Posts Tagged ‘Count Sensenderfer’

The Councilman

August 25, 2015
Billy Rogell

Billy Rogell

I’ve typed this before, but it bears repeating. My grandfather once told me there were three things you never discussed in public: politics, religion, and sports. Eventually you’d quit discussing and start arguing. The only thing worse was to combine two of them in the same discussion. I’ve discovered there’s a lot of truth to that, but I’m going to break that rule (as I’ve done before with Billy Sunday and Count Sensenderfer) and do a little bit on a man who combined two. In his case it was sport and politics, and he did both well. His name was Billy Rogell.

Rogell came out of Springfield, Illinois to play shortstop in the big leagues in 1925. He’d done well in the minors and the Red Sox tried him at second base. They also tried to make him give up switch hitting and concentrate on hitting right-handed. Needless to say the change in batting stance and playing out of position made him ineffective (he hit a buck ninety-five with no power) and got him sent back to the minors. He resurfaced in 1927, did better. Played in 1928, and was let go by Boston. After another year in the minors, Detroit picked him up for the 1930 season.

Again, he didn’t do particularly well, but by late 1931 he’d become the Tigers regular shortstop. He hit .303 in 48 games and played a solid short. He remained the Tigers primary shortstop through the 1930s. Teaming with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, he helped form one of the best keystone combinations of the era. He hit well (generally in the .270s) with little power (the nine home runs he hit in 1932 was his peak), a good eye (he tended to walk about twice as often as he struck out), and his WAR (BBREF version) floated between 2.0 and a high of 5.1 in 1935. He led the American League in fielding percentage, assists, putouts, and double plays a few times, but almost always was in the top three or four in the AL in most fielding categories.

He helped Detroit to consecutive AL pennants in 1934 and 1935. In the former year the Tigers lost a seven game World Series to the St. Louis “Gas House Gang.” He hit .276 for the Series with four RBIs and eight hits. In the famous incident involving the beaning of Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean, Rogell was the man who threw the ball.  He was such a competitor that when told he’d hit Dean in the head, he responded, “If I’d known his head was there, I’d have thrown the ball harder.” In 1935 Detroit won the Championship with Rogell hitting .292 with seven hits, including a pair of doubles.

By 1938 he was 33 and fading, although he set a Major League record by walking in seven consecutive plate appearances in August (three games were involved). He had a bad year in 1939 and was traded to the Cubs. He was through. He hit all of .136 in 33 games. He retired at the end of the season, but returned to baseball as a minor leaguer in 1941.

Hugely popular in Detroit, Rogell ran for public office in 1941 and was elected to the City Council. Except for a two-year break, he remained in City Government into 1980. Much of his emphasis was on public works and he chaired the committee that built the modern Detroit airport (the road leading into the airport is named for him). In retirement he was chosen to throw out the first pitch in the final game at Tiger Stadium. Returning to retirement, he died in 2003 at age 98.

For his baseball career he hit .267 with an OBP of .351, slugged .370, and had an OPS of .722 (OPS+ 85 and 23.7 WAR–again BBREF version). His WAR peaked in 1933 at 5.3 (he was also above 4.0 in 1934 and 1935). He had 1375 hits, 256 doubles, 75 triples, and 42 home runs for 1907 total bases. He scored 757 runs and had 610 RBIs to go with 82 stolen bases and 649 walks.

Teaming with Gehringer he made the Tigers a formidable defensive team up the middle. Although he didn’t hit nearly as well as Gehringer, Rogell was still a good enough hitter. He’s never gotten much push for the Hall of Fame and probably shouldn’t.

Billy Rogell was an example of something that was missing in baseball for a long while, the civic-minded sportsman. We’re seeing it begin to return at least a little as teams realize the good PR that can be gained by having their team at least appear civic-minded. It seems that in Rogell’s case it was, as 38 years on the Detroit City Council would prove, much more than appearance.


The Original Athletics

September 5, 2013
1871 Athletic of Philadelphia team

1871 Athletic of Philadelphia team

If you follow baseball at all, you know there’s a team in Oakland called the A’s. If you’re a big fan you know A’s is short for Athletics. If you’re a true fan you know that the Athletics played in both Kansas City and Philadelphia prior to moving to Oakland. What you may not know is that “Athletic” has a long history of use for the Philadelphia baseball team.

The original Athletic (it was originally written in the singular) were formed in Philadelphia in 1860. By 1863 the team joined the National Association of Base Ball Players, becoming the dominant Philadelphia team. In 1868, with a 50 game record of 47-3, they were crowned Association champs. They dropped back to third in both 1869 and 1870. The next year they joined the fledgling National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (note the addition of the word “professional”). The league lasted through 1875 with the Athletic being one of its most prominent franchises.

In 1871, the Athletic went 21-7 to capture the first Association crown. They defeated Chicago on the final day of the season to finish two games up on the White Stockings, but didn’t possess the pennant for another month. There were questions about which games counted in the standings and what to do with ties. Additionally, Boston played 30 games to Philly’s 28. Depending on what the league did with the disputed games and the ties, Boston could claim the championship by virtue of more wins (wins counted over winning percentage in 1871). Ultimately the Association awarded the title to Philadelphia.

They won with hitting. As an offensive team, they put up some of the great numbers in baseball history (but remember it’s a 28 game season). Third baseman Levi Mayerle hit .492 to lead the Association. He also picked up the OBP, Slugging, OPS, and total base titles. He tied for the home run crown with four. Second baseman Al Reach (who later ran the Phillies and a sporting goods empire) hit .353, Catcher Fergy Malone hit .343, and center fielder John “Count” Sensenderfer hit .323. Pitcher Dick McBride had an ERA over 4.50 and the team fielding percentage was good for the era despite Mayerle’s awful .646 at third.

It was the only Athletic championship. Boston absolutely dominated the remaining years of the Association with Philly finishing fourth in 1872, fifth in 1873, third in 1874, and second in 1875. The Association folded after 1875 and Philadelphia was one of the teams choosing to play in the newly formed National League. They did poorly, winning 11 and losing 45. Toward the end of the season they decided to skip the last away swing through the west. They were hemorrhaging money and felt that another road trip would bankrupt the team. This earned the ire of Chicago owner and NL founder William Hulbert. If Philly would lose money by not playing the Western swing, Chicago would lose money if the Athletics didn’t. At season’s end he managed to have Philadelphia (and New York who also refused to make their last Western swing) tossed out of the league.

It was the end for the first Association champions. They disbanded. A few years later a new team began operation in Philadelphia. It eventually entered the American Association, winning the 1883 title, but the original A’s were gone. The name was revived in 1901 for the new Philadelphia team in the American League. That team is the one still existing in Oakland.

The Count of Philadelphia

March 6, 2010

Count Sensenderfer

When I was growing up there was a gag going around to the effect that are three things you can never discuss: politics, religion, or sports. You don’t discuss them, you argue them. And putting any two together was even more dangerous to keeping friends. Some day I’m going to do a post on Billy Sunday and combine sports and religion, but not today. Today I’m going to combine sports and politics.

Baseball has a long tradition of mixing with politics. Many of the moguls who put together the National and American Leagues had local, regional, and/or national political ties. In baseball, Presidents get to throw out the first pitch. A number of former ballplayers have made their way to the halls of congress, including current US Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky. Early baseball was no exception.

John Phillips Jenkins  “Count” Sensenderfer was born in Philadelphia in 1847. He graduated from Philadelphia Central High School where he was a noted athlete. By 1866 he was a well known baseball player in the area, appearing for the partially amateur Philadelphia Athletics. Yes, it’s the same team that I talked about in an earlier post on Lip Pike and professionalism. Sensenderfer and Pike were teammates for a while. Sensenderfer was an outfielder who stood 5′ 9″ and weighed 170 pounds. Although there is no evidence that I can find indicating whether he threw right-handed or left-handed (or which way he batted), I’ve discovered that if the man is left-handed, it’s usually noted. But because this may be the exception, I won’t be dogmatic about it. He and the Athletics joined the National Association in 1871,  where he played center field for the champions. He hit .329 in 25 games picking up 41 hits and scoring 38 runs, which is a heck of a hits to runs ratio. His fielding percentage was .814, which isn’t real good, but isn’t all that bad for the era. He played only one game for the A’s in 1872 going two for five, scoring two runs, and having one RBI. In 1873 he was back for 20 games, all but one in the outfield (he played first base the other time). He hit .279 with 24 hits, 12 runs, and eight RBIs. He finished his career in 1874 playing five final games with the Athletics. He hit a buck-88, with three hits, three runs, and two RBIs. For his career he went 70 for 234 for a .299 average and a .342 slugging percentage with, 55 runs, and 34 RBIs in 51 games. Not a bad career, but nothing to write home to Mom about. Somewhere along the line he picked up the nickname “Count.” I can’t find out where or how, so if anyone knows, I’d appreciate getting the information.

When players of the era finished playing  baseball they ended up in a variety of  jobs. Unlike today, salaries made it necessary to work beyond their professional career (and of course the same is true of marginal players today). There are a lot of coaches, a bunch of pool hall owners, a big group of bartenders and bar owners. Sensenderfer picked a totally different career. He went into politics. (Whether that’s a step up or down from baseball, pool halls, and bars is  open to debate.) He became a member of the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine in his hometown. If he followed the traditional route of machine members, and in a couple of years in the late 1870s it’s tough to track him down, he went from worker, to wardheeler, to ward delegate. By the 1890s he was a “County Commissioner.” The information I can find from looking at the newspapers on line seems to indicate this job is akin to the current position called “City Councilman” around where I live. He was apparently reasonably popular, getting himself reelected to a second four-year term. At the time, the commissioner’s salary was $5000 a year, a great salary in the 1890s, and much greater than anything he ever made as a ballplayer. In the Presidential election year of 1892, he was a delegate to the state of Pennsylvania Democratic Convention, whose job was to pick delegates to the Democratic National Presidential Nominating Convention. One source indicates he was chosen a national delegate, but I’ve been unable to determine if that’s true via any second source. If it is true, then Sensenderfer is the first ballplayer who actually helped nominate a President of the US. The convention nominated Grover Cleveland for President. Cleveland won, but lost Pennsylvania to Republican Benjamin Harrison.

After two terms in City Hall, Sensenderfer retired from office. It doesn’t appear he was defeated for reelection, but the information is sketchy.  He died in 1903 at age 55.

Sensenderfer is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, his baseball career seems to have been secondary to his political ambitions. If that’s not entirely true, it’s certainly true that the political career was more successful. Secondly, his choice of a political career after baseball is also different from his contemporaries. It’s not a usual occupation for ex-ballplayers, but it’s not unheard of at all. As mentioned above, Jim Bunning, former pitcher, is currently in the US Senate and there have been a number of other former Major Leaguers that have gone into politics from the local to the national level. Apparently, Sensenderfer was the first.