Baseball Hall of Famers at surprising positions

Hall of Famers tend to be icons at their position. Derek Jeter and shortstop … Pudge Rodriguez and catcher … Ken Griffey Jr. and center field. The player and the position can be inseparable.

But if you dig into the baseball encyclopedia entries for some of the all-time greats, you might be surprised. You might find yourself thinking, “Wait … he played where?”

Here’s an all-time team of Hall of Famers who spent time at a position different from the one you naturally think of when you hear their name — one surprising player for each spot on the field.

Catcher: Craig Biggio
428 games (1988-91, 2007)

The two Hall of Fame Killer B’s were the core of the 1990s and 2000s Astros teams: Jeff Bagwell at first base, Biggio at second. But think back, all the way to the beginning. Biggio, one of three second basemen in the 3,000-hit club, came up as a catcher.

Biggio was a catcher when he made his MLB debut for Houston in 1988, and he even won a Silver Slugger at catcher in ’89 and was an All-Star at catcher in ’91. But the Astros didn’t want the rigor of catching to cost Biggio his base-stealing ability, so he converted to second base in 1992, Bagwell’s sophomore season. The rest is Killer B history. But Biggio did get one last ceremonial start at catcher in 2007, at age 41, in his second-to-last career game.

“Moving from catcher to second, I can’t explain to you how hard that was,” Biggio once said. “That’s like giving you a bat and telling you to go get a hit off Randy Johnson. Not just stand in there, but get a hit off him.”

Honorable mention: Jimmie Foxx (109 games)

First base: Mike Schmidt
157 games (1973, 1984-88)

Schmidt might be the greatest third baseman to ever play the game. His 548 homers, eight home run crowns, three MVP Awards and 1980 World Series ring made him both a Phillies and third-base legend. So what was he doing for those 157 games at first?

The bulk of Schmidt’s time as a first baseman came in 1985, when he agreed to move there because the Phillies had a dire need at first and a prospect, Rick Schu, who could play third. It still seems wild. Schmidt was coming off five straight seasons of being an All-Star, Gold Glover and Silver Slugger at third. That ’85 season, he was none of those things. So in 1986, it didn’t take long for Philadelphia to stick Von Hayes at first. Schmidt went back to third and promptly won his third MVP trophy.

Honorable mention: Mike Piazza (70 games), Larry Walker (81 games), Wade Boggs (67 games), Willie Mays (83 games), Ralph Kiner (58 games)

Second base: Tim Raines
53 games (1980-84)

Rock was a rock in left field for his 23-year Major League career. That’s where the longtime Expos star amassed the bulk of his 2,605 hits and 808 stolen bases. But when Montreal was ready to call up a 20-year-old Raines in 1980, they first used him as a second baseman, which is where he’d been playing at Triple-A.

Raines didn’t stick there long — the next season, he switched to left field and stole a rookie-record 71 bases. But in May 1982, he went back to second base, because the Expos had been using a revolving door of Rodney Scott/Wallace Johnson/Frank Taveras. Raines bridged the gap until Montreal acquired Doug Flynn from the Rangers in August. He hit .314 with 18 stolen bases in his 36 games at the keystone. Then it was the outfield for good, aside from a very light sprinkling of games back at second over the next couple of years.

Honorable mention: Honus Wagner (58 games)

Third base: Jim Thome
492 games (1991-96)

The first version of Thome you think of is the imposing, lefty-slugging first baseman Thome, who averaged 41 home runs a season for Cleveland and Philadelphia from 1997-2004. Then there’s the resurgent, late-career DH Thome, who had a 40-homer season and two 30-homer seasons for the White Sox. But before all that, there was the young third baseman Thome.

Thome played third base from the time he debuted for Cleveland as a 21-year-old in 1991 up through his big breakout seasons in 1995, when the club went to the World Series, and ’96, when he slugged 38 home runs and won the Silver Slugger Award at the hot corner. But when Cleveland traded for Matt Williams that offseason, Thome crossed the infield to the other corner, and he never played third base again, even after Williams left the next year. Still, 93 of Thome’s 612 home runs came as a third baseman.

Honorable mention: Ernie Banks (69 games), Mel Ott (256 games)

Shortstop: Paul Molitor
57 games (1978-80, 1982)

Molitor’s defining position is “hitter.” He knocked his way into the top 10 all-time with 3,319 career hits, with runs at a lot of positions, mainly third base, DH and second base. But shortstop? Hold on — the Brewers had Robin Yount, and the Hall of Fame shortstop was Molitor’s teammate for his entire tenure in Milwaukee. Here’s what happened.

At the start of the 1978 season, an unhappy Yount was thinking about leaving baseball altogether (rumor had it he was going to try his hand at pro golf). In Yount’s absence, the Brewers called up their 21-year-old first-round Draft pick Molitor straight from Class A and stuck him at shortstop on Opening Day. That’s where Molitor played his first month and a half in the big leagues, until Yount decided to come back in May. Molitor went to second base to make room for Yount; a few years later, they were playing alongside each other in the World Series.

Honorable mention: Pie Traynor (50 games), Nap Lajoie (74 games)

Left field: Yogi Berra
149 games (1947, 1956-57, 1960-62)

Yogi is one of the most iconic players in the history of the game, period, and how could you think of him as anything but a catcher? Well, somewhere in the middle of the three MVP trophies and 10 World Series rings with the Yankees are a couple hundred games in the outfield — a few at the beginning of his career, and more toward the end.

In 1947 and ’48, a young Berra was getting his first real Major League action, and he played wherever the Yankees needed him. That wasn’t always at catcher. Berra even played a little outfield during his first World Series in ’47. Then came his Hall of Fame run behind the plate, which encompassed all three of his MVP Awards and the Yankees’ historic World Series five-peat from 1949-53. Later on, in his 30s, Berra returned to the outfield, and by the 1960s he was manning left field at Yankee Stadium as often as he was catching. During Berra’s last two World Series as a Yankees regular, 1960 and ’61, he was mainly an outfielder.

Honorable mention: Chipper Jones (356 games), Tony Gwynn (51 games), Robin Yount (69 games), Eddie Mathews (52 games), Jackie Robinson (150 games), Carlton Fisk (41 games)

Center field: Babe Ruth
74 games (1918-21, 1923-24)

The Babe undertook the most important position change in baseball history when he realized he should be crushing dingers instead of pitching shutouts. But Ruth’s legendary Yankees career was as a slugging corner outfielder. The Bambino was no rangy center fielder. Or was he?

Ruth’s first foray into center field came while he was still with the Red Sox and testing out his position-player abilities for the first time in 1918 — a successful experiment, as Ruth homered in his first four career games playing center. But he also got a run as a center fielder in his early years in New York. Playing center field in pinstripes, Ruth put up, well, Ruthian numbers. In his 61 games as Yankees center fielder, Ruth hit .384/.509/.787 with 23 home runs and a 1.296 OPS. Sadly, though, we never got to see Ruth in center field during a World Series game.

Honorable mention: Roberto Clemente (63 games)

Right field: Johnny Bench
55 games (1970-73, 1975, 1977-78)

Bench defined the catcher position. The Big Red Machine’s anchor was a 14-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glover, two-time MVP and two-time World Series champion in Cincinnati. He’s maybe the greatest catcher of all time. He also played more outfield than you might remember.

Bench manned both corners on occasion throughout the 1970s, playing the outfield at least once in eight different seasons that decade, and more than 10 times in five of those seasons. He finished his career with 111 total games as an outfielder, appearing 55 times each in left field and right field, and even twice in center. Of course, once it came time for the postseason, Bench was always behind the plate — all 45 of his playoff games were at catcher.

Honorable mention: Gary Carter (132 games)

Starting pitcher: Goose Gossage
37 starts (1972-74, 1976)

One of the pioneers of the closer role, Gossage notched 310 saves in his career, most for the Yankees and Padres. But early in his career, the White Sox tried to make him a starter — right after he was named the Sporting News’ Fireman of the Year in 1975, no less.

After leading the Major Leagues in saves with 26, posting a 1.84 ERA and finishing sixth in AL Cy Young voting in ’75, Gossage went 9-17 with a 3.94 ERA as a starter in ’76. That offseason, the White Sox traded him to the Pirates for Richie Zisk. Gossage went back to the bullpen, saved 26 games with a 1.62 ERA in ’77, signed with the Yankees in November and went on to his Hall of Fame career as a closer. He never started another game.

“I’d go crazy as a starter,” Gossage once sad. “Imagine having a bad game and then having to sit around four or five days before you pitch again. You’d be thinking about it all the time. That would be terrible.”

Honorable mention: Rollie Fingers (37 starts), Mariano Rivera (10 starts)

Relief pitcher: Pedro Martinez
67 relief appearances (1992-94, 1999)

Do you remember Pedro’s days as a rookie reliever for the Dodgers? It’s true, they happened. Not only was Pedro’s MLB debut in September 1990 in relief, he pitched his first full season in LA as a setup man. Martinez was a good one, too, pitching 65 games and finishing with a 2.61 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 107 innings.

But the Dodgers and Tommy Lasorda thought he wasn’t durable enough to be a successful starting pitcher. So Los Angeles traded him to the Expos for Delino DeShields. In Montreal, Pedro jumped into the starting rotation, learned to command his explosive fastball and wasted no time proving the Dodgers wrong. Four seasons later, he won his first Cy Young Award. By the turn of the millennium, he’d won two more with the Red Sox and become one of the most dominant starters the game had ever seen.

Honorable mention: John Smoltz (242 relief appearances), Roy Halladay (26 relief appearances), Sandy Koufax (83 relief appearances)

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