October 24, 2008
You Could Look It Up
1915, the Year of Nothing
In my chat earlier this week, I was asked to write something about the 1915 Phillies. "Sure," I said blithely. "I can do anything with dead guys!" As it turns out, the 1915 Phillies had one of those pennant races that didn't offer much in the way of drama. They opened strong, winning eight straight out of the gate, played back their lead to the Cubs, and played leapfrog with them through mid-July; when the Phillies lost to the Cubs on July 17, the two teams were tied at 41-34. Philadelphia then took the next three games from Chicago and never looked back, going 51-26 (.662) the rest of the way to put the pennant away. It was a year without any truly outstanding teams in the NL, but no team was truly horrible either. The Giants, at 69-83, were the best last-place team in NL history to that point. The Phillies, at 90-62, were the worst pennant winner.
The Phillies had appointed a rookie manager that year, 39-year-old ex-catcher Pat Moran. Moran is one of the more interesting unsung skippers in baseball history; we'll get to more about him in a minute. Moran orchestrated four moves that winter that strongly shaped Philadelphia's season. First, Moran had to deal with the Phillies' middle-infield problems. Their double-play combo of 1913 had jumped to the Federal League (the Phillies have a long, long history of being tight with a buck). In 1914 they muddled through without solving the problem, even playing 29-year-old left fielder Sherry Magee at shortstop for 39 games. Casting about for a shortstop, they got good scouting reports on young Dave Bancroft, then playing for Portland in the Pacific Coast League; they purchased him for $5,000. "Beauty" was an above-average hitter for only a few seasons of his career, but he was a terrific defender from the start. He helped the Phillies go from worst to first in defensive efficiency in 1915.
Next, in a trade that proved to be a steal for the Phillies, third baseman Hans Lobert, 32, was sent to the Giants in exchange for three players: reserve catcher Bert Adams, pitcher Al Demaree, and 21-year-old infielder Milt Stock. Adams wasn't useful, but Demaree became a decent back-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Phillies for a couple of years, while Stock took over at third base midway through the 1915 season, spurring their second-half run. He would have a long career as a B-level third sacker with a solid bat and glove. Lobert, generally an excellent hitter, barely played for the Giants before injuries ended his career.
Moran next traded the player-manager he replaced, Red Dooin, to the Reds for third baseman Bert Niehoff, who Moran moved to second as the latest patch for the middle infield. The acquisition was in no way as successful in fixing the problem at the keystone as Bancroft was at shortstop, but the Phillies were able to live with it through three pretty good seasons. Finally, Moran dealt the disgruntled Magee to the Braves for outfielder Possum Whitted, utilityman Oscar Dugey, and cash. This was actually a fairly terrible trade, only slightly redeemed by Magee's quick fade due to injuries and park effects (not necessarily in that order).
Everything about the Phillies in this period is distorted by the Baker Bowl, their miniature home park. The Bowl was 335 down the left-field line, 379 to left-center, 388 to center field, 325 to right-center, and 273 down the right-field line, the last topped by a 35-foot wall. Consider first baseman Fred Luderus, who had a huge .315/.376/.457 season in 1915. He came up with the Cubs and hit just one home run in his first 159 major league at-bats. Moving to the Phillies, he was suddenly a slugger, with five straight seasons among the top half-dozen home-run hitters in the league from 1911-1915. After that, strangely, he lost the knack for a while-a problem given that he was reputedly a clanky defender.
The player who most benefitted from the park during this period was right fielder Gavvy Cravath, a primordial slugger who won five National League home-run titles from 1913-1919. Out of 117 career homers with the Phillies, Cravath hit 92, or 79 percent, in the Bowl. Splits like these help explain the team's .645 record at home. Cravath's splits help explain why major league teams let him stay in the minors until he was 31, despite some good numbers: without the tiny park to play in, he must not have looked like anything special. It took unheard of numbers-a .363 average and 29 home runs (.637 slugging) with the Minneapolis Millers in 1911, to finally spring him for good.
Appropriately, the World Series with the Boston Red Sox would turn on park effects. The Phillies took the first game, then lost four straight one-run ballgames to the Sox. The fifth and final game, which the Phillies dropped 5-4, took place at the Baker Bowl. Skinflint owner William Baker had added extra boxes in the outfield, shrinking the already tiny playing field. Non-slugging Bostonian Harry Hooper cranked two homers into these newly-minted boxes, one in the ninth for the deciding run; Duffy Lewis also hit one in the eighth. Making a small field smaller for many years ranked right up there with getting into a land war in Asia on the list of great blunders.
The 1915 Phillies had three future Hall of Famers on their roster. Two of them, shortstop Dave Bancroft and pitcher Eppa Rixey, are in the lower echelon of the greats, but the third, the great Grover Cleveland Alexander, is one of the inner-circle, indisputable enshrinees. The sidearmer was at his peak in 1915, years before the drinking problem and epilepsy which caused him (and his teams) so many difficulties took hold. Our metrics rank 1915 as Alexander's second-greatest season, one of four years in which he was worth more than 12 wins above replacement to his club. He led the league in so many pitching categories that it would be easier to list the ones he didn't lead than the ones he did, all in the most generous hitter's park this side of pre-humidor Coors Field. It's difficult to imagine a modern analogue to Alexander; picture Brandon Webb throwing three-quarters while having the DTs, and you'd be close.
Pat Moran isn't much remembered today, or if he is, it's as the manager of the team who won the 1919 World Series. His managerial career, though brief, deserves more examination than that. Moran's winning percentage of .561 ranks 14th on the all-time list. He managed nine seasons, four with the Phillies, five with the Reds; he started at 39, and was dead from the stress and the alcoholic lubrication it required at 48. In those few years, he managed one champion (the Reds, who, you never know, might have won without Chick Gandil's help), two pennant winners, and four second-place teams. Very few managers can equal that kind of record.
Moran's makeover of the Reds between 1918 and 1919 hints at a special grasp of defense; as with the Phillies in 1915, the Reds jumped from the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency to the top. Note that the Tampa Bay Rays experienced this same transformation from 2007 to 2008, and it becomes apparent what a powerful tool converting just a few extra hits into outs can be. In a no-brainer move, the evil Hal Chase was chased out of Cincinnati in favor of Jake Daubert, a player who was much better on offense and, while not Chase's equal with the glove, at least wasn't trying to throw games. The offensively challenged but defensively excellent Morrie Rath took over at second for another cheater, Lee Magee. Moran also switched his shortstop and his corner outfielders. In the pitching department, he picked up soft-tossing lefty Slim Sallee from the Giants on a waiver claim and got a 21-7 season from him, that despite Sallee only striking out 24 in 227
Among Moran's later insights was the formation of the great Reds' rotation of the early 1920s. Eppa Rixey was stagnating with the Phils. Moran traded for his old charge and helped him pitch his way to Cooperstown. The Reds had the Cuban great Dolf Luque rotting in their bullpen; Moran put him in the rotation and he became one of the league's best pitchers for the next ten years. Moran also brought up phenom Pete Donohue at 20 in 1921, starting him on the way to three 20-win seasons by age 25. Moran was almost certainly on his way to a Hall of Fame-caliber managerial career when he expired.
And Now For Something Completely Different
As a closing note, I thought it might be fun to pick an All-Star team from the five Phillies World Series clubs (1915, 1950, 1980, 1993, and 2008), seeing how many of the current bunch make it aboard:
The Final Tally