Alex Liddi and the Greatest European Players Ever

Yesterday, Alex Liddi hit a grand slam, which the AP noted was “the first major league grand slam by an Italian-born player in half-century.” That actually understates the true rarity of Liddi’s accomplishment: as a matter of fact, Liddi is only the second Italian-born player of all time to homer in the big leagues, since utility infielder Reno Bertoia retired in 1962 with 27 homers and one grand slam on May 7, 1958.

Liddi and Bertoia are among seven Italian-born major leaguers, and Liddi already has the third-most games played and the second-most Wins Above Replacement. (It won’t be long before he passes Bertoia, who amassed 1.1 WAR in 1,957 PA despite not really being able to hit or field.) Liddi is prominent as one of the only major leaguers born outside the Americas or East Asia.

Major leaguers have come from all six inhabited continents*, though in the past half-century, the vast majority have come from the Americas, East Asia, and a couple of dozen from Australia. Nearly 100 players were born in the UK and Ireland, though they got the majority of their emigration done in the late 19th and early 20th century. (As a sign of how much has changed since then, Irish ballplayers faced racist discrimination back in the late 19th century.) There has been one player from Africa, Al Cabrera, who hailed from the Spanish-controlled archipelago of the Canary Islands, which are off the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara.

* One player, Ed Porray, was born at sea, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. One hopes that he pronounced his last name with a gutteral growl, as “PORRRRay,” and that occasionally he would add, “me hearties,” while pausing to gaze wistfully at the horizon and imagine the untold riches and Spanish doubloons that awaited him if he could ever find the shipwreck the mermaid had told him about in his dreams.

Major league players have come from something like 54 countries. The precise number depends on how you choose to consider regions controlled by larger countries, like the Canary Islands (Spain); Panama Canal Zone, Guam, and Puerto Rico (United States); England, Scotland, and Wales (United Kingdom), and so on. It also depends on how you want to allocate players born in the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russian Empire. There are also several dozen 19th-century players whose birthplace is unknown.

The greatest player born outside the Americas is almost certainly Bert Blyleven, the pride of Zeist, Netherlands. As I wrote a year ago, there are only seven major league players in the Hall of Fame who were born outside the United States and Puerto Rico, and each comes from a different country: Harry Wright (Great Britain), Rod Carew (Panama Canal Zone), Luis Aparicio (Venezuela), Tony Perez (Cuba), Ferguson Jenkins (Canada), Juan Marichal (Dominican Republic), and Blyleven. Wright was primarily known as a manager, and he was born in 1835, so Blyleven is one of the only European-born players of note in the past century. But not the only one.

The composition of the major leagues has generally matched American immigration trends. A hundred years ago, many of the greatest baseball players were first- and second-generation Europeans, people with names like Delahanty, DiMaggio, and Gehringer. Now, many of the best baseball players are Hispanic and East Asian. But there have been a few other Europeans who have eked out fine careers in the majors.

One of the best Europeans who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is spitballer Jack Quinn. Nowadays he’s best known for being one of the oldest pitchers and hitters ever — a few years ago, Julio Franco broke his record for being the oldest man to hit a home run in a major league game. Quinn’s true age and birthplace were unknown until a few years ago, when a historian discovered that his true name was Johannes Pajkos and that he was born in what is now Slovakia, and that he arrived in the United States when he was around a year old. He didn’t pitch an inning in the majors until he was 25, and then he pitched for another quarter-century, winning 247 games and amassing 53.5 rWAR, finally retiring in 1933. Quinn is one of four players born in Austria-Hungary, and unless the empire reconstitutes itself, he will assuredly be the last.

Elmer Valo was another of the greatest Slovak players ever. Though he was born just 200 miles from Quinn’s birthplace, by the time his mother gave birth the area was in Czechoslovakia. A long-suffering Philadelphia Athletic, he spent two years serving in the army during World War II, and spent most of his prime playing for Connie Mack‘s hopeless basement-dwellers in the 1940s and 1950s. He didn’t have much power, but he had a terrific batting eye, amassing 32.7 fWAR as a hitter. His career walk-to-strikeout ratio of 3.32 is actually the fifth-best of history among batters with at least 900 walks, just behind Hall of Famers Arky Vaughn and Rick Ferrell, and ahead of Hall of Famers Eddie Collins and Charlie Gehringer.

Quite a few German-born players were born to American military parents who were stationed in that country, like Edwin Jackson, Will Ohman, and Glenn Hubbard. Until Max Kepler makes his big move, the greatest German in major league history may be Charlie “Pretzels” Getzien, who won 145 games (16.5 rWAR) playing mostly for National League franchises that no longer exist: the Detroit Wolverines, the Indianapolis Hoosiers, and the Cleveland Spiders, in the 1880s and late 1890s. Only the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) and St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals) managed to survive into the 20th, let alone 21st, century.

Swiss Otto Hess, the only man born in that country to play in the majors, won 70 games as a pitcher in the oughts and teens; he had a FIP of 2.87, amassed 5.7 rWAR, and collected a World Series ring with the 1914 Miracle Braves. He also served in both the Spanish-American War and in World War I, where he contracted the tuberculosis that later took his life in 1926.

The best Norwegian player of all time — actually, the best player born in Scandinavia — is “Honest John” Anderson, who played 14 seasons from 1894 to 1908. The son of a Swedish mother and an American a Norwegian father, Anderson was something of a power hitter, leading the league in slugging in 1898. He was one of the best hitters on the 1890s Brooklyn Bridegrooms, before they merged with the Orioles and became the Superbas, and played on the 1901 Milwaukee Brewers — the team that later became the modern Orioles. They would be the last major league team in Milwaukee until the Braves moved there in 1953. So Honest John was very probably the best major leaguer in Wisconsin till Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn.

If Liddi can hang around the majors for anotfergieher another decade, he has a realistic chance to be the greatest European position player from continental Europe since World War I. The Seattle Mariner offense certainly wouldn’t mind.

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

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