Last February I started a project here of asking fans to send in their picks for their favorite obscure baseball figure from the past. It took two different posts to list all the choices that came in, many of them via the now-defunct Baseball-Reference blog.
I’m restarting the project for spring training 2012. Here’s a quick primer: As the word “figure” indicates, the person didn’t have to be a player; it can be anyone (male or female, of course) who was employed within the game itself, by a team or by a league, including umpires, coaches, scouts, and front office personnel.
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.
I’ve posted about this project on Seamheads.com, message board Baseball-Fever.com, and, for Seattle Mariners fans, a message board called Mariner Central. (And, for Oakland A’s fans, the Athletics Nation site.)
You can look at all the choices offered at those three places. Here are a few of the choices offered by some people on Baseball-Fever:
Pitcher: Danny Jackson, of the Royals, Reds and then the Phillies. He was a big game pitcher, had one huge season when he might have won the Cy had it not been for Orel Hershiser. He also had an odd facet to his pitching motion, where his knee seemed to buckle somehow as he drove himself off of the mound. He was fun to watch pitch, especially in big games.
Hitter: Nate Colbert, of the Padres for his big years from 1969 through 1973. The Padres played in a stadium with a 17′ high fence all around the outfield wall, and that fence was a bit further from the plate than was typical. Nevertheless, Colbert hit 38 HRs twice in 1970 and 1972, and he had 111 RBI in 1972 for a club which did not score many runs at all.
chinese home run
Frank Shellenback is one that comes to mind for me. He came up with the White Sox as a teenager in the late 1910’s; his specialty was the spitball. In 1920, major league baseball declared the spitball and other trick pitches illegal, but each team was allowed to grandfather up to two pitchers who threw the spitter. (No, Gaylord Perry wasn’t one of them-lol) Shellenback was on the roster of a Pacific Coast League team at the time, and he could not be included on the list. He instead won 295 games in the PCL, became Ted Williams’ first manager in the minors and became Leo Durocher’s pitching coach with the Giants in 1949. Shelly worked with Sal Maglie when he came back in 1950 and taught Johnny Antonelli how to throw a changeup when he came over to the Giants; without Johnny’s 21 wins they probably don’t win the pennant and World Series in 1954. Durocher was quick to give him credit for the Giants’ success. “Frank can see more with a pitcher in ten minutes than I could see in a lifetime,” Durocher said once.
Wasn’t an obscure player while he was still pitching, but his name and accomplishments have been lost over the past 2 decades since he retired: John Tudor. The smooth lefty had an amazing 1985 campaign for my Cardinals, going 21-8 with a 1.93 ERA and NL leading 10 shut outs and 0.938 WHIP. Unfortunately for Tudor, that was the year Doc Gooden had a season for the ages and beat him out in the NL Cy Young voting. Tudor went 117-72 over parts of 12 seasons in the bigs with Boston (1979-1983), Pittsburgh (1984) St Louis (1985-1988, 1990) and LA (1988-1989). I always loved watching him pitch when I was a kid, and glad he did get a ring with the Dodgers in 1988, even though he had to leave his only World Series start that year in the second with an injury. Always one of my all time favorites!
One guy I really liked is Dan Gladden. His stats kind of sucked. But he helped my Twins win two World Series, which includes him scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. He always played hard despite having no talent. Now that I’m looking at his stats, I see that he really sucked. He had a career OPS+ of 95 in only 4962 plate appearances. During the Twins’ championship seasons, he had an OPS+ of 76 and 80. He only had one season with an OPS above 104 and he had 5 seasons below 89. That is pathetic. Yet, I really like this guy. He always hustled and enjoyed the game. And he was good for the clubhouse too, from what I’ve read.
Here are three from Seamheads:
My favorite is the man whose name I use when I post of baseball fora anonymously: Wade Lefler. After going 0-for-1 in a cup of coffee with the 1924 Braves, he went back down to Worcester until acquired by the Nationals in September. Lefler went 5-for-8 with three doubles – two as a pinch-hitter – and 4 RBI to help the Nats make the push to the AL pennant. Lefler never played in the majors again but went on to have a long career as a public attorney.
I’ve mentioned him before in other “obscure player” references, but my all-time favorite is Smead Jolley. He spent only four years in the bigs and amassed 500+ at-bats in only two, but they were two very good seasons: .313/16/114 in 1930 (he also had 38 doubles and 12 triples), and .312/18/106 in 1932 (struck out only 29 times in 606 plate appearances). Jolley could hit, but he was slow as molasses (don’t let the triples fool you; he was 5-for-12 in SB attempts during his career and had a range factor of only 1.80 vs. a LGRF of 2.37), and couldn’t field (.944 career FLD%). In fact, Jolley allegedly made three errors on one play once.
But dude could hit (did I already mention that?). He batted .367 in 2,228 minor league games, rapped out 3,043 hits in 16 years, 640 of which were doubles and 336 of which were homers, and slugged .584. He also enjoyed one of the greatest seasons at any level when he hit .404 with 52 doubles, 10 triples and 45 homers, and slugged .675 in 1928. His top minor league averages were: .404, .397, .387, .383, .380, .373 (twice), .372 and .360. If Jolley were better with the glove or there was a DH in the 1930′s there’s no telling how great he might have been.
Ike Boone was similar. He batted .370 in 1,857 minor league games with a career year in 1929 when he hit .407 and belted 55 home runs in 198 games. Boone hit .321 in 1,160 major league at-bats, but committed 13 errors in 118 games in 1925 (.941) and that sealed his fate as a major leaguer. It’s too bad because both of them could hit the hell out of the ball.
I was at the first game (of two) he ever started in the Majors, St. Louis @ Milwaukee, July 5, 2001. He went 1/4 with 2 Ks (and man alive did those two Ks look bad). Even though 2001 was his only season in the Majors, he’s still made his mark more recently on the international baseball scene. He’s Canadian, so he played with them in both World Baseball Classic tournaments. In 2006, he started all 3 of Team Canada’s games at 2nd base, going 2/13 with a triple and one RBI, walking twice, and getting caught stealing in his only attempt. He was much less of a factor in 2009, going 0/1 in his only plate appearance.
Here are two from Mariner Central:
For some reason, I was a fan of the two 1B we had between the Tino and Olerud eras — Paul Sorrento and David Segui. Both were quality, though unspectacular bats with very underrated gloves at first (especially Segui). In fact, I’m still pissed to this date how Segui was robbed of a Gold Glove in 1999 to Palmeiro — the first DH to win a Gold Glove (well… I don’t really know if he was actually the first, but who cares?!).
Jim Bullinger: Didn’t really like him as a player, but loved him in general because he would quickly punch the ball in to his glove a couple of times during his leg kick. I attempted to emulate this in a little league game with disastrous results.
Turk Wendell: Who didn’t love this guy?
Scott Bullett: Always expected this guy to steal more bags because of his name. But he was a good story baseball reference-wise. He actually had a very long and successful minor league career: 150 HRs, almost 300 steals, over 1500 hits.
Orlando Merced/Howard Johnson: Guys who played for years elsewhere, played only briefly in Chicago, but I distinctly remember both of them hitting late-inning pinch hit homers. That’s a good way to win me over.
My absolute favorites:
Kevin Foster: My favorite pitcher when I was a kid. Had a couple of really good seasons, and was a pretty solid hitter too. I’m still baffled as to why he didn’t stick around in the big leagues longer than he did.
Joe Kmak: I’m really not sure why I liked this guy so much. He was they typical veteran catcher who didn’t play much, but seemed to be especially clutch when you least expected it. He’s a HS teacher now, and a few years ago one of his students wrote a great Wikipedia page for him that’s since been sterilized.
Leo Gomez: Had good power and always hit the first baseman right in the chest with his throws to first. Ended up having a really good career in Japan, but I still don’t understand why he never caught on in the majors.
And some Ms:
Rey Sanchez: I’m cheating here, because he was a Cub. But I was so excited when the Ms picked him up to replaced the ill/injured Carlos Guillen. I think even today I’d take Sanchez as the M’s utility player over Carlos.
Roberto Petagine: I remember SportSpot being up in arms that this guy never got any playing time. He was Roy Hobbs in spring training and made the team. In (I think…) his first two at bats he hit a pinch-hit double and a walk-off home run, then went on to rot on the bench. The man dominated in Japan, but never got the reps in the big leagues. He drove in 100 runs and hit .335 while playing overseas in 2009 at age 38.
Shane Monahan: I’ve heard tell that this guy was kind of a punk. But he was a left-handed hitter who didn’t have a lot of power, much like me. So he gave me hope that I could be a ball player too.
Here’s one from Athletics Nation:
Damon Mashore (Properly pronounced Ma-Shore, not May-Shore!) His superhero name made him an instant favorite, even though he never lived up to his handle.
And here are a few other choices:
I would go with Billy Maharg, who played as a replacement Tiger in 1912, played for the Philadephia Athletics on the final day of the 1916 season, and then helped conspire to fix the 1919 World Series. He then spilled the beans on the whole affair in 1920. A fringe player, to be sure, but an influential one too, in a really bad way.
It seems only appropriate for me to submit my vote for Dennis Mattingly, who passed away last month.
Mattingly founded the Anchorage Bucs of the Alaska Baseball League and served as the General Manager until the end of the 2011 season. The introduction of a second team in Anchorage met some resistance at first, but when all the dust settled it resulted in the forging of the league as we know it today. Under Mattingly’s leadership, the Bucs brought gave many future pros the opportunity to hone their skills, and put them in front of the scouts. Some of my favorite players who owe their success, in part, to Mattingly include Ike Davis, CJ Wilson, Jeff Kent, and Paul Goldschmidt. Mattingly was a blue-collar man who built the team from the ground up, and was never above any job — no matter how dirty — required to keep the team on the field. He passed away in January after battling with cancer for over a decade, but he left a huge legacy.
I wrote a couple of articles on Mattingly’s passing:
My favorite obscure player is OF Del Unser, formerly of the Mets and Phillies. In 1975, the first year I was a full-time Mets fan, Unser was there lead-off hitter and starting centerfielder. He was a poor man’s Freddy Lynn (who I was also a big fan of.) Unser played well in center, and he had a swing with a little hitch in it that I tried to copy as a kid (I was about 12 at the time.) My big thrill that summer was going to Shea Stadium with my family and getting to see Unser and the Mets play live. As I recall (and who knows if this actually happened) Unser hit a single to leadoff the bottom of the first inning for the Mets. And that’s about all I remember from the game.
Former big-leaguer Jack Perconte:
the one that comes to mind for me would be Gary Weiss – fellow Dodger rookie with me in 1980 and 1981 – you said it didn’t have to be someone liked or admired but Gary certainly was by all who knew him. I think the compelling thing was that he was young and probably had his better baseball days ahead of him, but he was able to up and retire after making the big leagues – satisfied with what he had accomplished and being able to easily move on with his life. As you know most players have a very difficult time when their career ends.