All posts by Graham Womack

How many homers did Babe Ruth lose bunting in 1927?

There’s an interesting Babe Ruth stat, one of many things that’s unique to the Sultan of Swat. The historical record shows Ruth with 14 sacrifice hits in 1927. Ruth, in fact, is the only player in baseball history with any sacrifice bunts in a season where he hit at least 60 homers.

It’s a bit of a misleading stat. My Twitter friend @aceballstats [who, by the way, is a superb follow] pointed out that sacrifice hits included both flies and bunts until 1954 after I started tweeting about this a little while ago. Looking through 1927 game logs on Retrosheet.org, I found that Ruth had 11 sacrifice flies and three sacrifice bunts in 1927.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if Ruth lost any homers with those three sacrifice bunts. If I’d been Ruth’s manager in 1927, I’d have fined Ruth for not swinging.

It’s of course impossible to know what Ruth might have done swinging the bat instead, but with the help of Retrosheet, I’ll present his three sacrifice bunts from 1927:

1. June 23, 1927: Ruth bunted in the first inning of an 11-4 win against the Red Sox. Boston’s starter Del Lundgren lasted just two innings, surrendering seven runs with just two earned runs. He allowed a homer to Lou Gehrig in the second inning.

2. August 1, 1927: Ruth bunted in the fourth inning of a 2-1 loss to visiting Cleveland. Opposing starter Jake Miller allowed just six hits and one run before the game was called in the sixth inning because of rain. It should be noted that Ruth otherwise owned Miller, hitting five homers in 32 at-bats against him lifetime with a .375/.412/.906 slash.

3. August 18, 1927: This Ruth bunt might be the most interesting, as it came in the 12th inning and the player that Ruth sacrificed over, Mark Koenig, subsequently scored the deciding run for the Yankees. Ruth’s bunt also came against Ted Lyons, who held the Great Bambino to just five homers in 113 at-bats lifetime with a .274/.383/.442 slash.

It’s a small sample size, granted and it’s perfectly possible Ruth did the right thing bunting. All the same, I can’t help but wonder.

How to play baseball, as told by the greats

On Friday, I said I’d highlight a seven-part series today that the Associated Press offered in 1954 with instructions on how to play baseball from Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner. When I went to research this piece, I realized I’d goofed. In 1954, AP Newsfeatures produced a seven-part series of former big league stars offering playing tips. It’s the kind of thing that would be great to see today, if only anyone still read newspapers.

With the help of newspapers.com, I tracked down all seven parts of this series. They’re highlighted and linked to as follows:

Part I: “How to play the outfield,” by Joe DiMaggio

The caption for the photo above begins with a quote from DiMaggio saying, “Backing up a teammate should come by instinct.” It’s a curious choice of photo. It shows Mickey Mantle blowing out his ACL in the second game of the 1951 World Series, after the Yankee Clipper called for a ball Mantle was running down in right field. The caption praises DiMaggio for “making a difficult play look routine,” which he did often during his Hall of Fame career. But it was also the first of many serious injuries for Mantle.

DiMaggio noted in the article:

Had that ball gone through us I would have had to chase it since it was coming toward right center. It might have gone for two or three bases, and we might not have beaten the Giants by 3-1 that day.

Part II: “How to play third base,” by Pie Traynor

It’s odd to think that at the time this series ran, Traynor was considered by many to be the greatest third baseman in baseball history.

Mike Schmidt , Brooks Robinson, George Brett and others have long since eclipsed Traynor in the running for this honor. Sabermetrics also shows that Traynor might be one of the more, if not most overrated all-time greats. His 36.2 career Wins Above Replacement ranked 13th among third basemen up to 1954. But that stat was a long way off back then and Traynor’s .320 lifetime batting average was tops of any living third baseman in 1954. Traynor still has the third-best lifetime batting average among third basemen after Wade Boggs and John McGraw.

Traynor’s article for the second part of this series focused on the defensive aspects of his position. Aside from various pointers, Traynor wrote of a play he’d devised. He noted:

When the ball was hit to me at third base and with a runner on third I would fire the ball into the plate to get the man going home with one out or less.

The moment I threw the ball I would run as fast as I could and the moment the runner held up, the catcher would return the ball to me. It was easy to tag the runner. I would be standing next to him. But wait! As I tagged the runner, I’d be getting set to make a throw to first base to get the batter. And many times we’d get the batter because he had made the turn of first base toward second.

Part III: “Shortstop is key position– says Honus Wagner”

1954 was a good year for Honus Wagner. All throughout the year, the Pittsburgh Pirates took donations from fans to build a statue of their legend beside Forbes Field. Dwight Eisenhower, among others, called Wagner to wish him a happy 80th birthday on February 24. A few months later, AP Newsfeatures sports editor Frank Eck interviewed Wagner for the third part of this series. It’s the only installment, incidentally, where a player is not given byline credit.

Wagner, the eighth-oldest living Hall of Famer at the time, offered a number of gems in the piece, including:

I stayed at shortstop until the ball was hit or pitched out. I learned that from Hughie Jennings back in 1897 when I was playing right field for the Louisville Colonels in the National League. Jennings hit .397 for Baltimore in 1896 and when I came up as a 23-year-old rookie, I thought I’d see how Jennings did it. Jennings was a shortstop but how he could cover second base! He could take the throw while on the run.

Part IV: “How to play second base,” by Rogers Hornsby

It’s funny, I never think of Rogers Hornsby for his defensive contributions. I think of the lifetime .358 batting average or the .402 clip he managed from 1921-25 or the two Triple Crowns. Even with sabermetrics that mitigate for the superb offensive era and ballparks he played in, Hornsby’s batting feats are still astonishing. His 175 OPS+ is fifth best in baseball history and his 173 wRC+ is tied for third.

I’ve traditionally thought of Hornsby as a second baseman only in the respect that’s it where I’d tolerate playing him in exchange for having his bat in the lineup for my all-time dream team. But he knew enough about the position to write the fourth installment in this series. Hornsby wrote:

Some fellows say the second baseman should face partially toward first base when fielding ground balls. I disagree. A second baseman, or any fielder for that matter, definitely must get in front of all ground balls. Never play a ball off your side. Try to play the ball with both hands. There is too much of this one-handed stuff today. Use one hand only when forced to.

The article also included a quote from legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who’d faced Hornsby as a player. Stengel said, “I never saw any other second baseman throw sidearm and get the speed on the ball that Hornsby did.”

Part V: “Bill Terry offers some tips on how to play initial sack,” by Bill Terry

Terry’s another player I know chiefly for his bat, the last man to hit .400 in the National League thanks to his .401 season in 1930. Sabermetrics suggests he was a decent fielder as well, with Terry saving 73 defensive runs during his career, 11th-best among first basemen all-time. Terry wrote in the fifth installment of this series:

I see all sorts of players, men who have come up as catchers, outfielders and infielders at other spots put on first base. It seems the popular trend is that if a man can’t play any place else, or is beaten out of his job they put him at first.

I have never considered it that simple. A good first baseman can save a team a lot of base hits by going after the close ones. He should stretch on every play, automatically. A good first baseman can save a team a lot of errors by fielding the bad ones.

Part VI: “Easy delivery aids control,” by Carl Hubbell

Aside from striking out five consecutive future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All Star Game, Hubbell was perhaps most famous for his screwball pitch. Interestingly, in the sixth installment of this series, Hubbell cautioned aspiring hurlers against throwing too many different pitches or getting excessively creative.

Hubbell wrote:

Tricky deliveries may succeed on the sandlots but as a pitcher moves into faster company he will find that the pitch that overpowers a good hitter will be his best weapon.

It’s interesting, by the way, to see Hubbell as an authority on power pitching. His 1,677 strikeouts rank 137th in baseball history as of this writing. In 1954, though, they were 26th-most ever and 15th-most by any pitcher since 1901. The times, how they’ve changed.

Part VII: “Good arm, quick reflexes make top catcher,” by Gus Mancuso

For the final installment of this series, the AP turned to Mancuso, the only player of the seven not in the Hall of Fame today. In fact, everyone else but DiMaggio– whose 1951 retirement and 1955 induction helped inspire the five-year waiting period for eligibility– had already been voted in by the time this series.

There weren’t a ton of legendary former catchers to approach in 1954 [though with some foresight, then-active catchers like Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella might have made great choices.] Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane were the only two living catchers who’d already been enshrined in 1954. Presumably, future honorees like Ray Schalk, Ernie Lombardi and Gabby Hartnett weren’t available.

Instead, readers got Mancuso, a 17-year National League veteran who made two All Star teams and twice finished in the top ten for MVP voting. Perhaps Mancuso had something to offer as an instructor as well, as he managed in the Texas League from 1946 through 1949.

Among Mancuso’s instructions in this piece he wrote:

The catcher must get his pitchers to respect his judgment because when a pitcher gets in a jam his catcher often can help him as much, and maybe more, than his manager or coach. The catcher is definitely the quarterback of his team.

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I wonder who might figure into a similar series today?

A new design here

Frequent visitors to this site may notice the design of this page has once again been updated.

I changed the theme a few weeks ago and I liked the clean, simple look, but I noticed that it didn’t display bylines for individual articles. I write most of the posts here myself these days but there was a stretch a few years ago where this site featured several different writers. Some of their articles still get traffic and this morning, someone commented thinking I’d written one of them.

I’m not comfortable passing anyone else’s writing off as my own, be it intentionally or unintentionally by using a theme that doesn’t automatically display bylines. I’ve thus switched temporarily to a theme that does this. I’ll work over the weeks to come to find a more lasting design solution.

From the archive: Honus Wagner spoke German to fool opponents

Baseball players and managers have long since spoken in signs and other secretive code to maintain a competitive edge. Some of this may date to the Deadball Era.

Legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw had his players learn sign language after the team acquired deaf pitcher Dummy Taylor, thus creating the modern sign system in baseball. There’s a famous story of Hall of Fame pitcher Chief Bender, repeated in “The Glory of Their Times” as well as his biography, figuring out how the Giants were tipping their pitches in the 1911 World Series and yelling “It’s all right” to signal that a fastball was coming.

Here’s another story from that era that’s a little more obscure. I certainly hadn’t heard of it.

In 1954, the Associated Press offered a seven-part instructional series from Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner, who would die in December 1955, on how to play. I’ll give that series the longer look it deserves come Monday. For now, I’ll highlight a smaller sidebar from the day the third part of the series ran.

Wagner was the son of German immigrants, perhaps part of the reason he was so popular with fans in the early 20th century when America received a great influx of Europeans. [Many of the great stars in baseball history offered some kind of ethnic appeal from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax and more.] Anyhow, Wagner used his parents’ native tongue to trip up McGraw.

The story’s a quick read so rather than rehash it here, I’ll suggest simply reading the original by clicking on the frame above. More to come regarding Wagner’s 1954 series on Monday.
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“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: Satchel Paige’s shutout inning in 1969‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’ | When Mark Koenig pitched | 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS | Willie Mays’ forgotten last hurrah

Vote: The 25 most important people in baseball history

Organized baseball history dates more than 150 years, with more than 17,000 men having played in the majors and countless other individuals having helped in other capacities. Baseball history being what it is, a lot of people have made noteworthy contributions to the sport over the years.

Who then has been most important?

I wrote a post last week offering who I considered to be the 10 most important people in baseball history. My research for the post and subsequent reader response has led me to believe there might be something more worth looking at. In that spirit, I invite anyone interested to vote on the 25 important people in baseball history.

A ballot with 190 of baseball’s most memorable players, executives and other figures can be found here. Please VOTE HERE [anyone who has trouble with the Google Form I've created can email me their votes at thewomack@gmail.com.]

As always with these projects, there are few rules aside from the following:

1) Anyone is eligible to vote. Please feel free to share the link to the ballot with anyone who might be interested.

2) Any person in baseball history is eligible and I welcome write-ins. The ballot includes, but is certainly not limited to, anyone who I felt had a reasonable shot at the top 25.

3) Please use any voting criteria– “most important” is a deliberately subjective term and I’m interested to see what direction people go with it. I’ve included a broad enough range of candidates on the ballot for voters to go in any number of directions. On a related note, I do little to no active campaigning and encourage voters to work independently.

4) Please have all votes in by Sunday, October 26 at 8 p.m. Pacific Time. I’ll unveil results Monday, November 3.

On a different note, this project also has a charity component. Two years ago, I raised $1,600 for 826 Valencia, a non-profit that teaches journalism to middle schoolers. Now, I’d like to raise $2,000 for the American Brain Tumor Association to help fight glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant type of brain cancer that’s had a noticeable impact on baseball in recent years. For more information and to donate, click here.

Why Clayton Kershaw is doing historically well

Clayton Kershaw’s 7.4 WAR as of this writing belies the fact he might be having the best season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Kershaw’s WAR doesn’t immediately stand out like his 1.87 FIP, 0.86 WHIP or 1.80 ERA, all best for a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title since Martinez in 2000. At this juncture, though, the fact that Kershaw has compiled 7.4 WAR in 190.1 innings places him in rare company. Kershaw is scheduled to make one more start this season and could become the seventh pitcher in baseball history with at least 7 WAR in under 200 innings.

Here are the six pitchers who’ve done this, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index tool:

Lefty Grove, 7.0 WAR in 191 innings in 1939: In August, I wrote of Grove as the most underrated player of the 1930s. I based it off seasons like this when Grove was an aging junk ball pitcher, with traditional stats far less impressive than before he blew out his arm in 1934. Per inning, though, Grove might have had the best season ever by a 39-year-old pitcher in 1939. Only Phil Niekro and Dazzy Vance managed more WAR in their age 39 seasons, with Niekro needing 334.1 innings to compile 10.1 WAR in 1979 and Vance needing 258.2 innings for 7.1 WAR in 1930.

John Hiller, 8.1 WAR in 125.1 innings in 1973: Hiller’s celebrated in the sabermetric community, with my friend Adam Darowski rating him higher than Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman or Dan Quisenberry. It’s partly due to Hiller’s 1973 season, which might be the most underrated one in baseball history. That said, Hiller’s work that year didn’t go unnoticed. He finished fourth in American League Cy Young and MVP voting after going 10-5 with a 1.44 ERA and 38 saves for an aging Tigers club.

Goose Gossage, 8.2 WAR in 141.2 innings in 1975: As the saying goes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. Every few years in baseball, someone forgets about what happened with Gossage because of this season and unsuccessfully tries to turn another reliever into a starter. Gossage’s brilliance in 1975– 1.84 ERA and an AL-best 26 saves– was a distant memory as he stumbled to a 9-17 record and 3.94 ERA the following year as a starter. On the bright side for Goose, he returned to the bullpen for good thereafter, collecting another 280 saves over the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

Mark Eichhorn, 7.4 WAR in 157 innings in 1986: I run an annual project having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. The first year I did this project, someone gave Eichhorn a write-in vote because of his superb 1986 rookie season. I’d never given Eichhorn much thought before I saw the vote, though it strikes me that he posted a 200 ERA+ with three different teams. Looking at pitchers with at least 50 innings in a season, only Roger Clemens, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner and Joaquin Benoit have matched that feat.

Pedro Martinez, 8.0 WAR in 186.2 innings in 2003: Martinez gets far more attention for his eye-popping stats from 1999 and 2000, though proportionally, this season wasn’t far off. Were Martinez to have pitched the same number of innings in 1999 and 2000 that he did in 2003, he’d scale to 8.5 WAR and 10.1 WAR, respectively.

Josh Johnson, 7.2 WAR in 183.2 innings in 2010: Johnson was 11-6 with a 2.30 ERA when the Marlins shut him down for the 2010 season after his September 4 start. While it was probably a wise move for the young right hander, who’s battled injuries much of his career, it helped keep him to a distant fifth in National League Cy Young voting. If he’d gotten the starts he missed thereafter, Johnson might have led the NL in WAR.

From the archive: Willie Mays’ forgotten last hurrah

There’s a famous final picture from Willie Mays’ career, included in the article above. It shows the aging superstar on his knees during Game 2 of the 1973 World Series after the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer stumbled on the base paths. That day, Mays also made two fielding errors, helping send the game into extra innings with a 6-6 tie.

That’s not all Mays did in Game 2 of the 1973 World Series, though. There was a better moment for him, perhaps the last great moment of his career that came a few innings later in his second-to-last at-bat ever. It doesn’t get talked about much anymore. Maybe it should.

Mays SABR bio notes:

The story of Mays misplaying two balls in center field in the second game of the World Series against the Oakland A’s is always used when the topic is a star athlete who plays too long past his prime. Exhibit B might be Mays’s ultimately harmless stumble on the basepaths in the same game. What is often forgotten is what happened in the 12th inning, when he duped A’s catcher Ray Fosse into calling for a fastball, telling him, “Ray, it’s tough to see the balls with that background. I hope he doesn’t throw me any fastballs.”65 He bounced a Rollie Fingers fastball over the pitcher’s head and into center to drive in the winning run.

“Those kids look up to me,” Mays told reporters after the game, which the Mets won 10-7. “I can’t let them down. They haven’t seen me when I was young. But they expect me to be an example to them. That’s why it makes me feel so great inside when I can come up with a clutch hit.”

Mays played just once more in the Series, grounding out the following day in a 10th inning pinch hit appearance against Paul Lindblad. The Mets would go on to lose in seven games to the A’s, who were in the middle of a three-year championship run.

“No I’m not disappointed I didn’t play,” Mays said after Game 7, with papers noting the end of his career. “I don’t think I’m very good at pinch hitting.”

Technically, Mays might have been right. He entered Game 2 in the ninth inning as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub. Otherwise, Mays was selling himself short, as so many others have done since.

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“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: Satchel Paige’s shutout inning in 1969‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’ | When Mark Koenig pitched | 25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

Book review: Tales from the Deadball Era, by Mark Halfon

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I recently was reading a book about writing that said all writers should read. Reading any book, the writing book claimed, would offer at least one anecdote a writer could use in their own work, with appropriate attribution of course.

Mark Halfon’s Tales from the Deadball Era, which I’m currently reading, is filled with these sort of anecdotes. I suspect it will be a reference point for future posts here.

Already, this book motivated me to update a recent post where I said disgraced Deadball Era first baseman Hal Chase was banned for life from baseball for throwing games. In fact, as Halfon explains in his first chapter, “Big League Cheating,” National League president John Heydler inexplicably cleared Chase of wrongdoing after a hearing and Chase voluntarily left the majors following the 1919 season, retiring in good standing.

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Earlier today, the book gave me something else. A person on Twitter shared the photo at right, saying it was Honus Wagner batting with Roger Bresnahan catching in 1908. This would be an unusual photo as the Dutchman generally hit right. Major League Baseball historian and one of my mentors John Thorn voiced his skepticism at the photo, saying it was likely of Claude Ritchey.

However, as Halfon pointed out, Bresnahan did not debut the catchers mask until 1908, a year after he introduced shin guards. And Ritchey last played for the Pirates in 1906. So while the photo might not be Wagner– his side profile isn’t convincing, for me at least– it’s not clear who it would be in his place. Thorn suggested that some people think it’s Owen Wilson.

I don’t know if the best thing I can say about a book is that it allows one to upstage their mentor. So I’ll add that what I’ve read so far of Halfon’s work has been both educational and entertaining. It’s a shame there wasn’t better technology 100 years ago to document this rollicking era of baseball history, which mostly gets forgotten today. [Just ask the average fan about Eddie Collins or Tris Speaker.] I’m glad that researchers and writers like Halfon, by day a philosophy professor at Nassau Community College in New York, are willing to offer a renewed look.

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Four years ago, I promised to review any book sent to me. I now have a 30-book backlog. This series will run every other Thursday until the backlog has cleared.

First review, two weeks ago: 1954, by Bill Madden

The 10 most important people in baseball history

1. Babe Ruth: When Ruth died in 1948, Grantland Rice wrote, “No game will ever see his like, his equal again. He was one in many, many lifetimes. One all alone.” That about sums it up. More than 75 years after his last game, the New York Yankees legend looms eternally large, forever baseball’s greatest slugger, icon and savior. No player before or since has dominated the rest of baseball like Ruth did. No one transformed the game so much.

2. Ban Johnson: Since the National League’s founding in 1876, many rival circuits have come and gone from the Players League to the Federal League to the Continental League to name a few. Johnson started the only rival to the National League that’s lasted, the American League in 1901. “He was the most brilliant baseball man the game has ever known,” Johnson’s successor Will Harridge said. “He was more responsible for making baseball the national game than anyone in the history of the sport.”

3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis: Baseball’s first commissioner and still, 70 years after his death, the standard by which all other commissioners are measured, Landis like Babe Ruth helped save baseball after the 1919 World Series. Where Ruth restored fan interest, Landis effectively rid the game of gambling, which had been endemic in the sport for at least 20 years before Landis took office. Imagine any commissioner today ruling so autocratically or effectively.

4. Branch Rickey: Rickey did at least three major things to change baseball. First, he created the farm system. Then he signed the first black player in the majors since the 1884. Then in the late 1950s, Rickey helped spur baseball to expand by heading up the Continental League, a circuit that would have operated in parts of the western United States where the majors had not yet reached. Though he doesn’t get much credit for it, Rickey’s part of the reason there are teams today in cities like Houston and Denver.

5. Jackie Robinson: Rickey knew before he signed Robinson in October 1945 that the wrong player would set back integration in baseball by 20 years. Without Robinson’s stoicism and unruffled playing ability, there’s no telling how many stars the majors would have lacked over the decades that followed.

6. Marvin Miller: The greatest travesty in baseball today is that this man isn’t in the Hall of Fame. No one in the past 50 years has had a greater effect on the game than Miller who, as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, led the successful fight to abolish the Reserve Clause.

7. Hank Aaron: That many people still consider Aaron the true home run king is a testament to his legacy. That Aaron made his mark in the most trying of circumstances– reams of hate mail during the summer of 1973 and a bodyguard provided by the FBI– only adds to the mystique. He’s been a fine elder statesmen for the game in retirement, too.

8. Rube Foster: The father of black baseball and, with respect to everyone who came after, its most important figure, Foster founded the first successful black baseball circuit, the Negro National League in 1920.

9. Al Spalding: Nineteenth century baseball had a lot of pioneers. Spalding may have been the most multifaceted of them, making his mark as a player, executive and sporting goods distributor, among other things. Among his many contributions, Spalding wore the first glove during the 1870s and organized a world tour for the game during the 1880s.

10. Henry Chadwick: Things like the box score and many stats that modern fans take for granted were Chadwick’s creation in the late 1800s. That has to be good for something.

Players with .500 slugging percentages their final season

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, here’s another historical rarity in baseball: players who posted at least a .500 slugging percentage while qualifying for a batting title their final season.

Just as pitchers generally keep getting work if they have anything left in their arms, batters can expect to remain in the majors if they can still hit for power.

Generally.

Here are the six players since 1871 who, for various reasons I’ll detail below, defied historical trends and left the majors after slugging at least .500 their final season:

Rk Player SLG Year Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OBP
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson .589 1920 32 146 649 105 218 42 20 12 121 .382 .444
2 Will Clark .546 2000 36 130 507 78 136 30 2 21 70 .319 .418
3 Happy Felsch .540 1920 28 142 615 88 188 40 15 14 115 .338 .384
4 Buzz Arlett .538 1931 32 121 469 65 131 26 7 18 72 .313 .387
5 Dave Orr .534 1890 30 107 498 89 172 32 13 6 124 .371 .414
6 Kirby Puckett .515 1995 35 137 602 83 169 39 0 23 99 .314 .379

It’s probably worth noting the reasons that each player’s career ended:

  • Felsch and Jackson were among the eight members of the Chicago White Sox banned for throwing the 1919 World Series. The White Sox really got screwed on this on this one. Felsch and Jackson are also two of the three players since 1920, along with Albert Belle, to have at least 100 RBI their final season
  • Orr and Puckett retired due to injuries– a stroke for Orr and glaucoma for Puckett
  • Arlett had a one-season career in the majors, possibly due to fielding issues; Bill James, among others, had written of Arlett as the Babe Ruth of the minors
  • Will Clark, after a triumphant final season where he helped spur a playoff run for the St. Louis Cardinals, retired to spend more time with his autistic son

Pitchers with at least 150 strikeouts their final season

Bill James wrote in his 2001 historical abstract:

Play along with me here. Take out your pen, and write down the names of ten pitchers who won 200 or more games in the majors leagues. You pick ‘em– players from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, lefties, right-handers, American Leaguers, National Leaguers, Hall of Famers or guys who just hung around a long time. Your list.

What do all of these men have in common? I’ll tell: they were all above the league strikeout average early in their careers. Probably seven of your ten led the league in strikeouts at least once.

One of the things I enjoy about Bill James’ writing is that it has a certain timelessness to it. Now, just as it was in 2001, strikeout pitchers are highly valued in baseball. In fact, it’s extremely rare for a pitcher with any power left in his arm to not get work the next season.

Between 1901 and 2012, just five pitchers had at least 150 strikeouts their final season. [Another six pitchers who haven't pitched this season due to injuries had 150 strikeouts in 2013, though I'm omitting them here as I assume they'll pitch again.]

Sandy Koufax, 317 strikeouts in 1966: There’s a great story about Koufax, repeated in a 1999 Sports Illustrated retrospective. Tom Verducci wrote:

In his 50s Koufax was pitching in a fantasy camp when a camper scoffed after one of his pitches, “Is that all you’ve got?” Koufax’s lips tightened and his eyes narrowed– just about all the emotion he would ever show on the mound– and he unleashed a heater that flew damn near 90 mph.

Koufax famously quit baseball at 31 because of his arthritic left elbow. I assume after a break from playing and a reduction in his workload, something less than the obscene 323 innings the Dodgers required of him in 1966, Koufax could have pitched more years in the majors.

Britt Burns, 172 strikeouts in 1985: Just 26 his last season, Burns finished baseball at the youngest age of the men here. He won a career-high 18 games for the White Sox who dealt him to the Yankees that December. However, Burns never played for the Bronx Bombers because of a degenerative hip condition. He attempted a comeback in 1990, going to spring training with the Yankees and briefly pitching for two teams in their farm system.

Chuck Finley, 174 strikeouts in 2002: Finley went through an ugly divorce from actress Tawny Kitaen during his final season, with divorce paperwork including accusations he’d used steroids. The St. Louis Cardinals declined to resign the 39-year-old after the season ended and while Finley’s agent told the Associated Press his client intended to play in 2003, no one bit.

Mike Mussina, 150 strikeouts in 2008: Next to Koufax, Mussina might have the best final season by a pitcher in modern baseball history. After going 20-9 with 5.2 WAR and finished sixth in American League Cy Young voting, the 39-year-old voluntarily walked away.

Javier Vazquez, 162 strikeouts in 2011: Still just 38 at this writing, it’s a wonder Vazquez hasn’t pitched in three years. He’s spoken of coming back and has pitched internationally since the Marlins let him leave following the 2011 season. Vazquez never became the ace people expected though his career numbers via Fangraphs– 53.7 fWAR and 3.75 xFIP– suggest he may have been a little underrated.

From the archive: Satchel Paige’s shutout inning in 1969

Satchel Paige appropriately titled his 1962 autobiography Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever. The Hall of Famer pitched professionally in five decades, debuting in the Negro Leagues in 1926 and pitching in the minors as late as 1966. He famously threw three shutout innings at age 59– depending on the source– in 1965 for the Kansas City Athletics, sitting on a rocker between innings and sipping lemonade.

As it turns out, Paige had a little more left in his arm.

Newspapers speculated that Paige might pitch again when the Atlanta Braves signed him in August 1968 as a coach so that he could log another 158 days in the majors and qualify for the pension plan. “I’ll just have to see if I can unfold,” the 62-year-old Paige said. “If I can throw half as good as I could last year [in a few exhibition games], then I know I can still get ‘em out.”

As Paige biographer Larry Tye noted in a 2010 retrospective for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

They called Satchel a trainer, but “he didn’t do any training,” recalls Dave Percley, the Braves’ real trainer. What he wanted to do was pitch. [Braves owner William] Bartholomay was concerned about his eyesight, “which was going pretty rapidly. We worried that he wouldn’t see a line drive coming back to him.”

Nevertheless, Paige pitched in an exhibition on September 29, retiring future HOFers Hank Aaron and Don Drysdale. He got six outs on just 12 pitches.

Paige qualified for the pension in February 1969 when the needed time of service in the majors was cut from five years to four. Shortly thereafter, Paige announced he would make a series of one-inning appearances in a few exhibitions and then retire again. “I can still throw harder than half the pitchers here,” Paige said. “I can still pitch. You better believe it.”

Paige’s chance came April 3 during an exhibition between the Braves and their Triple-A Richmond team. Paige pitched for Atlanta and overcame a fielding error from Aaron that allowed a runner to reach third. He worked his way out of the jam by striking out two Richmond batters, getting credit for the victory. The following day, he threw another scoreless inning.

Paige being Paige, his talk of retirement didn’t stick. He pitched again on June 5, this time for Richmond in an exhibition against the Braves. He allowed two runs in one inning.

The following week, The Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland carried an interview with Paige where he spoke of wanting to be in the Hall of Fame:

The whole world wants me in it. But I didn’t play in the major leagues long enough– that’s how it’s wrote up even though for years and years I was the world’s greatest pitcher.

Maybe some day I’ll fall into the Hall of Fame, like I done the pension. But I’m not sayin’ they’d change the rules for me. Maybe some day before I die I could sorta sneak in. You know, for good conduct or something like that.

Paige got his pension. The same year the salary kicked in, 1971, he became the first Negro League inductee in Cooperstown.

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“From the archives” is a Friday series that highlights old baseball-related newspaper clippings.

Others in this series: ‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’ | When Mark Koenig pitched25 years after Pete Rose, Hal Chase’s story is bleaker | Outrage when the Yankees sold to CBS

Players who hit at least 25 home runs their final season

1. Hank Greenberg, 25 homers, 1947: After missing nearly five years for military service, Greenberg was coming off a resurgent 1946 campaign when the Detroit Tigers sold him to the Pittsburg Pirates. As recounted in The Glory of Their Times, Greenberg considered retiring until the Pirates offered to move their left field fence in, let him choose the amount he was paid– $100,000– and release him at year’s end. Greenberg is primarily remembered from 1947 for mentoring Ralph Kiner, though the 36-year-old put up stats suggesting he could have played a couple more years. Aside from a 131 OPS+, Greenberg tied for the National League lead in walks with 104 and cost the Pirates just two defensive runs.

2. Ted Williams, 29 homers, 1960: According to a piece by Glenn Stout referenced in an Out of the Park Baseball forum, Williams turned down $125,000 to pinch hit for the New York Yankees in 1961. Like Greenberg, Williams’ final season suggested he had more to offer. His .645 slugging percentage is tops, by far, among players with at least 300 plate appearances their final season. Williams’ 190 OPS+ his last year is also far and away best and, interestingly, identical to his lifetime rate. Had there been DH’s during Williams’ career, the Splendid Splinter could have played until he was 45.

3. Dave Kingman, 35 homers, 1986: Kingman has the most homers his final season of any player. In almost every other respect, though, he was historically bad in 1986. His slash was a ghastly .210/.255/.431. His -3 Wins Above Average are the worst of any player in their last year. His 126 strikeouts are second-worst. In addition, Kingman sent a live rat late in the season to my future editor Susan Fornoff, one of the first female reporters allowed in locker rooms. Not surprisingly, the Oakland A’s let him walk. Save for a brief stint the following season with the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A club, he was done.

4. Mark McGwire, 29 homers, 2001: Big Mac’s final season is a little underrated, since he declined dramatically from what he did the preceding five years and hit below the Mendoza Line. That said, it might be the best sub-.200 season a hitter’s had, with McGwire homering once every 10.3 at-bats and offering a 105 OPS+ thanks to his power and on-base abilities. While he was an injury-riddled mess at the end of his career, he remained a threat when healthy.

5. Barry Bonds, 28 homers, 2007: That Bonds had a 1.045 OPS his final season and couldn’t get work thereafter is a testament to how cancerous of a player he became or at least was perceived. Only Williams and Shoeless Joe Jackson have also had OPS’s over one their final seasons.

6. Jermaine Dye, 27 homers, 2009: Dye peaked late, hitting 187 of his 325 homers after age 30. That said, when he declined, it may have been in a hurry. Dye was on-pace for 40 homers and a .300 batting average through the first half of the 2009 season.  The Chicago White Sox declined to resign him, though, after he posted a .179/.293/.297 slash in the second half with just seven homers.

Jim Devlin and life after organized baseball

Long after Hal Chase left the majors, he could be found playing in outlaw leagues. The same could be said of several of the Black Sox banned following the 1919 World Series, including Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even Benny Kauff scouted for 22 years after he was banned for participating in a stolen car ring. It isn’t that surprising, really. What’s a person to do deprived of their livelihood? Long before Chase, Jackson and Kauff continued baseball careers in obscurity, Jim Devlin trod a similar path.

Devlin may rate as one of the sadder stories in baseball history. His 13.3 Wins Above Replacement in 1877 are the most of any player in his final season as he was the Louisville Grays’ only pitcher that year, racking up a staggering 559 innings. He went 35-25 with a 2.25 ERA and was rated by Bill James in his 2001 historical abstract as the best pitcher of 1877. Late in the season, Devlin and three other Grays were among the first players banned from baseball for throwing games. Suspicions rose after a seven-game losing streak where they muffed easy plays and were later seen with diamond stick pins. Banished from baseball, uneducated and semi-literate, Devlin and his family faced bleak prospects.

Devlin lived six more years, dying in 1883 of consumption exacerbated by alcoholism. Around September 1882, he got a job as a policeman in his hometown of Philadelphia. For most of his life after 1877, though, Devlin did two things: 1) Annually petition baseball to be reinstated, with the minor league National Association doing so in 1879; 2) Continue to play baseball, with Devlin being connected with at least nine teams after his ban from the majors. John Thorn wrote in Baseball in the Garden of Eden that Devlin may have played for still more teams under assumed names.

Devlin’s continued career after his ban offers a reminder of how disjointed 19th century baseball was and how little relation it bears to the current game or even the majors 50 years later. For instance, the SABR bio of Gene Paulette, the first player permanently barred by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, talks about how an industrial league couldn’t put him in uniform thereafter because no team would play it. While Chase played in the Pacific Coast League after he left the majors, he and some of the Black Sox later consigned themselves to the outlaw Frontier League in Arizona. Sal Maglie may have been last to play during a ban. Maglie’s SABR bio, which Jacob Pomrenke pointed out to me, talks of him barnstorming unsuccessfully and playing in a Canadian league after his five-year ban from the majors for jumping to the Mexican League in 1946.

Devlin needed no subterfuge after his ban. He pitched for at least three teams in 1878, including in a benefit game at Troy on October 9. Earlier, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported on March 8, 1878 that Devlin would be going on the variety stage and that a team named the Marions would be assembled around him in Philadelphia. Two months later, the Tribune noted Devlin pitching for a Philadelphia amateur team. Without clarifying if it was the Marions, the Tribune added that a Philadelphian was interested in launching a team for Albany with Devlin and Levi Meyerle. While that may have fallen through, Devlin found other baseball work in 1878, with the Tribune noting on November 17, 1878:

During the past summer he played with a Canuck club, and as a reward for his services was beaten out of the greater part of the salary promised him. During the season he became convinced that there was no chance for mercy at the hands of the League, and since then his efforts have been directed toward the International Association.

Meanwhile, Devlin was continuing to lobby for reinstatement. There’s a famous story about National League president William Hulbert tearfully giving Devlin $50 from his pocket at a private meeting and then telling him he could never let him back in the league because of his transgressions. The Chicago Daily Tribune noted July 6, 1879 upon Devlin’s reinstatement to the National Association:

But, even while seeking pardon for the past offenses and promising honesty for the future, Devlin was at his old tricks. When in Chicago last year he was actually given money by charitably-disposed persons who believed his story of poverty and sufferings, and in less than three hours this same money was used by him for the purpose of gambling.

Nevertheless, Devlin’s playing career continued. Thorn told me via email that Devlin signed with Forest City of Cleveland in August 1879. The following year, Devlin played for the San Francisco Athletics of the California League, a team that featured a few notable members including future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin. The San Francisco Chronicle even reported on July 26, 1880 that Devlin pitched a three-hitter against future 191-game winner Jim Whitney.

Devlin wasn’t done. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Devlin might play in St. Louis in 1881. Thorn’s email also noted that Devlin played center field for Trenton in October 1881 and that he signed with Lone Star of New Orleans to play winter ball with in 1881 and 1882. I haven’t found any evidence Devlin played baseball beyond New Orleans, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there for someone willing to dig in deep with a newspaper archive. The man could seemingly not stop playing even in the most obscure and depressing of situations. With respect to Chase, Kauff and Shoeless Joe, I don’t know if there’s been anything like it in baseball since.

Jackie Robinson’s underrated final season

Jackie Robinson could have quit baseball last year or this year or next and it would have occasioned no astonishment to those who have known him and were aware of what pride he took in his skill. It seemed altogether reasonable that when he saw those gifts fading, he would walk out. Somehow, the idea of him being traded always seemed outlandish.

–Red Smith, December 18, 1956

By all appearances, Jackie Robinson was declining when the Brooklyn Dodgers traded him to the New York Giants for journeyman pitcher Dick Littlefield and $30,000 in December 1956. A month shy of turning 38, the future Hall of Famer and man who broke baseball’s color barrier had averaged 111 games and a .266 batting clip his past two seasons. So it was no surprise when Robinson refused to report to the Giants and announced his retirement a few weeks later in a piece that Look Magazine paid him $50,000 to write. In fact, Robinson had made his decision before the trade but kept quiet, controversially, because of Look’s publication deadline. He might have been selling himself short.

Most WAR by position player in final season
Rk Player WAR Year
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson 7.6 1920
2 Happy Felsch 5.5 1920
3 Roberto Clemente 4.8 1972
4 Jackie Robinson 4.5 1956
5 Roy Cullenbine 4.3 1947
6 Bill Joyce 4.3 1898
7 Chick Stahl 4.1 1906
8 Will Clark 4.0 2000
9 Phil Tomney 3.9 1890
10 Ray Chapman 3.8 1920

Among all position players since 1871, Robinson had the fourth-most Wins Above Replacement in his final season with 4.5, just shy of All Star level production. And Robinson rates tops for WAR in his final season among position players who quit voluntarily. Of the other nine players on the list at right, three– Clemente, Stahl and Chapman– died during or after their final seasons and two– Jackson and Felsch– were permanently banned from baseball.

Robinson’s 4.5 WAR in 1956 was a credit to his fielding. His 19.1 defensive runs saved that year were the most by a player in his final season. Bill James also noted in his 2001 historical abstract that Robinson’s 5.52 Win Shares per 1,000 innings at third base lifetime, where he played the most near the end of his career, was the best of any player since 1940. James wrote, “I think the record would suggest that Robinson may in fact have been a far better defensive player than most people think he was.”

Robinson wasn’t terrible with the bat either in 1956, hitting .275 with an adjusted rate of offensive production 6 percent better than other players. It was nothing like his peak numbers, but it was more than serviceable for an aging infielder, comparable to how Derek Jeter, Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel hit at 37. I like to think Robinson could have at least made a serviceable bench player for the Giants or another team in 1957. But maybe it wasn’t in his nature to accept a diminished role on a new club or renege on his deal with Look Magazine. Robinson also might not have been physically able to play anymore.

As Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, the Giants kept pursuing Robinson through the winter of 1957, improving on their initial offer of $40,000 for the first season and $20,000 for two years thereafter as a part-time scout. Robinson hesitated to return, in part, because of the possibility of having to pay back Look Magazine. Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi speculated publicly that Robinson would keep the money and play for the Giants anyhow. This, Kahn wrote, led Robinson to conclude he’d have to stay retired to preserve his integrity. Any lingering thoughts Robinson had of a comeback ended when he woke up the first day of the 1957 season with his right knee so badly swollen he couldn’t get out of bed. His SABR bio also notes speculation that Robinson, a diabetic, may have been dependent on an insulin pump from the middle of his career on.

Instead, Robinson stuck with his new job as vice president for Chock Full O’ Nuts, a coffee company. He worked there until 1964, whereupon he founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and, like Bob Feller, sold insurance. One can only wonder how much longer Robinson’s baseball career might have been in an era that allowed him to make the majors sooner or offered him better medical care. His superb play his final season is one more example of everything he overcame.

Baseball players who starred in movies

somewhere-in-georgia1

 [An ad for Ty Cobb's 1917 acting debut | Photo found at Our Game]

My girlfriend and I were struck this weekend to find a 1920 silent film that Babe Ruth starred in, Headin’ Home available on Netflix streaming. While we only got through a few minutes of the film, which played like a collection of stock footage and is of interest mainly for having a young, pinstriped Ruth in it, my girlfriend encouraged me afterward to look at other times ballplayers have starred in movies. It’s somewhat of a bygone tradition in baseball.

Baseball players still have cameos or make minor appearances in movies these days, with Wally Joyner making something of a name for himself in Mormon films. Near as I can tell, though, it’s been awhile since a baseball player starred in a film. It’s not like the era of Babe Ruth starring in four films including 1942’s “The Pride of the Yankees.” Here are seven other notable players who received star billing in a movie:

Christy Mathewson in “Matty’s Decision,” 1915: Christy Mathewson was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career when he appeared in this film, intended to be the first of several for him with Universal. Save for an appearance in a 1917 baseball documentary, this was it for Mathewson as an actor. The plot, a full synopsis of which can be found here, revolves around Mathewson and his friend Eddie falling for the same woman and her father deciding that whoever triumphs in a pitching game can marry her. Though Mathewson loses, Eddie sees how distraught he is afterward and sends Matty a note saying he can have the girl.

Mike Donlin in “Right Off the Bat,” 1915: I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Mike Donlin, who hit .333 lifetime and might be in the Hall of Fame had he not retired to pursue a vaudeville career with his wife Mabel Hite. He returned to baseball, was never the same player and returned to acting thereafter. Donlin’s IMDB page lists 66 acting credits in films starring the likes of John Barrymore, Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery, though it’s mostly bit roles. One of Donlin’s few starring appearances came in this five-reel comedy, which I learned of through a much longer look at old-time ballplayer actors at John Thorn’s site.

Ty Cobb in “Somewhere in Georgia,” 1917: Ty Cobb had a unique screen career, even receiving writing credits for, get this, a few 1950s television programs including “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.” Prior to this, Cobb acted. The New-York Tribune praised his starring turn in the 1917 short “Somewhere in Georgia,” though it may be worth noting that its sports editor Grantland Rice wrote the film. The Tribune gushed:

Ty Cobb and Grantland Rice [debuted] on the screen yesterday via the Sunbeam Motion Picture Company. Grantland Rice furnished the story ‘Somewhere in Georgia,’ which is described as ‘a thrilling drama of love and baseball in six innings.’ It is all of that, and as an actor Ty Cobb is a huge success. In fact, he is so good that he shows all the others up.

Others had nice things to say about Cobb’s acting, though, including the Altoona [New York] Tribune and, as noted at Thorn’s site, Variety Magazine. The latter noted, ““Inasmuch as …Cobb is considered about the greatest ballplayer in the world, it goes without saying that [the film] is going to make a ten-strike with Young America.”

RawhideLou Gehrig in “Rawhide,” 1938: I rarely use pictures on this website, as I’m reluctant to violate copyright laws. I hope my use of the picture at right qualifies as Fair Use. There’s simply no other way to capture the awesomeness of Lou Gehrig’s sole film appearance. Currently available on Netflix streaming, it seems like a must-watch for anyone into kitsch. The premise: Gehrig is “a former baseball champion who retires to a ranch where he helps break up a destructive racket in stock feed prices.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Jackie Robinson in “The Jackie Robinson Story,” 1950Like every player here, more or less, Robinson played himself in his big screen debut. It only makes sense. Robinson was one of a kind, one of the more outspoken individuals in baseball history. While Chadwick Boseman was reasonably passable playing Robinson in the reasonably passable “42” in 2013, there was no replacing the original. That said, one IMDB reviewer noted that Robinson’s costar in his 1950 film debut, the recently-deceased Ruby Dee said Robinson felt out of place in it.

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in “Safe at Home!” 1962There are many reasons ballplayers don’t star in as many movies today. The main one, I’m guessing: They don’t need the money. Roger Maris is a case in point. In the days before free agency and other factors sent salaries skyrocketing, Maris wasn’t financially set by his historic 1961 season. He and his brother wound up running a beer distribution business after he retired.

Maris resigned with the Yankees in February 1962 for $72,000, about $568,000 in today’s dollars. Around this time, newspapers announced that Maris and Mantle would be filming “Safe at Home!” in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, their spring training headquarters at the time. The black-and-white, 84-minute quickie film came out less than two months later. My girlfriend owns a DVD copy and the few minutes we watched were strictly kid fare, save for a wry supporting turn by “I Love Lucy” co-star William Frawley. Maris and Mantle fared better a couple months later with their cameos  in the Doris Day and Cary Grant classic, “That Touch of Mink.”

From the archive: ‘Is Babe Ruth hurting game?’

Found on Newspapers.com

I was enthralled when I came across this piece, an interview with a prominent baseball researcher of the 1920s suggesting Babe Ruth’s home runs were hurting baseball. Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research told me after I first shared this piece a few weeks ago on Twitter that such stories were common in Babe Ruth’s era as he became the game’s first great slugger.

I suppose it’s human nature to come up with inane rationalizations to justify resisting change, and perhaps no player in baseball history changed the game as much as the Sultan of Swat. There were probably some growing pains for lots of people interested in baseball while Ruth was forever reshaping play. All the same, pieces like the one above seem wonderfully arcane nearly a century on. Historians seem to have long since settled on the narrative that Ruth saved fan interest in baseball, practically on his own, following the Black Sox Scandal. It’s a little surreal coming across pieces that run counter to this. But that’s part of the fun of historical research.

An added bonus, as Jacob pointed out to me: This story ran in the Boston Post, no doubt eager to bash Ruth, barely a year removed at the time from his sale to New York. Geographically, it’s the same press corps that hounded Ted Williams much of his career so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Book review: 1954, by Bill Madden

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In previewing my new book review series last week, I promised I’d review one book per week. It was an ambitious goal and in reading the first book this past week for my new series, 1954 by longtime New York Daily News columnist and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Bill Madden, I realized I’d overshot. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a slow reader, frequently distracted and for my first review, I chose Madden’s reasonably quick, 262-page work. It took me a better part of a week to read and accordingly, my new series will run every other Thursday.

Aside from my fleeting attention span, I will say Madden’s book occasionally didn’t keep me engaged for the same reason a lot of baseball history books don’t: excessive exposition about what happened in games. I was drawn in initially by the cover quote that the 1954 season was “the year Willie Mays and the first generation of black superstars changed Major League Baseball forever.” With this summer’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s troubled racial history seems as relevant as ever. I’m always interested to learn more about how baseball’s history relates. It makes me proud as a fan that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors a decade before the Civil Rights movement really got going.

Madden includes many pertinent anecdotes, from Minnie Minoso sensing he regularly led the league in hit pitches because of his dark skin to the struggles Mays and others had staying in heretofore segregated hotels. But Madden strays from his theme at times and what felt like much of the midsection of the book to detail game-by-game minutiae. And until the epilogue, there isn’t much discussion of the legacy of the 1954 season. Granted, any baseball history book needs a certain amount of exposition, the meat and potatoes represented in how individual games came out. It’s a delicate art determining the right balance. I’d simply have liked to have read more passages like this:

A big reason, of course, for the dearth of black talent in both professional football and basketball was the fact that three of the leagues’ primary ‘feeder’ collegiate athletic conferences, the Southeastern, Southwest, and Atlantic Coast, did not get around to integrating until 1963, nine years after Brown vs. Board of Education. And it wasn’t until 1971, for instance, that the Southeastern Conference athletic programs were fully integrated. With so many gifted young black athletes in the South denied the opportunity to play football and basketball at all the major southern universities, baseball became their natural sport of choice. ‘I’m sure I could’ve been a real good football player– that’s what my mother wanted me to be,’ [Hank] Aaron told me in 2012. ‘But I didn’t see any future there. Not in Alabama anyway. I wasn’t going to college. All I wanted when I got out of high school was to get on with my baseball career and follow Jackie to the big leagues.

In 1954 Major League baseball had 38 black players, out of 536, on its rosters during the season, or 7 percent. That percentage gradually increased every year to a high of 28 percent by 1986, when it began declining again. By 2013 the number of African American players on the major league rosters was down to about 8.5 percent. Not coincidentally, the decline began in the mideighties, when the major southern collegiate conferences’ football and basketball teams were now predominantly black. It’s anyone’s guess how many potential Hank Aarons and Willie Mayses, who grew up in the South, baseball lost to football and basketball.

I’d recommend 1954 to anyone looking for a nice, quick read about one of the great seasons in baseball history. Of particular interest may be the wealth of interviews Madden did with the stars of that season, including Mays, Aaron and Bob Feller. That said, for anyone seeking the sort of thorough and academic look at MLB’s integration found in Jules Tygiel’s classic Baseball’s Great Experiment, this isn’t really the book. It’s fun but it falls short of being socially significant.

Babe Ruth and the greatest World Series game ever pitched

Babe Ruth

[Babe Ruth with Red Sox teammates, 1915 | Library of Congress]

A frequent refrain from supporters of Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy is that he pitched the greatest game in World Series history. Certainly, Morris placed himself in unique company in 1991 when he became the third Fall Classic pitcher to hurl a 10-inning shutout after Clem Labine in 1956 [hat tip to Devon Young] and Christy Mathewson in 1913. Morris is also the 10th and most recent pitcher with a Game 7 shutout, joining men like Dizzy Dean in 1934, Sandy Koufax in 1965 and Bret Saberhagen in 1985. In addition, Morris is the only pitcher in World Series history with an extra inning, complete game victory in Game 7.

For some fans, all of this may be more than enough to anoint Morris. By various objective measures, though, Morris’s masterpiece is far from the greatest World Series pitching performance. There’s Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956 or journeyman Howard Ehmke’s surprise start in 1929 where the junkballer set a record at the time by striking out 13 stunned Chicago Cubs including Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Hack Wilson and Kiki Cuyler twice apiece. Then there’s Bob Gibson’s five-hit shutout in 1968 where he set a World Series record that still stands with 17 strikeouts.

Game 2, 1916 World Series – Boston 2, Brooklyn 1
Pitching IP H R ER BB SO HR BF GSc WPA aLI RE24
Sherry Smith, L (0-1) 13.1 7 2 2 6 2 0 51 82 0.582 1.77 3.3
Babe Ruth, W (1-0) 14 6 1 1 3 4 1 48 97 1.082 1.54 4.8
Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com | Full box score

By Game Score, the best World Series pitching performance came in 1916 by Babe Ruth with a 97. [Morris is tied for 38th at 84.] Ruth set a World Series record that still stands when he went 14 innings for the Boston Red Sox in Game 2 on October 9, beating the Brooklyn Dodgers 2-1. He even drove in one of Boston’s runs, the New York Times noted, when Brooklyn second baseman George Cutshaw juggled a grounder in the third inning, allowing Everett Scott to score.

No one ever really talks about Game 2 of the 1916 World Series anymore, though it’s a great story. The day after it happened, the New York Times described the game as “the most thrilling world’s series battle ever fought.”

It was Ruth’s first start in a postseason game, as the 21-year-old southpaw had been kept in reserve for the 1915 World Series after going 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA that season. Robert Creamer explained in his signature Ruth biography that Red Sox manager Bill Carrigan had elected to primarily use right-handed pitchers in the 1915 Series against Philadelphia and its slugger Gavvy Cravath who had hit 24 homers in the regular season, best in the modern era to that point. Ruth got one pinch hit appearance in the Series while Boston won 4-1 and kept Cravath homer-less with a .125 batting average.

Ruth earned the nod for Game 2 of the 1916 Series after going 23-12 with an American League best 1.75 ERA [as well as a combined 10.4 WAR between pitching and hitting.] Ruth struggled early in his World Series pitching debut, surrendering an inside-the-park home run to Hy Myers in the first inning after, as Creamer noted, two Boston outfielders tripped in pursuit of the ball.  Teammate Jack Barry wrote the following day in a presumably ghostwritten Boston Post column, “Ruth oftentimes has his hardest session at the beginning. We all were sure as the game went along that Ruth would get better.”

Pitching in cavernous Braves Field with 44,000 fans packed in, Ruth threw 13 innings of shutout ball the remainder of the game, allowing five hits and three walks. As Creamer noted, Ruth pitched a no-hitter the final seven innings. Barry wrote that Myers’ homer came off a high fastball and that Ruth kept Myers hitless thereafter by pitching him low. Ruth escaped trouble, Barry noted, recording consecutive ground outs to close the eighth inning after Brooklyn put runners on second and third. Later in the 13th inning, Red Sox left fielder Duffy Lewis provided a running catch off a Jake Daubert fly ball.

The game finally ended amid fading daylight when pinch hitter Del Gainer provided an RBI single in the 14th inning. Having now taken the first two games, Boston would go on to win the Series 4-1. “I told you a year ago I could take care of those National League bums, and you never gave me a chance,” Creamer quoted Ruth telling Carrigan after Game 2. “Forget it Babe,” Carrigan is said to have replied. “You made monkeys out of them today.”

At least a few prominent writers praised Brooklyn’s hurler Sherry Smith, something of a surprise starter as the New York Times noted in its game coverage. [Major League Baseball historian John Thorn tells me there were occasional surprise World Series starters back then, Ehmke being perhaps the most famous.] Hugh Fullerton, a few years away from helping break the Black Sox Scandal, wrote that Ruth was saved by superior defense. Barry also wrote that Ruth received better support. Grantland Rice wrote in his syndicated column the following day:

Smith pitched the better game. For thirteen innings he had the Red Sox lashed to the phantom, swinging as helpless as the bewildered old dame who attempted to sweep back the ocean with a mop. They couldn’t hit with a machine gun loaded with buckshot.

Ruth pitched twice more in postseason play, winning two games in the 1918 World Series. His all-time Fall Classic pitching line: 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA, two complete games and a shutout. Somehow, the best was yet to come.

Why do people still think Jack Morris pitched to the score?

Every so often, I see tweets or articles from reputable sources repeating a long-since debunked myth. This one was posted about a week ago:

Lyle Spencer, a writer for MLB.com, is no different than a lot of other veteran reporters or fans who keep repeating this idea that Jack Morris pitched to the score. Morris popularized the notion, I think, to bolster his Hall of Fame candidacy despite a lifetime 3.90 ERA. As far as Hall campaign strategies go, it’s probably been one of the more effective ones. Morris just missed induction through the writers ballot and may be a future Veterans Committee pick.

Never mind that Joe Sheehan picked apart the myth of Morris pitching to the score in a landmark 2003 piece for Baseball Prospectus. In the piece, which is long but worth a full read, Sheehan examined everyone of Morris’s 527 career starts and discovered that Morris put his team behind in roughly two-thirds of them. That Morris had 254 wins while allowing nearly four runs a game is largely a credit to pitching for one of the best teams of the 1980s, the Detroit Tigers and getting at least five runs of support in nearly half his starts.

Sheehan’s piece is easily found in Google, as are any number of related ones that have come since. It’s like the majority of people who follow baseball aren’t even reading them.

As an enthusiast of sabermetrics, I see the world through proverbial rose-colored glasses sometimes. Primarily through this site and Twitter, I associate with a lot of researchers, analysts and fellow baseball writers, people who can concisely explain why they favor one version of Wins Above Replacement over another. I forget that most of the baseball universe doesn’t work this way.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a fellow who wrote at Baseball-Reference.com’s blog. What he told me: Most fans aren’t like us. They go with traditional stats like batting average or RBIs and don’t seek any kind of deeper statistical appreciation of baseball. They embrace the game’s myths, like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball or Morris pitching to the score. My friends and I? We maybe comprise less than one percent of all people into baseball.

People change, granted. Peter Gammons, among others, changed his mind on Morris pitching to the score after reading Sheehan’s piece. In time, maybe others will follow. But I suspect articles and tweets like the one above will keep coming and more people like me will keep writing pieces denouncing them until this issue, finally, is completely beaten to death. Trying to get people to see things differently seems like a fool’s errand sometimes. I know I often feel like I’m preaching to a choir of like-minded individuals.

The baseball world and the world in general remains so polarized. It’s a shame Jack Morris’s career has become a reminder of this. He was a fine pitcher, one of the best of his era and his work in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series was masterful. I agree with people like Joe Posnanski who’ve written that all this debate about him pitching to the score detracts from this.