Posts Tagged ‘Hank Bauer’

Clank

March 23, 2011

This is not a pretty story. It is the story of a good player, a player who was, in his time, one of the best at his position. For the most part his teammates liked him. He was well-respected. Then he made an error, actually three of them, and he went to his grave known among a lot of fans for one inning of one game. Unfortunately for Willie Davis it was a World Series game.

In 1961 Davis became the regular center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was no Duke Snider, but he was pretty good. More known for his glove than his bat, he roamed the outfield with LA through 1973. He made some errors, but had great range. He led the league in putouts once and was in the top three in assists twice. He hit well enough to bat second for much of his career, had little power, but good speed and was perfect for hitting behind Maury Wills. He helped the Dodgers to World Series wins in 1963 and 1965.

In 1966 the Dodgers got back to the World Series, playing Hank Bauer’s Baltimore Orioles. They lost game one, but with Sandy Koufax on the mound for game two, there was a reasonable chance at evening the Series. Through four innings neither team scored, then Boog Powell led off the fifth with a single. After a foul out, Paul Blair lifted a fly to center. The next sound you heard was “clank.” That’s the sound of a baseball hitting an iron glove. Davis lost the ball in the sun, couldn’t get good leather on it and the ball dropped in for a two-base error, Powell heading to third. So far, no harm. That brought up Andy Etchebarren who hit another fly to center. “Clank.” Davis dropped it, Powell scored. Then to compound the error, Davis picked up the ball and tossed it toward third base. It sailed. No, it didn’t sail, it flew. It flew all the way across the Milky Way. No one was going to catch it and Blair trotted home with Etchebarren to third. After a second out, Luis Aparicio hit a clean double to end the scoring with three unearned runs. The Orioles scored one more run off Koufax and another later in the game while the Dodgers were shut out by Jim Palmer. The team never recovered from the three consecutive errors and were swept in the Series. The three errors on two hit balls is still a World Series record. For your information, Davis had one more play in the game. He recorded the out.

Davis went on to have several more fine years in LA, hitting over .300 a couple of times after they lowered the mound, but he was always known for the errors. Koufax never blamed him, neither did the team. The fans were another story. By the end, many forgot it because he was too good a player to hold it against him forever and as luck would have it the game was Koufax’s last (and became much more famous for that than for Davis’ clanking). But others never forgot and there were some “boo”-birds in the stands on old-timers day.  When he died in 2010, it came up, but wasn’t the centerpiece of most of the articles about him. I guess that’s all Davis might have asked.

Willie Davis

The Obligatory Second

February 21, 2011

When I was in the army one of my best friends was a black guy from New York. We did a lot of things together, including heading to a few parties. I had a car, he didn’t, and it was easiest for us to head out together in my Dodge. I remember we pulled up to one party and as we were getting out he commented, “I wonder who the obligatory second is?”  Not unreasonably, I asked, “What the heck is that?” “The people throwing the party can’t admit to tokenism, so they have to invite a second black person to the party so no one can say either of us was a token. That’s the obligatory second.” I told him I thought that sounded terrible. “Actually, sometimes it’s not bad. Sometimes they pick a good-looking girl and I get lucky.” I remember the obligatory second that night was a girl and I also remember driving home alone. He did better than I. Larry Doby was, in many ways, baseball’s obligatory second.

Larry Doby

Larry Doby was born in Jim Crow South Carolina in 1923. The family moved to Paterson, New Jersey where Doby caught the eye of the nearby Newark Eagles of the Negro National League. He was signed in 1942 at age 17 to playsecond base. He was good from the beginning, but lost 1944 and 1945 to the Second World War. Back in Newark in 1946, he helped lead his team to the Negro League World Series, a set of games they won 4 games to 3.  Doby didn’t do particularly well. He hit .227, but walked to begin the rally that won game 7 for the Eagles.

In 1947, the Cleveland Indians determined it was time to bring a black player to the American League. The picked Doby over teammate Monte Irvin. Irvin was considered by many contemporary writers as the man who would integrate the AL, but Indians owner Bill Veeck wanted more power and Doby gave him that over Irvin (and Irvin was considerably older). Unfortunately for Doby, the Indians already had a good second baseman, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Veeck’s solution was to make Doby an outfielder. Doby made his Major League debut on 5 July 1947 in Chicago. He pinch hit and struck out. The day before, 4 July, Cleveland had a home game which they won 13-6. I’m not sure why they didn’t let Doby play on Independence Day in front of a home crowd. For the 1947 season Doby played in 29 games, going 5 for 32 (.156).

By 1948 he was the starting center fielder. Cleveland got hot, Doby did well, and for the first time since 1920, the Indians made the World Series. They won in six games, Doby hitting .318 with a home run. For the regular season he hit .301 with an OPS of 873 and 14 home runs. As a fielder the results were mixed. He led the AL in errors in center field, but was third in the league in assists.

He remained with Cleveland through 1955, twice leading the AL in home runs, and once in both RBIs and runs. In the 1954 111 win season he finished second the the mVP race (to Yogi Berra), being  acknowledged as the most valuable Indian. Unfortunately for Cleveland, 111 were all the wins they were going to get as the Giants swept the World Series. Doby was part of the reason they lost. He hit a buck-25 with no extra base hits and four strikeouts (he had two hits and two walks). In 1956 he was traded to Chicago where he took over center field for the White Sox. His career was on the slide. He went back to Cleveland in 1958, then to Detroit and back to Chicago in 1959. He retired at age 35. He became the third American player to head to Japan when he joined the Japanese Leagues in 1962. He coached at both Montreal and Cleveland, then in 1978 became manager of the White Sox. Again, he was second. Frank Robinson had become the first black manager in the Major Leagues (ironically enough at Cleveland) and Doby was overlooked again. He remainded somewhat overlooked until 1998 when the Veteran’s Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame. His death came in June 2003.

For his big league career, Doby hit .283 with an 876 OPS (136 OPS +). He had 253 home runs, 970 RBIs, 2621 total bases, 1515 hits, and 960 runs (Note the closeness of the RBI and runs number. You don’t see that a lot.) Not a bad career. But over the last few days around here there’s been a lot of comment (including mine) about just how good Negro League players were. Well, with Doby we actually have something like a complete career.  Signed at 17, he’s in the Negro Leagues at ages 18 and 19. By 20 and 21 he’s in the military. At 22 he’s back in the Negro Leagues, and makes his Major League debut at 23. That’s not a bad career progression for the era. Think of 18 and 19 as inital years in the minors then, like a  lot of other minor leagues he goes off to war. He returns to the minors in 1946, then makes his cup of coffee debut at 23. Hank Bauer, to use only one example of a player whose career is interrupted by war, makes his debut (19 games) at age 25. None of that is meant to imply that 1940s Negro League teams were only minor league in quality, but is meant only to give an age progression comparison. So unlike a lot of Negro Leaguers of the first generation who get to the Majors in mid-career, Doby gives us a look at how a  good  young Negro League player could play at the highest level. That was pretty good.