In defense of Rabbit Maranville’s Hall of Fame plaque

A few weeks ago I was reading a column by Chicago-based sportswriter Rick Telander, who as a longtime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gets a Hall of Fame vote every year.  This was his (presumably) annual column about his vote.  One of the benefits of being a BBWAA member is that every year you get an easy column by just writing about your ballot.

Telander’s column is a bit of a ramble.  He whines about steroids, decides he’s getting old, and also mentions the “grandeur” of the Hall.  He writes:

When you go to Cooperstown, there is not a player enshrined (other than maybe Rabbit Maranville) who doesn’t blow your socks off.

There it is again.  Somebody who doesn’t understand why Rabbit Maranville is enshrined in Cooperstown.

It’s not like Telander’s the only one.  I remember reading an article on the Hall of Fame back in 1989 by Steve Wulf, then writing for Sports Illustrated.  While leading up to a paragraph about Abner Graves (!), Wulf wrote:

Some are more deserving than others, but once you walk into the Hall of Fame Gallery—the wing that holds the famous bronze plaques—you know you are in a place of worship, and you could never begrudge a man his place there. You might wish that Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Leo Durocher, Roger Maris, Nellie Fox, Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, etc., could be there too, but you wouldn’t wish to unscrew Rabbit Maranville’s plaque to make room for another, even if Maranville did hit just .258 lifetime.

Besides, there’s no sense in trying to read the minds of the baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame candidates (in the first election, in 1936, 11 of them left Ruth off their ballots). And there’s no benefit in chastising the veterans’ committee, which, in trying to undo past injustices, has perhaps relaxed the standards a bit; Jake Beckley may not be a household name, but that’s not to say his name doesn’t belong here. No, the overwhelming feeling you get in that splendid room is one of gratitude. Thanks, fellas, for filling up the afternoons and evenings of so many, for bringing them to their feet, for the memories.

The story was accompanied by a picture of Maranville’s plaque.  I don’t remember the caption under the photo, but I am fairly sure it was something along the lines of “he only hit .258 and shouldn’t really be in the Hall, but don’t sweat it”.

Re-reading that passage, I think it’s interesting that of Wulf’s list of players “you might wish” would also be enshrined, all of them have now been elected except for Maris and Santo.  (Poor Santo.  A quarter-century of being the woulda-coulda-shoulda guy when it comes to the Hall.)

The thing that kills me, though, is that he says that while Jake Beckley “may not be a household name” that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the Hall, even though he mentions Beckley while mildly criticizing the Veterans Committee.  He says that and then talks about Maranville as something of a lesser pick than Beckley, despite the fact that Maranville wasn’t a VC pick — he was elected by the BBWAA.  It’s obvious that Wulf doesn’t know anything about Maranville either, other than his .258 career batting average.

Wulf was only three years old when Maranville was elected to the Hall (in 1954).  Still, a little research wouldn’t have hurt any.  Of course today finding out about past players is much easier than it was in 1989, so Telander has even less of an excuse.  The thing is, though, Maranville still comes up on lists of “least deserving” or “not deserving” Hall of Famers, even among people who follow the sport fairly closely.  At first glance he looks like a guy who didn’t hit for average, had little power, and just hung around a long time.  All of that is true, and yet…

Maranville debuted in the majors in 1912, for the Boston Braves.  He was 20 years old and appeared in 26 games that season.  In 1913, he became the everyday shortstop for the Braves, batting .247 in 143 games, with two homers.  His OPS+ that season was 83, right around his career average (82).  Not impressive, at first glance…but then you realize that in 1913, at the age of 21 and playing his first full season in the major leagues, Maranville finished third in the MVP voting, just ahead of the great Christy Mathewson (who won 25 games that year with a 2.06 ERA).  So how does a guy batting .247 with no power finish so high in the MVP voting?

Well, he was a great defensive shortstop, and a great defensive shortstop can be tremendously valuable, especially if he can hit just a little (and it’s arguable that such a player had more value in the Dead Ball era than at any other time in baseball history).  This was the first of several years in which Maranville fared very well in the MVP voting without obvious offensive numbers to justify it.  That in itself probably is a good indication of just how good a fielder Maranville was.

Another indication, of course, is just how long a career he had.  Maranville had a 23-year career in the majors, playing a total of 2670 games, all but four of which were as a middle infielder (80% of those appearances came as a shortstop).  Maranville held the record for chances for a shortstop for decades and still holds the record for putouts by a shortstop.  At age 41, Maranville batted .218 in 143 games, with no homers (OPS+ of 60)…and finished in a tie for 12th in the MVP voting, ahead of Frankie Frisch (who batted .303 that year with an OPS+ of 111).

Maranville was the runner-up in the MVP voting in 1914 to his middle infield partner, Johnny Evers, as the “Miracle Braves” won the pennant and swept the World Series.  Maranville batted cleanup on that team.  He also finished seventh in the voting in 1924 (OPS+ of 86) and had two other top-10 finishes.

From 1915 through 1923, there was no MVP award for the National League.  It just so happens that Maranville’s seven best offensive seasons (in terms of OPS+) came during that stretch.  I think it’s likely that he would have finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting (if not the top 5) in most, if not all, of those seasons.  If you add, say, five top 10 and two Top 20  finishes (which is probably a bit conservative) to his already impressive MVP history, you would have a player who in his career compiled ten seasons in which he finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting and another five seasons in the Top 20.

I compared that to some of the players on his “most similar batters” list, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.  Ozzie Smith finished second in the ’87 MVP voting (he probably should have won it; that was a weird year) and had three other Top 20 finishes.  Luis Aparacio had two top 10 finishes and four other finishes in the top 20.  Like Smith and Maranville, Aparacio was also an MVP runner-up, in 1959.

Tangent:  the top of the 1959 AL MVP vote mirrored the top of the 1914 NL MVP vote.  For both, the top three finishers played for the pennant winner, and the order was second baseman (Nellie Fox/Evers), shortstop (Aparicio/Maranville), and pitcher (Early Wynn/”Seattle Bill” James).  Also, the fourth place finisher both times was an outfielder.  The 1959 outfielder was Rocky Colavito, who played in 1841 career games.  The 1914 outfielder was George Burns, who played in 1853 career games.

Next on Maranville’s most-similar list is Omar Vizquel, who has one Top 20 MVP finish in his entire career.  Part of why I’m posting about Maranville is that I suspect Maranville’s name is going to pop up more and more as people continue discussing the Hall of Fame candidacy of Vizquel.  They are going to be compared, and my hope is that folks are able to start understanding Maranville’s career a little better.

Nellie Fox follows Vizquel on the comp list, and here finally we have a player who shares Maranville’s propensity for getting MVP votes.  Fox finished in the top 10 six times (as mentioned above, winning in 1959) and had three other Top 20 finishes.  Fox was elected by the Veterans Committee after narrowly missing election by the BBWAA; really, the writers should have elected him.  He’s not as big a miss by them as Arky Vaughan or Johnny Mize, but it was still a mistake.

One other player on the similar-list to note:  Dave Concepcion had two Top 10 MVP finishes and another in the Top 20.

I realize that the MVP voting is not the end-all and be-all.  There is a danger that you can compound a mistake by referencing an error of the past (i.e. the 1987 AL MVP vote, which still haunts Alan Trammell).  Still, when you have a player whose statistical batting line does not immediately suggest greatness, it’s worth it to check the historical record.  In the case of Maranville, in his time he was obviously considered to be something special.  Generally speaking, the MVP voting tends to favor offensive-minded players (especially HR-RBI guys).  This is why a comparison to Maranville’s peers is appropriate; I think most people consider Ozzie Smith to have been a great player, but other than one season he never did very well in the MVP race.  Yet despite the historical tendency by MVP voters to not recognize defensive specialists, Maranville still did well.

Of course, there was another thing about him that probably is reflected in his MVP voting — he was famous, for he was a great player who also happened to be a clown of the highest order.

There are many, many Maranville stories, and a lot of them are actually true.  If you needed a player to wax another player’s bat with soap, or swallow a goldfish, or jump into a hotel pool fully clothed, or offer a pair of eyeglasses to an umpire after a bad call, Maranville was your man.  If you needed a player to go drinking with Jim Thorpe, and swing through tree branches screeching like Tarzan, or to be dangled outside the 15th floor of a Manhattan hotel by Thorpe (with one arm), Maranville was your man.  If you needed a player to paint iodine streaks on a hapless ump, or to throw buckets of ice at fellow train passengers (which he did as a player-manager), or trick a teammate into thinking he had accidentally killed him, Maranville was your man.

Maranville once got a hit off Carl Mays by making him laugh so hard he couldn’t maintain his control.  He was in the dugout during the infamous Babe Herman-three men on third base play; when Wilbert Robinson asked Maranville what had happened, Maranville said, “There’s three men on third and if they hang on long enough I’ll go down and make a quartet out of it.”

Once during a pitcher-vs.-batter fight, Maranville distracted everyone, including the fans, by going into the first base coach’s box during the fracas and pantomiming a fight against himself, pretending to knock himself out.  (Judge Landis thanked him later for that one.)  Entertaining the crowd during a slow part of the game with various pantomime activities was one of his specialties.

When Maranville caught a popup, he usually caught it by holding his glove open at his navel, allowing the ball to strike him in the chest, and having it roll down his shirt into his glove.  He called it his “vest pocket catch”.

Bill James (not the Boston Braves hurler), in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, refers to Maranville having a “Marx Brothers life”, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.  He was probably on Chico’s level, but definitely ahead of Zeppo.

Maranville was elected by the BBWAA in 1954, shortly after his death.  The fact he had recently died had little to no impact on his election; he had risen in the balloting gradually over the preceding decade, finishing tenth in 1949, ninth in 1950 and 1951, seventh in 1952, and fifth in 1953.  Two players were elected in 1953, meaning that Maranville was in the top three of those on the ballot who had not been elected, along with Bill Dickey and Bill Terry.  All three of those players were elected in 1954.  Maranville actually jumped ahead of Dickey and Terry in the voting to finish first overall that year.  Keep in mind that the Hall had only been around for a few years and there were many outstanding players on the ballot.  Nineteen of the top 20 vote-getters from 1954 are now in the Hall (the exception is Hank Gowdy).

After his career in organized baseball was over Maranville helped run youth baseball programs in Detroit and New York.  One of the kids he taught was Whitey Ford.

Anyway, to sum up:  Maranville wasn’t a great hitter, but he was a great player.  His specialty was in preventing runs as opposed to producing them, and this was recognized by his contemporaries.  He was considered something of a clutch hitter (although I tend to find most claims of being “clutch” not involving George Brett to be somewhat dubious).  He had an incredibly long career, and he was enormously popular.  Thinking of him as just being a .258 hitter is small-minded, to say the least.

I’m not saying he was the greatest player who ever lived.  All I’m saying is that if you’re a writer and you’re trying to reference a player who doesn’t belong in the Hall, Maranville is not the right guy to name.  Look, you want suggestions?  Try Chick Hafey or George Kelly, or Rube Marquard if you need a pitcher (don’t get him confused with Rube Waddell, though).  You’ll be safe criticizing those selections — unless a member of one of their families is reading your column.

Just leave Maranville’s plaque alone…

2 Responses

  1. Awesome post.

    It just goes to show that “writer” is not synonymous with “historian.” I have a hard time with anyone suggesting that Maranville is less worthy than Phil Rizzuto, not that the comparison really matters anymore.

  2. […] According to the Sports Arsenal blog, there are many, many Maranville stories, and a lot of them are actually true: If you needed a player to wax another player’s bat with soap, or swallow a goldfish, or jump into a hotel pool fully clothed, or offer a pair of eyeglasses to an umpire after a bad call, Maranville was your man.  […]

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