When I was growing up second base was frequently refered to as the keystone, a word you don’t hear much today. That had to do with the fact that you could score fairly easily from second on a clean base hit (unless Roberto Clemente was in right field), so second was the base everyone wanted to be standing on. I think that kind of mentality helped lead to the increased running game of the 1960s. I don’t know how much emphasis should be put on it, but I think it helped.
I’ve always been a bit surprised at how hard it is to define a second baseman. When I was a kid there was a saying that went around about how you decided who played each position. The catcher was the smartest, the pitcher had the most control, the right fielder the best arm, the center fielder was fastest, the shortstop the most agile, the third baseman the quickest, the first baseman the best catcher, the second baseman had the quickest feet, and the other guy played left field. I’ve seen and heard various versions of this over the years, but they all seem to bring second base down to feet (as opposed to short and third which imply something just a little more than feet). That seems to indicate that either the ability to turn a double play is paramount or that they can get to the ball quickly.
Of course none of that has a thing to do with how well you hit the ball. And second base seems to be unable to define just how important that is to the position. For a number of years in the Nineteenth Century, second was primarily a fielding position, then in the early Twentieth it became more of a hitting position, back to a fielding position for a few years in the late 1920′s, then back again to hitting in the 1930′s, and so on for the entire history of the professional game. In the mid-1980′s it was considered a fielding position which seems to have led to the silly idea that Cubs’ second baseman Ryne Sandberg should hit second and first baseman Mark Grace should hit third (instead of the other way around).
Sandberg/Grace is merely one example of the problem. What I want to do over the next few posts is to look at second base. I want to trace its evolution (and frequent return to its roots) and look at some of the people who made the position what it is today. We’ll see how it turns out.