So for Opening Day weekend I thought I’d celebrate by pulling out an extremely obscure player who was born on April 1st. If you know anything at all about this guy it’s as a side note to a minor historical anecdote about the 1946 Dodgers. The ’47 team gets all the attention because 1) Pennant and 2) Jackie Robinson, but the Dodgers actually had a better record the year before: 96-60 as compared to 94-60. They also had the misfortune of coming in second that year to the Cardinals, after tying them in the regular season only to lose the first tie-breaking series (a best of three, 2-0) in MLB history.
The 1946 version of the Dodgers signed a highly touted prospect by the name of Joe Tepsic on July 8th for $17,500, and brought him to the majors straight out of UPenn—Tepsic had been a Marine at Guadalcanal in 1943 (and was badly injured), so I’m guessing that Branch Rickey figured he had the mental toughness to play in the big leagues right away as well as the physical tools. Whatever the reason, the Mahatma made a tactical mistake when signing him. Though this was before the bonus baby rule that forced teams to keep high-priced youngsters on the major-league roster, the Dodgers willingly included a clause requiring that Tepsic stay with the club for the remainder of the season.
Manager Leo Durocher was not happy about this, and played Tepsic very sparingly (just 15 games and 6 plate appearances through year’s end). Though soon offered $1500 to accept a demotion to Montreal, Tepsic refused. This reportedly did not sit well with the team’s other players, who wanted his roster spot taken by a bench player who could help the team in the tight pennant race. The name bandied about as his potential replacement was, perhaps a little surprisingly, not Jackie Robinson, but Chet Ross.
Ross was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1917. and signed as a 20-year-old to the very bottom rung of the Boston Braves’ minor league ladder, the Class D Beaver Falls Bees1. The Braves must have seen something they liked, though, as the next season he jumped all the way to the A-level Eastern League, where he seems to have been overclassed and only hit .225 with a .391 SLG (his OBA is unknown due to the standards of record-keeping at the time). The next season he was down a level playing for Evansville, Indiana, but established himself as a proper prospect with a .306/.507 line (with the same deal on the OBA). This earned him a September call-up, where he hit an eye-catching .323/.364/.419 in 33 PA2.
He was installed as the Braves’ everyday left fielder the next spring, and he responded by continuing to hit. The high point was August 2nd, the Braves’ 90th game of the year, when his season line was almost the same as he’d done in Class B the season before, .317/.384/509. As late as September 1st he was hitting .300/.371/.496, but starting with a double-header the next day he was ice-cold for the rest of the season, putting up only .183/.255/.280 the rest of the way. Even so, his final numbers were quite nice for a 23-year old outfielder in 1940: .281/.352/.460 in 632 PA, good for 3.6 WAR and an OPS+ of 129. Of particular note were two numbers, one positive and one negative. On the downside, he led the league in strikeouts with 127, a sign he had trouble controlling the strike zone3. On the other hand he had 14 triples, which said he had speed—he only had four stolen bases, but nobody stole bases in 1940. His defense was raw, but promising, leading the league in putouts, assists, and errors in left. Things were looking good for the young Buffalonian. Ross was not a superstar in the making, but he someone worth having on your team.
His career hitting comparables after this season include one Hall of Famer (Billy Williams), and a surprisingly large number of players who hit well for a season or two when young and then tailed off: Bernie Carbo, Leon Durham, Jeremy Hermida, and so on. Bearing in mind that these comparables are only calculated for all these players before they hit their quick downsides, it suggests that there’s something about this particular profile of stats that makes them prone to fall apart: decent average but not great, some walks, some power, and a lot of strikeouts. If I had to guess, it’s that because they don’t stand out in any one way, they need all their skills ticking over nicely to stay on top. As soon as any one goes, watch out.
But this blog isn’t about what did happen so much as what might have, so suppose Chet Ross did as well as his most successful comps did? These are the aforementioned Williams and Durham, as well as Expos and Tigers stalwart Rondell White. Taking what they did from age 24 onwards and tacking it on to Ross’ career through 23 produces this:
So definitely not a superstar, but I’d wager he’d have been someone’s favorite player in the late 40s, probably some poor kid who was a Braves fan4. With 1735 hits, 253 homers, and a 124+ OPS he would have basically been Jermaine Dye with some more walks. If you remember 80s Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek5, he’s a good match too once you get past the strikeouts.
If you didn’t notice it, though, look at his actual remaining career. Not only did he collapse, he fell off a cliff. Three years left in his career, just over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, and below replacement value for the lot of it. What happened?
In a word? Injuries. In the Braves’ first spring training game of 1941 he broke his left ankle sliding into second base. He wouldn’t return to the field until May 25th, when he went 1 for 1 as a pinch hitter in a loss to the Giants. This was arguably the highlight of his season, as his only multi-hit game was a 2 for 3 on July 18th in Pittsburgh—and that game is excluded from the prize because he slid into second base in the top of the ninth only to tear his ankle ligaments and break his fibula. Close curtain on 1941 for Chester James Ross with an ugly .120/.254/.140 batting line.
The injuries kept him from being called up post-Pearl Harbor6, but he continued to play abysmally even despite the attenuated talent of the wartime major leagues. Never a regular again, his hitting did slowly get better as time passed, but he topped out at .227/.287./.409 for a 91 OPS+ in 1944. Traded to Indianapolis in the minors mid-season that year, he didn’t report, and was drafted by the Navy for duty in 19457.
Returning Stateside in 1946 (along with every other Tom, Dick, and Harry) he was traded from Indianapolis to Montreal, where he played with Jackie Robinson and our story has come full circle. Quite why he was the player supposedly taking over Joe Tepsic’s place on the Dodgers is a question, though. He was years away from hitting well as a major leaguer, and his numbers over 41 games north of the border were an uninspiring .243/.373/.4918. As Rob Neyer points out, he wasn’t even called up in September when the rosters opened up, and a similar veteran, Lew Riggs, hit better for the Royals and did get an end-of-season nod. According to his obituary in the Buffalo News “a knee injury cost him a chance to return to the majors”, but as badly as he’d played during the war years this seems questionable.
Transferred to Brooklyn’s other AAA team, Milwaukee (ironically) n 1948, he came off the bench for part of the season before being traded again, this time to the Cleveland organization. He filled the same role for them with the then-AAA Baltimore Orioles. With that his professional baseball career was over, at age 30.
“Inside Baseball Training Camps”. St. Petersburg Times, March 18, 1944.
Dixie Walker: A Life in Baseball, Lyle Spatz. Mcfarland & Co, 2011.
Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, Rob Neyer. Simon & Schuster, 2008.
“Chester J. Ross, Baseball Major Leaguer”. Buffalo News, February 21, 1989.
- Starting the same year through was also the short time period when the Braves were called the Bees as well, as they tried to wash the bad taste of Babe Ruth’s painful last season and the second-worst record in history just two years earlier).
- The eye he was catching being Casey Stengel, who was early in his career as a manager, long before the Yankees made him famous. To that point he had a 348-414 won-loss record.
- 127 doesn’t look all that bad to 2017 eyes, but this was unconscionably high for 1940. The next highest number in the NL that year was Joe Orengo‘s 90, and he was out of the league pretty quick too.
- The Braves left for Milwaukee and the Red Sox stayed for a reason. The Braves and the Bees (ask your parents to tell you about them) finished last or next to last in the NL seven times from 1939 to 1952, and third or higher just twice. They did get to the World Series in 1948, losing to the Indians.
- I presume. I can’t find any statement about it one way or another, but there weren’t a lot of healthy men missing out on the US Armed Forces in 1942 and ’43.
- Rob Neyer speculates that, as Ross had already been drafted and knew he was going to be called up eventually, he basically decided to make the trade the end of his pre-war career.
- Robinson, in contrast, hit .359/.468/.462.