Posts Tagged ‘Bill Veeck’

The Original Hammerin’ Hank

August 16, 2012

Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg

It used to be possible to argue that you could directly compare the best first basemen to ever play the game because the three top first basemen all played in the same league at the same time, the 1930s. The men in question were Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. You might disagree with that premise but other people would agree. The advent of Albert Pujols makes it almost impossible to make that argument today. Because they were contemporaries it is still instructive to look at the three and compare them (which I’m not going to do). By universal agreement, the third of the troika was Greenberg.

Hank Greenberg was born in 1911 (on New Year’s Day, no less) in Greenwich Village to a Jewish family that ran a textile mill. They made enough money to move to the Bronx when Greenberg was still young. He became a fine high school athlete excelling in soccer, baseball, and basketball (his high school team won the New York City title in 1929). After graduation he played first base for a semi-pro ball team and was scouted by the Giants (who decided he was too awkward to play) and the Yankees (who had Gehrig). He signed with Detroit in late 1929 for $9000.

Greenberg spent 1930, 1931, and 1932 in the minors at Hartford, Raleigh, Evansville, and Beaumont. He did well, but his ethnic background caused him some trouble with both fans and teammates. One famous anecdote has a teammate staring at Greenberg. When asked why, the guy is reported to have said “I”ve never seen a Jew before.” Greenberg asked if he “saw anything interesting.” The guy replied, “No, you look just like everyone else.” That was supposed to be the incident that solved Greenberg’s ethnic problems with his teammates. Unfortunately, it was a problem that was to plague him throughout his career as other teams and fans in other towns were known to heap anti-semitic abuse on him.

By 1933 he was with Detroit. They tried him at third (they already had a first baseman who cost them $75,000 and weren’t about to watch that much money ride the pine). He was awful. Finally they settled on a platoon situation in which Greenberg played against lefty pitching. He hit .301 with 12 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 59 runs scored in 117 games. That settled the issue and Greenberg settled in as the regular first baseman for the rest of the 1930s.

It was a good time for Detroit. They were in contention most years. The “G-Men” (a play on the then current fashion of referring to FBI men as “G-Men”-for “government men”) of Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and Gee Walker won a pennant in 1934, losing the World Series to the Cardinals “Gas House Gang”, then won the World Series in 1935 over Chicago. Greenberg led the American League in doubles in 1934 and in home runs, total bases, and RBIs in 1935.  He led the league again in RBIs in 1937. In 1938 he made a serious run at Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record. He managed 58, which along with his walk and run totals, led the AL. For the decade of the 1930s his lowest average was his rookie .301. He peaked at .339 the next season (OK, he hit .348 in 1936, but only played in 12 games).

His career took a couple of sharp turns in the 1940s. First, the Tigers brought up Rudy York. York could hit a ton, but was terrible in the field. They only place they could play him was first. So Greenberg moved to left field. He wasn’t very good (his fielding percentage was .963 in 1940), but the papers of the time indicate he improved as the season went along. He was rewarded with another trip to the World Series. Despite getting a .357 average with a home run and six RBIs, Detroit lost the Series to Cincinnati in seven games. BTW the 2-1 Cincy win is one of the best game seven’s ever played.

For Greenberg the second change came in 1941. Nineteen games into the season, the government came calling. He was drafted into the Army (he became a tanker) and spent most of the next five years in the service. Interestingly enough, his original Army physical rejected him because of flat feet, leading one reporter to ask “Do you shoot a gun with your feet?” He was discharged in early December 1941. Of course the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a few days later and Greenberg rejoined the military, this time joining the Army Air Corps. He spent 1942 and 1943 flying “the Hump” in Burma, then was sent back to the US in 1944, where he served with a unit in New York. In mid-1945, he was discharged.

He returned to the Tigers in July. He played 78 games, hit .311, and had 13 home runs. On the last day of the season Detroit was tied with Washington for the pennant. In the final game of the season, Greenberg’s grand slam in the top of the ninth gave the Tigers the pennant. He hit .304 in the World Series with two home runs, seven RBIs, and seven runs scored. Detroit won in seven games.

In 1946 he hit only .277, but led the AL in home runs with 44 and in RBIs with 127. After the season he was waived. No one seems to know quite why. There’s a lot of speculation, but I’ve been unable to find a definite answer to the question of why Greenberg was waived. Pittsburgh claimed him. He spent one season with the Pirates, hitting .249 with 25 home runs and tutoring a budding star named Ralph Kiner. At the end of the season Greenberg retired.

For a career of 1394 games he hit .313, had an OBP of .412, slugged .605, and had an OPS of 1.017 (OPS+ of 158). The OPS and slugging percentage are both seven in MLB history. He had 331 home runs, 1276 RBIs, 1051 runs scored, 379 doubles, and 852 walks over 6097 plate appearances.

After retirement he moved to the front office with the Cleveland Indians. Initially Cleveland did well, winning a World Series in 1948 and a pennant in 1954. But as Greenberg’s influence grew, the team got worse. He seems to have been a decent executive, but as he moved into the general manager’s spot he moved a level too high for him and the team floundered. He went to Chicago as Bill Veeck’s assistant in the late 1950s and helped the White Sox to a pennant in 1959. He retired a wealthy man and died of cancer in 1986. The Hall of Fame called in 1956.

Throughout his career, Greenberg faced adversity. First his ethnic background gave him problems. Then he had to shift positions. Finally the Second World War interrupted his career. He became a great player and arguably one of the five greatest first basemen to ever play. Not a bad legacy.

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The MLB Draft

June 10, 2011

Normally, I pay very little attention to the MLB draft. It seems to be much more of a crapshoot than either the football or basketball versions. An inordinate number of high choices don’t pan out and an equally inordinate number of stars come from the gazillionth round. It also goes on forever. Didn’t they start it about 30 minutes after Opening Day? Basically I have one rule about the draft: if a team drafts a left-handed high school pitcher in the first round, write “Bust” beside his name immediately. But this year is a little different. I noted three stories worth passing along.

1. In the 6th Round the Padres took Valparaiso outfielder Kyle Gaedele. Name strike a bell? Turns out he’s the great-nephew of Eddie Gaedele. That name strike a bell? Gaedele was the midget (can we use that word now?) that Bill Veeck signed to bat one time in1951. Gaedele walked, was taken out for a pinch runner, and had his contract immediately voided by MLB (which apparently had no sense of humor, even with “Happy” Chandler as commissioner). It was a heck of a stunt, ranking up there with the exploding scoreboard, also a Veeck innovation. Eddie Gaedele makes for a great footnote in baseball. Here’s hoping his nephew makes the big leagues and follows in his great-uncle’s shoes, if he can fit them on his feet (sorry, couldn’t resist the gag).

2. In the 33rd Round the Texas Rangers picked outfielder Johnathan Taylor of Georgia. Taylor was a prospect who was injured in an on-field collision back in March. He ran into a teammate while trying to catch a ball (BTW the teammate was also picked by the Rangers). Taylor is paralyzed from the waist down and is probably never going to be able to walk again. Classy move by the Rangers.

3. Along the same lines, the Astros picked Buddy Lamothe, a  reliever from San Jacinto College in the 40th round. Lamothe was injured in a swimming accident and, like Taylor, is also paralyzed. Again, classy move by a team.

Now I think both the last two points are classy (as I said above) and this is certainly no knock on either team or the players chosen, but doesn’t it point out a problem with the MLB draft? If you can spend a pick on a paralyzed player, then maybe there are too many rounds of the draft and teams are reduced to marginal prospects in the latter rounds. I think it’s too long, but I acknowledge that occasionally good players are found really low in the draft (see Mike Piazza).  I’m glad the guys were chosen, but it tells me that baseball needs to work on fixing up the draft. Thoughts? I mean other than I’m a spoilsport.

The Obligatory Second

February 21, 2011

When I was in the army one of my best friends was a black guy from New York. We did a lot of things together, including heading to a few parties. I had a car, he didn’t, and it was easiest for us to head out together in my Dodge. I remember we pulled up to one party and as we were getting out he commented, “I wonder who the obligatory second is?”  Not unreasonably, I asked, “What the heck is that?” “The people throwing the party can’t admit to tokenism, so they have to invite a second black person to the party so no one can say either of us was a token. That’s the obligatory second.” I told him I thought that sounded terrible. “Actually, sometimes it’s not bad. Sometimes they pick a good-looking girl and I get lucky.” I remember the obligatory second that night was a girl and I also remember driving home alone. He did better than I. Larry Doby was, in many ways, baseball’s obligatory second.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby was born in Jim Crow South Carolina in 1923. The family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby caught the eye of the nearby Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He was signed in 1942 at age 17 to playsecond base. He was good from the beginning, but lost 1944 and 1945 to the Second World War. Back in Newark in 1946, he helped lead his team to the Negro League World Series, a set of games they won 4 games to 3.  Doby didn’t do particularly well. He hit .227, but walked to begin the rally that won game 7 for the Eagles.

In 1947, the Cleveland Indians determined it was time to bring a black player to the American League. The picked Doby over teammate Monte Irvin. Irvin was considered by many contemporary writers as the man who would integrate the AL, but Indians owner Bill Veeck wanted more power and Doby gave him that over Irvin (and Irvin was considerably older). Unfortunately for Doby, the Indians already had a good second baseman, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Veeck’s solution was to make Doby an outfielder. Doby made his Major League debut on 5 July 1947 in Chicago. He pinch hit and struck out. The day before, 4 July, Cleveland had a home game which they won 13-6. I’m not sure why they didn’t let Doby play on Independence Day in front of a home crowd. For the 1947 season Doby played in 29 games, going 5 for 32 (.156).

By 1948 he was the starting center fielder. Cleveland got hot, Doby did well, and for the first time since 1920, the Indians made the World Series. They won in six games, Doby hitting .318 with a home run. For the regular season he hit .301 with an OPS of 873 and 14 home runs. As a fielder the results were mixed. He led the AL in errors in center field, but was third in the league in assists.

He remained with Cleveland through 1955, twice leading the AL in home runs, and once in both RBIs and runs. In the 1954 111 win season he finished second the the mVP race (to Yogi Berra), being  acknowledged as the most valuable Indian. Unfortunately for Cleveland, 111 were all the wins they were going to get as the Giants swept the World Series. Doby was part of the reason they lost. He hit a buck-25 with no extra base hits and four strikeouts (he had two hits and two walks). In 1956 he was traded to Chicago where he took over center field for the White Sox. His career was on the slide. He went back to Cleveland in 1958, then to Detroit and back to Chicago in 1959. He retired at age 35. He became the third American player to head to Japan when he joined the Japanese Leagues in 1962. He coached at both Montreal and Cleveland, then in 1978 became manager of the White Sox. Again, he was second. Frank Robinson had become the first black manager in the Major Leagues (ironically enough at Cleveland) and Doby was overlooked again. He remainded somewhat overlooked until 1998 when the Veteran’s Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. His death came in June 2003.

For his big league career, Doby hit .283 with an 876 OPS (136 OPS +). He had 253 home runs, 970 RBIs, 2621 total bases, 1515 hits, and 960 runs (Note the closeness of the RBI and runs number. You don’t see that a lot.) Not a bad career. But over the last few days around here there’s been a lot of comment (including mine) about just how good Negro League players were. Well, with Doby we actually have something like a complete career.  Signed at 17, he’s in the Negro Leagues at ages 18 and 19. By 20 and 21 he’s in the military. At 22 he’s back in the Negro Leagues, and makes his Major League debut at 23. That’s not a bad career progression for the era. Think of 18 and 19 as inital years in the minors then, like a  lot of other minor leagues he goes off to war. He returns to the minors in 1946, then makes his cup of coffee debut at 23. Hank Bauer, to use only one example of a player whose career is interrupted by war, makes his debut (19 games) at age 25. None of that is meant to imply that 1940s Negro League teams were only minor league in quality, but is meant only to give an age progression comparison. So unlike a lot of Negro Leaguers of the first generation who get to the Majors in mid-career, Doby gives us a look at how a  good  young Negro League player could play at the highest level. That was pretty good.

Queen of the Hall of Fame

February 11, 2010

Effa Manley

In baseball history, there has never been anything quite like Effa Manley. She ran a team, ran it well, and became a star in her own right.  Other women owned baseball teams, but Effa Manley actually ran hers. She was controversial, brash, beautiful, and understood baseball.

She was born in Philadelphia in 1897 (or 1900, depending on who you believe). There are three stories about her background. One insists she was white, the second that she was black, and the third contends she was of mixed race. In a 1973 interview, she indicated that she was white, but the other stories persist.  Whichever was true, Manley identified with black America.

There are as many tales of what happened to her between 1897 and 1935 as there are stories of her racial makeup. Some of them may even be true. What is certain is that she worked in the millinery business in New York becoming a baseball fan in general, and a Yankees fan specifically. In 1935 she married Abe Manley, a black entrepeneur (again, there are conflicting stories about where he got his money). They formed the Brooklyn Eagles that same year. According to Manley the name came from wanting the team to fly high, but it should be pointed out that the major black newspaper in the area was the Brooklyn Eagle.

In 1936 the team moved to New Jersey as the Newark Eagles. From the beginning, Effa Manley ran the team, although Abe was co-owner and at least somewhat responsible for hirings and firings. She made player and contract decisions, was responsible for scheduling and promotions. She worked to improve the quality of play in the Negro National League and insisted that contracts be honored by all teams. On the field she understood the game and could make player and management decisions by simply watching the game. There are stories that she even called plays by crossing and uncrossing her legs to indicate a bunt.

Socially, she was active in the community, serving as treasurer of the local NAACP chapter, organizing a boycott of Harlem stores that refused to hire black clerks (as usual, she won), and holding an anti-lynching day at the ballpark. On a personal level, she became somewhat notorious, being linked publically with a number of her players, especially pitcher Terris McDuffie. One story goes that if she wanted her husband to get rid of a player, she’d start a rumor she was having a fling with the player and within a week he’d be gone. Don’t know if it’s true, but it’s too good a story to not pass along.

In 1946, the Eagles won the Negro League World Series, besting the Kansas City Monarchs. It was a team consisting of Hall of Famers Leon Day, Monte Irvin, and Larry Doby. All were players Manley pushed to aquire. It was the high point in her team’s history.

By 1947, the Negro Leagues were beginning to lose players to the white Major Leagues. Manley’s Eagles suffered the loss of both Irvin and Doby. Within a couple of years, newly found pitcher Don Newcombe was gone also. Eagles attendance suffered badly, dropping from 120,000 in 1946 to 57,000 in 1948, a drop of 52.5%. The team couldn’t sustain that kind of loss.

Manley seems to have realized that integration of white leagues was killing black baseball. She demanded that Major League teams honor Negro League contracts, that raiding stop, and that Negro League teams be compensated for the loss of players to the Majors. She was, by and large, ignored (Bill Veeck of Cleveland being an exception). By 1947 the losses were terminal and the Manley’s sold the Eagles. The team folded after the 1948 season.

In retirement, Manley remained active in the community and continued to promote baseball and agitate for recognition of black baseball. She died in April 1981 (Abe died in 1952). In 2006, a special committee designed to study the Negro Leagues elected her to baseball’s Hall of Fame, the sole woman enshrined. Her plaque in Cooperstown reads in part “tireless crusader in the civil rights movement who earned the respect of her players and fellow owners.” I have a feeling she would have liked that.