The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Ty Cobb”

Heart of a Tiger: Book Review

What images come to mind at the mention of the name, Ty Cobb?  Do you picture a snarling, angry man, sliding into third base, spikes high?  A racist racing into the crowd to beat up a defenseless invalid?  A man to be feared, perhaps grudgingly respected, but almost always despised?  Now ask yourself, where does that picture come from?

In the book, “Heart of a Tiger:  Growing Up With My Grandfather, Ty Cobb,” we are introduced to not an entirely different Ty Cobb than we’ve become used to hearing about, but to a much more fully developed account of a human life.  This is not, as you might think at first blush, a biography bordering on hagiography.  In fact, strictly speaking, it’s not truly a biography at all.  It is a moving account, by turns harrowing, tender and stark, of a deeply forged relationship between a man entering his twilight years, and his grandchildren.  Specifically, it is a narrative about how Ty Cobb, for all practical purposes, saves the lives of his three grandchildren from the destructive emotional and physical abuse they suffer at the hands of their parents.

Herschel Cobb, the author of this 279 page tale, is the middle child of three, and the son of Ty Cobb’s own son, also named Hershel Cobb.  Ty Cobb’s relationship with his son, Hershel, and with his daughter-in-law was fraught with tension, suspicion and animosity.  Little Hershel, the author, was his father’s favorite target for physical abuse on a pathological level that needs to be read to be believed, and his mother was, if anything, even more cruel and terrifying.

Herschel and his siblings, Susan and Kit, were fortunate, however, to spend part of several summers at their granddaddy’s cabin at Lake Tahoe.  In the 1950’s and early ’60’s, it became a refuge for three weeks per year away from the terror and neglect they experienced  when they weren’t lucky enough to be at school.  It is in this milieu that little Hersch’s relationship with his grandfather is forged.

Ty Cobb was clearly looking for a second chance in his life to nurture and experience the love that he failed to both give and receive as a young man.  Clearly tortured by his past, his determination to become a better man is evident throughout the tales recounted by his forever grateful grandson.  While this may not excuse the sins of his past, it does suggest that Cobb was not the one-dimensional sociopath that has come down to us in history.

Al Stump, who wrote a sensationalized portrait of Ty Cobb that was supposedly the “unvarnished truth” about Cobb is revealed by Herschel Cobb (who met Stump as a young teen) as a shady, creepy fraud who Herschel once caught stealing autographed photos directly out of Cobb’s personal study.  Yet, it is largely the Cobb that Stump more or less invented that has become the Cobb we believe to be the true man.  Such is history.

This is not strictly speaking a baseball book, but Cobb is clearly proud of his accomplishments on the baseball diamond, and he is generous later in life with the money he received both due to his professional accomplishments as well as his wise investments in Coca-Cola as well as in other firms.  Nor do we experience through Hersch’s book an obvious racist or unreconstructed Southerner.  The reason for this is clear:  Hersch only writes about what he experienced first-hand with his grandfather.  The specifics of this tale are not often easy to read, but they are poignant and precise, and present a much fuller account of Cobb, Sr. than we are likely to find anywhere else.

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8...

Ty Cobb safe at third after making a triple, 8/16/[19]24. 1 negative (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the baseball fan, though, there are moments in the book that will satisfy, such as Cobb’s version of how he viewed base-running, his relationship with Babe Ruth, the players he thought were the best whom he ever played against, and which players were his friends or foes.  Cobb’s memories of these players and events are ultimately enlightening and plausible.

Cobb clearly missed the game as he grew older, and was obviously happy to reunite on occasion with those few players he remained close to until the end of his life.  While there were clearly many players who hated him (which he does not try to deny), what comes across is how his hyper-competitiveness contributed to how and why his foes on the field targeted him in the first place.

Not unlike a young Bryce Harper, Cobb was a very young man when he broke into the Majors at age 18 in 1905, and was viewed by the veteran’s (often not nearly as talented as Cobb was) as a cocky upstart who needed to be put in his place.  When Cobb fought back (as Harper has on occasion) many were quick to judge him (in the press as well as among his peers) as a brash, arrogant youth who didn’t respect the game or his peers.  As far as Cobb was concerned, he was out there to win ballgames, not friends.

Which brings us full circle back to Herschel Cobb’s story.  As Hersch (as his grandfather calls him throughout the book) grows from a young boy to a young man, Cobb, Sr. sees something of himself in this particular grandchild.  But the life lessons that Ty Cobb teaches Hersch by word and example go well beyond sports and baseball.  They are lessons of trust, humility, inner-strength and love.  In the end, Cobb needs his grandchildren as much as they needed him.  As a result, they all get a second chance to experience a better quality of life than any of them otherwise would have.

When all is said and done, who among us wouldn’t appreciate a second chance to right the wrongs, to rectify our past, if given the chance?  That Ty Cobb took this opportunity and made the most of it, creating a happy and safe environment for three innocent children experiencing suffering beyond comprehension, is ultimately a final legacy that should be respected, in a tale that needed to be told.

If you read only one book about Ty Cobb in your life, this is the one for you.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of this series.  So far, our roster of the Hall of Fame’s most under-appreciated players looks like this:

1B – Roger Connor

2B – Joe Gordon

SS – Arky Vaughan

3B – Eddie Mathews

C  – Gary Carter

LF – Jesse Burkett

Not a bad team.  Let’s flesh it out now with a center fielder and a right fielder, shall we?

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder ....

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder . Levels and saturation adjusted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Center Field – Richie Ashburn:  Why Richie Ashburn, and not someone like Max Carey, Hugh Duffy or Billy Hamilton?

For one thing, Ashburn had a higher career WAR (60.2) than either Duffy or Carey, and about the same as Hamilton.  Also, Ashburn, as far as dWAR is concerned, was a better defensive center fielder than any of them.

Ashburn’s range in center field was excellent. He led the N.L. in Range Factor ten times in his career.  Ashburn also led all outfielders in his league in putouts nine times, and assists four times.

In his rookie year in 1948, the 21-year old Ashburn batted .333 and topped the N.L. with 32 stolen bases.

In just his third season in the Majors, at age 23, Ashburn was a key member of the Phillies “Whiz Kids” team that won the N.L. Pennant by two games over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ashburn led the league that year in triples with 14 while batting over .300 and playing solid defense in center field.

As a hitter, Ashburn didn’t generate much power (just 29 career homers), but he was an on-base machine.  He finished first in the N.L. in walks four times, and in hits three times.  In six seasons (including his first and last) he topped a .400 on-base percentage.

On the other side of the ledger, Ashburn was very difficult to strike out.  During his twelve prime years with the Phillies (1948-59), Ashburn never struck out as many as 50 times in a season.

Ashburn was also very difficult to double-up.  In eight of his seasons, he grounded into fewer than five double plays.  In three additional seasons, he grounded into fewer than ten.

For eight straight seasons, (1951-58), Ashburn scored at least 90 runs in every season.  He also led the league in hits three times, topping 200 hits in each of those three years.

Playing the final season of his 15-year Major League career with the hapless ’62 Mets, 35-year old Ashburn posted a .306 batting average and an outstanding .424 on-base percentage, still the third highest single season on-base percentage in Mets history.

Ashburn retired after the ’62 season at age 35 having netted 2,574 hits to go along with nearly 1,200 walks, a .308 career batting average, and an even more impressive .396 career on-base percentage. He scored 1,322 runs, slashed 109 triples and stole 234 bases.

Despite those numbers, and the reputation of being one of the greatest lead-off hitters, and excellent defensive center fielders of his generation, Ashburn never received much more than 40% of the vote of the BBWAA.  After his name fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1982, it wasn’t until 13-years later in 1995 that the Veteran’s Committee finally inducted Ashburn into the HOF.

Richie Ashburn died a couple of years later, in 1997, at age 70.  He is still among the Phillies’  all-time leaders in several offensive categories such as base hits, runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.

Right Field – Harry Heilmann:  Harry Heilmann was, along with Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Al Kaline, one of the greatest outfielders in Detroit Tigers history.

Heilmann was one of the few baseball players born on the west coast before the turn of the twentieth century.  Born in San Francisco on August 3, 1894, Heilmann debuted with the Tigers in 1914 at age 19.  Given his German heritage (on his father’s side), one has to wonder if this young German Catholic teenager didn’t experience at least some bigotry around America as the First World War settled like a steel cloud over Europe that summer.

Heilmann didn’t stick with the big club immediately, and spent the summer of 1915 in the minors.  But by 1916, he had become a permanent resident of the Detroit outfield, playing alongside Ty Cobb.    Through 1920, Heilmann was a very good player, though not yet a great one.  Heilmann’s breakout season was 1921, when he turned 26-years old.

In 1926, Heilmann won the A.L. batting title with a .394 batting average, besting teammate Ty Cobb by five points.  He also led the league in hits with 237.  He slugged 42 doubles, 14 triples and 19 home runs.  He finished second in the league in OPS+ (167), WAR (6.5), RBI (139), Slugging Percentage (.606) and Total Bases (365.)

Heilmann went on to win a total of four batting titles, in alternating years, from 1921 to 1927.  His batting averages in those four years were .394, .403, .393, and .398.  He also topped .300 in eight additional seasons in his 17-year career.

Heilmann’s .342 career batting average ranks 12th on the all-time list, just a couple of points shy of Ted Williams.

In fact, Heilmann was the last A.L. player to hit .400 (.403 in 1923) until Ted Williams accomplished that feat by hitting .406 in 1941.

Heilmann’s On Base Plus Slugging Percentage of .930 ranks ahead of Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker and Frank Robinson, among others.  His career OPS+ (148) ranks 40th all-time, ahead of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell.

Heilmann finished in the top five in MVP voting in his league four times, and he was the best player in the A.L. in 1925, posting a WAR of 6.5.  His career WAR of 67.3 is better than HOF players Ed Delahanty, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray and Duke Snider.

After spending the first 15 years of his career with the Tigers, Heilmann caught on with the Reds for a season and a half.  In his last full season as a player in 1930, Heilmann hit .333 and drove in 91 runs.  He retired in 1932 at age 37.

Heilmann finished his career with 183 homers, 1,539 RBI, 542 doubles and 151 triples.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Heilmann was not elected into the Hall of Fame until his 13th year on the ballot in 1952.  Unfortunately, Heilmann had already died of cancer in 1951.  While on his deathbed, however, his former teammate and sometimes nemesis Ty Cobb came to visit him.  Cobb, in a rare act of empathy, told Heilmann that he had been voted into the Hall of Fame that summer so that Heilmann could die a happy man.

Which just goes to show, sometimes good lurks in the hearts of even the coldest men.

NEXT UP:  The Pitchers

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Jackie Robinson

What is the most exciting play in baseball?  Is it the walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth?  How about a bases-loaded triple?  For that matter, how about a triple play?

Certainly, one of baseball’s most exciting plays is stealing home plate.

Now, although there are different “kinds” of steals — straight steals, double steals, busted suicide squeeze plays — for the sake of brevity, this article will not differentiate between the various types.

When Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole home off of Philadelphia lefty Cole Hamels a couple of months ago, it was noteworthy not only because Hamels had plunked Harper in the back to apparently send him some sort of message (guess THAT didn’t work), but also because the straight-steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double-steal), is such a rarity these days, (notwithstanding the fact that the Padres Everth Cabrera stole home just two days ago against the Dodgers.)

There was a time, however, when stealing home was an important tactical weapon in the arsenal of most baseball teams.  Certainly, it requires the guts of a cat burglar and the stealth of a ninja.  Or, at the very least, a pitcher half-asleep on the mound.

Jackie Robinson often comes to mind when I think of a player stealing home.  Perhaps his most famous steal of home occurred in the 1955 World Series against the Yankees in Game One.  Yankee catcher Yogi Berra went ballistic when Robinson was ruled safe at home by the home plate umpire.  Berra maintains to this day that Robinson really was out.

This was also the only World Series the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn, and it was Robinson’s only steal of home in a World Series.

Recalling this exciting event led me to ask an obvious question, “How many times did Jackie Robinson steal home in his career?

Of course, stealing home was going on in baseball long before Jackie Robinson came along.  The first unrecorded steal of home must have taken place in the 19th century.  We do know that Honus Wagner stole home twice on June 20, 1901.

Interestingly, the Dodgers own Pete Reiser set the modern N.L. single-season record for steals of home plate with an amazing seven in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.  (Ty Cobb holds the single-season record with eight steals of home in 1912.)

Jackie Robinson, it turns out, stole home a whopping 19 times in his career, against approximately 12 times caught stealing.  Before 1950, “caught stealing” as a statistical category was not consistently recorded, so we can’t be sure exactly how many times Robinson was caught stealing home.  For four of Robinson’s ten seasons, therefore, we have incomplete data from which to draw accurate conclusions regarding his overall success rate.

Shane Tourtellotte of the Hardball Times, in an interesting and provocative article published on March 2nd of this year, posits the interesting hypotheses that Robinson’s 19 successful steals of home (20, if you count the one in the ’55 Series), were worth more in run-producing, game-winning value than all of his other steals combined.

So, did Jackie Robinson steal home more than any other player in history over the course of his career?  Not by a long shot.  As far as we know, 38 players have stolen home base at least ten times in their careers.  Here’s a list of the top 20: (Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Almanace.com)

1)  Ty Cobb – 54

2)  Max Carey – 33

3)  George Burns – 28

4)  Honus Wagner – 27

5)  Sherry Magee – 23

5)  Frank Schulte – 23

7)  Johnny Evers – 21

8)  George Sisler – 20

9)  Frankie Frisch – 19

9)  Jackie Robinson – 19

11) Jim Shekard – 18

11) Tris Speaker – 18

11) Joe Tinker – 18

14) Rod Carew – 17

14) Eddie Collins – 17

14) Larry Doyle – 17

17) Tommy Leach – 16

18) Ben Chapman – 15

18) Fred Clarke – 15

18) Lou Gehrig – 15

I was surprised that, although Robinson’s 19 steals of home are impressive, they are not nearly the greatest total of all time.  Ty Cobb’s record of 54 career steals of home is a record that I can’t imagine ever being broken.  The most recently active player with at least ten career steals of home plate is Paul Molitor, who retired 14-years ago at age 41.

The biggest surprise to me on the list I posted above is Lou Gehrig.  Who knew Gehrig stole home just four fewer times in his career than Jackie Robinson?  In truth, if Gehrig had one flaw as a baseball player, it was as a base stealer.  In his career, Gehrig stole 102 bases, but was also thrown out 100 times.

Among baseball statisticians, anything less than a 70% success rate means you should have stayed put.  A 50% success rate indicates an actual loss of overall run production, due to the opportunities squandered where a base runner who had stayed put might have been driven home by his teammates.  (See Tourtellotte’s article for more on this as well.)

Anyway, if you have Babe Ruth and Tony Lazzeri around you in the lineup, is there really any reason to try to steal home?

Speaking of Babe Ruth, it may also come as a surprise to you that The Bambino actually stole home ten times in his career, most, presumably, on the front end of double-steals.

Strategies and game conditions have, of course, changed a great deal over the past hundred years.  For many reasons too numerous to discuss in this post, the steal of home hasn’t been a significant part of the National Pastime for decades.

Nevertheless, when it does occur, it brings us back to a time when daring base runners challenged pitchers to a duel unlike any other in sports:  I can run faster than you can throw.  It is a challenge that links us to baseball’s historic past, even as the game continues to evolve on into the future.

Related articles

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb

In my last post in this series, I wrote about Pete Rose.

Rose has often been compared to Ty Cobb, both for his intense personality as well as for his take-no-prisoners style of play.  He’s also been compared to Cobb for the obvious reason that he broke what was once considered Cobb’s unbreakable career hits record of 4,189 (according to Baseball-Reference.com.)  Rose, of course, broke Cobb’s record, and finished his career with 4,256 hits.

But Rose topped a .500 slugging percentage in just one season, and finished in the top ten in his league in slugging percentage just twice (1968-69.)  His career slugging percentage of  just .409 is the same as Rafael Furcal.

In other words, Rose, like Ty Cobb, was a consummate contact hitter who sacrificed power in favor of batting average.

But is that who Ty Cobb really was, or has this become an easy, though ultimately false, comparison?

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record...

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record for highest career batting average, at .366. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the question of the day is, “Did Ty Cobb ever lead his league in slugging percentage?

Now, I was already aware from prior research that Cobb won 11 batting titles, drove in over a hundred runs in a season several times, topped 200 hits in a season 9 or 10 times, and stole nearly 900 bases.

But I never paid much attention to his slugging percentages because, well, I don’t think most of us associate Ty Cobb with having been a “slugger.”

So what I discovered truly surprised me.

Ty Cobb led his league in slugging eight times in an eleven year span.  In other words, from 1907 to 1917, Cobb was not merely the greatest hitter for average in his league, he was also the greatest slugger in his league.

How does Cobb’s eight slugging titles compare with other great players in history?  Here’s a list of several players (not meant to be comprehensive) and the number of times they led their league in slugging percentage:

Babe Ruth:  13

Rogers Hornsby:  9

Ted Williams:  9

Ty Cobb:  8

Barry Bonds:  7

Stan Musial:  6

Honus Wagner:  6

Jimmie Foxx:  5

Willie Mays:  5

Hank Aaron:  4

Mickey Mantle:  4

Mark McGwire:  4

Alex Rodriguez:  4

Albert Pujols:  3

Joe DiMaggio:  2

Lou Gehrig:  2

Ken Griffey, Jr.:  1

Frank Thomas:  1

I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to rate these players beforehand from top to bottom regarding career slugging titles, I’m pretty sure this would not have been the order in which I would have listed them.  Nor would I have come close to the number of slugging titles each of these players won.

Gehrig, of course, had Ruth as a teammate, thus his low total.  DiMaggio played his home games in a park that absolutely killed right-handed power hitters.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, based on this list, it is beyond dispute that Ty Cobb was not merely one of the very best hitters for average in baseball history, he belongs on the short list of greatest sluggers in the history of the game, despite his modest total of 117 career home runs.

Different parks and different eras both serve to either inflate or suppress a players apparent power. Because Cobb played in what’s commonly referred to as the Deadball Era, his reputation as a hitter has been unfairly limited to one aspect of the game, batting average.

But there can be little doubt that if Cobb had played in favorable hitter’s decades like the 1920’s and ’30’s, he would be remembered today in much the same way that Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams are recalled.

All of which also points to the conclusion that any comparisons between Cobb and Rose as actual hitters needs to be reconsidered by most of us lest we make easy, though demonstrably inaccurate,  comparisons.

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Joe Jackson

This is part 3 of my series, “Baseball’s Surprising Stats.”  The object of this series is to revisit players most of us already know something about, then to uncover one fact or statistic about that player that isn’t widely known.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the career of Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Specifically, we are going to research one particular question that I discovered I did not know the answer to when I started brainstorming ideas for this series.

The particular question that I discovered I didn’t know the answer to was, “How many batting titles did Shoeless Joe Jackson win during his career?”

Shoeless Joe Jackson is third on the all-time ...

Shoeless Joe Jackson is third on the all-time list. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Joe Jackson was banned from baseball at the end of the 1920 baseball season, he finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .356, the third highest career batting average of all-time.

Jackson’ s career high batting average was .408 in 1911.   Unfortunately for Joe, Ty Cobb of Detroit, just 24-years old, won his 4th batting title that year with a .420 mark.

Jackson batted .395 the following season, only to finish second once again to Ty Cobb’s league-leading .409 average.

In 1913, Cobb dropped below .400, hitting a mere .390, but Joe Jackson finished 17 points behind Cobb with a .373 mark.  Thus, three consecutive second place finishes for Jackson in the race for the A.L. batting title.

In 1914, Jackson dropped down to .338, good for 4th best in the league.  1915 was even worse.  His .308 batting average was the second lowest of his career.

JacksonCleveland

JacksonCleveland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1916 saw Jackson rebound to .341, but that was just 3rd best in the league behind Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb.  In 1917, Jackson hit a career low .301, which would have to be considered his own personal Mendoza Line.

Jackson was injured for most of the 1918 season; he played in only 17 games.  In fact, Jackson topped 100 games played just nine times.

Jackson returned to prominence in 1919 and 1920.  During those two years, he hit .351 and .382, respectively.  Neither mark, however, was good enough to win a batting title.  Jackson finished 4th in 1919 (Cobb won yet another title), and he finished 3rd in 1920, behind George Sisler (.407) and Tris Speaker.

After the 1920 season in which Babe Ruth slugged a record 54 home runs (no one before had ever reached even 30 homers), it was clear that the advent of the live-ball era had begun.

Probably, Joe Jackson expected at that point that he would still be playing Major League baseball for several more years.  He also might have expected that his first batting title was not too far off.  After all, his .382 batting average in his final season was the third highest mark in his career.

But due to the repercussions of the Black Sox Scandal, Joe Jackson was not to play another inning of Major League baseball.

The question that I posed at the beginning of this article was, “How many batting titles did Joe Jackson win his career?”

The answer, which I have to admit came as a bit of a surprise to me, is that despite finishing his career with the 3rd highest career batting average of all-time, Joe Jackson never won a batting title.

Jackson is probably the greatest hitter of all-time never to have won a batting title.  But, of course, batting titles are just one measure of greatness.  By any other measure on the field, Joe Jackson remains one of the greatest, if one of the most controversial, baseball players of all time.

Baseball’s Best of the Worst: Rusty Staub

Rusty Staub le grand orange mai1969 stade Jarry

Image by Le présent du passé Montréal. via FlickrMajor League baseball came to Montreal in 1969, the same year that a previous expansion team, the Mets, improbably won the World Series.

This is the third installment of “Baseball’s Best of the Worst,” a series put together by Graham Womack of “Baseball Past and Present,” and myself.  Graham will contribute the fourth part of this series next Friday.

Major League baseball came to Montreal in 1969.  And just as the expansion Mets of 1962 were an awful team, so, too, were the ’69 Expos.

In fact, the ’69 Expos won just 52 games, only a dozen more than the pathetic ’62 Mets.  The Expos 52-110 record in ’69 was tied for the worst in baseball with their expansion twins, the Padres.

In January of 1969, the Expos, in a cunning trade, obtained Rusty Staub from Houston.  He quickly became their best player for each of his three seasons in Montreal, 1969-71, inclusive.

Le Grand Orange, as he was quickly dubbed by Expos fans, was born Daniel Joseph Staub on April 1st, 1944 in New Orleans.  His nickname, Rusty, refers to his rust-colored hair (thus his French-Canadian nom de guerre.)

Staub quickly became a beloved fan favorite in Montreal.  He played with a special flair that delighted the fans, and he was easily the Expos’ best player.

In fact, in 1969, Staub set a career high in Offensive War at 6.7, fifth best in the N.L.

Staub also finished in the top ten in batting average (.302), On-Base percentage (.426), Slugging Percentage (.526), OPS (.952), OPS+ (166), and total bases (289.)  He also finished 3rd in the league in Bases on Balls (110.)

Staub led the Expos in virtually every offensive category in 1969, and was rewarded with his third trip to the All-Star game.

The Expos, meanwhile, languished at or near the bottom of the N.L. East during Staub’s tenure with Montreal, never rising above fifth place in that six-team division.

In 1972, Staub moved on to the Mets where, once again, the fans adored him.  In 1975, Staub set a team record (subsequently surpassed by others)  for RBI in a single-season, driving in 105 runs for the third-place Mets.

Then, inexplicably, the Mets traded Staub to the Tigers the following season for a case of Gatorade.  The Tigers also threw in a used up Mickey Lolich.

The Expos, it turned out, were just one of several  successful stops along the way during Rusty’s  North American Tour, which lasted from 1963 (at age 19) with Houston, until finally ending in 1985 (age 41) with the Mets (for a return engagement).  Along the way, he also played in Detroit, Montreal (again) and Texas, appearing in six All Star games in his career.

Staub is just one of three players in baseball history — the others being Ty Cobb and Gary Sheffield — to homer before his 20th and after his 40th birthdays.

A professional chef, (keep in mind his New Orleans roots), Rusty opened “Rusty’s Restaurant” in Manhattan in 1977.  The original restaurant on 73rd street closed, as did its eventual successor on Fifth Avenue.

Staub finished his illustrious career with 499 doubles and 292 home runs.  He received little support for his Hall of Fame candidacy, though, apparently because the baseball writers to whom the voting privilege is extended prefer nice, round numbers.  If Staub had hit 500 doubles and 300 home runs, undoubtedly he would have received more votes.

Yet to Expos fans, Le Grand Orange’s 1969 baseball season will always occupy a heartwarming place in their now frigid, baseball-starved universe.

C’est la vie!

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 14 – The Detroit Tigers

One in a Million movie poster.

Image via Wikipedia

There are many paths to the Major Leagues.

Some teenagers are drafted right out of high school, spend a few years in the minors, and eagerly ascend to the parent ball-club.

Others make an almost seamless transition from college baseball to the Majors, spending little if any time in the minor leagues.

Still other players from foreign lands, such as Ichiro, jump right into Major League roles with varying degrees of success.

There is one unique avenue to the Major Leagues, however, that very few players have ever traversed:  Federal Penitentiary to the Major Leagues.  In fact, it is certainly the most unlikely path to Major League stardom.

There was one player, however, who broke into the Major Leagues in 1974 after having followed that exact path.

His name was Ron LeFlore.

Ron LeFlore was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948.  Then, as now, Detroit was a rough town.  His father was an unemployed alcoholic.  His mother was a hardworking nurse.  It didn’t take long for young Ron LeFlore to find trouble.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d acquired a criminal record.  Within a few years, LeFlore found himself in a Federal Penitentiary, a 5 to15-year sentence for Armed Robbery hanging over his head.

Then something remarkable happened.  Billy Martin, then manager of the Tigers, decided to pay a visit to an incarcerated friend of his, Jimmy Karalla.  (I find this humorous, but unsurprising.)  During this visit, Martin just happened to notice LeFlore’s speed and strength during prison workouts.  Right then and there, he convinced the prison administrators to allow LeFlore a pass for Day Parole so that LeFlore could attend a tryout with the Tigers.  LeFlore so impressed Tigers management that they signed him to a contract which allowed LeFlore to meet his conditions for parole.

Ironically, Martin was fired soon afterward for ordering his pitchers to throw at opposing team’s hitters.

Finally, already 26-years old, LeFlore first donned a Tigers uniform 1974.  A part-time player in ’74, LeFlore was still learning the game, periodically displaying his natural athletic abilities.

In his first full season in 1975, LeFlore hit just .258, but the Tigers stuck with him.  His 28 stolen bases (despite 20 caught stealings) promised more to come.

In 1976, LeFlore improved dramatically.  He hit .316, scored 93 runs, and stole 58 bases.  He even got to play in his one and only All-Star game.

The ’76 squad, which also included Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, had to be one of the most unlikely groups of players ever assembled.

But 1977 signaled Ron LeFlore’s full arrival as a Major League talent to be reckoned with.  At age 29, he batted .325 lashing 212 hits, including a career high 16 home runs, plus 30 doubles, ten triples, and an even 100 runs scored.

His aggressive style of play in the field and on the base-paths drew a few awkward comparisons in the Press to a previous controversial Detroit star named Ty Cobb.  Although the comparison was, in some respects, highly exaggerated, LeFlore, like Cobb, was much more respected than he was liked.

But despite LeFlore’s accomplishments in 1977, I have chosen 1978 as Ron LeFlore’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

Although his batting average actually dropped to .297 in ’78, he drew a career high 65 walks, and he led the American League in runs scored with 126, and in stolen bases with 68.  He just missed 200 hits for a second consecutive year (198) and he drove in a career high 62 runs.  His 105 runs produced was good for second place in the A.L.  He also led the A.L. in singles with 153.

LeFlore worked hard to become a very good defensive outfielder as well.  In 1978, LeFlore led all A.L. center-fielders in put-outs with 438.  The previous season, he led A.L. center-fielders in assists with 12.

Also in 1978, “One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story” starring LeVar Burton as LeFlore, aired on CBS to positive reviews.

LeFlore spent just one more season in Detroit before moving on to Montreal for the 1980 season.  But he continued to improve his stolen base totals for four successive seasons, swiping 78 for Detroit in his final season with that club, and then grabbing an N.L. high 97 in his one season with the Expos.

LeFlore played in the Major League for just nine seasons, retiring after the 1982 season with the White Sox at the age of 34.

In just six full seasons and three partial seasons, LeFlore successfully stole 455 bases (among the top 50 all-time), scored 731 runs, posted a .288 career batting average, and lashed 1283 hits.

Clearly, LeFlore found redemption on a Major League playing field.

After his retirement, LeFlore worked briefly as a baggage handler for United Airlines. Then he spent several years coaching and managing in various minor league organizations in both the U.S. and Canada.

There are currently over two million Americans serving prison time in the United States, by far the most in the entire Western World.  How much wasted talent and human potential languishes hopelessly behind bars, hoping, perhaps even praying, to find some redemption of their own?

And, as Billy Martin did in 1973, who will take a chance on some young man, granting him perhaps one last chance to embrace his inherent human dignity and self-respect?

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