Posts Tagged ‘Roy Campanella’

Stability

September 4, 2017

Johnny Bench, Reds

Over at one of my favorite blogs, The Hall of Miller and Eric, they are running a “Mount Rushmore” of each team. As you might expect that means they are picking four players to represent the best of each franchise. But there is a kicker there. The player must have played his entire career with the same team. That means no Warren Spahn at the Braves, no Duke Snider with the Dodgers, no Yogi Berra with the Yanks (he had nine at bats with the Mets).

Now all that, especially the loss of Snider and Dazzy Vance with the Dodgers, got me to looking for players who spent their entire career with one team. Now it had to be significant time with the team, after all Moonlight Graham spent his entire Major League career with one team. I figured it would be loaded with old-time players, players who were faced with the reserve clause. Surprisingly, there were a lot of modern guys on the list. Here’s a list, in no particular order, of just a few of the players who never changed teams.

First base: Lou Gehrig, Jeff Bagwell, Willie Stargell

Second Base: Charlie Gehringer, Jackie Robinson (he was traded but never played for a second team, opting to retire instead), Craig Biggio

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Luke Appling, PeeWee Reese, Phil Rizzuto

Third Base: Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, George Brett, Mike Schmidt

Outfield: Mel Ott, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski

Catcher: Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella

Left-Handed Pitchers: Whitey Ford, Carl Hubbell, Sandy Koufax

Right-Handed Pitchers: Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Don Drysdale, Mariano Rivera

Not a bad lot, right?

One quick note. Honus Wagner came up with the Louisville Colonels and ended up with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s not quite the same as being traded or leaving via free agency. Barney Dreyfuss owned both teams and when the National League contracted he moved all his good players to Pittsburgh and let Louisville go. I’m not sure how to deal with that, so I left him off. You might differ.

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Negro League Lessons, Seven Years On

February 25, 2016
The 1929 St. Louis Stars

The 1929 St. Louis Stars

Seven years ago (is it really that long?) I started taking part of February to look at Negro League history. A year or so later I made it a month-long project. I had a couple of goals in doing this. One was to learn what I could about the black players, teams, owners, and all those other things that make a baseball team work. The second was to chronicle that information so that others could learn something also. Of course I’ve had to correct some of the things I initially put down because new information became available, or I found a source I’d overlooked, or I was just plain wrong (which happened occasionally). Seven years down the road it seems like a good time to take stock of the project.

The first thing I learned was just exactly how much mythology surrounds the Negro Leagues. Of course that sort of thing occurs with Major League Baseball, the origins of the sport, and various other aspects  of the game. It seems baseball nurses mythology more than any other sport and revels in those myths. Negro League Baseball is no different. The early players take on heroic proportions. Babe Ruth is a giant among men who can slay all sorts of ogres with one swing of his mighty sword (or bat). It seems Josh Gibson is the same way. Lou Gehrig is the doomed youth who heroically faces his end. So does Dobie Moore. There’s trickster Dizzy Dean and there is trickster Satchel Paige. If you listen to the myths, Homer himself would be proud of some of them.

The reality is even more fascinating, because you end up with a particularly interesting set of men, men much like the white players that were gracing the Majors. Some were scoundrels, some were men of great compassion and of high character. Some you wouldn’t want your family or your friends to be around while others were “the salt of the earth.” All that’s equally true of white players. As a whole they are complicated men who are generally defined by their ability to play ball (something I usually stick to here) but most are much deeper, although there aren’t many profound thinkers in the lot (which is true of people in mass).

It was tough being a Major Leaguer in the era of the Negro Leagues. It was tougher being a Negro Leaguer. The pay was wretched. In the 1924 World Series, the winning Senators received a $5959.64. The Monarchs, winners of the Negro World Series of the same year, received a winner share of $307.96. The transportation was sometimes very basic, including old buses and occasionally individual automobiles. The hotels were of poor quality, assuming they could find a hotel that would take them. By compensation there were individual families in the frequented towns who would take them in. Most of them enjoyed the same off-season drudgeries and joys as their white counterparts. The fields were sometimes in terrible shape, sometimes they were Major League fields rented for an individual game or for a season.

As with the white players the Negro Leaguers could be the toast of the town, although it was the segregated “colored towns” of the era. They provided one of the few community wide black venues for entertainment in many towns and in some cities. It seems, and this is strictly an anecdotal observation, that they were even more important to the black communities than the Major League teams were to the white communities.

The owners were much like the white owners. Players were chattel or they were employees. Some were treated well by their teams, some not so much. The owners frequently came from what the “better element” of the white community would call “the shady side of life.” There were gamblers, pool hall owners, barmen, numbers touts, even a woman (Effa Manley). They also stole players under contract to other teams at an alarming rate. They are as a group, in some ways, more interesting than their white counterparts, most of which were moguls who found baseball much more of a side interest. Some of my favorite articles to research are the ones on team owners and executives because they are such interesting individuals.

One thing that is certainly evident is that they could play ball really, really well. They were certainly the equal of the white players of the era. They were not, despite the growing mythology of the Negro Leagues, better. Short rosters made some of them more versatile than their white counterparts, but not better. The best were on a par with the Gehrigs and Deans and Applings of the day and the worst were no worse than the hangers on who had, at best, a cup of coffee in the big leagues. In an evident attempt to establish their greatness a certain bit of nostalgic mythology has made them better than the white players. In the stark reality of short seasons and second-hand fields and poor equipment they did well. It is a testament to their playing ability that they can be considered on par with the Major Leagues. There is no necessity to compensate for the bad hand they were dealt merely because of the color of their skin by trying to assert they were better than they were.

They weren’t all Americans. I knew that, of course, but I did not know the extent of the Latin players involved or of American black player involvement in the Latin countries. And it’s here that race is at its worst. A Latin player who didn’t look “black” (and God alone knows how many ways different scouts, managers, and owner defined that word) could make the Major Leagues. A Latin player who did look “black” couldn’t. So Dolf Luque could play in a World Series and Martin DeHigo couldn’t. For Americans of mixed race it didn’t matter how “white” a player looked, he was “black” and that was that and that mentality sent players like Roy Campanella to the Baltimore Elite Giants rather than the New York Giants (and ultimately the Dodgers).

It’s interesting that most of the Negro League teams were housed in the North rather than the South, which had more Black Americans. As a former college instructor (Geez, that was a long time ago) I knew that intuitively, but it still jarred a bit. Jim Crow wasn’t restricted to the South, but the rules were looser enough to make it at least a little easier for a black team to function in the North. And of course the cities were larger, which made the crowds larger and the possibility of profit greater.

All that’s some of what I’ve learned over seven years of wandering through the world of Negro League baseball. It’s a strange and fascinating place to wander. I intend to keep it up as long as I can find something new to say.

Thoughts on the Class of 2015

January 7, 2015

Yesterday the Hall of Fame chose Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz for enshrinement. It’s being touted as the largest class chosen by the writers since 1955 and one of the largest ever. Here are some thoughts on the election.

1. Nothing in the world wrong with the four candidates elected. All have solid cases for enshrinement and I’m glad to see each get in.

2. Mike Piazza was the candidate who came closest to election without getting a plaque. I’m not quite sure what to do with Piazza. I personally think he’s Hall worthy, but I understand that many of the writers are worried about PED issues. Apparently less are worried each year and less are worried than are worried about either Clemens or Bonds. Writers seem not to know what to do about catchers. Of all catchers currently in the Hall only Johnny Bench is a first vote member. That means that Yogi Berra, Yogi Berra for God’s sake, isn’t a first ballot Hall of Famer. Neither is Roy Campanella, nor is Carlton Fisk, nor Gary Carter. And I suppose I can probably push that out all the way to Joe Mauer (who I think will make it). I’m not certain why this is true. My guess is that catchers put up smaller numbers than players at other positions and no one’s quite sure how you quantify catching stats, so there’s a certain reluctance to add them to the Hall of Fame. That’s also a guess on my part.

3. Staying with Piazza a moment, it looks like he will become the test case for PEDs. If he gets in, and so far his trajectory is toward election, then we’re going to have to face the issue head on. Because if he says, after he’s in (not after he’s elected, but after the ceremony makes it official) that “Yeah, I used the stuff,” then they can’t throw him out and they can’t say “No PED users in the Hall” because they’ve already got one. That will force the door open for the others. In all that I don’t mean to imply that I know or believe that Piazza was a PED user, merely that there is doubt in some minds.

4. I don’t understand the Bonds/Clemens votes. If you think PED use is not a disqualifier for the Hall of Fame, surely you believe they have the numbers for election. If you think PED use is a  disqualifier surely you don’t vote for either. I’m not quite sure why they ended up with different vote totals (206 for Clemens and 202 for Bonds). Did four voters actually think Clemens should get in and Bonds not? I guess so. And I further guess that the BBWAA is very unpredictable. BTW, I note that my “strategic voting” idea from last year (“How the heck did someone not vote for Maddux?”) is now being gloried in by some of the voters. I take full credit. 🙂

5. On a personal level in my post on my ballot I voted for 10. Seven of them ended up being the top seven vote getters. The other three all received enough votes to remain on the ballot.

6. That’s not quite true. It was the 15th and last chance for Don Mattingly. He didn’t get in and now must wait for the Vet’s Committee. Alan Trammell (who I chose) faces the same situation next year with Lee Smith and Mark McGwire (who I didn’t select) one year later. Smith has benefit of the 15 year rule, while McGwire does not.

7. Of the first timers on the ballot, Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra were the only one’s who got enough votes to stay alive for next year (and Garciaparra did it by only 0.5% of the vote). It doesn’t bode well for either in subsequent years, but I’m glad each stayed alive so we can take another year to review their cases for election. Right now I’m inclined to pass on Sheffield and I frankly don’t know what to do with Garciaparra.

8. Now on to 2016 and the arrival of Ken Griffey on the ballot. Also available next year will be Trevor Hoffman, Jim Edmonds, Mike Lowell, and David Eckstein. I don’t expect much support for either Lowell or Eckstein, but will be most interested to see how Edmonds does.

9. Finally, again congratulations to this year’s new Hall of Famers. Enjoy the moment, guys.

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Bums Win

September 25, 2014
The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

The Podres statue at the Hall of Fame

Game seven of the 1955 World Series is arguably the most famous game in Brooklyn Dodgers history. April of 1947 is its only rival. Finally, after years of frustration going back to 1901 the Dodgers finally were World Champions. It had last occurred in 1900.

The Dodgers were playing the Yankees for the sixth time (’41, ’47, ’49, ’52, ’53 are the others) and were 0-5. Some had been good Series’ (particularly 1947) but Brooklyn always lost. The 1955 team was still very much the same team as the 1952 and 1953 teams but there were significant changes. First, Walter Alston was now the manager. He’d been a minor league manager for a while, but in 1954 took the leadership of the team. The infield was different from the more famous “Boys of Summer” infield. Gil Hodges was still at first and Pee Wee Reese still held down shortstop, But Jim Gilliam now spent more time at second than anyone else. He could also play the outfield in for game seven he was in left. Utility man Don Zimmer was at second. Jackie Robinson now was the primary third baseman, but for game seven he was on the bench with Don Hoak at third. Carl Furillo and Duke Snider were still in right and center field, but Sandy Amoros did most of the work in left. As mentioned earlier, on 4 October 1955 he started on the bench. He didn’t stay there. Roy Campanella having his last good year, was the MVP winning catcher.

The pitching staff was in transition. Don Newcombe was still the ace, Carl Erskine was fading, Billy Loes was still there, but a key newcomer (he’d been around awhile, but wasn’t anything like a star) was 22-year old Johnny Podres. Ed Roebuck and Clem Labine did the bulk of the bullpen work, but 19-year old bonus baby Sandy Koufax was on the roster (he didn’t pitch in the Series). Podres, the game three winner, got game seven.

He faced a Casey Stengel New York Yankees team that, after a string of five consecutive World Series victories, had finished second in 1954. They were back with a new lineup that included Moose Skowron at first, Gil McDougald at second, Andy Carey at third, and shortstop Billy Hunter. Gone was Johnny Mize while Billy Martin, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Collins were on the bench. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were in center field and right field with Irv Noren doing most of the work in left. Elston Howard had finally integrated the Yanks in ’55 and now backed up in left.

MVP Yogi Berra caught a staff that included Whitey Ford, Bob Turley, Tommy Byrne, Bob Grim and Don Larsen. Ford was the ace, with Turley a close second. Larsen was still learning (and would figure it all out in one game the next World Series). Byrne had a good year but as usual walked more than he struck out. He drew game seven which was played in Yankee Stadium.

Both pitchers got through the first inning without incident. Byrne gave up a walk in the second and Podres gave a double to Skowron, but no runs came across. It stayed that way to the top of the fourth. With one out, Campanella doubled, then went to third on a grounder to short. Hodges then singled to left scoring Campy with the initial run of the game. In the bottom of the fourth New York got a runner as far as third before a pop up to short ended the threat.

Reese led off the top of the sixth with a single then went to second on a Snider bunt. An error by Skowron made Snider safe. Then a Campanella bunt put runners on second and third with only one out. Byrne intentionally walked Furillo to load the bases, then gave up the mound to Bob Grim. Hodges hit a long sacrifice to right center that scored Reese with an unearned run. A wild pitch (that didn’t allow Snider to score) and a walk reloaded the bases, but pinch hitter George Shuba grounded out to end the inning. As a short aside, it’s a measure of how much the game has changed that both Snider and Campanella, the three and four hitters, laid down bunts in a critical situation.

Shuba’s pinch hit was critical to the game. It removed Zimmer from the lineup and forced Gilliam to take second. That brought Amoros into the game in left. That immediately made a difference. Martin, playing second in this game, walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth and went to second on a bunt by McDougald, who was safe at first. Berra then slammed a drive down the left field line. Amoros, a left-hander, got to the line, stuck up his glove (on his right hand) and snagged the ball. A toss to Reese and a relay to Hodges completed a double play. Bauer then grounded out to end the threat. Most experts agree that Gilliam, with his glove on his left hand, would have never been able to make the play in left, but southpaw Amoros became an instant Brooklyn hero.

It was the turning point of the game. Podres allowed two base runners in both the seventh and eighth innings but worked out of both jams without damage. In the ninth a comebacker to the pitcher, a fly to left, and a ground out short to first ended the game and brought Brooklyn its first World Series championship. Brooklyn went crazy.

The big heroes were Amoros with a great catch and throw, Campanella with a run scored and a key bunt, Hodges with both RBIs, and Reese with a run and a fine relay on Amoros’ catch and throw. But the biggest hero was Podres. He’d pitched a complete game shutout. It was true that it wasn’t a masterpiece. He’d allowed eight hits (the Dodgers only had five) and walked two, but he’d also struck out four and pitched out of each jam. It was the first year an MVP for the World Series was awarded. Podres won it easily.

The Yanks played well. McDougald had three hits, but was doubled up in the sixth on Reese’s relay. Skowron had a double, but also an error, while Berra had the only other extra base hit for New York and smashed the ball to left that started the double play that was so pivotal to the game.

The game marked the high water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next year they were back in the World Series, but lost to the Yankees. In 1957 they had a bad year and by 1958 were relocated to Los Angeles. They did well there winning again it 1959. A handful of the 1955 winners were still around: Snider, Furillo, Gilliam, Zimmer, and Koufax among others. Most notably for fans of the 1955 team, so was Podres. He pitched two games and picked up the win in game two.

 

 

the Preacher,

May 20, 2014
Preacher Roe

Preacher Roe

Elwin “Preacher” Roe was born in Arkansas in 1916. There are at least three stories I could find concerning the nickname. I have no idea which is true, but the best one indicates he was an obstreperous child and his grandmother called him “Preacher” hoping it would help reform him. It didn’t.

In 1937 and 1938 he attended Harding College in Arkansas, pitching for the college team. He was a strikeout machine, once fanning 26 in 11 innings. That got the attention of the Cardinals, who signed him in ’38. He got into one game in ’38 pitching 2.2 innings and giving up four runs. That got him a trip to the minors. He spent 1939-43 in the minors, going 44-39 with a 3.37 ERA, more strikeouts than walks, and a1.271 WHIP.

In late 1943 the Cards sent him to Pittsburgh. He stayed through 1947 going 34-47 with a 3.73 ERA (ERA+ of 105) with more hits than innings pitched, but with a lot more strikeouts than walks. He took the league strikeout title in 1945 with 148. During the offseason he taught high school math and coached basketball. In an altercation with a referee in 1946 he was injured (a head injury). It hurt his pitching and he never recovered his arm speed (not sure exactly how that works, but then I was never a pitcher).

After the season ended, he was traded to Brooklyn for Dixie Walker (there were others in the trade). Walker wanted out of Brooklyn because of the signing of Jackie Robinson. Although a Southerner himself, Roe seems to have had no problem playing with Robinson or the other black players brought to the Dodgers later. He was close to battery mate Roy Campanella.

Without a fastball after the head injury, Roe developed a series of off-speed pitches and a spit ball. He never admitted to the spitter until after his playing days when he explained the process in an early Sports Illustrated article. His career got back on track and with Brooklyn he had six good seasons. He led the National League in winning percentage in 1951. He played in the World Series in 1949, 1952, and 1953 going 2-1 with 14 strikeouts in 28 innings. His 1-0 victory in 1949 was Brooklyn’s only win.

By 1954 he was 38 and through. He went 3-4 in 15 games (10 starts) and was traded to Baltimore. He retired rather than report. For his career he was 127-84 with an ERA of 3.43 (ERA+ of 116) with 956 strikeouts, 504 walks, 17 shutouts, and 1907 hits over 1914 innings. His WAR is 35.1 (Baseball Reference.com version of WAR).

In retirement he ran a store in West Plains, Missouri (where one of the streets is “Preacher Roe Boulevard”. He died in 2008.

There are several great Roe quotes. The one I like best is, “Live every day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right.”

Roe's grave

Roe’s grave

 

 

 

A Great Age for Hitting Catchers

July 3, 2013
Joe Mauer's Wikipedia picture

Joe Mauer’s Wikipedia picture

Ever look over a list of  Hall of Famers? One of the things a lot of people mention after doing so is “Geez, there’s not a lot of third basemen in the Hall.” That’s true. But it’s also true of catchers. Excluding 19th Century players, there are a dozen each third basemen and catchers in the Hall. It’s a hard position, catcher, to play.

But we are living in a great age for catchers that can hit. There have been a few of those, but not many. In the 1930s you found Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, and Gabby Hartnett playing at the same time. In the 1950s there was Yogi Berra and there was Roy Campanella. Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk overlap in the 1980s. And in the last 15 or so years, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing a new group of them that may (or may not) be as good, but are certainly a deeper pool of fine hitting catchers. Going back to the turn of the century, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez were still productive players. In the 21st Century we’ve added three more.

Did you know that prior to 2006 catchers won only three batting titles: Ernie Lombardi twice and Bubbles Hargrave? Since 2006 catchers have won four. Joe Mauer has three and Buster Posey one. And this year Yadier Molina (who has in the last few seasons resolved any doubt as to which Molina brother was the best) is leading the National League. He probably won’t stay there, but to have a catcher leading the NL on 1 July is amazing.

So let’s all set back on our Fourth of July break and enjoy a ballgame. And while we’re at it, take a second to revel in the quality of good hitting catchers that are available to us. It’s very rare.

The 50 Greatest Dodgers

November 27, 2012

Don Newcombe, the 8th Greatest Dodger

Back a year or so ago I did a post on the 50 Greatest Yankees ever (according to ESPN). Turns out that the network did an entire series of these lists. You’ll have to look around pretty hard (or type in “greatest Dodgers” or whichever team) to find their lists but they are interesting.

One of the lists is the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers list. The top 10 (in order) look like this: Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Duke Snider, Zack Wheat, Roy Campanella, PeeWee Reese, Mike Piazza, Don Newcombe, Don Sutton, Dazzy Vance. And before anyone asks, Don Drysdale is 11th. Not a bad list actually, here’s a few comments on the list.

1. To create a full team you end up with Gil Hodges (16th on the list) at first, Robinson at second, Reese at short, and Roy Cey (14th on the list) at third. The outfield is Snider, Wheat, and Pedro Guerrero (15th on the list). Campanella catches and the first position player whose position is already covered is Piazza, making him the DH. The staff (four men for a World Series rotation, at least one being left-handed) is Koufax, Newcombe, Sutton, and Vance. Way down at 46th is Ron Perranoski, the only reliever on the list.

2. The list is a decent mix of both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, with LA being slightly favored in the higher parts of the list (see Guerrero over Babe Herman or Carl Furillo for example). There are, as you would expect with the Dodgers, an inordinate number of pitchers in the top 15.

3. They did put Dixie Walker on the list (he’s 25th). With the way he left the team (his opposition to Robinson) I half expected he’d be overlooked.

4. Wheat in the top 5 is inspired, as is Vance in the top 10. It’s unusual for guys who played that long ago to get much support when up against newer players that voters remember. However, Wheat over Campanella is questionable. Wheat and Vance are the only two players on the list who spent significant time with the Dodgers prior to 1940.

5. During their time together (most of the 1970s) Steve Garvey got a lot more press than Cey. This list placed Cey higher (14th to Garvey’s 17th). I think that’s probably right.

6. Jim Gilliam is at 43rd. That’s way too low. His versatility (second, third, center, and left) made him so much more valuable than his hitting stats (which aren’t bad either) made him appear.

7. Reggie Smith is at 26th. Again, I think that’s too low. I might slide him into the top 15. I know I’d put him in the top 20. I might even jump him over Guerrero. Smith is one of the more overlooked players in both Dodgers and Red Sox history.

8. The picking of  Newcombe over both Sutton and Drysdale is  interesting. Both ended up with more wins and Newk did have the drinking problem. I’m not sure the voters got it right. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Newcombe was the ace of the most famous (if not most successful) team in Dodgers history and that has to be worth something. Now, if he coulda just won a single World Series game (he went 0-4).

9. Now about first place. When I first became interested in baseball, Robinson was my hero. As he waned, Snider replaced him. Then as the Duke faltered, Koufax became my guy. That got me through high school and hero-worship of big leaguers. So I have no problem with those three being in the top positions. I’m not sure about the order. The ultimate problem is Robinson’s status as a civil rights icon. It so overshadows his on-field accomplishments that I’m not sure it didn’t get him first place more than his playing  ability did. Having said that, I recognize he was a heck of a player and when added to his late start (because of circumstances not of his making) and the abuse he suffered, maybe he is first. But Snider was as good, maybe better. And Koufax is simply the greatest pitcher I ever saw. I have my own order, but I have no real problem with the current order.

10. The location of a few more well-known names: Hershiser (12th), Valenzuela (13th), Wills (22nd), Reiser (31st), Podres (33rd), and Nomo (49th).

11. The most glaring omission? Carl Erskine.

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.

Rating Catchers

February 21, 2012

The "Tools of Ignorance"

With the sad and untimely death of Gary Carter, there’s been a lot of chatter about his place in the pantheon of Major League catchers, so i’m taking a short semi-break (you’ll see why “semi” in a few paragraphs) from my look at black baseball to make a few comments. I’m certainly not going to argue with those that place Carter in the top ten of catchers, because I agree with them. But I noticed a problem (actually problems) developing when I started to put together my own list of the ten greatest catchers.

The first problem of course is fairly self-evident. It’s the question of equipment. Take a look at the rudimentary equipment worn by guys like Buck Ewing way back. Basically, it’s an oversized work glove with some extra padding and a lot of prayer. Take a look at the equipment today. Which would you rather have if you were going to try to catch a Roy Halliday fastball? And that makes a world of difference in evaluating catchers. John Sayles when he did the movie “Eight Men Out” took great pains to be authentic. Take a look at the equipment Ray Schalk wears. Now Schalk was considered a tremendous catcher (without reference to his hitting) in the era. So was Johnny Kling a dozen years earlier. Give them a chance to use modern equipment and they might name their first-born after you. Give someone like Gary Carter a chance to use the old equipment and my guess is that after calling you things you didn’t know you could be called, he’d figure out how to make the best use of what he has available and still be a good catcher.

I remember listening to an interview with Roy Campanella way back in the 1950s. He didn’t particularly like the big “pillow” mitt in use then. He complained that it kept his right hand in constant danger of injury (and it was ultimately a hand injury that curtailed his stats in the year or so before his accident). I’m not sure Johnny Bench was really the greatest fielding catcher ever, but the innovation of the hinged mitt to replace the “pillow” certainly gave him advantages that other catchers had never had before. Now the right hand could be tucked behind the body when the bases were empty (and I’m astounded at the number of catchers who still don’t do that). Now it was possible to squeeze a pop foul rather than two-hand it. It helped Bench, along with his natural ability, to revolutionize the game.

And, of course, none of this has anything to do with hitting a baseball. Guys who are good catchers and hit well tend to go to the Hall of Fame. I might argue that the two best catchers I ever saw were Jim Sundberg and Bob Boone. Neither hit much, but were tremendous catchers. I don’t know many people who think either should be considered in the top 10 of a catching list. So we come again to a problem we see a lot. I mentioned it in a much earlier post on shortstops. It’s the question of how much reliance is to be put on fielding in establishing a player’s greatness. If the guy plays left field (Hello, Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez) no one cares if he’s a good, or even overly acceptable, fielder, when establishing his credentials for greatness. With catcher you can’t do that. It puts a burden on catchers (and shortstops also) that a lot of outfielders don’t have to carry. It’s not exactly fair, but it’s the nature of how the game is played. If I could hit, you could get away with me in left field. If I could hit, you could never use me behind the plate.

Finally, there’s the obvious question of segregation (see what I mean about “semi”?). Most lists of Negro League catchers put Josh Gibson, Louis Santop, Biz Mackey, and Campanella at the top of the charts at the position. We have some idea of the quality of Campanella (although he spent a lot of time in the Negro Leagues). The others never got to play in the white Major Leagues (Santop was dead by 1947). As usual for Negro League players, you’re stuck with anecdotes, not full statistical evidence, in trying to determine the quality of a player. So we make judgement calls (“Do I see a ’10’ from the Bulgarian judge?”) and hope we get it right. Considering that I’m certain that Campanella is a top 10 all-time catcher, I am confident in adding Gibson to a list of the best catcher, but I have no idea how you rate either Santop or Mackey. Maybe they’re in, maybe they’re out.

So having  just put all those caveats out there for you to read, here’s my list of the 10 best catchers ever in alphabetical order: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson, Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez. With suitable apologies to Gabby Hartnett and to Joe Mauer, both of which might slip into the list. I think it’s the best list I can put together at this time. Notice that it’s full of modern guys (seven are post 1945). I think that the equipment has a lot to do with that.

E-Lite

February 16, 2012

Elite Giants logo

Negro League baseball is the story of a multitude of teams. Some, like the Monarch, Grays, and Crawfords, are famous. Others are utterly obscure, playing only a few years with little success and dying a quick death. Most teams are somewhere in the middle. One of those, a team that had some success but was never seen as a truly first rank team, was the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Thomas T. Wilson was a black businessman in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1918 he formed a black baseball team called the Nashville Standard Giants. They were semipro and played mainly in the South. By 1921 they were one of the more successful black teams in the South. They had reached elite status and the name change was an obvious. Wilson pronounced the word “e-lite” rather than “e-leet” and the odd pronunciation stuck for the remainder of their history.

In 1928 they were good enough and professional enough to attempt entry into the existing Negro Leagues. It didn’t work. The Negro National League wanted to stay away from adding Southern teams as much as possible and frankly Nashville was no one’s idea of an Eastern team (Eastern Colored League). In 1930 the Elite Giants finally made it into the NNL, only to see the league collapse after the next year. They finished seventh (of nine) in 1930 and last in 1931 (after moving to Cleveland and calling themselves the Cubs).

The years 1931 and 1932 saw the team surviving in the Negro Southern League. The league was considered “minor” in 1931, but with no other viable Negro Leagues it became a de facto “major” league for the 1932 season. By 1933, with economic times improving slightly, there was a movement to recreate a new Negro National League. The Giants were charter members, finishing fifth of seven in 1933. By 1934 they were up to fourth, but failing in attendance. Attempting to reverse the trend, Wilson moved the team to Columbus, Ohio for the 1935 season. Again they finished fourth and attendance wasn’t better in Columbus. In 1936 they made another move, this time to Washington, DC, becoming the Washington Elite Giants. They stayed there two seasons, finishing fifth of six in ’36 and third of six in ’37.

Attendance still wasn’t good, and Baltimore had been without a team since 1934. Wilson made one last move, this time to fill the Baltimore void (a new team moved into Washington, failed, and was ultimately replaced by the Homestead Grays). This time they found a permanent home. Between 1938 and 1948 they were the Baltimore Elite Giants, the name by which they are most frequently known.

They also got better. In 1938 they finished second. In 1939 they finished third, but qualified for the NNL playoffs. They beat second place Newark 3 games to 1 to advance to the NNL championship against the Grays. They beat Homestead 3 games to 1 for their first championship. In 1940 there were no playoffs and they finished second. In 1941 they finished first. In 1942 they were again second. Several good things happened to propel the Elite Giants into championship contenders. First, they were now stable in Baltimore. Fans were up, revenue was up, and the league itself was now more stable. Second, they managed to put together a very good lineup. Hall of Famer Biz Mackey was there through 1938 (before moving to Newark). He was instrumental in mentoring fellow Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. Charlie Biot played center field, and Henry Kimbro in left were in their prime. Here’s a shot of the 1941 team. Campanella is on the left of the first row and Biot is on the left of the back row.

1941 Elite Giants

  By 1943 things were changing. The war was effecting attendance and play quality as team members went off to war. They finished with a losing record in 1943, finished second in 1944, but were barely over .500. In 1945 they were again second, but in 1946 dropped all the way to next-to-last (fifth).  

1946 saw two major changes for Baltimore. First Wilson, health failing. sold the team and second, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and changed the entire face of black baseball. Campanella went to Brooklyn, other players retired or got a look at the white minor league. In 1947 they dropped to fourth. The 1948 season was a split season with Baltimore winning the first half and Homestead the second half. There was no playoff. By this point the Elite Giants had managed to reverse course for at least a short while. They picked up Leon Day and Toots Ferrell to go along with infielders Jim Gilliam and PeeWee Butts and new pitcher, Joe Black. It was enough to make the team good for a final few seasons.

The NNL folded in 1948, tried to revive in 1949 and failed. The Elite Giants were one of its premier teams. They won the 1949 pennant, came in second in 1950, and lost a ton of money. The team was sold back to Nashville where it hung on for one final year. They folded after the 1951 season.

Unlike the Monarchs, Grays, or Crawfords, or the Yankees for that matter, the Elite Giants were a more typical baseball team. As with most teams they were periodically good, sometimes wretched. As with most Negro League teams they were frequently on the move trying to establish themselves in new towns with new fans willing to support them. They finally hit pay dirt in Baltimore and stabilized for a  long period of time. They also fielded some good teams and produced a lot of decent players (Gilliam, Black, etc) and one great one: Campanella. I sometimes wonder what the true sports (as opposed to social) legacy of the Negro Leagues should be. Keeping the sport alive in segregated times is number one, but I’m not sure that proving the depth of talent among black ball players wasn’t a close second. In that way the Elite Giants are both typical and important.