If you look into Dick Wakefield today, almost every one of the stories about him begins with some variation of “Wakefield was one of the first bonus babies…”, a fact that’s obscured a lot else of what’s interesting about him. When said today the term usually refers to those players who were affected by the so-called bonus baby rule, which was brought in for the 1952 season1. In an effort to control signing bonuses, any player given $4,000 or more up front on his contract had to be kept on the major league roster for two years or else he’d be exposed on the waiver wire. This had no impact on established players, but meant that the only free agents of the era—young, unsigned prospects—would find it harder to spark a bidding war among clubs.
However the original bonus babies were the ones who provoked the rule in the first place: a number of young players from the late 1930s onwards who had commanded then-astronomical prices. In Wakefield’s case it had been $52,000, or roughly $850,000 when adjusted for inflation. That amount of money sparked resentment among his teammates and apparently went to Wakefield’s head too, with various stories circulating about his unusual behavior while a rookie2.
As we all know, though, you can act any way you like if you can hit and Wakefield certainly did. Through 1942 he played in the minor leagues, the most notable thing about him being the story that he was the victim of Rip Sewell‘s first recorded eephus pitch during spring training of 1942. But in 1943, as a 22-year old left fielder in his first full season, he led the league in games played, at bats, hits, and doubles on the way to a .316/.377/.434 line. There was no official Rookie of the Year award at the time, but he was rewarded with an All-Star selection and sixth place in the AL MVP voting.
He missed the first half of 1944 by training to join the Army Air Force, but he was released along with half his class as unneeded and could play the second half of the season. In 332 plate appearances he put up an amazing .355/.464/.576—enough to move him up a notch in MVP voting despite only appearing in 78 games; with 3.9 WAR his rate of production per game was second for all non-pitchers in the AL3. With an OPS+ of 190 to boot, he had clearly established himself as one of the top players in baseball. He’d applied to join the Navy, however, and got called up for 1945.
His three most successful comps through the end of 1944, as taken by the High Cut to play “what if?”, are pretty nice: Rafael Palmeiro, Enos Slaughter, and Elmer Flick. Slaughter in particular fits the mold nicely: just four years older, he profiles very similarly to Wakefield and was caught up in the war too, missing three years. Slaughter ended up as a paragon of longevity, serving as a pinch hitter and bench player for the Yankees as late as age 43.
If we run a High Cut on Wakefield, we get this:
Not bad, not bad at all. This is basically Todd Helton‘s career, once you adjust for batting in Colorado. Helton also played 17 years, put up 61.2 WAR with an OPS+ of 133, batted left like Wakefield, and played at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, so the match is actually quite good. Helton’s going to draw a few votes for the HOF in 2019, so this projection probably puts Wakefield into the Hall; the voters were historically generous to players who lost time to WWII so we can spot him a couple of hundred hits over his missing season and a half. That says “voted in after multiple tries, or by the Veterans Committee” to me, one of the guys who gets in towards the end of his eligibility unless he’s got a story like World Series heroics pushing him higher.
I’m also going to go ahead and state that if Dick Wakefield could have done this, even under ideal circumstances, I will eat my Montreal Expos cap. There are a number of concerning things about his record—and one in particular—that, when added up, show that Wakefield (while still a pretty good player who got kind of shafted) had little chance of becoming the third-tier HOFer his High Cut suggests he could have been.
I’ll start with the “pro” argument before getting to the “con”. Though he would never come close to hitting like he did in 1943-44, over the remainder of his career from 1946 through 1952, Wakefield did produce a career line of .268/.391/.426 for 6.0 WAR. For a so-called bust this is surprisingly good, a 119 OPS+ over 1470 PAs. Unlike a lot of the other players we discuss, he actually out-performed half of his other comps in their post-age 23 careers (Johnny Groth, Heinie Mueller, and Jimmy Bannon, plus Yasiel Puig hasn’t yet put up 6.0 career WAR post-age 23). Some “bust” players end up outperforming their comps because they have a catastrophic injury that stops their career cold, but Wakefield never had a long spell on the DL. Normally if you’re a disappointment, almost all of the other players like you have done better—that’s why you’re a disappointment.
At first blush you’d think that this would be a positive, but rather it suggests that there’s a class of player like him that doesn’t do that well after a great start. It’s worth pointing out that Wakefield showed three of the four canonical “old player skills”, with only a high batting average preventing a clean sweep. Players like that do tend to fade away early. There’s also the fact that Wakefield was 22 when broke through, which is not that young for a truly great player. A similar case closer to the present day would be Ben Grieve, who was widely heralded as the Next Big Thing when he came up with the Athletics twenty years ago. His numbers were not as impressive as Wakefield’s (a 123 OPS+ in his Rookie of the Year campaign) but he had all four old skills and was 22 that year too. The arc of his career was as disappointing as his Tiger counterpart. You can also think of Wakefield as like Wil Myers, though the early returns on 2017 are looking promising for that player.
Outside of his High Cut trio, the rest of Wakefield’s comp list is Mike Donlin and injury-plagued coulda-been Don Mattingly. Interestingly, that means that two of his ten closest comps are famous headcases who could also hit the crap out of the ball, at least for a while: Puig, who I’m quite sure I don’t need to introduce to you, and Donlin, who I can introduce and explain with just two facts: his nickname was “Turkey Mike” and he missed three years of his prime because he wanted to pursue acting. I’m not inclined to put too much into this, though: at this distance it’s hard to tell if Wakefield’s money-related ego stories are true. If anything, the bad-mouthing may even have come from the top: Wakefield was involved in the organizing of a player pension fund, and in 1950 he refused to report to the White Sox after being traded to the Yankees unless the White Sox undid a cut in salary that he’d suffered in New York5. He might as well have been pen pals with Karl Marx.
That said, his personality and the resentment over his rapid rise were another thing working against him, and while they wouldn’t have directly affected his game they do seem to have limited the number of chances he got—consider that after a season of 470 PA in which he had an OPS+ of 130, he only had 166 more PA for the rest of his career, spread over three teams. There was also the Tigers’ disappointment that he wasn’t a superstar. In ’47 and ’48 they used him more often at cleanup than at any other position in the batting order and he “only” slugged about .440 over those seasons. It wasn’t enough, especially for a left fielder, and they soured on him because they had expected more.
His middling power and not the main problem with his bat, however. His big flaw with his bat, and the thing that makes me think he couldn’t have reached his High Cut projection, was his split against left-handed pitching. It was bad: a career .206/.335/.356. Unfortunately, the data for 1943 and ’44 are incomplete, so we don’t really know how well he hit lefties before the war, but certainly after he was a liability. He quickly drifted into a platoon role.
It likely also didn’t help that his key skill post-War was a top-flight batting eye: he had a .412 OBA in 1947 and .406 in 1948. Weirdly, drawing a walk was stigmatized by many baseball people as some kind of moral failure as late as the 1980s. Players like Wakefield felt pressure to “swing the bat” and overcome the perceived flaw
Readers of a certain age can think of him as an “Earl Weaver player”: a hitter that had a few things he could do very well, but who was run down and discarded by his organization because he was expected to do everything well. Weaver loved picking up guys like these on the cheap and would platoon them or otherwise minimize their weaknesses. Not to suggest that having Robinsons Frank and Brooks or Jim Palmer wasn’t important, this was a strategy that helped drive Weaver’s Orioles to many winning seasons. While not as close a match, Billy Beane has a knack for this too, though the Blob-like takeover of roster spots by relief pitchers in recent decades has made it harder to pull off in practice. The point is that, while not superstars, they’re darned useful if you know what to do with them. Many organizations don’t.
And as Wakefield wasn’t a superstar, his collapse at age 30 isn’t too surprising. Many players tail off quite badly when they hit that age, Albert Pujols being the most recent dramatic example6. While the superstars that hit this wall are still able to stick in the majors at their reduced level, those that start at the next notch down often wash out entirely by their early thirties. Given fewer chances to redeem himself for the reasons mentioned earlier, Wakefield played his last game, with the Giants, at 31.
In all, I think that Wakefield actually might have done very well if he came to baseball now: the money’s so good now his bonus would not be an issue with other players, his OBA skill would be highly valued, and teams seem to have a better handle these days on how to keep problematic players focused. Even so, his weakness against lefties looks like a killer. Even with every possible break, he’d be meat for lefty-one-out guys and I’m not sure that any great player ever had such a large weakness in his game. He was a good player, one I’d be glad to have on my team, but if you relied on him to be your #1 guy, you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment. What happened to him after that would be more about you than him, though.
“DICK WAKEFIELD”, New York Times. August 29, 1985.
The Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia, Jim Hawkins, Dan Ewald, and George Van Dusen. Sports Publishing LLC, 2002.
Baseball Between the Lines: Baseball in the Forties and Fifties as Told by the Men who Played it, Donald Honig. University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
For the Good of the Country: World War II Baseball in the Major and Minor Leagues, David Finoli. McFarland, 2002.
- Early versions of the rule started in 1947.
- Wakefield thought of himself as a bit of an oddball too. Later in life he’d tell a story about a game played in Seattle — likely when he was with Oakland in the PCL after his big league career was over as he mention Artie Wilson — where he faked a catch on a home run and then jogged toward the infield nonchalantly until the batter had returned to the dugout. At which point he revealed that he hadn’t caught the ball, but that the batter had to be out because he’d left the field of play.
- Snuffy Stirnweiss led the league in total batting WAR. I know…”who?” Second baseman for the Yankees, played very well while the usual suspects like Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg were off to war, faded badly when they came back.
- Joe Gordon, anyone?
- He was returned to the Yankees, then shipped off to the Pacific Coast League right after.
- If you want some more examples, look up the careers of Frank Thomas, Juan Gonzalez, or Dale Murphy. Thomas stuck around for a while since he was dropping down from such a high level, much like Pujols, while the other two got multiple chances because no-one could believe they were done so quickly. For a player at the next level down who was gone really quick try Howard Johnson.