Baseball’s New Year’s Day Babies

Flash forward a couple days from now.

It’s New Year’s Day, around 6:00 p.m. You’re on the couch or in your favorite comfy chair. You’ve watched too much football — for which you care little. You’re hungry but too tired or lazy to do anything about it. You switch on the local news and find the most obvious, repeated story of New Year’s Day: “Who was the first baby born in [your city] in 2012?”

It’s a thing. I don’t know why it’s a thing, but somewhere, someone decided it was interesting and important to keep track of the first baby born in each community every year. As if that distinction made the baby special for reasons other being born a few minutes after Dec. 31, thus preventing his or her parents from claiming an extra tax deduction for the prior year.

But this is America, and we keep track of these things. And since baseball is as American as apple pie and wireless surveillance, let us do the American thing and take note of the major league baseball players who were born on Jan. 1.

Fifty-two major league players celebrate their birthday on New Year’s Day. Here’s the full list, courtesy of Baseball Reference. The oldest one is Harry Berthrong, who was born in 1844. He played 17 games in the 1871 season for the Washington Olympics, of the National League. He played second base and outfield, had 77 plate appearances and ended his career with a -.3 WAR. Good thing Berthrong is the oldest major leaguer born Jan. 1, because otherwise there would be very little of distinction about his baseball career.

The youngest is Nick Hagadone, who was born in 1986. He’s a pitching prospect with the Cleveland Indians. He appeared in nine games in 2011, pitched eleven total innings and ended the season with a .1 WAR.

There’s been a major league player born on Jan. 1 in every decade between the 1840s and 1980s. Here’s a graph showing the distribution (and you thought there wouldn’t be graphs)!

Major League players born Jan. 1, by decade

You want more? How about a pie chart that shows the distribution among decades, by percentages?

Major League players born Jan. 1, percentage by decade

Yes, the color code cut off there. So turquoise is the 1950s, moss green is the 1960s, deep purple is the 1970s and rusty orange is the 1980s. Apparently, the 1850s and 1880s were they heyday for New Year’s Day babies who grew up to be big-league ballplayers.

The best player born on Jan. 1? That’s easy: Hank Greenberg, in 1911. Thirteen seasons, 12 with the Detroit Tigers and one with the Pittsburgh Pirates. A career slash of .313/.412/.605, 1,628 hits, 331 home runs and 58 stolen bases. That amounts to a 68.2 career WAR, which is 22nd-best among all first basemen. Greenberg was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956. He’s also the subject of a fabulous documentary called The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which you should see.

Tim Keefe — who was born in 1857 — is the only other Hall-of-Famer with a Jan. 1 birthday. He played 14 seasons, three with the Troy Trojans of the National League in 1880, two with the New York Metropolitans of the American Association, six-and-a-half with the New York Giants and two-and-a-half with the Philadelphia Phillies. Keefe pitched nearly 5,050 innings in his career, amassing 2,562 strikeouts and a 2.62 ERA That’s pretty darn good. Perhaps that’s why he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

The worst player born on Jan. 1? That’s a tough one, because several players didn’t merit any WAR at all. Of those players for whom there is a FanGraphs career WAR number, the worst is Miah Murray, at -1.1. He had 125 plate appearances in his brief career, splitting time among four different teams in four seasons — but spread out over seven years. That’s right, he played eight games for the Providence Grays of the National League in 1884; 12 games for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1885; 12 games for the Washington Nationals in 1888 and two games for the Washington Statesmen of the American Association in 1891. Murray had 17 hits, 16 strikeouts and zero home runs. But lucky Murray, his career -1.1 WAR matches his birthday — 1/1.

Murray’s not alone among New Year’s Day major leaguers who ended their careers with a negative WAR. Eighteen out of the 52 players born on Jan. 1 have a negative career WAR.

Five players born on Jan. 1 played only one major league game during their careers. One! That distinction belongs to Monty Swartz, Andy Bruckmiller, Harry Wilson, Jack Keenan and Pete Morris, all of whom played in the 1800s. Good on you, fellas.

Finally, we note that every current franchise has had at least one New Year’s Day player on its major league roster, except for the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, Angels, Mariners and Rays. Which means nothing. It’s just the thing we do — keep track of these things.

Happy New Year.




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Wendy's baseball writing has also been published by Sports on Earth. ESPN.com, SB Nation, The Score, Bay Area Sports Guy, The Classical and San Francisco Magazine. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before beginning her writing career. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


6 Responses to “Baseball’s New Year’s Day Babies”

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  1. Seattle Homer says:

    I wonder if the higher percentage from earlier decades is due to the lack of accurate record keeping of birth dates over 100 years ago. Or, rather, the presence of estimated birth dates. (Something like: Anyone born in a rural area around Jan 1 had an official birthday of Jan 1.)

    Would be interesting to see the “percent of players who played in a given decade whose birth date is Jan 1.” That should be somewhere near 1/365 ~ 0.3%, yes?

    If not, we get into that whole soccer player thing that Freakonomics has visited a couple times (one instance here: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/02/the-disadvantages-of-summer-babies/)

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    • Anon says:

      The NHL has a non-uniform distribution of birth dates. Being older (i.e. just missing the cut off date) for youth leagues gives a developmental advantage. I read this in a Malcolm Gladwell book.

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  2. bluejaysstatsgeek says:

    Wendy: I would second your comments about The Life and Times of Hank Greenburg. It is in my video library.

    Ironically, I saw the documentary for the first time on July 1, 2000, the day Walter Matthau died. In the film Matthau talks about Greenberg being one of his childhood heroes. When I got in the car to go home after seeing the film, I heard about Matthau’s death.

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  3. Resolution says:

    It was easier to be born on Jan. 1st pre-expansion era as there were significantly fewer days in the year.

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  4. TK says:

    Another interesting set is players born either on June 30th or July 1st, as that is the cutoff for your “age” that season. Nelson Cruz will hit free agency after 2013 coming off of his age 32 season, thanks to his July 1, 1980 birthday (he will be 32 on June 30, 2013). Will the perception that he will be entering his age 33 season instead of his age 34 season help him?

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  5. JK says:

    If fangraphs’ records are to be believed, Monty Swartz played in 1 game in his career, but managed to throw a 12 inning complete game surrendering 17 hits, 6ER with 2K and 2BB. He took the loss.

    That’s quite a single-game career.

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