Posts Tagged ‘Casey Stengel’

The Wreckers

May 14, 2015
The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

The 1916 25th Infantry Wreckers

There are a lot of reasons people join the Army. Some are drafted, some patriotic. Some enjoy the lifestyle, some understand they need the self-discipline the military provides. Some are just looking for an assured three hots and a cot. If you could play baseball, you could also practice your craft for the unit team. Between 1914 and 1920 one of the best unit teams ever played for the US Army. They were the segregated 25th Infantry Wreckers.

In 1914 the US Army was anticipating expansion in case of American entry into World War I. The 25th Infantry was a segregated unit stationed in Hawaii (Schofield Barracks). It had been around for a while and used the prospects of its baseball team as a recruiting tool. That worked well. By the late 19-teens they’d established a first-rate team that was dominate on the islands and could also dominate barnstorming teams and Minor League outfits.

In 1914 they began play in the Post League, a military league for the various Hawaiian armed forces bases. There were four teams, one Asian, one Portuguese, one Chinese, and the Wreckers. The 25th finished first easily. Between 1914 and 1918 they finished first by more than 10 games every year. They also dominated Pacific Coast League teams who barnstormed through the islands. In 1918 the 25th was transferred to Arizona (Camp Little) where they continued their winning ways, this time dominating Southwest teams.

The team got its big chance in 1919 when later Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel led a team of barnstorming Major Leaguers through the West. They took on the Wreckers and Stengel was impressed (there seems to be no exact records of the games played between the two teams, but apparently the Wreckers won at least some). Stengel approached J.L. Wilkinson the white owner of the All Nations team, a segregated ball team playing in the Midwest, with a recommendation he look at several of the players on the Wreckers. Wilkinson, who was about to make his All Nations into the kernel of the Kansas City Monarchs and join the Negro National League did so. He was impressed enough to sign six Wreckers to contracts with the Monarchs upon their discharge. A number of other Negro League teams followed suit and by 1921 16 Wreckers were now playing in the Negro Leagues. It finished the Wreckers as a force to be reckoned with in military and amateur baseball.

Who, you ask, were these guys? The list is a litany of great players in the early Negro Leagues. Bullet Joe Rogan and Andy Cooper are in the Hall of Fame. A case can be made that Heavy Johnson and Dobie Moore should be. Other notable Negro Leaguers who played for the Wreckers include Bob Fagan, Hurley McNair, Moses Herring, William Johnson, Lemuel Hawkins, and Dayton Marcus. Rogan, McNair, Fagan, Moore, and Hawkins became stalwarts on the Monarchs teams that dominated the earliest years of the Negro National League.

It was a formidable roster and a formidable team. Arguably, it is the greatest amateur team ever assembled. I’ve been searching for info on them for a long time now and finally found it. I normally wait for things like this for Black History month in February, but I wanted to get it to you as soon as I could.

 

The Last Segregated World Series: Casey’s Crew

May 8, 2015
Hank Bauer

8 Hank Bauer

In the 1950 World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies were tasked with defeating the current World Champion New York Yankees. The Yanks were winners of two of the previous three World Series and were a formidable foe.

They were led by retired player and former dental student (Thanks, Bloggess) Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel. He’d taken the reigns in New York in 1949 and led his team to a championship. In 1950 they were one game better than in 1949.

He had Joe Collins and Hall of Famer Johnny Mize at first. Both played about the same amount of games and both hit left-handed. Collins was a slightly better fielder and Mize the better hitter. For the season Mize hit .277 and was third on the team with both 25 home runs and 72 RBIs. His .946 OPS and 142 OPS+ were both second on the team. Jerry Coleman played second, hit .287 with no power, and was finding himself pushed by 22-year-old rookie Billy Martin. No one was pushing Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto. He hit .324, led the team in both hits (200) and runs (125), played a good shortstop, and won the American League MVP for 1950 (his only MVP award). Billy Johnson and Bobby Brown (later AL President) were in a rough platoon system at third. Johnson hit .260, Brown .267.

Four men did most of the outfield work. Hall of Fame center fielder Joe DiMaggio was 35 and a year from retirement, but he hit .301, led the team with 35 home runs and a .979 OPS. His 122 RBIs were second on the team and his 5.3 WAR was third. In typical DiMaggio fashion he posted 80 walks to go along with only 33 strike outs. Hank Bauer was settling in as the new right fielder. He had 13 homers and hit .320. Gene Woodling did more work in left field than anyone else, hit .283 with only six home runs and made two errors all season. Cliff Mapes was the fourth outfielder, but got into 108 games. He had 12 home runs, but hit only .247.

The only other everyday players who appeared in 20 or more games were Jackie Jensen and Tommy Henrich. Jensen was a rookie outfielder who hit all of .171. Henrich was in his final season. He started 30 games at first, but spent most of his time as the main left-handed pinch hitter. He hit .272 with six home runs, a .918 OPS, and only six strikeouts to go with 27 walks. He had 41 total hits for the season, twenty were for extra bases: six doubles, eight triples, and the already mentioned six home runs. A lot of people forget that Henrich, never noted for his base stealing speed led the AL in triples twice (1947 and 1948).

Yogi Berra did almost all the catching. He had a great year hitting .322 (second to Rizzuto), with 28 home runs (second to DiMaggio), and a team leading 124 RBIs. His OPS was .915 and his WAR 5.6 (again second to Rizzuto’s 6.7). He struck out all of 12 times in 656 plate appearances and walked 55. His backups were future Yanks manager Ralph Houk and Charlie Silvera. Between them they got into 28 games (Houk started one game, Silvera seven).

The New York pitching corps was aging, unlike Philadelphia’s. Of the six men who started 10 or more games, only one was under 30. If you kick that up to all the men who pitched in 10 or more games, there were only two (and Bob Porterfield only pitched 20 innings over 10 games). Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Tommy Byrne, and Allie Reynolds all started at least 29 games with Byrne, at age 30, being the youngest (Reynolds at 33 was the oldest). Raschi had 21 wins but an ERA of 4.00. Lopat was 18-8 but had given up more hits than he had innings pitched (WHIP of 1.307). Reynolds led the team with 160 strikeouts and Byrne had 160 walks (with 118 strikeouts). Fred Sanford only started 12 games but walked more than he struck out. The other guy (and the other pitcher under 30) was a rookie named Whitey Ford. He went 9-1 over 20 games (12 starts), had a 2.81 ERA, and was on the way to a Hall of Fame career.

The bullpen was still anchored by Joe Page. He’d posted 13 saves, but his ERA was north of five and he had given up 66 hits in 55 innings. Tom Ferrick was 35 and had posted nine saves, for second on the team. And by way of trivia, Lew Burdette, age 23 pitched 1.1 innings over two games in his rookie campaign. In 1957, now playing at Milwaukee, he would handcuff his former team to lead the Braves to a World’s Championship.

They were a formidable team, World Champs, and ready to defend. They were favored over Philadelphia, which was considered an upstart.

The Old Perfessor

May 4, 2015
Ole Case

Ole Case

Baseball is full of men who made a difference. There are heroes. There are villains. There are men who rose to the occasion and men who failed to rise to the occasion. All of them are interesting in some way or other. But to me the most fascinating man to ever appear in a baseball uniform is, with suitable apologies to Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel.

Ask most people what they know about Casey Stengel and you’ll draw a blank. It’s been a while, after all. But to a baseball fan you’ll generally get a nod of recognition. Usually they know about his stint managing the Yankees, sometimes they know he was the first manager of the Mets. At that point most baseball fans come up short.

They don’t know that Stengel was a pretty fair player long before he became a manager. He played from 1912 through 1925 with Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, all in the National League. That’s a little surprising since he rose to his greatest fame in the American League. He played the outfield (mostly in right) and was pretty good at it. He led the NL in a couple of fielding categories a few times. He was also a good hitter with a career triple slash line of .284/.356/.410/.766 (OPS+ of 120). He played more than 135 games once (1917), led the NL in OBP once (1914), and settled in for much of his career as the fourth outfielder. He hit 60 home runs (peaking at 9), 535 RBIs (peak of 73), stole some bases (he had 19 twice), and ended up with a BBREF WAR of 20.1 (hitting 3.0 twice).

He was better in the World Series. He played in three: 1916, 1922, and 1923. His team won the middle one. He hit .393 with and OBP of ..469, a slugging percentage of .607, and an OPS of 1.076. He scored five runs, had two home runs (both in 1923), the more famous of the two an inside the park job. There were four RBIs and he did so well in 1923 that one writer summed up the Series as “Yankees 4, Stengel 2 (He’d had the key hit in both Giants wins).

After retirement he coached and managed. His stints at Brooklyn (1934-36) and Boston (1938-43) were less than stellar (he never finished higher than fifth), but he gained a reputation as a knowledgeable baseball man who, if given a good team, could win. He got the chance in 1949. The New York Yankees finished third in 1948 (two games back and 2.5 because of a playoff game) and dumped manager Bucky Harris who’d won it all in 1947 (don’t ask).
Stengel was manager of the Oakland AAA team which won three consecutive pennants. He was picked to take over from Harris. Of course you know he proceeded to lead the Yanks to five consecutive pennants and five World Series championships. Then, after taking a year off to let Cleveland win a pennant (and hash a World Series), he led the Yanks to four more consecutive pennants and two World Series championships. In 1959 he let Chicago win the AL (and again blow the Series), then had one last pennant winner in 1960. It was an astounding record. In 12 years he’d won seven World Series’, three more pennants, finished second once, and third the other time.

After the 1960 Series the Yankees “retired” him. They said he was too old at 70. He responded that he’d “never make that mistake again.” He took 1961 off, then hooked up with the fledgling Mets in 1962. They were an expansion team and absolutely awful. He stayed with them into 1965, never finishing anywhere but last. After retirement he made the Hall of Fame in 1966 and died in 1975 as one of the most acclaimed men in baseball history.

Stengel was very quotable. There are a couple dozen quotes from him that have become famous, at least to baseball fans. He was also known for his mangled use of the English language. Sometimes it was known simply as “Stengelese” and a number of writers and players had trouble figuring out what he’d said.

Lesser known is the fact that he played in the Cuban-American Major League Series in 1913. This was a series of games between an American Major League team and some Cuban League teams. It’s important because the Cuban League was integrated. While managing the Yankees, Stengel presided over the integration of the team. He’d already been familiar with Negro League baseball when he was in Kansas City (where he grew up and the origin of the “Casey” nickname) and had recommended Bullet Joe Rogan (a Hall of Fame pitcher) to J.L. Wilkinson, head of the Kansas City Monarchs. All this made the transition to integrated baseball easier for New York than it did for some other teams (although Stengel apparently didn’t particularly like Elston Howard, the man who integrated the Yanks).

All in all I find Stengel absolutely fascinating. He’s a very good player, a less than successful manager, and then the consummate team leader whose record is stunning. That’s quite a combination.

A handful of my favorite Stengel quotes.

“Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

“When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you’re older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out.”

” Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls.”

“You have to go broke three times to learn how to make a living.”

And my favorite: “Without losers, where would winners be?”

God love that man.

 

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Bums Win

September 25, 2014
The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

Game seven of the 1955 World Series is arguably the most famous game in Brooklyn Dodgers history. April of 1947 is its only rival. Finally, after years of frustration going back to 1901 the Dodgers finally were World Champions. It had last occurred in 1900.

The Dodgers were playing the Yankees for the sixth time (’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53 are the others) and were 0-5. Some had been good Series’ (particularly 1947) but Brooklyn always lost. The 1955 team was still very much the same team as the 1952 and 1953 teams but there were significant changes. First, Walter Alston was now the manager. He’d been a minor league manager for a while, but in 1954 took the leadership of the team. The infield was different from the more famous “Boys of Summer” infield. Gil Hodges was still at first and Pee Wee Reese still held down shortstop, But Jim Gilliam now spent more time at second than anyone else. He could also play the outfield in for game seven he was in left. Utility man Don Zimmer was at second. Jackie Robinson now was the primary third baseman, but for game seven he was on the bench with Don Hoak at third. Carl Furillo and Duke Snider were still in right and center field, but Sandy Amoros did most of the work in left. As mentioned earlier, on 4 October 1955 he started on the bench. He didn’t stay there. Roy Campanella having his last good year, was the MVP winning catcher.

The pitching staff was in transition. Don Newcombe was still the ace, Carl Erskine was fading, Billy Loes was still there, but a key newcomer (he’d been around awhile, but wasn’t anything like a star) was 22-year old Johnny Podres. Ed Roebuck and Clem Labine did the bulk of the bullpen work, but 19-year old bonus baby Sandy Koufax was on the roster (he didn’t pitch in the Series). Podres, the game three winner, got game seven.

He faced a Casey Stengel New York Yankees team that, after a string of five consecutive World Series victories, had finished second in 1954. They were back with a new lineup that included Moose Skowron at first, Gil McDougald at second, Andy Carey at third, and shortstop Billy Hunter. Gone was Johnny Mize while Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Collins were on the bench. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were in center field and right field with Irv Noren doing most of the work in left. Elston Howard had finally integrated the Yanks in ’55 and now backed up in left.

MVP Yogi Berra caught a staff that included Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Tommy Byrne, Bob Grim and Don Larsen. Ford was the ace, with Turley a close second. Larsen was still learning (and would figure it all out in one game the next World Series). Byrne had a good year but as usual walked more than he struck out. He drew game seven which was played in Yankee Stadium.

Both pitchers got through the first inning without incident. Byrne gave up a walk in the second and Podres gave a double to Skowron, but no runs came across. It stayed that way to the top of the fourth. With one out, Campanella doubled, then went to third on a grounder to short. Hodges then singled to left scoring Campy with the initial run of the game. In the bottom of the fourth New York got a runner as far as third before a pop up to short ended the threat.

Reese led off the top of the sixth with a single then went to second on a Snider bunt. An error by Skowron made Snider safe. Then a Campanella bunt put runners on second and third with only one out. Byrne intentionally walked Furillo to load the bases, then gave up the mound to Bob Grim. Hodges hit a long sacrifice to right center that scored Reese with an unearned run. A wild pitch (that didn’t allow Snider to score) and a walk reloaded the bases, but pinch hitter George Shuba grounded out to end the inning. As a short aside, it’s a measure of how much the game has changed that both Snider and Campanella, the three and four hitters, laid down bunts in a critical situation.

Shuba’s pinch hit was critical to the game. It removed Zimmer from the lineup and forced Gilliam to take second. That brought Amoros into the game in left. That immediately made a difference. Martin, playing second in this game, walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth and went to second on a bunt by McDougald, who was safe at first. Berra then slammed a drive down the left field line. Amoros, a left-hander, got to the line, stuck up his glove (on his right hand) and snagged the ball. A toss to Reese and a relay to Hodges completed a double play. Bauer then grounded out to end the threat. Most experts agree that Gilliam, with his glove on his left hand, would have never been able to make the play in left, but southpaw Amoros became an instant Brooklyn hero.

It was the turning point of the game. Podres allowed two base runners in both the seventh and eighth innings but worked out of both jams without damage. In the ninth a comebacker to the pitcher, a fly to left, and a ground out short to first ended the game and brought Brooklyn its first World Series championship. Brooklyn went crazy.

The big heroes were Amoros with a great catch and throw, Campanella with a run scored and a key bunt, Hodges with both RBIs, and Reese with a run and a fine relay on Amoros’ catch and throw. But the biggest hero was Podres. He’d pitched a complete game shutout. It was true that it wasn’t a masterpiece. He’d allowed eight hits (the Dodgers only had five) and walked two, but he’d also struck out four and pitched out of each jam. It was the first year an MVP for the World Series was awarded. Podres won it easily.

The Yanks played well. McDougald had three hits, but was doubled up in the sixth on Reese’s relay. Skowron had a double, but also an error, while Berra had the only other extra base hit for New York and smashed the ball to left that started the double play that was so pivotal to the game.

The game marked the high water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year they were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. In 1957 they had a bad year and by 1958 were relocated to Los Angeles. They did well there winning again it 1959. A handful of the 1955 winners were still around: Snider, Furillo, Gilliam, Zimmer, and Koufax among others. Most notably for fans of the 1955 team, so was Podres. He pitched two games and picked up the win in game two.

 

 

Winning Late

July 8, 2013
Johnny Blanchard

Johnny Blanchard

The last post around here was about a team winning games by scoring early and shutting down the opponent for the rest of the game. I mentioned that there were other ways to win, including putting up runs late in the game. If the 1963 World Series was an example of scoring early and holding on, the 1961 World Series was an example of doing it the other way.

The New York Yankees were defending American League champs (having lost the previous Series). They were much the same team in 1961 with a major exception. Ralph Houk had replaced Casey Stengel as manager. The Yankees ownership said Stengel was too old to manage. The Ol’ Perfessor’s response was “That’s a mistake I’ll never make again.” It was a team designed to bash the opposition into submission. Roger Maris set the yearly home run record with 61 (and despite the steroid sluggers of recent vintage, still the record for some of us). Mickey Mantle had 54. Five other players, including backup catcher Johnny Blanchard, had more than 20 home runs.  The team led the AL in home runs, slugging, OPS, and total bases. The pitching staff consisted of Whitey Ford and a couple of players having career years.

The Cincinnati Reds were afterthoughts in 1961. They hadn’t won since 1940 and had finished sixth the year before. They were led by MVP Frank Robinson, center fielder Vada Pinson, and a young pitching staff (only Bob Purkey was 30). They led the National League in doubles, but finished second in slugging and OPS. The staff led the NL in shutouts and gave up fewer hits and runs than any other team.

As was usual for me back then, I would have to catch the first couple of innings on radio at school (and again I had teachers who let us listen), then miss an inning getting home. But then I could sit and listen to the rest of the Series and root for my favorites. Well, 1961 was one of those years I didn’t have a favorite. As a Dodgers fan you are never allowed to root for the Yankees, ever. I think it’s classified as a sin or something. And the Reds had no particular meaning for me, so I could just sit back and enjoy the Series without worrying too much who was going to win.

Game one started slow, as did most of the games (and if they didn’t there wouldn’t have been much reason for this entire post). The Yanks got a run in the fourth when Elston Howard homered off Jim O’Toole. In the sixth O’Toole gave up another homer, this one to Bill Skowron. It was all the Yankees needed. Ford gave up only two hits, both singles (one in the first, the other in the fifth), walked one, and struck out six. New York scored in the middle stages of the game to win it.

Game two was the lone Reds win. They put up six runs: two in the fourth, one in the fifth, one in the sixth, and two more in the eighth. The Yankees got two runs, both in the fourth (and both in typical fashion–a two-run homer by Yogi Berra).

Game three was on a Saturday, so I got the full game for a change. It may have been the best game. Cincinnati got an early run in the third on a single, a couple of outs, and a Frank Robinson single. New York stayed scoreless until the seventh when they scored their first run on something other than a homer. A single, a passed ball, and a Berra single plated the tying run. Cincy was back in the bottom of the seventh to take the lead with a double, an intentional walk, and another single. But in the eighth and ninth the Yankees reverted to form when one-run homers by Blanchard and Maris gave New York the win. Again, they, won by scoring later in the game (this time the final three innings).

The game seems to have broken the back of the Reds. On Sunday, they held New York scoreless into the fourth. Then the Yanks put up runs in each of the next four innings to put the game away, 7-0. This time they did it without benefit of the home run.

I was back to school for the fifth game on Monday. This time there would be no waiting for the middle and later innings to determine the winner. New York jumped on Cincy hurler Joey Jay for four runs (of five total) in the first inning, highlighted by a two-run home run by Blanchard and a Hector Lopez triple. They added another run in the second on a Maris double. The Reds gave it a go in the third when Robinson hit a three-run homer. But New York responded by plating five runs in the fourth. The inning was highlighted by an answering three-run homer, this one by Lopez. Again, the Reds tried to keep it close when they got two runs in the fifth on Wally Post’s two-run shot. But New York got the two runs back in the sixth to close the scoring. They won 13-5 to take both the game and the Series.

 The Series is usually seen as a Yankees beat down of the Reds. That’s true of the final two games, but the Reds win was 6-2 and the first two games were close. The Yanks won with homers and scored a lot of runs in the last half of the game. Whitey Ford was outstanding, winning the Series MVP. For Cincy the season was something of a fluke. They slipped back to third in 1962 and didn’t resurface with a pennant until the 1970s. The Yankees would go on to win both a pennant and the World Series in 1962, then pick up two more pennants in 1963 and ’64 (losing both to the pitching of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson) before they collapsed. After 1964 they would not win another pennant until 1976, when they would, ironically, face the Reds again.

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.

Integrating the Yankees

February 19, 2012

1956 Elston Howard baseball card

There is a tendency to equate levels of racism with the order in which teams integrate between 1947 and 1959. Meaning that somehow the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians (all of which integrated very early in the period) are less racist than teams like the Red Sox who integrated last (“59). Maybe that’s true. I don’t have direct insight into the workings of the minds of Rickey, Veeck, Stoneman, and Yawkey or any other of the leaders of the period. I do know that if it’s true or not, there is one exception that has to be made from this thinking: the Yankees.

Now I’ve never been a Yankees fan but I’m willing to give them a pass on waiting until 1955 to integrate. The reason? Well, there are two of them. First, their unique spot in the baseball pantheon made it imperative that they get it right. Failure of black players in Philadelphia? Not a good thing, but not crucial. Failure of black players in the Bronx? Utterly devastating for integration in baseball.  Three teams absolutely had to get it right. The first was Brooklyn, not because they were Brooklyn, but because they were first. The second team was Cleveland, again not because they were Cleveland, but because they were both first in the American League and they were in a position to prove that Jackie Robinson wasn’t a fluke. The third was, of course, the Yankees.

The second reason I give the Yanks a pass is because they were winning. As we like to say around here, “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And between Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn and 1955 things in Yankee Stadium were definitely not broke. Between 1947 (Robinson’s first year) and 1953 the Yankees won every American League pennant but one (1948) and every World Series in which they played. Their Minor League system (including that so-call big league team in Kansas City) was churning out players yearly, they were making great trades, there were few serious injuries, and even Korea wasn’t hurting them as bad as other teams (except for Whitey Ford’s loss). Integration was going to be painful and when you’re baseball’s premier team and you’re winning why add pain to the mixture? To integrate risked losing white fans without picking up black ones. If white fans leave in Cleveland, there are black fans to replace them. Same in Pittsburgh. Not in New York where black fans had already gone to Brooklyn. It also meant alienating some of the power brokers in the city, it meant creating problems with the current team members. Both Yogi Berra (from Missouri) and Mickey Mantle (from Oklahoma) were from states that a lot of people saw as “Southern” and why create problems with two of your biggest stars? A quick aside to point out that neither Berra nor Mantle had significant problems with team integration, but the possibility existed. It created travel problems because some hotels refused to allow black patrons. As long as you were winning, why “mess with success?” Of course black players were good, so it didn’t hurt to start finding one and groom him, the team, and the fans for eventual integration.

Enter Elston Howard. Without trying to steal SportsPhd’s thunder with his “These Men Changed Baseball” series, Howard was from Missouri, played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was picked up by the Yankees (along with Vic Power) in 1950. He spent one year in Muskegon, Michigan, then went off to Korea for two seasons. Back with the Yankees system in 1953 he was at Kansas City then went to Toronto in 1954. He did alright. He hit .300, averaged 16 home runs, struck out more than he walked, and found himself changing positions.

As mentioned above, Howard was initially an outfielder. Most of you know him as a catcher. The switch occurred in the Minors. For some reason, the Yankees thought Howard could be converted to catcher. They asked former catcher Bill Dickey, also from Oklahoma and seen as a Southerner by many, to tutor Howard. Dickey had no trouble with working with a black man and Howard credited him with making him into a good catcher. But here we need to ask what’s going on? It’s not like the Yankees had great left fielders in 1953 and 1954. They had Gene Woodling (’53) and Irv Noren (’54) in left. And, well, that guy they had behind the plate in 1953 and 1954 won the MVP in 1954 (and would do so again in 1955). So it wasn’t like Howard was going to replace Berra anytime soon. So why the change? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that the Yankees saw Berra was aging. He was 30 in 1955, not exactly ready for Social Security, but for a catcher with a lot of games behind the plate, reaching a dangerous age. Give him a good backup, then as he aged, shift him to left field and keep the Berra bat in the lineup. Sounds like a good idea, right?  Meanwhile the new guy could play some left while he backed up (Howard played 75 games in the outfield in 1955, 65 in 1956, 71 in 1957, and by 1958 was in a semi-platoon at catcher). In short it worked, but it also meant that Howard was going to get to the Major Leagues later (he was 26 in 1955) and that integration would come later to the Yankees. I’m not sure how much that last factor (integration coming later) mattered to the Yankees leadership. Maybe it was purposeful and indicates they were reluctant to integrate. Maybe it means that they were serious about getting both a left fielder and a  backup catcher at the same time and were willing to wait on integration. Hopefully it was the latter. And, anyway, they were winning, so who cared? Of course they lost finally in 1954 and you’ll note that Howard made the roster the very next season.

The one thing I’ve been unable to determine in all this is the attitude of  Casey Stengel towards integration. Stengel was also from Missouri (there are a lot of those in this post, aren’t there?), and was frequently heard to use the “N” word (and originally refered to Howard as “Eightball” ). It seems to have been a carryover from his childhood and a normal way of expressing himself (as if Casey Stengel ever had a “normal” way of expressing himself) without particularly racist connotations. Stengel had, over his career, recommended a number of black players to Negro League teams (including Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Rogan), so he knew black talent was available. Maybe he did believe in “separate but equal”, maybe he just expressed himself in ways we now find offensive, but it does seem that he had at least a little problem with accepting a black player to the team. Also, maybe I’m being overly critical of him, I don’t know.

Most importantly, it worked. Howard became an All-Star, became the first black player to win the American League MVP. The Yankees kept winning and integration kept going in baseball. Integrating the Yankees is crucial to making the experiment work. If there are great problems with baseball’s premier team, then integration can be checked. If the Yankees start losing, then the black guy can be blamed and another check can be applied. It didn’t happen and integration went on. The Yankees weren’t in the forefront of the issue, but they did handle it well and that, I believe, helped ensure it would continue apace. So I’ll give them a pass on late integration, something I’m not prone to do for other teams.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, III

November 9, 2011

1954 Allie Reynolds baseball card

Previously I’ve given my thoughts on the everyday players who are listed on this year’s Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. Now it’s time to look at the pitchers. There are three on the Ballot: Jim Kaat, Allie Reynolds, and Luis Tiant. As with the everyday players, each pitcher has significant issues that have kept him from the Hall.

With 283 wins, Kaat has the most of this year’s trio. In fact of players not in the Hall of Fame and eligible Kaat has the fourth most wins. He’s behind Tommy John and two 19th Century pitchers Bobby Matthews and Tony Mullane (and Matthews pitched for far back he never stood on a mound). Kaat also has three 20 wins seasons (only one of which led the American League). But that’s the only time he led his league in any major category. He was only occasionally his team’s ace and by this point is probably most famous as the losing pitcher in the seventh game of the 1965 World Series, losing to Sandy Koufax who threw a shutout on two day’s rest (that happens). Further, Kaat pitched much of the end of his career in relief, becoming, in 1982, the oldest man to ever play in a World Series game (I’m not sure if that’s still true). And it’s this longevity that is much of Kaat’s problem. His numbers look pretty good, but they are longevity numbers and many Hall of Fame voters like gaudy peak numbers that Kaat just doesn’t have.

Luis Tiant was always a personal favorite of mine. As mentioned in the paragraph on Minnie Minoso, Tiant’s dad pitched in the 1947 Negro League World Series, so his son had quite a pedigree. For his career the younger Tiant had 229 wins, putting up 20 or more four times. He never led the AL in wins, but did lead in losses in 1969. He picked up ERA and shutout titles in 1968 (the year before leading the AL in losses). He got to a World Series with Boston in 1975 and won two games for a losing team. In many ways his problem is that he has too much of an up-and-down career. He wins 20, follows it with losing 20. He  has the big drop off at the end of his career that a lot of people have, but in the middle there are three seasons with less than 10 wins.

Allie Reynolds played back in the 1940s and 1950s, first for Cleveland, then for Casey Stengel’s Yankees. He was, according to a Stengel biography, Casey’s favorite pitcher because he could both start and relieve. Reynolds put up 182 wins with a .620 winning percentage. He won 20 games once, led the AL in ERA and walks once, led in strikeouts and shutouts twice, and went 7-2 with four saves in the World Series. Reynolds has three problems among Hall of Fame voters. One is the paucity of wins for a team that went to the World Series year after year while he pitched. Secondly, in many ways his replacement was better; a guy named Whitey Ford. You can of course argue that Ford replaced any one of the three early 1950s stalwarts of the Yankees staff (Reynolds, Eddie Lopat, and Vic Raschi), but Ford was better than any of them and I think that hurts Reynolds Hall of Fame chances. Finally, the 1950s Yankees teams are the teams of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, not the pitchers (with the exception of Ford). It’s not a team remembered because of Reynolds, and that, too, hurts his chances.

There’s the list, three solid pitchers with good numbers and flaws. Would I vote for any or all of them? Not this time I wouldn’t. We’re left now with the two executives (neither of which has an old ball card to feature at the top of the article). I’ll take a look at them with a few comments next time.

El Senor

May 6, 2011

 

Al Lopez calling out for a pizza at Chicago

Between the coming of Casey Stengel in 1949 and the end of the Yankees Dynasty in 1964, the Bronx Bombers won every American League pennant except two. Those were the 1954 pennant won by Cleveland and the 1959 pennant won by Chicago. Know what those teams had in common? Well, the both featured Early Wynn on the mound. They also had Larry Doby, although Doby, a center piece in 1954 only had a few games with Chicago in 1959. They also had Al Lopez as their manager. Between 1949 and 1964 Lopez was the only non-Yankees manager to win an AL pennant.

Lopez was from Florida and got to Brooklyn for a three game cup of coffee at age 19 in 1928. He settled in as the Dodgers’ front line catcher in the 1930s, playing a career high 140 games in 1934. Early on he earned the nickname “El Senor” (roughly, “The Man”). He stayed with Brooklyn through 1935, then went to Boston (the Braves not the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh before finishing up with Cleveland in 1947, the year before they won the last pennant before the Yankees dominated the next 16 years. For his career he hit .261, slugged .337 with an OBP of .326 for an OPS of .663 (OPS+ of 83). He hit 51 home runs, 206 doubles, and 1992 total bases. He scored 613 runs and knocked in another 652. By the time he was through he had caught more games than any catcher in Major League history, a record that lasted into the 1980s. As a backup catcher for the latter part of his career, he was considered especially knowledgable about the game and considered an exceptional handler of pitchers. I’ve discovered that backup catchers, particularly aging ones, frequently get labeled as knowledgable and a handler of pitchers. I’ve never known if that was true or simply way of justifying keeping a low-cost player who wasn’t going to appear in many games around.

For Lopez it was apparently true. In 1951 he took over managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1950 the Indians finished fourth. With essentially the same roster, Lopez guided them to second in his rookie year as manager. They stayed there the next two years, then swept to a pennant in 1954. They set an AL record with 111 wins (not bested until 1998). But there was a flaw in that stat. They beat up on the second division teams and had only moderate success against the second and third place teams. Of course in the World Series you don’t get to play a second division team and Cleveland was swept by the Giants led by Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.

Lopez stayed with Cleveland through 1956, never finishing below second. In 1957 he jumped to Chicago and again guided the White Sox to a second place finish (you starting to notice a pattern here?). The Sox were also second in 1958, then won their first pennant since 1918 in 1959. They lost the World Series in six games. The White Sox dropped to third in 1960, fourth in 1961, and fifth in 1962 before bouncing back to second in 1963. They stayed there until Lopez’s retirement after the 1965 season.   He remained retired until Chicago brought him back in 1968 for two short stints (they fired a manager, had Lopez replace him as interim, then fired the new guy and had Lopez finish out the season). He managed 17 games into 1969 then retired permanently. For his career he was 570-354 for a .617 winning percentage. Between his debut in 1951 and 1959 his teams never finished lower than second. He had three years outside the top two slots, then finished second three more times. In fifteen full seasons Al Lopez teams finished lower than second three times. That’s quite a feat in the American League when you are never the Yankees manager. He made the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died in 2005 at age 97.

I have, in previous posts, be critical of managers. I’ve said I have little idea how to judge the effect of a manager on a team. Given the talent of the 1927 Yankees I could have won a few games as manager (write in Ruth and Gehrig a lot and pitch Hoyt and Pennock a bunch). I could have eked out a few wins for the 1930s Yankees (pitch Ruffing and Gomez, bat DiMaggio and Gehrig three and four). Heck, I could have even managed the 1962 Mets to 140 or so losses (instead of 120). Talent seems to matter most. But somehow Lopez is different. He wins every time. Yep, he has good talent, but he also wins with weaker teams like the mid-1960s White Sox. In 1954 he acquires Hal Newhouser from Detroit, shifts him to reliever and gets one last good year out of the future Hall of Fame pitcher. Obviously I like Lopez a lot and think he made a major difference to his teams. For most of his career he was overshadowed by Stengel, which is too bad.

The Kings of Kansas City

February 7, 2011

Monarchs uniform

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that Negro League baseball has three teams that are truly famous. Oh, there are a lot of good teams and teams with great names like the Daisies, but three teams really stand out as famous: The Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Homestead Grays, and the Kansas City Monarchs. I hit the Crawfords last year and this post is about the Monarchs, so I guess that means I’m stuck with doing the Grays next year.

James Leslie Wilkinson (J.L. to his friends and players) was a former pitcher turned Hall of Fame baseball entrepreneur. In 1912 he formed the Des Moines All Nations team. Unlike most teams of the era it was multi-racial. The team was hugely successful, made Wilkinson a lot of money, and when the Negro National League was formed in 1920, Wilkinson became the only white man granted a franchise. He took the best players from the All Nations, and on a heads up from his friend Casey Stengel (yes, THAT Casey Stengel) combined them with the 25th Infantry Wreckers, an all black Army team (there’s a post waiting to happen), into the Kansas City Monarchs.

The monarchs were an immediate success winning titles in 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929. In 1924 they participated in the first Negro League World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Hilldale Daisies. With players like Heavy Johnson, Newt Allen, and Hall of Famers Bullet Joe Rogan and Luis Mendez they won it. The 1925 Series was a rematch. This time Hilldale won. In 1931 the Negro National League collapsed, but the Monarchs survived as a barnstorming team until 1936.

1939 Monarchs

In 1937 they joined the newly established Negro American League. Again they were hugely successful winning pennants in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1946. In 1942, the Negro League World Series was reestablished with the Monarchs winning the first one against Homestead. Playing for them were Buck O’Neill, Newt Allen (still), and Hall of Famers Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Hilton Smith, and Satchel Paige. With essentially the same team (OK, Allen was finally gone), they lost the 1946 Series to the Newark Eagles. During the period, they also picked up, for the 1945 season only, a shortstop named Jackie Robinson.

Of course Robinson’s leaving for Brooklyn began the long, slow decline of the Negro Leagues. In 1948, seeing the inevitable collapse, Wilkinson sold the team. It remained in the Negro American League until 1961, when the league finally folded. After 1948, the Monarchs won a couple of league championships, but with much inferior talent.  By the 1950s, Negro League baseball was a shadow of its former glory, but the Monarchs hung on as one of the better teams. They did manage to run Ernie Banks and Elston Howard through their much depleted lineup, but overall quality slipped drastically. In 1955 The Athletics moved to Kansas City from Philadelphia, displacing the Monarchs as the premier team in town. The team headquarters moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan but the team retained the Kansas City name. The Monarchs took to barnstorming and remained alive until 1965, when they finally folded.

There are a number of ways to measure the impact of the Monarchs. They won a lot of games and pennants. They had some of the finest talent of any Negro League team. They continued to produce good talent well after the Negro Leagues were deep into collapse. They last longer than almost any other Negro League team. But maybe most significantly, when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame was established, it went to Kansas City. They could have chosen a lot of places, but they picked Kansas City, home of the Monarchs.