Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part II--Rube Waddell)

Consult three different sources and you are likely to get three different theories about what was wrong with pitcher Rube Waddell. Some say he was "simple" while others contend he was "immature." Since psychology was still in its infancy during Waddell's lifetime, we will never know precisely what caused him to march to the beat of his own drum. But it's safe to say that he was more than just a little "off."

From his first full season of 1900 to the end of the '08 campaign, Waddell was the most dominant left-hander in the game. He won an ERA title in 1900 and a triple crown in 1905. He paced the AL in strikeouts for 6 consecutive years and became the first man to be officially recognized for striking out the side on 9 pitches. Though he played for mediocre clubs at several points during his relatively brief career, he still averaged 15 wins per season.

Waddell's thumbnail bio at baseball-reference.com estimates that his maturity level was equivalent to that of a seven-year old (a seven-year old in a hulking 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame). Despite his numerous talents, he drove more than one manager to distraction. In Pittsburgh, Fred Clarke suspended him for "irresponsible" behavior. In Philadelphia, Connie Mack traded him "in the interest of team harmony." Before then, Mack had tirelessly looked after the eccentric hurler's interests, doling Waddell's money out to him in small increments to avoid the epic spending sprees that would inevitably follow. Waddell had numerous difficulties outside of baseball. A two-fisted drinker and notorious womanizer, he was sued multiple times for divorce. In 1908, he was accused of assaulting his in-laws. It seemed wherever he went, trouble followed. But that's what made him one of the most entertaining characters in baseball history.

He was known to miss a start from time to time off fishing or playing marbles with street kids. He would disappear for days on end then later be found leading a street parade or wrestling alligators (seriously!). In one possibly apocryphal tale, he turned up underneath the A's team bus after a lengthy absence. His presence became known when he began shaking the vehicle violently back and forth. In spring training games, he was known to pull his players off the field then strike out the side (a trick famously employed by Satchel Paige in later years). Legend has it that Waddell would run from the mound to chase passing fire wagons. Though this is grossly inaccurate, he did maintain a fascination with fires throughout his career. He participated in numerous bucket brigades and assisted trained firemen in multiple cities including Philadelphia and Detroit.

Waddell's heroic tendencies eventually led to his death. In the winter of 1912, he stood in the icy waters of the Mississippi river for hours stacking sand bags when rising waters threatened the town of Hickman, Kentucky. He came down with pneumonia, which progressed into tuberculosis. By November of 1913, he was admitted to a sanitarium in poor health. He passed away the following spring just shy of his 38th birthday.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Players Who Struggled With Mental Illness (Part I--Jackie Jensen)

Many large scale surveys of the prevalence of mental disorders in adults have been carried out in the past. The World Health Organization reported in 2001 that roughly 450 million people worldwide suffer from brain disorders or some form of mental illness. The same report also stipulated that one in four people meet the criteria for mental illness at some point in their lives. In the face of such statistics, it should come as no surprise that baseball players are not immune. In fact, numerous high profile players have suffered breakdowns both on and off the field over the course of baseball history. In  my next several posts, I intend to share some of those stories. I'd like to start with the unusual tale of Jackie Jensen.

 During his days at the University of California, Jensen was hailed as the greatest athlete in the school's history. An All-American running back, he set a record for rushing yards with 1,080 in 1948. He also excelled at baseball, prompting several teams to engage in a bidding war before the 1949 slate. Jensen ended up signing a $75,000 contract with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. He was sold to the New York Yankees the following year along with Billy Martin.

Jensen had trouble finding a home in the star-studded Yankee lineup and ended up getting traded to Washington. He hit moderately well there but failed to live up to all the hype. He finally found his groove in Boston. Between 1954 and 1959, he captured three RBI crowns while slamming 25 or more homers four times. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1958, when he was named AL MVP. But behind the scenes baseball's so-called "Golden Boy" was struggling with a serious and persistent condition known as aerophobia--commonly referred to as "fear of flying."

The condition may or may not be a combination of several other phobias, including claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights) and agoraphobia (an anxiety disorder brought about by specific environmental circumstances). Individuals who suffer from aerophobia experience acute anxiety that can lead to panic attacks while flying. In extreme cases, some sufferers actually vomit at the mere sight of an airplane. The condition was extremely bothersome to Jensen, since his job frequently required him to travel by air.

Jensen tried to self-medicate with alcohol and sleeping pills, but this led to a number of embarrassing incidents. In 1959, he suffered an attack of dizziness before boarding a scheduled flight and had to be helped to his seat. After a few minutes, he was shaking and sweating so profusely, a startled flight attendant notified the captain, who promptly kicked Jensen off of the plane. It was not the only time the tranquilized Jensen had appeared drunk and disorderly to a throng of gawking passengers. He would often drive from city to city to avoid the humiliation.

In the spring of '59, he came clean about his condition with a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post. He explained how he had trouble combating his problem without tranquilizers and complained about being apart from his wife. In 1949, Jensen had married blonde bombshell Zoe Ann Olsen, a U.S. diving champion and Olympic silver medalist. The two were one of America's most admired couples. But Jensen's problems put a tremendous strain on their marriage. Against Zoe's wishes, Jackie officially announced his retirement before the 1960 campaign. 

Jensen took a year off to tend to his restaurant and other investments then decided to make a comeback attempt in 1961. By then, the American League had expanded to Los Angeles, adding a pair of long dsitance flights to a schedule Jensen already found extremely tiresome. By the end of April, he had slumped to .130 at the plate. At wit's end, he visited a renowned nightclub psychic in Reno. He started to hit again, but it proved to be only a temporary fix. Before a road trip to Cleveland, he was a no-show at Boston's Logan Airport, driving 850 miles to attend the series. He skipped the team's second jaunt to Los Angeles in August, meeting up with the club at Kansas City instead. He finished the year with 13 homers and 66 RBI's--not even close to the numbers he had put up in his prime. He never played another season in the majors.

The years after baseball were tough ones. Jensen lost a lot of money on various investments and ended up divorced. He eventually remarried and took a job as a color commentator for ABC. He continued to battle with acute anxiety. A heavy smoker, he had a serious heart attack at age 41 and lost his ABC job. In the '70's, he became head baseball coach at the University of California. His life finally seemed to be turning around when he died of another heart attack in 1982.                

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Facial Hair in the Majors: A Brief (and bushy) History

After the shaggy sideburns of the nineteenth century fell out of fashion, major league baseball more or less discouraged players from growing facial hair. The trend persisted into the early-'70s, when A's owner Charlie Finley began offering his players $300 apiece to sprout moustaches and beards. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn went along with it, commenting affably that the game needed some "showmanship." The most memorable trend-breaker on that club was Rollie Fingers, whose handlebar moustache was a throwback to an earlier era. Most reasonably informed baseball fans have encountered pictures of Fingers' curly-cue whiskers, which make him look like he stepped right out of a Dr. Seuss book. It became his personal trademark and he has continued to wear it ever since.

Other players who made major fashion statements in the '70s include Oscar Gamble and Dock Ellis. Gamble wore an afro that closely resembled a Chia Pet and, by 1976, it had so much volume that he could barely fit his hat over it. On both of his Topps baseball cards that year, his cap looks like it's about to pop right off. Ellis always marched to the beat of his own drum and, after Ebony magazine ran an article about his "Superfly" hairstyle in 1973, the eccentric hurler began appearing on the field in hair curlers. Commissioner Kuhn promptly drew a line in the sand, asking the big right-hander to curtail the practice. Ellis, who was always vocal about racial injustice during his career, griped: "They didn't put any orders about Joe Pepitone when he wore a hairpiece down to his shoulders." Ellis definitely had a point. Pepitone, a Yankee infielder who never lived up to his full potential during the '60s and early-'70s, became self-conscious about losing his hair and created a radical Beatle-esque coiffure using a hair piece. Pepitone apparently had two hair pieces, one for everyday use and one he referred to as his "game piece." In a moment of comic relief, the "game piece" came off one day when he removed his cap for the National Anthem.

While some managers and owners allowed players to wear their hair long, Yankee proprietor George Steinbrenner vigorously opposed the trend and once got into a theological debate with Lou Piniella over the topic.  As the story goes, Piniella argued that Jesus Christ would not be allowed to play on the team under Steinbrenner's regulations. "The Boss" supposedly led the outspoken fly-chaser to a pool behind the team’s hotel and countered: “If you can walk across that pool, you don’t have to cut your hair.” Steinbrenner could be fairly lenient in some cases. He allowed reliever Goose Gossage to sport a Fu-Manchu moustache and turned his back when captain Thurman Munson grew a full (and unkempt) beard during spring training one year. Munson's scraggly thatch was captured on his 1976 Topps baseball card.

Perhaps inspired by the hair trends of the '70s, numerous players pushed the envelope in the years that followed. Dennis Eckersley was a fashion icon in the '80s and '90s with his Magnum P.I. moustache and long, flowing locks. Through most of his career, Future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had a shock of unruly hair flying out of his cap. Johnny Damon wore a "mountain man" beard during the Red Sox championship season of 2004. But Damon's Grizzly Adams look paled in comparison to Brian Wilson

Wilson made a big splash in 2010 when he led the NL with 48 regular season saves then added 6 more in the postseason as his Giants won the World Series. Impressive statistics aside, Wilson has received more attention for his beard, which is so gnarly and long, it looks like it may be housing a family of squirrels. Whenever the camera focuses on Wilson in the Dodger dugout nowadays, I half expect something fuzzy with teeth to pop out.

And speaking of things that are fuzzy with teeth...

Borrowing a page from Wilson's book of style and carrying it to an extreme, the 2013 Red Sox are by far the most disheveled club in the majors. Not since the 1934 "Gas House Gang" has a group of ballplayers appeared so disorderly. Half of them have eye black running down their faces. The other half have helmets that are sticky with pine tar. Their uniforms are smeared with dirt and their beards haven't been trimmed since spring training. But what they lack in cleanliness, they make up for with hustle and grit. After finishing first in the ultra-competitive AL East, they knocked off the Rays in the Division Series and, as of this post, they had tied up the ALCS at a game apiece.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part IX--Left Field)

There are currently 20 left fielders in the Hall of Fame, only one of whom logged a major league at-bat after 1989. Statistical leaders among the group include Ted Williams with 521 homers, Stan Musial with 1,951 RBI's and Ed Delahanty (a deadball star) with a .346 lifetime batting average. Rickey Henderson leads his Cooperstown peers with 2,295 runs scored and 1,406 steals (both of which are all-time records).

In examing the list of eligible candidates, one encounters a great deal of controversy. Banned for life for betting on baseball, Pete Rose is among the most worthy players not in the Hall. Rookie of the Year in 1963 and MVP in '73, he holds the record for most hits in a career (4,256). He also became the first player to appear in 500 games at 6 different positions. His accomplishments don't end there. He collected 746 doubles (tops among switch-hitters) and reached base more times than any man in the history of the game (5,929). Only time will tell if MLB will ever forgive him for his transgressions. His quest for reinstatement has been ongoing for many years and he is currently one of the game's greatest ambassadors.

Another statistical giant who will almost certainly not be enshrined at Cooperstown is Barry Bonds. Ignoring the fact that he used steroids and lied about it, his numbers are eye-popping. A 7-time MVP, he reset the career mark for homers with 762 and shattered the single season record in 2001 when he smashed 73 long balls. He also drew more walks than any player in history. He currently ranks third in runs scored, fourth in RBI's and fourth in total bases. He also stole more than 500 bags in his mythical yet checkered career. What leaves many fans scratching their heads is the fact that he was on a clear trajectory toward Cooperstown BEFORE he started using PED's. Did he really need them? Of course not. Would he have claimed all the home run records? Probably not, but had he avoided the temptation, he would likely have delivered an induction speech at Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility (providing he actually showed up).

Yet another highly controversial but highly eligible candidate is Albert Belle. His surly attitude and wild mood swings (on and off the field) tarnished his public image. But he had 10 monster years from 1991-2000 before retiring prematurely due to hip problems. Though Belle never won an MVP Award (likely because he was so nasty to journalists), he certainly should have claimed the honor in 1995, when he led the league in runs scored (121), doubles (52), homers (50), RBI's (126) and slugging percentage (.690). He was the first player ever to club 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season. Nobody--not even the pumped up Bonds--was able to do that. In 12 seasons, Belle averaged 32 homers, 103 ribbies and a .295 average per season. His proponents can only hope that the people casting those Hall of Fame ballots didn't know him personally.

Barring cheaters, gamblers and hotheads, the only truly deserving player among those currently eligible is Tim Raines. Raines's candidacy has been gaining steam lately. He captured 49% of the vote in 2011 and 52% last year. In a 23-year career that stretched from 1979-2002, Raines made 7 All-Star teams, hit at a highly respectable .294 clip and stole 808 bases (fifth on the all-time list). He pilfered bags not only in great volume but with remarkable proficiency, retiring with an 84.7% success rate. Defensively, he was superb, leading the league in fielding percentage 6 times and assists on 3 occasions. It's hard to believe he never won a Gold Glove. Another compelling factoid, he helped steer three different clubs into the postseason.

There are few viable candidates due in the near future. Moises Alou, Luis Gonzalez and Carlos Lee were all very good, but none of them were off the charts. Gonzalez may have the best chance on the strength of his longevity and defensive excellence. "Gonzo" assembled a 19-year career and is considered one of the greatest Diamondbacks' players ever. He wore an Arizona uniform for 8 seasons and was the first man in franchise history to hit for the cycle. He pounded more than 1,000 extra-base hits in his career, 596 of which were doubles. When he wasn't hitting balls into the gaps, he was flashing the leather. He posted the highest fielding percentage among left fielders 5 times and his 4,442 putouts currently place him a #3 on the all-time list among players at his position.

My prediction for the future? I believe Raines will eventually make it into the Hall while the others remain outside looking in. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Who Belongs in the Hall? (Part VIII--Center Field)

When I sat down to conduct research for this post, I was surprised to find only 18 center fielders in the Hall of Fame with just two spending time in the majors during the 1980's or later--Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson. Puckett was forced to retire due to health issues after the 1995 campaign while Dawson logged his last major league at-bat the following year. Of the remaining 16 inductees, 9 enjoyed their peak seasons in the 1940's or earlier. I admit there are a few I have scarcely even heard of, namely Hugh Duffy and Billy Hamilton, both of whom played during the nineteenth century. I was relieved to find some familiar faces in the group such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays--three of the greatest players at ANY position. 

In the next several years, a slew of able-bodied center fielders will become eligible for induction. Most of them fall into the category of the "nearly great," such as Carlos Beltran and Torii Hunter, who are both currently active. Beltran is an 8-time All-Star with 3 Gold Gloves to his credit. Hunter, who enjoyed another productive regular season with the Tigers in 2013, has appeared on numerous highlight reels making gravity-defying catches. He's a 9-time Gold Glove recipient. Other players who will undoubtedly get some Hall of Fame consideration include Andruw JonesJim Edmonds and Johnny Damon. Damon collected over 2,700 hits and 400 stolen bases during his 18 years in the majors. Jones was a stellar defensive player and a powerful slugger in his prime. Edmonds cracked 393 homers and wasn't afraid to crash into walls or tumble head over heels while chasing fly balls.

In my opinion, there is only one sure candidate for Cooperstown and that is Ken Griffey Jr.. From 1989-1999, Griffey was the premier defensive center fielder in the majors, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards. He led the league in homers 4 times in that span, including a pair of back-to-back 56-homer efforts in '97/'98. The 56 dingers are a record for center fielders (tied with Hack Wilson). Griffey finished his career with 630 long balls--sixth on the all-time list. After a nagging series of injuries from 2002-2004, he won Comeback Player of the Year honors in '05, when he hit 35 bombs, drove-in 92 runs and hit .301 in 128 games with the Reds. Had he stayed healthy throughout his career, there is no telling what his numbers would look like. In all, he had 9 seasons with at least 30 homers and 8 with 100 RBI's. He was named to 13 All-Star teams and won an MVP award in 1997. If those aren't first-ballot credentials then there is something wrong with the system!

None of the center fielders currently eligible for the Hall are in the same class as Griffey, but there are several excellent ones. In a 17-year career, Kenny Lofton stole 622 bases and hit .297 in a leadoff role while helping six different clubs find their way to the postseason. Bernie Williams was a quiet, consistent performer for the Yankees over 16 seasons, winning 4 World Series rings and a batting title in 1998. Ellis Burks was a top run producer for 5 different clubs, finishing his career with more than 400 doubles, 300 homers and 1,200 ribbies. Using sabermetric methods, Lofton has the best chance of the three at finding his way to Cooperstown. Burks and Williams are slightly below average as compared to Hall of Fame center fielders.

Players from the distant past who deserve mention:

Willie Davis: Nicknamed "3-Dog" for is ability to stretch doubles into triples, Davis finished among the top 5 in stolen bases 6 times. A fixture in the LA outfield from '61-'73, he played in 3 World Series with the Dodgers, winning two. He is considered by many to be the best center fielder in Los Angeles history.

Vada Pinson: Pinson was among the top hitters in the NL from 1959-1967 with the Reds. He led the league twice in hits and doubles during that span. He collected more than 2,700 career safeties and received consistent support from Hall of Fame voters over a 15-year period, peaking at 15% of the vote in 1988.

Jim Wynn: Wynn had 8 seasons with 20 or more homers back when that still meant something (he played from 1963-'77). He struck out a lot, but also had a good batting eye, leading the league twice in walks. Defensively, he was superb, pacing the loop in putouts and assists twice apiece. He finished among the top 5 in fielding percentage four times.