Posts Tagged ‘Babe Ruth’

Taking on Murderer’s Row: The Yanks

July 7, 2015
'26 Yankees

’26 Yankees

The late 1920s New York Yankees were known as “Murderer’s Row”. The 1927 version is frequently cited as the greatest team ever (although other teams are also in the running). In a three-year run the team won three American League pennants, had a player establish a single season home run record, had another win the MVP, and generally run roughshod over Major League Baseball. The opening salvo was fired by the 1926 team.

Manager Miller Huggins’ team won 91 games in 1926, scoring 5.5 runs per game on average. As a team they hit .289 (third in the American League), slugged .437, had a OPS of 806, and racked up 2282 stolen bases. All those stats led the AL, hence the nickname. The pitching wasn’t quite as good, finished fourth in most league categories, although the team was second in strikeouts.

The infield was anchored by Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig. He hit .313, had 16 home runs, 109 RBIs, and 179 hits (all third on the team). He led the team with 20 triples. Unlike in later years, he hit fifth in the order rather than fourth. At 22, rookie, and fellow Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri played second (and hit sixth). He hit .275 with 18 home runs and 117 RBIs, both good for second on the team. The left side of the infield wasn’t as formidable. Mark Koenig played short, hit second in the lineup, had 167 hits, and scored 93 runs. Third sacker Joe Dugan was the old guy at age 29. He’d come over from Boston in 1924 and was considered one of the better defensive third baseman in the game. He hit .288 with only one home run, but struck out only 16 times.

The outfield consisted of three well established players. Bob Meusel usually held down left field, but occasionally played right. He had what is generally regarded as the best arm in the AL, so he tended to play the longer corner outfield position (in Yankee Stadium that was left field). He was 29, hit fourth, and was beginning to fade. He hit .315, but had only 12 home runs (fourth on the team), drove in 78 runs, and played only 108 games. Center Field was occupied by Hall of Famer Earle Combs. He hit .299 for the season. In the lead off spot he had 181 hits (second on the team), scored 113 runs (good for third on the team), and had an OBP of .352 (fifth among the starters). Babe Ruth was in right field. He led the AL in  home runs, RBIs, walks, OBP, Slugging, OPS, and total bases. Just your basic run of the mill Babe Ruth year. He also led the Yankees in hits (184) and batting average (.372–good for second in the AL).

Pat Collins, Benny Bengough, and Hank Severeid were the catchers. Collins did most of the work, hitting .286 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 123 (which was third among starters). Severeid got into 41 games, and hit .268, while Bengough was in 36 games. He hit .381 in 84 at bats.

The bench wasn’t particularly strong. Other than the catchers, only three players were in more than 30 games, with two others playing in at least 20. Ben Paschal did the most work (he replaced Meusel when the regular left fielder was out). He hit .287 with seven home runs and his 31 RBIs were easily the most off the bench. Ruth and Gehrig were the only everyday players whose WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) was above 3.0 (although Collins was at 3.0 exactly).

For the season, four men started over 20 games. Lefty Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock had the most with 33. He went 23-11 with an ERA of 362 (ERA+ of 107). He led the team in both wins and innings pitched. Urban Shocker (who ought to be at least considered for the Hall) pitched the next most innings (258) and managed a 19-11 record with an ERA of 3.38 (ERA+ of 114). His 71 walks led the team. Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt and Sam Jones were the other two main starters. Hoyt went 16-12 and led the Yanks in strikeouts (79) while Jones went 9-8, had an ERA north of 4.75 and led the team with five saves. Only Pennock (3.1) and Shocker (4.7) had a WAR above 3.0.

Lefty Garland Braxton led the bullpen with 37 appearances (one start), a 5-1 record, a 2.67 ERA and an ERA+ of 145. Myles Thomas and Walter Beall both pitched 20 games, as did team future manager Bob Shawkey.

It was a formidable team that won the AL pennant by only three games (over Cleveland). It’s hitting was great, it’s pitching middle of the road. It was a favorite to win the 1926 World Series.

Sale of the Century

December 26, 2014
The one and only

The one and only

Just a brief note today to remind you that today marks the anniversary of the greatest baseball bargain of the 20th Century. On 26 December 1919, the Boston Red Sox sold their combination pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. It was both the sale of the Century the steal of the Century. New York won a pennant in 1921 while the Red Sox waited until 1946. The Yankees won the World Series in 1923 (and 26 more since) while Boston waited until the 21st Century.

The Arrival of a Legend

July 11, 2014
The Babe while still a Red Sox

The Babe while still a Red Sox

Today marks one of the most significant anniversaries in Major League baseball history. One hundred years ago on 11 July 1914 the Boston Red Sox gave the ball for the first time to a rookie pitcher nicknamed “Babe” Ruth. It was the start of the most legendary of all baseball careers.

For the day, Ruth pitched seven innings against the Cleveland Naps giving up three runs (two earned). Joe Jackson (“Shoeless Joe”) knocked in a run early and catcher Steve O’Neill knocked in two in the seventh for the Cleveland runs. Ruth struck out one and walked none to pick up the win. At bat he went 0-2 with a strikeout. Better hitting days were to come for the Babe.

Most everyone knows the name Babe Ruth, many without knowing what it was he did. If you do know what he did, odds are you know about the home runs and the hitting feats. But Ruth was also a heck of a pitcher. If you look at the left-handed hurlers of the decade between 1910 and 1920 you could make a pretty fair argument that Ruth was the best left-hander of the decade. You might look at Eddie Plank or Rube Marquard early in the decade, or at Hippo Vaughn later in the decade (and he and Ruth faced each other in the 1918 World Series with the Babe picking up a 1-0 win), but Ruth is equally in the argument.

Ruth’s conversion from pitcher to outfielder is key to his career. But if you look around, you’ll find that while it wasn’t common, it wasn’t unheard of in baseball. George Sisler did the same thing and went to the Hall of Fame. So did Lefty O’Doul (without the Hall of Fame being attached). A lot of years later Stan Musial hurt his arm in the minors and switched from the mound to the outfield and ended up in Cooperstown. Bob Lemon went the other way, from third base to pitcher and made the Hall. Bucky Walters also went from third to pitching and won an MVP. Darren Dreifort, while at Wichita State, served as the DH when he wasn’t pitching, but didn’t play in the field (although he did pinch hit) in the Majors. I’m sure that’s nowhere near a complete list.

For his Boston career, Ruth was 89-46, a .659 winning percentage, with a 1.142 WHIP, a 2.19 ERA, and a 122 ERA+. He had 17 shutouts, 483 strikeouts, and 425 walks for his Red Sox years (there were also a handful of games with the Yanks). Ruth’s pitching WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) is 20.6.  His World Series record is equally good. He was 3-0 with a shutout and eight strikeouts. He did, however, walk 10. His consecutive scoreless streak in the Series was a record until Whitey Ford finally passed him in the 1960s.

I know over the years that a lot of people have tried to tell us that someone else (Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, etc.) was better than Ruth. And maybe as a hitter they were (although I wouldn’t bet on that in Vegas), but ultimately you have to decide that Ruth was the overall superior player because he could also pitch very well. Aaron was Aaron, Williams was Williams, and Bonds was Bonds, but Ruth was a combination of any of them and Walter Johnson. Top that crew.

 

The Iron Horse

July 9, 2014
Lou Gehrig

Lou Gehrig

While doing the previous look at Bob Meusel, it dawned on me that I’d never actually done a post dedicated to Lou Gehrig. I’m not quite sure why that’s true. I’ve been a  big fan of his since I can remember. But it’s time to remedy that oversight.

I suppose that most anybody reading this has a basic understanding of who Gehrig was, so I don’t want to do one of my standard  short baseball bios of him. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the things that jump out to me when I look at his career.

One of the first things I note about Gehrig is how good he was early. His first year with more than 30 at bats was 1925. He was 22, hit .295, had 20 home runs, and 68 RBIs. The home run total was fifth in the American League. The 1925 season would also mark the last time he had less than 100 RBIs until his final season in 1939.

It’s amazing how much of an RBI machine Gehrig became over his career. I know a lot of people downgrade RBIs as a “target of opportunity” (you can’t drive him in if he isn’t on base), but I’ll remind you that a player still has to hit the “target” and Gehrig did it an inordinate amount of time and while we’re at it unless you steal home or hit a home run, a run is also a “target of opportunity” (the other guys have to hit the ball when you’re on base). In 2164 games he had 1995 RBIs, an average of 149 per 162 games. After all these years he’s still fifth ever and the man in fourth place (Barry Bonds) is only one ahead of him. Back a long time ago (May of 2010) I came up with something of a joke stat called RBI-NS (runs batted in–not self) which was simply RBI-HR. It was designed to see how many of a player’s RBIs were earned by plating himself with a home run rather than knocking in another player. I did all the players with 475 or more home runs (as of 2010) and found that Gehrig was second in the stat with 75% of his RBIs being another player (Stan Musial was first with 76%). That means to me that not only did Gehrig have a lot of opportunity to knock in runs, but that he managed to do so with great frequency. That’s a measure of how much he dominated in his  era.

There has been for years some argument about the 1927 MVP race. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Gehrig was chosen MVP. A couple of things ought to be pointed out. First, Ruth won an MVP earlier and for years there was an official rule that you couldn’t win two. By 1927 it was more or less tradition although the prohibition was gone. I’m sure that hurt Ruth some but if you look at the season it’s not like Gehrig was a slouch either. Gehrig led the team in hits, doubles, RBIs (of course he did), and average. Baseball Reference.com’s version of WAR even has him better than Ruth.

Gehrig also holds the AL record for RBIs in a single season with 185 in 1931. The only number higher is in the National League and comes in the juiced ball season of 1930. His triple crown season of 1934 provided his only batting title, but was his second (of three) home run title, and his fifth (and final) RBI title. He also led the league in hits once, in runs four times, and in triples once. The last of those stunned me when I noticed it. No one thinks of Gehrig as particularly fast, but he averaged 12 triples per 162 games. His one MVP award was in 1936, a decent year (and his last home run title) but certainly not his best.

Over the years Lou Gehrig the ballplayer has gotten lost behind Lou Gehrig the man. His disease, his class in handling it (especially on this the 75th anniversary of the most famous speech in baseball history), and his tragedy all have subsumed his playing career (not to mention the movie). This is a small attempt to remind you of just how good he was as a ballplayer. In 2000 SABR did a membership poll asking who was the greatest 20th Century baseball player. Unsurprisingly, Babe Ruth won. Second was Gehrig. They make a good case for it.

Gehrig's final resting place

Gehrig’s final resting place

The Other Guy in Murderer’s Row

July 7, 2014
Bob Meusel

Bob Meusel

The 1920s Yankees, known as Murderer’s Row, are one of the most famous of all teams. But in many ways it’s selectively famous. People know Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Diehard fans know Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri. Pitching freaks know Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt. But the rest of the team is pretty anonymous. That’s a shame because one of the better members of the team batted right in the middle of the lineup and is now largely forgotten. That’s Bob Meusel.

Meusel was born in California in 1896, three years after his brother Emil, who played a number of years for the Giants. Bob Meusel was spotted while still playing high school baseball. He spent the years 1917-1919 in the West Coast minors, except for a stint in the US Navy during World War I. He did well and in 1920 got the call from the New York Yankees. He was 23.

He was an immediate starter, playing 119 games, most at the corner outfield positions. From the beginning he showed the best outfield arm in either league. By general consensus of the articles of the day (and with a lot of stats agreeing) he was an exceptional outfielder, especially the arm. He got the nickname “Long Bob” almost immediately and there are a couple of versions as to why. One says he was 6’3″ and thin, the other than he had a long arm. You can pick your favorite. In his rookie campaign he hit .328 with 11 home runs, the latter number being seventh in the American League.

He was even better the next season, hitting .318 and slugging 24 home runs with 135 RBIs. The home run number was second in the AL and the RBI total third. He also hit for the cycle against Walter Johnson. It would be the first of three cycles, a Major League record. His team won its first ever pennant with Meusel hitting clean up behind Babe Ruth. The team lost a best of nine series in eight games (to the Giants) with Meusel hitting .200 with three RBIs and no home runs. He did manage to steal home in game two (a game the Yanks won). He would do so again in 1928 to become the only man to successfully steal home twice in the World Series.

Meusel was suspended for barnstorming after the 1921 World Series (so was Ruth), but managed to get into 122 games in 1922. New York won again and again failed to beat the Giants and big brother Emil (called Irish for reasons that make no sense, the family was German in its background). This time Bob Meusel hit .300 but managed only two RBIs, two runs, and no home runs. Back in the Series in 1923 (and still facing his brother’s Giants) Meusel hit only .269 but drove in eight runs with seven hits (two triples and a double included). This time his team took home its first World’s Championship.

Although the Yankees failed to win in either 1924 or 1925 (largely because of Ruth’s woes) Meusel had good years. In ’24 he hit .325, then in ’25 led the AL in home runs with 33 and RBIs with 138. Those would be the only time he would lead the league in a major offensive category.

In 1926, Murderer’s Row was back in the World Series. Meusel .315, but with only 12 home runs. He still maintained his clean up spot although new first baseman Lou Gehrig was challenging him from the five hole. Meusel had a terrible Series hitting .238 with no home runs or RBIs and scoring only three runs. In the famous seventh inning of game seven when Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out Lazzeri with the bases loaded, Meusel was on second. He was also at bat when Ruth tried to steal second, was thrown out, and the Series ended in a St. Louis victory.

In 1927 and 1928 New York won back-to-back World Series’ with Meusel contributing little. He had his only home run in the 1928 Series (along with the steal of home mentioned above), but only had three RBIs (and only one in 1927). He did manage to score five runs in ’28 (to only one in 1927).

At the end of 1928 he was 32 and mostly through. His 1929 was down. He hit .261 (a career low) with only 57 RBIs. He was waived and picked up by Cincinnati for the 1930 season. Despite the juiced ball, he only hit .289 with 10 home runs and 62 RBIs and was done. He hung on in the minors for a couple of years, but retired after the 1932 season. In retirement he did a bit of movie work, mostly cameos in baseball flicks, and worked as a security guard at a Navy base. He died in California in 1977.

For his career his triple slash line is .309/.356/.497/.852 with an OPS+ of 118. He had 1693 hits, scored 826 runs, and knocked in 1064 runners. He had 268 doubles, 95 triples, and 156 home runs for 2719 total bases. His WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) is 27.6.  In the field he was considered one of the premier outfielders of his day, known especially for the strength and accuracy of his arm (but never led the AL in outfield assists).

Bob Meusel was a very good ballplayer, one of the better players of the 1920s. At times he could be considered the second best player on the Yankees (and in 1925 arguably their best) and at other times third (behind Ruth and Gehrig). It’s not a bad legacy to say you’re the best player on a team excepting those two.

Meusel's grave in California

Meusel’s grave in California

 

 

 

You Gotta Score to Win

May 15, 2014

In my wanderings through 19th Century baseball in conjunction with my Hall of Fame research, I’ve come across a really interesting stat. It’s very unusual and probably only possible in the confines of the 19th Century. Did you know that a handful of players have actually scored more runs than they have played games?

As the most important thing you do in a ball game is score runs, if you can put up more runs than games played you’ve automatically been terribly successful. I’ve found a handful of players who’ve done so. Most of them are guys who played a handful of games, scored a fistful of runs then disappeared, but two did it for a long period of games.

Much the more obscure is Harry Stovey. I did a long post on him back a few months, but this is just a short note about him. He played 1468 games between 1880 and 1893, most of them for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association (not the current team in Oakland). In those games he managed to score 1492 runs, or 1.02 runs per game. In 1889 in 137 games he crossed the plate 152 times (1.11 runs per game). For what it’s worth, all those runs managed to get Philly exactly one pennant (1883). In the 1890 Players League he scored 142 runs in 118 games (1.20 per game). He also won a pennant with Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) in 1891, but had fewer runs than games played.

The more prominent player (and the man I was researching when I noticed this) is Hall of Fame outfielder Slidin’ Billy Hamilton. Hamilton played from 1888 through 1901, mostly with the Phillies and the  Beaneaters (now the Braves). He hit .344 for a career, but more to the point of this post he played 1594 games and scored 1697 runs (1.06 runs per game played). As far as I can tell, that’s the record for runs per game among any player with significant games played. His team won pennants in 1897 and 1898 with him scoring 152 runs in 127 games (1.2 per game) in 1897 and scoring 110 runs in 110 games in 1898. I’ll bet it was harder to do that than score the 152 in 127. In 1894 (remember that’s only a couple of years after the invention of the 60’6″ pitching distance) he played in 132 games and scored 198 runs (one and a half runs a game). The 198 is a record. It’s 21 above the total in second place (177 by Tom Brown in 1891 and by Babe Ruth in 1921). In comparison to Ruth, Hamilton only had four home runs.

I love to find stats like this. Not only are they interesting in themselves, but they tell us so much about how different the game was in the 19th Century. If you look at the top 10 (actually 11 with ties), seven of the highest runs scored totals are in the 19th Century (three of which are in 1894, Hamilton’s big year). The other four belong two each to Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It was a very different game and here’s a stat to reinforce that premise.

 

Mr. Aaron, 8 April 1974

April 8, 2014
Henry Aaron and company, 8 April 1974

Henry Aaron and company, 8 April 1974

Forty years ago this evening Hank Aaron stepped to the plate in Atlanta. He hit an Al Downing pitch into the Braves bullpen for his 715th home run. As he rounded the bases a couple of fans joined him producing one of baseball’s more iconic moments.

They showed the game on TV that night. Back then there weren’t nightly baseball games. You had three networks and regular season games were only shown on the weekends. Some genius at one of the networks (NBC, I think, but am not sure) decided to take a chance and so a nation got to watch a black man establish one of the most hallowed records in American sport.

My wife and I watched the game. I had mixed feelings. It was my Dodgers and I didn’t want them to be remembered as the team that gave up “the home run.” On the other hand I didn’t mind Aaron breaking the record. I knew who Babe Ruth was and respected the legend, but I liked Aaron and if someone was going to break the record he was a good pick.

There was a lot of opposition to Aaron surpassing Ruth. Much of it was racial. The idea of a black man holding the greatest of all Ruth’s records was horrifying to many. To others, the idea of anyone, black, white, or purple, racing passed the Babe was terrible. Ruth was, after all, the greatest of all American sports figures, towering over not only baseball, but sports in general. And suddenly here was this little man (Aaron wasn’t a huge slugger like Frank Howard) about to relegate the Babe to second place in home runs.

Well, Henry Aaron did it and the world didn’t stop on its axis. We moved on, the Ruth legend still grips us, just not as strongly. And Aaron now has his place in our pantheon. Good for him. Congratulations, Henry. I think you’re great.

Wally Schang, Mack’s other Catcher

March 10, 2014
Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

As I mentioned in the post just below, the Philadelphia Athletics used three catchers during their 1910-1914 dynasty. The other post looked briefly at Jack Lapp and Ira Thomas. This one looks at Wally Schang,easily the best of the three.

Walter Schang was born in South Wales, New York, a town just south of Buffalo, in 1889. His dad caught for the local town team and two of his brothers also played ball, Bobby making it to the Majors (1914 and 1915 with the Pirates and Giants and again in 1927 with the Cardinals). In 1912, Wally caught on with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League (managed by George Stallings, later manager of his opponent in the 1914 World Series). In 1913 he made the Majors with the A’s. He got into 79 games with Philadelphia, then played four games against the Giants in the World Series. He hit .357 in the Series with a home run after hitting just.266 in the regular season.

By 1914, he’d become the Athletics primary catcher. He led all American League catchers with a .287 average and with 45 RBIs. He did terribly in the 1914 World Series (as did the A’s as a team), slumped in 1915, then had a great year (for him) in 1916. The 1916 A’s were one of the worst teams in AL history going 36-117. Schang, switched to the outfield in 1916 (he played a few outfield games in 1915 and again later in his career) led the team with seven home runs, two coming on 8 September when he became the first switch hitter to slug a homer from each side of the plate. By 1917, the A’s, already desperate for money, became even more desperate and Mack traded him to the Red Sox to start the 1918 season.

Schang was with Boston for the 1918 World Series. He hit .444 with an OPS of 990. He remained in Boston through the 1920 season when he was part of the continued dismantling of the Red Sox. Like Babe Ruth (who was traded a year earlier), Schang was traded to the Yankees. For the next four years he served as New York’s primary catcher, playing in three World Series’, including the Yanks first championship in 1923 (He hit .318 with seven hits in the victory). He slumped badly in 1925 and was sent to the St. Louis Browns for 1926.

He stayed at St. Louis four seasons, hitting over .300 twice and setting a career high with eight home runs in 1926. He went back to Philadelphia for 1930 as a backup to Mickey Cochrane. He picked up another ring at the end of the season, but did not play in the Series. His final season was 1931 when he got into 30 games with Detroit. He hit all of  a buck eighty-four and was through at 41.

He played and managed in the minors through 1935, then Cleveland hired him as a coach. His primary job was to teach Bob Feller how to pitch instead of throw. He remained in baseball until he was 52, when he finally retired. He died in Missouri in 1965. He was 75.

For his career Schang’s triple slash line is .284/.393/.401/.794 with an OPS+ of 117 (Baseball Reference.com’s version of WAR gives him 41). He had 1506 hits, 264 for doubles, 90 triples, and 59 home runs for 2127 total bases. He had 711 RBIs and stole 121 bases. He was considered one of the better fielding catchers of his era but he led the AL in passed balls (the Boston staff of 1919 will do that to you) and in errors (1914) once each. He appeared in six World Series’, helping his team to three wins. As mentioned above he was also on the 1930 A’s but did not play in the championship games.

Wally Schang was unquestionably the best of Connie Mack’s catchers prior to Mickey Cochrane. He hit well, fielded well, and helped his team win. He occasionally pops up on lists of players overlooked for the Hall of Fame. Frankly, I don’t think he belongs, but I can see why he makes those lists.

Schang's grave (note the image of a catcher in the center)

Schang’s grave (note the image of a catcher in the center)

The Derek Jeter Aura

March 3, 2014

So I see that Derek Jeter is hanging it up at the end of this season. That’s both good and bad. It’s, frankly, time for him to go, but it will cost MLB its face (which isn’t really David Wright, despite the recent poll) and the most recognizable player of his generation. He’ll get to make a grand tour, get lots of gifts (but try to top Rivera’s broken bat rocking chair), a ton of applause and adulation. Then he’ll ride off toward Cooperstown, making it in five years. It’s really a fitting way for him to leave us.

Ever notice how some players just have an aura about them? Ruth had one, so did Mantle. Koufax has it to a lesser degree. Well, Jeter has one too. He is “The Captain” the rock around which the Yankees built their latest dynasty. He’s the man with “The Flip” (which is still probably the best fielding play I ever saw). He is “one of the five greatest Yankees ever.” You hear all that don’t you?

Well, hang on a minute. Without trying to diminish Jeter’s legacy, which is formidable, let’s not get too carried away here. It’s not like he’s the first captain the team ever had. Gehrig was team captain too and Gehrig was a better player. If Jeter was the rock on which the latest Yankees dynasty was built, then he had a lot of other rocks around to hold up part of that foundation. There was Pettitte, Rivera, Posada (the so-called “Core Four”), and there was Clemens, and O’Neill, and Knoblauch, and Martinez too.

Jeter reminds me of Joe DiMaggio. He has the same aura about him. Both are great players, but both seem to be remembered as being somehow greater than they were in actuality. It took twenty-five years for fans to realize that Mantle was a greater player than DiMaggio and Jeter has that kind of aura too. I don’t mean to imply that somehow the Yanks have a greater shortstop in their history, only to point out that Jeter is revered in much the same way as DiMaggio. There’s a reverence about them that is different from the awe that surrounds either Mantle or Gehrig, or for that matter, Ruth. For the latter three it seems that “awe” is more appropriate and with Jeter and DiMaggio the word is “reverence.”

As for being “one of the five greatest Yankees ever” I suppose you could make that case for Jeter, although I’d rank him in the six through eight range, behind Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Berra and in line with Ford and Rivera. That’s not a bad place to be, all things considered. He’s probably a top five to ten shortstop (certainly behind Wagner and Ripken) depending on how you categorize Banks and Yount. He was never Ozzie Smith in the field, but then neither was much of anyone else.

Then it’s good-bye to Derek Jeter. The Yankees will miss him. I think a greater tribute is that baseball will miss him.

Baseball’s VIPs

January 16, 2014
Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

A couple of posts back, the one on Judge Landis, I made the comment that he was one of the most important people ever in MLB. Well, that led some of my friends to send me emails asking who I considered the 10 most important people ever in the sport. As you know, I’m sort of a glutton for sticking my foot squarely into my mouth, so I decided to publicly respond to them.

First, let me be clear that “most important” has nothing to do with “best player”. Almost all of these people listed below and little or no actual playing time in the big leagues. So don’t be asking, “Where’s Gehrig?” or “Where’s Wagner?” or about other players. They may be terrific players but they aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as the people I’m about to mention. As you read through the list, you’ll realize I’m big into origins.

Here are my 10 most important listed in alphabetical order:

1. Mel Allen–I suppose any announcer could have gone in here except for a couple of  points. Most of us get our games through the filter of someone in a booth at the stadium keeping us up on what’s going on, so a play-by-play man is not an unreasonable choice for a position on this list. I pick Allen for two specific reasons. First, he announced for the Yankees for years and thus became the primary voice many people heard. Second, when TV decided to add a second camera to games, Allen is supposed to be the guy who suggested adding the second camera in center field, thus showing the pitcher throwing to the batter in something like close up (the previous camera angle was high up behind home plate). It’s become the single most common angle from which most people see a game on television.

2. Alexander Cartwright–Cartwright is here to represent an entire group of people, the pioneers who invented the game as we know it. Somebody had to start putting the rules of the game into a form that became acceptable. It is possible that people like Duncan Curry or Daniel Adams, or William Wheaton should be here in his place. Cartwright certainly did not invent baseball, but was apparently prominent in one of the many attempts to codify the game. As the Hall of Fame has placed him in its midst, he’ll do for this spot, but I’m not certain he’s the best candidate.

3. Henry Chadwick–You a stat guy? Care about the statistics of the game? Well, Chadwick invented the box score and a number of the statistics we still use to determine the quality of play on the diamond. As the first prominent sports reporter his articles helped to popularize the game. Put those two things together and you have someone who belongs on this list.

4. William Hulbert–I don’t like Hulbert. As a human being he is crass, bigoted, vain, parsimonious. But he founded the National League and thus came up with a way to make baseball profitable enough for people to want to become owners and thus establish a stable (sort of) league that flourishes today.

5. Ban Johnson–Founder and first President of the American League. Was de facto lord of baseball until the arrival of the man below.

6. Kennesaw M. Landis–First and most powerful Baseball Commissioner. Ran baseball with an iron fist. Cleaned up the game after the Black Sox nearly wrecked it. He opposed integration, but supported the more lively ball and the farm system (and besides isn’t he what a Commissioner ought to look like?)

7. Marvin Miller–the Lincoln of MLB. When he took over the Player’s Association it was a joke. When he left the union it was a co-partner with the clubs. Whether you like free agency or not, Miller figured out how to free the players from baseball slavery and change the economics and the dynamics of the game. Of all the people on this list, he’s the only one not in the Hall of Fame (Allen is on the writers plaque).

8. Branch Rickey–changed the game twice. He invented both the farm system and brought integration to MLB. He is  arguably the most influential baseball man of the 20th Century.

9. Jackie Robinson–In 1884 Toledo had a black ballplayer. That lasted one year. John McGraw and others had tried to integrate the game and had failed. With Robinson baseball truly does become a game for all Americans.

10. Babe Ruth–in a game in trouble, Ruth takes over and changes forever the way it is played. With the emphasis on the home run over bunting and base stealing we get the game as it’s been played (plus or minus a rule or two) since 1920.

And Honorable Mention to people like John Montgomery Ward (first union), Fleet Walker (who was the first black player), Jim Creighton (apparently the first professional), Lip Pike (who made professionalism acceptable), Harry Wright (who made the modern manager’s job what it is today), Bill Veeck (who made the ballpark experience so much fun), and a host of others, some of which you may decide should be in the list of 10.


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