Baseball: Past and Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Red Smith, December 18, 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

somewhere-in-georgia1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Written by Graham Womack