With a new book due out at the end of June, I thought I would share some favorite excerpts from my previous projects. I'll lead off with Mudville Madness, which was released in 2014 through Taylor Trade Publishing. The book recounts some of the more unusual on-field events in baseball history. Here is one of the most bizarre. It's hard to believe that this actually happened.
AUSGUST 17, 1957
What are the odds? In a game between the Phillies and Giants at Connie Mack Stadium, Philly leadoff man Richie Ashburn hit the same fan twice with foul balls. Ashburn was known for his extraordinary bat control and his ability to spoil good pitches by slapping them foul. Over the course of his 15-year Hall of Fame career (spent mostly with the Phillies), he led the NL in walks and on-base percentage four times apiece.
During the game in question, Ashburn hit a foul that broke the nose of Alice Roth, wife of Philadelphia Bulletin sports editor Earl Roth. Incredibly, as Mrs. Roth was being removed from the game via a stretcher, Ashburn hit her again, in the leg! Informed of her injury, the congenial center fielder visited her in the hospital the next day and apologized. As the story goes, he didn't even know he had hit her a second time until she told him. Ashburn remained friendly with the Roth family for years as their son was a Phillies batboy.
After his playing days were over, Ashburn moved on to a successful career in broadcasting.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE EXCERPTS IN THE COMING WEEKS!
Sunday, April 23, 2017
In 1912, baseball promoter John T. Powers assembled an independent circuit known as the Columbian League. Though it crashed and burned before opening day, Powers was able to generate enough interest to construct a new league the following year. Considered an “outlaw" organization, the Federal League began play in 1913 as a six-team minor circuit. Powers served as president during its inaugural season, but ended up stepping aside to make way for entrepreneur James A. Gilmore. Under Gilmore’s leadership, the Federal League declared itself a major league and began to compete directly with the AL and NL.
There were plenty of major leaguers willing to make the jump to Gilmore’s circuit. Seduced by lucrative contract offers, future Hall of Famers Joe Tinker and Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown left their respective clubs behind. In the early stages of his career, fellow Cooperstown inductee Edd Roush suited up for the Feds as well. In late-June, Hal Chase--the game's premier defensive first baseman--defected from the White Sox. Attendance at games was respectable and the pennant race was tight. The Indianapolis Hoosiers waited until the last day of the season to clinch the pennant over the Chicago Feds. Heralded as the “Ty Cobb of the Federal League,” outfielder Benny Kauff—who had previously played for the New York Highlanders—carried the Hoosiers to the top with the finest effort of his career. He paced the circuit in nearly a dozen offensive categories, including batting average (.370), runs scored (120) and total bases (305--a lofty figure for the Deadball Era).
With the relative success of the 1914 campaign, several other players of note joined the Federal League, among them Cooperstown-bound hurlers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender. The 1915 season featured a slightly different assortment of clubs. The Hoosiers disappeared and the Newark Peppers made their debut. Two other teams changed their nicknames. The Chicago Feds became known as the Whales while the Buffalo Buffeds played as the Blues. The campaign saw five different teams seriously competing for top honors. Again, the pennant race came down to the last day of the season with the Chicago club emerging victorious. Benny Kauff continued to dominate offensively, winning a second consecutive batting crown. He also led the league with 55 stolen bases.
In the 1914/15 offseason, Federal League owners filed an anti-trust suit against the American and National Leagues. The case found its way to the desk of future baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It remained in limbo as Landis tried to bring about a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, the Federals began to flounder financially. After the 1915 slate, baseball’s third “major league” disbanded. Whales owner Phil Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved the club into Weeghman Park (later known as Wrigley Field). Terriers owner Phil Ball purchased the Browns. Other owners were offered cash settlements. The Federal League was the last serious challenge to the monopoly of the American and National Leagues.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
Baseball has had its share of unusual characters and Pete Browning was undoubtedly among the most colorful. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he had a troubled childhood. Afflicted with a rare disorder known as mastoiditis, he lost a majority of his hearing and dropped out of school. He remained semi-literate throughout his life. Making his formative years even more difficult, his father was killed in a cyclone, leaving his mother to raise eight children alone.
An excellent athlete, Browning aspired to the major league ranks in 1882 with the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association. His medical affliction caused him to suffer from crippling headaches. At some point, he began to self-medicate with alcohol, telling one reporter: “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” Tales of his epic hangovers abound. He once literally fell asleep while leading off of second base. On another occasion, he was in such a daze at first, he allowed opposing pitcher Dave Foutz to wander over and tag him out.
Browning was obsessed with his eyesight. He referred to his eyes as “lamps” or “peepers” and believed that it improved his vision when he stared into the sun for extended lengths of time. On at least one occasion, he held his head outside the window of a moving train to cleanse his eyes and ended up getting cinders in them. He was also known to soak his “peepers” in buttermilk.
He demonstrated a host of other eccentricities as well, fielding fly balls on one leg, refusing to slide into bases and never failing to touch third on his way to his outfield position. He was a monumentally poor fielder, committing 269 errors in 998 outfield assignments—an average of one miscue for every four appearances. Players didn’t use mitts in Browning’s era, but that was no excuse. His lifetime fielding percentage was a dozen points below the league average. One of Browning’s managers allegedly complained that the team would be better off with a wooden cigar store Indian in the field since there was an odd chance that a batted ball would hit the statue and bounce back toward the infield.
Despite his shortcomings, Browning was an outstanding batsman. He hit for the cycle twice during the 1880s and won three batting titles in a ten-year span. He had above average power for the era, gathering more than 400 extra-base hits over portions of thirteen seasons. He kept a running tally of his batting averages on his shirt cuffs and would sometimes declare himself the current batting champion when he stepped to the plate. He retired with a lifetime .341 average.
Browning is best known for putting Hillerich and Bradsby on the map. He was the first to purchase bats from the company, popularizing a product that would later be named the “Louisville Slugger” in his honor. Browning established a personal relationship with each of his bats, talking to them and giving them names—often of biblical figures.
After his retirement as a player, Browning’s physical and mental health deteriorated. In 1905, he was briefly committed to a psychiatric facility. He died in September of that year due to a host of ailments, among them cancer, cirrhosis and alcohol-related brain damage. He received some consideration for the Hall of Fame but ultimately fell short.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
Opening day of the major league season is among the most anticipated events in all of sports. It marks the arrival of spring and the beginning of a new chapter in baseball history. It’s a day filled with hope and promise. Even the worst teams start out with a clean record. And the most obscure players can have a major impact. As a collective unit, the American and National Leagues will celebrate their 114th anniversary in 2017. To honor the occasion, I’ve compiled a short list of remarkable opening day events.
With the Giants trailing the Phillies 3-0 at the Polo Grounds, fans begin to wander onto the field while the game is in progress. Other unruly spectators participate in a massive snowball fight, forcing umpire Bill Klem to declare a forfeit in favor of Philadelphia. Another point of interest, Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan becomes the first major league catcher to wear shin guards during a game. He is widely ridiculed for it.
A’s southpaw Herb Pennock holds the Red Sox hitless for 8.2 innings. With two outs in the ninth, Boston’s speedy right fielder Harry Hooper beats out a high chopper for an infield hit, spoiling Pennock’s no-hit bid. The Hall of Fame hurler settles for a 1-hit shutout.
After sharing the Polo Grounds with the New York Giants for a decade, the Yankees open their new stadium for business. Fittingly, Babe Ruth is the first player to go deep, thrilling the crowd of 74,000-plus with a moon shot off of Red Sox starter Howard Ehmke. For Ruth, it’s the 198th home run of his career. Including the postseason, he’ll add 530 more before he retires.
Bob Feller picks up where Herb Pennock left off 25 years earlier, going 8.2 innings without yielding a hit to the White Sox. With two-outs in the bottom of the ninth, former batting champ Luke Appling draws a walk. But Feller bears down and retires right fielder Taffy Wright on an easy grounder to second base. It’s the first opening day no-hitter in history. The feat has not been duplicated since.
In preparation for their home opener, the grounds crew at Braves Field applies a fresh coat of red paint to the outfield bleachers. Unfortunately, damp weather prevents the paint from drying completely. Hundreds of disgruntled fans go home with crimson stains on their clothes, obligating the Braves to cover dry-cleaning costs. The game ends well for the hometown crew as they walk away with a 5-3 win.
Ignoring multiple death threats, Jackie Robinson appears at first base for the Dodgers, officially breaking the Major League color barrier. More than 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field watch the “Bums” beat the Boston Braves, 5-3. Robinson scores the first run of his career and handles 11 chances without an error.
On his first swing of the season, Hank Aaron takes Reds starter Jack Billingham deep, tying him with Babe Ruth for the all-time home run lead. Four days later, Aaron will club #715 off of Al Downing, becoming baseball’s reigning home run king.
Friday, March 10, 2017
For years, I have felt that the contributions of Latino ballplayers have been largely overlooked. My latest book gives more than 140 Latin American standouts due credit for their accomplishments. It's called Latino Stars in Major League Baseball and is scheduled for a June release. I'm posting the introduction here to give potential readers a feel for what it's all about.
Some of the best players in major league history were born outside the United States. According to an ESPN article, Latin American ballplayers held twenty-seven percent of all major league contracts and forty percent of all minor league contracts in 2013. In fact, Latino players represent one of the fastest growing ethnicities in baseball. But the road to “The Show” has not been easy for many.
MLB’s dreaded color barrier prevented many of the greatest players of all time from competing on baseball’s grandest stage. Though Cuban luminaries Cristobal Torriente, Martin Dihigo and Jose Mendez were all elected to Cooperstown, none of them saw major league action. The abolishment of the color barrier did little to alleviate other problems faced by Latin American ballplayers. Many grow up in poverty using improvised materials (such as milk cartons for gloves and tree branches for bats) to learn the rudiments of the game. Language barriers leave many feeling isolated and misunderstood once they reach America.
Recognizing the depth of the talent pool in Venezuela, major league teams began establishing training camps there during the 1990s. At one point, twenty-three major league clubs had set up operations. But by 2016, only four camps remained. Economic troubles, political unrest, food shortages and rising crime rates have made it difficult for the surviving facilities to function.
An entirely different dilemma is faced by players from Cuba, where the communist government prohibits prospects from signing with major league teams. Desperate to realize their dreams, many players risk life and limb escaping the country. Dodger outfielder Yasiel Puig was held hostage by the criminals who smuggled him out of Cuba. White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu nearly drowned in fifteen foot waves.
The struggles faced by numerous Latin American players make their stories all the more triumphant. And as the diversity of baseball continues to grow, the quality of play is enhanced exponentially. At the time of this writing, there were ten Latino players enshrined at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Many others have played on major league All-Star teams, led their respective leagues in various statistical categories, won prestigious awards and guided their clubs to the postseason. The most succesful Latino stars are profiled on the pages that follow.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
Can the Cubs Do it Again?
Now that they’ve broken baseball’s longest standing curse, there are plenty of people wondering if it’s going to be another hundred years before the Cubs capture a World Series title. This seems highly unlikely. The team is relatively young and last year’s roster remains intact (for the most part). Power-hitting prospect Kyle Schwarber is expected to fill the hole left by the departure of center fielder Dexter Fowler. Aside from that, there are few question marks this year. Have no fear Wrigley Field faithful! The Cubs should definitely contend again in 2017.
Baseball’s New Loveable Losers
The Cleveland Indians have taken over as major league baseball’s longest suffering franchise. They’re on a roll with four consecutive World Series losses dating back to 1954. The last time the Indians emerged victorious in a Fall Classic, Harry Truman was President and the cost of a new car was just over $1,200. But there’s reason to be optimistic. Like the Cubs, the defending American League champions are a young team with an intact roster. In fact, they look even better this year with Andrew Miller anchoring the bullpen and Edwin Encarnacion signed as a DH. Carlos Santana will take over for Mike Napoli (lost to free agency) at first base and the transition should be seamless. Not only is Santana a decent fielder, but he reached career-high marks in nearly every offensive category last year. The Tribe will almost certainly have another good run in 2017.
Pujols Securing His Legacy
With sixteen years of major league service behind him, Albert Pujols has distinguished himself as one of the greatest hitters of a generation. This year, he is poised to join the 600 home run club—a milestone reached by only eight other players before him (three of which have been linked to steroids). Another 100 RBI campaign will tie Pujols with Alex Rodriguez for the most seasons reaching the century mark (14).
Beltre’s Quiet Ascension to Greatness
One of the best players no one ever talks about, Beltre needs 58 more base hits to join the 3,000 hit club. Barring a major injury or statistical collapse, he should also reach 600 career doubles and 1,500 runs scored. Those numbers compare favorably to every third basemen currently in the Hall of Fame. Additionally, Beltre will be going for his sixth Gold Glove—a feat matched by only six other players at his position.
The Ageless Wonder
In November, right-hander Bartolo Colon signed a one-year contract with the Atlanta Braves worth over $12 million. It will be interesting to see if he has anything left in the tank. At forty-three, the Dominican control specialist is the oldest player in the major leagues. 10 more wins in 2017 will tie him with Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. 15 victories will move him into the top fifty of all time behind Cooperstown incumbents Vic Willis and Bob Gibson. Colon is a savvy player and has developed a sense of humor about himself that is contagious. It’s fun to root for the old guys!