Page 62 – Fewest games played by league leader as first baseman – AL, Vic Power, Cleveland, 124 games, 1959; NL, Ed Bouchee, Philadelphia, 134 games.
(This record is for seasons where full 154 or 162 game seasons were completed)
This record, which can kindly be described as obscure, was of interest to me because both leagues reached their low water marks for first basemen playing in games in the same season. Just what was going on with that position in 1959? Was there some conspiracy to keep anyone from playing a full season at first base? Were there no good first basemen in the majors that year? Was there a rash of crippling injuries that only hit first basemen in 1959?
As it turns out there were some very good first basemen in the majors that year, including several Hall of Famers. But for various reasons, managers in 1959 liked to keep moving people all over the diamond.
Power actually played in 147 of the Indians games, but in the last month of the season, he was moved to third base, a position where manager Joe Gordon had used 11 different players with increasingly worse success. Tito Francona played down the stretch at first base. Francona hit .363 that year, but missed out on the batting title because he was about 20 plate appearances of the minimum needed. Power also played seven games at second base. The Indians used eight second basemen. Most of them weren't very good, including Billy Martin. The Indians would finish five games out of first
So, who were the other first basemen in the AL in 1959? Let's go in order of the standings:
The White Sox used seven first basemen, with Earl Torgeson getting the most starts. Torgeson batted .220 and late season Ted Kluszewski got the job down the stretch and in the World Series.
Cleveland – see above
New York – The Yankees used five first basemen with primary starter Bill Skowron reduced to just 72 games at first because of injuries. Things were so bad for the Yankees that year that Marv Throneberry got 54 starts at first base. Skowron recovered to play in 142 games in 1960.
Detroit – Gail Harris appeared in 93 games at first base. He batted .221. Bobo Osborne played in 56 games. He batted .191. Gus Zernial played 32 games at first and batted .227. The Tigers had some issues at first base to say the least and got Norm Cash the following season.
Boston – Dick Gernert was the most frequently used first baseman with 75 games. Vic Wertz started 64 games and Pete Runnels played there 44 times. Gernert was traded to the Cubs in the offseason and Wertz got the job in 1960.
Baltimore – 39-year old Bob Boyd got 109 starts. Walt Dropo had 54. Boyd didn't get called up to the majors until he was 31 and didn't become a regular until he was 37. He didn't even sign with a big league team until 1950 when he was 30. It wasn't that Boyd was a late bloomer. He had been playing in the Negro Leagues and he was the first black player signed by the White Sox, although Minnie Minoso would be the first black player to get into a game for the White Sox. Slugger Jim Gentile took over the job the next year.
Kansas City – Kent Hadley played in 95 games at first for the Athletics with six others filling in. One of those reserves was Harry Simpson, who also played at first for the White Sox and Pirates. Hadley was part of the trade in the offseason that sent him to New York along with a guy named Roger Maris. But Throneberry came to Kansas City to take over!
Washington – The Senators used five different first basemen with Norm SiebernRoy Sievers getting the most time, 93 games. Julio Becquer played in 59 games at first base. Siebern Sievers was coming off two monster years (a combined 81 homers and 222 RBI for bad teams), but was injured for much of May. Siebern Sievers ended up in Chicago the next year and Becquer and Harmon Killebrew shared the job in 1960.
In the two All-Star games that season, the starters at first base were Skowron and Runnels. Power and Sievers were backups.
Over in the NL, Bouchee's (which I believe was pronounced boo-SHAY) 134 games at first base gave him a chance to appear in the record books for something. Bouchee did play in 154 games in 1957, but never played that much again. Bouchee didn't miss much time for the last place Phillies, missing only one significant stretch of games in June. The aptly named Dave Philley played the balance of the games at first.
But there were several good first basemen in the NL in 1959. They just didn't play a lot at that position in 1959. Reviewing in order of the standings:
Los Angeles – Gil Hodges played 113 games at first, but he was 35 and slowing down. Norm Larker played in 55 games. Larker played the majority of the games at first in 1960.
Milwaukee – Braves manager Fred Haney put Joe Adcock (who was pretty good) at first for 89 games. Haney also put Frank Torre (who was pretty bad) at first for 87 games. Adcock had an OPS+ of 137. Torre's was 74. Bill James has described Haney's work as manager of the 1959 Braves as one of the worst, if not the worst, in major league history. The Braves were coming off two straight NL pennants and Haney pushed every wrong button that he possibly could. Given enough time, Haney would have figured out a way to bench Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews.
San Francisco – The Giants had a good excuse for not having one first baseman with a huge number of games. That was because the Giants had two future Hall of Famers splitting time at the position. Orlando Cepeda played in 122 games at first, but moved to the outfield after Willie McCovey was called up on July 30. McCovey played in just 52 games, but won the Rookie of the Year Award as he batted .354 and slugged .656 with 13 homers. Cepeda and McCovey would share the job again in 1960.
Pittsburgh – Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh used five first basemen with the poor fielding (22 errors!) Dick Stuart playing the most, 105 games. Rocky Nelson, a longtime minor league star, played in 56 games and Kluszweski played in 20 games, but would end up with the AL champion White Sox. Stuart and Nelson shared time in 1960 as well.
Chicago – The Cubs had six different first basemen with Dale Long playing 85 games and Jim Marshall playing 72 times at first. Neither did much to write home about in 1959. (In fact, the US Post Office confiscated all their mail.) Marshall went to the Red Sox next year in exchange for Gernert, but it was Bouchee, acquired for Tony Taylor, who got most of the time at first in 1960 for the Cubs.
Cincinnati – Some might be surprised to learn that Frank Robinson was the Reds first baseman for most of this season. He played 125 games at first and also 40 in left field. Robinson played 78 games at first in 1960 and then spent nearly all of the rest of his career as an outfielder or DH. In 1959, the Reds were moving around their outfielders to find room for 20-year old Vada Pinson, who like Robinson, attended McClymonds High in Oakland. When the Reds won the pennant in 1961, Gordy Coleman was at first base.
St. Louis – The Cardinals used seven first basemen. And old guy named Stan Musial played the most there, 90 times. Bill White played 71 games at first. Musial had one of his worst seasons at age 38, batting just .255, but he would play through the 1963 season, mostly in the outfield and he batted .330 in 1962 at age 41. Musial played over 1000 games in his career at first base.
In the All-Star games, Cepeda started the first game and Musial the second. Robinson was a reserve in both games.
Philadelphia- See above.
In 1960, the NL record was threatened but Adcock played 136 games at first for the Braves to lead the league with Pancho Herrera playing in 134 for the Phillies.
In 2006, Ryan Howard led the NL with 159 games at first base. Mark Texeira of Texas led the AL with 159 games at first base.