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The strange, doubles-detesting career of Norm Zauchin

Monday 12/26/22

People who watch a lot of baseball over the course of their lives are fond of saying that each game you will see something you've not seen before. While this may not be strictly true, it's true in spirit and said with good reason. Baseball contains more mystery than any other sport. I think part of that has to do with how it stretches into the past in a way that hockey, for example, doesn't.

We picture baseball being played in barely-cleared fields and forests in the days when the Republic was still young; one could encounter someone who lived through a period of revolution, and the west was still wild, and our country replete with forest and bear and legends of ghosts and haunts. People played baseball in carved-out patches and clearings where a ball could bound without the interference of trees, but it also need not roll too far to be lost in a thicket of them.

Ever since I was a kid, I've looked at baseball statistics from the same angles of mystery and surprise. Do we have a perspective of surprise and mystery? I think we do in that some people are more open to what is liable to be there, or may be found somewhere, and what some other people might not notice because of their different angles which they commonly rely upon and may utilize exclusively.

Most days I discover new statistical improbabilities that contain this potent form of mystery which I think of as harkening back to the game's initial wonder in a pocket of time when wonder seemed to be a part of the very lay of the land. In such mystery and wonder we find narrative, if we are able to read it.

In 1955, Red Sox first baseman Norm Zauchin finished third for Rookie of the Year in the American League. So much about his career is improbable, and much is unique. He debuted in 1951, when he was twenty-one-years-old, and around the age we'd expect someone to be a rookie at the time, but he didn't play at all again in the Majors until three full seasons had passed.

He was a big man--6'4'' and well over 200 pounds--and he must have been incredibly slow. He may have been one of the slowest players to ever play. During that rookie season, he displayed real clout, hitting 27 home runs--good for fourth in the league--and knocking in 93, which placed him seventh. He led the leagues in strikeouts with 104, which seems quaint now. He hit .239 and he his OPS+ was 98, which was below average, but clearly he could mash.

Ten of those RBI came in a single game, which makes him the answer to a part of a trivia question in Red Sox lore, but I am not sure if anyone else has ever had as many home runs as Zauchin did and so few doubles in the same season. He hit ten doubles. Has anyone ever had twenty-seven or more home runs and nine or fewer doubles? Maybe. But also maybe not.

This man could not hit doubles. Did he hate the idea of doubles? Was it a total absence of speed? But speed is not really required for doubles. The ball goes into the gap, rolls to the wall, and unless you tote around a shell with slots for your limbs, you're on second. But Zauchin may have been a human tortoise. He only played until 1959, and he was injured a lot, but these are his other double totals: there was one in 1951, and then after 1955, he hit 2, 3, 8, and 4. To hit a double was a real rarity for Zauchin (who had two triples, both coming in the same season), almost a freak occurrence.

More than half of his career 50 home runs came in that 1955 season. But that career home run total nearly doubled his career doubles total of 28.

I've never seen anything like this in baseball. He wrapped up with Boston after the 1957 season, meaning he'd been a teammate of Ted Williams for a number of years. I wonder what the Splinter thought of this hitter. He was by no means a bad ball player. Average, really, or at least average if he didn't play too much, because pitchers clearly figured him out, and 1955 was the season where they were in the process of doing so and on occasion Zauchin would run into one. But he wouldn't run from the batter's box to second base. That just wasn't something he did. Perhaps he didn't like to run. I don't know. Like I said, I've never really seen anything like it.

This is also weird: Zauchin had five career stolen bases, with three occurring during his 1955 rookie season, and two coming in his final portion of a campaign in 1959 with the Washington Senators. So upon sticking in the league, Zauchin must have said, "Let's steal some bags!" and then reiterated this goal as he was on his way out of the league. Because he really had to have wanted to steal some bases--at least by his meager standards--during that last season.

He had 15 hits that final year. Three were home runs. He had 4 doubles and 7 walks. So that means there were fifteen times he stood on first base and nineteen times he was in a position to steal. And he went for it twice. That's more than ten percent of the time. What was he thinking? What was he trying to do? But you know what? He was two for two, and only thrown out attempting to steal once in his career.


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