Monthly Archives: June 2012

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Vlad Guerrero

Claim to fame: From 1998 to 2007, playing for the Expos and Angels, Vladimir Guerrero posted a .327/.394/.586 slash line with a 149 OPS+ while averaging 151 games per season, making eight all-star games, winning seven silver slugger awards and receiving at least one MVP vote in all 10 seasons. Never during that stretch did Guerrero’s OPS fall below .930 or his OPS+ below 138. It was a decade of dominance, of a sustained status as one of Major League Baseball’s premier offensive players.

Since 2008, Guerrero’s production has declined steadily, an all-star berth in 2010 suggesting a renaissance before 2011 brought the worst full season of the rightfielder’s distinguished career. Coming off that replacement-level production (0.0 WAR on Baseball-Reference), Guerrero struggled to find work, eventually signing with the Blue Jays, theoretically foreshadowing a return to Canada to finish his career north of the border, where it began. He went 9-20 at Class-A Dunedin before a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas, where Vlad continued to knock around minor league pitching, batting .303 over eight games before asking for, and being granted, his release two weeks ago. The former-MVP is now back on the job hunt, hoping to avoid retirement.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Released by the Blue Jays after failing to earn a Big League call-up, Guerrero’s career appears to be finished. If he does not again play in the majors, he will first be eligible for BBWAA Hall of Fame voting in 2016.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Vlad Guerrero seems like a Hall of Famer. Maybe it’s the all-star appearances; he was selected to nine Mid-Summer Classics. Maybe it’s the MVP votes; he won the award in 2004 and finished in the top five in voting three other times. Maybe it’s the admiration with which his peers describe him; in an excellent 2000 ESPN Magazine feature, Jose Mesa is quoted as saying:

Vladimir and A-Rod are the two most complete players in this game. You are obligated to put Vladimir in the top two. Obligated. But A-Rod at least has help. Vladimir is all by himself. You put Vladimir on the Yankees, and he’s hitting 50, 60 homers and driving in 200 runs.

Then later in the same conversation:

The devil himself would be afraid to pitch to that guy.

Or maybe Guerrero seems like a Hall of Famer because he practically knocked the laces out of baseballs for 16 eyeball-grabbing seasons, smashing line drives through ball parks across the continent and wowing on-lookers and colleagues alike with a throwing arm that made the proverbial “cannon for an arm” look like a Nerf gun.

When we look a little more closely, we note that Guerrero walked only 56 times per 162 games, for an on-base percentage only 61 points above his batting average. We note that, despite his ability to gun down base-runners from right, Guerrero’s range in the outfield was unexceptional, resulting in a negative career Ultimate Zone Rating (according to Fangraphs.com, which only started tracking the stat in 2002) and a negative career dWAR (according to Baseball-Reference). And we note that, while Guerrero twice stole 37 or more bases in a season, earning him a reputation as a valuable base-runner, he converted only 65.8% of his career stolen base attempts and grades out as a below-average base-runner according to formulas from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.

All this adds up to a 55.2 WAR, roughly equal to that of Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell but also non-Hall of Famers Bobby Bonds, Dick Allen, and Darrell Evans.

That quintet shows that seeming like a Hall of Famer is almost as important as actually playing like one. Using objective statistical analysis, it would be hard to deem any of those five players head and shoulders above the others, but reputation got two of them to Cooperstown and the others not even that close. Killebrew won five home runs titles and finished with 573 long balls while Stargell won two World Series titles as an outsized personality on a pair of memorable teams. More than Allen, Bonds, and Evans, Killebrew and Stargell put the “fame” in Hall of Fame.

Ironically, so too does Guerrero, whom LeBatard once called “The most anonymous superstar in sports.” Everyone assuming you’re a Hall of Famer shouldn’t automatically make you one, but giving off that Hall of Fame vibe makes for a reasonable tie-breaker. Vladimir Guerrero seems and feels like a Hall of Famer, and for a borderline case, that’s not too bad of a reason to make him one.

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

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBilly PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe Posnanski, Johan SantanaJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco,J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

Guest post: Curt Flood, the forgotten man

The Curt Flood story is a sad one indeed. It is the story of a proud man who refused to compromise his beliefs. It is the story of a man who took on the baseball establishment with little or no support from his fellow players for the future benefit of all players. It is the story of a man ahead of his times and a rare human being who refused to back down when he knew that what he was doing was right, no matter the consequences. He paid dearly for those convictions and deserved much better than he got.

Flood died January 20, 1997 with only a brief mention from the press and few comments from those who played with and against him. He made his major league debut September 9, 1956 with Cincinnati and finished his career with the Washington Senators in 1971.  His recognition as a legitimate major league star came during his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals Flood won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards and batted over .300 six times. He was an integral part of the Cardinals championship teams in 1964 and 1967 and their National League champion team of 1968.

The off season of 1969 proved to be the most pivotal of his baseball career and his life. Flood found himself part of a package of players being sent to the then lowly Philadelphia Phillies by the St. Louis Cardinals. Up until this moment, trades were made with no regard to those players involved and players had no recourse to challenge being sent to this city or that. The accepted attitude amongst players, at least publicly, was a quiet acceptance of their circumstances. They had no rights under the laws of baseball and once a contract was signed, a team owned that players for a time period designated solely by the whim of the team. If a player was unhappy about being traded, his only option was to retire from baseball. His ability to earn a living and play a game he loved was completely out of his hands.

Curt Flood tried to change all of that in the winter of 1968-69. Flood at the time was making a salary of $100,000, a salary only the very best in baseball were able to command. $100,000 was a number players sought, not only because of the amount, but because it showed that they were among the best players in baseball. Flood, by his refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies stood to lose money and prestige.

After a meeting with then Major League Baseball Players Association president Marvin Miller during which Miller told Flood that the union was prepared to sue baseball over the Reserve Clause, Flood decided to challenge baseball.

On December 24, 1969, Flood wrote the following letter to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

Kuhn refused Flood’s request, and in January 1970, Flood filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and major league baseball. In a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court decided to set aside any decision and leave things the way they were (stare decisis). Flood sat out the 1970 season and returned in 1971 to play for the Senators but his career was, in effect, over.

Four years later, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that two pitchers who had followed Flood and sat out an entire season were now considered free agents. The era of freedom for players had finally begun. For Curt Flood, this decision was too little too late. Flood had stood up to the establishment and lost. His legacy was finally acknowledged by Congress in 1997 and legislation the next year was introduced to formally protect baseball players, the Curt Flood Act of 1998. Flood finally won. Sadly, he died before realizing his dream.

Any player/Any era: Earl Averill

What he did: I kicked off a new project here Monday, having people vote on a 50-player inner circle for the Hall of Fame, and I suppose it’s no surprise Earl Averill is an afterthought in voting. Players like Averill often suffer in these exercises. Averill, who currently has two votes, played just 13 years in the majors, needing until a month before his 27th birthday in 1929 to debut. His lifetime numbers pale compared to legions of greats who’ve appeared more recently. Even his place in Cooperstown wasn’t easily come by. Averill campaigned for a plaque for years after retiring in 1941, Bert Blyleven for an earlier generation, and it took until 1975 for the Veterans Committee to recognize him.

This isn’t to say Averill doesn’t deserve his due. His 238 home runs, .318 batting average, and 133 OPS+ place him among the best hitters of the 1930s. His 45.1 WAR, while distantly down the career leaderboards, isn’t bad for 13 seasons– just 142 players in baseball history have posted a better total in that span. Averill is certainly one of the greatest Cleveland Indians of all-time, arguably worthy of the franchise’s Mount Rushmore. And I wonder what he might have done with a longer career.

Era he might have thrived in: Averill was a product of his environment, beginning with a town club in 1920 in his hometown of Snohomish, Washington and eventually working his way to the Pacific Coast League and, after starring for three years in that circuit, the majors. He debuted in the American League during a golden age for hitters and took advantage of an ideal home field for offense, League Park in Cleveland, hitting .360 there with a .439 on-base percentage and .625 slugging line. It might not be easy to find Averill a superior situation, though I assume it’s possible.

With Averill’s size, 5’9 and 172 pounds, he might not get drafted today. But I’m reminded a little of Mel Ott. A similarly diminutive outfielder and left handed hitter, Ott also took advantage of a ballpark seemingly built for him. Where it was 290 feet to right field in League Park with a 40-foot fence for Averill, Ott faced just a 258-foot right field porch at the Polo Grounds which helped him hit 323 of his 511 career home runs there. Age and raw talent wasn’t a hindrance for Ott, either, as he got a contract at 17 from the Giants who let him sit the bench a couple years before he became a regular player. Without giving too much away, Ott seems like a lock for my project’s inner circle. With similar career circumstances, Averill might have similar odds.

Why: Numbers talk in discussions about all-time greats, and while Averill wasn’t quite the power hitter that Ott was, I suspect that with a full career and a better park for his skill set, he might have come somewhere close to doubling his lifetime home run totals. I looked at the rates that Averill and Ott homered at their primary parks and elsewhere, and I found that Averill didn’t hit balls out at a terribly worse pace at home or on the road than Ott did.

Home run splits for the two players are as follows:

Player and park HRs PAs HR rate
Averill at League Park 126 2796 1 every 22.19 PAs
Averill elsewhere 112 4425 1 every 39.51 PAs
Ott at Polo Grounds 323 5600 1 every 17.34 PAs
Ott elsewhere 188 5748 1 every 30.57 PAs


I’m guessing that playing 22 seasons with the Giants, as Ott did, Averill would have finished with somewhere above 400 home runs. For a pre-World War II player, this would’ve placed Averill at the top of the home run leader charts and assured him a sooner spot in Cooperstown and the baseball pantheon. That could be enough to at least make him something more than a relatively forgotten man today.

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 KalineAl RosenAl SimmonsAlbert PujolsArtie WilsonBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug Glanville,Ed WalshEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy 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.,Kenny LoftonLarry WalkerLefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark Fidrych, Matt CainMatt NokesMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertNolan RyanOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Vote: The Hall of Fame Inner Circle Project

Writing often about Cooperstown the past couple years, I’ve come to favor a large Hall of Fame. I don’t apologize for this, nor do I think there’d be anything wrong with a museum that would honor the likes of Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell, or Smoky Joe Wood. That being said, I understand one reason people decry the inductions of players like Travis Jackson, Tommy McCarthy, and Eppa Rixey. There isn’t much delineation in the players’ wing at Cooperstown, nothing to separate the Jacksons, McCarthys, and Rixeys of the museum from players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays. Every member gets the same plaque. By standards of Cooperstown, all enshrined players are, in effect, equal. Should this be so?

I’ve devised a new project to challenge this paradigm. As founder and editor of this site, I’m pleased to kick off voting on the Hall of Fame Inner Circle Project.

The past two offseasons, I’ve run a project through this website having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The project that I’m kicking off today could perhaps be called the 50 best players in the Hall of Fame. This is about identifying the best of the best and giving them their due, their own special level of recognition. I don’t know if anyone’s devised an inner circle before, though I know there’s nothing like it at the Hall of Fame itself. Let’s build something together. I’ve created a ballot of the 237 men who’ve been voted into Cooperstown as players, counting Negro Leaguers, and I invite anyone who’s interested to vote for the 50 best of the best. Please vote via this Google Document.

As usual, there are few rules with voting. I welcome people using whatever system they’d like for voting, and as always, all votes count equally and rankings will be determined by number of votes. The only requirements are that people vote for 50 players and that all votes be submitted no later than Friday, July 6 at 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. I’ll unveil results on July 17, just ahead of the annual induction weekend at Cooperstown. On a related note, if anyone is interested in writing about a player for the final results post, please feel free to email me at thewomack@gmail.com. I can also be reached for questions or feedback via this email. All this being said, thanks, and I look forward to seeing how everyone votes.

Please vote via this Google Document.

Any player/Any era: Matt Cain

What he did: I’ve been writing this column for two years, and for two years, Matt Cain has been a potential perfect subject. In part, this column has been about taking men whose stats may have suffered due to their career circumstances. I’ve looked at hitters like Jim Wynn and Bob Watson who might have been Hall of Famers had they not played in the Astrodome of the 1960s. Conversely, I’ve looked at Paul Derringer, who went 7-27 in 1933; on the 1968 Dodgers, Derringer’s efforts that season would be good for a 16-13 record with a 2.55 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. I believe so much of baseball success is about being in the right place at the right time, and until last night, Cain was another Wynn, Watson, or Derringer, a man who could’ve used any era and team besides his own.

For anyone who missed it, Cain threw the first perfect game in the Giants’ 130-season history last night, shutting down the Houston Astros 10-0. A legion of baseball writers have already weighed in about Cain’s feat including Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles. Grant wrote:

There are two ways to talk about Matt Cain: the macro and micro. Big picture and small picture. The micro is on a game-to-game basis. Boy, oh boy, Matt Cain sure is good. He looked awesome in that game, and the change-up was a-changin’. Breaking down specific at-bats. Reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have him. Noting that he got cained, or marveling that he somehow mooned the baseball gods and eked out a win.

The macro and big picture, though, isn’t something you can do very often without spoiling it. That’s where you note that Cain was the original guy, the transitional figure. It’s easy to get myopic and forget that the Giants weren’t always a pitching-rich team that struggled to hit. For a while they couldn’t do either. And then there was Matt Cain, showing up in the majors when he was 20, and pitching beyond his years.

Brisbee may have best captured the context for a pitcher who only recently crossed .500 for his career winning percentage despite compiling a 126 ERA+ and 28 WAR. For much of his seven-plus years in the majors, Cain’s been a sobering example of the importance of run support, of how a lack of it can impact a hurler’s win-loss record. The Giants have scored more than 700 runs just one season of Cain’s career, and if the splits below show me anything, he’s suffered for it. Might Cain be an annual threat to win 20 games on a team that regularly gave him four or five runs a game? I think so. Just look at his splits:

Split W L W-L% ERA G GS CG SHO IP H R ER BB SO
0-2 Runs Scored 11 52 .175 3.14 77 77 4 1 502.0 417 192 175 177 397
3-5 Runs Scored 35 21 .625 3.37 91 91 8 3 588.0 484 230 220 220 496
6+ Runs Scored 31 2 .939 3.34 48 48 3 2 320.1 266 128 119 92 287


Last night, however, this point was moot, and in that spirit, I’ll depart from this column’s usual format. Typically, I suggest an alternate era a player might have thrived in and why. If anyone would like to do that in the comments section here, please feel free. For now, I’ll close by saying that last night, for one game at least, Cain needed to be no other place besides where he was at.

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 KalineAl RosenAl SimmonsAlbert PujolsArtie WilsonBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug Glanville,Ed WalshEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy 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., Kenny LoftonLarry WalkerLefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatt NokesMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate Colbert, Nolan RyanOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Johan Santana

Claim to fame: Fresh off the first no-hitter in the 8,000+ game history of the New York Mets, Johan Santana appears fully recovered from the shoulder surgery that cost him the 2011 season. Santana’s historic performance and his strong output through 11 starts this season suggest that the lefty’s career is far from finished and that the dominant pitcher we saw in Minnesota and Queens during an incredible five-year stretch — when he never finished out of the top-five in Cy Young voting — is back and ready to continue his path to Cooperstown.

Through 12 whole or partial Major League seasons, Santana has accomplished much, earning three ERA titles, three strikeout titles, a pitching triple crown, and two Cy Young awards while posting an ERA+ that currently ranks tied for 11th all-time (min. 1,000 innings pitched) and a WHIP that stands 20th among modern era hurlers. His 50.0 WAR is certainly impressive for such a (so far) brief career by Hall of Fame standards but would place him among the lower tier of Hall of Famers in that category.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Santana will be eligible for the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot five years after he retires, which doesn’t look to be all that soon.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? There are two questions to be answered here: Would Santana be a Hall of Famer right now, and will he be one when he retires? The latter defends somewhat on his health. The lefty is borderline Hall-worthy as is, but a few more productive seasons would seal his induction. If Santana’s early-2012 success is no aberration and he’s back to vintage-Johan, he shouldn’t have a problem approaching 200 wins, 2,500 strikeouts, and 60 WAR, totals respectable enough to garner Hall of Fame support when paired with multiple Cy Young awards during a fantastic peak.

More interesting, to me at least, is the question of whether Santana is already Cooperstown-qualified. To those who instinctively reject the idea that after less than a decade as a starting pitcher Johan is already a Hall of Famer, consider these blind résumés:

Pitcher A: 12 seasons, 371 G, 275 GS, 1,981.2 IP, 3.10 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.118 WHIP, 3.55 SO/BB, 50.0 WAR, four all-star games, two Cy Young awards, three ERA titles (three ERA+ titles).

Pitcher B: 12 seasons, 397 G, 314 GS, 2,324.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.106 WHIP, 2.93 K/BB, 50.3 WAR, six all-star games, three Cy Young awards, one MVP, five ERA titles (two ERA+ titles).

Pretty close, right? Almost identical really. Comparing raw numbers, Pitcher B might get the edge, but there’s good reason his ERA+ (which adjusts ERA according to league average ERA as well as a pitcher’s home ballpark; 100 is average, higher is better) is 10 points worse than Pitcher A’s despite Pitcher B’s lower ERA. Pitcher B, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, pitched in an extreme pitcher-friendly era and in a cavernous home park. Pitcher B boasts a slightly larger body of work, but Baseball-reference.com’s WAR formula asserts that this only cancels out Pitcher A’s superior production relative to his contemporaries.

If you haven’t yet guessed, Pitcher A is Johan Santana, and Pitcher B is Sandy Koufax, and, disregarding preconceptions, the two are extremely comparable. Both left-handers enjoyed relatively brief careers as starting pitchers but also substantial stints as the consensus best pitcher in the world, during which they each won multiple Cy Young awards and finished among the top votegetters for the award in several other seasons. Koufax’s legend is inflated by his strikingly low ERA numbers, which, again, are a product of when he pitched, the offense-starved 1960s, and where he pitched, deep-fenced Dodger Stadium. Santana’s first 12 seasons have been just as productive as Koufax’s dozen-year career with just as strong of a peak.

Johan is still three no-hitters short of Sandy’s career total, but by almost all other measures the two are near-equals. Santana may or may not already be deserving of a Hall of Fame plaque, but if you argue he’s not, you’re arguing against Koufax as well.

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

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly Martin, Billy PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco, J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

A long ride to the majors: The story of James ‘Bus’ Clarkson

Editor’s note: Please welcome Nick Diunte to BPP. Nick is a longtime reader, fellow SABR member, and he runs a New York baseball history page for Examiner.com. We interact often via Twitter. Recently, I tweeted that I thought it would be interesting to look at Negro League veterans who debuted in the majors after age 30 during the first wave of MLB integration. Nick replied that he’s interviewed a number of these men. The following is part of a book that Nick is working on about broader subject.

__________________

Beyond the barriers broken by Jackie Robinson lie the truncated major league careers of Negro League veterans. Past their prime, these baseball lifers persisted well into their late 30’s and early 40’s, playing out their careers before teammates and crowds that never had the opportunity to see them at their peaks. The well-documented exploits of Satchel Paige reaching the majors in his 40s and Sam Jethroe winning Rookie of the Year at 33 are more prominent stories from this group. There were other less-celebrated and now forgotten Negro League vets who took whatever time they could get in the majors, thirty-somethings like Ray Noble, Pat Scantlebury, Quincy Trouppe, Bob Thurman, and Artie Wilson. This is the story of one overlooked fence buster, James “Bus” Clarkson.

Years before his 1952 debut in the majors at 37, Clarkson was a power-hitting shortstop and third baseman in the Negro Leagues. Debuting in 1937, Clarkson terrorized pitching wherever he went, whether it was in the United States or the Caribbean, finishing second to Josh Gibson in home runs in the 1941 Mexican League. Overshadowed by younger prospects coming out of the Negro Leagues, Clarkson headed north to Canada in 1948, where he blasted 31 homers while batting .408 for St. Jean of the Provincial League. Despite his monstrous numbers and Robinson having broken baseball’s color barrier the year prior, Clarkson returned to the Negro Leagues with no offers from major league organizations.

By 1950, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore Clarkson’s talents. He signed with the Boston Braves and was immediately assigned to their AAA team in Milwaukee. Immediately, Clarkson lived up to his reputation as a dangerous hitter, batting .302 while playing third base. Holding down the left side of the infield with Clarkson was a young Johnny Logan, who would later become a fixture in the Braves infield. “He happened to be an outstanding hitter,” Logan said of Clarkson. “When you can hit, you play someplace. He was a tremendous guy. As a young ballplayer, we looked up to him.”

With Logan spending most of the 1951 season in Boston, Clarkson at age 36 took the bulk of the shortstop duties, batting .343 while leading the Brewers to the 1951 Junior World Series championship over the Montreal Royals. Among his teammates was Charlie Gorin, a 22-year-old rookie pitcher fresh from the University of Texas. Speaking with Gorin in 2008, his memories of Clarkson willing his throws across the diamond from shortstop were crystal clear. “I could remember pitching, and when they hit a groundball to Bus, he’d field it and just throw it,” Gorin said. “He didn’t have a burning arm because he was up in age. His arm wasn’t that good, and it would tail off, or go in the dirt. He’d make the throw to George Crowe and he’d say, ‘Do something with it George!’”

While Clarkson proved to be a capable fielder, his superior abilities at the plate afforded him a chance with the Boston Braves in 1952. Batting .385 during the first month of 1952 in Milwaukee, and with Boston faltering in the National League, the Braves made Clarkson a rookie at 37. Clarkson saw action in four of the first six games that he was with Boston. He went 2-for-11 with zero extra base hits and was quickly relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the next month-and-a-half. Clarkson would end his campaign at the end of June with a batting average of .200, with five hits in 25 total at-bats.

Boston teammate Virgil Jester, who also played with Clarkson in Milwaukee, felt that Clarkson wasn’t given a fair shake during his time in the majors. “I thought he was a great, great player,” Jester said. “He was one of the strongest hitters that I ever saw. I don’t think the Braves gave Clarkson a good break to play there.” George Crowe, when interviewed in 2008, echoed Jester’s sentiments, saying that Clarkson had difficulty going from playing full-time his entire career, to coming off the bench every few games. “He didn’t play that much in Boston as I recall, like I didn’t play that much when I was there either,” Crowe said. “It’s hard for a guy that’s used to playing every day that gets in there once every one-to-two weeks.”

It didn’t help that Boston had young Eddie Mathews stationed at third base and also had stock in upstarts Logan and Jack Cusick at shortstop. When Charlie Grimm took the managerial reigns from Tommy Holmes in June, 1952, one of his first moves was to option Clarkson to the minor leagues and recall Logan. Even though Clarkson was recalled a few days after being sent down, he sat the bench for the rest of June except for a few pinch-hitting opportunities along the way. He last played June 22, whereupon Boston sent him back once more to Milwaukee.

Clarkson’s career however didn’t end after the Braves sent him down for the last time. Clarkson signed with the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1953 and terrorized Texas League pitching for the next two years. At 39 in 1954, Clarkson led the league with 42 home runs while batting .324. Ed Mickelson, who was playing with the Shreveport Oilers, remembered a blast by Clarkson. “He hit a line drive at our shortstop at Joe Koppe,” Mickelson said in 2009. “Joe wasn’t very big, he was 5’8” or 5’9”. He went up and jumped for the ball, and I don’t think he put a glove on it; it was only a few inches above his glove. The ball kept rising and went out of the ballpark in left-center field. Still rising, it went out of the field, a line drive out of the park.”

Clarkson carried his tremendous 1954 season into the winter when he played with the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. His team, which has been dubbed the greatest winter league team ever assembled, featured an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the aforementioned Bob Thurman. Clarkson anchored the infield at third base, while Don Zimmer was at short stop, Ron Samford at second base and George Crowe at first base. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti held down the catching duties while Ruben Gomez, Sam “Toothpick” Jones and Bill Greason handled the majority of the pitching. They easily captured the Caribbean Series.

Greason spent many years facing Clarkson in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Texas League and Puerto Rico. He said the majors missed out on an extremely talented ballplayer. “Clarkson would have made it no doubt in the majors if he was younger,” Greason said in 2009. “He could hit and field. He was like Raymond Dandridge. People would have seen something that they don’t see too much now. The fielding, throwing, and hitting in one player like Clarkson and Dandridge. Those guys were tremendous … ‘phenoms’ as we called them.”

George H. W. Bush Reminisces About the 1947 College World Series (Bush: 0 for 7)

Given my choice between watching the College or Major League World Series, I’d pick college without hesitation. Even in the opening rounds, the players are more fundamentally well-schooled in the basics: advancing the runner, hitting the cut off man and laying down a bunt. And, to be frank, if those same players put on a Pirates uniform and passed themselves off as big leaguers, few in PNC Park’s stands could tell the difference. Many of the college pitchers throw over 90 miles per hour and field their positions flawlessly.

The College World Series has a rich tradition dating back to 1947 when Kalamazoo, Michigan hosted the event. Two players from that year’s final that pitted the California Bears against the Yale Bulldogs went on to achieve outstanding success in their professional careers: Jackie Jensen with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators and George Herbert Walker Bush, United States president.

Although Jensen pitched for the Bears, by the time he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1957, he played outfield. Bush was a slick-fielding, no hit first baseman and a decorated World War II hero. Many of the players including Jensen had military experience.

In the series opener, Jensen came through with a pinch hit single to drive in Cal’s tying run. Recalled Red Mathews, Yale’s third baseman, Jensen was “… strong and fast and big. I was very impressed with him.” The game wasn’t close for long. The Bears scored 11 runs in the top of the ninth to win easily; Cal 17, Yale 4.

Then as now, the series final had a best two of three format. In the next day’s deciding double header, Jensen started the opener. The “Golden Boy,” as Jensen was known, gave up a run in the first inning but then held Yale in check until the bottom of the fourth. The Elis made a fatal mistake when manager Ethan Allen ordered Cal’s number eight hitter walked to face Jensen. As Bush recalled: “He [Jensen] hit one that’s still rolling out there in Kalamazoo.”

Eventually, Jensen tired and was lifted in the bottom of the fourth with the score tied, 4-4. In the end, the Bears prevailed 8-7. Bears’ relief pitcher Virgil Butler struck out Bush, 0 for 7 in the series, to end the game. As Butler later remembered: “”On the last pitch, I struck out George Bush on a curveball. I got my 15 minutes of glory!”

In 1961, after only 11 mostly outstanding years in professional baseball and his career shortened by his notorious fear of flying, Jensen retired. While Jensen starred on the baseball diamond, his later life was plagued by personal and financial misfortune. He was married to, divorced from, remarried to and again divorced from Zoe Ann Olson, an Olympic diving star.

In 1974, Jensen returned to Berkeley to coach his beloved Bears who he led to more than 100 wins. But in 1982, age 55, Jensen died from his second heart attack in two months.

Bush, on the other hand, is a hale and hearty 88. His political resume includes two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, stints as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, two terms as Vice President and one as term as President.

As for his College World Series memories Bush disputes his teammates’ criticism that he couldn’t hit. According to Bush, he batted about .250. And, Bush said, “And I think if I were playing today in the bigs, I’d probably get about $8 million bucks a year for that.”

These outfielders could throw

After watching a show Saturday discussing the five best outfield arms in Major League Baseball today, I began thinking about some great past arms. I began watching baseball in the mid 60’s and therefore can only discuss players from that era and those who followed. I’m certain I will leave out some great arms from baseball past and I know that some worthy names will be omitted. It is rare in today’s game that I notice an outfielder who can throw. Most highlight reels are filled with announcers pontificating with amazement over 250-foot throws which most middle infielders could have made. In my baseball day, it seemed that every team had at least one outfielder who no one ran against twice. These are five I remember in no particular order that stopped the running game in its tracks; five who symbolized what a great arm really was all about.

1. Ellis Valentine: Few south of the Canadian border will remember Valentine. Valentine patrolled right field for the Montreal Expos from 1975-1981. I have never seen a player with a stronger arm.  He simply shut down the running game from first to third and from second to home.  Few jogged down to first base after a single to right either. Valentine made a regular habit of turning a single to right into an outfield-to-infield putout for those runners who took a hit or extra base for granted. Then Expo manager Dick Williams quickly touted Valentine as having the best arm he had ever seen and compared the rookie to Roberto Clemente.

2. Jesse Barfield: Another right fielder who player north of the border.  Barfield led the American League in assists three times.  After his third straight season leading the league in assists, the opposition stopped trying to advance. He was especially adept at nullifying the sacrifice fly and turning doubles into singles and triples into doubles.  Barfield threw out an astounding 152 runners in his 12 year career.  Barfield was not only a strong armed outfielder, but an outfielder who was known for the accuracy of his throws. Cutoff men were usually reluctant to get anywhere near his rockets.  Most simply had to duck out of the way.

3. Dave Winfield: I can remember fondly one pre All Star game outfielder throwing competition. The drill involved throwing to second base, then to third base and then to home plate. I can’t remember who else participated in this contest.  I can only remember Winfield throwing to each base on the fly and virtually knocking down those players chosen to receive the baseball. I remember being glad it wasn’t me. Winfield was a pitcher when drafted but upon his promotion to the majors after signing with the San Diego Padres in 1973 but the Padres recognized his bat and wanted that arm in right field.  Winfield never spent a day in the minors.

4. Raul Mondesi: Another right fielder and another right fielder with a cannon for an arm. Originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mondesi played for several teams over the course of his somewhat checkered major league career.  Mondesi had his detractors but no one doubted his arm. He was another outfielder in the Ellis Valentine tradition who could turn a routine one or two hop single to right into a footrace and a red alert for any first baseman who was looking elsewhere. He may have been one of those outfielders who necessitated the wearing of batting gloves for infielders.

5. Roberto Clemente: Had to include the great number 21. Clemente was the master at throwing base runners out trying to go first to third. I can remember many times Clemente digging a ball out of the right field corner with the runner already three or four steps past second going full speed towards third base. Clemente would reach down for the ball, spin and throw a one hopper to third on the corner of the bag.  The runner and third base coach would look in disbelief as the ball arrived as if from out of nowhere and the tag for the out was put down. Clemente made a great play look routine time and time again

These are my favorite outfield arms from a time when a great throwing arm was one of the skills scouts cherished. In today’s game, great throws seem like more of an afterthought.