The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Little Round Top”

All That We Leave Behind

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning himself to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

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

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

Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English: Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewar...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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