A long forgotten third baseman, Lave Cross was arguably the greatest hot corner custodian of the 1800s. Initially a catcher, Cross moved to third early in his career and was distinguishable on the field for using his old catcher’s mitt to play third base. Of course, Lave played in the days when gloves, when used, resembled modern-day welder’s gloves, and crude ones at that, than anything close to our advanced baskets-on-hands. But the Philadelphia third baseman was an elite player to have settled on the left side of the infield. He was a solid hitter, a flawless defender and a team leader who Connie Mack named his squad captain when the American League was formed.
The third base position is the least represented post in the Hall of Fame but there are plenty worthy candidates for enshrinement. Lave Cross rests, if not at the top of this list, than right near the summit. Lave, who played in the late 1800s and for a few years after the turn of the century, retired with 2,651 base hits. It took many decades before another third baseman toppled Cross’ record of most hits by a hot corner custodian when the legendary Brooks Robinson finally established a new high for the position–in a much larger total of games than Lave. Not only was Lave the top hitter among third basemen during the 1800s, he remains the top hitter of that time still left out of the Hall of Fame. No other player who played in the 1800s, who has yet to be inducted in the Hall, has more career hits than Cross.
Lave spent the bulk of the 1890s with the strong, offensively at least, Philadelphia Phillies. He left the team in 1898 but returned to Philadelphia, albeit in an altogether different league, when he signed on with Connie Mack’s Athletics in 1901. Mr. Mack, the great gentleman of baseball, was quite fond of Lafayette Napoleon Cross that he named him his team captain. Behind Lave’s capable leadership and the terrific left arm of Rube Waddell, Connie captured his first AL pennant in 1905 but his team lost to the juggernaut John McGraw built in New York, the Giants. The rise of the A’s was greatly attributed to Cross who served as the backbone of the team–a sound, reliable veteran in his mid thirties.
Lave had a few Hall of Fame peers in Jimmy Collins and Frank Baker, but to claim Homerun Baker was a legit peer would be stretching it. Baker debuted in the 1900s during the Deadball Era while Cross debuted in the 1800s and played through the Deadball Era. Be that as it may, Collins and Baker are the two best comparisons in Cooperstown for Cross since they manned the same position and their careers overlapped. Of the three, Lave Cross’ career numbers far and away exceed the two Hall of Famers. When you give their stats a casual glance you’ll imagine that the voters have mush between their ears and no brain, given the far superior career totals Lave amassed. Cross was the only one of the trio to exceed 1,300 career runs scored and RBI. Jimmy Collins scored 1,055 runs but failed to drive in 1,000 while Baker didn’t even reach 1,000 in either department.
Of the fabled trio, Lave was the only one to reach 2,000 career hits and 400 career doubles. Collins came within one bloop single of reaching 2,000 hits in his career, having to settle for the not-so-round number of 1,999 career safeties. Baker failed to reach 2,000 career hits as well but at least he and Cross had a 200 hit season during their careers while Collins failed to reach that plateau in any given season. Lave exceeded both men by a substantial margin in a number of career totals, most notably base hits–he has over 600 more than his two enshrined contemporaries. Although he excelled with the stick, Lave also ran well and pilfered 303 bases–more than Collins and Baker. Also, Lave was a far more polished batsman than the two enshrined gentlemen, indicated by his expert plate discipline. Lave currently rests behind Hall of Famers Willie Keeler, Joe Sewell and Lloyd Waner as the most difficult batters to strikeout in baseball history. Lave struck out once every 44.62 at-bats.
The career offensive stats of Lave Cross tend to place Collins and Baker’s career numbers in the shadow of inferiority, and the same can be said for his defensive stats as well. Granted, Jimmy Collins was often cited as the best defensive third baseman of his time and his career putouts total, which barely exceeds Lave’s, can attest to that, but Cross rests fourth on the all-time putouts column among third basemen. But if one were to judge the men in fielding percentage and errors committed, then Cross exceeds both Collins and Baker not by a slim margin but by a wide gulf. Over the course of Jimmy Collins’ career he had five seasons in which he amassed 40 or more errors. Homerun Baker had three such seasons while Lave never once had a single season in which he committed 40 on-field guffaws.
When looking at their fielding percentages, Lave has quite a distinct advantage as well. Collins may have been more of an acrobat at third than Cross but he wasn’t as reliable. Lave, although not as nimble as Jimmy, was more of a brickwall that batters could not get grounders around. Due to his history as a catcher, Lave wasn’t afraid to get in front of hot grounders and knock them down. Jimmy Collins retired with a terrific fielding percentage that was 25 points above the league average at third base–quite superior to Frank Baker’s seven point advantage. However, Cross fielded third base at a percentage a mind-boggling 41 points above league average! Perhaps, when judging the three men’s entire careers, offense and defense combined, the best of the early hor corner trio isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
As an aside, while researching Lave Cross in newspaper archives, I came across a late article in which Lave, who was a 40-year-old Major Leaguer, gave advice on how to last long in the game. He gave five pointers and one warning. The title of the small piece was “Lave Cross’ Pointers on how to Last Long in the Game.” They are as follows: 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 ball club. He has to be watched.