I Need You
Who is the greatest third baseman in baseball history?
Here are the candidates, as I see it:
You don’t hear his name mentioned in the third baseman debate anymore, but when I was a kid in the 1970s Pie Traynor was the one most frequently mentioned in the baseball history books I was constantly checking out of the library. According to Bill James, “the idea that Traynor was the greatest third baseman of all time originated in the mid-1950s, about 20 years after Traynor retired.” I wonder how much James himself had to do with Traynor falling out of that top spot. In James’ Historical Abstract, Traynor is ranked 15th, below several guys who have, unlike Traynor, not made the Hall of Fame (such as Al Rosen, Ken Boyer, Sal Bando, Graig Nettles, and Darrell Evans). And in general, of course, James has led the revolution in statistical analysis that has revealed the once almighty hitting statistic, batting average, to be a frequently misleading representation of a player’s offensive worth. Traynor’s .320 lifetime average, which seemed at one time to cast him as the Rogers Hornsby of the hot corner, has gradually been downgraded in light of the facts that A) it came in an era when batting averages were at their historical peak (most famously illustrated by the 1930 season, when the entire National League hit over .300), and B) it was not augmented by a particularly high secondary average, meaning that he neither drew many walks nor hit for a lot of power. Still, part of the fun of imagining a team of all-time greats is envisioning a bunch of grizzled hard-bitten old-timers kind of emerge from the mist to retake the field on more time with their spikes sharp to gash guys with. In that respect, it’s hard to vote against a guy named Pie Traynor.
“I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.” – Ty Cobb on Eddie Mathews
The implication on the BR Bullpen profile of Pie Traynor is that Eddie Mathews is the player who bumped Traynor out of the top spot: “Pie Traynor was widely considered the top third baseman in the history of baseball prior to the time when Eddie Mathews became a star.” If this was the case, I feel that I would have seen it reflected in all the books I took out of the library in the 1970s, but I don’t ever remember any book ranking Mathews as the top third baseman. And when Traynor finally did lose his top spot, which I would guess occurred sometime in the late 1970s, it wasn’t to Mathews but to the next man down on this list. So Mathews, at least as far as I know, never really got a chance to be the top guy at the hot corner, and that’s too bad, because from what I’ve read he was a decent fielder and was without question one of the greatest power hitters ever at any position. When thinking about devising the greatest lineup of all-time, it’s certainly tempting to fill the third baseman’s spot with a left-handed slugger who for the bulk of his career, until his body started to give out, seemed the best bet among all active players (including Mathews’ teammate, a guy named Hank Aaron) to break Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. Maybe Aaron’s gradual ascendancy to superstardom helped cast Mathews into the shadows. Maybe he also lacked a moment when the whole baseball world centered around a display of his prodigious skills at their peak. He played in two World Series early in his career and was a pinch-hitter in another one late in his last season, with Detroit, but only managed one home run and ten hits in 50 World Series at bats. I mention this only by way of a possible explanation of his being somewhat overlooked in the greatest third baseman debate. Maybe what he needed was to have taken over a World Series, as the next guy on this list once did.
Robinson persisted on some Greatest Team of All-Time lists even after his lifetime numbers began to look a little meager in comparison to two third baseman who came into the majors just as he was winding up his long career with the Orioles. That was probably due in large part to the general discrimination against the present moment in such list-making. When baseball fans dream up these lists, part of the fun is the dreaming, and a guy who is still out there grounding into double plays and offering up drab cliches to the beat reporters just does not encourage dreaming like some legendary figure from the past. And as the years went by Robinson’s unmatched prowess as a fielder, highlighted by his dominant, electrifying play in the 1970 World Series, seemed to find especially fertile soil in the dreaming minds of nostalgic baseball fans. Though Robinson’s fine offensive numbers don’t match up to those of the other top choices for the all-time third baseman, I think some list-makers still want to rank him first because A) they value fielding above offense at that position and B) there’s just something unutterably cool about the kind of dazzling fielding plays Robinson could make. I actually can only vouch for myself on that second point, for though I personally don’t have Robinson pencilled in as my all-time third baseman, I do bring the same thinking to my choice for shortstop: you can have Honus or Ripken or A[pril]-Rod, I’m taking the Wizard of Oz.
Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge
Speaking of my all-time team . . . I have one player from the Negro Leagues among the starters on my 25-man roster (Satchel Paige is in the starting rotation, but I’m leaning toward Lefty Grove as my opening day starter): Josh Gibson, catcher. As for third base, Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge were for many years (up until 2006, when Jud Wilson joined them) the only two Negro League third basemen in the Hall of Fame. I honestly don’t know that much about them, but it appears that though they were both stellar players (Johnson a high-batting-average man from the Pie Traynor era and Dandridge considered one of the best fielders ever to play the position) they seem not to have been as dominant as Gibson was at his position in his day, nor as dominant as the two third basemen below were during their day. Still, as the best third basemen in Negro League history, they certainly deserve to be in the conversation about the best third basemen ever.
Mike Schmidt and George Brett
Over the last few years, one of the above men seems to have gained an edge over the other in most people’s minds as the best third baseman ever. It’s hard to argue with this general consensus. After all, leading the charge to crown Mike Schmidt the king of all third sackers is Bill James himself, who as a devoted Kansas City Royals fan probably spent as much time studying the play of Schmidt’s chief rival, George Brett, as anyone. Other observers have followed James’ lead, citing Schmidt’s superior power (548 lifetime home runs to Brett’s 317), on-base percentage (.380 to Brett’s .369), fielding (ten Gold Glove awards to Brett’s one), and number of MVP awards (three to Brett’s one). In his excellent book Clearing the Bases, Allen Berra provides ample evidence to back up his suggestion that one could make a case for Mike Schmidt as not only the best in history at his position, but the best player at any position, ever.
Who am I to argue with these experts? Well, nobody, obviously, except a guy who has spent, or I guess wasted might be a more accurate term, many, many hours daydreaming about such things. As the sands in the hourglass of life have trickled away I’ve imagined again and again choosing up sides against some other all-time team daydreamer. And when it comes time to pick a third baseman I’ve always imagined selecting the guy I’d most want to have up at bat for my team in a big spot with the game on the line. I’m not saying it’s the right call, but whenever I’ve imagined being the GM of baseball eternity I’ve always chosen George Brett to be my third baseman.
Brett, it should be noted, has fantastic lifetime numbers, better than anyone on the above list save for Schmidt. He could hit for average, for power; he was a good fielder and an excellent baserunner. There’s really nothing he couldn’t do. Unfortunately for my argument, all of the above could be said of Schmidt, except perhaps regarding his ability to produce high numbers in the batting average statistic, which, as mentioned above, has been shown to be of increasingly negligible worth on its own.
But there is one key lifetime stat in which George Brett thoroughly bested Mike Schmidt (by a two to one ratio):
Times kissed by Morganna the Kissing Bandit.
Morganna the Kissing Bandit was a significant part of what made my childhood years the greatest and most ridiculous era in the history of the planet. She was this giant-breasted blonde who vaulted the fence and ran across the field in the middle of games, her increasingly famous chest cha-chonging wildly, to plant kisses on the faces of star players such as Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan, and Freddy Lynn. George Brett, as far as I can figure, was the only man to have his work interrupted twice by the affectionate interloper, one of these occasions serving as Morganna’s most ballyhooed feat: invading the 1979 All-Star game (which Brett seemed to take in stride, his unflappable nature surely another mark in his favor in the debate of the greatest third basemen).
Morganna had enormous breasts. I know I’ve already made this point but it bears repeating. Her measurements were 60-23-39. 60! Now let me also remind you that her heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s coincided exactly with my transformation from a talkative baseball-crazy Ogilvie-esque child to a sullen, inward, reedy-voiced contender for World’s Most Prolific Onanist. I’m not saying she featured heavily in my fantasies. Considering the fact that I could name 50 other women off the top of my head ranking ahead of her on my “most thought-about” list (Cheryl Tiegs in the see-through fishnet bathing suit at the top of that list, always and forever, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, the oft-mentioned WKRP ladies, 75% of the girls in my grade, etc.), I actually doubt that I ever fantasized about, you know, getting Morganna into one of my town’s magical shirtlessness-inspiring gravel pits that I mentioned earlier in this multipart puberty-alogue. And yet, in a certain way she epitomized a key element of my entire unsavory fantasy life: the idea that somehow all these women would run right at me and smother me with their giant-breasted affections without my having to do anything. The ache of puberty for me was the feeling that I existed at an impossible remove from any deshirting, and my fantasies were as much about imagining the erasure of this infinite gap as they were about the brief guilt-laced physical euphoria they helped bring about. The image of Morganna galloping across a baseball field, of all places, to benevolently suffocate a player with her exploding sexuality served me as a sturdy concrete foundation for a whole mansion of impossible fantasies of being swept away by a tidal wave of voluptuous sex-crazed femininity.
The passivity imbedded in these fantasies has often characterized my fantasy life, if not my life itself. For example, when not up in my bedroom imagining some steamy gravel pit scenario I was often playing basketball by myself in the driveway, fantasizing that for some reason Dr. J would be riding by in a limousine, and fascinated by my jump shot form would command his driver to stop, and I would then be whisked away from rural Vermont to NBA stardom. I wish I could say I’ve left these fantasies of passivity and undeserved deliverance far in the past, but the fact is I still sit around eating chocolate chip cookies and wishing a Publisher of Great Books would kick down my door and tell me that, as it turns out, all my creepy egomaniacal and self-lacerating notebook scribblings comprise in their entirity a work of undying and highly sellable genius.
Get up, young man, this enthusiastic invader will say, you are necessary.
Get up, get up! You are needed!