Posts Tagged ‘Cleveland Indians’

That Ballplayer

March 30, 2017
Dale Mitchell about 1952

Dale Mitchell about 1952

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

Whit Bissell, "That Actor"

Whit Bissell, “That Actor”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitchell (and his wife) grave from Find a Grave

 

 

 

 

A Series of Firsts

November 3, 2016
Cubs win

Cubs win

Let me start by congratulating the Cubs on finally winning a World Series in my lifetime (can’t say the same for the Indians). So now they are officially 1-108. Also congrats to Ben Zobrist, one of my favorites, on winning the Series MVP Award. Like most World Series’ there were a number of firsts in this one. In honor of a nine inning game, here’s nine for the Cubs:

1. One of the most important firsts involves Dexter Fowler. The last time the Cubs participated in a World Series was 1945. Jackie Robinson didn’t arrive in Brooklyn until 1947, so Fowler becomes the first black man to play in a World Series for the Cubs. It also means that now every franchise that has been to a World Series, (all but the Nationals and Seattle) has carried a black player on its roster during the World Series. It may be the most important first. And sticking with Fowler we get two more firsts. He is the first Cub to strike out in a World Series since 1945 and he is the first Cubs player to hit a home run since Phil Cavarretta did it in game one of 1945.

2. Jake Arrieta became the first Chicago Cubs pitcher to win a World Series game since integration when he won game two. The last Cubs pitcher to win a Series game? Hank Borowy won game 6 of 1945 (3 October 1945).

3. Ben Zobrist has a number of firsts. He became the first Cub to get a hit since 1945 and the first to get an extra base hit (a double) since 1945. As the MVP he becomes the first Cub to win the World Series MVP award (there was no Series award in 1945–it began in 1955).

4. Kyle Schwarber became the first player ever to get his first hit of the season in the World Series. Never been done before. He also got the first Cubs walk since 1945.

5. Kris Bryant scored the first Cubs run since game 7 of 1945.

6. Jon Lester became the first Cubs pitcher to lose a game (game 1) since Hank Borowy lost game seven in 1945. Yes, Borowy both won game six and lost game seven in 1945. He relieved in six and started seven.

7. Addison Russell hit the first grand slam in Chicago Cubs World Series history.

8. In 1945 the Cubs won game six at home. Their game five win in 2016 is their first home victory since. And it continues a Cubs tradition. Chicago played its first World Series game in Wrigley Field in 1929 (the 1906-08 and 1910 World Series were played in a different park and the 1918 Series was in Comiskey Park). Between 1929 and 2016 the Cubs are, in World Series play, 7-9 (.438 winning percentage) on the road. They are 3-14 (.176 winning percentage) in Wrigley (wins coming in 1935, 1945, and 2016).

9. In 1935 Frank Demaree hit two home runs against Detroit. In 2016 he was joined by both Bryant and Fowler, making them the first Cubs to hit two home runs in a Series since 1935 and the first time two Cubs did it in the same Series..

10. And in honor of the game going 10 innings last evening, here’s one for the Indians. In 1920 Stan Coveleski started three games on the mound for Cleveland. Corey Kluber is the first Indians pitcher to start three games in the Series since Coveleski. Kluber went 2-0, Coveleski 3-0.

 

“What’s in a Name?”…

October 11, 2013

…William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

All the fuss about the Washington football team name “Redskins” is beginning to dominate the American sporting world. I guess it’s fair to question the validity of the name. It’s a football problem; but baseball has its own problem with team names that offend some people. I mean “Indians” and “Braves.”

Before getting there, a note about my terminology. I don’t use “Native American” to describe the guys who had feathers in their hair at Little Big Horn. Heck, guys, I’m a native American, born in Brooklyn, raised in Oklahoma and Texas. I can trace one relative back to 1609. Try getting much more “native” than all that. And I don’t have “Native American” or “Indian” blood in me (at least I don’t think so). Therefore I don’t like using the term to describe one group of “Natives” while ignoring another group of “Natives.” Indians is just incorrect, although I grew up using it (as in playing Cowboys and Indians). I know a number of people who are “Native American” and not a one uses either “Native American” or “Indian” to describe themselves. They use their tribal name. “Hi, there, I’m Frank and I’m Houma (or Apache, or Navajo, or Cherokee, or…pick a tribe).” You see, all the “Native Americans” I know consider themselves members of a particular tribe and are proud of same. So I use “Tribal American” to describe them generically. I don’t expect anyone else to do so, but I do and that’s what you’ll find in this post. Got all that?

First, the Braves. The name comes from way back when the team was in Boston. They’ve been called a lot of things, Red Stockings, Beaneaters, Doves, Bees, Braves (and a few other things by irate Yankees fans). A key to the names is that many of them start with a “B”, giving you Boston Beaneaters, Boston Bees, Boston Braves. It’s a nice bit of alliteration and apparently that was what it was meant to be all along. Braves was a militant sounding “b” word and that worked in Boston. But when you move to Milwaukee and then Atlanta, the “B” alliteration goes by the way. So the original basis for the name has “gone with the wind” (just for Atlanta).

But there’s a problem with the attack on “Braves.” It’s not just Tribal American types who can be brave (besides Brave being an English word and never something any tribe would have called its members). Firemen are brave, soldiers are brave, cops are brave, heck pilots can be brave. So in many ways the problem isn’t the word, it’s the symbols that go with it, the tomahawk and the “tomahawk chop”. You know, if they took the tomahawk off the uniform and inserted a firefighters helmet or a police badge you’d still have “Braves” without an overt symbol of tribal Americanism. The chop on the other hand is something that has to be stopped by fans, not just management. In fact, the quicker they stop the chop the better. I think it’s the most annoying chant in American sports.

Indians is an entirely different issue. According to the story (at least the one I heard), when they decided to put a new team in Cleveland no one wanted to use the old National League name “Spiders” because it was associated with losing, especially the 1899 disaster. So a new name was needed. Someone suggested (apparently in 1901) they name the new team for the Spiders best ever player, Lou Sockalexis. Turns out Sockalexis was a Penobscot  and no one thought the Cleveland Sockalexi or the Cleveland Penobscots would work, so Cleveland Indians was born. OK, maybe. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, Sockalexis only played two years with the Spiders, one good and one awful (he apparently had the stereotypical “drunken Indian” problem) and everyone knew that their early 1890s pitcher, guy named Cy Young, was better. And of course the main problem is that Cleveland joined the American League in 1901 as the Blues, went to Broncos, then to Naps (for manager and best player Napoleon LaJoie) before becoming the Indians in 1915. It seems to have taken a long time to decide that Sockalexis was the best ever Cleveland player. And of course this shoots down the idea that they decided early to go with Indians, making the “no one wanted to use the old name and Sockalexis was immediately brought up” theory ridiculous. If you’re going to name the team after your best player I suggest you should stay with Naps, Cleveland.

Another problem at Cleveland is the logo. It’s ugly, cartoonish, clownish, and frankly if I were a Tribal American I’d be offended. So it needs to go, without reference to the name. But the name is still the major problem. What do you change it to? I dunno. The original Cleveland entry in the old National Association was the Forest City (don’t guess there’s much forest around Cleveland now). The Negro League team was the Buckeyes. There’s Lake Erie for Cleveland Eries. Heck, name it the Fire Rivers for the Cuyahoga fire disaster. My personal choice would be Buckeyes, but I wouldn’t be upset with another name.

I guess all this means I favor leaving Braves alone (but dumping the tomahawk) and getting rid of Indians. I’d be interested to know what Cleveland and Atlanta fans think of this entire mess. On the other hand, I think baseball has a lot bigger problems to deal with than team nicknames. So if they do change the name in Cleveland to Fire Rivers (or River Fires), remember, you heard it here first.

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.

1911: A Flash in the Pan

April 15, 2011

Vean Gregg with Cleveland

When I was researching the 1911 season for the two short posts I did earlier this week, I ran across the pitcher Vean Gregg who won the American League ERA title in 1911. I’d never heard of him, so I did a little looking around. Here’s what I found out about an interesting and truly obscure player.

Sylveanus Gregg was born in Washington Territory (now the state of Washington) in 1885. The nickname “Vean” comes from the middle letters of his first name (and I think is pronounced to rhyme with “peon”, but it could rhyme with “pe-can”, like the nut). His dad was a farmer and plasterer and the son learned both professions, apparently becoming quite adept at the plastering. It strengthened his arm greatly, and he had one of those rare items that baseball loves, a left arm that could control a baseball in flight.

Gregg pitched semi-pro ball, had a stint at South Dakota State, and eventually ended up with the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians). He found he could make more money barnstorming on the weekends and plastering during the week than he could make in professional baseball, so waited until 1908 to take the contract with a minor league team (Can you imagine that kind of salary structure today?). He spent two seasons in the minors, then was picked up by Cleveland. He refused the money and stayed one more year in the local Washington state minors, where he said he could make more money. Finally in 1911 went to Cleveland as a left-handed starter.

Although he was left-handed, he was essentially the replacement for Addie Joss. Gregg did well replacing the Hall of Famer. He went 23-7, won the ERA title as a rookie, struck out 125 men, and had a lot more innings pitched than hits allowed (a league leading WHIP of 1.054). It was his best year. He as 20-13 in both 1912 and 1913 with ERA’s in the twos, then developed a  sore arm. He started 1914 with Cleveland, went 9-3 with an ERA over three, and was traded to the Red Sox. He finished 3-4 in Boston with an ERA of almost four, then managed only 39 games over 1915 and 1916.

He spent 1917 in the minors (Providence), then played 1918 in Philadelphia for the rebuilding Athletics. He went 9-14 and retired to a ranch in Canada he bought with his baseball salary. He stayed there through 1921. He returned to baseball, joining Pacific Coast League Seattle and had three terrific seasons. In 1925, at age 40, he was sold to Washington where he went 2-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 26 games (only five starts). He missed the 1925 World Series (which Washington lost), then left the Major Leagues for good.

He played minor league baseball off and on through 1931, then retired to run an “Emporium” in Hoquiam, Washington. The business had a lunch counter and sold both sporting goods and cigars. He died in July 1964. He was elected to the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame, the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1969 was chosen by fans the greatest Indians left-hander (which may say more about Cleveland pitching than about Gregg).

For his career, Gregg ended up 92-63 (a .594 winning percentage) over 1393 innings and 239 games  (about six innings per game). Struck out 720 batters, walked 552, and gave up 1240 hits (for a WHIP of 1.286). Although three of his teams, the 1915 and 1916 Red Sox and the 1925 Senators went to the World Series, Gregg never appeared in a Series game.

There are a lot of pitchers like Gregg. They are early phenoms who develop arm trouble early and end up with short but flashy careers that end up appearing disappointing. It seems to be especially true of southpaws. Mark Prior, although not a lefty, is a modern version of the type. There are lots of others in the history of the game. With an ERA title in his rookie season, Gregg could easily be a poster child for the type.

The Obligatory Second

February 21, 2011

When I was in the army one of my best friends was a black guy from New York. We did a lot of things together, including heading to a few parties. I had a car, he didn’t, and it was easiest for us to head out together in my Dodge. I remember we pulled up to one party and as we were getting out he commented, “I wonder who the obligatory second is?”  Not unreasonably, I asked, “What the heck is that?” “The people throwing the party can’t admit to tokenism, so they have to invite a second black person to the party so no one can say either of us was a token. That’s the obligatory second.” I told him I thought that sounded terrible. “Actually, sometimes it’s not bad. Sometimes they pick a good-looking girl and I get lucky.” I remember the obligatory second that night was a girl and I also remember driving home alone. He did better than I. Larry Doby was, in many ways, baseball’s obligatory second.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby was born in Jim Crow South Carolina in 1923. The family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby caught the eye of the nearby Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He was signed in 1942 at age 17 to playsecond base. He was good from the beginning, but lost 1944 and 1945 to the Second World War. Back in Newark in 1946, he helped lead his team to the Negro League World Series, a set of games they won 4 games to 3.  Doby didn’t do particularly well. He hit .227, but walked to begin the rally that won game 7 for the Eagles.

In 1947, the Cleveland Indians determined it was time to bring a black player to the American League. The picked Doby over teammate Monte Irvin. Irvin was considered by many contemporary writers as the man who would integrate the AL, but Indians owner Bill Veeck wanted more power and Doby gave him that over Irvin (and Irvin was considerably older). Unfortunately for Doby, the Indians already had a good second baseman, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Veeck’s solution was to make Doby an outfielder. Doby made his Major League debut on 5 July 1947 in Chicago. He pinch hit and struck out. The day before, 4 July, Cleveland had a home game which they won 13-6. I’m not sure why they didn’t let Doby play on Independence Day in front of a home crowd. For the 1947 season Doby played in 29 games, going 5 for 32 (.156).

By 1948 he was the starting center fielder. Cleveland got hot, Doby did well, and for the first time since 1920, the Indians made the World Series. They won in six games, Doby hitting .318 with a home run. For the regular season he hit .301 with an OPS of 873 and 14 home runs. As a fielder the results were mixed. He led the AL in errors in center field, but was third in the league in assists.

He remained with Cleveland through 1955, twice leading the AL in home runs, and once in both RBIs and runs. In the 1954 111 win season he finished second the the mVP race (to Yogi Berra), being  acknowledged as the most valuable Indian. Unfortunately for Cleveland, 111 were all the wins they were going to get as the Giants swept the World Series. Doby was part of the reason they lost. He hit a buck-25 with no extra base hits and four strikeouts (he had two hits and two walks). In 1956 he was traded to Chicago where he took over center field for the White Sox. His career was on the slide. He went back to Cleveland in 1958, then to Detroit and back to Chicago in 1959. He retired at age 35. He became the third American player to head to Japan when he joined the Japanese Leagues in 1962. He coached at both Montreal and Cleveland, then in 1978 became manager of the White Sox. Again, he was second. Frank Robinson had become the first black manager in the Major Leagues (ironically enough at Cleveland) and Doby was overlooked again. He remainded somewhat overlooked until 1998 when the Veteran’s Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. His death came in June 2003.

For his big league career, Doby hit .283 with an 876 OPS (136 OPS +). He had 253 home runs, 970 RBIs, 2621 total bases, 1515 hits, and 960 runs (Note the closeness of the RBI and runs number. You don’t see that a lot.) Not a bad career. But over the last few days around here there’s been a lot of comment (including mine) about just how good Negro League players were. Well, with Doby we actually have something like a complete career.  Signed at 17, he’s in the Negro Leagues at ages 18 and 19. By 20 and 21 he’s in the military. At 22 he’s back in the Negro Leagues, and makes his Major League debut at 23. That’s not a bad career progression for the era. Think of 18 and 19 as inital years in the minors then, like a  lot of other minor leagues he goes off to war. He returns to the minors in 1946, then makes his cup of coffee debut at 23. Hank Bauer, to use only one example of a player whose career is interrupted by war, makes his debut (19 games) at age 25. None of that is meant to imply that 1940s Negro League teams were only minor league in quality, but is meant only to give an age progression comparison. So unlike a lot of Negro Leaguers of the first generation who get to the Majors in mid-career, Doby gives us a look at how a  good  young Negro League player could play at the highest level. That was pretty good.

RIP Rapid Robert

December 17, 2010

Bob Feller

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of My All-Time Favorites

November 17, 2010

Larry Gardner in 1917

You know how there are just certain players who reach out and impress you? It’s not there stats exactly. Sometimes it’s just a picture that lingers with you. Sometimes it’s your first baseball card. Sometimes it’s just watching the intensity or the sheer joy with which the guy plays. Sometimes it’s a story about him that gets your attention and you can’t shake it. Sometimes it’s just the memories of others who saw him before your time and remind you that you’ll never see his like. We all have players that touch us like that. SportsPhd talks about Roy Smalley that way. Bill Miller has his own special Met. For me Larry Gardner is one of those.

Gardner was born in Vermont in 1886. He played ball in school and eventually, after some time in the local leagues, ended up at the University of Vermont. He stayed through 1908, majoring in chemistry. After classes ended in 1908 he joined the Red Sox as a  third baseman. He got into two games, hit .500, and drove in a run. In 1909 he split time between third and shortstop, managed to play in 19 games, and hit .297. By 1910 he was the starting second baseman. In 1911 he moved back to third base, where he remained through 1917. In 1912 he hit .315, led the team in triples (18), stole 25 bases, slugged .449, and had 163 hits. Boston won the World Series that season despite Gardner hitting only .167 in the Series. In 1915 and 1916 the Red Sox returned to the World Series, winning both. Gardner was injured in 1915 and managed  to hit only .258 in 127 games. This time he hit .235 in the Series with a triple. In 1916 he was back fulltime and hit .308 with 152 hits and a .387 slugging percentage. He had a strange World Series. He led the team in home runs with two, in RBIs with six, but managed to hit only .176 (3 for 17). Obviously he made his hits count.

In 1918 he was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics. He didn’t have a bad year for the last place A’s, but was traded to Cleveland for the 1919 season. Teaming again with former Red Sox center fielder Tris Speaker, Gardner hit .300 for the second place Indians. In 1920, he made it back to the World Series one last time. He hit .208, after going over .300 during the regular season, and Cleveland won the Series in six games.

Gardner was a player who took advantage of the new “lively ball ” era. He hit over .300 in 1920 and 1921 establishing career highs in hits, runs, RBIs, and total bases. He slipped back in 1922 and even further back in 1923. He was done in 1924. Splitting time between second and third base he hit only .200 in 38 games (only 14 of them in the field). For his career he hit .289, slugged .384, had an OPS of .739 (OPS+ of 109), had 2571 total bases, scored 867 runs, and had 934 RBIs. He’s one of those guys whose numbers really change with the death of the Deadball Era. His fielding percentage was good for his era, but not at the top of the league, but he had a decent range factor. Not a bad career.

With his playing days behind him, Gardner managed for a few years in the minor leagues, ran a garage in his home town, and in 1929 joined the University of Vermont physical education department. In 1932 he became head baseball coach. In 1942 he added Athletic Director to his title. He held both positions until his retirement in 1952. In 1969 he made it into the University Hall of Fame, and SABR acknowledged him as the greatest ballplayer from Vermont in a 1973 poll. After his retirement the university named its baseball MVP award the “Larry Gardner Award.” He died in 1976 at age 89. A University of Vermont man to the end, he donated his body to the university Department of Anatomy.

I’m not sure why Gardner has always been a favorite of mine. There are other third basemen who were better, other members of both the Red Sox and Indians who were greater players, but Gardner was still a very good player. His numbers don’t leap off the page at you, but since I became aware of him back 40 or so years ago, I’ve always liked what I saw and read. I think maybe it’s because he so represents the transition from the Deadball to Livelyball Eras. It’s really obvious that something changed in the early 1920s because Gardner is better at 30 than at 20, a lot better. Not sure that’s it, really, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

So tell me which players are your Larry Gardners?

Spoke

June 11, 2010

Tris Speaker

Normally when I try to wax eloquent about a Deadball Era player, I attempt to find some reasonably obscure one to say things about. This time I want to change that up and talk about a really good player, Tris Speaker. He, with suitable apologies to Eddie Collins, was arguably the third finest Deadball Era player behind only Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.

He wasn’t an instant success, hitting a buck 58 in a seven game stint with Boston in 1907. In 1908 he hit all of .220. He was to hit below .300 exactly two more times: 1919, and his final season in 1928. His breakout year was 1910. He hit .340 and scored 92 runs. By 1912 he was teaming with Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis to win the World Series and establish one of Stone Age baseball’s finest outfields. In the Series he did OK, without being spectacular, and provided a key hit in the final inning of the final game. That same year he won his only home run title (with 10) and led the American League in doubles. His .383 batting average was third behind both Cobb and Joe Jackson.

Speaker (nicknamed “Spoke” by this point) had good years in both 1913 and 1914 then got back to the World Series in 1915. The Sox won in five games and he hit .294 with no RBIs. Before the 1916 season Boston traded him to Cleveland for pitcher Sam Jones, infielder Fred Thomas, and $55,000 cash. Chalk it up to lack of money and terminal stupidity (And you thought Boston’s bad trades began with Babe Ruth, didn’t you?).

Speaker continued to play well in Cleveland. In 1916 he led the league in hits, doubles, slugging and finally won a batting title. In 1919, he became player-manager and, despite a drop in his own stats, guided the Indians to second place. In 1920 they won the AL pennant and the World Series. For Speaker 1920 was a career year and a challenge. He hit .388, at the time a career high (he later hit .389 in 1925), and developed a new platoon system (first base and both outfield corners). He dealt with the accidental beaning and death of shortstop Ray Chapman with class and brought up future Hall of Famer Joe Sewell to replace Chapman.

Speaker stayed as player-manager through 1926, playing well and adapting to the post-Stone Age world. In 1927 he went to Washington where he teamed with Walter Johnson in the latter’s final season. His batting was still good, but his fielding was beginning to suffer. Age was slowing him down. In 1928, he moved on to Philadelphia for one final season where he teamed with Ty Cobb (also in his last season). It wasn’t a good year, and Speaker gave up playing when the Athletics season ended. He has chosen for the Hall of Fame in 1937.

Speaker is still fifth in hits (and was second when he retired) and is the all-time leader in doubles. That stat has a special kicker to it. He’s 48 doubles ahead of the second man on the list, Pete Rose. That’s farther ahead of the second place guy than the other extra base hit leaders. Sam Crawford leads Cobb by 14 in triples and  Bonds in less than ten ahead of Aaron in home runs.

Speaker did some coaching and scouting after he retired. There were rumors he joined the Ku Klux Klan at one point. I can’t find a definitive source to verify (or refute) that. He was known for helping newly arriving black players, especially Larry Doby, when integration came to baseball. Maybe he was a Klansman or maybe he wasn’t, but it doesn’t seem to have carried over to his views on baseball talent.   

Speaker is one of those talents that transcends his era. There are a lot of players that I look at and feel they were great because of when they played. Move ’em twenty years forward or backward and they might be marginal players or even stars, but not all-time greats. Tris Speaker isn’t one of those. His numbers transcend his era. I rate him a top five center fielder ever (Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays alphabetically, are the other four).