1930-39: Lefty Grove
When Pedro Martinez debuts on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame in a few months, a lot will be made of how thoroughly he dominated in arguably the greatest era for hitters in baseball history. He’s not the first of his kind, though. What Pedro was to the 1990s, Lefty Grove was to the ’30s.
In the most bereft decade for pitchers of the modern era, Grove stood far and away alone. No ’30s pitcher approached Grove’s 78.3 Wins Above Replacement for the decade, with just 10 other hurlers topping even 30 WAR. Meanwhile, Grove went 199-76 with a 2.91 ERA , leading the American League in ERA and ERA+ seven seasons. He thrived in a decade where teams averaged 4.9 runs a game, nearly a run higher than what teams average today.
Grove battled arm ailments throughout the decade, blowing out his arm in 1934 and transforming from power pitcher to junkballer thereafter. He was hospitalized after complaining of another dead arm in 1938, with one newspaper proclaiming “Lefty Grove Is Nearly Through As Sox Hurler.” He went 15-4 with an AL-best 2.54 ERA and 185 ERA+ the following year.
Honorable mention: Zeke Bonura, who’d be better remembered if he hadn’t been a first baseman during the most star-packed decade for the position. Bonura may have deserved more opportunity. After he left the majors, Bonura hit .367 over 1,375 more at-bats in the minors
1940-49: Luke Appling
As Derek Jeter nears his final game, I’m reminded of another ageless wonder. Luke Appling forged a Hall of Fame career over 20 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, retiring in 1950 at 43. At one point, he’d played the most games of any shortstop. His longevity was so pronounced that he famously homered in an old-timers game when he was 75.
Appling logged 40.9 WAR in the 1940s, eighth-best among position players that decade. Beyond draft age, Appling played through much of World War II (though he missed the 1944 season serving, with his wife saying the war would be over in two weeks since he’d never held a job outside baseball for longer.)
That said, Appling kept going strong after the war ended, hitting .308 from 1946 through 1949. He’s the oldest player with at least 5 WAR in a season, courtesy of his 1949 campaign when he was good for 5.1 WAR at 42. Among Appling’s most unusual stats that year: five triples, a .439 on-base percentage and 121 walks over just 24 strikeouts. Somehow, he didn’t make the All Star team.
The Associated Press noted on July 21, 1949 that Appling was 20 games from breaking Rabbit Maranville’s record for most games at shortstop. “I don’t see how anything will keep me from that record,” said Appling, who would set the mark, since surpassed, on August 9. “I don’t plan to stub my toe [or] anything like that and I’m not superstitious about black cats crossing my path. Course my ankle hurts and my back still aches– they always do– but that baling wire will hold me up.”
Honorable mention: Elbie Fletcher, who averaged 94 walks and a .404 on-base percentage for the decade, long before anyone valued either stat
1950-59: Minnie Minoso
Minoso’s become something of a curiosity for his eternal reappearances in baseball since he first retired in 1964. There were the brief stints with the White Sox in 1976 and 1980 that delayed his Hall of Fame eligibility. He also played in the Mexican Leagues in the late ’60s and early ’70s and had promotional independent league at-bats in 1997 and 2003. Prior to all this, however, Minoso was one of the best players of the 1950s, hitting .306 with 47.2 WAR.
While the more prominent debate on the best outfielder of the 1950s revolved around Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider, Minoso offered consistent All Star caliber production for the White Sox and Indians. He made six All Star teams during the decade and finished fourth in voting three times for American League Most Valuable Player. Oddly, he also led the league in hit-by-pitches every season of the ’50s except 1955, helping him to a .400 OBP those years.
Minoso is well-celebrated in the sabermetric community, one of 32 players to rank all four years for my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The 88-year-old is one of the last living Negro League greats as well, with Negro League Baseball Museum president Dr. Bob Kendrick calling repeatedly in recent years for Minoso’s enshrinement. It’d be great to see Cooperstown get to this while Minoso is still living.
Honorable mentions: Billy Pierce, a favorite pitcher of sabermetricians; Luis Aparicio, who deserves at least some of the credit generally given to Maury Wills for re-popularizing the stolen base
Tomorrow: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s
4 Replies to “The most underrated player of each decade: Middle 20th century”
You have made my White Sox heart smile with this.
Right on, Matt. Appling and Minoso were both fun to write about.
Interesting thing about Appling. I’m surprised that he was 8th best in WAR during the 1940s. I’ve looked over the 1944 Sporting News Baseball Guide from time to time (I have copies of almost all the old baseball guides) – 1943 was one of the years Appling was the A.L. batting champ – and I was amazed how little he seemed to have contributed to his team that year. He had no power, and his fielding was… ummm… let’s just say that there were quite a few better shortstops.
But to be fair, I also noticed in the ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia that Appling led the A.L. in OBP that year, something nobody was measuring then (although Ted Williams certainly cared), and I’m happy to eat my words about Appling. He seemed to have a good range at SS, and maybe that’s the reason for his comparatively low fielding percentage. I learned something new today… Too bad he played for a lousy team for so long, like Ernie Banks…
For the 1950s — Joe Adcock. He was overshadowed by Aaron and Mathews but his numbers are as good as any of the sluggers in that era. His only problem was the stupidity of his manager, Fred Haney, who insisted on platooning somebody who could hit 30-40 HRs a year.
For the 1940s — Vern Stephens, who nobody remembers today but who put up mind-boggling RBI numbers with the Red Sox and was a key member on the only St. Louis Browns pennant winner in 1944.