Archive for December, 2009

End of a Decade

December 31, 2009

Today marks the end of the decade whose first three numbers are 200. A lot of people are doing their all-decade this and that. Who am I to go against the tide? So here’s my choice for baseball’s all-decade whatever.

Story of the decade: Has to be the steroid issue. It has tainted the statistics, the record book, awards, and the Hall of Fame voting. Frankly I don’t trust much of anything that happened in the first few years of the decade.

Franchise of the decade: I was tempted to go with the Yankees, who won 2 World Series’ and lost another, but finally decided to go with the Red Sox. They won 2 World Series’, completed an improbable comeback in 2004, and in general took a franchise that hadn’t won in 80 years and picked up multiple rings.

Player of the decade: Albert Pujols easy. No steroid taint (at least not yet, PLEASE GOD), great numbers, a ring, and one of the greatest home runs I ever saw (sorry, Brad Lidge). An honorable mention here to Joe Mauer who may end up the greatest hitting catcher ever. We’ll have to watch that closely.

Pitcher of the decade: Mariano Rivera. What he did in the late 90’s he’s continued to do for this decade. His team didn’t win as often, but as a rule that wasn’t his fault. An honorable mention here also is in order. This time to Curt Schilling. Better pitchers in the decade, but his influence on the winning Red Sox should be noted (and he had a heck of a 2001 World Series).

World Series of the decade: Speaking of the 2001 World Series, it gets my vote as the best of the decade. Several great games including the three in New York and a memorable game 7. One of the few times Rivera failed.

Playoff series of the decade: 2004 American League championship. Down 3 games to none, the Red Sox roar back to win the series 4 games to three. That had never happened before. What a great series and what a great showcase for David Ortiz.

Cinderella of the decade: 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Came out of absolutely no where to get to the World Series. Would have been a better story if they’d won, but still a nice tale for the grandchildren years from now.

Bonehead of the decade: The tied All Star game. YUCK!!! Then they compound it by making an exhibition game determine home field for the World Series. Incredible.

Footnote player of the decade: Wasn’t sure what to call this, but it’s basically a hymn to those players you love to watch, but know aren’t really going to be anything but a footnote in baseball history. For me it’s David Eckstein. Love the guy’s intensity, his grit, his resolve. His winning the MVP for the 2006 World Series was an all-decade highlight for me.

Hall of Fame vote of the decade: Putting in a whole boatload of Negro League players at once. Great of baseball to finally recognize the depth of quality play in the Negro Leagues beyond just the most famous names and to finally recognize the executives that made the Negro Leagues work. It also gave the Hall of Fame its first female member in Effa Manley.

Manager of the decade: Terry Francona who wins 2 World Series’.

Anthem

December 30, 2009

Jack Norworth had never been to a baseball game in 1908, not one. He was a vaudeville performer married to a beautiful woman and pretty darned successful. Then he saw the sign.

According to legend, Norworth was riding the New York subway when he saw a sign announcing “Baseball today-Polo Grounds”. It was 1908, the year of a particularly wonderful set of pennant races. In the American League the Tigers won the pennant late, and the Cubs had to defeat the Giants in a replay of the famous “Merkle Boner” game to take the pennant on the last day of the season. It was to be the Cubs last World Series victory as they topped Detroit and Ty Cobb.

But Norworth was the big winner that year. Seeing the sign got him to thinking and he subsequently wrote a little ditty about a girl named Katie Casey. He went to a colleague, Albert Von Tilzer, with the poem, which Von Tilzer set to music. The song debuted in vaudeville sung by Norworth’s wife, Nora Bayes and was an instant hit. You know it too, at least the chorus. It starts “Take me out to the ball game. Take me out with the crowd.” It is baseball’s unofficial anthem and the most popular sports song ever written. The US Postal Service even did a stamp honoring the song in 2008.

Ironically, Von Tilzer who was born in 1878 and died in 1956 had also never seen a baseball game. He finally got to one in 1928. Norworth, who was born in 1879 and died in 1959, finally saw his first game in 1940.  Not bad for two guys who’d never seen a game.

Nicknames

December 29, 2009

I adore nicknames. Most people I know have one. My son is “Ace”, my niece is “Gorgeous” (she is), a lot of my friends have them too. Baseball used to have really good ones. I don’t know if the quality of play is actually gotten better or worse, but the quality of nicknames has gone down. Check out the latest Yankees World Series winners. “The Hammer of God” certainly works for a closer, but “Tex”, “A-Rod”, “”Godzilla” is the best they can do? YUCK. Maybe the writers aren’t as creative anymore, maybe TV makes it harder to use nicknames because you don’t actually see them written down, maybe the frequency of player movement means fans don’t get close enough to become endeared of modern players.

Now I’m not saying all modern nicknames are awful, “Big Papi” has a heck of a ring to it, or that all old nicknames were great, “Babe” isn’t anything special for Ruth (but I do kinda like “The Sultan of Swat”). But as a rule the old names were better. So in the spirit of a good nickname is worth remembering, here’s my All Nickname Team of Great Players. To get on the team you gotta be a heck of a player and have a heck of a nickname. There are better players. There are better nicknames, but not better combinations.

First-Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”

Second-Frankie Frisch, “The Fordham Flash”

Short-Harold “PeeWee” Reese

Third-J. Frank “Home Run” Baker

Left-Stan “The Man” Musial

Center-Joe DiMaggio, “The Yankee Clipper”

Right-“Hammerin” Hank Aaron

Catcher-Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra

Starting Pitcher-Walter Johnson, “The Big Train”

Closer-Mariano Rivera “The Hammer of God”

DH (per a comment from SportsPhd below)- Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas

and to manage them, “The Little Napoleon,” John J. McGraw.

And I had to leave out “The Splendid Splinter” (Williams), “The Georgia Peach” (Cobb), “Ironman” (McGinnity), and “Dizzy” (Dean).

So who you got? Gimme better nicknames to go with better players.

Baseball Flicks

December 28, 2009

For some reason that escapes me, football and basketball don’t make particularly good movies. There is the rare exception, but as a rule they’re pretty lousy. Baseball and boxing on the other hand make good flicks. Boxing is easy to understand because of the nature of one-on-one violence. Baseball’s a little harder to figure. I guess it has to do with the pace of the game which allows for more time to develop rhythm (and in the case of movies, plot). These are my favorite baseball movies.

5. The Natural: OK, I know it doesn’t end the way the book ends (I read the book years ago), but it’s still fun and the acting is pretty good, especially Glenn Close and Darren McGavin.

4. Bull Durham: I think it’s the most overrated baseball movie ever. It frequently comes in first on these kind of lists, and I think that’s way too high. Having said that, it’s still a good flick with Robbins, Costner, and Sarandon doing a good job.

3. Bang the Drum Slowly: One of DeNiro’s best. Good plot, great acting. DeNiro is young and still building his resume, but you can see the potential.

2. Pride of the Yankees: Oldest flick on this list. Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig is great, Teresa Wright as Mrs. G. is wonderful. You know how it’s going to end and you watch anyway. BTW Babe Ruth has a couple of lines.

1. Field of Dreams: Well, it’s not exactly a “baseball” movie, but the sport is used to fuel the plot. Costner does a decent job, Amy Madigan as the wife is wonderful and James Earl Jones is impressive (how did he not receive an Academy Award nomination that year?). Watch for the “Peace, Love, Dope” scene, the speech about the importance of baseball, and the “Dad, wanna have a catch” scene. If you ain’t crying at that last scene, you got no soul.

Honorable mention: The Rookie–it’s very new, so I’d like to give it time to age. The scenes of Morris is the minors are wonderful and everybody knows the scene with the speed indicator. BTW love the music inserted in the movie.

Black Baseball Books

December 27, 2009

Over the years the Negro Leagues have gone from relative obscurity to the front burner. That’s a good thing. These people and their teams needed to be remembered. Part of what brought them to prominence was a series of books about them. Here’s a sample.

Only the Ball was White by Robert Peterson. It’s an older book originally written in 1970. For me it began an interest in the Negro Leagues because it was the first work I read on the subject. Still a good book, if dated. Not much on stats but good narrative going back to the beginnings of black baseball in 1867. There are short biographies of some of the major players.

The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley. Published in 1994 it is a series of sketches of the Negro Leagues. There are baseball biographies of the players, some rather long, others only a couple of lines. The bios aren’t bad and deal mainly with the baseball aspects of the player’s life. They tend to stay away from controversy in the player’s life (see the difference between the bio in this book and the comments on Wikipedia and SportsPhd on Hank Thompson as an example). There are also biographies of owners, of individual teams, and of the leagues. For what it is supposed to do, it does it well.

Shades of Glory by Lawrence D. Hogan. This book is very recent. A few years back a new Hall of Fame committee was set up to go through the Negro Leagues and determine who should and should not be added to the Hall of Fame. A number of very good players and some owners were ultimately added. This book is a compilation of the research done for the committee, so you get to look at what the committee was shown in making their decision. Good stuff with lots of stats and stories.

There are, of course, other works, but these should keep you busy for a while.

Undefeated

December 25, 2009

One of the compensations to being a baseball fan is you don’t have to worry about the football obsession with being undefeated. In 162 chances, you’re guaranteed to blow a couple. Tommy LaSorda is credited with a line to the effect that no matter what you do, you’re going to lose 1/3 of your games. No matter what you do, you’re going to win 1/3 of your games. The season is defined by how you do in the other 1/3.

Right now I’ve been enjoying listening to pundits and fans going crazy over whether New Orleans and Indianapolis can go undefeated in the NFL. Well, New Orleans we now know isn’t. As for Indianapolis they still have a ways to go. Frankly I find this all kind of funny. Vince Lombardi never went undefeated, neither did Curley Lambeau or George Halas, but you know what, they have more rings than any other coach. Bet they might have liked to say they were undefeated, but I’ll bet they were more pleased with holding up their rings (did they have rings as far back as Lambeau?).

Let me ask a simple question. If Indianapolis goes undefeated until the Super Bowl and hashes it (ala the Patriots a couple of years back) will the team think it had a successful season? Or will it be more successful if Indianapolis wins the Super Bowl but blows both of their remaining regular season games? I’ll bet we all know the answer.

The First Integration

December 24, 2009

Fleet Walker

We all know Jackie Robinson and we justly celebrate his life, his achievements, and his courage. But he isn’t the first black American to play Major League Baseball. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Moses Fleetwood Walker.

Fleet Walker was born in Ohio in 1857. He played college baseball for both Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, then signed with Toledo in the Northwestern League (a minor league) in 1883. Some teams, notably Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts (now the Cubs) refused to play against a team with a black player, but Walker became the team’s regular catcher. In 1884 the team joined the American Association, then a Major League, with Walker remaining their catcher. He met with indifferent success. One of his pitchers, Tony Mullane, is reported to have refused to accept Walker’s signs when he (Walker) called for a pitch. Mullane’s also supposed to have declared Walker was the  best catcher he worked with. In July 1884 Walker suffered a season-ending injury. It also proved to be the end of his big league career. Toledo went bust at the end of the season and no one else was willing to pick him up. He caught on with Newark of the minor league International League (the same league that saw Robinson’s first game–also in Newark). He lasted the season when the league voted to exclude black Americans from its rosters. The league rescinded the ban the next year and Walker again served as a catcher, this time for Syracuse. He was ultimately released in July 1889, his career over. He died in 1924 after a lifetime working for black causes. His brother Welday also briefly played for Toledo in 1884.

How to assess Walker? His career is, of course, always tainted with racism. If you look at his stats he’s not a bad player, but unfortunately he’s nothing special. And that’s kind of the problem. He’s really nothing special. As a catcher he ranks in the middle of the pack among American Association catchers. His hitting stats aren’t expecially strong, but they’re better than about half the other regular catcher’s in the league. But he couldn’t be just average. Because he was black he had to be better, a lot better, than the other catchers to make it worthwhile for teams to take a chance on playing him. Why risk it for a mediocre player? Part of why Jackie Robinson works is because he’s a heckuva player and you simply couldn’t afford to ignore his ability or leave him out of the lineup. Walker? Well, you could do that with him. So he doesn’t become “The Chosen One” to tear down racial barriers and bring black Americans along with him. It seems he never gave up trying. RIP, Fleet.

The Chronicle-Telegraph Games

December 23, 2009

Chronicle-Telegraph Cup

In 1900 the National League contracted from 12 teams to eight. Baltimore, Louisville, Cleveland, Washington all ceased to exist. The players were shipped to other teams. In the case of Baltimore and Lousville the locations were already decided. Both teams were part of a syndicate that ran them and another team. Baltimore was owned by the Brooklyn team and Louisville by the team in Pittsburgh. This syndicate baseball was both common and legal in the era. The Brooklyn team had been most successful in using it because they had looted the Baltimore team earlier and won the National League pennant in 1899.

They repeated in 1900 winning the championship by 4.5 games over Pittsburgh. The Pirates owner, Barney Dreyfuss, argued that his team was actually better and only lost because he hadn’t been able to join the Louisville players with the Pittsburgh players earlier in the season.  He argued that the Pirates and the Superbas (they weren’t yet called the Dodgers) ought to meet in a five game series to settle the issue. Superbas manager Ned Hanlon accepted the challenge. The Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph, a major newspaper, agreed to sponsor the series and offered a cup as a trophy to the victor. (What is it with Pittsburgh and gaudy trophy cups?)

Beginning 15 October the Chronicle-Telegraph series was held. All games were played in Pittsbugh. The Superbas won game one 5-2 behind Joe McGinnity’s five hitter.  Frank Kitson picked up the win for Brooklyn 4-2 in game two. In the game Pittsburgh committed 6 errors. The Pirates crushed Harry Howell and the Superbas 10-0 in game 3 behind future World Series star Deacon Phillippe. With McGinnity back on the mound for game 4, Brooklyn rode to victory 6-1 and finished the series and claim the cup.

The Superbas roster included the following future Hall of Famers: pitcher Joe McGinnity, infielder Hughie Jennings, outfielders Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley, and manager Ned Hanlon.

The Pirates roster included the following future Hall of Famers: pitchers Jack Chesbro and Rube Waddell (losing pitcher in game 1 of the series), and outfielders Honus Wagner (not yet the shortstop) and Fred Clarke who doubled as manager.

The Chronicle-Telegraph cup is currently on display at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

William Temple’s Cup

December 18, 2009

Temple Cup

By 1894 the National League was the sole Major League, the American League not yet formed and the American Association defunct. It was a Big League (literally) with 12 teams. Noone thought it a good idea to run the League as two divisions, and a split season had been tried once and didn’t work. That meant that when th regular season ended, a champion was crowned with no postseason play. That could make for some awfully boring last months of pennant races. If you couldn’t get enough baseball, it was just too bad. Enter William Chase Temple.

Temple owned the Pittsburgh team and decided he wanted more baseball, postseason baseball, a close pennant race. So he offered a postseason series for possession of the Temple Cup, a garrish trophy to be presented to the winner of a best of 7 series at the end of the season. But wait a minute, there’s only one league. Where do you get the two teams necessary to hold a series? Simple, Temple argued. You take the league leader and the runner up and have them face off. It took some work, but Temple finally got the League to agree (it was difficult because if you’d already won the pennant, why jeopardize it with another series).

Between 1894 and 1897 the Temple Cup series was played annually. In 3 of the 4 years the second place team defeated the league champion, indicating that the champion wasn’t taking the Series too awfully seriously. After 1897 the series was discontinued and with one exception there was no postseason play until the modern World Series began in 1903.

The Cup? Well it took a while to track it down, but it was eventually found and now rests in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Temple Cup results:

1894-second place New York Giants beat the champion Baltimore Orioles (not the current Orioles) in 4 stratight games.

1895-second place Cleveland Spiders beat the champion Baltimore Orioles 4 games to 1.

1896-finally the first place team wins as the Orioles knock off the Spiders in a 4 game sweep.

1897-the second place Orioles defeat the champion Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) 4 games to 1.

Best Possible World Series: Conclusions

December 17, 2009

Now that I’ve posted my take on the best ever World Series games by game 1, game 2, etc, it’s a good idea to look at them as a group and draw some inferences.

1. The Dodgers win 2 of them (games 1 and 4), the Twins also win 2 of them (games 6 and 7), the Cardinals (game 2), the A’s (game 4), the Yankees (game 5), and the Giants (game 8 ) all win one. So there is no team that has a monopoly on good games.

2. Most of the games are very low scoring. That means I like tight games that are well pitched, not slugfests that tend to be very sloppy. Also a lot of them go into extra innings.

3. The games go across eras. There’s one in the 1910’s (3), 1 in the 1920s (8), 2 in the 1940s (2 and 4), 1 in the 1950s (5), one in the 1980s (1), and 2 in the 1990s (6 and 7). So no era can claim a distinction as the best era for World Series play.

4. Only one World Series, 1991, is represented twice. I guess that means I think it’s the best World Series I ever saw.

Hope you enjoyed the set of posts.