Tuesday, September 23, 2008

100 Years Ago Today: Merkle's Boner

The headline says it all: On Sept. 23, 1908, New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle committed the most celebrated gaffe in the history of baseball affecting one of the greatest pennant races of all time.

The Pirates, Cubs, and Giants were neck-and-neck-and-neck throughout most of the season, leading up to the September 23 game between New York and Chicago at the Polo Grounds. With the score tied 1–1 and darkness falling in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants had runners on first and third with two out. Shortstop Al Bridwell singled to center to score what everybody thought was the winning run. Believing the game was over and trying to avoid the onslaught of screaming fans onto the field, the runner on first—poor Fred Merkle—ran straight to the dugout without touching second base, a common practice in those days.

Alert Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers, who knew the rule book, retrieved a ball (though it probably wasn’t the actual game ball, which was lost in the melee of swarming fans), got the attention of umpire Hank O’Day, and tagged second base. O’Day ruled Merkle out on the force play, but because it was dark and the field was overrun with fans, the game was called a tie.

The Giants protested the decision, and NL president Harry Pulliam ruled that the game would be replayed at the end of the season if it affected the pennant race.

It did. The two teams met again in the final game of the season in an epic battle between Christy Mathewson of the Giants and Chicago’s “Three-Finger” Brown, won by the Cubs 4–2.

For the rest of his playing days, Merkle would be reminded of his bonehead play and accused by ignorant fans of blowing the pennant for the Giants. In fact, Merkle was simply following baseball tradition, and Giants manager John McGraw never blamed Merkle. What most fans didn’t (and don’t) know was that Evers had tried to capitalize on the same kind of blunder in an earlier game, but umpire O’Day had disallowed his protest; when it came up again, O’Day was ready to rule on the technicality.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Goodbye Yankee Stadium

As you may have heard (assuming you read ESPN, SI, TSN, or just about any other sports-related magazine, website, or blog), old Yankee Stadium hosted its last game yesterday. The Yanks beat the Orioles 7-3 in an apparently emotional farewell. Everybody's doing their tributes to Yankee Stadium, and if I don't, I'll be kicked out of the baseball bloggers union. So here goes.

Some random (negative) thoughts about Yankee Stadium:

- The fact that there will be no post-season baseball this year in The Bronx is further proof that there are no "baseball gods." If there were, and if They were Yankee fans (why wouldn't They be, after all those championships?), then the last game at Yankee Stadium this year would have featured Mariano Rivera shutting down some hapless NL opponent in game four or game seven of the World Series. But alas, the Tampa Bay Rays ruined everything by actually being good this season. Sorry, Steinbrenner family.

- In fact, the last World Series game in Yankee Stadium history came in game six of the 2003 series, when Josh Beckett shut out the Yanks on five hits to clinch Florida's unexpected championship.

- The last playoff game in Yankee Stadium was an equally ignominious loss for New York in 2007 against the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.

- The last important game against the archrival Red Sox in Yankee Stadium was game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, when New York completed the greatest collapse in American sports history by losing 10-3. (Of course, you remember that the New Yorkers became the first club to lose a series after leading 3 games to 0.)

Yes, yes, I'm focusing on the bad stuff. Sorry about that. My anti-Yankee sentiment is rising to the surface. For about the first 80 years of its history, pretty much only good stuff (for the Yankees) happened at the Stadium. All those championships, all the times they demolished Boston or the Dodgers or any other club that tried to knock the club off its throne. All the great players who patrolled its environs: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson, and so on.

It's sad to see such a vital piece of baseball history tossed aside. On the other hand, the place was old, and the march of progress requires replacing old with new.

Goodbye, old Yankee Stadium.

Hello, new Yankee Stadium.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Veterans Committee Ballot

A few weeks ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced finalists for consideration by the Veterans Committee. I covered each finalist ad nauseam here, here, here, here, and here.

That ballot covers players and managers of the pre-1942 period. This week, they announced a similar list for the post-1942 era.

Here's who made the cut: Dick Allen, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, Al Oliver, Vada Pinson, Ron Santo, Luis Tiant, Joe Torre and Maury Wills.

I could milk this news for about 2 weeks worth of blog posts, but Joe Posnanski today did a great evaluation of each candidate, and honestly I don't have much to add.

My bottom-line take on each candidate is this:

Dick Allen: Great player, too short a career. No.
Gil Hodges: Borderline case, but no.
Jim Kaat: Yes, I would vote for him.
Tony Oliva: No.
Al Oliver: Definitely not.
Vada Pinson: No.
Ron Santo: Yes. He's probably the best eligible player not currently in the Hall.
Luis Tiant: No.
Joe Torre: Pretty much a lock to get in. I would probably vote for him.
Maury Wills: No.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

HOF: Deacon White


That's what most baseball fans are probably saying when the name Deacon White is brought up in relation to possible Hall of Fame induction. Here's what I wrote about Deacon White in the first edition of "The Book of Baseball Literacy":

A remarkable player and man, White was one of professional baseball’s first great stars. He could play anywhere in the field, and he could hit—twice leading his league in batting and three times in RBIs. Respected and admired by just about everybody, White earned his nickname because he reputedly never smoked, drank, caroused, or cursed, and he carried his Bible on road trips.

A visionary, he was among the first players to complain about their shoddy treatment by owners; he threatened to test the reserve clause in the courts, and he helped in the Players League revolt of 1890.

When White was sold from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, he refused to report unless he received some payment; Pittsburgh ownership relented and handed over about $1,500. In explaining his bold action, White spoke for all ballplayers who have ever been treated like property: “No man can sell my carcass,” he declared, “unless I get at least half.”

He was clearly a very interesting person and player. I had a lot of admiration for him until I read this quote on White's Wikipedia page:

According to Lee Allen in The National League Story (1961), White was one of the last people to believe that the earth is flat. He tried and failed to convince his teammates that they were living on a flat plane and not a globe; they ridiculed him. Then one asked to be convinced, and the Deacon gave him an argument suited to the hypothesis that the earth is not really turning. He convinced the teammate but the argument would not prove that the earth is not a sphere.


Anyway, the question is, does he belong in the Hall of Fame alongside the other great players of his era: John Montgomery Ward, Cap Anson (I know, I know, Anson was a despicable human being who helped solidify the color line, but, first, he wasn't the only person responsible, and second, he was a great baseball player), Harry and George Wright, and so on?

I say no. He's an interesting player, a very good player, but he wasn't necessarily the best player of his era, and he's not the best eligible player not currently in the Hall. Back in the 1940s, when men who saw baseball during White's era were still alive, White wasn't selected for the Hall. Why is he more worthy now, in 2008, when he wasn't worthy in 1948 or 1939?

Monday, September 8, 2008

HOF: Carl Mays?

Carl Mays is another of the short-list candidates for the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee. They're going to decide this fall whether he should be inducted posthumously for baseball's ultimate honor.

A lot of people, including the pitcher himself, have said that if it were not for a fateful afternoon in 1920, Mays would be in the Hall of Fame. He was an outstanding pitcher, a five-time 20-game winner who ranked among the league’s best pitchers for much of his career, mostly with the Red Sox and Yankees. However, he will always be remembered for one thing: throwing the underhand fastball—not a spitball, as some have suggested—that killed Indians shortstop Ray Chapman.

But that’s not the only reason he’s not in the Hall of Fame. Fred Lieb, a former member of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee, said that during discussions of Mays, the Chapman incident never came up. What actually kept him out were the allegations—never proven but convincing to many—that Mays threw a game in the 1921 World Series.

In all, the picture of Mays is not a pretty one. He was a bitter, resentful man who was already one of the least-liked players in the league before the Chapman incident, who angered managers and teammates with a troublemaker attitude that probably curtailed his career, and who, sadly, wished he could make the world forget that one of his pitches accidentally killed a fellow major leaguer.

The fact that the Veterans Committee is re-evaluating Mays after previously rejecting him is curious. Even though he had a number of very good years, he finished with only 207 career victories, very low on the HOF spectrum. Bert Blyleven won 287 games during a time of 5-man rotations, yet he has fallen short. There's no way that Mays belongs in while Blyleven (and others) are shut out.

Friday, September 5, 2008

More HOF evaluations

Continuing the discussion of Hall of Fame candidates currently being considered by the Veterans Committee... I've talked at length about Joe Gordon and Vern Stephens. Those are two borderline candidates: I support Gordon's inclusion and reject Stephens. Today I'll quickly cover some of the other guys:

Wes Ferrell: A six-time 20-game winner with the Indians and Red Sox. If selected, Wes would join his brother Rick in the Hall, the only brother combination that I can think of. However, there's no way that Wes belongs (it's questionable that Rick belongs, but that's another matter). Wes was a great pitcher in his 20s, winning 190 games from age 21 to 30 with a .600 winning percentage. In 1938, however, according to Wikipedia, he suffered an arm injury that required surgery, and he never pitched effectively again. Like a lot of players from the era before modern medicine, a Wes Ferrell of today would probably have taken a year off to rehab his arm and pitched another 8 years, ensuring his selection to the Hall. But unfortunately for him, he didn't. Based on his actual career (not his hypothetical career), he does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

Sherry Magee: A very good dead-ball era hitter, Magee posted big numbers from 1905 through 1918. He didn't hit a lot of homers because no one did in that era, but he had excellent power for his time. His OPS+ is 136, meaning he was 36% better than the league average even after adjusting for park effects (which, in Magee's case, is important since he played in the Baker Bowl). The only problem with Magee is longevity. He finished his career with 2,169 hits, which would be on the very low end of the HOF spectrum. Three or four more good years -- especially with the lively ball era just around the corner -- would have given him a key to the Hall, but the reality is that he just doesn't belong.

Mickey Vernon: A good hitter for a long time with the lowly Washington Senators. He never posted huge numbers, partly because of his home ballpark, which was terrible for hitters. His career stats are good, but not great: 2495 hits, 116 OPS+. The problem with letting in Mickey Vernon is that it sets the bar for Hall of Fame entry so low that you'll have to let in a bunch of other good but not great first basemen: Steve Garvey, Norm Cash, Mark Grace, Al Oliver, Bill Buckner... The line has to be drawn somewhere, and I draw it at Mickey Vernon. No to him.

Bucky Walters: A pretty good pitcher in the 1930s and 1940s. Much less qualified than Wes Ferrell, in my opinion. If you think Dave Stieb belongs in the Hall of Fame, then you might think Walters does, too. I don't think either belong, unfortunately.

In a future post (probably next week), I'll take on the case of Carl Mays, which is fascinating in its own right, and Deacon White.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Vern Stephens

Yesterday I talked about Joe Gordon, who is on the short list for Hall of Fame induction by the Veterans Committee. Today I'll take on the case of Vern Stephens.

Vern Stephens

When I first became aware of Vern Stephens, I was shocked that I hadn't heard of him before. He doesn't appear in many history books, but his statistics are eye-popping. I invite you to visit his page on Baseball-Reference.com for a taste. If you thought Ernie Banks was the first slugging shortstop, you've completely missed out on Vern "Junior" Stephens. From age 21 through 29, he was about as good as it gets: a middle infielder who hits for power, has a pretty good batting eye, and drives in runs. He took his talents to an entirely new level after being traded in November 1947 to the Red Sox, where he drove in 137, 159, and 144 runs his first three years in Boston.

Of course, there's a reason he could drive in that many runs: he had baseball's greatest on-base machine, Ted Williams, batting in front of him. In fact, in 1949, both Stephens and Williams drove in 159 runs (teammate Bobby Doerr picked up the scraps with 109 RBIs himself).

At that point, Stephens had built himself a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Then it all fell apart. According to a biographical article about Stephens by Mark Armour published in the SABR Bio Project, Stephens injured his knee in 1951 and never got healthy again. He was only 30 years old, and perhaps today with modern medicine, Stephens could have rehabbed his knee and gotten back to baseball. But alas, he didn't, and his career basically ended, though he hung on for a few futile years.

His life ended the same, sad way: In 1968, he suffered a heart attack while working a construction job and died. He was only 48.

The case for Stephens: He was a powerful hitter who played a key defensive position. He racked up big numbers in his 20s.

The case against Stephens: Injuries curtailed his production before he could post big career numbers. He finished with 247 home runs and 1,147 RBIs, not Hall of Fame-caliber.

My opinion: Not really a close call. Stephens is an interesting player, and if he had continued posting big numbers until age 35 or so, he might belong in the Hall. But he didn't, and he doesn't.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Joe Gordon

I've been a little slow to update the blog lately, but I'm back now.

Last week came news that the Baseball Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee was evaluating several potential members from the pre-war era: Allie Reynolds, Joe Gordon, Vern Stephens, Bill Dahlen, Wes Ferrell, Sherry Magee, Carl Mays, Mickey Vernon, Bucky Walters and Deacon White. There's a case to be made for and against each of them, and today I want to talk about Gordon. Does he belong?

Joe Gordon

Gordon played second base for the Yankees and Indians from 1938 through 1950, with a couple of years off while in the army during World War II. In his early years, he was a very good offensive player, good for 20-30 home runs and 100 RBIs per year with above average OBPs. Think Miguel Tejada. Like Tejada, Gordon even won an MVP award, though in all honesty, Gordon was not the best player on his team that year (Charlie Keller or Joe DiMaggio), let alone the league (Ted Williams).

Even after he returned from the war, Gordon continued as an excellent player. The Yankees didn't have any use for him, trading him to Cleveland, where he starred on the 1948 World Series champion team. For that one year at least, the middle infield tandem of Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon ranks as possibly the greatest ever.

Gordon retired at age 35, even though he was still a good hitter; with the DH today, he probably would have played until 40. The final numbers don't seem all that great: 11 seasons, 1,530 hits, 253 home runs, 975 RBIs, .268/.357/.466. His career OPS+ is 120, which means he was about 20% better than average during his career. By comparison, Joe DiMaggio's career OPS+ is 155 and Ted Williams's is an eye-popping 191. (Tejada's is only 112.)

The case for Gordon: He was a very good hitter playing a tough defensive position. His career numbers are hurt by having to miss two prime years to military service. Give him back those years, and he finishes with about 300 home runs, close to 1,200 RBIs, and about 1,900 hits. He's better than some other second basemen in the Hall, such as Red Schoendienst and Bobby Doerr.

The case against Gordon: Even with that credit, his numbers still aren't worthy of the top-tier of the Hall of Fame. He's no Rogers Hornsby or Nap Lajoie, or even Roberto Alomar. He was a very good player on a lot of great teams. Just because he's better than a couple of other players already in the Hall doesn't necessarily make him worthy on his own.

My opinion: I'm coming around on Joe Gordon. I started out skeptical, but after doing the research, I do think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. If he were still alive to enjoy the honor, I would be rooting for him to make it. The fact that he died 30 years ago, however, dampens my enthusiasm quite a bit. At this stage, I don't really understand the necessity to induct people who can't appreciate the honor, but that's the way it works, I guess.

Ultimately, yes, I would vote for him if I could.

PS. Gordon has a claim to fame that will probably never be equaled: In 1960, while managing the Indians, he was involved the only trade of major-league managers ever when the Indians traded him to the Tigers for their manager, Jimmy Dykes