Posts Tagged ‘Polo Grounds’

Level Playing Fields: A Review

July 7, 2016
Cover of Level Playing Fields

Cover of Level Playing Fields

I tend to read strange things sometimes. I look around, see something that interests me, and tend to pick it up. That just happened to me recently when I found a used copy of Level Playing Fields: How the Groundskeeping Murphy Brothers Shaped Baseball by Peter Morris.

This is a book about baseball fields, not stadia, not players, but fields. Through a look at the life of two of the first groundskeepers, John and Thomas Murphy, Morris takes us into the entire idea of how a baseball field is maintained and why it matters. John Murphy, the older brother, was head groundskeeper (and for a while the only groundskeeper) at the Polo Grounds during the entire period of the New York Giants 1904-1913 run (Murphy died in 1913). Thomas Murphy, the younger of the brothers, took command of the old 1890s Baltimore Orioles field. Both men helped shape the dynasties that followed.

Tom Murphy tailored the field in Baltimore to the specifications of the Orioles. He tilted the foul lines, he made the area just in front of home especially hard for the famous “Baltimore Chop.” He solved drainage problems by making right field so low that the catcher could barely see the cap of the right fielder. John Murphy set out to create a field that was less tailored to his team, although he did make the base paths quick for John McGraw’s runners. With parks located in less than desirable places, the two men had to deal with fields that were uneven and had poor drainage. They attacked and solved each problem, but with varying success. Both of them helped make the modern baseball field.

But the book uses the Murphy brothers more as examples of why it matters what a field looks like. Morris argues that the leveling of the field (literally) made the game more fair, made the crowds more willing to come to a game they felt was somehow “democratic” in its outcome. He uses a number of examples. One of the best deals with club houses rather than the field itself. He points out that early visiting teams had to dress in their hotels, then walk or ride to the park. It might let fans know there was a game, but it looked cheap and frequently the uniforms got dirty on the way (mud and dust and things thrown by fans of the home team) and were certainly dirty on the return trip. It made the game look unkempt, cheap, and lower class. The advent of a visitors club hours changed that and when added to a clean, level field without quirks in the dirt or the outfield itself did much to make baseball acceptable to the middle class, which made it profitable.

One of his more interesting assertions involves baseball versus cricket. He argues that field size helped make baseball a preferred sport in crowded cities. The field for cricket requires a lot of room, including behind the wickets and off to the side. Baseball, on the other hand, makes those spaces foul territory and they can be reduced to minimal size, making the field itself a factor in baseball’s success. I have to admit I’d never considered that idea.

The book is worth a read simply because it deals with an area of baseball almost entirely overlooked by fans. It also provides something of a social history of the era, especially as it pertains to baseball. Although I found my copy used I did check and the book is available through Amazon.com. It was published in 2007 by the University of Nebraska.

And BTW take a look at the cover above. The man in the center of the picture (the man with jacket and tie) is Thomas Murphy. He is surrounded by four members of the Baltimore Orioles who are also Hall of Famers. From left to right they are Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and John McGraw. Not bad company for the groundskeeper.

 

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?

Death in the Argonne

January 18, 2010

Eddie Grant

A couple of friends of mine are British. According to them, when World War I broke out in 1914 a number of soccer clubs joined up in mass as “Pals” units. The idea was that you would go to war with your friends, which would make the transition easier and give you more to fight for. Of course the problem was that if the unit got caught up in the horror of the Somme or Passchendaele, well, there just wasn’t a soccer club left to be “Pals”.

American professional sportsmen have been luckier. There have been a number of amateur sports figures lost to war (Heisman trophy winner Nile Kinnick comes most quickly to mind in World War II), but the pros lost only one in World War I, third baseman Eddie Grant.

Grant was born in Massachusetts in 1883 and began his professional career in 1905 with the Cleveland Naps. He was back in the minors in 1906 but returned to the big leagues the next season with the Philadelphia Phillies. From 1908 to 1910 he was a sometimes hit, mostly good field third baseman who generally led off for the Phils, peaking in 1910 with 25 stolen bases and 67 runs. The Phils, being the Phils, immediately traded him to Cincinnati. Turns out the Phils were right. Grant was finished. He was traded to John McGraw’s Giants in 1913, where he finished his career in 1915. It wasn’t all that great a career. He hit 249, with 277 RBIs and a 295 slugging percentage.

During his career, Grant managed to pick up a degree from Harvard (1905) and spent his post baseball life as an attorney. In April 1917, immediately after he US declared war, Grant joined the 77th Infantry Division and became a captain. He went overseas with the Division in 1918 and participated in the campaign in the Argonne Forest. During the battles in the Argonne, a unit of the 77th was cut off from the rest of the Division, becoming the famous “Lost Battalion”. Grant’s unit was one of the companies sent in to find and make contact with the “Lost Battalion.”  On 5 October 1918, a shell exploded near Grant killing him instantly. He was buried in the Meuse-Argonne Military Cemetary.

Baseball was stunned. No Major League player had ever died in combat. True, Grant was retired, but still he was one of the boys. The Giants erected a monument to him in the Polo Grounds. It remained there until the Giants moved to San Francisco. If you watch the film of Willie Mays’ famous catch in 1954 you get a short glimpse of the monument before the camera begins zooming in on Mays.