Archive for January, 2010

The Dutchman vs the Peach

January 19, 2010

By general consensus the two great position players of the Deadball Era are Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Two people more unalike is tough to imagine. Wagner was from the Pennsylvania coal fields. He was quiet, dignified, admired by his teammates, apparently relatively free from racism (when told John Henry Lloyd was being called “The Black Wagner”, Honus was supposed to have said he was honored to be compared with Lloyd). Cobb, on the other hand, was from Georgia. Quiet would never describe him. He was brash, angry, violent, tolerated rather than liked by his teammates, and violently racist. The did have one thing in common, they were great ballplayers. For fans who wanted to see both in action against each other, there was a problem. Wagner (“The Flying Dutchman”) played in the National League while Cobb (“The Georgia Peach”) played in the American League. The only way they could be on the same field in an meaningful game would be in the World Series. In 1909, that finally happened.

Cobb’s Detroit Tigers swept to the American League pennant by 3.5 games over the A’s. Led by Cobb, who hit league leading numbers of 377 in batting, 107 RBI’s, and 9 homers to become the second American Leaguer to win the Triple Crown (Nap LaJoie in 1901), the Tigers had future Hall of Famers Sam Crawford and manager Hughie Jennings on the team. The leading pitchers were George Mullin (29 wins) and Ed Willett (22 wins).

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who knocked off the Cubs by 6.5 games, had Wagner who led the league in hitting at 339 and in RBI’s at 100, along with a league leading 39 doubles. They also had future Hall of Famer and manager-left fielder Fred Clarke and got good seasons from Bill Abstein (1st base), Dots Miller (2nd base), and Tommy Leach (center field). The pitching was led by Howie Camnitz (25 wins) and future Hall of Famer Vic Willis (22 wins).

It was a good series, the first to go the full compliment of 7 games (The 1903 Series was a best of nine. There was a game 7, but it was the penultimate game.) The Pirates won all the odd numbered games, the Tigers the even numbered games (what are the chances of that?). Neither Wagner nor Cobb were the stars. Cobb hit only 231, stole only 2 bases, but led the team with 5 RBIs. Wagner did better hitting 333 with 6 stolen bases and 2 RBIs. But the big stars were Clarke who hit both Pirates home runs and tallied 7 RBIs with only a 211 batting average, Leach who hit 360, and an obscure pitcher named Babe Adams who won 3 of the Pirates 4 games (13 game winner Nick Maddox won the other game). Adams put up a 1.33 ERA and struck out 11 in 27 innings. He pitched three complete game victories, including game 7.

When the Series ended, Pittsburgh had its first championship, the Tigers had lost 3 World Series’ in a row. Neither Cobb nor Wagner would ever make it back to a Series as a player. Both men would be in the initial Hall of Fame class.

Death in the Argonne

January 18, 2010

Eddie Grant

A couple of friends of mine are British. According to them, when World War I broke out in 1914 a number of soccer clubs joined up in mass as “Pals” units. The idea was that you would go to war with your friends, which would make the transition easier and give you more to fight for. Of course the problem was that if the unit got caught up in the horror of the Somme or Passchendaele, well, there just wasn’t a soccer club left to be “Pals”.

American professional sportsmen have been luckier. There have been a number of amateur sports figures lost to war (Heisman trophy winner Nile Kinnick comes most quickly to mind in World War II), but the pros lost only one in World War I, third baseman Eddie Grant.

Grant was born in Massachusetts in 1883 and began his professional career in 1905 with the Cleveland Naps. He was back in the minors in 1906 but returned to the big leagues the next season with the Philadelphia Phillies. From 1908 to 1910 he was a sometimes hit, mostly good field third baseman who generally led off for the Phils, peaking in 1910 with 25 stolen bases and 67 runs. The Phils, being the Phils, immediately traded him to Cincinnati. Turns out the Phils were right. Grant was finished. He was traded to John McGraw’s Giants in 1913, where he finished his career in 1915. It wasn’t all that great a career. He hit 249, with 277 RBIs and a 295 slugging percentage.

During his career, Grant managed to pick up a degree from Harvard (1905) and spent his post baseball life as an attorney. In April 1917, immediately after he US declared war, Grant joined the 77th Infantry Division and became a captain. He went overseas with the Division in 1918 and participated in the campaign in the Argonne Forest. During the battles in the Argonne, a unit of the 77th was cut off from the rest of the Division, becoming the famous “Lost Battalion”. Grant’s unit was one of the companies sent in to find and make contact with the “Lost Battalion.”  On 5 October 1918, a shell exploded near Grant killing him instantly. He was buried in the Meuse-Argonne Military Cemetary.

Baseball was stunned. No Major League player had ever died in combat. True, Grant was retired, but still he was one of the boys. The Giants erected a monument to him in the Polo Grounds. It remained there until the Giants moved to San Francisco. If you watch the film of Willie Mays’ famous catch in 1954 you get a short glimpse of the monument before the camera begins zooming in on Mays.

Dr. Charles Thomas-Catcher

January 17, 2010

Most of us know the Branch Rickey story about the black catcher who couldn’t get a room in South Bend, Indiana. Rickey credited the event and the player with making Rickey determined to integrate Major League Baseball. So who’s this guy that led us to Jackie Robinson? Meet Dr. Charles Thomas, dentist and sometime catcher.

Charles Thomas was born in Weston, West Virginia in 1881. In 1884 his family moved to Ohio where Thomas grew up. In high school he was a star player and in 1904 began attending Ohio Wesleyian University, where they had a baseball team managed by Branch Rickey. Thomas became the team’s primary catcher, playing an occasional game at first or in center field. He hit 321 for a career. That number is the best research can find on him. I wouldn’t want to bet the farm on its accuracy. No other stats seem to be available.

After leaving college he played for few years starting in 1916 for he Baltimore Black Sox. But, like Field of Dreams character Moonlight Graham, his calling was in medicine, specifically dentistry. He became a qualified dentist and practiced a number of places before settling in Albequerque, New Mexico where he practiced 40 years. He remained in contact with Rickey but seems to have played no part in the signing of Jackie Robinson other than being informed by Rickey. Charles Thomas died in 1971.

I was surprised how little was known about Thomas, considering how famous the South Bend incident has become over the years. He seems to have dropped into the obscurity in which most of us live our lives. It’s nice to take a moment and remember him. We all owe him a lot.

The Hall of Fame and Warfare

January 16, 2010

On a comment to an earlier post brettkiser (who has a blog worth checking out–do so) asked my opinion on two players who lost time to World War II. He wanted to know if I thought they were Hall of Fame worthy. I’ll answer that in a moment, but want to make a couple of points first.

I think Hall of Fame voters and people who study the institution need to understand that World War II, Korea, and to a lesser extent for Americans World War I took players away from baseball for what were considered at the time “greater causes”. Whether or not you agree these wars, or any wars, are worth fighting isn’t the issue here. The issue is the effect on the players. Their numbers are going to be lower than players who do not lose 1-4 years to a war (see Hank Greenberg as perhaps the greatest example). That should be both understood and considered when picking a man for enshrining at Cooperstown. That being said, the idea of “so how much did he lose to the war?” is something that cannot be answered. Maybe a man losing 3 years to a war lost a huge number of positive statistics, but maybe if he had been playing in 1943, he would have been sculled on the first pitch he saw, developed eye problems, and never played again, thus losing any numbers he put up after 1945. We can’t know.

Having said all that, here’s a look at how the Second World War effected a handful of players (some already Hall of Famers):

Johnny Pesky-lost all of 43-45. I don’t think he was destined for the Hall anyway. His hitting numbers aren’t special and he was no Marty Marion with the glove.

Dom DiMaggio-lost all of 43-45. Maybe the hardest choice (and one of brettkiser”s 2 questions).  Missed hitting 300 by two points, led the league in triples once, in runs twice, and stolen bases once (with all of 15, the lowest number to ever lead either league). To get in contemporaniously with his teammates, he had three real problems: he missed 300 (a stat that really matters in 1950s Hall voting), he wasn’t as good as his brother, he wasn’t the best player on his team (Ted Williams was). He may have been the best Center Fielder (but see Richie Ashburn). I think he had no chance in his era, but the Veteran’s Committee (who steadfastly refuses to elect anyone–JERKS) should look at him closely. I’d vote for him, but I wouldn’t put him at the head of the ballot.

Tommy Henrich-lost all of 43-45. Yankees stalwart in Right Field. Major player on a bunch of pennant winners and was still pretty good when he got back from the war. Probably the third best outfielder on his team (DiMaggio and Keller), so not going to get much support at the time. I like him, but don’t know that I’d vote for him.

Cecil Travis-lost all of 42-44 and the 2nd of brettkiser’s questions. Heck of a player for an obscure team, Washington, that no one cared about (see a comment earlier on Harlond Clift for another of those). Hit 314 with little power and not much speed. Led league in hits once. I like the average, but there’s not much else going for him. I’m a little surprised he didn’t get a lot more support in the 1950s and 1960s when the voters seemed to worry a lot more about batting average. I think I’d vote for him, but could be talked out of it.

Mickey Vernon-lost all of 44-45. Teammate of  Travis at Washington, led league in doubles twice, won two batting titles, hit 280. Like him better than Travis, but  don’t see him in the Hall anytime soon. As with Travis I could vote for him, or be talked out of it..

Warren Spahn-lost all of 43-45. OK, he’s in the Hall, but did you know he came up in 1942 and had exactly zero wins prior to heading off to war? Give him those 3 years and he might have got around 400 wins (or blown his arm out in 1943 and ended up ith none at all. See what I mean by speculation?)

Terry Moore-lost all of 43-45. Cardinal Center Fielder on the 1942 World’s Champions. Good solid career and someone who might have made it if his numbers hadn’t been hurt by the war. He’s the guy I have most trouble with here, because I like what I see, I just don’t think its good enough to stand up to Hall of Fame standards.

Hugh Casey and Larry French-both lost all of 43-45. Were mainstays of the Dodgers teams that won in 1941 and were competitive later. French had 197 wins, went off to war and never won another game. Had he gotten 200 wins he might have made it, but had more hits than innings pitched and his walk/strikout ratio wasn’t very good. He’s not in and I don’t think the war kept him out. As for Casey, he was basically a reliever in an era where nobody cared about relievers. He’s not in and I don’t think the war is why. Personally, wouldn’t vote for either.

Gil Hodges-lost all of 44-45. Let me start by saying I’d vote for Hodges anyway and think the Veteran’s Committee is being silly for not putting him in. I’m not sure how much the war effected his numbers. He was up in 43 (he went 0 for 2), then went off to war. In 1946 he was in the minors, so I don’t know that he lost much by going off to war. Had he been given 44 and/or 45 in the minors maybe he’s up in 46 and do well (or maybe not).

There are others, people like Pete Reiser, and Early Wynn (who only lost 1 year and still made the Hall) who could be considered, but this list will do for now.

Unbreakable

January 14, 2010

Baseball fans are fond of saying such-and-such a number is “unbreakable.” Well, the last twenty or so years have proved that just isn’t so. The steroids era provided us with a number of “broken” records, some real, some steroids induced. But you know there are a handful of records that are unbreakable.

Almost all are pitching numbers. Modern pitchers do it differently than their ancestors. They don’t pitch as much, they don’t pitch as often, they are pulled from games more quickly. All these things make it impossible for modern pitchers to break some long standing records.

All of which brings me to Cy Young. The guy holds most of those unbreakable records. He pitched a long time and he pitched consistantly well for most of the period in which he toiled.  Below is a list of Cy Young’s unbreakable records:

Wins: (511) No one is even close. Walter Johnson is the only pitcher within 100 wins of Young. The winningest pitcher of the last 50 years, Greg Maddux, is over 150 back. With the spate of recent pitching retirements, Jaime Moyer is the winningest active pitcher.

Inning pitched: (7375) Over 1434 more than 2nd place (Pud Galvin). The closest modern pitcher, Phil Niekro, is over 1900 inning back.

Starts: (816) At least Nolan Ryan got within 100 of him at 773.

Losses: (315) Young is one of only 2 pitchers (Galvin is the other) with 300 losses. The closest modern guy is Ryan at 292. Do you have any idea how good you have to be to stick around long enough to lose 300 games (or 292)?

SABR to the Rescue

January 12, 2010

Finally figured out what’s wrong with the Hall of Fame voting. It’s the voters. Ever since they began voting for MVP’s back in 1911 the writers (BBWAA) have done baseball’s voting. Maybe for yearly awards OK, but for historical awards, YUCK. I’ve met a few of these people and have read a bunch of them. Know what? Most of them know nothing about the sport except what they cover. Ask them who were the top players in the 1950’s and they’ll name a few, but betcha most won’t even know Hank Aaron played in the 1950’s.  Can they read a stat sheet? Sure. Do they know what it means? Probably not.

I’ve been averse to the writers voting for the Hall of Fame for a long time. I’m sure most of them don’t know what they’re doing. After the last vote when I find that writers who cast blank ballots voted for candidates last year that remained on this year’s ballot, I now conclude the quicker we change the system the better. So throw out the writers, Cooperstown. You can do it. The decision on who votes is up to you, not the writers. You’ve change the veteran’s committee several times, now change the entire system.

And, who, you ask, gets to make the decision now? How’s about the guys at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)? They know all sorts of stuff about baseball (certainly a lot more than the writers). There’s a perception that SABR is just a bunch of stat geeks sitting around finding out how many putouts a left-handed shortstop made in 1888, but it ain’t so. Joe. Read their stuff. Much of it is designed to recapture information such as birth and death dates, what happened to a player after he left the game, or finding complete roster data. People who study that, know a lot about the game. Let them vote on the Hall of Fame. I’d be more inclined to trust their view on whether Pete Browning or Harland Clift or Minnie Minoso or Mark McGwire belong in the Hall of Fame than the writers.

How to do it? First, I don’t know that the people at SABR (and I’m not one) would want to do it, but if they did, they need to set down with the Cooperstown people and work out how many groups should vote, the size of the group(s), the categories of voting, the percentage of votes to elect (there’s nothing “sacred” about 75%. Maybe it should be 67%, maybe 80%). It can be worked out.

Come on, Cooperstown, stop this nonsense and get some people who know what they’re doing.

The First MVP Awards

January 11, 2010

The modern version of the MVP Award began in the 1930s and has run since. It isn’t, however, the first MVP Award series in baseball. Way back in the 19-teens there was the Chalmers Award.

Hugh Chalmers owned Chalmers Automobiles in Detroit. He was a baseball fan and in April 1911 proposed the idea of giving one of his cars (the Model 30) to the “most valuable player” in both leagues.   A committee of  baseball writers would be set up to determine the winners. The league offiicals didn’t have objections, but a suggestion was made that once a player won the award, he couldn’t win it again. The idea had some merit from Chalmers’ point of view. It was good advertising, it promoted automobiles, it promoted baseball during the “off season.”  The idea of  granting a player only one award also made sense. It meant that Chalmers Autos would be seen in more places, there were more players available to pose for pictures with the car and give testimonials as to the quality of the automobile, and, from baseball’s point of view, it meant that you weren’t going to have to give a new car to Ty Cobb every year.

The previous year, 1910, there was a huge debate about the batting title in the American League. Cobb and Nap LaJoie both had claim to it (long story and not for this post). Chalmers decided to give a car to both (heck, it was good advertising). It also lead  to the idea of the Chalmers Award.

The next year  the award itself went to Cobb. Over the next four years the Chalmers Award, and the car, were given out. By 1915 the award had lost its luster. It was getting expensive for Chalmers, whose business was beginning to get into trouble, the obvious American League winner, Cobb, couldn’t win another, fans weren’t impressed or enthused, so the award was dropped.

And, Chalmers? His company lasted into the 1920’s when it was folded into first Maxwell, then eventually into Chrysler. Chalmers lost his job.

One of the best things the Chalmers Award does is indicate the superiority of the American League in the period. All four AL winners went on to Hall of Fame careers, while only one National Leaguer, Johnny Evers, did the same. In the period the AL won three of the four World Series’, losing only in 1914, the year Evers won the award. Below is a list of the winners with the following stats beside the name: batting average/RBI’s/slugging percentage or Wins/ERA/strikeouts in the case of pitcher Walter Johnson.

AL 1911-Ty Cobb 420/127/621

1912-Tris Speaker 383/90/567

1913-Walter Johnson 36/1.14/243

1914-Eddie Collins 344/85/452

NL 1911-Wildfire Schulte 300/107/534

1912-Larry Doyle 330/90/471

1913-Jake Daubert 350/52/423 

1914-Johnny Evers  279/40/338

Magic Numbers

January 10, 2010

Baseball is full of magic numbers. Some are for a season: 30 wins, 60 home runs, 200 hits. Others are for a career: 300 wins, 500 home runs, 3000 hits. It’s that last set I want to look at.

What I noticed is that the number isn’t really that magicial sometimes. What’s magical is some number short of it. That’s true of home runs where everyone with 500 home runs and who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame. The magic number here is apparently 493. That’s how many Fred McGriff has and his hall of fame vote wasn’t that great this year. But it was his first try so still he might make it someday. So the true magic number is 462. That’s the number Jose Canseco has. Everyone above him who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame (except McGriff, as noted above). You get 475, you’re in (see Stan Musial and Willie Stargell), get 465 (see Dave Winfield) and you’re in. Get 462 and, well, nope.

Same with 3000 hits. Everyone with 3000 hits who is eligible is in Cooperstown, but so is everyone above 2866. That’s the number of hits belonging to Harold Baines. His hall of fame voting numbers don’t bode well for his chances of election, so right now the cutoff isn’t 3000, it’s Harold Baines.

Just a couple of observations about how when we say 500 home runs or 3000 hits will get you to the Hall of Fame we really mean 463 homers or 2867 can actually get you there. Wonder if that will change?

Alas Poor Stats

January 8, 2010

In an earlier post I commented on the decade. One thing I left out on purpose was the proliferation of statistics. My God, have they exploded into the public view. Most of them just say the same thing in different ways and many lead to the same conclusions. The problem with all of them is that they are flawed.

Pick a stat, any stat, and it’s flawed. Sometimes the flaw is obvious. I love runs produced (R + RBI – HR = RP). It gives you an immediate look at just how many runs a particular player gives his team. The flaw? Well, there are a couple. First, there is no context for the run. A run is a run is a run is simply not true. A run in 1965 is different that a run in 1995. Second, it leaves out contributions to runs that don’t actually produce an RBI or the run itself. A player leads off an inning with a double, is bunted to third (one out). The next man hits a sacrifice fly (1 run to the man on third, and RBI to the batter, two outs), then the next batter fans (third out, end of inning). So you have a run produced by the first and third batters, but what about the guy with the bunt? He doesn’t get it down, the fly only puts the man on third. The last batter strikes out and no run scores. Again, what abut the guy with the bunt? He gets no run produced yet his action is critical.

Some are more subtle. Take a look at WHIP. Nice stat, but knowing the number of hits a pitcher gives up isn’t the same thing as knowing the number of runs he gives up. A single that doesn’t score is 1 on the WHIP, so is a home run. Different result, but same stat effect.

 Some are just silly. There’s an old book called Super Stats that ends up with Gene Tenace as the greatest catcher ever. Oh, really?

Some come up with odd choices. A guy came up with WAR and tells me Bret Saberhagen was better than Sandy Koufax (not on Saberhagen’s best day and on Koufax’s worst maybe). I saw them both pitch and I know which was better.

So enjoy the new stats. Some are fun, some are silly, most are redundant. Just do me a favor, don’t take them too seriously and bet the farm on one of them.

The First American League Dynasty

January 7, 2010

The American League was formed in 1901. For the first six years no team won more than two in a row. Then in 1907 the Tigers with Ty Cobb won the first of three consecutive pennants. Unfortunately for them, they lost all three World Series’, two to the Cubs and one to the Pirates. Somehow going 0-3 does not make you a dynasty. Beginning in 1910 the league gets its first true dynasty, the Philadelphia Athletics.

The Athletics were formed in 1901 by Connie Mack and had won pennants in 1902 and 1905, losing the World Series in ’05 four games to one. By 1910 Mack had rebuilt the A’s into a formidable team that was to win 4 of the next 5 AL pennants and 3 World Series out of 4. They did it with pitching and one heck of a fine infield.

The infield, known for a while as “The $100,000 Infield” (which was what they were supposed to be worth, not what Mack paid them) consisted of first baseman Harry Davis, a former RBI champ (05 and 06) doubles champ (05 and 07), and home run leader (04-07); future Hall of Famer and concensus top three all-time second sacker, Eddie Collins; slick fieldling shortstop Jack Barry; and future Hall of Famer J. Franklin “Home Run” Baker at third (the “Home Run” nickname comes during the five year run. In 1911 Stuffy McInnis, one of the better fielding first basemen of his day, and no slouch with a bat, replaced Davis.

The outfield consisted of  Danny Murphy, Rube Oldring, Topsy Hartsel  in 1910, with Briscoe Lord replacing Hartsel in 1911. Jimmy Walsh replaced Lord in 1913, and Amos Strunk had taken Walsh’s spot in 1914. None were considered superior outfielders but most could hit some. Murphy was a converted infielder (2nd base).

Jack Lapp, Ira Thomas, and Wally Schang split tme as catcher, with Schang being far and away the best of the lot. He’d go on to pick up more World Series experience with the Babe Ruth Yankees of the 1920s.

The pitching staff was considered the strongest of the era with future Hall of Famer Chief Bender as Mack’s favorite. Left-hander Eddie Plank ended up with over 300 wins and a slot in Cooperstown. Maybe the best of the lot was Colby Jack Coombs. He won 31 and 28 games in 1910 and 1911 then got hurt in 1913 and was done as an Athletic. He resurfaced in 1916 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and won their only World Series victory that pennant winning season. Additionally Hall of Famer Herb Pennock made a brief appearance in 1913 and 14  winning 13 games.

So how’d they do? In 1910 they won 102 games finishing first by 14.5 games and defeating the Cubs in five World Series games. In 1911 they won 101 games finishing first by 13.5 games and knocking off the Giants in the World Series in 6 games the series where Baker won his nickname). They lost in 1912 to the Red Sox, finishing 15 games out in third. In 1913 they rebounded winning the pennant by 6.5 games and posting 96 wins. Again they faced the Giants in the World Series and this time took only five games to win the series. They last good year was 1914 when the won 99 games, finishing first by 8.5 games. This time they faced the “Miracle Braves” and lost the World Series in four straight. It was the first World Series sweep (sorta. The Tigers won no games in 1907, but there had been one tie.) In 1915 Mack sold Collins and Barry, and Baker held out. Both Plank and Bender went to the fledgling Federal League. The result was a last place finish for Philadelphia and in 1916 a record of 36-117 (for a long time that was a record for futility in the AL). The dynasty was gone, replaced by the new one in Boston.