The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “American History”

Dreams Before Dusk

The white sun showered Sacramento with fraying rays ’til well past 4:00.  By then, the only folks left in the ballpark were those paid ten cents an hour to pick up hot dog wrappers and half-filled soda cups under the bleachers.  Even the drunks had staggered out of the cooler spots under the grandstand, destinations to-be-determined.  And the Japanese kid, now just a hushed memory of Depression-era reticence.

Nine vs. nine, plus a couple of local high school kids on the bench to provide the home-team with extra lumber, should the boys from Nippon come looking for a fight.  Word was they were plenty good, though being on foreign turf had to rattle them some.  Especially out here in the Central Valley, where hard times had folded and molded men into something only faintly resembling human beings, and the W.P.A. was the only game in town.  Moering Field was the only getaway for the Oakies,  baseballs courtesy of Our Lady of Humble Secondary Offerings.

That Japanese kid, though, was some fast out there.  First six guys might not have even seen that steam, just read about it a half-second later in the catcher’s mitt, smoke emanating from leather like redolent gunshot.  My, how the laws of physics were Putting on the Ritz!  A pair of self-conscious pop ups to the infield, a ground-out to short, harmless as a baby snake, and three K’s, each punctuated with a grunting final swing, finished off the first three innings.

But our own kid, the dark-haired Angelich, held his own, too.  Just nineteen-years old, still had a year on their guy, Sawamura.  Angelich tossed down and slow, heavy pitches with just enough movement to frustrate over-eager sluggers, like suckers at a five-cent peephole aback a county fair.  Damned familiar she looked, too, all churlish grins as we counted our sins.  That is to say, they couldn’t touch it.

Still, their boys scratched out a pair of runs in the sixth and seventh innings, though none of the balls left the park.  Angelich left in the eighth to a Standing-O, waving one quick gloved-hand up to the crowd as he slicked back his hair with his bare one.  A fine performance, but still no permanent spot on the team.  Tough year, ’35.  And much tougher to come.

Sawamura, though, had the look that day.  Could’ve knocked down Mount Shasta with that game-face.  Baby-faced or not, the kid had STUFF.  How we managed even the one lone run was a water-to-wine miracle.  And what was he getting paid for this performance?  Did he even own a wallet?  Did he have a girl waiting for him back home?  And what did he think about during that empty Sacramento night, hours after reluctant American crowd regaled him with polite applause?  Fate writ large is still invisible to the naked eye, even to small-town heroes.

An ocean away, (both oceans, as it turned out), steely men with glinting eyes that knew neither love nor laughter planned hurricane death because they could and would.  Big plans, small minds, and lots of flags.

Baseball only a kid’s game, of course.  Inconsequential, but to those along the third-base line, shouting as the runner rounds third, digging for home, dirt-churning cleats digging clods of sod in a straight line to home plate, base-path all possibility, a dream out-running time and space, as the soft summer light fades into gray, and the dream withers at dusk.

This one’s for Jerry Angelich and Eigi Sawamura.

Please read the excellent link below for further context.


What Yogi Berra, (And Others), Never Actually Said

When it comes to famous quotations, Americans seem to love them more than any other people on the planet.  We put them on bumper-stickers, toss them around in political or religious debates, and use them as an excuse to avoid actually having to think too deeply about any particular topic.  If it can be summed up in a phrase or two, so much the better.

Baseball fans, of course, also love famous quotations, such as Satchel Paiges’s “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”  Simply recalling these quotes puts a satisfied smile on our face.

Unfortunately, the truth is many of the quotations we take for granted as having been said by, for example, the Founding Fathers, or old-time ball players, in many instances turn out not to have been said by them at all.   Sometimes, the alleged statements are inaccurate renderings of much less interesting comments.  Other times, they appear to have been simply made up completely out of whole-cloth, or actually belong to someone else.

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra i...

English: New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a 1956 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra probably has more quotes attributed to him than any other baseball player in history. Yogi was lovable, successful and humble, and he looked kind of funny with big ears and the grin of a six-year old who just tasted his first ice-cream cone.  What’s not to like?

Many of the sayings attributed to Berra, however, are probably apocryphal.  But if a quotation could be attached to the legend of Yogi Berra, it would seem to be that much more funny and interesting.

The same can be said, in a way, to all the alleged quotations attributed to our Founding Fathers over the years.  While these men actually did, of course, pen many significant, historical statements, many other quotations which have been credited to them (especially in recent years), are at best of suspicious origin, and, at worst, are obviously fake.

I have provided a list of several famous quotations allegedly made by famous people (including Yogi Berra) which, it turns out, were probably never penned by the person to whom these lines are attributed.

1)  “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”  – George Washington.  Except here’s what the official, non-partisan website of Mount Vernon and the legacy of George Washington has to say about this quotation:

The quote is frequently misattributed to Washington, particularly in regards to his farewell address of 1796. The origin of the misquote is, perhaps, a mention of a similar statement in a biography of Washington first published in 1835. However, the quote that appeared in the biography has never been proven to have come from Washington.

2)  “Nobody goes there anymore.  It’s too crowded.”  – Yogi Berra.  Unfortunately, Yogi didn’t come up with this one.  The origin of this quote can be traced (at least) as far back as John McNulty writing in the New Yorker magazine, in a story published February 1943, before Yogi was even in the Majors.

English: A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Sec...

English: A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”  – Thomas Jefferson.  It appears that this statement was first made (sort of) famous not by Jefferson, but by that other Founding Father…President Gerald R. Ford.  Barry Goldwater has also sometimes been credited with making this statement.

As an aside, I just saw this exact quotation on a bumper sticker in a parking lot today, and it was attributed to Thomas Jefferson.  The interesting thing is I also saw this same quotation on another car in a different parking lot a few weeks ago, but it was attributed to conservative philosopher Edmund Burke.  So, at least in Greenville County, SC, you appear to have your choice of whom to award this statement.

4)  “Its Deja Vu all over again.”  – Yes, Yogi Berra is often credited with this saying, but in a phone interview with journalist William Safire in the late ’80’s, Yogi denied ever having made this statement.  About a decade later, however, Berra did take credit for it after all.  Did he really say it, or did he just come to believe that it would do no harm taking credit for it after all?  A version of this line was also found in a poem called “Thanks to You,” by Jim Prior, which appeared in a Florida newspaper in 1962:

It’s Deja Vu again / Out of the blue again / Truer than true again / Thanks to you.

5)  Most of us are familiar with the following quotation, frequently attributed to Protestant theologian Martin Niemoller:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out for the trade unionists, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came out for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This quotation has always held strong emotional appeal precisely because it points out the inherent danger of good people remaining silent in the face of great evil.  But was Martin Niemoller really the first to say it, assuming he ever said it at all?

On the floor of the House of Representatives in October, 1968, a slightly different version was entered into the Congressional Record by Henry Reuss, a Congressman from Wisconsin.  His version led off with the Jews, then moved on to Catholics, then unions, then industrialists, and finally the Protestant church.  His version left out the communists and socialists.

Representative Reuss credited these words to a Jewish businessman named Howard Samuels.

A paraphrase of the lines attributed to Father Niemoller was discovered going back to the mid-1950’s, however, and though the thoughts are generally similar, the phraseology isn’t as clearly defined and polished as the version most commonly attributed to him.  It should be pointed out that Niemoller actually did bravely stand up to the Nazis, and did survive a period of time in a Nazi Concentration Camp.

Niemoller himself did later say that his favorite version of this quotation included the communists and the socialists as two of the persecuted groups because it was much closer to being historically accurate than the ones which leave out those two groups in favor of Industrialists and Catholics.

Nevertheless, no written record of Niemoller making the specific statement famously associated with him has ever been located.

6)  “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  –  Yogi Berra.  Berra is on record stating that he’s pretty sure he never said this one.

7)  “The death of one man is a tragedy.  The death of millions is a statistic.”  – Josef Stalin.  The person who actually first wrote those words was the German journalist / satirist Kurt Tucholsky in an essay on French humor in 1932.  He was a left-wing Democrat in Germany during the Weimar Republic.  Later, under Hitler, his books were burned and he was stripped of his German citizenship (though he had already fled to Sweden.)  He died in 1935, before the worst of the Nazi genocidal campaigns and the Second World War commenced.

8)  “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”  –  Yogi Berra  While that very well be true, Berra didn’t say this.  Instead, the quotation belongs to Rocky Bridges, who played for several Major League baseball teams from 1951 to 1961.

Why does this happen so often?  In many cases, there is a political motivation involved.  If you can attribute a statement which appears to support your side’s political convictions to a Founding Father, for example, you gain implicit credibility in the eyes of an unsuspecting, credulous public.  As for baseball fans, we just like to read cool-sounding stuff.


Last of the Old Negro League Ballparks

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Negro Leagues.  Recently, I was wondering about which of the old Negro League parks, if any, were still in existence.  I suspected that only a small handful have survived through the years.  That turned out to be an accurate assessment.  Here’s some information about the last three Negro League ballparks, either still in use or at least having escaped the wrecking ball, in which Negro League players used to regularly ply their trade.

To be clear, if you search online you will find several other venues that once hosted Negro League players or teams at one time or another.  I chose not to list several of them because they were merely locations where Negro League teams simply barnstormed through on the circuit, or they have been so modified that almost none of the original field exists (Ammon Field, now Josh Gibson Field in Pittsburgh, comes to mind), or at best sketchy evidence that Negro League teams played there at all (West Field in Munhall, PA.)  Having said that, if you come across credible information that I’ve missed a significant Negro League home ballpark which still stands, by all means let me know.

1)  Hamtramck Stadium:  3201 Dan St.  Hamtramck, MI (a part of the Detroit metro area.)  Built by Detroit Stars owner John Roesink in 1930.  A brick, steel and concrete structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Most famous player who called this park home:  Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes.  Hosted the 1930 Negro National League Championship Series, which Detroit lost to the St. Louis Stars.  Other Negro Leaguers who played here include Mule Suttles, Josh Gibson, Willie Wells and Cool Papa Bell.

Though a short 315 feet down the left-field line to the wall, it was a very deep 415 feet to right-field, and a cavernous 515 feet to center.  The park originally held between 8,000-9,000 customers.  The original metal grandstand still stands.  The park was used by local Little League teams in the 1950’s, and later by teams from the local Catholic high schools.  Once those schools closed, the park was left abandoned.  It hasn’t been used at all for the past few years, though structurally, it is still sound.  The pitcher’s mound and the original flagpole are also still there.



2)  Rickwood Field:  1137 2nd Avenue West, Birmingham, Alabama.  Opened its doors in 1910 (making it older than either Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.)  First pitch, first game:  August 18, 1910, 3:30 p.m.  Named for team owner Harvey “Rick” Woodward.  Seating capacity:  10,800.  Deepest part of the park:  399 to left-center.  Outfield fence has twice been destroyed by tornadoes.  Originally the home of the Birmingham Black Barons.

USA's oldest surviving baseball park here in B...

USA’s oldest surviving baseball park here in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A’s owner Charlie Finley leased the park from 1967-75 for the Double-A minor league Birmingham A’s.  Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Willie Mays each played at one time in their careers for the Black Barons.  The Black Barons played their final game in 1963.

Until 1987, the Chicago White Sox Double-A affiliate, the Barons, called Rickwood home before eventually moving out to the suburbs.

It is 90 feet from home-plate to the backstop at Rickwood Field.  Thus passed balls and wild pitches could be exceptionally dangerous.

The first legally integrated game at Rickwood for both players and fans took place on April 17, 1964.  A representative of the Ku Klux Klan promised that his boys would not make any trouble that day.

Interestingly, Rickwood Field actually has a blog on  Here’s the link:

Today, Rickwood Field is maintained by the Friends of Rickwood who continue to work on restoring this facility which hosts exhibition games for local amateur and semipro teams.  Some scenes from the 2012 film, “42” were filmed in this park.


English: I took this photo myself in the winte...

The remains of the oval-shaped Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, New Jersey.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Hinchliffe Stadium:  Patterson, New Jersey.  As with the previous two stadiums, this one is also on the National Register of Historic Places.  Hinchliffe Stadium first opened in 1932.  It was the home of both the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans.

In its prime, Hinchliffe held up to 10,000 fans, though sometimes even more crammed the place for special events.   Hinchliffe was also used for football, boxing and even auto racing.

An oval-shaped park similar to the L.A. Coliseum or New York’s old Polo Grounds, the distance to straightaway center-field was 460 feet from home-plate.  One member of the Black Yankees, George Crowe, was called up to play for the Major League Boston Braves in 1952.

In 1957, playing in place of the injured Ted Kluszewski, Crowe slugged 31 homers and drove in 92 runs in 133 games, at age 36.  Many other fine Negro League stars played at Hinchliffe as well, though official records are generally incomplete.

The Black Yankees left in 1948, an ironic victim of desegregation in Major League Baseball.

Today Hinchliffe Stadium is the property of the Patterson, N.J. school system, though no games have been played on this field since 1997.  The Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium continue to try to raise funds to renovate the park for potential future uses, and to preserve this historic place for posterity.

There are many more excellent photos of Hinchliffe Stadium at this link:

If you would like to donate to the Friends of Hinchliffe, here’s a link to their website:

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Ten Facts About Cooperstown, New York

Virtually every baseball fan knows that the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York.  But what do we know about Cooperstown, N.Y.?  I’ve been to Cooperstown a couple of times, though it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Fame.  I thought I might take a few minutes to see what kind of information I could uncover about Cooperstown.  Here are some facts I’ve decided to share with you:

Cooperstown, New York

Cooperstown, New York (Photo credit: Dougtone)

1)  Cooperstown is not named for the writer, James Fenimore Cooper (although the author did live and pen some of his stories, such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” in Cooperstown.  It is actually named for his father, William Cooper, who founded this town in the late 1780’s (though it first became officially incorporated in 1812.)

2)  Cooperstown Dreams Park was established in 1996, and the Youth Baseball League it serves features up to 1,350 teams competing per season.  The season lasts from the end of May until the end of August.

3)  The population of Cooperstown is 1,833, down nearly ten percent since the year 2000.  The population of Cooperstown is 91% white.  There are six black families and one resident of full-blooded Native-American ancestry. Females outnumber males 55% to 45%.  There is one registered sex offender in town limits.

4)  About one-quarter of the people of Cooperstown walk to work.  That’s very cool, except in the winter.

5)  Approximately 35% of the population are affiliated with a religious congregation.  Nationally, about 51% of Americans are affiliated with a particular religious congregation.  A plurality in Cooperstown are Catholics (43%.)

6)  The most common first name among deceased individuals in Cooperstown is Mary.  The most common last name among deceased individuals is Smith.  I would suggest that if your name is Mary Smith, you might want to avoid Cooperstown.  On the other hand, you would have a life expectancy of 81.5 years old.

7)  The first speeding ticket issued in Cooperstown was given out in 1906.

8)  No one born in Cooperstown has ever played Major League baseball.

9)  Company G of the 176th Infantry Regiment of New York was recruited from Otsego County (in which Cooperstown is located), as well as a few of the other surrounding counties.  They saw action in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana.  The majority of casualties this regiment suffered occurred at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in 1864.

10)  The last public hanging in Cooperstown took place in December 1827.  The man condemned to death was a first cousin of James Fenimore Cooper named Levi Kelley, convicted of killing his tenant, Abraham Spafard.  While the hangman was putting the noose around Kelley’s neck, the grandstand collapsed under the weight of the crowd of onlookers, killing one person and mortally wounding another.  The execution, however, went on as scheduled.


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Leaving It All On the Field

It wasn’t the mud, the stench, or even the corpses that got to him.  It was the rats.  No matter how many you killed, more would spill out of the sludge underfoot, tearing into the dead as if Hell had come north.

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predomi...

For most of World War I Allied Forces, predominantly those of France and the British Empire, were stalled at trenches on the Western Front. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing in a fetid stew eight inches deep, blood, bodies and spent bullets sloshed and swirled over his boots.  But whatever lie decomposing under his boots was preferable to that which lurked over the top.

Funny, that.  The sky above was a robin’s egg blue, the same hue he remembered from autumn’s evening sky over Harvard Yard not so many years ago.  Evening papers.  Pipe smoke. Brandy.

Yet, only the promise of a quick, impersonal death outside of this trench kept him planted down here among his pallid companions.  In the scrum-space between thinking and dreaming, shards of old poems gleamed like glazed glass in an apothecary shop, inertia spawning iambic pentameter.

“I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats / And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain / Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats / And mocked by hopeless longing to regain.”  – Siegfried Sassoon

Ancient Odysseus could inform on this particular point, the whole show was the getting back to Home, where the runs scored, recorded for all time in those mottled ledgers.  Pinch-running for McLean, sacrificed to second, then Matty driving him in, his only run scored in the Series.  Matty shutting the door on the Athletics in the bottom of the tenth, winning that second game, three-nil.  Stepping on home plate for Matty was all that mattered that afternoon.

[Eddie Grant, New York NL (baseball)]  (LOC)

[Eddie Grant, New York NL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

God, how he missed those boys.  Just five years ago, almost to the day.  McGraw’s Gang.  Drop that bunch in the Argonne, this whole, tired affair would long ago have ended.  Matty and the Doughboys – 1, the Kaiser – 0.  Another shutout.  He grabbed a handful of thick mud from the trench wall, and smiled silently.

The whistle would soon wreck the reverie, as over the top they’d go, each man marked in advance by a German machine-gunner, himself frozen to the bone.  Last letters pinned inside coat pockets, but for him, a scribbled scorecard, his last will and testament, evidence that his run did once count.

Now all was flashing muzzles, cries and blood.  Men tumbling over the wire and into ravines running red, now into the marshes, no longer marching, but tumbling ass over teat as the shells exploded all around, Eddie Grant, commissioned a captain back on Long Island, the last officer standing, directing his men onward into the thicket, never hearing the final blast that separated him from his men, from his Giants, from his Harvard Law School chums, forever.

Third baseman Eddie Grant, leaving it all on the field, going home once more.

Eddie Grant Memorial Plaque

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Baseball, Wages, and the American Middle Class

As you can clearly see from this graph, the middle class has been trending in the wrong direction, regarding its share of national income, for over 40 years now.  If you are at least over 45 or 50 years old, you may recall a time when a one income household (usually headed by a male breadwinner) could adequately, even comfortably, provide for itself.  My father, for example, was a factory worker his entire life in Bridgeport, CT.  With a sixth-grade education, and a lot of hard work, he was able to support my mom, my younger brother and I until I moved out of the house in the 1980’s and began to support myself.  By that time, (a bit earlier, actually) my mom had gone back to work as well.

My dad worked in a union shop and received a fair wage for hard work, as had his parents’ generation before him.  I, too, worked for a couple of years in a union shop.  The Teamster’s Union negotiated wages and contracts for us at UPS in Stratford, CT in the early 1980’s.  When I started working there (loading and unloading trucks) I was earning about $10.00 per hour.  Even in Connecticut, that was a pretty nice wage for a kid just out of high school.  Within about a year, I was earning around $12.00 per hour, shared an apartment with a friend of mine, bought a car, and was able to save a little money.

It should be noted that UPS was enjoying prosperity in those days as well, despite the presence of labor unions in its midst.

In the late fall of 2011, a month or so before Christmas, I thought about making a little extra money down here in Greenville, S.C. where I now live.  My wife is the primary breadwinner in our family, but I like to work, so I thought, just for the hell of it, I would check out what UPS here in the greater Greenville area was paying its employees for the same job I used to do around thirty years ago.  It turned out their starting wage, in a non-union facility, was around $8.00 per hour.  Now, adjusting for thirty years of inflation, I can’t even imagine what this “modern” wage would have equated to thirty years ago.

Now let’s turn to Major League baseball for a few minutes to see how the ball players, represented by the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, have fared over approximately that same time period. MLB Salaries Since 1970

As you can see, the players, represented by a very strong union, have become wealthier than they probably ever could have dreamed of just forty years ago.  Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees will earn $28 million dollars this season. Derek Jeter’s net worth is around 125 million dollars.  Now, obviously supply and demand is an important factor here.  As long as baseball remains popular, the money will be there to pay this select group of highly talented athletes.

But it’s equally important to remember that baseball has been a capitalist enterprise for well over a century now, yet ball players have not always grown rich, and least not this rich.  The minimum salary for a player (his contract negotiated by his union) is now over $400,000 dollars, around ten times the average salary of a non-union teacher here in South Carolina.  I am not making an argument over the relative fairness of what a teacher makes vs. what an athlete makes.  Great teachers are rare, but so are great athletes.  Still, children understand and respond to incentives just like the rest of us.  What choices are we encouraging our children to make based on the incentives available to them now and in the future?

The primary arguments I’ve heard from people (some of whom haven’t earned  a middle class wage for years) against unions is that either A)  Unions are corrupt, B)  Union workers are greedy, or C)  We can’t afford them.

Let’s take each of these three arguments as they relate to baseball.

A)  Unions are Corrupt:  There’s no question that the Player’s Union hindered the development and implementation of any rules regarding testing for steroids.  One reason for this was that they believed protecting a player’s privacy was an important consideration.  How could they be sure this wouldn’t turn out to be a witch-hunt?  In that regard, they turned out to be right.  The so-called confidential list of players who tested positive was partially leaked to the press, then on to the public.  From that point on, all players have been branded guilty until “proven” innocent.  Many of the Hall of Fame voters themselves seem to be waiting for “more information” regarding players they suspect might have used PED’s.  Perhaps more names from another “confidential” list will someday illegally be made public.  Then, with illegally obtained information at hand, they can penalize still more “dirty” players.

Sure, there are other kinds of corruption.  These kinds also exist in non-union corporations, and among many of the Congressmen on Capital Hill, some of whom feel the need to remind us of the corruption of unions for political purposes while finding loopholes around and through the rules in an effort to enrich themselves at public expense.

B)  Union Workers Are Greedy:  Like us, baseball players seek to maximize economic gain within the realm of their chosen occupation, appropriate to their level of talent and experience.  My friends in the private sector routinely do this as well.  This is called (for better or worse) pursuing the American Dream.  A couple of my friends are now quite wealthy.  More power to them.  This is not a zero-sum game where their prosperity comes at the price of someone else’s poverty (well, not directly, anyway.)

Public sector employees are also often accused of being greedy, despite the fact that they often earn less money than their private sector counterparts who have similar levels of education and job experience.  My first year as a teacher, in a small town in rural Maine, I earned $20,900.  That was in the mid-1990’s, not all that long ago.  In my final year as a teacher, after a dozen years of experience and 36 Master’s Level college credits, I was earning $49,000.  A friend of mine who graduated college the same year I did, who now works in the private sector, earns about twice as much as I did then.

We are all greedy.  But for public sector unionized employees, as for MLB players, this is not a zero-sum game.  The money a teacher, fireman or policeman makes is part of the tax base that pays for their own salaries, as well as the benefits received by others.  Moreover, their disposable income is just as vitally a part of the consumer spending that promotes and supports local business as the dollars spent by private sector employees.  Therefore, any attempt to “control” the costs of public employees by destroying their unions may have, at the local level, the unintended side effect of hurting overall consumer spending, which benefits no one.

C)  We can’t afford them.  This argument, that unions will destroy the economy, was an argument that MLB franchise owners made over and over again in the years leading up to the creation of the Baseball Player’s Association, and especially during the dawn of free agency.  Exploding baseball player salaries will kill the game.  Tickets will no longer be affordable, and player greed will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  Also, team owners will be put out of business because they won’t be able to afford these new, extravagant salaries.

None of these things came to pass.  When George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, he paid just under ten million dollars for the franchise.  Estimates are that the Yankees franchise is now worth around three billion dollars.  Certainly, not every franchise can boast that same level of economic success, but in the rare occasion when an MLB franchise does go on the market, it rarely lacks a plethora of interested millionaires seeking to purchase it.  Moreover, the eight best years of attendance in baseball history have each occurred in the past eight years.  Clearly, if you build it, they will come, no matter how much the employees are getting paid.

Map usa unions

Map usa unions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, beyond the world of baseball, the argument has been made that we can no longer afford unions.  Yet many corporations that argue against unionized employees are among the richest companies on earth.  Keeping their employees unnecessarily poor may allow them to please their shareholders, but the end result is a two-tiered economy that undermines real economic opportunity, upward mobility, and democracy itself.  Even Henry Ford, who was anti-semitic and an early admirer of European fascism, declared that it was right to pay his assembly line workers a fair, living wage if for no other reason than that they should afford to buy the cars they were manufacturing.

It should also be noted that in the richest states like Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, public-sector employee unions have been strong for decades.  The strength of those unions did not prevent those states from becoming and remaining wealthy.  Conversely, many so-called “right to work” anti-union states, especially in the south, have long been among the poorest in the nation.  The lack of unions has not, nor will it ever, lift these states out of their second or third-rate economic performances.  Yet, counter-intuitively, most of the residents in these same, relatively poor states, harbor negative opinions of unions.

The anti-union propaganda machine has long been effective in keeping people poor and ignorant.  Thirty or forty years of union decline in this country has not made the nation richer, it has made the middle class poorer.  One only has to look at the recent history of Major League baseball to see the obvious solution to this state of affairs isn’t to continue to undermine, even outlaw, the few remaining unions we have left.  True, fortunes can be made in the private sector outside of unions.  But trends are trends, and in the long run, if current trends continue, there may not be a middle class in the future to enjoy Major League baseball.  It will be a game of the few, by the few, for the few.

If that day comes, baseball and America will both be greatly diminished.

Ten Things You Should Know About Jackie Robinson

Former Brooklyn Dodgers’ legend Jackie Robinson died forty years ago today in Stamford, CT, at age 53.  I was nine-years old when he died, living in Bridgeport, CT, just about half an hour away from Stamford.  I vaguely remember the event being covered in the local media.  At the time, though, I had no idea of the significance of Jackie Robinson’s legacy on baseball in particular, and on American society in general.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are ten things you may not have known about Jackie Robinson:

1)  His full name was Jack Roosevelt Robinson.  A Republican-leaning Independent for most of his adult life, his middle name was a family tribute to progressive Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, not to F.D.R.

2)  His older brother, Mack Robinson, won the Silver Medal for the U.S. in the men’s 200 meter sprint in the 1936 Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler in Berlin.  Teammate Jesse Owens won the Gold.

3)  In the spring of 1947, the Dodgers held Jackie Robinson’s first Spring Training in Havana, Cuba.  It was considered a more hospitable place for Jackie to break in than Spring Training in the U.S. would have been.  That same year, 21-year old Fidel Castro participated in his first (unsuccessful) attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.

4)  While enrolled at UCLA, Robinson participated in multiple sports, including football, basketball and track and field.  His worst sport at that time was baseball.  In the one season he played baseball for UCLA, Robinson batted just .097, though he did steal home twice.

Robinson in his UCLA track uniform

Robinson in his UCLA track uniform (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  In his rookie season in the Majors, Robinson exclusively played first base.  It was the only one of his ten seasons where he would be the team’s starting first baseman.  He was replaced at that position by Gil Hodges in 1948.

6)  When Robinson won MLB’s first Rookie of the Year award in 1947, though he was certainly the most important player in either league, he did not actually have the best rookie season in the league.  He finished the year with a WAR of 3.0, good for third place behind Giant’s pitcher Larry Jansen (4.6 WAR), and the Athletics’ first baseman Ferris Fain (3.8 WAR.)

7)  During the regular season, Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, certainly an impressive number.  The Major League record, however, belongs to Ty Cobb.  He stole home an amazing 54 times in his career.

8)  The one season that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series was 1955.  Perhaps surprisingly, that was also Robinson’s least productive season.  Playing in just 105 games, Robinson batted just .256.  Then, in 24 World Series at bats vs. the Yankees, the 36-year old Robinson batted just .182.  He did, however, steal home in Game 1 of the Series, played at Yankee Stadium.  It remains the last straight steal of home in World Series history.

9)  In 1965, Robinson became the first black T.V. network broadcaster, hired by ABC as part of its baseball broadcast crew.

10)  His oldest son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., developed a drug problem while serving in the Vietnam War where he was wounded in action in 1965.  After he was discharged from the Army, he enrolled in a drug treatment center in Seymour, CT.  He was later killed in a car accident in 1971, age 24.  His father, Jackie Robinson, Sr. would survive his son by just 16 months.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 7

Because I am a both a baseball and an American history geek, back in 1994, a few months before the MLB lockout, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a tour of both the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Baseball Hall of Fame (it’s amazing what you can get away with when you don’t yet have kids.)

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA (Photo credit: Don & Suzan)

We had a great time, of course, standing on top of the summit of Little Round Top, then, a couple of days later, viewing Lou Gehrig’s address book (behind a glass case, of course.)  Somewhere along the way, between all the beer, baseball, and bullet holes in Gettysburg’s buildings, I happened to notice that the name of one baseball player seemed to pop up from time to time in both venues.

It was “Gettysburg” Eddie Plank.  Allow me to tell you a little bit about him.

Eddie Plank was born in Gettysburg, PA, just twelve years after the Battle of Gettysburg.  Raised on a family farm just north of the battlefield, it was not unusual in those days for a farmer to uncover the remains of a lost and forgotten soldier who died in a lonely location on the vast battlefield.

Plank didn’t even start playing baseball until he was seventeen.  Trying out as a pitcher for the Gettysburg College team, he made the squad as a left-handed pitcher (yes, another one in this series) who threw the ball awkwardly across his body.  He never actually attended Gettysburg College, but eventually harnessed his delivery enough to become a decent pitcher for their team.

Having gotten something of a late start, he didn’t make his MLB debut until 1901, when he was already 25-years old.  He then went on to pitch in the Majors, primarily for the Philadelphia Athletics, for the next 17 seasons.

In his rookie campaign, he posted a very decent 17-13 record.  He then went on to enjoy eight 20-win seasons over the next sixteen years.  In fact, only once in the next eight years did he fail to win at least 19 games in a season (he was injured in 1908.)

Plank helped lead Philadelphia to a pair of World Series triumphs over the Giants in 1911 and 1913.

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewar...

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the statistics that impress me the most about Eddie Plank:

1)  He was the first left-handed pitcher to top 300 wins.  No other southpaw reached 300 wins until Warren Spahn and Steve Carlton came along several decades later.

2)  His 69 career shutouts are the fifth-highest total of all-time, and the most ever by a lefty.  He threw as many shutouts in his career as HOF pitchers Sandy Koufax and Dazzy Vance combined.

3)  His career WAR of 82.0 ranks 17th best all-time among pitchers.  His career WAR is higher than HOF pitchers John Clarkson, Steve Carlton, Pud Galvin, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Nolan Ryan, Robin Roberts, Old Hoss Radbourn, Carl Hubbell, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and many others.

4)  Over the last 15 seasons of his 17-year career (he also pitched for the Terriers and the Browns), his highest ERA in any season was 2.87, and in his final season, at age 41, he posted a 1.79 ERA in 131 innings pitched.

5)  In six World Series starts, he posted a 1.32 ERA across 54.2 innings.

Eddie Plank finished his career in 1917, just as young American Doughboys were being sent overseas to fight the War to End All Wars.  He returned to his family farm in Gettysburg, leading tours across the old battlefield.  At age 50, just nine years after he retired from baseball, Eddie Plank suffered a stroke and died.  He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg.

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC)

[Eddie Plank, Philadelphia AL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Eddie Plank posted a career record of 326-194 with an ERA of 2.35.  Of the 24 pitchers who have won at least 300 games in their careers, just six pitchers other than Plank avoided also losing 200 games.

Those six pitcher are Christy Mathewson, John Clarkson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Lefty Grove.  That’s some pretty impressive company to be associated with.  And only Johnson and Grove were also left-handed.

About a decade after Plank died, the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened for business up in Cooperstown, NY.  After five years on the ballot, Plank never topped 27% of the ballots submitted by the BBWAA.  Eventually, it would take the Old Timers Committee to elect Plank in 1946, along with ten other players, some of whom actually belonged in the HOF.

So Eddie Plank joins Kid Nichols and Hal Newhouser as the third pitcher on my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame squad.  I will be adding two more pitchers to my rotation.  I hope you’ll come back to find out who they are.

Through the Smoke, Into the Breeze

On a bright, clear morning in April, 1942, 16 bombers took off into the breeze from the U.S.S. Hornet, an aircraft carrier dispatched deep into the Pacific Ocean with a message for Imperial Japan:  We can reach you, too.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet laun...

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet launches a B-25 during the Doolittle Raid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After dropping their bombs on Japanese cities, each of the bombers, all low on fuel, either ditched along the Chinese coast or crash-landed in mainland China.  A few of the crew members, captured by the Japanese, were later executed.

On board the Hornet was a young man, a boy really, named Joe Iritsky.  Joe had joined the U.S. Navy, against his mother’s tearful objections, soon after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  Just one of thousands of Navy deck hands, Joe played no special role in what became known as the Doolittle Raid.  Once the war was over, he returned home, no longer a boy, now a young man prematurely aged by the experience of war.

Eventually, like thousands of other veterans, Joe went to work in a factory, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and stayed there until his retirement many years later.

Joe was a heavy drinker.  He was also a sports fan, a gambler, and he had a chronic skin condition that made his skin turn red and blotchy.  He would peel the dead skin off his arm while he drank his whiskey, neat.

He was also a chain-smoker.  I vividly remember the constant cloud of smoke, a gray haze fogging the kitchen like a burnt offering to the souls of the dead, silent sailors of his youth.

Joe was my dad’s mom’s third husband, whom she married after dad was already a young adult.  I never called Joe grandpa or pop, or anything remotely endearing.  In fact, I don’t think I called him anything at all.  Usually, I just stood quietly in their kitchen in Black Rock, scuffed linoleum under my sneakers, wondering why my wheelchair-bound paternal grandmother was drinking whiskey at one o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

Joe would give my younger brother and I flat Dr. Pepper in glass tumblers, fingerprints of prior users prominent and clear through the warm, amber liquid.

No one ever offered us a chair; children in those days weren’t allowed to pester adults.  But while my brother and I stood there, uncomfortable in our surroundings, Joe would talk sports, the one subject he must have felt he might possibly have in common with two young boys.

Specifically, he would talk about the Mets, the (football) Giants, and horse-racing.  Eventually, upon subsequent visits, he narrowed it down to the Mets and the Giants.  Both teams stood at the very pinnacle of mediocrity in those days, just one false step away from a steep fall into a dark, bottomless chasm.

I hadn’t yet settled upon a favorite baseball team.  When I played ball in the streets and abandoned lots of Bridgeport, I was just as likely to imagine I was Freddy Lynn or Steve Garvey as Tom Seaver or Rusty Staub.  I had recently read, “The Boys of Summer,” the first grownup book I’d ever read, so I was leaning towards becoming a Dodgers fan. But I lived about 3,000 miles away from L.A., and only about an hour away from New York City.

Then one sweltering, humid August afternoon in 1974, my dad and Joe took my brother and I to Shea Stadium in Queens, across from the site of the 1964-65 World’s Fair.  It was our first trip to a real, live baseball game.  I was eleven years old.

Shea Stadium

Shea Stadium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we walked down the concourse towards our mezzanine seats, I caught my first glimpse of the green outfield grass, and of the grounds crew dragging what appeared to be long rakes over a toffee-colored infield.

Once we had settled into our seats, Joe lit a cigarette and headed for the concession stand to purchase his first of many beers that afternoon.  His cigarette ash, lagging behind, wafted around me for a moment, clinging to my hair and my eyelashes like burnt snowflakes.

Mercifully, in the middle innings, a late afternoon breeze picked up and cooled us off just a bit as Jimmy Wynn and the boys in Dodger blue succumbed to my New York Mets.  It was at that moment that I realized to my surprise that I had become a Mets fan.  It was not a conscious decision.  I simply recognized an inner loyalty that I had not previously discovered.

As Joe came down the aisle and sat next to me, beer in hand, he asked me what I thought of the game.  I have no idea what my answer was, only that he appeared satisfied with my response.  It was the only moment that ever passed between us that would not disappear forever in an instant.

He drank his beer and watched the game, which eventually ended in a Mets victory.  But even as an eleven-year old boy, I could see in his eyes that his thoughts were elsewhere, a place I’d never been and would never wish to go.

Our memories of the moments that define us are random, yet vivid.  Like an unspoken series of emotional transactions, those that care for us unconsciously embed their hopes, hurts and fears deep within us.  These reemerge as scar tissue on our souls.

Yet, most vividly, I recall the unexpected breeze that carried the cigarette smoke away, perhaps out to sea, thousands of miles and many decades away, to a place where the dead rest, allowing the living to live, love, and remember.

Cleaning Up The Hall of Fame: Rizzuto vs. Trammell

Phil Rizzuto, N.Y. Yankees bunting wonder, ill...

Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

In this new series, we are going to clean up The Hall,  the Hall of Fame, that is.  According to the Hall of Fame’s official website, about 1% of all players who have ever worn a Major League Baseball uniform have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

That number seems about right to me.

But it raises a question.  How big and crowded should The Hall be allowed to become?  Currently, there are 295 plaques (which includes managers, umpires, etc.) in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery.  Over time, of course, this number will continue to grow, and although it is not growing quickly, it is possible to foresee a day when the Plaque Gallery is as crowded as the checkout line at Target on Black Friday.

I have no particular number in mind as to what constitutes “enough” plaques in the Plaque Gallery.  But could The Hall physically hold, for example, 400 plaques?  How about 500?  Assuming baseball continues to hold any interest for the general public one century hence, will anyone in the year 2112 make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown to stand in front of Orlando Cepeda’s plaque and have any idea who he was?  Should that matter?

First of all, we have to stop pretending that every player who was considered a superstar in his time cannot be reevaluated in light of all that has happened in the several decades since he last put on a pair of spikes.  The passage of time offers a perspective not available to that particular player’s contemporaries.

Certain players who appeared to be superstars in the first half of the twentieth century now appear, given modern standards of objective analysis, to have been merely very good ball players who left a strong emotional imprint on the judgments of peers (and voters) of decades past.

What I’m proposing, then, is to gradually improve the quality of the players in the Hall of Fame, one player at a time.  One player out; another (arguably better) player in.

All of which brings us to Phil Rizzuto.

Phil Rizzuto was an important part of several New York Yankees championship teams in the 1940’s and early ’50’s.  His defensive skills made the Yankees pitchers better.  But was his defense good enough to merit Hall of Fame selection?

In a word, no.  Rizzuto’s dWAR for his career, (interrupted for three years by W.W.II) was 11.0, the same as Frank White, and slightly higher than Willie Randolph.  For a relatively weak-hitting infielder, his defense needs to be world-class — Ozzi Smith-good —  to justify selection to The Hall of Fame.  Rizzuto doesn’t meet that test.

Rizzuto’s career offensive numbers are unimpressive.  He posted a career triple slash line of .273 / .351 / .355.  Rizzuto’s career OPS+ of 93 is about the same as Edgar Renteria’s career mark of 94.

Rizzuto hit just 38 home runs in his career, scored only 877 runs, stole 149 bases and amassed just 339 extra base hits in his entire career.  He did, however, lead his league in sacrifice bunts four times.

Rizzuto enjoyed one fantastic year when he won the A.L. MVP award at age 32 in 1950.  His WAR of 7.1 led the league. He reached a career high 271 total bases, scored 125 runs and batted .324.  Rizzuto also produced 200 hits, drew a career high 92 walks, and slammed 36 doubles.

Although he was a five-time All Star, much of his Hall of Fame resume revolves around this one season.  But lots of players have had one great season.  It is not often the case, however, that they go on to gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Rizzuto was the David Eckstein of his era, but on a much bigger stage, and with a more formidable P.R. machine behind him.

 Clearly, Phil Rizzuto does not belong in The Hall.

The player whom I would replace him with is former Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell.  Whereas Rizzuto posted a career WAR of 41.8, Trammell easily outclasses him with a mark of 66.9.  By comparison, HOF’ers Eddie Murray, PeeWee Reese, Gary Carter and Roberto Alomar all produced lower career WAR than Trammell.

Trammell also posted a better career OPS+ of 110 to Rizzuto’s 93.

A much better power hitter, Trammell slugged 185 home runs in his career.  He also produced 652 extra base hits, nearly twice as many as Rizzuto’s 339.  Trammell’s triple slash line of .285 / .352 / .415 is also better than Rizzuto’s, as is his .767 OPS.

Trammell compiled 2,365 hits, 1,231 runs scored, and 1,003 RBI.  Each of these numbers are significantly higher than what Rizzuto produced.  And even accounting for the three years that Rizzuto missed while in the service, it is still unlikely that the would have matched Trammell’s totals in any of those categories.

Defensively, Trammell was no slouch, either.  He won four Gold Gloves, and finished his career with a dWAR of 7.5, not as good as Rizzuto’s, but not significantly worse, either.

Trammell finished second in A.L. MVP voting in 1987.  He won three Silver Sluggers as the best hitter at his position.  He also made six All Star Teams.

Clearly, Trammell was the better shortstop.  Removing Rizzuto from The Hall and replacing him with Alan Trammell would make The Hall incrementally better, but you have to start somewhere.

1984 World Series Hero, Alan Trammell 1991 Tig...

Image via Wikipedia

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