Posts Tagged ‘Jackie Robinson’

RIP Alvin Dark

November 18, 2014
Al Dark

Al Dark

Saw that Alvin Dark died last week. He was 92 and largely forgotten. But he was a significant player and a big league manager of note.

Dark came out of Oklahoma and attended what is now Louisiana-Lafayette excelling in both baseball and football. He was drafted in 1945 by the Philadelphia Eagles football team, but chose to play baseball. He made it to the Boston Braves for a 1946 cup of coffee. While there, he  hit .231 and was sent back to the Minors (Milwaukee). In 1948 he was up for good playing shortstop well enough to earn the second ever Rookie of the Year Award (there was only one award in 1948, not one in each league). Boston got to the World Series, lost in six games to Cleveland, and Dark managed to come in third in the MVP voting.

He remained in Boston in 1949, then was sent to New York where he anchored a Giants infield that included Eddie Stanky and Hank Thompson. They finished third. The next year the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place in the National League and Dark participated in the most famous of all playoff series. Whitey Lockman had joined the team at first and an outfield of Monte Irvin, Don Mueller, and rookie Willie Mays helped the team go 50-12 at the end of the season. Dark managed to lead the National League in doubles that season (the only time he led the league in any significant hitting stat). In the famous ninth inning of the third game, Dark led off with a single, went to second on another and came home with the first run of the inning. Later Bobby Thomson hit his “Giants win the pennant” homer and everybody forgot Dark began the rally.

He hit .417 in the World Series with a home run, but the Giants lost. Dark remained with the Giants through 1955, helping them to a World Series sweep in 1954. He hit .412 and scored a couple of runs in the Series. He played part of 1956 in New York, but ended up in St. Louis. He remained with the Cardinals into 1958, then was sent to Chicago. We was with the Cubs two years, then spent the 1960 season, his last between the Phillies and the Braves.

A trade sent him back to the Giants. He retired to take over as the Giants manager in 1961. They finished third. The next year he took them to their first World Series since the 1954 sweep and their first since moving to San Francisco. They took the Yankees to seven games before losing 2-1 in the last game.

He stayed in San Francisco through 1964 when he was fired (during the sixth inning of the final game). He worked with Kansas City (the A’s, not the Royals) becoming manager in 1966 and part of 1967, when he fell victim to one of Charlie Finley’s tantrums. That sent him to Cleveland until 1971 where he managed and for a while doubled as general manager. In 1974 he was back with the A’s (now in Oakland) and led the team to the final of three consecutive World Series triumphs (Dick Williams managed the other two wins). The A’s got to the playoffs in 1975, lost, and Dark was fired. He managed one year in San Diego (1977) then retired.

For his career he hit .289, had an OBP of .333, slugged .411, and ended up with an OPS of .744 (OPS+ of 98). He led the NL in doubles the one time and had 2089 hits, 358 total doubles, 72 triples, 126 home runs, and 757 RBIs to go with 1064 runs scored. His Baseball Reference.com version of WAR is 43.1. As a fielder he was considered more than capable. He led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, and errors at various times in his career. Over his career, he made three All Star teams. His Hall of Fame voting percentage peaked at 18.5% in 1979.

During his managerial career there was some question about his view of black players. In 1964, he made a questionable comment about their baseball smarts which some considered racist. But both Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson came to his defense.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, Dark’s been largely forgotten. But he was a key player on three pennant winners, one World Series winner, and managed in two World Series contests, winning one. RIP, Alvin.

RIP Another Boy of Summer

October 6, 2014
George Shuba and Jackie Robinson, 1946

George Shuba and Jackie Robinson, 1946

Glen sent me a notice that George Shuba died. I’d missed that in the paper and on the internet, so thanks, Glen. Shuba was one of the players featured in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, and thus became one of the more famous Brooklyn Dodgers players. With his death, only Carl Erskine remains of the players Kahn interviewed for his book (although there are other 1950s Dodgers still alive).

Shuba was essentially the fourth outfielder on the team. With Carl Furillo in right and Duke Snider in center, the Dodgers rotated through a series of left fielders from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Shuba didn’t do a lot of starting but became the team’s premier pinch hitter.

He came up in 1948 and stayed through 1955 (missing 1951 and getting only one at bat in 1949). He played 355 games, but only 216 in the field. He hit .259 with 24 home runs, 106 runs scored, and 125 RBIs. His OPS+ is actually 104 but his Baseball Reference.com WAR is only 3 (you see how the modern stats sometimes confuse as much as the clarify). Not a bad career, but nothing special.

Of course he became very special for one moment. In 1946, Jackie Robinson hit his first ever home run for Montreal. As he touched home, the next batter, Shuba, reached out to shake his hand. It was a simple, a normal, an off-hand gesture, but it meant a new world in American race relations. White guy Shuba was shaking hands with black guy Robinson as if it was simply the most normal thing he ever did. Shuba later explained that he never considered not doing it. It was how you treated a teammate and the color of the teammate’s face or hand didn’t matter. They got a picture of it and in 1946 that shot became a sensation. Now it’s normal.

So we all owe Shuba just a little bit, some as a ball player, more as a man. Thanks, George, and rest in peace.

 

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Bums Win

September 25, 2014
The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

Game seven of the 1955 World Series is arguably the most famous game in Brooklyn Dodgers history. April of 1947 is its only rival. Finally, after years of frustration going back to 1901 the Dodgers finally were World Champions. It had last occurred in 1900.

The Dodgers were playing the Yankees for the sixth time (’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53 are the others) and were 0-5. Some had been good Series’ (particularly 1947) but Brooklyn always lost. The 1955 team was still very much the same team as the 1952 and 1953 teams but there were significant changes. First, Walter Alston was now the manager. He’d been a minor league manager for a while, but in 1954 took the leadership of the team. The infield was different from the more famous “Boys of Summer” infield. Gil Hodges was still at first and Pee Wee Reese still held down shortstop, But Jim Gilliam now spent more time at second than anyone else. He could also play the outfield in for game seven he was in left. Utility man Don Zimmer was at second. Jackie Robinson now was the primary third baseman, but for game seven he was on the bench with Don Hoak at third. Carl Furillo and Duke Snider were still in right and center field, but Sandy Amoros did most of the work in left. As mentioned earlier, on 4 October 1955 he started on the bench. He didn’t stay there. Roy Campanella having his last good year, was the MVP winning catcher.

The pitching staff was in transition. Don Newcombe was still the ace, Carl Erskine was fading, Billy Loes was still there, but a key newcomer (he’d been around awhile, but wasn’t anything like a star) was 22-year old Johnny Podres. Ed Roebuck and Clem Labine did the bulk of the bullpen work, but 19-year old bonus baby Sandy Koufax was on the roster (he didn’t pitch in the Series). Podres, the game three winner, got game seven.

He faced a Casey Stengel New York Yankees team that, after a string of five consecutive World Series victories, had finished second in 1954. They were back with a new lineup that included Moose Skowron at first, Gil McDougald at second, Andy Carey at third, and shortstop Billy Hunter. Gone was Johnny Mize while Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Collins were on the bench. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were in center field and right field with Irv Noren doing most of the work in left. Elston Howard had finally integrated the Yanks in ’55 and now backed up in left.

MVP Yogi Berra caught a staff that included Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Tommy Byrne, Bob Grim and Don Larsen. Ford was the ace, with Turley a close second. Larsen was still learning (and would figure it all out in one game the next World Series). Byrne had a good year but as usual walked more than he struck out. He drew game seven which was played in Yankee Stadium.

Both pitchers got through the first inning without incident. Byrne gave up a walk in the second and Podres gave a double to Skowron, but no runs came across. It stayed that way to the top of the fourth. With one out, Campanella doubled, then went to third on a grounder to short. Hodges then singled to left scoring Campy with the initial run of the game. In the bottom of the fourth New York got a runner as far as third before a pop up to short ended the threat.

Reese led off the top of the sixth with a single then went to second on a Snider bunt. An error by Skowron made Snider safe. Then a Campanella bunt put runners on second and third with only one out. Byrne intentionally walked Furillo to load the bases, then gave up the mound to Bob Grim. Hodges hit a long sacrifice to right center that scored Reese with an unearned run. A wild pitch (that didn’t allow Snider to score) and a walk reloaded the bases, but pinch hitter George Shuba grounded out to end the inning. As a short aside, it’s a measure of how much the game has changed that both Snider and Campanella, the three and four hitters, laid down bunts in a critical situation.

Shuba’s pinch hit was critical to the game. It removed Zimmer from the lineup and forced Gilliam to take second. That brought Amoros into the game in left. That immediately made a difference. Martin, playing second in this game, walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth and went to second on a bunt by McDougald, who was safe at first. Berra then slammed a drive down the left field line. Amoros, a left-hander, got to the line, stuck up his glove (on his right hand) and snagged the ball. A toss to Reese and a relay to Hodges completed a double play. Bauer then grounded out to end the threat. Most experts agree that Gilliam, with his glove on his left hand, would have never been able to make the play in left, but southpaw Amoros became an instant Brooklyn hero.

It was the turning point of the game. Podres allowed two base runners in both the seventh and eighth innings but worked out of both jams without damage. In the ninth a comebacker to the pitcher, a fly to left, and a ground out short to first ended the game and brought Brooklyn its first World Series championship. Brooklyn went crazy.

The big heroes were Amoros with a great catch and throw, Campanella with a run scored and a key bunt, Hodges with both RBIs, and Reese with a run and a fine relay on Amoros’ catch and throw. But the biggest hero was Podres. He’d pitched a complete game shutout. It was true that it wasn’t a masterpiece. He’d allowed eight hits (the Dodgers only had five) and walked two, but he’d also struck out four and pitched out of each jam. It was the first year an MVP for the World Series was awarded. Podres won it easily.

The Yanks played well. McDougald had three hits, but was doubled up in the sixth on Reese’s relay. Skowron had a double, but also an error, while Berra had the only other extra base hit for New York and smashed the ball to left that started the double play that was so pivotal to the game.

The game marked the high water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year they were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. In 1957 they had a bad year and by 1958 were relocated to Los Angeles. They did well there winning again it 1959. A handful of the 1955 winners were still around: Snider, Furillo, Gilliam, Zimmer, and Koufax among others. Most notably for fans of the 1955 team, so was Podres. He pitched two games and picked up the win in game two.

 

 

the Preacher,

May 20, 2014
Preacher Roe

Preacher Roe

Elwin “Preacher” Roe was born in Arkansas in 1916. There are at least three stories I could find concerning the nickname. I have no idea which is true, but the best one indicates he was an obstreperous child and his grandmother called him “Preacher” hoping it would help reform him. It didn’t.

In 1937 and 1938 he attended Harding College in Arkansas, pitching for the college team. He was a strikeout machine, once fanning 26 in 11 innings. That got the attention of the Cardinals, who signed him in ’38. He got into one game in ’38 pitching 2.2 innings and giving up four runs. That got him a trip to the minors. He spent 1939-43 in the minors, going 44-39 with a 3.37 ERA, more strikeouts than walks, and a1.271 WHIP.

In late 1943 the Cards sent him to Pittsburgh. He stayed through 1947 going 34-47 with a 3.73 ERA (ERA+ of 105) with more hits than innings pitched, but with a lot more strikeouts than walks. He took the league strikeout title in 1945 with 148. During the offseason he taught high school math and coached basketball. In an altercation with a referee in 1946 he was injured (a head injury). It hurt his pitching and he never recovered his arm speed (not sure exactly how that works, but then I was never a pitcher).

After the season ended, he was traded to Brooklyn for Dixie Walker (there were others in the trade). Walker wanted out of Brooklyn because of the signing of Jackie Robinson. Although a Southerner himself, Roe seems to have had no problem playing with Robinson or the other black players brought to the Dodgers later. He was close to battery mate Roy Campanella.

Without a fastball after the head injury, Roe developed a series of off-speed pitches and a spit ball. He never admitted to the spitter until after his playing days when he explained the process in an early Sports Illustrated article. His career got back on track and with Brooklyn he had six good seasons. He led the National League in winning percentage in 1951. He played in the World Series in 1949, 1952, and 1953 going 2-1 with 14 strikeouts in 28 innings. His 1-0 victory in 1949 was Brooklyn’s only win.

By 1954 he was 38 and through. He went 3-4 in 15 games (10 starts) and was traded to Baltimore. He retired rather than report. For his career he was 127-84 with an ERA of 3.43 (ERA+ of 116) with 956 strikeouts, 504 walks, 17 shutouts, and 1907 hits over 1914 innings. His WAR is 35.1 (Baseball Reference.com version of WAR).

In retirement he ran a store in West Plains, Missouri (where one of the streets is “Preacher Roe Boulevard”. He died in 2008.

There are several great Roe quotes. The one I like best is, “Live every day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right.”

Roe's grave

Roe’s grave

 

 

 

Arky

April 28, 2014
Arky Vaughan

Arky Vaughan

Joseph “Arky” Vaughan was the premier National League shortstop in the 1930s. He is one of only three NL shortstops to lead the league in hitting in the entire 20th Century (depending on what you do with Jack Glasscock, who played 32 games as short and a lot of other games at other positions and won a batting title in 1890, Vaughan is the second shortstop to lead the NL in hitting). There have been a handful in the 21st Century, but in the 20th there were only Honus Wagner (who did it multiple times), Vaughan, and Dick Groat. Know what else they have in common? They all were at Pittsburgh when they won their batting title.

Vaughan’s rookie season was 1932. He became the Pirates’ everyday shortstop immediately. Three years later he won a batting title, the first NL shortstop to do so since 1911. It would be 25 years before another shortstop duplicated the feat (although Luke Appling won a batting title in the American League the next season). He remained a stalwart of the Pittsburgh offense through 1941. Then he was traded to Brooklyn.

Having problems at third base (they had PeeWee Reese at short) the Dodgers moved Vaughan to third. He did pretty well, but his hitting suffered. In 1942 he split time between the two positions and his batting average went back up. In 1943, he had a run-in with manager Leo Durocher (who didn’t have a run-in with “Leo the Lip”?) and retired following the season.

He spent 1944 and 1945 doing war work and was enticed back to the Major Leagues in 1947 (after Durocher was banned). He had a good  season as a part-time player for the Dodgers. That season brought him is only postseason play. He pinch hit three times in the Brooklyn loss to New York, going .500 with a walk and a double. He had an off-year in 1948 and retired for good. He died a tragic death (he drowned in a boating accident) in 1952. It wasn’t until 1985 that he got into the Hall of Fame.

I had a lot of trouble discovering Vaughan’s attitude toward integrating baseball. As a Southerner he should have been opposed to playing with Jackie Robinson in 1947, but I find no evidence that he signed the petition asking for Brooklyn to drop Robinson. As a part-time player whose status with the team was in doubt in 1947, it’s possible he wasn’t even asked. I did find an article on  Vaughan’s induction into Cooperstown in which Robinson is quoted as saying Vaughan went out of his way to be nice to him (Robinson).

As a player Vaughan showed little power but had a good eye and a knack for getting on base. He led the NL three times in runs and scored over 100 runs on five occasions. He averaged 29 doubles prior to World War II and led the NL three times in triples. Although not a speedster by modern standards, he led the league in stolen bases in 1943 with all of 20. Through his career he averaged almost ten stolen bases a year. That’s not actually too bad in an era noted for its lack of stolen bases.

If you look at his walk to strikeout ratio, it’s excellent. Three times he led his league in walks, twice had 100 walks. His highest strikeout total is 38. For a career he averaged 3.4 walks per strikeout. In 1940 he scored 113 runs and had 95 RBIs while hitting only seven home runs. He produced 201 runs that season (R + RBI-HR). Pittsburgh finished fourth with a league leading 809 runs scored. Vaughan had a hand in 25% of his team’s runs. That doesn’t count things like singles that move a runner to third and the subsequent scoring of that runner. I checked the same statistic for each year Vaughan scored 100 runs or had 90 RBIs (1933-36, 1940, 1943). In those seasons Vaughan produced, in order, 26%, 27%, 25%, 24%, 25%, and 24% of his team’s runs. Even Babe Ruth in 1920 and 1921 only had 29% and 30% of his team’s runs. So Vaughan isn’t Ruthian, but it’s still a major contribution to his team.

I like Arky Vaughan a lot. Without question he is the great NL shortstop of the 1930s. Only Joe Cronin and Luke Appling in the AL are his rivals for the era. Bill James once placed him second on the all-time shortstop list (behind Wagner). I’m not sure I’d want to go that high, but he’s surely in the list of top half-dozen or so shortstops ever (along with, alphabetically, Banks, Jeter, Ripken, Yount) for the two spot.

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The Roommate

February 24, 2014
Dan Bankhead

Dan Bankhead

Back when I was growing up there was a joke going around. The big time sports, baseball, football, college football, and basketball were all just beginning to integrate. Most of the teams had a star, so the joke went that you needed two black guys per team: the star and his roommate. You see, most people thought the idea of a white guy and a black guy sharing a hotel room was down right evil. Dan Bankhead was a roommate.

There were five Bankhead brothers in the Negro Leagues: Sam, Fred, Garnett, Joe, and Dan. Sam was the oldest and is generally considered the best of the five (he made the first cut in the 2006 Hall of Fame balloting for Negro League players, but failed to make the second cut). He was a middle infielder with the Grays. Fred was also a middle infielder. Both Garnett and Joe were pitchers. Dan was the middle child and also a pitcher. Both Sam and Garnett were shot to death (although they were 70 and 63 when they died, not young, rash ball players). The family was from Alabama and grew up in a segregated world where they had their “place” and God forbid they should step out of it or forget it.

Dan became a pitcher for the Birmingham Black Barons in 1940, That year and the next (1941) he went 8-2 (in confirmed games) and pitched in the 1941 East-West All Star game. He also played in 1942, then spent much of 1943 and all of 1944 and 1945 in the Marines, being discharged in 1946. His primary job was to pitch. Signing with the Memphis Red Sox, he managed to pitch well enough to get into both East-West games (they played two in 1946), starting the first and picking up the win in the second. His seasonal record for 1946 (again with spotty data) was 7-3 with a league leading 42 strikeouts.

In 1947, Bankhead was 11-5 with the Red Sox when Branch Rickey signed him to play for Brooklyn. Rickey paid the Red Sox $15,000 for Bankhead, a big amount in 1947. On 26 August 1947, Bankhead, now Jackie Robinson’s on the road roommate, became the first black man to pitch in the Major Leagues. He hit the first batter. He went three and two-thirds innings that day, gave up eight runs (only six were earned), and ten hits. In his first at bat, Bankhead hit a home run off Fritz Ostermuller (the same pitcher that gives up the big home run to Robinson in the final game of the recent movie “42”).

In many ways it was a typical Bankhead game. He was wild and had been so in the Negro Leagues. He gave up a lot of hits and walks. For his Major League career he had 110 walks (and 111 strikeouts) and gave up 161 hits in 153 innings. For the 1947 season he got into four games pitching all of ten innings (with a 7.20 ERA).

That got him a trip to the minors for 1948 and 1949. He was back in Brooklyn in 1950 going 9-4 with a5.50 ERA. He pitched in 41 games, starting 12, and picking up three saves. It got him one more year at Brooklyn. He pitched in only seven games, went 0-1 with an ERA of 15.43. He claimed he had a sore arm, but he was sent to Montreal (being replaced by later “Boys of Summer” stalwart Clem Labine). The Bankhead experiment ended in 1952, when the Dodgers released him from a minor league contract in July.

Bankhead played in the Latin leagues as late as 1966 when he was 46 years old. In retirement he worked delivering food to restaurants in Houston. Dan Bankhead died of lung cancer in 1976.

Dan Bankhead was not a particularly effective pitcher in the Major Leagues. But he was important. He served as Jackie Robinson’s roommate and was the first black pitcher in the Major Leagues. He should be remembered for the last.

Dan Bankhead's grave

Dan Bankhead’s grave

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

Baseball’s VIPs

January 16, 2014
Ban Johnson

Ban Johnson

A couple of posts back, the one on Judge Landis, I made the comment that he was one of the most important people ever in MLB. Well, that led some of my friends to send me emails asking who I considered the 10 most important people ever in the sport. As you know, I’m sort of a glutton for sticking my foot squarely into my mouth, so I decided to publicly respond to them.

First, let me be clear that “most important” has nothing to do with “best player”. Almost all of these people listed below and little or no actual playing time in the big leagues. So don’t be asking, “Where’s Gehrig?” or “Where’s Wagner?” or about other players. They may be terrific players but they aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as the people I’m about to mention. As you read through the list, you’ll realize I’m big into origins.

Here are my 10 most important listed in alphabetical order:

1. Mel Allen–I suppose any announcer could have gone in here except for a couple of  points. Most of us get our games through the filter of someone in a booth at the stadium keeping us up on what’s going on, so a play-by-play man is not an unreasonable choice for a position on this list. I pick Allen for two specific reasons. First, he announced for the Yankees for years and thus became the primary voice many people heard. Second, when TV decided to add a second camera to games, Allen is supposed to be the guy who suggested adding the second camera in center field, thus showing the pitcher throwing to the batter in something like close up (the previous camera angle was high up behind home plate). It’s become the single most common angle from which most people see a game on television.

2. Alexander Cartwright–Cartwright is here to represent an entire group of people, the pioneers who invented the game as we know it. Somebody had to start putting the rules of the game into a form that became acceptable. It is possible that people like Duncan Curry or Daniel Adams, or William Wheaton should be here in his place. Cartwright certainly did not invent baseball, but was apparently prominent in one of the many attempts to codify the game. As the Hall of Fame has placed him in its midst, he’ll do for this spot, but I’m not certain he’s the best candidate.

3. Henry Chadwick–You a stat guy? Care about the statistics of the game? Well, Chadwick invented the box score and a number of the statistics we still use to determine the quality of play on the diamond. As the first prominent sports reporter his articles helped to popularize the game. Put those two things together and you have someone who belongs on this list.

4. William Hulbert–I don’t like Hulbert. As a human being he is crass, bigoted, vain, parsimonious. But he founded the National League and thus came up with a way to make baseball profitable enough for people to want to become owners and thus establish a stable (sort of) league that flourishes today.

5. Ban Johnson–Founder and first President of the American League. Was de facto lord of baseball until the arrival of the man below.

6. Kennesaw M. Landis–First and most powerful Baseball Commissioner. Ran baseball with an iron fist. Cleaned up the game after the Black Sox nearly wrecked it. He opposed integration, but supported the more lively ball and the farm system (and besides isn’t he what a Commissioner ought to look like?)

7. Marvin Miller–the Lincoln of MLB. When he took over the Player’s Association it was a joke. When he left the union it was a co-partner with the clubs. Whether you like free agency or not, Miller figured out how to free the players from baseball slavery and change the economics and the dynamics of the game. Of all the people on this list, he’s the only one not in the Hall of Fame (Allen is on the writers plaque).

8. Branch Rickey–changed the game twice. He invented both the farm system and brought integration to MLB. He is  arguably the most influential baseball man of the 20th Century.

9. Jackie Robinson–In 1884 Toledo had a black ballplayer. That lasted one year. John McGraw and others had tried to integrate the game and had failed. With Robinson baseball truly does become a game for all Americans.

10. Babe Ruth–in a game in trouble, Ruth takes over and changes forever the way it is played. With the emphasis on the home run over bunting and base stealing we get the game as it’s been played (plus or minus a rule or two) since 1920.

And Honorable Mention to people like John Montgomery Ward (first union), Fleet Walker (who was the first black player), Jim Creighton (apparently the first professional), Lip Pike (who made professionalism acceptable), Harry Wright (who made the modern manager’s job what it is today), Bill Veeck (who made the ballpark experience so much fun), and a host of others, some of which you may decide should be in the list of 10.

The Judge

January 3, 2014
Judge Landis

Judge Landis

It’s been four years that I’ve been writing this blog. In that time I’ve written about a lot of the saints and the sinners that made baseball such a great game. But I’ve failed to do more than just briefly mention one of the half-dozen or so most important people (as opposed to best players) to ever work in Major League Baseball. It’s time to change that. It’s time to write about Judge Landis.

Kennesaw Mountain Landis (the first and middle names are from a battle in the Civil War where the Judge’s father fought) was a baseball fan, but not affiliated with the game prior to 1920. He was a federal judge with quite a mixed bag of decisions. He was noted to be anti-trust, but he’d rendered the decision that declared baseball a legal trust. He was progressive in the 1910s sense of the word (not necessarily the same as the modern political definition of the word) but did not favor integration of the races. He was, in short, a pretty complex man.

You have seen pictures of him (like the one just above). He was tall, thin, had that craggy face and the big head of white hair. He looked like a judge. Heck, he looked like a thin version of Zeus. He was dictatorial, petty, generous, bigoted, a champion of the weaker teams. Like I said above, a complex man.

He came to power in 1921 in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. His first move was to bar all eight of the “Black Sox” from professional baseball. He also moved to ban an entire set of players (about 23 that I can find) from the game for gambling. It worked. The combination of banning players who bet on the game, took money to throw games, and to also ban those who knew of such plots began to seriously clean up the game. Baseball hasn’t had a major gambling scandal since (Pete Rose excepted) and I think most everyone believes the games are on the up and up. Some people tell us that Babe Ruth “saved baseball” in the 1920s. No, Judge Landis did. Ruth made it popular, but Landis made the critical decisions that restored integrity and didn’t change rules in such a way that would have stopped the offensive explosion brought on by Ruth and the new ball.

He did it because he had both a lifetime contract and absolute power over the game. Those were unprecedented. But the owners were scared in 1921 and Landis, for all his problems, was seen as a rock of integrity and the owners desperately wanted him to oversee the game. He drove a bargain that made sense to him. “Put me in charge, don’t mess with me, and don’t make me worry about job security, and I’ll clean up the game,” was his mantra (not in those exact words). He got what he wanted and that was both good and bad. It did mean that the game would be cleaned up. It meant that players would have to toe a particular line in their baseball activities (like forbidding barnstorming), it meant that Branch Rickey’s attempt to corner the market with his “Farm System” would be accepted as a good idea, but the cornering of the market part would be forbidden (I’ve got to do something about Rickey’s clash with Landis over the farm system at some point). It also meant that there would be no Jackie Robinson while Landis was in charge because the Judge accepted “separate but equal.”

So Landis is a very mixed bag for baseball. It’s tough to like him, even tougher to respect his views on race. On the other hand he did clean up the sport, did open up the minors, did lend Major League Baseball a veneer of respectability. He’s in the Hall of Fame where he should be. We’ll never see a Commissioner like him again. That both a good and a bad thing.

A Review of “42”

August 8, 2013

By now I presume most of the people interested in baseball have seen the new movie “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues. Normally I don’t spend time here reviewing new movies, but as it’s the only new major movie about baseball, I thought I’d change that. Here’s a quick review of the flick.

There are a lot of good and weak points in the movie. It’s pretty formulaic. Even if you knew nothing about Robinson as a person or about how the 1947 season went, you could probably figure out most of the plot by about 10 minutes in. The acting is uneven. Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey is terrific. As Hollywood has taken to using the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar to reward older actors who’ve never won an Oscar it’s possible we’re looking at an Academy Award nomination for Ford (and maybe a win).The two actors playing Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) both do good jobs, but the actress playing Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) didn’t impress me. I think part of the problem is that I remember Ruby Dee in the old 1950s “Jackie Robinson Story” and Dee was wonderful. Christopher Meloni’s rendition of Leo Durocher was good but it was a really small part. Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman is suitably odious as the lead antagonist from another team. One of the better aspects of the film is Chapman’s utter incomprehension as to why he is being considered a villain. Most of the players, without reference to whether they liked Robinson or not, were pretty wooden, an exception being Hamish Linklater who got the comic relief role as Ralph Branca. And Max Gail’s Burt Shotten was just fun.

There were a number of historical errors in the movie, most done for film purposes, but nonetheless they give a false impression of the events. Early on Robinson and Smith meet in Florida in 1946. The scene is written as if the two men didn’t know each other, but they had been acquaintances since at least 1944. At the end of the flick Robinson hits a home run to clinch the pennant for the Dodgers. The game in question took place 17 September 1947 and did clinch the pennant. Robinson hit a fourth inning homer to put the Dodgers ahead to stay in a 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh. The movie leaves the impression he does it late in the game and it’s the deciding run. The movie essentially tells us that Robinson’s homer won the pennant, but the pennant winning runs were scored an inning later (and Robinson was involved). It’s more dramatic the way the flick does it, but it’s not exactly right. Also the movie shows the famous “if we can’t use the restroom, we’ll fill up our bus somewhere else” scene. But the scene ends with Robinson meeting Clyde Sukeforth for the first time. The two events were unconnected.

Having said all that, it’s nice to see the movie mention the Robinson court-martial (he refused to move on a bus long before Rosa Parks), although it’s only a passing mention. The interplay between Boseman and Ford, which in many ways is the heart of the movie, is very good. And the baseball action is well choreographed, although, as with any movie about Robinson, the baseball aspects of the film are secondary to the main plot line. One of the finest scenes is between Robinson and Smith in which Smith reminds Robinson that he (Smith) can’t sit in the press box, but has to sit in the stands and type his story as he watches. It reminds Robinson of just how important his actions are in changing things.

I suggest you see “42”. It’s worth the effort and the money, if for no other reason than the atmospheric filming. Just remember to take some of the events with a grain of salt.