Smiling Stan Hack, One of the Overlooked Greats in Cubs History

“To us [Midwesterners] to hear New Yorkers or Californians suggest that Harry Caray may not be worthy of the honors given to Mel Allen or Vin Scully is a) almost comically ignorant, sort of like hearing a Midwesterner suggest that the Statue of Liberty was never of any National significance and should be turned into scrap metal, and b) personally offensive. That Harry should have to wait in line behind those wonderful me but comparatively insignificant figures is, beyond any question, an egregious example of the regional bias of the Nation’s media.” – Bill James from ‘This Time Let’s Not Eat the Bones (1985)

Quick question: Which third baseman is the Cubs’ All-Time leader in hits?

Bill James made a point that I will reiterate for the good of the Cubs. A lifelong Cub, who played a long, and Hall of Fame worthy career, though his accomplishment has been underplayed, and maybe forgotten by both the media and the organization. In fact, the same organization that should benefit the most by what he accomplished on the field.

With a history as rich as the Cubs, this franchise should want to remind its fanbase of all of the great players that have worn the Cubs’ uniform. Greatness is proven in time and for baseball players, his flesh and intangibles became less of a reason to place him in immortality. His bones, the stats and all measureable record on paper factor more to the meaning of greatness.

I was browsing the records of Phil Cavarretta’s teammates and I was so impressed by this one player in particular and I wondered why I had never heard about him.

The Yankees promoted Phil Rizzuto for years and lobbied with the New York media to vote him into the Hall of Fame. And they finally got what they wanted, despite all of the debate and solid facts that proved otherwise. The Yankees figured out they could push and get all of their World Series heroes voted into the Hall, and why should we complain? I’m not.

I will, though, point out the fact that the Cubs played in three World Series between 1935 and 1945. And only one regular player from those teams, Billy Herman, is in the Hall of Fame. And he wasn’t the best player on the team during the 10-year run.

StanHack1Stanley Camfield Hack, who Cubs fans referred to during his playing days as ‘Smiling Stan,’ was the most exciting third baseman of his generation. Hack played his entire 16-year career with the Chicago Cubs. Hack manned the hot corner from 1932 through 1947 and was beloved by fans and his peers.

Bill James, in his ‘Historical Baseball Abstract (2001)’, rated Stan Hack as the ninth best third baseman of All-Time. After Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson but ahead of Ken Boyer and Pie Traynor. We can argue that Stan Hack, as an athlete, is a better overall third baseman, from an historic standpoint, than Chipper Jones, who also played for multiple National League Champion teams. Stan Hack played in four World Series when divisional play did not exist where Chipper Jones played in three Fall Classics and three National League Championship series.

While the organization is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Wrigley Field and the men that have played at the cherished ballpark, this article begs more questions that a conclusive analysis. When looking at players throughout the history of the game, I looked at more evidence of what type of player they actually were and did not restrict myself to sabermetric tools in order to discuss Stan Hack’s career.

It has been argued that it is okay for baseball to miss on a few great players when voting the best of the best into the Hall of Fame. I like to be true to history and ask, are you sure that is right? The Cubs should know better when it comes to recognizing the greatness of a player that was part of its organization.

Stan Hack was a leader on three National League Champion teams and played on a fourth as a rookie in 1932. Hack played in 18 World Series games and in 76 plate appearances he hit .348/.408/.449 (24 hits, six runs scored and five RBI). And that was from the leadoff spot for more than a decade for many of the best Cubs team ever assembled.

The Player

Stan Hack was a fine baserunner early in his career and among the best baserunners of his Era. Hack led the league in stolen bases in two consecutive seasons and was an offensive weapon as a leadoff hitter before the profile for third basemen changed in the 50s.

Defensively, Hack was one of the best third basemen in the game for more than a decade. Hack was consistent, reliable and rarely missed a game. His playing days, we are talking about two decades before Brooks Robinson and forty years before Ron Cey, gives me the liberty to make the claim that Stan Hack was the best third baseman in the game for a twenty-year span.

Hack hung up his cleats at the age of 37 and went on to manage the Cubs, married a second wife and managed the Cardinals before finishing his career in professional baseball as a minor league manager. Despite growing up in California, Stan Hack spent his entire adult life in Illinois where he ran a business and raised a family.

The Stats

Unfortunately at the time that Stan Hack was calling it a career in the Major Leagues, questions started to arise within the game about Hack and many of the other players of the Era. The arguments made focus on the period in which he played that is referred to as the ‘Live Ball Era.’ The Live Ball Era is considered to be the period between 1920 and 1940 and at that time Major League Baseball was thought to be a hitter’s league where players ran up their stats and collected cheap RBI. Hack, a third baseman, did not hit for power or rack up big RBI totals, does not compare historically with other third basemen.

The mainstream view is partially true, but there are fallacies in their argument.

StanHackOne, the Live Ball Era (LBE) started dying out in the National League in 1937. In the two previous seasons, each team in the National League scored an average of 4.71 runs per game. The average was around 4.5 runs per games for several seasons after reaching the pinnacle of 5.7 runs per game in 1930.

In 1937, the league averaged 4.51 runs per game and dropped to 4.42 runs per game in 1938 down to 4.39 runs per game in 1940. And while many big leaguers were serving their country in World War II, the average runs scored per game dropped to 4.

In the National League, run scoring depressed between the late-1930s and mid-1940s. Unlike Eras later known for offensive production when the strikeout rate rose, the batting average decreased, this Era had a sublime trait of strikeout rate in consistency with the batting average of the league. It is an Era in which more strikeouts not always caused the players batting average to go down.

The league restored the balance between pitchers and hitters, at least for these few years. The popular claim is that the LBE lasted long into the War and helped more hitters is simply not true.

Average Runs Scored Per Game – 1920 – 2010
Year
Avg Runs Scored Per Game
Notes
19203.97Live Ball Era begins the next year
19305.68The height of the Live Ball Era
19404.39Live Ball Era ended three years prior
19504.66Post-World War II and the Integration of Baseball
19604.24
19704.52Expansion Era, Construction of Multi-Purpose Parks, Astrodome
19804.03
19904.20
20005.02Steroid Era
20104.33

Since I made the claim about Hall of Fame worthiness, the research must always ask: How does this player compare to other players in the history of the game? And to keep in simple, who played third base during the same Era as Stan Hack?

Between 1931 and 1950, only five third basemen had 6000 or more plate appearances. Bob Elliott and Pinky Higgins had almost as good a batting average as Stan Hack (0.301 difference) and only Harlond Clift matched Hack in hitting prowess with more power and equal on base skills.

Stan Hack led all third basemen in stolen bases until he was surpassed by Billy Werber and he led all third basemen of his Era in games played. Hack’s ability to stay healthy and perform at the level he did is a rare feat that has only been surpassed by one other Era since the late 1950s.

If we take in to account his fielding and baserunning skills, it would be 30 years for a full-time third baseman by the name of Mike Schmidt to equal the complete career that Stan Hack put together. We can cut and slice the timeframe and pick great players from many positions as long as those players career match-up with his and Stan Hack will stand up as one of the best overall players in the history of the game.

So, why was Stan Hack overlooked as a great hitter?

The second argument against Hack and his Cubs’ team was that they were a group of veteran players who played against lesser opponents. Many solid Major Leaguers either volunteered or were drafted to serve in the military during World War II. This bias not only misidentified the impact of the War in a different year, it also ignores the context of the times.

“President Roosevelt wrote back [Judge Landis, Commissioner of Major League Baseball] … ‘I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.’ … It would continue in 1942 without being very much affected by the war at all. Very few players on big league roster joined the service.” – Excerpt from ‘The Cubs’ – G. Stout and R.A. Johnson, 2007

Major League Baseball was intact by 1942, one of the best years of Stan Hack’s career. Nearly all of the players Hack had been competing against were still in Major League Baseball and it must be pointed out that neither the War not the Live Ball Era were factors in the best three-year span of Hack’s career.

Between 1940 and 1942, as I remind you again that’s a period of time in which runs were hard to come by, Stan Hack hit .312/.405/.425 during the three-year stretch, which is a 139 OPS+ when the league average was 100 OPS+. His contemporary, Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughn, had a career OPS+ of 136 and Vaughn hit .140 in 1941, the first year of the War.

If we convert his prime-three years of 1940-1942 into 162 games, Hack would have collected 200 hits, scored 112 runs while walking 99 times with only 39 strikeouts and in today’s game would be considered a phenomenal leadoff hitter, the role rightfully assigned to him.

Top 20 Third Basemen between 1937 and 1942

Stan Hack 201404 Hall of Fame case

Mel Ott was a corner outfielder who occasionally played third base and it’s clear that only Harlond Clift matches up with Stan Hack. However, Clift didn’t run as well, but his defense would balance out the difference and give him the edge as the best third baseman of the time. Plus, Hack’s defensive skills declined after the ’39 season and he turned into an average third baseman.

Stan Hack was an on-base machine who relied on multiple skills, including an excellent glove at third base that remained consistent throughout his career. The years between 1920 and 1930 were also a transitional time for third basemen. Before 1920, third base was reserved for the best infielder, other than shortstop. Second base was considered a power position. Before 1953 with the arrival of Eddie Matthews and Harmon Killebrew, Hack was arguably the best third baseman the game had seen.

Or was he?

Stan Hack was underrated because of the Eras he played in, first the Live Ball Era, which really died earlier than we now believe, and the War, also a time in the game that is misunderstood as being less competitive than it actually was. What we failed to see was that the environments did not favor any particular party, and the runs both created by Stan Hack and saved by his defense were real.

My research is not complete because I do not have access to the archives of the Tribune newspaper articles that described Stan Hack during his playing days. I want to find out more about his character, his leadership skills and other intangibles.

We know, indirectly, that Cubs fans loved him. Phil Cavarretta was the fierce competitor, a leader and an innovator while Hack was the nice, quiet guy who got things done. He always smiled and was friendly to fans. He was Ernie Banks, before Ernie Banks.

Stan Hack was known as an ‘easy going guy,” the “sweetest man in the world.” According to Phil Cavarretta’s interview in ‘Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tout of the Chicago Cubs,’ the team was excited about Hack and other young, talented players when they arrived. Hack’s teammates considered him the best leadoff hitter in the game.

Stan Hack collected hits in World Series play but the best one happened in Game 6 of the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Hack had already walked to start the eighth and singled to start the ninth but was not able to score. So with the game tied at seven in the bottom of the 12th with a pinch-runner on first base, Hack doubled off Dizzy Trout and drove in the winning run. The last time the Cubs won a World Series game at Wrigley Field, or on any field, the Cubs lost the series to the Tigers at Wrigley two days later.

The Cubs have had plenty of opportunities to honor Stan Hack and his teammates that played in the World Series between 1932 and 1945 and educate fans about Stan Hack and these team and they have not chosen to do so.

I believe the Wrigley family ownership, namely the quirk behavior of P.K. Wrigley, did not help the matter and have a lot to do with the problem. Like most clubs of the time, the owner interfered with baseball decisions and like most owners P.K. Wrigley wanted a franchise player to manage the club. Phil Cavarretta didn’t fare too well as the manager of the team and it fell on the shoulders of Stan Hack. And his relationship, because of that decision, did not end well with the organization.

I can’t help but wonder, and would like to know, if Stan Hack’s last experience with the organization was so bad, that despite living close to Wrigley Field, that it kept him away from the Cubs celebration in September of 1999.

Hopefully, the Cubs organization will one day recognize Stan Hack and the impact he had to the Cubs on and off the field and give him a place in Cubs’ history alongside of the other great players that have donned the uniform throughout the years.

And the answer to the question … Stan Hack owns the franchise mark for hits by a third baseman. Hack collected 2193 during his Cubs’ career, 22 more than Ron Santo (2171).

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  • BillyFinT

    Towards the end, “And his relationship, because of that decision, did not end well with the organization” — I did not write that in my draft to Neil. It’s an editor’s choice of wording. I am not trying to draw a conclusion out of one personnel decision. I meant to say that it WOULD NOT be surprising that Hack was not happy with Prince Wrigley in general, because almost all managers were not happy with P.K.

    I would love to know what happened to Stan after his playing days! If any fan or WGN ex-personnel has a story about Stan Hack–Please let us know!

    • http://chicagocubsonline.com/ Neil

      Billy, I made the one correction.

      • BillyFinT

        Thanks, Neil. I must credit you, aside from these two lines, the edit puts the style together a lot better than I would have done if I edited it. Job well done!

  • Sonate

    Nice post BillyFinT. Scott Barzilla’s “The Hall of Fame Index” has Stan Hack ranked (14th) as a solid HOF third baseman — clearly a level above HOFs Jimmy Collins, Pie Treynor and John McGraw; and light years ahead of George Kell, who should not be in the Hall. However, the only mention of Stan Hack in the author’s narrative on third basemen is to note that he was the only one worthy of the HOF in the pre-WW-II era. Third base is the least represented position in the HOF.

    • BillyFinT

      Indeed true, before Chipper is in. I believe Longoria should be in. Then it will be good for the Hall, with good enough third basemen represented.

      Third base is defensively challenging. How many third basemen in this world can actually pass a ball to first base without hitting the ground first while taking the leadoff batter out? How many can move in and out with ease, make instant judgement of whether the batter is bunting or hitting for the outfield, without a slightest doubt? It’s an underrated position.

      I had two paragraphs about this. I talked about Chipper Jones. Neil removed them from this article, which is a decision I comply for the coherence of style.

  • Truely Blue

    My favorite player during the war was Stan Hack. I knew that he was good but I didn’t realize how good until I read your article. Thanks for the research.

    • BillyFinT

      Thank you for reading. As I was emailing Neil earlier,
      the Cubs had done little to remind more people of its great players. Compared to the New York franchises, the Cubs had done almost nothing for its (also as my) heritage.

  • John_CC

    Great read, thanks Billy.

    Considering that it took the postparum guilt of Santo’s dying wish to finally be elected, after his long career with Cubs beyond his playing days, I do not feel hopeful for Mr. Stan Hack. What great baseball name, Stan Hack.

    • BillyFinT

      What is a good third baseman and who are Hall of Fame worthy? Whose addition to the Hall benefits baseball? I omitted these discussions from this article now, details of eternal scope. We know Chipper is one of the best switch-hitters in history. He sustained his fame throughout his career. Honoring him now has more value to Baseball for the 21st Century as a whole than honoring Stan. This article is not about putting Stan in the Hall. The Cubs need to bring awareness of more of its franchise players to its fans, if not to the Global baseball world.

  • paulcatanese

    Very, very well done. Hack, Jurgess (spelling?), Verban, Cavarretta, Pafko, Lowry, Nickolson, and Sheffing were the group that made me a Cub fan, and
    have seen them play. And I agree that they should have had more recognition than they received from Chicago.
    Gone are the days when players were recognized like that from fans, and we are left with ego’s and millions of dollars in their place.
    One player today will fill that gap, with personality, ability and charisma, and when he comes up, fans will see. That player is Kris Bryant, the next poster child in a Cub uniform, who strongly reminds me of Kenny Hubbs.
    Great job Billy. Need more of those kinds of posts.

    • John G

      I agree with you Paul, about Kris Bryant. I saw him play in the AZ fall league and again this Spring. He is the real deal and seemed to carry himself quite well. If he keeps his head screwed on right he will be the logical successor to Ron Santo, as far as 3rd basemen.
      I’m old, but not as old as you, so I only remember Stan Hack as the Cubs Manager. And they really really sucked in the 50’s. So any opinion I have of Stan Hack is not a qualified one. But reading Billy’s article gives me a higher appreciation of him.

      • paulcatanese

        Don’t really know if Bryant will make it at third, but anywhere he plays will be a plus, so far, he seems to be the model of what we
        all want in a player, as you, I hope he keeps it up.

    • paulcatanese

      And of course, Charlie Grimm was the manager and coached the bases as well.

    • BillyFinT

      Thanks, Paul, good to see you on CCO again. I know Pafko, Woody English, and of course, Phil Cavarretta, are all worth writing about.

      It must be fun to watch that fine Cub team in the 40s. It’s a shame, you know since we commented before, that the Cubs missed to promote franchise Leaders as Cavarretta and Stan Hack their long-due honor.