Posts Tagged ‘New York Giants’

A Dozen Things You Should Know About George Gibson

May 9, 2017

George Gibson (from his Wikipedia page) about 1910. Note the era catching gear

Here are some fast facts about one of the primary catcher’s on my fantasy team.

1.  George Gibson was born in London, Ontario, Canada in 1880. He worked with his father as a bricklayer and played catcher for a church league team in London.

2. He began playing professionally in 1903 and went to Buffalo where his manager was George Stallings (manager of the World Series winning 1914 Braves). He didn’t particularly like Stallings.

3. From Buffalo he went to Montreal where he played until the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him in 1905. He got into 46 games, hit a buck-78, but produced only nine errors.

4. Gibson was big (5’11”) for the era and adroit at blocking the plate. He also was considered strong armed (a trait attributed to his size) and able to throw out more runners than a regular catcher (most years his caught stealing percentage is slightly above the league norm).

5. In 1909 he set a record by catching 134 consecutive games and another record by catching in 150 total games (of 154). The first record lasted into the 1920s and the other to 1940.

6. The 1909 season saw his only postseason play. He played in all seven World Series games (a victory against Detroit), hit .240, had two doubles, scored two runs, had two RBIs, had six total hits.

7. He remained with Pittsburgh through 1916, was waived and claimed by the Giants. He refused to report.

8. Giants manager John McGraw made him a player-coach and he reported in 1917. New York won the National League pennant in 1917, but Gibson did not play in the World Series.

9. His last year was 1918. He played four games (and hit .500) and retired with a triple slash line of .236/.295/.312/.607 (OPS+ of 81), 15 home runs, 346 RBIs, 295 runs scored, and 15.1 WAR (BBRef version).

10. He coached in the International League, managed the Pirates twice and the Cubs once (with a .546 combined winner percentage), coached for both the Senators and the Cubs, and did scouting work for the Cubs.

11. In 1956 he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. In 1987 he joined the Canadian Baseball Fall of Fame.

12. George Gibson died in his hometown of London, Ontario in January 1967.

 

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Replacing a Legend

June 9, 2016
Bill Terry

Bill Terry

When you ask someone to name the hardest thing to do in baseball, you get a lot of different answers. Frankly, if the person’s thought about it, it’s generally a decent reply. But one of the things you almost never hear is how hard it is to replace a legend. It seems to me that has to be one of the toughest things a player can be asked to do. All of which brings me to Bill Terry and replacing John McGraw.

Terry was born in Atlanta in 1898. He was a good ballplayer and got into his first big league game in late 1923 with the Giants. The next season he made the team at the start of the year as a backup first baseman and pinch hitter. The Giants made the World Series (against Washington) and Terry got into five games in the Series, hitting .429 in a losing effort. He managed to hit one home run. It came off Walter Johnson. By 1925 he was the regular first baseman. He hit well in the ’20s, peaking at .372 in 1929. He was also considered a superior first baseman and a knowledgeable baseball man. In 1930 he became the last National League regular to hit .400 (.401). He had some power, peaking at 28 in 1932 and enough speed to manage 20 triples in 1931. He was, in other words, a bona fide star; a star who didn’t like his manager.

Then in mid-season 1932, Giants manager John McGraw retired. Although it’s tough to argue against Babe Ruth as New York’s “Mr. Baseball” in 1932, John J. McGraw might have been a close second. He’d led the Giants to three World Series wins (Ruth would get his fourth championship as a Yankee in 1932), and several more pennants, including one in 1904 when no Series was played. And now he was stepping aside and whoever took his place would be instantly compared to him. With the Giants in last place (eighth), McGraw resigned and Terry, who appears, despite not liking McGraw, to have been McGraw’s choice, was tapped as the new manager. He got the team to sixth by the end of the season.

He built from there. His team won the National League pennant in 1933 and then took the World Series in five games (against Washington, thus avenging the 1924 loss). With Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell as team stalwarts, the Giants remained a force through the 1930s, winning pennants (and losing the World Series) in 1937 and 1938. By 1939 the Giants were aging and fell back to fifth. They were sixth in 1940 and fifth again in 1941, That was it for Terry. He moved, at his request, to the front office where he took over as general manager in charge of scouting and the farm system.

So we now get to ask ourselves, how did he do as a replacement for a legend? Well, he did pretty well. He won three pennants and one championship in six years. McGraw had won at about the same pace through 1924. His winning percentage was .555 to McGraw’s .581.

If it’s hard to replace a legend, and I think it is, Terry did a pretty good job of doing so over a decade of managing. He, like McGraw, made the Hall of Fame (although he’s in as a player and McGraw as a manager) and became one of the more important and famous Giants while the team was still in New York. He died in 1989.

The Best of the Giants

May 27, 2013
Will Clark

Will Clark

It’s been a while since I stuck my foot deep in my mouth and picked an all-time team for a franchise. So it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this month dealing with the Giants, especially the New York version, so it seems like a good franchise to work with now.

A few caveats first (you knew I’d do that, right?). Let me start with a simple disclaimer: I’ve never been a particular Giants fan. Growing up supporting the Dodgers, there’s not a lot of nice things to say about the Giants (only the Yankees are as deep in perdition as the Giants). That means I’ll admit to being less than confident about my choices, but it’s the best I can do using only research and a few memories. Second, I put together a 25 man roster that does not mirror a Major League roster, but it’s my list and I get to do it my way. There are nine infielders, five outfielders, two catchers, and nine pitchers. I decided to go with three bullpen men and six men who were primarily starters. I also picked a manager (bet you can guess him). Finally there are no players whose primary career is before the advent of the mound. There are som really fine Giants prior to 1892, like Roger Connor, Tim Keefe, Mike Tiernan, but they play a game that is different, so different I decided to drop them from consideration.

So with all that said, here we go diving in where God knows what we will find. Each list is alphabetical.

The Infield:  Will Clark, Al Dark, George Davis, Art Fletcher, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Jeff Kent, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey.

Did you ever notice that the Giants have produced an inordinate number of quality first basemen? I chose McCovey, Mize, and Clark (and Cepeda spent a lot of time at first) and left out Hall of Fame first sackers Bill Terry and George Kelly. Frankly, I didn’t really have to think that hard about it. The only hard choice was Mize, who spent significant time with both St. Louis and the Yankees. I decided he was in. If they’ve had great first basemen, they’ve had mediocre third basemen. I went with Fletcher as the only third baseman because the rest of the list was Fred Lindstrom and Jim Davenport and guys like that. OK, maybe I should have considered Sandoval, but as a rule I like to stay away from current players because we don’t know how they’re stay with their team will go (but see Posey below). Short and second were mixed bags. Frisch, Kent, and Larry Doyle stood out but there wasn’t much below them. Short on the other hand had more quality players, but no one at the level of either Frisch or Kent. I left off Dave Bancroft and added Dark which may strike some as odd, but I suppose it’s merely a personal preference. And of course Jackson (who was in the top 10 Giants in WAR, which surprised me) played third toward the end of his career. 

The Outfield: Barry Bonds, Orlando Cepeda, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Mel Ott.

There is Bonds (whatever you think of him as a person or as a steroids user), there is Mays, and there is Ott. Everyone else is a huge drop, a really huge drop. You could make an argument that across the three outfield positions (left, center, and right) the Giants may have the best starting outfield ever. But you need backups and at the point you get past the big three you end up with a lot of quality outfielders. Cepeda’s knees sent him to first, but he began in the outfield. Irvin was a converted middle infielder who lost several years to segregation. Both are just short of the top-tier. I had to leave out both Felipe and Matty Alou, which I was sorry to do because I’d liked both when they played. Jeff Leonard and Kevin Mitchell were good for too short a time to be considered at the top.

The Catchers: Roger Bresnahan and Buster Posey.

OK, who else was there? Look at the Giants’ list of catchers and tell me you like anyone better. As a rule, Giants catching has been very weak. Buck Ewing is excluded as a pre-1890s player.  Hank Severeid maybe, but if that’s the best you can do then we’re stuck with these two. I hesitate to pick a current player like Posey, but it’s a really weak position and Posey has the advantage of coming to the Giants and they win a World Series. Then he gets hurt and they falter. Then he’s healthy again and they win another World Series. That’s a pretty good legacy, isn’t it?

The Starters: Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Gaylord Perry, Amos Rusie.

You know, you could make a pretty fair five man rotation for the Giants just using pitchers whose last name began with the letter “M”. You could dump those bums Perry and Rusie and insert Rube Marquard and Sal Maglie and still have a darned good staff. I didn’t. I have a feeling that in a few years both Lincecum and Cain will be getting some consideration on lists like this.

The Bullpen: Rod Beck, Rob Nen, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Not the strongest part of the Giants history. Wilhelm made the Hall of Fame, but his tenure with New York was relatively short. Most of his Cooperstown credentials are from other teams. Nen and Beck are simply one, two in saves, so why not?

The Manager: John J. McGraw.

Surely you saw that coming.

So there it is in all its glory; for good ,bad, or indifferent. I think it’s a pretty fair list, but I’m sure a lot of people will disagree. Feel free to do so. (I have this nagging feeling I’ve left somebody out).

The Barber

May 20, 2013
Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie was one of the aces of the Giants teams that won a pennant in 1951 and the World Series title in 1954. His nickname was “The Barber” (a nickname he hated) because he pitched high and inside. He was a good solid pitcher who helped four teams to pennants. In other words, he was a heck of a pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s most famous today for a game he lost.

Magile was born in Niagara Falls (the town, not the falls, obviously) in 1917. He’s another of that generation of players who were first generation Americans (his family coming from Italy). Maglie loved baseball, his parents were certain it was ruining his life. Apparently that was a fairly common problem in the period. In researching a lot of different players, I’ve found an inordinate number had immigrant parents who were entirely buffaloed by their son’s desire to play ball and the country’s willingness to pay the kid to do so.

Maglie played semipro ball while working in a factory in Buffalo. He was good enough that the Double A Bisons picked him up. He was raw and ended up in Class D. Desperate for talent in 1942, the Giants picked him up for their Jersey City farm team. He stayed one year, then left to work in a defense plant. In 1945, the Giants enticed him back to baseball. By the end of the season he was in the Majors going 5-4 with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.115 WHIP. He was 28 and had finally made it.

In 1946 the Mexican League, under new management, began luring big leaguers to Mexico with big salaries. Maglie, who was playing in the Cuban League (under ex-Giants pitcher Dolf Luque), took one of the contracts. Major League baseball was appalled. Commissioner “Happy” Chandler announced a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. That included Maglie. He pitched two seasons at Puebla, establishing himself as a quality pitcher. But the Mexican League was in trouble. The big salaries didn’t translate to big attendance and the league began faltering. Maglie jumped ship in 1948 joining a barnstorming team that folded at the end of the season. He bought a gas station in Niagara Falls, then got a call to join a minor league team in Canada. He pitched in Canada in 1949, leading his team to its league championship. At the end of the 1949 season, Chandler lifted the ban on the Mexican League refugees (it lasted four of the five years) and Maglie rejoined the Giants.

Maglie, now 33, was a hit. He won the ERA title (and the ERA+ crown) in 1950, had his career year in 1951 with a league leading 23 wins, and led the Giants to a three game playoff with the Dodgers. He pitched eight innings of game three, the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, but took a no decision. The Giants victory took them to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, Maglie pitching one game, lasting five innings, and getting clobbered (he gave up four runs in five innings in game three).  He had a good year in 1952, not such a good year in 1953 (he was having back problems), and opened 1954 as the Giants three pitcher (behind Johnny Antonelli and Ruben Gomez). He went 14-6, struck out 117 batters, but allowed more hits than he had innings pitched. The Giants were again in the World Series and Maglie drew game one. Again he picked up a no decision in the game made famous by Willie Mays’ catch and Dusty Rhodes’ homer. The Giants swept the Series with Maglie not taking the mound after game one.

Despite a good start in 1955, Maglie was traded to Cleveland. After two games in Cleveland in 1956, the Indians sold him to Brooklyn. The Dodgers, needing pitching, returned Maglie to a starting role (he’d mostly relieved in Cleveland) and he went 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a league leading 139 ERA+. He pitched his only no-hitter in 1956 and pitched the pennant clinching game for Brooklyn.  That meant the Dodgers would play in their second consecutive World Series, squaring off against the Yankees. Maglie pitched and won the first game of the Series (beating Whitey Ford), then drew game five in Yankee Stadium. It was his most famous game. He was great, giving up only two runs and five hits while striking out five. The problem was that Yankees starter Don Larsen threw the World Series’ only perfect game that day.

Maglie began 1957 with the Dodgers, went 6-6, and was sent across the city to the Bronx. He was 2-0 for the Yankees as they made another World Series. He didn’t pitch in the Series (which New York lost to Milwaukee in seven games).  In 1958 he was 41 and done. He pitched a few games for New York, then ended the season for the Cardinals. They released him before the 1959 season. He’d played parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, becoming the last man to wear the uniform of all three New York teams (this doesn’t count anyone who played for all three teams once the Dodgers and Giants moved to California).

He coached one year in the Cards minor league system, then became Red Sox pitching coach in 1961 and 1962. He was out of baseball in 1963, ’64, and ’65. He spent part of 1965 with the New York Athletic Commission, but most of his time was taken nursing his dying wife (she had cancer). He returned to baseball as pitching coach of the 1966-67 Red Sox, including the “Impossible Dream” team that lost the 1967 World Series. He was fired at the end of the Series (he and manager Dick Williams didn’t get along). He spent time after 1967 as a pitching coach for the Pilots (now the Brewers), general manager for the Niagara Falls minor league team, ran a liquor distributorship, and was a coordinator for the Niagara Falls Convention Bureau. He retired in 1979 and died in December 1992.

For his Major League career “The Barber” was 119-62, had an ERA of 3.15 (ERA+ of 127), 25 shutouts, 562 walks, and 862 strikeouts in 1723 innings pitched (a WHIP of 1.250). He was a member of four pennant winning teams and one World Series champion (1954). In postseason play he was 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 20 strikeouts and a 1.345 ERA. All this with four years lost to the Mexican League.

It’s useless to speculated how much Maglie lost because of the Mexican League fiasco. We can never know. He didn’t make the big leagues until he was 28 and didn’t become a regular until he was 33. It was not in the cards that he would join the Hall of Fame. But he was considered one of the better “money” pitchers of his era, especially in the regular season. Not a bad legacy for a man who hated what is one of the better nicknames of all time.

Maglie's final resting place

Maglie’s final resting place

Prince Hal

May 9, 2013
Hal Schumacher

Hal Schumacher

the 1930s Giants pitching staff is known for one hurler: Carl Hubbell. He was “The Meal Ticket.” He was “King Carl.” He also shared the mound with Hal Schumacher, known to the fans as “Prince Hal.”

Hal Schumacher was born in 1910 in upstate New York (near Utica). As with many of the players of the era his parents were immigrants (from Germany). He was a good athlete, graduated high school, got a number of calls from baseball teams. Wanting to attend college he enrolled at St. Lawrence University in 1928. He stayed through 1930, then, running out of money for college, he signed his first professional contract. Among other stipulations, it required the Giants to allow him time to finish college.

He split 1931 between New York and minor league teams in Bridgeport and Rochester (Baseball Reference shows only his Bridgeport numbers. I have no idea why.). He went 1-1 in eight games (two starts) with an ERA over 10. In 1932 he split time between starting and relieving and began to establish himself as a key member of the staff. In 1933 he went 19-12 with a 2.16 ERA and for the first time had more strikeouts than walks. The Giants won the National League pennant and Schumacher won game two of the World Series. He took a no decision in the climactic game five.

Schumacher had outstanding seasons in 1934 and 1935 (going a combined 42-10 with an ERA just under three. He developed arm trouble in 1936 and slid back posting only an 11-13 record for the NL champs. He went 1-1 in the Series, getting lit up during game two and throwing a ten inning complete game in game five. The Giants lost the Series in six games.

They were back in the World Series in 1937, Schumacher going 13-12 during the regular season. He took the loss in game three. It was his last postseason play. He remained with the Giants through 1942 pitching about .500 ball and watching his walk numbers go up while his strikeouts went down.  He joined the Navy after the ’42 season and served on an aircraft carrier. he returned to the Giants in 1946. He was 35 and unable to return to anything like his prewar form. At the end of the season he retired.

Upon retirement he went to work for the Adirondack Bat Company. He’d gotten his college degree in business (meaning the Giants lived up their part of the contract) and became Vice President in charge of sales. With his background in baseball he served as a valuable asset for the company, convincing a number of Major Leaguers to use his company’s bats (Willie Mays was one of them). He rose to Executive Vice President of the company and served a term as president of the Athletic Goods Manufacturers Association. He retired in 1967 and went to work for Little League. His job was to organize instructional programs for youth baseball. He died in Cooperstown (as is appropriate) in 1993.

For his career, Schumacher went 158-121 with an ERA of 3.36 (ERA+ of 111). He walked 902 men and struck out 906 in 2482 innings and gave up 2424 hits. That gave him a 1.340 WHIP. In postseason play he was 2-2 with a 4.13 ERA.

Schumacher was never a big star for the Giants (although he made three All-Star games). He was lost behind the bats of Mel Ott and Bill Terry and he existed in the great shadow of Carl Hubbell on the mound. For all that, he was a successful number two pitcher and a major component for three pennant winning teams.

The Original Giant

October 26, 2012

Jim Mutrie

With the Giants up in the World Series, this seems like a good time to talk about the history of the team. It goes back to the 1880s, although almost no one knows anything that happened in Giants baseball prior to John McGraw. So let me introduce you to Jim Mutrie.

Mutrie was born in Massachusetts in 1851. He worked for his father, attended school, and played cricket. The latter got him interested in baseball. By 1867 he was catching for local clubs and making his name as a leading sportsman of the region. Besides proficiency in baseball and cricket he was known as a champion cycler (this is the old bicycle that had the giant wheel in the front and a small one at back) and won some distance races on the bicycle, including a 50 mile distance race in 1879. But baseball was where the money was and Mutrie was good enough to make it onto some minor league teams in the area. By 1880 he had quit as a player and was managing the Brockton team.

Baseball in New York City had fallen on bad times. One of the great cradles of Paleolithic baseball, New York hadn’t had a Major League team since just after the founding of the National League when the Mutuals were tossed out of the league for failing to make a late season Western (read Chicago) swing. Brooklyn, another hotbed of  early baseball also was  without a team, the Dodgers (originally called the Atlantics after a famous 1850s-60s team) weren’t formed until 1884. Mutrie saw the need and potential for a Major League team in New York. He got in contact with John B. Day, a successful tobacconist (the stories of how they met vary), convinced Day to invest in a baseball team, and found a suitable area to build a stadium, the initial Polo Grounds (not to be confused with the more famous one in Queens). He recruited players, named the team the New York Metropolitans (Mets) and joined the Eastern Championship Alliance (a minor league). They won championships in both 1881 and 1882, earning them an invitation to join the newly formed American Association (a new Major League). The team accepted and Major League baseball was back in New York in 1883.

And it was back in a big way. Not only did the Metropolitans join the Association, but Day formed a new team called the Gothams and managed to get them into the National League. So from having no teams between 1877 and 1882, New York now had a team in both Major Leagues.

The Mets won a pennant in 1884. That allowed them to participate in the first primitive World Series against the National League’s Providence Greys. It was a three game series with Providence winning all three games.  But the Gothams made more money, had more panache, and finished fourth. Day approached Mutrie about changing teams, Mutrie agreed, and in 1885 he became manager of the New York Gothams. He brought with him Tim Keefe, the Mets best pitcher. It began a steady rise for the Gothams. By the end of the 1885 season they had a second place finish and a new nickname, the Giants.

There is some debate about the origin of the name. We know that P.J. Donohue, a reporter for the New York World used the term “Giants” in an article on 14 April 1885. Later Mutrie claimed that he’d refered to his team as “My big fellas, my Giants” to Donohue and thus deserved credit for the name. Donohue never commented one way or the other as far as I can tell. This brings up an issue when dealing with Mutrie. His nickname was “Truthful James”, but it was meant in the same ironic way that a 6′ 6″ 250 pound linebacker is called “Tiny.” Apparently Mutrie liked to brag, to take credit for things whether he did them or not, and inflate his importance, and let his stories improve with age (He’d make a great “booster” in the town where I live). So you should take his assertion about the “Giants” nickname with something less than 100% confidence.

Whatever Mutrie’s veracity, his team was good. They won pennants in 1888 and 1889, then swept to “World Series” wins in both seasons. It was a great team, one of the best of the 19th Century. Hall of Famers Roger Connor, Monte Ward, Jim O’Rourke, and Buck Ewing played in the field. Keefe and Mickey Welch, both Hall of Fame members anchored the pitching staff.  Mike Tiernan and George Gore also played for the team and were household names in the era.

But all was not well with the team. The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was heavily represented on the team (Ward was the Brotherhood founder and leader). In 1890, fed up with low salaries and contract restrictions, the Brotherhood formed its own league (the Player’s League). It devastated the Giants. Of the 1889 starting fielders, only Tiernan remained with the team. Keefe also left the team, although Welch remained. The team finished in sixth at 63-68 (the only losing season in Mutrie’s career). They got back to third in 1891, but the team was in trouble. Day was broke and sold the team. Wanting a fresh start, the new ownership fired Mutrie.

For Mutrie it was the end. He never got back to the Major Leagues. He moved to Staten Island with his wife and daughter, survived doing odd jobs, and was largely forgotten. The Giants had an occasional reunion of the old teams and Mutrie was there. They eventually gave him a small pension, but he was never associated with the team again. He died on Staten Island in relative obscurity in 1938.

For his career, Mutrie won three pennants, two “World Series”, and finished with a losing record once. He managed nine years, won 658 games, lost 419, and ended with a winning percentage of .611. Know how many managers with 200 games have a better winning percentage? One, Joe McCarthy (.615) of the 1930s-1940s Yankees. You’d think that would get people’s attention, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Mutrie has had almost no support for the Hall of Fame.

Jim Mutrie is one of those guys that early baseball seems to run across with frequency. Part showman, part genius, part fool. We’ve lost something with the modern ballplayer and manager. We’ve lost the Mutrie “character”. Ain’t that kind of a shame?

The Nice Guy

March 4, 2011

Mel Ott

I tried a little trick with some friends of mine both locally and online. I handed (or sent) them a list of all the men who had 500 plus home runs in Major League history. But instead of writing down the names, I provided only the initials and asked them to fill in the names without resorting to a baseball encyclopedia or the internet. Well, everybody got BR as Babe Ruth and HA as Hank Aaron (although a couple missed BB as Barry Bonds). Most of the rest were hit and miss with more modern players doing better than the old guys. There was one set of initials that absolutely no one got, not a single guy: MO. Everyone forgot Mel Ott, making him,at least among my crowd, the most obscure power hitter ever.

They told Ott he was too short to play. Well, he fooled them all. He learned to pull the ball, draw a lot of  walks, and played right field almost flawlessly. Oh, and by the way, when he retired he held the National League record for home runs and was third on the all-time list. Not bad for a short guy, right?

Ott was a catcher by trade when he arrived in New York at age 19. John McGraw moved him to the outfield because he thought Ott would have a longer career. He pinch hit most of 1927, hitting .239 (.282 overall). In 1928 he became the Giants regular right fielder and the next year set a career high with 42 home runs. Ott won numerous home run titles, but his highest total was good for only second. There’s a reason for that. He played in Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Phillies right fielder Chuck Klein had 43 home runs going into the game. The Phils walked Ott each time to ensure that Klein won the homer title. As neither team was going anywhere, I’ve never been quite sure what I think of that.  The 1929 season was also unique for Ott in that he had more home runs that strikeouts (42 to 38). He won five home run titles during the 1930s. His lowest total was 23 in 1933, his highest 38 in 1932. He had a strange batting stance that included a high leg kick with swinging. It’s supposed to have helped him generate power. Here’s a posed shot of it:

Ott swinging away

For the decade of the 1930s he was terrific, joining Carl Hubbell as the driving force on the Giants.  He scored a lot of runs, knocked in a lot of runs, and had seven years of 100 walks. In 1933, the Giants won the NL pennant. It was Ott’s weakest season in the decade, but he made up for it by clubbing .389 in the World Series. His tenth inning home run in game five clinched the Series for New York. The Giants also took pennants in 1936 and 1937, but dropped both World Series’ to the Yankees. Ott did all right in the ’36 Series, but had a down Series in 1937.

His first really sub par season in years occurred in 1940. He bounced back in 1941. In 1942 the Giants made him their manager. He responded by leading the NL in home runs one final time. His first season hitting below .250 was 1943. It was also his lowest home run total since 1927. In the war depleted ranks of 1945, he had one final good season. He hit .300 one last time and picked up his 500th home run, passing Lou Gehrig in the process. In 1946 he concentrated on managing and his average plummeted to .074. In 1947 he went 0 for 4 and retired as an active players. He managed the Giants without much success through 1948 and made the Hall of Fame in 1951. In 1958 he died in a car wreck. It was about him that Leo Durocher is supposed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”

For his career Ott had 2876 hits, 488 doubles, 72 triples, 511 home runs, scored 1859 runs with 1861 RBIs (another amazingly close number), and walked 1708 times to only 896 strikeouts.  He hit.304, slugged .533, had an on base percentage of .410, and an OPS of 943 (OPS + of 155). All good numbers. All certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

But despite all the superlatives you can recount about Ott’s career, there’s always one complaint raised over and over. He got an unfair advantage because he played in the Polo Grounds. During his career Ott hit 63% of his home runs (323 of 511) at home. By contrast, Babe Ruth hit 49% of his at home, Mickey Mantle hit 50% at home, and Willie Mays got 51% of his at home (and for part of Mays’ career, the Polo Grounds was home). It was 258 feet down the right field line at the Polo Grounds, so the argument goes that the left-handed hitting Ott got a lot of cheap home runs and therefore isn’t really as great as he appears.

Oh? Let’s see if I have this right. Ott regularly drives in 100 runs a year, scores 100 runs a year, and has 140-190 hits a year. Of those he regularly deposits nineteen of them over the wall at the Polo Grounds (That’s 63% of his average home run total from 1929 through 1942, his productive years.) and isn’t really a geat player. What did I miss? There are a bunch of runs scored and RBI’s that don’t have a thing to do with 258 feet fences. For his career, excluding 1926, 1946, and 1947 when he played less than 40 games, Ott averaged 150 hits, of which nineteen flew over the fence in New York. He scored 97 runs, nineteen of which came from a ball that he hit over the fence in New York. He knocked in 98 runners a year, an indeterminate number of which were on base when a ball flew over the fence in New York. He walked 89 times a season, none of which came from a ball flying over a fence in New York, thus putting himself on base a lot and giving his team a chance to score runs whether or not they put a ball over the fence in New York. Frankly, I don’t think the Polo Grounds had a lot to do with Ott’s status as a great player. As a power hitter, yes; as a great player, no.

Even if it did help his power numbers, he’s not the only one. You don’t hear people complain about Wade Boggs’ inflated hit totals because he knew how to use Fenway Park, do you? A lot of people will tell you that the two greatest seasons any player ever had were Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 years. In 1920 Ruth had 29 home runs at home, 24 on the road (54% at home). In 1921 he hit 32 at home and 27 on the road (again 54%). Want to guess where he played his home games? You got it, the Polo Grounds with its 258 foot fence that aided left-handed hitters like Ruth and Ott. According to Green Cathedrals it was actually 256 feet in 1920-1921. I wonder how many home runs just barely cleared that 256 feet? (and how they got an extra two feet in 1929) OK, I know 63% is a lot more than 54%, but you just don’t hear anyone complain that Ruth got an extra benefit from the Polo Grounds. I’m not arguing that Ott didn’t get a lot of help by playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, he obviously did when it comes to power numbers. But that fact alone doesn’t take away from his greatness any more than it would take away from either Boggs or Ruth.

Mel Ott was one of the finest players of the 1930s. He was third in both home runs and RBIs for the decade and was a part of three pennant winners. And for all that he’s managed to become utterly obscure. Isn’t that a great shame?

Tom, Dick, and Larry: Larry

May 26, 2010

Larry Doyle

Like a number of players from the Deadball Era, Larry Doyle came out of the mines. His mines were in Breese, Illinois. He hated the mines, loved baseball, was better at the latter than the former and after a couple of years in the minors ended up in New York with the Giants in 1907.

Doyle was a third baseman in the minors and the Giants had a third baseman (Art Devlin). What they needed was a second baseman, so Doyle was handed the job. He was awful. Eventually he got better, but was never considered a first-rate second baseman. He seems to have never gotten the knack of coming in properly for a slow roller  and many of his errors were of the glove, not arm, kind.

What he could do well was hit. He moved quickly into the two hole in the Giants order and spent most of the next ten years as a reliable two hitter. He had good bat control, speed, and a good eye, all critical in a bunt oriented one-run-at-a-time offense. He led the National League in triples once (1911), in hits twice, and in doubles once. In 1915 he won the batting crown. In 1912 he won the NL’s Chalmers Award, the 19-teens version of the MVP award, setting career highs in both average and RBIs. His reward was a Chalmers automobile, which he managed to wreck in 1913 causing him to miss several games toward the end of the season.

During his tenure with the Giants, the team won the NL pennant in 1911-1913, but lost all three World Series’ to the American League team. In the 1911 Series Doyle led the team in hits (7) and average (.304). In 1912 his Series performance was much worse, and got even worse in 1913 when he managed to hit only .150 with three hits.

Doyle stayed with the Giants through 1915, managing to room with Christy Mathewson for most of the period. The two men became good friends and were very good at coming up with joint investments, which left Doyle with a nice nest egg for his early retirement years. He also became great friends with first baseman Fred Merkle and always supported him against detractors after the base running blunder of 1908.

In 1916 Doyle was traded to the Cubs with nine games left in the season (the Giants got Heinie Zimmerman). He stayed with Chicago through 1917, then came back to New York for the final three years of his career, retiring after the 1920 season. After his playing days he worked with the Giants as a minor league manager, scout, and sometime coach. He managed to go through most of his money and by 1942 was in bad shape both economically in healthwise. He got tuberculosis and ended up, with help from the NL, in the same sanitarium where his old roommate Mathewson had lived his last years. He outlived the sanitarium. It closed in 1954. He died at home in 1974.

For much of his career, Doyle was the finest second baseman in the National League, rivalled only by Johnny Evers (both Eddie Collins and Nap LaJoie in the American League were better). For his career he hit .290, slugged .408, had an on base percentage of .357 (765 ops) with 2654 total bases. He averaged 21 stolen bases a season (which includes two seasons when he did not play 100 games). He wasn’t much of a second baseman. HIs career .949 fielding average isn’t very good, even by the standards of the era (although there are worse).

Doyle was one of those players who is absolutely necessary for a team to do well, but who is not the big star on the team. He won an MVP but was usually lost behind the great names of the era. He was the best at his position in his league, but the other league was stronger at the spot. There are a lot of those types in baseball history.

Before there was Marvin Miller…

March 13, 2010

John Montgomery Ward

…there was John Montgomery Ward. He was a lawyer, a ballplayer, a union man, and an organizer. He was, in short, the players best friend and the owners worst nightmare.

First, let’s clear up something. He is not to be confused with the retail magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward who started the first mail order catalogue business in 1872. When I was growing up we had a bunch of “Monkey Wards” stuff in the house, but it had nothing to do with a baseball player.

Our Ward was born in Pennsylvania just prior to the Civil War in 1860. By 1873 he was attending Penn State University (yes, that makes him age 13), but left in 1874 when his parents both died. He wandered around some, working as a salesman and minor league pitcher until 1878 when the Providence Grays of the National League signed him to pitch for them. He stayed there until 1882 (two years before Providence won the pennant) playing outfield, pitching, and hurling a perfect game in June 1880 (the second one in Major League history). In 1883 he was sent to the New York Gothams (now the San Francisco Giants) where he became a full-time shortstop occasionally patroling the outfield and pitching 43 games.

While with the Giants, Ward attended law school at Columbia in New York City. He became the leading player spokesman for detailing grievances. By 1885 he was vocal in opposing the reserve rule and demanding more money for the players. This didn’t hurt his playing ability. Between 1883 and 1889 his batting average was as low as .226 and peaked at .338.  He averaged 130 hits, 86 runs, stole a bunch of bases (remember stolen bases were figured differently then). OK, he wasn’t Honus Wagner, but those aren’t bad numbers for the era. In 1888 and 1889 the Giants won the National League pennant and won the 19th Century version of the World Series both seasons.

By 1890, Ward had enough. He had already helped form the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first sports union, and served as both its leader and spokesman. After a particularly bitter fight with management over salaries (the NL adopted a rule that capped player’s salaries at $2500 in 1889), Ward decided the Brotherhood would form a new league, called the Player’s League.

The Player’s League was run by the union, with Ward as it’s major spokesman. They placed teams in eight towns (New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo), with Ward managing the Brooklyn team. He finished second, 6.5 games out. He played short, hit .337, scored 134 runs, and  had 189 hits as the player-manager. Unfortunately, the league was not entirely successful. Baseball simply couldn’t afford three leagues, The Player’s League drew reasonably well, but not well enough for the bottom handful of teams to survive.  With all three major leagues suffering, and the American Association almost moribund, the players blinked first. On 14 January 1891, Ward and the Brotherhood gave up the Player’s League and returned to the other two leagues (in such a way that it was fatal to the American Association). I want to do a post on the Player’s League at a later date and will detail what happened at that time. Ward ended up with the National League Brooklyn team (one day to become the Dodgers) and was player-manager for two seasons. He finished his career back with the Giants as player-manager in 1893 and 1894. 

For his career, Ward hit .275 with 2107 hits, 1410 runs, and 869 RBIs. His career fielding average is .887, not bad for the 1880s. All in all a nice little career, but not really first rate.

He spent the early years of his retirement as an attorney representing players against management, then joined the Boston Beaneaters (now the Atlanta Braves) as a joint owner prior returning to the law. He was actively involved in the Federal League of 1914-15 (you knew he would be), handling the business affairs of the Brooklyn team. He turned to golf after his retirement and did well in a number of amateur tournaments (I wonder if Tiger Woods can pitch). Fittingly, he died in Augusta, Georgia in 1925 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.

Ward, for better or worse, invented the sports union. He worked tirelessly to improve the lot of players, and used his legal skills to upset management’s plans on a number of occasions. Without him there would be no Player’s Union today. There would be no strikes, but there would be no free agency either. When you look at baseball as a business, you look at it thanks to the vision of John Montgomery Ward.

Thanks, King

February 22, 2010

All the way back in 1950, there was a poll that decided the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th Century. The big winner was Jim Thorpe. He enters baseball twice, and thus is fodder for me.

Thorpe came out of Oklahoma first achieving fame as a footlball star at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He also starred at track and field, being half of a two man team one year. There wasn’t a lot of money to be had running college track or playing college football, so Thorpe began playing semi-professional baseball during the summer. He was OK, but it wasn’t his best sport.

In 1912 he entered the Olympics, held in Stockholm, Sweden, winning both the decathlon and the pentathlon gold medals. Those medals were handed to him by the King of Sweden who remarked “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” Thorpe’s deathless reply was “Thanks, King.” It wasn’t long before Thorpe’s semi-pro baseball career came to the attention of the Olympic committee and he lost both medals because of professionalism (The medals were returned to his family in the 1990s).

In 1913, Thorpe joined the New York Giants as an outfielder. He hit a buck 43 over 19 games with two stolen bases. He stayed with the Giants through 1915 hitting .195 with seven stolen bases in 66 games, 28 in the field (all outfield). He sat out 1916, began 1917 at Cincinnati, did reasonably well (.237 average, 12 stolen bases, 36 RBIs), then was traded back to the Giants. He got into the 1917 World Series, playing one game in the outfield without getting to the plate. The Giants lost the Series. His 1918 was much like his 1917 year, hitting .248 with 11 RBIs in 58 games. He started 1919 at New York and ended up with the Boston Braves, finally hitting over .300 (.327) and having 25 RBIs. It was his final season. For a career he hit .252 with 82 RBIs, 29 stolen bases, and 91 runs in 289 games.

After leaving baseball, Thorpe spent time as President of the newly founded National Football League and played a few games for the Canton Bulldogs. He made the NFL Hall of Fame in 1963. His baseball career was certainly well short of Cooperstown. He died in 1953 in California. He was buried in Pennsylvania in a town that agreed to change its name to Jim Thorpe. In the ESPN poll to determine the greatest athlete of the entire 20th Century, Thorpe, dead for almost 50 years, still finished in the top five.