The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Ernie Banks”

The Way of Things

We’d never been this far from our familiar stomping grounds before.  West of the railroad tracks, three blocks past State Street, (which was the normal boundary of our unofficial territory), across a large overgrown lot littered with needles, cans, and used condoms.  I think it was a park, but no longer functioning in its former capacity.

It was strange, actually, that we even found the place, considering we weren’t even looking for it, on a mission crafted of vague, half-formed ideas.  Let’s go looking for other kids to play ball against, in a place we’d never been before.  I would say that you used to be able make journeys like that in those days, but that would provide credence to an idea that was uniformly bad from the start.For one thing, none of us had brought any water, or any money.

 Normally, we didn’t have to worry about those considerations because, seldom straying far from home, we were always within a short walking distance to someone’s house, where a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade could be emptied into half a dozen plus one Dixie cups, our team sans a catcher and a proper center-fielder.  We savored the sweetness while sweating in someone’s kitchen, our gear smelling of soiled leather and splintered wood.

On this occasion, however, we set off on our ill-defined journey with less actual idea of where we might end up with than did Coronado four-hundred years earlier.  At least he had oxen and arquebuses.  All we had were feigned scowls and Pro Keds.

Johnny, the youngest among us, was always the first to speak up.  We’d been walking for around 45 minutes under a July southern New England sun, and were pretty thirsty and worse, we were getting on each other’s nerves.  And, as usual, Scott was Johnny’s favorite target.

“Jesus H. Christ, Scott, you got a load in your pants or something?  You walk like my grandma after her stroke.”

This, of course, would set off Scott, normally tightly wound to begin with, and now even more profoundly insecure with his newly acquired acne.  He was just 12, but his body had already begun to betray him.  A head taller than some of us, he was nonetheless the worst player in our group, though one we could always count on to never have anything better to do on any given day than to play baseball.

“AaarrrRRAHHH!”  He went after Johnny with his bat raised high, but none of us believed he’d actually ever hit Johnny with it.  Weirdly, they were actually quite inseparable; you never found one without finding the other.  Nevertheless, to save face, he needed to indulge in the pantomime of outrage to assuage his honor.  It’s just the way it was.  Johnny stopped Scott by pointing at another approaching tribe of ball players, more roughshod and studiously sullen than even ourselves.  And there were more of them.

Now, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that racial differences didn’t matter.  Our group could be loosely described as whitish, if you considered one Portuguese, one half-French / half-Italian, one theatrically tall long-limbed loudmouth with dried Prell Concentrate in his hair, a pair of third generation Slovaks whose mother still made us say the rosary at home on Wednesday nights, one black kid who got beat up by the other black kids in our school for “jumping like a white boy” (worse than that, actually), and one other boy named John (as opposed to Johnny) who recently emigrated from Cape Verde (of all places) with the tanned, dewy skin of a doe.  He was normally the most frightened of all of us, or at least the first to reveal his fear.

“Them Portuguese are gonna beat me up!”  John exclaimed.  No one knew why, but John always referred to anyone with skin even darker than his own as Portuguese.  John was probably strong enough to take on two or three of them, but he couldn’t exactly be counted on if things got a little rough.

“Can it, John.  Let me handle this,” announced Johnny, always the first to dive in to the deep end of a tsunami.

For some reason, though, when the eight or nine boys from the West Side reached us, silent and serious, it was me they first spoke to.  How they had apparently reached this unspoken consensus that I might be the leader our tribe was beyond me.  The only reason I wasn’t truly terrified was that just the previous week, I’d been in a fight in my own backyard with a local Puerto Rican kid named Matos, and had come out of it mostly O.K.

We’d been playing a version of football where the goal was simply to tackle each other as hard as we could whenever we ended up with the ball.  Tackling Matos, I’d taken a knee to the cheek but had brought him down just the same.  A moral victory for the boy in the plaid pants.

“Whatchoo doin’ around here?  We ain’t never seen you guys before.  You looking for a fight or somethin’?”  They got right to the point.  No 18th-century parlay and tea for these guys.  “Nah, we just wanta play some ball.  Looking for someplace different to play.”  Then, in a bit of divine inspiration intended to gain a modicum of respect with this crowd, “The police keep chasing us out of our neighborhood.  Damned cops.”  I could feel the eyes of Scott, Johnny and my gang boring into the back of my head with a unified “WTF is he talking about?”  Wisely, however, they kept their collective mouths shut.

“Oh, yeah, so you come over here looking for a game?  You from the South Side?”  Actually, I wasn’t really sure what side of town we were officially from, so I barely nodded in the affirmative.  I’m pretty sure we were actually West End kids, too, in a way, but I hadn’t been raised studying the geography of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  In school, we were forced to trace the journeys of Marco Polo and Magellan, but we were never required to know how to find our way from one public school district to another.  There Be Dragons.

“Yeah, man, we just looking to play some ball.”  Never taking my eyes off of their de facto spokesperson, I simply stated our case without inflection, fear or attitude.  After a quiet moment, it was clear that neither group was hoping for a fight, and that other than the prospect of a baseball game, none of us had any other reason to stand there staring at each other a moment longer.

“You get first ups,” stated their little leader, perhaps eleven-years old.  The boy had toes coming out of his right sneaker.  His glove was a floppy mess of dead leather, and his hair hadn’t seen a comb since perhaps springtime.  But he ran out to the shortstop position like a young Ernie Banks.  The other kids on his team, outfitted in Sears hand-me-downs just like us, followed his cue and took the field like the young ghosts of a Negro League long forgotten.  We had no chance.

Who knows how many innings our game lasted.  We lost count at around eleven or twelve.  No one wanted to stop playing.  It was more than a game.  Two lost tribes had improbably found one other on a field that wasn’t even there to host baseball, but baseball sprouts in the most unlikely locations.  Dusk gradually gave way to evening, and at some point, a few of their players simply vanished.  Not of the metaphysical persuasion, I simply chalked it up to everyone has a bedtime or a dinnertime somewhere in the world.

Once the ball itself disappeared into the darkening outfield, amidst the tall grass and the empty beer cans, we had no choice but to stop the game.  I knew that they had probably won, though we had held our own.  Their young leader jogged in from his shortstop position as my gang gathered round.  We were waiting for him to announce some fraudulent score that would certainly send Johnny into paroxysms of incandescent profanity that would light up the night sky.  But, instead, the boy said, “We’ll finish this game tomorrow.”  Then he turned around and took off, the last one of their group off the field.

“Well, shit,” Johnny started.  “My old man will probably kick my ass for being out so late tonight as it is.”

“Yeah,” said Scott.  “No way I’ll be allowed to come all the way out here again tomorrow, or ever again probably.”

The other boys around us nodded in agreement.  This game would go in the books as a permanent tie.  In all the years we played together before and after that, it was the only tie game we allowed to occur.  Forever after, when we remembered this game, we simply called it, “The Tie.”

Years later, when I was in my late twenties,  I happened to drive by that empty old field on my way to a funeral.  No one was around but a homeless man on a park bench, sipping from a brown paper-bag.  I couldn’t help myself, and pulled over to look at the place one more time.  No boys running around through the trash.  No yelling to throw the ball to second base.  No pop ups to the infield.  Just quiet, and an old man drinking.  I just stood there with my arms on my hips.

“Looking for something?”  The man asked me.  He wore an old sports coat, green pants, and had holes in his shoes.

“Not really sure,” I smiled back at him.

“Well, you just wait around a bit, and I’m sure it’ll all come back to you.  That’s just the way of things.”

That’s just the way of things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Baseball Stories You May Have Missed in 2012

There were lots of great stories this year.  The unexpectedly strong showings of the Orioles and the A’s, as well as the Nats, probably top the list.  Also, many people thought that no one would ever win another Triple Crown.  In past years, I’ve read articles that sought to “prove” that it could never happen again.  Miguel Cabrera’s remarkable achievement may be the last time many of us ever witness this event in our lifetimes.

Mike Trout’s historic rookie season was one for the ages.  No other rookie in history ever produced a 30 homer, 40 steal season, leading the league with 49 steals.  He also led the A.L. in runs scored (129) and in OPS+ (171).  It’ll be interesting to see how the vote for the A.L. MVP award turns out.

But there were several other “smaller” stories, if you will, that were no less worthy of notice.  Some of you will already be aware of some of these facts, stories, and other tidbits of information.  But, in general, the items that follow were each, in my estimation, a bit under-reported.  Then again, I’m attracted to relatively useless trivia, so please bear with me.

craig kimbrel

craig kimbrel (Photo credit: taylor magnone)

1)  Craig Kimbrel:  Kimbrel accomplished something this season that no pitcher, not Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera, Rob Dibble, Dick Radatz, or any other flamethrower, ever did before.  Kimbrel struck out half the batters he faced (116 out of 231.)  How crazy is that?  He also struck out about four batters for every hit (27) he surrendered in his 62.2 innings pitched.  His ERA of 1.01 and ERA+ of 399 are just cartoonish.  Oh, and did I mention he led the league in saves with 42?  Displaying impeccable control, he walked just 14 batters, and hit just two.  So yes, he’s a pretty good pitcher.

2)  Carlos Beltran:  Beltran became the eighth player in baseball history to join the 300 homer, 300 stolen base club.  He is the only switch-hitter in history to have both 300 homer and steals.  Currently, he has 334 homers (which puts him in the top 100 all time), and 306 stolen bases.  His outstanding 86.7 career stolen base percentage ranks 3rd best of all time.  Finally, Beltran’s career WAR of 62.3 — about the same as Ernie Banks — certainly places Beltran in the conversation about future Hall of Famers.

Joe Blanton

Joe Blanton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Joe Blanton:  I love Joe Blanton.  I have a separate post in mind devoted entirely to Joe Blanton.  I might even get around to writing it.  In the meantime, you might not find Blanton’s 10-13 record, 4.71 ERA or ERA+ of 84 to be awe-inspiring.  But did you know his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.88), ranked 2nd in the entire National League?  Did you know that his 1.6 walks / 9 innings was third best in the league?  How about that he had more shutouts (1) than Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto?  In fact, Cueto had only four more strikeouts than Blanton (170 to 166) in 2012, and it took Cueto 26 more innings to top Blanton.  Did you know these little bits of trivia?  Well, know you do.  And don’t you feel better knowing them?

4)  New York Yankees:  So the Yankees made the playoffs again.  Did you know the Yankees have now made the playoffs fifty-one times in their history?  All fifty-one times have occurred since 1921.  That means that over the past 92 seasons, the Yankees have made the playoffs 55% of the time.  No other team is particularly close.

Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders

Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Dodgers, for example, have made the playoffs 26 times since 1916.  That’s about 27% of the last 97 seasons.  The Cardinals have made the playoffs 25 times since 1926.  That’s about 29% of the best 87 seasons.  Not a bad showing.  The Giants and the A’s have each made the playoffs 24 times since 1905.  The Braves have been there now 22 of the past 99 seasons.  The Red Sox, 20 times since 1903.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century, no other team has ever made the playoffs as many as 20 times.

So the Yankees have made the playoffs about twice as often as the next best set of teams.  Even to someone like me who is not a Yankees fan, that’s an impressive run of success.

5)  Colorado Rockies:  On the other end of the spectrum, the Rockies have now existed for twenty seasons, and 2012 was their worst one yet.  Their .395 win-loss percentage was the lowest in team history.  You know you’ve had a bad year when the highest WAR recorded on the team was accumulated by a relief pitcher (Rafael Betancourt: 2.6.)  Their attendance this year was down to 2.6 million, not a bad total, but this once proud franchise topped well over three million spectators per year every season from their debut in 1993 through 2001.  In fact, in ’93, they drew about 4.5 million fans.

The Rockies are long past the point where it can be said that they’re a young franchise going through growing pains.  Now they are simply painful to watch.

6)  Alex Rios:  A fair amount has been written about the comeback season enjoyed by White Sox D.H., Adam Dunn, and rightly so.  Yet his teammate, outfielder Alex Rios, also managed a remarkable turnaround in 2012.  In 2011, Rios batted just .227, slugged .348, and posted an OPS+ of 63.  He hit 13 homers, stole eleven bases, and drove in 44 runs.  In 2012, he bounced back in a big way, batting .304, slugging .516, and posted an OPS+ of 124.  He also slugged 25 homers, stole 23 bases, and drove in 91 runs.

In other words, Rios was essentially twice the player in 2012 as he was in 2011.  Considering he was playing his age 31 season, that has to rate as one of the more unlikely comeback seasons in baseball history.  Considering the ChiSox are on the hook with Alex Rios for the next three years, they’ll have ample opportunity to find out which one is the “real” Alex Rios.

Omar Vizquel, with the Cleveland Indians

Omar Vizquel, with the Cleveland Indians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Omar Vizquel:  At age 45, Omar Vizquel is finally calling it quits.  He has certainly compiled some impressive stats over the course of his career, especially with his glove.  The three-time All Star won eleven Gold Gloves in his career, and his .985 career fielding percentage as a shortstop is the best in baseball history (minimum, 4,000 chances.)

Vizquel’s 28.4 dWAR is also among the top ten players in baseball history whose primary position was shortstop.  He ranks third all-time in assists, with 7,676, and 11th in putouts with 4,102.

As an offensive player, Vizquel accumulated 2,877 hits, good for 40th place in baseball history.  His 2,264 singles are 16th best.  His 456 doubles are more than HOF’ers Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Barry Larkin and Luke Appling.  He also stole 404 bases, and scored 1,445 runs.

Does Vizquel belong in the Hall of Fame?  On that issue, I abstain.  I’ll leave that decision up to the BBWAA to decide five years from now.

So there you have it,  seven items you may not have known about.  I hope you feel much more enlightened by this trivia I have shared with you.

You’re welcome.

The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 4

If the decade of the 1970’s is known primarily as the decade of uninhibited excess, that also applies to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame during that decade.  An astonishing 36 former Major League ball players were inducted during the ’70’s, 22 of them by the Veteran’s Committee alone.

As we have seen here, here, and here, through 1969, approximately 30% or more of the players elected to the Hall of Fame were either borderline candidates, or were outright mistakes.  This percentage would become worse by 1980.

Now let’s take a look at what the ’70’s had to offer.

1970:  BBWAA – Lou Boudreau  V.C. Earle Combs, Jesse Haines

Primarily a member of the Cleveland Indians, Boudreau was arguably the best shortstop in the A.L. during the 1940’s.  He led the A.L. in fielding percentage every single season from 1940-49.  He also led the league in overall WAR by a position player in both 1943 (6.7) and 1948 (10.5), winning the A.L. MVP award in ’48.  A career OPS+ of 120 is very solid for a shortstop, and his career WAR of 56.0 is Hall-worthy.

Combs in a photograph taken while he was playi...

Image via Wikipedia

Earle Combs was the starting center fielder for the ’27 Yankees.  He had a great year in ’27 posting a triple slash line of .356 / .414 / .511, with an OPS+ of 141.  He also led the league in hits (231) and triples (23) while scoring 137 runs.

But Combs got a late start in the Majors, not becoming a full-time starter until he was 26-years old.  He enjoyed nine productive seasons with the Yankees, but a career WAR of 44.7 (despite a career .325 batting average) is sub-par for a HOF candidate.

Combs was a very good player, but not quite Hall of Fame good.

At first glance, Jesse Haines appears to have been the Rick Reuschel of his era (the ’20’s and ’30’s.)  They each won a little over 200 games, tossed over 3,000 innings during 19 seasons,, and posted ERA+’s a little better than Replacement Level.

But Reuschel had a much higher WAR than Haines (66.3 to 33.8.)  If Reuschel doesn’t belong in The Hall (although a case can be made that he does), then Haines certainly does not, either.

1971:  V.C.  Dave Bancroft, Jake Beckley, Chick Hafey, Harry Hooper, Joe Kelley, Rube Marquard

Apparently, the Veteran’s Committee had fond memories of Dave, Jake, Chick, Harry, Joe and Rube.  But are all six of them really solid choices for the Hall of Fame?

Bancroft could field well, but as an overall player, he appears to have been a hybrid of Gary Templeton and Phil Rizzuto.  Led the league in times caught stealing (27) in his rookie year.  Career WAR:  46.4.  Not a positive addition to The Hall of Fame.

Beckley had a career WAR of 61.5.  He was never really a great player, but was consistent over a lot of years.  He led his league in triples once, and nothing else over a 20-year career.  He never finished higher than 5th place in WAR in any season.  Reasonably decent addition to The Hall, but not a true immortal.

Chick Hafeywas a rich man’s Mike Greenwell.  Hafey could hit pretty well, but didn’t remain productive for very long.  Won a batting title.  Average defensive outfielder.  Just 1,466 career hits.  Career WAR:  29.5.  Not a useful addition to The Hall.

Harry Hooper, Boston AL (baseball), cropped, h...

Image via Wikipedia

Harry Hooper played alongside Tris Speaker and Duffy Lewis in the great Red Sox outfield of the early 1900’s.  Of the three, however, only Speaker deserves to be in The Hall.  Hooper’s career triple slash line stands at .281 / .368 / .387.

Career OPS+ 114.  Career WAR: 52.5.  An excellent defensive outfielder with a career Def. WAR of 8.4.  At best, however, a borderline HOF’er.

Joe Kelley is certainly one of the most anonymous players in the Hall of Fame.  Enjoyed a few fine seasons in the 1890’s playing for Brooklyn.  His 194 career triples are 9th best of all-time.  Career OPS+ is a very decent 133.  Career WAR:  55.5.  About as borderline HOF as they come.

In 1912, pitching for the Giants, Rube Marquard was a great pitcher.  He led the Giants, and the N.L., with 26 wins.  The previous year he had led the league with 237 strikeouts.  But by age 27, he was a shadow of his former self.  He hung around the majors to win 201 games, but his career WAR: 28.5, reveals how little he actually accomplished over the rest of his career.  Marquard does not belong in The Hall.

1972:  BBWAA – Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, Early Wynn  V.C.  Lefty Gomez, Ross Youngs

Yogi Berra won ten World Series rings.  Career WAR:  61.9 (fifth best among catchers.)  358 career home runs.  Three MVP awards.  Strangely, Berra never led the league in any offensive category even once in his career.  That seems pretty unlikely for such a good hitter who played nearly 20-years, if you think about it.

Few players in baseball history have attained the untarnished legendary status of Sandy Koufax.  During a six-year period, 1961-66, he was among the very best pitchers who ever lived, winning three Cy Young awards in his last four seasons.  He struck out over 300 batters three times, tossing four no-hitters in his career.  Koufax compiled an astounding 47.6 WAR during those half-dozen years, an average of 7.9 WAR per year.

He accomplished all of this with style, dignity and professionalism seldom equaled in baseball history.

In 23 years in the Majors, Early Wynn enjoyed about five very good seasons and several other decent ones.  He topped 20 wins five times, led the league in strikeouts twice, and  finished his career with an even 300 wins (against 244 losses.)  Career WAR: 52.0.  Career OPS+ 1o7.  Even with 300 wins, Wynn is a borderline HOF’er.

The Veteran’s Committee must have confused Lefty Gomez with Lefty Grove.  But Gomez, despite pitching for the great Yankee teams of the 1930’s, won just 189 games in his career.  He led the league in wins twice, ERA twice, and ERA+ twice.  Basically, he had two great years and a few other good ones. Career WAR:  43.0.  Does not actually belong in The Hall.

Ross Youngs:  One of the most random of all Hall of Fame choices.  Young played just ten seasons in the Majors, from 1917-26 for the Giants.  He was a legitimate hitter, posting a career batting average of .322 and a career OPS+ of 130.  But he compiled just 1,491 hits in his career, and scored only 812 runs. His career just wasn’t long enough nor impressive enough to merit Hall induction.  Poor choice.

1973:  BBWAA – Roberto Clemente, Warren Spahn  V.C.  George Kelly, Mickey Welch

Roberto Clemente:  Warrior on the field, apostle of peace off the field.  Lived and died a hero to millions.  Even the Hall isn’t big enough to encompass his legacy.

Warren Spahn:  Who is the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history?  Spahn has a legitimate case.  His 363 career victories are the most since the end of WWII, and the sixth most in history.  He reached 20-wins in a season a ridiculous 13 times, leading the league in wins eight times.  His career WAR: 93.4, is 11th best among pitchers in MLB history, and is second only to Lefty Grove among left-handers.  An obvious choice for The Hall.

George “High Pockets” Kelly is yet another early 20th century Irishmen in The Hall.  The V.C. was also going through a Giants fetish at this time, thus a player with 819 runs scored, an OPS+ of 109, and a career WAR of 24.3 is in The Hall.  But he did have a cool nickname.

Mickey Welch

Image via Wikipedia

Mickey Welch:  My favorite stat for Welch is that he won 44 games in 1885, and did NOT lead the league in that category.  His 574 innings pitched in 1880 (age 20) also did not lead the league.  He won 307 games against 210 losses.  Career ERA+ 114.  Career WAR: 56.5.  Ah, hell. Put him in.  They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

1974:  BBWAA – Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle  V.C.  Jim Bottomley, Sam Thompson

It’s beautiful symmetry when two long-time teammates go into The Hall together.  Mantle and Ford are not only two of the greatest Yankees of all-time, they are both among the greatest players who ever lived.  Mantle is in the top ten.  Ford is a top 40 pitcher.  Both are certainly qualified for The Hall.

Jim Bottomley was a slugger for the Cardinals in the 1920’s and early ’30’s.  He won the N.L. MVP award in 1928.  He drove in a lot of runs, pounded his fair share of extra base hits, and finished with a career OPS+ of 124.  A crummy defensive player, Bottomley finished with a career WAR of 32.4.  I don’t quite see a HOF caliber player here.

Sam Thompson was a 19th century player who led his league in one category or another 21 times.  An OPS+ of 146 is very impressive.  Not a high career WAR, but they played somewhat fewer games per season back then.  He’s a legit HOF’er.

1975:  BBWAA – Ralph Kiner  V.C.  Earl Averill, Billy Herman

I seem to remember Bill James casting aspersions on Kiner’s selection to The Hall.  Kiner played only ten seasons in The Majors with the Pirates in the 1940’s and ’50’s, but led the league in home runs in each of his first seven consecutive seasons.  He also drew a lot of walks, scored a lot of runs, and drove in a lot of runs through age 30.

But after that, his career went downhill fast.  Although his career OPS+ is a very impressive 149, his WAR is just 45.9.  Sort of a cross between Jim Rice and Rocky Colavito.  Sprinkle in just a touch of Dave Kingman.  Bake at 375 degrees on a hot Pittsburgh summer day, and voila, you have yet another borderline HOF’er.  Bon appetit!

For some reason, Earl Averill got a very late start in The Majors, not breaking in until he was already 27-years old.  Played centerfield reasonably well for the Indians in the ’30’s piling up some pretty nice offensive numbers for a decade.  But his late start and rapid descent after age 36 results in a relatively low career WAR of 45.  If Averill’s in, there is no excuse to fuss and fight over Jim Edmonds’ candidacy a few years from now.

A well-respected player, Billy Herman was a ten-time N.L. All-Star selection.  During his 15-year career with the Cubs and Dodgers, he had three 200-hit seasons, topped 2,300 hits, and led his league once each in hits, doubles and triples.  Not much power.  Good fielder.  Career OPS+ 112.  WAR: 55.6.

If we arbitrarily establish that every position player with a career WAR of 55.0 or higher automatically gets into The Hall, then we have 141 position players (Jack Clark representing the last man in.)  But we lose three great catchers:  Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Buck Ewing.  If we drop the standard down to 50.0, we gain those three, plus we add Ted Simmons and Gabby Hartnett (as well as Cesar Cedeno, Ron Cey and Fred McGriff.)  Not that the Hall of Fame should exactly mirror the Hall of WAR, but the question is, how exclusive do you want The Hall to be?

1976:  BBWAA – Bob Lemon, Robin Roberts  V.C.  Roger Connor, Freddie Lindstrom

Bob Lemon – The bastard child of Allie Reynolds and Hal Newhouser.  Three-time winner of the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award.  Seven-time All Star.  Seven time 20-game winner.  Led league in complete games five times.  207-128 record.  3.28 ERA.  Career ERA+ 119 is the same as Ron Guidry and Warren Spahn.  WAR: 42.4.  Took about a dozen years for the BBWAA to finally decide this one.  If you prefer the more modern stats, he’s probably not your man.  But he’s not a poor choice, either.

Robin Roberts is a solid member of the Hall of Fame.  For six consecutive seasons, 1950-55, he won at least 20 games, adding 19 wins in 1956.  During that stretch, this Phillies ace led the N.L. in wins four times, complete games and innings pitched five times, and strikeouts twice.  Won 286 games against 245 losses.  He also led all N.L. pitchers in WAR four times.  Career WAR of 80.9 is outstanding.

Roger Connor was one of the finest corner infielders of the last two decades of the 19th century.  Career OPS+ 153 is outstanding.  WAR: 87.2.  Kudos to the V.C. for getting this one right.

Freddie Lindstrom:  Yet another Giant who played in the mid-to-late 1920’s and early ’30’s.  Led N.L. in hits once.  Had a pair of 231 hit seasons.  Reached 100 games played in just eight seasons.  Career WAR:  29.2.  There is really no objective reason why he should be in The Hall of Fame.

1977:  BBWAA – Ernie Banks  V.C.  Amos Rusie, Joe Sewell

Ernie “Let’s Play Two” Banks, except these days you have to spring for a day-night doubleheader.  Ah, nothing is sacred anymore.  “Mr. Cub” began his career with Chicago at age 22 in 1953, and retired with Chicago at age 40 in 1971.  Won back-to-back MVP awards in 1958-59.  Ranks 21st on the home run list with 512.  Easy choice for The Hall.

Amos Rusie pitched for just ten seasons between 1889 and 1901.  Won a lot of games.  Lost a lot of games.  Pitched a ton of complete games, as was the fashion back then.  Seems to have been one of the better pitchers of his era.  ERA+129.  WAR:  60.6.  And, of course, he played for the Giants.  The “ayes” have it.

English: Photo of Joe Sewell, Published by Bai...

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Joe Sewell was a pretty good shortstop who played primarily for Cleveland in the 1920’s.  Had one of the worst years in history attempting to steal bases.  In 1927, he attempted to steal a base 19 times, and was thrown out 16 times.  Ouch.  Career OPS+ 108.  A good player, but not really good enough for The Hall.

1978:  BBWAA – Eddie Mathews  V.C.  Addie Joss

Who was the greatest third baseman in history before Mike Schmidt came along?  It must have been Eddie Mathews.  A true immortal.

I’ve been intrigued by Addie Joss for a long time.  As far as I know, he is the only player in The Hall for whom they waived the Ten Year Rule, as Joss was struck down with a fatal disease (meningitis) after just nine years in the Majors.

His career numbers are unbelievable.  In five of his nine seasons, his ERA was under 2.00.  His career ERA of 1.89 is the second best in history, accumulated in over 2,327 innings pitched.  His career WHIP, .0968 is the best in Major League history.  His ERA+ of 142 is sixth best in history among starting pitchers who pitched at least 1,500 innings.  The Veteran’s Committee was right to waive the Ten Year Rule for Joss.

1979:  BBWAA – Willie Mays  V.C.  Hack Wilson

Willie Mays:  Among the top five, maybe the top three, players who ever put on a baseball uniform.  I always wondered why when Ted Williams was still alive, he, not Mays (nor Aaron for that matter) was always introduced as the Greatest Living Player.  Williams was the greatest natural hitter, but Mays was the better all around player.

Hack Wilson was a barrel-chested masher who still holds (and probably always will) the record for most RBI in a season (191 in 1930.)  Led N.L. in home runs four times.  Had six seasons with over 100 RBI.  But do you know what?  He still finished his career with fewer total RBI than Jeff Conine.  Also hit 56 home runs in 1930, but finished his career with only 244 homers, one less than Mickey Tettleton.   Played centerfield, but not very well.  Career WAR: 39.1.  Not a HOF’er.

Our overall tally, then, for this decade is 16 definite HOF’ers, 8 marginal choices and, unfortunately, 12 poor choices.  In effect, Hall voters may have missed the mark on up to 56% of their choices, an astoundingly high total.  The 1970’s, then, severely undermined the argument that only the best of the best are worthy of Hall induction.

If there ever was a Golden Age of Hall induction, clearly, we appear to be moving further away from it.

Perhaps the situation improved during the 1980’s.  We’ll check out that decade next time.

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Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Ernie Banks

1966 Ernie Banks Front

Image by cthoyes via Flickr

The following is a guest post written by Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present.  Graham’s blog is well worth a look, if you haven’t already visited it.

At first glance, the 1959 Chicago Cubs look something like an expansion team. A fifth place club that finished 74-80, Chicago did so with virtually no big names, mostly a conglomerate of over-the-hill veterans like Al Dark and Dale Long and young players who hadn’t accomplished much yet such as Moe Drabowsky and Tony Taylor. Exactly one name stands out, and it was like this at Wrigley Field most of the 1950s. That player is Ernie Banks.

The first ballot Hall of Famer, who turned 80 on January 31, did his best work as a young shortstop and lone wolf in Chicago. By the time some All Star assistance arrived in the early 1960s in the form of Billy Williams and Ron Santo, Banks was on the down slope of his career, mostly confined to first base and struggling to keep his OPS+ above 100 and provide starter-caliber WAR. His wonderful spirit of “Let’s play two!” and a less sophisticated understanding in those days of player value may have kept Banks a starter in his waning years. Today, he’d have a harder time sticking around to get 512 home runs.

At least in his early years, though, Banks was something special, with a career trajectory similar perhaps to Nomar Garciaparra. For the better part of a decade after Banks debuted in 1953, there were two certainties on the North Side of Chicago: The Cubs would finish under .500 and in the second division, and Banks would be an All Star and in the hunt for the National League Most Valuable Player award.

Banks was the first great black player for the Cubs and, at least in early seasons, perhaps the greatest power-hitting shortstop in baseball history aside from Honus Wagner (who led the National League in slugging six times and would have hit several hundred more home runs playing at any time since the Deadball Era.)

In many ways, 1959 was Banks’ finest season. That year, he became the first shortstop in N.L. history to win back-to-back MVP awards.  It’s worth noting Banks also posted career highs in WAR with 10.0 and RBI with 143, to go with 45 home runs, a .304 batting average, and an OPS+ of 155.

Though Banks played another 12 years, 1959 was the last year he hit above .300 and the second-to-last year he offered All Star-level WAR (5.0 or better) or any hopes of winning MVP. While 1960 looked like more of the same from Banks with a league-leading 41 home runs, fourth place in MVP voting, and even a Gold Glove to boot, it really was the beginning of a long decline. The high RBI totals Banks in his final seasons are less a reflection of his skill than that the Cubs were finally improving.

Chicago became a winning team in the late 1960s and eventually a playoff contender. But interestingly, as the Cubs were rising, their franchise icon was falling. One can only wonder how much better Banks’ stats would be if his career had began even a decade later.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: The New York Yankees

In case you’re just joining us, this is Part 3 of a series called “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons,” where I take a look at a couple of players from each baseball team who have largely been forgotten over the years.  In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about Lance Johnson and Frank Viola of the Mets, and Dave Kingman and Bill Buckner of the Cubs.

In Part 3, we will be taking a look at a couple of players who are not often remarked upon these days, but who, about forty years ago, performed extremely well for the New York Yankees.

But first, some background.

The years 1963-75 were not kind ones to the New York Yankees.  After having won nine World’s Championships from 1949-62, the Yankees (gasp!) did not even make it to another World Series until 1976.

There were several reasons for this decline.  One of the reasons was that the American League in general, and the Yankees (and the Red Sox) in particular, were slow to integrate African-American players into their ranks.

Most of the African-American stars who played in the major leagues in the middle of the twentieth century rendered their services to National League teams.  Willie Mays and Willie McCovey played for the Giants; Ernie Banks for the Cubs; Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella for the Dodgers; Frank Robinson for the Reds (although the Orioles were happy to steal him in 1966).  Hank Aaron, of course, was hitting homers for the Braves, and a little later, Gibson, Brock and Flood played in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, although Elston Howard had been on the Yankees since 1955, his talents had largely been wasted (300-400 at bats per season) until he finally took over full-time catching duties in 1962 at age 33.  The Bronx Bombers featured a decidedly white roster in those years that included Mantle, Maris, Rizzuto, Martin, Ford, Skowron, Richardson, etc.  Elston Howard’s blackness only served to accentuate the rest of the team’s whiteness.

Yet the Yankees enjoyed enormous success in the 1950’s and early ’60’s without having to alter the status quo.  Therefore, the lesson that the Yankees learned during this period of time was that if the N.L. wanted to bow to social pressures and seriously integrate their teams, fine.  But the Yankees weren’t going to bow to this fad.  Yankee Tradition was doing just fine, thank you, and would have none of that tomfoolery on display in the proletarian N.L.

By 1965, however, Yankee Tradition began to fray around the edges.  By 1969, when their cross-town rival Miracle Mets won a stunning victory over the heavily favored Orioles, Yankee Tradition had all but unraveled.

There was no way to ignore the fact that the Mets lineup included African-American players who made significant contributions to that World Series triumph.  Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, and Cleon Jones were integral parts of that Mets team.

Finally, in the Bronx, it was time for Plan B.  This plan took a while to implement because the Yankee farm system was largely bereft of “colored” talent into the mid-’60’s.  Yet even during this rare Yankee rebuilding phase, it soon became clear that the new master plan wouldn’t be entirely different from the traditional Yankee Way.

The new plan would simply be, as it turned out, a modest modification of the old traditional Yankee rosters.  Here’s what the new strategy would look like:  Instead of having a white super-star buttressed by a competent cast of white supporting personnel, the new Plan B would feature a white star providing leadership to a tolerably mixed race roster.

Enter Bobby Murcer and Roy White.

By the mid-60’s, the current Yankee star, Mickey Mantle, was essentially done.  His heir apparent would be a fresh-faced kid from Oklahoma, Mantle’s own home state.

Bobby Murcer signed a $10,000 dollar contract to play for the Yankees in 1964.  He turned down twice as much money offered to him by the Dodgers because he was a life-long Yankee fan.  He debuted in 1965 when he was just 19 years old.

After spending a couple of years in the minors, Murcer came up to stay with the big club in 1969.  By 1971, he had almost become the star the Yankees were hoping for.

When viewed in the context of what Mantle accomplished in the 1950’s and early ’60’s, Murcer’s accomplishments in his prime years, the early 1970’s, appeared to fall short.  He was not smashing forty or fifty homers a year.  He was not winning a Triple Crown.  And most importantly, he was not leading the Yankees back to glory.

Yet, in truth, baseball had already become a very different game by the late 1960’s, and well into the 1970’s.  Pitching, not hitting, was now dominant.  It was simply inaccurate and unfair to compare Murcer’s accomplishments stat-line by stat-line with what Mantle had accomplished in an era far friendlier to hitters.

Murcer’s best “forgotten” season, one of the best forgotten seasons by any Yankee, was 1971.  In that year, at age 25, Murcer had 175 hits, 94 runs scored, 25 homers, 94 RBI’s, 14 stolen bases.  He drew 91 walks while striking out only 60 times.  Now, those numbers might not look all that great until you take a second look.  Let’s flesh out the rest of his season.

In 1971, Murcer also hit .331, which was second in the league.  He led his league in runs created with 266.  He led the A.L. in on base percentage at .427.  He slugged .543 in an era when slugging over .500 meant something.  His OPS (on base plus slugging) was a league best .969.  His adjusted OPS+ was an astonishing 181, which means that, adjusting for ballpark and era, he was about 80% better than the average A.L. player that year.

It could be argued, however, that his 1972 season was in some ways even better.  Without going into all the numbers from that season, I’ll simply note that he led the A.L. in total bases with 314 and runs scored with 102.  His 70 extra base hits also led the league.  And in 1972, he won his first Gold Glove.

So take your pick, 1971 or ’72.  Either way, you are looking at a pair of the best “forgotten” seasons by a player on a team that has enjoyed more media coverage than several other teams combined.

Murcer, after spending a few decent seasons with the Giants and the Cubs, returned to the Yankees in 1980, having missed out on their World Series triumphs (which featured black players like Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph and others.)  He finished out his career with the Yanks in 1983 at age 37.

A five time all-star, Murcer hit 252 home runs in his career and drove in over 1,000.  He passed away almost two years ago at age 62, never having attained the super-star status the Yankee brass expected of him, never having led his team to a World Series.  But in his largely forgotten 1971 season, he was truly a star.

Roy White, being black, was, of course, supposed to play the supporting role on several Yankees championship teams.  Oddly enough, he did.

Roy White enjoyed a highly productive and lengthy career with the Yankees that lasted from 1965-1979, meaning that, unlike his contemporary Bobby Murcer, White went to three World Series with the Yankees, enjoying the triumphant World Championship seasons of 1977-78.

But White’s best forgotten season came much earlier.  Debuting in 1965 at age 21, White enjoyed his best year in 1970 at age 26, during the Yankees lost in the wilderness era.

White played all 162 games that season, which he would do again in 1973.  He had 180 hits in 1970, 30 of which were doubles, and he hit 22 homers, which translated into Year 2000 numbers, would have been more like forty.  He scored an impressive 109 runs, drove in 94, had 24 stolen bases, drew 95 walks (against just 66 strikeouts), and hit .296 with a .387 on base percentage.

His OPS+ in 1970 was an excellent 142.  He was also an excellent defensive outfielder.  In fact, he led A.L. outfielders in range factor six times, and in fielding percentage four times.  Always a good eye at the plate, White finished in the top ten in the A.L. in walks seven times.  He drew 934 walks in his career against just 708 strikeouts.

Roy White was drafted to be a competent black player on a white Bobby Murcer-led team.  Ironically, it was Roy White who helped guide the Yankees back to glory in the late ’70’s, while Murcer was exiled in Chicago.

In truth, though, both of these players enjoyed two of the most overlooked, underrated, and almost certainly forgotten seasons in the long history of the New York Yankees.

On a personal note.  I will be attending to some personal business for about a week, so I will not be posting again on this blog until about Friday, June 11th.  But please feel free to leave comments for me regarding your thoughts about this blog-post.  I’ll be looking forward to reading them when I return.

Thanks for reading, Bill

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