On Baseball’s Bird Brains

Don’t ask me why, but baseball fans love to honor the history of the game. I can’t offhand think of any more entertaining way to celebrate that history than assembling an all-time team, especially one that’s put together for totally frivolous reasons.

Almost from its inception, baseball has been associated with birds. Today, three teams (the Blue Jays, Cardinals and Orioles) are named after types of birds. The most successful team in the history of the sport, the (bleh) Yankees, actually started their history as the original Baltimore Orioles. Moreover, dozens upon dozens of major league players have shared their names or nicknames with birds.

Here, I’ve endeavored to create a full 25-man roster (plus GM and coaching staff) consisting entirely of bird namesakes.

The rules for eligibility are simple. To qualify for the team, a player must share a first name, last name or nickname with either birds in general or a particular type of bird; a nickname is noteworthy enough for inclusion if it appears on the player’s Baseball-Reference page. To qualify at a field position, a non-active player must have at least 400 games played in the major leagues (or, in one case, the Negro Leagues) at said position. There’s no equivalent games or innings minimum for pitchers.

With that in mind, on to the All-Bird Team!

Starting Nine

Catcher: George “Birdie” Tebbetts – One of the  joys of putting together a team like this is discovering great baseball men who have been mostly forgotten by history. Birdie Tebbetts is our first such man, a very good catcher for the Tigers before and after World War II and a very good manager, scout and executive after his playing career ended. Though he was no slugger, Birdie found his way onto four All-Star rosters thanks to his excellent defensive reputation and respectable batting averages.

First Base: Jake “Eagle Eye” Beckley – Two positions, two players I’d never heard of before assembling this team. Beckley was one of the best hitters in the turn-of-the-century big leagues, a star first baseman for the Pirates, Reds and others. Over the course of 20 seasons, he racked up 2,934 hits (this was before anyone cared about reaching 3,000), a total that was second only to Cap Anson at the time. More than 60 years after the end of his career, he was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame via the Veterans’ Committee.

Second Base: Dustin “Muddy Chicken” Pedroia – Now, here’s someone I know! The first active player on the squad, Pedroia has already picked up a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP, four All-Star nods, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and a World Series ring in his career at the keystone. He’s one of the top second basemen in the league, and he’s likely to remain so for years to come.

Third Base: Robin Ventura and Ron “Penguin” Cey – Third base was the first really difficult decision in assembling this squad, as these two boast rather similar careers and similarly avian names. Ventura, of course, was an excellent all-around player with great contact skills, some power and top-notch defense in his prime. Cey’s raw numbers don’t look quite as great, but when adjusted for his lower-scoring era he actually comes out better with the stick (121 vs. 114 OPS+), albeit a little worse with the glove. The All-Bird manager will likely maximize production at the hot corner with a lefty-righty platoon.

Shortstop: Robin Yount – If third base was one of the toughest choices on this team, shortstop is likely the easiest. Yount needs no introduction as a two-time MVP, member of the 3,000 hit club and deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer. He also famously moved to the outfield midway through his career, but as we’ll see, this squad has little need for his talents out there.

Left Field: Turkey Stearnes – Besides being a collection of some of the greatest talents in baseball history, the pre-integration Negro Leagues were absolutely packed with great nicknames. One of the best belonged to Norman Thomas Stearnes, who earned his unusual moniker by flapping his arms as he rounded the bases. In spite of his oddball behavior – he was known to occasionally talk to his bats – Stearnes was feared throughout the league for his powerful bat. He hit a Negro League-record 176 home runs against top competition and hundreds more against barnstorming teams, and he batted over .400 three different times.

Center Field: Tris “The Grey Eagle” Speaker – Widely known as one of the greatest players of all time and rightly so, Tristram E. Speaker starred for the Boston and Cleveland teams of the early 20th century. With the Red Sox, he teamed with Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper to form the famed “Million-Dollar Outfield.” After being dealt to the Indians in one of the worst trades in major league history, he remained one of the top players in the game for the better part of a decade, finishing his career with over 3,500 hits and a sharp .345 batting average. His 792 doubles represent one of baseball’s most unbreakable records.

Right Field: Andre “The Hawk” Dawson – Right field has likely the least accomplished starter in this outfield, but fortunately for the Bird-men, the weakest link is still a Hall of Famer. The Hawk’s career accomplishments include eight All-Star appearances, eight outfield Gold Gloves and an MVP award earned in spite of playing for a last-place Cubs team in 1987. A noted power/speed threat, Dawson was the third player to join the 300-300 club and wrapped up his career with 438 home runs and 314 stolen bases.

Designated Hitter: Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin – No, the DH rule didn’t exist during Goslin’s career, but on this team, he has to play somewhere. Besides, as his position’s all-time leader in errors, he’d likely relish the chance to stay off the field. Fortunately, his bat more than made up for the occasional defensive miscue, as Goose helped the Senators to a world title in 1924 and hit a league-leading .379 four years later. His career .316 batting average ranks in the top 75 all-time, and he made the Hall of Fame by way of the Veterans Committee in 1968.

Lineup: On a team that’s this loaded, the batting order doesn’t matter all that much. Still, I’d maximize production with the following lineup card:

DH Goslin
CF Speaker
2B Pedroia
LF Stearnes
SS Yount
1B Beckley
3B Ventura/Cey
RF Dawson
C Tebbetts

It seems strange to have the designated hitter leading off, but Goslin’s high batting averages and good eye made him one of the best on-base threats of his era, and he was far from a liability on the basepaths. I’m a firm believer in having the best hitter on the team bat second, and Tris Speaker certainly fits the bill. Pedroia would get on base plenty in front of the team’s big boppers, Stearnes and Yount, and Beckley acts as a secondary leadoff hitter for the bottom of the order. With the platoon advantage, Ventura and Cey provide balanced offense in the seven-hole, and Dawson is right there to drive them in. Tebbetts is far and away the weakest hitter on the team, but he’d still get on base enough to set things up for the top of the order.


The Bench

Outfielder: Joe “Ducky” Medwick – Medwick completes a rather loaded pasture for the all-Bird team, as all five outfielders are in the Hall of Fame. In his prime with the Cardinals, he was among the NL’s top hitters, leading the league in a pile of offensive categories in 1937 and remaining a force to be reckoned with for several more years. His career was derailed, however, by a beanball from former Cardinals teammate Bob Bowman just six days after Medwick was traded to Los Angeles. Though he was never quite the same player again, Ducky still managed to rap out 2,400 hits and earned his trip to Cooperstown in 1968.

Infielder: Jay Bell – While he’s a bit of a step down from the men he’s backing up, longtime Pirates shortstop Jay Bell was a fine player in his own right. Though he was primarily known for his fielding, topped by a Gold Glove award in 1993, Bell rises above the pack of utility infielders with bird-based names thanks to his offense. Throughout his career, he hit for respectable averages, took plenty of walks and found occasional power, as evidenced by his 38 home runs in the high-flying 2001 season. His league-average 101 OPS+ is quite impressive for someone who played nearly his entire career at short.

Catcher: Jay “Nig” Clarke – Apparently, it was pretty common for dark-skinned players in the pre-integration era to be nicknamed “Nig,” for reasons I won’t explain in detail here. A backstop who provided pretty decent offense for his era and shared his given name with a type of bird, Clarke had two big moments in his career: He hit eight home runs in a minor league game in 1902, and he caught Addie Joss’ perfect game in 1908. Still, he’s on the team by default – other than Tebbetts, Clarke is the only qualified catcher with a bird-based name. That makes a certain kind of sense.


Pitching Staff

The Ace: Robin Roberts – Until the ageless Jamie Moyer passed him by way of sheer longevity, Roberts’ most famous accomplishment may have been his record 505 home runs allowed. It takes an excellent player to set an all-time record, even in a negative category, and Robin Roberts is certainly no exception. The Phillies ace led the league in games started every year from 1950 to 1955 and pitched over 300 innings every year. Pitching for some terrible squads left him just short of the vaunted 300 win club, but he was still elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976.

Number Two: Jay Dean – Wait, who? Odds are you know this guy by his nickname: Dizzy. Though his career basically consisted of five and a half seasons, those seasons represented one of the greatest stretches of pitching in baseball history. With the Cardinals, Dean led the league in strikeouts four times, complete games three times and wins twice while racking up 36 WAR. Despite the brevity of his career, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953, just six years after he threw his last pitch.

(I did consider adding Dizzy’s brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean, to this squad, but ultimately decided that if he qualifies for his nickname, so does every player named Donald, Huey, Dewey or Louie. Sorry, Paul.)

Number Three: Jered Weaver – Besides helping me find some underrated and not-so-underrated baseball players from the annals of history, making this list has taught me that there is, in fact, a type of bird called a weaver. Per Wikipedia: “The Ploceidae, or weavers, are small passerine birds related to the finches.” Hence, the younger Weaver brother, owner of the 2010 AL strikeout title and recipient of Cy Young votes in three consecutive seasons, more than qualifies for this team. Though he’s having a bit of a down season by his own high standards, the Angels hurler likely has a few more good years left to solidify his place as the third-best bird-named pitcher in history. I won’t be shocked if he passes Dean by way of longevity.

Four and Five: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and Paul Byrd – It’s tough to think of two more disparate pitchers than the men who fill out the starting rotation on this team. The Bird burst onto the scene as a rookie phenom with the 1976 Tigers, leading the league with a 2.34 ERA and pitching an incredible 24 complete games. Sadly, he hurt his arm midway through the next season and was out of baseball completely by the end of 1980. Paul Byrd, meanwhile, had a long and unspectacular career to match his avian rotation-mate’s short and spectacular one. Known for his utter aversion to bases on balls, the Louisville native racked up 109 wins in parts of 14 seasons and stayed a tick above league average with a 103 ERA+.

Closer: Rich “Goose” Gossage – One of the top firemen of the 1970s and 80s, the Goose intimidated hitters wherever he went. From his younger days of pitching 100 or more innings out of the bullpen to his mid-career stretch as a more modern closer, Gossage racked up 310 saves and struck out over 1500 batters. As a testament to the number and quality of innings he pitched, he reached double digits in wins four different times and finished his career with an impressive 124, all but nine of which were earned out of the bullpen. The BBWAA honored him with election to the Hall of Fame in 2008.

Setup: Clay “Hawk” Carroll – Owner of one of baseball’s most ubiquitous avian nicknames, Carroll was a closer in the old-school mold. From 1966 to 1975 he pitched more than 90 innings every year, receiving MVP votes in two seasons and setting an NL record in 1972 with 37 saves. As good as he was during the regular season, Carroll saved his best work for October: He had a sparkling 1.39 postseason ERA and pitched nine shutout innings over four appearances in the 1970 World Series.

Setup: Jay Howell – An effective reliever for the Yankees, Dodgers and Athletics in the late ’80s, Jay Howell was a three-time All-Star who chipped in 155 career saves. Though he picked up a World Series ring with Los Angeles in 1988, Howell’s most noteworthy moment of the postseason came when he was ejected from the NLCS for having pine tar in his glove. He returned for the Fall Classic itself, taking the loss in Game Three but earning a save in Game Four en route to the championship.

Setup: Phil “The Vulture” Regan – Like so many  firemen of his era, Phil Regan began his MLB career as a struggling starter before finding himself in the bullpen. In 1966, he hurled 116.2 innings for the Dodgers, picking up 21 saves and 14 wins. Regan was so good at collecting wins in late-inning situations that teammate Sandy Koufax started calling him “The Vulture,” a nickname that earns him a place as the team’s only scavenger.

Bullpen: Doug Bird, Tim Byrdak, Aaron Crow – A fine reliever and spot starter for the Royals  in the late 1980s, Doug Bird started 100 games, finished 199 and picked up 60 saves. Longtime lefty specialist Tim Byrdak, most recently of the Mets, will reprise that role here as the lone avian southpaw. Finally, young Royals reliever Aaron Crow is the team’s second and last active player, bringing his heavy sinker and impressive 9.0 career K/9 rate.


Leadership

Manager: Earl Weaver – Appropriately, the skipper for this squad is known for his work with the Baltimore Orioles on top of owning an avian surname. Owner of four AL pennants and one World Series ring, Weaver is widely considered one of the game’s greatest managers, and he earned his call to Cooperstown in 1996. In addition to his rather… colorful vocabulary, Weaver was known for his extensive use of stats, and he famously built his teams around “pitching, defense and the three-run homer.”

Pitching Coach: Art Fowler – Forever associated with fiery manager Billy Martin, Art Fowler followed his good friend to seven coaching stints with five different teams. Wherever he went, Fowler was among the game’s more highly regarded coaches, and he helped Ron Guidry to his Cy Young-winning season in 1978.

Hitting Coach: Mickey Hatcher – I’ll admit that Hatcher’s qualifications for this team are shaky at best, but the only noteworthy hitting coach with a more worthy name is the aforementioned Jay Bell, and he’s already on the team as a player. Birds lay eggs, eggs hatch, and that’s good enough for me. Hatcher’s credentials include almost 12 seasons coaching for the perennially successful Angels, including the 2009 squad that set a franchise record with 883 runs scored.

Executive: Frank Wren – Atlanta’s current is one of the more respected front-office men in the game today, and his handiwork speaks for itself. Taking control after disappointing 2006 and 2007 seasons that saw the team’s long run of dominance atop their division come to an end, Wren presided over a reloading process that brought the Braves back to contention in just his second year at the helm. Though they’ve run hot and cold throughout the year, Wren’s Braves are currently well in the lead for the NL East title, which would give them their third playoff berth in four seasons.
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