Analyzing Maury Wills’ impact on baseball through stolen base opportunities

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It’s been awhile since I posted here about landing a big interview, though I scored one recently, getting to spend almost an hour on the phone with 87-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers great Maury Wills. It’s my pleasure to share the write-up, which dropped at Sports Illustrated’s website on Monday.

In the lead-up to the interview, I did a bit of research around Wills’ impact on the game, which has been a source of some debate in the baseball community. The conventional wisdom in baseball has been that Wills brought the steal back into the game in the early 1960s, when he led the league one season after another and broke Ty Cobb’s single-season record in 1962 when he swiped 104 bags.

Some researchers have questioned this, though, bringing up that Hall of Famer and Chicago White Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio might deserve the real credit, having begun to swipe more bases in the late 1950s. I’ve seen Willie Mays get some of the credit, too.

Honestly, either crediting Wills entirely or dismissing his impact has seemed an oversimplification to me. So I found another way to look at it.

Searching the ever-reliable Baseball-Reference.com, I found that stolen base opportunities are tracked for players from about 1920 on. (For anyone who wants to check it out, it’s in the Advanced Stats section for batting, listed as “Baserunning & Misc. Stats.” Here’s Wills’ section for this.) The importance of analyzing opportunities: I figured if there was a true stolen base revolution, players would be stealing at a higher percentage of their total opportunities.

I wasn’t sure how to get total opportunity numbers for every season, so I found a compromise to create two control groups. I made lists of everyone who stole at least 30 bases from 1947-61 and 1963-77. This way, I figured I’d get the 15 seasons before and the 15 seasons after Wills’ iconic 1962 season, to see how much of a shift occurred.

As a preface to what follows, I’ll note that when Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, he made 117 attempts out of a total of 348 opportunities, giving him an attempt percentage of 33.6 percentage. This might sound inconsequential or wonkish, but it was a markedly higher rate than anyone had done the 15 preceding seasons.

Here are the 20 30-stolen base seasons from 1947 through 1961, organized by attempt percentage:

PlayerYearSBCSAttemptsOpportunitiesAttempt %
Willie Mays195640105017428.7
Luis Aparicio195956136924428.3
Willie Mays195738195720827.4
Luis Aparicio196153136624626.8
Luis Aparicio19605185923824.8
Jackie Robinson194937165324521.6
Maury Wills196050126229720.9
Sam Jethroe19503594421320.7
Bob Dillinger194734134723819.7
Richie Ashburn194832104222318.8
Sam Jethroe19513554022118.1
Bill Bruton195434134726417.8
Minnie Minoso195131104123317.6
Vada Pinson196032124425717.1
Willie Mays19583163722916.2
Jake Wood19613093926314.8
Maury Wills196135155034914.3
Dick Howser19613794633813.6
Pee Wee Reese19523053529012.1
Richie Ashburn19583012424359.7
Totals751219970520518.64%

I’m struck by how rarely players stole in the ’40s and ’50s. Richie Ashburn, for instance, had by far the most opportunities of any player in this group in 1958, but wound up with just 30 steals that year because he attempted steals so infrequently. Even Wills stole at a far lower rate earlier in his career, with his 1960 and ’61 seasons in the middle of the pack here.

Things began to shift in 1962, though. I think one of the big reasons for it is that the Dodgers began to play home games that season in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Wills might have had to start stealing much more out of necessity, with runs far more difficult to come by. The following year, baseball also widened its strike zone, and runs became more scarce throughout the game. I think the tighter run environment coupled with Wills’ success in 1962 might have spurred players or teams to follow his lead.

Here are the 161 30-stolen-base seasons from 1963 through 1977, organized again by attempt percentage:

PlayerYearSBCSAttemptsOpportunitiesAttempt %
Frank Taveras197770188814262
Larry Lintz19763111427060
Maury Wills1965943112523852.5
Lou Brock19741183315129950.5
Cesar Cedeno197356157115047.3
Omar Moreno197753166915444.8
Lou Brock196674189220744.4
Lou Brock196563279020543.9
Cesar Cedeno197457177417243
Freddie Patek197651156616141
Lou Brock197656197518640.3
Dave Nelson197251176816940.2
Cesar Cedeno197550176716740.1
Tommy Harper196973189123039.6
Bill North1976752910426439.4
Mickey Rivers197570148422537.3
Cesar Cedeno197761147520137.3
Joe Morgan197367158222236.9
Claudell Washington197637205715536.8
Bobby Bonds197630154512336.6
Bobby Bonds197741185916236.4
Luis Aparicio196457177420436.3
Cesar Cedeno197658157320236.1
Rodney Scott197733185114235.9
Davey Lopes197663107320535.6
Bert Campaneris196551197019835.4
Freddie Patek197753136618835.1
Larry Lintz19745075716335
Bill North197454268023034.8
Davey Lopes197459187722134.8
Amos Otis19715286017334.7
Bert Campaneris196862228424334.6
Lou Brock197735245917334.1
Don Buford196651227321534
Bobby Tolan197057207722933.6
Frank Taveras197658116920933
Lou Brock197556167221932.9
Lou Brock197370209027432.8
Bert Campaneris197252146620332.5
Don Baylor197652126419732.5
Enos Cabell197742226419832.3
Jose Cardenal196537155216331.9
Dave Collins197632195116031.9
Cesar Cedeno197255217624031.7
Davey Lopes197577128928131.7
Bert Campaneris196652106219931.2
Lou Brock197263188126031.2
Bert Campaneris196755167122831.1
Phil Garner197635134815531
Gene Richards197756126822130.8
Adolfo Phillips196632154715330.7
Joe Morgan19766096922630.5
Rod Carew197649227123430.3
Tommie Agee196644186220630.1
Joe Morgan197258177525030
Pat Kelly196940135317829.8
Bert Campaneris197654126622429.5
Bert Campaneris19696287023929.3
Joe Morgan197458127024029.2
Lou Brock196752187024328.8
Freddie Patek197149146321928.8
Lou Brock196862127425828.7
Bill North197353207325428.7
Jose Cruz197744236723728.3
Al Bumbry197642105218528.1
Don Baylor197532174917627.8
Ron LeFlore197658207828127.8
John Lowenstein197436175319227.6
Dave Nelson197343165921527.4
Jose Cardenal196840185821427.1
Jerry Remy197534215520327.1
Tommy Harper197354146825426.8
Joe Morgan197567107728726.8
Joe Morgan197749105922226.6
Maury Wills196852217327626.4
Maury Wills196453177026626.3
Joe Foy196937155219826.3
Don Baylor19733294115626.3
Freddie Patek197336145019126.2
Lou Brock196443186123625.8
Maury Wills196638246224425.4
Bobby Bonds197343176023925.1
Davey Lopes197747125923525.1
Jerry Remy197741175823225
Bert Campaneris197042105221124.6
Amos Otis197539115020324.6
Lou Brock197164198334024.4
Willie Randolph197637124920124.4
Willie Davis196442135522624.3
Pat Kelly197034165020724.2
Lenny Randle197630154518624.2
Lou Brock196953146727824.1
Maury Wills196940216125424
Pat Kelly19723294117223.8
Bert Campaneris197434154920623.8
Lou Brock197051156627823.7
Jerry Remy197635165121623.6
Enzo Hernandez197437104720223.3
Maury Wills196340195925423.2
Bake McBride19773674318623.1
Lenny Randle197733215423423.1
Sonny Jackson196649146327423
Joe Morgan196949146327423
Bobby Bonds197530174720722.7
Joe Morgan197042135524422.5
Claudell Washington197540155524522.4
Davey Lopes197336165223322.3
Willie Davis197038145223622
Bobby Tolan197242155725922
Freddie Patek19753273917921.8
Don Buford196734215525321.7
Cesar Tovar196945125726321.7
Bobby Bonds19724465023021.7
Mickey Rivers19764375023221.6
Mickey Rivers197430134320121.4
Freddie Patek19723374018821.3
Wilbur Howard197532114320321.2
Bobby Bonds197441115224621.1
Dave Concepcion19753363918521.1
Freddie Patek197433154822921
Willie Davis196836104622220.7
Ron LeFlore197739195828320.5
Luis Aparicio19634064622520.4
Bobby Bonds197048105828420.4
Jim Wynn19654344723320.2
Tommy Harper197038165426720.2
Dave Concepcion19744164723619.9
Bert Campaneris197334104422219.8
Bert Campaneris19713474120919.6
Larry Bowa197439115025619.5
Enos Cabell19763584322219.4
Mitchell Page19774254724319.3
Bill Buckner197431134422919.2
Dan Driessen197731134423019.1
Bobby Bonds19694544925819
Rod Carew197341165730118.9
Tommie Agee197031154624718.6
Jose Cardenal19693664222818.4
Joe Morgan19714084826418.2
Cesar Tovar196835134826817.9
Larry Hisle197631184927417.9
Phil Garner19773294123317.6
Bake McBride197430114123617.4
Jose Cardenal197534124627316.8
Ralph Garr197335114627616.7
Pepe Mangual197533114426816.4
Larry Bowa19763083823616.1
Rod Carew197438165433816
Rod Carew19753594427915.8
Sandy Alomar197139104931715.5
Roy White197631134429015.2
Horace Clarke196933134630615
Larry Bowa19773233524314.4
Sandy Alomar197035124732914.3
Ken Griffey197634114531414.3
Bill North197530124229614.2
Hank Aaron19633153625614.1
Cesar Tovar197030154531914.1
Ralph Garr197130144431214.1
Tommy Harper19653564130413.5
Amos Otis19703323529112
Totals:7254229595493671026.01%

There are other factors to consider of course, such as teams beginning to build cavernous ballparks with artificial playing surfaces in the mid-1960s and ’70s that supported a quick style of baseball.

Bottom line, though, it’s clear that a significant shift in baseball occurred following the 1962 season. To not credit Wills at least somewhat with this shift seems absurd.

Technical issues

As some of you may have noticed, my website crashed this week and several posts are now missing including my post from Monday that kicked off voting for my annual project on the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. I apologize for any inconvenience.

To those of you who’ve voted thus far:

1) Thank you!

2) Your votes are safe and have been automatically inputted into a Google document independent of this site.

To anyone who hasn’t voted, you can vote here and check out the reference ballot here.

As a reminder, all votes for my project are due December 23 by 9 p.m. PST. I’m debating extending voting by a week because of the crash.

More to come.

New things to come on this site

It’s a short post for Monday, just long enough for me to tell of some new developments around here. This site has existed for almost two years now, and happily, it seems to continue to evolve. This past year has seen a number of new developments, from posts written by people besides myself to regular features to daily postings. Now, a few more things are going to be happening around here.

I’ll list the coming attractions in bullet points, as follows:

  • First, I’m going to debut a Friday link post this week where I’ll link to some of my favorite content from other baseball blogs. A lot of blogs do similar-type posts, and I’ve been meaning to have one here for awhile. I’d encourage anyone to send me stuff they’ve read that they consider worthy. I also welcome anyone to email me their own material.
  • Also on Fridays, Bill Miller and I will be collaborating on a series for his blog, The On Deck Circle. Bill and I are going to alternate weeks writing about good players on bad teams. I will be writing about players prior to 1961, while Bill will cover 1961 to current day. Bill is going to post the first column this Friday, and we will do it until Opening Day. The articles will be strictly on Bill’s blog, though I’ll have a link to the latest installment of the series each Friday. Of course, Bill and I welcome suggestions on who to write about.
  • Starting next Sunday, I will send out a weekly mass email with links to every post on this blog from the past week. I have a few hundred email addresses accrued from comments and emails I’ve received, and I’d like to offer something that serves up the content of this site directly to readers.

Comments and suggestions are welcome and appreciated, as always.

A summer of softball

I quit playing Little League when I was 11. I never excelled at baseball as a child, and fifteen years after my final season, some of the things I remember most are that I struck out fairly often, I was a decent outfielder, and maybe once a season, I could hit a fluke triple. I do not trace my favorite childhood experiences to Little League. I treasure memories of going to Candlestick Park, playing epic Wiffle Ball games with my dad in our driveway, and accumulating tons of baseball cards before I understood their value. It’s harder to get nostalgic about mediocrity.

A lot of ballplayers aren’t very good starting out, like Dale Murphy who once said in a book for children, “I’m glad my appetite for trying wasn’t quenched after my first season in Little League when I struck out most of the time. I loved the game and I had fun playing it. I didn’t really realize that I had had a bad season.”

In sixth grade, I had a bad season. My teacher assigned an average of two hours of homework a night to prepare my class for middle school, and while I later aced seventh grade, my passion for playing baseball died. Twice a week in the spring of sixth grade, I sat three out of every six innings on the bench for my team, and it began to seem like a waste of time I needed for homework. I never played another season.

So it was with some excitement and trepidation that I greeted an invitation to join an adult softball team this year. I wondered if I’d be a different player with the strength of a grown man, or if this would merely be a continuance of my crappy childhood career. It turned out to be a little of both.

I still sat the bench about half the time, partly because we were a co-ed team who needed to keep a certain amount of female players on-field, and we had more male players than we knew what to do with. I also still wasn’t a very good hitter, at least early in the season when I struck out swinging a few times, which is embarrassing in a slow-pitch league. For a time this year, it was like I was 11 all over again, and I sometimes resented giving half my Sundays to games or practices. Even as I’m in my 20s and relatively unencumbered, my life is busy.

I’m glad I didn’t quit the softball team. I improved as the season progressed, up to my final at-bat. We were in our tournament elimination game on Sunday, and I came to the plate in the last inning with two outs, our team down 12-9, and the bases loaded. I smacked a two-run single and represented the winning run, though I got stranded at second base, and we lost.

Regardless, it’s the kind of experience that will keep a player coming out. I look forward to next year.

I occasionally write personal entries. Here are a few similar posts:

Baseball cards

Thoughts on George Brett and the glove he inspired

My first baseball game

A visit to the boneyard

I grew up in Sacramento, not far from the Old City Cemetery and a parking lot across the street where a Pacific Coast League ballpark once stood. Both places have long since stoked my imagination, so I was excited to hear the local chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research would be sponsoring a baseball-themed cemetery tour on July 24. In fact, I looked forward to it for much of the summer. I expected tons of anecdotes and the chance for me to wax poetic about a graveyard with headstones dating to 1850. But the most interesting things I heard Saturday were among the living.

While we stood under the glaring sun that turns Sacramento into a microwave every summer, listening to a couple of our own talk about 19th century ballplayers buried nearby, a well-dressed woman approached. It was Susan Fornoff, our scheduled speaker for a luncheon to follow the tour. Fornoff covered the Oakland A’s for the Sacramento Bee and is most known for being the first female reporter admitted into locker rooms after games. She wrote a book some years ago, Lady in the Locker Room and said Saturday that a Hollywood producer and screenwriter are developing it and are interested in Katherine Heigl for the lead role. They’re thinking a baseball version of The Devil Wears Prada.

Before Fornoff spoke of this and more, we had the tour. The highlight for me was seeing a new headstone that Sacramento chapter member Alan O’Connor purchased for Billy Newbert, a former California League ballplayer. Newbert played for the Sacramento Altas in the 1880s, later ran a hardware store at 17th and J Street (where a record store stands today) and died in 1944. In researching his 2008 book on Sacramento baseball history, Gold on the Diamond, O’Connor discovered that Newbert lay in an unmarked Old City Cemetery grave. He paid $280 for a flat marble headstone and was later reimbursed by SABR.

Beyond that, I didn’t get much into the tour, which proved short because of our 1 p.m. deadline to be at the restaurant. I’ve been in the cemetery many times, and between the historic section and an adjoining modern half, it can be easy to lose one’s self there. We barely scratched the surface. No one mentioned the most interesting baseball anecdote I know regarding the cemetery: The old ballpark across the street, Edmonds Field was so close that children used to gather amidst the headstones to catch foul balls.

Thereafter, we adjourned to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet walking distance from the cemetery, and Fornoff spoke. She fielded the obligatory questions about being a woman in the locker room, recounting how a man once asked her which player was most-endowed (for contrast, imagine that question being asked to a male beat reporter.) Fornoff said she refused to answer besides to say Reggie Jackson thought he was.

I noticed Fornoff seemed uneasy talking about the locker room in general, so I went in a different direction. In April 2008, I interviewed Jose Canseco, and the former A’s slugger told me his oft-repeated assertion that he was blackballed from baseball. It sounded a little improbable, so I asked Fornoff what she thought. She agreed with Canseco and said Dave Kingman was blackballed, too. Kingman was with Oakland in 1986 when he sent Fornoff a rat in the press box. The A’s let him go thereafter, no team picked him up, and he later won money in a suit against Major League Baseball. Fornoff’s take: “I think baseball can collude pretty easily.”

I asked Fornoff if she’d do an interview here if I read her book. She said she would. I have a stack of baseball books to conquer but will add this one to the queue. In a perfect world, it leads to an interview with Heigl.

Related: More posts about SABR and other clubs that I’m in

My first baseball game

I went camping this past weekend near Coloma, California, and on my way back to the Bay Area on Sunday morning, I stopped by my parents’ house in Sacramento and had breakfast with them. I’ve been living near Oakland for a few years, and I don’t see my folks nearly enough. It was great eating my mom’s waffles and drinking out of the Batman mug that I got when I was six. I’ll be 27 in a few weeks but I still insist on using that mug every time I’m at the house.

During breakfast, we talked baseball a bit, and my parents mentioned the Giants’ new policy of charging varying rates on tickets depending on who’s playing. It’s called dynamic pricing, and it basically dictates that the same seats that might cost $6 for a Giants-Marlins game could go for $30 when the Dodgers are in town. I’ve been a Giants fan since about the same time that I got the Batman mug, and I understand people upset about the new pricing structure, though it seems reasonable from a business perspective. Also, remembering my own experience, if I was bringing a kid to a game, I’d rather take them to see the Marlins than shell out extra for the Dodgers. It doesn’t make much difference to a kid.

For all I know about baseball now, I was pretty much clueless the first time I went to a game in August of 1987. My parents and I were visiting family in Seattle, and my Uncle Brett, my dad and I took in a Yankees-Mariners contest at the Kingdome. I had recently turned four, and every half inning, I asked if the game was over and we could go home yet. I mentioned about this in the discussion on dynamic pricing Sunday morning, and my dad said Dave Righetti got the save that game, which led me to find something more.

I’ve recently learned of a Web site called Retrosheet.org, which is considered an essential tool, like Baseball-Reference, for researchers of America’s pastime. Where Baseball-Reference offers season statistics for pretty much any professional ballplayer, Retrosheet is built around providing game info. It has box scores dating back to 1871 and can provide split breakdowns for how any hitter fared versus any pitcher, telling me for instance that Ken Henderson hit .304 lifetime against Bob Gibson (even if Henderson recently told me Gibson was one of the toughest pitchers he faced.)

Using what my dad said about Righetti, I visited Retrosheet on Sunday afternoon, looking for a day in August of 1987 where the Yankee closer got a save at the Kingdome. The only game that fit this description occurred August 18, a 4-3 win for the Yankees. Though I don’t remember, it appears I got a great first game. If I had a time machine, I know I’d enjoy watching Don Mattingly go 3-for-5 and seeing the Mariners almost tie the score in the bottom of the ninth, getting to Righetti for a run. I may not have understood it then, but I value it now.

I occasionally write posts related to my childhood. To read some of them, go here.

My 2010 NL and AL All Star ballot

As regular readers may know, I joined the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America a few months ago. Duties for club members are fairly light, though one of the things we do is cast token votes on mid-season awards and All Star selections. I’m proud to offer my first ballots:

American League

POSITION/ AWARD NAME (Last, First)
First Base Morneau, Justin
Second Base Cano, Robinson
Third Base Beltre, Adrian
Shortstop Jeter, Derek
OF (vote for 3) Hamilton, Josh; Suzuki, Ichiro; Crawford, Carl
Catcher Mauer, Joe
DH Guerrero, Vladimir
Cy Young Lee, Cliff
MVP Morneau, Justin
Rookie Boesch, Brennan
Manager Maddon, Joe

National League

POSITION/ AWARD NAME (Last, First)
First Base Gonzalez, Adrian
Second Base Prado, Martin
Third Base Wright, David
Shortstop Ramirez, Hanley
OF (vote for 3) Ethier, Andre; Pujols, Albert; Holliday, Matt
Catcher Olivo, Miguel
DH Jones, Chipper
Cy Young Jiminez, Ubaldo
MVP Jiminez, Ubaldo
Rookie Heyward, Jason
Manager Black, Bud


Jones is a sentimental pick at National League DH, and with no third baseman doing anything especially noteworthy in that league, I was almost tempted to give the possibly-retiring Atlanta Brave the start. Beltre gets the nod for resurrecting himself, as does Guerrero, and I was tempted to tab Barry Zito for the same reason, but Jiminez has been simply too amazing, in this, the Year of the Pitcher. Lee may be a consensus choice as AL Cy Young, though if I was simply picking who’d make the All Star start, I’d tab Armando Galarraga to make a statement.

Mostly though, I went off of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) data to determine my picks. I used a Web site I recently learned of called TheBaseballGauge.com, which allows any number of different WAR comparisons, including by position and league. I encourage any fellow baseball geeks to make use of it. It could be the new Baseball-Reference or Retrosheet for fanatical baseball researchers.

IBWAA All Star voting ends Wednesday, June 30, 2010, at 9:00 p.m. PST. Anyone who writes about baseball in any capacity on the Internet is eligible to join (yearly dues are $20) and cast a vote for this, as well as Hall of Fame selections at the end of the year. Email Howard Cole, baseballsavvy@aol.com for more information.

Notes from the annual Art of Baseball Exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery

PhotobucketWinky, San Francisco Seals, 2010, Stacey Carter

I’m standing next to Tom O’Doul, 67, who looks so much like his famous cousin Lefty O’Doul it’s uncanny, and as we view a painting of a bat boy for the team Tom once knew, he says it’s fairly accurate. Never a bat boy himself, though he got to go in the dugout during games, Tom explains a subtly the artist captured, how San Francisco Seals bat boys received a blue cap with SEALS in white block letters, while players got caps with SF lettering.

It’s the sort of attention to detail that sometimes gets neglected in other works. Art and baseball don’t always have the smoothest conflux, as Lefty O’Doul could attest from his time trying to teach Gary Cooper how to properly swing for Pride of the Yankees or the makers of Field of Dreams might cop to, since they had Shoeless Joe Jackson bat right-handed since he hit from the left but Ray Liotta could not. Still, many of the works in the 13th annual Art of Baseball exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco accurately reflected the game.

I attended the exhibit Thursday evening with Tom O’Doul and other members of the Society for American Baseball Research, which I recently joined. Coincidentally, the gallery is three blocks down Geary Street from Lefty O’Doul’s bar and restaurant.

I’m generally not much of a museum guy. While some people spend hours looking at a painting, I could probably do the Louvre in under a half hour. Heck, I even breezed through the National Baseball Hall of Fame when I was there in 1997. So I don’t have any sophisticated artistic expertise to offer here, besides to say that aesthetically, I found the show pleasing.

The works varied in style, though some of my favorites had a lifelike quality to them. Arthur K. Miller contributed paintings of Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Satchel Paige and this one of Tim Lincecum:

PhotobucketTim Lincecum, Arthur K. Miller

I enjoyed talking baseball with the various people in attendance, including gallery owner George Krevsky, who said he played baseball for Penn State. I pride myself on my baseball library, and Krevsky has one that could rival it in the office that connects with the main room of his gallery. Along with classics I’ve read like The Boys of Summer and Baseball’s Great Experiment, I noticed copies of three books by Jim Bouton, one of my favorites. Krevsky said Bouton used to play handball with his father, who was nationally ranked and that in years past he’s wanted to get Bouton to the show.

This year, Krevsky featured a reading and signing by another author, Jeff Gillenkirk, who’s written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mother Jones magazine and whose latest book, Home, Away debuts this month (Gillenkirk said a glitch on Amazon says it can’t be purchased there until September but that it’s available on his publisher’s Web site.) The book is about a ballplayer who leaves the big leagues to be closer to his son, and Gillenkirk read an excerpt where the 39-year-old protagonist winds up in independent league ball at $65 a game.

All in all, it was an enjoyable night and probably the last time I’ll go to an art show for a long time unless I meet a girl or the San Francisco Giants invite me to a gallery opening. In a perfect world, both could happen.

I’ll close with this last work by Valentin Popov, a Ukrainian-born artist Krevsky said he’s admired for years but had never painted baseball before and “didn’t know baseball from a pineapple.” I would be interested to see what other baseball works Popov can produce.

PhotobucketFriday Night, Valentin Popov

Gus Stathos, spring training in 1947, and Jackie Robinson

I went to the Old Timers Lunch on Friday in Sacramento, to do interviews for my book on Joe Marty. It was a good day in my life. I did a couple of key interviews and also got to talk to a former Sacramento Solon named Gus Stathos.

Stathos, who I interviewed at the estate sale of former Solons owner Fred David in February, never played with Marty and was a career minor leaguer. The closest he came to making the show was when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947. Stathos played that spring with Jackie Robinson, who was weeks away from becoming the first black man in 83 years to play professional ball.

Stathos gave me a few minutes of his time on Friday, and I’ve provided excerpts from our talk below:

On how Robinson cleaned up at ping pong and horse shoes between workouts and games: “What he did, he used to sit around there with a bunch of guys and play horse shoes. You’d turn around, he beat everybody. Ping bong, he beat everybody. Basketball, he was great. Goodhearted guy, very nice, always spoke real good about everybody.”

On a story Robinson told that spring about treatment he got at a hotel in New Orleans: “He went in to check into the room. There was about fifty or sixty guys there, and the young kid who was behind the counter, he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘We don’t take black people here for our hotel.’ So Pee Wee Reese says– he came forward, Pee Wee Reese– and Eddie Stanky came forward says, ‘Well, if he can’t stay here, we’re not going to stay here.’ So Jackie Robinson heard that, he came up, and he said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t worry about it, I’ll go to a black town and get a room, and I’ll see you guys at the ballpark.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

On if he had a good idea if Robinson would break the color barrier that year: “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. I thought he was great, I really did, I really liked him. Everybody loved him.”

On whether he had other conversations with Robinson: “Well, as soon as he knew I was from California, cause he was from LA you know….”

On whether Robinson had an opinion on Stathos’s hometown, Sacramento: “I don’t think he even knew where Sacramento was, to be honest with you.”

On Robinson as a player: “I just loved the way he ran. He was pigeon-toed, you know, and he could run– and he could run. He had a lot of guts. He’d steal every base there was and… I thought he was a great ballplayer, I really did. And I’m glad that he made the Hall of Fame, I’m glad he did what he did, and I can say that I was at spring training with him.”