Tenth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.
One would never figure a league-leader in losses to find his way onto an MVP ballot. But the 1952 National League vote was an odd affair in which no everyday player from the pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers placed higher than seventh.
Ironically, the Dodger who finished highest in the race was rookie reliever Joe Black, whose 15-4 record, 15 saves and minuscule 2.15 ERA far outpaced any of his teammates in the eyes of the voters.
With no Brooklyn batter enjoying a truly mammoth year at the plate, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella finished 7-8-9-10 in the vote—ideally illustrating the democracy of the Dodgers’ arsenal.
Garnering the same amount of first-place votes as Joe Black, Hank Sauer collected one of the more misdirected MVPs in baseball history. Despite leading the NL in home runs and RBI (actually, Sauer tied for the home run lead with Ralph Kiner, who curiously received a mere two percent of the vote share), his Chicago Cubs finished a down-and-out fifth.
Sauer provided most of the power on a Cubs squad that boasted the third-best team ERA in the league yet could manage only 77 victories. As was so often the case in those days, writers were wowed most by the long ball and the ribbie.
Coming up just short of the award, Philadelphia Phillie Robin Roberts pitched his arm off to the tune of 28-7, abetted by a scintillating 2.59 ERA in 330 innings. Anchoring the stingiest staff in the Senior Circuit, Roberts’ watershed season added up to as many victories as the next two winningest Phillie hurlers.
Considering that Philadelphia managed to finish 10 games over .500 despite a starting rotation that racked up only 43 “non-Roberts” victories, albeit with excellent ERAs, Robin’s immense value to his team clearly outweighed that of Sauer to his. Topping the NL in wins, innings pitched, starts and complete games, Roberts single-handedly kept the Phillies out of the second division.
But getting back to an MVP candidate whose Black Ink came on the wrong end of his pitching ledger, Murry Dickson of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates placed 13th in the vote—only a handful of vote points behind Brooklyn’s aforementioned foursome—despite a 14-21 record and an ERA barely north of league average.
A gritty competitor who had the misfortune of being brought aboard by the Pirates just as the franchise entered its darkest days, Dickson had battled to a 20-win campaign the previous season (on a 64-win squad) and now endured the first of three consecutive seasons atop the loss column.
Hurling for a team that surrendered 148 more runs than league average, yet scored 130 fewer than that same mark, Dickson lost eight of nine starts in which Pittsburgh could muster only two runs or fewer (the lone victory coming on a 10-inning shutout).
By far the NL’s worst fielding club, Pittsburgh torpedoed Dickson in five games that he could have won or, at worst, received a no-decision. In those five games, Pittsburgh committed a total of 14 errors while he was on the mound (albeit two by Dickson, himself), which led to 14 unearned runs and 28 total runs.
Yet in only one of those five games did Pirates bats score more runs than Dickson yielded earned runs—and he still lost that game because four Pittsburgh miscues gave the Boston Braves a 4-3 victory despite Dickson’s one-earned-run complete game.
Give Dickson the most modest benefit of the doubt in these five games, and his 14-21 record might well have been 15-17, or even gotten him over .500—which, on that horrendous squad, would have constituted one of the great pitching seasons of all time.
Dickson is a rare case in which a godawful team may well have become historically awful without him. Suffering its worst season of the 20th century, the already-inept Pirates imploded to a 42-112 nightmare. So bad was Pittsburgh that it sunk into the cellar before the season was a week old and never once crawled out.
Dickson, who had enjoyed success and World Series checks with the St. Louis Cardinals, pitched gallantly, winning 40 percent of his decisions for a team that won only 27.3 percent of its contests.
Putting aside that wins above replacement (WAR) was unknown to voters in 1952, as well as keeping in mind that, despite the calculations that go into it, WAR is, at its core, an estimate, Dickson’s 5.3 WAR, if taken at literal value and rounded down, translates to a 37-win season without him.
This would break the 1935 Boston Braves’ mark for worst record of the modern era. Thus, by this metric—and crediting Dickson for a mere five victories more than any replacement hurler the horrid Pirates could throw to the lions is more than reasonable—then Dickson kept Pittsburgh from the most futile season in the National League since 1900.
If one simply takes the −7 difference between Dickson’s wins and losses, then Pittsburgh, with only 35 victories, ignobly surpasses the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics for worst modern team ever. Given this context, Dickson’s MVP candidacy seems valid.
Yet one wonders whether Dickson deserved more MVP votes than the perennially underappreciated Gil Hodges. Yes, a mere seven vote points separated them—an amount small enough that it doesn’t hold great significance.
Still, although Jackie Robinson arguably was Brooklyn’s best player in 1952, Hodges handily led the NL champs in home runs and RBI, as well as in doubles, walks and slugging percentage. Gil also was the only Dodger to suit up for every game, and for good measure, he led all NL first basemen in assists.
All of that seems more worthy than the 19th rung on the MVP ladder. But then, Gil Hodges—one of the most reliable yet humble players of his time—never once in his long and admirable career received strong MVP consideration.
I won’t contend that the 21-loss Dickson received too much support in the MVP race. One-third of a team’s total victories certainly looks good no matter where it finishes. Dickson even came out of the bullpen nine times and saved a pair. And although it shouldn’t have made any difference to voters even had they known it at the time, Dickson led all NL pitchers in putouts and assists.
Saddled by the most anemic offense and butterfingered defense in the NL, Dickson performed about as well as any pitcher could while surrounded by gaping deficiencies. On simple ratios, had Pittsburgh played mere .500 ball, his 14-win struggle translates to a 25-victory gem. Adjudged the 13th most valuable player—and fourth most valuable pitcher—amid such futility served as just reward in a calamitous season.