It's time to take you back to the past, to check out the awesome players who kicked ass. Let's get in our Delorean and travel back sixty years, to 1953. It was quite a different game back then. Namely, there were no divisions, and there were only 16 teams (there are 30 now). If fantasy baseball had existed back then, the size of the league would likely need to be much smaller. Even a 12 team fantasy league might be stretching it.
In 1953, the color line had just recently been broken, and new talent from the Negro League was flooding baseball. To wit, many of baseball's top stars, players like Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Larry Doby, were African American. Baseball had yet to expand to the West Coast, and if you wanted to see how your fantasy team did, you'd have to wait until the next day to read about it in the paper. The horror!
Many have the impression that run production was harder to come by back then, but that wasn't the case at all. In 1953, teams scored an average of 4.61 runs per game. By comparison, in 2012 major league teams scored an average of 4.32 runs per game. In fact, average runs per game in the major leagues wouldn't eclipse 4.61 until 1987. There were way less home runs per game (0.84 as opposed to 1.02 per game in 2012), so power was a bit more rare. However, there were also substantially fewer stolen bases. Many fans don't realize this, but in the 1950's, the speed game was practically nonexistent. In 1953, there were only .27 stolen bases per game. In 2012, there were 0.66 steals per game. The Dodgers had the most stolen bases as a team, with 90. Somewhere, Rickey Henderson scoffs.
I did an article like this last year, only for the year 1982. It got a pretty favorable response, so we'll have some more fun and do it again. If readers like this one, maybe we'll do another one next year, going even further back to the Ruth days. Without further ado, the top fantasy players of 1953!
Roy Campanella .312/.395/.611 41 HR 142 RBI 103 R 67 BB
Yogi Berra .296/.363./.523 27 HR 108 RBI 80 R 50 BB
Take a look at Campanella's numbers. Now look again. Those are jaw-dropping numbers for a catcher in any era, and would stand out even in the offense-inflated late-90's. By comparison, Buster Posey, the top fantasy catcher in 2012, "only" reached 24 home runs and 103 RBIs. Campanella was one of the great power hitting catchers of all time, but like so many African American players, he got a late start in the major leagues and had a relatively truncated career because of it.
Berra had his typically super year in pinstripes; he would have been one of the first catchers taken in fantasy drafts every year for about 13 seasons. After him, though, the field got very thin, as you might expect at this position. After these two, the only real viable fantasy options would have been Del Crandell of the Milwaukee Braves and Andy Seminick of the Reds. Basically, Campanella would have been a legit top overall pick and if you had him, you had a serious advantage over your fellow managers.
Ted Kluszewski .316/.380/.570 40 HR 108 RBI 97 R 55 BB
Gil Hodges .302/393/.550 31 HR 122 RBI 101 R 75 BB
Shockingly, first base didn't feature a lot of gaudy numbers in 1953. That was mainly reserved for third base and the outfield. Big Klu was easily the class at this position, and he was right in the middle of a four year run where he was arguably the top pure slugger in the league. Like many big, slow ballplayers, though, Klu was pretty much finished as a star when he got a few years past the age 30 threshold. My favorite part of his game was that he never struck out. As opposed to most 40-homer guys, Klu would only whiff about 30-40 times a year, which enabled him to also hit for a high average. He was just a great hitter, pure and simple, at least for a few years.
Behind him was Hodges, a long time Brooklyn Dodger stalwart who to this day is a controversial Hall of Fame snub. He would have better years, but this was the first time he hit over .300. After these two, it wasn't a particularly deep pool, as only three other regular first basemen topped 20 home runs. It's a far cry from the loaded American League first base crop these days, I can tell you.
Jim Gilliam .278/.383/.415 6 HR 63 RBI 125 R 100 BB 21 SB
Red Schoendienst .342/.405/.502 15 HR 79 RBI 107 R 60 BB
It won't come as a big surprise, but second base was pretty much a dead zone in '53. Back then, teams generally geared their middle infields toward defense, and focused more on glove guys at second base and shortstop. Most of the time, any offensive output was gravy.
Gilliam would have been a keeper league darling, as he won the Rookie of the Year and provided top-of-the-line production in several categories. He looked primed to enjoy a Hall-of-Fame career, and his fantasy value would have gone up even further in subsequent years as he started playing outfield and third base. However, Gilliam had just one more truly brilliant year (1956), and by the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles (when he was 29), he was basically an unspectacular middle infielder.
Schoendienst had what was easily his career year, playing for the Cardinals. His .907 OPS was almost 200 points higher than his career mark. He would never even top .800 again, making him a candidate to go way too high in retro fantasy drafts. Pugilistic Yankee Billy Martin and Philly second sacker Granny Hamner (who would later reinvent himself as a knuckleballer; Mark Lemke eat your heart out!) were the next best second base options, but after that it was slim pickings.
Al Dark .300/.335/.488 23 HR 88 RBI 126 R 28 BB
Pee Wee Reese .271/.374/.420 13 HR 61 RBI 108 R 82 BB 22 SB
If you thought second base was unpalatable from a fantasy standpoint in 1953, feast your eyes on shortstop. Or don't; it's a scary wasteland. Dark led all shortstops in home runs, by far, and would have been the top option by a considerable margin. Reese got a lot of his value from the stolen bases which, again, were hard to come by in that season. Behind these two, you had Solly Hemus and Johnny Logan with double digit home run totals, and Harvey Kuenn with a league-leading 209 hits, but it was a dead zone after that. Yankee great Phil Rizzuto, who is one of the most controversial Hall of Fame picks ever, walked 71 times but was otherwise pretty blah, even by shortstop standards.
By the way, if you're noticing a trend, a very Brooklyn Dodger-ish trend, there's a reason for that. In 1953, the Dodgers were an absolute offensive machine, leading the league in runs scored, home runs, walks, batting average, OPS, and even stolen bases. They pretty much had an All-Star playing every single freaking position. I mean, look at this fer cripessakes. Only Billy Cox, the third baseman, failed to put up gaudy numbers, and he wasn't exactly a slouch, as he OPSed .806. The 955 runs they scored as a team that year was 154 more than the next team. They would have been a fantasy gold mine.
Eddie Mathews .302/.406/.627 47 HR 135 RBI 110 R 99 BB
Al Rosen .336/.422/.613 43 HR 145 RBI 115 R 85 BB
More numbers that would have looked right at home in 1999. Both Mathews and Rosen would have been on the short list for top pick overall in fantasy drafts, as they put up monster numbers that dwarfed that of others at their position. Mathews almost certainly would have been the top overall pick in keeper leagues (with the exception of maybe Mickey Mantle), and with good reason. This was just his second major league season, and he would continue mashing for another decade, on his way to becoming a shoo-in Hall-of Famer.
Rosen was the American League MVP in 1953. Shockingly, he would only have one more great season before tailing off and retiring at age 32. Third base was actually a reasonably deep position in '53, but the next highest home run total came from Hank Thompson with 24, which demonstrates just how valuable Mathews and Rosen would have been.
Stan Musial .337/.437/.609 30 HR 113 RBI 127 R 105 BB
Duke Snider .336/.419/.627 42 HR 126 RBI 132 R 82 BB
Jackie Robinson .329/.425/.502 12 HR 95 RBI 109 R 74 BB 17 SB
Minnie Minoso .313/.410/.466 15 HR 104 RBI 104 R 74 BB 25 SB
Gus Zernial .284/.355/.559 42 HR 108 RBI 85 R 57 BB
Outfield was where all the depth was in 1953, and sitting right on top was Stan the Man himself. The recently departed Cardinal star was arguably the top fantasy outfielder in 1953, with a year right off the factory line. He led the league in OBP and OPSed .1.046. With six batting titles up to that point, he would have been a perennial fantasy star, and would have been a favorite for first overall pick.
Snider clubbed 40 home runs for the first time in his career, and even threw in 16 steals, making him sort of the equivalent of a 40/30 guy today. He would hit 40 homers or more in each of the next four seasons, becoming an easy first round pick. Zernial is sort of a forgotten slugger from the time, mostly because he played on a bunch of crappy teams (the Philadelphia and Kansas City A's of the mid-1950's were horrendous), but he had a few years of 30 or more home runs and was one of the league's better power producers.
Robinson and Minoso make the cut because of their across-the-board production. They pretty much did it all, and you may have been able to make the case for Minoso as the best fantasy player overall that year. Robinson and Minoso also would have qualified at third base that season, giving them that much added value (Robinson played nine games at second base, which would have made him eligible there in some formats).
Outfield as a whole was incredibly deep, and there was a lot of production to be reaped from the position. Carl Furillo won the NL batting title with a .344 average. Bill Bruton stole 25 bases to tie for the league lead with Minoso. There was a rogue's gallery of fantasy production at the position in '53, especially in the National League. Larry Doby, Mickey Mantle, Del Ennis, Bobby Thomson, Monte Irvin, Gus Bell, Monte Irvin, Ralph Kiner, and Frank Thomas (yeah, the other one) all topped 20 home runs.
If you're wondering where Willie Mays was in all this, he missed the entire season due to military commitments. He would return in 1954 and bash 41 home runs, so if you were in a keeper league and were using up a roster spot on him all year, it ended up paying off.
Robin Roberts 23-16 2.75 ERA 198 K 61 BB 1.11 WHIP 346.2 (!) IP
Warren Spahn 23-7 2.10 ERA 148 K 70 BB 1.06 WHIP 266 IP
Billy Pierce 18-12 2.72 ERA 186 K 102 BB 1.17 WHIP 271 IP
Harvey Haddix 20-9 3.06 ERA 163 K 69 BB 1.14 WHIP 253 IP
Carl Erskine 20-6 3.53 ERA 187 K 95 BB 1.25 WHIP 247 IP
Two things stick out when looking at starting pitchers from the '50's: they didn't strike out as many hitters, and they threw a ton more innings. Roberts was the hands down elite pitcher that year, pacing the majors in innings pitched (by far) and strikeouts. Yes, no pitcher struck out even 200 batters. In fact, from 1947 to 1954, no pitcher reached the 200-K mark. Roberts led the majors but that was only because he threw a ton of innings; his K/9 of 5.1 would be totally unimpressive these days. With that being said, he was sort of the Roy Halladay of his era, a complete innings sponge who eclipsed the 300 frame mark in six straight seasons.
Spahn was baseball's ERA leader, and his 1953 was one of about a dozen brilliant seasons. He would have been an elite fantasy starter for well over a decade. Pierce is probably one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball history, and his value here comes from his strikeouts, where he was third in the majors. Erskine had a fairly unimpressive ERA, but great run support from his loaded team provided him with a gaudy win total and he was a major factor in the strikeout category. Haddix (most famous for throwing 12 innings of a perfect game in 1959, before losing it and taking the loss in the 13th), was a rookie with the Cardinals, and 1953 would end up as arguably his best year as a starter. Any keeper league manager who jumped on him after this season may have been disappointed by a largely choppy career.
Ellis Kinder 10-6 1.85 ERA 27 SV 39 K 1.14 WHIP 107 IP
Hoyt Wilhelm 7-8 3.04 ERA 15 SV 71 K 1.40 WHIP 145 IP
The save, of course, didn't even start being tracked until 1960, and didn't become an official stat until 1969. Luckily, some kind souls went back and calculated saves numbers all the way back to 1900. Even in 1950, ace relievers were rare, so if we were going to have relievers on our fantasy teams, they would likely have been pitchers who racked up a lot of relief innings and wins. Kinder, a former 23-game winner who was converted into a reliever mid-career, was easily the top reliever with his 27 saves and ultra-low ERA. The next highest save total was 18, and only six pitchers would have reached double digits (though that included, believe it or not, the legendary Satchel Paige).
Wilhelm pitched a ton of innings and had a better ERA than just about any other reliever who picked up double digit save numbers. The knuckleballer was in just his second full season at age 30, but amazingly, he would last until 1972, at the ripe old age of 49. If they had actually played fantasy baseball in 1953, relievers likely would have been completely ignored, as back then they were mostly still seen as afterthoughts, as opposed to the integral components of major league pitching staffs that they are today.