Archive for March, 2010

Truly Awful Teams

March 31, 2010

There must have been something in the air, or maybe it was the water, in the late 1880s and the 1890s, something that reached up and attacked baseball teams with poor play. The period served up over and over some truly awful teams. Almost yearly some team wasn’t within the same time zone of a pennant.

I define truly awful teams as teams that play below .300 baseball. In modern terms (a 162 game season), a team that goes 48-114 has a winning percentage of .296 and is a truly awful team. OK, I know it’s arbitrary and that a 49-113 team with a winning percentage of .302 isn’t really any better, but I need a cutoff and .300 works for me.

In 1884 the Union Association went under, the players worthy of distribution to the remaining teams got jobs and the big leagues went back to a 16 team format. From that point on there is almost always a team under .300. Remembering that the National League (NL) lasts through the entire period, that the American Association (AA) folds in 1892, and that the Player’s League (PL) only exists in 1890, here’s a brief list of them:

1885: none

1886: Kansas City NL (30-91, .248); Washington NL (28-92, .233)

1887: Indianapolis NL (37-89, .294); Cleveland AA (39-92, .298)

1888: none

1889: Louisville AA (27-111, .196)

1890:  Pittsburgh NL (23-113, .169), Brooklyn AA (26-72, .265), Buffalo PL (36-96, .273)

1891-1893: none

1894: Louisville NL (36-94, .277)

1895: St. Louis NL (39-92, .298); Louisville NL (35-96, .267)

1896: Louisville NL (38-93, .290)

1897: St Louis NL (29-102, .221)

1898: St. Louis NL (39-111, .260)

1899: Cleveland NL (20-134, .134)

1900: none

What we have is that almost yearly there is at least one team that can’t play .300 ball. In 1890 there are, with the one year advent of the Player’s League, three leagues. In 1892, the National League expands to twelve teams and the American Association goes under. In 1900, the National League drops four teams and becomes an eight team league. Those are the changes in team numbers for the period. Three of the worst teams occur in 1890, but not in either 1892 or 1900.

So why is this? Well, my guess is that several things are going on. First, the country simply doesn’t have enough quality players to sustain sixteen, and in 1890 more than sixteen, teams that play reasonably well. Second, there is simply shoddy ownership, owners who don’t have any idea how to run a team. Third the abiliy of owners to control more than one team, which peaks in the 1890’s, especially in the destruction of Cleveland in 1899, makes them place their talent on one team and leaves the other to take it on the chin. Finally, the leagues are segregated and unable to draw on a rich pool of players that could and probably would have improved the play of the teams, including those that end up on the bottom. There are probably other reasons, and if you have one feel free to add it.

Baseball works best when teams are competitive. That doesn’t mean the same team can’t win year after year, but it does mean that someone must be able to challenge them for superiority. As this season is set to begin, there are teams that have no chance of winning a pennant, and others that are locks for the playoffs (unless the unforeseen occurs, which it frequently does). We are lucky that we are in an era where the number of truly awful teams is minimal. Pity the poor 19th Century fan that had to watch the teams listed above.

1884

March 30, 2010

Most baseball seasons go along pretty much the same. Very few of them end up being particularly memorable except for a few diehard fans, bloggers like me, and antiquarians whose job it is to study them. Case in point: who won the World Series in 1933? OK, if you looked it up you know the Giants beat the Senators in five games. If you went further, you found the MVPs, the stat leaders, and maybe a bit of info like it was the first All Star Game. But almost everybody had to look it up. But 1884 is different and memorable. It is arguably the most interesting year of  19th Century baseball for five reasons.

1. There are three leagues. It’s the first time the country tried to deal with three major leagues. As with the other two attempts (1890 and 1914-15) it was a failure. Henry Lucas was a son of wealth in St. Louis. A fan, he decided to form a new league to compete with the existing leagues (National League and American Association). There’s some dispute about his motivation. Some works cite his anger with the reserve rule (which bound a player to a team) and others favor something akin to an ego trip. Whichever you pick (and I tend to agree with ego trip) Lucas founded the Union Association in 1884. It lasted one season, was a disaster, and floundered almost immediately. The team in St. Louis ran away with the pennant going 94-19. If you add that up, it equals 113 games. The original schedule called for 112 games (got me, coach). Other teams managed records of 69-36, 58-47, but still others were 8-4, 2-6, 6-19, and 2-16. The team in St. Paul was the 2-6 team. It was in such bad shape it folded before ever playing a home game, the only major league team to never play before a home crowd. The competition was utterly uneven, and some teams never played each other (Winner St. Louis never played Milwaukee, the 8-4 team).  St. Paul obviously played almost no one. There were teams in Wilmington, NC and Altoona, PA., both nice enough towns, but not big enough in 1884 to support a big league franchise. Atloona managed to survive 25 games and Wilmington only 18. At the end of the season, the league was gone. You could argue it gave the major leagues one very good player (Tommy McCarthy) and that’s all. Bill James in his Historical Abstract  argues that the Union Association is not really a major league. I tend to agree with him. Major League Baseball doesn’t.

2. Charles Radbourn had the greatest season ever by any pitcher in the majors. Radbourn pitched for the Providence Grays. Early in the season the team’s other pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, bolted to the Union Association. Radbourn at that point agreed, for contractual and monetary considerations, to pitch every inning of every game for the remainder of the season. Well, it didn’t work out that way, but it came close. Read the following numbers closely. For the year Radbourn was 59 (or 60)-12 with 73 complete games, 441 strikeouts, 98 walks, 11 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.38 in 679 innings (not a record. The record is 680 by Will White in 1879). In fairness to modern pitchers, Radbourn wasn’t on a mound, and wasn’t 60’6″ away. His delivery was sidearm, and he could take a short run before releasing the pitch. Still, it’s a heck of a year. About the 59 (60) business. There are differences in the way wins were determined in 1884 and the modern method. Under the old way Radboun gets 60 wins, under our contemporary method he gets 59. So the modern Major Leagues recognize 59 wins, while his colleagues saw 60. I leave it to you to determine which you prefer. Me? Well, 60 is a nice round number.   

3. The first postseason playoffs were held in 1884. Radbourn led his Grays to the NL pennant by 10.5 games. Meanwhile, the New York Metropolitans (not the modern Mets) won the American Association title by 6.5. They challenged the Grays to a three game set, all to be played in New York, to determine a champion for the year. The Grays accepted and Radbourn continued to pitch as he’d done in the regular season and Providence won all three games with Radbourn pitching complete game (what else?) victories giving up no earned runs. The first “World Series” ended with a National League victory.

4. There was a home run explosion at Chicago. The park in Chicago was a little odd. The fences were short, less than 200 feet to right field. Previous seasons balls going over the fences were ruled doubles. In 1884, the team changed the rule to make them home runs. The White Stockings put up astronomical numbers by 19th Century standards, coming up with 149 homers in 112 games. That’s a team record that lasts until 1927 and the Murder’s Row Yankees. The big winner was Ned Williamson, the third baseman, who set a 19th Century record with 27 home runs, all but two at home. Three of his teammates, second baseman Fred Pfeffer, first baseman Cap Anson, and outfielder Abner Dalrymple also posted 20 or more home runs. Dan Brouthers of Buffalo hit 14 for the most of any player outside Chicago. The next year the White Stockings moved to a new park and Dalrmyple’s league leading 11 homers were the most by any of the Chicago four. It took until Babe Ruth in 1919 to best Williamson’s record.

5. Integration first occurred in 1884. The American Association Toledo Blue Stockings hired Moses Fleetwood Walker to be their catcher. Fleet Walker was a black American and the first to play in the Major Leagues. I’ve done a previous post on him, so will simply say here that he wasn’t well received (maybe the understatement of this blog ever) and was gone after the season ended. His brother Welday also got into five games (all in the outfield) and was gone at the end of the season. It took until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to reintegrate the big leagues.

So there’s 1884, it’s not so famous today. It is, after all, a long time ago. But it’s still one of the most important and interesting seasons in Major League history.

BTW there’s a new book out on the season that is supposed to center around Radbourn and his accomplishments. I haven’t read it, but if anyone has, I’d appreciate a quick review if possible.

Three Bills

March 29, 2010

Rosters contain lots of kinds of players. There are stars and superstars. There are role players and hangers on. There are has beens and never was types. The 19th Century had the same kinds of players. Most, even the greatest superstars of the era, are lost in the mists of time. No one who saw them play is alive to tell us what it was like to see them. Let me introduce you to three 19th Century stars, all named Bill.

Bill Joyce (on right)

Bill Joyce made is debut with the fledgling Player’s League in 1890. He played third base in Brooklyn hitting .252 and leading the league in walks with 123. It was good enough to get him a job when the Player’s League folded. He caught on with Boston in the American Association. In 65 games he hit .309, had 63 walks, and had 15 triples, good for third on the pennant winning Reds. Here he set a record not equalled until 1941. He reached base in 64 consecutive games (of the 65 he played). At the end of the season, the Association folded, and Joyce had to look for his third team, and third league, in as many years. In ’92 he caught on at Brooklyn where he led the team in home runs (6).  He sat out 1893, then popped up at Washington for the next three years. These are the heart of his career. He hit .355, .312, and .313.  He had 17 home runs in ’94 (tied for second in the league), 17 again in ’95 (again second, then led the league in home runs with 13 in 1896. His on base percentages also ranked in the top five in the NL during this period. Late in 1896, Washington traded him to the Giants. He had a good 49 games at the end of ’96, hit over .300 again in 1897 and led the Giants in triples, then closed out his career in 1898 by moving to first base where he hit .258 and led the team in home runs. He retired with a .293 average, 70 home runs, 609 RBIs, a .453 OBP, and 106 triples in 906 games. He died in 1941.

Bill Lange

Bill Lange was THE phenom of the 1890s. He was big for the era, had great speed and power, and seemingly had an aversion to playing in the east. The Colts (now the Cubs), spotted Lange and brought him from California to Chicago in 1893, where he stayed (at least when he wanted to stay) until 1899. He was an outfielder noted for his ability to track down anything in the field. The great story about him is that he crashed through a wall at full speed tracking down a fly ball which he caught. Most modern scholarship debunks the story, but it’s emblematic of how he was viewed, tough, determined, and fast. For all that, he never led the league in anything (except maybe handwringing on when will Lange report?). He played 813 games (never more than 123 in a season), hit. .330 with a .400 OBP, and a .458 slugging percentage. He tallied 1056 hits, 691 runs 350 stolen bases, and 579 RBIs in his seven year career. But every season the Colts had to wait on Lange. Seems he didn’t want to leave California for Chicago (there’s a joke there, and I’m not going to offend Chicago by using it). so he’d report late every season. Some of  it had to do with not wanting to mess with training, some of it was a hold out for more money, some seems to have been a genuine dislike for the “East.” All that being said, he was a heck of a player. He holds the Cubs record for batting average at .389 in 1895. He retired in 1899 to get married. Apparently his father-in-law didn’t want his daughter to marry a ballplayer (there’s another gag there). The marriage didn’t work out, but Lange stayed retired. He went into the insurance and real estate business and did well. He died in 1950.

Bill Shindle

Bill Shindle was a third baseman noted for his range (His 4.34 in 1892 is still the record for third basemen). He came to the majors in 1886 with Detroit, played on the 1887 pennant and “World Series” winning Wolverines, then went to the Orioles in the American Association when Detroit collapsed. He jumped to Philadelphia in the Player’s League revolt of 1890, remained in Philadelphia with the Phillies in 1891, was with the Orioles, now in the NL, in 1892 and 1893. When the Orioles moved John McGraw from short to third, Shindle went to Brooklyn where he finished his career in 1898. He hit .269 for that career, with no power, 759 RBIs, a .323 OBP, and 1564 hits in 1424 games. Not a great hitter, but Shindle was regarded for his glove (or hand as he seldom wore a glove). As mentioned earlier, he had great range numbers, leading the league three times, and leading in fielding percentage once with .922 in 1888. But that’s a little misleading. He had 122 errors in 1890 (when he played most of his games at short). So he could get to the ball, but throwing it seems to have been a problem. Other than the .922 in 1888, his highest fielding percentage was .895, until very late in his career when his range factor decreased. He was slowing down and unable to get to as many balls. He retired in 1898 aged 38 and died in 1936.

Ok, so what? Except for Lange they aren’t particularly superior ballplayers, you note. True. What they are is fairly representative of the kinds of players who wandered through the big leagues in the 1890s. You have a solid role player who finally achieves a few years of greatness. You get a phenom who lives up to his billing but tends to regard baseball as a bit of a lark. And you have a slick fielder who doesn’t hit badly, but doesn’t tear up the league either. Those should all sound familiar to you. Look around. Baseball is full of them today. Those players are the descendants of the three Bills of the 1890s.

John K. Tener: Pitcher, Governor and League President

March 28, 2010

John Kinley Tener's baseball card

Horatio Alger has come under fire in the last century or so. His stories of ragamuffin boys rising to greatness were never really true. Oh, it did happen, but not as frequently as Alger’s strories implied. One of the men it happened to was John Kinley Tener.

Tener was born in Ireland in 1863. His widowed mother brought the family to the US. She died the same year leaving Tener an orphan. He managed to complete his schooling and started work in a steel factory in Pittsburgh, where he played for the local ball team. He spent the years 1885-1888 pitching for semi-pro and local teams. He was good enough to come to the attention of Chicago manager Cap Anson. He played for the second place White Stockings, going 11-7 with more strikeouts than walks and an ERA of 2.74 in 12 games. The season ended with a world tour to promote baseball. Tener went along, was chosen the team treasurer, and came to the attention of John Montgomery Ward. Ward made him Secretary of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players and he followed the union to the Player’s League in 1890. He left baseball following the collapse of the Brotherhood’s league with a record of 25-31 and 174 strikeouts in 506 innings.

Governor John Kenley Tener

He tried banking and was successful. He became a major civic leader, serving on the board of a bridging company and a railway line. In 1908 he ran for election as a Republican to the US House of Representatives from the 24th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. He ousted seven term congressman Ernest F. Acheson. In Washington his chief claim to fame was the creation of the Congressional baseball game which is still held. In 1911 he was elected Governor of Pennsylvania with 42% of the vote (there were three candidates), becoming the first Governor of Pennsylvania born outside the US since the 18th Century.

As Governor, Tener was a mild Progressive, supporting road improvement, regulation of public utilities, and public school reform. He set up an old age pension program for widows, one of the first in the nation. This made him popular and somewhat polarizing. In 1913, baseball came calling again.

The National League was having severe problems in the middle of the decade. The American League was outstripping them in both attendance and in playing skill. Much of the problem was supposed to be a lack of firm leadership at the top. In 1913 the league moguls decided not to renew the term of league President (Thomas Lynch). They offered the job to Tener. He accepted, but refused to take salary ($25,000 per year) while also receiving his salary as Governor of Pennsylvania. He held both jobs until April, 1915.

As NL President, Tener had to face the growing clout of the AL and the 1914 challenge of the newly formed Federal League. He did better against the Feds than against the AL. He attacked the Feds at every opportunity, and was instrumental in pushing through the settlement that led to the collapse of the new league in 1915. He vigorously opposed gambling and issued stringent rules againt umpire-baiting by players and managers. This led inevitably to a confrontation with Giants manager John J. McGraw. In June 1917 he suspended McGraw for striking an umpire. McGraw drew a 16 day suspension and a $500 fine. McGraw, being McGraw, told anyone who would listen, including the newspapers, what he thought of Tener and where Tener and all his relations could go. Tener responded by upping the fine to $1500 (this is more or less equivalent to Judge Landis suspending Babe Ruth in the 1920s).  That helped him get a one year contract extension as NL President. He served the year and retired in 1918, one year before the Black Sox scandal occurred and two years before it exploded into the headlines. His worries about gambling seemed to be true.

In retirement he returned to his business interests, ran again for Governor of Pennsylvania (he lost, coming in third), and ultimately becoming a director of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s. He died in 1946, aged 82.

Tener led an interesting and involved life. He moves from baseball to banking to politics and back to baseball with ease. His Horatio Alger story is true. But more importantly,  as far as I can tell he’s the only state Governor to have a baseball card (an 1880s cigarette card). Now that’s worth celebrating.

My Diamond’s Bigger Than Your Diamond

March 27, 2010

Baseball has had a lot of interesting owners. Some have been saints, some downright evil. Some have been clowns, some have been thoughtful. Then there’s Chris von der Ahe.

Born in Germany, von der Ahe ended up in St. Louis with it’s large German community. He clerked in a grocery, bought the place, then added in a saloon. He began to make good money and started looking around for more investments. He realized that some of the biggest crowds in the city gathered at the ballpark when the local Browns were playing and that a spillover to the bars after the game was common. So the solution to his problem? Buy the team.

n 1882 he bought the Browns (they are now the Cardinals) for $1800 and joined the fledgling American Association. Von der Ahe had a good team already, but didn’t know it. In fact, he knew almost nothing of baseball, except that the park was a good place to sell beer. His manager was Charles Comiskey, who had to manage the team, play first base, watch what von der Ahe was doing, and teach the owner how the game worked.

It worked pretty well for a while. The Browns won four stratight Association pennants 1885-1888, and picked up a “World Series” win (or two depending on how you figure forfeits and ties). They fell on hard times at the end of the 1880’s but survived and joined the National League in the fallout of the collapse of the American Association.

Von der Ahe got rich on the deal. He made a vast sum off the Browns and his beer. By charging 25 cents for the cheapest tickets, he managed to keep the stands full. In fact, they overflowed. So von der Ahe built a new, state of the art for the 1880s park. It was big, it was gaudy, there were bands, an amusement park, a water slide, a beer garden (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?) a few cushioned seats, and a larger-than-lifesize statue of von der Ahe at the entrance. That may be my favorite von der Ahe story. Most of us would put a statue of our best player there, but not the head Brown. According to legend he invented the ballpark hot dog at this point as a way to make more money.

Also according to legend, the man never could quite understand the game. With his new park he announced he now had the biggest diamond in the world. Comiskey kept reminding him that all the diamonds were the same size: 90 feet to a side. The outfield might be bigger, the stands larger, but not the diamond. To von der Ahe it was always the biggest diamond in the world.

He tried his hand at managing. Considering how little he understood the game, the results were predictable. He went 3-14 in stints in 1895, ’96, and ’97.

The Statue over Von Der Ahe's grave

By this point his world was coming unglued. The new park was expensive to maintain, the team wasn’t very good, his wife was divorcing him. He went deeper into debt and in 1898 fire gutted part of the ballpark. He was forced to sell the team and ended up tending bar. He lngered into 1913 before dying of cirrhosis. When they buried him, they found the park statue and erected it over his grave. It stands there today, a fitting monument to one of the most fun people who ever found himself associated with baseball.

The Brotherhood Revolts

March 26, 2010

Sometimes you’ve just had enough. You’ve had those days, right? It’s one damn stupid thing after another. It’s one thing too many, it’s…well, you know, it’s your Howard Beale moment, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” (See the movie Network). The same kind of thing happened in baseball way back in 1889. It was just one too many slaps at the players by the owners. They responded by forming a new league, the last league run by players.

During the late 1880s the leaders of both major leagues, the National League and the American Assoiciation, tried to control costs by setting the equivilent of the modern salary cap. They announced that no player could earn more than $2500 a season. It’s not a great salary in 1890, but not an awful one either.  Just prior to this announcement, John Montgomery Ward had formed the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union (love it or hate it). Many, but certainly not all, the players joined. Their anger at the salary cap was such that they decided to act.

The late 1880s is not a particularly good time for labor unions. They were seen as rabble rousers, as anarchists (The very idea of Monte Ward as an anarchist is laughable.), as not knowing their place, etc. There were no federal laws protecting them, no law granting a right to strike in certain circumstances, no binding arbitration. So many of the modern ways a union can attack what it perceives as an evil were not available or were illegal at the time. Ward came up with an alternative. They players would form their own league and would call it the Player’s League.

The Player’s League began operation in 1890 in the following cities: Boston, Brooklyn, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Every team except Buffalo was in direct competition with a National League team, and Brooklyn had three teams. With only a smattering of new players, the new league drew most of its players from the established Major Leagues. As an example of what happened here’s the starting eight for the 1889 winner of the “World Series,” the New York Giants: Jim O’Rourke, Mike Tiernan, and George Gore in the outfield; Roger Connor, Danny Richardson, Monte Ward, Art Whitney in the infield; and Buck Ewing catching. In 1890 only Tiernan was still with the Giants, who slipped all the way to sixth. Connor, Richardson, Whitney, O’Rourke, Gore, and Ewing were now all with the Player’s League team in New York, with Ewing as manager. Ward was the manager of the Player’s League Brooklyn entry.

The team from Boston, the Reds, won the pennant going 81-48 and winning by 6.5 games over Brooklyn. Hall of Fame players Dan Brouthers, King Kelly (who also managed), and Charles Radbourne played for Boston along with a number of stars of the day. Pete Browning won the batting title, Billy Shindle led in total bases, Connor in home runs, Harry Stovey in stolen bases, Mark Baldwin in pitching wins, and Silver King in ERA. King also threw the only no hitter in the league (besting Brooklyn).

In the stands, the new league did well, sort of. By June the Player’s League led in attendance by about 10,000 over the NL (and almost 20,000 over the Association). The gap, particularly with the Association continued to grow. But there was a problem developing. The United States of 1890 simply couldn’t sustain three Major Leagues. Most teams were hemorraging money, especially the bottom few teams in all three leagues. Salaries were up, especially among the Player’s League teams, and there just weren’t enough fans in the stands to pay for it. In the National League in particular, the owners had much larger sums of money to weather the storm than the players. When the season ended with a World Series between NL winner Brooklyn and Association winner Louisville, the Player’s League was shut out, thus losing another source of revenue.

The Player’s League went under 14 January 1891. The Brotherhood simply didn’t have the funds to keep going. They managed to get, everything considered, a reasonably good deal. Most of their players got back into the two established leagues (but more of the truly superior players ended up in the NL, to disastrous consequences for the Association). Brotherhood president Ward became the new manager of the NL team in Brooklyn (I guess that means he didn’t have to move). Two teams, Boston and Chicago, were not scrapped. They shifted into the Association. They were the final pieces of the Player’s League. They, like the American Association, lasted one more season.

The Player’s League was the second league formed by the players. It met the same fate as the 1870’s National Association. The  players, even with well educated men like Monte Ward leading them, simply lacked the expertise to make a league go. They also lacked financial backing to survive. Before we take too much time and criticize the players, it should be noted that there were five “Major” Leagues formed in the 19th Century: National Association, National League, American Association, Union Association, and the Player’s League. Only the National League survived. If both player organized leagues failed, so too did two of the three owner organized leagues. It was a tough business, owner or player.

The Antithesis of Baltimore

March 25, 2010

Kid Nichols

There were two truly great teams playing in the National League in the 1890’s. Very few teams have been more unalike. The Orioles were loud, obnoxious, rowdy, obnoxious, dirty, obnoxious, full of fight (did I mention obnoxious?). Their counterparts were the Boston Beaneaters.

Unlike Baltimore, Boston had a tradition of winning teams, at least in the 1870s. The city could claim the last four National Association pennants and two of the first three National League pennants. They’d even won the only Player’s League championship.

After spending most of the 1880s outside the rarified air of pennant contenders, Boston got back in contention in 1889, then slid back in 1890 when the Player’s League raided them. One significant change occured in 1890, they brought in Frank Selee to manage the team. Selee was a minor league manager who had been incredibly successful and was brought on board to revamp the team. It worked.

The Beaneaters (as I’ve said before, what a terrible team nickname) were the antithesis of the Orioles. They played solid, fundamental, unspectacular baseball. They didn’t brawl, they didn’t fight. They hit well, they played good defense, and they pitched really, really well. Like Baltimore, they are credited with inventing the hit and run. I don’t know which, if either, actually did it. In 1891, ’92, and ’93 they won pennants and took the 1892 split season postseason series against Cleveland by winning five straight games after a first game tie. They slipped to third in 1894, fifth in ’95, and fourth again in ’96, then roared back to the top in both 1897 and 1898. They finished second in 1899 and finished the century in fourth.

Lots of players rotated through the Beaneaters during the final decade of the 19th Century, but the core of the team consisted of 10 or so players: first baseman Tommy Tucker, second baseman (and converted outfielder) Bobby Lowe, shortstop Herman Long, third baseman Billy Nash (who was replaced late in the run by Jimmy Collins), center fielder Hugh Duffy, the two left fielders Tommy McCarthy and Billy Hamilton, and pitchers Kid Nichols, Harry Staley, and Jake Stivetts. Of that crew Duffy, McCarthy, Hamilton, Collins, and Nichols (along with Selee) later made the Hall of Fame.

If John McGraw stood as the ultimate Oriole, the centerpiece of the Boston team was Kid Nichols. Along with Cy Young he is one of the greatest pitchers of the 19th Century. During the 1891-98 run he averaged 31 wins and 14 losses for a winning percentage of .688. He made the transition to 60’6″ and a mound easily, his record going from 35-16 to 34-14 at the change. In 1896, ’97, and ’98 he led the league in wins (you aren’t going to lead often if you have Cy Young in the league). For the century he was 310-167, a .650 winning percentage.

Like Baltimore, the Beaneaters didn’t do well in Temple Cup play, losing the only series (1897) they entered. As stated in earlier posts involving the Temple Cup, first place teams tended to take the games as exhibitons and figured that winning the regular season was enough. Boston was no exception.

These were the glory days of the National League team in Boston. The American League put a team in the city in 1901 and the Beaneaters waned about the same time. The new team, now the Red Sox, won and thus became the darlings of New England. The National League team faded in both the standings and in fans. By the 1950s it was in enough trouble it moved to Milwaukee. Although the new team in Milwaukee, and later in Atlanta, returned to glory, it was a sad end to a great franchise in Boston.

I hate to go out on a sad note. Late in their history, the Boston NL team, now called the Braves, called up a lefty pitcher named Warren Spahn. Put him together with Nichols and you get what is surely the best left-right combination produced by a single franchise in baseball history.

The Mighty Orioles

March 24, 2010

John McGraw

There is no question that the most famous team of the 1890s is the Baltimore Orioles (not to be confused with the modern Orioles). Their fame in some ways borders on infamy. They were tough, they were colorful, they were winners. They were the brawlers who put up great numbers and had unforgetable players.

There had been a Major League team in Baltimore as far back as 1872. None of them had done particularly well. There had been a second place finish a time or two, but no pennants. When the National League was formed in 1876 it bypassed Baltimore. The same was true of the American Association when it started in 1882. In 1883, the Association added the Orioles to their league. They finished last. In 1884 they rose to fourth and finished last, last, third, fifth, fifth, sixth, and fourth in the remaining years of the Association (1885-91). In other words, they weren’t very good very often. In 1892 the National League decided the American Association was dragging down the Major Leagues and convinced four teams, including Baltimore, to change leagues. It killed the Association and set up a twelve team league. For Baltimore nothing changed. They finished last. By 1893 they were up to eighth, then things did change.

The 1894 Orioles won the National League pennant by three games, marking a 29 game improvement (60 wins vs. 89). What happened? Essentially they changed their roster. Hall of Fame manager Ned Hanlon moved to replace or reassign most of his losing team. The infield of 1893 consisted of (from first to third) Harry Taylor, Heinie Reitz, John McGraw, and Billy Shindle.  In 1894 Dan Brouthers was now at first, McGraw had moved to third, and Hughie Jennings had taken his place at short. Only Reitz remained at the same spot in the field where he led all second basemen in fielding. The 1893 outfield was (from left around to right) Jim Long, Joe Kelley, and George Treadway. In ’94 Kelley (who moved from center to left), Steve Brodie, and Willie Keeler became the standard outfield.. Wilbert Robinson remained the catcher. In 1893 three pitchers won ten or more games: Sadie MacMahon, Tony Mullane, and Bill Hawke.  All three were still there in ’94 although Millane won only nine games. Kid Gleason and Bert Inks joined the staff as ten game winners. In other words, it’s basically a new team, particularly among the hitters.

For the three year span from 1894 through 1896, the former woebegone Orioles won three straight pennants, capping the ’96 race by 9.5 games. They slipped to second in 1897, losing to Boston by two games, then coming in second again in 1898, this time by six games.  In 1899 they dropped to fourth and were disbanded when the National League contracted in 1900.

The Orioles were noted for a rough style of play, some called it downright dirty. They would trip players rounding the bases, throw at batters, go into the stands to slug it out with fans. If you were from Baltimore you loved them. The rest of baseball hated them. But in all of that they played good team ball. In 1896, 1897, and 1898 they lead, as a team, the NL in several major offensive categories (and in ’96 it was almost all of them).  Except for Reitz in 1894 no Oriole led the league in any offensive category (Reitz led in triples in ’94) until 1897 and 1898 when Keeler led in hits runs and batting in ’97 and again in hits in ’98. Additionally McGraw led the NL in runs in 1898, and new outfielder Jake Stenzel picked up a doubles title in 1897. What they did was play as a team. The invented the “Baltimore chop” (hitting down on the ball to create an infield single). They get credit for the hit and run, although that’s disputed.

The defining player was John J. McGraw, the third baseman. He was tough, pugnacious, humorless, and a great ballplayer. As mentioned above he only led the league in a single category one time (runs), but he, more than manager Hanlon, set the tone for the team.  Unofficially, he led the team, and the league, in umpire baiting, ejections, fights, and creative use of the English language. All the while he was learning how to manage and soon after the turn of the century he would take over the New York Giants and become the second winningest manager ever (including three World Series victories).

During the Orioles run the Temple Cup series was played for a few years. This was a series of games played at the end of the season between the first and second place finishers in the National League. It was never very popular nor very successful and the pennant winner tended to not take the series seriously. Frankly they’d just won the pennant and had nothing to prove, so the games were viewed as exhibitions by the winners. Consequently, the second place team won most of the Temple Cup series’. The Orioles won the thing in 1896 and 1897.

Although Hanlon, McGraw, Jennings, Keeler, Brouthers, Kelley, and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame, it’s really tough to root for the Orioles. There’s just too much thuggery going on. I have to admit, though, I like their intensity and think I’d have enjoyed seeing them play at least a handful of times.

Decimation of a Team

March 23, 2010

There was a policy in the 19th Century that one man could own interest in two different Major League teams. It started out innocently enough because some teams were struggling and it was in the interest of the league to keep them afloat. So an owner of one team would loan the other money to help the second team survive the season. In return he could claim a stake in the team. This began to spiral, other factors got involved, owners worked to set up cabals and partnerships, and by 1899 it had reached the point were certain individuals owned two teams. One such combination was St. Louis and Cleveland.

Frederick and Stanley Robison owned the Cleveland Spiders (not the same team as the modern Indians). By 1899 they had also gained a controlling interest in the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals). St. Louis provided a significantly greater baseball market than Cleveland (St Louis was the fourth largest market in the US in 1899), so the Robisons decided to put all their good ballplayers on one team and try to capture a pennant with the St. Louis team.

In 1898 the Cleveland starting eight were Patsy Tabeau (who also managed), Cupid Childs, Larry McKean, and Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace in the infield. The outfield was Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett, Jim McAleer, and Harry Blake. The catcher was Lou Criger, and three pitchers had double figure wins: Cy Young, Jack Powell, and Zeke Wilson. They finished fifth. By 1899 all of them except McAleer, who was out of the Major Leagues, were at St. Louis in 1899. With Tabeau again managing, they managed fifth place, the same place Cleveland finished the year previously.

The Spiders got what was the worst of the two rosters dumped in the same place, added in a few rookies, tossed in a couple of old-timers trying to hang on and attempted to create a viable team. What they got was a disaster. Third baseman Lave Cross took over as manager. Thirty-eight games into the season the team was 8-30 and Cross was hitting .286. He was promptly sold to St Louis where he took over much of the third base work. Backup outfielder Ossee Schreckengost hit .313 and took 43 games to end up in St. Louis where he settled in as a backup catcher. Starting catcher Chief Zimmer hit .342 and got out after only 20 games.

When Cross left for St. Louis, second baseman Joe Quinn got the managerial job. He stayed the entire year, despite hitting .286 with 72 RBIs and 176 hits (a sure call to St. Louis if Cleveland hadn’t needed a manager). The team hit .253, dead last in the league, was last in slugging, in RBIs (by more than 100), runs (by almost 200), hits, doubles, triples, home runs (although only by one homer), stolen bases, fans in the stands, hot dogs sold, and just about anything else you can think of.

If possible, the pitching was worse. Jim Hughey went 4-30, Charlie Knepper 4-22, Frank Bates was 1-18. The team ERA was 6.37 almost two full runs higher than the next team (Washington at 4.93). Harry Lochhead pitched 3.2 innings, gave up no earned runs, and became the only pitcher without a losing record. He went 0-0.

The last half of the season, Cleveland played every game on the road, even “home” games. No one was in the Cleveland park (except maybe the grounds crew) and the only way to pick up any money was to go on the road. Apparently on the rare occasions anyone showed up, the most common sound was “boo” and beer sales exceeded hot dogs and peanuts (Wouldn’t watching this team make you want to drink?).

They finished (hide your eyes if you’re squemish) 20-134, 84 games out of first. Their winning percentage was .130. By comparison the infamous 1962 Mets had a winning percentage of .250 and only finished 60.5 games out of first. The Spiders went 11-101 on the road and 9-33 in Cleveland. It was, as I said earlier, a disaster.

Fortunately it did change a few things. The National League had twelve teams and it was becoming increasingly evident that it couldn’t sustain that many and be profitable. So for 1900, four teams were eliminated. The Spiders were one of them. A handful of the players let go when the league contracted were pretty good. Western Association president Ban Johnson scooped up most of them and they became part of the nucleus of the American League in 1901. Because the other owners with two teams had done the same thing as the Robison brothers, all four eliminated teams were owned by other teams. This brought, by default, an end to dual ownership. As far as I can tell, that was unintended.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for the players. It must have been awful knowing you were going to lose every day. It had to have been a gnawing hurt for both managers, knowing that no matter what you tried, you just didn’t have the talent to compete. Mostly I feel sorry for the fans. They put out money to see competitive baseball and got the Spiders instead. After 42 games they just quit coming.

What happened in Cleveland was horrific. It is a great blackmark on baseball. There were bad teams before, there’ve been bad teams since, but nothing like the Spiders.

“And I Have Put My Words in Thy Mouth…

March 22, 2010

Billy Sunday

…and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand.” Isaiah 51:16 (KJV)

In an earlier post I mentioned that my family always used to say there were three things you didn’t debate, you argued: sports, politics, and religion. And that you never, ever combined any two. I combined sports and politics earlier, now I’d like to combine sports and religion and introduce you to Billy Sunday.

William Ashley Sunday was born in Iowa in November 1862. His father died shortly afterward of illness while on campaign in the American Civil War. When his mother went broke in 1872 and couldn’t care for Sunday and his older brother, she sent both to an orphan’s home. The home provided Sunday with an education and began honing his baseball skills. After a sojourn in Nevada, he was playing with the Middletown, Iowa fire department team by 1880. In 1882, he caught the attention of Cap Anson, native of Middletown and leader of the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs). Sunday joined the Cubs in 1883 playing 14 games, all in the outfield. He hit .241 with four doubles. By 1884 he was up to 43 games in the outfield hitting .222.  The 1885 season brought the White Stockings a pennant and Sunday became the primary man off the bench. He hit .256 in the season and .273 in six games in the postseason, all in center field. He was on the bench again in 1886 and missed the postseason altogether. His speed was beginning to make him a more valuable player to Anson and in 1887 he took over as the regular right fielder and leadoff man. He hit .291 in 1887, but the Cubs lost and Sunday was sent to Pittsburgh in 1888. He spent three years with the Alleghenys hitting .236, .240, and .257. Late in the 1890 season he was traded to Philadelphia where he played 31 games hitting .261. It was the end of this period of his life.

For his career, Billy Sunday hit .248 over 499 games with 339 runs scored, 246 stolen bases (the number is incomplete for 1883-85), 170 RBIs and 12 home runs. He pitched to one batter in 1890, gave up a hit, and left the mound. The man didn’t score so he had no ERA. Not a great career. He found himself a substitute most of it. Somewhere along the line he also found God.

There are a number of stories relating to Sunday’s religious conversion. According to Sunday’s own account, which I’ll accept as genuine, he had been something of a carouser (a word you don’t hear much anymore) while playing ball, but never one of the worst offenders. In 1886, he attended a service at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. The mission was a combination church, homeless shelter, drunk tank, and rescue mission in Chicago which claims, with its founding in 1877, to be the oldest continuously operating main street mission in the US. I remember my hometown had an organization like this when I was growing up. It specialized in getting drunks off the streets, feeding them, giving them a place to sleep and adding on a good dose of fundamentalist Christianity. I knew one fellow who claimed to have been “saved” six times, and that every one was worth the good meal and the warm bed that followed. This experience led to Sunday’s conversion and ultimately to the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church where he met and married one of congregation.

Between 1891 and 1896 Sunday spent time in Chicago working for the YMCA and other religious and charitable organizations. By 1896 he was ready to strike out on his own and became a more or less fulltime evangelist. It would consume the rest of his life.

Now let me take a minute and clear up a couple of points here. Sunday was neither a Pentecostal nor a faith healer. He professed a fundamentalist Christianity that was extremely common in his day, but is less so today. He is more akin in his theology to William Jennings Bryan than he is to Oral Roberts, or Jim Bakker, or any other modern television preacher. If forced to compare him to a modern American evangelist, I’d reluctantly pick Billy Graham, and put the emphasis heavily on reluctantly.

What Sunday was, apparently, was a heck of a preacher. His sermons were called spellbinding and uplifting and God-sent. He went from tent to tabernacle to church and back to tent and never missed a beat. His message was a simple version of sin and conversion and he would frequently throw in one of his baseball stories for emphasis. Without trying to compare the men, take a look at Bert Lancaster’s sermons in the movie Elmer Gantry. He’s supposed to have patterned his style on Sunday.

His message suffered in the aftermath of World War I. The Great War destroyed much in Western Civilization, including a belief in a benevolent God who cared about the average individual (And by that statement I take no stand on whether I agree or not. I merely state a reality). His audiences waned, but he continued preaching his message until his death in 1935.

When I first mentioned to some people I was going to do this post, I was asked a fairly obvious question, “You think Sunday would have seen ‘the light’ if he’d been hitting .348 instead of .248?” To be absolutely truthful, I have no idea. I’d like to think that Billy Sunday was an honest man and saw some need in his life that brought him to God via a Christian conversion experience, but I don’t know for sure. I am willing to take him at his word that he didn’t find God so much as God found him.