Indeed, great doubles hitters tend to be just a bit defensive. The Royals' George Brett ranks sixth alltime in career doubles. "But I'd still have my 20 home runs a year, which was good for our park," says Brett. "No one ever accused me of having warning-track power."
"Players used to tease me about turning triples into doubles," says McRae. "But I had so many triples they couldn't rib me too much."
Yet most of the game's greatest hitters—Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron. Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski—have perennially been among the leaders in doubles. The juiciest hitter I ever watched, Tony Oliva, was the American League doubles champion in four of the seven years that his bad knees allowed him as many as 500 at bats.
(Willie Mays never led the league in doubles, though he did top the charts three times in triples. Frequently when he hit a ball in the gap and saw he couldn't get all the way to third, he would retreat to first, because Willie McCovey was coming to bat next. If Mays were on second, McCovey would have been walked intentionally. But with Mays on first, McCovey had a chance to hit a run-scoring double or a home run, and the opposing first baseman, by holding Mays on, would leave a big gap in the right side of the infield, reducing the likelihood of a double-play grounder and giving McCovey a hole through which to hit a single that would send Mays to third. If McCovey struck or flied out, Mays could steal second.)
Active doubles hitters of note include Brett, Robin Yount (who ranks 12th alltime in career doubles). Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly. Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Andre Dawson, Paul Molitor, Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Joe Carter, Ken Griffey Jr., Kirby Puckett and Frank Thomas. Doubles hitters tend to be gamers' gamers: Rose, McRae, Brett, Frank Robinson, Lenny Dykstra, Lou Piniella, Alan Trammell, Dale Murphy.
Yet, with the exception of the double by Cookie Lavagetto that broke up Bill Bevens's no-hitter in the 1947 World Series, how many famous doubles or triples are there?
None. That I can think of. Why? Because dramatic game-ending hits are always home runs or singles (nobody runs out the potential double or triple).
So let's run as far as we can with Earl Webb and Chief Wilson. Neither had much of a career except for the one extraordinary single-season stat. And so we ask, What factors produced these anomalous achievements? The BATSABListic answer: parks, tools, limitations, the state of the ball itself, and feelings toward an adjacent outfielder.
William Earl Webb was born in 1898 in Bon Air, Tenn., in the mountains about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. Bon Air was maybe 50 miles from where Sergeant Alvin York, the reluctant World War I folk hero, was born in 1887 and grew up shooting squirrels and trying to mind his own business until he finally agreed to stop being a conscientious objector and went off to the Argonne Forest of France, where in one day le almost single-handedly killed 25 Germans, captured 132 and took a whole hill. Webb once ascribed the keenness of his batting eye to experience shooting game back home with various firearms and a bow and arrow, but there is no evidence that York inspired him to set a record.
Before, during and after the First War, Webb was involved in an essential industry: helping to hollow out hills. At the age of 11 he had quit school and followed his father into the coal mines, and by the time he was 17 he was laboring with pick and shovel six days a week. On Sundays, as he later recalled, he would "walk seven miles over rough mountain trails, pitch a doubleheader just for the fun of it" for a town team "and walk back. That was my idea of a holiday."