The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Ernie Lombardi”

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

 

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Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 15 – The St. Louis Cardinals

Only 13 catchers have ever been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

They are:

1) Johnny Bench  2) Yogi Berra  3) Roy Campanella  4)  Carlton Fisk  5) Gary Carter  6) Micky Cochrane  7) Gabby Hartnett  8 ) Rick Ferrell  9) Buck Ewing  10) Bill Dickey  11) Ernie Lombardi  12) Roger Bresnahan  13) Ray Schalk

Certainly, as soon as Mike Piazza becomes eligible, he will join this group.  Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez is  likely to become the 15th member, assuming he doesn’t get caught in the steroid scandal.

Current Twins catcher Joe Mauer, owner of three A.L. batting titles, is the best bet among the current crop to make it into Cooperstown someday.  Still, that means that fewer than 20 catchers will enjoy their place in the HOF for at least the next couple of decades.

On average, then, approximately one catcher per Major League decade is enshrined in The Hall.

Obviously, the catching position, along with third base, is one of the two most underrepresented positions in The Hall.

Yet there is a catcher with remarkable career statistics who has never even sniffed Hall membership, peaking at just 3.7 percent of the Hall of Fame vote in 1994.

His name is Ted Simmons.

Simmons made his Major League debut with the Cardinals in 1968, the year Bob Gibson and company defeated the Tigers in the World Series.  Simmons retired 20 years later as a member of the Atlanta Braves.

Simmons spent the first thirteen years of his career with the Cardinals.  During that time, he was named to six All-Star teams, and he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times.  As an example of how much he was respected as a hitter, he twice led the N.L. in Intentional Walks.

But it is when one compares Simmons career stats with the other 13 HOF catchers that the magnitude of his accomplishments becomes apparent.

Ted Simmons hit more career doubles (483) than any catcher in the HOF.  Only the still active Pudge Rodriguez has ever hit more among players whose primary position was catcher.

Simmons’ 1389 career RBI’s are surpassed only by Yogi Berra.

Simmons’ 1074 runs scored ranks  fifth when compared to HOF catchers.  His .285 career batting average would be tied for sixth with Yogi Berra.  Simmons’ career On-Base Percentage (.348) is higher than those compiled by Fisk, Carter, and Bench, just two percentage points behind (again) Yogi Berra.

Ted Simmons walked more times in his career (855) than he struck out (694).

Simmons career OPS+ (117) is exactly the same as Carlton Fisk.

Ted Simmons amassed 3,793 total bases, good for 100th all-time for ALL Major League hitters.

Perhaps most impressively, not one catcher in the Hall of Fame has more career hits than Ted Simmons (2,472.)  Even Mike Piazza has fewer career hits than Ted Simmons.

Defensively, Simmons was overshadowed by Johnny Bench, then later by Gary Carter.  There is no question that Bench and Carter were the two best N.L. catchers of their respective eras.  But Ted Simmons was a good defensive catcher as well.

Although Simmons never won a Gold Glove, he did lead the league in assists twice: 1972, 1978.  He ranks 19th among all catchers in total putouts in for his career.

Ted Simmons’ Best Forgotten Season was 1975, when, as a 25-year old, he hit .332, slashed 193 hits, and compiled 285 total bases, all career highs.   He also drove in exactly 100 runs (one of three times in his career that he would reach that mark), and he also drew 63 walks while fanning just 35 times in 581 at bats.  His adjusted OPS+ was 142, sixth best in the N.L.

Simmons was a solid run producer as well.  His 108 Runs Created in 1975 was fifth best in the league.  He finished sixth in N.L. MVP voting in ’75.

But Simmons was one of those players, like Eddie Murray, who had about five different seasons that could be argued was his finest, depending on which statistics you choose to emphasize.

In 1977, he recorded a career-high on-base percentage of .408 along with a career OPS of .908.  That same season, he also led the N.L. in Intentional Walks with 25.  His WAR score of 6.3 was also a career high.  He also finished ninth in MVP voting that season.

In 1978, Simmons reached career highs in doubles (40), Slugging Percentage (.512) and OPS+ (148).

In 1980, his final season in St. Louis before he was traded to Milwaukee, he was awarded his one and only Silver Slugger award.

Simmons’ strength — his overall consistency — may have been his greatest enemy, however.  Because he never had a huge season where he, like Johnny Bench, won an MVP award or led his team to a World Championship, he tended to be overlooked and taken for granted.

Simmons never led his league in Home Runs, RBI’s, Batting Average, Runs Scored, or any other hitting category other than Intentional Walks and Grounded Into Double Plays.  He also never won a Gold Glove award.

Clearly, though, Ted Simmons deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

In fact, I would rate him first among all the players who deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown but who have not yet received that honor.  I would also rate him ahead of at least two catchers who are already in the Hall of Fame:  Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell.

Writer and statistician Bill James ranks Ted Simmons as the tenth best catcher of all time.  If you are in the top ten all time at any position on the baseball diamond, let alone the most difficult position of all, how can you not be considered good enough to be in the Hall of Fame?

Simmons had the bad luck to be born into the same generation that produced Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Thurman Munson.  Had he been born a decade earlier, or a decade later, he would have stood out as the best catcher of his generation, and his plaque would already be in Cooperstown.

In baseball, as in life, timing is everything.  But the time has come for Ted Simmons’ career accomplishments to be recognized and enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

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