Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The intricacies of roster construction issues first become prominent in the 1920s, as it's becoming clear that 1) starting pitchers are not going to be able to complete nearly as many games as had been the case previously and 2) having some decent spare hitters on hand added a small but worthwhile advantage for teams as run scoring levels increased.

So it shouldn't be too surprising to see (as the chart on the left indicates) that managers became increasingly interested in finding someone reliable to pinch-hit. Over the course of the 1920s, the number of teams who gave at least twenty at-bats to at least one pinch-hitter doubled. (The number of pennant-winning teams with a pinch-hitter given at least twenty at-bats also jumped sharply in the 20s. aided a good bit by the 1926  St. Louis Cardinals, who were the first team in baseball history to have three 20+-AB pinch-hitters in the same year--Jake Flowers, Chick Hafey, and Specs Toporcer.)

Before we jump into the Age of the Flapper, however, let's give praise to one of the members of the 1919 Black Sox team, pinch-hitter Eddie Murphy, whose nickname ("Honest" Eddie) came into being as a direct result of not being in the starting lineup. After all, what good is it to bribe a guy who might only get one chance in a game to have any influence on its outcome? Given such a fragile possibility for contributing to the delinquency of a national pastime, one would be better served if they took a glass bat up to home plate.

(And, it just so happens that this particular glass bat was made for "Honest" Eddie Murphy, but it wasn't given to him because he was resistant to the blandishments of the "Sons of Arnold Rothstein." The bat was a gift to Eddie from a former employer--back in the days when ballplayers had to have "civilian jobs" in the off-season--as a reward for Murphy making it into the World Series with the Philadelphia A's.)

Murphy was traded to the White Sox in 1915 but found himself replaced in right field by--that's right, Joe Jackson. So he became an accomplished pinch-hitter, going 12-for-32 for the World Champion 1917 Sox, and 8-for-21 in 1919. He was 13-for-33 off the bench in the very late stages of the 1920 season when the Black Sox scandal broke wide open: on October 1st, the eight players who'd been convicted of throwing the 1919 World Series were permanently barred from the game. Murphy, who hadn't played a game in the field since mid-June, found himself leading off for the remnants of the Chicago squad. However, he didn't replace Jackson in right field--he replaced Buck Weaver at third base! (And he batted leadoff for the Sox, who lost two of their last three games to avoid what would been an awkward return to the "Fall Classic.")

He also received a letter from Charles Comiskey that belied the White Sox owner's legendary reputation as a tightwad.

Gavvy Cravath
1920 was a good year for pinch-hit specialists: in addition to Murphy, four other players slapped out at least ten "replacement hits" that year (Gavvy Cravath, George Burns, Fred Nicholson, and Sammy Hale, the year's pinch-hit leader with 17). Cravath, coming to the end of an overlooked career as a Deadball-era slugger (he won six home run titles for the Phillies between 1913-1919), wound up with a .300 lifetime batting average as a pinch-hitter (32-for-106).

The two top pinch-hitters on the 1921 pennant winners, the Yankees' Chicken Hawks (8-for-23) and the Giants' Eddie Brown (11-for-39), would both find themselves back in the minors the following year--a reminder that the job of pinch-hitting was still considered marginal at best.

Teams in the 1920s found that catchers often made good pinch-hitters. John McGraw had a great deal of success in the early 20s with his platoon system at catcher--Earl Smith from the left side, and Frank Snyder from the right side. The duo batted eighth for the pennant-winning Giants in 1921 and 1922 and combined for over 80 RBI in each season, but they also combined for more than ten pinch-hits in each of those seasons.

At the 1923 World Series: Babe Ruth, Oriole owner/manager 
Jack Dunn, and Jack Bentley--the Baltimore connection...
In 1923, the Giants and Yankees met for the third consecutive time in the post-season: their top pinch-hitters in that year were outfielder Elmer Smith (a sparkling 11-for-21 for the Yankees off the bench) and pitcher Jack Bentley (10-for-20 with the Giants). Bentley, whose career as a pitcher/hitter had a pale resemblance to that of Babe Ruth, hit well in the '23 Series (including two pinch hits) but was eaten alive by Yankee bats in Game Five, surrendering seven runs in 1 1/3 IP.

McGraw began a practice of keeping young players on the Giants' roster in the 20s, breaking them in slowly with carefully selected starting assignments and a high number of pinch-hitting appearances. Two Hall of Famers began their careers in this way: Bill Terry (9-for-38 as a pinch-hitter in 1924) and Mel Ott (11-for-46 in 1927).

Bob Fothergill

Red Lucas

1929 was the biggest year for pinch-hitting to date. Bob "Fats" Fothergill concluded a five-year run in which the dietetically-challenged outfielder would hit .351. He pieced together a knockout season for the also-ran Tigers that year, collecting 19 hits in 52 ABs. Alas, the flamboyant "Fats" would never again be the same hitter, as his penchant for cream puffs dimmed his hitting abilities.

"Bonnie" Hoover and "Clyde" Tolson: a little
too close for comfort??

But the first big record-holder in the annals of pinch-hitting was a slightly-built right handed pitcher, Red Lucas. In 1929, Lucas had the first of five consecutive 10+ pinch-hit seasons with a 13-for-42 mark. When he retired in 1938, Lucas held the major league records for the most hits (116) and at-bats (447) as a pinch-hitter--records that would not be broken for nearly thirty years.

Finally, it's time to dispel an ugly rumor. Charles "Chick" Tolson, 14-for-40 as a pinch-hitter for the 1926 Chicago Cubs, was not in any way related to associate FBI director Clyde Tolson, who was the devout companion of J. Edgar Hoover, who never let Tolson get lifted for a pinch-hitter over the course of a forty-year "friendship."