December 4, 2023

The Grand Strand

October 9, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

Paul Strand in 1914

Paul Strand went 6-2 with a 2.44 ERA for the Braves in 1914.

Centennial years are a big deal.  When I was a teenager, they made a big deal about the Civil War Centennial.  The same was true several years ago when World War I “celebrated” its centennial.  And if we make it to 2041, I have no doubts that the 100th anniversary of Pearl Harbor will kick off a centennial commemoration that will run through the 100th anniversary of VJ Day (August 15, 2045).

And so it goes with baseball centennials.  When you think of baseball in 1923, you might think of the opening of Yankee Stadium and the fact that the first of many World Series was played there; also that it was the first of many Yankee World Series triumphs.  Somewhat under the radar was the season enjoyed by Harry Heilmann of Detroit.  Heilmann, who flirted with .400 in 1921 (.394), hit .403 in 1923 (he had two more near-misses: .393 in 1925 and .398 in 1927).  You might be surprised to find out that Heilmann is tied with Babe Ruth (and Dan Brouthers) for career batting average (.342).  Only seven hitters in MLB history have surpassed that mark.

Actually, Heilmann’s feat was not the most remarkable offensive achievement in 1923.  This was also the year of the all-time professional record for hits in a season – a record that has never been matched.  Now if you have no interest in minor league baseball, you can stop reading now.  But the Pacific Coast League was no bush league.  Founded in 1903, it was among the highest-rated (Double-A) minor leagues of its day.  For a number of players, it was the last stop on the way to the big leagues.  And for a number of veterans, particularly those who were West Coast natives, the PCL was a career-extender after their big-league days were over.

One of those veterans, Paul Strand, was a mediocre hitter when he began his professional career.  But he was only 17 years old when he turned pro with Spokane of the Class B Northwest League in 1911.  He had a grand total of 63 hits in his first two seasons.  No one was concerned about his meager offense, however, because he had been signed as a pitcher.

On the mound he attracted some attention in 1912 when he threw 125 innings and registered a WHIP of 1.056 at Spokane.  A promotion to a higher-ranked league was warranted, but Strand was probably as surprised as anyone when he bypassed Class A and Class Double-A and went directly to the Boston Braves via the Rule 5 Draft.

Used sparingly in his rookie season of 1913, Strand had a 2.12 ERA in 7 appearances out of the bullpen.  His best season was 1914, when he went 6-2 with a 2.44 ERA in 55.1 IP for the famous Miracle Braves, who spent the first half of the season in last place yet went on to win the pennant by 10½ games.

Unfortunately, Strand ran into arm troubles in 1915 and by 1916 he was back in the minor leagues with decent but not great stats at Toledo of the Double-A American Association.  The next season he was back in the Northwestern League, this time with Seattle.  At age 23, he appeared to be washed up.

Nevertheless, after serving in the Navy during World War I, he returned to professional ball in 1919, this time as an outfielder.  He worked on the transition while playing baseball at the Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington.

Splitting the 1920 season between Peoria of the Class B Three-I League and Joplin of the Class A Western League, Strand batted .311.  The next year he improved to .326 with Yakima of the Class B Pacific International League and Seattle of the Pacific Coast League.  He began the 1921 season with Seattle but was traded to Salt Lake City in late April.  He had a decent enough season (.314) but the best was yet to come.

Maybe it was the dry salt air that energized him, but for whatever reason, Strand hit his stride at Salt Lake City in 1922 when he batted .384 with 289 hits.  Now we must keep in mind that Pacific Coast League teams played roughly 200 games in those days, 46 more than the MLB teams played.  Also, the Salt Lake City ballpark was conducive to offense.

During Strand’s tenure with the team, the Salt Lake Bees played at Bonneville Park.  The venue was something of an outlier in the Pacific Coast League.  For one thing, it was the only park in the Mountain Time Zone.  For another, it was 4,327 feet about sea level.  So the ball carried better than it did in the other PCL cities that were barely above sea level.  In 1923, the other teams in the league were San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Vernon (actually a Los Angeles suburb), Portland, and Seattle.

Paul Strand battingSo Strand found a home in Salt Lake City – but he wasn’t the only one.  During the 11 seasons (1915-1925) the Salt Lake Bees played at Bonneville Park, they led the league in home runs 9 times and in batting average 8 times.  In 2023 the Bees hit .369 in their home park.  Bonneville Park hosted three times as many home runs as the average of the other PCL parks.  The Bees’ 204 home runs in 2023 remains the PCL record.

Oddly enough, the greatest slugging exhibition at Bonneville Park during the 1923 season came off the bat of Pete Schneider of Vernon.  Like Strand, Schneider was a former pitcher reinventing himself as an outfielder.  Though not noted as a power hitter, he hit five home runs, including two grand slams, in a 35-11 swatting of the Bees on May 11th.  In his final at bat he just missed a sixth homer and had to settle for a double.  So he finished with 22 total bases and 14 RBIs for the day.  There was nothing in Schneider’s past offensive stats that indicated he was capable of such a power surge.  And his subsequent power stats were equally mediocre, though he did lead the PCL in triples with 23 in 1923.

In 1923 Strand led the Bees and the league with 43 homers (a league record at the time) and a .662 slugging percentage.  Strand’s home run total was not what distinguished his 1923 season – in fact, it was surpassed just two years later.  His .394 batting average led the league (Pal Waner was the runner-up at .369) but it was only 10 points higher than his 1922 average.  His ultimate claim to fame was his total of 325 hits, which remains the highest one-season total ever in pro baseball.  He could have had more but he took a few days off towards the end of the season.  Admittedly, he had 825 at bats to achieve his record.  For good measure, he also led the league in runs (190) and RBIs (187).  So in 1922 and 1923 Strand achieved back-to-back triple crown seasons.

Surely, Strand benefited from his teammates’ offensive prowess, which not only resulted in more ducks on the pond but in more lineup turnover, and hence more plate appearances for Strand to amass his hit total.  Remarkably, despite their offensive fireworks, the Bees were a mediocre team, finishing at 95-106 in 1922 and 94-105 in 1923.

It’s worth pausing to take note of some of Strand’s teammates.  One of them was Ossie Vitt, a 10-year (1912-1921) major league veteran.  Another was player-manager Duffy Lewis, former Red Sox outfielder renowned for mastering the left field incline (subsequently dubbed Duffy’s Cliff) at Fenway Park.  Along with Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper, he was part of the Red Sox’ famed “Golden Outfield” from 1910 to 1915.

Vitt hit .337 with 19 home runs in 1923.  Lewis hit .358 with 28 home runs.  His four-year tenure with Salt Lake (1921-1924) resulted in a remarkable post-MLB record: a .377 average (754 hits).  One wonders if the Washington Senators had second thoughts about releasing him early in the 1921 season.

Another name of note was 19-year-old Tony Lazzeri, who hit .354 in limited duty in 1923  but really came into his own (60 home runs – breaking Strand’s record) with the Bees in 1925, attracting the attention of the Yankees, with whom he began his Hall of Fame career in 1926.

As you might expect, Strand’s offensive achievements did not go unnoticed.  This Salt Lake Bee had created quite a buzz.  He was 29 years old but maybe he had the potential for a few good MLB seasons in him.  Connie Mack thought so.  He traded three players plus $32,500 to Salt Lake to acquire Strand for 1924.  He regretted the move ere long, maybe not so much for the three mediocre players he gave up, but for the $32,500. In 47 games and 179 plate appearances, Strand had a mere 38 hits.  His slash line was .228/.254/.329.  On June 28, with his A’s going nowhere at 22-38, Mack traded Strand to Double-A Toledo of the American Association.

Freed from the great expectations MLB had of him, Strand reported to Toledo, where he hit .324 the rest of 1924.  After a .300 season in 1925 he returned to the Pacific Coast League, which seemed to revive him.  He hit .326 in 1926, and .355 in 1927 for Portland.  The latter season also featured his final appearance on the mound, a token one-inning appearance.

After a mediocre 1928 season split between the Atlanta Crackers and the Little Rock Travelers, Strand retired at age 34.

The rest of Strand’s life is humdrum.  He worked for a plumbing and heating company for the rest of his life.  He was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1970, however, four years before he died.  So those two outstanding seasons he had with the Salt Lake Bees had not been forgotten.

Now I can’t pinpoint exactly when Strand broke his 1922 hits record, or got his 300th hit, or his 325th hit.  But somewhere in late summer or early fall all these things happened.  The centennial of his feats should be celebrated even if we can’t point to a specific game on a specific date.

This is not a “lest we forget” article because I suspect most of you have never heard of Strand, and you can’t forget someone you never knew in the first place.

So consider this an introduction to Paul Strand.  I think he is someone worth knowing.  You might object that he had just two outstanding seasons.  But that’s two more than most ballplayers have.

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