1938...a Threesome, and unknowing farewells
The 1938 Hurricane Season is known for the earliest recorded hurricane ever. The short-lived tropical depression gained hurricane strength on January 3rd, and eventually dissipated by January 6th. Never making landfall. It was the first of six Atlantic hurricanes that have formed during the month of January, with the most recent being Hurricane Alex in 2016.
So, what does this have to do with baseball in 1938? Maybe nothing.
But, then again...
All told, there were nine hurricanes in 1938. This was before these storms were assigned names, so they were listed numerically. Unless they were major land-falling storms that wreaked havoc, and were given nicknames. Names like “The Long Island Express Hurricane” or “The Great New England Hurricane of 1938”.
Both of those names were assigned to the sixth hurricane of 1938, which made landfall in September, hitting the middle of Long Island and traveling due north into the heart of New England before veering northwest, and onward into Canada as a tropical storm/depression.
In the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the pre-season favorites to win the National League pennant. They were in Philadelphia to play a doubleheader against the Phillies on September 18th, with a three and a half game lead over the Chicago Cubs.
Winning the first game 1-0, the second game began with windy conditions, due to the storm that was churning towards Long Island. The playing conditions worsened, and the game was called after five innings, with the score tied, 1-1.
The Pirates were to travel to New York next, to play the Giants, then the Dodgers. However, the next four games were postponed due to weather and field conditions. So the Pirates resumed play in Brooklyn on the 22nd, with a win. They went 5-7 to close out the season.
The Cubs were also playing a Sunday doubleheader in Brooklyn on the 18th, losing the first game 4-1, and having their second game stopped at 3-3 in the fifth inning. They, too had four games postponed, returning to play in Philadelphia against the Phillies, where they won 4-0, and went on a ten game winning streak, passing the Pirates in the process, and earning the National League pennant by two games.
There is a principle known as “The Butterfly Effect”, in which a small, seemingly insignificant occurrence is responsible for triggering a much larger occurrence. Namely, could a butterfly passing to the left of a tree in Western Africa, instead of the right, cause a slight enough wind ripple to form a small wind current that carries out to sea, and exponentially grow into a tropical depression, later into a hurricane. We'll never know.
Or, we'll never know if a butterfly was the cause for the Pirates fading down the pennant stretch. If the four game respite was enough to cool what momentum they may have had, while the Cubs used their hiatus to re-energize their team.
The reality is that the Pirates had a very strong July, and began fading in August. They went 24-7 in July, then faltered to 16-16 in August, then 13-14 in September. While the Cubs were 17-12 in July, 16-15 in August, then 12-5 before the hurricane stoppage, and tallied a 22-5 record for September (with 2 ties)
The Cubs and Pirates met in a late season series, which the Cubs overtook the Bucs to gain the top spot in the league. Their triumph was highlighted by a late afternoon game, as darkness was falling on Wrigley Field, the umpires decided that the ninth inning would be the last for a 5-5 tie. In the bottom of the ninth, Cubs player-manager Gabby Hartnett homered into the center-field stands, giving Chicago a 6-5 win.
Hartnett's homer is known as the “Homer in the Gloamin', and he was the first player-manager to lead his team to the World Series.
For the Cubs, it was their fourth pennant in ten years. They had the unenviable task of facing the powerhouse New York Yankees, who scored 966 runs, with 174 homers.
It didn't end well for the Cubbies. Swept in four games, outscored by a total of 22-9, the Yankees batted .274 in the Series, which matched their season total. Cubs pitcher Larry French set the National League record for the most regular season losses (19) for a pitcher, who then started a World Series game.
The Yankees became the first team to win three consecutive World Series titles. In their previous six World Series appearances, the Yankees had lost a total of just three games.
For the Bronx Bombers, they won the pennant easily, nine and a half games better than the runner-up Boston Red Sox. But the season began auspiciously enough, with a preseason holdout by Joe DiMaggio, in a salary dispute.
DiMaggio felt that he deserved to be paid $45,000 for the season. When it was pointed out to him that not even team Captain Lou Gehrig made that much, DiMaggio reportedly said, “It's a shame he's underpaid”.
The Yankees offered $25,000, which The Yankee Clipper turned down...before finally signing for the Yankee's offer.
And speaking of Gehrig, he drove in 100 runs for the thirteenth consecutive season, all while enduring a puzzling late season slump. That slump carried through to the World Series, where he batted just .286 in the four game sweep of the Cubs. He went four for fourteen, and each of the four hits was a single.
What we now know, is that he was beginning to deteriorate due to his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the dreadfully debilitating disease, which now bears his name. His condition would worsen into the early parts of the 1939 season, leading to his early retirement.
1938 would be the last full season that he played.
Offense was definitely the name of the game in 1938, more so in the American League. The AL batters held a whopping 63% advantage over the pitchers, and comparatively, a 20.5% advantage over the National League hitters. The top three teams offensively in each league were:
- American LeagueNational LeagueRed SoxCubsYankeesRedsIndiansPirates
In Detroit, Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg hit 58 homers,which tied him for the third highest total at the time. That is still the Tiger team record, as well as (and I know this is a stretch) the record for the American League Central Division. And is still the American League record for a first baseman..
Of those 58 homers, 39 were hit at home, which is still the major league record.
Greenberg, one of the first Jewish superstars in American professional sports was originally recruited by the New York Yankees, while playing at James Monroe High School in the Bronx. (James Monroe also produced major leaguers Danny Monzon and Ed Kranepool).
Knowing that the Yankees already had Lou Gehrig playing first, Greenberg opted to attend NYU instead, where he attended for one year, and then signed with Detroit in 1930, for a reported $9,000.
In 1934, with the Tigers in the midst of a serious pennant run, he garnered headlines by refusing to play one either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, two of the holiest days in the Jewish faith. After deliberations with the team, and Greenberg's rabbi, Hank decided to play on Rosh Hashanah, but held firm on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement.
In dramatic fashion, “Hankus Pankus” homered twice on Rosh Hashanah, helping defeat the Red Sox 2-1. The next morning, the Detroit Free Press ran the Hebrew lettering for “Happy New Year” across its front page.
Greenberg would later enlist in the Army during World War II, and returned to a hero's welcome to Detroit. He played most of his career there. In 1947, he signed for a record $30,000 raise, giving him a salary of $85,000...but was then traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He was one of the very few National League opposing players to befriend and welcome Jackie Robinson to the majors in 1947.
On the pitching side, where the National hurlers were a little more evenly matched against the NL hitters, being just 3.5% behind statistically. The NL pitchers were 30.7% over the AL pitchers on the season, that top three teams were:
- YankeesCubsRed SoxPiratesIndiansGiants
As for overall power rankings, the top five teams overall were:
- YankeesWorld Series ChampionsRed Sox2nd in American LeagueCubsNational League ChampionsPirates2nd in National LeagueReds4th in National League
There were other things were happening in the baseball world...
1938 featured the very first official international baseball tournament. The Baseball World Cup debuted in 1938, with Great Britain defeating the United States for that first championship.
Heine Mueller of the Phillies and Ernie Koy of the Dodgers, each homered in their first major league at bat. They did it in the same game, marking the only time that has occurred to date.
Babe Ruth had retired as a player, and signed on as a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1938 season.
In Cleveland, teenager Bob Feller struck out 18 Detroit Tigers on October 2nd, establishing a new major league record, which has since been broken.
He finished the season with 208 bases on balls allowed, a modern record which still hasn't been equaled.
Cardinals first baseman Johnny Mize hit sixteen triples, which is the record for the most triples by a player who didn't steal a base during the season.
And Frenchy Bordagaray set a National League record for pinch hitters by hitting .465 during the season. That record was broken by Ed Kranepool in 1974.
Across town, Browns pitcher Bobo Newsom set a record for the highest ERA for a twenty game winner. He posted a 5.08 ERA while 20-16 for the seventh place club. Bobo won 20 of the team's 55 wins.
Browns first baseman George McQuinn embarked on a thirty-four game hitting streak.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Mace Brown won fifteen games, all in relief, which was a record until Jim Konstanty won sixteen in 1950.
In Boston, Jimmie Foxx became the second Red Sox to win the league's MVP Award, with Tris Speaker being the first in 1912. Foxx also became the first to win an MVP Award for two different teams,and was the first player to hit fifty homers for two different teams during his career.
How feared was Foxx at the plate? He was walked six times in one game.
Teammate Pinky Higgins set a record for getting twelve hits in twelve consecutive official at-bats. (He had two walks during that stretch)
In Cincinnati, catcher Ernie “The Schnozz” Lombardi became the second catcher (some say the first) to win the league batting title, hitting .342. (Bubbles Hargrave was technically the first catcher to do so, in 1926, but he did it with less than 400 at-bats but still qualified)
Lombardi recorded 167 hits, but struck out just fourteen times.
If you're familiar with the condescending expression, “He runs well for a catcher”, well, that was never used for Lombardi. He grounded into 30 double plays in 1938, a record until 1949.
And Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer pitched two consecutive no-hitters.
In the minor leagues, twenty-one year old Virgil Trucks went 25-6 for Andalusia of the Class D Alabama-Florida League, striking out 418 batters in just 273 innings, an average of 1.53 per inning, or 13.62 per nine innings. His final ERA for the year was 1.25.
And Newark Bears outfielder Bob Seeds, a thirty-one year old veteran minor leaguer hit four homers in four consecutive innings, in a game against Buffalo, driving in twelve runs in the process. The next day, he connected for three more homers, giving him a two game total of seven homers and seventeen runs batted in.
Later that season, Seeds played for the New York Giants, and hit a 470 inside the park homer at the Polo Grounds, helping Giants legend Carl Hubbell win his 200th career game.
For our season review, we'll look at the pitching first. Starting in the American League, our initial top ten performers were:
- PitcherTeamW-LERARed RuffingYankees21-73.31Lefty GroveRed Sox14-43.08Lefty GomezYankees18-123.35Monty StrattonWhite Sox15-94.01Spud ChandlerYankees14-54.03Monte PearsonYankees16-73.97Mel HarderIndians17-103.83Thornton LeeWhite Sox13-123.49Dutch LeonardSenators12-153.43George GillTigers12-94.12
Then, comparing to their team's performances, we get this top ten list:
- Bobo NewsomBrowns20-165.08George CasterAthletics16-204.35Monty StrattonAboveLefty GroveAboveDutch LeonardAboveLefty MillsBrowns10-125.31Thornton LeeAboveRed RuffingAboveGeorge GillAboveTed LyonsWhite Sox9-113.72
Combining everything, we have this final list of top ten pitchers in the American League:
- Lefty Grove4th in MVPRed Ruffing21st in MVP (tied)Monty Stratton15th in MVPLefty Gomez30th in MVP (tied)Spud ChandlerDutch LeonardMel Harder16th in MVPThornton LeeMonte PearsonGeorge Caster
A brief note about White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton.
During the 1938-39 off-season, he tripped and fell, accidentally discharging his shotgun, essentially shooting himself in the right leg. The shotgun pellets did a lot of damage to a main artery, and doctors were forced to amputate the leg. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg, and rejoined the Sox as a coach, and sometime batting practice pitcher.
The Cubs and White Sox played each other in a charity exhibition game to raise money for Stratton, raising a little over $25,000 for him. In a touching scene, Stratton took the mound to demonstrate that he was till able to pitch, but he hadn't yet fully mastered the weight distribution with his artificial leg.
He finally was able to take the mound again, just not at the major league level. He returned to the mound in 1947 in class C ball, and made a few appearances over the following couple of years.
Hollywood came calling to make a film based on his story. “The Stratton Story”, which starred Jimmy Stewart as Monty himself, was a success at the box office, and even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story.
He finished his career with a 36-23 record.
Okay, now on to the National League. Our initial list of top performers is:
- Bill LeeCubs22-92.66Paul DerringerReds21-142.93Carl HubbellGiants13-103.07Danny MacFaydenBraves14-92.95Bob KlingerPirates12-52.99Johnny Vander MeerReds15-103.12Clay BryantCubs19-113.10Freddie FitzsimmonsDodgers11-83.02Hal SchumacherGiants13-83.50Russ BauersPirates13-143.07
And as compared to their teams, we have this list:
- Freddie FitzsimmonsAbovePaul DerringerAboveDanny MacFaydenAboveBill LeeAboveJohnny Vander MeerAboveAl HollingsworthPhillies7-184.36Luke HamlinDodgers12-153.68Clay BryantAboveTot PressnellDodgers11-143.56Jim TurnerBraves14-183.46
We get our top ten National League pitchers as:
- Bill Lee2nd in MVPPaul Derringer8th in MVPDanny MacFaydenCarl HubbellFreddie Fitzsimons30th in MVP (tied)Johnny Vander Meer18th in MVP (tied)Clay Bryant15th in MVPBob KlingerRuss BauersJim Turner
Now, we'll look at the offensive players, but a quick note first...with the tremendous offensive output from both leagues, the stolen bases were not utilized as much. In fact, across the major leagues, only two players stole more than twenty bases. Frank Crosetti of the Yankees stile twenty-seven, and Lyn Lary of the Indians stole twenty three.
Stan Hack of the Cubs led the National League with sixteen, the lowest total for the NL league leader.
Our initial top ten National League hitters, with RCG, or Runs Created per Game, is as follows:
- HitterTeamHRRBIAVGRCGMel OttGiants36116.3111.31Joe MedwickCardinals21122.3221.38Johnny RizzoPirates23111.3011.29Ernie LombardiReds1995.3421.05Dolph CamiliDodgers24100.2511.25Johnny MizeCardinals27102.3371.07Ival GoodmanReds3092.2921.14Frank McCormickReds5106.3271.26Wally BergerReds1656.3071.15Stan HackCubs467.3201.13
And, as compared to their team's averages, we get this list:
- Mel OttAboveJoe MedwickAboveJohnny RizzoAboveErnie LombardiAboveDolph CamiliAboveJohnny MizeAboveHarry DanningGiants960.3060.92Debs GarmsDodgers047.3150.93Ival GoodmanAboveFrank McCormickAbove
Combining and crunching, our top ten overall offensive National League players matches our initial list:
- Mel Ott4th in MVPJoe Medwick11th in MVPJohnny Rizzo6th in MVPErnie LombardiMost Valuable PlayerDolph Camili21st in MVP (tied)Johnny Mize12th in MVPIval Goodman17th in MVPFrank McCormick5th in MVPWally BergerNo votesStan Hack7th in MVP
Now, over to the offense heavy American League, where Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg became the first players to hit fifty or more homers in the same season, we get this initial top ten list:
- Jimmie FoxxRed Sox50175.3491.77Hank GreenbergTigers58147.3151.50Joe DiMaggioYankees32140.3241.63Rudy YorkTigers33126.2981.33Jeff HeathIndians21112.3431.55Bill DickeyYankees27115.3131.30Charley GehringerTigers20107.3061.45Earl AverillIndians1493.3301.34Hal TroskyIndians19110.3341.31Bob JohnsonAthletics30112.3131.30
As you can see, the top AL players were churning out very impressive runs per game figures. No wonder the AL pitcher numbers were so low...
Hank Greenberg's total of 58 homers put him on pace to match, or eclipse Babe Ruth's 60 homer record. He had 58 going into the last weekend series against Cleveland, but failed to homer.
He did tie for the AL right handed home run single season record, set by Jimmie Foxx in 1932, and they still hold that record, believe it or not.
Now, in looking at the hitters performances against their team's average, we get this next list:
- Jimmie FoxxAboveHank GreenbergAboveBob JohnsonAboveRudy YorkAboveJeff HeathAboveHarlond CliftBrowns34118.2901.36Joe DiMaggioAboveCharley GehringerAboveBill DickeyAboveGee WalkerWhite Sox1687.3051.17
And those numbers combine into this top ten ranking:
- Jimmie FoxxMost Valuable PlayerHank Greenberg3rd in MVPRudy YorkNo votesJoe DiMaggio6th in MVPJeff Heath11th in MVPBill Dickey2nd in MVPCharley Gehringer10th in MVPBob Johnson17th in MVPHarlond Clift9th in MVPEarl Averill8th in MVP
As for any post season awards, my mythical vote would have matched the American League winner, but differed on the National League. And since there was no separate award for pitchers, I have free reign. So my leaders were:
AL Most Valuable Player
AL Pitcher of the Year
In the National League, I went with Mel Ott over Lombardi, owing to Ott's better run production. That is not to take anything away from Lombardi's season. Ott produced what would amount to 40 additional runs over the course of 150 games. That was enough to move him to the top spot. Even allowing for the physical demands of Lombardi being a catcher, in my book, he falls just a bit short of being the best in the league.
But he was most definitely top five.
NL Most Valuable Player
NL Pitcher of the Year
Thanks for taking the time to read...