Baseball: Past and Present

Organized baseball history dates more than 150 years, with more than 17,000 men having played in the majors and countless other individuals having helped in other capacities. Baseball history being what it is, a lot of people have made noteworthy contributions to the sport over the years.

Who then has been most important?

I wrote a post last week offering who I considered to be the 10 most important people in baseball history. My research for the post and subsequent reader response has led me to believe there might be something more worth looking at. In that spirit, I invite anyone interested to vote on the 25 important people in baseball history.

A ballot with 186 of baseball’s most memorable players, executives and other figures can be found here. Please VOTE HERE [anyone who has trouble with the Google Form I've created can email me their votes at thewomack@gmail.com.]

As always with these projects, there are few rules aside from the following:

1) Anyone is eligible to vote. Please feel free to share the link to the ballot with anyone who might be interested.

2) Any person in baseball history is eligible and I welcome write-ins. The ballot includes, but is certainly not limited to, anyone who I felt had a reasonable shot at the top 25.

3) Please use any voting criteria– “most important” is a deliberately subjective term and I’m interested to see what direction people go with it. I’ve included a broad enough range of candidates on the ballot for voters to go in any number of directions. On a related note, I do little to no active campaigning and encourage voters to work independently.

4) Please have all votes in by Sunday, October 26 at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. I’ll unveil results Monday, November 3.

On a different note, this project also has a charity component. Two years ago, I raised $1,600 for 826 Valencia, a non-profit that teaches journalism to middle schoolers. Now, I’d like to raise $2,000 for the American Brain Tumor Association to help fight glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant type of brain cancer that’s had a noticeable impact on baseball in recent years. For more information and to donate, click here.

Clayton Kershaw’s 7.4 WAR as of this writing belies the fact he might be having the best season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Kershaw’s WAR doesn’t immediately stand out like his 1.87 FIP, 0.86 WHIP or 1.80 ERA, all best for a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title since Martinez in 2000. At this juncture, though, the fact that Kershaw has compiled 7.4 WAR in 190.1 innings places him in rare company. Kershaw is scheduled to make one more start this season and could become the seventh pitcher in baseball history with at least 7 WAR in under 200 innings.

Here are the six pitchers who’ve done this, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool:

Lefty Grove, 7.0 WAR in 191 innings in 1939: In August, I wrote of Grove as the most underrated player of the 1930s. I based it off seasons like this when Grove was an aging junk ball pitcher, with traditional stats far less impressive than before he blew out his arm in 1934. Per inning, though, Grove might have had the best season ever by a 39-year-old pitcher in 1939. Only Phil Niekro and Dazzy Vance managed more WAR in their age 39 seasons, with Niekro needing 334.1 innings to compile 10.1 WAR in 1979 and Vance needing 258.2 innings for 7.1 WAR in 1930.

John Hiller, 8.1 WAR in 125.1 innings in 1973: Hiller’s celebrated in the sabermetric community, with my friend Adam Darowski rating him higher than Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman or Dan Quisenberry. It’s partly due to Hiller’s 1973 season, which might be the most underrated one in baseball history. That said, Hiller’s work that year didn’t go unnoticed. He finished fourth in American League Cy Young and MVP voting after going 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and 38 saves for an aging Tigers club.

Goose Gossage, 8.2 WAR in 141.2 innings in 1975: As the saying goes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Every few years in baseball, someone forgets about what happened with Gossage because of this season and unsuccessfully tries to turn another reliever into a starter. Gossage’s brilliance in 1975– 1.84 ERA and an AL-best 26 saves– was a distant memory as he stumbled to a 9-17 record and 3.94 ERA the following year as a starter. On the bright side for Goose, he returned to the bullpen for good thereafter, collecting another 280 saves over the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

Mark Eichhorn, 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986: I run an annual project having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The first year I did this project, someone gave Eichhorn a write-in vote because of his superb 1986 rookie season. I’d never given Eichhorn much thought before I saw the vote, though it strikes me that he posted a 200 ERA+ with three different teams. Looking at pitchers with at least 50 innings in a season, only Roger Clemens, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner and Joaquin Benoit have matched that feat.

Pedro Martinez, 8.0 WAR in 186.2 innings in 2003: Martinez gets far more attention for his eye-popping stats from 1999 and 2000, though proportionally, this season wasn’t far off. Were Martinez to have pitched the same number of innings in 1999 and 2000 that he did in 2003, he’d scale to 8.5 WAR and 10.1 WAR, respectively.

Josh Johnson, 7.2 WAR in 183.2 innings in 2010: Johnson was 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA when the Marlins shut him down for the 2010 season after his September 4 start. While it was probably a wise move for the young right hander, who’s battled injuries much of his career, it helped keep him to a distant fifth in National League Cy Young voting. If he’d gotten the starts he missed thereafter, Johnson might have led the NL in WAR.

There’s a famous final picture from Willie Mays’ career, included in the article above. It shows the aging superstar on his knees during Game 2 of the 1973 World Series after the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer stumbled on the base paths. That day, Mays also made two fielding errors, helping send the game into extra innings with a 6-6 tie.

That’s not all Mays did in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, though. There was a better moment for him, perhaps the last great moment of his career that came a few innings later in his second-to-last at-bat ever. It doesn’t get talked about much anymore. Maybe it should.

Mays SABR bio notes:

The story of Mays misplaying two balls in center field in the second game of the World Series against the Oakland A’s is always used when the topic is a star athlete who plays too long past his prime. Exhibit B might be Mays’s ultimately harmless stumble on the basepaths in the same game. What is often forgotten is what happened in the 12th inning, when he duped A’s catcher Ray Fosse into calling for a fastball, telling him, “Ray, it’s tough to see the balls with that background. I hope he doesn’t throw me any fastballs.”65 He bounced a Rollie Fingers fastball over the pitcher’s head and into center to drive in the winning run.

“Those kids look up to me,” Mays told reporters after the game, which the Mets won 10-7. “I can’t let them down. They haven’t seen me when I was young. But they expect me to be an example to them. That’s why it makes me feel so great inside when I can come up with a clutch hit.”

Mays played just once more in the Series, grounding out the following day in a 10th inning pinch hit appearance against Paul Lindblad. The Mets would go on to lose in seven games to the A’s, who were in the middle of a three-year championship run.

“No I’m not disappointed I didn’t play,” Mays said after Game 7, with papers noting the end of his career. “I don’t think I’m very good at pinch hitting.”

Technically, Mays might have been right. He entered Game 2 in the ninth inning as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub. Otherwise, Mays was selling himself short, as so many others have done since.

____________________________________

“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: Satchel Paige’s shutout inning in 1969‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’ | When Mark Koenig pitched | 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

iobl

I recently was reading a book about writing that said all writers should read. Reading any book, the writing book claimed, would offer at least one anecdote a writer could use in their own work, with appropriate attribution of course.

Mark Halfon’s Tales from the Deadball Era, which I’m currently reading, is filled with these sort of anecdotes. I suspect it will be a reference point for future posts here.

Already, this book motivated me to update a recent post where I said disgraced Deadball Era first baseman Hal Chase was banned for life from baseball for throwing games. In fact, as Halfon explains in his first chapter, “Big League Cheating,” National League president John Heydler inexplicably cleared Chase of wrongdoing after a hearing and Chase voluntarily left the majors following the 1919 season, retiring in good standing.

Bx09t6VIgAAiv1_

Earlier today, the book gave me something else. A person on Twitter shared the photo at left, saying it was Honus Wagner batting with Roger Bresnahan catching in 1908. This would be an unusual photo as the Dutchman generally hit right. Major League Baseball historian and one of my mentors John Thorn voiced his skepticism at the photo, saying it was likely of Claude Ritchey.

However, as Halfon pointed out, Bresnahan did not debut the catchers mask until 1908, a year after he introduced shin guards. And Ritchey last played for the Pirates in 1906. So while the photo might not be Wagner– his side profile isn’t convincing, for me at least– it’s not clear who it would be in his place. Thorn suggested that some people think it’s Owen Wilson.

I don’t know if the best thing I can say about a book is that it allows one to upstage their mentor. So I’ll add that what I’ve read so far of Halfon’s work has been both educational and entertaining. It’s a shame there wasn’t better technology 100 years ago to document this rollicking era of baseball history, which mostly gets forgotten today. [Just ask the average fan about Eddie Collins or Tris Speaker.] I’m glad that researchers and writers like Halfon, by day a philosophy professor at Nassau Community College in New York, are willing to offer a renewed look.

_____________________________________

Four years ago, I promised to review any book sent to me. I now have a 30-book backlog. This series will run every other Thursday until the backlog has cleared.

First review, two weeks ago: 1954, by Bill Madden

1. Babe Ruth: When Ruth died in 1948, Grantland Rice wrote, “No game will ever see his like, his equal again. He was one in many, many lifetimes. One all alone.” That about sums it up. More than 75 years after his last game, the New York Yankees legend looms eternally large, forever baseball’s greatest slugger, icon and savior. No player before or since has dominated the rest of baseball like Ruth did. No one transformed the game so much.

2. Ban Johnson: Since the National League’s founding in 1876, many rival circuits have come and gone from the Players League to the Federal League to the Continental League to name a few. Johnson started the only rival to the National League that’s lasted, the American League in 1901. “He was the most brilliant baseball man the game has ever known,” Johnson’s successor Will Harridge said. “He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport.”

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis: Baseball’s first commissioner and still, 70 years after his death, the standard by which all other commissioners are measured, Landis like Babe Ruth helped save baseball after the 1919 World Series. Where Ruth restored fan interest, Landis effectively rid the game of gambling, which had been endemic in the sport for at least 20 years before Landis took office. Imagine any commissioner today ruling so autocratically or effectively.

4. Branch Rickey: Rickey did at least three major things to change baseball. First, he created the farm system. Then he signed the first black player in the majors since the 1884. Then in the late 1950s, Rickey helped spur baseball to expand by heading up the Continental League, a circuit that would have operated in parts of the western United States where the majors had not yet reached. Though he doesn’t get much credit for it, Rickey’s part of the reason there are teams today in cities like Houston and Denver.

5. Jackie Robinson: Rickey knew before he signed Robinson in October 1945 that the wrong player would set back integration in baseball by 20 years. Without Robinson’s stoicism and unruffled playing ability, there’s no telling how many stars the majors would have lacked over the decades that followed.

6. Marvin Miller: The greatest travesty in baseball today is that this man isn’t in the Hall of Fame. No one in the past 50 years has had a greater effect on the game than Miller who, as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, led the successful fight to abolish the Reserve Clause.

7. Hank Aaron: That many people still consider Aaron the true home run king is a testament to his legacy. That Aaron made his mark in the most trying of circumstances– reams of hate mail during the summer of 1973 and a bodyguard provided by the FBI– only adds to the mystique. He’s been a fine elder statesmen for the game in retirement, too.

8. Rube Foster: The father of black baseball and, with respect to everyone who came after, its most important figure, Foster founded the first successful black baseball circuit, the Negro National League in 1920.

9. Al Spalding: Nineteenth century baseball had a lot of pioneers. Spalding may have been the most multifaceted of them, making his mark as a player, executive and sporting goods distributor, among other things. Among his many contributions, Spalding wore the first glove during the 1870s and organized a world tour for the game during the 1880s.

10. Henry Chadwick: Things like the box score and many stats that modern fans take for granted were Chadwick’s creation in the late 1800s. That has to be good for something.

keep looking »
  • Written by Graham Womack