Posts Tagged ‘Tony Lazzeri’

The Other Guy in Murderer’s Row

July 7, 2014
Bob Meusel

Bob Meusel

The 1920s Yankees, known as Murderer’s Row, are one of the most famous of all teams. But in many ways it’s selectively famous. People know Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Diehard fans know Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri. Pitching freaks know Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt. But the rest of the team is pretty anonymous. That’s a shame because one of the better members of the team batted right in the middle of the lineup and is now largely forgotten. That’s Bob Meusel.

Meusel was born in California in 1896, three years after his brother Emil, who played a number of years for the Giants. Bob Meusel was spotted while still playing high school baseball. He spent the years 1917-1919 in the West Coast minors, except for a stint in the US Navy during World War I. He did well and in 1920 got the call from the New York Yankees. He was 23.

He was an immediate starter, playing 119 games, most at the corner outfield positions. From the beginning he showed the best outfield arm in either league. By general consensus of the articles of the day (and with a lot of stats agreeing) he was an exceptional outfielder, especially the arm. He got the nickname “Long Bob” almost immediately and there are a couple of versions as to why. One says he was 6’3″ and thin, the other than he had a long arm. You can pick your favorite. In his rookie campaign he hit .328 with 11 home runs, the latter number being seventh in the American League.

He was even better the next season, hitting .318 and slugging 24 home runs with 135 RBIs. The home run number was second in the AL and the RBI total third. He also hit for the cycle against Walter Johnson. It would be the first of three cycles, a Major League record. His team won its first ever pennant with Meusel hitting clean up behind Babe Ruth. The team lost a best of nine series in eight games (to the Giants) with Meusel hitting .200 with three RBIs and no home runs. He did manage to steal home in game two (a game the Yanks won). He would do so again in 1928 to become the only man to successfully steal home twice in the World Series.

Meusel was suspended for barnstorming after the 1921 World Series (so was Ruth), but managed to get into 122 games in 1922. New York won again and again failed to beat the Giants and big brother Emil (called Irish for reasons that make no sense, the family was German in its background). This time Bob Meusel hit .300 but managed only two RBIs, two runs, and no home runs. Back in the Series in 1923 (and still facing his brother’s Giants) Meusel hit only .269 but drove in eight runs with seven hits (two triples and a double included). This time his team took home its first World’s Championship.

Although the Yankees failed to win in either 1924 or 1925 (largely because of Ruth’s woes) Meusel had good years. In ’24 he hit .325, then in ’25 led the AL in home runs with 33 and RBIs with 138. Those would be the only time he would lead the league in a major offensive category.

In 1926, Murderer’s Row was back in the World Series. Meusel .315, but with only 12 home runs. He still maintained his clean up spot although new first baseman Lou Gehrig was challenging him from the five hole. Meusel had a terrible Series hitting .238 with no home runs or RBIs and scoring only three runs. In the famous seventh inning of game seven when Grover Cleveland Alexander struck out Lazzeri with the bases loaded, Meusel was on second. He was also at bat when Ruth tried to steal second, was thrown out, and the Series ended in a St. Louis victory.

In 1927 and 1928 New York won back-to-back World Series’ with Meusel contributing little. He had his only home run in the 1928 Series (along with the steal of home mentioned above), but only had three RBIs (and only one in 1927). He did manage to score five runs in ’28 (to only one in 1927).

At the end of 1928 he was 32 and mostly through. His 1929 was down. He hit .261 (a career low) with only 57 RBIs. He was waived and picked up by Cincinnati for the 1930 season. Despite the juiced ball, he only hit .289 with 10 home runs and 62 RBIs and was done. He hung on in the minors for a couple of years, but retired after the 1932 season. In retirement he did a bit of movie work, mostly cameos in baseball flicks, and worked as a security guard at a Navy base. He died in California in 1977.

For his career his triple slash line is .309/.356/.497/.852 with an OPS+ of 118. He had 1693 hits, scored 826 runs, and knocked in 1064 runners. He had 268 doubles, 95 triples, and 156 home runs for 2719 total bases. His WAR (Baseball Reference.com version) is 27.6.  In the field he was considered one of the premier outfielders of his day, known especially for the strength and accuracy of his arm (but never led the AL in outfield assists).

Bob Meusel was a very good ballplayer, one of the better players of the 1920s. At times he could be considered the second best player on the Yankees (and in 1925 arguably their best) and at other times third (behind Ruth and Gehrig). It’s not a bad legacy to say you’re the best player on a team excepting those two.

Meusel's grave in California

Meusel’s grave in California

 

 

 

The “Called Shot” Game

July 19, 2013
The Babe

The Babe

There are a handful of home runs that are so famous that almost any fan can tell you about them. There’s Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951. There’s Bill Mazeroski’s World Series ending homer in 1960. There’s Bucky “Bleepin'” Dent’s 1978 shot. Kirk Gibson’s 1988 homer is also famous. But equally famous and certainly more mythologized, is Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” in 1932. Here’s a look at the game in which it occurred.

In 1932 the New York Yankees returned to World Series play for the first time since their thrashing of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1928. Much of the team was the same, anchored by Ruth and by Lou Gehrig. Their opponents were the Chicago Cubs, back in the Series for the first time since they’d lost to Philadelphia in 1929. With Gabby Hartnett and Kiki Cuyler they also had a good team. New York won the first two games of the Series by scores of 13-6 and 5-2. That set up game three in Wrigley Field on 1 October.

The Yanks scored early when Earle Combs opened the game with a grounder to shortstop Billy Jurges, who proceeded to throw it away. A walk to Joe Sewell brought Ruth up to face Cubs starter Charlie Root. Ruth promptly crushed a three-run home run to put New York up 3-0. The Cubs got one back in the bottom of the third on a Billy Herman walk and a run scoring double by Cuyler. The Yanks got that one back when Gehrig hit a solo home run to lead off the third. Chicago again scored in the bottom of the inning. Cuyler slugged a homer and a single and long double made the score 4-3. The Cubs then tied the game up in the fourth on a Jurges hit and an error by New York second baseman Tony Lazzeri.

All of which led to the decisive, mythic, and still controversial top of the fifth. Sewell led off the inning grounding out to short. That brought up Ruth, who took strike one. Then he apparently did something with his hand. He pointed, he wagged it, he held up one finger indicating one strike, he gave the Cubs “the finger”, he pointed to center and called his shot. All are possible. Root dealt strike two and Ruth again gestured with his hand. There’s a picture that purports to be a shot of Ruth at the moment of his second gesture. It is too far away for these old eyes to tell exactly what he’s doing, but the arm is up. Root threw the third pitch and Ruth parked it in the deep center field bleachers for a 5-4 New York lead. The next man up was Gehrig, who also unloaded. This time the ball went to deep right and Root went to the showers. Both New York and Chicago picked up one more run in the ninth (the Cubs run coming on a Hartnett home run) to make the final score 7-5. The next day the Yankees won the Series  shellacked five Cubs pitchers for a 13-6 victory(Ruth went one for five and Gehrig went two for four).

The fifth inning of 1 October 1932 became, arguably, Ruth’s most famous at bat. Few people know it was the game winning hit (the Yanks never trailed after Ruth touched home). Fewer know that Gehrig hit a homer in the next at bat. What they know is Ruth’s “called shot”. Did he do it? Frankly, I don’t know. A study of Ruth leads me to believe that it wasn’t out of character for him to do so. It was also equally in character for him to flash his middle finger at the Cubs. I’d like to think he did call his shot, it would be utterly Ruthian (but so would the middle finger). I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself.

St. Louis Blues: 1928

June 26, 2013
Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Back in 1989 my son and I watched the World Series between Oakland and San Francisco. Although known today primarily as the “Earthquake Series” the Series was a four game sweep by Oakland. It was, to be brutally honest, a thorough crushing. My son asked if I’d ever seen a more one-sided World Series. I admitted I hadn’t. So being a clever child he started looking through baseball encyclopedias and finally announced he’d found a World Series as lopsided as 1989. It was the 1928 Series. Here’s a brief rehash of that Series.

In 1926, the St. Louis Cardinals burst onto the baseball scene, becoming the last of the 20th Century’s National League teams to win a pennant. Then they managed to defeat the “Murder’s Row” New York Yankees in seven games (including Alexander’s strikeout of Lazzeri, arguably the most famous strikeout in Major League history). The Yankees, unlike the Cards, repeated by winning the American League pennant in 1927 and manhandling the Pittsburgh Pirates in four games. Both St. Louis and New York won in 1928, setting up a rematch of 1926.

The Cardinals were a good team. Hall of Fame pitchers Grover Cleveland Alexander and Jesse Haines anchored the staff with lefty Bill Sherdel and right hander Flint Rhem rounding out the starters. Haines and Sherdel had 20 wins, Alexander 16, and Rhem 11. That sounded better than it was. Of the four, only Haines had more innings pitched than hits allowed and Rhem had walked more men than he struck out. The hitting stars were Hall of Famers Jim Bottomley, Frankie Frisch, and Chick Hafey, while Taylor Douthit and George Harper also put up good numbers. Although he didn’t hit much, Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville could still play a decent short at age 36.

The Yankees were loaded. The duo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in their prime. Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig both hit .300, as did Earle Combs (who was hurt and didn’t play much in the Series). The staff included Hall of Fame righty Waite Hoyt, fellow Hall of Famer lefty Herb Pennock, George Pipgras, and bullpen specialist Wilcy Moore.

The first game was played 4 October in New York. The Yanks got an early lead when Ruth and Gehrig hit back-to-back doubles to score Ruth with the first run. They added two more in the fourth when Ruth doubled and, after an out by Gehrig, Bob Meusel belted a two-run home run. A Jim Bottomley homer in the seventh got a run back, but the Yanks returned the lead to three runs in the eighth, with consecutive singles by Koenig, Ruth, and Gehrig to score Koenig. The game ended 4-1 with Hoyt getting the win and Sherdel taking the loss. It was the closest game.

If game one turned out to be the closest game. game two was the biggest blowout. And there had to have been a great satisfaction in getting it at the expense of 1926 hero Alexander. The Yanks got three runs in the first when following a single and a walk, Gehrig clouted a three-run home run. The Cards plated three in the second to tie the game. After a walk and a double scored a run, Lazzeri committed a huge error (on a throw) that sent a second run home. Then a double play grounder gave St. Louis a third run. New York got the lead back the next inning on a walk, a sacrifice, and a single. The third was the Yankees big inning. Ruth singled, Gehrig walked, then Meusel doubled to score the Babe. After a walk and a single sent Gehrig home, Alexander plunked catcher Benny Bengough to bring in a run.  A single scored a fourth run and only a great throw from Douthit saved another run. The Yanks tacked on a final run in the seventh on a single, a stolen base, a sacrifice and a pinch hit single by Joe Dugan.

After a travel day, the Series resumed 7 October in St. Louis.  The Cards broke on top with two runs in the first. With one out, third baseman Andy High singled, Frisch followed with another single, then Bottomley tripled to score both men. New York responded with a home run from Gehrig in the second, then took the lead in the fourth when Ruth walked and Gehrig legged out an inside-the-park home run (hit to deepest center field) that scored two runs. The Cards tied it back up when Douthit was plunked and High doubled him home in the fifth. The Yanks responded with a very unYankees-like inning. Koenig singled, was forced at second with Ruth taking first. Gehrig walked (something he did a lot of in the Series). Meusel then grounded to third. High flipped to second to force Gehrig, but Ruth raced home. The relay to catcher Jimmie Wilson was on-line, but he dropped the ball, letting Ruth score. Meusel took third on the play. After a walk to Lazzeri, New York executed a double steal, Lazzeri going to second and Meusel stealing home. A single brought in Lazzeri with the third run of the inning. New York got one last run in the seventh when an error by Hafey and a Ruth single gave them a seventh run.

Down 3-0, St. Louis sent Sherdel back to the mound on 9 October. New York countered with Hoyt. For six innings it looked like the Cards might have a chance to play a game five. They got one in the third when outfielder Ernie Orsatti doubled, went to third on a bunt and scored on Frisch’s sacrifice fly. The Yanks got the run back in the fourth on Ruth’s first Series homer. In the bottom of the fourth Maranville was safe at second on a botched double play relay throw by Koenig. The next man was out, then Hoyt tried to pick off Maranville. The ball sailed into the outfield and the Rabbit came home to put St. Louis ahead. That lasted until the seventh. With one out Ruth hit his second home run of the game. Gehrig followed with a homer of his own. Meusel singled, went to third on Lazzeri’s double, and scored on the next play, Lazzeri going to third. In his only appearance of the Series, Earle Combs then hit a long sacrifice to right that plated Lazzeri. In the eighth, backup outfielder Cedric Durst hit a home run, and the Babe crushed his third home run of the game (and Series) to finish the Yankees scoring. The Cardinals picked up one final run in the ninth, then Frisch popped a foul to Ruth in left to end the game and the Series.

It wasn’t even close. The Cards managed 10 runs to New York’s 27. Maranville led the Cards with a .308 average. Bottomley hit only .214, but had three RBI’s. Only Maranville scored more than one run (He had two.). The staff was shelled. Sherdel took two losses, Alexander and Haines each took one.  Haines 4.50 ERA was the best among the starters. The team ERA was 6.09. They had both 13 walks and 13 strike outs.

New York, on the other hand, played wonderfully. Here’s the triple slash line for Ruth .625/.647/1.375/2.022. He had three home runs (all in game four), four RBI’s, 10 hits, and scored nine runs. Gehrig might have been better. His triple slash line reads .545/,706/1.722/2.433. He had four home runs, nine RBI’s, six hits, and scored five runs. His lack of hits was largely the result of walking six times. Of his two hits that weren’t home runs, one was a double. No other Yankee did as well, but Durst hit .375 and Meusel had three RBI’s and a steal of home. The pitchers put up an ERA of 2.00 while striking out 29 and walking only 11. Every game was a complete game victory with Hoyt getting two of them.

It was a complete beat down. And after the loss of 1926, must have been particularly sweet for the Yanks, especially for Lazzeri who managed a double and scored a run against Alexander. Both teams would go on to play good ball over the next several years, New York winning another pennant in 1932 and St. Louis in both 1930 and 1931. They would not, however, meet again in the World Series until 1942. And I promise no more music based titles with Missouri themes (at least for a while).

Obscurity

July 19, 2011

Ever notice how utterly obscure some players are? I don’t mean some guy who got to the big leagues, had one at bat, and disappeared from the rosters forever. I mean Hall of Fame quality players who are just plain obscure. There are a bunch of them and I’d like today to look at a couple of pitchers that fit the category.

Jesse Haines in 1927

Do you know anything about Jesse Haines? With the paragraph above you know he’s in the Hall of Fame, but I mean other than that. If you do, it’s probably that he’s the guy who came out of game 7 of the 1926 World Series so Grover Cleveland Alexander could enter the game, strike out Tony Lazzeri, and go on to immortality. But I bet you didn’t know Haines was still second in wins (to Bob Gibson) for the St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the most successful National League franchise. It’s not like he’s second for the Padres, this is the Cardinals. He’s also second in innings pitched and complete games, fifth in shutouts, and sixth in strike outs. To offset that he’s also first in hits given up and second in walks. He pitched from 1920 through 1937 with St. Louis (and had five innings in 1918 with Cincinnati). He’s in four World Series’, going 3-1 with an ERA of 1.67 and a WHIP of 1.237. Unfortunately he walked more guys (16) than he struck out (12). For his career he was 210-158, winning 20 games twice and having three years with a losing record (one of which was 3-5). His career WHIP was 1.350 and his ERA+ is 109.

Ted Lyons

Ted Lyons was a lot like Haines. He just sort of fell of the radar after making the Hall of Fame. Unlike Haines, he never played for a pennant winner, spending his entire 1923-1942 career with the Chicago White Sox (He also pitched a handful of games with the ChiSox in 1945). Today he’s primarily famous, if he’s known at all, for pitching an inordinate number of games on Sunday, particularly late in his career. He also managed the White Sox for a couple of years after he retired. During his tenure with Chicago, the Sox were generally terrible. They finished as high as third twice and Lyons was the ace for most of the period. He ended his career 260-230 with a 3.67 ERA, more walks than strikeouts, more hits than innings pitched, and an ERA+ of 118. He led the American League in wins, hits, complete games, and innings pitched twice. He led the AL in losses, ERA, shutouts, and hit batsmen all one time. He still leads the ChiSox in a lot of categories. He made the Hall of Fame in 1955.

So there they are, a couple of obscure Hall of Fame pitchers. I wondered, when I started researching this post, what they would have in common. Here’s a few of the things I found:

1. They both pitched a long time ago. That was pretty obvious, but some people who pitched a long time ago (Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson) are still relatively well-known (and Young has the advantage of the award named for him). So it has to be something other than sheer age.

2. The success of their team isn’t it. Haines’ teams were wildly successful winning the World Series in 1926, 1931, and 1934, and participating in the Series in 1928 and 1930. Lyons on the other hand toiled for dreadful teams.

3. For all the hoopla surround the 1920s and 1930s, they really don’t take center stage in our recent works on baseball. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Deadball Era, which I assume has to do with the century mark. There have been good books recently about 1906, 1908, and 1912, but nothing particularly special on the 1920s and 1930s (the Gas House Gang book didn’t get much press). Even the Nineteenth Century is getting better press recently, particularly the great job on 1884. And of course, contemporary baseball commands a much greater following than does the 20’s and 30’s. Good books about 2001 and other seasons have done well, and pushed the 1920-1940 period off the shelves.

4. I think the obscurity also has to do with a combination of neither being a pitcher you can hang a stat on and the fact that neither was a big star in his day. Neither was a big winner who put up a lot of strikeouts or shutouts. Neither was ever considered the premier pitcher in their league, except maybe for a very short period in Lyons’ case. There are no stories about Haines (except coming out in game 7 in 1926) and the stories about Lyons usually revolve around his pranks rather than his pitching. In other words, I think each was relatively overlooked in his own day, and remains so today.

I may be wrong in my conclusions, but whether I am or not, I think it’s time to give each of these (and a ton of other people in the Hall of Fame) their due as ball players.

The Yankees Way at Second

June 24, 2011

Some teams seem to stockpile players at one position. Take a look at the Giants and their history of great pitchers as an example. For the Yankees there are three positions like that: Center Field, Catcher, and Second Base. I recognize they’ve had some pretty good players at other positions, but when you have Ruth and Gehrig it’s such a fall off to whoever you pick as the second best guy at the position that you tend to overlook the other players in right field and at first. A while back I did a look at the Yankees center field history, so in keeping with a look at second base, here’s a brief look at the quality of Yankees second basemen since 1921.

When the Yankees won their first pennant in 1921 the second baseman was Aaron Ward. He was a decent player, hitting .300 that year with five home runs. He’s most famous for making the final out in the Series by trying to reach third on a ground out to second (the first time a World Series ended on a double play). He stayed in New York through the 1922 pennant and the first championship of 1923, got hurt in 1924, didn’t bounce back well in 1925 and yielded his place to Tony Lazzeri in 1926.

Lazzeri is the first of the Yankees Hall of Fame second sackers. He’s most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for striking out with the bases loaded in game seven of the 1926 World Series (he led the American League in striking out in 1926 with 96). He went on to be a key player in the Murderer’s Row Yankees of 1926-32 and in the first couple of years of the 1936-42 Bronx Bombers. He hit well, was OK in the field, and had a decent World Series record (4 home runs, 19 RBIs in 30 games). In 1938 he was sent to Chicago where he helped the Cubs to a World Series (against the Yankees). He went o-2 in two pinch hit tries.

The Yankees replaced him with their second Hall of Fame second baseman, Joe Gordon. As good as Lazzeri had been, Gordon was better. He hit better, had more power, and was a considerably better second baseman. He won a controversial MVP in 1942, slumped in ’43, then went off to war in 1944 and 1945. He was back in New York in 1946, did poorly, and went to Cleveland the next season. As with Lazzeri, he helped his new team to a pennant, although in took a year (1948) to get to the top. And unlike Lazzeri’s Cubs, the Indians won.

Snuffy Stirnweiss took over for the war years, remaining through most of the 1940s. He was terrific against wartime pitching, not so great postwar. Jerry Coleman replaced him. Coleman was a good glove, no stick player who held the job until Billy Martin arrived.

Martin is much more controversial today than he was when he played for the Yankees. He had a great 1952 World Series, beating the Dodgers pretty much single-handedly (if only he coulda pitched). He stayed at second through the bulk of the 1950s, giving way to Bobby Richardson in the late 1950s. Richardson was another Coleman. He was a good second baseman and hit well enough to eventually lead off for the Yankees through the first half of the 1960s. He hit well, but as a leadoff hitter he was problematic. He never walked and on a team that relied on power over speed, had no power.

As with the rest of the Yankees in the last half of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the second basemen were not players particularly worth remembering (unless you’re a relative). That changed with Willie Randolph. Randolph played the position well, hit well, ran the bases well (again without stealing a lot of bases), and was a critical member of a Yankees revival that lasted into the mid-1980’s. His later stint with the Mets as a manager has damaged his reputation to some degree, but as a player he was very good. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, maybe shouldn’t be, but was a truly fine player.

The Yanks went into another funk that lasted into the middle 1990s. They picked up a  number of good players, drafted some others, and went on to become the formidable force they are today. One of the pickups was Chuck Knoblauch. He hit well, gave them a leadoff hitter with some power, decent speed, and until he forgot how to throw the ball, a pretty fair second baseman. He was replaced by Alfonso Soriano, who ended up in Chicago and in the outfield for a reason. Robinson Cano is the new guy and he’s a throwback to the Lazzeri/Gordon years of a second baseman who can hit and hit for power. I hate to jinx the guy, but he may end up being the best Yankees second sacker ever.

There’s a brief rundown of Yankees second basemen in their glory years. It’s a fairly formidable list. I can think of very few teams that boast two great second basemen. The Yanks have that many, plus a number of above average ones and one current player who may surpass them all. No wonder New York wins a lot.

A Dozen Things You Should Know About Grover Cleveland Alexander

April 8, 2011

Alexander

1. He was born in Nebraska in 1887 and named for the sitting President of the United States.

2. His professional baseball career began in 1909 at Galesburg where he went 15-8 and suffered a head injury that sidelined him for half the season. 

3. In 1910 he was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for $500 from Syracuse.

4. He had 28 wins and 227 strikeouts as a rookie in 1911. The former is still a record and the latter remained a record until 1955 (Herb Score).

5. He won the pitching triple crown (wins, ERA, strikeouts) for three consecutive seasons from 1915 through 1917.

6. His 16 shutouts in 1916 is still a record.

7. In 1915, he won game one of the World Series. The next Phillies pitcher to win a World  Series game was Bob Walk in 1980.

8. In 1918 he went to war. He was in the artillery and suffered a minor wound, was deafened in his ear, and suffered shell-shock. Today we call it post traumatic stress disorder. I think I like shell-shock better, it conveys more the horror of it. He also began showing signs of epilepsy, which some sources indicate came from the 1909 head injury. Additionally, his family, according to Bill James, had a history of alcoholism. That began to manifest itself about the same time.

9. His career was in a slump when he ended up with the Cardinals in 1926. The Cardinals went to their first World Series, Alexander won two games and saved one. The save was game 7 and was highlighted by the seventh inning strikeout of Tony Lazzeri to end the inning (and become arguably the most famous strikeout ever).

10. He went 0-4 in his last season (1930) and ended his career with 373 wins, 208 losses, and 90 shutouts. The Hall of Fame called him in 1938.

11. He died in poverty in November 1950.

12. And of course Hollywood came calling in 1952 with a highly fictionalized version of his life through 1926. The movie was called “The Winning Team”, starred Ronald Reagan (as Alexander), Doris Day (as Mrs. A), and Frank Lovejoy (as Rogers Hornsby). Today, it’s probably the only thing most people know about Alexander. He does have the distinction of being the only Hall of Famer who was both named after one President of the United States, and portrayed by a future President in a movie. Not bad for an old pitcher.

Hollywood's version of Alexander (1952)

The 50 Greatest Yankees

April 4, 2011

Recently ESPN New York did a poll of experts (and I’ll bet they stiffed every one of us) to determine the 50 Greatest New York Yankees. The list is available at their site or if you go through Google, it’s the first item. I won’t give you the entire list, but here’s the top 10 in order followed by some commentary: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Mariano Rivera, Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey. And for those curious but not willing to go look up the list, Don Mattingly finished 11th.

Now some comments:

1. Ruth finished first on every ballot. He was the only person to finish in the same spot on every ballot. That works for me.

2. That means that Gehrig did not universally come in second. A commentary on the  site indicates that a handful of people chose Rivera second, over Gehrig. I love Mariano Rivera. I can’t stand the Yankees, but I like him. He’s the greatest reliever ever and it’s not often you get to actually see the “greatest ever” actually do his job. That’s really tough for someone who thought Dennis Eckersley, who never played for the Yanks, was the greatest. But Rivera greater than Gehrig? Come now, folks. I’m not sure what my all-time top 10 greatest players would look like, but I’m reasonably sure Gehrig would be in it and Rivera wouldn’t.

3. Staying with Rivera, I think ranking him above Ford is wrong. Gimme a starter every time over a reliever, especially if that starter pitched prior to the 1980s (1950s and early 1960s for Ford), when a hurler was expected to go deep into the game. For his career Ford averaged seven innings in each start with 13036 batters faced. Rivera, in contrast, has faced only 4586 (as of 3 April). Additionally, of pitchers with 150 wins or more, Ford has the highest winning percentage. Basically it’s a question of who do you prefer, a starter or a reliever? I suppose some of you would opt for the reliever, but I’ll stick with the starter.

4. Red Ruffing is a great choice for the top 10. He was an absolute bust at Boston, moved to New York, and became a Hall of Famer. It’s not just that he had a better team behind him, his numbers in general get better. He wins more, gives up fewer runs, walks less, strikes out more, his hits to innings pitched ratio gets a lot better. That can’t all be Yankee Stadium and Phil Rizzuto (and in case you’re curious, Ruffing was 25 when the Yanks picked him up). He also has one of my favorite stats. In World Series play, he is 7-2 (losing in 1936 and 1942). That’s the same record as Bob Gibson, although Gibson has the distinction of losing his first and last games and winning the seven in between.

5. If you’re interested in putting together a full team, Tony Lazzeri was the highest rated second baseman and Graig Nettles the highest third baseman, making your all-time team Gehrig, Lazzeri, Jeter, Nettles the infield; Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle the outfield; Berra the catcher; Ford the left-handed starter; Ruffing the right-handed starter; and Rivera the reliever.

So there you go. If you disagree with the list, complain to ESPN New York. All in all I thought it was a pretty fair listing.

The Greatest General Manager

November 16, 2010

Ed Barrow

A title like the one above is dangerous. People can always say “Hey, dope, you forgot…”. Well, in this case I think I’m quite safe in picking Ed Barrow is the finest General Manager to ever grace the game.

Barrow was born in May 1868. After a short newspaper stint in Iowa, Barrow moved to Pittsburgh in 1890 and by 1895 had served as manager in Wheeling, West Virginia and Paterson, New Jersey. In ’95 while in New Jersey, he signed Honus Wagner (see what I mean about greatest) to a contract. By 1903 he was manager of the Detroit Tigers, finishing fifth in an eight team league. He left in 1904 and went back to managing in the minors. In 1910 he took over presidency of the Eastern League and in 1918 became manager of the Boston Red Sox.

Barrow made one major change to the Sox roster in 1918. He moved Babe Ruth from being primarily a pitcher who could hit a bit to an outfielder who could pitch a bit. Boston promptly won the World Series. Barrow stayed at Boston through 1920. The owner, Harry Frazzee, was in the process of dismantling the team for cash. The most famous sale was Ruth to New York, but it also cost him his manager. Barrow also moved to New York, this time in the role of business manager (the modern equivalent is general manager). It’s here that Barrow flourished. Given pretty much a free hand by Yankees ownership, between 1920 and 1945 Barrow helped create the greatest dynasty in Major League history. He was largely responsible for bringing up such players as Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, and Earle Combs for the 1920s Yankees team. In the 1930s he added Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey (Dickey actually came up in 1928, but didn’t start), Phil Rizzuto, Lefty Gomez, Tommy Henrich, and Charley Keller. He also was an astute trader, picking up journeyman Red Ruffing from Boston to be the ace of the 1930’s team.

In 1945, Barrow became president of the Yankees, holding the job for two years. He retired after the 1947 season and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953. He died later that same year.

There is no question that the Yankees teams that dominated baseball between 1921 and 1947 owed their success to the quality of the players on the field. Ed Barrow was largely responsible for putting those teams together. Branch Rickey may have been more influential by creating the farm system and integrating baseball, but Barrow was more successful on the diamond. He gets my vote as the best GM ever.

The Way to Win: The Bronx Bombers

August 9, 2010

Joe McCarthy

The second great Yankees dynasty took the field between 1936 and 1943. The team won seven pennants (1936-39, 1941-1943) and six World Series’ (all but 1942). Over that period of time, the roster changed significantly, but not the types of players available. The manager remained stable as did a handful of the players.

Manager Joe McCarthy was slightly different from the other Yankees dynasty managers. He never got to the Major Leagues and he was a successful manager prior to joining the Yankees. He took the 1929 Chicago Cubs to the World Series where they lost in five games. He got to New York in time to see the 1932 World’s Championship and the final years of Babe Ruth. Like Miller Huggins, he knew how to run a team, how to utilize his talent and how to mesh players. He also had a drinking problem. This would hurt him later when, after retiring from New York, he took up the managerial job in Boston.

The great stars off this team were Lou Gehrig. still around from the 1920s team, Joe DiMaggio, Red Ruffing, and Bill Dickey. Gehrig was through by 1939 and dead a couple of years later, but the others remained for the entire period except for games lost to World War II.

A number of truly good players came and went during the 1936-1943 period. Tony Lazzeri was still around in both ’36 and ’37 (although it might be fair to place him in the role player category by this point in his career). Lefty Gomez joined Ruffing as a pitching mainstay. Outfielder Tommy Henrich showed up in 1937, second baseman Joe Gordon the next year, and Charlie Keller in 1939. In 1941 Phil Rizzuto joined the team.

The number of role players varies depending very much on the war. There are several players who step up during the war (guys like Stuffy Stirnweiss and Nick Etten) along with already established players like Red Rolfe, George Selkirk, and Frankie Crosetti. On the mound, Spud Chandler replaced Gomez and Johnny Murphy became one of the better early relief specialists.

There were even the one-year wonders. Pitcher Steve Sundra went 11-1 for the Yankees in 1939. For the rest of his career he’s 45-40. Babe Dahlgren, and otherwise undistinguished player, stepped in for Gehrig and clubbed 15 home runs (Gehrig had 29 in 1938).

The Yankees put together a long pennant streak, winning every year except 1940 when Detroit took the pennant and 1942 when Stan Musial’s Cardinals defeated them in five games. Again they won with a strong manager and a mix of great players, role players, solid starters, and a few flukes. This will happen again in the 1950s under Casey Stengel and also in the 1990s with Joe Torre. But next I want to turn to a team that helps bring one of those dynasties to a close and on the surface looks radically different.

The Way to Win: Murder’s Row

August 4, 2010

Miller Huggins in 1927

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

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

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

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

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

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

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