Luke Appling: From the Hall of Fame Library player files

Luke Appling, 1934 Goudey baseball card.

In the first two installments of this series, we looked through the players files of Eddie Cicotte and Johnny Mostil. They shared of a theme of unmet potential, as they both found ways to bring their careers to a halt in their individually tragic ways.

This time, we'll take a look at a guy whose career went on forever and ended in Cooperstown. His name is Luke Appling, and given that he's a Hall of Famer, his Hall of Fame player file has loads of material. Beware.

Why Luke Appling?

The better question is, "Why not Luke Appling?"

Before Frank Thomas showed up, Appling was the finest player to ever wear the White Sox uniform. And thanks to Appling's ability to play a good shortstop, it's still a pretty close call. According to the leaderboard at Baseball-Reference.com, Thomas holds only a slight edge in WAR (70.6 to 69.3).

Career-wise, he's the franchise leader in games played (2,422), and hits (2,749), and just behind Thomas in runs (1,319; Thomas had 1,327), doubles (440 to Thomas' 447) and walks (1,302 to 1,466). He was also two triples shy of Nellie Fox and Shano Collins' shared lead of 104.

Appling owns the White Sox's highest single-season, when he hit .388 in 1936. He added another batting title to his collection in 1943, making him the only two-time winner in franchise history.

Appling's No. 4 is retired, but he seems to get shorted when it comes to tributes. He doesn't have a statue on the center field concourse, and when the White Sox had their All-Century Team display on the side of the stadium, his canvas was shredded by the elements, while all the other ones were intact.

I understand why there hasn't been much of a focus on Appling -- they really can't do a living tribute for him like they did with Luis Aparicio or Billy Pierce. Nevertheless, he was a great player, incredibly idiosyncratic, and it's hard to imagine there being another player like him.

Before he made it

Appling played both baseball and football at Oglethorpe University. It's hard to imagine him playing the latter, given that he was the great hypochondriac nicknamed "Old Aches and Pains," but ultimately, he was steered in the correct direction:

"Nap Rucker, scout for the Brooklyn team, has told me I have the makings of a big league baseball player. He ought to know for he was a star pitcher and has been scouting for a lot of years."

"What," exclaimed the coach. "You going to sign with Brooklyn?"

"I guess I better get some experience first," was Appling's wise reply. "I think I will start right here at home in Atlanta."

And, within a few days, Luke, in an Atlanta uniform, went up to the plate as a pinch hitter and hit safely. That gave him all the confidence he needed and the close of the Southern league season found him hitting .326. It was then the White Sox purchased him. -- Dec. 10, 1933.

Although Appling first thought the Cubs had purchased him, since the Cubs had purchased the Atlanta Crackers. But the White Sox picked off Appling by trading outfielder Douglas Taitt and $20,000 to the Cubs. Either way, it was a significant investment.

While [Atlanta manager R.J.] Spiller refused to name the price, he said it was in his opinion, "a record price for the Southern Association." -- Aug. 20, 1930.

It was also one of two near-misses. The White Sox almost bailed on Appling before he put his entire game together, if this clipping is to be believed:

The White Sox believe Appling would fit into the Yankee picture better than the Chicago ensemble, and we understand that the infielder has been offered to McCarthy in a deal. Appling might be the solution to the shortstop problem at the Stadium. But from what Luke has shown with Chicago, his awkwardness in the field is not compensated for by his hitting. With Chicago demanding a good pitcher for Luke, local reception to the offer is cold. -- Dec. 12, 1932.

Development

Jimmy Dykes, who managed the White Sox to more wins than any other South Side manager, took an awful lot of credit for Appling's growth.

In 1933 Appling had his first really successful season for he batted .322, while his fielding improved to a measurable degree.

There was a reason. That was the year Jimmy Dykes joined the White Sox. While he was not to be a manager until 1934, Dykes took a liking to Appling right from the start.

He began to coach him on fielding ground balls. Soon Appling lost his timidity and uncertainty in field his position. He finished the season on all cylinders.

It almost sounds like Dykes started managing the team before it was actually his job, as he recounted this conversation with the skipper who preceded him, Lew Fonseca:

"That boy is never going to be a ballplayer as long as he is pushed around. Half the time he doesn't know where he is going to play - or when. If he makes an error, he worries and his hitting falls off, then you put him on the bench and it nearly kills him. What you've got to do is let him stay in there. I can do a lot for him."

"I coached him," Jimmy says. "I told him where to play for different hitters. I yelled at him when he had to hurry on a play. When I saw he couldn't make it, I yelled at him to hold teh ball, because he might throw it away."

What he was famous for

Aside from being a Hall of Fame-caliber player, Appling gained notoriety for fouling off a pitch whenever he felt like it. He was able to control the bat because he basically gave up on trying to pull the ball.

"I've been kidded a lot about the number of foul balls I hit and how much it costs the club to supply new balls. I do hit a lot of foul balls, but I don't think I do it intentionally. There's just something in my swing that causes me to hit it to right field, and by accident I get quite a few base hits that way."

In fact, some teams tried shifting him the other way:

Once in a series against the Sox, Joe McCarthy shifted Tony Lazzeri nearer to first base than second with Lou Gehrig almost on the foul line. In that instance Lazzeri came up with a potential hit, but as the records indicate, neither the Yankees nor other rivals were as fortunate over the run of the season. -- Dec. 13, 1936

There are a couple stories about Appling wearing out opposing pitchers on purpose. Our friend Rob Neyer did some digging in his Big Book of Baseball Legends (read the two-page section on Appling), and figures that he probably didn't hit exactly 24 foul balls off Red Ruffing, but there had to be some absurdly long episodes in order for these stories to take hold.

Here's another possible legend:

"We were playing the Yankees in New York," Ted Lyons recalls, "and Luke asked for a couple of passes. Maybe it was because the crowd was so large, but whatever the reason, our road secretary told him the Yanks wouldn't let him have any."

"They won't, hey?" he said. "Well I'll show those birds."

"The first time he went to the plate in hitting practice he must have hit 25 fouls into the stands. By the time he had finished, a guy from the Yankee front office was offering him as many passes as he wanted. I guess they were afraid he'd break the club if he kept it up." -- Collier's.

His club was acutely aware of how many balls Appling could go through, and somebody did some math when Appling missed the 1944 season serving in World War II:

The White Sox are some $2,160 better off in balls not fouled into the stands in 1944 than in 1943, but they would have been more than willing to make up the difference, had the cause of the deficit been around. Milt Woodward of the Chicago White Sox figured that Luke Appling, the Hose' star shortstop, was responsible for 1,080 of the 1,440 annually banged inot the stands and set what Publicitor Earl Hilligan of the American League calls a record of 14.0529 fouls into the stands in each game in 1943.

At $1.50 a ball, Appling represented an investment of $2,160 in fouls, in addition to his $15,000-a-year salary.

Oh, and he also bitched a lot about his health.

One day, the Groaner gritted his teeth and limped to the plate, almost as if he'd just been kicked in the leg by a horse.

"Leg bothering you, Luke?" asked the sympathetic catcher.

"I ain't hardly able to walk," drawled Appling morosely. "Got double vision, too. Can't see what the feller is pitchin'."

The durable hypochondriac thereupon belted a twsting curve ball to right and a quick spring in the last twenty feet enabled him to slide into third with a triple. -- New York Times, 1958

Late-career position change

At 42 years old in 1949, Appling was still the everyday shortstop. He played 141 games, hitting .301/.439/.394, and he drew 121 walks to just 24 strikeouts. But the Sox had just signed a younger, more capable shortstop by the name of Chico Carrasquel, and so the White Sox tried shifting Appling to first.

He gave the reassignment lip service at first:

Luke Appling is turning in his "boxing glove." The 40-year-old Luke took a stab at first basing on White Sox pilot Jack Onslow's plea, but now he's chucking it after three tries, feeling he's too awkward. -- April 6, 1950

But he eventually gave in ... begrudingly:

Capt. Luke recently has been in what mildly has been called a "state of high dudgeon" because Chico Carrasquel apparently has taken over his long time lease on the Sox shortstopping job. [...]

Appling has been overheard repeatedly making a variety of sarcastic remarks, not only critical of his manager, but also of the club from which he has drawn upward of $200,000 in salary. Carrascquel, a shy Venezuelan, 22 years old, too timid to use the few English words he knows, also has been the subject of many sarcastic shots. -- April 13, 1950

Odds and ends

Just a few items of trivia...

A bolt of lightning killed the father of baseball's Luke Appling as he cooked barbecue for a Fourth of July family reunion. -- July 5, 1951.

When the 1950 White Sox roster came out, giving his birthday as April 2, A.D., Luke gave the whimsey a polite enough chuckle.  Nov. 8, 1950

Luke Appling, the Hall of Famer, says all kids could be ambidextrous if they really tried. Appling used to bat and throw left, but he switched at the age of 14 when it was apparent he had a better chance as an infielder. -- July 25, 1970

And, of course, at the age of 75, Appling took Warren Spahn deep. You can catch a brief glimpse of it here.

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