All-Time Indians: Riggs Stephenson

All-Time Indians: Riggs Stephenson


All-Time Indians: Riggs Stephenson

Name: Jackson Riggs Stephenson Position: Second Base
Nick Name: Old Hoss DOB: 01/05/1898
Tribe Time: 1921-1925
Best Season (1923) 91 301 48 96 20 6 5 65 15 25 5 5 50% .357 .475 .319 .832
Indians Career 332 1,034 181 348 84 14 14 184 99 71 14 9 61% .403 .485 .337 .888

Riggs Stephenson was never really a celebrated player in Cleveland. He was the kind who just shows up every day and does his job, but by the end of his time in Cleveland he had accumulated a decent number of plate appearances and above average offensive production over that period.

Just a kid from Akron…Alabama, Stephenson was signed by Cleveland without any official minor league experience at 23 years old in 1921. For the World Champion 1920 Indians, Bill Wambsganss was the starting second baseman and a World Series hero after turning the first unassisted triple play in the World Series. He would stay on for the 1921 season, but was aging and only played 107 games that year.

Stephenson would be his primary back-up, playing in 54 games at second and a couple at third to spell Larry Gardner, who played in 153 games and was the Indians top hitter. Despite playing in just 65 games total, he hit 17 doubles and walked 23 times for a .330/.408/.461 line in his rookie year. While the deadball era was ending and offensive numbers were creeping up, Stephenson still performed admirably considering the fact that he was a rookie without prior MiLB experience.

Wambsganss would increase his playing time in 1922, his last full season as a starter for the Indians, but that didn’t hurt Stephenson’s playing time as he became a true super utility man, playing second and third again in addition to a few games in the outfield. While he was never a regular outfielder for the Indians, this would be a portent for the future as he finished out his career with the Cubs, playing exclusively in left field over his last seven seasons.

In his second year, he would set new highs in almost every stat down the line including his already impressive rate stats, batting .339/.421/.511 with 24 doubles in 86 games. While he wasn’t a speedster, he stole all three attempts successfully in 1922 after going four for five in his rookie year. This part of his game would disappear, however, as the following season he went 5 for 10 and in the future.

Three Indians, Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Joe Sewell along with Charlie Jamieson, would have some of the best offensive seasons in Indians history in 1923 and Stephenson would benefit from the extra base runners. He played more games than ever before and more than he ever would again in Cleveland. This time, he was almost exclusively used at second, but despite considerably outperforming the veteran Wambsganss, he still played ten less games. In those he did play, he more than doubled his RBI total from the previous season despite seeing a drop off in all three rate stats.

In some ways, this was also his worst season. In addition to his inefficiency on the bases, Stephenson struck out more times than he walked for the first and only time in his 14 year career. The increase in playing time outweighed any negatives, however, as he set career highs in triples (6), home runs (5), hits and runs in addition to the already mentioned RBI. It was an example of what he could have done if given the chance to start, but unfortunately, he would not get that chance in Cleveland.

By 1924, both Wambsganss and Larry Gardner were gone, but rather than take advantage of the opening by promoting Stephenson to a starting role, Rube Lutzke took over third and Chick Fewster took second. Fewster came in a blockbuster deal that sent Wamby to Boston and also brought back the Indians first MVP, George Burns.

Stephenson vastly outperformed both of the new starters, batting .371 with a .943 OPS. While he started as a reserve, the real reason for Stephenson’s lack of playing time was an injury that cost him almost all of May and June. Once he returned, he played more regularly. This was almost exclusively at second, but he finished the year out as the right fielder.

Stephenson often dealt with problems in his throwing shoulder that stemmed from a sack he took as Alabama’s quarterback when he a dual sport athlete at the university. This was never more apparent than in 1925, when he played just 19 games in the Majors and spent the rest of the season in the Indians minor league system in Kansas City. The KC Blues would trade Stephenson to the American Association Indianapolis Indians for Johnny Hodapp, a great player in his own right for the Tribe. From there, Stephenson was traded to Chicago for Joe Munson and Red Shannon, a steal if there ever was one.

Stephenson would play out his final nine seasons with the Cubs, hitting above .300 in the next eight. He played over 100 games for the first time in 1927 and would get a starter’s amount of playing time in that season as well as the next two and 1932. The 1929 season would be his true breakout year as he hit 17 home runs (his most ever by nine) and knock in 110. He lead the league in doubles in 1947 and would garner MVP votes in 1927, 1929 and 1932, when he finished fifth, losing to Chuck Klein.

In both 1929 and 1932, Stephenson did something else he never did in Cleveland; play in the post-season. While the Cubs lost in the World Series both years, Stephenson played as well as ever, knocking in seven runs and batting .378 in nine games across the two series.

This was the case with the Indians not being creative enough (the Cubs were able to avoid Stephenson’s poor defense and arm issues by hiding him in left) and not patient enough. He was generally healthy while with the Cubs and proved that his impressive numbers during his limited playing time in Cleveland were legitimate, even improving them once he became a starter.

After his Major League career, he went back to Indianapolis in the American Association in 1935 and he would continue playing in various minor leagues through 1939. He retired after that season, moving back to Alabama where he eventually died in 1985 at the age of 87. Stephenson garnered some Hall of Fame votes his first time on the ballot in 1956 and stayed on the ballot through 1962, but never got more than 1.5%. His .336 career average is 22nd in baseball history and fifth among qualifying non-Hall of Famers.

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