With the Arkansas Razorbacks advancing steadily in the College World Series (hoping to seal the deal without allowing opponents’ overtime heroics) and Statehood Day upon us, now is as good a time as any to put together the All-Arkansas Baseball Team.
Arkansas punches above its weight in many respects. The Natural State is, of course, filled with beautiful wonders, ranging from the first national river to the Ozark Mountains to perfect vacation lakes. Perhaps more surprisingly, the state has a population of only three million but produced a president, a poet laureate, a groundbreaking historian, many iconic musicians, a market-shifting tycoon, and other influential individuals.
This pattern of surprising impressiveness extends to baseball, and Overtime Heroics presents the All-Arkansas Baseball Team. Despite constituting less than one percent of the American population, Arkansans make up two percent of Golden Hallers and 1.4 percent of Hall of Famers. With this in mind, the 25th state fields quite the competitive roster.
All-Arkansas Baseball Team: Quick Note on Eligibility
Remembering one’s birth is not something humans are capable of remembering. What matters more in forming an identity are the culture and place in which you were raised. The sights, food, environment, people, and local history all impact the way individuals perceive themselves and the world around them.
So for this exercise, players who were raised in Arkansas are eligible. Those with an Arkansan birthplace but a toddler-age or earlier departure, like Arky Vaughan and Lou Brock, are ineligible. Fine players both, but perhaps better representatives of California and Louisiana.
Pitcher: Dizzy Dean
- Stats: 46.0 WAR, 3.02 ERA, 1.206 WHIP, 3.22 FIP
- Hometown: Lucas
Lucas, Arkansas is such a small community that it lacks a Census count and Wikipedia page. The county in which Lucas is located has a population today of just 22,000. Yet this little county of mountains and valleys has the highest point in Arkansas (Mount Magazine) and produced two major league pitchers: the brothers Dizzy and Daffy Dean.
Dizzy rose to prominence with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the 1930s. His humble origins coupled with an outsized personality made Dean an almost instant celebrity when he arrived in the big leagues.
The Arkansan lived by the motto, “If ya done it, it ain’t braggin.” A few examples of his endearing largesse:
- Predicted he would strike out Vince DiMaggio four times in one game. When DiMaggio hit an easy pop-up near home, Dean demanded that his catcher drop it. Dean proceeded to strike him out for the fourth time.
- He predicted that he and his brother would finish the 1934 season with 45 wins. He was wrong; they won 49.
- To stop a double play in the World Series, Dean intentionally ran into the ball, causing a concussion.
- Was perhaps the first announcer to lean into his class and regional origins with his use of colloquialisms and idiosyncratic expressions and terms like “slud into third.”
Before an injury altered and shortened his career, Dean was brilliant. He led the National League in complete games three times, saves once, innings pitched thrice, strike outs four times, and strikeouts per nine innings twice. He was named the most valuable player in 1934 and received votes in four other campaigns. He supplemented his pitching with solid postseason batting, slashing .333/.333/.467 on two doubles and three singles in 15 plate appearances.
Catcher: Bill Dickey
- Stats: 57.2 WAR, .313/.382/.486
- Hometown: Kensett
Kensett was the next logical stop for the Dickey family. John Dickey worked for the railroads, and this town was a stop along the way of an old Missouri Pacific rail line. John was also a decent ballplayer, and his sons followed him on the diamond if not to the railyard.
In 2006, the Arkansas Travelers played their last game at Ray Winder Field. The historic stadium opened in 1932 and became a must-see for any fan of minor league baseball. When the Travs moved across the river to a new home field, management decided a new name was appropriate. There was no doubt that the new moniker had to include one of the greats to hail from Arkansas and a former Traveler himself: Bill Dickey.
The Yankees’ backstop set the standard for catching. Dickey finished in the top ten for throwing out runners percentage on eight occasions, and he placed among the top ten in fielding percentage in 11 different seasons. A constant offensive threat, Dickey finished his career with a more than respectable slash line of .314/.382/.486 while walking almost three times as often as he struck out. Despite missing two years while fighting the fascists in World War II, Dickey received MVP votes in nine different seasons. Bill Dickey easily belongs in the Golden Hall and the All-Arkansas Team.
First Base: Tommy McCraw
- Stats: 8.6 WAR, .246/.309/.361
- Hometown: Malvern
Oh, I may wander, but when I do
I will never be far from you.
You’re in my blood and I know you’ll always be.
Arkansas, you run deep in me.
So goes the chorus of one of the state’s official songs, Arkansas (You Run Deep in Me). Tommy McCraw may have wandered far from his home state, but he never was far from Arkansas. Born in Malvern (the Brick Capital of the World), his nuclear family moved when he was six to California to escape racism and poverty. Yet, McCraw retained a bond with his homeland, visiting regularly for family reunions and today still owns a portion of the family estate in Hot Spring County.
Just as well, since first base is somewhat explicably one of the Wonder State’s weaker positions. In his career, McCraw could be counted on to put up consistently decent numbers while holding down the bag. His stalwart presence could serve this team well in a contest with other states’ clubs.
Second Base: Aaron Ward
- Stats: 13.5 WAR, .268/.335/.383
- Hometown: Booneville
Logan County has produced its fair share of major leaguers, including the Dean brothers and Aaron Ward. The Booneville native came from a problematic background somewhat typical of Arkansas at that time in history. His father was a Klansman and politician who sent his talented son to be educated by the Baptists at their college in Arkadelphia. Ward played well in college ball, signed on with the Little Rock Travelers, and eventually made his way to the segregated big leagues.
Playing primarily second base during Babe Ruth’s early Yankees days, Ward slashed a solid .284/.351/.422 with 4.3 wins above replacement in the 1923 World Series-winning campaign. He topped this performance with a postseason slash line of .417/.440/.542, a home run, and 13 total bases.
Third Base: Brooks Robinson
- Stats: 78.4 WAR, .267/.322/.401, 39.1 dWAR
- Hometown: Little Rock
I was never a particularly gifted athlete. My confidence in swinging the bat was low, though my no-swing approach did enable me to get on base frequently due to the inability of most nine-year-olds to throw strikes consistently. I did enjoy some success in my final year on the Waffle House Little League club as one of those rare boys who could throw over the plate just about every pitch. I even made the All-Star team. Yet translating that early strikeout rate to the next level proved elusive. In my one pitching performance in Pony League, I surrendered eight runs in a third of an inning. I was quickly relegated to third base for the remainder of the season.
What initially was an embarrassment turned out to be perhaps the greatest honor of my playing career. You see, I played in Little Rock, Arkansas. Historic Lamar Porter Field hosted all of our league’s games, and no other than legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson got his start near the very bag that I now manned.
Robinson lived a quintessential Little Rock life. His father played semi-pro ball and was a firefighter. His mother worked in the State Capitol. Robinson himself delivered newspapers on his bicycle and worked the scoreboard and grandstand at Lamar Porter. He graduated from even-more historic Central High School and served in the military.
However, the Human Vacuum Cleaner achieved fame in a faraway place. As third basemen for the Baltimore Orioles, he achieved a level of defensive prowess unmatched in the 163 years of organized baseball. The hot spot is notoriously one of the most difficult defensive positions. Robinson is the all-time leader in defensive wins above replacement at the position and ranks third all-time of any position. In fact, Robinson is comfortably surrounded by fellow Orioles greats Mark Belanger and Cal Ripken, Jr. His defensive contributions and acceptable offensive output led Baltimore to two World Series titles and now his inclusion in the Golden Hall and All-Arkansas Team.
Shortstop: Travis Jackson
- Stats: 43.6 WAR, .291/.337/.433
- Hometown: Waldo
For many Americans, the first exposure to professional baseball is the minor leagues. The idea that a child’s game can serve as a lifelong passion and, for the truly talented and hardworking, a career, is developed in the minds of the young as they see their hometown or nearby club play ball in accessible and welcoming local ballparks.
The Little Rock Travelers fulfilled this time-honored role for a boy visiting the state capital at 14 years old. Travis Jackson was introduced to the club’s manager, a former big leaguer, who saw his potential and encouraged Jackson to stick with baseball. After honing his craft in college (yet another Ouachita Baptist graduate who made it big), Jackson signed on with the Travs.
Jackson subsequently made his way to the big leagues with John McGraw’s New York Giants. He put together solid defensive campaigns and more than respectable offensive numbers. Contemporaries viewed Jackson as a true star, as he received MVP votes in seven different seasons. He likely would have in others but for the fact that the MVP was not awarded in a few years of his career.
Left Field: Wally Moon
- Stats: 24.9 WAR, .289/.371/.445
- Hometown: Bay
Education is essential in confirming and inspiring self-confidence. With knowledge, a person can better understand his or her place in the world, where talents can take an individual, and when engaging in risky behavior is warranted.
Wally Moon came from a family of educators and earned a master’s degree prior to trying out for a big league team. This experience surely gave him the confidence to attempt something that might be considered hubris. In 1954, Moon was assigned to the minor league camp of the Saint Louis Cardinals. He ignored this instruction and delivered himself to the club’s spring training facility. He demanded to be given a shot as the starting left fielder, even this meant going up against veteran and fan-favorite Enos Slaughter.
Moon rose to the occasion he had put himself in, and he displaced Slaughter, who was promptly traded to the Yankees. Fans were rewarded with a rookie of the year performance. Moon followed this up with an all-star career, leading the majors in triples once and his league in on-base percentage on a separate occasion.
Center Field: Torii Hunter
- Stats: 50.7 WAR, .277/.331/.461
- Hometown: Pine Bluff
When the wind blows the right (or wrong) way off the nearby paper mill, Pine Bluff is drenched with an unpleasant odor. The options for work for most residents are the aforementioned paper mill, a chicken plant, Walmart, a handful of the service sector, professional, or academic jobs, or as a prison guard. Remnants of the wealth this Delta town once enjoyed linger on in the architecture. Every now and again, a noteworthy individual emerges out of this milieu.
Torii Hunter of Pine Bluff rose to become one of the most enjoyable players of the 21st Century. With jaw-dropping web gems and regular home run feats, Hunter helped his teams while entertaining crowds in Minnesota, Anaheim, and Detroit. He was rewarded with nine Gold Gloves, five all-star appearances, two Silver Sluggers, and received MVP votes in five different seasons.
Right Field: Jelly Gardner
- Stats: 17.3 WAR, .270/.373/.328
- Hometown: Russellville
Jelly Gardner is a name that just demands to be better known. Besides the sounds of the name itself, Gardner was a superb ballplayer.
Along with millions of his fellow Black Americans in the interwar period, Gardner moved from the South to the North in search of a better life with greater freedom, more economic opportunity, and less racism. Gardner’s trade was baseball, and he found these cherished standards of living in the Negro Leagues.
For several years with the Chicago American Giants, Gardner excelled. His club captured four pennants and a World Series title. In the 1926 title year, Gardner slashed .315/.424/.386 with ten stolen bases and 14 doubles in 87 documented games.
Rest of the Rotation
- Cliff Lee of Benton: 43.2 WAR, 3.52 ERA, 1.196 WHIP, 3.45 FIP
- Schoolboy Rowe of El Dorado: 42.3 WAR, 3.87 ERA, 1.302 WHIP, 3.56 FIP
- Lon Warneke of Owley: 45.7 WAR, 3.18 ERA, 1.245 WHIP, 3.74 FIP
- Preacher Roe of Viola: 29.7 WAR, 3.43 ERA, 1.259 WHIP, 3.69 FIP
- George Kell of Swifton: 37.4 WAR, .306/.367/.414
- Randy Jackson of Little Rock: 12.5 WAR, .261/.320/.421
- Ellis Kinder of Atkins: 28.9 WAR, 3.43 ERA, 1.325 WHIP, 3.62 FIP
- A.J. Burnett of North Little Rock: 28.8 WAR, 3.99 ERA, 1.325 WHIP, 3.86 FIP
- Johnny Sain of Havana: 29.4 WAR, 3.49 ERA, 1.300 WHIP, 3.66 FIP
- Andy Porter of Sweet Home: 18.2 WAR, 4.22 ERA, 1.48 WHIP
- Theolic Smith of Wabbaseka: 17.1 WAR, 4.50 ERA, 1.53 WHIP
- Connie Rector of Arkadelphia: 15.8 WAR, 4.48 ERA, 1.44 WHIP
- Mid Earp of West Fork: 1.35 ERA, 5.6 K/9
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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images