Monday, June 30, 2008

About the Baseball Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is about a month away. This year, Goose Gossage is getting inducted along with a few old-timers: Barney Dreyfuss, Walter O'Malley, Dick Williams, Bowie Kuhn, and Billy Southworth. In future posts, I'll talk about each one of those guys. Today, I'm going to talk about the Hall of Fame itself.

In the 1930s, baseball was in trouble. The Depression was cutting sharply into attendance, and the Babe Ruth juggernaut, which saved baseball in the 1920s, was winding down. Baseball needed something else. In 1931, the Baseball Writers Association institutionalized the MVP award, and two years later, sportswriter Arch Ward created the All-Star Game.

Then some people from Cooperstown, New York, the alleged birthplace of baseball, approached the commissioner with an idea: a museum honoring baseball’s great players and innovators. The commissioner liked it, and so did the rest of baseball. When it opened in 1939, it was a single-room exhibit with plaques and pictures. Thanks to curator Lee Allen, who presided over the shrine from 1948 until his death in 1969, the Hall added an extensive library and expanded the museum, so that today the Hall features three stories and 50,000 square feet of exhibits to entertain and enthrall.

When you go there, you can start in the Hall of Fame Gallery, where bronze plaques of the game’s immortals stand in tribute to their accomplishments. The Great Moments Room features artifacts and photographs from the game’s top events. There’s a screening room that shows baseball movies continuously. And other parts give detailed histories about the game’s origins, ballparks, and innovations. Ultimately, you can visit the Hall of Fame Library for the greatest collection of baseball books and papers in existence.

The place is open year-round except on Christmas and Thanksgiving. It gets really crowded during the summertime, especially during the induction ceremonies every July. It’s a must-see for any baseball fan.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Best Ever: St. Louis Cardinals

Continuing in the series of the best ever position players and pitchers for each franchise, today I'll tackle the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have won 10 world championships and 17 N.L. pennants, and they've made 22 playoff appearances. That's more than any N.L. club and second only to the Yankees among all major league baseball franchises. So, there's lots to choose from. Here's my take:


Contenders: Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Jesse Haines.

This one really isn't close. Haines is in the Hall of Fame, but that's a joke. He got in because he was a teammate of Frankie Frisch, who dominated the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee during the early 1970s and got them to induct a bunch of unworthy teammates. Haines was a good pitcher, won 20 games three times and pitched in 4 World Series. But he's no better than Bob Welch. Welch is not a Hall of Famer.

Dizzy Dean is one of baseball's greatest characters, and during his peak, he was one of the greats. From 1932 to 1937, he averaged over 22 victories per season. But then he was struck by a line drive and never fully recovered. He hung on and pitched somewhat effectively, but he washed out at age 30 with 150 career victories (134 for the Cardinals). Without the injury, he might have finished with 300 victories, but we'll never know.

Bob Gibson, meanwhile, achieved both a very high peak of performance and also lasted long enough to post 251 career victories, all with St. Louis. He led his club to the World Series three times; in fact, in 1964, as the Cardinals came from behind to win an unexpected pennant, Gibson went 7-2 with a 1.95 ERA during the months of September and October.

The Winner: Gibson, of course.

Position Player

The Contenders: A lot to choose from, but I think it comes down to Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, and Albert Pujols (with apologies to Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock).

Hornsby was clearly a great second baseman, a batsman extraordinaire but an average fielder. He played 11 full seasons with the Cardinals and was the league's most devastating hitter during the early 1920s. As has been written about before, Hornsby pretty much pissed off teammates and management wherever he went. He was traded by the Cardinals after the 1926 season, even though he had just player-managed them to a World Series title. Then he was traded four more times and was pretty much washed up at 35, though he player-managed until age 41.

Musial is one of the greatest outfielders of all time. He could do everything, and he did it with a smile. His teams won four pennants and three World Series, and he finished his career with more hits than anyone except Ty Cobb (since surpassed by Pete Rose). He was as close to a perfect ballplayer as ever played.

If any modern day ballplayer could stand up to a comparison with Stan Musial, it's probably Albert Pujols. Pujols does everything except steal bases, and he's been so good, for so long, that you forget he's not even 30 years old (born in 1980).

The Winner: I believe that one day we'll be talking about Pujols in the same breath as players like Mantle, Mays, and Musial. But for now and at least the next ten years, the title of greatest Cardinal player ever still belongs to Stan Musial. Let's see what happens in 10 years before handing the title to Pujols. I'll rooting for him.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Greatest Ever: Philadelphia Phillies

Continuing my series about the greatest pitchers and position players in the history of each franchise, today I'll tackle the Philadelphia Phillies.

Position Player

Contenders: Richie Ashburn, Ed Delahanty, Mike Schmidt.

The Winner: Ashburn was a great centerfielder in the 1950s, and a very good leadoff man. His fielding statistics are better than anyone who ever played the position, but Bill James studied the issue and attributes those stats to the fact that the Philadelphia pitching staffs of that era were filled with flyball pitchers. That's not to denigrate Ashburn, only to stop people from claiming he was better than Mays or Speaker or Andruw Jones simply because of fielding stats.

The real battle for supremacy among Phillies position players comes down to Schmidt vs. Delahanty. Delahanty was a devastating hitter who played from 1888 to 1903. In fact, he was probably the best hitter of his era. His OPS+ is off the charts. He didn't hit many homers because few did during that era, but he hit so many doubles and triples that if he'd played in the Schmidt era, he would almost certainly have hit many home runs.

Schmidt, you probably know about. He's the greatest third baseman of all time, period. At the plate, he had power and patience. In the field, he was practically flawless.

It's not close: the greatest ever at his position vs. maybe the 20th or 30th greatest outfielder. I'll take Schmidt.


Contenders: Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton.

The Winner: Both Alexander and Carlton are among the 10 greatest pitchers of all time, while Roberts in the top 20 or 30. Alexander is usually rated higher than Carlton, so starts with an advantage. But what hurts Alexander's candidacy is that only 190 of his 373 wins came as a Phillie, whereas 241 of Carlton's 329 victories came with Philadelphia. (Roberts won 234 of his 286 games as a Phillie.)

I'm going to pick Carlton for this particular honor because of his longer tenure with the club, not necessarily because he was a better overall pitcher but rather because he was a better Phillie.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Retire Ruth's #3?

Via King Kaufman and Rick Maese, I discovered that Babe Ruth's granddaughter wants major league baseball to permanently retire Ruth's jersey #3 throughout baseball. Linda Ruth Tosetti wants people to sign an online petition to encourage the commissioner to get on board with the idea:

Babe Ruth is the man who saved baseball and launched a major league revolution in hitting! Join our effort to honor the Babe by having his famous number 3 retired throughout Major League Baseball.

Give me a break.

Tosetti is referring to the fact that baseball was reeling from the 1919 Black Sox scandal at the same time that Ruth was electrifying crowds with his home runs.

But Tosetti has the timeline wrong. The public didn't hear about the World Series fix until midway through the 1920 season. By that point, Ruth was already a phenomenon. He had already been traded to the Yankees, his home runs were already being tracked in daily papers across the country, and crowds were already flocking to his games.

He didn't "save" baseball in the sense that he came on the scene when baseball needed saving and then singlehandedly revived interest in the game. He came along at just the right moment -- WWI had just ended, the Roaring 20s were just beginning -- and helped fuel a mini-boom in popularity for the game.

If baseball needed saving in the wake of the scandal, it was more likely that the new commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis,
is the one who provided it by dealing sternly with the accused.

And we're not going to retire Landis's jersey number.

So while I understand Ruth's granddaughter wanting to honor the greatest player in the history of baseball by retiring his jersey number in perpetuity, I think it's overkill. He changed baseball, but he didn't change society the way Jackie Robinson did.

And come on: isn't Ruth honored enough? Aren't the countless biographies and movies and everything else enough for Ruth's granddaughter?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

MLB for iPhone: No-brainer

If you're thinking about getting an iPhone, Major League Baseball is giving you one seriously compelling reason to take the plunge in July when the new model becomes available: MLB At Bat for iPhone.

It's a $5 application that you'll be able to buy from the iPhone App Store beginning in mid-July. It will get you live scores and in-game highlights for every game on the MLB schedule. Let me repeat that: video highlights delivered wirelessly to your iPhone during games! Baseball nirvana.

Here's a further explanation of the application from MacWorld.

At just $5, it's really a no-brainer for baseball fans who own iPhones. If you're a current iPhone owner, as I am, you don't have to buy the new version. You'll just have to download a new free software update around mid-July.

I am marking my calendar.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Speaking of the designated hitter...

...Is there still a controversy about it anymore?

Twenty years ago, when the DH was only about 15 years old, articles and columns were frequently written that disparaged or defended it. As a high school student, even I wrote an article bashing the DH and submitted it to a sportswriting competition.

If asked, I usually tell people that I'm opposed to the DH, but that's usually just a reflexive statement, said without any coherent thought. When I first became a fan, I loved the Dodgers and the National League, so I automatically hated everything about the American League, including the DH. But now, I just can't seem to care about it anymore.

I guess that means the DH has won, and I'm surprised that I don't care more than I do, which is to say, at all.

(The only thing I really still hate about the DH is that if you draft a DH onto your fantasy team, he can only play in the UTIL position -- in ESPN leagues, anyway -- and not in the 1B or OF position, where many DHs occasionally play.)

If I were starting up a new baseball league, I don't even know whether I would have pitchers bat or not.

I think I can trace my resignation about the DH to the fact that it is simply not ever going to go away. It's everywhere, even in high school leagues and below.

Several years ago, during bargaining with the players association, MLB offered to expand the rosters by one player and simultaneously eliminate the DH. I don't know whether they were serious about it, but that's what they offered, anyway. I believe the stated reason was to purify the game, but really they just wanted to eliminate a high-salaried position. The players association saw right through that and nixed the idea, and MLB never made a deal about it.

Now, a decade later, you never hear anything about it anymore, at least not until a pitcher gets hurt running the bases during interleague play.

Am I missing something? Is there still an anti-DH crowd that thinks things will change sometime?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

NL and the Designated Hitter

Yankees boss Hank Steinbrenner had some choice words for the National League and its fans today after his ace Chien-Ming Wang injured himself running the bases during non-DH interleague play:

"My only message is simple. The National League needs to join the 21st century. They need to grow up and join the 21st century... I've got my pitchers running the bases, and one of them gets hurt. He's going to be out. I don't like that, and it's about time they address it. That was a rule from the 1800s."

My only reaction is: If a guy can't even run the bases without injuring himself, he has no business as a professional athlete.

Update on Instant Replay

It looks like instant replay will happen in baseball, possibly later this season. Here's what I: wrote about it last month:

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.

I still believe that, but I'm starting to soften my "anti-replay" sentiment because I'm starting to believe that baseball might actually get it right and NOT interrupt the flow of the game. Also, it looks like they're going to focus on home run calls and other boundary plays, which umpires should try to get right.

However, if after a month of trying it out and working out the kinks, it's taking more than several minutes to decide these calls, then all bets are off.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Pine Tar Incident

Chipper Jones is threatening the .400 mark. Baseball Prospectus has a good rundown on what his chances are. (No, I don't think he will do it but I hope I'm wrong.)

This chase reminds me of the run at .400 by George Brett in 1980. And whenever I think of Brett, I think of the most notorious incident involving Billy Martin that ever happened: The Pine Tar Incident.

I'm sure Brett doesn't like that people like me associate him most prominently with the Pine Tar Incident, but... facts are facts.

The Pine Tar Incident is probably the weirdest mini-scandal in recent major league history, replete with late-inning heroics, allegations of cheating, a near brawl, and Billy Martin. What would a minor scandal be without Billy Martin?

It was July 24, 1983, New York vs. Kansas City in Yankee Stadium. Relief ace Goose Gossage was on the mound for the Yankees, protecting a 4–3 lead in the top of the ninth. With two outs and a runner on, Brett smashed a fastball over the fence to give the Royals an apparent 5–4 lead.

To everyone’s surprise, Yankee manager Billy Martin ran out his dugout carrying a rule book, trying to contain his glee. He had known for weeks that Brett was putting pine tar—a sticky black substance that helps a batter’s grip—higher on his bat than the 18 inches the rules allowed. He was waiting for the right moment to spring the news on an umpiring crew, and this was it.

After measuring the pine tar on Brett’s bat using the width of home plate, umpire Tim McClelland ruled the home run illegal and called Brett out, the apparent third out of the inning, giving the Yankees an apparent victory.

Now here comes Brett, storming out of the dugout! In a wild rage, restrained by players and coaches, Brett embodied pure, unadulterated anger.

Even though the game was supposedly over, the umpires ejected Brett, manager Dick Howser, coach Rocky Colavito, and pitcher Gaylord Perry, who tried to hide the bat. The umpires were able to confiscate the bat only because, as it was getting passed from Royals player to player, the last man in the line didn’t have anybody to give it to.

The Royals, of course, protested to the league office: “Broadway wouldn’t buy that script . . . it’s so unbelievable,” huffed Howser. Four days later, AL President Lee MacPhail agreed with Howser. He overruled his umpiring crew, a rare occurrence, and allowed the home run. He declared that even though the pine tar was technically illegal, it didn’t violate the “spirit of the rules.”

The Yankees were outraged. “It sure tests our faith in leadership,” moaned Yankee czar George Steinbrenner (of all people). Martin howled that the rule book was “only good for when you go deer hunting and run out of toilet paper.”But MacPhail had the power, and his decision stood.

Now there was the matter of completing the game, which was still in the ninth inning. The completion was scheduled for August 18, and the Yankees decided they would charge regular admission, even for fans who had tickets to the first game! Enraged fans protested, and two lawsuits were filed declaring the team’s policy illegal. In response, the club changed its policy but failed to announce it, so only 1,200 fans showed up to watch nine minutes and 41 seconds of baseball. Hal McRae struck out to end the ninth, and the Yankees went down in order in the bottom of the inning, giving the Royals a hard-fought 5–4 victory.

There is no YouTube video of the Pine Tar Incident (probably because of copyright concerns), but you can listen to the radio broadcast at

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Congrats to Ken Griffey

Ken Griffey Jr. just hit his 600th home run, a truly monumental achievement. Here's my take on Junior from the last edition of my book, The Book of Baseball Literacy:

Griffey joined the American League with much fanfare in 1989: a 19-year-old kid with loads of talent, called the second coming of Willie Mays and other hyperbole. For his first four seasons, “Junior” dazzled fans with spectacular catches, deep home runs, and youthful exuberance. But his stats—25 home runs per year and a .515 slugging percentage—didn’t seem to show his true potential. Then, in 1993, he notched a 45-home run campaign that quieted any skeptics. In strike-shortened 1994, he cemented his reputation as one of the today’s greats by smacking 40 home runs in just 433 at bats—and he followed that up with even better years, including a couple of 56-homer campaigns.

In 2000, the year before he was to become a free agent, he forced the Seattle Mariners to trade him to Cincinnati for basically a few journeyman ballplayers, a trade that threatened to go down as the most lopsided in history. Yet when the Mariners went on to win 116 games in 2001 while Griffey struggled through several injury-plagued seasons, it was the Mariners who had the last laugh.

Griffey is unquestionably headed for the Hall of Fame, and until the injuries, he was even on a pace to break the career home run record (now owned by Barry Bonds, of course). Unless Griffey has a Bonds-ian resurgence in his late 30s, he has no chance at that record anymore. But by the time he’s finished, he will rank among the top 10 center fielders of all time, probably just behind Mays, Cobb, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Speaker.

Monday, June 9, 2008

History Lesson: The First World Series

In 1884, the National League and its major league rival, the American Association, met for the first time in a post-season championship series that they called the "World Series," or, more commonly, the "World's Series." In earlier seasons, pennant winners had met informally to play exhibition games, but the 1884 Series was the first to be officially approved and scheduled by league offices.

In the series, the NL’s Providence Grays, behind the pitching of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, swept all three games from the AA’s New York Metropolitans -- the ultimate anti-climax.

Postseason championships continued until the AA folded in 1891, then reappeared as the Temple Cup Series that pitted the top two National League finishers against each other. Lack of fan interest killed the Temple Cup after four years of lopsided series.

Then, two years after the American League’s formation in 1901, baseball’s czars reestablished interleague championships with what most fans consider the first “modern” World Series in 1903. In that series, the AL’s Boston Pilgrims (now Red Sox) upset the haughty Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in a best-of-nine set.

The idea of a postseason series was proposed by Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, who challenged Pilgrims owner Henry Killilea near the end of the season; all it took to seal the deal was a handshake. The victory by the American League upset the peace that had ended the American League War. And the following season, manager John McGraw of the pennant-winning New York Giants, whose ownership did not recognize the “treaty” between the two leagues and was angry at the AL for having placed a rival franchise in New York, refused to entertain any notions of staging another postseason contest.

By 1905, tempers had subsided and the Series was allowed to continue—which it did uninterrupted until 1994, when a bonfire of greed and power conspired to take the Series away from the public. (But that's a story for another day.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Best Ever: Boston Braves

Yesterday, I selected the greatest Atlanta/Milwaukee Braves players ever, and today I'm going to focus on the Boston Braves. (Surely you know that the Braves played in Boston from 1876 to 1952). 

Let's start with the easiest choice:


Contenders: Warren Spahn and... Johnny Sain maybe?

The winner: This is really no contest. Sain had a good run for a few years as the Braves' number two starter, but Spahn was an all-time great. He won 363 games in the majors, all but seven with the Braves. Most of his best years occurred in Milwaukee, but he came up with Boston and so I consider him a Boston Brave for this feature.


Contenders: Rabbit Maranville, Tommy Holmes, Wally Berger

The winner: If I really wanted to cheat, I'd choose Babe Ruth, who played his final season as a Boston Brave. But I'm going to stick with players who legitimately played many years with the Braves.

The three contenders are the top three players in terms of career hits as a Brave. Maranville is in the Hall of Fame, mainly for his shortstop defense, and he played a key role on Boston's surprise World Series championship in 1914. But his hitting was mostly woeful, even when you adjust for the Dead Ball Era.

Tommy Holmes played from 1942 to 1952, but he really had only one good season, and that came in 1945 when most of the best players were serving in the military. Holmes got an exemption from service.

Wally Berger is a forgotten star who put together one of the best rookie seasons ever: .310, 38 homers, 119 RBIs as a 24-year-old. The slugging outfielder smacked 30 homers two more times, and finished his career with 242. However, he played in the peak years of the Lively Ball Era, so the numbers aren't as impressive as they seem. Still, he was an All-Star four times and finished in the to 10 in MVP voting twice even though his Braves never seriously contended for any pennants.

The choice comes down to Maranville vs. Berger. I'm inclined to select Berger because I think sluggers are more valuable than defensive specialists. But Maranville won a championship, is in the Hall of Fame, and leads the franchise in a number of categories (including Games, Hits, Runs, and more). It's close, but I think those criteria push Maranville over the top.

Rabbit Maranville is the greatest position player in Boston Braves history.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Best Ever: Braves

OK, so this one's an easy one. I'm going to continue my series by choosing the best players (batter, pitcher) for the Braves. Just as I did with the Athletics, I'm going to break up the Braves into two approximately equal groups: Boston and Milwaukee/Atlanta. First up, the easy ones: Milwaukee/Atlanta.


Contenders: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Chipper Jones.

The winner: Aaron, of course. They're all in or headed for the Hall of Fame, but there's simply no question that Hank Aaron is the greatest player in Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves history.


Contenders: Warren Spahn, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine.

The winner: OK, I'm going to cheat a little bit here and move Spahn to the Boston Braves group, which clears the path for Maddux to be identified as the greatest Atlanta Braves pitcher of all time.

Maddux over Glavine? It's actually closer than it seems, but Maddux wins. Glavine won two Cy Young Awards as a Brave and finished in the top 5 four other times. Maddux won 3 Cy Youngs as a Brave and finished in the top 5 four other times (not to mention the two other top-5 finishes as a Cub).

Glavine was great. Maddux was greater.

I'll tackle the Boston Braves tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Hall of Fame Watch: Jeff Kent

I was watching the Mets/Dodgers game on ESPN last night, which featured Jeff Kent, and I got to thinking about Jeff Kent's Hall of Fame chances.

I have a tenuous personal connection to Kent in that we both attended U.C. Berkeley around the same time. He finished his junior year while I was a freshman, so I got to watch him play for the Bears that season. What I remember about him is that he was one of the top players on a decent team. However, it's pretty safe to say that no one watching him at the time would've predicted that he would be the topic of a Hall of Fame discussion 20 years later. (The same couldn't be said of another player from that era who I got to watch: Mike Mussina. He pitched for Stanford at the time and I watched him absolutely overwhelm the Bears on at least one occasion. But I digress.)

In fact, no one watching Jeff Kent as recently as 2000 would have pegged him for a Hall of Famer. But Kent has quietly continued to put up big seasons from a key defensive position (second base), and he's creeping up on 400 homers. He's clearly at least on the cusp of the Hall of Fame. But does he belong?

The Case for Jeff Kent, Hall of Famer

1. Power. He's the greatest slugging second baseman in baseball history, with 370 career home runs, including 344 at the position (as of today). He's way ahead of Rogers Hornsby, Ryne Sandberg, and Joe Morgan. There's nobody active who's even close. Maybe Chase Utley will make a run at the record, but that's many years away.

2. RBIs. Since being traded to the Giants, he's become one of the most consistent RBI men in modern baseball. Beginning in 1997, he drove in at least 100 runs in 8 of his next 9 seasons (with 93 during the other one), and even into his 40s, he continues to deliver big hits in the middle of the order.

3. Position. If he were a left fielder or first baseman, none of these stats would mean much, but since he's a second baseman, he stands out all the more. He's never been a particularly great fielder, but who cares when you hit as well as he does.

4. MVP. He won the 2000 MVP award over teammate Barry Bonds. Bonds deserved it more, but Kent got the hardware.

The Case Against Jeff Kent, Hall of Famer

1. Not an all-time great. Other than his MVP season in 2000, Kent was never really regarded as a truly special player. His HOF credentials are mostly the result of playing the bulk of his career driving in Barry Bonds.

He also wouldn't really rank all that high on the list of the all-time greatest second basemen. Off the top of my head, he would rank below Morgan, Hornsby, Collins, Sandberg, Lajoie, probably Gehringer and Biggio, probably Alomar and Frankie Frisch.

2. Post-season disappointments. Kent played in one World Series, which his Giants lost. He played in two LCSs and went 1-1. I'm not saying it's Kent's fault -- he played well in most of his playoff appearances. I'm just saying that there is no lasting impression of Kent as a post-season hero.

3. Impressions. The honest truth is that Kent just doesn't "feel" like a Hall of Famer to most fans. My impression is that if you were ask fans to name a list of active players, Kent's name simply would not -- or would rarely -- come up.

Bottom Line

It's an iffy proposition. Do I think Kent belongs? Yes, probably. He certainly wouldn't dishonor the Hall of Fame, and he's played well enough for a long period to earn his place.

Do I think it will get in? Not for a long time. He probably won't be a first- or second-ballot HOFer. If he makes it, it'll be in a year in which no absolute-lock Hall of Famer is on the ballot. Ultimately, though, I think people will look at the numbers and decide that he should be in. My hunch: Class of 2024.