Monthly Archives: May 2010

Happy Memorial Day

Just a quick post to say Happy Memorial Day and that it’s looking like it will be a good week for Baseball: Past and Present.

Two new regular features will be debuting here, “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” which will run Tuesdays and “Different player/Different era” for Thursdays which will look at how certain players would have done in different eras. I wrote the first two pieces this morning, and I’m excited to see how they’re received.

It also looks like this week could mark the appearance of a first-ever guest post here, as I’ve been talking with a fellow who’s eager to write something. This blog has largely been a personal vehicle for me, so far, and while I want to maintain my creative freedom, I’d also like to have the occasional different voice here. In addition, I’m looking to ramp up the amount of content I have, from a few posts a week to one every weekday, and I may need help on this, since my day job sometimes consumes me.

Thus, I would encourage anyone who’s interested in writing a guest post here to shoot me an email. I have high standards as to what goes up here, as should hopefully be apparent, though the former newspaper editor in me is happy to help anyone step up to the challenge.

More all-time durable pitchers

After my post yesterday on all-time durable pitchers, I emailed Fredrico Brillhart. Regular readers may remember that after I did a guest post on ballplayers who saw war combat, Brillhart emailed me wanting to know why there weren’t any Negro Leaguers. I figured he might like yesterday’s post, since my top durable pitcher is Satchel Paige, a Negro League immortal, and I was also curious if he knew of other players I had failed to mention.

Fredrico wrote back:

Hello Graham,

Here are some other additions for your list………..

27 year career in the Negro Leagues >Smokey Joe Williams,

John Donaldson [ I will have John’s leading researcher, Peter Gorton contact you ],

Will Jackman [ his leading bio person, Dick Thompson passed on awhile back, but I think you still can get info if you Google him ] Will was a barnstormer that pitched an incredible amount of games & at one time might have been the 2nd highest paid pitcher to Paige. He didn’t pitch as much in the Negro Leagues, since he was making more money by barnstorming.

See my > Waiting For Cooperstown All-Stars & the Analysis of The Pittsburgh Courier Poll pieces I had sent to you for some other insights, as most that I have brought up here have info there.

Charles “Lefty” Williams was a legend around the Pittsburgh semi-pro sandlots, plus he pitched 20 years for the Homestead Grays in the Negro Leagues, where he was not as effective vs League teams. He is credited with 540 total wins in his whole career including those semi-pro outings.

Massaichi ” Golden Arm ” Kaneda is the all-time wins leader in Japan with 400 wins. For 14 of his 20 year career he had over 300+ IP. In 1955 he had 400 IP. He also had 14 > 20+ win seasons there. His 5,526 & 2/3 innings pitched in Japan would be in 4th place in the Majors all-time. Take note, that in Japan the season is shorter so his massive innings pitched are even more impressive.

Ramon Arano pitched 30 years & won 421 games in Mexico, the most all-time there, adding summer & winter leagues.

Juan Pizzaro pitched 18 years in the Majors & 22 years in the Puerto Rican Winter League &  had a combined total of 290 wins + 38 wins in the Mexican League & 66 wins in the Minors for a grand total of 394 wins in his career. What is amazing is that he pitched non stop summer & winters in the majority of his seasons.

Hippo Vaughn had a grand total of 401 wins as a pro combining his ML & Minor League numbers. 5 times in the ML he had 20+ win seasons.

With these additions I still think you are correct in saying that Satchel Paige was the most durable, even with his dead arm period.

Yours, Fredrico

I’ll close by saying that in the last week, I’ve received other great emails like this. In fact, a reader wrote yesterday to tell me he had mentioned my site in a column he wrote. That appears to be for a newspaper, which is a Baseball: Past and Present first.

Looks like I was wrong about Roy Halladay

Back in November, when Roy Halladay looked on the outs with the Toronto Blue Jays, I wrote a post here saying teams would be wise to steer clear of him. It appears I was gloriously wrong on this one, worse than the time I predicted the San Francisco 49ers would win the NFC West and they proceeded to go something like 2-14.

Halladay is on pace to win 24 games, finish with an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP below 1.00, and today, he became the 20th player in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game. In fact, Halladay joined Dallas Braden as the second pitcher this month to allow no men to reach base, leading the Philadelphia Phillies to a 1-0 victory over the Florida Marlins.

When I wrote my post in November, I didn’t yet understand WHIP (which measures walks and hits divided by innings pitched) or fully grasp the importance of Halladay going to a National League contender. I simply offered a few reasons for teams to be wary, including that the track record on older pitchers is uneven and that Halladay was going to be expensive, both for contract dollars and the players any prospective team would have to give up to obtain him.

Like I said, I was completely wrong, and if I had a time machine, I’d tell my San Francisco Giants to give up whatever players they needed to bring Halladay aboard (I’d also probably do some other things if I had a time machine, but that’s a post for another time.) As it stands, the Phillies are now in first place, and Halladay looks like the early favorite for the National League Cy Young Award, perhaps even an MVP. Then again, my word on Halladay wasn’t great last time so I’m open to any thoughts that anyone else has.

Nolan Ryan the most durable pitcher all-time? Not so fast

I was at an old-timers lunch recently in Sacramento, and a former big league scout named Ronnie King, who’s something of a baseball legend in my hometown, asked me who I thought the most durable pitcher all-time was. I thought for a moment and then answered Walter Johnson. He scoffed, said Nolan Ryan, and promptly turned to another conversation.

I can see how Ryan is a popular choice, being that the all-time strikeout leader pitched 27 seasons until lingering embarrassment over his all-time memorable fight with Robin Ventura drove him to leave the game (I’ll have to look that up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.) Still, I consider Ryan overrated, even if a recent Sports Illustrated article said he’s got his Texas Rangers pitchers believing they can throw long innings. Though Ryan won 324 games, he also nearly lost 300 and had he not notched his 300th win or struck out so many batters, I doubt he’d be as remembered. Really, he’s a glorified Bert Blyleven (who, incidentally, will probably soon be selected to Cooperstown for being an underrated Ryan.)

I’ve pondered King’s question in the weeks since, and while it’s probably a draw between Johnson and Ryan who’s more durable, I know three pitchers I’d rank ahead of them.

They are:

  1. Satchel Paige: Estimated he won 2,000 games. Even if that’s an exaggeration, what are we left with? 500 wins? 700? More impressively, Paige made the big leagues in his forties after it finally desegregated and pitched as late as 1965, when he threw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics in a publicity stunt. Most impressive, though, Paige accomplished much of what he’s remembered for following a career-threatening arm injury in the 1930s. The title of his autobiography? Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
  2. Cy Young: Pitched almost 2,000 more innings and won nearly 200 more games than Ryan in an era where pitchers routinely logged upwards of 40 starts and 400 innings in a season. Young pitched until he was 44, comparable to Ryan who bowed out at 46 and lasted well beyond most of the other great hurlers of his era like Christy Matthewson, Kid Nichols and Pud Galvin.
  3. Iron Man Joe McGinnity: Robert Downey Jr. has got nothing on this guy. McGinnity was the original Iron Man. After leaving the majors in 1908 with a 246-142 lifetime record, good for an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame, McGinnity proceeded to win another 207 games in the minors. In fact, in 1923 at the age of 52, McGinnity went 15-12 for Dubuque. Though it was the D League and McGinnity had a 3.93 ERA, it still may be among the most impressive minor league seasons for a former star.

There are many more pitchers whose longevity at least compares to Ryan, from Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander in the early days to Phil Niekro, Tommy John, Randy Johnson, and Jamie Moyer in recent years. To say the Ryan Express belongs in a class all his own seems inaccurate.

(Postscript: Read the follow-up post.)

Some new developments for this site

I got detailed, constructive feedback on this site today from an acquaintance at the San Francisco Chronicle. He started by saying, “The site looks great,” but proceeded to offer a number of solid suggestions. Among these tips: Try to post every weekday, and consider having regular ongoing series. Thus, starting next week, I am going to debut a couple of weekly features:

  • Tuesdays: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?
  • Thursdays: Ballplayers who would have done well in a different era

I’ve been thinking about the Tuesday idea for awhile, since some time after the first occasion I made a list of 10 great players not in the Hall of Fame a year ago. Since then, I’ve written about the Hall of Fame several times and can now probably name 50 or 100 players who inspire debate, some who belong in Cooperstown, many more who probably do not but are at least worthy of discussion.

My acquaintance had the Thursday idea, and I ran with it. I like the idea of taking contemporary players like Ichiro Suzuki or Curtis Granderson and imagining how they would have cleaned up in the Deadball Era, and I’m also intrigued by learning more about certain Negro League greats who never got a chance to play in the big leagues and seeing what might have been.

My acquaintance also suggested I provide more news, like on deaths of former players. I will be on the lookout, though I encourage family members of old ballplayers (both big league and otherwise) to seek me out if they’d like something written. I check the email address listed on this site pretty much every day and am always in need of new, compelling material here.

I of course welcome feedback on either of the new features that will be debuting as well as anything else people would like to see here. Thank you to everyone who reads.

It’s the Battle of the Area Codes: 717 vs. 415

A few days ago, I got an email from a reader named Fredrico Brillhart who saw my starting line-up of combat veterans for the Baseball in Wartime blog and wanted to know why I failed to include Negro League veterans. He sent information that seemed noteworthy enough to merit a follow-up post.

Shortly after my post went live, Fredrico emailed regarding third basemen who’d seen combat (Al Rosen, Billy Cox and Buddy Lewis to anyone who’s interested) and also offered this closing bit:

I live in the ( 717 ) area code & have enclosed the 717 Area Code All-Stars on attach file. I wonder if any other area code in the country could compete ?  What a pitching staff we have !!!

I scanned the information Fredrico provided on players from the 717 area code (which is in southern Pennsylvania) and for pitching at least, he may be right. His five-man rotation reads like a dream Deadball Era staff, every man in the Hall of Fame. The pitching staff is:

1. Christy Matthewson
2 or 3. Eddie Plank
2 or 3. Ed Walsh
4 or 5. Chief Bender
4 or 5. Stan Coveleski
Closer: Bruce Sutter
Setup: Gene Garber
Long relief, spot starting: Mike Mussina

Fredrico’s batting order is:

LF – Spottswood Poles
2B – Nellie Fox (HOF)
CF – Oscar Charleston (HOF)
DH – Vic Wertz vs RHP/ Steve Bilko DH
RF – Rap Dixon
1B – Jake Daubert vs. RHP/ Vic Wertz vs LHP
C – Johnny Bassler
SS – Hughie Jennings (HOF)
3B – Billy Cox

Overall, it’s an impressive team, but I know at least rival one area code: the 415. Currently, it covers San Francisco and Marin County, though it was much bigger in the past. I didn’t know this until I moved to the Bay Area, but it used to cover the East Bay, the Peninsula (south of San Francisco), and, in fact, much of California. Today, it seems there’s a million different area codes in my home state, but at one point, the 415 was one of three.

An all-time great batting line-up could be made from guys who were either born in the 415 — at least, in an area considered to be part of it at their time of birth — or spent their formative years there. My lineup is:

SS – Jimmy Rollins
3B – Joe Cronin (HOF)
CF – Joe DiMaggio (HOF)
LF – Barry Bonds
RF – Frank Robinson (HOF)
DH – Lefty O’Doul
1B – Harry Heilmann (HOF)
C – Ernie Lombardi (HOF)
2B – Tony Lazzeri (HOF)

I’m guessing this lineup would average .330 and have multiple .400 hitters. For context, here are some hitters who didn’t crack the order: Ping Bodie, Dolph Camilli, Dom DiMaggio, Ferris Fain, Curt Flood, Keith Hernandez, Willie McGee, and Vada Pinson as well as Hall of Famers Chick Hafey, High Pockets Kelly and Willie Stargell. Were these latter three substituted in and DiMaggio switched to shortstop, his first position in the Pacific Coast League, it could be an all-Cooperstown batting lineup. Hernandez and Dom DiMaggio could also make crack defensive substitutions, among the best all-time at first base and center field, respectively.

My pitching staff is less impressive and features:

1. Randy Johnson
2. Lefty Gomez (HOF)
3. Dave Stewart
4. Tom Candiotti
5. Ray Kremer
Closer: Dennis Eckersley
Setup: Tug McGraw
Long relief, spot starting: Dutch Ruether

I wonder which team would win. I’m guessing it would be a slug-fest unless Deadball Era baseballs were allowed, in which case it could get bleak for my 415 hitters. Maybe home field advantage determines what era baseballs are put in play or if Bonds gets to take steroids or if the fact that Ty Cobb lived in Atherton, California late in life makes him eligible for the 415 team. I’m saying no, but I might try to sneak him on if things got tight.

I also wonder if anyone could offer a better baseball area code. Perhaps it’s 213 back when it covered all of Southern California and produced players like Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams, but that’s a post for another time.

Related post: My visit to Joe DiMaggio’s boyhood home in North Beach

Why getting a lot of Hall of Fame votes matters

I logged into my Google Analytics account this morning and was surprised to see that I got a bunch of traffic yesterday from a Web site called Baseball Think Factory. David Pinto of Baseball Musings linked to my post from Saturday proposing a new Hall of Fame metric, so I expected some spike, but this was insane. I got over 200 unique visitors yesterday, a Baseball: Past and Present record (I don’t get a whole lot of traffic.) Over a hundred of these visitors came from Baseball Think Factory, which I’m guessing picked up on my post from David. I was less excited, though, when I saw discussion by the members. I didn’t know whether to cheer that I made the site or throw up at how I was received.

Basically, I got my ass handed to me in the forum. No one much cared for the metric I proposed, Hall of Fame +/- which takes the number of future Hall of Famers a ballplayer got more votes for Cooperstown than, subtracts the number of non-members who finished in front of them and divides by the number of years they were on the ballot. Some members didn’t read my post, instead remarking that I share the same last name as an excellent Motown singer (I like to tell people we’re related.) One person who did read my story (twice, he lamented) referred to it as TFA, Internet slang for That Fucking Article. A guy who said he skimmed my piece slammed it for not offering Hodges’ Hall of Fame credentials, which I previously did elsewhere and would’ve added to an already-long post.

He wrote:

Did you read the article? The guy makes no case for Hodges whatsoever other than he received a lot of HoF votes. He doesn’t mention the pennant winners, the all-star games, the MVP votes (which aren’t impressive), the best at his position or anything. He mentions his made-up stat. His argument for Hodges’ worthiness is essentially (although it’s not clear he understands this) “the writers almost elected him, therefore he’s the most deserving of the un-elected.” You’d have a hard time coming up with a less interesting take on who deserves to be in the HoF that isn’t there already.

Actually, that’s incorrect.

I looked at every Hall of Fame ballot from 1936 to 1980 this evening. Out of the 104 men who received at least 30% of the vote at least once from the Baseball Writers Association of America in those years, 97 are now in Cooperstown (the seven players who aren’t enshrined are: Phil Cavarretta, Gil Hodges, Marty Marion, Hank Gowdy, Allie Reynolds, Johnny Sain, and Maury Wills.) The honorees aren’t just guys who made the Hall of Fame in a walk. The writers inducted 61 men (some, like Duke Snider, past their 10th ballots), the Veterans Committee enshrined another 24, and an Old-Timers Committee tabbed the remaining dozen.

Basically, if a player gets at least 30% of the vote at any time he’s on the Hall of Fame ballot, there is a better than 95% chance he will eventually get a plaque. It may take a long time, like it did with Tony Lazzeri who was enshrined 35 years after the first time he cracked 30 percent of the BBWAA vote, but it’ll happen. The longer it takes for a guy to get enshrined, the more he rises in the Hall of Fame +/- rankings.

I stand by my “made-up stat.”

(Postscript: This post caused some discussion)

Negro Leaguers who saw war combat

I got an email today from someone who read the guest post I did for the Baseball in Wartime blog about a starting line-up of ballplayers who saw combat. The reader had an issue with my post.

He wrote:

Hello Graham Womack,

I read your guest post in the Baseball In Wartime blog. There was an absence of any of the great Negro League stars that served in your listing. Spottswood Poles is one that I feel deserves the honor the most. He got a Purple Heart & several other awards for his service in WW I. He was a Sgt. with the 369th Hell Fighters that had the Germans running in fear, since the 369th had many ball players that could throw grenades twice as far as any German had ever seen. He is buried in Arlington National.

Another Negro Leaguer was Joe Greene ( 3 years WWII ) who received two Battle Stars serving with the 92nd Division, mostly on the front lines. Three times he barely escaped being killed [ one time he was in the hospital for 3 weeks from a mortar shell blast ]. Like Cecil Travis he was never the same ballplayer when he came back. He even helped cut down Mussolini & his girlfriend that had been hung by partisans in Italy.

These are just two stories of the many Negro League stars that served in combat for their country. On attach files see about Spottswood Poles.

Yours, Fredrico  [ Fred Brillhart ]

I replied:

Hi Fredrico,
I looked at putting Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin and Oscar Charleston on the team but decided against it. Thompson didn’t make it on playing merit, while I couldn’t confirm if Irvin or Charleston saw combat. Irvin was in Europe during World War II as a back line of defense, while Charleston was in the Philippines from 1910 to 1915, but I wasn’t sure if this qualified as combat.
I also considered putting Jackie Robinson on the team as an honorary member — since the only thing that may have kept him from combat was a race-related court martial — but chose not to for space constraints.
I wasn’t aware of Greene or Poles and will look more at what you sent.
Thanks for writing,
Graham Womack

I went with what I knew for writing the original post. I know great Negro Leaguers like Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and other players Ken Burns researched — and that’s probably more than lots of other baseball fans — but my knowledge is for the most part cursory.

I think Fredrico has a good point. Among the attachments he provided was a piece he wrote in 1998 on Poles which said that he “was the first great lead-off hitter of the 20th Century and was the prototype that goes all the way to Rickey Henderson.” He also said Poles’ .365 lifetime batting average in the California Winter League is better than 10 Major League Baseball Hall of Famers.

If I were to write the post again, I think I might be able to find a place for Poles in my outfield. And I would concede there are others like him and Greene.

An open letter to Baseball-Reference and the statistical powers that be

To whom it may concern:

On the heels of a pair of great Baseball-Reference blog posts this past week ranking the best pitchers and position players not in the Hall of Fame based on their Wins Above Replacement data, I may have created a new baseball statistic and found another way to gauge worthiness for Cooperstown.

This statistic is called Hall of Fame +/- and it measures how many future Cooperstown members a ballplayer finished ahead of in Hall of Fame voting compared to how many fellow non-inductees got more votes than them, divided by the number of years they were on the ballot. As I’ll explain momentarily, it’s a great tool for discovering forgotten players. Also, it appears many recent Veterans Committee picks have positive Hall of Fame +/- ratios so my metric could be a good way for predicting future honorees. In fact, the old-guard players and managers of the committee could care less about modern sabermetrics like WAR, so this might predict more future picks.

Baseball-Reference helped with the creation. I recently learned it’s possible through the site to view the results of Hall of Fame voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America for every year dating back to the first vote in 1936. Looking at the results of the 1983 election for a post I did in April on one-and-done Hall of Fame candidates, I noticed Gil Hodges, whose Hall of Fame credentials I’ve looked at before, got more votes than six future Cooperstown members that year but wasn’t enshrined. In fact, Hodges exhausted his 15th and final year of BBWAA eligibility in 1983 and still doesn’t have a plaque.

For each year Hodges was on the ballot, he got more votes than an average of 9.67 men who were later enshrined. Only once, in his first year of eligibility, did anyone finish ahead of him in the voting who doesn’t have a Cooperstown plaque now. So, by taking the 145 times Hodges got more votes than a future Hall of Famer, subtracting the three non-members who beat him in 1969 and dividing by the 15 times Hodges was on the ballot, we get his Hall of Fame +/- of 9.47.

I wanted to see if this was an anomaly or the norm for the 32 other men besides Hodges who’ve gone the full 15 years and failed to make the Hall of Fame with the writers since the advent of modern voting procedures in the 1960s, men like Ron Santo, Roger Maris and Tommy John. Thus, I started going through the voting records and tabulating the Hall of Fame +/- for each player.

I didn’t look at all 32 others, but the ones I saw didn’t approach Hodges’ ratio. Maris, Santo, and John all have negative Hall of Fame +/- ratios– that is, the number of non-members who got more votes than them was higher than the number of future Hall of Famers they beat out. Bill Mazeroski never finished ahead of a future Hall of Famer in his 15 years on the ballot, though the Veterans Committee later enshrined him. Other committee picks like Jim Bunning and Red Schoendienst appear to have positive ratios at quick glance, though I haven’t calculated them yet, and I’m guessing the numbers are lower than Hodges’ ratio.

I dug through old ballots to find Hodges a peer. Some may argue it’s not a valid comparison, since the older the Hall of Fame voting year, the more time that’s transpired to allow a larger number of players to be honored by the writers and Veteran’s Committee. Old ballots also sometimes teemed with more than 100 players, including active stars and managers. That’s where the ratio comes in: It means little for a player to have finished better than 50 future Hall of Famers in 1938 if that many non-members finished in front of him. My stat rewards non-members who finished consistently better than other non-members.

Hodges doesn’t have the best Hall of Fame +/- ratio among all non-inducted players. I found three with better ratios: Lefty O’Doul with 13.8, and a pair of Deadball Era catchers, Hank Gowdy with 14.59 and Johnny Kling with 13.11. Hodges also doesn’t have the record for most future Hall of Famers beaten out on one ballot, even though he bested 13 in 1970. Gowdy, who I recently wrote belongs in a starting lineup of combat veterans, got more votes than 33 future members in 1956. Kling beat out 32 in 1937 and 31 the following year, while O’Doul, an amazing player a short time in my book, got more votes than 27 in 1960. Gowdy, Kling and O’Doul weren’t bested by any non-Hall of Famers those years, either.

I hadn’t heard of Kling prior to my research, and it illuminated others like Babe Adams, Duffy Lewis, and Bucky Walters. To me, that makes this stat valuable. If for no other reason, it could help honor forgotten players. With that said, there’s another reason I’d love to see this stat added to Baseball-Reference: All I’ve done this weekend, it seems, is pore over old Hall of Fame ballots.

Anyhow, with that, I’m out.

Yours truly,

Graham Womack

(Postscript: Not everyone liked this idea.)

Another day, another guest post: WAR and the Hall of Fame

After writing my first ever guest post on Wednesday evening, I wrote my second one less than 24 hours later. This time, I wrote something for Baseball In-Depth, examining a Baseball-Reference blog post that ranked the best pitchers and position players not in the Hall of Fame based on their WAR data.

Here is a link to my post:

http://www.baseballindepth.com/2010/05/guest-post-war-new-answer-in-baseball.html

Hope you all enjoy it.

Guest post for Baseball in Wartime: Great players who saw combat

I have been looking for new ways to promote this site, since I get a relatively small amount of traffic, have an Alexa rank that depresses me and a Google page rank of 2 (which relegates me to the Internet Kids Table, so to speak.) On this note, anyone who reads regularly may have noticed that I have expanded my baseball writing beyond this site. Today, I’m pleased to announce my guest post for the Baseball in Wartime blog. My topic: A Starting Line-up of Combat Veterans.

Lots of ballplayers have served in the military during war-time, most accepting non-combat playing assignments, as Ken Burns noted, “helping to raise funds for the war effort and boosting the morale of their fellow servicemen.” While Major League Baseball struggled to find players, particularly for the minor leagues, the army was stacked with stars like Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Pee Wee Reese. The waste appalls me, but I don’t know if a better alternative would have been involuntary combat duty. I wouldn’t have wanted responsibility for sending the Yankee Clipper to his death.

With that said, I am fascinated by the smaller number of players who elected for combat duty, particularly veterans who were already established and may have opted for lighter duty. With Memorial Day approaching, I thought a dream line-up of these players might be timely and interesting. As always, feedback is appreciated.

Before there was Tiger, there was the Babe

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There once was an iconic sports star who transformed his game, was its first marketing icon and was so renowned and beloved he was known by a single name.

Generations before Tiger, there was the Babe.

Over the past several months, I have been struck by the similarities between embattled golfer Tiger Woods and the greatest ballplayer of all-time, Babe Ruth. For one thing, were Ruth still alive, he could probably relate to Woods’ well-chronicled marital woes. In the Twenties, Ruth went to greater excesses.

The above picture is of Ruth with his wife Helen and their adopted daughter in 1923. The marriage didn’t last. As chronicled in Ken Burns’ Baseball, Ruth was “a favored customer in whorehouses all across the country” and collapsed in 1925 with what was privately speculated by sportswriters to be venereal disease (publicly they wrote it was the result of too many sodas and hot dogs, and one called it the “bellyache heard round the world.”) After Helen Ruth suffered a nervous breakdown, the couple agreed to separate. She died four years later in a house fire, living with another man under an assumed name.

In a sense, Woods is lucky. I’ve written before that I think he’ll be fine, and while I don’t know if I believe that as strongly anymore, his estranged wife Elin appears to be doing well, while she takes college classes in Florida and contemplates whether or not to file for divorce in the wake of serial infidelity.

With that said, the parallels between Ruth and Woods extend far beyond philandering. A good Orlando Sentinel article from April delved into this somewhat, though there was stuff it missed. I’ll list some of the major similarities chronologically:

  • Woods is of mixed race, and Ruth was rumored to have black ancestry, which was part, I would venture, of what helped give them folkloric status among much of America.
  • Both had challenging relationships with distant, demanding fathers. A new book, Tiger: The Real Story recounts Woods’ mercurial bond with his late dad, Earl. Ruth had a lookalike bartender father who placed him in reform school at a young age.
  • Each man got an early start professionally. Ruth debuted in the majors at 19, while Woods played in his first Masters at that age.
  • Both were light years beyond anyone they played against.
  • They each were the first heavily-marketed stars of their sports. Ruth hawked everything from Wheaties to cigarettes, while decades later, Woods became the face of Nike.
  • Both took their sports to different levels, Ruth by rescuing the game in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Woods by bringing in a new, youthful breed of golf fans.
  • The media chastised each man, leading them to publicly promise change. For Ruth, those promises didn’t last more than a couple of years. It will be interesting to see if Woods fares better.

Players like Ruth and Woods are rare, icons with a combination of skill and larger-than-life marketing status. Shaquille O’Neal has it, maybe Michael Jordan, maybe Lance Armstrong. It’s a tough mantle to attain. It’s tougher to live up to.

Book Review: Cardboard Gods

Baseball cards played a big role in my childhood. As I’ve written here before, I got my first cards when I was around three, started collecting a few years later and at one point had roughly 5,000 cards. I outgrew card collecting by the time I hit high school, though nostalgia leads me to buy a pack from time to time. Most recently, I purchased four packs of 1988 Topps on eBay for $4 with shipping and got young versions of Tony Gwynn, Cecil Fielder and Kevin Mitchell. It was $4 well spent.

I think every kid who built a baseball card collection has a hallowed first year of collecting. For me, it was 1990 when I was six turning seven, and my best friend Devin and I sorted, talked about and loved that year’s Topps cards. For Josh Wilker, the hallowed year was 1975.

Wilker, a fellow blogger, recently had his first book published, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards. Sports Illustrated called it a “wry, rueful memoir” in a May 10 review and dubbed Wilker “one of 2010’s most promising literary players.” After seeing that article, I emailed Wilker for a review copy. Wilker forwarded my email to his publisher, Seven Footer Press, and I quickly received the book, which I finished this morning. It was a great read.

Wilker’s book has been well-praised, from SI to ESPN to other bloggers, as it should be. Every generation, I think there are perhaps a few baseball books like this: marvelously written, literary and unique. When Ball Four debuted in 1970, the New York Times wrote, “Ball Four is a people book, not just a baseball book.” Cardboard Gods works similarly. It joins The Boys of Summer as the second baseball book I’ve recommended to my mom.

Ostensibly, the book is about baseball cards, with each chapter an autobiographical essay devoted to a specific card spanning 1974 to 1981, the bulk of time Wilker collected before he too grew out of it. Wilker writes about his childhood and early adult life, using cards as metaphors, and towards the end especially, chapters fly by with limited mention of players. It works, though. I’m glad the book is billed being about cards, as I doubt I would have heard of Wilker otherwise. That being said, Wilker could have written about mud, and the writing would appeal. Wilker has an MFA from Vermont College and won a short fiction award, and in Cardboard Gods, it shows.

The story drew me in. Early on, I started to care about Wilker’s family members, wondering how their stories would come out, and appropriately, the book includes personalized cards for them. Though there is great baseball writing, like a reference to the Milwaukee Brewers as a “malodorous unshaven rabble,” my favorites passages concern Wilker’s mom’s boyfriend fashioning a metal chimney to his VW van in a failed attempt to work as a mobile blacksmith or Wilker, his brother and his dad going to a rock concert (featuring “a few prolonged explosions that I knew were songs only because they began and ended.”)

Were this a movie review, I would give Cardboard Gods three and a half stars out of four. My lone criticism here — which could be the baseball geek/former sportswriter in me talking — is that Wilker offers obvious stuff about players. When I got to the Mike Kekich chapter, I knew it would be about him swapping wives with his teammate, Fritz Peterson (that really happened.) I knew the Herb Washington chapter would talk about him being the only designated pinch runner in baseball history. I wanted more about the players, but perhaps that would have detracted from the memoir.

After finishing the book in the wee morning hours today, I emailed Wilker. He references a few non-sports books in his work, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which was assigned reading from a favorite college writing professor. My professor also raved about Tobias Wolff and other writers, so I asked Wilker about his influences. Wilker replied a couple hours later, “I love Tobias Wolff and have read just about everything he’s written, I think. This Boy’s Life especially had an influence on my book.” That makes sense. I read both books (Wolff is one of my favorites, too) and Wolff and Wilker have similar life stories, both coming from broken homes, getting expelled from prep schools, and struggling to transition into adulthood. Of course, both men also beautifully related their stories years later.

One final thing. In Cardboard Gods, Wilker writes about youthfully penning a fan letter to his hero, Carl Yastrzemski and never hearing back. I wondered if the book changed this. I asked if there had been any word from Yaz. Wilker replied, “Only in my heart.” If I were Yaz, I’d drop Wilker a quick line. I can’t imagine a better postscript for the paperback edition of Cardboard Gods. John Updike once wrote of another Red Sox immortal, Ted Williams, “Gods do not answer letters.”

Imagine if one did.

Gus Stathos, spring training in 1947, and Jackie Robinson

I went to the Old Timers Lunch on Friday in Sacramento, to do interviews for my book on Joe Marty. It was a good day in my life. I did a couple of key interviews and also got to talk to a former Sacramento Solon named Gus Stathos.

Stathos, who I interviewed at the estate sale of former Solons owner Fred David in February, never played with Marty and was a career minor leaguer. The closest he came to making the show was when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947. Stathos played that spring with Jackie Robinson, who was weeks away from becoming the first black man in 83 years to play professional ball.

Stathos gave me a few minutes of his time on Friday, and I’ve provided excerpts from our talk below:

On how Robinson cleaned up at ping pong and horse shoes between workouts and games: “What he did, he used to sit around there with a bunch of guys and play horse shoes. You’d turn around, he beat everybody. Ping bong, he beat everybody. Basketball, he was great. Goodhearted guy, very nice, always spoke real good about everybody.”

On a story Robinson told that spring about treatment he got at a hotel in New Orleans: “He went in to check into the room. There was about fifty or sixty guys there, and the young kid who was behind the counter, he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘We don’t take black people here for our hotel.’ So Pee Wee Reese says– he came forward, Pee Wee Reese– and Eddie Stanky came forward says, ‘Well, if he can’t stay here, we’re not going to stay here.’ So Jackie Robinson heard that, he came up, and he said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t worry about it, I’ll go to a black town and get a room, and I’ll see you guys at the ballpark.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

On if he had a good idea if Robinson would break the color barrier that year: “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. I thought he was great, I really did, I really liked him. Everybody loved him.”

On whether he had other conversations with Robinson: “Well, as soon as he knew I was from California, cause he was from LA you know….”

On whether Robinson had an opinion on Stathos’s hometown, Sacramento: “I don’t think he even knew where Sacramento was, to be honest with you.”

On Robinson as a player: “I just loved the way he ran. He was pigeon-toed, you know, and he could run– and he could run. He had a lot of guts. He’d steal every base there was and… I thought he was a great ballplayer, I really did. And I’m glad that he made the Hall of Fame, I’m glad he did what he did, and I can say that I was at spring training with him.”

Is Gil Hodges a Hall of Famer?

I took my first stab at writing an Ezine Article to promote Baseball: Past and Present. I submitted it Wednesday night, and after a brief vetting process, Ezine accepted and published it this morning. I wrote about whether Gil Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame.

I had two goals in writing this: 1) Get a back link, since Ezine has a Google rank of 6; 2) Attract more viewers to this site– I would be happy even if it’s one or two clicks a month, though hopefully it’s more.

I’ve heard different things said about article marketing. Some people say it’s better to keep your best stuff for your own site. I decided to write a good piece of original content for a category I feel I’m strong in here, the Hall of Fame. I don’t see the point of pushing out shit around the Web with my name on it, so I spent a few hours Wednesday researching and writing.

Anyhow, it’s a big day today. I am going to an old-timers lunch in Sacramento to interview people who knew Joe Marty, particularly one man who is a wealth of information but tends to be skittish about doing in-home interviews. After the lunch, I am going to the library downtown and intend to get lost in old microfilm for the bulk of the afternoon. Marty played in San Francisco and Sacramento in the PCL and Chicago and Philadelphia in the majors. If my book is to be done right, I assume I’m going to need to look at old newspapers from all of those towns and more.

Postscript on my failed attempt to interview Bernie Carbo

I had my first “Where Are They Now” piece published last night on Baseball Savvy, a site I was recently invited to contribute to. I interviewed Billy O’Dell, who pitched for the Giants in the 1962 World Series, and our two cordial phone conversations contrasted with the run-in I had a few weeks before with another player I approached about this, Bernie Carbo.

As I wrote about here before, I had a chance to interview Carbo that didn’t go anywhere. I’ll rehash over the next few paragraphs for anyone who missed my first entry (anyone who’s read it can skip down to the last four graphs.) Basically, Carbo hit a famous home run in the 1975 World Series and more recently has been in the news for telling the Boston Globe, “I played every game high.” I was put in touch with Carbo through a mutual contact Dave McCarthy, executive director of the Ted Williams Museum in Florida, and Carbo and I set up to talk, but it didn’t come off.

When I called Carbo at the time we’d agreed on, he seemed to get spooked when I asked if I could use a recorder, a standard question. For reference, I asked O’Dell that same question both times I talked to him, and he had no problem with it. Maybe Carbo’s more on guard given recent spotlight.

Whatever the case, Carbo had some questions for me, including how I knew McCarthy. I explained how I had been doing research for a post here about how the Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum honored players like Fred McGriff and Dale Murphy, but not Jackie Robinson and Honus Wagner and that I called McCarthy and we struck up an acquaintance. My mistake with Carbo was that I spoke of the Hitters Hall of Fame as a second-rate Hall of Fame, though it didn’t seem like a deal-killer at the time for the purposes of our interview.

Carbo told me he had interviews slated to go a few weeks out with ESPN and the 700 Club, that he promised those outlets he wouldn’t give his story out ahead of time, and that he would need to call me back in mid-May.

He gave a radio interview to a Red Sox talk show two days after we spoke. Upon hearing this, I called Carbo fuming. I know better than to make these calls, and it went about as well as could be expected. Before our conversation devolved into us talking heatedly over one another and him hanging up on me, Carbo said he had initially agreed to our interview thinking I was a friend of McCarthy and that he began to distrust me or what I would write after I told him the stuff above about how I knew McCarthy.

I’m neither a friend nor a foe, I’m a writer– and for the record, McCarthy’s been nothing but nice to me. But Carbo’s words wouldn’t have struck a nerve if there hadn’t been some truth to them.

The truth is, I’ve felt bad since I first wrote about the Hitters Hall of Fame six months ago. Ted Williams is one of my all-time favorite players, and McCarthy said the museum gives $80,000 to $100,000 to children every year. That’s a good thing, even if it’s not for me as a writer to take a position one way or another. I also like the idea of extra Halls of Fame in baseball besides Cooperstown, which doesn’t honor nearly enough players. A Hitters Hall of Fame is a neat concept for a museum, particularly if it was the brainchild of Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter ever.

Most times, talking to a ballplayer is a wonderful experience. Since the ill-fated non-interview with Carbo, I’ve talked to O’Dell and a former Pacific Coast League catcher Billy Raimondi (for the book I’m working on about his former teammate Joe Marty), and I couldn’t have asked for two nicer interview subjects. With that said, I came in with a good reminder about the importance of choosing my words carefully around ballplayers.

The 10 best pitchers turned position players in baseball

1. Babe Ruth: Easily the most successful example of this transition, although unlike most of the other men here, Ruth did not salvage his career by switching from pitcher to full-time outfielder. He won 89 games before, all prior to his 25th birthday and might have won 300 had he stayed on the mound. But the rest is 714 home runs of history. Interestingly, Ruth pitched five games in his later career as publicity stunts. He went 5-0 in these appearances, twice hurling complete games, including in 1933 at 38.

2. Lefty O’Doul: If only O’Doul discovered he could hit sooner. First, he floundered as a pitcher in parts of four seasons. After a five year break, O’Doul resurfaced at 31 as an outfielder and compiled a .349 lifetime batting average, fourth highest all-time. With a full career, O’Doul would have been a Hall of Famer.

3. Rube Bressler: Bressler went 10-4 with a 1.77 ERA for the Philadelphia Athletics as a rookie in 1914 and hurt his arm. He pitched where he could the next six seasons before suffering a final injury in 1920. “This time I decided the thing to do was give up the pitching business and take up the hitting business,” Bressler told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times. “Why not? Other guys could hit. Why not me?” Bressler played 12 more seasons and finished with a .301 lifetime average in 1932.

4. Bobby Darwin: Like O’Doul, Darwin pitched sparingly — one game in 1962, three in 1969 — before establishing himself years later as an outfielder. He began his second career in 1971, became an everyday player the following year and hit 65 home runs his first three full seasons. Alas, he also led the American League in strikeouts those years.

5. Rick Ankiel: He began as a 19-year-old hurler for St. Louis in 1999 and inexplicably lost his ability to pitch two years later. Ankiel spent most of the next six years out of the majors before rejoining the Cardinals in 2007 as an outfielder. He hit 25 home runs in 2008 and the feel good story was marred only by revelations he took HGH (supposedly on doctor’s orders.)

6. Smoky Joe Wood: The Rick Ankiel of his time, Wood went 34-5 for Boston in 1912, then his arm died. He toiled for five subsequent years and then became an outfielder with Cleveland. Wood played five seasons in the field, never managing much power, though he bowed out hitting .297 with eight triples in 1922.

7. Stan Musial: Signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization as a pitcher in 1938, went 33-13 over the next three years, including 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA for Daytona Beach in 1940. However, Musial hurt his arm and was converted into an outfielder before his major league debut the following year.

8. Mark McGwire: Converted from a pitcher to a position player while at USC, later became a power hitter with Oakland.

9. Dave Kingman: Ditto.

10. Ted Williams: Williams would rate higher here, but there was never any doubt he would make it as a hitter. That being said, he pitched occasionally in high school and signed as a pitcher-outfielder with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. “I got knocked around a little bit, and they forgot about my pitching,” Williams recounted years later in a 1978 episode of the TV show, Greatest Sports Legends. Williams pitched once in the big leagues, throwing two innings one day in 1940 with the Red Sox, scattering three hits and one run, with one strikeout.

The Hall of Limited Fame: The Inaugural Class

I had my first meeting on Saturday as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and this site came up in conversation with the group. While we waited for others to arrive for our breakfast at Lefty O’Doul’s in San Francisco, I mentioned my most popular post here, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Our chapter president asked if I included O’Doul, and she scoffed when I said no. I understand my words could be seen as blasphemy, especially given where we were at or the fact that we’re the Lefty O’Doul Chapter, but the man isn’t a Hall of Famer in my book.

O’Doul falls into an interesting class of ballplayers: Those men who were brilliant for short stretches. Their chances for Cooperstown are slim because, as late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray noted in a 1978 column, “The baseball writers are sometimes loathe to reward a guy for a single, incandescent, virtuoso performance over one season. They prefer a guy who keeps doing a predictable thing over and over again. Henry Aaron, who piled up 755 home runs, 30 to 40 at a time over 20 years, will go in the hall by acclamation. Roger Maris, who hit 61 one season, more than anyone ever hit in one  season, will never make it.” And the Veteran’s Committee won’t help much either, as it does little for modern era players besides tabbing those who fell just short with the writers.

Perhaps the answer is giving O’Doul and his cohorts a Hall of Fame of their own, a place to honor men who may not have been Cooperstown-worthy their entire careers but played like it for at least a few seasons. I think this could make a great Web site, and if anyone wants to handle design, I’d be happy to write copy. The place could be called Cooperstown II, or better yet, Mini-Cooperstown. Until that comes to be, here are ten men who could be honored:

Player Claim to fame Highest percentage of Hall of Fame vote
Dom DiMaggio
Number three on my list of the ten best players not in the Hall of Fame, DiMaggio is a member of the Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum and is considered one of the greatest defensive outfielders. Williams had a pamphlet for years in his museum detailing why DiMaggio deserved Hall of Fame enshrinement. His Cooperstown bid was hurt because he played just ten full seasons, missing three years to World War II.
11.3 percent (1973, 9th ballot)
Nomar Garciaparra
Looked like a sure-bet Hall of Famer his first four full seasons, culminating with his .372 year in 2000. He missed most of the next season injured, though, and was never again the same dominant player.
Not yet eligible
Dwight Gooden
Had more wins before his 25th birthday (100) than after (94) when his career fell apart. That would seem to be a dubious record of some sort, but every pitcher on this list shares that distinction.
3.3 percent (2006, 1st ballot)
Roger Maris
His lifetime numbers of 275 home runs and a .260 batting average are pedestrian, but when Maris shined, he shined bright. American League Most Valuable Player in 1960 and again in 1961 when he hit 61 home runs. He deserves enshrinement for what he endured in the latter season alone.
43.1 percent (1988, 15th ballot)
Denny McLain
Like Gooden, won more games before 25 than after. Became the first man in 34 years to win at least 30 games, with his MVP and Cy Young season in 1968. McLain won another Cy Young in 1969 but never again had a winning season thereafter, between arm troubles and rumors he associated with gamblers and underworld figures. He was gone from the majors by 29 and later went to prison on a RICO conviction.
0.7 percent (1979, 2nd ballot)
Lefty O’Doul
Struggled as a pitcher, with a 1-1 lifetime record and 4.87 ERA, bouncing out of the big leagues at 26. Resurfaced five years later as an outfielder and, short of Babe Ruth, is probably the most successful player to make this transition. .349 lifetime average, fourth-highest all-time, with 1140 hits; hit .398 in 1929, .383 in 1930 and .368 in 1932.
16.7 (1960, 9th ballot)
Riggs Stephenson
His .336 lifetime batting average is 22nd all-time, but he was a utility player most of his career and had 500 plate appearances only four times. In those seasons, though, Stephenson hit .362, .344 and .324 (twice.) The ad on his Baseball Reference page calls him, “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!” and I wrote a post in January exploring this.
1.5 percent (1960, 3rd ballot)
Fernando Valenzuela
One word: Fernandomania. The southpaw swept into Los Angeles and the majors with his Cy Young and Rookie of the Year season in 1981 and thrived up through a 21-11 year in 1986. However, he was never as effective thereafter. Assuming he was being truthful about his age– and there has been debate on this– Valenzuela is like McLain and Gooden: He won more games before 25 than after.
6.2 percent (2003, 1st ballot)
Maury Wills
Wills didn’t reach the majors until he was 26 and did his best work his first six full seasons. He led the National League in steals each of those years and was MVP in 1962 when he stole 104 bases and broke a record set by Ty Cobb in 1915. Jim Murray wrote in the 1978 column, “Will someone please tell me why Rabbit Maranville is in the Hall of Fame and Maury Wills isn’t?”
40.6 percent (1981, 4th ballot)
Smoky Joe Wood
Went 34-5 in 1912, and as he told Lawrence Ritter years later in The Glory of Their Times, “That was it, right then and there. My arm went bad the next year and all my dreams came tumbling down around my ears like a damn house of cards. The next five years, seems like it was nothing but one long terrible nightmare.” Wood still won 117 games in his career, all before age 25. Like O’Doul and Ruth, he later played in the outfield, albeit with more modest results.
18 percent (1947, 6th ballot)


This blog turns one, or: 10 things I’ve learned in the last year

It’s hard to believe, but I wrote my first post a year ago today. It’s amazing what a year can do.

If I knew then what I know now that I didn’t know then (say that three times fast), I might be amazed. And I still have a lot to learn. That being said, I want to offer a list to anyone who’s just starting out or needs a refresher. Here are some things I’ve learned in the past year:

1. Google Analytics

This lets me track how many people come to my site and how long they’re here, among other things. In other words, it’s great for gauging what’s working and what isn’t. Hard to believe, but I never knew of Google Analytics before I started working a software sales job last June.

2. Quantcast

This is the most accurate external measuring tool for my site stats I’ve found. As of today, Quantcast says I get 892 unique monthly visitors. People who blog for a living get upwards of 25,000. I think I’d like 3,000, which seems attainable in the foreseeable future. Anything more, and I might need to be blogging full-time. On a side note, I’ve also learned of Alexa and Compete in the last year, but my ratings there embarrass me and are possibly inaccurate, so I’m not providing links.

3. The value of getting sites to link up

Baseball Musings linked to one of my posts in January, and I got 80-100 extra visitors to my site. Since then, I’ve worked hard to craft a few entries worthy of additional links, which isn’t easy since the man who runs that site has high standards. That’s a good thing, though: It makes it that much sweeter when he does link me up.

4. The importance of writing well and writing often

I cannot stress this enough. When I started, I figured I’d write once a week. A friend suggested every day. My friend had the right idea. With the help of Quantcast, I’ve learned I attract more regular readers when I post often. While I think the most important thing for a blog is excellent writing, providing this original, quality material on a near-constant basis doesn’t rank far behind.

5. The 80/20 rule applies

I heard my boss say something to the effect, not long ago, that 20 percent of work produces 80 percent of results and vice versa. The ratio may be even more skewed with this site. Out of the 150 or so posts I’ve written, I have three, maybe four that get me the bulk of my traffic off of search engines. I write often with the tacit understanding that over time, little will be remembered.

6. The importance of reading other bloggers

Blogging, I’ve found, is little more than an advanced form of social media. I can write and entertain my friends, and a certain number of people will find me off search engines. From there, some of my most loyal readers are other bloggers who I’ve reached out to and vice versa. They read my entries, I read theirs and everyone’s happy.

7. Don’t take anything personally

There are millions of other blogs. I’m just one. I knew this a year ago, but it bears repeating. Most people have probably never heard of this site, and out of those that have, there are probably some who don’t care for it. That’s fine. End of day, I write because something feels missing in my life when I don’t do it.

Then there are the things I’ve learned just in the last week:

8. How to add a Twitter widget to my site (I learned how to do that on Thursday)

9. How to add a blogroll and list of cool sites (I finally learned how to do that Friday afternoon, months after assembling some links)

10. How to get my blog indexed in Blog Catalog, a free indexing site. There are many free tools on the Internet for promoting a blog. I encourage anyone to take advantage of them.

When I started this blog, I didn’t know how long it would last or if I would follow through on it. I feel established now, and I look forward to what the future holds. Honestly, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface on what’s possible. I want to thank everyone who’s supported this site. Knowing anyone cares to read me is tremendously gratifying and makes maintaining this site so much easier and more enjoyable. In the words of Michael Scott, “You guys are the reason that I went into the paper business.”