Thursday, May 29, 2008

Blast from the past: The Gas House Gang

For no particular reason, I was thinking about the Gas House Gang the other day. Who?

The "Gas House Gang" was the nickname for the Cardinals teams in the 1930s, featuring such colorful characters as Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher, Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, and Joe Medwick.

With Durocher as the ringleader and Martin as the clown, the Cardinals made themselves famous for scrappy play and childish pranks. Once, after a tough loss, player-manager Frisch called a team meeting during which he lambasted his players with insults and profanity. Then he asked if anyone had any questions. During the heavy silence that followed, only Martin was brave enough to raise his hand:

“I was just wondering,” he asked Frisch innocently, “whether I ought to paint my midget auto racer red with white wheels or white with red wheels.”

Even Frisch had to laugh.

The first Gas House Gang, according to author Paul Dickson, was a band of thugs who prowled the Lower East Side of Manhattan near a number of large gas tanks in the 19th century. The term came to be applied to the Cardinals because, according to one legend, they were a notoriously rough team that once played a game in against the Giants in soiled uniforms, reminding a New York writer of the famed thugs.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greatest Ever: Oakland Athletics

In my last post, I chose Lefty Grove and Eddie Collins as the greatest Philadelphia Athletics of all time. Today I'll choose the greatest Oakland A's:


I'm going to choose this one first because it's so easy. Here are the candidates: Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson.

It's pretty obvious who's number one, right? Henderson, of course. He played four separate stints with the A's, helping them to four postseason appearances. But what he's really known for his his title as The Greatest Leadoff Hitter Ever. He got on base over 40% of the time, and, during his prime, he hit for more power than many cleanup hitters. He hit 81 leadoff homers, easily the record, including 44 of them for the A's. Bill James once wrote that if you split Rickey Henderson in half, you'd have two Hall of Famers. He clearly stands as the greatest Oakland A hitter of all time.


This comes down to a starter vs. a reliever: Catfish Hunter or Dennis Eckersley. They're both in the Hall of Fame, they both won multiple pennants, they both won Cy Young Awards.

Let's break it down a little.

Hunter had four 20-win seasons for the A's, plus one more for the Yankees. Eckersley had four 40-save seasons for the A's, plus four more 30-save seasons (2 for the A's) and a 20-win season (for the Red Sox). (I know that statistically or sabermetrically, a 20-win season is not truly analogous to a 40-save season, but we're just having fun here.)

Eckersley is considered one of the 3 or 4 greatest relief pitchers of all time, but that's mainly because relief pitching is a relatively new phenomenon in baseball history. Hunter doesn't rank among the top 25 pitchers of all time, though he was one of the 5 or 6 greatest starting pitchers of the 1970s (behind at least Seaver, Carlton, and Palmer, just off the top of my head).

It's a close contest, and I went back and forth several times in my thinking. But I finally decided that a starting pitcher who logs 300 innings per season is simply much more valuable than a reliever who tosses 70 or 80, even if those 70 or 80 innings are the most important of a game.

I'm going to go with Catfish Hunter as the greatest pitcher in Oakland A's history.

Friday, May 23, 2008

New Regular Feature: Greatest Ever for Each Team

Fellow blogger Joe Posnanski has a long post today trying to identify the greatest position player ever for the Mets. You should check it out.

It's given me the idea to start another new regular feature on Baseball Mud to identify the greatest two players -- pitcher and position player -- for each franchise. Some will be easier than others.

To start, I'm going to pick my local favorite, the Oakland A's.

Now, the A's spent the first 50 years of their existence in Philadelphia before moving first to Kansas City, then to Oakland. So I'm going to cheat a little and select two sets of winners. Today I'm going to focus on the old Philadelphia A's.


The candidates: Eddie Plank (1901-1914), Chief Bender (1903-1914), Lefty Grove (1925-1933).

They're all Hall of Famers, and they all won championships. Plank is the franchise leader in wins with 284 as an Athletic, followed by Grove with 195 and Bender with 193.

But who are we kidding. Grove is clearly the greatest pitcher to wear a Philadelphia Athletics uniform. He was possibly the greatest pitcher of all time. He won 20+ games 7 times in his 9 seasons in Philly, and was only traded because owner Connie Mack needed the money.

Position Players

The candidates: Eddie Collins (1906-1914, 1927-1930), Mickey Cochrane (1925-1933), and Jimmie Foxx (1925-1935).

At first blush, Eddie Collins would be the obvious choice due to his length of service (13 years for Collins vs. 9 for Cochrane and 11 for Foxx). But Collins also won a couple of pennants with the White Sox (or Black Sox), so he might even qualify as the greatest White Sox ever, too. (We'll get to that later.)

Foxx did a lot of damage as a slugging first baseman and won two championships. Cochrane also won those same two championships before moving to Detroit to win another. Cochrane is one of the top 5 catchers of all time. Foxx is one of the top 5 first basemen.

But Collins is one of the top 2 or 3 second basemen, and he won three championships with the A's (four pennants total, plus two more pennants with the Sox).

It's a slightly difficult decision, but ultimately Collins is my choice for the greatest position player in Philadelphia A's history.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Martinez retirement talk premature

First Mike Piazza retired. Then Pedro Martinez said he might retire after this season to be with his ailing father. Now he says he'll pitch another two years:

"I feel great physically and for the record I haven't considered retirement. Retirement would only take place if my arm is badly hurt and if I have to face surgery or something near that nature," Martinez told while visiting his father, Pablo Jaime, who has a form of brain cancer.

I hope Pedro sticks around as long as possible. Here's what I wrote about him in the 2000 edition of my book:

“I am a pitcher because I like the challenge of being responsible for the game, of being in charge of the action. If the shortstop makes an error, I am responsible. I let the batter hit the ball,” Pedro Martinez once said, explaining the attitude that propelled him to the top of baseball.

Winner of three Cy Young Awards, Martinez had possibly the best combination of power (a 97-mph fastball) and control of any pitcher ever, and he ranks first all-time among modern pitchers in his ratio of strikeouts to walks.*

During his historic 1999 season, Martinez rarely allowed hitters to touch anything. While leading his Red Sox to the wild card title, he won 23 games (vs. just 4 losses), posted a 2.07 ERA (in Fenway Park, no less), and struck out 313 hitters to set a major league record with 13.2 Ks per nine innings (since surpassed by Randy Johnson). He followed that up with another Cy Young Award in 2000. In all, he has finished in the top five in Cy Young balloting seven times.

Over the past few years, age and injuries limited him to just six or seven innings per start, or around 100 pitches. But for those 100 pitches, he’s about as good as there ever was.

That was before he went on to finish in the top 3 in Cy Young Award balloting two more times, and help pitch the Red Sox to a World Series. His career post-season record is now 6-2, 3.40 ERA, with 80Ks in 79.1 innings.

Fans in the 1960s had their Sandy Koufax, the brilliant lefty. As fans in the 90s and early 2000s, we have our Pedro. He won't win as many games as Clemens or Maddux, but if you ask most modern fans who they would want in their prime for a single must-win game, I think Pedro would be their choice.

*Curt Schilling has passed Martinez in that category now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mike Piazza Retires

Mike Piazza retired today after 16 seasons in the bigs. He last played with the A's last year, an injury-hampered season in which he contributed only 8 HRs and 44 RBIs.

It's not too soon to assess his career to see where he stands among the greatest catchers of all time. has a cool, subscription-only feature that lets me compare Piazza to all other catchers in a variety of categories.

Home Runs
1. Piazza: 427 (396 as catcher)
2. Johnny Bench: 389 (326 as catcher)
3. Carlton Fisk: 376 (351 as catcher)

1. Yogi Berra: 1,430
2. Ted Simmons: 1,389
3. Johnny Bench: 1,376
4. Mike Piazza: 1,335

Batting Average (min: 1,000 GP)
1. Mickey Cochrane: .320
2. Bill Dickey: .313
3. Mike Piazza: .308

On-base Percentage (min: 1,000 GP)
1. Mickey Cochrane: .419
2. Wally Schang: .393
3. Gene Tenace: .388
8. Mike Piazza: .377

Slugging Percentage (min: 1,000 GP)
1. MIke Piazza: .545
2. Roy Campanella: .500
3. Javy Lopez: .491

OPS+ (On-base + Slugging adjusted for all baseball eras; click here for explanation)
1. Mike Piazza: 142
2. Gene Tenace: 136
3. Mickey Cochrane: 128


Piazza is generally regarded as having one of the worst throwing arms in modern baseball history. Lucky for him, he played during an era in which stolen bases weren't very important to a team's offense, so it didn't matter so much. And anyway, his hitting more than made up for his defensive deficiencies.

Bottom Line
Piazza was never tainted by steroid allegations, so in five years, when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame, he will go in on the first ballot.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Instant replay?

There was a little controversy over the weekend that awakened the calls for instant replay in baseball. In the Mets/Yankees game, Carlos Delgado had a home run called foul by the home plate umpire, a mistake the umpire owned up to after the game.

I'm in favor of instant replay in baseball ONLY if the system can be completely seamless and not interrupt the flow of the game. Since it's doubtful those two criteria can be met, you could call me anti-replay.

What I like about baseball is that the umpires do have a chance to review and change their calls after the play is over. This rarely happens in other sports, but in baseball it happens all the time. In fact, the mistake in the Mets/Yankees game came only when the home plate umpire overruled his counterpart.

I think that the four umpires on the field, who are the best-trained in their profession, make the correct call 99% of the time on close plays like that (ball/strike calls not included). I don't think instant replay is needed to fix the miniscule number of mistakes that happen in baseball.

Sure, Oriole fans would have liked instant replay when Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier robbed them of a home run in the playoffs. And Cardinal fans would have liked instant replay when Don Denkinger blew the call at first base in the 1985 World Series.

Baseball history is littered with bad calls that instant replay might have rectified. But I say so what? Good teams overcome errors--whether theirs or the umpires'--to win games. If the Cardinals couldn't get the final out on their own in that fateful Game 6, that's their problem, not Don Denkinger's.

Umpires should continue to be trained well, and they should continue to ask for help from their cohorts when they need it. That should be good enough.

Friday, May 16, 2008

No blogging update

For my regular readers: I'm on a short vacation this week, but I'll be back blogging on Monday. Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Unfabulous Baker Bowl

On this date in history:
1927: In the top of the seventh at the Baker Bowl with Phillies leading the Cardinals, 12-4, a section of the right field stand collapses causing hundreds of fans to fall on the patrons below. Although there are many injuries, the only death is caused by the stampeding crowd.

The fabulous Baker Bowl, as it was never called, housed the Phillies from 1895 until 1938, but to call it a major league ballpark would be an overstatement. It was so small that at its peak, it seated about 23,000 fans and it featured some of the shortest outfield fences in baseball. Gavvy Cravath, for example, fashioned a pretty good career in the Baker Bowl as a dead ball era power hitter; from 1913 to 1915, he hit 51 of his 62 home runs in Philadelphia.

But its small size isn’t really what separates it from a typical major league stadium—it’s the fact that the park was so poorly made that on not one but two separate occasions--first in 1903, then in 1927--sections of the stands collapsed during games, killing a dozen people and injuring hundreds. That Philadelphia management didn’t shut the place down after the first collapse is unconscionable. But that managerial incompetence probably explains why the Phillies won only a single pennant during their entire time in that ballpark.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Hall of Fame Watch: David Ortiz

I'm going to start a regular feature on the blog assessing the Hall of Fame chances of a variety of borderline players. I'm going to try not to focus on the obvious candidates (Maddux, Pujols, etc.) and instead discuss the guys with question marks.

First up: David Ortiz.

Ortiz has two things working for him and two things working against him:

1. Clutch play and postseason success
2. Big seasons for a famous, winning team

1. Late start
2. No defensive value

Let's take those one at a time:

Clutch play and postseason success

If you look at his overall postseason statistics, you'll realize they don't differ greatly from his regular-season production: .317 BA, .418 OBP, .587 SLG in the postseason vs. .288, .382, .554 in the regular season. He clearly steps up his game in the playoffs and World Series, but it's not like he goes hog wild.

Still, his performance in the 2004 ALCS alone has cemented his reputation in the annals of clutch hitting. He drove home the winning run in extra innings two days in a row, and he notched 11 RBIs overall. He did just as well in that year's Division Series. And in the 2007 Division Series, he was lights out: an .846 on-base percentage (!) and 1.571 slugging percentage (!!!).

Big Seasons for a Successful Team

Just check out his entry on and pay particular attention to his numbers since joining the Red Sox in 2003. He's finished in the top 5 in MVP voting every year from 2003 through 2007, and his team has made the postseason four times. "Big Papi" was one of the key cogs in the the most successful Red Sox machine since 1918.

Now the negatives.

Late start

This isn't totally accurate. He actually came up with the Twins in 1997 at age 21. If he had started producing big seasons within the next three years, as many Hall of Famers do, then he would be a no-brainer. But the Twins released him at age 26 after he failed to live up to their expectations. Did they give him enough of a chance to succeed? Probably not. But the fact that he was 27 before he established himself as a star works against his Hall of Fame chances because he probably won't achieve magic numbers like 500 home runs or 1500 RBIs.

With a body like his (he's listed at 6-4, 230 pounds, but I suspect he's more like 250), he's a huge injury risk. Look at Mo Vaughn, a very similar player in both skills and body type. He was washed up at 34. Baseball history is filled with big sluggers whose careers fall apart after age 34 or so. Carlos Delgado is in the same boat.

Only 32 now, Ortiz may very well continue producing into his late 30s. If he hits 35 homers a year for the next 5 years, or if he'd done it from age 22 through 26, he would be a lock for the Hall. I'm just saying the odds are against him.

No defensive value

Ortiz has spent 80% of his career at the DH spot, and that percentage only figures to go higher as time goes on since he almost never plays first base anymore. That doesn't necessarily doom him, of course, because the Hall of Fame is only now beginning to sort out how it deals with the first generations of players who came up in the DH era. I think it simply means his road will be tougher than players who contributed both offensively and defensively.

Bottom line

I think Ortiz needs at least 400 career home runs to even have a chance. He's about 125 shy, but at his current rate, he could reach that mark in three injury-free seasons. With his injury risk and his probably natural decline in skills, I would place his chances of doing that at about 50%.

Even 400 home runs would be kind of low for a 1B/DH in this modern lively ball era, but I think HOF voters would fondly remember his smile, his clutch play, and his association with the first Red Sox championships in 86 years, and vote him in on the second or third ballot.

If he somehow reached 500 home runs, he'd be a lock, but that's a very tall order.

Big Papi is very easy to root for, so I'll be on his side.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Today I'm going to talk about Casey Stengel, the legendary player and manager for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Mets.

Through six decades in baseball, Stengel was known as both clown and genius, prankster and innovator. During his playing days, he once doffed his cap to let a bird fly out. Another time, he supposedly disappeared into an outfield drainage hole, only to reappear in time to make a play.

But it's his skill with the English language that makes him one of the most lovable characters in baseball history. Some examples:

“I don’t know if he throws a spitball, but he sure spits on the ball.”

“I was pitching batting practice and they told me not to throw so hard. I wanted to impress the manager, so I threw as hard as I could. Then hitters commenced hitting balls over buildings. Then I threw harder and they hit the ball harder. Then, I told the manager I was really an outfielder.”

“If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.”

“Most people my age are dead.”

“When a fielder gets a pitcher into trouble, the pitcher has to pitch himself out of a slump he isn’t in.”

“There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” (A quote that also appears on his gravestone.)

Want more? Go here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Meal Ticket

A little "This Date in Baseball History" for you today:

1929: Giants' hurler Carl Hubbell becomes the first left-hander in 13 seasons to throw a no-hitter as he beats the Pirates, 11-0.

Let me tell you more about Carl Hubbell.

Known as both "The Meal Ticket" and "King Carl," Hubbell earned his nicknames with a trademark screwball that carried the Giants to three pennants in the late 1920s and 1930s. He actually threw two different screwballs, a sidearm pitch that dropped down and away from right-handed batters and faster, overhand throw that broke more sharply.

In fact, his left arm was permanently damaged by all the screwballs. The Cardinals’ Pepper Martin said “his left hand turns the wrong way” and called him a freak. “No wonder he’s such a good pitcher,” Martin added. And the great writer Jim Murray wrote that his left arm “looks as if he put it on in the dark.”

Still, it was no doubt worth it for Hubbell. His accomplishments are many: 46 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, five 20-win seasons, three ERA championships. But his most famous feat came in the 1934 All-Star game, when he struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Negro Leagues Draft?

A story today from AP had this headline: "MLB plans to hold ceremonial draft of living Negro Leagues players."

The only reaction to something like that is, "What?!?"

Here's the rest of the story

NEW YORK -- Major League Baseball will hold a ceremonial draft of living former Negro Leagues players before its annual amateur draft June 6.

Those selected will represent Negro Leaguers players who didn't have the chance to play for major league teams, the commissioner's office said Tuesday. MLB was not sure how many former Negro Leagues players are living.

Now, I'm all in favor of giving the Negro leagues more press and all, but... what?

So I visited and read their story, and I was still scratching my head until I got to the real gist of the story:

Each team will compensate the player it selects with a stipend, Solomon said. Major League Baseball will pick up the travel expenses for each player (and a companion) to the Draft headquarters in Orlando.

OK, now it's starting to make sense. At least 30 elderly Negro league veterans are going to get some money from Major League Baseball as compensation for the wrongs of earlier regimes. Since the Negro leagues shut down about 50 years ago, any surviving veteran is at least 70 years old, and they could use the money.

Still, this strikes me as a publicity stunt. (Wait, publicity stunt, Bud Selig... now that's a surprise.) If MLB really wanted to do something for old Negro leaguers, how about a true retirement package for ALL living players? How about putting money into the Negro leagues museum in Kansas City?

I guess I should be happy that they're doing something, but this just doesn't pass the smell test with me.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Baseball Song Followup

Following up on last week's post about "Van Lingle Mungo"...

There's another great baseball song that you should know about: "Talkin' Baseball: Willie, Mickey, and the Duke" by Terry Cashman. I've just started singing it to my daughter, and she loves it just as much as "Van Lingle Mungo." I don't think she has any idea what it's about (baseball in the 1950s) or what a "willie mickey and the duke" is but she just loves the melodies, and I love singing it to her.

"Talkin' Baseball" is just one of Terry Cashman's homages to baseball. He also wrote versions of the song for a variety of teams, and he wrote one for that great episode of "The Simpsons" where Mr. Burns recruits professional baseball players to compete in a charity softball game.

In the past, I've also sung "The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song" by Danny Kaye, but that's not really a bedtime song. Too much action.

The reason I know the words to all these songs is that for many years I've own a CD called "Baseball's Greatest Hits," which compiles just what the name implies: great baseball songs. It's got "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," "I Love Mickey," and many more. It also has a dramatic reading of "Casey at the Bat" by the man who made it famous, De Wolf Hopper, back around the turn of the century, and a clip of audio captured by a reporter who talked to Tommy Lasorda after Dave Kingman hit three home runs against Tommy's Dodgers. It is a masterpiece of profanity that has to be heard to be believed.

If you want to get these songs, here are some links to make it easy:

Van Lingle Mungo via iTunes

Terry Cashman's Greatest Baseball Hits via iTunes

Baseball's Greatest Hits via

Friday, May 2, 2008

Van Lingle Mungo

So there's this great baseball song called "Van Lingle Mungo," written and performed by Dave Frishberg, that I've listened to and loved for years. If you don't know about it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

The story is that one day back in the late sixties, Frishberg, a songwriter, was flipping through the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia when he came upon the listing for Van Lingle Mungo, a journeyman pitcher from the 1930s. He immediately loved the melody of the name, and soon discovered many other mellifluous names in the Encyclopedia. So he wrote a lovely song using only the names of classic baseball players.

Read the lyrics here. That page quotes a story by Frishberg about what happened when he met the real Van Lingle Mungo on a talk show. Great stuff.

I bring it up because if you have small children, as I do, and you're a baseball fan, as I am, the song makes a GREAT bedtime lullaby. I've been singing it to my kids for years, and my daughter, who's 4, loves it. She knows a lot of the words, and now when we sing it, it's more of a duet. Her favorite player is Pinky May.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ten Essential Baseball Books

Fellow blogger Alex Belth of Bronx Banter asked 55 serious baseball fans to name their 10 essential baseball books (read the entire post here). I don't know Alex and he didn't ask me for my thoughts, but I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and provide my list.

As an obsessive, I've got over 250 baseball books in my library at home (actually, they're in boxes in my garage, sorted alphabetically by author so I can find them; I keep track of them using cool Mac software called Delicious Library).

Anyway, my list of 10 essential baseball books, organized into 10 topics.

1. General history: Every baseball fan should own a general history of the game. I have a strong affection for an old book called The Image of their Greatness by Lawrence Ritter, but it's been out of print for years. So I would recommend The Ultimate Baseball Book by Dan Okrent.

2. Business: Baseball fans should know about the business of baseball, and one recent book in particular give the clearest explanations of that subject--Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It's also a great story, told by a master storyteller.

3. Negro leagues: These leagues are as much a part of the history of the game as Babe Ruth, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Willie Mays. There are a number of wonderful books out there, and a lot of people still recommend the first book on the subject, Only the Ball Was White, which was published in the late 1960s. I think the more recent books do a better job describing what life in the Negro leagues was really like, so I'm going to recommend Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball, edited by Lawrence Hogan.

4. Jackie Robinson: There's no shortage of books on the topic of Jackie Robinson and the breaking of baseball's color line, including a new book, Opening Day, about his first season. I'm going to recommend the first true study of the event--Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel, now available in a new edition.

5. Statistics: The best statistical analysis year in, year out is produced by the gang at Baseball Prospectus. I recommend that everyone get the latest Baseball Prospectus annual, where they'll get analysis not only of stats but also of acquisitions, managerial decisions, and more. It really will change the way you look at baseball.

6. Essays: One of the best baseball writers of all time is Roger Angell, and you can't go wrong with any of his collections. I'll offer up one his book that anthologizes his writings: Once More Around the Ballpark

7. Biography: My favorite baseball biography isn't the classic biography of Babe Ruth by Robert Creamer, which a lot of people love, but rather the recent book Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer. It presents an unvarnished portrait of what it was like to be the most famous ballplayer in America. A lot of people don't like it because it presents DiMaggio's flaws alongside his virtues, but that's exactly what I do like about it.

8. Autobiography: Lots to choose from here, but I'm going to go with a classic--Ball Four by Jim Bouton. It's smart, it's funny, it's revealing, and it drove baseball executives crazy when it was published in 1970.

9. Bill James: Bill James deserves a category all to himself because he has influenced so many of today's baseball writers and thinkers, everybody from columnist Rob Neyer to Oakland A's GM Billy Beane to myself. He has a new book out called The Bill James Gold Mine, but the book to get is The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. It has everything: history, stats, player rankings, untold stories, you name it.

10. Fiction: I have to admit that I don't read much fiction, but I have read these four classic baseball novels--Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Southpaw by Mark Harris, and The Great American Novel by Philip Roth. I can't really pick between them, so I'm going just going to list all of them.

So there you go: the books you need to start or augment your baseball library. Happy reading!