He We Go Again

April 21, 2019

Albert Pujols

Was just over at ESPN and tucked into their headlines on the top right is the announcement that Albert Pujols just passed Babe Ruth on the all-time RBI list. Sounds like something to celebrate, right? Of course it isn’t really.

Here’s the thing. In its desire to grab a headline, ESPN decided to inform us that Pujols just passed Ruth in RBIs recorded since the RBI became on official stat in 1920. Got that? 1920, not ever, but 1920 when the RBI became official. Any RBIs Ruth hit prior to 1920 don’t count on this list. So I went to BaseballReference.com and looked up the RBI numbers they have. Well, they have Pujols at 1993 and Ruth at 2214. So between his rookie year in 1914 and his home run title in 1919, inclusive, the Babe had 222 RBIs that apparently, for somebody’s purpose, don’t count.

I hate this kind of thing. I’ve complained about it before. Look, team, Pujols is a great enough player without having to come up with some kind of artificial stat to make him even better. ESPN does this a lot and should be ashamed of themselves (although there doesn’t seem to be much shame left in most anything today) for doing it again.

Babe Ruth

For anyone interested, BaseballReference.com lists the top eight in RBIs as: Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Cap Anson, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and Stan Musial in that order.

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Schalk

April 18, 2019

Ray Schalk (from the Hall of Miller and Eric)

I want to give you three sets of numbers. They’ll show up below in this order: AB/OBP/SLG/OPS/Runs/Hits/HR/RBI/SB/TB/WAR/DWAR. The men all have careers that overlap ever so slightly.

Player A: 263/349/337/685/488/1259/13/534/30/614/26.1/11.1

Player B: 253/340/316/656/579/1345/11/593/177/1675/33.2/18.3

Player C: 272/319/357/676/475/1154/20/514/124/1517/28.9/13.7

Take a second and look them over. Except for a major difference in stolen bases and total bases, they look a lot alike don’t they? If you’re clever (and surely you are), you’ve looked at the title and the picture above and figured one is Ray Schalk. You’re right; he’s the guy in the middle. The other two are also catchers: Steve O’Neill (player A) and Johnny Kling (Player C). The three have careers that overlap in 1912 and 1913 only and each has at least one ring. O’Neill’s comes in 1920 with Cleveland, Kling with the Cubs in 1908 and 1907. Schalk has one with the White Sox in 1917.

There is of course one other major difference among them: Schalk is in the Hall of Fame and the other two aren’t. After looking at their stats that leads to an obvious question. Why is that so?

Schalk was a good catcher, even, perhaps a great one. His numbers show him almost always above average in caught stealing, a major stat in the run happy “Deadball Era.” For a career he threw out 48% of base runners trying to steal (the league average is 44%). He’s not much of a hitter. Someone once wrote that he is the only career eight-hole hitter in the Hall of Fame (I couldn’t find the reference and I’m not sure it’s still true, but I suspect it is). But the other two were no slouches behind the plate either (although it looks like Schalk was better) and neither made the Hall of Fame. Which brings me back to “What’s going on here?”

Ray Schalk has one distinction the others lack. In 1919 his socks remained white. Schalk was one of the earliest and fiercest critics of the Black Sox. Hugh Fullerton’s expose was based on information obtained from Schalk (among a host of others). This was a man who hated to lose and was incapable of accepting anyone who would even entertain the idea that “throwing” a game was proper conduct. If you look at the starting everyday players for the 1919 White Sox, Schalk and second baseman Eddie Collins were the only regulars who weren’t involved in the scandal in one way or another (the right field position was platooned). Collins was clearly a better player and certainly deserves his spot in Cooperstown.

Hollywood’s version of Schalk (Gordon Clapp)

So it’s time to give you my answer to the question “why is Ray Schalk a Hall of Famer?” I think it simply boils down to rewarding a quality catcher who did not participate in the Black Sox scandal and played the game “on the square.” That’s not a particularly great reason to put a player in the Hall of Fame, but there have been worse choices.

Opening Day, 1919

March 28, 2019

Ollie O’Mara at bat for Brooklyn

It’s Opening Day for the 2019 season (I don’t count the 2 games in Tokyo). As I normally do, I take the occasion to look back 100 years. This year it’s 1919, a year of infamy.

Opening Day in 1919 was 19 April, a Saturday. The only games played on that date were a double-header between the Brooklyn Robins (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) and the Boston Braves (now setting up shop in Atlanta). Brooklyn won both, 5-2 and 3-2. Leon Cadore and Jeff Pfeffer were the winnings pitchers (in order) with Dick Rudolph and Pat Ragan taking the losses (again in that order). All but Ragan pitched complete games. In game one Ivy Olson hit the season’s first double and Hall of Famer Zack Wheat had the season’s first triple. Boston left fielder Joe Kelly had the year’s first stolen base. Boston’s first sacker Jimmy Johnston was the first batter of the season. Brooklyn third baseman Ollie O’Mara went 0 for 3 in game one, 0 for 4 in game two, reached base on a sacrifice and scored a run in game two. It was his last game in the Major Leagues. Over six years he hit .231/.280/.279/.559 with two home runs, 46 stolen bases, 77 RBIs, 166 runs scored, and more strikeouts than walks, and OPS+ of 68 and -0.8 WAR.

There were no games in the American League. They began play on the 23rd with the big news being a 13-4 rout by the White Sox over the Browns. Lefty Williams of Black Sox infamy got the win with six of the Black Sox (including Williams) playing (Fred McMullin and Eddie Cicotte sat it out). Buck Weaver was the hitting star with four hits and three runs scored. Back east, Boston shut out the Yankees 10-0 with left fielder Babe Ruth slugging the league’s first home run of the season in the first with a man on (yep, he hit it against the Yanks).

At this point the eventual National League champion Reds were in second place with the White Sox tied (with Boston ) for first in the American League. No one yet knew they would meet in the World Series and change baseball forever.

The Cartwright Story

March 26, 2019

Alexander J. Cartwright

From its very beginning, the Hall of Fame has endeavored to enshrine the most significant baseball people. They’ve done, by and large, a pretty fair job of it based on the information available to them when a particular person was inducted. They’ve made some mistakes, but many of those were done in good faith.

Candy Cummings was elected early on the theory that he invented the curve ball. Maybe so, but there is evidence that others, including Jim Creighton also invented it. In fact, Creighton is given credit for half the innovations in pitching history, credit much beyond what is probably true. Whether Cummings actually invented the curve or not, it seems the voters in 1939 (the year he was elected to Cooperstown) believed he did.

That brings me to one of those origin stories that baseball seems to love, the story of Alexander Cartwright. The story goes something like this (and I’m going to greatly curtail it and leave out much detail). Cartwright was a founding member of the Knickerbockers, the first baseball team. He sat down one day in 1845 and wrote out the first rules for baseball (the so-called Knickerbocker Rules) and thus established the basic principles of the game. It’s a great story and it got him into the Hall of Fame in 1938 (a year before Cummings). But let’s take a look at the story and see what we get.

1. The Knickerbockers were not the first baseball team. As far as I can tell, they never claimed to be the first. We know that by 1837 the Gothams were already playing a version of baseball in New York.

2. William Rufus Wheaton, in an 1887 interview with a San Francisco newspaper (the Daily Examiner) indicated that the Gothams had a set of written rules as early as 1837. I’ve been unable to find the article on-line to actually read the entire thing, but excerpts at various places are available. There seems to be some question of whether Wheaton claimed to have actually written the 1837 Gothams rules or if he was merely part of a committee that came up with them. A direct quote from Wheaton in the article says “it was found necessary to reduce the new rule to writing. The task fell to me.” Having been unable to find an actual copy of the article, I’ll take them at their word that he said that in the article. Whether that means he wrote them or merely wrote them down is for you to decide. As far as I can tell there is no copy available.

3. In 1845, the Knickerbockers, realizing that game rules needed to be codified in some form, set up a five man committee to write a set of rules for team use. The committee consisted of both Cartwright and Wheaton along with Duncan Curry (club president), William H. Tucker (club secretary) and Daniel “Doc” Adams (who is credited, along with others, with creating the shortstop position). There is some question as to the actual composition of the committee. The oldest copy of the rules available has only the names of Wheaton and Tucker at the bottom. It is possible the other three were members or maybe they weren’t. Curry as club president may have been a ex officio member of the committee or maybe he just sat in on the meetings. The other two may have been members or maybe they just sat in also. Or maybe they didn’t do anything involving the committee. I know there are a lot of “maybes” in there but that’s the closest we seem to be able to get to the truth.

4. The rules were first used in a game played in New Jersey (which the Knickerbockers lost). Some sources indicate that Cartwright served as umpire others give the umpiring job to Wheaton; neither appears on the game day roster (of the five committee “members” only Adams and Tucker played in the so-called first ball game).

So where are we? Well, pretty much no where, at least when it comes to Cartwright. There is ample agreement that he was a member in good standing with the Knickerbockers, but then things get murky. It is certain that the Knickerbockers wrote a set of rules for game use and the signatures of Wheaton and Tucker indicate they were involved. It is less certain that Cartwright was involved.

Which leads to the question “How’d he get into the Hall of Fame?” It seems that in 1938 the Hall of Fame was looking for the inventor of the game and given up on the somewhat silly idea that Abner Doubleday was the man. Some of Cartwright’s relatives pushed hard for him and the voters went along with it.

Cartwright’s Hall of Fame plaque (from the Hall of Fame)

Does Cartwright belong in the Hall of Fame. Strangely enough, to me he does. He belongs not because he invented the game, but as a stand-in for all the people who sat down in the 1830s and 1840s and came up with the game we all love. The Hall isn’t in the habit of inducting entire teams or entire committees, so one man was chosen as the creator of the game. Frankly Wheaton or Adams or Tucker would be better choices, but for right now, Cartwright will do, so long as we understand that he didn’t, singlehandedly, do all the things he’s credited with (it’s entirely possible he did none of them, except maybe the Hawaii bit).

The Writing on the Plaque

March 14, 2019

Lou Brock postcard from the Hall of Fame

I’ve been to Cooperstown twice. It’s a great place, but like most enterprises of its type it has a store. Of course there’s going to be crass commercialization and the stuff will be overpriced. One of the cheaper items is the postcard collection. These are 4×6 standard sized postcards with a picture of the player’s plaque in the Hall of Fame hall. They’re 50 cents each so you can get 20 for $10 (plus tax). I picked up some and was looking them over the other day. That led to this post.

The one above is the card for Lou Brock. It’s kind of hard to read at this size, but it basically says he has the record for most stolen bases in a season and for a career. One of the things I noticed was that you can almost always tell when a player was inducted into the Hall of Fame by reading the plaque. Older plaques tend to be shorter and a bit more vague (that’s not universally true). There’s a lot more emphasis on batting average in the older ones and more on wins and losses by pitchers (again not true every time).

The Brock card struck me because it’s no longer true. Brock holds neither the seasonal nor career stolen base record. They both belong to Rickey Henderson. Of course Henderson’s plaque notes that he now holds both records. And I decided that it was fine to show both men as record holders because it does two things that, to me, are important.

Rickey Henderson postcard from the Hall of Fame

First, it shows the upward progression of the stolen base record and thus celebrates both players and their achievement. And before you ask, Billy Hamilton’s plaque also gives him credit for both records. So by simply reading these plaques you can follow the stolen base record, both seasonal and career, from the 1890s into the 21st Century.

“Slidin'” Billy Hamilton postcard from the Hall of Fame

Second, I think a lot of people who simply look over the Hall of Fame list wonder “What the heck is he doing here?” I know I do and will continue to do so because there are several questionable inductees. But sometimes the plaque tells you exactly why the guy is in the Hall of Fame because it makes a point of giving you information that was, when the player was chosen, critical to his election. So when someone asks why Billy Hamilton is in the Hall of Fame (and I suppose there are a lot of visitors who know nothing about 19th Century base ball–correct spelling in the 19th Century) you can read that the Hall decided that the man who had more stolen bases than anyone else ought to be in the Hall of Fame. When you get to Lou Brock’s plaque you find the same is still true and then again when you stand in front of Rickey Henderson’s.

So the plaques are more than just a celebration of a player and a game. They are also an historical record of the course of the seasons and of careers.

For those interested the postcards are available at the Hall of Fame website’s shop (and I don’t get a cut).

A New Test for Seaver

March 9, 2019

Tom Seaver with the Mets

It was with sadness that I read Tom Seaver has dementia. He’s 74 now and owns a vineyard in California. But to me he will always be the great pitcher I saw in the 1970s.

I’m not certain who gets credit as the greatest pitcher I ever saw, but I know Seaver makes the top 10 easily, and probably is in the upper half. He was a joy to watch with the great push-off his legs, the telltale dirt mark on his trousers where his leg scrapped the ground as he delivered a pitch. There seemed to be no-nonsense with him when he went to the mound, a trait that appears common among most great pitchers. He pitched quickly and economically in both motion and number of pitches. To me, Steve Carlton personified determination, Sandy Koufax elegance, and Bob Gibson fierceness. But Seaver had a touch of all of those.

It’s been 50 years since the Miracle Mets. Seaver was the face of that team. It’s unusual for a pitcher to be the face of a team. They don’t go out everyday like a position player, but it does occur (Carlton, Koufax, and Gibson all accomplished it). Seaver won the Cy Young that year (1969), the first of three (He’d already picked up a Rookie of the Year award). His family has already announced he will not attend any of the celebrations in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary. That’s a great shame.

I never rooted for his teams. I liked Baltimore in 1969, the A’s in 1973, and never cared much for the Reds, or either color of sox (he played for both the White Sox and Red Sox), but you almost couldn’t help rooting for him. I presume I join a legion of fans in wishing him well and join others in saying, “Good luck, Tom Terrific.” We’re pulling for you.

The Marxist Cat and Hammering Hank

March 5, 2019

About 20 years ago we decided to adopt a new cat. We went to the local animal shelter and found a small black male that was just perfect for us. We brought him home and named him after one of the finest ball players either of us ever saw, Henry Aaron. We called him “Hank.”

He was a great cat. He did all those things that cats do to endear themselves to the inferior creatures that are humans. He purred, played with string, chased assorted bugs and creatures across the back yard, sat on laps. It’s the latter that caused a certain amount of consternation. You see, he was a left-facing cat. If he jumped up on your lap or chest to lay down, he’d turn to face left every time. You could move him to face right and he’d turn back around to the left. It happened every time. If he came up to your lap facing right, he’d turn. If he came up facing left, he’d simply lie down. It quickly got him the nickname of “The Marxist Cat.” We thought he was great although it did concern some of your more right-wing friends. We thought about sending a note to Mr. Aaron telling him about the cat, but never did. Hank died several years ago, but we still remember the “Marxist Cat.”

I thought of this when Frank Robinson died and when I realized Aaron had made it to his 85 birthday. Robinson’s passing left Hank Aaron as the only great right fielder of my youth still living. I have to admit that I tended to overlook him behind Willie Mays, but when it came to right fielders, Aaron was the man. Robinson was fine and Roberto Clemente was thrilling to watch, but Hank Aaron was special. I remember him for those 1950s Braves teams (the ones in Milwaukee) and also from the later teams in Atlanta. I rooted for him to hit 715 home runs and to run up his RBI total and his hits. It was late before he received the honors he deserved (and MLB still does a terrible job promoting the Hank Aaron Award) so it’s good that he seemed to be a man of great patience.

I’ve had a lot of great baseball players I’ve liked. I began with Jackie Robinson, rolled on to Duke Snider and Sandy Koufax. I thought Mays was great and Yaz and a ton of others, but Aaron is one of the few I genuinely admired. I hope he reads this someday. Maybe he’ll be impressed I named a cat for him, even if it was a Marxist.

What We Missed

February 28, 2019

Roy Campanella in gear

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently Seamheads takes its players and runs their statistics out to a 162 game schedule. That gives us some idea what we missed by segregating the great Negro League players. It also gives us a rough look at the totality of the career of those players who made the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues.

Let me give you two sets of numbers:

Triple Slash Line A: .327/.385/.488/.872

Triple Slash Line B: .276/.360/.500/.860

OPS+ A: 145; OPS+: 123

Hits A: 183; Hits B: 155

Runs A: 107; Runs B: 84

HR A: 14; HR B: 32

RBI A: 124; RBI B: 114

WAR A: 5.0; WAR B: 3.4

Two good sets of numbers, right? Well, they belong to the same player, Roy Campanella (The picture above gave it away, right?). “A” represents Seamheads interpretation of Campanella’s career over a 162 game schedule in the Negro Leagues (1937-1945). “B” represents the BaseballReference interpretation of Campanella’s career over a 162 game schedule in the Major Leagues (1948-1957).

So what do we make of these numbers? Well, there’s a lot of things we can try to make of them, but let’s start by acknowledging that the first set of numbers begin at age 15 while the last set begin at age 26. Part of the Negro League numbers include a rather steep learning curve as Campy begins his career in his mid-teens. The second set of numbers deal with him as a mature player. Also recall that Roy Campanella is a catcher and catcher’s tend to age poorly. And while we’re at it, remember that the Negro League stats are based on significantly fewer documented games.

Having said that, we can note that he’s a very good player in both leagues. It really can’t tell us the quality of play in the Negro Leagues, because of the age differences and the number of games involved, but it’s one way to give us a taste of the quality of play available in the Negro Leagues.

Sadly, it’s only a taste. Fans of baseball, both black and white, were robbed by the Jim Crow system of the ability to see some of the best players available in the period prior to 1950. Sure, a white person could buy a ticket to a black game, but they weren’t encouraged to do so and the same is true of black people. I finish this yearly look at the Negro Leagues with a bit of wistfulness, because I know a number of baseball fans, almost all of which are gone now, never got to see all the great players of their era.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Jules Thomas

February 26, 2019

Jules Thomas (picture from Seamheads)

Here’s a brief look at one of the players on my fantasy league team:

1. Julian Thomas was born in December, 1886 in Powhatan County, Virginia, which is near Richmond. In the Wikipedia page describing the county Thomas is not listed as one of the notable people from the county (John Singleton Mosby of “Gray Ghost” fame is).

2. There is confusion from the beginning of his career. The BaseballReference.com Bullpen says he began play in the Negro Leagues in 1909, Seamheads indicates he began play in 1908. Both agree he started his career with the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

3. Unlike a lot of Negro League stalwarts who played a number of different positions, Thomas was almost strictly an outfielder (Seamheads gives him 10 total games n the infield).

4. In 1912, he led the Negro League teams with three home runs. This is prior to the more formally established Negro Leagues of the 1920s, so the teams were much more loosely organized and barnstormed more, making it difficult to determine any statistics across teams. Seamheads indicates he had five home runs.

5. In 1914 he made is first foray into Cuba playing center field for the New York Lincoln Stars (not the Lincoln Giants). He spent four different seasons in the Cuban winter league and did poorly each year.

6. Between 1916 and 1922 he averaged a triple slash line of .358/.416/.493/.909. He turned 30 in 1916, so this line covers most of his 30s. This line also covers about 150 total documented games. His OPS+ for the period is 169.

7. With the formation of the Negro National League in 1920 and the Eastern Colored League a couple of years later, a more formalized schedule created more “league” games (cutting down on the “barnstorming” games). By this point Thomas was in his middle thirties, but still in demand. The Lincoln Giants (now Thomas’ team) joined the Eastern Colored League in 1923. Thomas hit .271 at age 36 in his first year with the ECL.

8. In 1925 he became player-manager of the Lincolns. The team went 7-39 and finished last. He was let go as the manager.

9. He spent 1926 back with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, then was with the Negro minor league Pennsylvania Red Caps of New York (which had more to do with Penn Station in New York than with the state of Pennsylvania).

10. There is debate about his final year in the Negro League. Seamheads shows 1926 as his last season, while BaseballReference’s Bullpen indicates he played with the Lincoln Giants in 1928.

11. For his career, Seamheads extrapolated his statistics over a 162 game season. They show him with a triple slash line of .310/.362/.444/.806 with an OPS+ of 138. He averages 196 hits, 99 runs scored, 115 RBIs, and 10 home runs, with an average of 4.4 WAR.

12. Jules Thomas died 10 December 1943 in New York.

The Loss of Ted Kimbro

February 22, 2019

Ted Kimbro (from Agatetype)

In 1914, Europe exploded into World War I. It was “The War to End All Wars,” the war to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” It give us such wonderful terms as “mustard gas” and “flamethrowers.” It was a catastrophe that engulfed the United States in 1917. And as with everything else it engulfed, the Negro Leagues suffered also.

Ted Kimbro out of St. Louis, Missouri was an up and coming infielder in the Negro Leagues. Most of his career was with the St. Louis Giants, his hometown team, and later the New York Lincoln Giants. At 19 he was with the West Braden Sprudels, a team in Indiana named for a type of bottled water. He, initially, was a shortstop, but spent most of his career at second and third. What stats are available show him a better second baseman than a third baseman. Over the years his average crept up to peak at .352 in 1917. He was, everyone hoped, a coming star.

What was coming was the First World War. Kimbro was drafted in July 1918, sent for training to Fort Dix, New Jersey. He teamed with Pearl Webster, a catcher, to help make a quality black team at the base. Training over, Webster went to France and an early grave (from flu), while Kimbro stayed on in New Jersey for a short while.

If the war was a problem in 1918, an equally awful issue was the spread of the Influenza Pandemic that shot around the world, aided, most historians agree, by the dislocation of peoples caused by the war, and throwing together infected people with others who ended up catching the disease also. Kimbro was one of those. He developed bronchial pneumonia, one of the things influenza did to people, and died at Fort Dix 29 September, 1918, another casualty of the War to End All Wars.

How good was Kimbro? We’ll never know. He was 23 when he died and just moving into the best parts of his career. Seamheads has a stats page on him and part of it extrapolates his numbers out to a 162 game schedule. For Kimbro they show 90 runs scored, 32 stolen bases a season and a triple slash line of .283/,351/.387/.738 with an OPS+ of 118 and an average of just over 4 WAR (which is based on a total of 104 documented games).