The senior days for Ken Griffey Jr.

Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote about the twilight of Willie Mays’ career in a 1973 column, when the future Hall of Famer was hitting .211 for the New York Mets. Murray wrote:

We all thought Willie Mays would just get younger. He was one of those touched individuals for whom time seemed to run backward. He was one of those guys in this life you smiled just thinking about him. You might have hated New York, the Giants, the rest of the team, the manager, or the owner. But you couldn’t hate Willie Mays. It was like hating a kid in a baby carriage, or Skippy, or Charlie Chaplin in his tramp costume on the lam from the cops. Willie Mays was everybody’s pal when he was in uniform and you were in the seats with a beer and a hot dog. Willie was Mr. Feelgood. Other people got old. Willie stayed 20.

By 1973, however, Mays was 42 and long-past effective. In fact, the image of him falling down in the outfield in his baggy Mets uniform, as if kidnapped from an Old-Timers game has become symbolic of the once-great athlete whose time has passed.

We see it often. Michael Jordan appeared mortal his final season, coming off the bench in a Washington Wizards uniform that never looked quite right (granted, washed up for Jordan meant averaging 20 points a game instead of 30.)  More recently, Barry Bonds found himself mercifully out of work at 43, a felony indictment keeping him from hitting below .270 for some unfortunate club. Meanwhile, Brett Favre seems to be defying the odds, mocking them almost, as he compiles big numbers for the Minnesota Vikings this fall at 40, though he could hit the geriatric stage within a year or two if he keeps playing.

The latest legend ready for pasture may be Ken Griffey Jr. The Kid turns 40 this Saturday and if he has sense, he’ll make this next season his last.

Gone are the days where Griffey averaged north of 40 home runs and played crack defense in center field for the Seattle Mariners. Signed in a sentimental move to return to the Seattle last season, Griffey hit just .214, the worst designated hitter in baseball, by far and a weak point in a Mariners lineup that must advertise for .228 hitters (I’d like to see that Craig’s List post.) I half-expected Griffey to quit quietly after this season, but he signed another one-year deal recently. He probably will not be an everyday player next year, though he does win points with the fans and among his teammates in the locker room. He’d be wise to consider coaching.

I remember a different Griffey, one I cheered for. I have family in Seattle, and a few times during my childhood, I visited the Kingdome, a veritable playground for a 20-something Griffey.  The last time I saw Griffey play, in June of 1998, he cranked multiple doubles to deep right center. He left Seattle for the Cincinnati Reds after the following season, and the rest of his career has been an injury-riddled mess. That being said, he’s still among the best of his generation.

Looking at pictures of Griffey this past season, I saw a weary, old man, not the ebullient, 25-year-old photographed under a dog pile of teammates, celebrating Seattle’s win over the New York Yankees in the 1995 divisional playoffs.

Then again, few people can stay 20.

Let's play What Ifs

I just finished re-watching the 1999 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame first baseman, when the thought occurred to look up Greenberg’s career statistics.  Greenberg is an interesting case.  Juxtaposed against our current era, where everyone except Omar Vizquel seems to rack up 500 career home runs, Greenberg made it to Cooperstown with 331 home runs, playing just 10 full seasons.

A book I have on the Hall of Fame suggests Greenberg would have added 100 home runs to his career mark if not for losing four seasons to World War II.  In fact, looking at his career averages, it is not unreasonable to assume Greenberg could have reached 500 home runs, were his career not interrupted near its prime.  This has got me thinking.

The record books today cannot be taken at absolute value.  An entire generation of players from the Thirties to the Fifties lost multiple seasons to either WWII or the Korean War.  Ted Williams served in both conflicts, losing a staggering five years of his career.  He still managed 521 career home runs.

What if players had been exempt from military service?  Here’s a rundown of things that probably would have happened:

  • Williams would have closed out his career with close to 700 home runs and well over 3,000 hits.
  • Willie Mays, who lost nearly two seasons serving during Korea, might have been the first to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs.  Mays closed out his career in 1973 with 660 home runs.  With the lost time accounted for, it would have been more like 720 homers.
  • Bob Feller would have won 300 games.
  • Warren Spahn probably would have won 400.
  • Joe DiMaggio would have reached the end of the 1951 season with around 2,800 hits as opposed to 2,214.  Perhaps this would have been motivation enough for him to keep playing for another couple years to reach 3,000 hits as opposed to retiring at 36.
  • For that matter, Joe’s brother Dom would most likely have added enough seasons to his career to merit a Hall of Fame induction.
  • World War I generally receives less attention than other major conflicts that baseball served in.  However, it’s worth noting that a number of future Hall of Fame inductees enlisted, and unlike later wars, many players saw combat.  Ty Cobb and Grover Cleveland Alexander fought, as well as the retired Christy Matthewson.  Alexander came back from the war shell-shocked and badly epileptic, nevertheless finishing his career with 373 wins.  Without the war, he likely would have been another 400 game winner.  Meanwhile, Matthewson had his lungs seared by poison gas and died just seven years later.  Cobb got off comparably light, merely missing out on getting 4,500 career hits and keeping Pete Rose from the hits record

More interesting, perhaps, would be to consider all of the players who would have gone from having All Star careers to Hall of Fame ones, with the lost time made up, but that again is material for another time.

Connie Mack Stadium: Ghost Park

As I have alluded to before, I have been amassing a small library of baseball books since childhood. With everything from books of trivia to memoirs to baseball literature, I have enough reference material on the sport that I often go to my bookshelf when writing posts here, seeking quotes or anecdotes. In fact, each of my last two offerings has included a reference from my personal library.

Today is no exception.

One of the earliest additions to my collection was a fine book by Lawrence Ritter, The Lost Ballparks. As the title would suggest, the book is devoted to bygone stadiums, places like the Polo Grounds and Forbes Field that have long since been torn down. Each chapter of the book is devoted to one or two ballparks and feature a chronology, with notable events listed. Often, demolition photos are even included, as well as pictures of what stands present day on the former sites (for instance, as of 1991, there was an auto dealership where Seals Stadium used to be in San Francisco.)

One of my favorite photos in the book shows Tony Taylor, a second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1960s and ’70s, standing amidst weeds in an abandoned, desolate Connie Mack Stadium. He has a bat on his shoulder and a sad, vacant look in his eyes, as he stands near second base, the old scoreboard behind him. Opened in 1909, the stadium was last used by the Phillies in 1970 and sat derelict until being torn down in 1976. Taylor was photographed in 1974, three years after a fire severely damaged the deserted park.

As someone who minored in history in college, I find material of this sort fascinating. My grandparents own a ranch near Tracy, California with several buildings on the property that date back to the 1930s and before. Growing up, I used to often explore these empty dwellings, structurally unsafe as they’d become. One of the units from a Depression-era worker’s barracks even still has furniture inside from the late 1960s or early ’70s (the woman on the box of Tide has a beehive hairdo.)

Anyhow, I was recently re-reading Ritter’s book and after seeing the photo of Taylor yet again, I decided to see what else I could find online. I found the following on a website called Ballparks of Baseball. Here are links to three cool photos of Connie Mack Stadium, reposted with permission, and how the stadium looked during the half decade it awaited demolition:

Shibe Park 1

This shows the grandstands after the 1971 fire. Note the jungle growth on the former playing field.

And next, more desolation:

Shibe Park 2

Finally, we have a shot from a different angle.

Shibe Park 3

Seems a little strange that old ads were left up– kind of makes me want to drink Coke.

Connie Mack Stadium was finally torn down at the All-Star Break in 1976 and today a church sits on the site. For whatever reason, these historical stadiums never seem to be saved. Demolition wrapped up less than two months ago at Tiger Stadium, which had opened in 1912, and structural demolition began on old Yankee Stadium last week. Hopefully, the same fate will not eventually befall Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Related posts: A former Pacific Coast League owner dies at 100 with a warehouse of old baseball memorabilia

Hall of Fame: Fred McGriff, yes. Honus Wagner, no?

I ended my post yesterday with a joke about baseball creating a B-Level Hall of Fame where lesser candidates could be lionized. It could be located some place like Cleveland, feature a statue of Paul O’Neill or Kevin McReynolds in its promenade and celebrate perennial close-but-not-quite teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940s and early ’50s or the Atlanta Braves of the ’90s.

Well, I have learned that such a place exists.

The Ted Williams Museum at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, features a Hitters Hall of Fame. To be sure, it includes most of the greatest players the game has ever known: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Williams himself, among many others. It also features a couple of players who for all intents and purposes also belong in baseball’s other Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, Pete Rose, Joe Jackson and Dom DiMaggio, who I once interviewed.

Curiously, though, while the Hitters Hall of Fame honors a number of players with slim to no Cooperstown prospects, including Dwight Evans, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff, it currently excludes several Hall of Famers, chief among them Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie and Jackie Robinson.

This made me curious. McGriff had a beautiful left-handed pull swing, no doubt, and broke the heart of my San Francisco Giants with his work for the Braves in the 1993 pennant chase, but Wagner had 3,415 career hits and a lifetime batting average of .327. Lajoie had a similar number of hits, a better batting average, and routinely went head-to-head with Cobb for the annual batting title (Cobb got a new car for prevailing one year.) Robinson is honored in the museum itself, but didn’t meet the center’s criteria for inclusion in the Hitters Hall. One knock against Robinson, a lifetime .311 hitter, could be that he had a relatively short big league career, but then, so did Dom DiMaggio. In fact, looking through an old book I have on the Hall of Fame, I was able to count player after player not in the Hitter’s Hall. There are probably dozens.

Granted, being in enshrined in Cooperstown doesn’t automatically equal being an outstanding hitter. Rabbit Maranville, a shortstop from the Deadball Era, made it in with a .258 lifetime clip. Also, I wondered if Williams had only wanted to include players he had personally seen hit and could vouch for, but then, what to make of the inclusions of Cobb, Ruth, and Jackson, among others?

Curious, I looked up the phone number for the museum and reached the cell of the executive director, Dave McCarthy. He explained that save for the top 20 hitters that Williams himself had selected, the criteria for induction was that a player had to be alive and able to attend an induction ceremony and that the museum was limited by having only 10,000-square feet. McCarthy also said the museum was much for fans, which could explain the presence of McGriff, who spent much of his later career in Tampa.

The policy made sense from a business perspective, and I’m happy that nice guys like Murphy could be honored. Murphy belongs in a Hall of Fame somewhere. Also, if I were Ted Williams, I’d probably have anyone I wanted in my Hall of Fame. Will Clark anyone? All the same, the baseball purist in me is a little confounded, even as McCarthy told me there were plans in the works to induct players like Wagner.

Related posts: Other times I’ve written about the museum

The fab four?

Yesterday brought the news that four former managers are on the Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame.  They are: Gene Mauch, Danny Murtaugh, Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin.  They all managed in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s and each had good, though not spectacular careers.  If I had to offer a baseball metaphor, which I am apt to do, each was like the Joe Carter or Jack Morris of his time: Good, probably even All-Star quality,  but not Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime and certainly not a Hall of Famer.

Looking over the list of 24 managers in Cooperstown, it is comprised of names like Connie Mack, John McGraw and Casey Stengel — in short, legends.  Currently, there are four enshrined managers who did their best work in the era of Mauch, Murtaugh, Herzog and Martin: Walt Alston, Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, and Dick Williams.   The first three seem like logical choices, near institutions as managers in their respective cities, each winners of multiple World Series.  On the other hand, Williams strikes me as someone who just happened onto a great situation with the powerhouse Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s.  He’s probably still more qualified than any of the four new candidates to be in the Hall.

The feeling here is that Herzog will probably be enshrined.  He made a couple of World Series as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals back in the ’80s.  Moreover, the Veteran’s Committee is made up of former players and tends to be soft on likable, establishment-friendly candidates.  Late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray probably put it best, in a 1978 column: “To get into the Baseball Writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame, you better be Babe Ruth.  Or better.  To get in the veterans’ wing, all you have to be is a crony.” And Herzog is a baseball man if there ever was one.  He even titled his autobiography You’re Missing a Great Game (I’m titling mine Ask Me a World Series Winner From Any Year. I say this all the time to people that I meet, even at job interviews.)

Now granted, if there were a Hall of Fame for legendary characters of the sport, Martin would be a first ballot inductee.  But the Hall is about results, first and foremost, and Martin managed too many different teams and was always good, but never great.  Like Williams, he did his best work for another hugely talented team — the New York Yankees of the late ’70s — that probably could have been managed by just about anyone.  And Martin had too abrasive of a personality to make an attractive Veteran’s Committee pick.  Something doesn’t feel quite right here.

It will be interesting to see who makes the Hall of Fame out of the current crop of managers.  My money is on Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox.  Lou Piniella  could be a Veteran’s Committee pick, as could the retired Tom Kelly, though even that seems a slight stretch.  On the other hand, there are a number of Mauchs and Murtaughs managing today.  They are the Bruce  Bochys, Dusty Bakers and Bud Blacks of the sport.  Competent? Likable? Long-tenured?  Yes.  Future Hall of Famers?  Probably not.  They could probably feature prominently in some kind of B-Level Hall of Fame but that’s fodder for another post entirely.