Archive for March, 2018

MIBGs

March 29, 2018

The Judge

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Jackie Robinson. When we were done she turned to me and the following conversation (more or less) took place:

She: Is he the most important player ever?

Me: Let me think about it.

Ultimately all that led me to thoughts about the Most Important Baseball Guys. And sorry, ladies, but it is all guys, Effa Manley, Helena Robeson, and the All-American Girls baseball ladies not withstanding (not to mention Marge Schott). So I put together, just for my wife, my list of the 10 MIBGs and you know you’re about to be let in on it, don’t you?

First, the usual caveats. This is a list of the MOST IMPORTANT baseball people, not the BEST PLAYERS. There is a difference. I’m looking here for people whose contribution is so important that it cannot be overlooked when detailing the history of the game. Also, I’ve done something like this before years back and I’m cleaning up that list because it included groups (like the Knickerbockers or the Atlantic) and that’s not what I’m looking for. As we really don’t know who “invented” baseball, the origins guy, whoever he is, can’t be on this list and the earliest teams are not a substitute for him.

So here’s my list. I reserve the right to declare, in a week or two, that it is utterly stupid and that this post doesn’t really exist.

Here’s my list of the 10 MIBGs in baseball history. First a list of seven non-playing contributors (in alphabetical order):

1. Ed Barrow invented the Yankees. OK, I know Colonel Ruppert owned the team and coined the name, but when Ruppert brought Barrow to the Yanks, he changed the fortunes of the team. As the team secretary (we’d call him the general manager today), Barrow was a knowledgeable baseball man who’d been instrumental in making the Red Sox a power (he’d managed the 1918 team to World Series title). Barrow went out and collected a number of players like Babe Ruth, Joe Dugan, and added new guys like Lou Gehrig and created a juggernaut that, by the time Barrow retired in 1946 his charges had won 14 pennants and 10 World Series’.

2. Do you like baseball statistics? Do you study them and quote them and use them to bolster your arguments? Then you owe a great debt to Henry Chadwick. A 19th Century sportswriter, Chadwick was the first to systematize baseball statistics. He invented the box score and came up with a number of other statistics that are still in use. New stats may have made some of Chadwick’s work obsolescent, but the guys who came up with them owe a debt to Chadwick.

3. William Hulbert invented the modern league system in 1876 when he founded the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs (baseball was two words in 1876). The key word here is “Clubs.” Hulbert’s system put the clubs, not the players, in charge of the league. It created labor problems, it gave us owners who were first-rate jerks (including Hulbert himself), but it worked. It stabilized professional baseball and served as the model for all American team sport leagues (whatever sport) created since.

4. Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson founded the American League. After a quarter century of leagues coming and going, ultimately destroyed or absorbed by the National League, Johnson created a league that was stable enough to challenge the NL for players and gate receipts. After a short “baseball war,” the American League emerged as the equal and rival of the more established league, an equality and rivalry that remain today.

5. Kennesaw Mountain Landis was the first commissioner of baseball and, arguably the most powerful person in the history of the game. Coming into office with a lifetime contract he was able to clean up the sport in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal and to rule the game with an iron fist. He kept Branch Rickey from cornering the market for new players by opening up the farm system for other teams. That made it possible for teams to be more competitive. At the same time he was a staunch segregationist and almost single-handedly kept baseball from integrating until after his death (I never said these were all nice, enlightened guys).

6. If you are opposed to wage slavery and think people ought to be paid what they’re worth and what the market will bear, you have to tip your ball cap to Marvin Miller. Head of the Player’s Union, Miller revolutionized baseball by destroying the reserve clause (admittedly he had help) and opening up salaries. This led to more movement of players and thus more chances for teams to compete as the best players were no longer locked up forever.

7. Twice Wesley Branch Rickey revolutionized the game. A mediocre catcher and manager, he became team secretary for the St. Louis Browns in 1913, moved to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1919 and invented the farm system. This may have been deadly to a free minor league system, but it bound players to an organization in such a way that the best players were able to hone their skills in a team system, that emphasized working together, melding groups of players into a unit that knew each other and to at least some extent learned how to play together. It assured Major League teams of a constant supply of quality players (provided the scouts, owners, and executives knew what they were doing). In 1942 he moved to Brooklyn where he again revolutionized the game by integrating the Major Leagues in 1947. This action helped truly nationalize the game and was a major step in the civil rights movement of the 1940s through the 1960s.

And now two transcendent players:

8. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was not the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. There is evidence that William Edward White who played one game with Providence in 1879 was black. Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday, both of which played for Toledo (a big league club) in 1884 certainly were black. But none of them stuck. All were out of the major leagues within a year and the so-call “Gentlemen’s Agreement” re-segregated baseball until 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was an excellent player, a leader, and a person who could not be ignored as either a man or a player. His arrival opened up the game for an entire group of players who had been excluded for 60 years.

9. George Herman “Babe” Ruth revolutionized the game by introducing power as a central element of baseball. His feats were legendary, some were even true, but he became a household name unlike any other in the game and arguably in American sport. “Ruthian” still describes a larger than life feat in sports. He didn’t save baseball in the early 1920s (Landis did), but he made it popular again and became the centerpiece of the Yankees Dynasty that has been at the heart of baseball since 1921.

All of which brings me to the tenth guy. I thought about a lot of people, Al Spalding and Happy Chandler, Harry Wright, John Montgomery Ward, and Vin Scully, William Rufus Wheaton and Duncan Curry, Daniel Adams and Jim Creighton. All are important in American baseball history and I sort of hate to leave any of them off, but I’ve only got one place left and it belongs to

10. Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster was an excellent pitcher in the rough and tumble black leagues of the early 20th century. By 1904 he was in Philadelphia and moved in 1907 to Chicago. Still a terrific pitcher, he became a manager and team owner of the American Giants. In 1920 he moved to form the first stable black league, the Negro National League. It was later joined by the Eastern Colored League. These leagues, led by Foster’s NNL, gave form and order to much of black baseball and made it possible for players to coalesce around specific teams. There was still a lot of barnstorming and player movement, but order was coming to what had been an essentially disorganized group. It made it possible for the black press to more easily highlight the black players and it popularized the game. Foster was confined to a mental institution in 1926 and died in 1930. The Great Depression killed the NNL, but the idea remained and a new NNL was formed in the 1930s. It joined the Negro American League in creating a stable playing system for black baseball until the Major Leagues were willing to integrate.

So that’s my list and my present to you on opening day. Feel free to disagree (I know many of you will). Now “Play Ball.”

 

 

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Well, now you know

March 27, 2018

When BaseballReference.com first showed up, it was great. It still is and I find myself sometimes just going there to mine the wealth of information it provides. And every so often I find something totally new.

The next time you’re on BBRef click on the “Seasons” button. It will take you to a page that provides a long list of seasons so you can look at a single season in isolation from others. You knew it did that, didn’t you? But if you look just below the league index you’ll find “Major League Historical Totals.” There are two sets of totals, one beginning in 1871, and obviously including the National Association, and the other beginning with the founding of the National League in 1876.  Take a look at them someday.

One stat that is interesting is the total number of at bats is listed for each. It shows 14,756,972 total at bats since 1871 and 14, 667,589 at bats since 1876 (for 89,383 at bats in the National Association). It also gives total hits as 3,836,660 since 1876 and 3,861,190 since 1871 (for 24,530 hits in the NA).  For those curious that makes the overall batting average for the NA at .274. It also means the batting average for the Major Leagues since 1876 is .262. Overall you get, since 1871, an average of .262.

There are several other stats listed and a disclaimer that admits that some stats in some years are incomplete.

Is the information earthshaking? Probably not, but I did find it interesting. And for anyone curious, the last time the overall Major League average was .262 was in 2009. Other “average” years are 1941 and 1903. Now you can go and astonish your friends and relatives.

Press Box Red: A Review

March 22, 2018

Press Box Red cover

Time to leave the world of 1908 and move to something more modern. I haven’t done a book review in a while so it’s time to fix that. This time I want to look at a book titled Press Box Red by Irwin Silber.

Silber tells, in this work, the story of Lester Rodney, an American Communist who became influential in the sports world. Rodney became the sports editor, and generally the only member of the sports department, of The Daily Worker, the Communist Party of the United States newspaper. During the 1930s and 1940s he used the sports page of the paper to campaign for equal rights in the country. He was a stalwart supporter of Joe Lewis and one of the most ardent voices for the integration of baseball.

The book is very much a polemic as much as a history or biography. You know where Silber stands on the issues in which Rodney is embroiled. It is, having said that, still a worthwhile read because it reminds us that Branch Rickey wasn’t the only person desirous of integrating the Major Leagues. There were a number of voices raised arguing that it was time to make “The National Game” truly national. Silber also reminds the reader that several of those voices were white, rather than black. Beginning as early as 1936, Rodney wrote repeated articles arguing for the integration of baseball as “the right thing to do.”

The book is an interesting look at the role the Communist Party played in American society before the McCarthy Era, as well as a solid look at the sports world of the 1930s and 1940s. Interest in either the era or the integration of baseball makes this book a worthwhile addition to your sports reading. It is available from Amazon for $28.95. I got my copy for less at a used book store.

 

1908: The Second Division of the Senior Circuit

March 20, 2018

Bill Dahlen (with the Giants)

Now a brief look at the teams in the lower half of the National League (according to the 1907 standings) prior to Opening Day in 1908.

I’d like to say something good about the teams in Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Boston, and St. Louis, but there’s not a lot positive to be said about any of them. Brooklyn finished in fifth place, 40 games out. St. Louis brought up the rear 55.5 games back (and with 101 losses). It was harder to lose 100 games in 1907 simply because they played less games than (154), but the Cards gutted it up and took on the challenge and succeeded.

A measure of the desperation of the bottom tier of the league was Boston trumpeting the addition of Bill Dahlen to their roster. The Doves (and there’s a baseball name for the ages, the Fightin’ Doves) were right, he had a terrific year, putting up 5.2 WAR. But Dahlen was 38 and pinning your hopes on a geezer wasn’t the smartest idea in sports. I looked over the 1907 Doves pitching rotation in 1907. Never heard of any of them. I looked over the 1908 Doves pitching rotation. A few different pitchers, but never heard of any of them either. In 1908 they added Hall of Famer Joe Kelly in the outfield. He came out of retirement to play, got into 73 games, hit .259, and went back into retirement.  They also had, in 1907, Al Bridwell and Fred Tenney. Both would feature prominently in the 1908 pennant race. Unfortunately for Boston, they would do it with the Giants.

Cincinnati’s big player was pitcher Bob Ewing (apparently not related to the Ewing’s of “Dallas”).  He gave them 6.2 WAR with a losing record. They did have Hall of Famer Miller Huggins at second, but Huggins is in the Hall of Fame for his managerial skills (although he was a decent ball player). Hans Lobert moved from third to short in 1908. At least I’d heard of him. He put up decent numbers in 1907 and would do so again in 1908.

Brooklyn had Nap Rucker and not much else. He’d pitched well in 1907 and would continue doing so through 1913. He ended up with 134 wins and 134 loses, the very definition of a mediocre pitcher.

Going into 1908, no one except a few die-hard fans expected much out of the bottom dwellers in the National League. They would be right. As a group they finished fewer games out in 1908 (St. Louis was still last but only 50 games back), but most of that had to do with the teams at the top not putting up quite as many wins as they had in 1907.

 

 

 

1908:The First Division of the Senior Circuit

March 15, 2018

John Titus from his Wikipedia page

Following up a look at the American League going into 1908, here’s a look at the National League. Please note that the standings here reflect the end of the 1907 season.

Chicago: The Cubs were defending World Series champions going into 1908 (a phrase repeated exactly once since 1908). This was the famous Tinker to Evers to Chance infield (although the poem that made them famous came later) with Harry Steinfeldt at third. As you might guess, the Cubs stood pat mostly for 1908. Heinie Zimmerman would make more of an impact in ’08 than in ’07, and Orval Overall would slip behind Mordecai Brown in pitching, but the Cubs in 1908 seemed to understand the old admonition “if it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.”

Pittsburgh: The Pirates finished 1907 in second place, 17 games back. That made for a good team that needed to make a few changes. They shifted first basemen (and got older doing so) and brought Tommy Leach from the outfield to third base. That alone meant changes in the outfield. Chief Wilson replaced Goat Anderson (and I don’t know how he got the nickname “Goat”) and Roy Thomas took Leach’s place. What remained the same were player-manager Fred Clarke and simply the best shortstop in the game, Honus Wagner. In 1908, he would have a season for the ages. Sam Leever and Deacon Phillippe were still around from the 1903 World Series pitching staff.

Philadelphia: The Phillies finished third in 1907. You probably ought to think about that for a second. It didn’t happen often. They were 4.5 games behind the Pirates with an outfield of Sherry McGee, Roy Thomas (who, as noted above was in Pittsburgh in 1908), and John Titus who should probably be better remembered. The rest of the starters remained the same. The major change on the mound saw George McQuillan go from five starts to 42.

New York: John McGraw’s Giants were a formidable team in 1907 and again in 1908. As usual for a McGraw team it was built on speed, pitching, and good fielding (for the era). Gone were Bill Dahlen and Dan McGann, replaced by McGraw favorite Al Bridwell and Fred Tenney. Tenney, the first baseman, had a 19-year-old back up named Fred Merkle who would manage to get into 38 games. In 1908 Mike Donlan decided to play instead of go on the vaudeville circuit and was the major outfield addition. On the mound there was Christy Mathewson. He’d been great in 1907 and no one expected a falling off in 1908. Behind him Joe McGinnity was 37 and fading.

A lot of the names above are utterly obscure today, but in 1908 they had meaning. The National League was still considered the stronger league in 1908 and a lot of those guys were the reason why. Next time, the bottom feeders in the NL.

1908: The Second Division of the Junior Circuit

March 13, 2018

Branch Rickey, catcher

With the first division of the American League out of the way, here’s a look at where the bottom four teams at the end of 1907 stacked up to begin 1908.

It should come as no surprise that the teams that finished low in 1907 were undergoing transformation in 1908. Some went through large overhauls, others a tweak here and there. The Highlanders (now the Yankees) had finished fifth under Clark Griffith with Hal Chase leading the team in hitting. Half the regulars were 30 or more with Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Keeler the oldest at 35. By opening day 1908 they’d switched out a couple of players but still had four regulars at 30 or more. One of the players they’d gotten rid of was a back up catcher named Branch Rickey (whatever happened to him?). Of course one of the primary problems in New York was the presence of Hal Chase.

The Browns settled in at sixth, a game behind New York. For a team with only 69 wins, St. Louis had three players with 5+ WAR (George Stone in the outfield, infielder Bobby Wallace, and pitcher Harry Howell). But if you thought the Highlanders were old, the Browns were absolutely ancient with six regulars at 30 or older along with four of their five primary pitchers. That made them veteran, but also meant they could be prone to injury, fatigue, and just plain being done. The ’08 Browns had cut out one geezer as a regular, but added one on the staff. The one was Rube Waddell, who would one day earn a place on a wall in Cooperstown.

Finishing next-to-last in 1907 was Boston. The Americans (the Red Sox would come in 1908–another reason to celebrate the season) were, frankly, not much of a team. The big star was Cy Young, who could still put up a Cy Young season. But he was 40 and no other starter was close to him. Only one every day player, Bunk Congalton (never heard of him either), hit over .260 and no one had more than 20 stolen bases.  By the beginning of the ’08 season Congalton was gone (got me) and changes were beginning. Most of them involved new guys. Tris Speaker had gotten into a few games in 1907. By the next season he was on the bench and Larry Gardner got into three games. Both were instrumental in the 1912 pennant winner.

If the Boston team wasn’t much, the Washington Senators were even worse. They managed 49 wins, a full ten games below Boston. They could hit a little and three men had 25 or more stolen bases, but the pitching was a problem. The ERA’s were high for the Deadball period and only two had WAR over 2. One was Charlie Smith whose career year ended up being 1907. The other was a 19-year-old kid named Walter Johnson. A lot of people thought he had potential.

The 1908 season would see, as most seasons do, a number of surprises . A couple of these teams will rise dramatically, another will fall off drastically. Next time we’ll start our journey through the National League.

March 12, 2018

 

 

 

1908: The First Division of the Junior Circuit

March 7, 2018

ChiSox manager Fielder Jones

The 1907 season ended with Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland holding down the first division (upper half, for all of you too young to remember the term) of the American League. Here’s a look at where each stood as the 1908 season was ready to unfold.

Detroit: The Tigers were reigning AL champs, having won the 1907 pennant with 92 victories. They’d lost the World Series in a sweep. Well, sort of a sweep. Game one was a 12 inning tie that a lot of fans thought was played to tie and increase the player’s take from the Series. In 1907 the teams got a cut from every game. That changed for 1908 when it was determined that the player cut would be for the first four games only (so already 1908 had created a change without a ball being thrown). It was supposed to stop teams trying to stretch the World Series for money purposes.

As you might expect for a World Series participant, the team wasn’t much changed. Germany Schaefer moved from second to short and 1907 shortstop Charley O’Leary would ride the pine for 1908. Red Downs would be the new second baseman. The strength of the team was the outfield. Matty McIntyre played one position. He’d been the fourth outfielder in 1907 and now switched positions with Davy Jones. But the stalwarts, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, were still in the pasture and with Crawford in his prime and Cobb still getting better, those two positions were settled for the long haul. The pitching was decent, but not spectacular. One worry for the staff was that both Bill Donovan and Ed Killian were over 30.

Philadelphia: Connie Mack’s Athletics finished 1907 with 88 wins. They were two years off a World Series appearance (they’d lost) and were in something of a transition. Third baseman Jimmie Collins was 38 in 1908. Mack was looking for a replacement and brought John Franklin Baker to the team as a player who might take over the job (“Home Run” Baker was still two years away from the nickname.). Danny Murphy, veteran second baseman, moved to the outfield and the new kid (although he’d played some in 1907) was Eddie Collins, who held some promise. Bench players Jack Barry, Amos Strunk, and Jack Lapp were all less than 24 and were beginning to get their feet wet. All would be starters by 1910. And there was a rookie who would come to the A’s in 1910 named Joe Jackson. He’d do little for the A’s, so they’d trade him later. There was nothing wrong with the pitching. Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, and Jack Coombs would be around for a while.

Chicago: The White Sox were third in 1907. To begin that campaign, they were defending World Champs, having ousted the Cubs in the 1906 World Series. The 1906 team was nicknamed the “Hitless Wonders,” which should tell you a lot about their pitching. Ed Walsh was beginning his prime and Doc White, Nick Altrock, and Frank Smith were expected to contribute. Hall of Famer George Davis was 37 and player-manager Fielder Jones was 36. Three other everyday players were also in their thirties, as was a rather significant part of their bench. If the pitching held, the team could contend.

Cleveland: The Naps finished 1907 in fourth place, two games behind Chicago. They had Hall of Famers Nap LaJoie in the infield and Elmer Flick in the outfield. They had another Hall of Famer in pitcher Addie Joss. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much else. In 1907 only one other major starter (the catcher) hit over .250. In 1908, they hadn’t changed much.

Next time, a look at the bottom half of the AL at the beginning of the 1908 season.

A Long Look at 1908

March 6, 2018

Honus Wagner

Back in 2010 I took a months long look at the 1910 season as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of a pivotal season. The 1910 season was important because it began the ascendency of the American League over the National League in postseason play. In the first decade of the 20th Century, the NL won most World Series. The next time that was true was the 1960s. The 1910 season also saw the coming of the first AL dynasty, the Philadelphia Athletics. OK, I know Detroit won three straight pennants 1907-1909, but they blew all three World Series. Somehow, you just can’t be a dynasty if you lose the championship game three years in a row. The year also saw the rise to prominence of several players, Eddie Collins, Frank Baker (not yet “Home Run” Baker), and Joe Jackson (and others). All in all it was an important year for the sport.

The 1908 season wasn’t quite as important, but it has, over the 110 years since, become far more famous. It was the year of the “Merkle Boner,” probably the most famous Deadball Era play ever and of the first game that was something like a “play in” game. Honus Wagner had a season for the ages, arguably the finest hitting season prior to the arrival of Babe Ruth in New York. It included two great pennant races; the NL one being the more famous, but the one in the AL being every bit as terrific. It saw two great pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Mordecai Brown step center stage in the NL race. It was still two years to “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” the poem that immortalized Tinker to Evers to Chance, but they were the mainstays of one of the teams in the middle of the NL race. And always standing forefront in the NL was the shadow of John McGraw. In the AL there was Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford and the Detroit team trying to repeat as AL champs, something that hadn’t been done since 1903-04.

What I intend to do is take a post or two every month through September and look at various aspects of the season. Sometimes it will be a team, other times a player, yet other times a game or set of games. There will be updates on the standings and the stats. The project won’t dominate any month (at least I don’t think so), but it will recur. I hope you will enjoy a long, frequent (but hopefully not overdone) trip back 110 years to see just what all the shouting was about. More importantly, I hope we each learn something.

The Organist

March 1, 2018

Gladys at the organ

Gladys Gooding from Find  Grave

One of the glories of sports in general and of baseball in particular is the sounds that go with the game. Think about the “crack” of the bat, the “roar” of the crowd. Another sound that frequently goes with the game is music. Some of it is the special song done for a particular player as he comes to bat. Sometimes it’s the “Jeopardy” theme as the visiting manager takes the stroll to the mound. And in big league parks there’s the organ. Easily the most famous baseball organist was Gladys Gooding.

Gladys Gooding was born in 1893 in Missouri. She learned to play music, had a brief marriage, children, and a divorce. The latter was unusual in early 20th Century America so she had to find her own way. That way led her to New York and the silent movies. She wasn’t an actress, but even silent movies required sound. The in-house soundtracks for movies could be quite elaborate. You can pick up a silent like “The Battleship Potemkin” and watch it today. If you do, make sure you notice there’s a soundtrack that goes with it. It’s all music and someone had to play it in the theaters. Gladys Gooding found a profession as the organist at a movie house in New York.

It got her noticed. There was the Chautauqua circuit, there were concerts, there were various musical concerts. I’m unsure whether she ever made it to Carnegie Hall or not, but the crowds thought she was good and she became, in her circle, quite famous.

In the 1940s it got her a new gig; her most famous. She was hired to play the organ at Ebbets Field. She became something of a celebrity in her own right. Her rendition of the National Anthem became famous. She played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch (and at other times), had her own list of numbers she’d play for particular situations (Couldn’t find out if “Charge” was one of them). Her most infamous moment occurred in the 1950s when one of the umpires for the day’s game at Ebbets Field was sick. When only three umps showed up on the field to call the game, Gladys Gooding serenaded them with “Three Blind Mice.” It seems to be the only time an organist was thrown out of a ball game.

She was there when the Dodgers moved away from Brooklyn, playing the organ for the last time at an Ebbets Field game. She also took over the music responsibilities at Madison Square Garden where she played for both the Knickerbocker basketball team and the Rangers hockey squad. That led ultimately to a great trivia question: “Who played for the Dodgers, Knicks, and Rangers?” She also did the National Anthem for a number of major professional boxing matches, including championship bouts. She died in New York in 1963.

Much of this is taken from a short article at the “Find a Grave” website. The article is written by a Barbara Dines Hoffman. Ms. Hoffman also included a picture of Gladys Gooding away from her organ. It’s above. You can also find Gladys Gooding performances on You Tube.