Posts Tagged ‘Hank Aaron’

The Outsiders of 1957

March 15, 2012

1957 Milwaukee Braves

In baseball, the 1950s is primarily famous for the dominance of the city of New York. In that decade teams from New York won every World Series championship except two: 1957 and 1959. And to be fair about it, the 1959 winner was only two years transplanted from New York (actually Brooklyn), so only one team without New York connections won a World Series in the decade. That team played in Milwaukee. 

The 1957 Milwaukee Braves are one of a handful of teams that are in the running for best team of the 1950s. They could hit, the were good in the field, their pitching was excellent, and they even had a decent bench. Most teams in the 1950s didn’t have all four of those things, certainly not in the same season. So, in the words of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” movie “Who are those guys?”

The catcher was Del Crandall. He’d been around since 1949, lost two years to Korea, then become the primary backstop in 1953. He was a good catcher, leading the league year after year in caught stealings. It was an era of few steals, but Crandall was the best at stopping the running game. He wasn’t a great hitter, but by 1957 his numbers were trending up (although ’57 was a down year for him) in most categories (his home runs and RBIs were dropping).

The left side of the infield was solid. Hall of Fame third baseman Eddie Mathews held down the hot corner. He hit .292, had 32 home runs, 94 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .540. Johnny Logan was at short. He made a lot of errors, but was always near the top in range factor, assists, and put outs. He tended to hit around .270 with 10-15 home runs.

The right side of the infield is a good place to look at both the bench and the importance of a trade. The trade was at second. The Braves were struggling at second base early in the season Danny O’Connell wasn’t doing much, so Milwaukee turned a three-for-one trade (later World Series winning manager Chuck Tanner was one of the others). They got Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst in the deal. Schoendienst solidified the infield, gave the team a good hitter. He hit .310, had an OPS+ of 116, and was a good, if not spectacular infielder. He was third in putouts; second in assists, range, and fielding percentage. He and Logan weren’t Fox and Aparicio turning a double play, but they were more than serviceable. First base saw the bench come to the fore. Joe Adcock was the main first baseman. He was a pretty standard 1950s first baseman. He was a slugger who could put up 30 home runs, hit about .270, and get a lot of RBIs. He also was only a mediocre first baseman. Enter Frank Torre (Joe’s older brother). Torre was a good first baseman, had little power, hit in the .270s, and in 1957 had an OPS+ of 103. He also carried an enormous glove. The gag was that Schoendienst had to cover a third of the distance from second to first and Torre’s glove would cover the rest of the area. Adcock went down early (he only played 65 games) and Torre was a more than adequate replacement.

The arrangements in the outfield are fascinating. In left the Braves went through a ton of trouble to find their man. Bobby Thomson (six years removed from “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) started out there. He was pretty much through. They tried Chuck Tanner, but if you’re relying on Chuck Tanner (other than as a manager), you’re in trouble. They finally decided on Wes Covington, who had a  breakout year. His triple slash numbers were .284/.339/.547. His OPS was .876 (OPS+ of 138).

The bench also came into play in center field. The starter and lead off man was Bill Bruton. He stole a team high 11 bases, hit .278, and got hurt. He played in only 79 games. In came a totally obscure minor leaguer and bench player named Bob Hazle. “Hurricane” Hazle proceeded to hit .403, slug .649, have an OPS of 1.126 and an OPS+ of 209. He was, in other words, one of the great “ninety day wonders” ever. His career floundered after 1957, but he was exactly what Milwaukee needed in 1957. And here’s a good enough place to mention Andy Pafko who, in his last good year, was the fourth outfielder.

Right field was solid. Henry Aaron was out there and he had an MVP year (his only MVP). He hit .322, slugged .600, had an OPS of .978, and an OPS+ of 166 (OK, it wasn’t Hurricane Hazle, but it was close). He hit 44 home runs, 22 doubles, had 198 hits, 132 RBIs, and 369 total bases. He also played right superbly (especially for a converted second baseman).

The starting pitching was above average for the era. Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette, and Bob Buhl were the primary starters. Spahn won his usual 21 games (and the Cy Young Award), Buhl had 18, and Burdette 17. both Spahn and Buhl had ERA’s under three and only Burdette had an ERA+ under 100 (94). The fourth pitcher (four starters in that era) rotated between Gene Conley (who had a solid NBA career), Juan Pizarro, and Bob Trowbridge. Put their numbers together and you got a 21-20 record with more innings pitched than hits and more strikeouts than walks.

The bullpen in the 1950s wasn’t the same as today. There was no “closer” who pitched only the ninth while waiting for a series of set-up men to get the team to the ninth. But Don McMahon was pretty close. He pitched in 32 games going 46.2 innings (about 1.3 innings per appearance). He had nine saves in a time when no one knew what a save was or how it was figured (it hadn’t been invented yet). He had an ERA of 1.54 and an ERA+ of 228. The rest of the bullpen produced 10 saves and was fairly typical for the age in that it was basically older guys who weren’t true starter material. And having more saves than the “closer”, McMahon, shows how little the closer role was a part of the game in 1957.

The Braves won the World Series in 1957 (becoming the last National League team to play New York in a Series), lost to the Yankees in the 1958 World Series (allowing the Yanks to beat every National League team then in existence), then lost a two (of three) game playoff to the Dodgers in 1959. That was it. The team faded fast, finishing fourth in 1960, then fifth or sixth in 1961 through 1965. In 1966 they moved to Atlanta. The run was short, but the team was good. Obviously the team of the 1950s was the Yankees, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t pick the 1957 Braves as the best one year team of the decade.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy

Comparing Across Eras

May 30, 2011

Nap LaJoie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking the Winners: Rookies

November 3, 2010

Brad Komminsk

So the unimportant voting is finally over and the nation swings Red. Now we can get on to finding out how the really important voting went. Who won all the MLB awards?

As with the previous post I’m going to project who I think will win one of the awards. This time I’m going with the Rookie of the Year Award. Again, this is who I think the writers will pick, not who I think should win (although sometimes I agree with the pick).

AL-Neftali Feliz. I think the combination of 100 MPH fastball, 40 saves, a division title for a team that hadn’t won anything in a while, (remember all votes are in before the playoffs start) and his age will give Feliz the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

NL-Buster Posey. OK, here I’m going to admit that I may be projecting my own choice. This one could easily be wrong. I think it’s a two-man race with Jason Heyward and I think the writers will ultimately pick a Posey over a Heyward. First, Posey plays a harder position. Second, Heyward had a weak September and some of these voters don’t remember all the way back to last week, let alone to June. Third, the Giants win their division and Atlanta is the wild card. I’m not sure how much difference that makes, but it may be a deciding factor is some voter’s mind.

And finally (and I’ve put this in a different paragraph for a  reason), Heyward was a mild disappointment. Remember the first few weeks of his time in Atlanta? He was touted as the second  coming of Henry Aaron. That happens a lot. Every time the Dodgers come up with a left-hander who’s any good “He’s the next Koufax.” Well, no, he isn’t. When the Yankees get a new catcher who’s worth a damn “He’s the next Berra.” No, he isn’t. In Atlanta the next great thing is “The next Hank Aaron.” Well, no he isn’t. So, at the risk of nagging, just stop it. Quit already. The pressure put on a player to live up to that hype is enormous and it’s also unfair. I remember when Brad Komminsk was the next Hank Aaron. He never even got close. I remember they hung that tag on David Justice. Justice won a Rookie of the Year Award and hit the World Series winning homer in 1995, but there was always an aura of unfulfilled promise about him because he was supposed to be Hank Aaron and he just wasn’t. I’m afraid the same thing is going to happen to Heyward too and that would be a shame and grossly unfair to the man.

A Pair of Reviews

May 5, 2010

Haven’t done a review of a book for a while, so here’s a couple. Remember, this is my opinion and should not be taken as gospel (although a faith offering in the form of cash will be accepted).

When working in the 19th Century, I’ve refered with some frequency to David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball. The book was published in 1997 by Penguin Books (9781556115004 ISBN #). As far as I can tell there is no updated version. If you’re interested in 19th Century baseball this is your best source. There’s an introduction, then beginning with 1871 and ending with 1900 he goes through each year. He does a short summary of the season, interspersed with boxes that contain short summaries of particular events, people, or anything else he finds interesting. That’s followed by a team-by-team statistical rundown of the season and a brief look at any postseason action. The work ends by listing the players (by position) and giving their statistics. One thing he does is combine the National Association (1871-1875) stats with the later stats to give you a better overall look at the player’s career (many baseball encyclopedia’s give the info in separate lists). There are also managers and umps listed. The year-to-year summaries are brief, so if you’re interested in a season in detail, this ain’t the work. But if you want an overview of the period with a pretty complete statistical list, try it. One final thing, Nemec’s statistics differ somewhat from other sources. That’s not really a problem as the other sources tend to differ from each other. The reliabily of 19th Century stats is fluid, although getting better. I generally use the stats given by Nemec for this blog.

The other work I won’t recommend nearly as highly. Leveling the Field by G. Scott Thomas (2002, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers) says it’s “an encyclopedia of baseball’s all-time great performances as revealed through adjusted statistics.” OK, maybe. What the author did was to take the way baseball is played today (2002) and turn that into a series of formulae that supposedly allow him to apply modern play to the play of other eras. This is supposed o tell you what Ty Cobb and company would do if playing today (he doesn’t go the other way and see what Roger Clemens would do in 1910). After explaining his idea and how he does it, he goes through each year giving you a what happens using this method, puts in season highlights (Honus Wagner hits .399 in 1908 with 237 hits and Tim Jordan leads the NL with 40 home runs. Yes, you read that right, 40 home runs in 1908.). At the back there is a new compilation of all-time leaders in various categories (Babe Ruth hits 1157 home runs, Hank Aaron gets 947), followed by his all-time players at each position, an all-time team (26 players), and the adjusted stats of various players. It’s interesting and total nonsense. I don’t like these kinds of books because they adjust through simple figures rather than look at all the variables that make each baseball era unique. Having said that, it might have been kind of fun to watch the Babe blast 94 home runs in 1921 while Yankees don’t even make the World Series (Cleveland beats Pittsburgh four games to three in Leveling-land). If you want to have a little fun the book is OK. Just don’t expect to learn anything.

Some Miscellaneous Stats

May 3, 2010

I just got my latest copy of the magazine Baseball Digest. In the back there are several pages dedicated to stats. These are done by decade and show the top ten players in a number of hitting and pitching categories per decade. Each decade is done from the zero through the nine, thus the first is 1900-1909, the last 2000-2009. There are some interesting stats available.
First, there’s nothing particularly magical about a decade. Most good players have careers that stretch across more than one, and thus a list like this skews the numbers. But it does provide a handy way to group the stats. I don’t propose to put the list here; you can go to the magazine website and probably find it (I didn’t check). But I’d like to comment on some that I find interesting, the hitters first.

1. You get a feel for just how much Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb dominated the first two decades of the 20th Century. The categories listed are runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. Between 1900 and 1909, Wagner is first in all but triples, where he come in second, and in home runs where he comes in tied for fifth. Some of the numbers are fairly close, for instance he leads Nap Lajoie in batting by only .006, but in other areas he’s hugely ahead (almost 200 hits, over 200 runs). Cobb’s the same in the period 1910-1919. He leads all categories except doubles where he is second and home runs where he fails to make the top ten. Again he’s sometimes close (.030 in slugging %), but in other cases he’s way ahead (120 hits, 150 runs). No one else can compare with the two of them in the first twenty years of the century. No one else, even Babe Ruth in the 1920s, is as dominant as Wagner and Cobb.

2. The offensive explosion of the 1920’s is really noticable. In runs, Babe Ruth is first and he’s 300 ahead of Cobb and 350 ahead of Wagner. In the 1920’s Wagner’s 1014 runs scored would rank third as would Cobb’s 1051. Doubles, home runs, RBIs are very much the same.

3. You see how quickly integration of the Major Leagues affects baseball. By the 1950s black players are already getting into the top 10 lists although few of them played the entire decade. Minnie Minoso is on the list in hits, doubles, stolen bases, RBIs, triples, and on-base percentage. Hank Aaron is third in batting, Willie Mays fourth, and Minoso (again) is eighth. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s are full of black players who make the lists. You can see the gradual shift away from black players occur as they begin to be a lesser percentage of the lists in the 1990s and 2000s, the same time as Hispanics increasingly take center stage.

4. There are some really surprising people who are very high up on some of the lists. In the 1900-1909 period, Roy Thomas is second in OBP (.417 to .411). I kind of vaguely knew who he was, but this list made me take a look at him and begin a reevaluation of his abilities. Harry Davis’ career ends at about the same time the A’s become a dominant team, so he’s generally overlooked as a major player in Athletics history. Did you know in the period 1900-1909 he leads the majors in home runs, is in the top five in both RBIs and slugging percentage?  Want to know a secret? Neither did I. There are lots of these. Tris Speaker is second in doubles in the 1920s (to Rogers Hornsby) and I never think of him as a 1920s player. Vada Pinson, who is totally overlooked today is second in the 1960s in doubles, third in hits, eighth in stolen bases, and fifth in runs. Willie Stargell who isn’t exactly obscure, but isn’t the first name you’d think of, leads the 1970s in home runs (by four over Reggie Jackson). Who knew? I would have guessed Jackson.

5. Some players get shafted by the way the decades are compiled. Jackie Robinson, whose career is 1947-1956, ends up with numbers compiled almost equally in two half-decades. He makes the lists once (1940s stolen bases he’s 10th).  

There are other things, but I wanted to give you only a flavor of the lists. See if you can find them. My guess is they are on-line somewhere, not just on the magazine website. I’ll do pitchers later.

Jackie Robinson and the Death of the Negro Leagues

February 12, 2010

There’s an old phrase I remember from years ago in my science classes (my son is fairly sure there was only alchemy that far back), “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Seems that’s true in baseball too. For years the black community wanted the integration of Major League Baseball. The columns of Wendell Smith of Pittsburgh are a wonderful read when looking at this attitude. In 1947 they got what they wanted. They also got something they didn’t, the death of the Negro Leagues.

When Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers he opened up a new pool of talent for Major League teams. Slowly, it’s true, but steadily the big league teams began signing black players and by 1959 every team had at least one on its Major League roster. For most Americans, then and now, this was progress. For the Negro Leagues it was slow and steady death. For every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there was one less white player with a job; but for every black player that went to the Major Leagues, there were also less fans in the stands at Negro League parks and that was deadly. Some estimates indicate a tripling of black faces in Ebbets Field in the first three years Robinson played in Brooklyn. If that’s true, then those fans, whose wages hadn’t changed, were not going to Negro League games and spending money at Negro League parks. In the post on Effa Manley I noted the Newark Eagles attendance dropped 52%. That’s fairly common. And if Negro League teams collapsed that put more and more black people out of work; not just players, but owners, executives, peanut sellers, etc.

Part of the loss of fan base is because of the falling off in quality of play. As more and more stars of the Negro Leagues ended up in the Majors or in the vast reaches of the Minor Leagues, the level of play in the Negro Leagues suffered. Taking a look at the 3 Negro League World Series’ beginning in 1946, the year Robinson played in Montreal preparatory to heading to Brooklyn, you can see this beginning.

In 1946 the Newark Eagles and Kansas City Monarchs squared off in the Series. By 1948 Monte Irvin and Larry Doby of the Eagles were gone to the Majors (Doby) or to the minors (Irvin). The Monarchs lost Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Satchel Paige (and manager Buck O’Neill became the first black coach in the Majors)  to previously all-white teams.

The aftermath of the 1947 Series saw the New York Cubans lose Minnie Minoso, Lino Donoso, Pat Scantleberry, and Jose Santiago to the white leagues and the Cleveland Buckeyes lose the services of Sam Jethroe, Quincy Trouppe, and Toothpick Sam Jones.

By the last World Series in 1948 the damage was already heavy and the two teams, the Homestead Grays and the Birmingham Black Barons, lost only three players: Luke Easter, Bob Trice, and Willie Mays (Yes, that Willie Mays). There was no Series in 1949. (A disclaimer here: I may have missed a player or two, but I think I have the majority of players off to the Majors or Minors from the six teams involved.)

Those players were being replaced by lower quality players and the leagues suffered. By 1949 the Negro National League collapsed. The Negro American League lasted into the 1950s, but was in many ways a repository of minor league talent with just a few significant players left. Independent teams were also failing. Major players like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks were deserting the black teams for integrated Major League teams with greater prestige and more money.

A number of owners like Newark’s Effa Manley tried to stem the tide by requiring that the Major Leagues either honor Negro League contracts or pay the Negro League teams for the services of players already under contract. Most big league teams ignored her and her peers and simply signed who they wanted. In fairness to the Major League teams, the Negro League teams had not been real good at honoring each others contracts.

So within 3 years of Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Negro Leagues were on life support. Within 10 years they were moribund. A handful of black teams, many trying to make their way as baseball versions of the Harlem Globetrotters, managed to hang on into the 1960s, but the era of black baseball was over.  For every team integrated, the US moved toward a more incusive society, but for every team integrated a black team died and bunches of men were out of a job. It was a tradeoff and unintended.

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve devoted a week to black baseball. This post marks the end of my foray into the subject, at least for a while. Hope you’ve enjoyed them and learned something. I did.

Some Random Thoughts on the Negro Leagues

February 6, 2010

February is Black History Month around the US. It seems appropriate to look at the Negro Leagues during February, so I’m going to do a couple of posts. Let me start them with a disclaimer. I’m no expert on the Negro Leagues. I find them interesting and the info fascinating, but I’d never pretend to be an expert on the matter. That being said, a few comments follow:

1. There were several of them. Most famous were the Negro American League, the Negro National League (1920s version), the Negro National League (1930s-40s version), and the Eastern Colored League. There were a host of  others, but these four dominate most of the conversations about segregated baseball.

2. The leagues were led by the same sorts of people who led the white Major Leagues, entrepeneurs and opportunists. I’ve heard some less than favorable comments about a number of the owners because they made their money in less than “savory” occupations. A couple ran pool rooms (“You got trouble right here in River City”), some were loan sharks, others ran numbers. Of course if you were a black American in the era you had to live in specific places and keep to specific jobs, very few of which were of the “best” quality. I’m reminded of the Christian attitude towards Jews in the Middle Ages. Put them in cramped ghettos, make them hold specific jobs, and then be astounded when they ended up dirty and usurers. So I find it stunning when people are shocked (“Shocked to find there’s gambling going on”) to find so-called disreputable types running teams. I’m also remined that the owners of the white teams frequently weren’t among “the salt of the earth.”

3. Not all the owners were black and male. Two of the most successful franchises were the Kansas City Monarchs and the Newark Eagles. The Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was white and the Eagles owner, Effa Manley, was female (she ran the team, but co-owned with her husband). Both ran very successful franchises, each winning a Negro League World Series and both eventually were elected to the Hall of Fame.

4. The quality of play seems to have been about on par with the Major Leagues. There are few reliable stats about the Negro Leagues, but anecdotal evidence and the few stats that do survive indicate that the top players and top teams were very much the equal of the Major League teams. Certain of the weaker teams may have been only minor league quality, but then the same can be said of a number of Major League teams in a given year.

5.  Judging by the impact black players, many of them coming over from the Negro Leagues, made in the majors, especially in the National League in the 1950s, it is evident that the top line players were equal with the best of the Major League players. Between 1949, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to win the National League MVP and 1963 when Sandy Koufax won his (a 15 year period) black players won 11 National League MVP awards (Robinson, Roy Campanella-3 times, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks-twice, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills) to only four for white players (Jim Konstanty, Hank Sauer, Dick Groat, and Koufax). They also win five of the next six. I can’t prove it, but my guess is that black players would have also done well in the 1930s and 1940s.

6. Finally, there is no way to compare the Negro Leaguers with their Major League counterparts. They play in totally different leagues and even if the stats were available they exist isolated from each other. Does hitting .350 in the National League in 1935 mean the same thing as hitting .350 in the Negro National League? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. I would guess that Josh Gibson, Louis Santop Satchel Paige, and Hilton Smith were the equal of any of their contemporaries in the Major Leagues, but I can’t prove it. Great shame.

It’s important to celebrate the Negro Leagues, not to deify them. Josh Gibson doesn’t need an apotheosis, he was good enough as is. But let us remember to celebrate them. Hopefully we won’t see their like again.

Good Bye, Bobby

January 29, 2010

I missed the news the other day that Bobby Bragan died. He was 92 and an old ballplayer. He was also a hero of mine.

Bragan was from Alabama and got to the majors in 1940 as a shortstop with the Phillies. He played 597 games over 7 seasons, the last four years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He spent most of his time as a backup shortstop and catcher. For a career he hit .240 with 15 home runs and 172 RBIs. He was one of the Dodgers players who signed the infamous petition to keep Jackie Robinson off the Dodgers prior to the 1947 season. After his playing days ended he served as a manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and 1957, for the Cleveland Indians in 1958, and for the Braves (both in Milwaukee and Atlanta) from 1963-1966. He had a .481 winning percentage as a manager and never finished above 5th. 

“Hold it,” I hear you say, “this guy was a marginal player, a failed manager, a racist, and he’s a hero of yours? What gives?”  Let me tell you.

I once heard an interview with the Dodgers radio play-by-play man Red Barber, also a Southerner, in which he acknowledged his racism in 1946 and then commented that in terms of race Jackie Robinson “matured” him. Bragan was never that eloquent, but I think he might have agreed with the sentiment. Within a few weeks of Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn, Bragan had changed his mind about Robinson. He saw him as a superior player, as a good person, saw the abuse the man took, and saw Robinson’s response to it. Somewhere along the line, Bragan had an epiphany and decided that he was wrong and that Robinson, and by extension black Americans, was OK. He became one of Robinson’s best friends on the Dodgers, later served as an honorary pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral. I’ve seen a picture of Bragan and Rachel Robinson embracing. As a manager he became known as a sympathetic ear and something of a mentor to black and Latin ballplayers, most specifically Roberto Clemente. He solidly backed Hank Aaron in the rush to the home run record.

Most of us, me included, have a lot of trouble finding an internal flaw. We tend to ignore them and when confronted with one fall back on “it’s not my fault” or “who, me?” or some such response. Bragan didn’t.  He confronted his racism head on, saw it’s evil, and changed his ways. Then he became a supporter of that which he’d previously despised. Quite a change for anyone. That makes him a hero of mine. Rest in peace, Bobby.

Nicknames

December 29, 2009

I adore nicknames. Most people I know have one. My son is “Ace”, my niece is “Gorgeous” (she is), a lot of my friends have them too. Baseball used to have really good ones. I don’t know if the quality of play is actually gotten better or worse, but the quality of nicknames has gone down. Check out the latest Yankees World Series winners. “The Hammer of God” certainly works for a closer, but “Tex”, “A-Rod”, “”Godzilla” is the best they can do? YUCK. Maybe the writers aren’t as creative anymore, maybe TV makes it harder to use nicknames because you don’t actually see them written down, maybe the frequency of player movement means fans don’t get close enough to become endeared of modern players.

Now I’m not saying all modern nicknames are awful, “Big Papi” has a heck of a ring to it, or that all old nicknames were great, “Babe” isn’t anything special for Ruth (but I do kinda like “The Sultan of Swat”). But as a rule the old names were better. So in the spirit of a good nickname is worth remembering, here’s my All Nickname Team of Great Players. To get on the team you gotta be a heck of a player and have a heck of a nickname. There are better players. There are better nicknames, but not better combinations.

First-Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Horse”

Second-Frankie Frisch, “The Fordham Flash”

Short-Harold “PeeWee” Reese

Third-J. Frank “Home Run” Baker

Left-Stan “The Man” Musial

Center-Joe DiMaggio, “The Yankee Clipper”

Right-“Hammerin” Hank Aaron

Catcher-Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra

Starting Pitcher-Walter Johnson, “The Big Train”

Closer-Mariano Rivera “The Hammer of God”

DH (per a comment from SportsPhd below)- Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas

and to manage them, “The Little Napoleon,” John J. McGraw.

And I had to leave out “The Splendid Splinter” (Williams), “The Georgia Peach” (Cobb), “Ironman” (McGinnity), and “Dizzy” (Dean).

So who you got? Gimme better nicknames to go with better players.