Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Series No One Cared About

The World Series has become such a staple of American culture, tickets can be quite difficult and costly to obtain for the average fan nowadays. But it wasn't always that way. In 1918, the hometown clubs couldn't give them away. 
With the United States fully committed to World War I, a “work or fight” order was issued, forcing all draft-age men into the military or “essential industries.” Baseball was considered expendable and the 1918 season was suspended after Labor Day. Played with special permission from U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, the World Series that year, which pitted the Red Sox against the Cubs, yielded the lowest player’s share in history (less than $1,200 for members of the winning team).
The Series opened in Chicago, where the games had been shifted to Comiskey Park because of its spacious capacity of 32,000. Cubs Park (later known as Wrigley field) was much smaller, accomodating just 18,000 at the time. None of the three Windy City games came close to selling out. In fact, there were more than 10,000 seats available when the teams squared off in Games 1 and 2.  
Attendance in Boston was even worse as only 22,183 fans turned out for Game 4. Fenway Park--with a capacity of 35,000--must have looked pretty empty that day. Displeased with the low gate receipts, players from both teams threatened to strike shortly before Game 5. Offered no concessions, they took the field more than an hour late. The results were disastrous as fans stayed away in droves the following day. Only 15,238 paying customers showed up to see the Red Sox claim their last world championship of the 20th century.
Members of baseball’s National Commission showed their disapproval of the players' actions by withholding the emblems that were normally awarded to Series victors (rings would not be distributed until the 1930's). By the time the Red Sox organization handed out replica emblems during a pre-game ceremony seventy five years later, every member of the 1918 club had passed away.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pulling For the Little Guys!

It's a sad rule of thumb in baseball today: The teams that spend the most, win the most. A cursory examination of World Series victors over the last two decades confirms this depressing fact.

There have been 19 World Series played over the last 20 years (In case you have chosen to repress the memory, the '94 Fall Classic was cancelled due to a major fiscal dispute). In that span, the teams ranking among the top 3 in terms of payroll have emerged victorious 53% of the time. If you expand the statistic to include teams ranking among the top 10, the percentage increases to 68%.

So, what's different this year?
With the playoffs rapidly approaching, the Yankees (#1), Tigers (#5), Rangers (#6), Giants (#8) and Cardinals (#9) are all in contention. But there are some scattered instances of poetic justice as well (at least from the perspective of those who resent big market clubs). The 3rd ranked Red Sox--with a bloated payroll of $173million are floundering in fourth place with a 68-85 record. The 7th ranked Marlins are last in their division. The Phillies--second only to the Yankees with an obscene $174 million payroll--are scrabbling for a Wild Card spot as time is rapidly running out. They've been surging as of late and actually stand a chance, but at the All-Star break, they were well below .500 and sitting in last place.

The Feel Good stories this Year?
The lowly Washington Nationals, ranked 20th in terms of payroll have clinched a playoff spot. So have the Cincinnati Reds with a ranking of 17. Defying the odds in the city where Moneyball was created, the Oakland A's, with a modest payroll of $55 Million were second in the AL West and 2nd in the Wild Card race at the close of play on Sept. 22. Similarly, the no-name Orioles at #19 were breathing down the necks of the top-heavy Yankees, who shell out 15% of their payroll to fading superstar Alex Rodriguez.

This is fun to watch and good for the sport.
...Time to root for the underdogs!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Potty Mouths

The recent suspension of Toronto Blue Jays' shortstop Yunel Escobar for the inappropriate remark he wrote in his eye-black was probably well-deserved and it's good to see that baseball has become a kinder, gentler game. Such was not the case in the days of old.

In the 1890's, profanity was so rampant that the National League adopted a resolution (championed by Cincinnati owner John T. Brush) imposing mandatory expulsions upon players who used "villainously foul" language. An official document was drafted under the heading: "SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS TO PLAYERS" and distributed. The document itself was laughably profane, citing numerous examples of commonly used insults that would be considered inappropriate even by today's standards. Several are unfit to print in this blog, but two are recounted here:

In an 1897 game between the Orioles and Spiders, a fan asked one of the players who was pitching and the player allegedly responded: "Go f--k yourself!" When teammates told the player that there were ladies present, he stated that he didn't give a damn since women had no business at the ballpark anyway.

On another occasion, an unnamed player had taunted an opponent with the following objectionable statement: "A dog must have f--d your mother when she made you." One can only imagine how stiff the penalty would have been for Yunel Escobar if he had written that in his eye-black.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Uninvited Guests

A common complaint among fans in Boston is that Fenway Park, despite all its charm, is too small with a capacity of less than 38,000. They don't know how good they've got it.

Fenway's predecessor--the Huntington Avenue Baseball Grounds--was even smaller with a seating capacity of roughly 9,000. This created some interesting  problems when the Boston Americans (later known as the Red Sox) made their first World Series appearance in 1903.

 With baseball’s first official Fall Classic knotted at one game apiece on October 3rd, eager fans mobbed the ticket office and quickly snatched up all the available seats. Throngs of Bean Town supporters kept showing up and, by mid-afternoon, the field was jammed with unpaid admissions. Thousands of trespassers eventually broke through a cordoned off area and headed toward the reserve grandstand, where they tangled with Boston players and police. Armed with a fire hose and bats (supplied by the home team’s business manager), police reinforcements were able to secure a fifty-foot stretch beyond the diamond and a thirty-foot swath behind home plate. The game started just a few minutes late with special ground rules in effect. It was agreed that balls hit into the crowd (a meager one hundred and fifty feet from home) would count as doubles. A total of seven two-baggers were hit that day as the Pirates notched a 4-2 victory. Pittsburgh eventually dropped the Series in eight games.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ghostman on First

In the 1992 movie A League of Their Own, fictional manager Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) tells one of his players that baseball is "supposed to be hard. If it wasn't, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." This is an insightful statement considering that most folks will play ball in one form or another during their lives while only a chosen few will actually play professionally. How far would you go to get a cup of coffee in the majors? A fan named Lou Proctor was willing to alter history.

Proctor, a telegraph operator from Cleveland, became a major leaguer without appearing in a single professional contest. While working for the Western Union Company in 1912, he  inserted his name into a Red Sox box score, crediting himself with a walk in a pinch-hit assignment for the Browns. The statistic was subsequently published by The Sporting News and The Baseball Encyclopedia. Proctor’s illusory career was discovered and erased during the 1980's, when the plate appearance was rightfully added to the lifetime totals of Pete Compton—an outfielder who played for five major league teams between 1911 and 1918. More than two dozen “phantom players” have been removed from popular baseball resources to date.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

With a Little Luck

It's time for some unusual trivia. Ready? Here Goes...
Question: How many hits can a pitcher allow in one inning without surrendering a run?
Incredibly, the answer is (at least) six. In a nineteenth century Indiana State League game between Muncie and Anderson City, the following events actually took place:

With Jot Goar on the mound for Muncie, a player named Ireland led off with a triple.  He attempted to score as a relay eluded Muncie’s catcher and was tagged out at the plate. The next batter, Wiswell, followed with a deep smash to center field. He was thrown out trying for an inside-the-park homer. With two out and nobody on, the three-hole hitter (Shumway) tripled to left. Unlike those who preceded him, he stayed put at third.  The clean-up man (Derby) bunted up the line and reached second as Muncie’s third-sacker waited for the ball to roll foul. He was credited with a double as Shumway was held at third. The fifth-slot hitter (Faats) followed with another bunt, loading the bases. This brought up a fellow known as “Kid” Fear, who scorched a liner between first and second. It took a bad hop and struck Faats on the leg for the third out (later being scored a base hit). Three triples, a double and two singles with nothing to show for it: The gods must have been smiling on Jot Goar that day. He was far less fortunate in portions of two seasons with the Reds and Pirates, allowing 27 earned runs in just 15 innings of work.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

McGraw's Good Luck Charm

One of the most fascinating tales of the deadball era is the saga of Charles"Victory" Faust. Born in Marion, Kansas, Faust had virtually no athletic ability and was suffering from some form of mental illness. In the summer of 1911, he introduced himself to New York Giants' Manager John McGraw. He told McGraw that a fortuneteller had predicted he would pitch the Giants to a championship. McGraw, who was highly superstitious, offered Faust a tryout, but it was clear that the 30 year-old right-hander was not major league material. When Faust kept showing up at the ballpark anyway, McGraw allowed him to participate in pre-game activities. The Giants responded positively to his presence and Faust was officially adopted as a team mascot.

What impressed McGraw most was Faust's self-proclaimed ability to jinx opposing teams. There may have been something to it as the Giants compiled an astonishing 36-2 record with Faust in uniform. McGraw often let him warm up in the bullpen, where his quirky windmill delivery delighted fans. Faust eventually became so popular that he was signed to a limited Vaudeville engagement. Determined to fulfull the fortuneteller's prophecy, he pestered McGraw constantly to let him pitch. McGraw finally conceded after the Giants had clinched the 1911 pennant. Faust appeared in two games and things could have gone much worse as he allowed just 2 hits and 1 run in 2 innings of work. He came to bat twice during his brief career, though his first plate appearance occurred after three outs had already been made. He was allowed to circle the bases before being tagged out at home plate. In his second big league at-bat, he was intentionally hit with a pitch and allowed to steal second and third.

In the 1911 World Series, Faust's jinxing powers were no match for the A's mascot, a hunch-backed dwarf named Louis Van Zelst. The Giants lost the affair in six games. In 1912, Faust continued to insist that he was a bona fide pitcher. McGraw grew tired of his frequent requests to take the hill and tried to dismiss him. In the end, it took some deception on the part of Giants' players to get Faust to return to Kansas. As soon as Faust left, the club went into a tailspin. Fortunately, they had built a comfortable lead in the NL and took the pennant anyway. They lost the Fall Classic to the Red Sox that year.

Faust spent the rest of his days trying to find his way back to the big leagues. In 1914, he walked from Seattle to Portland on a quest to "save" the Giants from the upstart Boston Braves. He was picked up by police  and sent to an institution, where he was diagnosed with "dementia." He eventually returned to Seattle and was committed to another state hospital. He died in June of 1915 from tuberculosis.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Misguided Sympathy

If you're anything like me, you get to thinking about the playoffs when September rolls around. As your mind meanders down the October road, you can't help feeling a bit sorry for the teams that haven't had a taste of the postseason in a dog's age. Unlike many other fans who tend to empathize with baseball's perennial losers, I know where to direct my sympathy. Every year, there is a lot of pity wasted on the Cubs and the Pirates. When you look at the franchise history of each club, neither has really had it all that bad when it comes to making appearances on the October stage.

Sure, the Pirates haven't finished over .500 since 1992 and that's a long time. But they actually have the highest World Series winning percentage among any franchise with at least 3 appearances (They've won 5 and lost 2). After winning their last Fall Classic in 1979, they made three consecutive appearances in the NLCS beginning in 1990. Furthermore, they dominated in the '70's before the wild card format was established, making the playoffs 6 times in that decade while capturing 2 world championships. I agree they've been in a long slump, but they do have an impressive history.

What about the Cubs? We've all heard about the billy goat thing. They haven't won a World Series since 1908, true, but at least they've had their chances. Entering the 2012 pennant stretch, the Cubs are currently ranked sixth among Major League franchises with 10 Fall Classic appearances. In the 2000's, they participated in 1 NLCS and 2 Division Series. During the '80's and '90's, they had three other chances to be the last club standing. And though it's true that a century is a long time to wait for a championship, it's hard to feel sorry for a team that has maintained a loyal fan base all along regardless of their order of finish.

So, who should we feel sorry for, you ask? In my opinion, there are at least three teams we should all develop a soft spot for:

1) The Milwaukee Brewers.
 Established in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots, the Brew Crew has never won a World Series. In fact, they haven't even participated in one since 1982. In 2011, they made it as far as the NLCS and in 2008, they dropped the League Division Series in 4 games. Their dry spells have been extensive. From 1983 through 2007--nothing. From 1969 through 1980--nothing. Talk about being due...

2) The San Diego Padres.
The Padres also made their debut in '69. Like the Brewers, they've never won a World Series, though they've lost 2--in 1984 and 1998. Aside from those two seasons, they've never made it beyond the LDS (they've dropped 3 of those). The most telling statistic: In 44 years of existence, they've finished below .500 27 times. Ouch!

3) The Seattle Mariners
Among the most star-crossed franchises in the majors, Seattle has never even played in a World Series. After joining the American League in 1977, they didn't crack the .500 mark for 14 years. Furthermore, it seems very likely that when the 2012 season is over, the Mariners will have been excluded from postseason play for 11 straight seasons Whisper a prayer for them, won't you?

Worth at least one tear:
The Toronto Blue Jays. Okay, so they dominated in the early '90's, but since then, the Jays have done absolutely nothing. They're about to miss the playoffs for the 19th consecutive year. -Sniff Sniff-