Sunday, January 3, 2010

#16 Riggs Stephenson

Jackson Riggs Stephenson was born in 1898 in Akron, Alabama. An excellent and natural athlete, Stephenson wound up at the University of Alabama. It was there that he excelled, not only at baseball, but football as well. One of the first two-sport collegiate stars, Stephenson was fortunate enough to play on a baseball team that boasted three others who would make the major leagues: Ike Boone, Joe Sewell and Joe's brother Luke. A shoulder injury ended his football career, and changed his baseball career. As an outfielder, he had a strong arm before the injury, but wound up having to shift over to second base. He mainly played second during his early years with Indians, having joined them in 1921. He went to the Chicago Cubs in 1926, and moved to leftfield, the safest place in the outfield for a weak arm. But despite his shoulder injury, Stephenson never lost the ability to hit. In Chicago, he joined Hall of Famers Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson to form one of the greatest outfields ever. In 1929, all three outfielders knocked in over 100 runs, the only time in baseball history an entire outfield accomplished that feat. In his first 4 years in Chicago, he hit .344, .324, .362 and .367. He also batted .378 over two World Series appearances in 1929 and 1932. He was released by the Cubs following the 1934 season, accumulating 1515 hits and a .336 lifetime average.

Following his playing days, Stephenson managed in the Southern minor leagues. After World War 2, he ran a very successful car dealership in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He died in 1985 at the age of 87.

Stephenson is an interesting player. There is no doubt that he was an excellent hitter, probably one of the top players in the NL. It is not uncommon to hear pundits claim that he deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. However compelling his case may be, his reasons for exclusion are too big to ignore. He played in an era where the ball was much more lively than prior years. The entire NL hit .303 in 1930, and the numbers off all batters were up league wide. Of course, it should be noted that over his career, he did bat 40 points higher than the league average. The second reason of his non-candidacy is he just did not get enough at bats. His total of 4508 career at-bats barely puts him into the top 900 players all time.

Although information in 1985 was nowhere near as abundant as it is now, when Stephenson died, I did not know about it until two months later, when Baseball Digest had their annual issue looking back at the last calendar year. As a kid, I believed he belonged in the Hall of Fame, and hoped he would get in before he died. I guess if he gets in now, I'd be happy for him, but posthumous Hall of Fame inductions are rather dubious. So many players should have been able to enjoy the honor while alive. I never understood why the Veterans Committee would ignore Piper Davis and Buck O'Neil while alive, but insisted upon inducting people long dead like Turkey Stearnes and Bid McPhee. Not that I think Stearnes and McPhee do not belong, but whats the harm in letting the living move up the list? Let them enjoy the recognition they deserve, instead of honoring their memory after they are no longer among the living.

The Autograph: Riggs willingly signed throughout his life, and his autograph is in abundance. He always signed anything I sent him.

Riggs uses his fingers to tee one up for Hack Wilson as Woody English wonders 'WTF'

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