Friday, March 25, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part III--The Seattle Pilots)

When the Pilots were founded, Seattle was the third largest city on the West Coast. It had been home to the Pacific Coast League Rainiers since the early 1900s. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City A's both considered moving there at different points in time. Retired Rainiers pitcher Dewey Soriano partnered with former Indians owner William R. Daley to establish the franchise. Originally, the team was scheduled to begin play in 1971, but the date was moved to 1969 under pressure from Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. The Pilots clearly weren't ready yet. 

Joe Schultz--a former St. Louis Browns catcher and veteran minor league skipper--was chosen to manage the club. Home games were played at Sick's Stadium, which had once been regarded as one of the finest parks in the minors. By 1969, however, it was negligibly outdated. The Pilots had been ordered by Major League Baseball to expand the seating capacity to 30,000, but less than 20,000 seats were ready by opening day. Entering the month of June, the club had still not satisfied MLB's quota.

Of the fifty-plus players who occupied roster spots during the '69 campaign, there were few stars to be found. Speedy third baseman Tommy Harper led the league in steals and would spend fifteen years in the majors altogether, averaging 27 thefts per season. After winning a pair of batting titles then blowing out his knee, outfielder Tommy Davis drove-in 80 runs for the Pilots before an August trade sent him to Houston. A virtual unknown at the time, right-hander Mike Marshall later became the most productive reliever in the game over a five-year span, making an unprecedented 106 appearances for the Dodgers in 1974. In the Seattle bullpen, former Yankee star Jim Bouton began compiling notes for his controversial autobiography, Ball Four, which became an enduring classic.

After winning three of the first four games, things fell apart for the Pilots. The club went 15-42 in July and August, falling to the bottom of the newly formed American League West Division. A 14-16 run in September prevented them from losing 100 games at least. The Pilots finished dead last at 64-98.

As attendance sagged miserably, owners Daley and Soriano lost a bucketload of cash. Daley refused to invest any more capital to save the franchise and, in the offseason, Soriano struck a deal with former Braves owner Bud Selig to move the club to Milwaukee. The Pilots ended up being sold at a bargain basement price of $10.8 million.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Remembering Baseball's Only Double No-Hitter

Chicago Cubs vs. Cincinnati Reds
May 2, 1917

The weather was cold and windy as the Reds met the Cubs at Weeghman Park in Chicago. Both clubs had finished in the second division the previous year and the game didn't interest many people. Less than 5,000 fans witnessed a piece of history that day.

A tall, powerful right-hander, Fred Toney liked to show off for teammates by taking fifty pound weights in each hand and holding them at arm's length for periods of time. In the minors, he tossed a 17-inning no-hitter. He started his major league career with the Cubs then ended up with the Reds in 1915. He worked 222 innings that year without giving up a single home run. Entering this game, he carried a 4-1 record and 2.30 ERA.

The left-handed Hippo Vaughn received his unfortunate nickname on account of his considerable size. Though he is often listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, evidence suggests that he may have weighed closer to 300 near the end of his career. Whatever the case, he was among the best southpaws in the majors for a seven-year span, reaching the 20-win threshold five times for the Cubs between 1914 and 1920. Vaughn had already tossed two no-hitters--one in the South Atlantic League and another in the American Association.

Reds manager Christy Mathewson assembled a lineup consisting entirely of right-handers to face Vaughn. The only Hall of Famer on either roster, Edd Roush, sat out that day due to his left-handedness. Roush would claim the first of two batting crowns that year and one can only speculate how this game might have turned out if he had played.

Vaughn retired the first nine hitters he faced. In the fourth, he issued a walk to Heinie Groh, who was thrown out trying to steal. Gus Getz drew a second walk from Vaughn, but was erased on a double play. Vaughn settled down after that, allowing no further base runners through the ninth. Toney was equally effective, issuing just two walks all day--one in the second and another in the fifth.

Of all the no-hitters thrown in the majors prior to that date, none had occurred on the same day let alone in the same game. According to one source, the odds of a no-hitter being thrown at the big league level are about 13,000 to 1.What Toney and Vaughn accomplished that day was statistically unfeasible though it seems likely that few in the sparse crowd at Weeghman Park realized it at the time.

In the top of the tenth, Reds shortstop Larry Kopf spoiled Vaughn's gem with a single. Cubs outfielder Cy Williams--a fearsome slugger but mediocre defensive player--dropped a two-out fly hit by first baseman Hal Chase (who would later receive a lifetime ban for throwing games). With runners on second and third, former Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe hit a ball back to the mound. Thorpe was known for his blazing speed and Vaughn opted to throw to home instead of first. The relay hit Art Wilson in the chest protector, allowing Kopf to score. Vaughn later swore that Wilson was paralyzed on the play, staring blankly at the mound with his hands at his sides. As Chase rounded third, Vaughn shouted at his dazed catcher: "Are you going to let him score, too?!" The spell was broken and Wilson sprung into action, tagging Chase for the final out of the inning.

In the bottom half of the tenth, Toney retired the side in order, completing his masterpiece. In the clubhouse after the game, Art Wilson allegedly broke down crying. He apologized to Vaughn, admitting: "I just went out on you, Jim. I just went tight." Vaughn held no grudges but Cubs owner Charles Weeghman allegedly swore at his players.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part II--The St. Louis Browns)

The St. Louis Browns began their existence as the Brown Stockings in the American Association. During their inaugural season of 1882, they finished out of pennant contention. Their fortunes changed dramatically soon afterward as the club appeared in four consecutive World Series from 1885 through 1887. Prior to 1903, all postseason games were considered exhibitions and the number of games played varied widely. In 1886, the Browns won four of six meetings against the Chicago White Stockings. The following year, they lost ten of fifteen contests against the Detroit Wolverines.

The American Association folded after the 1891 campaign and the Browns (as they were known by then) joined the National League. Aside from Hall of Fame first baseman Roger Connor, they carried few stars on their roster, placing ninth or lower in the standings for seven straight seasons. Before the 1898 slate, Cleveland Spiders owners Frank and Stanley Robison, bought the ailing St. Louis franchise from eccentric proprietor Chris von der Ahe. Believing that a team in St. Louis would generate higher attendance, the Robisons raided the Cleveland roster, transferring their best players to the newly purchased Browns, which they renamed the Perfectos. Thirty-two year old Cy Young won 26 games that year and Hall of Fame shortstop Bobby Wallace had one of his best seasons at the plate as the newly christened Perfectos compiled a respectable 84-67 record. As predicted, their attendance was second best in the league. Meanwhile, the pitiful Spiders posted the worst record in major league history at 20-134. Unable to draw fans to the ballpark, they played most of their games on the road. The Spiders were ousted from the league along with three other teams before the 1900 slate. The Perfectos survived, though their name was changed to the Cardinals.  

When the American League was elevated to major league status in 1901, the Browns were not among the original lineup. After posting a miserable 48-89 record and attracting few spectators in '01, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to St. Louis and borrowed the Perfectos discarded moniker. During five decades of play, the "new" Browns lost more than 100 games eight times and finished last during ten seasons. The club made just one postseason appearance--in 1944 when more than 300 players were serving in the military. Facing the rival Cardinals, with whom they shared a stadium, they lost the Series in six games. The Browns fielded their best team during the early-'20s. In those days, the outfield was manned by a trio of stars--Ken Williams, Jack Tobin and Baby Doll Jacobson, who topped the .300 mark together in five consecutive campaigns. St. Louis's first baseman--Hall of Famer George Sisler--set a record for hits in a single season (since broken) with 257 while topping the .400 mark at the plate twice. With Sisler, Tobin, Williams and Jacobson all in their prime, the Browns won 93 games and finished one game behind the powerhouse Yankees in 1922. It was their highest order of finish until the dubious pennant run of '44. 

In 1951, the flamboyant Bill Veeck purchased the club. He renovated Sportsman's Park, changed the team's uniforms and began signing talented players, among them Negro League legend Satchel Paige. Despite Veeck's strenuous efforts, which included wild promotional schemes such as the infamous midget at-bat gag, the Browns floundered in the standings. Veeck considered moving to Milwaukee but the Braves beat him to the punch. He then set his sights on Baltimore, but the American League rejected his bid. Out of viable options, the maverick owner sold the Browns to a Baltimore lawyer named Clarence Miles. With Veeck out of the picture, the AL endorsed a move to Baltimore in 1954. The Browns have played as the Orioles ever since.