Long before Brooks Robinson came about, a fellow by the name of Lave Cross was the top hitting third baseman in baseball history. That isn’t to say he was the best hitter for average, but Lave was the top career hits leader for the position until the Baltimore man topped him: and it took Brooks several hundred more games than Lave needed to reach the top. The Hall of Fame, for whatever reason, hasn’t been kind to third basemen (it is the least represented position in Cooperstown) but not for a want of viable candidates. Lave Cross would make a solid selection and there are also other great third basemen like Ron Santo, Ken Boyer, Stan Hack, Bob Elliott and Eddie Yost, who could also be in the Hall of Fame.
Lave made his debut with the old Louisville Colonels in 1887: an American Association ballclub. At the time, Cross was a catcher. Once he caught on with the Philadelphia Phillies in the early 1890s, he switched to third base and became a stellar defender at the hot corner. He was an unconventional third baseman. Lave loved his catcher’s mitt so much that he opted to use the thick mitt at third – he was a wizard at the station with it. Lave was notorious for knocking down speeding bullets, struck from the bat of the big stick wielders, and using his tremendous throwing arm to gun down the batter at first.
Lave was a solid offensive performer but in 1894, he had his breakout season. Cross elevated his game by hitting a robust .386 in ’94 while driving in an astonishing 125 runs. That year, Lave played in 119 games, scored 123 runs and drove in 125 runs, making him one of but a few players who have averaged both a run scored and a run driven in per game. He eclipsed the 100 RBI mark the following year as well while only fanning eight times all season.
A stalwart in the National league, and quite possibly the game’s finest third baseman, Lave jumped to the rival American League in 1901 and was the star player for Connie Mack’s Athletics. In the AL’s first year of existence, Lave paced all regular third basemen with a lusty .332 BA. The following year, Lave led the A’s to an AL pennant with his 108 RBI (The second highest total in all of baseball). Although he was aging, Lave was still remarkably productive. In 1903, Lave, at age 37, drove in 90 runs – tops among third basemen. A few years later, at the age of 40, Lave stole 19 bases. Most players during Lave’s time watched as their careers ended in their early thirties, making Cross a ball diamond anomaly: an aging veteran still posting great numbers. An Associated Press article ran out detailing Lave’s secret of lasting long in the game of baseball.
Lave’s pointers on how to last long in the game: 1. Leave drink alone 2. Avoid excesses 3. Don’t smoke too much – it hurts the eyes 4. Eat moderately. A stuffed ballplayer is of no use to his club 5. Make heaviest meal in the evening after the game 6. A drinking man is a bad man on a ballclub – he has to be watched.
Lave has two peers in the Hall of Fame. Frank Baker and Jimmy Collins have both been inducted into the Hall of Fame and they played roughly at the same time as Lave. Cross was just as good if not better than the two enshrined men. Both Collins and Baker had fine careers, but they must have been men of excesses, because they didn’t last as long nor sustain excellence as long as Lave Cross. Cross ended his career with 2,645 hits: 646 more than Collins and 807 more than Baker. Baseball lifer Timmy Hurst said of Lave that “he is the best third baseman in the business.”
Lave Cross’ career stats: G 2,266/R 1,349/H 2,645/2B 402/3B 134/RBI 1,368/SB 307/BA .292