Posts Tagged ‘Alvin Dark’

RIP Alvin Dark

November 18, 2014
Al Dark

Al Dark

Saw that Alvin Dark died last week. He was 92 and largely forgotten. But he was a significant player and a big league manager of note.

Dark came out of Oklahoma and attended what is now Louisiana-Lafayette excelling in both baseball and football. He was drafted in 1945 by the Philadelphia Eagles football team, but chose to play baseball. He made it to the Boston Braves for a 1946 cup of coffee. While there, he  hit .231 and was sent back to the Minors (Milwaukee). In 1948 he was up for good playing shortstop well enough to earn the second ever Rookie of the Year Award (there was only one award in 1948, not one in each league). Boston got to the World Series, lost in six games to Cleveland, and Dark managed to come in third in the MVP voting.

He remained in Boston in 1949, then was sent to New York where he anchored a Giants infield that included Eddie Stanky and Hank Thompson. They finished third. The next year the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place in the National League and Dark participated in the most famous of all playoff series. Whitey Lockman had joined the team at first and an outfield of Monte Irvin, Don Mueller, and rookie Willie Mays helped the team go 50-12 at the end of the season. Dark managed to lead the National League in doubles that season (the only time he led the league in any significant hitting stat). In the famous ninth inning of the third game, Dark led off with a single, went to second on another and came home with the first run of the inning. Later Bobby Thomson hit his “Giants win the pennant” homer and everybody forgot Dark began the rally.

He hit .417 in the World Series with a home run, but the Giants lost. Dark remained with the Giants through 1955, helping them to a World Series sweep in 1954. He hit .412 and scored a couple of runs in the Series. He played part of 1956 in New York, but ended up in St. Louis. He remained with the Cardinals into 1958, then was sent to Chicago. We was with the Cubs two years, then spent the 1960 season, his last between the Phillies and the Braves.

A trade sent him back to the Giants. He retired to take over as the Giants manager in 1961. They finished third. The next year he took them to their first World Series since the 1954 sweep and their first since moving to San Francisco. They took the Yankees to seven games before losing 2-1 in the last game.

He stayed in San Francisco through 1964 when he was fired (during the sixth inning of the final game). He worked with Kansas City (the A’s, not the Royals) becoming manager in 1966 and part of 1967, when he fell victim to one of Charlie Finley’s tantrums. That sent him to Cleveland until 1971 where he managed and for a while doubled as general manager. In 1974 he was back with the A’s (now in Oakland) and led the team to the final of three consecutive World Series triumphs (Dick Williams managed the other two wins). The A’s got to the playoffs in 1975, lost, and Dark was fired. He managed one year in San Diego (1977) then retired.

For his career he hit .289, had an OBP of .333, slugged .411, and ended up with an OPS of .744 (OPS+ of 98). He led the NL in doubles the one time and had 2089 hits, 358 total doubles, 72 triples, 126 home runs, and 757 RBIs to go with 1064 runs scored. His Baseball Reference.com version of WAR is 43.1. As a fielder he was considered more than capable. He led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, and errors at various times in his career. Over his career, he made three All Star teams. His Hall of Fame voting percentage peaked at 18.5% in 1979.

During his managerial career there was some question about his view of black players. In 1964, he made a questionable comment about their baseball smarts which some considered racist. But both Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson came to his defense.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, Dark’s been largely forgotten. But he was a key player on three pennant winners, one World Series winner, and managed in two World Series contests, winning one. RIP, Alvin.

Advertisements

The Last Win in New York

May 16, 2013
Willie Mays as a New York Giant

Willie Mays as a New York Giant

You’ve all seen the film. Willie Mays turns, runs back, his cap goes off, he reaches out, the ball falls in his mitt and he turns to fire the ball back to the infield. It’s the famous catch off Vic Wertz’s bat and is one of the handful of most famous plays in World Series history. It occurred in 1954, the last stand of the New York Giants in postseason.

The 1954 Giants were a team coming off a down season in 1953. After winning the National League pennant in 1951, they’d dropped to second in 1952, then fallen to fifth in 1953. It was much the same team, but with a couple of significant changes. Wes Westrum was still the catcher. He hit under the Mendoza Line for the season, but was a decent catcher. He’d led the league in caught stealing a couple of times, but also in passed balls (more on that later). The infield was Whitey Lockman, Davey Williams, Alvin Dark, and Hank Thompson. They had all been around in 1953. Dark and Thompson both hit 20 plus home runs with Dark leading the infield with a .293 average. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Don Mueller patrolled the outfield corners. Irvin had 19 home runs and Mueller hit .342. But the big change was the return of Willie Mays from the military. Mays hit .345, slugged .667, had an OPS+ of 175 and hit 41 home runs with 110 RBIs. He was also, of course, a superb center fielder.

The pitching staff consisted of Johnny Antonelli having a career year, Ruben Gomez continuing his run as a starter, and 37-year-old Sal Maglie contributing 14 wins. The closer was Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, whose knuckleball accounted for most of Westrum’s passed balls. Manager Leo Durocher’s bench was fairly thin, but ace pinch hitter and sometime outfielder Dusty Rhodes hit .341, had an OPS+ of 181 (higher than Mays).

The Giants weren’t favored in 1954, the Dodgers were. But the Giants went 25-19 against Brooklyn and Milwaukee (the other NL teams that played .500 ball) while the Dodgers were only19-25. The six games made a difference as New York took the pennant by five games, posting a 97-57 record.

They drew record-setting Cleveland in the World Series. The Indians had rolled to an American League record 111 wins (since bettered) but the number was deceiving. They’d feasted on the second division teams and played only so-so against the first division. There were no second division teams in the Series. Behind Mays’ famous catch, Rhodes two home runs, Dark’s .412 average, and pitching that held Cleveland to a .190 average New York swept the Indians in four games.

For the Giants it was the end. In 1955 they finished third. In both 1956 and 1957 they were sixth (of eight teams). By 1958 they were no longer the New York Giants. They moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. They had been a great franchise in the 1880s and had gone on to glory in the first 25 years of the 20th Century. After that they were sporadically good, but had become the third team in New York (behind both the Yankees and Dodgers). The 1954 season was their last hurrah. They would not win again until the 21st Century.

The Best Team Nobody Knows

July 8, 2011

Charlie O. The mascot-not the owner

Saw that Dick Williams just died. He first came to my attention as a backup for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to him. By 1967 he was managing the Boston Red Sox to the “Impossible Dream” pennant and a date with Bob Gibson in the World Series. He also managed Oakland in the 1970s and took San Diego to the World Series in 1984. It was a unique Series in that no manager had ever won a World Series in both leagues. Both Williams and Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson had won two Series’ in the opposite league, so whichever team won, the manager would be the first to win in both leagues. Anderson got the honor (only Tony LaRussa has done it since). In Williams’ honor, I want to dwell on the Oakland teams he managed in the 1970s. They are, for my money, the best team that nobody knows.

Between 1971 and 1975, the Oakland  Athletics won the American League West Division every year. For the middle three years they ended up with the pennant and a trip to the World Series. In 1972, ’73, and ’74 they were world champions. Do you realize how unusual that is? John McGraw’s Giants never did that (they got two in a row), Connie Mack’s Athletics never did that (they got three of four), Miller Huggins’ Murderer’s Row Yankees didn’t (they got two),  the Cardinals never did it (they won three of five in the 1940s). Neither did “The Big Red Machine.” Can you name all the teams that did? They are Joe McCarthy’s 1936-39 Yankees, Casey Stengel’s 1949-53 Yankees, Joe Torre’s 1998-2000 Yankees, and this Oakland team.  And I’ll bet if you weren’t reading this you might have stumbled over the A’s, because over the years they have gotten lost in the shuffle.

So who were they? Glad you asked. The owner was Charlie  O. Finley. When he owned the A’s, I was fairly sure Finley was half crazy. He did unusual things like try colored baseballs (that didn’t work) and came up with gold and green uniforms (which did work, except that it spawned some really ugly stuff down the road). He had a mule as a mascot (and the Phillie Phanatic it wasn’t). He invented a designated runner (which sorta worked). He was loud, he was a publicity hound, and he knew how to put together a team that won. Why he’s not in the Hall of Fame with his spiritual mentor Bill Veeck, I don’t know.

Williams managed the team through 1973, then left in a dispute with Finley. He was replaced by Alvin Dark who won the final of the three Series championships and one more division title. They were very different. Williams was loud (no wonder he didn’t get along with Finley), Dark more laid back. Williams fought his players, Dark didn’t. Both knew how to get the best out of what they had. They had a knack of using an over-the-hill player to get one more decent season out of him (see Billy Williams, Deron Johnson, and Jesus Alou after the advent of the designated hitter) and get good play out of career minor leaguers like Gonzalo Marquez.

The catcher changed over the years. Dave Duncan was there in 1971. In 1972 Gene Tenace took over and became the World Series MVP.  In 1973 and 1974 Ray Fosse (he of Pete Rose All-Star fame) was the catcher. He was still there in 1975, but Tenace was back to do the primary catching that season. Duncan was a good catcher who handled pitchers well. It got him a pitching coach job with LaRussa and he’s gone on to glory. Fosse was also a good catcher, but the encounter with Rose cost him a lot of his hitting prowess (I’ve never been quite sure why that’s true). More on Tenace in the next paragraph. All in all it was a decent, if unspectacular, catching staff.

The infield was amazingly consistent for the entire period. Mike Epstein started off at first, lasting through 1972. He hit a lot of home runs, had a lousy average, and was only a so-so first baseman. Tenace replaced him in 1974. He was sort of Epstein redux. He hit for a lot of power, not much of an average, and wasn’t going to make anyone forget he was an ex-catcher. He was, however, more of a team leader. Dick Green was the regular second baseman and he was great. Green was one of the premier second basemen of the era, and quite frankly one of the better second basemen ever. That has nothing to do with how well he hit, because he didn’t . He hit eighth for a reason. For a while Williams experimented with starting Green, then pinch-hitting for him when he came to bat, inserting Ted Kubiak at second, then pinch-hitting for him when his turn came to bat. Didn’t last long. It took up a lot of bench players and Green’s glove was sorely missed late in the game. Bert Campaneris played short and led off a lot. He was an OK shortstop, but his specialty was his bat. He hit around .300 a lot of the time, had no power, but had great speed. He was a fine table-setter for the power lower in the lineup.  He led the AL in stolen bases several times, but during the pennant run only led in 1972 (with 52). Sal Bando played third, was a team captain, and one of the most overlooked third basemen ever. He was an unquestioned team leader, played third well, and might have become the face of the team if not for the fellow in right field.

First and foremost, this was Reggie Jackson’s team. He played right field, hit the ball a mile, was outrageous (and could back it up), had his own candy bar, and led the team in power and quotes. Between 1972 and 1982 the American League team won the World Series five times. Jackson was on every team. He went to the playoffs every year except 1976 and 1979. I don’t know that he’s the best player of the 1970s (there’s always Mike Schmidt and George Brett to consider) but he was the most successful. Joe Rudi played opposite him in left. Rudi was everything Jackson wasn’t. He was quiet, never “hot dogged”. He was almost as good a player, however. He was excellent in the field, hit well, had good, but not great, power, and never stood out like “Mr October.” Center Field had Billy North out there in both 1973 and 1974. He was fast, could catch well enough, and made a good two hitter. He led off  some and ended up winning a stolen base title in 1974 (and later in 1976). Angel Mangual was the regular center fielder in 1972. By ’73 he was backing up North.

The staff consisted of Hall of Famer Jim Hunter, rookie sensation Vida Blue, lefty Ken Holtzman, and “Blue Moon” Odom. In many ways this was the strength of the team. All were good pitchers (Odom was far and away the weakest of the lot) whose records reflected their abilities and weren’t just reflections of the team hitters. Hunter led the AL in wins once (74), in winning percentage twice, and ERA once. Blue led in both ERA and shutouts once. With Nolan Ryan in the league, none of them ever led the league in strikeouts.

Then there was Rollie Fingers. He’s probably as famous today for his moustache as for his pitching. He was the bullpen man (they didn’t call them “closers” yet). He never led the AL in  saves in the era, but was instrumental in Oakland’s victories. He was an old-fashioned reliever, meaning he entered the game in whatever late inning was critical and shut the door, then finished up the game. In the World Series winning years he pitched in 65, 62, and 76 games logging 111, 127, and 119 innings (or about 2 innings per appearance). They don’t do it that way any more.

There they are, three-time World Series winners. Most of them are long gone into obscurity. They never had the panache of the Yankees and playing in the West coast time zone certainly didn’t help, but they were a great team that deserves to be remembered. Take the occasion of the death of their first manager to do just that, OK?

The First Generation

February 23, 2011

I want to look at something I found that is just a bit unusual. I’ll be the first to admit that I looked at the initial generation of black players to make the Major Leagues as guys whose careers are incomplete. After all, so my argument went, they lost so much time to segregation that we only have a part of their career to study. Turns out that argument is only partially true. In the case of older players like Sam Jethroe or Luke Easter or Satchel Paige or Willard Brown it’s correct. But there is another group of first generation blacks who don’t fit at all into that argument. In what you’re about to read, do not forget that this is a  very small sample of players and is nothing like a definitive look at all the players of the era.

Among the players who first integrated the Major Leagues were a number of younger up and coming players. I looked at some of them with an eye toward determining if what we had was something like a full career. I took the players who integrated their teams prior to 1951 then eliminated those guys like Jethroe and the others mentioned above who I knew had established Negro League careers of long duration. I concentrated on their ages. There was some differences in the posted age of various players so I went with Baseball-Reference.com’s age (right or wrong, it is at least a starting point). By concentrating on the Rookies of the Year and a handful of other players who came quickly to mind I put together the following list of first generation players who were relatively young (At my age “young” is always relative) and spent time in the Negro Leagues before 1951: 20-Willie Mays; 21-Hank Thompson; 23-Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso,  Don Newcombe; 24-Jim Gilliam; 26-Roy Campanella; 28-Joe Black, Jackie Robinson; and 30-Monte Irvin. They average 24.6 years of age when they arrive in the Major Leagues, and if you leave out Irvin, the oldest, it’s 24.0. Now let’s be honest here. Obviously under a normal career progression, guys like Irvin are already passed their prime and both Black and Robinson are right in the heart of theirs. And Campanella is also different in that he’d been playing Negro League ball since age 16. So even within this group, a number have lost significant time to Negro League play, just not all. This list also leaves out players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks who come up later and, at least to me, aren’t quite members of that first generation of black Major Leaguers.

So I wondered was 24.6 “old” for a rookie in the 1947-1955 era? For comparison I took a like number of white players. I went to the Rookie of the Year list and took the white players from 1948 through 1955 trying to come up with 10 names, two of which were pitchers. Here’s the list: 21-Harvey Kuenn; 22-Roy Sievers, Herb Score; 23-Gil McDougald; 24-Bill Virdon, Wally Moon, Bob Grim; 25-Harry Byrd; 26-Alvin Dark, Walt Dropo.  The average age here is 23.8, or less than one year difference. And if you leave out Dropo (who with Dark is the oldest), you get 23.4.

The point of all this is not to compare the black players with the white players, although you can if you want. The point is that there is a group of Negro League players who arrive in the Major Leagues at about the same age as white counterparts so we may look at their Major League careers as being as substantially complete as those white counterparts. That doesn’t mean that special circumstances might have changed the age the player arrived in the Major Leagues, only that both groups arrive at roughly the same age. 

Of the black list above only Irvin and Joe Black are older than the oldest of the white players. Campanella is the same age as the oldest white player. As mentioned above, this doesn’t mean that the careers should be directly compared; only that the black players, like the white players, have careers that are substantially complete. It does mean that should you ask if Jim Gilliam was as good as Wally Moon (both were 24 when they arrived in the Majors), you can look over their career stats, and then make a judgement without wondering how much did Gilliam lose to his Negro League career. I think that’s worth noting. What you decide about either Gilliam and Moon is up to you.