Guest post: A brief history of the split finger fastball

Editor’s note: It’s been more than a month since I posted anything here, the longest break in BPP history. I apologize for the absence. I started a full-time job in July and have also been freelancing for a football-related digital magazine for the San Francisco Chronicle. I’ll soon resume posting here and I’ll be kicking off my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame in early November.

For now, please enjoy the latest from George Haloulakos. His brief history of the split finger fastball is apropos given the current league championship series. As George writes in his piece, multiple pitchers have used the split finger to take their teams deep into the postseason.

During the late 1980s, the split-finger fastball was in the words of baseball writer Roger Angell regarded as “a gimmick, a super-toy, a conversation piece and a source of sudden fame and success for its inventor.” While nothing in baseball is truly new, this particular pitch did become an equalizer in the perennial battle between pitcher and batter, and now is a standard weapon in the arsenal of a major league pitcher. In this article, we take a trip back through baseball’s time tunnel to learn more about this amazing pitch and its impact on the game.

The split-finger is essentially a mid-range fastball that suddenly drops under the batter’s swing as it crosses the plate. Thrown at various speeds, the split-finger fastball is gripped between the pitcher’s forefinger and middle finger (very similar to the forkball) but tucked very deeply into the hand. This reduces both the spin and speed of the ball when released. Accordingly, it is often thought of as a “slip-pitch.” If hitting is based on timing, then pitching is viewed as upsetting the hitter’s timing. Due to its sudden drop as it crosses the plate the split-finger was a major weapon in upsetting the timing of many a hitter, especially in the late 1980s.

Here are a few of the pitchers who made a name for themselves using the split finger fastball:

Bruce Sutter: Initially, the pitch first came to prominence in 1959 when Pirate reliever Elroy Face posted a stellar 18-1 win-loss record all in relief. Fast-forward to 1979 when Cub reliever Bruce Sutter relied on the split-finger fastball to win the Cy Young Award that year and then later preserved two wins in the 1982 World Series (including Game 7) as a member of the World Champion Cardinals.

Sutter’s mastery of the split-finger fastball enabled him to punch his ticket into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a 4-time National League “Fireman of the Year” who when he retired held the National League record for career saves with 300.

Roger Craig: The split-finger fastball entered into the mainstream of pitching arsenals in both leagues in the mid-to-late 1980s. Roger Craig is credited with having imparted his own variant of this pitch, most notably to Mike Scott and Jack Morris. Craig noted that both Scott and Morris were able to throw the split-finger at 85 miles per hour or better-– significantly faster than anyone else, and achieving enormous notoriety in both the National and American Leagues.

Jack Morris: In 1984, Jack Morris (having just learned the pitch from Craig during spring training) started the season with a no-hit/no-run game victory versus the White Sox on his way to posting a 19-11 win-loss record and leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series Championship by pitching two complete game wins in a 5-game triumph over the San Diego Padres. He later cemented his “big-game” reputation by using the split-finger fastball to pitch 10 shut-out innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series to lead the Minnesota Twins to a 1-0 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Mike Scott: For Mike Scott, the split-finger fastball was the pitching equivalent of King Arthur’s legendary sword, the Excalibur. In 1986, Scott went 18-10 for the Houston Astros while posting the National League’s lowest ERA at 2.22 and the most strikeouts at 306. Most notably, Scott’s ratio of hits (182) plus walks (72) versus innings pitched (275) was a scintillating 0.92.

Scott’s transformation helped the Astros rocket from a 4th place finish in the prior season to 1st place in 1986, putting a record-setting exclamation point with a new major league first in clinching a pennant: a no-hitter. Scott then reeled off 16 consecutive scoreless innings in the National League Championship Series while recording two wins against the Mets and giving up only one run to the eventual 1986 World Series Champions. This resulted in what is still one of the greatest “what if” scenarios in baseball history as fans have speculated about the Mets’ chances had they been forced to face Scott for a third time in what would have been a seventh and deciding game. The Mets avoided such a confrontation by triumphing over the Astros in a sixteen inning marathon in Game 6, thus clinching the National League flag for the New Yorkers without having to risk it all against Scott.

In the years since, a number of players have expressed that Scott may have scuffed the ball which enabled him to achieve sufficient movement to strike out opposing batters. This perception, only served to give Scott a greater psychological advantage for the Mets were only too glad to not have to face the split-finger artist in a winner-take-all game, as they themselves were convinced that they could not win against such a bewildering pitch.

What caused the unusual movement in Scott’s split-finger fastball? Craig explained that Scott was able to release the ball from his finger tips while throwing in a fast ball motion, thereby creating havoc for opposing hitters. Essentially Scott was able to slip his finger tips down along the outside of the seams, and upon the release, the ball would “tumble” or drop just as it crossed the plate. As a result, Scott recorded 86 wins while pitching for the Houston Astros from 1985-89, and winning 20 games in his final big year (1989) before a shoulder injury ended his career in 1991.

Dave Stewart: Nicknamed “Smoke” for possessing a blazing fastball, Dave Stewart had played for the Dodgers, Texas, and Philadelphia before landing in Oakland in 1986. While with the Athletics, Stewart mastered the split-finger fastball and then became the major league leader in wins with 84 from 1987-90 as he won 20 or more games each year over that period. Stewart excelled in league championship play recording eight wins with no losses while pitching for the Athletics and then for the Blue Jays in 1993. Equally impressive, Stewart was named Most Valuable Player three times in post season play (twice in the American League Championship Series and once in the World Series). He also pitched a no-hitter in 1990 while recording his final 20-win >season.

Like Scott and Morris, mastery of the split-finger fastball gave Stewart an enormous boost in self-confidence which enabled him to achieve unparalleled pitching success in league championship series play. Stewart’s four consecutive 20-game winning seasons helped return the A’s to postseason glory (in 1989 winning their first World Series since the early 1970s) and then in 1993 helping the Blue Jays become the first team to win back-to-back World Series Championships since the Yankees accomplished the feat in 1977-78.

With each baseball generation, new pitching techniques emerge imparting small, nearly imperceptible differences in ball movement and location that can be an infinitesimal difference between victory and defeat. Dizzy Dean once noted after a 1-0 game that the contest was much closer than the final score indicated. Like so many facets of baseball, it is not so much doing big things that make the difference but rather doing the small things in a big way that will often tip the scales of competition one way or another. For awhile, the re-emergence of the split-finger fastball in the late 1980s did just that.

Guest post: Another look at Ron Guidry’s Hall of Fame case

I recently read Harvey Araton’s 2012 book, Driving Mr. Yogi. While the book focuses primarily on the friendship between New York Yankee greats Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry, it stirred up a question for me on why Guidry is not in the Hall of Fame. In the book, Berra (who was enshrined in 1972) offers that perhaps Guidry did not play long enough to receive serious consideration, though he certainly played a very high level during his career. In my opinion, Guidry’s more than earned his place in Cooperstown.

Guidry’s Hall of Fame merits have been the subject of discussion at this website before. I’d like to take another, longer look and offer a number of reasons auguring for Guidry’s enshrinement.

Here are several things that make him worthy:

  • For nine seasons, 1977 through 1985, Guidry was the leading winner in all of baseball with 154 wins and registering a 0.694 winning percentage. Overall, his career win total of 170 generated a 0.654 winning percentage.
  •  These numbers are even more impressive because Guidry’s winning percentages exceeded those of his team by a factor of +0.115 during 1977-85 and +0.088 over his entire career. In other words, despite playing for baseball’s most victorious team, Guidry’s winning percentage was significantly greater which infers that he was truly adding value to his team. Many of Guidry’s peers from that same era, as well as others in the Hall of Fame, have peak-and-career winning percentages that are either in line or below their team average.
  • Guidry’s dominance was also reflected by leading the American League in major pitching categories on nine different occasions: wins (2), shutouts (1), earned run average (2), complete games (2) and winning percentage (2).
  • Guidry won 20 or more games three times, and this number might have been higher had he not played in the era where five and six-man rotations were the order of the day for Yankee teams. Not only did Guidry end up starting five-six fewer games per year due to the rotation, but he also gave up multiple starts because he did relief duty to help his team remain rested for the pennant stretch drives and/or postseason play. Given his very high winning percentage, one can infer that the cumulative effect of fewer starts may have prevented Guidry from not only exceeding the 20-win threshold more, but also may have kept his career wins below the vaunted 200-game level.
  • Guidry achieved a pitching milestone by twice recording seasons where his total bases allowed (hits + walks) were less than innings pitched.
  • Guidry’s peak and career earned run averages, respectively, were 3.19 and 3.29, and this was all during the era of the designated hitter. Bill James has noted that the designated hitter factor would account for about 0.50 earned run average points, which imply that Guidry’s numbers would be less than the 3.00 level typically regarded as the threshold between excellence and dominance.

Ultimately, Guidry’s career, like so many who have worn the Yankee pinstripes, was defined by winning the biggest games when they counted most.

  • His overall World Series win-loss record in three Fall Classics was 3-1 as he helped lead the Yankees to back-to-back WS Championships in 1977-78. Of note is that all those World Series were against the hated Dodgers, and Guidry’s average runs allowed in those four games was exactly 2.00.
  • In 1978, he won his 25th game of the season with a 5-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park despite starting on only two-days of rest; that was the 163rd game of the regular season as an extra game was necessitated by a 1st place tie between New York and Boston.
  • Earlier that year he struck out 18 Angels, a game that marked the beginning of a tradition where fans begin to clap once a pitcher gets a 2-strike count on the batter.
  • In addition to being a 2-time World Series Champion, Guidry was a Yankee team captain (1986-88), Cy Young Award Winner (1978), 5-time Gold Glove Winner, 4-time All Star, Roberto Clemente Award Winner (1984) and had his jersey number (#49) retired by the Yankees.

As a final note, Guidry possessed a sense of strength and quiet confidence associated with the best Yankees, regardless of era. When Guidry pitched, there was no doubt of who was in charge, even when the opposition had the seeming advantage. The prime example occurred in the aforementioned 163rd game of the 1978 season in which the Boston Red Sox would host the Yankees in the winner-take-all game for the American League East Division. Despite coming in on an eight-game winning streak and possessing home field advantage, the Red Sox wryly noted that the Yankees had Guidry. When asked if he thought it fair that an entire season come down to a single contest, Guidry reportedly said that it was because he could only pitch one game.

The ultimate compliment from a historic peer may have been during the 1981 World Series when retired Hall of Fame Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax exchanged signed baseball caps with his fellow southpaw. Reportedly this was initiated by Koufax himself who had expressed admiration for Guidry’s pitching excellence.

Guest post: In defense of Tim McCarver

Editor’s note: Please welcome the latest from Doug Bird.


As many baseball fans may be aware, Tim McCarver received the Ford C. Frick Award for his broadcasting, Saturday in a ceremony at the Hall of Fame. I have heard much criticism of McCarver’s broadcasting skills over his 20-plus years behind the microphone.  His many critics lament him for explaining the painfully obvious far too often and for the fact he can’t seem to stop talking about catching for Bob Gibson on those great St. Louis Cardinal teams. I’ve always enjoyed his easy southern style and his obvious love of the game. All I can say is that it can’t be easy trying to find a spot to sit in the broadcast booth beside the massive ego of fellow announcer Joe Buck. Anyone who can accomplish that Saturday after Saturday and during the World Series deserves any baseball award he might receive.

Putting all of his broadcasting accomplishments aside, I believe that Tim McCarver should be in the Hall of Fame for his playing career. His accomplishments as one of the best catchers of his era and as he has stated many times, his catching of the legendary Gibson and Steve Carlton show something of the winning character and ability of McCarver on the baseball field.

McCarver played briefly in the majors from 1959 and returned to the minors until making the Show for good in 1963. He played his last full season in 1979 and briefly came out of retirement in September 1980 making him one of only 29 players to have played in four different decades.

McCarver, along with Detroit Tiger star Bill Freehan, was considered one of the best catchers in baseball during the 1960s. Their statistics rank among the best at that position for that era, an era when offense was considered merely an afterthought for a catcher in the big leagues. McCarver’s stats don’t jump out at you, certainly not by some of today’s standards. His stats were solid and consistent giving him a career batting average of .271 and 97 home runs. To maintain such an average over so many seasons and so many games behind the plate in my opinion, elevates such statistics  to higher heights than merely raw numbers.

He was considered a team leader by teammates and a fierce competitor by those who played against him.  Often intangibles are used as justification for those players elected into the Hall of Fame when those type of debates are bantered back and forth as to the merits of this player or that. I myself have been guilty of claiming that this player or that simply doesn’t have the numbers which should be required to get the necessary votes. But on occasion I believe such an argument is valid and goes beyond mere numbers.

McCarver  had, and has, a deep understanding and appreciation of what it takes to play many seasons in the major leagues. McCarver has the championship rings to prove he was a winning player and a player who represented all that we hold dear in a professional baseball player. I feel his playing career has been sorely overlooked and forgotten.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Vlad Guerrero

Claim to fame: From 1998 to 2007, playing for the Expos and Angels, Vladimir Guerrero posted a .327/.394/.586 slash line with a 149 OPS+ while averaging 151 games per season, making eight all-star games, winning seven silver slugger awards and receiving at least one MVP vote in all 10 seasons. Never during that stretch did Guerrero’s OPS fall below .930 or his OPS+ below 138. It was a decade of dominance, of a sustained status as one of Major League Baseball’s premier offensive players.

Since 2008, Guerrero’s production has declined steadily, an all-star berth in 2010 suggesting a renaissance before 2011 brought the worst full season of the rightfielder’s distinguished career. Coming off that replacement-level production (0.0 WAR on Baseball-Reference), Guerrero struggled to find work, eventually signing with the Blue Jays, theoretically foreshadowing a return to Canada to finish his career north of the border, where it began. He went 9-20 at Class-A Dunedin before a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas, where Vlad continued to knock around minor league pitching, batting .303 over eight games before asking for, and being granted, his release two weeks ago. The former-MVP is now back on the job hunt, hoping to avoid retirement.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Released by the Blue Jays after failing to earn a Big League call-up, Guerrero’s career appears to be finished. If he does not again play in the majors, he will first be eligible for BBWAA Hall of Fame voting in 2016.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Vlad Guerrero seems like a Hall of Famer. Maybe it’s the all-star appearances; he was selected to nine Mid-Summer Classics. Maybe it’s the MVP votes; he won the award in 2004 and finished in the top five in voting three other times. Maybe it’s the admiration with which his peers describe him; in an excellent 2000 ESPN Magazine feature, Jose Mesa is quoted as saying:

Vladimir and A-Rod are the two most complete players in this game. You are obligated to put Vladimir in the top two. Obligated. But A-Rod at least has help. Vladimir is all by himself. You put Vladimir on the Yankees, and he’s hitting 50, 60 homers and driving in 200 runs.

Then later in the same conversation:

The devil himself would be afraid to pitch to that guy.

Or maybe Guerrero seems like a Hall of Famer because he practically knocked the laces out of baseballs for 16 eyeball-grabbing seasons, smashing line drives through ball parks across the continent and wowing on-lookers and colleagues alike with a throwing arm that made the proverbial “cannon for an arm” look like a Nerf gun.

When we look a little more closely, we note that Guerrero walked only 56 times per 162 games, for an on-base percentage only 61 points above his batting average. We note that, despite his ability to gun down base-runners from right, Guerrero’s range in the outfield was unexceptional, resulting in a negative career Ultimate Zone Rating (according to, which only started tracking the stat in 2002) and a negative career dWAR (according to Baseball-Reference). And we note that, while Guerrero twice stole 37 or more bases in a season, earning him a reputation as a valuable base-runner, he converted only 65.8% of his career stolen base attempts and grades out as a below-average base-runner according to formulas from both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs.

All this adds up to a 55.2 WAR, roughly equal to that of Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell but also non-Hall of Famers Bobby Bonds, Dick Allen, and Darrell Evans.

That quintet shows that seeming like a Hall of Famer is almost as important as actually playing like one. Using objective statistical analysis, it would be hard to deem any of those five players head and shoulders above the others, but reputation got two of them to Cooperstown and the others not even that close. Killebrew won five home runs titles and finished with 573 long balls while Stargell won two World Series titles as an outsized personality on a pair of memorable teams. More than Allen, Bonds, and Evans, Killebrew and Stargell put the “fame” in Hall of Fame.

Ironically, so too does Guerrero, whom LeBatard once called “The most anonymous superstar in sports.” Everyone assuming you’re a Hall of Famer shouldn’t automatically make you one, but giving off that Hall of Fame vibe makes for a reasonable tie-breaker. Vladimir Guerrero seems and feels like a Hall of Famer, and for a borderline case, that’s not too bad of a reason to make him one.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBilly PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe Posnanski, Johan SantanaJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco,J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

Guest post: Curt Flood, the forgotten man

The Curt Flood story is a sad one indeed. It is the story of a proud man who refused to compromise his beliefs. It is the story of a man who took on the baseball establishment with little or no support from his fellow players for the future benefit of all players. It is the story of a man ahead of his times and a rare human being who refused to back down when he knew that what he was doing was right, no matter the consequences. He paid dearly for those convictions and deserved much better than he got.

Flood died January 20, 1997 with only a brief mention from the press and few comments from those who played with and against him. He made his major league debut September 9, 1956 with Cincinnati and finished his career with the Washington Senators in 1971.  His recognition as a legitimate major league star came during his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals Flood won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards and batted over .300 six times. He was an integral part of the Cardinals championship teams in 1964 and 1967 and their National League champion team of 1968.

The off season of 1969 proved to be the most pivotal of his baseball career and his life. Flood found himself part of a package of players being sent to the then lowly Philadelphia Phillies by the St. Louis Cardinals. Up until this moment, trades were made with no regard to those players involved and players had no recourse to challenge being sent to this city or that. The accepted attitude amongst players, at least publicly, was a quiet acceptance of their circumstances. They had no rights under the laws of baseball and once a contract was signed, a team owned that players for a time period designated solely by the whim of the team. If a player was unhappy about being traded, his only option was to retire from baseball. His ability to earn a living and play a game he loved was completely out of his hands.

Curt Flood tried to change all of that in the winter of 1968-69. Flood at the time was making a salary of $100,000, a salary only the very best in baseball were able to command. $100,000 was a number players sought, not only because of the amount, but because it showed that they were among the best players in baseball. Flood, by his refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies stood to lose money and prestige.

After a meeting with then Major League Baseball Players Association president Marvin Miller during which Miller told Flood that the union was prepared to sue baseball over the Reserve Clause, Flood decided to challenge baseball.

On December 24, 1969, Flood wrote the following letter to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

Kuhn refused Flood’s request, and in January 1970, Flood filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and major league baseball. In a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court decided to set aside any decision and leave things the way they were (stare decisis). Flood sat out the 1970 season and returned in 1971 to play for the Senators but his career was, in effect, over.

Four years later, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that two pitchers who had followed Flood and sat out an entire season were now considered free agents. The era of freedom for players had finally begun. For Curt Flood, this decision was too little too late. Flood had stood up to the establishment and lost. His legacy was finally acknowledged by Congress in 1997 and legislation the next year was introduced to formally protect baseball players, the Curt Flood Act of 1998. Flood finally won. Sadly, he died before realizing his dream.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Johan Santana

Claim to fame: Fresh off the first no-hitter in the 8,000+ game history of the New York Mets, Johan Santana appears fully recovered from the shoulder surgery that cost him the 2011 season. Santana’s historic performance and his strong output through 11 starts this season suggest that the lefty’s career is far from finished and that the dominant pitcher we saw in Minnesota and Queens during an incredible five-year stretch — when he never finished out of the top-five in Cy Young voting — is back and ready to continue his path to Cooperstown.

Through 12 whole or partial Major League seasons, Santana has accomplished much, earning three ERA titles, three strikeout titles, a pitching triple crown, and two Cy Young awards while posting an ERA+ that currently ranks tied for 11th all-time (min. 1,000 innings pitched) and a WHIP that stands 20th among modern era hurlers. His 50.0 WAR is certainly impressive for such a (so far) brief career by Hall of Fame standards but would place him among the lower tier of Hall of Famers in that category.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Santana will be eligible for the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot five years after he retires, which doesn’t look to be all that soon.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? There are two questions to be answered here: Would Santana be a Hall of Famer right now, and will he be one when he retires? The latter defends somewhat on his health. The lefty is borderline Hall-worthy as is, but a few more productive seasons would seal his induction. If Santana’s early-2012 success is no aberration and he’s back to vintage-Johan, he shouldn’t have a problem approaching 200 wins, 2,500 strikeouts, and 60 WAR, totals respectable enough to garner Hall of Fame support when paired with multiple Cy Young awards during a fantastic peak.

More interesting, to me at least, is the question of whether Santana is already Cooperstown-qualified. To those who instinctively reject the idea that after less than a decade as a starting pitcher Johan is already a Hall of Famer, consider these blind résumés:

Pitcher A: 12 seasons, 371 G, 275 GS, 1,981.2 IP, 3.10 ERA, 141 ERA+, 1.118 WHIP, 3.55 SO/BB, 50.0 WAR, four all-star games, two Cy Young awards, three ERA titles (three ERA+ titles).

Pitcher B: 12 seasons, 397 G, 314 GS, 2,324.1 IP, 2.76 ERA, 131 ERA+, 1.106 WHIP, 2.93 K/BB, 50.3 WAR, six all-star games, three Cy Young awards, one MVP, five ERA titles (two ERA+ titles).

Pretty close, right? Almost identical really. Comparing raw numbers, Pitcher B might get the edge, but there’s good reason his ERA+ (which adjusts ERA according to league average ERA as well as a pitcher’s home ballpark; 100 is average, higher is better) is 10 points worse than Pitcher A’s despite Pitcher B’s lower ERA. Pitcher B, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, pitched in an extreme pitcher-friendly era and in a cavernous home park. Pitcher B boasts a slightly larger body of work, but’s WAR formula asserts that this only cancels out Pitcher A’s superior production relative to his contemporaries.

If you haven’t yet guessed, Pitcher A is Johan Santana, and Pitcher B is Sandy Koufax, and, disregarding preconceptions, the two are extremely comparable. Both left-handers enjoyed relatively brief careers as starting pitchers but also substantial stints as the consensus best pitcher in the world, during which they each won multiple Cy Young awards and finished among the top votegetters for the award in several other seasons. Koufax’s legend is inflated by his strikingly low ERA numbers, which, again, are a product of when he pitched, the offense-starved 1960s, and where he pitched, deep-fenced Dodger Stadium. Santana’s first 12 seasons have been just as productive as Koufax’s dozen-year career with just as strong of a peak.

Johan is still three no-hitters short of Sandy’s career total, but by almost all other measures the two are near-equals. Santana may or may not already be deserving of a Hall of Fame plaque, but if you argue he’s not, you’re arguing against Koufax as well.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsAndy PettitteBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly Martin, Billy PierceBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon MattinglyDon Newcombe,Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJeff KentJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJohnny MurphyJose Canseco, J.R. RichardJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouOmar VizquelPete BrowningPhil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSammy SosaSean FormanSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

A long ride to the majors: The story of James ‘Bus’ Clarkson

Editor’s note: Please welcome Nick Diunte to BPP. Nick is a longtime reader, fellow SABR member, and he runs a New York baseball history page for We interact often via Twitter. Recently, I tweeted that I thought it would be interesting to look at Negro League veterans who debuted in the majors after age 30 during the first wave of MLB integration. Nick replied that he’s interviewed a number of these men. The following is part of a book that Nick is working on about broader subject.


Beyond the barriers broken by Jackie Robinson lie the truncated major league careers of Negro League veterans. Past their prime, these baseball lifers persisted well into their late 30’s and early 40’s, playing out their careers before teammates and crowds that never had the opportunity to see them at their peaks. The well-documented exploits of Satchel Paige reaching the majors in his 40s and Sam Jethroe winning Rookie of the Year at 33 are more prominent stories from this group. There were other less-celebrated and now forgotten Negro League vets who took whatever time they could get in the majors, thirty-somethings like Ray Noble, Pat Scantlebury, Quincy Trouppe, Bob Thurman, and Artie Wilson. This is the story of one overlooked fence buster, James “Bus” Clarkson.

Years before his 1952 debut in the majors at 37, Clarkson was a power-hitting shortstop and third baseman in the Negro Leagues. Debuting in 1937, Clarkson terrorized pitching wherever he went, whether it was in the United States or the Caribbean, finishing second to Josh Gibson in home runs in the 1941 Mexican League. Overshadowed by younger prospects coming out of the Negro Leagues, Clarkson headed north to Canada in 1948, where he blasted 31 homers while batting .408 for St. Jean of the Provincial League. Despite his monstrous numbers and Robinson having broken baseball’s color barrier the year prior, Clarkson returned to the Negro Leagues with no offers from major league organizations.

By 1950, Major League Baseball could no longer ignore Clarkson’s talents. He signed with the Boston Braves and was immediately assigned to their AAA team in Milwaukee. Immediately, Clarkson lived up to his reputation as a dangerous hitter, batting .302 while playing third base. Holding down the left side of the infield with Clarkson was a young Johnny Logan, who would later become a fixture in the Braves infield. “He happened to be an outstanding hitter,” Logan said of Clarkson. “When you can hit, you play someplace. He was a tremendous guy. As a young ballplayer, we looked up to him.”

With Logan spending most of the 1951 season in Boston, Clarkson at age 36 took the bulk of the shortstop duties, batting .343 while leading the Brewers to the 1951 Junior World Series championship over the Montreal Royals. Among his teammates was Charlie Gorin, a 22-year-old rookie pitcher fresh from the University of Texas. Speaking with Gorin in 2008, his memories of Clarkson willing his throws across the diamond from shortstop were crystal clear. “I could remember pitching, and when they hit a groundball to Bus, he’d field it and just throw it,” Gorin said. “He didn’t have a burning arm because he was up in age. His arm wasn’t that good, and it would tail off, or go in the dirt. He’d make the throw to George Crowe and he’d say, ‘Do something with it George!’”

While Clarkson proved to be a capable fielder, his superior abilities at the plate afforded him a chance with the Boston Braves in 1952. Batting .385 during the first month of 1952 in Milwaukee, and with Boston faltering in the National League, the Braves made Clarkson a rookie at 37. Clarkson saw action in four of the first six games that he was with Boston. He went 2-for-11 with zero extra base hits and was quickly relegated to pinch-hitting duties for the next month-and-a-half. Clarkson would end his campaign at the end of June with a batting average of .200, with five hits in 25 total at-bats.

Boston teammate Virgil Jester, who also played with Clarkson in Milwaukee, felt that Clarkson wasn’t given a fair shake during his time in the majors. “I thought he was a great, great player,” Jester said. “He was one of the strongest hitters that I ever saw. I don’t think the Braves gave Clarkson a good break to play there.” George Crowe, when interviewed in 2008, echoed Jester’s sentiments, saying that Clarkson had difficulty going from playing full-time his entire career, to coming off the bench every few games. “He didn’t play that much in Boston as I recall, like I didn’t play that much when I was there either,” Crowe said. “It’s hard for a guy that’s used to playing every day that gets in there once every one-to-two weeks.”

It didn’t help that Boston had young Eddie Mathews stationed at third base and also had stock in upstarts Logan and Jack Cusick at shortstop. When Charlie Grimm took the managerial reigns from Tommy Holmes in June, 1952, one of his first moves was to option Clarkson to the minor leagues and recall Logan. Even though Clarkson was recalled a few days after being sent down, he sat the bench for the rest of June except for a few pinch-hitting opportunities along the way. He last played June 22, whereupon Boston sent him back once more to Milwaukee.

Clarkson’s career however didn’t end after the Braves sent him down for the last time. Clarkson signed with the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1953 and terrorized Texas League pitching for the next two years. At 39 in 1954, Clarkson led the league with 42 home runs while batting .324. Ed Mickelson, who was playing with the Shreveport Oilers, remembered a blast by Clarkson. “He hit a line drive at our shortstop at Joe Koppe,” Mickelson said in 2009. “Joe wasn’t very big, he was 5’8” or 5’9”. He went up and jumped for the ball, and I don’t think he put a glove on it; it was only a few inches above his glove. The ball kept rising and went out of the ballpark in left-center field. Still rising, it went out of the field, a line drive out of the park.”

Clarkson carried his tremendous 1954 season into the winter when he played with the Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. His team, which has been dubbed the greatest winter league team ever assembled, featured an outfield of Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and the aforementioned Bob Thurman. Clarkson anchored the infield at third base, while Don Zimmer was at short stop, Ron Samford at second base and George Crowe at first base. Valmy Thomas and Harry Chiti held down the catching duties while Ruben Gomez, Sam “Toothpick” Jones and Bill Greason handled the majority of the pitching. They easily captured the Caribbean Series.

Greason spent many years facing Clarkson in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Texas League and Puerto Rico. He said the majors missed out on an extremely talented ballplayer. “Clarkson would have made it no doubt in the majors if he was younger,” Greason said in 2009. “He could hit and field. He was like Raymond Dandridge. People would have seen something that they don’t see too much now. The fielding, throwing, and hitting in one player like Clarkson and Dandridge. Those guys were tremendous … ‘phenoms’ as we called them.”

George H. W. Bush Reminisces About the 1947 College World Series (Bush: 0 for 7)

Given my choice between watching the College or Major League World Series, I’d pick college without hesitation. Even in the opening rounds, the players are more fundamentally well-schooled in the basics: advancing the runner, hitting the cut off man and laying down a bunt. And, to be frank, if those same players put on a Pirates uniform and passed themselves off as big leaguers, few in PNC Park’s stands could tell the difference. Many of the college pitchers throw over 90 miles per hour and field their positions flawlessly.

The College World Series has a rich tradition dating back to 1947 when Kalamazoo, Michigan hosted the event. Two players from that year’s final that pitted the California Bears against the Yale Bulldogs went on to achieve outstanding success in their professional careers: Jackie Jensen with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Washington Senators and George Herbert Walker Bush, United States president.

Although Jensen pitched for the Bears, by the time he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1957, he played outfield. Bush was a slick-fielding, no hit first baseman and a decorated World War II hero. Many of the players including Jensen had military experience.

In the series opener, Jensen came through with a pinch hit single to drive in Cal’s tying run. Recalled Red Mathews, Yale’s third baseman, Jensen was “… strong and fast and big. I was very impressed with him.” The game wasn’t close for long. The Bears scored 11 runs in the top of the ninth to win easily; Cal 17, Yale 4.

Then as now, the series final had a best two of three format. In the next day’s deciding double header, Jensen started the opener. The “Golden Boy,” as Jensen was known, gave up a run in the first inning but then held Yale in check until the bottom of the fourth. The Elis made a fatal mistake when manager Ethan Allen ordered Cal’s number eight hitter walked to face Jensen. As Bush recalled: “He [Jensen] hit one that’s still rolling out there in Kalamazoo.”

Eventually, Jensen tired and was lifted in the bottom of the fourth with the score tied, 4-4. In the end, the Bears prevailed 8-7. Bears’ relief pitcher Virgil Butler struck out Bush, 0 for 7 in the series, to end the game. As Butler later remembered: “”On the last pitch, I struck out George Bush on a curveball. I got my 15 minutes of glory!”

In 1961, after only 11 mostly outstanding years in professional baseball and his career shortened by his notorious fear of flying, Jensen retired. While Jensen starred on the baseball diamond, his later life was plagued by personal and financial misfortune. He was married to, divorced from, remarried to and again divorced from Zoe Ann Olson, an Olympic diving star.

In 1974, Jensen returned to Berkeley to coach his beloved Bears who he led to more than 100 wins. But in 1982, age 55, Jensen died from his second heart attack in two months.

Bush, on the other hand, is a hale and hearty 88. His political resume includes two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, stints as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, two terms as Vice President and one as term as President.

As for his College World Series memories Bush disputes his teammates’ criticism that he couldn’t hit. According to Bush, he batted about .250. And, Bush said, “And I think if I were playing today in the bigs, I’d probably get about $8 million bucks a year for that.”

These outfielders could throw

After watching a show Saturday discussing the five best outfield arms in Major League Baseball today, I began thinking about some great past arms. I began watching baseball in the mid 60’s and therefore can only discuss players from that era and those who followed. I’m certain I will leave out some great arms from baseball past and I know that some worthy names will be omitted. It is rare in today’s game that I notice an outfielder who can throw. Most highlight reels are filled with announcers pontificating with amazement over 250-foot throws which most middle infielders could have made. In my baseball day, it seemed that every team had at least one outfielder who no one ran against twice. These are five I remember in no particular order that stopped the running game in its tracks; five who symbolized what a great arm really was all about.

1. Ellis Valentine: Few south of the Canadian border will remember Valentine. Valentine patrolled right field for the Montreal Expos from 1975-1981. I have never seen a player with a stronger arm.  He simply shut down the running game from first to third and from second to home.  Few jogged down to first base after a single to right either. Valentine made a regular habit of turning a single to right into an outfield-to-infield putout for those runners who took a hit or extra base for granted. Then Expo manager Dick Williams quickly touted Valentine as having the best arm he had ever seen and compared the rookie to Roberto Clemente.

2. Jesse Barfield: Another right fielder who player north of the border.  Barfield led the American League in assists three times.  After his third straight season leading the league in assists, the opposition stopped trying to advance. He was especially adept at nullifying the sacrifice fly and turning doubles into singles and triples into doubles.  Barfield threw out an astounding 152 runners in his 12 year career.  Barfield was not only a strong armed outfielder, but an outfielder who was known for the accuracy of his throws. Cutoff men were usually reluctant to get anywhere near his rockets.  Most simply had to duck out of the way.

3. Dave Winfield: I can remember fondly one pre All Star game outfielder throwing competition. The drill involved throwing to second base, then to third base and then to home plate. I can’t remember who else participated in this contest.  I can only remember Winfield throwing to each base on the fly and virtually knocking down those players chosen to receive the baseball. I remember being glad it wasn’t me. Winfield was a pitcher when drafted but upon his promotion to the majors after signing with the San Diego Padres in 1973 but the Padres recognized his bat and wanted that arm in right field.  Winfield never spent a day in the minors.

4. Raul Mondesi: Another right fielder and another right fielder with a cannon for an arm. Originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mondesi played for several teams over the course of his somewhat checkered major league career.  Mondesi had his detractors but no one doubted his arm. He was another outfielder in the Ellis Valentine tradition who could turn a routine one or two hop single to right into a footrace and a red alert for any first baseman who was looking elsewhere. He may have been one of those outfielders who necessitated the wearing of batting gloves for infielders.

5. Roberto Clemente: Had to include the great number 21. Clemente was the master at throwing base runners out trying to go first to third. I can remember many times Clemente digging a ball out of the right field corner with the runner already three or four steps past second going full speed towards third base. Clemente would reach down for the ball, spin and throw a one hopper to third on the corner of the bag.  The runner and third base coach would look in disbelief as the ball arrived as if from out of nowhere and the tag for the out was put down. Clemente made a great play look routine time and time again

These are my favorite outfield arms from a time when a great throwing arm was one of the skills scouts cherished. In today’s game, great throws seem like more of an afterthought.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Billy Pierce

Claim to fame: About a month ago I visited Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field for a White Sox game and throughout the game studied their ten retired numbers and corresponding faces decorating the left-centerfield wall. Six of the players honored on that fence are in the Hall of Fame (including Jackie Robinson, whose number is retired throughout baseball), and a seventh, Frank Thomas, will join them shortly. Of the three non-Hall of Famers, Minnie Minoso has come closest to Cooperstown, receiving nine of a possible 16 Veterans Committee votes last year when 12 were required for induction. Then there’s Harold Baines, who hung on the BBWAA ballot for several years before garnering only 4.8% of votes in 2011 and falling off subsequent ballots.

The tenth retired White Sox number: Billy Pierce. I was not entirely unfamiliar with Pierce. In December, while preparing by ballot for BPP’s Top 50 Players Not in the Hall of Fame, I had considered him for the final spot on my list, even checking his name off on the ballot before changing my mind last minute and granting my final vote to Robin Ventura. Still, as I sat at U.S. Cellular Field and stared at those faces, I felt uneducated on the career of this apparently-heralded lefty, knowing significantly less about him than I did about his retired number peers.

So I did my research. Pierce pitched in the Majors in 18 seasons, throwing 89% of his career 3,306.2 innings for the South Siders. He retired with a 119 ERA+ and 1.260 WHIP, having made seven all-star games, led the American League in complete games three times, in WAR for pitchers twice, and, in 1955, in ERA, ERA+, and WHIP.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Pierce never received more than 2% of votes on the BBWAA ballot in his five appearances there. He was eligible to be selected to the 2011 Golden Era Veterans committee ballot but was not chosen and will not again be eligible until 2014.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Historically, those who’ve thrown 3,000 innings with an ERA+ above 120 have done very well in Hall of Fame voting. Among those who meet that threshold and have appeared on a Hall ballot, only Kevin Brown, Will White, and Silver King have failed to garner induction.

Alas, with that 119 ERA+, Pierce falls just short of that admittedly arbitrary mark. This of course doesn’t mean he isn’t Hall-worthy, but it is somewhat representative of how I view his career in regards to Cooperstown. The lefty was often an all-star and award vote-getter, but rarely the dominant pitcher in his league. He had one excellent season but was otherwise merely above average. No statistic of his stands out as spectacular; his ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts, and even WAR are nice but nothing shiny enough to anchor a Hall of Fame candidacy. By any measure he was a very good pitcher, and by no measure was he a Hall of Famer.

In the end, Billy Pierce just missed earning a spot on my ballot for the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, just missed earning a spot on the list of 3,000 IP/120 ERA+ hurlers, and falls just short of deserving a spot in the real-life Hall. He seemed just qualified enough to write about here but turned out not interesting enough to say much about; no one will comment here claiming Billy Pierce’s lack of induction a travesty, and no one will comment here claiming me crazy for considering his worthiness. Long-tenured guys who last with one team and post impressive but unspectacular numbers get their faces displayed on their team’s outfield wall, but they don’t always get (or deserve) their faces carved into a Hall of Fame plaque.