Gaming the System

July 18, 2018

old Food “Stamp”

Way back in the 1980s I was teaching and my wife was working. We’d just had our son and bought a house, both of which added to the bills. So I took a part time job at a local Convenience Store to help ends meet. It was a standard convenience store that most of you are familiar with in your hometowns and travels. We sold lots of gas, a ton of soda, more than our share of beer. My job was to keep the shelves stocked, clean up the place, take money from the clients, and make change. It’s the last of those that makes the heart of this little tale.

If you’re an American you have at least a passing knowledge of “Food Stamps.” They were originally stamps, but by the 1980s had evolved into “coupons” that looked a lot like dollar bills (see the picture above). Now they’re a piece of plastic. Their job was to help those down on their luck for whatever reason get a decent meal. You went to a store, picked up your items (a lot of things were excluded–like the beer at our place), presented the coupons with the item and you could get groceries to feed either yourself or your family.

The system was prone to corruption because people make bad decisions all the time (Why, even I have made a couple of them over time; but only a couple.). But a second problem, and the one at the heart of this story, was that they were all in “dollars.” There was no “change” in them. So if you bought $1.50 worth of goods, you handed the clerk $2.00 worth of coupons and you got fifty cents in change handed to you. This was legal tender coins we’re talking about. The kind of thing that, if you had enough coins, could buy you something like a beer.

One of the more common things that people did if they patronized our little store and had kids was to hand the kid a couple of dollars (or just one dollar) and send them to the store. The kid was free to use the dollar to buy some sort of treat for himself (It’s a boy involved in this tale.). If a customer was on food stamps, they frequently still did the same using the coupons in lieu of a dollar bill.

We had salesmen come in all the time trying to get the boss to add to the inventory and one of them brought in a box of Topps baseball cards. intrigued, the boss took a box and set it on the counter right by the cash register. It was a slow seller and after a few boxes the store discontinued the item, but it got the attention of one of the kids who came in regularly to purchase candy, soda, or to pick up something Mom needed for the meal that evening. The family used food stamps for their purchases. Baseball cards didn’t come under the rules for food stamps (apparently the gum didn’t count), so you couldn’t buy them with food stamps.

But this kid was a genius (my guess is he’s in the Oklahoma Legislature now). He walked over to the candy and picked out one piece of two-cent candy (it was a flavored jawbreaker and you don’t see them much anymore). He walked up, handed me the candy and a dollar food coupon. He got back 98 cents. Then he reached over to the packets of baseball cards and picked up one (or maybe two, I forget both the number of packets or the price of a packet) and handed me back the 98 cents. I remember giving him change. He thanked me and left.

A couple of days later he was back and we repeated the same little monetary dance. This went on until one day he came in and there were no cards. I told him we were out and the boss said we weren’t getting more. He was deeply disappointed, but took it manfully. He used the food coupon to buy a candy bar.


Don’t Ya Tell Me How it Was Tonight Tomorrow—

July 11, 2018

—Johnny Cash (from “See Ruby Fall”)

boxscore, 1918

One of the problems with being a geezer (Yep, I’m going to do one of those “I used to walk 5 miles a day to school in the snow in July uphill both ways” bits) is that you remember one of the simple joys of baseball back in the 1950s.

Back then you could get late scores on the radio (or TV) and go to bed knowing if your team won that day. Or if worse came to worse you could get the morning newspaper and get all the scores from the day before. Usually they would post a boxscore for each game so not only did you know who won, but you found out how your personal favorites did in their latest game.

All that changed when West Coast baseball began in the big leagues. The games started at somewhere around nine o’clock where I lived (Central Time Zone) and with school I had to go to bed by 10 pm. Without school I had to go to bed at 10 pm (I never understood how “It’s a school night, now go to bed” made any difference. I had to go to bed at the same time with or without school.) so I never knew the West Coast scores until the next day. Then the local newspaper went to press too early to get the late scores either. So there I was waiting an extra day to see if the Dodgers won or lost. The Monday paper might show the Sunday scores for the Cardinals or Cubs but the Dodgers score was from Saturday’s late game.

That’s all changed now. Among other things I get to stay up later (my wife says 10:30 is OK) and the internet gives me the late games as soon as I log on. But I still miss having the entire day’s games laid out for me to look over at my leisure. Sometimes progress stinks.

1908: 4 July

July 5, 2018

Hooks Wiltse

I know I’m a day late, but I was busy yesterday. The fourth of July in 1908 saw one of the strangest games played in the season. It was the no-hitter that was almost a perfect game.

On 4 July 1908 the New York Giants were home against the Philadelphia Phillies for a Sunday double-header. In game one the Giants starter George “Hooks” Wiltse matched zeroes with Phillies hurler George McQuillan. Both were doing well. McQuillan was pitching a shutout through eight innings. He’d given up a handful of hits, walked none, and struck out one. But Wiltse was great that day. Through eight innings he’d struck out one, walked none, and allowed no hits, not a single one. He had a perfect game going into the top of the ninth.

He got shortstop Ernie Courtney (Courtney had replaced starter Mickey Doolin earlier in the game) to start the inning, then retired catcher Red Dooin (note it’s Dooin, not Doolin, as in Mickey) for the second out. That brought up pitcher McQuillan. The Phils apparently left McQuillan in to bat because the game was still scoreless. Wiltse threw a pitch, then another and another running the count to 2-2. The next pitch, one pitch from a perfect game plunked McQuillan to end the perfect game. One batter later Wiltse retired third baseman Eddie Grant to keep the no-hitter intact.

The Giants failed to score in the bottom of the ninth, necessitating extra innings. With the no-hitter still operative, Wiltse set down Philadelphia in order. In the bottom of the tenth, Art Devlin singled and a Spike Shannon single moved him along. Shortstop Al Bridwell then singled to plate Devlin with the winning run. For the game Wiltse (who moved his record to 10-8) gave up no hits, no walks, no runs, and one hit batsman. McQuillan gave up 1 run on 10 hits and no walks. The win put New York a game an a half behind National League leading Chicago and a half game behind second place Pittsburgh in the standings. Chicago played Pittsburgh that day and won 9-3. They held Honus Wagner to a walk in five trips to the plate.

Wiltse would go on to post a 23-14 record in 1908 with an ERA of 2.24 (ERA+108) with 118 strikeouts, 6.8 WAR, and nine hit batsmen. None of the nine was as significant as McQuillan on 4 July.

The Green Corn Rebellion

July 2, 2018

The Green Corn Rebellion

Oklahoma is, today, noted very much for its Conservative tradition. And that’s fair. But the State also has quite a radical tradition. With a high number of poor and working class citizens, radicalism can come pretty easily. My grandparents were tenant farmers (for most of their working life) and had a radical touch in them that flared up sometimes. Take, for instance, the Green Corn Rebellion.

Back in August 1917 the United States was newly at war with Germany. The federal government instituted a draft that many in Oklahoma thought disproportionately targeted the poor. The tenant farmers of Seminole County (that’s just east of Oklahoma City), a rather significant number of which were Socialists, decided the draft, and the economy, was rigged and rebelled against the draft. They actually made something of an alliance with the local black and American Indian community to form the Working Class Union. It was radical, it was Socialist, and it didn’t like the way things were going in Oklahoma. On 2 August a group of farmers attacked the local sheriff and the “Green Corn Rebellion” was on. It lasted all of two days. The farmers were stopped by a local group and a handful of people were killed and others arrested.

My grandparents were living in northeast Oklahoma. They’d been married three years and when word got to them about the “Rebellion” they decided to help the union men. My grandmother packed some food, my grandfather hitched up a farm wagon, and they started off. Along the way they went by several other farms, found a number of like-minded tenants and something of a procession started to Seminole County. My grandfather liked to say they had twenty wagons on the road (my grandmother said it was more like 10) when word got to them that the rebellion was crushed and heading on southwest was useless.

What to do? Well, you have a bunch of people, including, apparently some children, a lot of food baskets, there was a river nearby (in August it didn’t have much water in it), and some open fields. So the procession pulled off, set up the baskets on the bed of a couple of wagons, and had an impromptu picnic. And after you finish eating at a picnic in 1917, what do you do? Well, someone had brought along a ball, there were tree limbs around, and the men started playing baseball in the big field. My grandfather said he even got one hit with an elm branch that cracked when he connected with the ball. I never heard a score.

It seems the local sheriff paid a call on the caravan. They convinced him they were out for a picnic, offered him some chicken, got him to umpire the game, and managed to stay out of the local jail. They spent the night sleeping in the wagons, got up the next morning, and headed back home. That seems to have ended my grandparents radical days.

1908: Cy Young

June 26, 2018

Cy Young with Boston

Continuing on with a look back 110 years ago to 1908, we come to a milestone for a great pitcher. On the 30th of June 1908 Cy Young, the fella they named the award for, pitched his third no-hitter. He was 41.

By 1908 Young was on the downside of his amazing career. He’d averaged 30 wins between 1892 and 1896, did so again between 1901 and 1903. He’d won an ERA title, a couple of strikeout titles, several times he’d led the league in shutouts. He’d even won two saves titles (OK, it was only three saves, but it still led the league). He started the first ever World Series game (and lost), won the first ever World Series in 1903 with Boston, and, in 1908 was still with Boston. It was his last 20 win season (21-11) and his ERA dipped below two for the final time (1.26–and it didn’t lead the AL). His ERA+ was 193, the second highest total of his career (219 in 1901), and his 9.6 WAR was the seventh highest total for his career (he peaked at 14.0 in 1892). The season’s highlight came 30 June.

The Red Sox were playing on the road in New York against the Highlanders (now the Yankees). Wee Willie Keeler, who was, like Young, toward the end of his career, was the only Hall of Famer in the Highlanders lineup. The opposing pitcher was Rube Manning, a 25 year-old righty in his second (of four) seasons. He was 7-5 going into the game.

Harry Niles

Young was almost flawless in this third no-hitter. The leadoff hitter for the Highlanders was second baseman Harry Niles, who was later in the season traded to Boston (as Mel Allen might say, “How about that?”). He was 27 and in his third (of five) seasons in the big leagues. He managed a walk from Young to lead off the game. Then he broke for second and was thrown out by Boston’s catcher Lou Criger. And that was all the base runners New York had for the entire game. Young struck out two on the way to facing the minimum of 27 batters. Meanwhile Boston ran up eight runs and Manning didn’t get out of the second inning. The big hitting star for the Red Sox was… you guessed it, Cy Young. He went three for five, scored a run and knocked in three. You could make an argument that combining pitching and hitting it was the best single day any player ever had in the Major Leagues.

Young, of course, would go on to win more games than any other pitcher, set a record for strikeouts (since broken many times), and rack up more innings pitched than anyone else. There’s a reason they named the pitching award for him. And for a great bit of trivia. On the same day (30 June) in 1962, Sandy Koufax pitched his first of four no-hitters.

Padding Time

June 19, 2018

Way back when I was a little kid, my grandfather, who was by trade a tenant farmer, got a job as a gravedigger. It was far enough back that you still used a shovel to dig the grave. He worked on an hourly wage scale, but sometimes they had to work overtime. They didn’t have overtime wages at the cemetery where he put in his time, so if the crew had to work late the owners would allow them to take a day off when their overtime hours reached eight. So, of course, if there was a grave to be dug late in the day, they’d move a little slower and manage to go an hour over. The crew called it “padding time.”

Baseball has that, sort of. One of the all-time greats, Albert Pujols, is doing “padding time” now. He’s a shadow of his former all-star self. He’s still a decent player, but nothing like what we saw 10 years ago when he was the greatest first baseman I’d ever seen. Right now he’s simply “padding” his career stats and moving up the list on a lot of statistical charts. Currently he’s tied with Jimmie Foxx for 22nd in runs scored, 27th in hits (less than 20 from Rod Carew), 11th in doubles (three from David Ortiz), seventh in home runs all of four behind Ken Griffey, within shouting distance of Lou Gehrig and sixth on the RBI list (and Barry Bonds is only one RB beyond Gehrig), and eighth in total bases (a long way from Pete Rose in seventh).

Now that’s not a knock on Pujols. He’s a great player who is the “padding time” mode and it’s not the first time a player’s done that. Rose, to some extent, did it when trying to pass Ty Cobb in hits.  There’s nothing either immoral or illegal about it and it’s well within baseball’s acceptable traditions.

But it comes with a built-in problem. There are a lot of fans, most of them in California, who will know and remember Pujols only as a nice ball player and not recall the wonderful athlete that became arguably the second greatest St. Louis Cardinals player ever (behind Stan Musial). And that’s a shame. It’s not Pujols fault so much as it’s the fault of the fans, but nonetheless it is bound to happen.

I think that part of the aura that surrounds players like Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax is that there is no “padding time” for either of them, or at least not much with Williams. He’d been falling off for a few years, but there was no collapse into mediocrity for “Teddy Ballgame” and the last homer in the last at bat is the stuff of legends. For Koufax, there’s no long slow decline as his curve doesn’t and is fastball isn’t. For those who saw both and can watch the film of both, there’s no watching a great become a former great. Barry Sanders is like that in football, as is Jim Brown.

It’s kind of painful to watch, but I wouldn’t trade getting to see Pujols, even at half the player he was, perform.

The Lip

June 14, 2018

The Lip and the Babe

If I had to put together a list of the most interesting men to ever be associated with Major League Baseball, I’m certain that Casey Stengel would be at the top. I’m not sure of the order of the next three or four, probably Branch Rickey second. But I am sure that on the list, very high on the list would be Leo Durocher.

At this point Durocher is receding in the minds of most fans. It’s been a long time and he’s been gone for a long time. But he was brash, loud, opinionated (they called him “Leo the Lip” for a reason). He played with Babe Ruth and with Dizzy Dean. He managed PeeWee Reese and Willie Mays. He was, for years a fixture.

He wasn’t much of a player. Here’s his triple slash line: .247/.299/.320/.619 (OPS+ of 66) with 575 runs on 1320 hits and 377 walks. His WAR is all of 5.1. He was a decent, but not great, shortstop, his defensive WAR being 11.4. He spent time with the Yankees, Reds, Cardinals, and Dodgers.

What he was ultimately was a great baseball mind. He knew all the tricks of the trade, knew how to motivate players, knew how to get the most out of a modest roster, knew how to make the fans love him. He was, in other words, a Hall of Fame Manager. He took over a moribund Brooklyn team in 1939 and brought them to a pennant in 1941. They lost the World Series, then fell back behind a superb Cardinals team. In 1946, Brooklyn and St. Louis were tied at the end of the season. A three game playoff format lasted two games as the Cards swept the Dodgers and went on to a World Series title. It was during the 1946 season that Durocher uttered a comment about the Giants and Mel Ott that has come down to us as Durocher’s trademark, “Nice guys finish last.” That’s not the exact quote, but it does distill the meaning.

Contrary to popular belief, Durocher was not Jackie Robinson’s first big league manager. During the run up to the 1947 season, Durocher was suspended for a variety of reasons, most notably his inability to stay away from friends who were gamblers, mobsters, and bookies. Before the suspension, he did take swift action to quash the anti-Robinson petition being circulated by some of the Brooklyn players. Robinson later indicated he thought Durocher’s actions were significant in easing his (Robinson’s) path to the big leagues.

In 1948, Durocher was released by the Dodgers. Branch Rickey was running the team and he and Leo Durocher had very different philosophies on life (but not on integration and baseball). Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract tells the story of Durocher giving a nervous pitcher a drink before a game and Rickey going crazy over it. A paraphrase of Durocher’s comment led to the famous “There’s a W column and an L column. You pay me to put crooked numbers in the W column.”

It also contributed to Rickey releasing Durocher from his contract and allowing him to move to the Giants as manager. He led them to the NL pennant in 1951, this time winning a three game playoff against Brooklyn (the “Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant” series). They lost the World Series to the Yankees, but pulled off a famous upset in 1954 when they won the World Series against the 111 win Indians. It was the last Giants pennant and World Series victory in in New York, and their last world’s championship in the 20th Century. He left the Giants after the 1955 season.

Durocher had a long running affair with minor Hollywood actress Laraine Day. They were married in 1947 and divorced in 1960 (she was the third of four Durocher wives). The relationship got him some parts in movies and on television (he was in an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” playing himself) and he was considered pretty good for someone not trained in acting.

He coached a little, did some acting, then in 1966 took over the Chicago Cubs. He stayed into the 1972 season, captaining the collapse of 1969 that led to the “Miracle Mets” championship. The Cubs had a long history of futility when he took over, but he kept them above .500 in each of his seasons as manager, except the first. In 1972 he moved on to Houston after being fired by the Cubs for not winning a pennant. He had a winning record with the Astros and retired after the 1973 season with a managerial record of 2008-1709 (a .540 winning percentage).

He managed a little in Japan, wrote a book (which is pretty good), and died in 1991. He was enshrined at Cooperstown in 1994. He deserved it as a baseball man and as one of the more famous people to be involved in the game.


Adios, Red

June 8, 2018

Red Schoendienst

I saw that Red Schoendienst died earlier this week. He was 95 and the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame. He played far enough back that you have to be my age to remember him. He was, after Stan Musial, a man who could legitimately claim the title “Mr. Cardinal.”

He joined the Cards in 1945 as an outfielder. The team had a chronic problem at second base and the people in charge saw Schoendienst as just the man to solve it for them. He played one game at second in ’45, then moved in as the primary second sacker in 1916. He was an All Star, helped his team to the 1946 World Series, which they won. He stayed in St. Louis through 1956, making eight more All Star games, before moving on to the New York Giants. He put in less than 150 games with the Giants before a trade that took him to the Milwaukee Braves in 1957.

At Milwaukee he became a mainstay on consecutive pennant winning teams, winning it all in 1957. He generally hit second (behind Billy Bruton) and was credited with stabilizing the infield, providing a clubhouse presence, and giving the team veteran leadership. All of those were probably true but Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Warren Spahn were the big guns for the Braves. He made the All Star game one last time in 1957.

In 1959 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It cost him all but five games of the season, a season the Braves lost a three game playoff to the Dodgers. Fortunately for Schoendienst an operation helped and he could return to the field. He remained active through 1963, serving as a player-coach in his last two active seasons.

In 1964 he became a fulltime coach, moving on to manager after the season. He won pennants in 1967 and again in 1968, winning the World Series in ’67. In 1968 he’s supposed to have told a reporter, in response to a question about Bob Gibson, “I tell him which day he’s pitching. He shows up and I take the day off.”

Schoendienst remained Cards manager through 1976, then did a little coaching at Oakland. He subsequently returned to St. Louis and coached during the 1982 World Series winning season. On two occasions he served at Cardinals interim manager, then settled in as a special assistant to the team. He made the Hall of Fame in 1989.

For his career his triple slash line reads .289/.337/.387/.724 (OPS+ of 94) with 2449 hits, and more walks than strikeouts. All of that gave him 42.3 WAR. As a manager he was 1041-955 (.522 winning percentage). His Hall of Fame selection is sometimes downplayed saying he wasn’t that good, but the combination of playing, coaching, and managing make him someone at least legitimate to consider.

So God’s Speed, Red. The Cardinals, Braves, and all of baseball will miss you.



June 5, 2018

Recently, I read an article on Sports Illustrated indicating that Major League Baseball is contemplating expansion from 30 to 32 teams. Following up on that article, I found a handful of others that agreed. Apparently Commissioner Rob Manfred is all in to add two new teams to the lists. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I have some thoughts on this idea.

I’m not inherently opposed to this plan, but I do recognize that a diluted set of pitchers and hitters will make their arrival on the scene. Over the previous expansions going back to the 1960s that’s meant at least a temporary boost in offense. Considering we’re already in something of an offensive era, at least home run-wise, it may become even greater. Much of that will depend on the new stadia for the two new teams.

Which of course brings up where to put them. It seems the current frontrunners are Portland, Oregon and Montreal in Canada. Didn’t we already do a Montreal experiment? Wasn’t it a failure? I have no reason to dislike Montreal or Canada but what makes MLB think that a new team will do better than the Expos, who are now happily playing in Washington, DC? Again, I have nothing against Portland, but I would point out that over the last dozen or so years (well before our current President took office) Portland has experienced a marked surge in political violence. I like to keep the lower arts like politics out of my greater arts, like baseball, and I trust that will hold true in Portland also.

But I further question the choice of cities because places like San Antonio, Texas already have a big stadium that can be configured for baseball while Portland will need to build a new stadium. That’s not a plea for San Antonio to get a team, merely acknowledgement that Portland is not, at this point, at all ready to host a big league game. But more importantly, if you’re going to set up a team outside the Continental United States, why Montreal? How about putting the second team in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I know Bithorn isn’t ready for the Major Leagues yet, but it’s already there and can be used as a stopgap (as, it’s true, could minor league parks in Portland, Montreal, and other places) until a new stadium could emerge. I’m not sure how excited Montreal would be about a Major League team, but Puerto Rico would go crazy.

The article I read also indicated there were thoughts of changing the schedule to 156 games (from 162) and of course putting together new divisions and new playoff scenarios will need to be considered. On a personal level, I like the idea of two 8 team divisions in both leagues (they had 8 team leagues for 60 years and it seemed to work). For playoffs, first place in the National League West plays second place in the National League East and first place in the East plays second place in the West in a five game series. Other options will, of course be considered.

Whatever happens, the drive toward expansion will be interesting.  It may not happen, but if it does it will be at least interesting.

1908: The End of May

May 31, 2018

Continuing on with something like a detailed look at the 1908 Major League season, here’s a few notes on where things stood at the end of May.

Honus Wagner

The National League

By the close of May, 1908, the National League began to settle down into those teams that were going to do well and the have-nots. Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh had winning records. Boston, Brooklyn, and St. Louis didn’t. The Cubs were in first, 3.5 games ahead of New York, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia. The Pirates were a bit further back at four games.

It was Honus Wagner’s year. In 1908 he would put together the greatest year by WAR of any hitter prior to the arrival of Babe Ruth in New York. By the end of May Wagner was at .311 (.840 OPS) with nine steals. He’d end the year at .354/.957 and 53 steals. He obviously got better as the season when on.

The American League

T Cobb (see, he could smile)

The American League

The junior circuit saw huge changes in May. At the end of April, Detroit, the defending AL champs, were in last place. By the end of May the Tigers had clawed their way into second place, percentage points behind New York. The Browns, Athletics, and Naps (Cleveland) were all over .500 and fifth place Cleveland was only 1.5 games out of first. The White Sox had a losing record (17-19), but were only three games back, with seventh place Washington only a half game further back. Only the Red Sox were more than five games out of the lead (they were 6.5 back).

Much of Detroit’s turn around was attributed to Ty Cobb, who’d gotten his average back over .300 (.302). Of further note, Washington was holding close despite Walter Johnson not yet having pitched. His first game was 11 June.

Next month there are a couple of specifics I want to get into, but this should give you some sense of what’s going on 110 years ago.