All posts by Graham Womack

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 newspapers.com, 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 Baseball-Reference.com’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 Baseball-Reference.com, 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 newspapers.com, 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.

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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.

Baseball-Reference.com 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 Baseball-Reference.com 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.

The need for oral history

I recently joined the newly-relaunched Oral History Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. A slightly modified version of the following piece appears in the committee’s first newsletter.
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I worked in an ice cream shop my senior year of high school, a few blocks from where Edmonds Field stood in Sacramento.

The home of the Sacramento Solons, Edmonds Field met the wrecking ball in 1964, but there are still remnants of its presence, still people who remember it as one of the nicer ballparks of the old Pacific Coast League.

One of the perks of working in food service is the chance to meet, or at least have brief interactions with a variety of interesting people. One day, an elderly customer told me she had lived beside Edmonds Field.

I was working at the time on a high school senior project about the Solons, and my interest piqued. I asked the woman if she would be up for an interview, handing her my phone number. One of my coworkers laughed, thinking I was trying to pick up on the old woman.

I didn’t get to interview the woman, but she went one better, getting me in contact with an 89-year-old man named Bud Beasley. A former pitcher for the Solons and a number of other minor league teams, Beasley had been opposing pitcher for the Seattle Rainers on a fateful night in Sacramento history, July 11, 1948.

On this night, hours after a game, old wooden, double-decked Edmonds Field caught fire, with the park being almost completely destroyed. The Solons played the rest of the 1948 season on the road.

No one was ever sure what caused the fire. Some speculated that a lit cigar had been left in the stands. Others suspected that the park was intentionally destroyed to collect insurance money. Whatever the case, the park was rebuilt, as a single-story concret structure the following year.

More than 50 years after the fire, Beasley told me of his train being stopped that night in nearby Davis while the blaze roared. Even 15 miles away, Beasley told me he could see the flames billowing from Edmonds Field.

Stories like Beasley’s motivate me to research and write about baseball history and to talk to old ballplayers. I’m of the belief as a writer that everyone has a story, and I’m always amazed at how many of them former players have.

There’s something of a historical imperative in talking to old players. Beasley died four years after our conversation, and while I’d imagine he told his stories to plenty of people, I fear that good stories often die or at least diminish in detail with the passing of old players.

I’m thankful for the times that someone publishes a brilliant interview with some old ballplayer 50 or 60 years after the fact, recounting some never-before-told story.

For instance, it’s been common knowledge for many years that the Boston Red Sox had a shot at Jackie Robinson before he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, giving him a sham tryout in 1945 with Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. The Red Sox, of course, were the last team in the majors to integrate, with Pumpsie Green in 1959.

A few years ago, a former player spoke of being at the Robinson tryout and said it almost didn’t happen.

I wonder how many of these types of stories never get told. I don’t believe magic interviews with former players are predestined. I think it’s up to a good interviewer to seek out players, listen to what they have to say, and preserve their stories.

In that respect, I’m proud to be a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and its oral history committee. I think we can do for oral histories what SABR’s landmark BioProject has done for compiling life stories on 2,000 former players.

The Solons quit playing in Sacramento after 1960, and the old Pacific Coast League more or less died with the Giants and Dodgers moving to California. Fewer and fewer veterans of the old PCL remain, gathering for annual reunions that shrink by the year.

That said, I suspect there are still great stories that haven’t been told. I’ve spoken over the years to several of these players. With SABR’s help, I intend to reach out to all of the remaining players in the Sacramento area where I live. Hopefully, other members of this committee who live elsewhere will do likewise.

As a baseball historian and fan, I live for chance meetings with the Bud Beasley’s of the world. I’m never sure what they’re going to say, but more times than not, it’s worth listening to.

More than three baseball people attended Ty Cobb’s funeral

Al Stump’s True magazine feature on Ty Cobb from 1961 ends with the famous, oft-cited line:

From all of major-league baseball, three men and three only appeared for his funeral.

Like many readers, I suppose, I used to place a lot of stock in Stump’s iconic feature, which led to the 1994 film, Cobb. I believed some of the story’s more outlandish claims, such as that Cobb had killed a would-be mugger in the street in 1912, hours before a game. As a researcher, offering blind belief without further investigation is something akin to heresy, but I did it. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better in the past few years, but there’s always room for more growth.

In a 1996 piece for National Pastime, SABR member Doug Roberts debunked Stump’s claim that Cobb had killed a personNearly five years ago, the rest of Stump’s fable was ripped apart in a landmark National Pastime article. While the article primarily focused on large-scale Cobb-related memorabilia fraud that Stump perpetuated after collaborating on an autobiography near the end of Cobb’s life, it’s inspired baseball historians left to reshape the narrative on the Georgia Peach since.

In a certain respect, Stump’s article is a bit of a boon for intrepid researchers. There’s so much wrong with it that it doesn’t take much work to find a distortion or outright fabrication. Take Stump’s assertion that only three people from the baseball world attended Cobb’s funeral.

Charles Leerhsen writes in an ambitious new biography released today from Simon & Schuster, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty:

Perhaps the single meanest lie told about Ty Cobb is that nobody came to his funeral– or even more heartbreaking, because it is more specific– that only three people did. This story started with Stump, who said that just three people from the world of professional baseball traveled to Royston for the service… In fact, there were very few baseball people there– just four– but that was because Charlie Cobb and her children had announced that it was a private service meant only for family and friends.

Leerhsen lists the four baseball people who attended Cobb’s funeral as Hall of Fame director Sid Keener and ex-players Ray Schalk, Mickey Cochrane and Nap Rucker.

There might have been others on-hand as well. A wire story from the day of Cobb’s funeral, July 19, 1961, noted, “Many of baseball’s biggest names are expected to be present for the funeral services which will be held here at 3 p.m. today.” The story listed 14 baseball notables to serve as honorary pallbearers. They were:

  • Cochrane
  • Keener
  • Home Run Baker
  • Sam Crawford
  • Joe Cronin
  • Charley Dressen
  • Ford Frick
  • Warren Giles
  • Fred Haney
  • Earl Mann
  • Muddy Ruel
  • J.G. Taylor Spink
  • Casey Stengel
  • Del Webb

While I don’t know if all of these pallbearers attended or observed their honors from afar– and at least one columnist wrote after Cobb’s funeral that only four MLB people were there– it’s clear that baseball and the rest of the world cared more about the Georgia Peach’s passing than Stump suggested.

The 1911 Tigers-Browns game that drew 66 fans

John Shea mentioned today in the San Francisco Chronicle that SABR’s Phil Lowry knew of a Major League Baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Browns from 1911 that drew just 66 fans. This rates a mention, of course, following Wednesday’s Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox game that was closed to the public and officially played to zero fans, a record.

One of the beauties of the Internet is the ability to quickly find accounts of obscure, long-ago games. After using Wikipedia and Baseball-Reference.com to determine that the game that Shea spoke of took place October 7, 1911, I located a couple of contemporary accounts of it via newspapers.com.

It wasn’t much of a game really, a 1-0 victory by the visiting Tigers over the Browns. The game went just an hour and 35 minutes, with the two teams combining for 15 hits. Neither club had anything to play for with the Tigers in second place, far behind the future World Champion Philadelphia Athletics and the Browns putting the finishing touches on a 45-107, last-place season.

Official MLB historian John Thorn told multiple outlets this past week that the previous low attendance in big league history before Wednesday’s game was six fans for a contest between Troy and Worcester in 1882. The Baltimore Sun wrote more about that game a few days ago.

The Tigers-Browns game we speak of here may have had the American League record for low attendance prior to Wednesday. The Washington Post piece shown above reported the attendance as an AL record low and noted that “the day was raw.” It’s believed that inclement weather kept fans away.

The attendance figures weren’t conjecture, by the way. Both the Post and Chicago’s Inter Ocean reported that the numbers were “by actual count,” which I presume was possible for such a game. The figures came from an era of sports journalism, if it can be termed as such, where teams often either did not provide or grossly inflated their attendance, and reporters sometimes had to guess.

It’s worth noting that the game was without its marquee attraction. Ty Cobb, coming off one of his finest seasons with 248 hits and a .420 batting average, had the day off. [Cobb’s 1911 numbers put in historical context impress somewhat less; the American League used an enlivened ball in 1911, with average scoring per team jumping almost a full run from 1910.]

Cobb missed the following day’s season-ending doubleheader, too, when the Indianapolis Star reported, “Cold weather kept down the attendance [again] and the players most of whom were recruits, did not exert themselves.” That would’ve been a sight to see, but perhaps I’m in the minority here.

There’s maybe one other thing worth a mention. Jimmy Austin, who would be interviewed a half century later for The Glory of Their Times, was in St. Louis’s starting lineup on October 7. I glanced at Austin’s chapter in the book and found no mention of this game. If anyone knows of further accounts of this game elsewhere, don’t be shy.

Why I’m rooting for Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton is quickly becoming a historical footnote. Following Hamilton’s trade back to the Texas Rangers on Monday, Jayson Stark wrote yesterday that Hamilton’s $125 million free agent deal with the the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim might be worst in baseball history. That may be so. Certainly, the Angels’ $110 million in sunk costs for Hamilton’s 2.9 Wins Above Replacement with the team has to be among the most wasteful deals ever.

At this point, it seems unlikely Hamilton will return to All Star form, no sure thing he’ll even be an average outfielder again, and a fairly decent bet he’ll be out the majors altogether within a few years. Hamilton is aging, injury-riddled, and by now, his drug and alcohol problems are long since established. He lost three full seasons in the minors to drugs and has had multiple relapses since getting clean, including one just a few months ago.

As a writer and researcher, I’m often fairly detached with baseball, though I’ve rooted for Hamilton since he debuted in the majors in 2007. I like a good underdog story. More than this, I can relate to Hamilton, and I know a little about his struggle. It’s been nearly a decade since my last drink at age 22. I’m part of a small percentage who’s been able to stay sober since I quit drinking. For many, if not most people, relapse is a part of recovery.

I got lucky and got a second chance in life. Hamilton did as well, and that’s part of his story that sometimes irks me when I see others write about it. No matter what Hamilton does the rest of his career, the guy has been a miracle in my book. The greatest drug and alcohol tragedies in baseball history are the players we never hear of, whose careers implode long before they would ever reach the majors. God only knows how many of these players there have been.

I say this as someone who watched way more people than I can remember come in and out of recovery meetings. Relapse rates are abysmal, and we live in a country, a world really, where there aren’t many effective options for people battling substance abuse problems, particularly for anyone who’d prefer a secular approach to dealing with their issue. I side with addiction researcher and noted 12-step critic Stanton Peele who has written that many people will mature out of addictions and go on to more fruitful endeavors in life. All the same, many people will not.

Josh Hamilton may have had a Hall of Fame career without his personal issues, and that’s unfortunate. I’m still rooting for the guy. I don’t really expect much at this point, though I think the return to Texas may do Hamilton well, as he carries a .316/.374/.588 lifetime slash at the Rangers Ballpark and is leaving one of the starkest pitcher’s parks in baseball. Why any power hitter would sign with the Angels is beyond me, though that’s a story for another time.

MLB salaries stayed low longer than people may think

Marvin Miller became executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966 because for 20 years prior, things got progressively worse for players.

Consider that in 1967, the minimum salary in the majors was $6,000. The first minimum salary in 1946 was $5,000, and, accounting for inflation, minimum-salaried MLB players got 29.8% less in 1967 than they did in 1946.

I think baseball began to change economically when television dollars first entered the game in the 1940s and that initially, team management kept a large share of the new revenue for itself. As Jim Bouton wrote in an update to Ball Four in 1980:

In baseball, the income is there, the only question is who’s going to get it. My position is that while the players don’t deserve all that money, the owners don’t deserve it even more.

The irony is that if the owners hadn’t abused the players so badly, we wouldn’t have gone out and hired Marvin Miller and the players wouldn’t be free agents today.

Interestingly, when Bouton wrote this, things still hadn’t gotten that much better for players, at least in one respect.

The minimum MLB salary this season is $507,500, an all-time high. Adjusting for inflation, that’s 743.2 percent better than the 1946 minimum which would be $60,185.13 today.

But it’s only been a recent development that minimum-salaried players get several multiples more than they would have in 1946. As late as 1979, adjusting for inflation, minimum-salaried players got just 12.7% more than they would have in 1946.

It took until the 1985 for the MLB minimum to be 100 percent higher than the 1946 minimum adjusted for inflation. The rest is history. I don’t know what changed things. Great advances for the players in collective bargaining strategies? More money from cable television? Lost ground for the owners between collusion in the mid-late ’80s and the ’94 strike? It’s hard to say.

I will say I find it interesting that multiple dramatic advances in minimum salary for players occurred after the same MLB minimum salaries were set out for multiple seasons and America experienced recessions, leading to inflation. I suspect the player’s union got galvanized at different points when MLB failed to keep pace with inflation.

For anyone who’s interested, I assembled a chart by looking at historic minimum salary figures, which I primarily found on Cot’s Baseball Contracts [via Baseball Prospectus] and plugging the numbers into an online inflation calculator.

Year Minimum MLB salary 1946 MLB minimum adjusted for inflation to that year How much better or worse the MLB minimum that year was than the 1946 minimum adjusted for inflation
1946 $5,000 N/A N/A
1947 $5,000 $5,720 12.6% worse
1948 $5,000 $6,166.16 18.9% worse
1949 $5,000 $6,104.60 18.1% worse
1950 $5,000 $6,165.54 18.9% worse
1951 $5,000 $6,652.62 24.8% worse
1952 $5,000 $6,798.98 26.5% worse
1953 $5,000 $6,853.37 27% worse
1954 $6,000 $6,887.64 12.9% worse
1955 $6,000 $6,860.09 12.5% worse
1956 $6,000 $6,962.99 13.8% worse
1957 $6,000 $7,213.66 16.8% worse
1958 $6,000 $7,408.42 19% worse
1959 $6,000 $7,467.69 19.6% worse
1960 $6,000 $7,587.18 20.9% worse
1961 $6,000 $7,663.05 21.7% worse
1962 $6,000 $7,747.34 22.5% worse
1963 $6,000 $7,840.31 23.5% worse
1964 $6,000 $7,942.23 24.4% worse
1965 $6,000 $8,077.25 25.7% worse
1966 $6,000 $8,311.49 27.8% worse
1967 $6,000 $8,552.52 29.8% worse
1968 $10,000 $8,911.73 12.2% better
1969 $10,000 $9,392.96 6.5% better
1970 $12,000 $9,947.15 20.6% better
1971 $12,750 $10,374.88 22.9% better
1972 $13,500 $10,717.25 26% better
1973 $15,000 $11,381.72 31.8% better
1974 $15,000 $12,633.70 18.7% better
1975 $16,000 $13,783.37 16.1% better
1976 $19,000 $14,582.81 30.3% better
1977 $19,000 $15,530.69 22.3% better
1978 $21,000 $16,711.02 25.7% better
1979 $21,000 $18,632.79 12.7% better
1980 $30,000 $21,148.22 41.9% better
1981 $32,500 $23,326.48 39.3% better
1982 $33,500 $24,772.72 35.2% better
1983 $35,000 $25,565.45 36.9% better
1984 $40,000 $26,664.77 50% better
1985 $60,000 $27,624.70 117.2% better
1986 $60,000 $28,149.57 113.1% better
1987 $62,500 $29,162.95 114.3% better
1988 $62,500 $30,358.63 105.9% better
1989 $68,000 $31,815.85 113.7% better
1990 $100,000 $33,533.90 198.2% better
1991 $100,000 $34,942.33 186.2% better
1992 $109,000 $35,990.60 202.9% better
1993 $109,000 $37,070.31 194% better
1994 No agreement $38,034.14 N/A
1995 $109,000 $38,985 179.6% better
1996 – to 7/31/96 $109,000 $40,154.55 171.5% better
1996 – 7/31/96 to end of season $150,000 $40,154.55 273.6% better
1997 $150,000 $40,837.17 267.3% better
1998 $170,000 $41,490.57 309.7% better
1999 $200,000 $42,610.81 369.4% better
2000 $200,000 $44,059.58 353.9% better
2001 $200,000 $44,764.53 346.8% better
2002 $200,000 $45,838.88 336.3% better
2003 $300,000 $46,709.82 542.3% better
2004 $300,000 $48,251.25 521.7% better
2005 $316,000 $49,891.79 533.4% better
2006 $327,000 $51,139.08 539.4% better
2007 $380,000 $52,570.98 622.8% better
2008 $390,000 $54,568.67 614.7% better
2009 $400,000 $54,350.40 636% better
2010 $400,000 $55,220.01 624.4% better
2011 $414,000 $56,821.39 628.6% better
2012 $480,000 $58,014.64 727.4% better
2013 $490,000 $58,884.85 732.1% better
2014 $500,000 $59,827.01 735.7% better
2015 $507,500 $60,185.13 743.2% better


[UPDATE, 4/29: This chart was adjusted to include the MLB minimum from 1948 to 1966. MLB raised minimum pay from $5,000 to $6,000 on December 9, 1953 and did not raise its minimum again until 1968.]

Babe Ruth could have joined the White Sox in 1914

In the summer of 1914, 19-year-old Babe Ruth emerged as a star pitcher for Baltimore of the International League, and a bidding war quickly developed for his services. Robert Creamer wrote in his landmark 1974 Ruth biography of Baltimore owner Jack Dunn offering Ruth to Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack and failing to contact New York Giants manager John McGraw, who had interest.

There were other potential suitors as well, such as New York Yankees owner Frank Farrell who offered Dunn $25,000 for Ruth and three other players just prior to Ruth’s sale in July 1914. Dunn turned it down, hoping to get at least $30,000. The Baltimore owner was sometimes notorious for holding out on selling players, most notably perhaps with Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove a decade later.

Another offer Dunn received may have changed baseball history had it progressed. In reporting the sale to the Boston Red Sox of Ruth, Ernie Shore, and Ben Egan, the Allentown Democrat [Allentown, PA] noted July 11, 1914 that the Chicago White Sox had offered $18,000 for Ruth alone.

I tweeted a little while ago about finding this article, and my friend and editor Rich Mueller, whose website Sports Collector Daily I contribute to, showed me a piece he wrote in 2012. In uncovering correspondence from White Sox scout George Earl Mills, Mueller found that team owner Charlie Comiskey could have had Ruth and five other players for $18,000, but turned it down thinking the price too high.

Mueller wrote:

Had Comiskey been willing to open his checkbook a little more for the recent refugee from St. Mary’s Industrial School, baseball history would have been forever altered.  The White Sox may have become the dominant team in baseball during the 1920s.  The Black Sox scandal may never have happened–or Ruth could have been caught up in it.

I like to think Ruth could have turned the tide in the 1919 World Series on his own. It’s rare in baseball that a single position player has the power to change the course of events, but Ruth was more or less a one man show for Boston in 1919. It’s one of the more underrated seasons in baseball history, even if it paled in comparison to what came later for Ruth.

Ruth was so much better than the rest of his team and the rest of his league in 1919 it’s ridiculous. In just his first full season as a position player, Ruth offered a 217 OPS+ and shattered the home run record with 29. He hit all but four of Boston’s home runs, scoring or driving in about a third of Boston’s runs. Ruth hit 12 percent of all homers in the American League in 1919. For context, Barry Bonds’ 73 homers represented just 2.5 percent of all National League homers in 2001.

So I like to think Ruth could have beat the Cincinnati Reds and eight conspiring teammates on his own in 1919, but who knows. Then again, heroics by Ruth may never have brought to light the gambling problem in baseball, which was endemic over the first 20 years of the 20th century, maybe longer. In that respect, I’m glad things played out as they did. Still, one can only wonder what might have been.

True pioneers for MLB’s ‘Franchise Four’

Baseball Twitter is bustling today at early returns from Major League Baseball’s “Franchise Four” promotion, which has fans voting on the four most important members of each team. To vote, go here.

Within this project, there’s a category to select four pioneers before 1915, and as could be expected, the thing is a historical train wreck. I don’t blame the people voting; whoever put together the ballot for this thing needs a lesson in baseball history.

Here’s the eight-player ballot for the category, which seems haphazardly drawn from notable players of the Deadball Era and before: Grover Cleveland Alexander, Cap Anson, Buck Ewing, Wee Willie Keeler, King Kelly, Kid Nichols, George Sisler, George Wright

Leaving aside that numerous players aren’t mentioned here from Honus Wagner to Ty Cobb to Nap Lajoie, my biggest gripe is that baseball’s greatest pioneers before 1915 by and large weren’t players. If the pioneers were players, their greatest contributions came off the field.

Some of the people I list below were obscure even for their time and have only been rediscovered in recent years. I understand this isn’t the most marketable thing, but I assume anyone willing to look at the pioneer section of a project of this nature has an interest in learning baseball’s history. The ballot, as it stands, does them a disservice.

My friend Adam Darowski challenged me to name eight better candidates for the pioneer section of the ballot. Here goes:

  1. Al Spalding: Star 19th century player, turned sporting goods magnate. Most importantly, he pushed for the 1905 Mills Commission, which anointed Abner Doubleday baseball’s founder.
  2. Ban Johnson: Launched the American League in 1901, the only rival to the National League that’s lasted.
  3. Henry Chadwick: 19th century statistician, credited with popularizing the box score.
  4. Doc Adams: Perhaps Major League Baseball didn’t consult its historian John Thorn in creating a ballot for this project. Thorn wrote a piece in 1993 calling Adams, “The True Father of Baseball.” A tribute website for Adams lists a litany of pioneering accomplishments. Among other things, Adams headed the committee that set bases 90 feet apart and games at nine innings. Somehow, Alexander Cartwright got credit for these things.
  5. William Wheaton: Like Adams, Wheaton was involved with the New York Knickerbocker baseball club and was one of baseball’s first umpires. In Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Thorn cites Wheaton, Adams, William H. Tucker, and Louis Wadsworth as having a better claim to inventing baseball than Doubleday or Cartwright. I admit to not knowing as much about Tucker or Wadsworth. They may belong here as well.
  6. Monte Ward: A Hall of Fame position player and pitcher, though I included him for his role in establishing the upstart Players League in 1890, one of the first [unsuccessful] challenges to the National League’s monopoly.
  7. Harry Wright: Organized, managed and played for the Cincinnati Red Stockings. His brother George, who was star player of the team, got in the Hall of Fame more than 15 years before him by dying a few months prior to his induction in December 1937.
  8. William Hulbert: First president of the National League.

It’s probably too late to change the ballot, though write-in choices are allowed. If anyone from Major League Baseball is reading, please feel free to reach out to me for future projects. I’ll happily offer my services free of charge.

Talking to Gaylord Perry

Perry

I love talking to former Major League Baseball players. Between this website and other work, I’ve spoken to a decent number of them, maybe 50, ranging from one-day players to a few Hall of Famers. I learned early on as a writer that I barely even have to ask questions to get old ballplayers talking, that my job is mostly just to show up and listen.

Controversial players are different. I learned this in 2008 when I interviewed Jose Canseco for the East Bay Express. While Canseco showed up an hour before a book signing in Oakland to talk to me, was courteous, and seems like a nicer person than he’s generally given credit for, our interview still had a slight adversarial banter and ended with the former Bash Brother telling me, “You were easy!” I think the Cansecos of the baseball world hold back and anticipate, maybe even enjoy, a certain degree of conflict in their dealings with the media.

Last week, I had a similar experience, taking part prior to a Sacramento River Cats game in a group interview with Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was on-hand to be inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame. Perry won 314 games, accumulated 93.7 WAR, and recorded 3,534 strikeouts, which was third-best all-time when he retired in 1983. But I think the first thing that comes to mind for most fans with Perry is that he put Vaseline and other substances on the ball for much of his career. As I was reminded in looking up Perry just now in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Perry even titled his autobiography, Me and the Spitter.

Perry seemingly operated with impunity for much of career. As Mark Armour wrote in Perry’s biography for the Society for American Baseball Research:

During Perry’s career, the rules governing the enforcement of the spitball were changed twice, and the umpires were given explicit directives concerning the pitch several other times, and all this was primarily because of Gaylord Perry. When it was his day to pitch, he was the story. Where did he get his grease? Why don’t the umpires stop him? Did you see what that pitch just did? Perry just kept grinning.

Perry has this way of speaking, in his thick North Carolina drawl, like he’s winking at everyone he’s talking to, like there’s some kind of joke we should all be in on if we only could pick up the hints. I’ve held back on posting the results of my interview in part because I found this alternately amusing and frustrating. In talking with former players, anyone in general, I prefer transparency and a willingness to engage. I find it leads to more productive discussions and better interview transcripts. Still, a good journalist works with whatever they’re given.

Another challenge with interviewing popular players, particularly before games, is that other people often want to talk to them as well. Five of us crowded around Perry, with a few of us taking turns asking questions. I find the magic in an interview happens when I’m one-on-one with a player and have at least five or ten minutes. Obscure and even former standout players are generally good for this; I caught up with Greg Vaughn a little while after talking to Perry and had the kind of interview I hope for. But it’s rare the magic happens in a group setting where each reporter may have their own line of questioning.

I hung back for a bit while other people asked Perry the kind of questions about his minor league career that are perfunctory at a Triple-A game. Then someone asked Perry his thoughts on Barry Bonds getting into the Hall of Fame. Perry replied:

I think eventually he’ll get in, and if he does, I’ll be there to support him. In fact, Pete Rose. If Pete gets in, I’ll be there to support him. But I think it’s going to be awhile.

This piqued my interest, for a few reasons. Perry’s not the first prominent big leaguer to support enshrining a steroid user. Buried in a lengthy discussion I had with former Houston Astros pitcher and manager Larry Dierker at last year’s SABR conference is an aside from him that he thinks Roger Clemens belongs in Cooperstown. I imagine other players feel this way and that, with a little more time, they’ll look to enshrine Bonds, Clemens, and others through the Veterans Committee.

I admit my interest was piqued in part because I thought there might be a good soundbite in it. I try not to go into interviews with predetermined narratives, as that’s a lousy excuse for journalism, but I’ll confess my first thought upon hearing of the opportunity for this interview– after, of course “Oh wow, Gaylord Perry!”– was something along the lines of, “See if he says something against putting steroid users in the Hall of Fame and sounds like a hypocrite.” It’s not my proudest moment as a journalist. Oh well, live and learn.

So I asked Perry if he thought steroid users in general should be in Cooperstown. Perry being Perry gave a roundabout answer, though what follows may also be a de facto reply from players of his era. I heard similar when I talked to Rollie Fingers during a River Cats game 10 years ago. Perry told us:

Well, when you say steroids to me, when I was playing I didn’t know what it was. I played at a great time. We didn’t have that problem. We had maybe too much drinking and smoking, nothing more than that as I knew of… Bonds did everything in Pittsburgh. He won four MVPs there in Pittsburgh, skinny.

A bit later, someone asked Perry what kind of role would be best within the Giants organization for Bonds, who’s mostly been non-involved since last playing in 2007. Perry replied, “I think we need him right now as a hitting instructor because we’re not getting some key hits. I’ve heard him talk about baseball, and I was very impressed at how he loved the game and how he could teach the game. I think he’d be a big help. I would definitely support him.”

It’s worth nothing that Perry saw Bonds in the Candlestick Park locker room when Bonds was a kid. As Perry’s teammate Ken Henderson told me in 2010, Bonds was there because his father Bobby played on the team. Henderson told me, “Barry never lacked for confidence,” and I wondered if Perry might have similar memories. He didn’t, though he mentioned having to keep an eye on his own kid, lest he grab a Coke. Players, after all, had to pay for their locker room drink purchases in those days. Perry said, “You got caught throwing a ball in the stands, it cost you five dollars, and I didn’t have five dollars.” Fraternizing with opposing players at the batting cage would bring a $50 fine, Perry told us.

Baseball’s certainly changed a lot since Perry played. In noting Perry’s strikeout totals, I saw that only four players in baseball history– Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Clemens, and Steve Carlton– have topped 4,000 K’s. I tweeted about this, wondering if any pitcher may reach that, and my friend Kyle Madson reminded me no one logs sufficient innings for that total anymore. It’s true. Just two active pitchers, Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson have 3,000 innings. Perry pitched 2,900 innings in the 1970s alone, telling us from memory that he had 303 complete games. Perry said, “We loved to play, we didn’t take days off, and when our turn come, we wanted to go nine.”

This isn’t to say Perry disparages the current state of the majors. Asked by another person if he thought today’s game was healthy, Perry said, “Very healthy, very rich.”

After about 10 minutes, a representative from the River Cats wrapped things up, and that was that with Perry. He threw out a ceremonial pitch, I think, and I didn’t see him in his seat during the game. That’s how it goes with baseball legends, who can be as detached as they want from the current game. When I interviewed Rollie Fingers in 2005, he didn’t know that Huston Street had broken one of his records. If memory serves, Fingers didn’t even know who Street was.

All of this, by the way, is not to suggest it wasn’t a huge thrill to get to talk to Perry. It’s always surreal being in the presence of a baseball legend, no matter how they achieved that status.

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Other players I’ve interviewed for this website: Ernie Broglio, Larry Dierker, Sergio Romo, Bob UsherGreg VaughnMatt WalbeckBob WatsonJimmy Wynn.