Author Steps Up to the Plate For a Baseball Should-Have-Been
Making a case for why Wally Berger should be in the Hall of Fame
SELDOM does an accomplished ballplayer attract so little notice as did Wally Berger of the old Boston Braves.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, George Snyder, who met Berger in a Manhattan Beach, Calif., barbershop in 1978, has written and self-published a book with the late Berger titled ``Freshly Remember'd'' that is rich in memories.
It is among the more unusual yet appealing baseball books published this year. A homespun project, the paperback is available primarily by writing to Snyder, a retired high school and college history and social sciences teacher ($20, Schneider/McGuirk Press, P.O. Box 1404, Redondo Beach, Calif., 90278).
In the book's introduction, Snyder shows that Berger's Depression-era accomplishments compare favorably to today's top National League player, Barry Bonds. Looking at the first seven years of each player's major-league career, Snyder finds Berger superior in most categories, including hits (1,232 to 984), home runs (194 to 176), runs batted in (724 to 556), and batting average (.304 to .275).
Nevertheless, Berger has never been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, either in the general election by members of the Baseball Writers of America or by the Special Veterans' Committee, which is supposed to act as a safety net for players otherwise ignored.
Snyder speculates on the reasons Berger may have been overlooked.
For starters, he was a solid citizen but lacked the colorful personality that made good newspaper copy. In an age of catchy player nicknames, Berger never had one that stuck.
Then, too, he had the misfortune of playing for the noncontending Braves, winners of fewer games (38) in 1935 than even the miserable 1962 New York Mets, whose 40-120 record is the worst of the postwar era.
Snyder says that when he first met Berger, he didn't even know whether Berger had batted right- or left-handed. Through extensive research and nine years of weekly breakfast conversations, Snyder became an ``enthusiastic advocate'' and close friend of the former major leaguer.
For an outfielder who played most of his 11-year career in a ``pitcher's park,'' meaning it was plenty spacious, Berger had excellent offensive numbers. But his defensive skills were equally impressive. In 1931 he threw out four runners in a single game, a feat unequaled by any other outfielder since.
Berger quickly established himself as a power hitter, slugging 38 home runs in 1930, a major-league-rookie record that Cincinnati's Frank Robinson tied in 1956 and Oakland's Mark McGwire finally broke with 49 homers in 1987.
Snyder was especially fascinated by Berger's one-on-one contract negotiations, which Berger handled despite his being a high school dropout. The process is documented through numerous letters Berger saved.
Berger's absence from the Hall of Fame, coincidentally, receives brief attention in another recent release, ``The Politics of Glory: How Baseball's Hall of Fame Really Works,'' by Bill James ($25, Macmillan).
James, unlike Snyder, is a well-known and listened-to observer of the major leagues, respected for his published works that statistically analyze player performance.
In trying to explain the peculiarities of the Hall of Fame selection process, James doesn't directly endorse Berger, but he shows that his career numbers are similar to those of the Chicago Cubs' Hack Wilson, who is a member. James is particularly impressed that Berger was able to fare so well (242 career homers) playing in Braves Field, which the author describes as ``one of the worst home-run parks ever built.''
IN ``Lost Ballparks: A Celebration of Baseball's Legendary Fields,'' which is now out in paperback ($16.95, Viking), Lawrence Ritter says that Braves Field was uncommonly spacious because of owner James Gaffney's interest in inside-the-park home runs. The distance down each foul line was originally 402 feet, and to dead center field, 550 feet. Later, the dimensions were adjusted inward to stimulate more over-the-wall homers, yet Braves Field seldom presented any easy slugging targets, even though between1928 and 1950 the outfield distances changed almost annually.
Berger had three seasons in which he hit as many home runs as all his teammates did combined, a feat Babe Ruth accomplished only twice.
James says that if players were rated on the percentage they contributed to their team's offense ``I'm not sure that Berger wouldn't be the No. 1 player of all time.''