Posts Tagged ‘Yankees’

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.

What If the Dodgers Had Stayed in Brooklyn?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

What if the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn?  Further, what if migration in the modern era had never taken place, thereby forcing expansion in Kansas City, San Francisco, and other MLB cities.

My paradigm assumes the following:

  • Tampa, Toronto, Arizona, and Montreal do not have teams
  • A’s, Braves, Browns, Dodgers, and Senators stay in their original locations
  • The Giants move to Minneapolis after the 1957 season.
  • Team names reflect the location’s history and lore
    • Grizzly Bears:  California’s state animal
    • Conquistadors:  Group claiming Oakland for Spain’s king in the 1770s
    • Loggers:  Washington state’s rich logging history
    • Gold:  Northern California’s gold rush in the mid-19th century
    • Mountaineers:  Georgia’s magnificent mountains
    • Astronauts:  Houston’s fame as the home of NASA
    • Express:  Colorado’s key role in America’s railroad history

Expansion teams have their inaugural years in parentheses.

1961-1965

American League

Boston Red Sox
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
St. Louis Browns
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Washington Senators

National League

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals

1966-1975

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
Cleveland Indians
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League West

Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
St. Louis Browns
Texas Rangers (1966)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Cincinnati Reds
Denver Express (1966)
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League West

Chicago Cubs
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
Minnesota Giants
St. Louis Cardinals
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

1976-Present

American League East

Baltimore Orioles (1966)
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Philadelphia Athletics
Washington Senators

American League Central

Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Georgia Mountaineers (1966)
St. Louis Browns

American League West

Kansas City Royals (1966)
Los Angeles Angels (1961)
Oakland Conquistadors (1976)
San Francisco Gold (1961)
Texas Rangers (1976)

National League East

Boston Braves
Brooklyn Dodgers
Miami Marlins (1976)
Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates

National League Central

Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astronauts (1966)
Milwaukee Brewers (1961)
St. Louis Cardinals

National League West

Denver Express (1966)
Los Angeles Grizzly Bears (1961)
Minnesota Giants
San Diego Padres (1966)
Seattle Loggers (1966)

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

Strat-O-Matic Hall of Fame Game: 19th Century vs. Yankees

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

In a Strat-O-Matic matchup between 19th century and Yankee ballplayers, the latter emerged with a victory blessed by power—the Yankees smacked four home runs against John Clarkson and the 19th century squad in their 7-1 win.  Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle went yard back-to-back with solo home runs in the sixth inning; the other round trippers came off the bats of Joe Gordon and Yogi Berra.

To qualify for the teams, a player had to play at least five years for each classification—in the 19th century or with the Yankees.  The lineups were:

Yankees

  • Phil Rizzuto, Shortstop
  • Joe Gordon, Second Base
  • Lou Gehrig, First Base
  • Babe Ruth, Left Field
  • Mickey Mantle, Center Field
  • Reggie Jackson, Right Field
  • Wade Boggs, Third Base
  • Yogi Berra, Catcher
  • Jack Chesbro, Pitcher

19th Century

  • Bid McPhee, Second Base
  • Ed Delahanty, Left Field
  • Buck Ewing, Catcher
  • Hugh Duffy, Center Field
  • Dan Brothers, First Base
  • Hughie Jennings, Shortstop
  • King Kelly, Right Field
  • Jimmy Collins, Third Base
  • John Clarkson, Pitcher

Bid McPhee scored the only run for the 19th century players when Ed Delahanty doubled him home in the eighth inning.  McPhee’s Hall of Fame plaque notes career statistics:

  • .982 fielding average
  • 2,250 hits
  • Scored at least 100 runs 10 times.

Also highlighted are McPhee’s intangible qualities:  “Known for his sober disposition and exemplary sportsmanship.”

Clarkson notched five strikeouts of the Yankees:

  • Lou Gehrig (twice)
  • Jack Chesbro (twice)
  • Reggie Jackson (once)

A masterful hurler, Clarkson compiled a 328-178 win-loss record in his 19th century major league career.  In 1885 and 1889, he led the major leagues in victories with 53 and 49, respectively; Clarkson notched 38 victories to lead the American League in 1887.

Gordon went 2-for-5 on the day, his other hit being a single in the ninth inning.  In an 11-year career, Gordon made the American League All-Star team nine times.

Chesbro limited the 19th century batsmen to six hits.  Beginning his career with the Pirates in 1899, Chesbro spent four seasons in Pittsburgh before emigrating to the Yankees.  In 1904, he led the majors with 41 victories.  Finishing his career after the 1909 season, Chesbro’s career 198-132 win-loss record amounted to a winning percentage of .600.

King Kelly, a threat at home plate even if he were blindfolded, played for the Reds, the Cubs, the Beaneaters, and the Giants, in addition to the Boston Reds in the Players League’s only season—1890—and Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers the following year.  Kelly’s career spanned from 1878 to 1893.  Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945, Kelly’s career statistics include:

  • .308 batting average
  • 359 doubles
  • 418 strikeouts
  • 6,455 plate appearances

Reggie Jackson played for four teams in his Hall of Fame career:

  • A’s
  • Orioles
  • Yankees
  • Angels

During his five-year tenure with the Yankees, he played in three World Series, won two rings, and solidified a place in Yankee iconography when he smacked three home runs in one game in the 1977 World Series.

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

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.

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.

Hilltop Park’s First Game

Saturday, March 25th, 2017

Yankee history—a farrago of excellence, myth, and icons—began, in fact, in Baltimore.

After two seasons in the city abutting Chesapeake Bay—1901 and 1902—the Orioles departed for New York City, a result of Frank Farrell and Bill Devery buying the defunct operations for $18,000.  New York’s team became the Highlanders—later, the Yankees.  Baltimore, in turn, lacked a major league ball club until 1954, when the St. Louis Browns moved there; once again, the city boasted a team known as the Orioles.

Washington Heights in upper Manhattan hosted the Highlanders at the new stadium called American League Park; its location earned the label Hilltop Park.  On April 30, 1903, the Highlanders inaugurated their new home with a 6-2 victory over the Washington Senators.  Ban Johnson, the American League’s president, threw out the first ball.

Building the field was not, in any way, an endeavor easily accomplished.  “It wasn’t very impressive,” recounted Marty Appel in his 2012 chronicle Pinstripe Empire:  The New York Yankees form Before the Babe to After the Boss.  “It would be a haul for fans to get to this field, and they would expect something worthy of the journey, worthy of a paid admission.  The new team had to give them a product that felt big-time.  And the clock was ticking.”

Indeed, fans attending the Highlanders-Senators contest saw a field requiring attention.  “Although the stands have not yet been completed, the occupants of the half-finished structures seemed to be perfectly satisfied with the seating arrangements,” reported the New York Times.  “While the big gathering was not over demonstrative [sic], the absence of fault finding was in itself an assurance to the management that the patrons fully appreciated the difficulties which beset the new club and due credit was given to the almost herculean efforts of the officials who had accomplished so much in such a brief time.

“The diamond, newly sodded and rolled to perfection, was the only spot in the big field which could not be improved.”

Lacking the benefits of mass transit to the environs of the ballpark, fans nonetheless journeyed for a formidable turnout.  “When the game was called there were fully fifteen thousand people present, a remarkable number, considering that the rapid transit road will not be completed this season, and that the spectators had to come on surface lines,” stated the New York Herald Tribune.  The Times reported the attendance as 16,243.

Wee Willie Keeler scored three runs for New York’s nascent squad.  Highlanders hurler Jack Chesbro held the Zeusian power of Ed Delahanty in check by not allowing a hit for the Senators slugger; Delahanty led the American League in 1902 with a .376 batting average, in addition to leading the major leagues in doubles, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

The Highlanders left seven players on base.  The Senators, nine.  Elapsed time for the game stood at ninety minutes.

In their first season, the Highlanders drew more than 211,000 fans to place 7th of 8th in the American League.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 30, 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.

Beyond ’69

Monday, March 6th, 2017

When the New York Mets took the field for the first time, America was awash in a tidal wave of promise.  The year was 1962—John Glenn had become the first American to orbit the Earth, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had taken viewers on an unprecedented televised tour of the White House, and Dodger Stadium had marked a new standard for ballparks.

Respect eluded the nascent Mets, however.  Inheriting the Polo Grounds and the interlocking NY logo from the Giants—who abdicated New York City for San Francisco after the 1957 season—the Mets lost their first game.  It was, indeed, an inauspicious beginning for the National League squad bearing Dodger Blue and Giant Orange as its colors.  At the end of the season, the Mets’ tally read 40 wins, 120 losses.

Subsequent seasons followed a paradigm of mediocrity.  It shifted in 1968, when Gil Hodges took the reins after managing the Washington Senators for five seasons—the Mets went from 61-101 in 1967 to 73-89 in Hodges’s first year at the helm.

In 1969, the Mets exorcised their ghosts.  With a 100-62 record, the “Miracle Mets” defied expectations with a World Series upset of the Baltimore Orioles, thereby securing 1969 as a season of glory; Mets fans get wistful at the mere mention of the year.

Lost in the nostalgia is the decade after the miracle—the 1970s Mets were, for the most part, a formidable team often overlooked in accounts of baseball in the Me Decade.  Surely, the Yankees drew more attention with three consecutive World Series appearances resulting in two championships, not to mention drama of Shakespearean proportions.

In Oakland, the A’s—also known as the Mustache Gang—carved a dynasty with three consecutive World Series titles, later suffering a shattered team when owner Charlie Finley broke it up.

In Cincinnati, the Big Red Machine set the bar high for National League power, with a lineup including Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Johnny Bench.

But the Mets, consistent rather than dominant, compiled winning seasons from 1970 to 1976, except for 1974.  Further, the Mets battled the powerful A’s in the 1973 World Series, falling to the fellas from Oakland in seven games.  Gil Hodges, unfortunately, did not live to see that second grasp at a World Series—he died from a heart attack right before the 1972 season.

At the New York Mets 50th Anniversary Conference hosted by Hofstra University in 2012, the impact of Hodges’s death on the 1970s Mets was a point of discussion on a panel populated by Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, and Bud Harrelson—all agreed that if Hodges had survived his heart attack, they would be wearing a few more World Series rings.  More importantly, perhaps, Hodges might have been able to prevent the darkest point in Mets history.

Tom Seaver won the Cy Young Award three times—all in the 1970s.  When the Mets traded Seaver to the Reds for four players in 1977, fortunes plummeted.  After an 86-76 record in 1976, the Mets closed out the remainder of the 1970s with losing seasons:

  • 1977:  64-98
  • 1978:  66-96
  • 1979:  63-99

In contrast to the optimism permeating Shea Stadium at the beginning of the decade, frustration became an unwanted friend as the Mets piled on loss after loss.  This streak continued into the 1980s, finally reversing with a 90-72 record in 1984.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 7, 2016.