Posts Tagged ‘Cy Young’

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Walter Johnson

July 21, 2011

The Big Train

Presuming that most fans know something about the true greats of the game, I like to do this simple numbered format to point up things about top rung players. It beats delving into long paragraphs about things you already know. So going from obscurity to the antithesis of same, here’s a list of things you ought to know about Walter Johnson:

1. He was born in Kansas in 1887, moved to California with his parents, and ended up in Idaho where he pitched Minor League ball.

2. The “Big Train” was signed in July 1907 at age nineteen by the Washington Senators.

3. He wasn’t an instant success. He went 32-48 in his first three seasons. He did, however, have 395 strikeouts in 663 innings.

4. He hit his stride in 1910, going 25-17 with an ERA of 1.26 and 313 strikeouts (almost doubling his “K” total in one season). His ERA+ for the season was 183, and it was to get even better.

5. In 1912 and 1913 he won over 30 games each season, leading the American League in the latter year. He was to lead the AL in wins five more seasons, the last time in 1924.

6. He won strikeout titles every year from 1912 through 1919, then again in 1921, 1923, and 1924. He won the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) in 1913, 1918, and 1924. The latter year he was 36 years old.

7. The Senators won two pennants while he pitched (1924 and 1925), winning one World Series (’24). Johnson went 3-3 with a 2.56 ERA and 35 strikeouts over 50 innings. He is one of only two Senators/Twins pitchers to win a road game in the World Series (George Mogridge is the other–see an earlier post).

8. When he retired he had 3509 strikeouts, 705 more than the second place pitcher (Cy Young). The record stood until 1983. He’s currently ninth. No hitter currently ranked in the top 96 in batter strikeouts faced Johnson. Babe Ruth, at 97th, has the highest strikeout total of any hitter who faced Johnson (Ruth’s highest single season total was 93 in 1923). Johnson compiled his strikeout total against players who didn’t regularly strikeout 150 times a season. Jimmie Foxx, whose rookie year was 1925, is next among hitters Johnson faced at 104th on the list (12 strikeouts ahead of David Ortiz).

9. Johnson retired after the 1927 season with 417 wins, 279 losses, an ERA of 2.17, a winning percentage of .599, the 3509 strikeouts mentioned above, 1363 walks, a record 110 shutouts, two MVP awards (1913 Chalmers Award and 1924 MVP), and an ERA+ of 147, fifth all-time, and third to Pedro Martinez and Lefty Grove among starters who pitched from 60’6″ (Reliever Mariano Rivera and 19th Century starter Jim Devlin are also both ahead of Johnson).

10. After his retirement he managed the Senators, didn’t do very well, managed the Indians (also without much success), did some announcing on the radio in 1939, and was in the initial class of the Hall of Fame.

11. He got into politics a little after his retirement (What? Playing for the Senators wasn’t punishment enough?). He was a county commissioner in Maryland and ran twice for Congress, losing both. He died in 1946 and is buried in Maryland.

12. In 1969’s Centennial of Professional Baseball voting, he was chosen both the greatest right handed pitcher ever and the greatest Senators player.

Obscurity

July 19, 2011

Ever notice how utterly obscure some players are? I don’t mean some guy who got to the big leagues, had one at bat, and disappeared from the rosters forever. I mean Hall of Fame quality players who are just plain obscure. There are a bunch of them and I’d like today to look at a couple of pitchers that fit the category.

Jesse Haines in 1927

Do you know anything about Jesse Haines? With the paragraph above you know he’s in the Hall of Fame, but I mean other than that. If you do, it’s probably that he’s the guy who came out of game 7 of the 1926 World Series so Grover Cleveland Alexander could enter the game, strike out Tony Lazzeri, and go on to immortality. But I bet you didn’t know Haines was still second in wins (to Bob Gibson) for the St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the most successful National League franchise. It’s not like he’s second for the Padres, this is the Cardinals. He’s also second in innings pitched and complete games, fifth in shutouts, and sixth in strike outs. To offset that he’s also first in hits given up and second in walks. He pitched from 1920 through 1937 with St. Louis (and had five innings in 1918 with Cincinnati). He’s in four World Series’, going 3-1 with an ERA of 1.67 and a WHIP of 1.237. Unfortunately he walked more guys (16) than he struck out (12). For his career he was 210-158, winning 20 games twice and having three years with a losing record (one of which was 3-5). His career WHIP was 1.350 and his ERA+ is 109.

Ted Lyons

Ted Lyons was a lot like Haines. He just sort of fell of the radar after making the Hall of Fame. Unlike Haines, he never played for a pennant winner, spending his entire 1923-1942 career with the Chicago White Sox (He also pitched a handful of games with the ChiSox in 1945). Today he’s primarily famous, if he’s known at all, for pitching an inordinate number of games on Sunday, particularly late in his career. He also managed the White Sox for a couple of years after he retired. During his tenure with Chicago, the Sox were generally terrible. They finished as high as third twice and Lyons was the ace for most of the period. He ended his career 260-230 with a 3.67 ERA, more walks than strikeouts, more hits than innings pitched, and an ERA+ of 118. He led the American League in wins, hits, complete games, and innings pitched twice. He led the AL in losses, ERA, shutouts, and hit batsmen all one time. He still leads the ChiSox in a lot of categories. He made the Hall of Fame in 1955.

So there they are, a couple of obscure Hall of Fame pitchers. I wondered, when I started researching this post, what they would have in common. Here’s a few of the things I found:

1. They both pitched a long time ago. That was pretty obvious, but some people who pitched a long time ago (Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson) are still relatively well-known (and Young has the advantage of the award named for him). So it has to be something other than sheer age.

2. The success of their team isn’t it. Haines’ teams were wildly successful winning the World Series in 1926, 1931, and 1934, and participating in the Series in 1928 and 1930. Lyons on the other hand toiled for dreadful teams.

3. For all the hoopla surround the 1920s and 1930s, they really don’t take center stage in our recent works on baseball. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Deadball Era, which I assume has to do with the century mark. There have been good books recently about 1906, 1908, and 1912, but nothing particularly special on the 1920s and 1930s (the Gas House Gang book didn’t get much press). Even the Nineteenth Century is getting better press recently, particularly the great job on 1884. And of course, contemporary baseball commands a much greater following than does the 20’s and 30’s. Good books about 2001 and other seasons have done well, and pushed the 1920-1940 period off the shelves.

4. I think the obscurity also has to do with a combination of neither being a pitcher you can hang a stat on and the fact that neither was a big star in his day. Neither was a big winner who put up a lot of strikeouts or shutouts. Neither was ever considered the premier pitcher in their league, except maybe for a very short period in Lyons’ case. There are no stories about Haines (except coming out in game 7 in 1926) and the stories about Lyons usually revolve around his pranks rather than his pitching. In other words, I think each was relatively overlooked in his own day, and remains so today.

I may be wrong in my conclusions, but whether I am or not, I think it’s time to give each of these (and a ton of other people in the Hall of Fame) their due as ball players.

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

I have to admit I’m guilty of something. It’s a small thing, not exactly a sin, but I still do it. I’m guilty of trying to compare players across eras. We all do it. We compare Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron. We compare Lou Gehrig to Mark McGwire. We compare Honus Wagner to Derek Jeter. Baseball statisticians have come up with stat after stat that attempts to compare players. Some of them take the time to try to figure out how the eras differ and then try to factor that into the equation. Some of those do a fairly good job of it, and others stink up the joint when they try. So here’s a look at some of the factors that I think have to be considered when trying to compare players across eras.

1. Segregation. This one should be obvious and I have no idea how you factor it in. How much does Lefty Grove not having to face Josh Gibson change Grove’s overall numbers? Got me, coach. And of course it works the other way too. How much does Satchel Paige’s inability to face Babe Ruth in meaningful competition change Paige’s numbers? Again, got me, coach. I think it is important to recognize this is a problem. I simply have no idea how you fix it.

2. Roster sizes. I don’t want to hit this one too hard. If you have Babe Ruth on your team, you’re going to play him a lot. But roster sizes do matter, at least some. The smaller the roster, the less a manager can rest a player and that can create end of season slumps that might not occur on teams with larger rosters.

3. Rules changes. I tend to harp on the pitching change to 60’6″ as a watershed in baseball, but there are a lot of major rules changes that make it difficult to compare players. How would Cy Young do pitching at 50 feet? Well, we actually know he did quite well for a few years, but we don’t know what that means for someone like Walter Johnson. Pud Galvin never pitched a big  league game at 60’6″. Could he have been successful there? Don’t know and don’t know how to figure it out. There are other problems like ball and strike count, stolen base rules, etc. My guess is that some of them can be accounted for by looking at before and after stats and seeing how much change occurs (sort of like figuring out how much expansion changes things), but I don’t know you can account for every situation, particularly the mound. I also know this is a much greater problem in trying to factor in 19th Century players.

4. Equipment. How good was Honus Wagner in the field? A look at his basic fielding  stats shows he was OK, but nothing special. Some of the newer stats begin to show us just how good he was, but many of the older ones don’t take the difference in equipment into account. When you’re playing shortstop with a glove that looks a lot like my winter gloves, you’re not going to put up fielding statistics that equal those of players with modern gloves.  Take a look at modern catching equipment versus the gear of players as recent as Ray Schalk (of 1919 fame). Fielding statistics have gotten better over the years, but much of that is  artificial, brought on by equipment changes. Same for batting. Moderns bats are a far cry from the table legs used by guys at the turn of the 20th Century. There’s a wonderful picture of Nap LaJoie that I stuck in above. Take a look at the bat. Now think about a modern bat. Tell me that one factor doesn’t affect stats.

5. Fields. Modern baseball parks are a far cry from early parks. I’m not talking about the distance to fences, that’s easy to factor in. What I’m talking about is the general condition of the playing surface. Wagner talked about picking up a  ball and watching a cloud of  dust, a handful of pebbles, and the ball all going toward first at the same time. Don’t know how many times that actually happened, but it’s not going to happen at all today. Those uneven fields created more errors and also made normal chances more difficult. I think you can determine the best fielders of the era, but to compare them to modern fielders is difficult enough without worrying about the condition of the playing surface in 1910.

6. Going off to war. Really cuts down on your playing time and is specific to time and place.

Most of what I’ve talked about so far is generally known, and I think statisticians have made good-faith efforts to factor in those things. How much success they’ve had is another question. I don’t know that Win Shares or WAR or anything else adequately accounts for these things, but it’s evident that they are trying. It’s the following two items that I think have been vastly underappreciated by people who try to compare players.

7. Medical advances. You do know that if Tommy John never has the surgery named for him that he never enters a Hall of Fame discussion, don’t you? If that surgery were available in 1935, maybe Dizzy Dean wins another 100 games (or maybe something else goes wrong and he doesn’t). Modern arthritis treatments might give Sandy Koufax another twenty win season. My point is that medical advances change the ability of players to compete just as changes in bats and gloves and fields do the same. I don’t know that anyone has considered this. I also don’t know how you would factor it in, but I think it should be noted at some point.

8. Salaries. Back when I was collecting baseball cards the info on the back sometimes told you what the guy did in the offseason. Most players had to have a “real” job to make ends meet. Most of those jobs weren’t going to enhance your baseball skills. A guy like Richie Hebner dug graves. That might keep him in shape, but didn’t particularly help his batting eye. An old Cardinals pitcher named Ray Washburn sold insurance. Checking  actuary tables probably didn’t hurt his eyesight too much, but I’ll bet it didn’t help his throwing motion. With modern salaries making it less necessary for players to have a “real” job in the offseason they have more time to hone their baseball skills, thus making them better players. This doesn’t mean they all do it in the offseason, only that the opportunity is there for modern players, an option that wasn’t as readily available in 1960. Again, I’m not sure how that’s factored in, but it probably should  be noted.

So the next time you decide to see if you can figure out which was better, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, don’t forget to factor in a bunch of things that don’t always show up in the stats. There are others that I didn’t mention above (like advances in training methods), but these will do for starters. Have fun.

Opening Day 1911: AL

April 13, 2011

As backup first baseman Harry Davis

In continuing to celebrate Opening Day one hundred years ago yesterday, here’s a brief look at the American League.

Connie Mack’ Philadelphia Athletics were American League Champions and in 1911 successfully defended that championship. They started slow with a losing record in April (6-7), then took off, winning the pennant by 13/5 games over Detroit. Philly led the AL in runs, RBIs, home runs, slugging, and batting average. In pitching they were second in ERA, strikeouts, and shutouts.

Individually, Ty Cobb won another batting title, this time hitting .400 (.420) for the first time (and the first of two consecutive  seasons). Joe Jackson (“Shoeless” Joe) at Cleveland hit .408, the highest total in the  20th Century to not win a batting title. Cobb also picked up the RBI title with 127. It was his last. In home runs, A’s third baseman Frank Baker hit 11 to win the first of his four consecutive titles. Cobb picked up the initial Chalmers Award, the earliest 20th Century MVP award.

The pitching was good, if not as dominant as the National League. Jack Coombs of Philadelphia led the AL with 28 wins, but posted an ERA over 3, which was huge for the age. His teammate Eddie Plank tied Senators ace Walter Johnson for most shutouts with six while Vean Gregg of Cleveland went 23-7 and won the ERA title at 1.81. Beginning in 1910, Walter Johnson won every strikeout title through 1919 except one, 1911. He lost the title to Ed Walsh of Chicago.  Walsh had 255 whiffs to Johnson’s third-place total of  207. Joe Wood at Boston came in between them with 231.

On a totally different note, it was Cy Young’s final season. He was 44 and through. He went 3-4 with an ERA of 3.92 at Cleveland before being traded to Boston of the National League. Boston finished last, Young went 4-5 (7-9 overall), but managed two final shutouts in 11 starts. He finished with 511 wins and had an award named for him.

Postseason saw the A’s pick up their second straight championship (it would stretch to 3 in 4 years). They knocked off the Giants in six games with Coombs and Plank each winning a game while Chief Bender picked up the other two wins, including the final game. They out hit the Giants .244 to .175, outscored them 27 to 13, and had an ERA of 1.29 to 2.83. Baker hit two key home runs that either won or tied games and earned him the nickname “Home Run” Baker for the rest of his life. He also hit .375 and drove in five runs. In a strange twist, Mack rested his first baseman Stuffy McInnis (.321, 23 stolen bases, 77 RBIs in 126 games) and started backup Harry Davis (.197, 22 RBIs, and a single home run in 57 games) in every game, Mc Innis only showing up in a mop up role late in game six (a 13-2 blowout). I have been totally unable to find out why. It worked. Davis hit only .208, but drove in five runs and scored three.

So 1911 was a success for the American League. For the first time it won back-to-back World Series’. It would be the beginning of a trend that would see the AL win eight of the next 10 (1911-13, 1915-18, 1920).

Winning Big

April 1, 2011

Get ready, team, I’ve invented another new stat. It’s called W-RITA (Geez, I don’t think I even know a Rita). That’s short for Wins Remaining In The Arm ( Catchy name, right?). OK this is a dumb stat and strictly for trivia purposes, but it’s kinda fun to note. Here’s how it works. You take a retired pitcher, say Cy Young, and write down his total wins (511). then you go to a particular point in his career, say the start of the 1911 season, and write down the number of wins he has on that date (504). The difference is the wins remaining in the arm (7). Let me give you some examples.

Below is a list of the ten pitchers with the most wins according to Baseball Reference.com (other places vary the number of wins for the guys before 1920). Beside that is the number of wins they had already logged by opening day 1911 (12 April): Cy Young 511/504, Walter Johnson 417/82, Christy Mathewson 373/263, Grover Cleveland Alexander 373/0, Pud Galvin 365/365, Warren Spahn 363/0, Kid Nichols 361/361, Greg Maddux 355/0, Roger Clemens 354/0, Tim Keefe 342/342.

So now we subtract the second number from the first, rearrange the list in order, and we get the following: Alexander 373, Spahn 363, Maddux 355, Clemens 354, Johnson 335, Mathewson 110, Young 7, and Galvin, Nichols, and Keefe all with zero (they were retired by 1911). The number you see is the total number of wins remaining in the arms of the pitchers listed when opening day 1911 rolled around.

OK, so  what? Well, really it’s mainly trivia, but it does hold one interesting note. Alexander won 28 games in 1911. So by the end of the 1911 season the numbers of the top four will look like this: Spahn 363, Maddux 355, Clemens 354, Alexander 345. Meaning that sometime during the 1911 season, and I went to Retrosheet to look up the date (it’s the 9th of June, the date Alexander won his 11th game), Spahn will pass Alexander to become the winningest pitcher in the last 100 years. Bet you didn’t know that.

1910: Naps Postmortem

September 2, 2010

The 1910 Cleveland team is one of the more interesting failures in the American League. It has several first line players (four made it to the Hall of Fame), but not enough to make it into the first division. Ultimately the Naps finished 71-81, 32 games back in manager Deacon McGuire’s first full season. He didn’t get a second, being fired 17 games into 1911.

Cleveland’s hitting numbers reveal that they  probably finished where they should . They rank fifth in almost all major categories like hitting slugging, runs, and RBIs. The problem is that the stats are uneven across the starters. Second baseman Napoleon LaJoie hit .383, slugged .520, led the league in hits doubles, and in some sources the .383 won the batting title (Other sources give the title to Ty Cobb). Those are great numbers, but now look at the third baseman, Bill Bradley. Bradley hit .196, slugged all of .210, had 12 RBIs and 42 hits. It’s true he played only 61 games, but those kinds of numbers are typical of what’s wrong with Cleveland’s hitting. LaJoie is great, catcher Ted Easterly didn’t do bad, but the rest of the starters were nothing special. Other than LaJoie and Easterly, only first baseman George Stovall managed to hit .250.

The bench is equally bad. Of the 10 players appearing in 2o or more games, only Joe Jackson (who plays in exactly 20 games) managed to hit .300 (.387) and Hall of Famer Elmer Flick in his final season managed .265 in 24 games. The rest of the bench gives the team nothing.

The pitching is disappointing. A staff of Cy Young, Addie Joss, and Cy Falkenberg should have been pretty good. But Joss managed only 13 games (and never came back, dying the next season). Young was 43 and although winning his 500th game during the year, managed only a 7-10 record. That left Falkenberg as the ace. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of him. As an “ace” he left a lot to be desired. He was 14-13, had an ERA of 2.94, and managed 107 strikeouts to 75 walks. Respectable numbers, maybe, but not “ace”-like.

Cleveland looks like a team ready to make a few strides in 1911 (and it will rise to third), but it is a deeply flawed team. LaJoie is 35, Joss is ill (and, as stated above, will not return), Flick retired, and Young is old at 45 (and was traded after seven starts in 1911). On the other hand Joe Jackson is starting to embark on a great career, George Stovall is pretty good sometimes and Easterly is a decent catcher.

The year 1911 turned out to be interesting for Cleveland. The end of 1910 gave some indication of that.

1910: 500

July 19, 2010

Cy Young

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of those absolutely unique moments that baseball comes up with occasionally. On 19 July 1910, Cy Young took the mound for the Cleveland Naps of the American League. When the day ended he had notched his 500th win, the only Major League pitcher to have 500 or more wins.

The game on 19 July 1910 is interesting. Cleveland was on the road against Washington for a Tuesday double-header. They lost the first game 7-0, then Young took the mound for the second game against Senators hurler Doc Reisling (Wouldn’t it have been great if it were Walter Johnson?). Washington scored a run in the first, then in the ninth Cleveland scored two to take the lead. The Senators responded with another run to tie the score at the end of nine. Young held Washington scoreless through the tenth, then Cleveland picked up three runs in the eleventh. In the bottom of the eleventh, Young shut down the Senators and had his 500th win. He would, before he retired in 1911, add eleven more.

Young holds a number of records and is part of a couple of fun little trivia bits. He’s most famous for the 511 wins, but he also leads the Major Leagues in losses, starts, complete games, and innings pitched. When he retired he was first in shutouts (he’s now fourth) and strikeouts (currently 19th). He threw the first pitch in World Series history and lost game one of the Series (he went on to win two other games in the Series). On 27 April 1893, he became the first Cleveland pitcher to throw from a mound when the pitching distance moved to 60’6″. He won the game, but his team was in Pittsburgh so he doesn’t get to be the first pitcher to throw from a mound. Between 1892 and 1896, inclusive, he averaged 32 wins per season. Between 1892 and 1904 he failed to win 20 games once (19 in 1900). For his 22 year career, he had four seasons (1905-06, and 1910-11, the latter two his final seasons) when he had a losing record (40-59 combined for the seasons). His career winning percentage was .618. And, of course, he has both a perfect game and a no-hitter.

All this should remind you why the pitching award is named after Young. He is a truly great pitcher who seldom comes up when debates start over the greatest of all pitchers. Part of that has to be that he pitched a great deal of his career in the 19th Century. Another part is because of the current tendency to downgrade the “wins” statistic. He also pitches the first two seasons of his career at 50 feet without a mound. Take off the wins those two seasons and Young still has the most career wins. I’ve been a critic of the WAR stat when it comes to pitchers, but that stat lists Young as the top pitcher. I disagree, but he’s certainly someone who is in the mix. Bill James rates Young fourth in his Historical Baseball Abstract (Johnson, Grove, Alexander).

Cleveland would fall short in 1910, and Young would have a poor season. He would get one more, equally poor. Then he would retire. In 1937 he would make the Hall of Fame. His plaque shows him with a Naps cap, the team for which he won his 500th game, 100 years ago today.

Tom, Dick, and Larry: Tom

May 24, 2010

Tommy Leach

Going to take the occasion of my return to something like normal around here to write about three players from baseball’s Stone Age that are worth remembering. As you know if you’ve read much of my stuff, I’m concerned that the players who were the foundation of the game are more or less ignored by modern players and fans. Here’s a small chance to recall a few of them.

Tommy Leach got to the Major Leagues with the Giants in 1898, managed to get into no games, and ended up being sent to the Louisville Colonels (then a National League team). When the NL contracted to eight teams from twelve in 1900, Leach and many of his teammates (including Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke) made the trek across Ohio to Pittsburgh and settled in with the Pirates. In 1901 he became the regular Pirates third baseman, hitting .305 with 153 total bases in only 95 games. For the next several years, Leach wandered all over the batting order, sometimes leading off, occasionally hitting third, one year as low as sixth. He finally settled in the two slot and about the same time (1907) became the regular center fielder. He had good speed, a decent arm, and range and was to remain in center through 1911, when he suffered a series of injuries. In 1912, he went to the Cubs in a trade. He stayed with Chicago through 1914, when to Cincinnati in 1915, then was out of the majors. He made a brief comeback in 1918, a war year (World War I), playing 30 games as a backup outfielder for the Pirates. He was 40 and done. He hung on in the minors for a while, but settled finally in Florida, where he managed a few years in the Florida State League. He died in 1969, the last surviving Pirate from the 1903 World Series.

For his career Leach hit .270 with a .371 slugging percentage. He had 2947 total bases, including 170 triples, 23rd on the all-time list.  He led the NL in home runs in 1902 with all of six, and in triples the same year. Of his 63 home runs, 49 are of the inside-the-park variety, which is second ever (Sam Crawford had 51). In both 1909 and 1913, he led the league in runs scored. In the 1903 World Series, he scored the first ever run (0ff Cy Young). For the Series he hit .273 with a series leading four triples and seven RBIs. In the 1909 World Series he led all hitter with a .360 average, four doubles, eight runs, and nine hits. The eight runs in 1909 ties him with a number of others for most runs in a seven game series and the four triples in 1903 is still the all-time record for triples in a World Series.

Leach did all this while standing only 5’6″ and weighing 135 pounds, making him one of the smallest players of his era. Having seen pictures of him, I’m guessing the weigh-in was done after a meal of at least two steaks and three deserts. (Geez, he’s tiny, especially when you see him standing next to Wagner–who was a huge man for the era.) You know you can make a pretty good team of small men. Leach, Johnny Evers (who may have been even smaller than Leach), David Eckstein, Mel Ott, Albie Pearson, and Bobby Schantz give you a pretty fair team to start.

Leach was never a big star in his own day. He had the problem of playing on the same team with Wagner, Clarke, Deacon Phillippe, Jack Chesbro, Sam Leever, and Jesse Tannehill. All were arguably better players. Each was certainly more well-known in their era. It’s fitting we remember him with them. He was a major part of what made that Pirate engine run.

Leading Boston to Victory

May 8, 2010

Jimmy Collins in Boston Americans uniform

Way back in baseball’s Stone Age, the American League team in Boston (they didn’t become the Red Sox until later in the period), won the first World Series. They had a great pitcher in Cy Young. They also had a dominant third baseman named Jimmy Collins. Collins doubled as the manager and led his team to victory.

Collins began his career with the National League’s Boston team, the Beaneaters, in 1895. They loaned him to Louisville for the bulk of the season (long story). By 1896 he was back in Boston where he stayed for the remainder of the 19th Century.

With the dawn of the new century Ban Johnson moved his Western League east and formed the American League. Collins moved right along with him into the new league becoming the manager of the upstart AL franchise in Boston. Both Collins and the team did well. In 1901 he managed them to second place, in 1902 they were third. In 1903 they won the pennant. Pittsburgh won the National League pennant and owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged Boston to a nine game “World’s Series” to determine who had the better team. Boston won in eight games, although Collins didn’t have a particularly good series. In 1904 they won the AL pennant again, agreed to another World Series, and ran smack up against John McGraw and the New York Giants who simply refused to play the upstart team from an upstart league.

In 1905 Boston fell back to fourth and was last in 1906. Collins hurt his knee and played only 37 games in ’06. It was his last year as manager. After 41 games in Boston in 1907 he went to Philadelphia in a trade for fellow third baseman Jack Knight. Collins went on to have one last good year, then in 1908 he hit only .217 in 115 games. The next season Frank (Home Run) Baker replaced him at third. Collins died in 1943 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

I look over his numbers and sometimes I wonder why Collins is so well regarded. As I looked at him more, I began to realize the dearth of talent at third base and realized he’s a good candidate for best third sacker of the era. Now that sounds like a backhanded compliment, “Well, there just wasn’t anybody better outta all these bums, so why not him?” And in some ways it is. Actually, third base has produced fewer great players than any other position. Most of the good hitters didn’t play defense particularly well. Most of the good glove men didn’t hit all that well.

Collins is one of the few third basemen who did both well. As a defensive player he was considered  the premier glove man of his day. In an era where the bunt was a major weapon, he was famous for being hard to bunt against. His range was excellent, holding four of the best seasonal averages ever. In the opening years of the American League he is clearly its best defensive third baseman.

He hit pretty well also. Five seasons he hit over .300. In 1898 he won a home run title with 15, his only year in double figure home runs. He had 175 hits five times, tallied 100 runs four years, and had 100 RBIs twice. All are good numbers for the era. In the twelve years he played 100 games, he averaged 156 hits, 83 runs, 28 doubles, and 77 RBIs. Again, not bad for the Deadball Era(Ya know, when I do spell check they suggest deadball should be meatball. I wonder why.). His 15 home runs in 1898 are 23% of his total and I’ve no clue why the sudden power surge. His next highest total was a rookie year seven. In his last three seasons he hit exactly one.

Jimmy Collins is one of those players whose numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but who consistently impresses if you pay attention to when he took the field. He played a pivotal role for two very good teams at the turn of the 20th Century, leading one of them to the first ever World Series title. All in all he is probably the American League’s finest third baseman in its formative years. He’s one of the reasons the league gained instant credibility and became a true rival to the National League.

Opening Day, 1910: Cleveland

April 19, 2010

Addie Joss

For the first time since 1905, Cleveland began the season with a new manager. Napoleon LaJoie took over in 1905 and remained in charge until late in 1909, when old-time catcher Deacon McGuire was handed the job. It changed the team dynamic, it changed the team name (they were called the Naps in LaJoie’s honor), and it changed Lajoie’s game.

For a team that had not done well in its ten-year history, including a sixth place finish 27.5 games back in 1909, Cleveland underwent very little change in the field for 1910. George Stovall stayed at first, LaJoie at second, and Bill Bradley at third. Terry Turner, the former backup middle infielder, took over at short. It wasn’t a particularly distinguished infield, except for LaJoie. Only LaJoie hit above .250 in 1909 and Bradley finished at .186. LaJoie had been on a downward spiral since taking over the managerial spot. There was some hope that released from those duties, he might return to the former player who won a triple crown in 1901, and batting titles on 1903 and ’04.  Neal Ball and George Perring were the infield backups. Ball was the starting shortstop in ’09 and Perring was a holdover.

The outfield saw two of three starters change. Joe Birmingham was a good fielding, decent hitting center fielder with little speed on the bases, a common trait in Cleveland,despite the prevailing strategy of the era. John Graney and Art Kruger were both new. Both had played a little for Cleveland in previous years (’08 for Graney and ’07 for Kruger), but were never regulars. Briscoe Lord remained the backup outfielder. It wasn’t a big hitting outfield and wasn’t a particular improvement over the 1909 version.

Ted Easterly remained the backstop. He hit .261 the year before and shared time with backups Nig Clark, and Harry Bemis. Both remained in 1910, but Clark ended up hurt and Grover Land became the third catcher.  Easterly would have a good year with the bat.

A real strength of the Cleveland team, if it had one, was its aging pitching staff. The problem was the “aging” part. Cy Young was 43 at the end of the 1909 season. Addie Joss, Bob Rhodes, and Cy Falkenberg were all 30. Among the starters, only Heinie Berger was under 30 (he was 27). For 1910 they kept all but Rhodes who disappears from major league rosters forever. They tried Willie Mitchell and Specs Harkness to fill in the gaps for age and loss. Mitchell pitched three games the year before and Harkness was a rookie.

Cleveland is a difficult team to figure. There are spots where they are pretty good (second, catcher, specific pitchers), but there are spots where they lack quality (third, the corner outfield, other pitchers). It’s a team that could rise, but if anybody gets hurt, or anything goes wrong, they could be in trouble. Late in the year they will bring up a 20-year-old rookie outfielder named Joe Jackson. He looks to have some talent.

Next: a break from the monotony of team-by-team to celebrate the accomplishments of Addie Joss.