Tolerating the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball

April 1987 marked the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. On April 6 of that year, the ABC program “Nightline” had on baseball author Roger Kahn and the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson, Al Campanis as guests. At first, it went smoothly, with Kahn noting that his late friend Robinson might be dismayed that the majors at that time had no black managers, general managers or owners. Koppel asked Campanis, by now vice president and general manager of the Dodgers, why there was still so much prejudice in the game.

“No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said, via a video feed from the Astrodome where his Dodgers had just lost. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be a– let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”

“Do you really believe that?” Koppel said.

“Well, I don’t say all of them, but they certainly are short,” Campanis said. “How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?”

Kahn wrote years later that Campanis’s voice was thick as he spoke, suggesting he may have been drinking.

“I’ve got to tell you that that sounds like the same kind of garbage we were hearing forty years ago about players, when they were saying, ‘Ah, not really, not really cut out,'” Koppel said.  “Remember the days when you hit a black football player in the knees.  And you know, that really sounds like garbage, if you forgive me saying so.”

Campanis countered that he’d played with blacks in college, saying he didn’t know the difference in their skin color. He added that he hadn’t known many black swimmers, due to what he termed a lack of “buoyancy.” Koppel gave Campanis “another chance to dig yourself out, because I think you need it.”

“I have never said that blacks are not intelligent,” Campanis said. “I think that many of them are highly intelligent.  But they may not have the desire to be in the front office.  I know that they have wanted to manage, and many of them have managed.  But they’re outstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they’re wonderful people, and that’s all that I can tell you about them.

The fallout for Campanis, the Dodgers and baseball was immediate and severe, with Campanis being forced to resign within 24 hours of the appearance, his career effectively over. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth hired Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, as his assistant for minority affairs; in time, it helped spur an increase in minority hiring for front office and managerial positions. Campanis, who publicly apologized after the incident, calling it “the lowest day of my career,” reached out to Edwards early in his tenure, asking if there was anything he could do to help.

“We’re going to have to deal with the Campanises in baseball,” Edwards said, “And it’s good that I have a person in-house who knows how they think.”

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I was reminded of all this after an appearance Thursday by former player and current Chicago White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson on MLB Network. To the uninitiated, Harrelson is known on-air for unabashed support of the White Sox and the occasional display of emotional pyrotechnics when a call goes against Chicago. He has little use for sabermetrics. A few weeks ago during a game, he called sabermetrics the most overrated addition to baseball in the past 10-15 years. Harrelson’s remarks naturally stirred some response, first an outcry via social media and then an on-air rebuke by MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny, a proponent of sabermetrics. This led to Thursday’s segment, hyped as a debate between Harrelson and Kenny. (Anyone who’d like to watch the full 10-minute clip can find it here.)

To call the segment a debate is admittedly a stretch. It mostly consisted of Harrelson rattling off talking points with a flustered Kenny attempting to reason with him to no avail. I feel for Kenny. One of my biggest frustrations in debate is dealing with someone who cannot or will not listen to me and won’t acknowledge any validity in my points. It’s disrespectful, counterproductive and, of course, all too common. Hawk Harrelson talks baseball the way some of my older family members talk politics. There’s little hope in changing their views, but I’ve learned I can be respectful, listen and voice my beliefs. Occasionally, I even hear a thing or two that causes me to question my views. I think that’s healthy.

Throughout the debate, Harrelson demonstrated only a passing acquaintance with sabermetrics. He slammed the film “Moneyball” before conceding, upon prodding from Kenny, that he hadn’t read the book. He trotted out stats like ‘OBPS’ (a misspeak of OPS, I think) and VORP, which hasn’t been in regular use in baseball analysis in several years. Harrelson reaffirmed his claim about sabermetrics being overrated, saying that numbers had a place in the game but were 50-60 years from being ready, an interesting statement given that sabermetrics has been in baseball going as far back at least as the 1950s. Then Harrelson introduced a stat he called tWtW– The Will To Win– saying that when it could be incorporated into other advanced metrics “then you might have something.” When I first heard reference on Twitter to tWtW, I assumed Harrelson spoke tongue-in-cheek. He offered it without flinching.

Much of Harrelson’s screed came off half-cocked and self-righteously ignorant, though he said a few things I agreed with. At one point, he referred to Kenny’s broadcast partner, former Seattle Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds who, in sabermetric terms, had -1.8 Wins Above Average in his 12-season career.

Harrelson told Reynolds and Kenny:

People 40 or 50 years from now look at Harold Reynolds’ numbers and say, ‘Okay, he was a pretty good player.’  Well, Harold was not a pretty good player. He was an outstanding player. Because he did things that you can’t put numbers on. Harold was the kind of the guy he would turn a double play when he knew he was gonna take a hit from guys like myself or Kirk Gibson, whoever, gonna knock him into left field. He’d get it over, turn it over and then take the hit. He’d also steal a base in the late innings of a ball game when everyone in the park knew he was gonna steal. He’d also make that diving stop of a ground ball going to his left to keep a man going from first to third.

I agree with Harrelson: Numbers don’t tell the whole story of what goes on in baseball. For me, the best use of sabermetrics is not as some omnipotent tool. It’s to confirm what’s seemingly apparent through visual observation or traditional statistics and to show where more cursory analysis might deceive. For me, sabermetrics is vital to my understanding of baseball, though I’d never use it solely in the absence of other tools.

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In sabermetric circles on the Internet, Harrelson has been largely and predictably panned since his appearance. Colin Wyers wrote for Baseball Prospectus:

Hawk is at least two kinds of extra special wrong. One is what Isaac Asimov described as “wronger than wrong,” where you’re clinging to outmoded beliefs and defending yourself by claiming that better ideas than yours are also incorrect and refusing to address your own deficiencies. Sabermetrics’ failure to be perfect is not a blanket justification to ignore all of it.

The other kind of extra special wrong Hawk stumbles into… is what Wolfgang Pauli called “not even wrong.” It’s when you make claims that can’t be refuted, and in doing so make claims that aren’t worth refuting. Hawk talks about “the will to win” (and believe me, he keeps repeating this) being the most important thing in baseball, and apparently it’s judged by how many wins you have. If you’ve won a lot, you had the will; if you didn’t, well, you didn’t.

People like Hawk will always roll out this line of thinking because it can’t be disproven, so they never reach a moment where they’re refuted and forced to actually quit. So what they never notice is that it’s also totally meaningless; you can only ever figure out who had the will to win after the fact, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.

I get where the criticism of Harrelson comes from. He’s generally an easy target, given his on-air demeanor. For the most part in his MLB Network appearance, Harrelson was clearly and loudly wrong. But he’s also a sympathetic figure, given his age, status as an ex-player and the fact that, at least to me, there generally doesn’t seem to be malice behind his words, misguided as they sometimes are. Harrelson just comes across as someone who loves baseball and the White Sox and, flowery though this may sound, has his own way of expressing it. I worry that verbally eviscerating Harrelson is the wrong approach, over the top. I think it makes the sabermetric community look worse for wear, about as intolerant as Harrelson came off with Brian Kenny on Thursday. We can do better.

To me, the most telling moment of the MLB Network segment came when Harrelson remarked to Kenny that his main gripe with sabermetrics was that it had gotten people fired. He spoke of a scout he knew– “God rest his soul”– remarking about managers having to call up to press boxes late in the game to get permission to bunt. Kenny and Reynolds didn’t make much of this before moving onto other topics, understandable to a degree since it was a live television segment. If I had been interviewing Harrelson, though, I’d have zeroed in on this and asked more questions. There’s clearly more there. If I had to guess, I’d say Harrelson’s main gripe with sabermetrics is personal. I’d love the chance to listen to whatever Harrelson had to say and then offering as calmly and persuasively as I could what sabermetrics really is: nothing to be feared; something that already is making baseball better.

This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe it’s important to engage with the Hawk Harrelsons of baseball. Even as baseball has changed rapidly in recent years, as sabermetrics has gained rapid acceptance in front offices, there are still many men like Harrelson in the game. If and when they make poorly-conceived comments, I’d rather do my best to win them over to my side than publicly slam them. And who knows, maybe I’d learn a thing or two from them as well. I look at a man like Harrelson, who’s been in professional baseball in one form or another since 1959 and I marvel at all the stories he must have. While most of those stories have probably been told in-booth (and a few are collected in his SABR bio), the journalist and historian in me likes to think there’s always more, that I’m missing out if I dismiss someone out of hand. I prefer to build bridges, to be inclusive, to forgive.

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Al Campanis never got another job in baseball after his resignation from the Dodgers. He lived 11 more years, occasionally showing up at baseball functions, watching as his grandson Jim attempted, without fruition, to make the majors. Campanis died in 1998 at 81. ”His was a life full of love for the game and his family,” succeeding Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said after Campanis’s death. ”No one loved baseball more than Al loved the game. He was a great student of the game and a great teacher of the game.”

In April 2012, did a 25-year retrospective on Campanis’s remarks, talking to Dr. Harry Edwards among others.

“It wasn’t a simple case of Al being a bigot — to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong — people are more complex than that,” Edwards said. “To a certain extent, it was the culture Al was involved with. To a certain extent, it was a comfort with that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in.”

Baseball’s culture continues to change, to evolve for the better. For every Campanis or Harrelson still around, I like to think change is possible as well.

Why I love baseball history

Thursday afternoon, news broke on Twitter that Derek Jeter would be out injured until at least the All Star Break and the response was fairly predictable. While Yankee fans bemoaned yet another sidelined Bomber, opposing fans took the opportunity to bash Jeter and the organization. In the midst, my friend Melissa tweeted a call for fans to respect Yankee history and resist the urge to pile on. Of course that drew one person who argued with her. Melissa wrote the tweet above in response.

I met Melissa awhile back when I tweeted that I could name more members of the 1919 Black Sox than cast members of “Jersey Shore.” (In the interest of not sounding like an elitist, let me add that I can also name more Black Sox than current U.S. senators, Supreme Court justices or foreign heads of state.) People like Melissa and I are in a minority among baseball fans, particularly younger ones. I know full well how little use most fans have for baseball history. I see the traffic numbers for this website, pedestrian even when we’re posting good content regularly. I see the shrinking membership for the Society for American Baseball Research, even while baseball attendance has increased markedly over the past 20 years. People still love baseball, but its history most can take or leave. That’s unfortunate.

I’m drawn to baseball as a writer, historian and journalist. I love the stories. When people ask me which team I’m a fan of, I sometimes say I’m a fan of baseball history. It’s a little dorky but it’s true. While technically I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since grade school, it’s baseball history, all 150-plus years of it that I really love. I’ve been reading about it since I was eight and what I’ve found is that most every team has something cool in its past, something worthy of respect regardless of uniform colors. I think of Ted Williams serving in two wars, first as a flight instructor in World War II then as a combat pilot in Korea. I think of the Dodgers signing Jackie Robinson. As for the Yankees, few moments in baseball history yield the emotional impact of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech. Any opposing fan not moved at least somewhat by the Iron Horse’s words is either unaware of their existence or a cold-hearted cynic.

It’s not just baseball history that I love but history in general. I enjoy accumulating knowledge and anecdotes. I like the better understanding of the world the information gives me. I like to think it makes me a better writer and wiser person. More than that, I just enjoy learning about history. A writer I like, Sarah Vowell is, similar to me, a history nerd. Some years ago in an essay, she expounded on this, writing:

On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history– and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown– would cough up the pompous same old old same old about how if we failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them. Which is true if you’re one of the people who grow up to run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my tenth-grade world history textbook’s chapter on the Napoleonic Wars, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so toast at Hitler’s New Year’s party in 1943, but for me, knowing not to trudge my troops through the snow to Moscow is not so handy day-to-day.

The other sort of useful thing the history teacher in the brown jacket never really said, probably because he would have been laughed out of the room, was this: knowing what happened when and where is fun.

Ultimately, that’s what baseball history is for me: fun. Its importance in understanding what goes on in baseball today is debatable, seeing as baseball changes from generation to generation and other tools are more useful for deconstructing the current game. Knowing that Joe Sewell struck out as many times between 1926 and 1932 as the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners did on Wednesday night– 40 times– won’t explain why strikeouts are up so dramatically in the majors these days. It won’t say whether baseball’s gotten better or worse over the years, even if some may attempt to use the stat that way. But it’s a fun, quirky fact that provides some contrast. Baseball history is littered with these. (Another fun Sewell fact while we’re on the subject: He had six seasons with at least 600 plate appearances where he struck out fewer than 10 times. Who does that anymore? Answer: No one.)

In February, I got my eight-year-old nephew Jasper his first book of baseball history. From what I hear, he was excited to receive it. That puts a smile on my face. I hope he gets out of the book what I have (Ken Burns’ Baseball– one of my favorites) and is one day able to return the favor for someone else. To me, baseball history is too enjoyable not to be shared.

Guest post: An opponent remembers Jackie Robinson’s first day in the minors

Editor’s note: With Jackie Robinson biopic “42” due in theaters Friday, it is my pleasure to present Nick Diunte’s latest: an interview with someone who faced Robinson in his minor league debut in 1946.

Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball was felt immediately the moment he stepped on the field for the Montreal Royals in their season opener against the Jersey City Giants on April 18, 1946. In addition to all of the social implications behind Robinson’s debut, his 4-for-5 performance that included a home run, two bunt singles, and two runs scored by causing Jersey City’s pitchers to balk, left an indelible mark on his opposition.

Larry Miggins’ view of Robinson’s eye opening performance remains vivid some sixty-seven years later. The 20-year-old Bronx, New York native manned third base for Jersey City that day and had no trouble recalling how the day’s events unfolded.

“I remember it well,” the 87-year-old Miggins said from his home in Houston, Texas. “It was a full house, 45,000 fans. The place was packed.”

As the team went over its pre-game scouting report, information on Robinson’s tendencies were limited to what the manager had seen during batting practice. The Giants and Royals were due to meet in spring training, but the game was cancelled when officials in Jacksonville, Fla., upheld a city ordinance that did not permit mixed racial competition.

“Most of the guys were known by somebody, but when it came to Robinson nobody ever had seen him play,” Miggins said. “Our manager Bruno Betzel said he saw during batting practice that Robinson was a strong pull hitter. He said to me, ‘Miggins, you play him deep at third base.’”

Following his coach’s orders, Miggins positioned himself as instructed. During Robinson’s first two at-bats, the ball didn’t come Miggins’ way, as he grounded out to shortstop his first time up, and then hit a 335-foot home run down the left field line.

Expecting another powerful shot by Robinson, Miggins held his ground behind the third base bag as Robinson approached for his third at-bat.

“Next time up, I’m playing back, deep behind third base,” said Miggins. “He bunted and dropped one down. I could throw a ball through a brick wall in those days, so I pick it up and fire to first base and it was a real close play, safe. He could run too you know. He beat it out.”

Robinson proceeded to hit a single to right-center field during his fourth at-bat, which set the stage for Miggins to have another close encounter with the Royals second baseman. He did not think that Robinson would test him a second time with a bunt.

“Like an idiot, I’m playing him back at third base again the fifth time up. He dropped another bunt down and beat it out,” said Miggins. It was a lesson learned for the young infielder. “I gave him two hits that day and he never bunted again on me because I played him even with the bag from then on.”

Miggins went on to play parts of two seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1948 and 1952, but his involvement with Robinson’s debut is one that he wears with a sense of pride and humor.

“They got him into the Hall of Fame and there he was, Rookie of the Year, MVP, and a World Series Champ, all because of the great start I gave him in baseball!” said a laughing Miggins. “I gave him two hits opening day and he never stopped from there, he just kept going. I always look back and that 4-for-5 opening day gave him a thrust for his whole career.”


Related: Recollections from one of Robinson’s 1947 spring training teammates

My latest at Hardball Times

Hi all,

A quick note this morning to say that I have a new piece up at the Hardball Times. As some of you may know, added salary information and an inflation calculator to player pages not long ago. Using this info, I recently ranked every Hall of Fame player for their top salary in 2012 dollars.

Hope you all enjoy. I should have a new update here later this week. I’m itching to write about Dave Kingman, who had an infamous run-in with one of my editors from the 49ers magazine I wrote for this fall.