Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Chet Laabs

May 8, 2019

Chet Laabs

Here’s a quick look at 1930s and 1940s outfielder Chet Laabs:

1. Chester Peter Laabs was born 330 April 1912 in Milwaukee. His father ran a tavern.

2. At 15 he joined a semi-pro team in Milwaukee. In 1934 he joined the Milwaukee Brewers, a minor league team at the time. By 1936 he was a hot property and was sold to the Detroit Tigers.

3. The Tigers sent him back to Milwaukee and asked he be made into an outfielder (he’d played second base for most of the 1934 and 1935 seasons). His play helped the Brewers to the “Little World Series,” a series of games between the pennant winners of the International League and the American Association (the Brewers were AA champs) minor league teams. The Brewers won in five games.

4. In 1937 Laabs began play in the big leagues with Detroit. He hit .240 in 72 games with eight home runs and 31 runs scored.

5. In 1938, Chet Laabs was sent back to the minors (he was hitting .237). He returned to Detroit in 1939, but was traded early in the season to the St. Louis Browns. He hit .300 with 10 homers and 52 runs scored with St. Louis.

6. In July 1941 he set an American League record with 13 total bases in a regular season games (9 innings).

7. In 1942 he had 27 home runs, good for second in the American League behind Ted Williams.

8. By 1944 he was involved in a war work-ball playing situation. He worked in the day at a plant that built pipes for the war and played ball at nights and on weekends. He hit all of .234, but he hit two home runs on the last day of the season to clinch the Browns only American League pennant.

9. He hit .200 in the World Series with six strikeouts, a double, a triple, two walks, and he scored the last run the Browns ever scored in the Series in game six. The Browns lost to the Cardinals in six games.

10. He remained with the Browns through 1946, then played one last season for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947. He retired with a triple slash line of 262/346/452/798, 813 hits, 467 runs scored, 117 home runs, 509 RBIs, and OPS+ of 113, and 10.8 WAR.

11. He played minor league ball through 1950, then worked for a Detroit paper and a trophy company.

12. Chet Laabs died of a heart attack in January 1983. He is buried in St. Clement cemetery in Center Line, Michigan.

Laabs grave from Find a Grave

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Adding it up

April 30, 2019

Yaz

Baseball has a ton of stats. There are stats for everything. You have hits, runs, number of strings on the webbing of a first baseman’s mitt, and other assorted great things. Some are pretty much ignored, others almost worshipped.

One of my favorites, which sits somewhere between ignored and worshipped, is Total Bases. For those who don’t know the stat is singles+ (doublesx2)+(triplesx3)+(homerunsx4)=total bases. It’s a quick way of seeing exactly what a player has done on the basepaths. The higher the total bases, the more hits and the more slugging a player has contributed to his team. I like it because it’s simple and it does its job well. It has a huge flaw and if you’re quick, you’ve already noticed it. It doesn’t include walks, which is sort of equivalent to a single. Despite what you may have been told in Little League by a coach saying “A walk is as good as a hit,” it’s not exactly the same because with a man on base a walk gives him one base. A single might give him two or more.

So I decided to take a look at the men at the top of the total base list. Their names are Aaron, Musial, Mays, Bonds, Cobb, Alex Rodriguez, Ruth, Rose, Pujols, and Yastrzemski. You’ve probably heard of them. What I did was take their total bases (as given by BaseballReference.com) and add to that number their walks (same source). I didn’t factor out intentional walks because they are not complete for early players like Cobb. I also didn’t add in hit batsman or catcher’s interference (other ways to get on base) because those numbers are so small that they didn’t make a difference in the calculations. If you’re interested in doing this yourself, feel free to add them in (and to factor out intentional walks if you think that’s best). The list above (Aaron, Musial, Mays, et.al.) is in order of total bases. With walks factored in, the list reads:

Barry Bonds-8534

Henry Aaron-8258

Babe Ruth-7855

Stan Musial-7733

Willie Mays-7530

Carl Yazstremski-7484

Pete Rose-7318

Alex Rodriguez-7151

Ty Cobb-7103

Albert Pujols-6946

A couple of quick points. First, Pujols is still active so will rise up the list probably. Second, I didn’t look at the total bases and walks of players not in the top 10 in total bases. It is entirely possible that someone listed 11th or lower would, when walks are added, move ahead of one of the current top 10.

I found this interesting and thought I’d pass it along.

and the Reds

April 25, 2019

Heinie Groh, Reds leader in WAR in 1919

In my continuing effort to dazzle you with numbers, here’s four more sets for you to look over. The first two are hitting stats in the following order: hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, walks, strikeouts, batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, total bases, OPS+ and WAR.

team A 1204/578/135/83/20/489/143/405/368/263/327/342/669/1565/61/21.0

team B 1343/668/218/70/25/571/150/427/358/287/351/380/731/1776/104/25.6

By now you’ve surely figured that one is the 1919 Cincinnati Reds. You’re right; they are team A. Having deduced that you’re pretty sure that team B is the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the Reds’ opponents in the World Series. Again, you would be right. Pat yourself on the back.

There is a common idea that the only reason the Reds won the World Series in 1919 is because the White Sox turned their hose black. The Sox were heavy favorites and would have won easily if they’d played the game on the up-and-up. The hitting numbers above tend to bear that out. Chicago is clearly better in everything except triples and they strike out more frequently than the National League’s finest.

Add to those numbers the undisputed fact that since 1910, the National League team won a single World Series (1914) and that team was known, even at the time, as the “Miracle Braves.” Anybody called “Miracle” anything is pretty much acknowledged as a fluke. So the American League was clearly the superior league and the White Sox, having just won in 1917 with pretty much the same team, was surely better than the Reds.

OK, maybe. But here’s two more sets of numbers for you to look over. They are pitching stats in the following order ERA, hits given up, runs given up, earned runs given up, walks allowed, strike outs ERA+, WHIP, WAR

Team A: 223/1274/401/316/298/407/126/1.100/16.2

Team B: 304/1245/539/427/342/468/106/1.254/14.3

Again the teams are the Reds and White Sox in that order (and all stats from the team page at BaseballReference.com). This time the Reds show up with better numbers overall.  So before we determine that the White Sox were going to win in 1919, maybe we should consider the pitching staff of each team. Just maybe the Reds were good enough to shut down Chicago with superior pitching.

There are a couple of great unknowns in all this. The first is that in the era the two leagues played no interleague games during the season. There wasn’t even an All Star Game. So that White Sox beating up on American League pitching means little against a team with no pitchers who played in the AL in 1919. No Reds pitchers played for any team other than the Reds in 1919 (and no Reds hitters played in the AL in 1919). The White Sox had two pitchers (Win Noyes and Pat Ragan) who had pitched in the NL in 1919, but neither appeared in the Series (Erskine Mayer pitched in the Series and had pitched in the NL, but had not pitched in the NL in 1919) and none of the ChiSox hitters were National Leaguers at any point in 1919. So there is no way to directly compare the players on either team against common opponents. So the White Sox hitters ability to beat up on AL pitching has no reference point against the Reds staff and the same works for the Reds hitters versus Chicago.

Most importantly, teams like the “Miracle Braves” and the “Hittless Wonders” (the White Sox world champions of 1906) indicate that sometimes teams that aren’t favored win the World Series (see teams like the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 and the Dodgers of 1988). So I’d just rather leave it at the White Sox were favored in 1919. Would they have won if the players had not “thrown” games? It’s certainly possible, but give the Reds a bit of credit. They were a champion also.

Edd Roush, Hall of Fame Reds outfielder

Faber,

April 23, 2019

Red Faber

In the second part of a look at the 1919 season, I want to concentrate on a pitcher who is very significant in understanding the “Black Sox” scandal even though he wasn’t involved in either the “fix” or the World Series. That would be Red Faber.

By 1919, Faber was in his sixth (of 20) season with Chicago. He’d been a good pitcher, winning three games in the 1917 World Series victory over the Giants. He was a spitballer who had excellent ERAs and winning percentages. He had a couple of years with great strikeout to walk ratios, but as we get closer to 1919, that changed. He started nine games in 1918, then went off to war. Sources say he lost a lot of weight while in the military and apparently developed a slight case of the flu (which may or may not be related to the Spanish Influenza Pandemic).

He was back in 1919, but something was wrong. The flu lingered, the weight loss didn’t stop, and he developed arm trouble and had problems with his ankle. For the season he went 11-9 in 25 games (20 starts) with nine complete games. He pitched 162 innings and gave up 185 hits, the first time he’d given up more hits than he had innings pitched. His walks and strikeouts were dead even at 45 giving him an ERA+ of 84, a 1.413 WHIP, and -1.0 WAR.

All of that made it impossible to use him in the 1919 World Series. According to his SABR biography no less an expert than Ray Schalk said that a healthy Faber would have prevented the “fix” because he would have been available to pitch too many innings to insure a loss. At this point we have to wonder how true that is. There is no evidence that any of the “Black Sox” even considered talking to Faber about the fix and with his injury why would they? And as for as I can tell from my readings he was not someone they would have approached anyway.

The problem with the idea that no fix was possible if Faber were available to pitch is that there is no way of knowing how well he would have pitched. Maybe in his starts (probably two) he would have been hit hard. Maybe Happy Felsch or Joe Jackson would have misplayed (either intentionally or not) a fly and runs would score. Maybe Swede Risberg was just a couple of steps short of stopping a shot through the infield. I suppose I’m saying I don’t quite buy the idea that a healthy Faber would have stopped in “fix” before it began. Maybe so; maybe not.

Whatever it meant for 1919, Faber’s health improved. He had excellent years in 1920 through 1922, winning a couple of ERA titles. He finished in 1933 with 254 wins, a .544 winning percentage, a 1.302 WHIP, an ERA+ of 119, and 67.4 WAR. He made the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Next time I want to look at the team that is forever tainted by its win in 1919, the Cincinnati Reds.

Here We Go Again

April 21, 2019

Albert Pujols

Was just over at ESPN and tucked into their headlines on the top right is the announcement that Albert Pujols just passed Babe Ruth on the all-time RBI list. Sounds like something to celebrate, right? Of course it isn’t really.

Here’s the thing. In its desire to grab a headline, ESPN decided to inform us that Pujols just passed Ruth in RBIs recorded since the RBI became on official stat in 1920. Got that? 1920, not ever, but 1920 when the RBI became official. Any RBIs Ruth hit prior to 1920 don’t count on this list. So I went to BaseballReference.com and looked up the RBI numbers they have. Well, they have Pujols at 1993 and Ruth at 2214. So between his rookie year in 1914 and his home run title in 1919, inclusive, the Babe had 222 RBIs that apparently, for somebody’s purpose, don’t count.

I hate this kind of thing. I’ve complained about it before. Look, team, Pujols is a great enough player without having to come up with some kind of artificial stat to make him even better. ESPN does this a lot and should be ashamed of themselves (although there doesn’t seem to be much shame left in most anything today) for doing it again.

Babe Ruth

For anyone interested, BaseballReference.com lists the top eight in RBIs as: Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Cap Anson, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and Stan Musial in that order.

Schalk,

April 18, 2019

Ray Schalk (from the Hall of Miller and Eric)

I want to give you three sets of numbers. They’ll show up below in this order: AB/OBP/SLG/OPS/Runs/Hits/HR/RBI/SB/TB/WAR/DWAR. The men all have careers that overlap ever so slightly.

Player A: 263/349/337/685/488/1259/13/534/30/614/26.1/11.1

Player B: 253/340/316/656/579/1345/11/593/177/1675/33.2/18.3

Player C: 272/319/357/676/475/1154/20/514/124/1517/28.9/13.7

Take a second and look them over. Except for a major difference in stolen bases and total bases, they look a lot alike don’t they? If you’re clever (and surely you are), you’ve looked at the title and the picture above and figured one is Ray Schalk. You’re right; he’s the guy in the middle. The other two are also catchers: Steve O’Neill (player A) and Johnny Kling (Player C). The three have careers that overlap in 1912 and 1913 only and each has at least one ring. O’Neill’s comes in 1920 with Cleveland, Kling with the Cubs in 1908 and 1907. Schalk has one with the White Sox in 1917.

There is of course one other major difference among them: Schalk is in the Hall of Fame and the other two aren’t. After looking at their stats that leads to an obvious question. Why is that so?

Schalk was a good catcher, even, perhaps a great one. His numbers show him almost always above average in caught stealing, a major stat in the run happy “Deadball Era.” For a career he threw out 48% of base runners trying to steal (the league average is 44%). He’s not much of a hitter. Someone once wrote that he is the only career eight-hole hitter in the Hall of Fame (I couldn’t find the reference and I’m not sure it’s still true, but I suspect it is). But the other two were no slouches behind the plate either (although it looks like Schalk was better) and neither made the Hall of Fame. Which brings me back to “What’s going on here?”

Ray Schalk has one distinction the others lack. In 1919 his socks remained white. Schalk was one of the earliest and fiercest critics of the Black Sox. Hugh Fullerton’s expose was based on information obtained from Schalk (among a host of others). This was a man who hated to lose and was incapable of accepting anyone who would even entertain the idea that “throwing” a game was proper conduct. If you look at the starting everyday players for the 1919 White Sox, Schalk and second baseman Eddie Collins were the only regulars who weren’t involved in the scandal in one way or another (the right field position was platooned). Collins was clearly a better player and certainly deserves his spot in Cooperstown.

Hollywood’s version of Schalk (Gordon Clapp)

So it’s time to give you my answer to the question “why is Ray Schalk a Hall of Famer?” I think it simply boils down to rewarding a quality catcher who did not participate in the Black Sox scandal and played the game “on the square.” That’s not a particularly great reason to put a player in the Hall of Fame, but there have been worse choices.

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.