Thursday, May 30, 2013

Native Americans in the Majors (Concluded)

Polishing off my survey of successful Native Americans in the majors, I'd like to add four more profiles to the list.

Pepper Martin
Baseball historian Lee Allen described Pepper Martin as "a chunky, unshaven hobo who ran the bases like a berserk locomotive." An Osage Indian, Martin grew up in Oklahoma. He later earned the nickname "The Wild Horse of the Osage" for his fire and determination. Martin was quite stocky at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, but he could really fly on the base paths. He toiled in the minors for 6 years before earning a full time roster spot with the Cardinals. After hitting .363 in 135 International League games during the 1930 slate, he won the center field job in St. Louis the following year. He hit at an even .300 clip during the regular season then turned in one of the most brilliant World Series performances of all time, compiling a .500 batting average with 12 hits and 5 ribbies in the Cards' 7 game victory over the A's. Between 1933 and 1936, Martin led the league in stolen bases on three occasions and scored no less than 120 runs the same number of times. He was an indispensable member of the '34 "Gashouse Gang," playing alongside Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Joe Medwick and Dizzy Dean. In the '34 Fall Classic, he stole the show again with 11 hits and a .355 average as St. Louis disposed of the Tigers in 7 games. Martin accumulated one of the highest postseason averages of all-time at .418. He scored 14 runs and drove-in 9 more in 15 World Series games. He saw less playing time after the '36 slate, though his average never dropped below .294 between '37 and '40. After retiring as a player, he coached for the Cubs briefly and served a s director of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Kyle Lohse
Affiliated with the Nomlaki Wintun tribe, right-hander Kyle Lohse got his start in the Cubs' farm system. He was chosen in the 29th round of the 1996 amateur draft. Traded to the Twins in '99, he made his big league debut two years later. Still active as of this season, he has recorded double digit win totals 5 times. He enjoyed his finest season to date in 2011, when he led the league in winning percentage with a 16-3 record. He posted a 2.86 ERA that year and became the first pitcher since Allie Reynolds to start a World Series game. Lohse has polished his craft over the years. He currently employs a 2-seam fastball, a hard slider, a 12-6 curveball and a changeup that tops out in the 80 mph range. He has excellent control though he rarely finishes among the league leaders in strikeouts. He currently plays for the Brewers and is off to a slow start with a 1-5 record and 3.76 ERA through May 19th.

  Jacoby Ellsbury
A Navajo Indian, Ellsbury attended Madras High School in Oregon and turned down an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays to attend Oregon State University. He was a first round draft pick in 2005, spending two years in the Red Sox farm system before getting his first big league call-up in 2007. After playing in  33 regular season games that year, he helped the BoSox to a World Series victory (their second in four years). Ellsbury hit .321 with 4 doubles and 4 ribbies in 11 postseason games. Assuming full time center field responsibilities for Boston, he led the AL in stolen bases for two straight seasons ('08/'09). He also topped the circuit in triples during the '09 slate. He enjoyed his finest all around season in 2011, hitting .321 with 212 safeties, 46 doubles, 32 homers and 105 RBI's. Additionally, he stole 39 bases while capturing multiple accolades, including a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. Hampered by injuries in 2010 and 2012, he is off to a decent start this year. As of May 28th, he was leading the AL with 16 steals and hitting at a respectable .257 clip. 

Allie Reynolds
Reynolds was born on a reservation in Bethany, Oklahoma as a member of the Muscogee Nation. Aside from Albert Bender and Zack wheat, he was arguably the most talented Native American ever to pull on a uniform. The right-handed hurler posted double-digit win totals every year from 1943 to 1954, topping out at 20 wins in 1952. As was so often was the case with players of his ancestry, he carried a variation of the "Chief" nickname. According to one biographer, he was uncomfortable with the handle, not necessarily because of its Indian origins, but because of the leadership implications it carried. The moniker of "Superchief" was rarely used in his presence. Reynolds attended college on a track scholarship and switched to baseball when an injury prevented him from running one year. He eventually signed with the Indians in 1939 and compiled a 51-47 record before joining the Yankees in '47. Reynolds credited veteran hurler Spud Chandler with making him a better pitcher. Chandler taught him to change speeds and strategize. It worked like a charm as he posted a 131-60 record in pinstripes while winning 6 World Series. This included 5 Fall Classics in a row from 1949-'53. Known for his blazing fastball, Reynolds threw a pair of no-hitters in 1951. He led the league in shutouts twice and ERA once. Oklahoma State University later named its baseball field after him.    

Monday, May 27, 2013

Native Americans in the Majors (Part II)

Zack Wheat
Wheat is one of two Native Americans in the Hall of Fame (Chief Bender being the other). His father was a descendant of Moses Wheat, a Puritan who fled England in 1635 and founded Concord, Massachusetts.  Wheat's mother is said to have been a full-blooded Cherokee. The multi-talented left fielder was hesitant to discuss his heritage with reporters, though attention was drawn to it anyway. A Sporting Life correspondent wrote in 1917: "the lithe muscles, the panther-like motions of the Indian are his by divine right."
Wheat was adept in every aspect of the game. He had plenty of speed, putting up double digit stolen base totals for seven straight seasons. In the outfield, he used that speed to cover a lot of ground, leading the NL in putouts four times. He currently ranks 18th on the all-time list in that category. At the plate, Wheat was a difficult man to dispose of, averaging just 1 strikeout per 16 at-bats while topping the .300 mark on 14 occasions. A left-handed hitter, he finished with a .317 lifetime average in 19 campaigns. He remains the all-time franchise leader for the Dodgers in doubles, triples and RBI. Additionally, he was well-liked by teammates. Casey Stengel, who played with Wheat from 1912-1917, described him as "one of the truest pals a man ever had and one of the kindest men God ever created."

Bob Johnson
Part Cherokee, Johnson avoided the handle of "Chief" but ended up being strapped with the moniker "Indian Bob." His older brother Roy signed with Detroit in 1929 and led the AL with 45 doubles that year. While Roy was capturing all the attention, Bob failed to make the majors in his first 4 professional campaigns. He finally landed in Philadelphia in 1933. During his ten seasons with the A's, Johnson was one of the most consistent performers. Sportswriter Red Smith labeled him "a first-rate outfielder with a powerful and accurate throwing arm." The statement was spot-on as Johnson's 184 career assists are tops all-time among left fielders. He was no slouch at the plate either, gathering no less than 21 homers and 92 RBI's every year from 1933 through 1941. He topped the century mark in RBI's in 7 straight seasons and was named to 7 All-Star teams. After '42, Johnson felt he was being underpaid and requested a trade. His power numbers tapered off in '43 with the Senators, but he found his stroke again with the Red Sox in 1944, leading the AL with a .431 on-base percentage. He drove in 106 runs while collecting 40 doubles that year. It was his last great season.

John Meyers
Though Meyers got saddled with the somewhat derogatory nickname of "Chief," he was able to rise above the stereotypes of  his era. One reporter wrote that Meyers had "a fund of information that runs from politics to Plato, a quick, logical mind, and the self-contained, dignified poise that is the hallmark of good breeding." A member of the Cahuilla Tribe, Meyers attended Dartmouth College until it was discovered that his high school diploma had been falsified. The school offered to admit him if he completed a preparatory program, but he chose a baseball career instead. Promoted to the majors at 28 years of age, he quickly became one of the best offensive catchers of the Deadball Era. He played for 3 teams between 1909 and 1917, spending most of that time with the Giants. He led the NL with a .441 on-base percentage in 1912 and finished with a career batting average of .291--exceptional for the time period. Meyers helped his teams to 4 post season berths, though he never played on a world championship squad. Defensively, he led the league in passed balls twice, but also topped the circuit in putouts five times and double plays twice.

Rudy York
York was listed as part Indian-part Irish, but he once joked that there was very little Irish in him. "I'm a Cherokee and I'm proud of it," he said after his retirement. "Of course, when I was in the big leagues, that didn't help me out much. Any time an Indian puts on a baseball uniform, he's twice as interesting a character as the other fellow." As a catcher/first baseman in the Detroit system, York's path to the majors was blocked by Hank Greenberg at first and Mickey Cochrane behind the plate. He was eventually promoted in '37 when Cochrane was seriously injured after being hit by a pitch. Though York was substandard defensively, he was such a productive hitter that the Tigers offered Greenberg a $20,000 bonus to move to left field. York took over the first base full-time in 1940. A seven-time All-Star, York finished as high as third in MVP voting (in 1943). In all, he had 6 100 RBI seasons and four 30-Homer campaigns.   

Friday, May 24, 2013

Native Americans in the Majors

Now that I've spent my last two blogs discussing current events, I'd like to get back to some historical topics. One subject that has always interested me is the contribution of Native American ballplayers over the years.

In 2011, right-hander Kyle Lohse started Game 3 of the World Series for the Cardinals. It wasn't one of his best outings, but the appearance was noteworthy nonetheless as Lohse was the first Native American to start a World Series  game since Allie Reynolds won Game 6 of the 1953 Fall Classic. Before Lohse, Joba Chamberlain--a Winnebago Indian from Lincoln, Nebraska-- made three relief appearances in the 2009 Series for the Yankees, yielding 1 run and 2 hits in 3 innings of work. As of 2013, Lohse and Chamberlain were still active along with Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who finished second in MVP voting during the 2011 campaign. Ellsbury, who hails form Madras, Oregon, is of Navajo descent.

Over the course of baseball history, roughly 50 American Indians with verifiable tribal ties have played at the major league level. Native Americans were first introduced to baseball while being held captive by U.S. troops. It has been reported that Apache warrior Geronimo played baseball as a prisoner. Merchants and missionaries later brought the game to reservations while the earliest professional teams were being assembled. Eventually, a handful of Native Americans aspired to the majors. 

It wasn't an easy road. There were no official segregation laws, but Indian players were widely discriminated against. The lucky few who made it to "The Show" were saddled with degrading nicknames ("Chief" being the most common) while being treated to abuse from fans. The first American Indian to make it to the majors was a man named Louis Sockalexis, who traced his lineage to the Penobscot tribe. A multi-sport star at Holy Cross college, he hit .338 in his 1897 major league debut, but his experience was less than blissful. A correspondent from Sporting Life wrote: "All eyes are upon the Indian in every game...Columns of silly poetry are written about him, hideous looking cartoons adorn the sporting pages...He is hooted and howled at by the thimble-brained brigade on the bleachers." Sockalexis accepted the reprehensible treatment with dignity. "No matter where we play, I go through the same ordeal," he told reporters. "I am so used to it that at times I forget to smile at my tormentors." Unfortunately, Sockalexis's story was one of tragedy as his heavy drinking led to a rapid decline. He was out of the majors by the end of the 1899 slate. He eventually turned his life around, but not before living as a vagrant for a period of time. 

Though making it to the majors is a significant accomplishment in itself, not all of the Native Americans who have worn major league uniforms over the years have met with great success at the game's highest level. There have been numerous standouts, however--A topic I would like to explore thoroughly in my next few posts. I'll start with one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. 

Charles Albert "Chief" Bender
An Ojibwe Indian, Bender made his debut in 1903 for the A's at the age of 19 and pitched spectacularly, gathering 17 wins while posting a 3.07 ERA. He gained wide acclaim for his coolness in big-game situations. Connie Mack once said of him: "If I had all the men I've ever handled and they were in their prime and there was once game I wanted to win above all others...Albert would be my man." Bender lived up to that billing by participating in five World Series, three of which were won by the A's. He notched a 6-4 record overall with a stingy 2.44 ERA. The reliable right-hander had 2 devastating pitches in his repertoire, a lively fastball and a sharp-breaking curve. He also threw a submarine fadeaway pitch that moved away from lefties like a screwball. Battling injuries throughout his career, he posted impressive statistics. Between 1907 and 1911, his ERA never exceeded 2.16 and for 3 straight seasons, it was below the 2.00 mark. He won 212 regular season games in all, averaging 18 victories per year over 16 seasons. Though Bender was treated relatively well by contemporaries, he told writers in 1905 that he resented the bigotry of the era. "I do not want my name to be presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher," he said. The nickname of "Chief" followed him to the grave--literally. It is inscribed on his tombstone.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2013 Yankees--A Grab-Bag Philosophy

The news would have been devastating to any other club. Before the 2013 campaign was underway, the Yankees learned that they would be opening the regular season without four of their biggest stars: Derek Jeter, Mark Texeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez. When I heard the news myself, I braced myself for a last place finish and adopted a "wait 'til next year" attitude. I had forgotten how resourceful the guys in the front office are.

In addition to spending multi-millions on marquee players, the Yankees reach into the major league grab-bag every year hoping to pull out a few useful party favors. This formula has worked out pretty well for them in the recent past as Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones--all on the downside of their careers--helped carry the team for periods of time. This year's crop of has-beens looked pretty suspect on paper, however, and I was less than enthusiastic about it.

Kevin Youkilis had been dumped by Boston in 2012 when he got off to a .233 start in 42 games. Travis Hafner, a major producer for the Indians from 2004-2007, had fizzled out since then, managing an anemic .228 batting average in 66 games last year. Vernon Wells was a .221 hitter during his two seasons with the Angles and Lyle Overbay? Gimme a break--The guy was demoted to the minors last season!

Imagine my surprise when each of the aforementioned players far exceeded my expectations.

At the end of play on May 18th, Wells was hitting .286 with 10 homers and 23 RBI's. Hafner was at .260 with 7 homers and 20 ribbies. Overbay, who hadn't seen full-time action since 2011, was second only to Robinson Cano in the RBI department. And Youkilis, though shelved with a back injury at the beginning of May, had been consistently hitting in the clutch. The Yankees themselves are currently sitting on top of the AL East and, with their missing superstars due to return in the coming months, things can only get better, right?

We'll see...
Andy Pettitte was recently placed on the DL. This is a harsh blow since the starting pitching is thin already. It will be interesting to see if those front office guys have any magic bullets left in their gun.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

2013 MLB Predictions Gone Astray

Believe it or not, folks--one quarter of the 2013 season is in the books already. If things continue the way they've been going, numerous sportswriters will end up with their pants on fire as two of the most hyped teams in the majors are off to lackluster starts.

What's going on with the Blue Jays? They were predicted to make the playoffs!
Blockbuster trades in the offseason brought a slew of stars to the city that hasn't hosted a World Series since the early-'90's. Unfortunately, none of those transactions have panned out so far. 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was 3-5 with a 4.83 ERA through his start on May 14th. Melky Cabrera, who would have qualified for the 2012 NL batting title had he not voluntarily withdrawn due to steroid violations, was looking less than superhuman through mid-May with just 1 homer and a batting average in the .280's. Another major acquisition, Jose Reyes hurt his ankle in April and has not returned to action since. Mark Buehrle, a 4-time All-Star, was 1-3 with a 6.33 ERA through May 17th. Right-hander Josh Johnson, another import, was placed on the 15-day Disabled list this month after running up a 6.86 earned run average. As a result, the Jays have been languishing in the basement all year. At the time of this post, they were sporting a 17-25 record. Manager Josh Gibbons wasn't ready to throw in the towel yet, though he spoke to reporters about the uphill climb ahead. "We've dug a pretty big hole and there's a lot of good teams in our division, so it won't be easy." 
Good news for Jays fans: They won 4 games in a row recently and there's still plenty of baseball left to be played. 

Dodger fans were dancing in the streets (metaphorically speaking) when new owners shelled out a record $230 million to shore up the LA roster for the 2013 slate. Apparently, no one got the memo that money doesn't buy a championship (well, sometimes it does but not in this case). Predicted by numerous sources to capture the NL West, the Dodgers are off to a 17-23 start. If things don't turn around soon, Don Mattingly could lose his job. "I don't have the energy to worry about that," the LA skipper said recently. "I need all my energy to continue working on this club."
 It's true that the men in blue have a long way to go.
 On the bright side, the often injured Carl Crawford, who was a question mark for this season, has stayed healthy so far and was batting over .300 as of May 17th. 2011 Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw has been lights out on the mound with a 4-2 record and 1.40 ERA. The positives end there more or less.
Hanley Ramirez pulled a hamstring during a game against the Giants and is out for what will likely be an extended period. Adrian Gonzalez has a strained neck and, though he is off to a hot start despite the injury, he was recently removed from a game as a precautionary measure. Pitcher Zack Greinke, a Cy Young recipient in 2009, missed most of April due to collarbone surgery and only recently returned to action. Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have just 4 homers between them so far and neither is flirting with a .300 batting average. At the close of play on May 17th, the Dodgers ranked 29th in the majors in two major offensive offensive categories--runs scored and slugging percentage.We'll see what the embattled Mattingly can do with the hand he's been dealt.

Among the pleasant surprises in the majors this year are the Indians and Red Sox, who were both predicted to finish near the bottom of their respective divisions. The Sox are off to a hot start and are giving the injury-riddled Yankees hell in the AL East. The Indians are vying for the AL Central lead with the Tigers--who were more or less expected to runaway with the division. I've always had a soft spot for underdogs, so I'll be watching these races carefully.   


Friday, May 17, 2013

Comical Deadball Moments (Concluded)

            Called up from the South Atlantic League in June of 1919, first baseman Dick Burrus became confused with directions given by Manager Connie Mack to Shibe Park. Lost in Trenton, Burrus was late showing up at the ballpark. By the time he dressed and reported for duty, the game was already underway. He entered the Philly dugout in time to see one of his new teammates smash a majestic homer. “What a hit!” Burrus said to Connie Mack. “Who was that player?” “That was George Burns,” Mack said soberly, “The fellow you are going to replace.” 

            Following a spring training game at Fresno, members of the Cubs attended a professional boxing match along with several of their minor league opponents.  The crowd grew restless when one of the combatants failed to show and, looking to avoid an unpleasant scene, the promoter began combing the audience for potential challengers. Orvie Overall, who had pitched for Tacoma that day and was listed at six-foot-two, 214 pounds, agreed to trade blows, but despite his imposing size, he was paid no respect. “I’ll give you two rounds,” the experienced fighter said dubiously. To everyone's surprise, Overall literally knocked the man out of the ring. He would later demonstrate his pitching prowess by winning at least 15 games every year for the Reds and Cubs from 1905 through 1909.  

In the spring of 1911, the Cubs played an exhibition game in Hattiesburg, Kentucky. Only a few star players were used and Lew Richie was doubling as a pitcher/manager. The local fans wanted to see Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown pitch and began clamoring from the stands. A crowd of two thousand went wild when he finally took the hill in the ninth. Before the first offering was made, outfielders Jimmy Sheckard and Solly Hofman began singing an improvised tune, using their hats as banjos. “Brownie’s going to fan this man, yes, Brownie’s going to fan this man!” They serenaded the crowd through the entire frame as the marquee hurler retired the side on strikes.

 During a 1917 contest between the Reds and Giants, umpire Bill Byron ejected a total of six players from the proceedings. Cincinnati catcher Ivy Wingo was among the first to go after spouting a stream of verbal abuse from the bench. When back-up receiver Tommy Clark stepped out of line and got tossed several innings later, the Reds again found themselves in need of a backstop. With Byron still engaged in a heated debate, Wingo donned his equipment and snuck back onto the field. Pitcher Clarence Mitchell got in a few warm-up tosses before the man in blue realized what was going on. “I put you out of this game an hour ago and here you are again!” Byron shouted angrily. “Get out of this game and out of this park!” Wingo was grinning from ear to ear as he headed toward the clubhouse.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Comical Deadball Moments (Part II)

Before the official rules required home teams to wear white, there were inevitable mix-ups. In a game between the Giants and Cubs at Chicago, both clubs were dressed in black.  With the bases loaded, a Chicago batter launched a deep drive to right field.  Mike Tiernan caught up with it quickly, but mistakenly fired the ball to Cubs’ first base coach Ad Gumbert. Fooled by the color of Gumbert’s sweater, Tiernan assumed he was throwing to teammate Roger Connor.  Three runs scored as Gumbert dodged the relay.  

Not all of Fred Clarke’s heroic deeds were intentional.  In fact, he once stole home without realizing it. Occupying third with the bases loaded in a tight contest, Pittsburgh’s popular player/manager strolled casually toward the plate following a 3-1 offering that appeared to be a bit outside. At that precise moment, the umpire found himself temporarily unable to speak. As the arbiter struggled to clear his throat, Clarke crossed the pan uncontested. He did so just as a second strike call was made. It was undoubtedly among the cheapest of his 1,622 career runs—a total that helped land him among the Cooperstown elite.

Pete Hotaling, a journeyman outfielder who played in both the National League and American Association during the late-1800's, had a reputation for being a slow-thinker despite his other assets. Against the Cubs one afternoon, Hotaling ended up at second on a botched throw by Hall of Famer King Kelly. He was held at that station by Fred Pfeffer, who slammed an empty hand on Hotaling’s back. “That’s right,” third baseman Ned Williamson conspired, “keep that ball and tag Pete if he edges off the bag.” “Nice slide, Pete,” Pfeffer added, “but that’s as far as you’ll get today.”  Unbeknownst to Hotaling, the ball had rolled to the deepest recesses of the ballpark and was still being pursued by Chicago outfielders. Hotaling’s teammates clamored for him to move up a base, but he stayed put as a throw finally did arrive. The next batter popped up, ending the inning, and players on the bench demanded to know why no advance had been made. “I thought the ball was on second,” Hotaling said naively, “Pfeffer and Williamson told me it was and I didn’t think they’d lie to a fellow.”

During one difficult stretch in 1911, Cardinals’ outfielder Steve Evans botched several fly balls, enduring a slew of taunts from fans. Ever the comedian, Evans manned his post one afternoon holding an over-sized umbrella. At the end of the inning, he trotted past umpire Hank O’Day, who grumbled: “What are you trying to do, make a joke out of this game?” “No, Mr. O’Day,” Evans shot back, “I’ll leave that to you.” Not known for his sunny temperament, an infuriated O’Day reportedly chased Evans all the way to the clubhouse.