Posts Tagged ‘Herb Score’

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Grover Cleveland Alexander

April 8, 2011

Alexander

1. He was born in Nebraska in 1887 and named for the sitting President of the United States.

2. His professional baseball career began in 1909 at Galesburg where he went 15-8 and suffered a head injury that sidelined him for half the season. 

3. In 1910 he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for $500 from Syracuse.

4. He had 28 wins and 227 strikeouts as a rookie in 1911. The former is still a record and the latter remained a record until 1955 (Herb Score).

5. He won the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) for three consecutive seasons from 1915 through 1917.

6. His 16 shutouts in 1916 is still a record.

7. In 1915, he won game one of the World Series. The next Phillies pitcher to win a World  Series game was Bob Walk in 1980.

8. In 1918 he went to war. He was in the artillery and suffered a minor wound, was deafened in his ear, and suffered shell-shock. Today we call it post traumatic stress disorder. I think I like shell-shock better, it conveys more the horror of it. He also began showing signs of epilepsy, which some sources indicate came from the 1909 head injury. Additionally, his family, according to Bill James, had a history of alcoholism. That began to manifest itself about the same time.

9. His career was in a slump when he ended up with the Cardinals in 1926. The Cardinals went to their first World Series, Alexander won two games and saved one. The save was game 7 and was highlighted by the seventh inning strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to end the inning (and become arguably the most famous strikeout ever).

10. He went 0-4 in his last season (1930) and ended his career with 373 wins, 208 losses, and 90 shutouts. The Hall of Fame called him in 1938.

11. He died in poverty in November 1950.

12. And of course Hollywood came calling in 1952 with a highly fictionalized version of his life through 1926. The movie was called “The Winning Team”, starred Ronald Reagan (as Alexander), Doris Day (as Mrs. A), and Frank Lovejoy (as Rogers Hornsby). Today, it’s probably the only thing most people know about Alexander. He does have the distinction of being the only Hall of Famer who was both named after one President of the United States, and portrayed by a future President in a movie. Not bad for an old pitcher.

Hollywood's version of Alexander (1952)

The Phenom of Phenoms

December 20, 2010

The loss of Bob Feller reminded me just how much of a “phenom” he was. He joined the Indians at 17, then left in September to begin his senior year in high school. Upon graduation he returned to Cleveland and renewed his career. There have been a great number of “phenoms”, some fragile like Stephen Strasburg, some injured like Herb Score. Back in the 1950s the “Bonus Baby” rule required “phenoms” signed for huge bonus’ to stay on the Major League roster for two years (“We gotta discourage this bonus nonesnse.”). Those men played out their minor league careers in front of Major League audiences. When they should have been playing Double A and Triple A ball they were spending entire seasons on the bench with an occasional foray to the field. Some of them disappeared. Others became stars after they served their time on the bench. Eighteen year old Harmon Killebrew played nine games in his rookie season but became a feared power hitter who ended up with over 500 home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. Nineteen year old college freshman Sandy Koufax got into 42 innings in 1955, but became a Hall of Famer and the best hurler I ever saw. Watching both in the first few years of their careers was painful, but it panned out in the end.

But there was another “phenom” who was just as good and just as painful to watch in his early years. He got to the big leagues at age 16. It wasn’t exactly the Major Leagues he got to. They wouldn’t let him into the Majors when he was 16 and it had nothing to do with his age. He joined professional baseball at the highest level he could by entering the Negro Leagues. His name was Roy Campanella and he was very, very good.

Campanella was of mixed race, which in 1930s and 1940s America meant that no matter his actual skin tone, he was considered black. He was a natural at baseball, excelling at school and on the sand lots. At age 16, he dropped out of school and in the spring of 1937, still aged 16, he joined the Washington Elite Giants, who moved to Baltimore in 1938. I heard an interview with Campanella years ago in which he pronounced the name of the team as E-LIGHT Giants, not E-LEET Giants. Don’t know if it was his personal pronunciation or the actual pronunciation of the team name, but I’ve called them E-LIGHT Giants since. I’m not about to contradict Roy Campanella.

By his own confession he wasn’t much of a catcher at age 16. The Elite Giants (however you pronounced them) had a great catcher of their own named Biz Mackey, who later on was elected to the Hall of  Fame. Campanella credited Mackey with making him a Major League caliber catcher.

In the Negro Leagues, Campanella became a star and was considered something of a rival of Josh Gibson as the finest catcher in the leagues (at least as far as anyone was going to rival Gibson). In 1942 Campanella jumped to the Mexican League where he was equally good. In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball, slowly, tentatively, and ever so carefully cracked open the door of integration. Late in 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella (by now universally known as “Campy”). While in Nashua in the minors, the team manager (Walter Alston) was tossed from the game. He appointed Campanella as his replacement, making Campy the first black man to manage white players in a professional minor league game. Behind when Campy took over, the team ultimately won the game. He made the Major League team in 1948, settling in as the regular catcher. He became a regular all-star, a regular MVP candidate, and a three-time winner of the MVP award. Although “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” may have been more famous, in the time that they and Campy all played in New York, Campy won as many MVP awards as the other three put together (as did Campy’s closest rival, Yogi Berra).

Campanella was a great catcher. He had large and soft hands, could move easily despite a distinct bulk. He blocked the plate well, threw to second well (not all that significant a skill in the low base stealing era that was the 1950s), could move under a foul fly with ease, and did a wonderful job with pitchers, especially considering the racial problems created by a black/white battery. And he could hit. God, could he hit. I never saw anyone swing the bat harder. We had a joke in the house that when he swung and missed you could feel the breeze cool you through the TV. He hit .300 three times, had 30+ home runs four times (once going over 40 for a then record number by a catcher), led the National League in RBIs once, and even managed to steal eight bases one year. As he put it about the steals, “They were laughing so hard, they forgot to throw the ball.”

In 1954 he got hurt; his throwing hand. It never healed properly and periodically bothered him for the rest of his career. In the year he stayed healthy (1955) he was still terrific, winning one more MVP award and appearing in the Dodgers first ever World Series triumph. In 1956 and 1957 he was on the wane. The hand was a problem, so was age. He was only 35 and 36, but he was a catcher and the aches, pains, injuries, and squats took their toll. In 1958 came the car wreck and the end of his career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1969, three years before  Josh Gibson. Death came in 1993.

Campanella was a big league player at 16 (a year earlier than Feller). He was a superior catcher and hitter who because of his age may be the “phenom of phenoms”. It’s hard to place him in the pantheon of great catchers because he loses his earliest years to racism and is hurt in the final couple of years of his career (without reference to what the car wreck might have cost him in playing time). Still he rates in the ten best among catchers. I’ve seen some lists that place him has high as second. I’ll settle for top five and the knowledge that he stands at the head of a long line of young “phenoms” who made their mark in baseball.

Roy Campanella

Baseball as Myth: The Doomed Youth

April 27, 2010

One of the more common types in world mythology is the doomed youth. Sometimes he’s seen as the doomed warrior. The basic plot goes something like this. The young man (it’s always a man) is very heroic and very brave and is going to die at a young age. Sometimes he knows it, sometimes he doesn’t.  Whether he does or doesn’t, he goes out and like a good hero bravely reacts to whatever situation faces him, although eventually he will die. There are a lot of good examples of this but two are most familiar: Achilles and Siegfried. The Achilles of the Iliad  knows that if he goes to Troy to fight he will die, but goes anyway because he knows that he will be eternally famous. Siegfried on the other hand doesn’t know he will die young, but goes about doing heroic deeds like slaying Fafner the dragon until Hagan stabs him in the back. (BTW you might want to look at the Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, not the Wagnerian hero of the operas to get a better view of the figure.)

Well, baseball has its doomed youth also. Addie Joss died young, so did Jimmie Sebring. Herb Score didn’t die, but he was hurt so bad that his career ended prematurely. Those are the kinds of situations that baseball brings to the doomed youth scenario. For the sport, there are two premier figures that moved into myth this way.

Lou Gehrig is much the more tragic because he actually did die. Much of the tragedy of Gehrig is that it was his body, the very thing on which is fame and glory rested, that let him down. He is struck down at the height of that fame and glory. And in the midst of this tragedy he goes to his doom with grace and dignity. It helps his legend that he plays for the most famous team (the Yankees) on the biggest stage (New York) and is one of the handful of players who define the team.

The other more recent player who fits this mold is Sandy Koufax. Koufax’s story is less tragic because he lives. His problem is an arthritic elbow, not a deadly problem, but certainly a career ending condition. Again, at the top of his form and fame he is forced off the stage. There is of course a difference, the decision is voluntary. And here you have a variation on the doomed youth theme in that the youth voluntarily steps off the stage, but also does it with great dignity. As I said on the introductory post, these are not going to be exact copies of myths because they involve real people. Koufax, like Gehrig, is also helped by playing for one of the more famous teams (the Dodgers) in baseball and by playing on one of its biggest stages (Los Angeles).

In fairness, it’s not all about the doomed youth. Both men played for famous franchises and were spectacular players. That can’t be overlooked. But in my opinion that isn’t the only reason they remain staples of baseball’s pantheon. Another part of the reason is the loss so soon of such great talent.

So in some ways both men become legends for what we lost as much as for what they actually accomplished. That’s part of the whole idea of losing a young talented leader, of a doomed youth.