Posts Tagged ‘Ken Williams’

The Thin Red Line

December 27, 2012
Gee Walker

Gee Walker

As most of you know, I’m very pleased that Deacon White finally made the Hall of Fame. But did you look at who actually got in this time? You have a player who got the first hit in the history of the National Association, the first truly professional baseball league; an executive; and an umpire. Good for all of them. But if you look closely at the nominees for the period 1876-1946 you’ll see we are beginning to approach the thin red line of 1920-1946 players.

The thin red line is my phrase (it’s actually a British military phrase from the Crimean War)I use to denote the line beyond which you are beginning to elect players to the Hall of Fame who don’t deserve to be enshrined. Some (including me) might remark that in a couple of cases we’ve already slid below the line.  But the players in Cooperstown are already there and I can’t see taking anyone out.

Take a look at the players from the 1920-1946 era that were just nominated for Cooperstown: Marty Marion, Bucky Walters, Wes Ferrell. Are they truly the best players from the era not in the Hall of Fame? Maybe they are. I could make a case for them (and I could make a similar case for others). I could also make a case for keeping each out of Cooperstown (and could make similar cases for others). And that makes them “thin red line” candidates. Here’s a full team (eight position players and three pitchers) whose career is primarily in the 1920-46 era:

infield (first around to third): Hal Trosky, Marty McManus, Marty Marion, Harland Clift

outfield: Ken Williams, Gee Walker, Bob Johnson

catcher: Wally Schang (who actually plays quite a lot in the 19 teens)

pitchers: Wes Ferrell, Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer

Not a bad team, right? Put them all together and you’re going to win a lot of games.

But is this a team of Hall of Fame quality players? Maybe yes, maybe no. I wouldn’t be overly upset if any of them were elected, but it also wouldn’t bother me if none of them were chosen. They epitomize the “thin red line” of the Hall of Fame. Let them in and I might reply “OK, I guess”. Keep them out and I might reply “OK, I guess.”

My point in all this is that it appears the Hall of Fame has finally mined the 1920-1946 era of all the truly qualified players. What’s left are guys that are marginal at best and the idea of “marginal Hall of Famers” is really kind of silly, isn’t it? But my concern is that the Hall is desperate to hold the big ceremony every summer and to do that you must have someone to enshrine. If the writer’s don’t elect anyone (and with the weird ballot this year they might not) then the veteran’s committee nominees become critical. I’m afraid the Hall may put pressure on the Veteran’s Committee (a much smaller group) to “Put in someone, anyone, so we can at least get Deacon White’s great great grandchildren here to celebrate.”  And if that happens then every time we get to the 1876-1946 era the players from the 1920-46 period will be players that touch the “thin red line” of the Hall. That means we’ll be getting 19th  Century and Deadball Era players or marginal 1920s, 1930s, 1940s players making the Hall. The first two are fine by me, there are certainly enough decent 19th Century and Deadball players worth considering. But the latter worries me. We don’t need to lower the red line any further.

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“The Greatest Day of My Life”

March 21, 2012

Chet Laabs, a Browns stalwart

I actually knew a St. Louis Browns fan. My wife’s grandfather was born in the 1890s in the St. Louis area. He was just reaching an age when sports becomes important to a kid when the American League dropped a team in St. Louis to rival the Cardinals. He told me he became a Browns fan because they were new, and because he knew the Cardinals were terrible at the time. Unfortunately for him, the Cards got better and the Browns were traditionally awful. But in 1944 they won a pennant. The day they clinched the title he call “the greatest day of my life.” Then he looked around sheepishly to make sure no one else, especially his wife, had heard that claim. I made a promise that I would never tell either his wife or his daughter (my mother-in-law) he said that.

From the beginning the Browns were bad. They finished second in 1902 (OK, they weren’t bad the first season, but just wait), which is apparently what caught the attention of my wife’s grandfather. It was downhill from there. In 1908 they got back to the first division (4th), then stayed in the second division until 1920. They had decent runs in the 1920s, finishing as high as second (1922), third in 1921, 25, and 28. They finally found a handful of quality players. George Sisler was at first, hit .400, stole some bases, had no power. Ken Williams, Baby Doll Jacobson (they don’t make nicknames like that anymore, do they?), and Jack Tobin patrolled the outfield, and Urban Shocker was a better than average pitcher who went on to play for the 1927 Yankees.

It didn’t last. The 1930s were dismal. They finished as high as fifth once and the best they could do for an All Star was Harland Clift, a good ballplayer, but not a true star. Things got better in the 1940s. They finished third in 1942, the first war year, then won their first (and only) American League pennant in 1944. That year produced the above mentioned “greatest day of my life” moment for my wife’s grandfather. So in his honor, let’s take a moment and celebrate the stars of the only Browns pennant winner. The catcher was Red Hayworth, who hit .222 with an OPS just barely over .500. The infield consisted of  (from first around to third) George McQuinn, Don Gutteridge, Vern Stephens, and Mark Christman. If you’re lucky, you’ve probably heard of Stephens; and if so, it’s probably in conjunction with his stint with the Red Sox. The outfield had Gene Moore, Mike Kreevich, and Milt Byrnes. Chet Laabs was supposed to be the regular left fielder, but was off at war work for much of the season. He got back in time to play in the Series. The staff consisted of such household names as Denny Galehouse, Jack Kramer, Sig Jakucki, Bob Muncrief, and Nels Potter. All were right-handed and none went on to greatness. The main man off the bench was Al Zarilla, of “Zarilla slud into third” fame.  They lost to the Cardinals in six games.

“Zarilla slud into third” is a good way to look at the problem of the Browns. Their most famous member was up in the broadcast booth. Dizzy Dean became the Browns radio announcer and his mangling of the English language, but obvious baseball knowledge, made him a national figure. It’s tough to take the team seriously when the announcer is their most famous member. And for those interested, Dean pitched his last game, a four inning affair in 1947, with the Browns. It gave him 10 years in the Majors and a ticket to Cooperstown.

The 1944 season was the highlight for the Browns. By 1945 they slid back to third, despite getting 77 games out of Pete Gray (whose story is worthy of telling sometime). By 1946 they were seventh, moved to sixth in ’47, then never finished above seventh the rest of their time in St. Louis. Meanwhile the Cardinals were becoming among the best teams in baseball, and attendance, never very good, was falling at Browns games. In 1947 they brought Hank Thompson to the big leagues, becoming the third team to integrate. Thompson was a poor choice, the first ex-Negro Leaguer to be a failure, and the Browns were unable to profit from their foray into black baseball.

By the end of the 1953 season the Browns were in terrible shape. But in 1953 the Boston Braves had taken a flier and moved to Milwaukee. It worked. Their attendance was up, they went from seventh to second in the National League. Browns ownership decided to move. They picked Baltimore, jettisoned the Browns name and became the Orioles. Although they did well in attendance, the team was still miserable. By 1960 they were climbing up the standings, culminating in an initial World Series victory in 1966, giving them something that St. Louis never saw, a Browns winner.

And my wife’s grandfather? Well, he continued to follow the Browns after they moved to Baltimore. He told me he liked a number of the players and stayed with the team until those retired or were traded. By 1966, although gratified that the Orioles won, he’d switched his allegiance to the Cardinals, a team he remained loyal to until his death. And I kept my promise and never told either his wife or his daughter about his “greatest day.”

Triple Crown, I

March 17, 2010

When I think of Triple Crown, my first thought, believe it or don’t, is of horse racing. Watching Secretariat come down the stretch in the Belmont is still the most amazing thing I ever saw in sports. But baseball also has its triple crown, actually two of them: one in pitching, one in hitting. I want to look at the hitting ones.

One thing I find interesting is that Stone Age baseball produces four triple crowns, while Classical baseball (1920-1945) gives us seven, and the post-Classical baseball world gives us four again, none since 1967. I understand part of the reason that modern baseball doesn’t get triple crowns. The more teams you have the more players are in line for a shot at one. That means it’s more likely they will knock each other off. The greatest player  (non-pitcher) I ever saw was Ted Williams and that at the tail end of his career, so perhaps the best I ever saw at his peek was either Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. Neither ever wins one. Why? Well, among other things they have to beat out Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Eddie Mathews and a bunch of other people at various times. Additionally, as they get into some of the most productive years of their career baseball goes into one of the greatest of pitching periods. You try winning a triple crown when you have to face Drysdale, Gibson, Koufax, and Marichal. (At least in Mays’ case Marichal is on his team). I’ve been sure for a while that a significant reason the last two triple crowns come in the AL is that neither Frank Robinson nor Carl Yastrzemski has to face Drysdale, Gibson, Koufax, or Marichal on a regular basis.

A number of people never win a triple crown, despite leading their league in all three categories at one time or the other.  Babe Ruth is one of those. In 1924 he loses the RBI title by eight to Goose Goslin of Washington. It’s the only year Ruth wins the batting title. He hits .376, which ties for the lowest average to win the title in the 1920s. Jimmie Foxx and Joe DiMaggio are among others who suffer the same fate (although Foxx does ultimately win one).

Additionally, you can look at a handful of the existing triple crowns and argue they are tainted. In two cases, Joe Medwick in 1937 and Yastrzemski in 1967, they tie for the league lead in home runs (Mel Ott and Harmon Killebrew). So they don’t really stand alone at the top of the stats. 

Of the other 20th Century triple crowns six more are tainted because the individual would not have finished first in all three categories had he been in the other league. In 1901 Nap LaJoie loses the home run title to Sam Crawford. In 1922 Rogers Hornsby loses the RBI title to Ken Wiliams. In 1933 Jmmie Foxx and Chuck Klein both win the triple crown, but knock each other off when Foxx has more home runs, but Klein has the higher batting average. In 1947 Ted Williams loses the home run title to a tie between Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. Finally in 1966 Matty Alou puts up a better batting average than Frank Robinson. That leaves five true triple crowns (number one in all the Major Leagues in batting average, RBIs and home runs)  in the 20th Century: Ty Cobb in 1909, Rogers Hornsby in 1925, Lou Gehrig in 1934, Ted Williams in 1942, and Mickey Mantle in 1956.

There are two 19th Century triple crowns. I’m saving them for the next post.