by Martín Abresch
The on-base king, second baseman Billy Petersen reached base over 45% of the time he came to bat. In 1923, he became the only hitter to ever reach base more than 50% of the time.
Petersen joined Philadelphia in 1920, just as the live ball era was beginning. The Quakers, fresh off back-to-back championships, were led by third baseman Claude Hensley and pitcher Clay Easton. The combination of Petersen getting on base and Hensley driving him in proved to be potent. Petersen hit .332, drew 115 walks, and led the league with 123 runs scored. Hensley hit .357 and led the league with 233 hits and 124 RBIs. Philadelphia scored more runs than any team in the league, but Brooklyn's pitching won out and the Quakers finished in second place.
Though not a power hitter, Petersen added a bit more pop to his game in 1921, hitting 32 doubles, 21 triples, and 12 home runs. He led the league with a 1.024 OPS. In 1922, Petersen and Hensley again teamed up to lead the league in runs scored (133) and runs batted in (141). Petersen hit a career-high 15 home runs and led the league with a .999 OPS and 8.5 WAR. After finishing second to Brooklyn the previous two seasons, Philadelphia clinched their division in the final series of the season and went on to beat Cincinnati to win the Championship.
Unfortunately, 1922 would be the only playoff baseball of Petersen's career. Philadelphia were fated to play the bridesmaid rather than the bride through most of the 1920s, finishing second to Brooklyn in 1920, 1921, and 1923, then finishing second to the New York Knickerbockers in 1924, 1925, and 1926.
Petersen, meanwhile, continued to get on base at a historical rate. He set the record for walks in a season in 1922 with 149, then equalled that total in 1924. (Since World War II, the record has since been surpassed.) It only took him eight seasons to draw over 1,000 walks. His best season was 1923. He batted a career-high .387 and had an on-base percentage of .509—the first and, to this date, only player to reach base in over 50% of his plate appearances. As a second baseman, Petersen was an average glove, but his fielding began to decline in his 30s. In 1928, at the age of 34, he was a subpar defender. His .398 on-base percentage still made up for this, but management didn't appreciate his knack for drawing a walk, and in 1929 they turned the starting job over to a young Welshman by the name of Charlie Bohan. (Bohan would go on to hit .306 in a 16-year career. He even led the league with 236 hits in 1932.)
Relegated to the bench, Petersen was frustrated, but he hung around for four years before retiring after the 1932 season.
Petersen finished his career with 1,086 runs scored. He recorded 1,761 hits and 1,218 walks. He hit .329 for his career with a .455 on-base percentage. He led the league in batting average (1923), runs scored (1920, 1922, 1924), walks (1920-27), on-base percentage (1920-23), slugging percentage (1923), OPS (1921-23), and WAR (1922-23). In 1925, he hit in 23 straight games. He won Rookie of the Month twice, Player of the Week five times, and Batter of the Month six times. He won a Championship with the Philadelphia Quakers in 1922.
In 1952, Billy Petersen was inducted into the Hall of Fame.