Archive for June, 2011

1911: Danny Murphy

June 7, 2011

Danny Murphy in 1913

Between 1910 and 1914 the Philadelphia Athletics won four American League pennants and three World Series titles. Today they’re primarily known for their manager, Connie Mack, their infield (McInnis, Collins, Barry, Baker) and their pitching (Plank, Bender, Coombs). But they also had a pretty decent outfield during the period. One of their better players in the pasture was Danny Murphy.

His name was Daniel Francis Murphy and he was born in Philly in 1876. He moved to New England while still young, started playing ball and was signed by the Giants in 1900. A second baseman by trade, he got into 27 games in 1900 and 1901, then went back to the minors. In July 1902, Mack bought him for $600 and he settled in as the A’s  second baseman. Murphy is a minor cog in the great Nap LaJoie scandal of the era. LaJoie, the Phillies second baseman, signed with the A’s when the AL was formed. The Phillies sued, LaJoie ended up in Cleveland, and Murphy became his replacement.

Murphy was good. He wasn’t LaJoie, but almost no one who’s ever played the game was LaJoie. The new second baseman hit reasonably well, did a good enough job at second,  including a  six for six debut and hitting for the cycle, and smacking two hits on his wedding day (which leads to the question didn’t he have something better to do on his wedding day?).  He became a fixture in Philly between 1902 and 1913. In 1902, the A’s won the second  ever AL pennant with Murphy hitting .313 in 76 games while scoring 46 runs. The A’s won again in 1905, this time having to face Murphy’s old team the Giants in the second World Series. They lost in five games, Murphy hitting a buck-18 with a double and no runs scored or RBIs.

Murphy remained the primary second baseman through 1907 when the A’s added Eddie Collins to their roster. Murphy was good enough, but Collins  is  a top five all-time second baseman. Mack’s decision was to shift Murphy to right field. It worked. Collins went on to a  Hall of Fame career and  Murphy continued to contribute. In 1912 he was appointed team captain. He led the AL in fielding once (.977, which isn’t all that bad in 1909) and continued to hit well. In 1910 and 1911 he hit over .300 and slugged over .425 both seasons. In World Series play he hit .400 in 1910 and .304 in 1911. Combined for the two Series’ he drove in 12 runs, scored 10, had 15 hits, eight for extra bases (including one home run). His OPS in 1910 was 1.129 and .739 in 1911.

By 1912 he was still good. He was also 36. In June he broke his kneecap sliding and lost the rest of the  season. In 1913 he only got into 40 games. He hit well when he played (.322/.365/.441) but he simply couldn’t play that much. The A’s went back to the World Series, winning again, but Murphy sat on the bench the entire Series. He was through in Philadelphia. In 1914 and 1915 he tried his hand with the fledgling Federal League. He hit .304 for Brooklyn in 1914, .167 in 1915, and did some scouting work. After 1915 he stopped playing in the Majors. He coached some in the Minors, got back to the A’s as a coach through the 1924 season. He coached one more year, then retired to run a hardware store and later work in a hospital. He died in 1955. In 1948 Mack named him to the All-Time A’s team as the right fielder.

For his career, Murphy hit .289, slugged .404, had an OBP of .336, and an OPS of .742 (OPS+ of 124). He hit 44 home runs, scored 705 runs and knocked in 702 RBIs in 1563 hits. He had 2188 total bases, 289 doubles, 102 triples, and walked 335 times. For his postseason career he hit .305 with an OPS of .791. He had 18 hits, eight for extra bases (7 doubles and a home run).

Murphy is hardly a great player, but he’s certainly a good one. He is, to me, emblematic of a type of player that constantly gets overlooked in baseball discussions. He’s not a star, not the best player on his team, but he is a major cog in a winning team. He’s the kind of player good teams have a lot of when they win. Take a look at winning rosters and you’ll find a lot of Danny Murphy’s, which is a pretty good legacy for him.

Baseball’s Poet

June 3, 2011

Thayer about the time he wrote his poem

One of the first things I do in the morning is click on Wikipedia’s homepage and read their “This Day in History” column. Having taught history back when there was a lot less of it, I’m always interested in seeing what shows up on a given day. Today is red-letter day for baseball. On this day in 1888 Ernest Thayer published, in the San Francisco Examiner, “Casey at the Bat”, baseball’s great poem. So I decided to look up Thayer and tell you something about him.

Ernest Thayer was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1863 (Which makes him as Civil War baby boomer, right?). His father ran one of the wool mills in town, made a lot of money, and sent his son to the best college arround, Harvard. Thayer edited the campus newspaper and dabbled in verse while at Harvard. Upon graduation magna cum laude in 1885 he caught the eye of William Randolph Hearst, who brought him to the Examiner as a humor columnist. While with the paper Thayer published a series of humorous pieces on whatever struck him. Some were prose, most were poetry, and on this date in 1888 (age 24) he published “Casey”.

It did well, but was not an instant hit. Over the next few years it made the rounds being recited by people in bars, at ball games, for fun. In 1888, the actor DeWolf Hopper found it and recited it in a Vaudeville act. It was an instant hit and made Hopper a star. He continued reciting it in his act until his death in 1935. Today his most famous claim to fame may be that between 1913 and 1922 his fifth wife (of six) was the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (they had one child, William, who played the detective on the old Raymond Burr “Perry Mason” series).

De Wolf Hopper

Thayer moved to the Hearst paper in New York in  (the Journal) in the 1890s, continued his poems and humor column into the 20th Century. He retired to run the family mill enterprise, becoming even more wealthy than previous. In 1912 he retired at age 49 (I should be so lucky) to Santa Barbara, California, married, and settled down to a life of leisure. He died in 1940, having no children.

Thayer in retirement

Much of the controversy about “Casey” revolves around the question of an identity for “Casey” and for “Mudville.” Thayer steadfastly insisted the poem was entirely imaginary and no one served as a model for “Casey.” Others have tried to link the character to Mike “King” Kelly, but Thayer would not concur.

So give yourself a treat today. Go read a copy of “Casey at the Bat” and remind yourself why it is you love the game. There are copies all over the internet and You Tube has a copy of Hopper reciting the poem. Enjoy, team.

The Best There Ever Was (1969 version)

June 1, 2011

1969 Baseball Centennial Stamp

All the way back in 1969, the powers-that-be in baseball recognized a good thing when they saw it. Someone reminded them that 1969 represented the centennial of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first ever professional team. Without bothering to check and see if the Red Stockings really were the first professional team, baseball’s leadership declared 1969 the centennial of professional baseball. It caught on. There was even a stamp. They got the fans to vote on an all-time team for each franchise (which got pretty funny when brand new teams like the Mets and  Angels set their rosters). They also convened a committee of experts to determine two all-time teams: the greatest players ever and the greatest living players. I know you can’t wait for the results, so here they are:

Greatest players: infield (from 1st around to third)-Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor. Outfield-Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb. Catcher-Mickey Cochrane. Pitchers (one left, one right)-Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson. Manager-John J. McGraw. Best player ever-Babe Ruth.

Greatest living players: infield (from 1st to third again)-Stan Musial and George Sisler tied for 1st base, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Cronin, Pie Traynor. Outfield-Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays. Catcher-Bill Dickey. Pitchers (again a left and a right)-Lefty Grove, Bob Feller. Manager-Casey Stengel. Best living player-Joe DiMaggio.

Take a minute and look over those lists. Not bad, right? OK, not great either, but not bad. A few comments from me are in order.

1. You could be on both lists. DiMaggio, Traynor, and Grove were all still alive and made both lists.

2. It shows you how baseball has changed in 40 years. There is no closer or designated hitter. Neither were major factors in 1969 (DH hadn’t even been invented yet), but both would be required if you were making similar lists today.

3. The lists were done before the explosion of the new Sabrmetric stats. The winners are all high average hitters (Cochrane and Dickey were 1-2 in batting  average among Hall of Fame catchers when the list was unveiled.). Power is optional depending on position. The pitchers are all high strikeout pitchers with good ERA’s for their time.

4. Both lists have problems. The all-time list isn’t bad. I might have opted for either Mantle or Mays or perhaps Aaron over DiMaggio. And Hornsby over Eddie Collins is in many ways a matter of taste. On the living list, I’m not sure how you end up with Musial and Sisler tying (that’s without reference to whether Musial should have been an outfielder). I can see Feller being replaced by Robin Roberts if that impressed people. But all in all neither is  a bad list. As something of an aside, let me remind you that in 1969 Hank Aaron was still toiling in something like obscurity (his MVP was over 10 years earlier) and very few people understood what they were seeing down in Atlanta. Both Mays and Mantle were universally acclaimed better ballplayers.

5. Obviously I’ve saved catcher and third base for last. These aren’t very good choices and the option of Traynor at third is just plain awful. Cochrane and Dickey aren’t bad. Both have some power and hit for high averages in high average eras. Both win a lot, both are considered good (but not great) handlers of pitchers, and Cochrane made a pretty fair manager. But somehow the name Yogi Berra simply got overlooked. Actually “somehow” is misleading. I think I know exactly why Berra was left off (and it had nothing to do with his mangling of the English language). Berra failed to hit .300 and both Cochrane and Dickey did. and remember this is a list ladened with .300 hitters. Traynor simply defies understanding. I’m told he was a heck of a third baseman. He also hit .300 with no power. I can name at least four third basemen who could have replaced him in 1969: Frank Baker, Jimmie Collins, Eddie Mathews, and Brooks Robinson (Mathews being my personal choice for the honor). I’m not even sure Traynor would be fifth on my list. There’s Stan Hack and George Kell. Heck, there’s even Harlond Clift who I might put above Traynor (not sure about Clift, but he’s certainly someone I’d look at). The Baker question is most intriguing. I understand that in a list heavy with .300 hitters why Mathews and Robinson aren’t going to make the list, but Baker hit .300, won home run titles (true, you didn’t have to hit many to win in 1911), and won a lot more pennants. Strange choice to pick Traynor. Apparently, Traynor, who was still alive, was honored to be chosen. I’m glad he got to hear how great he was, I just wish they’d picked someone else.

6. Consider how different the list would look today. In 1969 the following players had either not yet appeared on Major League rosters or were in the infant stages of their careers: Albert Pujols, Joe Morgan, Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, Greg Maddux, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, Mariano Rivera (to add a closer), Paul Molitor (to add a DH). Now I know none of these guys could make the 1969 roster, so leaving them off isn’t an issue. I just have the feeling that some of them would be on a new list.