Sunday, April 24, 2016

HIdden Talents of Major Leaguers (Part II--Slaughter, Jennings, Rice, Yost and Long)


Elected to the Hall of  Fame via the Veterans Committee in 1985, Slaughter had a host of impressive statistics. What he didn't have was speed on the bases. In nineteen major league seasons, he stole just 71 bags--an average of less than 4 per year. He spent a majority of his career in St. Louis, where the cozy dimensions of Sportsmans Park created a power-hitter's paradise. With below average speed and a small ballpark to boot, it's a small wonder that Slaughter attained a rank of #54 on the all time list for triples. Only one player ahead of Slaughter on the list had a career stretching into the 1950s. The remainder played in baseball's dim and distant past when cavernous ballparks and stolen bases were intrinsic features of the game. Slaughter finished with double digit totals for triples in seven seasons and retired with an impressive total of 148--not bad for a slowpoke. So how did he do it? Sheer hustle. Slaughter's so-called "Mad Dash" home in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series is just one example. Stationed at first base with the game tied in the bottom of the eighth, Slaughter ran right through coach Mike Gonzalez's stop sign at third, delivering the series-clinching run on a single by Harry Walker.  It was that same determination that allowed Slaughter to rack up so many three-baggers during his career.


Jennings was many things during his Hall of Fame playing career--daring baserunner, reliable run-producer, cheerleader and heckler extraordinaire. After helping the old Baltimore Orioles to four consecutive postseason appearances (1894-1897), Jennings took the helm of the Tigers, piloting the club to three straight pennants. He earned the nickname "Ee-Yah" for the piercing shouts and whistles he produced in the coach's box. The exclamations were often accompanied by quirky little jumps and dramatic fist-pumps. As a player, Jennings had an unfortunate talent--an unparalleled (and almost psychotic) propensity to lean into pitches. He was hit more often than any major league player for five straight seasons. In 1896, he set a single-season record with 51 beanings. His lifetime total of 287 is another painful record. Because he made such an excellent target, Jennings's skull was fractured on multiple occasions. During one particular game, he was hit in the head yet somehow managed to play all nine innings. Afterward, he collapsed and remained unconscious for three days. 


Few would argue that Rice was one of the most productive Red Sox players of all time. An eight-time All-Star, he led the league in total bases for three consecutive seasons. In 1978, he was recognized as the American League's Most Valuable Player. With close to 2,500 career hits and a lifetime .298 batting average, it's hard to believe that Rice was ever a liability at the plate.  But his hidden talent was actually a major deficit. From 1982-1985, he grounded into more double plays than any of his AL counterparts every year. This was no fluke as he placed among the top ten in that category eleven times. In 1984, he set a single-season record with 36 twin killings yet still managed to drive-in 122 runs--a remarkable yet puzzling accomplishment. Rice has his Boston teammates to thank for his dubious distinction as "Mr. Double Play." They put him in double play situations more than 2,000 times during his career. He made it to the Hall of Fame nevertheless.  


It's not as if Dale Long wasn't a decent hitter. Over portions of ten major league seasons, he drove 132 pitches over the fences while compiling a competent .267 batting average. But no one expected the impressive display of power put on by Long in May of 1956. From May 19 to May 28, Long was the most prolific slugger in baseball, going deep in eight consecutive games--a major league record that has stood to the present day. On the thirtieth anniversary of the streak, Long told reporters: "Somebody will break it and they'll forget about me." He was wrong about the record being broken, though he has definitely faded into the mists of time. The eight-game skein was tied by Don Mattingly in 1987 and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993. No one was terribly surprised when either man accomplished the feat.


Yost didn't impress too many people with his hitting. Over seventy percent of his lifetime hits were singles. And he compiled a batting average below the .250 mark on ten occasions. What impressed Yost's legions of supporters most was his uncanny ability to keep the bat on his shoulder. He drew so many bases on balls, he earned the nickname "The Walking Man." He led the league six times in that category and averaged one free pass for every 5.7 plate appearances during his career. It wasn't as if teams were afraid to pitch to him. Despite his 28 leadoff homers, he wasn't much of a power threat. But in 1953, Senators owner Clark Griffith referred to his table-setter as "the most sought after .233 hitter in the American League." Yost crouched slightly at the plate and had a habit of dropping his right shoulder, making the strike zone even smaller. "Once I got a reputation for walking a lot, it seemed like the umpires began to give me the calls on the close ones," he once said. They certainly did, granting him first base more than 1,600 times over eighteen seasons. 

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