Monthly Archives: July 2011

Double The Fun with Robin Roberts: His Yeoman Efforts Led the Phillies to the 1950 Pennant

During the final days of the 1950 season, Robin Roberts carried the Philadelphia Phillies. The Whiz Kids had a seven game lead with nine to play. But suddenly, the Phillies were in Ebbets Field on the season’s final day needing a win to wrap up the title.

Critics claim that the Phillies wilted under intense Dodger pressure. But injuries to key players hampered the Phillies down the stretch. Roberts, the team’s salvation, started four times in eight days including the first game of the September 27 doubleheader at the New York Giants (no decision), the second game of the September 28 doubleheader also at the Polo Grounds (complete game 3-1 loss) and the pivotal October 1 finale, a 10-inning 4-1 masterpiece against the Dodgers wherein Roberts notched his 20th victory.

Before the Phillies finally salted away the pennant, Roberts had to survive the mother of all ninth inning rallies.

Here, as recalled by Roberts, is what happened. With the game tied 1-1, the Dodgers’ Cal Abrams walked. The next batter, Pee Wee Reese, twice attempted to bunt but failed. Then Reese singled to left field, “a real shot,” according to Roberts. Duke Snider walked to the plate. Roberts again expected a bunt. Instead, Snider singled sharply to center field. Because Richie Ashburn had a notoriously weak arm, the third base coach waved Abrams home. But Ashburn threw a perfect strike to Stan Lopata and, said Roberts, “Abrams was out by fifteen feet. It wasn’t even close.”

Now, however, Dodger runners were on second and third with Jackie Robinson up. Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer ordered Robinson intentionally walked. Next up came Carl Furillo, “a high-ball hitter”. Roberts fired an “eye-high” fast ball which Furillo popped up.

Gil Hodges represented Brooklyn’s last chance but he lifted a lazy fly ball to Del Ennis.

Roberts led off the top of the tenth with a single to center and Eddie Waitkus followed with another base hit. But Roberts was thrown out trying to advance to third on an Ashburn sacrifice bunt.

The rest of the game, according to Roberts, unfolded this way.

So now we had men on first and second and one out. Dick Sisler came up. He had already had three hits. Well, he tagged one very hard, a line shot into the left field seats. That put us up 4-1.

I still had to get three outs in the last of the tenth and there was no doubt in my mind that I would. I got them one, two, three and Philadelphia had its first pennant since 1915—thirty-five years.

Roberts had a long, fruitful life before and after the Phillies. We’ll examine it in my Wednesday blog next week.

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“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader each week.

Any player/Any era: Chris von der Ahe

What he did: Von der Ahe owned the 19th century equivalent of the St. Louis Cardinals and might have been a century ahead of his time. Free spending and nicknamed “The Millionaire Sportsman,” von der Ahe didn’t know much about baseball, though he loved the game, once bragging he had the biggest diamond. He was a shrewd businessman and innovator, however, the first owner to sell souvenirs at his ballpark, cover the field when it rained, or build a ladies’ restroom. He also recognized the value of liquor sales, setting his ticket prices at 25 cents with the idea fans would spend leftover money on beer.

Von der Ahe’s methods worked to great effect, as he made $500,000 in 1885 alone (almost $12 million in 2010 dollars) and won four straight American Association championships. Eventually, he began to sell players to cover debts, and he lost his team in 1898 after a suspicious fire, dying of cirrhosis of the liver 15 years later. All the same, with his success and creativity in his prime, von der Ahe might have made a worthy contemporary decades later to frugal geniuses like Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley, only with George Steinbrenner’s budget.

Era he might have thrived in: Veeck and Finley did their best work before the advent of free agency in the 1970s and struggled to stay competitive thereafter as salaries ballooned. The thought here is that von der Ahe would have had deep enough pockets in the modern era to succeed where Wreck and Charlie O. fell short.

Why: It’s rare that owners are both innovative and free spending. Generally, tight budgets push management to find new ways to stay competitive: Moneyball for the Oakland A’s of recent years; exploding scoreboards, midgets, and Satchel Paige for Veeck; mustache-related bonuses, designated runners, and Paige as well (where didn’t he go?) for Finley.

Von der Ahe had that mindset, and one  can only wonder what gimmicks of his own he might have come up with as an owner in the 1960s and ’70s. Personally, I’d have liked to see if he attempted to pull off his own version of the ill-fated 10 cent beer night which turned a Cleveland Indians game into a drunken mess in 1974. Still, given his bankroll, I’m guessing von der Ahe’s  promotional hijinks would be strictly avocational, not a dire necessity for a man with deep pockets.

One thing’s for sure: I doubt von der Ahe would have been too upset by arbitrator Peter Seitz’s decision in 1975 to abrogate the Reserve Clause which introduced free agency and tripled salaries within five years. I’m guessing von der Ahe would have been one of the first to assemble the best team money could buy, and if he owned the Cardinals of the late ’70s, they might have been something more than lackluster. He could have been the National League equivalent of Steinbrenner.

It goes without saying that the details of von der Ahe’s personal life could be brighter, too, with stronger alcohol treatment options available in recent decades. A man who died at 61 and had to be supported by former player and manager Charlie Comiskey as he ran a saloon near the end might have had a better coda.

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, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

When the “Modern Day” Brats Were Too Much For Eddie Stanky

For Eddie Stanky, one game back in Major League baseball as manager was enough to send him packing up for his native Alabama.

Oddly Stanky won his last game as a manager when his Texas Rangers, behind recently inducted Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, bested the Orioles at Baltimore, 5-1 on July 22, 1977.

At mid-season, the Rangers summoned Stanky from the University of South Alabama to replace embattled Frank Luchessi. Nearly a decade had passed since the Chicago White Sox fired Stanky after a 34-45 1968 start. But immediately after his win over the Orioles, Stanky abruptly resigned and, citing homesickness, returned to his old Jaguars’ job where he eventually compiled a 488-193 record (.717).

Insiders reported however that Stanky, known during his playing days as “the Brat”, could not tolerate the “modern day” players’ attitudes. This, keep in mind, was 35 years ago! Imagine what Stanky’s tolerance level would be in 2011 with hammies, quads and pitch counts—maybe one inning?

Stanky’s on field skills were limited. According to Leo Durocher: “He can’t hit, can’t run, can’t field. He’s no nice guy… all the little SOB can do is win.” Durocher had Stanky pegged right. From 1947 to 1951, Stanky (.268 career BA) appeared in three World Series with three different National League champions, the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, and New York Giants.

So determined to win was Stanky that he created two baseball plays that were quickly declared illegal.

Whenever Stanky was the third base runner, he stood several feet behind the bag in short left field. When a fly ball was hit, Stanky would time its arc, then take off running so he could step on third base just as the catch was made. That allowed Stanky to race home at full speed making it almost impossible to throw him out. This tactic was declared illegal following the season.

“The Brat” was also infamous for what became called “the Stanky maneuver”. From his second base position, Stanky would distract opposing batters by drifting behind the pitcher, then jumping up and down and waving his arms to distract opposing batters.

Stanky, who died at age 83, is a 1990 Mobile Sports Hall of Fame inductee.

Footnote about the 1977 Rangers: The team had four managers within a five day period: Luchessi, Stanky, interim manager Connie Ryan and Billy Hunter who made it to the end of the season.

The Odd Couples: Baseball teams that have shared stadiums

Philadelphia Athletics/Philadelphia Phillies, Shibe Park: For much of the early 20th century, the Phillies played in celebrated hitters bandbox, the Baker Bowl. Players put up freakishly good numbers there, but the park was decrepit and roundly lambasted by the 1930s, and so in the middle of the 1938 season, the Phils moved in with their American League counterpart. The A’s left for Kansas City in the 1950s, though the Phillies stayed in what later became known as Connie Mack Stadium up to the end of the 1970 season.

New York Giants/New York Yankees, Polo Grounds: Old Yankee Stadium was known as the House that Ruth Built mainly because the popularity of their Herculean slugger was enough to get the Bronx Bombers out of a 10-year cohabitation that lasted from 1913 until 1922 with the Giants. In fact, prior to Ruth coming on the scene, the Yankees were something of a poor step child, subletting at the Polo Grounds after the lease ended at their original home, Hilltop Park. Hard to believe one of the richest sports franchises in the world was once like the derelict friend living out of a suitcase on a couch.

St. Louis Cardinals/St. Louis Browns, Sportsman’s Park: Another one that’s a little hard to believe in current times, the Cardinals were the poor tenant of the Browns when they moved in with them in 1920. Course, the Cardinals would be a World Series team by the end of the decade, and the Browns meanwhile would explore new depths of futility. But it wasn’t until 1953 that Browns owner Bill Veeck finally sold the park to the Cardinals for $800,000 and prepared to take his team to Baltimore where it became the Orioles.

New York Mets/New York Yankees, Shea Stadium: This one lasted for two years, 1974 and 1975, as old Yankee Stadium underwent a gutting and major series of modernizing renovations. It didn’t come easily for the Yankees, as the Mets had refused to sign off on the cohabitation for years but reneged after the city of New York agreed to renovate the Yankees home.

I Wouldn’t Want to be a GM in July-No Thanks

For those millions of us who will never be a Major League Baseball player, the thought of maybe working in the front office for our favorite team might be a worthy substitute. Serving as a general manager would probably be the ultimate goal, (well owner if we won a few million.)  We all know we could do a better job than any of the 30 current GMs because we are all experts when it comes to talent evaluation and any of the other day to day distractions a GM has to face.

I’d take the job if I could have the month of July off.  The July 31 trade deadline would leave me exhausted, completely stressed out and mumbling to myself while walking down the street, scaring little children and stray dogs.  Especially this season.

With so many teams with a legitimate shot at the playoffs, the right trade can make your season a success, the wrong trade can put your team several years back and negate all the planning which went in to getting you this far.  With so many teams with a legitimate shot at the playoffs, fewer and fewer teams are willing to part with that high priced but valuable veteran player who in seasons past would already have a new address.  More and more teams are asking a king’s ransom for mediocre talent.

Is the poor showing by a previous star just a fluke or is it a sign of the inevitable lessening of skills all athletes go through?  What if I trade my star veteran who is having a down season and he lights up the league for someone else in August and September? Are the potential star minor leaguers I receive for him ever going to produce at the big league level?  Will the hometown fans call for a general revolt if I trade a household name despite the fact that he is clearly over the proverbial hill? What will happen to clubhouse chemistry?  Is this the right time to throw in the towel or should I go for broke?

Every fan is a baseball expert as the trading deadline grows near and the press have all the answers.  They don’t have to answer to the owner and their future with the team is not at risk.  They don’t have to think long term and they don’t have any personal loyalties to this player or that. They don’t know who is hurting but playing anyway and who is having personal, off the field issues. It all looks black and white to them.

You might have inherited a no trade contract or be dealing with a 10 and 5 player.  There might be a very beneficial deal in place but contract or location issues might not allow you to pull the trigger. Everyone will want to know why the deal wasn’t made but you can’t say publicly why you stood pat.

If the whole world knows you desperately want to trade a certain player, any leverage you may have had is out the window.  You know that every other team in baseball knows who you have and they can be like sharks who smell blood in the water.   Even with your best poker face, the opposition knows if you are desperate or not.  Those friendly winter meetings in the sun belt and let me get this round suddenly have turned ice cold.  This is cold stone bottom line business and there are no prisoners.

Of course, everyone else has the benefit of hindsight which is always 20-20. If the deal turns bad, they would never have made it.  If the deal saves the season and gets you in the playoffs, anyone could have made such an obvious move.

It ain’t no fun when the rabbit’s got the gun.

Any player/Any era: Sam Crawford

What he did: This was originally going to be a column about Derek Jeter. I was sent a copy of Derek Jeter: From the pages of The New York Times some months back, and I figured a review might be salient now since Jeter just collected his 3,000th hit. But after my post this week on former stars who returned to the minors, someone posted Deadball Era great Crawford’s PCL stats here, and I was struck by the similarities. Crawford left the majors at 37 with 2,961 his and went to the Pacific Coast League where he proceeded to dominate. In the current era, it seems unlikely he’d fall short of 3,000 hits.

Era he might have thrived in: When Crawford fell off in the majors, he fell off badly, hitting .173 in limited duty his final season, 1917. Thus, he’d need a current team where he could have a cushy position. I’m thinking a chance to serve as designated hitter for a club on the West Coast might extend Crawford’s career a bit better than the rigors of Deadball Era Detroit.

Why: Crawford’s PCL totals hint at what might have been had he not been shown the door in the majors. After hitting .292 in limited duty his first year there, 1918, with the Los Angeles Angels, Crawford batted .337 over his next three seasons. He also had 131 doubles and 49 triples in that span, not bad for a man who was 41 when he bowed out in 1921. It goes without saying that between the majors and his four years in the Coast League at the end, Crawford collected 3,742 hits. That has to be good for something.

It’s hard to say what Crawford’s PCL numbers might translate to in the modern game, since opinions vary on how that circuit compared to the big leagues. At its height, the PCL was next-best thing to the majors, a warm-weathered wonder world where lesser stars could sometimes earn higher salaries since the season approached 200 games and hitting was valued over defensive ability. I don’t know if Crawford could hit .360 at 39 in the majors, as he did in the PCL in 1919. But it doesn’t seem inconceivable that Wahoo Sam might play something like Bobby Abreu on the Angels. It wouldn’t inspire any children’s stories, but it’d probably be more than enough for 3,000 hits.

Admittedly, in some ways, Crawford might have less of a legacy today, at least among baseball history fans. Wahoo Sam makes a memorable appearance in The Glory of their Times, as author Lawrence Ritter had to go to great lengths to track him down at his home in Baywood Park, California (I lived one town over from Baywood Park my sophomore year of college. It’s a nice place, close to the Pacific Ocean, but really out in the middle of nowhere.) The modern game might not feature Crawford pontificating about the likes of 19th century atheist agnostic  (thanks, Bob) Robert Ingersoll. Then again, perhaps Crawford would bring that to the ESPN. That would be interesting to watch. When’s the last time baseball had a humanist?

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, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Double The Fun: Whitey Ford Breaks Out Against Senators in Second Game of 1950 Twin Bill

In my recent blog about the 1954 All Star Game, I wrote that New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel tapped Whitey Ford as the starter even though the lefty had pitched three innings of shutout relief the weekend before.

Ford didn’t disappoint either Stengel or his American League teammates. He shut the National League down with another three scoreless innings.

Whenever I’m asked who I would pick for to start a crucial game, Ford is always on my short list. Ted Williams thinks so, too. In Williams’ book, the Science of Hitting, he named Ford as one of his toughest foes along with Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Eddie Lopat and Hoyt Wilhelm.

The Yankees called Ford up in mid-season 1950 to help out in a tight four team race that included the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. Although Ford struggled in his first two starts, needing relief help in both, he recorded wins on July 17 and July 26, 4-3 against the Chicago White Sox and 6-3 against the St. Louis Browns

But on August 15 during the second game of a double header in Washington Ford came into his own, shutting out the Senators, 9-0.
Ford ended his 1950 season with a 9-1 mark and a winning perform in the fourth, deciding game of the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies Whiz Kids, 5-2.

After returning to the Yankees in 1953 after two years in the U.S. Army, Ford dominated the American League.

For more than a decade the 5’10” 180-lb lefthander controlled games by mixing up his outstanding change up, curve and effective fastball. Ford had one of the league’s best pickoff moves and he was an excellent fielder.

By the time he retired, Ford had become known as “The Chairman of the Board,” not to be confused with the other chairman from nearby Hoboken.

Ford’s most prominent statistics are his consistently low ERAs and high winning percentages. In 11 of 16 seasons, he was under a 3.00 ERA and his worst was 3.24. His .690 winning percentage, higher than the Yankees’ team percentage for the same period, ranks first among modern pitchers with 200 or more wins. He allowed an average of only 10.94 base runners per nine innings and posted 45 career shutouts, including eight 1-0 victories.

During Ford’s 18-year career with the Yankees, the only team he played for, the Bronx Bombers won 11 pennants. He ranks first all-time in World Series wins (10), games and games started (22), innings pitched and strikeouts. In the 1960, ’61 and ’62 Series, Ford pitched 33- 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 29- 2/3.

Ford, 82, is a Baseball Assistance Team advisory board member. BAT is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping former Major League, Minor League, and Negro League players with financial or medical difficulties.

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“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Shiver Me Timbers: The Bucs Are in First Place!

To say that my hometown of Pittsburgh is in the grips of Pirates mania is the understatement of the season.

All of a sudden, fans are coming out of the woodwork. The question on everyone’s lips: “How about those Buccos?” As of Wednesday morning, the Pirates are in first place ½ game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Eighteen years of sub .500 baseball will do that to long suffering Pirates fans. We knew we had finally made it when the word reached us that ESPN will televise the Monday night August 18 game against the Atlanta Braves. And rumor has it that the Pirates will also be ESPN’s Sunday night game August 21 against division rivals Cincinnati.

Sports Illustrated and the veritable New York Times will send reporters to PNC Park this Saturday to cover the Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals’ game that may have the division lead at stake.

Everything the Pirates have touched this year has turned to gold. Consider Mike “Fort” McKenry, the ninth starting catcher the Pirates have employed this year. Picked up from the Boston Red Sox AAA Pawtucket franchise, McKenry has been solid defensively and clutch at the plate.

Or how about Alex Presley called up from Indianapolis when regular left fielder Jose Tabata went on the disabled list? As of Tuesday, Presley is hitting .352 from the lead off position and supplying plenty of speed on the bases.

Then there’s shortstop Chase d’Arnaud replacing the injured Ronnie Cedeno. d’Arnaud, a Pepperdine University star, is an upgrade from the erratic Cedeno.

Jeff Karstens defines good pitching. He throws strikes (two of every three pitches), mixes his speeds, works fast (about eight seconds in between pitches) and to use the old adage in reference to Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine, “makes a living on the black.”

Baseball’s greatest underpublicized story is second baseman Neil Walker, “Mr. Pittsburgh,” born and raised in the ‘Burg and a local high school hero. Until last year, Walker lived at home with his mother and father. Walker, who has hit in 13 straight games, is the major league leader in RBIs for second basemen with 62, three more than the New York Yankees Robinson Cano.

I hope you have noticed the absence of multimillion dollar free agents. The Pirates are a refreshing team of young, eager players who think they can win and are encouraged by their charismatic manager Clint Hurdle to go all out.

But there’s a rub. Should Hurdle continue to play McKenry, Presley and d’Arnaud, with whom he has done nothing but win, or give the positions back to the original starters, Ryan Doumit/Chris Snyder, Tabata and Cedeno? Another looming conflict: the injured, demoted Pedro Alvarez is apparently ready to return from Indianapolis. Alvarez was a total bust during the first three months of the season: two home runs, 10 RBIs and a .208 average that saw him strike out once in every three at bats. Insiders think Hurdle may have a low opinion of Alvarez’s work ethic and conditioning. If true, Hurdle’s decision would be easier.

My sense is that Hurdle has to stay with his winning hand. Any disruption in the starting lineup would be risky. If one of the new starters falters, then replace them. Until then, stand pat. That strategy also means no trades at the deadline.

By the way, I offer you this this interesting side bar. In anticipation of my 50th high school reunion, my alma mater asked for my post-graduation biography. Here’s how I ended my essay. I wrote: “If you’re in Pittsburgh, give me a call. I can show you around and get you good seats to any Pirates game. Don’t laugh. In 2011, a Pirates game will be a tough ticket. This is the year the Pirates end their 18-year-long record of losing baseball.”

I was only partly right. The Pirates are a tough ticket—so tough that I couldn’t help you should you visit. Most of the remaining home games are sold out.

As for finishing with a winning season, as every manager likes to say, there’s a lot of baseball left to play. 

After the show: 10 former stars who returned to the minors

Chief Bender: The Hall of Fame pitcher had his last full season in the big leagues in 1917 at 33 but pitched off and on in the minors until 1937. He won 67 games his first three years in the bushes, and, still in his mid-30s at that point, had offers from the majors. Tom Swift, author of Chief Bender’s Burden, wrote that Bender wasn’t interested since his $8,500 salary with New Haven in 1921 was likely better than what he could make in the bigs. Swift wrote:

The minor leagues during Bender’s time were much different than the organized, affiliated leagues in the decades that followed. For the most part, they were independent, and rosters often contained players who were of Major League caliber–or at least once were. Players, especially those with name recognition, could make a decent living kicking around for five or ten years in places such as Richmond and Erie.

Joe McGinnity: Officially, McGinnity earned his nickname Iron Man working in a foundry. It could also refer to how he won over 200 games in the minors after leaving the majors in 1908 at 37. He pitched 15 years in the bush circuit in all and was active as late as 1925, four years before his death.

Rube Waddell: After drinking himself out of the big leagues in 1910, Waddell went 20-17 with a 2.79 ERA for Minneapolis in 1911, helping the team to an American Association championship. He contracted pneumonia while helping fight a flood in the offseason, which led to tuberculosis. Waddell managed a 12-6 mark against a 2.86 ERA for Minneapolis in 1912, slipped to 3-9 for Fargo-Moorhead in 1913, and died the next April. Prior to Waddell’s death, his manager from Minneapolis, Joe Cantillon paid his way to a sanitarium in San Antonio so he could be closer to his family.

Nap Lajoie: Lajoie spent 21 Hall of Fame seasons in the majors and last played in the show in 1916 two weeks shy of turning 42, outstanding longevity for his era. But he wasn’t done, becoming player-manager for Toronto of the International League in 1917 and hitting a circuit-best .380 with 221 hits. He bowed out the following year with Indianapolis in the American Association where he hit .282 in another player-manager gig.

Three Finger Brown: Brown won 20 games six straight years, Juan Marichal for an earlier generation. He last pitched for the Chicago Cubs in 1916 at 39, though he played another decade between the minors and exhibitions. In 1919, he was 16-6 with a 2.88 ERA for Terre Haute, his hometown, of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League.

Joe Jackson: Following his lifetime ban from organized baseball in 1921 for his alleged role in fixing the 1919 World Series, Shoeless Joe played outlaw ball under an assumed name for another two decades, mostly in Georgia and South Carolina. Photos from those days can be seen here.

Joe Gordon: A lot of ex-big leaguers opted to wind out their careers in the Pacific Coast League in the days before the majors came west. Gordon didn’t look like an old show horse out to pasture his first year in the PCL in 1951, when the former New York Yankees second baseman hit 43 home runs with 136 RBI for the Sacramento Solons. He declined dramatically the following year, and that was essentially the end of his playing days.

Luke Easter: Some sluggers might quit after being cut at 38. Easter was just getting started, heading to the minors where he hit 231 home runs over the next 11 years. He had his best years with Buffalo of the International League, hitting 113 bombs from 1956 to 1958. In ’57 at age 42, Easter had 40 home runs, led the league in RBI, and became the first man to clear the center field scoreboard at Buffalo’s home park.

Rickey Henderson: One of my favorite baseball stories in recent years was Henderson taking to ESPN in 2003 to ask for another shot in the big leagues. As he was in the midst of hitting .339 for Newark of the Atlantic League, Henderson got his chance, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He didn’t do much for them, and that was the end of his big league career after 25 seasons. All the same, Henderson played another two years in the independent leagues and said in 2009 at 50 that he was interested in coming back.

Jose Canseco: As of Sunday, the 47-year-old former Bash Brother was hitting .233 with two home runs and 17 RBI as player-manager for the Yuma Scorpions of the North American Baseball League. It can’t be helping his preseason aspirations, shared via Twitter, of returning to the majors for the first time since 2001 and leading the American League in home runs.

Parity Is fun but deceptive

I became a Pittsburgh Pirates fan five years ago after my beloved Montreal Expos were moved to Washington.  Logically I suppose, I should have become a Nationals fan but there was seemingly little connection between them and my Expos anymore at that point.  If I was going to pick a new team to cheer for it couldn’t be a successful one as that would be front running in my book.   In 2006, my daughter moved to a town a mere one and a half hours from Pittsburgh.  My decision was a perfect combination of family ties and a poor baseball team.  Pittsburgh also had the most beautiful ballpark anywhere and some of the better play by play announcers.  Hey, the more reasons the better no matter how frivolous.  I became a Pirates fan.

I have been able to watch most of their games since then and I have suffered a sort of designed resignation.  The Pirates were so inept that even when they were victorious, it looked painful and sloppy. Last season, the second half was a total disaster especially away from PNC Park.  I wasn’t foolish enough to believe the typical winter optimism and promises from Pirates management as to the prospects for the 2011 season.   Sure there had been some positive signs during the 2010 season as players such as Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez  looked like they might live up to the hype surrounding them.   There was still the problem of no starting pitching and a too many Triple A or bench players being used in the role of everyday players.  With no significant offseason changes, how were the Pirates going to improve for 2011?   The problem was, they probably weren’t.

All of the above brings me to this week’s topic.  Here were are in the middle of July, a mere days after the all star break and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first or within a game.  They have a record going into today of 48-44 and sit one game back of the division lead.  They were tied for first yesterday.  They could once more be tied for first after today.  Until recently, Pittsburgh had seven players on the DL.  Some, such as Ryan Doumit and Pedro Alvarez, have been on the DL for weeks.  They have major holes at catcher, first base, shortstop, third and right field.   They have been winning with minor leaguers, a starting staff which has played well above their abilities and a lights out closer in Joel Hanrahan.  The Pirates have little or no power.  Most of the players on the DL aren’t going to help the team much anyway.

My only explanation is the ponderence of artificial parity.  There are simply too many mediocre teams in major league baseball this season and the proposed introduction of two more playoff teams only exasperates the problem.  I’m not picking on the Pirates but they have no business contending for a playoff spot this late into the season.  They simply have far too many holes.  There are too many teams with too many holes.  This can make for exciting regular season games of course but these teams will be only cannon fodder for teams such as Philadelphia, Boston and the New York Yankees come playoff time.

It’s wonderful for the fans and gives them hope as evidenced by the sellout crowds recently at PNC Park  but it’s all smoke and mirrors.  Should this be the goal of major league baseball, a National Hockey League type of regular season?

The owners love it and Fox Sports will love it as the money will come flowing in from more and more franchises.   I just don’t like to see it.

Double the fun: Doubleheaders Were Yogi Berra’s Thing; He Caught Both Ends 117 Times

On May 15, 1948, the Philadelphia Athletics took on the New York Yankees in a doubleheader. What’s significant is not that the A’s, who finished a surprising fourth in the American League, swept the Yankees in New York, 3-1 and 8-6. After all, the Yankees were in a down year and finished in third place.

On that Saturday afternoon before 69, 416 fans, Yogi Berra caught both ends of the double dip for the first of what would eventually be 117 times. Berra had an atypical offensive day. He went hitless in 9 trips.

Since doubleheaders are now rarely played and today’s conventional wisdom would keep the first game’s catcher out of the second game, Berra’s record will stand forever.

In a 1956 interview with Sports Illustrated, Berra explained how he gets tapped for so much double duty. Said Berra: “I don’t know how to say ‘no’”

In 1947, Berra’s first season save for 22 at bats the previous year, Yogi played a little left field and occasionally spelled catchers Ralph Houk, Aaron Robinson or Sherman Lollar. But by 1948, the catching job belonged to Berra. Before he retired in 1965, Berra played 1,699 games behind the plate.

For all the millions of words that have been written about which of the great New York centerfielders Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider were the best during baseball’s Golden Era, the more compelling debate among  the scribes at the time was who was better, Berra or his Dodger counterpart Roy Campanella?

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranks Berra first and Campanella second with Johnny Bench sandwiched between them. While Campanella never played a position other than catcher, Berra during 19 seasons had stints in left and right field as well as at first and third base.

Choosing between them is a toss-up. Here are their managers’ evaluations.

Walter Alston:

They’re two great guys and they can do everything. They’re both great hitters and receivers and their arms compare favorably, one with the other…I’d say Campy is the best at blocking the low pitch. It’s hard to pick between those two guys.”


Casey Stengel:

Berra is an amazing players and a splendid hitter. Although he’s not built as a track athlete, he’s a very fast player. Campanella is more graceful behind the plate, more adept in handling his glove. But while Berra isn’t as graceful, he has so many points. He’s younger than Campanella and may become greater.


I give a slight edge to Berra, the more durable of the two (2,120 games to 1,215), a better hitter for both average and power (.285 to .276/358 HR to 242).

Except when they went head-to-head in the World Series, Berra and Campanella were each other’s biggest fans.

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“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Any player/Any era: Bobby Veach

What he did: One of my favorite forgotten greats of yesteryear, Bobby Veach might have been a Hall of Famer in another era. In a 14-season career that spanned 1912 through 1925, Veach hit.310 lifetime with 2,063 hits, and he may be known most for being one of Ty Cobb’s supporting bats on the Detroit Tigers of the ’10s and early ’20s. Playing the majority of his best years in the Deadball Era, Veach hit just 64 home runs in his career, though his three American League RBI titles hint what he could have done in a time where home run hitters ruled baseball.

Era he might have thrived in: Veach was a diminutive left-handed batter standing just 5’11” at 160 pounds, though his SABR bio notes he “swung the bat like a powerful slugger, down at the end of the handle, and with similar results.” Mel Ott was a similarly built lefty, and like Ott, perhaps Veach could have excelled in a ballpark with a short right field fence during the offensive heyday of the 1930s. This leaves the Polo Grounds in New York or the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia. In either place, I’m guessing Veach’s career high of 16 home runs in 1921 might be double if not triple.

Why: Some eras and ballparks make Hall of Famers, others make it more difficult. Veach didn’t have an impossible task in his own time, as fellow Deadball outfielder Tris Speaker successfully transitioned to the Live Ball Era. And I suppose one could argue the best possible role for Veach was being Cobb’s teammate. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better Veach’s stats would be if his career had started even 10 years later.

New York in the 1930s was a veritable factory of future Hall of Famers, both for the offensive juggernaut in the Polo Grounds and the fact that decades later, former Giant Frankie Frisch pushed for the enshrinement of many of his former teammates while he ran the Veterans Committee. The Baker Bowl meanwhile produced at least one player who wouldn’t have been a Hall of Famer elsewhere, Chuck Klein who hit .395 lifetime there and maybe .280 away. Then there’s Lefty O’Doul who doesn’t have a spot in Cooperstown but put up gaudy numbers in both parks (as well as another hitter’s cove, Ebbets Field) and almost hit .400 in Philly.

Granted, even with loftier statistics, I’ll concede Veach might have been operating with the same skill set. After all, looking at the numbers of the 1999 Colorado Rockies doesn’t lead me to believe Dante Bichette is anything more than a mediocre hitter with a dream job. A different era wouldn’t make Veach a better player, per se. But then the Veterans Committee has been notorious historically for not dealing in context, and sometimes, better stats regardless of their era have been enough for a plaque. It’s one reason guys like High Pockets Kelly are in Cooperstown and others like Bill Dahlen, another Deadball great, are not.

As it stands, Veach received exactly one vote in 1937, died in 1945, and I’m guessing that except among the baseball research community, he’s long since forgotten.

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, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

10 baseball players who could have done more

I was reading through a collection of interviews with old sportswriters the other day, No Cheering in the Press Box when I came across a passage from a former Philadelphia scribe named Al Horwits. He made an assertion that struck me, saying Jimmie Foxx could have been greater if he’d taken better care of himself. Horwits said:

It would have meant a lot to [Foxx] if he had broken Ruth’s record. But there wasn’t much stress put on statistics in those days. And then the drinking affected his batting. He started getting a little heavy in the chest. This is where it affects sluggers. They can’t get the bat around fast enough on the baseball. That’s what happened to him.

It seems a little harsh to say that a man with a .325 lifetime batting average, 534 home runs, and a reputation as one of the best sluggers in baseball history could have done more. But Foxx was effectively done in his mid-30s, able to play through World War II since he was past draft age, though he struggled to hold a spot in the majors even then. With better care, he might have come close to Ruth’s 714 career bombs.

Truth is, baseball history is filled with men who could have done more if they’d drank less, taken better care of themselves, etc. Some of these players are prominent, others little more at this point than historical footnotes. Here are 10 of these men:

1. Mickey Mantle: Maybe the most famous example of this in baseball history, the Commerce Comet was touted as the potential greatest player ever when he debuted. He wound up with more than 500 home runs lifetime, though drinking and carousing might have cost him a couple hundred more.

2. Denny McLain: McLain had two Cy Youngs by the time he was 25, but was out of the majors by 30, plagued by a massive weight gain and ties to gamblers.

3. Hal Chase: Longtime sportswriter Fred Lieb devoted a chapter to Deadball Era first baseman Chase, saying he might have been an all-time great but that “he had a screwball brain.”

4. [Tie] Dwight Gooden/Darryl Strawberry: Cocaine.

6. Rube Waddell: Drank himself out of the big leagues, though he did enough to make the Hall of Fame.

7. Don Newcombe: Ditto, minus the Hall of Fame.

8. Albert Belle: The temperamental slugger quit in his early 30s due to injuries, though I wonder if a lessened will to compete drove Belle from the game early and helped him fall short of Cooperstown. In his prime, he may have been one of the best power hitters of the 1990s, though he looked a shadow of his self toward the end.

9. Mysterious Walker: Walker was a big league pitcher who had to flee his team in 1910 after being accused of a crime. He resurfaced in the Pacific Coast League, pitching under a pseudonym and refusing to even allow his picture to be taken. He reportedly said he’d forgo a salary if he didn’t win two-thirds of his games; the fact Walker went 6-4 that year for the San Francisco Seals makes me wonder if he had to go without.

10. Steve Howe: Bright relief pitcher and 1981 National League Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Dodgers who battled drug problems much of his career and was at one point handed a lifetime ban before being reinstated.

1954 All Star Game: Al Rosen Plays With Broken Finger, Slams Key Homer

Editor’s note: In honor of tonight’s All Star game, Joe Guzzardi’s usual Wednesday post will run one day early this week.

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During baseball’s Golden Era, players didn’t have hammies, quads, obliques or menisci. What they had instead was a deeply ingrained desire to play baseball and a respect for the honor of being chosen, in those years chosen by the fans, to represent their team and league in the Mid-Summer Classic.

For the umpteenth year in a row, I didn’t watch either the game or the horrible Home Run Derby. I heard this morning that derby winner Robinson Cano’s father Jose pitched to him. Maybe next year his mother, Claribel Mercedes, can lob the ball into him.

I can’t turn on ESPN without a deep dread that Wendy Nix might start to scream baseball inanities at me. Nix’s credentials seem to be that she was, depending on which Internet version of her personal life you trust, either married to or once married to a Boston Red Sox assistant general manager. Regardless of her marital status, I’d bet lots of money Nix could not answer most baseball questions without a prompter in front of her.

I’ll spare you rehashing which of the “All Stars” thumbed their noses at the fans and why they didn’t show up. You probably already know. If you don’t, chronicling their lame excuses would be too depressing for me to write and for you to read.

Let’s go back in time to a great All Star game, maybe one of the best ever: the July 13, 1954 slugfest at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium won by the American League, 11-9. Sixteen future Hall of Famers played.

The game started as a pitcher’s duel between the Philadelphia Phillies’ Robin Roberts and the New York Yankees’ Whitey Ford. Roberts was the first pitcher to start four consecutive games, 1950-1954. Casey Stengel’s selection of Ford was a surprise, however. The lefty had pitched three innings of relief at Washington on the Sunday before the game (!).

The American League jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third on Al Rosen’s home run blast off Roberts. Another four-bagger by the next batter Ray Boone upped the score to 4-0.

Interesting sidebar about Rosen, especially in light of the 2011’s namby-pambys.

In 1953, Rosen was the American League Most Valuable Player and in the All Star balloting garnered the second most votes behind only Stan Musial. Rosen was playing a new position, first base, to which he agreed so that the Indians could make room for rookie third baseman Rudy Regalado.

On May 25, Rosen fractured his index finger and fell into a deep slump. By All Star game time, Rosen approached Stengel and offered to withdraw. But Stengel, after consulting with Commissioner Ford Frick, left the final decision to Rosen who elected to play.

Said Rosen: “With the bum finger and being in a slump, I was scared to death about being the All Star Game goat. But that strike out [in his first at bat] made me mad and I forgot about my finger.”

Rosen’s line, which included a second home run in the fifth inning that earned him All Star MVP honors: AB 4; R 2; H 3; RBI 5

Another 1954 oddity. The winning pitcher, Washington Senators’ 23-year- old rookie Dean Stone, sent in to face Duke Snider in the top of the eighth, didn’t retire a batter. With the count 1-1, Red Schoendienst broke for home from third. Stone easily threw him out in a play that National League manager Leo Durocher insisted was a balk.

My Weekend in Toronto or How I Learned to Love Jose Bautista

I hadn’t been to a major league baseball game in almost two years and so with Blue Jay tickets in hand and the chance to see Roy Halladay in person, I hopped on the train and made the four and one half hour trip to the Rogers Center.

The weather was perfect, (July1-3), the crowds were loud and noisy and the games certainly didn’t disappoint.  Either team could have swept all three but the Philadelphia Phillies won two.  Their only loss was on the Sunday after Cliff Lee uncharacteristically fell apart late in the game and surrendered three homeruns in the eighth inning.

Apart from the welcome home Roy Halladay celebrations, (even when Halladay beat the Jays the home crowd still gave him another standing ovation at the conclusion of the game much to the chagrin of the local media), the real and continuing story was/is the impossible if I didn’t see it myself season and one half of top American League all-star vote getter Jose Bautista.

This past offseason I was one of those writers who wrote off his amazing 2010 season as a steroid induced fluke.  I chastised the Toronto management for signing Bautista to a multiyear big money deal.

Couldn’t they see that 2010 was a fluke on the level of Brady Anderson?

Won’t these GMs ever learn?  Players such as Bautista always come crashing back down to earth.  Pitchers will figure them out and without steroids they will go quietly back to the mediocrity of seasons past.

I was wrong. Jose Bautista is the real deal.  Whether playing right field or third base, his defense is superb and his attitude is one of team first, second and third.   When asked to move back to third base he did so without hesitation.  He is the team leader.

But it’s his bat.

It impressed, amazed and astonished me and it wasn’t simply a player having one of those hot weekends where everything goes better than perfect.  Even his outs were very hard hit balls which the fielders looked reluctant to get in front of. He seemed at times to be toying with the opposing pitcher. He went deep and quick against Halladay and Cliff Lee.  He seemed to seek out the big situations, the game on the line situations.  He delivered time after time with a big homerun to tie the game or put his team ahead. The sound of the ball off of his bat was one that few players can produce.  The ball exploded. The ball was gone over the fence, almost too quickly and too far, almost impossible to follow.

There was electricity in the park when he stepped onto the on deck circle. I had to stop whatever else I was thinking of doing (beer, hot dog, chatting with the fans beside me), and an incredible anticipatory hardly dare to breath silence fell on the park when he stepped into the batter’s box.  We knew something big was about to happen.  The ballpark was waiting to explode.  When it did, we stood there and shook our heads, Blue Jay and Phillies fans alike.  How could a player do this again and again and again?

I’ve heard rumors that Bautista changed his stance and approach at the plate a couple of years ago.  I’ve heard that all he needed was regular playing time. I’ve heard that some players mature later in their careers. I really have no idea if any or all of these stories are true but I do know what I saw even if I still can’t quite believe it.

Bautista has claimed in interviews that his development of a leg kick was the key.  It vastly improved his timing and allowed him to start his swing earlier but keep his body back allowing the bat to explode into the zone when he swings. He also claims that this allows him to see the ball much better.

This season the incredible power has remained and his batting average has climbed some 60 points.  He has learned to take what they give him or do what the situation asks for.  If the pitches are not there, a two run single will do just fine.  Of course, he is beginning to be pitched around or simply walked at a greater frequency as more and more opposing pitchers and managers are coming to realize what I did on that weekend.

Bautista is no fluke.  He is the most powerful hitter in baseball. Count me in.

Double the fun: Pirates Cliff Chambers Pitches No Hitter, Gets Traded!

The 1951 Pittsburgh Pirates were one of a long string of bad Bucco teams that, because of poor hitting, pitching and fielding, consistently finished at the bottom of the National League standings. From 1949 through 1957, the post-World War ll Pirates had only one winning season.

But from time to time, the Pirates’ rose to glory even though their best games were often flawed. Consider the no-hitter thrown by Bucco left hander Cliff Chambers on May 6, 1951 at Boston’s Braves Field.

Chambers had notched an Opening Day win in Cincinnati against the Reds and followed up with another road win against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Then, Chambers took the mound that cold spring afternoon to pitch the second game of a double header. In the first game, future Hall of Famer Warren Spahn shut the Buccos out 6-0.

When Chambers walked the first Braves’ batter, he set the tone for rest of his outing. By the time the Pirates racked up his 3-0 victory in a tidy 2:00 hours, Chambers had issued eight free passes to Braves batters, an incredible five of them to the leadoff hitter.

Chambers’ wife June at the family’s Pittsburgh home listening to Rosey Rowswell and Bob Prince call the game on radio. As she told Pittsburgh Press sports editor Les Bierderman, “In the ninth inning when Cliff needed only three more outs to make his no hitter, I gathered my two little girls around me and we said a prayer. I hope it helped.”

Chambers’ no-hitter was only the second in Pirates’ history. In 1907 at Exposition Park, rookie Nick Maddox became the first Bucco to throw a no-hitter and also at age 20, the youngest player in major league baseball history to accomplish the feat. In the Pirates’ 125 year history, only four other pitchers have tossed no hitters—none of them at Forbes Field.

Curiously, Chambers’ no-hitter was his last win for the Pirates. Four consecutive losses and five weeks later, the Pirates traded the popular Chambers to the St. Louis Cardinals for Joe Garagiola.

Chambers, a Portland native who grew up in Washington and graduated from Washington State University, is 89.

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“Double the fun” is a Friday series here that looks at one famous doubleheader each week.

Any player/Any era: Major League (1989 film)

What it was: A friend suggested choosing a baseball film for one of these columns and exploring how it might play out today. I could think of no finer subject than one of my all-time favorites, Major League, the 1989 hit about a lovable loser Cleveland Indians team that starts to win after learning it has been assembled expressly to finish last. The film’s been in the news recently, between Charlie Sheen’s admission he used steroids to portray pitcher Rick Vaughn and his desire to make a fourth movie in the series. After two lackluster sequels, the franchise could use a kick-start.

How it might work today: Part of the appeal in the first film may have been that it featured a bunch of otherwise ordinary men who happened to find themselves on a Major League Baseball team, playing light years beyond expectations (as a bonus, the film also included some hilarious, R-rated comedy.) I watch that kind of movie and think, “Hey, I can do that,” and while I concede it’s a little grandiose and delusional, I’m guessing I wasn’t the only person with these thoughts. Good movies have that power.

It wasn’t as easy to relate with the 1994 sequel or the follow-up to that in 1998, which relied more on goofy gimmicks and gave viewers little to care about. In a sense, maybe some things about the original film can’t be replicated. It’s been a long time since the Indians played to empty, decrepit parks or fielded teams bad enough to inspire talk of relocation. I suppose a new film could be set with a current moribund franchise like the Royals, Pirates, or Marlins, though I don’t know if there’s anything fresh or compelling about that. If the series is to be rebooted, I think it’s time to once again take it in a new direction and get it back to its everyman roots.

The premise for the new Major League film, I’ve heard, is to have Vaughn attempting a comeback. Perhaps he could go to the independent leagues where big name ballplayers down on their luck sometimes find themselves. It seems to be a haven in particular for pitchers, with former All Stars like Armando Benitez and Keith Foulke among the many hurlers who’ve gone independent in the past decade. I occasionally wonder why sputtering clubs don’t stock their bullpens with all the recognizable names on the Long Island Ducks or Newark Bears at any given time. Vaughn could be one of these guys, albeit with better odds of returning to the show thanks to the magic of a screenplay.

Beyond this, the independent leagues are  a circuit where Vaughn’s veteran teammates from the majors could be coaches (and have an excuse to be in the movie), equivalent Tommy Johns or Gary Carters. Vaughn’s laid back catcher, Jake Taylor, for one, seems like a bush league manager waiting to happen. It’s worth noting, too, that Vaughn’s 40-something age wouldn’t be an issue in these parts, considering 47-year-old Jose Canseco is holding down a player-manager gig in Yuma, Arizona at the moment. In a perfect world, Canseco gets a part in the film, too, perhaps as the source of Vaughn’s juice.

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, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Baseball movie truths

Editor’s note: Joe Guzzardi is on vacation until July 8.

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I was struck to see recently that Charlie Sheen acknowledged using steroids in his preparations to portray power pitcher Rick Vaughn in the 1989 film, Major League. “Let’s just say that I was enhancing my performance a little bit,” Sheen told Sports Illustrated for a July 4 retrospective on the movie. “It was the only time I ever did steroids. I did them for like six or eight weeks. You can print this, I don’t give a f—. My fastball went from 79 to like 85.”

Major League was and remains one of my favorite baseball films. I’ve seen it 15 or 20 times dating back to elementary school, and I doubt Sheen’s revelation will effect my desire to dig out my worn, VHS copy again at the start of next baseball season. Frankly, I may watch the film closer now. That being said, I’m reminded of the sometimes less-than-glamorous realities of my favorite baseball movies. The following are a few that come to mind. Feel free to add to the list:

Shoeless Joe hit from the wrong side of the plate in Field of Dreams: I love this movie, another one I’ve seen at least a dozen times, and I’ve liked Ray Liotta in his other work from Goodfellas to Narc to Observe & Report. Still, I do not understand why the makers of Field of Dreams could not find a decent, left-handed hitting actor instead. Shoeless Joe had a swing famous enough to be copied by Babe Ruth. It deserved better onscreen tribute.

Crash Davis doesn’t really set the minor league home run record in Bull Durham: He was about 200 home runs off.

Roy Hobbs’ character in the book for The Natural is bad news: I interviewed Joe Posnanski last September, and he told me in a bit I didn’t use for my post that The Natural is his favorite baseball movie. Sure, there’s some magic in the film as Robert Redford’s character Roy Hobbs returns from a long hiatus from baseball and heroically leads his team to dramatic triumph via thrilling home run. Bernard Malamud’s book is vastly different, though: dark, satirical, and about Hobbs’ corruption, ending with him embroiled in a Shoeless Joe-esque gambling scandal. I prefer it to the film.

The aforementioned Major League featured the Cleveland Indians but was filmed in Milwaukee: No great “Aha!” moment here, just something to note.

Ruth was frustrated he couldn’t get William Bendix to swing convincingly in The Babe Ruth Story: I’ve never seen this movie, which made an appearance in a book I used to have on the worst films of all-time, though I know Ruth didn’t care much for it, walking out on a screening of it near the end of his life. On a side note, Cubs pitcher Charlie Root also refused to recreate for the film the supposed called shot Ruth had in the 1932 World Series. Why? It never happened.

On this day in baseball history: July 5, 1936

Nothing special happened in major league play 75 years ago today, at least nothing that was especially noteworthy at the time. The Philadelphia Athletics suffered their 12th straight loss, facing the Boston Red Sox and Jimmie Foxx, the final star of Connie Mack’s disassembled dynasty. Wes Ferrell, Mel Harder, and Jimmie DeShong each won their 11th games of the season, on their way to 53 wins collectively, though no man had an ERA under 4.00. Meanwhile in Washington D.C., an old baseball player I doubt many people had heard of died.

I can’t find any record on the death of Phil Wisner, who was not quite 67 when he passed. Nor is there much information on the Web about his career, though what I saw intrigues me. Wisner got in exactly one game, August 30, 1895 for the Washington Senators. Playing shortstop, the 25-year-old had no plate appearances, and of his four chances in the field, he committed three errors. He did manage an assist, but otherwise, that was the end of it for him in baseball, especially bleak considering Washington went 43-85 and seemingly could have used a young, left-handed hitting shortstop.

I love baseball for its history, for the fact that more than 17,000 men have played in the majors in over a century with more than 17,000 stories accordingly. I’m of the belief that everyone has a story, everyone, and I’m curious what it was for Wisner. I wonder what it’s like to make the show at 25, play one game, and live 40 more years. Does it make for an interesting life story, something to tell the dinner party guests or is it an excruciating case of what might have been, something to obsess on? Depends on the person, I suppose.

In the book Shoeless Joe, which became Field of Dreams, there’s the part where Ray Kinsella tracks down Moonlight Graham, who played one game for the New York Giants. “I think I came here because your time was so short,” Kinsella tells Graham in the book. “I wanted to know how it affected your life. But I can see you’ve done well. It would have killed some men to get so close. They’d never do anything else but talk about how close they were.” Graham replies, “If I’d only got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy. You have to keep things in perspective. I mean, I love the game, but it’s only that, a game.”

Would if everyone could have such humility. I will say I’ve heard expressions of it talking to baseball folk. I started research about a year and a half ago on a book on Joe Marty, who came up in the Pacific Coast League with Joe DiMaggio and was once thought to be the better prospect. Of course, the rest is history, and the crux of my research is about determining what effect this had on Marty’s life. I interviewed one of his close friends about a year ago, and his take was that Marty never even thought about it.

Maybe some people don’t place too much stock in the times they fall short in life, learning what they can and moving on. Whether Phil Wisner falls into this rank, I don’t know, though if anyone out there has more info, please feel free to email me.

“On this day in baseball history” is an occasional feature here.

If you had everything, where would you put it?

Comedian Steven Wright would probably never claim to foresee the future but this musing graphically illustrates the number one problem with our western society and a problem which has become all too apparent in Major League baseball.

Baseball boss Bud Selig continually claims that Major League baseball is in tremendous financial shape while raking in record profits. More Selig smoke and mirrors?

19 teams are apparently over their debt percentage allowance as set down by baseball, (I’m not an economist or a mathematician so I’m loosely quoting several articles) and two of baseballs’ storied franchises are in deep financial trouble.

The ownerships of the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers are different situations and perhaps call for different solutions. This is my take based on what I have heard and read over the past few months.

The New York Met ownership are in financial trouble and were forced to sell off a minority of the team in order to meet financial obligations in the wake of a lawsuit against them for $1 billion. The lawsuit contends that the Met owners should have noticed that their investments were part of a massive investment scam and are therefore partially responsible for the losses incurred by certain investors victimized by convicted financial advisor Bernie Madof.  Major League baseball and the commissioners office couldn’t have foreseen this situation and I believe acted in a responsible manner by demanding that owner Fred Wilpon sell some of his assets to cover his baseball obligations.  There seemed to be an implied threat that the choices Mr. Wilpon had were selling all or part of the team, selling off some of his multi million dollar real estate holdings to cover any costs, or allowing MLB to takeover the team.  Wilpon reluctantly sold off some of the team to meet his obligations although he retained majority ownership. His friend Bud is happy…for now.

The situation in Los Angeles seems far different and far more unstable.  Potential owners are put through a thorough financial and personal evaluation. Except perhaps when they are good friends with the current commissioner, (see Expos, Twins, Red Sox, Nationals-don’t get me started.)

Frank McCourt was allowed to purchase the Dodgers even though he had neither the cash or investments of his own which would allow him to do so.  McCourt was allowed, after his purchase, to “borrow” money to support his and his wife’s lavish and extravagant lifestyle (lives of the rich and shameless?) from the team and its various holding companies with little or no protest from the league office. Continually painting the front door while the foundation was cracking and borrowing from Peter to pay Paul allowed the McCourts to project the image that all was well in Dodger land.  That is until the McCourts were no more.

Now Bud Selig is deciding to play hardball with the Dodgers and with the recent Chapter 11 filing, the stage is set for a messy and long term battle between McCourt et al and baseball.  Selig may not simply be able to takeover the Dodgers and sell it to whomever he deems fit.

Bankruptcy courts may have the final say and the McCourt/Selig divorce may be even messier than the McCourt/McCourt.  Jamie McCourt’s contention that 50% of the assets includes 50% of the Dodgers may hold some water.

While we poor working stiffs must scrimp and save for any luxuries and are not allowed to live beyond our means with creditors knocking on our door the second a payment is late, the McCourts and Wilpons of this world are allowed to keep all of their toys no matter if their means don’t justify their ends and no matter how much they owe.

Bud Selig’s implied contention that Major League baseball needs stable and responsible ownership is correct.  However, his actions of denial to non friends, (Mark Cuban), and look the other way for his rich friends should not be part of that equation.   If you can’t afford the toys you have, sell them or get out of the playground.  That rule should apply equally to all the kids in the playground.