The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Martin Luther King”

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 6

In my last post in this series, I named Kid Nichols as the ace of my all-time under-appreciated Hall of Fame pitching staff.  There are, of course, several options from which to choose for the #2 man in my rotation.  I decided to go with the Detroit Tigers’ own Hal Newhouser.

Before we go any further with this, let’s take a look at two lines of stats.  For both pitchers, we are comparing their six best consecutive seasons:

Pitcher A:  129-47, WAR – 44.4, ERA+ 160

Pitcher B:  136-56, WAR – 43.8, ERA+ 158

Also,

Pitcher A led his league in wins three times, in complete games twice, in shutouts 3 times, and in ERA+ twice.

Pitcher B led his league in wins four times, in complete games twice, in shutouts once, and in ERA+ twice.

As measured by WAR, Pitcher A was the best pitcher in his league twice, Pitcher B three times.

Pitcher A had a career WAR of 50.3, Pitcher B had a career WAR of 55.8.

They were each named to about a half-dozen All Star teams.

Both pitchers stood 6’2″, and threw left-handed.

Pitcher A made his debut at age 19.  Pitcher B, at 18.  Both came up as home-town boys.

Pitcher A made his Major League debut in 1955, just seven weeks after Pitcher B threw his final pitch.

One pitcher is dead; the other is still alive.

Pitcher A was born Sanford Braun, but you know him as Sandy Koufax.

Pitcher B was born, and remained, Hal Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax is everyone’s idea of a Hall of Famer.  Hal Newhouser was rejected by the BBWAA, topping out at just 43% of the vote in his final year on the ballot in 1975.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee inducted him 17 years later in 1992 that Hal Newhouser finally received recognition in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Koufax was a first ballot Hall of Famer, receiving 87% of the vote in 1972.

Yet, if you go back and take a look at their numbers, especially in their six best consecutive seasons, the difference between the two is not all that great.  Sure, Koufax was more of a strikeout guy, leading the league in K’s / 9 innings six times, but Newhouser led his league in that same stat four times.

One must also keep in mind that Koufax pitched in a better pitcher’s era, in a better pitcher’s park, than did Newhouser.

Sandy Koufax won three Cy Young awards, and finished 3rd in another season.  He was also voted league MVP in 1963.

Hal Newhouser won consecutive A.L. MVP awards in 1944-45, and he finished in second place in the voting in 1946.  The Cy Young award didn’t come into existence until 1956, otherwise it is reasonable to assume that Newhouser would certainly have deserved three of those awards as well.

I think the key here as to why Koufax overshadows Newhouser is primarily due to the issue of timing.  Newhouser’s best years occurred more or less in the middle of his career, which is normal for most players.

Koufax had a slow start to his career, then caught fire in the early ’60’s and never looked back.  In a sense, at least as far as the mythology and stature of SANDY KOUFAX is concerned, walking away from a highly successful career while still at the top of one’s game was a stroke of genius.  Yes, I know that he only retired due to excruciating pain in his left elbow.

But if he had continued to pitch for a few more years, it’s likely that the pain and the simple wear and tear on his arm would have resulted in a steady decline in production, mirroring what most other pitchers go through in their careers.  If that had been the case, I believe it would have diminished Koufax in the eyes of HOF voters, and he might have had a more difficult time being inducted into The Hall, despite his six amazing seasons.

Another reason, though, why I believe the mythology (and I don’t mean to imply that I think Koufax was overrated) of Koufax is far superior to the more prosaic legacy of Hal Newhouser was due to the era in which they each toiled in the Majors.

Hal Newhouser’s best seasons occurred during and just after World War II.  This was an era when bigger things than baseball were occurring in the world, when a generation of Americans labored for their daily bread, and their very lives, in factories at home in America, and on battlefields  from Salerno to Saipan.  There just wasn’t much time to romanticize a series of sporting events.

Nor was that particular generation of men and women prone to push heroes up onto pedestals.  They were generally too busy burying heroes silently.

By 1960, however, a new generation of young people, not yet at war, and just then beginning to imprint their profligate, psychological profile on an indulgent society, was in the midst of defining their own heroes.

Sandy Koufax emerged at exactly the right time.  His career clicked just as a young John Kennedy inspired this generation to embrace the present as well as the future.  Koufax turned 25 in ’61, and led the N.L. in strikeouts for the first time.  He would continue to dominate the decade through ’66, before it was clear that the Vietnam War was going nowhere, and before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy.

Hal Newhouser, by way of contrast, became dominant in the year of the D-Day Invasion, and continued his run of success on the eve of the largely forgotten Korean War.

Newhouser’s career record of 207-150 might not impress people in the same way that, for example, Don Sutton’s 324-256 record might.  Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea, picked up naturally by others, that a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher should have 300 wins.

Certainly, if a pitcher wins 300 games, he is probably going to be worthy of Hall induction based on other career stats as well.  Yet, in their respective primes, who would you rather have pitching the big game for you?  Who would you prefer to have as your staff ace?  The pitcher who enjoyed lots of 17-11 seasons with respectable peripheral numbers, or would you have the guy that, in his best years, could knock off 25-30 wins while dominating the league in several other stats as well?

As for me, I’ll take Hal Newhouser, one of the most under-appreciated HOF pitchers of all time.

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.

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