Back when I first became interested in studying baseball, rather than merely watching the game, I had (and still have to some extent) a love of the 1929-1931 Philadelphia Athletics. They were a great team that managed to sideline the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees for three seasons and were an interesting bunch in and of themselves. But I wondered about something. I couldn’t quite understand why, on a team full of excellent players, Max Bishop led off.
Bishop was born in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania in 1899. He was a good amateur player who moved to Baltimore at age 14 and caught the attention of the minor league Baltimore Orioles who signed him as a third baseman in 1918. While playing for the birds in the summer, he attended Baltimore City College in the fall and spring, playing second base for the college team. In 1919, the Orioles switched him to second also.
His play with Baltimore was good enough that both the A’s and the Boston Red Sox were interested in obtaining him. The Athletics landed him in late 1923 and he began the 1924 season as their primary second baseman. He developed rapidly a great batting eye (hence the nickname “Camera Eye”) and moved to lead off for Philadelphia, a position in the batting order he held for most of his career. He usually hit in the .270 to .250 range, once getting into the .300s and once dropping as low as .230. He had no power, little speed (his top stolen base total was 10 in 1928), but with the power hitters Connie Mack had behind him, he was never going to be asked to steal a lot of bases. He walked a lot, having more than 100 bases on balls in eight of 12 campaigns (and 80 or more two other times). He was a decent second baseman, never among the top fielding men in the American League, but a solid middle of the pack keystone player (although he did win three fielding percentage titles).
In the glory years of 1929-1931 he was a major contributor to the team, but hardly a star. He had 10 home runs in the inflated air of 1930, led the AL in walks in 1929, scored over 100 runs each year (and also in 1928), and had 150 or more total bases each year. In his three World Series appearances he hit only .182, but had 12 walks, and scored 11 runs. His World Series OBP was .316.
With the team floundering and cash running out, Mack sold Bishop to Boston (the Red Sox, not the Braves) in 1934 (along with Lefty Grove and Rube Walberg). He played two final years in Boston, never getting into 100 games, and in 1936 moved to Portland to become player-manager of the Pacific Coast League team. He got hurt, couldn’t play second, and was fired in May. He played a few games with Baltimore, then became a scout, managed a little, then took over the baseball team at the Naval Academy. He stayed there 24 years, putting up winning season after winning season. He retired after the 1961 season and died in February 1962. He is buried in Baltimore.
For his career Bishop has the following triple slash line: .271/.423/.366/.789 (OPS+ of 103. In 1338 games he had 1216 hits, 236 doubles, 35 triples, 41 home runs, for 1645 total bases. He had 379 RBIs, 40 stolen bases (and was caught stealing 51 times), 1156 walks (about .86 per game), and only 452 strikeouts. He’s never gotten much support for the Hall of Fame, peaking at 1.9% of the vote in 1960.
Bishop, to answer my childhood question, led off because he got on base a lot. He had a very good On Base Percentage, a statistic I’d never heard of at the time. Hidden in his lack of power, speed, and high average was the ability to draw a walk and get on base in front of the big guns of Al Simmons and Jimmie Foxx hitting behind him. It was a successful formula that helped Philadelphia to three pennants and two World Series championships.