Archive for May, 2010

1910:The End of May

May 30, 2010

There’s an excellent chance I won’t be blogging more in May, so I want to add in the next of my posts on the 1910 season. This one’s focus is the situation at the end of May, one and a half months into the season.

The month of May saw a shake out in the standings in both leagues, particularly the American League. Each AL team had played between 40 and 32 games with the Philadelphia Athletics taking over first place with a 26-9-1 record. They were two games up on the New York Highlanders (now the Yankees). The A’s infield was producing well and the pitching was leading the league. Chief Bender, as mentioned in a previous post, had thrown a no-hitter. The Tigers and Red Sox were in thrid and fourth place 5 and 7 games back. Both had shown spurts of good hitting, but were having pitching problems.

But the real problems were in the second division of the AL. Cleveland was already 10.5 games back and Washington 11.5. Nap LaJoie at Cleveland was doing well and would ultimately challenge for the league lead in hitting. At Washington, Walter Johnson was beginning to turn into the dominant pitcher who would take his place in Cooperstown 25 years later. The White Sox were already 13 games back and woeful St. Louis Browns were 7-28-2 and 19 games out of first (12 out of the first division). They were the only team yet to win ten games.

The National League was more competitive at this point. The Chicago Cubs were in first, but only a half game ahead of the New York Giants. The Cubs infield was doing well as was the pitching. The Cubs staff had only allowed 94 runs by this point. The third place Pirates were 3.5 back and the Cincinnati Reds at four back rounded out the upper division.

The lower division was in better shape than their American League counterparts. St. Louis was six back, Brooklyn eight back, and Phillies 8.5. All were in easy range of the first division and still in contention for a pennant. The Boston Doves (now the Atlanta Braves) were in last place 9.5 back with a record of 13-23-1 (better than either the White Sox or Browns in the AL). So at this point the NL was much more wide open.

By the end of June much will change and the races will be shaping up nicely. A couple of other things will also occur and will be dealt with when the time arrives.

Hit Sign, Win Suit

May 29, 2010

Abe Stark (center)

If baseball has a cathedral, it’s Yankee Stadium. But for most of the first half of the Twentieth Century there was a second one that was almost as famous. It was in Brooklyn and called Ebbets Field. It was home of the Dodgers and home of some of the quirkiest people who ever graced a ballpark. Hilda Chester may be the most famous, but Abe Stark was the more significant. 

Stark was born in 1893, became a tailor, and in 1915 opened a clothing store at 1514 Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. The store did well and Stark made money. There is dispute about how much of a baseball fan he really was. Some claim he was an entrepreneur who saw a way to make a buck, others say he was a fan and saw an opening on the stadium wall. 

Whatever the reason, in 1931 Stark bought space on the outfield wall of Ebbets Field. There was an open space just below the right-center scoreboard. Stark stuck his sign there. It read, “Hit Sign, Win Suit.”  The deal was that if a player hit the sign on the fly he would win a suit. There’s a lot of disagreement about how often the sign was hit. Some sources indicate almost never, others say a few times a year. There’s universal agreement that Mel Ott of the Giants did it first. There was, of course, a running joke that the Dodgers had two right fielders, the current holder of the job and Stark who stood in front of his sign to ward off hits. (Didn’t happen.) 

Apparently the official scorer would inform Stark anytime the sign was hit and at the end of the season, or the last time the opposing player was in town during the season, the lucky guy could pick up his suit. If he hit the sign more than once, he got more than one suit. The player didn’t get a top-of-the-line suit, but got a fairly inexpensive one (I’m trying not to call it a “cheap suit”). In Bob McGee’s The Greatest Ballpark Ever (certainly worth a read) there’s a story by the infielder Woody English to the effect that he won three suits, didn’t like the looks of the ones he was offered and agreed to take one suit of much better quality.  One story states that Stark was so grateful for Carl Furillo’s work in saving him money that he gave him a pair of pants as a gift for being a great right fielder. I couldn’t find any comment from Furillo acknowledging it ever really happened. 

The sign made Stark famous. In 1954 he was elected President of the New York City Council and served in the job until 1961, ironically the period when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. He closed the store in 1959, two years after the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles. In 1962 he was elected President of the Borough of Brooklyn, holding the job until 1970. He died two years later. 

Stark’s name is still around in Brooklyn. A school is named for him, as is a senior center and a skating facility. Not bad for a guy most famous for a sign in a ballpark. 

BTW–the woman in the picture above is Dorothy Hamill, later Olympic figure skating champion.

Stamp Collecting

May 28, 2010

I collect stamps. It’s a fun hobby, teaches me things, occupies time, and in the words of Winston Churchill talking about hobbies in general “focuses the hand and eye and thus relaxes the mind.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to the value of a stamp, age, rarity, condition, and popularity. The last is interesting. Assuming that two stamps, one from Britain and the other from Botswana, are equally old, equally rare, and in equal condition, the  British stamp will be worth more simply because no one collects Botswana stamps and everybody collects Brits (an obvious exaggeration, but not by much). But of course the other factors, especially rarity,  matter also.

I find these stamp collecting rules applies to baseball. Two pitchers have equal abilities, equal up side, etc. One is right-handed, the other a lefty. Which is more valuable? The lefty, of course. Why? Well, they are simply harder to find so everybody tries to collect the quality southpaw first, knowing there’s always another righty out there somewhere if you can just find him.

I’m not a big fan of the WAR stat when it comes to pitchers. The hitters stat isn’t bad, but the pitchers stat gives some really goofy results. Did you know that Kevin Brown was better than Carl Hubbell? Neither did I (or anyone else). Did you know that you’d rather have Bret Saberhagen than Sandy Koufax? Who knew? But the list is valuable for a couple of things (like reminding one why a rigid formula isn’t the best way to evaluate baseball players). Want to know how hard it is to find a quality southpaw pitcher? Take a look at this list: Grove, Spahn, Johnson, Carlton, Plank, Glavine, Hubbell, John, Koosman, Newhouser, Ford, Tanana, Finley, Koufax, Pierce. That’s the top fifteen left-handed pitchers according to WAR (I’m not going to comment on whether the order is silly or sane, it’s just the list in order). The problem is that Grove is seventh on the list and Pierce is 66th. That means there are 51 right-handed pitchers better than the 15th best lefty (and maybe there are).

Again I’m not arguing that the list should have Pierce higher or lower, merely that there are a lot more good right-handers than left-handers (who make up from nine to 13% of the population depending on who you believe). That alone makes them, like the British stamp, more valuable than the righty (or the Botswana stamp) to Major League clubs. Unfortunately for me, my son was right-handed. I’m trying to get him to teach his son to throw lefty. We could use the money.

Knocking Yourself In

May 27, 2010

I’ve just invented a new stat, actually two. OK, I just heard that “Oh, God, not another one” groan. Bear with me here. I have high hopes for this one. Other people have gotten a lot of Benjamins off their stats. I hope to gain at least a couple of Abes off mine.

There’s been a lot of talk among baseball nuts about the RBI as an overrated stat, and I’ll admit that it can be such. But it also has value. So I started looking at the stat and remembered a lot of consternation back in the early 2000s when opposing teams would walk Barry Bonds with a man on base, thus cutting down on his chance to pick up an RBI (or two or more it he parked one). That led me to ask myself  “Self, I wonder how many of Bonds’ RBIs are himself (a homer) and how many are somebody else.” Self didn’t know, so I decided to look it up and in doing so came up with the following stats (drum roll,please). The first is RBI’s-not self (RBI-NS–catchy, right). Basically you take the player’s home runs and subtract them from his RBI’s giving you RBI-NS (remember, when the lawsuit comes, you heard this here first). For Bonds, as our example, you get 1996 minus 762 for a total of 1234 (honest to God) total men Bonds drove in who were already on base when he came to bat. 

The second stat is, and you knew this was coming,  percentage of RBI’s that are not self (%RBI-NS–equally catchy, right?). This is figured by dividing the RBI-NS number by the total number of RBIs. In Bonds’ case that’s 1234 divided by 1996 for a 62% total (rounded). That means 62% of Bonds’ RBIs are men already on base.

I think these stats have some value because they do let you know how much the team contributed to a player’s RBI total. They also give you some new ways to compare players directly (of course they don’t account for things like high scoring eras or park effects). And finally, I think they are fun to note.

So here’s a look at some of the totals as of 25 May 2010 (for active players). I took every player with 500 home runs and the next four down (Lou Gehrig, Fred McGriff, Stan Musial, Willie Stargell) because I was curious about Gehrig and Musial. What I found was an almost numbing consistency. Of the 25 players with 500 or more homers, Mark McGwire has only 59% of his RBIs being someone other than himself (that’s the low). Of the same group, Eddie Murray has the highest percentage (74%) of his RBIs being someone other than himself. Everyone else is in the 15 point range between them. That’s not much of a swing. Pick a player, pick an era, pick a team, and you get pretty much the same numbers. Ruth? 68%. Aaron? 67%. Mantle? 64%. Ted Williams 72%. All darned close to each other. Of all the guys I tried, Musial had the highest percentage at 76%, with Gehrig next at 75%. Those kind of figure because each had a ton of RBIs and less home runs than the guys above them on the homer list, which should be expected. After all, the 500 home run guy with the highest percentage is Murray, the guy with the lowest home run total.

Now that I did all this (“You have to get out more,” I hear you say) I decided to look at a couple of Deadball Era players, Cobb and Wagner. Of course each has a ton of RBIs and almost no home runs. Cobb’s %RBI-NS is 94%. So is Wagner’s. Then I did Cap Anson and got 95%. So this stat is skewed in the Deadball Era, but is still fun to look at.

Feel free to use it, (if you’re silly enough) to check on any player you want. Just send the $5.00 to me care of wordpress.

Tom, Dick, and Larry: Larry

May 26, 2010

Larry Doyle

Like a number of players from the Deadball Era, Larry Doyle came out of the mines. His mines were in Breese, Illinois. He hated the mines, loved baseball, was better at the latter than the former and after a couple of years in the minors ended up in New York with the Giants in 1907.

Doyle was a third baseman in the minors and the Giants had a third baseman (Art Devlin). What they needed was a second baseman, so Doyle was handed the job. He was awful. Eventually he got better, but was never considered a first-rate second baseman. He seems to have never gotten the knack of coming in properly for a slow roller  and many of his errors were of the glove, not arm, kind.

What he could do well was hit. He moved quickly into the two hole in the Giants order and spent most of the next ten years as a reliable two hitter. He had good bat control, speed, and a good eye, all critical in a bunt oriented one-run-at-a-time offense. He led the National League in triples once (1911), in hits twice, and in doubles once. In 1915 he won the batting crown. In 1912 he won the NL’s Chalmers Award, the 19-teens version of the MVP award, setting career highs in both average and RBIs. His reward was a Chalmers automobile, which he managed to wreck in 1913 causing him to miss several games toward the end of the season.

During his tenure with the Giants, the team won the NL pennant in 1911-1913, but lost all three World Series’ to the American League team. In the 1911 Series Doyle led the team in hits (7) and average (.304). In 1912 his Series performance was much worse, and got even worse in 1913 when he managed to hit only .150 with three hits.

Doyle stayed with the Giants through 1915, managing to room with Christy Mathewson for most of the period. The two men became good friends and were very good at coming up with joint investments, which left Doyle with a nice nest egg for his early retirement years. He also became great friends with first baseman Fred Merkle and always supported him against detractors after the base running blunder of 1908.

In 1916 Doyle was traded to the Cubs with nine games left in the season (the Giants got Heinie Zimmerman). He stayed with Chicago through 1917, then came back to New York for the final three years of his career, retiring after the 1920 season. After his playing days he worked with the Giants as a minor league manager, scout, and sometime coach. He managed to go through most of his money and by 1942 was in bad shape both economically in healthwise. He got tuberculosis and ended up, with help from the NL, in the same sanitarium where his old roommate Mathewson had lived his last years. He outlived the sanitarium. It closed in 1954. He died at home in 1974.

For much of his career, Doyle was the finest second baseman in the National League, rivalled only by Johnny Evers (both Eddie Collins and Nap LaJoie in the American League were better). For his career he hit .290, slugged .408, had an on base percentage of .357 (765 ops) with 2654 total bases. He averaged 21 stolen bases a season (which includes two seasons when he did not play 100 games). He wasn’t much of a second baseman. HIs career .949 fielding average isn’t very good, even by the standards of the era (although there are worse).

Doyle was one of those players who is absolutely necessary for a team to do well, but who is not the big star on the team. He won an MVP but was usually lost behind the great names of the era. He was the best at his position in his league, but the other league was stronger at the spot. There are a lot of those types in baseball history.

Tom, Dick, and Larry: Dick

May 25, 2010

Dick Rudolph

When I’ve been doing these short comments on Deadball Era players, I’ve almost always chosen position players. Today I want to change that and look at a pitcher. I’ve chosen Dick Rudolph.

 Rudolph came out of New York City via Fordham University to a minor league career in New England and Canada. He got a cup of coffee with the Giants in 1910 and 11, did poorly, and went back to the minors. The Braves brought him to Boston in 1913. He was  a “junk ball” pitcher with a good curve, but not much of a fastball. As is usual for these kinds of pitchers, he got by on location and the curve. He was 14-13 in 1913, then became the ace of the Braves staff in 1914, going 26-10. That was the year of the “Miracle Braves.” In last place in July, they came to life and rolled to a pennant, then crushed the world champion Philadelphia Athletics in four straight games in the World Series. Rudolph being the winning pitcher in both games one and four.

After that, he had two more good years going 22-19 in 1915 and 19-12 in 1916. It was his last year with a winning record. In 1918 he developed soreness in his arm. His ERA’s remained good through 1919 and part of his record is a reflection of the declining quality of the team. By 1921 he became a coach who pitched occasionally (8 games over 7 years). He did some work in the minors as an owner, then became the supervisor for the concessionaire at both the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. He died in 1949.

For his career, Rudolph was 121-109 (.526 winning percentage) over 279 games (almost all starts). He had more innings pitched than hits and struck out about twice as many men as he walked. His career ERA was 2.66. Then there are the two World Series wins. His postseason ERA was 0.50 wth 15 strikeouts in 18 innings. He also went 2 for 6 as a hitter and scored a run in the Series.

Rudolph is a good example of a fairly common type of pitcher. They go back all the way to the beginning of the Major Leagues and continue today. It’s the pitcher who has a short, but productive, few years then sees his career collapse for whatever reason, usually an injury.  This type still flourishes today, note Mark Prior as an example. Rudolph is one of those that managed to parlay his short period of excellence into a championship.

Tom, Dick, and Larry: Tom

May 24, 2010

Tommy Leach

Going to take the occasion of my return to something like normal around here to write about three players from baseball’s Stone Age that are worth remembering. As you know if you’ve read much of my stuff, I’m concerned that the players who were the foundation of the game are more or less ignored by modern players and fans. Here’s a small chance to recall a few of them.

Tommy Leach got to the Major Leagues with the Giants in 1898, managed to get into no games, and ended up being sent to the Louisville Colonels (then a National League team). When the NL contracted to eight teams from twelve in 1900, Leach and many of his teammates (including Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke) made the trek across Ohio to Pittsburgh and settled in with the Pirates. In 1901 he became the regular Pirates third baseman, hitting .305 with 153 total bases in only 95 games. For the next several years, Leach wandered all over the batting order, sometimes leading off, occasionally hitting third, one year as low as sixth. He finally settled in the two slot and about the same time (1907) became the regular center fielder. He had good speed, a decent arm, and range and was to remain in center through 1911, when he suffered a series of injuries. In 1912, he went to the Cubs in a trade. He stayed with Chicago through 1914, when to Cincinnati in 1915, then was out of the majors. He made a brief comeback in 1918, a war year (World War I), playing 30 games as a backup outfielder for the Pirates. He was 40 and done. He hung on in the minors for a while, but settled finally in Florida, where he managed a few years in the Florida State League. He died in 1969, the last surviving Pirate from the 1903 World Series.

For his career Leach hit .270 with a .371 slugging percentage. He had 2947 total bases, including 170 triples, 23rd on the all-time list.  He led the NL in home runs in 1902 with all of six, and in triples the same year. Of his 63 home runs, 49 are of the inside-the-park variety, which is second ever (Sam Crawford had 51). In both 1909 and 1913, he led the league in runs scored. In the 1903 World Series, he scored the first ever run (0ff Cy Young). For the Series he hit .273 with a series leading four triples and seven RBIs. In the 1909 World Series he led all hitter with a .360 average, four doubles, eight runs, and nine hits. The eight runs in 1909 ties him with a number of others for most runs in a seven game series and the four triples in 1903 is still the all-time record for triples in a World Series.

Leach did all this while standing only 5’6″ and weighing 135 pounds, making him one of the smallest players of his era. Having seen pictures of him, I’m guessing the weigh-in was done after a meal of at least two steaks and three deserts. (Geez, he’s tiny, especially when you see him standing next to Wagner–who was a huge man for the era.) You know you can make a pretty good team of small men. Leach, Johnny Evers (who may have been even smaller than Leach), David Eckstein, Mel Ott, Albie Pearson, and Bobby Schantz give you a pretty fair team to start.

Leach was never a big star in his own day. He had the problem of playing on the same team with Wagner, Clarke, Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Sam Leever, and Jesse Tannehill. All were arguably better players. Each was certainly more well-known in their era. It’s fitting we remember him with them. He was a major part of what made that Pirate engine run.

Thanks, Ted

May 20, 2010

Just a short post today. I want to give a shout out to Ted Williams, not for anything he did on the ball field, but for something he did after he retired. I think it is arguably his greatest contribution to the game.

In 1966 Williams received a ticket to the Hall of Fame. He used the occasion of his acceptance speech to wonder aloud why such important Negro League players as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson weren’t already remembered on the plaques that graced the Hall. The speech, occurring in the midst of the modern American Civil Rights movement, caused a stir. A lot of people began asking the same thing. Baseball’s answer was “Well, we don’t know a lot about the Negro Leagues.” Williams and others answered. “Well, find out.” And because it was Ted, By God, Williams, the powers that be did so and in short order the elite of the Negro Leagues achieved enshrinement. Others were to follow, including executives and writers.

The Negro Leagues owe Williams a great debt for bringing the subject to the front burner. So do the rest of us. Thanks, Ted.

Getting to Cooperstown without Winning

May 19, 2010

For the second time in recent posting, I’m going to shamelessly borrow an idea from SportsPhd. He posted a comment on the absurdity of equating greatness as a player with winning a championship in a team sport. I agree entirely with him. I sat down following his post and began seeing if I could put together a team of players who never won and yet made it to Cooperstown. It was actually pretty easy, so I went a step farther.

Consider this team:

Infield from first to third: George Sisler, Rod Carew, Ernie Banks, and George Kell.

Outfield: Billy Williams, Harry Heilman, Ralph Kiner

Catcher: Rick Ferrell

Pitchers: Fergie Jenkins and Ted Lyons

Know what they have in common besides being Hall of Famers and not having won a World Series? They also never even got into a World Series. Yep, that’s right, team. This is a list of Hall of Fame quality players who failed to find a team good enough to earn a trip to the World Series. I’ll admit to having some problems with a couple of them getting into the Hall, but they are there and we have to deal with it.

This list points out two things to me. First, that you can be genuinely good and not win. Second, the truly great names, the ones we really expect to see in Cooperstown, do make it to a championship, at least occasionally. Here’s a look at a team that got to a World Series, but didn’t win. Notice that most of us would consider it a better team (at most positions).

Infield: Willie McCovey, Nellie Fox, Robin Yount, Fred Lindstrom

Outfield: Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn

Catcher: Carlton Fisk

Pitchers: Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry

So if winning it all is the best measure of greatness, all these guys fall short (and Scott Brosius is a great, great, great–he won three–player).

There are other players that can be added. Feel free to put together  your own and post it here.

The First Modern 3rd Baseman

May 18, 2010

Harlond Clift

As the post yesterday might have told you, I’ve been looking at third basemen recently. I’ve discovered a few things that I find interesting. You probably already know that there are less of them in the Hall of Fame than any other position (10 or 11 depending on where you put Paul Molitor). In 1924 Fred Lindstrom made his Major League debut. In 1943, George Kell made his. So? Well, no third baseman who began his career between those two dates is a Hall of Famer. Not a single one. That’s a 20 year gap. There’s no comparable gap at any other position. Were the third basemen of the era really that weak or did something else happen to change the nature of the position? It is, as you might suspect, a combination of things. All of which brings me to Harlond Clift.

Clift was from Oklahoma and arrived in the majors in 1934. He was a good enough player, but he had two strikes against him when he arrived: he played for the St. Louis Browns, and believe it or don’t he hit for power. The Browns were an awful team that ended the 1934 season in 6th place then went south, next getting back to 6th in 1940. In 1941 they made a run that put them in the first division, then slid back in 1942. In ’43 Clift developed mumps, saw it worsen, got traded to Washington, which did well in 1943, but his illness restricted Clift to eight games.  In 1944 they were dead last with Clift playing in only 31 games. He closed out his career in 1945 by helping the Senators to a second place finish, the highest his team ever stood when a season ended. The mumps, and injuries, derailed his career and he was through by age 32. He died in 1992.

For his career his home run totals are as follows: 14, 11, 20, 29, 34, 15, 20, 17, 7, 3, 3, 8 for a total of 178. OK, you say, not bad, but nothing special for the era. Agreed, except in one way they are special. Here’s the highest total of home runs in the American League for the same period (1934-1941, Clift’s productive years) by any third baseman not named Clift: 16 (Higgins), 23 (Higgins), 14 (Hale), 10 (Lewis), 26 (Keltner), 14 (Rolfe and Tabor), 21 (Tabor), and 23 (Keltner).  For the period, Clift is the only consistent power threat at third base. Others will have short periods where they will challenge him, but not will be there year after year. Ultimately none of them will surpass him in total home runs.    

What Clift did was to demonstrate that third base was not just a fielding position where if you hit for a decent average you were elite. He showed it could be a year-to-year power position. In that he is a precursor to the change at third base that allowed, in the 1950s, for a new kind of third baseman, one who hit for great power. He is the godfather of players like Bob Elliott, the first third baseman to win an MVP award. As you might guess, third base is  the last fielding position to have an MVP awarded. Al Rosen, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt, power hitting third basemen who could win MVPs, home run titles, and lead their teams to pennants are his linear descendents.

I’m not suggesting Clift is a Hall of Fame caliber player. I am suggesting he is the prototype of a new kind of player at his position. We ought to tip our cap to his memory when we watch the new generation of third basemen we see play today.