Posts Tagged ‘Don Newcombe’

Old Timer’s Games

June 15, 2017

Newk, oh, so many years ago

I got to watch the Old Timer’s Game the Dodgers did recently. It was a fairly standard type of these games. They went two innings, no body cared who won, no body played very well, and everybody seemed to have fun. It was interesting as far as it went.

They’ve had these a long time. I remember them from back in the 1950s when they’d show them just before beginning the Game of the Week on TV and it was always fascinating to see what some of these guys that my Grandfather talked about actually looked like. I’d never seen them play so it was a close as I could get to watching them perform, even if it wasn’t at the highest level anymore.

But as I watched the old Dodgers play I began to realize I’m of two minds about these kinds of games (and most people have trouble dealing with me having one mind). On the one hand it’s nice to see some of the guys you remember. But on the other hand, they’re a shadow, baseball-wise, of what they’d been. I remember them as great athletes who could hit, run, pitch, throw, do all the things ball players do. Now they couldn’t do that anymore. They’d joined me as gray (or bald) and overweight and needing glasses in order to find the bag at first base. Don Newcombe was there. He’s 90 and looks it (he turned 91 yesterday, but was 90 when I saw him). I remember him as a great hurler who was a stalwart of the teams I rooted for in the 1950s and it almost hurt to see him look old (and of course he didn’t play).

So this is just a short note about my reactions to the recent Old Timer’s Game in Dodger Stadium. I’m glad they have them. I’m equally sorry they have them.

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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.

 

 

Oisk,

June 10, 2014
Carl Erskine

Carl Erskine

If Don Newcombe was the most storied pitcher of the “Boys of Summer” Brooklyn Dodgers, Carl “Oisk” Erskine was easily second.

Erskine was born in Indiana in 1926. He played sandlot and high school ball and was good enough that he was noticed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. While in the Navy, Erskine signed with the Dodgers, but had his contract voided by the commissioner when it was learned he was still in the Navy (there was a rule against that). Despite other and bigger offers, he resigned with Brooklyn  and joined their minor league team at Danville in 1946. He pitched two years at Danville before transferring to Fort Worth in 1948. He stayed two years in Ft. Worth before playing one final minor league season in Montreal in 1950. He also played winter league ball in Cuba where he shared the field with black players and was managed by Martin DiHigo.

His Major League career began in 1948 when he was called up in 1948. He went 6-3 in 17 games (nine starts), tore a muscle in his back (it never healed properly and would bother him for his entire career), then began 1949 in the minors. Again he came up at the end of the season, went 8-1 in 22 games (three starts), and helped Brooklyn to the National League pennant. He got into two games in the World Series going 2.1 innings, giving up three runs, and posting an ERA north of 16. The Dodgers lost the Series in five games and Erskine had no decisions.

With the torn muscle still a problem, he started his last minor league campaign in 1950. He was called up early this time getting into 22 games, winning seven and losing six. After 1950 he would remain in the Major Leagues for the remainder of his career. The 1951 season saw him become a regular in the Dodgers rotation. He went 16-12, and helped lead Brooklyn to one of the more famous playoffs in MLB history. The Dodgers lost a three game playoff to the Giants (Bobby Thomson’s home run being the most famous moment). Erskine did not pitch in the playoff series.

He had a terrific 1952, going 14-6 with an ERA of 2.70. In June he pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, walking only one man (the opposing pitcher). The Dodgers were back in the World Series at the end of the season. He lost game two of the Series on 2 October (his wedding anniversary), then won game five in 11 innings.  He also pitched the last couple of inning of a game seven loss without taking the decision.

In 1953, Erskine went 20-6, set a career high in strikeouts, and was the Dodgers ace. He started three games in the World Series, taking a no decision in game one, then came back to win game three and set the all-time record for strikeouts in a World Series game by fanning 14 Yankees, a record broken by a later teammate, Sandy Koufax (and later broken by Bob Gibson).  He started game six, but was not around when New York won the game 4-3 to clinch the Series.

Still in pain, Erskine would produce three more good years: 1954-56. In 1954 he would finally make an All Star team (his only one). In 1955 he would help his team win its only World Series. He started game four, took a no decision as the Dodgers won late, then didn’t pitch again for the remainder of the Series. In 1956, he would pitch his second no-hitter, this one at home against the Giants. He would get into one last World Series, losing game four as the Yankees took revenge for 1955.

Still hurting in 1957, he began slipping badly. By 1958 both he and the Dodgers were in Los Angeles, and he was given the honor of starting the first West Coast game. He got the win. It was easily the highlight of a forgettable year for both pitcher and team. In 1959, he started the year with LA, but retired during the season. The Dodgers made the World Series that year, winning in six games, but I’ve been unable to determine if he got a Series share.

For his career he was 122-78 with an ERA of 4.00 (ERA+ of 101). He gave up 1637 hits in 1718.2 innings, had 14 shutouts, walked 646, struck out 981, had two no hitters, and a WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) of 16.6. He never recovered from the muscle tear and finished his career at age 32.

In retirement he coached baseball at Anderson College winning four championships in 12 seasons. He also served as an insurance man and was chairman of the Indiana Bankers Association. Not a bad legacy for a sore-backed pitcher.

And for those curious, “Oisk” is a Brooklyn corruption of “Ersk”, the first part of his name.

 

Lost in the Shuffle

April 10, 2014
Don Drysdale

Don Drysdale

Back when I was in the army I spent a year at a small base in Virginia. I had a roommate who was perfect for me. He was also a diehard Dodgers fan. We were allowed to put up posters on our wall. I didn’t have any but he had three. The one closest to the door extoled the virtues of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The one closest to the windows had a picture of a First National Bank somewhere with a guy in a robe heading in the front door. The caption read “Jesus Saves.” In the middle was a big poster of Don Drysdale in motion. The picture above is the nearest to it I could find.

Drysdale’s dropped off the face of the earth in the last few years. He made the Hall of Fame, which was controversial, but once you’re in a lot of the commentary (“He should be in” “He shouldn’t be in”) goes away. He showed up again when Orel Hershiser passed him in consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Then there was one last flurry of comment when he died, but that’s about it. It’s kind of a shame.

Drysdale hit well. Most people don’t know that about him. He hit a buck-86, but had 29 home runs (peaking at seven in both ’58 and ’65), 26 doubles (six in ’60), and 113 RBIs (19 in ’65). His OPS is .523 (and Baseball Reference.com has his offensive WAR as 5.9). His seven homers in ’65 was seventh on the team. OK, it isn’t Ty Cobb, but not bad for a man who hit in the nine-hole.

He had a couple of problems when he pitched. He was only the ace of the staff a few years, taking over for Don Newcombe about 1958 or so and surrendering the position to Sandy Koufax by 1963. In between he won a Cy Young Award in 1962 (back when they only gave out one). He only got to 20 wins twice (’62 and ’65), only led the National League in shutouts once and in strikeouts three times. Not bad, right? But his chief problem was that he pitched on the same staff at the same time as Koufax and got pushed to second place quickly. He just wasn’t Koufax, but then few pitchers were. Worse for Drysdale, when you looked away from the Dodgers there were Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal; and in 1966 there was even Gaylord Perry. So it was tough to consider Drysdale second best pitcher in the NL. As a rule, most years after 1962 the best you could do was slot him into the fourth slot in an all-NL rotation. That hurt his memory a lot.

Having said all that, he still managed 209 wins, a 2.95 ERA, an ERA+ of 121, and a1.148 WHIP. Not bad, but not in the same ballpark with Koufax, Gibson, or Marichal.

It’s a shame that he’s been lost in the shuffle. But he does have one advantage over all the rest of them. Back in 1967 I was on my way to Viet Nam and had a chance to overnight in Los Angeles. The Dodgers were in town I got to see the only game I’ve ever seen at Dodger Stadium. Drysdale was on the mound and won the game. I, at least, will always remember him.

 

The 50 Greatest Dodgers

November 27, 2012

Don Newcombe, the 8th Greatest Dodger

Back a year or so ago I did a post on the 50 Greatest Yankees ever (according to ESPN). Turns out that the network did an entire series of these lists. You’ll have to look around pretty hard (or type in “greatest Dodgers” or whichever team) to find their lists but they are interesting.

One of the lists is the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers list. The top 10 (in order) look like this: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Zack Wheat, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Mike Piazza, Don Newcombe, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance. And before anyone asks, Don Drysdale is 11th. Not a bad list actually, here’s a few comments on the list.

1. To create a full team you end up with Gil Hodges (16th on the list) at first, Robinson at second, Reese at short, and Roy Cey (14th on the list) at third. The outfield is Snider, Wheat, and Pedro Guerrero (15th on the list). Campanella catches and the first position player whose position is already covered is Piazza, making him the DH. The staff (four men for a World Series rotation, at least one being left-handed) is Koufax, Newcombe, Sutton, and Vance. Way down at 46th is Ron Perranoski, the only reliever on the list.

2. The list is a decent mix of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with LA being slightly favored in the higher parts of the list (see Guerrero over Babe Herman or Carl Furillo for example). There are, as you would expect with the Dodgers, an inordinate number of pitchers in the top 15.

3. They did put Dixie Walker on the list (he’s 25th). With the way he left the team (his opposition to Robinson) I half expected he’d be overlooked.

4. Wheat in the top 5 is inspired, as is Vance in the top 10. It’s unusual for guys who played that long ago to get much support when up against newer players that voters remember. However, Wheat over Campanella is questionable. Wheat and Vance are the only two players on the list who spent significant time with the Dodgers prior to 1940.

5. During their time together (most of the 1970s) Steve Garvey got a lot more press than Cey. This list placed Cey higher (14th to Garvey’s 17th). I think that’s probably right.

6. Jim Gilliam is at 43rd. That’s way too low. His versatility (second, third, center, and left) made him so much more valuable than his hitting stats (which aren’t bad either) made him appear.

7. Reggie Smith is at 26th. Again, I think that’s too low. I might slide him into the top 15. I know I’d put him in the top 20. I might even jump him over Guerrero. Smith is one of the more overlooked players in both Dodgers and Red Sox history.

8. The picking of  Newcombe over both Sutton and Drysdale is  interesting. Both ended up with more wins and Newk did have the drinking problem. I’m not sure the voters got it right. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Newcombe was the ace of the most famous (if not most successful) team in Dodgers history and that has to be worth something. Now, if he coulda just won a single World Series game (he went 0-4).

9. Now about first place. When I first became interested in baseball, Robinson was my hero. As he waned, Snider replaced him. Then as the Duke faltered, Koufax became my guy. That got me through high school and hero-worship of big leaguers. So I have no problem with those three being in the top positions. I’m not sure about the order. The ultimate problem is Robinson’s status as a civil rights icon. It so overshadows his on-field accomplishments that I’m not sure it didn’t get him first place more than his playing  ability did. Having said that, I recognize he was a heck of a player and when added to his late start (because of circumstances not of his making) and the abuse he suffered, maybe he is first. But Snider was as good, maybe better. And Koufax is simply the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I have my own order, but I have no real problem with the current order.

10. The location of a few more well-known names: Hershiser (12th), Valenzuela (13th), Wills (22nd), Reiser (31st), Podres (33rd), and Nomo (49th).

11. The most glaring omission? Carl Erskine.

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Cy Young

September 8, 2011

Cy Young in 1901 (the first year of the American League)

1. His name was Denton True Young and he was born in 1867.

2. He was a farm boy who played minor league ball. One version says the “Cy” nickname was short for “cyclone” , a reference to the speed of his pitches. Another says it was short for “Cyrus”, a name associated with farmers. I have no idea which is correct.

3. He began his Major League career on 6 August 1890 with a three hit shutout for the Cleveland Spiders.

4. This was before the advent of the mound. He was 36-29 in pre-mound days.

5. The mound (and the extra five feet involved) didn’t hurt him. In 1892 he led the National League in wins, winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, and WHIP.

6. Between 1892 and 1896 inclusive he averaged 33 wins and led the league in strikeouts once (1896).

7. In 1901 he jumped to the fledgling American League team in Boston. He led the new league in Wins, ERA, shutouts, strikeouts, ERA+, and WHIP.

8. In 1903 his team played in the first World Series, winning the best of nine in eight games. He pitched game one for the home team Boston Americans, thus becoming the first pitcher to throw a pitch in the World Series, give up a  hit, a run, an RBI, and take a loss in the Series. He later won two games in the Series.

9. In 1904 Boston repeated as AL champ, but there was no World Series. Young was part of the greatest ironman staff of the 20th Century. Over 154 completed games (there were three ties) only five men threw a pitch for Boston. Young was the ace. He led the team in wins, losses, ERA, games, complete games, shutouts, hits, runs, ERA+, WHIP, and  picked up the only save. Only his shutouts and WHIP number led the league.

10. He threw no hitters in both 1904 and 1908.

11.  When he retired he held several pitching records. He still holds the record for wins (511), losses (315), starts, innings pitched, and complete games.

12. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937 and died in 1955.

13. In 1956 Major League Baseball created a new award to honor the best pitcher in the big leagues. They named it after Young. Don Newcombe won the first one. In 1967, they divided the award by creating one for both the National League and the American League.

The Duke of Flatbush

March 2, 2011

Out where I’m from there’s only one “Duke.” He rode tall in the saddle, represented everything that was good in the USA, won an academy award for wearing an eyepatch. When you say the name “John Wayne” people stand to attention and remove their hats and begin humming the national anthem. Well, I was that way about Duke Snider too, so his death hit me hard. Sunday I put up a very brief note about the death of Snider. Today I want to talk a little more about him. I don’t want to spend it going over his stats. You can look those up for yourself. I want to explain why his death hit me so hard.

Ebbets Field 1957

When I was a kid there was one team I rooted for year after year, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ve never been quite sure why. Maybe it was because my grandfather hated the Yankees and the Dodgers played them a lot in the World Series. Maybe it was because they had great players and I recognized that. Maybe it was just to be perverse and bug my grandfather who was a Cardinals fan. Whatever it was, they were my team and they were glorious in the way only a child can understand glory.

It didn’t take a genius, and as an elementary school student I certainly wasn’t one of those, to see just how much Jackie Robinson meant to the team. For a while I wanted to be Robinson more than anyone else in the world. But a little bit of watching and listening told me that by the time I was wholly aware of the team, other players were better than Robinson, but you could tell he was still the engine that made the team run. He was still the heart and soul of the team. Roy Campanella’s greatness was obvious and no one ever swung a bat harder.  Carl Furillo’s arm was a sight to behold and with him out in right field Abe Stark’s sign was almost never hit. Pee Wee Reese’s leadership was obvious too, but Snider was something very special.

He was easily the best hitter by this point. You’ve probably heard by now that he had more home runs and RBIs than anyone else in the 1950s. That’s true, but it’s a little disingenuous. Snider had the entire decade, while Mays lost part of a couple of years to Korea and Mantle didn’t show up until 1951. Of course neither of those things diminishes his ability and, frankly, I neither knew nor cared about any of that back when I watched him play. I kept trying to figure out if I could duplicate his swing. I couldn’t. 

He was a great center fielder who seemed to catch everything. I remember he had this funny habit of backing up for the ball, not turning and running to a spot then turning back to the ball like Mays did it. I tried to do that as a kid and usually fell over my feet. The Mays way I could do, so in some odd sort of way I decided that Snider was a superior fielder to Mays because he did something that was harder and did it well. I may have been wrong, but it worked for me way back when. And all that falling over my feet got me a trip to first base where I played for several years back in little league. Thanks, Duke.

The team moved to LA in 1958. Now I was wedded to the team, not the town, so, unlike a lot of people, the move didn’t bother me. As long as the guys were still there I found it easy to transfer my love from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Snider’s numbers began to falter. The LA Coliseum was death on left-handed hitters. The Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 with him still in center field so it didn’t matter to me that he was getting weaker. By the time I noticed he was falling off, I’d transferred my allegiance to a kid pitcher named Koufax who seemed to have some promise, so it didn’t hurt quite the same when Snider was sent to the Mets. It did hurt when he ended up with the Giants. The Giants? God, that was almost as bad as sending him to the Yankees. The @#$%ing Giants? What didn’t they just send him to the @#$%ing Yankees and get it over with?

I sort of lost track of him after he retired. I got older and he got obscure. Later on when he finally made the Hall of Fame I started paying attention to Snider again. He did color work for the Expos, got in trouble with the IRS over money from card shows, but he was still a  hero to me. Back a few years ago ESPN did a thing where they asked you to vote for the greatest player of each team. Robinson won for the Dodgers and Koufax was second. Snider came in third. Despite a genuine admiration for both Robinson and Koufax, I voted for the Duke.

They are mostly gone now, my old heroes. Snider was in some ways the last of them–the heroes of my earliest youth. I know Don Zimmer and Tommy LaSorda are still alive, but I don’t think I even knew who Zimmer was and I never associate LaSorda with anything but managing. Dodgers aces Carl Erskine and Don Newcombe are both still around also, but when your new hero is Sandy Koufax (if you don’t believe me, see my avatar), other pitchers tend to fall by the wayside. But Snider remained the last link to my first heroes. I know that soon there will be no more Brooklyn Dodgers (I think Koufax may be the youngest left and he’s in his 70s) and that will make me sad.

So good-bye to the Duke of Flatbush. He never knew he was a hero of mine, which may help account for his longevity. May he rest in peace.

The First Generation

February 23, 2011

I want to look at something I found that is just a bit unusual. I’ll be the first to admit that I looked at the initial generation of black players to make the Major Leagues as guys whose careers are incomplete. After all, so my argument went, they lost so much time to segregation that we only have a part of their career to study. Turns out that argument is only partially true. In the case of older players like Sam Jethroe or Luke Easter or Satchel Paige or Willard Brown it’s correct. But there is another group of first generation blacks who don’t fit at all into that argument. In what you’re about to read, do not forget that this is a  very small sample of players and is nothing like a definitive look at all the players of the era.

Among the players who first integrated the Major Leagues were a number of younger up and coming players. I looked at some of them with an eye toward determining if what we had was something like a full career. I took the players who integrated their teams prior to 1951 then eliminated those guys like Jethroe and the others mentioned above who I knew had established Negro League careers of long duration. I concentrated on their ages. There was some differences in the posted age of various players so I went with Baseball-Reference.com’s age (right or wrong, it is at least a starting point). By concentrating on the Rookies of the Year and a handful of other players who came quickly to mind I put together the following list of first generation players who were relatively young (At my age “young” is always relative) and spent time in the Negro Leagues before 1951: 20-Willie Mays; 21-Hank Thompson; 23-Larry Doby, Minnie Minoso,  Don Newcombe; 24-Jim Gilliam; 26-Roy Campanella; 28-Joe Black, Jackie Robinson; and 30-Monte Irvin. They average 24.6 years of age when they arrive in the Major Leagues, and if you leave out Irvin, the oldest, it’s 24.0. Now let’s be honest here. Obviously under a normal career progression, guys like Irvin are already passed their prime and both Black and Robinson are right in the heart of theirs. And Campanella is also different in that he’d been playing Negro League ball since age 16. So even within this group, a number have lost significant time to Negro League play, just not all. This list also leaves out players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks who come up later and, at least to me, aren’t quite members of that first generation of black Major Leaguers.

So I wondered was 24.6 “old” for a rookie in the 1947-1955 era? For comparison I took a like number of white players. I went to the Rookie of the Year list and took the white players from 1948 through 1955 trying to come up with 10 names, two of which were pitchers. Here’s the list: 21-Harvey Kuenn; 22-Roy Sievers, Herb Score; 23-Gil McDougald; 24-Bill Virdon, Wally Moon, Bob Grim; 25-Harry Byrd; 26-Alvin Dark, Walt Dropo.  The average age here is 23.8, or less than one year difference. And if you leave out Dropo (who with Dark is the oldest), you get 23.4.

The point of all this is not to compare the black players with the white players, although you can if you want. The point is that there is a group of Negro League players who arrive in the Major Leagues at about the same age as white counterparts so we may look at their Major League careers as being as substantially complete as those white counterparts. That doesn’t mean that special circumstances might have changed the age the player arrived in the Major Leagues, only that both groups arrive at roughly the same age. 

Of the black list above only Irvin and Joe Black are older than the oldest of the white players. Campanella is the same age as the oldest white player. As mentioned above, this doesn’t mean that the careers should be directly compared; only that the black players, like the white players, have careers that are substantially complete. It does mean that should you ask if Jim Gilliam was as good as Wally Moon (both were 24 when they arrived in the Majors), you can look over their career stats, and then make a judgement without wondering how much did Gilliam lose to his Negro League career. I think that’s worth noting. What you decide about either Gilliam and Moon is up to you.

Rickey and Robinson’s Third Man

August 18, 2010

Jackie Robinson and Clyde Sukeforth

 In 1945 Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson set the sports world on its ear (and on edge) by joining together in integrate the Major Leagues. When they sat down in a room in Brooklyn to do so, there was a third man in that room who was almost as important as either. His name wasn’t Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten or Anton Karas or even Alida Valli. It was Clyde Sukeforth.

Sukeforth was born in Maine in 1901, spent two years in college (Georgetown), played for Nashua and Manchester in the New England League, then was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1926. He was a catcher. He had some good years, but was never a star. He played 10 years hitting .264 with a peak of .354 in 84 games in 1929. He managed all of two home runs, one in 1929 and the other in the juiced ball year of 1930. In 1931 he played in more than 100 games for the only time in his career. In the off-season he went hunting and took a shotgun pellet in his right eye. Needless to say his career tanked. In March 1932 he was traded to Brooklyn (one of the players involved was future Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi) where he was a part-time catcher through 1934. He also played in 18 games in 1945 to fill out a wartime roster. He could still hit a little, going .294 for the 18 games.

After leaving the majors he coached in the Dodgers minor league system until 1943, when Brooklyn brought him back to the majors as a coach and, more importantly, as a scout. When Rickey decided to integrate the Dodgers, he turned to Sukeforth to scout the Negro Leagues.  It seems that Sukeforth was the only person on the Dodgers staff that Rickey confided in when it came to integration. Others were told the franchise was contemplating a “Black Dodgers” team for the Negro Leagues. Although Rickey apparently had already focused on Robinson, he needed Sukeforth to scout both Robinson and other players who might also be available.

Sukeforth’s recommendation was for Robinson. Rickey agreed and called Robinson in for a meeting. As mentioned above, Sukeforth had the distinction of being the third man in the room when Rickey pitched integrating the Major Leagues to Robinson.

In 1946, Sukeforth was sent to Nashua (where he had once played) to form a class B minor league team. The team was to include both Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Sukeforth is credited with easing the integration of the league and making sure the town accepted the black players. By 1947 he was back with the Dodgers,serving as a coach and confidant for Robinson. The Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, was suspended at the start of the 1947 campaign and Sukeforth chosen as his temporary replacement, thus becoming the manager during Robinson’s first game. He managed only two games before returning to coaching. He was still around in 1951 and is considered responsible, in some circles, for sending Ralph Branca in to game three of the National League playoff. I don’t buy that. He wasn’t the manager and if the manager let the bullpen coach (Sukeforth) make the decision, then the manager needed to be fired. The upshot, of course, is that it was Sukeforth who was fired.

He went to Pittsburgh in 1952 as a coach and scout where he was instrumental in the Pirates’ drafting Roberto Clemente in 1954. He stayed with Pittsburgh through 1957, then retired. He was brought back periodically through 1962 as both a scout and minor league manager, then moved to a scouting position with the Braves until he finally retired. He died at age 98 in 2000. According to Wikipedia a fresh baseball “can be found on his gravesite at all times.”

I’ve always thought that Sukeforth never gets enough credit for his role in integrating baseball. I agree that the principles, Rickey and Robinson, deserve the most credit, but I think Sukeforth is significant in that he ultimately recommended Robinson, became a confidant to Robinson during the most troublesome period of the integration, and then served as mentor to other Dodgers black players, while also becoming a leading proponent of bringing in Latin players like Clemente. We all owe Clyde Sukeforth a debt. Hopefully this pays back a small part of it.

What Were They Looking At?

June 2, 2010

Yesterday I did a post about Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. Kevin from DMB blog pointed out that Ted Williams’ 1941 was at least as good as DiMaggio’s and probably better. I concur. It got me to thinking (which is sometimes not a good thing) about Williams’ lack of respect in the MVP voting, which led me to Duke Snider and a couple of other people who never got the support they needed from MVP voters. I want to point out five cases, four from the 1950s, (there are more and you may have your own favorite) where I can’t help but ask, “What were they looking at?” when the writers voted for MVP.   

Joe Gordon

 1. 1942. Joe Gordon won. Gordon hit .322, slugged 491, had 173 hits, 88 runs, 18 home runs, 103 RBIs, and 264 total bases. He managed to lead the league in one category, strikeouts with 95. Williams the same year hit .356, slugged .648, had 186 hits, 141 runs, 36 home runs, 137 RBIs, and 338 total bases. He led the league in average, slugging, runs, home runs, RBIs, and total bases. In other words, the man won the triple crown. He also led the league in walks. What were they looking at? Unless they simply decided to give it to the best player on the team that won there’s no way Gordon had a better year. And I’m not sure I’d credit him as the best Yankee that year.   

Roy Campanella

  2. 1953. Roy Campanella won. For the season Campy hit .312, slugged .611, had 162 hits, 103 runs, 41 home runs, 142 RBIs, and 317 total bases. Good year, right? Now let me give you another line in the same order: .336, .627, 198, 132, 42, 126, and 370. Those are the numbers for Duke Snider, Campy’s teammate. Snider led the National League in runs, slugging and total bases and they picked Campy. OK, maybe, but Campanella only led the league in RBIs.  

Duke Snider

  3. 1955. Campy won again. For the year Campanella hit .318, slugged .583, had 142 hits, 81 runs, 32 home runs, and 107 RBIs. Snider’s numbers for the same year were .309, .628, 166, 126, 42, and 136. He led te NL in both runs and RBIs. Duke, you got robbed.  

Don Newcombe

4. 1956. Don Newcombe won. Newcombe in 1956 put up the following numbers: 27 wins, 7 losses, a 3.06 ERA, 268 inning pitched, 219 hits, 139 strikeouts, and 46 walks. He led the National League in both wins and winning percentage. Sal Maglie finished second with the following numbers in the same order: 13/5/2.87/191/150/108/52. Now I have no problem with Newcombe beating the Barber here. What I have a problem with is Maglie coming in second when the following two sets of numbers are available. This is the same pitching numbers in the same order: 21/11/2.78/281/249/128/52. Those are Warren Spahn’s numbers and I think I’d rather have his than Maglie’s. Again Duke Snider has good numbers: 158 hits, 112 runs, 43 home runs, a .292 average, a.598 slugging percentage, 101 RBIs, and 324 total bases. He leads the league in homers, slugging, on base percentage, and walks. He also comes in 10th in the MVP voting. Say what? Again my problem isn’t with Newcombe winning, it’s with the disrespect shown to both Spahn and Snider (What? Do they just not like guys whose last name starts with an S?) 

Jackie Jensen

  5. 1958. Jackie Jensen won. Jensen hit .286, slugged .535, had 157 hits, 83 runs, 35 home runs, 122 RBI’s, and 293 total bases. He led the league in RBIs. Mickey Mantle on the other hand hit .304, slugged .592, had 158 hits, 127 runs, 42 home runs, 97 RBIs, and 307 total bases. He managed to lead the league in runs, home runs, total bases, and also walks and strikeouts.   

There they are. You tell me who you’d vote for. I’m not sure what I’m missing when  I look these over. I’m tempted to say that there was too much emphasis on the RBI, but Williams loses in 1942 and Snider loses in 1955 with more RBIs, so it can’t just be RBIs. Campanella and Gordon both played more demanding fielding positions, and I’ll give you that Williams wasn’t the greatest outfielder in the world. But the thing is that Snider was no slouch in center and Gordon wasn’t the greatest second baseman to ever put on a glove (although he wasn’t bad ether). And Mantle with the leather was superb. So it can’t be that either, at least not entirely.   

Frankly, I’ve never been able to figure out MVP voting.  I know I’m dealing with the personal quirks and biases of a bunch of writers, but there is no consistency here at all. There have been a number that I’ve scratched my head over. These are, to me, five of the most obvious examples of “What were they looking at?” Feel free to add your own personal favorites (there are plenty).