Nineteenth-century ballplayers had some of the most colorful nicknames you’ve ever seen. There was Pussy Tebeau and Candy Cummings (I am not making these up), Ice Box Chamberlain and Twitter’s favorite: Old Hoss Radbourn. Some nicknames were related to a player’s physical features (Big Dan Brouthers), some to a personality trait (Orator Jim O’Rourke). Coaches or managers have been called “Field General”; Johnny Bench was sometimes called “Little General,” presumably because of his role as the catcher and on-field leader.
But today’s “Better Know a Ballplayer” was known as General for no apparent reason, at least as uncovered in my moderate use of Google and Wikipedia. James Joseph “General” Stafford seemingly had no military experience before or after his baseball career, he was never a coach or manager, he played no catcher among all the positions he played. So I’ve come to think of General Stafford as General in the sense of Normal or Usual, as in one of the most non-outstanding ballplayers you could find. Note: I am sure this is not how he came to be called General, but what else is one to write about when research fails?
Look at his picture from his time with the Atlantic Association’s Worcester Grays for whom he played in 1889 and 1890. He looks pretty… general… doesn’t he? No facial hair, no outstanding physical characteristics. You probably couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup of 19th-century ballplayers, could you? He’s pretty general. Of note is the fact that his younger brother John Stafford pitched one season for the Cleveland Spiders in 1893 and he was known as “Doc” despite his lack of medical training or advanced education of any sort. Maybe it was a family thing.
General (not Doc) Stafford started out his career in what were considered minor leagues such as the Eastern League, the Atlantic Association, the Players’ Association, even traveling to play for the Los Angeles Seraphs of the California League in 1892. During this time he was primarily a pitcher. His best pitching season came in 1888 for Worcester when, as a 20-year-old he started 23 games and won 16 of them with a 2.87 ERA.
By 1893, Stafford landed himself a job with the New York Giants which started his Major League career. During his time in the Bigs, he gave up pitching and instead took up a role as a versatile fielder. He was, might we say, a General-ist? I’ll see myself out.
His batting records were never great, slashing a .274/.330/.349 in 8 seasons for New York, Louisville, Boston, and Washington. He played primarily in the outfield, but also saw time at all 4 spots around the infield. His 8-year dWAR total is -2.1 and yet he kept getting work. Maybe he was a great clubhouse general? His leaderboard appearances are few and far between, with the highest appearance being 2nd on 3 different occasions, all for errors committed. In 1897 for Louisville, he hit his career high 7 home runs, which was good enough for 6th place in the National League. He was the fourth outfielder for the 1898 National League champion Boston Beaneaters, who went an impressive 102-47.
After his playing career ended, General Stafford retired to his native New England, took up farming, and died in Worcester in 1923. He is buried near his farm in Dudley, Massachusetts. General Stafford was born on this date in 1868. That ’68 reminds me that his highest single-season OBP was .368, which he achieved for Louisville in 1894. Is that great? No. Is it terrible? Not really. It’s pretty… general. Happy Birthday, General! We salute you!Next post: HUGE BASEBALL CHANGES: MLB’s Unbelievable New Rules to Shorten Games
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