Monday, May 26, 2014

The Greatest Offensive Pitchers (Pre-DH Era) Part I

Before the designated hitter rule rendered AL hurlers virtually obsolete as an offensive presence, there were a number of moundsmen who held their own at the plate. Since Babe Ruth is an exceptional case, I have decided to leave him off of my list. In the years he was used exclusively as a pitcher (1914-1917), Ruth hit .299 with 38 extra-base hits and 50 RBIs (in 166 games). When his home run power became evident in 1918, he was gradually converted to a full-time outfielder. The rest is a well-weathered tale and comparisons to contemporaries are unfair. Simply put, there has never been another player like Babe Ruth. But there have been some fine hitting pitchers over the years.
Some of them are listed here in no particular rank or order:

Guy Hecker (1882-1890)
Spending most of his time with the Louisville Colonels, the right-handed Hecker worked more than 400 innings in four consecutive seasons. This included an incredible total of 670.2 frames in 1884. That's more than three seasons worth of work nowadays. Through most of Hecker's career, there were no restrictions on deliveries and he utilized a hop, skip and jump before releasing the ball. He is one of only three pitchers to win 50 games in a single major league season. He was so adept as a hitter, he was often used at first base when he wasn't pitching. In 1886, he led the American Association with a .341 batting average. He retired with a lifetime mark of .282, averaging 20 extra-base hits per year during his nine seasons in the majors.

Jesse Tannehill (1894-1911)
Tannehill had his best seasons on the mound between 1898 and 1905, winning no fewer than 15 games in that span (mostly for the Pirates) while reaching the 20-win plateau on six occasions. In 1901, he led the NL with a 2.18 ERA. He was a superb hitter--good enough to draw 87 outfield assignments and more than 50 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. His lifetime .255 batting average is better than many positional players of his era. He hit .278 or higher in four seasons, peaking at .336 in 1900. He even stole 19 bases during his career.

Jack Bentley (1913-1927)
A solidly built left-hander (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), Bentley served as a swing-man for the Senators in 1914. He led the AL in saves that year while making 11 starts and 19 relief appearances. Lacking the stamina to become a full-time member of the Senators' rotation, he was sent to the minors for more conditioning in 1915. He returned to the big leagues with the Giants eight years later, establishing himself as one of the top double-threats in the game. Between 1923 and 1925, he compiled a 40-22 record in 87 pitching assignments. In that same span, he hit .329 with 25 extra-base hits. His most successful season at the plate came in 1923, when he compiled a .427 batting average in 52 games--21 of them as a pinch-hitter. In Game 5 of the 1924 World Series, he blasted a 2-run homer off of Senators' ace Walter Johnson and was credited with the win. Traded to the Phillies in 1926, he spent a majority of his time at first base, reaching personal best marks in nearly every major offensive category. He finished his career with the Giants the following year. His lifetime batting average was .291.  

Dave Foutz (1884-1896)
Before his major league career, Foutz traveled to Colorado in search of gold. He ended up becoming a star pitcher for the St. Louis Browns instead. In his big league debut, he struck out 13 batters in 13 innings. The right-handed Foutz enjoyed his peak pitching years between 1885 and 1887, when he won no fewer than 25 games. After a line drive broke his thumb in 1887, he had trouble controlling his curve and was eventually switched to first base. Foutz was a major run producer, gathering 98 or more RBIs four times while peaking at 113 in 1889. In his last year as a full-time pitcher, he won 25 games and hit .357. During the five seasons in which he made at least 20 starts, he averaged 101 hits and 59 runs. His RBI totals for those years are incomplete. He retired with a .276 batting average.

Doc Crandall (1908-1918)
Crandall's bread and butter pitch was his curveball. Born James Otis Crandall, he picked up his nickname from writer Damon Runyan, who referred to him as "the physician of the pitching emergency." Crandall was among the first pitchers to be used consistently in relief and, for five straight seasons, he led the NL in closing appearances. While other teams were using a bullpen by committee format, Giants manager John McGraw was grooming Crandall as the league's premier fireman. The right-hander received little credit for it at the time since the save was not even an official statistic then. Crandall knew how to swing a bat. During his ten seasons in the majors, he compiled a .285 average with a .372 on-base percentage. In 1914, he jumped to the Federal League, where he pitched in 27 games and made 63 appearances at second base. He put up career-high numbers in hits (86) and RBIs (41) while hitting .309.

Smoky Joe Wood (1908-1922)
Wood Played with Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper in Boston. He might have forged a Hall of Fame career himself had he not suffered an injury that ended his pitching career prematurely. From 1909 through 1913, Wood's ERA never exceeded 2.29. He won 23 games in 1911 then followed with one of the greatest seasons in major league history, compiling a 34-5 record while leading the AL in complete games (35) and shutouts (10). He was the hero of the 1912 World Series, collecting 3 more wins and hitting .286. Though he got off to a slow start offensively at the beginning of his career, Wood gradually became an accomplished batsman. During his prime pitching years (1910-1915), he compiled a .258 average, peaking at .290 in 1912. In 1913, he suffered a thumb injury and tried to come back too quickly, seriously damaging his arm in the process. His last good season as a hurler came in 1915, when he led the league with a .750 winning percentage and 1.49 ERA. Out of the majors in 1916, the Indians purchased his contract the following year. He wasn't of much use to them with a gimpy arm, so he was sent to the minors to learn how to play the outfield. He made the switch successfully and remained in the majors through the '22 campaign. In five seasons as a positional player, he hit .297, including a .366 mark in 66 games during the '21 slate.  

George Mullin (1902-1915)
A right-hander, Mullin pitched for the Tigers over portions of twelve seasons before his contract was sold to the Senators in May of 1913. He was one of several big name players who jumped to the short-lived Federal League in 1914/15 then never appeared in the majors afterward. During his prime years, Mullin won 17 or more games in nine straight seasons. On July 4, 1912, he pitched a no-hitter over the Browns. He was known for his stalling tactics on the mound. Handy with a bat, he was used as a pinch-hitter more than 100 times during his career. He compiled a lifetime .262 batting average with 401 base hits and 163 runs scored. He had virtually no home run power, collecting just three long balls in his career--two of which were inside-the-parkers.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Bridgeport Hammer and Mudville Madness: My Latest Book Releases

I'm not the most dedicated self-promoter in the world, but I feel I would be remissed if I failed to mention the fact that I have two books hitting the shelves this summer.

My first novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, will be available on May 29 through indie publisher Black Rose Writing. It will make its way to other online booksellers (Amazon/ B&N/ etc. ) by mid-June. The story is set in 1942 and follows the adventures of Emmett Drexler--a U.S. counterintelligence agent who goes undercover as a ballplayer in an attempt to thwart a Nazi assassination plot. What do counterintelligence agents and baseball have in common? More than you think. While on an All-Star tour of Japan in the 1930s, catcher Moe Berg captured the Tokyo industrial landscape on film. The footage was later used to plan U.S. bombing raids during WWII. After his retirement from baseball, Berg worked for the Office of Strategic Services--precursor to the CIA. 
The Bridgeport Hammer is constructed as a fantasy baseball memoir. I have taken great pains to capture the spirit of the era. One editor who rejected the manuscript commented: "the narrative is so authentic, it reads too much like a work of nonfiction for our tastes." I took that as a compliment since it was exactly what I was going for. Nearly all of the characters and situations are firmly rooted in historical fact. Die-hard fans will have fun identifying the parallels between fact and fiction.

Originally scheduled for a June 6 release, my third nonfiction project is currently available. Produced by Taylor Trade Publishing, the book is entitled: Mudville Madness. I have always been fascinated by unusual events on the field. While researching my first two books, I found more oddball anecdotes than I knew what to do with. I eventually decided to write a volume dedicated entirely to out-of-the-ordinary baseball occurrences. Mudville Madness carries the subtitle of: Fabulous Feats, Belligerent Behavior and Erratic Episodes on the Diamond. The name says it all. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the book takes readers on a wild ride through the Deadball Era to the present day. While many of the events described will be familiar to hardcore fans, other entries will surprise and delight the most dedicated students of the game. There is something for everyone here. I am giving away a signed copy of the book for free through the Goodreads Author program. The offer expires soon, so enter to win ASAP. 

I will be doing virtual tours for both books during the month of June and will be making scattered appearances in Northern New York beginning with he Potsdam Summer Festival in July. I will post details at a later date.



Monday, May 12, 2014

An Annual Tradition Tarnished--The Dreaded All-Star Tie of 2002

The 2002 All-Star Game began and ended on a sour note. While allegations of steroid abuse were running rampant within the sport, players were threatening to strike over the issue of revenue sharing. Making the setting even bleaker, baseball lost one of its all time greats on July 5 as Ted Williams passed away at the age of eight-three.

The game was played at Milwaukee for the first time since 1975. More than 41,000 fans witnessed a spectacular opening ceremony commemorating thirty of the game's most iconic moments. The greatest living ballplayers, including Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays rubbed elbows with numerous future Hall of Famers such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Randy Johnson. 

The game itself featured timely hitting and stellar defensive play. With two outs in the first, Barry Bonds hit a deep smash to right-center field. Torii Hunter, among baseball's premier glove men, reached high over the wall to haul it back in. As the teams were changing sides, Bonds jokingly lifted the Twins' ball hawk off the ground and threw him over his shoulder.

The game see-sawed back and forth. In the seventh, a  2-out, 2-run single by Astros' outfielder Lance Berkman gave the National League a 7-6 lead. The American League answered in the top of the eighth as Indians' shortstop Omar Vizquel (installed at second base to compensate for the five shortstops the AL was carrying on its roster) delivered an RBI triple off of Giants' closer Robb Nen. The game was well on its way to becoming a classic.

...And then the trouble began.

Through ten frames, the score was still tied. AL skipper Joe Torre and his NL counterpart Bob Brenly had conspired to send a total of nineteen pitchers to the mound. Upon finishing the tenth, Phillies' right-hander Vicente Padilla told Brenly he couldn't work more than one more inning. Unfortunately, there was no one else to turn to. Sensing disaster, Brenly and Torre (who was also down to his last hurler) met with officials to devise a solution. It was decided that the game would be called after the eleventh if it remained deadlocked.

The National League almost broke through in the bottom of that frame, but Giants' catcher Benito Santiago struck out, stranding Mike Lowell of the Marlins at second. Fans littered the field with trash and chanted: "Refund! Refund!" Brenly's bench coach, Bob Melvin, commented to members of the pres: "Someone should have gone out there and told Freddy [Garcia] to lay one in there for Santiago. We were all praying that he would get a hit."

 Commissioner Bud Selig apologized to fans. "Nobody wanted to play more than I did," he told reporters. "But I have to balance the concerns and hopes of the fans against the welfare of the players and the game...This is why they have a commissioner, because somebody has to make those decisions."

Determined to prevent future incidents, Selig expanded the rosters by two players apiece. Adding incentive, he declared that the winning squad would gain home field advantage in the World Series. The convention has persisted into the current season despite opposition from various sources. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Most Memorable All-Star Games--1990-1999

Before the 1992 showcase, a writer from the Associated Press remarked: "It used to be that you could make up the all-star rosters in March--Mays, Mantle and Marichal, Kaline, Killebrew and Koufax. Now there's just no telling who might show up for baseball's coming out party." A total of twenty-four players were making first appearances in '92, leading another columnist to refer to both squads as the "All Dud Teams." Several of the aforementioned all-star rookies would go on to long and prosperous careers, including Ivan Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Gary Sheffield.
With President Bush in attendance, the American League handed the National League its sixth loss in seven games. Ken Griffey Jr. became the center of attention, going 3-for-3 with a home run while capturing MVP honors. Junior downplayed the accomplishment, commenting that he just "got lucky." Before the game, AL skipper Tom Kelly had joked about gathering 15 or 20 hits. He had no idea that his squad would actually accomplish the feat. In the end, Kelly's crew hit safely 19 times. Braves' ace Tom Glavine had a disastrous outing, yielding seven consecutive first inning singles. "I'd have almost rather given up a six-hundred foot homer than be blooped to death," he remarked. 

Randy Johnson was among the tallest pitchers in history at six-foot-ten. Standing on an elevated mound, he was even more imposing. The big left-hander had a lively fastball, an elusive slider and a surly persona. His questionable control early in his career made him especially menacing to opponents. Before the 1993 campaign, Phillies' first baseman John Kruk knew Johnson by reputation only. He wasn't relishing the prospect of having to facing the Mariners' ace in the All-Star Game that year.
As fate would have it, Kruk strolled to the plate against his nemesis with two outs in the third inning and the National Leauge nursing a 2-1 lead. Johsnon's first pitch was a 90 mph heater that sailed over Kruk's head clear to the backstop. Visibly rattled, Kruk fanned himself off, shook his head and smiled. He was consoled by AL catcher Ivan Rodriguez before stepping tentatively back into the box. It took just three more pitches to dispose of Kruk, who stepped into the bucket and flailed weakly at the last two. On his way to the dugout, Johnson winked playfully at the terrified NL first-sacker. It was the hurler's only strikeout in two scoreless frames. The AL breezed to a 9-3 win.
"When I stepped into the box, I said 'all I wanna do is make contact,'" Kruk told reporters at the game's conclusion. "After the first pitch, I said 'all I wanna do is live' and I lived, so I had a god at-bat." The showdown between Kruk and Johnson is among the most iconic moments in all-star history.

On the heels of a strike that wiped out the previous postseason, the 1995 summer showcase still managed to draw more than 50,000 fans to the Ballpark at Arlington. All eyes were upon NL starter Hideo Nomo, who became the first Japanese player to appear in an All-Star Game. Atlanta mound master Greg Maddux commented: "It think more people want to watch him pitch than me to be honest. He's unique. There's a certain mystique which I don't have." In Japan, businesses shut down so fans could see Nomo in action on TV (the game aired at 9 Tokyo). The right-hander didn't disappoint, working two scoreless frames while striking out 3.
Pitching was the order of the day as eleven of the fifteen hurlers who took the mound turned in scoreless performances. AL hurlers Randy Johnson, Kevin Appier and Dennis Martinez combined for 6 innings of no-hit ball. But the National League made the most of its three hits with solo homers from Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Jeff Conine. It was the first time in all-star history that all of a team's hits went deep. With a 3-2 victory, the NL secured its first winning streak since the 1980s. The temperature at the time of the first pitch was a sweltering 96 degrees.