In a jesting comment made here at The Cardinal Nation blog, reader blingboy wondered if the St. Louis Cardinals medical staff must have looked at the wrong elbow of shortstop Rafael Furcal when recently proclaiming him to be completely healed.
That led me to wonder about the identity of the last left-handed thrower to take the field as a shortstop in a Major League Baseball game. With the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index, we can chase down the answer – or at least an answer.
While Mark Ryal of the 1987 Angels is the most recent to appear in a box score and take an at-bat while assigned to the position, he did not play defense. Same with Tom Chism of Baltimore in 1979. Prior to them, Baltimore’s Royle Stillman made six road starts at short in September 1975. He batted in the top of the first inning each time and then was replaced by light-hitting shortstop Mark Belanger.
On May 22, 1954, it did happen – though not exactly and not for long. In the bottom of the eighth inning at Busch Stadium I (Sportsman’s Park), Red Schoendienst singled with two out. Before Stan Musial stepped to the plate, Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts brought in left-handed throwing Nino Escalera to take over for shortstop Roy McMillan.
At least that is what the official scorer designated. To be fair, McMillan did leave the game and Escalera took the field as his replacement.
The reality was a bit more complicated, however.
Trying to protect his two-run lead, Tebbetts actually deployed shortstop-replacement Escalera as a fourth outfielder. It was a most unique attempt to retire “The Man” in any way possible. Escalera was stationed between centerfielder Gus Bell and rightfielder Wally Post, with the shortstop hole wide open. It did not matter as pitcher Art Fowler fanned Musial.
In the ninth, Rocky Bridges took over at short for the Reds, meaning Escalera “played the position” for exactly one batter with no fielding chances and no plate appearances.
It was the first and last “appearance” at short for Escalera, whose entire MLB career consisted of 77 plate appearances in 73 games for the 1954 Reds, during which he posted a .159 batting average.
One cannot fault Tebbetts for his creativity, a move he tried against Musial again later in the season by shifting McMillan. After all, in 1954, Musial was virtually unstoppable. He led the National League in runs (120) and doubles (54), while batting .330 with 35 home runs and 126 RBI.
Bringing this story full circle, sort of, after his playing career ended, Escalera became a scout in his native Puerto Rico. Among the now-82-year-old’s discoveries there was a 15-year-old he signed for the Mets back in 1979 – a (right-handed throwing) shortstop named Jose Oquendo.
P.S. The “real” answer – if playing the position is defined as having a fielding chance – is Hal Chase of the New York Highlanders. Before going on to perform as a first baseman for 15 seasons, the left-handed throwing Chase made three putouts in two games as a rookie shortstop in 1905.
In another footnote, between Chase and Escalera, future Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig started a 1934 game for the New York Yankees, leading off and playing short. Though no play-by-play data is available for the game, it appears The Iron Horse batted once and left the game without taking the field in a successful attempt to keep his consecutive-games streak alive.