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Top Tigers countdown #61: Lu Blue

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An excellent defensive first baseman with a knack for drawing walks, Lu Blue was ahead of his time.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you told modern day baseball fans about a first baseman who draws a lot of walks, plays excellent defense, and gets on base in over 40 percent of his plate appearances, one of their first thoughts might run to Joey Votto. Even players with less power like James Loney and Eric Hosmer have plenty of value in the modern game. Once a foreign concept, on-base percentage is now a valuable skill.

This wasn't the case in the 1920s. Tigers first baseman Lu Blue was an unheralded player -- especially on a roster featuring Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, and Bobby Veach -- but the switch-hitting Blue quietly put together a stellar career. He spent seven of his 13 MLB seasons with the Tigers and compiled a .287 batting average and .402 on-base percentage in over 7200 plate appearances. However, disagreements with Tigers management ultimately led to a trade that would seriously backfire for the Tigers. With 19.1 WAR in a Tigers uniform and 33.3 overall, Blue may be one of the most underrated Tigers players in history.

Year PA HR RBI SB BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ fWAR
1921 709 5 75 13 .308 .416 .427 .396 120 2.8
1922 681 6 45 8 .300 .392 .414 .379 114 3.3
1923 614 1 46 10 .284 .402 .371 .374 111 3.1
1924 476 2 53 9 .311 .413 .428 .397 120 3.1
1925 652 3 94 19 .306 .403 .391 .377 106 3.2
1926 538 1 52 13 .287 .413 .415 .393 118 2.5
1927 454 1 42 13 .260 .384 .364 .360 98 1.1
1928* 678 14 80 12 .281 .400 .455 .396 122 4.4
1929* 712 6 61 12 .293 .422 .429 .399 121 4.3
1930* 524 4 42 12 .235 .363 .351 .338 85 0.5
1931** 725 1 62 13 .304 .430 .399 .395 127 4.4
1932** 443 0 43 17 .249 .364 .316 .327 86 0.6
1933*** 1 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 -100 0.0
Career 7207 44 695 151 .287 .402 .401 .380 112 33.3

*Played for the St. Louis Browns from 1928 to 1930.
**Played for the Chicago White Sox from 1931 to 1932.
***Played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933.

Luzerne Atwell Blue was born on March 5th, 1897 in Washington, DC. The youngest son of Charles and Ida Blue, Lu did not take school as seriously as his siblings. Fixated on baseball from a young age, he constantly drew the wrath of his father by skipping school to go see the Washington Senators play. It was not until after high school that Blue's talents were recognized. His family sent him to Briarly Hall Military School in Maryland, and it was here where professional scouts caught wind of the talented youngster.

Blue signed with the Martinsburg Blue Sox of the Blue Ridge League in 1916. He quickly drew fame in 1917 by hitting two grand slams in one game, one from either side of the plate. These were just two of the 13 home runs Blue would hit in a Blue Sox uniform in two seasons. The Tigers purchased Blue's contract following the 1917 season and assigned him to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association.

After a brief stint in St. Paul, Blue was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served in our nation's armed forces until World War I ended in 1919. Upon returning to the Tigers, Blue was once again sent down to the minor leagues. He spent two years playing for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, hitting .286 with 13 home runs and 57 doubles.

While it seems like Blue had quite an arduous route to the majors, he was only 24 years old when he debuted with the Tigers in 1921. Playing for his childhood idol, Ty Cobb, Blue hit .308/.416/.427 with five home runs, 11 triples, and 33 doubles in 711 plate appearances. He fell back slightly in his sophomore season, but finished 10th in the AL MVP voting with an .807 OPS and 3.3 WAR.

Blue's calling card was his excellent defense, but he was also one of the best players in baseball at drawing walks and getting on base. He finished with a .390 on-base percentage or higher in nine of 12 full MLB seasons (he had just one plate appearance in his 13th and final season). He drew 100 walks on four occasions and topped the 90 walk mark two more times. He is one of 48 players in history with twice as many walks as strikeouts in at least 5,000 career plate appearances. That last figure is particularly telling, as the list is populated with all-time greats like Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Nellie Fox, Jackie Robinson, and Tigers legend Charlie Gehringer.

Blue remained a solid hitter through the prime of his career with the Tigers. From 1923 to 1927, he hit .291/.403/.393. He only hit eight home runs, but had 112 doubles and 46 triples during that five year stretch. However, Blue started to clash with Cobb, who never hesitated to discipline players while on the field. Things came to a head when Cobb used Blue in a lesser role in 1926. Blue still hit .287/.413/.415 that year, but remained unhappy.

He was even more perturbed under new manager George Moriarty in 1927, going as far to say he would never appear in another game in a Tigers uniform after the season. The Tigers wasted no time in getting rid of Blue, trading him and future Hall of Famer Heinie Manush to the St. Louis Browns for Harry Rice, Elam Vangilder, and Chick Galloway. Both Manush and Blue thrived in their new digs, making the trade one of the more lopsided in Tigers history.

Blue played for the Browns for three years, hitting .273/.398/.417 with 24 home runs, 26 triples, and 99 doubles. He had two of the best seasons of his career in 1928 and 1929, amassing a combined 8.7 WAR. He struggled in 1930, hitting just .235 in 425 at-bats. The Browns traded him to the Chicago White Sox -- managed by Blue's former teammate Donie Bush -- where he spent the final two full seasons of his career.

Blue bounced back in 1931, hitting .304/.430/.399 and earning a 17th place finish in the AL MVP voting. However, he put up a career-worst .680 OPS in 1932 and was released at the end of the season. After a single plate appearance with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1933, Blue called it a career. He enjoyed a quiet retirement and passed away on July 28th, 1958 in Alexandria, Virginia. A veteran of World War I, Mr. Blue was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.