A little while ago I came up with the idea of asking various baseball fans to pick their favorite obscure baseball figure from the past. As the word “figure” indicates, the person doesn’t have to be a player; it can be anyone employed within the game itself, by a team or by a league, including umpires, coaches, scouts, and front office personnel (but not the media).
My idea is that time and a focus on sabermetrics and efforts to determine who should be in the Hall of Fame have left many uniquely interesting and/or appealing retired/deceased baseball people by the wayside. I’m asking for help in bringing to light some old baseball people who are worth remembering.
Obscurity is a little hard to define, but by definition it excludes anyone in the Hall of Fame. My general guideline is that if the typical enthusiastic but non-obsessive baseball fan either hasn’t heard of him or barely recognizes his name, he’s obscure. By “favorite” I don’t necessarily mean that you admire or like the guy, just that you think he’s interesting, compelling, or represents something important in baseball history.
It could be someone like Hal Chase or one of the Black Sox, who you don’t like at all, but are fascinated by. Some examples of good candidates for favorite obscure player are Art (the Great) Shires, Arlie Latham, Fats Fothergill, Kirby Higbe, Johnny Mostil, Chick Stahl, and Lou Sockalexis. Or, from the non-player ranks, George Moriarty, Nick Altrock, George Magerkurth, Chub Feeney, Art Fowler, and Dick Howser.
If you’ve come by this post and have someone in mind, just put his name in the comments. I’m only asking for a name, but if you’ve already written something online about the person (it can be either a man or a woman), I’ll link to that; and if you want to write a few sentences talking about your favorite obscure baseball figure, that would be fine.
Here are some picks from people I’ve emailed to ask for their choices. The choices are bolded to make them easier to see, and most links go to their Wikipedia pages:
He was a completely unlikeable character. His former teammate John Stearns once said that Kingman had all the personality of a tree-trunk. At 6’6″ and just over 200 pounds, Kingman was tall, lanky and extremely awkward. Somehow, he was once the San Francisco Giants first-round draft pick.
Of his 1518 career hits, an astonishing 442 were home runs. He led the N.L. in homers twice, and in strikeouts three times. Finished with a career batting average of .236 with a .302 on-base percentage. He was arguably the most one-dimensional player ever. He was awkward on the bases and in the field, and as a hitter, he simply went up there hacking like no one else in baseball history.
Kingman once played for four teams in one season: Mets, Padres, Angels, Yankees (1977). Nobody could stand him long enough to keep him very long. His 1816 career strikeouts rank 12th all time, but it ranked 4th all time at the time of his retirement. Considering all the home runs he hit in his career, his career WAR is a very poor 18.0.
Kingman is the only player in history to hit 30 home runs in his final season in the Majors.
In 1986, while with Oakland, Kingman sent a live rat in a box to a female reporter because he didn’t think women reporters should be in men’s locker rooms.
When Kingman led the N.L. in home runs with the Mets with 37 in 1982, his .203 batting average was the lowest in history for a home run leader. It was also lower than Cy Young winner Steve Carlton’s batting average for the year, .218.
In 1981, Kingman led the N.L. with 105 strikeouts, despite playing in just 100 games.
I once saw Kingman hit a home run, one-handed, into the upper deck in left field at Shea Stadium, just a few feet away from leaving the park entirely.
As a Mets fan, I always stood in awe of his home runs, but even as a kid I always thought he was one of the worst players I ever saw.
From Scott Simkus, who runs the Outsider Baseball Bulletin:
It’s tough to pick one favorite. There’s so many wonderful characters from the games past. But one guy who’s been on my mind lately is Charles Blackwell. He was a Negro league outfielder whose career spanned the deadball years to the late 1920s. As the stats emerge, he’ll become somebody worthy of serious conversation. In over 350 games from 1917 to 1923 (a pretty big sample size for blackball), Blackwell’s average hovers near .330 with an OBP north of .400. He had some power, 12 hr in 78 in 1921, and obviously he drew walks. Plus: He had good speed, stealing at least 65 bases, and anchoring center field for St. Louis before young Cool Papa Bell replaced him.
From Steve Treder, Hardball Times columnist and VP of Strategic Development at the Western Management Group:
The hard part is choosing only one!
I’ve written numerous THT articles on the types of guys you’re thinking of. I agree that in many ways these folks are more interesting than the stars.
From Daniel Shoptaw, Cardinals blogger and head of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance:
Ellis Kinder, because he was from Atkins, AR, which is 10 miles down the road, but I didn’t come across him until reading David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49.
From Graham Womack, who runs the Baseball: Past & Present blog:
My first pick is Ron Necciai, who struck out 27 batters in a minor league game in 1952. He was immediately called up to the Pittsburgh Pirates, proceeded to go 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA, and that was the end of his big league career. He threw his last pitch in the majors at 20– kind of a latter day David Clyde.