Monthly Archives: January 2011

Halls of different Fame

My friend and occasional contributor here, Rory Paap got his first link from Rob Neyer of ESPN.com on Friday. Neyer had proposed a new addition to Cooperstown he called the Wing of Amazing, “for players who really don’t belong in the Hall of Fame because they weren’t good enough, but did some things that do deserve to be celebrated.” Rory nominated Billy Wagner, writing that he wasn’t sure if the recently-retired closer deserves a regular spot in Cooperstown, but:

What I do know is that a young boy who is born right handed, breaks his arm, learns to throw lefty given the injury, only grows to 5’9″ and yet still manages an average fastball of over 96 miles per hour — from 2002 on, as available from Fangraphs — with incredible control and consistency, is amazing.

For sure. Neyer said he would have to be sure Wagner is “the only pitcher his size who’s ever thrown that hard (and been successful).” That may or may not be true, as 5’6″ 139-pound Bobby Shantz had 152 strikeouts in 1952, and 5’7″ 138-pound Bob Caruthers was one of the top strikeout artists of the American Association of the 1880s. All the same, the general idea got me thinking.

I write about whether people belong in the Hall of Fame every week, and what eight months of doing this has shown me is that there are many more good, if not great players than will probably ever get into Cooperstown. There are also lots of players who made memorable contributions to baseball or are at least worth remembering for some other reason, even if their careers weren’t Hall-worthy.

I like Neyer’s idea, though it’s worth noting: Such a place exists. The Baseball Reliquary in Southern California honors “individuals– from the obscure to the well-known– who have altered the baseball world in ways that supersede statistics.” In fact, stats do not play a role in determining whether a player gets into what Baseball Reliquary calls its Shrine of the Eternals.

Thirty-six people have been en-Shrined thus far, and they range from a one-armed pitcher to a catcher/CIA operative to baseball’s first deaf star, among others. In alphabetical order, the honorees are:

Jim Abbott, Dick Allen, Roger Angell, Emmett Ashford, Moe Berg, Yogi Berra, Ila Borders, Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, Bill Buckner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Dalkowski, Rod Dedeaux, Jim Eisenreich, Dock Ellis, Mark Fidrych, Curt Flood, Josh Gibson, William “Dummy” Hoy, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Bill James, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Roger Maris, Marvin Miller, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Piersall, Pam Postema, Jackie Robinson, Lester Rodney, Pete Rose, Casey Stengel, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Veeck, Jr., and Kenichi Zenimura.

The 2011 ballot is out for this, the 13th annual election that will occur in April, with an induction ceremony to follow the third weekend in July in Pasadena, California. The new ballot has 50 people on it, namely:

Eliot Asinof, Frank C. Bancroft, Steve Blass, Chet Brewer, Charlie Brown, Jefferson Burdick, Glenn Burke, Helen Callaghan, Charles M. Conlon, L. Robert Davids, Dizzy Dean, Ed Delahanty, Bucky Dent, Hector Espino, Donald Fehr, Eddie Feigner, Lisa Fernandez, Rube Foster, Ted Giannoulas, Eddie Grant, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Pete Gray, Ernie Harwell, Charlie Hollocher, Bob Hope (a publicity director, not the famed actor), Dr. Frank Jobe, Charles “Pop” Kelchner, Effa Manley, Conrado Marrero, Dr. Mike Marshall, Tug McGraw, Fred Merkle, Manny Mota, Phil Pote, Vic Power, Curtis Pride, Dan Quisenberry, J.R. Richard, Annie Savoy, Rusty Staub, Chuck Stevens, Luis Tiant, Fay Vincent, Rube Waddell, John Montgomery Ward, David Wells, J.L. Wilkinson, Maury Wills, Wilbur Wood, Don Zimmer

I look forward to casting my ballot, and if anyone reading is interested in voting, please feel free to email me. I’ll forward any requests for ballots on to the executive director of Baseball Reliquary, Terry Cannon.

All this being said, my ballot may include some write-ins. As the Shrine of the Eternals is still relatively new, I’m guessing dozens of worthy candidates haven’t been honored. It was this way with the Hall of Fame for about its first 30 years, up through the mid-1960s when the Veterans Committee finally ran out of non-enshrined players with 300 wins or close to 3,000 hits, men like Tim Keefe and Sam Crawford. Here are 10 of their equivalents for Baseball Reliquary to consider:

Jose Canseco: Call him an opportunist, call him a cheat, call him stupid. No matter, Canseco’s Juiced stands as the most important expose of the Steroid Era next to Game of Shadows and easily the most entertaining. It helped spur Congressional hearings and landmark reforms in baseball. Canseco would be a hit at the induction ceremony, too.

Jim Creighton: Baseball’s first superstar, Creighton shined briefly before he swung so hard in a game in 1862 that he ruptured his appendix and died a few days later at 21.

Charles Victory Faust: Faust arrived at a road game for the New York Giants 100 years ago this spring and announced he would pitch the team to the pennant. It remains one of the oddest stories in baseball history. A fortune teller told Faust he would star for the Giants, and while his play in an informal tryout with John McGraw was laughable, McGraw kept Faust on as a mascot out of superstition. Faust even played in two games. The Giants won the pennant in 1911 but lost in the World Series, and Faust was let go after the season and later institutionalized. He died in an asylum in 1915 at 34. There’s never been anyone else like him in baseball.

Charlie Finley: If Bill Veeck is in this shrine, Finley should be too. Both were innovative owners who built championship clubs in small markets and were master showmen. Where Veeck had exploding scoreboards, midget pinch hitters, and the ambitious but ill-fated Disco Demolition Night, Finley let 59-year-old Satchel Paige pitch in 1965, had his shortstop Bert Campaneris play all nine positions in a game that same year, and offered his players bonuses to grow mustaches. This honor could mean more for the late Finley. Unlike Veeck, Finley isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis: Baseball’s first commissioner, Landis is remembered today as the former federal judge who gave lifetime bans to the eight members of the Chicago White Sox who threw the 1919 World Series. Landis also banned a number of other players and effectively vanquished gambling, a major problem in baseball in the first two decades of the 20th century. He served as commissioner until his death in 1944, and none of the men who’ve had the job since have impacted baseball nearly as much.

Hideo Nomo: Major League Baseball’s first Japanese star, Nomo retired from playing in Japan in the mid-1990s so he could come to the US. His hurricane windup baffled hitters stateside and made Nomo a hit with the Dodgers his first few years before hitters caught on. There’d be no Ichiro Suzuki or Hideki Matsui or Daisuke Matsuzaka in the majors today had Nomo not paved the way. And even in decline, Nomo remained popular in Japan. I covered one of Nomo’s rehab starts in Triple-A in 2004. I sat near three Japanese reporters in the press box, and they all left shortly after Nomo’s two innings were up.

Lefty O’Doul: Just as there would have been no Ichiro without Nomo, neither man would have had a start in professional Japanese ball if O’Doul hadn’t helped launch it in the 1930s. He went so far as naming the Tokyo Giants and also was an instructor in Japan before and after World War II. I believe O’Doul, like Buck O’Neil, belongs in the Hall of Fame as an ambassador to baseball. And if O’Neil has a spot in the Shrine of the Eternals, O’Doul should too.

Branch Rickey: There’s never been a more important baseball executive than Branch Rickey. The general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Pittsburgh Pirates, Rickey invented the farm system for teams to develop their own players, signed the first black player in the modern era, and laid the foundation for success with all three teams he worked for. Bobby Bragan said in his autobiography, “To me, he was one of the greatest baseball minds ever, and I don’t think you’d be wrong if you took out the word ‘baseball.'”

Lawrence Ritter: Spurred by the death of Ty Cobb in 1961, Ritter decided to write a book comprised of interviews with old-time players. Five years and 75,000 miles on his car later, Ritter had The Glory of Their Times, quite possibly the best baseball book anyone’s written and certainly one of my favorites. It could also be the most influential, as four of the interviewed players got into the Hall of Fame in the years following the book’s publication in 1966: Rube Marquard, Stan Coveleski, Harry Hooper, and Goose Goslin.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer: Thayer received $5 in 1888 to write a poem for his college friend William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Thayer wasn’t proud of the poem, and it had a small effect, if any at first. Years later, a vaudeville actor incorporated Casey at the Bat into his act, and the rest is history. A century after its original publication, the poem remains popular, and a baseball-themed episode of The Simpsons in 1992 even bore the title, “Homer at the Bat.”

BPP Book Club: 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York

At the beginning of the 20th century, baseball was practiced in the style favored by New York Giants’ manager John McGraw: Play for the single run with a base hit, followed by the hit and run, a sacrifice or a stolen base.

But by 1921, Babe Ruth was in his second season with the New York Yankees, redefining what one ballplayer could do. His 59 home runs was more than eight entire teams in the majors that year, and not only did the long ball he hit so effectively create more runs, more quickly, it also proved to be a fan favorite.

The stage was set for an epic change in baseball strategy and its ruling elite, and this shift has been recreated in Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg’s book, 1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York. I give the book five stars out of five. It’s a well-researched, well-documented account of what may be the single most pivotal season in baseball history.

Spatz and Steinberg provide interesting insights into the minds of the hard-driving McGraw and his Yankee counterpart Miller Huggins. Before the season began, McGraw said of his rivals, “Unless we have bad luck, I do not fear any club in the National League.”

Although the Giants got the best of the Yankees in the 1921 first all-New York World Series, capturing the title by 5 games to 3 in the best of nine set, Huggins nevertheless managed the Bombers to the teams’ first six American League pennants and three World Series championships.

Huggins’ slugging Yankees ended the dead ball era forever and catapulted the team into number one status in the New York baseball world ahead of the Giants. Brooklyn, then known as the Robins, was nowhere as far as fans outside of Flatbush were concerned.

Before Huggins took over the Yankees in 1918, he was the player/manager for the St. Louis Cardinals. And prior to taking the helm for the Cards, the 5’4”, 140 pound  Huggins was one of the most skilled second basemen of his era. At various times during his career with the Cardinals and his native Cincinnati, Huggins handled 15 or more chances or figured in three double plays.

Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher Waite Hoyt remembered his former manager: “Huggins was almost like a school master in the dugout. There was no goofing off. You watched the game and you kept track not only of the score and the number of outs, but of the count on the batter.  At any moment Hug might ask you what the situation was.”

By 1923, when Yankee Stadium opened (see video here), the Bombers started on a seven-decade stretch of mostly dominant baseball. Before 1923, the Yankees and the Giants shared the Polo Grounds.

1921 is full of New York’s rich history as well as the colorful sports journalism of the time from reporters like Damon Runyon and Walter Trumbull. As an example of the descriptive prose found in the sports section in those early days, consider this analysis from Trumbull about Game 5: “The Giants ran bases with all the skill of a fat lady with the asthma racing for a street car.”

The book also has 53 illustrations, many never seen before, that colorfully supplement the author’s text and offer one more reason 1921 is a valuable addition to any baseball library.

The Great Friday Link Out III: Eye of the Detroit Tiger

The only thing missing from this week’s link out is Mr. T or another reference to Rocky III.

  • Bill Miller has posted the third installment of the series we’re doing for his blog on good players on awful teams. This week, Bill writes about Rusty Staub, the best thing going on the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969 (who were really, really terrible, even by Expo standards.) The locals referred to Staub as Le Grand Orange.
  • Anyone who enjoys this site or other history-related baseball blogs may like a series about “infamous or controversial historical figures who also had a notable association with baseball.” So far, there have been posts on John Dillinger, Billy Sunday, and a 19th century catcher named Martin Bergen who killed his family and himself. I saw the Bergen story on Baseball Think Factory this week and subsequently read the other two pieces. They’re all outstanding: well-researched, vivid, and well-told.
  • The journalism ethics student in me has loved a recent thread in the baseball blogosphere. For some reason, a lot of people hate Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman. With a passion. I read his book on the ’86 Mets, The Bad Guys Won and don’t know if I see what the hatred is about. Pearlman wrote a recent well-received CNN.com piece about tracking some of his haters down. Apparently, though, there’s more to this story than he told.
  • Devon Young, who blogs about the 1982 Topps baseball set, has a fresh batch of articles up including one about a card he refuses to take out of the protective casing it came in off eBay: A 1982 Pascual Perez error card. Kind of sums up Perez’s whole career.
  • Kevin Graham has changed the name of his site (though not his URL) from DMB World Series Replay to Baseball Revisited and is asking everyone who has him in their blogroll to note the change. I’ll do that, though a part of me is tempted to write, “The Blogger Formerly Known As…”

Any player/Any era: Denny McLain

What he did: I recently got an email from Brendan Bingham suggesting I write something on Denny McLain. Brendan wrote:

Although Denny McLain’s 31 wins is part of the standard description of what made 1968 the “year of the pitcher,” the accomplishment perhaps had little to do with 1968. McLain had a great year, but it would have been great in any era. I have not put McLain’s 1968 numbers through stat converter, but I strongly suspect that if you transport him to another team that won 103 games and outscored its opponents by 180 runs, and if you allow him to start 40 games and pitch more than 300 innings, there would be a good chance that he would win 30, or close to it.

It’s a bold prediction, and I’m happy to test it out. In search of the right team for McLain, I went back more than 100 years, deep into the Deadball Era.

Era he might have thrived in: We’ll trade McLain’s 103-59 Detroit Tigers for an even stronger club. The 1904 New York Giants went 106-47, scored 270 more runs than their opponents, and boasted not one, but two 30-game winners, Joe McGinnity and Christy Matthewson. The two combined for 90 starts and nearly 800 innings pitched, and if McLain subbed for Matthewson, he’d get his 30 wins.

Why: There hasn’t been a 30-game winner since 1968, partly because the perfect storm of circumstances Brendan outlined hasn’t occurred much since then. Since 1980, just two pitchers have made at least 40 starts, Charlie Hough in 1987 and Jim Clancy in 1982, and both played on losing teams. And no pitcher has broken 300 innings in a season since 1980 when Steve Carlton did it on 38 starts for the 91-71 Phillies.

If McLain pitched today, he’d be lucky to win 25 games. Even on the best current clubs, McLain would receive a maximum of 35 starts a season, pitch maybe six or seven innings per outing, and have at least a few wins ruined by relievers. Like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Barry Bonds’ 73-homer season, 30 wins in one year seems improbable today. It’s worth noting, too, that the live ball era has witnessed just three other 30-game winners: Jim Bagby Sr. in 1920, Lefty Grove in 1931, and Dizzy Dean in 1934. There’s a reason for that.

To win 30 games in another era, McLain would need an ironclad team from baseball’s distant past where he and another pitcher would, for all intents and purposes, be the starting rotation. There may be a few teams like this from the Deadball Era, but I’m partial to the 1904 Giants. The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has McLain’s ’68 season translating to 19-14 with a 2.35 ERA for New York, though I think that’s inaccurate. I’m guessing the converter is giving McLain what’s left over after McGinnity and Matthewson, as the numbers roughly parallel New York’s real third starter that year, Dummy Taylor.

Removing McGinnity or Matthewson would be key here, and there’s a temptation to keep Matthewson and make this about him pitching with McLain. But I think this team needs McGinnity, the 33-year-old ace whose 35 wins, 1.61 ERA, and 170 ERA+ were all league bests in 1904. Matthewson went 33-12 with a 2.03 ERA and ERA+ of 133, and McLain posted a better ERA+ in 1968, more shutouts, a better winning percentage, and a comparable number of innings. I wouldn’t sub out Matthewson in 1905 when he went 31-9 with a 1.28 ERA and 230 ERA+ and was the Giants in the World Series, but in 1904, McLain would have been the better young arm.

A legendary manager like John McGraw might have helped McLain, too. Matthewson turned 24 in 1904, the same age as McLain in 1968 and pitched another decade on his way to Cooperstown. McLain had one more good season after 1968 and then began an epic decline in baseball and life. He threw his last pitch at 28 in 1972, had drug problems, and was later imprisoned. There would still be risks for McLain in the Deadball Era. He had ties to gamblers while in the majors and perhaps could have been corrupted in baseball’s early days, when players regularly rigged games. And McGraw couldn’t save everyone, like his pitcher Bugs Raymond who drank himself out of the big leagues at 29 and died the following year.

Whatever the case may be, though, at least in 1904, McLain would surely have been something special.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

Remembering Big George Crowe

Although I never lived in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Boston or Milwaukee, one of my early baseball favorites was Big George Crowe, a first baseman for the Reds, Cardinals, and Braves.

My first connection to Crowe, who died on January 18 at 89, came when I was a ten-year-old growing up in Los Angeles avidly collecting baseball cards. Crowe’s 1952 and 1953 Topps cards were the most identifiable and treasured in my collection.

When my family moved to Puerto Rico, I went to dozens of Santurce Cangrejeros winter Caribbean League games. Crowe was a key member of the historic 1954-1955 Crabbers squad that many in baseball claim was the best winter squad ever.

Don Zimmer, a stand out shortstop for the Crabbers, considered Santuce as good as or better than any franchise in the major leagues.

Zimmer attested:

Without a doubt, it was probably the best winter club ever assembled. I mean we had guys like Buzz Clarkson, myself, Ronnie Samford, George Crowe, Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti catching. We had Mays, Thurman and Clemente in the outfield. I mean you’re talking about a big league ball club. Not only that but Herman Franks was an outstanding manager. We could have beaten National League clubs.

The local media referred to the heart of the line-up, Mays, Clemente, Thurman, Clarkson and Crowe, as “Murders Row,” likening them to the famous 1927 New York Yankees.

In addition to the sluggers, on the mound were Ruben Gomez and Sam Jones. Gomez, incredibly, won 179 games over 29 winter league campaigns, all but one of them hurling for the Crabbers.

During his three seasons in Puerto Rico, Crowe hit .337 with 32 home runs and 179 runs batted in.

The Caribbean League allowed only a limited number of “imports,” the word used to describe non-Caribbean-born Americans. But since the Puerto Rican newspapers prominently featured their “off season” summer successes, I could easily follow Crowe’s career.

In 1957 Crowe, at age 36 with the Cincinnati Reds, had his best season. When an injury to Ted Kluszewski gave Crowe a shot at the full time first baseman’s job, he appeared in 133 games, belted 31 home runs and drove in 92 runs placing him sixth and eighth in the league respectively.

Ironically, Crowe was the only Reds starter not selected that year to the All-Star game during infamous ballot stuffing scandal forced the selections of Roy McMillan, Ed Bailey, Gus Bell, Don Hoak, Johnny Temple, Wally Post, and Frank Robinson. Crowe was beaten out by Stan Musial. Nevertheless, Crowe received a degree of revenge the following season when voters selected him as a reserve to the 1958 All-Star team based on his .300 plus batting average for the first half of the season.

Crowe was an outstanding Negro National League star as well as a professional basketball player for the New York Rens and the Los Angeles Red Devils where he teamed with Jackie Robinson. In 1939, Crowe was Indiana’s first Mr. Basketball.

Crowe lived in the Adirondacks until 2006 when he moved to California to join his family. After suffering a stroke in late 2008, Crowe resided in an assisted living facility near Sacramento until his death.

Other recent baseball passings: Art Mahan, Gil McDougald

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Joe Posnanski

Claim to fame: Here’s a trivia question: Who is Charles Dryden? How about Heywood Broun? Frank Graham? As an aspiring sportswriter, I’ve read Dryden, Broun, Graham and other long-dead pioneers of my craft. Dryden even had a cool life story, living as a hobo in the 1800s before going to work as a newspaperman. He once described Deadball Era pitcher Ed Walsh as “the only man in the world who could strut standing still.” To most fans, Dryden, Broun, and Graham would be just names. They have one thing, though, that a current, recognizable sportswriter, Joe Posnanski does not: a spot in the writers wing of the Hall of Fame.

Honoring recipients of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” the wing is a place that I could get lost in but something most fans wouldn’t care seeing on their Cooperstown visit. Honoring Posnanski could boost interest. As a two-time AP sports columnist of the year, current Sports Illustrated writer, and celebrated blogger, Posnanski might be the best sports journalist today. Certainly, I look up to him, and I enjoyed interviewing him. I’m far from the only person Posnanski’s influenced. That’s a common theme among the greatest writers wing honorees from Grantland Rice to Jim Murray to Peter Gammons.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Posnanski is eligible to win the award,  though as he’s in his 40s, it could be awhile. Traditionally, the award has functioned as something of a lifetime achievement honor, given to writers like Murray late in their careers or awarded posthumously. Gammons was one of the youngest honorees when he received the award in 2004 at 59.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Yes, absolutely. I look at Posnanski like I look at Albert Pujols. Each man is so much more skilled than his peers it’s ridiculous, and if either were to retire tomorrow, I would have no problem honoring them. Each has done enough for Cooperstown in my eyes.

Posnanski would have a strong case for the writers wing from his newspaper, Sports Illustrated, and book-writing work, but it’s what he’s done outside his job that seals it for me. Posnanski is a master of the 21st century version of New Journalism, blogging, and as sports writing becomes more and more of an online endeavor, he stands as a great example influencing a generation of young writers. He’s also a great guy, perhaps the best thing of all.

Murray was a role model, too, in his decades with the Los Angeles Times, inspiring countless writers who imitated his witty, acerbic prose. Years before, Graham essentially created the fly-on-the-wall style of sports feature writing. And after Rice died in 1954, Smith wrote, “Perhaps it is not literally true that Grantland Rice put a white collar upon the men of his profession, but not all sportswriters before him were cap-and-sweater guys. He was, however, the sportswriter whose company was sought by presidents and kings.”

At least a few others in the writers wing are, for aspiring writers, little more than good examples of bad examples. I won’t get into names, but they’re the kind of folk who trash blogging, denigrate any kind of different writing really (one less-than-stellar honoree called Ball Four “horseshit,” for instance) and bemoan the decline of newspapers. Every year that they are in the Hall of Fame and Posnanski is not, Cooperstown looks more behind the times.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

A starting lineup of non-All Stars

A reader emailed me an interesting post this past weekend. John Bowen of DugoutCentral.com offered a lineup of players who were left off their league’s All Star team in a year they thrived. I went a step further with this idea and crafted a lineup of the best players I could find who never made an All Star team. The only requirements were that the players needed to be active sometime since 1933, the year of the first All Star game and have at least one good season.

My batting order is as follows:

1 – Tony Phillips (2B): I considered Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest second baseman ever, who did his best work in the 1920s and was washed up by the time the All Star tradition began in 1933. Phillips would have been more than a token selection, though and looked deserving for his 1993 season, where he hit .313 with a .443 OBP for the Tigers and 1995 when he had 27 home runs and 61 RBI and helped the Angels come within one game of the playoffs.

2 – Lyman Bostock (OF): Bostock’s career ended tragically in September 1978 when he was murdered at 27. But even with just four years in the majors, Bostock had one season that should have gotten him an All Star nod: 1977, where he was finished second in the American League with a .336 batting average and posted an OPS+ of 144, 6.5 WAR, and a .508 slugging percentage, impressive for a contact hitter.

3 – Hal Trosky (1B): Hank Greenberg recounted in The Glory of Their Times, “There are great ballplayers nowadays, of course. But you know, I played in an era of super-great ballplayers, especially first basemen. Just think of the competition I had at first base in the American League: Hal Trosky, Zeke Bonura, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Rudy York.” Trosky and Bonura never were All Stars, and I favor Trosky for peak offensive value. In 1936, he hit .343 with 42 home runs and his MLB-best 162 RBI.

4 – Tim Salmon (OF): Bowen mentioned Salmon in his post, calling him a notoriously slow starter. Nonetheless, Salmon’s final numbers for the ’95 Angels of 34 home runs, 105 RBI and a .330 batting average, not to mention his OPS+ of 165, could have at least gotten him an All Star selection the following year.

5 – Kirk Gibson (OF): Gibson didn’t even make the All Star team in 1988 when he was National League MVP, though he led the league in WAR with 7.3. It seems odd Gibson’s iconic home run in the 1988 World Series wasn’t enough to get him voted onto the 1989 All Star squad.

6 – Hank Thompson (3B): Thompson was part of the first generation of black players in the majors. In those days, only the most popular black players like Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, and Satchel Paige generally received All Star bids. Less-known blacks with maybe one All Star-caliber season, primarily former Negro Leaguers with relatively short careers in the majors, went unacknowledged. These men included Joe Black, Luke Easter, Sam Jethroe, and Thompson, who stepped up for the Giants in 1953 when Mays was out all year in the army.

7 – Spud Davis (C): Proof that voters were often very wrong in latter day baseball, Davis hit .349 in 1933 and lost out on a catcher spot on the National League squad to Jimmie Wilson, who hit .255 and Woody English, who hit .261. And even if it wasn’t a figment of any voter’s imagination back then, Davis’s WAR in 1933 of 3.7 was better than Wilson and English combined.

8 – Eddie Lake (SS): I figured I could find many players for this list by examining stats that weren’t valued in earlier generations. Lake led the American League with a .412 on-base percentage in 1945, and his WAR of 5.7 and 136 OPS+ topped the AL All Star shortstop selections that year, Vern Stephens, who had better slugging numbers and Lou Boudreau, who got on for being named Lou Boudreau. No All Star game was played in 1945 because of World War II, and Lake never had another season approaching All Star status, retiring in 1950 with a .231 career batting average and a lifetime OPS+ of 91.

9 – Waite Hoyt (P): Many aging, future Hall of Famers never played in an All Star game in the 1930s because their best years were behind them by then, from Rogers Hornsby to Rabbit Maranville to Dazzy Vance. Hoyt is the only Cooperstown member I know of who could have been an All Star selection on playing merit but never was. In 1934, a few years after he bottomed off the Yankees, Hoyt went 15-6 with a 2.93 ERA and 142 ERA+ for the Pirates.

MLB Executives Know What They Are Doing-Huh?

Imagine the following. You are a general manager. Your task is to release one of two players. The first is disappointing but talented, able to play several positions and shine, at least defensively in all of them. The other man can play two positions and is labeled a great defensive player simply because he cannot hit big league pitching. To put it another way, you are the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and you have to choose between Andy LaRoche and Andy Marte.

Ask any owner or general manager, and they’ll tell you: Having a highly competent and knowledgeable GM is key to assembling a successful team. This is what makes LaRoche’s recent release by Pittsburgh, as well as most any other decision the Pirates’ front office has made in the past 15 years, puzzling. Granted, perhaps scouts were wrong when they formerly labeled LaRoche a can’t-miss star. But replacing him with Marte, who is at least as weak offensively and doesn’t even have an opportunity in Pittsburgh as a utility player, seems to make little baseball sense.

The Washington Nationals just splurged on an outfielder who is injury-prone, will be too old in the last few years of his contract to give the Nationals anything close to a $20-million performance, and will probably play center field instead of right. In a few years, Jayson Werth will be a hindrance more than much-needed help. Werth is solid offensively and defensively– he just isn’t a franchise player. The Nationals play in a tough hitter’s park, too, and Werth won’t be surrounded by the same offensive juggernaut as he was with the Phillies. The Nationals, whose farm system is beginning to produce some very interesting position players, need pitching and more pitching to contend. Twenty million dollars buys a lot of good young pitching.

Then there are the Seattle Mariners. Seattle had an idea last winter: If pitching and defense are that important to winning games, let’s see if all pitching and defense can get you into the World Series. Problem was, after Cy Young-winner Felix Hernandez, all that pitching didn’t amount to much, and a player such as Chone Figgins was changed from a Gold Glove third baseman to a fish-out-of-water second baseman, leaving a hole at both positions. Combine the Mariners’ defensive woes with an offense that only Ichiro was able to contribute much to, and the reasons behind the 2010 Mariners 101-loss season become painfully obvious.

Now, Seattle is dangling its star closer, David Aardsma, as bait for a game-changing offensive player. The only pure slugger on the free agent market, Adam Dunn signed with the White Sox. Very few, if any genuine home run threats would consider Seattle anyway– it’s simply too tough to hit the ball out of Safeco Field. The Mariners seem likely to repeat their poor 2010 season again and again.

Major League Baseball is littered with teams who were unsuccessful and will continue to be unsuccessful. But the model of how to run a competitive franchise season after season is there. It shouldn’t be too difficult to see.

Carl Erskine and the Oddest Game in World Series History

During the 1950s decade Carl Erskine, the right-handed starting pitcher who played his entire career for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, pitched two of the league’s seven no hitters. Erskine’s gems came on June 19, 1952 against the Chicago Cubs and on May 12, 1956 against the New York Giants.

For curious historians, the others were Vern Bickford, 8-11-1950, Boston Braves over the Dodgers, 7-0; Cliff Chambers, 5-6-1951, Pittsburgh Pirates over the Braves, 3-0; Jim Wilson, 6-12-1954, Milwaukee Braves over the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-0; “Sad” Sam Jones, 5-12-1955, Chicago Cubs over the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-0 and Sal Maglie, 9-25-1956, Dodgers over the Phillies, 5-0.

Erskine also pitched nine innings of no hit ball during his 1952 World Series win over the New York Yankees. In what must be one of the most unusual pitching performances of all time, on October 5 1952 Erskine held the Yankees hitless for nine of his eleven inning 6-5 complete game five win.

In the fourth inning, Mickey Mantle reached first base on a bunt single. Then in the fifth, the Yankees erupted for five runs on four more hits including a three run home run by Johnny Mize. From then on, the Yankees got nothing.

Erskine had lost the second game to Vic Raschi. 7-1. In game five, he faced Ewell “the Whip” Blackwell.

Recounting game five to Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer author, he said:

I had first class stuff, not much pain. The curve was sharp. We go into the fifth inning ahead by four runs. Do you remember the date? It was October 5. That was my fifth wedding anniversary. My control slips. A walk, some hits. Mize rips me. I am behind 5-4 and here comes Dressen.

I’m thinking, Oh no. I got good stuff. I look at Dressen coming closer and I think, the numbers are against me: October 5, my fifth wedding anniversary, the fifth inning and I have just given the Yankees five runs. Five must be my unlucky number. Charlie says to give him the ball.

Erskine continued:

You weren’t allowed to talk when he came out. He was afraid you might argue with him into leaving you in, and you had to wait on the mound for the next pitcher, so you wish him luck. Now Charlie has the ball. I’m through. The five runs have done me in. Suddenly Dressen says, ‘Isn’t this your anniversary? Are you gonna take Betty out and celebrate tonight?’

Describing the situation, Erskine recalled:

I can’t believe it. There’s 70,000 people watching, as many as in all of Anderson, Indiana and he’s asking what I’m doing that night! I tell him yes, I was planning to take Betty someplace quiet. To which Dressen replies, ‘Well, then see if you can get this game over before it gets dark!’

With that, Dressen handed the ball back and Erskine who proceeded to get the next 19 batters out, the Dodgers won in 11, he took Betty out to dinner and they celebrated his first World Series victory.

Erskine was one of many Boys of Summer whose careers peaked in Brooklyn but who, by the time they reached Los Angeles, had little left in their tanks. Nevertheless, Erskine had the wonderful opportunity to play on the great Dodgers teams with his mates Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Carl Furillo. More than half the starting line- up is in the Hall of Fame.

“Oisk,” as he was known in Brooklyn, did himself proud. During his 12 season career (six of them pennant winning) from 1948 to 1959, Erskine posted a 122-78 mark with a .621 winning percentage and added two more victories in the 1952 and 1953 World Series—his best two years. In 1952, Erskine went 14-6 (2.70 ERA) and in 1953, 20-6 (3.54)

Erskine has led a admirable post-playing life. His fourth child Jimmy was born with Downs Syndrome; Erskine is active in the Special Olympics and volunteers at his local Hopewell Center for the developmentally disabled. He’s a member of the Baseball Advisory Committee dedicated to helping former players with financial and medical needs.

To commemorate Erskine’s accomplishments both as a Dodger and as a citizen, a 6-foot bronze statue of the pitcher stands in front of the Carl D. Erskine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Center in his native Anderson, Indiana. Also, Erskine donated part of his land to the Anderson Community School System to build a new school, appropriately named Erskine Elementary.

Erskine has written two autobiographical books: Tales from the Dodgers’ Dugout: Extra Innings and What I Learned from Jackie Robinson. In Brooklyn, fans can meet on Erskine Street, dedicated in 2002.

The Great Friday Link Out II: The Wrath of Cain

It’s Friday, which means a second week of links is upon us. It’s going to be hard to top my debut of this feature last week when I inadvertently linked to a one-time white rapper turned baseball memorabilia collector. Who knew SABR members could rap? Barring any of the following bloggers secretly being Vanilla Ice (and you never know online…) we should be in for a tamer week.

Without further adieu…

  • The second installment of the “Baseball’s Best of the Worst” feature that Bill Miller and I are doing for his blog is live. I wrote this week’s post, and it’s on Boston Braves outfielder Wally Berger, a superb player on a horrific team if there ever was one.
  • Speaking of Bill’s fine blog (which is in a similar vein to this site) he also had a great post Thursday on some of baseball’s most famously-hyped prospects over the years. Clint Hartung, we hardly knew ye.
  • Fun with old sports cards
  • I generally work hard to provide a decent baseball blog but there are a few I know of, and probably more, that usually dwarf my efforts here. The Platoon Advantage is one. I’m often amazed at the quality, detail, and expertise and how there is seemingly a never-ending supply of good content there. Here’s a Glory of Their Times-style post with a top draft pick discussing life in the minors.
  • Baseball Prospectus looks at bargain free agent veterans. If I was a GM, I’d build the majority of my roster this way. I’d be Brian Sabean (with the exception of this off-season, where former bargain pickups are cashing in to re-up.)
  • A reader alerted me to an interesting thread at Baseball Think Factory on an all non-Hall of Fame team, a topic that’s been gone over here for sure.
  • Shameless self promotion: My recent interview with Josh Wilker rated a mention here.

Any player/Any era: Ichiro Suzuki

What he did: When I launched this column in June, I considered featuring Ichiro right away. I initially envisioned him as a Deadball Era star with his excellent contact hitting, speed, defense, and rifle arm, but the idea never developed. A number of Hall of Famers might have excelled in baseball’s early days, Roberto Clemente for one, and I don’t know what would make Ichiro that much more spectacular or unique back then. But if Ichiro played a decade or two into the Live Ball Era, he might have been iconic.

Era he might have thrived in: Ichiro probably would thrive in any era. For our purposes, we’ll look at the “Gashouse Gang” St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1930s when general manager Branch Rickey could have made Ichiro baseball’s first Japanese player. Ichiro’s style of play would have been perfect for Rickey and St. Louis, and his presence in baseball may have changed history.

Why: The 1930s were an interesting time for US-Japanese relations. Despite World War II looming a decade beyond, Major League Baseball launched multiple goodwill tours of Japan. Lefty O’Doul visited with an American All-Star team in 1931 and told Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of Their Times that he returned the following year, taught baseball at six universities, and helped found its professional league. He even named the Tokyo Giants, who were originally going to be called The Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club.

Biographer Richard Leutzinger quoted O’Doul saying, “I’ll venture to say there are at least 20 players in Japan who are good enough fielders to play in the major leagues today. I remember that during our tour in 1931, Japanese outfielders made more spectacular catches in the 17 games than I had seen in any one year of major league baseball.” But O’Doul said Japanese players were so timid at the plate that he returned to coach hitting. And the majors of the 1930s, when hitters reigned supreme, had no place for an all-glove, no-bat outfielder.

Enter Ichiro, the Gold Glove standard in right field; he’d offer less power than most great 1930s hitters but on the right team, he might hit .400. The Baseball-Reference.com stat converter has Ichiro’s 2004 season translating to a .389 batting average with 267 hits for the 1935 Cardinals. And who knows how O’Doul’s tutelage would boost Ichiro’s natural abilities, seeing as the Father of Japanese Baseball made a hitter out of Dom DiMaggio in the Pacific Coast League.

Prejudice might hinder Ichiro playing stateside in the ’30s, but I doubt it would have been insurmountable. After all, no gentleman’s agreement kept Asians from the majors until Masanori Murakami debuted for the San Francisco Giants in 1964. I think it was more an issue of no all-around Japanese offensive player being available. I doubt one would have gotten past Rickey, who made Jackie Robinson baseball’s first black player in 1947. Interestingly, Rickey reportedly considered recruiting from Japanese internment camps during World War II.

I emailed Lee Lowenfish, who wrote a 2009 biography of Rickey. Lowenfish told me, “I do think that Rickey would have been enamored of Ichiro. He loved guys who could run because as he said it so trenchantly, speed helps you on both sides of the ball. Ichiro’s hitting down on the ball and covering a lot of ground in the outfield with a fine arm would definitely have appealed to Rickey. His last St. Louis team of 1942– the so-called St Louis Swifties– all could run like the wind.”

Lowenfish disagreed on Rickey being willing to sign Ichiro, saying the 1930s “would have been too early.” Still, I think Ichiro would have been worth a public relations risk. Could he have changed history? My friend Sarah, who shares an interest in history, said business was a major reason for war, that an oil embargo hurt Japanese interests. Perhaps conflict was unavoidable. I doubt Ichiro would have hurt matters, though. At worst, he would have been side-by-side O’Doul in the years after Hiroshima, helping promote goodwill and Japanese baseball once more.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

Bob Costas: Hall of Fame ‘Too Big’

I lied! Granted, I didn’t realize I was lying when I wrote in my recent blog about Bert Blyleven’s inevitable Hall of Fame election that I wasn’t going to get into a “lather” about it.

But now I realize that I’m at lather stage not only because of the inclusion of another unworthy player into the Hall, but also because his induction represents another step in the deterioration of a once great institution.

What got me “lathered” up was Joe Posnanski’s blog wherein he revealed that Bob Costas thinks the Hall of Fame is “too big,” my position exactly. According to Costas, again echoing my feelings, the Hall should be reserved for the “great” and not include the “very good” which Posnanski interpreted as a reference to Blyleven.

Posnanski further speculated that if Costas could do it without hurting anyone’s feelings, he’d cull several existing members from the Hall. Once again, Costas and I share the exact restrictionist philosophy.

Then, in a joking response to Costas, Posnanski created what he called the “Willie Mays Hall of Fame” that would use Mays as the standard for all future inductees. If a player didn’t compare to Mays, he wasn’t Hall material. By the time Posnanski completed his analysis, the Hall only had one member: Willie Mays.

If you’re willing to considering Costas’ (and my) approach, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

The first 1936 Hall of Fame class included the following: Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner. These players didn’t qualify: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby and others with imposing stats. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, the Hall elected Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Blyleven. Is there anyone out there that, no matter what convoluted sabermetrics you may use, wants to argue that that Ruth and Dawson are comparable players? Can anyone successfully debate that, regardless of the era they pitched in, that Blyleven is the equal to either Johnson or Mathewson?

Here’s something else. Tell me who doesn’t belong in this picture: Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Blyleven.

Yet despite the huge disparities in their skills and careers, at the end of the day, baseball fans can accurately make this all-inclusive observation: “Seaver, Gibson, Palmer and Blyleven are Hall of Fame pitchers.”

Unless you go into a long-winded breakdown of their careers, that simple statement puts them all on equal footing. That is, they’re all Hall of Famers.

That’s ludicrous!

Maybe you’re okay with Dawson, Rice and Blyleven. But if the current relaxed standards trend continues, as I sadly expect it will, the Hall will soon be seriously evaluating, for example, Bobby Abreu.

Like Blyleven, Abreu will have played for several teams including three with strong public relations machines, the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Angeles, all of whom will work hard to advance his Hall case.

For that matter, Abreu has enough money to hire his own public relations firm or, like Blyleven, develop an influential Web site to do his own advocating. Then, perhaps most helpful of all to Abreu, he’ll stay on the Hall ballot for an interminable 15 years. Since Abreu will have made friends among the voting sportswriters, locally and nationally, eventually his train will come in. By the time the spin ends, Abreu will be as good as Roberto Clemente.

In the meantime, I’m finding comfort where I can. I have Costas and some readers as allies in my losing fight for a meaningful Hall. That’s good company to be in.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Smoky Joe Wood

Claim to fame: Novelist James T. Farrell once wrote of Wood, “Some of the most exciting early games I saw were in 1912, when the Boston Red Sox came to town. They won the pennant that year, and they always beat the White Sox when I went to the games. Smoky Joe Wood, who belongs in the Hall of Fame, won 34 and lost 5 that year. In memory it seems as though he hurled all those games against Chicago. With shadows pushing over the ball park he would stand out there on the pitching mound in his red-trimmed gray road uniform, hitch up his pants, and throw. To this day, I have a recollection of a strange sensation as if my head had emptied, when he fired the ball in the shadowy park. The White Sox couldn’t touch him.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Wood received votes for Cooperstown from the Baseball Writers Association of America nine years between 1936 and 1951, peaking at 18 percent of the vote in 1947. The Veterans Committee can enshrine Wood through its Pre-Integration Era subcommittee, which covers players from 1871 to 1946 and is due to meet next prior to 2013 inductions.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Wood essentially has two things going for his Hall of Fame case. First, he has one of the greatest baseball names of all-time. Smoky Joe Wood sounds more like a Steinbeck character than a ballplayer. I’d venture that beyond Shoeless Joe, Smoky Joe might be the only Deadball Era player most fans today would know or care about. Wood also had one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, 1912, and his dominance that year went beyond his 34-5 record, 1.91 ERA, 10 shutouts, or 258 strikeouts. He also racked up 9.5 WAR, a better than 3-1 strikeout-walks ratio, and a 1.015 WHIP. If ever a pitcher deserved to be enshrined on the basis of one season, it’s Wood though Denny McLain of 1968 and Dwight Gooden of 1985 can’t rank far behind.

Wood doesn’t have much else on his resume beyond 1912 since he permanently injured his arm the following year and threw just 18.1 innings past 1915. It’s worth noting Wood transitioned to the outfield for a few seasons thereafter, even hitting .366 with an OPS+ of 151 in reserve duty in 1921. Mostly, though, Wood’s a tantalizing example of what might have been with his 117 career wins, all compiled by the age of 25 and his lifetime 2.03 ERA. Baseball’s enshrined pitchers before who were done early, from Addie Joss to Dizzy Dean to Sandy Koufax, but Wood’s lifetime marks would be the least of the bunch.

Whether Wood belongs in the Hall of Fame probably depends upon one’s view of the museum. For those who see Cooperstown strictly as a place to honor players with superior career stats, Wood doesn’t make it. Not even close. But for players who, for even a time, might have captured the spirit and magic of baseball and helped elevate the game, Wood has to be one of the very best without a plaque. And unlike many who held this mantle and then fell dramatically from grace, from McLain and Gooden to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, Wood seems just as mystifying almost 100 years after his last pitch. That has to be good for something.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

My interview with Josh Wilker

The baseball blogosphere is filled with people who haven’t gotten a professional break, people like myself. Many of us are dedicated and passionate, but for whatever reason, we find ourselves here. Every so often, though, one of us breaks through. Last spring, I noticed reviews on ESPN.com and in Sports Illustrated of Josh Wilker’s book, Cardboard Gods, a memoir framed around his childhood baseball card collection. I subsequently reviewed the book and thought it was excellent. As a baseball blogger and a writer, Wilker is a lot of things to aspire to be: funny, honest, and original. It gives me hope he’s gotten to the point he’s at.

I’ve been interested in interviewing Wilker since reading his book, and I finally made some time to talk with him on Saturday. Excerpts of our 30-minute phone discussion are as follows:

I’ve been a reader of your site pretty much since I read your book in April or May. One thing I noticed during the summer was your frequency of posting slowed for a few months. I was just curious– did you experience a post-book creative letdown at all?

Wilker: I had another book that I had to write so I was putting whatever creativity I had into that really and then trying to keep my blog also going along. But I think in general, even up to this moment, there was a lot of momentum in me working on my blog for the first few years I was writing it, and that momentum kind of climaxed with the book. I had a story I wanted to tell about my life, and I found a way to get to it, piece by piece, by writing about it first on my blog and then working on the book. And then when I got it to find its shape in the book, then I wasn’t sort of searching for that anymore. I’m still interested in the cards themselves, I’m still interested in trying to find ways that relate it to my life. It just doesn’t– I don’t know if it has the same urgency it did in the early days.

*                         *                         *

How has the release of your book changed your life?

Wilker: Not in any huge ways outwardly. I still live basically the same life that I was living before the release of the book. I write in the morning, then I go to my day job, come home, watch TV, drink a couple of beers. It’s pretty much the same story as it was before. I think internally, it was very satisfying to see a creative piece of work make its way into a published book. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, and most of the satisfaction just comes from the writing itself. But I’m certainly not above getting the kind of external validation, and just enjoying that, the validation that comes from just getting a book out there and sharing it with people….

I would say [something] that’s changed, I suppose, is just the idea that some people have read it which makes me kind of uneasy because there’s some really personal stuff in there. For example, I very much like the people I work with but I haven’t told them about my life in such detail that, if they happened to pick up my book, suddenly they know my whole story from birth to right now, and that makes me feel a little weird.

I know I was reading, and especially like the last half of your book, it was really, really personal stuff, and I mean, frankly, it’s more detail than I would go into if I was writing my life story. When you were writing the book did you ever wrestle with, ‘Hmmm, some of this stuff, should I be putting this in?’ What was that like for you?

Wilker: I think I’ve been inspired by books that try not to hide from the whole story, if they can and get it out there. There’s some memoirs that I really like, This Boy’s Life and A Fan’s Notes and The Basketball Diaries, and these books really do go to places that most people wouldn’t really be comfortable talking about so publicly. So I had those kinds of things urging me on because those books were so important to me. I think I felt it would have been insincere to not try to live up to that. But it’s a story, too, and there’s parts that I leave out. I didn’t tell everything, so I suppose there’s definitely a thought in my mind, I don’t want to go everywhere. But I did want to, as much as I could, lay myself open to scrutiny and just show all my limitations and faults and not hold back and make myself look good.

*                         *                         *

I’m 27, and I’m kind of at the stage of my life where professionally I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer. I work as a delivery driver right now to get my rent paid, and one thing that really resonated with me from reading your writing, both on your blog and in your book, is it seems like we’ve kind of been the same places. Were there ever times as a young man when you wondered what your life would amount to?

Wilker: Oh sure, yeah. The only aspiration I had was to be a writer, and for most of my adult life, it wasn’t really bearing any fruit in the real world, and meanwhile, I was making ends meet, or not. That was the toughest times, actually. Being unemployed is infinitely worse than having a crappy job.

I absolutely, absolutely agree with you.

Wilker: Actually, some stability with work I think really might have helped me, because I was kind of bouncing from very tenuous job to tenuous job. I think when I had a job with kind of regular hours that wasn’t killing me in any kind of anxiety or ways, it helped my writing. It gave me a better routine every day and allowed me to focus on the writing a little more steadily. But back to your question, I did worry about that, for sure, and I still worry about it. I think it’s a worry that I’ll always have.

*                         *                         *

What’s one thing you wish you did better as a writer?

Wilker: I often wish that I was more like [Anton] Chekhov who in some ways is the most awe-inspiring writer to me because when he would write a short story, there wasn’t any discernible part of his own personality in the writing. He would just drop into the life of somebody who was completely unlike who he was, a writer/doctor. He would become anybody. It was like he could become anybody and find drama in a life where most people wouldn’t see it as dramatic. I don’t know if I could boil that down to one word, but sometimes I feel shackled by my way of writing which is very much centered on a memoirist’s approach, where I’m just kind of writing about my own life, and then sometimes, I’m able to disguise it a little bit and fictionalize it. But I would like to be able to explore kind of more widely and freely into other lives, through fiction, in a way that he did.

*                         *                         *

What advice would you give other baseball bloggers hoping to write a book?

Wilker: I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. It took me a long time to do anything that led to anything. Like I’ve sort of been saying, I was writing mostly because I’m just compelled to write, and I love to do it. I thought there was a book out there about the baseball cards and my life intersecting, but I didn’t push it in my own mind very hard. I just wanted to explore the material. So I just kind of relaxed and just churned out the blog posts about the cards and just tried to have fun, and a form kind of slowly suggested itself from all those posts.

I guess if I had to put that in the direction of advice, I would just say, if you’re writing a baseball blog, or any kind of blog or doing any kind of writing, try to go where the enjoyment is and maybe the urgency, and just try to go with it, and don’t get too wrapped up in those early stages and any kind of finished product. I know that in my own writing life, I think I’ve probably sabotaged some possible books by just going too quickly by going too quickly toward the idea that I could come up with a finished product instead of just exploring the terrain for awhile.

*                         *                         *

One final question for you: Has there been any word from Yastrzemski or still no word? (Wilker writes in his book of penning an unanswered fan letter to his hero as a child)

Wilker: [laughs] No, no word from Yastrzemski. I did get a great letter from somebody who’d read an article in the Boston Globe about my book, and the writer of the letter was this woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her husband had gotten an autograph from Carl Yastrzemski back in, like, 1979, and she was cleaning out some stuff and she found it and sent it to me. So, all these years later, I do get an autograph from Yaz, which is all I wanted. What I describe in the book– I write to him– I wasn’t asking for him to come meet me. So, I got my autograph. There’ve been some really cool kind of connections through the book, and that’s right at the top of the list.

Trying to make sense of arbitration

Late, great baseball union head Marvin Miller once explained that even if the owners thought they lost badly when free agency was granted, what the union really wanted was the right of arbitration. It’s the arbitration process that has driven baseball salaries through the roof much more quickly than free agency.

The legal parameters and procedures attached to the arbitration process would take up far too much time and space for anything less than a book or two, (there have been several books written on this subject). Such discussion would be well outside my realm of expertise and too dry a read for anyone not in the legal profession.

Instead, let’s consider a much more subjective approach—a dissection with a no more than gut level observation. A dissection from a baseball fan and a baseball writers’ casual observation.

Of course, the temptation with such an approach is to degenerate into a rant along the lines of: “He’s a lousy player—why does he make so much money—and why does he deserve a raise?” The arbitration system as it currently stands is not set up in this manner. It is there only to decide between what a player is asking for and what ownership has offered to pay. Nothing else.

This can allow a player to make an outrageous salary demand with the knowledge that should an arbitrator decide that the offer made to the player by the team– usually a raise depending on performance that past season– is insufficient, the player’s demand must be met.

Baseball owners have little or no recourse in dealing with those players who had a less successful or slightly better than unsuccessful season than previously. In the past, it was the players who had little or no recourse. Arbitration has taken the equation from the one extreme, now to another.

It has been suggested by some that the arbitrator should have the authority to choose a figure that he or she feels would be reasonable if neither submission seems fair. This has it’s drawbacks however. The most disagreeable although perhaps the most money saving for ownership would be in losing of  control of the decision on what a player might be worth.  It’s true that arbitration decides what a player will earn that season, but at the very least, owners have had their say with their proposal. Having an independent board decide on a figure other than those submitted by either party might take such control completely away.

This might lead to the precedence of strict statistical “legal” guidelines. A player who bats .240 is worth this amount of money, a player who bats .280 is worth this amount. A pitcher who wins 10 games will automatically receive less than on who wins 15. This might lead to individual stats being more important to a player than team wins or losses.

A manager would be under pressure from both players and management— the players would need to do whatever they could for their own benefit and no longer the benefit of their team. Upper management would insist on the benching of a player fearing another home run or base hit would cost them X amount of dollars. Benching a number one starting pitcher would hurt the team and the player but help the owner. Of course, it would also probably be illegal.

Who knows of a better solution?

Looking Back at the Seattle Mariners to Steel Myself for the Pittsburgh Pirates

With spring training fast approaching, I’m steeling myself for another (nineteenth consecutive) losing season by my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.

Looking for comfort wherever I can find it, I recall that I have seen worse baseball, or at least as bad, as the Buccos of the last few seasons.

I lived in Seattle during the Mariners’ early years from 1977 to 1986 when the team was as painful to watch as the Pirates. During that ten-year period, the M’s average winning percentage was about .400

The M’s had some good players like Leon Roberts and former two-time All Star Richie Zisk. In 1982, Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry had a cup of coffee with the Mariners. Perry’s stop over was long enough for him to record his 300th career victory over the New York Yankees. I still have my ticket stub to prove that I was one of the 27, 369 fans in a stadium that held 59, 438. As an indication of fan indifference, two nights later the Mariners drew 36,716 for Funny Nose Glasses Night.

Most Mariner players however were rejects with limited skills. A good example is one-time Bucco shortstop Mario Mendoza whose batting ineptitude created the term “Mendoza Line,” a reference to hitting at least .200

The M’s bumbling play drove another Hall of Famer, manager Dick Williams, out of baseball. After managing the team in 1986, 1987 and half a season in 1988, Williams left baseball for good.

A more insurmountable problem for Seattle baseball fans than the Mariners’ pitiful play was the team’s venue, the awful Kingdome.

On beautiful Pacific Northwest summer evenings, when the sun didn’t set until 10:00 PM, a fan’s entertainment choice was between enjoying free of charge Puget Sound’s magnificence, complete with a panoramic Mt. Rainer view or pay to enter the gloomy, empty Kingdome to watch the M’s lose again.

For most of the Mariners’ first 18 years, their inept play (they didn’t have a winning season until 1991) combined with the Kingdome’s design, led to extremely low attendance. Most games I saw had less than 5,000 fans.

At one point the Mariners covered “the Tombs,” the right-center field seats in the upper decks, to make the stadium seem “less empty”. The Kingdome’s acoustics created problems for radio announcers Dave Niehaus and Bill Freehan who had to deal with significant echo issues.

At least Pirates fans don’t have to worry about ambiance when they go to PNC Park. While the Kingdome was the dreariest place I have ever watched baseball (with Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers and Cleveland’s Municipal Stadiums close behind), PNC is at the other end of spectrum.

Despite the Pirates’ epic struggles, a game at PNC—voted “America’s Best Ballpark”— is the best way to enjoy a summer afternoon or evening. Tour PNC Park here, then compare it the Kingdome here and tell me where you’d rather watch a losing team play baseball.

The Great Friday Link Out

Today marks the dawn of a new era. Like many baseball bloggers, I have decided to do a link out post. Big stuff, I know. Some popular writers like Rob Neyer have the audience to do one of these posts everyday. I am going to start off at one a week and see where it goes.

Before going any further, I have a confession: I don’t read nearly enough baseball blogs. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time every week sitting hunched over on a stool, squinting at the my laptop, researching or writing about baseball history (and it pisses my cat off), I have only a handful of blogs I actively go to and fewer that I read. This needs to change. I’m going to make a point of reading more blogs, particularly in hopes of finding great content to link to each week. I also encourage anyone who’s interested to send me their stuff. I can’t guarantee a link, but I’ll read everything I can.

All this being said, one of my goals at the outset is to help my friends, the people in my blogroll. I like to think we’re a talented bunch, and I aim to showcase as much of our content as is reasonable.

Without further adieu, here are the links for the week:

  • The debut edition of the column Bill Miller and I will be writing about good players on bad teams should be up sometime today on his blog, The On Deck Circle.
  • I should have an interview up on Monday with Josh Wilker who wrote a book, Cardboard Gods, that I reviewed here in May. Josh writes a blog of the same name, and he’s had some great content as of late. I particularly enjoyed a December 28 post he did on Dwight Gooden, likening the aimlessness of his 20s to the once-great pitcher’s decline. Josh’s writing is often funny, philosophical, and totally original. He absolutely influences my efforts here.
  • I’ve heard it said of late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray that he could have written about anything; sports just happened to get lucky. Joe Posnanski seems like Murray’s equivalent these days, even if I doubt he’d ever claim it. Anything he touches is gold. Here’s a sweet blog post, for anyone who hasn’t read it, that Joe wrote about taking his family to the newly-opened Harry Potter World. One great passage: Sadly there was no Cleveland Indians world, unless you count the bleachers at old Municipal Stadium where factory workers drank schnapps from flasks and swore liberally and rubbed your head when the Indians actually scored.
  • I’m glad that economics professor and sabermetrician Cyril Morong is part of the goings-on here, leaving the occasional comment and, like Wilker, participating in a recent project I led to find the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. I wrote a post yesterday on 1930s and ’40s pitcher Paul Derringer, and Cyril commented that Derringer had a better-than-average strikeouts/walks ratio in his time. Coincidentally, Cyril recently wrote about a future Hall of Fame pitcher who just retired with the all-time best ratio.
  • Peter Nash reports on yet another piece of phony memorabilia connected to the late Barry Halper. Was anything in his collection real?

Any player/Any era: Paul Derringer

What he did: Tomorrow marks the debut of a weekly feature Bill Miller and I will be doing for his blog, The On Deck Circle. We’re writing about good players on bad teams, with Bill featuring players from 1961 to present day and me covering people before then. Bill will write tomorrow’s piece, and I’ll have something up on his site the following Friday, with us alternating weeks, though this could double as my first column. There may be no finer example of a player done in by his team than Paul Derringer on the 1933 Cincinnati Reds.

Derringer won 223 games lifetime and played 12 more seasons in Cincinnati after his 1933 campaign. His fortunes improved as his team did, with Derringer winning 20 games four times and helping the Reds to the 1939 World Series, which they lost and the 1940 World Series, which they won. Both years, Derringer finished in the top four in National League MVP voting, and he also made six All Star teams in his career. In 1933, though, Cincinnati was 58-94 and Derringer bore the brunt, losing 25 games there after an early-season trade from St. Louis and going 7-27 overall.

Having won 18 games for the World Series-champion Cardinals in 1931, Derringer struggled for victories with a 1933 Reds team that managed just 496 runs. Derringer was otherwise decent besides his record, posting a 3.26 ERA and a not-terrible 1.26 WHIP for Cincinnati, and without checking, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the finest performance by a 27-game loser in the Modern Era. On a better team and in a better era for pitchers, Derringer could more than double his 1933 win totals.

Era he might have thrived in: In most other eras, Derringer probably could have boosted his career numbers to within striking distance of the Hall of Fame (in real life, he peaked at 6.2 percent of the vote in 1956.) Derringer would do his best pitching in the late 1960s.

Why: The 1960s were essentially opposite of the 1930s, a Golden Age for pitching instead of a dark time. It’s easy to pluck pitchers from bad teams in hitter’s eras and drastically improve their numbers by placing them on, say, the 1968 Dodgers. I doubt, though, that many hurlers could handle the 300-inning seasons expected from starters in the 1960s, when the schedule was newly expanded t0 162 games, four-man rotations were common, and relief pitchers weren’t yet regularly used. But Derringer averaged 240 innings a season, topped 280 four times, and went over 300 twice, so he might be up to the challenge.

I ran Derringer’s 1933 numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com, seeing how he would fare on the 1968 Tigers, Cardinals, and Dodgers. While Derringer wouldn’t approach Cy Young or MVP status in 1968, since Denny McLain won 31 games for Detroit and Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA for the Cardinals, he wouldn’t be a half bad third or fourth starter. Derringer would do best with the Dodgers, with the converter predicting a 16-13 record with a 2.55 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. All this from a 7-27 season.

There’s been movement within the baseball research community to de-emphasize win-loss records for pitchers. Most notably, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young this year with a 13-12 record since he pitched for last-place Seattle and cleaned up in non-team-dependent stats. While I still kind of think it was crazy talk for the Baseball Writers Association of America to honor Hernandez, Derringer’s conversions are striking. Maybe the writers were on to something.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate ColbertPete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

The 1954 World Series and the Vanishing Bob Feller

Looking back at Bob Feller’s outstanding pitching career, one unresolved question keeps turning over in my mind.

In 1954, Feller was an integral part of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff. Anchored by Bob Lemon (23-7, 2.72) Early Wynn (23-11, 2.73), and Mike Garcia (19-8, 2.64), the Indians also had two spot starters that added depth to the rotation; Art Houtemann (13-7, 3.35) and Feller (13-3, 3.09)

Although the Indians coasted to the American League championship, their pitching failed in the World Series when the New York Giants swept them, 4-0. Feller did not throw a pitch.

Lemon started games one and four. In his 13.1 innings pitched, Lemon was rocked and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Wynn, in game two, managed to pitch seven effective innings, allowing three earned runs, but took the loss. Garcia, the game three starter, was only marginally more effective than Lemon. Garcia allowed three earned runs in his five innings.

When manager Al Lopez called the bull pen, he logically summoned his two relief aces, the lefty righty combination of Don Mossi (6-1, 1.94) and Ray Narleski (3-3, 2.22) as well as well as Houtemann, Hal Newhouser (7-2, 2.51) and Garcia.

How it came to pass that Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and 1947 teammate of Feller, never saw the opportunity to put the seasoned veteran pitcher into a series game is a mystery, at least to me. A solid Feller post-season performance would have taken some of the sting out of his 1948 World Series disappointment.

Although the Indians beat the Boston Braves, 4-2, Feller was charged with both Indians’ losses. In the opener, Johnny Sain outdueled “Rapid Robert” in a 1-0 complete game heartbreaker.

Feller’s second start in game five was a nightmare.

His line: 6.1 IP, 7ER, 2 BB and 5 SO

For the series, Feller posted a 0-2 mark with a 5.02 ERA.

Lopez, who held the record for most games caught (1,918) until Bob Boone broke it in 1987, had a .587 winning percentage as a manager and was the only skipper from 1949-1959 to win an American League pennant besides Casey Stengel. In addition to winning with the 1954 Indians, Lopez also led the 1959 Chicago White Sox to first place.

If Lopez didn’t see a good spot for Feller during the 1954 World Series, who am I to challenge his judgment? All I’m saying is that it would have been nice.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Ken Caminiti

Claim to fame: Caminiti was a tough-as-nails third baseman with Gold Glove-winning defense and good power, though that was overshadowed by so much. Persistent substance abuse throughout his life ultimately ended it at 41 in 2004. Caminiti was also the first notable baseball player to admit using steroids, in a June 3, 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story, and since then, the sport has changed dramatically. I wouldn’t give Caminiti a Hall of Fame plaque due to his so-so career stats, but I think his impact on the game has been undervalued. Baseball’s gotten a lot better since Caminiti had the courage to speak up.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Not surprisingly, Caminiti received just two votes out of more than 500 cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2007, his only year on its ballot. He will be eligible with the Veterans Committee in 2021 and looks like an extreme long shot for Cooperstown, since the committee will have a backlog in the next 15-20 years of steroid-connected players shunned by the writers. I can’t see Caminiti getting in the Hall of Fame before Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and so many others with better stats.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This was going to be a column about Jose Canseco, whose inglorious retirement was the subject of a recent blog post by Josh Wilker. I wondered if Canseco deserved a column here on the strength of his 2005 book Juiced, which was the first to name other players alleged to have used steroids, and then I remembered Caminiti, who was Canseco three years before him. In fact, there may have been no book from Canseco if Caminiti hadn’t bolstered the market (though the SI story noted that Canseco said upon his retirement in early 2002 that he would write his tell-all, though he didn’t admit to using steroids then.)

Some may credit Steve Wilstein, who reported on a steroid-related supplement in Mark McGwire’s locker during the 1998 home run chase. But Wilstein was excoriated by the baseball community and fellow sportswriters following his story, and the Steroid Era continued unchecked for another few years. The Caminiti piece signaled a turning point, baseball acknowledging steroids for the first time, and while it took another couple years of wrangling between baseball’s ownership and labor union, steroids were finally banned. The game isn’t perfect today, but I wouldn’t want things to go back to the way they were.

Others may credit Tom Verducci, the SI writer who broke the Caminiti story and grew it out of what was originally a Where is he now? assignment. Still, I credit Caminiti. With the exception of Canseco, pretty much every other player who’s admitted to using steroids has minimized their usage, making it sound like a one-time thing, a mistake, even an accident. Caminiti told Verducci he used steroids so heavily during his 1996 National League MVP season that “it took four months to get my nuts to drop on their own.” He also estimated at least half the players in the majors were juicing and said, “I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I don’t think using steroids is one of them.”

Some might call this all gutter bravado from Caminiti, just a drunk looking back at the mess his life became. I call it humility. I don’t know where baseball would be without it.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith HernandezLarry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark