Archive for August, 2012

A Treat for Post 500

August 30, 2012

This marks the 500th time I’ve weighed in on some aspect of baseball. I wondered what to do for it. Should it be a retrospective (does that sound trendy, or what?)? Should it be a shout out to everyone who had the audacity to read some of my stuff, especially those who came back for a second dose? Not bad ideas, but I decided to give you a  special treat to commemorate 500 times of sitting at a keyboard and handing out deathless prose.

The original Knickerbockers in 1862

Above is a picture of the 1862 reunion of the original Knickerbockers, one of the very first baseball clubs. By 1862 the club had changed membership greatly. A number of the original members moved away, others had left the club. Some of the members, as us old folk are wont to do, decided to hold a reunion in 1862. This “salt” picture (it’s an old photo technique) was one of the results. If you click on the picture, you can blow it up to see it better. Here’s a brief note about the 10 men in the picture, beginning on the back row at the left:

Duncan Fraser Curry–first President of the Knickerbockers, member of the original rules committee, and insurance man

Walter T. Avery–treasurer 1851-2, vice president 1861, civil engineer, and the last of the Knickerbockers (dying in 1904)

Henry Tiebout Anthony–ran one of the most successful photographic equipment supply firms in the county

Charles H. Birney–treasurer, and the man who scored the only Knickerbockers run in the “first” baseball game

William H. Tucker-first secretary of the club and member of the original rules committee.

Now the front row, again from left to right:

Charles Schuyler DeBost–was captain of the New York Club before moving to the Knickerbockers. He is evidence the Knicks were not the first baseball club

Daniel Lucius Adams–President, so-called inventor of the shortstop position, doctor, and President of the first baseball convention in 1857

James Whyte Davis–secretary 1854-6 and also a member of the New York Club

Ebenezer R. Dupignac, Jr.–vice president in 1855

Finley C. Niebuhr–President 1851-54.

There are several early members of the club missing from the picture. William Wheaton, an attorney and member of the original rules committee is not there. He had moved to California. Neither is Alexander J. Cartwright, the so-called author of the Knickerbocker Rules. He had moved to Hawaii. Here are pictures of both.

William R. Wheaton

So there they are the men who stand at the very beginning of the sport. They are among the “fathers of baseball” (as are a number of other people) and now you know what they looked like. So enjoy this present in honor of my 500th blog post.

The War Hero and the Legend

August 29, 2012

General and Mrs. Doubleday

We all know this story. Abner Doubleday, West Point cadet, is in Cooperstown, New York when he sets out the first baseball diamond and invents Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Derek Jeter. It’s a great story. It’s utter nonsense, but it is a great story. I decided it was time to introduce you to the man who is supposed to have invented baseball all by himself one pleasant afternoon.

Doubleday was born in New York in 1819, son of a War of 1812 veteran and a two term Congressman. He moved to Cooperstown, living with an uncle. He spent time as a surveyor and then entered West Point in 1838. He graduated in 1842, 24th in a class of 56. That got him a commission in the United States Artillery.

That led to a fairly typical military career (at least until 1860). He served in coastal fortress garrisons, saw service in the Mexican War, and in 1858 found himself assigned to the garrison at Charleston, South Carolina. By 1860 he was second-in-command to Robert Anderson. With the move to Fort Sumter in December 1860, Doubleday assumed status as the executive officer of the garrison in the fort and was tasked with commanding the gun that fired the first return shot when Confederate artillery fired on the fort in 1861. Hence, in some ways he can be given credit for firing (or at least ordering) the first Northern shot in the Civil War.

After the surrender of Sumter, Doubleday commanded artillery and later infantry in defense of Washington. By August 1862 he was a brigade commander in the Army of Virginia and fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He took temporary command of his division on the final day of the battle and served well as commander of the rear guard. At South Mountain in September 1862, his division commander was wounded and Doubleday again took command of the division. He fought at Antietam, being wounded (along with a lot of other men on the bloodiest day in US military history). Upon his return to duty he retained command of the division serving at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (his division was not engaged at either battle).

In July 1863 he took temporary command of I Corps of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg when his corps commander (John Reynolds) was killed. Doubleday did well enough but  wasreplaced on the last day of the battle. Apparently army commander George Meade didn’t like Doubleday at all. He spent the remainder of the Civil War as part of the garrison of Washington, DC, generally serving on courts-martial boards. While in DC he became friends with Abraham Lincoln and was one of the officers chosen to accompany the President to Gettysburg when Lincoln gave his famous speech (although I’m not sure his service at the battle didn’t have more weight than his friendship with the President on this occasion).

Doubleday Monument at Gettysburg

Following the Civil War, Doubleday was assigned regimental command. He later served in San Francisco where he patented the cable car system that still runs there. He ended his military career commanding the 24th Infantry, an all black regiment.  He retired first to New York, then to New Jersey. He wrote three works (one not found among his papers until years after his death) and died in 1893. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

And no where in all of that is there any mention of baseball. Doubleday never claimed to have invented the game, never mentioned it in any of his papers or published works, and as far as I know never saw a game. I’ve read his published works and they’re not a bad read. No where in them does he mention that he invented baseball. By his death in 1893 professional baseball was a growing concern. The National League ruled the sport, the popularity of the game was growing. It seems to me that if he had invented the sport, he’d want to take credit for it at some point. He never did.

Abner Doubleday was something of a minor American hero in the period after the Civil War. He was certainly the most famous figure from Cooperstown in the post bellum era. Maybe it was natural that someone would claim for him the title of creator of baseball. It certainly made a better story than claiming a lawyer (William Wheaton), a doctor (Daniel Adams), an insurance man (Duncan Curry), and a bookseller (Alexander Cartwright) did it.  But Doubleday didn’t do it. Having said that, he’s still an interesting character to know about.

Doubleday’s grave

The Greatest Cardinal of them All

August 27, 2012

a montage showing Musial’s batting stroke

If it were up to my grandfather, there would be no debate about the greatest player ever. He was absolutely certain that Stan Musial was the greatest ballplayer ever. He’d heard Ruth on the radio, seen Walter Johnson pitch in some exhibition game somewhere, had listened over and over to DiMaggio and could quote you some of Ted Williams’ stats. But it didn’t matter, the Cardinals were his team, Musial was his man, and there simply was no reason to even start an argument when you were faced with such absolute certainty.

So my grandfather was off a little on the greatest to ever play the game (although not by much), but he had a superior case for the greatest player to ever come through St. Louis and put on a Cardinals uniform. I once wondered if Albert Pujols was going to run past Stan “the Man” as the greatest Cardinals player ever but it didn’t happen.

Take a quick look at Musial’s first numbers. He played all of 12 games in 1941. He hit .426, had an OPS of 1.023 (OPS+ 179), and had 27 total bases in 47 at bats. Sure it was 12 games and you never decide a man’s career worth on 12 games (unless they occur in the World Series or something), but it was a great portent of things to come. For my grandfather, trying to eke though a living, who had to go visit a neighbor just to hear a ball game on the radio, it was the beginning of something he longed for. He remembered the awful Cardinals teams of the Deadball Era, had listened to the Hornsby Cardinals of the 1920s, loved the Gas House Gang, but he always said he knew from the beginning there was something special about Musial. Maybe it was the magical air of Donora, Pennsylvania, hometown of Musial and Ken Griffey Sr and Ken Griffey Jr (top that outfield in a reasonably small town). But from the beginning my grandfather swore Musial was special.

There was no rookie of the year award in 1942, Musial might have won it if there were. The Cardinals won the World Series, lost in 1943, won again in 1944 and for my grandfather it was the best of times (my wife’s grandfather was a Browns fan and I wonder how they would have dealt with 1944). Musial went to war in 1945, then was back in 1946. St. Louis won the World Series again. It was their last in Musial’s career, but he kept on having great seasons, winning the MVP in 1946 and in 1948 (and already had one from 1943) He finished second in MVP voting in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1957. Each time my grandfather was sure Musial had been robbed. The only one he half way accepted was Aaron’s in 1957. He was particularly upset with Jim Konstanty’s 1950 win.

During the 1950s as Musial’s career wore down and the Cardinals began floundering, my grandfather was sure they only needed one, or at most two, more players to make it back to the Series, but of course they never got them. Bob Gibson came along in 1959, absolutely unimpressing him (and 1959 wasn’t much for Gibson), but he still had faith. Musial retired after the 1963 season and my grandfather actually wept. The next year St. Louis won the World Series, beating the hated Yankees (who’d never been forgiven for beating the Cardinals in 1943). My grandfather was at a loss. His team had won, but they’d done it without Stan “the Man”. There was obviously something seriously wrong with that scenario.  They won again in 1967, the lost in 1968. There was a part of my grandfather that was almost happy they’d lost. It proved to him just how much Musial meant to the team.

  He died in the 1970s (and, no, we didn’t bury him in a Cardinals uniform) convinced he’d seen the greatest to ever play the game. He wasn’t off by much.

Perception

August 23, 2012

Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel

Take a second, close your eyes and form a mental picture of Babe Ruth. I presume it’s a picture of him at bat. Now try to form a mental picture of him in the field. My guess is that it was either a picture of him on the mound from his pitching days or of him in right field. Neither of those are bad mental images, but they are both incomplete. It’s a question of the way we perceive the Babe.

I had known for years that Ruth played a number of games in left field and a handful at first base. I didn’t realize just how many of the Babe’s appearances in the field weren’t on the mound or in right. Here’s a quick rundown of his games by position (all from Baseball Reference): pitcher-163, first base-32, center field-74, left field-1050, right field-1132. In some games he played more than one position and in others he pinch hit, so the numbers don’t add up to his total games played (2503).

The difference between 1050, the number of games in left, and 1132, the number of games is right, is all of 82. Not much of a difference, is it? If you throw in the center field number with the left field number it comes out only eight games more in right field than in the other two combined. And yet we all think of him as a right fielder.

Why the changes in position? Well, a handful of things jump out if you look at the teams involved and the stadia. In 1918, Ruth’s first season with significant time in left field, the Red Sox have Harry Hooper in right. Whatever you think of Hooper’s credentials for the Hall of Fame, he was a very good right fielder in his day. By 1919, Hooper had moved to center field and Ruth took over as the regular left fielder (in 1918 he had 47 games in left, by 1919 it was 110). Why not move him to right? I’m not sure but maybe he was learning to deal with “Duffy’s Cliff”, the hill in left field in Fenway and the manager (Ed Barrow) didn’t want to move him. His fielding percentage (.988) and range factor (2.43) are actually better than either Hooper or Braggo Roth, the right fielder (but Ruth pitched 17 games that season and had a handful in center which may have changed his fielding numbers slightly).

In 1920 he moved to New York and the most significant thing to remember about the fielding in New York is that the Yankees played 1920 through 1922 in the Polo Grounds, not in Yankee Stadium. The horseshoe shape meant that you had to have a heck of a center fielder, but that right fielder and left fielder could be interchangeable. And we see that in the stats. In 1920 he plays most of his games in right, in 1921 he’s almost exclusively a left fielder, and in 1922 he splits time in both (about 2 to 1 favoring left).

By 1923 the Yankees are in Yankee Stadium with its bus ride to the fence in left field. In 1923-25 he spends most (but certainly not all) his time in right. I’ve been unable to break it down by park, but I understand from reading some stuff that he tended to play right at home and left on the road, but I can’t give you exact numbers. Beginning in 1926 he starts spending more time in right than in left (but in some seasons it’s close and in other a big difference shows up).

What’s going on here? Well, a couple of things. First, the Babe was never known as strong armed. He seems to have possessed a decent arm, but not a great one. In Yankee Stadium the big arm was needed in left field (because of the distances) so it was best to move him to right field. Second, for most games in the 1920s the other corner outfielder was Bob Meusel. By general agreement of almost everyone I’ve read, Meusel had the best arm of the decade. So playing Meusel in left at home and in right on the road made a great deal of sense. But it also meant that Ruth was going to have to switch positions a lot. By 1929, Meusel was fading (1930 was his last year and it wasn’t in New York) and Ruth began to get more time strictly in right field.

All of this is by way of reminding you that sometimes what we think we know isn’t exactly true. Even in the case of a great and well-known figure like Ruth.

The Solid Man

August 20, 2012

There are stars, there are superstars. There are bums, there are journeymen. There are also good solid ball players who make up the majority of most good teams. There’s no shame in being “solid”, it describes most players. It was certainly used to describe Sid Gordon.

Gordon was born in Brooklyn in 1917 to a Jewish family. His father ran a coal business with Sid driving one of the trucks. The son was good at baseball, got a tryout with the hometown Dodgers, didn’t make it, and went back to driving the truck. The Giants saw him playing locally and signed him. The assigned him to the Milford, Delaware team but between the signing and his reporting date, his father died. He asked out of the contract in order to take over the family business. In one of those moments only Hollywood could dream up, his mom decided she would run the business while her son went off to pursue his baseball career.

He did well at Milford, well at Clinton, well in Jersey City. That got him a late season call up by the Giants in September 1941. He got into nine games, hit .258, and walked six times in 37 plate appearances. The Giants sent him back to Jersey City in 1942 (he got into six games with the Giants late in the season). By 1943 he was in the big leagues to stay. His fielding numbers were OK, but nothing special, so he spent the season wandering from position to position playing 53 games at third, 41 games at first, and 28 in left (with three token appearances at second). He hit .251 with nine home runs, 63 RBIs, 50 runs scored, and led the National League grounding into 26 double plays (obviously his nickname wasn’t “Speedy”). It was a good solid year, it was better than his previous stints, and it looked like he was going to hang around for a while.

Of course World War II was raging and Gordon lost both 1944 and 1945 to the war. He spent his time in the Coast Guard. It cost him two critical years in his career (ages 26 and 27) and significantly reduced his final statistics.

Back in 1946, he  became the Giants regular left fielder. That lasted through 1947, when he was shifted to third base. He stayed the primary Giants third baseman through 1949. Beginning in 1947 he began to pull the ball more (he hit right-handed) and his power numbers increased. He hit between 25 and 30 home runs each year through 1952. His runs and RBI totals both peaking in 1951. He didn’t manage to lead the NL in any category, except again in grounding into double plays (1949 and 1951), but finished as high as fourth in the MVP voting in 1948 (his next highest position in MVP voting was 16th in 1951). He made the All-Star team in both 1948 and 1949. In 1950 he hit four grand slams during the season to tie the existing record.

In 1950 he was traded to the Boston Braves. The new Giants leadership (principally Leo Durocher) wanted more speed in the lineup and that was never Gordon’s forte. He went back to left field for the Braves, did well, and went with the team when it moved to Milwaukee. As such, he became the first man to play left field for the Milwaukee Braves in 1953. Unfortunately, his career was on the down slide. He hit .274, but had only 19 home runs (and still managed an OPS+ of 121). There was a new kid in the minors who looked pretty good, so Gordon was traded to Pittsburgh. 

He split time between third and right field and did well enough in Pittsburgh, hitting .306, but his home run production continued to drop. With no speed and only a mediocre glove, his power numbers were critical for his team. And of course Forbes Field was death on power hitters anyway (unless you were Ralph Kiner). Gordon started 1955 with the Pirates, but 16 games in was traded back to the Giants. It was the end of the line. He retired when the season ended.

So what have we got? For his career Gordon hit .283, had an OBP of .377, slugged .466, for an OPS of .843 (OPS+ of 129) in 1475 games. Over 5813 plate appearances he had 1415 hits, scored 735 runs, had 220 doubles, 202 home runs, 805 RBIs, walked 731 times, struck out 356 times (which is an impressive strike out to walks ratio for a power hitter), and had 2327 total bases. Those are the definition of a “solid” player.

While playing softball in New York in 1975 he suffered a heart attack and died that afternoon. He was 57. It’s a fitting way for an ex-ballplayer to die.

Oh, and that promising minor leaguer who led the Braves to trade Gordon? He took over in left field in 1954, then went to right field for the bulk of his career. His name was Henry Aaron and I understand he did well too.

The Original Hammerin’ Hank

August 16, 2012

Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg

It used to be possible to argue that you could directly compare the best first basemen to ever play the game because the three top first basemen all played in the same league at the same time, the 1930s. The men in question were Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. You might disagree with that premise but other people would agree. The advent of Albert Pujols makes it almost impossible to make that argument today. Because they were contemporaries it is still instructive to look at the three and compare them (which I’m not going to do). By universal agreement, the third of the troika was Greenberg.

Hank Greenberg was born in 1911 (on New Year’s Day, no less) in Greenwich Village to a Jewish family that ran a textile mill. They made enough money to move to the Bronx when Greenberg was still young. He became a fine high school athlete excelling in soccer, baseball, and basketball (his high school team won the New York City title in 1929). After graduation he played first base for a semi-pro ball team and was scouted by the Giants (who decided he was too awkward to play) and the Yankees (who had Gehrig). He signed with Detroit in late 1929 for $9000.

Greenberg spent 1930, 1931, and 1932 in the minors at Hartford, Raleigh, Evansville, and Beaumont. He did well, but his ethnic background caused him some trouble with both fans and teammates. One famous anecdote has a teammate staring at Greenberg. When asked why, the guy is reported to have said “I”ve never seen a Jew before.” Greenberg asked if he “saw anything interesting.” The guy replied, “No, you look just like everyone else.” That was supposed to be the incident that solved Greenberg’s ethnic problems with his teammates. Unfortunately, it was a problem that was to plague him throughout his career as other teams and fans in other towns were known to heap anti-semitic abuse on him.

By 1933 he was with Detroit. They tried him at third (they already had a first baseman who cost them $75,000 and weren’t about to watch that much money ride the pine). He was awful. Finally they settled on a platoon situation in which Greenberg played against lefty pitching. He hit .301 with 12 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 59 runs scored in 117 games. That settled the issue and Greenberg settled in as the regular first baseman for the rest of the 1930s.

It was a good time for Detroit. They were in contention most years. The “G-Men” (a play on the then current fashion of referring to FBI men as “G-Men”-for “government men”) of Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and Gee Walker won a pennant in 1934, losing the World Series to the Cardinals “Gas House Gang”, then won the World Series in 1935 over Chicago. Greenberg led the American League in doubles in 1934 and in home runs, total bases, and RBIs in 1935.  He led the league again in RBIs in 1937. In 1938 he made a serious run at Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record. He managed 58, which along with his walk and run totals, led the AL. For the decade of the 1930s his lowest average was his rookie .301. He peaked at .339 the next season (OK, he hit .348 in 1936, but only played in 12 games).

His career took a couple of sharp turns in the 1940s. First, the Tigers brought up Rudy York. York could hit a ton, but was terrible in the field. They only place they could play him was first. So Greenberg moved to left field. He wasn’t very good (his fielding percentage was .963 in 1940), but the papers of the time indicate he improved as the season went along. He was rewarded with another trip to the World Series. Despite getting a .357 average with a home run and six RBIs, Detroit lost the Series to Cincinnati in seven games. BTW the 2-1 Cincy win is one of the best game seven’s ever played.

For Greenberg the second change came in 1941. Nineteen games into the season, the government came calling. He was drafted into the Army (he became a tanker) and spent most of the next five years in the service. Interestingly enough, his original Army physical rejected him because of flat feet, leading one reporter to ask “Do you shoot a gun with your feet?” He was discharged in early December 1941. Of course the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a few days later and Greenberg rejoined the military, this time joining the Army Air Corps. He spent 1942 and 1943 flying “the Hump” in Burma, then was sent back to the US in 1944, where he served with a unit in New York. In mid-1945, he was discharged.

He returned to the Tigers in July. He played 78 games, hit .311, and had 13 home runs. On the last day of the season Detroit was tied with Washington for the pennant. In the final game of the season, Greenberg’s grand slam in the top of the ninth gave the Tigers the pennant. He hit .304 in the World Series with two home runs, seven RBIs, and seven runs scored. Detroit won in seven games.

In 1946 he hit only .277, but led the AL in home runs with 44 and in RBIs with 127. After the season he was waived. No one seems to know quite why. There’s a lot of speculation, but I’ve been unable to find a definite answer to the question of why Greenberg was waived. Pittsburgh claimed him. He spent one season with the Pirates, hitting .249 with 25 home runs and tutoring a budding star named Ralph Kiner. At the end of the season Greenberg retired.

For a career of 1394 games he hit .313, had an OBP of .412, slugged .605, and had an OPS of 1.017 (OPS+ of 158). The OPS and slugging percentage are both seven in MLB history. He had 331 home runs, 1276 RBIs, 1051 runs scored, 379 doubles, and 852 walks over 6097 plate appearances.

After retirement he moved to the front office with the Cleveland Indians. Initially Cleveland did well, winning a World Series in 1948 and a pennant in 1954. But as Greenberg’s influence grew, the team got worse. He seems to have been a decent executive, but as he moved into the general manager’s spot he moved a level too high for him and the team floundered. He went to Chicago as Bill Veeck’s assistant in the late 1950s and helped the White Sox to a pennant in 1959. He retired a wealthy man and died of cancer in 1986. The Hall of Fame called in 1956.

Throughout his career, Greenberg faced adversity. First his ethnic background gave him problems. Then he had to shift positions. Finally the Second World War interrupted his career. He became a great player and arguably one of the five greatest first basemen to ever play. Not a bad legacy.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Buddy Myer

August 14, 2012

Buddy Myer about 1925

1. He was born Charles Solomon Myer in Mississippi in 1904. His father was Jewish, his mother Christian, which must have made for some interesting times in turn of the 20th Century Mississippi. Myer appears never to have been particularly religious although his ethnicity got him into a couple of fights during his Major League career.

2. He attended Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Mississippi State University) and graduated in 1925.

3. He signed with Cleveland, was assigned to Dallas, which he hated, and was released at his request.

4. He signed with New Orleans, an independent member of the Southern Association, and was picked up by the Washington Senators. He made it to the Majors that same year, appearing in four games.

5. Regular third baseman Ossie Bluege was injured in the World Series and Myer played third in the final three games of the Series (with only the four games of MLB experience). He hit .250 with two strikeouts and a walk.

6. He became the regular Washington shortstop in 1926, started slowly in 1927 and was traded to Boston (the Red Sox, not the Braves). While at Boston he led the American League in stolen bases in 1928 with 30 (16 caught stealing) and hit .301. That led Washington to make a trade that brought him back to the Senators. It cost them five players: Milt Gaston, Hod Lisenbee, Elliot Bigelow, Grant Gillis, and Bob Reeves.

7. In 1929 he split time between second base and third base before settling in as the Senators’ regular second baseman for the decade of the 1930s.

8. He won the batting title in 1935 hitting .3495 against Joe Vosmik’s .3489 by going four for five on the final day of the season. He scored 115 runs, knocked in an even 100 (the only time he had 100 RBIs) with an OPS of .907 (OPS+ of 138). He made the All Star team and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

9.  In 1936 he developed stomach trouble (apparently an ulcer). It bothered him off  and on for the rest of his career. His season high in games played after the illness was 127 in 1938.

10. He retired after the 1941 season with a .303 batting average and an OPS of .795 (OPS+ of 108).

11. After retirement he worked as a mortgage banker and died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1974.

12. In 1949 he received his only vote for the Hall of Fame. Joining him with a single vote were future Hall of Famers George Kelly, Fred Lindstrom, Heinie Manush, and Earl Averill as well as Hall of Fame managers Leo Durocher and Al Lopez.

1912: The Man from Denmark

August 9, 2012

Olaf Henriksen in his rookie season (1911)

As most of you know, the Boston Red Sox won the 1912 American League Pennant, their first since 1904. Then they went on to win the World Series in dramatic fashion. Their outfield of Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker, and Harry Hooper consistently ranks as one of the premier outfields in Major League history and is frequently ranked as the best in the Deadball Era. With an outfield like that the backup outfielder tends to get lost in the shuffle. Olaf Henriksen, the backup in 1912, is one of those, even though he had a critical hit in the final game of the 1912 World Series.

Henriksen was born in Denmark in 1888, the only Major Leaguer born in Denmark. He was still young when his family arrived in the United States. He discovered baseball, liked it, and best of all was good at it. He joined the New England League team in Brockton, Massachusetts and by 1911 was with the Red Sox. He was the backup outfielder in an era when there tended to be only one. He was considered primarily a left fielder (Lewis’s replacement), he actually played very little in the field, becoming something of a specialty pinch hitter. He was good at it, managing a .449 OBP in 1911, still the second highest OBP by a rookie in the 20th Century. He surpassed that in 1912 with an OBP of .457, and set his career high in 1913 with an OBP of .468. 

A left-handed batter (and thrower), Henriksen had little power, hitting one home run in his entire career (1914). In only 487 at bats he walked 97 times, struck out 73, scored 84 runs, and had 48 RBIs. He managed 22 games in center field, 42 in left, and  61 in right field with 31 games in the field in 1916 being his high, much of his field work coming after the trade of Speaker to Cleveland.

Despite being from Denmark, he was nicknamed “Swede”. Apparently that was a generic nickname for Scandinavians in the era. As far as I can tell, Henriksen never went out of his way to correct others concerning his origins. He seems to have been both well liked and relatively quiet. His big moment came in the final game of the 1912 World Series, when he slugged a pinch hit double in the seventh inning tying the score. Boston ultimately won the game and the Series in extra innings. It was his only at bat of the Series.

His career was short, ending after the 1917 season. He hit .083 with an OBP of only .267. He was 29 and through. After a couple of years and a few odd jobs, he picked up the coaching job at Boston College. He managed the team from 1922-1924.

Henriksen is one of those players that go lost in the mists of time. But he was the kind of player that teams need in order to win consistently. He got on base a lot, made the most of his playing time, and was one of the pioneering career pinch hitters. You see that last quite a lot now. Guys like Manny Mota made their name pinch-hitting. Henriksen was, in some ways, their grandfather.

Broken Bat

August 6, 2012

A broken bat. Ours didn’t look this bad

Other than actually being under fire, the worst aspect of Viet Nam was the night mortar attack. They happened sporadically, did some damage (knocked the heck out of some places and left other areas of the base totally alone), and messed with your sleep. One of the biggest problems with them was that they required a certain amount of neatness to be maintained (Didn’t know the US Army subscribed to “Good Housekeeping”, did you?). You just couldn’t leave junk strewn around the place because a mortar attack in the dark required a mad scramble to the bunkers without benefit of lights and anything in the way could be a disaster.

We only had one bat in the unit. A lot of the guys had gloves, someone had scrounged (which is GI talk for stolen) a set of catcher’s gear, but we only had the one bat. When you had time off, frequently you’d head to the local scratched out baseball diamond (the one mentioned in the post on mortaring the ballyard) to see if you could get a game started or to see if you could join a game already in progress. The unwritten rule was that you brought all the equipment you had because there was almost never an excess of it. That meant the guys from my unit showed up with gloves, a full set of catcher’s equipment (and became the toast of the ball field), a few balls, and one lousy bat.

So in May of 1968 we went to bed as usual but some dimbulb left the bat on the floor by the door. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yep. We got hit, dove for the door, and one of the least dextrous members of the unit had his foot find the bat (no, it wasn’t me). He went flying, the bat went flying, the rest of us went flying out of the way to keep from being hit by either. He was OK and all of us made it to the bunker safely. When Charlie was through knocking around the base, we got back to the bunks, flipped on some flashlights, and there it was. The bat had managed to fly up against one of the metal lockers and had a big crack down around the handle.

We tried taping it. Despite MacGyver,  duct tape is not the universal cure-all it’s touted to be. Same with glue. So now we were short our only bat. We went over to the USO to see if they had one. Of course they didn’t. We checked out division supply.  The conversation went something like this: (As usual, all conversations have been cleaned up from GI English.) 

“We ain’t got one.”

“How’s come?”

“Too much space on the transport. They gotta bring guns and ammo and stuff.  Besides,  which would you rather have bullets or bats?”

“Bats.” 

“Whattya mean, bats? Don’t you know we’re in a war zone?”

“How the heck do you think our bat got broke, dimwit?”

We had a guy named Griffin who was our maintenance specialist. Whatever piece of  Army equipment we had, he could fix. Well, the bat wasn’t GI issue so he couldn’t fix it. He did, however, have an idea. He was from some small town near Lubbock, Texas and knew a lot of people in the town, including the guy who ran the sporting goods store. So he wrote him a  letter asking if he’d be willing to send us a bat and we’d collect some money and  send it to him. Took about a month, but we got a reply. A big box came addressed to Griff from Texas Tech University. Inside were five brand new bats. It seems the sporting goods guy was an alum of Tech and went to the ball coach with the letter. The coach got the AD (or at least somebody fairly high up in the administration) to authorize the purchase and shipping of five new bats to sunny Southeast Asia.

new bats (also not ours)

We sent both the University and the sporting goods guy a thank you note (and, no, we didn’t promise to “kill a Commie” for them). Four of the bats were still being used when I left in September. The fifth was kept in the unit orderly room (that’s the main office for those of you not familiar with the Army) where it was displayed along with the note from Texas Tech. I don’t know what happened to any of them after I left. The unit no longer exists (dumped when the Army contracted several years ago) and I always wondered who ended up with the trophy bat (I presume the others were broken somewhere along the way).

I was tempted to attend Texas Tech after I got out of the Army in 1971 and I still root for them from time to time when they show up on TV in a sporting event. Sometimes I wish I had, but I met my wife at the other school. So it all worked out for the best. BTW I did a lot better job finding a wife than she did a husband.

The Measure of Greatness

August 2, 2012

That Great American Sage, Yogi Berra

I’ve just completed two posts on the Hall of Fame and the chances of two particular players (Hideo Nomo and Mike Stanton) making it to Cooperstown. I’d been contemplating those two posts for quite some time, but held them until the Olympics for a reason. I fully anticipated and expected that Michael Phelps would win enough medals to become the all-time leading medal winner in Olympic history. I also knew that would lead to the following assertion, “Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever.” Well, maybe he is, but not for the reason implied above.

Implicit in the “greatest Olympian ever” comment is the belief that winning the most medals makes one the greatest Olympian. As proof of the fallacy of that argument, I offer you Yogi Berra. You may not know this, but Berra has more World Series rings than anyone else, ten. Joe DiMaggio had nine, Willie Mays had one, Babe Ruth had seven, Lou Gehrig had six, Stan Musial had three, Sandy Koufax had four, and Ted Williams went oh fer. Based simply on the number of rings (or medals) Berra is the finest of the lot, topping DiMaggio by one and the others by several.

Does anyone really consider Berra the greatest player ever? Seriously? There is some dispute as to whether he’s the greatest catcher ever (Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, among others who occasionally appear above him on lists). That alone makes it difficult to choose him as the greatest ever player. The biggest problem is the larger than life figure that is Ruth, not to mention the other players listed above who may be (or may not be) greater than Berra.

So could we please give ourselves a little perspective on Phelps? Maybe he is the greatest Olympian ever. Or maybe it’s Jesse Owens because of what he overcame to become a champion. Or maybe it’s Jim Thorpe because of the specific medals he won. Or maybe it’s Jackie Joyner Kersee who did the same thing Thorpe did in women’s sport. Or maybe it’s Carl Lewis who won a slew of medals in track and field. Or how about Al Oerter who won the discus four Olympics in a row?

My point is simply that for all Phelps’ greatness, it’s not dependent solely on his medal count. He is the most dominant sportsman in his discipline. That doesn’t make him the greatest sportman (or woman) overall.