Joe Judge's Third-Place MVP Finish Produced Disorder in the Sport

Randy S. Robbins@@RandySRobbinsContributor IIIJune 27, 2014

Sixth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Never a superstar, Joe Judge spent 20 years as a solid, dependable first baseman. Still in the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins top 10 of most batting categories more than eight decades after last playing in the nation’s capital, he has remained in the shadows not only of Hall of Fame teammates Goose Goslin and Sam Rice but of the heavy-hitting behemoths who shared the same position—George Sisler, Lou Gehrig and, later, Jimmie Foxx.

Even away from cavernous Griffith Stadium, the smallish Judge was not a prototypical first baseman (to this day, he holds the franchise mark for sacrifice bunts—a tactic virtually unthinkable for a first sacker since the live-ball era); Judge belted only 57 home runs in more than 1,000 road games.

Yet, like many Senators players, he took advantage of his home park’s deep alleys, legging out 157 triples. And Judge was swift enough to swipe 213 bases during his career.

A lifetime .298 hitter, Judge exercised excellent bat control, drawing twice as many bases on balls as he struck out, giving him a healthy on-base percentage of .378. Judge helped his perennially also-ran Senators to consecutive pennants, spearheading Washington to its lone championship, in 1924, with a .385 average in the World Series—where, as usual, he was overshadowed, this time by the great Walter Johnson.

After 18 years in the nation’s capital, the Brooklyn native went home and put in 42 ineffective games with the Dodgers before being released. Quickly signing with the Boston Red Sox, he eked out another 45 games over two seasons, ending his career with 2,352 hits, 1,184 runs scored and 1,034 RBI.

Despite ranking, upon retirement, seventh all-time in putouts, fourth in assists and holding the highest fielding percentage for a first baseman in baseball history, Judge may be best remembered as the man who hastened the end of Walter Johnson’s career, when he smashed a line drive off The Big Train’s ankle in spring training of 1927.

This is an unfair label for Judge, as the 40-year-old Johnson recovered from the fracture to pitch 107.2 innings, although he was no longer effective—which one would expect of even a healthy 40-year-old.

Judge’s worth was recognized in his own time, collecting MVP votes in four seasons. Yet the fourth of those seasons rings peculiarly. In 1928, Judge tied for third with Tony Lazzeri in the AL MVP vote—well ahead of some big-name players.

That Lazzeri placed third is, in itself, a surprise—although a key member of Murderers’ Row, injuries limited him to 116 games. Why writers shunned George Pipgras (a league-high 24 wins and 300.2 innings) is a mystery.

Perhaps they figured Pinstripes pitching coasted on New York’s battering-ram offense. (It didn’t—New York owned the second-best team ERA in addition to the AL’s best offense.)

Judge came in far ahead of the only two other Yankees to garner MVP votes: Earle Combs (118 runs scored, an AL-high 21 triples) and Waite Hoyt (23-7, 3.36 ERA). (At the time, any American League player who had already won the MVP since its inception in 1922 was not eligible for future MVP awards. This eliminated Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who, between them would have carted off the lion’s share of MVPs during the decade.)

One wonders what voters were thinking in 1928—the 98-win Philadelphia Athletics saw only two of their players make the ballot. And although the A’s Mickey Cochrane took home the MVP (just edging out Heinie Manush and his 241 hits), Lefty Grove and his Pipgras-tying 24 wins did not earn a single vote.

With the Senators finishing a remote fourth—Washington was out of the pennant race before summer began—it’s hard to comprehend how a player from a team with a 75-79 record outpolled so many players from the contenders. (For the 1928 vote, only Ruth and Gehrig, among the Yankees and Athletics, were ineligible.)

Yes, Judge finished in the top 10 in walks, RBI, on-base percentage and stolen bases—yet he didn’t come close to leading in any of them.

And although he enjoyed another sterling year in the field, Judge hit a relatively pedestrian .306, with only 44 extra-base hits and 78 runs scored (trailing even such renowned table setters as Earle Combs and Joe Sewell in slugging percentage).

Judge did put together a strong second half, batting .336 and racking up an OPS of .896, but Washington fell 20 games off the lead before July. If anyone from the mediocre Senators deserved to scale the MVP vote so high, it was Goose Goslin, who snared the batting crown with a .379 average and slugged a mighty .614.

With the possible exception of Manush, Goslin was the most dangerous AL hitter after the MVP-ineligible Ruth and Gehrig (he led all vote-getters in WAR). Yet, enigmatically, Goose collected fewer than half the votes as did Judge.

Likewise, it’s outright baffling that no St. Louis Brown besides Manush made an appearance on the ballot. St. Louis improved by 23 victories over the previous season, yet voters completely ignored General Crowder, whose 21-5 record on a club that played only .532 ball should have put him right in the thick of the award race with Cochrane and Manush. 

Freshly traded from the ascendant Athletics, first-year Brownie Sam Gray, who fashioned a 20-12 record and a fine 3.19 ERA, also should have gotten votes. Didn’t any of those writers pay attention?

For all I know, Joe may have been thoroughly popular throughout the league with beat writers looking for quotes—which could have served him well come voting time. Yet considering that, in 1924, Judge received nary a vote despite hitting .324 while helping Washington to its first pennant (nor did Goslin, despite an AL-high 129 RBI—go figure), finishing third in the MVP race during a lost season is more than a little hard to fathom.

Ironically, Judge may well have been earmarked for a trade that season. The previous December, Washington owner Clark Griffith had bought George Sisler, St. Louis’ slowly fading superstar of a first baseman, for a pricey $25,000.

No longer the batting wizard he had been before losing a full season to sinusitis in the early part of the decade, Sisler was still a productive hitter—and a better one than Judge. Coming off a 200-hit campaign, his acquisition could only have meant that Griffith was looking to move the longtime Senator.

Calls for action about the logjam at first base became an open matter as early as two weeks into the season, even though Sisler had barely left the bench. Yet, strangely, Sisler never got a chance in Washington, pinch-hitting sporadically for a month before Griffith sold him to the Boston Braves at a $17,500 loss, while Judge went on to play all but one of Washington’s games that season.


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