Archive for September, 2010

College Men

September 7, 2010

As something of a followup to the post on Orval Overall, I decided to look up the number of players on the 1910 Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Athletics who attended college. Here’s the list I found. I don’t guarantee it’s complete:
Chicago:

Overall, Ginger Beaumont, Ed Reulbach, Frank Chance. There is some dispute as to whether Chance ever actually attended college or not.

Philadelphia:

Harry Davis, Jack Barry, Eddie Collins, Morrie Rath, Heinie Heitmuller, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Jack Coombs

Not all these players graduated. There is some dispute about Plank. He apparently attended the prep school that went with Gettysburg College and played on the college baseball team, but sources vary on whether he ever actually took classes at the college. Heitmuller had left the team prior to the World series.

So it’s not that long a list, but longer than I expected.

The Banker was a Pitcher

September 6, 2010

Orval Overall

At some point every ballplayer has to retire. Some do it gracefully, some are led out kicking and screaming. Some don’t know what to do when they retire, others have a plan. One of the latter was Deadball Era pitcher Orval Overall.

Overall was born on Groundhog Day 1881 in California. He attended the University of California, majoring in agriculture, was elected class president, and played both baseball and football. In 1904 he joined Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League and was picked up by Cincinnati in 1905. He pitched there in both 1905 and 1906, going 22-28. In June 1906, he was traded to Chicago, where he joined a Cubs team on the way to a National League pennant. In both ’06 and ’07 Overall was a mainstay of the Cubs staff, winning 35 games and leading the NL in shutouts in ’07. He developed arm trouble in 1908, then came back in 1909 to win 20 games and led the league in strikeouts and shutouts. More arm trouble in 1910 was followed by a contract dispute and Overall retired after the season.

What did he retire to do? He ran a gold mine (jointly owned with teammate Three Finger Brown). He pitched a little minor league ball, then in 1913 went back to Chicago for one final season. He wasn’t very good and retired permanently at the end of the season. For his career he was 108-71 in 218 games (182 starts). He struck out 935 and walked 551 in 1535 innings and finished with a 2.23 ERA. In World Series play he finished 3-1 with 35 strikeouts, 15 walks, and two rings.

After retirement, Overall returned to California, worked in a brewery, then took over the family citrus farm. He sold it in the 1920s for a boatload of money, and became an appraiser and director of the local bank in Visalia, California. Moving  to Fresno, Overall became vice president of the Security-First National Bank of Los Angeles, eventually rising to branch manager in Fresno. He died in 1947 a very wealthy man.

There continues to be a perception that Deadball Era ball players were a bunch of uneducated, illiterate louts. Well, there’s great truth in that perception. But there was another group of ball players who were intelligent, well-educated, and knew how to manage their affairs. In the 1910 World Series Overall, Jack Barry, Eddie Collins, Chief Bender, Eddie Plank, and Jack Coombs were all college men, most of which went on to good careers after their playing days were over. Let us not forget them when we look at the louts who also inhabited the game.

Colby Jack

September 5, 2010

Jack Coombs in 1910

Back in 1988, Orel Hershiser set the record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Most people noted that he just surpassed Don Drysdale. A handful of experts pointed out that Drysdale had taken the record away from Walter Johnson. Almost no one knew that Johnson had replaced Jack Coombs as the record holder. One hundred years ago today, Colby Jack Coombs began a run that eventually led to 53 consecutive scoreless innings.

Coombs was born in Iowa and graduated from Colby College in Maine, hence his “Colby Jack” nickname. Connie Mack brought him to the majors immediately after graduation. He went 10-10 in 1906, participating in the longest game played to that point. In 1907 and 1908 he had equally undistinguished records, then went 12-11 in 1909. The breakthrough came in 1910. For the season he went 31-9 with an ERA of 1.30, striking out 224 men. He led the American League in wins, games, and shutouts. His ERA was second in the AL. In the World Series his Philadelphia Athletics defeated the Chicago Cubs four games to one. Coombs was the winning pitcher in three of the games, including the last one.

The 1911 season was almost as spectacular. Coombs was 28-12, but with an ERA of 3.53, He led he league in wins, games, and in hits given up. The A’s went back to the World Series where Coombs won a game and took a no decision. In 1912 he was 21-10.

Tragedy struck in 1913. Coombs caught typhoid, almost died, and saw his baseball career derailed. In 1913 and 1914 combined he pitched a total of 13 innings, absorbing one loss. In 1915, Mack sent him to Brooklyn in the National League. Coombs was 32 and coming off two lost seasons. He bounced back to go 15-10 for the Robins (Dodgers comes later), then went 13-8 for the pennant winning team of 1916. The Robins lost the World Series in five games. Coombs, of course, won the only Brooklyn victory, a 4-3 win over Boston. 

It was essentially the end. He had a losing record in 1917 and 1918, went to the Phillies as manager in 1919. The Phils were awful and Coombs wasn’t much of a manager. So 62 games into the season he was fired. His record was 18-44. He went back to the AL in 1920, getting into two games for the woeful Tigers, then retired.

Coombs overall record was 158-110 with an ERA of 2.78. He had 35 shutouts, walked 841 men, and struck out 1052 in 354 games pitched (268 starts). From 1910 through 1912 he went 80-31, had 15 shutouts, and struck out 529 men, while walking 328. In World Series play (1910, 1911, 1916) he was at his best. He went 5-0 with 34 strikeouts in 53.1 innings, giving up 41 hits.

It took a while, but by 1929 Coombs found another good job in baseball. He took over as head coach at Duke University, where he remained through 1952. Unlike A’s teammate Jack Barry his Duke teams never won a College World Series, but he was successful, particularly in sending players to the majors. In 1945 he wrote a manual “Baseball: Individual Play and Team Strategy”. I’ve read it and it’s pretty good. Combs died in Texas in 1957. The field at Duke is named in his honor.

Jack Coombs had claim to be one of the three or four finest pitchers in all of the Major Leagues for a short period (1910-12), then he got sick. It took two full years to recover and he never made it back to his previous form. He did well for a short while with Brooklyn, but his last several years were mere shadow to his great years. There’ve been a lot of pitchers who have similar patterns of a few good years than something goes drastically wrong. Sometimes its an injury, sometimes arm trouble, sometimes illness, sometimes just a screw loose somewhere in the head. Coombs is, for a short period, a truly great pitcher and a good example of this pattern.

By way of trivia, in the great 1950s western “High Noon” there are four villains. The one played by Lee Van Cleef is named Jack Colby. I wonder if the author of the screenplay was an old A’s fan.

1910: Superbas Postmortem

September 4, 2010

The 1910 Brooklyn Superbas , under rookie manager Bill Dahlen, went 64-90 for 1910 and finished sixth, 40 games back. They weren’t yet either the Boys of Summer  of the 1950s or the Daffiness Boys of the 1930s. They also weren’t very good (which is tough for a Dodgers fan to say).

Brooklyn in 1910 was dead last in hitting, slugging, RBIs, hits, and doubles. They were seventh in runs and walks, and first in striking out. Only first baseman Jake Daubert, third baseman Ed Lennox, and outfielder Zack Wheat managed to hit .250 while shortstop Tony Smith hit .181 and  catcher Bill Bergen made it all the way to .161. You know you’re in trouble if two of your starters don’t make it to the Mendoza line.

The problem with replacing some of these guys was that the bench was equally awful. A common theme of these posts is that teams who finish in the bottom part of the standings have terrible benches. Brooklyn was no exception. The highest average from the bench players was Al Burch’s .236. He also had one of the highest slugging percentages at .284. Tex Erwin, backup catcher, hit .188, not much of an improvement over Bergen, and Pryor McElveen’s .225 wasn’t that much better than Smith’s average. Outfielder Bob Coulson managed a .404 slugging percentage in 23 games. That led the team with Wheat second at .403.

Among the pitchers, knuckleballer Nap Rucker and Cy Barger had acceptable seasons. Rucker went 17-18 and led the NL in innings, hits, and shutouts with six. Barger was 15-15. It went south from there. George Bell was 10-27 and Doc Scanlan was 9-11. If you look down the list, there’s nobody below that even hints at solving the problems of the staff.

The Superbas have a little to look forward to in 1911. Daubert and Wheat are good players and will continue to improve. I know nothing about Bergen, but he must have been a heck of a catcher because in 1911 he will catch 84 games and hit all of .132 and slug .154. Both Hy Myers and Otto Miller come up in 1911. Neither are particularly good in ’11, but both will be significant contributors to the rise of the 1916 team to the NL pennant. Other than that, Oh, well.

1910: Cardinals Postmortem

September 3, 2010

By 1910 there was nothing to indicate how important the St. Louis Cardinals would be to the 20th Century National League. The Cardinals in the first decade of the century were terrible. There was no change in 1910.

For the entire period of the Deadball Era (1900-20) the Cardinals  finished with the worst record in the National League. At least in 1910 they weren’t last. The Cards finished seventh with a 63-90 record, 40.5 games out of first.

Manager Roger Bresnahan simply didn’t have a lot to work with at St. Louis, installing himself as the backup catcher and even pitching one inning of one game. He hit .273, stole 13 bases, had 15 doubles, scored 35 runs, and was easily the best player on a woeful bench. The entire bench failed to hit a home run (the Cards finished last in homers) and no one other than Bresnahan had double figure runs scored.

Which brings me to the starters. Most of them were at least a bit better than the bench. First baseman Ed Konetchy hit .302, slugged .425, and led the team with 78 RBIs. Outfielder Rube Ellis hit all of four home runs to lead the team. Miller Huggins, future Hall of Fame manager, led the NL in walks, stole a team high 34 bases, and his 101 runs scored led the team and was good for second in the NL. The team as a whole finished fifth in runs, sixth in average and slugging, and first in walks.

The problem  with the hitting was nothing compared to the pitching. The team finished last in ERA, strikeouts, shutouts, and first in hits allowed.  Twenty-four year old lefty Johnny Lush ( please tell me he wasn’t a drinker) led the team with 14 wins and was the only pitcher with a winning record (14-13). Unfortunately he had more walks than strikeouts and more hits than innings pitched. Of  the six Cardinals pitchers who pitched in 10 or more games, four gave up both more hits than innings pitched and had more walks than strikeouts. Bob Harmon managed to lead the NL with 133 walks while striking out only 87. His ERA was 4.46, a gigantic ERA for a Deadball pitcher with 33 starts.

All in all, St. Louis didn’t look good in 1910 and didn’t look like it could compete for a pennant in 1911 (they moved up to fifth in 1911). The hitting wasn’t all that bad, although it wasn’t all that good either (Can you say “mediocre”?). But if the pitching didn’t improve the team would continue to flounder. The pitching didn’t, and the team did.

1910: Naps Postmortem

September 2, 2010

The 1910 Cleveland team is one of the more interesting failures in the American League. It has several first line players (four made it to the Hall of Fame), but not enough to make it into the first division. Ultimately the Naps finished 71-81, 32 games back in manager Deacon McGuire’s first full season. He didn’t get a second, being fired 17 games into 1911.

Cleveland’s hitting numbers reveal that they  probably finished where they should . They rank fifth in almost all major categories like hitting slugging, runs, and RBIs. The problem is that the stats are uneven across the starters. Second baseman Napoleon LaJoie hit .383, slugged .520, led the league in hits doubles, and in some sources the .383 won the batting title (Other sources give the title to Ty Cobb). Those are great numbers, but now look at the third baseman, Bill Bradley. Bradley hit .196, slugged all of .210, had 12 RBIs and 42 hits. It’s true he played only 61 games, but those kinds of numbers are typical of what’s wrong with Cleveland’s hitting. LaJoie is great, catcher Ted Easterly didn’t do bad, but the rest of the starters were nothing special. Other than LaJoie and Easterly, only first baseman George Stovall managed to hit .250.

The bench is equally bad. Of the 10 players appearing in 2o or more games, only Joe Jackson (who plays in exactly 20 games) managed to hit .300 (.387) and Hall of Famer Elmer Flick in his final season managed .265 in 24 games. The rest of the bench gives the team nothing.

The pitching is disappointing. A staff of Cy Young, Addie Joss, and Cy Falkenberg should have been pretty good. But Joss managed only 13 games (and never came back, dying the next season). Young was 43 and although winning his 500th game during the year, managed only a 7-10 record. That left Falkenberg as the ace. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of him. As an “ace” he left a lot to be desired. He was 14-13, had an ERA of 2.94, and managed 107 strikeouts to 75 walks. Respectable numbers, maybe, but not “ace”-like.

Cleveland looks like a team ready to make a few strides in 1911 (and it will rise to third), but it is a deeply flawed team. LaJoie is 35, Joss is ill (and, as stated above, will not return), Flick retired, and Young is old at 45 (and was traded after seven starts in 1911). On the other hand Joe Jackson is starting to embark on a great career, George Stovall is pretty good sometimes and Easterly is a decent catcher.

The year 1911 turned out to be interesting for Cleveland. The end of 1910 gave some indication of that.

Pool Shark

September 1, 2010

Johnny Kling (note the old style mitt)

From 1906 through 1908 the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant every year. In 1910 they won it again. The loss in 1909 is attributable more to a great season by Pittsburgh than to a falling off by Chicago. But it’s also true that the Cubs lost a stalwart in 1909 and that he came back in 1910. His name was Johnny Kling, he was the catcher, and the reason for his leaving the team in 1909 is, as far as I can tell, absolutely unique.

Kling was born in Kansas City in 1875, the son of a baker. In the mid-1890s he managed and pitched for a local semi-pro team. He did well enough that the minor leagues picked him up. He bounced from one team to another and one position to another until he settled in at catcher for the Western League team in St. Joseph. The Cubs spotted him and brought him to the Major Leagues in 1900. By 1902 he was the fulltime catcher and remained so through 1908. His hitting numbers were nothing grand, but they weren’t bad either. But Kling’s specialty was catching. He is widely acknowledged as the finest defensive catcher of the period in either league. As a member of the Cubs he participated in the 116 win season of 1906 and in the subsequent loss to the White Sox in the World Series. In 1907 and 1908 the Cubs went back to the Series, winning both. He was the catcher in the famous “Merkle Game” of 1908 and the replay of that game that ultimately sent the Cubs to the World Series.

Kling was also something of a pool shark. He honed his skills in the off-season back home in Kansas City. In 1909 he won the world pocket billiards championship. He set up a pool hall in Kansas City (not River City)  and decided to quit baseball so he could tour the country as world champion giving exhibitions, playing matches, and making more money than he could make behind the plate. It lasted a year, he did pretty well financially, but lost the championship in 1910. So it was back to baseball for him.

In 1909 the Cubs lost the National League pennant for the first time in four years. Some people claimed it was because they missed Johnny Kling. I’d like to say that’s true, and it probably is to some extent. But in 1908 the Cubs went 99-55 and won the World Series. In 1909 they went 104-49 and lost the pennant to a Pittsburgh team that ran off 110 wins. In 1910 with Kling back they went 104-50 and got back to the Series. It’s true Kling hit better than Jimmy Archer, his 1909 replacement, and was a better catcher, but he wasn’t responsible for Pittsburgh winning 110 games in 1909.

Back with the Cubs, Kling had a decent 1910 (and a terrible World Series), then got off to an awful start in 1911. In June he was traded to the NL team in Boston where his numbers got a little better. In 1912 he was appointed manager at Boston. The team finished last at 52-101, 52 games out of first. Kling lost his job to George Stallings who became the “Miracle Man” of 1914. Kling was traded to Cincinnati and retired after the 1913 season. For his career he hit .271 with a .357 slugging percentage, 1149 hits, 513 RBIs, 474 runs scored in 1260 games and two rings.

After retirement, Kling went back to Kansas City and opened a restaurant called the Pennant Cafe (which had a pool room in the back, of course). He did well, made a lot of money, went into real estate and did even better.  In 1935 he bought the minor league Kansas City Blues and immediately eliminated segregated seating at the team’s home ballpark. He sold the team in 1937 for a lot of money to Colonel Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees (who reinstituted segregated seating).  Kling died in January 1947.

King is an integral member of the Cubs team that dominated the National League from 1906-1910. But he is also an excellent example of a player who is so underpaid that he is willing to leave the sport to pursue other interests that make more money. The new salary structure in baseball means we don’t see players like him very often. It’s also interesting to note that he does well after retirement. In researching for these posts, I’ve noticed that an inordinate number of catchers seem to do very well after retirement. I haven’t researched it well enough to determine if they really do better than other position players, but it looks to me is if it may be true. I’m not sure why, maybe they’re just brighter. Anyway, Kling is one of those. He’s unique in that it was his skill with a pool stick that opened up the door for his success after baseball and made it worthwhile to sit out a year.