February 20th marks a seminal moment in television history. As the best baseball themed episode, and easy top 20 all- time episode*, of the Simpsons debuted tonight twenty-five years ago. There is no better tribute than watching the episode again either through SimpsonsWorld or your DVD collection (what you don’t have a DVD collection? I guess you can skip this step but I am not sure what the point is then). The second best celebration is reading this instant classic Erik Malinowski article about the creation of the episode Homer at the Bat from five years ago. Seriously go do those things if you haven’t already done them today. I can wait.
Okay did you take care of that? No really do those two things before you finish this. Alright I’m going to put you on the honor system, just like Ned Flanders, that you actually took care of that. Today two really interesting pieces came out about updating Mr. Burns softball team. Luis Medina at Baseball is Fun, the Bleacher Nation offshoot with a general baseball focus and less serious bent, picked his updated 2017 Mr. Burns All-Stars. Ken Maeda, though both pieces were excellent, wrote my favorite update piece over at Banished to the Pen. The lineups posited by the two authors are well thought out if differing takes on the present day equivalents to Mr. Burns Springfield Nuclear Power Plant company softball team. The matching of the eight misfortunes to ringers and original artwork made Maeda’s piece a more immersive experience of the two.
They are both fun reads well worth your time. I am not going to spoil the entire pieces by given an exact breakdown of each roster. The two lineups are pretty different apart from agreeing on Mike Trout as the present day replacement for Ken Griffey Jr. Luis Medina was the only one to name a Cub to the roster picking Kris Bryant over Nolan Arenado. Read the articles to find out the other differences in their lineups, but something bothering me about the two pieces. These teams were not present day updates of Mr. Burns softball team. Sure, C. Montgomery Burns was the owner of the power plant that was the home of the championship softball team. He even was the manager for the championship game, and his brilliant tactics of hitting a home run were key in the victory.
But just as Jed Hoyer is actually the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, the real general manager of that original collection of ringers was actually Waylon Smithers. He was given the task of signing some good players (living players) for Mr. Burns. He selected the players and negotiated the deals with each of the nine professionals. He even convinced Jose Canseco to take a pay cut to play for the team.
So to be technically correct the teams those posts were modeled after were Mr. Smithers team. And after all technically correct is the best kind of correct.
Mr. Burns first put together his own team of professional base ballers. We do not get any fun stories for the players Mr. Burns picked because as Mr. Smithers informed him all of hand selected players were already dead at the time. MLB has a Walking Dead promotion going on this season. That makes it all the more fitting to update Mr. Burns actual team of past their prime, and lifetimes, dream team. Mr. Burns only manages to name his third baseman, first baseman and pitcher before Smithers interrupted him.
That gives us a starting point, but the exercise wouldn’t be much fun just changing three old-time players. Thankfully, Bradley Woodrum has already done the detective work for us. Three years ago, Woodrum investigated at the Hardball Times what Mr. Burns entire roster looked like. Using the DVD, he managed to enhance an image to create the annotated roster seen below. This image is further evidence of how jam packed classic Simpsons episodes are with freeze frame gags in the time of VHS tapes. Veteran Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder created a full lineup of anachronistic baseball players when just three names were going to be used in dialogue or even shown clearly to the DVRless viewer of the day. But more importantly for our purposes it gives us a chance to similarly update the rel Mr. Burns softball team.
The rules for this are going to be simple. Well as simple as it can be to update a roster of players who played anywhere from 1859 and 1937. One key rule is that all the players must be dead like Burns original failed attempt to win his million dollar bet, and one must also be dead for the requisite 130 years as Mr. Burns chosen right fielder. I will use Baseball Reference to find similar players to the various Hall of Famers and Hall of Very Good Players on the Burns roster that played roughly 25 years later than their original anachronism. So here is the real 25th anniversary edition of Mr. Burns Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team.
Carl Hubbell ranks as the ninth highest similar scoring pitcher to old Three Finger according to Baseball Reference. The screwball specialist Hubbell is a Hall of Famer just like Mordecai Brown, and both had a deformity associated with their pitching hand. Brown’s Three-Finger moniker came from two separate incidents in his youth which helped him create unique spin on the ball. Hubbell’s left hand permanently faced outward due to the stress of repeatedly throwing his signature pitch, screwball. King Carl was perhaps more dominant in relation to his peers than Brown. Hubbell led the league in ERA three times compared to Brown’s once. King Carl also led the league in strikeouts and won 2 MVP awards, both feats Brown never accomplished.
Street as you can see was not known for his bat. He was a superb defensive catcher known for his handling of pitchers like Walter Johnson and prowess controlling the running game during the dead ball era. Josh Gibson is one of the great what ifs in sports history. Denied a chance to compete in Major League baseball during his lifetie, the catcher known as the Black Babe Ruth could not be a more different player from Street. Some historians credit Gibson with 800 home runs in his career. The reason for the dramatic shift in type of player is because of the uniqueness of Mr. Burns shortstop in Honus Wagner. There is no good comparison for him during the time frame I have to choose from, and so instead the surprising power from a defense first position comes from a man credited with hitting 69 home runs in 1934 alone while playing catcher.
Mr. Burns picked his second Hall of Fame member in the man who made the Chicago National League club Orphans before they became Cubs. That was player, manager and noted racist even for his day**, Cap Anson. His updated anachronism is fellow Hall of Fame member Sam Crawford. The pair had identical career home run numbers and virtually identical OPS+. Crawford, baseball’s career triples leader, is Anson’s eighth most similar career batter. Anson was more of a doubles hitter in his time, but Crawford is the only player in Anson’s similar batter list to play in the roughly 25 year later playing window.
This is the first real downgrade when updating Mr. Burns selection of professional base ballers. Frisch and Lajoie were both inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Lajoie was clearly the better hitter. Lajoie hit for more power in a time known for the ball staying in the yard, and like most of his contemporaries hit for a higher average than Frisch. The Fordham Flash is hardly a slouch with solid hitting and leading the league in steals three times. Frisch is Nap Lajoie’s second highest similarity score, and would provide a speed element largely missing from Mr. Burns original softball ringer picks.
5. Third Base
Pie Traynor-career .320/.362/.435 58 HR, 107 OPS+
25th Year:Eddie Matthews-career .271/.376/.509 512 HR, 143 OPS+
Pie Traynor was the most recent player in Mr. Burns starting nine. Traynor finished playing in 1937 but was an above average offensive player for a decade from 1923-1933. At the time third base was known much more as a defensive position. Early on in baseball history, third was considered more difficult than second base. The shift to power from the corners had taken full effect when Eddie Matthews made his debut fifteen years after Traynor retired from playing. Matthews is another Hall of Fame player and our first member of the 500 HR club. Neither Traynor or Matthews was particularly known for their defensive prowess. Matthews and Gibson provide the updated lineup a little extra thump over the original Burns ringers.
Honus Wagner-career .328/.391/.467 101 HR, 151 OPS+
25th Year:Luke Appling-career .310/.399/.398 45 HR, 113 OPS+
Honus Wagner is one of the greatest players of all time and one of the most unique talents in baseball history. He played the hardest defensive position in the game (besides catcher which requires very different skills that led many to leave it out of the defensive spectrum) at a high level and was both a leading power hitter and speed threat. He led the league in slugging six times and steals five times. Bill James has stated Arky Vaughan was the closest shortstsop to Wagner. That Vaughan has four fewer career home runs in a much more hitter friendly era tells a lot about how close the two really are. Appling gives the updated Burns ringer a slight boost in OBP, but Wagner is the better player in every other way. Appling is not even listed as a similar batter to Wagner, but he is the pick for a Hall of Fame shortstop from the 1930s to replace the Flying Dutchman. Appling was known for his sure hands, but is also a defensive downgrade from Wagner.
I had to go off the board again with Shoeless Joe, but the comparisons between him and the splendid splinter are striking. Jackson made his debut at age 20 in 1908. Williams debuted at 20 in 1939. The 31 year gap is a little bit greater than the 25 years since the episode, but why let that spoil such a good comparison between two players known for their remarkably high batting averages. Both have ridiculous OPS+ for their careers, and both had their time in the big leagues reduced due to factors other than their playing ability dictated.
Okay I am again playing a little fast and loose with the time frame. Hooper’s final season was 1925, and Ashburn’s debut was 1948. So that is within the 25 years but their career arcs don’t mess up well with Ashburn’s final season coming 37 years after Hooper’s last campaign, but Schwartzwelder also was fudging a bit in the creation of Mr. Burns team using a primarily right fielder Hooper in center field. Ashburn is Hooper’s seventh most similar batter but he is also a true center fielder. The defense upgrade should help as the team lost some defensive play at shortstop.
9. Right Field
Jim Creighton no career numbers
25th Year***:Alex McKinnon-career .296/.315/.411 13 HR, 125 OPS+
Creighton was an inspired pick. He is recognized as one of the game’s first superstars. He revolutionized pitching and tragically died at the age of 21 due to an injury he suffered during a game. Unfortunately he played exclusively during the game’s amateur era and so we have no numbers to look back upon. Alex McKinnon was a solid if unspectacular fist base man from the game’s 19th century history. His numbers reflect a perfectly worthy player for a local softball league, but his selection had everything to do with the year of his death. McKinnon was not nearly as young as Creighton at 31, but his death was also as tragic. He died from typhoid fever after having various illnesses temporarily derail his baseball career in his twenties. McKinnon’s selection though has everything to do with his year of death. McKinnon’s untimely passing in 1887 means I can keep this line in my updated version.
*IMDB has it as the 32nd highest rated episode of the series.
**The late 19th century is considered one of the lowest points of race relations in American history. When people from that time are noting “hey that guy is pretty racist” tells you something about the conviction behind Anson’s racism.
***One of the many mistakes I’ve corrected this morning. Hub Collins was mistakenly chosen due to dying in 1892. Unfortunately my history skills are far greater than my math skills in this pick because Collins has been dead for just 125 years.