Going to take the occasion of my return to something like normal around here to write about three players from baseball’s Stone Age that are worth remembering. As you know if you’ve read much of my stuff, I’m concerned that the players who were the foundation of the game are more or less ignored by modern players and fans. Here’s a small chance to recall a few of them.
Tommy Leach got to the Major Leagues with the Giants in 1898, managed to get into no games, and ended up being sent to the Louisville Colonels (then a National League team). When the NL contracted to eight teams from twelve in 1900, Leach and many of his teammates (including Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke) made the trek across Ohio to Pittsburgh and settled in with the Pirates. In 1901 he became the regular Pirates third baseman, hitting .305 with 153 total bases in only 95 games. For the next several years, Leach wandered all over the batting order, sometimes leading off, occasionally hitting third, one year as low as sixth. He finally settled in the two slot and about the same time (1907) became the regular center fielder. He had good speed, a decent arm, and range and was to remain in center through 1911, when he suffered a series of injuries. In 1912, he went to the Cubs in a trade. He stayed with Chicago through 1914, when to Cincinnati in 1915, then was out of the majors. He made a brief comeback in 1918, a war year (World War I), playing 30 games as a backup outfielder for the Pirates. He was 40 and done. He hung on in the minors for a while, but settled finally in Florida, where he managed a few years in the Florida State League. He died in 1969, the last surviving Pirate from the 1903 World Series.
For his career Leach hit .270 with a .371 slugging percentage. He had 2947 total bases, including 170 triples, 23rd on the all-time list. He led the NL in home runs in 1902 with all of six, and in triples the same year. Of his 63 home runs, 49 are of the inside-the-park variety, which is second ever (Sam Crawford had 51). In both 1909 and 1913, he led the league in runs scored. In the 1903 World Series, he scored the first ever run (0ff Cy Young). For the Series he hit .273 with a series leading four triples and seven RBIs. In the 1909 World Series he led all hitter with a .360 average, four doubles, eight runs, and nine hits. The eight runs in 1909 ties him with a number of others for most runs in a seven game series and the four triples in 1903 is still the all-time record for triples in a World Series.
Leach did all this while standing only 5’6″ and weighing 135 pounds, making him one of the smallest players of his era. Having seen pictures of him, I’m guessing the weigh-in was done after a meal of at least two steaks and three deserts. (Geez, he’s tiny, especially when you see him standing next to Wagner–who was a huge man for the era.) You know you can make a pretty good team of small men. Leach, Johnny Evers (who may have been even smaller than Leach), David Eckstein, Mel Ott, Albie Pearson, and Bobby Schantz give you a pretty fair team to start.
Leach was never a big star in his own day. He had the problem of playing on the same team with Wagner, Clarke, Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Sam Leever, and Jesse Tannehill. All were arguably better players. Each was certainly more well-known in their era. It’s fitting we remember him with them. He was a major part of what made that Pirate engine run.