Archive for May, 2010

A Hole in the Lineup

May 17, 2010

Did you ever notice how certain teams breed great or really good players at some positions and end up with less sterling players at others? I wonder why that is. It can’t be just a team having lousy scouts or dumb management, because it’s too widespread.  A couple of examples are in order.

The Yankees have produced an inordinate number of truly great catchers and second basemen. Take a look at Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada. The first two are in the Hall of Fame, the last one has a good chance of joining them. Now take a look at Yankees second basemen. There’s Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon, both Hall of Famers, and Bobby Richardson, Billy Martin, Willie Randolph, Robinson Cano, all of which would get support in some quarters. Not the greatest set of second basemen ever, but a heck of a good quality set. We could do the same for the outfield (minus left field) and on the mound.

Now  contrast those positions with the rest of the infield. At first base there’s one all-time great (Gehrig), one really good player (Mattingly) and the rest of the crew. Shortstop is the same way with Jeter and Ruzzuto being way above the rest of the pack (except for Bucky Dent for one afternoon in Boston). Then there’s third base. I guess I’d go with Graig Nettles (What, momma couldn’t decide if she wanted Greg or Craig?) and Red Rolfe as the cream of the crop, with maybe a nod to Clete Boyer’s glove, but you gotta admit any of them is a real step down.

I’m a Dodgers fan. They have the same problem. An outfield of Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Zack Wheat, Willie Davis, Tommy Davis isn’t bad; and Campanella, Piazza, Scioscia, and Al Lopez is a pretty good collection of catchers; and the pitching staff can be great. But look at the infield. At short there’s PeeWee Reese and Maury Wills, and little else. At second there’s Jackie Robinson and  Jim Gilliam (who could play anywhere, but I’ve put him at second) along with a bunch of decent, but unspectacular other guys. First has Hodges and Garvey who are OK, but not true top rung players (and, yes, I’m a supporter of Hodges for the Hall). And again there’s third base. I suppose I’ll take Ron Cey as the best of the lot. He was a good enough player, probably the best of the 1970s infield crew, but if that’s the best you can do, well…

I can go through team after team and do the same thing. Look at the Phillies at first base. Howard may be their best ever and he hasn’t played 10 years yet. Ditto Chase Utley.

I have no idea why this is so. Maybe there’s just a lack of really good quality players at certain positions. Maybe it’s the chance in emphasis in the way a position is played (take a look at the difference in second and third basemen between 1915 and 1965). Maybe some teams really aren’t very good at spotting talent at certain positions. I don’t know the answer, I merely point out the phenomena.

Old Longings

May 13, 2010

A day or so ago SportsPhd put up a little post on four things in baseball he wished he had seen, but wasn’t around for. It was a great list and I don’t disagree with any of it except for Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. I got home from school in time to see the last couple of innings. I’m going to shamelessly borrow his idea and give you four baseball moments I wish I had seen.

I’m going back to a period either before I was born or when I was so small I didn’t know what was going on. That makes me leave out things I heard on the radio, like Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, but didn’t actually “see.” It also leaves out those things that happened while I was watching something else and have now seen a dozen times on TV. So with those caveats, here we go.

4. I’d have loved to have been in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1871 to see the first ever major league game. Fort Wayne beat Cleveland 2-0 in a game that sounds as if it was well-played. There’s something about being there at a birth that is so special. If you have a child, you know the feeling.

3. I’d like to have been around in 1908 for the Merkle Game. It’s arguably the most famous regular season game ever played. It was apparently a heck of a game prior to the chaos of the ninth inning and might have been worth seeing anyway. Knowing what was going to happen (remember this is time machine stuff so I know who’s going to win already) I could now stay in the stands and watch the ball to see what really happened between Solly Hofman, Joe McGinnity, and Johnny Evers. And this is a two-for-one special. I also get to see the replay a few weeks later.

2. As I told SportsPhd I would like to be in Wrigley Field in October 1932 for game 3 of the World Series. That’s the game that featured Babe Ruth’s “called shot.” I don’t know what he did, but apparently he did something just before crushing the ball. I’d love to know exactly what he did. You can argue about the greatest player ever in the game, but Ruth is easily the greatest showman ever to put on a uniform (with apologies to Reggie Jackson). 

1. Here I agree with SportPhd. I want to be in Ebbets Field in April 1947 to see Jackie Robinson take up his position at first base. It was one of baseball’s finest hours and I’d love to be there to see and participate.

So that’s four things I missed and wish I hadn’t. Your own list?

1910: Chief

May 12, 2010

Today marks the centennial of Chief Bender’s one and only no-hitter. He beat Cleveland 4-0 (Cleveland was involved in both 1910 no hitters with Addie Joss winning in April) with 1903 World Series hero Bill Dinneen taking the loss. Dinneen had thrown his own no-hitter in 1905. Of the three major pitchers who were the centerpieces of the 1910-1914 Athletics dynasty (Eddie Plank, Jack Coombs being the others), only Bender tossed a no-no.

Charles Albert Bender was born in Minnesota in 1884. He was a Ojibwa tribal member who attended both Carlisle Indian School (before Jim Thorpe arrived) and Dickinson College, both in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He seems to have been an OK student and was a gifted pitcher. In 1903 Connie Mack brought him to the Philadelphia A’s where he became the third pitcher and leading right-hander  behind southpaw aces Eddie Plank and Rube Waddell. He pitched in the 1905 World Series, taking both a win and a loss. The win was Philly’s only victory in the series. By 1910 he was well established as one of Philadelphia’s aces. He was also a Connie Mack favorite, who was generally chosen to pitch critical games. In 1910, he will start two World Series games, splitting them. In 1911, he will start three going 2-1. With Coombs disabled in 1913, Bender will be the ace and win two games in the series. In 1914, lost his only start in the Miracle Braves sweep.

With the advent of the Federal League in 1914,  Mack began dismantling his team. Bender jumped to the Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League where he had a terrible year, going 4-16 giving up more hits than innings pitched. With the collapse of the Feds, Bender ended up back in Philadelphia, but this time with the National League Phillies. He went 15-9 with other good numbers too. He retired then, went into war work for World War I, then coached for the White Sox in the 1920s. He got into one game in 1925, giving up a run in one inning with a walk and a hit, then was through for good. He returned to The A’s and coached, scouted, and manged at the minor league level through 1950, when both he and Mack retired. In 1953 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died the next year.

For his career, including the Federal League year, Bender was 210-128 (a .621 winning percentage) with 1711 strikeouts in 3017 innings,  712 walks, and an ERA of 2.46. In World Series play he pitched ten games going 6-4 with 64 hits,59 strikeouts, and 85.1 innings pitched. Certainly a good enough career.

In one way it’s an even better career. Because Bender was an American Indian he faced the standard racial prejudices of his day every time he took the mound. Phil Sheridan of “The only good indian is a dead indian” fame had only been dead for 15 years prior to Bender’s rookie campaign. He faced problems from the stands and from the opposing players. One symbol of it was his nickname, “Chief.” It was common in the period for any American Indian player to have that nickname and frequently it was meant derogatorily. Mack, sensitive to Bender’s problem and his initial feelings about the name, refered to him as “Albert”, his middle name. Bender seems to have at a point late in his career finally embraced the name (or at least quite despising it) and used it as a badge of honor against a hostile world. One of his favorite responses to heckling from the stands was to refer to the hecklers as “Foreigners.”

His teammates and most of the Philly fans liked him (Considering the way they treat their own players today, what happened to Philly fandom in the last 100 years???). He was considered a good teammate and friend, a player the other players liked to be around both on and off the job. Mack trusted him with scouting and developing minor league players after Bender’s retirement. It wasn’t easy being an American Indian in 1910, but among his friends, coaches, and teammates Bender was respected and liked.

By this point, he’s been almost forgotten. Unlike the black community’s embrace of Jackie Robinson, the American Indian Movement never picked up on him as someone to remember and that’s a real shame. They probably should have done so. He’s worth it as both ballplayer and man.

The Biggest Inning

May 11, 2010

There’s an old baseball dilemma that shows up every so often. It’s the “Do I play for one run or go for the big inning” dilemma. As we all know the answer depends on a lot of variables. One of those is “how far behind am I?” If the answer is eight runs in the seventh inning, the best bet is to go for the big inning. Which brings me to game four of the 1929 World Series.

The 1929 World Series featured the Chicago Cubs (You already know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?) and the Philadelphia Athletics. The Cubs were back in the Series for the first time since 1918 and the A’s had passed the Murder’s Row Yankees for their first pennant since the 1910-1914 glory days of Home Run Baker and Eddie Collins. The series figured to be close. Both teams hit really well. The difference was supposed to be the A’s pitching staff. So far that held up. The A’s won the first two games, then dropped game three in Philadelphia. If the Cubs could win the fourth game, the World Series would be a simple best of three sprint.

The Cubs sent Charley Root to the mound. Unfortunately for Root he’s always been associated with Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series, but he was a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher who was the Cubs second best starter in 1929. For six innings he pitched like it.

The A’s sent Jack Quinn to hill. I don’t want to say Quinn was old or anything, but his rookie year was 1909 when the Yankees were still the Highlanders. He was 45 (15 years older than Root) and had started only 18 games in 1929. In game four, he pitched like it. He got through five innings, giving up seven runs on seven hits. Rube Walberg came in to replace him and saw a couple of men Quinn left on base score. In the seventh inning Eddie Rommel replaced Walberg and promptly gave up one final run. So going into the bottom of the seventh, the Cubs were up 8-0 with nine outs to go to tie up the World Series.

Al Simmons led off the seventh with a home run (8-1), then Jimmie Foxx, Bing Miller, and Jimmie Dykes all singled, scoring Foxx (8-2). Joe Boley singled to drive in Miller (8-3). George Burns, pinch-hitting for Rommel popped out. Max Bishop singled to bring in Dykes (8-3). Out went Root, in came Art Nehf, Chicago’s primary left-handed reliever. He proceeded to throw gas on the fire by tossing a fast ball to Mule Haas. Haas drove it to center field where Cubs star Hack Wilson promptly lost the ball in the sun. It rolled to the fence for an inside-the-park home run (8-7). Nehf walked A’s catcher Mickey Cochrane and was pulled for Sheriff Blake, the Cubs fourth starter. Simmons and Foxx both singled, driving in Cochrane (8-8). Out went Blake, in came Cubs ace Pat Malone who proceeded to plunk Miller to load the bases. Dykes then drove a double into left field scoring both Simmons and Foxx as the A’s took the lead 10-8. With the damage now done, Boley struck out and Burns fanned for the final out and the distinction of being one of the few players to make two outs in one World Series inning (and the patron saint of every one of us who made more than one out in an inning in Little League).

Now that they were ahead, the A’s sent ace Lefty Grove to the mound to shut down the Cubs. That worked. The game ended 10-8 and the A’s had just put together the biggest inning in World Series history (even the 1993 Phillies-Blue Jays 15-14 slugfest didn’t see more than six runs scored in one inning). Blake took the loss and Rommel had the win.

To finish it up, the A’s won the World Series the next day with a single, home run, and consecutive doubles in the bottom of the ninth. It was a thorough meltdown by the Cubs. Wilson got a lot of blame for losing the ball in the sun, but that was one play in an inning that produced 10 runs. The Cubs pitching was woeful for that inning and the A’s hitters, especially Jimmie Dykes, took advantage to prove that in this case the big inning is better.

Coincidence

May 10, 2010

Yesterday is one of those serendipitous days that happens in baseball occasionally. Two people forever intertwined in an event make history on the same day a continent apart. That’s actually happened a few times before and let’s take a moment and note them.

1. Yesterday a pitcher named Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game. Until then, he was primarily famous for his dust-up with Alex Rodriguez over A-Rod crossing the mound on the way back to first, a serious breach of Braden’s view of baseball ethics. Also yesterday Rodriguez slugged his third home run of the season. It managed to tie Frank Robinson on the all-time homer lit.

2. Rickey Henderson set the all-time stolen base mark and bragged he was the best ever. Unfortunately for him Nolan Ryan threw his seventh and final no-hitter the same day (1 May 1991). The two are joined because Ryan’s 5000th strikeout victim was (drum roll, please) Rickey Henderson.

3. On 4 August 1985 Tom Seaver got his 300th career win in New York (pitching for the White Sox). Rod Carew picked up his 3000 career hit the same day in Anaheim. How are they connected? Seaver was the 1967 National League Rookie of the Year, while Carew won the same award in the American League the same season. By way of trivia, in 1956 both Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award. That marks, along with 1967 and 1977 (Eddie Murray and Andre Dawson), the first of only three times both Rookies of the Year went on to the Hall of Fame.

Don’t you just love coincidences?

Check this out

May 8, 2010

Hey, team, go to Bill Miller’s The On Deck Circle blog (it’s on my blogroll on the right side of the page). There’s a wonderful video about the Pirates. Check it out. It’s worth the time and great for a giggle.

Leading Boston to Victory

May 8, 2010

Jimmy Collins in Boston Americans uniform

Way back in baseball’s Stone Age, the American League team in Boston (they didn’t become the Red Sox until later in the period), won the first World Series. They had a great pitcher in Cy Young. They also had a dominant third baseman named Jimmy Collins. Collins doubled as the manager and led his team to victory.

Collins began his career with the National League’s Boston team, the Beaneaters, in 1895. They loaned him to Louisville for the bulk of the season (long story). By 1896 he was back in Boston where he stayed for the remainder of the 19th Century.

With the dawn of the new century Ban Johnson moved his Western League east and formed the American League. Collins moved right along with him into the new league becoming the manager of the upstart AL franchise in Boston. Both Collins and the team did well. In 1901 he managed them to second place, in 1902 they were third. In 1903 they won the pennant. Pittsburgh won the National League pennant and owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged Boston to a nine game “World’s Series” to determine who had the better team. Boston won in eight games, although Collins didn’t have a particularly good series. In 1904 they won the AL pennant again, agreed to another World Series, and ran smack up against John McGraw and the New York Giants who simply refused to play the upstart team from an upstart league.

In 1905 Boston fell back to fourth and was last in 1906. Collins hurt his knee and played only 37 games in ’06. It was his last year as manager. After 41 games in Boston in 1907 he went to Philadelphia in a trade for fellow third baseman Jack Knight. Collins went on to have one last good year, then in 1908 he hit only .217 in 115 games. The next season Frank (Home Run) Baker replaced him at third. Collins died in 1943 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

I look over his numbers and sometimes I wonder why Collins is so well regarded. As I looked at him more, I began to realize the dearth of talent at third base and realized he’s a good candidate for best third sacker of the era. Now that sounds like a backhanded compliment, “Well, there just wasn’t anybody better outta all these bums, so why not him?” And in some ways it is. Actually, third base has produced fewer great players than any other position. Most of the good hitters didn’t play defense particularly well. Most of the good glove men didn’t hit all that well.

Collins is one of the few third basemen who did both well. As a defensive player he was considered  the premier glove man of his day. In an era where the bunt was a major weapon, he was famous for being hard to bunt against. His range was excellent, holding four of the best seasonal averages ever. In the opening years of the American League he is clearly its best defensive third baseman.

He hit pretty well also. Five seasons he hit over .300. In 1898 he won a home run title with 15, his only year in double figure home runs. He had 175 hits five times, tallied 100 runs four years, and had 100 RBIs twice. All are good numbers for the era. In the twelve years he played 100 games, he averaged 156 hits, 83 runs, 28 doubles, and 77 RBIs. Again, not bad for the Deadball Era(Ya know, when I do spell check they suggest deadball should be meatball. I wonder why.). His 15 home runs in 1898 are 23% of his total and I’ve no clue why the sudden power surge. His next highest total was a rookie year seven. In his last three seasons he hit exactly one.

Jimmy Collins is one of those players whose numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but who consistently impresses if you pay attention to when he took the field. He played a pivotal role for two very good teams at the turn of the 20th Century, leading one of them to the first ever World Series title. All in all he is probably the American League’s finest third baseman in its formative years. He’s one of the reasons the league gained instant credibility and became a true rival to the National League.

Whiz Kid

May 7, 2010

Robin Roberts

Yesterday I saw that Robin Roberts died. I mentioned it to a friend and his response was “Geez, I didn’t know she was sick.” OK, I’ll admit that when I think of Robin Roberts I too generally think of the modern reporter (who is certainly easier on the eyes than the old pitcher).

Roberts, the pitcher not the reporter, is usually at the foggiest edges of my mind when I think of baseball. He wasn’t a particular favorite of mine and we seldom got to see the Phillies play on TV or hear them on the radio. When we did, I don’t remember Roberts being the pitcher, so I guess he didn’t show up very often when I got to see or hear the Phils.

He was one of the Whiz Kids who brought, in 1950, Philadelphia its first National League pennant since 1915. Then they went out and were swept by a Yankees team that included a rookie southpaw named Whitey Ford. Roberts pitched game two and lost 2-1, then mopped up the last inning in a 5-2 game four Series ender.

He stayed with Philadelphia through 1961, then went to Baltimore, Houston, and the Cubs before retiring. I was never a great fan and for years wondered what the big deal was about Robin Roberts. His winning percentage was OK, but nothing special. He had almost as many hits as innings pitched and his ERA was OK for the age, but not spectacular. What he didn’t do was walk anybody. He walked 902 batters in 4689 innings. It took a while to realize how good he was because I never connected him to those awful Phillies teams that he pitched for much of his career.

He’s mostly forgotten now, although he made the Hall of Fame in 1976. I guess there are a lot of reasons. He never played for any of the great New York teams of the era (No Willie, Mickey, and the Duke aura). The Phillies were bad most of his career (1950 being an exception rather than a rule). When he left Philly he was mostly done and didn’t have very good years elsewhere. He pitched in an era noted more for its sluggers than its pitchers. Finally, he wasn’t either Warren Spahn or Whitey Ford, the dominant pitchers of his era. Even they have gotten a little lost in the shuffle, but Roberts had gone all the way to obscurity. He’s so obscure that my local newspaper’s sports page didn’t even mention his passing. Ain’t that a shame?

This is two of these semi-obituary pieces I’ve written in a row. A request to the baseball gods: Knock it off. Let me write about other things for a while, please.

Great Calls

May 6, 2010

The death of Ernie Harwell reminded me how much I miss the truly great voices of baseball. SportsPhd had a wonderful comment on Harwell (which you should read, especially if you’re a dad) and mentioned the now stilled voices of the past.  He mentions a lot of them, missing  Bob Prince at Pittsburgh and Russ Hodges with the Giants.  But then it’s a short blog, not a dissertation. It’s right that we sit and remember these people. They mean as much to baseball as the players, the managers, the peanut vendors, the owners, the fans, the print reporters, and the guy who trims the ivy at Wrigley Field. For some of us, it’s how we got our baseball.

They are sometimes famous for catchphrases like Red Barber’s “catbird’s seat” or Mel Allen’s “how about that”. Others are noted for the delivery style like Dizzy Dean’s mangling of the English language or Vin Scully’s use of classical allusion. Still others are best noted for simply knowing when to shut up. Jack Buck being the great practitioner of that.

There are specific calls that ring in my head when I think of baseball. None are more memorable than Russ Hodges’ “The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant. The Giants win the pennant.”  The call that announced that New York was going to the World Series in 1951 gets my vote as greatest call ever. Others will disagree. I know several people who love Bob Prince’s call of Bill Mazeroski’s home run in game seven of 1960.

Jack Buck also has two of my favorites. One is his response to Kirk Gibson’s home run in 1988, “I don’t believe what I just saw.” The other is his comment when Gene Larkin hit the little single that put the Minnesota Twins over the top in 1991, “The Twins are going to win the World Series.” What a wonderful bit of understatement. Then the Twins swarmed on the field and Tom Kelly went to the Braves bench to congratulate the Braves. Buck’s response? Silence. He knew when to shut up and let the camera do its job.

My personal favorite is Vin Scully, but then I’m a Dodgers fan. I love his use of the  language. I still remember him calling Sandy Koufax’s perfect game late in the evening on the radio. Wow.

I’ve left out a bunch: Joe Garagiola, Jay Randolph, etc. But there’s no slight meant. I’d give a whole lot just to hear the voices of those that are gone and those that are retired. I hope the generations that follow get to hear something like them. If not, those generations are really going to miss something very special.

Rest in Peace, Ernie Harwell.

A Pair of Reviews

May 5, 2010

Haven’t done a review of a book for a while, so here’s a couple. Remember, this is my opinion and should not be taken as gospel (although a faith offering in the form of cash will be accepted).

When working in the 19th Century, I’ve refered with some frequency to David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. The book was published in 1997 by Penguin Books (9781556115004 ISBN #). As far as I can tell there is no updated version. If you’re interested in 19th Century baseball this is your best source. There’s an introduction, then beginning with 1871 and ending with 1900 he goes through each year. He does a short summary of the season, interspersed with boxes that contain short summaries of particular events, people, or anything else he finds interesting. That’s followed by a team-by-team statistical rundown of the season and a brief look at any postseason action. The work ends by listing the players (by position) and giving their statistics. One thing he does is combine the National Association (1871-1875) stats with the later stats to give you a better overall look at the player’s career (many baseball encyclopedia’s give the info in separate lists). There are also managers and umps listed. The year-to-year summaries are brief, so if you’re interested in a season in detail, this ain’t the work. But if you want an overview of the period with a pretty complete statistical list, try it. One final thing, Nemec’s statistics differ somewhat from other sources. That’s not really a problem as the other sources tend to differ from each other. The reliabily of 19th Century stats is fluid, although getting better. I generally use the stats given by Nemec for this blog.

The other work I won’t recommend nearly as highly. Leveling the Field by G. Scott Thomas (2002, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers) says it’s “an encyclopedia of baseball’s all-time great performances as revealed through adjusted statistics.” OK, maybe. What the author did was to take the way baseball is played today (2002) and turn that into a series of formulae that supposedly allow him to apply modern play to the play of other eras. This is supposed o tell you what Ty Cobb and company would do if playing today (he doesn’t go the other way and see what Roger Clemens would do in 1910). After explaining his idea and how he does it, he goes through each year giving you a what happens using this method, puts in season highlights (Honus Wagner hits .399 in 1908 with 237 hits and Tim Jordan leads the NL with 40 home runs. Yes, you read that right, 40 home runs in 1908.). At the back there is a new compilation of all-time leaders in various categories (Babe Ruth hits 1157 home runs, Hank Aaron gets 947), followed by his all-time players at each position, an all-time team (26 players), and the adjusted stats of various players. It’s interesting and total nonsense. I don’t like these kinds of books because they adjust through simple figures rather than look at all the variables that make each baseball era unique. Having said that, it might have been kind of fun to watch the Babe blast 94 home runs in 1921 while Yankees don’t even make the World Series (Cleveland beats Pittsburgh four games to three in Leveling-land). If you want to have a little fun the book is OK. Just don’t expect to learn anything.