The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “New York Giants”

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Johnny Mize

Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox is doing his best impersonation this season of “Casey at the Bat.”  Like Mighty Casey, Dunn either hits a heroic home run, or he flails at strike three, sending thousands of fans home disappointed.  Dunn is currently third in the A.L. in home runs with 25, and first in strikeouts with an incredible 131.  He is on pace to shatter the Major League single-season strikeout record of 223 set by 3rd baseman Mark Reynolds in 2009.

In fairness to Dunn, he does lead the league in walks (67), contributing to his acceptable .359 on-base percentage.

Thirteen of the top 15 strikeout seasons by a hitter in baseball history have occurred over the past dozen seasons.  To illustrate how much things have changed around the Majors as far as strikeouts are concerned, consider that Dave Kingman, who back in the 1970’s and early ’80’s, was known as the ultimate practitioner of the home run / strikeout approach to hitting, never struck out more than 156 times in a season.

Although he led the league in strikeouts as a hitter three times, his worst season (156 in 1982) now ranks as just the 128th highest total of strikeouts in a single season.

Indeed, current New York Mets third baseman David Wright actually surpassed Kingman’s career high when Wright struck out 161 times in 2010.

It wasn’t always this way.  There was a time when even power hitters considered the strikeout to be the ultimate embarrassment for a hitter, a reproach to the batter’s very manhood.  Some power hitters actually used to choke up on the bat when down two-strikes to minimize their chances of getting struck out.

When Mark Reynolds was asked if he’d like to be a player who struck out a lot less often, he replied, “I’d like to be, but I’m not going to make drastic changes, like choke up and hit grounders.”  Yes, because, obviously, hitting a ground-ball that might sneak through the infield for a hit is far worse than, say, striking out 200 time per year.  And real men don’t choke up.

English: An image of Major League Baseball Hal...

English: An image of Major League Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Johnny Mize. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is no surprise, then, that when we look at the list of home run hitters who maintained relatively low strikeout rates, the vast majority of them played many, many decades ago, long before most of us were born.

One player who has always intrigued me as an overlooked power hitter — a player who I don’t think most baseball fans fully appreciate — was former Cardinal / Giant / Yankee first baseman, Johnny (Big Cat) Mize.

Johnny Mize played in the Majors from 1936-53, missing three of his prime years to WWII.  He led his league in home runs and slugging percentage four times each, and RBI, OPS and total bases three times each.  He even won a batting title, hitting .349 in 1939 for the Cardinals.

Johnny Mize was, along with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, one of the most difficult power hitters to strike out.  Mize hit 359 home runs in his career, while striking out only 524 times in his entire career.  By contrast, Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the ultimate contact hitter of our generation, has already struck out 786 times in his career, while hitting 99 home runs.

So Mize could hit lots of home runs without striking out very much.  This raises a question:

English: New York Yankees first baseman .

English: New York Yankees first baseman . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did Johnny Mize ever have more home runs than strikeouts in a season? 

Before answering that question, keep in mind that since 1920, a player has accumulated more home runs than strikeouts (minimum of 30 homers) twenty-five times over the past 90 years.  Joe DiMaggio accomplished this feat an amazing six times.

Barry Bonds is the only player to have more homers than strikeouts in a season (45 homers / 41 strikeouts in 2004) in the past half-century.

The answer to my question regarding more home runs than strikeouts as far as Johnny Mize is concerned is, yes, Mize twice managed to accumulate more home runs than strikeouts in a season.  In 1948, he slugged 40 home runs while striking out only 37 times in 560 at bats.

But here’s the most amazing statistic I’ve seen in a long time.

In 1947, in 586 at bats, Mize slugged 51 home runs while striking out just 42 times.

Johnny Mize is the only player in baseball history to hit as many as 50 home runs in a season while striking out fewer than 50 times.  

Despite his amazing accomplishments, the BBWAA never voted Mize into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, the writers never gave Mize more than 43% of the vote.  It wasn’t until the Veteran’s Committee finally elected him in 1981 that Mize was finally honored among baseball’s greatest players with induction into the Hall of Fame.

Now that we have compared the achievements of modern power hitters — especially their strikeout totals — with the impressive exploits of Johnny Mize, we can more fully appreciate what a great hitter Mize was in his day.

“The First Fall Classic”: A Baseball Book Review

Mike Vaccaro’s book, “The First Fall Classic,” published by Doubleday Books, is a lively, engaging, and well-researched look at the 1912 World Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox.  If there is just one book you might ever want to read about baseball in the pre-Babe Ruth years, this is the one for you.

The strength of this book lies in Mr. Vaccaro’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter.  He has an eye for details, and his book is ripe full of engaging little moments where we feel not like the reader of a book, but like an eaves-dropper listening in to a fascinating story.

An example of this occurs early on, when Tris Speaker, the Red Sox center-fielder, hits a monster home run during batting practice, witnessed by several of the Giants players.  In Vaccaro’s words:

There was an audible gasp, then instant silence.  It was the longest ball anyone had ever seen hit in this stadium, or in any of the previous three stadiums bearing the name, “Polo Grounds.”

“Holy smoke,” Fred Merkle said, loud enough for McGraw to hear.

“You know how many runs they get for that, Merkle?  They get zero runs for that.  Next time I catch you admiring their work it’ll cost you twenty-five bucks.”

The book is organized in such a way that, for the most part, each chapter is a self-contained, one-act drama about each of the eight (yes, eight) World Series games that year.  The final chapter, however, is entirely dedicated to the climactic tenth inning of the final game, a showdown between Smoky Joe Wood and Christy Mathewson.

We can feel the tension that Mathewson and his manager, John McGraw, felt being so close to their first World’s Championship since 1905.  But with 30 game winner Wood in the way, it was far from a done deal.

The cast of characters throughout this book, both baseball and civilian, is wide-ranging and colorful.  We are updated throughout regarding the 1912 Presidential election campaigns of Teddy Roosevelt of the independent Bull Moose Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and incumbent President, and huge (both literally as well as figuratively) baseball fan, William Taft.

The baseball action on the field is also complemented by a sensationalist, headline grabbing murder trial involving a police lieutenant on a special vice squad, Charles Becker, who was charged with murdering a Jewish bookie named Herm Rosenthal.  Headlines of the day called it, “The Trial of the Century.”   At times, even the proceedings of the murder would be  interrupted, however, by news of the World Series.

In fact, reading about how much the 1912 Series affected virtually the whole country, one is left with the sobering realization that even though baseball today remains one of our most popular escapist leisure activities, it just doesn’t occupy the same place in America’s consciousness the way it did a hundred years ago.

This book review is not the time or the place to speculate as to why that is, but it is clear that ballplayers a hundred years ago were, from a socioeconomic standpoint, closer to the average American citizen than they are today.

Players like Giants second baseman Larry Doyle, Red Sox outfielder Red Murray, and Giants pitcher Jeff Tesreau, emerged from coal mines, farms, small Atlantic seaboard hamlets, and remote country hollows.  With a few notable exceptions, such as Christy Mathewson, Harry Hooper, and Larry Gardner who all attended college, most of the players of this era, like the fans who adored them, had relatively little formal education.

But they sure knew how to play baseball.

I was also surprised to learn that there was a deep, dark cultural divide on the Red Sox, between the Protestant southerners (like Smoky Joe Wood and Tris Speaker) and the northern Catholics on the team (like Heinie Wagner, Bill Carrigan and Bucky O’Brien.)  On at least one occasion, these teammates engaged in a fistfight over their cultural differences.

Then there was the issue of corruption that surrounded baseball in those days.  Specifically, the issue of gambling.  Bookies and odds-makers were omnipresent in ballparks in those days, and even Giants manager John McGraw was known to associate with Arnold Rothstein, an underworld bookie.

In fact, this book provides so many anecdotes regarding this issue that it is unsurprising that, just a few years later, the Black Sox Scandal took place.  What does come as a surprise, at least to me, is that so much gambling and fraternization with known criminals and undesirables was tolerated by so many for so long.

But then again, we have our own modern parallel, the steroids issue.  Nearly a century later, baseball finds itself dealing with a scandal that could have been avoided if so many key people hadn’t turned a blind eye to this problem for so long.  And, once again, the key motivating force behind baseball’s modern scandal, is, at root, money.

In a sense, then, this book makes clear that baseball, and the men who play it, organize it, and manage it, have changed little over the past century.

Lastly, Red Sox fans will especially enjoy the prominence given by the author to the “Royal Rooters,” the Red Sox Nation of their era.  Their unofficial leader, Nuf Ced McGreevy, is a character that could have been invented by Charles Dickens.  And the story of how these uber-fans were betrayed by Red Sox owner James McAleer makes fascinating reading.

My criticisms of this book are few and relatively minor.  The relevance of the so-called Trial of the Century, which the author revisits from time to time, is questionable, at least insofar as the author provides it a position of prominence.

Also, an index would have been helpful in trying to more easily return to certain players, characters, or anecdotes.

The epilogue, however, is an eye-opener in that we learn about how many of the players of the 1912 World Series came to meet unfortunate, sometimes tragic, ends.  More than a few died sooner than they should have.

Overall, then, I highly recommend this book to any baseball fan looking for an interesting, entertaining summer read.  At just 290 pages in length, “The First Fall Classic” is certainly also a manageable read even for those with a full summer schedule.

Perhaps the best way to finish this book review is with a quotation from Giants second-baseman and team captain, Larry Doyle:

“Damn, it’s great to be young and a New York Giant.”

To which I can only reply,

Damn, it’s great to read a book about baseball players who loved the game a century ago as much we still love the game today.

‘Nuf Ced.

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