Who’s On First: A Look At The Top First Basemen Of The 1950s

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Gil HodgesUnknown author

By Russ Walsh

A recent Twitter poll asked readers to choose their favorite decade of baseball. The clear winner was the 1950s. Former New York Herald Tribune baseball writer Harold Rosenthal agrees. He called his book about the national pastime in the 1950s, The 10 Best Years of Baseball.

The 1950s famously had “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” -- that is, Mays, Mantle, and Snider -- in center field, Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, Stan Musial in St. Louis, Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews in Milwaukee, Ernie Banks in Chicago, and Ted Williams in Boston. For pitchers we could count on a roll call that included Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Whitey Ford, Early Wynn, and Billy Pierce. What the 1950s didn’t have was a Hall of Fame first baseman. That oversight has at long last been corrected with the belated election of Gil Hodges to the Hall this past winter.

Hodges’ induction, which will happen on July 24, stirred a question in my head. If he is the first first baseman from the 1950s to be enshrined, who were the other players of note manning the first sack in that greatest of all baseball decades? I went to find out.

My criteria: Players who spent more than 60 percent of their time on the field at first base and who played a significant chunk of their career in the 1950s. I did not include Musial because he was mostly an outfielder, playing only 40 percent of his games at first. I did not include Banks because he was a shortstop before moving to first base in the 1960s. I did not include Orlando Cepeda because his Major League career began in 1958, making him mostly a 1960s player.

Here are the other very good first baseman from the 1950s. Not exactly “Willie, Mickey. and the Duke,” but a worthy aggregation, nonetheless. Hodges by the way, had 41.2 WAR (per Baseball Reference) during the ‘50s, better than any in the group below. All WAR scores are for the 1950s only.

Mickey Vernon (bWAR: 21.8)

Of all the players on this list, Vernon may have the best argument for Hall of Fame consideration. A left-handed thrower and hitter, Vernon played from 1939 until 1960, mostly in the obscurity of a Washington Senators uniform. Like many players of his era, he lost two of his prime seasons, ages 26 and 27, to service in World War II. He won two batting titles (1946 and 1953) and was one of the most accomplished hitters of his time. Not a big home run hitter, Vernon was annually among the top players in both doubles and triples.

Vernon was no slouch as a first baseman either, leading the league in fielding percentage four times. He still holds the Major League record for most double plays turned by a first baseman, 2,044. Vernon had 2,495 hits in his career with a .286 lifetime batting average. He was a seven-time All-Star. He made his last All-Star team in 1958 at age 40, when he hit .293 in 119 games for the Cleveland Indians.

Ted Kluszewski (bWAR: 28.6)

“Big Klu” was certainly one of the most intimidating hitters of the 1950s. With his hulking build and bulging biceps accentuated by his sleeveless Cincinnati Reds uniform, he was a daunting presence in the batter’s box. For four seasons from 1953-56, Kluszewski was the premiere power hitter in the game. In those four seasons, he hit 171 home runs, compiled 464 RBIs, and batted .315. One amazing stat from those years shows that he struck out just 140 times, one of the few power hitters in history to have more home runs than strikeouts over a sustained period.

A back injury that occurred during a scuffle in the clubhouse robbed Kluszewski of his power and his numbers fell off precipitously after his four-year peak. Big Klu had one last hurrah, however, with the 1959 “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox, when he hit .391 with three home runs in the 1959 World Series that the Sox lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers, four games to two.

Earl Torgeson (bWAR: 25)

With his dark rimmed glasses and broad features, Torgeson looked like a college professor, but in his behavior, he more resembled a street brawler. Torgeson might be remembered today as a great first baseman if he could have held his temper and avoided injury. Instead, he is best remembered for his fights. Torgeson once slugged Boston Red Sox infielder Billy Hitchcock during an exhibition game. He broke his glasses in the ensuing bench-clearing melee. A few years later, having learned his lesson, Torgeson first took his glasses off before he charged into the opposing team’s dugout to slug “his good friend” catcher Sal Yvars.

Off the field, Torgeson was bright and funny. On the field, he was a crazed demon. He also had a good bit of talent. In 1950, he hit .290 with 23 home runs for the Boston Braves. He had a couple of decent years with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Detroit Tigers and split time at first with Kluszewski on the pennant-winning White Sox in 1959, but he never reached what many thought was his great potential. A knee injury early in his career flared up often and likely robbed him of the career he might have had.

Former teammate Gene Mauch summed up Torgeson well, “He refused to be dull, in his conversations, his actions, or anything else.”

Joe Adcock (bWAR: 19.8)

When Adcock first came to the Major Leagues with the Reds, he had to play left field because Kluszewski was the Reds’ established first baseman. Unhappy in the outfield in Cincinnati, where the Crosley Field banked outfield bothered his already creaky knees, Adcock was traded to the Braves just as they moved to Milwaukee, where he established himself as one of the most feared power hitters in the game.

He is one of just 18 players to ever hit four home runs in a game. He hit the home run that broke up Harvey Haddix’s 12-inning perfect game in the 13th. He was the first right-handed batter to hit a ball over the Ballantine Beer scoreboard in Connie Mack Stadium’s right-center field. For his career, Adcock hit 336 home runs. The total would doubtless have been higher if he could have stayed healthy. He had knee problems from his earliest days in the Minor Leagues and was constantly being hit by pitches on the hands and in the head. Adcock was one of the first players to adopt the batting helmet, and it’s a good thing he did. The day after he hit four home runs against the Dodgers, pitcher Clem Labine beaned him. Sportswriters noted the helmet likely saved his life.

Ferris Fain (bWAR: 17.8)

Fain may be one of the least known five-time All-Star, two-time American League batting champions in baseball history. His anonymity can be blamed, in part, by the fact that he played his best years for the woebegone Philadelphia Athletics of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, and also to the relative brevity of his Major League career, cut short at the beginning by World War II and at the end by injury.

Fain was another feisty first sacker who became as well known for his drinking and fighting as he was for his prodigious line drive hitting. He came up to the A’s in 1947 and by 1951 was one of the top hitters in the league. He led the league in batting average in 1951 and ‘52 with marks of .344 and .327, respectively. He also drew a lot of walks and was perennially among the league leaders in OBP. Fain ranks 15th all-time in career OBP with a .424 mark.

He was traded to the White Sox after the 1952 season for another fine first baseman, Eddie Robinson. The trade was likely precipitated by concerns over Fain’s drinking. By 1955, with his knees aching and his batting average plummeting, Fain played his final season in the Major Leagues with Detroit and Cleveland.

Honorable Mentions

Other first basemen from the 1950s deserve our attention. The New York Yankees had two solid first basemen during their run of eight pennants in the 1950s, Joe Collins (bWAR: 12.1) and Bill (Moose) Skowron (bWAR: 14.8). Puerto Rico native Vic Power (bWAR: 13.4) came up through the Yankees’ system, where he was blocked by Skowron and the prejudice of the Yankee management. Traded to Kansas City, he proved to be a dependable hitter and in the estimation of his manager Lou Boudreau, “the best defensive right-handed first baseman in the league.”

Slugging Eddie Robinson (bWAR: 10.1) bounced around among seven different teams in the ‘50s, averaging 20 home runs a year wherever he went. Robinson eventually became the general manager of the Texas Rangers. Finally, Luke Easter (bWAR: 9.5) who never got a chance to play Major League ball until he was 33 years old because of baseball’s color barrier, had three outstanding seasons for the Indians in the early ‘50s, averaging .271 and 29 home runs a year, before age and injury caught up with him.

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, die hard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1

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