A forgotten star from a long time ago, “Laughing Larry” Doyle was a key member of the greatest team in the National League in the pre-World War I era: the New York Giants. He will never, ever, be elected to the Hall of Fame, but he was a much better player than some second basemen who have a plaque in Cooperstown. We rate him in the top 30 all-time at his position.
One of the best ways to judge the greatness of a player is to compare him to his contemporaries over a significant stretch of time, say 5-10 years. The longer the stretch the more we remove the chance that a player was simply dominant for a couple years, and the more it’s likely that he was very good and at the top of his league for his position.
From 1908 to 1917, the heart of what historians call “The Deadball Era”, only three NL players posted a higher OPS than Doyle’s 778 – Gavvy Cravath, Honus Wagner, and Sherry Magee. During that ten-year stretch only Magee had more extra-base hits and no one in the league had more total bases than Doyle did. He was an excellent offensive player, one of the most productive in his league for a long time.
Doyle was sort of the Bobby Grich of his era, but he was a better hitter. He didn’t hit .330 every year (though he did once in 1912, and he won the batting title in 1915), but he was a high average hitter in an era when .280 was like .300 would be later; he hit for power, leading the league in doubles and triples and consistently finishing among the top five in all power categories; he walked far more than average, a trait that was even more overlooked back then than it was in the 1970s when Grich came up. Doyle was a strong team leader, just like Grich, and he was tutored personally by John McGraw on how to play Giants baseball, just as a young Grich was instructed in The Oriole Way. Doyle won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1912 and probably could have been a multiple winner if they had allowed that back then.
The defensive record is not as positive for Doyle. His range was below average and he committed far more errors than any other second baseman of his time, at least in the NL. Doyle’s raw fielding statistics are worse than Rogers Hornsby’s. But, his offense far outweighed any runs he gave away in the field and he was still a feared hitter. Like another Giants second baseman 80 years later – Jeff Kent – Doyle probably would have been better served to play first base, but his team always had someone else there and his offense was even more valuable coming out of the middle infield.
Like other stars of his time, Doyle could have played longer in the majors but chose to accept a job (and higher salary) to be a player/manager in the high level minors. He did that for two seasons and was still just 36 when he called it quits.
He had a sad life after baseball: in 1942 he was institutionalized after he was stricken with tuberculosis; he spent 12 years isolated at a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, which was famous for attempts to develop a cure for the disease. Several patients were treated successfully there in the 1940s, but Doyle was not one of them. Finally, when Saranac Lake closed in 1954 due to their development of anti-bodies that reduced the contagion of tuberculosis, Doyle was released. With no close relatives remaining, Doyle stayed in upstate New York where he died 20 years later, in 1974. Few remembered how great a player he had been.
As a final note: had Doyle had the fortune of playing his prime in the 1920s he’d probably be a Hall of Famer and remembered. The era better suited his skills and he would have had the advantage of being a teammate of Frankie Frisch, and anyone who was a decent ballplayer and played with Frisch for a few years was later elected to the Hall via a special committee dominated by Frankie.
On June 2, 1915, Doyle was at the center of one of the most bizarre plays in baseball history. With a runner on third in the top of the tenth inning and one out, Doyle hit a fly ball to right field that was deep enough to score the go-ahead run. The runner tagged and would have been safe easily but when Doyle rounded first he intercepted the throw from Braves’ right fielder Herb Moran, snaring the baseball in his bare hand. No one was sure why Doyle did it. Maybe he thought his teammate was going to be out at home. Or maybe he thought the ball was going to hit him. At any rate, the umpires huddled and ruled that the runner from third was out due to interference by Doyle. The game ended in a tie after ten innings. We’re not sure how Doyle’s manager John McGraw handled that strange play, but we can only imagine he was unhappy.