Archive for March, 2012

“Non-Essential”

March 30, 2012

Harry Hooper during the 19-teens

In April 1917 the United States entered the Great War on the side of the Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and sent men off to “make the world safe for Democracy” (nice try, fellas). The federal government began to mobilize American society to fight a war unlike any the US had ever faced. It would take a million men to fight it and even more to provide the materiel (yep, that’s spelled right. Materiel is a particular military spelling of material whose origins escape me.), goods, services, morale boosting necessary to fight a modern industrial war. The basic government slogan was “fight or work.” Unfortunately, most people didn’t see playing baseball as work so Major League Baseball was declared “non-essential” and the 1918 season was scrapped.

Of course baseball struck back. The leadership of both leagues argued that the sport provided a morale boost for both men on their way to France and to the munitions and shipyard workers who were supporting the troops, so it should be allowed. The government relented and authorized a shortened season that had to end by Labor Day (2 September) except for a World Series that could be held immediately after. That gave the game a shortened season (126 games for the American League champion and 129 for the National League champion) and led to some funny looking numbers.

With a lot of good players off at either war or war work, the Boston Red Sox won the AL pennant by 2.5 games over Cleveland. They failed to lead the AL in any major category in hitting (leading only in sacrifices). They, in fact, finished dead last in hits with 990. Individually Babe Ruth, now splitting time between the outfield and the mound, tied for the league lead with 11 home runs and led the AL with strikeouts with 58. Pitching was a different story. Boston lead the league in complete games, least hits allowed, shutouts, least runs allowed, and was seond in ERA. Both first baseman Stuffy McInnis and third baseman Fred Thomas spent some time away from the team while serving in the military, but were available for the World Series. Dave  Shean (who lead the AL in sacrifices) and Everett Scott rounded out the infield with Hall of Famer Harry Hooper in right field, Amos Strunk in center, and Ruth in left (with George Whiteman spelling Ruth on days he pitched). Sam Agnew and Wally Schang took care of the catching. The staff had Ruth, Carl Mays, Sam Jones, and Joe Bush starting double figures games and Dutch Leonard who also started 16 games but was gone to the military by the end of the season.

They got to face the Chicago Cubs in the Series. Chicago, which hadn’t won since 1910 had put together a good team through trades and won a pennant by 10.5 games. Fred Merkle (of 1908 infamy), Rollie Zeider, Charlie Hollocher, and Charlie Deal were the infield with Max Flack, Dode Paskert, and Les Mann doing the outfield work, while old-time Phillies catcher Bill Killefer did the backstop work. The staff consisted of Hippo Vaughn, Claude Hendrix, Lefty Tyler, and Phil Douglas as the starters with Paul Carter as the man out of the bullpen. Expected ace Grover Cleveland Alexander was off in the army after only three games. As with Boston, the stars were on the mound (although the team lead the NL in runs scored). Chicago led the NL in shutouts, least runs allowed, and in strikeouts.

It was a terrific Series, with Boston winning in six games. No team scored more than three runs in a game, no game was decided by more than three runs (a 3-0 shutout win by Chicago in game five). Four games (1, 3, 4, and 6) were decided by one run. Ruth won two games (Mays the other two for Boston), including game one. In doing so he stretched his consecutive scoreless inning streak. It stayed until game four’s eighth inning when Chicago got two runs (both earned). The record lasted until Whitey Ford slid passed it in 1960. There were no home runs and only Cubs backup second baseman Charlie Pick and Boston’s Schang hit over .300 (Schang led all hitters at .444).

Maybe 1918 was “non-essential” but it produced a good pennant race in the AL. It also produced a fine World Series. All-in-all not a bad way of diverting a wartime populace from the tragedy of World War I.

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A Magical Day

March 28, 2012

So today is actually Opening Day. Who knew? This begs two questions. One, if Opening Day occurs in Japan at three in the morning is it really Opening Day? And second, if Seattle plays Oakland on Opening Day are Major League teams actually involved in Opening Day? To me Opening Day should always occur at 1 pm in Cincinnati. Anything else is a false beginning. OK, I’m dating myself with that idea, but it was such a good idea that I’m sorry they’ve abandoned it. BTW in case you don’t know, Seattle won 3-1 in extra innings.

But it can’t be all bad, this Opening Day. Frank McCourt and his ditzy wife are finally giving up my Dodgers. They’ve sold the team, pending MLB and bankruptcy court approval, to a group that has Magic Johnson as its front man. That’s probably a good idea. Johnson is, in many ways, “Mr. LA” and having a share of Los Angeles’ first Major League team is appropriate. It seems he’s not going to really run the team, and that’s an even better idea. As far as I know, he has no knowledge how to run a baseball franchise or evaluate talent. Hopefully the new ownership will leave the running of the team to the baseball people and not demand the team pay for haircuts (Hello, Frank McCourt) or have more diversity in the front office (Hello, Mrs. M). The Dodgers have been through a rough patch under a variety of owners and I’ll be pleased (and a bit amazed) if this group gets them back to a premier spot in the National League. The last time they won was 1988 (25 years next season) and as a bit of trivia, the Dodgers have never won a World Series when owned by anyone other than the O’Malley family (1955, 59, 63, 65, 81, 88). Let’s see if Johnson can add some “magic” to the brew and finally have some other owner claim a title.

Out of Tragedy

March 27, 2012

Joe Sewell in the 1920s

In August 1920 Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck by a pitch and died in the midst of a pennant race. The Indians tried their backup, Harry Lunte. He lasted into September when he went down with a leg injury. In desperation, Cleveland turned to a minor leaguer named Joe Sewell. Sewell left the Major Leagues after the 1933 season and ended up in Cooperstown in 1977.

Joseph Sewell was born in 1898 in Alabama the son of a doctor. In 1916 he enrolled at the University of Alabama as a pre-med major, but played both baseball and football for the college. He was good, particularly at baseball, and became both a star athlete and an excellent student. He was well enough known and liked to become student body President. His baseball team did well winning the conference (not yet the Southeastern Conference) championship all four years (1916-1920) Sewell played (future Major League outfielder Riggs Stephenson was also on the team). With graduation in 1920, he signed with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League. He did well enough that when Chapman died and Lunte was injured, Cleveland bought his contract and brought him straight to the big leagues.

He wasn’t exactly an instant success. He hit .329 in 22 games, but was terrible in the field. In those same 22 games he made 15 errors in 129 chances. The team was good enough it didn’t matter a lot. They won the pennant and then took the World Series in 1920. Sewell hit .174 in the Series with four hits, two walks, two caught stealing, and one strikeout (remember that stat).

He got better. He remained with Cleveland through 1930, hitting .300 or better every year except two (1922 when he hit .299, and 1930 when he hit .289). He had no power, topping out at seven home runs and 12 triples. He had some speed, but was not a good base runner. His high in stolen bases was 17 in 1926, but the next year he led the American League with 16 caught stealing (to only three successes). To compensate, his OPS+ was over 100 every season except 1930. His fielding improved although he led the AL in errors in both 1922 and 1923. He compensated by leading the AL in assists twice, putouts four times, and fielding percentage three times.. By 1928 he was slowing down and moved to third base, where he played an acceptable, but not brilliant hot corner.

Of course what he could do was hit the ball. In 1921 he struck out 17 times in 683 plate appearances, in 1922 it was 20 k’s in 656 pa’s. It was his worst year. After that he struck out 12 times in 1923 and 13 in 1924. Following that his career high strikeout total in a season was 9 in 1928 (in 678 plate appearances). In 1925 his at bats per strikeouts was a record 154 (he would better that when he set the still standing record of 167.7 in 1932). What all this meant is that Sewell always made contact. Think of the number of times you could hit and run, or start a runner, knowing that Sewell would make contact. The grounded into double play stat is incomplete for the era, but I’ve found no source that claims Sewell hit into a lot of double plays, thus negating the hit and run. There were never going to be a lot of “strike ’em out, throw ’em out” calls with Sewell at the plate.

In 1931 he moved to New York, settling in as the Yankees third baseman. He tended to hit second in the lineup, just behind Earle Coombs and just ahead of Babe Ruth. His non-strikeout skill obviously came in handy in that position. He hit .302 in 1931, scored 102 runs, and struck out eight times (the pressure got to him). He also roomed with Lou Gehrig. Want an interesting bit of trivia? Gehrig’s strikeout numbers 1925 (his first full season) through 1930 (the last season without Sewell) are: 49, 73, 84, 69, 68, 63. Now with Sewell as a roommate: 56, 38, 42. Then it continues low for the rest of Gehrig’s career until 1938 when Gehrig is getting ill (it jumps to 75 in ’38). Now Gehrig never strikes out much and the trend is downward when Sewell arrives, but it drops even more once they room together. I’m not going to credit Sewell with cutting down on Gehrig’s strikeout total. As mentioned above, it was already trending down and wasn’t very high anyway, but I’ll bet they talked about hitting while rooming on the road. 

Sewell remained with the Yankees through 1933. His career was winding down, but he got into one last World Series in 1932. He hit .333, had an OBP of .500, slugged .400 and an OPS of .900 (God love easy to figure OPSs), scored five runs, had 3 RBIs, walked four times, and (get ready for it) didn’t strikeout once (unlike in his 1920 rookie Series).

Retired, Sewell went back to Alabama, ran a hardware store, coached a little, became an Indians scout, moved his scouting skills to the Mets, then in 1964 took over as head baseball coach at the University of Alabama. He stayed six years, won the Southeastern Conference championship in 1968, and had the stadium named for him (it’s a hyphenated name with the guy who preceded Sewell). In 1977 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died in 1990.

For his career he hit .312, had an OBP of .391, slugged .413, and had an OPS of .804 (OPS+ of 108). He racked up 2945 total bases distributed between 2226 hits, 436 doubles, 68 triples, and 49 home runs. He scored 1141 times, had 1055 RBIs, and 74 stolen bases (but 72 caught stealing). He walked 842 times and struck out 114 in 8333 plate appearances. It’s general conceded that last set of numbers got him in Cooperstown, but the rest are pretty good too.

Sewell was also something of a fogey. I saw a couple of interviews with him in which he claimed that only Reggie Jackson and maybe Ron Guidry of the modern Yankees (this would be the pennant winning Yanks of 1976-81) could have played on his old team and he was certain Ruth called his shot in 1932.  He swore that players were better in his day (and in Ruth and Gehrig maybe some of them were) and that the new crop of players simply didn’t know how to play the game. This from a man who was thrown out 72 times trying to steal while being successful 74 times. I’ll give him this, he was right when he said the new guys struck out too much. On that, he was the greatest expert of all.

A Hitter’s Hall

March 23, 2012

Hank Aaron, a hitter in the Hall

Recently Bill Miller at “The On Deck Circle” completed an eighth part series on the Hall of Fame. If you haven’t read it, go to the blog roll at the right of this page, click on the site, and go read the articles. During that time, I did a post on Gary Carter and catchers. Baseballidiot commented that the Hall of Fame was pretty much “a Hall of Hitters”. Those two things got me to thinking about Cooperstown and how right Baseballidiot is in most situations. If you hit really well, there’s a good chance of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. If you field well and don’t hit a lick, forget it. So as a rule he’s right (obviously excluding pitchers), but there are exceptions and I’d like to point out a couple as examples of just how good you have to be to get into Cooperstown based primarily on your fielding.

I’m going to give you some stats on three players, one of which is in the Hall. The stats are batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage/on base plus slugging/home runs/ RBIs. The player’s careers overlap.

player 1 267/322/401/723/268/1357

player 2 273/359/487/846/370/1274

player 3 298/353/498/850/279/1028

Stop for a second now and ask yourself if all you know about a player is what’s listed above, is he a Hall of Famer? Whatever your answer to that question, player 1 is in the Hall of Fame. He’s Brooks Robinson and he’s, by general agreement, the greatest fielding third baseman who ever played the Hot Corner. The other two are Gil Hodges and Ted  Kluszewski (in that order), both first basemen from the 1950s (when Robinson started his career). The three of them are pretty much the same player, aren’t they? Klu has a higher average, Hodges more home runs, Robinson more RBIs. and the OPS is pretty much a wash (especially between Hodges and Kluszewski). But look at those numbers carefully and ask yourself the following: “If Robinson was a first baseman rather than a third baseman, would he be in the Hall of Fame?” Bet your answer is  either “No” or “I’ve been saying for years that Hodges and Klu were Hall of Famers.”  Here’s a case where the position and the ability to field it with superior skill overrides a good, but not great, batting line.

Heres’ another example using slightly different stats: average/OPB/SLG/OPS/stolen bases. These five don’t exactly overlap (the bottom guy is earlier) although the first four are teammates.

player 1: 262/337/328/666/580

player 2: 264/324/345/668/752

player 3: 295/333/396/729/352

player 4: 288/371/420/791/370

player 5: 260/299/367/667/27

Except for the wide swing in stolen bases they’re all pretty close, right? Again, ask yourself whether you put any of these people in the Hall based on their hitting stats. The players are, in order, Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Lonnie Smith, and Bill Mazeroski. One and five are in Cooperstown and two through four aren’t. Again the difference (besides the era for Maz) is that both Smith and Mazeroski are considered very superior fielders and by general concensus are among the top two or three best fielders at their position in the history of the game. Again, take a look at Smith and Mazeroski’s stats and move them to the outfield where the other three played and tell me that the Wizard and Maz would be in Cooperstown.

You can do this same thing with catchers, although it’s a little trickier because you’re dealing with a Veteran’s Committee vote on such players as Roger Bresnahan, Ray Schalk, and Rick Ferrell. And I’ve always seen the Vet’s Committee as more easily swayed than the writers because of the small size of the Vet’s Committee, so that can make a great deal of difference in selection. 

Anyway my point is that Baseballidiot is pretty much dead on about the Hall as a haven for hitters. There are exceptions. But those exceptions have to be for truly superior fielders like Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski, and Brooks Robinson.

“The Greatest Day of My Life”

March 21, 2012

Chet Laabs, a Browns stalwart

I actually knew a St. Louis Browns fan. My wife’s grandfather was born in the 1890s in the St. Louis area. He was just reaching an age when sports becomes important to a kid when the American League dropped a team in St. Louis to rival the Cardinals. He told me he became a Browns fan because they were new, and because he knew the Cardinals were terrible at the time. Unfortunately for him, the Cards got better and the Browns were traditionally awful. But in 1944 they won a pennant. The day they clinched the title he call “the greatest day of my life.” Then he looked around sheepishly to make sure no one else, especially his wife, had heard that claim. I made a promise that I would never tell either his wife or his daughter (my mother-in-law) he said that.

From the beginning the Browns were bad. They finished second in 1902 (OK, they weren’t bad the first season, but just wait), which is apparently what caught the attention of my wife’s grandfather. It was downhill from there. In 1908 they got back to the first division (4th), then stayed in the second division until 1920. They had decent runs in the 1920s, finishing as high as second (1922), third in 1921, 25, and 28. They finally found a handful of quality players. George Sisler was at first, hit .400, stole some bases, had no power. Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson (they don’t make nicknames like that anymore, do they?), and Jack Tobin patrolled the outfield, and Urban Shocker was a better than average pitcher who went on to play for the 1927 Yankees.

It didn’t last. The 1930s were dismal. They finished as high as fifth once and the best they could do for an All Star was Harland Clift, a good ballplayer, but not a true star. Things got better in the 1940s. They finished third in 1942, the first war year, then won their first (and only) American League pennant in 1944. That year produced the above mentioned “greatest day of my life” moment for my wife’s grandfather. So in his honor, let’s take a moment and celebrate the stars of the only Browns pennant winner. The catcher was Red Hayworth, who hit .222 with an OPS just barely over .500. The infield consisted of  (from first around to third) George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Vern Stephens, and Mark Christman. If you’re lucky, you’ve probably heard of Stephens; and if so, it’s probably in conjunction with his stint with the Red Sox. The outfield had Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes. Chet Laabs was supposed to be the regular left fielder, but was off at war work for much of the season. He got back in time to play in the Series. The staff consisted of such household names as Denny Galehouse, Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, Bob Muncrief, and Nels Potter. All were right-handed and none went on to greatness. The main man off the bench was Al Zarilla, of “Zarilla slud into third” fame.  They lost to the Cardinals in six games.

“Zarilla slud into third” is a good way to look at the problem of the Browns. Their most famous member was up in the broadcast booth. Dizzy Dean became the Browns radio announcer and his mangling of the English language, but obvious baseball knowledge, made him a national figure. It’s tough to take the team seriously when the announcer is their most famous member. And for those interested, Dean pitched his last game, a four inning affair in 1947, with the Browns. It gave him 10 years in the Majors and a ticket to Cooperstown.

The 1944 season was the highlight for the Browns. By 1945 they slid back to third, despite getting 77 games out of Pete Gray (whose story is worthy of telling sometime). By 1946 they were seventh, moved to sixth in ’47, then never finished above seventh the rest of their time in St. Louis. Meanwhile the Cardinals were becoming among the best teams in baseball, and attendance, never very good, was falling at Browns games. In 1947 they brought Hank Thompson to the big leagues, becoming the third team to integrate. Thompson was a poor choice, the first ex-Negro Leaguer to be a failure, and the Browns were unable to profit from their foray into black baseball.

By the end of the 1953 season the Browns were in terrible shape. But in 1953 the Boston Braves had taken a flier and moved to Milwaukee. It worked. Their attendance was up, they went from seventh to second in the National League. Browns ownership decided to move. They picked Baltimore, jettisoned the Browns name and became the Orioles. Although they did well in attendance, the team was still miserable. By 1960 they were climbing up the standings, culminating in an initial World Series victory in 1966, giving them something that St. Louis never saw, a Browns winner.

And my wife’s grandfather? Well, he continued to follow the Browns after they moved to Baltimore. He told me he liked a number of the players and stayed with the team until those retired or were traded. By 1966, although gratified that the Orioles won, he’d switched his allegiance to the Cardinals, a team he remained loyal to until his death. And I kept my promise and never told either his wife or his daughter about his “greatest day.”

Between Murderers Row and the Bronx Bombers

March 19, 2012

Did you ever notice how the Yankees tend to win pennants in bunches. In 1921-23 they win, then again 1926-28, then you find them winning a bunch between 1936 and 1943. Then starting in 1947, they win more or less constantly through 1964. Then there’s a gap until 1976-1981, and finally there’s the 1996-2003 run. It’s not that they win every year, or that they win all the championships when they do win, but notice how for long periods of time (and three years is a long time in baseball) they are consistently in the World Series. There are two exceptions, two teams that win a World Series in isolation. One is the most recent gig, the other in 1932.

The 1932 Yankees were something of a hybrid, and that may explain why they have only one pennant. It’s a transition team between the Murder’s Row guys of the 1920s and the Bronx Bombers of the late 1930s. Babe Ruth was beginning his decline, but still good. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t in New York yet. In some ways this is Lou Gehrig’s team,  perhaps the only winner that can say that. I don’t mean to imply that Gehrig isn’t a major player in 1926-28 or again in 1936-38 but I think most people see the first team as Ruth’s and the second as DiMaggio’s. They are also a very overlooked team. Finally, it is Joe McCarthy’s first Yankees pennant winner.

The infield was Gehrig at first, Tony Lazzeri at second, Joe Sewell at third, and Frankie Crosetti at short. Gehrig hit .300 with 34 home runs, 151 RBIs (did you ever notice just how much of an RBI machine Gehrig was?), and had an OPS+ of 180. Lazzeri also hit .300, had 11 home runs, and an OPS+ of 137. Sewell, in the twilight of his career, hit .270 and did what he always did, hit the ball. He struck out all of three times in 503 at bats and walked 56 times. Crosetti hit just .240.

The outfield was Ruth, Earle Combs, and Ben Chapman. Ruth was Ruth, although he was on the downside of his career. He hit 41 home runs, drove in 137, had an OPS+ of 200, and an OPS of 1.150. Combs was still good, hitting .300, scoring 143 times, getting 190 hits, and posting a 126 OPS+. Chapman was the new guy. He hit .299, stole a team (and league) high 38 bases, and posted a 124 OPS+.

The battery consisted of Bill Dickey as the catcher. Dickey was just coming into his own as a hitter. He hit .310 with 15 home runs, 84 RBIs, and was another in a long line of Yankees with an OPS+ over 100 (120). The starters were still good, but beginning to age in spots. Lefty Gomez won 24 games but posted an ERA over four. Red Ruffing had 18 wins and an ERA just over three. George Pipgras, Johnny Allen, and 38-year-old Herb Pennock were the other pitchers who started 20 or more games. Allen joined Wilcy Moore in leading the team with four saves.

The 1932 Yankees won 107 games and finished first by 13 games (over Philadelphia). As a reward they got to face the Cubs in the World Series. They won in four games. The first and fourth game were blowouts, while games two and three were reasonably close. The most famous, and controversial moment came in game three. In the fifth inning with the game tied 4-4, Ruth came to bat with one out. He hit what became known as “The Called Shot” to deep center field. I’ve seen the picture of Ruth just before the home run. It’s obvious he has his hand up, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s doing and where he’s pointing (maybe he’s giving the Cubs “the finger”), so I’m not going to make a definitive statement as to whether he “called” his shot or not. Being Ruth, I wouldn’t bet against it. What’s generally unknown is that Gehrig homered in the next at bat to give the Yanks a two-run lead and the eventual margin of victory.

The team fell back in 1933 and 1934. By 1935 Ruth was gone. By 1936 DiMaggio was there and it was a different team. So the 1932 Yanks are a team that won in isolation and was not part of either the Murderer’s Row or Bronx Bombers dynasty. Still, it’s a great team and I might argue it’s one of the very finest Yankees teams ever.

You Can Go Home Again

March 16, 2012

Just saw on ESPN’s webpage that the Yankees have signed Andy Pettitte to pitch again this season. He’ll get back into shape and then join the team when he’s ready. He’s currently third in wins among Yankees pitchers (Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing) and is signed for one season only. Let’s see how this works out.

The Outsiders of 1957

March 15, 2012

1957 Milwaukee Braves

In baseball, the 1950s is primarily famous for the dominance of the city of New York. In that decade teams from New York won every World Series championship except two: 1957 and 1959. And to be fair about it, the 1959 winner was only two years transplanted from New York (actually Brooklyn), so only one team without New York connections won a World Series in the decade. That team played in Milwaukee. 

The 1957 Milwaukee Braves are one of a handful of teams that are in the running for best team of the 1950s. They could hit, the were good in the field, their pitching was excellent, and they even had a decent bench. Most teams in the 1950s didn’t have all four of those things, certainly not in the same season. So, in the words of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie “Who are those guys?”

The catcher was Del Crandall. He’d been around since 1949, lost two years to Korea, then become the primary backstop in 1953. He was a good catcher, leading the league year after year in caught stealings. It was an era of few steals, but Crandall was the best at stopping the running game. He wasn’t a great hitter, but by 1957 his numbers were trending up (although ’57 was a down year for him) in most categories (his home runs and RBIs were dropping).

The left side of the infield was solid. Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews held down the hot corner. He hit .292, had 32 home runs, 94 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .540. Johnny Logan was at short. He made a lot of errors, but was always near the top in range factor, assists, and put outs. He tended to hit around .270 with 10-15 home runs.

The right side of the infield is a good place to look at both the bench and the importance of a trade. The trade was at second. The Braves were struggling at second base early in the season Danny O’Connell wasn’t doing much, so Milwaukee turned a three-for-one trade (later World Series winning manager Chuck Tanner was one of the others). They got Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst in the deal. Schoendienst solidified the infield, gave the team a good hitter. He hit .310, had an OPS+ of 116, and was a good, if not spectacular infielder. He was third in putouts; second in assists, range, and fielding percentage. He and Logan weren’t Fox and Aparicio turning a double play, but they were more than serviceable. First base saw the bench come to the fore. Joe Adcock was the main first baseman. He was a pretty standard 1950s first baseman. He was a slugger who could put up 30 home runs, hit about .270, and get a lot of RBIs. He also was only a mediocre first baseman. Enter Frank Torre (Joe’s older brother). Torre was a good first baseman, had little power, hit in the .270s, and in 1957 had an OPS+ of 103. He also carried an enormous glove. The gag was that Schoendienst had to cover a third of the distance from second to first and Torre’s glove would cover the rest of the area. Adcock went down early (he only played 65 games) and Torre was a more than adequate replacement.

The arrangements in the outfield are fascinating. In left the Braves went through a ton of trouble to find their man. Bobby Thomson (six years removed from “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) started out there. He was pretty much through. They tried Chuck Tanner, but if you’re relying on Chuck Tanner (other than as a manager), you’re in trouble. They finally decided on Wes Covington, who had a  breakout year. His triple slash numbers were .284/.339/.547. His OPS was .876 (OPS+ of 138).

The bench also came into play in center field. The starter and lead off man was Bill Bruton. He stole a team high 11 bases, hit .278, and got hurt. He played in only 79 games. In came a totally obscure minor leaguer and bench player named Bob Hazle. “Hurricane” Hazle proceeded to hit .403, slug .649, have an OPS of 1.126 and an OPS+ of 209. He was, in other words, one of the great “ninety day wonders” ever. His career floundered after 1957, but he was exactly what Milwaukee needed in 1957. And here’s a good enough place to mention Andy Pafko who, in his last good year, was the fourth outfielder.

Right field was solid. Henry Aaron was out there and he had an MVP year (his only MVP). He hit .322, slugged .600, had an OPS of .978, and an OPS+ of 166 (OK, it wasn’t Hurricane Hazle, but it was close). He hit 44 home runs, 22 doubles, had 198 hits, 132 RBIs, and 369 total bases. He also played right superbly (especially for a converted second baseman).

The starting pitching was above average for the era. Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl were the primary starters. Spahn won his usual 21 games (and the Cy Young Award), Buhl had 18, and Burdette 17. both Spahn and Buhl had ERA’s under three and only Burdette had an ERA+ under 100 (94). The fourth pitcher (four starters in that era) rotated between Gene Conley (who had a solid NBA career), Juan Pizarro, and Bob Trowbridge. Put their numbers together and you got a 21-20 record with more innings pitched than hits and more strikeouts than walks.

The bullpen in the 1950s wasn’t the same as today. There was no “closer” who pitched only the ninth while waiting for a series of set-up men to get the team to the ninth. But Don McMahon was pretty close. He pitched in 32 games going 46.2 innings (about 1.3 innings per appearance). He had nine saves in a time when no one knew what a save was or how it was figured (it hadn’t been invented yet). He had an ERA of 1.54 and an ERA+ of 228. The rest of the bullpen produced 10 saves and was fairly typical for the age in that it was basically older guys who weren’t true starter material. And having more saves than the “closer”, McMahon, shows how little the closer role was a part of the game in 1957.

The Braves won the World Series in 1957 (becoming the last National League team to play New York in a Series), lost to the Yankees in the 1958 World Series (allowing the Yanks to beat every National League team then in existence), then lost a two (of three) game playoff to the Dodgers in 1959. That was it. The team faded fast, finishing fourth in 1960, then fifth or sixth in 1961 through 1965. In 1966 they moved to Atlanta. The run was short, but the team was good. Obviously the team of the 1950s was the Yankees, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick the 1957 Braves as the best one year team of the decade.

The One They Lost

March 13, 2012

Between 1927 and 1954 the New York Yankees put together baseball’s greatest dynasty. In those 28 years the Yanks went to the World Series 16 times (57% of the time) and won 15 Series’ (94%). This is the story of the one they lost.

1942 Yankees

By the 1942 World Series the Yankees had won the last eight World Series’ they had played in (1927-8, 1932, 1936-39, and 1941). Except for losing Tommy Henrich to the military, they had not suffered significantly because of the Second World War. With Buddy Hassett at first, Joe Gordon at second, Phil Rizzuto at short, Red Rolfe at third, Bill Dickey behind the plate, and an outfield of Charlie Keller, Joe DiMaggio, and Roy Cullenbine the team hit well. The pitching was also good, but beginning to age a little. Red Ruffing was still there, but a fading ace. Ernie Bonham (the ace in ’42), Spud Chandler, and Hank Borowy all started 20 or more games and Johnny Murphy was the main bullpen man with 11 saves.

1942 Cardinals

Their opponents were a bunch of upstarts, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards hadn’t won since the Gas House Gang days of 1934, but won 106 games in 1942. It was a young team with only center fielder Terry Moore among the starters being over 29 (he was 30). The infield was (first around to third) Johnny Hopp, Creepy Crespi, Marty Marion, and Whitey Kurowski. Walker Cooper did the catching, and the outfield consisted of Enos Slaughter, Moore, and the best player on either team, Stan Musial. During the Series, utility man Jimmy Brown (age 32) took over second base for the light hitting Crespi. The staff was also young with ace Mort Cooper (Walker’s brother and winner of the ’42 National League MVP) the old man at 29.  Johnny Beazley was 24, Ernie White was 25, and Max Lanier was 26. Harry Gumbert, who was a geezer at 32, started 19 games and did the bulk of the bullpen work picking up five saves.

Games 1 and 2 were in St. Louis. Red Ruffing handcuffed the Cards for the first eight innings of game one. While not exactly lighting up Mort Cooper, the Yanks steadily put up runs, leading 7-0 going into the bottom of the ninth. They were helped by four Cardinal errors. But the bottom of the ninth became something of a warning for the Yankees. The Cards scored four runs on a handful of singles, a triple by Marion and some weak bullpen pitching by the Yanks. The inning is somewhat notable for more than just the four runs. Stan Musial joined a small group of others in making two outs in a single inning in the World Series. If Musial makes two outs in one inning, that shows you how tough a game it really is.

Game two saw the Cards score two runs in the first on Walker Cooper’s double. That was it for St. Louis for six innings. The Cardinals got another run in the bottom of the seventh on a Whitey Kurowski triple. Then New York struck in the top of the eighth, putting up three runs to tie the score. The key hit was a two-run homer by Charlie Keller. With two out in the bottom of the eighth, Slaughter doubled and Musial singled him home with the lead run. In the ninth, Slaughter had a great throw from right field that caught a runner going to third and snuffed out a Yankees rally.

With the Series tied at one game each, the next three games were in New York. In game three southpaw Ernie White held the Yankees to six hits, all singles, and pitched a complete game shutout. The Cards only got five hits, three off starter Spud Chandler, but put up a run in the third on a walk, a single, a bunt, and a ground out. They got an unearned run in the ninth on two singles sandwiched around an error by pitcher Marv Breuer.

Game four was a shootout. New York got a run in the first, then St. Louis exploded for six runs in the fourth. Except for a Musial double that scored one run, they did it all with singles and walks. Not to be outdone, the Yankees scored five of their own in the sixth. The big blow was another Keller home run, this one a three run job. With the score tied in the seventh, St. Louis scored two runs on consecutive walks, a single, and a sacrifice. They added a final run in the ninth on (again) a bunch of singles, bunts, and a final single by the pitcher (Lanier).

Down three games to one, the Yankees struck first when Phil Rizzuto led off the bottom of the first with a home run. That held up until the fourth, when Slaughter answered with another homer (the first Cardinal home run of the Series). New York responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the fourth, this time using the Cardinals method of singles and bunts to plate the go-ahead run. In the top of the sixth, St. Louis got a run on two singles and a fly to tie the game back up. It stayed that way until the top of the ninth. With one out and Walker Cooper on second, Kurowski hit a two-run home run to put the Cardinals ahead. With two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, Cooper and Marion worked a pick off that cut down Joe Gordon at second for the first out. A pop up and a ground out ended the game and the Series giving St. Louis its first championship since Dizzy Dean.

It was actually a darned good series, despite only going five games. The Yankees outhit and out slugged St. Louis but scored only 18 runs (13 earned) on 44 hits, nine of them for extra bases (including three home runs). The Cardinals put up 23 runs (22 earned) on 39 hits, only eight for extra bases (two home runs, both in game five).  A key difference was that St. Louis worked for 17 walks while New York only had eight (an OBP of .311 to .280 in favor of the Cards). Yankees pitching had an ERA of 4.50 and a WHIP of 1.273, while St. Louis’ ERA was 2.60 with a 1.156 WHIP. Johnny Beazley won two games, Lanier got one and pitched well in relief. Kurowski had big hits in two wins, including the clinching home run in game five. For New York Charlie Keller had five RBIs despite hitting only .200. Ruffing got the only win.

New York would get their revenge the next season when they knocked off St. Louis in five games (the Cards won game two). That was a temporary end of the line for the Yanks. They would miss the Series for the next three years, but by 1947 had reloaded and went on a run that saw them win six World Series (1947, 1949-52) in seven years. 

But for the Cardinals 1942 was the beginning of their greatest run. They took pennants in 1942, 43, 44, and 46 and won the World Series in each year except 1943. The young guns would remain the keys to the team throughout the period, although change would see a number of other “youngsters” join the team, including Hall of Fame announcer Joe Garagiola and Cooperstown inductee Red Schoendienst. Outside St. Louis, though, the 1942 World Series is primarily known as the one the Yankees lost.

The Colonel

March 8, 2012

Colonel Jacob Ruppert

When some talks to me about “The Colonel” I usually think of Harland Sanders first. Heck, being “Colonel Chicken” is a pretty good gig. But baseball also has it’s Colonel and he established the greatest dynasty in Major League history.

Jacob Ruppert was a second generation American born into a brewing family in New York in 1867. He spent some time in the New York National Guard, becoming an aide to the governor. That got him a promotion to Colonel and the title by which he is most commonly known. He spent time in the US Congress (1899-1907, four terms) as a Democrat Representative from New York (not all rich guys were Republicans in 1900).  He left Congress to work with his father in the brewery. Knickerbocker Beer was popular and the family made a lot of money. In 1911 Jacob Ruppert was chosen President of the United States Brewer’s Association, a job he held into 1914. In 1915 his father died and he took over the family business. A year earlier, in 1914, Jacob Ruppert bought a struggling baseball team, the New York Highlanders, and changed the face of baseball forever.

Logo allegedly based on Ruppert's stickpin

One of the first things Ruppert did was change the team nickname to “Yankees”. The famous Yankees logo showing an Uncle Sam top hat on a bat is supposed to be derived from a stickpin he wore on his lapel during World War I. The lapel is supposed to have shown an Uncle Sam top hat and the team took that and replaced the stickpin with a bat. I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of Ruppert and have to admit I can’t find a copy of the pin (maybe I’ve just overlooked it), so I can’t verify the tale, but it does make a good story.

Ed Barrow

Rupert understood that he had a potential goldmine in the American League team in New York, but he also had a team that wasn’t very good. It took a few years, but he began to create a team that could compete for the AL title on a yearly basis. One of his most important acquisitions was Ed Barrow. Barrow had been secretary and some-time manager of the Boston Red Sox in the late 19-teens. Ruppert brought him over to run the team as secretary (a position more or less equivilent to the modern general manager). It was a match that worked and the two men became the brain trust behind the Yankees pennant winning teams (certainly better than the Soggy Bottom Boys brain trust of “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”). One of Barrow’s first suggestions was for the Yankees to purchase Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. Ruth became an instant star in New York and the Yankees started winning. Ruppert, a second generation American from Germany, had a noticable accent and generally refered to the Babe as “Root.” Actually, that’s OK. In German a “th” (as in Ruth) is frequently pronounced as a “t” so “Root” was a good pronunciation, if you were German. It did get a number of gags going in the press including one that asked if Ruth was going to hit third and Root fourth.

Through a series of good trades, timely purchases, good scouting, and sheer luck, the Yankees under Ruppert and Barrow produced great team after great team. They picked up Miller Huggins to manage the team, found a college slugger named Lou Gehrig to play first, went to San Francisco to look at a prospect named Joe DiMaggio, traded for Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock, and had a scout tell them about Bill Dickey. In each case they decided to pick up the player and the team won year after year. Between 1921 and 1938 (Ruppert died in 1939 before the season began) the Yankees won 10 pennants and 7 World Series’ and produced great player after great player. The 1927 team in frequently cited as the greatest of all Major League teams. Recent works have added the 1939 team (which was put together on Ruppert’s watch) as the greatest of all Major League teams. Pick either and the common denominators are Ruppert and Barrow.

Ruppert was not first into the farm system (Branch Rickey gets that honor), but saw immediately the promise of the system and got the Yankees into it quickly. Unfortunately, it got Ruppert into one of the great controversies of his career (letting Ruth go was the other). He bought a minor league team in Kansas City. The team came with a stadium that happened to have integrated seating. Ruppert immediately segregated the seating, moving black fans to the far reaches of the stadium. It got him into some trouble with the press, but he had the backing of the powers that be in the Majors Leagues (including Judge Landis) and survived with little problem.

Jacob Ruppert died in January 1939 in New York. One of the last people to visit him was Babe Ruth. They parted friends, despite past arguments over Ruth’s contract. Ruth always thought that Ruppert was generous with his money but stingy with praise (DiMaggio thought Ruppert was tight with a buck). He’s buried in the mausoleum pictured below.

Ruppert tomb

Occasionally I’m asked who I think is the best player currently not in the Hall of Fame (and eligible). My answer is Jeff Bagwell. But if the question is “who’s the most deserving baseball figure not currently in the Hall of Fame?” then I have a different answer. Because other executives and contributors are enshrined in Cooperstown, I pick Jacob Ruppert.