Posts Tagged ‘Earle Combs’

Taking on Murderer’s Row: The Yanks

July 7, 2015
'26 Yankees

’26 Yankees

The late 1920s New York Yankees were known as “Murderer’s Row”. The 1927 version is frequently cited as the greatest team ever (although other teams are also in the running). In a three-year run the team won three American League pennants, had a player establish a single season home run record, had another win the MVP, and generally run roughshod over Major League Baseball. The opening salvo was fired by the 1926 team.

Manager Miller Huggins’ team won 91 games in 1926, scoring 5.5 runs per game on average. As a team they hit .289 (third in the American League), slugged .437, had a OPS of 806, and racked up 2282 total bases. All those stats led the AL, hence the nickname. The pitching wasn’t quite as good, finished fourth in most league categories, although the team was second in strikeouts.

The infield was anchored by Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig. He hit .313, had 16 home runs, 109 RBIs, and 179 hits (all third on the team). He led the team with 20 triples. Unlike in later years, he hit fifth in the order rather than fourth. At 22, rookie, and fellow Hall of Famer Tony Lazzeri played second (and hit sixth). He hit .275 with 18 home runs and 117 RBIs, both good for second on the team. The left side of the infield wasn’t as formidable. Mark Koenig played short, hit second in the lineup, had 167 hits, and scored 93 runs. Third sacker Joe Dugan was the old guy at age 29. He’d come over from Boston in 1924 and was considered one of the better defensive third baseman in the game. He hit .288 with only one home run, but struck out only 16 times.

The outfield consisted of three well established players. Bob Meusel usually held down left field, but occasionally played right. He had what is generally regarded as the best arm in the AL, so he tended to play the longer corner outfield position (in Yankee Stadium that was left field). He was 29, hit fourth, and was beginning to fade. He hit .315, but had only 12 home runs (fourth on the team), drove in 78 runs, and played only 108 games. Center Field was occupied by Hall of Famer Earle Combs. He hit .299 for the season. In the lead off spot he had 181 hits (second on the team), scored 113 runs (good for third on the team), and had an OBP of .352 (fifth among the starters). Babe Ruth was in right field. He led the AL in  home runs, RBIs, walks, OBP, Slugging, OPS, and total bases. Just your basic run of the mill Babe Ruth year. He also led the Yankees in hits (184) and batting average (.372–good for second in the AL).

Pat Collins, Benny Bengough, and Hank Severeid were the catchers. Collins did most of the work, hitting .286 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 123 (which was third among starters). Severeid got into 41 games, and hit .268, while Bengough was in 36 games. He hit .381 in 84 at bats.

The bench wasn’t particularly strong. Other than the catchers, only three players were in more than 30 games, with two others playing in at least 20. Ben Paschal did the most work (he replaced Meusel when the regular left fielder was out). He hit .287 with seven home runs and his 31 RBIs were easily the most off the bench. Ruth and Gehrig were the only everyday players whose WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) was above 3.0 (although Collins was at 3.0 exactly).

For the season, four men started over 20 games. Lefty Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Pennock had the most with 33. He went 23-11 with an ERA of 362 (ERA+ of 107). He led the team in both wins and innings pitched. Urban Shocker (who ought to be at least considered for the Hall) pitched the next most innings (258) and managed a 19-11 record with an ERA of 3.38 (ERA+ of 114). His 71 walks led the team. Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt and Sam Jones were the other two main starters. Hoyt went 16-12 and led the Yanks in strikeouts (79) while Jones went 9-8, had an ERA north of 4.75 and led the team with five saves. Only Pennock (3.1) and Shocker (4.7) had a WAR above 3.0.

Lefty Garland Braxton led the bullpen with 37 appearances (one start), a 5-1 record, a 2.67 ERA and an ERA+ of 145. Myles Thomas and Walter Beall both pitched 20 games, as did team future manager Bob Shawkey.

It was a formidable team that won the AL pennant by only three games (over Cleveland). It’s hitting was great, it’s pitching middle of the road. It was a favorite to win the 1926 World Series.

The Other Guy in Murderer’s Row

July 7, 2014
Bob Meusel

Bob Meusel

The 1920s Yankees, known as Murderer’s Row, are one of the most famous of all teams. But in many ways it’s selectively famous. People know Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Diehard fans know Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri. Pitching freaks know Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt. But the rest of the team is pretty anonymous. That’s a shame because one of the better members of the team batted right in the middle of the lineup and is now largely forgotten. That’s Bob Meusel.

Meusel was born in California in 1896, three years after his brother Emil, who played a number of years for the Giants. Bob Meusel was spotted while still playing high school baseball. He spent the years 1917-1919 in the West Coast minors, except for a stint in the US Navy during World War I. He did well and in 1920 got the call from the New York Yankees. He was 23.

He was an immediate starter, playing 119 games, most at the corner outfield positions. From the beginning he showed the best outfield arm in either league. By general consensus of the articles of the day (and with a lot of stats agreeing) he was an exceptional outfielder, especially the arm. He got the nickname “Long Bob” almost immediately and there are a couple of versions as to why. One says he was 6’3″ and thin, the other than he had a long arm. You can pick your favorite. In his rookie campaign he hit .328 with 11 home runs, the latter number being seventh in the American League.

He was even better the next season, hitting .318 and slugging 24 home runs with 135 RBIs. The home run number was second in the AL and the RBI total third. He also hit for the cycle against Walter Johnson. It would be the first of three cycles, a Major League record. His team won its first ever pennant with Meusel hitting clean up behind Babe Ruth. The team lost a best of nine series in eight games (to the Giants) with Meusel hitting .200 with three RBIs and no home runs. He did manage to steal home in game two (a game the Yanks won). He would do so again in 1928 to become the only man to successfully steal home twice in the World Series.

Meusel was suspended for barnstorming after the 1921 World Series (so was Ruth), but managed to get into 122 games in 1922. New York won again and again failed to beat the Giants and big brother Emil (called Irish for reasons that make no sense, the family was German in its background). This time Bob Meusel hit .300 but managed only two RBIs, two runs, and no home runs. Back in the Series in 1923 (and still facing his brother’s Giants) Meusel hit only .269 but drove in eight runs with seven hits (two triples and a double included). This time his team took home its first World’s Championship.

Although the Yankees failed to win in either 1924 or 1925 (largely because of Ruth’s woes) Meusel had good years. In ’24 he hit .325, then in ’25 led the AL in home runs with 33 and RBIs with 138. Those would be the only time he would lead the league in a major offensive category.

In 1926, Murderer’s Row was back in the World Series. Meusel .315, but with only 12 home runs. He still maintained his clean up spot although new first baseman Lou Gehrig was challenging him from the five hole. Meusel had a terrible Series hitting .238 with no home runs or RBIs and scoring only three runs. In the famous seventh inning of game seven when Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out Lazzeri with the bases loaded, Meusel was on second. He was also at bat when Ruth tried to steal second, was thrown out, and the Series ended in a St. Louis victory.

In 1927 and 1928 New York won back-to-back World Series’ with Meusel contributing little. He had his only home run in the 1928 Series (along with the steal of home mentioned above), but only had three RBIs (and only one in 1927). He did manage to score five runs in ’28 (to only one in 1927).

At the end of 1928 he was 32 and mostly through. His 1929 was down. He hit .261 (a career low) with only 57 RBIs. He was waived and picked up by Cincinnati for the 1930 season. Despite the juiced ball, he only hit .289 with 10 home runs and 62 RBIs and was done. He hung on in the minors for a couple of years, but retired after the 1932 season. In retirement he did a bit of movie work, mostly cameos in baseball flicks, and worked as a security guard at a Navy base. He died in California in 1977.

For his career his triple slash line is .309/.356/.497/.852 with an OPS+ of 118. He had 1693 hits, scored 826 runs, and knocked in 1064 runners. He had 268 doubles, 95 triples, and 156 home runs for 2719 total bases. His WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) is 27.6.  In the field he was considered one of the premier outfielders of his day, known especially for the strength and accuracy of his arm (but never led the AL in outfield assists).

Bob Meusel was a very good ballplayer, one of the better players of the 1920s. At times he could be considered the second best player on the Yankees (and in 1925 arguably their best) and at other times third (behind Ruth and Gehrig). It’s not a bad legacy to say you’re the best player on a team excepting those two.

Meusel's grave in California

Meusel’s grave in California

 

 

 

St. Louis Blues: 1928

June 26, 2013
Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Back in 1989 my son and I watched the World Series between Oakland and San Francisco. Although known today primarily as the “Earthquake Series” the Series was a four game sweep by Oakland. It was, to be brutally honest, a thorough crushing. My son asked if I’d ever seen a more one-sided World Series. I admitted I hadn’t. So being a clever child he started looking through baseball encyclopedias and finally announced he’d found a World Series as lopsided as 1989. It was the 1928 Series. Here’s a brief rehash of that Series.

In 1926, the St. Louis Cardinals burst onto the baseball scene, becoming the last of the 20th Century’s National League teams to win a pennant. Then they managed to defeat the “Murder’s Row” New York Yankees in seven games (including Alexander’s strikeout of Lazzeri, arguably the most famous strikeout in Major League history). The Yankees, unlike the Cards, repeated by winning the American League pennant in 1927 and manhandling the Pittsburgh Pirates in four games. Both St. Louis and New York won in 1928, setting up a rematch of 1926.

The Cardinals were a good team. Hall of Fame pitchers Grover Cleveland Alexander and Jesse Haines anchored the staff with lefty Bill Sherdel and right hander Flint Rhem rounding out the starters. Haines and Sherdel had 20 wins, Alexander 16, and Rhem 11. That sounded better than it was. Of the four, only Haines had more innings pitched than hits allowed and Rhem had walked more men than he struck out. The hitting stars were Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch, and Chick Hafey, while Taylor Douthit and George Harper also put up good numbers. Although he didn’t hit much, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville could still play a decent short at age 36.

The Yankees were loaded. The duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in their prime. Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig both hit .300, as did Earle Combs (who was hurt and didn’t play much in the Series). The staff included Hall of Fame righty Waite Hoyt, fellow Hall of Famer lefty Herb Pennock, George Pipgras, and bullpen specialist Wilcy Moore.

The first game was played 4 October in New York. The Yanks got an early lead when Ruth and Gehrig hit back-to-back doubles to score Ruth with the first run. They added two more in the fourth when Ruth doubled and, after an out by Gehrig, Bob Meusel belted a two-run home run. A Jim Bottomley homer in the seventh got a run back, but the Yanks returned the lead to three runs in the eighth, with consecutive singles by Koenig, Ruth, and Gehrig to score Koenig. The game ended 4-1 with Hoyt getting the win and Sherdel taking the loss. It was the closest game.

If game one turned out to be the closest game. game two was the biggest blowout. And there had to have been a great satisfaction in getting it at the expense of 1926 hero Alexander. The Yanks got three runs in the first when following a single and a walk, Gehrig clouted a three-run home run. The Cards plated three in the second to tie the game. After a walk and a double scored a run, Lazzeri committed a huge error (on a throw) that sent a second run home. Then a double play grounder gave St. Louis a third run. New York got the lead back the next inning on a walk, a sacrifice, and a single. The third was the Yankees big inning. Ruth singled, Gehrig walked, then Meusel doubled to score the Babe. After a walk and a single sent Gehrig home, Alexander plunked catcher Benny Bengough to bring in a run.  A single scored a fourth run and only a great throw from Douthit saved another run. The Yanks tacked on a final run in the seventh on a single, a stolen base, a sacrifice and a pinch hit single by Joe Dugan.

After a travel day, the Series resumed 7 October in St. Louis.  The Cards broke on top with two runs in the first. With one out, third baseman Andy High singled, Frisch followed with another single, then Bottomley tripled to score both men. New York responded with a home run from Gehrig in the second, then took the lead in the fourth when Ruth walked and Gehrig legged out an inside-the-park home run (hit to deepest center field) that scored two runs. The Cards tied it back up when Douthit was plunked and High doubled him home in the fifth. The Yanks responded with a very unYankees-like inning. Koenig singled, was forced at second with Ruth taking first. Gehrig walked (something he did a lot of in the Series). Meusel then grounded to third. High flipped to second to force Gehrig, but Ruth raced home. The relay to catcher Jimmie Wilson was on-line, but he dropped the ball, letting Ruth score. Meusel took third on the play. After a walk to Lazzeri, New York executed a double steal, Lazzeri going to second and Meusel stealing home. A single brought in Lazzeri with the third run of the inning. New York got one last run in the seventh when an error by Hafey and a Ruth single gave them a seventh run.

Down 3-0, St. Louis sent Sherdel back to the mound on 9 October. New York countered with Hoyt. For six innings it looked like the Cards might have a chance to play a game five. They got one in the third when outfielder Ernie Orsatti doubled, went to third on a bunt and scored on Frisch’s sacrifice fly. The Yanks got the run back in the fourth on Ruth’s first Series homer. In the bottom of the fourth Maranville was safe at second on a botched double play relay throw by Koenig. The next man was out, then Hoyt tried to pick off Maranville. The ball sailed into the outfield and the Rabbit came home to put St. Louis ahead. That lasted until the seventh. With one out Ruth hit his second home run of the game. Gehrig followed with a homer of his own. Meusel singled, went to third on Lazzeri’s double, and scored on the next play, Lazzeri going to third. In his only appearance of the Series, Earle Combs then hit a long sacrifice to right that plated Lazzeri. In the eighth, backup outfielder Cedric Durst hit a home run, and the Babe crushed his third home run of the game (and Series) to finish the Yankees scoring. The Cardinals picked up one final run in the ninth, then Frisch popped a foul to Ruth in left to end the game and the Series.

It wasn’t even close. The Cards managed 10 runs to New York’s 27. Maranville led the Cards with a .308 average. Bottomley hit only .214, but had three RBI’s. Only Maranville scored more than one run (He had two.). The staff was shelled. Sherdel took two losses, Alexander and Haines each took one.  Haines 4.50 ERA was the best among the starters. The team ERA was 6.09. They had both 13 walks and 13 strike outs.

New York, on the other hand, played wonderfully. Here’s the triple slash line for Ruth .625/.647/1.375/2.022. He had three home runs (all in game four), four RBI’s, 10 hits, and scored nine runs. Gehrig might have been better. His triple slash line reads .545/,706/1.722/2.433. He had four home runs, nine RBI’s, six hits, and scored five runs. His lack of hits was largely the result of walking six times. Of his two hits that weren’t home runs, one was a double. No other Yankee did as well, but Durst hit .375 and Meusel had three RBI’s and a steal of home. The pitchers put up an ERA of 2.00 while striking out 29 and walking only 11. Every game was a complete game victory with Hoyt getting two of them.

It was a complete beat down. And after the loss of 1926, must have been particularly sweet for the Yanks, especially for Lazzeri who managed a double and scored a run against Alexander. Both teams would go on to play good ball over the next several years, New York winning another pennant in 1932 and St. Louis in both 1930 and 1931. They would not, however, meet again in the World Series until 1942. And I promise no more music based titles with Missouri themes (at least for a while).

Between Murderers Row and the Bronx Bombers

March 19, 2012

Did you ever notice how the Yankees tend to win pennants in bunches. In 1921-23 they win, then again 1926-28, then you find them winning a bunch between 1936 and 1943. Then starting in 1947, they win more or less constantly through 1964. Then there’s a gap until 1976-1981, and finally there’s the 1996-2003 run. It’s not that they win every year, or that they win all the championships when they do win, but notice how for long periods of time (and three years is a long time in baseball) they are consistently in the World Series. There are two exceptions, two teams that win a World Series in isolation. One is the most recent gig, the other in 1932.

The 1932 Yankees were something of a hybrid, and that may explain why they have only one pennant. It’s a transition team between the Murder’s Row guys of the 1920s and the Bronx Bombers of the late 1930s. Babe Ruth was beginning his decline, but still good. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t in New York yet. In some ways this is Lou Gehrig’s team,  perhaps the only winner that can say that. I don’t mean to imply that Gehrig isn’t a major player in 1926-28 or again in 1936-38 but I think most people see the first team as Ruth’s and the second as DiMaggio’s. They are also a very overlooked team. Finally, it is Joe McCarthy’s first Yankees pennant winner.

The infield was Gehrig at first, Tony Lazzeri at second, Joe Sewell at third, and Frankie Crosetti at short. Gehrig hit .300 with 34 home runs, 151 RBIs (did you ever notice just how much of an RBI machine Gehrig was?), and had an OPS+ of 180. Lazzeri also hit .300, had 11 home runs, and an OPS+ of 137. Sewell, in the twilight of his career, hit .270 and did what he always did, hit the ball. He struck out all of three times in 503 at bats and walked 56 times. Crosetti hit just .240.

The outfield was Ruth, Earle Combs, and Ben Chapman. Ruth was Ruth, although he was on the downside of his career. He hit 41 home runs, drove in 137, had an OPS+ of 200, and an OPS of 1.150. Combs was still good, hitting .300, scoring 143 times, getting 190 hits, and posting a 126 OPS+. Chapman was the new guy. He hit .299, stole a team (and league) high 38 bases, and posted a 124 OPS+.

The battery consisted of Bill Dickey as the catcher. Dickey was just coming into his own as a hitter. He hit .310 with 15 home runs, 84 RBIs, and was another in a long line of Yankees with an OPS+ over 100 (120). The starters were still good, but beginning to age in spots. Lefty Gomez won 24 games but posted an ERA over four. Red Ruffing had 18 wins and an ERA just over three. George Pipgras, Johnny Allen, and 38-year-old Herb Pennock were the other pitchers who started 20 or more games. Allen joined Wilcy Moore in leading the team with four saves.

The 1932 Yankees won 107 games and finished first by 13 games (over Philadelphia). As a reward they got to face the Cubs in the World Series. They won in four games. The first and fourth game were blowouts, while games two and three were reasonably close. The most famous, and controversial moment came in game three. In the fifth inning with the game tied 4-4, Ruth came to bat with one out. He hit what became known as “The Called Shot” to deep center field. I’ve seen the picture of Ruth just before the home run. It’s obvious he has his hand up, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what he’s doing and where he’s pointing (maybe he’s giving the Cubs “the finger”), so I’m not going to make a definitive statement as to whether he “called” his shot or not. Being Ruth, I wouldn’t bet against it. What’s generally unknown is that Gehrig homered in the next at bat to give the Yanks a two-run lead and the eventual margin of victory.

The team fell back in 1933 and 1934. By 1935 Ruth was gone. By 1936 DiMaggio was there and it was a different team. So the 1932 Yanks are a team that won in isolation and was not part of either the Murderer’s Row or Bronx Bombers dynasty. Still, it’s a great team and I might argue it’s one of the very finest Yankees teams ever.

Legacy

March 16, 2011

Yankee Stadium 1930s configuration

There are some positions that are just simply the glamour spots for a team. For the Giants, as evidenced by their latest championship and their long history of great pitchers, it’s the mound. For the Red Sox it’s left field.  Both teams have produced an inordinate number of high quality players at the position. For the Yankees, that position is, with apologies to catchers and second base, center field.

The Yankees were formed in Baltimore in 1901 and shifted to New York in 1903. The “Yankees” team moniker came during the teens. They were a team that was sporadically competitive prior to 1920 and the arrival of Babe Ruth. Afterwards they were the dominant franchise. Whether the team was winning or losing, they have usually had a fine center fielder since. the key word there is “usually.”

Way back in 1921 when it all began, the center fielder was the immortal Elmer Miller (that’s OK, I never heard of him either). Whitey Witt came in ’22. Not a bad player but certainly not the reason they were winning (That Ruth kid had something to do with it). He stayed through 1925, hit .287 with no power and not much speed. He gave way to Earle Combs, who was a revelation in center. Combs could hit (.325), had doubles power (309), and speed. He didn’t steal a lot of bases (with Ruth and Gehrig hitting behind you, would you?), but the papers of the time indicate he was adept at going from first to third on a good single and coming home from second on a clean base hit to the outfield. And of course he was on base quite a bit (OBP of .397, which ain’t bad, but not all that great either. He never finished higher than 5th in OBP.) for Ruth and Gehrig to drive home. He stayed through 1935 and eventually made the Hall of Fame. His successor was Joe DiMaggio who  stayed in center through 1951 and was replaced by Mickey Mantle in 1952. Mantle remained a fixture in New York through 1968.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle played every game in center between 1925 and 1968. Obviously they missed games, and DiMaggio lost three years to World War II. Additionally, Mantle moved to first base in the last two years. But as a rule for the entire period a Hall of Famer stood in center field for New York. That’s not a unique event. Take a look at Boston left fielders from Ted Williams through Jim Rice, but the Yankees center fielders played on winners year after year.

Bobby Murcer replaced Mantle (after running Joe Pepitone and Bill Robinson out there for a couple of years). He’s generally overlooked as a Yankees center fielder, but he was pretty good. He wasn’t DiMaggio or Mantle, but he may have been Combs. There have been a lot of really terrific underrated players in baseball history. Murcer is in the list and, in my opinion, toward the top. He lasted through 1974 then came back in 1979 (although not as the regular center fielder). He was also the last of the power hitters who spent significant time out in center.

The rest of the 1970s and 1980s saw New York send a lot of men to center. They won two World Series titles with Mickey Rivers out there. But as a rule guys like Jerry Mumphrey and Ruppert Jones weren’t anything to write home about. They did try Rickey Henderson in center in the mid to late 1980s. As a center fielder Rickey Henderson made left fielder Rickey Henderson look like Roberto Clemente (Henderson led the league in errors in 1985.). But at least he could track down the ball. All the searching for a quality center fielder changed when Bernie Williams showed up. He gave New York a fine center fielder. He could hit, run, play the field. He won a  batting title and hit clean up on four World Series winners. Is he a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out in a couple of years.

I know that’s not a  comprehensive list of Yankees center fielders, not even since 1921, but what I wanted to show was a long and sustained period of quality play at one position. And the Yankees center fielders certainly, despite some hiccups, did that.

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.

Short but Sweet

December 27, 2010

Following up on the post about guys who made the Hall of Fame and really could only do one thing well, I began to look for other groups of players who could be linked. An easy one was guys with very short, but very intense careers who make the Hall of Fame based on a brief time of greatness. It turned out there were more than I thought. 

Let me exclude from this list players who lost significant time to war. Guys like Joe DiMaggio who only played 13 years and Hank Greenberg, also 13 years, go in this group. Also I exclude Negro League players who are in the Hall of Fame for their Major League years but lost significant time to segregation. This is where guys like Roy Campanella and Larry Doby go. A third group to be left out are those guys who die while major leaguers but make the Hall. Addie Joss and Ross Youngs are the primary people in this group. All of these people have short careers because of outside influences (or internal in the case of Joss and Youngs) and not due to baseball related causes. That makes them different enough to me that I exclude them from the list I compiled. I also excluded players whose primary career was prior to 1900. Conditions were so different then that short careers were actually somewhat common and both conditions and rules changes (a mound over a pitching box, gloves vs no gloves, etc) made a difference. Still, I get a fairly impressive, and probably incomplete, list.

Among pitchers, five came quickly to mind and a survey of the info indicated I was right about them. Jack Chesbro, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax, and Joe McGinnity (alphabetically) all had very short careers that were considered Hall of Fame worthy (and I don’t intend to debate here whether they were worthy or weren’t).  In Dean’s case he only barely got the required 10 years in through a bit of trickery by the St. Louis Browns ownership. McGinnity also deserves a caveat. He left the National League after 10 years (averaging 25 wins during the 10 seasons) to return to the Minor Leagues (which were not tied to the Major Leagues as they are now) and racked up another 250 plus wins before finally retiring. I’m a bit unclear on his reasoning for the change, but his ML career was on its downside.

I knew of six hitters who met my criteria: Earl Averill, Mickey Cochrane, Earle Combs, Ralph Kiner, Kirby Puckett, and Hack Wilson (again alphabetical). Averill, Combs, Kiner, and Puckett all suffered injuries (back for both Averill and Kiner, a skull fracture for Combs to go along with a broken collarbone, and eyes for Puckett) that curtailed their careers. Cochrane was skulled in a game and told to retire. He did. Wilson drank himself out of the game.  Again each had a short, and very intense period of greatness that did not turn into a long career because of other circumstances (primarily injury except for Wilson).

By my count, there are 180 people in the Hall of Fame who are primarily players (Here’s hoping I can count.) and not managers, executives, umpires, etc. I didn’t really go through the entire list looking for people who played only 10-13 years. Instead I used people I could think of immediately. Maybe not the best way of doing it, but it’s what I used. At least 11 of them had short careers. That’s about 6%, which isn’t a bad number, although certainly not an overwhelming number either. And here I used the entire Hall without excluding those people I specifically excluded in the second paragraph. Had I done so, the percentage would, of course, be higher. It seems that if you are very good you can still have a short career and make the Hall of Fame. But you have to be very, very good.

The Greatest General Manager

November 16, 2010

Ed Barrow

A title like the one above is dangerous. People can always say “Hey, dope, you forgot…”. Well, in this case I think I’m quite safe in picking Ed Barrow is the finest General Manager to ever grace the game.

Barrow was born in May 1868. After a short newspaper stint in Iowa, Barrow moved to Pittsburgh in 1890 and by 1895 had served as manager in Wheeling, West Virginia and Paterson, New Jersey. In ’95 while in New Jersey, he signed Honus Wagner (see what I mean about greatest) to a contract. By 1903 he was manager of the Detroit Tigers, finishing fifth in an eight team league. He left in 1904 and went back to managing in the minors. In 1910 he took over presidency of the Eastern League and in 1918 became manager of the Boston Red Sox.

Barrow made one major change to the Sox roster in 1918. He moved Babe Ruth from being primarily a pitcher who could hit a bit to an outfielder who could pitch a bit. Boston promptly won the World Series. Barrow stayed at Boston through 1920. The owner, Harry Frazzee, was in the process of dismantling the team for cash. The most famous sale was Ruth to New York, but it also cost him his manager. Barrow also moved to New York, this time in the role of business manager (the modern equivalent is general manager). It’s here that Barrow flourished. Given pretty much a free hand by Yankees ownership, between 1920 and 1945 Barrow helped create the greatest dynasty in Major League history. He was largely responsible for bringing up such players as Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs for the 1920s Yankees team. In the 1930s he added Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey (Dickey actually came up in 1928, but didn’t start), Phil Rizzuto, Lefty Gomez, Tommy Henrich, and Charley Keller. He also was an astute trader, picking up journeyman Red Ruffing from Boston to be the ace of the 1930’s team.

In 1945, Barrow became president of the Yankees, holding the job for two years. He retired after the 1947 season and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953. He died later that same year.

There is no question that the Yankees teams that dominated baseball between 1921 and 1947 owed their success to the quality of the players on the field. Ed Barrow was largely responsible for putting those teams together. Branch Rickey may have been more influential by creating the farm system and integrating baseball, but Barrow was more successful on the diamond. He gets my vote as the best GM ever.

The Way to Win: Murder’s Row

August 4, 2010

Miller Huggins in 1927

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Yankees fan. Having said that, I acknowledge they are the most successful franchise in Major League baseball. That statement lends itself to an obvious question. How do they do it? You can argue it’s money, but it wasn’t just money in 1923 when they won their first title. I’ve begun to look at the great Yankees dynasties (1926-28, 1936-43, 1949-64, 1976-1981, and 1996-2001) and discovered those teams are actually a lot alike. 

All the great Yankees dynasties have the following things in common: 1) they have a good manager, 2) there are a few true greats on the team, 3) there are some really quality players in other positions, 4) there are a number of role players, 5) there are some one year wonders. You can look at other teams throughout baseball history and find the same thing (and you can add in things like a deep bench and good relief pitching for the more modern teams), so it’s not just the Yankees system of winning, but they do it best. It seems these traits, not the stockpiling of stars, are essential to winning. 

To provide a quick example, here’s a look at one of those Yankees teams. 

The 1926-1928 Murder’s Row Yankees were skippered by Miller Huggins. He was an ex-middle infielder who had a decent, but not spectacular career. He won a couple of walks titles in the first few years of the 20th Century and managed the Cardinals without much success prior to taking over at New York in 1918. He provided a steady hand and a calming influence on a team that could be wild. 

The Murder’s Row Yankees had two all-time greats on the team: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Both were simply great in 1927 and 1928 and 1926 was Gehrig’s coming out party. Behind them the Yankees fielded a number of really good players who could step up on days the two stars were not doing well. Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt all made the Hall of Fame and Urban Shocker could do so someday (if somebody will just look at his numbers). 

Bob Meusel had been in the “really good” category in the early 1920s, but by 1926-28 had slipped to a role player. Mark Koenig, Joe Dugan, and the various catchers (Pat Collins, Hank Severeid, Johnny Grabowski) all fill the bill.  The one-year wonders are Wilcy Moore in 1927 and George Pipgras in 1928 (although Pipgras also had a decent 1929). 

I want to do follow-up posts on the other dynasties to show it’s not just the “Yankees way” of winning. I’m also certain I’m not the first person to determine what it takes to win, but I find this instructive (but not predictive of the next dynasty). Feel free to add your own criteria to the list.