In fantasyland, past greats would've made real impact

The Baltimore Sun

As I researched Jackie Robinson's career last week, a question occurred: If fantasy baseball had existed 60 years ago, how coveted would Robinson have been?

The Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman ranks among the greatest figures in baseball history, but I'm talking about Robinson the player.

Well, let's look at his Most Valuable Player season in 1949. There were only 16 teams that year, so fantasy owners would've played a 12- or 13-team mixed format.

Only two players, Ted Williams and George Kell, hit for higher averages than Robinson's .342. He ranked sixth in the majors in runs scored and fifth in RBIs, blowing away everyone at his position. He hit "only" 16 home runs, but that was third best among starting second basemen, and Robinson's power would have been a plus in an era replete with light-hitting middle infielders. Oh, he also led the majors in steals by 11.

So, if you're looking for a modern equivalent, you end up with some crazy combination of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Jose Reyes. I'm thinking that only Williams, with his awesome combination of average, power and run production, would have challenged Robinson for fantasy supremacy in 1949.

So at his best, he was darned potent.

As you may have guessed by now, I don't have much to say about the current fantasy game this week. We're in that period when owners (including me) are still getting to know their teams. Any elaborate fix-ups remain weeks or months away.

At such times, my fantasy mind often drifts to the days of baseball past. I like to imagine that fantasy baseball came into being only a few years after real baseball. And I try to guess how much I would have bid on Tris Speaker or Lefty Grove or a young Dick Allen.

Early 20th century baseball would have presented quite the challenge for fantasy players, because it was incredibly top heavy. I mean, the guys who bought Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Speaker and maybe Nap Lajoie would have wielded enormous advantages.

You thought it was nice to own A-Rod when he hit 57 homers in 2002? Well, check out Wagner's impossibly great 1908. The raw line - .354, 10 homers, 109 RBIs - may not look that impressive. But the Pittsburgh shortstop led the National League in batting by 20 points, also led in RBIs and steals and finished second in homers and runs scored.

The fascination that year might have been the fantasy MVP race between Wagner and White Sox ace Ed Walsh. He led the American League in wins by 16 and strikeouts by 37 and posted a 1.42 ERA over 464 innings (no one else tossed more than 325). That would be like buying Johan Santana and getting half a season of Roy Halladay thrown in for fun.

Cobb may have been a deplorable human being, but boy would we have paid through the teeth for him. In 1911, for example, he led the league in just about everything, from batting at .420 to RBIs at 127 to steals at 83. Too bad he only finished tied for second in home runs.

Babe Ruth may not have been a five-category star, but when he arrived fully formed in 1920, he would have altered the fantasy landscape as much as he did the real one. Ruth would've guaranteed a category win because with 54 homers, he beat every team in the majors but his own Yankees and one other. He also led the AL in RBIs by 15 and runs by 21 while finishing a quite respectable fourth in batting at .376. If Albert Pujols went for $50 in many drafts this year, what would we have paid for Ruth? Maybe $80?

As the population expanded and the pool of available players deepened, stars quickly ceased to dominate to such mind-bending degrees.

But if you're looking for an all-time fantasy ace, check Grove's 1931 effort. In an era when hitting reigned, the Maryland native led the AL in wins by nine, strikeouts by 23 and ERA by more than half a run. If Santana went for $40 this year, I'd have paid at least $50 for Grove at his peak.

It also would've been awfully nice to buy Mickey Mantle in 1956. Mantle had already established himself as a star and probably would've gone for the prices we now pay for Carlos Beltran or Carl Crawford.

Well, he proceeded to lead the majors in batting, home runs, runs scored and RBIs. Even Mantle's 10 steals would have been mighty helpful at a time when few players stole more than 20. Yes, I'm guessing he would have been the centerpiece of a fantasy champion or two that year.

The dawn of fantasy baseball was near by 1976, and it's a shame the game hadn't spread, because owners sure would have enjoyed Joe Morgan's year. The diminutive Reds second baseman finished in the NL's top five in batting, runs, homers and RBIs and stole 60 bases.

Was Morgan as great as Robinson had been 27 years earlier? I think I'd give it to Jackie by a whisker, even though his raw totals are less impressive.

Anyway, if the last 850 words have struck you as an exercise in pointless whimsy, I'm sorry. But sometimes, it's fun to live in the past.

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