Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lucky 13

In honor of my thirteenth post, allow me to relay an interesting little fact about the number thirteen as it relates to baseball.

The number thirteen has long been associated with sinister omens and bad luck. This belief has its origins in the story of the Last Supper. Judas Iscariot, who later betrayed Jesus, was the thirteenth disciple to take a seat at the table before that fateful meal. A vaguely similar parable existed in Norse Mythology. Twelve deities sat down to eat one day and were joined by an uninvited guest--Loki, the god of mischief and disorder, who attacked the group, killing the benevolent god Balder. Taking this into account, Norsemen avoided dining together in groups of thirteen. Superstition associated with the number was also common in ancient Rome, where a witch’s coven was composed of twelve enchantresses with the thirteenth member being the devil.

To this day, some commercial airlines have no seat number thirteen, many high rise buildings are without a thirteenth floor and motel chains are hesitant to pass out room keys with the dreaded number on it. Even U.S. President FDR carefully planned his meetings to avoid the presence of thirteen participants.

None of this bothered pitcher Claude Passeau in the least. “That’s my lucky number” he once told a writer. “My auto tag is thirteen. The serial number on my rifle is thirteen. The last two digits on my life insurance are thirteen and my address is 113 London Street.” In keeping with this theme, the right-handed fast-baller played thirteen seasons in the majors and his name was thirteen letters long. He also won 13 games for the Cubs in 1939 and completed 13 of his 27 starts that year. He retired in 1947 (having worn the number thirteen on his jersey through most of his career) and lived to be ninety four-years old. Carrying the numerical phenomenon to extremes, the digits of Passeau’s age at the time of his passing add up to thirteen.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Busy Bodies

I have always been fascinated by defunct rules since some are quite unusual. Until 1950, a courtesy runner was allowed if a player had been injured and couldn't continue temporarily. The replacement runner had to be approved by the opposing manager and did not count as an official substitution. Therefore, the option remained for the injured or otherwise incapacitated individual to return to his post in the next frame. Likewise, courtesy runners were free to resume their normal responsibilities once they had completed their obligation on the basepaths. The last courtesy runner appeared in the majors during the 1949 campaign. The rule created some interesting scenarios.

In a June contest during the 1949 slate, Joe Gordon of the Indians hit a grand slam in the first inning off of Red Sox starter Joe Dobson, making the score 5-0 with no outs. As a retaliatory gesture, Dobson beaned Lou Boudreau. Boudreau was replaced with Ken Keltner, who had just scored moments before on the grand slam. Dobson walked the next batter and exited the game without retiring any of his opponents. Keltner then scored his second run in a short span on a single by Bob Feller. In the bottom of the frame, Keltner and Boudreau returned to their respective stations.

In a nineteenth century contest between Boston and Washington, Al Maul of the Senators was hit by a pitch leading off the third innning. Injured, catcher Deacon McGuire ran for him. Since McGuire was no speed demon, Beaneaters Manager Frank Selee gave the substitution his stamp of approval. Despite being relatively slow afoot, McGuire moved to second on a walk, then stole third base. He later scored on a triple and returned to the dugout to immediately take his rightful turn at bat.

Though this final anecdote has nothing to do with courtesy runners, it does relate to multi-tasking players. In a story popularized by Babe Ruth (which immediately makes it somewhat suspect), outfielder Bobby “Braggo” Roth was asked to stand-in as a third base coach one day when a member of the Yankee staff was ejected for arguing a call. With a man on first, the next batter laced a double into the gap. Although a run could easily have scored, Roth put up the stop sign, holding his teammate at third. He then jogged quickly to the dugout, drawing baleful stares from other players. “Why didn’t you send him in?” An exasperated Ruth wanted to know.
“What?” Roth said unabashedly, grabbing a bat, “With me coming up next?”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Strange Diamond Deaths

Chapters 3 and 4 of my book, Cellar Dwellers, are dedicated to the plight of the 1904 and 1909 Senators, who lost 223 games between them. Both clubs were impacted to some extent by the tragic deaths of their baseball brethren. The '04 Sens lived in the shadow of fallen teammate Ed Delahanty, a multi-talented superstar who had plunged to his death in an inebriated state while trying to cross the International Bridge between the U.S. and Canada on foot. Without Delahanty, the club sank to the bottom of the pack in '03 and fared poorly again the following year.

The '09 Washington squad felt compelled to attend the funeral of A's catcher Doc Powers, who had fallen seriously ill on opening day at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. The cause of Powers' demise was in some dispute. By the seventh inning of the season opener, he was writhing in pain in the Philadelphia dugout complaining of extreme stomach discomfort. Some accounts attribute the malady to an attempted catch that had sent him crashing into the wall in foul territory. Other versions blame a tainted sandwich he had eaten during the game. Like most hard-nosed players of the era, he soldiered on and finished the match--going 1 for 4 at the plate with a run scored. He later collapsed in the clubhouse and was transported to Northwestern General Hospital. He was operated on three times by surgeons and succumbed to a gangrenous stomach two weeks later. The entire Senators  team paid their respects at Powers' April 29th funeral--a somber moment in an already dreary season for the club.

Powers' mysterious death was not the only peculiar one of the era. In February of 1901, Pirates' outfielder Tom O'Brien died in Phoenix after ingesting seawater duing a trip to Cuba for a series of exhibition games. Members of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Superbas had hazed O'Brien, telling him that if he drank enough seawater, he would fall ill, but then be cured of sea sickness. Infielder Kid Gleason also fell for the prank, which proved monumentally unfunny when O'Brien suffered devastating damage to his internal organs and died several months later. Gleason recovered fully. O'Brien was a fair hitter, compiling a .296 average for the Giants in 1899 and a .290 mark for Pittsburgh the following year.

Friday, August 24, 2012

When All Else Fails, Stall!

One of the strangest games on record was played in May of 1915. The Pirates were trailing the Cubs, 5-1, in the bottom of the fourth inning and Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke instructed his players to slow things down hoping the game would be suspended on account of darkness, weather or an act of God.

With pitcher George Pearce at the plate, southpaw Wilbur Cooper began throwing pitches so high that they almost eluded his battery mate. Realizing that a plot was afoot, Chicago skipper Roger Bresnahan advised Pearce to swing at anything. With a 2-0 count, he hacked at two of the high offerings, bringing Clarke out of the dugout to argue--another stall tactic.

Clarke was ejected by umpire Bill "Lord" Byron and play resumed. Cooper changed strategy, throwing a pitch straight at Pearce to make the count full. Pearce dodged the next pitch (another bean ball) and threw his bat at Cooper. He was subsequently ejected, but Byron granted him a base on balls.

Cubs' pinch-runner Hippo Vaughn tried to get a third out with weak attempts to steal second and third. He was safe at both stations due to defensive indifference. He was eventually caught at home plate when he slowed dramatically so he could be tagged out. The umpires waited until the bottom of the fifth to declare the game official and the Pirates absorbed the loss.

Nice try, Mr. Clarke!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Overcoming Adversity

Trivia Question: What do Monty Stratton, Rip Sewell and Catfish Hunter have in common?

Give up?

All were seriously injured in hunting accidents.

Right-hander Monty Stratton employed a trick pitch called the "gander" to assemble consecutive 15-win campaigns for the White Sox in 1937-8. While rabbit hunting in Texas during the offseason, he shot himself in the right knee and ended up losing his leg. In a 1939 charity game at Comiskey Park, he took the hill to demonstrate that he could still throw. After learning to effectively transfer his weight onto the prosthetic leg, he went 18-8 in the East Texas League during the 1946 slate. His life story became the inspiration for Sam Wood's film The Stratton Story, released in 1949 and starring Jimmy Stewart.

 Rip Sewell had just suffered through a dismal season in 1941, leading the NL with 17 losses, when he was shot in the foot during a hunting excursion in Ocala National Forest. He lost a good portion of his right toe in the mishap. The accident proved to be advantageous as it kept him out of military action and inspired him to develop a trick pitch of his own, called "the eephus" (a Hebrew word meaning 'nothing') The pitch was a blooper with backspin that sailed in a high arc on the way to the plate. It baffled hitters for several seasons and made Sewell a war-time hero with fans. The end of Sewell's dominance came in the 1946 All-Star Game when Ted Williams hit a towering homer off of an "eephus." He laughed as he rounded the bases. After winning 70 games between 1942 and '45, Sewell compiled just 33 victories in his final four seasons.

In the 1960's, Jim "Catfish" Hunter was hunting in the Carolina wetlands when his brother's shotgun discharged, hitting the future Hall of Famer in the foot. His right toe was amputated and several pellets were reportedly left behind. The injury kept the hurler from being sent to Vietnam and, despite the disfigurement, he was left without a limp. He won 224 games for the A's and Yankees between 1965 and 1979 while earning five World Series rings.

The moral of the story: Always make sure the safety's on.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pampered Pitchers

There is a growing population of fans who believe that modern day pitchers are spoiled. It's difficult not to agree with this opinion when you consider that most of today's starters work every fifth day while being held to pitch counts that vary from 90 to 110 (depending on the assignment and the player). In 2011, Roy Halladay of the Phillies topped the NL with 8 complete games. That same year, Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals paced the senior circuit with 237.1 innings pitched. Though both men are clearly exceptional players, their totals would have not have landed them atop leaderboards in the early days.

In 1893 for instance, (the year the mound was moved from a fifty foot distance to its current location) Amos Rusie of the Giants tossed 482 innings. In 1904, Jack Chesbro of the New York Highlanders worked 454.1. The twentieth century single-season record for innings pitched belongs to Ed Walsh of the White Sox, who twirled 464 innings of ball in 1908. These totals are unimaginable by today's standards. In regard to complete games, Cy Young, who played for six teams between 1890 and 1911, turned in 749 complete games during his career. Walter Johnson, who spent his entire career in Washington from 1907 through 1927, went the distance 531 times in that span. Simply stated, moundsmen were expected to pitch until their arms fell off in the days of old.

Another skill lost among pitchers of today is the art of hitting. Before the DH rule came into effect, pitchers were expected to take their turn at the plate. As a result, many were highly adept with a bat. In a career that stretched from 1919 to 1936, George Uhle hit .289 with 8 homers and 98 RBI's. Wes Ferrell (brother of Hall of Famer Rick) accrued a .280 average with 38 long balls and 88 runs batted in. Carl Mays of the Yankees/Red Sox was no slouch either with a .268 average and 110 ribbies between 1915 and 1929. All three were used as pinch-hitters on a fairly regular basis.

By way of comparison, I examined this year's hitting stats for each of the five National League East staff aces. Through August 21st, they were collectively hitting .138 with 2 homers and 20 RBI's. Cole Hamels of the Phillies seemed to be the most prolific hitter in the bunch with a .222 mark. The worst of the group was Mark Buehrle of the Marlins, who had accrued a miniscule .054 batting average in 56 at-bats.

True, the game has changed considerably over the years and the demands placed upon old-timers were somewhat unreasonable. But a careful look at statistics leads one to the conclusion that pitchers were far more durable and multi-faceted in days gone by.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Old Perfessor

Another one of my all-time favorite personalities is Casey Stengel. Nicknamed "The Old Perfessor," this garrulous story teller served more than fifty years as both player and manager. Arriving in Brooklyn for his first big league assignment duirng the 1912 slate, Casey was wise to the old hazing tradition that prevented rookies from taking batting practice. He quickly devised a remedy, handing out business cards to introduce himself and politely requesting he be allowed in the cage.

Legend has it that while playing for the Pirates in 1918, he hid a sparrow under his cap and when he tipped his hat to the crowd, the bird flew out. He was not above resorting to pranks as a manager either. During the '49 campaign (his first with the Yankees), he showed his disapproval with plate umpire Beans Reardon by throwing himself on the ground in a mock feint. He couldn't have been too convincing because Reardon laid down in the grass right next to him. Stengel picked himself up and abandoned the argument, later commenting: "I knew I was licked."

Always good for a quote, Casey's semi-coherent ramblings became known as "Stengelese." Here are some of his more memorable comments:

"The key to being a good manager is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who haven't made up their minds."

"We are a much improved ballclub. Now we lose in extra innings."

"If we're going to win the pennant, we have to start thinking we're not as good as we think we are."

"At the end of this season, they're going to tear down this place (The Polo Grounds). The way you're pitching, that right field section will be gone already."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Batman Goes to Camp

While searching for information on the dreadful Phillies squads of 1928 and1941, I uncovered a funny little anecdote pertaining to the 1915 campaign. The Phillies had finished sixth the previous year and weren't expected to do much that season. Behind the strong pitching of Pete Alexander and Erskine Mayer, who won 52 games between them, the Phils silenced their detractors by finishing 7 games ahead of the Braves and earning their first World Series  appearance (it would be their last until 1950).

During spring training that year, a peculiar man showed up without invitation toting a bizarre array of missahpen bats. He enthusiastically explained the purpose of each. One was for curveballs and another for spitters. He also had line drive and sacrifice fly bats in his collection. Asked by Manager Pat Moran to hit against staff ace Pete Alexander, the man failed to make contact with a single pitch. He was summarily dismissed, but before making an exit, he vowed to design a bat specifically for use against the great Alexander.

Though this story is likely apocryphal, it's more fun to believe it might be true.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Class Act

In conducting research for an in-depth project such as Cellar Dwellers, you can't help becoming partial to particular personalities. As I was exploring the history of the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack quickly became one of my favorites.

Elegant, kindly and wise, Mack served as manager of the A's from 1901--when he was a 38 year-old veteran of eleven major league seasons--through 1950, when he finally stepped down at the advanced age of 87. In that span, he led the club to 9 pennants and 5 World Series titles. The low point of his career came in 1915 as he auctioned off his best players (including Hall of Famers Frank "Home Run" Baker and Eddie Collins) on the heels of a disappointing Series loss to the Braves. The high point arrived more than a decade later when his ongoing rebuilding project came to fruition with three straight Fall Classic apperances.

The classy Mack always wore a suit in the dugout and maintained his dignity when those around him did not. Over the course of my research, I encountered just one example of Mack resorting to profanity. It happened in the Depression Era when hot-headed Hall of Famer Left Grove was a member of the squad. As the story goes, Mack came out to relieve Grove after a particularly rough outing and the surly southpaw advised Mack to "go take a shit." "No, Robert, You go take a shit," Mack responded. The expletive proved effective as Grove reportedly handed over the ball and stalked off the mound.

Most of the time, Mack rose above such unpleasantness. In an amusing exchange during the latter part of his career, Mack put infielder Ferris Fain in his place. A top-notch glove man and two-time batting champion, Fain had one erratic spell during which he threw two balls into the grandstand in the spaceof a week. Mack offered a few words of advice: "Perhaps you should pick up the ball and hold it," he suggested. "What do you want me to do with it," Fain retorted, "stick it up my ass?" "Well, Ferris," Mack dead-panned, "You'll have to admit it would be safer there." 

Monday, August 13, 2012

What's in a Name?

In the early part of the 20th century, numerous ballplayers had elaborate handles attached to their names. As time marched on, the practice of pinning monikers on major leaguers began to dwindle. More often than not, the nicknames were born out of respect, as was the case with Babe Ruth ("The Sultan of Swat") and Lou Gehrig ("The Iron Horse"). For other less fortunate individuals, some negative personal characteristic was transformed into a label that stuck. 

Charlie "King Kong" Keller disliked his nickname and would sometimes come to blows with those who uttered it in his presence. Keller was quite stocky and had extremely bushy eyebrows, inspiring a teammate to muse that he looked like he had been "trapped" rather than scouted. Catcher Ernie Lombardi, although popular among teammates, could not have been happy with the tag of "Schnozz" that was handed to him--a reference to his bulbous nose (which reportedly protruded beyond the wires of his catcher's mask and occasionally absorbed the impact of foul tips). The following list represents a few of my favorite nicknames:

Pearce "What's the Use?" Chiles
Charley "Piano Legs" Hickman
Hughie "Ee-Yah" Jennings
Bill "Wagon Tongue" Keister
Bristol Lord: "The Human Eyeball"
Hub Perdue: "The Gallatin Squash"
Gabby Hartnett: "Old Tomato Face"
Charlie Grimm: "Jolly Cholly"
Lon Warneke "The Arkansas Hummingbird"
Guy Bush "The Mississippi Mudcat"
Tony "Poosh Em Up" Lazzerri
Red Lucas: "The Nashville Narcissus"


"Dirty Jack" Doyle
Pryor "Humpy" McElveen
Frank "Creepy" Crespi
Joe "Goobers" Bratcher
Ed "Boob" McNair
Dick "Twitches" Porter



Friday, August 10, 2012

Evening The Odds

Although pitchers certainly had it much easier, it would be erroneous to suggest that the scales were unfairly tipped in favor of moundsmen during baseball's gilded age. The following perks helped level the playing field to a great extent:

--Before 1858, there were no called strikes and a batter was not retired if a ball was caught in flight. That same year, rules no longer required a batter to touch each base in order.

--In 1867, players were allowed to call for a low or high pitch.

--Prior to 1895, a foul tip was not considered a strike if caught.

--From 1885 to 1893, one side of the bat could be flat.

--In 1901 and 1902, foul balls were not counted as strikes in American League games.

Imagine how long a Yankees/ Red Sox game might take with these regulations in effect!

Next Time: Those Wonderful nicknames from yesteryear

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Strange Days Indeed!

When I first came up with the idea for Cellar Dwellers, I initially intended to limit my survey to the 20th century. That was before an editor suggested I expand my scope to include the worst teams of "All Time"--meaning the inclusion of the 19th and 21st centuries. I was quite familiar with the plight of the 2003 Detroit Tigers, but the idea of exploring the game's dim and distant past--a topic I had barely skimmed the surface of in all my previous research--seemed a bit intimidating. In the end, it proved to be a worthwhile venture as a wealth of peculiar information awaited me.

Baseball underwent a variety of changes before evolving into the game we know today. While conditions seem to greatly favor hitters in the modern era, there was a time when pitchers were offered a wide variety of unfair advantages. For instance:

--Between 1858 and 1863, a batter could be retired if a fair ball was caught on one bounce.

--It was not until 1887 that batters were awarded first base after being hit with a pitch.

--In 1884, there were no restrictions on the delivery of pitchers.

--Prior to 1893, the mound was situated just 50 feet from home plate.

--Even after the use of spitballs was declared illegal in 1920, more than a dozen "old-timers" were allowed to throw "the wet one" due to a grandfather clause. This included Hall of Famers Stan Coveleski, Red Faber and Burleigh Grimes.

Next time, we'll take a look at the advantages of batters in the days of old.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Welcome to the Cellar!

Welcome to my blog!

I am excited to announce the release of my first book, Cellar Dwellers: the Worst Teams in Baseball History, which is being carried by Scarecrow Press (A divsion of Rowman & Littlefield).

The book recounts the misadventures of baseball's wretched (but sometimes loveable) losers. From the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who were so bad they were forced to play most of their games on the road, to the 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, who often filled their lineup with inexperienced teenagers, this work will be sure to interest both serious and casual fans. There are plenty of books out there about the all-time greats. This one provides a refreshing alternative.

Currently, it is available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as the Scarecrow Press website. Other smaller booksellers are carrying it as well. Be sure to pick up a copy!

In the months that follow, I will be sharing some of my unpublished notes from this project along with various other thoughts and anecdotes. I welcome your input and look forward to talking baseball (past or present) with you!