Posts Tagged ‘Bob Feller’

Wally Schang, Mack’s other Catcher

March 10, 2014
Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hoosier Thunderbolt

June 8, 2012

Amos Rusie

There’s an old baseball tale that goes like this. The pitcher winds up, blazes a fastball toward home, the batter, absolutely unable to see the ball stands still, the ball hits the catcher’s mitt with a resounding “whack”, then the umpire calls it a ball. The catcher turns around and says, “It was a strike, ump. Didn’t you see it?” The ump replies, “Nope, but it sounded high.” Great story. I’ve found versions of it about a half-dozen or so pitchers. The earliest version I can find goes all the way back into the 1890s and Amos Rusie.

Rusie was born in Indiana in 1871. The family moved to Indianapolis where Rusie dropped out of school to work in a factory. The factory had a team, Rusie could pitc,h and the team played against barnstorming big league teams. Rusie successfully shut down both the Washington and Boston National League teams in 1888 and was picked up by the Indianapolis Hoosiers. He was 18, went 12-10, walked more men than he struck out, and the team finished 7th. Indianapolis folded after the season leaving Rusie without a team. The NL decided to send most of the good players, including Rusie, to the New York team. Rusie was upset at not being able to negotiate a contract with any team willing to pay him and it led to problems for his entire career. He became a star, liked New York, found a wife, and was the toast of the town, but never quite got over being sent to New York against his will.

Rusie as a rookie

He was brilliant as a pitcher. He was also wild. In his first three years he was 114-85 with 982 strike outs and (read this number carefully) 821 walks. He led the NL in strikeouts twice and in walks all three years. In 1893 they moved the pitching distance back to the current 60′ 6″ and a number of sources credit Rusie with the change. Batters feared both his speed and his wildness.

OK, maybe, but what is certain is that Rusie flourished at the new distance. He had 33 wins in 1893, 36 in 1894. His strikeout totals went down, but he still led the NL. His walks also went down, but he continued to lead the league in bases on balls. To be blunt, Rusie never really overcame his wildness.

His Triple Crown year was 1894. He won 36 games (losing 13) with a 2.78 ERA (ERA+ 188) and stuck out 195 men, his lowest total of strikeouts since his rookie year. He also led the league with three shutouts and (you knew this was coming) 200 walks. That makes him the only Triple Crown winner to lead his league in both strikeouts and walks. I’m not a big fan of pitching WAR (hitting WAR is OK), but his WAR for 1894 is 13.8. For the season, his team finished second, but qualified for the newly contested Temple Cup. The Giants won the Cup in four straight games.

In 1895, Rusie dropped back to 23-23 for a record but still led the NL in strikeouts. For the first time since his rookie campaign, he didn’t lead in walks. But he was also involved in one of his perennial contract disputes with the Giants. Unwilling to accept the club offer, he sat out all of 1896. The Giants, who had finished ninth in 1895, moved up to seventh in 1896. That didn’t help Rusie so he reluctantly resigned for the 1897 season.

He was good again in 1897, winning 28 games and his second ERA title. For the first time since 1892 he failed to lead the NL in strikeouts (the 1896 hold out year excepted). He had 20 wins in 1898 before hurting his shoulder attempting a pick-off. No one knew it at the time, but his career was over. He sat out 1899 and 1900 before attempting a comeback in 1901. He was traded to Cincinnati (more on that later), went 0-1 in three games striking out six final batters (and walking three). He was done.

He worked at a paper mill in Indiana after retirement, then moved to Seattle where he worked as a steamfitter. In 1921 he became superintendent at the Polo Grounds, a job he held through 1929. John McGraw did that kind of thing for old ballplayers. He went back to Seattle where the Great Depression hurt his financial interests badly. He was injured in a car accident in 1934 and retired. He lingered into 1942 when he died in Seattle, where he is buried. In 1977 the Veteran’s Committee chose him for the Hall of Fame.

Over his 10 year career Rusie won 246 games and lost 174 (.586 winning percentage). He walked 1707 men and struck out 1950. His ERA was 3.07 (ERA+129). He gave up 3389 hits and 1288 earned runs in 3779 innings. He led the NL in wins and losses once each, in shutouts and strikeouts four times each, in ERA twice, and in walks five times.

Rusie reminds me a lot of guys like Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and Hal Newhouser. All three were great fastball pitchers who lacked control, although all, especially Ryan, managed to gain at least some control as their career progressed. Rusie was also like that, only a half century earlier. His feats were legendary. One story has it that in one game the catcher didn’t throw the ball back to Rusie. Rusie then simply wound up, faked a throw, the batter swung, and the umpire called a strike. You don’t get many stories like that.

Oh, and that trade to Cincy? Well, it seems the Reds were giving up on a young right-hander and decided to take a flier on Rusie. So for a washed up Amos Rusie, the Giants got a new pitcher named Christy Mathewson. Worked out well for New York, not so well for the Reds.

Opening Day’s Best Performance

April 5, 2012

Bob Feller

Great bit of baseball trivia for you. In 1940 the Chicago White Sox played a game and lost. At the end of the game every White Sox player had exactly the same batting average as he had when the game started. How’s this possible? OK, take a second and figure it out. Now, the answer. On Opening Day 16 April 1940, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians threw a no-hitter against Chicago. When the game began every White Sox player had a batting average of .000. At the end of the game every White Sox player still had a batting average of .000. Feller’s 1940 Opening Day gets my vote as the finest Opening Day performance ever.

By 1940, Feller was no longer the fresh-faced kid from Iowa. He’d played for four years, had won two strikeout (and two walk) titles, finished as high as third in the MVP voting, and led the American League with 24 wins in 1939. The White Sox were, however, in the midst of a long slide, but by 1940 were beginning to show improvement. In 1939 they’d finished in the first division (4th), so Opening Day at home in 1940 held the promise of continued improvement.

Facing Feller was left-hander Eddie Smith. Smith had come to Chicago from the A’s in 1939 and gone 9-11 with an ERA in the mid-threes, had given up more walks than strikeouts, but had more innings pitched than hits allowed. I have no idea why he started game one over Ted Lyons or Johnny Rigney (1939’s aces).

Smith gave up one run in the fourth inning when Cleveland strung together singles to score left fielder Jeff Heath for the sole run of the game. In eight innings he gave up six hits, walked two, and struck out five. Reliever Clint Brown pitched a perfect ninth. Feller, of course, was even better. He pitched a fairly typical Feller game (except for not giving up a hit). He struck out eight and walked five (one man reached on an error for six total baserunners).

Smith went on to a 14-9 season and the ChiSox finished fourth again. Feller led the AL in wins with 27. He also led the league in shutouts (4), strikeouts (261), ERA (2.61), and innings pitched. His WHIP was 1.133 and 1940 became his only pitching triple crown (it was his only ERA title). He went on to 266 wins and the Hall of Fame. Smith finished his career 73-113.

There have been a lot of great Opening Day performances. A lot of guys have hit big home runs, or pitched shutouts. For my money, Feller tops them all.

Strictly a Wartime Pitcher

December 28, 2011

Hal Newhouser

I began this somewhat long look at left-handed pitchers because I wanted to study the players who made an impact during World War II. That led, not unreasonably, to Hal Newhouser. He’s one of those players who had a lot of his best years during the Second World War and thus became known as “strictly a wartime pitcher”. The wartime pitcher idea goes something like this. A player is either new or has  been up a few years and never done a thing. Then the war comes along and the guy becomes a star. The war ends, the real players come back, and the guy goes back to being a  bum. OK, that’s fine, I guess. The problem is that it’s wrong about Newhouser.

Newhouser arrives in Detroit in 1939. He was 18, a year older than Bob Feller and a year younger than Sandy Koufax (two pitchers he’s very much like) when they first pitched in the Majors. He wasn’t all that good, struggling through 1943 with a record of 34-52 with a high ERA, a lot of strikeouts, and a ton of walks (leading the league in walks in 1943). Then in 1944 he goes 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA,  a strikeout title, and the American League MVP award. In 1945 he’s 25-9, leads the AL in ERA, strikeouts, shutouts (and wild pitches), and picks up his second consecutive MVP Award (the only pitcher to win two in a row). Detroit goes to the World Series and wins in seven games (by this point the Series is most famous as the last Series the Cubs played). Newhouser went 2-1, winning game seven.

And then the war was over and “strictly a wartime pitcher” is supposed to have gone back into obscurity. The problem is that Newhouser had four or five (depending how you look at 1950) more good years. He wins 20 or more games twice,  wins another ERA title, and as late as 1949 has 18 wins. He also leads in hits once and wild pitches twice (Like Feller, he never did get the wildness totally under control). In 1946 he came in second in the MVP vote (to Ted Williams), missing winning three MVPs in a row by 27 points). He hurt his shoulder in 1949, pitched through the pain in 1950, then the wheels came off as the shoulder just didn’t improve. He hung on into 1955, getting into the 1954 World Series as a Cleveland reliever (he was 7-2 with 7 saves, but awful in the Series), then retired. He made the Hall of Fame in 1992.

What people tend to concentrate on his 1944-45 years, the “war pitcher years”. The argument goes that the real players left and Newhouser feasted on fake hitting. And I suppose it’s fair to say that the number of true Major League quality players in 1944 was down considerably from a normal season. But take a look at 1945. By the end of ’45, many of the “real” players were back. Hank Greenberg, a teammate, was back in time to hit the home run that sent Detroit to the World Series and Feller pitched nine games. Newhouser didn’t lose all nine games late nor did he win all 25 early. But the real problem with evaluating Newhouser as a “wartime pitcher” is 1946 through 1949. In 1946 he won 26 games, had his ERA go up all the way to 1.94 from 1.81 and his ERA+ drop from 195 to 190, and for the only time in his career led the AL in WHIP. Not a bad year for a “wartime pitcher”, right? It was his peak and 47-49 were not as good, although not bad either. He’s 55-40 over the three years (at 17-17, 1947 is the worst year record-wise) and his ERA starts sliding back up, but it’s not like he’s awful.

So why the jump in stats in 1944? Well, a couple of reasons. First, there’s no denying the quality of play is down in 1944. But Newhouser is also now aged 23 with five years experience in the Majors. It’s time for him to begin reaching a something of a peak. And that peak lasts until he is 28 or 29 (depending on your view of 1950). Then the sore shoulder hits. He’s not much from 30 on (remember Koufax was 30 when he retired). Actually, it’s a fairly normal career progression tempered by both the war and the shoulder.

I’m not advocating Newhouser as one of the greatest of the great, I’m simply saying that in evaluating him, the war is important, but it can’t be looked at as the only factor in his becoming an ace. My son will tell you that for a long time I thought Newhouser was the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame and eligible. I was glad to see him elected because I understood he wasn’t “strictly a wartime pitcher.”

The Phenom of Phenoms

December 20, 2010

The loss of Bob Feller reminded me just how much of a “phenom” he was. He joined the Indians at 17, then left in September to begin his senior year in high school. Upon graduation he returned to Cleveland and renewed his career. There have been a great number of “phenoms”, some fragile like Stephen Strasburg, some injured like Herb Score. Back in the 1950s the “Bonus Baby” rule required “phenoms” signed for huge bonus’ to stay on the Major League roster for two years (“We gotta discourage this bonus nonesnse.”). Those men played out their minor league careers in front of Major League audiences. When they should have been playing Double A and Triple A ball they were spending entire seasons on the bench with an occasional foray to the field. Some of them disappeared. Others became stars after they served their time on the bench. Eighteen year old Harmon Killebrew played nine games in his rookie season but became a feared power hitter who ended up with over 500 home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. Nineteen year old college freshman Sandy Koufax got into 42 innings in 1955, but became a Hall of Famer and the best hurler I ever saw. Watching both in the first few years of their careers was painful, but it panned out in the end.

But there was another “phenom” who was just as good and just as painful to watch in his early years. He got to the big leagues at age 16. It wasn’t exactly the Major Leagues he got to. They wouldn’t let him into the Majors when he was 16 and it had nothing to do with his age. He joined professional baseball at the highest level he could by entering the Negro Leagues. His name was Roy Campanella and he was very, very good.

Campanella was of mixed race, which in 1930s and 1940s America meant that no matter his actual skin tone, he was considered black. He was a natural at baseball, excelling at school and on the sand lots. At age 16, he dropped out of school and in the spring of 1937, still aged 16, he joined the Washington Elite Giants, who moved to Baltimore in 1938. I heard an interview with Campanella years ago in which he pronounced the name of the team as E-LIGHT Giants, not E-LEET Giants. Don’t know if it was his personal pronunciation or the actual pronunciation of the team name, but I’ve called them E-LIGHT Giants since. I’m not about to contradict Roy Campanella.

By his own confession he wasn’t much of a catcher at age 16. The Elite Giants (however you pronounced them) had a great catcher of their own named Biz Mackey, who later on was elected to the Hall of  Fame. Campanella credited Mackey with making him a Major League caliber catcher.

In the Negro Leagues, Campanella became a star and was considered something of a rival of Josh Gibson as the finest catcher in the leagues (at least as far as anyone was going to rival Gibson). In 1942 Campanella jumped to the Mexican League where he was equally good. In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball, slowly, tentatively, and ever so carefully cracked open the door of integration. Late in 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella (by now universally known as “Campy”). While in Nashua in the minors, the team manager (Walter Alston) was tossed from the game. He appointed Campanella as his replacement, making Campy the first black man to manage white players in a professional minor league game. Behind when Campy took over, the team ultimately won the game. He made the Major League team in 1948, settling in as the regular catcher. He became a regular all-star, a regular MVP candidate, and a three-time winner of the MVP award. Although “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” may have been more famous, in the time that they and Campy all played in New York, Campy won as many MVP awards as the other three put together (as did Campy’s closest rival, Yogi Berra).

Campanella was a great catcher. He had large and soft hands, could move easily despite a distinct bulk. He blocked the plate well, threw to second well (not all that significant a skill in the low base stealing era that was the 1950s), could move under a foul fly with ease, and did a wonderful job with pitchers, especially considering the racial problems created by a black/white battery. And he could hit. God, could he hit. I never saw anyone swing the bat harder. We had a joke in the house that when he swung and missed you could feel the breeze cool you through the TV. He hit .300 three times, had 30+ home runs four times (once going over 40 for a then record number by a catcher), led the National League in RBIs once, and even managed to steal eight bases one year. As he put it about the steals, “They were laughing so hard, they forgot to throw the ball.”

In 1954 he got hurt; his throwing hand. It never healed properly and periodically bothered him for the rest of his career. In the year he stayed healthy (1955) he was still terrific, winning one more MVP award and appearing in the Dodgers first ever World Series triumph. In 1956 and 1957 he was on the wane. The hand was a problem, so was age. He was only 35 and 36, but he was a catcher and the aches, pains, injuries, and squats took their toll. In 1958 came the car wreck and the end of his career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1969, three years before  Josh Gibson. Death came in 1993.

Campanella was a big league player at 16 (a year earlier than Feller). He was a superior catcher and hitter who because of his age may be the “phenom of phenoms”. It’s hard to place him in the pantheon of great catchers because he loses his earliest years to racism and is hurt in the final couple of years of his career (without reference to what the car wreck might have cost him in playing time). Still he rates in the ten best among catchers. I’ve seen some lists that place him has high as second. I’ll settle for top five and the knowledge that he stands at the head of a long line of young “phenoms” who made their mark in baseball.

Roy Campanella

RIP Rapid Robert

December 17, 2010

Bob Feller

By this point I suppose most of you know that Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller died Wednesday, 15 December 2010 at age 92. Even I’m not old enough to remember him pitch at his peak. He pitched into the mid-1950s and I heard a couple of Indians games on the radio with him on the mound. I remember my grandfather being more impressed than I, but as I said I only heard games well after he had started down the long slide to retirement.

In 2000, Baseball Digest ran a list of the 100 greatest this and that of the 20th Century. On their pitching list, Feller was in the top 10. He was also the highest rated pitcher whose career extended past 1945, making him, in their opinion, the finest hurler in the last 60 years of the century.

As great a pitcher as he was, he was perhaps a greater man. Many ball players are merely a long list of numbers that we call their statistics. Feller was so much more.  Already an established star with the Cleveland Indians when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Feller immediately enlisted in the US Navy and served until 1945. Unlike a lot of the established players, Feller didn’t spend his Naval career playing baseball. He ended up on a battleship (the Alabama) and served in combat, earning a number of medals. Considering he could have spent the war in the relatively cushy job of pitching and didn’t, he gets a lot of credit from me, much more than a number of his contemporaries.

He came back in 1945, was still superb, and helped his team to the 1948 American League pennant and a World Series title. He lost both his games during the Series, but the Indians won anyway. He was the pitcher on the mound for the most famous play of the Series. In game one Braves catcher Phil Masi was on second. Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau cut in behind Masi, Feller whirled and nailed Masi off base. Unfortunately the umpire was caught totally off guard and called the runner safe. Masi later scored the winning run. By the way, 1948 is the only World Series between teams with American Indian nicknames.

Feller was often outspoken and had a degree of fogeyism in him. According to him, the players of his day were uniformly better than the modern ones. Maybe some of them were, but it was a constant drumbeat from him. It got on my nerves sometimes. I read an interview with Larry Doby just prior to Doby’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He acknowledged that he and Feller were never friends because Feller was too intense for many friendships. But Doby stated that the level of respect between them was mutual and that Feller had supported him when he became the first black player on the Indians.

So rest in peace, Bob Feller. You were a truly great one and we will all miss you. Thank you for gracing our game.