Where’s a DH When You Need One?

Levi Meyerle

Throughout its history, baseball has been full of really good players who had bad gloves, or in the case of earliest baseball, bad hands. These guys still get jobs because they can hit anything thrown at them. One of the earliest of these was Levi Meyerle.

Meyerle was born in 1849 in Philadelphia and rose to prominence as an amateur in late 1860s Philadelphia baseball. He was considered a fine batter, but was something of a liability in the field (which is a gross understatement). He played for the local Athletics team in 1869 as a professional and moved to Chicago for the 1870 season.

In 1871 the National Association of Profession Base Ball Players was formed and Meyerle went back to Philly to star for his hometown team. Taking over as the primary third baseman, Meyerle led the team to the Association title in 1871. The title was disputed because of some ties and a team being thrown out of the league, but the league owners declared the Athletics the winner. There was no disputing Meyerle’s greatness with a bat. He hit .492 with an OPB of .500, a slugging average of .700, and an OPS of 1.200 (OPS+ of 237). He led the Association in all those categories plus in home runs, total bases, and was second in hits, and third in RBIs. Now all of this was in a  full season that lasted 26 games. He also played a horrendous third base. His fielding percentage at third was .646 (I didn’t think it was possible to have that low a percentage) with a ranger factor of 3.15 (which ain’t good for a third baseman).

All this got him another job in 1872. With that bat Philly hung on to him in both 1872 and 1873 but stuck him in the outfield for ’72. He was terrible and went back to third for ’73, where his fielding percentage jumped all the way to .746. But with his bat, it didn’t matter. He hit .329 in 1872, .349 in 1873, and continued to be one of the half-dozen or so best hitters in the Association. In 1874 he went to Chicago where the change of team rejuvenated him. He hit an Association leading .394, had an OBP of .401, a slugging percentage of .488, an OPS of .889, and an OPS+ of 181. All except the slugging percentage led the Association. The slugging percentage was third and he was second in home runs.  He split time between second and third showing a fielding percentage of .833 at second and .671 at third (apparently someone still thought he could play third). This time he played 53 games. Back with Philly in 1875 he had another good year before the Association folded.

The Athletics joined the new National League in 1876, staying most of one year before being tossed out. Meyerle hit .340 in 55 games, had an OPS+ of 159, and still couldn’t field the ball, but he was getting better at third. His fielding percentage went up to .791. With Philly out of the league in 1877, he played for Cincinnati, hit .327, slugged .430 and moved to second and shortstop where he finally got his fielding percentage over .800.

In 1878 he played for Springfield, Massachusetts and for the Washington Nationals (not the current team) in 1879. In 1880 he was with Rochester in a newly minted National Association. Although his numbers are incomplete, it’s evident that Meyerle was fading by the 1880 stint in Rochester. All three were “minor” league teams at the time and Meyerle’s presence in them points up a difference between 1870s baseball and the modern game. The National League had not yet established itself as the premier league in the sport so great players were spending significant amounts of time in what you and I would consider lower levels of the game (see the earlier article on Cal McVey, who went to California). At the time, that simply wasn’t the way it was seen. They were playing the game at a high level and some teams of the era were as good as some of the National League teams (certainly as good as some of the weaker NL teams). So it’s not like Meyerle is being sent “down” to the minors as we think of it today, but rather that he is still playing top-notch baseball.

He got back to a Major League (sort of) in 1884 when he played three games with the Union Association’s Keystones (of Philadelphia). He was 35, went 1 for 11 (a double), and retired. He lived until 1921 when he died in Philadelphia. He’s buried there.

For an eight year career Meyerle hit .356 with an OBP of .360, a slugging percentage of .479, and an OPS of .839 (and OPS+ of 162). His raw numbers show 513 hits, 86 of them doubles, 31 triples, and 10 home runs, for 691 total bases. He scores 306 runs and knocks in 278. Altogether he plays in 307 games in both the Association and NL.

As usual for a player in Meyerle’s era his percentages look much better than his raw totals. Much of that has to do with the shortness of the season. Part of it is also the relative significance of the “minor” leagues of the era. The International League and the Pacific Coast League are considered in the era (but not today) as equally important leagues with the NL and players moving there were advancing their careers, not fading away as would be the case today. Again, I have to emphasize the rules differences also matter.

But if there was ever a player destined to serve as a designated hitter, it’s Meyerle. In an era when fielding numbers were awful anyway, his are downright hideous. Wonder if anyone thought about a DH way back then? If they did, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t Meyerle’s manager. But as a hitter he’s first-rate for his era.

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