By Bill Johnson (@BaseballStoic)
He drove in 100 or more runs six times. In 1936, he led the American League with 162 runs batted in and notched 405 total bases. That latter mark, the 405 bases in a single season, is still #23 on baseball’s all-time list. 75 years after he hung up his spikes, he remains in the top-100 in career slugging, yet he never made an All-Star team. Never even sniffed one. Hal Trosky played first base for the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox in the 1930s and 1940s, but his career overlapped the trio of Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and Lou Gehrig, a triumvirate of future Hall of Fame first basemen who held a virtual lock on the position on the American League All Star teams of the time.
Trosky arrived in Cleveland in September 1933, but it was on this date in 1934 that he finally – to paraphrase the immortal Nuke Laloosh – announced his presence with authority. On May 30th, Trosky silenced his doubters by slamming three consecutive home runs in the second game of a League Park doubleheader against the White Sox. Those three homers gave Hal the early season league lead in that department; to that point, the only other 21-year-old to equal the feat had been Mel Ott in 1931. Since that afternoon, only Al Kaline and Eddie Matthews – both 20 – and Boog Powell have recorded three-homer games at age 21 or younger. Joe DiMaggio didn’t do it. Neither did Mickey Cochrane nor modern phenoms like Bryce Harper, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Juan Soto, or Mike Trout. None logged a 3-homer game at such a young age.
Over that 1934 season, Trosky’s first full year in the major leagues, he was little short of spectacular. He played every inning of all 154 games, hit .330 with 35 home runs, and drove in 142 runs while posting a slugging percentage of .598. He finished seventh in balloting for American League Most Valuable Player. (Triple Crown winner Lou Gehrig could muster no better than fifth place as the award went to Mickey Cochrane, catcher-manager of the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers.) In a Cleveland Plain-Dealer sidebar, Gordon Cobbledick opined that “At 21, the young first baseman has a dozen years ahead of him in which he should spread terror among opposing pitchers – increasing terror as the seasons pass. He won’t be King Babe II, but he may be Prince Hal I.”
The next day, May 31, Cy Slapnicka took a break from scouting long enough to send a brief telegram back to the Cleveland writers who, just weeks earlier, had dared doubt the sage's judgment. The message was succinct:
"HEAVY CANNONADING HEARD FROM LEAGUE PARK. WHAT ABOUT TROSKY NOW?"
Following that extraordinary rookie year, the 1935 season proved to be something of a sophomore slump for Trosky, marked by an almost 60-point drop in batting average and a commensurate drop in home runs, from 35 to 26. When mired in a September slump that year, a stretch in which he had exactly one hit in 40 at-bats, coach Steve O’Neill, one of Trosky’s former minor league managers, suggested that Hal try hitting from the right side against the Senators.
The next day, in the opener of a doubleheader in Washington, Trosky came up in the first inning and took a right-handed stance. He stunned his teammates by smoking an Orlin Rogers curve for a single. After a left-handed out in the fifth, he hit from the right side again in the eighth inning and knocked a Leon Pettit pitch into the distant reaches of Griffith Stadium’s left-field bleachers for his 23rd home run of the year. Overall in the two games, Trosky punched five hits in ten at-bats: Three singles and a home run came from the right side, and one long double from the left. It proved to be the last time he would try switch-hitting.
The 1934 version of Hal Trosky returned for the ’36 campaign. Trosky put together a 28-game hitting streak that year, and he broke his own team record for home runs in a single season when he hit number 36 against the Senators. Although the AL pennant went to the Yankees, it was a memorable season for Trosky, as he led the league in RBIs (162) and total bases (405). His RBI total over his first three seasons was greater than the totals amassed by Gehrig, Foxx, or Greenberg over their first three years, respectively.
The years from 1937 to 1939 were relatively stable for both player and team. Rather than succumb to the hyperbole and inflated expectations that followed his 1936 season, Trosky sought an even better approach at the plate. His batting average rose back to .334 in 1938 and .335 in 1939, and while his home-run totals declined, he found that he could still drive in more than 100 runs per season by putting a higher percentage of balls into play. Driven to early retirement in 1941, Trosky returned to the game in 1944, and again in 1946, but never regained his old stroke. He lived the rest of his life in eastern Iowa and passed away from a heart attack in 1979.
Still, it was that first big day at the plate, on May 30, 1934, that he launched not only three baseballs over the right field fence at League Park, but also a career that is still among the best in Cleveland’s distinguished baseball history. Ah, what might have been?
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written several books on baseball history, and presented papers at several such conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter at @BaseballStoic.