Might Hal Trosky Have Been as Good as Mike Trout?

Updated on July 23, 2020
Hal Trosky was a peer of Lou Gehrig until headaches ended his career.
Hal Trosky was a peer of Lou Gehrig until headaches ended his career.

Oh, what might have been. Those words describe the speculation over many players’ careers. What might have been had Ted Williams not missed nearly five seasons while fighting America’s enemies? What might have been had Mickey Mantle taken care of his body? What might have been if Satchel Paige had been allowed to play in the majors before he was 42 years old?

But perhaps no one is a better poster child for what might have been than Hal Trosky, a young phenom that lit up the 1930s American League until horrible migraines forced him out of the game before he turned 30.

Trosky was an Iowa farm boy who arrived in Cleveland just three years before fellow Iowan Bob Feller. But while the Iowans could have led Cleveland to greatness, Trosky’s star was waning just as Feller’s began rising.

First Game Brush with Greatness

Trosky, a left-handed hitting first baseman, was only 20 years old when he first stepped foot onto a Major League diamond on Sept. 17, 1933. Almost immediately he had a brush with greatness.

In the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader in Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth hit a screaming liner right at Trosky’s glove. The force of the drive ripped the glove off his hand and carried it down the right field line. Ruth held at first with a single, which would have forced Trosky to hold Ruth on with Lou Gehrig at bat. Gehrig generally hit harder line drives than Ruth.

Sensing the rookie’s unease, Ruth told Trosky he wasn’t going to be running so he could play several steps behind the bag to protect himself. Trosky backed up to the outfield grass and Ruth kept his word. Trosky later had that glove bronzed.

A Great Rookie Season

After playing in 11 games at the end of 1933, Trosky put together one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. Playing in all 154 games, he collected 206 hits for a .330 batting average, while belting 45 doubles, 9 triples and 35 homers, with 117 runs and 142 RBIs. Only two players have had more RBIs as a rookie: Ted Williams with 145 in 1939 and Walt Dropo with 144 in 1950. His 35 homers set an Indians record and were only three shy of the rookie record Wally Berger had established four years earlier. It still ranks tied for 10th most by a rookie. Only six other rookies have ever hit more than his 45 doubles.

There was no Rookie of the Year award back then, which he would have surely won, but Trosky finished seventh in the MVP voting. He appeared to be on his way to stardom.

He had a bit of a sophomore slump in 1935, although perfectly respectable numbers at .271, 26 homers, 113 RBIs. But it was the next year that the 23-year-old Trosky showed the baseball world what he could do.

Hal Trosky Career Stats

Year
Age
Tm
G
PA
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
TB
1933
20
CLE
11
47
44
6
13
1
2
1
8
0
0
2
12
.295
.340
.477
21
1934
21
CLE
154
685
625
117
206
45
9
35
142
2
2
58
49
.330
.388
.598
374
1935
22
CLE
154
680
632
84
171
33
7
26
113
1
2
46
60
.271
.321
.468
296
1936
23
CLE
151
671
629
124
216
45
9
42
162
6
5
36
58
.343
.382
.644
405
1937
24
CLE
153
670
601
104
179
36
9
32
128
3
1
65
60
.298
.367
.547
329
1938
25
CLE
150
626
554
106
185
40
9
19
110
5
1
67
40
.334
.407
.542
300
1939
26
CLE
122
512
448
89
150
31
4
25
104
2
3
52
28
.335
.405
.589
264
1940
27
CLE
140
608
522
85
154
39
4
25
93
1
2
79
45
.295
.392
.529
276
1941
28
CLE
89
356
310
43
91
17
0
11
51
1
2
44
21
.294
.383
.455
141
1944
31
CHW
135
560
497
55
120
32
2
10
70
3
2
62
30
.241
.327
.374
186
1946
33
CHW
88
335
299
22
76
12
3
2
31
4
3
34
37
.254
.330
.334
100
 
 
 
1347
5750
5161
835
1561
331
58
228
1012
28
23
545
440
.302
.371
.522
2692

Putting it all together

After going hitless on opening day in 1936, Trosky drove in nine runs over the next two games to get his season off to a strong start. He drove in four or more runs in a game nine times during the season, including a seven-RBI night against Boston on Sept. 15, followed up the next day with a five-RBI outing.

By season’s end, Trosky had belted 42 homers (besting his previous Cleveland record of 35) and drove in 162 runs to lead the league (although his game-by-game totals on Stathead Baseball show 163 RBIs), which remained an Indians record until Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999. He had 216 hits – 45 doubles and 9 triples to go with his 42 roundtrippers – and batted .343. He also scored 124 runs.

Unfortunately, that didn’t get him close to the MVP, which went to Lou Gehrig. Trosky finished 10th.

His production fell off a bit in 1937, although it was still a solid season at .298, 32, 128 with 104 runs scored. Attempting to boost his batting average in 1938, his home run number dropped to 19, but he still had 40 doubles and nine triples and drove in 110 runs while batting .334.

Overall, it was a terrific start for Trosky. Just 25, he’d already put up five seasons of more than 100 RBIs and seemed destined for a Hall of Fame career. But then fate intervened.

Plagued by headaches

The 1939 season started well enough. By the end of May he was batting .342 although his power wasn’t in evidence, with only four homers. But something was happening inside his head. He began to experience blinding migraine headaches, sometimes lasting for days, that affected his vision. During the headaches, he said, a pitched ball looked like a bunch of white feathers.

He sat out for nine straight games in the late spring, trying to recover from the headaches. He returned to the lineup, seemingly better, but several more times during the season had to take time off, including 11 consecutive games in mid-September. He played in only 122 games that season, and despite being hampered by the headaches, managed a .335 batting average with 25 homers and 104 RBIs. But it would be the last gasp of the greatness he seemed destined for.

In 1940, Trosky clouted his 200th career homer at age 27, one of only 30 players to do so; at the time, only Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott had done so. But the headaches continued to plague him, especially in August and September as the Indians competed in a tight pennant race. He tried to gut it out, but in mid-September had to sit out 10 straight games. In his final 20 games of the season he managed to hit just .192 with two homers and four RBIs. Overall, his season wasn’t bad – .295, 25, 93 – but not up to his previous standard.

The beginning of the end

The headaches continued to strike suddenly and frequently in 1941, forcing him to miss three and four games at a stretch, even six games in August. Then on Aug. 17 he broke his thumb in a collision at first base, prematurely ending his season. He ended at .294, 11, 52.

Trosky left baseball after that season, returning to his farm in Iowa, awaiting a call from the Army to join in the fighting in World War II. The call never came, since his blinding migraines disqualified him from the service.

His contract was sold to the White Sox and he attempted a comeback in 1944. It was a mediocre season compared to his previous ones, .241, 10, 70, although he hit 32 doubles. After sitting out again in 1945, he played 88 more games for Chicago in 1946, hitting .254 with two homers and 31 RBIs.

That finished his playing days, with a career average of .302, 228 homers and 1,012 RBIs. He was a good contact hitter, striking out only 440 times in 5,750 plate appearances (about once every 13 plate appearances). He hit 331 doubles and 58 triples and had a respectable .522 slugging average.

Trosky and Trout in the first 800 games

But what might have been? We can get some idea by comparing him with a current player who started out in much the same way – Mike Trout. I took a look at the first 800 games of both Trosky’s and Trout’s careers (that’s right about the point when Trosky began experiencing the headaches). As the chart shows, Trosky’s early numbers were comparable or better than Trout’s in many categories. Trout, of course, had better speed and batted higher in the lineup, making some difference in the stats. Still, it’s very close.

Trosky-Trout Comparison After 800 Games

 
G
PA
AB
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
SB
CS
BB
SO
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
XBH
TB
Hal Trosky
800
3498
3191
560
1003
210
46
158
680
19
11
284
286
.314
.372
.558
.930
414
1779
Mike Trout
800
3510
2963
590
908
174
37
166
489
139
26
465
774
.306
.403
.558
.961
377
1654

Both players came to the plate almost the same amount – Trout had 12 more chances than Trosky. But Trosky had the higher batting average, more hits, more doubles and more triples, and just eight fewer homers (playing in the bigger stadiums of the 1930s, Trosky likely hit doubles and triples that would have been homers in today’s parks). Trout scored 30 more runs, but Trosky had nearly 200 more RBIs.

Trout walked significantly more than Trosky, but also struck out much more often (notice that Trosky’s walks and strikeouts were nearly identical). They both had a .558 slugging percentage.

Mike Trout on deck against Cincinnati in 2019.
Mike Trout on deck against Cincinnati in 2019. | Source

Trosky still one of Cleveland's best hitters

Since that point, Trout has gone on to hit 119 more homers and drive in 263 more runs. Trosky was able to produce 70 homers and drive in 332 the rest of his career. If Trout stays healthy – and MLB can start playing full seasons again – we may get some idea of just what a headache-free Trosky could have done.

Despite his relatively short tenure in Cleveland, Trosky still ranks fourth all-time in RBIs for the Indians with 911. His 216 homers ranks ninth and 287 doubles eighth on the Indians all-time leader board. Trosky, Earl Averill and Jim Thome are the only Indians with 1,300 or more hits, 250 or more doubles and 200 or more homers.

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