Monday, April 29, 2013

Forgotten Stars of the 1940s

Baseball experienced a dramatic thinning of the talent pool during the 1940's with the advent of WWII. Between 1942 and 1946, the game would be forced to carry on without many of its brightest stars as hundreds of established players joined the armed forces. In his famous "Green Light letter," President FDR referred to the game as a welcome diversion and stated unequivocally that "it would be best for the country to keep baseball going."Despite a dramatic dip in 1943, attendance remained relatively stable throughout the war.

The Yankees continued their dominance of the American League, capturing 5 pennants during the decade while the Cardinals figured heavily into numerous NL pennant races, appearing in 4 World Series. After the war was over, the first crop of talented black players appeared, among them Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. With mainstays like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial around, it was tough for lesser known stars to earn the credit they deserved. I'd like to begin my next series of blogs with another top ten list of forgotten greats from the war years.

10. Claude Passeau
By the time the '40's rolled around, Passeau had already established himself as a talented hurler, gathering 36 victories for the dreadful Phillies between '36 and '38. He accomplished this while playing in the hitter-friendly Baker Bowl--a venue that had been the downfall of countless hurlers. Traded to the Cubs in May of '39, Passeau's fortunes changed dramatically as he would win no fewer than 15 games in 5 of the next 6 seasons. 1940 was arguably his best year as he won 20 games and posted a stellar 2.50 ERA. In all, the right-hander made 4 All-Star appearances during the 1940's and received MVP consideration three times. He was a star in the 1945 World Series, spinning a one-hitter over the Tigers in Game 3. In addition to his pitching success, Passeau is known for his fascination with the number 13. "That's my lucky number,"he once declared. Not only did he wear the number on his back but his name was 13 letters long and he played in the majors for 13 seasons. Additionally, he lived on 113 London Street and claimed that his auto tag and life insurance policy also bore the number.  

9. Tommy Henrich
Henrich's accomplishments were overshadowed by his high profile Yankee teammates. He was a vital cog on 6 World Series winning clubs. Playing alongside a gaggle of Hall of Famers, including Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio, he earned the nickname "Old Reliable" for his clutch hitting. Henrich reached a career-high of 31 homers in '41 before losing 3 full years to military service in the Coast Guard during WWII. He picked up right where he had left off, averaging 90 ribbies per year between '46-'49. He led the AL in runs scored during the '48 campaign and paced the circuit in triples twice ('47/'48). Henrich was a reliable fielder as well, posting the highest fielding percentage among right fielders on two occasions. During his 11 years in the majors, he was named to five All-Star teams. A lifetime .262 hitter in World Series play, he collected 4 homers, 8 RBI's and 13 runs scored. His autobiography, Five O'Clock Lightning, was released in 1992.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

Jackie Robinson: The Sham Red Sox Audition in 1945

I have not yet seen the movie 42, but it's on my list. I have seen the trailers (which look spectacular) and read numerous reviews (which are mixed). The film was recently panned by Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr, who complained that, while there were many effective scenes, the script did not go deep enough in telling Robinson's story. I found it interesting that Robinson's latest biopic would be trashed by the same publication that couldn't even be bothered to cover his first major league tryout back in 1945.

Here's the scoop on what happened...

With mounting pressure from civil rights activists, the Red Sox offered auditions to a handful of black players in the spring of 1945. Three candidates were chosen to participate: Cleveland Buckeyes’ outfielder Sam Jethroe, Philadelphia Stars’ infielder Marvin Williams and Robinson, who had been a multi-sport star at UCLA. The workout was presided over by Manager Joe Cronin and Coach Hugh Duffy with owner Tom Yawkey in attendance. Downplaying its importance, The Boston Globe didn’t even cover the event while The Boston Record negatively reported that “Jethroe and Williams seemed tense and both their hitting and fielding suffered.” Jethroe remembered things quite differently, calling it a “good try-out” and pointing out that more than one ball was hit off the Green Monster.

When it was over, coach Duffy elusively commented that he could not make a decision after only one trial. Yawkey, Cronin and GM Eddie Collins were equally evasive about estimating the players’ talents. None of the three hopefuls were ever contacted for further evaluation. Years later, Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant referred to the proceedings as “one of many sham tryouts for black players...pathetic pseudo-events arranged by lily-white organizations to maintain the fiction that they weren’t really prejudiced.” The Red Sox were the last major league team to be integrated in 1959.

Everyone knows what happened to Robinson. As for the other two Red Sox hopefuls, Williams never made it to the majors. Jethroe ended up with the Boston Braves, winning Rookie of the year honors in 1950. He led the NL in stolen bases for two straight seasons before his hitting tapered off. He finished his career with Toronto of the International League.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Art of Stealing First

Jean Segura of the Brewers has a lot to learn about running the bases. In a recent game against the Cubs, he demonstrated an alarming unfamiliarity with the rulebook. The 23 year-old Dominican shortstop stole second base on a 2-2 pitch to teammate Ryan Braun. Braun drew a walk and Segura took off for third shortly afterward. He should have waited until Chicago pitcher Shawn Camp delivered to the plate. Caught in a rundown between second and third, Segura seemed to lose all sense of where he was in space and time. Braun motored into second as is the standard practice. Completely befuddled, Segura joined him. Both players were tagged and, though the bag legally belonged to Segura, he trotted off toward the dugout believing himself to be out. When first base coach Garth Iorg informed Segura he was mistaken, he holed up at first. In an unparalleled display of impulsivity, he broke for second again and was thrown out. (Unbelievable!) Commenting on the unusual sequence of events, Umpire Tom Hallion said: "Technically, he stole second, stole first then got thrown out stealing second."

Surprisingly, the play was not without precedent. 

In a 1911 contest against Chicago, Tigers' infielder Germany Schaefer took off for second hoping to draw a throw that would allow his teammate Clyde Milan to deliver the winning run from third. Realizing what Schaefer was up to, White Sox catcher Fred Payne wisely held onto the ball. Before the next pitch, Schaefer took his lead on the right field side of the bag then "stole" first. ChiSox manager Hugh Duffy didn't like it and came out to argue. While he was yelling at umpire Tom Connolly, Schaefer again bolted for second, getting caught in a rundown. This produced the desired effect as Milan came racing home. Schaefer's gambit failed to pay off as Milan was cut down at the plate.  A future rule prohibited runners from moving backwards "for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty on the field."

At least Schaefer knew what he was doing. Segura (as the old adage goes) was like a deer caught in a set of oncoming headlights.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Charlie Finley: Visionary or Tyrant?

Various words have been used to describe A's owner Charlie Finley--not all of them terribly positive. To some he was a luminary and to others a despot. By the time he sold his interests in the club during the1980 campaign, he was universally disliked by the baseball establishment. But he left behind a legacy of colorful innovations and fascinating stories.

Finley got rich selling insurance during the 1940's and was initially outbid when  he attempted to purchase the Kansas City Athletics. He obtained a majority of the club's stock after owner Arnold Johnson passed away in 1960. The A's were a terrible team but Finley did his best to establish a fan base.

Fostering a carnival-like atmosphere, he dressed his players in tacky green and yellow uniforms. He placed sheep with dyed wool (tended by a shepherd) in a pasture beyond the outfield fence and also installed a children's zoo. He mounted a mechanical rabbit named "Harvey" behind home plate. With the press of a button,"Harvey" popped up and supplied umpires with fresh balls. Finley later appointed a mule named "Charlie O" as team mascot and allowed the animal to stay in the team's hotel. On opening day, he encouraged players to ride onto the field on the backs of mules.

There was virtually no end to Finley's wild ideas. He even released helium balloons containing  A's tickets into the countryside one day. In one of his more innovative promotions, he arranged to have shortstop Bert Campaneris change positions every inning. This included stints as a pitcher and catcher. Despite numerous schemes, attendance remained lackluster throughout the decade. In 1968, Finley angered many when he moved the club to Oakland.

It was there that he built a championship squad, signing the likes of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Rollie Fingers. With an All-Star cast,the A's became the first team aside from the Yankees to win 3 straight World Series ('72-'74). And then suddenly, Finley pulled the plug on the entire operation, firing employees, trimming costs and virtually eliminating promotions. He auctioned off all his stars: Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Vida Blue--all left via free agency along with the aforementioned Hall of Famers.  The team slumped in the standings and attendance dropped off sharply. When Finley sold the club on August 23, 1980, his name was in ill-repute.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Gallery of Rogues

Just a quick note: My new book is being released within the next couple of weeks. It's called Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues. The work spans more than a hundred years of baseball history and includes concise biographies of the nastiest players ever to step onto a diamond. Other chapters deal with irascible managers, corrupt owners, overzealous fans and scapegoats. If you're interested in baseball's dark side, you'll love this book.
The Original release date was set for April 16th, but it got pushed back. 
You can still pre-order copies through numerous online sources in hardcover and electronic formats. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are currently offering generous discounts. 

I would like to thank everyone who has supported my projects. I'm currently at work on another baseball book that will most likely hit the shelves next year.    

Monday, April 15, 2013

Baseball, Beer and Herbert Hoover

For some, baseball without beer is as incongruous as the Fourth of July without fireworks. The practice of serving beer at ballparks was initially frowned upon by the National League. But when the rival American Association began to turn substantial profits by selling alcohol and playing games on Sundays, NL officials realized the error of their ways. The suds flowed freely--at least until prohibition reared its ugly head.

By the time President Herbert Hoover took office in 1929, prohibition was in full swing. Though he offered limited public support of the policy, Hoover was privately opposed to it, complaining that it caused all kinds of trouble and forced him to throw out perfectly good wine. An avid baseball fan, he had played shortstop as a kid and once referred to the game as  "the greatest of American sports." Faced with numerous domestic problems during his four-year term (not the least of which being the Great Depression), Hoover still found time to attend a few ballgames--making World Series appearances in 1929 and '30. By the time he showed up for Game 3 of the 1931 Fall Classic, alcohol had been considered contraband for over a decade. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the 31st Commander-in-Chief settled into his box seats for the start of the game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, someone in the stands let loose with a raspberry.Within seconds, the entire park erupted into a chorus of jeers. Before long, the alcohol deprived masses began chanting: "We Want Beer! We Want Beer!" It was the first time that an American head of state had ever been openly harassed at a ballpark (according to some sources). Hoover admitted to being irritated by the incident at a speaking engagement years later. "I was really peeved because I was probably the only man there who obeyed the law and had been thirsty for eleven years," he said.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Big League Brothers (Concluded)

I'll wrap up my survey of siblings in the major leagues with a small sampling of talented brotherly duos. 

 The Coopers and the Ferrells are somewhat unique because they are on a short list of brothers who worked together as a pitching/catching tandem. There have been less than 20 examples of this in big league history. The Coopers worked together occasionally for the Cardinals between 1940 and 1945. The Ferrells formed a battery for the Red Sox on and off from 1934 through 1937, then again for the Senators in '37 an '38. Of the two combinations, the Coopers are the only sibling battery who worked together in a World Series and All-Star Game.

Mort and Walker Cooper
Mort was the older of the two. A right-handed pitcher, he bunched together 20-win seasons for the Cardinals every year from 1942 through 1944 and helped them to 3 straight World Series appearances. Arguably the most effective pitcher of the war years, Mort was MVP in '42, when he led the league in wins (22), ERA (1.72) and Shutouts (10). A 3-time All-Star, he got into a fiscal dispute with the St. Louis front office in '45 and ended up with the Braves. After that, the painful bone spurs he had been pitching with for several years began to rob him of his effectiveness. Two years younger, Walker played for 18 years at the major league level, hitting .285 for 6 teams. He earned 8 All-Star selections and won 2 World Series rings. He was a lifetime .300 hitter in 16 postseason games. Equipped with a strong arn, he foiled 59% of all attempted steals in '42 and 53% in 1953.

Wes and Rick Ferrell
There are some who still argue that the Committee responsible for electing a Farrell to the Hall of Fame got it backwards. The elder sibling, Rick is enshrined at Cooperstown mainly on the strength of his defense. He certainly wasn't instilling fear in the hearts of pitchers with his bat. In an 18-year career, Rick hit at a respectable but not impressive .281 clip with very little power. He was an excellent defensive catcher, however, topping the league in assists and putouts twice apiece while pacing the loop in the caught stealing category on four occasions. Rick's younger brother Wes had more jaw-dropping numbers, assembling 6 20-win campaigns in a 15-year career that stretched from 1927 through 1942. Extremely durable, he led the league in complete games four times while playing on 2 All-Star teams. He was also one of the greatest offensive pitchers of all-time, setting the record for most career homers by a hurler with 38. He was so adept with a bat that he was used as a pinch-hitter numerous times in his career. In all, he hit .280 with 107 extra-base hits. 

A couple of more dynamic brotherly duos worth mentioning:

Roberto and Sandy Alomar
Born in 1966, Sandy was two years older. In a 20-year catching career, he compiled a .273 batting average for 7 big league clubs. In addition to 6 All-Star selections, he captured Rookie of the Year honors in 1990, won a Gold Glove and was MVP of the 1990 All-Star Game. He played in 2 World Series with Cleveland, hitting .311 with 2 HR and 11 RBI's in 12 games. Roberto was the more talented of the two. Though he captured a lot of negative attention when he spit in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck, the two men later became friends. Writers forgave him as well, electing him to the Hall of Fame in 2011. He got in on the strength of his 10 Gold Gloves, 12 All-Star selections, 2,724 hits and 474 stolen bases, accrued during 15 seasons. The Alomars were the sons of Sandy Sr.--who spent 15 years in the Big Show as an infielder from 1964 through '78.

Joe and Luke Sewell
A talented shortstop, Joe played 14 seasons from 1920 through 1933 and gained entry into the Hall of Fame. He was a lifetime .312 hitter who played on 2 World Series champion clubs--The 1920 Indians and 1932 Yankees. Adept with a glove, he was frequently among the league leaders in putouts, assists and double plays turned. Three years younger, Luke served as a catcher for 20 years, leading the league in assists and caught stealing 4 times apiece. When his playing days were over, he spent 10 years as a manager, guiding the Browns to their only World Series appearance in 1944.
A third Sewell brother, Tommy, warrants mentioning because he earned a cup of coffee in 1927, logging one at-bat for the Cubs. In 5 minor league seasons, he hit .280.  


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Big League Brothers (Part II)

The Boones
It's an undeniable fact that talent runs in some families. Few clans have been blessed with as much baseball ability as the Boones. Ray was the first to aspire to the majors, making his debut in 1948. He would play for 13 seasons, spending a majority of the 1950's with the Indians and Tigers. He enjoyed his most productive span between '53 and '56, hitting no fewer than 20 homers and driving in at least 81 runs every year. Born in 1947, Ray's son Bob carried on the tradition, breaking in with the Phillies in '72. He would become one of the premier defensive catchers in the National League, capturing 7 Gold Gloves while being named to 4 All-Star teams. He also fathered two immensely talented children--Aaron and Bret. The older of the two siblings, Bret spent 14 years at the major league level, slamming 252 homers and collecting 1,021 ribbies for 5 clubs between 1992 and 2005. A fine defensive infielder, he won 4 Gold Gloves and led AL second baseman in fielding percentage 4 times. The youngest of the bunch, Aaron got his start in 1997 and played for 12 seasons, gathering 126 homers and 555 ribbies. He is best remembered for the dramatic walk-off homer he delivered in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS that sent the Yankees to the World Series.   

The DiMaggios
Among the most gifted clans in history, the DiMaggio family would be represented in the big leagues from 1937 through 1953. Vince, the eldest, was the first to arrive on the scene, breaking in with the Boston Bees. Though he led the league in assists three times, he struck out far too often, a flaw that ultimately shortened his career. Joe, the middle sibling, was indisputably the most talented of the bunch. Often referred to as "the greatest living ballplayer" in his time, he won 9 World Series rings and 2 batting titles while capturing 3 MVP awards. He also played on 13 All-Star teams. His 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is considered an unassailable record. Dominic, the youngest, was a tremendous player in his own right. Nicknamed "The Little Professor," he spent 11 seasons in the majors--all with the Red Sox. He lost three full seasons to military service. Between 1940 and 1952, he hit no lower than .283 while scoring at least 100 runs six times. A speedster in the outfield, he posted the best range factor among AL center fielders on four occasions. He also paced the circuit in assists four times. 

The Alous
The three Alou brothers gained lasting acclaim when they appeared in the outfield together for the 1963 Giants. Felipe was the oldest, born in 1935. He spent 17 seasons with 6 clubs, smashing 206 homers and collecting 852 RBI's. A 3-time All-Star, he hit safely more than 2,000 times in his career. When his playing days were over, he continued as a manager for 14 years, leading the Giants to a playoff appearance in 2003. Three years younger, Matty spent 15 years in the majors, winning a batting title in '66 while breaking the .300 mark nine times. Jesus was the youngest and, relatively speaking, the least talented. Still, he was good enough to remain at the major league level for 15 seasons, reaching the .300 mark at the plate three times. Collectively, the trio hit .292 with 5,094 hits (more than the DiMaggio bros.) in over 17, 000 at-bats. Felipe's son Moises had a long and distinguished big league career that stretched from 1990 through 2008. 

The Boyers
 Another distinguished big league baseball trio, the Boyers got their start in 1947, when Cloyd broke in with the St.Louis Cardinals. A right-handed pitcher, he assumed the role of a swing man for 5 seasons, starting 46 games while serving as a reliever 63 times. He suffered from occasional wildness, posting a mediocre 20-23 record with a 4.73 ERA. The best was yet to come as Ken arrived in the majors during the '55 slate. A 7-time All-Star, he captured NL MVP honors in '64. In 15 seasons, he blasted 282 homers and drove-in 1,141 runs. He also won 5 Gold Glove awards. Clete, the younges of the three, would gain the most postseason experience, playing in 5 world Series with the New York Yankees. In a sea of stars, he held his own, posting the highest range factor among AL third baseman 6 times. He was no slouch with a bat either, drilling 162 career homers.
Remarkably, the Boyers had four other brothers who played at the minor league level: Wayne, Lynn, Len and Ron!         

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Big League Brothers

There have been more than 350-plus combinations of big league siblings. Not all of them made a major impact on the game. Of those that did, there were a majority of instances in which one brother carried the lion's share of the work. Such was the case with Hank Aaron and his little brother Tommie. Together, they hit 768 homers--an impressive combination if you discount the fact that Tommie went deep just 13 times in a 7-year career as a part-time player for the Braves.
 Examples of talent being evenly distributed among baseball brethren are extremely rare. In scouring the historical register, I came up with just a few worth mentioning. Let's start with pitchers:

Gaylord and Jim Perry

 The Perry brothers were the only kin in history to each claim a Cy Young Award. Older by three years, Jim made his debut in 1959 and was already a star by the time his little brother joined him in The Show. In a 17-year career spent with 4 different clubs, Jim posted a record of 215-174 with an ERA of 3.45. A 3-time All-Star, he collected at least 20 wins twice while leading the league in that category on two occasions. Gaylord got his start in 1962 and would remain at the big league level for 22 years, winning 314 games and posting a 3.11 ERA. In addition to five All-Star selections, the younger Perry won 2 Cy Young Awards, led the league in wins three times and authored a popular book in which he finally confessed to what had been suspected all along--that he had been throwing spitballs. Baseball writers forgave him as he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.  

Phil and Joe Niekro

Five years older than his brother Joe, Phil was among the most successful knuckleballers in history with 318 wins in a 24-year career that stretched from 1963 to 1987. He was 48 years-old when he retired. By then, he had led the league in complete games 4 times while earning 5 gold gloves and 5 All-Star berths. Additionally, he paced the NL in victories twice and reached the 200 strikeout threshold in 3 straight seasons from 1977-'79. Though not quite as successful, Joe was no slouch either, winning 221 games while posting a highly serviceable 3.59 ERA in 22 seasons. In '79, he led the league in wins and was named Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News.  A fine defensive hurler, he posted flawless fielding percentages on 6 occasions though somehow he never won a Gold Glove. Joe had something his Hall of Fame brother did not--a World Series ring. He won it as a member of the Twins in 1987. 

Pedro and Ramon Martinez

Pedro grew up in the shadow of his older brother Ramon, who was just 16 years old when he was signed by the Dodgers after pitching for the Dominican national team in the 1984 Olympics. In a 14-year career spent with 3 clubs, the spindly Ramon (6-foot-4, 165 pounds) compiled a record of 135-88 with a 3.67 ERA. His finest year came in 1990 with the Dodgers, when he went 20-6 and led the league in complete games while recording more than 200 strikeouts. He finished second in Cy Young voting that year.  Pedro really put the Martinez name on the map, winning 3 Cy Young Awards while being named to 8 All-Star teams. He collected 219 career victories between 1992 and 2009 and his .687 winning percentage ranks sixth all-time. With nine 200 strikeout seasons, 3 ERA titles and a triple crown in '99, many believe he will be a first ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible.

Bob and Ken Forsh

The Forsch brothers combined for 32 years of major league experience. Ken was the older of the two, getting his start in 1970. Bob forged his own path to the bigs in '74. Together, they won 282 games and established themselves as the only baseball brethren to each toss a no-hitter. Bob threw a pair of them--one in 1978 and another in 1983. Ken's came in 1979 while he was pitching for the Astros. The elder Forsch was named  to 2 All-Star teams and reached the 200 inning threshold 4 times. Additionally, he led the American League in shutouts during the '81 campaign. Bob claimed 54 more victories than his big bro, retiring with 168. In all, he posted double digit win totals 11 times.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bizarre Promotions

Some teams will do just about anything to lure fans to the ballpark--especially when attendance is sagging. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Here are two of the most peculiar promotions ever hatched:

The Boston Braves averaged less the 4,000 paying customers per game in a season that saw them go through two managers and finish 25 games below .500. June 22 was "State of Maine Day" at Braves Field with a prize being awarded to the first Boston player who hit a homer. Had outfielder Sid Gordon known what the prize was, he would have thought twice before smashing a 2-run clout over the left field wall in the nightcap of this doubleheader. The Braves lost both games of the twinbill to the Cardinals by the same score--7-2. When representatives from "The Pine Tree State" showed up at the Boston clubhouse to present Gordon with a 100-pound live bear cub, it didn't brighten his day any.

More peculiar yet was the outrageous scheme cooked up by Mike Veeck, son of legendary executive Bill and owner of the Class A Charleston River Dogs of the South Atlantic League. Growing up around the game's preeminent showman, Mike learned a thing or two about piquing the curiosity of fans. Veeck created quite a stir when he announced that the team would hold a drawing for a free vasectomy on Father's day.  Unfortunately, he was forced to scrap the idea when Catholic Bishop David Thompson (a season ticket holder) lodged a formal complaint. That didn't stop Veeck from dreaming up other zany promotions such as hiring mimes to perform instant replays, locking fans out of the stadium in order to set the record for lowest attendance and using pigs to deliver balls to umpires. 

 Veeck is perhaps best known as the mind behind the ill-fated Disco Demolition Night that caused a riot at Comiskey Park in 1979. You can read about this event in my upcoming book Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities: A Gallery of Rogues, which will be released on April 16th. Advance copies can be ordered on Amazon and Barnes & Noble at a dramatically discounted rate.