Archive for November, 2011

Pride of the Yankees: A Review

November 29, 2011

Gary Cooper showing some bum how to hit

Well, it’s been forever since I did my Roger Ebert impression, so it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent years trying to convince my wife, son, and niece, that old movies can be really good (and that an inordinate number of them can also be really awful) and I seem to have succeeded to some degree. One of the best old movies is the Gary Cooper vehicle “Pride of the Yankees.”

“Pride” is a highly fictionalized version of the life of Lou Gehrig. In the flick, Gehrig is from a lower class family in New York. He loves baseball, as does his father (old line character actor Ludwig Stossel). Momma, played by another veteran of the era Elsa Janssen, thinks Lou should go to college and become a success. Of course Louie goes to school (Columbia) where he doesn’t exactly fit in with the frat, but also plays a little ball. He gains the attention of a newspaper man played by Walter Brennan who starts touting Gehrig to the Yankees. Eventually Momma gets sick, Gehrig drops out of school to play minor league ball in order to pay for her hospitalization. He makes the Yankees where he meets Babe Ruth (played by the Bambino himself), meets his future wife (Teresa Wright), and goes on to glory. Of course he ends up with ALS, gives a great speech on “Lou Gehrig Day”, then walks off into the tunnel as the ump yells “play ball” and the credits roll.

Teresa Wright as Mrs. Gehrig

A lot of that is utter nonsense (although Gehrig was close to his mother), but it’s still fun. Gary Cooper as Gehrig is great and Teresa Wright as Mrs. G is maybe even better. As a couple they do a great job working together. And of course Walter Brennan is Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea does a fine job as the other reporter who favors Ruth over Gehrig. Finally, as an actor Ruth is a great ballplayer, but heck, it’s Babe Ruth and who cares if he can act?

It helps that you know how this is going to end before you start watching it. You can just sit back and enjoy the dialogue, the acting, the fun, and the nonsense. They do a good job with the atmosphere of the ballpark and the filming is excellent. Cooper was right-handed, Gehrig left-handed. To solve the problem they sewed “Yankees” onto Cooper’s uniform backwards (seekanY), had him bat and field right-handed, then simply reversed the film. It was a new technique for the era (although not the first time it was used) and is still something they do.

One major problem is the “Luckiest Man” speech. Cooper delivers it well, but it’s the wrong speech. For reasons I have never understood (except maybe they wanted “luckiest man” at the end of the speech) the film writers rewrote the speech. Frankly they didn’t make it better and I wish they’d left it alone.

The film won one Academy Award (for film editing–see what I mean about the reversed film). Cooper was nominated (he won two other Oscars), as was Wright (who won one). They lost to James Cagney and Greer Garson. It was also nominated for best picture, but lost to “Mrs. Miniver” (Garson’s picture). Frankly, “Pride of the Yankees” has withstood the test of 70 years much better. It’s worth seeing when it shows up (which it does on TCM frequently in April). It runs 128 minutes, is in black and white, a makes a great holiday gift.

Awards Show

November 23, 2011

Mathnet

Back 15 or so years ago PBS ran a show that included a segment called “Mathnet”. The segment was fun and you actually learned some math while being entertained. One of their better plots involved the “Awards Show for Awards Shows”. Now that baseball’s Awards Show is over, I want to take a look at how they did.

Rookies: OK, why not? This was not a year of truly outstanding rookies so the choices of Hellickson and Kimbrel are as good as any. Baseball history is littered with promising rookie starters who ended up as busts, so maybe Hellickson will pan out, maybe he won’t. And Kimbrel set the record for saves among rookies and I guess that should get him the award. But as with starters, baseball is full of closers who had one or two good years and were then done. I realize the RoY is for a single year’s performance, not for longevity, but I still worry about how good these two will ultimately be ten or so years from now. So again, why not?

Managers: The choice of Gibson was expected. The team finished last a season ago and a new manager comes in. He whips the team into shape, it gets hot, it rolls to the playoffs, and the new guy is manager of the year. Happens a lot. As with rookies I respond, why not? It’s as good a reason to pick someone as manager of the year as any and Gibson certainly turned the Diamondbacks around. Now let’s see how long it lasts. Maddon is, to me, a better choice. His team was supposed to languish in third or fourth in a packed division where its underpayed players would do as well as they could, but couldn’t be expected to compete against the big boys in New York and Boston. And on the last day of the season, Maddon and the Rays win to clinch  a playoff slot. I think it’s a better story because Maddon has proved he can do this before (maybe it’s those One-A-Day Men’s vitamins he pushes on TV).

Cy Youngs: These may have been the most obvious and least anticipated awards of the season. Did anyone seriously think Verlander and Kershaw were going to lose? You win the pitching triple crown (which has actually been done much more frequently than the hitting triple crown–Koufax did it 3 times alone) and you get the Cy Young. And in both cases their newer Sabermetric numbers were good also.

MVP: Neither was a bad choice, and I have no problem with a pitcher winning the MVP. The argument there is a “Cy Young Award for pitchers so they shouldn’t win the MVP” is bogus to me. First, it downgrades the Hank Aaron Award for hitters (and baseball has done a terrible job promoting the Aaron Award), and second argues that no matter how well he pitches no hurler can ever be as valuable as a hitter. Having said that, I would have voted for Cabrera, but Verlander isn’t a bad choice.

So this year baseball did a fairly standard job in its Awards Show. Nothing spectacular, and only Verlander a bit inspired. Congratulations to all the winners and here’s hoping each has a stellar year next season.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Jim O’Rourke

November 18, 2011

Jim O'Rourke

1. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on 1 September 1850.

2. He played semi-pro ball in Bridgeport, caught the eye of the newly formed Middletown Mansfields of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and signed to catch and play shortstop in 1872. He did well, the team folded, and he went back to Bridgeport.

3. O’Rourke signed the next season with Boston of the National Association and moved to the outfield. He also caught, played first, and led the Association in home runs in 1874 and 1875.

4. With the collapse of the Association, he joined the new National League team in Boston in 1876. He is credited with getting the first hit in NL history, a single in the first inning.

5. In the 1870s and 1880s he led the NL in hits, home runs, walks, triples, and runs once each, and led the league in OBP twice.

6. With the New York Giants in the late 1880s he helped Monty Ward form the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players union, picked up a  law degree from Yale, was admitted to the Connecticut bar, and won two pennants. Both times the Giants won the 1880’s version of the World Series. O’Rourke hit .306 with two home runs and eight RBIs in 19 postseason games.

7. In 1890 he joined the New York team in the Player’s League. He did well, but the team finished third.

8. Back in the NL after the Player’s League folded he spent two more years with the Giants, then finished his  career with Washington.

9. After retiring he practiced law, spent half a season as an umpire, then formed a team in Connecticut that played independently. He played a handful of games, but mostly coached. He did hire Henry Herbert, a black outfielder. Herbert stayed with the team four seasons.

10. In 1896 O’Rourke formed a new league, the Naugatuck Valley League, in Connecticut. He played off and on through 1916.

11. In 1904, the Giants brought O’Rourke to the Polo Grounds where he played catcher for one game. He went 1-4 (a single) at age 53. He scored a run and the Giants won 7-5.

12. He died 7 January 1919 and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1945.

O'Rourke's grave in Connecticut

The Pride of Havana

November 16, 2011

Dolf Luque, the Pride of Havana

There is a long history of baseball in Cuba. One source puts its origins in the 1850s and 1860s. For Cubans in the Major Leagues it’s a lot newer. It begins with Adolfo Luque (there were other Cubans before him, but he was far and away the most successful) who was a pretty fair pitcher.

Luque was from Havana, born in 1890. He pitched well in the Cuban leagues, was spotted by Major League scouts, and picked up by the Boston Braves (now in Atlanta) in 1914. There were immediate problems. The racial attitudes of the era made it difficult for a non-“white” individual to do well in the big leagues. Dark skinned players, like fellow Cuban Martin DiHigo, were completely banned from the Majors. American Indians like Chief Bender were ridiculed, and light-skinned Latin players like Luque were supposed to be too hot-tempered to play. And, unfortunately, Luque, like many of us, had a temper. It was to create problems for him for most of his career. As I want to look more at his stats than his temper, I’m not going to concentrate on the incidents (especially the Stengel incident). There are plenty of references about them online.

Luque pitched four games for the Braves in 1914 and 1915, going 0-1 with big ERA’s for the time. He ended up back in the minors until Cincinnati picked him up in 1918. He stayed there through 1929.  Going 10-3 mostly in relief, he helped the Reds to the 1919 World Series. He pitched five innings over two games giving up no runs, one hit, no walks, and striking out six. In doing so he became the first Latin American native to play in a World Series. His best year was 1923 when he went 27-8 and led the National League in wins, ERA, shutouts, winning percentage, and ERA+. It was a notable improvement considering he’d led the NL in loses the previous year.  He led the NL in ERA, WHIP, ERA+, and shutouts again in 1925, although he posted only a 16-18 record. His career followed a fairly normal projection and by 1929, he was 38, had a 5-16 record, and was sent to Brooklyn. He spent two years with the Dodgers. Neither were particularly bad years, but his ERA was rising and he was giving up more hits than he had innings pitched. At age 41 he went to the Giants where he became a reliever. He was good at it putting up acceptable numbers in both 1933 and 1934. In the former year he got back to the World Series for the second time. He relived in game 5, pitching 4.1 innings of scoreless ball, striking out five and giving up only two hits. When the Giants scored in the top of the tenth, Luque shut down Washington in the bottom of the inning to clinch the World Series championship for New York.

He pitched two games in 1935, getting one last win, then retired to coach with the Giants. He remained with the Giants as a coach off and on through the Second World War, then retired from the Majors for good. During his playing days and while a coach in New York, Luque spent his winters in Cuba, and later in Mexico, working with Winter League players. He played, coached, and managed a number of great island teams. He was instrumental in developing Major League players like Sal Maglie, Bobby Avila, and Camilo Pascual. He managed through the 1956 season and died of a heat attack in July 1957. He was later inducted into both the Cuban and Mexican baseball Hall of Fame.

For his Major League career, Luque was 194-179 (,520 winning percentage), had an ERA of 3.24 (ERA+ of 118), a 1.288 WHIP, and 16 shutouts. He struck out 1130 while walking 918. Over 3220 innings he gave up 3231 hits and 1161 earned runs. All in all not a bad career for a man who got started late (he was 27 when he caught on with Cincinnati), played year-round, and had to face the challenges of perceptions about Latin ball players. He deserves a lot more recognition, particularly among Latin players, then he gets.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote: IV

November 11, 2011

Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe as members of the Nashua Dodgers

Here’s the last installment of my look at the 2011 Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. This time I want to look at the last two men on the list. They are general manager Buzzie Bavasi and owner Charlie Finley.

Bavasi was general manager for the Dodgers in their last few seasons in Brooklyn, beginning in 1951. He went with them to Los Angeles, overseeing the transition to the West Coast. He remained through 1968. From there he went to San Diego as their first GM, then finished up with the Angels in 1984. prior to taking over in Brooklyn, he worked with Brooklyn minor league teams, most importantly the Nashua, New Hampshire team that became the haven for Dodgers players brought over from the Negro Leagues. As GM he increased the number of black players on both the big league team and in the minor league system. He signed both Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, centerpieces of the Dodgers winning teams in the 1960s. On Bavasi’s watch, the Dodgers won their first four World Series championships (1955, ’59, ’63, and ’65). He set up the San Diego minor league system and later put together the first Angels teams to win division titles. He died in 2008.

Finley took over a moribund Athletics team, moved it out of Kansas City, signed a bunch of good players like Reggie Jackson, and won three consecutive World Series’ in the early 1970s. Out of perverseness, or spite, or stupidity, or miserliness, he began selling off his players for next to nothing, getting him in trouble with then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn ruled his actions were not “in the best interest of baseball.”  He sold the team in 1981. He brought in the A’s green and gold uniforms (some in awful combinations, other nice), he experimented with a designated runner, with colored balls. He had a mule for a team mascot. He was, in other words, an innovator, a rascal, a con man, and a genius all rolled into one. He died in 1996.

So do either of  them make my ballot? Nope. My problem with Finley is simply that I can’t see putting another owner into the Hall of Fame until Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the 1920s “Murderer’s Row” Yankees, and the 1930’s “Bronx Bombers” makes the Hall. It’s unbelievable to me he isn’t in, and until he is, I can’t endorse any other owner for the Hall (as if my endorsement makes a difference). Bavasi is a little harder to explain, especailly being a die hard Dodgers fan. To determine just how much impact a GM has on a team is difficult. So many other factors like scouting, ownership, and cash available all factor into the making of a team. A good GM has to work within that framework and no matter how good an evaluator of talent and chemistry he is, if he can’t get all three things working together, especially ownership and cash, he simply isn’t going to be successful. Until I work out in my mind exactly how it works, I will pass on GM’s for the Hall. I understand that my objections to both are personal quirks and  Idon’t expect anyone else to follow along.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, III

November 9, 2011

1954 Allie Reynolds baseball card

Previously I’ve given my thoughts on the everyday players who are listed on this year’s Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. Now it’s time to look at the pitchers. There are three on the Ballot: Jim Kaat, Allie Reynolds, and Luis Tiant. As with the everyday players, each pitcher has significant issues that have kept him from the Hall.

With 283 wins, Kaat has the most of this year’s trio. In fact of players not in the Hall of Fame and eligible Kaat has the fourth most wins. He’s behind Tommy John and two 19th Century pitchers Bobby Matthews and Tony Mullane (and Matthews pitched for far back he never stood on a mound). Kaat also has three 20 wins seasons (only one of which led the American League). But that’s the only time he led his league in any major category. He was only occasionally his team’s ace and by this point is probably most famous as the losing pitcher in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series, losing to Sandy Koufax who threw a shutout on two day’s rest (that happens). Further, Kaat pitched much of the end of his career in relief, becoming, in 1982, the oldest man to ever play in a World Series game (I’m not sure if that’s still true). And it’s this longevity that is much of Kaat’s problem. His numbers look pretty good, but they are longevity numbers and many Hall of Fame voters like gaudy peak numbers that Kaat just doesn’t have.

Luis Tiant was always a personal favorite of mine. As mentioned in the paragraph on Minnie Minoso, Tiant’s dad pitched in the 1947 Negro League World Series, so his son had quite a pedigree. For his career the younger Tiant had 229 wins, putting up 20 or more four times. He never led the AL in wins, but did lead in losses in 1969. He picked up ERA and shutout titles in 1968 (the year before leading the AL in losses). He got to a World Series with Boston in 1975 and won two games for a losing team. In many ways his problem is that he has too much of an up-and-down career. He wins 20, follows it with losing 20. He  has the big drop off at the end of his career that a lot of people have, but in the middle there are three seasons with less than 10 wins.

Allie Reynolds played back in the 1940s and 1950s, first for Cleveland, then for Casey Stengel’s Yankees. He was, according to a Stengel biography, Casey’s favorite pitcher because he could both start and relieve. Reynolds put up 182 wins with a .620 winning percentage. He won 20 games once, led the AL in ERA and walks once, led in strikeouts and shutouts twice, and went 7-2 with four saves in the World Series. Reynolds has three problems among Hall of Fame voters. One is the paucity of wins for a team that went to the World Series year after year while he pitched. Secondly, in many ways his replacement was better; a guy named Whitey Ford. You can of course argue that Ford replaced any one of the three early 1950s stalwarts of the Yankees staff (Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, and Vic Raschi), but Ford was better than any of them and I think that hurts Reynolds Hall of Fame chances. Finally, the 1950s Yankees teams are the teams of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, not the pitchers (with the exception of Ford). It’s not a team remembered because of Reynolds, and that, too, hurts his chances.

There’s the list, three solid pitchers with good numbers and flaws. Would I vote for any or all of them? Not this time I wouldn’t. We’re left now with the two executives (neither of which has an old ball card to feature at the top of the article). I’ll take a look at them with a few comments next time.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, II

November 7, 2011

Minnie Minoso's 1956 baseball card

Last time I give you my thoughts on the infielders appearing on December’s Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. Here’s a few thoughts on the outfielders.

Cuban born Minnie Minoso is the only person on the ballot who lost time to the Negro Leagues. He played (and led off) for the New York Cuban Giants when they won the Negro League World Series in 1947. That team also featured Luis Tiant’s dad. By age 23 Minoso was in the Major Leagues and became a regular at age 25.  Tony Oliva, the other outfielder on the ballot, also lost some time in the Majors, but this was because of politics. Being Cuban in the early 1960s, he had trouble getting out of Cuba to play in the US, but did manage to become a regular at age 25. I’m telling you this so you can judge how much of their big league careers were lost to either segregation or politics.

Both men have similar career numbers and have similar problems that have kept them out of the Hall of Fame. There are also significant differences that make it possible to support one for induction and leave the other hanging. Minoso had much the longer career. He spent most of it with Chicago when the White Sox weren’t very good, and  left just as they were getting better. He missed the 1959 Go Go Sox while playing for Cleveland, and was with the Sox when Cleveland was good in the early 1950s. He led the American League in hits once, in triples and stolen bases a few times, in total bases once, but never in any of the triple crown categories. He failed to hit .300, had less than 2000 hits, and less than 200 home runs. All of those things have hurt his chances for the Hall of Fame. I also think the stunts of having him activated at age 50 and again at age 54 didn’t help. They made him look like something of a freak show. Although in his defense it was good publicity and he got at hit at age 50. How many other players have done that?

Oliva on the other hand was a huge success early and, like Eddie Mathews, something of a disappointment later in his career. Oliva won three batting titles, two in his first two fulltime seasons, led the league in hits five times, in total bases once, in doubles four times, in runs once, all in his first eight years in the Majors. Then he got hurt (knees) and hung on for five more years playing good ball, but not Tony Oliva caliber ball. I think that has hurt his chances at the Hall. He got to the World Series once (1965, his second full season), but lost. He was always in Harmon Killebrew’s shadow and periodically fell in the shadow of other teammates like Rod Carew. I think that also hurt his shot at the Hall.

Now both are on the Veteran’s Committee ballot. Are they Hall of Famers? My answer to both is yes. So next time I’ll take a look at the pitchers.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, I

November 4, 2011

Ken Boyer's 1955 baseball card

The last post here detailed the list of people on the 2011 Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. I promised I’d give a thought to the ballot and comment. Here’s the first of three sets of comments.

I’m going to start with the infielders Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Ron Santo. There’s a reason these guys, and the rest of the players on the ballot, are still around 25 years after their retirement for the Veteran’s Committee to assess. All have serious flaws in their career that makes it difficult for some people to put them in the Hall of Fame. For these three it’s a combination of things.

Hodges was arguably the finest first baseman in the 1950s. Johnny Mize was aging, Willie McCovey was just coming up, others just weren’t as good. And that’s part of Hodges’ problem. He’s the best of a weak era. It’s an era dominated by outfielders and catchers, not first basemen (compare it, in reverse, to today). The other part of his problem is that he was never the best player on his team. At best he was third to fifth depending on the year. Campanlla and Snider were almost always better, Robinson was better in the first few years of Hodges’ career, and sporadically Carl Furillo was better. It’s kind of tough to argue that a team goes four or five deep Hall of Fame-wise (and I left out Reese on purpose). In Hodges favor he was a good first baseman, a decent hitter, a member of a truly great team, and his experience managing the Mets and becoming the apostle of the five-man pitching rotation are probably being overlooked by most fans.

Boyer and Santo were both third basemen whose careers seriously overlap, so direct comparisons can be made. They are, beginning with Boyer in the late 1950s and ending with Santo in the early 1970s, the best National League third basemen of their era. OK, maybe Dick Allen was better, but he was a terrible teammate and made Albert Belle look like a wonderful man you’d want to pal around with. Boyer won both a ring and an MVP award (both in 1964), Santo won neither. Santo was probably the better player. Boyer’s good years were shorter, Santo was more likely to be overlooked on his own team because of Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins (and fan favorite, but no longer great player, Ernie Banks). Another problem they have is that the truly finest third baseman of the era, Brooks Robinson, played in the other league and outshone both.

So do I vote for them? Well, yes and no. I would cast a vote for Hodges and for Santo and set Boyer aside. I’ll go so far as to say that I think Santo is probably the best player eligible and not in the Hall of Fame. And in a final point, let me note that all three men are dead. With Cooperstown’s emphasis on Hall of Fame Weekend that may change how the committee votes. If it does, it’s a  great shame.

Nest time I’ll look at the outfielders, or maybe I’ll take the pitchers.

2011 Veteran’s Committee Ballot

November 3, 2011

Just saw the Veteran’s Committee Ballot for the upcoming Hall of Fame vote. Here’s the list alphabetically: Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Allie Reynolds, Ron Santo, and Luis Tiant. There are also two executives listed: Buzzy Bavasi and Charley Finley. Anyone with 75% of the 16 voters (12) gets in. The blurb specifies that three recently retired managers: Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre will be on the 2013 Veteran’s ballot, not this year’s ballot. Voting will be 5 December. Will weigh in on who I’d vote for in a few days (probably Monday or later) after I’ve thought it over. Just wanted to get the list out to anyone who reads this.

The Lawyer and Napoleon

November 1, 2011

So I see Tony LaRussa has retired. He went out on top and there’s much merit to that. I know people who think he should stay for one more year so he can pass John McGraw as the second winningest manager in Major League history (Connie Mack is first). As of today, LaRussa is 35 wins short of McGraw and would make it easy if he managed one more season. Well, that’s LaRussa’s call and he’s made it. But the two men, LaRussa and McGraw, have a lot in common.

Both men managed about the same amount of time, although LaRussa changed teams more often than McGraw. Both were notorious micromanagers (although McGraw may not have ever used that word) who ended up winning almost exactly the same amount of games (as I said above). Both relied heavily on pitching but could count on good hitting if necessary. McGraw had to negotiate the transition from the Deadball Era to modern baseball and did it well. That lets us look at him managing the same kind of ball as LaRussa. Both won the same number of World Seires championships (3), although McGraw got to more Series’ than LaRussa (8 to 6) and McGraw had the 1904 pennant when there was no Series played (thanks primarily to McGraw himself). Both men unquestionably ran their team (meaning the weren’t “player’s managers”). Maybe that’s part of LaRussa’s legal training. In McGraw’s case it surely had to do with his background and size. They called him the “Little Napoleon” for a reason. Both were innovators, LaRussa with his bullpen and McGraw with his continual attempts to break the color line.

There are of course differences. McGraw had no Dave Duncan (and I wonder how much of LaRussa’s success had more to do with Duncan than LaRussa). Although McGraw adapted well to the power game of the 1920s, he never liked it. LaRussa seems to have embraced whatever game was thrown at him.

McGraw is an easy pick for the Hall of Fame and I’m sure LaRussa will be there shortly. I never liked his act (he could slow the game to a crawl), but he was good at what he did. So congratulations to him for a great managerial career and I hope he enjoys both his retirement and his well-earned trip to Cooperstown.