Archive for December, 2010

Clean Living and Johnny Murphy

December 30, 2010

Johnny Murphy

Lefty Gomez has always been one of my favorites. He was a good enough pitcher, but he was even better with a quip. The story goes that after a particularly good outing on the mound, a reporter asked him to what did he attribute his success. Without missing a beat, he replied “Clean living and Johnny Murphy.”

Murphy was born in 1908 in New York City, went to Fordham University. While at Fordham he set the team ERA mark, a record that lasted until 1986. Toward the end of the 1929 Fordham season, Murphy signed a contract with the New York Yankees. He remained a minor leaguer until 1932, when he made the big league team as a bullpen man. He went back to the minors (although his brief appearance in 1932 got him a World Series share) and finally made it back to the Yankees to stay in 1934. He split time that season between the bullpen and starting. He started 20, relieved 20, and went 14-10 with an ERA of 3.12. After the ’34 season, Murphy went to the bullpen and became the Yankees regular closer (although they didn’t call it that back in 1934). Although the stat hadn’t been invented yet, Murphy led the Major Leagues in saves in 1938, 1939, 1941, and led the American League in 1942 (Hugh Casey of Brooklyn in the National League had more). In the Yankees championship years of 1936-39 Murphy appeared in all four World Series’ picking up a save in each of the first three and a win in game 4 of 1939, the final game of the sweep over Cincinnati. In 1941, he was the winning  pitcher in game 4, the game famous for Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike that should have ended the game. He did not participate in the 1942 Series, but picked up one final save in the 1943 Series. He lost 1944 and 1945 to World War II. He didn’t join the military, but rather worked at Oak Ridge on the Manhattan Project. I have been unable to find out exactly what he did, so would appreciate anything someone can give me to enlighten me on this point. He was back with the Yanks in 1946, didn’t do badly, but didn’t do well either and ended up in Boston with the Red Sox for one final season. Again he didn’t do badly, but at age 38 he was through.

Boston hired him as a scout, then named in vice president and director of minor league operations. He held the latter job until the end of the 1960 season. In 1961 he took a job as scouting supervisor for the Mets and the next year became defacto personnel director (his official title as “Administrative Assistant”). In 1967 he negotiated the deal that brought Gil Hodges to the Mets as their manager and in December 1967 Murphy took over as general manager. He held the job during the 1969 “Miracle Mets” run, then was felled by a heart attack on 30 December 1969 (41 years ago today). He died in January 1970 and is buried in the Bronx. The Mets rookie award is named for Murphy and in 1983 he joined the team Hall of Fame.

Murphy isn’t the first great relief specialist (Firpo Marberry is), but he’s one of the best. For his career he went 93-53 with 107 saves, one of the top three save totals prior to 1960. He walked 444 men, struck out 378, had an ERA of 3.50, and gave up 985 hits in 1045 innings pitched. His ERA+ is 118 with a WHIP of 1.367. In World Series play he was 2-0 with four saves and an ERA of 1.10 a WHIP of 0.918 with four walks and eight strikeouts. He pitched in five World Series’ and the Yankees won every one of them. The lone Yanks loss of the era, 1942, is the single series Murphy sat out.

Lefty Gomez’s comment about clean living is a testament to Murphy’s value to the Yankees dynasty of the late 1930s-early 1940s. He went further than just a great reliever, when he went to the Mets front office. As scout, personnel director, and general manager, he is one of the major forces in bringing the Mets to their 1969 victory. As such, he’s one of a very few men who’ve made both a major contribution to one team as a player and another as a front office man.

Will not be posting any more this year. Enjoy your holiday, have a good time, don’t drink and drive (PLEASE!!!), and have a wonderful 2011. Will be back to posting next year.

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Short but Sweet

December 27, 2010

Following up on the post about guys who made the Hall of Fame and really could only do one thing well, I began to look for other groups of players who could be linked. An easy one was guys with very short, but very intense careers who make the Hall of Fame based on a brief time of greatness. It turned out there were more than I thought. 

Let me exclude from this list players who lost significant time to war. Guys like Joe DiMaggio who only played 13 years and Hank Greenberg, also 13 years, go in this group. Also I exclude Negro League players who are in the Hall of Fame for their Major League years but lost significant time to segregation. This is where guys like Roy Campanella and Larry Doby go. A third group to be left out are those guys who die while major leaguers but make the Hall. Addie Joss and Ross Youngs are the primary people in this group. All of these people have short careers because of outside influences (or internal in the case of Joss and Youngs) and not due to baseball related causes. That makes them different enough to me that I exclude them from the list I compiled. I also excluded players whose primary career was prior to 1900. Conditions were so different then that short careers were actually somewhat common and both conditions and rules changes (a mound over a pitching box, gloves vs no gloves, etc) made a difference. Still, I get a fairly impressive, and probably incomplete, list.

Among pitchers, five came quickly to mind and a survey of the info indicated I was right about them. Jack Chesbro, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax, and Joe McGinnity (alphabetically) all had very short careers that were considered Hall of Fame worthy (and I don’t intend to debate here whether they were worthy or weren’t).  In Dean’s case he only barely got the required 10 years in through a bit of trickery by the St. Louis Browns ownership. McGinnity also deserves a caveat. He left the National League after 10 years (averaging 25 wins during the 10 seasons) to return to the Minor Leagues (which were not tied to the Major Leagues as they are now) and racked up another 250 plus wins before finally retiring. I’m a bit unclear on his reasoning for the change, but his ML career was on its downside.

I knew of six hitters who met my criteria: Earl Averill, Mickey Cochrane, Earle Combs, Ralph Kiner, Kirby Puckett, and Hack Wilson (again alphabetical). Averill, Combs, Kiner, and Puckett all suffered injuries (back for both Averill and Kiner, a skull fracture for Combs to go along with a broken collarbone, and eyes for Puckett) that curtailed their careers. Cochrane was skulled in a game and told to retire. He did. Wilson drank himself out of the game.  Again each had a short, and very intense period of greatness that did not turn into a long career because of other circumstances (primarily injury except for Wilson).

By my count, there are 180 people in the Hall of Fame who are primarily players (Here’s hoping I can count.) and not managers, executives, umpires, etc. I didn’t really go through the entire list looking for people who played only 10-13 years. Instead I used people I could think of immediately. Maybe not the best way of doing it, but it’s what I used. At least 11 of them had short careers. That’s about 6%, which isn’t a bad number, although certainly not an overwhelming number either. And here I used the entire Hall without excluding those people I specifically excluded in the second paragraph. Had I done so, the percentage would, of course, be higher. It seems that if you are very good you can still have a short career and make the Hall of Fame. But you have to be very, very good.

One-Trick Pony

December 23, 2010

In keeping with the animal theme that seems to be have started around here, I want to write about one-trick ponies. A one-trick pony is a circus horse that can only do one thing. He can do it really well, but doesn’t do anything else well. He still gets to be in the show doing that one trick. Baseball and its Hall of Fame are full of this kind of player.

In one sense all pitchers are essentially one-trick ponies. Their job is to pitch (and do that job only every second, third, fourth, or fifth day depending on the era). A closer is even more so, because his job is to pitch to one (and sometimes two) innings worth of hitters. Some of them, like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson can hit some. No body cares. They are there to pitch and if they hit some, well, that’s great icing on the cake. Some of them, like Jim Kaat or Greg Maddux, field well. No body cares. They are there to pitch and if they field some, well, that’s great icing on the cake. Some, like Lefty Gomez, don’t do either well. No body cares. If they don’t field or hit well no body pulls them from the starting lineup because they can’t field a bunt or hit a curve. Can you imagine the following conversation? “Sorry, Lefty, you won’t start today because you can’t field a bunt.” Neither can I.  And almost by definition American League pitchers of the last 40 years can’t hit because of the designated hitter rule.

There are also guys who have great gloves and no sticks. Bill Mazeroski (who was an OK hitter, but nothing special), Rabbit Maranville, Nellie Fox (who had the one great year with a bat), and Bobby Wallace come instantly to mind. It seems that baseball always finds a way to get them into the lineup. I exclude catchers who don’t hit well, because most of them do a number of things well (like throw, block the plate, move to fouls, control the tempo of the game, etc.).

And then there are the sluggers who seem to always find a batting order spot. I mean guys like Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, Ted Williams, and Orlando Cepeda. All of them hit, and all of them were less than sterling in the field (and I’m being generous here).  Despite the greatness of Williams and the others, they are simply another bunch of one-dimensional players.

All of which brings me to Edgar Martinez, an excellent example of a one-trick pony. What he did was hit and hit well. His knees gave out and he couldn’t field, but he could still hit.

You know what Killebrew, Kiner, Williams,  Cepeda, Mazeroski, Maranville, Fox, Wallace, and Gomez have in common besides being one-trick ponies? They’re also Hall of Famers (and Maddux will be). This is not a plea to put Martinez in the Hall, although I would vote for him, but to acknowledge that the reason many people say he shouldn’t be in (“All he could do was hit.”) is an invalid reason for excluding a man from the Hall. There are already a lot of guys in the Hall who could only do one thing, so excluding Martinez because he could only do one thing is silly. Maybe he should be excluded. Maybe his numbers aren’t good enough. Maybe he doesn’t have the proper leadership skills or the proper moral character and thus should be excluded. Fine by me, exclude him. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons.

Harvey the Hamster is Gone

December 21, 2010

One of Harvey's relatives

This is the time of year for joy and happiness, for revelry and mirth. But not for me, not this year. Harvey the Hamster died yesterday evening.

Harvey, named for the big white rabbit in the old Jimmy Stewart vehicle, belonged to the son of a  friend of mine. He was, by all accounts, a good hamster. He ran his hamster wheel with the best of them, nuzzled his owner when picked up, ate like a little pig, and otherwise simply enjoyed his life. Now he is gone and the grief in his family is terrible. In shock, I had no idea what to say to either the kid or his folks. Worse, there’s a ceremony today, but I won’t be able to make it.

“Now, wait a minute,” I hear you say. “What the heck does this have to do with our favorite game?” Well, it all goes back to this summer and the World Cup. Remember Paul the Octopus? He’s the mollusk that correctly picked the World Cup games and eventual winner before going off to that great calamari pot in the hereafter. It seems that Harvey could do the same thing in baseball. My friend’s son was fascinated by the Paul phenomena and decided, when the baseball playoffs started, to try the same thing with Harvey. He set out two identical bowls of Hamster chow (Don’t ask, I have no idea what they eat.) with the logo of a team stuck to each of the bowls. Damned if the hamster didn’t get all four Divisional Series teams right. On a roll, Harvey then went on to the League Championship Series’ and scored with both Texas and San Francisco. OK, now the grand finale. He picked San Francisco to win the World Series. Now there’s a hamster for the ages. I wish he’d made it longer, I wanted to get down a bet on the Super Bowl. Alas it wasn’t to be.

So today they’ll have a little service for Harvey and I won’t be there.  I’m sure he’ll look down from that Great Hamster Wheel in the Sky and forgive me. They’ll sing “Abide With Me” and talk about his little furry face, and then lay him solemnly in the cold, hard ground. Quick, somebody play “Taps” before I cry.

The Phenom of Phenoms

December 20, 2010

The loss of Bob Feller reminded me just how much of a “phenom” he was. He joined the Indians at 17, then left in September to begin his senior year in high school. Upon graduation he returned to Cleveland and renewed his career. There have been a great number of “phenoms”, some fragile like Stephen Strasburg, some injured like Herb Score. Back in the 1950s the “Bonus Baby” rule required “phenoms” signed for huge bonus’ to stay on the Major League roster for two years (“We gotta discourage this bonus nonesnse.”). Those men played out their minor league careers in front of Major League audiences. When they should have been playing Double A and Triple A ball they were spending entire seasons on the bench with an occasional foray to the field. Some of them disappeared. Others became stars after they served their time on the bench. Eighteen year old Harmon Killebrew played nine games in his rookie season but became a feared power hitter who ended up with over 500 home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. Nineteen year old college freshman Sandy Koufax got into 42 innings in 1955, but became a Hall of Famer and the best hurler I ever saw. Watching both in the first few years of their careers was painful, but it panned out in the end.

But there was another “phenom” who was just as good and just as painful to watch in his early years. He got to the big leagues at age 16. It wasn’t exactly the Major Leagues he got to. They wouldn’t let him into the Majors when he was 16 and it had nothing to do with his age. He joined professional baseball at the highest level he could by entering the Negro Leagues. His name was Roy Campanella and he was very, very good.

Campanella was of mixed race, which in 1930s and 1940s America meant that no matter his actual skin tone, he was considered black. He was a natural at baseball, excelling at school and on the sand lots. At age 16, he dropped out of school and in the spring of 1937, still aged 16, he joined the Washington Elite Giants, who moved to Baltimore in 1938. I heard an interview with Campanella years ago in which he pronounced the name of the team as E-LIGHT Giants, not E-LEET Giants. Don’t know if it was his personal pronunciation or the actual pronunciation of the team name, but I’ve called them E-LIGHT Giants since. I’m not about to contradict Roy Campanella.

By his own confession he wasn’t much of a catcher at age 16. The Elite Giants (however you pronounced them) had a great catcher of their own named Biz Mackey, who later on was elected to the Hall of  Fame. Campanella credited Mackey with making him a Major League caliber catcher.

In the Negro Leagues, Campanella became a star and was considered something of a rival of Josh Gibson as the finest catcher in the leagues (at least as far as anyone was going to rival Gibson). In 1942 Campanella jumped to the Mexican League where he was equally good. In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball, slowly, tentatively, and ever so carefully cracked open the door of integration. Late in 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella (by now universally known as “Campy”). While in Nashua in the minors, the team manager (Walter Alston) was tossed from the game. He appointed Campanella as his replacement, making Campy the first black man to manage white players in a professional minor league game. Behind when Campy took over, the team ultimately won the game. He made the Major League team in 1948, settling in as the regular catcher. He became a regular all-star, a regular MVP candidate, and a three-time winner of the MVP award. Although “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” may have been more famous, in the time that they and Campy all played in New York, Campy won as many MVP awards as the other three put together (as did Campy’s closest rival, Yogi Berra).

Campanella was a great catcher. He had large and soft hands, could move easily despite a distinct bulk. He blocked the plate well, threw to second well (not all that significant a skill in the low base stealing era that was the 1950s), could move under a foul fly with ease, and did a wonderful job with pitchers, especially considering the racial problems created by a black/white battery. And he could hit. God, could he hit. I never saw anyone swing the bat harder. We had a joke in the house that when he swung and missed you could feel the breeze cool you through the TV. He hit .300 three times, had 30+ home runs four times (once going over 40 for a then record number by a catcher), led the National League in RBIs once, and even managed to steal eight bases one year. As he put it about the steals, “They were laughing so hard, they forgot to throw the ball.”

In 1954 he got hurt; his throwing hand. It never healed properly and periodically bothered him for the rest of his career. In the year he stayed healthy (1955) he was still terrific, winning one more MVP award and appearing in the Dodgers first ever World Series triumph. In 1956 and 1957 he was on the wane. The hand was a problem, so was age. He was only 35 and 36, but he was a catcher and the aches, pains, injuries, and squats took their toll. In 1958 came the car wreck and the end of his career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1969, three years before  Josh Gibson. Death came in 1993.

Campanella was a big league player at 16 (a year earlier than Feller). He was a superior catcher and hitter who because of his age may be the “phenom of phenoms”. It’s hard to place him in the pantheon of great catchers because he loses his earliest years to racism and is hurt in the final couple of years of his career (without reference to what the car wreck might have cost him in playing time). Still he rates in the ten best among catchers. I’ve seen some lists that place him has high as second. I’ll settle for top five and the knowledge that he stands at the head of a long line of young “phenoms” who made their mark in baseball.

Roy Campanella

RIP Rapid Robert

December 17, 2010

Bob Feller

By this point I suppose most of you know that Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller died Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at age 92. Even I’m not old enough to remember him pitch at his peak. He pitched into the mid-1950s and I heard a couple of Indians games on the radio with him on the mound. I remember my grandfather being more impressed than I, but as I said I only heard games well after he had started down the long slide to retirement.

In 2000, Baseball Digest ran a list of the 100 greatest this and that of the 20th Century. On their pitching list, Feller was in the top 10. He was also the highest rated pitcher whose career extended past 1945, making him, in their opinion, the finest hurler in the last 60 years of the century.

As great a pitcher as he was, he was perhaps a greater man. Many ball players are merely a long list of numbers that we call their statistics. Feller was so much more.  Already an established star with the Cleveland Indians when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller immediately enlisted in the US Navy and served until 1945. Unlike a lot of the established players, Feller didn’t spend his Naval career playing baseball. He ended up on a battleship (the Alabama) and served in combat, earning a number of medals. Considering he could have spent the war in the relatively cushy job of pitching and didn’t, he gets a lot of credit from me, much more than a number of his contemporaries.

He came back in 1945, was still superb, and helped his team to the 1948 American League pennant and a World Series title. He lost both his games during the Series, but the Indians won anyway. He was the pitcher on the mound for the most famous play of the Series. In game one Braves catcher Phil Masi was on second. Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau cut in behind Masi, Feller whirled and nailed Masi off base. Unfortunately the umpire was caught totally off guard and called the runner safe. Masi later scored the winning run. By the way, 1948 is the only World Series between teams with American Indian nicknames.

Feller was often outspoken and had a degree of fogeyism in him. According to him, the players of his day were uniformly better than the modern ones. Maybe some of them were, but it was a constant drumbeat from him. It got on my nerves sometimes. I read an interview with Larry Doby just prior to Doby’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He acknowledged that he and Feller were never friends because Feller was too intense for many friendships. But Doby stated that the level of respect between them was mutual and that Feller had supported him when he became the first black player on the Indians.

So rest in peace, Bob Feller. You were a truly great one and we will all miss you. Thank you for gracing our game.

The Flying Dutchman

December 15, 2010

Honus Wagner

A dozen things you should know about Honus Wagner:

1. His name was John Peter Wagner. “Honus” is a play on the name “Hans”, which is a diminutive of “Johannes” (German for “John”).

2. In 1905 he became the first Major League player to have his name branded onto a “Louisville Slugger” bat.

3. He was originally scouted and signed by future Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow, who obviously knew a thing or two about talent.

4. His rookie season was 1897. Although he  is most famous for playing shortstop, he played first base, second base, third base, left field, center field, right field, and pitched during the 19th Century but did not play a single game at shortstop until 1901. The only position he never played was catcher.

5. His 1908 season is, in context, one of the finest hitting years any player had in the 20th Century. By Bill James’ “Win Shares” rating, it is number one, and by any measure is in the top five. The numbers: 100 runs, 201 hits, 39 doubles, 19 triples, 10 home runs, 109 RBIs, 53 stolen bases, 54 walks, a .354 batting average, .415 OBP, .542 slugging percentage, .957 OPS, 205 OPS+, 308 total bases, 68 extra base hits, and he also finished first in putouts by a shortstop. For the National League as a whole the league averaged ..239, had an OBP of .299, a slugging percentage of .306, an OPS of .605, and averaged 3.33 runs a game. All are lows for the entire 20th Century. By the way, Wagner’s number would look even better in the American League where the batting average was the same, but the OPS, OBP, and slugging percentages were even lower. Only the 1968 and 1969 American League seasons produced lower batting averages and no AL season was ever lower for the other three. So in the lowest overall batting season in Major League history, Wagner produces the numbers listed above. Not bad, right?

6. He won eight NL batting titles. No one has won more and only Tony Gwynn has equalled him. Ty Cobb has more in the AL.

7. He was a member of four teams that won the NL pennant (1901-3, 1909), two of them before the World Series was played. In World Series play his teams lost in 1903 and won in 1909. He hit a combined .274 with six runs, 14 hits, three doubles, one triple, and nine RBIs in 15 games, all at shortstop.

8. His nickname, “The Flying Dutchman”, comes from a combination of his speed and the mispronunciation of “Deutsch” as “Dutch”. The genesis of the name is a medieval legend about a ship captain who was cursed to sail the seas forever until he could find one true love. Richard Wagner’s opera of the same name is one version of the tale.

9. His older brother, Albert “Butts” Wagner, got into 74 games for Washington and Brooklyn in 1898. He played second, short, third, left, and center, hit .226 with a .279 OBP, and a .307 slugging percentage, had one home run, 34 RBIs, and never got back to the big leagues. Obviously the younger brother had most of the talent.

10. When the first vote for the Hall of Fame occurred, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Wagner (alphabetically) were the initial inductees. In the voting, Wagner tied with Ruth for second. Cobb received the most votes.

11.A statue of Wagner was erected in front of Forbes Field (the Pirates home field) in April 1955. Wagner lived to see it in place. He died in December of the same year. The statue was moved to Three Rivers Stadium when it became the new Pirates field, and subsequently moved to PNC Park where it currently resides.

12. He was a heck of a story teller. There are a bunch of Wagner stories he told himself. My favorite is this one. A slow grounder was hit to him. At the same time a hare dashed out onto the field. Wagner grabbed the ball, the hare, and a handful of dirt and sent all flying toward first base together. The batter was out. According to Wagner, “I nipped him by a hare.” Gotta love that man.

And as a bonus, Wagner was an innovator. The picture above is a little hard to see, but it’s the only copy I could find on-line. I’ve seen an enlarged copy which shows Wagner is wearing a cap with the bill in back. As far as I can tell, he invented them. I’ve got to get one some day. All my caps have the bill in the front. Anybody know who sells them?

“Start”ing at First

December 13, 2010

Joe Start

A few years back my son suggested I sit down and began trying to find out who were the best players in the old National Association (1871-5). Most of the guys I came up with were the usual suspects: Cap Anson, Al Spaulding, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, etc. But the more I looked the more I kept coming back to an obscure player neither my son nor I had ever heard of in all our baseball reading, Joe Start. He turned out to be a heck of a player.

Start was born in New York in 1842. He was a good enough teenage player that he drew the attention of the Brooklyn Enterprise Club in 1860 and in 1861 joined the  Brooklyn Atlantics, one of the major amateur teams of the era. He played first base for them all the way into 1871, including during the American Civil War. Remember, that the initial couple of years of the Civil War, volunteers comprised the Union Army. The draft began only in 1863, leading to riots in New York, among other places. As he was playing in 1862, he obviously didn’t volunteer. He was still with the Atlantics, helping them to undefeated seasons in 1864 and 1865, so he also missed the draft (I don’t mean to imply he “dodged” it.).  In an 18 game season in 1864, Start clubbed 11 home runs and led the team. On 6 September 1869, he had one of the great days in amateur baseball. He is credited with hitting four home runs, notching seven hits, and 21 total bases in a game against the Eckfords (also a Brooklyn club). Between 1861 and 1869, Start helped lead the Atlantics to five championships (1861, 1864-6, and 1869). In the famous 1870 game against the Cincinnati Red Stockings, Start knocked in the first run in the 11th inning and scored the game tying run. The Atlantics won, upending the previously undefeated Red Stockings (For a good overview of this famous game, see DMB Historic World Series Reply’s 29 November post. You can find the link to the site on the blogroll at right.).

With the formation of the National Association in 1871, Start jumped to the Mutual of New York, where he played for entire life of the Association. He hit .295 with an OPS of .665, 475 total bases, and an OPS+ of 110. He had 187 RBIs and 262 runs in 272 games. The Mutuals finished as high as second (1874). While with the Mutuals, one source credits Start with originating the practice of playing off the bag at first to cover more ground. There are a number of other sources that credit a number of other players with inventing this, now common, practice. Frankly, I don’t know who started it.

In 1876 the National League replaced the Association and Start moved with his team to the new league. In 1877 he went to Hartford, then to Chicago in 1878. In 1879 he settled in at Providence where he stayed through 1885. While at Providence, he helped lead the Grays to National League pennants in 1879 and again in 1884. In September of the latter year, he hit his only home run of the season, a three run shot that clinched the pennant for Providence. The year 1884 saw the first “World Series” played between Providence and the American Association team in New York. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games. Start didn’t do well, managing one hit and one RBI in ten at bats. In 1886 he played his last season for Washington at age 43. He hit a miserable .221 with 17 RBIs in only 31 games. For his NL career he hit .300 with a .700 OPS (125 OPS+), 1031 hits, 590 runs, 257 RBIs, and 1269 total bases in 798 games, all but one at first base (plus a couple of pinch-hitting performances).  In all he played from 1860 through 1886 inclusive, a total of 27 years. I’m not sure that a record for the 19th Century, but it has to be close.

After his retirement, he moved to Warwick, Rhode Island where he ran a hotel. He died in March 1927 at age 84. He’s buried in Providence.

It’s difficult to evaluate Start, as it is all the players of the era. To begin with, he’s 29 when the National Association begins play. His best years, which must have been pretty good if you believe the handful of reports available, were behind him. And that’s the crux of the problem. His best years are behind him and the record of those seasons is spotty. He’s a good enough player in both the Association and the NL, but not spectacular. Maybe he was spectacular in the 1860s, but we simply don’t know enough to make an informed statement. All we can honestly state is that he was a good enough player to hang around 27 years. That alone means he was pretty good.

The Band Played On

December 10, 2010

Unfortunately, I have no actual musical talent. I can’t dance a lick. Some people have two left feet. Not me, I got three. I don’t sing well. I get a lot of requests when I do. The top two are usually “Stop” and “Shut up.” I do play a couple of instruments, but I play them wretchedly. I tried to be in the school band, but wasn’t one of the stars. More of a black hole, actually.

Way back in my last year in elementary school I was in the band. Our band director had a policy of having an end of school picnic for the band. He announced to us that all the elementary schools in town were supposed to show up at the biggest park in town for an all day party. Part of the day was devoted to the baseball game. Each of the schools put together a team and then they played each other until a champion was crowned. The tournament was two innings a game and the team that won went on to the next round and the losers went off to play on the swing sets. A number of parents showed up to ump and semi-manage the teams and there was a little trophy for the winning team to keep in its band room until the next year. I don’t recall who won the trophy my last year in elementary school. I remember we didn’t.

The problem was there were seven elementary schools in town. That meant somebody couldn’t play while the other teams were busy on the available fields (I think there are four or five of them). What happened was that one team got a bye into the second round (it rotated yearly so that every seven years your team got the bye). Then the three winners plus the team with the by went to a second round, with the two winners playing for the trophy. My sixth grade year, my school got the bye.

That meant we played one less game, which was awful. I wanted to play and hated to be the bye. I also knew a secret. There were actually eight elementary schools in town. The eighth was called Carver.

A couple of weeks before the games, my little sister got sick. I was asked to call the school and tell them she was sick and wouldn’t come to school. I have no idea why I couldn’t just bring a note saying that she was ill, but I was asked to call. Way back then to find a phone number for a school, you looked in the Yellow Pages. I knew that and went down the list until I found ours, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was last alphabetically, so I counted down and there we were at eighth. I could count all the way to eight by sixth grade (I was something of a prodigy.). So I knew there were eight elementary schools in town, not seven.

So why have a by when we had eight schools? I could also divide by two. (See, told you I was a prodigy) So being something of a loudmouth I went to the band director and asked, “How come we have a bye? Where’s Carver?”

To this day I remember his face. He was simply stunned by the question. “That’s the black school,” I was told. Actually “black” isn’t the word he used. “They don’t come to band picnics.”

OK, I guess. I still wasn’t quite sure why not, but if the band director said they didn’t come, well, then they didn’t come. I supposed they had no band. I was, of course, wrong. They had a band. the black community wasn’t all that large, so it was a small one. It seems they just weren’t invited to the game.

We finally integrated the school system in my tenth grade year. It didn’t go all that well, but no body got killed. A handful of black kids from Carver were in the band. Some people weren’t really pleased with the idea, but the band continued to play (Interestingly enough, none joined the high school baseball team.). They closed Carver that year, so finally the elementary school band baseball game included all the schools and this time legitimately had a bye.

The “Core Four”

December 9, 2010

The "Core Four"

Recently some genius’ have begun referring to four Yankees players as “The Core Four”: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera. It’s supposed to be a reference to how important they have been to the Yankees winning ways in the last fifteen or so years. It’s catchy, but because it totally ignores the contributions of a number of other players, it’s utter nonsense.

The argument goes that these four players are the “core” of Yankees teams that have won five World Series. First, that’s difficult to sustain if you know that Posada played only eight games in 1996 (the first of the five World Series championships), none in the postseason, and that Rivera was the setup man, not the closer in 1996 (John Wetteland was both closer and Series MVP). It’s kind of like giving Sandy Koufax credit for the Dodgers winning in 1955 when he pitched in only 42 innings over 12 games and five starts (“Boy are we lucky we had him. We woulda never won the damned thing if he wasn’t on the roster.”)  Most importantly it completely downplays the contribution of other players, a sort of second “core four” (actually five).

As Posada was no factor in the 1996 World Series championship, and Rivera’s contribution was important, but not primary, we may only consider the “core four” as winning in 1998, 1999, 2000, and after a significant break, 2009.  There are another five that may be considered equally crucial in winning the 1998-2000 championships: Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill (this without reference to pitchers). All five participated in the same three wins as the “core four” (and Williams, Martinez, and O’Neill made the 1996 Series also). I question how their contributions can be considered less than the so-called “Core Four.”

You might also argue that once Williams, Knoblauch, Martinez, Brosius, and O’Neill left, the “Core Four” were unable to secure a World Series championship until the arrival of a second four: Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, and Mark Teixeira. Perhaps it is those four that made the difference. In fact, following this idea to its conclusion, one could argue that the key player was Teixeira. After all the “core four” couldn’t win until he arrived. Or maybe it was Melky Cabrera. Heck, the Yanks didn’t win until he took over in center. Or maybe it’s really all about Andy Pettitte. Pettitte left after the 2003 Series loss and the Yankees failed to make a World Series until 2009. Meanwhile, Pettitte went to Houston, a team that went to the World Series in 2005 for the first time ever, then returned to New York in 2008, exactly one season prior to the last Yankees championship. So maybe Pettitte, not the “Core Four,” is the key.

Now you can rightly argue the idea that Teixeira (or Cabrera) was the crucial element is silly and I wouldn’t complain.  I wouldn’t mind if you laughed at the idea that it was all Pettitte. Because the point is that it requires a lot of good players to win, not just a “core four.”  With no loss of respect to the “Core Four”, how about a little credit to the rest of the team Yankees fans? It’s been a heck of a run and a lot of guys have been responsible for the success (several of which I didn’t name).