March 11, 1963, while shoveling snow outside his Chevy Chase, DC home, former Washington Senators’ first baseman Joe Judge died of a heart attack. He was 68.
Judge, who hit .385 during the 1924 World Series when the Senators won Washington’s only Major League Championship, died believing baseball’s Hall of Fame had unfairly passed him over for election into the hall.
Judge’s grandson and local writer Mark Judge has argued for more than a decade Judge belongs in the hall. I had erroneously assumed Mark’s understandable devotion to his grandfather clouded his judgment. But having investigated Judge’s record, I’m convinced Mark is correct.
I have my own biases however. Mark’s older brother Mike is a good friend from Georgetown Prep. And Judge later coached players on the Georgetown baseball team dear to me: my Uncle Bill Byrd and good family friend Jim Castiglia, who also played in the NFL for Washington.
A clear-eyed look at Judge’s numbers, however, makes his case for the hall.
More than 80 years after his 1934 retirement, with 2,352 hits, Judge currently ranks 134th among Major League Baseball’s (MLB) all-time hit leaders. That’s more hits than Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra respectively.
In 20 years, Judge hit .298 and higher than .300 9 times, with his best season coming in 1930 when Judge hit .326 and had a .919 OPS, both career highs.
Also, Judge only struck out 478 times in his career. By comparison, Ted Williams, arguably the best hitter in MLB history, struck out 709 times in 19 seasons. Judge struck out 6% of his at-bats, which is the 96th best strikeout percentage in MLB history.
Among Minnesota Twins’ all-time franchise leaders (the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1960) Judge also ranks in the top five in Games Played, At Bats, Runs, Hits, Doubles, Triples, Total Bases and Walks. Judge’s company in these categories includes: Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett and Judge’s teammate Sam Rice.
As good as he was offensively, Judge was better defensively. The anchor of the legendary double play combination Peck (Roger Peckinpaugh) to Harris (Bucky) to Judge, he was arguably the best defensive first baseman of his era. Judge’s .993 fielding percentage stood as a record for first baseman for 30 years after his retirement.
And he’s in the top 25 among first baseman in MLB history in putouts, assists, and double plays turned. These numbers are especially remarkable when you consider first baseman’s mitts then weren’t as large as they are today, and at 5’ 8”, Judge was an undersized first baseman.
Judge’s defensive prowess was most evident July 1, 1920 in Fenway Park. His teammate Walter “the Big Train” Johnson, arguably the best pitcher in MLB history, was one out away from his only no-hitter. Boston right fielder Hall of Famer Harry Hooper drilled a ball, which hooked over the first bag and had double written all over it.
Playing deep, Judge dove and snared the ball with a backhanded stab and flipped the ball to the covering Johnson. He caught Judge’s toss with his bare hand and beat Hooper to the bag, securing his no-hitter. Judge, according to several accounts, erupted into a war dance, and the much bigger Johnson jumped on his back.
His all-around play garnered Judge consideration in the MVP voting in 1922, 1923, 1926, and 1928. If Baseball’s Veterans Committee compares Judge’s numbers against players from his era, who are currently in the hall, they’ll conclude Judge belongs in their company.
Consider how he stacks up against outfielders Hooper and Kiki Cuyler.
Hooper finished with more hits than Judge, but he hit more doubles and RBIs, and his batting average was 17 points higher than Hooper’s .281. And Hooper’s banal .966 fielding percentage was 27 points lower than Judge’s.
Cuyler, whose Pirates defeated Judge’s Senators in 7 games for the 1925 title, hit .321, 23 points higher than Judge. And he hit more homers and drove in more runs while Judge had more hits and doubles. Cuyler’s prosaic .972 fielding percentage, however, was 21 points lower than Judge’s.
Acknowledging Judge was a better all-around ballplayer than some of his contemporaries already in the hall, will, I hope, convince the Veterans Committee finally to punch Judge’s ticket to Cooperstown, where he has long belonged.