Archive for July, 2010

Long and Lowe

July 9, 2010

Bobby Lowe (left), Herman Long (right) with Fred Tenney (standing) and Jimmy Collins (seated center)

Some things just go together. Take pepperoni and pizza. Try bacon and eggs. Think Big and Mac.

Baseball’s like that too. Some things just go together. Jeter and Cano, Groat and Mazeroski, Tinker and Evers. See, don’t you just sort of think of one when you think of the other? Way back in the 1890’s there was another of those: Herman Long and Bobby Lowe.

Herman Long was a shortstop for Kansas City in 1889. He moved to the Boston Beaneaters in 1890, staying through 1902. After leaving Boston played for short stints with the Highlanders (Yankees), Tigers, and Phillies. Today he’s primarily famous for making more errors than anyone else in Major League history, 1096. Of course if you play for 17 years mostly in Nineteenth Century ballparks with Nineteenth Century equipment, you have to be pretty good to stay around long enough to make a thousand plus errors. His fielding percentage was .906, which isn’t all that good, with 765 double plays, which is terrific for the era. His range factor is 5.77 which is darned good in any era. He could hit a little too. He averaged .277, with an OBP of .335 and a slugging percentage of .338, giving him a .718 OPS. He scored 1456 runs, knocked in 1055, and had 2938 total bases. In 1900 he won the National League home run title with 12 and in 1893 led the NL in runs with 149. He died of tuberculosis in 1909.

Most of his doubles plays were in partnership with Bobby Lowe. Lowe came to Boston in 1890 and stayed through 1901. He then played for a short stint with the Cubs in 1902 and 1903, then went to both Pittsburgh and Detroit before retiring. Unlike Long he was one of the better fielders of his day. He managed a .951 fielding percentage, a 5.70 range factor, and only 389 errors (he was a second baseman, remember). He hit .273 for his career with an OBP of .325, a slugging percentage of .360, and an OPS of .685. He was a superior leadoff hitter for the era scoring 1135 runs on 1924 hits. He lived to age 86, dying in 1951.

What the two men did well together was win. Both men arrived in Boston in 1890, Long becoming an immediate starter. The Beaneaters finished fifth, 12 games back. Over the next 10 years, with both men starting up the middle, Boston took five pennants. They won in 1891 and to be honest, having Harry Stovey in right field and both John Clarkson and Kid Nichols on the mound helped Boston a lot, but both Long and Lowe were significant contributors to the improvement. The 1892 season saw a split season (the last until 1981) with Boston winning the first half, then beating up on Cleveland in the end of season pennant series. Neither Long nor Lowe did very well in the series. In fact to be honest about again, both did terribly.

Boston won again in 1893, slipped to third in 1894, and all the way to fifth in 1895. By 1896, they were back to fourth, then in both 1897 and 1898 won the NL title again. In 1899 they slipped back to second behind syndicate team Brooklyn (the owner of Brooklyn also owned Baltimore and cannibalized the two teams to put together one very good team.) In 1900 and 1901, their last two years together, an aging Long and Lowe finished fourth and fifth. But in 12 years together, 11 with both starting, they had, as mentioned earlier, managed to win five pennants. Thy also finished second once.

Neither man is much remembered today, neither is in much danger of making the Hall of Fame and thus returning to prominence. Both were major contributors to five pennant winners and good players in their own right. One really nice thing about the internet it that it gives people like me a chance to remind people like you about these kinds of players and how important they were to the game we love.

1910: J. Frank Baker

July 7, 2010

Frank Baker

John Franklin Baker was born in Maryland in 1886. He played baseball well enough that Connie Mack brought him to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908. The next season he took over as the regular third baseman and stayed there through 1914. During his tenure the A’s won four pennants and three World Series championships. During the period Baker hit .321 and led the American League in home runs four times (1911-14) and in RBIs twice (1912 and 1913). As good as all that sounds, he was even better in World Series play. In three winning efforts (1910, 1911, and 1913) he hit .409 with three home runs and drove in sixteen runs. His slugging percentage was .621. In 1914, the Braves shut him down, along with pretty much everybody else, and the A’s lost. The three home runs in Series play tied or won ballgames and led to his nickname “Home Run” Baker. 

Baker sat out 1915 in a salary dispute with Mack. He spent the season playing in a semipro league in Pennsylvania. At the end of the season, Mack sold him to New York. He did alright with the Yankees, but he was never as good as he had been with Philadelphia. He hit .300 once, had double figure home runs twice (10 both times) and saw his slugging average drop badly. 

In 1920 his wife died and he took the season off to be with the children. He was back in New York in 1921 in time to make it to the World Series again (I was unable to find out if he remarried or not).  In 1921 he managed nine home runs to finish third on the team behind Babe Ruth’s 59 and Bob Meusel’s 24. The Yankees lost the series to the Giants with Baker contributing two hits (both singles) for a .250 average. His ground out to second with one out the ninth inning of the final game was turned into a double play when the runner on first, AaronWard, tried to steal a run by dashing to third. The throw to third was on target and the series ended. In 1922 he played one final year, hitting .278 in 69 games. He got into the World Series going 0 for 1 in a pinch hitting role. For his career he ended up with a .307 average, 1838 hits, 96 home runs, 1013 RBIs, on OBP of .353, a slugging percentage of .442, 235 stolen bases, and six triple crown titles in 5985 games, all at third base (except for pinch-hitting duties). 

After retirement he coached and managed a little. He’s credited with discovering Jimmie Foxx. He retired to his farm in Maryland and made the Hall of Fame in 1955. He died in 1963, arguably the finest third baseman of the deadball era. 

As a fielder, Baker was both good and mediocre (bear with me a second on that). His 3.43 range factor compares well with fellow Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and George Kell, but his fielding average is nothing to write home about. In his prime years, 1909-14, he was generally in the lower half of the league in fielding, but made up for it with decent range. One of the things I like about his fielding is that he got better. He started with fielding averages in the .920s and ended his career in the .950s. OK, those aren’t great numbers, but a lot of guys never get any better and Baker did. 

He has two number that I really like: 24 and 36. Those are the distance between his RBI totals in 1912 and 1913 and his nearest competitor. In 1912, Baker knocked in 133 runs. Sam Crawford at Detroit and Duffy Lewis at Boston each had 109 (Helps to have Eddie Collins, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker hitting in front of you, doesn’t it?) In 1913, he had 126. The next two guys behind him (again a tie) had 90. You don’t see that kind of domination often. In 1930, Hack Wilson set the Major League record for RBIs with 191. He won by 21. The following year Lou Gehrig set the AL record with 184. He also won by 21. Both Chuck Klein and Mickey Mantle won triple crowns. Klein won his RBI title by 14 and Mantle by only two. 

During his glory years, 1910-1914, Baker joined Cobb and Speaker as the dominant hitters of the age. And I guess that’s part of the knock on Baker. His glory years weren’t very long. But in those five years he won six triple crown titles (batting average, home runs, RBIs). So did Cobb. Speaker only got one. It’s not a bad legacy to say you could hold your own with Cobb and Speaker, even if only for five years. 

There haven’t been a lot of truly great third basemen in Major League history. In the Deadball Era there are only Baker and Jimmy Collins and I prefer Baker. With our without the nickname, Frank Baker is one of the top 10 third basemen ever and I could probably be talked into putting him in the top five.

Strasburg, All Star?

July 5, 2010

I’ve been following the arguments pro and con for putting new phenom Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals on the National League All Star team. Briefly, no way.

Here’s his stats for the season: 2 wins, 2 losses, a 2.45 ERA, 36.2 innings pitched over six games, 29 hits, 53 strikeouts, and 10 walks. Not bad, if he were a reliever. He’s a starter and 36.2 innings and six games doesn’t make you an all-star.

Stay home, Kid. Enjoy the time off. Do some newspaper and TV interviews, make a book deal, spend time with the family. You got plenty of time to make the mid-summer classic.

Making the Right Choices for Cooperstown

July 2, 2010

Sometimes I look at the list of Hall of Famers and wonder how a particular player got to Cooperstown. Some choices are obvious, some silly, some merely puzzling. Then I look at when he was elected and sometimes the choice doesn’t seem so bad in the context of the time the player was elected. Let me give you two examples.

Eppa Rixey

Left handed pitcher Eppa Rixey began his Major League career in 1912 and completed it in 1933. He won 266 games, had a .515 winning percentage, an ERA of 3.15, and struck out 1350 men. He also gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. He missed 1918 because of World War I, and took a loss in the 1915 World Series when he pitched the last six innings of game five for Philadelphia. He died in February 1963 and made the Hall of Fame the same year. Ignoring the fact that his death may have influenced the Veteran’s Committee to look at him more closely, his career isn’t bad, but doesn’t look all that special. As a Left-handed pitcher he did well, but here’s a list of all the left-handers who have more wins than Rixey: Spahn, Carlton, Plank, Johnson, Glavine, Grove, John, Kaat, and Moyer. Here’s that same list in 1963: Spahn, Plank, Grove. And note, further, that both Plank and Grove spent most of their big league career in the American League (Grove spent all of his). So in 1963, Eppa Rixey was the second winningest left-handed pitcher in National League history, with much more well-known Carl Hubbell 12 wins back in third. If you know that, then the Rixey choice doesn’t seem quite so bad. The Veteran’s Committee chose the winningest left-hander in National League history prior to about 1960 (didn’t bother to look up when Spahn won his 267th game), a period of 84 years, to enshrine in Cooperstown. So again, Rixey doesn’t look as odd to 1963 fans as he does to modern fans when it comes to the Hall of Fame (and remember that Spahn is still active in 1963 so he’s not yet 97 games up on Rixey).

Max Carey

Max Carey was a base stealing specialist, mostly for Pittsburgh, from 1910 to 1929. He hit .285, slugged .385, scored 1545 runs, had no power, and stole 738 bases. He was part of the 1925 World Series winning team. His best stolen base year was 1922 when he stole 51 and was caught only twice (He actually stole more bases a couple of times, but never with that success rate). He made the Hall of Fame in 1961. Currently Carey ranks seventh in stolen bases since 1898 (when they changed the stolen base run to its current form). OK, maybe that alone would get him a ticket to Cooperstown (although it hasn’t helped either Tim Raines or Vince Coleman, two of the players above him), but it was different in 1961. In that year he was third behind only Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins, both career American Leaguers. So again we find that the player in question is the all-time leader in a category (stolen bases) in the National League at the time he is chosen for the Hall of Fame. That makes the choice look better then than now, when Lou Brock is now the NL’s stolen base king.

This is not a plea for either man to be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe neither should be, or maybe only Carey should be.  Maybe being the all-time leader in something in one league isn’t a free pass to the Hall. But if you think neither looks overly qualified when you read over their stats, remember that both, particularly Rixey, looked a lot better in the early 1960s than they do in the 21st Century.