Posts Tagged ‘Carl Hubbell’

Stability

September 4, 2017

Johnny Bench, Reds

Over at one of my favorite blogs, The Hall of Miller and Eric, they are running a “Mount Rushmore” of each team. As you might expect that means they are picking four players to represent the best of each franchise. But there is a kicker there. The player must have played his entire career with the same team. That means no Warren Spahn at the Braves, no Duke Snider with the Dodgers, no Yogi Berra with the Yanks (he had nine at bats with the Mets).

Now all that, especially the loss of Snider and Dazzy Vance with the Dodgers, got me to looking for players who spent their entire career with one team. Now it had to be significant time with the team, after all Moonlight Graham spent his entire Major League career with one team. I figured it would be loaded with old-time players, players who were faced with the reserve clause. Surprisingly, there were a lot of modern guys on the list. Here’s a list, in no particular order, of just a few of the players who never changed teams.

First base: Lou Gehrig, Jeff Bagwell, Willie Stargell

Second Base: Charlie Gehringer, Jackie Robinson (he was traded but never played for a second team, opting to retire instead), Craig Biggio

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Luke Appling, PeeWee Reese, Phil Rizzuto

Third Base: Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, George Brett, Mike Schmidt

Outfield: Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski

Catcher: Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella

Left-Handed Pitchers: Whitey Ford, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax

Right-Handed Pitchers: Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Mariano Rivera

Not a bad lot, right?

One quick note. Honus Wagner came up with the Louisville Colonels and ended up with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s not quite the same as being traded or leaving via free agency. Barney Dreyfuss owned both teams and when the National League contracted he moved all his good players to Pittsburgh and let Louisville go. I’m not sure how to deal with that, so I left him off. You might differ.

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A Dozen Things You Should Know About Carl Hubbell

March 26, 2015
Carl Hubbell

Carl Hubbell

1. Carl Hubbell was born in Carthage, Missouri 22 June 1903 but grew up in Meeker, Oklahoma.

2. He became an excellent local pitcher with good seasons in the both the Oklahoma State League and the Western League. That got a tryout with the Detroit Tigers in 1926. Manager Ty Cobb wasn’t all that impressed and sent him to the minors, proving Cobb was a great hitter, but not a great judge of talent (He was specifically worried about how much Hubbell threw the screwball).

3. After 1926 and 1927 in the minors, the New York Giants picked him up in 1928. The Giants were led my John McGraw who remembered his best pitcher, Christy Mathewson, threw a screwball. Hubbell went 10-6 with an ERA of 2.83 and a 1.113 WHIP.

4. He quickly became the Giants ace winning twenty or more games five consecutive years and picking up 18 wins two other times. He earned the nicknames “King Carl” and “The Meal Ticket.” He personally liked the latter over the former.

5. In 1933 he led the National League in wins, ERA, and shutouts. He also led the league in the modern stats of ERA+ and WHIP. His team won the World Series, with Hubbell gaining two wins in the Series. He was chosen NL MVP.

6. In both 1936 and 1937 he led the Giants to the World Series. They lost both with Hubbell going 2-2. He became the first pitcher to win the MVP twice. Hal Newhouser is the only other pitcher to do so (Walter Johnson won a Chalmers Award and a League Award, both early versions of the modern MVP).

7. In 1934 he had what has become his most famous moment. In the second All-Star game when he struck out five consecutive Hall of Famers (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin). Fifty years later, Hubbell threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1984 All-Star game.  He threw a screwball.

8. He retired at the end of the 1943 season. His record was 253-154 (.622 winning percentage) with 3461 hits given up, 725 men walked, 1677 strikeouts, and 36 shutouts in 3590 innings pitched. His ERA was 2.98 with an ERA+ of 130 and a WHIP of 1.166. His BaseballReference.com version of WAR is 67.8. He is also the first NL player whose number (11) was retired by his team.

9. After retirement, Hubbell was made director of player development. He held the job through 1977, when he suffered a stroke. In that period he helped sign and develop such Giants players as Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal.

10. Recovered from the stroke, he became a scout for the Giants after retiring as player development director. He held that job for the rest of his life. When he died he was the last member of the New York Giants still serving with the team.

11. He was killed in a car accident 21 November 1988 in Scottsdale, Arizona (on the same day 30 years earlier, teammate Mel Ott was also killed in an auto accident). He is buried in his hometown of Meeker, Oklahoma. The town maintains the Carl Hubbell Museum which has a small exhibit about Hubbell.

12. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1947.

Hubbell's final resting place

Hubbell’s final resting place

 

The Best of the Giants

May 27, 2013
Will Clark

Will Clark

It’s been a while since I stuck my foot deep in my mouth and picked an all-time team for a franchise. So it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this month dealing with the Giants, especially the New York version, so it seems like a good franchise to work with now.

A few caveats first (you knew I’d do that, right?). Let me start with a simple disclaimer: I’ve never been a particular Giants fan. Growing up supporting the Dodgers, there’s not a lot of nice things to say about the Giants (only the Yankees are as deep in perdition as the Giants). That means I’ll admit to being less than confident about my choices, but it’s the best I can do using only research and a few memories. Second, I put together a 25 man roster that does not mirror a Major League roster, but it’s my list and I get to do it my way. There are nine infielders, five outfielders, two catchers, and nine pitchers. I decided to go with three bullpen men and six men who were primarily starters. I also picked a manager (bet you can guess him). Finally there are no players whose primary career is before the advent of the mound. There are som really fine Giants prior to 1892, like Roger Connor, Tim Keefe, Mike Tiernan, but they play a game that is different, so different I decided to drop them from consideration.

So with all that said, here we go diving in where God knows what we will find. Each list is alphabetical.

The Infield:  Will Clark, Al Dark, George Davis, Art Fletcher, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Jeff Kent, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey.

Did you ever notice that the Giants have produced an inordinate number of quality first basemen? I chose McCovey, Mize, and Clark (and Cepeda spent a lot of time at first) and left out Hall of Fame first sackers Bill Terry and George Kelly. Frankly, I didn’t really have to think that hard about it. The only hard choice was Mize, who spent significant time with both St. Louis and the Yankees. I decided he was in. If they’ve had great first basemen, they’ve had mediocre third basemen. I went with Fletcher as the only third baseman because the rest of the list was Fred Lindstrom and Jim Davenport and guys like that. OK, maybe I should have considered Sandoval, but as a rule I like to stay away from current players because we don’t know how they’re stay with their team will go (but see Posey below). Short and second were mixed bags. Frisch, Kent, and Larry Doyle stood out but there wasn’t much below them. Short on the other hand had more quality players, but no one at the level of either Frisch or Kent. I left off Dave Bancroft and added Dark which may strike some as odd, but I suppose it’s merely a personal preference. And of course Jackson (who was in the top 10 Giants in WAR, which surprised me) played third toward the end of his career. 

The Outfield: Barry Bonds, Orlando Cepeda, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Mel Ott.

There is Bonds (whatever you think of him as a person or as a steroids user), there is Mays, and there is Ott. Everyone else is a huge drop, a really huge drop. You could make an argument that across the three outfield positions (left, center, and right) the Giants may have the best starting outfield ever. But you need backups and at the point you get past the big three you end up with a lot of quality outfielders. Cepeda’s knees sent him to first, but he began in the outfield. Irvin was a converted middle infielder who lost several years to segregation. Both are just short of the top-tier. I had to leave out both Felipe and Matty Alou, which I was sorry to do because I’d liked both when they played. Jeff Leonard and Kevin Mitchell were good for too short a time to be considered at the top.

The Catchers: Roger Bresnahan and Buster Posey.

OK, who else was there? Look at the Giants’ list of catchers and tell me you like anyone better. As a rule, Giants catching has been very weak. Buck Ewing is excluded as a pre-1890s player.  Hank Severeid maybe, but if that’s the best you can do then we’re stuck with these two. I hesitate to pick a current player like Posey, but it’s a really weak position and Posey has the advantage of coming to the Giants and they win a World Series. Then he gets hurt and they falter. Then he’s healthy again and they win another World Series. That’s a pretty good legacy, isn’t it?

The Starters: Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Gaylord Perry, Amos Rusie.

You know, you could make a pretty fair five man rotation for the Giants just using pitchers whose last name began with the letter “M”. You could dump those bums Perry and Rusie and insert Rube Marquard and Sal Maglie and still have a darned good staff. I didn’t. I have a feeling that in a few years both Lincecum and Cain will be getting some consideration on lists like this.

The Bullpen: Rod Beck, Rob Nen, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Not the strongest part of the Giants history. Wilhelm made the Hall of Fame, but his tenure with New York was relatively short. Most of his Cooperstown credentials are from other teams. Nen and Beck are simply one, two in saves, so why not?

The Manager: John J. McGraw.

Surely you saw that coming.

So there it is in all its glory; for good ,bad, or indifferent. I think it’s a pretty fair list, but I’m sure a lot of people will disagree. Feel free to do so. (I have this nagging feeling I’ve left somebody out).

Prince Hal

May 9, 2013
Hal Schumacher

Hal Schumacher

the 1930s Giants pitching staff is known for one hurler: Carl Hubbell. He was “The Meal Ticket.” He was “King Carl.” He also shared the mound with Hal Schumacher, known to the fans as “Prince Hal.”

Hal Schumacher was born in 1910 in upstate New York (near Utica). As with many of the players of the era his parents were immigrants (from Germany). He was a good athlete, graduated high school, got a number of calls from baseball teams. Wanting to attend college he enrolled at St. Lawrence University in 1928. He stayed through 1930, then, running out of money for college, he signed his first professional contract. Among other stipulations, it required the Giants to allow him time to finish college.

He split 1931 between New York and minor league teams in Bridgeport and Rochester (Baseball Reference shows only his Bridgeport numbers. I have no idea why.). He went 1-1 in eight games (two starts) with an ERA over 10. In 1932 he split time between starting and relieving and began to establish himself as a key member of the staff. In 1933 he went 19-12 with a 2.16 ERA and for the first time had more strikeouts than walks. The Giants won the National League pennant and Schumacher won game two of the World Series. He took a no decision in the climactic game five.

Schumacher had outstanding seasons in 1934 and 1935 (going a combined 42-10 with an ERA just under three. He developed arm trouble in 1936 and slid back posting only an 11-13 record for the NL champs. He went 1-1 in the Series, getting lit up during game two and throwing a ten inning complete game in game five. The Giants lost the Series in six games.

They were back in the World Series in 1937, Schumacher going 13-12 during the regular season. He took the loss in game three. It was his last postseason play. He remained with the Giants through 1942 pitching about .500 ball and watching his walk numbers go up while his strikeouts went down.  He joined the Navy after the ’42 season and served on an aircraft carrier. he returned to the Giants in 1946. He was 35 and unable to return to anything like his prewar form. At the end of the season he retired.

Upon retirement he went to work for the Adirondack Bat Company. He’d gotten his college degree in business (meaning the Giants lived up their part of the contract) and became Vice President in charge of sales. With his background in baseball he served as a valuable asset for the company, convincing a number of Major Leaguers to use his company’s bats (Willie Mays was one of them). He rose to Executive Vice President of the company and served a term as president of the Athletic Goods Manufacturers Association. He retired in 1967 and went to work for Little League. His job was to organize instructional programs for youth baseball. He died in Cooperstown (as is appropriate) in 1993.

For his career, Schumacher went 158-121 with an ERA of 3.36 (ERA+ of 111). He walked 902 men and struck out 906 in 2482 innings and gave up 2424 hits. That gave him a 1.340 WHIP. In postseason play he was 2-2 with a 4.13 ERA.

Schumacher was never a big star for the Giants (although he made three All-Star games). He was lost behind the bats of Mel Ott and Bill Terry and he existed in the great shadow of Carl Hubbell on the mound. For all that, he was a successful number two pitcher and a major component for three pennant winning teams.

Changing the Guard

May 6, 2013
Carl Hubbell, New York's "Meal Ticket"

Carl Hubbell, New York’s “Meal Ticket”

In 1933 the New York Giants did something they hadn’t done since the 1880s. They won a pennant without John McGraw at the helm. The changing of the guard from McGraw to Bill Terry in 1932 rejuvenated the Giants and led them to their first World Series in 10 years.

When I first decided to do this post, I tried to list all eight starters, the three pitchers, the main bullpen guy, and a couple of subs. I got about six names total. Unless you’re a true diehard Giants fan, it’s a fairly obscure team. The infield consisted of (first to third) hall of famer and manager Bill Terry, Hughie Critz, Blondy Ryan, and Johnny Vergez. Terry hit .300, Vergez had double figure home runs, and the other two were primarily glove men. Gus Mancuso was the catcher. He did almost all the catching and had a 49% caught stealing percentage (which was good in the era). The outfield consisted of another hall of famer, Mel Ott, in right, JoJo Moore, George “Kiddo” Davis, Lefty O’Doul, and Homer Peel holding down the other two spots. By the Series, Davis had settled in left and Moore was more or less the normal center fielder. Travis Jackson (another hall of famer), Sam Leslie, and Bernie James were the main backup infielders, while Paul Richards (of manager fame) was the backup catcher. The one significant trade during the season saw O’Doul come to the Giants while Leslie went to the Dodgers. The team led the NL in home runs, but no other major category.

As with most teams McGraw led (and he’d only been gone a year, not time enough for a team make over), the key to the Giants was pitching. Carl Hubbell had a great year going 23-12 with an ERA of 1.66. He had 10 shutouts and walked only 47 to go with 156 strikeouts. Twenty-two year old “Prince” Hal Schumacher was 19-12 with a 2.16 ERA while “Fat” Freddie Fitzsimmons (who could never get that nickname in this politically correct era) was 16-11 with a 2.90 ERA. Geezers Dolf Luque and Hi Bell did most of the bullpen work. The pitchers led the National League in ERA and shutouts, finished second in strikeouts, and were dead last in hits allowed.

They drew Washington in the World Series. It had been eight years since the Senators won a pennant, so both teams were in unusual territory. The Giants won the first two games at home, then dropped game three in DC. They came back to claim game four, then game five became an all-time classic.

In the top of the second, the Giants picked up two runs on a single, a walk, a sacrifice bunt, and a two run scoring single by pitcher Schumacher. They picked up a third run in the sixth when Davis doubled, went to third on a bunt, and scored on Mancuso’s double. In the bottom of the sixth, the Senators struck back. After consecutive singles, Senators center fielder Fred Schulte connected for a three-run homer.After two more singles, Luque replaced Schumacher and slammed the door on Washington. The two teams matched zeroes into the tenth inning. With two outs, Ott launched a home run that put New York ahead. With two out in the bottom of the tenth, a single and a walk put the tying run in scoring position and the winning run at first. Luque responded by striking out Joe Kuhel to end the game and the Series. Luque was terrific in relief, going 4.1 scoreless innings and striking out five. Ott struck out twice, but had the deciding blow.

For the Series the Giants hit .267 to Washington’s .214. They had three home runs (including Ott’s Series winner) while the Senators had two. New York scored 16 runs to their opponent’s 11. Hubbell was 2-0 with 15 strikeouts, Schumacher won game two, and of course Luque was the pitching star of the finale. Fitzsimmons took the only loss (game three by a 4-0 score).

The victory was in isolation. In 1934 and 1935 they Giants fell back. A very different team won pennants in both 1936 and 1937 (losing both World Series’ to the Yankees). The 1940s were a lost time for New York. They reemerged in 1951 to win a thrilling playoff and drop another World Series to the Yankees. They would win one final pennant in New York in 1954.

From New York to Frisco

October 23, 2012

Giants Logo

So it’s the Giants, is it? They’ve had a long and distinguished history. Interestingly enough they’ve never played Detroit in the postseason. Of all the original American League teams from 1901 the Giants have played each except for Detroit and the team now in Baltimore (via Milwaukee and St. Louis). How have they done?

Frankly, the Giants have, as a rule, been a disappointment in postseason play (I reference here only the 20th and 21st Century teams, not the successful 19th Century team.). In 1904 they won a pennant then refused to play Boston in the World Series. In 1905, under great public pressure, they changed their mind and bested Philadelphia in five games. It was their last win until the 1920s. They made the World Series each year from 1911 through 1913 and proceeded to lose all three. They lost again in 1917, going 0 for 4 for the teens.

They did better in the 1920s. From 1921 through 1924 they won consecutive National League pennants. In World Series play they beat the Yankees in the first two “Subway Series” in 1921 and 1922. Then they lost to the Yanks in 1923 and to Walter Johnson and the Senators in 1924. That was it for John McGraw’s tenure as manager.

In the 1930s they got back to the World Series on three occasions: 1933, 1936, and 1937. They won the first (against Washington), then dropped two Subway Series to Lou Gehrig’s Yankees.  For the 1940s they did nothing. The decade was doubly painful because they saw their status as New York’s premier NL team be eclipsed by the Dodgers.

In 1951 they won the most famous of all playoff games and finally got back to the World Series. I’ve always been amazed at the number of people who think that either Bobby Thomson’s home run won the World Series, or that the Giants went on to coast to a World Series victory. They didn’t as the Giants hashed the Series in six games. They were back again in 1954 when they pulled off one of the great upsets ever by knocking off the 111 game winning Indians in four games.

And that was it for the New York version of the Giants. In 1958 they headed for San Francisco. They won the pennant in 1962 and faced the Yankees in a “Jetliner Series”. They lost in seven games on a smoking line drive by Willie McCovey that Bobby Richardson speared (The ball was hit so hard I always wondered if it dislocated Richardson’s shoulder). And then they went into hibernation. For the rest of the 1960s, most of the 1970s (one playoff appearance that they lost), and the 1980s they were dismal. In 1989 they made a second San Francisco World Series losing the “Bay Area Classic” to Oakland in four games (interrupted by an earthquake).

Then it was back to the boondocks until 2002. They won the NL pennant that year, had the Angels on the ropes in game six of the World Series, and managed to hash another playoff run. That finally changed in 2010 when they blew Texas out of the Series and claimed their first championship in San Francisco.

So it’s a very mixed bag if you’re a Giants fan. You lose more than you win, but your wins are as glorious as they are for any other team. And like Detroit, you can put together a heck of a team. Here’s a sample of what they Giants could put in the field over the years: an oufield of Mel Ott, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds (before his head got big); an infield of Willie McCovey, Frankie Frisch, Al Dark, and Matt Williams; and Roger Bresnahan behind the plate. And the pitching? Try this staff without leaving the letter “M”: Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Rube Marquard, Sal Maglie, Juan Marichal. And of course that leaves out Carl Hubbell and company. They’ve even got a great pair of managers in John McGraw and Leo Durocher. Not bad, right?

So good luck to the Giants (You have any idea how hard that is for a Dodgers fan to type?). Win or lose I hope they play well. Most importantly, I hope it’s a great Series.

The Chairman of the Board

September 26, 2012

Whitey Ford during the 1950s

I note that the Atlanta Braves have tied the mark for the most consecutive wins by a team with a particular pitcher starting the game. One of the reasons I love baseball is this kind of esoteric stat. Kris Medlen now joins the ranks of all-time greats Carl Hubbell and Whitey Ford.

It’s amazing to me how very obscure Ford has become over the years. He is the greatest starter, and Mariano Rivera not withstanding, arguably the greatest pitcher on the greatest team (the Yankees) in Major League Baseball history and he’s sort of fallen off the face of the earth. You wonder how that happens.

I was, as a Dodgers fan, not a big fan of Ford. He played for the wrong team. But as I grew older, I began to understand exactly what the Yankees had. They had a solid starter who ate innings, gave them a chance to be in a game, won a lot of them, and year after year was there to count on. He was an American League version of Warren Spahn in his consistency. And part of Ford’s recognition problem is that much of his career is contemporary with Spahn (and the latter part overlaps Sandy Koufax).

Having said that, he wasn’t just Warren Spahn light. He had a great winning percentage. His .690 winning percentage is third among pitchers (according to Baseball Reference). The two guys ahead of him are Spud Chandler, whose career was about half as long; and Al Spaulding, who never once pitched at 60’6″. That’s pretty good for a guy that’s gotten really lost in the shuffle.

Part of Ford’s problem is that he only won 20 games twice (1961 and 1963), led the AL in shutouts twice, in wins three times. He also won the Cy Young Award in 1961 when they only gave out one award, not one per league.  Above I compared him to Warren Spahn, and those wins certainly aren’t Spahn-like numbers. But the basic career type still holds. Ford’s other problem, besides that it’s a long time ago now, is that the 1950s early 1960s Yankees were not seen as a pitcher’s team, but were viewed as a bunch of bashers. It’s the team of Mickey Mantle (who plays almost exactly the same years as Ford), of Yogi Berra, of Billy Martin, and Roger Maris. It’s also the team of Casey Stengel. Behind that crew, Ford sort of gets lost.

There also aren’t a lot of Ford stories. There are a handful of drinking stories, but not much else. A couple of stories emphasize Ford cutting the baseball to make his pitches move more. One has him using Elston Howard to cut the ball with his shin guards. Another says he filed down his wedding ring and used it. Don’t know if the latter is true, but wouldn’t you love to know Mrs. Ford’s reaction when she found out? Also Ford is supposed to have told the grounds crew to keep the area right behind the catcher moist so Howard and Berra could rub mud on the ball before they tossed it back to him. Those are about it on Ford.

And that’s despite some of the records he holds. He has more wins in the World Series than any other pitcher, and also more losses. He has the most consecutive shutout innings among starters in World Series history. He leads in inning pitched, in games started, in strikeouts (and walks), and at one time was the youngest pitcher to win a World Series game (game four of 1950). I don’t know if that last stat is still true. He pitched some truly fine World Series games. Some were blowouts like games three and six in 1960. Others were tight duels like game four in 1963 against Sandy Koufax or game six in 1953 against Carl Erskine.

Ford was the mainstay of the most consistently victorious team ever, the 1950-1964 Yankees. His last good year was 1965, the year the Yankees dynasty stumbled. I think it’s important to note that when Ford fell off so did the Yankees. It wasn’t just him, Mantle got old also and Berra retired. The loss of the three was devastating to New York.

As I grew, I grew to appreciate Whitey Ford more and more. I’m sorry he’s sort of gotten lost in the shuffle by now. He shouldn’t, he was a great pitcher and I was privileged to see him throw.

More Southpaws

December 23, 2011

Continuing in the vein of the last post, here’s some thoughts on three more left-handed pitchers. They are listed in the order they arrived in the Major Leagues. No implication of order in a list of 10 or 20 or 3 is implied.

Carl Hubbell–rates as the National League’s finest pitcher of the 1930s and with the possible exception of Lefty Grove is the best pitcher in the big leagues. Hubbell played 16 seasons, all with the Giants and led the team to three pennants and the 1933 World Series championship (over Washington). He won 20 or more games five years in a row, 17 or more three more times, won three ERA titles, a shutout title, led the NL in strikeouts once, and his ERA+ peaked at 195 in 1933. He’s also famous for winning a season’s worth of games in a row and striking out the first five men in an All Star game. His winning percentage is .622 and his ERA is 2.98 which is terrific for the 1920s and 1930s. His overall record is 253-154 and then there’s that MVP trophy for both 1933 and 1936 making him one of three pitchers to win multiple MVP awards. Walter Johnson won both a Chalmers Award and a League Award, early versions of the modern MVP. Hal Newhouser is the other pitcher to win multiple MVP awards (back to back in 1944 and ’45).  Hubbell’s great pitch was the screwball and according to legend he threw it so much the palm of his hand turned to face outward when he walked. Over the years he’s lost some of his luster. A couple of reasons for that. First, it was a long time ago and secondly he never got to 300 wins. I also think it matters that the Giants have moved to San Francisco. There seems to be a disconnect between the New York and Frisco versions of the Giants that is different from the Los Angeles and Brooklyn versions of the Dodgers. The LA Dodgers seems to embrace the Brooklyn team, the Giants not so much (Giants fans might disagree but that’s how it seems to me).

Whitey Ford–among pitchers with 110 wins or more who pitched from a mound, Ford has the highest winning percentage at .690. He got to New York in 1950, became the youngest man to win a World Series game at age 21 (don’t know if that’s still true), went to the military for Korea, then came back and was the major pitching force for the late 1950s and early 1960s Yankees. He won 236 games, lost 106 and put up an ERA of 2.75 over a 16 year career (the same number of years as Hubbell). The Yankees through that entire period had at best a mediocre pitching staff. One year Johnny Kucks had a good years, the next season it was Don Larsen, another it was Bob Turley or Art Ditmar. What they had was Ford. He gave them good years for most of the period and in World Series play went 10-8 with four of the losses coming in his last three Series’. He broke Babe Ruth’s record for consecutive scoreless innings in World Series play. And somehow he’s gotten overlooked in the grand scheme of things. I think because he pitched in a hitters era and his team was primarily known as a hitting team, Ford falls through the cracks. He wasn’t quotable like Berra, or charismatic like Mantle or DiMaggio. He was, however, a heck of a pitcher.

Sandy Koufax–there is absolutely nothing obscure about Koufax. He still maintains his hold on the American imagination although he hasn’t pitched in 45 years. For those of us who saw him we understand why. He simply was the best I ever saw. In his prime he was better than Seaver (and Seaver is probably the best right-hander I ever saw), better than Clemons (with our without steroids), better than Palmer (although Koufax lost his last game to Palmer). “They” say a curve ball doesn’t really curve. “They” never faced Koufax. His record was 165-87 for a .655 winning percentage (129-47 and .733 over his last six seasons). He led the National League in wins three times, in ERA five, in strikeouts four, and his 382 whiffs in 1965 was a record (and it’s still second to Nolan Ryan’s 383). He led the league in shutouts three times, in WHIP four, and won the 1963 MVP Award. He also has one of my favorite stat sets: 2324.1 innings pitched and 2396 strikeouts. Not many pitchers with 1000 innings pitched have more strikeouts than innings pitched. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, and Oliver Perez did as do current pitchers Tim Lincecum and Kerry Wood. Among relievers only Trevor Hoffman did. In his first six years he was wild, but never walked more than he struck out (although it’s close a couple of years). He was a “bonus baby”, which meant he had to spend his first two years in the Majors without benefit of Minor League experience. It showed. He was a member of four Dodgers World Series winners, although is contribution to the 1955 win was negligible. He ended up with arthritis and retired at 30 after a year in which he won 27 games. And I think that’s also a great deal of his mystique. We never saw a worn out, tired, over the hill Koufax whose curve didn’t and whose fastball wasn’t. So there is always a “what did we miss?” quality about him and an awe at what we did see.

Add these three to the six 300 game winners and you easily have a top nine of left-handers. That still leaves one more for ten. Another post for another day.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy

The Nice Guy

March 4, 2011

Mel Ott

I tried a little trick with some friends of mine both locally and online. I handed (or sent) them a list of all the men who had 500 plus home runs in Major League history. But instead of writing down the names, I provided only the initials and asked them to fill in the names without resorting to a baseball encyclopedia or the internet. Well, everybody got BR as Babe Ruth and HA as Hank Aaron (although a couple missed BB as Barry Bonds). Most of the rest were hit and miss with more modern players doing better than the old guys. There was one set of initials that absolutely no one got, not a single guy: MO. Everyone forgot Mel Ott, making him,at least among my crowd, the most obscure power hitter ever.

They told Ott he was too short to play. Well, he fooled them all. He learned to pull the ball, draw a lot of  walks, and played right field almost flawlessly. Oh, and by the way, when he retired he held the National League record for home runs and was third on the all-time list. Not bad for a short guy, right?

Ott was a catcher by trade when he arrived in New York at age 19. John McGraw moved him to the outfield because he thought Ott would have a longer career. He pinch hit most of 1927, hitting .239 (.282 overall). In 1928 he became the Giants regular right fielder and the next year set a career high with 42 home runs. Ott won numerous home run titles, but his highest total was good for only second. There’s a reason for that. He played in Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Phillies right fielder Chuck Klein had 43 home runs going into the game. The Phils walked Ott each time to ensure that Klein won the homer title. As neither team was going anywhere, I’ve never been quite sure what I think of that.  The 1929 season was also unique for Ott in that he had more home runs that strikeouts (42 to 38). He won five home run titles during the 1930s. His lowest total was 23 in 1933, his highest 38 in 1932. He had a strange batting stance that included a high leg kick with swinging. It’s supposed to have helped him generate power. Here’s a posed shot of it:

Ott swinging away

For the decade of the 1930s he was terrific, joining Carl Hubbell as the driving force on the Giants.  He scored a lot of runs, knocked in a lot of runs, and had seven years of 100 walks. In 1933, the Giants won the NL pennant. It was Ott’s weakest season in the decade, but he made up for it by clubbing .389 in the World Series. His tenth inning home run in game five clinched the Series for New York. The Giants also took pennants in 1936 and 1937, but dropped both World Series’ to the Yankees. Ott did all right in the ’36 Series, but had a down Series in 1937.

His first really sub par season in years occurred in 1940. He bounced back in 1941. In 1942 the Giants made him their manager. He responded by leading the NL in home runs one final time. His first season hitting below .250 was 1943. It was also his lowest home run total since 1927. In the war depleted ranks of 1945, he had one final good season. He hit .300 one last time and picked up his 500th home run, passing Lou Gehrig in the process. In 1946 he concentrated on managing and his average plummeted to .074. In 1947 he went 0 for 4 and retired as an active players. He managed the Giants without much success through 1948 and made the Hall of Fame in 1951. In 1958 he died in a car wreck. It was about him that Leo Durocher is supposed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”

For his career Ott had 2876 hits, 488 doubles, 72 triples, 511 home runs, scored 1859 runs with 1861 RBIs (another amazingly close number), and walked 1708 times to only 896 strikeouts.  He hit.304, slugged .533, had an on base percentage of .410, and an OPS of 943 (OPS + of 155). All good numbers. All certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

But despite all the superlatives you can recount about Ott’s career, there’s always one complaint raised over and over. He got an unfair advantage because he played in the Polo Grounds. During his career Ott hit 63% of his home runs (323 of 511) at home. By contrast, Babe Ruth hit 49% of his at home, Mickey Mantle hit 50% at home, and Willie Mays got 51% of his at home (and for part of Mays’ career, the Polo Grounds was home). It was 258 feet down the right field line at the Polo Grounds, so the argument goes that the left-handed hitting Ott got a lot of cheap home runs and therefore isn’t really as great as he appears.

Oh? Let’s see if I have this right. Ott regularly drives in 100 runs a year, scores 100 runs a year, and has 140-190 hits a year. Of those he regularly deposits nineteen of them over the wall at the Polo Grounds (That’s 63% of his average home run total from 1929 through 1942, his productive years.) and isn’t really a geat player. What did I miss? There are a bunch of runs scored and RBI’s that don’t have a thing to do with 258 feet fences. For his career, excluding 1926, 1946, and 1947 when he played less than 40 games, Ott averaged 150 hits, of which nineteen flew over the fence in New York. He scored 97 runs, nineteen of which came from a ball that he hit over the fence in New York. He knocked in 98 runners a year, an indeterminate number of which were on base when a ball flew over the fence in New York. He walked 89 times a season, none of which came from a ball flying over a fence in New York, thus putting himself on base a lot and giving his team a chance to score runs whether or not they put a ball over the fence in New York. Frankly, I don’t think the Polo Grounds had a lot to do with Ott’s status as a great player. As a power hitter, yes; as a great player, no.

Even if it did help his power numbers, he’s not the only one. You don’t hear people complain about Wade Boggs’ inflated hit totals because he knew how to use Fenway Park, do you? A lot of people will tell you that the two greatest seasons any player ever had were Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 years. In 1920 Ruth had 29 home runs at home, 24 on the road (54% at home). In 1921 he hit 32 at home and 27 on the road (again 54%). Want to guess where he played his home games? You got it, the Polo Grounds with its 258 foot fence that aided left-handed hitters like Ruth and Ott. According to Green Cathedrals it was actually 256 feet in 1920-1921. I wonder how many home runs just barely cleared that 256 feet? (and how they got an extra two feet in 1929) OK, I know 63% is a lot more than 54%, but you just don’t hear anyone complain that Ruth got an extra benefit from the Polo Grounds. I’m not arguing that Ott didn’t get a lot of help by playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, he obviously did when it comes to power numbers. But that fact alone doesn’t take away from his greatness any more than it would take away from either Boggs or Ruth.

Mel Ott was one of the finest players of the 1930s. He was third in both home runs and RBIs for the decade and was a part of three pennant winners. And for all that he’s managed to become utterly obscure. Isn’t that a great shame?