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Best Cardinals First Baseman of All-Time

by Mark Ashby Vaughan

This is the third in a series of ten articles counting down the best ever Cardinals players at each position.

As I said in the first article of this series, I will be going around the diamond based on the box score number of each position and picking the top two players at that position.

This being the third article in the series, let’s take a look at the number 3 position – First Baseman.

The Cardinals have had six Hall of Fame first basemen in their history, beginning with Charlie Comiskey (1882 – 1889 & 1901), followed by Jake Beckley (1888 – 1907), Roger Connor (1894 – 1897), Jim Bottomley (1922 – 1932), Johnny Mize (1936 – 1941) and Orlando Cepeda (1966 – 1968).

The team has also had two others who may eventually be voted into the Hall in Keith Hernandez and Mark McGwire.

Now, being caught up date regarding past first basemen, let’s get down to business.

Although Hall of Famer Stan Musial played a considerable number of games at first base (1,016 - good for 4th all-time for the Cardinals), he played most of his games in the outfield. In fact, Stan’s number of games in the outfield (1,698) ranks second only to all-time leader and Hall of Famer Lou Brock’s team record of 2,163.

As a result, I am not considering Stan Musial as a career first baseman.

Stan will be considered when I get to the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielders.

Besides, trying to compare Stan Musial with the number one first baseman of all-time would simply be impossible given that the two players are far too great individually.

Yes, you probably guessed it, the best ever at first base is none other than Albert Pujols (2001 – Present).

This choice was exceptionally easy since “El Hombre” is one of the best players ever in all of Major League Baseball. If “Sir Albert” plays just one more season, he will qualify for being elected into the Hall of Fame by having played in 10 MLB seasons.

I would go so far as to say that if Pujols has just one more season in 2010 that stands up to his yearly performances thus far, he will be elected into the Hall, regardless of his statistics thereafter.

As I said, Albert Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time. Compare, for instance, Albert’s normal yearly performances (based on a 162 game schedule), thus far in his career, of 199 hits, 45 doubles, 42 home runs, 129 RBIs and a .334 average, to Lou Gehrig’s yearly 204 hits, 40 doubles, 37 home runs, 149 RBIs and a .340 average.

Not too shabby……..

Coincidentally, on September 20th of this past year, Albert hit his 40th double of the season, making him just the second player in MLB history to hit 40 doubles and 40 home runs in three separate seasons (2003, 2004, 2009), joining the Yankee’s “Iron Horse” (’27, ’28, ’30 and ’34).

If Albert plays just six more years, which is entirely possible since, as of the writing of this article, he is just 29 years old, he would amass career marks of:

2,911 hits (36th all-time – bumping HOF Zach Wheat down a notch)

657 doubles (would tie HOF Nap Lajoie for 7th place all-time)

618 home runs (would capture the 6th spot all-time)

1,886 RBIs (11th all-time – just 17 shy of HOF Willie Mays)

1,815 runs scored (would jump over HOF Ted Williams for 17th place – and just 1 run behind HOF Carl Yastremski’s total of 1,816)

These numbers assume, of course, that Albert repeats his normal averages in all of the categories above during that time span, which is entirely plausible since the mid-20s to mid-30s are often the prime of a player’s career.

If Albert also maintains his current batting average (.334), he will end his career with a higher average than former Cardinals Hall of Famers Stan Musial (.330) and Joe Medwick (.324) as well as Wade Boggs and Rod Carew (both at .328), Joe DiMaggio (.325) and Honus Wagner (.327)…..all of which are Hall of Famers and have 40 (count ‘em, 40!) batting titles between them.

Ironically, startlingly very few major league teams were very interested in signing Pujols. The Tampa Bay Rays arranged for a tryout with Albert, but it went badly. When the Rays failed to draft him, the scout who had discovered Albert resigned from the team.

Albert played for Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City during the spring of 1999, his only college season. He made a quick impression upon his team and the league by hitting a grand slam and turning an unassisted triple play in his very first college game.

The Redbirds drafted Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft, with the 402nd overall pick. Imagine that – a full 401 players were drafted ahead of “El Hombre”!

Can anyone say "George Boone?"

To Albert’s credit, however, he turned down the Cardinals’ paltry offer of a $10,000 bonus and instead played in the Jayhawk League out of Kansas. By the end of 1999, the Cardinals came to their senses and increased their bonus to $60,000 and Albert bit.

After Albert won the Midwest League MVP award in 2000, he was quickly promoted through the Cardinals’ farm system, finishing with the AAA Memphis Redbirds.

Going into the 2001 season, however, the Cardinals had planned for Albert to be sent back to Memphis to start the year. Fortuitously, new third baseman Bobby Bonilla (who had batted just .255 with 5 HRs and 28 RBIs the year before while with Atlanta) had a hamstring injury which led the team to change their minds and bring Albert north with the club following spring training. “Bobby Bonilla, meet Wally Pipp.”

Albert very quickly proved his worthiness of the promotion. He homered in his first home game, the first time a rookie had done so since Wally Moon went deep in 1954 (he is also the first Cardinal player to homer in the new Busch Stadium). By the end of April of his inaugural season, Albert had homered eight times, tying the Major League record for home runs in the month by a rookie.

He was then named the NL Rookie of the Month in May. In June, he followed up by being selected to the National League All-Star team (he was an unknown player and was not even on the NL All-Star ballot) by National League manager Bobby Valentine of the Mets.

Pujols easily captured the NL Rookie of the Year award after batting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBI (a NL rookie record) during his first full season with the Redbirds. He was just the ninth unanimous choice for the award in league history.

Albert has outstanding balance at the plate and he can hit to all fields. He also has amazing plate coverage, allowing him to hit any pitched ball to all fields with equal power and aplomb. Albert also possesses a couple of the quickest hands in the game.

"I've never seen anything like it. He's quick to the ball with his bat, he hits to all fields, he rarely goes outside the strike zone, and no situation seems to rattle him. This young man has a chance to be quite a force for some time in this league." -- Lloyd McClendon, former manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"He has a passion for the game, a love for the game. You can see it. You can sense it. He's got natural God-given ability. A natural baseball player. A warrior. The man is good at every little thing he does." -- Former Cardinals hitting coach Mike Easler.

His consistency over his nine years in the Major Leagues has earned him the unofficial title of the ‘most feared hitter in baseball’, according to a poll of all 30 MLB managers in 2008.

At the conclusion of the 2009 campaign, he led all active players with a .334 batting average and the highest slugging percentage at .628. His career 366 home runs thus far currently rank as the 69th most all-time.

In the early months of the 2006 season, Albert became the 35th player to hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats, and the 20th batter to hit four home runs in four consecutive plate appearances. Of his 49 home runs that year, 20 accounted for a game-winning RBI, breaking the great Hall of Famer Willie Mays’ single-season record previously set in 1962.

National League Accomplishments

Albert has been in the top 5 of NL batting leaders in six of his nine years played, winning the batting title in 2003. His other finishes were 6th (twice) and 7th.

….. in the top 5 of NL in hits six times, leading the league in 2003.

….. in the top 5 of NL in home runs six times, leading the league in 2009 and finishing just 2nd in both 2004 and 2006.

….. in the top 5 of National Leaguers six times in On Base Percentage (Hits + walks + HBP) ÷ (at bats + walks + sacrifice flies), leading the league twice (2006 and 2009), and finishing 2nd in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

….. in the top 5 of National League run producers six times, leading the league in runs in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2009.

….. in the top 5 of National League total bases leaders seven times, leading the league in 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009.

….. in the top 5 of NL RBI leaders eight times. Although Albert has yet to win an RBI title, he has finished 2nd three times (2002, 2005 and 2006).

….. in the top 5 of NL in slugging seven times, leading the league three times (2006, 2008 and 2009) and finishing 2nd three other times (2003, 2004 and 2005).

….. NL Rookie of the Year (2001).

….. NL All-Star eight times (2001, 2003 -- 2009).

….. leading vote-getter for the 2009 MLB All-Star game, receiving the highest number of votes in National League history.

….. National League MVP three times (2005, 2008 and 2009).

….. Silver Slugger award winner five times (2001, 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009).

….. Gold Glove award winner (2006).

Major League Baseball Accomplishments

Albert was named the “Player of the Decade” by TSN (2009).

….. first major league player to hit at least 30 home runs in each of his first 7 seasons.

….. first player in MLB history to start his career with eight seasons of at least 30 HR, 100 RBIs, a .300 BA and at least 99 runs scored.

….. first player to hit 30 or more home runs in the first nine seasons of his career.

….. second player in MLB history to post nine consecutive seasons with 30 doubles, a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 runs batted in or better. The only other player to do so was none other than Lou Gehrig.

….. set the major league mark of 185 assists by a first baseman (2009).

Team Accomplishments

Albert won his third MVP Award in 2009 (winning all of the first place votes) to tie Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial (’43, ’46 and ’48) as the team leader in that category, and making him one of just nine players ever to win the award three times. The only player to win more is Barry Bonds (but I don’t want to go into that here and now).

Albert holds the Cardinals' franchise record for most career grand slams, breaking the record of nine previously held by “The Man.”

Pujols and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby are the only players in team history to have 40 plus homers and 200 plus hits in the same season.

With his 129th RBI in 2009, Albert passed Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley for third place in Cardinals' history with a career mark of 1,106. Only Hall of Famers Enos Slaughter and Musial have more with 1,148 and 1,951 respectively. With 1,112 at the conclusion of 2009, Albert should pass Slaughter early in the 2010 season to earn him the second spot in club history.

Albert set the Cardinals' franchise record in 2009 for the most assists by a first baseman in a single game with seven. He also set the all-time Cardinals' and NL record for assists by a first baseman in a season with 182 that year. In the last game of the season, Albert broke Bill Buckner’s 1985 MLB mark of 184 assists, ending the season with 185.

Although the team was eliminated in the 2005 (Albert’s 1st MVP year) NLCS playoff by the Houston Astros, Albert hit one of the most memorable homers in Cardinals and MLB history.

In game five, with the team just one out away from elimination and the Houston crowd going absolutely crazy in the 9th inning, Albert cracked a towering, game-winning three-run home run off Astros’ closer Brad Lidge that landed on the train tracks at the back of Minute Maid Park, bringing total and complete silence to the park. On replays of the tremendous shot, you could see pitcher Andy Pettite in the Houston dugout watching the mammoth hit and mouthing the words, “Oh, my G*d.”

After the game, Albert, being Albert, said that he was telling himself while at the plate, "Don't try to be a hero. Don't try to hit a three-run home run."

Albert not only contributes all that he has on the baseball diamond, he is active in charitable affairs as well.

Albert married his wife, Deidre, on January 1, 2000. They have three children, Isabella, Albert Jr., and Sophia. Isabella (Deidre's daughter from a previous relationship) was born with Down syndrome.

Albert and his wife are active Christians.

After Albert signed his seven year contract with the Cardinals for $100 million, Albert said he did not consider it his money since it is money that he borrowed from God.

"I don't play for numbers. I play first of all to glorify God and to accomplish in this game what everybody wants to accomplish, which is getting to the World Series and coming up with a win at the end. Those are the things that I really try to focus on and try to make sure that I do every day for the rest of my career." – Albert Pujols.

In 2005, Albert and Deidre launched the Pujols Family Foundation. Their website says, “The Pujols Family Foundation exists to honor God and strengthen families through our works, deeds and example.” The foundation is devoted to the loving care and advance of people with Down syndrome.

St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield opened the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down syndrome in November of 2009. The center, the first of its kind in the state and one of the first in the country, will give care and support to adults (over the age of 17) with Down syndrome and to their families. Showing his dedication to this cause, Albert was present when the center was launched.

To give back to his roots, Albert also contributes to the people of the Dominican Republic by helping them overcome the persistent poverty there.

Pujols has taken several trips to the Dominican Republic, taking supplies, as well as teams of doctors and dentists, to the underprivileged in need medical care.

The Pujols Family Foundation also holds an annual golf tournament in which members from the Cardinals and others play golf to raise money to send dentists to the Dominican Republic.

All in all, Albert Pujols is one of the greatest baseball players (and persons) of all time…in all of MLB history and certainly in the Cardinals’ glorious history as well.

The #2 spot on the list of Best Cardinals First Baseman of All-Time goes to Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley (1922 – 1932).

Noted for his upbeat demeanor on the field, he won the moniker of “Sunny Jim” during his playing days.

Bottomley wasted little time in establishing himself as an everyday player by batting a lofty .371 in 1923 (his first full season). Although Jim scorched the league’s pitchers that year, he finished second to teammate and Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (.384) for the batting title.

His next year with the club (1924), Jim drove in an MLB record 12 runs in a single game versus the Dodgers, with two homers, a double, and three singles. The record has since been equaled by another Cardinal, Mark Whiten, who also smacked 4 home runs in the same game.

Besides Bottomley’s .367 batting average in 1925, he ripped 227 hits and a league-leading 44 doubles and 128 RBIs. That year he began a string of five consecutive seasons of more than 120 RBIs. Jim had 100 or more RBIs six straight years (1924 – 1929) and 90 plus RBIs in two others (1923 and 1930). While with the Redbirds, he also amassed 1,727 hits while hitting a robust .325 average.

The Cardinals won the World Series in 1926, with Jim pacing the team in the regular season with 120 RBIs and 19 homers. He hit .345 in the World Series with the New York Yankees that year, leading the team to the title, 4 games to 3.

Bottomley's best season came in 1928 when he became the second MLB player in history to join the 20-20-20 (2b, 3b, HR) club with 42 doubles, 20 triples, and 31 homers (leading the league in the last two categories). He also won the NL MVP award that year, hitting.325 with 136 RBIs, and guiding the Cardinals to the World Series against the Yanks.

Jim played in a total of four World Series while with the Cardinals, winning in ’26 vs. the Yankees, losing to the Yanks in ’28, losing the ’30 championship vs. the Athletics, and winning the 1931 title, also against the A's.

In 1931, though limited by injury to 108 games, Jim participated in one of the most incredible batting races in baseball history. He went 4-for-8 in a season ending doubleheader, boosting his average to .3481, narrowly losing the batting title to teammate Chick Hafey's .3488. The Giants' Bill Terry finished second in the race at .3486.

Bottomley was the first of two players (Lou Gehrig being the other) to collect 150 or more doubles, triples, and home runs in a career. Bottomley is the only player to achieve that mark and also be in the 20-20-20 club.

Jim was also the first player to win an MVP award (1928) after beginning his career in his own team's farm system.

Jim holds the single-season record for most unassisted double plays by a first baseman with eight.

"Sunny Jim" is also the only man in MLB history to be sued for hitting a home run, after a fan was hit by the ball in flight when the fan wasn't looking.

Honorable Mention goes to Hall of Famer Johnny Mize (1936 – 1941) who, while playing for the Redbirds, drove in 100 or more runners five straight years and hit for a sizzling .336 average.

Astonishingly, after the ’41 season, when he was just 28 years old, the team traded Mize to the Giants in exchange for three players and cash. I say “astonishingly” because he had averaged 175 hits, 36 doubles, 11 triples, 26 home runs and 109 RBIs per year in his six seasons with the Birds.

During the years 1942 to 1948, the immediate years after the trade, Jim went on to yearly averages of 158 hits, 24 doubles, 4 triples, 35 home runs, 111 RBIs, all while hitting at a .306 clip for the Giants.

Had he stayed with the Cardinals during those years, he would be the #2 selection.

Incidentally, of the three players that the Redbirds received in the swap for Mize; Bill Lorman pitched for a 1-1 record with the team and was traded back to the Giants in 1942; Ken O’Dea played four full years with the Cardinals where he averaged 62 hits, 4 homers and 34 RBIs per year; Johnny McCarthy never actually played for the Cardinals and resurfaced in 1943 with the Braves. Prior to being traded for Mize, McCarthy had yearly averages (1934 to 1941) of 40 hits, 3 home runs and 20 RBIs.

That’s gotta be one of the worst trades in Cardinals history.

Note: The links below refer back to any previously published ‘Greatest Cardinal Player’ articles written by this author --




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