Archive for March, 2013

The Original Big Red Machine

March 28, 2013

We all know “The Big Red Machine.” It played in Cincinnati in the 1970s and won the World Series twice. It featured Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and an entire slew of pitchers no one ever heard of, right? But 100 years prior to the Cincinnati team, there was another Big Red Machine that utterly dominated its league. It was the Boston Red Stockings of the 1871-1875 National Association and featured the likes of Harry and George Wright, Deacon White, Cal McVey, and the most dominant pitcher of the age, Albert Spaulding.

In the 1860s Boston was known as a decent baseball town, but not the hotbed that Brooklyn, New York, and Philadelphia were. It certainly hadn’t known the success of those three towns (Brooklyn was still an independent city in the 1860s). When the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in 1871, Boston was included in the league, but needed talent to be able to compete at what was now the highest level. The first thing the team did was reach out to Harry Wright of the defunct Cincinnati Red Stockings. Wright agreed to join the new Boston team, also nicknamed the Red Stockings, and brought with him several members of the old Cincinnati ball club: Cal McVey, Andy Leonard, and his brother George Wright. the team was an instant success. It rolled through the 1871 season going 20-10 and finishing a disputed two games behind league leader Philadelphia. Boston claimed that a couple of games Philly played didn’t count, Philly claimed they did, and a meeting of the league leaders awarded the pennant to the Athletics. It was the last time the Red Stockings would lose anything major.

In 1872, they started strong, won 22 of 23, including 19 in a row, and won the pennant by seven and a half games. Second baseman Ross Barnes won the batting and slugging titles, and led the league in hits and doubles. Pitcher Spaulding was 38-8 on a team that went 39-8 (Harry Wright won the other game).

The 1873 team went 43-16 and won the pennant by four games. It may have been the best of the Boston dynasty. Hall of Famers the Wrights, Deacon White, Jim O’Rourke, and Spaulding dominated the league. Good players that are forgotten today, Andy Leonard, Barnes, Harry Schafer, and Bob Addy put together a team that won 16 of 17 games down the stretch (before dropping the final two meaningless games). Barnes won the batting title, led the league in OBP, slugging, OPS, runs, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, and walks (heck of a year, right?). White won the RBI crown. Spaulding was 41-14 and Harry Wright led the NA in saves with four (something he never knew). Here’s a picture of the 1873 team:

1873 Boston Red Stockings

1873 Boston Red Stockings

George Wright is in the front row on the left with the cap in front of him. Harry Wright sits in the middle of the second row (the man with the beard). Deacon White is second from the right on the back row.

In 1874 they won their first 13 games and rolled to a 52-18 record. The won the pennant by seven and a half games, winning a game in October by a score of 29-0. This time Cal McVey, who had departed and returned, led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. O’Rourke won the home run title with five and George Wright led the NA in triples. Spaulding was 52-16 and led the league in shutouts. Harry Wright had three saves (and the other two Boston losses–get that bum off the mound). So far the Red Stockings had won three of four pennants in the NA and still disputed the initial pennant.

By 1875 the Red Stockings were so dominant that the pennant race became a joke. They started the season 26-0-1 and scored in double figures in 18 of those wins (the tie was 3-3 against the Athletics). By the end of the season they were 71-8 and coasted to the pennant by 15 games. For the season they had a run differential of six and scored in double figures 46 times, including a 10-10 tie against the Athletics (bet you have it figured that the Athletics came in second). Deacon White won the batting title and O’Rourke repeated as home run champion. Barnes led the NA in runs, hits, and OBP while Cal McVey won the slugging, OPS, total bases, doubles, and RBI titles. Spaulding was 54-5 (a .915 winning percentage) and led the league in both saves and shutouts.

But success had its price. Boston was so dominant by 1875 that attendance was falling in the rest of the league. Fans weren’t coming out to see teams they knew had no chance of winning a pennant and even the arrival of Boston in town wasn’t helping attendance much as fans understood their team had little chance of winning against the Red Stockings. In the entire 1875 campaign, Boston only lost two in a row one time–5-3 on 21 August to St. Louis and 13-11 on 23 August to Chicago (both were road games).  At the end of the season the league was in trouble financially and franchises were failing. There were a lot of reasons, but Boston’s continued dominance was one of them. Prior to the 1876 season, the National Association collapsed.

That same year, the National League was formed. Boston was a first year member (and is still around, although moved to Atlanta via Milwaukee). It was expected to win, but lost to Chicago. They were back in 1877 and 1878, but were never as much a lock as they had been in the Association days.

The First National League Power Hitter

March 26, 2013
George Hall

George Hall

One of the great things about the start-up of a new league is that everyone is a rookie (sorta). Another great thing about it is that no matter who it is or what it is, the guy who finishes first in a category is automatically the all-time league record holder. The next season he may be relegated to the scrap heap, but for one year he is the greatest who ever was. Such is the story of George Hall.

George W. Hall was born in March 1849 in Great Britain and came to the United States with his parents. He was good at baseball and by 1871 was considered good enough to be picked up by the Washington Olympics of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. He was a left-handed outfielder who also hit left-handed. He was a better than average fielder for the era, leading the Association in putouts and double plays while finishing in the upper half of the league in range and fielding percentage. But he was also a fine hitter. In 32 games he had 40 hits, three of them doubles, three triples, and two homers. He scored 31 runs and knocked in 17. His OPS+ was 114, the lowest he would have for his entire career.

The Olympics finished 15-15 (with two ties) and folded nine games into the next season. Hall, meanwhile moved to Baltimore where he played for the Canaries in both 1872 and 1873. Baltimore finished second and third those two seasons, with Hall being one of their best players. In 1874 he moved to champion Boston where he won his only pennant. The next year he was with Philadelphia. Again he did well enough with the Athletics to be considered an excellent player, but he was not in the absolute upper tier of Association players.

After the 1875 season the Association folded. At that point Hall was a career .311 hitter with an OPB of .321, a slugging percentage of .431, and OPS of .753 and an OPS+ of 133. He had 353 hits in 244 games with 273 runs scored and 181 RBIs. He amassed 489 total bases, including 46 doubles, 33 triples, and 8 home runs.

In 1876 the National League was formed. Hall and the Athletics joined. It was here that he made his mark. He hit .366, slugged .545, had an OPS of .929, and OPS+ of 204. He also set the NL record with five home runs, none after July. No one else on the team had more than one.  Charley Jones (the subject of the post just below) was second with four homers. A number of players tied for third with two home runs (including Hall of Fame players Cap Anson and Jim O’Rourke). It was the only offensive category in which he led the league.

Philadelphia had failed to finish the last Western road swing of the season and was tossed from the league. Without a team, Hall was picked up by Louisville for the 1877 season. He hit well enough (.323), but didn’t come close to his five homer total. There is some dispute about whether he had one or zero home runs in 1877, but he didn’t repeat as home run champion (Baseball Reference lists no home runs).

But Hall had a bigger problem than his lack of power. Late in the 1877 season the Grays were in contention for the pennant, then collapsed. Boston ultimately won the championship with Louisville finishing second.  An investigation determined that at least four Grays players, including Hall, were paid $25 a game to throw games down the stretch. Hall admitted to throwing exhibition games, but not league games. Nonetheless other information implicated him in throwing league games. He was thrown off the team and later banned from Major League baseball for life.

It’s very hard to track Hall after 1877. He asked Harry Wright for a chance and was turned down, but beyond that he seems to have stayed away from baseball.  He died in New Jersey in 1923 and is buried in Brooklyn.

How good was Hall? As usual with mid-19th Century players, it’s hard to determine. He plays seven seasons but only appears in 365 games. That’s just over two modern seasons. It’s also a much different game; a game where a power hitter can win a home run title with five home runs. He is 28 when he is banned. In current baseball that’s just entering a player’s prime. In the 1870s he was already getting old. He seems to have been a good enough player, but not a true star. Because he threw games in 1877, we’ll never know how much better he might have been with a full career.

Hall's grave in Brooklyn

Hall’s grave in Brooklyn

The Mystery Man

March 22, 2013
Charley Jones

Charley Jones

It’s a given that 19th Century ball players are obscure. Most of them are merely names on long lists of stats or on old roster sheets. But even for 19th Century ball players, Charley Jones is inordinately obscure. I’ll go so far as to admit that prior to December of last year, I’d never heard of him.

Charles Wesley Jones was born in North Carolina in 1852 as Benjamin Wesley Rippey. He is so obscure I can’t find out when or why the name change occurred. It may or may not have anything to do with his baseball career. He seems to have been the first Major Leaguer from North Carolina. He arrived in the National Association in its final year (1875), getting into 12 games with the Keokuk Westerns and a single game with Hartford. He managed to hit .255 without a walk and with only 13 hits. Six of the hits (two doubles and four triples) were for extra bases. That got people’s attention and when the National Association folded, Jones had no trouble finding a job.

He ended up with Cincinnati in the fledgling National League where he hit .286 with four homers (second in the NL). It was the last time he hit under .300 until his banishment (wait just a minute, please). He spent 1877 and 1878 with Cincinnati (with two games for Chicago). In 1879 he went to Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) where he set the single season record for home runs with nine. In 1880 he became the all-time Major League leader in home runs with 23, besting Lip Pike by two.  Along the way he’d led the NL in home runs, runs scored, walks, and RBIs once each. In 1880 he became the first Major Leaguer to hit two home runs in one inning. Then the bottom fell out.

During the last road trip of the season, Jones refused to play. He claimed he hadn’t been paid. As with most teams of the era, pay checks were issued by Boston at the end of each home stand, not at the first of the month. This kept teams from having to lug around large amounts of cash if the end of a month occurred during a road trip. Jones claimed he was paid per month and wanted his monthly salary. The team suspended him for failure to play, and withheld the next check. Jones sued and won in court. He got his money, but Boston suspended him again and this time blacklisted him. Unable to play in the National League, he spent 1881 and 1882 playing in both the minors and an outlaw league.

In 1882 the American Association was formed. They initially agreed to honor NL contracts and blacklists. By 1883 that changed and one of the new league’s first acts was to allow Jones to sign with Cincinnati. He was 31 and still good. He won an RBI and OBP title with Cincy, had his career high in home runs with 10, and had 200 or more total bases twice. In 1884 he hit three triples in a game (the third man to do so). Despite losing the two seasons to a blacklist, he held the all-time home run title through the 1884 campaign, giving up the honor in mid-1885.

His career was faltering by 1887. He began the season in Cincy, but was traded mid-season to the New York Metropolitans. He hit three final home runs and for the first time his OPS+ dropped under 100 (all the way to 88). He had one last Major League season, playing six games for the Kansas City Cowboys, then was through. He umped a little in the 1890 Player’s League and in 1891 in the last year of the American Association. His baseball career over, he dropped totally out of sight.

For his career, his triple slash numbers are .298/.345/.444/.789 with an OPS+ of 150 in 894 games. He had 1114 hits resulting in 172 doubles, 102 triples, 56 home runs, and 1658 total bases. For his career he scored 733 runs and had 552 RBIs. He was a decent enough outfielder finishing first in fielding percentage, range factor, and put outs a few times.

By the time the Hall of Fame was formed, he was totally forgotten. As late as the 2007 Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball he is listed simply as “deceased.” No one seemed to know what happened to him. He was truly a mystery man. As I said earlier,  I have to admit that I’d never heard of him before the 2012 Veteran’s Committee elected Deacon White to the Hall of Fame. That forced me to find a new candidate for my “best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame.” In doing research for that project, I ran across Jones. By then he’d gotten a death date.

 In 2011 a researcher found information on Jones’ last days. He died in New York 6 June 1911 and was buried in Queens (his grave is mentioned on the “Find a Grave” website). There wasn’t much else, but at last baseball fans finally knew what happened to one of the early National League’s premier sluggers.

Harry Stovey

March 20, 2013
Harry Stovey

Harry Stovey

If you’re clever, you’ve discovered a pattern in my last few posts. I’m looking at the guys who held the all-time home run title before Babe Ruth. According to Baseball Reference, there were six of them: Lip Pike, Charley Jones, Jim O’Rouke, Harry Stovey, Dan Brouthers, and Roger Connor. If you don’t count the National Association as a Major League (which MLB doesn’t, but Baseball Reference obviously does), the list changes to  add in people like George Hall. I’m sticking with the Baseball Reference list. I’ve done posts on Pike and O’Rouke previously and just added Brouthers and Connor. So today is Stovey’s turn.

He was born Harry Stowe in Philadelphia in 1856. By 1877 he was playing for the Defiance of Philadelphia and the Athletics. His mother didn’t like him playing ball, so he changed his name to Stovey to decieve her (don’t know how well it worked). By 1878 he was playing for the New Bedford Clam-Eaters (God, don’t you love old time team names?). He stayed through 1879 picking up a reputation as a good player and also picking up a wife.

In 1880 he was signed by the Worcester Ruby Legs (another great team name). He stayed with the team until it folding in 1882, winning both a home run and triples title in his rookie campaign. In 1883 he transfered, along with much of the Worcester roster to Philadelphia. With the Athletics he became a premier American Association player. He led the league in runs scored four times; in home runs three times; in triples twice; and in RBIs, stolen bases, doubles, total bases, and slugging once each. In 1883 the A’s won the American Association pennant with Stovey as their best player. The 19th Century version of the World Series didn’t begin until the next year.

In 1890 he joined most of the leading players of the day by jumping to the Player’s League. He proceeded to win the league’s only stolen base title with a career high 97. He had one final great year in 1891 leading the National Leagie in triples, home runs, total bases slugging, and in strikeouts with a career high 69. His team, the Boston Beaneaters (another great 19th Century team name), won the NL pennant that season. He hung on through 1893 playing for Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn.

Retired from the Major Leagues, he played and managed a little in the minors, then joined the New Bedford police force in 1895, rising to captain in 1915. He retired from the force in 1923 and died in 1937.

For his career he had 1771 hits and scored 1492 runs in 1486 games split between first base and the outfield (about two to one ratio in favor of the outfield). He had 347 doubles, 174 triples, 122 home runs, and 2832 total bases. His triple slash numbers are .289/.361/.461/.822 with an OPS+ of 144. He was considered an average fielder in his day. His teams won two pennants in his 14 year career.

There’s never been much of a push for Stovey to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and perhaps there shouldn’t be. He has the problem (as does a player like Pete Browning) of having played a long time ago for the American Association, which is generally considered the weaker of the two leagues. But he deserves to be remembered because between 1885 through 1894 (with a two year exception when Brouthers took the title) he was the most prolific home run hitter in Major League history.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Dan Brouthers

March 18, 2013
Big Dan Brouthers

Big Dan Brouthers

1. He was born Dennis Joseph Brouthers in Sylvan Lake, New York (not far upriver from New York City) in 1858.

2. While playing semipro ball in 1877, he had a collision at the plate with the catcher. The catcher suffered head injuries and died a month later.

3. Part of the reason Brouthers was unhurt in the collision was his size. He stood 6′ 2″ and weighed 207 pounds, a large man in his day. It got him the nickname “Big Dan..”

4. In 1879 he began playing for nearby Troy in the National League. He remained there through 1880, when the franchise was liquidated and the players disbursed to other teams. Brouthers ended up in Buffalo.

5. He played in Buffalo from 1881 through 1885 establishing himself as a premier hitter. He led the NL in hits, triples, home runs,  and RBIs at various times. He also led the Nl in batting, OBP, and total bases twice; in slugging, OPS and OPS+ four years.

6. In 1886 he went to Detroit for a salary of $4000, a massive salary for the 1880s.

7. In Detroit he led the NL in various categories including adding runs scored and doubles titles to his list of accomplishments.

8. In 1887 Detroit won the NL pennant and faced St. Louis in the 1880s version of the World Series. Brouthers played in only one game, but Detroit won anyway 10 games to 5 (it was a 15 game series and all games were played).

9. He was vice president of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, so in 1890 he jumped to the PLayer’s League (he’d been sent to Boston in 1889). where he won the OBP title.

10. After the end of the Player’s League, Brouthers won two more batting titles, an RBI title, and while playing with Baltimore helped lead them to the 1894 pennant. He also played a handful of games with the pennant winning 1895 Orioles, but spent most of the season with Louisville. He retired after the 1896 season.

11. After retirement, he played some minor league ball, then hooked up with the Giants as the press gate man (he was in charge of letting the press into the park and checking their credentials). While there he got into two games in 1904, playing in the field in one of them. He went 0-6.

12. He died in 1932 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

13. For his career his triple slash numbers are .342/.423/.519/942 with an OPS+ of 170.  He managed 2296 hits, 440 doubles, 205 triples, 106 home runs (fourth highest in the 19th Century), for 3484 total bases. He scored 1523 runs and had 1296 RBIs. He led his league in runs twice, hits three times, doubles three times, triples once, home runs twice, RIBs twice, in batting five times, in OBP five times, in slugging seven times, in OPS eight times, in OPS+ also eight times, and in total bases four times. He was considered a mid-range first baseman and pitched a little (he wasn’t very good at it). He gets my vote as the best hitter of the 19th Century and he also gets this great card:

Brouthers card from his Detroit years

Brouthers card from his Detroit years

I’m not certain if the card is legitimate. Brouthers was a left-handed hitter and the card has him hitting right-handed. It’s still a great little card.

Thanks, Hank

March 14, 2013
Roger Connor

Roger Connor

Way back in 1974, Hank Aaron did the impossible, he overtook Babe Ruth for the all-time Major League home run title. There were mixed feelings about it, but it led to one interesting question. “If Hammerin’ Hank just passed the Babe, who the heck did Ruth pass?” The answer, after some research, turned out to be Roger Connor.

Connor was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1857. His parents were Irish immigrants and did not understand the American fascination with baseball. Connor, on the other hand, loved the game. It led to his leaving home at age 14 to pursue his baseball interests in New York. His dad died in 1874, bringing Connor back to Waterbury. He took a job in a local factory to help support his family and played semipro baseball to supplement his income. He was good enough to get a tryout with the International League. He did poorly. Although left-handed, he hit from the right side and didn’t do it very well. A switch to hitting from the left side got him back to the International League (I wonder how common it is for a player to switch sides of the plate and go from mediocrity to stardom?) in the late 1870s. To be clear, Connor was never a switch hitter. He merely gave up hitting right handed in favor of hitting left handed.

He was also big. He stood 6′ 3″ and weighed 220 pounds. That made him a huge man for the era. It also made him relatively immobile. He started his career as a left-handed third baseman, but his lack of speed, combined with a good pair of hands, put him at first base. Once he moved to first (and started hitting lefty) he became a  star.

In 1880 he was picked up by Troy of the National League. In 83 games he hit .332, drove in 47 runs and had an OPS+ of 169. He remained at Troy through 1882 hitting .317 with 120 RBIs. In 1883 the team in Troy was in trouble. It had a small fan base, wasn’t doing well in the standings, and there was no current team in New York. So the league moved the franchise (and most of its players, including Connor) to New York as the Gothams (eventually becoming the Giants and ultimately relocating to San Francisco). With a quality team combining the Troy refugees and newly acquired talent they started winning. New York won pennants (and the 19th Century version of the World Series) in both 1888 and 1889. Connor was a major reason why. He led the National League in hits, triples, RBIs, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, OPS+, and total bases at various times during the period. He did not lead the NL in home runs during the 1880s but did establish his career high at 17.

He 1890 he joined teammate Monty Ward’s Player’s League. There he won his only home run title (he hit 14) and picked up another slugging and OPS title. With the failure of the Player’s League he moved back to the Giants. He spent 1892 in Philadelphia (where he won the doubles crown), then came back to New York in 1893. Traded to St. Louis during the 1894 season he remained there until his retirement at age 39 in 1897. His stay in St. Louis included a short managing stint in 1896. The team was terrible and he was uncomfortable as manager. He resigned the managerial position after an 8-37 record.

Connor returned to Waterbury after his retirement. He played minor league ball, managed, and ultimately owned the Waterbury team. He sold the team in 1901, bought another, and maintained his ties to baseball until 1903 when he retired from playing and sold the team. In retirement he invested his money in land, made a fortune, lost most of it, and died in 1931. To Major League baseball he slipped into total obscurity. But Hank Aaron’s run to glory brought Connor back into the spotlight and in 1976 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee.

For his career, Connor’s triple slash line is .316/.397/486/.883 for an OPS+ of 153. He had 2467 hits in 7797 at bats. That yielded 1620 runs, 1323 RBIs, and 3788 total bases. He had 441 doubles, 233 triples (still fifth ever), and the record 138 home runs (although it wasn’t until the push to find who Ruth replaced that his home run total was firmly established at 138). He was also considered an excellent, for the era, fielding first baseman.

In some ways the modern player Connor most reminds me of is Hank Aaron. Like Aaron, he seldom won many league titles, but was consistently among the best in the NL for most of his career. Remember, Aaron only won two batting titles and three home run titles (and like Connor did not win a home run title with his most prolific home run year). For much of their career, the two men were overlooked in favor of flashier, but not better, players. Both men were quiet and spoke more with their bat than their mouths. Aaron did a lot of good things when he made his run at Babe Ruth. One of the better, if more obscure, was the resurrection of Roger Connor’s memory.

And before anyone asks, the man Connor replaced as the all-time home run king was Harry Stovey.

Rivera Retires

March 11, 2013
Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera

I see that New York reliever Mariano Rivera is retiring. He’ll ride off into the sunset as the greatest ever relief pitcher. So here’s a few thoughts on him.

He has the most saves of any Major League pitcher in both the regular season and in postseason (to include the World Series). I’ve never been too fond of the “save” stat because I think it’s way to broad (three innings in a not overly close game equals the same as coming in with two out in the ninth, up by a run with the bases loaded and striking out the clean up hitter). But it’s the best measure we have for a “closer” and no one ever did it better than Rivera. As someone who thought he’d seen the greatest ever when he saw Dennis Eckersley, that’s hard for me to say. Of course I should have known different because I once thought it couldn’t get any better than Bruce Sutter.

As good as Rivera was (and still is) in the regular season, he was better in the pressure cooker that was the playoff system. He has 42 postseason saves (11 in the World Series). As a setup man his team won a World Series (1996). As a closer they won three in a row (1998-2000), then another in 2009. He’ll be remembered as one of the most important members of those teams. The Yankees also lost two World Series’ on his watch (2001 and 2003). Game 7 of 2001 is one of the most famous of all game sevens and the one time Rivera failed to come through in a critical situation. I’ve always faulted him for trying to shift the blame for his failure to Scott Brosius (Hey, Rivera, Brosius didn’t throw the ball away, you did.), but it may be the only time Rivera didn’t handle himself with total class on the diamond.

So he heads off to a sure date with Cooperstown in five more years. His position in the Yankees pantheon is secure. Among Yankees he is a top 10 player. Only players like Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra are ahead of him (and maybe Whitey Ford depending on if you want a starter or a reliever) and he’s sure to see his number retired (that will make two retirements of 42 for the Yankees, same as with number 8) and see a plaque in his honor on the wall in left field. I wish him good luck (but not enough luck to win this year’s World Series) in his future. You were the best, man.

Ribby

March 7, 2013
Gehrig

Gehrig

This was supposed to be a comment on Lou Gehrig. I’d never done one on him and decided it was time. Turns out I changed my mind.

When it comes to Gehrig, one of the first things I notice about him is that he was an RBI machine. In years he played 120 or more games he had less than 100 RBIs exactly once, 1925, a year he played only 126 games. Between 1927 and 1937 his lowest total was 126 (1929) and his highest total the American League record 184 in 1931. I was going to write a lot about those kinds of numbers, but then I found a couple of spots where so-called experts went on an on about how useless RBIs were as a stat because they were essentially a team stat and that runs scored was a better judge of a player’s value.

Excuse me? Runs are a better judge of a player’s value and RBIs are downgraded as a team stat? Really?

Let me take a hypothetical players who for grins we’ll call Albert Pujols (catchy name, right?). And let’s give him a hypothetical season which we’ll call 2012 while he plays for a hypothetical team that we’ll call the Angels. Got all that? Our player scores 85 runs (his lowest total as a Major Leaguer). He hits 30 home runs (also his lowest total). I was unable to find how many times he scored on errors, steals of home (he stole 8 bases so I doubt home was one or it would have made big news), double plays, etc (which is why he’s a hypothetical player). I did find that the Angels scored 5% of their runs without an RBI so I gave our hypothetical Pujols four runs (5.25%) without benefit of RBI.

OK now that leaves him with 81 runs, 30 of which were scored when he put one over the fence. Now that leaves 51 runs unaccounted for, right? Which means that he scored 51 runs via someone else’s RBI. Now tell me again how RBI is a team stat and, apparently, runs scored isn’t. Almost every run scored is a team stat. Even a home run can be a team stat depending on the situation (“Gotta pitch to Ruth, Gehrig’s on deck.”). So you see my problem with downgrading the RBI, particularly in favor of a run. I realize that way back when there were a lot more errors you can make that argument, but 5%? Sorry, new stat geeks, I still think Ribby’s a stat to consider.

Doing My Juan Marichal Impression

March 5, 2013
The mound

The mound

When I was in youth baseball I spent most of my time in either center field or first base. I was pretty fast (a lot less poundage then) and could catch well so it was center and first for me. The team was pretty good and much of our strength was our pitching (bet that surprised the heck out of you, didn’t it?). We had three excellent, for youth baseball, pitchers and when they were on we could run up some pretty serious scores. If they weren’t on, well,  the other team was known to run up some pretty serious scores. Our coach had a policy of not wasting pitching when we were either blowing the other guys out or they were blowing us out. In that case, he’d bring in one of the position players to take up a couple of  innings or to take one for the team. That’s how I got my one and only chance at pitching immortality.

I was 11 (I think) and we were up a gazillion to nothing after four innings. We did six innings back then and Coach decided it was time to change out pitchers. As we came off the field he pulled me aside and told me that after I finished my at bat (and hopefully scored) I was to go warm up as I would pitch the fifth and our other first baseman (he was normally the third baseman) would take over for me at first. Despite being in something of a fog of amazement, I got on base (don’t recall how), scored, then found the backup catcher and started warming up. I wasn’t sure exactly how you warmed up, but I threw the ball to the catcher a few times.

Then it was my turn. Coach pulled me aside, “Look, we’ve got this one sewn up. Just go out there and lob the ball down the middle. Let ’em hit it at someone. We field well.” So off I went to the mound. “Chariots of Fire” and “Rocky” weren’t out yet so I have no idea what theme music was going through my head, but there I was perched for greatness.

You ever notice how high a mound is? OK, I’d been on one before when we had meetings at the mound, but I’d never really looked the damned thing over before. It was really tall. I was a good head and shoulders above everyone else out there except for this one really tall umpire. Now that makes you think about greatness.

But exactly how do you pitch? I had no idea, I’d never done it before. Well, Juan Marichal was new, seemed good, and looked great with that giant leg kick of his. So if he could do the high leg kick, why couldn’t I. He also threw really, really hard like I was gonna do (sorry, Coach, but I just have to show the world my speed). So I rocked back, threw my leg as high as I could, and realized I couldn’t see the plate, the leg was in the way. I let the ball go as hard as I could throw. It missed the plate by eight feet. The catcher missed it by five feet. That brought both the catcher and Coach to the mound.

“What the heck was that? You not understand the word ‘lob’? Just lob the damned ball over the plate,” I was reminded. The catcher gave me the ball, a shake of the head, and went back to his squat. OK, Coach, you want a lob, you got a lob. This one bounced about three feet in front of the plate. Ball two. The next pitch was better and the poor batter, finally seeing something he might hit, took a swing. The ball had nothing on it, he topped it, and it rolled into the infield, coming to rest a couple of feet from me. I picked it up, tossed it to our backup first baseman, and I’d gotten an out. One third of an inning and no base runners.  

Hey, this stuff  is easy, Coach. How’s come I don’t get to pitch more? Doing great, Juan, doing great.

But now here came the next batter. I knew the kid. He was their eight hitter and it dawned on me that Coach had given me the seven, eight, and nine hitters to get out. OK, Coach, I can mow down the bottom of the order.

So I stared in at the batter. I stared. I stared again. I stared some more. Bob Gibson would have been proud of that stare. I was intimidating the heck out of him. Kid wasn’t going to hit me. He was going to tremble. The opposition was going to tremble.

“Hey, idiot, throw the ball.” My teammates were, however, going to be bored.

Oh, yeah, I gotta throw it. I did. He swung. He missed. The catcher caught it. Then came another swinging strike. Now I had him.  Turned out I did. He was so out of sorts, I lobbed one right by him. He took it for strike three and I now had a strikeout. Top that, Juan Marichal. Can you strut while standing still?

OK, one more out to get and it’s the very bottom of the order. Here’ a kid that hasn’t gotten a hit all year. He’s swung maybe twice. He’s been hit once, he’s walked once, he’s never scored. So I got him easy, right? So let’s do something daring. I threw the ball a little harder and he swung. For God’s sake he swung. The ball rolled out into the field. I was shocked, he was shocked, his mother was shocked. Fortunately our second baseman wasn’t shocked. He raced over, picked up the ball, tossed it to first and the inning was over.

So I came off the field. No one raised me on their shoulders. No one played martial music (we were a very undemonstrative team). Coach nodded “good job.” And I went to the rack, got a bat (I was on deck to lead off the sixth). God, that was easy. Maybe Coach will give me the ball again. I got this pitching stuff down. He never did, but I still got an 0.00 ERA with a strikeout. Talk about a heck of a WHIP. Top that, Juan Marichal.

Fidel Castro and Baseball

March 1, 2013

There is a wonderful baseball story that goes like this. A left-handed pitcher from Cuba got a try-out with the Washington Senators. He was OK, but nothing special, so he wasn’t offered a contract. His name was Fidel Castro and he departed the diamond for a life in politics, eventually becoming ruler of Cuba. Great story, right? The problem is, that it just ain’t so.

In doing my annual Black History Month posts I centered many of them on Cubans. The research led to this story (which I’d heard before). It also led to the kinds of info that make it almost certain the story isn’t true. Here are some reasons to doubt the tale:

1. The story sometimes has Castro get a try-out with the Yankees. Let’s be honest, if they can’t even get it straight which team is involved, what makes you think the tale is true?

2. There is no evidence in the files of the Minnesota Twins (who were the Senators in 1950) that anyone ever suggested that Castro get a try-out or that such a try-out actually occurred.

3. There is never a date given.

4. There is no evidence that Castro ever played in any of the Cuban leagues. There is one box score showing an F. Castro pitching for his law school team, but nothing beyond that. You’d think there’d be a box score somewhere, or a score book with the info on at least one game, wouldn’t you? And wouldn’t you think that the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame would have copies?

5. After becoming ruler of Cuba, Castro, who really does like baseball, set up a barnstorming team that played around in various Cuban towns. The idea was to familiarize the fans with Castro, to show him as just one of the guys, and to give him a chance to relax. There are pictures of this. Here’s one:

Castro pitching

Castro pitching

And another:

Castro following through

Castro following through

Nice shots, right? Notice something? Castro is right-handed, not a lefty. This adds strength to the contention that he never had a try-out with the Senators.

Now I’ll admit that I’m as guilty of spreading Urban Legends as the next guy. Some of them sound plausible. I’ve also been gullible enough to accept some of them. This happens to be one. One of the good things about doing this blog is that the research sheds light on all sorts of things, including Urban Legends. Apparently Castro never got a tryout with Washington. OK, too bad, but it does make a heck of a story doesn’t it?