Posts Tagged ‘Willie Mays’

Willie’s First World Series

February 16, 2016
Willie Mays, Birmingham's finest

Willie Mays, Birmingham’s finest

In 1948 the Negro World Series featured the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League facing the winners of the Negro American League, the Birmingham Black Barons. It would become an important Negro World Series for two reasons. First, it would be the final confrontation between the NNL and the NAL. Second, it would be the first time Willie Mays tasted postseason action.

The Black Barons were led by an infield of Alonzo Perry at first (he also pitched and put up a 10-2 record), manager Piper Davis at second, NAL batting champion Art Wilson at short and John Britton at third. Pepper Bassett did the catching, back stopping a staff that included Perry, Jim Newberry, Bill Powell, and Bill Greason. Ed Steele and Steve Zapp were the other outfielders (besides Mays). Joe Scott played first when Perry pitched.

With Josh Gibson dead, Homestead seemed less fearsome than earlier, but it was still a formidable team. Future Hall of Famer Buck Leonard was still at first, manager Sam Bankhead was a short, and Luis Marquez, Luke Easter, and Bob Thurman could hit. Wilmer Fields (who both pitched and played in the field), joined Thurman (who did the same), Ted Alexander, Bill Pope, and R. T. Walker on the staff. Eudie Napier did much of the catching.

As usual with Negro World Series’ there were some points we’d consider odd today. Game one was in Kansas City, hometown of the Monarchs. Game four was in New Orleans. Game one was played 26 September. It took until 5 October to get to game five. And of course, being the Negro Leagues, rosters were a bit fluid. The series was a best of seven format.

It’s difficult to find play-by-play for each game, I’m going to give more of a summary of each game than I usually do. According to the Cleveland Afro American  (essentially all scoring information is from the Cleveland newspaper),  game one was played in Kansas City because neither team could use their home stadium (both teams shared a stadium with a white team). In the top of the second inning, Birmingham outfielder Steele walked, went to third on a Zapp single, and scored the first run of the Series on Scott’s sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the same inning,  Thurman singled leading off for the Grays, went to third on a Napier double, and a Pope triple scored both runners. Marquez then doubled to score Pope and put Homestead up 3-1. The Black Barons got another run in the eighth on a walk, a single, and a Davis run scoring single. But Alexander got through the ninth without allowing Birmingham to score and Homestead won the game 3-2.

Game two was 29 September in Birmingham. Again, the Black Barons scored first. Davis singled, Steele walked, and Scott brought both men home with a double. Homestead scored five runs in the sixth inning to take the lead. Marquez singled, then, with one out, scored on an Easter double. After walking Leonard, a fielder’s choice got Leonard for the second out, but Marquez scored. Napier then doubled to score two runs and Pope crushed a two run home run to put the Grays up 5-2. Birmingham got one run back in the ninth on a Zapp single, a walk, and a double. But that was all as Homestead took game two by a 5-3 score.

Game three was 30 September, also in Birmingham. The Black Barons won 4-3. With two out in the bottom of the ninth and a 3-3 score and runners on first and second, up came Willie Mays. His single through the box into center drove in the winning run. It would not be the last time Mays would win a ballgame.

Game four was 3 October in New Orleans. It is the most obscure of the entire Series. There seems to be no information on why the game was held in New Orleans (at least that I can find) nor is there anything like a story on the game (again, at least not that I can find). Homestead won the game 14-1 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the Series.

Game five was October 5 back in Birmingham. The best information available (so far as I can determine) shows the Grays scoring two runs in the first, the Black Barons getting one back in the second, another in the fourth, and taking the lead with two in the fifth. Homestead retook the lead with three in the sixth, only to see Birmingham go back on top with two in the eighth. A single Grays run in the ninth tied the score 6-6 and the game went into extra innings. In the top of the tenth, Homestead scored four runs, then shut down Birmingham to claim the game 10-6 and claim the Series 4 games to 1. It sounds like a great game, but I can find nothing to describe any of the scoring in the game (the line score shows runs; hits; errors, of which there were nine total); and the batteries only.

And that was it for the Negro World Series. Before the 1949 season the NNL folded (with the remaining teams either joining the NAL or going independent). Within a couple of years the NAL was on life support and the Negro Leagues were dying. But the last Negro World Series did manage to give Willie Mays his first chance at postseason glory. At least in game three he took it.

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

1948 Birmingham Black Barons. Mays at left on the front row

 

 

The Black Barons

February 8, 2016
Birmingham Black Barons logo

Birmingham Black Barons logo

Throughout most of the history of the Negro Leagues, those leagues were strongest outside the American South. Of course, with all the legal restrictions of Jim Crow that made sense. It was simply harder to create a successful team without running afoul of some rule, written or otherwise. There were exceptions. Memphis and Baltimore had successful teams, as did some other towns. But easily the most successful was the team from Birmingham, Alabama-the Black Barons.

The Birmingham Barons were a successful minor league franchise and in 1920, a new black team was formed from players in the local black industrial league using a play on the white team’s name. It rolled off the tongue with great alliteration and it was an instant success. They were part of the Negro Southern League through 1923. It was a black league formed by Rube Foster as something of a minor league that would draw the best black Southern players who could then be filtered into Foster’s Negro National League. The team played in Rickwood Park, a stadium that was rented to both black teams and to white teams (obviously not at the same time). By 1924 they were considered good enough to join the Negro National League itself. They lasted two years then slid back to the Southern League because the team was unable to keep its finances in order (a common theme among early Negro League teams, especially in the South).

They got back to the Negro National League in 1927. They brought with them a right-handed pitcher named LeRoy Paige who bore the nickname “Satchel.” In 1927 the NNL ran their season as two halves with the two winners facing each other in a post season series, the winner of  which went on to the Negro World Series against the winner of the Eastern Colored League. Behind Paige and slugger Roy Parnell the Barons won the second half, but lost the playoff to the American Giants. It was the highpoint of the 1920s for Birmingham. They stacked up losing seasons for the rest of the 1920s.

The NNL folded after the 1930 season and Birmingham moved back to the Southern League where they stayed through 1936. They moved back to the newly formed NNL in 1937, stayed through 1938, then, with both financial and management problems they ended up back in the Southern League. In 1940 they joined the new Negro American League.

It led to their greatest period of success. Under manager Wingfield Welch they won NAL pennants in 1943 and 1944. Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, Lester Lockett, and Jake Spearman led the team into the ’43 Negro World Series, which they lost to the Homestead Grays. The addition of Dan Bankhead and “Double Duty” Radcliffe,  helped them to another pennant in 1944. Again they lost to Homestead in the Negro World Series. They had one last great year in 1948 when, with Davis now managing, they took a final NAL pennant. This time they had Joe Bankhead, Lyman Bostock, and a rookie outfielder named Willie Mays (yes, THAT Willie Mays). Again they couldn’t get past Homestead..

By 1948 the Negro Leagues were faltering. It was the last Negro World Series between the NNL and the NAL. The NNL folded, but the Black Barons hung on in the NAL. They’d lost much of their talent to the white minor (or major) leagues but hung on in Birmingham through the 1950s. In 1953 they picked up a pitcher named Charley Pride (later a significant country music singer). Lacking much money, the team gave the Louisville Clippers a team bus for Pride. In 1959, now named the Giants, they won the championship of what remained of the Negro League (five teams). The next year, 1960 was the end for the NAL. The team hung on two more years by barnstorming, but finally folded in 1963.

Usually, when I hear about or read about Negro League teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, the Monarchs, even the Eagles or Elite Giants names are mentioned. The Black Barons are seldom mentioned. That’s unfortunate. The Birmingham Black Barons were a very good team, putting five former players (Satchel Paige, Mule Suttles, Willie Mays, Bill Foster, and Willie Wells) into the Hall of Fame. They won three pennants in the NAL and a second half championship in the first version of the NNL. Their attendance was generally good and the caliber of play was equally good. They deserve a mention now and then.

 

“The Biggest Upset Since Harry Truman”

November 24, 2014
Dusty Rhodes

Dusty Rhodes

The death of Alvin Dark got me looking at the 1950s Giants. So I was reading an article on Willie Mays the other day. That article got me thinking about the 1954 World Series, so I started doing some research on it. In doing so, I ran across another article that made the claim that makes the title of this article (see how A leads to B leads to C, etc.). In 1948 Truman was supposed to lose to Thomas Dewey and didn’t. In 1954 the New York Giants were supposed to lose to the American League record-breaking Cleveland Indians.

The Indians won 111 games in 1954, a record since surpassed. They did it primarily by beating up on the AL also-rans, but it was still a formidable team. Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn were the mainstays of the mound. Fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller was in the twilight of his career, but still put up 13 wins, while Mike Garcia had 19. In the bullpen Don Mossi, Ray Narleski, and Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser provided relief work. Second baseman Bobby Avila won a batting title, Larry Doby led the AL in home runs and RBIs, and Al Rosen was fourth in the league in slugging and OPS, fifth in OBP and home runs. For manager Al Lopez it was a formidable team.

Their opponent was the New York Giants, led my Leo Durocher. Although not as seeming invincible as the Indians, the Giants were also good. They won 97 games with Johnny Antonelli, Ruben Gomez, and Sal Maglie on the mound. Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm provided much of the relief work as the premier right hander out of the bullpen. Marv Grissom complimented him from the left side. Outfielder and Hall of Famer Willie Mays led the National League in batting, slugging, triples, OPS, and OPS+ (just your typical Mays year). Don Mueller hit over .300, while Monte Irvin coming off a down year completed the outfield. Hank Thompson and Al Dark both had 20 home runs, and pinch hitter Dusty Rhodes had 15.

Game one is primarily famous for Willie Mays making the great catch in center field to keep the game tied. Rhodes later won it with a home run in the tenth inning. Game two was also close with the Giants winning 3-1 and Rhodes again contributing a home run. Moving to Cleveland for game three, the Giants took control and won game three 6-2. They were already ahead by six runs when Cleveland finally scored their first run. Game four was something of a foregone conclusion. The Giants put up seven runs before Cleveland scored and coasted to a 7-4 victory to close out the Series.

This brings up two obvious questions: “What went wrong for the Indians?” and “What did the Giants do right?” They are, of course, two parts of a single question, “what the heck happened to cause the Indians to lose and the Giants to win?”

The Cleveland pitching staff had a terrible World Series. They had a 4.84 ERA, gave up 33 hits and 21 runs (19 earned) in 35.1 innings. Garcia started one game and ended up with an ERA of 5.40. He gave up three earned runs and four walks in five innings (he did manage to strike out four). Lemon was worse. In two games he gave up 16 hits, 10 earned runs, and eight walks in 13.1 innings (with 11 strikeouts). The bullpen (and Early Wynn) did much better, although Newhouser gave up a run, a hit, and a walk without getting anybody out.

The hitting wasn’t much better. Of the starters, only Vic Wertz (who hit the famous ball that Mays caught) hit above .250 (Rosen hit right on .250). He and Hank Majeski tied for the team lead with three RBIs, while Wertz and Al Smith were the only players with more than one run scored (each had two). Larry Doby struck out four times

The Giants pitching did better. It’s ERA was 1.46, giving up six total earned runs (and three unearned–the Giants had seven errors) and 26 hits in 37 innings. Maglie’s 2.57 ERA was the team high. Neither Grissom nor Wilhelm gave up a run out of the bullpen.

New York hitting beat Cleveland to death. Dark, Mueller, Rhodes, and Thompson all hit over .350 while both Mays and catcher Wes Westrum both topped .250. Rhodes had seven RBIs, Thompson scored six runs, and both Mays and Mueller scored four runs. Irvin (who had a bad Series) and Westrum led the team with three strikeouts, while Mays walked four times. Rhodes OPS was 2.381 (Wertz at 1.493 topped the Indians starters).

There was no Series MVP in 1954 (it began the next year), but most people presume Rhodes would have won it. Maybe, but the entire Giants team did well (except Irvin and Whitey Lockman).

It was, besides being a huge upset, a fluke World Series. Cleveland had not finished first since 1948 and wouldn’t do so again until 1995. For the Giants, it was their first since 1950 and they wouldn’t be back until 1962 when they were no longer the New York Giants, but had become the San Francisco Giants. The next year it would be back to the normal Yankees-Dodgers World Series.

RIP Alvin Dark

November 18, 2014
Al Dark

Al Dark

Saw that Alvin Dark died last week. He was 92 and largely forgotten. But he was a significant player and a big league manager of note.

Dark came out of Oklahoma and attended what is now Louisiana-Lafayette excelling in both baseball and football. He was drafted in 1945 by the Philadelphia Eagles football team, but chose to play baseball. He made it to the Boston Braves for a 1946 cup of coffee. While there, he  hit .231 and was sent back to the Minors (Milwaukee). In 1948 he was up for good playing shortstop well enough to earn the second ever Rookie of the Year Award (there was only one award in 1948, not one in each league). Boston got to the World Series, lost in six games to Cleveland, and Dark managed to come in third in the MVP voting.

He remained in Boston in 1949, then was sent to New York where he anchored a Giants infield that included Eddie Stanky and Hank Thompson. They finished third. The next year the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place in the National League and Dark participated in the most famous of all playoff series. Whitey Lockman had joined the team at first and an outfield of Monte Irvin, Don Mueller, and rookie Willie Mays helped the team go 50-12 at the end of the season. Dark managed to lead the National League in doubles that season (the only time he led the league in any significant hitting stat). In the famous ninth inning of the third game, Dark led off with a single, went to second on another and came home with the first run of the inning. Later Bobby Thomson hit his “Giants win the pennant” homer and everybody forgot Dark began the rally.

He hit .417 in the World Series with a home run, but the Giants lost. Dark remained with the Giants through 1955, helping them to a World Series sweep in 1954. He hit .412 and scored a couple of runs in the Series. He played part of 1956 in New York, but ended up in St. Louis. He remained with the Cardinals into 1958, then was sent to Chicago. We was with the Cubs two years, then spent the 1960 season, his last between the Phillies and the Braves.

A trade sent him back to the Giants. He retired to take over as the Giants manager in 1961. They finished third. The next year he took them to their first World Series since the 1954 sweep and their first since moving to San Francisco. They took the Yankees to seven games before losing 2-1 in the last game.

He stayed in San Francisco through 1964 when he was fired (during the sixth inning of the final game). He worked with Kansas City (the A’s, not the Royals) becoming manager in 1966 and part of 1967, when he fell victim to one of Charlie Finley’s tantrums. That sent him to Cleveland until 1971 where he managed and for a while doubled as general manager. In 1974 he was back with the A’s (now in Oakland) and led the team to the final of three consecutive World Series triumphs (Dick Williams managed the other two wins). The A’s got to the playoffs in 1975, lost, and Dark was fired. He managed one year in San Diego (1977) then retired.

For his career he hit .289, had an OBP of .333, slugged .411, and ended up with an OPS of .744 (OPS+ of 98). He led the NL in doubles the one time and had 2089 hits, 358 total doubles, 72 triples, 126 home runs, and 757 RBIs to go with 1064 runs scored. His Baseball Reference.com version of WAR is 43.1. As a fielder he was considered more than capable. He led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, and errors at various times in his career. Over his career, he made three All Star teams. His Hall of Fame voting percentage peaked at 18.5% in 1979.

During his managerial career there was some question about his view of black players. In 1964, he made a questionable comment about their baseball smarts which some considered racist. But both Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson came to his defense.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, Dark’s been largely forgotten. But he was a key player on three pennant winners, one World Series winner, and managed in two World Series contests, winning one. RIP, Alvin.

Shutting ’em Down in Game 7: Terry’s Redemption

September 29, 2014
Ralph Terry

Ralph Terry

Ralph Terry was never Whitey Ford, but he was a good pitcher for the New York Yankees. In 1960 he was 0-1 when he was brought into game seven of the 1960 World Series. There were two outs in the bottom of the eighth and he got out of the inning. Then he made two pitches in the ninth. The second one went over the fence in left field to make Pittsburgh world champs. In 1961, the Yankees won the World Series, losing only one game to Cincinnati. The losing pitcher in that one game? You guessed it, Ralph Terry. In 1962 the Yanks were back in the Series, this time against San Francisco. By game seven Terry was 1-1 and was tasked with winning the final game.

It was Ralph Houk’s second New York pennant winner. He’d taken over as manager from Casey Stengel after the 1960 loss and kept the Yankees winning. It was a very different team from the great 1950s New York squads. Moose Skowron was at first, while Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek covered the center of the diamond and slick fielding Clete Boyer held third. Newcomer Tom Tresh was in left field and one year removed from their great home run race Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the other two outfielders. Yogi Berra was relegated to the bench while Elston Howard did most of the catching.

He caught an aging pitching staff. Five pitchers, including Ford and closer Marshall Bridges were over 30. Terry was the ace that season going 23-12, and was only 26. Bill Stafford and Jim Bouton were both kids.

After six games and a five-day rain delay, the two teams were tied three-three with the final game in San Francisco. Terry had lost game two, but won game five. The long rain delay allowed him to pitch game seven.

He faced a formidable Giants lineup. Orlando Cepeda was at first, Chuck Hiller at second, Jose Pagan at short, and Jim Davenport at third. The outfield consisted of Felipe Alou, Willie McCovey, and Willie Mays. Harvey Kuenn, Matty Alou, and Manny Mota were available off the bench.

Tom Haller caught a staff of Jack Sanford, who came in second to Don Drysdale in the Cy Young Award voting, Juan Marichal, and lefties Billy O’Dell and Billy Pierce. Sanford, like Terry, was 1-1 in Series play and was tabbed for game seven.

Sanford walked a man in the first but got out of it on a fly out by Mantle. In the top of the third the Yanks put two men on, but again Sanford got out of it, this time on a grounder to second. By the top of the fifth, Terry still hadn’t given up a hit and New York finally found a run. Consecutive singles put men on first and third, then a walk loaded the bases. Kubek then rolled one out to short and Skowron scored as the Giants opted to complete a double play.

In the sixth, Terry finally gave up a hit, but no run. With two outs in the seventh, McCovey tripled, but died at third when Cepeda struck out. With the bases loaded in the eighth, Billy O’Dell relieved Sanford. A force at home and a double play later, the Yanks were still ahead 1-0. Consecutive ground outs and a strikeout brought the Giants to their last three outs. On a bunt single, Matty Alou made first. Then Terry struck out both Felipe Alou and Hiller. Mays doubled sending Matty Alou to third and bringing up McCovey. “Stretch” smoked a liner that Richardson snagged to end the inning, the game, and the Series.

For both teams it was something like an ending. The Giants despite good hitting and decent pitching couldn’t get passed the Dodgers and Cardinals and didn’t get back to a World Series until the 1980s. The Yankees won the next two American League pennants, but they, like the Giants, couldn’t get passed the Dodgers and Cardinals before things collapsed in 1965. They would wait until 1976 to make it back to a World Series.

But for Terry it was a shining moment. He was named Series MVP and much of his reputation for failure in the clutch went away. He had one more good year in New York, then a down year and was traded. He was through in 1967. But his work in game seven of 1962 solidified him as a genuine Yankees hero, at least for one World Series.

 

 

Stretch

April 23, 2014
Willie McCovey

Willie McCovey

When I was in Viet Nam I got hit in the arm and had to spend a few days in the walking wounded ward at the base hospital. Most of the guys there were baseball fans so we talked a lot of ball. One of the doctors was a Giants fan and would join us for a few minutes when he made his rounds. He kept talking about how much he was impressed by “Willie” and of course we all presumed he meant Mays. It took a couple of days to figure out he was a big fan of Willie McCovey.

Let’s be honest here, no one ever wanted McCovey for his glove. “Stretch” played because he could pound the ball harder than anyone in captivity, including teammate Mays. He was a pure power hitter, a run producer, and has slipped out of the conversations about baseball today.

Over a 22-year career, mostly with the Giants, McCovey personified pure raw power. At the height of a great pitching era, he led the National League in slugging, and home runs three times each, in RBIs twice, and in home run percentage five times. And he wasn’t doing it with only 25 homers a year.

Personally, I will never forget the first time I saw the famous 1962 World Series play where Bobby Richardson snagged McCoyey’s drive to end the Series. I’m still surprised Richardson’s glove didn’t end up in right field. Actually, I’m surprised his entire left arm didn’t end up somewhere out around where Roger Maris was playing. Maybe it’s part of McCovey’s perception problem that his most famous play was an out.

McCovey came up in 1959 at age 21. He played quite a bit, but not full-time at first base through 1961. In 1962 the Giants got the great idea of putting him in left field. Not a brilliant move, but not as bad as some people thought it was going to be. The problem was the Giants had two big power hitting first basemen who were, to be charitable about it, mediocre glove men: McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. The idea was to get both in the lineup at the same time. For you kiddies, this is back in the pre-Designated Hitter age of baseball, so the current solution wasn’t possible. After a couple of seasons it became obvious that something had to be done. They chose to trade “Cha Cha” to the Cardinals in 1966 (he’d been hurt in 1965). That made McCovey the regular first baseman through 1973. His career on the downside, he went to San Diego, then to Oakland, and finally back to the Giants in 1977. It was his last big year. He hung on into 1980, finally retiring tied with Ted Williams in career home runs and setting a NL record with 18 grand slams.

A great misconception about the 1960s is that pitching absolutely dominated. No question pitching was paramount, but take a look at McCovey in the 1960s. He played 130 or more games seven seasons in the decade (1963-1969). he hit 249 home runs and drove in 666 runs. My guess is that a lot of pitchers kept trying to figure out why they weren’t being dominant as McCovey (or Aaron or Mays for that matter) circled the bases.

I do love McCovey’s walk-strikeout ratio. In 22 years he struck out exactly 205 more than he walked. Not great, but not bad for a modern power hitter. After he left the Giants in 1974 he struck out 126 more times than he walked. So it you study only his beginning and prime Giants years he struck out only 79 more times than he walked, for an average of 5.27 per season. That’s exceptional in the modern age of all or nothing swings.

But he’s still gotten relegated to the backbench of Hall of Fame players. My guess is there are a number of reasons. First, he played in the shadow of Willie Mays for his great years (despite winning the 1969 MVP award). Secondly, his team never won. With all the firepower that was McCovey, Mays, Cepeda, Felipe Alou, and the staff that was Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, the Giants won exactly one NL pennant (1962) and one divisional title (1971). They were always in the shadow of the Dodgers or the Cardinals (or the Miracle Mets) the reasoning seems to go that if you couldn’t beat the banjo hitting Dodgers or the so-so Cardinals how good could the players (aside from Mays) actually be?  Finally, it has just been a while since Willie McCovey played. Most of the people who read this will have never seen him play. That’s a shame. You really missed a heck of a player.

The Grays

February 5, 2014
front of the Homestead Grays uniform

front of the Homestead Grays uniform

Negro League Baseball had a lot of teams. Many were very good, others not so good. Some were famous, others played in obscurity. Three teams, the Crawfords, the Grays, and the Monarchs (alphabetically) were the most well-known. I’ve done a post on the Crawfords and the Monarchs. It’s time to look at the Grays.

Homestead, Pennsylvania is a part of the greater Pittsburgh area. In the period just after the turn of the 20th Century, it was still outside the direct orbit of Pittsburgh. It had a thriving black community and a steel mill that was its major source of jobs. As with most steel mills, this one had a semi-pro baseball team called the Blue Ribbons. Formed in 1909, initially it  played against other industrial teams.

By 1912 the team known as the Homestead Grays (after the color of their uniforms). They’d picked up a new star in Cumberland (Cum) Posey, who quickly became manager and team secretary. He made the team into a fully professional team and moved it away from the local industrial leagues. In 1920 Posey and local businessman Charlie Walker bought the Grays. That same year they made an agreement with the Pirates that allowed the Grays to use Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home field, for games when the Pirates were out-of-town. Having a Major League facility available for games helped make the Grays profitable. Between 1919 and 1928 the Grays were enormously successful as an independent barnstorming team. They stayed away from the newly formed Negro National League and the Eastern Colored League because they found it more profitable to play independent ball. By the late 1920s they were making money and playing 200 or so games a season. In 1926 they were credited with a record of 140-13 with 43 consecutive wins. Many of those games were against quality opponents, but many were also against local semi-pro teams.

Then the Great Depression hit and profits began drying up. Posey, now running the team alone, decided the Grays needed a league to insure financial stability. He helped form the American Negro League (not to be confused with the Negro American League of the 1940s). It lasted one year and folded. The Grays managed to hang on and by 1931 were fielding what was chosen by a panel of experts the finest of all Negro League teams. The roster included such Hall of Fame names as Oscar Charleston, Bill Foster, and Josh Gibson. In 1932, the Grays joined the new East-West League, but it folded midway through the season.

Homestead began losing money and was unable to meet the lavish salary offers of the rival Pittsburgh Crawfords. Many of the Grays jumped ship, most to the Crawfords, and by 1934, in order to keep the team afloat, Posey was forced to bring in a new partner. One of the wealthiest men in Homestead was Rufus Jackson, the leader of the local numbers racket. Posey made Jackson team President, while he (Posey) continued to run the team. In many circles in Pittsburgh, Jackson was seen as nothing short of a gangster, which hurt the reputation of the team. Ruined reputation or not, the team now had money and again became competitive in black baseball. And of course it still had Forbes Field.

In 1934, the Grays joined the newly established Negro National League (not to be confused with Rube Foster’s Negro National League of the 1920s). In 1935 Vic Harris replaced Posey as manager, although Posey remained team secretary (more or less equivalent to the modern general manager job). The team was an instant success, being competitive for the entire period of the NNL’s existence. In 1939 they won the NNL pennant. They were to repeat as league champions every year through 1945, then won another pennant in 1948.

The 1940s saw several major changes involving the Grays. In 1940 they made an agreement with the Washington Senators to use Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out-of-town, thus moving the team’s home field to DC (although they continued to play a few games in Pittsburgh off and on during the decade). Despite the move, they retained the Homestead name. In 1942, the participated in the revived Negro World Series (there had been games in the 1920s but none in the 1930s). They lost the first one to the Kansas City Monarchs, but won both the 1943 and 1944 Series before dropping the 1945 Series to the Cleveland Buckeyes. In 1948 they won the final Negro World Series defeating Willie Mays and the Birmingham Black Barons.

In 1946, Posey died. It was the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. Posey’s wife and Jackson now jointly owned the team. They tried to keep it going, winning, as mentioned above, the last NNL pennant in 1948. With the NNL gone after 1948, the Grays hung on into 1950, when devoid of stars, lacking money, and short of an audience they folded.

We can argue back and forth for a long time about which team was the greatest or the most famous or the most important Negro League team. You can pick your own candidate for each category. But the odds are pretty good that in each case, you’ll have the Homestead Grays on your short list.

The Best of the Giants

May 27, 2013
Will Clark

Will Clark

It’s been a while since I stuck my foot deep in my mouth and picked an all-time team for a franchise. So it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this month dealing with the Giants, especially the New York version, so it seems like a good franchise to work with now.

A few caveats first (you knew I’d do that, right?). Let me start with a simple disclaimer: I’ve never been a particular Giants fan. Growing up supporting the Dodgers, there’s not a lot of nice things to say about the Giants (only the Yankees are as deep in perdition as the Giants). That means I’ll admit to being less than confident about my choices, but it’s the best I can do using only research and a few memories. Second, I put together a 25 man roster that does not mirror a Major League roster, but it’s my list and I get to do it my way. There are nine infielders, five outfielders, two catchers, and nine pitchers. I decided to go with three bullpen men and six men who were primarily starters. I also picked a manager (bet you can guess him). Finally there are no players whose primary career is before the advent of the mound. There are som really fine Giants prior to 1892, like Roger Connor, Tim Keefe, Mike Tiernan, but they play a game that is different, so different I decided to drop them from consideration.

So with all that said, here we go diving in where God knows what we will find. Each list is alphabetical.

The Infield:  Will Clark, Al Dark, George Davis, Art Fletcher, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Jeff Kent, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey.

Did you ever notice that the Giants have produced an inordinate number of quality first basemen? I chose McCovey, Mize, and Clark (and Cepeda spent a lot of time at first) and left out Hall of Fame first sackers Bill Terry and George Kelly. Frankly, I didn’t really have to think that hard about it. The only hard choice was Mize, who spent significant time with both St. Louis and the Yankees. I decided he was in. If they’ve had great first basemen, they’ve had mediocre third basemen. I went with Fletcher as the only third baseman because the rest of the list was Fred Lindstrom and Jim Davenport and guys like that. OK, maybe I should have considered Sandoval, but as a rule I like to stay away from current players because we don’t know how they’re stay with their team will go (but see Posey below). Short and second were mixed bags. Frisch, Kent, and Larry Doyle stood out but there wasn’t much below them. Short on the other hand had more quality players, but no one at the level of either Frisch or Kent. I left off Dave Bancroft and added Dark which may strike some as odd, but I suppose it’s merely a personal preference. And of course Jackson (who was in the top 10 Giants in WAR, which surprised me) played third toward the end of his career. 

The Outfield: Barry Bonds, Orlando Cepeda, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Mel Ott.

There is Bonds (whatever you think of him as a person or as a steroids user), there is Mays, and there is Ott. Everyone else is a huge drop, a really huge drop. You could make an argument that across the three outfield positions (left, center, and right) the Giants may have the best starting outfield ever. But you need backups and at the point you get past the big three you end up with a lot of quality outfielders. Cepeda’s knees sent him to first, but he began in the outfield. Irvin was a converted middle infielder who lost several years to segregation. Both are just short of the top-tier. I had to leave out both Felipe and Matty Alou, which I was sorry to do because I’d liked both when they played. Jeff Leonard and Kevin Mitchell were good for too short a time to be considered at the top.

The Catchers: Roger Bresnahan and Buster Posey.

OK, who else was there? Look at the Giants’ list of catchers and tell me you like anyone better. As a rule, Giants catching has been very weak. Buck Ewing is excluded as a pre-1890s player.  Hank Severeid maybe, but if that’s the best you can do then we’re stuck with these two. I hesitate to pick a current player like Posey, but it’s a really weak position and Posey has the advantage of coming to the Giants and they win a World Series. Then he gets hurt and they falter. Then he’s healthy again and they win another World Series. That’s a pretty good legacy, isn’t it?

The Starters: Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Gaylord Perry, Amos Rusie.

You know, you could make a pretty fair five man rotation for the Giants just using pitchers whose last name began with the letter “M”. You could dump those bums Perry and Rusie and insert Rube Marquard and Sal Maglie and still have a darned good staff. I didn’t. I have a feeling that in a few years both Lincecum and Cain will be getting some consideration on lists like this.

The Bullpen: Rod Beck, Rob Nen, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Not the strongest part of the Giants history. Wilhelm made the Hall of Fame, but his tenure with New York was relatively short. Most of his Cooperstown credentials are from other teams. Nen and Beck are simply one, two in saves, so why not?

The Manager: John J. McGraw.

Surely you saw that coming.

So there it is in all its glory; for good ,bad, or indifferent. I think it’s a pretty fair list, but I’m sure a lot of people will disagree. Feel free to do so. (I have this nagging feeling I’ve left somebody out).

The Barber

May 20, 2013
Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie was one of the aces of the Giants teams that won a pennant in 1951 and the World Series title in 1954. His nickname was “The Barber” (a nickname he hated) because he pitched high and inside. He was a good solid pitcher who helped four teams to pennants. In other words, he was a heck of a pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s most famous today for a game he lost.

Magile was born in Niagara Falls (the town, not the falls, obviously) in 1917. He’s another of that generation of players who were first generation Americans (his family coming from Italy). Maglie loved baseball, his parents were certain it was ruining his life. Apparently that was a fairly common problem in the period. In researching a lot of different players, I’ve found an inordinate number had immigrant parents who were entirely buffaloed by their son’s desire to play ball and the country’s willingness to pay the kid to do so.

Maglie played semipro ball while working in a factory in Buffalo. He was good enough that the Double A Bisons picked him up. He was raw and ended up in Class D. Desperate for talent in 1942, the Giants picked him up for their Jersey City farm team. He stayed one year, then left to work in a defense plant. In 1945, the Giants enticed him back to baseball. By the end of the season he was in the Majors going 5-4 with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.115 WHIP. He was 28 and had finally made it.

In 1946 the Mexican League, under new management, began luring big leaguers to Mexico with big salaries. Maglie, who was playing in the Cuban League (under ex-Giants pitcher Dolf Luque), took one of the contracts. Major League baseball was appalled. Commissioner “Happy” Chandler announced a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. That included Maglie. He pitched two seasons at Puebla, establishing himself as a quality pitcher. But the Mexican League was in trouble. The big salaries didn’t translate to big attendance and the league began faltering. Maglie jumped ship in 1948 joining a barnstorming team that folded at the end of the season. He bought a gas station in Niagara Falls, then got a call to join a minor league team in Canada. He pitched in Canada in 1949, leading his team to its league championship. At the end of the 1949 season, Chandler lifted the ban on the Mexican League refugees (it lasted four of the five years) and Maglie rejoined the Giants.

Maglie, now 33, was a hit. He won the ERA title (and the ERA+ crown) in 1950, had his career year in 1951 with a league leading 23 wins, and led the Giants to a three game playoff with the Dodgers. He pitched eight innings of game three, the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, but took a no decision. The Giants victory took them to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, Maglie pitching one game, lasting five innings, and getting clobbered (he gave up four runs in five innings in game three).  He had a good year in 1952, not such a good year in 1953 (he was having back problems), and opened 1954 as the Giants three pitcher (behind Johnny Antonelli and Ruben Gomez). He went 14-6, struck out 117 batters, but allowed more hits than he had innings pitched. The Giants were again in the World Series and Maglie drew game one. Again he picked up a no decision in the game made famous by Willie Mays’ catch and Dusty Rhodes’ homer. The Giants swept the Series with Maglie not taking the mound after game one.

Despite a good start in 1955, Maglie was traded to Cleveland. After two games in Cleveland in 1956, the Indians sold him to Brooklyn. The Dodgers, needing pitching, returned Maglie to a starting role (he’d mostly relieved in Cleveland) and he went 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a league leading 139 ERA+. He pitched his only no-hitter in 1956 and pitched the pennant clinching game for Brooklyn.  That meant the Dodgers would play in their second consecutive World Series, squaring off against the Yankees. Maglie pitched and won the first game of the Series (beating Whitey Ford), then drew game five in Yankee Stadium. It was his most famous game. He was great, giving up only two runs and five hits while striking out five. The problem was that Yankees starter Don Larsen threw the World Series’ only perfect game that day.

Maglie began 1957 with the Dodgers, went 6-6, and was sent across the city to the Bronx. He was 2-0 for the Yankees as they made another World Series. He didn’t pitch in the Series (which New York lost to Milwaukee in seven games).  In 1958 he was 41 and done. He pitched a few games for New York, then ended the season for the Cardinals. They released him before the 1959 season. He’d played parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, becoming the last man to wear the uniform of all three New York teams (this doesn’t count anyone who played for all three teams once the Dodgers and Giants moved to California).

He coached one year in the Cards minor league system, then became Red Sox pitching coach in 1961 and 1962. He was out of baseball in 1963, ’64, and ’65. He spent part of 1965 with the New York Athletic Commission, but most of his time was taken nursing his dying wife (she had cancer). He returned to baseball as pitching coach of the 1966-67 Red Sox, including the “Impossible Dream” team that lost the 1967 World Series. He was fired at the end of the Series (he and manager Dick Williams didn’t get along). He spent time after 1967 as a pitching coach for the Pilots (now the Brewers), general manager for the Niagara Falls minor league team, ran a liquor distributorship, and was a coordinator for the Niagara Falls Convention Bureau. He retired in 1979 and died in December 1992.

For his Major League career “The Barber” was 119-62, had an ERA of 3.15 (ERA+ of 127), 25 shutouts, 562 walks, and 862 strikeouts in 1723 innings pitched (a WHIP of 1.250). He was a member of four pennant winning teams and one World Series champion (1954). In postseason play he was 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 20 strikeouts and a 1.345 ERA. All this with four years lost to the Mexican League.

It’s useless to speculated how much Maglie lost because of the Mexican League fiasco. We can never know. He didn’t make the big leagues until he was 28 and didn’t become a regular until he was 33. It was not in the cards that he would join the Hall of Fame. But he was considered one of the better “money” pitchers of his era, especially in the regular season. Not a bad legacy for a man who hated what is one of the better nicknames of all time.

Maglie's final resting place

Maglie’s final resting place

The Last Win in New York

May 16, 2013
Willie Mays as a New York Giant

Willie Mays as a New York Giant

You’ve all seen the film. Willie Mays turns, runs back, his cap goes off, he reaches out, the ball falls in his mitt and he turns to fire the ball back to the infield. It’s the famous catch off Vic Wertz’s bat and is one of the handful of most famous plays in World Series history. It occurred in 1954, the last stand of the New York Giants in postseason.

The 1954 Giants were a team coming off a down season in 1953. After winning the National League pennant in 1951, they’d dropped to second in 1952, then fallen to fifth in 1953. It was much the same team, but with a couple of significant changes. Wes Westrum was still the catcher. He hit under the Mendoza Line for the season, but was a decent catcher. He’d led the league in caught stealing a couple of times, but also in passed balls (more on that later). The infield was Whitey Lockman, Davey Williams, Alvin Dark, and Hank Thompson. They had all been around in 1953. Dark and Thompson both hit 20 plus home runs with Dark leading the infield with a .293 average. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Don Mueller patrolled the outfield corners. Irvin had 19 home runs and Mueller hit .342. But the big change was the return of Willie Mays from the military. Mays hit .345, slugged .667, had an OPS+ of 175 and hit 41 home runs with 110 RBIs. He was also, of course, a superb center fielder.

The pitching staff consisted of Johnny Antonelli having a career year, Ruben Gomez continuing his run as a starter, and 37-year-old Sal Maglie contributing 14 wins. The closer was Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, whose knuckleball accounted for most of Westrum’s passed balls. Manager Leo Durocher’s bench was fairly thin, but ace pinch hitter and sometime outfielder Dusty Rhodes hit .341, had an OPS+ of 181 (higher than Mays).

The Giants weren’t favored in 1954, the Dodgers were. But the Giants went 25-19 against Brooklyn and Milwaukee (the other NL teams that played .500 ball) while the Dodgers were only19-25. The six games made a difference as New York took the pennant by five games, posting a 97-57 record.

They drew record-setting Cleveland in the World Series. The Indians had rolled to an American League record 111 wins (since bettered) but the number was deceiving. They’d feasted on the second division teams and played only so-so against the first division. There were no second division teams in the Series. Behind Mays’ famous catch, Rhodes two home runs, Dark’s .412 average, and pitching that held Cleveland to a .190 average New York swept the Indians in four games.

For the Giants it was the end. In 1955 they finished third. In both 1956 and 1957 they were sixth (of eight teams). By 1958 they were no longer the New York Giants. They moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. They had been a great franchise in the 1880s and had gone on to glory in the first 25 years of the 20th Century. After that they were sporadically good, but had become the third team in New York (behind both the Yankees and Dodgers). The 1954 season was their last hurrah. They would not win again until the 21st Century.