All posts by Graham Womack

Minnie Minoso and rule exceptions for the Hall of Fame

I have a new piece up at Sporting News, exploring Minnie Minoso’s Hall of Fame chances.

In my piece, I talk about the times the Hall of Fame has made exceptions to its rules. I cite the cases of Satchel Paige, Casey Stengel, and Lou Gehrig, as well as the three times I know of that the Hall of Fame has waived its five-year waiting period after the death of a player: Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson, and Darryl Kile.

Because my piece was about Minnie Minoso, I held back on some other exceptions that I felt may have bogged the narrative down and wouldn’t have been of interest to most Sporting News readers. But because people who frequent this site are awesome and know the crap out of baseball history, I’ll post the other exceptions here:

Addie Joss: Hall of Famers are required to have played 10 seasons, though the Veterans Committee credited Joss for going to spring training in 1911 shortly before he died of meningitis. The committee exercised similar discretion with Ross Youngs, a Hall of Famer who died young and had just eight seasons with 500 plate appearances.

Mass inductions: These have happened more than people may know in Cooperstown’s history, both officially and unofficially. There are the well-known examples, such as the Special Negro League Election Committee of 2006 and the Old Timers Committee in existence from 1939-1949. Then there are other more obscure examples.

The Old Timers Committee led to the 1953 creation of the Veterans Committee, which initially met every other year. Committee chairman and Sporting News publisher J.G. Taylor Spink resigned in frustration in 1959, calling in his resignation letter for the enshrinement of more 19th century and Deadball Era stars. After no one was inducted at the 1960 Hall of Fame Weekend, the Veterans Committee began voting annually and soon lowered its waiting period for players from 30 years of retirement to 20. Many old-timers were quickly inducted.

I quoted Spink’s letter and talked a bit about this era in a piece I did for The National Pastime Museum on Hank Gowdy’s brief time as a popular Hall of Fame candidate. It’s a forgotten, misunderstood era of Hall of Fame voting. Bill James mistakenly attributed the spate of 19th century selections to Cooperstown librarian Lee Allen in his 1994 book, The Politics of Glory.

Red Ruffing: I mentioned recently in a piece about Ruffing that he’s the reason the Baseball Writers Association of America resumed voting annually after a decade of voting every other year. The BBWAA asked the Hall of Fame permission in 1967 to hold a special election to reconsider Ruffing, after a number of problems were discovered with the 1966 vote.

Steroids: My friend Scott Lindholm of Beyond The Box Score thinks, as I do, that there could eventually be a mass induction for Steroid Era players. Lindholm told me in an email, “Until some direction is given, it’s going to be a free-for-all, with players like Rafael Palmeiro singled out for punishment.” That said, the Hall of Fame has already shortened the amount of time the BBWAA can consider a player from 15 years to 10, presumably to get steroid-related candidates off the writers ballot sooner.

I was on Canadian radio

I had a cool first in my sportswriting life today.

I was the type of kid who used to call into sports talk radio shows. I have a distinct memory of calling into a national show during the spring of 1994 at age 10, getting hung up on because of my young age, and then calling back, voice shaking, so I could say that I thought the Houston Rockets weren’t getting enough respect.

In college, I did a few obligatory stints on the radio, since it’s college, and everyone who’s interested can do it. I could re-enroll in college right now and have my own radio show within two weeks.

Of course in recent years, I’ve done podcasting. That’s kind of the grown up equivalent of college radio. It’s fun and no one listens, and a person can kind of say whatever. I think I’ve podcasted from the bathroom before.

Until now, though, I’d never been an invited guest on a professional radio station. 1310 News in Ottawa just had me on “The Ed Hand Show” to discuss my Joe Carter piece for Sporting News.

I’ve tried to get on the air different places for my work for this site in recent years, though no one’s bit. Writing for a national publication seems to open doors, though.

I enjoyed going on the show. It was flattering to be asked detailed questions about Hall of Fame history and my thoughts on if Joe Carter goes in.

Carter is revered in Canada, maybe more than people in the states understand. When the producer called me, just before I went on the air, he told me one of the station staff had come in wearing a Carter jersey that morning.

Anyhow, for anyone who’s interested, audio should be up here at some point.

Has Fenway Park cost David Ortiz home runs?

A lot has been made of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz recently hitting his 500th home run. Personally, I’ve wondered how much of Ortiz’s legend has been burnished by Fenway Park. Many hitters have famously benefited from it. Wade Boggs hit .369 there lifetime and .306 at all other parks. I doubt Bobby Doerr would be in the Hall of Fame or that Ted Williams would have hit .400 in 1941 without calling Fenway home. If that latter statement sounds blasphemous, consider that Williams batted .428 at home in 1941 and .380 on the road.

Ortiz is an interesting case. I looked at his splits at, and on one hand, he’s had a .986 OPS at Fenway, healthily above his .925 lifetime clip. His slash at Fenway? A robust .306/.408/.580. But it turns out Fenway Park may have cost Ortiz homers. In fact, if he’d played the last 13 seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays, he might have close to 600 homers. Lifetime, he’s homered once every 13.5 plate appearances at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, versus once every 19.8 PAs at Fenway.

There’s no way to know exactly how many homers Ortiz would have if he’d gone from the Minnesota Twins to Toronto instead of Boston after the 2002 season, but I have him somewhere around 591 homers, good for ninth on the all-time list. As it stands, Ortiz is 27th right now.

My math is quick and dirty and probably a little irrational, but it goes something like this. Ortiz has 201 homers in 3,984 lifetime plate appearances at Fenway. Meanwhile, he has 39 homers in 509 plate appearances at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Taking Ortiz’s home run rate in each park and giving Ortiz 3,984 lifetime PAs in Toronto and 509 in Fenway, he’d go from 240 homers between the two parks to about 331.

Regardless, Ortiz may eventually get into the Hall of Fame if the furor over steroids dies down. He’s one of the greatest designated hitters ever, no matter where he spent the past 13 seasons.

How aware were HOF voters of Red Ruffing’s 3.80 ERA?

In my Sporting News piece Tuesday on Mike Mussina, I questioned how aware Hall of Fame voters were of Red Ruffing’s lifetime 3.80 ERA, highest in Cooperstown. My hunch: not much. I suspect this because the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Ruffing into Cooperstown in 1967, two years before the publication of MacMillan’s Baseball Encyclopedia.

As Alan Schwarz explained in his 2004 book The Numbers Game, lifetime stats for older players weren’t widely disseminated before David Neft and his team at Information Concepts, Inc. spent several years rebuilding baseball’s stat records for their landmark 1969 encyclopedia. The 1951 Official Encyclopedia of Baseball, for one, listed just batting averages for hitters and win-loss records for pitchers.

It’s part of the reason that when Ruffing was elected in 1967, he suggested that all 200-game winners, lifetime .300 hitters and 20-year players be automatically enshrined. Such statistics were fairly easy to find. [There was also still some support during the ’60s for the concept of automatic enshrinement, even after the Hall of Fame forbid it in 1956.  The BBWAA simply wasn’t inducting many players in these years.]

Granted, publications at least occasionally published more in-depth stats, most notably perhaps The Sporting News with its “daguerreotypes” that it periodically ran for older players. It carried one for Ruffing on March 4, 1967, two weeks after the BBWAA voted him in, listing his 3.80 ERA as well as a range of other stats.

But I couldn’t find a mention of that 3.80 ERA in the archives at, and I’m curious how many of the 292 Hall of Fame voters in 1967 knew of it. In fact, the bigger issue with Ruffing’s candidacy, from both newspaper and Sporting News stories that I came across, seems to have been his win-loss record: that he had more wins than just a handful of pitchers enshrined; that he had poor records in his early years with the Boston Red Sox, then a perennial American League doormat; and that he fared better with the powerhouse New York Yankees. The Sporting News also made several mentions of Ruffing’s fine postseason numbers.

Anyhow, it’s telling to me that several of the pitchers with the highest ERAs in the Hall of Fame got in before 1969. For the ones enshrined in the years immediately following, I’d point out that momentum for induction often takes several years, even decades and that some of these pitchers could have built a critical mass of support before their lifetime ERAs were well-known.

Consider this list of the 10 highest lifetime ERAs in Cooperstown, compiled with the help of’s Play Index tool:

Player Lifetime ERA Year inducted
 Red Ruffing  3.80  1967
 Ted Lyons 3.67  1955
 Jesse Haines 3.64  1970
 Herb Pennock 3.60 1948
 Waite Hoyt 3.59  1969
 Tom Glavine  3.54  2014
 Early Wynn 3.54  1972
 Burleigh Grimes 3.53 1964
 Dennis Eckersley 3.50 2004
 Robin Roberts 3.41 1976

[Also, and this is mostly for my friend Adam Darowski, I suspect that Wes Ferrell was denied induction more due to character issues than his 4.04 ERA. I can only imagine the precedent that may have been set had Ferrell had a less volatile personality. Jamie Moyer can curse Ferrell’s memory in a few years when his 4.25 ERA gets him quickly turned down by Hall voters.]

Perhaps the BBWAA was willing to look past some things with Ruffing. That March 4, 1967 Sporting News carried another interesting tidbit, noting:

Without [Cleveland Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebovitz’s] help, Red couldn’t have been elected this year. Here’s why:

After Ruffing failed to gain enshrinement in 1966, Lebovitz [then president of the BBWAA] discovered certain discrepancies in the ballots. Some ex-players who were no longer eligible were listed. It was rightly reasoned that several of them possibly received votes that might otherwise have gone to Ruffing and others.

So, the BBWAA petitioned the Hall of Fame executive committee for a special election this year. The request was granted and Ruffing received one more opportunity. It was to be his last, until the need for a run-off prolonged the process.

The rest you know.

The BBWAA had voted every other year for the preceding decade, causing a backlog of players comparable to the current ballot, and I had wondered what prompted the shift. I wouldn’t have put money down that Ruffing caused it, but then, the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame have occasionally made up the rules as they’ve gone for players they wish to honor. That’s a post for another time, though.

Ted Williams and Joe Garagiola pick their all-time teams

I’m a sucker for all-time teams. I’ve visited this topic a few times here, including when I had readers vote on an all-time dream lineup in 2012. I also know of these lineups elsewhere, such as when long, longtime Fred Lieb produced a few, divided by era, for his wonderful 1977 memoir, Baseball As I Have Known It.

Here are a couple more all-time teams I wasn’t aware of, from a March 28, 1983 edition of The Sporting News. In it, legendary hitter Ted Williams and famed broadcaster Joe Garagiola offer competing all-time American League and National League squads.

First, Williams’ AL team:

  • P: Bob Feller
  • C: Bill Dickey
  • 1B: Jimmie Foxx
  • 2B: Bobby Doerr
  • 3B: Brooks Robinson
  • SS: Luis Aparicio
  • OF: Joe DiMaggio
  • OF: Mickey Mantle
  • OF: Frank Robinson

And here’s Garagiola’s NL team:

  • P: Howard Pollet [Editor’s note: Who?]
  • C: Johnny Bench
  • 1B: Pete Rose
  • 2B: Jackie Robinson
  • 3B: Ken Boyer
  • SS: Dave Concepcion
  • OF: Hank Aaron
  • OF: Willie Mays
  • OF: Stan Musial

It’s curious to see the biases of eras reflected in each man’s picks, as well as the inconsistencies. For instance, Williams goes with former teammate Foxx over Lou Gehrig but chooses Feller over another man he played with, Lefty Grove. Garagiola meanwhile takes Howie Pollet [who I had to look up] as his hurler, clearly a tongue-in-cheek pick, but chooses Dave Concepcion over another ex-mate Marty Marion, who may have been a defensible pick on some level, at shortstop.

Course, the men are each somewhat beholden to their contemporaries, with little love for other eras. How Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb don’t make Williams’ team is beyond me. Same goes for Honus Wagner, Mike Schmidt, and any number of first basemen aside from Pete Rose on Garagiola’s squad. [It’s probably as good a time as any to remind that in the seasons Rose primarily served as a first baseman, he was worth a cumulative -12.9 Wins Above Average. I wouldn’t want Rose manning first on the ’83 Giants, let alone my all-time squad.]

Granted, Williams and Garagiola were working without, which I think could enable me to pick two killer teams based on all the leftover players here. I respect that Williams and Garagiola were both seemingly going from memory. How did anyone win arguments before the Internet?

All the same, it’s always fun to see these teams, and these exercises are meant to be fun and cursory anyhow. I’d be curious to see who a prominent former player might tab for his all-time squad today.

Catch me at The Sporting News

Just a quick note to say that I’ve signed on to write a weekly column for The Sporting News entitled “Cooperstown Chances.” It’s more or less a relaunch of my “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” series here from a few years ago.

I’m extremely honored to land this gig and excited, too. There are a backlog of good players I didn’t get to while writing my previous column here. I’m also interested to revisit the cases of players I wrote about before, with a few more years of analytic experience under my belt.

Anyhow, my first column just went live. It’s on Trevor Hoffman.

A revised list of my 10 favorite baseball books

I’ve been on a baseball reading kick lately, and it occurred to me yesterday that my list from 2011 of my 10 favorite baseball books may be due for revision. As a general guiding principle in life, I try to remain open to changing my views, and this particular shift appears to have happened organically. As I look at my 2011 list, I see titles that reflect my interest in the game then, mostly just tales of baseball history. I still love baseball history, of course, though I tend to gravitate more now toward books about it with a strong research or sabermetric bent.

Here’s what my list looked like in 2011, with strike-throughs denoting books that are no longer on my top 10 list:

  1. The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter
  2. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward
  3. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
  4. Cardboard Gods, by Josh Wilker
  5. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam
  6. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn
  7. The Lost Ballparks, by Lawrence Ritter
  8. Baseball As I Have Known It, by Fred Lieb
  9. Game of Shadows, by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada
  10. The Last Boy, by Jane Leavy

Here’s what my current top 10 list looks like, with holdover selections in slightly different order and new selections in bold:

  1. The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter
  2. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward
  3. Lords of the Realm, by John Helyar: It took me a couple months to finish this 550-page tome, but I’m so glad I did. Helyar wrote the definitive book on Major League Baseball’s labor history, exhaustively chronicling from Marvin Miller’s entrance to the game in the 1960s to the 1994 strike. It’s part masterful history and part journalistic powerhouse [Helyar interviewed hundreds of MLB insiders], woven together with an engaging, literary style of writing. Highly recommended.
  4. The Numbers Game, by Alan Schwarz: I’m two-thirds of the way through Schwarz’s 2004 classic and already know it makes the list. I suspect it might be the finest stat-related baseball book out there, with vastly better writing than The Book, broader focus than Moneyball, and a less dated feel than parts of The Hidden Game of Baseball, to name three other contenders for this crown. Schwarz does a wonderful job chronicling baseball’s statistical history, from the 1840s to present day. It’s also fun to come across names of people I know through SABR and baseball writing such as John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and Dan Evans. This and Lords of the Realm probably both crack my list from several months ago of 10 essential books for baseball historians.
  5. Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? by Bill James: This is the finest Hall of Fame book out there, and it’s right up my alley, devoting pages to the likes of Lee Allen and Ernie Lanigan. The book falters in some parts, like where it credits Allen for the 1960s selections to Cooperstown of a number of 19th century stars; in researching a piece on Hank Gowdy some months ago for The National Pastime Museum, I discovered that former Sporting News editor and Veterans Committee chairman J.G. Taylor Spink deserves this credit. Granted, with the rise of online news archives, it’s far easier now to research this kind of stuff than when James did it more than 20 years ago, so I’ll cut him some slack. The book’s still a lot of fun and very illuminating.
  6. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James: Another fun read from James, doing exactly what he does best. If I was trapped in a bathroom for the rest of my life, this is the book I would bring.
  7. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
  8. Baseball As I Have Known It, by Fred Lieb
  9. The Lost Ballparks, by Lawrence Ritter
  10. Cardboard Gods, by Josh Wilker

Partially-read books in my collection that could crack the top 10 when I finish reading them [I read 50-100 pages of a good book fairly often and get distracted]: Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn; The Hidden Game of Baseball, by John Thorn and Pete Palmer; Stengel, by Robert Creamer; Babe, by Robert Creamer; Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.

A book that lots of sabermetrics folk love and swear by that I just haven’t been able to get into: The Book, by Tom Tango, MGL and Andrew Dolphin.

All this said, I intend to read and write about baseball for many years to come. As the years go by, I imagine my list will continue to change. I wonder how long it will be before the next update?

10 unwritten rules of baseball history

For perhaps as long as baseball has been around, it’s had unspoken customs and rules that have helped dictate on-field action. These rules have not necessarily been systematically cataloged, though multiple books exist on the subject. With the help of, it’s getting easier to find more of baseball’s unwritten rules, or at least what sportswriters perceived them to be for much of the game’s history,  even long-ago.

Some of the following 10 unwritten rules of baseball history persist to this day. Others seem gloriously arcane. I’ll post them all without comment.

1. From the Topeka Daily Capital of September 25, 1891:

The ballplayer is as ticklish about his age as the maiden– of discretion– who has passed through many summers and hard winters, and that is perhaps the reason that there is an unwritten rule banishing beards from the baseball field.

2. From the St. Louis Republic of June 13, 1900:

True, McGann has been scoring runs, but Wallace, Criger and Robinson, who have been hitting well to date, batted him round very frequently. To be sure, McGann deserves no end of credit for his clever work in getting to first in spite of his most impotent stick work, but there is one unwritten, fan-enforced rule of baseball which cannot be abrogated. This rule makes it obligatory on a big man to hit.

3. From the Los Angeles Herald of October 5, 1910:

The rain at Portland yesterday will better the Senators’ chances considerably, as it is an unwritten rule of baseball that the traveling team must drop the first game.

4. From the Pittsburgh Daily Post of October 16, 1914:

Baseball magnates have a sort of unwritten rule which provides that salary figures shall be kept a secret, but there is no law that prevents them from intimating that certain players are drawing fabulous sums. It is claimed that Johnny Evers was paid $10,000 salary at Boston this year, in addition to the $25,000 he is said to have received to induce him to sign the contract. A bonus of $3,000 is also alleged to have been paid him when the Braves finished in first place. Evers also received a check for $2,708.86 as his share of the world’s series money.

5. From the Waco Morning News of March 21, 1915:

Jack Johnson is not the only superstitious person connected with professional athletics. Two members of his race yesterday were thrown into a panic at Katy Park by defying one of the oldest superstitions in baseball. The negro trainer with the New York Giants and a bat boy gathered all the New York bats together and placed them in the bat bag during Waco’s half of the ninth inning thinking the game was nearly over. Now it is an unwritten rule in baseball never to untie a shoe lace or give other signs of being through until the last ball is pitched, even if the score is absolutely safe. Some players take chances on the hoodoo and get their sweaters on in the ninth inning, but this is about as far as they dare proceed. When Waco started the fireworks in the ninth inning yesterday the negroes were well on their way to the hotel with all New York’s bats. They heard what was happening and made a sprint for the park, undoing the bag as they went. They not only opened the bag but put the bats back, all lined up just as they should have been. New York then won the game.

6. From the El Paso Herald of December 30, 1915:

Only the unwritten rule that bars negroes from major league participation has kept out of organized baseball one of Cuba’s most wonderful players– ‘Black’ Gonzales.

7. From the Washington Times of July 17, 1917:

A few years ago it was quite the custom to change a batting order or a lineup if the team lost a few games. Every manager, except the one with a title on his shoulders, followed this unwritten rule, the reason for it never was explained, and that it was just a hobby has been proven by the fact that successful pilots of the present year are not doing it.

8. From the Monroe News-Star of July 29, 1921:

There will be trouble in any community in the whole baseball world, if a catcher, for instance, violates the unwritten rule and endeavors to take up remarks made by fans.

9. From the Harrisburg Telegraph of April 5, 1923:

If the ball takes a twist, as it is likely to do upon contact with the surface of the diamond, and shoots to one side so that the fielder is able only to block it but not to get a grip on it by which he can pick it up and throw it to the batsman, give the batter a base hit and exempt the fielder from an error. The temptation has been strong in scoring to score this as an error, but I think that is a heritage of the old days, when it was the unwritten rule to give the fielder an error if he touched the ball.

10. From the Reading Times of May 15, 1929:

It is an unwritten rule when a pitcher is going after a no-hit game that no one on the bench mention a word about it. The [Reading] Keys said their bench was silent while Holley was pitching his shutout ball, but that when Conley got the lone hit, the Montreal players let out a whoopee of delight.


Thanks to Jena Yamada for suggesting the idea for this post.

Remembering Rugger Ardizoia

This may come as no surprise to anyone who reads this site regularly, but through many years of school, I wrote every paper I could on baseball history from an eighth grade polemic about Pete Rose’s lifetime ban to my high school senior project on the Sacramento Solons, and more. In college, for a California history course, I wrote a term paper about the many Italian-American baseball players from the San Francisco Bay Area. After I completed the paper, I attempted to expand it into a magazine piece, interviewing a number of old-time Bay Area players, which put me in contact with Rugger Ardizoia. shows that Rugger pitched just one day in the majors, April 30, 1947, allowing four runs and two hits in two innings of relief for the New York Yankees. In recent years, he gained some notice as the oldest living former Yankee, inspiring a fine New York Times feature that ran April 27. One of the things I liked most about the Times story was that it captured that Rugger was so much more than one of the 800 or so players who’ve had a one-game career in the majors. [Rather than recount all of Rugger’s life story here, I recommend reading the NYT story.] Sadly, the piece also served as something of a final tribute, as Rugger died on Sunday at 95, following a stroke.

My relationship with Rugger was probably not more than 5-10 conversations spread over the course of about a decade, though I still feel like I got to know him fairly well. Old ballplayers aren’t hard to get to know on some level, really, as I’ve found they’re generally happy to talk about their careers. And Rugger was, for lack of a less cliched word, a raconteur, remarkably active and lucid until the end of his life. At least one callback from him in the past five years came after he’d returned home from an evening out.

We talked by phone and at a couple of Pacific Coast League reunions, where Rugger was one of the centerpieces in recent years. We also had lunch three years ago at Rugger’s favorite restaurant in San Francisco, The Connecticut Yankee, while I was working on a story about one of his friends. Highlights included Rugger picking me up from BART, since of course he still drove and then taking a circuitous route to the restaurant where he pointed out unmarked places where San Francisco ballplayers like High Pockets Kelly and Tony Lazzeri had lived. After lunch, we went back to his home where he lived alone and had pictures of himself with people like Joe DiMaggio on his walls.

I filled up both sides of a tape cassette that day with Rugger, and I’ll transcribe it at some point as part of my work for SABR’s Oral History Committee. I like to think every player who lasted even a day in the majors is a potential Rugger Ardizoia. I know part of my duty as a SABR member is both finding more of these players and helping ensure their many stories don’t die with them.

Here’s knowing you, Rugger.

The forgotten All Stars of 1945

Just a quick note to say I have new post up at Sports Collectors Daily about the forgotten All Stars of 1945.

Essentially, in the waning days of World War II, Major League Baseball cancelled its All Star Game for the first, and thus far only, time in its history. I wrote about the 10 players selected as first-time All Stars that year who never got another nod.

Anyhow, for anyone interested, here’s a link to my piece.

I can’t make it to Chicago

I’ve delayed writing this post for a few weeks at least, in part with vain hopes of a last-minute change in fortune.

I’m finally calling it, though– I can’t make it to the annual convention for the Society for American Baseball Research, to be held in Chicago in a few weeks. I attended last year’s convention and had one of the best times of my life. I’ve been a member of SABR for five years. So long as I can afford it, I intend to make it to many conventions in the years to come.

That said, I can’t afford to go this year. Between conference registration, airfare, hotel, food, and other incidentals, a SABR conference costs around $1,000 to attend. I had the money last year and gladly spent it– a SABR conference is a great investment for a baseball history writer. More than that, it’s a lot of fun, a chance to convene with scores of like-minded baseball lovers.

I simply don’t have the money to go this year. I like SABR enough that I briefly thought about selling my car to make it to Chicago before I thought better of it. But I’m trying to live sensibly and save money for perhaps the first time in my life. I moved to Sacramento a few months ago to be with my girlfriend, and I try to remember with every decision I consider that my actions impact both of us. Selling a car to finance my love of baseball history and writing aspirations is something I may have done five years ago and terminally single. But not now.

With any luck, I’ll have the money to go to next year’s conference. And I know I’ll be reading reports from Chicago in a few weeks, wishing I was there.

Paul Krichell’s eerie prediction about Lou Gehrig

I’ve been researching when teams passed on signing future greats. There are famous instances of this, such as the Red Sox giving a sham tryout to Jackie Robinson in 1945 and ignoring positive reports on Willie Mays a few years later. Countless more obscure examples litter baseball history, such as when St. Louis Browns manager Jimmy McAleer passed on Tris Speaker by telling Texas League president Doak Roberts, “I have enough Texas Leaguers. That is why my club plays like a class B team.”

I tweeted a bit about this yesterday and a friend from Pinstripe Alley reminded me that the Yankees came close to signing Hank Greenberg in 1929. Greenberg, as reminds us, was a New York City native and product of James Monroe High School in the Bronx. Legendary Yankee scout Paul Krichell pursued Greenberg aggressively and made a comment while they attended a game together sometime in 1929, a comment which in retrospect sounds eerie, almost clairvoyant.

Greenberg told a reporter in 1935:

My father was eager to have me go with the Yankees, too. I imagine Krichell noticed that I couldn’t get my eyes off Gehrig, for he several times remarked that Lou was the type who would go quickly when he went.

It’s an unusual comment partly because it proved to be dead-on accurate, to pardon the expression. I assume every baseball fan knows the story of Gehrig’s final years, the visible slowness toward the end of the 1938 season, how he fell in the locker room putting on his pants in early 1939, and his subsequent diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

Until his illness, Gehrig ranked as one of the most consistent players in baseball history, maybe the most statistically consistent. Wins Above Average is great for charting when an aging player begins to decline, and through the mid-1930s, Gehrig showed few signs of slowing down. Between 1928 and 1937, he averaged roughly 6 Wins Above Average, never falling below 4.5. His 61.5 WAA was by far best among position players for this span, with just five other players even topping 30 WAA.

Star players sometimes tail off quickly at the end of their career, with Keith Hernandez, Jim Rice, and Dale Murphy coming to mind. Generally, though, there are gradual signs a player is tapering statistically, borne out by metrics like WAA. The trajectory of the following line chart, noting Gehrig’s WAA totals by year, is fairly anomalous for baseball history, I suspect. It’s like Gehrig fell off a proverbial cliff around 1938 when he posted 2 WAA, his lowest total since 1925, and I’m curious how many more years he could have played if he hadn’t gotten sick. I wonder the same thing about Roberto Clemente.

Online Graphing
Lou Gehrig WAA by year | Generated at ChartGo

There is, of course, more worth noting about Paul Krichell’s comment to teenage Hank Greenberg at the Yankee game. Greenberg said in 1935:

That was 1929, and you will recall that it was the worst season that Gehrig has experienced. He just did hit .300. “Yeah, Gehrig may be through,” Krichell repeated, but I knew better and so did he of course.

Krichell kept raising the ante, but he was chiseling. I got $9,000 for signing with Detroit, but that wasn’t the only reason I listened to Jean Dubuc, who represented Frank Navin.

I had seen enough of Gehrig to know that I had no business with the Yankees– if I wanted to play first base.

So perhaps Krichell was playing coy as a negotiating strategy, or perhaps Gehrig’s tepid 1929 by statistical standards of the day– 35 homers, 125 RBIs, and a .300 batting average for a second-place Yankee club– belied his greater value. Whatever the case, teenage Hank Greenberg probably showed wisdom beyond his years in signing with Detroit in September.

Predictions of baseball’s demise from 1866

I’ve mentioned here before that Bill James has a running feature through a couple of his books called “Old ballplayers never die.” The premise is that for almost all of baseball’s history, old-time players have been saying that the game was better in their day. There’s also long been talk that the game was in trouble. That talk, I learned today, goes back almost to the beginning of baseball history.

As others, most prominently John Thorn have noted, baseball has a murky and gradual story of origin, not founded by Abner Doubleday in 1839 or Alexander Cartwright in 1846, but slowly evolved over a period of a least several decades. I think it’s why John entitled his 2011 signature history of the early game Baseball in the Garden of Eden.

That said, I’d posit that baseball first became popular on a mass level in the 1860s. The game’s first great star, Jim Creighton played for Brooklyn in the early part of decade. The game became professionalized when Philadelphia star Lip Pike signed baseball’s first contract, for $20 in 1866. And the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted 20,000 spectators showing up for the 1865 championship.

In this time, baseball also began to see some of its first problems, notably the entrance of gamblers into the game. The 1866 championship in Philadelphia– which is chronicled in greater detail in this National Pastime feature— witnessed open betting in the stands and prompted a series of attacks on the game from Pennsylvania papers. The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial carried a piece October 3 entitled “The Base Ball Epidemic.” which noted:

In 1854 the excitement over cricket first began to assume formidable dimensions, and in 1857 it was at its height. We all remember the way in which it took off small boys from school, and enlisted even men in its ranks as victims. The excitement rose in an hour, and utterly subsided; and instead of being a rational amount of healthy exercise, it was either a mania or none at all. Within two years after the visit of the English eleven, there was not a dozen cricket clubs in the whole country.

Two years ago, base ball commenced, and the course of the epidemic is the same as that of its predecessor. It is to-day being carried to such an excess, that unless there is something like reason in the exercise, the whole game will completely disappear. What was originally a healthy sport has grown to be a positive dissipation. We hear complaints from all our business men, because of the continual absence of young men in that they may engage in the game. If it were once a week, it would be an excellent thing… But when it is four times a week, and sometimes more, it becomes a decided nuisance…

This state of affairs cannot continue, and as lovers of the sport we call upon those who actively engage in it “to draw it a little more mild,” as the meek philosopher says, and “not run the thing into the ground.”

Of course, we all know what’s come since. While the general state of dissipation continued through the formation of baseball’s first drunken attempt at a league, the National Association in 1871 and arguably has gone on ever since, the national pastime has grown to a $9 billion annual industry and looks as healthy as ever this season. Baseball history being what it is, reports of its decline and impending demise will likely continue as long as the game is played. And writers like me will keep poking fun.