Posts Tagged ‘Babe Ruth’

St. Louis Blues: 1928

June 26, 2013
Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Back in 1989 my son and I watched the World Series between Oakland and San Francisco. Although known today primarily as the “Earthquake Series” the Series was a four game sweep by Oakland. It was, to be brutally honest, a thorough crushing. My son asked if I’d ever seen a more one-sided World Series. I admitted I hadn’t. So being a clever child he started looking through baseball encyclopedias and finally announced he’d found a World Series as lopsided as 1989. It was the 1928 Series. Here’s a brief rehash of that Series.

In 1926, the St. Louis Cardinals burst onto the baseball scene, becoming the last of the 20th Century’s National League teams to win a pennant. Then they managed to defeat the “Murder’s Row” New York Yankees in seven games (including Alexander’s strikeout of Lazzeri, arguably the most famous strikeout in Major League history). The Yankees, unlike the Cards, repeated by winning the American League pennant in 1927 and manhandling the Pittsburgh Pirates in four games. Both St. Louis and New York won in 1928, setting up a rematch of 1926.

The Cardinals were a good team. Hall of Fame pitchers Grover Cleveland Alexander and Jesse Haines anchored the staff with lefty Bill Sherdel and right hander Flint Rhem rounding out the starters. Haines and Sherdel had 20 wins, Alexander 16, and Rhem 11. That sounded better than it was. Of the four, only Haines had more innings pitched than hits allowed and Rhem had walked more men than he struck out. The hitting stars were Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch, and Chick Hafey, while Taylor Douthit and George Harper also put up good numbers. Although he didn’t hit much, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville could still play a decent short at age 36.

The Yankees were loaded. The duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in their prime. Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig both hit .300, as did Earle Combs (who was hurt and didn’t play much in the Series). The staff included Hall of Fame righty Waite Hoyt, fellow Hall of Famer lefty Herb Pennock, George Pipgras, and bullpen specialist Wilcy Moore.

The first game was played 4 October in New York. The Yanks got an early lead when Ruth and Gehrig hit back-to-back doubles to score Ruth with the first run. They added two more in the fourth when Ruth doubled and, after an out by Gehrig, Bob Meusel belted a two-run home run. A Jim Bottomley homer in the seventh got a run back, but the Yanks returned the lead to three runs in the eighth, with consecutive singles by Koenig, Ruth, and Gehrig to score Koenig. The game ended 4-1 with Hoyt getting the win and Sherdel taking the loss. It was the closest game.

If game one turned out to be the closest game. game two was the biggest blowout. And there had to have been a great satisfaction in getting it at the expense of 1926 hero Alexander. The Yanks got three runs in the first when following a single and a walk, Gehrig clouted a three-run home run. The Cards plated three in the second to tie the game. After a walk and a double scored a run, Lazzeri committed a huge error (on a throw) that sent a second run home. Then a double play grounder gave St. Louis a third run. New York got the lead back the next inning on a walk, a sacrifice, and a single. The third was the Yankees big inning. Ruth singled, Gehrig walked, then Meusel doubled to score the Babe. After a walk and a single sent Gehrig home, Alexander plunked catcher Benny Bengough to bring in a run.  A single scored a fourth run and only a great throw from Douthit saved another run. The Yanks tacked on a final run in the seventh on a single, a stolen base, a sacrifice and a pinch hit single by Joe Dugan.

After a travel day, the Series resumed 7 October in St. Louis.  The Cards broke on top with two runs in the first. With one out, third baseman Andy High singled, Frisch followed with another single, then Bottomley tripled to score both men. New York responded with a home run from Gehrig in the second, then took the lead in the fourth when Ruth walked and Gehrig legged out an inside-the-park home run (hit to deepest center field) that scored two runs. The Cards tied it back up when Douthit was plunked and High doubled him home in the fifth. The Yanks responded with a very unYankees-like inning. Koenig singled, was forced at second with Ruth taking first. Gehrig walked (something he did a lot of in the Series). Meusel then grounded to third. High flipped to second to force Gehrig, but Ruth raced home. The relay to catcher Jimmie Wilson was on-line, but he dropped the ball, letting Ruth score. Meusel took third on the play. After a walk to Lazzeri, New York executed a double steal, Lazzeri going to second and Meusel stealing home. A single brought in Lazzeri with the third run of the inning. New York got one last run in the seventh when an error by Hafey and a Ruth single gave them a seventh run.

Down 3-0, St. Louis sent Sherdel back to the mound on 9 October. New York countered with Hoyt. For six innings it looked like the Cards might have a chance to play a game five. They got one in the third when outfielder Ernie Orsatti doubled, went to third on a bunt and scored on Frisch’s sacrifice fly. The Yanks got the run back in the fourth on Ruth’s first Series homer. In the bottom of the fourth Maranville was safe at second on a botched double play relay throw by Koenig. The next man was out, then Hoyt tried to pick off Maranville. The ball sailed into the outfield and the Rabbit came home to put St. Louis ahead. That lasted until the seventh. With one out Ruth hit his second home run of the game. Gehrig followed with a homer of his own. Meusel singled, went to third on Lazzeri’s double, and scored on the next play, Lazzeri going to third. In his only appearance of the Series, Earle Combs then hit a long sacrifice to right that plated Lazzeri. In the eighth, backup outfielder Cedric Durst hit a home run, and the Babe crushed his third home run of the game (and Series) to finish the Yankees scoring. The Cardinals picked up one final run in the ninth, then Frisch popped a foul to Ruth in left to end the game and the Series.

It wasn’t even close. The Cards managed 10 runs to New York’s 27. Maranville led the Cards with a .308 average. Bottomley hit only .214, but had three RBI’s. Only Maranville scored more than one run (He had two.). The staff was shelled. Sherdel took two losses, Alexander and Haines each took one.  Haines 4.50 ERA was the best among the starters. The team ERA was 6.09. They had both 13 walks and 13 strike outs.

New York, on the other hand, played wonderfully. Here’s the triple slash line for Ruth .625/.647/1.375/2.022. He had three home runs (all in game four), four RBI’s, 10 hits, and scored nine runs. Gehrig might have been better. His triple slash line reads .545/,706/1.722/2.433. He had four home runs, nine RBI’s, six hits, and scored five runs. His lack of hits was largely the result of walking six times. Of his two hits that weren’t home runs, one was a double. No other Yankee did as well, but Durst hit .375 and Meusel had three RBI’s and a steal of home. The pitchers put up an ERA of 2.00 while striking out 29 and walking only 11. Every game was a complete game victory with Hoyt getting two of them.

It was a complete beat down. And after the loss of 1926, must have been particularly sweet for the Yanks, especially for Lazzeri who managed a double and scored a run against Alexander. Both teams would go on to play good ball over the next several years, New York winning another pennant in 1932 and St. Louis in both 1930 and 1931. They would not, however, meet again in the World Series until 1942. And I promise no more music based titles with Missouri themes (at least for a while).

An Extraordinary Season

June 10, 2013
Rogers Hornsby while with the Cardinals

Rogers Hornsby while with the Cardinals

Baseball is full of guys having great seasons. Both Cabrera and Trout had great seasons last year. So far the kid in LA is having a great week. Babe Ruth is noted for great seasons between 1920 and 1924. But Rogers Hornsby also had a couple of great seasons in the National League while Ruth was tearing up the American League. Hornsby played second base for the Cardinals in 1922. He got into 154 games.  Here’s a look at Hornsby’s 1922 year, a year that you could argue wasn’t his best.

In April Hornsby played 15 games. He got hits in all but three (and in one of those he walked in all four of his plate appearances). He hit .389, slugged .704, had an OBP of .469, had 21 hits, four of them home runs. The two games in which he had both at bats and no hits were not back to back. They were against the Reds and Cubs.

In May he played 28 games. He hit .371, slugged .705, had an OBP of .464, with 39 hits and 9 home runs. In the 28 games he went hitless four times, none of them consecutive. They were against the Giants, Phillies, Pirates, and Cubs.

In June he played in 23 games. He hit .427, slugged .667, had an OBP of .477, with 41 hits and four home runs. He went hitless in three games. For the first time in the season he was hitless on consecutive days, 26 and 27 June. Both games were against the Reds. The other game was against the Giants. None of the games were back-to-back.

So we’re half way through the season and what do we have? So far Hornsby has played in 66 games and failed to hit in nine of them (only once in back-to-back games). He has 101 hits and 17 home runs. His average is .396. So far only the Braves and Dodgers have failed to hold him hitless at least one time.

Now on to July. He played in 35 games (lots of double headers). He hit .383, slugged .752, had an OBP of .425 with 54 hits and 10 home runs. He failed to get a hit four times, once each against the Reds, Phillies, Giants, and Braves. None of the games were consecutive.

In August he played 22 games. He hit .380, slugged .663, had an OBP of .447 with 35 hits and five home runs. He went hitless in only two games all month. One each  against the Braves and Cubs. Again, the two games weren’t back-to-back.

In September he played 29 games. He hit .438, slugged .792, had an OBP of .463 with 57 hits and 10 home runs. He went hitless twice. The Cubs and finally the Dodgers (Robins at the time) managed to hold him without a hit. Neither game was consecutive. It was his best month.

He played one game in October and got three hits. All were singles. As St. Louis did not make the World Series, his season ended on 1 October.

For the year Hornsby hit .401, slugged .722, had an OBP of .456. He had 250 hits, 42 were home runs, 46 were doubles, and 14 were triples. He stuck out 50 times and walked 65, and had 450 total bases. He scored 142 runs and drove in 152. His OPS was 1.181 and his OPS+ was 207. He would surpass both the OPS and OPS+ twice (1924 and 1925). His offensive WAR was 11.2. It would be slightly higher in 1924 (11.5), but not in 1925. Only once did he fail to hit in consecutive games (but he did manage to go hitless against all seven opponents).In 154 games he was hitless in 17. For all that the Cardinals, who had a little beyond Hornsby, finished third.

Hornsby’s 1922 is one of the great seasons ever. In compares well with Ruth’s best years. Some baseball historians downplay Hornsby arguing that he wasn’t much of a second baseman, specifically that he had trouble going back on the short pop up at second. OK, maybe he did. But I think I’ll take the bat anyway.

Hollywood Meets the Diamond

May 3, 2013

John McGraw, budding Thespian

John McGraw, budding Thespian

As something of a followup to the last post, I decided to look more heavily into Hollywood’s love affair with baseball. I’ve done some of this kind of thing before, but this time I decided to see if I could put together a full team of players who have appeared on either TV or in the movies playing someone other than themselves (or a baseball player). It got a little silly for a while, but this is a pretty good set of players (I wonder if Olivier could hit).  I had to violate the playing someone else or not being a ball player a few times, but you’ll see why when you read them. I’m sure I missed a couple of greats, so feel free to add to the list.

1st base–Lou Gehrig. Back on 26 February 2010 I did a review of Gehrig’s foray into Westerns. He did an oater called “Rawhide” a year before he retired.

2nd base–Jackie Robinson. I also did a review of Robinson’s movie “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Gehrig did a better acting job. OK, this violates the play someone other than themselves (or a ball player) caveat, but it’s Robinson.

shortstop–Maury Wills. Wills shows up with four credits, three as a coach. The other is on “Get Smart”, the old spy spoof.

3rd base–Ron Cey. In 1987 he shows up as an uncredited member of the band in “Murder, She Wrote.”

outfield–Babe Ruth. Again I violated my “no ball player” rule, but it’s the Babe. He played a ball player named Babe Dugan in a film called “Babe Comes Home” in 1927. The IMDB indicates that the movie is lost.

outfield–Ty Cobb. Ok this time I violated the “appeared” part of my criteria. During the 1950s, Cobb wrote five stories and screenplays that showed up on television. Two were for a show called “The Adventures of Champion” (ole Champ was a horse).

outfield–Duke Snider. The Duke shows up with five credits. In one he plays himself, in a second he’s a center fielder. In the other three he has a role. One of those is opposite another former ball player, Chuck Connors, in “The Rifleman.”

catcher–Joe Garagiola. Best catcher I could find who played something other than himself. He appeared in one episode of “Police Story” in 1975. He played a cop. 

DH–Mike Donlin. Of all these guys, Donlin had the best movie career. I did a post on him on 5 January 2011. He ended up with 63 credits, most of them silents.

pitcher–Sandy Koufax. Way back when he was still an unknown, Koufax got into four TV shows: two Westerns, two cop shows. One of the cop shows was in 1959, the other three credits were in 1960.

manager–John McGraw. In 1914, McGraw appeared as Detective Swift in a short called “Detective Swift.” To top it off, Hans Lobert’s wife (cleverly called “Mrs. Hans Lobert) has a role in the short.

Not a bad list, right? There are an inordinate number of Los Angeles Dodgers in the list. That’s not because I’m a fan (although I am), but it makes great sense that the team in LA is going to have a large number of players available locally to show up for bit parts in both the moves and TV.

This list also excludes those players who showed up on Broadway (like Donlin) or in Vaudeville. McGraw and Christy Mathewson had a vaudeville act where they showed the audience how to throw a pitch. The earliest one of these I could find was an 1880s reference that indicated that King Kelly would appear on stage and dance while the band played “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” We’ve come a long way, I think.

Thanks, Hank

March 14, 2013
Roger Connor

Roger Connor

Way back in 1974, Hank Aaron did the impossible, he overtook Babe Ruth for the all-time Major League home run title. There were mixed feelings about it, but it led to one interesting question. “If Hammerin’ Hank just passed the Babe, who the heck did Ruth pass?” The answer, after some research, turned out to be Roger Connor.

Connor was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1857. His parents were Irish immigrants and did not understand the American fascination with baseball. Connor, on the other hand, loved the game. It led to his leaving home at age 14 to pursue his baseball interests in New York. His dad died in 1874, bringing Connor back to Waterbury. He took a job in a local factory to help support his family and played semipro baseball to supplement his income. He was good enough to get a tryout with the International League. He did poorly. Although left-handed, he hit from the right side and didn’t do it very well. A switch to hitting from the left side got him back to the International League (I wonder how common it is for a player to switch sides of the plate and go from mediocrity to stardom?) in the late 1870s. To be clear, Connor was never a switch hitter. He merely gave up hitting right handed in favor of hitting left handed.

He was also big. He stood 6′ 3″ and weighed 220 pounds. That made him a huge man for the era. It also made him relatively immobile. He started his career as a left-handed third baseman, but his lack of speed, combined with a good pair of hands, put him at first base. Once he moved to first (and started hitting lefty) he became a  star.

In 1880 he was picked up by Troy of the National League. In 83 games he hit .332, drove in 47 runs and had an OPS+ of 169. He remained at Troy through 1882 hitting .317 with 120 RBIs. In 1883 the team in Troy was in trouble. It had a small fan base, wasn’t doing well in the standings, and there was no current team in New York. So the league moved the franchise (and most of its players, including Connor) to New York as the Gothams (eventually becoming the Giants and ultimately relocating to San Francisco). With a quality team combining the Troy refugees and newly acquired talent they started winning. New York won pennants (and the 19th Century version of the World Series) in both 1888 and 1889. Connor was a major reason why. He led the National League in hits, triples, RBIs, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, OPS+, and total bases at various times during the period. He did not lead the NL in home runs during the 1880s but did establish his career high at 17.

He 1890 he joined teammate Monty Ward’s Player’s League. There he won his only home run title (he hit 14) and picked up another slugging and OPS title. With the failure of the Player’s League he moved back to the Giants. He spent 1892 in Philadelphia (where he won the doubles crown), then came back to New York in 1893. Traded to St. Louis during the 1894 season he remained there until his retirement at age 39 in 1897. His stay in St. Louis included a short managing stint in 1896. The team was terrible and he was uncomfortable as manager. He resigned the managerial position after an 8-37 record.

Connor returned to Waterbury after his retirement. He played minor league ball, managed, and ultimately owned the Waterbury team. He sold the team in 1901, bought another, and maintained his ties to baseball until 1903 when he retired from playing and sold the team. In retirement he invested his money in land, made a fortune, lost most of it, and died in 1931. To Major League baseball he slipped into total obscurity. But Hank Aaron’s run to glory brought Connor back into the spotlight and in 1976 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.

For his career, Connor’s triple slash line is .316/.397/486/.883 for an OPS+ of 153. He had 2467 hits in 7797 at bats. That yielded 1620 runs, 1323 RBIs, and 3788 total bases. He had 441 doubles, 233 triples (still fifth ever), and the record 138 home runs (although it wasn’t until the push to find who Ruth replaced that his home run total was firmly established at 138). He was also considered an excellent, for the era, fielding first baseman.

In some ways the modern player Connor most reminds me of is Hank Aaron. Like Aaron, he seldom won many league titles, but was consistently among the best in the NL for most of his career. Remember, Aaron only won two batting titles and three home run titles (and like Connor did not win a home run title with his most prolific home run year). For much of their career, the two men were overlooked in favor of flashier, but not better, players. Both men were quiet and spoke more with their bat than their mouths. Aaron did a lot of good things when he made his run at Babe Ruth. One of the better, if more obscure, was the resurrection of Roger Connor’s memory.

And before anyone asks, the man Connor replaced as the all-time home run king was Harry Stovey.

The Babe Ruth Story: A Review

January 16, 2013
William Bendix getting batting tips from some extra

William Bendix getting batting tips from some extra

It’s been a while since I took a look at how Hollywood deals with baseball, so it’s time to do it again. This time I’ve chosen one of the all-time stinkeroos to review. Yep, it’s the 1948 flick “The Babe Ruth Story” starring William Bendix.

The movie is basically a hymn to Ruth. His shadow alone can raise a sick child, he can call his shot in the World Series, he can hit a home run for a sick child (apparently this one he can’t raise from the sick-bed), and he’ll miss a game to help an injured dog. Everyone of these things happen in the movie. In the end Ruth is carted off for a special operation that will help all mankind (not just kids this time). For some reason they didn’t play “The Star Spangled Banner” in the background as he was wheeled offstage.

The cast includes William Bendix as Ruth. Bendix was a major comedic character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. He was getting an unusual starring turn in this flick and actually does a fairly good job. Bendix was right-handed, so they had to sew Yankees on his uniform backwards (seekanY) then reverse the film. They used the same technique with Gary Cooper in “Pride of the Yankees.” Bendix was an avid baseball fan (he also did a movie called “Kill the Umpire” in which he played a fledgling ump) who enjoyed getting the role. Legend has it that in one of the scenes he actually hit the ball over the fence for a home run. They kept the scene in the movie and the joy on Bendix’s face was real. No one seems to know which scene it is, so it may be legend.

Claire Trevor plays Ruth’s wife Claire (guess that made it easy for her to know when she was being called to the set). She does a good job, arguably the best in the movie. The next year she’ll win an Academy Award for best supporting actress in “Key Largo” (which has nothing to do with baseball).  Charles Bickford plays Brother Maththias, Ruth’s mentor, confidant, and friend. William Frawley (of “I Love Lucy” fame) is Jack Dunn and does a good job playing mostly a straight man rather than his normal comic turn. And Matt Briggs plays Colonel Jacob Ruppert, Yankees owner. He was mainly a Broadway actor and is probably best known to movie fans as the judge in “The Oxbow Incident.” Joe Flynn, of “McHale’s Navy” has a small role (his first) and Mark Koenig is the only actual ballplayer with lines.

The movie is utter nonsense. Ruth’s upbringing is misrepresented, his relationship with Miller Huggins is left out, and most importantly his first wife (and daughter) is totally ignored. The scene where he meets Claire is more likely to have been when he met his first wife (try to imagine Claire Ruth in a honky-tonk).  Having said all that, I can’t help but like it. It’s so much fun. Bendix is having the time of his life and it shows. It represents Ruth as simply an overgrown kid and that’s how most of us really, I think, want to see Ruth. The warts aren’t pleasant and are ignored in the flick.

I suggest that if you want to just have a fun hour and a half (the movie runs 106 minutes and is in black and white) with a bag of popcorn this is as good a way as any. Just make sure you don’t believe a word of it. I understand it’s available on Netflix.

Finally, Ruth was given a screening a few weeks before he died. Claire liked the movie a lot. At least the Babe got to see Hollywood’s version of his life.

The Greatest Cardinal of them All

August 27, 2012

a montage showing Musial’s batting stroke

If it were up to my grandfather, there would be no debate about the greatest player ever. He was absolutely certain that Stan Musial was the greatest ballplayer ever. He’d heard Ruth on the radio, seen Walter Johnson pitch in some exhibition game somewhere, had listened over and over to DiMaggio and could quote you some of Ted Williams’ stats. But it didn’t matter, the Cardinals were his team, Musial was his man, and there simply was no reason to even start an argument when you were faced with such absolute certainty.

So my grandfather was off a little on the greatest to ever play the game (although not by much), but he had a superior case for the greatest player to ever come through St. Louis and put on a Cardinals uniform. I once wondered if Albert Pujols was going to run past Stan “the Man” as the greatest Cardinals player ever but it didn’t happen.

Take a quick look at Musial’s first numbers. He played all of 12 games in 1941. He hit .426, had an OPS of 1.023 (OPS+ 179), and had 27 total bases in 47 at bats. Sure it was 12 games and you never decide a man’s career worth on 12 games (unless they occur in the World Series or something), but it was a great portent of things to come. For my grandfather, trying to eke though a living, who had to go visit a neighbor just to hear a ball game on the radio, it was the beginning of something he longed for. He remembered the awful Cardinals teams of the Deadball Era, had listened to the Hornsby Cardinals of the 1920s, loved the Gas House Gang, but he always said he knew from the beginning there was something special about Musial. Maybe it was the magical air of Donora, Pennsylvania, hometown of Musial and Ken Griffey Sr and Ken Griffey Jr (top that outfield in a reasonably small town). But from the beginning my grandfather swore Musial was special.

There was no rookie of the year award in 1942, Musial might have won it if there were. The Cardinals won the World Series, lost in 1943, won again in 1944 and for my grandfather it was the best of times (my wife’s grandfather was a Browns fan and I wonder how they would have dealt with 1944). Musial went to war in 1945, then was back in 1946. St. Louis won the World Series again. It was their last in Musial’s career, but he kept on having great seasons, winning the MVP in 1946 and in 1948 (and already had one from 1943) He finished second in MVP voting in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1957. Each time my grandfather was sure Musial had been robbed. The only one he half way accepted was Aaron’s in 1957. He was particularly upset with Jim Konstanty’s 1950 win.

During the 1950s as Musial’s career wore down and the Cardinals began floundering, my grandfather was sure they only needed one, or at most two, more players to make it back to the Series, but of course they never got them. Bob Gibson came along in 1959, absolutely unimpressing him (and 1959 wasn’t much for Gibson), but he still had faith. Musial retired after the 1963 season and my grandfather actually wept. The next year St. Louis won the World Series, beating the hated Yankees (who’d never been forgiven for beating the Cardinals in 1943). My grandfather was at a loss. His team had won, but they’d done it without Stan “the Man”. There was obviously something seriously wrong with that scenario.  They won again in 1967, the lost in 1968. There was a part of my grandfather that was almost happy they’d lost. It proved to him just how much Musial meant to the team.

  He died in the 1970s (and, no, we didn’t bury him in a Cardinals uniform) convinced he’d seen the greatest to ever play the game. He wasn’t off by much.

Perception

August 23, 2012

Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel

Take a second, close your eyes and form a mental picture of Babe Ruth. I presume it’s a picture of him at bat. Now try to form a mental picture of him in the field. My guess is that it was either a picture of him on the mound from his pitching days or of him in right field. Neither of those are bad mental images, but they are both incomplete. It’s a question of the way we perceive the Babe.

I had known for years that Ruth played a number of games in left field and a handful at first base. I didn’t realize just how many of the Babe’s appearances in the field weren’t on the mound or in right. Here’s a quick rundown of his games by position (all from Baseball Reference): pitcher-163, first base-32, center field-74, left field-1050, right field-1132. In some games he played more than one position and in others he pinch hit, so the numbers don’t add up to his total games played (2503).

The difference between 1050, the number of games in left, and 1132, the number of games is right, is all of 82. Not much of a difference, is it? If you throw in the center field number with the left field number it comes out only eight games more in right field than in the other two combined. And yet we all think of him as a right fielder.

Why the changes in position? Well, a handful of things jump out if you look at the teams involved and the stadia. In 1918, Ruth’s first season with significant time in left field, the Red Sox have Harry Hooper in right. Whatever you think of Hooper’s credentials for the Hall of Fame, he was a very good right fielder in his day. By 1919, Hooper had moved to center field and Ruth took over as the regular left fielder (in 1918 he had 47 games in left, by 1919 it was 110). Why not move him to right? I’m not sure but maybe he was learning to deal with “Duffy’s Cliff”, the hill in left field in Fenway and the manager (Ed Barrow) didn’t want to move him. His fielding percentage (.988) and range factor (2.43) are actually better than either Hooper or Braggo Roth, the right fielder (but Ruth pitched 17 games that season and had a handful in center which may have changed his fielding numbers slightly).

In 1920 he moved to New York and the most significant thing to remember about the fielding in New York is that the Yankees played 1920 through 1922 in the Polo Grounds, not in Yankee Stadium. The horseshoe shape meant that you had to have a heck of a center fielder, but that right fielder and left fielder could be interchangeable. And we see that in the stats. In 1920 he plays most of his games in right, in 1921 he’s almost exclusively a left fielder, and in 1922 he splits time in both (about 2 to 1 favoring left).

By 1923 the Yankees are in Yankee Stadium with its bus ride to the fence in left field. In 1923-25 he spends most (but certainly not all) his time in right. I’ve been unable to break it down by park, but I understand from reading some stuff that he tended to play right at home and left on the road, but I can’t give you exact numbers. Beginning in 1926 he starts spending more time in right than in left (but in some seasons it’s close and in other a big difference shows up).

What’s going on here? Well, a couple of things. First, the Babe was never known as strong armed. He seems to have possessed a decent arm, but not a great one. In Yankee Stadium the big arm was needed in left field (because of the distances) so it was best to move him to right field. Second, for most games in the 1920s the other corner outfielder was Bob Meusel. By general agreement of almost everyone I’ve read, Meusel had the best arm of the decade. So playing Meusel in left at home and in right on the road made a great deal of sense. But it also meant that Ruth was going to have to switch positions a lot. By 1929, Meusel was fading (1930 was his last year and it wasn’t in New York) and Ruth began to get more time strictly in right field.

All of this is by way of reminding you that sometimes what we think we know isn’t exactly true. Even in the case of a great and well-known figure like Ruth.

The 50 Greatest Red Sox

April 20, 2012

The Birthday Boy

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, ESPN Boston just released its list of the 50 Greatest Red Sox. It’s an interesting list and frankly not a bad one, although I would disagree with some of the selections. Here’s a list of their top 10 in order: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Tris Speaker, Pedro Martinez, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and Bobby Doerr. Before you ask, Jim Rice is 11th.

Again, not a bad list but I wonder how much Clemens rancorous departure and the subsequent steroid controversy contributed to his rank below both Martinez and Young. I’m a little surprised Grove is a top 10 over Wade Boggs or Rice, but why not. You got to admit, that’s one heck of an outfield, isn’t it?

In case you’re interested it takes all the way to 30th to get a full team. According to this listing, the best Red Sox team is:

Infield: Foxx, Doerr, Joe Cronin (18th), and Wade Boggs (13th)

Outfield: Williams, Yastrzemski, Speaker

Catcher: Carlton Fisk (14th)

DH: Rice (11th and the first position player who would not have a regular spot in the field, hence he’s the DH)

Left Handed Starters: Ruth and Grove

Right Handed Starters: Martinez, Young, and Clemens

Closer: Dick Radatz (30th)

Agree? Disagree? Fine, but compliment or complain to ESPN: Boston, it’s their list.

“Non-Essential”

March 30, 2012

Harry Hooper during the 19-teens

In April 1917 the United States entered the Great War on the side of the Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and sent men off to “make the world safe for Democracy” (nice try, fellas). The federal government began to mobilize American society to fight a war unlike any the US had ever faced. It would take a million men to fight it and even more to provide the materiel (yep, that’s spelled right. Materiel is a particular military spelling of material whose origins escape me.), goods, services, morale boosting necessary to fight a modern industrial war. The basic government slogan was “fight or work.” Unfortunately, most people didn’t see playing baseball as work so Major League Baseball was declared “non-essential” and the 1918 season was scrapped.

Of course baseball struck back. The leadership of both leagues argued that the sport provided a morale boost for both men on their way to France and to the munitions and shipyard workers who were supporting the troops, so it should be allowed. The government relented and authorized a shortened season that had to end by Labor Day (2 September) except for a World Series that could be held immediately after. That gave the game a shortened season (126 games for the American League champion and 129 for the National League champion) and led to some funny looking numbers.

With a lot of good players off at either war or war work, the Boston Red Sox won the AL pennant by 2.5 games over Cleveland. They failed to lead the AL in any major category in hitting (leading only in sacrifices). They, in fact, finished dead last in hits with 990. Individually Babe Ruth, now splitting time between the outfield and the mound, tied for the league lead with 11 home runs and led the AL with strikeouts with 58. Pitching was a different story. Boston lead the league in complete games, least hits allowed, shutouts, least runs allowed, and was seond in ERA. Both first baseman Stuffy McInnis and third baseman Fred Thomas spent some time away from the team while serving in the military, but were available for the World Series. Dave  Shean (who lead the AL in sacrifices) and Everett Scott rounded out the infield with Hall of Famer Harry Hooper in right field, Amos Strunk in center, and Ruth in left (with George Whiteman spelling Ruth on days he pitched). Sam Agnew and Wally Schang took care of the catching. The staff had Ruth, Carl Mays, Sam Jones, and Joe Bush starting double figures games and Dutch Leonard who also started 16 games but was gone to the military by the end of the season.

They got to face the Chicago Cubs in the Series. Chicago, which hadn’t won since 1910 had put together a good team through trades and won a pennant by 10.5 games. Fred Merkle (of 1908 infamy), Rollie Zeider, Charlie Hollocher, and Charlie Deal were the infield with Max Flack, Dode Paskert, and Les Mann doing the outfield work, while old-time Phillies catcher Bill Killefer did the backstop work. The staff consisted of Hippo Vaughn, Claude Hendrix, Lefty Tyler, and Phil Douglas as the starters with Paul Carter as the man out of the bullpen. Expected ace Grover Cleveland Alexander was off in the army after only three games. As with Boston, the stars were on the mound (although the team lead the NL in runs scored). Chicago led the NL in shutouts, least runs allowed, and in strikeouts.

It was a terrific Series, with Boston winning in six games. No team scored more than three runs in a game, no game was decided by more than three runs (a 3-0 shutout win by Chicago in game five). Four games (1, 3, 4, and 6) were decided by one run. Ruth won two games (Mays the other two for Boston), including game one. In doing so he stretched his consecutive scoreless inning streak. It stayed until game four’s eighth inning when Chicago got two runs (both earned). The record lasted until Whitey Ford slid passed it in 1960. There were no home runs and only Cubs backup second baseman Charlie Pick and Boston’s Schang hit over .300 (Schang led all hitters at .444).

Maybe 1918 was “non-essential” but it produced a good pennant race in the AL. It also produced a fine World Series. All-in-all not a bad way of diverting a wartime populace from the tragedy of World War I.

Out of Tragedy

March 27, 2012

Joe Sewell in the 1920s

In August 1920 Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck by a pitch and died in the midst of a pennant race. The Indians tried their backup, Harry Lunte. He lasted into September when he went down with a leg injury. In desperation, Cleveland turned to a minor leaguer named Joe Sewell. Sewell left the Major Leagues after the 1933 season and ended up in Cooperstown in 1977.

Joseph Sewell was born in 1898 in Alabama the son of a doctor. In 1916 he enrolled at the University of Alabama as a pre-med major, but played both baseball and football for the college. He was good, particularly at baseball, and became both a star athlete and an excellent student. He was well enough known and liked to become student body President. His baseball team did well winning the conference (not yet the Southeastern Conference) championship all four years (1916-1920) Sewell played (future Major League outfielder Riggs Stephenson was also on the team). With graduation in 1920, he signed with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League. He did well enough that when Chapman died and Lunte was injured, Cleveland bought his contract and brought him straight to the big leagues.

He wasn’t exactly an instant success. He hit .329 in 22 games, but was terrible in the field. In those same 22 games he made 15 errors in 129 chances. The team was good enough it didn’t matter a lot. They won the pennant and then took the World Series in 1920. Sewell hit .174 in the Series with four hits, two walks, two caught stealing, and one strikeout (remember that stat).

He got better. He remained with Cleveland through 1930, hitting .300 or better every year except two (1922 when he hit .299, and 1930 when he hit .289). He had no power, topping out at seven home runs and 12 triples. He had some speed, but was not a good base runner. His high in stolen bases was 17 in 1926, but the next year he led the American League with 16 caught stealing (to only three successes). To compensate, his OPS+ was over 100 every season except 1930. His fielding improved although he led the AL in errors in both 1922 and 1923. He compensated by leading the AL in assists twice, putouts four times, and fielding percentage three times.. By 1928 he was slowing down and moved to third base, where he played an acceptable, but not brilliant hot corner.

Of course what he could do was hit the ball. In 1921 he struck out 17 times in 683 plate appearances, in 1922 it was 20 k’s in 656 pa’s. It was his worst year. After that he struck out 12 times in 1923 and 13 in 1924. Following that his career high strikeout total in a season was 9 in 1928 (in 678 plate appearances). In 1925 his at bats per strikeouts was a record 154 (he would better that when he set the still standing record of 167.7 in 1932). What all this meant is that Sewell always made contact. Think of the number of times you could hit and run, or start a runner, knowing that Sewell would make contact. The grounded into double play stat is incomplete for the era, but I’ve found no source that claims Sewell hit into a lot of double plays, thus negating the hit and run. There were never going to be a lot of “strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out” calls with Sewell at the plate.

In 1931 he moved to New York, settling in as the Yankees third baseman. He tended to hit second in the lineup, just behind Earle Coombs and just ahead of Babe Ruth. His non-strikeout skill obviously came in handy in that position. He hit .302 in 1931, scored 102 runs, and struck out eight times (the pressure got to him). He also roomed with Lou Gehrig. Want an interesting bit of trivia? Gehrig’s strikeout numbers 1925 (his first full season) through 1930 (the last season without Sewell) are: 49, 73, 84, 69, 68, 63. Now with Sewell as a roommate: 56, 38, 42. Then it continues low for the rest of Gehrig’s career until 1938 when Gehrig is getting ill (it jumps to 75 in ’38). Now Gehrig never strikes out much and the trend is downward when Sewell arrives, but it drops even more once they room together. I’m not going to credit Sewell with cutting down on Gehrig’s strikeout total. As mentioned above, it was already trending down and wasn’t very high anyway, but I’ll bet they talked about hitting while rooming on the road. 

Sewell remained with the Yankees through 1933. His career was winding down, but he got into one last World Series in 1932. He hit .333, had an OBP of .500, slugged .400 and an OPS of .900 (God love easy to figure OPSs), scored five runs, had 3 RBIs, walked four times, and (get ready for it) didn’t strikeout once (unlike in his 1920 rookie Series).

Retired, Sewell went back to Alabama, ran a hardware store, coached a little, became an Indians scout, moved his scouting skills to the Mets, then in 1964 took over as head baseball coach at the University of Alabama. He stayed six years, won the Southeastern Conference championship in 1968, and had the stadium named for him (it’s a hyphenated name with the guy who preceded Sewell). In 1977 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died in 1990.

For his career he hit .312, had an OBP of .391, slugged .413, and had an OPS of .804 (OPS+ of 108). He racked up 2945 total bases distributed between 2226 hits, 436 doubles, 68 triples, and 49 home runs. He scored 1141 times, had 1055 RBIs, and 74 stolen bases (but 72 caught stealing). He walked 842 times and struck out 114 in 8333 plate appearances. It’s general conceded that last set of numbers got him in Cooperstown, but the rest are pretty good too.

Sewell was also something of a fogey. I saw a couple of interviews with him in which he claimed that only Reggie Jackson and maybe Ron Guidry of the modern Yankees (this would be the pennant winning Yanks of 1976-81) could have played on his old team and he was certain Ruth called his shot in 1932.  He swore that players were better in his day (and in Ruth and Gehrig maybe some of them were) and that the new crop of players simply didn’t know how to play the game. This from a man who was thrown out 72 times trying to steal while being successful 74 times. I’ll give him this, he was right when he said the new guys struck out too much. On that, he was the greatest expert of all.


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