Posts Tagged ‘David Nemec’

Vic Willis, the Boston Beaneaters, and the Last No-Hitter of the 20th Century

Sunday, February 26th, 2017

Vic Willis, he of the assonant moniker, hurled with the intensity of a Nor’easter whipping across the Charles River.

Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995, Willis compiled a career 249-205 win-loss record, achieved a 2.63 Earned Run Average, and pitched in 513 games.  His 13-year career began with the Boston Beaneaters, for whom he played from 1898 to 1905.  Then, he called Pittsburgh home for four seasons, winning more than 20 games for the Pirates in each season.  Willis ended his career in 1906, with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Willis came charging out of the gate in his rookie year, notching a 25-13 record.  In addition to Willis’s performance, 1898 was an explosive year for Boston’s pitching staff:

  • Fred Klobedanz (19-10)
  • Ted Lewis (26-8)
  • Kid Nichols (31-12)

The Beaneaters won the 1898 National League pennant with a 102-47 record.

After his first two seasons, Willis had a record of 52 wins, 21 losses.  In 1900, he did not fare as well.  A 10-17 record belied Willis’s proficiency on the mound.  In his indispensable two-volume series Major League Baseball Profiles:  1871-1900, baseball historian David Nemec explains that rather than adhere to the ritual of spring training in southern climates, Willis opted for working out instead with Boston catcher Boileryard Clarke in the Princeton Gym.  “Arm trouble” resulted.

Further, a leap to the American League, perhaps prompted by Boston’s 66-72 record in 1900, failed to launch.  “Willis then made his critical career-changing mistake.  That winter, he agreed to jump to the rival American League and signed a contract with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s.  But in March TSN  [The Sporting News] observed that he had ‘flopped back to the big league,’ after Boston threatened legal reprisal and perhaps raised his salary to compete with the A’s offer,” writes Nemec.

Willis threw a no-hitter for Boston on August 7, 1899 against the Washington Senators.  Boston Globe sports writer Tim Murnane wrote, “The solitary hit off Willis was not worth the name. The ball went along the ground from [Senators pitcher Bill] Dineen’s [sic] bat as harmless as a robin at play until [Beaneaters third baseman Jimmy] Collins reached for it, when it jumped to one side and was safe.”

Although it stands as a no-hitter, the game’s box score in the Globe indicates a hit for Dinner.  Further, a headline for Murnane’s story states, “Only One Hit Off Willis in the Full Nine Innings.”

Boston beat Washington 7-1.  Murnane wrote, “The visitors scored their only run in the first, on two bases on balls, [Beaneaters catcher Marty] Bergen’s side throw to second and a putout.”

In 1899, Willis had the best Earned Run Average in the major leagues—2.50.

“Tall, graceful workhorse with sweeping curve” is the description of Willis on his Hall of Fame plaque.  Workhorse, indeed.  Willis scored at least 20 wins eight times.  In 1902, Willis led the major leagues in:

  • Games pitched (51)
  • Games started (46)
  • Complete games (45)
  • Innings pitched (410)
  • Saves (3)
  • Batters faced (1,652)
  • Strikeouts (225)

In addition to Willis, the Hall of Fame inducted Richie Ashburn, Leon Day, William Hulbert, and Mike Schmidt in 1995.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 19, 2016.

New Jersey’s Major League Teams

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

New Jersey, sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, divides its baseball loyalties, typically, with the top half of the state rooting for the former’s teams and the bottom half for the latter’s.  Briefly, on two occasions, the Garden State had a major league team of its own.

In 1873, the Elizabeth Resolutes played in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, which existed from 1871 to 1875.  Also known as the National Association, it was a precursor to the National League, which débuted in 1876.  Disputes concerning the NA’s status as a “major league” continue amongst historians, scholars, and enthusiasts.  But for the purpose the Elizabeth squad’s story here, it shall be considered a “major league.”

Playing home games in Waverly Fairgrounds—a product of the imagination, expertise, and dedication of agriculturalist James Jay Mapes—the Resolutes compiled a 2-21 record, failing to draw crowds necessary to sustain appeal.  In the June 21, 1873 edition of the New York Times, an article highlighted a deficit in marketing efforts as the culprit:  “The game between the Mutuals, of this City, and the Resolutes, of Elizabeth, N.J., which was played on the Union Grounds yesterday afternoon, was very poorly advertised, and consequently poorly attended, there not being more than 500 persons present.”  The Mutuals pounded the Resolutes, winning the game 9-1.

Hugh Campbell pitched both victories for the Resolutes in 1873.  Compiled and edited by David Nemec, the book Major League Profiles: 187-1900, Volume 1, The Ballplayers Who Built the Game, highlights Hugh Campbell’s major league genesis:  “In several 1872 exhibition games against NA teams Campbell had fared reasonably well.  These outings gave the Resolutes confidence that they could compete in the 1873 NA, but it was illusory.”

Campbell’s brother Mike played first base on the 1873 Elizabeth Resolutes; the Campbell brothers had also played together on amateur teams.

The Newark Pepper occupied a slot in the short-lived tenure of the Federal League, a third major league, which existed for two seasons—1914 and 1915.  The team originated in Indianapolis as the Hoosiers in 1914, won the Federal League championship, and migrated to Newark for the 1915 season under the auspices of team owner Harry F. Sinclair, an oil and banking magnate.  Sinclair had been a principal owner in Indianapolis.  He bought the remainder of the team after the 1914 season concluded.

Future Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie played third base for Newark and managed the team for part of the season, achieving a 54-45 record.  He was 27 years old.  McKechnie’s managerial career included pennants with the Pirates, the Cardinals, and the Reds—he is the only manager to win pennants on three different National League teams.  With World Series titles for the ’25 Pirates and the ’40 Reds, McKechnie became the first manager to win a World Series championship with two teams.

Edd Roush, another Hall of Famer, played outfield for the 1915 Pepper.  In 1962, the Hall of Fame inducted McKechnie and Roush, along with Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 9, 2015.

The Innovative Charles Comiskey

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Decades before he elevated to the executive suite as owner of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey pioneered a fielding concept during his playing days.  Or so the legend goes.

After Comiskey died in 1931, a series of Chicago Daily Tribune articles examined his life, focusing, in part, on his playing and managing tenures.  In the article “Comiskey Worked as Train Butcher to Play Ball,” Irving Vaughan wrote of the 1880 season in Dubuque, “Commy conceived the notion that there was more to first basing than anybody had as yet realized.  He and Manager Ted Sullivan discussed the theory that a first baseman’s defensive value could be doubled if he could move away from the bag, thus protecting much of the vacant territory between first and second.  They put the theory to a practical test and found it a success.  That is, it was successful except in one particular.

“Commy discovered that by playing away from the bag he was able to field batted balls which ordinarily would have been safe hits.  But he couldn’t get over to the bag in time to retire the runner.  Necessity being the mother of invention, he and Sullivan figured out that a pitcher could cover the base.  After experimenting on this feature they decided it couldn’t fail.”

On the other hand, baseball historian David Nemec offers a contrasting view of Comiskey’s contribution to the first base position.  In Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2, Nemec stated, “Historians traditionally have credited Comiskey with pioneering techniques such as playing a considerable distance off the bag, stretching to receive wide or high throws, and having the pitcher cover first on ground balls to the right side of the infield, but while none of these techniques was actually invented by him, his success at employing them popularized them to the extent that defensive play at 1B swiftly began to evolve into a more sophisticated style once he appeared on the scene.”

As a player-manager for the St. Louis Browns, Comiskey led his team to four straight American Association championships in the 1880s.  Moreover, he reshaped the team’s image.  “Under Comiskey’s strong hand the Browns shed their reputation solely as drunks and troublemakers and created a disciplined, aggressive squad that would win AA championships in his first four full seasons at their helm,” noted Nemec.

Comiskey embraced pugnacity as part of his style, though.  “Charlie Comiskey, the manager and first baseman for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, was a mild-mannered, cerebral man off the field, but on the field, he could act like a common thug,” described Peter Golenbock in The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns.  “He played the game with a controlled aggression designed to ground the opposition into dust.  His focus was on victory, and he never permitted anyone to lose sight of the fact that he was there for one reason only: to win.”

In turn, the team’s performance reflected Comiskey’s leadership.  Golenbock stated, “Comiskey encouraged his players to try to intimidate the opposition any way they could.  He was a nineteenth-century role model for Leo Durocher and Billy Martin.  He encouraged his players to knock over an opponent in the field or on the base paths, and if you didn’t like it, that was just too bad.  On the base paths, Comiskey was a terror.  In one game against Cincinnati, Comiskey threw himself into second baseman John “Bid” McPhee, causing him to throw wild to first, enabling the winning run to score.  Ty Cobb, who came to the game twenty years later with a similar nasty disposition, had nothing on Comiskey.

“His players followed his example.  The next day Curt Welch did the same thing, throwing himself at McPhee ‘as if hurled from a catapult,’  Said Welch, ‘Well, we’re playing ball to win.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 19, 2015.

Morgan Bulkeley, the Hartford Dark Blues, and the Birth of the National League

Sunday, December 11th, 2016

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the character of Malvolio says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

By a conventional wisdom paradigm, Morgan Bulkeley fell into all three categories.

Bulkeley was born into greatness by virtue of the stature that ran through the blue blood of his prominent Connecticut family.  With the Mayflower’s voyage in his family tree, the Bulkeleys enjoyed a rarefied lineage.  Bulkeley’s father, Eliphalet Bulkeley, wielded connections to the power structure in Connecticut’s Republican party through employment as judge, a state senator, and a state’s attorney.  He also co-founded the Aetna Life Insurance Company and served as its first president.

Bulkeley achieved greatness by furthering the family’s political legacy in staking out political territory of his own:

  • Mayor of Hartford for four terms (1880 to 1888)
  • Governor of Connecticut for two terms (1889 to 1893)
  • U.S. Senator for one term (1905 to 1911)

Additionally, Bulkeley became the third president of Aetna, a position he held for more than 40 years, until his death.

Bulkeley had greatness thrust upon him by luck dictating the responsibility, honor, and prestige of the National League’s inaugural presidency in 1876.  Sort of.

With other members of Hartford’s elite, Bulkeley formed the Hartford Dark Blues, which played in the National Association in 1874 and 1875.  When the NA folded after the 1875 season, its demise created a void for professional baseball.  The Dark Blues received an invitation to be one of eight charter members in the nascent National League, set to début in 1876.  “Hartford owed its selection over larger New Haven to the substantial reputation of Bulkeley and his fellow Hartford shareholders, the strength of their team, and the financial reliability they had demonstrated in two NA seasons,” explained David Nemec in Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2: The Hall of Famers and Memorable Personalities Who Shaped the Game.

Bulkeley’s one-year presidential reign was neither significant nor outstanding.  Its greatness, therefore, may be a matter of opinion.  A pro-Bulkeley argument rests on the thesis that Bulkeley provided baseball with a necessary image of honor, respect, and stability to contradict the edgier parts of a game that was, in some cases, far removed from the 19th century pastoral activity depicted in the iconic Currier & Ives painting of a Hoboken baseball game—rowdiness, gambling, and liquor pervaded a game that struggled toward growth, organization, and prosperity.

Representing the Chicago White Stockings, another National League charter member, William Hulbert was a primary force in creating the new league.  Hubert signed marquee pitcher Albert Spalding, the future sporting goods mogul.  They endorsed Bulkeley’s rank in the National League hierarchy.  Bulkeley’s biography on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site states, “A drawing was held to determine the first president of the new league, and Bulkeley’s name emerged first.  This sat well with William Hulbert and Albert Spalding of Chicago, who saw in him the integrity and character needed to drive the league’s acceptance.”

It is a matter of debate concerning Bulkeley receiving the presidency through a drawing, describes Nemec: “Whether the directors were actually chosen by lot or Hulbert deliberately engineered their selection, all of its members could probably have seen as well as Hulbert that Bulkeley was a natural choice for the presidency as an easterner who was personally respected but did not represent one of the traditional powers of eastern baseball.  The office was essentially an honorific one, at any rate.  All the president did was preside at meetings.”

Even so, Bulkeley’s aristocratic image cannot be ignored.  Figureheads can be useful in projecting a reputation of solidity, value, and importance.  Bulkeley was a critical component in helping the National League build a foundation for a sustainable enterprise.  His baseball days ended, however, shortly after his National League presidency.

In 1877, the Dark Blues played their home games in Brooklyn.  It was their last season.  Consequently, Bulkeley’s pursuits did not include further baseball opportunities until he joined the Mills Commission in 1905 to ascertain baseball’s origins.  It labeled Abner Doubleday as baseball’s creator, a mistake rectified in later decades by numerous baseball historians.

Morgan Bulkeley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2014.