Archive for March, 2011

The Center Fielders

March 11, 2011

The loss of Duke Snider and a spring training have gotten me to thinking about one of baseball’s glamour positions, center field. So for the next short while I’m going to turn to the position on this site. Some posts will be my standard bios with commentary, others will be on different issues.

Did you ever notice just how many really good center fielders there were? I didn’t say “great”, I said “really good.”  Jim Edmonds is one of those. He just retired and I have to admit I loved watching him play. It wasn’t his hitting that I enjoyed, although it was pretty good too, but it was his play in the field. It seem like the guy could catch everything, no matter how far he had to run or how far he had to stretch out. Torii Hunter is another of those that I simply love to watch field. I’ve been known to offer up a prayer to the effect of “Let someone hit a shot to center just so the world can see Edmonds  (or Hunter) go get it.” Sometimes it gets answered.

Those kinds of guys have existed for a long time. I remember the 1966 World Series pitted Paul Blair against Willie Davis, two truly fine enter fielders of the era. The Series turned on pitching (and three errors on two consecutive plays by Davis) but both were tremendous in the field (Ok, not Davis in game 2). In 1941 Joe DiMaggio faced off against Pete Reiser. In 1927 it was Earle Combs against Lloyd Waner. I could go further back.

But you know what? There aren’t really a lot of great center fielders. Now I suppose we’ll all have different definitions of “great” and that’s part of the joy of baseball. But to make a partial point about it, take a look at the last 30 years of Hall of Fame voting (1981-2010). In 1980 Duke Snider got in. In the 30 years since there have been only two or, depending on where you put Robin Yount and Andre Dawson, three or four center fielders make the Hall. The only two sure center fielders are Richie Ashburn in 1995 by the veteran’s committee and Kirby Puckett by the writers in 2001. To me Yount is a shortstop and Dawson plays right, but others may disagree.  Considering how many quality center fielders there have been in the last 30 years, that’s not a lot being defined as “great.”

Take a minute, sit down, and draw up your own list of the five greatest center fielders ever, leaving out 19th Century and Negro League players and concentrating on the players since 1901. Here’s mine alphabetically: Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Speaker. Yours may vary and that’s not the point. I’ll bet it didn’t take long to come up with the list, did it? Now go to 10. See if it doesn’t get really harder as you get toward nine and ten (passing Griffey, Puckett, and Snider as examples). Mine did. And by 15 I was beginning to list guys like Edmonds and Hunter who I knew weren’t “great.”

This problem isn’t unique. Try it with first basemen or third basemen or left fielders. You get the same results. There are a few truly amazing players, then an entire truckload of very good ones.  But I want to stick with center fielders for a few days.

Happy Talk

March 9, 2011

Happy Chandler

If you’ll take the time to go to The On Deck Circle (see blogroll at right), you’ll find an interesting article by Bill Miller about Bud Selig. It got me to thinking about the office of commissioner and about the men who held the job. Some of them did well, others not so much. If I had to pick the most underrated, and that’s hard to say because he made the Hall of Fame, it would be Albert “Happy” Chandler.

Chandler was born in Kentucky in 1898, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, and was in some ways a typical jock. He played baseball, football, and basketball, did some work in semipro baseball during the summers and graduated in 1921. He went to both Harvard and the University of Kentucky Law Schools, getting his degree from the latter (and to think I’m about to say some good things about both a lawyer and a politician, EEK!!!). He coached as an assistant in football at Center College in Kentucky while practicing law. In his autobiography he calls the period one of his favorite times. He had a new wife, the got to practice law, and he was still active in sports.

In 1928 he went into politics, running for the Kentucky state senate and winning. By 1931 he was lieutenant governor and in 1935 governor of Kentucky. He was 37.  A New Deal Progresive (which isn’t the same as a modern “progressive”), he got rid of the sales tax and prohibition. I always wondered how well prohibition went over in Bourbon County. Anyway, he was quite popular and in 1939 was appointed to the US Senate (the sitting Senator died in office). He was confirmed in office in a 1940 special election and elected to a full term in 1942. He supported the President and the war effort, although he favored attacking Japan first over Germany. He also began to look around to find ways to integrate the military. That came to nothing, but baseball came calling.

In 1944 Judge Landis died and baseball needed a new commissioner. In April 1945, Chandler got the job, resigning his US Senate seat for a higher calling. Because of his lack of a baseball background, he was controversial from the beginning (but remember Landis was a judge, not a sports executive). In 1947 he tossed Leo Durocher from the game because of Durocher’s perceived association with gamblers and “loose women” (there’s a gag here, but my wife tells me I shouldn’t use it on a family oriented blog). He tended to favor players in arguments with owners and was instrumental in setting up the first player’s pension fund. But overshadowing his entire term as commissioner was the issue of integration.

When Branch Rickey sent Chandler the contract for Jackie Robinson, there was instant opposition from most of the owners. They bluntly urged him to void the contract and as he was a Southerner they seem to have expected he would. In a secret meeting they voted 15-1 (Rickey being the one) against integrating the big leagues. Chandler steadfastly backed Rickey and Robinson and accepted the contract. He told Rickey that as a Senator he had seen black soldiers fight and die for the US and he was sure that “I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if he asks me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.”  The Robinson experiment was a success, but most everyone agrees it cost Chandler his job. When his term was up in 1951, he wasn’t rehired as commissioner. As a short aside, considering the reputation the South has when it comes to race, it’s surprising how many border Southerners (Chandler, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson) have been instrumental in shifting  race relations toward equality. Maybe it’s “border” that’s the key word. I dunno.

Chandler went back to Kentucky, won another term as Governor, where he enforced the Brown vs Board of Education ruling to integrate schools and helped set up the Medical Center at the University of Kentucky. He went back to law after the term ended. Although he threw his hat in the ring a couple more times, his political career, like his baseball career, was over. In 1968 George Wallace considered him as a Vice Presidential running mate, but chose another. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 and died in 1991.

Chandler’s Grave. Note mention of his baseball honors

Nobody pays much attention to Chandler anymore. If they do, it’s because of his connection to Robinson. But his ability to take the side of the players and his support of the pension system are almost as significant because they represent a departure from the commissioner’s normal position as spokesman for the owners (And I don’t mean to imply that Landis never went his own way. He did on occasion.). I don’t think Chandler gets enough credit for being a first-rate commissioner. If forced to rank the commissioners, I’d probably place Chandler second, right behind Judge Landis.

An Updated Shout Out

March 7, 2011

I was just clicking through the sites on my blog roll when I realized there had been some major changes to a couple. Thought I ought to update the masses (all four of you) who read this blog about the changes. So here goes, in no particular order.

Bill Miller’s “The On Deck Circle” has moved from wordpress to baseballbuzz. He’s currently updating his fantasy stuff and completing a “best of the worst” series that is pretty good.

Kevin’s DMB site in now the “baseball revisited” site you see on the blogroll. He’s currently featuring the stuff on his desk (quite a unique collection) and the 1910 World Series replay. Hint: bet on the A’s.

Keitho’s site is spending a lot of time with non-baseball stuff and is thus a bit of a refreshing change from what we normally do around here.

SportsPhd is temporarily moribund. He tells me that he’s about to finish up his dissertation and will become Dr. SportsPhd shortly. When that happens he expects to be back in action more frequently, so don’t give up on him just yet. BTW he won’t promise to do housecalls.

Also the baseball idiot has a new site throwhitcatch.blogspot.com that is currently trying to evaluate the 2011 teams before the season starts. Good stuff there. Check him out. I finally remembered how to put him on the blogroll (sorry it took so long, B. I., but the fingers and mind don’t work as well as they used to).

Me? I’m currently floundering a  bit. I have no new series of stuff I want to write about, so expect an eclectic set of things over the next while.

So everybody take time and head over to the blogroll and click there. Lots of good stuff to see.

The Nice Guy

March 4, 2011

Mel Ott

I tried a little trick with some friends of mine both locally and online. I handed (or sent) them a list of all the men who had 500 plus home runs in Major League history. But instead of writing down the names, I provided only the initials and asked them to fill in the names without resorting to a baseball encyclopedia or the internet. Well, everybody got BR as Babe Ruth and HA as Hank Aaron (although a couple missed BB as Barry Bonds). Most of the rest were hit and miss with more modern players doing better than the old guys. There was one set of initials that absolutely no one got, not a single guy: MO. Everyone forgot Mel Ott, making him,at least among my crowd, the most obscure power hitter ever.

They told Ott he was too short to play. Well, he fooled them all. He learned to pull the ball, draw a lot of  walks, and played right field almost flawlessly. Oh, and by the way, when he retired he held the National League record for home runs and was third on the all-time list. Not bad for a short guy, right?

Ott was a catcher by trade when he arrived in New York at age 19. John McGraw moved him to the outfield because he thought Ott would have a longer career. He pinch hit most of 1927, hitting .239 (.282 overall). In 1928 he became the Giants regular right fielder and the next year set a career high with 42 home runs. Ott won numerous home run titles, but his highest total was good for only second. There’s a reason for that. He played in Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Phillies right fielder Chuck Klein had 43 home runs going into the game. The Phils walked Ott each time to ensure that Klein won the homer title. As neither team was going anywhere, I’ve never been quite sure what I think of that.  The 1929 season was also unique for Ott in that he had more home runs that strikeouts (42 to 38). He won five home run titles during the 1930s. His lowest total was 23 in 1933, his highest 38 in 1932. He had a strange batting stance that included a high leg kick with swinging. It’s supposed to have helped him generate power. Here’s a posed shot of it:

Ott swinging away

For the decade of the 1930s he was terrific, joining Carl Hubbell as the driving force on the Giants.  He scored a lot of runs, knocked in a lot of runs, and had seven years of 100 walks. In 1933, the Giants won the NL pennant. It was Ott’s weakest season in the decade, but he made up for it by clubbing .389 in the World Series. His tenth inning home run in game five clinched the Series for New York. The Giants also took pennants in 1936 and 1937, but dropped both World Series’ to the Yankees. Ott did all right in the ’36 Series, but had a down Series in 1937.

His first really sub par season in years occurred in 1940. He bounced back in 1941. In 1942 the Giants made him their manager. He responded by leading the NL in home runs one final time. His first season hitting below .250 was 1943. It was also his lowest home run total since 1927. In the war depleted ranks of 1945, he had one final good season. He hit .300 one last time and picked up his 500th home run, passing Lou Gehrig in the process. In 1946 he concentrated on managing and his average plummeted to .074. In 1947 he went 0 for 4 and retired as an active players. He managed the Giants without much success through 1948 and made the Hall of Fame in 1951. In 1958 he died in a car wreck. It was about him that Leo Durocher is supposed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”

For his career Ott had 2876 hits, 488 doubles, 72 triples, 511 home runs, scored 1859 runs with 1861 RBIs (another amazingly close number), and walked 1708 times to only 896 strikeouts.  He hit.304, slugged .533, had an on base percentage of .410, and an OPS of 943 (OPS + of 155). All good numbers. All certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

But despite all the superlatives you can recount about Ott’s career, there’s always one complaint raised over and over. He got an unfair advantage because he played in the Polo Grounds. During his career Ott hit 63% of his home runs (323 of 511) at home. By contrast, Babe Ruth hit 49% of his at home, Mickey Mantle hit 50% at home, and Willie Mays got 51% of his at home (and for part of Mays’ career, the Polo Grounds was home). It was 258 feet down the right field line at the Polo Grounds, so the argument goes that the left-handed hitting Ott got a lot of cheap home runs and therefore isn’t really as great as he appears.

Oh? Let’s see if I have this right. Ott regularly drives in 100 runs a year, scores 100 runs a year, and has 140-190 hits a year. Of those he regularly deposits nineteen of them over the wall at the Polo Grounds (That’s 63% of his average home run total from 1929 through 1942, his productive years.) and isn’t really a geat player. What did I miss? There are a bunch of runs scored and RBI’s that don’t have a thing to do with 258 feet fences. For his career, excluding 1926, 1946, and 1947 when he played less than 40 games, Ott averaged 150 hits, of which nineteen flew over the fence in New York. He scored 97 runs, nineteen of which came from a ball that he hit over the fence in New York. He knocked in 98 runners a year, an indeterminate number of which were on base when a ball flew over the fence in New York. He walked 89 times a season, none of which came from a ball flying over a fence in New York, thus putting himself on base a lot and giving his team a chance to score runs whether or not they put a ball over the fence in New York. Frankly, I don’t think the Polo Grounds had a lot to do with Ott’s status as a great player. As a power hitter, yes; as a great player, no.

Even if it did help his power numbers, he’s not the only one. You don’t hear people complain about Wade Boggs’ inflated hit totals because he knew how to use Fenway Park, do you? A lot of people will tell you that the two greatest seasons any player ever had were Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 years. In 1920 Ruth had 29 home runs at home, 24 on the road (54% at home). In 1921 he hit 32 at home and 27 on the road (again 54%). Want to guess where he played his home games? You got it, the Polo Grounds with its 258 foot fence that aided left-handed hitters like Ruth and Ott. According to Green Cathedrals it was actually 256 feet in 1920-1921. I wonder how many home runs just barely cleared that 256 feet? (and how they got an extra two feet in 1929) OK, I know 63% is a lot more than 54%, but you just don’t hear anyone complain that Ruth got an extra benefit from the Polo Grounds. I’m not arguing that Ott didn’t get a lot of help by playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, he obviously did when it comes to power numbers. But that fact alone doesn’t take away from his greatness any more than it would take away from either Boggs or Ruth.

Mel Ott was one of the finest players of the 1930s. He was third in both home runs and RBIs for the decade and was a part of three pennant winners. And for all that he’s managed to become utterly obscure. Isn’t that a great shame?

The Duke of Flatbush

March 2, 2011

Out where I’m from there’s only one “Duke.” He rode tall in the saddle, represented everything that was good in the USA, won an academy award for wearing an eyepatch. When you say the name “John Wayne” people stand to attention and remove their hats and begin humming the national anthem. Well, I was that way about Duke Snider too, so his death hit me hard. Sunday I put up a very brief note about the death of Snider. Today I want to talk a little more about him. I don’t want to spend it going over his stats. You can look those up for yourself. I want to explain why his death hit me so hard.

Ebbets Field 1957

When I was a kid there was one team I rooted for year after year, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve never been quite sure why. Maybe it was because my grandfather hated the Yankees and the Dodgers played them a lot in the World Series. Maybe it was because they had great players and I recognized that. Maybe it was just to be perverse and bug my grandfather who was a Cardinals fan. Whatever it was, they were my team and they were glorious in the way only a child can understand glory.

It didn’t take a genius, and as an elementary school student I certainly wasn’t one of those, to see just how much Jackie Robinson meant to the team. For a while I wanted to be Robinson more than anyone else in the world. But a little bit of watching and listening told me that by the time I was wholly aware of the team, other players were better than Robinson, but you could tell he was still the engine that made the team run. He was still the heart and soul of the team. Roy Campanella’s greatness was obvious and no one ever swung a bat harder.  Carl Furillo’s arm was a sight to behold and with him out in right field Abe Stark’s sign was almost never hit. Pee Wee Reese’s leadership was obvious too, but Snider was something very special.

He was easily the best hitter by this point. You’ve probably heard by now that he had more home runs and RBIs than anyone else in the 1950s. That’s true, but it’s a little disingenuous. Snider had the entire decade, while Mays lost part of a couple of years to Korea and Mantle didn’t show up until 1951. Of course neither of those things diminishes his ability and, frankly, I neither knew nor cared about any of that back when I watched him play. I kept trying to figure out if I could duplicate his swing. I couldn’t. 

He was a great center fielder who seemed to catch everything. I remember he had this funny habit of backing up for the ball, not turning and running to a spot then turning back to the ball like Mays did it. I tried to do that as a kid and usually fell over my feet. The Mays way I could do, so in some odd sort of way I decided that Snider was a superior fielder to Mays because he did something that was harder and did it well. I may have been wrong, but it worked for me way back when. And all that falling over my feet got me a trip to first base where I played for several years back in little league. Thanks, Duke.

The team moved to LA in 1958. Now I was wedded to the team, not the town, so, unlike a lot of people, the move didn’t bother me. As long as the guys were still there I found it easy to transfer my love from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Snider’s numbers began to falter. The LA Coliseum was death on left-handed hitters. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 with him still in center field so it didn’t matter to me that he was getting weaker. By the time I noticed he was falling off, I’d transferred my allegiance to a kid pitcher named Koufax who seemed to have some promise, so it didn’t hurt quite the same when Snider was sent to the Mets. It did hurt when he ended up with the Giants. The Giants? God, that was almost as bad as sending him to the Yankees. The @#$%ing Giants? What didn’t they just send him to the @#$%ing Yankees and get it over with?

I sort of lost track of him after he retired. I got older and he got obscure. Later on when he finally made the Hall of Fame I started paying attention to Snider again. He did color work for the Expos, got in trouble with the IRS over money from card shows, but he was still a  hero to me. Back a few years ago ESPN did a thing where they asked you to vote for the greatest player of each team. Robinson won for the Dodgers and Koufax was second. Snider came in third. Despite a genuine admiration for both Robinson and Koufax, I voted for the Duke.

They are mostly gone now, my old heroes. Snider was in some ways the last of them–the heroes of my earliest youth. I know Don Zimmer and Tommy LaSorda are still alive, but I don’t think I even knew who Zimmer was and I never associate LaSorda with anything but managing. Dodgers aces Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe are both still around also, but when your new hero is Sandy Koufax (if you don’t believe me, see my avatar), other pitchers tend to fall by the wayside. But Snider remained the last link to my first heroes. I know that soon there will be no more Brooklyn Dodgers (I think Koufax may be the youngest left and he’s in his 70s) and that will make me sad.

So good-bye to the Duke of Flatbush. He never knew he was a hero of mine, which may help account for his longevity. May he rest in peace.