Posts Tagged ‘Milwaukee Braves’

RIP Frank Torre

September 15, 2014
Frank Torre

Frank Torre

I saw over the weekend that Frank Torre died. Today he’s most famous as Joe’s big brother. That’s kind of a shame because he was a pretty good ballplayer in his own right (but his younger brother was better).

I remember him from the late 1950s Milwaukee Braves. He was a tall first baseman who carried an enormous glove. There was a joke going around that Red Schoendienst (the Braves second baseman) covered the thirty feet closest to second, Torre took the thirty feet closest to first, and Torre’s glove covered the middle thirty feet between first and second. He was a very good first baseman, not Keith Hernandez good, but still darned good. He didn’t hit a lot; going .273 with 13 home runs for his career, although in 1957 he scored six runs in a game. It was an era of big hulking first basemen who hit the ball a long way and did an adequate job at first. Milwaukee’s answer to that was Joe Adcock. In 1957 Adcock got hurt and Torre did most of the first base work late in the season. He got into the World Series and hit .300 with two home runs (only Henry Aaron had more). The Braves won and got back to the Series in ’58. They lost and Torre did poorly with the bat (but still played well at first). He ended up spending a lot of time coming into games late to spell Adcock when the Braves wanted a good defense to protect a lead.

He ended up playing a couple of years in Philadelphia. He hit .300 one year, but still had no power. His last year was 1963 and he was through by then. He was 31. I lost track of him after that until he resurfaced with the heart problems in 1996. It made a great story with him in a hospital bed, his younger brother managing his old nemesis team the Yankees against his old team the Braves. But after New York won, he slipped back into obscurity.

I always liked that 1957-’59 Braves team. I think it’s one of the great teams ever and it gets totally lost behind the New York teams. Torre was a major member of that team and I always kind of liked him (although Spahn, Burdette, Aaron, and Mathews were the guys I liked best). RIP, Frank, you will be missed by the baseball community.

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

Two Months of Glory

June 18, 2010

Bob Hazle

The Braves didn’t have a particularly distinguished history in the first half of the 20th Century. They won the World Series in 1914, lost it in 1948 and did nothing in between. In the early 1950’s they left Boston for Milwaukee, picked up Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron to go with stalwart lefty Warren Spahn, and finally became a pennant threat in the National League. They had a pretty good team by 1957, then center fielder and leadoff man Billy Bruton went down with a knee injury. In crisis mode, the Braves called up an undistinguished minor leaguer named Bob Hazle. It worked.

Hazle was from South Carolina, born in 1930. He had a cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds in 1955, then went back to the minors where he languished until Bruton banged up his knee. One hundred games into the 1957 season Hazle made his debut for Milwaukee. Over the months of August and September he exploded offensively in such a way as to make fans forget, at least temporarily, both Aaron and Mathews. For the two months he played in 1957 Hazle hit .403 with 27 RBIs and seven home runs over 41 games. It got him the nickname “Hurricane” (a play on his name and the devastating hurricane Hazel which hit South Carolina in 1954) and it got the Braves the pennant. The Braves became the first non-New York team to win the National League pennant since the 1950 Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids”.

The Braves won the World Series, beating New York in seven games. Hazle played in four of the games, batting .154. He had two singles, both in game seven. There were no RBIs, but he did score two runs and picked up a ring.

The World Series was a sign of things to come. He started 1958 horribly (a buck seventy-nine average and no extra base hits), was traded to Detroit, did a little better (.241 and two home runs), then went back to the minors. He retired after the 1959 season and died in 1992.

So he wasn’t much of a player after all. But what a great two months he had. It’s hard to say this about a team that includes Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn, but without Hazle the Braves don’t win.

Quick aside: Today marks the 195th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Advice–bet on Wellington.