Building a Winner: Worse

Dolph Camilli

Dolph Camilli

As bad as the 1937 Brooklyn Dodgers were, the 1938 version was even worse. They dropped all the way to seventh in 1938 going 69-80 to finish 18.5 games back (which is actually closer than in 1937–the ’37 Giants  won 95 games, the ’38 Cubs only 89). Their Pythagorean said they should have finished 74-75, so they underperformed. In hitting they finished sixth in most categories but first in stolen bases and walks. In fact they had 611 walks and only 615 strikeouts for the season (and if you exclude pitchers they actually walked more than they struck out), which helped them to second in OBP. The pitching was also bad. The staff consistently finished about sixth in most categories coming in high in shutouts (3rd) and having the third lowest walk total. Even Hilda Chester might have had trouble rooting for this team.

But a couple of significant changes occurred. First, Dolph Camilli came over from Philadelphia. He posted 24 home runs and 100 RBIs, both of which easily led the team. His 118 walks also led the team (as did his 101 strikeouts). His OPS and OPS+ also led the Dodgers, while his WAR was second on the team (but first among position players). He replaced Bud Hassett at first, but Hassett moved to the outfield replacing Heinie Manush (who got into 17 games), so effectively Camilli replaced Manush. Manush hit for a much higher average in 1937 than did Camilli in 1938, but had only about half the WAR and drove in 73 with four home runs. The other big infield change saw Leo Durocher take over at short. Durocher’s numbers weren’t better than Woody English who’d held down shortstop in 1937, but Durocher became team captain and brought a new competitive attitude to the team. Also in the infield Cookie Lavagetto moved from second to third and John Hudson replaced him at second. Lavagetto replaed Joe Stripp making Hudson essentially Stripp’s replacement. Hudson’s OPS+ and WAR weren’t very good, but they were better than Stripp.

The outfield was entirely different. The aforementioned Hassett was now on one corner. Goody Rosen took another and former college football standout Ernie Koy had the final position. Koy almost hit .300 and his 11 home runs were second on the team, as were the 76 RBIs.

The bench was long in 1938. Merv Shea and Gilly Campbell were the backup catchers while former backup Roy Spencer got into only 16 games. The 1937 starting shortstop Woody English now rode the pine and Pete Coscaret was pushing Hudson for more time at second. Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler was, along with Tuck Stainback, the primary backup outfielder. He was 39 but could still hit in the .270s. Other than Cuyler they didn’t do much.

The battery consisted of Babe Phelps behind the plate and nine primary pitchers. Phelps hit .300 with no power and 1.7 WAR (that was eighth on the team). The primary starters were three holdovers from 1937: Luke Hamlin, Fred Fitzsimmons, and Van Mungo (of Van Lingle Mungo song fame). Fitzsimmons’ 4.4 WAR led the team and Hamlin’s 3.4 was third. The new guy was Bill Posedel who poured kerosene on an already combustible staff by going 8-9 with an ERA north of five. The bullpen (those with 20 or more games pitched) saw Fred Frankhouse as a leftover from 1937 and Tot Presnell, Vito Tamulis, and Max Butcher as the new guys. Both Tamulis and Presnell posted ERA+ number above 100.

Part of the problem lay with manager Burleigh Grimes. Essentially everyone knew he was a lame duck and his authority in the clubhouse waned. He’d been a good pitcher for a long time (eventually making the Hall of Fame) but wasn’t much of a manager. He came immediately into conflict with Durocher who, it was assumed, was manager-in-waiting. It didn’t help team chemistry.

There was one significant off field addition also. In 1939 Larry McPhail became President and General Manager of the Dodgers. He would change the culture of the team greatly.

So where were we when 1938 came to a close? Much of the infield was in place. Camilli was at first and Lavagetto at third. Both were playing well. Durocher was at short, but would leave the position after the end of the season to become manager. Neither the 1941 outfielders nor the catcher were yet in place. The pitching staff was beginning to add the first parts of the pennant winning group in holdovers Fitzsimmons and Hamlin, but the mainstays of the 1941 staff were still missing. Much of this would change in 1939, making it a key year in the rebuilding process.



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6 Responses to “Building a Winner: Worse”

  1. glen715 Says:

    It saddens me that my grandfather (my father’s father from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, not my mother’s father from Conway, Pennsylvania) and I never talked much about the Brooklyn Dodgers. I never asked them about them. All I know about the relationship between the Dodgers and Grandpa was an intense one. Everybody who lived in Brooklyn (with a few exceptions, I’m sure) loved the Dodgers. It gave Brooklyn an identity that it would never again have. And my aunt tells me that when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, Grandpa was extremely angry, which was natural. Even though he had moved to the Bronx by this time after marrying Grandma, he had felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley, by Mayor Wagner, and by others who could have kept the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

    But all that I talked about with my grandfather, in terms of baseball, was the Mets at a given present time, how much we hated one Lloyd Nolan Ryan (who was so wild while with the Mets, and we feared every time Gil Hodges waved him in from relief with runners on base), how much we loved Tom Seaver, how much he hated Phil Rizzuto more than anyone else associated with the Yankees (he would rant about how much he hated Rizzuto, saying what a “coward” he was and how Rizzuto was “afraid of everything” such as even when a mosquito flew into the broadcasting booth, but he never really enunciated why he had such intense HATRED for the man. I have a feeling it was because he replaced Mel Allen.), how much he hated most of the other Yankees, and things like that.

    Ironically, the only thing he ever told me about the old days of baseball was the time when he was a kid, Babe Ruth messed up his hair and asked, in his famous way, “How ya doin’, kid?” (I forgot to ask him if “The Babe” was on the Yankees or the Red Sox at the time.)

    Anyway, Grandpa loved the Brooklyn Dodgers from the time he was just a wee sprout until they left for the California in 1958, which means he probably rooted passionately for dem Bums from some during the 1910 season (when he turned five) until about the beginning of 1958, 48 years later when he was about 53 years old. I wish that I had talked about Babe, Cookie, , “the Daffiness Boys” years, “Fat Freddie”, Woody, Zack Wheat, Jackie, Pee Wee, Dixie, and all the others who made the Dodgers great back then. I’m sure he would’ve told me had I thought to ask.

    At any rate, V, I admire how much work you put into these things, but I never understood the Pythagorean Theorem, (neither did my grandfather, who left school in about the seventh grade), even when I was required to know it in math class (ZZZZZZZZZZ), and I never learned the Sabermetric stuff. Baseball has become an intellectual endeavor! So I wish that I understood what you’re writing, I just don’t, and it’s not your fault; it’s my refusal to learn the difference WAR from OPS from WHIP. Baseball statistics have become much more confusing to us math illiterates than “Who’s On First, What’s On Second, I Don’t Know’s on Third.” I was satisfied with RBI’s, ERA, Won-Loss record, on-base percentage and fielding percentage.


    • verdun2 Says:

      Without going into too much detail, when it comes to the new hitting stats (OPS+ WAR, etc) essentially higher is better. Somethimes that’s all I understand about a couple of ’em. 🙂

      • glen715 Says:

        Well, at least your honest enough to admit that, V, as I was feeling like quite a dummy trying to decode all that stuff! 🙂


    • glen715 Says:

      What I really meant to say is that my grandfather knew every single player that has been on your “Dodgers Building A Winner” series. I assume this will go all the way up to 1955, which was when they finally beat the hated Yankees a long subway ride away.


      • verdun2 Says:

        Stopping with 1941

      • glen715 Says:

        Well, that’s a good and sensible year to stop with if you’re talking about a team building itself up. Obviously, the building up of the Dodgers must have come to an abrupt halt once we got into the war and a great deal of the best Dodger players went into the service after December 7th, 1941.

        Speaking of Wartime baseball, your hometown must have been pretty divided during the 1944 World Series, V—- St. Louis Browns vs. St. Louis Cardinals, the only time the Browns franchise had ever been in a World Series——– until they made it several times, over the course of the 60s, 70s, and 80s—– as the Baltimore Orioles. (Although you have said in the past that you lived in Cardinals territory, I’m guessing that, inadvertently, there had to be SOME nonconformists who were St. Louis Browns fans, V.)


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