Posts Tagged ‘American League Most Valuable Player’

Baltimore, Frank Robinson, and the Year of the Orioles

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

It was the best of baseball.  It was the worst of baseball.

On the 9th day of the 10th month of the 66th year of the 20th century, it ended—the subject being the World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Baltimore emerged as champions, triggering elation throughout the metropolis named for Cecil Calvert, Second Lord Baltimore—the first Proprietor and Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland.  It was not supposed to happen.  At lest it was not supposed to happen the way it did, with the Orioles blanking the vaunted Dodgers squad for a 4-0 sweep—three games were shutouts:

  • Game 1:  5-2
  • Game 2:  6-0
  • Game 3:  1-0
  • Game 4:  1-0

In turn, the Orioles elevated their status in Baltimore’s sports hierarchy.  “This season’s feats of the Orioles, who leaped from crisis to crisis and still won the pennant, and who brought the exciting Frank Robinson to the city as a counter attraction to the demigod Johnny Unitas, balanced the ledger more than a bit.  The Colts may not have lost their eminence, but the city’s fans and newspapers have learned that there is another team in town,” wrote Shirley Povich, whose words in the Washington Post started the day for sports fans in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Ushered to Baltimore in a trade with Cincinnati after the 1965 season, Robinson swatted his way through American League pitching in his first year as an Oriole:

Led Major Leagues

  • Runs Scored (122)
  • Home Runs (49)
  • Slugging Percentage (.637)
  • On-Base + Slugging Percentage (1.047)
  • Total Bases (367)

Led American League

  • RBI (122)
  • Batting Average (.316)
  • On-Base Percentage (.410)
  • Sacrifice Flies (7)

Robinson won the American League Most Valuable Player Award and the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  It was a vindication, of sorts.  “I wanted to have a good year especially to show the people in the front office there [in Cincinnati] that I wasn’t washed up, and I wanted to show them by having a good year,” said Robinson in an Associated Press article published in the Baltimore Sun on October 10th.

“And I wanted to show the people, the officials, the city of Baltimore they were getting a guy who still could play baseball.”

For the Dodgers, blaming and shaming arrived with gusto.  Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, for example, lobbed verbal grenades spiked with sarcasm, as was his wont.  Murray’s piece titled “The Dodger Story:  A Classic Case of Ineptitude” brought forth a wheelbarrow full of bon mots.

On the Dodgers’ hitting woes:  “Their batting average cannot be seen with the naked eye or figured under the decimal system.  Guys who weigh that little get to ride horse races.”

On Don Drysdale:  “He deserved better, but the Dodgers’ invisible attack, the worst exercise in offensive futility since Mussolini’s invasion of Greece, left him like a guy who thinks his whole platoon is crawling through the brush with him until he whispers and gets no answer back.  The Dodger ‘attack’ would have to be twice as loud to be dignified as ‘whispering.’  They hit the ball as if it was a cantaloupe.”

On the Dodgers’ post-season Japan trip:  “They are now taking the act to Japan where, when the Japanese get a load of them, they may want to reopen World War II.”

Stocked with blue chips nearly as strong as the Dow 30, the Dodgers suffered a downturn that was unavoidable, arguably—Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Ron Fairly, Maury Wills, Wes Parker et al. faced an opponent that needed to be quashed before taking on the O’s.  In his 2006 book Black and Blue:  Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America, Tom Adelman posited that exhaustion—or something close to it—affected the Dodgers after a merciless pennant race.  “Unlike the Orioles, they’d [sic] had no chance to adjust to the idea of a post-season contest—to catch their breath, raise their sights, and ready themselves for a fight,” wrote Adelman, who interviewed several players from both squads.  Ron Fairly, among others, confirmed the toll created by the quick turnaround from the end of the season to the beginning of the World Series.

That is not to take anything away from the Orioles, managed by Hank Bauer, who knew a thing or two thousand about winning—he played for the Yankees during the Mantle era, which saw World Series titles in:

  • 1949
  • 1950
  • 1951
  • 1952
  • 1953
  • 1956
  • 1958

American League pennant flew unaccompanied in the Bronx in 1955 and 1957.

Bauer won the Associated Press Manager of the Year Award and the Sporting News Manager of the Year Award in 1966.

A version of this article appeared on on January 23, 2017.

Age Is Just a Number: Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

It was a moment of nostalgia, surprise, and joy.  More than 30 years after hanging up his spikes, Luke Appling went yard at the age of 75 in the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Far from a power hitter, Luke Appling bashed 45 home runs in his career, which was one of, as Wee Willie Keeler said, hitting them where they ain’t.  Appling fell shy of the magic mark of 3,000 hits, ending his career with 2,749 hits, including:

  • 440 doubles
  • 102 triples

He played his entire career in a White Sox uniform—1930 to 1950.

The Cracker Jack game was a shot of adrenaline to baseball fans suffering the psychic wounds created by the previous year’s strike, which shortened the 1981 baseball season.  Appling’s home run off Warren Spahn washed away, if only for a jiffy, the festering stench of despair felt across the fan spectrum, from Tee-ball players first learning the basics to senior citizens reminiscing about ballparks that no longer exist.

Appling was the oldest player in the Cracker Jack game, which ended with the American League beating the National League 7-2.

Nearly 30,000 fans poured into RFK on July 19, 1982 to watch baseball’s heroes of days gone by.  Though the ex-players wore the uniforms so familiar to baseball fans, their appearances showed the slights of age.  A little grayer.  A touch heavier.  A bit slower.  None of that mattered.  Old Timers games are affairs of the heart.  Baseball is, after all, a sentimental game, at once wistful and exciting.

Appling’s homer punctuated the pleasure at seeing a game where icons, though far from their prime, can recapture the feeling that anything is possible.

Bobby Thomson proved it when he knocked a Ralph Branch pitch over the left field fence at the Polo Grounds to win the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants.

The 1969 Mets proved it when they beat the favored Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series.

Cal Ripken, Jr. proved it when he broke Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played.

A .310 career hitter, Appling suffered injuries that came faster than a street hustler moving the cards in Three Card Monte.  “Old Aches and Pains” became his moniker.  Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964, Appling’s career achievements were:

  • 528 strikeouts
  • 1,302 walks
  • .399 On-base percentage
  • Led major leagues with a .388 batting average in 1936 (Lou Gehrig eclipsed Appling in the voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award)
  • Led American League with a .328 batting average and a .419 On-base percentage in 1943

On the morning of the Cracker Jack game, in a harbinger of the home run, an Appling quote appeared in Denis Collins’s article “Old Timers:  Memories Are as Strong as Ever” for the Washington Post:  “I can still slap the ball around here and there.”


A version of this article appeared on on October 20, 2016.

Ted Williams’s MVP Years

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

If Boston ever establishes a Mount Rushmore of sports, the four visages will likely be those of Robert Gordon Orr, Larry Joe Bird, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., and Theodore Samuel Williams.

Bobby.  Larry.  Tom.  Ted.

When Ted Williams swung his bat, a hit was not a foregone conclusion—pretty close, though.  After a 19-year career, Williams retired with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and two American League Most Valuable Player Awards.

In 1946, Williams won his first MVP Award, all the more remarkable because a three-year absence from ballparks to serve as a Marine pilot in World War II had, apparently, no impact—the Red Sox slugger nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter” led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (142)
  • Walks (156)
  • On-Base Percentage (.497)
  • Slugging Percentage (.667)

Williams eclipsed Detroit Tigers left-hander Hal Newhouser, who won the AL MVP in 1944 and 1945. It was bittersweet, though.  The Red Sox lost the 1946 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games; Williams batted a Mendoza-like .200.

A red seat at Fenway Park shows the landing spot of a Williams home run on June 9, 1946—the longest dinger of his career.  To be precise, though, the ball landed on the head of the seat’s occupier—Joseph A. Boucher, a construction engineer.  Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote, “He had never sat in the Fenway Park bleachers before.  There were 7897 fans besides [sic] himself perched on the sun-drenched wind-whipped concrete slope.  Indeed was the elderly Mr. Boucher honored when crowned by a five-ounce baseball that the game’s greatest hitter had socked some 450 feet.”

It happened during the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers; the Red Sox won both games.

Boucher’s brush with fame had a cost of slightly hurt noggin, barely protected by a straw hat.  It resulted; the “great baseball fan…and Red Sox rooter” received treatment from “Dr. Ralph McCarthy and two pretty nurses” in the stadium’s First Aid room.  Boucher did not recover the ball.

In 1949, Williams won his second MVP Award.  Once again, joy had a contrast of sorrow—the Yankees won the American League pennant by one game over the Red Sox.  It was an extraordinary year for Williams, even by MVP standards.  Williams led the major leagues in:

  • Runs Scored (150)
  • RBI (159)
  • Walks (162)
  • On-Base Percentage (.490)
  • On-Base plus Slugging Percentage (1.141)

Further, he led the American League in:

  • Doubles (39)
  • Home Runs (43)
  • Slugging Percentage (.650)

Though he did not achieve leadership in the following categories, his statistics were formidable:

  • Hits (194)
  • Strikeouts (48)
  • Batting Average (.343)

In Sports Illustrated‘s 2002 Special Commemorative Issue for Ted Williams, Tom Verducci wrote, “Trying to define Williams as a hitter is like studying one of those black-and-white optical illusions and trying to make out both a vase and the profiles of two people.  Do you see Williams as a high-average hitter with power or a power hitter who hit for a high average?  He was, of course, both.  Williams won six batting titles and four home run titles.”

A version of this article appeared on on March 6, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Bill Buckner

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

“Little roller up along first.  Behind the bag!  It gets through Buckner!  Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!”

Vin Scully’s broadcast of Mookie Wilson’s 10th inning ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series sends chills through the hearts of Red Sox Nation.  Buckner, a journeyman baseball player, gained immortality because Wilson’s grounder went through his legs.  In the hearts and minds of baseball fans, Buckner’s error lost the World Series for the Red Sox.

Never mind that Buckner might not have beat Wilson to the bag even if he fielded the ball.

Never mind that the Red Sox committed tactical mistakes leading up to Wilson’s at bat.

Never mind that the Mets victory in Game 6 tied the World Series at three games apiece—the Red Sox had a chance to win the series with a victory in Game 7.  Alas, they did not.

But one error, despite its fame, does not define a career.  Buckner may even be worthy of induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Outrageous?  Statistics say otherwise.

Using a four-point paradigm of hits, doubles, RBI, and batting average, Buckner’s numbers compare nicely to some other Hall of Famers.  The four points are based on:

  • hitting ability (number of hits)
  • hitting power (number of doubles)
  • clutch hitting (RBI)
  • consistency (batting average)

Bill Buckner played 2517 games between 1969 and 1990 for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.  A first baseman and left fielder, Buckner racked up 2715 hits, 498 doubles, 1208 RBI, and a .289 batting average.

Bill Mazeroski, second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, played 2163 games from 1956 to 1972.  His career numbers:  2016 hits, 294 doubles, 853 RBI, and a .260 batting average.

Phil Rizzuto, shortstop for the New York Yankees, played 1661 games from 1941 to 1956.  His career numbers:  1588 hits, 239 doubles, 563 RBI, and a .273 batting average.

Johnny Evers of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play fame played for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Chicago White Sox from 1902 to 1917 with one-game stints in 1922 and 1929.  His career numbers:  1659 hits, 216 doubles, 538 RBI, and a .270 batting average.

Yogi Berra played catcher for the New York Yankees from 1946 to 1963 and returned to the major leagues in 1965 with the New York Mets.  He played four games in the ’65 season and 2120 games in his major league tenure.  His career numbers:  2150 hits, 321 doubles, 1430 RBI, and a .285 batting average.

To be fair, offensive output in the traditional categories is not the only benchmark for Cooperstown.

Mazeroski earned eight Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess.

Rizzuto was a master of the bunt, often used sacrificially to advance runners.

Evers made his name on defense in the most hallowed of double play combinations.

Berra won the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times, played on the American League All-Star team 15 times, and exemplified the importance of defense in the catcher position.

Still, Buckner’s performance during a career lasting more than 20 years deserves further scrutiny by the baseball writers making the ultimate call on the worthiness of a player getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Based on statistics, Buckner’s entry is viable.

Statistics, after all, are stubborn things.

A version of this article appeared on on May 31, 2013.