Posts Tagged ‘Cooperstown’

The Hall of Fame Case for Charles Ebbets

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

For reasons passing understanding, Charles Ebbets is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is shameful at best and unforgivable at worst.  Imagine a baseball lineage without Ebbets Field, which débuted in 1913, becoming the home for a team with various names—Trolley Dodgers, Dodgers, Flock, and Robins were interchangeable monikers until the Dodgers label was officially affixed through a vote of the press in the 1930s.

With an unparalleled loyalty to his Brooklyn brethren, Ebbets sold half his ownership in the team to finance the construction of the stadium bearing his name.

Hired on the first day of Brooklyn’s nascent professional baseball team in 1883, Ebbets rose from office clerk to team president; when Charley Byrne died in 1898, a shareholder named George Chauncey advocated for Ebbets to fill the team’s highest-level executive role.  With a curriculum vitae of a decade and a half in Brooklyn, Ebbets could easily have found an executive position in either the major leagues or the minor leagues, perhaps garnering an ownership stake with another team.

Ebbets consolidated ownership in the team, became the sole owner, and realized his vision of a modern stadium.  In an article for Leslie’s Weekly, Ebbets said, “We must give our patrons what they express an evident desire for, and in progressive baseball to-day this means comfort, safety and faster play than ever before.”

Buying parcels of land in a section called Pigtown—so named because it was filled with garbage, which pigs fed on—Ebbets made good on his promise to the Brooklyn fans.

Ebbets’s contributions to baseball, intangible and tangible, deserve to be recognized with a plaque in the building located at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, about a five-minute walk from Lake Otsego.  When Ebbets died in 1925, the New York Times eulogized, “Virtually the whole of Mr. Ebbets’ life was devoted to baseball.  His sole interest was baseball and all his money was in it.  He served the game wholeheartedly, with a fixed purpose which finally brought fulfillment.”

Credit the Brooklyn ball club owner with the following:

  • Rain check
  • Draft system
  • Weakest teams getting first chance to hire minor league players
  • Advocating for permanent World Series schedule
  • Extending the National League season to include the Columbus Day holiday

Another eulogy summarized the feeling pervading baseball upon Ebbets’s death; it went further than the usual missives encapsulating a famous person’s achievements.  Reach Baseball Guide stated, “He never played baseball ‘politics,’ was without guide, and so universally popular that he may be truly said to have been the best loved man, not only in his league, but throughout the entire realm of baseball.  Ebbets was one of the comparatively few old time magnates whose interest in the affairs of the game never faltered.”

Ebbets Field is long since demolished, its presence existing in the memories of those who saw Brooklyn’s teams—good and bad—traverse the hallowed ground in what was the second home for the citizenry of Coney Island, Flatbush, Greenpoint, and every other neighborhood in the borough, a metropolis until 1898, when New York City annexed it.

Perhaps the legendary loyalty cultivated by Dodgers fans in Brooklyn—and then Los Angeles—traces back to Ebbets, who exemplified this trait in another example of dire financial straits.  To raise money needed to settle a lawsuit, Ebbets could have sold two players to the New York Giants—Tim Jordan and Harry Lumley.  Instead, Ebbets said no to Brooklyn’s rival squad, tempting though the offer was.  “I felt that if I had sold those two star players at that time the fans would run me out of Brooklyn,” said Ebbets in an article for the Times.  “To my way of thinking, it was my duty to Brooklyn fans to keep those players in spite of the fact that we needed money worse than we did players at that time.  It wouldn’t have been fair to our patrons to sell those players.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 27, 2017.

The Hall of Fame Case for Doc Adams

Saturday, April 29th, 2017

Victory, it is said, has a thousand fathers.  Baseball, too.

Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams is, for reasons passing understanding, without tangible recognition in Cooperstown, despite being a highly significant contributor to baseball’s genesis.  It is not an uncommon tale, of course.  The specter of Gil Hodges, an evergreen topic for debate about Hall of fame inclusion, stands on the sidelines of 25 Main Street as thousands trek yearly to this bucolic village in upstate New York, pay homage to baseball’s icons, and gander at plaques honoring Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and several other boys of summer.  This, regardless of membership on seven consecutive National League All-Star teams, seven consecutive years of 100 or more RBI, and a managerial career noted for turning around the woes of the New York Mets—his efforts culminated in the 1969 World Series championship.

Charles Ebbets, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner who conceived Ebbets Field—and sacrificed half his ownership to finance the ballpark—does not have a plaque at the Hall of Fame.  Quincy Trouppe, a standout from the Negro Leagues, often occupies a spot in Hall of Fame debates.

Adams’s denial, to date, contrasts the honor given to some of his 19th century brethren.  In his 2011 book Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, wrote that the Mills Commission’s report, which, inaccurately, credited Abner Doubleday with a primary role in baseball’s creation, failed to highlight “William Rufus Wheaton or Daniel Lucius Adams, recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or Doubleday.”

Adams has been “recently revealed to be larger figures in baseball’s factual beginnings than either [Alexander] Cartwright or [Abner] Doubleday.”

Indeed, Adams’s role in baseball’s ur-phase, emerging through the dedication of Thorn and other baseball archaeologists, remained, until the latter part of the 20th century, mostly obscured by Cartwright’s vaunted position as the father of the National Pastime and the legend, long since debunked as myth, that Doubleday designed the game’s blueprint.

It was Adams, however, who set the 90-foot length between bases.

It was Adams, however, who helped shape baseball’s rules as president of the Knickerbockers, a team with historical prestige for playing in what was, seemingly, if not concretely, the first organized baseball game—it took place in Hoboken in 1846.

It was Adams, however, who set the number of players at nine.

It was Adams, however, who conceived of a game lasting nine innings.

Teetering on the edge of Cooperstown, Adams is becoming decreasingly enigmatic and increasingly valuable in determining baseball’s genesis, evolution, and governance.  In 2015, the Hall of Fame’s Pre-Integration Committee disclosed that Adams received 10 votes of 16—two votes short of the 12 needed for membership; the Society for American Baseball Research Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legends Committee named Adams its 2014 legend.

Adams’s effect manifested in a 2016 auction for his handwritten “Laws of Base Ball,” which SCP Auctiosn sold for $3.26 million.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 3, 2017.

Cooperstown’s Hall of Fa(r)mers

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Given America’s roots as an agrarian nation, it is appropriate that the legend of baseball’s birth begins in a Cooperstown cow pasture; Doubleday Field, just a baseball throw from the Hall of Fame, occupies the spot where the myth—long since debunked—of Abner Doubelday inventing baseball began.  It provides, at the very least, a nexus between farmers and the village’s world-famous icon located at 25 Main Street.

Goose Goslin worked on his family’s farm in southern New Jersey before journeying to the major leagues, which began by playing for DuPont’s company team.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1968, Goslin retired in 1938 after 18 seasons.  Among his career statistics:

  • .316 batting average
  • 2,735 hits
  • .500 slugging percentage

The Hall of Fame web site quotes Goslin regarding his humble beginnings:  “I was just a big ol’ country boy havin’ the game of my life.  It was all a lark to me, just a joy ride.  Never feared a thing, never got nervous, just a big country kid from South Jersey, too dumb to know better.  Why I never even realized it was supposed to be big doin’s.  It was just a game, that’s all it was.  They didn’t have to pay me.  I’d have paid them to let me play.  Listen, the truth is it was more than fun.  It was heaven.”

Tom Seaver tasted success with a World Series championship, three Cy Young Awards, and 311 wins.  His palate presently determines quality of wine in Seaver Vineyards.  In a 2005 article for the New York Times, Eric Asimov profiled Seaver’s venture.  “I wanted to keep my name off it, so the wine could make its own name.  My daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not living forever.  Your grandchildren will be running it one day.  You’re putting your name on it,'” Seaver explained.

Carl Yastrzemski spent his formative years working on his family’s Long Island potato farm before embarking on a career spent entirely in a Red Sox uniform.  He became a Boston icon, racking up:

  • 3,419 hits
  • .285 batting average
  • 452 home runs

On Yaz Day at the end of the Red Sox slugger’s last season—1983—Yastrzemski reminded, “I’m just a potato farmer from Long Island who had some ability.  I’m not any different than a mechanic, an engineer or the president of a bank.”

Ty Cobb, a member of the first Hall of Fame class, inducted in 1936, had farming in his DNA, thanks to the Cobb family farm in Georgia.  Knowsouthernhistory.net reveals that the future star gained respect from his father during one summer when he worked extra hours as punishment for pawning two of his father’s books—he needed the money to fix his glove.  “The fields looked good, and were growing well.  For some reason, this brought about a change in the older man’s attitude toward Ty, one that the young man never forgot.  W.H. began to confide in Tyrus about the market for cotton, the work animals, and the crops.  Thrilled with the sudden change in treatment from his father, Ty hurried out and won himself a job at a local cotton factory.  He ate up the information about growing, baling, processing, and marketing the crop and shared all that he learned with his father.  In turn, the Professor was happy with the boy making an effort to mature, and their bond strengthened.”

Tragedy struck the Cobb family when Ty’s mother mistook her husband for a burglar and shot him dead.  She was acquitted at trial.

In addition to Cooperstown’s farm connection, films have used farms as settings.  In the 1991 film Talent for the Game, Angels scout Virgil Sweet discovers Sammy Bodeen, an Idaho farm boy.  Bodeen’s promise is heightened in the public’s mind by a marketing campaign designed by Angels management.  It looks to be futile when Bodeen suffers a horrible first inning in his début before settling down, thanks to Sweet, who dons catcher’s gear for the second inning and calms Bodeen with empathy in a conference on the mound without anyone else figuring out his masquerade; Sweet catches Bodeen’s first career strikeout, presumably, the first of hundreds.  Thousands, perhaps.

In the 1984 film The Natural, the story of Roy Hobbs ends with a shot of him playing catch with the son of his paramour, Iris, on her farm.  The poster for The Natural depicts a photo of this scene.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2016.

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 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.

 

The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Piniella

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Lou Piniella is one of baseball’s greatest journeymen—a player with the Orioles, the Indians, the Royals, and the Yankees, in addition to stints as a manager with the Yankees, the Reds, the Mariners, the Devil Rays, and the Cubs.

Piniella’s achievements as a manager include winning a World Series championship, AL Manager of the Year twice, and NL Manager of the Year once.  With 1,835 career wins, Piniella is #14 on the all-time list—ahead of Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Wilbert Robinson, Al Lopez, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, and Clark Griffith.  Also, Piniella managed the Mariners to an American League single-season record of 116 wins in 2001.

And yet, Piniella is not graced with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.  Why?  Surely, his managerial success indicates a career deserving of inclusion into the exclusive club in Cooperstown, located at 25 Main Street.  And that success emanated from determination.  Piniella managed as he played—with fierceness to win and reluctance to lose.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner gave Piniella his first manager job.  Working for Steinbrenner came with legendary tension.  But in a 2002 article by Ira Berkow in the New York Times, Pinieall acknowledged the opportunity.  “I owe my managerial career to George,” said Piniella.  “He made me the manager and it was on-the-job training.  He saw something in me—I know he liked my intensity as a player—and he gave me a shot.”

“Intensity” to say the least.  Piniella had the resolve of a bull charging the matador.

For Yankee fans, Piniella was a fixture on the “Bronx Zoo” teams that brought three American League pennants and two World Series titles to Yankee Stadium in the late 1970s.  It was a volatile era, indeed.  When Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees before the 1977 season, Piniella knew a storm was brewing around the star player and manager Billy Martin that would have made the tornado from The Wizard of Oz look like a slight breeze.

“It was obviously going to be explosive,” said Piniella in Bill Pennington’s 2015 book Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.  “And Billy was right, it did cause problems with Thurman [Munson] and Craig [Nettles].  But at the same time, let’s face it, Reggie was never Billy’s kind of player.  I think Billy did resent him a little.  He didn’t like most guys who called attention to themselves.”

On June 16, 1984, Piniella played in his last game.  Naturally, he had the game-winning RBI.  Even though Piniella went 0-for-5 on the day, his efforts contributed value to the Yankees beating the Orioles 8-3—the crucial RBI came from a ground ball.

George Vecsey of the New York Times described Piniella’s psychological makeup in an account of the June 16th game.  “His temper kept him in the minor leagues for most of the 1960’s, but later that temper hardened into a fierce athletic pride.  Only rarely did the temper come through in New York—but when it did, the tantrum was a beauty.  Who will ever forget Piniella sitting on the grass, pounding his fists on the east, raging over being called out by Ron Luciano during the 1978 playoffs?”

Piniella won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1969, notching a .282 batting average, 139 hits, and 68 RBI for the Kansas City Royals.  “Sweet Lou” retired from playing during the 1984 season.  His career statistics include a .291 batting average, 1,705 hits, and 305 doubles.

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

The Hall of Fame Case for Tommy John

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

Forget about the 288 wins.

Forget about the four pennant-winning teams.

Forget about the pioneering surgery that bears his name.

You might as well.  The Baseball Hall of Fame voters have.

Thomas Edward John, Jr., the Terre Haute native who stayed in his hometown to attend college at Indiana State University, stands overlooked and undervalued for his contributions to baseball.

In his 26-year career, John pitched for:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • New York Yankees
  • California Angels
  • Oakland A’s

He led the National League in winning percentage in 1973 and the major leagues in 1974; played on the Dodgers’ National League pennant-winning teams in 1974, 1977, and 1978; played for the American League champs in the strike-shortened season of 1981—the Yankees.

In eras gone by, when more pitchers stayed on the mound for the entire game, John led the major leagues three times in shutouts:

  • 1966 (5)
  • 1967 (6)
  • 1980 (6)

With just 12 wins short of the magic number—300—John stands on the cusp of Cooperstown; peers Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer were inducted with 287 and 268 wins, respectively.  One can presume that at least 12 games in a 26-year career fell victim to a combination of error, lack of prowess at the plate, and a manager’s strategic errors.  It’s an interesting point, but, in the end, you are what your record is.  And John’s 288 notches in the win column stand as impressive.

It is, perhaps, the breakthrough surgery that Dr. Frank Jobe performed on the hurler in 1974 that is the most significant factor in an argument for John’s Hall of Fame membership.  At the time, Jobe was the Dodgers’ orthopedist.

Tommy John surgery rebuilds the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by using a tendon from another part of the body.  A torn or ruptured UCL can immediately put a period at the end of a pitcher’s career.  Only an injury warrants the surgery.  It is not a procedure for improving performance.

John won more games after the surgery than before it and played on three All-Star teams (1978-1980); his only other All-Star appearance happened in 1968.  To be a pioneering patient for a surgical procedure that’s become as much a cornerstone of the game as corporate-sponsored stadia.  Had Tommy John not gone under Dr. Jobe’s knife, somebody else would have.  Eventually.  But John took the risk.

When would another pitcher have been the first if John had stepped away from baseball?  1975?  1980?  How many careers have been saved because John opted for Jobe’s cutting edge idea?

Treating a UCL problem with Tommy John surgery has become de rigeur.  Hall of Famer John Smoltz sat out the 2000 season to recover from the surgery.  At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2015, Smoltz warned teenage pitchers against going under the knife.  “I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old.  That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sports.  That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.  Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way.”

Smoltz is the only Tommy John surgery patient inducted into the Hall of Fame.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 22, 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.

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.