The near perfect website called Baseball Reference rents out the heading sections of its player-pages to help support its unequalled statistical product. Unique to this kind of sponsorship is that the Reference auctions off access to the headings, creating a kind of fan marketplace, with better players yielding higher prices than lesser players. This means the player pages of legends like Ted Williams and Willie Mays are nabbed by blogs or memorabilia companies eager to piggy-back on more visible pages. Yet the lesser, and more importantly cheaper, player-pages typically have far more clever text; usually some blend of sarcasm and nostalgia created by someone very bored and devoid of real commitments, someone like myself.
One of my favorites of this type headlines Giants great Johnnie LeMaster’s page. Submitted by David Rubio, it reads “Underachievers have always had a place in my heart. Johnnie was a favorite of mine.” The LeMaster line led me searching for more. I thought another Giants shortstop would be a natural target for someone with the right love of the esoteric and immature, Jose Uribe. Unfortunately no one had bothered to sponsor poor Jose. But the drifting got me thinking about a question: who is the greatest shortstop to ever play for the San Francisco Giants? My instinct was to dismiss recent players outright, I had watched every shortstop since the mid-80s and not one of them had found a place in my heart. I also knew little about the 6-hole guys who played for the early teams so my curiosity and presumptions led me to the beginning, 1958.
The mid-fifties were not kind to the New York Giants. Although a young Willie Mays had transfixed the city since stepping on the field in 1951, the Giants lingered in the shadows of the two outer-borough clubs for much of decade. The idea of the team moving was also not a novel concept in 1957. The Giants had bounced around Manhattan since the inception of the club in 1883, so news of a potential move rarely startled a fan-base who was so comfortable with moving that they brought the name of their home, the Polo Grounds, to each new stop. Throughout the '50s there was often talk that the team would go west, although most thought Minneapolis-St. Paul the likely place because the Giants AAA affiliate played there and an aggressive group of locals enticed Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham with promises of a world class stadium that fans could actually drive their cars to. And, unlike the Dodgers, who played in the middle of Flatbush just off Prospect Park, the Giants, partly due to their very urban roots, attracted fans from the white collar commuter-class from lower Up-state, Connecticut, New Jersey, and city dwellers that, although not quite indifferent, were typically less rowdy and tribal than their neighbors from the working-class enclaves on Long Island. These different demographics, along with routine discussions about the team moving, wrought different reactions when both teams decided to move west for the 1958 season. Although Giants fans were disappointed, there was nothing like the shock and pain that Brooklyn-ites displayed when the Dodgers announced the news. In fact, there is a line that Giants fans were the kinds of people who had been leaving the east coast for California since the end of the war anyways and that Dodgers fans would never leave Brooklyn. Although this was of course hyperbole, it captured some sense of the two divergent moods as the two clubs headed to California.
In the San Francisco of 1958, like much of the country, the post-war boom was not over but stalling. Democratic politicians, like the little known junior senator from Massachusetts, were talking about a stagnant America, tying the aging and ever-golfing President Eisenhower to the slowing of the American economy and the waning of US influence abroad. But still for many, San Francisco represented everything vibrant and open about the American experiment: possessing all of its virtue absent its Puritan baggage. Landing a Major League Baseball seemed to finally ratify worldly greatness on a city that was always looked upon as the loose and brash cousin of the established cities of the eastern seaborne. San Francisco had always possessed wealth and art and physical beauty, but now it had Mays. And owner Horace Stoneham had his ballpark that people could drive to, although not quite yet. The club started out in the Mission, at Seals Stadium before a raucous crowd basking in major league validation. At shortstop was a 29 year-old Manhattan hold-over named Daryl Spencer. “Big Dee” was a tall, lean man and not very good at hitting or playing the field. He had a little pop, especially for the era, but he peaked his rookie year, 1953, on a bad team that felt the loss of Mays’s stint in the service. Spencer continued to be a decent home run hitter through the decade but never topped his inaugural season and fizzled out for the Giants after the first year in San Francisco.
Next year Spencer moved over to second base to make room for defensive specialist Eddie Bressoud. The LA product was a classic pre-Ripken era shortstop; slight, quick-feet, and a really bad hitter. Although still sharing the load with Spencer for some of the time, Bressoud played most of the games in ’59 and 60’. He hit around .230, got on base very little, and kept a lot of runs from being scored by the other team. The Giants were as mediocre as Bressoud both years, finishing 3rd and 5th respectively. Bressoud’s departure cleared the way for the Puerto Rican youngster, Jose Pagan, one of the slough of young Latino infielders that invaded the league in the late 1950s. But like Bressoud, Pagan struggled at the plate. His first year with the reins he hit .253, stole 8 bases, and played above average shortstop. Next year he remarkably finished 11th in the MVP voting, and looking at the numbers, I can’t see any rational reason why. The Giants were good of course, making it to the World Series for the first time in the new digs in ’62, but Pagan stole very little, hit very little, got on base very little, and played mundane, although beautiful, shortstop. It reminds how much of baseball evaluation was, and is, fueled by eyeballs. Baseball people still think they can see a good baseball player when actually you can only count how good a baseball player is.
Pagan hung around, achieving what most clubs expected out of shortstops of the time, then ripened and fell in 1965 for Jayson Werth’s grandpa, Dick “Ducky” Schofield. Ducky had a long career, starting in St. Louis in 1953 and wrapping up with a bad Brewers team in 1971. Schofield was not much more than a space-holder for the Giants in ’65. They traded Pagan outright for the veteran early in the season and got the raw end of the deal. Schofield was like a bad clone of Pagan: wiry, slick, and unable to hit pitches. He barely hit .200 and the Giants cut their losses after the season and waived the plucky Ducky.
Known primarily as a well-loved Giants second baseman, the man who filled shortstop for most of the ’66 season was Tito Fuentes. Cuban born, Fuentes is an interesting historical footnote because he was one of the last Cuban players signed before the American embargo against Cuba, which in unwitting Orwellian Doublespeak Congress dubbed the Cuban Democracy Act. Fuentes played sparingly in ’65, spelling Schofield and playing some second and third. In ’66 he won the job and, in the light of hindsight, played no better than average. But context being truth, average play, especially when done with Latin flourish, looked a lot better than it actually was. Tito finished 3rd in the Rookie of Year that year and won over Bay Area hearts with his smile and glove. Tito moved over to second full-time the following year where he became a baby-boomer favorite, playing slick D and hitting half-way decent on several unmemorable teams in the '70s.
Tito’s move to second allowed former Astros manager Hal Lanier to step in. The prospect apparently fit the mold better than Fuentes, being both average with the glove and a bad hitter. I suspect Hal was the typical manger type; very good at explaining how much he knew about the game, how good his instincts were, but not very good at actually playing baseball. Hal never hit above .231 as the Giants starting shortstop and never slugged above .300. It’s remarkable, going through the research for this piece, how stubbornly ignorant the baseball world was for so long. Tracking shortstops, there was a numbing faith in perceived characteristics that often had very little to do with play on the field. Perhaps no other position in the sport has been shaped by “type” more than shortstop.
Lanier lingered through the late '60s until he was uprooted by Chris Speier. Speier was a scout’s dream, and also a case study in how scouts often get it wrong. Michael Lewis goes into this in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, how some scouts can develop an odd visual attraction to a player. Billy Beane became convinced that he was touted so highly not just because he could run fast and hit baseballs a long way on occasion, but because he looked like an all-American kid. It has instilled in him, as an evaluator, a penchant for the overlooked chubby guy or the undersized pitcher—so long as they can play. Chris Speier looked like an all-American kid when the Giants drafted him with the second pick overall in 1970. He was a golden boy; local legend (just across the bay in Alameda), sandy haired, and fresh from UC Santa Barbara where he was second team all-conference, but hadn’t exactly lit the place on fire. If scouts had bothered to investigate they would have likely found that Speier was a good all-around athlete with a good attitude and lots of holes in his swing. Speier breezed through the minors though, posting a pretty solid year in AA Amarillo with 6 pops and a .285 clip.
The lone season in Amarillo sold the organization who gave Speier the starting job in 1971. Yet they kept Lanier around, likely to teach the kid the game and Hal must have taught him everything he knew because Speier turned into a prototypical Giants shortstop. His rookie campaign with the big club did not go well but he followed it up with an impressive sophomore season that landed him in the All-Star game. Looking at the 1971 All-Star game is interesting because it suggests that the Giants were not the only club infatuated with the idea of type. Starting that game for the National League was Cub favorite Don Kessinger. Kessinger defined the shortstop type: 6’1”, 170, scrappy, smooth, and very bland in the batter’s box. Unfortunately for the Cubs, and the league really, Kessinger was the best of the type, playing in six all-star games over a seven year period spanning the late '60s and early '70s (the one year he missed his numbers were virtually identical to the award seasons). So it is easy to see how the Giants might be coaxed in to believing their young all-star would be very good indeed. And if Speier had simply replicated what he had accomplished his sophomore season he likely would have become the obvious answer to the question I pose here—but that did not happen. In '73, another all-star campaign it should be noted, Speier regressed in every phase of the game. He dipped in all the relevant offensive categories and had one of his worst seasons defensively, using the Reference’s version of UZR figures. The following year he was awarded another presence in the All-Star based on very Kessinger-like play. After '73 Speier did not have another productive season but remained the Giants starting shortstop for another three years. As testament to how powerful this concept of the shortstop type remained in baseball into the '80s, even after Ripken showed what was possible, Speier managed to play another 16 seasons in the big leagues.
By now, even if you never saw LeMaster play or are not familiar with his numbers, you can probably guess which type of shortstop he was. But before we get to 1978 Tim Foli deserves a word. Drafted first overall by the Mets in 1969, Foli was, you guessed it, 6’0”, 179, smooth, scrappy, and apparently a great teammate, convincing one that being a great teammate is synonymous with being a bad hitter. Ever heard someone say Ted Williams was a great teammate? The Giants, in a deal similar to the Lanier/Pagan trade, acquired Foli when they sent Speier to the Expos the first month of the season, 1977. He was Speier’s age and his double at the plate, yet Foli was not just average in the field the way his predecessor had been—he was better than average and at times he was excellent. Although his error totals crept into the teens most years, he covered a great deal of ground and had the knack of making outs on balls that most shortstops could just simply not get too. His UZR number of 16 in 1974 with the Expos is Vizquel-like and his steady 7s and 9s through most of his career put him in nice company. The Giants would have been far better off holding on to Foli but they couldn’t resist young Johnnie LeMaster—who true to type was of course an awful hitter, but was also dreadful in the field. The Giants were burdened with LeMaster as their everyday shortstop for seven seasons and it’s not coincidence that some of the worst Giants teams to date were helmed by Johnnie LeMaster at shortstop. I’m sure he was a great teammate but he was a very bad baseball player.
Jose Uribe brought the Giants a level of consistency at shortstop that they simply had not found since moving west. Uribe’s offensive numbers are no better than his predecessors—although his ability to steal bases separates him from the pack—but defensively he was good. His second full year in the big leagues, after a shaky rookie campaign, he had an excellent defensive season, racking up a 15 UZR. When the Giants needed him most, during the ’87 playoff year, he scored a 9 in the field and had his best offensive year with a huge spike in OPS and batting average. Following Uribe was what the Giants thought would be their first real break from type. Not necessarily in build, because Royce Clayton was similar in stature to the others, but the Giants thought they found a shortstop who could actually be a force offensively. He ended up showing that he could, becoming a good hitter and base-stealing threat, but only after the Giants had passed on him.
Although his first two years were productive and in 2007 he pulled off the best UZR clip of his career, 23, Omar Vizquel’s years with the Giants were not his best. He was a solid player however, and gave the Giants a chance to compete in the final years of the Bonds era. Ignoring Renteria because of his brief time in San Francisco, we’re left with the surprising answer to my question, Rich Aurilia—and it’s not even close. During Aurilia’s prime he was a critical part of the Giants success and in 2001 had a capstone, MVP-type season with 37 homers, 97 RBIs, a .324 batting average, and led the league with 206 hits. He hit over 10 homers eight times in his career, drove in over 60 six times, and played serviceable shortstop with above-water UZR ratings for most of his prime. But I think this all might have been a waste of time because if you go to Aurilia’s Baseball Reference player page, the sponsor heading reads simply, “The best shortstop in San Francisco Giants history.” They got it right.