Third Base:  The Crossroads, Part Five

Last time, we considered many players who distinguished themselves as first basemen, second basemen or shortstops but who might instead have played a lot of major league third base. Now, in our final segment, we look at quite a few well-known outfielders who could well have spent a long while at The Crossroads.

Outfielders Who Might Have Been Third Basemen

Bob Johnson (1.1% of his major league defensive appearances were as a third baseman, between 1933 and 1945). A medium-sized guy (6’0″, 180) and a power hitter from a young age, “Indian Bob” played first base and, interestingly, second base as well as the outfield for three years in the Pacific Coast League before reaching the majors. He was used in fill-in stints at both second and third at various times in the majors, though was always primarily an outfielder. If he was going to be used in the infield, Johnson sure seems more the modern third base type than the modern second base type. I suspect if he’d come along 10 or 15 years later, he’d have been one of those many outfield-to-third-base conversions.

Augie Galan (3.9%, 1934-49). A middle infielder converted to the outfield in his second year in the majors. Galan didn’t play much third base until he was in his 30s, but he clearly had the skill set to have played a lot of third.

Joe DiMaggio (0.0%, 1936-51). Hey, it isn’t all that far-fetched. DiMaggio was a tall, gangly teenaged shortstop converted to the outfield by the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League in 1933, following in the footsteps of his older brother Vince, who’d been moved from the infield to the outfield with the Seals in 1932. Joltin’ Joe filled out to be a pretty big fellow, of course; he’s usually listed at 6’2″, 193. He was bigger than most third basemen of his era, but not overwhelmingly so. A plausible scenario has DiMaggio emerging at the Hot Corner rather than center field.

Pete Reiser (8.5%, 1940-52). A shortstop until 1940, when he was converted to the outfield in the minors. Promoted to the major leagues in the second half of that season, Reiser played mostly third base, before bursting into stardom as a center fielder in 1941. He played occasional third base throughout his career, and he might well have been a great one—for one thing, Reiser wouldn’t have been slamming into all those outfield walls had he stayed at The Crossroads.

Larry Doby (0.0%, 1947-59). Doby was primarily a second baseman in the Negro League, and when the Indians integrated the American League with him in mid-1947, they deployed Doby (rather oddly, it’s always seemed to me) as a last-guy-on-the-bench infield scrub. Cleveland at that point had the best left-side-of-the-infield in baseball (and one of the best of all time); with Ken Keltner at third, Lou Boudreau at short and Joe Gordon at second, there just was no room for Doby in the infield. So in 1948 they moved Doby to the outfield, where by the second half of the season he had taken over the regular center field role and emerged as a star. (Incidentally, Doby may well have been older than the age 23 he’s officially listed as in 1947.) It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which Doby (rather medium-sized at 6’1″, 182) plays quite a bit of major league third base.

Monte Irvin (1.0%, 1949-56). Irvin was originally a shortstop as a very young Negro Leaguer, and he also played some third before becoming primarily an outfield star. When the Giants brought him to the majors for the second half of the 1949 season, they used the 30-year-old Irvin in an outfield/first base/third base utility role. (They then farmed him out in early 1950, only to find themselves persuaded to bring him right back up, as Irvin hit .510 with 10 homers in 51 Triple-A at-bats—yes, you read that right.) It wasn’t until mid-1951 that the Giants finally decided to just put Irvin in left field and leave him there.

Minnie Minoso (6.5%, 1949-64, 76!, 80!!). In Part Two, we noted that the Cleveland organization in the late 1940s had a remarkable cluster of third base talent in Keltner, Ray Boone and Al Rosen. Lest we forget, they also had this guy. The Indians were so confused as to what to do with Minoso that they not only persisted with such lesser talents as Bob Kennedy, Allie Clark and Jim Lemon ahead of him in outfield roles, but when they finally promoted Minoso to the majors to stay, in 1951, they deployed him (a defender with great speed and a good arm) as, of all things, a backup first baseman.

Finally they traded Minoso, and his new team, the White Sox, immediately made him a regular, alternating between third base and the outfield. His fielding at third was so-so, but in the outfield his speed could be better leveraged, and he was terrific. From 1952 onward Minoso was primarily an outfielder, but he was frequently used as a fill-in third baseman too. He was so highly regarded as a defensive outfielder that once Gold Gloves began to be awarded in 1957, Minoso won three of them, at the (assumed) ages of 34, 36 and 37.

Roy Sievers (1.7%, 1949-65). He attained stardom in his early 30s, as a lumbering slugger playing left field and first base, but Sievers was a very different type of player when young. In his first two major league seasons, with the St. Louis Browns at the ages of 22 and 23, Sievers was a line-drive hitter who played mostly center field and more than a bit of third base. But then serious shoulder injuries almost ended his career; they robbed him of his ability to throw well and forced Sievers to pretty much re-engineer his skill set, a challenge he overcame with striking success.

Hank Aaron (0.2%, 1954-76). Hammerin’ Hank was more than just a prodigious hitter of course. He was an outstanding defensive outfielder, winning three Gold Gloves as primarily a right fielder, with sufficient range to serve as a fill-in center fielder in nearly 300 major league games.

But he wasn’t always an outfielder. As a teenager, in the Negro Leagues and in the minor leagues, Aaron was a shortstop and then a second baseman. He was converted to the outfield at the major league level, as the Braves scrambled to respond to a spring training broken ankle suffered by their newly acquired left fielder Bobby Thomson. Aaron was a graceful all-around athlete as well as an extremely conscientious worker, and he took to the outfield wonderfully.

But it wasn’t obvious that he would remain an outfielder. The following season, the Braves deployed Aaron in 27 games at second base, where by all accounts he fielded adequately. But he hit so tremendously well that the Braves decided to avoid the injury risk posed by playing second base and just let Aaron play the outfield and hit away. Still, Aaron would be used on an emergency fill-in basis at either second base or third base in 23 more games in six separate seasons, the latest being 1967, when he was 33 years old.

The image we so often see of Aaron these days is from the final phase of his career, when he was approaching and surpassing Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Aaron by that point had developed something of a belly, and he was pretty much a one-dimensional slugger (an amazingly good one). But through his 20s and early 30s, Aaron carried about 180 pounds on his 6-foot-frame, and he was fast and agile (and moved with an uncanny fluid smoothness—he didn’t run so much as glide). Had he come up with an organization that didn’t have an Eddie Mathews on its roster, it’s quite plausible that the young Aaron may have fit into a lineup at third base. Aaron almost certainly would have become a good, and possibly a great, defensive third baseman.

Roberto Clemente (0.04%, 1955-72). Clemente was a legitimately great player, but not as great as he’s typically portrayed. He was a tremendous hitter for average, and his throwing arm was among the most amazing ever displayed. But his speed was insufficient to allow him to steal bases or even to play center field on anything more than a very occasional fill-in basis. His power was so-so, inferior to that of the average right fielder. And Clemente’s strike zone judgement was, frankly, awful, inferior to that of the average utility infielder.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

All in all, Clemente was a player with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses not typically found in right fielders. He succeeded there, certainly, but he did so on a razor-thin margin for error. It’s always struck me that Clemente’s deep-but-narrow skill set might have been better leveraged at, you guessed it, third base: his stud arm could be fully activated, but his lack of outstanding speed wouldn’t be terribly important, and his overall offensive output, excellent though it was in the right field context, would be magnificent in the third base context.

Could Clemente have been a competent third baseman? It isn’t implausible. He played both third and second (as well as mostly the outfield) in his lone minor league season. His size (5’11”, 175) was more typical of third basemen (or even second basemen) than right fielders. In the several years early in Clemente’s career when he struggled with the bat, it wouldn’t have been surprising for him to have been tried in the infield, and he might have blossomed at third.

Frank Robinson (0.5%, 1956-76). He was mostly an outfielder in the minor leagues, but he also played a lot of third base and second, as well as first base. Robinson played 11 games at third for the Reds in 1958, filling in for an injured Don Hoak.

Robinson was a superstar from the get-go, bursting onto the major league scene at the age of 20 with one of the all-time great rookie years, and of course going on to win two MVPs, hit 586 home runs, and all that. But it’s interesting that he never really settled in to play any one defensive position. Early in his career Robinson played a fair amount of center field and a bit of third base, and throughout his career he regularly rotated among right field, left field and first base. He might be considered one of the rare cases of superstar utility man: a solid and versatile defender, but never a fielding star, while always wielding that thunderous bat. In short Robinson’s skill profile was the type that’s very often been found spending a lot of time at The Crossroads. It may well be the case that if Robinson hadn’t been quite so spectacular a hitter, his teams would have been inclined to extract maximum value out of him by rotating through third base more than they did.

Curt Flood (0.2%, 1956-71). A boyhood acquaintance of Robinson (as well as Vada Pinson and Earl Robinson—there was a lot of baseball talent coming out of Oakland in that period), Flood was converted from the outfield to third base by the Reds’ organization in 1957. It’s easy to see their logic: Flood was a little guy (5’9″, 165) not likely to hit for much power at the major league level with great agility and defensive acumen. Second base might also have been a reasonable position for Flood.

But then the Reds traded Flood to St. Louis in an attempt to shore up their pitching (one of the all-time bad-outcome deals), and the Cardinals stood Flood and Ken Boyer side-by-side and judged that it made the most sense for Boyer to go back to third base from center field (where he’d been in 1957) and gave Flood a crack at their center field job, which he finally held after a few years of struggling.

Flood is mostly remembered today for his genuinely principled and self-sacrificial legal stand against the injustice of the Reserve Clause. He deserves to be honored for that, but it should also be remembered that he was one heck of a ballplayer. His skill profile and the arc of his playing career bear interesting resemblance to that of Amos Otis (see below).

Tommy Davis (10.2%, 1959-76). Before he suffered a compound fracture of the ankle in 1965, Davis ran quite well. (He stole 68 bases one year in the minors). Still, he was never regarded as a particularly good defensive outfielder. So with the Dodger roster generally overcrowded with talent in the outfield, and eternally struggling to find the answer at third base, Davis found himself spending significant time at third: 59 games in 1961, 39 in ’62 and 40 in ’63.

Basically the third base job would have been his if he could have handled the defensive challenge with some adequacy. But Davis didn’t appear to be making any progress, so after 1963 the Dodgers just gave up on the idea. That may have been the proper decision, but I’ve always wondered if Davis might have done better at third if he’d been given a more sustained opportunity there instead of being yanked between third base and left field on a day-to-day (and even inning-by-inning) basis as he was.

Carl Yastrzemski (1.1%, 1961-83). Yaz, as everyone knows, was presented as a 21-year-old rookie with the colossal challenge of replacing none other than Ted Williams in left field for the Red Sox, and, as everyone knows, Yaz met it with élan. What may be less well known is that Yastrzemski had been a minor league middle infielder, and that as a 33-year-old veteran in 1973 he played third base in 31 games as the Red Sox responded to an injury situation.

Yastrzemski was, of course, a great athlete and a very hard worker. It’s highly plausible to conceive of a circumstance under which Yaz arrives in the majors with an organization not blessed with a Frank Malzone at third base and not dealing with an immediate opening in left field; Yaz could devoted his 5’11”, 182-pound strong-armed self to third base. He might well have become a great one, quite possibly contributing more value than he did as a star left fielder.

Chuck Hinton (4.2%, 1961-71). He didn’t reach the majors until age 27, which is curious, because Hinton was an amazingly well-rounded talent. He wasn’t great at anything, but he was good at, literally, everything. He was originally a catcher in the minor leagues, and he played every defensive position except pitcher at the major league level (and not just as any kind of stunt: Hinton really played them). Hinton appeared in only 51 major league games at third base, and only on a fill-in basis; it may well be the case that by leveraging his versatility and deploying him as a supersub, Hinton’s teams derived more value from him than they would have if they’d allowed him to focus on any specific position. But Hinton likely had more than enough physical and mental skill to have become an excellent defensive third baseman, if allowed to do so.

Tom Tresh (5.7%, 1961-69). Primarily a shortstop in the minors, Tresh was blocked at that position by Tony Kubek with the Yankees. So Tresh was moved to the outfield, where he starred for a few years with both the bat and glove. Then Kubek’s back went bad, and by 1966 the Yankees found themselves with quite a hole at shortstop, and their response in that season was interesting and creative: for more than a third of ’66, they deployed Tresh at third base and moved their brilliant-fielding incumbent third baseman Clete Boyer (who had played extensively at short and was highly capable there) over to shortstop.

But in the succeeding offseason, the Yankees traded Boyer for a young outfielder, Bill Robinson, and also traded their incumbent right fielder, Roger Maris, for an established third baseman, Charley Smith. Whatever the wisdom of these moves, they achieved nothing toward solving the Yankees’ shortstop problem. Tresh was moved back to left field for 1967, where he encountered chronic knee trouble, and had a bad year. Smith did poorly at third, and shortstop remained a gaping hole.

And then things began to get weird for Tresh. In the 1967-68 offseason, the Yankees took no significant measures to address their shortstop problem. Tresh opened the 1968 season again in left field, but still bothered by knee trouble, his hitting continued to slip, further than it had before. It was at this point (mid-May 1968) that the Yankees decided that the right thing to do was move the 30-year-old Tresh back in from left field, install him as their everyday shortstop, and leave him there through thick and thin. Tresh’s hitting continued to deteriorate, yet he remained a regular shortstop through 1969, even following a trade to the Tigers. He struggled terribly, and following 1969 his major league career, which had been so robust just a few years earlier, was over at the age of 31.

Tresh’s painfully rapid and relentless unraveling as a hitter is among the most notorious in baseball history. These things happen sometimes, and maybe nothing could have prevented it for Tresh. But I’ve always thought that the Yankees’ decision to move their struggling, sore-kneed veteran to the most demanding defensive position on the field, where he hadn’t played in six years, was the very last thing Tresh needed to deal with while battling his mounting offensive problems. And their choice to completely bypass The Crossroads, after deploying Tresh in 64 games there in 1966, was also quite odd: if the Yankees were so intent on moving him back to the infield, third base would have made a lot more sense than shortstop.

Tommy Harper (16.7%, 1962-76). Another Oakland product (his was the cohort that also included Willie Stargell and Joe Morgan), Harper was an interesting player. Typically described as “wiry” at 5’10”, 168, he was surely talented, with blazing speed, pop in his bat, strike zone discipline, and defensive versatility. No question he was the kind of guy who’s handy to have around.

But Harper’s particular balance of strengths and weaknesses was such that he was kind of guy who’s your basic “tweener,” a package of skills just shy of star-quality and tricky to figure out how best to be deployed. Despite his great speed, Harper wasn’t a good enough defensive outfielder to handle center field on a regular basis, and his bat was all right but not really as robust as you want from a corner outfielder (especially since it was crazily inconsistent). He had the range to play second base but not really the hands.

This leaves third base, and The Crossroads was a sensible place for Harper to end up: not adept enough to handle shortstop, second base or center field, but not powerful enough to occupy right field, left field or first base. But, probably more as a function of the needs of his particular teams than anything else, Harper played mostly third in only one season. The ideal role for him was probably supersub.

Cesar Tovar (15.5%, 1965-76). Speaking of supersubs … Tovar was a high-average contact hitter without Harper’s power, but with that caveat he was nearly the exact set of pros and cons (and followed Harper by just a couple of years in the Reds’ system). Tovar was deployed more extensively in the supersub mode than Harper. He could have been a solid defensive third baseman, but by Tovar’s era, teams were demanding more power from the position than he could provide. Very likely the 5’9″, 155-pound Tovar would have been a regular third baseman had he played before 1940.

Jose Cardenal (0.4%, 1963-80). His pretty-good power didn’t seem a likely product of his 5’10”, 155-pound frame, though his tremendous speed was no surprise. Cardenal played a lot of third base, and some second, in the minors. He spent several years early in his major league career struggling with a very inconsistent bat, and it wouldn’t have been surprising for Cardenal in that period to have found himself spending significant time at The Crossroads.

Roy White (1.0%, 1965-79). The Yankees’ questionable player-handling decisions in the late 1960s weren’t limited to Tom Tresh. White, 5’11”, 170, fast and agile but without a strong throwing arm, was strictly a second baseman through four years in the minor leagues. But when he arrived in the majors, he was blocked at second behind veteran defensive whiz Bobby Richardson. So as a 22-year-old rookie in 1966, White was used mostly in the outfield, where he showed promise but didn’t stand out.

Richardson retired following ’66, but to replace him at second base, the Yankees committed to Horace Clarke rather than White (despite the fact that Clarke had been a regular shortstop for six years in the minors, and despite the fact that the Yankees had no one else other than weak-hitting utility men and an ailing Tresh to play short). They sent White back to Triple-A for 1967 and had him learn a new position: third base. Playing exclusively at third, White was having a terrific year, hitting .343 through 84 games, and the Yankees brought him back up in mid-July. They put him in the starting lineup at third base—for a grand total of two weeks. He neither hit nor fielded well in that tiny window, and the Yankees then sent White back to the outfield, and after mid-August of 1967, he never spent another inning at third base (or second).

In 1968 White blossomed in left field (replacing Tresh), and he played exceedingly well there for the next decade. But outstanding as he was as an outfielder, White’s offensive output would have been superstar caliber if produced at third base, or especially second base. He had a wonderful career (he’s rather famously underrated, if that makes sense), but the Yankees’ haste to abandon the attempt to develop White as an infielder is curious, and if he had made it as a second baseman or third baseman, there’d be no question of his Hall of Fame worthiness.

Reggie Smith (0.8%, 1966-82). All right, time for your Red Sox Nation Historical Trivia Geek Test, Impossible Dream Era Division. Here we go:

– Reggie Smith was selected by the Red Sox in the minor league draft out of the Minnesota Twins’ organization as an 18-year-old shortstop. True or False?

– In his three seasons in the Boston farm system, Smith played third base, second and short as well as the outfield. True or False?

– For the first week of the 1967 Impossible Dream season, Smith was the Red Sox’s starting second baseman. True or False?

The answers are: True, True and True. If you didn’t get them all correct, for your penance, you must sell your Bucky Brandon, Jose Tartabull and Russ Gibson baseball cards at 10% below market value!

In addition to his infield exploits as a young player, in his age-31 season Smith was deployed in 13 games at third base by the Cardinals, in which he handled 44 chances without an error. That’s a small sample size, but not so small as to not be impressive.

Like so many players with an extremely well-rounded skill set, Smith was quite underrated. He might easily have been a third baseman, and a very good one.

Bobby Murcer (1.8%, 1965-83). The parallel paths of Murcer and Mickey Mantle are obvious and often acknowledged: drawling Oklahoma teenager, prized-but-error-prone shortstop prospect, moved to right field and then center field at the major league level, emerges as a Yankee slugging star. The difference in the stories (other than that Murcer, outstanding though he was, was no Mantle, and it was unfair to saddle him with that burden) is that Murcer was given a quasi-serious trial at third base before going to the outfield: 31 games in early 1969. Murcer’s performance there was, to say the least, not good (.877 fielding percentage), and that’s what prompted the shift to the outfield. But it isn’t implausible to imagine Murcer being given a more extended chance at third than just 31 games, getting over his initial rockiness, and emerging as an adequate or even good defensive third baseman. As with Roy White, the Yankees didn’t show a whole lot of patience with Murcer in the infield.

Amos Otis (0.2%, 1967-84). In 1969, the Mets were wrestling with the question of how to fit the multi-talented 22-year-old Otis into their lineup. Center field was amply occupied by Tommie Agee, but third base was (because these were the Mets, you see, miraculous championships or not) an intractable problem. The Mets toyed with Otis as a third baseman in ’69, though he spent most of his time on the bench (and also was sent back to Triple-A for a couple of months in midsummer). Otis had originally been a third baseman in the minors, and he had also—oddly for a guy of his size (5/11″, 165) and terrific speed—played a lot of first base.

That offseason, the Mets decisively addressed the issue by trading Otis to the Royals in exchange for an established regular third baseman, Joe Foy. That, um, didn’t work out so well. But suppose the Mets hadn’t committed to the Foy acquisition and instead decided to give Otis a serious shot at the third base job. It was a very realistic possibility, and it’s intriguing to consider how that might have worked out.

Jack Clark (0.2%, 1975-92). Younger fans who only saw Clark in his late-career thick-waisted, slow-moving, first base/DH phase would scarcely have recognized him in the 1970s. Clark in those days was slim almost to the point of gangly, ran very well (and was an excellent defensive outfielder, playing a lot of center field) and had a tremendous arm, which he featured while playing primarily third base in the minors. Few players have ever undergone so complete a transformation between first and second career halves, both in offensive approach and defensive profile, as Clark—and both of his very different modes were outstanding.

Glenn Wilson (0.3%, 1982-93). Originally a third baseman in the minors, he was moved to the outfield and then spent nearly a decade as a regular right fielder. The whole time, I wondered why. Wilson never swung a sufficient right fielder’s bat, and his average-at-very-best speed prevented him from covering much ground in the outfield, particularly on the artificial turf fields that were common in the National League of his day. Wilson did only one thing well, and that thing he did very, very well: he could throw. He could throw, as the old saying goes, a strawberry through a locomotive.

The Phillies had some guy named Schmidt on hand, and so I understood they didn’t have room at third base, but (a) that didn’t justify their writing “Wilson, RF” on the lineup card 150 times a year, and (b) it didn’t explain why some other team, a team needing help at third base, never picked Wilson up and saw if he could handle the one position at which he might have amounted to an asset.

Andy Van Slyke (3.8%, 1983-95). Played mostly third base in his lone half-season at triple-A, and was used at third a lot by the Cardinals in 1983 and ’84. Didn’t become a full-time center fielder until the age of 27, at which point he immediately won five straight Gold Gloves. That’s impressive.

Danny Tartabull (0.5%, 1984-97). A big, strong guy (6’1″, 205) who arrived in the majors as a shortstop and then was given a trial at second base before it was decided that his toolset (which prominently featured an big arm and an even bigger bat) was best suited for right field. Tartabull did fine in right; his only problem was staying healthy. Neither of the teams with which he was establishing himself (the Mariners and the Royals) had an opening at third base, but Tartabull certainly was the type who could have spent some time at The Crossroads.

Ron Gant (4.5%, 1987-2003). Gant arrived in the major leagues as a second baseman with a highly impressive power-and-speed toolset. He hit well in his rookie year, but his fielding was rather error-prone. The Braves had a young alternative they could try at second base (Jeff Blauser) and reasoned that the bigger, stronger Gant would probably be better off at third base than second, so they shifted him over to third.

Sometimes stupid ideas turn out wonderfully, and sometimes great ideas turn out terribly. This was one of the latter cases. For whatever reason, Gant just fell apart at third base in 1989, with fielding difficulties that impacted his hitting, and a hitting slump that affected his fielding, and the more he tried, the worse he got: it was pretty much your basic full meltdown.

The Braves didn’t give up on Gant, but neither did they persist with him at third. In 1990, they introduced him to center field, where he completely blossomed, and he remained a solid performer in the outfield for many years.

Luis Gonzalez (0.2%, 1990-2005). Mostly a third baseman in the minors, Gonzalez never played in the outfield until his first full big-league season of 1991. Both he and Jeff Bagwell were blocked at third base in Houston that year by the presence of Ken Caminiti. Until he reached his 30s, Gonzalez’s hitting was more typical of a third baseman’s than a left fielder’s.

Carlos Lee (0.0%, 1999-2005). He’s a great big guy (6’2″, 235), but Lee runs quite well. He was a third baseman all through the minors, moved to the outfield only upon reaching the major leagues. It’s odd that the White Sox never even gave him a shot at third, given that by the time he arrived, Robin Ventura was gone.

Whither The Crossroads?

So what will the future likely hold for third base? Is its placement dead center in the defensive spectrum secure? Are we seeing a typically different mode of athlete there today than in the past?

Let’s consider that last question first. It is the case that in the most recent couple of decades, we’ve seen three of the biggest guys ever deployed as third basemen: Bobby Bonilla (6’3″, 240), Scott Rolen (6’4″, 240), and the biggest yet, Troy Glaus (6’5″, 245). Bonilla was never especially good defensively, and he frequently played the outfield or first base instead, but he kept going back to third and was a full-time regular there as late as the age of 34. Rolen has been a brilliant fielder, and Glaus isn’t bad. It’s been amply demonstrated that third base can be handled, and well, by some truly huge athletes.

But these three aren’t typical. The great majority of current-day third basemen stand from 5’11” to 6’1″ and weigh in the range of 180 to 210 pounds. In size and style, most current-day third basemen remain quite consistent with the model that came into vogue more than 60 years ago, pioneered Mike Higgins (6’1″, 185), Harlond Clift (5’11”, 180), and Ken Keltner (6’0″, 190), and exemplified in the 1940s and 1950s by many such as Bob Elliott (6’0″, 185), Willie Jones (6’1″, 192), and Eddie Mathews (6’1″, 200). The typical third baseman of today may be slightly larger than his counterpart from half a century ago, but only slightly. In the modern era of weight training (whether steroid-amplified or not), most ballplayers are quite a bit more muscular than they used to be, but there’s nothing about this that’s unique to third basemen.

It is the case that the Dead Ball mode of spidery little third baseman, which lingered for many decades past 1920, is pretty much extinct today and has been—with the occasional Chone Figgins (5’9″, 155) or Terry Pendleton (5’9″, 180) type exception—for a good 30 years or so. The modern third baseman is expected to provide at least some power, but nothing in this regard appears to have particularly changed in the past few years.

In short, the profile of the third baseman in relation to other fielders shows no sign of departing from the status it’s held for the past several decades. Today’s third basemen remain typically bigger and stronger than today’s middle infielders; as we’ve discussed, middle infielders along the lines of Cal Ripken (6’4″, 220), Jeff Kent (6’1″, 210), Derek Jeter (6’3″, 195), and Alex Rodriguez (6’3″, 220) remain the exception and not the rule in the modern game. And today’s third basemen remain typically smaller and more agile than today’s first basemen and corner outfielders.

All in all, there’s nothing to suggest that the directional flow of athletes from position to position has substantially changed in the past few years from what it’s been since the 1940s or 1950s. Third base remains the crossover point between the highest-skill spots and the big-bruiser spots. Speaking of the role of third base historically, we said this in Part One:

All of this means that at some point in their careers (maybe early, maybe late, maybe right in the middle), a very high proportion of players are likely to spend at least some time playing third base. This high degree of potential traffic passing through third base—its Crossroads status—has the consequence of causing many teams to plan for third as a transitional position, to leverage its capacity to maximize roster flexibility. It often makes sense for teams to not concern themselves with finding and settling on a long-term answer at third base, thus reducing the opportunity for players to pursue full careers as third base specialists, a dynamic very different from that found at shortstop, second base or center field.

Third base is The Crossroads, both within players’ careers and within teams’ tactical and strategic roster management. It lends itself to so many different purposes and it can be handled (though rarely mastered) by so many different types of athletes, that there are fewer opportunities for outstanding third basemen to emerge than at other positions.

Recent history indicates that this dynamic isn’t changing. Third base will likely remain The Crossroads for decades yet to come, and thus will likely continue to directly produce fewer Hall of Famers than any other position—despite the fact that, at some point or another, more Hall of Famers will play third base than any other position.

References & Resources
Despite being a central figure in professional baseball (and indeed, American professional sports) legal and business history, no definitive biography of Curt Flood has been written. Until now. Our good friend Alex Belth has produced such a work, that will be published in Spring 2006, to be titled, Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights.

I enjoyed the privelege of reviewing some drafts of Belth’s manuscript, and he’s done a marvelous job of bringing the flesh-and-blood humanity, complexity, intelligence, and turmoil of Flood to the page. He was no saint; Flood was as flawed as any of the rest of us, which makes the dramatic turn of his life and his choices all the more compelling.

It’s a brisk, engaging read, and I learned a ton just from the draft manuscript. I recommend keeping an eye out for this one next spring.

Steve Treder has been a co-author of every Hardball Times Annual publication since its inception in 2004. His work has also been featured in Nine, The National Pastime, and other publications. He has frequently been a presenter at baseball forums such as the SABR National Convention, the Nine Spring Training Conference, and the Cooperstown Symposium. When Steve grows up, he hopes to play center field for the San Francisco Giants.

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