Archive for September, 2011

1919: The Reds

September 30, 2011

Edd Roush

For obvious reasons information on the 1919 World Series tends to concentrate on the White Sox. But there is, of course, another team in the Series: The Cincinnati Reds. Almost nothing is written about them. They are generally viewed as simple foils for the overpowering Sox who would have made hash of them had the Sox been playing on the up and up. In the movie “Eight Men Out”, which is probably the best flick on the event, they get all of two lines. But the Reds were a real team and they really did play in the 1919 World Series and in their opinion would have won anyway.

If you look at the Reds hitters you find a group not much different from the White Sox. There are a handful of really first-rate players, a bunch of middle-of-the-road types, and a few guys who you wonder why the team couldn’t find someone better. In Edd Roush, the center fielder, the Reds have a Hall of Fame quality player. Roush won two batting titles, including the one in 1919, had an OPS of 811 and an OPS+ of 146 for the season. Only Joe Jackson of the Sox is better. Third baseman Heinie Groh (who today is known only for his “bottle bat”, which is a great shame) had an even better OPS and OPS+ than Roush. Both, in other words, were good players having good years. At 35, first baseman Jake Daubert was beyond his prime, but was still a solid player, as was 32-year-old Morrie Rath, the second baseman. They were also the only two starters over 30. Outfielder Sherry Magee was also over 30 and well beyond the prime he showed with Philadelphia a decade earlier. But Magee was used in a platoon-type system with Rube Bressler, so saw limited action during the season and only had two plate appearances in the Series. As both Magee and  Bressler hit right-handed, I’m not sure how the platoon worked exactly. As a team, the Reds led the National League in both triples and walks, were second in both average and slugging as well as RBIs and runs. They were third in hits.

Heinie Groh

In fielding the Reds were actually slightly better than the Sox. they showed superior numbers in both fielding percentage and range factor as well as in assists. They also made fewer errors. This is not to say that there are a lot of truly great fielders on either team, but in the context of the era, the Reds aren’t just awful or anything.

Hod Eller

In pitching the Sox were definitely better, especially with a healthy Red Faber. Having said that, the Reds still show up first in shutouts in the National League and  second in ERA. They led the league with the least hits allowed and were second in the least walks given up. So again, it’s not a bad staff, but most people are going to credit the Sox with a better mound crew.

Pat Moran as Phillies Manger

And as a final comparison, I see no evidence that contemporary opinion was convinced that Kid Gleason was a particularly better manager than Pat Moran. Maybe he was, but I can’t  find a consensus that confirms that.

So why exactly were the Sox, with a weaker overall record (88-52) considered so utterly superior to the Reds (with a 96-44 record)? I think it’s a perception issue. In 1909 the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. In the 10 years since the Cubs, Giants, Braves, Phillies, and Robins (now the Dodgers) had all crossed swords with the American League champion (including the White Sox in 1917) and only the Braves in 1914 had been successful (and they were, and still are, considered one of the great flukes of all time). So the American League was perceived as the stronger league. The American League champion, regardless of record, had to be seen as the stronger team.

Were they in 1919? Frankly, we’re never going to know. From a look at the stats and the players I’m convinced the Reds would have proved a formidable opponent for the Sox playing on the up and up.


Joe Jackson: Do the Stats Free or Convict Him?

September 28, 2011

Now that we’ve all had time to look over Joe Jackson’s batting statistics for the 1919 World Series, it’s time to ask what do they mean? Well, they mean a lot of things and the single most important thing they mean is that you cannot use Jackson’s World Series stats to prove he either was or wasn’t “throwing” the Series.  Had Jackson gone 0 for 21 in the games the White Sox lost, it would still not prove he was tanking. Players have bad games. Eddie Collins had a miserable Series in 1919 and no one believes he was trying to “throw” the Series.  Had Jackson gone 21 for 21 in the same games it would not prove he was playing on the up and up (the type of hits and their results would have to be factored in).  In fact, Jackson’s 1919 World Series stats are a perfect example of why a sole reliance on statistics is an awful way to research baseball. So if you expect me to say that these statistics prove definitely that Jackson was an angel or a slug you’re going to be wasting your time. Having said all that, there are some things we can note about the stats.

1. Let’s start with three small stats: walks, strikeouts, stolen bases. And I emphasize these are small stats (a total of four occurences). Jackson walks once in the Series, in a game the Sox win. It’s game six and he leads off the inning and does not score. For the season he walks 60 times (about 12% of his at bats–and, yes I know a walk doesn’t count as an at bat). That’s not much but is third on the team. The stolen base attempt comes in game 3 after a lead off single. He’s thrown out at second and the stolen base is unsuccessful. By this point in his career Jackson was no longer a prolific base stealer, having stolen only nine all season. For the entire regular season Jackson strikes out 10 times in 516 at bats. He strikes out twice, both in games the Sox lose (once looking, once swinging). The first is the sixth inning of game 2 against Slim Sallee who struck out 24 men all season. This is the one looking. The swinging strikeout is in the eighth inning of game 5 against Jimmy Ring who struck out 61 all season. Both strikeouts in losing efforts. The stolen base attempt, however, is in a winning game and is the only evidence of aggression on the base paths Jackson shows all Series. But it’s a failure. But it’s a failure in a game the Sox were trying to win so maybe we shouldn’t make too much of it one way or the other. The strikeouts worry me more. In point of fact are the only one of these three stats that do worry me. In 516 at bats Jackson strikes out 10 times during the season (as stated above). In 21 at bats in five games he strikeouts twice. And it’s not like Walter Johnson is gunning him down. Sallee and Ring were not major strikeout artists of the era, especially Sallee. Had the strikeouts come against Reds pitcher Hod Eller they might be more expected. Eller struck out 137 men during the season, second in the National League. Is this evidence of “throwing” games? No, but when you equal 20% of your yearly strikeouts in five games, people should notice. But it’s also a very small sample and that fact should not be ignored.

2. Jackson has four extra base hits (3 doubles, one home run), all in games the Sox lose. On first glance that sounds like evidence Jackson was playing it straight in the games Chicago lost. Let’s look at the hits one by one.  The first occurs in game one when he leads off the second inning with a double. He does not score. Well, with the next three batters in the line up being in on the “fix” (Happy Felsch, Chick  Gandil, Swede Risberg in order) he’s fairly safe leading off with a double knowing that there are three outs directly behind him. In fact, Jackson is in a perfect place to do well while “throwing” a game. He hits just in front of three consecutive players actively trying to “fix” the game. He can get on base, knowing the other three guys won’t let you score, at least not very often.  The second double occurs in exactly the same circumstances in game 4. This time he’s bunted to third (a fairly safe play that moves a runner up but doesn’t score him) then two consecutive outs ends the threat. The other double and the home run occur in game 8, the final game. With the score already 5-0, Jackson hits his home run with no one on base. The final double occurs in the eighth inning with an out and men on. The hit scores two runs, but the score when Jackson comes to bat is already 10-1. So here are four extra base hits, but they are reasonably unproductive hits, two leading off an inning with three acknowledged conspirators following in the inning and two coming when the final game is already out of hand. Do these prove Jackson was “throwing” games? As I said above, the stats alone can never prove that, but they worry me a lot, a whole lot.

3. Jackson has three runs and three RBIs in games the team loses, which isn’t a bad number in five games. There are a couple of problems with this theory, however. All three of the RBIs and two of the runs occur in game 8. If you look above at the comment on the extra base hits in reference to game 8 you’ll see how they played out. The only run not in the game 8 blowout was in game 1 and in that circumstance he reached base on a two base error, hardly an endorsement for those claiming he wasn’t throwing games.

So I’ll remind you once again that the statistical record for the 1919 World Series cannot free Jackson of guilt in trying to “throw” the World Series. They also cannot convict Jackson of “throwing” the World Series. They are at best ambivalent. Much more damning are the confession and the money. The confession, without reference to how it disappeared, is at best tainted by the way in which it was obtained. They money is different. There’s no question he took it. Do I think Jackson participated in “fixing” the 1919 World Series? Yes, I do. Do the statistics prove it? No, they don’t, but they also don’t disprove it.

Joe Jackson: The Wins

September 26, 2011

Continuing the theme from the last post, here’s a look at Jackson’s performance in the three games the White Sox won during the 1919 World Series:

Game 3

Jackson when 2-3 with a run scored. In the he singled to left, went to third on an error and scored on a single. In the second inning he was out at first on a bunt. In the sixth inning he led off with a single and was out on a caught stealing. In the eighth he was on deck when the final out was made.

Game 6

Jackson went 2-4 with a run, and RBI, and a walk. In the first inning he popped to third to end the inning. In the fourth inning he fouled out to the catcher for the second out. In the sixth inning he singled to drive in a  run, then scored on a double. In the eighth inning he led off with a walk and didn’t score. In the tenth inning he had a bunt single sending a runner to third. That runner scored the winning run later in the inning. Jackson was doubled up to end the inning.

Game 7

Jackson was 2-4 with two RBIs. In the first inning he singled to left knocking in a run. In the third inning his second single to left scored another run. In the fifth inning he got on by an error when the second baseman booted the ball. Jackson failed to score. In the seventh inning he grounded out.

Following the same format as the last post, here’s Jackson’s stat line for the three games the Sox won: ab-11, hits-6, runs-2, doubles-0, triples-0, home runs-0, RBIs-3, walks-1, strikeouts-0, average-.545, slugging-.545, OBP-583, OPS-1128. Again I make no comment on the stats at this point. I hope to try to make at least a little sense out of both sets in another post.

Joe Jackson: The Losses

September 23, 2011

Joe Jackson in White Sox uniform

Other than one post, I’ve stayed away from Joe Jackson on this blog. It’s time to go into some depth about him. One of the defenses of him is that he did well in the 1919 World Series and thus couldn’t have been “throwing” the Series. Let’s take a look at Jackson’s plate appearances in the five games the ChiSox lost and see what we find. Then we’ll take a  look at the three games they won and see what we find. The differences may be instructive.

Game 1

Jackson went 0-4 but scored a run. In the second inning he reached on an error by the shortstop then scored on a sacrifice fly and a single. In the fourth inning he grounded to shortstop. In the sixth inning he ground out to first unassisted with runners on first and second. Both runners advanced as Jackson made the second out. No sacrifice was given. In the ninth he led off the inning with a fly to right field for the first out.

Game 2

Jackson went 3-4 with a  strikeout and no runs or RBIs. In the second inning he led off with a double and went to third on a  bunt. He did not score. In the fourth inning he singled with a runner on first. He went to third on a fielder’s choice and did not score (the fielder’s choice cut down a run at the plate). In the sixth inning with a runner on second he struck out looking. In the eighth with two outs he singled.

Game 4

Jackson went 1-4 with a strikeout and no runs or RBIs. In the second inning he led off with a double and went to third on a bunt. He did not score. In the third inning he reached on an error by the second baseman and did not score. In the sixth he led off by grounding to short. In the eighth inning he struck out for the second out.

Game 5

Jackson went 0-4. In the first inning with two men on he popped out to third for the second out. In the fourth inning he grounded to the pitcher for the second out. In the seventh inning he grounded to the second baseman to lead off the inning. In the ninth inning he grounded to the shortstop to end the game.

Game 8

Jackson went 2-5 with 2 runs and 3 RBIs. In the first inning he popped to short for the second out. In the third inning with the score 5-0 he hit a bases empty home run. In the sixth inning with one on he made the first out of the inning with a fly to center. In the eight inning with the score 10-1 and one out, he doubled in two runs, then scored with two outs. In the ninth inning he grounded to second to end the Series.

So here’s the stat line for the five games the White Sox lose:  AB-21, Hits-6, runs-3, doubles-3, triples-0, home runs-0, RBIs-3, walks-0, strikeouts-2, Average-.286, slugging .619, OBP-.286, OPS-.905.  I’ll make no comment on the stat line until I’ve completed the look at the three games Chicago wins.

The Original Big Mac

September 21, 2011

Cal McVey

Most fans know about the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. It’s claimed they were the first all professional team, which may or may not be true (the records are pretty scant on some of the teams of the era). They were a pretty typical team for the era. You had ten players and most guys were asked to play multiple positions. For the Red Stockings the most famous are Harry Wright (who played center and managed) and his brother George (who played shortstop and did some work at second). Both are in the Hall of Fame: Harry as a manager, George as a player. But easily the most versatile was Cal McVey, who was probably never really called “Big Mac”.

McVey was born in 1849 in Iowa. That alone makes him fairly unusual for the era. Most of the better players were from the East Coast (Cap Anson was another exception) but there was a growing contingent of Midwestern players that was making their mark in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players. McVey, by now relocated to Indianapolis, was one of them. By 1868 he had spent time with both the Actives and the Westerns (local teams that were NABBP members) as a pitcher and a better than average hitter. He was 18 during the bulk of the 1868 season. He came to the attention of Harry Wright who watched him pitch in a losing effort to the current Cincinnati team (not the Red Stockings). When the Red Stockings were formed the next year, Wright brought him on as the right fielder at a salary of $500 to $700 dollars (the sources vary).

McVey was recognized immediately as one of the Stockings’ finest players. He fielded well for the day (no gloves yet), could pitch a little, and hit well enough to frequently take the cleanup spot. The Red Stockings went 65-0 and showed just exactly how good an all professional team could be. The next season they were 24-0 before they lost to the Atlantic (and Lip Pike, the subject of the post on 14 September). The streak broken, the team began losing fans (and five other games) and folded at the end of the 1870 season.

McVey joined the Wrights as the cornerstones of the new Boston franchise of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They finished second in 1871 on a disputed claim about how many games were considered “championship contests” and thus counted for pennant purposes. McVey was terrific in the five years of the National Association, all but 1873 with Boston. In 1871 he led the league in hits (with 66), In 1874 he led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. In 1875 he had a career year leading the league in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. His OPS+ was 195. When the NA folded after the 1875 season, McVey held the record for RBIs with 277. During his tenure in the NA McVey played catcher, right field, and first base for most of his games, but saw time at second, third, short, and pitched three games (going 1-0). It was common for players to slide from position to position, but few could play three well. 

With the founding of the National League in 1876, McVey joined the team in Chicago (now the Cubs) and helped lead them to the first National League pennant. He hit .347 and was easily one of the ten best players in the league. He put together the first 30 game hit streak in the NL that season (1 June through 8 August) and set the record for hits (12) in consecutive games.  He stayed in Chicago in 1877, then moved to Cincinnati for his final two seasons. He retired after the 1879 season. He was thirty. The reserve rule was adopted after the ’79 season and speculation is that McVey wanted nothing to do with it and left the Majors.

McVey moved to California, did a lot of local baseball work in the San Francisco area (Pacific Coast League), both playing for and managing local Minor League clubs through the 1880s. The numbers here get pretty obscure, so it’s tough to tell how good he was in California. In other words, it’s difficult to assess how quickly his skills eroded. After retirement he worked as a night watchman at a lumber yard, which considering he how well wielded baseball “lumber” is kind of appropriate. He died in 1926.

Because of the way McVey’s career breaks out, he has three sets of numbers: his National Association numbers, his National League numbers, and his combined numbers. Because Major League Baseball does not consider the Association a Major League, McVey’s “official” numbers only include his NL stats. I’m going to give you all three here. McVey plays nine years (5 in the NA, four in the NL). He plays 530 games (265 in each league–bet that took some doing), had 869 hits (476 NA, 393 NL), 1123 total bases (635 NA, 488 NL), 133 doubles (81 NA, 52 NL), and 449 RBIs (277 NA, 172 NL). He hit .346 (.362 NA, .328 NL), slugged .447 (483 NA, 407 NL), with an OBP of 354 (366 NA, 340 NL) for an OPS of .800 (849 NA, 747 NL) and an OPS+ of 152 (162 NA, 141 NL). As a fielder he wasn’t  bad for the era. There are some better, but a lot are much worse. As a pitcher he made a heck of a hitter. He wents 9-12 (1-0 in the NA) with 16 walks and 37 strikeouts (1 of each in the NA),, and gave up 75 earned runs (6 in NA) in 176 innings (11 in the NA).

For my money, McVey is either the best or second best player on the Red Stockings. George Wright is his only competition. McVey is also younger by two years than Wright. In the Association they’re pretty much a wash, but by the time the NL is formed, McVey is much better.

Because he plays the same number of games in both leagues over approximately the same number of years (5 to 4) one can compare McVey in the two leagues. He’s clearly better in the Association than in the League. That may reflect his aging (although he’s only 30 when he retires) or it may reflect that the NL was a tougher league than the NA. It would take more time to research this than I’m willing to devote, so I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which is true and just how much better one league was than the other.

Is McVey a Hall of Famer? Well, there’s the little issue of the 10 year rule that keeps him out no matter what you think of his stats. And if you recall that MLB doesn’t recognize the Association as a Major League, then he only has four years in the Majors. But I also think that the Hall should consider waiving the ten-year rule in the case of players who spent significant time in the National Association and time in the pre-Association leagues. Other than that he still faces the two problems players of his era face: the number of games in a season and the nature of the rules differences between the era and the modern game. So I don’t think he’ll ever make it, but I would be willing to vote for him. Having said that, he wouldn’t be my first choice among 19th Century players for enshrinement in Cooperstown (Deacon White would be).

My Top List of Terrible Owners

September 19, 2011

Where these guys belong

Baseball is full of terrible players and coaches. I guess it’s not fair to call any player who makes it to the Major Leagues “terrible”, but there’s definitely a lot of players that are at best marginal. And coaches and managers can be real duds. But somehow owners tend to get overlooked by casual fans. Most people don’t seem to pay much attention to the impact of ownership. Well, baseball has had some really awful owners too. Here’s my Mount Rushmore (4 guys) of terrible owners in no particular order.

Charles Comiskey: The only owner who ever had his team mutiny to such an extent it was willing to dump a World Series. Ultimately the players themselves must take blame for their own actions, but Comiskey did more than his share to help them along with their choices. Comiskey was cheap, but so was Connie Mack. What Comiskey lacked was a shred of respect for his players, and that makes him lower on the ownership scale and thus higher on the Rushmore scale. And I’m not sure I understand it exactly. Charles Comiskey was a former player, actually a pretty good one. He was first baseman and manager of the St. Louis Browns team that won pennant after pennant in the 1880s. Having been a player, having seen the tussles with ownership and the league offices, I find it strange he seems to have had no sympathy at all for the plight of his players. Maybe it was an “I went through it, so can you” attitude. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever it was he gets a spot on my Mount Rushmore. And for what it’s worth, although Clifton James doesn’t look at all like Comiskey, his portrayal of the White Sox owner in “Eight Men Out” is pretty close (except that the flat champagne episode occurred in 1917, not 1919).

The Robison Brothers: Because there were two of them, the Robison brothers occupy two spaces on Mount Rushmore. Frank was the older brother. He married the daughter of the man who ran the Cleveland, Ohio streetcar company, Charles Hathaway. Today that doesn’t sound like a way to make a great deal of money, but in an era without subways, cars, or buses, the streetcar was the quickest, easiest way for someone to get across town to see the doctor or go to work or whatever. So the Robison’s made a lot of money, a whole lot of money. Very early on Frank brought in younger brother Stanley to help run the business. Between them they got very rich. Frank Robison was also a baseball fan (as was Stanley to a lesser degree). He decided that Cleveland should have a big league team and in 1887 he started up the Cleveland Blues, later renamed the Spiders. They joined the National League the same year. Mostly they weren’t very good. In 1892 that changed. Among other things, they picked up (the year before) a youngster named Cy Young who seemed to have some potential. It was the year of the first split season. Cleveland won the second half, then lost the playoff to Boston. In 1895 and 1896 they played for the Temple Cup, winning in ’95. It was the apex of the team and so far so good for the brothers as owners. But the Robison’s had a plan to make more money. In 1898 the National League forced St. Louis owner Chris Von Der Ahe to sell the Browns. The Robison’s bought the team. In 1898 it was legal to own two teams. It was called “syndicate baseball” and there were three of them, including the Robison’s. With St. louis being a much larger market (4th largest US city at the time),  the Robison’s immediately began stripping the Cleveland team of its best players and sent them, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. The Browns didn’t do any better and the Spiders were awful. At the end of the year, the NL shut down the team. Frank died in 1908, leaving Stanley in charge. In 1905 Stanley had tried his hand at managing the team. He went 19-31 (which was better than Ted Turner’s foray into managing). Now in charge, Stanley proceeded to watch his team continue to flounder. He died in 1911, leaving the team to Frank’s daughter.

The Robison’s make my Mount Rushmore because of their callous disregard for the fans and the city that made them, Cleveland. They had gotten rich off Cleveland and then they caused the town to lose its team and its finest players. Did it bother them? Apparently not. And they didn’t make St. Louis any better in the long run. The team went from last to fifth (but they had two rosters, theirs and Cleveland’s to use), but then stagnated topping out at fourth in 1901. About the only positive thing the Robison’s did was to change the uniform color from brown to cardinal red, thus giving the team its current nickname, Cardinals.

Emil Fuchs: Fuchs was the Giants attorney. In 1922 he joined with Christy Mathewson in buying the Boston Braves. Mathewson’s ill-health put Fuchs in charge. He proceeded to run the team into the ground. He knew nothing about baseball other than what he’d picked up as attorney for the Giants, couldn’t evaluate talent, couldn’t be bothered with the small details of keeping up a stadium. In 1928 he bought Rogers Hornsby as manager, found a way to make money, and sold Hornsby the next season to the Cubs. With no manager, he tried his hand at running the team on the field himself. They finished dead last. In 1935, out of money, unable to pay rent on the stadium, he bought Babe Ruth from the Yankees. He promised Ruth a vice presidency, a managerial job, and a share of the profits. Well, there were no profits, the vice presidency was nominal, and Fuchs admitted he wasn’t going to fire his current manager, Bill McKechnie  (who ended up a Hall of Fame manager). Ruth, not unreasonably, quit. At the end of the 1935 season, broke, short of players, out of options, Fuchs sold the team back to one of the men he’d bought it from in 1922.

So there they are, my four Mount Rushmore lousy owners. There are a lot of other people available; Arthur Soden who destroyed the great Beaneaters dynasty of the 1890s, Arthur Freedman who almost managed to destroy the Giants before John McGraw got there, Harry Frazee who sold away a rejuvenated Red Sox, Earle Mack who almost destroyed his dad’s Athletics, Frank McCourt who is currently destroying the Dodgers, the guys who’ve run the Royals and Pirates into the ground. And a host of others too. But for my money, these four are the guys I’d least like to see run my team.

The Deacon

September 16, 2011

Deacon White with the Wolverines

To be an 19th Century ballplayer is to live in obscurity. Even Hall of Famers are obscure. Ask someone to name a 19th Century ballplayer. Most people, even fans, can’t. They might, if they’re very clever, remember that Cy Young and Honus Wagner played a little in the 19th Century and a civil rights person might know the name (but not the stats) of Moses Fleetwood Walker, but most people are going to zero out. That’s a great shame because the modern players stand squarely (and sometimes a little wobbly) on their shoulders. Give me a minute here to rescue one from deepest obscurity to simply obscurity, Deacon White.

James White was born in Caton, New York on 2 December 1847. His family was farmers and he wanted to be one also. But it turned out that both he and his younger brother Will were terrific baseball players. By 1868 Jim White was with the Forest City of Cleveland (from here on the Cleveland Forest Citys). He was a catcher, a heck of a hitter, and something of an anomaly. He didn’t play cards, and worse, he went to church. The “Deacon” nickname was obvious and it stuck with him for the rest of his career.

In 1871 Cleveland joined the fledgling National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, the first professional league and in some ways (professionals playing at the highest level possible) the first Major League. Two games were scheduled for opening day. One was rained out; Cleveland played in the other. White led off the game with a double, was later doubled off second. If you want to consider the National Association a Major League, then White has the honor of registering the first at bat, the first hit, the first extra base hit, and be involved in the first double play. For what it’s worth, Cleveland lost 2-0. Cleveland finished 10-19 for the season, but White hit .322, had a home run, and led the team with 40 runs scored.  He did well again in 1872. That got him out of Cleveland and brought him a job with Boston, the premier Association team and 1872 champion. In 1873-1874, Boston won consecutive championships with White as the primary catcher.

In 1876, he joined the National League where he played through 1889. He won pennants with Chicago in 1876 and Boston in 1877.  Already a prime catcher, in 1882 he moved to third base becoming arguably the finest third baseman in the NL. After several years in Buffalo and Cincinnati, he ended up in Detroit in 1886. In 1887 the Wolverines won the NL pennant, then won the 19th Century version of the World Series against the American Association’s St. Louis Browns. 

During the latter part of his career, White was a staunch supporter of John Montgomery Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union of any consequence. Although almost through with his career, he joined the 1891 player’s revolt and finished his career with the Player’s Association team in Buffalo. It made him well liked by other players despite his insistence on attending church on Sundays.

After retirement he managed a series of Minor League teams in the Southwest, then settled in Buffalo where he worked for an optical company, then ran a stable on Auburn Avenue which later became a garage. When he died in 1939 he was 91 and the oldest living ballplayer. He is buried in Illinois.

Let’s start the look at his career stats with an obvious caveat. He played a few years prior to the establishment of the National Association, so the numbers we have a slightly incomplete. He is already 23 when the Association is formed and something like reliable statistics are available. For his career White hits .312, slugs .393, with an OBP of .346 for an OPS of .740 (OPS+ of 127). He plays 1540 games, a lot for the era, has 2067 hits, 1140 runs, 988 RBIs, 2605 total bases, 24 home runs, 308 walks, and 221 strikeouts. He also is a major component on five pennant winners. For the pre-1893 era, those are good numbers. He leads both the Association and the NL in batting once (1875 and 1877), leads the NL in OPS, hits, triples, total bases and RBIs in 1877. He’s also a pretty good catcher for the era, but only a so-so third baseman.

If I had to pick one player and call him the most overlooked great player of the 19th Century, it would be White. He’s a heck of a hitter. At a position where the game is totally different today than in the 19th Century (catcher), he excels. It’s a weak enough position (along with second base) to make the argument that there are no truly great catchers in the 19th Century (Buck Ewing’s presence in the Hall of Fame not withstanding), but I think that misses the point that it was a very different job to be a catcher in 1880 than it was in 1980. There are no gloves to speak of, no catching equipment we’d recognize, and pitchers were much closer to home than today. To excel there in those conditions is worth comment (frankly, to be brave enough to play the postion in those circumstances is worth noting). Is White a Hall of Famer? In my opinion yes, although I won’t be surprised if he never gets invited inside.

The Stars in Their Courses

September 14, 2011

Lip Pike

Baseball has a long history. Forget Abner Doubleday and its alleged origins. What’s happened since is fascinating enough. Way back in the middle part of the 19th Century there were some really quality players. One of those was Lip Pike.

Lipman Emanuel Pike was born in New York City 25 May 1845. The family moved to Brooklyn where the father was a haberdasher (as was Harry Truman, although much later). The Pike’s were Dutch Jews and Lip Pike underwent his Bar Mitzvah in 1858. A week later he played his first recorded game. He was a good player from the beginning, hitting well, fielding OK (for the era), and considered exceptionally fast on the bases.

He did well in New York, but rose to prominence in Philadelphia as a member of the Athletic (today we would pluralize it and to keep it from looking goofy, I will do so with the Athletics and other teams of the era). Pike the was the star of the most important team in the city and was instrumental in the Athletics rising to the top. On 16 July he was credited with six home runs (five in a row) in a Atheltics thrashing of the Alerts 67-25. That sounds like an outrageous score today, but 40 or so runs by the winning team wasn’t uncommon in 1866, especially if the team was a top rung group.

There was one problem with Pike, however. The league was an amateur one and Pike was being paid to play. He was receiving $20 a week and wasn’t particuarly hiding the fact. The local press got wind of it, printed the information, and thus forced the league’s hand. It led to the Pike Case (which I detailed over a year ago), one of the nails in the coffin of amateur baseball. Pike was ordered to appear before a committee of the National Association of Base Ball Players (the league the Athletics were in). Unfortunately, the league was in a bigger bind than Pike. If he was thrown out of the league, then the Athletics threatened to leave also, thus costing the Association its foothold in Philadelphia. And Pike wasn’t going to be hurt either. He was too good and someone else was going to pick him up and pay him. When the day of the case came, neither Pike, the Athletics, nor the Association showed up and the matter was quietly dropped. Pike and the Athletics had gotten away with it and now other players could be paid openly for their skills and amateurism was in deep trouble. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Red Stockings set up shop 3 years later. And Pike? Well, the team decided to dump him and the only other player on the team not from Philly when the season ended. Apparently it had nothing to do with the case.

By 1869 Pike was back in Brooklyn playing for the Atlantics, the Yankees of their day. The team played 48 games, a lot for the era. Pike hit .610, slugged .883, led the Association in home runs, and the Atlantic went 40-6 with 2 ties. The Atlantics played their home games at the Capitoline Grounds. Deep in right field there was a round brick outhouse. Tradition dictated that a player hitting a home run over the outhouse got a bottle of champaigne. Pike is the only man recorded to have hit two over the outhouse in one game (nothing about whether he got a second bottle of champaigne or not).  One paper was so enthusiastic, and remembering Pike was Jewish, quoted Judges (chapter 5) “‘The stars in their courses’ have never seen such a  display.” For all that they got to play the Red Stockings at the end of the season and lost. They got even the next season when the Atlantics stopped the Red Stockings win streak.

In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. It lasted through 1875 and was the first all professional league and in some corners considered the first Major League. Pike joined the team in Troy, New York as captain (manager) and second baseman. He hit well, was a lousy manager, and Troy finished back in the pack. Pike managed to lead the league in home runs, was second in slugging, third in total bases, sixth in batting average, and fourth in RBIs.

In 1872 he went to Baltimore where he played two seasons (until the team went bankrupt and folded), leading the league in home runs both years and RBIs the first. His home run total in 1872 (7) was 17% of the total home runs hit in the league that season. In 1874 he was in Hartford where he won the slugging title, finished third in hitting, and second in OBP. He finished his time with the Association in 1875 by playing at St. Louis.

The National League arrived on the scene in 1876 and Pike played through 1878, winning one more home run title (1877). In 1879 and 1880 he was in the minors. He got back to the NL in 1881, did terribly, and retired. He went into the haberdashery business like his dad, did reasonably well, but still loved the game. In 1887 at age 42 he got into one game for the New York team of the American Association. In four trips to the plate he got no hits. He died of heart disease in Brooklyn 10 October 1893. When the initial Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee met in 1936, Pike received one vote, not bad for a guy who played before most of the committee was born. In 1985 he was elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel.

How good was Pike? As with all players of the era it’s tough to say. First it was simply a different game. The pitching distance was different, the pitching motion was different, a batter could call for a high or low pitch, the batters box was essentially a line that a hitter had to straddle (no standing deep in the box for these guys), many fields had no fences so a ball that got by a fielder could roll forever resulting in things that today wouldn’t be home runs. Second, any statistical information prior to 1871 is too rudimentary to determine how good a player compiled them. Pike was 26 when the Association is formed so there simply aren’t reliable stats for the period when he’s 18 to 25. Afterward, though, he’s pretty good. For his career in the Association he averages .333, slugs .498, with an OBP of .346 for an OPS of .845 and an OPS+ of 161. His overall totals (NA and NL combined) are .322 batting average, .468 slugging, .339 OBP for an OPS of .808 and an OPS+ of 157. But all that is in 425 games; never playing more than 70 in a season. He ends his career with 927 total bases, 21 home runs, 332 RBIs, 434 runs, and 638 hits. So as with a lot of players of the era his percentages are much better than his raw totals. In an era of terrible fielding (for a lot of reasons, some of which had little to do with a player’s actual ability) he’s below average.

Pike is to me a good solid player, maybe a great one for his era. He’s certainly important as he is a milestone on the road to professional baseball. But evaluating him along modern lines is next to impossible no matter who many people have come up with forumlae that claim to do so. Let me leave it at that.

Awards, 20 Games Out

September 13, 2011

With about 20 games left in the season, it’s time to start thinking about MLB’s postseason awards. I’ve never been very good at this, so don’t bet the farm on any of my comments. I’m going to tell you who I think should win a few (not all) and am aware that with 20 games to go it could all change.

AL Cy Young–this is easy. Justin Verlander. The only question is whether he picks up the MVP too.

AL MVP–Curtis Granderson. The Yanks are in first, Granderson has had a seismic year, his closest competitor is a pitcher. It’s his unless the wheels come off entirely.

NL Cy Young–Clayton Kershaw. He leads the NL in ERA and strikeouts, he’s second in wins (by 1) and second in WHIP (by 0.05), and he plays on a team just below .500.

NL MVP–I like Ryan Braun, but doubt he’ll win. He’ll lose votes to Fielder on his own team and that may let Upton slide in with the award.

NL Come-Back Player of the Year–Lance Berkman easy. If he’d kept up in July and August what he did in April, May, and June, he might be MVP.

No call yet on Rookies or Managers, but I’ll bet Leyland gets a lot of support.

Feel free to disagree.

Magic Numbers

September 9, 2011

I love this time of year. The great heat wave of summer is gone, the air is cooler now, the sun is still high in the sky but less brutal. The leaves are still green, and the grass should be green (this year’s drought has had much to do about stopping that). Football has started. The NFL is going and my Packers are defending champions. College football is in disarray with the Big 12 about to maybe implode (or maybe not, and the indecision is the fun of it), and God knows we’ll end up arguing about a champion again. But mostly it’s time for Magic Numbers.

It’s funny no other sport seems to care about Magic Numbers. In the NFL there are so many tie breakers that it’s tough to figure out who’s in and  who’s out when it comes to the playoffs. In college, well, there just aren’t any magic numbers. Basketball, which could embrace them, doesn’t. Maybe that’s because half the teams make the playoffs. Same in hockey. But baseball is different. Magic Numbers matter.

I presume that anyone reading this knows that the Magic Number is the number of wins/losses necessary for a team to win either its division or the wildcard slot. I also presume you know how to figure it or you wouldn’t be a baseball fan. But I’ve always been fascinated by the Magic Number. Maybe it’s because I was so awful at math. You see, no matter how convoluted the Magic Number is, it was one mathematical formula I understood. So I embraced it. Way back when I would get out a pencil, a sheet of paper, and the local newspaper and sit down and figure them myself. Then came the calculator and the figuring got easier. Now all I have to do is turn to the MLB website, click on “standings”, and there are the Magic Numbers all written down for me. It’s kind of  a shame. I enjoyed doing it old way, especially after I found the calculator. I seldom turn to the MLB website for this information. I normally still use the local newspaper and figure them myself. It’s certainly more fun than just clicking on a website. Now I know my local paper usually doesn’t have the late West Coast scores, so I’ll try to find them without also seeing a list of Magic Numbers. So far it works.

I have one rule for Magic Numbers. I never start calculating them until September. I know teams go out in August, and I suppose in some years a really bad team went out in July (and the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were probably out in May), but somehow it doesn’t really count until September.

The little trivial bits of arcane baseball are one of the reasons I love the game. The Magic Number is one of those items and thus one of the reasons I love baseball. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I hear my calculator calling.