Posts Tagged ‘Ban Johnson’

The Emporer Nails It

January 24, 2013
Arthur Soden

Arthur Soden

One thing I’ve learned over a lifetime is that there is great truth to the old saw “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Consider this little gem from De Pretiis, the edict on prices promulgated by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 301 of the common era:

“The only desire of these uncontrolled madmen is to have no thought for the common welfare, for with them the immoderate and unscrupulous is almost a creed.”

Diocletian would have understood Arthur Soden.

Soden was born in Massachusetts in 1843.  He had a job in pharmaceutical supplies when the American Civil War broke out. He was drafted into the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry in 1863, rising, because of his experience with pharmaceuticals, to hospital steward in 1864.

Out of the army, Soden ran a roofing company and became a baseball fan. In 1874, a group of ball players, joined by several fans, toured Britain giving exhibitions. Soden was one of the fans and actually played in one game (This is not the more famous Spaulding tour that went around the world). Back home, Soden bought three shares in the Boston National League club (now the Atlanta Braves) for a total of $45 (or $15 a share–try that today).  With the team floundering after the 1876 season, Soden, joined by William Conant (a hoop skirt maker) and J.B. Billings (who ran a shoe factory), bought the team. Soden became team President with the other two becoming secretary and treasurer.

Initially the team did well, picking up pennants in 1877 and 1878, but problems were developing. To put it as bluntly as possible, Soden made misers look good. He rented rundown hotels for the teams on away trips, cut meal money, used the players as a grounds crew. The players were required to launder their uniforms at their expense, wives were charged full price to watch their husbands play, and the team offered incentives (I’ve been unable to find exactly what, but it must have been something odd.) if a player could make his shoelaces last two years. Then he cut salaries, going first for future Hall of Fame shortstop George Wright. That brought complaints from both team members and the shortstop’s brother, manager Harry Wright. The upshot of it all was that Harry Wright was fired and the team began to flounder.

Here’s a list I found for the period 1875-1880: clubhouse upkeep dropped from $$1626 to $551 per year; travel expenses went from $4000 a season to $2813 a year (reference is made here to the rundown hotels); and payroll dropped 20% to an average of $1377 per player. Meanwhile Soden and his two cronies were making salaries of $2500 a year. Unfortunately for the players, the penny-pinching worked. The team was turning a profit by 1880 and to be absolutely honest, Soden cared only about the profit margin. He admitted on more than one occasion he was in it for profits, not for love of the game.

This sort of attitude caught the attention of another team leader that Diocletian would have understood, National League President William Hulbert. Soden became one of Hulbert’s most trust advisors (birds of a feather, you see) and when Hulbert died in 1882 Soden was chosen interim President (he served for only a few months). While President he managed to return baseball to both New York and Philadlephia, each of which was banned under Hulbert’s Presidency (another story for another time).

Back running the Boston franchise, Soden was one of the leaders in attempting to break the first player’s union in 1890, an organization his actions had done much to help form. For one of the few times in his life he was generous, loaning money to other teams (at interest) to help them weather the Player’s League storm. He was instrumental in forming the reserve rule and ruthless in dealing with players who rocked the boat.

He also had the endearing habit of ignoring his players. He felt that owners and players were of decidedly different social class and shouldn’t mix. He didn’t travel with the team (but did attend home games). One player speculated Soden didn’t want to be seen in the flophouse hotels his players were forced to call home. Catcher Boileryard Clarke played for Boston two seasons. He once commented that he never spoke with Soden and was reasonably sure Soden never knew Clarke was on the team.

But you can’t make a profit with a losing team. By the late 1880s, the Beaneaters (Soden’s team) was making money, so he was able to invest in better quality players. He picked up Hall of Famers King Kelly and John Clarkson in the late 1880s and by the early 1890s his team was in contention. They won pennants in 1891-1893, and again in 1897 and 1898. the 1892 season was a split season with Boston winning one half and Cleveland the other. In the first split season playoff ever, Boston won the championship. In 1897 they won the last ever Temple Cup.

But Soden was in trouble. Although his team was successful, the players still hated working for him. With the arrival of Ban Johnson and the American League in 1901, the Beaneaters were decimated. The team fell off rapidly. The new team in Boston, the Americans (now the Red Sox), were drawing fans in droves and the Beaneaters were dying at the gate. In 1906, Soden sold the team for $75,000 which he split with Conant (Billings had sold out to the other two in 1904). Retired from baseball, Soden continued working (he owned, operated, or was co-owner in a number of businesses). He died while on vacation in 1925.

Because of the way he treated his players, it’s difficult to like Soden. There is a ruthless streak in him that Roman Emperors would have understood but that strikes us today as overboard. It’s fair to say of Soden that he was no worse than many of his contemporaries. It’s also fair to say that in many ways the road from him to Marvin Miller is a reasonably straight line. That Diocletian would never have understood.

Diocletian (follis)

Diocletian (follis)

“Pretend It’s Commie’s Wake”

February 2, 2012

Comiskey during his playing days

If you’ve been following along, I presume you’re expecting to see a short bio of Joe Jackson here. I’ve not gone that direction for two reasons. First, Jackson has been done to death. Second, I’ve done Jackson to death. Instead, I want to focus on the team owner, Charles Comiskey, a man many people blame as much as the players for the Black Sox Scandal. In the flick “Eight Men Out” as a measure of the player’s disdain for Comiskey, when it’s time for the team picture, how do you get the players to smile? You tell them to “Pretend it’s Commie’s Wake.” Whatever you think of the Black Sox or the scandal, it  happened on Comiskey’s watch.
 
Comiskey was from Chicago, born in 1859 to parents that had connections. His dad was at various times Cook County Clerk and a member of the City Council. So Comiskey, unlike his players, knew a little about politics. He took to baseball very early, apparently got into fights with his parents over it, left home at 17 to play ball, and became a successful pitcher and first baseman in the Northwest League.
 
In 1882, he joined the newly formed American Association’s St. Louis Browns as their first baseman. He was good in the field, not as good with the bat, and something of a team leader. By 1883 he was the team’s player-manager. Under Comiskey, the Browns ran off four consecutive Association championships, including a victory over the National League’s Chicago team in an 1886 version of the World Series.
 
I was surprised to learn that Comiskey was a follower of Monty Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players Union (it doesn’t fit with his later record). He joined Ward and other Major Leaguers in the 1890 Player’s League. With the folding of the Player’s League (and the Brotherhood), Comiskey went back to St. Louis, was traded to Cincinnati, and retired as a player after the 1894 season. His record is unspectacular. He hit .264, with an OBP of .293, slugged .337 for an OPS of .630 (OPS+ of 82). He had 1956 total bases, 883 RBIs, and 992 runs scored. His postseason numbers are almost dead on with his regular season stats. He managed parts of 13 seasons, coming in first four of them, second twice, and fourth three times. His managerial winning percentage is .608.
 
In 1894, while still active, he joined with Ban Johnson, a Cincinnati sportswriter, to form the Western League. Comiskey bought the team in Sioux City, Iowa but immediately moved it to St. Paul, Minnesota. He eventually moved the team to Chicago, joined with Johnson in renaming the league the American League, and in 1901 won the first pennant for the fledgling Major League (His manager was Hall of Famer Clark Griffith.). His team repeated as champion in 1906, winning its first World Series over the crosstown rival Cubs. By 1910, his team was successful, the league was a success, and he was making a ton of money.

Comiskey about 1910

 
 To all the world the team seemed a success. Comiskey owned a big, modern ballpark, gave tickets away to children, lavished food and drink on reporters, and otherwise looked like a wealthy man. But how do you do that in 1915 Chicago while running a baseball team? Well, one of the ways you do it is by shorting your players. Comiskey was beginning to pick up a reputation as a miser when it came to his players. He paid them poorly, gave them less meal money than other teams, put them in cheap hotels, gave them flat champagne as a bonus (1917), and didn’t do the laundry very often. He was known to belittle them in public and complain that they loafed on the job when they lost. All of which led to a World Series victory in 1917 and a loss in 1919.
 
And it’s the loss in 1919 that was the problem. Eight of the players conspired to fix the Series (the level of complicity varies from player to player). Comiskey and others had suspicions from the beginning, Comiskey going so far as to hold World Series shares until a private detective investigation was finished (the players eventually got their money). In 1920 it blew up in public court, ridicule, and shame (but there were no late night comics to give it a funny undertone). The players were put on trial, Comiskey testified, the players were acquitted and Comiskey, who had been one of the first to urge the creation of an independent Commissioner, found his players barred from baseball by his handpicked Commissioner, Judge Landis.
 

The Hollywood version of Comiskey (Clifton James)

 Comiskey continued to run the White Sox through 1931. His team never again finished near first (and didn’t do so again until 1959). It never won another World Series in his lifetime (and only won again in 2005). He made the Hall of Fame in 1939.

When I was in the army people got screwed with in basic training. Then they were screwed with in advanced training. And when they got to their new post, they were screwed with again by the guys who’d been there a while. Well, eventually most guys reached a point where they were the old guys. People tended to learn one of two lessons. First, you got even by screwing with the poor guys who were new or under your command. Second, you refused to be a jerk because you recalled what it felt like to be screwed with and didn’t want other people to feel the way you felt when you were the bottom rung. Most people learned the first lesson. I’ve always been a little surprised that , as an ex-player, Comiskey treated his team with utter contempt. In light of my army experience maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I know that my sympathy for Comiskey as wronged owner would be greater if he wasn’t a former player who knew what it was like to be the guy on the bottom. I understand why he’s in the Hall of Fame, but sometimes I wish he wasn’t.

 

The Crusader

February 2, 2011

Wendell Smith

Crusader is one of those words that’s really out of fashion today. It brings up all the images of religious zealotry and fanaticism that make people shy from it. But there is a place for crusading zeal. Wendell Smith knew where that place needed to be and he worked long and hard, with unquestioned zeal, to help accomplish the integration of American sport.

Born in Detroit in 1914, Wendell Smith graduated from West Virginia State College (a segregated university). He edited the sports page for the college newspaper, majored in journalism, and played baseball. After graduation he joined the Pittsburgh Courier the leading black newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1937. By 1938 he was sports editor. He waged a continuous campaign to integrate American sport, especially baseball.  Although individual sports like track and boxing could produce excellent black athletes like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, team sport (outside a handful of universities) was a bastion of segregation in the era. Smith argued that if black Americans could excel as individuals, they could do equally well as members of a  professional team, something players like Jackie Robinson had proved in college.

With World War II still going on, Smith hit upon the idea of having a tryout of Negro League players. He reasoned that with many of the Major League stars off at war, the teams would need the best quality talent they could get in order to win. This would be especially true of teams that were not usually in pennant contention and contenders who were losing because their best players were gone. And if they didn’t, then it showed their racism to the world.  He managed to talk Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox into holding a tryout on 16 April 1945 for three black players: Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethro, and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox evaluation was that they weren’t good enough. Robinson, of course went on to win the first Rookie of the Year Award and make the Hall of Fame. Jethro also won a Rookie of the Year Award. Turns out the BoSox were right about Williams (1 out of 3) and Smith was right about racism.

Undeterred, Smith continued to support integrating baseball as the sport that would gain the most instant credibility for black players. There is no evidence that he personally influenced Branch Rickey’s move to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946-7, but Smith certainly supported the idea. His newspaper paid for Smith to accompany Robinson during both the 1946 minor league year and also during the 1947 season on team road trips. Until the arrival on Dan Bankhead in the 1947 season, Smith served as a sort of unofficial roommate and confidant of Robinson, especially in those towns where Robinson was not allowed to stay in the same hotels as the white players. His articles on the road trips are some of his best work.

In 1938 Smith applied for membership in the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was turned down. It wasn’t because he was black (Of course, it wasn’t. They just wouldn’t do that, would they?) but because his newspaper was not owned by a white person (Say what?). In 1948, the BBWAA changed its mind and Smith became its first black member. That made him the first black man who could vote for the Hall of Fame.

In the late 1940s, Smith moved to Chicago and began covering mostly boxing for a local newspaper. In 1964 he joined WGN and became the television station’s first black sports anchor. He continued to write a newspaper article or two while working on television. He died in 1972. In 1993 he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing (thus getting his name in the HofF) and in 1996 his wife donated his papers to the Hall of Fame, where they are available for research.

The above should tell you I really like Wendell Smith. He’s not the greatest writer to win the Spink Award (I think Grantland Rice is), but he wa very good. His style was somewhat folksy, but his ability to cut through the nonsense to get at what he wanted is excellent. He understood the value of confrontation (ala the Red Sox episode), but could also let his prose make his case for him (like the Robinson hotel stories did). I think it took much too long to get him the Spink Award and I think he deserves to move a step beyond that. I’d like to see his full enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, plaque and all. I know a lot of people will disagree with me. After all, the man didn’t play the game. But then neither did Ban Johnson, William Hulbert, Tom Yawkey, and a lot of other members of the Hall. For what he meant to both the sport and the country, I think he should be there.

This post allows me to begin a celebration of black history month in the US with a look at a black American writer. I intend to make a few more looks at the Negro Leagues and other aspects of black baseball off and on during the month. Hope you will enjoy them.

The Iron Man

January 26, 2011

Joe McGinnity

Baseball has, over the years, produced some strange stats. Few are more strange than those of Joe McGinnity. He plays exactly ten years, averages 25 wins a season as a pitcher, then disappears from Major League rosters forever. I decided to find out what happened.

Joseph McGinty (the name change occurred after he reached adulthood) was born in 1871 in Rock Island, Illinois (home of the rail line made famous by the “Leadbelly” song). He tried minor league ball with little success, but did find a wife. His offseason job in 1893 and 1894 was in the Union Iron Foundry in McAlester, Oklahoma Territory (now state). He hit it off with the owners daughter and they married in 1893 (Is that a fringe benefit?). The work in the foundry earned him his nickname “Iron Man” McGinnity.

His baseball career floundering, he ran a saloon (also serving as the bouncer) and continued to pitch in semi-pro ball. During the sojourn in the semi-pros he discovered a new pitch. The pitch was a curve delivered with a submarine motion. It was difficult to hit and relatively easy on the arm. In 1898 he was back in professional ball, doing well enough to make the National League with the Baltimore Orioles (not the current team). He was an instant hit leading the league in wins and coming in second in ERA. He was also 29.

The owner of the Orioles also owned the Brooklyn team. Syndicate baseball was common in the era and the owner moved McGinnity to the stronger team, the Superbas (they didn’t become the Dodgers until much later). McGinnity again led the National League in wins and this time added innings pitched to his black ink stats. The Superbas won the pennant, but were challenged by second place Pittsburgh to a post season set of games called the “Chronicle-Telegraph Games” (named for a Pittsburgh newspaper which put up a fancy cup). Brooklyn won three games to one with McGinnity pitching two complete games and giving up no earned runs.

In 1901, the American League arrived. McGinnity joined the new AL team in Baltimore, also called the Orioles, but, again, not the same team as exists today. He won 26 games for the fledgling team, despite a 12 day suspension for spitting on an umpire (Joe McGinnity, meet Roberto Alomar). In 1902 he began the year with Baltimore but joined the exodus of players to New York and the NL, when his manager, John McGraw, jumped to the Giants as a result on a dispute with AL president Ban Johnson.

He spent the remaining years of his Major League career with the Giants, picking up 31 wins and pitching 434 innings in ’03. The latter is the NL record for the 20th Century. In August of 1903 he became famous for pitching both ends of a double-header three different times. He won all six games. He was already known as “Iron Man”, but now the nickname became synonymous with the double-header feat. In 1904 he was 35-8, winning 14 consecutive games, leading the league in wins, innings, shutouts, ERA, and saves. In 1905, he was down to 21 wins, but the Giants won the World Series. He took a loss in game two and won game four (of five) giving up no earned runs in either game (the loss came on errors). In 1906 he won 27 games, but was suspended for ten days, this time for fighting on the diamond.

By 1907, he was on the downslide. He pitched much less than before and began spending a lot of time in the coach’s box. By 1908 he was through, although he was famously involved in the “Merkle Game” (He’s supposed to have thrown the ball into the stands to keep the Cubs from making Fred Merkle out at second.). The Giants released him in February 1909. He was 39. He may have been through at the Major League level, but he wasn’t through with baseball. He went back to the minors, which were in his day not tied to the big league clubs in a farm system. He pitched until 1925 racking up 400 more wins, including a 30 win season, five 20 win seasons, and twice more winning both ends of a double-header. In the modern world of farm teams whose only job is to get minor leaguers to the big leagues, McGinnity’s post-1908 minor league career is unthinkable.

After retiring he coached a little with the Brooklyn team and assisted Williams College with its baseball program. He died in 1929 and was buried in McAlester, Oklahoma. He made the Hall of Fame in 1946.

For his Major League career McGinnity went 246-142 (or 25-14 per year) for his ten year career with an ERA of 2.66. In five of the ten years he led the NL in wins. He also led the league in ERA, shutouts, and winning percentage once each and led in innings pitched four times. His ERA+ is 1.21 and his WHIP is 1.188. What you get with McGinnity is an innings eater with a lot of wins. It’s fashionable to downplay “wins” as a major pitching statistic today, and that’s certainly fair in the modern era. After all, a starter goes six innings, turns the game over to any number of seventh inning stoppers, who turn it over to the set up man in the eighth, who finally gives the ball to the closer in the ninth. It’s hard to really consider the six inning starter much of a winning pitcher. Additionally, fielders have massive gloves and the field is manicured. That’s very different from McGinnity’s day. He started 381 games and finished 314 (82%) and had fielders with little gloves and terrible playing surfaces behind him. To me a win in 1905 is pretty meaningful, particularly versus the modern version. So, I’m more impressed with the 25 wins a year than I would be if McGinnity put them up today.

I began my search for McGinnity by wondering why he had such a short career. I think there are two reasons. First, he was 29 when he got to the Majors and 39 was usually the end of the baseball line in the first decade of the 20th Century. Second, with all those innings, I imagine that even a submarine delivery had to put a lot of strain on that arm of his. Although his subsequent minor league stats might belie that assertion.

While researching this post I ran across information that McGinnity’s home in McAlester, Oklahoma is still standing. Here’s a picture of it:

McGinnity home, McAlister, OK

 It’s in poor repair, but the article indicates that they are trying to restore it (as evidenced by the equipment to the left in the picture) to its original splendor. There’s some question as to whether McGinnity bought it or if it belonged to his wife’s family and she inherited it on the death of her parents. Considering the size and evident expense of the home and considering baseball salaries in 1905, I lean toward the latter theory. Either way, McGinnity actually lived in it. There is no information I could find about what memorabilia, if any, they have.

Why 1910 Matters

October 11, 2010

Since April I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time running all over the 1910 baseball season. Part of that is simply because it was 100 years ago and a centennial is worth remembering. It’s also because the season is interesting in itself. But primarily I’ve been focusing on the 1910 season because it is a watershed season for Major League Baseball. There are a lot of reasons why. Here are some in no particular order.

1. The appointment of Hal Chase as manager of the Highlanders (Yankees) is not, for managerial purposes, all that important. What is important is the ability of the owners and the National Commission (which ran baseball before Judge Landis) to look the other way when it came to gambling in the big leagues. Failure to crack down on this sort of activity meant that it was going to get worse and that eventually something like the Black Sox scandal was bound to occur. The players likely to participate in this kind of thing now had proof that not only were the powers that be not going to do anything about gambling,  but might actually reward a player if the situation was right. I don’t want to compare it directly with the steroid situation of the 1990s, but it does seem that Malamud was right, we really don’t learn from our mistakes (The book “The Natural”–not the movie–has this as one of its central themes.).

2. During the 19th Century the National Association, the Union Association, the American Association, and the Player’s League had all existed, as had the National League. By 1892 they were all gone. Only the American Association survived 10 seasons, and by the tenth was on life support. By contrast the American League, founded in 1901, was now ten years old and flourishing. The 1910 season marked a decade of success both as a business and on the field. Frankly, baseball had not had this kind of stability in its history. Ban Johnson had managed to create a new Major League and made it work. By 1910 there was no question the AL was here to stay and that the National League finally had a partner co-equal to it. 

3. The Athletics had created the first successful AL dynasty. From league founding in 1901 through 1910, four teams won all the AL pennants: Chicago (1901, 1906), Philadelphia (1902, 1905, 1910), Boston (1903-1904), and Detroit (1907-1909). None of the pre-1910 teams created a dynasty. OK, Detroit won three years in a row, but was defeated in all three World Series matchups, which is kinda hard to call a dynasty. Let’s be honest, dynasties work, especially if they happen to be your team. Baseball seems to do best in attendance and popularity when there is a dynasty. They give fans both a hero and a villain (depending on whether you like the team or not) and 3500 years of drama tell us that nothing  in entertainment sells like heroes and villains. On top of that, it was easy to like the A’s. Connie Mack was a nice enough human being (except when it came to paying his players–a common problem in the era). You hear very few negative comments about Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, or Stuffy McInnis. And in the case of  Chief Bender, he was a sympathetic figure to many fans because of all the racial riding he took (he was an American Indian). All those things went together to help boost attendance and cash.

4. The Cubs dynasty had come to an end. If one dynasty was born in 1910, another died. The “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubs had their last fling in 1910. Between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs dominated the NL. They won four of five pennants (losing in 1909 to Pittsburgh) and two World Series’ (1907-8). But 1910 was the end. In the Cubs Postmortem post I detailed what went wrong, so I don’t intend to do it again. But the loss of the Cubs dynasty is signficant because it allowed for a more wide open NL. If having a dynasty is good for baseball, having two isn’t. One league has to remain open for fans to believe their team has a chance to win. With the death of the Cubs dynasty hope could rise for other teams in the NL, notably John McGraw’s New York team, but also in the next ten years Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati would also win pennants (as would the Cubs in 1918). The end of the Cubs dynasty also ushered in the beginning of the Cubs mystique as the “loveable losers.” With only sporadic exception, the Cubs have been non-factors in the NL since.  After four pennants in five seasons, the Cubs have won the NL title exactly six times (1918, 1929, 1932, 1935. 1938, 1945). They are now a synonym for “loser”, a tradition that began with the end of the 1910 season.

5 The AL became the dominant league. I said earlier that the reasons 1910 mattered were in no particular order, but this one is last on purpose because it’s the most important. Between 1903 and 1909 there were six World Series matchups. The NL won four (1905, 1907-09) and the AL only two (1903, 1906). By 1910, the AL hadn’t beaten the NL in four years. All that changed in 1910. Take a look at the next ten years, actually 11 because I’m going to ignore the 1919 “fixed” Series. Between 1910 and 1920 inclusive the NL wins one untainted World Series, 1914. And it took a team known as the “Miracle Braves” to do that.  The AL won everything else: Philadelphia in 1910-11, 1913; Boston in 1912, 1915-16, 1918; Chicago in 1917; and Cleveland in 1920. And that kind of dominance continues in some measure all the way to 2010. Here’s the World Series wins by league by decade since 1910 (going from the zero year to the nine year to determine a decade, thus 1920-29, 1940-49, etc.) 1910-19: AL-8, NL-2 (including 1919), 1920-29: AL-6, NL-4, 1930-9: AL-7, NL-3; 1940-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1950-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1960-9: AL-4, NL-6, 1970-9: AL-6, NL-4; 1980-9: AL-5, NL 5, 1990-9: AL-6, NL-3 (and no series in 1994): 2000-9: AL-6, NL-4. In each decade except the 1960s, when the NL actually wins more World Series championships and  1980s when the each win five, the American League has won the more often. I think this is much more significant than the results of the All Star game which saw the NL have along period of dominance in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not really impressed with winning an exhibition game. So the American League has been the superior league in most of the last 100 years, and that began in 1910.

I’ve enjoyed going over the 1910 season. I learned a lot, some significant, some trivial. I’ve begun to celebrate the players of the era more by having done this, and I consider that a good thing. Hope you enjoyed it.

Leading Boston to Victory

May 8, 2010

Jimmy Collins in Boston Americans uniform

Way back in baseball’s Stone Age, the American League team in Boston (they didn’t become the Red Sox until later in the period), won the first World Series. They had a great pitcher in Cy Young. They also had a dominant third baseman named Jimmy Collins. Collins doubled as the manager and led his team to victory.

Collins began his career with the National League’s Boston team, the Beaneaters, in 1895. They loaned him to Louisville for the bulk of the season (long story). By 1896 he was back in Boston where he stayed for the remainder of the 19th Century.

With the dawn of the new century Ban Johnson moved his Western League east and formed the American League. Collins moved right along with him into the new league becoming the manager of the upstart AL franchise in Boston. Both Collins and the team did well. In 1901 he managed them to second place, in 1902 they were third. In 1903 they won the pennant. Pittsburgh won the National League pennant and owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged Boston to a nine game “World’s Series” to determine who had the better team. Boston won in eight games, although Collins didn’t have a particularly good series. In 1904 they won the AL pennant again, agreed to another World Series, and ran smack up against John McGraw and the New York Giants who simply refused to play the upstart team from an upstart league.

In 1905 Boston fell back to fourth and was last in 1906. Collins hurt his knee and played only 37 games in ’06. It was his last year as manager. After 41 games in Boston in 1907 he went to Philadelphia in a trade for fellow third baseman Jack Knight. Collins went on to have one last good year, then in 1908 he hit only .217 in 115 games. The next season Frank (Home Run) Baker replaced him at third. Collins died in 1943 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

I look over his numbers and sometimes I wonder why Collins is so well regarded. As I looked at him more, I began to realize the dearth of talent at third base and realized he’s a good candidate for best third sacker of the era. Now that sounds like a backhanded compliment, “Well, there just wasn’t anybody better outta all these bums, so why not him?” And in some ways it is. Actually, third base has produced fewer great players than any other position. Most of the good hitters didn’t play defense particularly well. Most of the good glove men didn’t hit all that well.

Collins is one of the few third basemen who did both well. As a defensive player he was considered  the premier glove man of his day. In an era where the bunt was a major weapon, he was famous for being hard to bunt against. His range was excellent, holding four of the best seasonal averages ever. In the opening years of the American League he is clearly its best defensive third baseman.

He hit pretty well also. Five seasons he hit over .300. In 1898 he won a home run title with 15, his only year in double figure home runs. He had 175 hits five times, tallied 100 runs four years, and had 100 RBIs twice. All are good numbers for the era. In the twelve years he played 100 games, he averaged 156 hits, 83 runs, 28 doubles, and 77 RBIs. Again, not bad for the Deadball Era(Ya know, when I do spell check they suggest deadball should be meatball. I wonder why.). His 15 home runs in 1898 are 23% of his total and I’ve no clue why the sudden power surge. His next highest total was a rookie year seven. In his last three seasons he hit exactly one.

Jimmy Collins is one of those players whose numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but who consistently impresses if you pay attention to when he took the field. He played a pivotal role for two very good teams at the turn of the 20th Century, leading one of them to the first ever World Series title. All in all he is probably the American League’s finest third baseman in its formative years. He’s one of the reasons the league gained instant credibility and became a true rival to the National League.

White Elephant

February 23, 2010

Ever wonder why the A’s occasionally wear an elephant on their uniforms? The story goes back to the founding of the American League and involves John McGraw, Connie Mack, Ban Johnson, and an old expression you don’t hear much anymore.

When the American League was formed in 1901, league president Ban Johnson wanted a team in Philapdelphia. Ben Shibe, who is supposed to be the man who invented the machine that allowed for standardizing baseballs, agreed to take on the Philadelphia franchise along with old time catcher Connie Mack as a partner. Shibe ran the business end of the enterprise and Mack ran the team (that changed quickly with Mack in control of both). John McGraw was a friend of Mack’s and a man who absolutely hated Ban Johnson. When asked about Mack taking over the new team in Philadelphia, McGraw told the press he thought Mack had gotten a “white elephant.”

You don’t hear that phrase anymore. I remember my grandparents using it, but not so much from my parents. I don’t use it at all. A ‘white elephant’ is something that has a cost way out of step with its worth and that can’t be gotten rid of easily. In other words, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. McGraw had just told Mack, in front of the entire baseball world, his team wasn’t worth having.

Mack took it well, he had a better sense of humor than McGraw (well, most people who have ever lived had a better sense of humor than John J. McGraw). He had the white elephant sewn onto the A’s uniforms where it has stayed for most of the team’s history (Charlie Finley not withstanding). The two teams met in the 1905 World Series and Mack presented McGraw with a stuffed white elephant prior to game one. McGraw accepted it (and as far as I can determine didn’t smile) as the gag it was meant to be, then went out and won the series 4 games to 1.

Mack did manage to finally win the contest with McGraw. They faced each other in the first All Star Game and Mack won. More importantly, they faced each other in the 1911 and 1913 World Series. The A’s won both. If you look at pictures of the two World Series, you’ll find the white elephant on the A’s uniforms. Game, set, match.

The Worst Baseball Team Ever

January 28, 2010

OK, the title is a bit strong. You shoulda seen some of the Little League teams I was on. But for the Major Leagues this is really easy. Welcome to 18 May 1912.

Ty Cobb, being Ty Cobb, was in trouble in May 1912. He’d gone into the stands and beaten up a fan. This was the kind of behavior Ban Johnson, president of the American League couldn’t stand. He was trying to build a sport that could appeal to the “better angels of our nature” (with apologies to Abe Lincoln) and Cobb was something of a demon. So Cobb had to go. Johnson tossed him out indefinitely. In a move that surprised everyone, the Tigers players exploded. Basically none of them like Cobb, but he was one of the boys, he was their best player, and well, heck, you just can’t do that to one of us. So the Tigers struck. They refused to play until Cobb was reinstated. No one, frankly, believed them so the scheduled game for 18 May was on against the Philadelphia Athletics, reigning world’s champs.

The A’s showed up, the Tigers showed up, then the Tigers marched off the field and refused to play. Rather than forfeit, Detroit manager Hughie Jennings decided to play with what has to be the worst team ever. Anticipating the team might really refuse to play, Jennings had gotten together a group of “players” to take the field if his team refused to play.  His team refused to play. So on came the replacements. The new guys were a mix of old coaches, young college and high school guys, and a couple of failed major league wanna be types.

The two coaches were Joe Sugden, aged 41, at first base and Deacon McGuire, aged 48, as the catcher. I don’t want to say McGuire was old, but his rookie year was 1884 at Toledo where he backed up Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black player in a Major League. The guy caught Tony Mullane, for God’s sake.

The new guys were Jim McGarr, age 24, at second; Pat Meaney, age 20, at short; Jack Smith, age 19, at third; Hap Ward, age 20, in right;, Dan McGarvey, age 25, in left;  the youngest of the lot 18 year old Bill Leinhauser replacing Cobb was in center; and 23 year old Allan Travers took the mound.

There were couple of failed players on the team. The star of the team turned out to be 30 year old Ed Irvin would play both third and spell McGuire behind the plate (Did you really think a 48 year old could last as a catcher?). Billy Maharg got a turn at third, he was 29.

How’d they do? They got killed. Final score was 24-2. Travers pitched the entire game giving up 26 hits and ending with a 15.76 ERA. They got two hits, both triples by Irvin who ended his short career with a .667 batting average, a 2.000 slugging percentage, and a 2667 OPS. McGuire and Sugden scored the two runs.

The next day A’s owner/manager Connie Mack agreed to postpone the game. Ban Johnson met with the players, threatened them with banishment (sorry, couldn’t pass up the ban/banishment joke). Cobb called on his teammates to rejoin the game, and the farce ended with the one game. The Tigers went on to finish 6th (in an 8 team field). The game didn’t cost them much, they finished 6 games out of 5th.

Most of the replacement “players” went back to obscurity. Two of them did manage a certain amount of fame, or infamy depending on your definition. Maharg ended up one of the major players in the Black Sox scandal in 1919 and got himself banned from baseball (like he was ever going to play again). Travers did much better. He was a college man, finished his studies, and became a Jesuit priest. It’s tough to say which was his higher calling, priest or pitcher.

The Nap LaJoie Traveling Show

January 27, 2010

Nap LaJoie

Way back in baseball’s Stone Age, Napoleon LaJoie was a premier second baseman. For a few years he may have been one of its premier players. He was so good that teams went to court to get him and so good that cities named their teams after him.

Let me start by saying I have no idea how he pronounced his last name. I’ve heard it La-Ja-Way, La-Jay, La-Joy (I think I’ve got the Napoleon part down). Wikipedia says he used La-Ja-Way but gives no source for that. Anybody know?

 LaJoie first entered the Major Leagues in 1896, actually league- there was only one. With the Philadelphia Phillies he led the league in slugging percentage, total bases, doubles, and RBIs at various times. Basically, he was a heck of a player.

In 1901, Ban Johnson renamed his Western League the American League and went head to head with the National League. One of his brightest assets was LaJoie who jumped from the Phillies to their cross-town rivals, the Athletics. The Phillies sued (and you thought lawsuits were new). The A’s won. The Phillies appealed. The A’s lost. LaJoie ended up at Cleveland and was not allowed to travel to or through the state of Pennsylvania (Got all that?). Essentially the Phillies claimed LaJoie was theirs, a state court agreed, and if he entered the borders of Pennsylvania he was liable for arrest, fine, and worst of all he would have to play for the Phillies. By 1903, they had it all worked out. LaJoie stayed at Cleveland through 1914. Between 1905 and 1909 he was player-manager and from 1905 through 1914 the team was known as the Cleveland Naps in his honor. He went back to the Athletics in 1915 (see, old lawsuits do eventuallly die) and retired at the conclusion of the A’s horrendous 1916 season (worth a post in itself). He made the Hall of Fame in 1937.

If you don’t study Stone Age baseball you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about. In 1901, Nap LaJoie won the American League’s triple crown. He hit .422, still an American League record, slugged .635, led in hits with 229, doubles with 48, home runs with fourteen, total bases with 345, runs at 145, and RBIs at 125. He tied for first in home run percentage and was eighth in triples. Now I heard someone once downgrade the season saying that the American League was a “marginal” big league in 1901, so don’t get too excited about the statistics. Maybe. But, you know what, nobody else feasted on this “weak” league like LaJoie; in fact, no one else was even close. the next two highest batting averages were .347 and .345.  Next in total bases were 279 and 274. In hits it’s 190 and 187. LaJoie’s not just ahead of these guys, he’s way ahead of them. By 1903, this “marginal” league managed to win the first ever World Series (got better real quick, didn’t it?). LaJoie won the batting and slugging titles that season and again the next. I’ll give you a bit of inflation for 1901, but not much.  LaJoie simply had an outstanding year.

In 1910, he was involved in a major controversy over the batting title. Several years ago a bunch of baseball historians discovered an error in Ty Cobb’s 1910 totals. Turns out, they claim, that LaJoie should have won the batting title. Major League Baseball has never recognized that chainge. The furor at the time was so great that the Chalmers automobile people, who had promised a car to the batting title winner, gave both men a car (this led eventually to the Chalmers Award, the first MVP award).

Between 1901 and 1906, LaJoie was a great player. He produced a lot of runs, got a lot of hits, and had an excellent slugging percentage. After down years in 1907 through 1909 he came back in 1910. My guess is that managing a team named for you can really wear on you quickly. He maintained a high degree of excellence though 1913, then finished out with three down seasons. He died in 1959 acknowledged as one of the half dozen or so greatest second basemen ever.