by Martín Abresch
The best hitter of the late 1930s, third baseman Gene Metcalf hit .330 or better in each of his first eight seasons. A balanced hitter, over those eight seasons, he averaged just over 30 doubles, 15 triples, 15 home runs, 90 walks, and 35 stolen bases per season.
“Hippo” didn’t look like an athlete. Despite tearing up the minor leagues, scouts were skeptical that his talent would translate to the major leagues. He was 27 years old when St. Louis finally took a chance on him. The Explorers struck gold. In 1934, Metcalf had one of the great rookie campaigns in history. He hit .340 and led the league in runs scored (128), walks (119), stolen bases (55), on-base percentage (.449), OPS (.977), and WAR (7.6).
Metcalf was no defensive whiz, but neither was he a lead glove. He manned the hot corner capably for most of his career. Any deficiencies in the field were more than made up for by his bat. In 1935, Metcalf hit in 25 straight games. In 1936, he hit .370 and won the batting title. In 1937, he had the best season of his career. He hit .373 with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 21 home runs, and 102 RBIs. He led the league with a 1.078 OPS and 10.1 WAR. His performance won him the Most Valuable Player award. With Hippo at the plate and Royal Ricketts Award winner Brock Rutherford on the mound, St. Louis won 111 games. In the Championship Series, Metcalf went 8-for-24 (.333) with a home run, six runs scored, and four runs batted in. St. Louis beat rival New York in six games.
In 1938, St. Louis and New York again met in the Championship. Metcalf again stepped up. He went 7-for-19 (.368) with a home run, and the Explorers won in five games. In 1940, at the age of 33, he won the stolen base title for the fifth and final time. His production dipped in 1942, but he remained a solid run producer. In 1943, he hit .309 and posted a 139 OPS+.
With players returning from military service at the end of World War II, St. Louis released Metcalf. The newly formed Seattle Emeralds drafted him. In part-time play in 1946, he posted a 101 OPS+. He retired at season’s end.
Metcalf finished with 2,037 hits, 1,099 runs scored, and a .330 career batting average. His career on-base percentage was .414, and his career slugging percentage was an even .500. He lined 329 doubles, hit as many triples (145) as home runs (145), and stole 339 bases. He led the league in batting average (1936), on-base percentage (1934, 1936), slugging percentage (1937), OPS (1934-35, 1937), runs (1934), walks (1934), stolen bases (1934-36, 1938, 1940), and WAR (1934, 1937-38). He won Rookie of the Month five times, Batter of the Week 12 times, and Batter of the Month three times. He was selected to nine All-Star games (1934-41, 1943) and won the 1937 NBL Most Valuable Player Award. He played on two Championship teams (St. Louis 1937-38).