By Glen Sparks
Luke Appling, “Old Aches and Pains.”
If the Chicago White Sox shortstop wasn’t complaining about having a headache, he was grumbling about a sore knee. Or, his back was acting up. Or something else. Appling had an old man’s body at 25. Or, so he said.
It’s a good thing that one of baseball’s great hypochondriacs could also handle a bat. In a 20-year career (interrupted in 1944 by his service during World War II), Appling batted.310 and collected 2,749 hits. He made six All-Star teams, finished runner-up twice in the American League MVP race and collected 74.5 WAR points.
Born on this date in 1907 in High Point, N.C., Lucious Benjamin Appling grew up there and, later, in Atlanta. The famous Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association signed him to play during his sophomore season at Oglethorpe College, a small liberal arts school in the Atlanta suburbs. The Crackers sold his contract to the Chicago Cubs in 1930; the Cubs, in turn, quickly traded Appling to their crosstown rivals for cash and a forgotten outfielder named Doug Taitt. (Appling for Taitt, Brock for Broglio …)
The White Sox brought up Appling late in the 1930 season. The shortstop quickly established himself as one of the team’s most dangerous players, at least for the spectators. In six games, he made four errors, due in part to his strong arm. Many of his throws ended up in the stands. Fans were required to pay attention and prepare to duck for cover.
Appling’s fielding problems continued in 1931. He kept making errors. Fans kept ducking for cover. Appling didn’t hit much, either. He batted only .232 (OPS+ 66, woeful) in 96 games. Coaches said he swung too hard, trying to hit home runs, something he never did very well. (He would hit only 45 round-trippers in his career, topping out at eight in 1947.) Young Luke Appling was on the trading block.
Finally, he made some adjustments. He began going for base hits and drawing walks, earning a reputation for fouling off pitches until he got a good one. In 1933, he hit .322 with a .379 on-base percentage. His batting average slipped to a still respectable .303 the following season, but his on-base percentage crept up to .384. In 1935, Appling batted .307, but thanks to 122 walks, he made it on base nearly 44 percent of the time. (He retired with a career on-base percentage of .399.)
Appling put together his best season in 1936. He hit a league-leading .388 with an on-base percentage of .474, scored 111 runs and drove home 128 while hitting just six home runs. Chicago’s top player finished second in the A.L. MVP voting to a pretty good first baseman, the New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig.
Over the next several seasons, Appling continued to put up outstanding numbers. He usually hit above .300 and led the league for a second time with a .328 mark in 1943. (Appling finished second to Yankee pitcher Spud Chandler in the MVP race with a career-best 7.6 WAR points.) More importantly, he kept his on-base mark higher than .400 many seasons.
His fielding remained a work-in-progress. Appling led the league in errors five times. Fans always had to keep an eye on him. On the plus side, Appling finished atop the leaderboard for shortstop assists in seven seasons. Taking into account both offense and defense, Bill James rated him the 11th best shortstop of all-time in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract.
A funny thing about that whole “Old Aches and Pains” thing. Yes, he did earn a reputation for gripping about his mild injuries. But, Appling was actually quite durable. During an era with a 154-game regular season, he played in at least 140 games 10 times, and he made it into 139 three times. (In 1945, he only played 18 games. He wasn’t injured, though. He was coming back from the war. And, he hit .368.)
Appling, who died in 1991 at the age of 83, played his entire career (1930-50) with the White Sox. His time in Chicago began almost a decade after the Black Sox scandal and ended nearly a decade before the 1959 Sox team made it to the World Series.
The South Siders struggled quite a bit during the Appling era, finishing in the second division more often than not. Certainly, though, Appling brought some joy to Chicago baseball fans during the mean days of the Great Depression and during World War II. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1964 and remains one of the all-time great White Sox players.