An All-Star Game without All of the Stars

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1933, which was about 15 years too late.

Granted, that All-Star debut didn’t lack spectacle or star power – seven of the nine starters for the American League were eventual Hall of Famers, while four National League starters later earned Cooperstown entry.

Even the managers carried legend with them.  John McGraw and Connie Mack led their respective teams for 86 years between them, collectively winning 19 pennants and 8 World Series titles.  Both earned Hall of Fame honors and are still considered two of the greatest managers in the history of the sport.

So, as debuts go, the 1933 All-Star Game was, indeed, gold plated and diamond encrusted.

1933 All Star

Still, if the All-Star tradition had started a decade or two earlier, the 1933 edition would have still been played in all of its magnificence, it just would have been the latest in a string of great games leading up to it.  Earlier contests would have also allowed a whole slate of star players the chance to shine in such an elite showcase – a chance not afforded in 1933 because they had already left the game.

Consider 1919 – yes, the year of the Black Sox and the eternal tarnishing of baseball’s soul.  However, if there was an All-Star game that year, the American League could have matched the 1933 roster with seven Hall of Famers in the starting nine. And that magnificent seven would have included top-tier talents like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson – all of whom had retired by 1933.

For good measure, the American Leaguers could boast about having Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, on the team and having the version of him before he decided to corrupt himself and his sport in the World Series that fall.  Harry Heilmann would also be available to them – the only big league player to crest .400, win four batting titles, be selected for the Hall of Fame, and yet remain shamefully invisible in the public’s collective memory.

Harry Heilmann Detroit Slugger

And if the game was close and the team needed an immediate offensive dividend, they could use a 24- year old outfielder from the Boston Red Sox named George Ruth, who was on the cusp of changing the sport forever by tethering the age of power hitting to his booming bat and sling-shotting it forward.

Ruth1918

In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs, 17 more than anyone else in the majors.  He also won nine games on the mound with an ERA under 3.00.  So, if the American League needed it, Ruth was capable of launching a homer to grab the lead and then pitching an inning or two to protect it.

As for the National League, they weren’t exactly sacrificial mutton, either.  They could roll out five Hall of Fame starters themselves, including second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a two-time Triple Crown winner, and pitcher Grover Alexander, whose 90 career shutouts are still the second most All-time after Walter Johnson.

Alexander

Coincidentally, the managers for the hypothetical 1919 game likely would have been the same ones who oversaw the actual 1933 contest, John McGraw and Connie Mack – except they would have been 14 years younger and strategically devoted to the more nuanced “dead ball” aspects of play at that time.

Since the “Dead Ball” era (circa, 1900-1920 and so named because of the lack of carry of the ball) emphasized pitching and base running above all else, the 1919 version would have been more stealing than slugging, more spitballs than fastballs, and much more bunting than anyone has ever seen since.  That is, such strategy would permeate until Mack decided to play his trump card, Ruth, and then the big fellow would try to put a hole in the outfield grandstands with one swing of the bat.

That mythical 1919 All-Star Game would have been an extraordinary thing to behold, for sure.  There would be a few things missing, though – namely, diversity and equality, along with some truly remarkable players.

If the times were more enlightened and the people who ran the majors – as well as the fans who watched – in 1919 had been more accepting and progressive in their thinking, this hypothetical All-Star game would have surpassed the actual 1933 debut in most ways imaginable.

Had star players from the Negro Leagues been allowed to play in the majors in 1919 the infusion of talent and innovation would have been enormous and transformed the sport in ways that might well still be felt today. Such integration would have also allowed two full generations of players to shape big league identities, preserving their baseball legacies in ways only Major League notoriety seems able to do – fair or not – and cast them forward.

But integration didn’t happen in 1919 or 1929 or 1939, it took Major League baseball until 1947 to finally tear down the invisible fence it had built on ignorance and stupidity and fear.  And that fence had deprived the big leagues of decades’ worth of historical impact and memorable matchups – not to mention the utterly unnecessary insult and vitriol it directed at hundreds, if not thousands, of faultless players.

The failure to integrate baseball in 1919 is especially galling, because America was only a year removed from its participation in World War I.  Among the soldiers sent to fight for flag and country were 40,000 African-American troops.  They served honorably, fought with tenacity, and died courageously.

Soldiers

When the fighting stopped and the soldiers returned, African-Americans collectively hoped that the battle sacrifices of black troops abroad merited social progress at home. Sadly, that did not happen.  Not much changed – in the factories or political arenas or on baseball fields.

Black men could take a bullet in France fighting a faraway war but could not take the field alongside white players in America.

It was a great shame, not just from a social equality perspective but from a sporting standpoint, too, because many of the best players in the world at that time were black.

To underscore this, if the American League could have fielded seven Hall of Fame players with their best starting lineup in 1919 – a rather impressive number – the African-American community of the time could have done even better.  Comprised of black players playing in their own professional leagues that year, an African-American All-Star team would have included eight Hall of Famers.

Centerfielder Oscar Charleston could do it all – a power-hitting, defensive wizard with speed.  And he did it with the kind of competitive edge that bordered on rage but stayed just controlled enough to be considered productive fury.  In 1919, he was 22 and hit a whisper under .400, while belting eight home runs in just under 180 at bats.

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PDCharleston’s outfield mates would have included Pete Hill – a lean base stealer with a slashing, line drive-making swing, and Cristobel Torriente – a stocky Cuban power hitter with surprising stealth.  Defensively, the trio’s superb athletic range would have swallowed would-be hits like few others ever could.

As for defense, few players had better reputations for glove work than third baseman William “Judy” Johnson and shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.  Johnson had remarkable defensive reflexes.  His ability to charge and field bunts became a trademark of his Hall of Fame skills.

Even though he was 35 years old in 1919, Pop Lloyd could still play.  In fact, Lloyd played another 13 seasons after 1919.  Like Oscar Charleston, Lloyd had all-around brilliance to his game.  On defense, he earned the nickname “El Cuchara” when he played in Cuba for his ability to dig out tough grounders, scooping them to nab base runners as though served up on a tablespoon.  At the plate, his tremendous hands allowed him to place the ball all over the diamond and, when needed, he could lengthen the bat and send a booming drive for extra bases.

Lloyd

First baseman Ben Taylor was a gentleman first and ballplayer second.  That he had Hall of Fame baseball talent speaks as much or more to his grace and integrity off the field than his magnificent skills on it.  As a player, he was a smart hitter with a penchant for getting big hits and a nimble defender recognized for his agility around the bag.  As a mentor and teacher, he guided young players for decades after his playing days.  His most famous protégé, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, credited Taylor with not only teaching him how to play first base but also how to be a professional.

Behind the plate, William “Biz” Mackey was everything a great catcher is supposed to be – tough, smart, fearless, and strong armed.  When he called a game, pitchers followed him, because he knew the psychology of hitters as well as he knew the physics of pitching.  It was a lethal combination.  Add to that, a .300 bat and a towering but classy presence, and the result is one of the great catching careers in baseball history.

Mackey Biz 1052.86_FL_PD

On the mound, Joe Williams – appropriately nicknamed “Smokey Joe” – had a fastball that rivaled any of the time for sheer speed and intimidation.  From Seguin, Texas, Williams had the classic look of a power pitcher – tall, broad shouldered, and deadly serious with a baseball in his hand.  Soft spoken off the field, Williams let his searing fastball tell the story.  And when it did, that story included a 27-strikeout, 12-inning shutout, a string of 20 straight wins early in Williams’ career, and a poll naming the tall Texan the greatest pitcher in Negro League history.

Williams

Like their Major League counterparts, a 1919 Negro League All-Star team could also supply a Hall of Fame manager.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive mélange of confidence, defiance, and ambition.  As one of baseball’s greatest managers, Foster also had an impressive range of vision.  He saw things as they might happen, how they should happen, and how best to narrow the distance between the two.

Foster

Above all else, Foster’s vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obedience because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by Pop Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

During one brilliant stretch, Foster’s teams won 12 championships in 13 seasons (1910-1922).  So, in 1919, Foster was still at the apex of his managerial genius.

After he left the dugout, Foster organized the Negro National League and became one of the most visible African-American entrepreneurs in the country.  When he was finished, Foster built some of the greatest black baseball teams in history, built the first black baseball league, and, finally, built a legacy which is still regarded as one of the most innovative and successful in the game.

So, if in some parallel universe, the powers that be organized an All-Star game in 1919 and were impartial and decent enough to allow all players of all races to participate, it would have been one hell of a show.

Consider some of the unforgettable showdowns.

Ty Cobb, sharpened spikes and all, racing into second on a steal attempt, in a virtual dead heat with Biz Mackey’s rifle-armed throw to the bag. Walter Johnson trying to sling his legendary fastball past Oscar Charleston, whose lightning fast reflexes rivaled those of any hitter that Johnson had ever seen. 

Johnson

George Sisler belting a ball deep into one of the outfield gaps then waiting to see if Pete Hill could run it down before it hit the turf.  And Joe Williams, with his cap pulled down taut, staring down brawny Babe Ruth with the game on the line. All the while, Rube Foster would match strategic wits with John McGraw or Connie Mack – three of the sharpest baseball minds in history.

As icing, all of this could have happened at the rollicking and rowdy Polo Grounds, right on the edge of Harlem in New York City.  It was the longtime home of the New York Giants and, with its enigmatic but fascinating oblong dimensions, would have been the perfect cathedral to house this perfect jewel of a game.

Polo Grounds

The fully integrated 1919 All-Star contest was the greatest game that never happened.

But if it had, it would have had a tremendous ripple effect by the time the American and National Leagues squared off in 1933.

Assuming integration continued – and thrived – the 1933 All-Star Game would not only have included big league greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Carl Hubbell, no fewer than 16 Negro League stars and eventual Hall of Fame players would have been available as well.

Catcher Josh Gibson, widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro League history, and outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, similarly regarded as the fastest man to play in the league, would have provided remarkably dangerous levels of muscle and quickness to whichever side was fortunate enough to have them.

Gibson hit so many home runs and hit them with such force that the sheer volume – both in number and decibel level – seems overwhelming.  Some sources credit him with over 900 homers in his 17-year career, including one launched completely out of Yankee Stadium.  While debate may linger on the exact number of home runs he hit, few squabble over the devastating kinetics of his swing.

Gibson

Bell’s speed could not be reduced solely to the art of the steal – using the number of bases he took over his career as the only metric to evaluate his historic quickness.  He learned how to weaponize his speed, turning into as much psychological dagger as strategic windfall.  He often beat out routine grounders for hits and would sometimes score from second on a sacrifice fly.  And that consistent ability to take an extra 90 feet not available to ordinary players made Bell especially worrisome to opponents, because – as the cliché goes – speed never slumps.

Bell2

Pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige named his pitches, called out hitters, and then backed up all of that bluster the moment the ball left his hand.  Paige pitched for 25 seasons, hopping from teams and leagues like a symmetric stone skipping across a lake.  Everywhere he went, though, he entertained and impressed.  In exhibition games against white Major Leaguers, Paige garnered respect for his considerable abilities from a string of big league stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Babe Herman.  They all knew he could play at an elite level; it was only his circumstance that determined where.

Paige

To prove the point, when integration finally came, Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and became an important part of the team’s championship season. Even at the age of 42, he still had enough left in his arsenal to go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

In 1933, though, Paige was 27 and still in the prime of his career.  Had he played in the All-Star Game that year, he would have undoubtedly pushed Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell for the starting pitching nod.

Speaking of Hubbell, his extraordinary run of five consecutive strikeouts against five Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game remains one of the most impressive moments in baseball history. 

Hubbell C 1498.68 = 68 NBLIt is fascinating to ponder whether or not he would have been able to accomplish the same extraordinary feat if Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (even at 37 years old) had been swapped in as part of that fearsome sequence.

As for fearsome clusters of hitters, the Home Run Derby did not become a staple of All-Star festivities until 1985, five decades after the inaugural All-Star contest.  However, since hypotheticals are ruling the day (or at least this blog post), imagine an integrated Home Run Derby in 1933.

The American League quartet of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Al Simmons – Hall of Famers, all – combined to hit over 2,000 career homers in the big leagues.  Even today, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx remain in the top 30 on the All-time home run list.  Foxx, in particular, was so physically intimidating at the plate that pitcher Lefty Gomez once mused, “He wasn’t scouted; he was trapped,” coinciding neatly with his nickname, “The Beast”.

Foxx

National League representation wouldn’t have quite the same pedigree, but the foursome of Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, and Wally Berger includes three Hall of Fame hitters and an aggregate career home run total of more than 1,200.  And Ott’s distinctive swing, which featured a prolonged and high-altitude leg kick, would have added a little panache to the proceedings.

Ott

Not to be outdone, the African-American contingent would have been comprised entirely of Hall Famers – Gibson, Charleston, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.  Despite a relatively ordinary baseball frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Stearnes won seven home run titles in the Negro Leagues and once led his league in stolen bases, for good measure. Wilson was barrel-chested and massively strong.  Despite only being 5-foot-8, many considered him one of the hardest hitters in the history of black baseball.  His nickname, Boojum, was derived from the sound his crushing drives made when they struck outfield walls.

Wilson

The modern day Home Run Derby is – as most modern entertainment pieces are – a glossy, overblown thing designed to fascinate momentarily before being forgotten entirely.  It’s laden with product placement and players who bask in the flash and worship of the moment.

Derby

Mind you, there’s not wrong with it – as fun, fluffy events go.  In fact, most notably, participants are as varied as the international amalgam of the game itself in the 21st century.  In that respect, maybe, the derby isn’t all that fluffy and inconsequential, after all.

Still, a home run contest involving the Bambino, the Beast, Boojum, and a power-hitting “Turkey” would have been far more compelling.  In it, twelve sluggers – all but one in the Hall of Fame – would unleash their celebrated torque, sending an endless stream of great, big soaring drives out of Comiskey Park in Chicago with the wind howling.

No sips of Gatorade or glitzy scoreboard odometer readings.  Just twelve guys in wool uniforms knocking the holy living hell out of baseballs. 

Gehrig Derby

And if it came down to Babe Ruth squaring off against Josh Gibson to see who claimed the home run crown, it would have settled an awful lot of arguments that are now forever in dispute.

So, yes, the debut of the All-Star Game came a few years too late, while the integration of baseball came decades too late.  And all of the remarkable moments that would have come with better timing of both are left in the regrettable place that all other hypothetical triumph resides.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heilmha01.shtml
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http://baseballhall.org/hof/hill-pete
http://baseballhall.org/hof/torriente-cristobal
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http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/john-henry-lloyd-0
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http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/gibsonj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/bell.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/paige.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html

Photos:

http://jolietlibrary.org/sites/default/files/1930sa/All-Star%205%20-%203.jpg
http://f.tqn.com/y/detroittigers/1/L/K/0/-/-/Harry-Heilmann.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dc/Ruth1918.jpg
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http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/pressofatlanticcity.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/6e/46e9288a-982e-5ac6-93c2-55ddc174c077/571407ecd8204.image.jpg?resize=300%2C331
http://s.hswstatic.com/gif/biz-mackey-1.jpg
http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/smokey_joe_williams.jpg
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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/Game1_1912_World_Series_Polo_Grounds.jpg
http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/20150807-2-johnson.jpg
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https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-VznPJDAh68g/TWxuim1_4jI/AAAAAAAAAPg/gl1u07TPI0w/s1600/db_Jud_Wilson_20071.jpg
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http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/styles/fullscreen_image_popup/public/externals/357864d997ad4349df3881618d01e92b.jpeg?itok=EJ5JhkpR

A Tale of Two Hamiltons

Sometimes, the universe works in mysterious ways.

In 2012, a shortstop in the Cincinnati Reds’ farm system set a minor league record by stealing 155 bases.  He stole them so often and with such exhilarating ease that fans and pundits wondered if they were witnessing a prototype; a burgeoning, transformative figure in the art of base running.  Twenty-one year old Billy Hamilton certainly looked the part – lean and lithe; his long, kinetic strides leaving vapor trails in the spaces between the bases he took.

Hamilton Record

And that record – 155 steals in a single season – was a remarkable accomplishment.  Consider the company he bested to get there – Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills.  None of them ever stole that many bases in a single year.

Coleman was the closest at 145 in 1983 while he was with Single-A Macon, and it was Coleman’s record Hamilton broke, by fully ten more steals.  Granted, the minor leagues are not the major leagues, not by a long shot.  And Henderson, Brock, Raines, Coleman, and Wills all had superb stolen base totals at the game’s most difficult level.

Still, 155 steals is a staggering number, no matter the league.  Just think about what goes into a single steal attempt, let alone over 150 successful ones.

In the time it takes a baseball to travel from the pitcher to the catcher – at 90 miles per hour – and from the catcher to a given base – at 75-80 mph – a runner must be able to cover 90 feet – 30 yards – and beat the baseball to the bag.  And he has less than four seconds to do it.

Throw Second

In fact, the players who do it well routinely complete the theft very near the three-second mark.  They are among the elite who can actually outrun high-speed projectiles – bipeds beating ballistics.

To complicate matters – or to add spice to the stew – a base stealer must be able to determine when a pitcher has committed his balance and body to throw a pitch to the plate and when he can still wheel around and throw towards the runner and the base.  The runner has to process this – has to know with certainty – what the pitcher will do at the very instant he begins to do it.

Because once a runner decides to leave the base, there’s no looking back.  He plants that first big stride in the ground and goes.  Those three seconds are incredibly unforgiving.

Hamilton Run2

In turn, the pitcher can disguise his intent – whether he will throw to the plate or back to the base – letting doubt delay a runner’s decision and increase the odds of the ball outspeeding the base stealer to the target.   It’s a hand of poker, without the self-important posturing.

Holding-Runners-On-Base

So, Hamilton’s record – his sheer bushel of beating thrown baseballs to bases – is impressive, indeed.

However, before bestowing Hamilton with any enduring crowns of base stealing exclusivity, it should be noted that he might not even be the best Billy Hamilton to blaze across the base paths.

That distinction is reserved for a speedy outfielder who pilfered his first big league bag 124 years before Cincinnati’s prodigy dazzled the modern game.

William Robert Hamilton earned the nickname “Sliding Billy” for his speed, his aggressive approach to the game, and, well, because, he slid so damned much.  However, there was good reason for all of that dirt on his uniform.

Sliding-Bill-Hamilton

He is one of five players in Major League history to steal at least 100 bases in a single season, and he accomplished the feat four times (1889-1891, 1894).  Hamilton still ranks third all-time in career steals.  His 914 stolen bases remained a big league record for 77 years until Lou Brock finally surpassed the mark in 1978.

Over the years, though, many have discounted Sliding Billy’s gaudy stolen base total due to when they were taken (1888-1901).  For instance, rules of the time allowed for such things like a steal being awarded for taking an extra base on a hit. Such quirky ordinances have muddied the concept of the stolen base from that period, especially when compared to the version tallied in the modern game.

However, if steals of that era were truly that diluted, the top career marks in the category would be littered with players from the late-1800’s.  However, of the Top 15 base stealers in Major League history, only two others could be considered contemporaries of Hamilton (Arlie Latham – 7th and Tom Brown – 13th).  Even so, Hamilton had over 170 more stolen bases than his closest peer from that time (Latham with 742) and accumulated them in three fewer season, to boot.

So, he was the elite base runner of his day, whether or not split hairs over the statistical classification of his many jaunts around the bases are applied.  He was the best at what he did when he did it – and by a fairly wide margin.

Billy-Hamilton-Phillies

But because he played most of his career before the advent of radio and decades before newsreels and, later, television and the internet, Sliding Billy pretty much slid his way right out of the public consciousness.

However, when another speedy player – coincidentally named Billy Hamilton – came along decades later but happened upon the spotlight at time when media attention was never greater, that singularity of name helped to rightfully bring attention back to the brilliant career of the 19th century star.

Although the elder Hamilton’s base running exploits were remarkable, his ability to get on base to do all of that burglary was even better.

His .344 career batting average is tied for 7th All-time in big league history, in a statistical dead heat with the great Ted Williams – all the way out to a fourth decimal point, actually.  Along the way, Hamilton topped the .400 mark in 1894, hitting .403 for the Philadelphia Phillies, and finished north of .380 on two other occasions.

And he was so selective at the plate that he led the National League in walks five times.  Combined with his exceptional hitting, that penchant for getting on base brought Hamilton another piece of history.  His .455 career on-base percentage still ranks as the fourth-highest ever.

Sliding Billy H

However, his most impressive deed on the field is at the very heart of the game itself.

If the entire object of the sport is scoring runs – which it is – Hamilton scored more of them in a single season than any player in big league history, ever.  In 1894 – the year he hit .403 – Hamilton scored 198 runs.  Since then, only Babe Ruth has gotten as close as 20 runs from the record (1921).  And in the last 50 years, only one player has gotten within 50 runs of the mark (Jeff Bagwell with 152 in 2000).

Although he was one of the game’s greatest players, his personality was more bookkeeper than baseball superstar – particularly one of that vintage.  Perhaps, it was that sedate persona during such an unruly time in the sport that limited his notoriety, because there was certainly more than enough spectacle to go around.

Ball players of the late-1800’s were a staggeringly rowdy bunch, often profane and habitually self-indulgent.

86chiwhitestockings

As for the staggering part (pun very much intended), many players imbibed so often and in such volume that they either drank themselves out of the game or, worse, to any early grave.  Alcohol infused shenanigans commonly resulted in brawls on the diamond and saloon melees off of it.  Coarse language at nearly every utterance was probably more acclimation than intentional vulgarity – wild milieus couldn’t help but produce wild denizens.

Perhaps, it was the uncertainty of the industry that drove the rollicking behavior.  If a player lost his metaphorical grip on baseball, he was likely doomed to a life of agrarian or industrial misery.  Few were educated enough to survive comfortably outside of the game.  So, while they were privy to celebrity and decent money, many lived like there wasn’t a tomorrow, because – for a lot of them – there wouldn’t be.

Delahanty

Amidst that, Sliding Billy was an anomaly.  He didn’t drink or cheat on his wife or curse repeatedly.  In fact, the only hell he raised was on the field, and, even then, it was his running that caused the ruckus and not an overly aggressive personality or borderline dirty play that were hallmarks of most of his contemporaries.

He lived modestly, saved his money, and led a quiet but honorable life.  Sadly, his spectacular play on the baseball diamond wasn’t enough to have saved his legend over the years.  It seems that history preferred stormy over calm. As proof, it took the Hall of Fame over two decades to recognize Hamilton’s accomplishments (the Hall opened in 1936; Hamilton was inducted in 1961).

Meanwhile, 19th century stars Mike “King” Kelly and George ”Rube” Waddell – both superb players but chronic drunks – were allowed Cooperstown entry 15 years earlier than Hamilton (Kelly was inducted in 1945; Waddell in 1946).  No doubt, the colorful yarns attached to Kelly and Waddell over time – whether brimming with hyperbole or not – helped to keep their names more ready at the recall when it came time to honor players from that era.  After all, few could forget a baseball star who once kept a pet monkey on his shoulder (Kelly) or another who would occasionally miss games to chase fire engines down the street (Waddell).

King_Kelly

However, it should be noted that Hamilton had significantly higher career totals in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, steals, and runs scored than Kelly (Waddell was a pitcher).  He was also a much better defensive player than Kelly and had far greater range.  What he did not have was a quirky, grandiose persona, and that, apparently, cost him the enduring recognition his playing record would seem to merit.

One has to wonder, then, if the modern-day Billy Hamilton – he of the 155 steals in a year – will be similarly swallowed by time, because he has also has a modest and unassuming personality.  In fact, Cincinnati’s Hamilton has a number of things in common with Sliding Billy of yesteryear.

There is the name, of course.  There is also the demeanor.  The current Hamilton is polite and gracious, never allowing the notoriety of the moment go to his head.  He works hard and mostly lets his accomplishments punctuate his play.

Hamilton Work

Then, there is the speed.  Both Hamiltons share that – the game-changing, unstoppable ability to propel themselves around the bases with extraordinary quickness.  And within that frantic realm is the stolen base.

Base stealing is in some parts brains, bravado, and birthright.  Players best suited for it study pitchers and their pickoff moves relentlessly.  Even then, they have to have the fortitude and faith to believe that they can outrun a thrown baseball.  Most importantly, they need the God-given ability to become a blur.

Hamilton run

The two Hamiltons truly have that – Sliding Billy’s 914 big league thefts and the modern Billy’s 155-steal minor league season are proof of extraordinary speed.  However, what remains to be seen is what the 21st century version of Billy Hamilton will produce at the Major League level.

So far in 2014 – his rookie season in the big leagues – Hamilton has stolen 43 bases in just over 100 games.  He has also been caught 16 times, the most in the National League.  That difference between major and minor leagues has been a bit problematic for Cincinnati’s wunderkind – a 150-steal season in the majors is still a ways off.  However, a likely 60-steal rookie campaign is not a bad way to start what could be the next great base stealing career.

Hamilton is also hitting a respectable .271, though his .299 on-base percentage could use some polish.  At 23, he has plenty of time to sharpen his skills, to truly weaponize his remarkable speed.  If he’s lucky he may even carve out a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the big leagues, become a lifetime .300 hitter and steal 900 bases.

hamilton-hof

If he does, it will be difficult to determine the better of the two Billy Hamiltons. Until then, the nod has to go to the player who did accomplish all of those things, even if history has given him the cold shoulder.  Hopefully, the universe will not be required to conjure up a third Billy Hamilton in order for us to rightfully celebrate the other two.

Sources:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8291219/billy-hamilton-cincinnati-reds-prospect-sets-steals-record-147

http://www.thebatssignal.com/the-math-behind-billy-hamiltons-base-stealing/

http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/birdland/how-fast-did-molina-throw-that-ball-to-second/article_dc42994c-fea5-11e1-b8c1-0019bb30f31a.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=hamilt002bil

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi02.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/SB_career.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/awards/hof.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/R_season.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kellyki01.shtml

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/billy-hamilton-s-immense-potential-isn-t-just-fantasy-165453900.html

Photos:

http://imgick.al.com/home/bama-media/pgmain/img/alphotos/photo/2012/08/-6a9e5636144ab16d.JPG

http://binaryapi.ap.org/54aa8f54945b4dac8b9b3181b24be307/460x.jpg

http://www.fullwindup.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Holding-Runners-On-Base.jpg

http://fromdeeprightfield.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Sliding-Bill-Hamilton.jpg

http://www.reclinergm.com/images/Billy-Hamilton-Phillies.jpg

http://baseballhistorydaily.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/86chiwhitestockings.jpg

http://www.njsportsheroes.com/Resources/bhamilton99imper.jpeg

http://basesloaded.eu/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/hamilton-hof.png

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/King_Kelly_0554fu.jpg

http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s–8CoNqGRy–/c_fit,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/hw63icq8eu9gzvoacgdg.png

http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/5eb299c65c8764aa2f8dfbf89268fc2b746e5607/c=194-84-1713-1227&r=x404&c=534×401/local/-/media/USATODAY/test/2013/09/19/1379603256000-2013-09-19-billy.jpg

http://baseballhistorydaily.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/edd.jpg

http://www.trbimg.com/img-500218b0/turbine/la-billy-hamiltons-speed-thrills-the-minor-lea-005/900/16×9

The Iron Horse and Lesser Men

He knew he was dying.

And all of the eyes that followed him on that still, sweltering summer afternoon in the South Bronx were wide-eyed with anxiety and sadness. It was one of the only times that Yankee Stadium fell absolutely silent on a day the home team was in town.

However, few – if any – of the nervous people in the ballpark had any idea of the horrible secret Lou Gehrig held inside. All they knew was that the beloved first baseman, one of the greatest and most powerful players to ever take the field, had a big announcement to make and it wasn’t good news.

Only Gehrig knew the full extent of the awful contents of the physician’s report from the Mayo Clinic – the grim diagnosis of an untreatable disease he could barely pronounce, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and the hard reality of the outcome. He had two-to-five years to live, and most of those would be progressively hellish. He was 36 years old and had little reason to believe that he would ever turn 40.

Still, when it came time for him to publicly ponder the situation, he said something remarkable. He said he felt lucky. In fact, in that moment – the moment his heart was shattering into a million pieces – he said he felt like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And Gehrig made this extraordinary confession in front of 60,000 people – a dying man giving hope and inspiration to the healthy.

Indeed, he acknowledged them all – those who had cheered him so avidly, his comrades on the field, and mostly his beloved wife, Eleanor.

“I…have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men [alluding to his teammates]. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky… When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.”

He acknowledged everything except his own amazing achievements in the game and the overwhelming burden he now carried with his body on the brink of failing him.

On that day – July 4, 1939 – Gehrig said goodbye to baseball, his heartbroken fans, and the only professional life he had ever known. Yet, he withheld the very worst of it, because he knew that the loss of his career was enough bad news for the day. No reason to turn a retirement speech into a wake. And it had been quite a career.

For 14 seasons, he had powered the seemingly invincible New York Yankees, playing with a brilliant fury that produced Hall of Fame numbers and six World Series titles. But he did so mostly from the shadows.

Up until 1934, Babe Ruth had dominated New York’s headlines and the Yankee clubhouse. In fact, Ruth’s personality – his sheer bravado – steamrolled everything in its way.

Of course, all of that bluster suited the introspective Gehrig just fine. The Babe could have as much of the spotlight as he wanted – and he wanted plenty – because it allowed Ruth’s shy but equally brilliant teammate to play the game in relative peace.

Together, Ruth and Gehrig demolished American League pitching as no tandem ever had or likely ever will. Their dual percussion was relentless, reaching a crescendo in 1927 when they led New York to 110 wins and a World Series sweep. Between them, the pair combined to hit .365 with 107 home runs and 339 RBI’s.

However, aside from the complementary nature of their extraordinary talent at the plate, they were polar opposites in virtually every other respect. There was, of course, the aforementioned disparity in their personalities. But there was much more.

Physically, they were nearly cartoonish in their differences. Ruth was plumpish – almost dirigible-shaped – with only the slightest hint of athleticism, as if he’d had plenty of it once but that it had dulled and rounded into a distant memory. Gehrig, on the other hand, was chiseled – as if from a block of granite – handsomely muscled with a physique that guided his every move with power and grace.

Gehrig even had the rugged good looks of a leading man, while Ruth displayed the weathered features of a celluloid heavy.

However, it was Ruth who lived like a movie star, big and loud and publicly loved. Meanwhile, Gehrig sought quieter spaces, reveling in the arts and education.

In fact, had it not been for the Yankees’ deep pockets, the quick swoon of a veteran talent scout, and Gehrig’s own undeniable love of the game, he would have finished his coursework at Columbia and likely disappeared into academia with his Ivy League diploma as his beacon.

But baseball – and fate – won out. Yankee scout Paul Krichell saw Gehrig play two games on campus, hit three home runs, and pitch a complete game victory.

A weighty contract offer followed, and the Renaissance man exchanged his ivory tower for a rogue’s gallery, accepting the inevitable incongruity of a college man placed in the midst of largely unsophisticated athletic savants.

And there was no bigger rogue than his antithesis, Ruth. While his portly teammate embraced vice with the vigor and tenacity of, well, a vise, the public couldn’t help itself and was drawn to Ruth’s boisterous charisma with Newtonian pull. It was the Roaring 20’s, and the Babe bellowed louder than anyone. His appetite for Prohibition-defying liquor, non-matrimonial dalliance, and culinary excess appeared insatiable.

To his credit, Ruth also walked the walk on the diamond. His game was as massive as his personal life. He hit home runs with such frequency and impressive longitude that the game’s record book became more like a diary than an open tome.

While Gehrig’s drives lacked some of the rapidity and booming arc of Ruth’s, he outdid his more celebrated teammate in two noteworthy areas of the game.

In the ten seasons they played together, Gehrig bested Ruth in runs batted in six times. In fact, Gehrig led all of baseball in the category on four of those occasions. His staggering total of 184 in 1931 remains an American League record. That reliability and dependable success organically led to his enduring legacy in the sport.

For 13 years, he played every single game of each season, eventually setting a Major League record by appearing in 2,130 consecutive contests.

His relentless consistency earned him the nickname “The Iron Horse,” an endearing tribute to his unmovable presence on the field. More than that, he became the rock at the center of the game’s most famous franchise.

By the time an aging Ruth left New York for a final gasping season with the Boston Braves in 1935, Gehrig had come to embody the highest aspirations of athletic character. It wasn’t enough to merely excel on the field.  Success only had value if it was accompanied by selfless effort and humility. And in his own quiet way, he eventually garnered public adoration and the affection of his teammates through admiration of character rather than infatuation with caricature.

And there was no greater test of that character than in the months leading up to the day he said goodbye in the summer of 1939.

The prior season had been atypically difficult for him. His renowned power hadn’t merely ebbed.  At times, it disappeared altogether. He also had disconcerting episodes of clumsiness and confusion. The slow fade of athletic aging – he turned 35 that June – was one thing; sporadic physical failure quite another. For the first time since his rookie year, he failed to hit .300 and finished with one of the lowest RBI totals of his brilliant career. Still, by most ordinary standards, he had a largely successful year – just not one on par with Gehrig’s remarkable vintage.

Something was wrong, but no one quite knew what.

At the start of the 1939 season, it all came to a stunning halt. His physical deterioration accelerated to the point where he could barely perform the most menial baseball duties. The one thing indispensable to a player – his hand/eye coordination – was almost entirely bereft. Although Gehrig’s considerable athletic gifts had evaporated seemingly without reason, he accepted the loss with characteristic grace.

After a string of 2,130 interlocking Major League games on the field, he removed himself from the lineup voluntarily largely because he felt responsible for letting his teammates down with his substandard play.

Two months later, doctors at the Mayo Clinic discovered the devastating reason for his physical erosion. He had contracted a rare, degenerative – and fatal – nerve disease that came with the unusually cruel caveat of utterly destroying nerve and muscle function but leaving mental capacity fully intact. His brain would stay fit while his body died all around it.

Yet, Gehrig was still able to stand in front of tens of thousands and talk about his good fortune amidst being on the edge of a horrific fall into pain and helplessness.

Through it all, Eleanor was there for him. True to their vows, she had shared the glorious days of the better and bravely supported him through the very worst. Sometimes, even an Iron Horse cannot shoulder it all alone. For Gehirg, the renowned rock of the New York Yankees, Eleanor was his rock.

Although it was Gehrig who had to endure the awful physical toll of his disease, Eleanor had to withstand the emotional cost, bearing witness to his agonizing slide without being able to do anything to stop it. She could only comfort him as it continued to worsen, all the while having to swallow her own grief as she displayed her strength for him.

Less than two years after he stepped off of the baseball field for good, Lou Gehrig died – just days before his 38th birthday.

As an extraordinary postscript to this awful ending, ALS typically has a three-to-five year cycle from symptom onset to fatality. In Gehrig’s case, his eventual timetable likely meant that he played at least a full season or two while he was dying of a disease that attacked the primary skills he needed to compete. Not only did he play, he excelled nearly to the very end. And he played every game without let up, earning every bit of his unyielding metallic nickname.

Fittingly, he was buried in Valhalla, New York – named after the mythological Norse hall to honor fallen warriors. Unquestionably, the exemplary manner in which he handled the twists and turns of his life made such a final resting place all the more appropriate.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gehrilo01.shtml

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/07/04/gehrig.text/index.html

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ccdffd4c

Photos:

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/002/313/800/goosebumpsgehrig_display_image.jpg?1339471462

http://ossports.homestead.com/BabeRuth/babe_ruth_02.jpg

http://www.ultimateyankees.com/Lou%20Gehrig%20Photo%20(19).jpg

http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2011/0817/chi_g_ruthgeh_600.jpg

http://www.nytimes.com/specials/baseball/yankees/gehrig.1.jpg

http://www.biography.com/imported/images/Biography/Images/Profiles/G/Lou-Gehrig-9308266-1-402.jpg

http://abcnews.go.com/images/WN/nm_lou_gehrig_100817_mn.jpg

http://blog.nj.com/yankees/2009/06/Gehrig_wife_Eleanor.jpg

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkV5-49JnNk&feature=related

Throwing Kryptonite Curveballs into the Abyss

When the situation called for Superman, he summoned Clark Kent.

As it turned out, the cape was highly overrated.

In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics were baseball royalty. Their loaded roster included four eventual Hall of Famers – three in the heart of a fearsome batting order; the other, a formidable presence on the mound.  From the dugout, the team’s architect, conductor, and patriarch – manager Connie Mack – manipulated his supremely talented chess pieces for maximum effect.

Catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx powered an offense with five players who hit .300 or better.  And it was Simmons who led them all with the rather impressive combination of a .365 batting average, 34 home runs, and 157 runs batted in.

However, it was the pitching staff that truly separated the Athletics from the rest of the American League that season.  Southpaw ace Lefty Grove and fellow left-hander George Earnshaw had a combined 44-14 record in 1929, and Philadelphia allowed nearly 100 fewer runs than any other team in the league as well as besting them all in strikeouts.

And sitting at the head of the table was Mack, in his 29th season as the team’s manager.  He had brought six pennants and three World Series titles home in that span and had established a sterling reputation for leading with a firm but benevolent hand.  He also studied the game endlessly earning him the nickname, the Tall Tactician.

So when the brainy, brawny, strong-armed Philadelphians stormed out of the gate to a 39-11 record in 1929, the baseball world took notice.  And Connie Mack’s bunch never let up, finishing their trek with a 104-46 record, eighteen full strides ahead of everyone else.  Even more impressive, the red-hot Athletics had jostled the legendary New York Yankess of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the throne – a palace coup of commendable scale.

Advancing to their first World Series in fifteen seasons, Philadelphia was matched up against the National League champion Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs, who were a decade removed from their last championship appearance, had a similarly fearsome cluster of sluggers.  Barrel-chested – and barrel shaped – outfielder Hack Wilson hit the ball as hard as he lived.  And he lived very, very hard. 

In 1929, Wilson fulfilled the baseball part of the equation by hitting 39 home runs with 159 RBI’s.  His outfield mates, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson, both hit .360 or better and drove in over 100 runs apiece.  Cuyler even stole 43 bases to add speed into the mix.

However, the jewel at the center of Chicago’s pennant-winning run was Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter who ever played the game.  And his pedigree was spectacular.  A seven-time batting champion, Hornsby hit better than .400 three times and led the league in home runs twice.  Although he was 33 years old in 1929 and entering the twilight of his brilliant career, he could still hit and was, therefore, exceptionally dangerous.  As proof, Hornsby finished the year with a .380 batting average, 39 home runs, and 149 RBI’s.

The Athletics were going to have their hands full trying to deal with that gaggle of noisy Chicago hitters, and Connie Mack knew it.  To further complicate matters, Philadelphia’s two best pitchers, Grove and Earnshaw, were lefties while nearly all of the Cubs’ best hitters were right-handed.  And in baseball, the general axiom holds that right-handed hitters see the ball better coming from left-handed pitchers and are more apt to be effective against them because of it.

So, what was Mack to do for Game One of the Series?  If he offered up one of his aces into the teeth of Chicago’s greatest strength and that ace got devoured, the tone for the entire championship could irreparably darken.  If Mack chose to try to neutralize all of that right-handed thump with a right-handed pitcher, he needed one he trusted enough to accept the challenge.

Enter Clark Kent.

In 14 big league seasons, Howard Ehmke won precisely one more game than he lost.  And the rest of his pitching numbers were similarly nondescript.  His ERA hovered near the league average as did his strikeout rate, and he allowed roughly one hit per inning.  When he threw a pitch, it neither baffled nor intimidated.  It mostly got hit.

Still, he was good enough to find gainful employment in the game for over a decade.  He just hadn’t been good enough to accumulate any discernible star quality.  And on Philadelphia’s star-studded roster, he was the perfect Clark Kent – a neutral face blended almost entirely into the background.

As if to underscore this transparency, he only appeared in 11 games for the Athletics in 1929, pitching a grand total of 54 2/3 innings all season long.  Though, when he was used, he did well.  Going 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA, it had been one of his better years, brevity or not.  And in those sporadic glimpses, Connie Mack must have seen something, because it gave Mack an idea – either utterly brilliant or foolish – addressing the question of Chicago’s heavy right-handed presence.

The answer, he decided, was Howard Ehmke.

Philadelphia’s invisible man took the game’s biggest stage – Game One of the World Series – with the entire sporting public wondering who he was and why one of baseball’s most respected managers selected him over the likes of Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw.  However, Mack didn’t have time to worry about such things, if he even cared at all, because the tactician was too busy doing what he did best – outflanking an opponent.

Ehmke, who did not pitch at all over the last two weeks of the season, was certainly well rested.  More than that, he was handsomely cloaked in the fog of unfamiliarity.  Chicago scouts and hitters had little useful reconnaissance they could use to prepare a game plan, and it showed.

Perhaps, he’d waited his entire life for the opportunity or just sensed the rarity of the moment as it happened.  Whatever the motivation, Ehmke’s transformation – when it mattered most – was remarkable.  The fact that it happened on the road, no less, in front of a hostile crowd in Chicago made it even more amazing.

His assortment of off-speed pitches, which had been the source of league-wide yawns for such a long time, crackled.  Every pitch he threw caused confusion, and the Cubs powerful offense couldn’t touch him.  Strike after strike snaked its way from the mound with a relentless drumbeat.

Chicago fans watched in astonishment as Ehmke, the anonymous journeyman, struck out the side in the third – including Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby to end the inning. 

He did it again in the sixth, fanning Hornsby a second time on his way back to the dugout.

In the seventh, the Cubs put a pair of runners in scoring position – the biggest threat they had mounted all afternoon long – but Ehmke struck out future Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett to keep Chicago from scoring.  The outs and strikeouts just kept coming like a growing stack of split timber in a lumber yard.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally scratched across a run, closing the score to 3-1.  However, Ehmke fittingly brought the curtain down by throwing one last pitch past a befuddled Chicago player, dispatching pinch-hitter Chick Tolson – his thirteenth strikeout of the game.

Ehmke not only made a devastating and soul-crushing impression on the Cubs and their fans, he made history.  His thirteen strikeouts set a World Series record, which stood for another twenty-four years.  He also vindicated his manager by pushing every last word of pre-game skepticism back into the mouths of the critics.

Philadelphia went on to take the World Series, four games to one.  And one of those games continues to live on in franchise lore, because an unlikely soul took the one chance he had to make a name for himself and wrote it into the record books.

However, Ehmke’s time in the spotlight was brief, as it is for most unexpected heroes.  The following season was disastrous for him.  He appeared in only three games for Philadelphia in 1930 – the last, a humiliating 10-1 loss to the Yankees, in which he lasted only two innings.  In fact, it was his last game in the majors.  At 36, he was finished as big league pitcher.

The Athletics defended their championship title in 1930 and had an opportunity to make it three in a row in 1931 but lost the World Series that season to St. Louis in seven games.  After that, the franchise chose the bottom line over a winning line and systematically started to pare the roster of its star players and their contracts.  Simmons, Foxx, Cochrane, and Grove were eventually scattered to the winds, and the team predictably fell out of contention, becoming a perennial American League doormat.

In 1950, Connie Mack finally stepped down as manager, ending a full half-century residency in the Philadelphia dugout.  No manager lived or breathed in the game more deeply than Mack, and none likely ever will.  Unfortunately, his final seasons with the Athletics were a cash-strapped misery.

However, his true legacy is firmly secured.  He is still regarded as one of the great figures in the game. His unmatched baseball life was filled with too many remarkable moments for it to be otherwise – perhaps, none more so than the day he sent Clark Kent out to do Superman’s work and looked all the more brilliant for doing so.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/mackco01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ehmkeho01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN192910080.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws_recaps.jsp?feature=1929

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHA/PHA193005221.shtml

Photos:

http://www.philadelphiaathletics.org/ppp/images/teams/1929Asteam.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/001/576/987/AlSimmons_display_image_display_image.jpg?1321626087

http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/lefty-grove-hof.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/363/065/conniemack_display_image.jpg?1282855809

http://www.providentplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Babe-Ruth-and-Lou-Gehrig.jpg

http://static.ddmcdn.com/gif/hack-wilson-hof.jpg

http://www.nndb.com/people/046/000085788/rogers-hornsby-1.jpg

http://www.theconloncollection.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/300x/da92497cb12e24eee17a0680e01ad935/Ehmke_Howard_007.jpg

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-gmUSA6vP2p0/TvPEYprVcWI/AAAAAAAARoQ/inyJopXiHA0/s1600/Connie_Mack_2.jpg

http://www.chautauquasportshalloffame.org/images/hehmke4.jpg

http://media.photobucket.com/image/rogers%20hornsby%20cubs/runningshoes66/Historic%2520baseball%2520photos/wilson_hornsby.jpg

http://boston.sportsthenandnow.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/FoxxJimmie.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/692/772/mack_display_image.jpg?1296767954

Why You Shoud Care – Player Profile – Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh

Position: First Baseman
Years: 1959 – 1980
Teams: Tokyo Giants, Yomiuri Giants

Bats: L
Throws: L

Why you should care: Oh was unquestionably the greatest player in Japanese Baseball history.  His career home run total of 868 still stands as the most ever by a single player, not only in Japan but, in the world.  In addition to his remarkable prowess as a power hitter, he was also an exceptional defender, winning nine Gold Glove awards.

Above all else, Oh was a winner.

He led the Tokyo – and later, Yomiuri – Giants to 11 championships in a 13-year stretch, a remarkable run of dominance.  Known for his trademark batting stance, Oh was a complete hitter.  That stance, which began by standing in one leg, helped to produce a .301 lifetime batting average and 2,786 career hits, in addition to all of those home runs.

After he retired as a player, Oh managed the Giants for five seasons before being hired as the skipper for the Fukuoka Hawks, a post he held for fourteen years.  He also won a pair of championships while with the Hawks.

As a final encore, Oh was named manager for Team Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, and, as befitting his extraordinary legacy, led his team to the title.

The fine print: The laws of physics should have prevented it.

Of course, hitting a baseball while standing on one leg defied any number of conventions.  However, Sadaharu Oh did it for 22 seasons.  And, more remarkably, did it with such ferocity that he set an international record for home runs that still stands.

For sheer scale, his career total of 868 is astonishing.  Consider that such a staggering number is 150 more than Babe Ruth hit, 110 more than Hank Aaron, and over 100 better than Barry Bonds’ Major League record.  Not only that, Oh compiled the number playing most of his career within a 130-game schedule, nearly 25% fewer games than the Major League season.

Critics counter with the argument that Japanese Baseball, even today, is a substantially lesser product than the Major Leagues.  And the quality was lesser still when Oh played in the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  So, some considerable discount inevitably applies when comparing his achievements to those of big league greats like Bonds, Aaron, and Ruth.

However, that argument misses the greater point, namely Oh’s undeniable talent.  Trying to translate his Japanese stats into specific Major League equivalents is pointless, if not impossible.  It’s not about what he might have done in the U.S.  It’s about what he did in Japan.  And what he did was extraordinary, no matter the geography.

Still, if an American endorsement is somehow necessary – although it shouldn’t be – to provide Western credibility to his accomplishments, no less an authority than Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, a ferocious competitor and notoriously unsentimental towards hitters, provided one.  “He would have hit for average and power here. In a park tailored to his swing, there’s no telling how many he would have hit.”

Greatness recognizes greatness, no translation required.

Although Oh is remembered almost exclusively as a home run hitter, he was a spectacularly complete player.  Perhaps lost in the prodigious gravity of his home run mark are the impressive nuances of his game.

As one of the premier defensive players of his generation, he won nine consecutive Gold Glove awards at first base.  In fact, the award itself was not in existence until 1972, thirteen years after Oh’s debut in 1959.  So, there’s little question that he would have garnered several more while he was in his prime had they been given out earlier.

At the plate, he was a marvel of discipline, collecting over 100 walks a year for 16 consecutive seasons and amassed 2,390 of them over his brilliant career.  That selectivity at the plate narrowed his focus considerably, allowing him to specifically wait for pitches with which he could inflict the most damage.  In 1973, he demonstrated the practice with startling efficiency, hitting .355 with 51 homers and drew 124 walks.  The performance earned him the MVP award, the sixth of nine he would eventually win.

And when it came to winning, few could match Oh’s resume.  He was Japan’s greatest player on the country’s most visible team, the Tokyo Giants.  Playing in the epicenter of the nation, he did not disappoint.  Teaming with slugging third baseman Shigeo Nagashima, Oh led the Giants to 11 championships in 13 years.

The winning happened so often and with such cool efficiency that the Giants seemed less men and more machine.  And Oh’s sleek, flawless game epitomized that precision.

However, lost in the growing expectation of perfection were the struggles of heart and muscle inside the uniforms – none more so than the challenges faced by the seemingly invincible Oh.  Despite the fluidity of his play and his placid demeanor on the field, Oh trained relentlessly, constantly seeking improvement.  Utilizing martial arts principles from different disciplines like kendo and aikido for balance and leverage, he also incorporated the philosophy of those disciplines into his approach to the game.

Holistically speaking, it could be said that Oh was truly as complete a player as had ever taken the field – body, mind, and spirit in synch with the sport.

Inexplicably, for many, it wasn’t good enough.

Despite three 50-homer seasons and ten more with at least 40 home runs; despite a trophy case bulging with Gold Gloves, MVP awards, and championship rings, he was viewed with tepid interest at home and with skepticism abroad.

In Japan, his teammate Nagashima was always more popular, despite the distance from Oh’s statistical stratosphere.  Some claimed Nagashima’s fiery temperament generated more appeal than Oh’s guarded intensity.  However, a disquieting cultural undercurrent likely held the greater truth.  Oh’s lineage – Chinese on his father’s side – tainted him, socially.  Nagashima, a full-blood Japanese, carried no such stigma.

For Oh, the frustration must have been maddening.  He simply could not do anything more on the field to win them over.  His accomplishments were staggering.  Yet, it was Nagashima – albeit a star player in his own right but one from a less prominent constellation – who received national adoration, his adoration.

In the U.S., Oh’s accomplishments, particularly his career home run mark, weren’t regarded with much genuine respect, let alone reverence.  Using the Major Leagues as a benchmark, American fans and pundits largely dismissed Oh’s statistical avalanche as an ancillary anomaly performed in a quaint but inferior baseball environment.

It was a strange reaction from two of the world’s most prominent baseball communities to have towards one of the great talents in the game.

However, whether it was a by-product of his martial arts training or the strength of his natural character, Oh handled it all with uncommon grace and honor.  And in a society that treasures such traits, its lack of embrace of a heroic figure like Oh is all the more puzzling.

Such is the warrior’s way.  Victory in solitude is reward enough.

After his playing days, Oh stayed connected to the Giants, eventually being hired as manager in 1984.  However, he could not guide his old team to a title.  The championships that were practically a given during his heyday now eluded the Giants, their invincibility a distant memory.

After just over four seasons, the ultimate Giant was forced out – leaving behind the only professional ball club he had ever known.

Fittingly, Oh’s baseball story did not end there.  It couldn’t.  Being pushed onto the street by the franchise he had lifted to greatness simply would not do as his final image in the game.

In 1995 he was able to take a more appropriate curtain call.  He was hired as manager of the Fukuoka Hawks and held the post for fourteen years, where he added two more championships crowns to his winning resume. 

And in the course of his tenure with the team, he mentored young players – preaching his philosophy of synergy and effort and molding a perennial also-ran into a consistent winner.  One of his protégés, catcher Kenji Johjima, carried his teachings all the way to the Major Leagues – playing four seasons for the Seattle Mariners.

However, two rare blemishes to his otherwise sterling reputation also occurred while he was with the Hawks.  On separate occasions, foreign players closed in on Oh’s single-season home run record of 55.  And each time, Hawks’ pitchers deliberately pitched around the would-be record breaker late in the season, ensuring Oh’s hold on the mark.

Although Oh denied allegations that he had directly ordered his pitchers to preserve his record at all costs, the damage had been done.  Western critics, in particular, were quick to denounce the entire episode and labeled the record as fraudulent.  It probably didn’t help that a third similar instance had occurred years earlier when he was managing the Giants.  ESPN even smugly ranked the mark among its list of “Phoniest Records in Sports.”

Though, it is curious how the record went from meaning so little in certain circles when Oh set it to sparking insults and indignity when it was prevented from being broken.  Perhaps, it is all about who is doing the setting and who is doing the breaking, after all.

Tarnished reputation or not, Oh finally had the opportunity to shine on an international stage when, in 2006, he was named manager of Team Japan for the inaugural World Baseball Classic – a month-long tournament pitting All-star squads from the greatest baseball-playing nations in the world against one another.

The Americans, Dominicans, and Cubans garnered most of the pre-tournament attention.  The Japanese were largely an afterthought – skilled but woefully undersized, inescapably vulnerable to the power and strength of the American and Latin players.

Led by Ichiro Suzuki, who had burst onto the Major League scene in the US in 2001 and was widely considered the best Japanese player in decades, Team Japan had two considerable weapons to help neutralize their power deficit – flawless execution of the fundamentals and an overwhelming sense of national duty.

It was up to Oh to harness those elements and channel them into a winning formula in the span of a few short weeks, but he had to convince the players he was up to the challenge first.  They were mostly jaded professionals who only knew Oh by his fading celebrity – dusty press clippings from a distant age trying to compete for attention in a high-speed, high-def world.  But Oh’s intensity of message won them over.

Perhaps it was because he knew first-hand exactly how difficult earning international respect could be and how rarely the opportunity presented itself.  Whatever the genesis, Oh’s directive resonated – honor the game and your country by playing with maximum effort and focus, because the rest of the world will be watching and judging everything you do.

Ultimately, Team Japan outlasted and out willed them all, defeating Cuba in the tournament final to win the title.  And in a moment of spontaneous celebration, the players rallied around their manager, abandoning any pretense of professional detachment, and tossed their aging coach in the air with unembarrassed joy.

If he had ever wanted or needed validation on a world stage, that tournament victory provided it.

Back home, Oh received devastating news in 2007.  He was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  In an agonizing procedure, his stomach had to be removed.  However, as a testament to his unfailing determination, he not only survived he was back in the Fukuoka dugout for another two seasons.  When he retired after the 2008 season, he left on his own terms – the graceful exit from the game that he deserved.

Today, he remains active in the World Children’s Baseball Fair, a charitable organization he co-founded with Hank Aaron to promote the sport to young people around the globe.  That the two great sluggers – the men at the center of the decades-old argument about whose career home run mark held more merit – could not only become friends but also joint ambassadors of the game to the next generation of players speaks to the futility of that argument.  After all, greatness recognizes greatness, no translation necessary.

Besides, Sadaharu Oh, the hitter who defied physics by balancing on one leg, was more than a stack of numbers to be sifted through to determine some sort of fictitious Major League value.  He was a warrior and a champion.  He was also a gentleman and a committed student of the game.  Mostly, he was a supreme talent who overwhelmed and impressed his competition.

While numbers are certainly part of his story – as they are with any baseball saga – they aren’t the entire one.  However, if a number is to be used to reveal something about his remarkable career, 868 isn’t a bad place to start and finish.

Sources:

http://sports.jrank.org/pages/3487/Oh-Sadaharu-Career-Statistics.html

http://www.seattlepi.com/sports/article/Mariners-Notebook-Say-it-ain-t-so-Oh-Johjima-s-1286108.php

http://www.nytimes.com/1994/08/17/sports/sports-people-baseball-oh-expected-to-manage-again.html?src=pm

http://www.japanesebaseball.com/writers/display.gsp?id=21172

http://www.amiannoying.com/(S(jnptt1zzqixlj155rrnpe155))/collection.aspx?collection=7510

Photos:

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_dfWsvfeutrw/SOVeLlL2y2I/AAAAAAAAAg8/qR2m6Y4GV6c/s320/81+Calbee+Oh.jpg

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/images/photos2008/sb20081029j1a.jpg

http://images.google.com/hosted/life/f?imgurl=0ad1527a60cc7383

http://www.robsjapanesecards.com/20c3.jpg

http://i.cdn.turner.com/sivault/multimedia/photo_gallery/0804/mlb.best.baseball.players.numbers.0-22/images/01.sadaharu-oh.jpg

http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/media/king0.jpg

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_dfWsvfeutrw/Sc5iSTZ6TYI/AAAAAAAABDY/dDVe2m8DI_Q/s320/09+BBM+Oh+81.jpg

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_dfWsvfeutrw/Sc5h5KN_xEI/AAAAAAAABDI/OsVwql7_1zM/s320/09+BBM+Oh+back+1.jpg

http://img.snowrecords.com/ep/2/11507.jpg

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/05/04/sports/04oh.1.600.jpg

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2009/10/19/2009674482.jpg

http://i.a.cnn.net/si/2006/writers/jon_weisman/03/09/wbc.format/t1_ichiro.jpg

http://photos.signonsandiego.com/gallery1.5/albums/World-Baseball-Classic/NL_WBC_254262x2245.jpg

http://nbchardballtalk.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/japan.jpg?w=320

http://f00.inventorspot.com/images/156464800_6dbfd9b4d6.img_assist_custom.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/288/083/SadaharuOh3_display_image.jpg?1278472155

October Snapshots

Heroes are still lauded and goats horned. It just happens faster – much faster – during the World Series. Baseball time is accelerated to the point where a single play – and in some cases, a single instant within a single play – can define a player’s entire career.

Consider the fate of a trio of players whose baseball lives were changed forever by individual moments in the October spotlight, three snapshots capturing the very best and worst the game has to dish out to the men who play it.

Dateline – Boston, Massachusetts, October 21, 1975. The Boston Red Sox knew they were fighting against history. The team hadn’t won a World Series title since 1918 when a gifted young left handed pitcher named George Ruth threw a pair of gems, including a shutout in the Series opener, and led Boston to a championship crown. Two years later, Ruth discovered that his ability to hit a baseball dwarfed even his considerable skill in throwing it, and he would go on to revolutionize the game, ushering in the thunderous age of the home run. He’d even been given the peculiar nickname, Babe, along the way.

Unfortunately for the Red Sox, he staged that revolution wearing a New York Yankees uniform, because Boston owner Harry Frazee – who was perpetually dulling his manicure scratching for nickels – sold Ruth’s contract just as the burgeoning slugger was was finding his stroke. To make matters worse, Frazee didn’t reinvest the proceeds back into the team. Instead, he diverted the funds into his other entrepreneurial venue, musical theater. So, in essence, the greatest slugger in the history of the game was exchanged for a handful of show tunes.

The rest, as they say, was history. And it was that history the 1975 Red Sox were still fighting against fifty-five years later.

So, when Boston, who trailed the Cincinnati Reds three games to two in the World Series, was pushed into extra innings in Game Six, the cursed aura of Ruth’s history seemed to be winning again.

They needed something, anything, to save them from elimination and another frigid New England winter shivering in disappointment.

The Red Sox rising young catcher Carlton Fisk knew all about the harsh Northeastern off seasons. He grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire – squarely in the shadow of Boston’s generational tussle with its baseball past. So, he knew exactly what it would mean to the franchise and its tortured fan base if he could deliver the promise of a Game Seven and one more chance to win a championship.

When he stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the of the 12th inning, all of that was waiting for him – his New England roots, the hope and dread of the nervous crowd, and the foreboding weight of the team’s past failures. As Cincinnati’s Pat Darcy delivered his second pitch, everything collided as Fisk swung the bat.

He hit a soaring drive directly down the left field line and began to frantically wave his arms, trying to will the ball to stay fair. When it did, Fisk danced around the bases, the Boston crowd stormed the field, and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” played triumphantly in the background.

It was one of the great moments in Red Sox history and a snapshot of Carlton Fisk that has served as the lasting image of his brilliant career.

Interestingly, Fisk’s dramatic performance ended up overshadowing the fact that Boston lost Game Seven and the Series to Cincinnati the next evening. That the eventual outcome of the championship wound up a mere footnote to one extraordinary instant for the losing side speaks to the magnitude of the moment.

As further proof, it even transcended the sport. One of the best scenes in the Academy Award-winning film “Good Will Hunting” featured the Fisk homer as its central theme.

How was anyone supposed to know that Pudge was going to hit a home run?

Sometimes, those snapshots aren’t quite as flattering, though.

Dateline – Flushing, New York, October 25, 1986. Bill Buckner played in the big leagues for twenty-two seasons, won a batting title, and finished his accomplished career with 2,715 hits. However, no one remembers any of that. Instead, all people seem to recall is one instant of human failure, forcing Buckner to learn the game’s hardest lesson – a big enough mistake at the wrong time can undo decades of heroics.

Playing first base for the Boston Red Sox in 1986, Buckner found himself in the World Series, only a single out away from the championship, when the wrong moment came bouncing ominously his way.

Boston’s opponent, the New York Mets, were trailing 5-3 with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Six when they put on a furious rally. Parlaying three straight base hits and a wild pitch into the two runs they needed to tie the score, they put the potential winning run at second with outfielder Mookie Wilson coming up to bat.

Wilson hit a slow roller up the first base line, the kind of ball Buckner had successfully fielded hundreds of times before. However, when he ambled over to get it this time – in a moment that would haunt him for years – the ball inexplicably trickled under his glove. The winning run came all the way around from second to give the Mets a stunning victory.

The snapshot of Buckner leaving the field after Game Six with the unforgettable look of shock and embarrassment became the poster for the ultimate cautionary tale in the sport. You better make the play or it will unmake you.

And the degree to which that one mistake unmade him was stunning. After the Sox dropped Game Seven two nights later, the focus on the lost championship all but won a game earlier was directed squarely towards the Red Sox first baseman. The media was merciless in rehashing the moment, over and over. And they never let him forget it.

Because of the repetitive drumbeat of watching the replays and reading articles retelling the story, it became more and more difficult for people to separate the player from the play. Eventually, there simply wasn’t any separation – Buckner became the error and, by extension, a euphemism for sports misery. For years, anytime any player made a mistake in a crucial game Buckner’s name would inevitably be brought up by the press.

And hero-making and scapegoating is an ongoing process.

For better or worse, October baseball has an eternal eye open, especially during the World Series. Perhaps, it’s the intensity of the stage – entire seasons often hang on a crucial play or two. And the relentless lens of the postseason never stops focusing on the moment, ready to lionize or condemn in an instant. So, every championship brings fresh potential for snapshots, and in 2011, one picture clearly stood out more than the rest.

Dateline – St. Louis, Missouri, October 27, 2011. David Freese had told anyone who would listen that he was just happy to be there. And there was good reason for that. After spending nearly four seasons in the minor leagues and having a series of injuries limit his playing time in the Majors once he arrived, he finally had a starting position – for his hometeam team.

Growing up in Wildwood, Missouri, Freese idolized Ozzie Smith and the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, during a brief stint as a pitcher in his youth, he donned the number “45” as a tribute to longtime Cardinal pitching ace Bob Gibson.

So, winning a starting job at the Major League level was thrilling enough. Manning third base for the team he’d dreamed of playing for must have been surreal, in a good way.

And just when the elasticity of believability and good fortune was stretched to its limits, the World Series pulled it even further.

The Cardinals had clawed their way into the postseason by overcoming a 10 ½ game deficit over the last month of the regular season. In the playoffs, they had beaten the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies and slugging Milwaukee Brewers. In the World Series, they fell behind the Texas Rangers three games to two and were losing by three runs with only two innings left in Game Six (yes, more Game Six madness!).

Although St. Louis had cut the lead to two runs in the eighth, they were now down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth. And everything rested on the kid from Wildwood to save the season. With two runners on, Freese hit a long looping fly ball into right field. Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz made a desperate leap for the ball, but it landed just beyond his glove and bounced against the fence.

As Freese sprinted into third with a triple, the other two runners scored and the game was tied – new life granted with an electrifying bolt out of the blue.

In the 10th, the Rangers re-took the lead, only to watch the Cards tie it back up.

In the 11th, Freese made his way to the plate again and, this time, delivered the dagger that finally put Texas away. During a game in which the lead changed hands five different times, he hit a booming fly ball to straight away center with no outstretched gloves in the vicinity. As he rounded first, he thrust his right arm up in the air in triumph. As his giddy teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate, David Freese’s October snapshot was made complete.

Whether or not David Freese’s moment of triumph will endure in World Series lore like the disparate images of Fisk and Buckner remains to be seen. Certainly, the timing of Freese’s dramatic homer – capping, perhaps, the greatest game in World Series history – will help. However, historical memory takes time, because the snapshots that are commemorated in that album stay fixed for years, recalled instantly at the mere mention of a name or circumstance.

So, decades from now, the name of the young St. Louis third baseman or the phrase – Game Six, Cards/Rangers – may conjure the reflexive image of a euphoric hero in crimson circling the bases with a triumphant fist in the air.

World Series moments have that kind of power. Just ask Carlton Fisk, Bill Buckner, or the next unwitting player whose baseball life will change in an October instant.

Sources:

http://www.accuracyproject.org/cbe-Frazee,Harry.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS197510210.shtml

Shaughnessy, Dan, At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation, Random House Digital, Inc. 1997.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bucknbi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN198610250.shtml

http://articles.latimes.com/2001/apr/13/sports/sp-50553

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN201110270.shtml

Photos:

http://www.angleton.isd.tenet.edu/secondary/hs/smith/web/webs%202010/Boston_Red_Sox/Images/carlton%20fisk.jpg

http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2008/world_series/world_series_buckner.jpg

http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lts4niRjU51qm9rypo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1320996468&Signature=mU3TSu2J7G9hzIvkmRmDOU6zglA%3D

Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg_9FQk6UnA

Sitting in a Pumpkin at Midnight

Perhaps, pining for what was is not as difficult as longing for what never comes.

For fifty-two years, the St. Louis Browns and their fans sat in a pumpkin waiting for it to turn into a royal carriage, but it never happened.

Most Cinderella stories in sports regale that one moment of triumph, however fleeting – that one instant when the years of futility and disappointment are washed away with one perfect wave. Unfortunately, that glass slipper never found its way onto the foot of the chambermaid living in the grand shadow of Sportsman’s Park and of its perennially successful co-tenants, the Cardinals. And no one sat more patiently or deserved that splendid carriage ride more than the Browns’ greatest player, first baseman George Sisler.

However, such was the curse under which Sisler played baseball. Though there have been decades of hand wringing over the notion of billy goats and bambinos hexing franchises in Chicago and Boston, the St. Louis Browns had it worse. From 1902 to 1953 – the fifty-two seasons the Browns plied their trade in St. Louis – their supposed ill-fated brethren in Chicago and Boston captured sixteen pennants and seven World Series titles between them. In contrast, the Browns won precisely one pennant in all of that time and never sipped championship champagne.

Instead, they lost so consistently and so thoroughly the drumbeat of those defeats paced their movements on the field. They butchered the sport with the brutal consistency of men in leather smocks separating porterhouses from sirloins. Still, amongst all of that carnage on the diamond, George Sisler played beautifully. He was a top-tier superstar, a true jewel of the game, buried under an avalanche of misery.

Consider the 1920 season.

During that remarkable year, he batted .407 with a league-record 257 hits. He also lashed out 49 doubles, 18 triples, and 19 homers, drove in 122 runs, and stole 42 bases. The man they called “Sizzler” scorched that small patch of Missouri real estate like few others ever had or ever would. And Sisler’s record for hits was so stunning that it would last for another 84 seasons until Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed it with the rather mind-boggling total of 262.

As if to punctuate his unshakeable hold over the baseball world that year, he even collected a save on the final day of the season by striking out a pair of batters without yielding a hit.

Yet, the Browns finished fourth in the American League, 21 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Cleveland Indians.

Through it all, Sisler played with disarming modesty and admirable effort, nobly unfazed by his circumstances and powered, almost entirely it would seem, by his devotion to the game and to his craft. Despite another lagging and morale draining finish in 1920, there was hope stirring in St. Louis, because help for the team’s resident superstar finally seemed to be on the way. And that hope hinged on a trio of outfielders who were finally making good.

Aside from an odd nickname, center fielder William “Baby Doll” Jacobson had surprising nuance to his game. At 6’3″ and 215 pounds, the burly Jacobson had the build of a power hitter but relied on punchy contact rather than the long ball to do his damage at the plate. And in 1920, he maximized that approach as never before, hitting .355 with 122 RBI’s.

Although right fielder Jack Tobin was the physical antithesis of Jacobson – at 5’8” and 145 pounds, a mere water bug – they both played remarkably alike. However, for Tobin, the approach fit his appearance like a glove. Pesky, slashing liners led to wild dashes on the bases, and his .341 average produced its share of scampering, along with 94 runs.

However, the left fielder ended up being the true catalyst of the bunch. He was a wiry, deceptively powerful hitter from Grants Pass, Oregon and an odd physical blend of his two outfield mates. At 6’0″ and 170 pounds, Ken Williams was taller and heavier than Tobin but not nearly as beefy as Jacobson. The three made for a strange baseball version of “The Ascent of Man.” However, Williams was the most evolved player of the three – power, speed, and high average, all in the same dangerous package. While he had a solid year in 1920, it took him two more seasons to become the snarling, fang-bearing slugger that George Sisler so desperately needed as a complement. And, in 1922, Williams howled at the moon all season long.

Batting a robust .332, the lanky Oregonian led the American League in homers with 39 and RBI’s with 155. He also stole 37 bases to become the charter member of what has become the exclusive marker of speed and power in the game, the “30-30 club.” In fact, Williams would remain the only player to record such a combination for another 34 years. And it took a true legend, Willie Mays – arguably, the greatest blend of power and speed to ever play – to finally join him in 1956.

With Jacobson and Tobin continuing to thrive and the emergence of 22-year-old second baseman Marty McManus as yet another offensive weapon, the Browns were, at last, taken seriously. They played magnificently in 1922, leading the American League in both batting average and runs scored. The moment finally seemed at hand for their pumpkin of a franchise to transform into something less gourd and more glory.

And Sisler, as always, made things go. In his finest season, amidst a string of stellar campaigns, he hit .420, drove in 105 runs, stole 51 bases, and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player. That batting average is worth repeating, .420. It remains the seventh highest single-season average in Major League history and represents a 20-point markup over the gold standard for hitters everywhere.

From the very start of the season, St. Louis cut a swath of destruction through the American League with the fury and pent-up rage of the tormented finally able to turn the tables on their tormentors. By mid-June, they had claimed first place and started to take on the look of a ball club that believed in the substance of its success. However, the one team the Browns could not seem to shake, could not bludgeon away with their formidable offense, was the defending American League champs, the New York Yankees. And New York had this fellow named Ruth who, as the baseball world would come to discover, turned out to be one of the great equalizers in the game.

So, the Browns and Yankees stared each other down all summer long – paupers and princes warily sizing the other up, hoping to detect that one fatal, exploitable flaw. And it was a taut face-off, with only a game or two separating them nearly the entire time.

On July 25, St. Louis finally landed the one big punch they had waited weeks to slip through, beating the Yankees at home to take a 2 ½ game lead. After so many years of being vanquished and having to stare up at their conquerors, it must have been electrifying to finally have the opposite vantage point, if only for a moment.

However, the view didn’t last long. The next day, New York rose from the canvas – angrily. Ruth launched a pair of home runs in an 11-6 drubbing, and it didn’t stop there. Of the next nine games between the two, the Yankees won seven. After the Browns dropped three of four to New York in late August, they were sinking fast. And the sag to second was magnified even more by the circumstances – the season was fading quickly and the demotion had been administered directly by their unshakeable nemesis in front of a delighted enemy crowd.

However, Sisler and his teammates had come so far and were so close to redemption. They couldn’t let the opportunity simply evaporate, but their magical season was slipping away. Admirably, the Browns didn’t panic or wilt down the stretch. Instead, they reeled off six wins in their last seven games of the year and chased the Yankees with remarkable resolve all the way to the final out of the season.

In the end, they finished one game – perhaps a quirky hop or two of the ball – away from the American League pennant.

Still, their thrilling year had resonance. The idea of a Browns championship, laughable for nearly all of their lackluster history, now seemed starkly viable. And George Sisler’s lonely, unrequited baseball journey had finally taken a promising detour. If ever there was a time for the stars to align, 1923 was it.

However, the alignment of stars – or, more accurately, the mercurial blend of fate and fortune – is remarkably fragile, and the cold, hard truth of most of life’s events is not. So, a single incident can trump a multitude of harbingers.

For the Browns, the rosy outlook for the 1923 season gave way to just such a hard truth the day their best player literally could not see straight. Suffering from what was later believed to be a sinusitis – a severe nasal infection – George Sisler lost the one tool indispensable to a hitter, his perfect eyesight. The infection caused double vision and did not improve all year long.

So, St. Louis played without him. Of course, a team cannot subtract a .400 hitter from the heart of its lineup and expect a winning equation to stay intact. Baseball math simply doesn’t work that way. Subtracting a superstar from the roster requires the addition of an equivalent player to maintain mathematical equilibrium. However, finding a hitter of Sisler’s caliber throughout the history of the game would be difficult enough. Finding such a player among the Browns’ meager backups in 1923 proved impossible.

Nonetheless, Dutch Schliebner drew the short straw and, predictably, could not fill the void. Sisler’s absence left a crater, and trying to replace him with a 32-year-old rookie with modest ability only provided fractional back fill, if that. The remainder of that empty space became a vortex and pulled the rest of the lineup into it. Jacobson and Tobin both suffered sizable drop offs. Even Williams, whose stellar .357 average led the team, couldn’t match his output from the year before in virtually every other category.

Accordingly, the Browns dropped nineteen wins from the prior year, slid to fifth place, and finished a full two dozen games behind the three-time American League champion Yankees. All the while, Sisler had to stand by idly as his team and the optimism of 1922 disintegrated. He also had to witness this painful regression not knowing if or when his eyesight would clear enough to allow him back on the field, let alone return to his former glory. And, at the age of 30, he had already lost one of his prime seasons – just after he put together one of the greatest years in the history of the sport. The abrupt halt of momentum and the nagging questions of what might have been for him and his team in 1923 must have been maddening.

And those questions never went away.

In 1924, Sisler was back on the field, but the long layoff was telling. Although he again crested .300 that year, there was something missing in his game. The aura that he carried while annihilating pitching in near record proportions in 1920 and 1922 was gone. Whether it was the sinus infection that had robbed him of it or merely the vestiges of athletic aging that eroded it, he had been pushed past the razor thin line dividing good from great. And whatever faint hope the Browns had in recapturing the magic of their thrilling chase of the Yankees seemed to die the moment Sisler crossed that line.

He played another three years in St. Louis and put together seasons that would have looked good on just about anyone else’s stat sheet. However, within the context of Sisler’s career – particularly at his peak, they seemed slightly hallow, ringing with the echo of his brilliant past and the uncertainty of what his lost season had truly cost him.

In 1927, he hit .327 with 97 RBI’s, but the Browns inexplicably decided they had seen enough. Although he was just 34, Sisler was unceremoniously let go that off season, sold to the Washington Senators. There was no gold watch for meritorious service, just a tepid handshake and a rather firm shove out the door. Business was, after all, business. So, management placed a $25,000 price tag on the heart and soul of their franchise and called it good enough.

The Senators, in turn, wasted little time in reinforcing the ruthless pragmatism of the business of baseball. After just 20 games, Washington sold Sisler again. This time, he went to the lowly Boston Braves of the National League, another historically awful franchise. Between the Browns and Braves, the legendary first baseman toiled for some of the worst teams to ever take the field and must have wondered what he had ever done to be subject to such lousy baseball karma.

As with most of his days in St. Louis, his three seasons in Boston were personally successful but competitively barren. He hit over .300 each year while the team failed to finish higher than sixth. Sisler’s tremendous career ended after the 1930 season but lacked commensurate closure. During his fifteen Major League seasons, he carried a .340 lifetime batting average with 2,812 hits. And had it not been for 1923, the year everything was turned upside down, he would have easily finished with over 3,000 hits. That his big league playing days ended with little to no fanfare on an invisible team did not seem at all fitting. However, such is the hard reality of sports. Happy endings are forever conditional to the unyielding forces of athletic competition.

In St. Louis, the Browns, too, were deprived of a happy ending.

They drifted listlessly through the remainder of the 1920’s and the entirety of the 1930’s, losing more games than they won in all but two of those seasons. Star players would occasionally wander through the locker room, mostly on their way to bigger and better things. The majority of St. Louis’ rosters were filled with mediocre talent, little more than sacrificial lambs for the lions of the game in New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. The likes of Ski Mellilo, Beauty McGowan, and Stubby Overmire – colorful names with pedestrian games – were routinely annihilated by Ruth and Gehrig, Foxx and Grove, and Cochrane and Greenberg.

When an American League pennant finally did come in 1944, there was a caveat. There had to be. The team’s troubled astrology practically required it.

In 1944, World War Two was still raging and most Major League rosters had been depleted to assist in the war effort. Since nearly all of the game’s greatest stars had traded in their jerseys for fatigues, the remaining big league talent pool turned into an odd stew of those either past military service age (and their baseball prime), designated 4-F and unfit for military duty, or not yet drafted or volunteered. This patchwork approach to putting teams together that season left a lingering residue on the results. Although the Browns parlayed one legitimate star, shortstop Vern Stephens, and stellar performances by pitchers Jack Kramer and Nels Potter to finish first, there were whispers over who they had not beaten to get there rather than who they had.

St. Louis edged out Detroit by one game to capture the American League pennant. However, the Tigers were without their great slugger Hank Greenberg, who was halfway across the world serving in the Air Force. And Detroit wasn’t alone. The third place Yankees were missing Joe Dimaggio, and the fourth place Boston Red Sox played without the great Ted Williams in the lineup. Fair or not, it was as if the Browns had waited for the elite talent to leave the stage and then ambushed the understudies for their first and only pennant.

In the World Series, the Browns faced off against their stadium roommates, the Cardinals. In contrast, the Redbirds left little doubt as to their dominance of the National League, finishing 14 ½ games ahead of their nearest competition. And the Cards didn’t have any whispers to quiet, because 1944 marked their third straight pennant.

With the Cardinals considered prohibitive favorites, the underdog Browns stunned everyone by taking two of the first three games of the Series. Baseball’s eternal long shot was just a few furlongs away from the roses. However, there was still a sizable chunk of the home stretch ahead, and the Browns could hear something gaining on them – fast.

In Game Four, Stan Musial, who batted .347 for the Cardinals during the regular season, hit a towering two-run homer in the first inning. That single crack of the bat changed everything. With the lead in hand, the Cardinals trailed only once over the next twenty-six innings, winning all three games. Harry Breechen, Mort Cooper, and Max Lanier all threw gems, holding the Browns to a lonely pair of runs for the remainder of the Series.

Just like that, the long shot’s brief flirtation with winning was over. The Cardinals celebrated in the winner’s circle, and the Browns retreated back to the paddock, wondering how things went so wrong so close to the finish line.

And they never got that close to a championship again.

The following year their spiral out of contention was punctuated by an exclamation point that only the St. Louis Browns could have dotted.

All Pete Gray wanted to do was play baseball. And he did it well enough in 1944 to be named the Most Valuable Player of the minor league Southern Association. He should have been precisely the kind of player big league teams wanted when they skimmed the minors for talent during the war years. However, it wasn’t how well he played the game that anyone cared about. It was that he played the game at all that caused jaws to drop and scared them all away from giving him a chance, except the Browns.

A horrific childhood accident had required his right arm to be amputated above the elbow. So, he played the game – and conducted the entirety of his adult life – with one arm. To many, Gray’s mere presence in the Major Leagues represented triumph, an undeniable victory of the human spirit. The rare skill required to play the game well enough to succeed at any professional level was already impressive. That Grey was able to do so facing the monumental challenges mandated by his physical condition was athletically heroic.

Unfortunately, there was also an unsettling air of exploitation surrounding his presence on the roster – a one-armed ballplayer on a perennial doormat with chronic attendance issues. The only thing missing was the din of carnival barkers.

And Gray hated it. He had hoped that he could define his big league identity through his playing ability alone. That naivete quickly gave way to the realization that his one big chance, his dream opportunity, to play Major League baseball had only arrived because a flailing team in a talent-depleted environment needed a human curiosity piece to draw in fans. And the crowds watched him relentlessly, amazed that he could swing a bat with proficiency and field a ball smoothly. Routine things other players did on the field – the ambient noise of the game – were suddenly focal points when Gray performed them. And when the fans were unable to come to him, newsreel cameras brought him to the fans.

Some of his teammates resented the unwanted spotlight as well, and Gray’s taciturn demeanor didn’t help. For all of their struggles in the standings and for professional respect over the years, they still carried the pride of being in the big leagues. And Gray cheapened that. To them, he appeared little more than a walking publicity stunt who was given a shortcut to the privilege they had worked so hard to earn.

What they hadn’t realized was that Gray paid a penance as well. With every lingering stare and excitable whisper, each slight – intended or not – chipped away at his trust and his self-esteem. However, the further such things drove him into social exile the more he channeled that fury into the game. And if such a tumultuous exchange could be considered a shortcut, it would seem unimaginable that anyone would deliberately choose it or feel like a beneficiary because of it.

On the field, despite early difficulty adjusting to the speed and power of the Major Leagues, Gray was hitting over .250 by June, and his defensive play in center field was exemplary. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable debut. However, the merciless nature of sport is predicated on finding weaknesses. Once found, those vulnerabilities are pressed and exploited until the weakened either correct them or can no longer protect themselves. Evolve or die.

Unfortunately, Gray knew what his greatest baseball weakness was but had no way to correct it. He could time his intricate one-armed swing to catch up to a fastball and could even hit an occasional breaking pitch. However, once he started his swing it was etched in stone. Other hitters could check their swings or make timing adjustments in the middle of them, using both hands to stop or alter those hacks. Ultimately, that difference doomed Gray.

Breaking pitches became the bane of his existence. His inability to check or change his swing ended any hope of a lasting stint with the Browns. He finished the year hitting .218 in 77 games and when the cadre of players returned from the military late in the 1945 season Gray’s Major League career was finished.

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any stranger in St. Louis, Bill Veeck bought the team in 1951 and they did.

Veeck, of course, was baseball’s greatest maverick, seemingly living for moments when he could turn baseball convention on its ear. Not surprisingly, he also had a penchant for showmanship. So, in many ways, the blank canvas that was afforded by owning the Browns was a perfect fit for a free spirit like Veeck. After all, dreamers dream big, and there was no more sizable aspiration in baseball than to turn St. Louis’ loveable losers into winners. But he had to increase the gate to provide the capital necessary to field a winning team.

So, Veeck did what he always did when he needed publicity. He opted for spectacle over substance, hoping that his brand of bread and circuses would be enough to feed the masses. And leave it to Veeck to find the smallest player in the history of baseball to cause one of its biggest uproars.

In August, 1951, he signed 3-foot, 7-inch entertainer Eddie Gaedel, and, before the league could void the contract, sent him into a game as a pinch-hitter against Detroit. Wearing a jersey with the fraction “1/8” on the back, Gaedel stepped up to the plate, and – depending on which side of the purist line one is on – drew the most famous – or infamous – walk in baseball history.

Veeck, of course, was delighted. The crowd roared its approval, and Gaedel stopped twice along the way to first base to take bows. After he was removed from the game for a pinch-runner, the little man with the unusual uniform number received a standing ovation.

Even the Tigers were good-natured about the whole thing. Pitcher Bob Cain merely chuckled. Really, there was little else he could do. After all, trying to throw a pitch in Gaedel’s microscopic strike zone was like trying to fit a baseball into a shot glass from sixty feet away. However, Detroit had the last laugh winning the game, 6-2.

American League president Will Harridge found no humor in the incident, though, and voided Gaedel’s contract the next day. As befitting a curmudgeon of his magnitude, he also attempted to have the diminutive player’s appearance removed from the official records altogether, as if Harridge believed he could actually unring a bell.

Ultimately, though, there was only so much Veeck could do to disguise how poorly the Browns played. They finished last in 1951 and next to last in 1952. No matter how much promotional makeup he applied, the simple truth remained that they were a bad team with a largely uninteresting roster. By 1953, time and money had run out on them.

After a miserable 100-loss, last place finish, Veeck sold the team to a group who moved them to Baltimore, where they were renamed “the Orioles.”  In typical Browns’ fashion, the new team essentially disowned its Missouri roots. To make matters worse, it took the Orioles less than fifteen years in their new home to win the World Series. As further salt in the wounds, Baltimore won six pennants and three world championships from 1966-1983. Earl Weaver, Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr. all achieved greatness for the O’s.

All the while, those who followed the Browns and suffered through the decades of struggle and mediocrity had to watch this embarrassment of riches from afar, knowing that all of those star players and those championship seasons could have been theirs.

Still, for all of the disappointment and historically bizarre moments, the St. Louis Browns did have one rare chapter of lasting greatness in an otherwise pedestrian chronology.  They had George Sisler in his prime, smashing the rest of the league to pieces. 

And that’s not a bad legacy to carry, even if there never was a championship carriage ride for them.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BAL/

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/sislege01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/willike01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/j/jacobba01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/tobinja01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1922.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1922-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.docstoc.com/docs/51138164/Recent-Advances-in-Brain-MR-Imaging

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1938.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1944.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1944_WS.shtml

http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-15

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/SLB/1945-schedule-scores.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/graype01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/page2/tvlistings/show73transcript.html

 Photos:

http://cf.juggle-images.com/matte/white/280×280/st-louis-browns-primary-logo-8-primary.jpg

http://www.baseballdigest.com/wp-content/uploads/George-Sisler.jpg

http://blog.prorumors.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Ichiro-Suzuki.jpg

http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/george-sisler-hof.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/35fca0bc9a9b36333e1122674c090c561e04899b.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=a85c40aef05ba12a8f0510df6686e4c1

http://www.baseball-reference.com/bpv/images/thumb/8/84/34847r_jack_tobin.jpg/250px-34847r_jack_tobin.jpg

http://www.oregonsportshall.org/images/kenwilliams.jpg

http://www.ballparktour.com/Babe_Yankee_Stadium.jpg

http://www.raykolp.com/resources/1922browns.jpg

http://img.fanbase.com/media.fanbase.com/8/15326/6153eb44f999daaf6e412a5ab2d86110afef93ff.jpg?x=175&y=250&sig=41fe1c6d0b09f10168a44fa30de0ce7c

http://theoutfieldivy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Stan-Musial-300×233.jpg

http://www.grandstandsports.com/images/10982.jpg

http://www.nypost.com/rw/nypost/2011/06/09/sports/web_photos/eddie_gaedel–300×300.jpg

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/multimedia/dynamic/00716/Brooks_Robinson_716082e.jpg

http://www.famouswhy.com/pictures/people/george_sisler.jpg

 Videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UG6bxkq5L4