Monthly Archives: August 2011

For “Big Poison,” Only Clean Hits Allowed

Of all the stone cold hitters to ever wear a Pittsburgh Pirates’ uniform, none was more deadly than Paul “Big Poison” Waner.

Part of my duties as a PNC Park tour guide is to take visitors out onto the warning track where we show them the retired names and numbers of all the great Pirates’ The further back in time you go, the less well known the player is.

In old timers’ cases, that’s a shame. With his brother Lloyd “Little Poison,” the Waners grew up on an Oklahoma farm and learned to hit by using corncob balls and two by fours or tree branches for bats. In 1923 Waner dropped out East Central University, a teachers’ college, and headed to San Francisco to play for the Seals in the Pacific Coast League. As Waner recalled, “They just let me hit and hit and hit and I really belted the ball.” During each of his three San Francisco years, Waner batter over .350.

By 1926, when Waner was 22, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased his contract for $40,000 and put him in the outfield. In his rookie year playing outfield ( he had done some pitching in the minors), Waner batted .326 and lead the league in triples. The next year, with “Little Poison” on the team, the Pirates won the pennant. The brothers combined for 460 hits and Paul was named the National League Most Valuable Player.

“Big Poison” played for the Pirates until 1940. After his release, Waner had stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boston Braves and the New York Yankees.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in Paul’s career came when he had 2,999 hits. Playing for the Braves on June 19, 1942, Waner hit a shot off his old teammate Rip Sewell that shortstop Alf Anderson couldn’t handle. When the official scorer called it a hit, Waner frantically waved to the press box to signal that he didn’t want number 3,000 to be tainted.

The scorer reversed his decision and in the fifth inning, Waner hit a clean single to center to notch his historic 3,000th.  At the time, Waner was only the sixth player to reach that magic number.

Paul (3,152) and Lloyd (2,459) hold the career record for hits by brothers (5,611), outpacing the three Alous (5,094): Felipe (2,101), Matty (1,777) and Jesús (1,216) and the three DiMaggios (4,853): Joe (2,214), Dom (1,680) and Vince (959).

Waner, number 11 for the Pirates, retired with a career batting average and on base percentage of .333 and .404. The Hall of Fame induced Waner in 1952 and his brother Lloyd in 1967.

What’s The Count Again?

As Earl Weaver (or was it Casey Stengel?) once sort of said, “Managing is simple. You’re going to lose 50 games no matter what you do. You’re going to win 50 games no matter what you do. It’s the other 62 you try not to screw up.” With those words from an acknowledged master this week I’m going to discuss who has been the best managers in major league baseball thus far in the 2011 season. As with the players on the field, basic stats don’t always tell the story. Sometimes you have to trust what your eyes see and not what the stats tell you. As with many things, reputations can prove to be deceptive.

When you consider that the difference between a .500 season and making the playoffs is about ten or twelve wins per season, (about two wins per month) being able to run a game properly and set up late game situations to your advantage becomes of the utmost importance. The line between making the playoffs and watching them on television is indeed a fine one and in those crucial 62 games, mistakes in and beyond strategy can make all the difference.

The Five Best This Season.

1.       Joe Maddon. I look at the statistics for the Tampa Bay Rays and the mostly no name roster and wonder how this team continues to contend. The Rays had to completely redo their bullpen this past offseason, they lost Evan Longoria for six weeks, their lineup consists of mostly utility players, and yet they would be contending for the playoffs if not for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Maddon makes few mistakes and has his players believing that they can win 162 games per season

2.       Terry Francona. Certainly he has the horses year after year to get into the playoffs but if it was that easy, anyone could do it. Not only does Francona have to deal with 25 egos every day, but the Boston press is not known for shrugging it’s shoulders and saying we’ll get them tomorrow. This season he has dealt with injuries and/or poor performances from his pitching staff and a catching situation which has left much to be desired.  Despite his calm appearance, Francona is very much hands on and knows when to leave things alone and when to make something happen.

3.       Fredi González. Following a legend is never easy. Not having future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones for much of the season, a player who is the heart beat of the Atlanta Braves is never easy. Dealing with a team which has seen Jason Heyward stumble badly in his sophomore season and having center field, until recently, be a giant hole defensively and offensively doesn’t help.  Neither does having the Philadelphia run away and hide from the rest of the eastern division. But González has stayed calm, used his young players well (even if some pundits claim he is over using his bullpen), and has the Braves pulling away with the wild card lead.

4.       Kirk Gibson. The Arizona Diamondbacks still strikeout at an alarming rate and their redone bullpen, while a big improvement, still hasn’t convinced me that they can get to the playoffs. It’s also very difficult to tell if Gibson knows how to run a game at this level or not.  But Gibson seems to be willing this team into the playoffs. His football mentality has his players afraid to do anything else but win. Even with the loss of Stephen Drew for the season and having to use Lyle Overbay at first and failed phenom Sean Burroughs off the bench, the Dbacks refuse to give up. Gibson brings enough energy for the entire roster.

5.       Manny Acta. Admittedly the American League Central is a very weak division, and the Cleveland Indians have fallen behind after a very strong start. No one would have given the Indians even this much of a chance but Acta has taken a virtually no-name team, especially the pitching staff, and kept them in the race. His two big guns, Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner have been out on and off for much of the season and yet the team continues to grind out wins behind an unknown pitching staff and great team defense. He has very quietly kept this team’s head above water and while unlikely he can get them to the playoffs this season, Acta is teaching these young guys how to win.

Those are my five picks for 2011. Some have the horses and are expected to win. Others don’t. Both can be equally difficult. Both take different personalities. Both types are interesting to watch.

Double The Fun: Joey Jay Notches His First Major League Win

With the Little League World Series drawing to a close, this is an opportune time to look at Joey Jay’s career (99-91, 3.77 ERA). Jay was the first Little League graduate to make the majors. And, as is often the case when I do my blog research, I’m surprised about what a grand career, both before and after baseball, Jay enjoyed.

Jay was 12 years old when Little League Baseball came on the scene in his hometown Middletown, CT. Originally, Jay played first base but he soon turned to pitching and dominated his opponents through high school. More than half a dozen scouts pursued Jay before he signed a $40,000 bonus in 1953 with the Milwaukee Braves at the tender age of 17.

But according to the bonus baby rules adopted that year by Major League Baseball , which were designed to keep teams from outlandish overspending, Jay was forced to stay on the Braves’ roster even though he rarely pitched.

Jay made a few inconsequential relief appearances before manager Charlie Grimm tapped him on September 20 to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. Jay responded in a rain shortened seven inning contest with a three-hit, 3-0 shutout.

For the next several years, Jay’s Braves career was a series of ups and downs. Finally, he was traded to Cincinnati with fellow pitcher Juan Pizzaro for shortstop Roy McMillan. With the Reds, Jay blossomed into a 21 game winner (twice) under manager Fred Hutchinson. In the 1961 World Series when the Reds met the imposing New York Yankees led by Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, et al, Jay pitched the Reds to their only victory, 6-2 in the second game.

But Jay was quick to realize when his career was over. In 1966, Jay quit and never looked back. In an interview with my SABR colleague Joseph Wancho (read his outstanding biography of Jay here), Jay told of his post-baseball successes. At various times, Jay owned as many as 100 oil wells, taxi fleets, limousines and two building maintenance firms.

Jay keeps a low profile, refuses to do card shows or participate in fantasy camps and doesn’t wear his World Series rings. Jay said:

When I made the break [from baseball], it was clean and forever. It’s infantile to keep thinking about the game. It gets you nowhere. Most ex-ballplayers keep on living in some destructive fantasy world. Not me. I’m happier than ever since I left.

One last thing you should know about Jay. He doesn’t mind if you know that he resides in Florida. But Jay refuses to reveal which city he lives in.

Mario Cuomo: Before politics, he played baseball

Once, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a promising young outfielder toiling in the low minor leagues. Management forecast a solid career for him. And indeed the Pirates’ prospect, a former St. John’s University student and an Italian immigrant grocer’s son, did eventually accomplish great things—but not on the ball diamond.

Mario Cuomo, who served as the 53rd governor of New York from 1983 to 1994, played only one season (1952) for the Brunswick Pirates in the Class D Georgia-Florida League where he hit .244.

But the Pirates’ scouting report indicated, incorrectly, that better things lay ahead for Cuomo:

A below average hitter with plus power. He uppercuts and needs instruction…Potentially the best prospect on the club and in my opinion could go all the way…He is aggressive and plays hard. He is intelligent…Not an easy chap to  get close to but is very well liked by those who succeed in penetrating his exterior shell. He is another who will run you over if you get in his way.

Some of the report, at least, is accurate. Cuomo graduated number one in his law school class.

But a concussion derailed Cuomo and he did not return in 1953. Interestingly, Mickey Mantle who signed at the same time but for $1,100 instead of Cuomo’s $2,000 was not impressed by the governor-to-be’s baseball skills. Said Mantle about Cuomo: “He couldn’t hit a barn with a paddle.”

Cuomo is not exactly out of baseball. He’s an avid fantasy player and always selects Italian players no matter how well they may be doing. On a more serious note, a federal judge appointed Cuomo, a Yankees fan, mediator in the $1 billion case between the New York Mets owners against the trustees representing Bernie Madoff’s defrauded victims.

In reassessing his baseball career, the always philosophical Cuomo imparted a valuable life lesson to all of us. Remembers Cuomo:

I was not a good prospect really because I didn’t think I was good enough. And we learn from the rest of our lives, you can’t make it anywhere unless you go all out and that’s part of baseball, too. You’ve got to give it everything.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Curt Flood

Editor’s note: Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? was a past regular feature here. It will resume on a weekly basis the first Tuesday after the postseason ends.

Claim to fame: Flood hit .293 over 15 seasons and was one of the best outfielders of his generation, winning seven straight Gold Gloves from 1963 to 1969. But he’s known more for what he did after all this when he protested a December 1969 trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, informing the commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn that he wanted to consider other offers before signing a contract. Kuhn feigned ignorance, hiding behind baseball’s Reserve Clause, and Flood filed suit to challenge. Though Flood lost in the Supreme Court in 1972, his playing career by then done, his effort almost certainly helped bring about the demise of the Reserve Clause a few years later.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Flood exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1996 when he peaked at 15.1 percent of the vote. He died the following year at 59, which leaves him now as a posthumous candidate for the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Short answer, yes, though labor pioneers are woefully under-represented in Cooperstown. Flood or former player’s association head Marvin Miller might be the most egregious snubs, though many other players may deserve more recognition as well. There’s 19th century great Lip Pike who signed baseball’s first professional contract, $20 to play for Philadelphia in 1866. And much as credit is due to Flood for combating the Reserve Clause, it might still be in effect had Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally not played the 1975 season without contracts so they could become free agents. Don’t forget arbitrator Peter Seitz who struck down the clause in a historic ruling after that season and who was fired within minutes by the owners for his handiwork.

All this being said, Flood might be the Jackie Robinson of the labor movement, and he’s long overdue for his Cooperstown plaque. True, his statistics don’t suggest automatic enshrinement, what with him having less than 2,000 hits, a career WAR of 35.9, and an OPS+ of 100. Still, the Hall of Fame has never been entirely about numbers, and for contributions above stats, Flood looks like an easy choice. His spirit, courage, and willingness to take a stand represent what makes baseball great, at least to me. I view Flood in the same way as Robinson or Detroit Tigers great and Jewish hero Hank Greenberg, who incidentally testified for the embattled player in court. It’s a spirit baseball should be looking to commemorate, not forget. If the Hall of Fame isn’t the place for this, I don’t know what is.

The question is if the traditionally conservative Veterans Committee will honor Flood or any of the other men here. That’s no sure thing. The committee passed on Miller yet again in December, and at 94, there’s an increasing chance he’ll die before he gets a plaque. That’s too bad. After Flood, I only wish baseball would learn.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? was formerly a Tuesday feature here. It will relaunch following the postseason.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Harold Baines, Jack Morris, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Will Clark

Some of the Good Stuff This 2011 Baseball Season

The summer is going way too fast and the 2011 major league baseball season is following suit. Some of the playoff pictures have been all but decided and there have, as in any season, been surprises and disappointments. Some teams are already looking ahead to 2012 and some are thinking about the big prize at the end of it all. Here is some of the good stuff that I’ve seen this season.

One of the best stories of 2011 happened just this past week. One of the classiest people in all of sports reached a prolific milestone and gave us a non asterisk moment of joy. Jim Thome hit home run number 600, joining the elite hitters in baseball history. I, along with most of the baseball world, were overjoyed to see a stunning accomplishment not tainted with did he or didn’t he. Thome is still a productive hitter and while reaching the 600 mark was obviously on his mind during the offseason, Thome is not a player who stuck around when it was obvious to all that he was done. It brings back memories of the other greats who have accomplished this feat untainted (Aaron, Ruth and Mays) and reminded me of the glorious days of baseball past.

Derek Jeter became the first New York Yankee to reach 3,000 hits. None of the Yankee greats had been able to reach that milestone. None. It was a popular media pastime this season up until that day, to treat Jeter as if he was a mediocre player who had accomplished little throughout his Hall of Fame career. He couldn’t hit, field or run anymore and his once unquestionably great baseball instincts were no more. His contract extension was offered through pity and a sense of it’s only because he’s been a Yankee his entire career. Jeter went on the DL this season which was further proof of the erosion of his skills.

Jeter would have to bat eight or even ninth and maybe even DH if New York could find a taker for Jorge Posada. Nonsense and disrespectful.

Hit number 3,000 was a home run and he followed that up with four more hits on that day. No more Jeter is done talk in the press. No more secret whispers in the corridors of baseball. Someday Derek Jeter will be done, but not this season.

The umpiring, despite a couple noticeable speed bumps in August, has been the best I’ve seen in many a season. The once imposing trend toward arrogance and infallibility and a strike zone that changed more quickly and more often than a woman’s mindset seems to have been replaced by a spirit of cooperation, a genuine let’s get this call right, and a strike zone players can depend on pitch after pitch. Perhaps the firing of six umpires during the offseason after the horrendous officiating during the last two season’s playoffs and a renewed commitment to excellence has made the difference. Umpires are there to ensure that all is fair for both teams, get calls right and to be seen and not heard. Their officiating this season has certainly brought a new level of professionalism to the game.

The 2011 has seen the return of the old guys. Jack McKeon and even more surprising, Davey Johnson are managing once again. In my youth it seemed that all managers were old, white haired and had seen Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson play. These managers chewed tobacco and cussed out umpires at the drop of a hat. If you didn’t hustle you didn’t play.

Sometimes even if you did hustle you didn’t play. There were no pitch counts and only a closer for a bullpen. Starters were expected to go the full nine. They didn’t have computers and SABR stats and a press conference after every game. I say let’s keep this thing going and bring back Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Yogi Berra and Tommy Lasorda.

Let the young guys be bench coaches or minor league instructors. Bring back those big, leather chairs.

Each baseball night brings something new and exciting to the table. So far so good 2011.

Double The Fun: The Day Elroy Face Finally Lost

In 1959, Elroy Face and his signature forkball dominated the National League. Face’s 18-1 record still stands as the best winning percentage (.947) in baseball history posted by anyone who had a minimum of 15 decisions. Face’s streak ended in Los Angeles on September 11 during the first game of a double dip. Beginning in 1958 and until his late season 1959 defeat, Face won 22 consecutive games.

In his interviews with Face’s teammates, Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereporter Robert Dvorchak got their perspective on the deadly forkball. According to catcher Hank Foiles:

It was very deceptive for a hitter. You couldn’t set for the forkball and you couldn’t set for the fastball. And every once in a while, Elroy would slip a curve or a slider in. Hitters knew what they were going to get because you got to go with your best pitch. But every once in a while, we’d show them something else. It wasn’t for sale but we wanted them to look at the merchandise.

Here’s how Face explained the differences between the splitter and the forkball. In both instances, the ball is held with the middle and index fingers spread far apart. A splitter is held with the fingers on the seams but Face put his fingers on the smooth part of the ball. To a batter, the pitch looked like a fastball but then dipped as if it was falling off the edge of a table. Depending on fingertip pressure, however, it could dart down left or right or even rise.

Face’s string ended during the bottom of the ninth inning while he was protecting a one-run lead in the first game of a doubleheader at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Maury Wills led off and singled. Jim Gilliam knocked him in with a game-tying triple. Then Charley Neal broke his bat on a forkball. But the ball dribbled between Don Hoak and Dick Groat and the streak was over. The Dodgers won 5-4. For the first time in 98 appearances, Face walked off the mound charged with a loss.

During his streak, Face rarely pitched only a single inning. In fact, in his 19 decisions in 1959, Face averaged 2-2/3 innings pitched. In one relief appearance against the Chicago Cubs, Face pitched five innings—nearly the equivalent of today’s “quality start.” And in eight games, Face pitched three innings or more.

Known as the “Baron of the Bullpen,” Face was the first of the full time relief specialists. Before Face, the bull pen was often staffed with marginal starters and mop up men. After Face, every manager in baseball wanted a closer. Face’s top salary was $42, 500. During his prime years, the Pirates paid $1 to park their cars at a gas station across the street from Forbes Field.

Today Face would be every bit the equivalent of the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera who earns $14.5 million.

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

Another delay on “Any player/Any era”

I apologize, but for the second straight week, “Any player/Any era” will be late. The reason for delay is the same. I’ve started doing a bit of corporate freelance again for a client in San Francisco, and I now have assignments due each Friday. Me being me, I tend to procrastinate. The goal for next week is improve on this trend and get my posts here up on time.

In the meanwhile, as a preview, I will say that my subject for this week is my all-time favorite player, Will Clark. I’m projecting him as a 1930s American League first baseman. The thought here is that with his glove, batting average, and power, he could be a legend in that era in the right ballpark. I welcome anyone’s input.

Wind (Temporarily?) Out of Pirates Sails

Since I wrote my euphoric blog “Shiver Me Timbers, the Bucs Are in First Place”the Pittsburgh Pirates have come unwound, both as a team and individually.

Ironically, six weeks ago when the Pirates were baseball’s darling, MLB on Fox and ESPN eagerly signed them up for their national games of the week.

So, on August 13, when Fox’s Josh Lewin introduced the Pirates-Milwaukee Brewers game, he hung a lot of crepe. Basically saying that the Pirates had gone straight into the tank since Fox committed to the Brewers game as well as the August 20 contest against the Cincinnati Reds, Lewin reminded pained viewers that no team in major league history has gone from first place to ten games out in less time than the Corsairs. By Sunday night, Lewin had proven prophetic. The Brewers swept the three game series against the Pirates and moved to 36-3 against the Bucs in their last 39 games.

Luckily for Fox, the Saturday game turned out to be a good one. To the Pirates’ fans frustration, however, the Buccos lost 1-0 and scratched out three lonely hits—only one of which came during the five innings tossed by Brewers’ emergency starter Marco Estrada (3-7).

An interesting strategic moment came in the top of the ninth. The Brewers had summoned closer John Axford. The first Pirates’ batter, Xavier Paul, tripled. At that point, the pressure is on Axford—he’s protecting a one run lead with a runner on third, no one out.

The next two batters, Andrew McCutchen (hitting about .200 since the All Star Game) and Matt Diaz (.265 but no home runs in 200+ at bats) both swung at the first pitch. Results: two ground outs, McCutchen to shortstop; Diaz to second. Although there are 25 ways to score from third (read them here), the Pirates couldn’t push across the tying run.

Ted Williams must have been spinning in his grave. The Pirates should have heeded Williams’ long standing advice about swinging at the first pitch: Don’t! In his book, The Science of Hitting, Williams wrote that when a batter faces a pitcher for the first time during a game, as McCutchen and Diaz did with Axford, he should take a pitch or two to evaluate the pitcher’s stuff.

I understand the counter logic. Batters don’t want to fall behind 0-1 or 0-2. And they’re often coached to be aggressive, to look for a pitch they like and to take their cuts.But here are two things I also know. First, when it comes to batting philosophy, I’ll listen to Williams before anyone. Second, the Saturday game ended with the Pirates stranding the tying run on third before losing by a single run. Swinging at the first pitch may work some of the time—but it didn’t that day.In the meantime, through games played Monday night, the Pirates have fallen to fourth place, 13 games behind the Brewers and losers of 14 of their last 18.

Cold calling old ballplayers

I learned a valuable lesson growing up. I found an old San Francisco Giants oral history book at a garage sale, and in the preface, the author spoke of fruitless attempts to interview Willie Mays, noting he had better experiences interviewing many less-famous players. A lot of these former Giants, the author noted, had listed phone numbers and were happy to talk. I took the message to heart, and it’s led to several interviews off cold calls over the years.

I was reminded of this Tuesday evening when I located the number of a former player living in Sacramento, where I grew up and my family lives. At some point, I’ll call this guy as well as the grandson of a Deadball Era star who lives about an hour from me. These calls are rarely bad experiences, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that old ballplayers generally love to reminisce about their careers. I don’t have to do much beyond ask decent questions and listen.

Here are a few players I’ve interviewed after getting their number from the phone book or online yellow pages:

Cuno Barragan: I did my high school senior project on the Sacramento Solons and interviewed Barragan who caught for the team before going on to the Chicago Cubs of the early 1960s. He might have been the first ex-big leaguer I ever interviewed, and I appreciate his willingness to invite me out to his home. If memory serves correct, we sat on bar stools made of baseball bats and base cushions.

Dario Lodigiani: I wrote a college term paper on all the Italian American baseball players who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I had designs after I submitted my paper of turning it into a magazine story. It never went anywhere, though it gave me an excuse to talk to a few former ballplayers, the most notable Dom DiMaggio, who I tracked down in person at a wharf front memorabilia story. I found Lodigiani through online yellow pages, and I remember the then-87-year-old former third baseman, who played six seasons between 1938 and 1946, as a nice fellow.

Joe DeMaestri, Rugger Ardizoia: Two more nice guys who I called about the Italian American project. DeMaestri, like another of my interview subjects Gino Cimoli, worked for UPS after his playing days. Ardizoia had a one-game career for the 1947 New York Yankees and may be at the upcoming Pacific Coast League reunion.

Art Mahan: I started research in early 2010 on a book on  Joe Marty,who played from 1937 to 1941 with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. When I began research, Mahan was one of four living ex-teammates, and I didn’t have much luck at first. The Art Mahan in the phone book turned out to be his son, and it sounded as if the senior Mahan didn’t like interviews. Still, the son passed my number on to his sister who in turn called me and gave me an address to send questions to. This led to a call a week or so later from another Mahan who, with his 96-year-old dad standing by and periodically coming on the line, talked with me for two enchanting hours. (Mahan died in December, and I noted his passing here.)

Billy O’Dell: I put together a Where Are They Now?-style piece on O’Dell and made my initial call from home, though I had to do a follow-up from work. I was sitting in the break area on my cell when the CEO of the company my firm was renting space from walked by. He gave me a look that said, Who exactly are you speaking to about the last out of the 1962 World Series? The CEO and I got to talking after I finished my call, and he said he knew former Giants outfielder Ken Henderson. I wound up interviewing Henderson, too.

My Friend Doc

The passing this week of a truly wonderful human being and a man I was honored and lucky to have called my friend brought a flood of memories back to me of my times with the man we all affectionately called simply “Doc.”

During 2006 and 2007, I had the privilege of calling the press box my home and reporting on each home game and interviewing Ottawa Lynx players and their nightly opponents. Prior to those seasons reporting for the team, my time was spent in the stands sitting with and chatting to a group of dedicated and devoted fans who rarely, if ever, missed a game.

If truth be told, I began to prefer Triple-A to the majors for many reasons. The tickets were very affordable and there was not a bad seat in the park. I was able to see many future major league stars up close and personal and the outcome of the games really didn’t matter that much– everyone there was trying to get to the show, and we fans were having too much fun. Naturally we wanted our guys to win but loses were usually taken with an “Oh well get them next game” attitude.

Many of the managers and coaches were ex-major leaguers I had grown up watching on television or in Montreal and the vast majority were more than happy to sign an autograph or chat about their playing days. The fun was in the ribbing and my comments about watching them play when I was a kid were met with a good hearted laugh or a feigned disgust at how old I had made them feel.

I began my member of the press experience in April 2006, sitting in the press box with all the veteran local scribes and trying to work my way into their acceptance and confidence. Many had been there from the beginning and had their own routines which not all were at first, willing to share with me. Who had time to help a rook when there were stories to write and deadlines to meet? But eventually they seemed to accept me and I became part of the good hearted ribbing and other press box rituals which went on each game.

The first to take me under his wing, and I still don’t know quite why to this day, was a man everyone simply called Doc. I never knew his real name and back then I don’t know if anyone else did either.

Doc would arrive each game about the second or third inning, always wearing a short sleeved collared shirt with shorts, white socks and running shoes. No matter how cold or rainy it might be, Doc always wore those shorts. He would borrow my scorecard to get up to speed and then we would chat about anything and everything. I found out eventually that he had been a surgeon and had delivered countless babies as well.

Some nights he would delight in describing in much more detail than I wanted a complicated surgical procedure with detailed illustrations and a question period afterwards. My comments of “Gee Doc that was more than I needed to know” were met with a sly grin and a feigned apology.

Doc would usually follow us down to the clubhouse and while we conducted our post game interviews, would answer questions from the players about this ache or that pain and recommend various solutions.  The team doctor never seemed to mind and Doc knew every player in the league it seemed.

His advice always seemed to be simple, logical and to the point and usually successful.

Doc’s first love was boxing and he had spent many years as a corner cut man. He had seen all the greats fight, and we were always asking him for a story about this great boxer or that one. Although he certainly knew his baseball, that was rarely a topic of conversation between any of us when he was around. He lit up the room and made the rounds chatting with everyone but he always spent the majority of the game with me.

I’ve thought of him often in those four years since we lost our team but I never saw him again.  He’s surely up in heaven fixing some broken wings or telling God about the greatest Ali fight ever. The phrase great human being is often tossed around in these days of overhype and lowered standards and the truly great often gone unsung. Not in Doc’s case.

Any player/Any era: Hugh Casey

What he did: Hugh Casey and his contemporaries belong with Deadball Era home run champions or anyone who won a stolen base crown before 1950. Relievers like Casey, Joe Page, and others in the days before high-powered closers transformed late-inning pitching are like a prehistoric breed today. Casey’s National League-leading saves totals of 13 in 1942 and 18 in 1947 might not even rate in the top 10 these days. It certainly wouldn’t make him one of the most feared hurlers in baseball before and after World War II, able to pitch the Dodgers to two World Series, though it’s rumored a spit ball of his got by catcher Mickey Owen in the 1941 Fall Classic and lost it for Brooklyn.

I have to admit I wonder how much better Casey might fare in the modern game, when he wouldn’t have to be a maverick out of the bullpen and could learn from established relief artists. Baseball’s come a long way since Casey’s time when the bullpen was a secondhand consignment shop for arms not good enough to crack the starting rotation. Casey regularly posted far from mediocre numbers, though, and I like to think a man who went 75-42 lifetime with a 3.45 ERA over nine seasons might do ever better in a more favorable era for his talents.

Era he might have thrived in: Casey was a Southerner by birth who ended his professional career in 1950, a year after leaving the majors, helping his hometown Atlanta Crackers to a Southern Association pennant. I’d like to see what Casey could do for the modern Atlanta Braves, and with his ability to both start and finish games in multi-inning stretches, he might have been Atlanta equivalent of Rollie Fingers or Sparky Lyle in the 1970s or ’80s when great closers routinely went three or four innings.

Why: In a lot of ways, Casey was a victim of his times. Besides coming up in a less-sophisticated era for relievers, he lost three prime seasons in the middle of his career to World War II. He of course played at a point in baseball history decades before the abrogation of the Reserve Clause might have made him a millionaire. And Casey’s strikeout average, 3.3 for every nine innings which would seem to preclude him from closing today, might have been a facet of his time as much as anything– prior to the 1950s, I don’t think batters struck out nearly at the rate they do today.

In any event, he’d appear to be well-suited to close in the ’70s or ’80s, and while this might not be enough to get him in the Hall of Fame, since closers from those days like Lyle, Dan Quisenberry, and Mike Marshall remain under-recognized, it might help Casey’s life play out differently. A year after he last pitched for the Crackers, he committed suicide at 37, unable to return to the majors and apparently distraught over a paternity test. Reportedly, the death came after years of heavy drinking and womanizing. Along with Donnie Moore’s suicide and Rod Beck’s drug overdose, it’s one of the saddest ends I can think of for a once-great closer.

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, Chris von der Ahe, 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, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

Double The Fun: Walter Johnson Debuts in a Twin Bill Opener

When Walter Johnson took the mound for the Washington Senators on August 2, 1907 to pitch the first game of a double header against the Detroit Tigers, he embarked on a baseball journey that before it ended would see him win 417 games, 110 by a shutout including 38 by a 1-0 score, strike out 3,507 and post a 2.07 earned run average. But since 10 of Johnson’s 21 seasons were with losing Senators’ teams, his overall record was hampered by hard luck losses. On 65 occasions, Johnson and the Senators were on the short end of 1-0 scores.

Some of Johnson’s other outstanding achievements include winning five games (three shut outs) during nine days in 1908, recording 16 straight wins in 1912 and pitching 56 scoreless innings in 1913 when he went 36-7 with a 1.09 ERA.

About those nine days…W. W. Aulick from the New York Times, after Johnson’ third shut out, wrote:

We are grievously disappointed in this man Johnson of Washington. He and his team had four games to play with the champion Yankees. Johnson pitched the first game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the second game and shut us out. Johnson pitched the third game and shut us out. Did Johnson pitch the fourth game and shut us out. He did not. Oh, you quitter!

But, as witnessed by the 3-2 defeat Johnson suffered in his debut, he did not become an overnight success. Even in Johnson’s first game, however, his teammates and opponents recognized his greatness.

Before the double header began, and with Washington abuzz with baseball fever brought out by rumors of young Johnson’s wicked fastball, Senators’ manager Joe Cantillon went to the Detroit bench to boast that his starter was “a great big apple knocker” who would dominate the Tigers with his “swift”. That was bold talk since the Tigers, led by 20-year-old rookie Ty Cobb and future Hall of Famer Sam “Wahoo” Crawford, was the best hitting American League team and the eventual pennant winner.
According to the box score, Johnson allowed only six hits in eight innings before being taken out for a pinch hitter trailing 2-1. Three hits were bunts including two by Ty Cobb who felt that bunting was the only effective counter to Johnson’s blazing hard stuff. The Tigers also knew that Johnson, a raw rookie, would have a tough time fielding bunts.

Right after the game, Tigers’ manager Wild Bill Donavan predicted that within two years Johnson would be greater than the best pitcher of the day, Christy Mathewson. And years later Cobb admitted that the Tigers knew that Johnson would be one of the most powerful pitchers ever to enter the league. About Johnson’s “swift,” Cobb said: “The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him.”

Tigers’ outfielder Davy Jones, the first batter to face Johnson, explained why. In an interview with Lawrence Ritter for The Glory of Their Times, Jones told the author that Johnson’s arms which “were the longest ones he had ever seen” and were “like whips” which helped his effective sidewinder delivery.

Although Johnson ended the 1907 season with a 5-9 mark, his 1.88 ERA was a sign of great things to come.

After Johnson’s career ended in 1927, he managed the Senators and Cleveland Indians before settling on his Germantown, MD farm where he raised purebred cattle and prize birds. Johnson also became a Dr. Pepper spokesman and in 1940 nearly a U.S. Representative. Only a FDR landslide kept Johnson out of Congress.

When at age 59 Johnson died an untimely death from a brain tumor, he had many friends in and out of baseball. The consensus among those who knew the “Big Train” is that he was the finest man to ever wear a uniform.
“Double the fun” is a Friday feature here that looks at one notable doubleheader in baseball history each week.

Paul Fagan: The Owner Who Banned Peanuts From the Ball Park

During the 1950s, San Francisco Seals were the most fortunate players in baseball. Paul Fagan, their generous owner, spared no expense to make his squad comfortable. During that era, the Seals had stars-to-be like Ferris Fain, Gene Woodling, Lew Burdette and Larry Jansen to name a few.

Under manager Lefty O’ Doul’s direction, the Seals often (though not always) fielded competitive teams. Fagan, hoping to make the Pacific Coast League the third major league to join with the American and National, kept an eye out for the best players. When he took over the Seals in 1946, Fagan said to previous owner Charlie Graham, “I only know two baseball names—Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio. I don’t know what they will cost. I want ‘em.”

One of the most innovative minds in baseball, Fagan introduced concession stands, upgraded the Seals Stadium ladies room with a million dollar investment and built a spring training facility on Maui. Fagan, whose personal fortune came from his family’s banking businesses and Hawaii real estate made sure his players always traveled first class. The Seals even had large sleeping quarters, a spacious dining area and a soda fountain where they could get ice cream at any time.

On Maui, Seals’ pitcher Cliff Melton developed his famous “Aloha” pitch, a variation of his outstanding sinker that once helped him win 20 games for the 1937 New York Giants.

Given Fagan’s well known propensity to spend money lavishly, the baseball world was shocked when one day in 1950 he declared that peanuts would no longer be sold at Seals Stadium. Apparently overcome by his banker’s green eye shade approach to profit and loss, on February 16, 1950 Fagan issued this announcement:

We lose five cents on every bag of peanuts sold in the ballpark. That’s $20,000 a year. It costs us 7 1/2 cents to pick up the husks and our profit on a dime bag is just 2 1/2 cents. The goober has to go.

Irate fans lit up the Seals’ phone lines with their protests. Some threatened to bring their own peanuts and drop the offending shells everywhere. Newspapers along the West Coast jumped to the peanut’s defense. The Los Angeles Herald Express editorialized:

To many deep, dyed-in-the-wool fans, it was just like ripping the heart out of baseball itself. The privilege of buying, shelling and eating peanuts at the ball game is just too sacred.

Fagan’s only support came from entrepreneurial types who saw an opportunity to sell peanuts outside the stadium to disgruntled fans.

In the end, the objections overwhelmed Fagan. Within 24 hours Fagan issued his second peanut-related press release:

I give up. Mr. Peanut wins. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been beaten and it had to be by a peanut.

By opening day, the peanut had been restored to Fagan’s good graces. Fagan even appeased the president of the National Peanut Council who had charged him with manufacturing a peanut publicity stunt to generate free media for the Seals.

In an interesting non-peanut note, the 1950 Seals ended up its season with one of the most curious records in baseball history: 100-100.

The 10 most memorable strikes in sports history

1. 1994-95 MLB strike: Still the gold standard for labor disputes in organized sports, if mainly because the costs were staggering: work stopped for eight months, no 1994 World Series, and a sport with fan appeal so decimated that steroid use was tacitly condoned thereafter. Tell me what this was all about again.

2. 1998-99 NBA lockout: While basketball players and management were midway into a dispute that forced an abbreviated 50-game schedule for the 1998-99 NBA season, Rick Reilly penned a column for Sports Illustrated referencing the plight of striking Peterbilt truck workers. Reilly wrote of blue collar strikers getting by on a few hundred dollars a week compared with basketball players sweating insurance for their fleets of sports cars. “There are two major labor disputes in America right now,” Reilly wrote. “One of them is a joke.”

3. 1982 NFL strike: Besides the 1994-95 baseball strike or 2004-05 hockey lockout, this ranks as the longest work stoppage for a major American sports league, at least proportion-wise. The NFL wound up with a truncated nine-game season that year and 16-team playoff format.

4. 1981 MLB strike: Baseball lost nearly two months of its 1981 season, and though I don’t hear it talked about as conspiracy, popular union leader and Cy Young-winning relief pitcher Mike Marshall couldn’t get a team to sign him until after the strike ended.

5. 1987 NFL strike: This work stoppage lasted a month and featured one week of cancelled games and three weeks of games with replacement players (together with a few picket line-crossing stars like Joe Montana and Steve Largent.) All in all, this ran a bit like the film The Replacements, only without Keanu Reeves.

6. 2004-2005 NHL lockout: This actually led to the cancellation of an entire hockey season, though I’m not sure anyone cared. I don’t know if that merits higher or lower placement on this list.

7. 1972 MLB strike: This was the first strike in the history of major American sports and The Sporting News called the day it began the darkest in the history of sports. Some teams lost six games from their schedules, others seven, and because of the discrepancy, the Boston Red Sox lost the American League East title by half a game to the Detroit Tigers.

8. 2011 NFL lockout: This could’ve been a lot worse.

9. 1990 MLB lockout: Baseball’s equivalent of the recent football lockout in that some training games got cancelled but things fell far short of nightmare doomsday scenarios folks may have envisioned.

10. 1912 Detroit Tigers strike: American League president Ban Johnson suspended Ty Cobb indefinitely in May of 1912 after he beat a fan in the stands for calling him a “half-nigger.” Supportive Tiger teammates struck in solidarity, and to avoid forfeiting its next game, Detroit management fielded a team of replacements, some with baseball experience, others not so much. Any work stoppage that results in a Catholic priest (Aloysius Travers) taking to the mound and surrendering 24 runs, still a modern day record, deserves mention here.

The Dog Days

Here it is the first week of August and already we see evidence that all heck is breaking loose in Major League Baseball. From incidents of “sweating” on umpires to multiple ejections to head hunting, baseball is once again living up to the old axiom that August brings out the worst in some players. The dog days, here we are.

Major League Baseball is often a grueling long distance race leaving many players on the Disabled List and some unemployed or in the minors. The promise of the first gentle, warm April days often gives way to the cold hard reality of another long and unsuccessful season wrought with failure, injury and harsh criticism from the media. Even seasoned veterans can fall victim to this seemingly most trying of all baseball months. With each passing day, time to overcome any obstacles seems to be slipping faster and faster away. Time to turn an individual’s season around now seems to be the enemy. For some, the whispers of wait until next year are becoming louder and more direct.

It’s not only the players and coaches who succumb to emotional outbursts. Umpires tend to have a shorter fuse and are less tolerant of questions concerning their competence or general rule interpretations.

Such questions or comments which might have been ignored in the previous four months seem more personal and confrontational now. As umpires seek to maintain control, players seek more and creative ways to bargain their way out of situations or bend the rules. Both seem to be walking that proverbial tight rope when there is only room for one.

One would imagine that the distractions of the July 31 trade deadline might have lessened or even been eliminated for some. The uncertainty of will he or won’t he have to uproot his family, get used to another city or league and fit in with new teammates should have come and gone, having been decided one way or another. Either a new happiness and sense of excitement has set in (going to a contender), disappointment in staying with a hopelessly out of the race team, or a huge sense of relief at not changing teams is now setting in. Certainly the July 31st deadline doesn’t mean the end of player movement as we have so often witnessed in the past. Some players will continue to look over their shoulders, wishfully or otherwise, until the conclusion of the regular season.

The pressure keeps building and something has to give. Players who are normally quiet and businesslike can suddenly explode over previously shrugged off borderline calls. The “gee ump that looked a bit low from here” is now replaced by various colorful metaphors and the questioning of an umpires mothers standing in the community. Such actions which in April, May, June, or July would be dutifully ignored or greeted with a knowing smile, become personal and inflammatory in August. The pen may be mightier than the sword but an umpire’s thumb is the mightiest of them all and if the manager doesn’t like it, he is more than welcome to quickly join his offending player in the showers.

The admiration of a long home run, however brief, is not tolerated in the dog days. The phrases unwritten rule and payback are used to justify mid 90’s fastball aimed specifically at the batter responsible for such a now-dire oneuppance. Naturally this action will justify and cause a retaliatory reaction from the opposition and so forth and so on resulting in warnings/rejections or the meeting near the mound of all players from both teams for an exchange of opinions and suggested solutions.

Normally docile fans can also fall victim to the dog days. The frustration of their team’s failures, the success of the opposition or an umpire’s failure to decipher the strike zone or a missed tag can ignite behavior which wouldn’t be tolerated at the biker bar down the street. Even the gentler sex has been known to become an all seeing and all knowing expert umpire, correcting on field decisions with passionate and explicative filled reports and body language.

Grandmothers and little children beware, lock your doors and turn off the lights. At least until September. At least until the dog days are done.

Triple Your Fun: Pirates Play Three, Lose Two

Every week in this space, I write about a doubleheader that either played an important part in a pennant race or had some other historical significance.

Today, I’m ratcheting it up a notch. My subject is the last tripleheader ever played. The amazing event took place at Forbes Field on October 2, 1920 when the Pirates hosted the Cincinnati Reds.

What forced the triple dip was a rain out of the Friday night game. Apparently, little was at stake. The Brooklyn Robins had sewed up first place, the Giants were comfortably in second ahead of the soon-to-be-displaced World Champion Reds with the Pirates in fourth trailing Cincinnati by 3-1/2 games.

The rain out canceled one of the four remaining games on the schedule and meant that the Pirates were dead in their quest for third place: 3-1/2 games back with only three left to play.

But Pirates Hall of Fame owner Barney Dreyfuss recognized that third place was “in the money”.  If his team could sneak into third, his players would qualify for a small World Series share.

Dreyfuss appealed to National League president John Heydler who agreed, over the vigorous protestations of Reds’ manager Pat Moran, to replay the rain out.

Suddenly, the Pirates were alive again. The standings still showed the Corsairs 3-1/2 behind Cincinnati but now with four to play.

With three games on the bill, the opener started at the unusually early hour of 12 noon. Corsair manager George Gibson picked his ace and 24 game winner Wilbur Cooper for the crucial first game. The drama didn’t last long. The Reds bombed Cooper with 10 hits and 8 runs in 2-2/3 innings and won handily, 13-4 thus finally and officially locking up third.

Games two and three were frill. In the second, the Reds shellacked the Corsairs again, 7-3. As evidence of his indifference, Moran started four pitchers as position players. In the third and final contest, cut short by darkness after six innings, the Pirates finally prevailed, 6-0.

The game times are worth noting: the first, 2:03; second, 1:56; third, 1:01. Fans saw three games in exactly five hours or 1:39 less than the Pirates 19-inning marathon on July 26 in the team’s 4-3 loss to the Braves in Atlanta.

Any player/Any era: Vada Pinson

What he did: If baseball awarded the equivalent of Oscars, Pinson would have been a perennial Best Supporting Actor nominee. One of the quintessential role players of the 1960s, Pinson did many things well, hitting for average and power, stealing 305 bases lifetime, and finishing just shy of 3,000 hits. He was never really a star, overshadowed by Cincinnati Reds teammates like Frank Robinson and Pete Rose, though Pinson placed as high as third in MVP voting in 1961 when he led Cincinnati to the World Series. In another era, a fellow blogger told me, Pinson might have been more.

Era he might have thrived in: Arne Christensen of Misc. Baseball suggested Pinson could make a good pick here, noting in a recent email:

His game of speed and some power would have really shined in the astroturf ’70s and ’80s.

Arne may be on to something. Astroturf is something of a bygone novelty in baseball, seen less and less these days, but in the era Arne suggests, speedy sluggers like Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds, and Eric Davis were regular threats in carpeted stadiums and beyond to hit 30 home runs and steal north of 30 bases. Pinson might have figured aptly into their ranks.

Why: First of all, count Pinson as another great hitter who may have missed out on the Hall of Fame because his prime years happened to fall in the 1960s. Like Jimmy Wynn, Frank Howard, Bob Watson, and maybe a few others from this decade, Pinson might have had a better shot at Cooperstown had he not peaked at a time that so clearly favored pitchers. As it stands, he went the full 15 years on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame, and if he’s not a viable Veterans Committee candidate today, he at least rates an honorable mention.

Maybe the ’70s and ’80s weren’t the 1920s or ’30s or late 1990s, able to add 40 batting average points and 50 to 100 home runs to Pinson’s lifetime totals. But it’s likely his .286 batting average and 256 home runs would rise enough in any other time in baseball history since the Deadball Era to get him enshrined. He might not approach Dawson’s 438 home runs, but he’d surely increase his .327 to .323 advantage in on-percentage and have a chance at 3,000 hits (and near-automatic enshrinement.) And one can only wonder how many more bases Pinson would have stolen than Dawson’s 314.

Pinson played from 1958 through 1975, and I suspect if he’d debuted even 10 years later, he might have had 100 more steals lifetime, minimum. Almost simultaneous to Pinson’s best seasons in the early and mid ’60s, speedsters like Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills were helping make the stolen base popular again in baseball. Perhaps Pinson had the talent to steal 20 to 30 bases a year whatever his era, though I’d like to think that in the ’70s or ’80s, he’d have been around coaches who could have refined his craft. And the Astroturf would have surely sped his step.

Pinson died of a stroke at 57 in 1995 and is buried in Richmond, California, not far from where I currently sit writing this post in Berkeley. I suspect that as more time passes, Pinson will be increasingly forgotten. That’s a shame.

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, Chris von der Ahe, 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

Robin Roberts Before and After the Philadelphia Phillies

Last week, I wrote about how Robin Roberts carried the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1950 National League championship.

For most baseball fans, with the exception of old timers who live in the Philadelphia area, Roberts is linked to the Phillies forever and all time.

But, in truth, Roberts had a rich and rewarding life long before and long after he wore a Phillies jersey.

Born in Springfield, IL., Roberts arrived in East Lansing, Michigan as part of Army Air Corp training program. After World War II, Roberts returned to Michigan State College to play basketball where he led the Spartans’ in field-goal percentage in 1946–1947, captained the team during the 1946–1947 and 1949–1950 seasons and earned three varsity letters.

After his second basketball season Roberts tried out for the Spartans’ baseball team as a pitcher because it was the position that coach John Kobs needed most. After playing for Michigan State and spending his second summer in Vermont with the Barre–Montpelier Twin City Trojans, Roberts signed with the Phillies in 1947 for $25,000. With the money, Roberts bought his mother a house.

Roberts repaid the Phillies handsomely. Between 1950 and 1955 Roberts won 20 games each season, leading the National League in victories from 1952 to 1955. Six times he led the league in games started, five times in complete games and innings pitched and once pitched 28 complete games in a row. During his career, Roberts never walked more than 77 batters in any regular season. In addition, he helped himself as a fielder as well as with his bat, hitting 55 doubles, 10 triples, and five home runs with 103 RBI.

His 28 wins in 1952, the year he won The Sporting News Player of the Year Award, were the most in the National League since 1935 when Dizzy Dean also won 28 games.

Roberts followed up his 28 wins with another outstanding season. In 1953, he posted a 23–16 record and led NL pitchers in strikeouts with 198. In a career-high 346⅔ innings pitched, Roberts walked just 66 batters and his 2.75 ERA was second behind Warren Spahn’s 2.10.

A memorable Roberts’ career highlight came on May 13, 1954 when he gave up a lead-off home run to the Cincinnati Redlegs’ Bobby Adams but then retired 27 consecutive batters to win 8–1 on a one-hit game.

Roberts stayed with the Phillies until 1961. The following year Roberts signed with the New York Yankees but was released during spring training. Noting that April is bad time to get cut because other squads are set, Roberts said: “I didn’t know what to do. I was thirty-four years old.”

At the urging of his old friend and scout, Cy Perkins, Roberts signed on with the Baltimore Orioles. Perkins had once told Roberts that he would pitch a shutout when he was 40. Roberts pitched effectively for the Orioles; for parts of four seasons, Roberts went 42-36, 3.09 ERA.

From Baltimore, Roberts went to Houston were he continued to pitch well; 8-7, 2.77 during two seasons. Now 40, the end was approaching for Roberts. At the end of his last season with Houston, Roberts recalled: “I found my arm swelling up and had an arm operation to correct the problem.”

In 1966, Roberts joined the Chicago Cubs as the team’s pitching coach and spot starter. At the end of the year, Roberts elected not to return to the Cubs but instead chose to pitch in Reading of the Eastern League. In a bargain he made with himself, Roberts agreed to pitch until June 1st. If no team picked him up, he would retire. Although Roberts pitched well by notching a 5-3 mark that included the shutout Perkins predicted, he had no major league suitors.

After Roberts retired, many asked if he was sorry that he never reached 300 wins (286).  Roberts answered that “What I really was striving for was to pitch until I was forty-four or forty-five. I knew if I could do that, the wins would take care of themselves.”

The Phillies never gave Roberts much help. After 1950, the team was consistently at the bottom of the standings. After his professional baseball career ended, Roberts worked in an investment firm, did sports radio broadcasting and coached at the University of South Florida.

In 1976, six years after he became eligible, Roberts was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.