Posts Tagged ‘Babe Ruth’

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.

Between Murderers Row and the Bronx Bombers

March 19, 2012

Did you ever notice how the Yankees tend to win pennants in bunches. In 1921-23 they win, then again 1926-28, then you find them winning a bunch between 1936 and 1943. Then starting in 1947, they win more or less constantly through 1964. Then there’s a gap until 1976-1981, and finally there’s the 1996-2003 run. It’s not that they win every year, or that they win all the championships when they do win, but notice how for long periods of time (and three years is a long time in baseball) they are consistently in the World Series. There are two exceptions, two teams that win a World Series in isolation. One is the most recent gig, the other in 1932.

The 1932 Yankees were something of a hybrid, and that may explain why they have only one pennant. It’s a transition team between the Murder’s Row guys of the 1920s and the Bronx Bombers of the late 1930s. Babe Ruth was beginning his decline, but still good. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t in New York yet. In some ways this is Lou Gehrig’s team,  perhaps the only winner that can say that. I don’t mean to imply that Gehrig isn’t a major player in 1926-28 or again in 1936-38 but I think most people see the first team as Ruth’s and the second as DiMaggio’s. They are also a very overlooked team. Finally, it is Joe McCarthy’s first Yankees pennant winner.

The infield was Gehrig at first, Tony Lazzeri at second, Joe Sewell at third, and Frankie Crosetti at short. Gehrig hit .300 with 34 home runs, 151 RBIs (did you ever notice just how much of an RBI machine Gehrig was?), and had an OPS+ of 180. Lazzeri also hit .300, had 11 home runs, and an OPS+ of 137. Sewell, in the twilight of his career, hit .270 and did what he always did, hit the ball. He struck out all of three times in 503 at bats and walked 56 times. Crosetti hit just .240.

The outfield was Ruth, Earle Combs, and Ben Chapman. Ruth was Ruth, although he was on the downside of his career. He hit 41 home runs, drove in 137, had an OPS+ of 200, and an OPS of 1.150. Combs was still good, hitting .300, scoring 143 times, getting 190 hits, and posting a 126 OPS+. Chapman was the new guy. He hit .299, stole a team (and league) high 38 bases, and posted a 124 OPS+.

The battery consisted of Bill Dickey as the catcher. Dickey was just coming into his own as a hitter. He hit .310 with 15 home runs, 84 RBIs, and was another in a long line of Yankees with an OPS+ over 100 (120). The starters were still good, but beginning to age in spots. Lefty Gomez won 24 games but posted an ERA over four. Red Ruffing had 18 wins and an ERA just over three. George Pipgras, Johnny Allen, and 38-year-old Herb Pennock were the other pitchers who started 20 or more games. Allen joined Wilcy Moore in leading the team with four saves.

The 1932 Yankees won 107 games and finished first by 13 games (over Philadelphia). As a reward they got to face the Cubs in the World Series. They won in four games. The first and fourth game were blowouts, while games two and three were reasonably close. The most famous, and controversial moment came in game three. In the fifth inning with the game tied 4-4, Ruth came to bat with one out. He hit what became known as “The Called Shot” to deep center field. I’ve seen the picture of Ruth just before the home run. It’s obvious he has his hand up, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s doing and where he’s pointing (maybe he’s giving the Cubs “the finger”), so I’m not going to make a definitive statement as to whether he “called” his shot or not. Being Ruth, I wouldn’t bet against it. What’s generally unknown is that Gehrig homered in the next at bat to give the Yanks a two-run lead and the eventual margin of victory.

The team fell back in 1933 and 1934. By 1935 Ruth was gone. By 1936 DiMaggio was there and it was a different team. So the 1932 Yanks are a team that won in isolation and was not part of either the Murderer’s Row or Bronx Bombers dynasty. Still, it’s a great team and I might argue it’s one of the very finest Yankees teams ever.

The Colonel

March 8, 2012

Colonel Jacob Ruppert

When some talks to me about “The Colonel” I usually think of Harland Sanders first. Heck, being “Colonel Chicken” is a pretty good gig. But baseball also has it’s Colonel and he established the greatest dynasty in Major League history.

Jacob Ruppert was a second generation American born into a brewing family in New York in 1867. He spent some time in the New York National Guard, becoming an aide to the governor. That got him a promotion to Colonel and the title by which he is most commonly known. He spent time in the US Congress (1899-1907, four terms) as a Democrat Representative from New York (not all rich guys were Republicans in 1900).  He left Congress to work with his father in the brewery. Knickerbocker Beer was popular and the family made a lot of money. In 1911 Jacob Ruppert was chosen President of the United States Brewer’s Association, a job he held into 1914. In 1915 his father died and he took over the family business. A year earlier, in 1914, Jacob Ruppert bought a struggling baseball team, the New York Highlanders, and changed the face of baseball forever.

Logo allegedly based on Ruppert's stickpin

One of the first things Ruppert did was change the team nickname to “Yankees”. The famous Yankees logo showing an Uncle Sam top hat on a bat is supposed to be derived from a stickpin he wore on his lapel during World War I. The lapel is supposed to have shown an Uncle Sam top hat and the team took that and replaced the stickpin with a bat. I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of Ruppert and have to admit I can’t find a copy of the pin (maybe I’ve just overlooked it), so I can’t verify the tale, but it does make a good story.

Ed Barrow

Rupert understood that he had a potential goldmine in the American League team in New York, but he also had a team that wasn’t very good. It took a few years, but he began to create a team that could compete for the AL title on a yearly basis. One of his most important acquisitions was Ed Barrow. Barrow had been secretary and some-time manager of the Boston Red Sox in the late 19-teens. Ruppert brought him over to run the team as secretary (a position more or less equivilent to the modern general manager). It was a match that worked and the two men became the brain trust behind the Yankees pennant winning teams (certainly better than the Soggy Bottom Boys brain trust of “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”). One of Barrow’s first suggestions was for the Yankees to purchase Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. Ruth became an instant star in New York and the Yankees started winning. Ruppert, a second generation American from Germany, had a noticable accent and generally refered to the Babe as “Root.” Actually, that’s OK. In German a “th” (as in Ruth) is frequently pronounced as a “t” so “Root” was a good pronunciation, if you were German. It did get a number of gags going in the press including one that asked if Ruth was going to hit third and Root fourth.

Through a series of good trades, timely purchases, good scouting, and sheer luck, the Yankees under Ruppert and Barrow produced great team after great team. They picked up Miller Huggins to manage the team, found a college slugger named Lou Gehrig to play first, went to San Francisco to look at a prospect named Joe DiMaggio, traded for Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock, and had a scout tell them about Bill Dickey. In each case they decided to pick up the player and the team won year after year. Between 1921 and 1938 (Ruppert died in 1939 before the season began) the Yankees won 10 pennants and 7 World Series’ and produced great player after great player. The 1927 team in frequently cited as the greatest of all Major League teams. Recent works have added the 1939 team (which was put together on Ruppert’s watch) as the greatest of all Major League teams. Pick either and the common denominators are Ruppert and Barrow.

Ruppert was not first into the farm system (Branch Rickey gets that honor), but saw immediately the promise of the system and got the Yankees into it quickly. Unfortunately, it got Ruppert into one of the great controversies of his career (letting Ruth go was the other). He bought a minor league team in Kansas City. The team came with a stadium that happened to have integrated seating. Ruppert immediately segregated the seating, moving black fans to the far reaches of the stadium. It got him into some trouble with the press, but he had the backing of the powers that be in the Majors Leagues (including Judge Landis) and survived with little problem.

Jacob Ruppert died in January 1939 in New York. One of the last people to visit him was Babe Ruth. They parted friends, despite past arguments over Ruth’s contract. Ruth always thought that Ruppert was generous with his money but stingy with praise (DiMaggio thought Ruppert was tight with a buck). He’s buried in the mausoleum pictured below.

Ruppert tomb

Occasionally I’m asked who I think is the best player currently not in the Hall of Fame (and eligible). My answer is Jeff Bagwell. But if the question is “who’s the most deserving baseball figure not currently in the Hall of Fame?” then I have a different answer. Because other executives and contributors are enshrined in Cooperstown, I pick Jacob Ruppert.

Kick, Mule

February 27, 2012

Mule Suttles

I don’t suppose there’s anyone who doesn’t believe that Josh Gibson was the ultimate power hitter in the Negro Leagues. And I won’t dispute that. I will, however, point out that the leader in documented home runs is Mule Suttles (other sources say Turkey Stearnes).

George Suttles was born in Louisiana in 1900. He had little formal education, not uncommon for a black man in turn of the 20th Century Louisiana (Huey Long and the free text books were 25 years in the future). He was a coal miner and did some semipro ball playing until he was 21. He got a cup of coffee with the 1921 New York Bacharach Giants (one hit in four at bats in a single game) then went back to semipro ball. In 1923 he caught on with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. This time he stayed around. He put in three years with Birmingham before heading to St. Louis where he finished his Negro National League career.

In 1930 the Negro National League folded and he went to the Eastern Colored League’s Baltimore franchise (not the Elite Giants) in time to watch the ECL go under also. He went back to St. Louis to play for the Stars in the newly reformed NNL After 1931, it too folded and Suttles settled in with the East-West League’s Detroit Wolves and Washington Pilots. Want to guess what happened to the East-West League?

By 1933 he was back in the new NNL (this time it stayed around). He began with the Chicago American Giants, then in 1936 he went to the Newark Eagles, where he stayed through 1940 He spent 1941 with the New York Black Yankees, then went back to Newark in 1942, finishing his career with Newark in 1944. Retired, he did some umpiring, then retired from baseball. He died in 1966 and made the Hall of Fame in 2006, forty years after his death.

Mule Suttles was a big man for his era, 6’3″ and 215 pounds (officially). By the end of his career he’d put on weight and may have been closer to 250 than 215.  He carried a 50 ounce bat (by comparison, Babe Ruth’s was 54 ounces) and was immensely strong, hence the “Mule” nickname. He made the East-West All-Star game numerous times, being one of its most effective hitters. He’s credited with a .412 batting average in the game, an .883 slugging percentage, and is supposed to have hit the first home run in the All-Star game. he played left field, but spent much of his career at first base. He wasn’t overly fast, but was known for his good hands. In close games in late innings, Suttles coming to bat elicited the cry “Kick, Mule” from both fans and teammates.

As with all Negro League players, his numbers are spotty. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen has some stats on him. They are incomplete but give something of a picture of  his skill. In 763 documented games he hit .327, slugged .571, had 894 hits, 257 walks, in 2731 at bats. Again no OBP is given but 894 plus 257, divided by 2731 gives a partial OBP of .421 for an .992 partial OPS. There are 133 home runs, 167 doubles, 561 runs, and  493 RBIs that are documented. The same page gives his 162 game numbers as 119 runs, 190 hits, 105 RBIs, 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. 

Suttles is a good example of a fairly common type. He’s a big slugger who hits for power and decent average. He’s an every year All-Star, but his teams usually fall short of the championship. Ralph Kiner is one of those, so is Rudy York or Hal Trosky or Barry Bonds. York made it to a World Series, but his team (Boston) lost. So did Bonds. There are a number of others like Gil Hodges or Ted Kluszewski, some currently playing. One of the most interesting things about studying the Negro Leagues is how quickly you discover they’re made up of the same kinds of players as the white leagues. I find that important because it reminds me just exactly how much alike baseball players are in their skills, black or white. That reassures me that maybe we really are all in this together.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Rube Marquard

December 30, 2011

Rube Marquard while with Brooklyn

Since I’ve been hung up on left-handed pitchers for a while, I thought I should end the year with one more lefty.

1. Richard William Marquard was born in Cleveland 9 October 1886. He was nicknamed “Rube” because his pitching (not his eccentric ways) reminded people of Rube Waddell.

2. He got his start in baseball working for the Telling Ice Cream Company as a deliveryman. During the week he delivered ice cream. On the weekends he delivered strikes for the company team. He also was a batboy for the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians) for a while.

3. In 1908 the Giants paid $11,000 for him (a huge sum at the time). For a return they got nine wins over the next three years.

4. He hit his stride in 1911 winning 24 games and leading the National League in strikeouts.

5. The Giants made the first of three consecutive appearances in the World Series that season, losing to the Athletics in six games. During the Series Frank Baker became “Home Run” Baker when he hit two crucial home runs. The first was off Marquard. For the three World Series’ Marquard’s record was 2-2 with 20 strikeouts and six walks.

6. In 1912 he put together a 19 game winning streak. New York won the pennant, Marquard won two games in the Series, but Boston won the championship.

7. His numbers slipped in 1913, ’14, and ’15. In late 1915 he was traded to Brooklyn, not long after tossing his only no-hitter. It was against Brooklyn.

8. In 1916 he was 13-6 with a 1.58 ERA (his career low), and 107 strikeouts to go with only 38 walks. Brooklyn won the pennant, but lost the World Series to Babe Ruth’s Red Sox. Marquard was 0-2 with a plus 5 ERA (He did not pitch against Ruth).

9. He won 19 games in 1917, lost 18 in 1918 and continued having up and down seasons for the rest of his career. He got into one last World Series in 1920 with Brooklyn, losing his only start (game one to Hall of Fame pitcher Stan Coveleski). For his postseason career he was 2-5 with an ERA in the threes.

10. Just prior to game four of the 1920 Series he was arrested by an undercover policeman for scalping tickets (he had box seats for the game). He was fined one dollar and court costs (the judge saying that the embarrassment should be enough punishment). Charles Ebbets took a dimmer view of the matter and traded Marquard to Cincinnati.

11. He had one last decent year at Cincinnatti, the was traded to Boston (the Braves) where he stayed until his retirement in 1925.

12. For a time he was married to Vaudeville actress Blossom Seeley, refered to at the time as “The Hottest Woman in New York”. Here’s a tobacco card image of her (Actresses got trading cards too? Who knew?). You can judge “hot” for yourself. The marriage produced a child, but didn’t last.

Blossom Seeley about 1910

13. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1971 and died 1 June 1980.


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