- Mike Whiteman
No Experience, No Problem!
By Mike Whiteman March 12, 2023
*** Springtime almost always brings a high level of excitement and optimism in the baseball world. Fans speculate and dream a bit about the possibilities for the upcoming season. What if that injured player from last year gets healthy? What rookies can step up? Can the older veterans pull out one more good year? This spring training, some of the Yankee phenoms have created quite the buzz. Jasson Dominguez has displayed his great tools in exhibition games, showing that he looks to be a firm part of the team’s future, and it could come sooner than we think. Oswald Peraza doesn’t seem to be doing anything that would prevent him from claiming the everyday shortstop job. Anthony Volpe has emerged as someone who may be ready to play right now. While he’s technically not a rookie, Oswaldo Cabrera has looked great; with his bat, versatility, and enthusiasm making him destined to be a fan favorite. A few times this Grapefruit League season manager Aaron Boone has written both Peraza and Volpe into the lineup together at shortstop and second base – both players have played both positions at least once. This has created some speculation about an all-rookie Keystone Combination.
If the Yanks could do the heavy lift to make this happen (it would take at least one, likely two moves of other players), it’s a risky proposition for a contending team to hand two crucial up the middle positions to novices. The Yankees have done this before, and it turned out OK. In 1925, the team was playing out the string to an extremely disappointing season. They had won three American League pennants and finished in second place in 1924 but fell all the way to seventh place in 1925. Babe Ruth’s infamous “bellyache” was stated as the main culprit, but there was also a need to address the lack of offensive punch in the infield. A rookie named Lou Gehrig took over first base in June, and of course he wouldn’t budge until 1939. On September 8th another rookie, Mark Koenig, made his big league debut at shortstop and took over the job for the rest of the season, sending .241 hitting holdover Paul Wanninger to the bench. (Per baseball-reference.com, this 110 at-bat stint constitutes his rookie season, but that looks to be in conflict to the current MLB rule.).
Whatever his “official” status, the youthful Koenig showed enough in his month of work to enter 1926 as the favorite to take the shortstop job. His partner at second base would be another youngster. The Yanks purchased twenty-two year old Tony Lazzeri from the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League. In 1925 Lazzeri had batted .355 with 60 home runs in 192 games in the offense friendly circuit and cost the Yankees the pricey sum of $50,000. A shortstop in the minors, Lazzeri was slated for second base by manager Miller Huggins. Lazzeri impressed out of the gate. That and Koenig’s early struggles started rumors of a “shakeup” that the Yanks would move Lazzeri back to shortstop and turn to Washington Senator castoff Spencer Adams at second base. Thankfully for Koenig and the team, his batting average rose as the temperatures did that summer, his final .271 batting average offsetting his league leading 52 errors (for some context, all but one AL starting shortstop committed over 30 miscues). The Yanks jumped out quickly in the 1926 season on the strength of the new youthful infield and the resurgence of Ruth. At one point they won fifteen in a row in May, led the league by ten games at the beginning of July, and eventually took over the AL flag. The skepticism of turning over the important second base and shortstop positions to untried players was turned to praise, and was a smashing success. Lazzeri finished his season with 18 home runs and 117 RBI. His year ended in disappointment however, as he was struck out by aged (and perhaps inebriated) Pete Alexander with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game Seven of the World Series with his team behind 3-2. The Yanks never did overcome the deficit, and the Cardinals took the series.
That failure would just be a bump in the road of a Hall of Fame career for Lazzeri, who would go on to collect five World Series rings in his career. Koenig, on the other hand, had a more abbreviated career in Pinstripes. While the switch-hitter swung a potent bat for the 1927 and 1928 World Series champs, his struggles in the field continued, making over forty errors both seasons. He was displaced by the slick-fielding Leo Durocher in 1929 and then dealt to Detroit in 1930. He would later move on to the Cubs, Reds and Giants, facing his former team in the 1932 and 1936 Fall Classics. Going with youth at crucial positions was real gamble, but a gamble that went very well. Almost one hundred years later, is it time to do it again?