Monday, December 31, 2012

Rule-Bending Moundsmen

No one knows who invented the spitball, (multiple individuals have been credited) but one thing is for certain: Pitchers have been trying to gain any edge over batters since the game's early days. Though 19th century rules prevented players from defacing baseballs, penalties for doing so were weak and regulations were very rarely enforced by umpires. In the first two decades of American League play, those restrictions were ignored or forgotten altogether.

Jack Chesbro of the New York Highlanders was among the first to gain success by doctoring the baseball, winning 41 games in 1904. Ed Walsh of the White Sox used "the wet one" to fashion the lowest career ERA of all-time at 1.82. By 1910, pitchers were using any means necessary to deface the ball with mud and tobacco being the most commonly employed methods.

With pitchers enjoying a number of unfair advantages, managers voted to partially ban the spitball in the winter of 1919-'20. After the tragic Ray Chapman incident of 1920 (in which the Indians' shortstop was struck in the head and killed by a Carl Mays offering), the pitch was universally outlawed with the exception of a handful of hurlers who were allowed to throw it under a grandfather clause.

Moundsmen continued to tamper with balls anyway, employing various deceptive techniques. In 1942, Leo Durocher fined Bobo Newsom for throwing spitballs and lying to him about it. During his prime years of the 1950s, Whitey Ford was known to cut or scuff balls to get them to break more dramatically. Gaylord Perry, who arrived on the scene during the 1960s, used the spitter to assemble a Hall of Fame career. He proclaimed his innocence until 1974, when his autobiography was published.

Since most pitchers prefer to outwit batters by more conventional means, the act of doctoring the ball has remained a relatively rare occurrence. Even so, there was an inexplicable rash of scuffing incidents as recently as 1987. On August 3rd of that year, Minnesota's Joe Neikro got caught with a nail file on the mound and was thrown out of a game against the Angels. AL President Bobby Brown rejected the argument that he was innocently filing his nails on the bench and suspended the hurler for ten days. A week later, Philadlephia's Kevin Gross was ejected in the fifth inning of a game against the Cubs when sandpaper was discovered inside his mitt. He too was suspended for ten days and his glove was impounded by league officials.

Sporadic incidents have occurred into the 21st century, the most infamous being the controversial "Smudge-gate" fiasco during the 2006 World Series, in which Tigers hurler Kenny Rogers was accused of applying a foreign substance to balls during a 23-inning scoreless postseason stretch. As long as there are rules, there will always be rule-benders. For certain, we haven't heard the last of baseball's deceptive ball doctors.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gee Walker: The Running Man

Outfielder Gee Walker began his career with the Tigers in 1931. He would remain in the Motor City through the '37 campaign, topping the .300 mark five times in that span. This included a career-best average of .353 in 1936. The Mississippi-native had good speed, swiping 223 bags in fifteen seasons, but developed a reputation for being impulsive and inattentive on the base paths. In fact, there were times when Walker seemed unable to control himself.

Not only was he thrown out trying to steal during an intentional walk one afternoon, but on June 30, 1934, he got picked off twice in the same inning. After Hank Greenberg singled, Walker reached base on an error. Edging too far off the bag, he got hung up when the opposing catcher made a snap throw to first. Greenberg attempted to bail him out by bolting for third, but ended up being thrown out. Walker moved to second on the play and, less than a minute later, got caught off base again. Detroit Manager Mickey Cochrane was furious, suspending Walker for ten days and fining him $20. This failed to curb Walker's impetuous ways.

Hall of Famer Luke Appling remembered Walker’s exploits that season vividly, sharing the following incident with a Chicago Daily News reporter: “We were in Detroit one day. It seemed that (player/Manager) Mickey Cochrane had just informed the erratic base running Walker that the next time he got caught it would cost him $50. Halfway through the game, Gee was footloose again. There was a peg to second base and Walker knew he was a goner. ‘Drop it!’ he yelled at the Sox infielder. ‘Drop it and I’ll give you twenty five bucks!’”

Despite hitting at an even-.300 clip in '34, Walker was limited to just 98 games during the regular season. When the Tigers claimed the AL pennant and moved on to the World Series against the Cardinals, Cochrane used the reckless outfielder exclusively a pinch-hitter. Even in a diminished role, Walker managed to get himself into trouble. After delivering a game-tying single in the ninth inning of Game 2, he was picked off by pitcher Bill Walker (no relation) while engaged in a shouting match with St. Louis bench jockeys. He would make just one more appearance in the remaining five games.

Traded to the White Sox in 1938, Walker finished his career with the Reds in 1945. According to a 1976 Baseball Digest article, he suffered from severe arthritis during the latter part of his career.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Controversial Batting Titles (Concluded)

In 1950, the National League finally caught up with the junior circuit, adopting a 2.6 at-bat per game requirement for the batting title (which was equivalent to 400 at-bats). This rule persisted until 1957, when a 3.1 plate appearance per-game rule was installed. That rule has remained in place to the present day. Currently, if the player with the highest average in the league fails to meet the minimum plate appearance requirement (502), the difference is made up by adding hitless at-bats to his totals. If the player still leads the league with a recalculated average, he is declared the winner. This happened to Bill Madlock in 1981 and Tony Gwynn in 1996. While the present regulations have discouraged part-timers from copping cheap batting crowns, controversy has continued to rear its ugly head.

In 1976, George Brett trailed teammate Hal McRae by a slender margin entering the last day of the season (.33073 to .33078). McRae and Brett both started the game 2-for-3. In the ninth inning, Brett hit a fly to left field which might have been catchable had Twins outfielder Steve Brye kept digging for it. Instead, Brye stopped short and allowed the ball to drop roughly ten feet in front of him. It bounced over his head for an inside-the-park homer. McRae then grounded out. Irritated with this turn of events, he insinuated that Twins manager Gene Mauch was a racist who had told his players to lay up so Brett could claim the batting title. Brett may have fueled the fire when he offered the following quote after the game: "I think maybe the Twins made me a present of the batting championship and if they did, I feel just as bad about it as Hal does." Mauch denied McRae's claim, stating that he would "never do anything to harm the integrity of baseball."

In 2011, another prickly situation arose when Jose Reyes became the first Mets player to win a bating title. After leading off with a bunt single in the last game of the season, it appeared as if he held a secure lead over Ryan Braun of the Brewers. In the interest of maintaining that lead, Reyes allowed himself to be removed from the game. This drew a chorus of boos from the Citi Field crowd and some harsh reviews from certain press members, who referred to his actions as "classless" and "selfish." Reyes remained humbled by the honor nevertheless, commenting: "It means so much to my family and my country, the Dominican Republic."

Controversy marred the National League batting race in 2012 as well, when Giants slugger Melky Cabrera tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Before being slapped with a fifty-game suspension, Cabrera had been MVP of the All-Star Game. He remained the top contender for the batting crown at season's end with a .346 average in 501 plate appearances. Had the hitless at-bat rule been applied, he still would have captured the honor over teammate Buster Posey. But rather than invoke controversy, Cabrera did the right thing, voluntarily removing himself from contention. "I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted," he said in an official statement made through his agent. You have to give him his props for that at least.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the batting races in 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Controversial Batting Crowns (Part II)

Prior to the 1920 campaign, rules required that players appear in just 100 games to qualify for the annual batting title. This led to some pretty interesting results.

In 1926, Cincinnati backstop Bubbles Hargrave captured the crown with a .353 average. This placed him 3 percentage points above the runner-up, outfielder (and teammate) Cuckoo Christensen. Third in line for the honor that year was catcher Earl Smith of the Pirates, who posted a .346 mark.  None of the named players logged more than 385 plate appearances, prompting many to argue that the NL title should go to rookie outfielder (and future Hall of Famer) Paul Waner, who had hit .336 in 144 games.

A similar situation arose in 1932, when infielder Dale Alexander compiled a .367 average with the Tigers and Red Sox. A notoriously ham-fisted first baseman, Alexander had languished on the Detroit bench until a June trade sent him to Boston. In the cozy confines of Fenway, his bat caught fire as he hit at a .372 clip the rest of the way. Despite making just 103 defensive appearances and logging a paltry total of 392 official at-bats, he wrestled a triple crown away from slugger Jimmie Foxx, who had a monster year with 58 homers, 169 RBI and a .369 average. Needless to say, this made quite a few people unhappy.

In 1936, the American League attempted to discourage a repeat of the '32 fiasco by changing the requirement to 400 at-bats. The National League lagged behind and consequently suffered another round of controversy in 1940, when outfielder/ third baseman Debs Garms of Pittsburgh snatched the crown with a .355 mark in 103 games--many as a pinch-hitter. Since neither of his closest competitors (Ernie Lombardi and Johnny Cooney) had recorded more than 376 at-bats,  numerous writers complained that the batting championship should be awarded to Stan Hack, who finished fourth with a .317 mark in 694 plate appearances.

Though the rules would change more than once over the next several decades, controversy emerged nevertheless. I'll conclude this discussion in my next post.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Controversial Batting Crowns (Part I)

Some of baseball's most prestigious awards have been steeped in controversy over the years. The annual batting title has been a source of hot debate on numerous  occasions. The most infamous dispute occurred in 1910,when Napolean Lajoie (through no fault of his own) practically stole the honor from Ty Cobb.

Cobb was among the most universally despised figures in the game. Hazed mercilessly by teammates upon his arrival in the majors, he became angry and bitter, vowing to get even with all who dared oppose him."They were all against me," he said later in life, "but I beat the bastards and left them lying in a ditch." His ruthless style of play came back to bite him in 1910 when members of the St. Louis Browns plotted to rob him of a batting crown.

Believing he held a secure lead over Lajoie of Cleveland, Cobb sat out the last game of the season. Chalmers Automotive, a Detroit-based company, had offered a new car to the winner, making the  title especially appealing that year. With his team slated to face the Naps (later known as the Indians) at home, St. Louis manager Jack O'Connor saw an opportunity to get back at baseball's reigning schoolyard bully. He instructed rookie third baseman Red Corriden to play back near the edge of the outfield grass every time Lajoie came to bat. Taking advantage of this charitable gesture, Lajoie beat out several bunts, boosting his average considerably. Browns pitching coach Harry Howell reportedly attempted to bribe the official scorer into giving Lajoie an extra hit, but the offer was refused. It appeared to be of no consequence when newpapers prematurely declared Lajoie the batting champ by less than a percentage point over Cobb.

Smelling a rat, AL President Ban Johnson detained O'Connor and Corriden for questioning. Corriden was absolved, but Howell and O'Connor were blacklisted from the majors. When the Sporting News published the official seasonal averages, Cobb was declared the winner by a small margin. In a gesture of good faith, the Chalmers Company gave cars to both contenders. Lajoie later joked:"The automobile I got ran a lot better than the one they gave Ty."

...More about disputed batting titles in my next post.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Ancient Proverbs and the World Series

According to the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, the old adage "history repeats itself" can be traced back to ancient times. The author obviously didn't live long enough to witness a World Series, but if he had, he would have been genuinely pleased with himself as scenes from the 1957 and 1969 Fall Classics played out in remarkably similar fashion.

In Game 4 of the '57 Series, Braves pinch-hitter Nippy Jones persuaded home plate umpire Augie Donatelli to award him first base on a pitch that was initially ruled a ball. Using his astute observational skills, Jones drew Donatelli's attention to a spot of shoe polish on the baseball and offered it as evidence that the pitch had nicked him in the foot. Donatelli was swayed by this appeal and promptly granted Jones a free pass. The call proved to be pivotal as Jones was promptly replaced with a pinch-runner. Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the tenth, the Braves rallied for three runs to win the game over the Yankees, 7-5. They would eventually take the Series in seven games.

Mets manager Gil Hodges must have been well-versed in Series lore when he provoked a similar ruling in the '69 October showcase. It should come as no surprise to those who subscribe to the old proverb that the play in question involved another man named Jones. With the Orioles leading 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 5, Mets outfielder Cleon Jones (no relation to Nippy) tried to avoid a pitch in the dirt from Baltimore's Dave McNally. Umpire Lou Dimuro signaled for a hit-by-pitch after Hodges advised him to inspect the ball, which clearly had a smudge of shoe polish on it. Perhaps rattled by the sequence of events, McNally gave up a 2-run homer to the next batter, Donn Clendenon. The Mets won the game, 5-3, claiming the first championship in franchise history.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Glamour of the Long Ball

Fans have long been captivated by tape measure homers--the game's most dramatic display of power and dominance. The fact that MLB's annual Home Run Derby has become nearly as popular as the All-Star Game that follows is a testament to the enduring allure of circuit blasts. Like a famous Nike commercial once said: "Chicks dig the long ball."

Some of the game's most epic homers are recounted here:

May 4, 1894:
At Union Park in Baltimore, Hall of Famer "Big Dan" Brouthers of the Orioles hit a line drive that cleared the fence in right center and rolled two blocks up the street. He would later be credited with a 500-foot homer, though it seems very likely (given the soft, misshapen balls of the era) that the distance was exaggerated.

June 8, 1926:
Babe Ruth launched a rocket to center field in Detroit that allegedly traveled more than 600 feet. Most historians agree that the ball sailed 500 feet in the air, but there is no definitive proof of the additional mileage. In 1921, it was alleged that Ruth hit 500-foot homers in all eight major league ballparks. Given the sizable number of reports on the topic, there is little reason to doubt this claim. In 1927, "The Bambino" is said to have cleared the 52-foot wide grandstand at Comiskey Park--a feat duplicated by Jimmie Foxx.

April 17, 1953:
Mickey Mantle propelled a ball past the left center field bleachers, nicking the National Bohemian Beer sign at Griffith Stadium in Washington. The shot was reported at 565 feet, but that was actually the spot where the ball was retrieved. This should in no way detract from Mantle's majestic display of strength since experts agree that his blast traveled about 510 feet in the air.

May 22, 1963:
Baseball's preeminent slugger was at it again as "The Mick" hit the facade of the right field roof at Yankee Stadium, roughly 370 feet from home plate and 115 feet above the field. Many witnesses reported that the ball was rising before the facade halted its progress, but that was actually an optical illusion. Initial 620-foot estimates are therefore very likely exaggerated. Mantle hit the Yankee Stadium facade two or three times, but never cleared it. He did clear the roof at Comiskey (as Ruth and Foxx did before him) on the fly in June of 1955. The ball reportedly landed on 34th Street and broke the windshield of a car.

July 13, 1971:
In the bottom of the third inning at the All-Star Game, Reggie Jackson (then with the A's) crushed a Dock Ellis pitch, sending the ball 380 feet in the air into a transformer located 100 feet above the field. Reliable estimates considering trajectory, time elapsed and atmospheric factors have placed the shot at roughly 532 feet.

July 6, 1974:
Dick Allen, a prodigious slugger who is rarely given enough credit for it, slammed a ball that collided with the roof facade in deep left center at Tiger Stadium. The ball was lifted 85 feet in the air and 415 feet from home plate. As was so often the case with these types of homers, witnesses claimed that the ball was still climbing when it hit the facade. It would have taken a demonstration of superhuman strength to produce this effect. Still, Allen's bomb traveled at least 500 feet.  

September 14, 1991:
Detroit's Cecil Fielder smashed a 502-foot drive at Milwaukee County Stadium that cleared the bleachers. Estimates of this shot are highly accurate.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wuthering Heights

A superficial glance through the Guiness Book of World Records should prove to anyone that some folks are willing to go to great lengths to carve a small niche in history. The game of baseball has witnessed some odd publicity stunts over the years. In 1894, Chicago Colts catcher Pops Schriver caught a ball dropped 555 feet from the top of the Washington Monument. Since then, the feat has been duplicated and ramped up several times.

To settle a bet, Washington Senators catcher Gabby Street attempted the same stunt in 1908. He missed in his first several tries then finally snared a ball to collect a wager of $500. Two years later, Bill Sullivan of the Chicago White Sox gained entry into the exclusive club, catching three baseballs in more than fifty attempts. He had passed on an offer to snag balls dropped from a low-flying airplane, commenting that he may as well try to catch a bullet. In 1915, Wilbert Robinson--fifty-two year-old manager of the Dodgers--agreed to turn the airplane trick after several of his players declined. At the last minute, however, a grapefruit was substituted. It allegedly hit Robinson in the chest and exploded, knocking him to the ground. Believing that he was covered in his own blood, the horrified Brooklyn skipper cried out for help as his players stood there howling with laughter (or so the story goes).

After the skyscaper boom of the 1920s/'30s, it was only a matter of time before someone upped the ante. In the interest of promoting civic growth, some Cleveland city officials arranged to have balls dropped from the Terminal Tower, which was at one time the tallest building between Chicago and New York at 708 feet. On August 20th, 1938, a crowd  of nearly ten thousand people turned out to see a platoon of major league catchers attempt a record catch. Assembled were Frankie Pytlak, Rollie Hemsley, Henry Helf, Wally Schang and Johnny Bassler. Indians rookie Ken Keltner climbed to the top of the tower and aimed for a circular target painted on the ground, which he later admitted he could barely see. Engineers estimated the speed of the baseballs to be around 138 miles per hour. Cleveland's third-stringer Helf was the first to make a catch. Three tries later, the Tribe's starting backstop (Pytlak) snagged one for himself. According to eyewitness accounts, missed balls bounced as high as six stories.

The following year, Joe Sprinz of the Pacific Coast League Seals couldn't leave well enough alone as he attempted to catch baseballs dropped from a blimp hovering 800 feet above Treasure Island in San Francisco. Sprinz's stunt was one of many offbeat attractions at the Golden Gate Exposition, which included an auto race track for monkeys. The blimp dumped four balls that missed the mark by a wide margin. On the fifth try, Sprinz got his glove in place but couldn't hang on as the force of the sphere severely fractured his jaw and knocked out several teeth. After that, players more or less stopped trying to raise the bar.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tall Tales From the Negro Leagues

Although the games frequently drew sizeable crowds, Negro League players received little attention from the mainstream press. Verbal accounts were often deliberately exaggerated with the subjects being elevated to superhuman status. No one doubts that Josh Gibson was one of the greatest power hitters of all-time. His Hall of Fame plaque states that he hit almost 800 home runs in his seventeen-year career. But due to the absence of reliable statistics, we will never know the exact number. We can assume the following fable never actually took place, though it makes for fascinating reading. The stocky catcher once hit a ball so hard that it allegedly disappeared from sight into the summer sky. In Philadelphia the next day, the ball dropped into the mitt of an opposing center fielder. The umpire pointed to Gibson and cried: "Yer Out! Yesterday, in Pittsburgh!"

A number of myths surround center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who was reputed to be the fastest man ever to step onto a diamond. In one account, he scored from second base on a sacrifice fly. In another, he came all the way around from first on a sac bunt. The tallest tale of all: Satchell Paige once alleged that Bell hit a line drive past his ear one day and, as Paige turned to track the flight of the ball, he saw it hit Bell in the buttocks as he was sliding into second base. Paige famously bragged that Bell was so fast you could turn out the lights and he'd be under the covers before the room got dark.

Paige himself is at the center of many imaginative fables--Some true and some open to debate. He had funny names for all of his pitches and was fond of pulling his teammates off the field to make it more dramatic when he struck out the side. In essence, he was a one man traveling sideshow. By his own estimation, he lost just two games over the course of his first two years of professional service. Enamored with his talents, Chattanooga Lookouts owner Sammy Nicklin allegedly offered Paige $500 to paint his face white so he could play in an exhibition against Chattanooga's arch rivals, the Atlanta Crackers. (There was a ban on blacks in the Southern Association as well as the majors at the time.) As the story goes, Paige seriously considered the offer before one of his coaches talked him out of it. It would be interesting to know what would have happened had he agreed to the crackpot scheme.

Effa Manley played numerous roles in her lifetime--owner, business manager, civic activist. The first woman elected to the Hall of Fame, she allegedly drove players to distraction with her disarming beauty. One Negro League yarn alleges that the bewitching Newark Eagles owner would sit in the stands and flash signs to her players by crossing and uncrossing her shapely legs. Enjoying the show a bit too much one day, Eagles infielder Willie Wells was allegedly knocked unconscious by a pitch from Bill Byrd of the Baltimore Elite Giants.

As previously stated, some of these stories may be factual. Others are obviously fluff. But one thing is for certain: The history of the Negro Leagues is just as rich in detail as that of the Majors (if not more so).

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Nine Lives of Hughie Jennings

Hughie Jennings is remembered as one of the game's most lively characters--and one of the luckiest. A lifetime .312 hitter, he escaped debilitating injury and death on numerous occasions. His major league career began in 1891 with the Lousville Colonels of the American Association. He put up pedestrian numbers until a trade sent him to Baltimore at the end of the 1893 slate. It was there that his career really took off. Serving primarily as a shortstop, he led the Orioles to three NL pennants and was eventually named team captain. In 1896, he collected 121 RBI's without the benefit of a single homer--a highly unusual major league record.

Jennings would move onto a long and prosperous managerial career, guiding the Tigers to three straight AL championships beginning in 1907. He displayed a host of odd behaviors on the diamond. When his players were at bat, he would stand in the coaching box and needle opposing pitchers with an ongoing dialog punctuated by piercing shouts and whistles. A famous photo shows him standing on one leg with his fists in the air and his mouth agape. His nickname "EE-YAH!" is derived from the sound he would make when one of his players did something that pleased him. According to a 1910 article in Outing magazine, Jennings was fond of plucking large patches of turf and stuffing them into his mouth. "During the course of the season, he eats enough grass to stuff a mattress," wrote C.E. Van Loan. "He is a thorn in the side of all greenskeepers. Some of them say they are going to sprinkle Paris Green (a toxic insecticide) around the coaching lines to discourage Hughie's appetite."

Jennings' career was marred by critical injuries. He tempted the fates time and again by leaning into pitches. Between 1894 and 1898, he was beaned more than 200 times. He didn't always get off so easily as his skull was fractured on three separate occasions. In 1897, he was unconscious for four days after being hit by an offering from Giants ace Amos Rusie. His career continued nevertheless. In 1904, Jennings was seriously hurt again when he dove into Cornell University's pool after it had been drained of water. Players often reminded him of this whenever he scolded them for boneheaded plays.

The resilient Detroit pilot suffered yet another perilous mishap in 1911, when his car plummeted ten feet from a bridge over the Lehigh River. He narrowly escaped drowning and was left with two broken legs and a broken arm. A few years later, serious health problems began to surface. In 1925, he was afflicted with tuberculosis. The illness ended his baseball career, but he hung on until a bout of meningitis finally claimed his life at the age of fifty-eight. He was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.