Monday, November 24, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part II--Willie Keeler and Pete Rose)

Long before Joe DiMaggio attained immortality in the Bronx, a diminutive outfielder from Baltimore set the bar for him. "Wee Willie" Keeler stood just five-foot-four and weighed one hundred and forty pounds. He spent several of his prime seasons with the infamously rough and tumble Orioles squads. The O's were notorious for fracturing rules and Keeler was no exception, keeping extra baseballs hidden in the high grass at Oriole Park in case the ones hit to right field eluded him. Appearing at the top of the batting order, Keeler led Baltimore to three consecutive first place finishes. His most remarkable offensive season came in 1897.

After collecting a hit in his last at-bat of the '96 slate, he hit safely in the first 44 games of the '97 campaign, breaking a record set by "Bad Bill" Dahlen of the Chicago Colts. Keeler's streak came to an end on June 19 against the Pirates. The pitcher that afternoon was Frank Killen, a left-hander who won 30 games in a season twice during his career.  There was far less hullabaloo about streaks and records in those days. In fact, a Pittsburgh Press correspondent saw fit to mention Keeler's accomplishment only briefly, remarking: "Until today, Keeler had not missed a hit or more in each game this season." That was it--just one sentence! Had the reporter known that Keeler's 45-game hitting streak would stand as a National League record for more than a century, perhaps he would have waxed poetic about it.

Keeler's record was seriously challenged by NL contenders only a handful of times during the twentieth century. In 1945, Tommy Holmes of the Braves assembled a 37-game hitting streak. In 1978, Cincinnati's Pete Rose tied the single-season mark. Arguably the greatest player outside the Hall of Fame, Rose got his nickname "Charlie Hustle" from Yankee southpaw Whitey Ford, who resented the way Rose sprinted to first base after receiving a walk during an exhibition game. Rose was known for his intensity on the field, sliding headfirst into bags and bowling over anyone who stood in his path. During a playoff loss in 1973, he fought with lightweight shortstop Bud Harrelson, solidifying his reputation as a bully. Three years earlier, his ethics  had come into question after a vicious collision with catcher Ray Fosse during the All-Star Game.

Playing with unbridled ferocity, Rose hit safely in 44 straight games during the '78 campaign, mirroring "Wee Willie's" 1897 feat. On August 1, he was stopped in his final at-bat against change-up specialist Gene Garber of the Braves. Garber remembered the game vividly many years after the fact, commenting: "It was the most nervous I'd ever been in my life because I was scared to death I might walk him. I'd be a horses' rear end and never live it down if I walked him to end the streak, so that made the situation a lot more difficult than it really was."

The right-handed Garber was summoned in relief of Dave Campbell, who had taken over for rookie Larry McWilliams. McWilliams had walked Rose in his first plate appearance then robbed him of a hit an inning later with a nifty grab on an ankle-high liner hit back through the box.There were more than 31,000 fans on hand--an unusual sight at Fulton County Stadium considering that the Braves were non-contenders. By the time Rose came to the plate in the ninth inning, Atlanta had opened up a 16-4 lead. There was nothing at stake except the streak. Hitless in four previous trips to the dish, Rose faced Garber with 2 outs and nobody on. With the count at 2-and-2, he swung through a change-up, ending his incredible run. Rose didn't realize that the post-game interview was live and vented his frustration to reporters. Asked how he felt about the streak being over, he barked: "At least now I don't have to deal with you jerks anymore." He later complained that Garber had pitched to him "like it was the seventh game of the World Series." Responding to the comment years later, Garber commented: "For him to say that was a compliment to me. That was my hope, to be perceived as playing the game that way."

Garber spent nineteen years in the majors and recorded more than 200 saves. He lost 108 games in relief--a major league record. To date, he is the only hurler with 200 saves who never made an All-Star appearance.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part I--Joe DiMaggio)

Joe DiMaggio's famous 56-game streak began on May 15, 1941, when the Yankee center fielder went 1-for-4 against White Sox southpaw Eddie Smith. For the next two months, "Joltin' Joe" hit safely in every game. He logged a total of 223 at-bats during the remarkable skein, compiling a .408 batting average with 35 extra-base hits and 55 RBIs. When he began his assault on the record books, his Yankees were sitting in fourth place, five and a half games behind the Indians. After game #56, the Bombers had climbed into first and held a six-game lead over Cleveland. 

The streak, which inspired a popular big band song performed by Les Brown, was endangered on several occasions. In games #30 and #31, "The Yankee Clipper" was helped considerably by New York's official scorer Dan Daniel. In each game, Hall of Fame shortstop Luke Appling botched easy grounders hit by DiMaggio. Daniel counted both as base hits, prompting scorn from a handful of sportswriters. A few days later, Joe D. was hitless entering the seventh inning against the Browns. St. Louis manager Luke Sewell ordered pitcher Bob Muncrief to walk the Yankee clean-up man, but Muncrief refused. DiMaggio expanded the streak to 36 games with a single.

On July 17, the Yankees were scheduled to play the Indians at Cleveland's League Park. Anticipating a large crowd, the Indians moved the Thursday night game to Municipal Stadium--a cavernous venue that could accommodate up to 78,000 fans. Though the park was within walking distance of the visiting team's hotel, DiMaggio opted to share a taxi with pitching ace Lefty Gomez. Recognizing his famous passenger, the cabbie said to DiMaggio: "I've got a strong feeling that you're going to get stopped tonight." (Many versions of the quote exist) Gomez was highly perturbed by the comment while DiMaggio just brushed it off. 

As it turns out, the driver was on to something. A fixture at third base for the Indians, Ken Keltner was among the most talented glove men in the majors. With wide range and a strong arm, he led the American League in assists four times while capturing three fielding titles. After the events of July 17, 1941, he would forever be remembered as the man who brought DiMaggio's illustrious record to a dramatic end. In the first inning, DiMaggio smashed a hard bouncer to third. Keltner, who was shaded toward the line, backhanded the ball and threw to first baseman Oscar Grimes to beat DiMaggio by a step. 

"Ground's still wet," DiMaggio squawked in the dugout. "Footing's not the best"  

In the fourth inning, the Yankee slugger drew a walk, prompting a chorus of boos from the crowd. When he came to bat again in the seventh, the score was tied at one apiece. On the first offering from left-hander Al Smith, DiMaggio sent another hot shot to Keltner at third. Again, Keltner made a spectacular back-handed grab as DiMaggio struggled to find his footing. He was out by a full stride. After the Yankees had rallied for three runs in the eighth, Jim Bagby Jr. came on in relief. DiMaggio had homered off of Bagby on June 15, extending his streak to 28. With one out and a runner on first, DiMaggio rapped a 2-1 pitch to Lou Boudreau at short. It took a wicked hop, but Boudreau stayed with it, starting a 6-4-3 double play. Just like that, "The Streak" was officially over. 

The Indians arranged a police escort for Keltner and his wife as they left the stadium. The following day, DiMaggio picked up right where he had left off, hitting in sixteen more games. He ended up reaching base safely in 74 consecutive contests (a record broken by Ted Williams in 1949). Fifty years later, Keltner and DiMaggio celebrated the famous hitting streak by making several public appearances together. "I'm glad I'm remembered for something," Keltner remarked. "I didn't feel like a villain. Somebody had to do it. I'm glad he hit them to me."              

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hall of Fame Voting 2015: Who's New?

It's time for my annual Hall of Fame predictions. This year's new crop should make the balloting pretty interesting!

Notable holdovers from last year include Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. If last year's voting is any indication of the direction we're headed in, then either Biggio or Piazza could be enshrined in 2015. Biggio missed by a hair's breadth, capturing 74.8% of the vote last year. Piazza received a 62.2% share--up 5% from the previous election. Bonds and Clemens (members of the steroid class) both finished in the 30th percentile and are long shots for the Hall regardless of their accomplishments.

There are several players approaching the end of their fifteen-year candidacy, all of whom seem to be falling out of favor with the Hall of Fame electorate. Former Tigers' pitching ace, Jack Morris, was eliminated last year after peaking at 67.7% of the vote in 2013. Other long-term veterans on the ballot include Don Mattingly, Alan Trammel and Lee Smith. Mattingly, whose prime years were cut short by chronic back trouble, will get his last shot this year. Trammel (an immensely talented shortstop in an era dominated by shortstops) is entering his fourteenth year of eligibility while Lee (the all time saves leader until 2006) has hung in there for the past twelve seasons. Each experienced a significant decrease in support last year and can be realistically eliminated as contenders.

So who's new this year?
There are a slew of candidates who will undoubtedly fail to meet minimum requirements for future eligibility. Those players include Jarrod Washburn, Joe Crede, Paul Byrd, David Weathers and Ron Villone (among others). But this year's rookie class includes at least one first-ballot Hall of Famer. With more than 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts, I would be shocked and disappointed to see Randy Johnson get overlooked. I'm a bit skeptical about newcomer Pedro Martinez. Though he owns one of the highest winning percentages in baseball history, I'm not sure that his era of dominance extended long enough. It will be interesting to see how members of the Cooperstown electorate feel. Other players I believe will get moderate consideration in their first year of eligibility are John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield. Sheffield played for a long time and put up excellent power numbers despite suffering an ongoing string of injuries. Smoltz collected more than 200 wins and 150 saves--a unique combination in the modern era.

Predictions: Just for Fun
 There is no doubt in my mind that Craig Biggio belongs in the Hall of Fame. He was a sparkplug for numerous Astro squads that didn't contend along with several that did. With 3,000 hits, four Gold Gloves and seven All-Star selections, I believe that 2015 will be his year. I think that Randy Johnson will be making an acceptance speech in Cooperstown this coming summer as well. Since there were multiple players enshrined last year, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Mike Piazza among the 2015 inductees. Though he had some shortcomings behind the plate, he was among the greatest offensive catchers in history. Bagwell--a two-time 30/30 man with a stellar lifetime on-base percentage of .408--will have to wait along with Smoltz and Martinez.



Monday, November 3, 2014

MVPs We Hardly Know ('80s-'90s)

Willie Hernandez (1984 AL MVP)
Hernandez began his pro career with the Cubs in 1977. During his six seasons in Chicago, the team never placed higher than third. He pitched moderately well at times, but failed to make a name for himself until a trade sent him to Detroit in 1984. The Tigers had a banner season, capturing the AL pennant then cruising to a Series victory over the Padres. Hernandez played a major role, leading the league in closing appearances while posting a spectacular ERA of 1.92. He yielded just 2 runs in six postseason appearances and was on the mound when the Tigers clinched their first world championship since 1968. Hernandez used an assortment of screwballs, sinking fastballs and curves. At one point during his career, he converted 32 consecutive save opportunities--a record since broken. After receiving Cy Young and MVP honors in '84, he spent the next five seasons with the Tigers. He saved 88 games and posted a 27-28 record in that span. A native of Puerto Rico, he reverted to his birth name of Guillermo in 1987. When his ERA soared to 5.74 in '89, he fell from the major league ranks. He continued in the minors until  '95.

Willie McGee (1985 NL MVP)
Originally signed by the Yankees, McGee spent portions of ten seasons in the minors. He had an even longer major league career, playing for four teams over an eighteen-year span. McGee combined speed with clutch-hitting during his prime. He finished among the top ten in stolen bases four times between '83 and '88. He was among the Cardinals' top RBI producers several times in that same stretch. McGee enjoyed his greatest all around season in 1985, earning an All-Star selection, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. He led the NL with 216 hits, 18 triples and a .353 batting average. He was a resounding choice for MVP that year. Though McGee's averages dropped considerably over the next several seasons, he bounced back with a second NL batting title in 1990. The feat was somewhat unusual as he played 125 games for the Cards that year before an August trade landed him in Oakland. He hit just .274 for the A's, but since his NL average remained at .335, he was declared the batting champion by a somewhat narrow margin over Eddie Murray of the Dodgers. McGee had some good seasons after 1990, but never came close to matching his MVP numbers. He retired in '99 with a .295 lifetime batting average. During his career, he was a quiet, unassuming player who was hesitant to draw attention to himself.

George Bell (1987 AL MVP)
Bell was discovered by Blue Jays' scout Epy Guerrero while playing in the Dominican Republic. Guerrero is noted for having signed a slew of great Latino ballplayers, among them Cesar Cedeno, Tony Fernandez and Carlos Delgado. Bell had a breakthrough season with the Blue Jays in 1984, finishing among the league leaders in extra base hits. He would remain a regular in the Toronto lineup for the next six seasons. Playing alongside speedster Lloyd Moseby and slugger Jesse Barfield in the Blue Jays outfield, Bell saw his club rise to contention, going all the way to the ALCS in 1985. His most productive season came in 1987, when he led the league in RBIs (134) and Total bases (369) while hitting .308. At season's end, he was named AL MVP. A 1991 traded sent Bell to the Cubs. He ended up with the White Sox the following year. He had several good slugging seasons after his MVP year, reaching the century mark in RBIs twice. When his batting average fell to .217 in '93, he disappeared from the majors. He served as a minor league hitting coach for several years. In 2013, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  

Kevin Mitchell (1989 NL MVP)
As a teenager, Mitchell ran with an urban street gang and was allegedly shot several times. The Mets rescued him from the streets when they signed him as an amateur free agent in 1980. Known as a malingerer and a toxic clubhouse presence, Mitchell did not endear himself to management in any of the cities he played for. But he was periodically brilliant on the field. Serving mostly as an outfielder, his best offensive span came between 1988 and 1990, when he averaged 33 homers and 99 RBIs per year. He enjoyed his signature campaign in '89, leading the Giants to a World Series berth while pacing the NL with 47 homers, 125 RBIs and a .635 slugging percentage. He stayed hot in the postseason, hitting .323 with 3 homers and 9 RBIs in nine games. Injuries and unpleasant incidents began to pile up after 1989 and Mitchell played for five different teams between '92 and '98, which was his last season in the majors. Anyone interested in specific details of Mitchell's misadventures can pick up a copy of my book: Baseball's Most Notorious Personalities.   

 Terry Pendleton (1991 NL MVP)
Pendleton was selected by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the '82 amateur draft. He ascended quickly through the minors and made his big league debut in '84. It was a promising one as he hit .324 in 67 games and finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting. A slick-fielding third baseman, Pendleton led the NL in putouts and assists five times apiece. He won a fielding title in 1989 and captured three Gold Gloves. After helping St. Louis to a pair of World Series appearances in 1985 and '87, he joined the Atlanta Braves. A vital member of various star-studded rosters, he made frequent appearances on the October stage. From 1991 through 1996, he played in four National League Championship Series and three Fall Classics. Pendelton put up his best regular season numbers in 1991, leading the NL in hits (187) and total bases (303) while capturing a batting title. The MVP vote was extremely close, but he edged out Barry Bonds of the Pirates. Pendletton followed his MVP effort with another solid season, leading the NL in hits for the second year in a row. Injuries and age began to take their toll and he was finished in the majors after 1998. He has served as a Braves hitting coach since 2002.

Ken Caminiti (1996 NL MVP)
Ken Caminiti is perhaps best remembered for the way his life ended in ruin. After admitting to polysubstance abuse during his playing days, he died of a drug overdoes in a run-down section of the Bronx in New York City. He was suffering from an enlarged and weakened heart--a condition that was significantly affected by steroid use. In 2002, Caminiti admitted to using performance enhancing drugs during his MVP season of 1996. He also confessed to abusing alcohol and painkillers earlier in his career. Just months before his untimely death in 2004, he tested positive for cocaine. Caminiti played for fifteen seasons, spending time with four different clubs. His best all around year came in '96 when he slammed 40 homers and drove-in 130 runs for the Padres. He finished sixth in the league with a .326 batting average and also captured a Gold Glove (the second of three he would receive at third base during his career). Caminiti's numbers gradually tapered off and, in 2001, he posted a substandard .228 batting mark. He was finished as a player after that. Teammate Trevor Hoffman praised Caminiti's determination, commenting: "He worked his ass off. But he obviously had help. His pain threshold was higher than most. He had things that probably would have crippled a lot of people."