Archive for September, 2012

The Chairman of the Board

September 26, 2012

Whitey Ford during the 1950s

I note that the Atlanta Braves have tied the mark for the most consecutive wins by a team with a particular pitcher starting the game. One of the reasons I love baseball is this kind of esoteric stat. Kris Medlen now joins the ranks of all-time greats Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford.

It’s amazing to me how very obscure Ford has become over the years. He is the greatest starter, and Mariano Rivera not withstanding, arguably the greatest pitcher on the greatest team (the Yankees) in Major League Baseball history and he’s sort of fallen off the face of the earth. You wonder how that happens.

I was, as a Dodgers fan, not a big fan of Ford. He played for the wrong team. But as I grew older, I began to understand exactly what the Yankees had. They had a solid starter who ate innings, gave them a chance to be in a game, won a lot of them, and year after year was there to count on. He was an American League version of Warren Spahn in his consistency. And part of Ford’s recognition problem is that much of his career is contemporary with Spahn (and the latter part overlaps Sandy Koufax).

Having said that, he wasn’t just Warren Spahn light. He had a great winning percentage. His .690 winning percentage is third among pitchers (according to Baseball Reference). The two guys ahead of him are Spud Chandler, whose career was about half as long; and Al Spaulding, who never once pitched at 60’6″. That’s pretty good for a guy that’s gotten really lost in the shuffle.

Part of Ford’s problem is that he only won 20 games twice (1961 and 1963), led the AL in shutouts twice, in wins three times. He also won the Cy Young Award in 1961 when they only gave out one award, not one per league.  Above I compared him to Warren Spahn, and those wins certainly aren’t Spahn-like numbers. But the basic career type still holds. Ford’s other problem, besides that it’s a long time ago now, is that the 1950s early 1960s Yankees were not seen as a pitcher’s team, but were viewed as a bunch of bashers. It’s the team of Mickey Mantle (who plays almost exactly the same years as Ford), of Yogi Berra, of Billy Martin, and Roger Maris. It’s also the team of Casey Stengel. Behind that crew, Ford sort of gets lost.

There also aren’t a lot of Ford stories. There are a handful of drinking stories, but not much else. A couple of stories emphasize Ford cutting the baseball to make his pitches move more. One has him using Elston Howard to cut the ball with his shin guards. Another says he filed down his wedding ring and used it. Don’t know if the latter is true, but wouldn’t you love to know Mrs. Ford’s reaction when she found out? Also Ford is supposed to have told the grounds crew to keep the area right behind the catcher moist so Howard and Berra could rub mud on the ball before they tossed it back to him. Those are about it on Ford.

And that’s despite some of the records he holds. He has more wins in the World Series than any other pitcher, and also more losses. He has the most consecutive shutout innings among starters in World Series history. He leads in inning pitched, in games started, in strikeouts (and walks), and at one time was the youngest pitcher to win a World Series game (game four of 1950). I don’t know if that last stat is still true. He pitched some truly fine World Series games. Some were blowouts like games three and six in 1960. Others were tight duels like game four in 1963 against Sandy Koufax or game six in 1953 against Carl Erskine.

Ford was the mainstay of the most consistently victorious team ever, the 1950-1964 Yankees. His last good year was 1965, the year the Yankees dynasty stumbled. I think it’s important to note that when Ford fell off so did the Yankees. It wasn’t just him, Mantle got old also and Berra retired. The loss of the three was devastating to New York.

As I grew, I grew to appreciate Whitey Ford more and more. I’m sorry he’s sort of gotten lost in the shuffle by now. He shouldn’t, he was a great pitcher and I was privileged to see him throw.

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Congrats to Cincinnati and Washington

September 21, 2012

A quick congratulatory note to both the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals for becoming the first teams to guarantee a spot in the 2012 postseason. For the Nationals, it’s the first postseason play for a  Washington team since Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, and Joe Cronin led the Senators to a World Series berth in 1933 (they lost to the Giants). A fun World Series might be the Nationals versus the Texas Rangers. Remember that the Rangers began their existence in Washington before moving to Dallas in the 1970s.

Brew Crew

September 20, 2012

Kangaroo Davy Jones, an origianal Brewer

Way back in 1901, Ban Johnson set up the American League as a rival to the National League. Of course you know that it worked. But not exactly everything worked. One of the more innovative things Johnson did was set up a team in Milwaukee. That was one of the things that didn’t work.

The 1901 Brewers were a group of free agents, league jumpers, has beens, and never were types. Most of them you’ve never heard of, even once. A couple were footnote players, one was a star.

The star was Hugh Duffy. He was the player-manager. He was also 34 and over-the-hill. He did well enough in 1901, hitting .302 with 45 RBIs, and an OPS of .780 (good for second on the team).  His outfield mates were a pair of never was types. Bill Hallman was 25, a rookie, and a player who managed to play parts of four seasons, only two of them back-to-back (1906 and 1907). Irv Waldron was also a rookie. He hit .297 for Milwaukee, was sent to Washington where he hit .322 (for a  season average of .311), then disappears from the Majors for good. He played as late as 1911 in the minors, but never got back to the big leagues. He was with Milwaukee just prior to the American League stepping up in 1901 and seems to have been a carry over from the minor league days. He does reasonably well in the post 1901 minors so I have no idea why he never got back to the Majors.

The infield consisted of (from first around to third) John Anderson who had a career year hitting .330 with an OPS of .836 and 95 RBIs, Billy Gilbert, Wid Conroy, and Jimmy Burke. None of those three hit above .270 (Gilbert) or had an OPS above .666 (Conroy).

The catcher was Bill Maloney. He hit .293 with no power, no speed, no home runs, few runs, less RBIs, and only seven walks for the season.

The bench consisted of a bunch of players (it was a long roster for 1901) that went on to nothing. The exception here is Davy Jones (obviously not the singer). He ended up with Detroit and became the third (and later fourth) outfielder on the Ty Cobb/Sam Crawford Tigers that went to three consecutive World Series’.

The pitching consisted of five right-handers and one southpaw who started all of four games. None was particularly effective. Ned Garvin led the team with a 3.46 ERA (which is huge in the Deadball Era), 122 strikeouts, and an ERA+ of 104. For all that he was 8-20. Bill Reidy at 16-20 was the “ace”. It was also the only year Reidy had more than seven wins.

So what did this get them? Last place (you had that figured, right?). They ended up dead last in an eight team league in runs, hits, triples, average, slugging, OPS, total bases, and even in hit by pitch. They managed to climb out of the cellar by being seventh in on base percentage. On the mound they were last in complete games (a bigger deal in 1901 than today), shut outs, and earned runs given up. They were next-to-last in runs, hits, and walks. By compensation, they did finish third in total strikeouts.

All that also got them terrible crowds. Even in Milwaukee, a town without Major League baseball since 1891 (There had been three teams in Milwaukee in the 19th Century. None of them lasted more than a year.) this team failed to draw well. But Ban Johnson had a solution to the problem. He shifted the franchise to St. Louis in 1902 where they became the Browns. Right now they are in contention for both the American League East title and the wildcard because after a stint in St. Louis they moved on to Baltimore where they are currently the Orioles. That’s a long way in both miles and quality from the original Brewers.

The Middle Rung

September 18, 2012

This was supposed to be something like a standard baseball biography of Harry Hooper. As I delved deeper into Hooper I began to notice just how controversial his Hall of Fame selection is. And then I began to ask myself questions like “Self, do you think he should be there?” Finally the entire thing began to devolve into questions of the Hall.

I believe the Hall of  Fame has four categories of inductees: the obvious, the inspired, the “who?”, and the middle rung. I often subdivide these, but basically I always come back to four. You may choose more categories or less, but I can’t seem to get around four.

The Obvious: these are guys who we all know should be there. They have names like Ruth and Gehrig, Mays and Musial.

The Inspired: these are the guys who are in because of a moment of inspiration on the part of the voters or the Hall. They include putting in Clemente without having to wait five years, adding Addie Joss who died just before his tenth season, and every Negro League player who currently graces the Hall.

The “who?”: these are the guys who you’re fairly sure had a plaque made up, broke in one night, hung the thing up, and nobody noticed. I’m not putting names here; I’ll bet each of you has your own list of these guys.

The middle rung: These are the guys I want to talk about. Hooper is one of them.

The middle rung is my way of classifying those guys who are not terrible choices for the Hall of Fame, but are not the first names that jump instantly to mind. They are good players, even in their own era great players, but a quick look at their careers creates puzzlement rather than nods when the Hall of Fame is mentioned. Some of them are guys who made sense when they were elected, but whose plaques look a little out-of-place today. Two quick examples that I’ve used before are Eppa Rixey and Max Carey. When Rixey was elected to the Hall he was the second (to Warren Spahn) winningest left-hander in National League history. Sounds like a good reason to put a guys in, doesn’t it? Today, after Steve Carlton and Tom Glavine and others, Rixey is no longer second and his numbers pale in comparison to the men who went passed him in the last 50 years.  But, again, 50 years ago his numbers weren’t as bad as the sound today. Carey was the all-time leader in stolen bases in the National League (using the modern definition of stolen base) when he went into the Hall. Again, not a bad reason to put a man in the Hall. But today after Tim Raines and Vince Coleman and Lou Brock, Carey isn’t even close to number one. But 50 years ago no one knew that he was going to be sent sliding down the stolen base ladder.

It seems to me that you can’t exclude from the Hall those people who were among the finest players of their day just because their stats are now not as impressive as they were 50 or 75 or 100 years ago.  To stick with Hooper, he was one of the better outfielders of his day, a major factor in five World Series champions (although he did not play in the 1919 Series), and a decent hitter. Is that a Hall of Famer? Maybe. And Hooper is one of those maybe’s for me. He’s certainly not the best choice ever made, but he’s not a totally awful one either. That defines “middle rung” to me.

Feel free to disagree.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Sam Crawford

September 15, 2012

1. Samuel Earl Crawford was born in 1880 in Wahoo, Nebraska. Hence the nickname “Wahoo Sam.”

2. He was a  star football player in high school, leading his team to state titles in both 1896 and 1897.

3. After a stint with a barnstorming minor league team he joined the Cincinnati Reds in 1899.

4. In 1901 he led the Major Leagues with 16 home runs. Twelve of them were of the inside-the-park variety. That’s still the record.

5. In 1903 he jumped to Detroit of the new American League (then in its third season). He led the AL in triples.

6. He played in three consecutive World Series’, 1907-1909. He hit .243 with 17 hits, one home run, and eight RBIs. Detroit lost all three Series’.

7. He led the AL in RBIs in 1910, 1914, and 1915; in total bases in 1913; in runs in 1907; in doubles in 1909; in home runs in 1908; and in triples six times.

8. He is the all time leader in triples with 309, 14 better than his teammate Ty Cobb.

9. His last season in the majors was 1917. Afterwards he played four years with Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. The team won two pennants.

10. He was head coach for the University of Southern California between 1924 and 1929, placing second in his conference twice.

11. After umpiring in the PCL from 1935 through 1938 he retired, became something of a recluse, and lived in a cabin near the Mojave Desert.

12. In 1957 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and in 1964 was interviewed for the book “The Glory of Their Times” (still the best book about Deadball Baseball).

13. He died in California in 1968.

Shut Down

September 11, 2012

The 1935 Detroit Tigers

So the Nationals have shut down Stephen Strasburg and the Cubs have shut down Jeff Samardzija. Well, it’s unusual to say the least. Generally when a player is shut down it’s certainly not voluntary on the part of the team. It’s more like to be because he’s either having a dreadful season or he gets hurt. There’s a really good case of the latter back in the 1930s.

In 1935 the Detroit Tigers were defending American League champions. Under manager and catcher Mickey Cochrane they were able to repeat, besting the Yankees by three games. They had a good, solid team with the “G Men” hitting in the middle of the order: Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Goose Goslin. In keeping with the “G Men” theme the backup outfielder was Gee Walker and the three pitcher was General Crowder. Crowder won 16 games, Walker hit .301, Goslin had a down year but managed .292. Gehringer hit .330 with 19 home runs, and an OPS+ of 138. Greenberg hit .328, led the AL in home runs (36) and RBIs (170) and picked up the MVP award.

They made the World Series and faced Chicago. The Cubs hadn’t been to a Series since 1932 and were retooled. It was expected to be a close contest with Detroit slightly favored. With the first two games in Detroit, Chicago shut out the Tigers 3-0 in game one.

Game two saw the Tigers jump out to a 7-0 lead by the end of four with the big blow being a two-run home run by Greenberg. The Cubs got one back in the fifth, then two more in the seventh. That brought Detroit up in the bottom of the seventh. With one out and one on Greenberg was hit in the hand by a pitch. He stayed in the game and subsequently made the final out of the inning on a close play at the plate. That finished the scoring, the Tigers winning 8-3, but the big story was Greenberg. The wrist was broken and he was out for the rest of the Series. The AL MVP was not going to participate in the remainder of the World Series, which had just turned into a best of five set.

Cochrane was forced to improvise. Goslin went into Greenberg’s four hole in the batting order. Third baseman Marv Owen moved to first in the field and backup infielder Herman “Flea” Clifton took over third and batted eighth. I’d like to say that Clifton became the big hero. He didn’t. He went oh fer sixteen but did well enough at third (two putouts, nine assists, and an error). It was the rest of the team that stepped up. With Greenberg shut down Gehringer hit .375 with four RBIs, right fielder Pete Fox hit .385 also with four RBIs, Goslin hit .273 with three RBIs, and the pitching staff gave up 12 runs for the rest of the Series. Detroit won the World Series in six games on a walk-off single by Goslin.

Without Greenberg Detroit doesn’t make the 1935 World Series. With him in the Series they are 1-1. After he goes down the team steps up and goes 3-1. So even with their best player shut down a team can win. Maybe that bodes well for Washington this season. What it means for Chicago for next season is a little more difficult to determine.

Be Careful What You Ask For

September 6, 2012

my shoes didn’t look this good

I truly liked my little league baseball coach (I do not capitalize little league as I do not know if we were part of the official program that is headquartered in Pennsylvania). He was a good coach, a better man. Heck, I would have done about anything for him. Case in point, the third baseman and the spikes.

Way back when I was in little league there were rules about spikes. You were supposed to wear rubber ones, but there was this shoe that had five metal spikes, one on the toe, two down about the widest part of the foot, and two on either side of the heel. Now it was legal because it came with these little rubber tips that you could put over the spikes and wear them. Most of the guys had this kind, and occasionally one of the rubber covers would fall off and when play stopped, you’d see time out called and guys running over grabbing the rubber tip and reinserting it on to the spike. Of course I had a pair and they were my pride and joy. They were great because you could use them with the rubber tips on during little league season and with the tips off for junior high season. I have no idea if they still make them or not.

I was 12, we were in a close game, and down a couple of runs. We’d just come in from the field after giving up three runs. The other team’s third baseman had ripped a two run double, then scored on an error (not mine) and a single. Our head coach turned to our assistant and pointing to the opposing third baseman said, “I wish we could get that kid out of there. He’s killing us.” He went on out to coach third, but I had big ears.

I hit second that inning and knew the pitcher well enough to know that he was scatter-armed enough that I could draw a walk. So I wandered over to the corner of the dugout, reached down, and popped off the rubber tips on my right shoe, then dropped them in a neat little pile in the corner under the seat. Our nine hitter made an out, which brought me up. I actually singled, then stole second. And there he was, the object of all our troubles, standing down there at third. Standing right down there at third and here I was on second with no spikes on my right shoe. Well, coach, you want him outta there, I can do that for you. So off I went, sliding in hard, right shoe elevated. I caught him about mid calf, raked down, and, By God, I was safe.

It was the blood that was the problem. You see I was rising up safe and he was screaming and thrashing around and there was blood. That got people’s attention. Oh, guys had been slid into before and there were bruises and tears and curses, but this was actual blood. Honest to God real red blood. His uniform pants had a long gash and blood was pouring (OK, it wasn’t pouring, but it was oozing) out of his leg. The other coach was screaming, the umpire looked concerned, and my coach was giving me this strange look.

So up comes the umpire. “Let me see your shoes, kid.” So I show him my left shoe. “The other one, kid.” So I show him my right shoe. “You take them tips off on purpose, kid?”

“Not me, sir. They musta fallen off while I was running the bases.”

“Uh, huh. All of ’em?”

“Apparently.”

Well, we looked and couldn’t seem to find them out on the field anywhere. Then there was that small matter of having them all neatly piled in the corner of the dugout. The other guy missed one game. I got two weeks suspension, missed four games (we went 2-2), and had to face my coach.

“What the hell were you doing?” (first time I ever heard him curse).

“You said you wanted him out of the game. He’s out.”

The rest of the conversation was one-sided and unprintable.

I’d like to tell you I learned a lesson, but we won the game and at the time that made it seem worthwhile. I could still be a jerk, and unkind people might say I still am. We had two junior high schools in town and the other team’s third baseman attended the one I didn’t, so I didn’t have to face him at school or anything. I did learn that when you take off your rubber spike tips on purpose, don’t pile them up. That’s been very useful to me as I’ve aged. I can truthfully say I’ve never done it since. Not one time.

Proliferation

September 4, 2012

Ted Williams hitting

I remember back when the 1960 baseball season began one of the great storylines was Ted Williams’ pursuit of 500 home runs. He had 492, one short of Lou Gehrig, needed eight for 500, and had only 20 to go to pass Mel Ott for third place on the all-time home run list (Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx were the others above him). As you know, he made it, finishing with 29 home runs and 521 total. The public and the papers were going crazy that there were now four, count ’em, four, men with 500 home runs. It was unheard of, unthinkable, amazing. Today, just over 50 years later there are 25 men with 500 or more home runs. In April 1960 there were three men with 500 home runs, now there are three with 700.

An obvious question is, “What happened to lead to the proliferation of home run talent?” How did we go from four in 1960 to 25 in 2012? In 52 years MLB added 21 new members to the 500 home run club, about one every 2.5 years. There are a lot of reasons. Here are some that I think should be heavily considered as answers to the “what happened” question.

1. Population. There are simply a lot more people available today. Surely some of them can hit a baseball with authority. Additionally segregation of black ball players has finished and a larger pool of players is available. In 1960 black Americans had been playing Major League baseball exactly 14 years, hardly time for anyone to reach 500 homers. Add to that the recognition of foreign players as never before, especially Latin players and East Asian players, and the talent pool continues to grow. All this gives us more people with the talent to rise to the top in power hitting.

2. Expansion. There are now more teams available for players. Now I presume that someone able to hit 500 home runs is going to make the roster when there are only 16 teams (the number available in 1960) as easily as he can with 30 teams available. What I mean here is the increased number of pitchers available, some of whom are at best marginal major leaguers. Of course an increased population also means there are more excellent pitchers available, so I don’t think this is one of the more important factors in the proliferation of home runs. It, however, cannot be discounted. And none of that even mentions the idea of the closer which changes the dynamic of late inning pitching.

3. Better training methods. Players today train fulltime. There is film to study to determine what’s wrong with a swing or how to pick up a pitcher’s tendencies. You can break down a swing frame by frame if necessary, something difficult to do in 1960. There are weight training regimens and better nutritional plans available for players. All these lead to players who are better able to take advantage of their own skills and the weaknesses of pitchers. Whether they take advantage of these methods is another story.

4. Higher salaries. A lot of old-time players had to hold down offseason jobs just to make ends meet. With higher salaries, it’s possible to do the fulltime training mentioned above. It’s kind of tough to be training when you’re trying to sell someone insurance or a used car.

5. Better medical skills. A bad knee or a torn muscle could keep pre-1960 players out of the lineup of days or weeks. If you can’t play, you can’t hit home runs. Today’s medical advances make it possible for players to spend less time on the disabled list and more time on the field. This is particularly true in the American League where the designated hitter can also allow an injured player a chance to recover and play at the same time. Of course some of this is obviated by the tendency of some teams to put players on 15 day disabled lists for hang nails.

6. Steroids. Let’s admit it, steroids have been part of the reason there are more 500 home run hitters. It’s a shame, but it’s true and well have to live with that knowledge. This is not a comment on whether a steroid user should make the Hall of Fame, but merely an acknowledgement that steroids have aided players in the drive for 500.

Are these the only reasons? Of course not. I do think, however, they are among the most important.