I was reading through a collection of interviews with old sportswriters the other day, No Cheering in the Press Box when I came across a passage from a former Philadelphia scribe named Al Horwits. He made an assertion that struck me, saying Jimmie Foxx could have been greater if he’d taken better care of himself. Horwits said:
It would have meant a lot to [Foxx] if he had broken Ruth’s record. But there wasn’t much stress put on statistics in those days. And then the drinking affected his batting. He started getting a little heavy in the chest. This is where it affects sluggers. They can’t get the bat around fast enough on the baseball. That’s what happened to him.
It seems a little harsh to say that a man with a .325 lifetime batting average, 534 home runs, and a reputation as one of the best sluggers in baseball history could have done more. But Foxx was effectively done in his mid-30s, able to play through World War II since he was past draft age, though he struggled to hold a spot in the majors even then. With better care, he might have come close to Ruth’s 714 career bombs.
Truth is, baseball history is filled with men who could have done more if they’d drank less, taken better care of themselves, etc. Some of these players are prominent, others little more at this point than historical footnotes. Here are 10 of these men:
1. Mickey Mantle: Maybe the most famous example of this in baseball history, the Commerce Comet was touted as the potential greatest player ever when he debuted. He wound up with more than 500 home runs lifetime, though drinking and carousing might have cost him a couple hundred more.
2. Denny McLain: McLain had two Cy Youngs by the time he was 25, but was out of the majors by 30, plagued by a massive weight gain and ties to gamblers.
3. Hal Chase: Longtime sportswriter Fred Lieb devoted a chapter to Deadball Era first baseman Chase, saying he might have been an all-time great but that “he had a screwball brain.”
4. [Tie] Dwight Gooden/Darryl Strawberry: Cocaine.
6. Rube Waddell: Drank himself out of the big leagues, though he did enough to make the Hall of Fame.
7. Don Newcombe: Ditto, minus the Hall of Fame.
8. Albert Belle: The temperamental slugger quit in his early 30s due to injuries, though I wonder if a lessened will to compete drove Belle from the game early and helped him fall short of Cooperstown. In his prime, he may have been one of the best power hitters of the 1990s, though he looked a shadow of his self toward the end.
9. Mysterious Walker: Walker was a big league pitcher who had to flee his team in 1910 after being accused of a crime. He resurfaced in the Pacific Coast League, pitching under a pseudonym and refusing to even allow his picture to be taken. He reportedly said he’d forgo a salary if he didn’t win two-thirds of his games; the fact Walker went 6-4 that year for the San Francisco Seals makes me wonder if he had to go without.
10. Steve Howe: Bright relief pitcher and 1981 National League Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers who battled drug problems much of his career and was at one point handed a lifetime ban before being reinstated.