Happy Birthday Boy! Bobby Wallace turns 148 this week

Alex Remington
November 2, 2011

On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.

Bobby Wallace may be the greatest shortstop you've never heard of. "Perhaps the greatest defensive shortstop of his generation," as he is called by Scott Schul of the Society for American Baseball Research, Wallace is little-remembered today because he played 20 of his 25 seasons with two defunct teams, the Cleveland Spiders (who folded after 1899) and the St. Louis Browns (who moved to Baltimore in 1954).

Moreover, Wallace played nine of his 25 seasons before the establishment of the modern World Series in 1903. Along with George Sisler and Rick Ferrell, he is one of only three representatives of the St. Louis Browns in the Hall of Fame.

What's interesting is that Wallace left Cleveland under shady circumstances. The owners of the Spiders also owned the St. Louis Perfectos (who were renamed the Cardinals in 1900), and they decided to shift all their stars to one team. So Wallace was shipped to St. Louis, along with two other future Hall of Famers, Jesse Burkett and Cy Young — yes, the Cy Young. That exodus led to the Spiders' infamous 20-134 record in 1899, making them perhaps the worst professional sports team in American history. The Spiders folded after that season and a rule was passed prohibiting owners from owning more than one team.

A Pittsburgh native, Rhoderick John Wallace never played for a first-place team and thus never played a game in the playoffs. But he could hardly be blamed for that. In 1911, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss called him "the best player in the American League." Signed as a pitcher, Wallace was a decent twirler but better with the bat, and after two seasons at third he was finally inserted in the middle of the field, where he earned the nickname "Mr. Shortstop." {YSP:MORE}

Best Year: 1901: .324/.351/.451, 2 HRs, 91 RBIs, 15 SBs
Wallace was a near-exact contemporary of Honus Wagner, which meant that his brilliant career was usually in the shadow of the greatest shortstop in major league history. (Wagner's best years were a century ago, so it's easy to forget that no shortstop in the past hundred years has even come close to matching him. Wagner retired with 134.5 WAR. Among all players who have played at least half their career at shortstop, only Alex Rodriguez comes close, and Alex is at 104.9. Since Alex has recorded 9.8 WAR in the past three seasons, he would need another nine years to pass Wagner.)

Wallace spent most of his career in the American League, while Wagner was with the Pirates; Wallace was safely considered the best shortstop in his league while Wagner was clearly the best in his. But in 1901, Wallace was a Cardinal, and thus playing in the same league as the Flying Dutchman. But due to his stellar defense, Wallace is actually credited by Baseball-Reference.com as having accrued more Wins Above Replacement than Wagner, for the one and only year in his career. In 1901, it was safe to say that Bobby Wallace had the best year of any shortstop in all of baseball.

Worst Year: 1900: .268/.328/.381, 4 HRs, 70 RBIs, 7 SBs
It's a funny game. Just the year before his best season, Wallace had his worst; fewer singles fell in for hits, and his defense is uncharacteristically listed as having been negative as well. Since the box score data is 111 years old, it's hard to know whether this blip reflects a true occurrence, or is merely an artifact.

Claim to Fame: Wallace holds the record for most chances at shortstop in a single game, 17. He also holds the record for the lowest winning percentage of all managers with at least 200 games, a 62-154 record, good for a .287 winning percentage. (The worst record of the past 30 years is held by Alan Trammell, who compiled a 186-300 record with the Detroit Tigers — but his winning record was still nearly 100 points higher, .383. Back in the day, when teams were bad, they were bad. No wonder the Browns moved to Baltimore.)

Wallace may hold the record for the longest career by a position player who never played in the postseason, but if so, he gets it on a technicality. On Baseball-Reference, career stats before 1903 are not searchable, making it difficult to determine whether any players who played part of their career before the modern era also went their whole career without playing in October.

That said, Wallace is one of the only position players in history to have logged playing time in 25 different seasons, along with his old 1888 Cleveland teammate, Deacon McGuire. However, while McGuire never played in a World Series game per se, he was a member of the first-place 1900 Brooklyn Superbas. That year, rather than the World Series, the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph newspaper sponsored a best-of-five series at the end of the year, which the Superbas won by defeating the Pirates three games to one. McGuire was the Brooklyn catcher.

Off the Field: Wallace turned 39 in 1914 and was basically a utility player for the next five years; he served for two seasons as player-manager of the Browns, in 1911 and 1912. (The great Branch Rickey took over the team in 1913, Rickey's first managerial job.) He umpired briefly in 1915, but it was not to his liking, and he returned to coaching and occasional play through his early 40s. As a manager, compared to the domineering and teetotaling Rickey, Wallace was not a harsh disciplinarian, telling reporters:

I will not stand for abuse of the drinking privilege, but any man who put up a good article of ball will not hear any complaint from me. While I don't drink myself I believe a few glasses of beer a day help a ball player. [sic]

Jon Lester and Josh Beckett clearly would have liked playing under Wallace.

Wallace apparently never liked managing, and later said, "I liked umpiring even less." But he still adored the game. Following his playing career, Wallace spent most of his time as a scout, spending 33 years in that capacity with the Reds. He passed away on Nov. 3, 1960, one day before his 87th birthday.

Big BLS H/N: Baseball Almanac for the Wallace card