Puerto Rico Goes to Cuba, Wins 1953 Caribbean World Series

When Alva Lee “Bobo” Holloman began his major league career on May 6,1953 by pitching a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns against the Philadelphia A’s,  the baseball world was shocked.

But for those who followed Holloman the previous winter in the Puerto Rican League, his success was hardly surprising.

Pitching for the Santurce Crabfishermen, Holloman led the league with a 15-5 record. In the traditional playoff involving the first and second place finishers, the Crabs took on its long time antagonist the San Juan Senators in the best of seven. Holloman pitched a complete 13-inning game to best the Senators, 7-5, and wrap up the series, 4-2. Future New York Giants catcher Valmy Thomas tripled in the winning runs with two on.

During game five, among the many fans were Rachael and Jackie Robinson who were visiting San Juan at the time. Robinson watched his teammate Brooklyn Dodgers’ teammate Junior Gilliam as the Crabs trounced the Senators 15-5. Negro League slugging star Bob Thurman’s grand slam home run and three hits provided the winning runs. The all time Puerto Rican League home run record belongs to Thurman with 117.

The Crabs Puerto Rican League victory assured the team a place in the Caribbean World Series in Havana. The four member countries and the teams representing them were Puerto Rico (Santurce), Cuba (Havana), Panama (Chesterfield) and Venezuela (Caracas). At the time, the Havana Reds were called the “Yankees of Cuba” because of its outstanding roster that included Sandy Amaros, Camilo Pascual, Lou Klein and Bob Usher. Reds’ manager Mike Gonzales said his squad was “at least” the equivalent to AAA.

Holloman dominated as the Crabs swept the double round robin series 6-0. He won the second and sixth games by scores of 7-4 and 9-2. Other Crabs’ pitchers who contributed were future Major Leaguers Ruben Gomez and Cot Deal. The Crabs twice topped Havana en route to becoming the first two-time Caribbean Series winner.

When Holloman reported in the spring, the unconvinced Browns sent him to Syracuse before calling him up in May. Holloman’s time in the bigs was short. After his no-hitter, Holloman struggled. Then, after he mopped up in the second game of a July 19 double header against the Washington Senators and gave up six earned runs in 1.2 innings, a frustrated Bill Veeck sold “Bobo” to the International League’s Toronto Blue Jays.

When the season ended, Holloman returned to Santurce but pitched poorly and compiled a 0-2 record.

With his career over, Holloman returned to Georgia to drive trucks just as he had done in his pre-baseball days. Holloman battled alcoholism for years before giving up drinking in in 1972. Sobriety helped Holloman enjoy his racetrack, golf and stock market passions. In 1987, Holloman died of a sudden heart attack in Athens.

Vote: The BPP All-Time Dream Project

Edit 2.28.12, 10:40 a.m. PST: 25 responses and counting. If you haven’t voted, please email me at thewomack@gmail.com for a ballot or go here.

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They’re the greatest baseball debates in history, timeless arguments that continue unabated and still capture public imagination. It’s the age-old question of who’s better: Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle? Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron? Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio? And the list goes on.

Now, those debates are coming to Baseball: Past and Present.

It is my pleasure to kick off a new project here. We’re calling this one, “The BPP All-Time Dream Project.” It’s pretty simple, really. Imagine a one-off sandlot game and choose any nine players from baseball history: eight position players and one pitcher. There are no designated hitters, relief pitchers, or bench players to be recruited here, no manager to enlist, no 25-man roster to be filled. This is simply about choosing nine players to win a game.

I’ll be providing a check-able ballot with 20 players at each position, which I’ll start sending out this evening via Google Docs Forms, but as always, write-ins are welcomed and encouraged. Any player is eligible, and to keep things interesting, I’ll refrain from campaigning for any players. As always, anyone who’s interested is welcome to participate, and I’ll provide a link in my results post to any baseball blogger who takes part.

Ballots are due by 9 p.m. PST, Tuesday, March 27, the day before the regular season begins. I’ll publish the results on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, as good a day as any in my book to celebrate the best of baseball history. I’m allowing that much time in between because each of the nine players will be illustrated by Sarah Wiener, known to the Twitter crowd @for_the_sarah, aspiring illustrator extraordinaire. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or feedback between now and April 15.

It may sound as though I’m creating some tough choices for people. The center field portion of the ballot alone will feature Mays, Mantle, and DiMaggio as well as Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Ken Griffey Jr., among others. I have a confession: This is exactly what I’m aiming for.

Mike Krukow: The Polish Prince

Having a fiancé who is Polish must have led me to Mike Krukow’s 1987 Topps card. The backside of the card lists a nickname. I think it’s pretty cool. “The Polish Prince” sounds crafty and it’s nice to get one’s heritage in a nickname, complete with alliteration.

Mike Krukow played catcher in high school and was even drafted by the California Angels in 1970 as a backstop. But he went to college instead at Cal Poly, playing there just before Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. During Krukow’s time at Poly, he transitioned to a starter and set the school’s record for career ERA.

He was then drafted by the Cubs and pitched well for them from 1976-1981 (oddly enough his FIP was always better than his ERA – maybe he was the first Ricky Nolasco?).

He made a brief and successful stop in Philadelphia in 1982, throwing 208 innings with a 3.12 ERA and 3.12 FIP. He was worth 4.4 WAR.

The Phillies, though, traded him in a move that brought them Joe Morgan, and Krukow was on his way to San Francisco, basically back home. He’d stay there for the rest of his life. He pitched solidly from 1983-1988, until injuries got to him. During that span, he never pitched less than 184 innings and consistently had ERAs and FIPs in the 3.00s. In his only play-off game, he threw a complete game against the Cardinals in 1987.

Krukow seems to be the quintessential 1980s hurler. To go all Jack Morris argumentative on you: from 1980-1989, Krukow had the 42nd most Fangraphs WAR and tied for the 36th most wins. In fact, he reminds me of a few contemporaries (and fellow Flip Siders): Ed Whitson, Mark Gubicza (here and here) and Mike Boddicker (here), seriously, check out their career side-by-sides here.

They each won between 124 and 134 games, pitched between 2,123 and 2,240 innings and had ERA’s between 3.79 and 3.96. Gubicza is the star of the group, but Krukow was the flamethrower.

Of course, the baseball world remembers and loves Krukow a bit more than the other three, as fans adore him for his transition to the broadcast booth. He has been a mainstay of radio and television for San Francisco Giants games and has a number of catch phrases. When the Giants advertise jerseys and whatnot, Krukow closes the ad by saying “I wanna get that!” three times.

As someone who grew up with Rex Barney at Orioles games and Jon Miller doing broadcasts, fans know when they are blessed to have someone of that talent and magnitude. I also know how fleeting those moments in time can be. Enjoy Krukow baseball fans, he’s one of the best.

Oh, one more thing, Krukow also provided commentary for the video game MVP Baseball from 2003-2005. The Polish Prince is simply cool.

Any player/Any era: Gary Carter

What he did: It took Gary Carter six tries to be voted into the Hall of Fame. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, given Carter’s stats or the history of the museum. Catchers rarely have an easy time getting into Cooperstown, and Carter would have had slim odds shilling for a plaque at any position with a .262 lifetime batting average, 2,092 hits, and 324 home runs. He’s a player who never hit .300 or walked 100 times in a season, and he topped 30 homers just twice and 100 RBI four times. He also declined precipitously, failing to post an OPS+ of 100 in a full season after age 32, and it’s a wonder he’s in the Hall and so many players whose careers followed similar trajectories are not. And, with all this being said, I’ll add something else about Carter: I think he’s underrated.

In some ways, Carter led a charmed life, playing 19 years in the majors, making the National League All Star team 11 of those years, and establishing himself as one of the nice guys of his sport. But he was unlucky, too, from sustaining a knee injury that nearly ended his career before it started to being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that ultimately took his life on February 16 at 57. And he played in an era that did his numbers few favors, with his lifetime OPS+ of 115 and WAR of 66.3 hinting at what might have been in a different time. In a more favorable offensive period in baseball history, Carter might have hit somewhere close to .300 for his career and perhaps staked yet a greater hold in the sport’s lore.

Era he might have thrived in: It isn’t difficult to take any hitter and project them with gaudy numbers in the 1930s, the most offensively explosive time in baseball history this side of the Steroid Era or the 1890s (never forget a time where a team can hit .350 and finish fourth.) But other things work in Carter’s favor in the ’30s as well, from defensive skills that would’ve set him apart from his fellow backstops, to proven ability to play well in New York City, to an affable personality that would’ve made him a clubhouse asset in any era, really. The thought here is that playing for the Dodgers in the 1930s, Carter might have been the star Brooklyn so lacked while their crosstown rivals dominated.

Why: The New York Yankees were the team of the ’30s, winning five of 10 World Series in the decade, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio all have starring turns for the Bronx Bombers in this time. The Giants weren’t bad either, winning one World Series and appearing in another. The Dodgers, for their part, finished in the second division six of 10 ten years in the ’30s and managed to get three runners on one base one memorable afternoon. So futile were the Dodgers that Giants manager Bill Terry quipped, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?” It enraged Dodger fans, but he had a point.

Part of the problem stemmed from lack of star power. For a franchise that’s boasted icons like the Boys of Summer in the ’40s and ’50s and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the ’60s, the Dodgers’ Depression Era rosters were largely devoid of big names or talent. Enter Carter, who might have been baseball’s best catcher in a time when Ernie Lombardi, Bill Dickey, and Mickey Cochrane were starring. As a right-handed hitter, Carter would have been ideally suited for Ebbets Field, a bandbox with a short left field porch. I also am curious how Carter might have done playing for Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra’s manager for the majority of his time in pinstripes and a couple decades before that, the skipper for three seasons in Brooklyn. My guess is that whatever Berra learned from Stengel might have helped Carter, too.

Depending on when Carter plays in Brooklyn, he could potentially put up huge numbers. Playing on the ’36 Dodgers, Stengel’s last year in town, Carter’s 1982 season comes out to a modest 30 home runs, 106 RBI, and a .306 batting average with a .940 OPS. On the Dodgers in 1930 however, before the National League changed its ball and eased scoring as Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus told me, that ’82 season would be good for 33 home runs, 125 RBI, and a .333 batting average with a 1.004 OPS. Whatever the case, Carter would surely see a boost.

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: Al SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug GlanvilleEddie LopatElmer FlickFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film), Mark FidrychMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRo
gers Hornsby
Sam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Minnie Minoso: "What's a Holdout?"

When Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane signed Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes to a $36 million, four year contract, I immediately thought back to a simpler time.

During the 1952 Christmas season, the famous Chicago White Sox G.M. Frank “The Trader” Lane set off for Cuba with four blank contracts in his brief case. Lane intended to sign two of his major league roster players, Saturnino Orestes “Minnie” Minoso and pitcher Mike Fornieles. Lane also hoped to sew up two role players, third sacker (and bench warmer) Hector Rodriguez and relief pitcher Luis “Witto” Aloma. The quartet played winter ball in the Cuban League.

Lane secured contracts only from Rodriguez and Aloma. Upon his return to Chicago, Lane speculated that Minoso may be a hold out. But when he was questioned about that possibility, Minoso asked:

Hold out? What in the world is that? I am not a hold out whatever it is. I like to play ball but I want my money. The club offered me only $3,000 raise over what I got in 1952 and I think I am entitled to more.

Fornieles, recently traded from the Washington Senators in exchange for Chuck Stobbs, took the same position. After Lane reportedly offered $5,000, Fornieles said:

After I pay my taxes and spend a lot in Chicago living like a big leaguer, I will have only $500 a month left. I don’t think that is big league pay.

Poor timing victimized Lane. At the time of his Cuba visit, the Marianao teammates were dominating the league. Minoso was second in batting, hitting an impressive .360. Fornieles’ record stood at a tidy 7-3.

The week after Lane left, the Cuban League named Minoso and Fornieles Players of the Year; Minoso won the top veteran award; Forneieles, best rookie.

Lane and his players eventually settled their disputes. In 1953, Fornieles posted a respectable 8-7, 3.59 ERA record; Minoso added 32 points to his 1952 average to end the season at .313, fourth highest in the American League, and knocked in 104.

In 2003 Minoso, then 78-years-old, made a pinch hit appearance for the Independent Northern League St. Paul Saints and drew a walk. With his at bat, Minoso became the first ever seven- decade professional baseball player. Minoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949.

During his career Minoso, the White Sox first black player, never earned more than $40,000. Fornieles died in 1998 in St. Petersburg, Florida; Minoso, a 10 time All Star, lives in the Chicago area.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Sammy Sosa

Claim to fame: I seem to be repeating variations of the following phrase ad nauseam, but here goes again. In about nine months, the Baseball Writers Association of America will begin voting on the most controversial Hall of Fame ballot in recent memory. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will inspire volumes of copy as writers publicly rationalize why they are or are not voting for them or anyone else thought to have used steroids. Holdovers like Jack Morris and Tim Raines will have impassioned cases made on their behalves by supporters, and Craig Biggio might be the only player enshrined by acclimation thanks to his 3,000 hits. It’s a bad year to be anyone besides Biggio on the upcoming ballot, something of a dog pile. It’s a bad year to be Sammy Sosa.

With all the noise surrounding Bonds, Clemens, and everyone else who will appear on this ballot, I suspect Sosa may get the quietest consideration from the writers a 600-home-run hitter has ever received. Revelations in 2009 by the New York Times that Sosa flunked a steroid test in 2003 wouldn’t help him even with a weaker ballot. On this one, though, I’m guessing he’ll get 10 or 20 percent of the vote his first time out. It wouldn’t stun me if Sosa fails to receive 5 percent of the vote and falls off the ballot. While I’m guessing the same 20 percent of the electorate that’s steadfastly voted for Mark McGwire his six years on the ballot might also be willing to support his partner in the 1998 chase for the home run record, all bets could be off with the upcoming vote.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Reports out of Oakland say soon-to-be-40-year-old Manny Ramirez has inked a minor league deal, and I’ll admit I wonder what the effect would have been for Sosa if he’d done likewise in 2008 or ’09. Certainly, he didn’t look terrible at the plate his last year in the show, 2007, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 92 runs with an OPS+ of 101 (though his WAR was admittedly lousy, 0.4.) If Sosa had found work thereafter, it’d be another year at least until he was eligible for the writers ballot, and he might debut to more favorable circumstances; I suspect the landscape will change drastically the longer worthy candidates get the shaft from the BBWAA over steroids. As it stands, Sosa has a maximum of 15 years on the ballot and needs 75 percent of the vote for a plaque.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I’ve undergone a huge shift in my thinking. Maybe even a year ago, I was staunchly against the Hall of Fame honoring anyone connected to steroids. In general, I used to be more of a small Hall person, wanting the museum to be reserved for only the most stellar of candidates. But the more I’ve written about Cooperstown, the more inclusive I’ve become about the place, the more I’ve wanted it to be something that captures all of baseball’s history. And the more I’ve thought and talked with others about steroids, the more I’ve come to think they were simply a part of baseball, no different than all-white play in the 1940s and before, amphetamines in the 1960s, cocaine in the 1980s. Every generation of baseball has its sordid details, and to deny them is to deny a part of the game.

Let me be clear: I don’t like steroids, and I hope they never return to the game. I don’t like that a generation of players was faced with the decision of using to keep up. I think it’s reprehensible Major League Baseball allowed this to happen, and it will be tragic the first time an ex-big leaguer dies before his time because he used. Still, though, for 10, maybe 15 years, steroids and gargantuan power numbers were a fundamental part of the game. And for better or worse, Sosa was at the core of this. He slugged as well as very few other members of his generation did, averaging better than 60 home runs a season from 1998 through 2001, and for better or worse, he highlighted his era. I’m guessing Sosa will be a largely forgotten man on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. It will be a pity the longer this remains.

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

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon Mattingly,Don Newcombe, Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouPete Browning,Phil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

The Worst of the Best: High Pockets Kelly

Editor’s note: Please welcome the latest from Alex Putterman.

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He hit fewer career home runs than Earl Torgeson, collected fewer hits than Jermaine Dye, and slugged worse than Jay Gibbons while reaching base less often than Ron LeFlore. He posted a lifetime OPS+ equal to that of Lee Mazzilli and Rob Deer and was worth fewer Wins Above Replacement than Ossie Bluege, Bing Miller, Chief Zimmer, and a legion of other guys with funny names you’ve probably never heard of. His top similarity score on Baseball-Reference is Bob Watson, followed closely by Frank McCormick.

Yet George “High Pockets” Kelly is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted by the Veterans Committee in 1973. He was praised as a brilliant defensive first baseman, the finest Frankie Frisch had ever seen, and considered particularly apt at driving in runs, but his résumé certainly doesn’t suggest him Cooperstown-worthy. Most who saw Kelly play didn’t seem to think so either; he received a single vote his first time on the BBWAA ballot in 1947, and in ensuing years would only once collect more than two (five in 1960).

Nor do statistics support Kelly’s case. He had neither tremendous peak nor longevity, playing in 1,622 games over 16 seasons and only once cracking a .900 OPS or 130 OPS+. He had no MVP-caliber season and never led the National League in any of the three slash line categories (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage).

In fact, Bill James, in his 2001 book The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, called High Pockets “the worst player in the Hall of Fame,” and I happen to agree, at least as far as hitters are concerned (starting pitcher Rube Marquard gives Kelly a run for his money.)

Only four Hall of Fame position players have worse career WAR totals than Kelly’s 23.6. And while Tommy McCarthy, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell and Lloyd Waner certainly don’t belong anywhere near Cooperstown, their candidacies are all slightly more defensible than Kelly’s.

McCarthy played before entirely accurate statistical records were kept, so we’re evaluating him using potentially incomplete data. Plus, the outfielder is regarded as a pioneer of the hit-and-run play and an overall excellent base-runner. Waner hit .317 lifetime (albeit while almost never walking and playing during an offensively-dominant era), and at least his lackluster offensive production came at a high-value position, center-field, as opposed to first base, where Kelly played. Schalk and Ferrell were both well-regarded catchers, providing some value at the scarcest of positions.

So I can’t argue with James that Kelly was the worst of the “best.” But how did such a pedestrian player achieve the game’s highest honor?

In Kelly’s election to the Hall of Fame, it was Frisch’s opinion that mattered most. Frisch, Kelly’s former New York Giants teammate, was, at the time of the first baseman’s induction, chairman of the Veterans Committee (another of those former-Giants, Bill Terry, was also on the committee), and cronyism has understandably been assumed as the explanation for the induction of Kelly and many other former-Frisch field-mates. Essentially, High Pockets reached the Hall because he had friends in the right place. It’s an accusation Frisch is not around to answer to (he died in March, 1973, before Kelly was even officially inducted), but it seems as if the former second baseman is responsible for Kelly’s place in Cooperstown. In other words, he is responsible for the worst position player in the Hall of Fame.

Any player/Any era: Mark Fidrych

What he did: I’m a few days late on this column, so forgive me if seems passé. I’ve been wanting to write about Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, who recently came out of nowhere to lead New York on a seven-game winning streak. Athletes emerge from obscurity periodically to star, whether it’s sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe and leading the New England Patriots to Super Bowl glory or Florence Griffith-Joyner quitting a job at a bank to become a gold medal sprinter. And it’s happened before in baseball. I’m reminded of Hideo Nomo, who was a star in Japan but a little-known player stateside before coming to the majors in 1995 and propelling the Los Angeles Dodgers to the top of the National League West. There have been others like him in baseball, too.

Lin has been all the buzz the last couple of weeks online, and a few days ago, Marcos Breton of the Sacramento Bee Tweeted about him. Marcos (@marcosbreton) wrote:

I’m dating myself, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything in sports like Jeremy Lin since Mark “the Bird” Fidrych back in the 1970s #Linsanity

It’s an interesting idea, with Breton going on to note that Fidrych had similarly humble beginnings, capitalizing on a non-roster invitation to spring training in 1976 to go 19-9 and start in the All Star game. Joe Guzzardi wrote here in 2010 of seeing Fidrych pitch that year, not long after the rookie captured the public’s imagination in a 5-1 win over the Yankees on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. There are some key differences between Fidrych and Lin, most notably that Fidrych’s presence didn’t change much for the Tigers who were in a lull between having World Series-caliber teams in the late ’60s and 1980s. Still, it got me thinking about Fidrych, another player who would have benefited in an era better suited to his talents.

Era he might have thrived in: Fidrych’s numbers read like a cautionary tale against throwing young hurlers into the fray too early, with more than half of his career wins, innings, and strikeouts coming in that dazzling ’76 season. He tore his rotator cuff the following year, and while the injury wouldn’t be diagnosed until 1985, he won just 10 games his remaining four seasons. Fidrych belongs in the baseball history books with Denny McLain, Smoky Joe Wood, and other pitchers who were essentially done by 25. Wood later reinvented himself as an outfielder, and while the jury’s out on if Fidrych could have done likewise, I’d see him having a longer career debuting with a club more welcoming to young hurlers. The Atlanta Braves of the 1990s and San Francisco Giants of the past several years come to mind.

Why: It’s all too common for teams to push talented newcomers too hard, and I suppose this makes sense in that clubs have to do their best to win with the players they have. Still, I only wonder how long it will be before Lin wears down playing 38 minutes a night. Baseball’s past is littered with pitchers who perhaps wouldn’t have crashed so soon with better handling early on, from past subject and ’60s phenom Wally Bunker to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in recent years. Occasionally, guys like Bob Feller buck the trend and forge Hall of Fame careers, but these cases are few and far between. More often, young hurlers get used up before their time.

I’d like to think baseball is becoming more responsible in this regard, with writers like Tom Verducci cautioning against increasing the workloads of pitchers under the age of 25 more than 30 innings from year-to-year. And certain clubs, like the aforementioned Braves and Giants have been bastions for young hurlers, with former Atlanta stars Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz looking destined for Cooperstown and current Giant rotation anchors Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain each having a reasonable shot to be enshrined. It’s a credit in part, I think, to good coaching and to these pitchers being on teams where they weren’t the only options. Fidrych might have benefited from either of these things or from pitching today when he’d have better medical care and less of a chance to throw 250 innings his rookie season.

As it stands, Fidrych exists in baseball lore as a curiosity, a feather-haired goof who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his Sesame Street doppelganger Big Bird. Here’s hoping Lin finds more lasting success.

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: Al SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug GlanvilleEddie LopatElmer FlickFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film)Matty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel Brothers, Tony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Do the worst of the best players make the best leaders?

When you think Branch Rickey, you think innovator. He broke the color barrier and pretty much created the framework for the modern MiLB farm system. But, before all that, he signed a pro contract in 1903.

He played 82 games in the minors that year, he hit .257. However he was a catcher and it was the early 1900s so that wasn’t like kissing your sister bad. He did worse in 1904 and 1905, but did get three plate appearances in the majors with the St. Louis Browns in ’05. He went hitless with two K’s.

Rickey showed promise the following year, batting .284/.345/.393 in 223 plate appearances. He was then sold to the New York Highlanders and the wheels fell off. He batted just .182/.253/.234 and exhibited perhaps the worst catching defense in MLB history. He was Jesus Montero without the bat. In fact, he once allowed 13 successful stolen bases in a game, a record to this day.

He was out of baseball soon after, but became a front office executive of the Browns in 1913. He signed George Sisler. And the rest is history.

There seems to be a link (or at least the belief of a link) between failing on baseball’s biggest stage and eventually becoming one of the best managers, pitching coaches, GMs or owners. But is that the case?

Joe McCarthy managed for 24 seasons, won nearly 62 percent of the games he managed and seven World Series. While he did a lot of damage with the wrecking crew known as the 1930s Bronx Bombers, he had impressive winning percentages with the Cubs (.579 in 770 games) and Red Sox (.606 in 369 games) and was the first manager to win a pennant in both leagues. McCarthy had a much longer minor league career than Rickey; however it was by no means better. With 15 seasons in the minors and 5,839 at bats, he mustered just 32 HRs. He batted .261 with a .334 slugging percentage. The only time he looked good was his age-26 season, when he repeated the year at Wilkes-Barre: he batted .325 and hit six HRs (the most he ever hit in a minor league season). McCarthy, a no-hit second baseman, grew up idolizing Connie Mack – which makes a lot of sense.

Charlie Comiskey managed for 12 seasons, finished with a .608 winning percentage, four pennants and one World Series. As a first baseman, Comiskey made James Loney look like Frank Thomas. Comiskey played for 13 seasons for the St. Louis Browns. As a player, Comiskey finished with a .264/.293/.337 line and he was worth 11 WAR (although more than half of that comes from defense) (Baseball Reference). Heck, maybe Comiskey should have pitched: he had a 0.73 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 12.1 MLB innings. Like Rickey, he was also an innovator: Comiskey is credited as being the first player to position himself behind the first base bag and thereby cover more field – he was all over total zone rating.

Frank Selee managed for 16 seasons, won nearly 60 percent of his games and five pennants. Selee, a “balding little man with a modest demeanor and a formidable mustache that gave his face a melancholy case,” never played minor or major league baseball. He did manage Frank Chance who took over managing the Cubs when Selee was too ill to do so.
Frank Chance managed 11 seasons, won 59 percent of his games, two World Series and four pennants. Known as Husk or the Peerless Leader, Chance was the end point of Tinkers to Evers. He was also a no-power first basemen who could get on base (.296/.394/.394). He hit 20 HRs over his 1,288 games played. Chance accumulated 49.5 WAR and was a stud from 1904-1908: .302/.397/.404, with 14 of his 20 HRs. Chance, good player, great manager.

Billy Southworth managed for 13 seasons, won nearly 60 percent of his games, two World Series and four pennants. Southworth was also a fine hitter, batting .297/.359/.415 over 13 seasons. He was worth 20.3 WAR and finished in the top 20 for MVP once during his career. Southworth, a solid regular for seven of his seasons, was the first person in MLB history to win a World Series as a player and a manager.

John McGraw managed for 33 seasons, won 58 percent of his games, three World Series and 10 pennants. He played from 1891-1906 and was player manager from 1899-1906. McGraw, known as Little Napoleon, led the league in OBP three times, scored 140+ runs three times and finished with a .334/.466/.410 line. He was worth 49.3 WAR. It’s entirely possible that McGraw is responsible for the quantity of umpires on a diamond. Like other names on this list, McGraw was an innovator, likely being responsible for the quantity of umpires on the field. When McGraw played, there was only one umpire and whenever the ump was distracted, McGraw would trip or otherwise impede base runners.

Al Lopez managed for 17 seasons, won 58 percent of his games and two pennants. Lopez, who managed the Indians for the 1950s and later the White Sox, played from 1928-1947. His playing career, lasting 19 seasons, wasn’t overly interesting: .261/.326/.337 with 13.5 WAR. That said, Lopez, a catcher, set the record for career games at the position until Gary Carter broke it in 1990. Lopez died four days after the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, the franchise’s first championship since Lopez led them to the World Series 88 years before. Lopez was a colorful character and solid catcher for nearly 20 years and a great manager for even longer.

Earl Weaver managed for 17 years, won 58 percent of his games, one World Series and four pennants. Weaver is, perhaps, my favorite baseball entity. His book Weaver On Strategy is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read. His career is probably the reason for this column as I know he struggled mightily in the minors (.267/.269/.344) across 14 seasons. However, Weaver knew how to manage a baseball team and farm system. While he couldn’t play well, his mind and understanding of the game was up there with anyone. He was also similar to Al Lopez: neither found an umpire they couldn’t get to throw them out of a game. Man, I miss Earl Weaver.

Cap Anson managed for 21 seasons (nearly two-thirds of that time he was player-manager), won 58 percent of his games and five pennants. Anson is, of course, one of the greatest players of all time: .334/.394/.447 with nearly 100 WAR. He won the batting title twice, lead the league in OBP four times and generally dominated the 1870s, 80s and 90s. Between Anson’s career and managerial record, he could be the most complete baseball man of all time!

Connie Mack, or Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr., managed for 53 seasons, won 48 percent of his games, five World Series and nine pennants. Mack, the Tall Tactician, played 11 seasons in the majors predominantly at catcher, finishing with a .244/.305/.300 line and 4.5 WAR. Mack had nearly 60 more walks than he did extra base hits. He also had 15 more K’s than he did extra base hits. Another innovator, Mack would simulate the sound of a foul tip when he was catching. At the time, a caught foul tip was automatically an out. In 1891, the rule was changed that only a caught foul tip on a third strike signaled an out.

Casey Stengel managed for 25 seasons, won 51 percent of his games, seven World Series and 10 pennants. Stengel, the Old Perfessor, wasn’t a bad hitter either. He played predominantly right-field and finished with a .284/.356/.410 line and OPS+ of 119. He was worth 18.7 WAR for his career. Stengel was a slightly above average player for about 10 of his 14 seasons – not bad.

Most of those are old time managers; however recent successful managers like Sparky Anderson, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox, Tommy Lasorda, Terry Francona, Joe Girardi and Davey Johnson didn’t have overly distinguished playing careers. In addition, pitching coaches like Dave Duncan (career .214/.279/.357 hitter) and Leo Mazzone (had a 1.40 WHIP and 0.93 K:BB rate across 10 minor league seasons) weren’t successful players. That said, Joe Torre had a near Hall of Fame playing career.

In short, good players and bad players turned out to be great managers, GMs (Billy Beane), pitching coaches and others. However, in recent time, the game seems to have trended away from stars becoming managers. Perhaps if Ryne Sandberg ever gets a shot or if Mark McGwire continues as a hitting coach we’ll know more.

It does appear that the decline of the player-manager has changed the pool of managerial candidates. With the better players playing longer into their careers, they lose out. Nowadays, players like Terry Francona (who last played in the Bigs at 31) are earning valuable experience 5-10 years before stars retire. In addition, we can always blame Pete Rose.
Lastly, perhaps there is a bit of perception bias. The majority of people fail at baseball, so, necessarily, there are far more bad players looking for managerial jobs than good players.

The A’s Gamble on Yoenis Cespedes

The Oakland Athletics stunned the baseball world earlier this week when the team signed the untried Yoennis Cespedes to a 4-year, $36 million contract. Cespedes’ only experience against major league pitching came during the World Baseball Classic where he hit .428 in 24 at bats. In Cuba last year, Cespedes hit 33 home runs in 90 games. Who knows how that translates into a realistic ability to hit in the big time?

The WBC and the Cuban League aren’t the major leagues. While the scouts go crazy over Cespedes and what they view as his can’t miss future, my own thinking is tempered by the opinions of two former big league stars, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Steve Blass.

Schmidt says that there’s no jump harder to make in professional sports than the move up from AAA to the majors. Blass adds that it’s one thing to “make” the big league roster but a different thing altogether to “perform” once you get there. Some note that neither the WBC or the Cuban League approach AAA talent-wise.

Cespedes will begin his Athletics’ career in the minors. There he might run into another international signing, a former “can’t miss” prospect who looks like—well, he may miss. In 2008, the As signed 6’7” 16-year-old Dominican Michael Ynoa for $4.25 million. General manager Billy Beane predicted that Ynoa’s blazing fastball would dominate hitters for years to come. Ynoa pitched nine innings of rookie ball in 2010 before blowing out his arm and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Another multimillion dollar Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman, is still in his formative stages. In parts of two seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, Chapman has shown improvement.

Last summer, Chapman threw a 105 mile fastball that Reds’ fans are still talking about

But here’s what pitching great Sal Maglie said in Sports Illustrated in 1958 about pitchers who plan to make their livings with fastballs:

With nothing but a real good fastball, a pitcher can be a winner in high school and college, on the sandlots and even in the minor leagues. But no one—not even a Herb Score or a Bob Feller  —can consistently throw the ball past major league hitters. The guys you run into here are just too good for that.

Maybe without his injury Ynoa would be dominant by now. Cespedes might end up in the Hall of Fame. Long-term investments in any young player are risky. But the odds shift in the general manager’s favor if that player has come up through familiar venues familiar, e.g. college campuses and organized American minor leagues.

If you read my earlier, politically incorrect post about Yu Darvish and the extravagant contract that the Texas Rangers bestowed on him, you won’t be surprised to learn that I view the Cespedes deal with extreme skepticism. I’d like to see more American kids get shots.

As a result of lifting the visa cap for professional athletes, the minor leagues are currently made up of nearly 50 percent foreign-born players.

The new, lax visa regulations add another layer of difficulty for American teens hoping to make the big leagues. Instead of signing hundreds of U.S. high school or college amateurs, historically the business model for stocking minor-league rosters, today teams draft fewer U.S. kids and instead ink more so-called non-draft free agents, the majority young Latin Americans. One reason: the marginal players are cheaper.

Oneri Fleita, the Chicago Cubs minor league player development director explained:

There is no longer a limit on work visas. So, yeah, you might see more foreign players getting an opportunity.

Globalism is good for owners, the players signed to the multimillion dollar deals and for fans if their teams’ players make it big. For the American kid hoping to make his mark, globalism makes his already difficult task nearly impossible.