Posts Tagged ‘New York Yankees’

Sale of the Century

December 26, 2014
The one and only

The one and only

Just a brief note today to remind you that today marks the anniversary of the greatest baseball bargain of the 20th Century. On 26 December 1919, the Boston Red Sox sold their combination pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. It was both the sale of the Century the steal of the Century. New York won a pennant in 1921 while the Red Sox waited until 1946. The Yankees won the World Series in 1923 (and 26 more since) while Boston waited until the 21st Century.


A Bum by Fluke

December 17, 2014
our radio looked a lot like this.

our radio looked a lot like this.

As most people who actually take time to sit and read the things I write know, I’m a Dodgers fan; have been since I was a little kid. Glen asked me a couple of times how, in a house and area full of Cardinals fans, I became a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’d like to say it was some kind of grand epiphany or a youthful show of wisdom. Well, it wasn’t. Actually it was something of a fluke.

When I was little my grandfather and I listened to baseball on a radio, either the one at home, or on weekends at the local barber shop. He was a diehard Cardinals fan who lived and died with the Cards and the stats of Stan Musial. I knew this and appreciated it, but something changed at World Series time. He began to root for the Dodgers. In 1952 he died a little when they lost to New York, then died a little more when they lost in 1953. He was up front about rooting for the Dodgers, so I figured it was OK too. I wasn’t quite sure why you changed teams at World Series time, but that was the way of the world, at least my little part of it. Because when you went to the barber shop at World Series time everyone was rooting for the Dodgers.

In 1954 the Giants went to the World Series along with the Indians. My grandfather listened and commented, but there was no real rooting going on. If the Indians won, fine; if the Giants won, better (it was a National League town). Then in 1955 we got a television. It was  small, black and white, the reception went in an out and I remember my grandfather standing outside holding the antenna pole while my grandmother would shout, “A little more to the right” until the picture cleared up. When World Series time came the Dodgers were back in and this time they won. There was rejoicing in my home and at the barber shop. And there was equal sadness when they lost again in 1956.

By then I was a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers fan. Everyone seemed to think the Cardinals was the team to support, but the Dodgers were a close second. So I figured that “well, heck, if the Cardinals have number one support and the Dodgers are OK too, maybe someone should help out by making the Dodgers the number one team with the Cards in second place.” So I decided that would be me.

Then came 1957 and the Braves made the World Series. My grandfather rooted for them as hard as he’d rooted for the Dodgers. The guys at the barber shop rooted for them as hard as they’d rooted for the Dodgers. Something was wrong and it took a while to figure it out. The common denominator in all the World Series matchups, except the “who cares?” Series of 1954 was the New York Yankees. My grandfather and his cronies weren’t Dodgers fans at all; they hated the Yankees, and anyone playing the Yanks in the Series was to be supported. When the same thing happened in 1958 I was sure I was right.

But by then it was too late. I was a Dodgers fan with a willingness to root for St. Louis if necessary (sort of the opposite of my grandfather). So that, little children, is how a person from a Cardinals family and Cardinals town becomes a Dodgers fan. Maybe someday I’ll tell you why my son supports the Twins.

Wally Schang, Mack’s other Catcher

March 10, 2014
Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

Wally Schang while playing with Philadelphia

As I mentioned in the post just below, the Philadelphia Athletics used three catchers during their 1910-1914 dynasty. The other post looked briefly at Jack Lapp and Ira Thomas. This one looks at Wally Schang,easily the best of the three.

Walter Schang was born in South Wales, New York, a town just south of Buffalo, in 1889. His dad caught for the local town team and two of his brothers also played ball, Bobby making it to the Majors (1914 and 1915 with the Pirates and Giants and again in 1927 with the Cardinals). In 1912, Wally caught on with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League (managed by George Stallings, later manager of his opponent in the 1914 World Series). In 1913 he made the Majors with the A’s. He got into 79 games with Philadelphia, then played four games against the Giants in the World Series. He hit .357 in the Series with a home run after hitting just.266 in the regular season.

By 1914, he’d become the Athletics primary catcher. He led all American League catchers with a .287 average and with 45 RBIs. He did terribly in the 1914 World Series (as did the A’s as a team), slumped in 1915, then had a great year (for him) in 1916. The 1916 A’s were one of the worst teams in AL history going 36-117. Schang, switched to the outfield in 1916 (he played a few outfield games in 1915 and again later in his career) led the team with seven home runs, two coming on 8 September when he became the first switch hitter to slug a homer from each side of the plate. By 1917, the A’s, already desperate for money, became even more desperate and Mack traded him to the Red Sox to start the 1918 season.

Schang was with Boston for the 1918 World Series. He hit .444 with an OPS of 990. He remained in Boston through the 1920 season when he was part of the continued dismantling of the Red Sox. Like Babe Ruth (who was traded a year earlier), Schang was traded to the Yankees. For the next four years he served as New York’s primary catcher, playing in three World Series’, including the Yanks first championship in 1923 (He hit .318 with seven hits in the victory). He slumped badly in 1925 and was sent to the St. Louis Browns for 1926.

He stayed at St. Louis four seasons, hitting over .300 twice and setting a career high with eight home runs in 1926. He went back to Philadelphia for 1930 as a backup to Mickey Cochrane. He picked up another ring at the end of the season, but did not play in the Series. His final season was 1931 when he got into 30 games with Detroit. He hit all of  a buck eighty-four and was through at 41.

He played and managed in the minors through 1935, then Cleveland hired him as a coach. His primary job was to teach Bob Feller how to pitch instead of throw. He remained in baseball until he was 52, when he finally retired. He died in Missouri in 1965. He was 75.

For his career Schang’s triple slash line is .284/.393/.401/.794 with an OPS+ of 117 (Baseball’s version of WAR gives him 41). He had 1506 hits, 264 for doubles, 90 triples, and 59 home runs for 2127 total bases. He had 711 RBIs and stole 121 bases. He was considered one of the better fielding catchers of his era but he led the AL in passed balls (the Boston staff of 1919 will do that to you) and in errors (1914) once each. He appeared in six World Series’, helping his team to three wins. As mentioned above he was also on the 1930 A’s but did not play in the championship games.

Wally Schang was unquestionably the best of Connie Mack’s catchers prior to Mickey Cochrane. He hit well, fielded well, and helped his team win. He occasionally pops up on lists of players overlooked for the Hall of Fame. Frankly, I don’t think he belongs, but I can see why he makes those lists.

Schang's grave (note the image of a catcher in the center)

Schang’s grave (note the image of a catcher in the center)


April 24, 2012

You ever listen to baseball fans about how the Designated Hitter is the worst thing that ever happened to baseball because it changed the game? Or how about that interleague play is awful because it changed the game? I remember all the way back to when they argued that adding a round of playoffs would change the game. You know what? Baseball has never been static. It changes all the time and the notion that the game is set in stone and that nothing should ever change flies in the face of reality. Let me give you one real simple example.

In the beginning (catchy, right?) of baseball there were small rosters. Those made it absolutely necessary for players to be adept at playing more than one position. We call those guys utility players and in 19th Century baseball they were ubiquitous (didn’t think I knew a word that big, did you?). Then they began to die out as rosters expanded and free substitution was allowed. Those kinds of players are still around and still valuable, just not as common as 120 years ago. Two of the best played against each other in the 1950s.

Gil McDougald

Gil McDougald arrived in New York with the Yankees in 1951. He stayed through 1960, retiring rather than move to the expansion Los Angeles Angels. He was one of the Yankees’ finest players and most people never noticed. He regularly played 120 to 140 games (his low was 119 in 1960 and his high was 152 in 1952), usually hit in the 280s (he hit .300 twice and as low as .250 in 1958), popped an average of 14 home runs, and had an OPS+ above 100 all but two seasons (and one of those was 98). In other words he hit well and had he been a fulltime started might have hit even better. What he did was fill the infield hole, wherever it was. Over his career he played 599 games at second (come on, Casey, give him one more game at second), 508 at third, and 284 at shortstop. In 1952 and 1953 he spent more time at third than any other player while still logging a number of games at second. In 1954 he had more games at second than “regular” second baseman Joe Coleman. By 1956 he’d moved to shortstop where he settled in for that season and the next. In 1958 he went back to second base. No matter the infield position (except first, where I’ll bet he would have done well also), McDougald could be plugged in and you were set for the season. In his last two years he floated among all three of his former positions and solidified the infield. He was never flashy, never a star, but was a solid and important member of the 1950s Yankees dynasty.

Jim Gilliam

Throughout most of the 1950s into the mid-1960s, the Dodgers had a similar player, Jim Gilliam. “Junior” spent a short amount of time in the Negro Leagues before the Dodgers picked him up. His debut was 1953, when he won the National League Rookie of the Year. He was a switch hitter who could play anywhere. Over his career he hit .265, had about two and a half walks for every strikeout, scored over 1100 runs, and generally had an OPS+ in the 80s or 90s. Again, like McDougald, what he could do best was plug a hole. Over his career he played 1046 games at second, 761 at third, 203 in left field, 222 games in the outfield in which he switched positions during the game, and a smattering of games in right field, center field, and first base (never at shortstop). He came up to replace an aging Jackie Robinson at second and by 1955 was also spending a lot of time in left field. In 1958 (with the arrival of Charlie Neal) he was more or less the fulltime left fielder, although he put in 44 games at third. In 1959 and 1960 he was the regular third baseman. In 1961, ’62, and ’63 he was sliding between second and third. In 1964 and 1965 he was more or less the primary third baseman. His final year was 1966 and he spent most of his time at third.

Both McDougald and Gilliam were valuable assets to their teams, while falling below the level of stars. Both had difficult jobs having to fill in whatever position the team needed that year (or occasionally that week) and both did their job well. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that without these two men, the Stengel Yankees and the “Boys of Summer” would have been less successful.

Integrating the Yankees

February 19, 2012

1956 Elston Howard baseball card

There is a tendency to equate levels of racism with the order in which teams integrate between 1947 and 1959. Meaning that somehow the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians (all of which integrated very early in the period) are less racist than teams like the Red Sox who integrated last (“59). Maybe that’s true. I don’t have direct insight into the workings of the minds of Rickey, Veeck, Stoneman, and Yawkey or any other of the leaders of the period. I do know that if it’s true or not, there is one exception that has to be made from this thinking: the Yankees.

Now I’ve never been a Yankees fan but I’m willing to give them a pass on waiting until 1955 to integrate. The reason? Well, there are two of them. First, their unique spot in the baseball pantheon made it imperative that they get it right. Failure of black players in Philadelphia? Not a good thing, but not crucial. Failure of black players in the Bronx? Utterly devastating for integration in baseball.  Three teams absolutely had to get it right. The first was Brooklyn, not because they were Brooklyn, but because they were first. The second team was Cleveland, again not because they were Cleveland, but because they were both first in the American League and they were in a position to prove that Jackie Robinson wasn’t a fluke. The third was, of course, the Yankees.

The second reason I give the Yanks a pass is because they were winning. As we like to say around here, “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And between Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn and 1955 things in Yankee Stadium were definitely not broke. Between 1947 (Robinson’s first year) and 1953 the Yankees won every American League pennant but one (1948) and every World Series in which they played. Their Minor League system (including that so-call big league team in Kansas City) was churning out players yearly, they were making great trades, there were few serious injuries, and even Korea wasn’t hurting them as bad as other teams (except for Whitey Ford’s loss). Integration was going to be painful and when you’re baseball’s premier team and you’re winning why add pain to the mixture? To integrate risked losing white fans without picking up black ones. If white fans leave in Cleveland, there are black fans to replace them. Same in Pittsburgh. Not in New York where black fans had already gone to Brooklyn. It also meant alienating some of the power brokers in the city, it meant creating problems with the current team members. Both Yogi Berra (from Missouri) and Mickey Mantle (from Oklahoma) were from states that a lot of people saw as “Southern” and why create problems with two of your biggest stars? A quick aside to point out that neither Berra nor Mantle had significant problems with team integration, but the possibility existed. It created travel problems because some hotels refused to allow black patrons. As long as you were winning, why “mess with success?” Of course black players were good, so it didn’t hurt to start finding one and groom him, the team, and the fans for eventual integration.

Enter Elston Howard. Without trying to steal SportsPhd’s thunder with his “These Men Changed Baseball” series, Howard was from Missouri, played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was picked up by the Yankees (along with Vic Power) in 1950. He spent one year in Muskegon, Michigan, then went off to Korea for two seasons. Back with the Yankees system in 1953 he was at Kansas City then went to Toronto in 1954. He did alright. He hit .300, averaged 16 home runs, struck out more than he walked, and found himself changing positions.

As mentioned above, Howard was initially an outfielder. Most of you know him as a catcher. The switch occurred in the Minors. For some reason, the Yankees thought Howard could be converted to catcher. They asked former catcher Bill Dickey, also from Oklahoma and seen as a Southerner by many, to tutor Howard. Dickey had no trouble with working with a black man and Howard credited him with making him into a good catcher. But here we need to ask what’s going on? It’s not like the Yankees had great left fielders in 1953 and 1954. They had Gene Woodling (’53) and Irv Noren (’54) in left. And, well, that guy they had behind the plate in 1953 and 1954 won the MVP in 1954 (and would do so again in 1955). So it wasn’t like Howard was going to replace Berra anytime soon. So why the change? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that the Yankees saw Berra was aging. He was 30 in 1955, not exactly ready for Social Security, but for a catcher with a lot of games behind the plate, reaching a dangerous age. Give him a good backup, then as he aged, shift him to left field and keep the Berra bat in the lineup. Sounds like a good idea, right?  Meanwhile the new guy could play some left while he backed up (Howard played 75 games in the outfield in 1955, 65 in 1956, 71 in 1957, and by 1958 was in a semi-platoon at catcher). In short it worked, but it also meant that Howard was going to get to the Major Leagues later (he was 26 in 1955) and that integration would come later to the Yankees. I’m not sure how much that last factor (integration coming later) mattered to the Yankees leadership. Maybe it was purposeful and indicates they were reluctant to integrate. Maybe it means that they were serious about getting both a left fielder and a  backup catcher at the same time and were willing to wait on integration. Hopefully it was the latter. And, anyway, they were winning, so who cared? Of course they lost finally in 1954 and you’ll note that Howard made the roster the very next season.

The one thing I’ve been unable to determine in all this is the attitude of  Casey Stengel towards integration. Stengel was also from Missouri (there are a lot of those in this post, aren’t there?), and was frequently heard to use the “N” word (and originally refered to Howard as “Eightball” ). It seems to have been a carryover from his childhood and a normal way of expressing himself (as if Casey Stengel ever had a “normal” way of expressing himself) without particularly racist connotations. Stengel had, over his career, recommended a number of black players to Negro League teams (including Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Rogan), so he knew black talent was available. Maybe he did believe in “separate but equal”, maybe he just expressed himself in ways we now find offensive, but it does seem that he had at least a little problem with accepting a black player to the team. Also, maybe I’m being overly critical of him, I don’t know.

Most importantly, it worked. Howard became an All-Star, became the first black player to win the American League MVP. The Yankees kept winning and integration kept going in baseball. Integrating the Yankees is crucial to making the experiment work. If there are great problems with baseball’s premier team, then integration can be checked. If the Yankees start losing, then the black guy can be blamed and another check can be applied. It didn’t happen and integration went on. The Yankees weren’t in the forefront of the issue, but they did handle it well and that, I believe, helped ensure it would continue apace. So I’ll give them a pass on late integration, something I’m not prone to do for other teams.

The Other Winner

June 15, 2011

George Mogridge

The other day I did a post on how teams fared home and away in World Series play. In doing so I noted that Walter Johnson was one of two pitchers to win an away game for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise in the World Series. The other winner was George Mogridge. I asked “who”? I decided to find out who he was. Here’s what I found.

Mogridge was born in Rochester, New York in 1889. He spent time in the Minors pitching until he hit the Major Leagues in August 1911 as a left-handed starter. Initially with the White Sox, he went 3-6 in 1911 and 1912, had about a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio, a 4.00 ERA (which is huge in Deadball Era Baseball), and gave up more hits than inning pitched. All that earned him a return to the Minors, where he stayed until 1915, when he got a second chance, this time with the Yankees. He was 48-57 at New York with an ERA in the middle twos (which is at least more reasonable in the era. He now had more innings pitched than hits, but his strikeout/walk ratio began to even out (278 strikeouts, 200 walks). His best year was 1918 when he went 16-13 and led the American League in saves (a stat not yet invented). In 1917 he threw the first no-hitter in Yankees history (against Boston). All that got him sent to Washington in 1921.

He was 68-55 for the Senators, seeing his ERA rise to the low threes in the new “lively ball” era. His strikeouts to walk ratio got worse (284 to 273) and he reverted to giving up more hits than he had innings pitched. He won 18 games (a career high) in both 1921 and 1922, won 16 in the World Series season of 1924, then was 3-4 when he was traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1925. He spent the rest of that season in St. Louis, went to the Boston Red Sox in 1926 and finished his career in Boston mid-season 1927. He finished the year as manager of the Rochester minor league club, then retired at age 38. He died in Rochester in 1962.

For his career, Mogridge was 132-133 with a 3.23 ERA over 398 games. He struck out 678 and walked 565, giving up 2352 hits over 2266 innings. In other words, a thoroughly mediocre career.

His only World Series appearance was in 1924 against the Giants. He pitched in two games, went 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He struck out five, walked six, and 12 innings gave up seven hits and five runs. He was the winning pitcher in a game 4 victory (7-4) at New York, going 7.1 innings and giving up three of the runs (two earned). He walked five and struck out two in his winning effort. It was the only game Washington won on the road in the Series (Johnson won his road game in 1925).

So there’s George Mogridge. As I said above, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher, but one that has a claim to fame, the first Yankees no-hitter, and is the answer to a trivia question (the only Senators/Twins pitcher not named Walter Johnson to win a road game in franchise history). Actually that’s not a bad legacy for a 132-133 pitcher.


March 16, 2011

Yankee Stadium 1930s configuration

There are some positions that are just simply the glamour spots for a team. For the Giants, as evidenced by their latest championship and their long history of great pitchers, it’s the mound. For the Red Sox it’s left field.  Both teams have produced an inordinate number of high quality players at the position. For the Yankees, that position is, with apologies to catchers and second base, center field.

The Yankees were formed in Baltimore in 1901 and shifted to New York in 1903. The “Yankees” team moniker came during the teens. They were a team that was sporadically competitive prior to 1920 and the arrival of Babe Ruth. Afterwards they were the dominant franchise. Whether the team was winning or losing, they have usually had a fine center fielder since. the key word there is “usually.”

Way back in 1921 when it all began, the center fielder was the immortal Elmer Miller (that’s OK, I never heard of him either). Whitey Witt came in ’22. Not a bad player but certainly not the reason they were winning (That Ruth kid had something to do with it). He stayed through 1925, hit .287 with no power and not much speed. He gave way to Earle Combs, who was a revelation in center. Combs could hit (.325), had doubles power (309), and speed. He didn’t steal a lot of bases (with Ruth and Gehrig hitting behind you, would you?), but the papers of the time indicate he was adept at going from first to third on a good single and coming home from second on a clean base hit to the outfield. And of course he was on base quite a bit (OBP of .397, which ain’t bad, but not all that great either. He never finished higher than 5th in OBP.) for Ruth and Gehrig to drive home. He stayed through 1935 and eventually made the Hall of Fame. His successor was Joe DiMaggio who  stayed in center through 1951 and was replaced by Mickey Mantle in 1952. Mantle remained a fixture in New York through 1968.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle played every game in center between 1925 and 1968. Obviously they missed games, and DiMaggio lost three years to World War II. Additionally, Mantle moved to first base in the last two years. But as a rule for the entire period a Hall of Famer stood in center field for New York. That’s not a unique event. Take a look at Boston left fielders from Ted Williams through Jim Rice, but the Yankees center fielders played on winners year after year.

Bobby Murcer replaced Mantle (after running Joe Pepitone and Bill Robinson out there for a couple of years). He’s generally overlooked as a Yankees center fielder, but he was pretty good. He wasn’t DiMaggio or Mantle, but he may have been Combs. There have been a lot of really terrific underrated players in baseball history. Murcer is in the list and, in my opinion, toward the top. He lasted through 1974 then came back in 1979 (although not as the regular center fielder). He was also the last of the power hitters who spent significant time out in center.

The rest of the 1970s and 1980s saw New York send a lot of men to center. They won two World Series titles with Mickey Rivers out there. But as a rule guys like Jerry Mumphrey and Ruppert Jones weren’t anything to write home about. They did try Rickey Henderson in center in the mid to late 1980s. As a center fielder Rickey Henderson made left fielder Rickey Henderson look like Roberto Clemente (Henderson led the league in errors in 1985.). But at least he could track down the ball. All the searching for a quality center fielder changed when Bernie Williams showed up. He gave New York a fine center fielder. He could hit, run, play the field. He won a  batting title and hit clean up on four World Series winners. Is he a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out in a couple of years.

I know that’s not a  comprehensive list of Yankees center fielders, not even since 1921, but what I wanted to show was a long and sustained period of quality play at one position. And the Yankees center fielders certainly, despite some hiccups, did that.

Baseball’s Aristocrat

March 14, 2011

Joe DiMaggio and friend (I should have such a friend)

I’m always torn when it comes to aristocracy. I appreciate the elegance and class. On the other hand, I despise the snobbery and air of entitlement. 

Those who saw him play agree that Joe DiMaggio personified grace. They agree he did things regular players couldn’t. Many of them are convinced he was the greatest ever. Although I was alive while DiMaggio played, I don’t recall ever hearing a radio broadcast when he played or saw him on TV.  So I don’t know these things from personal experience. But the way he played, the way he carried himself, made DiMaggio baseball’s greatest aristocrat.

After time in the minors, DiMaggio got to New York in 1936. He became an instant starter and in many ways the heir to Babe Ruth. He hit third in front of Lou Gehrig, he played the outfield (although not the same position), he hit for power, he scored a lot of runs, he drove in more. His arrival coincided with the first of four consecutive Yankees pennants and four consecutive World Series triumphs. Losing the AL pennant in 1940 to Detroit, the Yankees bounced back in 1941, highlighted by DiMaggio’s famous 56 game hitting streak. They won the Series in 1941, lost in 1942, then DiMaggio went to war.

He lost all of 1943, ’44, and ’45 to World War II. He returned in 1946, had something like a down season, then roared back for typical DiMaggio seasons in 1947 and 1948. In 1949 came the foot injury. He had one more fine year in 1950, then closed out his career in 1951. He made the Hall of Fame in 1955. His numbers look good. He hit .325, slugged .579, and had an on base percentage of .398 for an OPS of 977 (OPS + of 155). He ended up with 2214 hits, 3948 total bases, 361 home runs, 389 doubles, 1390 runs, 1537 RBIs, 790 walks, and 369 strikeouts. His fielding percentage was .978.

When most people talk about DiMaggio they either begin with his marriage or with the number 56. Me? I’d like to begin with four other numbers: ten, thirteen,  ten again, and nine. Joe DiMaggio played thirteen seasons between 1936 and 1951 (the thirteen). In those thirteen seasons  he played in ten World Series’ (the first of the tens). Nobody, not Ruth, not Gehrig, has that kind of record. Even Yogi Berra doesn’t do that (He’s fourteen of nineteen.). Want the other numbers? In ten World Series’ (the other ten) the Yankees win nine (the nine). If you’re interested, the loss is to St. Louis in 1942. 

All that is impressive to me. Now I know that what I’m looking at is really a team stat, but in this case that’s not that great a problem. Except for 1936 and 1937 (and maybe 1938) it’s DiMaggio’s team. He is the unquestioned finest player on the team once Lou Gehrig’s career wanes in 1938 (and ends in 1939). So I’ll give DiMaggio the impressive team numbers.

Having said all that, he wasn’t a particularly great World Series player. He hit .271 (high of .346 in 1936), slugged.422, never hit more than two home runs in a Series (1947) and never knocked in more than five runs (1951). Those aren’t bad numbers, but do they strike you as DiMaggio-like? His greatness in many ways lies in getting New York through the regular season. Once they get to the Series, the Yankees had to rely on someone else. They had no World Series MVP award when he played, but had they and had I a vote, I would always have voted for someone else. 

There’s nothing wrong with his regular season statistics. He led the league in hitting twice (back to back in 1939 and 1940) with a high of .381. On two occasions he won the home run title. He won two RBI crowns, two slugging titles, three MVP awards, and had that streak that everyone knows. To me his most impressive stat is that he has exactly eight (count ’em, eight) more strikeouts than home runs. Going into his final season, his home run total was actually higher (349 to 333). Nine times DiMaggio hit 25 or more home runs. In seven of those seasons he struck out less times than he homered. In 1950 it was close: 33 home runs, 33 strikeouts. The other season was his rookie campaign when he hit 29 home runs and had a career high 39 strikeouts (Hey, everyone’s entitled to a bad rookie campaign.). Think about 39 strikeouts for a career high. For some guy’s that’s a month.

There’s a lot of ink spilled about how many home runs he lost by playing in Yankee Stadium. Back in the 1930s and 1940s it was a bus ride from home to the left field fence. For his career DiMaggio hit .315 at home, .333 on the road, not all that much of a difference. He had 41% of his home runs in Yankee Stadium, which isn’t a bad percentage but isn’t great either. He did have more triples in New York, but like I said it was forever to the fence in left.

There is universal agreement that he was a great Center Fielder. You even hear the word “elegant” to describe him. His range factor is second among Hall of Fame center fielders (to Richie Ashburn). His fielding numbers are fine for his era. He only led the AL in putouts and assists once, but was regularly in the top three or four (which in an eight team league isn’t as impressive as it would be today). Unfortunately, he also led the AL in errors once (1937).

Even in retirement, the aristocrat remained. DiMaggio, unlike a lot of the rest of us, kept his weight down. He seldom, if ever, played in an old-timers game so that we saw his failing skills, he didn’t wear his old uniform in public. Even his Mr. Coffee commercials were quite, calm, dignified. Billy Mays he wasn’t. DiMaggio did carry at least one thing to an extreme that is aristocratic snobbery. In 1969 he was voted the “greatest living ballplayer”. Whether you agree or not, DiMaggio obviously loved the compliment. Ever afterwards he insisted on being introduced with that title. The problem was the increasing presence of people named Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Musial, Williams (listed alphabetical).

Joe DiMaggio is in some ways the hardest of the truly great players to define. His numbers aren’t just overwhelming, but his career is short (Sandy Koufax has the same kind of problem). His personality sometimes becomes more the story than the play (see all the fuss and feathers over his kicking the dirt in the 1947 World Series). And then there is the transcendent nature of 56.  It so dwarfs his other stats, his other accomplishments, that it pushes everything else into something akin to oblivion.  But for all that, and possibly because of all that, DiMaggio is one of the single most fascinating players to study.

The Way to Win: Murder’s Row

August 4, 2010

Miller Huggins in 1927

Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Yankees fan. Having said that, I acknowledge they are the most successful franchise in Major League baseball. That statement lends itself to an obvious question. How do they do it? You can argue it’s money, but it wasn’t just money in 1923 when they won their first title. I’ve begun to look at the great Yankees dynasties (1926-28, 1936-43, 1949-64, 1976-1981, and 1996-2001) and discovered those teams are actually a lot alike. 

All the great Yankees dynasties have the following things in common: 1) they have a good manager, 2) there are a few true greats on the team, 3) there are some really quality players in other positions, 4) there are a number of role players, 5) there are some one year wonders. You can look at other teams throughout baseball history and find the same thing (and you can add in things like a deep bench and good relief pitching for the more modern teams), so it’s not just the Yankees system of winning, but they do it best. It seems these traits, not the stockpiling of stars, are essential to winning. 

To provide a quick example, here’s a look at one of those Yankees teams. 

The 1926-1928 Murder’s Row Yankees were skippered by Miller Huggins. He was an ex-middle infielder who had a decent, but not spectacular career. He won a couple of walks titles in the first few years of the 20th Century and managed the Cardinals without much success prior to taking over at New York in 1918. He provided a steady hand and a calming influence on a team that could be wild. 

The Murder’s Row Yankees had two all-time greats on the team: Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Both were simply great in 1927 and 1928 and 1926 was Gehrig’s coming out party. Behind them the Yankees fielded a number of really good players who could step up on days the two stars were not doing well. Earle Combs, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt all made the Hall of Fame and Urban Shocker could do so someday (if somebody will just look at his numbers). 

Bob Meusel had been in the “really good” category in the early 1920s, but by 1926-28 had slipped to a role player. Mark Koenig, Joe Dugan, and the various catchers (Pat Collins, Hank Severeid, Johnny Grabowski) all fill the bill.  The one-year wonders are Wilcy Moore in 1927 and George Pipgras in 1928 (although Pipgras also had a decent 1929). 

I want to do follow-up posts on the other dynasties to show it’s not just the “Yankees way” of winning. I’m also certain I’m not the first person to determine what it takes to win, but I find this instructive (but not predictive of the next dynasty). Feel free to add your own criteria to the list.

RIP Ralph Houk

July 23, 2010

Ralph Houk as Detroit manager

I see that Ralph Houk died Wednesday at age 90.  He spent most of his career as a backup catcher behind Yogi Berra during the 1940s and 1950s. He got into all of 91 games over eight years, hit .272, had no home runs, and picked up a World Series ring in 1947, 1949-1953. He managed to get into two World Series games, one in 1947, the other in 1952. He pinch hit both times and made an out each.

He was, in other words, a pretty mediocre ballplayer. He was, however, a heck of a manager. When Casey Stengel retired (forcibly) after 1960, Houk was his replacement with the Yankees. He promptly led the Yanks to World Series victories in 1961 and 1962, then won the pennant in 1963, losing the Series to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers. He retired after that season, replaced as Yankees manager by Berra. He returned to New York in mid-1966, remaining through 1973. He managed Detroit from 1974 through 1978, finishing as high as fourth once. His managerial career ended in Boston with a stint in the dugout from 1981 through 1984. He finished as high as second in the latter half of the 1981 split season. His career managerial record gave him a .541 winning percentage.

In 1986 he joined the Minnesota Twins front office. He helped put together the team that would win the 1987 World Series and provide the major parts for the 1991 World Series winner. Then he retired from baseball for good.

Obviously his glory period was the 1961-63 era with New York. He managed the famous 1961 home run record race, helping Roger Maris to cope with the press, the crowds, and the nonsense. For all that he’s easily the least famous Yankees manager to win a World Series (OK, maybe Bucky Harris in 1947). I guess somebody has to be, but I always liked Houk. He was apparently a good clubhouse man and took care of his players. Following up Casey Stengel was hard enough, but winning on top of that was even harder.

I rooted for him in 1962 and against him in 1963. Despite that, he was  a man I admired. May he rest in peace.