Chuck Klein has one of those wonderful baseball stories that they used to make movies about, you know, back when you could make movies about people who didn’t wear capes. Klein grew up on a corn farm just outside of Indianapolis. He was a disinterested student and a good baseball player, a path which led him to a grueling job at the Chapman-Prico Steel Mill and a cherished spot on the local semi-pro baseball team.
He was playing one day when a Prohibition officer (and former truant officer) named Adolph Stahlman happened to see him play. Stahlman, best i can tell, has no history or experience as a baseball scout. But he was impressed and he good friends with the owner of the Evansville, Ind. baseball team. Stahlman passed along word, and Klein was signed making Chuck Klein the only Hall of Famer in baseball history to be scouted by a Prohibition officer.
Klein went to Evansville and hit pretty well, well enough that he was sold to Fort Wayne in the Central League. He hit really well there. Fort Wayne was a Cardinals affiliate then in large part because basically every other minor league team was a Cardinals affiliate. This was the work of Branch Rickey, who spent a lifetime five steps ahead of everybody else in the game. Rickey was so far ahead, in fact, that the Cardinals owned TWO TEAMS in the Central League, a clear violation of the rules. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis caught the Cardinals and made them Fort Wayne sell every player.
Rickey knew that the one valuable player on that Fort Wayne team was Chuck Klein, and he undoubtedly tried to figure out a way for the Cardinals to keep him. When that became impossible, he quietly sent word about Klein to the Philadelphia Phillies because of his lifelong affinity for their manager, Kindly Old Burt Shotton.*
*If you have read “The Boys of Summer” or are an aficionado of the curmudgeonly sportswriter Dick Young, you know that Young would call Shotton “KOBS” which stood for Kindly Old Burt Shotton. Every letter of KOBS dripped with sarcasm.
But if you look back through the newspapers of th etime, it is ASTONISHING how often the word “kindly” appears in reference to Burt Shotton. “Kindly Ol’ Burt.” … “Shotton, usually pictured as a gentle and kindly man” … “lovable, kindly Burt” … “A kindly family man” … “the man they call ‘kindly old Burt Shotton'” … “that kindly gentleman” … “The kindly and lovable Burt Shotton” … there are literally hundreds of these references, and they are for the most part NOT sarcastic.
In the official transactions, Fort Wayne is credited with trading Klein to the Phillies in exchange for someone named Harvey McDonald. A minor-league-Major-League trade is fun!
The Phillies were only purportedly Major League. They were the joke of the National League at the time. They’d had a losing record for 10 straight years, finishing last in six of them. This is a rabbit hole for another day, but from 1918 to 1948, the Philadelphia Phillies only once had a winning record. That’s an astonishing three decades of awfulness. Klein arrived much like Roy Hobbs did for the hapless New York Knights, and he immediately reported to kindly old Mr. Shotton.
“They tell me you can hit,” Shotton said. “God knows we need hitters. We need everything.”
Shotton put Klein into the game a pinch-hitter the day he arrived. Shotton started him the next day. And Chuck Klein could hit. Really hit. From 1929 to 1933, Chuck Klein hit .359/.414/.636. He led the league in homers four times, in doubles twice, in runs three times, in slugging three times, in total bases four times, and he won a batting title. He won a triple crown too. In 1929, his first full season in the big leagues, he set the National League home run record at 43. They called him the National League’s Babe Ruth. Those five extraordinary seasons would eventually get Chuck Klein into the Hall of Fame.
The point of this post is to talk about Chuck Klein and the Hall of Fame. As the title suggests, this will intersect with Larry Walker a bit later (Mel Ott also plays a small role), but mostly it is about Chuck Klein.
The baseball history fans among you already know a lot of this; Klein is among the most controversial players in the Hall of Fame. There are certainly lesser players in the Hall, but Klein’s hot button is that many believe he’s an inner-circle Hall of Famer because of his extraordinary five years (he still holds THREE fairly significant records that we’ll get to in a second) while many others believe he has no business whatsoever in Cooperstown.
What’s particularly interesting is that upon his immediate retirement, almost nobody thought Klein belonged in the Hall of Fame. He was, at his retirement, one of only seven players to have hit 300 home runs, and the other six made up a Who’s Who of Baseball: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons and Rogers Hornsby. He had a lifetime .320 average.
And then there are those three records that still stand:
- In 1932, he became the only player since Deadball to lead the league in home runs and stolen bases in the same season. Willie Mays led the league in homers four times and stolen bases four times but never in th e same year — Mays is the only other player to lead the league in homers and stolen bases in an entire career.
- In 1930, Klein got a hit in 135 games. Yes, it’s an odd record, but it’s still astounding that with the expanded season no one has broken it. Wade Boggs in 1985, Derek Jeter in 1999 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 all matched the record of 135 games with a hit, but they did it in 162-game seasons. During that season, by the way, Klein had two 26-game, two 14-game, and one 13-game hitting streaks.
- In 1930, Klein had 44 outfield assists, which isn’t just a record, it’s miles ahead of anybody else. Nobody will ever come close to that. We’ll get back to that one.
Despite all this, Klein’s Hall of Fame case was basically dead on arrival. He first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1948. He got three votes. Three. Sure, it was a loaded ballot (52 future Hall of Famers were on it) but three? Klein got fewer votes than 43 players including non-Hall of Famers Stuffy McInnis, Jimmy Dykes and Charlie Grimm.
Over the next couple of years, his vote total went up to 14, which is still bordering on irrelevant, but ihe could not even sustain that total and he dropped to 11 the next year. Klein had five seasons that are virtually unprecedented in modern baseball history. He’d done things nobody had ever done before (and wouldn’t do again). And the collective yawn was the Grand Canyon.
If you know your baseball history a little, you know exactly why all this is true: For those five years, Chuck Klein played his home games in a circus ballpark called the Baker Bowl. How crazy was the Baker Bowl? You know how now today a tiny ballpark might be called a “bandbox.” The Baker Bowl was the original bandbox. People actually called it ‘The Band Box,” or “The Cigar Box.” It was a box where the long sides of the rectangle pointed out to left field. Right field was, plainly ridiculous.
How ridiculous? It was 280 feet down the right-field line. More to the point, it was 300 feet to left-center. And Chuck Klein was a left-handed pull hitter.
“Some critics have averred that Babe Ruth would hit a hundred home runs a year if he played at the Baker Bowl,” one sportswriter wrote in 1931. ” Because Klein has the advantage of hitting in this park 77 games of the season, smart baseball men are not inclined to rate him as highly as might be expected from his hitting records.”
This was 40 years before Bill James started writing at length about park effects, but the Baker Bowl was so obviously freakish, that even in his time as lot people were calling bull on Chuck Klein.
Klein, by the way, didn’t buy any of it. He didn’t buy that the dimensions of the Baker Bowl had ANYTHING to do with his record-setting home run numbers, his triple crown, his crazy-high batting average. When asked to explain why he hit so well at the Baker Bowl, he explained that it had the game’s best background for hitters …
“That must be a lot of hooey,” Klein responded to the criticism. “I can’t believe it, although like every other player, I make my best average playing at home. That’s only natural when you consider we play 77 games at the Baker Bowl … you get more used to the background at the home park, and that makes it easier to pick out the ball and wallop it.”
Boy do I love how old ballplayers used to talk.
Home/road splits were unavailable in those days. Sometimes, reporters would keep them by hand for a few weeks, but they usually lost interest. So people knew that Klein hit better at the Baker Bowl, but they were not generally aware of how much better.
How big a difference was it, anyway?
Home: .391/.434/.734, 25 homers, 78 RBIs, 64 runs
Road: .321/.382/.583, 18 homers, 67 RBIs, 61 runs
— This was the year Klein set the National League home run record, and this year he has a reasonable argument that the Baker Bowl effect wasn’t that big. Klein hit for a much higher batting average with a few more home runs at home, yes, but he was right to say that most hitters are better at home. Anyway, he was really good on the road too.
Home: .437/.482/.792, 26 homers, 109 RBIs, 91 runs
Road: .332/.391/.578, 14 homers, 61 RBIs, 67 runs
— This seems a bit less reasonable. Klein scored 91 of his NL record 158 runs at home. He drove in 109 of his 170 RBIs at home. Klein’s road numbers are still good … but even that should be taken with a grain of salt. Remember, 1930 was baseball’s silly season, the year the whole league hit .300, the year Hack Wilson drove in 191 RBIs, etc.
Home: .401/.465/.740, 22 homers, 78 RBIs, 80 runs
Road: .269/.327/.421, 9 homers, 43 RBIs, 41 runs
— And now we’re things are beginning to come off the rails. Klein was a below average hitter on the road, and 1941 Ted Williams at home.
Home: .423/.464/.799, 29 homers, 97 RBIs, 92 runs
Road: .266/.340/.481, 9 homers, 40 RBIs, 61 runs
— This was Klein’s MVP season. This is one of the most insane splits in baseball history.
Home: .467/.516/.789, 20 homers, 81 RBIs, 62 runs
Road: .280/.338/.436, 8 homers, 49 RBIs, 39 runs
— This was the year Klein won the Triple Crown. It’s easier to win a triple crown when you hit .467 at home.
Those five seasons more or less make up the bulk of Chuck Klein’s Hall of Fame case. He was a good player for a couple of years with the Cubs, probably every bit as good, but his numbers changed drastically. He hit .301 and .293 his two full seasons with the Cubs when Wrigley Field was his home park. He hit 20 and 21 home runs. Fine years. Chuck Klein was a good ballplayer. Only in the Baker Bowl was he great.
In all, he hit 123 of his 180 homers at home. He hit .424 at the Baker Bowl and .294 on the road. That must have been one heck of a hitting background they had at the Baker Bowl.
The Hall of Famer voters saw that right away. They saw him as a creature of the Baker Bowl. Klein would have an occasional boost of momentum. For a time in the mid-1950s, Klein’s percentage raised into the high 20s; this is because of what you might call “The Mel Ott gambit.”
There were really four quote-unquote great left-handed hitters in the National League in the 1930s — Klein, Paul Waner, Bill Terry and Mel Ott. The other three were voted into the Hall more or less immediately while Klein got almost no support. And of the those three, Ott was considered the greatest (because he WAS the greatest).
A handful of Klein boosters focused on Ott. Sure, his numbers were extraordinary … but he played half his games in the Polo Grounds. And the fence down the right-field line at the Polo Grounds was only 257 feet from home plate, much shorter even than the Baker Bowl.
So, the question went, how did Mel Ott breeze into the Hall of Fame while Chuck Klein waited helplessly?
This actually was a pretty dumb question. Even if you say that the Polo Grounds was as comical as the Baker Bowl, Mel Ott was still twice the ballplayer Chuck Klein was (more than twice if you compare Wins Above Replacement).
But the question turned out to be dumber than that because the Polo Grounds was patently NOT the hitters park that the Baker Bowl was. The Polo Grounds was actually A PITCHER’S PARK. Yes, it’s true, the stadium had that preposterously short fence down the right field line. But unlike the Baker Bowl, where the fance was a straight line, the Polo Grounds jutted out so that right-center was a preposterous 449 feet from home plate.
Yes, Ott did yank a lot of homers down the line — he hit 323 of his 511 home runs in the Polo Grounds, as the Klein supporters often pointed out. What they did not point out was the Ott was actually a BETTER HITTER on the road. The Polo Grounds hurt him at least as much as it helped him.
Take 1931. Yes, Ott hit 20 of his 29 homers at home. He also hit .349 on the road and .233 in the Polo Grounds.
In 1932, it was similar. He hit 24 of his 38 homers at home. He hit 60 points better on the road.
And so on. This gap was more-or-less there every year. For his career, Ott hit .297 at home, .311 on the road. If he hit 63% of his home runs at home, well, he also hit 63% of his doubles on the road. He had 72 triples in his career — 51 of them away from the Polo Grounds. Mel Ott was Mel Ott wherever he played.
The same isn’t true for Chuck Klein.
The Mel Ott gambit didn’t really work. There was a last-ditch effort for Klein in 1968, but it crashed at 28% of the vote, and Klein was off the ballot, seemingly lost.
Lost, maybe. But he was not forgotten. You have heard the last few years how the relentless enthusiasm of superfans can help players get into the Hall of Fame. There were several such fans for Jim Rice. A fan and writer named Rich Lederer just kept hammering everybody with Bert Blyleven stuff, and the stuff was so logical and persuasive that Blyleven (against pretty severe odds) was elected. My friends Jonah Keri and Tom Tango — with Jonah playing the lead — were pivotal in the election last year of Tim Raines.
Well, Chuck Klein, certainly without ever knowing it (he died in 1958), inspired two such superfans, who simply would not give up the dream. The first was a high school English teacher, basketball coach and Philadelphia character named Ed Doyle. Everybody called him Dutchy. He grew up, as he often said, “right back of third base at the Baker Bowl,” and he was deeply committed baseball fan. Dutchy was outraged that Chuck Klein was not in the Hall. And he decided to do something about it.
“I made a pest of myself in a lot of places,” Dutchy would say, “But I wasn’t going to back off.”
There was no subtlety in Dutchy’s case. He came at people hard with blunt (and misleading) statistical arguments. Triple crown! A .320 average! Hit 300 homers! Dutchy DID NOT CARE about the Baker Bowl’s dimensions, refused to buy into that argument for one minute. He sent these simplistic but pointed arguments to every single Hall of Fame voter or influential baseball figure he could find, all the way up to the commissioner’s office (Bowie Kuhn knew him by name). He had his English students write Chuck Klein letters as assignments, which they would also send out. Later, Dutchy met Klein’s sister-in-law and together they wrote more than 1,000 more letters.
When Chuck Klein made ito the Hall of Fame, Dutchy had a special T-shirt made and brought a group of 42 to Cooperstown to celebrate.
The second Klein disciple was not quite as passionate but he played an even larger role. Allen Lewis was an influential Philadelphia sportswriter for a half-century. He was a beloved figure and a nationally renowned expert of baseball’s rules. He, like Dutchy, was entirely convinced that Klein belonged in the Hall of Fame and took it as a personal affront that others could not see it.
Lewis, at first, tried to pound people with the Klein achievements and statistics, but he soon realized that was a dead-end. Klein’s problem, Lewis realized, was that people already accepted the numbers as Hall of Fame worthy. What they did not accept, however, was the authenticity of those numbers. Klein’s numbers could have been 50% better, and it still would not have mattered.
We see this all the time now with the PEDs. You can’t win the Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens argument by telling people about their amazing stats because many don’t think the numbers are genuine. The irony is that the BETTER the statistics, the LESS many people believe them. Mark McGwire hit 583 home runs and never got 25% of the vote. If he had 683 homers or 783 homers or 883 homers, it would have been the same thing.
LASZLO: Are you enough of a businessman to appreciate an offer of a hundred thousand francs?
RICK: I appreciate it, but I don’t accept.
LASZLO: I’ll raise it to two hundred thousand.
RICK: My friend, you could make it a million francs, or three, and my answer would still be the same.
This is where Larry Walker comes in. I have been one of a group of people pushing Walker’s Hall of Fame case. He has a superb Hall of Fame case statistically — .313/.400/.565, three-time batting champ, MVP, 73 wins above replacement — and you can see that he had a stretch just that’s pretty similar to Chuck Klein:
Klein from 1929-1933:359/.414/.636, 232 doubles, 46 triples, 180 HRs, 51 stolen bases
Walker from 1992-2002: .353/.441/.648, 214 doubles, 25 triples, 182 HRs, 83 stolen bases.
But with Walker, like with Klein, many find those numbers inauthentic. Coors Field was entirely different from the Baker Bowl — Coors is enormous because of the way the ball carries at altitude — but just as hitter friend. So, the stat argument doesn’t break through.
Lewis cleverly turned the tables. Instead of talking about Klein’s numbers, he began talking about Klein’s completeness as a ballplayer.
“Klein could do the four things that make superstars,” Lewis wrote. “He could run, throw, hit and hit with power. … It’s difficult to imagine what else is needed to qualify the greatest hitter in the history of the Phillies for admission to Cooperstown.”
To pull off this argument, Lewis turned to one of those three records listed above — the outfield assist record Klein set in 1930. He played that up to show what an extraordinary arm Klein had. After all, what could an extraordinary outfield assist record have to do with the Baker Bowl?
Answer: Everything. Klein was playing right field, and you know how tiny the right field at the Baker Bowl was. Klein was the playing more or less where second basemen play on the shift. Because of this, x-number of those 44 assists were merely him playing very shallow and throwing to first to beat the runner. We don’t know how many of these he pulled off, but it must have been a few — we know he almost threw out Rabbit Maranville at first, at which point Maranville “wiggled his ears at Chuck and laughed.”
Lewis didn’t need to go into all those details. He played up the all-around brilliance of Klein. It was a smart choice, and Klein began to get some momentum in the 1970s. Almost 40 years later, I admit trying to pull off the same judo move with Walker. I feel SURE that Walker really was a great all-around player (it’s less clear with Klein) and that is the best way to present his Hall of Fame case.
In the end, Klein had something that Walker does not: Allen Lewis became a member of the Hall of Fame’s veteran’s committee in 1979. One year later, the committee voted in Chuck Klein.
Maybe someday I can be on the veteran’s committee.
* * *
Rabbit Hole Leftovers!
I love this headline that I ran across:
First of all, “Portsider” is just an awesome name for left-handed pitchers, and I am firmly in favor of bringing the term back.
In that artcile, Klein basically said that lefty pitchers are harder to hit when you’re a lefty hitter. This story is from 1931, and they played it up like this is newsworthy. So was this around the time that the whole lefty-lefty thing became obvious to people? Or was this just blindingly obvious in 1931 also but the newspapers decided to play up because, well, there were pages to fill?
The second story is even better.
A few things here. One, I love that Klein became the “assistant manager” of the downtown bowling alley. I wonder if he was actually the assistant to the manager.
Second, it’s great that they thought working in the bowling would keep Klein in strong playing condition.
Third, I just had a great conversation with Steve Stone about the old Cedar Center Bowling Alley in Cleveland where both of us basically learned how to bowl.
Fourth … Not too long ago I wrote a story I once wrote about a bowling alley, and I had an outraged woman call me; she was furious that I used the term “bowling alley.” She thought I was a bowling hater (I was RAISED on bowling) and wanted me to know that “alley” is a pejorative term and bowling alleys should, in fact, be called bowling CENTERS.
I was properly respectful to the woman. I am always eager to call everything by their right name. I am easily embarrassed if I use an out-of-date term or if I say something that was once mainstream but can now be taken wrong — my daughters correct me on this fairly often. I always try to keep up with the times.
But it will be a cold day in hell before I EVER call a bowling alley a bowling center.