In February of 1992, America was infatuated with The Simpsons. The show was in its third season, and it was one of the highest-rated television series in the world. On February 20, they aired the 17th episode of that season, “Homer at the Bat” (spoilers ahead). In this episode, the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant starts a slow-pitch softball team. Homer becomes the star of the team, using a bat he created out of a tree branch struck by lightening (à la The Natural).
As the season comes to an end, Springfield is set to take on the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant in the championship game. As a way to make the game more interesting, Mr. Burns, the owner of the Springfield Power Plant, makes a million-dollar bet with the owner of the Shelbyville Power Plant over who would win the game.
As a way to make sure Springfield would win, Burns hires the biggest stars in Major League Baseball at that time to be “ringers” for the Springfield softball team. In all, nine major league players were brought in by Burns: pitcher Roger Clemens, catcher Mike Scioscia, first baseman Don Mattingly, second baseman Steve Sax, third baseman Wade Boggs, shortstop Ozzie Smith, and outfielders Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Darryl Strawberry.
Over the course of the episode, each character is subject to bizarre incidents that prevent them from playing in the game, such as Boggs being knocked out by Barney Gumble in Moe’s Tavern and Clemens being hypnotized into thinking he’s a chicken.
The only player left is Strawberry, who happens to play the same position as Homer. In the last inning, with bases loaded and a tie game, Burns decides to pinch hit Homer for Strawberry (citing that, with a lefty pitcher on the mound, he wanted the right-handed batting Homer versus the left-handed batting Strawberry to “play the percentages”). Homer gets hit in the head, knocking him out, and forcing in the winning run for the championship.
However, this team of ringers wasn’t Mr. Burns’ initial choice of players. Earlier in the episode, he proposed to his assistant Smithers the original players he wanted to hire for the slow-pitch softball team:
Although only three of the players were mentioned by Mr. Burns, when frozen at the right time, all nine can be seen. Here is Mr. Burns’ original starting lineup:
Pitcher: Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown
Catcher: Gabby Street
First Base: Cap Anson
Second Base: Nap Lajoie
Third Base: Pie Traynor
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
Left Field: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson
Centerfield: Harry Hooper
Right Field: Jim Creighton
As Smithers states in the episode, not only did the careers of all of the players suggested end, but they all passed on long ago.
This does beg the question: If Mr. Burns could’ve picked his original team, who would’ve been better at slow-pitch softball? His original team or the team he ended up organizing?
Before diving into the side-by-side comparisons, the rules of slow-pitch softball need to be revisited. The link to the official United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) softball rule book is here. For this argument, these will be the rules referenced.
Here are the position-by-position comparisons:
Starting off the comparisons are the pitchers for both teams: Roger Clemens and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. On the baseball diamond, Clemens is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and he would be in Cooperstown if it weren’t for steroid allegations. Brown is also worthy of the Hall-of-Fame title, but his MLB career didn’t match that of Clemens.
Yet, in what may be a controversial declaration, Brown would be the better choice for slow-pitch softball. From a pitching perspective, accuracy is the only qualification. Stated in Rule 6, Section 5, “The speed of the pitch and height of the pitched ball are left entirely to the judgment of the umpire (NOTE: Forsake of uniformity in decisions, any doubtful pitch should be ruled as an unfairly delivered pitch). The umpire shall warn a pitcher who delivers a pitch with EXCESSIVE SPEED that repeating such EXCESSIVE SPEED PITCH will cause the pitcher’s removal from the pitcher’s position for the remainder of the game. A pitch that does not arc the full 3 feet as required (flat level pitch) may not be an EXCESSIVE SPEED PITCH, but merely an unfairly delivered pitch.” This takes the speed of pitches out of the equation.
The biggest decision in picking Brown over Clemens is based on experience at the plate. Brown made 1,241 plate appearances over the course of his career, while Clemens only made 213, a majority of which came near the end of his career when he was with the Astros of the National League. In addition to Brown edging Clemens out in batting average, “Three Finger” also had a better on base plus slugging (OPS) than “The Rocket,” .483 to .443. Slugging and being on base are arguably the most important aspects of hitting in slow-pitch softball.
WINNER: MORDECAI “THREE FINGER” BROWN
In the catching comparisons are two players that were very memorable to those that watched them during their playing careers, but didn’t leave much of an impact in baseball history as players: Mike Scioscia and Gabby Street.
In all aspects of offense, Scioscia blows Street out of the waters. Scioscia outhit Street in total hits (1,131 to 312), home runs (68 to 2), batting average (.259 to .208), and OPS (.700 to .529).
Additionally, Scioscia’s defensive prowess was better than that of Street’s. Scioscia had a better lifetime fielding percentage than Street, at .988 versus .974. In all, two-time all star Scioscia would be the better pick than Street.
(Side note: Both players would have very successful careers as managers. Scioscia would manage the Los Angeles Angels from 2000 to 2018. He won 1,650 games and the 2002 World Series. Street managed the St. Louis Cardinals from 1929 to 1933 and the St. Louis Browns in 1938. Street had 365 career wins. He also won two National League pennants and the 1931 World Series with the Cardinals).
WINNER: MIKE SCIOSCIA
The first base battle is between a man beloved by Yankees fans to this day and one of the greatest players of the 19th Century: Don Mattingly and Cap Anson.
Mattingly had a stellar MLB career. In his 14 seasons, he recorded 2,153 hits, 222 home runs, a batting average of .307, and an OPS of .830. His career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 42.4. Anson, on the other hand, turned in one of the best careers ever for a contact hitter. In his 27 seasons, he had 3,435 hits, 95 home runs (solid for the Deadball Era), a .334 batting average, and an .841 OPS. His career WAR was 94.3.
Defensively, Mattingly was one of the best first basemen of his time, raking in nine Gold Gloves and having a .996 career fielding percentage. Anson was also as equally as impressive with a .972 fielding percentage. With first base being one of the most important fielding positions on a slow-pitch softball diamond, both men would be more than competent there.
In this comparison, it depends on where in the lineup a manager would look to bat his or her first baseman. Mattingly would have the slight edge being in a cleanup spot, but Anson would be the clear-cut better choice as a slap hitter early in the lineup. Overall, the advantage is given to the hall-of-famer Anson.
WINNER: CAP ANSON
At second base, it’s a battle between 14-year veteran Steve Sax and 21-year veteran Nap Lajoie.
Sax was solid at the plate during his MLB career, posting a .281 lifetime batting average, along with three seasons batting above .300. He also had 1,949 career hits, and he had a career OPS of .692. He made five all star appearances, won Rookie of the Year, and won a Silver Slugger.
Lajoie, on the other hand, is one of the best pure hitters in baseball history. He has the 13th most hits in MLB history with 3,243. He had a career batting average of .338, including an average of .426 for the 1901 season. In fact, he only batted below .300 in four of his 21 seasons. This also includes a career OPS of .846.
Defensively, Sax went through a stretch of “the yips,” where he couldn’t make an accurate throw. In slow-pitch softball, it’s easy to let up runs due to errant throws.
Sax’s career WAR was 25.7. Lajoie’s was 107.3. In addition, Lajoie is in Cooperstown, and Sax isn’t. This matchup goes to Lajoie.
WINNER: NAP LAJOIE
The third base matchup is the first on this list between two Hall of Fame members: Wade Boggs and Pie Traynor.
Boggs was a slap hitter in the time of the home run. He purposely coordinated his game around hitting for contact rather than hitting for power. His ability to get on base was reflected in his stats. He had 3,010 hits, 578 doubles, 1,412 walks (including leading the majors in 1986 and 1988), a .328 batting average, a .415 on base percentage, and an .858 OPS. This resulted in 12 all star games and eight Silver Sluggers.
Traynor had great career stats, but not to the level of Boggs. He had 2,416 hits, 371 doubles, a .320 career batting average, an on base percentage of .362, and an OPS of .797. He made two all star teams and finished in the top 15 in MVP voting eight times.
Boggs won two Gold Gloves at the hot corner, recording a career fielding percentage of .962. Traynor’s fielding percentage was .947.
Both players had stellar careers, and a slow-pitch softball team couldn’t go wrong with either. However, Boggs has the better numbers, and he is a legendary beer drinker (usually a qualification for slow-pitch softball), so he gets the nod.
WINNER: WADE BOGGS
The shortstop matchup is also a battle between two Hall of Fame members: Ozzie Smith and Honus Wagner.
Smith pieced together a fantastic 19-year career in the MLB. He finished with 2,460 hits, a .262 batting average, an OPS of .666, and a career WAR of 76.9. He was a 15-time all star, 13-time Gold Glove winner, one-time Silver Slugger winner, and a World Series champion.
But, it’s hard for anyone to compete against Wagner. Wagner was one of the MLB’s first stars. Baseball statistician and historian Bill James named Wagner the best shortstop of all time and the second-best player of all time after Babe Ruth. Wagner had 3,420 career hits, a .328 career batting average, a .467 career slugging percentage, and an OPS of .858.
With a career WAR of 130.8, it’s hard not to pick Wagner over Smith.
WINNER: HONUS WAGNER
The left field matchup involves two players that will be remembered throughout the history of Major League Baseball, but for the wrong reasons: Jose Canseco and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
Canseco was at the forefront of the Steroid Era. He was one of the top outfielders putting up monster numbers. He finished with 462 home runs, leading all of the MLB in home runs twice, as well as hitting more than 40 home runs in three different seasons. He had a career slugging percentage of .515 and an OPS of .867. He earned six all star appearances, a Rookie of the Year, four Silver Slugger awards, and an MVP in 1988.
Jackson, like the other older ballplayers on this list, played during the Deadball Era, when power numbers weren’t as important. In 13 years, Jackson had a .356 batting average (third highest of all time), led the majors in hits twice, and had a career WAR of 62.1.
Neither of these men are in the Hall of Fame. Shortly after his playing career was over, Canseco came out with his tell-all book, Juiced. This book brought to light the rampant steroid use in baseball, leading to a government investigation into the MLB. Even without the admittance to steroid use, Canseco would be a borderline case for the Hall of Fame.
Jackson, on the other hand, was on a trajectory to Cooperstown when he was found guilty along with seven other teammates for throwing games in the 1919 World Series, now known as the Black Sox Scandal. As a result, he was banned for life from the MLB and is forever ineligible for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
This is where the second controversial pick of the article comes in. In this case, Canseco would be a better pick than Jackson for a slow-pitch softball team, and the reasoning comes down to one word: experience. After his days in the MLB were over, Canseco began training for professional slow-pitch softball. For the last few years, Canseco has been touring around the Las Vegas area playing slow-pitch softball. In 2011, he even hit a softball 572 feet:
A slow-pitch softball lineup would need Canseco’s power and experience more than it would need Jackson’s contact.
WINNER: JOSE CANSECO
The final Hall of Fame matchup on this list comes in the centerfield category between Ken Griffey, Jr. and Harry Hooper.
Hooper’s career spanned 17 years. In that time, he had 2,466 hits, a .281 batting average, a .755 OPS, and a 53.3 career WAR. Defensively, he had a .966 career fielding percentage. He also won four World Series titles, and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1971.
But, he’s going up against Ken Griffey, Jr. Griffey may be one of the top three centerfielders in MLB history along with Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio. In 22 seasons, he hit 630 home runs, drove in 1,662 RBIs, and had a career OPS of .907. Additionally, he was a 13-time all star, and he won 10 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers, and an MVP award in 1997. He made it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 99.3 percent of the vote. Griffey has the power for slow-pitch softball, and he has the glove to patrol centerfield, possibly the most important position in slow-pitch softball.
WINNER: KEN GRIFFEY, JR.
The final matchup comes down to two right fielders that were at the top of professional baseball when they played: Darryl Strawberry and Jim Creighton.
Strawberry was as solid as they came. In 17 seasons, he had 1,401 hits, 335 home runs, an OPS of .862, and a career WAR of 42.2. He was also Rookie of the Year, an eight-time all star, a two-time Silver Slugger, and a three-time World Series champion. His durability was also a plus, as he was the only one of Mr. Burns’ ringers to make it to the championship game in the episode.
Creighton was only a professional baseball player for three seasons from 1860 to 1862. In that time, his impact was great both as a hitter and as a pitcher. He pitched in nearly every ballgame for his team, the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. He was also the first pitcher to try and add speed and spin to the underhand pitching style of the time. He had the same impact as a hitter. It is said he was only out four times over the course of the 1862 season.
Sadly, Creighton died on October 14, 1862 at the age of 21 due to hemorrhaging from a ruptured bladder. Legend goes that he had ruptured his bladder by swinging too hard on a home run in a game that same day against the Unions of Morrisania. It was Creighton’s early death that prompted Smithers to utter one of the most quoted lines from “Homer at the Bat”: “In fact, your right fielder has been dead for 130 years.”
Creighton was considered baseball’s first star. In his book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, baseball writer John Thorn commented that Creighton “was baseball’s first hero, and I believe, the most important player not inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
In the end, Creighton would have the advantage over Strawberry because of the time period he played in. When Creighton played, pitchers still thew underhand, much like slow-pitch softball pitchers. He would be used to the trajectory of the ball coming from the pitcher’s hand. In addition, Creighton pitched in the style of slow-pitch softball pitchers, making him a great reliever.
The ultimate reason that Creighton is picked over Strawberry is confidence from the manager. At the end of the episode, Mr. Burns decided to sub out the left-handed Strawberry with the winning run on third base. Burns may have not done the same if the right-handed Creighton were up at the plate.
WINNER: JIM CREIGHTON
In all, Mr. Burns’ original ringers beat out the new players in their matchups, five positions to four. But, baseball is a team sport. How would the complete teams match up?
Overall, the old players would make a better slow-pitch softball team than the new players, and for two reasons. First, all but one of the old players played in the Deadball Era. At that time, the string inside baseballs was wound tighter than it is today. This didn’t allow baseballs to fly off of bats like they do now, thus making home runs a trivial stat before 1920.
This is how the old players benefit from playing in the Deadball Era: Depending on the USSSA softball classification, slow-pitch softball leagues limit the amount of home runs per game anywhere from six to zero. All other home runs hit would be counted as outs. This shows the benefits of the old players’ skill sets of contact rather than the power skill sets found in the newer team.
Second, there’s the one player separating both teams: Homer Simpson. In the episode, it was Homer that drove in the winning run (albeit being hit in the head, leading to both the run being walked in and Homer being knocked out). It can be argued that the new players would’ve never won the game if it wasn’t for Homer: the donut-loving power plant safety inspector from Sector 7G that has never played a game of professional baseball. Some say he was needed for the team to win the championship. The same can not be said about the older players.
In the end, Mr. Burns’ original ringers would have faired better than the new ringers if it wasn’t for the fact that, in the words of Smithers, “all of those players retired and, um, passed on.”
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