: There’s a certain temptation to place Carnegie in the National League of the 1990s on the Colorado Rockies, where men like Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, and Andres Galarraga were pulled off their respective scrap heaps to find new offensive life. But I don’t think Carnegie would only be a star in Colorado, and elsewhere, he could make more of a difference. In Toronto in 1977, Carnegie might have made the Blue Jays relevant a few years sooner.
Why: As far as expansion teams go, Toronto did well relatively quickly, becoming a playoff-caliber club by the early ’80s behind All Stars like Dave Stieb and George Bell. But the Blue Jays’ initial few seasons were a bleak affair, Ernie Whitt and Jim Clancy their only picks in the 1976 expansion draft who would eventually factor into the glory years. Expansion drafts often provide slim pickings for the newly-minted teams, and sometimes, that’s all that’s needed for an unconventional player like Carnegie to get his shot. With Toronto, Carnegie could have been the favorite son that northern fans so lacked in those early days.
I believe a lot about success in baseball comes down to being in the right place at the right time. Carnegie suffered from playing in an era when good offensive players were easy to come by and guys without much defensive ability didn’t last long in the majors, Dale Alexander, Johnny Frederick, and Smead Jolley just a few of the talented hitters who returned to the minors after short stays in the show. If any of those men were DHs in the majors today, they might be well-known. Same goes for Carnegie, even as he was a right-handed batter who stood 5’7″ and weighed 175 pounds. I’m sure he’d have welcomed not having to roam the outfield in the modern American League.
Carnegie’s International League numbers late in his career hint at what might have been. In 1938 at 39, Carnegie hit .330 for Buffalo with 45 homers and 136 RBI. There is no stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com to project what those numbers would be with Toronto in 1977, but I like to think the end result would be at least good for a starting gig if not stardom. Carnegie might be like a modern-day Lefty O’Doul who had better luck in the Depression making the majors as a good hitter on the wrong side of 30.
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: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies,Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson,Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe,Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson,Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson,Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays