Ernie, Bubbles, and the King

It’s really hard not to like Joe Mauer. He’s a heck of a hitter, he’s a darned fine catcher, and he seems to be a good teammate and a thoroughly likeable human being. He’s now won three American League batting titles. No other AL catcher ever won even a single batting title. The National League’s batting title has been owned by a catcher three times and, depending on how you look at it, one possible. Here’s a very brief look at the men who, other than Joe Mauer, have won batting titles while spending much of their time behind the plate.

Ernie Lombardi

Ernie Lombardi won National League batting titles in 1938 with Cincinnati and again in 1942 with the New York Giants. Lombardi was a big, largely immobile catcher who could hit a ton and ran like a turtle. He’s sometimes regarded as the slowest man to ever play Major League baseball. A joke attributed to Dizzy Dean goes that Lombardi was so slow that he could turn a triple into a close play at first. Maybe, but he did have 27 triples during his career (mostly played in Crosley Field and the Polo Grounds, both of which had huge outfields). For his career he hit .306 with 190 home runs, a .460 slugging percentage, and 1792 hits over 1853 games. On the field he’s probably best known for being bowled over by Charlie Keller during the final game of the 1939 World Series. Unable to get up (the reason tends to change with the author who’s telling it), he let two more runs score before being able to regain his balance and senses. He took a lot of heat for the play, but the series was a Yankees sweep. He was part of the 1940 World Series champion Reds and made the Hall of Fame in 1986. There’s a nice fairly detailed biography of him in Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract. And before someone asks, as far as I know he is not related to the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi.

Bubbles Hargrave

Bubbles Hargrave was another Reds catcher who won the batting title, this time in 1926, breaking Rogers Hornsby’s string of six straight. For his career he hit .310 with 29 home runs, 786 hits, in 852 games. His batting title was controversial because he only had 326 at bats in 1926. He hit .353 and had only 115 hits in 105 games. Today he wouldn’t qualify for the batting title, but under the rules in play in 1926 he was the winner and I see no reason to dispute his title. For the rest of his career his highest average was .333 in 1923 when he managed to lead the league in being hit by a pitch (12 times). He led the NL in fielding percentage one time and seems to have been a serviceable catcher. He died in 1969.

King Kelly

All the way back in 1886 Mike “King ” Kelly led the NL in hitting at .388.  He also led the league in runs that season with 155 and in slugging at .483.  Kelly was a sometime catcher who played 56 games in the outfield in 1886, 53 behind the plate, and a handful in the infield. Beginning in 1888 he started catching more often than he played any other position. Prior to 1888 he spent more time in the outfield than behind the plate. Usually as a player ages he spends less time catching and more time in the outfield.. Kelly does it the other way. I’m not sure what that says about Kelly or about the catching position in 1880s baeball. For his career he hit .308 with 69 home runs, 1813 hits, a .438 slugging percentage in 1455 games. He also spent 750 games in the outfield and 583 catching, with 277 everywhere else (including 12 pitching performances). He made the Hall of Fame in 1945. He’s generally not considered a catcher when his batting title is discussed. I’ll let you decide what you think.

So there they are, the catchers not named Joe Mauer who have won a batting title. Two of them (counting Kelly as a catcher if you desire) are Hall of Famers. That seems to bode well for Mauer.

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One Response to “Ernie, Bubbles, and the King”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Mauer is the best of a new young group of catchers that could rival the great catchers of the ’70’s. Others are Brian McCann of Atlanta (All-Star Game MVP). Rookies Buster Posey of San Fran and Carlos Martinez of Cleveland, and Matt Wieters of Baltimore also have bright futures.
    The only thing that might change the way we look at Mauer is that there has been a lot of talk about moving him over to first base in a few years. He’s big and tall, and injury prone behind the plate. If he goes over to first, it could hurt his stature in the eyes of HOF voters, since first base is always a deep position.
    Interesting post, Bill

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