Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Man Who Might Have Brought the Red Sox Glory...or What Could Have Been...

One of the things that I love about the rich history of baseball is wondering “what if?”. Looking at today’s card of the day – from the 1961 Topps set, a retro card, #476 commemorating the 1958 MVP winner Jackie Jensen, one can’t help but wonder “what if?”. Jensen was in the prime of his career and only 32 years old when he hung up his spikes after the 1959 season. He had led the American League in RBI for the third time in 5 years and was establishing himself as a superstar with the Boston Red Sox. He won the MVP Award in ’58, started the All Star Game in right field, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated (no I don’t actually have a copy of this, I wish!) and was in the League’s top ten in 11 different categories. His .396 on base percentage, 7 intentional walks, 31 doubles and 35 homers were all 5th best in the AL. His 99 walks and 66 extra base hits were both second best and he led the league in RBI with 122. He was basically on the top of the baseball world after that. His year in 1959, although not as good, wasn’t too bad either. He did lead the league in RBI again; he was a 20-20 man for the second time in his career with 28 long balls (8th) and 20 steals (3rd). He won his first Gold Glove that year and set a personal best in runs scored with 101 (4th). The Red Sox had a losing record and placed 5th in the American League that year and Jackie Jensen was the primary hitting star on the team. He had been a star for them since the Red Sox pulled of a steal of a deal with the Washington Senators (following the 1953 season) that brought them Jensen in exchange for a pitcher on the downslide named Mickey McDermott and a light hitting outfielder named Tom Umphlett. Neither of them produced for Washington and their careers ended soon after the trade. Jensen on the other hand became the Sox starting center fielder playing between two stars in Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall. With that trio in the outfield the Sox had winning records the next 4 seasons, but never did see the postseason. By 1959, Jensen’s final year, they had a losing record again.
By 1959 Ted Williams had reached 40 and was in decline-Pete Runnels had a great year getting on base, but Frank Malzone was Jensen’s only protection in the lineup in his final year in the league. He opted to retire because the league was expanding westward and Jensen had an extreme fear of flying. Many players’ careers were cut short the previous decade due to the War, but Jensen left baseball as one of their top stars just because he didn’t want to get on an airplane. It was a shame for the Red Sox who would introduce a very talented young leftfielder in 1961 to continue Williams’s legacy-his name was Carl Yastrzemski. Jensen remained retired for the entire 1960 season but did relinquish his retirement for one more try in 1961, but at his age (34) taking a year off wasn’t the best thing for him. He was out of shape and didn’t produce as he had done. The Sox did get a season with Jensen and Yaz cornering the outfield, but Yaz was just a 21 year old rookie (.266/11/80) and Jensen was a shadow of his former self (.263/13/66). Not that those aren’t respectable numbers, but that would be the only year the Sox would have both stars on the team at the same time-they finished 6th place in the AL with a losing record. You have to wonder what would have happened if Jensen didn’t take 1960 off. Would he have continued his torrid slugging and stayed the leagues best run producer? Would he have played 6 or 8 more seasons driving in 100 runs a year? Would Jensen and Yaz have been the greatest 3-4 punch in baseball history? Would Jackie Jensen have a plaque in Cooperstown right now?
After his one year comeback in ’61 Jensen retired for good. Baseball Reference calculates his 162 game averages as follows: .279 batting average, 22 homers and 105 RBI. 165 hits, 29 doubles, 84 walks, 16 steals and 91 runs scored per year. His career in the big leagues lasted for 11 years, but the first two years he spent with the Yankees as Joe DiMaggio’s backup and didn’t see much playing time, he didn’t become a starter till he was traded to Washington and he didn’t become a star until he joined the Boston Red Sox. In his first 6 seasons with Boston he topped 100 RBI 5 times for an average of 111 runs driven in each year. He drove in 929 over his career, but you have to wonder if he could have doubled that. You have to wonder if he and Yaz could have teamed up to bring a World Series to Boston. It’s all that wondering that keeps me sorting through all of these old bubblegum cards dreaming of what could have been. Stupid airplanes! I love this hobby! Before I go… This started off as a card of the day post, but as usual continued onward to excess. Also shown are his 1955 Topps card (#200), his high numbered 1958 All Star card (#489) and his final card from the 1961 Topps set, hatless and grounded on card #540. Troll out.


  1. Terrific post! I knew of Jackie Jensen but not much about him. I remember seeing him on reruns of the old Home Run Derby show.

  2. Excellent info. I did not know Jensen retired due to a fear of flying. Fascinating.

    It also must be fairly rare to have played on teams with both Ted Williams and DiMaggio.

    I don't think Jensen would have had enough career numbers to get into the HOF even if he played straight through. He didn't have his first really good year until age 27.

    Unless he was the very rare player that maintained great numbers past age 37, his career totals would have most likely kept him around 2000 hits, 300 hr to go with a .275 ba.

    I like these "what ifs"!

    The sad thing is Ted Williams could be a "what if" having missed his prime due to military service.

  3. Love the Jackie Jensen stories. The fear of flying thing was probably an even bigger issue in the 1950s.

    Dave Philley who played for the Phillies was also a player whose career was likely derailed due to a fear of flying.

  4. I remembered hearing about a player who retired due to not wanting to fly in planes, but didn't know he was such a phenomenal player.

    Fantastic post.