Was Johnny as Good as Yadi?

Johnny Kling was the top defensive catcher of early 1900 baseball.

Johnny Kling was the top defensive catcher of early 1900 baseball.

By Glen Sparks

Johnny Kling may have been the Yadier Molina of his day.

Kling played 13 seasons in the big leagues, from 1900 to 1913 (He missed the 1909 season due to a contract dispute.), mostly with the Chicago Cubs. Experts on Dead Ball baseball consider him the era’s top defensive catcher.

The Kansas City, Mo. native, born on this date in 1875, started on two World Series championship teams and four pennant winners. Nimble behind the plate, he also possessed a strong throwing arm. From 1902-08, Kling led the National League in putouts six times, fielding percentage twice and assists and double plays one time each.

He threw out four would-be St. Louis Cardinal base stealers in a game June 21, 1907, and, a few months later in the World Series, nailed five of 11 Detroit Tiger runners. He even shut out the great base stealer Ty Cobb.

The  Cubs promoted Kling to the big club as a 24-year-old rookie in 1900. He did not hit his first home run until 1903, a season when he batted .297. His best offensive year was 1906; he hit a career-high .312 and finished seventh in the National League in slugging percentage (.420). He followed that with a .284 campaign in 1907; he batted .276 with 59 RBI in 1908. The Cubs advanced to the World Series all three seasons, winning the final two years.

Some people called Kling “Noisy” because of his constant chatter from behind home plate, directed at both umpires and the opposition. But, Kling kept things polite. Always. Kling was a clean-cut guy during a time when most players smoked, drank kept always kept a plug of tobacco on hand. Kling didn’t do any of that stuff.

But, he did play pool. And, he was really good. In fact, soon after the Cubs brought home the 1908 World Series, Kling won the world pocket billards championship. That led to his $50,000 investment in a Kansas City pool hall. And, if he could find someone to run the place, Kling said, he’d rejoin the team. That episode led to his holdout in 1909. Kling, though, returned to the Cubs in 1910, with a $4,500 salary—the same as in 1908—minus a $700 fine for being an upstart holdout.

The lengthy layoff didn’t bother Kling too much. He hit .269 in 297 at-bats in 1910. However, the backstop slid to .175 after 89 bats in 1911.  The Cubs promptly traded him to the Boston Rustlers (forerunner of the Boston/Atlanta Braves).  Kling hit .224 in 241 at-bats the rest of the way. The following year, Kling batted a robust .317 and retired after hitting .273 for the Reds in 1913.

Kling hit .272 in his career with a .319 on-base percentage. He ripped just 20 home runs but drove in 514 runs and he finished in the top 10 three times in slugging percentage. He compiled 23.9 oWAR points and 9.7 dWAR points, finishing in the top 10 five times in dWAR. (The Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS) rates him as the 52nd best catcher in baseball history.)

Kling stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for nine years. Only once, in 1937, did he reach 10 percent of the vote. According to at least one system of measures, Kling’s closest comp is Joe Giradi, the current Yankee manager who played 15 years in the majors, seven with the Cubs. But Girardi never won a Gold Glove (Kling would have won several, but the award was not given out until 1957), only went to one All-Star game (The first All-Star game was played in 1933; Kling would have gone to at least a few.) and hit only 36 home runs while playing in maybe the greatest offensive era in baseball history. Girardi retired with an oWAR of 4.6 and a dWAR of 7.6. JAWS rates Girardi as the 252nd best catcher of all-time.

The Cardinals’ Yadier Molina might be a better, but not perfect, comp for Kling. Molina is the top defensive catcher of this era and has turned into a pretty good hitter. He has won seven Gold Gloves and made six All-Star teams. He has a .284 lifetime batting average and a .339 on-base percentage, with 96 home runs and 584 RBI. His OPS+ is 99 (Kling’s was 100.).

Molina has 18.7 dWAR points and 18.2 oWAR points after 11 seasons. JAWS already rates him the 30th best catcher of all-time. (The Hall of Fame has enshrined just 13 catchers, not including inductees like Joe Torre who have been honored for reasons other than just their playing stats.)

Both Molina and Kling have started on two World Series winners. The two backstops, who played a century apart, seem more alike than different.

Semi-interesting sidebar: Writers sometimes compile all-star teams based on ethnicity. So, Stan Musial is a starting outfielder on the All-Polish team, Yogi Berra is the starting catcher on the All-Italian team, etc. Occasionally, Kling gets a spot on the All-Jewish baseball team, a squad that always includes Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Al Rosen, among others.

The question is, was Kling actually Jewish? He was, according to Gil Bogen’s book. Kling and Lillian May Grandwhol were married in January 1904 at Temple B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City. Most Jewish newspapers during Kling’s career considered him to be Jewish.

Kling died Jan. 31, 1947. Lillian wrote baseball historian Lee Allen that her late husband was baptized as a Baptist. But, in 1969, in a second letter to Allen, Lillian Kling wrote that he had been baptized as a Lutheran, according to an article written by Al Yellon on the web site, Bleed Cubbie Blue (Kling is rated the 65th best Cubs player of all-time). Bogen suspects that Lillian thought anti-Semitism might be keeping Johnny out of the Hall of Fame. (The Hall of Fame has two Jewish members: Koufax and Greenberg)

Apparently, Kling didn’t talk much about his religious persuasion. In Yellon’s article, he quotes author Ira Berkow, who wrote in his biography of Greenberg: “Were Johnny of full Jewish blood, I would rank him next to Greenberg among the foremost Jewish players of all time. . . . He was a . . . great catcher.” An article by Pete Drier published in the Jewish Journal in 2012 rates Harry “The Horse” Danning as the best Jewish catcher of all-time. Danning, a Los Angeles native, played his entire career with the New York Giants and retired at age 30 to enter the military during World War II. Drier’s article does not mention Kling.

(This post was mostly adapted from the SABR bio article about Kling that was written by Gil Bogen and David W. Anderson. The author used material from Anderson’s book, More than Merkle: A History of the Best and Most Exciting Season in Baseball History, and Bogen’s book, Johnny Kling: A Baseball Biography.)

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