Sometimes it’s easy to forget how lucky we’ve been to watch our very own Future Hall of Famer, José Miguel Cabrera (Torres), for so many years here in Detroit. He’s been at this baseball thing for quite a while, and even though his status heading toward the final year of his contract in 2023 might be a little unsure at this point, there’s no denying that Cabrera has been one of the best in the game since his rookie season of 2003 with the then-Florida Marlins.
That got me thinking, since Cabrera’s been playing for nearly twenty years, who was he playing with, and against, when he first came up to the Major Leagues? And who did they play against, and so on down the line? I’ve seen people try to connect players to bygone eras in the fewest steps before, so I thought I’d give it a shot and try to player-hop back to the 1800s in as few steps as I could.
Naturally, during all of this I fell down a very deep, very weird rabbit-hole on Baseball Reference — we’ve all been there, right? Looking up an old-timer like Jack Quinn, noticing he was born in Slovakia, wondering who else was born there and made it to the big leagues, noticing there have only been two in history, both of them played twenty or more years, and thinking that’s gotta be some kind of record for longest career by country?
(Wait, is that only me? It can’t be.)
Anyway, let’s do some hopscotching back in history, shall we? I’m sure my path isn’t the most efficient way of doing this — there must be something more systematic — but hey, why not come along with me on this wacky journey? Please note that most of this will be in the bizarro parallel universe of the National League.
Step #1: Barry Larkin
- Date: May 31, 2004
- Matchup: Cincinnati Reds at Florida Marlins
Larkin was in the last season of his Hall of Fame career as the longtime shortstop for the Reds. This game featured some very interesting and noteworthy characters: Ken Griffey Jr., who was Hall-worthy from the day he first set foot on a field, played centerfield and hit a home run this day. Lenny Harris pinch-hit that day, although he did not collect one of his record 212 career pinch-hits. And, other than Cabrera, there were several other Tigers connections in this game, some obvious and others not-so-much (Damion Easley, Todd Jones, Sean Casey, Matt Perisho and Todd Van Poppel; I may have missed some).
Cabrera didn’t have that great a day at the plate, going 0-for-5 and grounding into a double play. Notably, he played right field: he was a bit of a nomad early in his career, seeing considerable action in both corner outfield spots before settling-in at third base for a while.
On the other hand, Larkin had himself a delightful day, collecting three hits including a solo home run. In contrast to Cabrera, Larkin only ever played 18 1⁄3 innings at a position in the field other than shortsop; namely, second base.
Step #2: Pete Rose
- Date: August 17, 1986
- Matchup: San Diego Padres at Cincinnati Reds
Obviously Rose is a controversial figure in baseball, and has been for many decades now. We’re going to set that aside today, as people have written entire books on his wheelings and dealings, and focus on what’s going on between the foul lines.
By this point in his career, Rose has been a player-manager for a couple of years now; when he came back to Cincinnati after spending part of 1984 with the Montreal Expos, part of the deal was that he’d become player-manager. (If I’m not mistaken, player-managers are no longer allowed in the Collective Agreement between the MLBPA and MLB, but it was once a fairly common practice.)
On this day, Rose was watching the proceedings from the dugout — and watching his rookie shortstop, Larkin, hit a solo home run off LaMarr Hoyt, the first home run of his career in his fourth game. Hoyt’s story is a pretty interesting example of burning brightly but not for long: his first full-ish season was in 1980 for the White Sox, with whom he won the 1983 American League Cy Young (although a look at the vote-receivers’ leaderboard shows Dan Quisenberry’s WAR far outpaced Hoyt’s). However, 1986 would be Hoyt’s final season in the major leagues, as a few months after this game he was busted at the US-Mexico border trying to smuggle pills into the United States; he received jail time, got suspended by Major League Baseball, got suspended repeatedly for drug possession over his career as well, and that was pretty much it.
Anyway, back to Rose: in the bottom of the eighth in a 9-5 game, Rose inserted himself into the game to pinch-hit for Ron Robinson, struck out against Goose Gossage (oooh, another Tigers connection!), and that would be the last time he’d ever appear as a player. No word on what the gambling action was on this one.
Step #3: Stan Musial
- Date: September 22, 1963
- Matchup: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds
Rose, like Cabrera, spent many years roaming around the field, and as a rookie he was firmly ensconced at second base. Musial, on the other hand, was in the twilight of his storied career, and started the game in left field, going 0-for-2 before being replaced by Mike Shannon in the fourth inning.
If you’ve never looked at Musial’s career stats, it’s definitely worth your time. Those numbers are just totally bananas: for the first 16 seasons of his career, his batting average didn’t drop below .310. The most he ever struck out in a season was 46 times, when he was 41 years old and nearing retirement. He hit 20 triples in a season twice, he had an OPS of over 1.000 eight times, and was intentionally walked almost 300 times in his career.
Curt Flood played in this game, too (and hit a triple). Flood’s chapter in the history of the game is an important one, and is another story worth reading. Long story short: players used to be entirely controlled by their teams, whether they liked it or not, and had very little say over where they played and how much they could earn. This rubbed Flood the wrong way and he put his foot down when the Cardinals traded him to the Phillies. Players Association president Marvin Miller was also instrumental in the changes seen during the 1970s, and whether his ghost liked it or not, Miller was selected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.
Step #4: Johnny Cooney
- Date: September 17, 1941
- Matchup: Boston (National League) at St. Louis Cardinals
Musial made his Major League debut in this game, batting third and collecting two hits (including a double). Playing second base for the Cardinals on that day was a man named Frank “Creepy” Crespi, and if this little exercise has taught me anything, it’s that player nicknames used to be absolutely fantastic (looking at you, High Pockets Kelly). Musial would go on to collect 3628 more hits in his career.
But, let’s talk about Cooney a bit here, because his career was pretty darn interesting. He pinch-hit and stayed in the game at centerfield on this day, and he’d play another three seasons before calling it a career at age 43 (against the Tigers, of all teams). For the first three full years of his major-league career, he was a pitcher but also a pretty fair hitter: in 345 plate appearances his slash line was .295/.331/.333 for a .665 OPS. After an arm injury, he largely switched to the outfield, becoming an excellent defensive centerfielder. His father and brother, both named Jimmy, also played in the Major Leagues, which is fun.
Cooney started his career in Boston in the National League, then went to the Brooklyn Dodgers, then back to Boston, then back to Brooklyn, and then he merely crossed the East River and finished up with the Yankees. I must say, another thing I’ve found with this research was that it was pretty unusual for players to switch leagues; these days players hop from the AL to the NL pretty often, as if the barrier doesn’t exist (and interleague play ensures that it’s a pretty porous barrier indeed). If the National League seems a little mysterious these days, just imagine how foreign it must’ve felt back then.
Step #5: Ed Konetchy
- Date: August 12, 1921
- Matchup: Philadelphia Phillies at Boston (National League)
Cooney, in his rookie season, pitched the eighth inning in this game for Boston, an easy 10-5 win by the Phillies. This was the first game of a doubleheader, and it almost lasted two hours! Imagine that.
Konetchy was in the final season of his solid 15-year career, mostly at first base, and mostly in the National League. In 1915 he jumped to the Pittsburgh Rebels of the Federal League, which was considered a third Major League for two seasons in the ‘10s. (Fun fact: the lawsuit that the Federal League launched against the National and American Leagues resulted in the Sherman Antitrust Act deemed “not applicable” to baseball.) But, since being an outlaw league wasn’t exactly paying the bills for the Federal League, it folded and in 1916 signed with Boston. He was with the Phillies at this point, though.
I find Konetchy’s career, from 1907 through 1921, to be a particularly fascinating stretch of baseball history. Sure, all the major rules about the game had all been settled (three strikes, four balls, pitching distance, and so on) — but he started playing smack-dab in the Dead Ball Era and ended his career in a season in which Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs all by himself. That’s about as drastic a change as you’ll see in a career: imagine if, when Cabrera started, the league leader in home runs hit something like a dozen of ‘em and earned the inventive nickname of “Home Run,” as Frank Baker did.
Since we’re talking nicknames here, starting in right field for the Phillies on that day was the colourfully-named Bevo LeBourveau. His given name was DeWitt Wiley LeBourveau, so I’ll be darned if I know how he came to be called “Bevo.” He did play a few seasons in Toledo for the Mud Hens, which is yet another Tigers connection (although when he played for them, minor league teams weren’t affiliated with major-league teams like they are today).
Step #6: Fred Clarke
- Date: July 2, 1907
- Matchup: St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Doves
Boston’s entry in the National League went through a bunch of name changes, as was common in the early 20th century. (Not the Tigers, though: they’ve been so named since they started in 1901.) The team eventually moved to Milwaukee, then to Atlanta, where they’ve been since 1966.
Konetchy went 1-for-3 with a single and a sacrifice bunt in this game for the Cardinals, and playing left field for Boston for this game was Clarke, who was in his mid-30s by this point. Honestly, I could’ve picked a bunch of people to reach back into the 19th century, but I wanted to see if I could get someone to go as far back as I could. The pickings were a little slim, as a lot of players only played a handful of years in the major leagues, but also spent long stretches in other leagues as well.
Clarke’s career started with the Louisville Colonels in 1894, which is pretty darn far back. This was the second year in which the pitcher had to have his back foot on a slab of rubber which was 60’ 6” from the front of the plate, so if we go any further back than this, the game’s going to look quite different from what it does today. (For a great history on pitching distances and rules in baseball history, this article by John Thorn does a great job explaining what changed, when, and why. They used to be able to get a running start!)
Heck, catchers had only been wearing mitts for a few years by the time Clarke made his debut — and shin pads were still a novelty when Clark and Konetchy played on the same field in 1907. (This article by Chuck Rosciam at SABR nicely describes the evolution of catcher’s equipment over the years. Who knew that the original mask was inspired by fencing?!)
So, there we are: six steps backwards from Miguel Cabrera and we’re well back into the 1890s where the modern game was still brand-new. This was a fun activity, and I’m sure there are many other paths to get back to the 1800s, probably in fewer steps (especially with the last couple, as there are oddball players like Quinn and Joe Nuxhall that could help shorten the journey by at least one). If you can do better, please let me know in the comments.