Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Kiner’

The Original Hammerin’ Hank

August 16, 2012

Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg

It used to be possible to argue that you could directly compare the best first basemen to ever play the game because the three top first basemen all played in the same league at the same time, the 1930s. The men in question were Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. You might disagree with that premise but other people would agree. The advent of Albert Pujols makes it almost impossible to make that argument today. Because they were contemporaries it is still instructive to look at the three and compare them (which I’m not going to do). By universal agreement, the third of the troika was Greenberg.

Hank Greenberg was born in 1911 (on New Year’s Day, no less) in Greenwich Village to a Jewish family that ran a textile mill. They made enough money to move to the Bronx when Greenberg was still young. He became a fine high school athlete excelling in soccer, baseball, and basketball (his high school team won the New York City title in 1929). After graduation he played first base for a semi-pro ball team and was scouted by the Giants (who decided he was too awkward to play) and the Yankees (who had Gehrig). He signed with Detroit in late 1929 for $9000.

Greenberg spent 1930, 1931, and 1932 in the minors at Hartford, Raleigh, Evansville, and Beaumont. He did well, but his ethnic background caused him some trouble with both fans and teammates. One famous anecdote has a teammate staring at Greenberg. When asked why, the guy is reported to have said “I”ve never seen a Jew before.” Greenberg asked if he “saw anything interesting.” The guy replied, “No, you look just like everyone else.” That was supposed to be the incident that solved Greenberg’s ethnic problems with his teammates. Unfortunately, it was a problem that was to plague him throughout his career as other teams and fans in other towns were known to heap anti-semitic abuse on him.

By 1933 he was with Detroit. They tried him at third (they already had a first baseman who cost them $75,000 and weren’t about to watch that much money ride the pine). He was awful. Finally they settled on a platoon situation in which Greenberg played against lefty pitching. He hit .301 with 12 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 59 runs scored in 117 games. That settled the issue and Greenberg settled in as the regular first baseman for the rest of the 1930s.

It was a good time for Detroit. They were in contention most years. The “G-Men” (a play on the then current fashion of referring to FBI men as “G-Men”-for “government men”) of Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and Gee Walker won a pennant in 1934, losing the World Series to the Cardinals “Gas House Gang”, then won the World Series in 1935 over Chicago. Greenberg led the American League in doubles in 1934 and in home runs, total bases, and RBIs in 1935.  He led the league again in RBIs in 1937. In 1938 he made a serious run at Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record. He managed 58, which along with his walk and run totals, led the AL. For the decade of the 1930s his lowest average was his rookie .301. He peaked at .339 the next season (OK, he hit .348 in 1936, but only played in 12 games).

His career took a couple of sharp turns in the 1940s. First, the Tigers brought up Rudy York. York could hit a ton, but was terrible in the field. They only place they could play him was first. So Greenberg moved to left field. He wasn’t very good (his fielding percentage was .963 in 1940), but the papers of the time indicate he improved as the season went along. He was rewarded with another trip to the World Series. Despite getting a .357 average with a home run and six RBIs, Detroit lost the Series to Cincinnati in seven games. BTW the 2-1 Cincy win is one of the best game seven’s ever played.

For Greenberg the second change came in 1941. Nineteen games into the season, the government came calling. He was drafted into the Army (he became a tanker) and spent most of the next five years in the service. Interestingly enough, his original Army physical rejected him because of flat feet, leading one reporter to ask “Do you shoot a gun with your feet?” He was discharged in early December 1941. Of course the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a few days later and Greenberg rejoined the military, this time joining the Army Air Corps. He spent 1942 and 1943 flying “the Hump” in Burma, then was sent back to the US in 1944, where he served with a unit in New York. In mid-1945, he was discharged.

He returned to the Tigers in July. He played 78 games, hit .311, and had 13 home runs. On the last day of the season Detroit was tied with Washington for the pennant. In the final game of the season, Greenberg’s grand slam in the top of the ninth gave the Tigers the pennant. He hit .304 in the World Series with two home runs, seven RBIs, and seven runs scored. Detroit won in seven games.

In 1946 he hit only .277, but led the AL in home runs with 44 and in RBIs with 127. After the season he was waived. No one seems to know quite why. There’s a lot of speculation, but I’ve been unable to find a definite answer to the question of why Greenberg was waived. Pittsburgh claimed him. He spent one season with the Pirates, hitting .249 with 25 home runs and tutoring a budding star named Ralph Kiner. At the end of the season Greenberg retired.

For a career of 1394 games he hit .313, had an OBP of .412, slugged .605, and had an OPS of 1.017 (OPS+ of 158). The OPS and slugging percentage are both seven in MLB history. He had 331 home runs, 1276 RBIs, 1051 runs scored, 379 doubles, and 852 walks over 6097 plate appearances.

After retirement he moved to the front office with the Cleveland Indians. Initially Cleveland did well, winning a World Series in 1948 and a pennant in 1954. But as Greenberg’s influence grew, the team got worse. He seems to have been a decent executive, but as he moved into the general manager’s spot he moved a level too high for him and the team floundered. He went to Chicago as Bill Veeck’s assistant in the late 1950s and helped the White Sox to a pennant in 1959. He retired a wealthy man and died of cancer in 1986. The Hall of Fame called in 1956.

Throughout his career, Greenberg faced adversity. First his ethnic background gave him problems. Then he had to shift positions. Finally the Second World War interrupted his career. He became a great player and arguably one of the five greatest first basemen to ever play. Not a bad legacy.

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Kick, Mule

February 27, 2012

Mule Suttles

I don’t suppose there’s anyone who doesn’t believe that Josh Gibson was the ultimate power hitter in the Negro Leagues. And I won’t dispute that. I will, however, point out that the leader in documented home runs is Mule Suttles (other sources say Turkey Stearnes).

George Suttles was born in Louisiana in 1900. He had little formal education, not uncommon for a black man in turn of the 20th Century Louisiana (Huey Long and the free text books were 25 years in the future). He was a coal miner and did some semipro ball playing until he was 21. He got a cup of coffee with the 1921 New York Bacharach Giants (one hit in four at bats in a single game) then went back to semipro ball. In 1923 he caught on with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League. This time he stayed around. He put in three years with Birmingham before heading to St. Louis where he finished his Negro National League career.

In 1930 the Negro National League folded and he went to the Eastern Colored League’s Baltimore franchise (not the Elite Giants) in time to watch the ECL go under also. He went back to St. Louis to play for the Stars in the newly reformed NNL After 1931, it too folded and Suttles settled in with the East-West League’s Detroit Wolves and Washington Pilots. Want to guess what happened to the East-West League?

By 1933 he was back in the new NNL (this time it stayed around). He began with the Chicago American Giants, then in 1936 he went to the Newark Eagles, where he stayed through 1940 He spent 1941 with the New York Black Yankees, then went back to Newark in 1942, finishing his career with Newark in 1944. Retired, he did some umpiring, then retired from baseball. He died in 1966 and made the Hall of Fame in 2006, forty years after his death.

Mule Suttles was a big man for his era, 6’3″ and 215 pounds (officially). By the end of his career he’d put on weight and may have been closer to 250 than 215.  He carried a 50 ounce bat (by comparison, Babe Ruth’s was 54 ounces) and was immensely strong, hence the “Mule” nickname. He made the East-West All-Star game numerous times, being one of its most effective hitters. He’s credited with a .412 batting average in the game, an .883 slugging percentage, and is supposed to have hit the first home run in the All-Star game. he played left field, but spent much of his career at first base. He wasn’t overly fast, but was known for his good hands. In close games in late innings, Suttles coming to bat elicited the cry “Kick, Mule” from both fans and teammates.

As with all Negro League players, his numbers are spotty. Baseball Reference’s Bullpen has some stats on him. They are incomplete but give something of a picture of  his skill. In 763 documented games he hit .327, slugged .571, had 894 hits, 257 walks, in 2731 at bats. Again no OBP is given but 894 plus 257, divided by 2731 gives a partial OBP of .421 for an .992 partial OPS. There are 133 home runs, 167 doubles, 561 runs, and  493 RBIs that are documented. The same page gives his 162 game numbers as 119 runs, 190 hits, 105 RBIs, 35 doubles, 28 home runs, and 10 stolen bases. 

Suttles is a good example of a fairly common type. He’s a big slugger who hits for power and decent average. He’s an every year All-Star, but his teams usually fall short of the championship. Ralph Kiner is one of those, so is Rudy York or Hal Trosky or Barry Bonds. York made it to a World Series, but his team (Boston) lost. So did Bonds. There are a number of others like Gil Hodges or Ted Kluszewski, some currently playing. One of the most interesting things about studying the Negro Leagues is how quickly you discover they’re made up of the same kinds of players as the white leagues. I find that important because it reminds me just exactly how much alike baseball players are in their skills, black or white. That reassures me that maybe we really are all in this together.

The Killer

May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew

It seems like I’m writing an inordinate number of posts that deal with the death of a player from my younger years. I guess you’ve heard about the death of Harmon Killebrew by now. He was a player of my youth, but I associate him more with my coming-of-age years than with my younger years.

Killebrew was one of those “bonus babies” that came up in the 1950s. The rule was that if the guy got a bonus he had to remain on the big league roster for two years before he could go to the Minors. The idea was to discourage teams from putting out large amounts of money for unproven kids. What it meant in practice was that the signing of one of these guaranteed that fans saw the player getting his Minor League education in the Majors. Some of those could be painful to watch. I guess that Killebrew and Sandy Koufax were probably the most famous “bonus babies” of the 1950s. Both hit their stride in the 1960s (although Killebrew had a good 1959) and intertwined in 1965.

Killebrew came to the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins) in 1954, rode the pine in ’54 and ’55, then split time between Washington and the minors the next three years. His Major League numbers weren’t very good. He had 57 hits in 254 at bats (.224) with 30 RBIs and 11 home runs. The 11 homers in 57 hits was pretty good but he walked only 23 times and  struck out 93 times. Additionally he was wretched in the field. They tried him at second and third with no success. He could catch the ball and had OK range, but he had a “God Knows” arm (“God Knows where the ball is going when he lets it loose”). he spent his career wandering from third, to left, to first and was honestly best suited for the DH role, which didn’t come into the AL until too late in his career.

Like I said, it was painful, but it did pay off. In 1959 he became the fulltime third baseman and began his assault of American League pitching. He hit all of .242, but led the league in home runs. Over the course of his career he would lead the AL in home runs six times, peaking at 49 twice. He also led the league in RBIs and walks three times each, in OBP, slugging and strikeouts once each, and picked up the AL MVP Award in 1969. In that same year, baseball adopted its modern logo. Killebrew is supposed to be the model for the logo.

In 1965 he helped lead the Twins to their first pennant and the fourth overall for the franchise (1924, 1925, 1933 in Washington). He faced fellow bonus baby Koufax in the Series. The Twins lost, but Killebrew hit .282, had an OPS of .873, and hit one home run (off Don Drysdale, not Koufax). The Twins also got to the AL playoffs in 1969 and 1970, losing to Baltimore both times. He hit a buck-25 in 1969, but had two homers, four RBIs, and a .273 average in 1970.

By 1972 he began falling off. He had miserable years in 1973 and 1974, was traded to Kansas City in 1975 and finished up a Royals teammate of George Brett. He was 39. The Hall of Fame brought him inside in 1984.

For his career he hit .256, slugged .509, had on OBP of  .376, and OPS of .884 (OPS+ 143). He had 573 home runs, 1584 RBIs, scored 1283 runs, and ended up 1559 walks to 1699 strikeouts. His career home run percentage is fourth all time.

There were two knocks on Killebrew as a hitter. First his batting average was only.256. With that average he produced 2300 runs,. Nine times he had 100 or more RBIs; he scored 90 or more runs seven times and 89 once. He managed to do all that while hitting .256. Tell you what, I’ll take the runs and RBIs, you can have the average.

Second, during his career and since his retirement there was a perception of Killebrew as a big lug who struck out a lot, kind of a latter day Ralph Kiner (which is wrong about Kiner too). For his career, Killebrew struck out exactly 140 times more than he walked. If you look at his productive years (1959-1972) the number drops to 24 (or 1.6 per season). I can give up 24 strikeouts for 500 home runs. If we’re going to complain about his strikeouts, we need to also remember his walk totals. He led the AL in strikeouts only once, in walks many more times.

My memories of Killebrew are mixed.I remember little of him as the “bonus baby”. I don’t recall a single Senators game I saw or heard, so I don’t know if I ever got to see or hear about him in the 1950s. I remember him as the fearsome slugger of the 1960s. No one I ever saw swung the bat harder more consistently than Killebrew. Roy Campanella had the hardest swing I saw, and Glenallen Hill scattering the fans on the rooftops across from Wrigley hit the hardest ball I ever saw, but Killebrew did both with more consistency than either. I swear even the homers that barely trickled over the fence seemed like he’d hit them a ton. He was awkward in the field, but graceful with a bat. I never particularly rooted for the Twins, but both he and Tony Oliva were personal favorites of mine.

So It’s Rest in Peace for the Killer. He was a great ballplayer, apparently an even greater man. All of us are poorer that he is gone. I offer up one simple prayer, “Don’t have too many more of these postmortem posts for me to write for the rest of this year.” Deal, Lord?

Short but Sweet

December 27, 2010

Following up on the post about guys who made the Hall of Fame and really could only do one thing well, I began to look for other groups of players who could be linked. An easy one was guys with very short, but very intense careers who make the Hall of Fame based on a brief time of greatness. It turned out there were more than I thought. 

Let me exclude from this list players who lost significant time to war. Guys like Joe DiMaggio who only played 13 years and Hank Greenberg, also 13 years, go in this group. Also I exclude Negro League players who are in the Hall of Fame for their Major League years but lost significant time to segregation. This is where guys like Roy Campanella and Larry Doby go. A third group to be left out are those guys who die while major leaguers but make the Hall. Addie Joss and Ross Youngs are the primary people in this group. All of these people have short careers because of outside influences (or internal in the case of Joss and Youngs) and not due to baseball related causes. That makes them different enough to me that I exclude them from the list I compiled. I also excluded players whose primary career was prior to 1900. Conditions were so different then that short careers were actually somewhat common and both conditions and rules changes (a mound over a pitching box, gloves vs no gloves, etc) made a difference. Still, I get a fairly impressive, and probably incomplete, list.

Among pitchers, five came quickly to mind and a survey of the info indicated I was right about them. Jack Chesbro, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax, and Joe McGinnity (alphabetically) all had very short careers that were considered Hall of Fame worthy (and I don’t intend to debate here whether they were worthy or weren’t).  In Dean’s case he only barely got the required 10 years in through a bit of trickery by the St. Louis Browns ownership. McGinnity also deserves a caveat. He left the National League after 10 years (averaging 25 wins during the 10 seasons) to return to the Minor Leagues (which were not tied to the Major Leagues as they are now) and racked up another 250 plus wins before finally retiring. I’m a bit unclear on his reasoning for the change, but his ML career was on its downside.

I knew of six hitters who met my criteria: Earl Averill, Mickey Cochrane, Earle Combs, Ralph Kiner, Kirby Puckett, and Hack Wilson (again alphabetical). Averill, Combs, Kiner, and Puckett all suffered injuries (back for both Averill and Kiner, a skull fracture for Combs to go along with a broken collarbone, and eyes for Puckett) that curtailed their careers. Cochrane was skulled in a game and told to retire. He did. Wilson drank himself out of the game.  Again each had a short, and very intense period of greatness that did not turn into a long career because of other circumstances (primarily injury except for Wilson).

By my count, there are 180 people in the Hall of Fame who are primarily players (Here’s hoping I can count.) and not managers, executives, umpires, etc. I didn’t really go through the entire list looking for people who played only 10-13 years. Instead I used people I could think of immediately. Maybe not the best way of doing it, but it’s what I used. At least 11 of them had short careers. That’s about 6%, which isn’t a bad number, although certainly not an overwhelming number either. And here I used the entire Hall without excluding those people I specifically excluded in the second paragraph. Had I done so, the percentage would, of course, be higher. It seems that if you are very good you can still have a short career and make the Hall of Fame. But you have to be very, very good.

One-Trick Pony

December 23, 2010

In keeping with the animal theme that seems to be have started around here, I want to write about one-trick ponies. A one-trick pony is a circus horse that can only do one thing. He can do it really well, but doesn’t do anything else well. He still gets to be in the show doing that one trick. Baseball and its Hall of Fame are full of this kind of player.

In one sense all pitchers are essentially one-trick ponies. Their job is to pitch (and do that job only every second, third, fourth, or fifth day depending on the era). A closer is even more so, because his job is to pitch to one (and sometimes two) innings worth of hitters. Some of them, like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson can hit some. No body cares. They are there to pitch and if they hit some, well, that’s great icing on the cake. Some of them, like Jim Kaat or Greg Maddux, field well. No body cares. They are there to pitch and if they field some, well, that’s great icing on the cake. Some, like Lefty Gomez, don’t do either well. No body cares. If they don’t field or hit well no body pulls them from the starting lineup because they can’t field a bunt or hit a curve. Can you imagine the following conversation? “Sorry, Lefty, you won’t start today because you can’t field a bunt.” Neither can I.  And almost by definition American League pitchers of the last 40 years can’t hit because of the designated hitter rule.

There are also guys who have great gloves and no sticks. Bill Mazeroski (who was an OK hitter, but nothing special), Rabbit Maranville, Nellie Fox (who had the one great year with a bat), and Bobby Wallace come instantly to mind. It seems that baseball always finds a way to get them into the lineup. I exclude catchers who don’t hit well, because most of them do a number of things well (like throw, block the plate, move to fouls, control the tempo of the game, etc.).

And then there are the sluggers who seem to always find a batting order spot. I mean guys like Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, Ted Williams, and Orlando Cepeda. All of them hit, and all of them were less than sterling in the field (and I’m being generous here).  Despite the greatness of Williams and the others, they are simply another bunch of one-dimensional players.

All of which brings me to Edgar Martinez, an excellent example of a one-trick pony. What he did was hit and hit well. His knees gave out and he couldn’t field, but he could still hit.

You know what Killebrew, Kiner, Williams,  Cepeda, Mazeroski, Maranville, Fox, Wallace, and Gomez have in common besides being one-trick ponies? They’re also Hall of Famers (and Maddux will be). This is not a plea to put Martinez in the Hall, although I would vote for him, but to acknowledge that the reason many people say he shouldn’t be in (“All he could do was hit.”) is an invalid reason for excluding a man from the Hall. There are already a lot of guys in the Hall who could only do one thing, so excluding Martinez because he could only do one thing is silly. Maybe he should be excluded. Maybe his numbers aren’t good enough. Maybe he doesn’t have the proper leadership skills or the proper moral character and thus should be excluded. Fine by me, exclude him. Just make sure you do it for the right reasons.

Getting to Cooperstown without Winning

May 19, 2010

For the second time in recent posting, I’m going to shamelessly borrow an idea from SportsPhd. He posted a comment on the absurdity of equating greatness as a player with winning a championship in a team sport. I agree entirely with him. I sat down following his post and began seeing if I could put together a team of players who never won and yet made it to Cooperstown. It was actually pretty easy, so I went a step farther.

Consider this team:

Infield from first to third: George Sisler, Rod Carew, Ernie Banks, and George Kell.

Outfield: Billy Williams, Harry Heilman, Ralph Kiner

Catcher: Rick Ferrell

Pitchers: Fergie Jenkins and Ted Lyons

Know what they have in common besides being Hall of Famers and not having won a World Series? They also never even got into a World Series. Yep, that’s right, team. This is a list of Hall of Fame quality players who failed to find a team good enough to earn a trip to the World Series. I’ll admit to having some problems with a couple of them getting into the Hall, but they are there and we have to deal with it.

This list points out two things to me. First, that you can be genuinely good and not win. Second, the truly great names, the ones we really expect to see in Cooperstown, do make it to a championship, at least occasionally. Here’s a look at a team that got to a World Series, but didn’t win. Notice that most of us would consider it a better team (at most positions).

Infield: Willie McCovey, Nellie Fox, Robin Yount, Fred Lindstrom

Outfield: Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn

Catcher: Carlton Fisk

Pitchers: Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry

So if winning it all is the best measure of greatness, all these guys fall short (and Scott Brosius is a great, great, great–he won three–player).

There are other players that can be added. Feel free to put together  your own and post it here.

Triple Crown, I

March 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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