by Steve McCarthy
Bill McGonagil is unique. Not just in a Hall of Fame sort of way where all the greats are unique because of their ability to pitch, hit or catch a ball. McGonagil is certainly unique in that regard because no one has played more major league games than the man they called "Big Bill." Only one man, turn of the century third baseman Edmund Godfrey, had more career hits than the 3,313 McGonagil accumulated during a career that stretched from 1923 thru 1944. He is the all-time leader in RBI and total bases, 6th in career batting average and third in home runs.
So yes, McGonagil, perhaps even more so than most Hall of Famers, is a unique talent. However, he is also unique among Hall of Famers for two other things, that are perhaps not quite as flattering. McGonagil is the only member of the Hall of Fame who was traded 3 times in his career. He is also one of just two Hall of Famers who never played in a post-season game. (Note: Fennimore McCaffree is the other one). McGonagil is not unique in playing for four different teams as Arnold Church and Pierre Ellsworth also played for four clubs but they did much of their traveling at the end of their career when they were released and just trying to stay in the league so he was the only Hall of Famer to be traded by 3 teams. McGonagil not only played for four teams but he also was an All-Star with each of the four. In all he participated in 7 all-star games and was named MVP of the midsummer classic twice.
So how did a player with such obvious talent, a winner of two batting titles who also led the league in homers and RBI once each but all four of those occurrences were in different seasons, get moved so often? Was it simply bad luck that saddled him with some bad teams throughout his career or was their something more to the fact he never led a club to the playoffs? He put up some jaw-dropping numbers in his 20 year career but his impact on the game, much like the extreme contrast between his individual success and team failure, was very polarizing. While some team executives pointed to what they felt was a lack of work ethic that brought down his teammates, others praised McGonagil for being able to be so good for so long despite the sub-par talent he was often surrounded by.
The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between. To those who only have the numbers to look back at and did not witness McGonagil in his prime, it seems almost unfathomable a player who hit over .300 for each of the first 11 seasons of his career, and 13 seasons in all, could have his work ethic questioned. Yet somehow, despite hitting .347 over 7 and a half seasons in Cleveland and coming off a 1932 campaign in which he led the league batting and OPS, the Bobcats traded him to Brooklyn at the deadline during his age 30 season. He would spend 2 and a half years in Brooklyn, make the all-star team each of his two full seasons with the Bluebirds and win a second batting title in 1935. Perhaps the batting titles are a curse as he was dealt to Detroit that off-season and then proceeded to make the all-star team once more in his first season with the Wolverines. He did have a down year the following season as 1937 was the worst year of his career to date so perhaps Detroit dealing the now 34 year old to Boston prior to the 1938 season made sense. All he did for the Terriers was make four straight All-Star appearances and hit .309 in the final 826 games of his career. But the Terriers of that era were historically bad and lost 116 games in his first season with the club. Boston did finally get over .500 once while McGonagil was with the team, but that came in 1943 when he was 40 years old and by then a spare part. Other then that the only team McGonagil ever played on that finished the year over .500 was the 1927 Bobcats that finished 81-77 and while second in the Western Division, they were still 16 games off the pace. Interestingly the next winning record for a Bobcat team came in 1933, the year they dealt McGonagil to Brooklyn mid-season.
While all the milestones and individual accolades that McGonagil accumulated during his career, one has to wonder if it was just bad luck that McGonagil's was a part of so many poor teams, or was there something more to it. Regardless, you can't argue with his inclusion in the Hall of Fame as Big Bill came just three home runs shy of being the only player in the history of the game to have both 3,000 career hits and 300 career homers.