Posts Tagged ‘Billy Sunday’

The Councilman

August 25, 2015
Billy Rogell

Billy Rogell

I’ve typed this before, but it bears repeating. My grandfather once told me there were three things you never discussed in public: politics, religion, and sports. Eventually you’d quit discussing and start arguing. The only thing worse was to combine two of them in the same discussion. I’ve discovered there’s a lot of truth to that, but I’m going to break that rule (as I’ve done before with Billy Sunday and Count Sensenderfer) and do a little bit on a man who combined two. In his case it was sport and politics, and he did both well. His name was Billy Rogell.

Rogell came out of Springfield, Illinois to play shortstop in the big leagues in 1925. He’d done well in the minors and the Red Sox tried him at second base. They also tried to make him give up switch hitting and concentrate on hitting right-handed. Needless to say the change in batting stance and playing out of position made him ineffective (he hit a buck ninety-five with no power) and got him sent back to the minors. He resurfaced in 1927, did better. Played in 1928, and was let go by Boston. After another year in the minors, Detroit picked him up for the 1930 season.

Again, he didn’t do particularly well, but by late 1931 he’d become the Tigers regular shortstop. He hit .303 in 48 games and played a solid short. He remained the Tigers primary shortstop through the 1930s. Teaming with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, he helped form one of the best keystone combinations of the era. He hit well (generally in the .270s) with little power (the nine home runs he hit in 1932 was his peak), a good eye (he tended to walk about twice as often as he struck out), and his WAR (BBREF version) floated between 2.0 and a high of 5.1 in 1935. He led the American League in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, and double plays a few times, but almost always was in the top three or four in the AL in most fielding categories.

He helped Detroit to consecutive AL pennants in 1934 and 1935. In the former year the Tigers lost a seven game World Series to the St. Louis “Gas House Gang.” He hit .276 for the Series with four RBIs and eight hits. In the famous incident involving the beaning of Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, Rogell was the man who threw the ball.  He was such a competitor that when told he’d hit Dean in the head, he responded, “If I’d known his head was there, I’d have thrown the ball harder.” In 1935 Detroit won the Championship with Rogell hitting .292 with seven hits, including a pair of doubles.

By 1938 he was 33 and fading, although he set a Major League record by walking in seven consecutive plate appearances in August (three games were involved). He had a bad year in 1939 and was traded to the Cubs. He was through. He hit all of .136 in 33 games. He retired at the end of the season, but returned to baseball as a minor leaguer in 1941.

Hugely popular in Detroit, Rogell ran for public office in 1941 and was elected to the City Council. Except for a two-year break, he remained in City Government into 1980. Much of his emphasis was on public works and he chaired the committee that built the modern Detroit airport (the road leading into the airport is named for him). In retirement he was chosen to throw out the first pitch in the final game at Tiger Stadium. Returning to retirement, he died in 2003 at age 98.

For his baseball career he hit .267 with an OBP of .351, slugged .370, and had an OPS of .722 (OPS+ 85 and 23.7 WAR–again BBREF version). His WAR peaked in 1933 at 5.3 (he was also above 4.0 in 1934 and 1935). He had 1375 hits, 256 doubles, 75 triples, and 42 home runs for 1907 total bases. He scored 757 runs and had 610 RBIs to go with 82 stolen bases and 649 walks.

Teaming with Gehringer he made the Tigers a formidable defensive team up the middle. Although he didn’t hit nearly as well as Gehringer, Rogell was still a good enough hitter. He’s never gotten much push for the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t.

Billy Rogell was an example of something that was missing in baseball for a long while, the civic-minded sportsman. We’re seeing it begin to return at least a little as teams realize the good PR that can be gained by having their team at least appear civic-minded. It seems that in Rogell’s case it was, as 38 years on the Detroit City Council would prove, much more than appearance.


1910: Addie Joss

April 20, 2010

Today, 20 April 2010, marks the 100th anniversary of Addie Joss’ second and final no-hitter. He threw it for Cleveland against Chicago and raised his record to 2-0 for the season. Later in the year he began suffering health problems, and sat out much of the season. Within a year of his last no-hitter, he was dead. It seems fitting to take today to remember him.

He spent his entire career in Cleveland, which in the Deadball Era more or less guaranteed obscurity. The team didn’t do particularly well except occasionally, finishing as high as second in 1908. On his own team Joss was frequently overshadowed by his manager, Napoleon LaJoie. He was, however, the finest pitcher on the team.

His rookie year was 1902. In his first game, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, gave up one single, and won the game 3-0. In 1904 he led the American League in ERA, in 1905 he saw 20 wins and repeated the 20 wins in 1906 and 1907, tying for the league lead in wins in ’07.

Then came 1908. The year is mostly famous for the National League pennant race that included the “Merkle Game” and the replay of it. But the American League had a heck of a pennant race too. Detroit won by a half game. Cleveland and Joss finished second. Joss had 24 wins, a league leading ERA of 1.16, nine shutouts, and on 2 October threw a perfect game against Chicago (they finished third), besting 40 game winner Ed Walsh (who only gave up four hits and struck out 15 in the game). For the season Joss struck out 130. He was a control specialist, not a fireballer. He pitched in 42 games, starting 35. He gave up 42 earned runs and was on the mound for 35 unearned runs (1.2 earned runs for each unearned run). He walked only 30, meaning he gave up 1.4 runs for every walk (which is terrific). I love the unearned run stat. The fielding behind him was awful and he didn’t contribute to it by adding extra baserunners via the base on balls. For 42 earned runs (one per game) and 35 unearned runs he ended up with a 24-11 record. Tell me unearned runs don’t matter.

He fell back in 1909. Apparently his illness was beginning to affect him. His ERA jumped to 1.70 (from 1.16 that’s a jump), he went 14-13, and ceded the Cleveland ace role to newly acquired Cy Young (OK, so almost nobody else is the ace if Young is around). He got back in 1910 but only made it into 13 games.

One of those games was 100 years ago today. Again he faced Chicago. In the second inning Fred Parent, playing short for the White Stockings, hit a roller to Cleveland third baseman Bill Bradley. Bradley juggled the ball, and Parent was safe at first. The official scorer called it a hit. Sometime during the game, the scorer changed his mind and recorded the play as an error on Bradley. I’ve been unable to determine exactly when that occurred. If early, then it may have had no effect on the game, but if the scorer changed it in say the seventh inning or so, then he may have been purposefully aiding Joss in getting a no-hitter. Frankly, I just don’t know. I do know that Joss walked only two men and recorded 10 assists from the mound during the game. At the end of the day the score stood 1-0 Cleveland over Chicago and Joss had his second no-hitter. I looked it up and barring failing eyes that are worse than I think (and they may be) Joss is the only person to throw two no hitters against the same team and have identical scores (1-0 vs. Chicago).

Joss had to sit out most of the season. He tried to come back in 1911 but collapsed on the field in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He died of tubercular meningitis on 14 April 1911, two days after opening day. His funeral was on the 17th and the Cleveland team, against the initial wishes of league president Ban Johnson, postponed their game to attend. Old-time player turned evangelist Billy Sunday preached the funeral. On 24 July an exhibition game between Cleveland and a team of American League All-Stars was held. The stars won 5-3, but the gate went to Joss’ family. It totalled $12, 914, a large sum for the era.

Joss only played nine years, making him ineligible for the Hall of Fame. In 1978, the Veteran’s Committee waived the rule and elected him to the Hall. A handful of writers and baseball stat geeks said it was a mistake. They were wrong.

Next: Back to the 1910 teams with the Browns

“And I Have Put My Words in Thy Mouth…

March 22, 2010

Billy Sunday

…and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand.” Isaiah 51:16 (KJV)

In an earlier post I mentioned that my family always used to say there were three things you didn’t debate, you argued: sports, politics, and religion. And that you never, ever combined any two. I combined sports and politics earlier, now I’d like to combine sports and religion and introduce you to Billy Sunday.

William Ashley Sunday was born in Iowa in November 1862. His father died shortly afterward of illness while on campaign in the American Civil War. When his mother went broke in 1872 and couldn’t care for Sunday and his older brother, she sent both to an orphan’s home. The home provided Sunday with an education and began honing his baseball skills. After a sojourn in Nevada, he was playing with the Middletown, Iowa fire department team by 1880. In 1882, he caught the attention of Cap Anson, native of Middletown and leader of the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs). Sunday joined the Cubs in 1883 playing 14 games, all in the outfield. He hit .241 with four doubles. By 1884 he was up to 43 games in the outfield hitting .222.  The 1885 season brought the White Stockings a pennant and Sunday became the primary man off the bench. He hit .256 in the season and .273 in six games in the postseason, all in center field. He was on the bench again in 1886 and missed the postseason altogether. His speed was beginning to make him a more valuable player to Anson and in 1887 he took over as the regular right fielder and leadoff man. He hit .291 in 1887, but the Cubs lost and Sunday was sent to Pittsburgh in 1888. He spent three years with the Alleghenys hitting .236, .240, and .257. Late in the 1890 season he was traded to Philadelphia where he played 31 games hitting .261. It was the end of this period of his life.

For his career, Billy Sunday hit .248 over 499 games with 339 runs scored, 246 stolen bases (the number is incomplete for 1883-85), 170 RBIs and 12 home runs. He pitched to one batter in 1890, gave up a hit, and left the mound. The man didn’t score so he had no ERA. Not a great career. He found himself a substitute most of it. Somewhere along the line he also found God.

There are a number of stories relating to Sunday’s religious conversion. According to Sunday’s own account, which I’ll accept as genuine, he had been something of a carouser (a word you don’t hear much anymore) while playing ball, but never one of the worst offenders. In 1886, he attended a service at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. The mission was a combination church, homeless shelter, drunk tank, and rescue mission in Chicago which claims, with its founding in 1877, to be the oldest continuously operating main street mission in the US. I remember my hometown had an organization like this when I was growing up. It specialized in getting drunks off the streets, feeding them, giving them a place to sleep and adding on a good dose of fundamentalist Christianity. I knew one fellow who claimed to have been “saved” six times, and that every one was worth the good meal and the warm bed that followed. This experience led to Sunday’s conversion and ultimately to the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church where he met and married one of congregation.

Between 1891 and 1896 Sunday spent time in Chicago working for the YMCA and other religious and charitable organizations. By 1896 he was ready to strike out on his own and became a more or less fulltime evangelist. It would consume the rest of his life.

Now let me take a minute and clear up a couple of points here. Sunday was neither a Pentecostal nor a faith healer. He professed a fundamentalist Christianity that was extremely common in his day, but is less so today. He is more akin in his theology to William Jennings Bryan than he is to Oral Roberts, or Jim Bakker, or any other modern television preacher. If forced to compare him to a modern American evangelist, I’d reluctantly pick Billy Graham, and put the emphasis heavily on reluctantly.

What Sunday was, apparently, was a heck of a preacher. His sermons were called spellbinding and uplifting and God-sent. He went from tent to tabernacle to church and back to tent and never missed a beat. His message was a simple version of sin and conversion and he would frequently throw in one of his baseball stories for emphasis. Without trying to compare the men, take a look at Bert Lancaster’s sermons in the movie Elmer Gantry. He’s supposed to have patterned his style on Sunday.

His message suffered in the aftermath of World War I. The Great War destroyed much in Western Civilization, including a belief in a benevolent God who cared about the average individual (And by that statement I take no stand on whether I agree or not. I merely state a reality). His audiences waned, but he continued preaching his message until his death in 1935.

When I first mentioned to some people I was going to do this post, I was asked a fairly obvious question, “You think Sunday would have seen ‘the light’ if he’d been hitting .348 instead of .248?” To be absolutely truthful, I have no idea. I’d like to think that Billy Sunday was an honest man and saw some need in his life that brought him to God via a Christian conversion experience, but I don’t know for sure. I am willing to take him at his word that he didn’t find God so much as God found him.