The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “World War II”

Dreams Before Dusk

The white sun showered Sacramento with fraying rays ’til well past 4:00.  By then, the only folks left in the ballpark were those paid ten cents an hour to pick up hot dog wrappers and half-filled soda cups under the bleachers.  Even the drunks had staggered out of the cooler spots under the grandstand, destinations to-be-determined.  And the Japanese kid, now just a hushed memory of Depression-era reticence.

Nine vs. nine, plus a couple of local high school kids on the bench to provide the home-team with extra lumber, should the boys from Nippon come looking for a fight.  Word was they were plenty good, though being on foreign turf had to rattle them some.  Especially out here in the Central Valley, where hard times had folded and molded men into something only faintly resembling human beings, and the W.P.A. was the only game in town.  Moering Field was the only getaway for the Oakies,  baseballs courtesy of Our Lady of Humble Secondary Offerings.

That Japanese kid, though, was some fast out there.  First six guys might not have even seen that steam, just read about it a half-second later in the catcher’s mitt, smoke emanating from leather like redolent gunshot.  My, how the laws of physics were Putting on the Ritz!  A pair of self-conscious pop ups to the infield, a ground-out to short, harmless as a baby snake, and three K’s, each punctuated with a grunting final swing, finished off the first three innings.

But our own kid, the dark-haired Angelich, held his own, too.  Just nineteen-years old, still had a year on their guy, Sawamura.  Angelich tossed down and slow, heavy pitches with just enough movement to frustrate over-eager sluggers, like suckers at a five-cent peephole aback a county fair.  Damned familiar she looked, too, all churlish grins as we counted our sins.  That is to say, they couldn’t touch it.

Still, their boys scratched out a pair of runs in the sixth and seventh innings, though none of the balls left the park.  Angelich left in the eighth to a Standing-O, waving one quick gloved-hand up to the crowd as he slicked back his hair with his bare one.  A fine performance, but still no permanent spot on the team.  Tough year, ’35.  And much tougher to come.

Sawamura, though, had the look that day.  Could’ve knocked down Mount Shasta with that game-face.  Baby-faced or not, the kid had STUFF.  How we managed even the one lone run was a water-to-wine miracle.  And what was he getting paid for this performance?  Did he even own a wallet?  Did he have a girl waiting for him back home?  And what did he think about during that empty Sacramento night, hours after reluctant American crowd regaled him with polite applause?  Fate writ large is still invisible to the naked eye, even to small-town heroes.

An ocean away, (both oceans, as it turned out), steely men with glinting eyes that knew neither love nor laughter planned hurricane death because they could and would.  Big plans, small minds, and lots of flags.

Baseball only a kid’s game, of course.  Inconsequential, but to those along the third-base line, shouting as the runner rounds third, digging for home, dirt-churning cleats digging clods of sod in a straight line to home plate, base-path all possibility, a dream out-running time and space, as the soft summer light fades into gray, and the dream withers at dusk.

This one’s for Jerry Angelich and Eigi Sawamura.

Please read the excellent link below for further context.

http://www.baseballsgreatestsacrifice.com/biographies/angelich_jerry.html

 

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 3 – Jim Hegan

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

During the middle of the 20th century, the Cleveland Indians fielded some very strong teams, including the 1948 World Championship club.  Though they certainly had some very fine position players such as Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, Al Rosen and Rocky Colavito, arguably the heart and soul of those teams was the pitching.  Bob Feller was the ace, but the Indians also featured Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mel Harder, Mike Garcia, Herb Score, and even Satchel Paige.

Feller, of course, went on to win 266 games in his career, despite missing three full seasons to World War II.  Perhaps fittingly, two of those three seasons overlapped with the WWII service of Feller’s favorite catcher, Jim Hegan.

English: Cleveland Indians catcher .

English: Cleveland Indians catcher . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Hegan.

Bob Feller was a rural farm boy from the Midwest, while Jim Hegan was born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts.  During the war years, while Feller was in the Navy, Hegan served in the Coast Guard.

Lest you think the Coast Guard was relatively safe during the war, at least 15 C.G. ships sunk or were destroyed during WWII, and one (the Natsek) mysteriously vanished without a trace in the Belle Island Strait.

Upon their return from the war, Hegan and Feller enjoyed long and successful careers, forming one of the most productive batteries in Cleveland Indians history.  Feller pitched for the Indians until his retirement in 1956, while Hegan was the team’s primary catcher through 1957, before performing backup catcher duties for a variety of teams for the next few years.  He retired in 1960.

Bob Feller made 484 starts in his Indians’ career.  Jim Hegan caught 241 of those games, almost exactly half of Feller’s starts.  Hegan was behind the plate for 22 of Feller’s shutouts, and one of his no-hitters.  Of the 16 catchers who caught at least one of Feller’s outings, Feller stated that Jim Hegan was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history.  Feller remembered:

“Jim called a good game. We disagreed rarely. Jim was very good at keeping pitchers calm.”

While Hegan was the Indians’ primary catcher, they led the league in team ERA four years in a row, 1948-51.  Overall, the Indians led the A.L. in ERA six times while he was their primary catcher.  Hegan caught six 20-game winners in his career, and three no-hitters.  Hegan, recognized primarily for his defensive prowess,  was named to five A.L. All-Star teams.

One of the finest defensive catchers of all-time, when he retired in 1960, his .990 fielding percentage was the second-best ever recorded.  Hegan led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, caught stealing, and range factor per nine innings three times each, though not necessarily in the same three seasons.  A gun for an arm, he caught an excellent 50% of all would-be base-stealers during his career, including nearly 70% in ’46 and ’50.

An extremely durable catcher throughout his career, Hegan is still 4th all-time in games played for the Indians with 1,526.  In fact, he was respected so much as a catcher that he was the rare receiver who never once played a single game at another position during his entire career.

One small statistical oddity, in 5,320 career plate appearances, he was hit by a pitch just four times in his entire career.  For what it’s worth, Bob Feller was hit three times.

So what kept Hegan out of the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Well, as with the two other catchers we’ve reviewed in this series (Eddie Ainsmith and Jerry Grote), Hegan just wasn’t much of a hitter.  His career triple slash line of .228 / .295 / .344 is underwhelming, to say the least.  He managed 1,087 hits in his career of which 92 were home runs.  He drove in 525 runs, and he scored 550.  Hegan’s career high in batting average in a full season was .249 in 1947.  He did, however, hit a home run in the 1948 World Series vs. the Boston Braves.

When Hegan retired in 1960, his son, Michael, was just beginning his pro baseball career.  When Mike Hegan was a member of the ’72 World Champion Oakland A’s, he and his dad became the first father-son combo to each be part of a World Series winning team.

Jim Hegan is part of a long line of smooth and highly effective defensive catchers for whom useful statistics haven’t yet fully materialized.  Perhaps all one can do is to notice  the quality of the pitchers they’ve handled over the years, and accept the fact that to some reasonable extent, those pitchers owe at leas part of their success to the Jim Hegans of the world.  As my dad used to say, there’s nothing wrong with just working for a living.

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.

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