Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Quotable Characters (Part III)

Wrapping up my discussion of baseball's most quotable personalities, here are 3 of my absolute all-time favorites.

Ty Cobb
To some, Cobb was the greatest baseball player of all time. About the only thing he didn't do is hit for power. What he did do was hit for higher average than anyone in the history of the game (.366), winning 11 batting titles and a triple crown in the process. Cobb was a fierce competitor who was universally despised by opponents, whom he pounded on both literally and figuratively for 24 years. He was well-spoken, analytical and introspective off the field. Here are some of his greatest quotes:

"When I began playing the game, baseball was about as gentlemanly as a kick in the crotch."

"I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them lying in the ditch."

"I have observed that baseball is not unlike a war and we batters are the heavy artillery."

  "Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea and the molly-coddles had better stay out."

"Every batter works on the theory that the pitcher is more afraid of him than he is of the pitcher."

Babe Ruth
Ruth was in a class all by himself. In fact, when players today do something remarkable at the plate, their performances are sometimes referred to as "Ruthian." When he retired in 1935, the Babe's 714 homers were 400 more than the closest runner-up--Lou Gehrig. He still holds the all-time record for slugging percentage. A larger than life character, Ruth lived fast and died relatively young. He signed autographs, promised homers to sick kids and gave back to the community at large. His daily exploits both on and off the field were chronicled in the papers. There simply has never been another player like him. Though Ruth was not generally known as a thinker, some of his quotes are quite insightful.

"You just can't beat the person who never gives up."

"All ballplayers should quit when it starts to feel as if all the bases run uphill."

"Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming to the plate."

"If I'd tried for them dinky singles, I could've batted around .600."

(Upon being informed that he was asking for more money than the President:) "I know, but I had a better year than Hoover."

Earl Weaver
Weaver led the Orioles to 3 pennants and 1 World Series victory between 1969 and 1971. He added another pennant in '79. The chain-smoking Weaver was one of the most ornery managers ever to take the field. He was known for turning his cap around backwards so he could get right on top of an umpire without actually making contact. He was also known for kicking dirt and trashing dugouts when he was really angry. Weaver was an ingenious strategist with a flamboyant personality. He provided so many good quotes, it's actually difficult for me to limit them to just a few. Here are a handful of my favorites:

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

"A manager's job is simple. For 162 games, you try not to screw up all the smart stuff your organization did last December."

"We're so bad right now that for us, back-to-back home runs means one today and another tomorrow."

"I never got many questions about my managing. I tried to get 25 guys who didn't ask questions."

"On my tombstone, just write: The sorest loser who ever lived." 

Lefty Gomez
Last but certainly not least--how could I leave out Lefty Gomez? Gomez made it into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his pitching--he won two triple crowns, five World Series rings and posted a 6-0 postseason record for the Yankees between 1930 and 1942. He was also a much sought-after public speaker, responsible for some of the greatest quips in baseball history. The following sampling only scratches the surface of his unique wit:

"A lot of things run through your head when you're going in to relieve in a tight spot. One of them was: "Should I spike myself?"

"I talked to the ball a lot of times in my career. I yelled: "Go foul! Go foul!"

(To Lou Gehrig before his farewell speech) "Hell, Lou, it took 15 years to get you out of the game. Sometimes, I'm out in 15 minutes."

"I was the worst hitter ever. I never even broke a bat until last year when I was backing out of the garage."

"The secret of my success was clean living and a fast outfield."


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Quotable Characters (Part II)

Box scores and statistics can be fascinating, but it's the memorable personalities that make baseball such a richly textured sport. As I mentioned in my last post, a few of those personalities left behind a legacy of enduring quotes. Here are more of my favorites: 

Yogi Berra:

This legendary Yankee great played on fourteen pennant winners and ten championship squads. He was also named to fifteen straight All-Star teams. Lofty credentials aside, he is best known for his malapropisms, which are commonly referred to as "Yogi-isms." Over the course of his career, they included the following:

"If you don't know where you're going, chances are you'll end up somewhere else."

"If the people don't want to come to the ballpark, nobody's going to stop them."

"You can observe a lot by just watching."

"Never answer an anonymous letter."

"It's not the heat, it's the humility."

Bob Uecker
Uecker had an undistinguished major league career as a catcher for portions of six seasons. He later became a sportscaster, stand-up comedian and actor, appearing in several movies as well as the long-running TV sitcom Mr. Belvedere. He was given the title of "Mr. Baseball" by talk-show host Johnny Carson and received the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some of his best self-deprecating lines are as follows:

"I led the league in 'Go get-'em next time!'"

"I go to Old-Timer's games and I haven't lost a thing. I sit in the bullpen and let people throw things at me just like old times."

"People don't know this, but I helped the Cardinals win a pennant. I came down with hepatitis. The trainer injected me with it."

"I didn't get a lot of awards as a player, but they did have a 'Bob Uecker Day Off' once for me in Philly."

"I hit a grand slam off of Ron Herbel and when his manager Herman Franks came out to get him, he was bringing Herbel's suitcase." 

Rogers Hornsby
Among the greatest infielders of all-time, Hornsby won seven batting titles and two triple crowns. He was named MVP twice--in 1925 and 1929. His lifetime .358 batting average is second only to Ty Cobb. Ornery and fiercely competitive, he spent many years as a player/manager, often alienating teammates with his disparaging remarks. He was almost always good for a quote. Here are a few of the most colorful:

"People ask me what I do when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

"I don't want to play golf. When I hit the ball, I want someone else to go chase it."

"I don't like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the pitcher."

"I've cheated or someone on my team has cheated in almost every single game I've been in."

"I've always played hard. If that's rough and tough, I can't help it. I don't believe there's any such thing as a good loser."


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quotable Characters

Few sports have come close to generating as much written material as baseball. Over the years, the game has been analyzed to death. Players and managers are put under a microscope daily as writers with fast-approaching deadlines scramble to turn out interesting copy. When it comes to interviews, some guys play it straight while others inject a little humor into their commentary. The consistently quotable personalities are a truly rare breed and make the lives of jouranlists easy. 

I'd like to kick off another series of thematic ramblings with a list of some of baseball's most quotable characters and the utterances they became famous for.

Casey Stengel
Nicknamed "The Old Perfessor," this garrulous story-teller spent more than 50 years around the game as a player and manager. His often semi-coherent statements became know as "Stengel-ese." He is perhaps best known as manager of the Mets and Yankees though  he also spent time with the Dodgers and Braves. A few of his most memorable quotes are as follows:

"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 yet."  

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

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

"It's wonderful to meet so many friends I didn't used to like."

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

Ralph Kiner
Sometimes, it's broadcasters themselves who generate the memorable lines. Kiner was a dangerous slugger in his day, leading the NL in homers for 7 straight seasons with the Pirates from 1946 through 1952. After his playing days were over, he stepped into the New York Mets broadcast booth and developed a reputation for stating the obvious. Here are a few of his funniest observations:

"All of his saves have come in relief appearances."

"Solo homers usually come with no one on base."

"The Mets have gotten their lead-off batter on only once this inning."

"The reason the Mets have played so well at Shea this year is because they have the best home record in  baseball."

"Don Sutton lost 13 games in a row without winning a ball game."

Leo Durocher
Known for his win at any cost attitude, "Leo the Lip" had a pretty big mouth. The things that came out of it became instant classics. Enshrined at Cooperstown as a manager, his teams won 3 pennants and one world Series. He was on the winning end of two Fall Classics as a player. He is most often affiliated with the Giants though he wore seven different uniforms during a career that spanned 5 decades. Here are my favorite Durocher quips:

"I believe in rules, sure I do. If there weren't any rules, how could you break them."

"Baseball is like church: many attend, few understand."

"I never did say that you can't be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I'd trip her up."

"Some guys are admired for coming to play as the saying goes. I prefer those who come to kill"


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Outfield Tandems (Part III)

Pittsburgh Pirates 1929-1932
It's no coincidence that yet another great outfield combination can be traced back to the Lively Ball Era, when offense was going full tilt. It was a family affair for the Pirates as brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner carried the Pittsburgh offense for over a decade and would go on to set the all-time mark for most hits by big league siblings. Though Paul  was nicknamed "Big Poison," he wasn't a physically imposing presence at 5-foot-8, 153 pounds. His production was much bigger than his frame as he hit no lower than .309 every year from 1926 through 1937, claiming three batting titles. He also covered a lot of ground in right field, eventually becoming the all-time leader in putouts among players at his position. Despite his considerable career accomplishments, Paul insisted that his younger brother Lloyd (a.k.a. "Little Poison") was a better all around player. The topic is open for debate. Lloyd almost never struck out, averaging just one whiff per every 45 at-bats. In 1941, he logged 219 consecutive AB's without being retired on strikes--a record that still stands. He also got to 2,000 career hits faster than any NL player before or since. During his 18 years in the majors, he led the league in hits, runs and triples once apiece. He was an excellent defensive center fielder as well, topping the circuit in putouts four times. The Waner brothers were paired with left fielder Adam Comorosky every year from 1929 through 1932. Though Comorosky couldn't compete with the Waners in terms of career numbers, he was a major contributor in that four-year span. He hit .321 with 97 ribbies in '29 then enjoyed his signature campaign the following season. He hit .313 in 1930 while accumulating 119 RBI's and 82 extra-base hits. His total of 23 triples has not been surpassed since. Additionally, he paced the circuit with 33 sacrifices that year. He slumped at the plate in '31 and '32, but continued to play his defensive post several points above the league average. He finished fifth in putouts both years even though he missed a combined total of 101 games.  Despite the best efforts of Comorosky and the Waners, the Pirates never finished higher than second place.

Boston Red Sox 1975-1980
In an era of free agency and dwindling team loyalties, it's amazing to think that the Red Sox kept the same outfield lineup for six straight seasons (almost). The tandem of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans made the lives of three different Boston managers pretty easy, at least when it came to filling out lineups. Left Fielder Rice was the most  productive of the bunch, hitting .282 or better every year from '75-'80 while driving-in no fewer than 85 runs. He reached the century mark in RBI's four times during that stretch. Rice's biggest season came in 1978, when he accrued a jaw-dropping total of 406 bases, pacing the loop in triples (15), homers (46) and RBI's (139). On the strength of those numbers, he was named AL MVP. Center fielder Lynn stole rookie of the year honors right out from under Rice in 1975, topping the circuit in doubles (47) and runs (103). Other accolades would follow that year as he captured the MVP award along with a Gold Glove--the first of four during his career. Lynn played hard in the outfield and was often injured because of it. His finest offensive season came in 1979, when he captured a batting title with a .333 mark and posted the highest on-base percentage in the AL at .423. He also reached career-highs in homers (39) and RBI's (122). Right fielder Evans was probably the most offensively challenged of the bunch, posting batting averages ranging from .274 to .247 between '75 and '80. Evans suffered a severe beaning in '78 and began to tamper with his batting mechanics to get comfortable at the plate. Nicknamed "The Man of a Thousand Stances"  by one sportswriter, his posture while batting was downright weird. He did have some power, launching 385 homers during his career including 6 grand slams. Later in his playing days, he would become a premier RBI man, reaching the century mark in that category four times. His primary value to the club during the '70's was defense as he led the league in assists three times, putouts twice and fielding percentage on two occasions. In '77, he suffered a knee injury and manager Don Zimmer was forced to throw a fourth outfielder into the mix: veteran Carl Yastrzemki (who made periodic outfield appearances all along). While Lynn, Rice and Dewey Evans played together, the Sox made two postseason appearances and finished third or higher four five straight seasons.         

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Outfield Tandems (Part II)

A competent set of outfielders can define a team's success.While plenty of pennant-winning clubs have used patchwork lineups to carry them into the postseason, baseball's most impressive dynasties were built with standouts at every outfield position. I would like to continue my discussion of the greatest outfield tandems beginning with the obvious:

New York Yankees 1925-1929
Virtually everyone has heard of the "Murderer's Row" Yankees of 1927. They outdistanced their closest AL competitors by 19 games that year then swept Pittsburgh in the World Series. Legend has it that when the Yankees took batting practice before Game 1, members of the Pirates gathered to size up their competition. After witnessing multiple players launch tape measure shots into the nether regions of Forbes Field, they were demoralized before they had even picked up a ball or a bat. "Murderer's Row" was not so murderous in 1925, however, finishing in seventh place. The roots of a championship team were there with Hall of Famers Earle Combs and Babe Ruth manning the outer perimeter with "Long Bob" Meusel. When Ruth fell ill in '25 and was limited to 98 games, Meusel and Combs picked up the slack. Meusel enjoyed the most productive season of his career, launching 33 homers while collecting 138 RBI's (both tops in the AL). Combs hit at a robust .342 pace while compiling an impressive .411 on-base percentage. Ruth, Gehrig and Meusel would spend five seasons together in New York as the starting three. Center fielder Combs was the leadoff man, scoring more than 100 runs per year from 1925 through 1932. He played hard in the outfield, diving for balls and crashing into barriers. In 1934, he fractured his skull after slamming into the concrete wall at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis. He later sustained a career-ending collarbone injury. Meusel was quiet and enigmatic, earning himself an undeserved reputation for being "lazy." He wasn't good at generating copy for sportswriters, but he knew how to hit and throw a baseball. In 1927, he compiled a career-best .337 batting average and drove-in 103 runs with just 8 homers. It's hard to imagine there was anybody left on the bases with Gehrig and Ruth hitting in front of him in the lineup. Meusel had a strong arm in left field, leading the league in assists on two occasions. His activities on the diamond were often overshadowed by his larger than life teammate Babe Ruth. Ruth's defense was irrelevant as he chipped away at the record books for 22 years and fashioned the most storied career in major league history. He enjoyed his signature season in 1927, when he hit .356 and established a new single season record for homers (60) while leading the AL in at least 8 major offensive categories. This triumvirate of Yankee greats was dismantled in 1929,when Meusel's production began to slip. He was traded to the Reds and replaced by Harry Rice, who gave way to Ben Chapman in 1931. The Bombers did just fine without him, winning 5 world championships during the decade of the '30's. 

Chicago Cubs 1928-1931
Though the Cubs are a star-crossed franchise, they have assembled some fine outfield combinations over the years. The pooled efforts of Riggs Stephenson, Kiki Cuyler and Hack Wilson from 1928 through 1931 nearly propelled the club to an elusive world championship. The oddly proportioned Wilson was among the most dangerous sluggers of his era. Standing 5-foot-6 and weighing 190 pounds, he hammered his way into the record books then drank himself out of the majors. He drove in 120 runs in 1928 then followed with a 159 RBI effort the following year. The best was yet to come as he enjoyed a mythical season in 1930, slamming 56 homers while knocking in 191 runs--a record that still stands. Left fielder Cuyler had a rare combination of power and speed. He led the NL in stolen bases every year from 1928 through 1930 while reaching the century mark in RBI's twice in that span. His signature offensive campaign came in 1930, when he reached career-high marks in hits (228), doubles (50) and RBI's (134). An excellent defensive outfielder, Cuyler's range factor was among the top 5 in the NL four years in a row. Stephenson had suffered a football injury while playing for the University of Alabama. Opposing players soon learned that they could take an extra base on him in right field. Despite this weakness, Stephenson kept himself in the lineup with his productive bat, posting averages of .324, .362, .367 and .319 from 1928-'31. The latter campaign ended prematurely for him when he sustained an ankle injury. In the 1929 World Series, Stephenson, Cuyler and Wilson combined for a .357 batting average and a .429 on-base percentage. Carried by their pooled efforts, the Cubs led 8-0 in Game 4 and were on the verge of tying the Series at two games apiece when Chicago's pitching corps experienced a sudden meltdown, allowing 10 runs to the Philadelphia A's in the bottom of the seventh. The demoralized Cubs lost 10-8, but bounced back to carry a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning of the fifth contest. The resilient A's rallied for 3 runs to clinch the Series and leave the Chicago faithful waiting for next year (again). The hard-drinking Wilson got along poorly with manager Rogers Hornsby in 1931. He appeared in just 112 games and ended up being traded to Brooklyn in the offseason. Cuyler and Stephenson stayed together for the '32 slate as the Cubs captured their second pennant in four years. They ended up getting steamrolled by the Yankees in 4 games. Cuyler and Wilson both found their way into the Hall of Fame while the defensively challenged Stephenson never earned more than 1.5% of the vote.               

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Greatest 20th Century Outfield Tandems

The halls of Cooperstown are loaded with outfielders. So many great fly chasers have come and gone over the years, the topic inspires lively debate. While a single talented outfielder can carry a team, three of them working together as a cohesive unit can fashion a dynasty. In my next few blogs, I'd like to discuss what I believe are the greatest outfield tandems in history. As a minimum requirement, I chose tandems that played together for at least four years.

St. Louis Browns 1919-1923
The Browns would not make a World Series appearance until the war-torn season of 1944 though they would come pretty close. In 1922, they had a chance to tie for first place during the last few days of the campaign. They won their final 4 contests, but still finished one game behind the upstart Yankees (who were just beginning a long period of dominance). The Browns owed much of their success to the outfield combination of Jack Tobin, Baby Doll Jacobson and Ken Williams, who patrolled the outer perimeter in St. Louis together from 1919 through 1923. Right fielder Tobin was a table setter, hitting near the top of the lineup for power and average while demonstrating superior speed. Center fielder Jacobson was the burly clean-up man (listed at 6 foot-3, 215 lbs.) who drove in at least 90 runs 3 times in the previously mentioned span. The rest was up to Left fielder Williams, a productive fifth slot hitter who became the founding member of baseball's 30/30 club in 1922. The trio reached the .300 mark at the plate every year for five straight seasons--a crowning achievement even in the Lively Ball Era. Tobin's signature campaign came in '21, when he rapped out 236 hits, scored 132 runs and compiled a .352 batting average. For Jacobson, 1920 was a year to remember as he hit at a .355 clip and picked up a career-high 122 ribbies. The often injured Williams could never completely match the overall success of his torrid '22 campaign (.332BA / 39HR/ 155RBI/ 37SB), but he would raise his batting average to .357 the following year--his highest mark ever. Unfortunately for the Browns, there never seemed to be enough lively arms to guide them to the postseason. Right-hander Urban Shocker won 20 games four years in a row (1920-1923), but he was often the only real threat in the rotation.    

Boston Red Sox 1910-1915
No discussion of outfield greatness would be complete without mention of the dominant Boston teams of the Deadball Era. In the above mentioned time frame, the Sox had one of the most talented aggregations of ball hawks ever. Two of the three Boston regulars, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper, would find their way into the Hall of Fame. The third, Duffy Lewis, was so adept in the field that a section of the ballpark was nicknamed after him. For six seasons, this trio of Bean Town standouts helped guide the club into the first division every year, capturing World Series titles in 1912 and 1914. Center fielder Speaker was arguably the most talented of the bunch, hitting no lower than .322 between 1910 and 1915. He led the league in hits, homers and on-base percentage once apiece during that span while pacing the loop twice in doubles. Defensively, he was in a class of his own, posting the highest range factor (average Putouts and assists per 9 innings) every year. Left fielder Duffy Lewis was a reliable RBI man who consistently put up high on-base percentages. Before the Green Monster was in place at Fenway, there was a steep embankment in front of the outfield wall. Lewis became so skilled at navigating the looming hazard, it became known as "Duffy's Cliff." From 1910-1914, he had no fewer than 22 assists per year, averaging 26 in that 5-year stretch. Right fielder Hooper was a member of four Championship squads in Boston. Not only did he post the highest fielding percentage among players at his position on 6 occasions, but he scored at least 81 runs 13 times during his career. Between 1910 and 1915, he finished in double digits for triples 5 times. His lifetime total of 160 three-baggers places him among the top 40  of all-time. The talented trio of Speaker, Hooper and Lewis was broken up in 1916, when Speaker was traded to Cleveland. Tilly Walker was little more than adequate as a replacement, but the Red Sox won the World Series anyway with 21 year-old Babe Ruth coming into his own as a pitcher.                   

Thursday, July 11, 2013

4 Homers in One Game

Over the course of baseball history, 16 different players have hit four home runs in one game. To date, the feat has been accomplished six times in the American League and ten times in the National League. The most recent occurrence came on May 8, 2012, when Rangers' center fielder Josh Hamilton went deep on four occasions against 3 different Orioles' hurlers. An MVP in 2010, Hamilton seems an obvious choice. Likewise, it is not surprising to find Hall of Fame sluggers Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays and Mike Schmidt on the list. But a handful of players who turned the trick were virtually unknown. For instance:

Pat Seerey spent just seven years in the majors with the White Sox and Indians during the 1940's. He reached the 20 homer threshold just once--in '46 when he clouted 26 long balls and struck out over 100 times. His big day came on July 18, 1948 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia--a relatively spacious stadium. Each of his 4 hits were circuit blasts as he drove-in 7 runs and guided the ChiSox to a 12-11 win. At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Seerey was sometimes referred to as "Fat Pat." He led the AL in strikeouts four times and compiled a lifetime .224 batting average. He was out of the majors by 1950.

Bobby Lowe was a highly competent infielder for 18 seasons, all of which were played in the Deadball Era (when home runs were somewhat scarce). Aside from a brief power surge in 1893/ '94, Lowe never hit more than 17 homers in a single season and finished with 71, 6 of which were of the inside-the-park variety. Lowe's crowning offensive achievement came on May 30, 1894 at the South End Grounds in Boston against the Reds. He was 5-for-6 with 6 RBI's overall against Elton "Ice Box" Chamberlain that day, guiding the Beaneaters to a rollicking 20-11 win. Lowe compiled his highest single-season homer total with 17 long balls that season, placing him second in the league to teammate Hugh Duffy. Both players were aided by the ridiculously short foul lines at the South End Grounds, which were 250 feet in left and 255 feet in right. 

Mark Whiten had some power. In fact, he carried the nickname "Hard Hittin'" Mark Whiten. But he wasn't exactly a model of consistency. A lifetime .259 hitter, he was often used as a replacement--spending ample portions of time on the bench. In 11 seasons, he got into 100 games or more just 4 times. While playing for the Cardinals in '93, Whiten was in a groove, reaching career highs in homers (25) and RBI's (99). Still, no one expected him to crush 4 homers against the Reds at Riverfront Stadium on September 7th. During his 4-for-5 performance, he picked up 12 RBI's, tying him with Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley for most ribbies in a game. Commenting on Whiten's performance, teammate Todd Zeile said: "You can't even do what he did in batting practice." Whiten had one more decent season in '96, belting 22 homers with 71 RBI's. While playing for the Yankees the following year, he encountered some personal problems (a woman accused him of sexual assault). He was released in August and his career fizzled after that. 

Other players to hit 4 homers in a game include Rocky Colavito, Carlos Delgado, Chuck Klein, Gil Hodges and Bob Horner--all very capable sluggers.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Longest Losing Streaks in History

1899 Cleveland Spiders
 The story of the Spiders is almost too strange to be true. After the 1898 campaign, Cleveland owners Frank and Stanley Robison purchased the ailing St. Louis Browns' club, which had finished at 39-111. The Robisons raided the roster and moved the club to Cleveland to play as the Spiders. The incumbent Cleveland squad, which had posted a respectable 81-68 record, was moved to St. Louis and rechristened the Perfectos. With a handful of players obtained from the Browns, the Perfectos ended up tied for fifth place with a 84-67 mark. The Spiders became one of the worst teams in major league history, winning just 20 games all year and compiling a 24 game losing streak from August 26th to September 16th. This club was so bad, they were forced to play most of their games on the road since virtually no one would pay to see them at home. The story is recounted in its entirety in my book Cellar Dwellers.

1961 Phillies
By the time the '61 campaign rolled around, the Phillies were still looking for their first World Series victory and had been to the October showcase just twice. From July 29th to August 30th, they assembled a 23 game losing streak--the second longest in major league history. After going 15-47 in July/ August, they improved moderately, posting a 10-14 record in September. None of the Philly regulars compiled a batting average above the .300 mark and only one player, utility man Don Demeter, reached the 20-homer threshold. Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts--a once dominant presence on the hill--was in serious decline that year, suffering through the worst season of his career with a 1-10 record and a 5.85 ERA. 

1988 Orioles
Neither of the Ripkens (Cal Jr. and Billy) could save their father's managerial job in '88 as the O's got off to an 0-6 start. Cal Sr. was dismissed and replaced with Frank Robinson, who could not stop the team from rattling off an impressive string of 21straight losses to start the season.The club finished in last place with a 54-107 record, but played decent ball in August, compiling a 14-15 mark. Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray both had respectable seasons offensively, but Baltimore pitchers were far too generous with 3 of 4 members of the starting rotation averaging more than 4 runs per 9 frames. The O's bounced back with Robinson at the helm, fisishing second in the AL East during the '89 campaign with a 87-75 mark.

1916 Philadelphia A's
After suffering a 1914 Series sweep at the hands of the Braves, Connie Mack sold off most of his best players, including Hall of Fame infielders Eddie Collins and Frank "Home Run" Baker. The results were disastrous as the A's posted a 36-117 mark in 1916, stringing together 20 straight losses from July 21st to August 8th. In June/ July, the club was 5-47 overall. At 41 years of age, Hall of Fame infielder Napolean Lajoie did very little to help the A's, compiling the lowest batting average of his career at .246. The pitching staff was a mess and Mack auditioned more than 20 players on the mound that year--many of them college players.

1969 Expos
While the expansion Mets were claiming the first world championship in franchise history, the fledgling Expos were making an inauspicious debut with a deplorable 52-110 record. This included a string of 20 straight losses from May 13th to June 7th. Still, the club generated a bit of fan interest, drawing more than a million fans to Jerry Parc and finishing with a rank of #7 (of 12) in regard to attendance. Outfielders Rusty Staub and Mack Jones generated most of the offensive punch with 51 homers and 158 ribbies between them. There were no other glaring bright spots with the exception of manager Gene Mauch, who remained at the helm the following year and turned the club around (to an extent). The Expos won 73 games in 1970 and flirted with the .500 mark every year from '73-'75 under Mauch's watch.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Players Who Stayed in the Majors Too Long (concluded)

Wrapping up my brief discussion of guys who just couldn't let go...

Tommy John
John came up through the Cleveland farm system and ended up with the White Sox/ Dodgers. He was in the midst of his best season ever in 1974, posting a 13-3 record, when he sustained a career threatening ligament tear shortly after the All-Star break. Dodgers' orthopedist Frank Jobe performed ground-breaking surgery, transplanting a ligament from Johns' right wrist to his elbow. Odds of a successful comeback were believed to be quite slim. The left-hander's career record stood frozen at 124-106 when he sat out the entire 1975 campaign. Defying the odds, he returned the following year and enjoyed his most productive span yet. Between 1977 and 1980, he won 20 games three times. After that, his career went into a tailspin. Chasing the elusive 300-win threshold, the aging southpaw used slow curves and assorted junk to work on opponents. He posted losing records in 4 of 7 seasons from 1983-'89 while compiling ERA's in excess of 4.00 every year except one. At 46 years of age, he compiled an odious 2-7 record with an inflated 5.80 earned run average. He retired short of his goal, finishing with 288 career victories.

Bobo Newsom
Newsom was among the most self-confident hurlers of all-time, referring to himself in the third person and haggling for more money almost every year. He began his slow climb to the majors in 1928, toiling for 7 minor league clubs in 5seasons while getting sporadic call-ups to the majors. He finally landed a full time position with the lowly Browns in '34, leading the league in losses two years in a row. His most successful major league span occurred between 1936 and 1940, when he won 20 games 3 times while posting no fewer than 16 victories. He was 21-5 for Detroit in 1940 with a handsome 2.83 ERA. In the World Series that year, he won two more games while averaging less than 1.5 runs per 9 frames. At 33 years of age, Newsom became a baseball nomad, playing for any team that would meet his salary demands. By the time he retired, he had played for more than half the teams in the majors. He led the AL in losses a total of 4 times. From the age of 40 on, he posted a 6-9 record while bouncing up and down from the majors to the minors. He finished at age 45 with a total of 211 career wins, which would be impressive if not offset by a staggering total of 222 losses.

Charlie Hough
Master of the knuckleball, Hough spent 25 seasons in the Big Show. While playing in the minors during the '68 campaign, he hurt his shoulder and refused to tell anyone for fear that  he would be run out of professional baseball. His performances declined steadily until he worked with Goldie Holt in the instructional league. Holt taught him how to throw the knucker and, though it took several seasons to control it, he finally got it down pat. A sign of good things to come, he went 12-8 in 77 relief assignments for the Dodgers during the '76 slate, posting a miserly 2.21 ERA. Traded to Texas in 1980, he was eventually converted to a starter. From 1982-'90, the durable right-hander started at least 30 games and posted double digit win totals every season. In that 9-year span, he won at least 14 games 7 times for a ball club that was mediocre at best most of the time. Hough hung around until the age of 46, posting losing records in each of his final four seasons. When his ERA rose to 5.15 in '94, he finally called it quits. He retired with 216 career victories against the same number of losses. 

Jim Kaat
Kaat was one of the finest fielding pitchers of all-time, capturing a Gold Glove every year from 1962-1977. It has been said that he continued to receive the award even after his abilities were in decline, but it is a major accomplishment nevertheless. Only Greg Maddux won the award more times. Though not in the Hall of Fame, Kaat's sabermetric scores compare him favorably to inductees Robin Roberts and Fergie Jenkins. Kaat was a fast worker on the mound, commenting once that after 2 hours his fastball turned into a pumpkin. During his 25 years in the majors, he finished among the top ten in strikeouts 12 times and wins on 7 occasions. He led the league in both categories for the Twins in 1966, posting a 25-13 record with a 2.75 ERA. He would reach the 20-win plateau twice more with the White Sox in the mid-'70's. Kaat's ERA typically hovered in the mid-threes to low-twos. He enjoyed his last decent season with the Phillies in 1976, winning 12 games and posting a highly serviceable 3.48 earned run average. He started one game in the NLCS against Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" that year and ended up with a no decision in a quality outing. By '77, Kaat was 38 years-old and fading. He never won more than 8 games in any season from the age of 40 until his retirement in 1983. During that span, he was a shadow of his former self, compiling ERA's more than 100 points above his career average every year. He generated support from Hall of Fame voters every year from 1989-2003 despite his hesitancy to hang up his cleats. Had he retired at the top of his game after the '76 campaign, he would still have had close to 250 wins and well over 2,000 strikeouts. Many believe he will find his way into the Hall of Fame via the Veteran's Committee.    


Monday, July 1, 2013

Players Who Stayed in the Majors Too Long

The careers of most players can be charted as a standard bell curve with the most productive years occurring between the ages of 25 to 35 then followed by a gradual decline. There are always exceptions to the rule. In some cases, the decline is sudden and inexplicable. In other rare instances, players seem virtually undaunted by the march of time. Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter at the age of 44. Ted Williams posted a .316 average in his final season. He was 41. For whatever reason, there comes a time when every player must bid farewell. And while most diamond greats know when to hang up their cleats, there are others who have hung around a bit too long, losing a measure of respect in the process. The following players are glaring examples of this phenomenon at work:

Rickey Henderson
Among the greatest lead-off men in history, there was hardly ever any doubt that Henderson would make it to the Hall. But frankly speaking, this man simply did not know when to let go. In a 25-year career, he established the all-time record for stolen bases and runs scored. He reached the first milestone at the age of 32. He waited 10 years to set the latter mark. So why did he continue to play until the age of 44 with nothing left to prove? Records clearly show that Henderson's skills had almost completely deteriorated by the time he exited the majors. After 1999, he never posted a batting average above .233. His caught stealing percentage rose to 28% in '99 and hovered in that vicinity the following year. That's nearly 10 points above his lifetime mark. Additionally, Henderson's defense had gone to pot. In '97, he fielded his position 16 points below the league average. In 2001, he was 5 points below. In his final season, he had become a bonafide defensive liability in the outfield with a fielding percentage 24 points below the National League standard. I personally attended an interleague game between the Yankees and Mets during the 2000 slate and watched Henderson (who was with the Mets at the time) drop a fly ball in left field while attempting his signature glove wave. He was booed heartily by the Yankee Stadium crowd. Still pining for the majors though nobody wanted him anymore, Rickey played portions of 3 seasons in the Independent League from 2003 through 2005. He was 46 when he disappeared from the professional ranks.

Roger Clemens
Here we go again! For the third time in four posts, I'm speaking out against "The Rocket." Clemens' career can be divided into two distinct phases: 
1.) The period spent with the Red Sox during which he peaked then began his decline 
2.) The career rejuvenation point, which was fueled by performance enhancing drugs
From 1986 through '96, Clemens posted a 176-102 record for Boston, winning 3 Cy Young Awards and claiming 4 ERA titles. By '96, he was in decline, having suffered through an injury plagued '95 campaign then returning to assemble a substandard 10-13 record with a 3.63 ERA. Lured to the dark side by steroid king Jose Canseco, the right-handed flame thrower began injecting himself with "the juice." The results were dramatic as 4 more Cy Young Awards and 2 pitching triple crowns would follow. The cost was tremendous, however, as his secret leaked out and he was forced to stand before Congress and defend himself. Although he was acquitted of perjury by a federal jury in 2012, virtually every reasonably educated fan knows that Clemens cheated. The addition of the splitter to his pitching arsenal does not adequately explain the superhuman feats he accomplished well into his forties. In the case of the ageless Nolan Ryan, there was never a statistical decline until the very end. Clemens, on the other hand, returned from the dead (metaphorically speaking). And there are too many credible steroid accusations against him to ignore. Had Clemens accepted a natural career demise, he may have had a shot at Cooperstown. But his decision to delay the inevitable through chemical means will almost certainly keep him out of the running. He was eligible for the first time in 2013 and received just 37.6% of the vote. You reap what you sow (or inject, in this case).

...More discussion on the topic of players who loitered in the majors too long will appear in my next post.