Archive for March, 2019

Opening Day, 1919

March 28, 2019

Ollie O’Mara at bat for Brooklyn

It’s Opening Day for the 2019 season (I don’t count the 2 games in Tokyo). As I normally do, I take the occasion to look back 100 years. This year it’s 1919, a year of infamy.

Opening Day in 1919 was 19 April, a Saturday. The only games played on that date were a double-header between the Brooklyn Robins (now the Los Angeles Dodgers) and the Boston Braves (now setting up shop in Atlanta). Brooklyn won both, 5-2 and 3-2. Leon Cadore and Jeff Pfeffer were the winnings pitchers (in order) with Dick Rudolph and Pat Ragan taking the losses (again in that order). All but Ragan pitched complete games. In game one Ivy Olson hit the season’s first double and Hall of Famer Zack Wheat had the season’s first triple. Boston left fielder Joe Kelly had the year’s first stolen base. Boston’s first sacker Jimmy Johnston was the first batter of the season. Brooklyn third baseman Ollie O’Mara went 0 for 3 in game one, 0 for 4 in game two, reached base on a sacrifice and scored a run in game two. It was his last game in the Major Leagues. Over six years he hit .231/.280/.279/.559 with two home runs, 46 stolen bases, 77 RBIs, 166 runs scored, and more strikeouts than walks, and OPS+ of 68 and -0.8 WAR.

There were no games in the American League. They began play on the 23rd with the big news being a 13-4 rout by the White Sox over the Browns. Lefty Williams of Black Sox infamy got the win with six of the Black Sox (including Williams) playing (Fred McMullin and Eddie Cicotte sat it out). Buck Weaver was the hitting star with four hits and three runs scored. Back east, Boston shut out the Yankees 10-0 with left fielder Babe Ruth slugging the league’s first home run of the season in the first with a man on (yep, he hit it against the Yanks).

At this point the eventual National League champion Reds were in second place with the White Sox tied (with Boston ) for first in the American League. No one yet knew they would meet in the World Series and change baseball forever.

The Cartwright Story

March 26, 2019

Alexander J. Cartwright

From its very beginning, the Hall of Fame has endeavored to enshrine the most significant baseball people. They’ve done, by and large, a pretty fair job of it based on the information available to them when a particular person was inducted. They’ve made some mistakes, but many of those were done in good faith.

Candy Cummings was elected early on the theory that he invented the curve ball. Maybe so, but there is evidence that others, including Jim Creighton also invented it. In fact, Creighton is given credit for half the innovations in pitching history, credit much beyond what is probably true. Whether Cummings actually invented the curve or not, it seems the voters in 1939 (the year he was elected to Cooperstown) believed he did.

That brings me to one of those origin stories that baseball seems to love, the story of Alexander Cartwright. The story goes something like this (and I’m going to greatly curtail it and leave out much detail). Cartwright was a founding member of the Knickerbockers, the first baseball team. He sat down one day in 1845 and wrote out the first rules for baseball (the so-called Knickerbocker Rules) and thus established the basic principles of the game. It’s a great story and it got him into the Hall of Fame in 1938 (a year before Cummings). But let’s take a look at the story and see what we get.

1. The Knickerbockers were not the first baseball team. As far as I can tell, they never claimed to be the first. We know that by 1837 the Gothams were already playing a version of baseball in New York.

2. William Rufus Wheaton, in an 1887 interview with a San Francisco newspaper (the Daily Examiner) indicated that the Gothams had a set of written rules as early as 1837. I’ve been unable to find the article on-line to actually read the entire thing, but excerpts at various places are available. There seems to be some question of whether Wheaton claimed to have actually written the 1837 Gothams rules or if he was merely part of a committee that came up with them. A direct quote from Wheaton in the article says “it was found necessary to reduce the new rule to writing. The task fell to me.” Having been unable to find an actual copy of the article, I’ll take them at their word that he said that in the article. Whether that means he wrote them or merely wrote them down is for you to decide. As far as I can tell there is no copy available.

3. In 1845, the Knickerbockers, realizing that game rules needed to be codified in some form, set up a five man committee to write a set of rules for team use. The committee consisted of both Cartwright and Wheaton along with Duncan Curry (club president), William H. Tucker (club secretary) and Daniel “Doc” Adams (who is credited, along with others, with creating the shortstop position). There is some question as to the actual composition of the committee. The oldest copy of the rules available has only the names of Wheaton and Tucker at the bottom. It is possible the other three were members or maybe they weren’t. Curry as club president may have been a ex officio member of the committee or maybe he just sat in on the meetings. The other two may have been members or maybe they just sat in also. Or maybe they didn’t do anything involving the committee. I know there are a lot of “maybes” in there but that’s the closest we seem to be able to get to the truth.

4. The rules were first used in a game played in New Jersey (which the Knickerbockers lost). Some sources indicate that Cartwright served as umpire others give the umpiring job to Wheaton; neither appears on the game day roster (of the five committee “members” only Adams and Tucker played in the so-called first ball game).

So where are we? Well, pretty much no where, at least when it comes to Cartwright. There is ample agreement that he was a member in good standing with the Knickerbockers, but then things get murky. It is certain that the Knickerbockers wrote a set of rules for game use and the signatures of Wheaton and Tucker indicate they were involved. It is less certain that Cartwright was involved.

Which leads to the question “How’d he get into the Hall of Fame?” It seems that in 1938 the Hall of Fame was looking for the inventor of the game and given up on the somewhat silly idea that Abner Doubleday was the man. Some of Cartwright’s relatives pushed hard for him and the voters went along with it.

Cartwright’s Hall of Fame plaque (from the Hall of Fame)

Does Cartwright belong in the Hall of Fame. Strangely enough, to me he does. He belongs not because he invented the game, but as a stand-in for all the people who sat down in the 1830s and 1840s and came up with the game we all love. The Hall isn’t in the habit of inducting entire teams or entire committees, so one man was chosen as the creator of the game. Frankly Wheaton or Adams or Tucker would be better choices, but for right now, Cartwright will do, so long as we understand that he didn’t, singlehandedly, do all the things he’s credited with (it’s entirely possible he did none of them, except maybe the Hawaii bit).

The Writing on the Plaque

March 14, 2019

Lou Brock postcard from the Hall of Fame

I’ve been to Cooperstown twice. It’s a great place, but like most enterprises of its type it has a store. Of course there’s going to be crass commercialization and the stuff will be overpriced. One of the cheaper items is the postcard collection. These are 4×6 standard sized postcards with a picture of the player’s plaque in the Hall of Fame hall. They’re 50 cents each so you can get 20 for $10 (plus tax). I picked up some and was looking them over the other day. That led to this post.

The one above is the card for Lou Brock. It’s kind of hard to read at this size, but it basically says he has the record for most stolen bases in a season and for a career. One of the things I noticed was that you can almost always tell when a player was inducted into the Hall of Fame by reading the plaque. Older plaques tend to be shorter and a bit more vague (that’s not universally true). There’s a lot more emphasis on batting average in the older ones and more on wins and losses by pitchers (again not true every time).

The Brock card struck me because it’s no longer true. Brock holds neither the seasonal nor career stolen base record. They both belong to Rickey Henderson. Of course Henderson’s plaque notes that he now holds both records. And I decided that it was fine to show both men as record holders because it does two things that, to me, are important.

Rickey Henderson postcard from the Hall of Fame

First, it shows the upward progression of the stolen base record and thus celebrates both players and their achievement. And before you ask, Billy Hamilton’s plaque also gives him credit for both records. So by simply reading these plaques you can follow the stolen base record, both seasonal and career, from the 1890s into the 21st Century.

“Slidin'” Billy Hamilton postcard from the Hall of Fame

Second, I think a lot of people who simply look over the Hall of Fame list wonder “What the heck is he doing here?” I know I do and will continue to do so because there are several questionable inductees. But sometimes the plaque tells you exactly why the guy is in the Hall of Fame because it makes a point of giving you information that was, when the player was chosen, critical to his election. So when someone asks why Billy Hamilton is in the Hall of Fame (and I suppose there are a lot of visitors who know nothing about 19th Century base ball–correct spelling in the 19th Century) you can read that the Hall decided that the man who had more stolen bases than anyone else ought to be in the Hall of Fame. When you get to Lou Brock’s plaque you find the same is still true and then again when you stand in front of Rickey Henderson’s.

So the plaques are more than just a celebration of a player and a game. They are also an historical record of the course of the seasons and of careers.

For those interested the postcards are available at the Hall of Fame website’s shop (and I don’t get a cut).

A New Test for Seaver

March 9, 2019

Tom Seaver with the Mets

It was with sadness that I read Tom Seaver has dementia. He’s 74 now and owns a vineyard in California. But to me he will always be the great pitcher I saw in the 1970s.

I’m not certain who gets credit as the greatest pitcher I ever saw, but I know Seaver makes the top 10 easily, and probably is in the upper half. He was a joy to watch with the great push-off his legs, the telltale dirt mark on his trousers where his leg scrapped the ground as he delivered a pitch. There seemed to be no-nonsense with him when he went to the mound, a trait that appears common among most great pitchers. He pitched quickly and economically in both motion and number of pitches. To me, Steve Carlton personified determination, Sandy Koufax elegance, and Bob Gibson fierceness. But Seaver had a touch of all of those.

It’s been 50 years since the Miracle Mets. Seaver was the face of that team. It’s unusual for a pitcher to be the face of a team. They don’t go out everyday like a position player, but it does occur (Carlton, Koufax, and Gibson all accomplished it). Seaver won the Cy Young that year (1969), the first of three (He’d already picked up a Rookie of the Year award). His family has already announced he will not attend any of the celebrations in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary. That’s a great shame.

I never rooted for his teams. I liked Baltimore in 1969, the A’s in 1973, and never cared much for the Reds, or either color of sox (he played for both the White Sox and Red Sox), but you almost couldn’t help rooting for him. I presume I join a legion of fans in wishing him well and join others in saying, “Good luck, Tom Terrific.” We’re pulling for you.

The Marxist Cat and Hammering Hank

March 5, 2019

About 20 years ago we decided to adopt a new cat. We went to the local animal shelter and found a small black male that was just perfect for us. We brought him home and named him after one of the finest ball players either of us ever saw, Henry Aaron. We called him “Hank.”

He was a great cat. He did all those things that cats do to endear themselves to the inferior creatures that are humans. He purred, played with string, chased assorted bugs and creatures across the back yard, sat on laps. It’s the latter that caused a certain amount of consternation. You see, he was a left-facing cat. If he jumped up on your lap or chest to lay down, he’d turn to face left every time. You could move him to face right and he’d turn back around to the left. It happened every time. If he came up to your lap facing right, he’d turn. If he came up facing left, he’d simply lie down. It quickly got him the nickname of “The Marxist Cat.” We thought he was great although it did concern some of your more right-wing friends. We thought about sending a note to Mr. Aaron telling him about the cat, but never did. Hank died several years ago, but we still remember the “Marxist Cat.” We sang The Internationale over his grave.

I thought of this when Frank Robinson died and when I realized Aaron had made it to his 85 birthday. Robinson’s passing left Hank Aaron as the only great right fielder of my youth still living. I have to admit that I tended to overlook him behind Willie Mays, but when it came to right fielders, Aaron was the man. Robinson was fine and Roberto Clemente was thrilling to watch, but Hank Aaron was special. I remember him for those 1950s Braves teams (the ones in Milwaukee) and also from the later teams in Atlanta. I rooted for him to hit 715 home runs and to run up his RBI total and his hits. It was late before he received the honors he deserved (and MLB still does a terrible job promoting the Hank Aaron Award) so it’s good that he seemed to be a man of great patience.

I’ve had a lot of great baseball players I’ve liked. I began with Jackie Robinson, rolled on to Duke Snider and Sandy Koufax. I thought Mays was great and Yaz and a ton of others, but Aaron is one of the few I genuinely admired. I hope he reads this someday. Maybe he’ll be impressed I named a cat for him, even if it was a Marxist.