Wednesday, April 27, 2011


We are still struggling to get truly detailed pinch-hitting records in place. While this data has always been one of the most prominent of "orphan children" in the overall context of baseball information, the good news is that the recent publication of box scores and game logs dating back to 1920 (at bb-ref) and to 1918 (at Retrosheet) at least makes it possible to assemble some details.

A full look at the overall performance characteristics for pinch-hitting in the pre-WWII era will have to wait (team-by-team stats), but several of the more prominent "bench kings" can be given some face time here.

By and large, the top "pinchers" in the time when offense spiked were those folks who had some issues with the glove. In 1930, of course, everyone hit, and though run scoring did slack off somewhat it was still an above-average proposition.

Smead Jolley, who like Babe Herman denied that he'd ever been conked on the
noggin by a fly ball. "It hit me on the shoulder," he insisted.
The most colorful of these types were "Sheriff" Dave Harris and Smead Jolley. These two were part of a breed of defensively challenged sluggers who began to appear in the mid-to-late 20s as the live ball penetrated into the minors. (Jolley absolutely terrorized the PCL from 1926-29, including two years in which he amassed more than 500 total bases!) As with any such development, a certain amount of overspecialization occurred and players who really needed the DH rule four decades before its adoption had twilight careers in major league ball.

Jolley is the most remembered of these, due to a series of tales about his spectacular ineptitude in the outfield. (Bill Nowlin summarizes these in Smead's SABR biography.) Given how well he could hit, it's a bit surprising that some team didn't think to keep Jolley around as a pinch-hitter after he had proved all-too-suspect in the field.

1931 was a fine years' worth of pinch-hitting for ol'Smead, however. (It's also odd that so many of the players in this odd-man-out category were truly odd as well--often the most colorful of all the hick/cracker types who were legion in the game at this time.) Despite its inherent statistical insignificance, Jolley's five consecutive pinch-hits (four of which were doubles) make for an oddly thrilling feat (though not quite as protracted as the fictional one we chronicled in the previous post). In a world with an increasingly saturated media presence, Jolley's five straight pinch hits would warrant a goodly amount of airplay. (For the year as a whole, he was 14-for-30 "in the pinch.")

Dave Harris, who anticipated (sort of...) the Bob Marley and the Wailers
song "I Shot the Sheriff" by claiming that he'd really only been "the deputy"...
Most, though, these players performed for also-ran teams. No good team would have anything to do with Jolley after his defensive lapses, but Dave Harris got a shot with a still-solid Senators squad in 1930 after  doing a bit more low-key job of tearing up the PCL the year before (.366, .599 SLG). It's almost astounding to note that Harris was first brought up that year by the White Sox, who'd already splurged for Smead. The Sox kept Carl Reynolds in center field to keep the two from colliding with one another; in early June, they sent Harris to Washington.

Bibb Falk
It's easy to forget that the Senators were a solid franchise in the 1924-1933 time frame, but they were a canny (if cash-poor) organization led by another solid old-time baseball man (Clark Griffith). Dave Harris played extremely well for them, and was a dangerous pinch-hitter (40-for-129 lifetime). While he wasn't quite as spectacular as Jolley, he did have two occasions in '32 where he had three consecutive pinch-hits, and he wound up 14-for-43 on the year. He lost his hitting prowess midway through the Senators' last pennant-winning season the next year, and was back in the minors by 1935.

Red Lucas
Another category of player who'd find himself in a part-time role is the aging veteran. Bibb Falk, who was traded away by the White Sox in 1929, suddenly found himself in an outfield jam-up in Cleveland the following year. He adapted well to pinch-hitting that year (13-for-34), including a game-winning pinch homer against the Yankees on July 20th. Though Falk was "only" 31, he would play only one more season in the big leagues and would eventually become the longtime baseball coach for the University of Texas.

Over in the NL, Red Lucas had a nice sequence of yearly pinch-hit totals from 1929-31: 13 in '29, 14 in '30, and 15 in '31. 1930 was Red's best year at the plate: he hit .336 and slugged his only career pinch-hit homer (a slap hitter, he had just three lifetime jacks). As discussed in an earlier segment, Lucas held the record for pinch hits and pinch-hit ABs for more than twenty years after his retirement in 1938.

Sam Leslie
Sam Leslie was a big, left-handed hitting first baseman who was lusted after by several NL teams due to the lofty batting averages he posted while on his way up to the big leagues. When he made it to the New York Giants, however, he found himself blocked by Bill Terry. (Hard to dislodge someone who was the last NL batter to hit .400, as Terry did when he hit .401 in 1930). John McGraw kept Leslie around as a pinch-hitting specialist (something he'd done some years earlier with Mel Ott) and Sam set a record in 1932 with 22 pinch hits. The next season, with Terry firmly in command as McGraw's replacement, Sam was finally sent across town to be the Dodgers' first baseman, but the Giants brought him back in 1936. He was 2-for-3 as a pinch-hitter in the World Series that year. (Harry "Peanuts" Lowrey tied Leslie's single-season pinch hit mark in 1953.)

The team in the early thirties with the deepest crop of pinch-hitters, however, had to be the 1930 St. Louis Cardinals. The complex (and often aleatory) platooning practiced by manager Gabby Street didn't seem to be doing much for the team--going into August the Cards were just a .500 team. But the lofty hitting in the league that year leveled out the competition, so that they weren't that far from first place (only 10 games out). They proceeded to win 44 of their last 57 games, the fourth best such performance in baseball history. And they had a raft of good pinch-hitters on their bench, depending upon whom Street wasn't playing: on any given day, you'd have George Watkins (.373), Ray Blades (.396), Showboat Fisher (.374), Gus Mancuso (.366), Ernie Orsatti (.321), or Jimmie Wilson (.318) available to hit from the bench.

George Puccinelli, achieving "International (League) dominance" in 1935...
Oh, yes--and George Puccinelli. "Pooch" was another one of those defensively-challenged sluggers who would have thrived in the age of the DH: a look at his minor league fielding statistics will clue you in on why he spent most of his career in places like Hollywood, Rochester, and Baltimore (when the O's were in the International League). Puccinelli had a lifetime minor league SLG of .582; in 1935, he hit 53 homers at Baltimore and Connie Mack decided that he had to ignore Pooch's reputation and give him a full shot. (He didn't hit well enough to hold a job on a team that finished 53-100.)

But in 1930, Pooch had a "featured bit" role with the Cardinals. Called up in July (after hitting .396 in the Three-I League...) when the team was in its doldrums, Puccinelli made his third pinch-hit appearance on July 21st vs. Brooklyn. The game was tied 5-5, in the top of the eighth when "Pooch" hit a three-run pinch homer off Watty Clark to give the Cards an 8-5 lead. There were a total of three pinch-hit HR hit in this game: Jim Bottomley and Harvey Hendrick hit the other two--with Hendrick's three-run blast wresting victory for the Dodgers, who prevailed by a score of 9-8.

After sitting around for ten days, Puccinelli got a pinch-hit assignment on August 3. The Cards had jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Reds, but Cincinnati had chipped away and now trailed 5-4. Pooch blasted a two-run homer off Jakie May to give St. Louis a 10-4 lead and kickstart a long, hot summer of sizzling baseball for the Cards. All in all, Puccinelli was 4-for-8 off the bench and while he was "just"  9-for-16 for the year (!!) when St. Louis blitzed its way into the post-season, the Cards thought enough of his performance to add him to their World Series roster.

The next spring, however, Pooch got things ass-backward and screwed himself by dropping three fly balls during a spring training game. It cost him a shot at a big league job that year, and it clearly affected his play. He moped through the '31 season in the minors, hitting under .300 for the first time in his career: 'twas something of a Rubicon for him.