Baseball’s Forgotten Stars: The Cubs’ Riggs Stephenson

Baseball’s Forgotten Stars: The Cubs’ Riggs Stephenson

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Another Edition of Baseball’s Forgotten Stars: Riggs Stephenson

Riggs Stephenson is another long-forgotten star from the 1930’s. He was a great hitter in his day and you have to wonder why he’s not in the Hall of Fame. After a quick look at his stats, you could certainly make a case for him. His .336 lifetime batting average really catches your eye.

Stephenson played 14 years in the major leagues, with the Indians (1921-1925) and the Cubs (1926-1934). His lifetime batting average of .366 is 22nd on the all-time list. He posted a .407 on-base percentage (80th on the all-time list), and is tied with Bill Madlock for the highest career batting average in Cubs history. Stephenson hit over .300 in all but two seasons. In two World Series (1929 and 1932), he batted .378 over nine games So what gives? Why isn’t he in?

Stephenson was an All-Star in baseball and football at the University of Alabama. He suffered a severe shoulder injury in a football game in 1920 ending his gridiron career and greatly affecting his throwing abilities in baseball. He quit school and was signed by the Indians. He made his major league debut on April 13, 1921, at age of 23, and played limitedly during the season. Although he always hit well, his weak arm affected his fielding abilities, and, as a result, affected his playing time. From 1921-1925 with the Indians, he shuttled between second, third, and the outfield, seeing limited play each year.

In 1926, the Cubs acquired Stephenson. He again played limitedly that year, but now settled in as a left fielder. In his first year with the Cubs, he batted .338 in just 82 games. The following year, his seventh in the majors, was his first complete season. Playing in 152 games, he batted .344 (fourth in the league), with a .415 on-base percentage, and a league-leading 46 doubles.

1929 was his career year. He hit .362, with 17 home runs, 110 RBIs, and a .445 on-base percentage. Stephenson teamed up with Cubs outfielders Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson as the only outfield trio in National League history to drive in over 100 runs each on the season. In the 1929 World Series. Stephenson hit .316, with one RBI and three runs scored. He followed this up with another solid season in 1930. In 109 games, he hit a career-high .367. Eighty games into the 1931 season, the injury bug hit him again, as he broke his ankle, affectively ending his season.

Stephenson bounced back in 1932, collecting the most at-bats of his career (583). He hit .324 with a team-leading 85 RBIs, and a career-best 49 doubles. The 1932 Cubs won another pennant, but were swept by the Yankees in the World Series that featured Babe Ruth’s famous “Called Shot” home run. It was another good Series for Stephenson, as he batted a team-high .444 with four RBIs.

Stephenson’s playing time declined in 1933. He appeared in only 97 games, but still hit a solid .329. 1934 was Stephenson’s final year in the majors, mostly spent as a pinch hitter, with a career-low .216 average in 74 at bats. The Cubs released him on October 30.

Stephenson’s .336 lifetime average is the highest average of any non-Hall of Famer with more than 4,000 at-bats in the 20th-century. However, his relatively short career (1310 games, 4508 at bats) is barely long enough to qualify for official recognition. Other than Earle Coombs, every other 20th-century player with a .325 batting average exceeded 6000 at bats. His inability to throw severely limited playing time over the course of his career. That is probably what has kept this great hitter from enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

-Gary Livacari

Photo Credits: The George Brace Baseball Photo Collection; and public domain

Information: Excerpts edited from the Riggs Stephenson Wikipedia page

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I'm a baseball historian who also loves to write. My forte is identifying ballplayers in old photos, and my specail interest is the Dead Ball Era.

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