Thursday, February 28, 2013

Minor League Flakes

For every player who succeeds in the big leagues, there are a dozen others who toil anonymously in the minors. Some of these nameless, faceless individuals have left behind a legacy of fascinating tales largely unheard by the masses. Among the most colorful players in minor league history, Bill Faul and Steve Dalkowsi had careers well worth examining.

Dalkowski is generally considered to be the fastest pitcher who ever lived. Unfortunately, no one will know precisely how fast. A simple-minded left-hander who never progressed beyond Triple-A due to extreme wildness, he created his own mythology in the Orioles’ farm system between 1957 and 1965. One of his pitches allegedly tore off a batter’s ear lobe. Another offering shattered an umpire’s mask. After looking at one fastball, even Ted Williams refused to hit against him. To satisfy their curiosity, the Orioles sent Dalkowski to an Army training ground in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were granted access to a device designed to measure the velocity of projectiles. Unfortunately, the experiment required the unpredictable southpaw to toss the ball through a small metal box just a few inches in diameter. It took Dalkowski forty minutes of full exertion to get one of his throws into the box. The result was a disappointing 93.5 miles per hour. Hall of Famer Bob Feller had been clocked at 98.6 using a similar method, but he was well-rested and throwing off of a mound at the time of the trial. Dalkowski was working from a flat surface on a day he had already pitched. An elbow strain in 1963 reduced his velocity and forced him into retirement two seasons later. A chronic alcoholic, he eventually drank himself into a state of permanent dementia. His story became the premise for a character in the 1988 film Bull Durham. A measure of his wildness, he averaged 12 walks per nine innings during his 9 seasons in the minors. 

Bill Faul had several cups of coffee in the majors, appearing in 71 games for the Tigers, Cubs and Giants between 1962 and 1970. Most of his career was spent on the farm, however, where he notched a 46-35 record and a 3.57 ERA in 220 games (a majority of them in the Pacific Coast League). Faul got his start at the University of Cincinnati, becoming the school's first All-American selection. A college teammate described him as extremely gullible and highly vulnerable to the pranks of teammates. Tigers' manager Chuck Dressen made the following observation: "You watch him for awhile, watch how he acts, talk to him, spend some time with him and you figure he's the dumbest guy in the world or the smartest one you've ever met." The jury is still out on that one. In addition to a quirky delivery that irritated many hitters, Faul was known to hypnotize himself before games by standing in a corner and placing himself in a trance-like state. He said it was to boost his confidence. He had other eccentric practices as well. In order to give himself a competitive edge, he was known to bite the heads off of live parakeets and swallow live toads. He claimed the toads gave him extra velocity on his fastball. He averaged nearly 6 strikeouts per 9 frames during his brief major league career. Faul seemed to have the skills  necessary to pitch in the Big Show, but his strange behavior doomed him to a life in the bush. Inexplicably, he was on the mound for three triple plays during his career.   

Monday, February 25, 2013

In Defense of Jeter

Lively debate is what makes the baseball world go 'round. It's one of the reasons why the sport is great in the first place and I welcome it. I am hesitant, however, to engage in discussions about Yankee players with those outside of Yankee circles. I understand that 27 world championships and consistently bloated payrolls have a major impact on souring the attitudes of those whose loyalties lie outside the Bronx. As the old saying goes: "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for IBM."

I get it. Really.
But I will not stand idly by for another round of annual Derek Jeter bashing.
Overrated? Selfish? What are these people talking about?

It's a fundamental law of economics that items in great demand tend to be worth more. But Jeter isn't even slated to be the highest paid Yankee regular in 2013. With A-Rod at least temporarily out of the picture, Jeter's salary ranks fourth among players likely to suit up on opening day. Why fourth? He should actually be paid more. Jeter is an icon--the heart and soul of the Yankee franchise regardless of his abilities and lifetime statistics. When he broke his ankle in the postseason last year, the team crumbled without him. Who sells more merchandise and tickets? How often do you spot a Yankee fan outside the Bronx cathedral wearing a jersey bearing a number other than "2"? (Retired Yankee greats don't count) And how many fans will list Mark Teixeira or Ichiro Suzuki as an impetus for purchasing a costly box seat? (Both will be making more money than Jeter this year according to ESPN.)

Selfish? Give me a break.
Before griping about Jeter's salary, we should get 2 things straight:
1) He didn't even break the $1 million per-year mark until his fourth season in the majors. By then, he had captured Rookie of the Year honors along with a pair of World Series titles.
2) He has never been the highest paid player on the team despite his intrinsic value to the club.
(If you're still questioning Jeter's value to the Yankees, I refer you to EXHIBIT A: Five World Series Rings. That's tops among active players--tied with other members of "the core four.")

Many Jeter detractors talk about his defense and I'll give you that--he has lost a step or two over the years. But anybody who complains about Jeter's abilities in general has likely never studied the numbers.
Overrated? Ridiculous!
Currently ranked at #11 on the all time hit list with 3,304 safeties, Jeter is the active Yankee leader in that category. He holds the record for most postseason hits with 200. He has appeared in 13 All-Star games and captured 5 Silver Slugger Awards. He has been among the top MVP candidates three times. Other accolades include All-Star and World Series MVP nods (both in 2000).

What about his defense? People seem to find it suspect despite the fact that Jeter currently ranks 6th all time in double plays turned as a shortstop. He led the league in fielding percentage twice, assists once and putouts on another occasion. He has 5 Gold Gloves to his credit. Beyond the numbers, take a look at the highlight reels. In his prime, Jeter perfected the art of the backhanded stab deep in the hole followed by a gazelle-like leap and deadly accurate throw to first. How many runners has he erased with that little maneuver? One of his postseason assists single-handedly turned the tide of a series against the A's. To this day, it's still simply referred to as "the play" by Yankee fans.

I rest my case, well, almost...
In an era of players behaving badly, Jeter has served as Captain of the Yankees with dignity and grace. He accepts interview requests, talks to fans, signs autographs, gives time and money to various charities. Despite his universal appeal to the opposite sex, he's managed to avoid major scandal in that area of his life (so far anyway).
So why not pay him as much as A-Rod or any of the other self-serving jerks occupying major league diamonds these days?

Okay, now I'm done.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Pomp and Swagger

Because professional baseball players have a unique set of skills that are in short supply, they are often subject to hero worship. A little bit of that can go a long way toward swelling a guy's head. Though some of the greatest players in history have remained quite humble despite all the accolades and adoration, there have been others who have fallen prey to their own hype. With that having been said, I now present a short list of the most arrogant players of all time.

Dizzy Dean--
A Hall of Famer who won 82 games for the Cardinals between 1934 and 1936, Dean was by far the cockiest player of his generation...So cocky, in fact, that numerous opponents and teammates were inspired to punch him out. While playing in the Texas League, he called up a rival manager the evening before one of his starts and bragged that he was going to limit his opponents to "just two or three hits." Before the 1934 campaign, he predicted that he and his younger brother Paul were going to win 45 games. On another occasion, he bet a teammate that he could strikeout Vince DiMaggio four times in one game. He made good on all of those claims, becoming famous for the quote: "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up."

Reggie Jackson--
Among the highest paid sluggers of his era, Jackson was baseball's equivalent to Muhammed Ali. He was comfortable in the spotlight and almost always good for a quote, though the things he said often stirred up controversy. Before signing with the Yankees, he boasted that if he came to New York they would name a candy bar after him. They did, of course. When "Reggie!" bars hit the shelves in 1978, teammate Catfish Hunter commented hilariously: "When you unwrap (one), it tells you how good it is." Jackson was a larger than life character with a larger than life ego. After blasting a tape measure shot in Boston one afternoon, he told reporters "We needed an insurance run so I hit it over the Prudential Building." He soured his ambivalent relationship with Yankee team captain Thurman Munson when he infamously referred to himself as "the straw that stirs the drink." "Maybe I should say me and Muson," Jackson added, "but he can only stir it bad." For the most part, Jackson put his money where his mouth was throughout his career, blasting 563 homers in an era when the 500-homer club was much smaller.

Bobo Newsom--
In an era when team pride ran deep, Newsom was a shameless self-promoter who sold himself to the highest bidder every year. He played for 9 teams between 1929 and 1953, winning 211 games while losing even more. Enamored with his own abilities, he bragged later in life that "whenever Bobo asked for more dough, Bobo always got it." That's no misprint. The ultimate form of self-love, Newsom almost always referred to himself in the third person. When FDR came to the Senators opener in 1936, Newsom got hit by a throw that fractured his jaw. He pitched a complete game shutout over the Yankees anyway and remarked afterward in typical self-serving fashion:"When the President comes to see Bobo pitch, Ol' Bobo ain't-a-gonna disappoint him."Never mind the other 17 players who took the field that day, it was all about Bobo.

Rickey Henderson--
Henderson was undeniably the greatest lead-off man who ever lived, walking more times leading off an inning than many Hall of Famers walked in their entire careers. But Henderson was also one of the game's biggest narcissists. He would often stand in the locker room before a full length mirror (sometimes completely naked) admiring his own physique and practicing his swing while repeating the mantra "Rickey's the Best!" Yes, he was an illeist, having studied at the Bobo Newsom school of language. Referring to himself in the third person, he provided some highly amusing quotes over the years. He once called up Padres GM Kevin Towers and left the following message: "This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play baseball." When he received a signing bonus of $1million from the Yankees one year, he was so proud of it, he framed it and hung it on his wall instead of cashing it. After breaking Lou Brock's stolen base record, he prolaimed: "Lou Brock was the symbol of great base stealing, but today, I'm the greatest of all-time."

In the current era, there are many who would argue in favor of Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds being the most arrogant--The way they stood at home plate admiring their home runs and strutted around without a care in the world for what people thought of them. Bonds didn't even show up to receive  his MVP award one year. Pitcher David Cone once defended conceit among players, commenting that: "You need a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of arrogance to be able to play well and to push yourself and trick yourself into thinking you're better than you really are." There's a certain logic to that statement, though arrogance is still distasteful to many.  As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "Arrogance on the part of the meritous is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: For merit itself is offensive."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Fowl Play: Strange Incidents Involving Birds

The possibilities of what can happen on a baseball field are virtually limitless--especially  when the game is played in an open air environment. Bats get broken, balls carom wildly, unwanted guests invade the playing surface. More than one unusual on-field event has involved the presence of birds.

On August 4th, 1983, Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield was taken to the Ontario Provincial Police Station following a 3-1 win over the Blue Jays and charged with cruelty to animals. He was released after posting a $500 bond. The incident that landed him in trouble happened as the Jays were coming to bat in the bottom of the fifth inning. While playing catch with left fielder Don Baylor, Winfield fired a ball in the direction of a segull camped out on the field and scored a direct hit, killing the bird. He later claimed it was accidental, but fans in proximity believed otherwise, showering him with insults and debris. Billy Martin later joked:"They say he hit the gull on purpose. They wouldn't say that had they seen the throws he's been making all year. It's the first time he's hit the cutoff man." Winfield would be associated with the incident for the rest of his career.

On March 21st, 2001, during a spring training game between the Diamondbacks and Giants, Arizona hurler Randy Johnson threw a fastball that struck and killed a dove. The bird swooped across the field just as Johnson was releasing the ball. Catcher Rod Barajas commented: "I'm sitting there, waiting for (the pitch) and all you see is an explosion. It's crazy. There's still feathers down there." The bird was killed on impact and, though some players tried to make light of the unfortunate event, Johnson was not among them. The big left-hander commented after the game in typical terse fashion: "I didn't think it was all that funny." More than 10 years later, there are still dozens of links to the game footage.

On June 11th, 2009, during a game between the Royals and Indians at Cleveland, birds played a major role in the proceedings yet again. The game was tied 3-3 in the bottom of the tenth. Kyle Farnsworth was pitching for Kansas City in relief. Mark DeRosa had singled and Victor Martinez had drawn a walk when Shin-Soo Choo singled up the middle straight into a flock of grazing seagulls. Choo's liner hit one of the birds and skittered away to the outfield wall as the winning run scored. Center Fielder Coco Crisp threw his hands up in a gesture of exasperation, but there was no disputing the play. Mike Reilly, chief of the umpiring crew, said: "They're in play--whatever (the ball) does off the bird." This time, no pinioned creatures were harmed during the sequence. "Crazy things happen in this game," said Crisp after the loss. "That's why it's a great game."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Goodbye to "Stan the Man"

On January 19th of this year, the world of baseball received sad news with the passing of former Cardinal great Stan Musial. Mild-mannered and humble, Musial lacked the media presence of baseball's highest profile superstars despite the fact that he ranks with the best of them. Because he was so unassuming, he has not always received the credit he deserves.

But his career statistics speak volumes...

Musial was the first player to reach 400 homers and 3,000 hits. At the time of his retirement, he held the all time mark for total bases. Only Ty Cobb had collected more hits. Additionally, Musial set records for runs scored, doubles and RBI's (since broken). He accomplished all this despite missing a full season in his prime to military service.

A three-time MVP, "Stan the Man" won 7 batting titles and hit .330 or better thirteen times during his career. His lifetime mark of .331 is among the top 30 totals of all time. With the exception of the year he spent in the armed forces during WWII, he was named to the All-Star team every year from 1943 through 1963. With plenty of chances to pad his totals, he still holds the record for most All-Star homers. He once hit 5 long balls in a doubleheader (a record later tied by Nate Colbert). 

Another rare achievement, Musial spent all 22 of his major league seasons in St. Louis. Few players have remained in one place for that long. He helped the Cardinals to 4 World Series appearances between 1942 and 1946. In 23 postseason games, he reached base by hit or walk 34 times. He scored 9 runs and drove in 8 more as the Red Birds captured 3 world championships. After reitring as a player, Musial guided the club to another World Series victory as GM.

Beyond his on-field accomplishments, Musial was community-minded and generous. A beloved figure in St. Louis, he focused his energies on several charities including the Crippled Children's Society of St. Louis, Shelter the Children, the U.S.O. and the Urological Research Foundation. Additionally, he chaired the President's Council on Physical Fitness. All in all, he was an extraordinary man and will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1920s (Concluded)

In 1919, the highest team batting average was held by the White Sox, who hit at a collective .287 clip that year. The highest home run totals belonged to Gavvy Cravath in the NL with 12 and Babe Ruth in the junior circuit with 29 (a new record).

In 1920, with the so-called "Lively ball" in play, offensive statistics jumped considerably. The highest team average was .308, compiled by the St. Louis Browns. In the home run department, Ruth shocked and awed the masses with a whopping total of 54. These trends remained consistent throughout the decade. In the era of the big-boppers, many fine players toiled in relative anonymity. Today, their names remain shrouded in the mists of time.

Wrapping up my survey of Forgotten Greats of the 1920's, I now present the final three:

3.  Bibb Falk:   Tall and slender at 6-feet, 175 pounds, Falk played for the University of Texas, where he was discovered by White Sox scouts and promoted to the big club in 1920. He would spend the entire decade of the '20's in the Windy City. It wasn't easy living in the shadow of the World Series scandal, but Falk did an admirable job. During his 12 big league campaigns, he never hit below .285. He assembled a run of five consecutive seasons over the .300 mark, peaking at .354 in 1924. A clutch-hitter, he gathered 80 or more RBI's six times. He averaged 70 per year during the "roaring '20's" despite two injury plagued seasons. Falk was also adept at the art of the sacrifice (a practice highly neglected during the lively ball years), successfully executing 20 or more in 7 campaigns. He remains in the top 100 of all time in that category. Defensively, Falk was a standout, leading AL left fielders in assists every year from 1924 through 1927. He also paced the circuit in double plays and fielding percentage as a left fielder twice apiece. After his retirement, he led his alma mater--The University of Texas--to 20 Conference championships.

2. Charlie Grimm:  Nicknamed "Jolly Cholly" for his pleasant personality, Grimm is known by many fans as manager of the Cubs from 1932 to 1949. These were the club's last salad days as they made 3 World Series appearances in that span. Many Chicago fans don't realize that Grimm had an exceptional playing career that spanned 20 seasons. Grimm became a regular in 1920 with the Pirates, but was traded before their championship season of '25. Among the slickest fielding first basemen in the National League, he would help Chicago to the Fall Classic as a player in '29 and player/manager in '32. Grimm won 6 fielding titles at first base while finishing among the top 3 in putouts 9 times. He was pretty handy with a bat as well. Appearing most often in the 6th or 7th slot in the order, he collected 70 or more ribbies on 8 occasions. A lifetime .290 hitter, he peaked at .345 in '23. He received a significant share of the MVP vote 3 times before moving on to the managerial ranks.

1. Joe Judge:   At 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Judge was among the smallest first basemen in the American League. Despite his diminutive stature, he was one of the most reliable players at his position. From 1918 through 1930, Judge was a permanent fixture at the initial sack for the Senators. He was there for the only World Series victory in franchise history. He played in all 7 October contests against the Giants in '24, fashioning a .385 batting average and .484 on-base percentage. He was not quite as spectacular in the regular season but he was a model of consistency. The decade of the 1920's was by far his most fruitful period as he hit no lower than .291 and topped the .300 mark 8 times. Playing in the cavernous expanse of Griffith Stadium, he was robbed of home runs every year, but he found the alleys regularly, slamming 30 or more doubles 6 times while finishing with double digit totals for triples on 9 occasions. Judge had above average speed, swiping 213 bases in his long career. He was a serious candidate for MVP twice, placing 3rd in 1928 with 42% of the vote. Defense was one of the strongest aspects of his game as he captured 6 fielding titles. He currently ranks among the top 20 of all time in assists, putouts and double plays. When he retired, he held several fielding records (since broken). Statistician Bill James ranked him at #44 among the all time greatest first basemen.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1920s (Cont'd)

Time is the enemy of baseball achievements. Records get broken. New players come along and grab the spotlight. As years march on, memories of past games get fuzzy.

As promised, I'll continue with my Top 10 List of Forgotten Greats from the 1920's. (Hall of Famers are excluded)

7. Lu Blue: According to several sources, the man with the alliterative name hit 2 grand slams in a Blue Ridge League game--one from each side of the plate. Blue didn't have the kind of home run power generally considered a prerequisite for playing first base, but Ty Cobb installed him at that station nevertheless in 1921. Blue learned a lot from the irascible Cobb, including the patterns of many pitchers in the league. This allowed him to consistently maintain on-base percentages in excess of .400. During the decade of the 1920's, Blue put up a mark of .405 in that department while receiving significant shares of MVP votes three times. Most often batting first in the order, Blue did not have blazing speed, but he was no slouch either, finishing with double digit stolen base totals in 8 consecutive seasons. He accomplished this when the art of the stolen base was in serious decline. He hit just 44 homers in his career, but averaged 25 doubles per year during his 13-year tour of the majors. He hit .293 or better 6 times. Blue spent 7 seasons in Detroit, scoring 80 or more runs in 6 of those campaigns. He was a competent though not exceptional fielder, pacing the loop in assists, double plays and putouts once apiece.

6. Max Bishop: Bishop was a table setter for 3 pennant winning squads in Philadelphia. Hitting at the top of the A's batting order, he earned the nickname "Camera eye" for his uncanny ability to judge pitches. During his 13 seasons in the majors, he accrued a lifetime on-base percentage of .423, which is among the top 20 totals of all time. From 1926 through 1933, he drew no fewer than 100 walks. With sluggers like Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane hitting behind him, Bishop scored at least 77 runs every year in that span. According to multiple sources, he was quiet and gentlemanly off the field, avoiding the high life that many players were seduced by. After his playing days were over, he enjoyed a successful 24-year run as a US Naval Academy coach at Anapolis.

5. Wally Schang: Schang was solidly put together at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. After compiling a .333 batting average in 48 International League games in 1912, he was scooped up by Connie Mack. In his rookie season of 1913, he played backup to catcher Jack Lapp as the A's claimed a world championship. Schang got into 4 World Series games that year and was one of the most productive players, hitting .357 with a homer and 7 RBI's. By the time he retired, Schang had helped guide 3 different clubs to a total of 7 pennants and 4 World Series titles. Schang was a lifetime .287 hitter in postseason play. His most potent offensive period came during the 1920's, when he topped the .300 mark at the plate on five occasions. He peaked at .330 in 1926 with the Browns. Schang handled some of the greatest pitchers of all time, among them Eddie Plank, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt and Lefty Grove. He was equipped with a strong arm, foiling 44% of all stolen base attempts while leading AL catchers in double plays and fielding percentage once apiece. He received serious MVP consideration twice.

4. Bob Shawkey: Shawkey was one of the premier strikeout artists of the 1920's--an era dominated by offense. He began his major league career with the A's, but ended up being traded to the Yankees when a frustrated Connie Mack purged his roster after a disappointing 1914 World Series sweep at the hands of the Braves. Shawkey won 24 games for a middling Yanee club in 1916. After serving in the Navy during WWI, he returned to help the Yankees climb into contention. He reached the 20-win threshold three times between 1919 and 1924, collecting no fewer than 16 victories in that span. He held the franchise single-game strikeout record (15) for 59 years. Shawkey placed among the top 3 in K's every year from 1920 through 1924. He was a member of 5 pennant winning squads. A quiet, modest man by most reports, he would be appointed Yankee manager in 1930. He guided the club to a third place finish before being replaced by Joe McCarthy the following year.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1920s

During the "Roaring Twenties," Baseball faced a major threat to its livelihood as attendance sagged in the wake of World War I and the 1919 World Series scandal turned many against the sport. After Indians' shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a Carl Mays pitch in August of 1920, the spitball and various deceptive delivereries were declared illegal. Umpires were encouraged to put fresh balls into play more often. Before then, balls had been used until they were lopsided and soggy. The result was a "livelier" baseball and an offensive explosion unparalleled in the game's history to that point. With an emphasis on offense and fair play, fans began returning to ballparks and baseball regained its status as "America's Favorite Pastime."

The '20's were dominated by the Yankees and Giants--intra-city rivals who shared a stadium until 1923. While the pages of most sports publications were crowded with names like Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb and Cochrane, other talented players were lost in the mix, especially those who played for small market teams. In my next few blogs, I will compile a TOP 10 LIST OF FORGOTTEN GREATS FROM THE 1920's.
Let's get started!

10. Bob Meusel: Tall, slender and debonnaire, "Long Bob" Meusel was one of the most misunderstood players of his time. Beat writers who traveled with the Yankees found him cold and taciturn. This resulted in a lot of negative press. The 1922 Reach Guide remarked that "only a rather lazy listless nature prevents Meusel from being one of the greatest stars of the game." That and the fact that he was surrounded by teammates whose talents eclipsed his own: Gehrig, Ruth, Lazzeri and Combs to name a few. But Meusel was an essential cog on 6 World Series squads. Defensively, he had good range and a strong arm, which enabled him to compile double digit assist totals six times. He led American League outfielders twice in that category. Offensively, he had little home run power, but used the spacious parks of the era to his advantage, collecting 40 or more doubles on five occasions. He hit for average as well, topping the .300 mark every year from 1920 through 1924. He finished his career at .309. In 1925, when Babe Ruth missed more than 50 games, Meusel stepped in to fill the void, slamming a league-leading 33 homers while also pacing the circuit in RBI's with 138. He hit for the cylce 3 times in his career, a major league record. When he "slumped" to .269 at the plate in 1929, he was traded to Cincinnati, where he ended his big league run.

9. Ken Williams: Williams was the first player to get caught using a corked bat back in 1923, though the practice was not expressly forbidden at the time. Had Williams played somewhere else, he might have become a household name. Serving alongside Jack Tobin and Baby Doll Jacobson in the St. Louis outfield, he helped keep the Browns in the pennant race for a few seasons during the early-'20's. Williams had his finest campaign in 1922, becoming the founding member of baseball's 30/30 club with 39 homers and 37 stolen bases. He also became the first AL player to homer twice in the same inning that year. He would go deep in six straight games during late-July/early-August of '22 as the Brownies remained on the Yankees' tail until the last week of the season, ultimately finishing one game out. Saddled by injuries throughout his career, Williams made the most of his playing time. He holds the major league record for fewest games in a 100-RBI season, knocking in 105 runs in just 102 games during the '25 slate. A clutch player, he would drive home no fewer than 72 runs every year from 1920 through 1927 and finish his career with a .319 batting average. He held his own on defense as well, finishing among the top five in putouts on seven occasions. Sabermetric measurements equate him with Hack Wilson and Chick Hafey--both Hall of Famers.

8. George Uhle:  Nicknamed "The Bull," Uhle was sturdily built at 6-foot, 190 pounds. He demonstrated his durability early on by pitching a 20-inning shutout during his rookie campaign. He would reach the 300-inning threshold twice in his career, leading the league in complete games during both of those seasons. The right-hander spend most of the 1920's in Cleveland, collecting at least 22 victories three times. During his most successful campaign (1926), he notched a 27-11 record with a 2.83 ERA.Often credited with the invention of the slider, Uhle was one of the best-hitting pitchers of all time and probably would have made a serviceable position player. In 1,360 lifetime at-bats, he accrued a .289 average with 90 extra-base hits and 187 ribbies. He was so adept with a bat that he was used as a pinch-hitter nearly 200 times in his career. In 1924, he was 11 for 26 in that role--tops in the AL.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ruth and the Dawn of the Big Money Era

As we wait for pitchers and catchers to report to spring training, it's hard not to notice all of the money being waved around. For those not following hot stove developments, Josh Hamilton has left the Rangers and signed with the Angels for $125 million over 5 years. B.J. Upton has bid Tampa Bay farewell and inked a $75 million 5-year deal with the Braves. David Ortiz has opted to stay in Boston after being offered $13 million a year for the next two seasons. That's an awful lot of cash for a designated hitter.

So where did this madness begin?
With Babe Ruth, of course.

1919 was a coming out year for Ruth. From 1915 through 1917, he had served primarily as a pitcher, compiling a handsome 65-33 record in that span. Once he revealed his power at the plate, the Red Sox began penciling him into the lineup on a daily basis. During the '19 slate, Ruth pitched just 17 games while playing 5 at first base and 112 in the outfield. The results were dramatic as he led the league in numerous statistical categories while setting a new single season record for homers with 29 (a mark he would shatter the following year).

 At the end of the season, Ruth turned in his two Red Sox uniforms and announced that he was most likely done with the club. Asking for $20,000 (double the previous year's salary), he departed for California to participate in a series of exhibition games that would net him $500 apiece. Meanwhile in New York, Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston asked manager Miller Huggins what he needed for a contending team. In the widely accepted version of this story, Huggins replied: "Get me Babe Ruth." Ruppert and Huston agreed.

At the time, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was juggling baseball and theater interests. The first World War had negatively impacted gate receipts and he still owed a lot of money to Joseph Lannin on his original purchase of the club (made back in 1916). Looking to liquidate his assets, Frazee put Ruth up for sale. He defended his actions by complaining that he was tired of dealing with the slugger's "eccentricities," which he perceived as a detriment to team morale.

After getting Frazee's approval, the "Two Colonels" sent Huggins to California to hash out the details with Ruth. The contract was worth more than $100,000--an astronomical sum in those days and more than double the largest amount ever offered to a player (Tris Speaker had once signed with the Indians for $55,000). Ruppert and Huston were widely praised by the New York press for their bold maneuver. Reviews for Frazee in Boston were also quite positive. The Boston Post commented: "It is believed that practically every man on the Boston team will be pleased at Ruth's sale to New York." The Boston Herald echoed that sentiment and cautioned fans to "reserve judgement until they see how it works out."

As nearly everyone knows by now, it didn 't work out so well. Over the next few seasons, Frazee would become addicted to selling his star players to the Yankees, stocking the Bombers with all the ingredients necessary for a world championship. With Ruth leading the way, the Yanks would make 7 World Series appearances between 1920 and 1932, emerging victorious 5 times. The Sox would go in a completely different direction, finishing no higher than fifth place in that span. By the end of the 20th century, New York had captured 25 world championships to Boston's 5.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Random '70s Flashbacks (Part III)

Here are a few more random blurbs from the colorful decade of the 1970's:

During a 1977 Monday Night Baseball broadcast at Arlington Stadium, a sixteen year-old ballboy named Rich Thompson was clowning around with a microphone near the Texas Rangers’ dugout. Assuming it had been switched off, he directed a stream of insults at ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell. His commentary included the abusive sentiment: “Bite me, Howard. The entire state of Texas hates your guts.” He was surprised and embarrassed when he discovered that his remarks were actually being televised. A startled Cosell declined immediate comment, but co-host Keith Jackson referred to the interlude as a “stupid incident.” Rangers’ owner Brad Corbett issued an apology to Cosell and a suspension to Thompson. Despite the regrettable faux pas, Manager Frank Lucchesi discouraged Corbett from firing the boy.    

Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Army at Shea Stadium in June of 1975, a pair of 75mm cannons from Fort Hamilton unleashed a twenty-one gun salute that blew out several sections of the outfield fence and set portions of the bleachers on fire. After the damage was repaired, fans partied in their own fashion with dozens of fistfights and the release of a live chicken, which strutted on top of the backstop screen for two full innings. A night of mayhem was capped off with an eighth inning bomb scare directed at the California Angels’ dugout. A thorough search by New York City Police uncovered nothing contraband and the Yankees (guests at Shea while their own stadium was being refurbished) moved on to an uninspiring 6-4 victory.

During the ’76 campaign, the Dodgers were playing the Padres at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium. As catcher Steve Yeager waited on-deck, Bill Russell made contact with a high fastball and broke his bat. To the absolute horror of everyone watching, the jagged end pierced Yeager’s throat. The Dodger backstop recalled being mesmerized. “I couldn’t move. I knew it was going to hit me and I knew I had to let it,” he said.  In those days, there were no ambulances at the stadium and it took nearly twenty minutes for one to arrive. Yeager was rushed to the ER and the wound was repaired. His doctor explained that vital structures had been missed by a fraction of an inch. Afterward, the L.A. backstop wore a protective chin flap attached to his mask—a piece of hardware used by catchers for many years.

(This next one comes from Gaylord Perry's classic book, Me and the Spitter, which was published in 1974. I've always loved this particular anecdote, even if Perry embellished of fabricated it.)

Looking for something to push the Giants over the top after five consecutive second place finishes, manager Clyde King hired a psycho-cybernetics expert to help the team in spring training of 1970. When Willie Mays asked what it was all about, utility infielder Jim Davenport explained that King wanted players to concentrate.
 “Concentrate,” said Mays, “what’s he think I’ve been doing for the past twenty years?”
Without missing a beat, Davenport retorted: “Maybe if you’d learned this concentration bit a few years ago, Willie, you’d have 800 homers instead of the lousy 600 you’ve got.”

(...One more for good measure. This comes from Pete Rose's 2004 Confessional My Prison Without Bars)
A devout Catholic, Reds’ shortstop Dave Concepcion got in the habit of making the sign of the cross before each at-bat. One year, while mired in a horrible slump, he organized a Sunday chapel service to be held in the clubhouse. When several agnostic teammates (Pete Rose among them) showed up to meet with the trainer, they found Concepcion and a handful of others engaged in prayer. One of them commented: “I hope he’s thanking God for that piece of ass he had last night because he sure ain’t had no hits!”