Monday, June 30, 2014

The Greatest Offensive Pitchers (Pre-DH Era) Concluded

Here's the final installment of a three part series about pitchers who knew how to handle themselves with a bat. This little chapter takes us beyond the war years.

Schoolboy Rowe (1933-1949)
Rowe was a big man for the era at 6-foot-4 and a half, 210 pounds. Beset by injuries throughout his career, he had several dominant seasons for the Tigers during the 1930s. Between 1934 and 1936, he averaged 20 wins per year. His arm went bad after that, but he bounced back with a remarkable 16-3 record in 1940. Rowe was a skilled batsmen throughout his career, hitting no lower than .246 on eight occasions. He topped the .300 mark three times. Frequently used as a pinch-hitter, he gathered 28 hits in 101 at-bats. He was reportedly the first man to hit a ball into the center field bleachers at the Polo Grounds. He did it during batting practice.

Warren Spahn (1942-1965)
 Spahn won more games than any left-hander in history, gathering 363 victories over the course of his illustrious 21-year career. In a famous anecdote, Boston manager Casey Stengel demoted him to the minors during his rookie season after he refused to throw a brushback pitch at Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Stengel later commented that it was the biggest mistake of his managerial career. Between 1956 and 1961, Spahn assembled a streak of six consecutive 20-win campaigns. Extremely durable, he led the NL in complete games nine times. Though he finished his career with a .194 batting average, he demonstrated consistent power at the plate, blasting 35 homers. He hit 3 or more in a season four times. He was adept at moving runners along on the basepaths, successfully executing 82 sacrifices while gathering 189 RBIs.

Bob Lemon (1946-1958)
Lemon began his career as a third baseman, leading the Eastern League in runs scored and hits during the 1941 slate. Upon joining the Navy in 1943, he ended up on a service team and was used as a pitcher. He developed a highly effective curveball. After the war, the Indians tried him as a positional player, but he got off to a slow start. Acting on the advice of several veterans who had played against him in the armed forces, Cleveland Manager Lou Boudreau gave Lemon a trial on the mound. It was the beginning of a very productive career as Lemon collected more than 200 victories in a twelve-year span. Since Lemon had been trained as an infielder, he was fairly adept with a bat, gathering 100 extra base hits during his career, including 37 homers. In 1947, he complied a .321 batting average. He later became famous for the colorful statement: "Baseball is a kids' game that adults just screw up."   

Don Newcombe (1949-1960)
Newcombe captured Rookie of the Year honors in 1947 with a 17-8 record and a 3.17 ERA. His career was interrupted by two years of military service. If he had one weakness, it was a tendency to lose focus on the mound. Teammate Jackie Robinson would sometimes yell at him for it, saying: "You ought to go home because you're fooling around."  "Newk's" finest season came in 1956, when he garnered Cy Young and MVP honors on the strength of his 27 victories. The hard-throwing right-hander was one of the best offensive pitchers of all time with a .271 lifetime batting average. In 1955, he hit .359 with 7 homers and a .632 slugging percentage. Only Willie Mays posted a higher mark among qualified candidates that year. Newcombe was used frequently as a pinch-hitter and collected 20 hits while performing the job. In all, he topped the .300 mark at the plate four times, posting his highest individual average in 1958 at .361.

Don Larsen (1951-1967)
During his fourteen-year career, Larsen's highest single season win total was 11. In 1954, he led the league in losses with 21. His lifetime ERA was an unremarkable 3.78. But on one golden afternoon at Yankee Stadium in 1956, Larsen attained immortality by spinning the only perfect game in World series history. It was no easy feat as the Dodgers started five Hall of Famers against him that day. Though Larsen may not have distinguished himself otherwise, he was a fine hitter, compiling batting averages of .250 or better on six occasions. In 596 career at-bats, he slugged 14 homers and drove in 72 runs. He was patient enough at the plate to draw 43 walks. In 1953, he set a major league record for pitchers with 7 straight hits.

Don Drysdale (1956-1969)
Drysdale was a fierce competitor, hitting 154 batters during his career while leading the league in that category five times. Frank Robinson once commented about getting beaned by Drysdale: "When he did it, he just stood there on the mound and glared at you to let you know he meant it." Using intimidation to an advantage, he led the Dodgers to five World Series appearances between 1956 and 1966. His most remarkable season on the mound came in 1962, when he posted a 25-9 record with a 2.83 ERA. He was an overwhelming choice for the Cy Young Award that year. Drysdale had a few good years as a hitter during his career, especially in 1958, when he slugged 7 homers in 47 games. He hit 7 more long balls in 1965 while compiling a .300 batting average. Drysdale's success at the plate was sporadic as he consistently failed to break the .200 mark. But his 29 career home runs are among the top totals for a pitcher.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Ugly Side of Babe Ruth

In the annals of baseball history, there has never been another player like Babe Ruth. After compiling an 89-46 record over a six-year span as a pitcher for Boston, the Babe began his assault on the record books while patrolling the outfield for the Yankees. Ruth was in a class all by himself. In fact, the term “Ruthian” is still used to describe extraordinary batting feats. When the Bambino retired in 1935, his 714 homers were four-hundred more than the closest runner-up. He still holds the all-time mark for slugging percentage. A one man traveling circus, Ruth lived fast and died relatively young. He signed autographs, promised homers to sick kids and gave back to the community at large. His daily exploits both on and off the field were chronicled in the papers and generated more copy than most of his teammates combined.

But Ruth had a dark side that was often eclipsed by his more pleasing attributes. When it became apparent that he could hit just as well as he could pitch, he began clamoring for more playing time and griping about having to take the mound. He engaged in fiscal disputes with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee on a regular basis, threatening to leave the team more than once. Frazee justified Ruth’s transfer to the Yankees by referring to him as “one of the most selfish and inconsiderate men that ever wore a uniform.” Multiple sportswriters agreed, including Boston Post columnist Paul Shannon, who wrote: “Popular as Ruth was on account of his big-heartedness, the men nevertheless realize that his faults overshadowed his good qualities.”

The Babe had an inexplicable contempt for small men. Researcher Leigh Montville discussed the topic at length in his biography, The Big Bam. Montville asserted that Ruth “tended to bully them, to make them the butt of his many practical jokes. He paid small men no heed, as if physical size were the answer in all arguments, the small man’s opinion worth nothing without the bulk to back it up.” At five-foot-two, 122 pounds, Yankee manager Miller Huggins got little respect from the Babe. The two clashed regularly and Huggins’ input was largely ignored.

Huggins was not the only superior that Ruth held in light regard. He had a problem with various umpires as well.  While pitching against the Senators on June 23, 1917, he became exasperated with the calls of Brick Owens. After issuing ball four, Ruth confronted the arbiter. According to the Boston Globe, the dialog was as follows:

“Open your eyes and keep them open!” barked Ruth.

“Get in and pitch or I’ll run you out of there,” Owens retorted.

“You run me out and I’ll come in and bust your nose,” the Babe threatened.

When Owens ejected him, Ruth rushed to the plate. Catcher Pinch Thomas tried to restrain the angry hurler, but a blow was landed behind the arbiter’s left ear. Ruth was ejected and his replacement, Ernie Shore, retired all twenty-six batters he faced.

In the fall of 1921, Ruth blatantly disregarded the orders of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, going on an all-star barnstorming tour with two of his teammates. Landis showed his disapproval by suspending all three players until May 20—roughly seven weeks into the 1922 campaign. Ruth returned to much fanfare, receiving the honorary title of team captain. He would serve in that capacity for less than a week. The layoff hadn’t done him any good. Through the first five games, he was hitting below .100 with just one homer. On May 25, Ruth hit a single in the third inning and was tagged out trying to stretch it into a double. Exasperated with the call, he got up and threw dirt on umpire George Hildebrand. Hildebrand promptly ejected him from the game.
A chorus of jeers greeted Ruth on his way back to the dugout and he tipped his cap sarcastically. He might have exited without further incident had he not been subjected to a barrage of objectionable comments from two fans on the way out. The Babe leaped over the wall into the seats and went after one of them. The man backed away, drawing Ruth further into the crowd. Frustrated and angry, Ruth hopped up on the dugout roof and openly challenged anyone in the stands to a fight. There were no takers. Miller Huggins later responded by stripping Ruth of his honorary title.

Many of Ruth’s on-field adventures are recounted in my latest book, Mudville Madness, which was recently released by Taylor Trade Publishing. Spanning three centuries of baseball history, the work offers detailed accounts of the game’s wildest moments. In addition to Ruth, readers will get the dirt on dozens of other colorful characters, among them Germany Schaefer, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Jimmy Piersall. While you’re at it, you can pick up a copy of my first novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, which is a fantasy baseball memoir set in WWII against a backdrop of Nazi espionage. It was published in May by Black Rose Writing.   

Monday, June 16, 2014

Baseball During Wartime

 From a researcher’s perspective, the World War II era is a fascinating period of baseball history.  Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis questioned whether or not the game should continue with the U.S. officially embroiled in the war. On January 14, 1942, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt seeking counsel. Landis received his answer in short order—a resounding “yes.” Roosevelt, himself, was a fan of the sport and had attended multiple games during his term. He stated on one occasion that he would get out to the park more often if only he didn’t have to “hobble up and down the stairs in front of all those people.” The President was sensitive about the public’s perception of his disability and secret servicemen actively prevented members of the press from taking pictures during his arrivals and departures (very few photos exist).

In his famous “green light letter,” FDR referred to the game as a “recreational asset” and remarked: “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.” He also suggested playing more games at night so that people could pool their daytime efforts to support the war cause.

In the wake Japan’s attack on the U.S., a wave of patriotism spread throughout the nation, prompting many thousands of men to sign up for the armed forces. This included several prominent ballplayers, among them future Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Bob Feller. Between the draft and voluntary enlistment, the directory of active all-stars began to rapidly dwindle. The New York Yankees were among the hardest hit clubs, losing a quintet of Cooperstown greats to military duty, including Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto and Joe DiMaggio. By the time the war was over, more than five-hundred players had served.

At the onset of WWII, baseball was America’s most popular sport, having survived a dramatic attendance collapse during the Depression years. By 1941, the turnstiles were back in motion. Though the quality of play was considerably lower due to the absence of so many high profile players, attendance was not seriously affected. After a slight drop in ‘42/’43, the number of paying customers soared to an all-time high of over ten million in 1945.

Any modern fan in attendance would have noticed a dramatic difference in the style of play during the 1940s. To begin with, games were shorter. Umpires kept things moving at a brisk pace and there was no loitering outside the batter’s box between every pitch. Pitchers worked relatively quickly and were expected to stay on the mound for as long as possible. The concept of a relief specialist was still in its infancy. Most teams used a bullpen by committee format with relief duties being shared by starters. There was no such thing as a five-man rotation and staff members worked on short rest constantly. It was an accepted practice to throw at hitters. Umpires tolerated this to a far greater extent. As a result, brawls on the diamond were more common.

Fielders’ mitts in the early-'40s were crudely designed. Lacing between the fingers would not appear until the end of the decade. Players left their gloves on the field between innings until the practice was prohibited during the 1950s. Stadiums were much smaller on the whole with some parks sporting ridiculously short foul lines. At the Polo Grounds in New York, the right field line was located a mere 258 feet from home plate. At Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, it was 298 feet. There were only eight teams in each league. Without a league playoff or wild card format, numerous clubs had little to play for by the end of July. There were no designated hitters and, as a result, many pitchers were more adept offensively. Right-hander Wes Ferrell, who retired after the ’41 slate, compiled a .280 lifetime batting average with 38 homers.

With the rosters seriously depleted, new stars emerged. Cardinals’ right-hander Mort Cooper, who had never won more than 13 games in a season before the ‘41 slate, collected at least 20 victories every year from 1942-1944. In the wake of a hunting accident that seriously damaged his right foot, Pirates’ hurler Rip Sewell experimented with a blooper pitch called the “eephus.” The offering was a soft toss with backspin that sailed in a high arc (roughly twenty feet or so) above home plate. He became one of the most popular gate attractions of the WWII era, averaging 20 wins per year between ‘42 and ’44.

Another peculiar wartime development, the lowly St. Louis Browns rose to prominence after spending most of their forgettable existence in the second division. They took on their inter-city brethren—the Cardinals—in the ’44 Fall Classic, losing in six games. Desperate to fill roster gaps the following year, the Browns promoted a one-armed first baseman named Pete Gray and penciled him into seventy-seven contests.

Fans of wartime baseball or history in general will be greatly pleased with my first novel, The Bridgeport Hammer, which was recently released through Black Rose Writing (an indie-publisher). The book chronicles the adventures of a U.S. counterintelligence agent as he attempts to foil a Nazi plot to assassinate President Roosevelt at the 1942 All-Star Game. Die-hard baseball enthusiasts will find many parallels between the characters in my novel and actual ballplayers from the past. I have done my homework. All of the characters and situations are firmly rooted in historical fact.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Fond Farewell to Don Zimmer

He was called "Popeye," "Zim" or "The Gerbil" depending on the company he kept. Few men in baseball have been as highly respected and well-liked. When he retired from game, he had served in portions of seven decades. Commenting on Zimmer's recent passing, lifelong friend and former manager Jim Frey remarked: "He's everyone's loss."
Few would disagree.

Zimmer was born in Cincinnati. He attended Western Hills High School--the same alma mater as Pete Rose. He began his minor league career in 1949. An infielder, he spent significant amounts of  time at second base, shortstop and third. On the farm, he earned the "Popeye" moniker because he had thick forearms like the cartoon character. He had some pop in his bat, smashing 23 homers in 1950 and 1953. Two serious beanings stunted his development as a player. The first one left him largely unconscious for twelve days. Holes were drilled into his skull to relieve the pressure that had built up. Titanium "buttons" were used to plug those holes--souvenirs Zimmer would carry for the rest of his life.

Over the course of his twelve year major league career, Zimmer spent time with five different clubs. His longest stint was with the Dodgers. The team won both World Series he appeared in. A lifetime .235 hitter, he enjoyed his best offensive campaign in 1958, reaching personal best marks of 17 homers and 60 RBIs. His numbers tapered off after that.

Finished as a player by 1968, he left a lasting mark on the game as a manager and coach. He managed in the minors through the 1970 slate then signed on as Padres' skipper in 1972. He had a long stint at the helm of the Red Sox beginning in 1976. Other managerial stops in Texas and Chicago would follow. He is perhaps best remembered for his tenure as a bench coach during the Yankees' glory days of the late-90s/ early 2000s.

Zimmer developed special relationships with the people he worked with over the years.

Lou Piniella got to know Zimmer during the great Yankee/ Red Sox rivalry of the late-70s. Everytime the two teams met, Zim and Lou would end up talking baseball and horse racing around the batting cage. Piniella made the mistake of mentioning that he had trouble picking up the offerings of pitcher Bill Campbell. "After that, it seemed every time I came to the plate from the seventh inning on against Boston, here came Zimmer to the mound summoning Campbell," Piniella remembered. After Zimmer left the Yankees in 2003, Piniella (who was managing in Tampa Bay) added him to Rays coaching staff even though there were no vacancies. The title of "special advisor" was invented to create an opening. Referring to Zimmer's infamous scrape with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS, Piniella joked: "I never told him this, but I really hired him as a bodyguard."

Paul O'Neill was one of the most fiery competitors ever to step onto a diamond. He expected perfection of himself and when he didn't deliver, he would throw epic tantrums, flinging helmets, smashing bats and overturning water coolers. Zimmer always felt a kinship with O'Neill since they hailed from the same hometown. When O'Neill would launch into one of his tirades, Zimmer would glare at him and laugh openly. "What's so funny?!" O'Neill would bellow. "You are!" Zim would reply. No one else dared to confront the temperamental outfielder during his outbursts.

Derek Jeter gave Zimmer a lion's share of the credit for his development as a player. Jeter considered Zimmer to be a good luck charm and would rub Zimmer's bald head before important plate appearances. "Zim's a guy who's been around baseball for a hundred years and he just makes it fun," the iconic shortstop once said. "I look at him as a wise old Buddha." When he learned of Zimmer's passing last week, he nearly broke down in the middle of a game. He later cut a press conference short when he became too choked up to talk.

Joe Torre felt the loss deeply as well, commenting: "I hired him as a coach and he became like family to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali's. We loved him."

A humble man, Zimmer never understood the effect he had on people--especially show business types. In his autobiography, The Zen of Zim, he wrote:  "It's simply one of life's great mysteries to me. I meet these people and it's suddenly as if I've known them all my life. I know nothing about movies or politics and I still can't imagine why anyone would want to put a broken-down old humpty ballplayer like me in a TV commercial...Sometimes you simply can't explain things. They just are."

Before he retired, Zimmer created an All-Star team using players he had managed just for fun. His lineup was as follows:

C/ Carlton Fisk
P/ Greg Maddux
1B/ Rafael Palmeiro
2B/ Ryne Sandberg
SS/ Rick Burleson/ Shawon Dunston
3B/ Buddy Bell
OF/ Carl Yastrzemski. Dave Winfield, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Andre Dawson

That's one helluva team!


Monday, June 2, 2014

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

In my last post, we talked about pitchers who helped their own cause with a bat over the course of their careers. Most of the greatest offensive pitchers played before the advent of the designated hitter--back when hurlers had more opportunities to polish their skills. Thanks to pitch-counts and relief specialists, contemporary moundsmen work every fifth day and are often replaced by the sixth or seventh inning. In the game's early days, pitchers took the hill every third or fourth day and were expected to finish what they started. It stands to reason that they became more adept with the lumber. Let's pick up where we left off last time.

Red Ruffing (1924-1947)
Ruffing pitched with several toes missing from his left foot and also dealt with the misery of adhesions in his right shoulder. He soldiered on nevertheless. His pitching philosophy was simple: "Keep in shape and know where the ball is going. It pays off." Primarily a fastball pitcher, Ruffing appeared in seven World Series for the Yankees and prevailed in 7 of 9 postseason decisions. Ruffing was among the most prolific power-hitting pitchers in history. He blasted 36 homers during his career, attaining an all time rank of #4 in that category. He finished his career with a .269 batting average.

Red Lucas (1923-1938)
Lucas played mostly for the Reds and Pirates. He led the league in shutouts during the 1928 campaign and topped the circuit in complete games on three occasions. He once finished 27 consecutive starts. A right-handed thrower, Lucas hit from the left side. He compiled one of the highest lifetime batting averages among pitchers at .281. During his eight seasons in Cincinnati, he hit an even-.300. The Tennessee native was so skilled with a bat that the Braves tried to convert him to a second baseman early in his career. The experiment failed. Lucas logged 437 at-bats as a pinch-hitter and hit safely 114 times in that role--a record that stood for twenty-five years.

George Uhle (1919-1934)
Uhle was nicknamed "The Bull" for his durability. He led the AL in complete games, innings pitched and wins twice apiece. He has also been credited by some with the invention of the slider, which he described as a "sailing fastball." Uhle was a workhorse for the Indians and Tigers between 1921 and 1930, logging more than 230 innings of work six times in that span. His best season on the mound came in 1926, when he posted a 27-11 record with an ERA of 2.83. Uhle was useful to his clubs at the plate as well, compiling a lifetime .289 batting average. In April of 1921, he collected 6 RBIs in one game. During the '24 slate, he led the league with 11 pinch-hits in 26 plate appearances. He almost certainly could have been a positional player, posting averages above .300 in nine of his seventeen seasons.

Wes Ferrell (1927-1941)
Ferrell is likely the only ballplayer in history with the middle name of "Cheek." He was a 20-game winner on six occasions and led the league in complete games four times. A fiery competitor, he was known to argue with catchers, umpires and managers. In 1932, he was fined by skipper Roger Peckinpaugh for refusing to leave the mound. Despite his 4.04 ERA, there are many who have griped about his exclusion from the Hall of Fame. Ferrell's brother Rick--a catcher--was enshrined in 1984 and the two worked together as battery mates numerous times. What really set Ferrell apart from other pitchers was his remarkable power at the plate. He drilled more homers than any hurler in history with 38. That record has endured the test of time. In fifteen seasons, Ferrell accrued a healthy .280 batting average. Originally a power pitcher, he ended his career as a junk-baller due to arm problems. Had he stayed healthy, he might have joined his brother at Cooperstown.

Walter Johnson (1907-1927)
I have waxed poetic about Johnson's marvelous talents in previous posts. Many would argue that he was the greatest pitcher ever with 417 career wins and a lifetime ERA of 2.17.Additionally, his 110 shutouts are #1 on the all time list. An often neglected aspect of Johnson's game was his hitting. It was a skill that took him years to develop. In his first five major league seasons, he hit just .174 with very little power. After that, he accrued a cumulative .251 batting average with 77 doubles, 34 triples and 20 homers. Statistics indicate that he had become an accomplished batsman by the end of his career. He hit .433 in 36 games at the age of thirty-seven. In his final season, he ran up a .348 average in 46 at-bats. 

Elam Vangilder  (1919-1929)
Elam who? He may not be a household name, but Vangilder was one of the better hitting pitchers before the dawn of the designated hitter. He might have gotten more attention had he not spent most of his career with the Browns. During Vangilder's nine seasons in St. Louis, the team seriously contended for a pennant just once. On the mound, he could be wild at times, leading the AL in walks during the 1923 slate. In an era of heavy offense when hitters made contact more often than not, Vangilder posted lopsided strikeout to walk ratios almost every year. He remained a respectable hitter throughout his career, posting a lifetime batting average of .243 (as compared to Walter Johnson's .235 mark). He peaked at .344 in 1922, the same year he won a career-best 19 games.