Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The First Active Player From Each Expansion Franchise (Part I)

From 1903 to 1952, Major League Baseball was a pretty static institution. For a full half-century, there were two leagues with the same eight teams in the same cities. (The short-lived Federal League briefly showed its face, but it folded before it could gain the prestige of the American and National Leagues.) The 1950s saw the beginning of franchise moves, with the Braves, Browns, Athletics, Dodgers, and Giants all picking up stakes within a five-year period. It was a new era for baseball, one where market and technological changes forced the game to expand its reach.

From there, we saw the beginning of the expansion era in 1961. The American League was first to add a pair of new franchises, followed by the National League in 1962. More and more teams have been added over the years, to the point where nearly half of all MLB teams are former expansion franchises.

It got me thinking: Who was the first active player in each expansion franchise's history? Who was the player who first stepped onto a Major League field, long before the franchise in question had even been conceived? Let's take a look at all 14 expansion franchises, in chronological order of their first player to debut.

1. New York Mets: Warren Spahn, April 19, 1942

On an early-season day in 1942, before most of baseball's stars had enlisted in the armed forces for World War II, a young left-hander made his debut for the home team in Boston's Braves Field. After coming back from the war in 1946, his career would really take off, and he'd go on to become the winningest southpaw in baseball history, with 363 victories, thirteen 20-win seasons and an eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.

After the 1964 season, the longtime Brave was sold to the New York Mets, who had just completed their third season of existence. At that point, the Braves had been based in Milwaukee for over a decade and Braves Field had long since been demolished. Spahn played only 21 games as a Met before being released in July and catching on with the Giants to finish out his career.

2. Texas Rangers: Gene Woodling, September 23, 1943

The great platoon outfielder made his debut as a member of the Cleveland Indians, when he pinch-hit for center fielder Hank Edwards in the 8th inning of a late-season game in 1943. He would go on to play 17 years in the majors and win five World Series in a row with the New York Yankees from 1949 to 1953.

When Washington was granted a new franchise to replace the original departing Washington Senators (now the Twins), they took Woodling in the expansion draft, and he played for them during their first two years of existence. Those Washington Senators would become the Rangers several years after Woodling had hung up his spikes.

3. Los Angeles Angels: Joe Nuxhall, June 10, 1944

Perhaps no one on this list had a more memorable debut than Joe Nuxhall. Due to depleted rosters from the war, the Reds gave the local boy, still a month shy of his 16th birthday, a chance to pitch in the late innings of a blowout against the two-time defending NL Champion Cardinals. He predictably got shelled for five runs before being removed. It was his only appearance that season, but it earned him the distinction of being the youngest player in major league history (at least, that we can ascertain).

His appearance ended up being more than a gimmick; he resurfaced with the Reds in 1952, and went on to spend 15 of his 16 major league seasons in a Cincinnati uniform, with two All-Star appearances to his name. In a cruel twist of fate, the only year he didn't spend with the Reds was 1961, when the team won its first pennant in over 20 years. His stint with the fledgling Los Angeles Angels was brief, lasting a little over a month in 1962 before he was released and rejoined the franchise he started with. After his playing career ended, he started a new one as a beloved radio announcer.

4. Houston Astros: Billy Goodman, April 19, 1947

Billy Goodman spent the first two months of his major league career on the roster of the defending AL Champion Red Sox, being used mainly as a pinch-hitter. He went back to the minors for the rest of the season, but he was back for good in 1948, when he finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. He developed a reputation for good hitting (.300 career average) and the versatility to play all over the diamond. Other career highlights included a batting title in 1950 and a World Series appearance in 1959 as a member of the White Sox.

His stint with the Astros (then called the Colt .45s) came after the White Sox released him at the start of the 1962 season, and he caught on with the first-year franchise in May. In that final season of his major league career, he mainly served as a utility infielder and a pinch-hitter.

5. Washington Nationals: Roy Face, April 16, 1953

If the early 1950s wasn't the worst period in Pirates history, it was certainly a close second. In 1953, a 25-year-old hurler made his debut, starting 13 of the 41 games in which he took the mound. His 6.58 ERA didn't indicate much promise, and he could've easily disappeared like so many of the mediocrities the Pirates employed back then. However, he resurfaced with Pittsburgh in 1955, and within a few years developed into a relief ace. In 1959, he set a record with 18 wins in relief, and earned the first of three straight All-Star selections.

In 1968, the Pirates sold their veteran fireman to the Tigers, who released him the next year. He caught on with the first-year Montreal Expos (precursor to today's Nats), where he allowed no runs in his first six appearances. After struggling in his next several appearances, he got it together and managed to be serviceable for a few more months, before being released in August, ending the 41-year-old's career.

6. San Diego Padres: Johnny Podres, April 17, 1953

The fortuitously named Podres had his rookie season as a 20-year-old lefty pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers during their dominant 1953 season. Two years later, he became a franchise icon when he pitched two complete game victories in the World Series, including a shutout in Game 7, to lead Brooklyn to its first ever title, when they finally vanquished the hated Yankees. For his performance, he was named World Series MVP.

He was a mainstay of the Dodger rotation until he was sold to Detroit in 1966. After spending 1968 out of organized baseball, his career got one last shot with the first-year San Diego franchise, though the results were less than impressive. It turned out to be the end of his playing career, and he soon transitioned into coaching.

7. Milwaukee Brewers: Dick Schofield, July 3, 1953

Schofield had a long career as an infielder, but he was rarely a full-time starter during his 19 years of service. He debuted as an 18-year-old with the Cardinals in 1953, and from 1963 to 1965, he was the Pirates' primary shortstop, the only years of his career where he played in over 100 games.

In 1971, he began the season with the Cardinals (the third St. Louis stint of his career), but they traded him to the third-year Brewer franchise in July. By that point, Schofield was finished, slashing .107/.194/.179 in 23 games with Milwaukee.

Those are the first seven, with seven left to go. In the next installment, we'll look at the rest of them.