Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn Dodgers’

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Joe Medwick

April 13, 2017

Joe Medwick

1. Joseph Medwick was born in November 1911 in Carteret, New Jersey.

2. He was a four sport star in high school and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals to play baseball in 1930.

3. Between 1930 and 1932 he played minor league ball in Pennsylvania and Texas.

4. While in Houston, Texas he picked up the nickname “Ducky Wucky.” There are different versions of the name’s origins, but everyone agrees he hated the nickname. Later it was shortened to “Ducky.” He didn’t like that version any better.

5. He made the Cardinals in a late season call up in 1932. He hit .349 over 26 games with two home runs and 12 RBIs.

6. He remained with St. Louis for the rest of the 1930s becoming the primary left fielder for the rest of the decade.

7. In 1934, as part of the “Gas House Gang,” he won a World Series ring. He hit .379 with 11 hits, a home run, a triple, five RBIs, and scored four runs. But he’s become most famous for the aftermath of a base running play he made. In game seven of the Series, he slid hard into third base, upsetting the fielder (Marv Owen). After heading to the outfield, he was pelted with all sorts of fruit and vegetables both delaying the game and littering the field. The Commissioner, Kennesaw M. Landis, had him removed from the game so the Series could continue. Medwick was unapologetic about the slide.

8. In 1937 he won the hitting Triple Crown by hitting .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBIs. It was his only batting title and his only homer title. He won three RBI crowns, but 1937 was his career high. All that got him the National League MVP Award. He is still the last National Leaguer to win a hitting Triple Crown.

9. With his numbers falling off after 1937, he was traded to Brooklyn in 1940. While with the Dodgers he helped lead them to the 1941 World Series, where he made a famous catch off Joe DiMaggio above the rail in game one. Despite the catch, the Dodgers lost both the game and the Series. Medwick hit .235 in the Series.

10. He played through 1948, becoming something of a nomad in the last four years of his career. He finished his career with a triple slash line of .324/.362/.505/.867, 2471 hits, 205 homers, 1382 RBIs, an OPS+ of 134 and 55.6 WAR.

11. He made the Hall of Fame in 1968.

12. Joe Medwick died in St. Petersburg, Florida on 21 March 1975 while performing duties as a Cardinals batting instructor. He is buried in Sunset Hills, Missouri.

The Greatest Ballpark Ever: A Review

April 11, 2017

Book Cover

I seem to be on Brooklyn Dodgers kick right now, so I decided to go with the kick. I also haven’t done a book review in a while, so I decided to join the two. The result is a look at “The Greatest Ballpark Ever.”

The book is by Bob McGee and it was published in 2005. McGee has written a lot on baseball and this book is one of his best efforts. He looks at the history of Ebbets Field from its building to its tearing down. Most of the famous stories you’d expect are here, but so are looks at how the team was run, how the park was built. It is, in its earliest pages as much a biography of Charles Ebbets as it is of the park. There’s also quite a bit of information on the borough of Brooklyn and how it changed, how it loved its baseball team, and how it dealt with the loss of the team to Los Angeles. There are pictures and a review of the special ground rules that were unique to Ebbets Field.

Knowing I was a Dodgers fan, my son bought the book for me several years ago. I read it in a couple of days (it’s not a hard read–the author writes well) and put it away on a shelf. I get it out every so often to use as a quick reference on something I’m researching. That’s what I just did to write-up the stuff on the 1941 World Series (the book gives a starting place, not a thorough look at the Series) and so decided this was as good a time as any to review it for you.

It’s worth the read if you’re interested in the Dodgers, baseball in the first half of the 20th Century, old ballparks, or particular players who wandered through the team before it moved to LA. Amazon has a copy for $20.55 in hardbound edition. Barnes and Noble also sells it. I’m sure there are other places you can find it online as well as at some used book stores. Enjoy.

Hilda

April 6, 2017

HIlda Chester leading the pack

Doesn’t it strike you strange that a fan can become as famous as a team or a player? It does me. I don’t mean someone like a President who is famous in ways that have nothing to do with baseball, but someone who is just simply famous for being a fan of the game and of a particular team. I just find that strange. But it’s happened. Let me briefly introduce you to “Howlin'” Hilda Chester, a fan extraordinaire.

She was born in 1897. Although there seems to be a consensus that the birthplace was Brooklyn, there’s no actual evidence of that. It’s equally possible she was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She seems to have been pretty good at sports in school (playing for the Bloomer Girls, a local team) but little is known of her education or her family background. Somewhere along the way there was a marriage and a daughter, but the husband is lost to history at this point (she indicated he died). The daughter went on to play some in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (see the movie “A League of Their Own” for a highly fictionalized version of the league’s first season). Beatrice Chester was a backup third baseman (basegirl?) for the Blue Sox of South Bend, Indiana and the Rockford Peaches. Beatrice Chester had a son, making Hilda Chester a grandmother, but it seems she was close to neither the daughter (who spent some time in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum) nor the grandson. It’s difficult to tell if the problem was economic (lack of money) or emotional (Hilda Chester didn’t know how to raise a daughter). Maybe it was a combination of both. I just don’t know. As you can tell by now, the elements of her personal life are very obscure. In interviews with her that I read it’s obvious she wanted to keep it that way.

She sacked and sold peanuts at Ebbets Field for a while, but by the 1930s was becoming famous as a loudmouthed Dodgers fan. The Dodgers instituted Ladies Day once weekly for home stands and Chester managed to get into games for 10 cents. It was, she said, “her kinda price.” In the offseason she sold hotdogs at local racetracks. As far as I can tell these were the two primary sources of income. Apparently the sacking job got her entrance to the ballpark and saved her the dime when it wasn’t Ladies Day.

By the mid-1930s she was a fixture at Ebbets Field. She was in the right field bleachers, she was loud, she was garish, she was baseball savvy, and she was absolutely perfect for the new Dodgers team being built by loud, garish, and baseball savvy Leo Durocher, the new manager. He was a favorite of Hilda’s and he returned the favor.

She started out with a frying pan and a spoon as noisemakers but graduated to her famous “cowbell” after a heart attack. Now a short aside about the “cowbell.” I’ve spent a lot of time around cows and their bells and Hilda’s noise maker looks more like a school bell that teachers used to ring while standing in the doorway than it does like a bell that Gertrude the heifer wore around her neck, but it’s come down in legend as a “cowbell.” Be advised. You can compare them in the pictures below (Yeah, I know I’m getting pedantic).

cowbell

School bell. Note Hilda’s bell looks like this

In 1941 she had a second heart attack. While in the hospital Durocher visited her. He became, after that moment, her all-time favorite. When he went to the Giants after 1947, Hilda actually spent some time at the Polo Grounds before returning to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field.

By the 1940s she was something of a legend in Brooklyn. There are stories of her passing notes to Durocher about what she thought the Dodgers should do in the upcoming inning. At least one of them seems to be true. She appeared on radio, did bit parts in a couple of movies, and loved being the center of attention. And of course with those things came a certain amount of money. Today she’d be an internet sensation and make money endorsing widgets and whatnot. That wasn’t happening in 1940s Brooklyn and her economic status never seems to have improved more than slightly.

With the coming of Jackie Robinson, she also found a team that was winning with great frequency. There’s some question about her relationship with Robinson. As crowds changed in Brooklyn after 1946 (more black Americans were showing up for games), the old hands were being shunted aside to some degree. She seems to have resented it a little, but as long as the Dodgers kept winning, she kept showing up with her bell and her voice. It’s tough to tell if the resentment was racially tinged or if she was simply sorry to see the old fans being elbowed out of the stands for new fans. From the little available about the issue, I tend to think it’s the latter.

The Dodgers won it all in 1955 and moved on to Los Angeles in 1958. Hilda loved the first, hated the second. She never seems to have transferred her loyalty to the Yankees or to the newly formed Mets. But then by 1960 she was into her sixties and slowing down.

She was interviewed when Ebbets Field was demolished, then more or less dropped from sight. She went into a nursing home, got out, and moved into a small place in Queens. She died in December 1978, poor, almost indigent, forgotten. She was buried on Staten Island (no, not in Brooklyn) by the Hebrew Free Burial Association. Not a great ninth inning.

Hilda Chester’s grave from Find a Grave

But there’s something of a happy ending to all this (maybe we can call it “extra innings”). The next time you head to Cooperstown, make sure you take the stairs to the second floor. There you’ll find a set of life-size fabric-mache statues of fans. I have no idea what fabric-mache is (and am too lazy to look it up), but that’s what they tell me the statues are made of. I’ll take their word for it. Right in the middle, “cowbell” in hand, is Hilda Chester. She made it into the Hall of Fame. I’ve been there twice and given her a salute both times. When you get there, make sure you say “Hi” to her for me.

Hilda makes it to Cooperstown

That Ballplayer

March 30, 2017
Dale Mitchell about 1952

Dale Mitchell about 1952

Way back years ago I heard an interview with the actor Whit Bissell. He told the story of his nickname. Apparently every time he and his wife went out to eat or to the theater, someone would come up to him and ask “Aren’t you that actor that was in the movie…”. Now it was always true that he’d been in the movie, but of course the problem was that the person talking to him had no idea of his name. They knew the face, not the name. They just knew he’d been that actor that they noticed in a particular movie. That led to his wife calling him “That Actor.” And here’s a picture of him so you can see what “that actor” looked like. Maybe you too will instantly go, “Hey, wasn’t he that actor that was in…?

Whit Bissell, "That Actor"

Whit Bissell, “That Actor”

The old ballplayer Dale Mitchell told that same story more than once; but of course he was talking about being “that ballplayer.”

Loren Dale Mitchell was born in 1921 in Colony, Oklahoma, did well enough in school to attend the University of Oklahoma, where he didn’t play ball as a freshman (freshmen weren’t eligible in the 1940s). He played as a sophomore, then headed to Europe as a member of the Army Air Corps (now the US Air Force) during World War II.

Back in Oklahoma he had one more year with the university, then signed with Cleveland. His first professional baseball job was with the Oklahoma City Double-A team. He won the league (Texas League) batting title and made the Indians at the end of their season, going three for five in his first game. He played some in 1947, spending time off the Indians roster. He was supposed to go to the minors, but refused to report. Eventually he got back to Cleveland and remained for the rest of the season.

In 1948 he was part of the last Cleveland Indian world championship team. He hit .336 (a career high if you don’t count the 11 games his rookie year), scored 82 runs, and hit only .174 in the Series, but with a home run and four runs scored. A solid, if unspectacular left fielder, Mitchell continued contributing to the Indians through 1955. In 1949 he led the American League in hits and triples and made the first of two (1952) All Star rosters. By 1954 he was a part time player and only had two at bats in the World Series (he went 0-2 with a walk).

In 1956 he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers where he got into 19 games hitting .292 with a solo RBI. But it’s with Brooklyn where he became “that ballplayer.” The Dodgers made the World Series that year and Mitchell came along as a pinch hitter. He went 0-4 with one strikeout, and it’s the strikeout that matters. With Brooklyn down 2-0 in the ninth inning of game five, he pinch hit for Sal Maglie. On the mound was Yankees pitcher Don Larsen who was one out from a perfect game. Mitchell took a called third strike (which he went to his grave claiming was high) to end the game and complete the perfecto. It led to conversations that frequently went something like this, “Hey, aren’t you that ballplayer who struck out to end Larsen’s perfect game?” He was, and no one quite remembered his name.

It was the end for Mitchell. He retired to take a job in oil and later with Martin Marietta. He died in 1987. In 1981, with Mitchell in attendance, the University of Oklahoma named its new baseball field in his honor. Not a bad legacy for “that ballplayer.”

Mitchell (and his wife) grave from Find a Grave

 

 

 

 

A Bum by Fluke

December 17, 2014
our radio looked a lot like this.

our radio looked a lot like this.

As most people who actually take time to sit and read the things I write know, I’m a Dodgers fan; have been since I was a little kid. Glen asked me a couple of times how, in a house and area full of Cardinals fans, I became a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’d like to say it was some kind of grand epiphany or a youthful show of wisdom. Well, it wasn’t. Actually it was something of a fluke.

When I was little my grandfather and I listened to baseball on a radio, either the one at home, or on weekends at the local barber shop. He was a diehard Cardinals fan who lived and died with the Cards and the stats of Stan Musial. I knew this and appreciated it, but something changed at World Series time. He began to root for the Dodgers. In 1952 he died a little when they lost to New York, then died a little more when they lost in 1953. He was up front about rooting for the Dodgers, so I figured it was OK too. I wasn’t quite sure why you changed teams at World Series time, but that was the way of the world, at least my little part of it. Because when you went to the barber shop at World Series time everyone was rooting for the Dodgers.

In 1954 the Giants went to the World Series along with the Indians. My grandfather listened and commented, but there was no real rooting going on. If the Indians won, fine; if the Giants won, better (it was a National League town). Then in 1955 we got a television. It was  small, black and white, the reception went in an out and I remember my grandfather standing outside holding the antenna pole while my grandmother would shout, “A little more to the right” until the picture cleared up. When World Series time came the Dodgers were back in and this time they won. There was rejoicing in my home and at the barber shop. And there was equal sadness when they lost again in 1956.

By then I was a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers fan. Everyone seemed to think the Cardinals was the team to support, but the Dodgers were a close second. So I figured that “well, heck, if the Cardinals have number one support and the Dodgers are OK too, maybe someone should help out by making the Dodgers the number one team with the Cards in second place.” So I decided that would be me.

Then came 1957 and the Braves made the World Series. My grandfather rooted for them as hard as he’d rooted for the Dodgers. The guys at the barber shop rooted for them as hard as they’d rooted for the Dodgers. Something was wrong and it took a while to figure it out. The common denominator in all the World Series matchups, except the “who cares?” Series of 1954 was the New York Yankees. My grandfather and his cronies weren’t Dodgers fans at all; they hated the Yankees, and anyone playing the Yanks in the Series was to be supported. When the same thing happened in 1958 I was sure I was right.

But by then it was too late. I was a Dodgers fan with a willingness to root for St. Louis if necessary (sort of the opposite of my grandfather). So that, little children, is how a person from a Cardinals family and Cardinals town becomes a Dodgers fan. Maybe someday I’ll tell you why my son supports the Twins.

Oisk,

June 10, 2014
Carl Erskine

Carl Erskine

If Don Newcombe was the most storied pitcher of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers, Carl “Oisk” Erskine was easily second.

Erskine was born in Indiana in 1926. He played sandlot and high school ball and was good enough that he was noticed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. While in the Navy, Erskine signed with the Dodgers, but had his contract voided by the commissioner when it was learned he was still in the Navy (there was a rule against that). Despite other and bigger offers, he resigned with Brooklyn  and joined their minor league team at Danville in 1946. He pitched two years at Danville before transferring to Fort Worth in 1948. He stayed two years in Ft. Worth before playing one final minor league season in Montreal in 1950. He also played winter league ball in Cuba where he shared the field with black players and was managed by Martin DiHigo.

His Major League career began in 1948 when he was called up in 1948. He went 6-3 in 17 games (nine starts), tore a muscle in his back (it never healed properly and would bother him for his entire career), then began 1949 in the minors. Again he came up at the end of the season, went 8-1 in 22 games (three starts), and helped Brooklyn to the National League pennant. He got into two games in the World Series going 2.1 innings, giving up three runs, and posting an ERA north of 16. The Dodgers lost the Series in five games and Erskine had no decisions.

With the torn muscle still a problem, he started his last minor league campaign in 1950. He was called up early this time getting into 22 games, winning seven and losing six. After 1950 he would remain in the Major Leagues for the remainder of his career. The 1951 season saw him become a regular in the Dodgers rotation. He went 16-12, and helped lead Brooklyn to one of the more famous playoffs in MLB history. The Dodgers lost a three game playoff to the Giants (Bobby Thomson’s home run being the most famous moment). Erskine did not pitch in the playoff series.

He had a terrific 1952, going 14-6 with an ERA of 2.70. In June he pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, walking only one man (the opposing pitcher). The Dodgers were back in the World Series at the end of the season. He lost game two of the Series on 2 October (his wedding anniversary), then won game five in 11 innings.  He also pitched the last couple of inning of a game seven loss without taking the decision.

In 1953, Erskine went 20-6, set a career high in strikeouts, and was the Dodgers ace. He started three games in the World Series, taking a no decision in game one, then came back to win game three and set the all-time record for strikeouts in a World Series game by fanning 14 Yankees, a record broken by a later teammate, Sandy Koufax (and later broken by Bob Gibson).  He started game six, but was not around when New York won the game 4-3 to clinch the Series.

Still in pain, Erskine would produce three more good years: 1954-56. In 1954 he would finally make an All Star team (his only one). In 1955 he would help his team win its only World Series. He started game four, took a no decision as the Dodgers won late, then didn’t pitch again for the remainder of the Series. In 1956, he would pitch his second no-hitter, this one at home against the Giants. He would get into one last World Series, losing game four as the Yankees took revenge for 1955.

Still hurting in 1957, he began slipping badly. By 1958 both he and the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, and he was given the honor of starting the first West Coast game. He got the win. It was easily the highlight of a forgettable year for both pitcher and team. In 1959, he started the year with LA, but retired during the season. The Dodgers made the World Series that year, winning in six games, but I’ve been unable to determine if he got a Series share.

For his career he was 122-78 with an ERA of 4.00 (ERA+ of 101). He gave up 1637 hits in 1718.2 innings, had 14 shutouts, walked 646, struck out 981, had two no hitters, and a WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) of 16.6. He never recovered from the muscle tear and finished his career at age 32.

In retirement he coached baseball at Anderson College winning four championships in 12 seasons. He also served as an insurance man and was chairman of the Indiana Bankers Association. Not a bad legacy for a sore-backed pitcher.

And for those curious, “Oisk” is a Brooklyn corruption of “Ersk”, the first part of his name.

 

The Barber

May 20, 2013
Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie was one of the aces of the Giants teams that won a pennant in 1951 and the World Series title in 1954. His nickname was “The Barber” (a nickname he hated) because he pitched high and inside. He was a good solid pitcher who helped four teams to pennants. In other words, he was a heck of a pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s most famous today for a game he lost.

Magile was born in Niagara Falls (the town, not the falls, obviously) in 1917. He’s another of that generation of players who were first generation Americans (his family coming from Italy). Maglie loved baseball, his parents were certain it was ruining his life. Apparently that was a fairly common problem in the period. In researching a lot of different players, I’ve found an inordinate number had immigrant parents who were entirely buffaloed by their son’s desire to play ball and the country’s willingness to pay the kid to do so.

Maglie played semipro ball while working in a factory in Buffalo. He was good enough that the Double A Bisons picked him up. He was raw and ended up in Class D. Desperate for talent in 1942, the Giants picked him up for their Jersey City farm team. He stayed one year, then left to work in a defense plant. In 1945, the Giants enticed him back to baseball. By the end of the season he was in the Majors going 5-4 with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.115 WHIP. He was 28 and had finally made it.

In 1946 the Mexican League, under new management, began luring big leaguers to Mexico with big salaries. Maglie, who was playing in the Cuban League (under ex-Giants pitcher Dolf Luque), took one of the contracts. Major League baseball was appalled. Commissioner “Happy” Chandler announced a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. That included Maglie. He pitched two seasons at Puebla, establishing himself as a quality pitcher. But the Mexican League was in trouble. The big salaries didn’t translate to big attendance and the league began faltering. Maglie jumped ship in 1948 joining a barnstorming team that folded at the end of the season. He bought a gas station in Niagara Falls, then got a call to join a minor league team in Canada. He pitched in Canada in 1949, leading his team to its league championship. At the end of the 1949 season, Chandler lifted the ban on the Mexican League refugees (it lasted four of the five years) and Maglie rejoined the Giants.

Maglie, now 33, was a hit. He won the ERA title (and the ERA+ crown) in 1950, had his career year in 1951 with a league leading 23 wins, and led the Giants to a three game playoff with the Dodgers. He pitched eight innings of game three, the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, but took a no decision. The Giants victory took them to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, Maglie pitching one game, lasting five innings, and getting clobbered (he gave up four runs in five innings in game three).  He had a good year in 1952, not such a good year in 1953 (he was having back problems), and opened 1954 as the Giants three pitcher (behind Johnny Antonelli and Ruben Gomez). He went 14-6, struck out 117 batters, but allowed more hits than he had innings pitched. The Giants were again in the World Series and Maglie drew game one. Again he picked up a no decision in the game made famous by Willie Mays’ catch and Dusty Rhodes’ homer. The Giants swept the Series with Maglie not taking the mound after game one.

Despite a good start in 1955, Maglie was traded to Cleveland. After two games in Cleveland in 1956, the Indians sold him to Brooklyn. The Dodgers, needing pitching, returned Maglie to a starting role (he’d mostly relieved in Cleveland) and he went 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a league leading 139 ERA+. He pitched his only no-hitter in 1956 and pitched the pennant clinching game for Brooklyn.  That meant the Dodgers would play in their second consecutive World Series, squaring off against the Yankees. Maglie pitched and won the first game of the Series (beating Whitey Ford), then drew game five in Yankee Stadium. It was his most famous game. He was great, giving up only two runs and five hits while striking out five. The problem was that Yankees starter Don Larsen threw the World Series’ only perfect game that day.

Maglie began 1957 with the Dodgers, went 6-6, and was sent across the city to the Bronx. He was 2-0 for the Yankees as they made another World Series. He didn’t pitch in the Series (which New York lost to Milwaukee in seven games).  In 1958 he was 41 and done. He pitched a few games for New York, then ended the season for the Cardinals. They released him before the 1959 season. He’d played parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, becoming the last man to wear the uniform of all three New York teams (this doesn’t count anyone who played for all three teams once the Dodgers and Giants moved to California).

He coached one year in the Cards minor league system, then became Red Sox pitching coach in 1961 and 1962. He was out of baseball in 1963, ’64, and ’65. He spent part of 1965 with the New York Athletic Commission, but most of his time was taken nursing his dying wife (she had cancer). He returned to baseball as pitching coach of the 1966-67 Red Sox, including the “Impossible Dream” team that lost the 1967 World Series. He was fired at the end of the Series (he and manager Dick Williams didn’t get along). He spent time after 1967 as a pitching coach for the Pilots (now the Brewers), general manager for the Niagara Falls minor league team, ran a liquor distributorship, and was a coordinator for the Niagara Falls Convention Bureau. He retired in 1979 and died in December 1992.

For his Major League career “The Barber” was 119-62, had an ERA of 3.15 (ERA+ of 127), 25 shutouts, 562 walks, and 862 strikeouts in 1723 innings pitched (a WHIP of 1.250). He was a member of four pennant winning teams and one World Series champion (1954). In postseason play he was 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 20 strikeouts and a 1.345 ERA. All this with four years lost to the Mexican League.

It’s useless to speculated how much Maglie lost because of the Mexican League fiasco. We can never know. He didn’t make the big leagues until he was 28 and didn’t become a regular until he was 33. It was not in the cards that he would join the Hall of Fame. But he was considered one of the better “money” pitchers of his era, especially in the regular season. Not a bad legacy for a man who hated what is one of the better nicknames of all time.

Maglie's final resting place

Maglie’s final resting place

The 50 Greatest Dodgers

November 27, 2012

Don Newcombe, the 8th Greatest Dodger

Back a year or so ago I did a post on the 50 Greatest Yankees ever (according to ESPN). Turns out that the network did an entire series of these lists. You’ll have to look around pretty hard (or type in “greatest Dodgers” or whichever team) to find their lists but they are interesting.

One of the lists is the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers list. The top 10 (in order) look like this: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Zack Wheat, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Mike Piazza, Don Newcombe, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance. And before anyone asks, Don Drysdale is 11th. Not a bad list actually, here’s a few comments on the list.

1. To create a full team you end up with Gil Hodges (16th on the list) at first, Robinson at second, Reese at short, and Roy Cey (14th on the list) at third. The outfield is Snider, Wheat, and Pedro Guerrero (15th on the list). Campanella catches and the first position player whose position is already covered is Piazza, making him the DH. The staff (four men for a World Series rotation, at least one being left-handed) is Koufax, Newcombe, Sutton, and Vance. Way down at 46th is Ron Perranoski, the only reliever on the list.

2. The list is a decent mix of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with LA being slightly favored in the higher parts of the list (see Guerrero over Babe Herman or Carl Furillo for example). There are, as you would expect with the Dodgers, an inordinate number of pitchers in the top 15.

3. They did put Dixie Walker on the list (he’s 25th). With the way he left the team (his opposition to Robinson) I half expected he’d be overlooked.

4. Wheat in the top 5 is inspired, as is Vance in the top 10. It’s unusual for guys who played that long ago to get much support when up against newer players that voters remember. However, Wheat over Campanella is questionable. Wheat and Vance are the only two players on the list who spent significant time with the Dodgers prior to 1940.

5. During their time together (most of the 1970s) Steve Garvey got a lot more press than Cey. This list placed Cey higher (14th to Garvey’s 17th). I think that’s probably right.

6. Jim Gilliam is at 43rd. That’s way too low. His versatility (second, third, center, and left) made him so much more valuable than his hitting stats (which aren’t bad either) made him appear.

7. Reggie Smith is at 26th. Again, I think that’s too low. I might slide him into the top 15. I know I’d put him in the top 20. I might even jump him over Guerrero. Smith is one of the more overlooked players in both Dodgers and Red Sox history.

8. The picking of  Newcombe over both Sutton and Drysdale is  interesting. Both ended up with more wins and Newk did have the drinking problem. I’m not sure the voters got it right. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Newcombe was the ace of the most famous (if not most successful) team in Dodgers history and that has to be worth something. Now, if he coulda just won a single World Series game (he went 0-4).

9. Now about first place. When I first became interested in baseball, Robinson was my hero. As he waned, Snider replaced him. Then as the Duke faltered, Koufax became my guy. That got me through high school and hero-worship of big leaguers. So I have no problem with those three being in the top positions. I’m not sure about the order. The ultimate problem is Robinson’s status as a civil rights icon. It so overshadows his on-field accomplishments that I’m not sure it didn’t get him first place more than his playing  ability did. Having said that, I recognize he was a heck of a player and when added to his late start (because of circumstances not of his making) and the abuse he suffered, maybe he is first. But Snider was as good, maybe better. And Koufax is simply the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I have my own order, but I have no real problem with the current order.

10. The location of a few more well-known names: Hershiser (12th), Valenzuela (13th), Wills (22nd), Reiser (31st), Podres (33rd), and Nomo (49th).

11. The most glaring omission? Carl Erskine.

Multi-Purpose

April 24, 2012

You ever listen to baseball fans about how the Designated Hitter is the worst thing that ever happened to baseball because it changed the game? Or how about that interleague play is awful because it changed the game? I remember all the way back to when they argued that adding a round of playoffs would change the game. You know what? Baseball has never been static. It changes all the time and the notion that the game is set in stone and that nothing should ever change flies in the face of reality. Let me give you one real simple example.

In the beginning (catchy, right?) of baseball there were small rosters. Those made it absolutely necessary for players to be adept at playing more than one position. We call those guys utility players and in 19th Century baseball they were ubiquitous (didn’t think I knew a word that big, did you?). Then they began to die out as rosters expanded and free substitution was allowed. Those kinds of players are still around and still valuable, just not as common as 120 years ago. Two of the best played against each other in the 1950s.

Gil McDougald

Gil McDougald arrived in New York with the Yankees in 1951. He stayed through 1960, retiring rather than move to the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was one of the Yankees’ finest players and most people never noticed. He regularly played 120 to 140 games (his low was 119 in 1960 and his high was 152 in 1952), usually hit in the 280s (he hit .300 twice and as low as .250 in 1958), popped an average of 14 home runs, and had an OPS+ above 100 all but two seasons (and one of those was 98). In other words he hit well and had he been a fulltime started might have hit even better. What he did was fill the infield hole, wherever it was. Over his career he played 599 games at second (come on, Casey, give him one more game at second), 508 at third, and 284 at shortstop. In 1952 and 1953 he spent more time at third than any other player while still logging a number of games at second. In 1954 he had more games at second than “regular” second baseman Joe Coleman. By 1956 he’d moved to shortstop where he settled in for that season and the next. In 1958 he went back to second base. No matter the infield position (except first, where I’ll bet he would have done well also), McDougald could be plugged in and you were set for the season. In his last two years he floated among all three of his former positions and solidified the infield. He was never flashy, never a star, but was a solid and important member of the 1950s Yankees dynasty.

Jim Gilliam

Throughout most of the 1950s into the mid-1960s, the Dodgers had a similar player, Jim Gilliam. “Junior” spent a short amount of time in the Negro Leagues before the Dodgers picked him up. His debut was 1953, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year. He was a switch hitter who could play anywhere. Over his career he hit .265, had about two and a half walks for every strikeout, scored over 1100 runs, and generally had an OPS+ in the 80s or 90s. Again, like McDougald, what he could do best was plug a hole. Over his career he played 1046 games at second, 761 at third, 203 in left field, 222 games in the outfield in which he switched positions during the game, and a smattering of games in right field, center field, and first base (never at shortstop). He came up to replace an aging Jackie Robinson at second and by 1955 was also spending a lot of time in left field. In 1958 (with the arrival of Charlie Neal) he was more or less the fulltime left fielder, although he put in 44 games at third. In 1959 and 1960 he was the regular third baseman. In 1961, ’62, and ’63 he was sliding between second and third. In 1964 and 1965 he was more or less the primary third baseman. His final year was 1966 and he spent most of his time at third.

Both McDougald and Gilliam were valuable assets to their teams, while falling below the level of stars. Both had difficult jobs having to fill in whatever position the team needed that year (or occasionally that week) and both did their job well. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without these two men, the Stengel Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” would have been less successful.

Can’t Catch a Cold

May 16, 2011

The other "Babe"

The Brooklyn team of the late 1920s and early 1930s was known more for comic relief than for playing baseball. They had, in Dazzy Vance, one really good pitcher. They also had a handful of decent hitters. But they may have led the National League in boneheaded play. For that they were nicknamed “The Daffiness Boys.” If one player stood out as the poster boy for the team, it was Floyd “Babe” Herman.

Born in 1903, Herman arrived in Brooklyn in 1926, hit .319, and became a fixture. In 1927 he hit .272, then began reeling off .300 seasons with regularity, peaking in the offensive explosion season of 1930 with an average of .393 (second to Bill Terry). He walked more than he struck out, had decent power (peaking at 35 homers in the inflated air of 1930), had OPS numbers ranging from the lower eights to over a thousand, and drove in a lot of runs. He hit for the cycle three times.  In other words he was a pretty fair hitter in the greatest hitting era in 20th Century baseball history.

In 1932 he went to Cincinnati for a year, then on to the Cubs for two. While at Cincy he led the league in triples, his only league leading number. Chicago shipped him to Pittsburgh, who sent him back to Cincinnati. In 1937 he played 17 games for Detroit and was through at 34. World War II got him back to the big leagues in 1945 when he played 37 games for Brooklyn as a 42-year-old pinch hitter. For his career he hit .324, slugged .532, with an OBP of .383, giving him an OPS of .915 (OPS+ of 141). He had 2980 total bases spread over 181 home runs, 110 triples, and 399 doubles. He had 1818 hits, scored 882 runs, and knocked in 997 RBIs. Again, not a bad hitting career.

Of course it was his fielding that caused the problems. He was dreadful. He had a decent arm twice coming in second in the NL in assists. He simply couldn’t judge the ball or catch it, which is a minor problem for an outfielder. He was so awful it led one writer to complain that Herman “couldn’t catch a cold.” A teammate said Herman only wore a glove because the team required it. A great story about him is that on being told by his bank that someone was impersonating him he told the manager “Hit him flys. If he catches them, it ain’t me.” Accused of  being hit on the head with a fly ball, his defense was that it was the shoulder, not the head, that was hit.

He also was noted for not paying a lot of attention while at the game. Balls went over his head while he was absorbed in his own thoughts (what they were is anybody’s guess). On 15 August 1926 he hit a gapper for a double that he tried to turn into a triple. The problem was that the bases were loaded, one man scored, the second stopped at third, the third guy stopped at third. So did Herman. Pirates third baseman Pie Traynor got the ball, tagged all three and flipped the ball to the umpire. His comment is supposed to be “Here, you figure it out.”  The papers said that Herman “doubled into a double play.” In his defense, the runner on third who scored turned out to be the winning run. Twice he’s supposed to have stood at second admiring a home run long enough that the guy who hit it passed him on the base paths creating an out and negating the home run.

My favorite Herman story goes like this. He took his son with him to a game in Brooklyn. With the game over, he showered and bummed a ride home with a buddy. About halfway across Brooklyn it dawned on our intrepid hero that there were only two people in the car. They went back to Ebbets Field and found the kid helping the groundskeepers.  The kid was safe and Mrs. Herman’s comments are not recorded. BTW the son went on to teach High School math (obviously he took after Mom).

Herman did some scouting after his retirement. He never got much support for the Hall of Fame and never seemed to complain much about it. He died in 1987 and is one of the people interviewed in the great The Glory of Their Times.