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.
Twelve players have been inducted into the Hall of Fame as Pittsburgh Pirates. But Willie Stargell is the only Pirates Hall of Famer to have played for the team in the last 40 years.
Max Carey, though, played for the Pirates when they were a serious powerhouse in the National League. In 1911, Carey's first full season, his teammates included future Hall of Famers in Honus Wagner and player-manager Fred Clarke, as well as future Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie (the namesake of the Pirates' spring training facility in Florida).
Carey was a fleet-footed center fielder. He didn't have much power but he did have a knack for hitting singles and then running like the wind. He led the league in steals 10 different times, and his prowess preceded him beyond the majors. A star Negro Leagues pitcher, Smokey Joe Williams, who played against numerous major leaguers in exhibitions games, paid Carey the highest compliment, as recorded on Carey's Hall of Fame page:
He was just as fast between the ears as he was with his feet. That's what made him harder to stop than a run in a silk stocking.
Best Year: 1925: .343/.418/.491, 5 HRs, 44 RBIs, 46 SB/11 CS, 66 BB/19 K, 4.5 rWAR
Max Carey was mostly a singles hitter, so his career year naturally occurred when the singles fell, and a .349 Batting Average on Balls in Play (47 points higher than his career BABIP) led him to the highest average of his career. He also legged out 13 triples and a career-high 39 doubles, leading to a career high in slugging percentage and Isolated Power. He was brilliant in the Pirates' seven-game victory in the World Series over Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators, batting .458/.552/.625, with 11 hits, two walks, and three HBPs in 31 plate appearances. It was his only playoff appearance, and he made it count.
That performance encapsulates Carey at his best. As John Bennett described him in a biography for SABR:
A hard working, fundamentally sound outfielder with great speed, sure hands, and good contact with a touch of power. These traits, commonly found in the early days of baseball, seemed less important in the Ruthian era in which Carey starred. His career thus represents a bridge from the bunting and speed game to the lug and slug home run era.
Worst Year: 1926: .231/.294/.300, 0 HR, 35 RBIs, 10 SBs, 38 BB/19 K, -0.9 rWAR
Sadly, 1925 would prove not only Carey's best campaign, but his last full year in Pittsburgh and the last good year of his career. He was 35 in 1925, and by the time he turned 26 his legs had lost much of their hop. As a latter-day analyst, I can guess that he probably got lucky in 1925 and unlucky in 1926, victimized by a .242 BABIP, but old age probably had a great deal to do with it.
So did an ugly clubhouse dispute in which he found himself embroiled, as Bennett describes. The retired former player-manager, Fred Clarke, had taken to sitting on the bench and inserting himself into game decisions. Carey tried to organize the players to banish Clarke, but he was outflanked by owner Barney Dreyfuss, who responded by dropping Carey from the team. Carey had strengthened Dreyfuss's hand, however, by batting .222 at the time he was dropped: Dreyfuss might have had a harder time getting rid of him if he had been hitting .343, as he did in 1925.
Claim to Fame: Carey's claim to fame was in his legs. Those early Pirates had more jump than a rabbit warren: Clarke retired with 509 stolen bases, 34th of all time, and Honus Wagner is tenth with 723 stolen bases. But Carey topped them all, with 738 swipes, ninth of all time. And Carey is likely to remain number nine for quite some time. He's 184 steals ahead of his closest active competition, the 34-year-old Juan Pierre, who has led the majors in times caught stealing in each of the last two years.
Pierre has averaged 46 steals a year over the past five seasons. In order to tie Carey, Pierre would need to average 46 steals a year for four more years, and that's a tall order. Since 1901, only 11 men have stolen at least 46 bases in a season after having turned 34, including Honus Wagner and Carey himself. And only four men have done it more than once: Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Otis Nixon, and Carey.
Off the field: After retiring, Max Carey managed in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own, and also served as president of the league. (When I said that this was the greatest baseball movie ever, Jeff Passan made fun of me for days. I still think it is, and if that makes me a sap, then so be it.)
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