Posts Tagged ‘Bill Dickey’

The Old and the New: Game 5

March 22, 2016

Game five of the 1942 World Series was played in New York with the Yankees down three games to one. To pick up the ’42 championship they would have to win three consecutive games.

Whitey Kurowski

Whitey Kurowski

Game 5

The game was played 5 October in the Bronx. To keep their hopes alive, the Yanks turned to game one victor Red Ruffing. St. Louis needing one win to clinch the Series countered with game two winner Johnny Beazley. As in game four, the Yankees scored early when Phil Rizzuto led off the bottom of the first with a home run. It held up until the top of the fourth when Enos Slaughter led off that half inning with a home run. Not to be outdone, New York replied in the bottom of the fourth. This time, rather than a home run, they used a Red Rolfe single, a botched pickoff, a sacrifice fly, and a Joe DiMaggio single to retake the lead 2-1.

Things stayed that way until the top of the sixth. Consecutive singles by Terry Moore and Slaughter put runners on first and third. A Stan Musial popup brought up Walker Cooper. His long fly to right plated Moore with the tying run, but a Johnny Hopp fly out stranded the go ahead run on the bases.

From the bottom of the sixth through the end of the eighth inning the pitchers ruled. Only one man, Rizzuto for the Yankees and Jimmy Brown for the Cardinals, got on base for either team. With it looking like extra innings, Walker Cooper led off the top of the ninth with a single. A bunt sent him to second and brought up Cards third baseman Whitey Kurowski. He proceeded to drive a pitch deep into the left field stands and put the Cardinals ahead 4-2 with three outs to go. Joe Gordon led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, the seventh hit given up by Beazley. Brown managed to boot a Bill Dickey grounder to put men on first and second with no outs. St. Louis shortstop Marty Marion then slipped behind Gordon at second and a snap throw from catcher Cooper caught Gordon off the base for out one. A pop-up to Brown brought the second out. Then a grounder went straight to Brown who flipped to first for the final out of the Series. St. Louis won the game 4-2 and the Series in five games.

For a short World Series it was a good Series. The Yankees actually outhit the Cardinals .247 to .239 and had more extra base hits (nine to eight), and more total hits (44 to 39). They even had fewer errors (5 to 10). But St. Louis scored more runs 23 to 18, more walks (17 to 8), and less strikeouts (19 to 22). Brown’s .300 led all St. Louis hitters while Kurowski’s five RBIs, including the Series winning one, paced the Cardinals. Four players, including Kurowski, scored three runs. Musial’s .222 average wasn’t much, but he scored two runs and drove in another pair while walking a team leading four times. For New York, Rizzuto hit .381, while Keller, who hit only .200, led the team with five RBIs and two home runs. MVP Gordon hit only .095 and was picked off in a critical situation.

It was the St. Louis pitching that made much of the difference. Their ERA was 2.60 as opposed to the New York ERA of 4.50. They gave up five more hits, but five fewer runs (how’s that for symmetry?). While the Yanks walked 17, the Cards walked only eight. In strikeouts the Cardinals had a small edge of 22 over the Yankees 19. Beazley won two games with an ERA of 2.50 while Ernie White had a complete game shutout. For New York only Red Ruffing claimed a win, but he also took a loss.

For both teams there would be the rematch of 1943, which New York would win by the same four games to one margin. Then New York would fall off, only to revive in 1947 and then have another great run from 1949 all the way to 1964. For Yankees manager Joe McCarthy it would be the only blot on his New York World Series resume. The Series would become known in some places as “the one the Yankees lost.” For St. Louis it was the beginning of an impressive run. During the 1940s the Cardinals would win four championships (’42, ’43, ’44, and ’46) and win three world titles (all but ’43). It was one of the truly best, and by now most overlooked, teams in National League history. It is still the last National League team to win three consecutive pennants (1942, ’43, and ’44). In the 1950s the Cards would fall off, but in a twist of great irony it was the 1964 Cardinals that would finally end the great Yankees run of the 1950s and early 1960s.

 

 

The Old and the New: games at Sportsman’s Park

March 14, 2016

The 1942 World Series began in St. Louis with two games. After those two, the Series would move to New York for games three through five. The final games, if necessary, would be back in St. Louis.

Red Ruffing

Red Ruffing

Game 1

The first game in Sportsman’s Park was played 30 September. St. Louis sent National League MVP Mort Cooper to the mound. New York countered with long time stalwart Red Ruffing. Both pitchers were on for three innings. In the top of the fourth Joe DiMaggio singled.  Consecutive pop ups got two outs, then Bill Dickey walked moving DiMaggio to second. A Buddy Hassett double down the left field line scored DiMaggio and sent Dickey to third. A grounder by pitcher Ruffing got Cooper out of the jam with only one run scoring. But the Yanks went back to work in the top of the fifth. With one out a Red Rolfe single and Roy Cullenbine double put runners on second and third. A Joe DiMaggio roller to third got Cullenbine trying to advance, but Rolfe scored the second New York run.

In the eighth inning, the wheels came off for Cooper. With two outs and DiMaggio on first, Dickey singled. A Hassett single scored the Yankee Clipper and sent Dickey to third. Then Ruffing lifted a fly to right field which Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter misplayed allowing both Dickey and Hassett to score. That put New York up 5-0. New York tacked on two more in the ninth when Rolfe singled and Cullenbine hit a little tapper back to Max Lanier, who’d relieved to start the ninth. Lanier threw it away allowing Rolfe to score and Cullenbine to go to third. A second out brought up Charlie Keller who walked. A Lanier pick-off attempt went wide and Cullenbine scored the seventh New York run.

Up 7-0 Ruffing started the bottom of the ninth. Considering what was to happen in the remainder of the Series, it was a harbinger of what was to come. Stan Musial fouled out, then Walker Cooper singled. Another out brought up pinch hitter Ray Sanders who walked. A Marty Marion triple scored both runners. Pinch hitter Ken O’Dea singled scoring Marion. Another single brought Terry Moore to the plate. His single scored the fourth run of the inning. A Slaughter single brought up Musial with two outs. He’d made the first out of the inning and proceeded to ground to the first baseman. A flip to the pitcher ended the game, the inning, and made Musial one of the few men to make two outs in one inning in the World Series.

The Yankees won 7-4, but the St. Louis rally in the bottom of the ninth was indicative of what the Cardinals were capable of doing. New York had gotten good production out of much of its lineup and Ruffing had been sterling for eight innings. Both teams did well, but New York led the Series 1 game to none.

The Man

The Man

Game 2

The second game was played 1 October. For the Cardinals Johnny Beazley took the mound. The Yankees response was Ernie Bonham. From the beginning Bonham was in trouble. He gave up a leadoff walk to Jimmy Brown. Terry Moore bunted Brown to second and beat out the throw. Two outs later Walker Cooper doubled home both runs to give St. Louis a 2-0 lead.

Both pitchers pitched well from there. They gave up a lot of hits but there weren’t many walks and no one scored. The Cards tacked on a run in the seventh on a Johnny Hopp single and a Whitey Kurowski triple, but failed to score Kurowski. That was to cost the Cards because the Yanks came storming back in the top of the eighth. With two outs, Roy Cullenbine singled, then stole second. Joe DiMaggio singled to bring home Cullenbine and scored himself when Charlie Keller slugged a two-run home run to right field that tied the game at 3-3.

In the bottom of the eighth, tied and in danger or possibly going down two games to none, St. Louis took a pair of quick outs. That brought up Enos Slaughter who doubled to right. Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto let the throw in from right get away and Slaughter dashed to third. Up came Stan Musial who had made two outs in one inning the day before, including the final out of the game. But it was Musial and he singled to score Slaughter and put the Cardinals ahead 4-3. The score stayed that way despite consecutive singles to lead off the top of the ninth. Neither man scored, the first being cut down at third on a great throw from Slaughter. A fly and a groundout finished off New York and the Cardinals had tied the Series one game apiece.

Beazley had one bad inning, but managed to win. He was in trouble a lot, giving up 10 hits and walking two, but New York’s scoring was confined to one inning. Bonham had given up only six hits and walked just one, but he’d spread four runs over the game and lost. Slaughter was a big hero scoring the decisive run and gunning down a key runner in the ninth, but it was Musial who drove in the game winner.

Several years ago I did a series of posts in which I gave my candidate for the best ever World Series by game (i.e. the best all time game 1, the best all time game 2, etc.). At the time I chose the 1942 Series game 2 as the finest game 2 in World Series history. It’s been several years since (and thus a number of game 2’s since) so I might now change my mind. But whether I would or not, it was still a great game.

After a day off for travel, the World Series would resume in New York with three games. With the Series tied, a split of any kind would bring the games back to St. Louis. A sweep would end the season.

 

 

 

The Old and the New: the ’42 Yankees

March 7, 2016
Marse Joe

Marse Joe

The 1942 baseball season was the first played while the US was involved in the Second World War. It changed a lot of things. One thing it didn’t change was the New York Yankees stranglehold on the American League. For the sixth time in seven years, New York won the AL pennant. Joe McCarthy’s gang won the league championship by nine games and were primed to win their ninth World Series since 1927.

Yankee hitters finished first in runs and home runs and second in almost everything else, finishing third in stolen bases and triples and fourth in doubles. The pitching was even better. New York hurlers led the AL in every major category except strikeouts (they were second) and in home runs. All that got them 103 wins and earned second baseman Joe Gordon an MVP award.

It wasn’t one of the more famous Yankee staffs, but New York pitchers were excellent. Ernie Bonham, Spud Chandler, Hank Borowy, Atley Donald, and Marv Breuer all started at least 19 games. Hall of Famer Red Ruffing had a 3.21 ERA which was last among the starters. His .667 winning percentage (14-7) was next-to-last. Johnny Murphy and Johnny Lindell did most of the damage out of the bullpen, while former ace Lefty Gomez was restricted to 13 games.

At 35, Bill Dickey was still a premier catcher. He hit .295 for the season with an OPS of .732 (POS+ of 108) and 1.6 WAR. His power was gone (two homers)but neither Buddy Rosar or Rollie Hemsley, his backups, had more.

The infield was formidable up the middle and weaker at the edges. Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Phil Rizzuto played either side of the keystone bag. Gordon, as mentioned above, won the MVP hitting .322 with a .900 OPS and a 154 OPS+. His WAR was a team high 8.2. He contributed 103 RBIs, 88 runs, and 18 home runs (all third on the team). Shortstop Rizzuto added a .284 average, a .718 OPS, a 103 OPS+, and 5.7 WAR. He had 157 hits, 68 RBIs, and flashed good leather. Buddy Hassett held down first. He wasn’t Lou Gehrig, managing only a .284 average, 0.4 WAR, and a below average OPS+ of 95. Frankie Crosetti and Red Rolfe shared time at third. Neither hit.250 (Crosetti’s .242 easily outpacing Rolfe’s .219). Rolfe’s eight home runs doubled Crosetti’s four and between them they had 48 RBIs. Jerry Priddy and Ed Levy provided most of the bench work (infielders with more than 40 at bats).  Levy hit a buck-22, but Priddy hit .280 with a couple of home runs.

The 1942 team provided one of the best Yankee outfields. There was no Ruth or Mantle, but across the field from left to right the three main players might have given New York the best trio of outfielders it produced at one time. Joe DiMaggio was in center. His 6.1 WAR was third on the team. He hit .305 with 21 home runs (good for second on the team) while leading the team with 114 RBIs and 186 hits. Charlie Keller played left. He hit .292, led the team with 26 homers and a .930 OPS (163 OPS+) and posted 6.7 WAR (good for second on the team). Tommy Henrich hit .267 with 13 home runs, 129 hits, a team leading 30 doubles, an OPS+ of 121, and 2.7 WAR. Roy Cullenbine and George Selkirk were the other outfielders. Cullenbine hit .364 and led the team with an OPS+ of 188 (1.4 WAR) and had the only two home runs by the backup outfielders. Selkirk hit .192.

The Yanks were defending champions. They were seasoned, formidable, and ready to repeat. Standing in their way was the upstart team from St. Louis.

A Great Age for Hitting Catchers

July 3, 2013
Joe Mauer's Wikipedia picture

Joe Mauer’s Wikipedia picture

Ever look over a list of  Hall of Famers? One of the things a lot of people mention after doing so is “Geez, there’s not a lot of third basemen in the Hall.” That’s true. But it’s also true of catchers. Excluding 19th Century players, there are a dozen each third basemen and catchers in the Hall. It’s a hard position, catcher, to play.

But we are living in a great age for catchers that can hit. There have been a few of those, but not many. In the 1930s you found Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett playing at the same time. In the 1950s there was Yogi Berra and there was Roy Campanella. Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk overlap in the 1980s. And in the last 15 or so years, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing a new group of them that may (or may not) be as good, but are certainly a deeper pool of fine hitting catchers. Going back to the turn of the century, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez were still productive players. In the 21st Century we’ve added three more.

Did you know that prior to 2006 catchers won only three batting titles: Ernie Lombardi twice and Bubbles Hargrave? Since 2006 catchers have won four. Joe Mauer has three and Buster Posey one. And this year Yadier Molina (who has in the last few seasons resolved any doubt as to which Molina brother was the best) is leading the National League. He probably won’t stay there, but to have a catcher leading the NL on 1 July is amazing.

So let’s all set back on our Fourth of July break and enjoy a ballgame. And while we’re at it, take a second to revel in the quality of good hitting catchers that are available to us. It’s very rare.

Between Murderers Row and the Bronx Bombers

March 19, 2012

Did you ever notice how the Yankees tend to win pennants in bunches. In 1921-23 they win, then again 1926-28, then you find them winning a bunch between 1936 and 1943. Then starting in 1947, they win more or less constantly through 1964. Then there’s a gap until 1976-1981, and finally there’s the 1996-2003 run. It’s not that they win every year, or that they win all the championships when they do win, but notice how for long periods of time (and three years is a long time in baseball) they are consistently in the World Series. There are two exceptions, two teams that win a World Series in isolation. One is the most recent gig, the other in 1932.

The 1932 Yankees were something of a hybrid, and that may explain why they have only one pennant. It’s a transition team between the Murder’s Row guys of the 1920s and the Bronx Bombers of the late 1930s. Babe Ruth was beginning his decline, but still good. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t in New York yet. In some ways this is Lou Gehrig’s team,  perhaps the only winner that can say that. I don’t mean to imply that Gehrig isn’t a major player in 1926-28 or again in 1936-38 but I think most people see the first team as Ruth’s and the second as DiMaggio’s. They are also a very overlooked team. Finally, it is Joe McCarthy’s first Yankees pennant winner.

The infield was Gehrig at first, Tony Lazzeri at second, Joe Sewell at third, and Frankie Crosetti at short. Gehrig hit .300 with 34 home runs, 151 RBIs (did you ever notice just how much of an RBI machine Gehrig was?), and had an OPS+ of 180. Lazzeri also hit .300, had 11 home runs, and an OPS+ of 137. Sewell, in the twilight of his career, hit .270 and did what he always did, hit the ball. He struck out all of three times in 503 at bats and walked 56 times. Crosetti hit just .240.

The outfield was Ruth, Earle Combs, and Ben Chapman. Ruth was Ruth, although he was on the downside of his career. He hit 41 home runs, drove in 137, had an OPS+ of 200, and an OPS of 1.150. Combs was still good, hitting .300, scoring 143 times, getting 190 hits, and posting a 126 OPS+. Chapman was the new guy. He hit .299, stole a team (and league) high 38 bases, and posted a 124 OPS+.

The battery consisted of Bill Dickey as the catcher. Dickey was just coming into his own as a hitter. He hit .310 with 15 home runs, 84 RBIs, and was another in a long line of Yankees with an OPS+ over 100 (120). The starters were still good, but beginning to age in spots. Lefty Gomez won 24 games but posted an ERA over four. Red Ruffing had 18 wins and an ERA just over three. George Pipgras, Johnny Allen, and 38-year-old Herb Pennock were the other pitchers who started 20 or more games. Allen joined Wilcy Moore in leading the team with four saves.

The 1932 Yankees won 107 games and finished first by 13 games (over Philadelphia). As a reward they got to face the Cubs in the World Series. They won in four games. The first and fourth game were blowouts, while games two and three were reasonably close. The most famous, and controversial moment came in game three. In the fifth inning with the game tied 4-4, Ruth came to bat with one out. He hit what became known as “The Called Shot” to deep center field. I’ve seen the picture of Ruth just before the home run. It’s obvious he has his hand up, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s doing and where he’s pointing (maybe he’s giving the Cubs “the finger”), so I’m not going to make a definitive statement as to whether he “called” his shot or not. Being Ruth, I wouldn’t bet against it. What’s generally unknown is that Gehrig homered in the next at bat to give the Yanks a two-run lead and the eventual margin of victory.

The team fell back in 1933 and 1934. By 1935 Ruth was gone. By 1936 DiMaggio was there and it was a different team. So the 1932 Yanks are a team that won in isolation and was not part of either the Murderer’s Row or Bronx Bombers dynasty. Still, it’s a great team and I might argue it’s one of the very finest Yankees teams ever.

The One They Lost

March 13, 2012

Between 1927 and 1954 the New York Yankees put together baseball’s greatest dynasty. In those 28 years the Yanks went to the World Series 16 times (57% of the time) and won 15 Series’ (94%). This is the story of the one they lost.

1942 Yankees

By the 1942 World Series the Yankees had won the last eight World Series’ they had played in (1927-8, 1932, 1936-39, and 1941). Except for losing Tommy Henrich to the military, they had not suffered significantly because of the Second World War. With Buddy Hassett at first, Joe Gordon at second, Phil Rizzuto at short, Red Rolfe at third, Bill Dickey behind the plate, and an outfield of Charlie Keller, Joe DiMaggio, and Roy Cullenbine the team hit well. The pitching was also good, but beginning to age a little. Red Ruffing was still there, but a fading ace. Ernie Bonham (the ace in ’42), Spud Chandler, and Hank Borowy all started 20 or more games and Johnny Murphy was the main bullpen man with 11 saves.

1942 Cardinals

Their opponents were a bunch of upstarts, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards hadn’t won since the Gas House Gang days of 1934, but won 106 games in 1942. It was a young team with only center fielder Terry Moore among the starters being over 29 (he was 30). The infield was (first around to third) Johnny Hopp, Creepy Crespi, Marty Marion, and Whitey Kurowski. Walker Cooper did the catching, and the outfield consisted of Enos Slaughter, Moore, and the best player on either team, Stan Musial. During the Series, utility man Jimmy Brown (age 32) took over second base for the light hitting Crespi. The staff was also young with ace Mort Cooper (Walker’s brother and winner of the ’42 National League MVP) the old man at 29.  Johnny Beazley was 24, Ernie White was 25, and Max Lanier was 26. Harry Gumbert, who was a geezer at 32, started 19 games and did the bulk of the bullpen work picking up five saves.

Games 1 and 2 were in St. Louis. Red Ruffing handcuffed the Cards for the first eight innings of game one. While not exactly lighting up Mort Cooper, the Yanks steadily put up runs, leading 7-0 going into the bottom of the ninth. They were helped by four Cardinal errors. But the bottom of the ninth became something of a warning for the Yankees. The Cards scored four runs on a handful of singles, a triple by Marion and some weak bullpen pitching by the Yanks. The inning is somewhat notable for more than just the four runs. Stan Musial joined a small group of others in making two outs in a single inning in the World Series. If Musial makes two outs in one inning, that shows you how tough a game it really is.

Game two saw the Cards score two runs in the first on Walker Cooper’s double. That was it for St. Louis for six innings. The Cardinals got another run in the bottom of the seventh on a Whitey Kurowski triple. Then New York struck in the top of the eighth, putting up three runs to tie the score. The key hit was a two-run homer by Charlie Keller. With two out in the bottom of the eighth, Slaughter doubled and Musial singled him home with the lead run. In the ninth, Slaughter had a great throw from right field that caught a runner going to third and snuffed out a Yankees rally.

With the Series tied at one game each, the next three games were in New York. In game three southpaw Ernie White held the Yankees to six hits, all singles, and pitched a complete game shutout. The Cards only got five hits, three off starter Spud Chandler, but put up a run in the third on a walk, a single, a bunt, and a ground out. They got an unearned run in the ninth on two singles sandwiched around an error by pitcher Marv Breuer.

Game four was a shootout. New York got a run in the first, then St. Louis exploded for six runs in the fourth. Except for a Musial double that scored one run, they did it all with singles and walks. Not to be outdone, the Yankees scored five of their own in the sixth. The big blow was another Keller home run, this one a three run job. With the score tied in the seventh, St. Louis scored two runs on consecutive walks, a single, and a sacrifice. They added a final run in the ninth on (again) a bunch of singles, bunts, and a final single by the pitcher (Lanier).

Down three games to one, the Yankees struck first when Phil Rizzuto led off the bottom of the first with a home run. That held up until the fourth, when Slaughter answered with another homer (the first Cardinal home run of the Series). New York responded with a run of their own in the bottom of the fourth, this time using the Cardinals method of singles and bunts to plate the go-ahead run. In the top of the sixth, St. Louis got a run on two singles and a fly to tie the game back up. It stayed that way until the top of the ninth. With one out and Walker Cooper on second, Kurowski hit a two-run home run to put the Cardinals ahead. With two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, Cooper and Marion worked a pick off that cut down Joe Gordon at second for the first out. A pop up and a ground out ended the game and the Series giving St. Louis its first championship since Dizzy Dean.

It was actually a darned good series, despite only going five games. The Yankees outhit and out slugged St. Louis but scored only 18 runs (13 earned) on 44 hits, nine of them for extra bases (including three home runs). The Cardinals put up 23 runs (22 earned) on 39 hits, only eight for extra bases (two home runs, both in game five).  A key difference was that St. Louis worked for 17 walks while New York only had eight (an OBP of .311 to .280 in favor of the Cards). Yankees pitching had an ERA of 4.50 and a WHIP of 1.273, while St. Louis’ ERA was 2.60 with a 1.156 WHIP. Johnny Beazley won two games, Lanier got one and pitched well in relief. Kurowski had big hits in two wins, including the clinching home run in game five. For New York Charlie Keller had five RBIs despite hitting only .200. Ruffing got the only win.

New York would get their revenge the next season when they knocked off St. Louis in five games (the Cards won game two). That was a temporary end of the line for the Yanks. They would miss the Series for the next three years, but by 1947 had reloaded and went on a run that saw them win six World Series (1947, 1949-52) in seven years. 

But for the Cardinals 1942 was the beginning of their greatest run. They took pennants in 1942, 43, 44, and 46 and won the World Series in each year except 1943. The young guns would remain the keys to the team throughout the period, although change would see a number of other “youngsters” join the team, including Hall of Fame announcer Joe Garagiola and Cooperstown inductee Red Schoendienst. Outside St. Louis, though, the 1942 World Series is primarily known as the one the Yankees lost.

The Colonel

March 8, 2012

Colonel Jacob Ruppert

When some talks to me about “The Colonel” I usually think of Harland Sanders first. Heck, being “Colonel Chicken” is a pretty good gig. But baseball also has it’s Colonel and he established the greatest dynasty in Major League history.

Jacob Ruppert was a second generation American born into a brewing family in New York in 1867. He spent some time in the New York National Guard, becoming an aide to the governor. That got him a promotion to Colonel and the title by which he is most commonly known. He spent time in the US Congress (1899-1907, four terms) as a Democrat Representative from New York (not all rich guys were Republicans in 1900).  He left Congress to work with his father in the brewery. Knickerbocker Beer was popular and the family made a lot of money. In 1911 Jacob Ruppert was chosen President of the United States Brewer’s Association, a job he held into 1914. In 1915 his father died and he took over the family business. A year earlier, in 1914, Jacob Ruppert bought a struggling baseball team, the New York Highlanders, and changed the face of baseball forever.

Logo allegedly based on Ruppert's stickpin

One of the first things Ruppert did was change the team nickname to “Yankees”. The famous Yankees logo showing an Uncle Sam top hat on a bat is supposed to be derived from a stickpin he wore on his lapel during World War I. The lapel is supposed to have shown an Uncle Sam top hat and the team took that and replaced the stickpin with a bat. I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of Ruppert and have to admit I can’t find a copy of the pin (maybe I’ve just overlooked it), so I can’t verify the tale, but it does make a good story.

Ed Barrow

Rupert understood that he had a potential goldmine in the American League team in New York, but he also had a team that wasn’t very good. It took a few years, but he began to create a team that could compete for the AL title on a yearly basis. One of his most important acquisitions was Ed Barrow. Barrow had been secretary and some-time manager of the Boston Red Sox in the late 19-teens. Ruppert brought him over to run the team as secretary (a position more or less equivilent to the modern general manager). It was a match that worked and the two men became the brain trust behind the Yankees pennant winning teams (certainly better than the Soggy Bottom Boys brain trust of “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?”). One of Barrow’s first suggestions was for the Yankees to purchase Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. Ruth became an instant star in New York and the Yankees started winning. Ruppert, a second generation American from Germany, had a noticable accent and generally refered to the Babe as “Root.” Actually, that’s OK. In German a “th” (as in Ruth) is frequently pronounced as a “t” so “Root” was a good pronunciation, if you were German. It did get a number of gags going in the press including one that asked if Ruth was going to hit third and Root fourth.

Through a series of good trades, timely purchases, good scouting, and sheer luck, the Yankees under Ruppert and Barrow produced great team after great team. They picked up Miller Huggins to manage the team, found a college slugger named Lou Gehrig to play first, went to San Francisco to look at a prospect named Joe DiMaggio, traded for Red Ruffing and Herb Pennock, and had a scout tell them about Bill Dickey. In each case they decided to pick up the player and the team won year after year. Between 1921 and 1938 (Ruppert died in 1939 before the season began) the Yankees won 10 pennants and 7 World Series’ and produced great player after great player. The 1927 team in frequently cited as the greatest of all Major League teams. Recent works have added the 1939 team (which was put together on Ruppert’s watch) as the greatest of all Major League teams. Pick either and the common denominators are Ruppert and Barrow.

Ruppert was not first into the farm system (Branch Rickey gets that honor), but saw immediately the promise of the system and got the Yankees into it quickly. Unfortunately, it got Ruppert into one of the great controversies of his career (letting Ruth go was the other). He bought a minor league team in Kansas City. The team came with a stadium that happened to have integrated seating. Ruppert immediately segregated the seating, moving black fans to the far reaches of the stadium. It got him into some trouble with the press, but he had the backing of the powers that be in the Majors Leagues (including Judge Landis) and survived with little problem.

Jacob Ruppert died in January 1939 in New York. One of the last people to visit him was Babe Ruth. They parted friends, despite past arguments over Ruth’s contract. Ruth always thought that Ruppert was generous with his money but stingy with praise (DiMaggio thought Ruppert was tight with a buck). He’s buried in the mausoleum pictured below.

Ruppert tomb

Occasionally I’m asked who I think is the best player currently not in the Hall of Fame (and eligible). My answer is Jeff Bagwell. But if the question is “who’s the most deserving baseball figure not currently in the Hall of Fame?” then I have a different answer. Because other executives and contributors are enshrined in Cooperstown, I pick Jacob Ruppert.

Rating Catchers

February 21, 2012

The "Tools of Ignorance"

With the sad and untimely death of Gary Carter, there’s been a lot of chatter about his place in the pantheon of Major League catchers, so i’m taking a short semi-break (you’ll see why “semi” in a few paragraphs) from my look at black baseball to make a few comments. I’m certainly not going to argue with those that place Carter in the top ten of catchers, because I agree with them. But I noticed a problem (actually problems) developing when I started to put together my own list of the ten greatest catchers.

The first problem of course is fairly self-evident. It’s the question of equipment. Take a look at the rudimentary equipment worn by guys like Buck Ewing way back. Basically, it’s an oversized work glove with some extra padding and a lot of prayer. Take a look at the equipment today. Which would you rather have if you were going to try to catch a Roy Halliday fastball? And that makes a world of difference in evaluating catchers. John Sayles when he did the movie “Eight Men Out” took great pains to be authentic. Take a look at the equipment Ray Schalk wears. Now Schalk was considered a tremendous catcher (without reference to his hitting) in the era. So was Johnny Kling a dozen years earlier. Give them a chance to use modern equipment and they might name their first-born after you. Give someone like Gary Carter a chance to use the old equipment and my guess is that after calling you things you didn’t know you could be called, he’d figure out how to make the best use of what he has available and still be a good catcher.

I remember listening to an interview with Roy Campanella way back in the 1950s. He didn’t particularly like the big “pillow” mitt in use then. He complained that it kept his right hand in constant danger of injury (and it was ultimately a hand injury that curtailed his stats in the year or so before his accident). I’m not sure Johnny Bench was really the greatest fielding catcher ever, but the innovation of the hinged mitt to replace the “pillow” certainly gave him advantages that other catchers had never had before. Now the right hand could be tucked behind the body when the bases were empty (and I’m astounded at the number of catchers who still don’t do that). Now it was possible to squeeze a pop foul rather than two-hand it. It helped Bench, along with his natural ability, to revolutionize the game.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with hitting a baseball. Guys who are good catchers and hit well tend to go to the Hall of Fame. I might argue that the two best catchers I ever saw were Jim Sundberg and Bob Boone. Neither hit much, but were tremendous catchers. I don’t know many people who think either should be considered in the top 10 of a catching list. So we come again to a problem we see a lot. I mentioned it in a much earlier post on shortstops. It’s the question of how much reliance is to be put on fielding in establishing a player’s greatness. If the guy plays left field (Hello, Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez) no one cares if he’s a good, or even overly acceptable, fielder, when establishing his credentials for greatness. With catcher you can’t do that. It puts a burden on catchers (and shortstops also) that a lot of outfielders don’t have to carry. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s the nature of how the game is played. If I could hit, you could get away with me in left field. If I could hit, you could never use me behind the plate.

Finally, there’s the obvious question of segregation (see what I mean about “semi”?). Most lists of Negro League catchers put Josh Gibson, Louis Santop, Biz Mackey, and Campanella at the top of the charts at the position. We have some idea of the quality of Campanella (although he spent a lot of time in the Negro Leagues). The others never got to play in the white Major Leagues (Santop was dead by 1947). As usual for Negro League players, you’re stuck with anecdotes, not full statistical evidence, in trying to determine the quality of a player. So we make judgement calls (“Do I see a ’10’ from the Bulgarian judge?”) and hope we get it right. Considering that I’m certain that Campanella is a top 10 all-time catcher, I am confident in adding Gibson to a list of the best catcher, but I have no idea how you rate either Santop or Mackey. Maybe they’re in, maybe they’re out.

So having  just put all those caveats out there for you to read, here’s my list of the 10 best catchers ever in alphabetical order: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez. With suitable apologies to Gabby Hartnett and to Joe Mauer, both of which might slip into the list. I think it’s the best list I can put together at this time. Notice that it’s full of modern guys (seven are post 1945). I think that the equipment has a lot to do with that.

Integrating the Yankees

February 19, 2012

1956 Elston Howard baseball card

There is a tendency to equate levels of racism with the order in which teams integrate between 1947 and 1959. Meaning that somehow the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians (all of which integrated very early in the period) are less racist than teams like the Red Sox who integrated last (“59). Maybe that’s true. I don’t have direct insight into the workings of the minds of Rickey, Veeck, Stoneman, and Yawkey or any other of the leaders of the period. I do know that if it’s true or not, there is one exception that has to be made from this thinking: the Yankees.

Now I’ve never been a Yankees fan but I’m willing to give them a pass on waiting until 1955 to integrate. The reason? Well, there are two of them. First, their unique spot in the baseball pantheon made it imperative that they get it right. Failure of black players in Philadelphia? Not a good thing, but not crucial. Failure of black players in the Bronx? Utterly devastating for integration in baseball.  Three teams absolutely had to get it right. The first was Brooklyn, not because they were Brooklyn, but because they were first. The second team was Cleveland, again not because they were Cleveland, but because they were both first in the American League and they were in a position to prove that Jackie Robinson wasn’t a fluke. The third was, of course, the Yankees.

The second reason I give the Yanks a pass is because they were winning. As we like to say around here, “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And between Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn and 1955 things in Yankess Stadium were definitely not broke. Between 1947 (Robinson’s first year) and 1953 the Yankees won every American League pennant but one (1948) and every World Series in which they played. Their Minor League system (including that so-call big league team in Kansas City) was churning out players yearly, they were making great trades, there were few serious injuries, and even Korea wasn’t hurting them as bad as other teams (except for Whitey Ford’s loss). Integration was going to be painful and when you’re baeball’s premier team and you’re winning why add pain to the mixture? To integrate risked losing white fans without picking up black ones. If white fans leave in Cleveland, there are black fans to replace them. Same in Pittsburgh. Not in New York where black fans had already gone to Brooklyn. It also meant alienating some of the power brokers in the city, it meant creating problems with the current team members. Both Yogi Berra (from Missouri) and Mickey Mantle (from Oklahoma) were from states that a lot of people saw as “Southern” and why create problems with two of your biggest stars? A quick aside to point out that neither Berra nor Mantle had significant problems with team integration, but the possibility existed. It created travel problems because some hotels refused to allow black patrons. As long as you were winning, why “mess with success?” Of course black players were good, so it didn’t hurt to start finding one and groom him, the team, and the fans for eventual integration.

Enter Elston Howard. Without trying to steal SportsPhd’s thunder with his “These Men Changed Baseball” series, Howard was from Missouri, played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was picked up by the Yankees (along with Vic Power) in 1950. He spent one year in Muskegon, Michigan, then went off to Korea for two seasons. Back with the Yankees system in 1953 he was at Kansas City then went to Toronto in 1954. He did alright. He hit .300, averaged 16 home runs, struck out more than he walked, and found himself changing positions.

As mentioned above, Howard was initially an outfielder. Most of you know him as a catcher. The switch occurred in the Minors. For some reason, the Yankees thought Howard could be converted to catcher. They asked former catcher Bill Dickey, also from Oklahoma and seen as a Southerner by many, to tutor Howard. Dickey had no trouble with working with a black man and Howard credited him with making him into a good catcher. But here we need to ask what’s going on? It’s not like the Yankees had great left fielders in 1953 and 1954. They had Gene Woodling (’53) and Irv Noren (’54) in left. And, well, that guy they had behind the plate in 1953 and 1954 won the MVP in 1954 (and would do so again in 1955). So it wasn’t like Howard was going to replace Berra anytime soon. So why the change? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that the Yankees saw Berra was aging. He was 30 in 1955, not exactly ready for Social Security, but for a catcher with a lot of games behind the plate, reaching a dangerous age. Give him a good backup, then as he aged, shift him to left field and keep the Berra bat in the lineup. Sounds like a good idea, right?  Meanwhile the new guy could play some left while he backed up (Howard played 75 games in the outfield in 1955, 65 in 1956, 71 in 1957, and by 1958 was in a semi-platoon at catcher). In short it worked, but it also meant that Howard was going to get to the Major Leagues later (he was 26 in 1955) and that integration would come later to the Yankees. I’m not sure how much that last factor (integration coming later) mattered to the Yankees leadership. Maybe it was purposeful and indicates they were reluctant to integrate. Maybe it means that they were serious about getting both a left fielder and a  backup catcher at the same time and were willing to wait on integration. Hopefully it was the latter. And, anyway, they were winning, so who cared? Of course they lost finally in 1954 and you’ll note that Howard made the roster the very next season.

The one thing I’ve been unable to determine in all this is the attitude of  Casey Stengel towards integration. Stengel was also from Missouri (there are a lot of those in this post, aren’t there?), and was frequently heard to use the “N” word (and originally refered to Howard as “Eightball” ). It seems to have been a carryover from his childhood and a normal way of expressing himself (as if Casey Stengel ever had a “normal” way of expressing himself) without particularly racist connotations. Stengel had, over his career, recommended a number of black players to Negro League teams (including Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Rogan), so he knew black talent was available. Maybe he did believe in “separate but equal”, maybe he just expressed himself in ways we now find offensive, but it does seem that he had at least a little problem with accepting a black player to the team. Also, maybe I’m being overly critical of him, I don’t know.

Most importantly, it worked. Howard became an All-Star, became the first black player to win the American League MVP. The Yankees kept winning and integration kept going in baseball. Integrating the Yankees is crucial to making the experiment work. If there are great problems with baseball’s premier team, then integration can be checked. If the Yankees start losing, then the black guy can be blamed and another check can be applied. It didn’t happen and integration went on. The Yankees weren’t in the forefront of the issue, but they did handle it well and that, I believe, helped ensure it would continue apace. So I’ll give them a pass on late integration, something I’m not prone to do for other teams.

Adios, Jorge

January 13, 2012

Jorge Posada

Now that I expended all my Spanish, except for words like Taco, burrito, and refried beans, on the title, it’s time to bid farewell to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. Never been a great fan of either the Yankees or Posada, but it’s tough to overlook his accomplishments. So now the Core Four are down to the Dynamic Duo (or is that Batman and Robin?).

I’ve always been sure that Posada was overlooked when it came to the great Yankees teams of 1996-2010. This was Derek Jeter’s team. Or it was Mariano Rivera’s team. Posada sometimes seemed to be the guy who wasn’t Joe Girardi. That’s kind of a shame. He was not just good, but was a key part of the team. He wasn’t Bernie Williams cool or Paul O’Neil fiery or Tino Martinez clutch or even Chuck Knoblauch error-prone. He was, however, always there, always contributing, always available.

In some ways he wasn’t a typical Yankees catcher. He wrote children’s books (can you seriously image Yogi Berra doing that?). I read one. It was pretty good (Heck, I even understood it). He was, despite a notable accent, quite articulate. He was a major conduit into the Hispanic community.

Part of  his problem was that he was almost never the best catcher of the era. For the last decade of the 20th Century both Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez were better and for much of the first few years of the 21st that was still true. By the time they were fading there was Joe Mauer. And he was also a Yankees catcher. Consider this pedigree: Wally Schang, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson. Quite a legacy to live up to, right? By and large I thought Posada lived up to it quite well. So he wasn’t Yogi or he wasn’t Dickey. Well, almost no one else has ever been either, but to be mentioned with them is quite a feat. And that’s not taking into account that his wife  looks like this:

Laura Posada

So from a non-fan of the Yankees, Adios,  Jorge. You were better than we anti-Yankees types wished. You were also better than we baseball fans could have hoped for. Enjoy your retirement.