02/15/2004 1:32 PM ET
A look at history's best left sides
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
The mere thought of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the same left side of an infield makes a baseball fan wonder if it can get any better. Now that the former appears ready to join the latter on the New York Yankees' roster, it is time to reach beyond wild imagination and look into the Major League past for perspective.
|Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would make quite an infield pairing. (Otto Greule/Getty Images)
Hypothetical answer: They would be the best left side in the Yankees' glamorous history by merely playing up to par, they would be the Majors' best left side since Paul Molitor-Robin Yount for Milwaukee in the early 1980s and they would need a long run together to match the stature of a pair of Hall of Fame left sides in the pre-World War II years.
Any discussion of dominating, durable and dazzling left sides probably has to begin with third baseman Pie Traynor and shortstop Arky Vaughn of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were a fixture together from 1932-37, and those six seasons represented Vaughn's first and Traynor's last in the bigs. Traynor hit .320 in a 17-year career and never struck out more than 28 times in a season, and he is one of the top-fielding third basemen in history with 2,288 putouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1948, and Vaughn was enshrined posthumously in 1985 with a .318 lifetime average that ranks second among Cooperstown shortstops behind only Honus Wagner.
With them are Freddy Lindstrom and Travis Jackson, the left side for John McGraw's New York Giants from 1924-30. They were there from the heady days of the Roaring Twenties right through a Depression, an annual sign of spring. Lindstrom, "The Boy Wonder" who in 1924 became the youngest player to appear in a World Series, manned third and had seven .300-plus seasons on the way to eventual Hall of Fame induction in 1976. Jackson was nicknamed "Stonewall" for the wall of defense he supplied at shortstop, and the hustling captain also hit 135 homers and had six .300-plus seasons in a career recognized with a 1982 Hall induction.
Of those four players, only Traynor was voted into the Hall by baseball writers -- 11 years after his career ended. The others were anointed in later years by the Veterans Committee. It is safe to say that Rodriguez and Jeter are on course in their careers to be swiftly inducted, and their projected career numbers would be far beyond those compiled by any of those four baseball legends. If the criteria for best left sides includes durability together, then that is the only issue now that A-Rod has agreed to move from shortstop to third base, a move Cal Ripken Jr. made easily during his legendary career. Once the dust settles on the infield, they still have to play together.
When longtime fans think of dominating, durable and dazzling left sides throughout the years, there are surely memories of Pete Rose and Dave Concepcion on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, Sal Bando and Bert Campaneris for the Swingin' A's, Ron Cey and Bill Russell for the Dodgers, George Brett and Freddie Patek for the Royals, Ron Santo and Don Kessinger for the Cubs. You remember Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa finally bringing a world championship to the Phillies, and any Orioles fan will point to all that leather that Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger threw around old Memorial Stadium. Braves fans will stand up for Chipper Jones and Jeff Blauser as catalysts during the Braves' run that started in the early 1990s.
This is a personal issue because many fans relate important chunks of their individual lives to that annual sight of a third baseman and shortstop side by side. It was Harmon Killebrew at third and Zoilo Versalles at short in those Minnesota summers after Major League Baseball arrived in the 1960s. It was once Bill Melton at third and Luis Aparicio at short for White Sox fans. But this Yankee trade with the Rangers means we are talking about the ultimate left sides, the search for that all-around, nonpareil combination that brought offense and defense and the soothing satisfaction you got as their fan in knowing that the dirt or Astroturf on the left was covered. There simply has to be a Cooperstown component to even merit discussion -- and probably Hall duos at that.
This is the year Molitor is headed to the Hall to join Yount, and one can reasonably argue that there hasn't been a better left side since they led Harvey's Wallbangers to that 1982 World Series won by the St. Louis Cardinals. The catch there was that Molitor and Yount, although longtime teammates, were not a longtime fixture on the Brewers' left side. Molitor played primarily third for the first time in 1982, going 150 games at the position -- then 146, 135, 91 and 41 there in successive years while developing into an eventual designated hitter. Yount broke in as a shortstop in 1974 and played 154 games at the position in '82. Then he played 139 games at short in 1983 and 120 the next year, followed by his permanent switch to center field.
Milwaukee fans also will remember a much earlier left side of note: Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews and shortstop Johnny Logan, who led the Braves to consecutive World Series appearances and one title in the late 1950s. Cleveland fans will remember All-Star third baseman Ken Keltner and shortstop Lou Boudreau, two keys for that Indians powerhouse that won it all in 1948.
A fact of life for the Cardinals in the 1940s was Whitey Kurowski at third and Marty Marion at short. They were regulars on the left side from 1942-47, right through a war, and during that run Billy Southworth's Redbirds won four pennants and three world championships. The Cardinals eventually acquired arguably the greatest defensive shortstop in history, Ozzie Smith, but even though third baseman Ken Reitz made it to the All-Star Game during that 1982 title run in St. Louis, many Cards fans will tell you Kurowski-Marion was their best left side.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about a Best Left Side analysis is the look into Yankees history and the realization that there is little comparison to an A-Rod/Jeter combination. For all that hallowed history, all those Hall of Famers and world championships, there never has been a left side in pinstripes that looks like this.
There has been steadiness at times on the left side, certainly a winning mentality there, but never a longtime pedigreed combination in a Traynor-Vaughn mold. When you look through the years of The Bambino and Iron Horse, Joltin' Joe, The Mick and more, that is one surprising aspect of the dynasties.
During the 1930 title years, Red Rolfe and Frankie Crosetti were the Yankees' answer at third and short, respectively. Phil Rizzuto became the regular shortstop during the 1941 championship season, Crosetti moved temporarily to third the next year and then back to shortstop as the war intervened. In 1947, the year the Yankees returned to their championship perch, Rizzuto was at short and Billy Johnson at third to mark their first full season side by side. They continued as the primary left side through 1951 -- Johnson played 21 games at first in 1949 and Bobby Brown played most games at third -- and you could generally count on them in those post-war years the way you could count on Pee Wee Reese and Billy Cox on the left side in Brooklyn.
But an A-Rod/Jeter comparison? On paper and projecting their careers, there has been nothing comparable around New York since Lindstrom-Jackson for those Giants. And who knows? Maybe in the final analysis there will be no left side worth comparing at all. But they still have to play together.
In the meantime, Tigers fans will remember Ray Boone at third and Kuenn at short in the mid-1950s. Cincinnati fans will remember the way third baseman Chris Sabo paired with Barry Larkin to lead the Reds to that 1990 wire-to-wire championship season. And somewhere is the Pirates fan who has seen enough summers come and go to tell the left-side tales of the great Pie Traynor and the great Arky Vaughn.
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.