The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Forgotten Seasons”

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: The Montreal Expos

I always felt that Les’ Expos deserved better.

Lots of teams have fans that complain about the historic hard-luck of their favorite franchise.  The Expos hardly had any fans to do the complaining for them.  And even if they did, they might have complained in French, so few of us here in the U.S.A. would have understood them anyway.

Although I wasn’t a fan, I always had a soft spot for this team.  When I opened my very first pack of baseball cards in 1972, the first player I pulled out of the pack was Expos outfielder Clyde Mashore.  Clyde hit .227 that year, and retired the next season at the age of 28, having hit eight home runs in his short career.

Strangely, Mashore and I share a birthday, May 29th.

The next season, my dad took us on a trip to Canada, where we spent one night in Montreal.  That afternoon, I turned on the black and white T.V. in the hotel room, and lo and behold, there was an Expos game live from Jarry Park.  The broadcast was in French, the reception was poor, and after ten minutes my dad made me turn it off.

Jarry Park was the Expos home stadium from 1969-76.  It seated barely 30,000 people, had a swimming pool beyond the outfield wall, and was the place where Willie Mays played his final regular season baseball game with the Mets in 1973.  Today, the restructured edifice that was once Jarry Park is now called Stade Uniprix (Uniprix Stadium), and it is the main court of the Canada Masters Tennis Tournament.

It is also where Le Grande Orange once played baseball.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you were to put together an All-Time Expos squad, you would have yourself one pretty impressive roster.  Here are just some of the names that come to mind:

1B  A. Galarraga / A. Oliver

2B  D. Deshields

SS  W. Cordero

3B  T. Wallach

C.  G. Carter

OF  A. Dawson

OF  L. Walker

OF  M. Grissom

OF  V. Guerrerro

OF  T. Raines

OF  M. Alou

PH  R. Staub

SP  P. Martinez

SP  D. Martinez

SP  S. Rogers

SP  R. Grimsley

RP  J. Wetteland

RP  J. Reardon

Two of these players, Carter and Dawson, are in the Hall of Fame.  Two others, Guerrerro and Martinez (Pedro) will be.  And in my opinion, still two more, Walker and Raines, deserve to be.  Walker will be eligible next year, I believe.

In my opinion, Larry Walker is one of the most underrated players in baseball history.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find more than a couple of other teams in baseball history to have produced so many excellent outfielders in such a short period of time (about thirty years.)

But since I have limited myself, for the purposes of this series, to choosing just two players from each franchise, let it be Daniel Joseph (Rusty) Staub, and his former teammate, Steve Rogers.

Let’s take the pitcher first.

Even taking into account Pedro Martinez’s short but fantastic tenure with the Expos, Steve Rogers is the best starting pitcher the Expos ever had.  Drafted in the first round (4th pick overall) of the 1971 Amateur Draft, Rogers was the ace of the Expos staff from 1975 through 1983.  During those nine seasons, his highest ERA was 3.42 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

A constant victim of poor run support, and almost always matching up against the other team’s staff ace, he managed to post an overall win-loss record above .500 seven times in those nine seasons, while the Expos as a whole finished above .500 in just four of those seasons.

Rogers best season was in 1982, when, at the age of 32, he finished second in the Cy Young voting.  His record that year was 19-8, and he led the N.L. with a 2.40 ERA, and in ERA+ at 152.  He pitched 14 complete games, hurled four shut-outs, and posted a WHIP of 1.119.

Rogers spent his entire 13 year career in Montreal, finishing with a career record of just 158-152.  In various seasons, he led his league in complete games, shut-outs, ERA, ERA+…and losses.  He was a five time all-star selection, and he had an excellent career ERA of 3.17.

Steve Rogers just might have been the finest .500 pitcher in baseball history.

Going back a little further in Expos history, back to the days of Jarry Park, a young man with orange hair (thus, Le Grande Orange), smoked line-drives around the frigid little ballpark.

Rusty Staub et un autre joueur des Expos, 8 av...

Rusty Staub et un autre joueur des Expos, 8 avril 1970 (Photo credit: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Born in New Orleans on April Fool’s Day, 1944, he was signed by the Houston Colt .45’s (later, the Astros) in 1961.  After six productive seasons in Houston, including the 1967 season in which he batted .333 at the age of 23, Staub came to Montreal just in time for their initial campaign in 1969.

Although he played only three seasons in Montreal, it was arguably the finest three-year stretch of his career.  His OPS+ in those three seasons were: 166, 139 and 147.  It’s extremely difficult to choose just one of those seasons as his best because in each one of them, he enjoyed a personal high in either runs scored, RBI’s, batting average, home runs, games played, doubles and on-base percentage.

But ultimately I believe Rusty Staub’s finest forgotten season while playing with Montreal was 1971. He played in all 162 games that year, led all outfielders with 20 assists, had a career high 186 hits, scored 94 runs and drove in 97, batted .311, and was sixth in the league with an OPS of .874.  He also tied his career high with 289 total bases that season.

It occurred to me while researching this blog-post that Rusty Staub might have the best forgotten seasons of any Astro, Expo, or Tiger of all time.  But I suppose it would be cheating to come back to him again and again, however tempting.

Growing up a Mets fan, it was strange as a young boy to learn that one of my favorite players, Rusty Staub, had actually played for any other team, let alone two other teams.  It was also shocking to me when I learned just before the 1976 season began that Staub had been traded to Detroit for… Mickey Lolich! (?)  At age 31, Staub had just set a Mets single-season record in 1975 with 105 RBI’s.

That summer, my dad took my family to Rusty Staub’s restaurant (he was a chef as well as a ball-player) in New York City.  I spent the entire meal looking around the dining room to see if Rusty would make a grand entrance, but I was afraid that he might do it in a Tiger’s uniform.  I couldn’t figure out if I would be exhilarated or horrified if Staub were to show up.  Luckily, he never did.

After having returned to the Mets in 1981, Staub played parts of five more years for them before retiring in 1985 at the age of 41.

Staub is one of just three players in baseball history to hit a home run before his twentieth birthday, and then again after his fortieth.  The other two players are Gary Sheffield and Ty Cobb.

But while the Georgia Peach’s reputation has steadily eroded over the years to the point where he can accurately be called a rather infamous figure in baseball history, Le Grande Orange will always be fondly remembered by the fans in several baseball towns across North America, at least by those of us who care to reflect upon his Best Forgotten Seasons.

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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