The best rookies of the 1910s

Over the last four months, we’ve had a good time looking back at the greatest rookie seasons of each decade, from Mike Trout to Wilcy Moore. I had fully intended to conclude this series with the 1920s, before we reached the dead ball era. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been persuaded that 1920 was an arbitrary stopping point, and urged to continue.

Truthfully, this entire exercise has been arbitrary; choosing to look at a decade’s worth of games is the very definition of using selective end points. On the other hand, it has been fun, so let’s keep going. On to the 1910s!

The watershed moment of the decade, of course, was the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which led to the first World War. There were some moments that were of less historical importance. Charlie Chaplin invented the “Little Tramp.” Kafka underwent a Metamorphosis. Four brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack Warner) opened a movie studio. Edgar Rice Burroughs published “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Arthur Conan Doyle took us to “The Lost World.” Fatty Arbuckle still made people laugh, not yet fallen from grace.

In the world of sports, Jack Dempsey and Jim Thorpe were the biggest stars outside baseball. Within the national pastime, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner were front page news, while the decade ended with baseball’s biggest disgrace: the Chicago Black Sox.

Let’s get to the rookies. A number of future Hall of Famers made their debut in the 1910s, but not all made the list below. Some merited consideration for the list below (Eppa Rixey, Rogers Hornsby, Dave Bancroft). Some didn’t have brilliant rookie campaigns, but blossomed later (Zack Wheat, Rabbit Maranville, Stan Coveleski, Waite Hoyt, Burleigh Grimes, Herb Pennock, Ross Youngs, Frankie Frisch, Ray Schalk). Then there is the case of a young pitcher for the Red Sox who went 18-8 in 1915, with a 2.44 ERA, but made the Hall of Fame thanks to his legendary bat. We’re talking, of course, about one Babe Ruth.

A quick note: we are looking only at qualified rookies from the years 1910 to 1919. By “qualified,” I mean players who would qualify as a rookie under modern-day rules. Also, I’ve made the executive decision to include Federal League players in this list, mostly because I thought it would be interesting.

Without further ado, recently received from the home office in Hazard, Ky., I present to you the top 10 rookie seasons of the 1910s:

1. Joe Jackson, Cleveland Naps (1911). This was the dead ball era, and a number of pitchers had magnificent rookie seasons, so how did a hitter reach the top of this list? Well, Shoeless Joe wasn’t just an ordinary hitter. After two brief stints with Connie Mack’s Athletics, Jackson was traded to Cleveland. His rookie season was extraordinary, as Jackson hit .408/.468/.590 with 19 triples and 83 RBI, and compiled 9.2 wins above replacement (bWAR). No rookie in the decade had more doubles (45), hits (233), runs (126), or a higher BA/OBP/SLG.

You know what happened with Jackson after his 1915 trade to the White Sox. The brilliant career of one of the most interesting players in history came to a sad end in the Black Sox scandal. But we’ll always have 1911, won’t we?

2. Russ Ford, New York Highlanders (1910). In the first start of his big league career, Ford was on the winning end of a 1-0 decision, striking out nine, walking none, and shutting out the Philadelphia Athletics. He was just getting started. Using his famous “emery pitch” (i.e., scuffing the ball with an emery board hidden in his glove), Ford soared to a 26-6 record, with a 1.65 ERA, and an adjusted ERA+ of 160. He struck out 209 batters, tossed 29 complete games with eight shutouts, posted 11.0 bWAR.

So yeah, Ford had perhaps the greatest rookie season by a pitcher in baseball history. But did you know that one of his cousins was President Grover Cleveland? Even more bizarre: Ford was a Canadian! Exotic, right?

3. Vean Gregg, Cleveland Naps (1911). The second rookie on this list from a not-particularly-impressive Cleveland squad, Gregg was the ace of the staff in 1911. Actually, he began the season in the bullpen, but took quick advantage of his opportunity to start, winning 18 of his first 21 decisions. In the end, Gregg finished 23-7 with a league-leading 1.80 ERA and a 189 ERA+ (which also led the league). He started 26 games, completed 22 of them, and authored five shutouts.

Gregg established himself as one of the best left-handers in the league, but arm problems (and World War I) led to his retirement in 1918. Astoundingly, he returned to the big leagues in 1925, pitching in the bullpen for Washington at age 40 (after three years hurling in the Pacific Coast League).

4. Benny Kauff, Indianapolis Hoosiers (1914). The first Federal League rookie to appear here, the 5-foot-8 Kauff actually made his debut with the Highlanders two years earlier. He leaped to the Federal League, where he promptly became a superstar, hitting a league-leading .370/.447/.534. Kauff also led the league in runs (120), hits (211), doubles (44), stolen bases (75), and immodesty (off the charts). When he returned to the majors with the Giants two years later, he was reported as saying: “I’ll make them all forget that a guy named Ty Cobb ever pulled on a baseball shoe.”

Kauff never became a superstar in the National League, but he enjoyed a solid career over six seasons with the Giants. Inexplicably, Kauff was banished from baseball in 1921 after an auto theft trial in which Kauff had been found not guilty. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wasn’t impressed with the jury verdict, and refused to reinstate Kauff. Now most baseball fans have forgotten that a guy named Benny Kauff ever pulled on a baseball shoe.

5. Reb Russell, White Sox (1913). Ewell Albert Russell was born in Mississippi in 1889, so it comes as little surprise that the newspapers of the day nicknamed him “Reb.” As a rookie, Russell was magnificent, going 22-16 with a 1.90 ERA, a 154 ERA+, and 8.8 bWAR. He led the league in appearances (52), with 36 games started and 26 complete games.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Russell was mostly pretty good for the next six years, but arm problems had forced him out of the game by 1919. He went home (to Indianapolis at that time), but returned to baseball in what can only be described as a fluke. The minor-league Minneapolis Millers came through town short an outfielder, and Russell agreed to fill in for one game. He got two hits, signed a contract, and by 1922, he had joined the Pittsburgh Pirates. In two seasons as a platoon outfielder with Pittsburgh, Russell hit .323/377/568 over 154 games with 32 doubles, 15 triples, 21 homers, and 133 RBI.

6. King Cole, Cubs (1910). Cole’s 20-4 mark as a rookie established a Chicago franchise record for rookie winning percentage that still stands today. His 1910 ERA of 1.80 led the league, as did his 160 ERA+. The 24-year-old Cole tossed 21 complete games, with four shutouts, in 29 starts.

Cole was decent the following year, but never again experienced much success in the big leagues. He did, however, give up Babe Ruth’s first major league hit, a double in October of 2014. Sadly, just after completing his age-29 season in 1915, Cole died of tuberculosis.

7. Pete Alexander, Phillies (1911). You probably know him better as Grover Cleveland Alexander. The first Hall of Famer to appear on this list, Alexander set an all-time rookie record for wins by going 28-13 in 1911. That victory total led the National League, as did his 31 complete games, seven shutouts, and 367 innings pitched. Alexander compiled 8.4 WAR in that freshman campaign, a total he would match or exceed in five other seasons.

Over the course of a 20-year career, Alexander would win 373 games with a 2.56 ERA. I wish I had enough room here to discuss the ups and downs of that fascinating career.

8. Dutch Zwilling, Chicago Chi-Feds (1914). In four years, Zwilling played for three different teams in the same city. As a member of the Chicago affiliate in the Federal League, Zwilling led the circuit with 16 homers (the highest total for any rookie in the decade), with a slash line of .313/.363/.485. His 95 RBI were the second-highest total for a rookie in the 1910s, and he posted 5.1 bWAR.

He never experienced much success in the American or National Leagues, but Zwilling is the all-time home run leader in Federal League history. So he has that going for him, which is nice.

9. Fred Snodgrass, Giants (1910). After two cups of coffee in the previous two seasons, Snodgrass took over center field for John McGraw’s Giants, and he excelled immediately. As a 22-year-old in 1910, Snodgrass hit .321/.440/.432 with 22 doubles, 8 triples, 33 stolen bases, and 4.5 bWAR

Snodgrass had a good nine-year career in the big leagues, but he’s remembered mostly for dropping a fly ball in the 1912 World Series that led to a Series-winning rally for Boston. Bill Buckner and Fred Merkle are slowly shaking their heads with empathy right now.

10. Scott Perry, Athletics (1918). Between 1915 and 1917, Perry pitched for three different clubs (Browns, Cubs, Reds) in three successive seasons. The A’s acquired him via trade just before the 1918 season, and he proceeded to win 20 games with a 1.98 ERA and a 146 ERA+, with 8.5 WAR. Perry led the American League with 36 games started, 332.1 innings pitched, and 30 complete games.

Perry also led the American league in hits allowed and losses (19). Such was the nature of pitching during the dead ball era.

So there you have it, the top 10 freshman campaigns in the 1910s. Apologies to Jeff Pfeffer, Eddie Foster, Buck O’Brien, Charlie Hollocher, and Jeff Tesreau for their exclusion. Also, I wish I could have found space for Duke Kenworthy of the immortal Kansas City Packers. Alas, there was room for only 10.

We’ve come this far, might as well keep going until the beginning of the 20th century. Next up: 1900 to 1909.

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Bob Rittner
Bob Rittner
In Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times”, Snodgrass addresses that error. He points out that he did indeed let the leadoff man get to second base in a tie game in the 10th inning, but then notes that he made a fabulous catch on the next batter that kept the runner on second base. (In fact, he almost doubled the runner off second.) Mathewson then walked the next batter and with Tris Speaker at bat forced a high foul popup off 1B that nobody touched. Speaker then singled in the tying run and the next batter hit the sac fly… Read more »

Thought the Reb Russell (nope, hadn’t heard of him either) bit was fascinating, his stats at the plate as a pitcher certainly didn’t look like a position player conversion waiting to happen.  Did he continue a minor league career after those two Pittsburgh years?

Johnny Slick
Johnny Slick

What’s more, the guy covering first base in the 1912 World Series for the Giants, and arguably the guy responsible for allowing a catchable foul ball to bounce, was none other than Fred Merkle. A case could be made that rather than Snodgrass, Merkle should be considered the goat of *both* the 1908 and 1912 World Series. I don’t know, maybe the New York writers got together and decided that they weren’t going to lay all the goatness on one man and were going to spread it around a little bit.

Bob Rittner
Bob Rittner
Snodgrass thought it was Mathewson’s fault. He said Merkle would have caught it but Mathewson kept repeating Meyer, Meyer, Meyer even though the catcher simply had no chance. It is the pitcher’s call on infield popups. In fact, according to Snodgrass, Mathewson himself could easily have gotten to it. As for Merkle, McGraw never blamed him for 1908. In fact, according to Ritter’s account, he raised Merkle’s salary $1000 the next season. And most things I have read claim Merkle was a very smart ball player despite the nickname “bonehead” that was sometimes applied to him. He had a very… Read more »
Cliff Blau
Cliff Blau

The rookie record for pitching wins is 45, by George Bradley, way back in 1876.

Snodgrass would not qualify as a rookie in 1910 by modern rules, since he was on the Giants’ active roster half of 1908 and all of 1909.