Don Hurst

The Yankees of the 80s and early 90s are largely forgotten, mostly because they’re bracketed by 1976-78 team that went to the World Series three times and won twice, and the even-better 1996-2012 era. That said they were only a bad team for a few years and the early 80s team was only a notch below the stereotypical New York powerhouse.

In 1986 they had two Hall of Famers in the regular lineup. Rickey Henderson is the best lead-off man in history, but a wide margin, and while Dave Winfield wasn’t in the same class he was approximately one of the ten best hitters in the league for the 80s and turned consistency and longevity at a fairly high level into a call to Cooperstown. Even so, neither of them was the biggest star on the team. That was Don Mattingly.

Mattingly doesn’t quite fit the profile of this blog, as he managed four years of top-flight play and, though he dropped off badly after that, he managed to stay in the majors for eight more seasons as a slightly better than league-average hitter with a reputation for good defense. But studying him the same way we’ve studied other players turns up an old-time hitter who does.

A back injury was the culprit in Mattingly’s decline, and it’s obvious that if he had kept playing like he did through his age-26 season he would have been an inner-circle HOFer. Through the end of 1987 he had a career line of .331/.376/.543 with 93 home runs, which is a bit weak in the OBA but is such a high batting average with good power, in a relatively down period for offense, that he’d have skated in when Cooperstown called. His career comps include Hank Greenberg, Frank Thomas, and Vladimir Guerrero, and those aren’t even the three players that make his High Cut projection.

Those three are Manny Ramirez, Al Simmons, and the sublime Stan Musial. Tack the average of their post-26 careers on to Mattingly and you get this (click for larger):

don-mattingly-high

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a career for the ages, the fifth best first baseman of all time by WAR in fact. 3063 hits, 467 homers, a career slash line of .305/.396/.557 and an OPS+ of 149 is pretty nice. It also hits some traditional buttons for a casual fan, like 3000 hits and a .300 career batting average. Couple that with Mattingly’s defensive reputation and the way the New York media lionized him when he was a star, and he’d be a golden god of the Joe DiMaggio class down to this day.

Even the remaining names on his comp list are impressive: Will Clark, Jim Rice, and 20s and 30s-era first baseman Jim Bottomley. If you’ve been counting, though, that’s still only nine players. The tenth man (he said, finally getting to the point) is one who shares Mattingly’s first name if not his given name1, one who failed to follow up on his early numbers even more badly, one who is in fact the closest comparable for Donnie Baseball’s first seasons, and the one who is named at the top of this post.

Don Hurst had a six-year career from 1928-34, debuting with the Phillies two days after a trade as a minor-leaguer from the St. Louis Cardinals. Five and half of his seasons were with Philadelphia, but he also played with the Cubs for the last part of his final season. Like Mattingly he played first base, though his reputation as a defender was poor, and his actual performance around the bag was in fact borderline catastrophic: -7.0 WAR in just those six years.

He matched Mattingly up to age 26 by hitting .316/.396/.516 with 102 homers and that, coupled with a close reading of the previous paragraph, largely explains why you’ve never heard of him and why he was out of the majors by 29. As mentioned, he was already down a strike by being a poor defender. The other strikes are:

  • He played from ’28 to ’34, which was the highest offense period in baseball history until the Steroid Era. Hurst’s line is actually considerably worse than Mattingly’s in context, as evidenced by their OPS+ for those seasons (which, remember, is adjusted for offensive context). Mattingly’s is 151, while Hurst’s is just 126.
  • Hurst played for the Phillies, and in those years the Phillies played in the Baker Bowl, the last of the 19th century ballparks which didn’t close until 1938. It was, until Denver entered the majors, the most hitting-friendly park in National League history. The right field wall was only 280 feet from home plate, and even a sixty-foot wall didn’t keep left-handed hitters from rattling extra base hits off it and over it. Hurst was left-handed. At home, he hit .323/.403/.526 in his career, but only .274/.347/.432 in away games. This wouldn’t be that hot even now, and is very weak for a first baseman in the 1930s.
wall

That’s the right-field wall in the Baker Bowl. Don’t forget to buy soap when you’re out. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Look at it another way. Hurst was putting up runs, to be sure—he had 125 RBI in 1929, and a league-leading 143 in 1932, and scored more than 100 runs each season too—but the Phillies were giving up no less than 4.47 earned runs a game (1932) and as high as an eye-watering 6.71 in 1930. They didn’t have great pitchers, to be sure, but they weren’t that bad. It was largely about the context in which they played.

Or take one more number: in 1930, all of the away players in the Baker Bowl, from .401-hitting Bill Terry and 56-homer man Hack Wilson2 down to the lowliest scrub, hit a collective .351 in the Baker Bowl. Hurst’s hitting .323 there in that general time period was not enough.

Hurst had one more thing going against him: by spring training of 1933 he was believing his superficial numbers and demanding to be paid like one of the best hitters in the league, engaging in a multi-week contract holdout. When you’re Rickey Henderson, or even Don Mattingly, you can get away with this. When you’re a player whose team owners probably have a crude (if unsystematic) idea of how much your numbers are inflated by your home stadium, not so much.

holdout

The salary dispute even made the wire services. “Nugent” is the Phillies’ penurious owner from 1931 to 1942, Gerald Nugent. From the Lewiston Daily Sun, March 25, 1933.

Then he went into a season-long slump: in 1933 he hit only .267/.327/.389. By the stat considered most important at the time, he dropped from 143 RBI to just 76; if you want a more modern measure, that was good for an OPS+ of only 94 and 0.9 WAR once his defense was factored in—barely more than replacement value.

The slump continued into 1934. After he hit even slightly worse over 142 plate appearances, Philadelphia traded him to the Cubs on June 11, 1934. It turned out to be one of the better trades in Phillies history, as the return was Dolph Camilli, who would hit .295/.395/.510 for them before being sent to the Dodgers four years later, even better numbers than the man he was replacing had done at his best: offensive levels dropped to more reasonable levels as the ’30s wore on. Hurst only put up a .199/.239/.291 during his half-season in Chicago and was out of the majors after that. The Cardinals picked him back up during the next off-season, but set him to the minors where he played until 1937. After a year off, he had a 61-game stint with the Hamilton, Ontario Red Wings, in the very low minors, where he managed, played first base, and even pitched a little (not well). Then he retired for good. Having spent ’36 and ’37 with the old Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, he returned to California where he died young in 1952, only 47.

Don Hurst’s Stats on Baseball Reference

Notes

    1. But not his given name. Born Frank O’Donnell Hurst, his preferred name probably came from a contraction of his middle name.
    2. Speaking of another player whose numbers were vastly inflated by context. But not as much as Hurst’s.
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