Monday, January 17, 2011


Omar Vizquel: saying no prayers
for the "Wing of the Amazing..."
NO "Wing of the Amazing" for me. No thanks, Rob Neyer. A "Hall of Fame for players not good enough to be the Hall of Fame" is nothing more or less than meritocratie maudit, a kind of "meta-slumming" on a topic already as squeezed out as a month-old lemon rind.

"Surely you meant me, Hal
Instead of the backhanded handclap for current guys who are merely the latest to defy old age (Omar Vizquel, Jamie Moyer), why not give readers a look at some old-time players whose long-ago achievements were part of a fascinating shift in strategy and player usage? Yes, these fellas have fallen into the "dustbin of history" (danka, Leon Trotsky): maybe it's time that we dive in and bring 'em back alive.

"...not my dad, Bolshevik
pinch-hitter deluxe
Leon Trotsky."
JUST over a hundred years ago, baseball started to become far less fixed in terms of in-game strategy. Sure, there had been amazingly rapid changes in the rules of the game in the forty years from the formation of the first professional leagues, but it was only in the first decade of the twentieth century that roster sizes began to increase, and the use of platooning and pinch-hitting began to emerge from what previously had been a slavishly uniform set of in-game practices.

The first player with ten pinch hit at-bats was Ducky Holmes, a man more infamous for an anti-Semitic slur at Giants owner Andrew Freedman than anything else. The year was 1896. Pinch-hitting was just getting out of the barn, and this was reflected in the names of the spare-part players who found themselves put up as the first "replacement players": the man who set the early record for pinch-hits in a season (6), also in 1896, was veteran catcher Doggie Miller. Macmillan's Baseball Encyclopedia, which after forty-odd years of baseball reference materials being slung out like so many well drinks by a hyperactive bartender is still the most convenient source for pinch-hitting data, shows Miller going 6-for-9 while "pinching" that season. That performance didn't help him stay in the big leagues, either.

Duke Farrell, in the early days
before he discovered his love
for clotted cream...lifetime
pinch-hit average: .390.
And his pinch-hit record lasted all of one season. Duke Farrell, known to some baseball fact-mongers as the catcher who threw out eight of nine runners attempting to steal (May 11, 1897), had another improbable feat that year. Namely, he collected eight pinch hits in fourteen at-bats, setting a record in each of these statistical categories. Farrell had an amazing run as a replacement hitter, going 22-for-48 before hanging on a year too long: he went just 1-for-11 as a pinch batter in 1904, bringing his lifetime pinch-hit average below .400 as a result.
Sammy Strang, utility
man for McGraw's World
champion Giants in 1905:
15-for-46 lifetime as PH.

Farrell still held these records when he retired that year, but in 1905 Ike Van Zandt, more famous as a baseball suicide, received 18 pinch-hit at bats for the St. Louis Browns. (He had only four hits, alas.) That same year, New York Giants manager John McGraw began his pioneering work as an in-game strategist by deploying switch-hitting utility man Sammy Strang as a pinch-hitter. Strang matched Farrell's 1897 season with an 8-for-14 performance, and the Giants won the pennant. (This was the second pennant-winning team in three years to have a league leader in pinch hits. The first? The 1903 Boston Pilgrims, with third-string catcher and future manager Jake Stahl going 5-for-11 in replacement at-bats.)

Dode Criss: the first player to
have more than 40% of his
plate appearances as a PH:
35-for-147 lifetime.
Two years later Jack Hoey, a spectacularly non-descript left-handed outfielder, had one of those logic-defying seasons that post-modern baseball "historiology" considers simply shruggable. Relegated to the bench by Boston Americans manager Jimmy Collins in 1907 after a listless rookie season, Hoey went 8-for-18 as a pinch-hitter, but finished the year at just .219 (21-for -96). For all you former slide-rule virtuosi out there, that means he hit just .167 (13-for-78) as a starter. Was that Hoey--or Hooey??

In 1908, the year that featured two nail-biting pennant races, pitcher Dode Criss became the first truly "modern" pinch-hitter, establishing at-bat and hit totals for replacement hitting that would become commonplace in the 1950s. Criss was 12-for-41 off the bench for the Browns in '08, and he was almost as good in '09 (7-for-24) He'd have two more "heavy use" years before fading out of the big leagues.

Why was this guy Monkee-ing
around as a pinch hitter?
11-for-64 (.172) lifetime...
1908 was also the year of "Merkle's boner", and the man who lent his name to that celebrated moment, Fred Merkle, had one of the first "bad pinch-hit years" in baseball history (the baseball equivalent of a "bad hair year"), going just 2-for-16 off the bench for the Giants. The first "bad pinch-hit career" can't be pinned on Merkle, however: that dubious honor must go to Jack Clements, baseball's only left-handed catcher with more than 1000 games played, who was a woeful 2-for-28 lifetime (.071) in the pinch.

Beals Becker: that split-handed grip doesn't
seem to have been the ticket to PH glory:
18-100 lifetime...
For a merely small sample size, there's Davy Jones, platoon outfielder on the Detroit Tigers from 1906-12. In '08, Davy found himself underwater, hitting just .207 and going 3-for-21 as a pinch hitter. (The Tigers won the pennant anyway.) One wonders why the hell manager Hughie Jennings kept sending him up there in those spots: Jones was just 2-for-23 over the next three years.

Meanwhile, in New York, John McGraw kept searching for a reliable pinch-hitting specialist. Catcher Chief Meyers got the nod in '09 and did well (8-for-24), but the late-bloomer became a regular the next season. Beals Becker took over in '10 and '11, but he was a bust, just 8-for 56 (.143!) as a pinch-hitter. (Strangely enough, he'd become a regular on the Giants the next season, mostly due to yet another feud between McGraw and the eternally wayward Mike Donlin.)
Ted Easterly

In 1912, however, pinch-hitting reached a new plateau. For the first time, three batters managed to slap out ten or more replacement hits in a season. Catcher Ted Easterly broke Criss's record with 13 pinch hits, but most notably, the season produced the first instance where both pennant-winning teams had significant pinch-hitters.

Moose McCormick
With Donlin gone, the Giants brought back Moose McCormick, who'd filled in tolerably well in '09 during another of Turkey Mike's drink-besotted world tours. Like Christy Mathewson, McCormick was a graduate of Bucknell, and when McGraw low-balled him on his contract in '10 he simply went to work in the steel industry for a couple of years. He came back more than a bit too portly to play the outfield, but he turned into a dangerous pinch-hitter for the Giants in '12 (11-for-30, with eight RBIs off the bench). This was a Giants team that won fifty-four of their first sixty-five decisions and coasted to the pennant.
Olaf Henriksen, still the only major leaguer
who was born in Denmark--so naturally his

nickname is... "Swede"!!

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, beginning a string of World Series appearances built on one of baseball's most impressive agglomerations of young talent, rode the arm of Smoky Joe Wood (34-5) and the bat of Tris Speaker (.383, 188 OPS+) to an even better won-loss record than the Giants. Tucked away on their roster was a 24-year-old Danish-born outfielder, Olaf Henriksen, who'd not hit much at all in the minor leagues but got a chance to play regularly in August 1911 due to an injury to right fielder Harry Hooper--and who proceeded to flirt with .400 for the better part of a month.

Jake Stahl took over the Red Sox in 1912 and made Henriksen into a pinch-hitter. (Stahl probably recalled how Jimmy Collins had used him on the 1903 team, and made Olaf over in his former image.) While the raw numbers don't look all that astonishing (6-for-25), Olaf also walked 12 times during his "replacement at-bats," resulting in an OBP of over .500.

Both McCormick and Henriksen had their moments in the 1912 World Series, one that New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro chronicled colorfully in his 2009 book, The First Fall Classic. McCormick had five pinch-hit appearances in the Series, which is still a record. In Game Two, his sacrifice fly in the tenth inning gave the Giants a 6-5 lead, but Mathewson couldn't hold it and the game was eventually called after eleven innings with the scored tied 6-6. Henriksen saved his heroics for Game Eight, when he came to the plate against Big Six with the Red Sox trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh and manager Stahl the runner at second base. He slapped a double down the left field line to tie the score: the Sox would eventually take advantage of Fred Snodgrass' tenth-inning error to win, 3-2.
Ham Hyatt, who'd have held the
PH record longer had he not been
sent back to the minors in 1916...

In 1913, pinch-hitting stepped forward again, with four batters knocking out ten or more replacement hits. Doc Miller set a new record with 20 pinch hits, one that wouldn't be broken for twenty years. Ham Hyatt had 15 pinch hits and would leave the major leagues in 1918 with a career total of 57, a record that wouldn't be broken until 1931, when Red Lucas and Bob ("Fats") Fothergill would both surpass it.

Fothergill was actually too good a hitter to be relegated to a pinch-hitting role, but at 5'10", 230 lbs. he was a significant defensive liability, and we're still roughly fifty years ahead of the DH rule during his career heyday. He's also the first great purely right-handed pinch-hitter: all of the other guys we've mentioned batted from the left side.

These are the forgotten, neglected heroes, fringe hitters who will never find their way into Cooperstown, and who aren't likely to show up on Neyer's "Wing of the Amazing" radar, either. Pinch-hitting statistics prior to 1950 remain the orphan child of the historical record; unless you have one of the McMillan Baseball Encyclopedias or a copy of Paul Votano's Stand and Deliver, this data is simply inaccessible. (And Votano's book, while a fine place to start, is by no means definitive.) This is one topic where the two leading purveyors of detailed historical stats ( and have dropped the ball. The post-modern analyst would argue that this is a marginal area, that hitters pay a steep penalty in performance when they pinch-hit...while much of that is true, there are those hitters who've beaten the long odds involved in coming off the bench to hit. These folks are truly amazing, and fully deserve their own "wing." (We'll examine more of them in upcoming posts.)