Posts Tagged ‘Baseball Hall of Fame’

Don Drysdale: Once a Bum, Almost a Pirate

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Imagining Don Drysdale playing for a team other than the Dodgers is like imagining Hershey’s making products without chocolate.  Drysdale, he of the cannon disguised as a right arm firing baseballs through National League lineups in the 1950s and the 1960s, spent his career as a Dodger—first in Brooklyn, later in Los Angeles, where he grew up on the San Fernando Valley.  But the communal aura of Ebbets Field and the sun-soaked environs of Chavez Ravine might never have been blessed with Drysdale had Branch Rickey’s brethren signed him in Pittsburgh; Rickey served as the Pirates GM after notching four World Series titles for the Cardinals and leading baseball’s integration by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization.

Rickey’s 1954 scouting report on Drysdale—nestled in the pitcher’ file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown—indicated prescience bordering on psychic.  The 18-year-old Drysdale impressed Rickey with his fast ball and his curve ball, both of which “needs no coaching.”  Rickey also expressed confidence that Drysdale could take down the speed on his change-up.  In short, Drysdale was “a definite prospect” with “an unusual amount of perfection.”

As a comparison, Rickey mentioned Don Dangleis, a minor league hurler who never made it out of the Pittsburgh farm system; Drysdale had faster pitches but Dangleis was more well-rounded.  The sticking point for Rickey was money, as is often the case with a team’s front office—Rickey wanted to keep Drysdale’s salary at a maximum of $4,000.  Although Rickey acknowledged that Drysdale was worth “whatever it takes,” he wanted to avoid singing Drysdale under a “bonus baby” rule, which mandated an immediate vault to a major league tenure of at least two years for a salary exceeding $4,000.  It was a tempting option establishing a new financial plateau for the player and eliminate a stopover in the minor leagues.  If a “bonus baby” needed seasoning before going to “the show,” however, the then the rule could be a detriment.

In his 1990 autobiography Once a Bum, Always a Dodger, Drysdale revealed that Rickey actually offered $6,000 while proclaiming an evasion of the rule’s tentacles without disclosing his methods to the pitcher or his dad, Scott, an ex-minor leaguer advising the young pitcher on what came to be a joyous choice for fans of the Dodgers.  There were other options—Drysdale received pitches—no pun intended—from the White Sox, the Yankees, and the Braves.  Drysdale’s father offered a view based in value.  “Look, if you’re going to get a lot of money—like Billy Consolo, a $60,000 bonus baby—then it makes sense to take it and go to the major leagues and take your chances,” recalled Drysdale of his father’s opining.  “But if you’re not going to get a lot of money—and $2,000 isn’t a lot of money—then why not go where you have the best chance to learn?”

And so, the definite prospect from Van Nuys, California joined the Dodgers farm system.  Drysdale remembered that he signed in “the first week of June 1954” but Rickey’s scouting report was dated June 15th.  Either Drysdale’s memory was incorrect or Rickey was unaware of the signing.  The latter is a reach, considering Rickey’s legendary attention to detail.  At the bottom of Rickey’s missive is a handwritten postscript:  “Signed with Brooklyn.  Father is a bird dog for them.”

Drysdale played for the Bakersfield Indians, a Class C team in the California State League for the 1954 season; he went 8-5, then played for Montreal in 1955, where he compiled an 11-11 record.  On April 23, 1956, Drysdale made his first appearance with Brooklyn, unleashing the supremacy with which he taught master classes in intimidation, control, and reliability throughout his major league career, which ended in 1969.  In this game against the Phillies, Drysdale struck out the first three batters, notched nine strikeouts for the day, and showed “big league poise,” according to United Press, when he got out of a bases loaded jam in the second inning by inducing Murry Dickson to fly out.

Drysdale found a home in Brooklyn before voyaging back to the Los Angeles sunshine when the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.  “There was an intimacy about Ebbets Field that you don’t forget,” wrote Drysdale.  “If you are a starting pitcher, you warmed up in front of the dugout before the game, not in the bullpen.  You felt as though the fans were right on top of you, because they almost were.  It was a carnival atmosphere, small and always jumping.”

Rickey’s analysis of Drysdale proved correct:

  • 1962 National League Cy Young Award
  • Led the major leagues in strikeouts three times
  • 2,486 career strikeouts
  • Led the major leagues in games started for four consecutive years
  • Led the major league in innings pitched twice
  • Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984

 

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 16, 2016.

Ed Walsh, the White Sox, and Comiskey Park’s First Game

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Chicago welcomed an addition to its iconography on July 1, 1910.  Comiskey Park, that structure serving as a second home for baseball fans on the Windy City’s south side, débuted in an era of new stadia—Fenway Park in 1912, Ebbets Field in 1913, Weeghman Park (later rechristened Wrigley Field) in 1914.

It was about time that White Sox fans received a reward for their dedication to the team, according to I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune.  “For years the loyal rooters who have done so much to make this the greatest baseball city in the world have contented themselves as uncomplainingly as they could with accommodations inadequate to their needs while watching the fans of other and smaller cities rewarded, with far less reason, by modern steel and concrete edifices, each designed to surpass all its predecessors,” wrote Sanborn.

The White Sox opened this epoch of its history with a 2-0 loss to the St. Louis Browns.  Sanborn estimated the crowd at 28,000.

Comiskey Park saw one World Series champion team—the White Sox beat the Giants in 1917.  There were two other opportunities:  1919 and 1959.  The former, of course, has an ominous aura because of the “Black Sox” scandal that resulted in eight players being kicked out of baseball with the force of a sonic boom, otherwise known as Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s newly minted commissioner and a former federal judge.

Accused of purposed losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for payoffs from gamblers, the eight players were acquitted in court.  Landis argued that the integrity of the game superseded the legal process result.

In 1959, the “Go Go Sox” compiled a 94-60 record to stand atop the American League.  The Dodgers defeated the White Sox in six games; it was the National League champions’ second year in Los Angeles.

What began in 1910 lasted 80 years—Comiskey Park finished its service as the home of the White Sox in 1990.  It was demolished the next year, which saw U.S. Cellular Filed become the team’s new site.

Ed Walsh got the loss for Comiskey Park’s opener, went 18-20 for the season, and led the American League in losses.  His career statistics earned him a place in White Sox lore:

  • 1.82 Earned Run Average
  • Led American League in Earned Run Average
    • 1.60 in 1907
    • 1.27 in 1910 (led major leagues)
  • Led major leagues in wins
    • 40-15 in 1908
  • Led major leagues in games started
    • 46 in 1907
    • 49 in 1908
    • 41 in 1912
  • Led major leagues in complete games
    • 37 in 1907
    • 42 in 1908
  • Led American League in shutouts
    • 10 in 1906 (led major leagues)
    • 11 in 1908 (led major leagues)
    • 8 in 1909
  • Led American League in strikeouts
    • 269 in 1908
    • 255 in 1911
  • 195-126 career win-loss record

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Walsh in 1946.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 26, 2016.

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.”

Indeed.

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

What if…

Friday, April 21st, 2017

What if…

Charlie Finley hadn’t broken up the 1970s Oakland A’s dynasty?

Bob Uecker hadn’t appeared in Major League?

there was no Designated Hitter position?

the Mets had never traded Nolan Ryan to the Angels?

Yogi Berra had played for the Brooklyn Dodgers?

George Steinbrenner had never bought the Yankees?

the Dodgers had never moved from Brooklyn?

the Giants had moved to Minneapolis instead of San Francisco?

the Red Sox had never sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees?

Walter O’Malley had never owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

the Red Sox had integrated in 1949 instead of 1959?

Satchel Paige had pitched against Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and other Hall of Famers in their prime?

Bob Feller and Ted Williams had never lost years to military service in World War II?

Mickey Mantle hadn’t blown out his knee in the 1951 World Series?

Bobby Thomson had struck out against Ralph Branch?

Commissioner William Eckert had never invalidated Tom Seaver’s contract with the Atlanta Braves?

Major League Baseball banned synthetic grass?

the Mets had never traded Tom Seaver to the Reds?

Reggie Jackson had never played for the Yankees?

Thurman Munson hadn’t died in a plane crash?

Mickey Mantle had stayed healthy in the home stretch of 1961?

The Natural had ended the same was as the eponymous novel?

the Indians hadn’t traded Chris Chambliss, Dennis Eckersley, Buddy Bell, and Graig Nettles?

the Braves hadn’t never left Boston for Milwaukee?

the first incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Minnesota to become the Twins?

the second incarnation of the Washington Senators hadn’t left for Texas to become the Rangers?

the Seattle Pilots hadn’t left for Milwaukee to become the Brewers?

Jim Bouton hadn’t written Ball Four?

Roger Kahn hadn’t written The Boys of Summer?

Mark Harris hadn’t written Bang the Drum Slowly?

Jackie Robinson had sought a football career instead of a baseball career?

Billy Martin hadn’t managed the Yankees in the late 1970s?

Gil Hodges hadn’t died in 1972, during a high point in the history of the Mets?

Vin Scully had stayed in New York City and announced for the Yankees or the Mets?

Bob Feller had pitched for the Yankees?

Ted Williams had played for the Yankees?

Joe DiMaggio had played for the Red Sox?

Charles Ebbets hadn’t owned the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Honolulu had a Major League Baseball team?

Pete Rose were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?

the commissioner’s office rescinded the lifetime banishment of the 1919 Black Sox from Major League Baseball?

Hank Aaron had played in the same outfield as Willie Mays?

Wiffle Ball hadn’t been invented?

Nashville had a Major League Baseball team?

Dwight Goodman and Darryl Strawberry had stayed away from drugs?

Roberto Clemente had played for the Dodgers instead of the Pirates?

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 17, 2016.

Hank Aaron’s Last Home Run

Monday, April 10th, 2017

As America recovered from its Bicentennial hangover, Hank Aaron clubbed a home run in the Brewers-Angels game on July 20, 1976.  It was not, in any way, a cause for ceremony.  It was, however, highly significant.

Aaron’s solo smash off the Angels’ Dick Drago was his last home run, though nobody knew it at the time.  Hammerin’ Hank followed George Scott’s solo home run, one of 18 blasts that Scott swatted in 1976.  Jerry Augustine got the win for the Brewers—his first in more than a month—scattering five Angel hits in seven innings.  It capped a streak of five consecutive losses for Augustine, who had a 9-12 record, 3.30 Earned Run Average, and WHIP of 1.299.

Aaron, Scott, et al. belted 12 hits against the Angels; Von Joshua, Tim Johnson, Darrell Porter, and Robin Yount scored the other Brewer runs.  Johnson, the Brewer second baseman, had an outstanding 3-for-3 day.  In the eighth inning, relief pitcher Danny Frisella replaced Augustine.

When Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record on April 8, 1974 by hitting his 715th home run, every dinger afterward became, simply, icing on top of frosting.  His round-tripper in the Brewers’ 6-2 victory over the boys from Anaheim was his 755th home run; Aaron hit 10 home runs, batted .229, and racked up 62 hits in a rather uneventful 1976 season for the Brewers—a 66-96 record garnered 6th place in the American League East.

At age 42, Aaron retired after the 1976 season with outstanding career statistics:

  • 3,771 hits
  • 2,174 runs scored
  • 13,941 plate appearances
  • .305 batting average
  • 2,287 RBI (major league record)
  • Led the major leagues in RBI four times

Henry Louis Aaron clocked his first major league home run on April 23, 1954.  Throughout the next two decades and change, Aaron faced the pitching gods of Major League Baseball—Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Gullett, Roy Face, Don Drysdale, Nolan Ryan, Vida Blue, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts.  When he went yard, it was the definition of power against power.  Tom Seaver’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site recalls Aaron’s statement of Seaver being “the toughest pitcher I’ve ever faced.”

Aaron’s last home run occurred during the year that the Yankees reached the World Series for the first time since 1964; Chicago Cubs outfielder Rick Monday snatched an American flag from two trespassers about to burn it in the Dodger Stadium outfield; the Chicago White Sox played in shorts for one game; Ted Turner became the sole owner of the Atlanta Braves; the second incarnation of Yankee Stadium débuted after two years of renovations; Philadelphia Phillies third baseball Mike Schmidt knocked four home runs in a game against the Cubs; original Houston Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sold the team that began its life as the Colt .45s; Dodgers manager Walter Alston resigned after 23 years at the helm in Ebbets Field and Chavez Ravine; and the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays began selecting players for the following year’s American League expansion.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 20, 2016.

How Cooperstown Got Its Name

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

Cooperstown is a destination rooted in myth.  Abner Doubleday did not, most certainly, invent baseball on a grassy area while he was a military school cadet.

And yet, it is that myth anchoring the village’s notoriety as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  Indeed, Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball.  Its beauty, charm, and allure derives from an old-fashioned aura allowing for a leisurely walk on Main Street, which, of course, is dotted with baseball memorabilia shops.  There is no hurry in Cooperstown, no need to be anywhere.  One feels as if time is longer, so a quickened step need not be employed.  This pace continues when visitors to the Hall of Fame look at the inductees’ plaques boasting short biographies and summaries of statistics.  They look with reverence, sometimes awe, at plaques, artwork, and exhibits honoring people, events, and artifacts of the National Pastime.

Cooperstown’s name derives from William Cooper, the patriarch who fathered novelist James Fenimore Cooper, he of an outstanding body of work including The Last of the MohicansThe Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder.

William Cooper established Cooperstown in 1786, during the period when the colonies took their first steps toward independence from Great Britain.  “He bought a huge tract of wilderness from a bankrupt Tory sympathizer, George Croghan, and sold part of it to anyone who wished to buy, given them seven to 10 years to pay off the debt but not exacting any other commitments,” states the Hall of Fame web site.  “This was a marked contrast to the prevalent practice of indentured servitude.  In effect, Cooper conceived of the first planned community and did all he could to make it succeed.  Knowing that life was incredibly hard on the frontier, he generously used his own funds to buy food for the winter and the means for establishing maple sugar and potash works to help the early settlers survive.”

Cooper’s Town, as it was originally called, borders Lake Otsego.  Naturally, Cooper was the first judge in Otsego County.  Hugh C. MacDougall of the James Fenimore Cooper Society authored Making a Place Historic:  The Coopers and Cooperstown, reproduced on the society’s web site, which indicates that MacDougall first wrote it for a meeting of Central New York Municipal Historians and then provided to several local groups as a lecture.

“In A Guide in the Wildneress, William Cooper outlined three basic principles for successful settlement projects:  Land should be sold outright, rather than leased, so that settlers would be working for themselves and not for others,” recounted MacDougall.  “Developers should, as he did, live among their settlers, to aid and encourage them by deed and by example.  And villages should be compact, so that merchants and craftsmen would stick to their trades, and be available when farmers from the surrounding countryside needed them.

“Though William Cooper was unable to repeat his Cooperstown success elsewhere, in part because he sometimes failed to follow his own advice, and though his political star fell with the rise of the Jeffersonians, Cooperstown itself remained loyal to him.  He repaid that loyalty by working to give the new village an academy, several churches, a library, and even a water supply.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 17, 2016.

 

Mickey, Whitey, and the Class of 1974

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

During the summer of 1974, excitement charged the air.  We watched with wonder when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, with dismay when President Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, and with awe when the Universal Product Code débuted to signify a touchstone in the computer age.

For baseball fans, the Baseball Hall of Fame induction marked the summer.  In this particular instance, two Yankee icons, polar opposites in their upbringing but thick as thieves in their friendship, ascended to Cooperstown.  Mickey Charles Mantle and Edward Charles Ford.  The Mick and Whitey.

Mantle—the Yankee demigod with 536 home runs—thanked his father in his induction speech.  “He had the foresight to realize that someday in baseball that left-handed hitters were going to hit against right-handed pitchers and right-handed hitters are going to hit against left-handed pitchers; and he thought me, he and his father, to switch-hit at a real young age, when I first started to learn how to play ball,” explained the Oklahoma native.  “And my dad always told me if I could hit both ways when I got ready to go to the major leagues, that I would have a better chance of playing.”

With overwhelming power, Mantle compiled dazzling statistics:

  • Led the major leagues in runs scored (five times)
  • Led the major leagues in walks (five times)
  • Led the American League in home runs (four times)
  • 2,401 games played
  • 9,907 plate appearances

Mantle’s aplomb came with a cost—strikeouts.  #7 led the American League in strikeouts five times and the major leagues three times.

Like Mantle, Ford spent his entire career in a Yankee uniform.  Where Mantle came from the Dust Bowl, Ford came from the city.  Queens, specifically.  After achieving a 9-1 record in his rookie season of 1950, Ford lost two seasons to military service.  He returned in 1953 without skipping a beat, ending the season with an 18-6 record.

Mantle and Ford played together on the World Series championship teams of 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, and 1962.

Joining the pinstriped legends were—as a result of the Veterans Committee’s votes—Jim Bottomley, Jocko Conlan, and Sam Thompson.

Bottomley, a first baseman, played for the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Browns in his 16-year career (1922-1937).  He was not, to be sure, a power hitter—his career home run total was 219.  But he sprinkled 2,313 hits, resulting in a .310 lifetime batting average.  Bottomley led the National League in RBI twice, in hits once, and in doubles twice.

Conlan was the fourth Hall of Famer from the umpiring brethren.  In his 25-year career, Conlan umpired five World Series, six All-Star games, and three tie-breaking playoffs.  Conlan’s page on the Hall of Fame web site states, “He wore a fashionable polka dot bow tie and was the last NL umpire to wear a chest protector over his clothes.  Besides his attire, Conlan was known for his ability to combine his cheerful personality with a stern sense of authority.”

Sam Thompson was a right fielder for the Detroit Wolverines and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1885 to 1898.  In 1906, Thompson played eight games with the Detroit Tigers.  Thompson finished his career with a .331 batting average—he led the major leagues in RBI three times, in slugging percentage twice, and in doubles twice.  Thompson also led the American League in hits three times—in one of those years, he led the major leagues.

The Special Committee on the Negro Leagues okayed the inclusion of center fielder Cool Papa Bell, who played for:

  • St. Louis Stars
  • Kansas City Monarchs
  • Homestead Grays
  • Pittsburgh Crawfords
  • Memphis Red Sox
  • Chicago American Giants

In Mexico, Bell played for:

  • Monterrey Industriales
  • Torreon Algodoneros
  • Veracruz Azules
  • Tampico Alidjadores

Bell’s speed was legendary; speed inspired his nickname.  Ken Mandel of MLB.com wrote, “While still a knuckle balling prospect in 1922, he earned his moniker by whiffing Oscar Charleston with the game on the line.  His manager, Bill Gatewood, mused about how ‘cool’ his young player was under pressure and added the ‘Papa’ because it sounded better, though perhaps it was a testament to how the 19-year-old performed like a grizzled veteran.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 24, 2016.

Wee Willie Keeler’s Best Year

Friday, March 17th, 2017

Wee Willie Keeler, a diminutive Baltimore Orioles right fielder measuring 5’4″ and 140 pounds, declared of his success, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t!”  In 1897, he did it 239 times for a .424 batting average.  Both stats led the major leagues—he repeated this achievement in 1898 with 216 hits and a .385 batting average.

1897 was, indeed, a career season for Keeler, whose seasonal achievements at the plate also included:

  • Tied career high in doubles (27)
  • 2nd highest number of triples (19)
  • 4th highest number of RBI (74)
  • Career high .464 on-base percentage
  • Career high .539 slugging percentage
  • Career high 1.003 on-base plus slugging percentage
  • 44-game hitting streak (National League record tied by Pete Rose in 1978

Among Keeler’s skills, power was absent—he had zero home runs in 1897.

In addition to Keeler, Baltimore’s 1897 squad burst with supremacy at the plate.

  • Jack Doyle, First Baseman (.354)
  • Hughie Jennings, Shorstop (.355)
  • John McGraw (Third Baseman (.325)
  • Joe Kelley, Left Fielder (.362)
  • Jake Stenzel, Right Fielder (.353)

Because the Orioles’ lineup overflowed with skilled batsmen, Keeler’s prowess, though formidable, may not be easily discerned.  “The chief obstacle for evaluators of the Keeler legacy is that his prime years came with a juggernaut that was stocked with too many good hitters for pitchers to pitch around him and in an era that afforded him advantages that players who followed him as little as ten years later no longer enjoyed,” wrote baseball historian David Nemec in Volume 2 of his 2011 tome Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900.

Keeler began his career in 1892 and, as Nemec points out, benefited from the allowance to “tap or chop pitches foul without having them counted against him as strikes” during his first seven seasons.

Sporting a 90-40 record, Baltimore’s 1897 team finished 2nd in the National League.  Despite the team’s success in the 1890s, conflict resonated, especially between McGraw and Keeler.  “McGraw, always needing a target, liked to pick on Willie Keeler, the only Oriole littler than he was,” wrote Burt Solomon in his 1999 book Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball.  “Willie was a city boy and a happy one.  Mac, raised an hour and a half by rail from Syracuse, had grown up hard.  Mac had a talent for manipulation, even a need for it, and a knack for not letting it trouble him any.  Willie cared nothing about things like that.  He wanted to do his job as well as he could and to have fun, not necessarily in that order.  Sharpening his spikes, he believed, was something a gentleman did not do,” continued Solomon.

Keeler died on New Year’s Day in 1923; his Orioles teammates went to Brooklyn’s Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel for a requiem mass—a former tormentor was among those in attendance.  “Tears stood in the eyes of John McGraw, manager of the world’s champion Giants and a team mate [sic] of Keeler’s on the famous Orioles of the 90s, as he viewed his old body,” reported the Washington Post.

Keeler played for the Giants, the Bridegrooms, the Orioles, and the Yankees in his 19-year career.  2,932 hits, .341 batting average, and .415 slugging percentage boosted him to Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Keeler in 1939.  On his plaque, below the name and the visage, stands Keeler’s famous quote “Hit ’em where they ain’t!”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2016.

McGraw and McGillicuddy

Friday, March 10th, 2017

One was pugnacious.  The other, almost regal.

When John Joseph McGraw took the field, he embraced baseball games as bouts, thus earning his nicknames Mugsy and Little Napoleon.

When Cornelius McGillicuddy managed the Philadelphia Athletics, he wore a suit rather than a uniform.

They were, certainly, opposites with a respect that ran deeper than the Hudson River.

Connie Mack—McGillicuddy’s more familiar moniker—managed the Athletics ball club from its genesis in 1901 until 1950.  When Mack passed away in 1956, it marked the end of a lengthy baseball tenure that began at the end of the 19th century—from 1894 to 1896, Mack was a player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This came after playing in the major leagues for 11 years; in addition to Pittsburgh, Mack played for Buffalo and Washington.  Mack’s page on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site honors innovation in the catcher position:  “Mack was one of the first catchers to play directly behind home plate instead of setting up by the backstop.  He was also famous for his abilities to fake the sound of a foul tip with his mouth and ‘tip’ opposing players’ bats during their swings.”

Mack’s 50-year governance of the A’s as a manager and a part owner resulted in five World Series championships and seven American League titles.  There were plenty of down years, too.  In 1915, the A’s had a 36-104 record— it began a 10-year run of losing seasons.  Eight winning seasons followed, including three consecutive American League pennants from 1929 to 1931.  The A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

Contrariwise to Mack’s aura of temperateness, John McGraw breathed flames.  Upon the death of the fiery New York Giants manager in 1934, New York Times writer John N. Wheeler opined that retirement a couple of years prior corresponded with a transition in the National Pastime.  “The game also had become more gentlemanly and, if you will take the word of an old-timer like the writer, less colorful,” wrote Wheeler.  “Not that there is any implication that John J. McGraw was not a gentleman, but when he went to wars he went to win.”

McGraw’s managerial career began with the Baltimore Orioles team that moved to New York after the 1902 season and became the Highlanders— the team later changed to the Yankees label.  McGraw was a Baltimore fixture, playing third base on the Oriole’s National League championship teams in the 1890s.

In the middle of the 1902 season, McGraw went to the New York Giants, where he became the symbol of toughness for the princes of the Polo Grounds.  And he brought several Orioles with him.  Under McGraw, the Giants won 10 National League pennants and seven World Series titles.

Mack and McGraw squared off in the World Series three times—1905, 1911, and 1913; the Giants own the 1905 contest and the A’s won the next two.

In 1937, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Connie Mack and John McGraw.  On McGraw’s Hall off Fame web site page, a quote from Mack summarizes his feelings toward his counterpart:  “There has been only one manager— and his name is McGraw.”

A version of this article appeared on March 17, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Harvey Kuenn

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

There are coaches and managers who approach baseball with a Lombardi-like focus on winning without the trademark Lombardi philosophy of striving to obtain psychological, emotional, and physical fulfillment through 100% effort.  Their desire to win is pure.  Their process, deadening.

Harvey Kuenn was not one of these leaders.

“Look, you guys can flat out hit, so go out there and have fun.  Don’t be stone-faced on the bench.  If a guy breaks a bat, laugh about it and he’ll laugh with you.  When you laugh and have fun, you get relaxed,” said Kuenn, when he ascended from being the Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach to managing the team in the middle of the 1982 season, according to an article by Skip Myslenski in the Chicago Tribune, before the American League playoffs.  Kuenn steered the Brewers around after taking over the team with a 23-34 record; the Brewers finished the season at 95-67.

Harvey’s Wallbangers, a pun nickname, reached the World Series in 1982—the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games.

Kuenn shot to baseball prominence when he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1953 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.  “The rookie’s success is a rare example of general baseball prophecy coming true,” stated the New York Herald-Tribune.  “From the start of spring training last year, a brilliant future was predicted for Kuenn.  However, Fred Hutchinson, the Tiger manager, said only that Harvey would start the season at short.  Kuenn not only started, but finished there, playing in 155 games.”

Kuenn played for the Tigers, the Indians, the Giants, the Cubs, and the Phillies in a 15-year major league career as a shortstop, a third baseman, and an outfielder.  With a .303 career batting average, Kuenn ranks in the upper echelon of batters.  He does not, however, have a Hall of Fame plaque.  Though a .300 plateau is not, perhaps, an automatic measure for Cooperstown, Kuenn’s other achievements, collectively, boost advocacy for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Led the American League in hits four times and the major leagues once
  • Won the 1959 AL batting championship
  • Made the American League All-Star lineup eight consecutive years
  • Led the American League in doubles three times and the major league twice

One argument against Hall of Fame inclusion is Kuenn’s career RBI figure—671—though one can counter that RBI is a function of opportunity rather than hitting ability.  Also, though Kuenn’s career 950 runs scored is not an overwhelming statistic, by any means, a similar counter applies; if Kuenn is on base safely, which occurred regularly, a teammate must perform for scoring to occur.

When the Tigers traded Kuenn to the Indians for Rocky Colavito at the beginning of the 1960 season, team president Bill DeWitt certified the rationale.  “I have a high regard for Kuenn’s ability as a player,” said DeWitt in an Associated Press article.  “But we felt we needed more power at the plate and we’re hopeful this move will help us score more runs.”  Tiger manager Jimmie Dykes revealed, “It was a deal in which we had to trade consistency for power.”  Indeed.  In 1959, while Kuenn led the American League in batting average, Colavito led in home runs—42.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 5, 2016.