Sunday, May 5, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1940s (Concluded)

Rounding out my list of neglected stars from the WWII era, here are the top 4:

4. Rudy York
Sportswriter Red Smith once commented that wherever York was stationed in the field, "he always played the same position--at bat." York began his career as a catcher and, after leading the league twice in passed balls, he was converted to a first baseman. He was only marginally better at that position, though he carried his weight offensively throughout his career. In his first full season, he gathered 103 RBI's in 104 games. He would reach the century mark in that category on six occasions while slugging 20 or more homers 8 times. He enjoyed his most productive stretch between 1940 and 1947, collecting no fewer than 87 ribbies each year while playing on 6 All-Star teams. He finished third in MVP voting during the '43 slate, when he paced the AL in four major offensive categories (Homers/RBI's/Slugging percentage and total bases). In August of '37, he set a single-month record with 18 homers and 49 ribbies. York, who was of Cherokee descent, was known to get careless while smoking, setting fire to more than one hotel room over the years. Ironically, he became a firefighter after his retirement from baseball. 

3. Vern Stephens
Stephens came up through the Browns' farm system. Kept out of military action due to allergies and a bad knee, he became one of the AL's most productive hitters. He was among the first of his kind--a power-hitting shortstop. Between 1942 and 1950, he collected 20 or more homers 6 times and reached the 100-RBI plateau on 4 occasions. He led the league in long balls during the '45 slate and paced the circuit in ribbies in '44/'49 and '50. Stephens played in the Browns' only World Series during the '44 campaign, reaching base 8 times in a 6-game loss to the Cardinals. According to baseball guru Bill James, Stephens' offensive numbers during his prime were rivaled only by Stan Musial. He played 15 years in all, earning 8 All-Star selections. Though he led AL shortstops in errors twice, he made up for this by pacing the loop in fielding percentage and double plays once apiece. He also placed among the top 3 in putouts three times. Stephens died young, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 48. 

2. Mickey Vernon    
Vernon was one of President Eisenhower's favorite ballplayers. Before Ike's term, which began in 1953, Mickey had already spent more than a decade with the Senators, establishing himself as a valuable asset to the club. He was highly adept with a glove, leading the league in putouts, double plays and range factor 3 times apiece. He posted the highest fielding percentage among AL first basemen during 4 campaigns. An excellent hitter as well, he captured two batting titles (in '46 and '53) while pacing the loop in doubles on 3 occasions. He lost two years to military service during WWII. Playing in spacious Griffith Stadium for portions of 14 seasons, he hit few homers, but drove-in at least 80 runs 11 times. He earned 7 All-Star selections during his 20-year tour of the majors. Vernon saw action with 5 different clubs but never played in a World Series. He received serious Hall of Fame consideration in 1980, appearing on 24.9% of the ballots. Sabermetric measurements compare him favorably to Bill Buckner, Keith Hernandez and Steve Garvey.   

1. Allie Reynolds
Reynolds was nicknamed "Superchief" on account of his Native American ancestry and dominant presence on the mound. He began his career in Cleveland, compiling a 51-47 record between 1943 and 1946. The Indians were a middling squad, finishing no higher than third place during that span. With ERA's consistently in the low-threes, Reynolds would almost certainly have compiled a more impressive record on a contender. In 1947, he found out what life was like at the top, signing with the Yankees. Over the next 8 seasons, he would play in six World Series, winning them all while compiling a 7-2 postseason record with 4 saves--among the greatest October numbers of all-time. A consistent regular season performer, he won at least 15 games for the Bombers in six consecutive campaigns. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1951, when he joined an elite group of hurlers to toss two no-hitters in a single year. His 2.06 ERA in 1952 was tops in the AL. Reynolds sustained an injury to his back in a bus accident during the 1953 slate. He retired after the following season. He was among the most successful hurlers of the 1940's, posting a 102-68 record during the decade.

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