Posts Tagged ‘Most Valuable Player’

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.

Boog Powell’s MVP Season

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A native of Key West—the place where Pan Am began, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from on its last journey before exploding in Havana Harbor, and Ernest Hemingway maintained a legendary home—John Wesley Powell, also known as Boog, spent most of his 17-season career in an Orioles uniform.  One of those seasons—1970—resulted in him winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award.

Powell ran away with the MVP voting, gaining 11 of 24 first-place votes and 234 points.  The next four contestants weren’t even close:

  • Tony Oliva, Minnesota Twins (157)
  • Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins (152)
  • Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (136)
  • Frank Howard, Washington Senators (91)

Memorial Stadium rocked with the cheers of Oriole Nation as Powell marched toward the coveted .300 batting average barrier, falling just short at .297.  Powell’s dominance at the plate reflected in 35 home runs, 114 RBI, and a .549 slugging percentage.

It was a banner year for Baltimore’s birds—they won the World Series after getting upset by the Miracle Mets in 1969.  Powell’s fellow Orioles did not fare as well with awards, despite outstanding seasons.  Baltimore’s legendary pitching staff boasted three 20-game winners—Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Jim Palmer scored in the top five for the American League Cy Young Award voting, but got eclipsed by Jim Perry of the Twins.

Powell said, “I think it’s a shame we were neglected for the other awards.  All of our three pitchers certainly deserved the Cy Young.  But I’m still elated at being chosen the MVP.  I feel it’s the highest honor in sports.”

Yankee skipper Ralph Houk won the American League Manager of the Year title rather than Earl Weaver, who helmed the O’s to two straight World Series.  A third consecutive appearance happened against the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’71—ultimately a losing affair in seven games.

Cheers, an NBC prime time powerhouse in the 1980s, used Powell to cement verisimilitude of Sam “Mayday” Malone—a fictional relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a recovering alcoholic, and the owner of Cheers.  As the show’s theme song declares, Cheers is a bar, near the Boston Commons, where everybody knows your name.

In the first season episode “Sam at Eleven,” Sam’s former ballplayer pal Dave Richards, now a sportscaster, wants to interview the ex-Red Sox reliever at Cheers.  Sam talks about a dramatic moment when he faced Powell in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a doubleheader.  During the middle of Sam’s story, Dave abandons for an interview with John McEnroe.  Diane Chambers, an intellectual waitress having an undercurrent of highly significant sexual tension with Sam, which gets resolved in a later episode when they succumb to their respective differences—he, a dumb jock stereotype and she, a condescending sort—asks what happened to “the Boog person” and Sam, obviously suffering from a punch to his ego, casually tells her that Powell grounded to third to end the game.

After some gentle and not-so-gentle verbal prodding from Diane, Sam talks about the injury to his psyche.  Then, perhaps in a moment of catharsis, he tells Diane about the end of the second game, which also found him facing Powell in the bottom of the ninth.

Sam’s story could not have taken place during Powell’s MVP year, however.  When Cheers left prime time in 1993, after 11 seasons, Sports Illustrated ran a biography of America’s favorite barkeep.  “Everybody Knows His Name” recounted Malone’s career based on dialogue throughout the series.  Sam Malone entered professional baseball in 1966, débuted in the major leagues in 1972, and ended his career in 1978.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 15, 2016.

Reggie Hits No. 500

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Reggie Jackson was the King Midas of baseball.  Everything he touched turned to gold.

The Kansas City A’s had a 62-99 record in 1967, Jackson’s rookie season.  But Jackson only played in 35 games.  When he became a starter, the A’s won three World Series championships, never had a losing season, and enjoyed the “dynasty” label.  In 1973, Jackson won the Most Valuable Player Award, an honor duplicated in 1977, during his Yankee tenure.

Jackson left the A’s after the 1975 season, spent a year with the Orioles, then played for the Yankees in a five-year run that resulted in two World Series championships.  In the 1977 World Series, Jackson hit three home runs in one game.  Celebrations in the South Bronx could be heard from Manhattan to Montauk.

When his sting in the South Bronx ended, Jackson landed in Anaheim, where he bid farewell to baseball after the 1987 season.  Jackson reached a milestone in an Angels uniform, smacking his 500th home run on September 17, 1984.  It elevated Jackson into the pantheon of the 500 Club, whose membership to date consisted of Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Willie McCovey, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Jimmie Foxx.

Jackson’s dinger contributed the only run in a 10-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals.  There was a circular quality to the moment.  Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times noted that Jackson hit his first major league home run against the Angels and his 500th in Kauffman Stadium, where he played for the Kansas City A’s, long since transported to Oakland.  Additionally, the 500th home run happened on the 17th anniversary of the first time Jackson went yard.

Gerald Scott of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jackson about the pitch:  “I was very, very elated going around the bases.  I said thanks (to myself) to Bud Black because he’d given me a pitch to hit.

“It was a 7-0 (lead) pitch.  It was a ‘room service’ fastball.  I just wish we could’ve been winning.  I wish it could’ve been a seven-run homer.”

Black, a formidable hurler for the Royals, compiled a 17-12 record, 3.12 ERA, and 140 strikeouts in 1984.  Jackson’s home run was one of 22 that Black allowed in the year that saw the débuts of the Huxtable family, a Beverly Hills cop named Axel Foley, and undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs working for the Miami Police Department’s Vice Division.

Jackson had signed with the Angels after Yankee owner George Steinbrenner did not guarantee the slugger a place in the starting lineup as an outfielder.  It is a good bet that the Yankees would have continued Jackson’s recent role as a designated hitter.

Joseph Durso of the New York Times reported on Jackson’s optimism upon closing the the deal with Angels owner Gene Autry.  “I’m very happy to join a club that really seemed to pursue me and wanted me,” said Jackson.  “With the Angels, I get a chance to play.  I guess with everything being equal, the most difficult decision for me was whether to go to Baltimore or California.  Both clubs have really fine people.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 12, 2016.

Beyond 61*

Monday, February 13th, 2017

When Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle battled for supremacy in the single-season home run category in 1961, the spotlight that shone on them placed the excellence of the Yankee ball club in the shadows.  Elston Howard had a career high .348 batting average, Whitey Ford went 25-4, and Tony Kubek accrued a 19-game hitting streak in June.  Ford won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award for his outstanding performance—the left-handed hurler won two games and blanked the Reds for 14 innings.

Kubek praised Howard—the first black player for the Yankees—in an assignment for Time magazine.  He took on the task of photographing his teammates during spring training and opining on them.  “What won us the pennant was Whitey Ford,” declared Kubek.  “[Manager] Ralph Houk and [pitching coach] Johnny Sain decided that he would pitch every fourth day, and he ended up winning the Cy Young, with a 25-4 record.  Elston Howard called him the Chairman of the Board, and in 1961—when we were coming off that crushing loss to the Pirates in the 1960 Series—that’s exactly what he was.  Whitey was the real deal.”

Kubek was an unsung Yankee, earning respect within the clubhouse and on the diamond for his leadership.  It was something the press either ignored or overlooked.  In the 1975 book Dynasty:  The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock wrote, “Kubek shunned publicity and for years even refused to appear on the Red Barber postgame shows.  Though Kubek was the heart of the Yankee infield for half a dozen season, his reticent made him almost invisible in the media, and his complete absence of flair or color prevented him from attaining the recognition of some of his equally talented teammates.”

Additionally, Golenbock noted, “Kubek was a player everyone took for granted, and his true value was ascertained only after he retired in 1965.”

In the 1961 Sport magazine article “Have the Yankees Held Back Howard?” by Barry Stainback, Howard attributed his power to batting coach Wally Moses.  “We decided in the spring that I ought to close my stance and ease up on my swing, I was swinging my head off the ball,” explained Howard.  “Moses told me to swing with my arms—use my wrists—not my body.  I also began using a heavier bat, a 36-inch, 35-ounce one.  I used to use a 33-ounce one.”

Ford led his fellow pitchers in pinstripes as they overwhelmed the American League:

  • Bill Stafford (14-9)
  • Ralph Terry (16-3)
  • Rollie Sheldon (11-5)
  • Luis Arroyo (15-5)
  • Jim Coates (11-5)

The Yankees won the American League title with an eight-game cushion to distance themselves from the Detroit Tigers.  Another World Series championship followed when the Bronx Bombers beat the Reds in five games.  Golenbock surmised, “It is doubtful that any team in baseball history, with perhaps the 1927 Yankees the exception, could have beaten them in this world series [sic], the quality of Yankee play from both regulars and substitutes was so incredibly good.  The 1961 team was a most awesome machine.”

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

Rusty Staub: Bonus Baby

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

When Daniel Joseph Staub signed a major league contract, he fell under the “bonus baby” nomenclature.  Nicknamed “Rusty” by a nurse upon his birth on April 1, 1944, Staub became so known.  In a 1967 article for Sports Illustrated, Gary Ronberg cited Staub’s mother in revealing the story behind the dubbing:  “‘I wanted to name him Daniel so I could call him Danny for short,’ said Mrs. Staub, who is, of course, Irish.  ‘But one of the nurses nicknamed him Rusty for the red fuzz he had all over his head, and it stuck.'”

Staub, all of 17 years old, signed with the nascent Houston Colt .45s in 1961 as an amateur free agent while the team prepared for its 1962 début.  In his Houston Post column “Post Time,” Clark Nealon used the Post‘s February 26, 1962 edition to highlight Staub.  Quoting Brooklyn Dodgers icon Babe Herman, Nealon wrote, “He runs well, handles himself well, has good hands.  He needs some work in the field, but that’ll come.  I like the way he swings the bat.”

Playing with the Durham Bulls in ’62, Staub hit 23 home runs, compiled a .293 batting average, and won the Carolina League’s Most Valuable Player award.  In 1963, Staub elevated to Houston for his first major league season—he played in 150 games, batted .224, hit six home runs.  A stay with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1964 provided seasoning for the red-haired bonus baby—Staub tore apart the Pacific Coast League with a .334 batting average after 60 games.

In the September 19, 1964 Sporting News article “Return of Rusty:  Staub Rides Hot Bat Back to .45s,” Bob Dellinger reasoned, “Staub, perhaps the No. 1 boy in Houston’s renowned youth movement was farmed to the Class AAA club in mid-July with a double-dip objective.  First, he could play every day and perhaps build up his confidence at the plate; second, he could gain valuable defensive training in the outfield.”

Further, Dellinger exposed Staub’s perception of the demotion to the minor leagues:  “Sometimes it seems like the world is coming to an end, but maybe it just starts over.  I believe I will be back—better prepared physically and mentally.”

Staub played in a little more than half of Houston’s games in 1964, garnering a .216 batting average.  His performance at the plate improved for the remainder of his Houston tenure—batting averages of .256, .280, .333, and .291.  Staub also played for the Expos, the Mets, the Tigers, and the Rangers in his major league career, which ended after the 1985 season.  His time in an Expos uniform began with the team’s inaugural season—1969—and lasted three years; he also played part of the 1979 season in Montreal.  Upon arrival, Staub enjoyed a newfound respect.  In his 2014 book Up, Up & Away:  The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, Jonah Keri explained, “They urged Staub to become the face of the team, and an ambassador to the community.  This was a challenge he happily embraced.

“Staub’s first step was to learn to speak French—some French anyway, somewhere between knowing what his own nickname meant and true fluency.  He’d go out to lunch with francophone friends and insist that they speak French the whole meal.”

Montreallians bestowed the nickname “Le Grand Orange” upon Staub.

A New Orleans native, Staub was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 12, 2016.

Willie Mays Returns to New York

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

On May 25, 1951, Willie Mays played in his first major league game.  19 years and 50 weeks later, Mays returned to the city that embraced his early career.

Entering the major leagues with the New York Giants under the managerial reign of Leo Durocher, Mays became a model of excellence in ability, knowledge, and behavior.  In his 1975 autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last—written with Ed Linn—Durocher wrote, “Every day with Mays I would come to the ball park, pick up the lineup card and write his name in.  Willie Mays was never sick, he was never hurt, he never had a bellyache, he never had a toothache, he never had a headache.  He came to the park every day to put on the uniform and play.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, Willie Mays became a favorite son of the Bay Area, with a metropolitan synonymity as as powerful as cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Spencer Tracy jokes that Willie Mays could get elected Mayor of San Francisco.

Mays’s term with the New York/San Francisco Giants brought 12 Gold Gloves, two Most Valuable Player Awards, and 18 All-Star Game appearances.  On May 11, 1971, the Giants and the New York Mets secured a deal that traded Mays to the Mets for Charlie Williams and a reported figure of $100,000.  Willie Mays back in a New York uniform ignited an inferno of nostalgia for the city’s glory days of the 1950s, when three teams ruled Gotham baseball.  In the New York Times, Red Smith acknowledged the questionable value of a trade, given Mays’s subpar batting average (below .200) and age (41).  “It can be justified only on sentimental grounds and if the deal comes off, God bless [Mets majority owner] Joan Payson.  The name-calling and hair-pulling during the players’ strike, the prolonged bitterness over Curt Flood’s challenge to the reserve system, and the corrosive effects of Charley Finley’s haggling with Vida Blue have created a crying need for some honest sentiment in baseball.”

Additionally, Smith noted, Giants owner Horace Stoneham valued Mays, so a trade for the superstar hinged on protecting him.  “Anybody who knows Stoneham knows he would not trade Mays unless he believed it would benefit Willie as well as the Giants.”  Mays, in turn, voiced esteem for his boss during the press conference announcing the trade.  Times reporter Steve Lady recounted Mays’s response when a reporter questioned “The Say Hey Kid” about possible bitterness towards Stoneham:  “Bitterness?  What do you mean?  How could I have any bitterness for this man who is seeing that I’m taken care of after my playing days are over?  A lot of ballplayers play 20 years and come out with nothing.”  Regarding the city that launched his career, Mays said, “When you come back to New York, it’s like coming back to paradise.”

Contrariwise, in his 1988 autobiography Say Hey:  The Autobiography of Willie Mays—written with Lou Sahadi—Mays revealed his initial disappointment.  “My first reaction was anger at Stoneham,” wrote Mays.  “What happened to that family atmosphere he had always spoken of?  I couldn’t accept the fact that he hadn’t called me when he was working out the details.  Later, he explained to me he was losing money and would sell the club soon, but before he did, he wanted to make sure my future was secure.  Whatever feelings I had felt for him over the years, at that moment I felt betrayed.”

Security proved to be a factor in the trade of the aging icon, indeed.  Associated Press reported, “No specific terms of the deal to bring Mays to the Mets were revealed at the Shea Stadium conference but [minority owner and Chairman M. Donald] Grant said part of the package included a job for Mays in the New York organization after he retires as an active player.”  Joseph Durso of the Times reported, “Besides assuming his current salary, the Mets agreed to keep him for at least three years as a coach at $75,000 a year after he quits playing—which presumably could be at the end of this season or next.”

Despite unwarranted statistics, Mays attained selection for and played in the 1972 and 1973 All-Star Games.  Once fleet of foot with speed that struck terror into fielders trying to throw him out, Willie Howard Mays evidenced his age during the 1973 World Series, which the Mets lost to the Oakland A’s in seven games.  Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote, “What you can say is that he looked every bit of his 42 years and had people feeling sorry for him as he floundered around under two fly balls in the sun.  And you can say that he battled back to drive in the go ahead run off Rollie Fingers as the Mets scored four runs and punched out a 10-7 victory over the A’s in game No. 2 here Sunday.”

Mays also ran into problems on the base paths; Mets manager Yogi Berra designated Mays as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub in the top of the ninth inning with the Mets ahead 6-3.  John Milner singled, but Mays “got his legs twisted and sprawled helplessly on the ground making his turn around the bag,” reported UPI.  “Mays should’ve easily made third on the blow but, after his mishap, all he could do was half-crawl, half-fall back safely into second.”

In the 12th inning, Mays knocked in the game-winning RBI; it was appropriate, somehow destined, that “The Say Hey Kid” finished the 12-inning affair with redemption, giving baseball fans a last glimpsed of greatness.

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

1957 American League MVP Controversy

Friday, January 6th, 2017

One was a lanky outfielder whose presence in the batter’s box automatically elicited cheers from the Fenway Faithful.  The other, a mainstay in pinstripes, compiling legendary statistics while riddled by injuries throughout his career.

Ted Williams.  Mickey Mantle.

Coming off his Triple Crown season of 1956, Mantle won the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award.  But the Yankee slugger from Commerce, Oklahoma didn’t think he had a shot compared to the venerable outfielder who wore #9 for the Red Sox.  “Mantle Felt Williams Won Award With East” blared the headline at the top of an Associated Press story in the Boston Globe, underscoring the confusion of many—and the resentment in Red Sox Nation—concerning Mantle’s achievement.

In 1957, Williams led the American League in Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage; Mantle led in Runs and Walks while achieving a .365 batting average, second to Williams’s .388.  According to the calculations of baseball-reference.com, Mantle dominated Wins Above Replacement (WAR) categories, placing first in WAR-Position Players, WAR-Offensive War, and War-All.  Williams trailed in second place.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America bestowed the MVP honor after the tallying of votes belonging to a tribunal of 24 scribes ended in an overall score.  Mantle led his American League peers with six votes for first place, resulting in a score of 233.  Williams followed with a 209 score, supported by five votes for first place.  The next highest score—204—belonged to Roy Sievers, a formidable run producer garnering four first place MVP votes with the last place Washington Senators; Sievers led the American League in Home Runs and Runs Batted In.  Other contenders included Nellie Fox with five first place votes and Gil McDougald with four.

Williams’s bristly relationship with the press may have influenced the balloting.  Harold Rosenthal of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “The face for first would have been an eyelash proposition if personalities hadn’t entered into the balloting.  On two ballots Williams dre no better than a ninth and a tenth, a flagrant abuse of the electorate.”

Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey concurred, offering praise of the Yankee centerfielder while protecting the Splendid Splinter.  Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Daily Globe wrote, “Yawkey pointed out he admired Mantle as a wonderful ball player but stated that anyone who allows ‘personalities’ to enter into his voting should not be allowed to vote.”

Williams, as the numbers showed, had the respect of all but those two voters assigning him a ninth place vote and a tenth place vote—this, despite a season of stellar statistics.  Hurwitz commented, “There is little question—not only with the fans—but with more than 90 percent of the committee—that Williams didn’t belong lower than fourth place on any ballot.  Twenty-two of the 24 voters had Ted first, second, third or fourth.”

A media conspiracy theory concerning the 1957 American League Most Valuable Player Award offers lucrative fodder for debate amongst baseball enthusiasts, especially those in Boston and the Bronx.  Williams received laughter from the audience at his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, when he poked fun at his relationship with the press, followed by his appreciation:  “I received two hundred and eighty-odd votes from the writers.  I know I didn’t have two hundred and eighty-odd close friends among the writers.  I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on October 14, 2015.

Stan Musial’s Three MVP Awards

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Stan Musial is a St. Louis icon and a national treasure, ranking with the Gateway Arch, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and Campbell House Museum.  Without flash, Musial carved a career of steadiness, superiority, and significance.  From 1941 to 1963, excluding 1945 for military service, Musial garnered:

  • 3,630 hits
  • 475 home runs
  • 725 doubles
  • 177 triples
  • Nearly 2,000 runs scored
  • 20 consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game
  • .331 career batting average

It’s a template by which brilliance in the batter’s box may be measured.

Stan Musial died on January 19, 2013 at the age of 92, prompting the requisite obituaries soaked with nostalgia for an era before free agency, television contracts measured by a dollar sign plus nine numbers, and World Series games played only in prime time.

“He was easily the greatest player St. Louis has ever had, and he was properly feted as a living legend in Cardinal country,” wrote Cliff Corcoran in the article “Musial deserves to be remembered as one of baseball’s best” for Sports Illustrated‘s web site on January 20, 2013.  “To the rest of the United States however, his modest, jovial nature seemed to undermine his importance.  In his later years he was seen as a kindly old man in a red blazer, always quick with a smile and his harmonica, but he never demanded the reverence of surly legends like Williams and DiMaggio, or tragic figures like Mantle and Clemente, or icons of struggle and defiance like Aaron and Mays.  It probably didn’t help that the enduring image of Musial from his playing days was not one of power or grace but of his unusual hunchbacked batting stance.”

The kid from Donora, Pennsylvania achieved an honor reserved for a rarefied few.  And he did it three times in the same decade.  Musial won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1943, 1946, and 1948.  His first award crowned a season of leading the major leagues in key categories:

  • Hits (220)
  • Doubles (48)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.357)

Further, he only struck out 18 times in 700 plate appearances.

In 1946, the first year for Major League Baseball after World War II, Musial earned his second dubbing as MVP for the senior circuit after leading the major leagues in three of the same categories:

  • Hits (228)
  • Triples (20)
  • Batting average (.365)

Facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals won in seven games, but they did it without Musial’s formidable bat.  “Neither Stan Musial nor Red Schoendiesnt matched his work at the plate during the season, but Harry Walker, a .237 hitter during the year, hit .412 in the Series, and the catching duo of Joe Garagiola and Del Rice combined for a .360 average after batting a joint .250 during the season,” wrote Jerome M. Mileur in his 2014 book The Stars Are Back: The St. Louis Cardinals, the Boston Red Sox, and Player Unrest in 1946.

Musial earned his third MVP distinction with a dominant performance repeating his leadership in all the categories from his 1943 feat:

  • Hits (230)
  • Doubles (46)
  • Triples (18)
  • Batting average (.376)

1948 was also a turning point in Musial’s career.  In his 2011 book Stan Musial: An American Life, George Vecsey wrote, “He had always been a hitter.  In 1948, Musial became a slugger.”

Vecsey added, “Suddenly Stan Musial could hit home runs.  He had come up to the majors as an insecure stripling, slapping at the ball to avoid being exposed and shipped back to Donora.  Then during the war, to satisfy the admirals and the sailors in Pearl Harbor, he had exaggerated his crouch, stayed in it longer, and swung for the fences.  Now, after [Cardinals team physician] Dr. [Robert] Hyland removed his appendix and tonsils in October 1947, Musial began hitting the ball farther, more often.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on June 8, 2015.

Harmon Killebrew, Lew Burdette, and the Red Seat

Friday, December 9th, 2016

When Harmon Killebrew died in 2011, obituaries recalled the statement of former Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards:  “Killebrew can knock the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.”

Killebrew’s power resulted in 573 home runs in a 22-year career spanning 1954 to 1975.  Beginning his career with the Washington Senators, Killebrew did not see much playing time in his early years.  Between 1954 and 1958, he played in 113 games, hit 11 home runs, and smacked 57 hits.

In 1959, however, Killebrew’s career launched with enough power to ignite the rockets in NASA’s nascent Mercury program—he was an All-Star, playing in 153 games, smashing 42 home runs, and notching 105 RBI; Killebrew played in 13 All-Star games in his career.

The Washington Senators transported to Minnesota after the 1960 season and became the Twins.  Killebrew, in turn, became a folk hero to the Twin Cities metropolitan region.  “You can’t put into words the depth of Killebrew’s meaning to the Twins and to baseball fans in Minnesota,” wrote Scott Miller in “Killebrew was no ‘Killer,’ except when it came to slugging,” Killebrew’s obituary for CBSSports.com.  Killebrew played the last year of his career for the Kansas City Royals.

Metropolitan Stadium, the home field for the Twins during Killebrew’s reign of terror on American League pitching, succumbed to the domed stadium craze started by the Houston Astrodome in the mid-1960s.  The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis débuted in 1982, serving as the new home for the Twins and the Minnesota Vikings.  Consequently, developers razed Metropolitan Stadium.  Located in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb, the stadium site provided fertile ground for a shopping mall—the Mall of America.

On a wall at the MOA, a red seat from Metropolitan Stadium marks an example of Killebrew’s power.  With two outs in the 4th inning of the June 3, 1967 game against the California Angels, cleanup hitter Killebrew went yard with second baseman Rod Carew and third baseman Rich Rollins—the #2 and #3 hitters in the Twins lineup—on base.  Killebrew’s three-run homer created a moment that endures for Twin Cities baseball.  It landed 522 feet into the spot now occupied by the seat; some sources put the distance at 520 feet.  It’s the longest home run at Metropolitan Stadium.

Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1984, Killebrew holds the distinction of being the first Twin honored in the hallowed corridors of Cooperstown.  Lew Burdette, the answer to the “Who threw the pitch?” trivia question, finished his career with the Angels in 1966 and 1967, appearing as a relief pitcher.

Burdette had a role in another iconic game.  On May 26, 1959, Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a game against the Milwaukee Braves,  Burdette matched Haddix for the number of innings, though not perfectly; the Braves ace scattered 12 hits, struck out two Pirates, and scored a victory for the Braves when Joe Adcock hit a solo home run in the 13th inning.

The 1957 World Series was Burdette’s apex.  After a 17-9 season for the Braves, Burette pitched three complete games against the New York Yankees, including two shutouts.  His exploits earned him the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 27, 2014.

The Hall of Fame Case for Mickey Lolich

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

Consistency is the yardstick by which excellence is measured.  Mickey Lolich, a Detroit baseball icon, demonstrated consistency, ergo, excellence in a pitching career that, perhaps surprisingly, has not yet warranted admittance to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Lolich was a perfect fit for the blue-collar metropolis that defined American industry in the 20th century by churning out Cadillacs, Buicks, Chevrolets, Fords, Chryslers, and Pontiacs.  Performing his pitching tasks with efficiency, aplomb, and reliability, Lolich emblemized the work ethic of Detroit’s working class demographic.  Do the job.  Do it well.  Do the same thing tomorrow.

Lolich had six straight seasons of at least 200 strikeouts; in 1971, he led the American League in strikeouts with 308.  Tom Seaver, the National League leader, trailed Lolich with 289 strikeouts.  Additionally, Lolich pitched 376 innings in 1971, the most in the major leagues since Grover Cleveland Alexander’s 388 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1917.

In a career spanning 1963 to 1979, with a hiatus in 1977, Lolich had a career win-loss record of 217-191. Though Lolich’s victory total is far from the magic number of 300, he recorded other achievements meriting consideration for Cooperstown.  Lolich tallied 2,832 strikeouts, just shy of the gloried 3,000 plateau.  With a career total of 586 games pitched, one additional strikeout every 3.5 games would have launched Lolich into the vaunted 3K pantheon.  Still, the 2,832 number is impressive, giving Lolich the distinction of being the pitcher with the 18th highest number of career strikeouts, more than Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Dazzy Vance, Early Wynn, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter.

Using Hunter and Drysdale as a basis, a Lolich analysis reveals comparable statistics.

Years Played
Hunter 1965-1979
Drysdale 1956-1969
Lolich 1963-1979
Games Pitched
Hunter 500
Drysdale 518
Lolich 586
Career Victories
Hunter 224
Drysdale 209
Lolich 217
Career Winning Percentage
Hunter .574
Drysdale .557
Lolich .532
Home Runs Against
Hunter 374
Drysdale 280
Lolich 347
Earned Run Average
Hunter 3.26
Drysdale 2.95
Lolich 3.44

Stacked against Drysdale in ERA and Home Runs Against, Lolich falls shorts.  He has eight more career victories than Drysdale, but he played in nearly 70 more games.  Compared to Hunter, Lolich played in 86 more games and notched only seven less career victories.  One can argue that Lolich had more opportunities for victory but didn’t deliver.  On the other hand, Lolich’s endurance is a factor to consider.

In 1968, the Detroit Tigers won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  Game Seven paired Lolich and Cardinals powerhouse Bob Gibson in a battle of pitching titans.  Lolich secured a victory, notching 3-0 in the ’68 series to cap his 17-9 record.  Naturally, Lolich won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.  But he wasn’t the only force on Detroit’s pitching staff—Tigers ace Denny McLain conquered American League opponents, tallying a 31-6 record.  McLain is the last major league pitcher to win at least 30 games.