“To reach a ball he has never reached before, to extend himself to the very limits of his range, and then a step farther, this is the shortstop’s dream.” — Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Of the nine players on the defense, the shortstop is the most important. He’s a general on the infield, the foundation of the defense. He’s often the captain of the team. He must possess speed, range, instincts, a strong arm, good footwork, and sure hands. A shortstop is involved in a lot of plays in the field, so much so that for most of baseball history it wasn’t important whether or not he could hit. Being a defensive stalwart is enough.
This summer, Alan Trammell will become the 24th shortstop inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The former star of the Detroit Tigers will become a member of an elite group of the greatest shortstops to ever roam the middle of the infield. And Tram isn’t a charity case: he rates in the upper half of the Hall of Fame shortstops, both in career value and peak value. He was also a great postseason performer, as Tiger fans can attest to after his MVP showing in the 1984 World Series.
Here’s a rundown of the 23 other Hall of Fame shortstops.
The great showman Bill Veeck once had a promotion at Comiskey Park in Chicago in which he had a “spaceship” land in center field between games of a doubleheader. Out of the spaceship came two green aliens played by midget entertainers, they had toy ray guns and antenna, the whole bit. The aliens went to the White Sox dugout and kidnapped Aparicio and his double play partner Nellie Fox. The fans ate it up. That doesn’t tell you much about Aparicio, but it tells you a lot about Veeck and the zany promotions that he did in his ballparks.
Aparicio was a fish out of water in a sense: his best offensive weapon was the stolen base but when he arrived in the big leagues in the 1950s no one stole bases. “Little Looey” led the league in steals his first nine seasons. He had superb range, a great arm, and he was an excellent bunter. He won nine Gold Gloves and was an all-star 13 times, but it still took him six tries before the baseball writers elected him. His DP partner Fox was also elected, making the duo one of only three that played at least five years together with both earning Hall of Fame plaques.
Appling was known for having such bat control that according to one story he fouled off 16 pitches when he was mad at the White Sox front office for not renegotiating his contract. The year he hit .388 (in 1936 when he finished as runnerup in AL MVP voting) and won the first of his two batting crowns, Appling struck out only 25 times. He normally struck out about seven times per month. He was tagged with the nickname “Ol’ Aches and Pains” because he consistently complained of ailments. He was good enough to play until he was 43 years old and he hit .301 after his 40th birthday.
Bancroft was a star mostly because of his glove, but he did hit .300 five times in a 16-year career that was spent with four different National League teams. He had a habit of hollering “Beauty!” after his teammate made a good pitch, and so that became his nickname. He was a player/manager for four seasons but unfortunately he drew that task with the woeful Boston Braves. He’s regarded as the best defensive shortstop in the game between the two World Wars.
Boudreau was an All-American athlete out of the University of Illinois, where he captained both the baseball and basketball teams. He was only 24 years old when the Indians hired him to be their manager. From his shortstop position and in his dual role as manager he had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history in 1948 when he hit .355 with 116 runs scored and 106 RBIs to lead the Indians to the pennant and World Series title. Want a Tiger connection? Boudreau’s daughter married Denny McLain.
In 1930, Cronin won the AL Most Valuable Player Award when he batted .346 with 13 homers and 126 RBIs. That came in the uniform of the Washington Senators, where he fell in love and married owner Clark Griffith’s niece. Family be damned, a few years later, Griffith traded his nephew to the Red Sox, where Cronin was a perennial all-star. Cronin had an auspicious tenure as Boston’s general manager after his playing career had ended. In more than a decade in that position, Cronin refused to field black players and ignored an opportunity to sign Willie Mays. The Red Sox did not integrate until a year after Cronin left his role as GM.
You have to go way back to find out about George Davis, who played his first professional game in 1890. He was so smooth on the field that they called him “Gorgeous George”, (the lady fans admired him too). Davis was the captain and later manager of the great Giants teams of the 19th century. A switch-hitter, Davis hit well and could steal a lot of bases. He was the best shortstop of the 19th century but he lasted long enough to play until 1909.
This fella is considered one of the weakest players to have been elected to the Hall of Fame. With former teammate Frankie Frisch on the veterans committee in the 1970s, Jackson was one of the many pals Frisch got into Cooperstown. Jackson wasn’t a terrible player, he just didn’t do enough to be among the game’s all-time greats. He only played as many as 140 games four times in his 15-year career and ended with fewer than 1,800 hits and less than 1,000 runs and RBIs. He hit .291 in an era when .295-.300 was the league norm. He did have some fine seasons as a run producer, which was rare for a shortstop in the 1920s. Contemporaries liked him: he received MVP votes in seven different seasons. Still, Jackson is a ho-hum Hall of Famer.
The legendary Detroit manager who led the Tigers to three consecutive pennants, Jennings was a star ballplayer in the 19th century, mostly for the famed Baltimore Orioles. That team featured several superstars and was known for their aggressive (some would say borderline illegal) style of play. Jennings hit .312 for his career and was known especially for two things: being hit by pitches (as many as 51 in a season) and laying down bunt hits.
Few players were as athletically gifted as Larkin, who could hit, hit for power, run, throw, and field. Until an injury (that he suffered in a skills competition) Larkin had the best throwing arm of his generation. He won the MVP Award and helped the Reds to a World Series title. He didn’t have the longest career, but at his peak he was one of the best to play the position. A Ohio native, Larkin starred at the University of Michigan (playing for Bill Freehan) before being drafted by Cincinnati.
One of two Hall of Fame shortstops who plied their trade in the negro leagues, Lloyd is considered by most experts to be the greatest black shortstop to play before integration. Starting his career around 1906, he was so good that he was frequently jumping teams to go to clubs that lured him with more money. He was called “Black Wagner” in comparison to Honus Wagner.
He was part ballplayer, part vaudeville entertainer. Maranville loved to thrill crowds with spectacular feats and plays on the diamond, such as fielding a pop fly in a basket catch, making throws underhanded, and running the bases backwards. But he wasn’t just a clown, he was a brilliant defender who started his career in 1912 and spent 23 years in the big leagues on his glove work. Despite mediocre offensive numbers, the Rabbit finished in the top ten in MVP voting five times.
Pee Wee Reese
He didn’t get that nickname because he was little, he got it because he was a champion marbles player in Louisville. Reese was instrumental in helping Jackie Robinson adjust and survive in the majors as baseball’s first black player when he was signed in 1947. More than once, Pee Wee stood up for Jackie when his teammate was suffering abuse by enemy players or fans.
Cal Ripken Jr.
In a career spent entirely with the Orioles, Ripken set a new standard for durability by playing in 2,632 consecutive games. He won a pair of MVP awards, the Rookie of the Year Award in 1982, and a pair of Gold Gloves. He was one of the first tall shortstops and helped usher in an era of power hitters at the position. He’s one of only three shortstops to reach 3,000 hits, with Wagner and Robin Yount.
No other shortstop won as much as Scooter, who earned seven World Series rings and played on ten pennant winning teams in 13 seasons with the Yankees. His strength was his glove and range in the field. In 1950, his best offensive season, he hit .324 200 hits and 125 runs scored and won the AL MVP Award. He got votes for that honor in eight different seasons. After his career he spent decades as a popular broadcaster for the Yanks. His signature phrase was “Holy Cow” (long before Harry Caray).
An excellent movie could be made about the 1920 season and the Cleveland Indians, but no one would believe it. That team was in a dogfight for the pennant when their shortstop was killed in August after he was hit in the head by a pitch. That tragic man was Ray Chapman, and Sewell was called up from the minor leagues to replace him in nearly impossible circumstances. The 21-year old rookie shortstop hit .329 in 22 games down the stretch, helping Cleveland to the pennant. The team went on to win the World Series, and Sewell went on to a Hall of Fame career, batting .312 in 14 seasons while being the hardest man to strike out in baseball history. In his last nine seasons, he struck out 48 times in 5,539 plate appearances.
The “Wizard Of Oz” was unmatched in defensive brilliance at the position. He won 13 Gold Gloves and was an All-Star 15 times in a career spent with the Padres and Cardinals. He shocked everyone when he made news with his bat in 1985: hitting a home run to win the pennant for St. Louis.
In the first decade of the 20th century the Chicago Cubs were the greatest team in baseball, and Tinker was part of their famous double play combination. With second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, he was part of the legendary “Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance” threesome that manned the Cubs infield for several years and helped the club to four pennants and three titles. Tinker was the best defender of the three, but he was no slouch with the bat either, hitting 114 triples. He was a great baserunner, swiping 336 bases in a 15-year.
Probably the least appreciated great shortstop of all-time, few people are around who remember anything about this fine ballplayer. Debuting in 1932, Vaughan hit .318 as a rookie for the Pirates and never slowed down: ending his career with the exact same average. In 1935 he had perhaps the best season ever by a shortstop, hitting .385 while leading the NL in batting, on-base percentage, slugging and walks. He received MVP votes in eight of his 12 full seasons. In 1943 he quit baseball over a dispute with Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher, and sat out three seasons from the age of 32-34. He was a natural: showing no rust, he came back in ’47 and hit .325 in his return. Those missed seasons and lack of statistical milestones cost him, and the Hall didn’t elect him until 1985, nearly four decades after his last game and 33 years after he had died in a drowning accident at the age of 40.
The greatest of all the shortstops, a teammate once said that Wagner was the “best shortstop we have, the best third baseman we have, the best outfielder, and the best catcher.” Wagner set records for hits and runs scored, and though they were later surpassed, his greatness has never diminished. Whenever someone makes an all-time team, Wagner is almost always the shortstop. He was quite a sight on the field: he was bowlegged, had extremely long arms, huge hands, a bulbous nose, and a protruding forehead. It was said that he ran like an untamed horse, but boy could he run: he stole 723 bases, a mark that was later surpassed by Ty Cobb. Wagner’s .328 career average is the best among shortstops.
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When Honus Wagner was the best shortstop (and player) in the National League at the tail end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century, Wallace was the best shortstop in the rival American League. But that’s where similarities end between the two Hall of Famers. Wallace was a glove-first player who relied on a strong throwing arm, excellent range, and lots and lots of bunt singles. He kept himself in great shape and played his last game after his 44th birthday, a record for a shortstop until Omar Vizquel broke it almost a century later.
Ward was born one year before the U.S. Civil War began, which is why most baseball fans have no clue who he was. But he was an important figure in the game in those formative years. First, he was a fine player, known for his athleticism and versatility. Ward was initially a star pitcher, but his bat was so good that his teams used him at third base, in the outfield, and eventually at shortstop. Ward played in an era when fielders did not use gloves and when the rules of the game were transforming at a rapid pace, but he evolved and helped the game grow. He was the founder of the first players’ union in New York in 1885, and he helped establish general rules of conduct for players. He was so powerful that at the height of his career he created a rival “Players’ League” that threatened the monopoly of the National League.
You’ve probably never heard of Willie Wells. That’s because he toiled in anonymity in the negro leagues for 25 years. Wells was a fantastic shortstop who started his career in 1924 for the St. Louis Stars. He went on to play for ten more teams in his long career. He even played one season for the Detroit Wolves. According to contemporary accounts, Wells was extremely quick and agile in the field, sort of like the Ozzie Smith of his era. He had an intense, competitive nature, which earned him the nickname “El Diablo” during his time in the Mexican Leagues. When he came to the U.S. after earning that moniker, it was translated to “The Devil” because he haunted enemy teams with his stellar glove work. Wells never got a chance to play in the white major leagues, he was 41 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, but a generation of black players marveled at his acrobatic play in the field.
Yount debuted just a few years before Trammell and the two men played against each other for most of their careers in the American League. Yount was fast, very athletic, and could hit and hit for power. He was such a great athlete that for a quick second in the late 1970s he considered being a professional golfer and ballplayer. Wisely he chose the correct sport, and ended up winning two MVP Awards, one as a shortstop, and the other after he’d transitioned to center field. He topped 3,000 hits and breezed into the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.