Monday, October 6, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know (1911-1929)

There have been three versions of baseball's Most Valuable Player Award. In 1910, business mogul Hugh Chalmers chose to promote his automobile company by presenting a brand new Model 30 to the player with the highest batting average. It ended up being the most controversial race in history as members of the St. Louis Browns deliberately allowed Cleveland's star second baseman Napoleon Lajoie to beat out several bunts on the last day of the season. The ruse was designed to rob the tremendously unpopular Ty Cobb of the batting crown. When league officials got word of the plot, they blacklisted Browns manager Jack O'Connor from the majors along with pitching coach Harry Howell. Though Cobb was declared the winner by a narrow margin, cars were awarded to both contenders.

In 1911, Chalmers rebooted the award, appointing a committee of baseball writers to choose the "most important and useful player to [his] club and to the league." The selection was made every year until 1915, when Chalmers terminated the promotion on the grounds that it wasn't generating enough revenue for his company.

It would be several years before postseason accolades were reinstated. In 1922 and '23, a group of eight sportswriters chaired by Chicago Tribune scribe James Crusinberg voted for the best player in the American League. In 1924, the NL followed suit. Referred to as the League Awards, the tradition continued in both circuits through the 1929 campaign.

In 1931, the Baseball Writers Association of America created the Most Valuable Player Award, which has endured to the present day. Each year, the top players in both leagues are rank ordered from one to ten with points being assigned to each rank. Though the number of sportswriters casting ballots has varied a bit over the years, there have been no significant changes to the selection process.

It should come as no surprise that baseball's MVP awards (in whatever form) have been dominated by the all time greats. Of the many players selected during the twentieth century, most are in the Hall of Fame or have a legitimate shot at getting there. The others fall into two distinct categories: minor stars or flashes-in-the-pan. Over the next several posts, we will take a look at these odd men out and learn what happened to them after the greatest seasons of their careers.

Frank Schulte
 With the colorful nickname "Wildfire," Schulte was definitely no flash-in-the-pan.He patrolled the Cubs outfield for portions of thirteen seasons, leading the NL once in triples and twice in homers. A productive hitter in the postseason, he appeared in four World Series for Chicago, gathering 26 hits--7 for extra bases--in 21 contests. He was on the last Cubs team to win a World Series in 1908. Known for his defensive excellence Schulte enjoyed his finest offensive campaign in 1911. He was the first player to hit 4 grand slams in a season and the first to have at least 20 doubles, triples, homers and stolen bases. That feat went unmatched until Willie Mays pulled it off in 1957. After claiming the 1911 Chalmers Award, Schulte's offensive stats became more ordinary. He was traded to the Pirates in 1916. While wrestling playfully with teammate Duster Mails, he broke two ribs and was never the same afterward. He hit just .214 in 1917, prompting another trade to the Phillies. He finished his big league career with the Senators in 1918.

Larry Doyle
Known for his cheerful disposition, Doyle earned the nickname "Laughing Larry." He once commented: "Gee, it's good to be young and a Giant." It certainly was as Doyle helped the club to three straight World Series appearances (all losing causes) from 1911-1913. He was an offensive star in the 1911 Fall Classic, leading New York regulars with a .304 batting average. He scored the winning run in Game 5, but never touched the plate according to umpire Bill Klem. Had the A's tagged him, he would have been out. Doyle won the Chalmers Award in 1912 though he didn't lead the league in any major offensive category. He actually had a better all around season in 1915, when he paced the NL in hits (189), doubles (40) and batting average (.320). It was not the only time he finished atop NL leaderboards. In '09, he paced the loop with 172 hits and in 1911, his 25 triples were most in the majors. Doyle served as captain of the Giants for five seasons, filling in for manager John McGraw after ejections or suspensions (which were numerous). He hung around the majors through the 1920 slate, retiring with a commendable .290 batting average. He never received any serious Hall of Fame consideration.  

Jake Daubert
When two baseball organizations (SABR and STATS) gave out retroactive Gold Glove awards for decades before the honor existed, Daubert was named the best first baseman of the 1910s. He held his own offensively as well, leading the league twice in triples and once in sacrifice hits. His lifetime total of 392 sacrifices is second only to Hall of Famer Eddie Collins. Daubert spent a majority of his career in Brooklyn, winning consecutive batting titles. His .350 average in 1913 coupled with his slick fielding won him the Chalmers Award. Traded to Cincinnati in 1919, Daubert won his only World Series. The victory would be forever tainted when eight of his opponents admitted to throwing games. Over the course of his career, Daubert finished first or second in fielding percentage ten times. He hit .300 or better the same number of times, never dropping below .261. Beaned by Allen Sothoron of the Cardinals in May of 1924, he missed a total of fifty games while suffering from headaches and insomnia. At season's end, he grew weak and was re-hospitalized. He died a week after an appendectomy was performed. One of the attending physicians listed the secondary cause of death as "a concussion resulting from a pitched ball." 

 Roger Peckinpaugh
 Peckinpaugh was at least partially responsible for major league baseball's decision to wait until after the World Series to hand out MVP awards. After receiving the honor in 1925, he set an all time record for defensive ineptitude with 8 errors in the Fall Classic. Several of his miscues directly affected the outcome of games. Before then, he was widely hailed as the best defensive shortstop in the majors, turning more double plays than any of his AL peers on six occasions. Additionally, he led AL shortstops in assists four times. Peckinpaugh was a competent but not exceptional hitter, peaking at .305 in 1919. In his MVP year, he hit .294. After his horrific performance for the Senators in the Series, one sportswriter joked that he should have been named NL MVP as well. His downfall from the majors was swift. He hit just .238 in 1926, prompting a trade from Washington to Chicago. He got into 68 games for the White Sox then retired after the '27 slate.

George Burns
Burns's nickname "Tioga George" helped distinguish him from the George Burns who played for the Giants and Reds during the same era. "Tioga George" spent sixteen seasons in the American League, giving his best seasons to the A's, Indians and Red Sox. He led the league in hits and total bases while playing for Philly in 1918. His .352 batting average that year was second in the AL to Ty Cobb. Burns had an even better year with Cleveland in 1926, when he rapped a league-best 216 hits and set a single season record with 64 doubles. The mark was broken in 1931 by Earl Webb of the Red Sox. After capturing MVP honors in '26, Burns had an excellent follow-up season, slamming 51 more doubles while completing a run of seven straight campaigns with a batting average over .300. By 1928, Burns's skills were fading. He played through the '29 slate then continued in the minors until 1934. He served as a player/manager from 1930-'34.

Bob O'Farrell
O'Farrell had a long major league career, spending twenty-one years in the majors with four different clubs. A solid defensive catcher with a strong arm, he finished among the top five in fielding percentage five times and runners caught stealing on four occasions. He foiled 48% of attempted steals during his career, placing him among the top fifty in that category. Ascending to full-time status with the Cubs, he hit .324 in 1922 and followed with a .319 effort in '23. He lost his starting job to Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett the following year. Traded to the Cardinals in May of 1925, he became a first-stringer again. In his MVP year of 1926, he hit at a healthy .293 clip and guided a relatively mediocre pitching staff to a pennant. His 146 catching assignments should not be taken lightly considering the sweltering heat and humidity in St. Louis. In the '26 World Series, O'Farrell hit .304 and caught all seven games as the Cardinals edged the Yankees for a world championship. In 1927, he served as player/manager, replacing Rogers Hornsby. He guided St. Louis to a second place finish and was fired at seasons' end. He had some decent offensive campaigns after that, topping the .300 mark at the plate in 1930 and '31. When his major league career was finished, he played and managed in the minors through the 1938 campaign.            

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