Archive for October, 2010

The Original Ace

October 30, 2010

Asa Brainard

We all know how to define an ace in baseball terms. It’s the top pitcher on the team. Ever wonder where the term originated?

Asel Brainard was born in Albany, New York in 1839. His name was shortened to Asa, pronounced Ace-a (You already see where this is going, right?) as a child. He joined the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860 as their second baseman. In 1862 he moved to the pitcher’s box (no mound yet, team) and became the top pitcher for one of the best barnstorming teams of the era. With the coming of the Civil War, baseball suffered  with players joining the army (one member of the Excelsiors even went South). Brainard wasn’t one of them. He continued to pitch for a much weakened team, and by 1867 had moved to Washington to play for the Nationals, another of the great barnstorming teams of the era and obviously not the modern team currently playing in DC.

In 1868, Harry Wright convinced him to move to Cincinnati where he became the pitcher for the Red Stockings.  The next season the Red Stockings became the first openly acknowledged all professional team in baseball. They were also very good. The team went 57-0 for the season, Brainard doing the bulk of the pitching. He appeared in 55 games, but didn’t pitch in every one of them, so his record is a little hard to pin down. Whatever it was, he was obviously undefeated. The next year the team went 66-7-1 and disbanded following the season. The success of the team helped lead to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Brainard was in demand for the new league.

He signed with the Washington Olympics, but his great years were behind him. He was 32 and a heavy drinker. He was also something of a “ladies man” having a series of “flings” that made the papers. He had married in 1869, but abandoned the family shortly afterwards (the exact date seems to be unknown), so on top of the drinking, he was gaining something of an unsavory reputation among both players and fans. He could get away with it as long as he pitched well, but by 1871 he was slipping badly. He was 12-15 with more walks than strikeouts in 1871, 2-9 in 1872, 5-7 in 1873, and 5-22 in 1874. Each year he walked more than he struck out and had more hits than innings pitched. (All stats from ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, 2006). With those numbers there was no 1875 season for Brainard. He did a little umpiring that season, but didn’t catch on as a fulltime umpire (apparently he couldn’t be trusted to be sober on game day).

Out of baseball, Brainard ran a cigar store for a while, then a pool hall. He also got married for a second time. This time it was a banker’s daughter. He moved to Denver to run the Markham Hotel billiard room. Next next year he caught pneumonia and died 29 December 1888. He is buried in Brooklyn.

All sources agree that the abbreviation of Asa to Ace is the origin of our use of the word to describe a baseball team’s first line pitcher. I listened to the announcers call game one of the World Series. They used the term “Ace” to describe both pitchers a number of times. In doing so, they made a, probably unknowing, tip of the cap to Asa Brainard.

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The Star of the National Association

October 29, 2010

Major League baseball is in denial about a lot of things. Things like drugs and gambling and corked bats make a little sense. but strangely enough it is at odds with its own beginnings. MLB says that the National Association, which flourished from 1871-1875, wasn’t really a major league. Now let me see if I have this straight. Professional ball players are playing ball at the highest available professional level, right? That sounds to me like a “Major League”. Does it to you? As long as they refuse to admit the National Association into the fraternity of major leagues the players of that era are going to be even more obscure than they would otherwise be. That includes the undeniable star of the National Association, Ross Barnes.

Ross Barnes

Barnes was born in New York in 1850. He played league baseball beginning in 1868, becoming a professional in 1869. In 1871 with the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, Barnes joined the Boston Red Stockings, splitting time between second base and shortstop. He settled in at second base and became the dominant player in the league for the rest of its existence. In the five years Barnes played for Boston, the team finished a contested second in 1871, then rolled to four consecutive pennants.

With the collapse of the Association after the 1875 season, Barnes joined the Chicago White Stockings of the fledgling National League. As usual for his team, it won the pennant in 1876. So far so good for Barnes. Then came 1877.

 There are two versions of what happened to Barnes. In 1877 the NL changed the rule that allowed a bunted ball to be declared fair or foul depending on where it first landed. Barnes was a master of chopping the ball so that it landed fair, then slid foul. By the time the fielder caught up to it, Barnes had a hit. If the fielder played to take away the fair-four bunt, then Barnes would swing away. With this play now being simply a foul ball, Barnes’ ability to use it caused his career to crash. The second story is that in 1877 Barnes caught a fever (type undetermined) and simply never recovered. I’m not sure which is true. The first presupposes that Barnes simply couldn’t adapt to a new style of hitting, the second that he couldn’t recover his health enough to play. Both are a little far-fetched. Most good hitters (especially in the era before home run specialization) can do more than one thing well, and if the fever weakened him that much he still managed to live another 38 years. My best guess, and that’s all it is, is that his problem was a combination of the two. Physically weakened and without his best hitting weapon, his career sagged.

Barnes hung on through 1881, missing all of 1878 and 1880, then retired. He did some umpiring between 1874 and 1890. I’m not sure how you ump when you’re an active player, but it seems to have been considered acceptable in the earliest years of Major League baseball. Several people other than Barnes also do it. After retirement he spent time working in Chicago. He died in 1915 and is buried in Rockford, Illinois (later home of the Peaches).

Between 1871 and 1876 Ross Barnes’ numbers are astounding. Even in an era of high hitting stats, his are over the top. In five years in the Association, he hits above .400 three times and hits in the .360s and .340s the other two. He leads the league in on base percentage (OBP) twice, in slugging twice, and in total bases three times. He leads the league in hits and runs three times; in doubles twice; and in triples, stolen bases, walks and singles once each. In the NL’s rookie campaign he leads the league in hits, runs, doubles, triples, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases (add Al Spaulding on the mound and you see why Chicago won the first NL pennant). For his career he hits .391 in the Association and .319 in the NL with OBPs of  .415 and .356. His OPS (on base plus slugging) is .933 and .757.  There are all sorts of variation in the numbers for Barnes’ era. The stats above are from Baseball Reference.com.

Barnes played a total of four years in the NL, making him ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Even if you add in his Association numbers he only has nine years. I’m going to argue that for guys who were in at the beginning of professional baseball the ten year rule should be waived. Barnes played prior to the formation of the NL and those years have to count for something. In my opinion the Association is a Major League and in the years prior to 1871 Barnes is a productive player for the teams of the era. I know it won’t happen, but it should.

An Anniversary in Kansas City

October 27, 2010

Dick Howser

With the start of the World Series, it seems appropriate to look back at previous champions so that the current crop of players can see the shoulders they stand upon. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the only World Series win by the Kansas City Royals. Over the last several years the Royals have become irrelevant in the American League, so many people have forgotten that they were once a powerhouse winning it all in 1985.

The Series is now primarily famous for Don Denkinger’s blown call in the ninth inning of game six. I’ve even heard people complain that call cost St. Louis the Series. It didn’t. Being unable to get their act together after the disappointment of game six did. The Cards lost game seven 11-0 (tied with a Cardinals victory in 1934 as the biggest blowout game seven ever) and Denkinger didn’t cause that. It also helped that the Royals were a good team. Ewing Kaufmann had away of finding good players who rose to the occasion when needed. They won only the single World Series on his watch, but they were competitive year after year. Dick Howser was an excellent manager who got the most out of his players and had a knack of nurturing new team members. It’s a great shame he died so very early. In fact, the early deaths of Howser and Dan Quisenberry give this team something of a tragic air.

The team itself had a young pitching staff. The four men who started the World Series games were 21 (Bret Saberhagen), 23 (Danny Jackson), and 28 year olds Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black was the geezers (22-year-old Mark Gubicza didn’t pitch in the Series). Closer Dan Quisenberry saved 37 games that season, the last of four consecutive seasons he would lead the AL. Saberhagen picked up the Cy Young Award that season (and another in 1989). None of them went on to greatness, even Saberhagen, the best of the starters. He ended his career 167-117. Jackson had a few good years getting into World Series play in 1990 (with a winning Cincinnati) and 1993 (with a losing Philadelphia), and ending with a 112-131 record.  Leibrandt got into the 1991 World Series, lost two games, and is primarily famous today for giving up Kirby Puckett’s walk off in game six. His career record was 140-112. Black now manages at San Diego and went 121-116. Gubicza stayed with KC the longest (to 1996) but finished his career 132-136. Quiz died young but gave KC 244 saves (and for my money rates a serious look for Coopertown). For one year, they all pitched well and led a team to victory.

The infield was solid, if uneven. Steve Balboni hit .243 and led the team with 36 home runs. He also led the league in strikeouts with 166. Shortstop Onix Concepcion hit .204 and was replaced in the Series by Buddy Biancalana who had hit all of a buck-88. While neither tore up the diamond with a bat, both were decent fielders. The other two infielders were two-thirds of the heart of the team. Frank White was a great second baseman. He turned the double play with grace, could catch anything and played wider of the base than anyone else in the AL. He hit .249 with 22 home runs. Hall of Famer George Brett was at third. He led the league in slugging at .585, hit .335, had 30 home runs, 38 doubles, and 112 RBIs. Just your standard George Brett type year.

If White and Brett were two-thirds of the heart of the team, center fielder Willie Wilson was the other third. Leading off he hit .278. stole 43 bases, and led the AL with 21 triples. As an outfielder he was terrific, using his speed to roam all over the grass. Which was just as good because Lonnie Smith played left field. Smith could hit, but he was a terrible fielder. For 1985 he hit .257, stole 40 bases, and had 23 doubles. Today he’s probably most famous for the base running blunder in game seven of the 1991 Series, but for a while he was a winner (appearing on World Series winning rosters in 1980, 1982, and 1985). The Royals platooned Darryl Motley and Pat Sheridan in right field. Motley was the right-handed hitter. Both hit in the .220s, but Motley produced 17 home runs. Both Wilson and Smith were involved in drug allegations that effected their career, which adds an element of sadness about what might have been lost to this team.

The catcher and designated hitter were also solid. Jim Sundberg, lately over from Texas, was considered one of the finest catchers of the era. He hit .259 with 14 home runs in 1985, a major offensive explosion for him. Jorge Orta and Hal McRae split time as the DH (McRae was the right handed hitter). Both had acceptable years, but as the DH was not used in the 1985 Series, both were relegated to pinch hit duties. Orta got the only hit either had; it drove in two runs.  No one on the bench hit .250 and none had more than two home runs. Dane Iorg of Denkinger fame (or infamy depending on your point of view) hit .223 with one homer.

The team won the Series by hitting .288 to St.Louis’ .185 and scoring 28 runs to 13 for the Cards (take out the 11-0 game 7 and the numbers were 17-13). White had six RBIs, Brett led the team with a .370 average, and Saberhagen had two wins (including game seven) and picked up the MVP.

That was the highpoint for Kansas City. The pitching didn’t pan out, the hitters got old or faded. But for one year they were the best in baseball and showed the fans that Kansas City was relevant. Too bad that last part’s changed.

Bob Gibson Gets Me a Car

October 25, 2010

Viet Nam Military Payment Certificate (MPC), 1967

I got “in-country” Viet Nam in very late September 1967. That’s the way we described Viet Nam. When you were there, you were “in-country.” Everywhere else was “the world.” I recognize the built in bias of that statement, but that’s the way we looked at it then.  When you talked about going anywhere else, you talked about going back to “the world.” R and R (Rest and Recreation, a five day break from the war in some nearby place–in my case Bangkok) was in “the world.” Going home was back to “the world.” But even when you were “in-country” who were never far away from American sports (which were happening back in “the world”). October was the World Series and I was “in-country” with a bunch of other baseball fans.

This was the year of the Boston “Impossible Dream” Red Sox. For the first time since 1946, the BoSox were pennant winners and had home field in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. For some reason that I never quite understood, most of the guys I knew were Red Sox supporters. That’s to say they were rooting for the Sox, not that they were lifelong fans. Only one guy was from New England and a  lifelong fan. The rest were from all over the country and were fans of various teams. But for some reason most of them were pulling for Boston.

Now I grew up in  a home where Stan Musial was something just short of God himself (and the order of precedence got kind of fuzzy sometimes), so I was inclined to root for the Cardinals, and might have been read out of the family if I hadn’t. I’m  a Dodgers fan, but the Cards were my  second choice (as, apparently, Boston was most everyone else’s second choice). So I found myself in a minority around a bunch of  Boston rooters.

I kept telling them Bob Gibson wasn’t going to let Boston win. Their response was that Carl Yastrzemski would crush Gibson and that Boston would win in five. It was almost always five because everyone accepted that Gibson would probably win one. I kept disagreeing, which led finally to that classic American sports rejoiner, “Wanna bet?” Well, it was Viet Nam, there weren’t a lot of places to spend your money  and the money looked funny (MPC replaced dollars “in-country”), and I had some that I’d brought with me, so the answer was “sure.” I ended up putting up about $100 at 2-1 with a number of guys, then went out and agonized every time Boston won a game. I was wrong about Yaz, he hit Gibson and everybody else well. But I was right about Gibson. He won three games, including game 7 (hitting a home run in the process) and the Cards won the World Series. It seems Boston’s “Impossible Dream” really was impossible.

We met the next day at the enlisted club. Being basically honest types, everybody paid up, so I bought a round for all the losers. I sent almost all the rest of the money home and it made a nice start on the purchase of a used car when I got back to “the world.” For years I called the car “Gibby.” Damned thing ran pretty well.

OK, ‘Fess Up

October 23, 2010

How many of you had the Rangers back in April? Me neither. Congrats to Texas and particularly to Josh Hamilton for his inspiring tale. Ginger Ale all around.

On the Road to Southeast Asia

October 22, 2010

Don Drysdale

As mentioned in the previous post, I saw my first big league game in Boston in 1967. I managed to see several more before September when a set of orders I knew was coming finally arrived. I was being shipped, under the Army’s Fun, Travel, and Adventure (FTA) program, to Viet Nam in sunny Southeast Asia. Before going, I got two weeks at home. While there I did some checking, found that my plane was going through Los Angeles, found that the Dodgers were at home, and decided to finally get to see my favorite team in person.

I got into Los Angeles early afternoon on 26 September 1967. I checked into a Hilton (this is before Paris Hilton showed up on anybody’s radar) near the airport. It was expensive. I think I paid around $25 for the room. Doesn’t sound like much, but that was back when the Motel 6 really was $6. About an hour and a half before game time I caught a cab to Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. As an aside, of the three Major League stadiums that existed in 1967 and still exist, I’ve been to two, missing only Wrigley in Chicago.

Unlike Fenway, I was awed by Dodger Stadium. It was, after all, the home of my team. I remember the great site lines, the low wall in left field, the bleachers, and the long flow of the outfield that came to a rounded stop rather than the abrupt halt of Fenway. Dodger Stadium also had a special deal for guys in uniform, so I got a cheap ticket and did my Fenway trick of waiting until the second inning to claim a seat. This one was down the first base line about half way up. There was an older guy beside me. He saw the uniform and started talking about his time in Korea. We got along fine and ultimately he bought me a hot dog. Anybody buys me free food is great in my book. We spent time between innings discussing the army and war and all those kinds of things, but that stopped when the game started up again. When the game was over we went our separate ways. He was quite a bit older than me and may be gone now. I didn’t get his name and still don’t know it. Pity.

For the game, the Dodgers were playing Pittsburgh and Don Drysdale, one of my favorites, was pitching of  LA. Again I jotted down my memories, then checked on Retrosheet. As with the last post, the memories are typed without parens and the Retrosheet explanations are in parens.

Maury Wills led off for Pittsburgh (remembered he played, wasn’t sure he led off). It was strange seeing him in a Pirates uniform after all those years in Dodger Blue. The Dodgers  scored early and now obscure player named Al Ferrara hit a home run (it was a two run shot in the first inning and ended the Dodgers scoring, all of which occurred in the first inning). Drysdale won the game with a low score (3-1) and struck out a lot of Pirates (7, it turns out. Don’t know if you consider that a lot, but I did at the time). Ron Perranoski relieved him (and picked up the save). I remembered the Pirates only run was on a goofy play, but didn’t remember what (with the bases loaded, Drysdale hit opposing pitcher Bruce Dal Canton to force in Gene Alley). After that it was pretty smooth sailing for the home team.

I left the park happy. My team had won. One of my current favorites had pitched and won. The Dodgers weren’t going to win a pennant (the Cardinals were), but they had won that game and a part of me believed they’d won it just to please me. Sure I was heading to Oakland and processing for Viet Nam, but for this night I was pleased with my world. Nam could damned well wait.

My First Big League Game

October 20, 2010

Fenway Park

I grew up in two small towns far from the meccas of Major League Baseball. So I never saw a game in person until I joined the army in 1967. I spent a couple of months in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (“Fort Lost in the Wood, Misery” to all of us trainees). Then I went to Massachusetts for specialized training. It was there that I finally had time and money to attend my first big league game.

It was about an hour bus ride into Boston from the post.It wasn’t all that far, but the traffic made it take an hour. Then you could get the subway out to Fenway Park to catch a game. They had a special ticket booth where you could go if you were in uniform. The tickets there were 50 cents a pop for unassigned seats in the bleachers. A buddy who’d done it before went with us (there were four of  us) and showed us the ropes, including the little detail that if you stood up in the mezzanine for the first inning you could find out where the empty seats were and get a better view of the game than you got from the bleachers. The game was a double-header and in those days you got both ends for one ticket, so we had to get up between games and lounge around until the second inning started to make sure the same seats weren’t being used for game two. On this day they weren’t.

They say the experience is unique. The sights, the sounds, the smells are all special. Well, frankly I don’t remember any smells. I think we had a hot dog and a beer, or maybe it was a soda, but I don’t remember the smell of the hot dog or the wood on the seats. The sights and sounds? Well, that’s different.

Let me say here that I’ve never been a Boston fan. As a Dodgers fan you hate the Yankees, so that should make you at least somewhat partial to the Red Sox, right? Didn’t work with me. Didn’t care for the BoSox either. All that means that Fenway Park held no special place in my Southwestern US heart. The field was nice. I was stunned by how big the outfield actually was. Outfields to me were from the school yards or Little League or the Junior High fields where I played, or at most the High School diamond. This outfield was massive. It seemed to go on forever until it hit that stupid wall in left field. The “Green Monster” struck me as an eyesore. I’d never  seen it in color before (black and white TV) and so although I knew it was “Green”, I’d never actually contemplated what that meant. It was quirky, but ugly. The stands were old, the sight lines OK from where we sat, the seats creaked. At my age I understand creaking a bit better than I did then. All in all the place was OK, but you could tell there were problems.

The games, however, were different. The Sox were playing Detroit that day, 14 May 1967, a Sunday. I’m surprised how much I remember about the games. I jotted down what I remembered, then went to Retrosheet and looked the games up. Turned out I was right about what I remembered. In what follows, what I got from Retrosheet is in the parens. The Sox won both games (8-5, 13-9). I remember both Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich pitched for Detroit (McLain in game one and Lolich game two) and that Jim Lonborg pitched one of the games (the first). I remembered both were high scoring games (see the scores mentioned above) and that former Dodgers Johnny Podres and Larry Sherry pitched in a game (both were in game one and Sherry also worked the second game). I remembered Al Kaline scoring, knocking in a couple of runs, and making a heck of a catch for the final out in one of the innings of game one (the second inning). I recall that there were a lot of home runs (among others, Willie Horton had two in game two, Norm Cash hit a homer in game two, and Carl Yastrzemski had a home run in both games).  I remember wondering how Yaz could hit with his bat held that high. Got that one wrong. Finally I remember that the pitching was dreadful that day (50 total hits by both teams over both games).

I left happy. We caught a bus back to the post, talked about the games all the way back, never realizing this was “The Impossible Dream” year for Boston. It was my first ever Big League game and I was content.

Cocky

October 18, 2010

Eddie Collins

Baseball has a world of wonderful stats. One of my favorites is this: who’s the only player to hit .300 in four different decades? Answer, Eddie Collins.

Collins is the only member of the Athletics “$100,000 infield” I haven’t profiled. Primarily that’s because he’s the most famous, and thus the one readers are most likely to know. It’s time to change that omission.

Collins was from New York, attended Columbia University in New York City and, unlike a number of players who only attended college, graduated. He was a good ballplayer and in 1906 got to the big leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics. With eligibility remaining at college in 1906, he played under the name Sullivan for that season. It didn’t do him any good. Columbia knew what was going on and Collins was not allowed to play his final season. Instead, he served as a student coach and completed his degree. Already a good hitter and a fine second baseman, a combination made him a starter in 1909, he sent previous second sacker Danny Murphy to the outfield (where Murphy continued to have a stellar career). Collins spent most of his career hitting second where he developed a reputation for great bat control, timely hitting, ability to place the ball,  just all the basic things a Deadball Era two hitter was required to do well.

While in Philadelphia, Collins helped lead the A’s to pennants in 1910, 1911, 1913, and 1914, winning the World Series in all but the final year. With the forming of the Federal League in 1914, baseball started a new round in a salary war. Connie Mack, A’s owner, strapped for cash and losing some of his best players, sent Collins to the Chicago White Sox in 1915 for cash. While at Philadelphia, Collins managed to lead the American League in runs in 1912, 13, and 14, in slugging in 1914, and in stolen bases in 1910. A Chalmers Award, the Deadball equivalent of the modern MVP, came his way in 1914. He’d also made a reputation for himself as being very confident in his ability. This earned him the nickname “Cocky.”

He was every bit as good in Chicago. In 1917 and 1919 he was instrumental in bringing pennants to the White Sox. His mad dash home in the 1917 World Series is credited as the defining moment in the Series and led ultimately to a ChiSox victory over the Giants. In 1919 it was a different story. Collins was one of the “Clean Sox” who did not conspire to throw the World Series. Sources indicate that Collins heard rumors of the “fix”, but did not believe them. Unfortunately, he had a terrible Series, batting .226 with only seven hits (only one of them for extra bases-a double), one RBI, and was caught stealing in a key moment. After the Series he was one of the critics of the “Black Sox” and testified at their trial.

Neither the Black Sox scandal nor the end of the Deadball Era seemed to effect his play. He continued hitting over .300, peaking at .372 in 1920, and hitting .344 in 1926 his last year in Chicago. He led the AL two further times in stolen bases (1923 and 1924). In 1925 he became a player-manager for Chicago, taking the team to a fifth place finish, its highest finish since 1922 (also fifth). They remained fifth in 1926, and he lost his job to former teammate and “Clean Sox” Ray Schalk.

 He went back to Philadelphia in 1927, but never again played 100 games in any season. 1927 was his last productive year. He hit .336, played in 56 games at second, stole 12 bases, and scored 50 runs in 226 at bats. His on base percentage was .468. In 1928 he got into 36 games, almost all as a pinch hitter. In 1929, he played in nine games, all as a pinch hitter (racking up no hits). His last season was 1930, when he went one for two and scored a run. His .500 batting average in 1930 made him the only player to average at least .300 for four different decades (1900’s, 19 teens, 1920s, and 1930s). OK, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s still a fun bit of baseball trivia.

By this point he was already doing a bit of coaching. He continued through 1932, then became General Manager for the Boston Red Sox in 1933. He remained in that position through 1947. He was instrumental in bringing such players as Ted Williams and Johnny Pesky to the big leagues. In 1946, on his watch, the Red Sox went to the World Series for the first time since 1918. They lost to St. Louis.  Unfortunately, he continued the Red Sox tradition of not integrating the team. He retired in 1948 and died in 1951. His Hall of Fame induction came in 1939.

Collins numbers are staggering. He hit .333, had 3315 hits, scored 1821 runs, stole 741 bases, walked 1499 times, had a .424 on base percentage, put up 4268 total bases, and slugged .429, which isn’t bad for a player with only 47 home runs. He is the only player to play at least 12 seasons for two different teams (Philadelphia and Chicago). He played on six pennant winners, and four World Series champions. In World Series play he hit .328, scored 20 runs, had 42 hits (good for 10th all time), 14 stolen bases (tied with Lou Brock for the most ever), and his four doubles in 1910 is tied for the most in a four game series. On top of all that, Collins was a good second baseman, leading the AL in putouts seven times and in assists four. He is still second all time in putouts and first in assists among second basemen. An argument can be made that he is the third best player of the Deadball Era, behind Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner (not sure I’d make it).

Collins is consistently rated among the five greatest second basemen in Major League history (Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Nap LaJoie, and Charlie Gehringer are the other names most commonly, but certainly not exclusively, mentioned). You won’t get an argument from me. I’m not sure I’d rate him first, but he’s certainly in the running.

The Apotheosis of Bobby Cox

October 15, 2010

So we now say good-bye to Bobby Cox and watch him ride off into the sunset (or the cruise the announcers made such a fuss about). He’s certainly going to the Hall of Fame shortly, and that’s probably fair. He’s also been deified in the last several months. It’s as if baseball was putting up a Managerial Mount Rushmore and Cox was one of the four faces to go there. Maybe he should. Then again maybe he shouldn’t.

No knock on Cox, but I’m not sure how you quantify a great manager. You can’t just look at won-loss records, because Connie Mack ended up with a career losing record and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think he belongs in Cooperstown. It can’t be titles because Tom Kelly and Danny Murtaugh aren’t Hall of Famers and they have the same number of titles as Tom LaSorda and Bucky Harris (2) and more than Whitey Herzog (1). Is it taking a bad team and winning with it? Nope, can’t be that either because Casey Stengel couldn’t make either Brooklyn or Boston (the Braves not the Red Sox) into competitive teams (not to mention what happened with the Mets) and everybody agrees he’s a Hall of Famer because of his Yankees years.  If it’s taking a bad team and making them contenders, then where’s Gene Mauch who had a habit of doing just that? And Cox? well, he’s got a lot of division championships, but only one World Series title, same as Herzog and less than Kelly or Murtaugh. I wonder if that makes him a lesser manager or not.

I’m very serious about this. I have no idea how you determine a great manager. I’m tempted to say that Stengel and Joe McCarthy were the greatest. They each won the World Series seven times, but how hard was it to write “Ruth” and “Gehrig” into McCarthy’s early lineup, then replace Ruth with “DiMaggio”? And it must have been tough as Stengel agonized about “did I do the right thing” when he wrote in “Mantle” or “Berra.” Great talent like that makes looking like a great manager easy. And as this post was started by referencing Cox, how tough was it to write in “Maddux”, “Glavine”, “Smoltz” three out of every five days? Geez, even I might win a few games with those three rosters.

So here’s a serious plea from me to you. Can we figure out how to determine agreat manager before we haphazardly anoint Saint Bobby of Cox? Frankly I think Cox deserves a seat at the great manager table but I don’t really know how we determine that.

My personal choice for the manager’s Mount Rushmore? Based on personal preference rather than true evaluation they would be (alphabetically) John McGraw, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Harry Wright (with apologies to Connie Mack).

Charlie the Hustler

October 13, 2010

Rose

In posts on Joe Jackson and Hal Chase I mentioned Pete Rose in passing. I was asked what I thought of Rose. Being dumb enough to walk into an ongoing fight, here goes.

Let me start with an important caveat. I never watched either Jackson or Chase play (Even I’m not that old!). I did see Rose play. I also saw his teams perform. That’s something, again, I can’t say about either Jackson’s White Sox or the various teams Chase graced (Graced? Did I actually type “graced”?). That means I can’t look at Rose as dispassionately as I do the other two. I have memories of him that are real and not simply still shots or grainy newsreels. For me Rose is in color and the other two in black and white. I have distinct opinions about the Big Red Machine (it’s been overrated because its pitching wasn’t very good) and Rose’s postion on it (he was at best the 3rd finest player on the team after Bench and Morgan and depending on the year behind Perez and/or Foster).  I’m saying this so you know that I come to Rose with a bias I don’t have toward the other two.

Having got that off my chest, Rose is a first rate slug. Baseball has a lot of rules, some in a thick book, others posted on the clubhouse wall. No gambling is one of those. It goes back to the 1920’s and the Black Sox scare. I’m not a huge fan of Judge Landis and his  views of race, but he got the gambling one right. Simply no gambling on baseball in any way, shape, or form. It may be brutal and arbitrary, but it cuts out nuiances that make lawyers necessary. As far as I know, Pete Rose can read, so I want no excuses from him to the effect that “Well, geez guys, I didn’t know that.” Rose got himself banned for gambling and he now admits it. To me that’s case closed and I don’t want to hear about “Poor ole Charlie Hustle.”

Dante told us there were various levels of hell. I think there are also various degrees of bending the rules in baseball. I’ve noticed a number of people arguing that cheating is so  common to the game that Rose breaking the gambling rules is no big deal. Well, yes it is. There’s a wide gulf between Derek Jeter’s phantom hit by pitch (“Oh,agony, Oh pain, Oh I”m dying.”) and Chick Gandil trying to lose the 1919 World Series on purpose. To compare them is just plain silly. And Rose fits somewhere in between them

In some ways that’s my great problem with Rose, the “somewhere in between” part. As far as I can tell (and as I’ve said before, the trials and tribulations of Pete Rose aren’t my specialty) Rose is supposed to have bet on his team to win while he was a manager. Nothing in that impunes his character as a player. If he was betting on games as a player, then there’s a different problem, but I don’t feel I need to address that unless it’s true. It’s his character as a manager that’s in question. And again I find myself somewhat ambivalent about Rose here. Betting on your team to win is still gambling, but in a sense isn’t that what he’s supposed to do? Doesn’t he want to have his team win and placing a bet on them to do so shows a certain confidence in the team (and, yes, I understand the dilemma caused by not betting on a particular game) (more…)