Archive for April, 2011

The War to End All Wars

April 18, 2011

Most of you probably don’t realize it, but July 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia that ushered in World War I, “The War to End All Wars” (strike one). When the US entered in 1917, it became, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, a war “to make the world safe for democracy” (strike two). And it led to Lenin, and ultimately Stalin and Hitler, coming to power (strike three). Why am I telling you this?

I am involved in a project to commemorate the event. I use “commemorate” rather than “celebrate” because places like Passchendaele and the Isonzo are too grim to celebrate. Anyway, this project is something I’ve enjoyed doing and is now reaching a point where my part in it has to be finished. So I’m taking the next two weeks to go at it with a vengeance. That means I won’t be posting again until around the 1st of May. It simply takes too long to look up stuff I write about here, to check it, and to write it up for me to try doing both at once.

I’ll still be checking in occasionally so any comments will be noted. I’ll still be looking in at the blogroll sites and commenting as appropriate, but I won’t be posting anything new here. So enjoy the next couple of weeks and don’t trash the place too badly.

1911: A Flash in the Pan

April 15, 2011

Vean Gregg with Cleveland

When I was researching the 1911 season for the two short posts I did earlier this week, I ran across the pitcher Vean Gregg who won the American League ERA title in 1911. I’d never heard of him, so I did a little looking around. Here’s what I found out about an interesting and truly obscure player.

Sylveanus Gregg was born in Washington Territory (now the state of Washington) in 1885. The nickname “Vean” comes from the middle letters of his first name (and I think is pronounced to rhyme with “peon”, but it could rhyme with “pe-can”, like the nut). His dad was a farmer and plasterer and the son learned both professions, apparently becoming quite adept at the plastering. It strengthened his arm greatly, and he had one of those rare items that baseball loves, a left arm that could control a baseball in flight.

Gregg pitched semi-pro ball, had a stint at South Dakota State, and eventually ended up with the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians). He found he could make more money barnstorming on the weekends and plastering during the week than he could make in professional baseball, so waited until 1908 to take the contract with a minor league team (Can you imagine that kind of salary structure today?). He spent two seasons in the minors, then was picked up by Cleveland. He refused the money and stayed one more year in the local Washington state minors, where he said he could make more money. Finally in 1911 went to Cleveland as a left-handed starter.

Although he was left-handed, he was essentially the replacement for Addie Joss. Gregg did well replacing the Hall of Famer. He went 23-7, won the ERA title as a rookie, struck out 125 men, and had a lot more innings pitched than hits allowed (a league leading WHIP of 1.054). It was his best year. He as 20-13 in both 1912 and 1913 with ERA’s in the twos, then developed a  sore arm. He started 1914 with Cleveland, went 9-3 with an ERA over three, and was traded to the Red Sox. He finished 3-4 in Boston with an ERA of almost four, then managed only 39 games over 1915 and 1916.

He spent 1917 in the minors (Providence), then played 1918 in Philadelphia for the rebuilding Athletics. He went 9-14 and retired to a ranch in Canada he bought with his baseball salary. He stayed there through 1921. He returned to baseball, joining Pacific Coast League Seattle and had three terrific seasons. In 1925, at age 40, he was sold to Washington where he went 2-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 26 games (only five starts). He missed the 1925 World Series (which Washington lost), then left the Major Leagues for good.

He played minor league baseball off and on through 1931, then retired to run an “Emporium” in Hoquiam, Washington. The business had a lunch counter and sold both sporting goods and cigars. He died in July 1964. He was elected to the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame, the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1969 was chosen by fans the greatest Indians left-hander (which may say more about Cleveland pitching than about Gregg).

For his career, Gregg ended up 92-63 (a .594 winning percentage) over 1393 innings and 239 games  (about six innings per game). Struck out 720 batters, walked 552, and gave up 1240 hits (for a WHIP of 1.286). Although three of his teams, the 1915 and 1916 Red Sox and the 1925 Senators went to the World Series, Gregg never appeared in a Series game.

There are a lot of pitchers like Gregg. They are early phenoms who develop arm trouble early and end up with short but flashy careers that end up appearing disappointing. It seems to be especially true of southpaws. Mark Prior, although not a lefty, is a modern version of the type. There are lots of others in the history of the game. With an ERA title in his rookie season, Gregg could easily be a poster child for the type.

Opening Day 1911: AL

April 13, 2011

As backup first baseman Harry Davis

In continuing to celebrate Opening Day one hundred years ago yesterday, here’s a brief look at the American League.

Connie Mack’ Philadelphia Athletics were American League Champions and in 1911 successfully defended that championship. They started slow with a losing record in April (6-7), then took off, winning the pennant by 13/5 games over Detroit. Philly led the AL in runs, RBIs, home runs, slugging, and batting average. In pitching they were second in ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts.

Individually, Ty Cobb won another batting title, this time hitting .400 (.420) for the first time (and the first of two consecutive  seasons). Joe Jackson (“Shoeless” Joe) at Cleveland hit .408, the highest total in the  20th Century to not win a batting title. Cobb also picked up the RBI title with 127. It was his last. In home runs, A’s third baseman Frank Baker hit 11 to win the first of his four consecutive titles. Cobb picked up the initial Chalmers Award, the earliest 20th Century MVP award.

The pitching was good, if not as dominant as the National League. Jack Coombs of Philadelphia led the AL with 28 wins, but posted an ERA over 3, which was huge for the age. His teammate Eddie Plank tied Senators ace Walter Johnson for most shutouts with six while Vean Gregg of Cleveland went 23-7 and won the ERA title at 1.81. Beginning in 1910, Walter Johnson won every strikeout title through 1919 except one, 1911. He lost the title to Ed Walsh of Chicago.  Walsh had 255 whiffs to Johnson’s third-place total of  207. Joe Wood at Boston came in between them with 231.

On a totally different note, it was Cy Young’s final season. He was 44 and through. He went 3-4 with an ERA of 3.92 at Cleveland before being traded to Boston of the National League. Boston finished last, Young went 4-5 (7-9 overall), but managed two final shutouts in 11 starts. He finished with 511 wins and had an award named for him.

Postseason saw the A’s pick up their second straight championship (it would stretch to 3 in 4 years). They knocked off the Giants in six games with Coombs and Plank each winning a game while Chief Bender picked up the other two wins, including the final game. They out hit the Giants .244 to .175, outscored them 27 to 13, and had an ERA of 1.29 to 2.83. Baker hit two key home runs that either won or tied games and earned him the nickname “Home Run” Baker for the rest of his life. He also hit .375 and drove in five runs. In a strange twist, Mack rested his first baseman Stuffy McInnis (.321, 23 stolen bases, 77 RBIs in 126 games) and started backup Harry Davis (.197, 22 RBIs, and a single home run in 57 games) in every game, Mc Innis only showing up in a mop up role late in game six (a 13-2 blowout). I have been totally unable to find out why. It worked. Davis hit only .208, but drove in five runs and scored three.

So 1911 was a success for the American League. For the first time it won back-to-back World Series’. It would be the beginning of a trend that would see the AL win eight of the next 10 (1911-13, 1915-18, 1920).

Opening Day 1911: NL

April 11, 2011

Christy Mathewson

Last year I went into a detailed (perhaps overly detailed) look at the 1910 season. I don’t intend to repeat that with 1911, but 12 April was opening day in 1911 and I think we should celebrate the season 100 years later. It was, if not as significant as 1910, still a very interesting year. First the National League.

The old Cubs dynasty died. Both Frank Chance and Johnny Evers spent much of the year on the bench and in Chance’s case it was to be permanent. For the rest of his career Frank Chance would play only 56 games. Evers, on the other hand, would bounce back and have several more productive seasons, culminating with a Chalmers Award (and early MVP  Award) and a World Series championship in 1914.

The Giants took Chicago’s place as the reigning dynasty. John McGraw’s team won the pennant despite seeing their stadium burn. They spent most of the season as guests of the Highlanders (now the Yankees), but returned to their own stadium in August. They managed to go on a hot streak in August  and took the championship by 7.5 games.

A number of players had superb seasons. Honus Wagner hit .334 and won his final batting title for the Pirates. His OPS also led the league at .930. Chicago’s Wildfire Schulte led the NL with 21 home runs, the most by a player since 1899. Schulte and Owen Wilson of Pittsburgh tied with 107 RBIs. Schulte would walk away with the NL’s Chalmers Award (and the new car that went with it).

The biggest news was among the pitchers. Grover Cleveland Alexander had what was arguably the finest rookie season of any pitcher in the 20th Century. He led the NL in wins with 28, shutouts with seven, and pitched 31 complete games. Giants ace Christy Mathewson put up 26 wins and led the NL with an ERA of 1.99. In 307 innings he walked a total of 38 men. As good as that sounds, he would do even better in 1912. His teammate lefty Rube Marquard led the league in strikeouts with 237.

Unfortunately, the pennant was all the Giants could manage, dropping the World Series in six games. Mathewson and Doc Crandall got the two wins with Mathewson and Marquard taking three of the losses (Red Ames took the loss in game six). the team hit .175 for the Series with Larry Doyle and Chief Meyers managing to hit .300 with Josh Devore leading in both RBIs and strikeouts.

It’s a year to look back on and celebrate. We can look at the greatness of Honus Wagner, the genius of John McGraw, and the pitching prowess of Christy Mathewson. That’s worth celebrating, even if the NL lost the World Series.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Grover Cleveland Alexander

April 8, 2011

Alexander

1. He was born in Nebraska in 1887 and named for the sitting President of the United States.

2. His professional baseball career began in 1909 at Galesburg where he went 15-8 and suffered a head injury that sidelined him for half the season. 

3. In 1910 he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for $500 from Syracuse.

4. He had 28 wins and 227 strikeouts as a rookie in 1911. The former is still a record and the latter remained a record until 1955 (Herb Score).

5. He won the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) for three consecutive seasons from 1915 through 1917.

6. His 16 shutouts in 1916 is still a record.

7. In 1915, he won game one of the World Series. The next Phillies pitcher to win a World  Series game was Bob Walk in 1980.

8. In 1918 he went to war. He was in the artillery and suffered a minor wound, was deafened in his ear, and suffered shell-shock. Today we call it post traumatic stress disorder. I think I like shell-shock better, it conveys more the horror of it. He also began showing signs of epilepsy, which some sources indicate came from the 1909 head injury. Additionally, his family, according to Bill James, had a history of alcoholism. That began to manifest itself about the same time.

9. His career was in a slump when he ended up with the Cardinals in 1926. The Cardinals went to their first World Series, Alexander won two games and saved one. The save was game 7 and was highlighted by the seventh inning strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to end the inning (and become arguably the most famous strikeout ever).

10. He went 0-4 in his last season (1930) and ended his career with 373 wins, 208 losses, and 90 shutouts. The Hall of Fame called him in 1938.

11. He died in poverty in November 1950.

12. And of course Hollywood came calling in 1952 with a highly fictionalized version of his life through 1926. The movie was called “The Winning Team”, starred Ronald Reagan (as Alexander), Doris Day (as Mrs. A), and Frank Lovejoy (as Rogers Hornsby). Today, it’s probably the only thing most people know about Alexander. He does have the distinction of being the only Hall of Famer who was both named after one President of the United States, and portrayed by a future President in a movie. Not bad for an old pitcher.

Hollywood's version of Alexander (1952)

A Problem at Short

April 6, 2011

Back a few days ago I did a post on my choice for the top 10 Center Fielders ever. In a comment about it, Bill Miller jokingly asked if shortstop was next. Frankly, I wasn’t planning on doing another one of those top ten lists, but the question of shortstop got me to thinking about the position. In doing so, I noticed an interesting problem in making a decision like who are the top 10 shortstops.

A lot of players, a lot of truly great players, have been known to change position during their career. Stan Musial rotated between left field and first base for a time. Of course Babe Ruth went from pitching to right field (and a number of games in left field too). And Willie Stargell is listed at the Hall of Fame site under left fielders, but played a significant number of games at first, the position where he won his MVP. Dave Winfield floated between left field and right field.  But shortstop seems to have an inordinate number of really good players who shifted away from the position and spent truly significant time in another position. I’m not talking about guys like Pee Wee Reese or Cal Ripken or Arky Vaughan who moved from short to third at the end of their career because they no longer had the range to play short. I’m also not refering to players such as Honus Wagner who came up in 1897 and didn’t move to short until 1901. He stayed there (with the exception of a handful of games) for the rest of his career. I mean here guys that came up as shortstops and had to move away from the position at mid-career. There are several of them. Three are, by most estimates, men who would make a top 10 list.

Ernie Banks got to the Major Leagues in 1953 and played shortstop through 1961. There were a handful of games at third and in the outfield, but Banks was the Cubs’ everyday shortstop for nine years, winning dual MVPs. Then he developed leg problems and moved to first base. He spent 1962 through 1969 (eight years) as the normal first baseman, then played two final years as a backup player, also making all his games in the field at first. After 1961 he played not one game at shortstop. He ended up playing 1125 games at short and 1259 games at first (and about 100 at third or in the outfield).

Robin Yount was in the Major Leagues as a shortstop for Milwaukee at age 18. He won an MVP at short, playing there 11 years from 1974 through 1984. Then he hurt his arm and shifted to the outfield. He spent some time as a designated hitter and a left fielder, but by 1987 had settled in as the Brewers’ everyday center fielder, a position he held through his retirement in 1993, a total of seven years. Again there are a  handful of  games at first and  DH, but Yount spends the last half of his career as an outfielder, where he wins another MVP award. For his career he ends up with 1479 games at short (none after 1984) and 1218 games in the outfield (most in center).

Alex Rodriguez joined the Mariners in 1994, becoming the primary shortstop in 1996. Through 2003 (10 years) and a change of team he had four games as a DH, 1267 at short, a batting title, and RBI title, three home run titles, and an MVP. Then came the move to New York, which already had a shortstop. Since 2004, Rodriguez has played 1269 games at third base, five at short, and 36 as the DH (through the end of the 2010 season). Unless something happens to Derek Jeter, Rodriguez will, by the end of 2011, have spent more time at third than at short.

It should be obvious what problem is raised. These three guys are truly fine players, two Hall of Famers and a potential, and all are recognized as shortstops. Two of them are going to end up playing more than half their games at another position and the third is close. It brings up the obvious question: how much should these guys be rated as a shortstop?  Are they to be recognized as greater players than shortstops? Should we view them as multi-poitional players?  At this point I’m not sure of the answer, but at some point I’ll figure it out for my purposes. Then I’ll let you know what I’ve decided.

The 50 Greatest Yankees

April 4, 2011

Recently ESPN New York did a poll of experts (and I’ll bet they stiffed every one of us) to determine the 50 Greatest New York Yankees. The list is available at their site or if you go through Google, it’s the first item. I won’t give you the entire list, but here’s the top 10 in order followed by some commentary: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera, Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey. And for those curious but not willing to go look up the list, Don Mattingly finished 11th.

Now some comments:

1. Ruth finished first on every ballot. He was the only person to finish in the same spot on every ballot. That works for me.

2. That means that Gehrig did not universally come in second. A commentary on the  site indicates that a handful of people chose Rivera second, over Gehrig. I love Mariano Rivera. I can’t stand the Yankees, but I like him. He’s the greatest reliever ever and it’s not often you get to actually see the “greatest ever” actually do his job. That’s really tough for someone who thought Dennis Eckersley, who never played for the Yanks, was the greatest. But Rivera greater than Gehrig? Come now, folks. I’m not sure what my all-time top 10 greatest players would look like, but I’m reasonably sure Gehrig would be in it and Rivera wouldn’t.

3. Staying with Rivera, I think ranking him above Ford is wrong. Gimme a starter every time over a reliever, especially if that starter pitched prior to the 1980s (1950s and early 1960s for Ford), when a hurler was expected to go deep into the game. For his career Ford averaged seven innings in each start with 13036 batters faced. Rivera, in contrast, has faced only 4586 (as of 3 April). Additionally, of pitchers with 150 wins or more, Ford has the highest winning percentage. Basically it’s a question of who do you prefer, a starter or a reliever? I suppose some of you would opt for the reliever, but I’ll stick with the starter.

4. Red Ruffing is a great choice for the top 10. He was an absolute bust at Boston, moved to New York, and became a Hall of Famer. It’s not just that he had a better team behind him, his numbers in general get better. He wins more, gives up fewer runs, walks less, strikes out more, his hits to innings pitched ratio gets a lot better. That can’t all be Yankee Stadium and Phil Rizzuto (and in case you’re curious, Ruffing was 25 when the Yanks picked him up). He also has one of my favorite stats. In World Series play, he is 7-2 (losing in 1936 and 1942). That’s the same record as Bob Gibson, although Gibson has the distinction of losing his first and last games and winning the seven in between.

5. If you’re interested in putting together a full team, Tony Lazzeri was the highest rated second baseman and Graig Nettles the highest third baseman, making your all-time team Gehrig, Lazzeri, Jeter, Nettles the infield; Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle the outfield; Berra the catcher; Ford the left-handed starter; Ruffing the right-handed starter; and Rivera the reliever.

So there you go. If you disagree with the list, complain to ESPN New York. All in all I thought it was a pretty fair listing.

Winning Big

April 1, 2011

Get ready, team, I’ve invented another new stat. It’s called W-RITA (Geez, I don’t think I even know a Rita). That’s short for Wins Remaining In The Arm ( Catchy name, right?). OK this is a dumb stat and strictly for trivia purposes, but it’s kinda fun to note. Here’s how it works. You take a retired pitcher, say Cy Young, and write down his total wins (511). then you go to a particular point in his career, say the start of the 1911 season, and write down the number of wins he has on that date (504). The difference is the wins remaining in the arm (7). Let me give you some examples.

Below is a list of the ten pitchers with the most wins according to Baseball Reference.com (other places vary the number of wins for the guys before 1920). Beside that is the number of wins they had already logged by opening day 1911 (12 April): Cy Young 511/504, Walter Johnson 417/82, Christy Mathewson 373/263, Grover Cleveland Alexander 373/0, Pud Galvin 365/365, Warren Spahn 363/0, Kid Nichols 361/361, Greg Maddux 355/0, Roger Clemens 354/0, Tim Keefe 342/342.

So now we subtract the second number from the first, rearrange the list in order, and we get the following: Alexander 373, Spahn 363, Maddux 355, Clemens 354, Johnson 335, Mathewson 110, Young 7, and Galvin, Nichols, and Keefe all with zero (they were retired by 1911). The number you see is the total number of wins remaining in the arms of the pitchers listed when opening day 1911 rolled around.

OK, so  what? Well, really it’s mainly trivia, but it does hold one interesting note. Alexander won 28 games in 1911. So by the end of the 1911 season the numbers of the top four will look like this: Spahn 363, Maddux 355, Clemens 354, Alexander 345. Meaning that sometime during the 1911 season, and I went to Retrosheet to look up the date (it’s the 9th of June, the date Alexander won his 11th game), Spahn will pass Alexander to become the winningest pitcher in the last 100 years. Bet you didn’t know that.