Posts Tagged ‘Duke Snider’

Joltin’ Joe, Bob Wills and Piercing the Iron Curtain

August 8, 2016

This marks the 1000th time I’ve sat down at a computer, gone to my blog page, started typing, and hit “publish” rather than “delete.” Frankly, I never expected I’d go on this long, but I have. When I began, I knew some day I would tell you this story. It’s one of my favorite personal stories and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. Being a child of the Cold War, this little tale speaks to me in a way that some of you who are considerably younger than I may not understand; but I think it’s worth telling. The 1000th post seemed like a good time. For  those of you read me occasionally, thank you. For those of you who read me with some consistency, have you seen a shrink recently? Now the story, which is true.

City Museum, Dresden

City Museum, Dresden

Back in 2000 my wife and I got to take a trip to Europe. She wanted to see Berlin and both of us were curious about how the former East Germany was dealing with the end of the Cold War. As it was only two hours by train from Berlin, we decided we’d hop down for a quick look at Dresden.

The city was restored from the World War II bombing, but then was allowed to deteriorate under the East German regime. The buildings were nice, but dingy with an ugly coat of soot and grime on most of them. If you walked through the old part of town you noticed that they were cleaning the buildings slowly and doing it with systematic thoroughness. With exceptions, the further west you went in the town, the dirtier the buildings. The further east you went in the town, the cleaner the buildings. It was as if the city fathers (and mothers, I suppose) decided to clean the town starting on the east side and finish up on the west side. The Dresden City Museum was on the far eastern side of the old town area.

It was a lot fancier building than our local city museum, but essentially it was the same kind of thing. It featured local items ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous and emphasized how much the locals had contributed to German culture and art, which is pretty much what our local museum does in my home town. Dresden is just bigger and has a lot more stuff in a much more impressive building.

My wife and I have a deal when we visit a museum. We find a spot and agree to meet there at a specific time. That allows us to go through at our own speed seeing what each of us wants and ignoring those things that don’t interest us at all. She doesn’t have to stand patiently waiting for me to finish looking over some exhibit and I don’t have to pound my head on the wall hoping she’ll eventually get through with what I consider a particularly boring room. It’s a marvelous system and we used it in Dresden. As fate would have it I finished first and arrived back at the appointed meeting place, the bottom of the staircase to the second floor right next to the kiosk where you paid your money and got your entry ticket.

As I’m likely to do on those occasions, I parked on the edge of one of the lower steps out of people’s way and did something I do a lot when I’m killing time, I started whistling softly. I never pay much attention to what I’m whistling, I just try to keep it low so I don’t disturb anyone. Well, I blew it this time. There were two older ladies in the kiosk, docents who took your money and would lead the occasional tour group through the museum. The younger one looked to be in her late 60s and it was she who heard me.

She came out of the kiosk, looked directly at me and in a heavy accent said, “Bob Wills.”

Now I have to admit that got my attention. Here I was in Eastern Germany (former East Germany) and I was hearing the name of an American musician that had been dead 25 years and hadn’t had a hit in 50. It took me a second to realize that I was whistling the old Wills staple “Faded Love.” Where I live in Oklahoma you have to be able to sing both the chorus and one verse to graduate from high school. The same is true of getting into college, unless you happen to play football. In that case they waive the requirement. My son knew both verses and the chorus so he was given a free ride scholarship for four years.

I nodded. She came over, sat down on the stairs beside me and started singing, again in heavily accented English, very softly, “I miss you darling more and more every day, as heaven would miss the stars above.” That got my attention too. I had enough sense not to join her. Then she told me a story which I now pass on to you. Her English was pretty good, my German isn’t that bad, so between her English and my German I got most of the tale and I think I got it right.

Back about 1950 (the name of the song and the reference to one of the ball players mentioned gave me this approximate date) the Russians and East German Communist Party decided that the citizens of the new People’s Paradise should have nothing to do with Western ways (and here I mean the West in the sense of the US, Britain, Canada, France, etc., not the Cowboy Old West of Jesse James and John Wayne). No western style clothes, no western music, no western books, no western anything. She was about 15 or so and was part of a group of six or seven other kids about the same age. Turns out they loved western music. Someone had a record player of some type (I don’t remember her telling me what kind) and they had a few western records smuggled in, among which was Wills’ version of “Faded Love.” It was new in 1950, hence the earliest date this story could occur. They also had a radio. Dresden was still a bombed out mess, but there were some cellars that were useable and unoccupied so they’d set up a scout to tell them if anyone was coming and then get down in one of the cellars. Light was by lantern (I always think of the oil lanterns you see in Cowboy movies, but I don’t know if that’s what she meant.). They had to make sure that no light could get out of the cellar to alert anyone. The solution was to bring blankets to hang over big holes and tattered pieces of cloth to put into chinks that might show light. Then they could crank up the record player and very softly play a song and dance to it. One of their favorites was “Faded Love.” It wasn’t so great to dance to but the words, which those who spoke English translated into German, spoke to them of the sadness they felt in their own lives behind the “Iron Curtain.”

“I miss you darling more and more every day as heaven would miss the stars above.

“With every heartbeat I still think of you and remember our faded love.”

And then there was the radio. They could pick up the BBC and a few other channels. One was American. She thought it was the Army radio channel. I asked if it was AFN (Armed Forces Network) she but wasn’t sure. It gave them more music, uncensored news, and it gave them baseball. They didn’t know a thing about the game, but there was a crowd and they were loud and they were, unlike the singer in “Faded Love,” obviously happy. Loud and happy? Well, those were things the docent and her buddies weren’t and probably weren’t going to get much of a chance to be. So they listened to the games to hear the crowd cheer and to hear people being happy. And of course they picked up a little baseball knowledge, although she said she never understood much about the game. Most particularly they picked up the names of players like Joe DiMaggio (whose last season was 1951 and serves as the latest date for the story) and Duke Snider. They loved the nicknames so much that most of the boys in the group took a nickname for themselves (to only be used when they were with the group). One guy became “Duke” and another “Joltin’ Joe”. Of course they had no idea what “Joltin'” meant, but it sounded good. As time went along my little docent married “Joltin’ Joe.” She told me they were still married and she still called him “Joe” occasionally, but only in private (old habits die hard).

She thanked me for listening, went back to her kiosk. I sat there looking pretty stupid (something not uncommon for me) until my wife finally showed up. We left the museum, went on to tour the rest of the city, or at least as much as we could see in a day, and took the train back to Berlin. On the trip back I told the story to my wife and noticed a tear in her eye.

The First Integrated World Series: Dem Bums

April 14, 2015
Burt Shotten and Duke Snider

Burt Shotten and Duke Snider

The 1947 World Series holds a unique place in baseball history. First, it was a heck of a Series, known for two famous games and two equally famous moments in those games. But most importantly, it was the first ever postseason series of any kind that featured an integrated team.

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers were a team in turmoil. Leo Durocher, their manager for years was banned from baseball, a black man was on the team, a number of players were opposed to having him around, another group was at best ambivalent. The man who was to hold this all together was Burt Shotten. He’d been an outfielder back in the 1920s, then did a little managing and coaching before becoming a Brooklyn scout in 1946. With Durocher sidelined, Shotten got the call to replace him (He arrived three games into the season so Clyde Sukforth managed the first two games). He was considered easy-going and easy to get along with, just what the Dodgers needed in a volatile atmosphere. The Dodgers had finished third in 1945 and second in 1946, both under Durocher. So it’s not like they came out of nowhere to win the 1947 National League pennant, but Shotten got a lot of credit for keeping the lid on in the clubhouse.

Most of the turmoil surrounded the first baseman, rookie Jackie Robinson. As the first black man to play in the Major Leagues since 1884 (Moses Fleetwood Walker), Robinson was the center of the great integration experiment of 1947. He played well, despite all the turmoil. His triple slash line was .297/.383/.427/.810 with an OPS+ of 112. He tied for the team lead in home runs with 12. His 115 runs, 125 hits, and 29 stolen bases led the team. His BBREF version of WAR was 3.1. All that got him the first ever Rookie of the Year Award (there was only one that year, not one for each league). Shortstop PeeWee Reese was even better. He’d weathered the racial problems on the team to post a triple slash line of .284/.414/ 426/.841 for an OPS+ of 121. His WAR was 6.2, tops among hitters. He’d tied Robinson for the team lead in homers, led the team in walks with 104. The other two members of the infield were second baseman Eddie Stanky and third baseman Spider Jorgensen. Stanky was one of more vocal opponents of employing Robinson, but later became famous for his confrontation of the Phillies when they were attacking Robinson during a game. He hit .253, scored 97 runs, and walked 103 times. Jorgensen, who’d been a minor league teammate of Robinson, hit .274 and was second on the team with 29 doubles.

The center of the opposition to Robinson was with outfielder Dixie Walker. Walker demanded either a trade or Robinson’s demotion to the minors. He got neither. It didn’t carry over onto the field. He hit .306 with a team leading 94 RBIs and an OPS+ of 121. Right fielder Carl Furillo was famous for his rifle arm and hit .295 with 88 RBIs. The normal center fielder was Pete Reiser. Today he’s known for running into walls and otherwise being hurt. In 1947 he was hurt again, but managed 110 games, a .309 average, and 14 stolen bases.

The catcher was Bruce Edwards. He was a better catcher than he’s usually given credit for by both fans and historians. His problem was that he wasn’t Roy Campanella who would, within a year or two would completely overshadow Edwards. One of the backups was Bobby Bragan. He’d initially supported Walker’s position on having Robinson on the team, but by the end of the season was one of Robinson’s strongest friends and supporters. The other backup was Gil Hodges who’d not yet moved to first base and become a Dodgers stalwart.

The Dodgers had a deep bench, with seven players appearing in more than 30 games. The big name for later Dodgers history was Duke Snider, a 20-year-old rookie who wouldn’t play in the Series. For the current team, the more important names were Gene Hermanski, who’d done a lot of the replacement work when Reiser was hurt, and Cookie Lavagetto, Al Gionfriddo, and Eddie Miksis who would become household names in Brooklyn by the end of the Series.

The pitching staff was in transition. The big names of the early 1940s, Whit Wyatt and Kirby Higbe were both gone, Higbe to Pittsburgh as a way to curtail his influence among the anti-Robinson faction in the locker room. Hugh Casey was still around. He’d thrown the most famous pitch in the 1941 World Series and was still the main Brooklyn pitcher out of the bullpen. He had 18 saves, an ERA+ of 103, but he gave up 23 runs in 29.2 innings. The great names of the 1950s, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, weren’t yet in Brooklyn. Ralph Branca was. He’d had a terrific year going 21-12 with an ERA of 2.67 (ERA+ 154), a 1.246 WHIP, and a 6.9 WAR. The other starters were lefties Joe Hatten and Vic Lombardi. Both had more innings pitched than hits allowed, but Hatten gave up a lot more walks than strikeouts (105 to 76). The other right handers were Hal Gregg, who started 16 of 37 games and had an ERA of 5.87, and Harry Taylor who would put up one of the strangest pitching lines in World Series history while participating in one of the most famous of all World Series games. Clyde King, Rex Barney, and Hank Behrman, all right handers, were the other pitchers with more than three starts. The bullpen, other than Casey, relied on a combination of pitchers who doubled as spot starters (Barney, Gregg, etc.) and relievers none of whom pitched more than six games (except Ed Chandler who’d been in 15 games). The most notable was Dan Bankhead, the second black player to join the Dodgers. His ERA was over seven.

It was, all in all, a good team. It was short power and beyond Branca the staff wasn’t very strong, but it hit well, ran well, was a good fielding team for the era, and the darling of Brooklyn. It would draw crosstown rival the New York Yankees in the Series.

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.

 

 

Hollywood Meets the Diamond

May 3, 2013
John McGraw, budding Thespian

John McGraw, budding Thespian

As something of a followup to the last post, I decided to look more heavily into Hollywood’s love affair with baseball. I’ve done some of this kind of thing before, but this time I decided to see if I could put together a full team of players who have appeared on either TV or in the movies playing someone other than themselves (or a baseball player). It got a little silly for a while, but this is a pretty good set of players (I wonder if Olivier could hit).  I had to violate the playing someone else or not being a ball player a few times, but you’ll see why when you read them. I’m sure I missed a couple of greats, so feel free to add to the list.

1st base–Lou Gehrig. Back on 26 February 2010 I did a review of Gehrig’s foray into Westerns. He did an oater called “Rawhide” a year before he retired.

2nd base–Jackie Robinson. I also did a review of Robinson’s movie “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Gehrig did a better acting job. OK, this violates the play someone other than themselves (or a ball player) caveat, but it’s Robinson.

shortstop–Maury Wills. Wills shows up with four credits, three as a coach. The other is on “Get Smart”, the old spy spoof.

3rd base–Ron Cey. In 1987 he shows up as an uncredited member of the band in “Murder, She Wrote.”

outfield–Babe Ruth. Again I violated my “no ball player” rule, but it’s the Babe. He played a ball player named Babe Dugan in a film called “Babe Comes Home” in 1927. The IMDB indicates that the movie is lost.

outfield–Ty Cobb. Ok this time I violated the “appeared” part of my criteria. During the 1950s, Cobb wrote five stories and screenplays that showed up on television. Two were for a show called “The Adventures of Champion” (ole Champ was a horse).

outfield–Duke Snider. The Duke shows up with five credits. In one he plays himself, in a second he’s a center fielder. In the other three he has a role. One of those is opposite another former ball player, Chuck Connors, in “The Rifleman.”

catcher–Joe Garagiola. Best catcher I could find who played something other than himself. He appeared in one episode of “Police Story” in 1975. He played a cop. 

DH–Mike Donlin. Of all these guys, Donlin had the best movie career. I did a post on him on 5 January 2011. He ended up with 63 credits, most of them silents.

pitcher–Sandy Koufax. Way back when he was still an unknown, Koufax got into four TV shows: two Westerns, two cop shows. One of the cop shows was in 1959, the other three credits were in 1960.

manager–John McGraw. In 1914, McGraw appeared as Detective Swift in a short called “Detective Swift.” To top it off, Hans Lobert’s wife (cleverly called “Mrs. Hans Lobert) has a role in the short.

Not a bad list, right? There are an inordinate number of Los Angeles Dodgers in the list. That’s not because I’m a fan (although I am), but it makes great sense that the team in LA is going to have a large number of players available locally to show up for bit parts in both the moves and TV.

This list also excludes those players who showed up on Broadway (like Donlin) or in Vaudeville. McGraw and Christy Mathewson had a vaudeville act where they showed the audience how to throw a pitch. The earliest one of these I could find was an 1880s reference that indicated that King Kelly would appear on stage and dance while the band played “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” We’ve come a long way, I think.

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.

Playoff Baseball Comes to the West Coast

June 11, 2012

Felix Mantilla

Prior to divisional play beginning in 1969, the Major Leagues had a playoff system to determine pennant winners in case the regular season ended in a tie. It wasn’t used all that often. The American League used it all of once (1948) and the National League a bit more frequently (1946, 1951, 1959, 1962). The most famous occurred in 1951. Arguably the best occurred in 1959.

In 1959 the Milwaukee Braves were two-time defending NL champions. They featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter and Warren Spahn. They went into the last weekend of the regular season tied for first, then went 2-1 against Philadelphia to finish the year with a 86-68 record.

Their opponents were the Dodgers, the team they had replaced atop the NL in 1957. But it was a vastly different Dodgers team. First, it was no longer in Brooklyn, having relocated to Los Angeles following the 1957 season. Second, most of the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers were gone. Hall of Famer Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Carl Furillo were still around; but the new team featured Don Drysdale, Wally Moon, Johnny Roseboro, and a wild lefty named Sandy Koufax. Drysdale and Koufax were on the 1956 pennant winning team, but neither was considered a major player on that team. Gone were Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Don Newcombe, and Carl Erskine, a stalwart of the Brooklyn mound who began the year in LA, but retired before the season ended.

The 1959 playoff format was a best of three series with LA getting two home games. The Milwaukee home game was 28 September in County Stadium. The next game was the following day in the LA Coliseum, the first playoff game ever on the West Coast. Game three, an if necessary game, would be in LA the 30th.

With both teams having to win late in the season, the first game saw Danny McDevitt start for the visitors with Carl Willey on the mound for the Braves. With two out and second baseman Charlie Neal on  second, Dodgers right fielder Norm Larker singled to drive in a run in the first inning. Milwaukee struck back in the second with two runs on a bunch of singles and an error. The two runs took McDevitt out of the game and brought in bullpen man Larry Sherry.  LA got the run back in the next inning on three singles and a force out. In the sixth, Roseboro led off the inning with a home run putting the Dodgers up 3-2. Sherry pitched masterfully shutting out Milwaukee on four hits (and two walks) making Roseboro’s homer the deciding run.

The next day the teams played one of the great playoff games ever. The Dodgers started Drysdale and the Braves countered with Lew Burdette. In the opening frame with an out Mathews walked, Aaron doubled, then Frank Torre doubled to plate both runs. The Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the first with a  Neal triple followed by a single by Wally Moon. The Braves got the run right back on a single and error by Snider in the second. In the bottom of the fourth Neal homered to bring the Dodgers within a run. Again Milwaukee got the run right back with a Mathews home run in the fifth. It drove Drysdale from the game. The score remained 4-2 until the top of the eighth when catcher Del Crandall tripled and came home on a Felix Mantilla sacrifice fly. The score remained 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. With three outs to go, Burdette stumbled. Moon, Snider, and Hodges all singled to load the bases. Out went Burdette, in came bullpen ace Don MaMahon. He proceeded to give up a two-run single to Larker. Out went McMahon, in came Warren Spahn. A sacrifice fly by Furillo tied the game.

It stayed tied through the tenth and eleventh, the Dodgers managing one hit in the eleventh. By the twelfth, Stan Williams was on the mound for LA and Bob Rush for Milwaukee. Williams got through the twelfth without giving up a hit, but with two out Rush walked Hodges. Joe Pignatano singled moving Hodges to second. Furillo then singled to shortstop Mantilla who was playing short instead of his normal second because of a defensive substitution in the seventh. Mantilla managed an error letting Hodges in with the winning run and putting the Dodgers into the World Series. They would win it over Chicago in six games.

In the years since, playoff games prior to the World Series became a staple of baseball. Now we don’t consider it unusual to see a round of games between the end of the regular season and the Series. Back in 1959 it wasn’t at all normal. It happened three times previously in all of NL history. So there was a level of anticipation that was different from today’s playoffs. And it was the first postseason play (although technically the games counted as regular season games, they were considered by most a playoff) on the West Coast. With game two, the West Coast got a great introduction to playoff baseball.

Thoughts on the Upcoming Veteran’s Committee Vote, I

November 4, 2011

Ken Boyer's 1955 baseball card

The last post here detailed the list of people on the 2011 Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame. I promised I’d give a thought to the ballot and comment. Here’s the first of three sets of comments.

I’m going to start with the infielders Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Ron Santo. There’s a reason these guys, and the rest of the players on the ballot, are still around 25 years after their retirement for the Veteran’s Committee to assess. All have serious flaws in their career that makes it difficult for some people to put them in the Hall of Fame. For these three it’s a combination of things.

Hodges was arguably the finest first baseman in the 1950s. Johnny Mize was aging, Willie McCovey was just coming up, others just weren’t as good. And that’s part of Hodges’ problem. He’s the best of a weak era. It’s an era dominated by outfielders and catchers, not first basemen (compare it, in reverse, to today). The other part of his problem is that he was never the best player on his team. At best he was third to fifth depending on the year. Campanlla and Snider were almost always better, Robinson was better in the first few years of Hodges’ career, and sporadically Carl Furillo was better. It’s kind of tough to argue that a team goes four or five deep Hall of Fame-wise (and I left out Reese on purpose). In Hodges favor he was a good first baseman, a decent hitter, a member of a truly great team, and his experience managing the Mets and becoming the apostle of the five-man pitching rotation are probably being overlooked by most fans.

Boyer and Santo were both third basemen whose careers seriously overlap, so direct comparisons can be made. They are, beginning with Boyer in the late 1950s and ending with Santo in the early 1970s, the best National League third basemen of their era. OK, maybe Dick Allen was better, but he was a terrible teammate and made Albert Belle look like a wonderful man you’d want to pal around with. Boyer won both a ring and an MVP award (both in 1964), Santo won neither. Santo was probably the better player. Boyer’s good years were shorter, Santo was more likely to be overlooked on his own team because of Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins (and fan favorite, but no longer great player, Ernie Banks). Another problem they have is that the truly finest third baseman of the era, Brooks Robinson, played in the other league and outshone both.

So do I vote for them? Well, yes and no. I would cast a vote for Hodges and for Santo and set Boyer aside. I’ll go so far as to say that I think Santo is probably the best player eligible and not in the Hall of Fame. And in a final point, let me note that all three men are dead. With Cooperstown’s emphasis on Hall of Fame Weekend that may change how the committee votes. If it does, it’s a  great shame.

Nest time I’ll look at the outfielders, or maybe I’ll take the pitchers.

My 10 Best Center Fielders

March 30, 2011

Now that I’ve made up my mind about who I think are the top ten center fielders, I’ll present the list in a moment. I thought about it, read over comments on my question about the “tenth man,” and decided on a list. I’m putting it down in alphabetical order, not in order of 1-10:

Richie Ashburn, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker.

Now, of course, the usual commentary is going to show its ugly head. First, I left out all Negro League players who spent the bulk of their careers in the Negro Leagues (guys like Oscar Charleston). I just don’t think there is enough information available for analysis to compare them directly with Major League players. Are some of them as good or better than the people listed? I’m sure they are, I just can’t prove it. My guess is that Charleston, and maybe Torriente and/or Bell, might make this list. Proving it is another story. I also dropped in pre-mound players. I simply think the game is too different to compare the players. I know a bunch of people have come up with statistical programs that claim to have overcome that problem. Obviously I don’t buy that. Feel free, particularly if you’ve invented one of those programs, to disagree.

You’ll notice it’s a pretty standard list. My guess is that almost anyone reading this then putting together their own list is going to have seven or eight names that are just like mine. It’s the other couple that will create the problem. So let me take a second of commentary and at least partially justify three of my picks, the three I think will create the most “Huh?” factor from readers.

Ashburn: Richie Ashburn is simply the best center fielder I ever saw (which has nothing to do with how well he hit). He had incredible range and a fine glove. He led the league in putouts nine times, in assists three times, and range 10 times. The argument is always made that he played behind a staff that threw an inordinate amount of fly balls. If you had Ashburn behind you, wouldn’t you throw a lot of fly balls too? Additionally he could hit a little. He led the league in average twice, on base percentage four times, hits three times, triples twice, walks four times, and stolen bases once. For a man who hit only 29 home runs for a career (his career high was 7 in his final season with the 1962 Mets) he has a respectable OPS of  778 (OPS+ of 111). His black ink total is 32, his gray ink is 156, both above Hall of Fame standards. I remember we didn’t see the Phillies much when I was small (they were usually terrible), but when we did it was Ashburn you were drawn to. I’ve always been a little surprised he took as long to make the Hall of Fame as he did.

Puckett: I’m amazed at how quickly Kirby Puckett has disappeared from our conciousness. OK, I know he’s dead, but he seemed to be fading already by the time he died. His post baseball career was a tragedy of weight gain, vision problems, and allegations of abuse. It seems he just didn’t know what to do with himself when the thing that defined him, his baseball career, was over. But let me remind you how terrific he was. The greatest catch of the last 25 years may have been in game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Frankly, I didn’t think short-legged, chubby Kirby Puckett could run that far that fast. He was a very good center fielder. Three times he led the league in both assists and putouts by a center fielder and twice in range. He hit well, winning a batting title, leading the league in hits four times, total bases twice, and in RBIs once. His OPS is 837 (OPS+ of 124). The Minnesota Twins have won exactly two World Series’ ever. Puckett hit third on both teams.

Edmonds: Obviously, based on the last post I made, he was the person I thought longest and hardest about (and just as obviously Andruw Jones is 11th on this list). I finally chose him based on his fielding and his overall hitting  stats. I decided that both he and Jones have differences, but that they are pretty much miniscule. Even at strange stats like gray ink and Hall of Fame standards they end up a wash (Edmonds leads in gray, Jones in HoF standards). The key difference to me was the OPS+ stat where Edmonds leads 132 to 111 (which is quite a difference). I finally decided if Ashburn gets in at 111, then Edmonds, who has a higher number, should be in too.

So there’s the list. I’m sorry to have had to leave out Earl Averill, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson and an entire group of good center fielders, but somebody had to be left out. I especially hate having to leave out Vada Pinson, who I thought was great when I was much younger. I also have some problems with including either Edmonds or Jones (or even Griffey for that matter). I don’t like to put in players who are still active or who have just retired. We have absolutely no perspective yet on them and that always worries me. I’m not sure how, ten years from now, their careers will stack up, but to leave them off smacks of fogeyism. You know fogeyism, don’t you? It usually starts with a comment along the following lines, “Heck, everyone was better when I was a kid. These guys couldn’t hold Paul Blair’s glove.” Most of us are probably guilty of it from time to time. Hopefully I haven’t been in this case.

 Thoughts appreciated, but remember to be kind in your comments. This is a family site. 🙂

Power Center

March 21, 2011

I saw that the Hall of Fame is honoring the guy who wrote “Talkin’ Baseball” at this year’s Cooperstown festivities. The line from it that everyone knows is “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” All were center fielders and as I’ve been looking through information on the position, I’ve discovered just how extraordinary they were.

What came to my attention is how few major power hitters occupy center field as their primary position. Having three at one time is really very odd. Let me show you a particular stat that points that out. I remembered that Joe DiMaggio had 361 home runs. So I decided to make him the bottom of my list of center fielders with power. When I looked over the list of home run hitters in order, I found DiMaggio was 71st, which worked for a good base after all. It would have been better it he was 75th, but 71 will work. Obviously if I run the list longer, the numbers will change, but a cursory look all the way to 100 didn’t seem to make that much difference (and I should stress “cursory” in that sentence).

What I noticed is that there are less center fielders on the list than either of the other outfield positions. Now the usual caveats. As outfielders can sometimes be interchangeable, especially as stat types tend to lump them together as “outfielders” rather than “left fielders” or either of the others (and I’ve also noticed that the more modern the source, the less common this is, which I think is good), I went to  Baseball Reference.com to determine which outfield position guys like Gary Sheffield actually played most often (right in his case). I also took the Hall of Fame listing to determine a player’s primary position. The Hall lists Willie Stargell as a “left fielder” rather than a “first baseman” so Willie becomes one of the people I looked at. Finally I realize not all the people in the top 71 played all games at one position, so that they hit home runs at other positions rather than their primary position. For instance both Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial spent significant time at first base (as, obviously, did Stargell). So this is not a list to determine who hit the most homers while in center or anything like that.

Here’s what I found. Of the top 71 home runs hitters in Major League history, 17 were primary right fielders (I’m not listing them all, but they run from Hank Aaron to Rocky Colavito), 13 were primary left fielders (from Barry Bonds to Ralph Kiner), and only eight were in center. Here I’ll list them all in order of home runs: Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Duke Snider, Dale Murphy, Jim Edmonds, Joe DiMaggio.

A few observations:

1. It seems big league baseball really does like the old “defense up the middle, power at the corners” idea. I heard that all the way back in Little League. The idea is that if you have solid defense up the middle (shortstop, 2nd base, center field) then you can get your power from the corner players (1st base,  3rd base, left and right field). From the info above 24% of the 71 best power hitters played right field, 18% played left field, and 11% played center field as their primary position. The drop from 24% to 11% is noticeable. I’m not saying that you can’t play center if you hit for power, but that the power hitters tend to cluster towards the edges. If you think about it you probably already knew that intuitively.

2. Those numbers hold even if you move the base to another arbitrary position, like 400 home runs. Then you get 11 right fielders, nine left fielders, and five center fielders (losing Murphy, Edmonds, and DiMaggio).

3. Those numbers and percentage will change as soon as the opening of the 2011 season. Just a few men hitting just a few home runs will drop DiMaggio further down the all-time list and change things. I briefly looked over the top 100 and it appears it won’t add an inordinate number of center fielders, so the general trend will remain the same (more or less).

4. They tend to clump. Mays, Mantle, Snider, and DiMaggio all have careers that overlap. Having said that, both Mays’ and Mantle’s rookie year is DiMaggio’s last, so only Snider overlaps DiMaggio by more than one year. Of course Mays , Mantle, and Snider play a decade together. Griffey, Jones, and Edmonds are also contemporaries.  And Murphy actually overlaps Griffey and Edmonds (although his final season is Edmonds rookie campaign).

5. On a personal note. I hadn’t realized that Andruw Jones was already fourth on the list of home runs among primary center fielders. I’ve never considered him a truly elite player. He was a great center fielder, but I guess I had managed to more or less ignore his hitting contributions. Silly me.

I don’t think the stats above are all that significant in the long list of baseball information. I merely find them interesting and am sure that if I were to change the criteria it would change the info. For instance I left out Earl Averill, who didn’t make the top 71 home runs hitters, but was a significant power hitter in the 1930s.  They do remind me just how lucky we were to have Mays, Mantle, and Snider playing at the same time.

The Center Fielders

March 11, 2011

The loss of Duke Snider and a spring training have gotten me to thinking about one of baseball’s glamour positions, center field. So for the next short while I’m going to turn to the position on this site. Some posts will be my standard bios with commentary, others will be on different issues.

Did you ever notice just how many really good center fielders there were? I didn’t say “great”, I said “really good.”  Jim Edmonds is one of those. He just retired and I have to admit I loved watching him play. It wasn’t his hitting that I enjoyed, although it was pretty good too, but it was his play in the field. It seem like the guy could catch everything, no matter how far he had to run or how far he had to stretch out. Torii Hunter is another of those that I simply love to watch field. I’ve been known to offer up a prayer to the effect of “Let someone hit a shot to center just so the world can see Edmonds  (or Hunter) go get it.” Sometimes it gets answered.

Those kinds of guys have existed for a long time. I remember the 1966 World Series pitted Paul Blair against Willie Davis, two truly fine enter fielders of the era. The Series turned on pitching (and three errors on two consecutive plays by Davis) but both were tremendous in the field (Ok, not Davis in game 2). In 1941 Joe DiMaggio faced off against Pete Reiser. In 1927 it was Earle Combs against Lloyd Waner. I could go further back.

But you know what? There aren’t really a lot of great center fielders. Now I suppose we’ll all have different definitions of “great” and that’s part of the joy of baseball. But to make a partial point about it, take a look at the last 30 years of Hall of Fame voting (1981-2010). In 1980 Duke Snider got in. In the 30 years since there have been only two or, depending on where you put Robin Yount and Andre Dawson, three or four center fielders make the Hall. The only two sure center fielders are Richie Ashburn in 1995 by the veteran’s committee and Kirby Puckett by the writers in 2001. To me Yount is a shortstop and Dawson plays right, but others may disagree.  Considering how many quality center fielders there have been in the last 30 years, that’s not a lot being defined as “great.”

Take a minute, sit down, and draw up your own list of the five greatest center fielders ever, leaving out 19th Century and Negro League players and concentrating on the players since 1901. Here’s mine alphabetically: Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Speaker. Yours may vary and that’s not the point. I’ll bet it didn’t take long to come up with the list, did it? Now go to 10. See if it doesn’t get really harder as you get toward nine and ten (passing Griffey, Puckett, and Snider as examples). Mine did. And by 15 I was beginning to list guys like Edmonds and Hunter who I knew weren’t “great.”

This problem isn’t unique. Try it with first basemen or third basemen or left fielders. You get the same results. There are a few truly amazing players, then an entire truckload of very good ones.  But I want to stick with center fielders for a few days.