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?

Guest post: Comprehensive reform for the Veterans Committee

Editor’s note: Please welcome Daniel Greenia to the site. Daniel is a longtime reader and first-time author here. Today, Daniel weighs in on a subject he’s well-versed in, the Hall of Fame. He’s voted multiple years in my project on the 50 best players not in Cooperstown and authored a “Fixing the Hall of Fame” series for Dugout Central. It’s my pleasure to present Daniel’s debut effort here.


Some of Graham Womack’s recent articles motivated me to put down some ideas I’ve had percolating in my mind regarding the election procedures for the Veterans Committee (VC). The primary aim is to have the VC elect players every year, to start cleaning up the backlog created from 14 years of neglect.

The first necessity is to separate the player from the non-players.  On this point, the old VC (1953-2001) got it right. Cramming them together on the same ballot creates a nightmare for comparative analysis of the candidates.

We start by adapting the three existing committees, making them for players only, while clarifying and equalizing the time periods covered by each one. In addition, the Hall should establish four committees for other candidates. That would give the HOF eight committees, the old BBWAA electorate along with seven specialized Veterans committees:

  1. BBWAA: considers players retiring from 6-15 seasons ago.  For 2016 that’s guys last playing 2001-2010. [Also Trammell and Lee Smith.]

Tweak the eras for the existing committees and make them for players only:

  1. Expansion Era: considers player retiring from 16-50 seasons ago. For the election in late 2016 that’s guys last playing 1966-2000. Also considers any living players retiring more than 50 years ago. Elects one player every two years.
  2. Golden Era: considers deceased players retiring 51-100 seasons ago. For the election in late 2017 that’s guys last playing 1917-1966. Elects one player every four years.
  3. Early Era: considers players retiring over 100 seasons ago. For the election in late 2015 that’s guys last playing 1871-1914. Elects one player every four years.

Create four committees for others, voting on a four-year rotating basis:

  1. Managers & Coaches Committee
  2. Black Baseball Players Committee: considers players from the pre- and early-integration era.
  3. Executives & Umpires Committee
  4. Pioneers & Contributors Committee

I’ll discuss more about each of these in turn, but start with a few general comments.

Historically, the BBWAA has enshrined about two players on average for every election it has held since 1936. The BBWAA has held close to this average over the past 14 years, voting in 24 players. Meanwhile, the VC elected just three MLB players: Joe Gordon, Ron Santo, and Deacon White. This stands in stark contrast to the previous 14 years, 1988-2001, when the VC elected 13 MLB players; or the 14 years prior, 1974-87, when the VC elected 20 MLB players. This dysfunction has created a swelling backlog of players who are fully deserving and qualified for the Hall. Most voters sense this, so they keep showing up and voting for players, but the results keep coming up short of electing anyone. The system has failed the voters– and not the other way around. There is no shortage of deserving candidates to elect and it is incumbent upon the HOF to create a system that elects someone.

This can’t be stressed enough: the various HOF committees exist to elect someone. They do not exist to “maintain high standards” or whatever BS rationale is employed– that is the job of the Nominating Committee. The people who decide who gets on the ballot– they have the most important job in the election process. This is where the HOF needs to recruit the top talent, the expert researchers and historians. If they include only the ten most deserving candidates on the ballot, players like Jack Morris and Steve Garvey will not make the Hall any time soon. So the HOF must present the VC voters with a 10-man ballot having only the best candidates on it. Then they must devise a system that ensures that someone is elected every time.

Of course, baseball has long employed a system ideal for the task: the MVP voting system. In those elections, every voter ranks ten players, sifting through every player in the league. We’ll make it even easier for the Veterans Committee: give them a 10-man ballot to rank. The winner gets inducted to the Hall. It should not be hard for the experts that comprise the HOF electorates to perform this task.

As mentioned earlier, this idea of mixing players and non-players on the same ballot is wrong and results have proven it a failure. Players are rarely elected; even worse, men deserving of a place in the Hall are getting old and dying before the Hall bothers to fix the system. The problem is, the expertise required of the voters is quite different for judging players and non-players, so the Hall should create focused electorates most suitable to one task or the other.

Second, the process would benefit from transparency. Voting in a Black Box leads to distrust of the process, giving an air of illegitimacy to the players elected. The HOF should not allow these issues to persist. Ballots should not only be made public, but voters should be required to explain their process. “The unjustified ballot is not worth casting”, to paraphrase Socrates.

Third, fixed eras are currently used by the veterans committees, meaning they have the same pool of candidates every election. A change to shifting eras allows for a gentle churning of candidates, creating public anticipation for each election as new candidates enter the purview of each electorate.

Let’s take a closer look at the player committees:

BBWAA: Leave them alone for now. The 75 percent requirement will not be easily struck down, given it’s been in place for nearly 80 years. When they revert back to a poor rate of elections [seven players elected 2008-13; five players elected 1993-98] there may be impetus for reform.

Their new 10-year eligibility rule is good, especially with the new VC setup proposed here. The reason it was put in is that it gets the unelectable steroid crowd off the ballot sooner. However, there are other benefits. It has been the case throughout the Hall’s history that the BBWAA’s main purpose is to wave all the no-brainers into the Hall. The harder task has been left to the various VC’s, to draw the HOF in/out line. So limiting candidates’ time on the BBWAA ballot, and getting them under the consideration of a carefully made VC election process is all to the good. As for Tim Raines, and many other less obvious candidates, the 10-year limit may actually get them in the Hall sooner, when the VC gets to make the call.

Expansion Era [retiring 16-50 years ago, or 1966-2000 for the election in December 2016]: This is the most overlooked era by the Hall of fame. The BBWAA elected 56 players retiring in those years. Likewise, in the 35 elections 1977-2011, when the BBWAA was considering mainly players from this era, they elected 56 players total.

How many “should” they have elected? Well, there are 158 HOF players born 1880-1940 [including Negro leaguers], an average of 2.6 per year. By that standard, in 35 years the HOF should elect 91 players. So we can say that the BBWAA left it up to the VC to elect 35 more players retiring 1966-2000 [91 minus 56.] So far they have elected four [Bunning, Mazeroski, Cepeda and Santo.] One could spin the numbers differently, but it should be clear that if the HOF is going to be fair to this era there is A LOT of work to be done. We need this committee to vote every other year, with the other two players committees voting once every four years.

This committee will also be tasked to consider the oldest living candidates, even players retiring more than 50 years ago. They will be reminded that this may be the final chance for induction while alive for players like Minnie Minoso and Billy Pierce, to name two popular candidates who’ve died in the past year. Of course, voters will be left to determine how much weight to give to that fact.

Another thing we should strive to do is to place players in the era with their peers, by ignoring brief comeback appearances made after age 40. [This was seen much more often a hundred years ago.] It should be obvious that Minoso belongs with the Golden Age candidates, given his retirement in 1964. It only makes sense to ignore his play in 1976 and ‘80 for purposes of HOF eligibility.

Possible 2016 ballot: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Dwight Evans, Bobby Grich, Keith Hernandez, Tommy John, Billy Pierce, Ted Simmons, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker.

Golden Era [deceased players retiring 51-100 years ago, or 1917-66 for the election in December 2017]: While this era is well-represented in the HOF, we can still find ten candidates who would not lower the standards of the Hall. Consideration of players whose careers were stunted by military service is especially in order.

Possible 2017 ballot: Wes Ferrell, Heinie Groh, Stan Hack, Gil Hodges, Bob Johnson, Charlie Keller, Sherry Magee, Minnie Minoso, Urban Shocker, Bucky Walters.

Early Era [retiring more than 100 years ago, or 1871-1914 for the election in December 2015]: For this committee a name change from Pre-Integration Era is clearly in order. The HOF has only recently begun, for the first time, a systematic study of 19th-century players. Indeed, there are many overlooked early greats deserving of a plaque in Cooperstown. Deacon White is just the first drop in this wave, hopefully.

Possible 2015 ballot: Ross Barnes, Pete Browning, Bob Caruthers, Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock, Paul Hines, Jim McCormick, Tony Mullane, Jimmy Sheckard, Harry Stovey.

My attitude towards non-players is very liberal: since standards are mainly subjective there are hundreds of people whom I would have no problem welcoming into the Hall.

Managers & Coaches Committee: Why just elect managers? There should also be consideration given to the unsung coaches who have greatly influenced the game.

Possible ballot: Dusty Baker, Ralph Houk, Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch, Leo Mazzone, Danny Murtaugh, Lou Piniella, Johnny Sain.

Black Baseball Players Committee: considers players from the pre- and early-integration era. Research into this area continues to lead to new discoveries. Despite the stampede a decade ago, that tried to induct every overlooked person from black baseball, we can see a few guys who got left behind.

There also needs to be focus towards black players from the 50’s and 60’s. It should be realized that it took until a generation after Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut for black players to have similar opportunities as white Americans. Even into the 1970’s some teams imposed quotas and restrictions on black players.

Most black players born in the 20’s and 30’s had stunted careers due to their color. Look at Elston Howard, born in 1929. If he had been born 15 years later he would not have begun his career with three years in the Negro Leagues. He likely would not have lost his age 22-23 seasons to military service. He likely would not have had to wait until age 28 to play 100 games in a MLB season.

Possible ballot: John Beckwith, Elston Howard, Home Run Johnson, Dick Lundy, Dobie Moore, Don Newcombe, Alejandro Oms, Buck O’Neil, Dick Redding, Quincy Trouppe.

Executives & Umpires Committee: The game has honored its own more than it has honored managers. Umpires are combined with executives here because they are part of the executive branch. Frankly, the HOF goofed when it started giving plaques to umpires. Umpires have no fans; nobody argues for their election. The best ones are invisible; while their presence enhances the show, they never become the show. It’s too late now, but umpires should have been treated like the writers and broadcasters, with place in a Cooperstown exhibit, but no induction or plaque. [Editor’s note: It’s a common misconception, regularly repeated in the media, but writers and broadcasters do not have a special wing in Cooperstown.]

Pioneers & Contributors Committee: This is the fun, wildcard category. It considers any persons who made meritorious contributions to our game. This can be hard to define, but the general idea is the HOF has been too limiting in who is considered for immortality. So we look for groundbreakers from every era, from Doc Adams to Bill James; multiple contributors such as Bob Ferguson, Lefty O’Doul and Bill White; player+ump combos like Bill Dinneen and Eddie Rommell; memorable characters who have enriched the game’s tapestry such as Chris von der Ahe and Max Patkin; lyricist Jack Norworth and poet Ernest Thayer; authors, scouts, college managers, and a hundred others who helped build the game we love.

Summarizing some of the many benefits brought by these reforms:

  • It restores the traditional role of the Veterans Committee by ensuring they elect a player every year.
  • It enhances the legitimacy of the elections through greater transparency.
  • Makes the electors more accountable to their main constituency, the fans of the game.
  • By using more unique classifications for candidates, electorates can be created with voters that have specialized knowledge of that particular area.
  • Recognizes a broader spectrum of meritorious contributors to the game.
  • Brings equitable treatment to the stars of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, whose numbers in the HOF are far below those of players from earlier eras.
  • Promotes the election of living honorees by giving priority to Expansion Era stars.
  • Brings more focus to electing stars from the game’s antiquity.

Naturally, none of the foregoing is meant to represent the best and only way to bring about a better system. Everything here is offered in the hopes of stimulating creativity and discussion, not defining it. This, it bears noting, is in sharp contrast to the Veterans Committee, which has met privately and operated with impunity since its founding. Such tenets have led to the present mess the Veterans Committee finds itself in. Summarily, we reject them.


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.


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.

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


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.


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

Remembering Ray Nemec

I doubt many people outside of the Society for American Baseball Research knew who Ray Nemec was, and I imagine he didn’t mind. In fact, I’d venture he preferred it that way. The Ray Nemecs of the baseball research world are a curious breed and one I admittedly don’t totally understand. When I research or write something, I do it with the end goal in mind, looking forward to sharing my findings. To do research simply for the sake of research seems a little strange to me.

Ray Nemec, who died April 17 at 85, may have done baseball research for the sake of research better than anyone. One of 16 founding members of SABR in 1971, Nemec’s specialty was the minor leagues. It’s getting rarer and rarer to find people to say this about, but at least for the minors, Nemec knew more than Baseball-Reference.com.

I spoke to Nemec a few times for stories over the past few years. When I first contacted him in 2012, for a feature on an obscure player with a lone season of Class C ball in 1939, Nemec sent me a file that included the player’s Social Security number and names of semi-pro teams he’d been on. Where Nemec got this information from, I don’t know. Minor league data on Baseball-Reference.com can be fractured, particularly regarding forgotten players who didn’t last long. For what it’s worth, Nemec wasn’t a huge fan of the site, saying he counted 250,000 errors on it.

To say the least, Nemec’s death is a big loss for the baseball research community. As his obituary on SABR.org noted, his stats were used to create the Minor League Baseball Database, which informs Baseball-Reference.com’s minor league stats. Nemec had an early goal to find “all records for all players.” While he may have fallen short in this regard, the end result wasn’t bad either: stats for more than 100,000 players and a well-deserved Henry Chadwick Award from SABR in 2012.

An interview with Greg Vaughn

This evening finds me sitting in the press box at Raley Field, home of the San Francisco Giants Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats. I covered the River Cats as a freelance journalist in 2004 and 2005, and one thing I learned early on is that there are often interesting, unexpected people to be found in press boxes. In my time here a decade ago, I crossed paths with Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers and Moneyball author Michael Lewis, among others.

I came out this evening in hopes of interviewing Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was on-hand to be inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame. I took part in a group interview with Perry, highlights of which I’ll post Saturday. Unexpectedly, though, I ran into former All Star and Sacramento native Greg Vaughn, whose son Cory plays for the River Cats opponent for the evening, the Las Vegas 51s.

Unlike Perry, I got to chat with Vaughn one-on-one for about 10 minutes just prior to game time, having a wide-ranging discussion with him. Highlights of our exchange are as follows:

Baseball Past and Present: Are you out here tonight for your son?

Vaughn: Yeah, I’m a baseball fan, and I love the River Cats, but my son’s with Las Vegas. So for me, I wouldn’t miss it.

That’s awesome. What’s he rated as a prospect? Is he in the top 100?

Vaughn: I’m not sure. You know, I don’t look at any of that stuff to tell you the truth. I figure, if he plays the way you’re supposed to play, he’ll get where you’re supposed to get. So if he goes out there and plays and does what Cory’s supposed to do, Cory’ll be in the big leagues. I mean, what good is it to say, ‘Oh you’re a top 100 prospect.’ What’s that mean? You still have to produce.

What does he do best as a player?

Vaughn: Well, I think, he’s a tool freak. He’s a tool box. He can run, he can hit for power, he has a great arm. It’s just being able to process it and do it on a consistent basis, night in and night out.


How much has baseball changed since you retired?

Vaughn: It was always numbers. We were always taught, ‘Put it down in black and white,’ and you can’t take that away from you. But at the same time, I don’t know what OPS is or [WAR] and all that stuff. I was taught to hit and produce runs and all that stuff took care of itself.

Were there any guys who were into the advanced numbers?

Vaughn: Probably towards the end of my career all that stuff was coming out, but like I said, thank God I was fortunate enough to play for organizations that knew that they had good baseball people around me. So it wasn’t a computer telling me I was supposed to go up there against Randy Johnson and take three or four pitches and get one swing of the bat. It’s too hard to hit. This game is hard. A round bat with a round ball, a guy that’s throwing 100 miles an hour, and you got the best athletes in the world out there fielding baseballs. I wasn’t that good. I needed three swings, if not more, every at-bat.


How do you think you’d fare in today’s game? I know strikeouts are really high. Do you think your strikeouts would be higher if you were playing today?

Vaughn: I don’t think they’d be higher. They were what they were when I played. I don’t know. I think I’d be okay you throw a lot of fastballs. It just depends what organization I’d be with because If I had to take pitches, I probably wouldn’t do very good. If they were going to let me be me, I think I’d be alright.

Why do you think the strikeout levels have gone up so much in the majors? Do you have any idea?

Vaughn: I just don’t think kids are getting enough swings. Also, coming up, kids aren’t allowed to figure things out on their own. Ever since they’re eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, you have coaches, ‘Don’t swing, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ so you can’t go out in the driveway and play strikeout, learn how to take balls off your chest, rifle them to right field, play where left field is closed, and do all those things. So it’s a situation where as good as these coaches [are] and thankful I am that we have these coaches coaching our youth, they’re hurting them in the sense that they’re not letting them play. They’re not letting them experience certain things that allow them to become players.

You mentioned you’re a coach yourself, right?

Vaughn: Yeah

What do you try to impart to your players?

Vaughn: For me, compete. Play and compete. That’s the biggest thing for me. You know what, go out there and hopefully I can make you better today and it will be fun… We don’t bunt. We teach them how to bunt, and if it’s a certain time of the year and we have to get a bunt down to win the championship, or something, yeah. But I’m not going to bunt on day one of the season just because I’m trying to put a notch on my belt. I’d rather kids learn how to play the right way and how to have fun when they play.

I wanted to ask you as well, yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day, and baseball today, it seems like African American players are represented at some of their lowest levels since integration. Does that bother you at all?

Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Living in Sacramento, living out in the country, it costs $250, $300 for a kid to play Little League now. And then, they have five coaches on the coaching staff. Those five coaches have five kids. So you got the rest of the team battling for four spots. Those five kids are never coming out… African Americans, you know, first of all, if my mom had to pay $250, $300 for me and my brother and sister to play, being a single parent, it wouldn’t have happened. The bats are $400. The shoes, the spikes, the travel, it’s just really an expensive sport.

Do you think the R.B.I. Program is doing enough these days?

Vaughn: Well, I don’t think there’s ever anything doing enough [but] the R.B.I. Program definitely helps. It gives kids an opportunity that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity. So, for me, I thank the R.B.I. Program for going into those cities. We need more of them. We need Major League Baseball to help us out and get more of them so we can get more kids in baseball.

One thing there’s been some debate about, even just on my website, is there’s some people who say these days, more African American kids are coming up and they’re playing football and basketball instead. I’ve heard other people say that’s nonsense, if somebody’s really good at baseball, they’re going to play baseball. What do you make of it?

Vaughn: The African American has to be really, really good. You know what I’m saying? He has to be really, really good to get on the field. In those other sports, they’re faster, they don’t have to sit and clean up the field, and I think they have a better opportunity to play, a fairer chance. Because like I said, you got five coaches, you got all the rest of the people vying for four spots, so that African American player is going to have to be really, really good.

As a major league veteran and an African American, is there anything in particular that you try to do to promote baseball among younger black youth?

Vaughn: Yeah. For me, like I said, you know growing up, everyone played when I was coming up, Hispanic, black, white, upper class white, lower class white, the neighborhood as we called it. We need to get back to that. But it’s our job as society to give these kids an opportunity, to give them a fair shake, to let them go out there and hone their skills… A lot of these kids are coming from single parent homes. They never have a dad out there playing catch with them. They’re not going to camps. They might have the tools or more tools than some of the other players, but they don’t have the experience. So now, if they don’t get it done, they’re just going to sit on the bench, and we need to give them opportunity to fail and coach them right.

Hasn’t it kind of always been that way in baseball? I thought even during like the 1950s, if blacks came up in the minors and they weren’t a star player, their opportunity didn’t last as long.

Vaughn: I agree 100 percent. That’s life in general. I don’t play the race card, but it is what it is. What my grandmother told me a long time ago, ‘If he’s right here, if someone’s right here, be three times above that. Don’t make it close.’

That’s gotta put pressure on you hearing something like that. Was it ever intimidating to know in the back of your mind that you had to be that much better?

Vaughn: No, but I expected it from myself. It was something that I think fueled me. It inspired me. It gave me the ammunition to go out there and do better.

With that kind of competitive drive, is it ever tough being retired from baseball? Do you ever miss it?

Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Competing, you do miss it. But all I gotta do is go to a golf course and it’ll humble me very quickly.


Other player interviews: Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn

Jack Glasscock writes to The Sporting News

I have today off from work, which has found me at the computer, alternating between reading more of Cooperstown Confidential and putting down Zev Chafets’ fine book to do sporadic research. I got to wondering again just now if it might be possible to find the names of voters for the one-off Veterans Committee of 1936. Said names have seemingly never been made public, though I have a feeling something’s out there waiting to be rediscovered in an online archive.

In this spirit, I traipsed over to The Sporting News archives. I didn’t find any committee names, though I stumbled across a 1936 letter to the magazine from 19th century star Jack Glasscock. My friend and fellow baseball historian Adam Darowski loves any mention of Glasscock– and believes he should be in the Hall of Fame— so for Adam and anyone else interested, I thought I’d share the letter here. It ran January 2, 1936:



I just can’t bear to read in THE SPORTING NEWS of Hugh Fullerton’s Pittsburgh All-Time selections. Of course, I expected him to name Hans Wagner at shortstop in place of myself, for he probably was a better player than myself. Fred Clarke was O.K. too, but I stop there. Here is the Pittsburgh team of 1893 and I feel certain it could have beaten any all-star outfit that could be selected: Beckley, first base; Bierbauer, second base; Glasscock, shortstop; Lyons, third base; Donovan, Stenzel and Smith, outfielders; Miller, catcher; Killian [sic], Ehret and Terry, pitchers.

Jack Glasscock

           9 Maryland Street, Wheeling, W. VA.

The minds of old ballplayers are funny sometimes, prone to selective and wistful thinking. This has gone on across generations, maybe all of baseball history. As Bill James wrote in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? in the mid-1990s, “Old baseball players today generally feel that the quality of play is not what it once was, and they are not shy about expressing the opinion. Old baseball players have said exactly the same kinds of things with the same frequency and force for at least a hundred years.”

Glasscock’s an early example of this, I think, though certainly not the first. James has a number of examples between a few of his books, with a running header, “Old Ballplayers Never Die.” Pete Palmer and John Thorn list a few in The Hidden Game of Baseball as well, and I like to note new undiscovered ones here as I find them.

Here, Glasscock celebrates a team that was special by franchise standards at the time, but otherwise nothing to be etched in bronze more than 40 years later. Bolstered by the mid-season acquisition of an aging Glasscock, who would hit .341 for the club, the 1893 Pirates finished 81-48, five games out of first place. Pittsburgh never placed higher than sixth any other year of the 1890s and didn’t begin winning pennants until the 20th century, after raiding the roster of another franchise. Truly, two teams in one created some Pittsburgh dream teams for the ages.

Future Hall of Famers, as judged in 1986

I’ve been reading Zev Chafets’ book Cooperstown Confidential and just happened across a bit on Steve Garvey which talks about him being named as a future Hall of Famer in a 1986 poll of major league managers in The Sporting News. As a SABR member, I have access to full archives for The Sporting News free of charge so I decided to take a look at the poll.

These kinds of polls or predictions generally interest me. I enjoyed reading Bill James’ forecasts for 25 years of inductions in The Politics of Glory, and I made my own predictions here last year. I think it’s interesting to see how many of these pan out.

Here’s what the poll, printed May 26, 1986, looked like:

“Which players in your league– if they retired tomorrow– have already done enough to merit selection to the Hall of Fame?”

  1. Players listed who are now enshrined: Reggie Jackson, Phil Niekro, Tom Seaver, George Brett, Don Sutton, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk, Robin Yount, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Gary Carter, Tony Perez
  2. Players listed who aren’t enshrined: Ron Guidry, Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Dale Murphy

“Which players in your league have a chance to make the Hall of Fame if they continue to play at the level they are currently demonstrating?”

  1. Players listed who are now enshrined: Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Ryne Sandberg
  2. Players listed who aren’t enshrined: Harold Baines, Kent Hrbek, Fernando Valenzuela, Willie McGee, Mike Marshall, Tim Raines

“Which players in your league with four years experience or less have demonstrated the potential to someday qualify for the Hall of Fame?”

  1. Players listed who are now enshrined: Tony Gwynn
  2. Players listed who aren’t enshrined: Don Mattingly, Tony Fernandez, Bret Saberhagen, Jose Canseco, George Bell, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Vince Coleman, Orel Hershiser

Don’t be surprised if some of the players here, particularly from the first group, are future Veterans Committee selections. The committee, after all, is comprised largely of the baseball establishment. I doubt their thinking on Hall of Fame worthiness has changed that much since 1986.