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How the Yankees misused a World Series champion

All the way back in 1909, the Yankees didn’t know quite what they had.

Butch Schmidt
Public domain

The nine-year stretch from 1907 to 1915 is arguably the worst period in Yankees’ franchise history. The “best” they fared in that time was a second-place finish in 1910, but even then, they finished 14.5 games back of first. In every other season in that time, they finished more than 20 games back of first. The worst was the 1912 Highlanders team, who finished last in the AL with a 50-102 record, 55 games back of first. By multiple measures, that is the worst season in franchise history.

They might’ve been able to do a bit better if they didn’t make decisions like having a future World Series winning first baseman only pitch.

Butch Schmidt was born in Baltimore in 1896. His family owned a meat market which he worked at as a kid, eventually getting him the nickname “Butcher Boy,” which was eventually shortened to Butch.

The Eastern League’s Baltimore Orioles signed Schmidt ahead of the 1908 season after he had been discovered playing on sandlots. The 21-year-old pitcher was impressive, helping Baltimore to the Eastern League pennant. His performance also caught the eye of George Stallings, who was manager of the EL’s third-place club, the Newark Indians.

In the offseason before the 1909 season, the then-New York Highlanders hired Stallings to manage the team. He decided to bring along one of the players who doomed his Newark team to third place and signed Schmidt.

On May 11, 1909, Highlanders starter King Brockett got hit around by the Tigers, allowing eight runs in three innings. Stallings went to the bullpen and brought in Schmidt for his major league debut.

Things did not go much better for Schmidt. He threw the remaining five innings of the road game, but allowed eight runs runs himself while Detroit tacked on two more unearned. The Tigers won, 16-5. Schmidt ended up coming to bat three times and drew a walk, which would be a sign of things to come.

The pitcher never made another appearance for the Highlanders, and returned to Baltimore at some point later in the summer. Schmidt caught back on with the Orioles and played out the remainder of the year with them. Over the course of that season, he began to show a bit of a prowess at the plate. Orioles manager Jack Dunn began to play him at first base on days where he wasn’t pitching. (It was something he would also allow a pitching prospect named Babe Ruth to do.) By the time the next season came along, Schmidt had become a full-time first baseman.

Over the next couple years, Schmidt became one of Baltimore’s premier hitters, getting back on the major league radar for a different discipline then the first time. He would finally break back into the majors thanks in part to a familiar face.

Stallings was hired as manager of the Boston Braves after 1912. Boston had finished in dead last in the NL, 52 games back of first. In his first season in charge, Stallings led the Braves up to fifth and cut over 20 games off their deficit from the previous season.

During that August, Stallings also acquired the now-first baseman Schmidt. Debuting for Boston on September 1st, Schmidt played a majority of the games over the last month of the season. He acquitted himself better than he did in his brief major league pitching career, putting up a line of .308/.333/.423 (115 OPS+).

The next season, Schmidt took over as Boston’s full-time first baseman. He was again a pretty solid hitter and fielder as he and the “Miracle Braves” completed a remarkable turnaround from last place in early July. They went 68-19 down the stretch and surged all the way to a stunning 10.5-game romp ahead of all their opponents, winning the National League pennant.

In the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series, the AL champion Philadelphia Athletics had a man on second with one out and the great Home Run Baker at the plate. During the at bat, Baker popped a ball up right near the wall in foul territory. Schmidt reached into the stands to make the play, and then doubled off the runner, who was trying to advance a base.

Athletics manager Connie Mack reportedly would describe that as the play that sparked Boston to the World Series title. It ended the A’s threat in the inning, and they would only manage just one run in the game. Boston won it 7-1, and then went on to sweep the Fall Classic (the first sweep in World Series history). Although Schmidt only had a .588 OPS at the plate, he undoubtedly had a big impact on the series as a whole.

Schmidt had another solid season in 1915, but then opted to retire after that, despite being just 29. He returned to Baltimore to work at his family’s butcher business. There were reports that he considered coming back in 1917, but he never did.

To be somewhat fair to the then-Highlanders, Schmidt’s pre-first base move hitting stats aren’t incredible. There’s nothing there that says that they obviously missed on him being a solid hitter. However, it is quite something that they missed on a future World Series-winning starter because they were playing him at the wrong position.