Posts Tagged ‘Willie Mays’

A Remembrance of Richie Ashburn

June 13, 2019

Richie Ashburn

When I was a kid the baseball world was full of terrific center fielders. New York had Mays and Mantle and Snider. As a Dodgers fan I loved Snider but it was tough to give either Mays or Mantle their due. After all the Giants and Yankees were the great rivals of my team. But Richie Ashburn was different. His Phillies weren’t a direct threat to the Dodgers and he was a great outfielder.

The Phillies weren’t on television all that often and were on the radio only when they played the Cardinals (who were the closest team to us and all their games were on the radio). So I didn’t get to watch Ashburn all that often. When I did I was in awe. He was a terrific outfielder. I’d never heard of most fielding stats but I could tell he was good. He made it look easy in center. Willie Mays always had that element that made it look harder than it was, but Ashburn just went out and made the play. I discovered Ashburn is second among centerfielders in range factor per game, 10th in career assists, and third in putouts while playing center. None of those I knew in the 1950s (and probably had never heard of either). All of that confirms that I was right in believing he was a great outfielder.

He was different from the other big centerfielders of the day. Snider, Mays, Mantle all hit for power; Richie Ashburn was more like Bill Bruton of the Braves. Both led off and both could steal a base. Bruton won two stolen base titles in the National League to Ashburn’s one, but Ashburn stole 30 or more twice to Bruton’s once. It was an era without a lot of stolen bases as each team featured a big slugger who could clear the bases and no one wanted to run into an out trying to steal second. For the Phillies that was Del Ennis. He benefitted from Ashburn being on base a lot. Richie Ashburn led the NL in hits three times, walks four times, and triples twice. He won a batting title and led in OBP on four occasions (one of the OBP titles and one of the walks titles came with the Cubs late in his career). That gave Ennis, and other batters, a lot of chances to drive in runs.

In 1960 Philadelphia sent him to Chicago. He played two years with the Cubs having a good season in 1960 and a much weaker one in 1961. He ended up in New York in 1962 with the Mets. They were awful but his 2.1 WAR was second on the team (to outfielder Frank Thomas–not the Hall of Fame White Sox first baseman). He’s part of a great trivia question, “The 1962 Mets had two Hall of Famers in their dugout. Who were they?” The answer is of course Ashburn, and also manager Casey Stengel.

For his career Richie Ashburn’s triple slash line reads 308/396/382/778 with 1322 runs scored, 317 doubles, 109 triples, an OPS+ of 111 and 63.9 WAR. In 1995 he made the Hall of Fame. It’s always gratifying when one of your heroes makes the Hall. It kind of vindicates your view.

Adding it up

April 30, 2019

Yaz

Baseball has a ton of stats. There are stats for everything. You have hits, runs, number of strings on the webbing of a first baseman’s mitt, and other assorted great things. Some are pretty much ignored, others almost worshipped.

One of my favorites, which sits somewhere between ignored and worshipped, is Total Bases. For those who don’t know the stat is singles+ (doublesx2)+(triplesx3)+(homerunsx4)=total bases. It’s a quick way of seeing exactly what a player has done on the basepaths. The higher the total bases, the more hits and the more slugging a player has contributed to his team. I like it because it’s simple and it does its job well. It has a huge flaw and if you’re quick, you’ve already noticed it. It doesn’t include walks, which is sort of equivalent to a single. Despite what you may have been told in Little League by a coach saying “A walk is as good as a hit,” it’s not exactly the same because with a man on base a walk gives him one base. A single might give him two or more.

So I decided to take a look at the men at the top of the total base list. Their names are Aaron, Musial, Mays, Bonds, Cobb, Alex Rodriguez, Ruth, Rose, Pujols, and Yastrzemski. You’ve probably heard of them. What I did was take their total bases (as given by BaseballReference.com) and add to that number their walks (same source). I didn’t factor out intentional walks because they are not complete for early players like Cobb. I also didn’t add in hit batsman or catcher’s interference (other ways to get on base) because those numbers are so small that they didn’t make a difference in the calculations. If you’re interested in doing this yourself, feel free to add them in (and to factor out intentional walks if you think that’s best). The list above (Aaron, Musial, Mays, et.al.) is in order of total bases. With walks factored in, the list reads:

Barry Bonds-8534

Henry Aaron-8258

Babe Ruth-7855

Stan Musial-7733

Willie Mays-7530

Carl Yazstremski-7484

Pete Rose-7318

Alex Rodriguez-7151

Ty Cobb-7103

Albert Pujols-6946

A couple of quick points. First, Pujols is still active so will rise up the list probably. Second, I didn’t look at the total bases and walks of players not in the top 10 in total bases. It is entirely possible that someone listed 11th or lower would, when walks are added, move ahead of one of the current top 10.

I found this interesting and thought I’d pass it along.

RIP Stretch

November 1, 2018

Willie McCovey

Just saw that Willie McCovey died. He was 80. For years he joined Willie Mays as a terrific three-four combination in the San Francisco Giants batting order. He ended up with 521 home run, tied with Ted Williams, the most be any left-handed hitter in the history of the National League (since broken). He made the Hall of Fame and McCovey Cove beyond right field in San Francisco is named in his honor. He was 6″4′ and was known for being a big target at first base. That combination got him the nickname “Stretch.” He is perhaps best known for the drive that ended the 1962 World Series in Bobby Richardson’s glove.
Although never a Giants fan, I always admired McCovey. RIP “Stretch.”

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.