Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

A Remembrance of Richie Ashburn

June 13, 2019

Richie Ashburn

When I was a kid the baseball world was full of terrific center fielders. New York had Mays and Mantle and Snider. As a Dodgers fan I loved Snider but it was tough to give either Mays or Mantle their due. After all the Giants and Yankees were the great rivals of my team. But Richie Ashburn was different. His Phillies weren’t a direct threat to the Dodgers and he was a great outfielder.

The Phillies weren’t on television all that often and were on the radio only when they played the Cardinals (who were the closest team to us and all their games were on the radio). So I didn’t get to watch Ashburn all that often. When I did I was in awe. He was a terrific outfielder. I’d never heard of most fielding stats but I could tell he was good. He made it look easy in center. Willie Mays always had that element that made it look harder than it was, but Ashburn just went out and made the play. I discovered Ashburn is second among centerfielders in range factor per game, 10th in career assists, and third in putouts while playing center. None of those I knew in the 1950s (and probably had never heard of either). All of that confirms that I was right in believing he was a great outfielder.

He was different from the other big centerfielders of the day. Snider, Mays, Mantle all hit for power; Richie Ashburn was more like Bill Bruton of the Braves. Both led off and both could steal a base. Bruton won two stolen base titles in the National League to Ashburn’s one, but Ashburn stole 30 or more twice to Bruton’s once. It was an era without a lot of stolen bases as each team featured a big slugger who could clear the bases and no one wanted to run into an out trying to steal second. For the Phillies that was Del Ennis. He benefitted from Ashburn being on base a lot. Richie Ashburn led the NL in hits three times, walks four times, and triples twice. He won a batting title and led in OBP on four occasions (one of the OBP titles and one of the walks titles came with the Cubs late in his career). That gave Ennis, and other batters, a lot of chances to drive in runs.

In 1960 Philadelphia sent him to Chicago. He played two years with the Cubs having a good season in 1960 and a much weaker one in 1961. He ended up in New York in 1962 with the Mets. They were awful but his 2.1 WAR was second on the team (to outfielder Frank Thomas–not the Hall of Fame White Sox first baseman). He’s part of a great trivia question, “The 1962 Mets had two Hall of Famers in their dugout. Who were they?” The answer is of course Ashburn, and also manager Casey Stengel.

For his career Richie Ashburn’s triple slash line reads 308/396/382/778 with 1322 runs scored, 317 doubles, 109 triples, an OPS+ of 111 and 63.9 WAR. In 1995 he made the Hall of Fame. It’s always gratifying when one of your heroes makes the Hall. It kind of vindicates your view.

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RIP Bill Buckner

May 28, 2019

Bill Buckner with the Cubs

Its been a tough week. First, Bart Starr, one of the heroes of my coming of age era dies, and now I note the passing of Bill Buckner at age 69. He is, of course, known for one play; or rather, is known for not making one play. That’s a great shame. He had good years with the Dodgers, coming up as an outfielder/first baseman and moving almost entirely to the outfield to accommodate Steve Garvey.

Traded to the Cubs, he won a batting title (1980), made his only All-Star team the following season, and moved on to Boston in 1984, just as the Cubs finally won a pennant. He remained in Boston into 1987, appearing in the 1986 World Series, and making one of the more famous errors in baseball history. It was his second Series (1974). He finished up with the Angels and Royals, before going back to Boston for a final 22 games in 1990.

For his career his triple slash line read 289/321/408/729 (OPS+ of 100) with 2715 hits, 1077 runs scored, 498 doubles, 174 home runs, 1208 RBIs, 3833 total bases, and 15.1 WAR; a nice solid career. He got a couple of votes for the Hall of Fame in 1996.

Apparently he was fighting dementia in his final years and died yesterday. RIP Bill Buckner.

The Demons Within Us

May 23, 2019

“Eddie” Waitkus in 1941

Eddie Waitkus was a first baseman in the 1940s and 1950s for, first, the Chicago Cubs, then the Phillies and Orioles. He had a nice little career hitting .285 with 24 home runs, 373 RBIs, and 12.9 WAR. He’s of course known more for being shot than for playing ball.

It seems he had a fan named Ruth Ann Steinhagen who had an entire array of internal demons. In 1949 she shot him in a hotel room in Chicago. He survived and she spent some time in Kankakee State Hospital.

Maybe all of this sounds familiar. It should be. It is the opening basis for both the book and the movie The Natural. They occasionally have things in common, like the name of the main character, but essentially they differ thematically. The movie tells us that after a mistake, there is redemption. The book tells us that after a mistake, we don’t really learn anything and our demons persist.

Baseball is a sport involving the demons within us; and we all have them. Ty Cobb channeled his internal demons into a ferocity the made him a great player, a miserable human being, and someone neither fans nor teammates particularly liked. Babe Ruth had his own demons within him. They drove him to a lifestyle that might have killed him if he hadn’t gotten the help he needed to control them. Some internal demon drove Leo Durocher to be a martinet that ended up losing his players, his owners, his coaches. The racial demons that all of us seem to have lurking within just below the surface of civility allowed people to relegate players like Martin DiHigo and Josh Gibson to something other than the Major Leagues.

They are a mixed bag, these demons of ours. Without them DiHigo and Gibson might have been among the foremost Major Leaguers of the 1930s and 1940s. But without them Cobb might not have ruled Deadball baseball as he did and Ruth would surely have become merely another fine player without becoming a legend.

I try to keep away from politics around here, but this all came up because I hate what’s going on in American politics. Without reference to who’s President or Speaker of the House or Chief Justice, we currently are unleashing our demons in a way not seen in 150 years. That unleashing led to people shooting each other at places with names like Shiloh and Antietam.

I have hope. I watch a game and see those demons on display frequently. They disturb me, but I also recognize that there is at least something constructive going on at a ball game. You think the politicians might want to pay attention?

 

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

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.