Wrong Way Players, Part 1 - 1883 to 1950
By Al Doyle
What is the worst thing a young non-pitcher can do? The answer is obvious: Bat right-handed and throw left-handed. Although that backwards combination is often the kiss of death for a budding baseball career, a small number of players have made it to the major league level despite that handicap.
For someone of average ability - anybody from a bench guy to a regular who isn't one of the team's big stars - one trait is prized at the college level and above. The ability to swing from the left side is a sure way to extend a career at every step from North Podunk Junior College to the majors. Catchers, second basemen and third basemen who hit left-handed are especially sought after by coaches and managers.
The former high school star who is just another body at a higher level can keep his baseball hopes alive as a role player by producing some runs from the left side. If being a fourth outfielder, backup infielder or pinch-hitter sounds less than appealing, it sure beats being the right-handed hitter who was cut in favor of the lefty swinger of equal or even slightly lesser ability.
Righty hitters who throw lefty and don't pitch are baseball's equivalent of the untouchable caste. It's no secret that this combination is to be avoided, so few youngsters are allowed to take the wrong route. Despite long odds, a few odd cases have persevered and spent time in the majors.
Some baseball historians say (with good reason) that 19th century outfielder Jimmy Ryan belongs in the Hall of Fame. Ryan's 2502 career hits and .306 lifetime average in a career than lasted from 1885 to 1903 with the Chicago White Stockings, Colts and Orphans (think Cubs), a one-year stint with the Chicago Pirates of the Players League (1890) and the Washington Senators.
Bill James ranks Ryan as the best player of 1888. He led the National League in home runs (16), hits (182), doubles (33), total bases (283) and slugging percentage (.515). The 5'9" Ryan was second in the NL in batting average (.332), runs (115) and extra base hits (59). Those numbers were racked up in a 135-game schedule. Extrapolate that to 162 games, and Ryan would be pushing 220 hits.
1894 was another big year, as Ryan hit a career-best .361 with 132 runs scored, 37 doubles and 171 hits in just 108 games. He remained productive until age 39, hitting .320 in 484 at-bats for the Senators in 1902.
Ryan went 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 appearances and 117 innings as a pitcher, but the truly odd items in his career stats are the 58 games played at shortstop along with eight appearances at third base and six games at second. While rosters were much smaller in the 19th century, it's hard to imagine a lefty thrower getting that much time in the infield and never spending an inning at first base. Ryan played semi-pro ball into his 50s.
The saga of habitually corrupt Hal Chase has been covered in countless articles, and the first baseman has been the main subject of a few books. While everyone acknowledges that Chase was a crooked as a Chicago alderman, there is disagreement over just how good a player he was.
Often described as the fanciest-fielding first sacker of the dead ball era, Chase's career average of .291 is 28 points above the league mark of .263 during his 15-year stint in the majors (1905-19). The ironically nicknamed "Prince Hal" led the National League in average (.339) and hits (184) in 1916. The balance of his stat sheet is liberally sprinkled with top five finishes in numerous other offensive categories, and Chase racked up 2158 career hits.
By old-time standards, Chase was a solidly above-average hitter when his penchant for throwing games is ignored. Modern statistical analysis has severely damaged that line of reasoning.
If a pitch was anywhere between his nose and his toes, Chase would take a hack at it. His career high of 29 walks came in 1914, and Chase had fewer than 20 bases on balls in nine different seasons as an everyday player. A .319 career on-base percentage is just 28 points above Chase's lifetime average, and that OBP is slightly below the league total of .325.
It would be easy to assume that another player was just overly aggressive if they had the same undisciplined approach at the plate. With Chase, the obvious question becomes: Was he throwing games by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and turning them into outs?
Speaking of throwing games, it was a habit that Chase acquired quickly and practiced with little discretion. Several factors allowed him to continue in this sleazy path for years.
While Chase was the most flagrant practitioner of rigging the results, he certainly wasn't alone in the pre-Judge Landis era. Even when caught in the act, Chase had a rare ability to convincingly bluff and pass his bribery off as gifts and financial pats on the back to allegedly deserving teammates and opponents.
Decades before TV was even invented, team owners and league presidents of the early 1900s had an uncanny ability to perfectly imitate Sgt. Schultz ("I know NOTHING, I hear NOTHING, I see NOTHING!") of Hogan's Heroes fame when it came to gamblers and players conspiring to throw games. Such passivity allowed Chase to boldly and crookedly enlarge his income.
The party ended when the exceptionally corrupt Chase was managed by the unfailingly honest and upright Christy Mathewson in Cincinnati in 1918. Chase bribed Reds pitcher Jimmy Ring $50 to throw a game against the Giants, and the fixer was suspended by Mathewson.
Chase moved on to the Giants in 1919 (ironically, Mathewson was the team's assistant manager under John McGraw that year). The stench and mounting evidence of Chase's crookedness was too great to suppress, and he was finally banned from organized baseball. Depending on the source, Chase was anything from a go-between for gamblers and the Black Sox in fixing the 1919 World Series to a not-so-innocent bystander who profited from inside information of the scheme.
There was plenty of baseball action outside of the majors and minors in the 1920s, and Chase made a living in semi-pro and outlaw leagues in Arizona mining towns. Old habits die hard, and Chase was often under suspicion when the score didn't turn out as expected.
What about Chase's glovework? Was he truly a defensive whiz as claimed by sportswriter Fred Lieb and others?
Chase led American League first basemen in errors during his first seven seasons in the majors (1905-11). Teammates claimed that Chase was slick enough to make a good throw look errant when the fix was in, which deflected blame from the guilty onto the innocent. His .980 career fielding percentage was under the .984 average for that time, but how many of those errors were paid for by gamblers? As with all things related to Chase, the facts are murky. He also made occasional appearances at the other infield positions, a rarity for a lefty.
Rube Bressler's rookie season with the pennant-winning 1914 Philadelphia A's was impressive. The southpaw went 10-4 with a sparkling 1.77 ERA. Visions of future stardom vanished in 1915, when Bressler went 4-17 with a then-astronomical 5.20 ERA. A .179 batting average (19 for 106) in those seasons offered no hint of what was to come.
Aside from an 8-5, 2.46 season with the Reds in 1918, Bressler's days on the mound were all but over. The right-handed hitter turned himself into a solid position player and offensive threat. Bressler finished with a .301 lifetime average as an outfielder and first baseman in a big league career that lasted until 1932.
He hit .347, .348 and .357 for the Reds from 1924 to 1926. Traded to Brooklyn after the 1927 season, Bressler hit .318 in 1929. Despite a late start, he had 1170 career hits.
Johnny Cooney was another pitcher turned outfielder. The lefty injured his arm after a 14-14, 3.48 season with the Boston Braves in 1925. Surgery made Cooney's pitching arm noticeably shorter than his right arm, and he made sporadic mound appearances until 1930.
Cooney demostrated his skill at the plate before the injury, hitting .379 with just two strikeouts in 66 at-bats in 1923 and .320 (33 for 103) in 1925. The Rhode Island native actually saw more action as a first baseman (31 games) than on the mound (19 games) while hitting .302 in 1926.
After drifting back to the minors for much of the 1930s, Cooney became an everyday player for the Casey Stengel-managed Dodgers at age 35 in 1936. While he could hit for average and go two weeks between strikeouts, Cooney's total lack of power made him a one-man revival of the dead ball era.
Stengel's enthusiasm for the former pitcher remained after the Old Professor moved on to the Boston Bees (the short-lived name of the Braves from 1936 to 1941). Cooney played in Beantown from 1938 to 1942, hitting .318 with just nine strikeouts in 365 ABs and .319 in 442 ABs at age 40 in 1941. World War II allowed Cooney to hang on as a pinch-hitter until 1944.
The right-handed hitting Cooney smacked just two home runs in 3372 career at-bats. Those rare bombs came in a totally out of character power display on back-to-back days (September 24 and 25, 1939) against the New York Giants. No accounts of where Cooney's homers landed is available, but the short (279 feet with an overhang) left field line at the Polo Grounds certainly didn't hurt.
Reds outfielder Chucho Ramos became the first Venezuelan-born position player in the majors when he debuted with a 3 for 4 performance against the Cardinals on May 7, 1944. Ramos played just three more games before injuries ended his major league career with a .500 (5 for 10) average.
First baseman Dick Adams played in the minors from 1939 to 1941 prior to four years of military service. After returning to the minors in 1946, the Philadelphia A's took a chance on the righty-hitting, lefty-throwing Adams in 1947. His only major league season was a disappointment, as Adams hit .202 (18 for 89) with a pair of homers and 11 RBI. He also has two doubles and three triples, but just two walks.
While Dick's nephew Mike had a similar career average (.195) as a utility player in the 1970s, the younger Adams was the extreme opposite of his impatient uncle. Even with just 23 hits in 118 ABs, Mike Adams had a fine .375 career OBP thanks to 32 walks. If only Billy Beane was around then.
How could you forget Rickey Henderson, the greatest of the bats-right-throws-left position players?
Posted by: Lance Richardson at July 20, 2007 9:06 AM
I'm guessing it's the 1883-1950 thing.
Posted by: Sully at July 20, 2007 9:36 AM
Duly noted. I am dumb. Who reads headlines, anyway?
Posted by: Lance Richardson at July 20, 2007 9:56 AM
I wonder if any of them could cut it in today's league...
Posted by: J. Mark English at July 20, 2007 1:16 PM
Another wrong-way player for the post-1950 group, when/if you get around to it, is my favorite Met, Cleon Jones.
Posted by: Lachman at July 20, 2007 3:54 PM
Interesting article. You don't hear much about these guys anymore, but you guys seem very knowledgeable on them. When you see footage of baseball from back then, and compare it to now, it seems like two different games. But yeah, if you throw lefty, you can definitely figure out how to bat lefty, and that would make you much more valuable.
Posted by: Beeg at July 21, 2007 10:11 AM
I don't see why BR/TL would be a handicap. Some natural righthanders bat left because they can see the ball better and because the bottom hand can provide a great deal of leverage and bat control. I would imagine that the "wrong-way" combination is rare merely because left-handers are a lot rarer than right anyway, and there's a disproportionate pressure on them to become pitchers if their arms are any good at all ...
Posted by: Bob Dernier Cri at July 23, 2007 3:57 AM
It's a handicap to bat righty because lefthanded hitters have the platoon advantage against most pitchers, have a shorter distance to run to first, and are more likely to hit to rightfield (which improves the chances of triples and baserunner advancement). It's a handicap to throw lefty because lefthanded throwers have fewer positions which they can play.
Posted by: Andrew at July 23, 2007 5:44 AM