Thursday, May 27, 2010

Random Thursday: 1921 and Austin McHenry

Sometimes, on select Thursdays, randomness happens. This is one of those Thursdays. From Happy Foreman, the last subject of Random Thursday, The Common Man used the random feature of Baseball to jump to a neutralized batting register from 1921. The list itself wasn’t terribly interesting or revealing. It confirmed some things we already knew, that Rogers Hornsby, Harry Heilmann, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Babe Ruth were pretty awesome. Frankie Frisch was one of the most valuable 22 year olds ever (playing 153 games, hitting .341 with a 128 OPS+, and leading the NL with 49 SB).

But one name did pop out high on the leader boards. He was 7th in batting average (.339) and slugging percentage (.513). His 894 neutralized OPS was 8th in the majors. His real stats on the year, the unneutralized ones, are even more impressive. He played 152 games and registered 201 hits. He had 37 doubles, 8 triples, and 17 homeruns. He scored 92 runs and drove in 102. He hit .350/.393/.531 for a 145 OPS+. He was just 25 years old. And The Common Man had never heard of him. His name was Austin McHenry.

Alas, McHenry’s career would end less than a year after his breakthrough campaign. McHenry struggled out of the gate in 1922, eventually alarming Cardinals’ manager Branch Rickey because he was having a hard time with fly balls in leftfield. McHenry reportedly told his manager, “I feel alright, but I can’t see. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m going blind.” Rickey ordered McHenry home to recuperate in late June. McHenry tried to come back a month later, but was simply not right. Rickey told reporters,

“He was pitiful. We were leading, 2-1, in the seventh inning when the Giants put two on with two out. Kelly hit a fly towards left field. Mac had only about 10 feet to cover. He put out his hands, but the ball was over his head by 15 feet. Coming in to the bench Mac put his head on my knees and cried….I sent him out the next day because I didn’t want to check his confidence….At the plate he swung at balls over his head. With almost a blind swing he touched two. When he misjudged a fly in that game I was convinced that he had not recovered.”

McHenry was essentially done as a major leaguer. His vision problems were caused by a fast-moving and aggressive brain tumor that proved to be inoperable. The malignancy was pressing on his optic nerve and was, indeed, causing him to go blind. McHenry died of his tumor on November 27 of 1922 at just 27 years old, leaving behind a wife and daughter. Mike Lynch has written a terrific biography of McHenry for that The Common Man heartily recommends.

In retrospect, it’s unclear whether McHenry really was poised to be a superstar in the National League. His 1921 season aside, McHenry was a relatively pedestrian leftfielder. He was an above average hitter, but probably was only passable at best as a defensive outfielder. The only season in which he finished with more than 2.0 WAR was his epic 1921, which, at 4.9 wins above replacement, was good but in no way historic. A good comparison might be Darin Erstad, whose excellent 2000 earned him a reputation as a great hitter, despite never reaching similar heights again. Erstad was able to parlay that season into a huge contract and several more years in the game, and was even haunting the Houston Astros bench as recently as last year.

Nevertheless, McHenry was beloved by St. Louis fans, who mourned his passing. His replacements for the Cardinals were simply not adequate in a high offense era. None could match McHenry’s power. Max Flack and Joe Schulz, the primary beneficiaries of extra playing time, hit .300 but could barely get the ball out of the infield. In 1923, Rickey dealt 1B Jack Fournier to Brooklyn for Hi Meyers, who proved a bust. The club would essentially play an outfielder short until Chick Hafey blossomed in 1925, and the club sputtered to the middle of the pack in the National League.

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