Riggs Stephenson, pictured in 1932
Profile by BCB reader Molechaser
The Riggs Stephenson story is generally told as one of "what might have been." Born in Akron, Alabama on January 5, 1898, Stephenson attended his homestate school, the University of Alabama, and according to his standard narrative, Stephenson's defense was harmed by a shoulder injury incurred playing football at 'Bama; as a result, he was unable to make long throws. While Stephenson played sports with the Crimson Tide, Dr. George Denny, president of the university, said of him: "He is the embodiment of cleanliness, manliness, and courage."
During his early career with Cleveland, he was a second baseman, where his suspect arm made it difficult for him to turn double plays. As a result, he saw limited playing time, averaging only 66 games per season during his five years in Cleveland.
But with the Cubs, Riggs Stephenson was converted to a serviceable defensive outfielder. In nine seasons, he averaged 109 games per season. The Cubs put him in left field; although he would have shorter throws from this position than in any other outfield spot, his shoulder still limited his ability. While he did have markedly fewer outfield assists than either of his partners in the Cubs' outfield (Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson), he still averaged over 10 per 154-game season, comparable to most modern-day left fielders.
Regardless of whether his defense is properly described as "suspect" or "serviceable," Stephenson's offense was outstanding. He led the National League in doubles in 1927, and he batted worse than .319 only once, in 1934, his last season with the Cubs, when injuries had finally caught up with him. He was instrumental in two Cubs World Series runs (1929 and 1932), achieving a .378/.410/.432 line, scoring five runs, and racking up seven RBI over the course of the two Series. In Stephenson's best offensive season, 1929, each of the three Cubs starting outfielders (Stephenson, Cuyler, and Wilson) had over 100 RBIs, the only time such a feat has been accomplished in National League history.
At .336, Riggs Stephenson's lifetime batting average is the highest of any eligible batter who is not in the Hall of Fame, ranks 20th all-time in Major League Baseball, and still leads all players in the history of the Chicago National League Ball Club (tied with Bill Madlock). Admittedly, his batting numbers were inflated somewhat by playing during the live-ball era, and he never led the league in batting average (or, indeed, in any offensive category except doubles in 1927). Still, he was a patient hitter, walking exactly twice as often as he struck out (494 to 247), and he could slug a little, leading to a lifetime .880 OPS (.868 with the Cubs).
Although there is some truth to the standard "what might have been" narrative, Stephenson's career was far from a failure. Had he played 50 years later, when his shoulder could have been surgically repaired and he consequently could have had much more playing time, Stephenson would certainly be in the Hall of Fame. Were it not for the incomparable Billy Williams, Riggs Stephenson would probably be remembered as the greatest Cubs left fielder of all time.
He played for a few years in the minor leagues after his major league career ended abruptly in 1934 due to the accumulated injuries, finally retiring in 1939. Stephenson returned to his home state of Alabama, where he was inducted into the state Sports Hall of Fame in 1971. He ran a car dealership in Tuscaloosa for many years, and passed away there on November 15, 1985.