And what drove a player as unspectacular as Webb to achieve such an individual record? Here we turn to the BL part of the process: Webb must have been defensive about his defense, about the fact that a good deal of his territory was covered by someone else. As Webb once conceded, "I'm no Tom Oliver." Oliver was Boston's centerfielder. As Cashman recalled in Golenbock's Fenway, "Tom Oliver was a great, great outfielder. When balls would be hit to the outfield, everyone would yell, 'Get on your horse, Tom!' "
Oliver, from Montgomery, Ala., was known as Rebel. No player ever had more lifetime at bats without hitting even one home run than Oliver, but Rebel was evidently some ball hawk. In his history of the Red Sox, Fred Lieb says of Oliver, "Even Tris Speaker never covered any greater acreage at Fenway Park."
Writers who covered the Red Sox in the early 1930s made much, and heavy-handedly, of Webb's "Tennessee mountain" background. Oliver was a dashing, rather patrician-featured Confederate cavalier; Webb was an uneducated, big-nosed hillbilly plodder. And don't you suppose the hitter's fielding inspired many a scribe to write, "Oh what a tangled Webb...."?
Indeed, the local press kept carping at Webb in '31 for being obsessed with the record—they called him the King of Dublin and accused him of turning triples into doubles. Clif Keane, the acknowledged dean of Boston baseball observers, recalled recently, "Outfielders would come tumbling down the cliff, and [Webb would] be jogging into second when he could've been on third. I'd say it happened at least 10 or 15 times." (Given that the most triples Speaker hit at Fenway in one season was 13—and Speaker was a hare compared with the slow-footed Webb—I'd say this is a crock.)
Trying to rebuild, Boston traded Webby to the Detroit Tigers during the '32 season (he had 28 doubles that year). The White Sox picked him up in '33 (only five doubles). Could be the pitchers figured out they could jam him inside. With a lifetime big league average of .306, Webb played four more years in the minors and then went back to Tennessee. Baseball wasn't paying enough, he recalled, "and I knew I could do better in the mines."
In '31, though, he carved himself into the big-time record books for at least the next 61 years. And this, BL tells us, is what went through his mind each time he poked another two-bagger:
"There's one, Rebel, for you and the horse you ride around on."
We might even call this behavior—this obsessive-creative-offensive use of the outfield as overcompensation for being shown up constantly while playing in it—the Webb Complex.
Think that's an off-the-wall (ha-ha!) assumption? Well, how do you explain the fact that it also applies to Chief Wilson and his 36 triples?
Wilson was a tall, rawboned, bats-left, throws-right native of Austin, Texas. As late as 1911 he gave his occupation as "farmer." Most ballplayers known as Chief were so called, insensitively, because they were partly Native American, but Wilson just had high cheekbones and was taciturn. As a youth, in fact, he pitched for a team mounted by what was known then as a deaf-and-dumb institution near his home.