First baseman Edgar Wesley’s 213 OPS+ in 1925 was the best in Detroit history.
(Photo credit: Seamheads.com)
In recent posts, I have integrated Detroit Stars players into the all-time Detroit major league position lists:
This week, I am looking at first basemen. Before Negro League data was so conveniently available at Seamheads.com, I listed the top ten first basemen in Detroit Tigers history. The two Stars first basemen with enough playing to merit consideration for the all Detroit top ten list are Edgar Wesley and Ed Riles.
Edgar Wesley was a big left-handed slugger and strong defensive first baseman and was considered the best all around player at his position in the early years of the Negro National League. He was also known to be an aggressive base runner. Indianapolis catcher Larry Brown recalled Wesley barreling into home plate so hard that he cut his chest protector: “My mask went one direction, my glove went the other and the ball went up to the stands” (Richard Bak, Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars).
In seven years with the Stars, Wesley hit .323 with a 153 OPS+. He played with the Stars from 1920-1923, skipped to to Harrisburg Giants of the Eastern Colored League in 1924 and then back to the stars from 1925-1927. Negro Leaguer players made very little money and thus often moved from team to team looking for better deals. Interestingly, they were more free to move around than white major leaguers who were subject to the reserve clause.
Wesley led the league with 11 home runs in 1920, but his best year came in his second stint with the Stars. The powerful first sacker had a monster year in 1925 leading the league in batting (.404), slugging percentage (.715) and OPS+ (213). He also hit 17 home runs in 264 plate appearances which was second to his legendary teammate Turkey Stearnes (19). The lofty 213 OPS+ was the highest in Detroit history including Tigers batters.
Edward “Huck” Rile was a two-way player (first baseman and pitcher) who played for 11 teams over 14 seasons. At six-feet-six-inches and 230 pounds, Rile was one of the biggest players in Negro Leagues history. Huck excelled on both sides of the ball with a lifetime OPS+ of 122 and ERA+ of 110.
The switch hitting Rile had a fantastic season as both a batter and pitcher for Detroit in 1927. At the plate, he hit .389 with a .660 slugging average and finished second in the league with a 188 OPS+ in 297 plate appearances. From the mound, he was second in the league with a 157 ERA+ in 141 innings. He didn’t pitch a lot in 1928, but continued to excel offensively batting .348 with a 147 OPS+.
Wesley, whose 16 WAR translates to roughly 27 over 154 games, fits comfortably as Detroit’s fifth best first baseman of all time between Rudy York and Cecil Fielder. Rile had only three full-seasons with the Stars, but gets a boost for his pitching performance earning a #8 ranking.
The rest of the list is shown below.
1. Hank Greenberg 1930-1946 54 WAR 418 ABR 161 OPS+
Baseball’s first Jewish superstar, Greenberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956. The “Hebrew Hammer” won MVP awards in both 1935 and 1940 and played on all four Tigers World Series teams (1934, 1935, 1940, 1945) of the ’30s and ’40s. He led the league in home runs four times and finished in the top five in OPS and slugging average seven times. Other notable Greenberg feats include 58 home runs in 1938 and 184 RBI in 1937, both the highest single-season total in Tigers history.
2. Miguel Cabrera 2008-2018 51 WAR 405 ABR 155 OPS+
Acquired from the Marlins in an eight-player deal in 2007, Cabrera has dominated the American League for most of his tenure with the Tigers. The Venezuelan slugger won the Triple Crown with a .330 batting average, 44 home runs and 139 RBI in 2012, but that might not have been his best season. In 2013, he won the sabermetric triple crown with a .348/.442/.636 slash line. He finished in the top five in the league in in Adjusted Batting Runs every year from 2009-2016 and led the league every year from 2010-2013.
3. Norm Cash 1960-1974 52 WAR 319 ABR 139 OPS+
“Stormin’ Norman” had a monster season in 1961 batting .361/.487/.662 with a 201 OPS+. His 85 Adjusted Batting Runs that year was the highest total in franchise history. He has since admitted to using a corked bat that year which puts the legitimacy of those numbers in doubt. His highest OPS+ otherwise was 149, but was 120+ every year from 1960-1973. He had 12 seasons of 2+ WAR and 9 seasons of 3+ WAR.
4. Rudy York 1934-1945 32 WAR 175 ABR 128 OPS+
On August 4, 1937, the Tigers were stuck in a five game losing streak and suffering from a shortage of healthy players. With all their regular catchers injured, manager Mickey Cochrane decided to try Rudy York, the rookie without a position, as the starting catcher. He proceeded to hit an amazing 18 homers with 49 RBI for the month. Some 81 years after his big month of August, Big Rudy still holds the the American League record for most home runs in a month. York eventually became the regular first baseman in 1940 when Greenberg was moved to left field. He finished in the top five in home runs eight times and top ten in OPS five times.
5. Edgar Wesley 1920-1927 16 WAR 112 ABR 153 OPS+
Profile posted above
6. Cecil Fielder 1990-1996 17 WAR 112 ABR 126 OPS+
In the Bill James Historical Abstract, James said that Cecil Fielder was “A big fat guy who hit home runs for a few years”. That was a reference to Fielder being overrated, but it was a bit harsh. He was a productive hitter during those years and his 1990 season was one of the most memorable individual seasons I have seen. He was signed as a low profile free agent in January, 1990 after returning from a season in Japan. The big first baseman then surprised the baseball world by posting an OPS+ of 167 and leading the league with 51 home runs and 132 RBI. He never replicated that season, but he had five more seasons of 30+ home runs including a league leading 44 in 1991.
7. Lu Blue 1921-1927 21 WAR 82 ABR 110 OPS+
Blue had four more WAR than Cecil Fielder, but that was largely because Fielder was penalized for being designated hitter for parts of seasons. Because first base is mostly a hitting position, I decided to ignore that penalty. Fielder was the better offensive player, so I moved him up a notch. Blue was no slugger, but he was an on-base machine posting on-base percentages of .400 or better five times with the Tigers. He was also a model of consistency with the following WAR totals from 1921-1926: 2.9, 3.6, 3.3, 3.3, 3.7, 2.8.
8. Ed Rile 1927-1930 10 WAR 76 ABR 150 OPS+
Profile posted above
9. Darrell Evans 1984-1988 15 WAR 61 ABR 121 OPS+
Everyone was surprised when tightwad GM Bill Campbell signed free agent Darrell Evans after the 1983 season. It was the first time the Tigers had dipped into the free agent pool in a significant way and it paid off, although not right away. He hit only 16 home runs with a 105 OPS+ during the 1984 championship season and it looked like he might be all done at age 37. However, he went on to average 34 home runs over the next three seasons including a league-leading 40 in 1985. His best season was 1987 when he had 4.9 WAR and a 135 OPS+ at age 40.
10. Tony Clark 1995-2001 12 WAR 62 ABR 121 OPS+
Tony Clark was the second overall pick in the 1990 amateur draft and played seven seasons for the Tigers. He was regarded as a disappointment by many fans due to his advance billing and misfortune of being one of the better hitters on some very bad teams. He posted an OPS+ of 120 or better five times and hit 30 or more round trippers three times.
Note: Most of the data for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com