Posts Tagged ‘Washington Senators’

Something New Under the Sun

October 17, 2019

Goose Goslin (the Nats will have to win without him)

When the 2019 season started there were two teams who’d never punched a ticket to the World Series. That’s about to change with the Washington Nationals winning the National League pennant (the other team plays in Seattle). Whether in Montreal or Washington, the franchise always came up short.

The history of baseball in the nation’s capital is less than spectacular. In fact, it’s pretty awful. There were a handful of teams in the NL in the 1800s. None of them did much. With the arrival of the American League, a new team, the Senators, didn’t do any better. The last (and only) time the Washington team won a World Series was in 1924. Walter Johnson was on the mound when they won game seven. They lost in 1925 and again in 1933. The last time there was a World Series game in Washington, Mel Ott hit a 10th inning home run to win both game five and the Series for the New York Giants (who are now in San Francisco). The Senators were in so few World Series games that Hall of Famer Goose Goslin played in every World Series game in Washington history. Fellow Hall of Famer Sam Rice appeared in all three Series’ but only in one game in 1933.

In the late 1960s MLB got the bright idea of putting a team in Canada. For reasons unknown to me they picked Montreal over Toronto. The big Montreal Exposition had been scheduled (Expositions and World’s Fairs were a big deal back then) so they called them the Expos. They managed to get to the playoffs in the strike shortened split season of 1981, getting passed the Phillies. Then they ran into the Dodgers and lost the pennant to a Rick Monday home run (shades of Mel Ott). They managed to get back to first place in 1994, then the strike hit and there were no playoffs. I don’t know if they hoisted a banner saying they were NL East champs or not. The Expos went into a downward spiral and ended up moving to DC, where they’ve made the playoffs sporadically, never winning a pennant. All in all, not a terrifically successful franchise.

So now we’ll see how a Washington team does without Goose Goslin in their lineup. Good luck to them.

“First in War, First in Peace…

October 8, 2012

… and last in the American League” (an old joke about the Washington Senators).

Something happened yesterday that I’d never seen. A baseball team from Washington participated in a postseason game. Actually two things happened that I’d never seen. The second? A baseball team from Washington won a postseason game. It’s unusual to see but it’s typical for the nation’s capital. You see, they’ve generally had a woeful franchise.

The 19th Century Washington National League team never won a thing and is in the running for the worst franchise of the century. The fact that a handful of franchises didn’t survive more than one season makes it difficult to pick Washington, but they are certainly in the running (My choice is the St. Paul Apostles of the Union Association who played less than 20 games and never had a home game.)

In 1901 the American League sent a franchise to Washington. They finished sixth. They stayed awful until 1912 when a pitcher named Walter Johnson hit his stride. They finally made a postseason in 1924, winning the World Series. They got back to the Series in 1925 and in 1933. They lost both. For the rest of their time in DC they finished in the first division four times. In 1961 they left Washington for Minnesota, where they’ve had sporadic luck. Like the team in DC, they’ve been to three World Series (1967, 1987, 1991) and managed to win twice (’87 and ’91). They’ve had a handful of other playoff appearances. So the franchise has done better in Minnesota than in Washington.

Baseball thought it was a good thing to have a team in DC, so when the Senators became the Twins, the powers that be stuck a new team in Washington and cleverly named it the Senators also. Well, it worked about as well as the old team (maybe it’s just that the baseball Gods don’t like the name “Senators”). They were so awful they only lasted a little over ten years before fleeing to Texas. As the Rangers they’ve made the playoffs a handful of times and managed to lose in the World Series twice. So again they’ve done better in Dallas than DC.

And now there’s a new team in Washington and it’s done something that hasn’t been done in 79 years. Son of a gun.

And BTW Ryan Mattheus becomes the first Washington pitcher since Walter Johnson to win a postseason game on the road.

The Original “Goose”

June 17, 2011

Goose Goslin as a Senator

Use the name “Goose” around a modern fan and the odds are you’ll get one of two responses: “who?” or “Gossage.” Frankly, I’d probably respond with Gossage too. But way back there was another “Goose” who was good enough to make the Hall of Fame. As I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with the Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins recently, I thought I might introduce you to “Goose” Goslin.

Leon Goslin was born in New Jersey in 1900. He was good enough to play for his  local factory team, both pitching and playing the field. It got him a job with the Minor League team in Columbia, South Carolina in 1920. The team made him an outfielder. In 1921 the Senators signed him for $6000. He made the club late in the season, hitting .260 with a home run and six RBIs. By 1922 he was the regular left fielder.

This is as good a time as any to get to the “Goose” nickname. There are at least three stories. One says that Goslin was fairly inept in the field when he came up and would run around the outfield chasing the ball with his arms flapping like a goose. The second says that his large nose, known colloquially as a “honker” (a noise geese make) got him the nickname. The third, which is the one I favor, is that it simply was a natural to go with Goslin. Whatever the reason, it stuck for the rest of his life.

He played well in both 1922 and 1923, leading the team in home runs in ’23 and the entire American League in triples. In 1924 the Senators made the World Series for the first time. Goslin, playing all seven games, hit .344, led the league in RBIs, had an OPS of .937, and hit for the cycle on 28 August against New York. The Senators won the Series in seven games, Goslin hitting .344 (the same as his regular season average. I wonder how often that happens?) with three home runs, seven RBIs, and an OPS of 1.000. They were back in 1925, this time dropping the Series in seven. Playing all seven games again Goslin had three home runs, hit .308, and had six RBIs. His OPS? 1.072. For the regular season he led the AL in triples and had 200 hits for the first time.

The Senators slipped in 1926 but Goslin continued to perform well into 1930 when he was traded to St. Louis. He was having trouble getting along with manager Walter Johnson, a conflict he could never win in Washington. Freed from cavernous Griffith Stadium,  Goslin had a career high 30 home runs (37 for the season, a season noted for a juiced ball), dropped back to 24 the next season and further down to 17 in 1932. That got him a trade back to Washington (Johnson had just been fired), which promptly went out and won its third AL pennant. Although on the downside of his career, Goslin contributed a .297 average and 65 RBIs. In the World Series he played all five games of the loss to the Giants, hitting .250 with one home run. It was Washington’s last World Series and Goslin had the distinction of being the only Senator to play in all 19 of the team’s World Series games. He also logged every inning.

Goslin hadn’t gotten along with Johnson’s replacement, Joe Cronin, so he (Goslin) went to Detroit in 1934. There he teamed with Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Gee Walker to form the Tigers “G Men” (a play on the currently popular nickname for FBI agents). Again, Detroit promptly went out and won the AL pennant. Goslin hit .305, had  100 RBIs, and an OPS of .826. In the Series he hit .241 with two RBIs and the Tigers lost in seven to Dizzy Dean and the “Gas House Gang” Cardinals.

The Tigers were back in 1935, winning the pennant with Goslin contributing nine home runs, 109 RBIs, an OPS of .770, and a .292 average. This time, taking on the Cubs, the Tigers won the Series (their first ever) with Goslin hitting .273, having three RBIs, and driving in the Series’ winning run in game six. Again he played each game. It was to be his last Series. For his postseason career he hit .287, had an OPS of .836, hit seven home runs, had 19 RBIs, scored 16 runs, and had 37 hits, while playing all 32 games in the Series.

His last good year was 1936. He hit .300 for the last time, had 125 RBIs and 24 home runs. His OPS was .930. He also managed the first home run off phenom Bob Feller. He had a bad 1937 and was released by Detroit. He was 36. Washington brought him back for one last fling in 1938. he hit a buck .58 and was done. He managed a couple of undistinguished seasons in the Minors, then retired to a farm in New Jersey. He farmed, ran a boat business, and made the Hall of Fame in 1968. Death came in 1971.

For his career, Goslin hit .316, slugged .500, had an OBP of .387, totalling .887 for his OPS (OPS+ of 128). He had 2735 hits, 248 home runs, 173 triples, and 500 doubles for 4325 total bases. He had about two walks for every strikeouts and managed 176 stolen bases in a low stolen base era. His black ink number is 10, but his gray ink number is 200. In an end of century list, the Sporting News named Goslin the 89th greatest player of the century (probably too high).

I remember putting together my own list of greatest left fielders one time years ago. I had Goslin third (Williams and Musial) because Bonds and Henderson had not yet become the stars they became and because I was still fascinated by a player hitting .300 (which still is good, just not as good as I used to think). Bill James has him 16th in his historical abstract. My guess is that Goslin sits somewhere between. He helped his team, both Washington and Detroit, win. It can’t be pure coincidence that he gets traded to two teams who just then manage to win pennants (he’s a missing piece, not the prime reason for winning). All in all he’s a player I like and think should be remembered. I have no problem with him being in the Hall of Fame.

And I love the picture of him that I placed at the head of this comment. His hat is cocked, he stands confident and looks very self-assured. Kind of like to see that in a ball player.

The Other Winner

June 15, 2011
Mogridge

George Mogridge

The other day I did a post on how teams fared home and away in World Series play. In doing so I noted that Walter Johnson was one of two pitchers to win an away game for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise in the World Series. The other winner was George Mogridge. I asked “who”? I decided to find out who he was. Here’s what I found.

Mogridge was born in Rochester, New York in 1889. He spent time in the Minors pitching until he hit the Major Leagues in August 1911 as a left-handed starter. Initially with the White Sox, he went 3-6 in 1911 and 1912, had about a 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio, a 4.00 ERA (which is huge in Deadball Era Baseball), and gave up more hits than inning pitched. All that earned him a return to the Minors, where he stayed until 1915, when he got a second chance, this time with the Yankees. He was 48-57 at New York with an ERA in the middle twos (which is at least more reasonable in the era. He now had more innings pitched than hits, but his strikeout/walk ratio began to even out (278 strikeouts, 200 walks). His best year was 1918 when he went 16-13 and led the American League in saves (a stat not yet invented). In 1917 he threw the first no-hitter in Yankees history (against Boston). All that got him sent to Washington in 1921.

He was 68-55 for the Senators, seeing his ERA rise to the low threes in the new “lively ball” era. His strikeouts to walk ratio got worse (284 to 273) and he reverted to giving up more hits than he had innings pitched. He won 18 games (a career high) in both 1921 and 1922, won 16 in the World Series season of 1924, then was 3-4 when he was traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1925. He spent the rest of that season in St. Louis, went to the Boston Red Sox in 1926 and finished his career in Boston mid-season 1927. He finished the year as manager of the Rochester minor league club, then retired at age 38. He died in Rochester in 1962.

For his career, Mogridge was 132-133 with a 3.23 ERA over 398 games. He struck out 678 and walked 565, giving up 2352 hits over 2266 innings. In other words, a thoroughly mediocre career.

His only World Series appearance was in 1924 against the Giants. He pitched in two games, went 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He struck out five, walked six, and 12 innings gave up seven hits and five runs. He was the winning pitcher in a game 4 victory (7-4) at New York, going 7.1 innings and giving up three of the runs (two earned). He walked five and struck out two in his winning effort. It was the only game Washington won on the road in the Series (Johnson won his road game in 1925).

So there’s George Mogridge. As I said above, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher, but one that has a claim to fame, the first Yankees no-hitter, and is the answer to a trivia question (the only Senators/Twins pitcher not named Walter Johnson to win a road game in franchise history). Actually that’s not a bad legacy for a 132-133 pitcher.

Home Field Advantage

June 13, 2011

Dome, Sweet, Dome

I’m something of a hockey fan. I watch a little when I get the chance and I’ve really enjoyed this year’s Stanley Cup. So far the home team has won each game. That makes for a real “home field advantage” (or ice in this case). I’ve watched a lot of sports over the years and I’ve noticed that the so-call “home field advantage” is kind of an uneven thing. It seems to me that it holds for hockey pretty well, less well for both football and basketball, and is something of a joke in baseball. I’ve always found  that a little strange. Baseball, after all, is the only one that doesn’t have a standardized playing surface. In every hockey match the ice is the same length and width. Same in football and basketball. But in baseball outfields differ greatly. So you’d  think that would give a team used to the outfield an advantage, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t even begin to address the idea of a domed stadium versus open-air parks.

I decided to test this just a little, without trying to determine why. I went back to 1961 with the first expansion since 1901 and began looking at who won games at home and away in the World Series. Because the pre-World Series playoffs didn’t begin until 1969, I concentrated strictly on the Series. I also determined I wasn’t going to take the time to go through every team. So I picked five teams that played about the same number of World Series’ in the period: the Giants, Mets, Red Sox, Reds, and Twins. Here are the results.

Giants: The Giants appeared in four World Series (1962 and ’89, and 2002 and 2011) winning one (2011). They played 11 games at home, twelve on the road. Their record was 5-6 at home and 5-7 on the road. No advantage either way for them, they do equally poorly at home and away. And to be fair, there are two parks involved as the Giants home field.

Mets: The Mets appeared in three World Series (1969, 1973, 1986) winning two (’69 and ’86). They played 10 games at home, nine on the road. Their record was 7-3 at home and 4-5 on the road. A definite advantage for the Mets to play at home, but  one game under .500 is not a bad record on the road.

Red Sox: The Red Sox appeared in five World Series (1967, ’75, and ’86, and 2004, ’07) winning two (2004 and 2007). They played 15 games at home, 14 on the road. Their record was 9-6 at home and 8-6 on the road. Both are winning records, but are almost exactly alike. There seems to be no advantage for Boston to play either location.

Reds: The Reds appeared in six World Series (1962, ’70, 72, ’75, ’76, and ’90) winning half (1975, ’76,’ and ’90). They played 15 games at home, 16 on the road. Their record was 7-8 at home and 10-6 on the road. Cincinnati actually benefitted by playing on the road. Like the Giants, the Reds’ World Series games occur in two different parks.

Twins: OK, you knew there would be a kicker didn’t you? This is it. The Twins make three World Series (1967, ’87, ’91) winning two (1987 and 1991). They played 12 games at home and nine away. Their record is an  astonishing 11-1 at home and 0-9 on the road. Tell me the Metrodome didn’t make a difference? And again, there are two parks involved. BTW the lone home loss was game 7 of 1965 when they lost a three-hit shutout to Sandy Koufax. Things like that happen.

The Twins number is so outlandish, I decided to check something else. Between 1901 and 1960 the Twins were the Washington Senators, who just happened to also make it to three World Series’ (1924, ’25, and ’33), winning one (1924). They played 10 games at home, nine on the road, with different results. They were 6-4 at home and 2-7 on the road. For anyone curious, the only Senators/Twins pitchers to win a World Series game on the road were George Mogridge (who?) and Walter Johnson. Bet you had the second one figured.

Now this is  only a partial sample and I’m willing to admit that a fuller look might yield different results. But it seems that “home field” isn’t all that big a deal in the World Series (unless you’re the Twins). So maybe making “home field” reliant on the All Star Game isn’t such a big deal either.

The Killer

May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1911: A Flash in the Pan

April 15, 2011

Vean Gregg with Cleveland

When I was researching the 1911 season for the two short posts I did earlier this week, I ran across the pitcher Vean Gregg who won the American League ERA title in 1911. I’d never heard of him, so I did a little looking around. Here’s what I found out about an interesting and truly obscure player.

Sylveanus Gregg was born in Washington Territory (now the state of Washington) in 1885. The nickname “Vean” comes from the middle letters of his first name (and I think is pronounced to rhyme with “peon”, but it could rhyme with “pe-can”, like the nut). His dad was a farmer and plasterer and the son learned both professions, apparently becoming quite adept at the plastering. It strengthened his arm greatly, and he had one of those rare items that baseball loves, a left arm that could control a baseball in flight.

Gregg pitched semi-pro ball, had a stint at South Dakota State, and eventually ended up with the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians). He found he could make more money barnstorming on the weekends and plastering during the week than he could make in professional baseball, so waited until 1908 to take the contract with a minor league team (Can you imagine that kind of salary structure today?). He spent two seasons in the minors, then was picked up by Cleveland. He refused the money and stayed one more year in the local Washington state minors, where he said he could make more money. Finally in 1911 went to Cleveland as a left-handed starter.

Although he was left-handed, he was essentially the replacement for Addie Joss. Gregg did well replacing the Hall of Famer. He went 23-7, won the ERA title as a rookie, struck out 125 men, and had a lot more innings pitched than hits allowed (a league leading WHIP of 1.054). It was his best year. He as 20-13 in both 1912 and 1913 with ERA’s in the twos, then developed a  sore arm. He started 1914 with Cleveland, went 9-3 with an ERA over three, and was traded to the Red Sox. He finished 3-4 in Boston with an ERA of almost four, then managed only 39 games over 1915 and 1916.

He spent 1917 in the minors (Providence), then played 1918 in Philadelphia for the rebuilding Athletics. He went 9-14 and retired to a ranch in Canada he bought with his baseball salary. He stayed there through 1921. He returned to baseball, joining Pacific Coast League Seattle and had three terrific seasons. In 1925, at age 40, he was sold to Washington where he went 2-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 26 games (only five starts). He missed the 1925 World Series (which Washington lost), then left the Major Leagues for good.

He played minor league baseball off and on through 1931, then retired to run an “Emporium” in Hoquiam, Washington. The business had a lunch counter and sold both sporting goods and cigars. He died in July 1964. He was elected to the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame, the Washington State Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1969 was chosen by fans the greatest Indians left-hander (which may say more about Cleveland pitching than about Gregg).

For his career, Gregg ended up 92-63 (a .594 winning percentage) over 1393 innings and 239 games  (about six innings per game). Struck out 720 batters, walked 552, and gave up 1240 hits (for a WHIP of 1.286). Although three of his teams, the 1915 and 1916 Red Sox and the 1925 Senators went to the World Series, Gregg never appeared in a Series game.

There are a lot of pitchers like Gregg. They are early phenoms who develop arm trouble early and end up with short but flashy careers that end up appearing disappointing. It seems to be especially true of southpaws. Mark Prior, although not a lefty, is a modern version of the type. There are lots of others in the history of the game. With an ERA title in his rookie season, Gregg could easily be a poster child for the type.

1910: Senators Postmortem

August 31, 2010

By the first of September, the Washington Senators were hanging on to sixth place and were on the verge of elimination from the pennant chase. Under manager Jimmy McAleer they would ultimately finish seventh, 36.5 games out of first. Their record was 66-85.

The team averages of .236 and .289 slugging weren’t absolute bottom of the barrel in the American League, but they were close. But the team finished fourth in walks, so their on base percentage wasn’t as bad as you might expect from a seventh place team. Center fielder Clyde Milan finished fifth in stolen bases, led the team with 71 walks (good for second in the AL), and was fourth in the league in runs scored. Another positive for Washington was that Milan was the youngest of the starting position players (24). The rest of the starters provided three men with .250 plus batting averages, no one with more than 19 doubles, and only two men other than Milan with more than 50 runs scored. 

One of the running themes of the teams that finish in the bottom half of each league is that they have awful benches. The Senators were no exception. Of the seven bench players with 20 or more games played, three hit above .250, but three were under the Mendoza line (one hitting .149). They mustered one home run and Wid Conroy, who played the most games (105) of any bench player, led in RBIs with all of 27. He also got the home run.

The pitching was a mixed bag. Walter Johnson was Walter Johnson. He led the league in starts, games, complete games, strikeouts, and was second in shutouts. His record was 25-17 with an ERA of 1.35. For the first time he put up more than 300 strikeouts, 313, more than 50 ahead of Ed Walsh in second place. In doing so he became only the second man (Rube Waddell) to lead the AL with 300 or more strikeouts. Unfortunately the rest of the staff wasn’t Walter Johnson. Combined the non-Johnson staff went 41-68 with 362 strikeouts (only 49 more than Johnson alone).  Dixie Walker (obviously not the 1940s outfielder) went 11-11 for the second best record among the starters. All the rest had losing records. Again on the positive side, each had more innings pitched than hits allowed and more strikeouts than walks.

So Washington looks like a team that isn’t very good, but could improve. Milan is doing well and should have several years left (He would play until 1922 and steal 495 bases). Johnson is beginning the run that will make him arguably the greatest of all pitchers. The rest of the staff has potential, but isn’t any great shakes. As for the rest of the hitting, well maybe. Or maybe not.

1910: 500

July 19, 2010

Cy Young

Today marks the 100th anniversary of one of those absolutely unique moments that baseball comes up with occasionally. On 19 July 1910, Cy Young took the mound for the Cleveland Naps of the American League. When the day ended he had notched his 500th win, the only Major League pitcher to have 500 or more wins.

The game on 19 July 1910 is interesting. Cleveland was on the road against Washington for a Tuesday double-header. They lost the first game 7-0, then Young took the mound for the second game against Senators hurler Doc Reisling (Wouldn’t it have been great if it were Walter Johnson?). Washington scored a run in the first, then in the ninth Cleveland scored two to take the lead. The Senators responded with another run to tie the score at the end of nine. Young held Washington scoreless through the tenth, then Cleveland picked up three runs in the eleventh. In the bottom of the eleventh, Young shut down the Senators and had his 500th win. He would, before he retired in 1911, add eleven more.

Young holds a number of records and is part of a couple of fun little trivia bits. He’s most famous for the 511 wins, but he also leads the Major Leagues in losses, starts, complete games, and innings pitched. When he retired he was first in shutouts (he’s now fourth) and strikeouts (currently 19th). He threw the first pitch in World Series history and lost game one of the Series (he went on to win two other games in the Series). On 27 April 1893, he became the first Cleveland pitcher to throw from a mound when the pitching distance moved to 60’6″. He won the game, but his team was in Pittsburgh so he doesn’t get to be the first pitcher to throw from a mound. Between 1892 and 1896, inclusive, he averaged 32 wins per season. Between 1892 and 1904 he failed to win 20 games once (19 in 1900). For his 22 year career, he had four seasons (1905-06, and 1910-11, the latter two his final seasons) when he had a losing record (40-59 combined for the seasons). His career winning percentage was .618. And, of course, he has both a perfect game and a no-hitter.

All this should remind you why the pitching award is named after Young. He is a truly great pitcher who seldom comes up when debates start over the greatest of all pitchers. Part of that has to be that he pitched a great deal of his career in the 19th Century. Another part is because of the current tendency to downgrade the “wins” statistic. He also pitches the first two seasons of his career at 50 feet without a mound. Take off the wins those two seasons and Young still has the most career wins. I’ve been a critic of the WAR stat when it comes to pitchers, but that stat lists Young as the top pitcher. I disagree, but he’s certainly someone who is in the mix. Bill James rates Young fourth in his Historical Baseball Abstract (Johnson, Grove, Alexander).

Cleveland would fall short in 1910, and Young would have a poor season. He would get one more, equally poor. Then he would retire. In 1937 he would make the Hall of Fame. His plaque shows him with a Naps cap, the team for which he won his 500th game, 100 years ago today.

The First Modern 3rd Baseman

May 18, 2010

Harlond Clift

As the post yesterday might have told you, I’ve been looking at third basemen recently. I’ve discovered a few things that I find interesting. You probably already know that there are less of them in the Hall of Fame than any other position (10 or 11 depending on where you put Paul Molitor). In 1924 Fred Lindstrom made his Major League debut. In 1943, George Kell made his. So? Well, no third baseman who began his career between those two dates is a Hall of Famer. Not a single one. That’s a 20 year gap. There’s no comparable gap at any other position. Were the third basemen of the era really that weak or did something else happen to change the nature of the position? It is, as you might suspect, a combination of things. All of which brings me to Harlond Clift.

Clift was from Oklahoma and arrived in the majors in 1934. He was a good enough player, but he had two strikes against him when he arrived: he played for the St. Louis Browns, and believe it or don’t he hit for power. The Browns were an awful team that ended the 1934 season in 6th place then went south, next getting back to 6th in 1940. In 1941 they made a run that put them in the first division, then slid back in 1942. In ’43 Clift developed mumps, saw it worsen, got traded to Washington, which did well in 1943, but his illness restricted Clift to eight games.  In 1944 they were dead last with Clift playing in only 31 games. He closed out his career in 1945 by helping the Senators to a second place finish, the highest his team ever stood when a season ended. The mumps, and injuries, derailed his career and he was through by age 32. He died in 1992.

For his career his home run totals are as follows: 14, 11, 20, 29, 34, 15, 20, 17, 7, 3, 3, 8 for a total of 178. OK, you say, not bad, but nothing special for the era. Agreed, except in one way they are special. Here’s the highest total of home runs in the American League for the same period (1934-1941, Clift’s productive years) by any third baseman not named Clift: 16 (Higgins), 23 (Higgins), 14 (Hale), 10 (Lewis), 26 (Keltner), 14 (Rolfe and Tabor), 21 (Tabor), and 23 (Keltner).  For the period, Clift is the only consistent power threat at third base. Others will have short periods where they will challenge him, but not will be there year after year. Ultimately none of them will surpass him in total home runs.    

What Clift did was to demonstrate that third base was not just a fielding position where if you hit for a decent average you were elite. He showed it could be a year-to-year power position. In that he is a precursor to the change at third base that allowed, in the 1950s, for a new kind of third baseman, one who hit for great power. He is the godfather of players like Bob Elliott, the first third baseman to win an MVP award. As you might guess, third base is  the last fielding position to have an MVP awarded. Al Rosen, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt, power hitting third basemen who could win MVPs, home run titles, and lead their teams to pennants are his linear descendents.

I’m not suggesting Clift is a Hall of Fame caliber player. I am suggesting he is the prototype of a new kind of player at his position. We ought to tip our cap to his memory when we watch the new generation of third basemen we see play today.