As Bruce Willis once told a young man sitting in an airport waiting room at the beginning of “Lucky Number Sleven,”
“There was a time.” In this case, the time was 1944, the league was the National, and the Most Valuable Player was Marty Marion.
So, you ask, what is unusual about that? How little we know. How much to discover.
In 1944, Marty Marion played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. Marty Marion batted .267, had a .324 on base average, and slugged .362. He hit 6 home runs, stole 1 base, and despite committing 21 errors, led National League shortstops in fielding with a .972 mark.
Forget the 21 errors in 1944.
Marty Marion was the best defensive shortstop in baseball history until Ozzie Smith came along. Marion was 6’2″, which was extremely tall for a shortstop and his long arms led to baseball writers referring to him as the “The Octopus.” Many compared Marion’s grace at shortstop to that of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on the stage.
Despite the fact that in 1944 most of the best players were not playing baseball because they were defending freedom, many had better offensive seasons than did Marty Marion.
Dixie Walker won the batting title with a .357 average, Marion’s teammate Stan Musial hit .347, Joe Medwick batted .337 and Johnny Hopp finished at .336. Marion’s .267 was 90 points behind the batting champion.
The MVP vote in 1944 was almost as close as possible. Marion received 190 points to edge Bill Nicholson by a single tally.
Nicholson, a slugger who played for the Cubs and led the league with 33 home runs and 122 RBIs, hit .287, had a .391 on base average and slugged .545.
Nicholson’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 6.5 was second only to Musial’s 9.1. Marion had a 4.0 WAR.
Until the “steroid era,” defense was recognized as valuable as offense. Great defense prevents runs and a player such as Marty Marion, at a key defensive position, can prevent runs. Sure, a “productive hitter” who might not even play in the field can hit over 30 home runs and knock in over 100 runs, but how many runs can he prevent on defense?
Marion was not unique. Many “powerless” hitters who were great defensive players and hit for a decent average were MVPs.
Frankie Frisch hit .311 with four home runs in 1931 and was the National League MVP. In 1934, the highly underrated Mickey Cochrane batted .320 with all of two home runs, but he was the Tigers leader and he was the American League MVP.
Phil Rizzuto won the award in 1950 when he hit .324 with only seven home runs and nine years later, Nellie Fox was the American League’s MVP with a .306 average and two home runs. In 1960, National League MVP Dick Groat hit .325 with two home runs.
Maury Wills was the 1961 NL MVP with a below .300 batting average and only six home runs. Of course, it should be noted that Wills stole a then record 104 bases, but since some “experts” have determined that stealing a base is a bad play, an accomplishment that baseball writers considered a huge positive in 1961 has become a negative in 2011.
Let us move to the 2002 National League. The MVP was a player named Barry Bonds, whose big bat led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series. While Bonds’ hitting improved with age, his defense, which once was outstanding, eroded more quickly than a farm field during a hurricane.
Bonds batted .370 or an incredible 103 points higher than Marion’s .267. Barry hit 46 home runs, knocked in 110 runs and walked an amazing 198 times.
Interesting how Marty Marion and Barry Bonds were both MVP Award winners.
What a difference an era makes.