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Archive for the category “Jackie Robinson”

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.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

What is the most exciting play in baseball?  Is it the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth?  How about a bases-loaded triple?  For that matter, how about a triple play?

Certainly, one of baseball’s most exciting plays is stealing home plate.

Now, although there are different “kinds” of steals — straight steals, double steals, busted suicide squeeze plays — for the sake of brevity, this article will not differentiate between the various types.

When Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole home off of Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels a couple of months ago, it was noteworthy not only because Hamels had plunked Harper in the back to apparently send him some sort of message (guess THAT didn’t work), but also because the straight-steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double-steal), is such a rarity these days, (notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers.)

There was a time, however, when stealing home was an important tactical weapon in the arsenal of most baseball teams.  Certainly, it requires the guts of a cat burglar and the stealth of a ninja.  Or, at the very least, a pitcher half-asleep on the mound.

Jackie Robinson often comes to mind when I think of a player stealing home.  Perhaps his most famous steal of home occurred in the 1955 World Series against the Yankees in Game One.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra went ballistic when Robinson was ruled safe at home by the home plate umpire.  Berra maintains to this day that Robinson really was out.

This was also the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn, and it was Robinson’s only steal of home in a World Series.

Recalling this exciting event led me to ask an obvious question, “How many times did Jackie Robinson steal home in his career?

Of course, stealing home was going on in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came along.  The first unrecorded steal of home must have taken place in the 19th century.  We do know that Honus Wagner stole home twice on June 20, 1901.

Interestingly, the Dodgers own Pete Reiser set the modern N.L. single-season record for steals of home plate with an amazing seven in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight steals of home in 1912.)

Jackie Robinson, it turns out, stole home a whopping 19 times in his career, against approximately 12 times caught stealing.  Before 1950, “caught stealing” as a statistical category was not consistently recorded, so we can’t be sure exactly how many times Robinson was caught stealing home.  For four of Robinson’s ten seasons, therefore, we have incomplete data from which to draw accurate conclusions regarding his overall success rate.

Shane Tourtellotte of the Hardball Times, in an interesting and provocative article published on March 2nd of this year, posits the interesting hypotheses that Robinson’s 19 successful steals of home (20, if you count the one in the ’55 Series), were worth more in run-producing, game-winning value than all of his other steals combined.

So, did Jackie Robinson steal home more than any other player in history over the course of his career?  Not by a long shot.  As far as we know, 38 players have stolen home base at least ten times in their careers.  Here’s a list of the top 20: (Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Almanace.com)

1)  Ty Cobb – 54

2)  Max Carey – 33

3)  George Burns – 28

4)  Honus Wagner – 27

5)  Sherry Magee – 23

5)  Frank Schulte – 23

7)  Johnny Evers – 21

8)  George Sisler – 20

9)  Frankie Frisch – 19

9)  Jackie Robinson – 19

11) Jim Shekard – 18

11) Tris Speaker – 18

11) Joe Tinker – 18

14) Rod Carew – 17

14) Eddie Collins – 17

14) Larry Doyle – 17

17) Tommy Leach – 16

18) Ben Chapman – 15

18) Fred Clarke – 15

18) Lou Gehrig – 15

I was surprised that, although Robinson’s 19 steals of home are impressive, they are not nearly the greatest total of all time.  Ty Cobb’s record of 54 career steals of home is a record that I can’t imagine ever being broken.  The most recently active player with at least ten career steals of home plate is Paul Molitor, who retired 14-years ago at age 41.

The biggest surprise to me on the list I posted above is Lou Gehrig.  Who knew Gehrig stole home just four fewer times in his career than Jackie Robinson?  In truth, if Gehrig had one flaw as a baseball player, it was as a base stealer.  In his career, Gehrig stole 102 bases, but was also thrown out 100 times.

Among baseball statisticians, anything less than a 70% success rate means you should have stayed put.  A 50% success rate indicates an actual loss of overall run production, due to the opportunities squandered where a base runner who had stayed put might have been driven home by his teammates.  (See Tourtellotte’s article for more on this as well.)

Anyway, if you have Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri around you in the lineup, is there really any reason to try to steal home?

Speaking of Babe Ruth, it may also come as a surprise to you that The Bambino actually stole home ten times in his career, most, presumably, on the front end of double-steals.

Strategies and game conditions have, of course, changed a great deal over the past hundred years.  For many reasons too numerous to discuss in this post, the steal of home hasn’t been a significant part of the National Pastime for decades.

Nevertheless, when it does occur, it brings us back to a time when daring base runners challenged pitchers to a duel unlike any other in sports:  I can run faster than you can throw.  It is a challenge that links us to baseball’s historic past, even as the game continues to evolve on into the future.

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Jackie Robinson Day: Pros and Cons

William Tasker, who writes and publishes the always interesting “Flagrant Fan” baseball blog (you’ll see it over to the right on my blog roll) is a friend of mine, a fellow Mainer (though I left three years ago) and a knowledgeable, ardent baseball fan.  He is also one of the most fair-minded, genuine, decent people you could ever hope to know.

But that doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye on every occasion, even regarding baseball.  For example, I’m a Mets fan, and he’s not yet a Mets fan, so I’ll let it go at that.  More to the point, his post today entitled, “Debating Jackie Robinson Day,” espoused a point of view that I found myself strongly disagreeing with.

Let me make it clear that although I disagree with William’s point of view here, I never once while reading his article suspected malice aforethought on his part, nor do I believe his intentions are anything but (in keeping with the wishes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) colorblind in nature.  In short, in no way shape or form do I for one second think that  William is motivated by bigotry.

What I’ve chosen to do here is first to republish the content of his post, then to publish my own response to his post, both of which, of course, you will also find over on his blog. So read it here, or read it there, it’s your choice.  William’s article is published in bold, and my response is published in italics.  After reading both (and thank you for that), I’d like to know your opinion of our opposing points of view, and why you feel the way you do.

Here’s William’s post:

Writing this post is dangerous as Jackie Robinson is an icon of righting a long-held wrong. And there is full acknowledgement here of Robinson’s place in history. Martin Luther King himself spoke of Robinson’s historical place in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no doubt that Robinson’s courage and the way he handled himself as the first African American in modern baseball. Every tribute that has been thrown towards the man and his actions are earned. The only question asked here is when is enough, enough?
 
If Major League Baseball does this every season and every player wears Number 42 one day every year, will we get immune to the meaning behind the event? Will it become passe? And just like Martin Luther King became the American symbol for the tragedy millions of American blacks who fought and suffered, doesn’t focusing on just one man take our vision away from everyone else? King did not march alone. There were many, many other brave Americans that marched right along with him. They were beaten too. They were jailed too. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. But he wasn’t alone.
 
Shouldn’t we have a Larry Doby Day? Doby was the pioneer in the American League. The year was also 1947. Doby did not have it any easier. His role was no less painful. Would not it be fitting for all of baseball to wear Number 14 for a day? Should not umpires have an Emmett Ashford Day? Or is this like Columbus Day where we will always remember one adventurer and not Henry Hudson and Juan Ponce De Leon?
 
Making this annual tribute does not feel right to this observer. It almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong. Robinson’s number is already retired around baseball by edict. He is in the Hall of Fame. There is no way his place in history will be forgotten. What he did should be taught for generations to our school children. But we do not do this for any other American. Do we? Baseball players are not asked to wear stove hat baseball caps on Lincoln’s birthday. Baseball does not acknowledge other important members of history in this way.
 
This writer understands that baseball has a problem. Not enough of our African Americans are drawn to baseball as a primary sport. Basketball and Football are much more glamorous to our young people. There are not enough African American baseball players in the sport, in the dugouts and in the front offices. Having this celebration every season does give such young people a day to think about. But it seems that young people are like most young people. They need current heroes to emulate, not someone who died a long time ago. Why not broaden the spectrum and make the annual celebration an African American celebration. Change it up a bit.
 
There is a fear in this corner that doing this the same way every year becomes mundane and at the same time  gives the appearance of forcing the event down every baseball fan’s throat. If any good meal is overcooked, it becomes inedible. Are we going to be doing this the same way for the next fifty years? It seems time to broaden the scope of our vision. Nobody is going to forget Jackie Robinson. Nobody is going to lessen his place in history if we do so. The Number 42 hangs in every ballpark. We don’t need a day every season where every player wears it.

Now here is my response, the intention of which is not to disrespect William’s perspective, but to humbly propose a different way of looking at things.

William, I love you, man, but I couldn’t disagree more. To start with, every great leader, whether we are talking about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, MLK, or Jackie Robinson, is an icon representing a particular historical time and place. We choose to memorialize them because it is clear that without their particular contribution in the right place at the right time, events would have played out very differently. Whether some people get tired of hearing about them or not is no reason to cease honoring them.

Nor is it quite enough to honor a random person (black or white) to “change things up,” because that more than anything would only trivialize the reason for the memorial in the first place. Men (and women) who demonstrate not only bravery, but who have the gift of leadership, are not just like the rest of us. Who, exactly, do you think is tired of having Jackie’s legacy “forced down their throat?” Are these people also tired of having the annual celebration of the 4th of July shoved down their throat, or are we only comfortable with holidays that allow white people to feel good about themselves? 

Larry Doby, who I’m sure was a brave man, only had 32 official at bats, and played the field only enough to record 15 total chances in ’47, so, for all intents and purposes, Jackie truly was alone in breaking the color barrier in ’47.   Also, when you say that it, “almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong,” well, yes, isn’t that exactly the point?  And shouldn’t it be?  It was MLB, not some distant, alien force that created the color barrier in the first place, so an annual public penance seems appropriate to me.

Finally, when you argue that no one will forget Jackie, so, in effect, it is safe to move on, I have to ask you, how many Americans have already forgotten about (or have never even heard of) Winston Churchill, The Triangle Factory Fire, the Johnstown Flood, Woodie Guthrie, Jack Johnson (the black heavyweight boxer), Jesse Owens, and Moses Fleetwood Walker? The thing is, Americans are really, really good at forgetting important people and events. That’s why we have T.V., Hollywood, and Glenn Beck to shove propaganda down our collective throats. 

Honoring Jackie once per year is a very small price to pay to hold ourselves as a society even minimally accountable to one another. 

Over and out, dude.

Bill

Stylistically, I know, it’s not one of my strongest pieces, but this is, after all, just a letter.  Anyway, do you think I’m full of shit?  If so, let me know.  I always enjoy hearing from you guys.

Ten Reasons Why Baseball is Better Than Football

I have to face the fact that football seems to have brazenly overtaken baseball as the de facto national pastime.  Even in its off-season, football news and gossip (usually the same thing), often intrudes itself into our lives with depressing regularity.  The bi-weekly drug arrests, revolving quarterback soap operas, and mind-numbing stories about which draft picks will break camp hold about as much interest for me as my aunt’s wilted cole slaw on Easter Sunday.

Still, I won’t go down without a fight.

So, for the record, here are ten reasons why baseball is better than football.

1)  Baseball is not constantly interrupted by little men throwing their dainty little yellow flags all over the field every time they have a conniption fit because they saw something that offended their hair-trigger sensibilities.

2)  Baseball players do not wear helmets that make them look like anonymous Terminators bent on the destruction of the universe.  They look like actual, you know, people.

3)  When a baseball player hits a home run, peer pressure causes him (generally) to put his head down while circling the bases, cross home plate, and quietly receive the accolades of his teammates.  When a football player scores a touchdown, he (generally) responds with an epileptic seizure in the end zone.  It’s not something I enjoy watching, and it makes me wonder why they don’t regulate their medication more effectively.

4)  Baseball fans embrace their sports history and mythology in a way that football fans are incapable of understanding.  Baseball’s lineage is practically Biblical.  To the average football fan, football history goes back to last weekend.

5)  A father playing catch with his son is an emotional bonding experience, passed down through the generations, an unspoken acknowledgement of love, mortality and hope.  A father throwing a football at his son is just a guy suffering from low self-esteem who needs to occasionally pretend that he is an N.F.L. quarterback so he can justify the ongoing emasculation he suffers every Monday morning at work.

6)  Baseball has induced tremendous social change in America.  Jackie Robinson is one of the most famous Americans who ever lived.  His personal bravery and talent greatly improved our civil society by challenging us to re-examine our personal values regarding fairness, race, and what it means to be an American.

Football teaches us that there is nothing bigger in life than immediate success and personal gratification.  Winners are loved, losers are vilified, and none of it means anything three days later.

7)  Baseball gave us Tommy John surgery so that young men with injured arms could rejuvenate their careers.  Football has given us Post-Concussion Syndrome in numbers so large that it is now becoming a virtual epidemic.

8)  A baseball diamond is a pastoral throwback to a time when most of America lived on or near farms and in the countryside, and understood man’s proper relationship to his world.  The football grid-iron, by contrast, resembles the endless modern suburban sprawl that disconnects us from our natural environment as well as from ourselves.

9)  Baseball has “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a fun, carnival-like song that kids and grownups alike can relate to.  Football has “Are You Ready for Some Football?” an unimaginative, annoying pseudo-country song written by a man who has forever been trying to simultaneously emerge from and cloak himself with the shadow of his much more talented father.

10)  Every baseball at bat boils down to one man facing another, and may the best man win.  It is Achilles vs. Hector, Burr vs. Hamilton, Doc Holliday vs. Johnny Ringo.  An N.F.L. quarterback, by contrast, has no correspondingly singular opponent.  The protagonist has no antagonist.  He wields his sword dubiously against the faceless masses before him, a Roman Legionnaire lost amidst the swirl of the barbarian horde.

And that’s why baseball is better than football.

Happy Endings: The Art of Going Out On Top

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was announced that Andy Pettitte was going to come out of retirement to pitch yet another season for the Yankees, the first thing I thought was, why bother?  What does he have left to prove?  He has 240 regular season wins to his credit, plus another 19 playoff game wins.  Pettitte will turn 40-years old in June.  Why take the risk of potentially embarrassing himself in front of his fans?

Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is heading the other way, recently announcing that 2o12 will be his final season in the Majors.  When he was healthy enough to play, Chipper (who turns 40 in April) put up some decent numbers last season.  Again, though, one has to wonder why it is even necessary to attempt one more season.  Like Pettitte, Jones has had a long and distinguished career, so why risk going out with a sub-par performance?

This led me to consider how few players in baseball history have retired at or near the top of their game.  After examining the final seasons of many of baseball’s best players, the answer is damn few.

If Pettitte had decided to stay retired, his final performance in 2010, an 11-3 record in 21 starts with a 3.28 ERA (and an ERA+ of 132), would actually qualify as one of the finest final season performances by any pitcher in baseball history.

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, if Chipper Jones had retired after last season when he swatted 33 doubles to go along with his 18 homers, 70 RBI and OPS+ of 123, he could have held his head high.

This is not to say that Chipper or Pettitte will perform terribly in 2012, but baseball’s long history of final performances is one long, ugly indictment of playing one season too many.

Having said that, here are eight random final season performances that were actually quite impressive.  In some cases, the player was forced into retirement due to physical reasons.  In other cases, the player had become so controversial that no team would sign him, regardless of his ability to remain productive.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle (Photo credit: Keith Fujimoto)

1)  Albert (Joey) Belle – You remember him best, perhaps, as the infamous sociopath who tried to run over some kids with his car on Halloween night.  You might also remember that Belle was one hell of a hitter during his career.  As far as I can tell, Belle is the only player in history to drive in at least 95 runs in every one of his full seasons in the Majors, including 103 in 2000, his final season.

In 2000, Belle cranked 37 doubles to go with 23 homers and a .281 batting average for the Orioles.  His OPS was .817.  While not one of his greatest years, it was far superior to the average final season of most Major League sluggers.  He retired at the age of 33.

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank,...

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)

2)  Eddie Plank – “Gettysburg”  Eddie Plank, unlike the vast majority of highly successful pitchers, Plank did just fine in his last season in the Majors.  Although his record in his final season in 1917 (pitching for the St. Louis Browns) was just  5-6, he posted a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 131 innings.  His ERA+ was an outstanding 147.  Clearly, this 41-year old future HOF’er had something left in the tank.  But he wisely decided to call it quits after that final season.

3)  Reggie Smith –  One of the most underrated players in baseball history, and one of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith enjoyed his final hurrah in 1982 at the age of 37 while playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Entering ’82, Smith was just four homers shy of 300 for his career.  He ended up slugging 18 while playing his home games in Candlestick Park, a notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Smith’s triple slash line in ’82:  .284 / .364 / .470, with an OPS+ of 134, were remarkably similar to his overall career numbers:  .287 / .366 / .489, OPS+ of 137.  In other words, Smith was about as productive in his final season as he had been in any previous average year.  That’s not at all a bad way to go out.

4)  Tony Gwynn– Even in his final season at age 41, was anyone really surprised that Gwynn batted .324?  Granted, he played in just 71 games in 2001, but his OPS+ during those plate appearance, 127, was pretty close to his career OPS+ of 132.  Gwynn was essentially the same professional hitter at age 41 as he had been much earlier in his career.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

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

5)  Jackie Robinson –  Given the relentless abuse heaped upon him day after day, year after year, it’s a wonder he played as long as he did.

Robinson was already 28-years old when he debuted in the Majors in 1947.  He played a solid decade before retiring after the 1956 season at the age of 37.  During this decade, he was a career .311 hitter who scored at least 99 runs in each of his first seven seasons.  His career OPS+ was an excellent 131.

In his final season, despite playing in just 117 games, Robinson drew 60 walks while striking out just 32 times, posting a .382 on-base percentage.  He posted an outstanding dWAR of 1.9, and a respectable overall WAR of 4.6, third best on the 1st place Dodgers.  He also finished 16th in MVP voting, not a bad way to end a legendary career.

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inn...

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inning of 12 August 1992 game between San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game boxscore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Will Clark – Will “The Thrill” Clark was one of my favorite players of the late 1980’s into the early ’90’s.  He played with intensity, had a beautiful left-handed line-drive swing, and was nimble around first base.  His career OPS+ of 137 is the same as the aforementioned Reggie Smith, and is better than those of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, George Brett, Al Kaline, and Paul Waner.

His final season in the year 2000 did nothing to blemish his fine career.  In splitting his season between Baltimore and St. Louis, Clark posted a fine triple slash line of .318 / .419 / .546 and an OPS+ of 144 in 507 plate appearances.  His overall WAR was a respectable 4.1.  Retiring at the age of 36, Clark certainly went out at the top of his game.

7)  Mike Mussina –  That rarest of rare pitchers, Mussina decided to retire after winning 20 games for the first time in his career (at age 39) while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008.  As far as I know, no health issues would have prevented him from returning for yet another season at the age of 40.  Clearly, he decided he’d had enough.

Those 20 victories pushed his career total to 270, and probable induction into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer ...

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer in a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Sandy Koufax – Koufax and Mussina are the only two pitchers since 1920 who retired after posting 20-win seasons.  Mussina did it out of choice.  Koufax was forced into retirement due to chronic pain in his elbow.

It’s interesting to speculate how much longer Koufax would have pitched had he not suffered from this lingering pain.  Would he have eventually bounced around like Steve Carlton in his final years, trying to recapture lost glory?  And if he had tried to pitch while declining in effectiveness year after year, would his legendary reputation have become diminished over time?

Regardless, Koufax’s final season in 1966 at age 30, pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, was the single finest final performance in baseball history.  En route to his third Cy Young award over four seasons, Koufax posted a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA (which led the league for the fifth straight year), 27 complete games in 41 starts (both of which led the league), 317 strikeouts, and a ridiculous ERA+ of 190.  His WAR was 10.8, matching his career high set in 1963.

I think Neil Young had it correct when he said it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Regarding Chipper Jones and Andy Pettitte, it remains to be seen if their final seasons will match those listed above, or if their respective final seasons were one year too many.

New Negro League Data-Base on Baseball-Reference.com

I was pleased to read today on the homepage of the National Baseball Hall of Fame that Baseball-Reference.com now features a new database of Negro League statistics.  They do not claim that these statistics are anything but incomplete, but, at last, a serious attempt is being made by a highly credible baseball website to document the long-neglected accomplishments of Negro League players.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Below is the official press release of the National Baseball Hall of Fame on this topic:

March 22, 2012
Statistics for Negro Leagues players, like Hall of Famer Buck Leonard (shown crossing home plate), are now online at baseball-reference.com. (NBHOF Library)Statistics for Negro Leagues players, like Hall of Famer Buck Leonard (shown crossing home plate), are now online at baseball-reference.com. (NBHOF Library)

COOPERSTOWN, NY – For more than a century, African-Americans made history on the baseball diamond prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues.

Beginning today, that history – in the most complete form ever assembled – is available to a world-wide audience through one of the game’s premier statistical websites.

Statistics on Negro Leagues players are now available through the Hall of Fame’s website partner, www.baseball-reference.com. The website, which has become the go-to resource for baseball statistics throughout the industry, will publish biographical and statistical information on all Negro Leagues players who were identified in a groundbreaking study commissioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum a decade ago.

“The data that forms the basis of these statistics is the result of years of tireless research by a dedicated team of historians,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We are so proud to have been able to facilitate this research, and equally pleased that our partner, baseball-reference.com, is able to make this information available to the public. This history that once was lost is now alive to help tell the story of the great African-American baseball heroes of the early 20th Century.”

The Negro Leagues statistical database is the most comprehensive study on African-American Baseball ever produced, a team effort of “The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group” deputized by the Hall of Fame Board of Directors in 2001 and led by Dr. Larry Hogan, Dick Clark, and Larry Lester. Major League Baseball provided the Baseball Hall of Fame with a $250,000 grant in July 2000 in order to initiate a comprehensive study on the history of African-Americans in Baseball, from 1860-1960.

The research resulted in a raw narrative and bibliography of nearly 800 pages and a statistical database, which includes 3,000 day-by-day records, league leaders and all-time leaders. The research was culled from box scores from 345 newspapers of sanctioned league games played from 1920-48.

“There have been a number of books capturing oral histories, biographies written about players, and team histories, but few mediums tackle the statistical challenge of compiling data from the Negro Leagues,” said Larry Lester. “The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group was tasked with this challenge in 2001, and a decade later we present, via www.baseball-reference.com, a sampling of our findings. More data will be released, once a complete audit has been done, that will demonstrate the talent of men who played before Jackie Robinson entered the Major Leagues.”

The study includes sanctioned league game box scores from almost 100 percent of games played in the 1920s, in excess of 90 percent of the box scores from games played in the 1930s and box scores from 50-70 percent of games played in the 1940s and 50s, during which time the various leagues began to disband and newspapers ceased to report game information. The end result is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics on the Negro Leagues that has ever been accumulated.

The compiled statistics will be accessible at baseball-reference.com like the data from the 17,000-plus men who have played Major League Baseball. There were no formal or official statistics from the various Negro Leagues, but the numbers in the database represent league-sanctioned games from 1920-54 for which there is a viable box score. Exhibition games and other related events are not included.

“This treasure trove of information on the Negro Leagues fills in a major gap of the historical record of the game of baseball,” said Sean Forman, the founder of baseball-reference.com. “The research provided from the study, along with the technology that allows it to be published and accessed, will result in a greater understanding of the Negro Leagues, and ultimately more research on the subject.”

For more information, please visit www.baseballhall.org.

“A Moment In Time” – A Baseball Book Review

“A Moment in Time:  An American Story of Baseball, Heartbreak and Grace,”  By Ralph Branca, with David Ritz.  Published by Scribner, New York.  2011.

How long could you live with a secret? Not just any secret, but the secret about how your life changed forever due to a conspiracy of epic proportions?

An image of Major League Baseball manager Leo ...

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And suppose you knew that the man who benefited from changing your life forever, for the worse, would benefit from doing so for the rest of his life?

Could you keep that a secret?

Remarkably, that’s what Ralph Branca did, until the recent publication of his brand new book, “A Moment In Time,” (coauthored with David Ritz.)

As one would expect, there is a thread of bitterness throughout this fascinating inside look at the Dodger’s clubhouse in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s.  Ralph Branca, who grew up a Giants fan watching Mel Ott play at the Polo Grounds, enjoyed his greatest triumphs pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He would suffer his greatest defeat, however, at the hands of the team he once rooted for as a child.  In fact, the manager who orchestrated the sign-stealing scandal (which did not come to light until decades later), Leo Durocher, was Branca’s manager, whom Branca respected and admired, while Durocher managed the Dodgers before being sent packing to the Giants by Branch Rickey.

But long before Giants slugger Bobby Thomson hit what became known as ‘The Shot Hit ‘Round the World,” on the last day of the 1951 baseball season, Branca was a successful young pitcher with a cocky attitude playing on a legendary team in a historic era.  Branca relates early on in this heartfelt story about how the Dodgers as individuals, for example, treated Jackie Robinson.

We learn that PeeWee Reese, who would grow into one of Robinson’s staunchest defenders, was at first ambivalent and cool towards Robinson.  Branca himself, along with Gene Hermanski, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider, treated Robinson with respect, but several other players in the Dodger’s clubhouse did not.

Branca, of Italian heritage, (he was later surprised to learn that his mother was actually a Jew who converted to Catholicism because she thought her children would be better off) relates a moment early in his life when an educator dissuaded Branca from applying for college because of Branca’s ethnic heritage.

In those days, working class Italian-Americans were not considered college material.  No doubt this moment highly influenced his future empathy towards Robinson and the other “negro” players coming into the Majors in the late 1940’s.

Branca’s style throughout the book is direct, proud, articulate, and perceptive.  He has a knack for remembering all kinds of details, especially his own personal statistics, and how much money he got paid throughout his years as a baseball player.  But also, the details of conversations he had with Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, with his own brothers, and with the woman he courted and would later marry, Ann Mulvey.

Occasionally, it is obvious that he is his own biggest booster, but given the magnitude of the baseball scam played against him and his teammates by the Giants in 1951, one has to feel that he has every right at this point in his old age to say whatever he wants to say.

Branca relates, in almost excruciating detail, how the Dodgers slowly watched the 13 1/2 game lead they’d had on August 11th, slip away as the Giants made an incredible run to catch them on the last day of the season.  Now one outside of the Dodgers clubhouse, of course, knew at the time about the telescope the Giants had set up in center field at the Polo Grounds, which they would bring with them on the road as well.

But Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who replaced Leo Durocher, was so obsessed by Durocher’s reputation (as portrayed by Branca), that he made several dumb moves throughout the season.  The dumbest move of all has to be that when the Dodgers won the coin-toss to decide if they would open the three-game playoff series at home or on the road, Dressen chose to play the first game at Ebbett’s Field, thus allowing the Giants to have home field advantage for Game Two, and if necessary, Game Three as well.

Without going into the surprising details of how Branca first learned about the Giants cheating scandal a few years later in 1954, the final quarter of the book covers Branca’s reaction to this shocking revelation, how it affected his surprisingly long relationship with Bobby Thomson over the next few decades, and why he never chose to come forward with the information about this scandal himself.

Suffice to say that Branca is a man of tremendous personal integrity, amazing generosity of spirit and deep religious faith.

Branca’s baseball career did not last long, and he will be forever remembered as the pitcher who served up the Thomson home run in the playoff game in ’51, thereby handing the Giants the pennant that year.

But “A Moment In Time” also shows that a man is much more than the one episode he is fairly or unfairly remembered for. Baseball was lucky to have had a Ralph Branca as its “goat.”

Because any man who chooses to live with a dark secret so as not to hurt the other people in his life is truly a hero.

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