Posts Tagged ‘Roberto Clemente’

and the Deacon of Pittsburgh

June 12, 2014
Vern Law

Vern Law

One of the more improbable World Series winners was the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. Today almost the only thing anyone knows about them is that Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in game seven to give the Pirates a championship. A few people know Roberto Clemente played for Pittsburgh. Almost no one remembers Vern “Deacon” Law, the staff ace.

Vernon Law was born in Idaho in 1930. His family was of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) faith and he was ordained a church Deacon at age 12. His nickname derived from that fact. He was good at baseball and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1948. He spent ’48, 1949, and part of 1950 in the minors. His numbers weren’t bad, but they weren’t outstanding either. In 1950 he got his first taste of Major League ball going 7-9 in 27 games (17 starts). He was 6-9 in 1951, then went off to the military for the Korean War.

Back in 1954 he started 18 games then settled in as a combination starter and long man. Over the next three years he pitched in 113 games, starting 81. You don’t see modern pitchers doing that much anymore. By 1959 he was truly a starter going 18-9 with and ERA under three. His great year was 1960. He went 20-9, had a career high 120 strikeouts, and won the Cy Young Award. Back in 1960, there was only one Cy Young, not one for each league, so Law was being touted as the best pitcher in the Major Leagues.

The 1960 Pirates were a one time wonder. They were a solid team, but few really expected them to win (they’d finished second in 1958, but fallen back to fourth in 1959). But Law, Bob Friend, Harvey Haddix, Wilmer Mizell (later a US Congressman), and Elroy Face gave them a solid staff. Roberto Clemente was great in right field while Bill Mazeroski and Dick Groat provided good work around second (Groat won the NL batting title and was chosen MVP in 1960).

With Pittsburgh going to their first World Series since a 1927 shelling by the Ruth-Gehrig Yankees, Law was hurt. He’d injured an ankle celebrating the Pirates’ clinching the National League pennant. Despite that, he started three games in the Series. winning game one, game four, and starting the famous game seven (the one with Mazeroski’s home run). He managed a 3.44 ERA, struck out eight Yanks, and gave up seven runs, all earned.

He never really recovered from the injury (he changed his motion to stop foot pain, and screwed up his shoulder doing so). He got into 11 games in 1961, had a decent year in ’62, then another fine year in 1965, a year that saw him win the Lou Gehrig Award for his contributions to baseball and his community. He had one last decent year in 1966, then was 2-6 mostly as a reliever in 1967. He was 37 and it was the end of the road.

For his career Law was 162-147 (all with Pittsburgh) with an ERA of 3.77 (ERA+ of 101). In 2672 innings he gave up 2833 hits, 1274 runs, had 28 shutouts, struck out 1092, and walked 597.  All in all not a bad career. Personally, Law considered the Gehrig Award the highlight of his career.

In retirement he coached two years with Pittsburgh, then spent 10 years coaching at Brigham Young University. After that he spent two years coaching in Japan and in Denver (when it was still a minor league town). Following those assignments, he became an assistant under his son, Vance, as the pitching coach at a Provo, Utah high school. Following in his father’s footsteps, Vance Law played infield for 11 years in the Major Leagues. He played with five different teams, including Pittsburgh. He also coached at Brigham Young University. Vern Law finally retired from baseball at all levels in 2008.

Law had a solid career with one great and several good seasons. He was never the best pitcher in the Majors (except maybe in 1960, although a case could be made for Warren Spahn as 1960’s best pitcher) but was a solid rotation man. He helped his team win one World Series and his post Major League career is as impressive as his big league years.

 

 

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The Case for Danny Murtaugh

November 20, 2013
Murtaugh with Roberto Clemente

Murtaugh with Roberto Clemente

When I finished my post on the 2014 Veterans Committee managers ballot, I commented I would let Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre appear on my ballot, but neither of the other two candidates. I received a handful of emails from friends questioning my assertion that I’d take Danny Murtaugh over Bobby Cox. They pointed out that Cox won more than Murtaugh if you considered division titles and that his winning percentage was higher than Murtaugh. So in answer to them, here’s my case for Danny Murtaugh.

First a brief aside to tell you a little about Murtaugh. He managed a long time ago and many of you won’t remember him. He got his start managing Pittsburgh (the only team he ever managed) in the last half of 1957. He replaced Bobby Bragan (who shows up in the recent movie “42” as the Alabama born catcher who changes his mind about being traded). Pittsburgh had a losing record (36-67) when Murtaugh took over. He went 26-25 for the rest of the season. It wasn’t much but it was a winning record. He got the Pirates to second the next season. losing to the Braves (later Cox’s team) by eight games. The team slipped back to fourth in 1959, but maintained a winning record. In 1960 they won the World Series, then slid pack into the pack through 1964 when Murtaugh retired because he was sick. He moved to the front office and returned briefly to managing in 1967 when the Pirates were 42-42. He managed to keep them at .500 then returned to the front office at the end of the season. After Pittsburgh fired their manager just before the end of the 1969 season, Murtaugh was called on again to take the team. He managed the team to a division title in 1970 and the World Series title in 1971, then retired again. Finally, he was brought back late in 1973 (going 13-13) and stayed through the 1976 season, winning division titles in both 1974 and 1975 and finishing second in 1976. He died in December 1976 and had his number retired in 1977.

Now why Murtaugh for the Hall of Fame?

1. He has two World Series titles. That’s impressive enough, but if you look at the dates (1960 and 1971) it gets even better. He does it with two almost entirely different teams. The only 1960 holdovers still around in 1971 are Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski, and Maz only plays 70 games (Dave Cash is the primary second baseman) and bats all of once in both the NLCS and the Series, getting a hit in the NLCS. So with very different talent Murtaugh wins.

2. He does it in two eras. It’s a very different game in 1960 than in 1971. The pitching revolution has occurred, there have been two rounds of expansion.

3. He has two seasons in which he manages his team to less than .500. They are 1963 and 1964 and in the latter year he’s 80-82.

4. He manages in five full seasons in which there are two rounds of playoffs. He reaches the playoffs in four of those (1970-1971, 1974-1975).

5. He was instrumental in easing Roberto Clemente’s way in the beginning of his career. He became a mentor and confidant. But in fairness, Bobby Bragan also did those things in Clemente’s earliest days in the Majors.

6. On 1 September 1971, he put nine American black and dark-skinned Latino players on the field at the same time, something that had never happened before. The team won the game.

So I think Murtaugh deserves a spot in Cooperstown. With his two World Series wins, I think he deserves it over Cox.

The Core of the Hall: Notes

July 6, 2012

The post just below this one touches on the 50 people who I think most belong in the Hall of Fame (of those already enshrined). The public comments have been positive, but I’ve also received a handful of private comments (and emails) with questions about the list. This is an attempt to answer those.

1. SportsPhD in his comment below notes a paucity of 19th Century players and speculates that I’m purposefully leaving off players who were active primarily before the advent of the mound. He is correct. I think the change in pitching distance and motion have so effected the game that players before and after those changes must be viewed in entirely different categories. And, yes, there is a certain amount of justice in placing Campanella above Anson.

2. A number of comments have asked why so many Negro Leaguers, especially Turkey Stearnes and Martin DiHigo. I am entirely comfortable in believing that five Negro League players are among the 50 finest players ever. Look at the National League in the 1950s and you’ll note that guys like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Frank Robinson are on my list. I don’t think it unreasonable to believe that five players from the period 1920-1950 who were Negro League stars should be included. If you can find four in ten years, surely you can find five in thirty. As to DiHigo I placed him here because of his playing ability, his versatility, and his impact on the game among Latin players. He is instrumental on growing the game in Latin America (as is Clemente) and when coupled with his skills that puts him on my list. Stearnes is a little harder to justify and frankly was one of the last people I included. Most sources claim he is the leader in home runs among Negro Leaguers. That probably is worth adding him, even at the expense of guys like Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd.

3. Most people, including those who made public comment on the first Core post, indicate they might have changed a half dozen or so. Actually I think that’s really good. It means that, at least among those people who read this blog, there is a fairly solid consensus as to the top 40 or so players.

4. Someone asked if I was sorry to have to leave off current players or Hall eligible (or in the case of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose ineligible) players. Yes, I was. I’d love to put Albert Pujols on the list as well as Greg Maddux and possibly Rose although I’d have to think long and hard about Charlie Hustle. I’m not sure I see him as a top 50 without reference to the gambling issue. Maybe, maybe not.

5. I was asked “If Campanella was the last man on, who was the last man off?” The answer is Eddie Murray. I really miss putting Murray on the list and I have to admit that a personal prejudice may have gotten in the way here. I always liked Murray, but I loved Campy. I guess in the end that made a difference.

6. Someone asked “If you could cut it down to 10 who would you pick?” Pass.

All this typed for the information of those who asked. This way I don’t have to write up a dozen different responses to a dozen different emails.

Where Did These Guys Come From?

July 3, 2011

Pirates Logo

I normally don’t do much with contemporary baseball, preferring to dwell on previous seasons. But I’m making an exception for the second consecutive post. Last time it was to lament the passing of a great franchise. This time it’s a more hopeful note. Did you notice that the Pittsburgh Pirates are over .500 going into the 4th of July weekend? Who are these guys?

It’s not like Pittsburgh has been bad; in the last twenty years (give or take), they’ve been historically bad. The last time they had a good season Honus Wagner was a rookie. OK, I’m exaggerating, it was really Pie Traynor’s rookie campaign. The last time the Pirates ended up with a winning record (96-66) was in 1992. They made the playoffs that year and lost to Atlanta on Sid Bream’s mad dash (did Bream ever “dash” anywhere?) home in the ninth. Since then the closest they’ve come to a winning record was 79-83 (.488) in 1997. Twice (2001, 2010) they’ve lost 100 or more games. Clint Hurdle, the current skipper, is their seventh manager in the period. The last time they won my son was 10. He now has three kids.

Currently, the Pirates stand 42-41 (.506) in third place in the National League Central, 2.5 games out of first (break out the Champaign). Will they stay there? Will they win the division? I think the answer to both questions is “No.” But I think it might be appropriate on the eve of a national holiday to celebrate the rebirth (albeit temporary) of the team from Pittsburgh, of the team of Wagner, and Traynor, and Paul Waner, and Arky Vaughan, and Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell. Pittsburgh hasn’t been a flagship franchise in the NL for a long time (like about 1905), but it’s great to see a return to something like competence from them.

So to answer my question from the first paragraph, here’s a list of the players who have currently played the most games at each field position for Pittsburgh this season. Enjoy your 15 minutes, guys: Chris Snyder (C), Lyle Overbay (1B), Neil Walker (2B), Ronny Cedeno (SS), Pedro Alvarez (3b), Jose Tabata (LF), Andrew McCutchen (CF), Garrett Jones (RF). And here’s the starting staff (guys with double figure starts): Paul Maholm,  Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton (only Maholm is a lefty). And the closer is (drum roll please) Joel Hanrahan with 24 saves.

So here’s to Pittsburgh. Hang in there, guys. As the old “Hee Haw” program used to say: SA-LUTE.

Keystone

June 20, 2011

When I was growing up second base was frequently refered to as the keystone, a word you don’t hear much today. That had to do with the fact that you could score fairly easily from second on a clean base hit (unless Roberto Clemente was in right field), so second was the base everyone wanted to be standing on. I think that kind of mentality helped lead to the increased running game of the 1960s. I don’t know how much emphasis should be put on it, but I think it helped. 

I’ve always been a bit surprised at how hard it is to define a second baseman. When I was a kid there was a saying that went around about how you decided who played each position. The catcher was the smartest, the pitcher had the most control, the right fielder the best arm, the center fielder was fastest, the shortstop the most agile, the third baseman the quickest, the first baseman the best catcher, the second baseman had the quickest feet, and the other guy played left field. I’ve seen and heard various versions of this over the years, but they all seem to bring second base down to feet (as opposed to short and third which imply something just a little more than feet). That seems to indicate that either the ability to turn a double play is paramount or that they can get to the ball quickly.

Of course none of that has a thing to do with how well you hit the ball. And second base seems to be unable to define just how important that is to the position. For a number of years in the Nineteenth Century, second was primarily a fielding position, then in the early Twentieth it became more of  a hitting position, back to a fielding position for a few years in the late 1920’s, then back again to hitting in the 1930’s, and so on for the entire history of the professional game. In the mid-1980’s it was considered a fielding position which seems to have led to the silly idea that Cubs’ second baseman Ryne Sandberg should hit second and first baseman Mark Grace should hit third (instead of the other way around).

Sandberg/Grace is merely one example of the problem. What I want to do over the next few posts is to look at second base. I want to trace its evolution (and frequent return to its roots) and look at some of the people who made the position what it is today.  We’ll see how it turns out.

Rickey and Robinson’s Third Man

August 18, 2010

Jackie Robinson and Clyde Sukeforth

 In 1945 Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson set the sports world on its ear (and on edge) by joining together in integrate the Major Leagues. When they sat down in a room in Brooklyn to do so, there was a third man in that room who was almost as important as either. His name wasn’t Orson Welles or Joseph Cotten or Anton Karas or even Alida Valli. It was Clyde Sukeforth.

Sukeforth was born in Maine in 1901, spent two years in college (Georgetown), played for Nashua and Manchester in the New England League, then was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1926. He was a catcher. He had some good years, but was never a star. He played 10 years hitting .264 with a peak of .354 in 84 games in 1929. He managed all of two home runs, one in 1929 and the other in the juiced ball year of 1930. In 1931 he played in more than 100 games for the only time in his career. In the off-season he went hunting and took a shotgun pellet in his right eye. Needless to say his career tanked. In March 1932 he was traded to Brooklyn (one of the players involved was future Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi) where he was a part-time catcher through 1934. He also played in 18 games in 1945 to fill out a wartime roster. He could still hit a little, going .294 for the 18 games.

After leaving the majors he coached in the Dodgers minor league system until 1943, when Brooklyn brought him back to the majors as a coach and, more importantly, as a scout. When Rickey decided to integrate the Dodgers, he turned to Sukeforth to scout the Negro Leagues.  It seems that Sukeforth was the only person on the Dodgers staff that Rickey confided in when it came to integration. Others were told the franchise was contemplating a “Black Dodgers” team for the Negro Leagues. Although Rickey apparently had already focused on Robinson, he needed Sukeforth to scout both Robinson and other players who might also be available.

Sukeforth’s recommendation was for Robinson. Rickey agreed and called Robinson in for a meeting. As mentioned above, Sukeforth had the distinction of being the third man in the room when Rickey pitched integrating the Major Leagues to Robinson.

In 1946, Sukeforth was sent to Nashua (where he had once played) to form a class B minor league team. The team was to include both Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Sukeforth is credited with easing the integration of the league and making sure the town accepted the black players. By 1947 he was back with the Dodgers,serving as a coach and confidant for Robinson. The Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, was suspended at the start of the 1947 campaign and Sukeforth chosen as his temporary replacement, thus becoming the manager during Robinson’s first game. He managed only two games before returning to coaching. He was still around in 1951 and is considered responsible, in some circles, for sending Ralph Branca in to game three of the National League playoff. I don’t buy that. He wasn’t the manager and if the manager let the bullpen coach (Sukeforth) make the decision, then the manager needed to be fired. The upshot, of course, is that it was Sukeforth who was fired.

He went to Pittsburgh in 1952 as a coach and scout where he was instrumental in the Pirates’ drafting Roberto Clemente in 1954. He stayed with Pittsburgh through 1957, then retired. He was brought back periodically through 1962 as both a scout and minor league manager, then moved to a scouting position with the Braves until he finally retired. He died at age 98 in 2000. According to Wikipedia a fresh baseball “can be found on his gravesite at all times.”

I’ve always thought that Sukeforth never gets enough credit for his role in integrating baseball. I agree that the principles, Rickey and Robinson, deserve the most credit, but I think Sukeforth is significant in that he ultimately recommended Robinson, became a confidant to Robinson during the most troublesome period of the integration, and then served as mentor to other Dodgers black players, while also becoming a leading proponent of bringing in Latin players like Clemente. We all owe Clyde Sukeforth a debt. Hopefully this pays back a small part of it.

Good Bye, Bobby

January 29, 2010

I missed the news the other day that Bobby Bragan died. He was 92 and an old ballplayer. He was also a hero of mine.

Bragan was from Alabama and got to the majors in 1940 as a shortstop with the Phillies. He played 597 games over 7 seasons, the last four years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He spent most of his time as a backup shortstop and catcher. For a career he hit .240 with 15 home runs and 172 RBIs. He was one of the Dodgers players who signed the infamous petition to keep Jackie Robinson off the Dodgers prior to the 1947 season. After his playing days ended he served as a manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 and 1957, for the Cleveland Indians in 1958, and for the Braves (both in Milwaukee and Atlanta) from 1963-1966. He had a .481 winning percentage as a manager and never finished above 5th. 

“Hold it,” I hear you say, “this guy was a marginal player, a failed manager, a racist, and he’s a hero of yours? What gives?”  Let me tell you.

I once heard an interview with the Dodgers radio play-by-play man Red Barber, also a Southerner, in which he acknowledged his racism in 1946 and then commented that in terms of race Jackie Robinson “matured” him. Bragan was never that eloquent, but I think he might have agreed with the sentiment. Within a few weeks of Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn, Bragan had changed his mind about Robinson. He saw him as a superior player, as a good person, saw the abuse the man took, and saw Robinson’s response to it. Somewhere along the line, Bragan had an epiphany and decided that he was wrong and that Robinson, and by extension black Americans, was OK. He became one of Robinson’s best friends on the Dodgers, later served as an honorary pallbearer at Robinson’s funeral. I’ve seen a picture of Bragan and Rachel Robinson embracing. As a manager he became known as a sympathetic ear and something of a mentor to black and Latin ballplayers, most specifically Roberto Clemente. He solidly backed Hank Aaron in the rush to the home run record.

Most of us, me included, have a lot of trouble finding an internal flaw. We tend to ignore them and when confronted with one fall back on “it’s not my fault” or “who, me?” or some such response. Bragan didn’t.  He confronted his racism head on, saw it’s evil, and changed his ways. Then he became a supporter of that which he’d previously despised. Quite a change for anyone. That makes him a hero of mine. Rest in peace, Bobby.