Fantasy All-Star Games
This story originally appeared in the 2011 Official Major League Baseball All-Star Game Program, which is available at mlb.com.
Major League Baseball’s first All-Star Game was staged in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The idea of Arch Ward, sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, it was intended to be a one-time exhibition matching the best eighteen of each league against each other. But the game, an American League victory marked by a Babe Ruth home run, proved such a success that it has been followed every year since, except when wartime travel restrictions scratched it in 1945.
In an idle moment, it struck me that all but a handful of the great players of MLB’s first fifty years never got a chance to play in an All-Star Game. Cy Young, King Kelly, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, and so many more—what if they were given a chance to play against the best of their own era? Further, what if they were to play against some of the best all-star teams actually assembled?
Hitching a ride on baseball’s time machine, I created a tourney of eight all-star squads, six of them actual and two as they might have been selected in their day. I then established a bracket that paralleled today’s three rounds of postseason play. (Rosters for the fantasy all-star teams of 1889 and 1908 appear at the end of the article; for rosters of actual NL and AL all-star teams cited below, see: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/all_star_event.jsp?story=1)
Cross-era competition provides some puzzling points of comparison, which I have attempted to resolve fairly. Players selected for the 1889 and 1908 squads reflect not those whom we might pick today (most RBIs or a high OPS, for example) but instead those who were regarded as the best in their day, and not merely in the first halves of those particular seasons.
Other personally imposed ground rules: For post-1933 teams, if men were selected for their actual game but did not play, whether ruled out for injury or in-game managerial decision, they will not play here. Also, because all-star roster sizes changed over time, the 1889 and 1908 clubs are set at 25, in line with the most frequently used historical number (the range has been from 18 in 1933 to the current 34). Finally, the home team selects the playing rules of its period. Now, on to the quarterfinals!
Game One: 1889 National League vs. 1998 American League; site, South End Grounds, Boston.
The All-Star Fantasy Series begins with an upset. AL pitchers struggle to adjust to the 50-foot pitching distance, the absence of a slab or a mound, and the extra pitches required because foul balls are not counted as strikes. They walk nine men, many of whom come around to score. The AL’s inability to use a designated hitter was not a factor, as pitchers in today’s All-Star Game rarely bat anyway.
NL pitchers, on the other hand, go about their business in their accustomed style. Boston’s star hurlers, John Clarkson (on his way to 49 wins this year) and Hoss Radbourn (winner of 59 five years earlier) befuddle AL sluggers with their changes of speed and arm angle, as the shorter distance makes them seem as speedy as if they were transported to the future. Each hurls three innings, by which time Dan Brouthers and Buck Ewing have hit bases-clearing triples to put the game out of reach.
Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr., of Seattle, Juan Gonzalez of Texas, and Rafael Palmeiro of Baltimore are all held hitless, put off their rhythm by the old-style pitching deliveries. Roberto Alomar and Kenny Lofton lead the AL with two hits each, and Derek Jeter hits a late two-run double. New York Giants outfielder Silent Mike Tiernan leads the winning squad with three hits.
With the issue settled, in the eighth inning Cap Anson, increasingly immobile at first base after two decades of professional play, brings the crowd to its feet with a diving grab of a liner off the bat of Darin Erstad. One-inning pitching cameos by Tim Keefe, Mickey Welch, and Bill Hutchinson bring the game to its surprising conclusion, a 9-4 win for the National League all-stars of 1889.
Game Two: 1950 National League vs. 1933 American League; site, Comiskey Park, Chicago.
In what may have been the most anticipated of the quarterfinal matchups, the AL club that won the inaugural midsummer classic squared off against a postwar NL aggregation that featured three African American stars—Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. The 1950 Nationals sent Robin Roberts to the mound, just as they had back in the day; the AL countered with Lefty Grove, who had finished up with three scoreless frames in 1933, preserving the 4-2 lead he had inherited.
No longer a fireballer at age 33, Grove now relied upon his curve and keeping the hitters off balance. In his three innings of work he was roughed up for seven hits and four runs, including homers by Pittsburgh’s Ralph Kiner and the Cardinals’ Stan Musial.
Meanwhile Roberts cruised through the AL order, allowing only a double to Charlie Gehringer in his three innings of work. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin went down almost as meekly as they had for Carl Hubbell in 1934.
But, trailing by 4-0, the AL turned on its power switch after that, roughing up, in turn, Ewell Blackwell, Larry Jansen, and Jim Konstanty. Ruth and Gehrig hit back to back homers, while Simmons registered a pair of two-run doubles. Robinson and Hank Sauer of the Cubs drove in a couple of runs off Washington’s General Crowder to keep things close, but going into the seventh inning the AL held a slim lead at 7-6. Adding a run on a single by Cronin, they hung on as Lefty Gomez earned the three-inning save, allowing only a solo home run by Brooklyn’s Duke Snider.
Game Three: 1961 National League vs. 1941 American League; site, Candlestick Park, San Francisco
Ruth, Gehrig, and Simmons were gone from the squad that had won the original All-Star Game, but for 1941 they were replaced by men who would dominate baseball for years to come: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. Likewise the two lefty aces, Grove and Gomez, were on their way out but now the AL had the unhittable Bob Feller.
For star power the Nationals boasted two awesome tandems: the Milwaukee Braves Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews, and the San Francisco Giants Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda. Stan Musial and Warren Spahn were still formidable as the last of the NL’s 1940s stars. Additionally for this fantasy contest, the NL had the home-field advantage of windy Candlestick Park.
All the same, the AL cannons came out firing, with Detroit’s Rudy York as well as Williams hitting home runs. After Feller mowed down the opposition through the first three frames, Thornton Lee and Sid Hudson struggled to hold the lead. Little Dom DiMaggio of the Boston Red Sox hit an uncharacteristic seventh-inning home run after replacing brother Joe, who went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles.
After eight innings the Americans held onto a slim 5-4 lead. The Nationals loaded the bases in the ninth against Eddie Smith but with two outs Robert Clemente lined to third baseman Ken Keltner and the game was in the books.
Game Four: 1908 American League vs. 1970 National League; site, Hilltop Park, New York
The playing rules of 1908 differed little from those of today, except for the legal spitball thrown by several AL moundsmen. Indeed, pitching was the deciding factor in this game as neither league’s hitters warmed to the task. Ten men fanned for each side in a 2-1 nail-biter at New York’s rickety old Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders, soon to be renamed the Yankees. In the end, Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente, who had made the final out in the fantasy loss of the 1961 NL, hit a home run in the ninth inning and Claude Osteen held the lead with a scoreless bottom of the ninth.
Spitballer Ed Walsh of the Chicago White Sox, who would win 40 games in this year, took the hill for the AL. Their opponents countered with a spitballer of their own, Gaylord Perry, whose now pointless fidgeting proved no mystery, as singles by Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, and Nap Lajoie plated a first-inning run. However, this would be the last run scored by the dead-ball stars, as the NL followed Perry’s two innings with three each by Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver, who allowed only one AL hit apiece.
The NL was equally mystified by the AL parade of mound stars, from Walsh and Addie Joss to Walter Johnson and Cy Young, the last named surrendering the tying run in the seventh on a double by Willie McCovey and a single by Joe Morgan. Rube Waddell came in to pitch the ninth and was greeted by Clemente’s shot to left-center, sailing over the fence toward the Hudson River when last seen.
Game Five: 1933 American League vs. 1889 National League; site, Comiskey Park, Chicago.
With the the 1933 Americans having won on the road and the 1889 Nationals at home, the scene for their semifinal game shifted to Chicago. Now the rule advantages enjoyed by the 1889 squad in their first-round game evaporated as their pitchers found they could not extend their curveballs to break properly at 60’6”. Pitching off the mound, a mysterious innovation, left their fastballs appetizingly up. The AL coasted to a 17-4 verdict that was never in doubt.
Oldtime sluggers Dan Brouthers and Roger Connor reached the seats, and John Ward and Jimmy Ryan each slapped a pair of singles, but the rout was on early. Clarkson and Keefe were treated rudely, as each surrendered six runs while laboring through two frames. By the time Charlie Buffinton followed them in the fifth, the NL trailed 12-2.
The AL kept its stars in, though, because they only had 18 men, and that’s who the fans had come to see. The result was a further shellacking as Ruth, Gehrig, Simmons, and Earl Averill each belted a home run in his final time at bat. In the eighth and ninth innings substitution was rampant, and the fans at Comiskey Park got to see some of the heroes their fathers had told them about, especially old Chicago stars Anson, Kelly, Clarkson, Ryan, Hutchinson, and Tommy Burns.
The 1933 AL, winners of the first actual All-Star Game, now had defeated two NL aggregations 61 years apart. They would compete for the fantasy title against either the 1970 NL all-stars or those of the AL of 1941. The latter case would present a dilemma worthy of Back to the Future, as Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, and Jimmie Foxx were named to both squads!
Game Six: 1970 National League vs. 1941 American League; site, Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati
Thankfully, the dilemma was averted. Because both teams had won their first-round games on the road, a coin flip yielded home-field advantage to the 1970 NL. As things turned out, the speed of their team and that of the Astroturf playing surface proved crucial.
The 1941 AL broke from the gate fast through the power of Williams, DiMaggio, and Jeff Heath of Cleveland, as each drove in runs to stake the AL to a 4-1 lead through five frames. AL pitchers Bob Feller, followed by Thornton Lee of the White Sox, were frequently in trouble but held the NL at bay. But in the sixth Lee faltered as the NL tied the score, on a three-run homer by hometown hero Johnny Bench, and then never looked back. Fellow Reds Tony Perez and Pete Rose provided key hits in a seventh-inning flurry against Sid Hudson as Rusty Staub and Joe Torre hit cue-shot singles through the AL infield to drive in the deciding runs.
Tom Seaver, closing hero of the earlier fantasy game, started this one for the NL, but was batted freely. Bob Gibson kept things steady as his mates clawed back into a tie. Gaylord Perry and Claude Osteen combined to surrender a run between them, but local hero Jim Merritt pitched a scoreless ninth to save the NL’s 6-5 win.
The stage was now set for the Fantasy All-Star Game finale.
Game Seven: 1970 National League vs. 1933 American League; site, Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati
A coin flip again settled home field in favor of the 1970 NL, and the confrontation once more was between its speed and pitching and the superior power of their opponents. The Americans’ veteran manager, Connie Mack, knew how to play the game either way but, apart from center fielder Ben Chapman, who could steal a base, his roster was a base-to-base bunch.
Mack’s counterpart, Gil Hodges of the Mets, had won the 1969 World Series with little firepower so he was content to rely upon pitching and defense, especially on Cincinnati’s superfast playing surface. Hodges handed the ball to Tom Seaver, hoping to get three innings but intending to follow with as many pitchers as the situation might dictate. He had the advantage over Mack in carrying more pitchers as part of his 28-man roster; Connie would have to make do with 18. Determined to mirror the pitching sequence of his inaugural victory in 1933, Mack named Lefty Gomez as his starter. He intended to follow with Crowder for the middle three innings and Lefty Grove, his own ace from the Philadelphia A’s, as his finisher.
Gomez and Seaver more than met expectations, keeping the game scoreless through three. But Crowder and Perry were hit freely, and by the bottom of the sixth the score was tied at two. Hank Aaron then hit a two-run homer to put the NL on top.
In the top of the seventh Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig greeted Bob Gibson with solo shots to tie the score, but Hodges, a hunch-playing helmsman, did not pull him. Gibson rewarded his confidence by pitching a scoreless eighth and ninth.
Grove, meanwhile had retired eight consecutive batters until, with two out in the ninth, he faced Willie Mays for the first and only time. A long drive over the left-field wall gave the NL a 5-4 victory in this first-ever time-travel all-star tourney.
1889 NL (25 roster) Starters in bold
Name, Team, Position
Cap Anson, Chi, 1B
Henry Boyle, Ind, P
Dan Brouthers, Bos, 1B
Charlie Buffinton, Phi, P
Tommy Burns, Chi, 3B
John Clarkson, Bos, P
Roger Connor, NY, 1B
Fred Dunlap, Pit, 2B
Buck Ewing, NY, C
Jack Glasscock, Ind, SS
Bill Hutchinson, Chi, P
Tim Keefe, NY, P
King Kelly, Bos, OF
Ed McKean, Cle, SS
Jim O’Rourke, NY, OF
Fred Pfeffer, Chi, 2B
Hoss Radbourn, Bos, P
Jimmy Ryan, Chi, OF
Ben Sanders, Phi, P
Patsy Tebeau, Cle, 3B
Sam Thompson, Phi OF
Mike Tiernan, NY, OF
John Ward, NY, SS
Mickey Welch, NY, P
Chief Zimmer, Cle, C
1908 AL (25 roster) Starters in bold
Bill Bradley, Cle, 3B
Ty Cobb, Det, OF
Sam Crawford, Det, OF
Bill Donovan, Det, P
Doc Gessler, Bos, OF
Walter Johnson, Was, P
Addie Joss, Cle, P
Willie Keeler, N,Y OF
Nap Lajoie, Cle, 2B
George McBride, Was, SS
Amby McConnell, Bos, 3B
Matty McIntyre, Det, OF
Clyde Milan, Was, OF
Eddie Plank, Phi, P
Claude Rossman, Det, 1B
Germany Schaefer, Det, 2B
Boss Schmidt, Det, C
Billy Sullivan, Chi, C
George Stovall, Cle, 1B
George Stone, StL, OF
Rube Wadddell, StL, P
Bobby Wallace, StL, SS
Ed Walsh, Chi, P
Doc White, Chi, P
Cy Young, Bos, P