The Wrong Man

Is it possible to be innocent and guilty at the same time?

Iconic filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had a recurring theme in many of his most famous movies – an innocent man is accused of a terrible crime and then spends the remainder of his screen time trying to prove his innocence.  All the while, circumstantial evidence layers around him while the police and the actual guilty party close in.

Wrong

However, in Hitchcock’s world, no one was innocent.  Even the wrongly accused had scar tissue – typically, character blemishes that required varying degrees of salvation.  Beating the charge was one thing; a cleared name with a reformed persona quite another.

Under such a plot premise, Hitchcock would – cinematically – stuff his leading man into a burlap sack, toss him into a river, observe the inevitable struggle, and then use some spectacular backdrop to highlight his rescue.  Most famously, in “North by Northwest”, Hitchcock dangled Cary Grant from Mount Rushmore (or at least a studio mockup) after making him serpentine through 136 minutes of cornfields and crop dusters, staged murders, and international espionage before finally reeling him in – an innocent and changed man.

North

Thirty-four years before “North by Northwest” made its debut in 1958, there was, sadly, no one around to reel Jimmy O’Connell to safety.

O’Connell, a professional baseball player, didn’t need salvation, though.  His naïve identity was as smooth and unmarred as a frozen lake before the first skate.  He only needed to have his name cleared, to be found innocent of his crime.

OConnell

Unlike the movies, though, real-life exoneration isn’t as tidy or timely – if it comes at all – as a script that has been worked and re-worked by a creative team exclusively focused on making it tidy and timely.  No, O’Connell’s acquittal quest hadn’t an ounce of Hollywood magic in it.

A big part of O’Connell’s problem was that the only arbiter capable of clearing his name was an utterly ruthless sort, not equipped with either a sympathetic ear or compassionate heart.  He dealt entirely in absolutes and brandished the derived determinations viciously, unconcerned with the resulting damage – collateral or not.

Another not-so-minor obstacle stood in O’Connell’s way as well.  He was guilty.

Perhaps, “guilty” isn’t the correct term.  O’Connell had, indeed, done what they accused him of doing.  However, what he had done wasn’t really a crime – certainly, not in a legal sense, and probably not in an ethical sense, either.

Even decades later, the argument isn’t really over whether he committed the act – he had – it is whether or not the act itself merited any sort of punishment.

EXHIBIT A

As context to O’Connell’s case, consider Exhibit A – the “crime” itself.

In 1924, O’Connell was an eager, second-year player for the New York Giants, and, prior to a late-season game against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, he approached the opposing shortstop, John Sand, with a curious bargain.

Sand

O’Connell offered Sand $500 if the Philadelphia player agreed “not to bear down too hard” on the Giants that afternoon.  Sand refused and reported the incident to his manager, Art Fletcher.

The Giants won the game, anyway, 5-1.

Although O’Connell and Sand both started for their respective teams, neither did much of any value in the contest. O’Connell had a double in four at-bats but did not figure directly in any of New York’s five runs.  And, even with Sand “bearing down” in the ballgame, the Phillies’ shortstop failed to record a hit in four trips to the plate; although he did score Philadelphia’s only run.

The victory clinched the National League pennant for the Giants and punched their second straight ticket to the World Series.

1924 World Series

Meanwhile, the Phillies were fated to complete their seventh straight losing season.  Simply put, a really good team had beaten a really bad one, and that should have been that.

However, word of O’Connell’s bribe attempt swirled from the Phillies’ dugout to the locker room and then all the way the desk of the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Landis.

Landis

Landis was a humorless, pompous former federal judge from Chicago, who many believed made rulings from the bench as much to satisfy his own sensibilities as on the actual merits of the case.  He had been appointed the first Commissioner of Baseball following the scandalous 1919 World Series, in which several members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to lose games.

His appointment was designed, in large part, to deal with the public relations mess of the rigged World Series and, by extension, prevent another one from happening.

1919 News

One of his first official acts as commissioner was to ban the tainted White Sox players from baseball for life.  Although only seven Chicago players could be tied, directly or indirectly, to the illicit cash, Landis banned third baseman Buck Weaver as well – even though he hadn’t been paid or actively participated in the conspiracy – for keeping quiet about the plot as it was happening.

To Landis, ignorance slept in the same bed as instigation.  That is, what you didn’t do could be as damning as what you did.  Moreover, Landis refused to consider any gradients of accountability – there were only those involved and those who were not.  And when he affixed punishment, he used an equally rigid scale – the scarlet letters he handed out were all the same size.

scarletLetter

So, when it came time to take action on the fixed game that wasn’t fixed in 1924, he ruled on the notion of corruption rather than any resulting fraud.  Because of that, the scarlet letter he handed Jimmy O’Connell was precisely the same size as those he handed to the Chicago players who had deliberately disgraced baseball’s most cherished event five years earlier.

O’Connell was banned from organized baseball for life.

Despite the fact that no money was actually exchanged, the Giants-Phillies game itself seemed entirely unaffected, and the transgression was ultimately little more than a young player saying something foolish, Landis saw O’Connell’s brief liaison with duplicity as being just as damaging to the sport as the seven men who took pick axes to the World Series.

Unfortunately, there were no cooler heads around to prevail.  When Landis had been appointed commissioner, he had essentially been given tyrannical reign.  As part of the deal – made at a time when frightened team owners were desperate for order to be restored in baseball – Landis was made bulletproof.  He couldn’t be fired, his decisions couldn’t be reversed unless he nullified them himself, and he required no other counsel before passing judgement.

Landis2

He was a baseball despot.  And for a bombastic, self-important curmudgeon like Landis, that elevated status was intoxicating.  He drank up the autonomy like a stranded man in the Kalahari who had just been thrown a great, big canteen of glacier water.

With a more even-handed view, though, most undoubtedly see the staggering difference between O’Connell’s carelessness and the massive gambling conspiracy that swallowed the White Sox.  And with a closer look at some of the details and circumstances surrounding O’Connell’s incident, the chasm between his transgression and the dishonesty of the 1919 World Series widens even further, making his punishment seem all the more egregious.

EXHIBITS B & C

Consider, then, Exhibits B and C – motives and mitigating circumstances.

Why on earth would a 24-year old backup outfielder still trying to earn his professional stripes like O’Connell do something as outrageous as offering a bribe to a mediocre player on a floundering team, especially at a time when gambling was so widely condemned and scrutinized in the sport?

Granted, O’Connell’s team – the New York Giants – were in a hotly contested race with Brooklyn for first place in the National League that season.  Before the September 27 game with Philadelphia, New York held a narrow 1 ½ game lead over Brooklyn.

O’Connell, eager to prove himself, might have seen convincing an opposing shortstop to gift wrap an important win as a way to get that much coveted badge of approval.  As for the consequences – dire as they were at the time – history is peppered with an unending litany of young men in their twenties doing reckless things for validation.

reckless

Still, no matter how badly O’Connell wanted to win over his teammates the bribery scheme seems an odd and very impractical way to do it.

First, the Giants really didn’t need any conspiratorial aid in beating the Phillies. On September 27, they were 37 games ahead of Philadelphia in the standings.  Paying a player on such a pitiful team to lose to a juggernaut like New York would have been like rewarding a fly for an intentional defeat to the swatter.

The 1924 Giants were also the defending National League champs, so they understood the rigors of a championship run.  They were a powerfully built team, with five eventual Hall of Fame players in the starting lineup and one of the game’s greatest managers – John McGraw – leading them from the dugout.  They were abundantly capable of beating the best teams in the league, much less dispatching a leaky rowboat like the Phillies.

Rowboat

Also, there was a distinct hierarchy on teams of that time, mostly driven by talent and tenure. Befitting the customary attitude of the day, veteran players regarded their less experienced peers as clear subordinates.  And with such a talented roster, the Giants had a clear division of influence in the clubhouse.  Older star players had little patience for defiant young teammates.

McGraw, the team’s venerable manager and unquestioned leader, might have summed up the ballclub’s class structure best when he told one of his players, “Don’t ever speak to me.  I speak to you and you just shut up.”

Giants McGraw

That structure worked, though.  In his 23rd season with New York, McGraw had already guided the team to three World Series titles and had just captured his tenth National League pennant in 1924.

So, the idea that O’Connell would usurp all of the intimidating layers above him and approach John Sand on his own with the bribe scheme is as unlikely as the need to pay for such an easily attainable win in the first place.  No matter how eager he might have been to gain endorsement in the locker room, he surely must have known that independent and impulsive was entirely the wrong way to do it.

Indeed, when Landis called O’Connell in to give his version of events, he told the former judge that New York coach Albert “Cozy’ Dolan had instructed him to make the offer to Sand.  Not wanting to disobey a coach’s direct missive but also fearful of the gambling aspect of the errand, O’Connell asked three of the team’s leaders – second baseman Frankie Frisch, first baseman George Kelly, and outfielder Ross Youngs, all future Hall of Famers, by the way – for their guidance.

Frisch

O’Connell told Landis that the three star players all agreed that he should to do what Dolan had asked.

If true, O’Connell likely felt that he had little choice but to comply.  Refusal might bring reprisal and alienation, making big league success and acceptance that much more difficult.  Besides, the messenger couldn’t be more culpable than the sender, could he?

However, when Landis questioned the three players, they denied knowing anything.  When Dolan was interrogated, he strangely feigned amnesia – neither denying nor admitting guilt, only saying that he could not remember any details of September 27th.

It turns out, the messenger could, indeed, be blamed more than anyone else involved.

Messenger

Although Dolan was also banned from baseball – Landis didn’t accept memory loss as an acceptable plea – it is hard to equate the exile of a 41-year old coaching assistant who had already played out his big league career with the expulsion of a 24-year old hopeful who would never have the same chance.

In the end, the whole sorry episode was a simply case of testimonial weight – who said what and how much it was believed.  No hard evidence was considered, because none existed.

As such, Landis’ decision indicates that he believed O’Connell and Dolan acted in concert and that O’Connell was as responsible for the plot as the older coach.  Further, Landis believed that the three star players – Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs – had no involvement and that O’Connell had fabricated their inclusion in the plan.

However, this version of events raises many more questions than it answers.

First, if Landis believed O’Connell when he confessed to his own part in the incident and the involvement of Dolan, why did the judge think that O’Connell then lied about Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs telling him to proceed with the plan?  And why would a young player like O’Connell implicate his star teammates if he knew they were innocent?  Finally, if Dolan was the instigator, why wouldn’t Landis consider the possibility that O’Connell was coerced into participating, fearful of disobeying his coach’s order?

Dolan

Though, no matter which version of events is to be believed, the biggest question of all is why was the bribe plan created in the first place?

The likely answer to that is as simple as it is sad.

It was a joke.

Given the nature of ballplayers of the time and the accepted hierarchy of the day, veteran players were notorious for hazing young players as a penance to be paid for membership on the team.  As with most hazing, the degrees of the ritual ranged from harmless laughs at a rookie’s expense to physical, psychological torment of a newcomer.

As an example of the latter, the great Ty Cobb was hazed so mercilessly by his older Detroit teammates early in his career that he suffered a nervous breakdown and missed two months of the 1906 season.

Cobb

Mostly, though, hazing involved variants of the former – the long, arduous crawl of a baseball season practically demanded it. A well-crafted gag that involved a gullible neophyte went quite a way towards livening up an otherwise stale routine.

How else to explain why an impressionable young player like O’Connell would offer money to an opposing player on a bad team at the behest of his coach – and likely three of his veteran teammates?

The very idea of making a greenhorn like O’Connell offer to buy something the older players knew they could get for free would have been worth plenty of laughs.  Unfortunately, the premise of the joke involved gambling, and gambling was the great, big boogeyman in the sport.

Once Landis got involved and brought a stenographer into the room, it makes sense – ethics and decency, notwithstanding – why the architects of the joke would have wiped their fingerprints off the whole thing.  Whether it was just Dolan or any of the players O’Connell named who were responsible, they probably – and rightfully – figured that admitting participation, even as a joke, to the stone-faced Landis could have dire consequences.

So, Jimmy O’Connell took the fall and as did any hope of his personal baseball glory.

EXHIBIT D

Finally, consider Exhibit D – the punishment and its aftermath.

Ideally, penalties should be partly punitive and part deterrent with an eye towards reform and meted out mostly on the severity of the offense.

In O’Connell’s case, the punitive portion swallowed everything else.  He’d essentially been given the same sentence for shoplifting that others had received for armed robbery.

Granted, as a deterrents go, there could be few stronger than a lifetime ban for a minor infraction and first-time offense.  However, the impact of the deterrent wasn’t aimed at O’Connell – the punishment had wiped out any chance that he would ever repeat the infraction.  Landis wanted to send the message to the rest of the players in the game that gambling of any sort in baseball would not be tolerated.  So, he fed O’Connell to the wolves to punctuate the point.

And since part of Landis’ initial mission as commissioner was to ensure that there would not be another tainted World Series, he properly reasoned that fear had to be part of the reform.

However, as a reformer, Landis had his shortcomings in that role as well.

While he exiled a slew of individuals from the game for direct or tangential participation in gambling schemes, most were fringe players at the end of marginal careers.  The Black Sox scandal was different only because of the visibility of the mess. In order to put out that fire, Landis knew he would have to stomp on stars like Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte.

Jackson

It is curious, though, how few other notables Landis expelled after that initial purge.  Two years after he removed O’Connell, he certainly had the chance to prosecute two of the biggest names in baseball history.

In 1926, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were implicated in a betting scheme from 1919 when letters written to one of Cobb’s former teammates, including a letter from Cobb himself, became public.  The plan centered mostly around Cleveland, Speaker’s team, deliberately losing a meaningless late-season game to Detroit, Cobb’s team.  A group of players, including Speaker and Cobb, were going to pool their money and bet on the Tigers to win, since the outcome had already been agreed upon.

After the letters reached Landis, he made some inquiries and deliberated shortly before dropping the entire matter.  Detailed accounts of the arrangement in writing – one directly from the accused – were not enough to sway the great reformer into action.

Either an awful lot had changed in two years or – more likely – Landis had openly shown his preference to sacrifice lambs and spare lions.

There had even been whispers that John McGraw himself was involved in the O’Connell incident back in 1924, paranoid that the Phillies might stumble onto a win or two by accident while Brooklyn passed the Giants by dismantling the pitiful Boston Braves on that final weekend.  Even though the practical joke gone awry seems a much more plausible scenario, no one will ever know about the possibility of it actually being McGraw’s brainchild as a genuine bribe, because Landis never interrogated the New York manager.

And if Landis was truly interested in baseball reform, eliminating corruption was only part of it.  Integration also had to be a sizeable piece.  Of that possibility, he once said, “The colored ballplayers have their own league.  Let them stay in their own league.”

His obstinance on the matter – aside from being petty and hateful – played a critical role in keeping African-Americans out of Major League Baseball for decades.  Not coincidentally, it took the new baseball commissioner, Albert Chandler, less than two years to see what Landis could not in a quarter of a century, clearing the way for Jackie Robinson’s big league debut in 1947.

Robinson

As for Jimmy O’Connell, he played in an “outlaw” league in Arizona for a time, because it allowed players banished from organized baseball (Major and sanctioned minor leagues) to participate. Later, he returned to Central California, where he was born and raised, living a long and honorable life until he passed away at the age of 75.

However, it is in that space of time – from 1924 to 1976 – the fifty-two years after he was sacrificed by Kenesaw Landis that remains tinged with melancholy.

No one knows what kind of Major League career O’Connell would have had.  The odds of any player becoming a star at the big league level are remarkably slim.  Still, O’Connell had shown enough natural ability to attract the attention of John McGraw.  And McGraw had a solid record for spotting raw talent and refining it into productive Major League stock.

In fact, O’Connell had impressed McGraw enough to compel the veteran manager to get the Giants to purchase the young player’s minor league contract for $75,000, a record amount for such a procurement at the time.

Playing for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), O’Connell hit .337 with 17 home runs in 1921 as a 20-year old.  The following season, he had a nearly identical stellar year, hitting .335 with 13 homers.  And the PCL was a high-quality baseball league, often producing players who went on to star in the majors.

As proof, a decade after O’Connell’s graduation, the PCL showcased the talents of three future Hall of Famers – Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Ernie Lombardi.

DiMaggio

So, when Jimmy O’Connell arrived in New York, there was a basis for hope.  He had starred in a league known for producing Major League talent, impressed a legendary manager with a keen eye for playing ability, and was joining a perennial championship-caliber team where he would be surrounded by great players.

Although he struggled for playing time and success during his rookie season, O’Connell saw the field in 87 games, hit six homers, and drove in 39 runs as the Giants cruised to the 1923 National League title.

At the start of the ill-fated 1924 season, though, he languished on the bench, playing in only 21 games through the first four months of the year.  Even then, he participated mostly as an afterthought – often entering games as a pinch-hitter or late-game outfield substitute.  In fact, in 8 of the 21 games he played during that stretch, he didn’t even get to bat.

However, as injuries depleted the active roster, O’Connell started to play more.  In August, he started 11 games and responded to the expansion of his role by hitting .302 for the month.  In September, as the Giants raced to stay ahead of Brooklyn, O’Connell responded to the pressure by having his best month in the big leagues.  He batted .349 and hit both of the home runs he would tally for the year.  In one memorable series against Boston, he collected 9 hits in the four-game set, including a perfect 4-for-4 performance in a 10-2 win.

As if to punctuate his rise as a player on a pennant-winning team, O’Connell had three hits and a home run in the final game of the regular season and, as it turned out, the last game he would ever play in the majors.

New York went on to lose the World Series to the Washington Senators in a tightly contested seven game set.  In fact, Game 7 went 12 innings before the Senators finally pushed across the winning run on a bad-hop single.

Senators

By then, O’Connell had already been removed from the team and was not allowed to play in the Series.  While there is no way of knowing, it is compelling to wonder if having a player who hit nearly .350 in the final weeks of a tight pennant race would have helped swing the results of such a close championship series towards the New Yorkers.

Sadly, like the rest of Jimmy O’Connell’s big league baseball life after September 28, 1924, there are only hypotheticals instead of concrete accomplishments.  If there was any real crime committed in 1924, it didn’t involve a rejected bribe; it was the theft of a young man’s future.

OConnell2

They got the wrong man, and Alfred Hitchcock was nowhere to be found to reel him in to safety.

Sources:
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The Pride of Lions

He couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd, but he could feel it.

And it was enough. It had to be, because it was all he was ever going to have.

Curtis Pride played baseball with power and speed, crackling with competitive fire. He also played it in utter silence. When Pride made his big league debut in 1993 for the Montreal Expos, he was the first deaf player to reach the majors in nearly fifty years.

pride-expos

A perinatal case of rubella siphoned his hearing. From birth, he never had the rich texture of sound in his life. Instead, he had to rely primarily on sight and touch to replace audio cues.

For an outfielder like Pride, the game was made even more difficult, because he could not rely on calls from teammates to prevent collisions on fly balls. Nor could he pick up fair or foul calls from umpires. He had to see it happening – all at once – perpetually dividing his vision. He needed to visually process so much more than other players it was a wonder that he could keep it all from dooming his play to distraction.

Reaching the major leagues – one of sport’s most exclusive fraternities – is difficult enough using all of one’s senses stretched taut. However, to arrive at such a coveted spot missing one such perceptive instrument is a stunning achievement.

So, when Pride made it to the big leagues in 1993, he had conquered what few others in the history of the sport ever had. And he had done so while squashing his own doubting whispers – the only sound ever available to him.

As a reward for his remarkable journey, he received a standing ovation after his first major league hit, a double lashed all the way to the left center field wall in Montreal. Even though he never heard the cheers, he saw the enthusiastic faces and felt the vibration of the applause. Perhaps, it was an even more profound way to receive such adulation, because he felt it in his bones.

However, the struggle to reach the big leagues is only surpassed by the more daunting task of staying there. Although he had proven himself at each minor league level – at times even performing brilliantly enough to suggest future stardom in the majors – Pride had difficulty with the staying part of the Major League equation.

He wandered through six different big league clubhouses in 11 seasons and played sparingly, only once appearing in more than 90 games in a major league season and often bounced between the minors and majors in the same year. His lone shining moment in the big leagues – aside from that thrilling ovation in Quebec – came in 1996. That season, he achieved career highs in home runs (10), doubles (17), RBI’s (31), and steals (11) with Detroit. He also hit an even .300, the revered hallmark of batting success.

Pride Detroit

The following year, though, his average plummeted to .210, and the vagabond’s road through the majors beckoned. Although he never hit higher than .252 or played in more than 70 games in a big league season after 1996, he did draw a Major League salary until he was 37 years old.

But he also spent time in Norfolk, Pawtucket, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque. In all, he played parts of 23 seasons in the minors and independent leagues, a testament to how difficult it is to fully escape the shadows of the lower floors once the penthouse has been reached.

Salt Lake

More difficult still, of course, was that Pride had to try to maintain his hold on the big leagues as a deaf player – something that only two others had ever done more successfully.

William Hoy and Luther Taylor claimed that they were never bothered by a common troublesome nickname. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were not particularly progressive or enlightened times. So, calling a deaf player “Dummy” seemed strangely normal for the age.

However, neither man lacked the smarts, ability, or courage to play the game – and play it well – amidst the myopic thinking of the day.

Hoy made his big league debut in 1888 for the Washington Nationals, who played their home games at the splendidly named Swampoodle Grounds. Although the Nationals finished last, Hoy was one of the team’s few bright spots. He led the league in steals with 82 and finished the year with a team-high .274 batting average.

Hoy

And he played the outfield with aggressive panache. From center field, he directed his teammates – as a deaf man – on pop ups and fly balls. If the play was his, he would bellow as loudly as he could to signal his bead on the ball. If he couldn’t reach it, he would simply remain silent, tacitly commanding one of his peers to make the play. And he wasn’t timid about his preference for this arrangement.

His teammates respected the dynamic, because Hoy was exceptionally skilled and they all knew it. In 14 Major League seasons, he collected over 2,000 hits, stole 596 bases, and scored nearly 1,500 runs. He was fast and smart and could hit, In fact, he was talented enough to almost make them forget he couldn’t hear.

But there was that nickname.

In time, though, it became a badge of honor, a constant reminder of everything he had to overcome to find success and respect at the game’s highest level.

Just as Hoy was finishing his big league career, a young pitcher in New York was just about to earn a badge of his own.

Luther Taylor played most of his career for the New York Giants and John McGraw, one of the least sentimental managers in the history of the game. So, if Taylor wanted any special dispensation for his deafness, he certainly wasn’t going to get any from McGraw. Not that Taylor ever needed any, though; he was an accomplished amateur boxer in his youth and had an undeniable toughness.

Perhaps, it was that tenacity and his intelligence from the mound that won McGraw over. While the pragmatic skipper lacked pathos, he brimmed with loyalty. Once a player proved his competency and combativeness on the diamond, McGraw willingly became a mentor and protector.

In nine seasons with the Giants, Taylor won 115 games with a 2.77 ERA – including a career high 21 wins in 1904, a pennant–winning year for the New Yorkers.

Taylor

Although Hoy and Taylor shared scant overlap in their big league tenures, they did have one collective moment of history. In 1902 – Taylor’s rookie year and Hoy’s final season in the majors – the two squared off in game between the Giants and Reds.

In that instant, the two men transcended their insulting nicknames and shattered perceived limitations. If two deaf men could rise to enough athletic fame to meet on a Major League baseball diamond, the alibis of others for lesser dreams and self-limiting expectation seemed all the more hollow.

Thirty-seven years after Taylor threw his last big league pitch in 1908, outfielder Dick Sipek reached the majors with Cincinnati just four years after graduating from the Illinois School for the Deaf. His Illinois coach, Luther Taylor, couldn’t have been prouder.

And no one called Sipek “Dummy” when he stepped on the field.

Sipek

Although Sipek only played that one season – 1945 – in the majors, he, too, left his mark on the game.

When Curtis Pride made his big league debut forty-eight years later, no one called him “Dummy,” either. By then, perception of a deaf player had progressed to the point where it was merit – and merit alone – that shaped opinions of his play and potential.

Had Taylor and Hoy been alive to witness the thunderous ovation in Montreal a deaf man received for his first big league hit, it would have been that much sweeter to feel the reward for their collective struggle in their bones.

Sources:

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/college/baseball/2010-04-27-gallaudet-curtis-pride_N.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pridecu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=pride-001cur

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/14fca2f4

http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/763405ef

Photos:

http://z.lee28.tripod.com//sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderpictures/pride-expos2.jpg

http://blog.detroitathletic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/curtis-pride-detroit-tigers-deaf-baseball-player.jpg

http://blogbeckett.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/heardofme10.jpg

http://cincinnati.com/blogs/tv/files/2012/03/Dummy-Hoy-baseball-card.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4b/DummyTaylorLOC.jpg/200px-DummyTaylorLOC.jpg

http://www.infobarrel.com/media/image/14357_featured.jpg

Baring Knuckles – 100 Years of the Game’s Wildest Ride

Perhaps, Robert Allen Dickey was inevitable – the evolutionary apex of a hundred years of baseball’s most mercurial pitch.

*May 27 - 00:05*

A knuckleball is one of the oddest things in all of sports. It’s a pitch that employs no rotation whatsoever – a bobbing apple of a thing that flutters along on the whim of an afternoon breeze and is as hard to catch as it is to hit. Even its most capable practitioners sometimes have no way to control it.

So, it takes an atypical pitching mindset to commit to it, because nearly all success from the mound – particularly at the Major League level – is predicated on knowing precisely what a given pitch will do and exactly where it will go. A knuckleball is none of that, and the players who throw it know it.

But they throw it, anyway, because when it works, when it dances along with just the right current, it becomes a mesmerizing, unhittable thing. Most pitches are whirring, violent expressions of physics – the dark red stitches of the ball cutting into the wind to provide whatever darting angles are used to try and fool big league hitters. But a knuckleball dances freely – Ginger unencumbered by Fred; a baseball independent of the preordained rules of pitch trajectory. Since it doesn’t spin, it does whatever it damn well pleases once it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

WILHELM

That tenuous balance – the intoxicating lure of a perfect pitch tempered by the volatile nature of the outcome – has naturally limited the number of those who attempt to use it.

The knuckler isn’t an easy pitch to physically deliver, either. It requires the complete nullification of a ball’s strong tendency to spin off the hand when thrown, so any pitcher who throws a knuckleball needs extraordinarily strong fingers to press hard enough into the seams to reverse the rotation. And if those fingers aren’t powerful enough to halt that spin, the pitch won’t knuckle, instead tumbling helplessly forward – a Little League lollipop at the mercy of Major League damage.

However, an adventurous few have been tossing those erratically bobbing apples since the earliest days of the professional game.

The origin of the knuckleball is as nebulous as the pitch itself. As with much in the pioneering age of baseball, it’s difficult to say with any certainty who dreamt it up and had the nerve to fling that first one. During the formative stage of the sport, with so much to be discovered and put into practice, the impetus for invention was overwhelming. However, the early record keeping for attributing various innovations to their specific innovators was not.

Someone had that initial burst of creative pitch design. History just hasn’t been able to determine who that was. The best that such hindsight can do is narrow the field of would-be inventors down to four players, all from the early 1900’s – George Napoleon “Nap” Rucker, Eddie Cicotte, Ed Summers, and Lew Moren.

It’s easy to picture one of them toiling on the mound some random afternoon; his thick wool uniform, damp with sweat, scratching at his neck and shoulders. A heavy bead of sweat trickles from the brim of his cap all way down the bridge of his nose. As he removes the cap to brush the moisture from his face, he pauses and grins – a great, big toothy smile pushing the corners of his chapped lips upward.

He takes a look at the baseball in his hand – the cover of the ball tinged nearly mahogany with an amalgam of dirt, tobacco juice, and saliva smeared across its surface – and the idea just unfolds, a spontaneous parachute of a notion, floating easily in his mind. His fingers reflexively follow the mental picture and curl around the baseball – two of them bent at the knuckle with the tips pressed hard into the seams.

Cicotte Knuckle Grip

His crooked smile widens, because he has no earthly expectation of what the ball will do once he releases it. So, he contorts himself into an elaborate windup – hands thrown behind his head, leg kicked high in the air, and arm swept forward in a wide arc – and throws the new pitch with the unconventional grip, as eager to see the outcome of his invention as he is fearful of being made a fool.

The batter, umpire, and catcher all freeze momentarily; transfixed by the jagged movement of the ball as if a juggling pin had been thrown from the mound instead of a baseball. The pitch swoops across the plate untouched – the hitter still too confused to move his bat – and slaps awkwardly into the catcher’s rounded mitt; the crisp, pop of the glove serving as the customary slap on the rear of a newborn.

The beaming inventor receives the ball back from his puzzled teammate and quickly fashions his fingers to throw the freshly minted creation again – the next in what will eventually be thousands more thrown on a myriad of diamonds over the next century.

As for the founding fathers of the unusual new pitch, they led professional careers as varied as the shimmy of their co-creation.

Of the four, Cicotte lasted the longest, building a robust career that stretched 14 seasons and included over 200 wins. He threw the knuckleball so often and with such success that he was known around the league as “Knuckles.” He also fell the furthest.

After winning a league-high 29 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1919, he willingly played a central role in the biggest scandal in the history of professional sports. Cicotte demanded and received $10,000 from gamblers to lose the games he started in the World Series that year. After that, little else was ever remembered of the early knuckleballing star except for his tainted baseball soul.

Cicotte

Years later, when the edges of his betrayal had dulled in the public lexicon, Cicotte demurred taking credit for the knuckler. Instead, he insisted that Summers had refined the pitch while the two were minor league teammates in Indianapolis in 1906, and readied it for production in the big leagues.

Summers, a descendant of the Native American Kickapoo tribe, made a spectacular Major League debut in 1908, winning 24 games for the Detroit Tigers. A year later, he won another 19 games, all the while tossing his mischievous new pitch. And he may well have surpassed Cicotte – less the bartered dignity – as a successful moundsman if rheumatism hadn’t forced him from the field after just five years in the majors.

Summers

The third claimant in the knuckleball creation saga, Rucker, was also a minor league teammate of Cicotte. However, the two shared a clubhouse in Augusta in 1905 – a year before Cicotte ever met Summers. And Rucker reached the big leagues in 1907, also a year before Summers’ splashy debut in Detroit. Whether he threw a knuckleball from the very start or if he – not Summers – conjured up the devilish new pitch is hidden in the whispers of time.

Rucker

What is known is that in ten seasons with Brooklyn of the National League, Rucker won 134 games, threw a nasty knuckleball in many of them, and had a hand in introducing it to the big leagues – even if his old minor league teammate didn’t think so.

As for Moren, he toiled for six uneventful seasons in the majors, losing nine more games than he won during that span. His modest career record of 48-57 undoubtedly would have been lost to time, except for a New York Press article from 1908 proclaiming Moren as the originator of the knuckler – Moren’s lone tether to advent of the pitch.

No matter which of the quartet actually invented the thing, the knuckleball was, indeed, let loose on the world and snaked its way across the game’s history through a variety of interesting conduits.

Eddie Rommel won 27 games in 1922, became Connie Mack’s pitching ombudsman in Philadelphia – starting and relieving to suit his manager’s whims, and then umpired for 22 years after he retired from the mound. Jesse Haines and Fred Fitzsimmons each pitched for 19 seasons during the 1920’s and 30’s and notched over 200 career wins apiece. Haines was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, Fitzsimmons – who rarely pushed away from the dinner table until entirely sated earning the unfortunate nickname “Fat Freddie” – was not.

Hoyt Wilhelm spent ten years trying to get a chance in the majors. But once he did in 1952, he stayed there – for 21 seasons. He threw his maddening, dancing knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49 years old – a skinny old man with a soothing Southern drawl who nearly single-handedly kept the game’s most curious pitch relevant for over two decades.

Wilhelm

Two brothers from Bridgeport, Ohio – Joe and Phil Niekro – pitched in the majors for 46 years between them, becoming synonymous with the knuckleball. More than that, the brothers became proud advocates for the pitch – a pair of knuckleball godfathers who counseled any young player who wanted advice on how to throw it. Collectively, their credibility was sterling – they combined to win 539 games in the big leagues from the 1960’s through the 80’s, with Phil earning 318 of them en route to the Hall of Fame.

Niekros

And it was Phil, ready with knuckleball wisdom even in retirement, who received a phone call in 2008 from a young pitcher in Seattle struggling to find his professional identity.

R.A. Dickey turned 33 that year and had just drifted through his sixth listless season in the majors. In fact, the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners had engaged in a sort of reverse tug of war over him prior to the 2008 season. The two teams swapped him back and forth three times in the off season before he spent the year in Seattle, only to have a tepid stay there.

So, when Dickey turned to the godfather for help, Niekro was happy to pass the baton which had traveled from Kickapoo Ed Summers to Fat Freddie and then to him and his brother.

With Niekro’s guidance and encouragement, Dickey learned to refine his knuckler – the pitcher like the pitch, a work in progress. In 2009, the Twins signed him as a free agent, pulling him back yet again. After an utterly average season, mostly as a reliever, he became a free agent and signed with the New York Mets.

However, there were signs that Dickey was developing a genuine aptitude for the knuckler. His year with the Twins marked the third straight season his ERA dropped. In fact, it had fallen to a respectably pedestrian 4.62.

Even more encouraging was that Dickey had learned to throw his variation of the pitch at over 80 miles per hour – a hard, heavy thing, full of sharp elbows of movement. It was, in fact, such a big contrast to the traditional knuckler – a meandering cork that rarely broke the speed limit on most interstates – that it almost begged a new classification.

At its essence, though, it was still a knuckleball; and by 2010, Dickey had learned to throw it with an uncanny level of confidence and control. He earned a spot in New York’s starting rotation that year, won 11 games, and lowered his ERA to a stingy 2.84.

In 2012, the evolutionary tumblers finally fell into place. Dickey used his turbo-charged knuckler to dazzle the baseball world. He won 20 games, led the National League in strikeouts with 230, walked only 54 – unheard of for a knuckleballer – and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher.

RA Dickey

He was so good, in fact, that during one particularly jaw dropping stretch he threw consecutive one-hitters with 25 strikeouts and just two walks spread across the two games.

And just like that, R.A. Dickey has become the perfect torchbearer of the knuckleball. What started as a whimsical germ of an idea on some lazy afternoon over a century ago has – thanks to Dickey – morphed into a legitimate weapon on the diamond. And the chain of caretakers often ridiculed for throwing what was perceived as a gimmick – a cheap gadget viewed by some as disingenuous to hard-nosed competition – can take a bow for guiding the pitch all the way to the point where a player desperate for professional salvation found it waiting for him.

Perhaps, it was inevitable. After all, the knuckleball has survived its own murky beginning and a century of dismissal and disrespect for a reason. When it’s right, it can do what few other pitches in the game can – frustrate hitters to the point of embarrassment. All the pitch needed was the steady hand of a player who could throw it with enough speed and stillness to chase away some of its capriciousness.

That it found the hand of Robert Allen Dickey, who just may have found a way to throw the best knuckleball in history, is an evolutionary marriage made from decades of trying, adapting, and waiting for the right combination of pluck and proficiency to come along.

Somewhere, even Knuckles Cicotte is smiling.

Sources:

Neyer, Rob and James, Bill, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches”, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2004.

Asinof, Eliot, “Eight Men Out”, Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, New York, New York, 1963.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/morenle01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/summeed01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruckena01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/n/niekrph01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dicker.01.shtml

http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120613&content_id=33269906&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

Photos:

http://l2.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/CGlG4OKHvVQWH6KtYS.Xkg–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7cT04NQ–/http://media.zenfs.com/en/blogs/sptusmlbexperts/AP120629142932.jpg

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http://bioproj.sabr.org/bp_ftp/images/WilhelmHoyt1954.jpg

http://90feetofperfection.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/phil-joe-niekro.jpeg

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http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.449633!/img/httpImage/image.jpg

Big Enough

For weeks, Sergio Romo told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t sure if he was big enough for the moment.

Turns out, the moment wasn’t nearly big enough for him.

With the 2012 World Series on the line, the exuberant, eyelash of a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants needed one more strike to bring a championship title to his team. However, he needed to push that final pitch past the most intimidating hitter on the planet, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown.

After teasing Cabrera with a procession of sliders bending like elbows of macaroni, Romo summoned his resolve – and all 170 pounds of his lean body mass – and threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch that barreled into the most dangerous part of a right-handed power hitter’s swing – precisely the kind of pitch an accomplished slugger like Cabrera routinely turned into loud headlines.

Under the circumstances, though, it may have been the last thing in the world Cabrera expected to see from his whipcord-thin adversary. So, Romo threw it – threw it with the cool of a safecracker and the conviction of a drill sergeant.

The most vulnerable pitch in the game went directly into the teeth of the most dangerous swing in the sport…and went completely untouched. Cabrera’s bat never moved – as if rusted to his beefy shoulder – and Romo’s iron nerves were rewarded with a happy mob of teammates racing each other to reach their self-effacing savior.

In the end, the moments – and there were plenty of them during an inexplicably magical season – were never too big for any of them. The 2012 San Francisco Giants answered every critic, cleared every hurdle, and conquered every doubt on their way to a second World Series triumph in three years. And they did so with the kind of unshakeable resolve and affable unity representing the truest qualities of the team concept.

A Major League roster contains twenty-five players, and the Giants used every last one of them to find ways to win often enough and timely enough to push past every other team in the sport. Each player left a distinct set of fingerprints on the championship season – twenty-five pairs of hands helping to lift the World Series trophy and carry it back to San Francisco.

And they came from everywhere, landing on the Giants’ roster as if carried by a serendipitous tide.

They came from Dotham, Alabama – like Matt Cain, the sturdy starting pitcher who opened the All-Star Game less than a month after throwing the first perfect game in franchise history. In the playoffs, the Giants relied on him to propel them forward in the deciding game of each round, which he did dutifully and doggedly, somehow squashing the pressure of the moment to answer the call every time.

They came from San Felipe, Venezuela – like Marco Scutaro, who started the year with the Colorado Rockies, his fifth team in eleven big league seasons, and drifted to the Giants at the trade deadline in a deal that barely registered amidst higher profile swaps. But the veteran second baseman wasted little time in being noticed. For a player who spent his entire career doing everything well but nothing great, Scutaro was spectacular from the moment he put on a San Francisco uniform. In 61 games with the Giants, he hit .362. And he carried his torrid hitting into the playoffs, peppering St. Louis with 14 hits over seven games of the National League Championship Series – a journeyman who finally found purpose in the journey.

They also came from nearby Carabobo, Venezuela – like Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s cherubic third baseman, whose unlikely agility earned him the affectionate nickname, “King Fu Panda.” Moreover, Sandoval’s endearing naiveté and buoyant personality brought smiles to fans and teammates all season.

But he was more than just a source of cheerfulness. His slashing, unpredictable approach at the plate produced moments of wonder – none bigger than the three thunderous home runs he hit in the opening game of the World Series en route to being named MVP of the Fall Classic.

They came from Atglen, Pennsylvania – llike Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched across three continents and through major arm surgery to get one last shot in the big leagues. At 35, he didn’t waste it, either. Starting three of the biggest games of his life for the Giants in the playoffs, Vogelsong was superb in each. And San Francisco won them all – in Cincinnati with elimination looming, in San Francisco against the Cardinals with the season again on the line, and in Detroit with a title inching closer. Through it all, Vogelsong allowed just three runs in over 24 innings of work.

They came from Leesburg, Georgia – like Buster Posey, the team’s phenomenal young catcher who missed nearly all of the 2011 season with a horrific ankle injury but came thundering back with a likely MVP year in 2012. Despite having less than three years of big league experience, Posey’s remarkable poise and knowledge of the game commanded respect in the locker room and on the field. Behind the plate, his extraordinary insight into pitch selection earned the unwavering confidence of a pitching staff that excelled when the stakes were greatest. He was also the anchor on offense, the hitter opposing teams justifiably feared the most in the Giants’ lineup. His grand slam off of Mat Latos in the deciding game against Cincinnati provided San Francisco’s final margin of victory in that playoff round and was one of the biggest swings of the bat in the entire postseason.

They came from Las Vegas, Nevada – like Barry Zito, who signed one of baseball’s biggest contracts in 2007 but had delivered a litany of disappointment and misery from the mound ever since. In fact, Zito’s San Francisco legacy deteriorated to such low ebb that his name alone prompted derision and bitterness from fans.

So, when he took the mound against the Cardinals in the league championship series and with the Giants needing to win yet again to stay alive, few believed Zito could save them. But he did. He pitched brilliantly, shutting St. Louis out for almost eight innings – nearly restoring his reputation in one magical night. As if to finish the restoration job, Zito outpitched Detroit’s fire-breathing ace Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series, an 8-3 San Francisco victory.

They came from Fort Worth, Texas – like Hunter Pence, a gangly but powerful outfielder who, like Marco Scutaro, arrived in San Francisco at the trade deadline. But unlike Scutaro, Pence came to the team with sizeable expectations and initially struggled to meet any of them. Although he did produce enough timely hits to drive in 45 runs in 59 regular season games for the Giants, his true impact came right before a playoff game in Cincinnati. After losing two important games to the Reds, Pence tried to rally his deflated teammates. With evangelical zeal, he implored that “no matter what happens we must not give in. We owe it to each other, play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.” His fiery plea turned out to be the rallying point they needed to push past Cincinnati and keep tomorrows appearing on their postseason calendar all the way through the World Series.

They came from Renton, Washington – like Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ unorthodox star pitcher who parlayed his unusual throwing motion and outstanding ability into consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.

However, in 2012, his remarkable pitching prowess vanished, his struggles magnified by the unexpected nature of the erosion. His velocity dipped, he gave up the most earned runs in the league, and no one could figure out what had gone wrong so quickly. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Lincecum had offered little evidence that his fortunes would improve in the postseason. So, he was sent to the bullpen – baseball Siberia for any starting pitcher, let alone one with his sparkling resume. Rather than complain or sulk, the former trophy-winning starter accepted his demotion as a challenge. Fittingly, he had spent his entire baseball life overcoming them. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t supposed to be a power pitcher. But he was. His unconventional delivery wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. And, now, his postseason banishment to the bullpen was supposed to confirm a slide into mediocrity. But it didn’t. With his shoulder-length hair snapping and his diminutive frame contorting furiously, Lincecum regained his extraordinary pitching form when it mattered most and annihilated hitters in his new role. In 13 postseason innings from the bullpen, he gave up just three hits and struck out 17. Baseball’s biggest rock star was back and had the renewed swagger to prove it.

There were so many key contributors to the Giants’ extraordinary season that the heroics seemed to come in waves, with different players showcasing specific skills just as the team needed them.

Brandon Crawford grew up just a few miles from San Francisco, likely never imagining that he would become the starting shortstop for the team he grew up idolizing. But when he did, his spectacular defense and timely hitting proved to be the necessary anchor for the infield. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner won 16 games – tied with Cain for the team lead – and played with such poise and tenacity that it was easy to forget he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Although reliever Jeremy Affeldt recorded so many important outs throughout the year, none were bigger than the five he registered in Game Four of the World Series – cutting right through the heart of Detroit’s fearsome lineup, striking out four of them – including Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Outfielder Angel Pagan provided much needed speed – leading the team in steals with 29 – at the top of the order and energized the team with his terrific defense and passion for the game.

Collectively, the 2012 Giants came back – again and again and again. In fact, they pulled themselves from the edge of oblivion so many times it defied all baseball logic.

In April, the club lost its flamboyant All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, to a season-ending elbow injury but used the remaining relief pitchers in enough variations to finish games until Sergio Romo claimed the job for good late in the season.

In August, one of the team’s best hitters, outfielder Melky Cabrera, was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s rule against performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than explaining what he had done and why he had done it, Cabrera simply fled the scene, leaving his teammates to sort through the betrayal on their own.

The best way to deal with the duplicity, they decided, was to play even better without him. In the 45 regular season games after Cabrera’s suspension, the Giants won 30 of them.

Ten days after Cabrera abandoned the club, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers acquired perennial slugger Adrian Gonzalez from Boston in a stunning trade that most experts believed would propel the Dodgers to the division title.

Instead, San Francisco rallied to increase its hold on first place from two games to eight, clinching the National League West with over a week to spare.

And in the postseason, their restorative powers were taken to an entirely different realm.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Giants lost the first two games of the best-of-five series to Cincinnati at home. The second defeat, a demoralizing 9-0 blowout, seemed an emphatic stamp by the Reds on their way to a dominant series win. After all, Cincinnati needed only to win one more game in the next three opportunities – all in their own ballpark – to eliminate San Francisco. However, Pence preached, Posey slammed, and Cain was able. The Giants won all three elimination games – all on the road, the first time a playoff team survived such a stretch while living out of suitcases.

In the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Giants once again lost early ground, dropping three of the first four games to St. Louis. Although San Francisco faced the familiar scenario of having to win three straight to advance, the team at least knew if they could win one more game on the road the final two games would take place at home in front of 45,000 of the loudest fans in the sport. Once Zito pitched his way back into the hearts of San Franciscans everywhere, Vogelsong and Cain made sure it mattered by shutting down the Cardinals in front of packed Bay Area houses.

Perhaps, as fitting punctuation, Scutaro caught the final out off the bat of St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the very same player who – earlier in the series – barreled viciously into him nearly mangling the much smaller infielder’s left knee. Moments before the final clinching catch, Scutaro extended his arms out from his sides as far as they would go and tilted his head back as a sudden downpour drenched the field. Literally and figuratively, he soaked in the moment as an impending National League champion and series MVP.

In the end, the Giants had played six games in less than two weeks facing the immediate end of their season – and had won them all.

In a way, the World Series was anti-climatic. Sandoval’s three-homer haymaker and Romo’s gutsy gamesmanship served as bookends to a lopsided Giants’ sweep over the Detroit Tigers. The team that thrived on tension and adversity all season long encountered little of it in the final series of the year.

Of course, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy probably welcomed the change – his personality better suited for calm and steady. However, whenever the pressure surged or the amalgam of hardship threatened to swallow the team, it was Bochy who soothed them. His even-tempered nature set the tone in the clubhouse and dugout and out on the field, his deep Southern drawl a soundtrack for thoughtful, committed play.

Behind the placid persona, the Giants’ skipper was relentless in preparing and executing his game strategy. When Wilson was injured, Bochy simply rearranged his bullpen until he found a workable combination, all the while getting his veteran relief pitchers to willingly accept new roles.

After Cabrera vanished and the Dodgers fortified, Bochy motivated his team to rely on each other rather than allow others to push them apart. In the playoffs, he trusted Zito and happily accepted the dividends. In the World Series, he used Gregor Blanco in left field primarily for his defense and watched as Blanco made three spectacular catches in crucial situations.

More to the point, the Giants played relentlessly and confidently amidst near-historic pressure, and the manager of the team deserved a goodly portion of praise for the effort.

Perhaps, few embodied that relentless spirit better than the newly-minted closer Romo. Growing up in Brawley, California – a desolate farming town 20 miles from the Mexican border – the Giants’ undersized bullpen lion probably knew better than most how difficult but rewarding defying the odds could be. After all, he rose all the way to the big leagues as a 28th round draft pick largely relying on one pitch – a knee-buckling, gravity-rebelling slider.

Yet, there he was, staring down big, bad Miguel Cabrera in the World Series and then decided to throw him something other than the pitch responsible for getting him to the majors. That kind of extraordinary belief was an utterly perfect way for San Francisco to crown its title run.

The familiar mantra the team had used to stave off elimination in all of those pressure- packed games was that they wanted one more day together, because they simply weren’t ready to go home.

Well, the 2012 San Francisco Giants finally went home – as World Champions.

Sources:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/10/10/hunter-pence-inspirational-speech/1624633/

http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-1027-sergio-romo-giants-20121027,0,6411058.story?page=1

http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/ml/world-series-shows-san-francisco-giants-bruce-bochy-is-one-of-baseballs/1258999

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Photos:

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A Crowning Achievement

It is the one crown in baseball that gets the least amount of use.

The figurative garland bestowed upon a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI’s in the same season – the much ballyhooed Triple Crown – has only been worn by a dozen Major League hitters since 1900.

The most recent honoree, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, earned the distinction this season as he led the Tigers to the American League Central Division title.  Cabrera, a seven-time All-Star, solidified his place as one of the premier hitters in the sport by clubbing 44 home runs, batting .330, and driving in 139 runs – besting all other players in the American League in each category.

In the buildup to Cabrera’s 2012 ascent to the throne, the difficulty of the task was underscored merely by citing the last instance of such triangular excellence.  Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski was the last player before Cabrera to wear the Triple Crown, and Yaz had achieved the rarity in 1967 – a reign of 45 years before the regal headwear was handed to a new recipient.

As baseball rightly lauds the new king, his predecessor merits a linger in the limelight before he cedes it entirely.  So, Yastrzemski’s magical run to his triumphant thrice deserves another look.

1967 is lovingly referred to by Red Sox partisans as the “Impossible Dream” season.  The year before Boston finished next to last, twenty-six full games behind the first place Baltimore Orioles.  So, little was expected of the team in 1967.  In fact, the Red Sox hadn’t finished higher than third in over twenty years.

Even mediocrity was a longshot; triumph lunacy.  However, Boston’s best player was hardly free from lofty expectations.

Carl Yastrzemski had earned the team’s starting left field job in 1961, stepping into a pair of the biggest footsteps in baseball history.

Ted Williams was larger than life, a genuinely heroic figure – on and off the field.  Williams was a Marine fighter pilot, a baseball icon who had willingly stepped away from the sport to fight in two wars, and a champion for minority players who had never received the opportunities he felt they deserved.  And his personality seemed to be guided by the furies.  He was cantankerous and profane but also generous and fiercely loyal, rarely doing anything in life at less than loud acceleration.

He was also the greatest player in the storied history of one of baseball’s most venerable franchises.  Williams, who retired in 1960 after nineteen extraordinary seasons with the Red Sox, owned virtually all of Boston’s hitting records and capped his remarkable career with one of the most lasting farewells in the game.

In his final at-bat of his last game, Williams hit a towering home run into the right field stands – the perfect baseball goodbye.  With that, the man with 521 career homers, six batting titles, and two Triple Crowns of his own, circled the bases one last time and left the diamond for good.  His daunting legacy promised to swallow the poor fellow who assumed his spot in the Red Sox lineup.

That unenviable task fell on a rookie from Southampton, New York with a tongue-spraining Polish surname.

Yastrzemski lacked the panache of the home run hitting war hero.  He was reserved and difficult to read.  On the field, he played well but could not equal Williams’ herculean stats – few mortals ever could.  And a passionate fan base starving for success had yet another reason for displeasure.

The kid with the funny name wasn’t an acceptable substitute for their brash record setting virtuoso.  But he was the best they had.  It just wasn’t good enough for most of them.

Although Yastrzemski had won a batting title and made three All-Star teams entering the 1967 season, he was still cast firmly in Williams’ considerable shadow, and the team limped along, vainly waiting for a transformational player to lead them out of the doldrums.

As it turned out, Yastrzemski was such a transformative force.  He had needed only to mature into that role, and in 1967, he fully displayed his considerable potential.  Flanked by a hard-hitting 22-year-old from nearby Revere, Tony Conigliaro, Yastrzemski led the Red Sox on an unlikely surge up the American League standings.  By August, Boston had closed to within three games of first.

Yastrzemski who had never hit more than 20 home runs in a season, already had 26 by August 1.  Later that month, in one of the game’s most frightening episodes, Conigliaro was lost for the season after he was hit in the face with a pitch.

Without the talented young right fielder to help him, Yastrzemski single-handedly carried the Red Sox to the American League pennant.

Over Boston’s final 44 games – from the day after Conigliaro was injured – the man now affectionately known as “Yaz” hit .344 with 15 homers and 38 RBI’s.  As an exclamation, with the Red Sox needing to win the last two games of the season against the Minnesota Twins to take first, Yaz had seven hits in eight at bats and drove in six runs – including two in the season finale to help Boston come from behind and take the title.  It was the first American League championship that the Red Sox had won since 1946.

When it was over, Yastrzemski had finished the year with a .326 batting average, 44 home runs, and 121 RBI’s – all career highs and all either tied for or exclusively in the league lead,  He had finally proved himself to be a worthy successor to Ted Williams and had a Triple Crown of achievement to prove it.

Although the Red Sox lost the 1967 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yaz didn’t disappoint in that ultimate showcase, either.  He hit an even .400 with three homers and five RBI’s in the seven-game series, bringing Boston within an eyelash of baseball’s biggest prize.

Yastrzemski went on to play sixteen more big league seasons and finished his brilliant career with more than 3,400 hits, 452 home runs, and seven Gold Glove awards.  As such, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  The skinny kid with the odd name turned out to be every bit as good as Red Sox fans could have hoped.

So, while Miguel Cabrera deserves all of the accolades given to him as baseball’s newest Triple Crown winner, a former crown bearer who lifted an underdog to unlikely heights and allowed all of New England to dream for an entire season merits another bow in the spotlight as well.

Sources:
http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/aw_triph.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/BOS/
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/y/yastrca01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/gl.cgi?id=yastrca01&t=b&year=1967
http://www.baseball-reference.com/postseason/1967_WS.shtml

Photos:
http://i2.cdn.turner.com/si/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/10/02/miguel-cabrera-triple-crown-best-season/miguel-cabrera-usp2.jpg
http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2008/0819/mlb_g_yastrzemski_200.jpg

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http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8183/index.htm
http://blog.mitchellandness.com/image.axd?picture=2012%2F8%2F136887266.jpg

Videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_St0-1sGh0Y

A Jewish Tiger and His Misunderstood Stripes

Tigers roar.  It’s part of their nature.

In that sense, Hank Greenberg made a perfect Tiger.

From 1933 to 1946, Greenberg was one of the most feared hitters in baseball.  Playing for Detroit, he let his bat do most of the talking, and it didn’t just speak, it roared – fittingly – like a tiger.  And American League pitchers knew it.  A few of them may have heard the snarl before Greenberg even swung.  Damaged psyches tend to have fatalistic tendencies, and Detroit’s strapping cleanup hitter damaged his share of pitching psyches.

In one remarkable four-year span, he hit 172 home runs with a .327 aggregate batting average and 591 RBI’s.  However, he also played with an extraordinary weight on his shoulders.  He was the first Jewish superstar in Major League history, and the first Jewish anything during that period wasn’t going to have it easy.

Perhaps, if the world was slightly more just or if compassion spread its fingers a little wider, Greenberg wouldn’t have been made to endure quite as much as he did.  But the world wasn’t and those fingers didn’t in the 1930’s.  So, Detroit’s noble slugger had to play the game amid an ugly anti-Semitic undertow.

Angry voices came at him from every direction.  And since he was the lone prominent Jewish player in the game, he had to bear it alone.  When opponents failed to jostle him sufficiently with words, they tried to punish him physically.  In one particularly ugly episode, the Chicago White Sox urged one their players to spike the Detroit first baseman while sliding back into the bag on a pickoff attempt.  When the Chicago player, Joe Kuhel, did just that – swiping at Greenberg’s legs with his cleats, Greenberg had had enough.

He bounced Kuhel off the ground like a quarter off of a crisply made military bunk and went to unleash the full brunt of his frustration when teammates separated him from the dazed base runner.  However, Greenberg’s understandable rage had been untethered, and he was determined to confront not only Kuhel but the entire White Sox team about why they hated him – or the idea of him – so much that they wanted to cripple him on the field.

So, after the game, he followed them all into the Chicago clubhouse and proceeded to let Kuhel know exactly what he thought of the abysmal way the White Sox player had conducted himself – eyeball to eyeball, no blinking or looking away.  And Greenberg was an imposing figure, six-foot-three and 230 pounds of furious muscle.

Kuhel said nothing.  And neither did any of his teammates.

Greenberg had made his points – his backbone was stronger than any of the feeble ones encased in Chicago uniforms that afternoon and that it was a very, very bad idea to test the comparison.

Sadly, he didn’t get much relief from the negativity even in his team’s home environment.  Detroit in the 1930’s was not a place overflowing with progressive thinking.  In fact, one of the city’s most renowned patriarchs – Henry Ford, himself – had published a book called “The International Jew” in which he unceasingly linked the country’s most serious problems to Jewish influence.  It was a marvel of anti-Semitism – if, indeed, such a relentlessly hateful thing could be considered a marvel.

Another prominent citizen of the area, Father Charles Coughlin, took to espousing vicious pro-Nazi “sermons” to as many locals as he could reach and then expanded his operation to national radio broadcasts and a weekly newsletter called, ironically, “Social Justice” – which hadn’t a word of socially acceptable righteousness in it.  At his peak, Coughlin reached 10 million followers a week and discussed among other things how Germany’s infamous “Kristallnacht” attack on Jews in November, 1938 was only a result of Christians having been persecuted first.

So, that was the environment in which Greenberg made his baseball home – the place he returned to after opposing teams and their fans had exacted their toll on his constitution.

Unfortunately, his hardships on the diamond were a sliver of a growing worldwide virus, a menacing epidemic targeting Jewish people for isolation and hate. In fact, Greenberg’s greatest Major League season, 1938, eerily coincided with Hitler’s occupation of Austria and the aforementioned Kristallnacht ugliness.  That occupation, of course, marked the beginning of Germany’s designs on conquering Europe – and beyond – and would eventually lead to one of the most horrific ethnic persecutions in human history.

In the prime years of his baseball career, Greenberg was constantly reminded that enlightenment and tolerance could be slow moving things and that his ethnic group did not get to enjoy their protection.

Still, he just kept hitting baseballs, further and more viciously than ever.  If people were going to taunt him, he was not going to let the vitriol push him off his game.  If anything, he used it to refine his focus, to fuel his desire to quiet them all – like ever more coal powering an unstoppable locomotive.

And if he needed added motivation to weather the difficulties raining on and around him, he received it and more from the Jewish-American community, who adored him.  That adoration had a depth and breadth nearly unequaled in the game’s history.  Other players had been celebrated and revered, but Greenberg had come to symbolize an entire people at a time that they desperately needed someone to be a champion.

And Hank Greenberg was certainly that.

In the prime of his career, he won two MVP awards, led the league in home runs four times, and was the driving force behind two World Series champion teams and two more that came within an eyelash of winning the title.  He had also challenged two of the game’s most hallowed single-season marks – hitting 58 home runs in 1938, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, and driving in 183 runs the year before, one fewer than Lou Gehrig’s American League record total.

More than that, Greenberg shattered stereotypes.  For those who believed that all Jews were from frail and inconsequential stock, that they hid in the shadows making money off of the effort and accomplishments of other, Greenberg provided highly visible proof that such things did not apply to him and, by extension, should not be used as a general context to view anyone Jewish.  So, whenever the hands of prejudice started to push people towards thinking that way, many of them knew of at least one Jewish person who was not any of those things.

He was powerful, resilient, and remarkably dedicated.  In 1940, the Tigers decided to move Greenberg from first base into the outfield to make room for an emerging young slugger named Rudy York, even though Greenberg was a stalwart on the team and had been a major part of its continuous success.  As was his fashion, he accepted the change as a challenge and never complained. Instead, he worked tirelessly at his new position, won the MVP, and led Detroit to the American League pennant.

Mostly, Greenberg was extraordinarily proud to be Jewish.  He accepted his elevated visibility – and the attendant responsibilities – with humility and a profound sense of self-awareness.  Aside from the incident with Joe Kuhel and the rest of the White Sox, he handled himself with exceptional composure, because he knew how many were watching him and how important it was never to give anyone a reason to condemn him – or his people.

When war came for America in 1941, he was among the first Major League players to enlist.  In fact, he had actually re-enlisted.  In his first go-round with the Army, he served in peacetime from October, 1940 and was honorably discharged on December 5, 1941.  The next day, of course, the world changed.

For the next four years, he devoted himself to his military service – four prime years excised from his baseball playing days.  His dedication never wavered, and he never bemoaned all of that lost baseball time.  War had called for him, and he had answered.  It was as simple as that.

When he returned from the service after the war in 1945, he resumed his place among baseball royalty.  But his age was pushing him towards twilight – his brilliant career ebbing.  The atrophy that accumulated from the long layoff hadn’t helped.  Despite that, Greenberg’s championship pedigree couldn’t be denied.  He powered the Tigers down the stretch that season and led them into the playoffs, where Detroit ultimately outlasted the Chicago Cubs for a championship. 

In 1947, he was inexplicably pushed out of Detroit, his bedrock of baseball glory, and traded to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.  In his final season in the Majors, he put a remarkable finishing touch on his historic place in the game.

In a game against Brooklyn, Greenberg was appalled at the way his teammates were treating the Dodgers’ rookie first baseman.  The vulgarities being directed at the young player sickened him.  When Pittsburgh took the field in the following inning, Greenberg was trying to complete a play at first and collided with Brooklyn’s beleaguered rookie.

As the crowd and his teammates hooted with delight – hoping the veteran would add to the neophyte’s misery – Greenberg extended his hand and helped the young man to his feet.  As the two players stood near first base, Greenberg talked to him at length and the rookie seemed to relax.

After the game, reporters asked the Dodgers’ phenom what Pittsburgh’s elder statesman had said to him.  The young player – a fellow named Jackie Robinson – replied, “He gave me encouragement.  Mr. Greenberg is class.  It stands out all over him.”

From one extraordinary trailblazer to another, words of understanding – words that only the lonely understand who have been made to scale incalculable peaks alone.  Like tigers of the same stripe.

Sources:

“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, DVD, Directed by Aviva Kempner. The Ciesla Foundation, 1998.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/greenha01.shtml

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/ford.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/peopleevents/pandeAMEX96.html

Photos:

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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

Head Games – The Tragic Consequences of Pitches that Got Away

Home plate on a baseball diamond measures precisely seventeen inches in width, and pitchers and hitters have been fighting over every single speck of it for more than a century. It is the eternal struggle in baseball and the most direct confrontation in all of sports. And it all happens in a fraction of a second.

Hitters have only the instant from the time the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it arrives at the plate to do a myriad of things. Balance, speed, the proper timing of the hands, the correct angle of the bat, knowing a pitcher and what pitches he throws at what speed and with what degree of movement, considering the count and game situation and how that might effect pitch selection – a hitter needs all of that all at once, all in the time it takes to blink.

Although pitchers can be more deliberate – working with catchers via hand signals and other physical cues – to determine pitch type and location, their key contribution to the game action, the pitch itself, is just a flash. However, pitchers know the inner and outer sections of the plate provide the most difficult angles for hitters to squarely drive a ball. In order to maximize life on the edges, pitchers also know that each edge has a symmetrical relationship to the other. That is, even for a pitch to one side of the plate, the other side remains important, because pitchers necessarily need to convince hitters that any pitch in any batting sequence can be thrown to either edge.

So, while pitchers seek to create pitching angles, hitters naturally look to cut them down, to flatten them out as much as possible. And the closer a batter sets up to the plate the clearer the intent to try to block the inner corner, push pitch selection out toward the middle and opposite edge of the strike zone, and improve his reach to outside pitches.

In its most basic form, the pitcher-hitter showdown is territorial. However, such a standoff is more than just a simple property dispute. This simultaneous claim of ownership – with the very public success or failure of heated rivals at stake – brims with emotion. Add a dense leather sphere traveling at potentially lethal velocity into the equation, and the conflict over who holds the deed to the most valuable foot-and-a-half in the sport can turn deathly serious in an instant. In the time it takes one pitch thrown with angry intent to reach a hitter, a career can be jeopardized – or worse.

Fortunately, most encounters between pitchers and hitters do not remotely involve such dire circumstances. While there is commonly the uneasy hum of competitive tension bubbling beneath the surface on nearly every pitch, most throws that do go astray, by design or accident, result in little more than frayed tempers or dull pain and nasty bruises. However, improbability does not diminish the depth of consequence when something awful does occur.

In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to minimize the risk of potential calamities at the plate by siding with hitters and regulating the intent of pitchers throwing too far inside. A system of warnings and ejections for perceived willful throws directly at batters is designed to blunt the motivation for such deliberate miscues.

Predictably, there has been resistance to the new process. Many purists of the game – and nearly all pitchers, of course – have taken umbrage at the idea of artificially policing what has seemingly been an organic part of the game, especially when that policing heavily favors one primary group of players over the rest. To such opposition, limiting a pitcher’s ability to fully protect the plate unnecessarily restrains a crucial part of the core activity in baseball. For decades, the tug of war between pitchers and hitters over creating and shutting off pitching angles to the plate has involved an uninterrupted procession of hissing inside pitches, hit batsmen, defiant hitters, and glowering pitchers, with little more than psychological warfare and thankfully few physical casualties as by products.

Perhaps, the mastery of the inside pitch as the ultimate tool of intimidation without the wreckage of shattered careers or serious injury was best embodied by a pair of extraordinary pitchers who ruled the mound in the 1960’s with the authority of despots.

St. Louis Cardinal ace Bob Gibson’s ferocity on the mound was only matched by his unshakeable resolve. In his eyes, every inch of the plate belonged to him. Gibson considered hitters who encroached on the inner edge – or even hinted at it – as trespassers. And he dealt with the unwanted intruders swiftly and severely. Whether the ball actually struck a batter or sent him sprawling in retreat, the missive was the same – back down or get down. It made little difference to him which, so long as he was free to operate on both sides of the plate. That hitters were made uneasy by the tactic was just an added bonus. And because his pitch command was so precise, he could send such messages without a hint of ambiguity.

Like Gibson, Don Drysdale had a mean streak. There was menace behind his pitching, and he had no qualms about directing that venom toward the men standing at the plate to protect his stake in it. As proof, the long time Los Angeles Dodger stalwart led the National League in hit batsmen five times and finished his 14-year big league career with 154 of them. His fearless, and ruthless, demeanor earned him a reputation as an enforcer, as willing to hit opposing players if his teammates had been thrown at as he was to spin the enemy off the plate for crowding it. When Drysdale was on the mound, hitters knew he could turn the stitches on a ball into teeth and had little trouble sending it howling at them ready to take a bite.

So, it’s no surprise that Gibson and Drysdale have typically been the first names brought up in defending the strong armed tactics of pitchers chasing hitters off the plate. However, those pining for the “good old days” of self-policing, unfettered intimidation, and everything else that came with the distorted form of frontier justice practiced by the pitchers of yesteryear may do well to remember the destructive force a baseball carries when traveling the 20 yards from mound to plate at the velocity generated by a major league pitcher. They may also do well to remember that Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were both Hall of Fame talents with the rare ability to place a pitch precisely where they wanted.

However, most pitchers do not have that exquisite level of control, and the chaos of a pitched ball gone amok is frighteningly indiscriminate. Any batter who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can have his baseball world turned upside down in a heartbeat – great, not so great, grass green rookies – it doesn’t matter. Once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and veers wildly off course, fate bows to the law of physics. A fast moving projectile will be halted by a solid mass. That such an abrupt and violent collision can happen by accident only underscores the risk of deliberately throwing a pitch astray even without the intent to harm in any way.

An eventual Hall of Famer, a superstar in waiting, and a rookie stepping into a big league batter’s box for the first time all experienced those hellish consequences first hand.

Mickey Cochrane was a natural leader. His white-hot temperament and insatiable hunger for success simply wouldn’t allow any other way. As a catcher on Connie Mack’s great Philadelphia Athletics of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the granite foundation for the burgeoning dynasty. Although Philadelphia’s rosters were loaded with stars during that span – including Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove (Hall of Famers, all), Cochrane deferred to none of them. His combativeness and commitment demanded attention and simultaneously ignited and challenged the competitive fire of his teammates. That Mack entrusted his catcher to prod, cajole, and browbeat his own hand-picked roster into a winning mindset spoke volumes about Cochrane’s leadership effect on a team.

However, Mack’s Philadelphia franchise was in perpetual financial difficulty due to lagging attendance. So, he was often forced to trade his star players to avoid hefty salary demands and garner additional cash in return. Cochrane’s turn came in 1934 when he was sent to Detroit.

However, no sooner had he arrived in Michigan than he was named skipper of the club and became one of the youngest player-managers in league history at the age of 31. Leading the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and 1935, Cochrane cemented his reputation as a star on the field and in the dugout. In fact, as icing, he capped that magnificent 1935 season by scoring the winning run to bring Detroit its first World Series title. By 1937, Cochrane had entrenched himself as a local sports icon in the Motor City and was still considered one of the best catchers in the game. Through late May of that year, he was hitting .306 with nearly half of his hits going for extra bases and appeared to be headed for another stellar year at and behind the plate. In a game against the Yankees on May 25, he hit a third inning home run and looked to follow that up with another damaging blow to the New Yorkers in the fifth. He ran the count to 3-1 and, without warning, the walls of his great career caved in.

The pitcher, Irving “Bump” Hadley, threw a fastball that momentarily seemed to be swallowed by the late afternoon sun and then just as suddenly came roaring from the glare, careening out of control and directly toward Cochrane’s head. The one device that would have spared him, the batting helmet, was still 15 years away from regular use. So, when the ball struck him in the head, he had only his wool ball cap between his skull and the horrific impact.

Teammate Charlie Gehringer was on deck and later said Cochrane looked like he’d been struck by an axe as he toppled helplessly to the ground. For the next 48 hours, Cochrane’s life was still in jeopardy as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, Hadley was clearly jarred – adamant that the pitch unintentionally went off course and troubled by the considerable damage it had done to Detroit’s great leader.

After ten agonizing days in the hospital, Cochrane steadily improved but his Hall of Fame career was over. In 13 seasons, he hit .320, won two MVP awards, and played on three World Championship teams. However, his final official big league at-bat illustrated how devastating a single baseball can be under the darkest of circumstances.

While few players have had to endure the anguish of a lone at-bat bringing an immediate end to their careers, an unfortunate handful have had their athletic promise irrevocably damaged in a single moment. Perhaps, that lost potential is even more heartbreaking than the abrupt end of a realized career because of the unanswered questions left in its wake. Crueler still are instances where enough promise is taken away to scuttle greatness but the remaining residue fuels false hope.

Tony Conigliaro was ready to take his place among the pantheon of great Boston sports heroes. Williams. Russell. Cousy. Yaz. They were all going to have to move a little closer together to make room for a young slugger who was bunching up home runs with impressive density at Fenway Park. His name was already written in pencil on the pages of legend, waiting only for his inevitable accomplishments to fill those letters in with permanent ink. But in one instant on one perfectly placid summer afternoon in 1967, it ended. In the time it takes to blink, his name simply vanished from the pages of history.

On one pitch in one game of the long baseball season, Tony Conigliaro’s magical run with the Boston Red Sox ended. California’s Jack Hamilton threw a fastball that sailed high and tight, and Conigliaro never had a chance. The ball struck him nearly flush on the left eye, scrambling his flawless eyesight like a beaten egg. Though he would eventually recover from the beaning, his eyesight would never be the same and his chances at baseball immortality went with it.

And so it was. Tony C, the local kid from Revere, Massachusetts who made good, the right-handed hitting phenom who hit 24 homers in 1964 at the age of 19, and the All-Star right fielder who was supposed to bookend with Carl Yastrzemski for the next decade and give the Sox the most feared lefty-righty punch in the league was essentially done before his 23rd birthday.

He did make it back to the big leagues in 1969 and hit 20 homers. He followed that up with 36 more the following season, a true triumph considering the toll it must have taken on his psyche to step back into the batter’s box and face his greatest demon – the pitched ball. However, the baseball gods simply wouldn’t give him a break, his eyesight, which had cleared enough to allow him back into the big leagues, went for good in 1971. Another comeback in 1975 ended disastrously and at 30 years old, the game had dispatched Tony C for good.

Sometimes, a baseball doesn’t even wait for a player’s big league clock to really start ticking.

A hitter’s first Major League at-bat is the Holy Grail of his professional career. After all, scores of hopefuls seek it, few find it, and fewer still build longevity and legend from it. However, those who do reach that apex never forget it, because that first official big league moment is the culmination of arduous labor and a lifelong love, the joyful intersection of toil and talent. Imagine, though, the cruelty of having that anticipation, built on years of dreams and evolution, evaporate in a noisy, dizzying moment of bedlam.

Adam Greenberg understood, above all else, the value of maximizing his resources. There were more naturally gifted prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in 2005. However, few of them gave more effort or utilized their baseball strengths as constructively as the 24-year-old outfielder.

On July 9, the stars guiding Greenberg’s baseball future rose over Miami. He had been promoted from Double-A West Tennessee a day earlier and was in the Chicago dugout that evening wearing a crisp new big league uniform, awaiting a chance – the moment he’d been preparing for his entire life – to step onto a Major League diamond and etch his name into baseball’s most exclusive roll call. As befitting the pomp of a commencement, Greenberg’s family had flown in to attend the game.

In the ninth inning against Florida with the Cubs leading 4-2, Adam Greenberg graduated. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter and surveyed the scene – one out, flame throwing lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound, and home plate beckoning dreamlike but as real as the crackling dirt under his cleats. As he sunk his feet into the batter’s box – a Major League batter’s box, the thought must have surely entered his mind that his chance to do something great with that first big league pitch was nearly at hand.

It probably seemed like an optical illusion at first. The ball appeared to be chasing him. Rather than focusing on the natural litany of items to hit a baseball, Greenberg had to convert aggression to evasion in an instant. And it was like trying to outrun a runaway train – everywhere and overwhelming to the senses, all at once – giving way to the horrible realization that a collision was inevitable. As the blur of white leather and red stitching ominously zeroed in on him, Greenberg managed to turn his head at the last moment and the ball glanced off of the back of his helmet and struck him fiercely on the neck.

He later recalled gripping his head as tightly as possible, because he thought it was about to split open.

The force of the blow knocked his helmet – the piece of material salvation unavailable to Mickey Cochrane seventy years earlier – off, and the rookie wilted to the soil. A horrible stillness settled into the venue. The pitcher, Santos, was mortified. He had no desire or reason to knock down the young hitter, let alone cause serious injury. Greenberg’s family was inconsolable, their moment of shared happiness turned so profoundly ugly. And Greenberg, himself, was trying to quiet the thunder clap rippling through his central nervous system and summon the courage to get back on his feet.

Fortunately, the pain was temporary. However, dizziness and headaches lingered, unwelcome souvenirs of his sour debut. Within a couple of weeks, though, he was back on the ball field again. In West Tennessee.

To date, he has yet to play in another Major League game. So, his lone experience as a big leaguer is an uneasy dichotomy of the best and worst things to ever happen to him in the game and a constant reminder of the chasm between what might have been and what was.

However, the blackest day in baseball history occurred in 1920 when a perfect storm formed over the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and the plate at the Polo Grounds in New York. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the eye of that maelstrom.

Chapman was a genial sort, well-liked by his peers, beloved by his teammates, and respected by all for his hard nosed play and his devotion to his team. He was also a productive player, batting .300 or better in two of the three years leading up to the 1920 campaign and, at 29, had several more useful seasons ahead of him. His ballclub, the Cleveland Indians, were one of the better collectives in the American League, finishing second in 1919 and again vying for the pennant in 1920.

Cleveland was an efficient team, they hummed with solidarity. Befitting their leader, Tris Speaker – one of the greatest combinations of speed, batting, and defense to ever take the field – they all understood the importance of outsmarting and outplaying their opponents. And, perhaps none of them grasped the concept better than the Indians’ versatile shortstop. Bunting is one of the least glamorous activities in the sport, but Cleveland’s game plan required it, lots of it. In 1920, they would go on to lead the majors in runs scored, chiefly because they also led the big leagues in sacrifices and walks. Put runners on, move them over, and allow the heart of the order to drive them home. It is a simple, time-honored philosophy but few have the patience and will to execute it.

So, Chapman, the reigning American League leader in sacrifices and the pace setter for the 1920 season, was the point man for arranging Cleveland’s chess pieces on the board to their liking. He was one of the most skilled bunters in the game and could place them virtually anywhere on the field that he wished, moving runners along or bunting for hits himself with impressive ease.

However, Chapman’s vocation also carried risk. He liked to practically hover over the plate during his at-bats to see the ball better and give him the best bunting angle possible. So, he had to rely heavily on his wits and reflexes to avoid danger at the plate because of that batting stance.

In mid-August, the Indians traveled to New York to open a crucial three-game series against the Yankees. Cleveland was tied for first with the White Sox and both held a precarious half-game lead over the third place Yankees. The three teams were separated by an eyelash and, on any given day, that eyelash could rest gently with one club only to have flit mercurially to another the next.

On August 16, the Yankees sent their best pitcher, Carl Mays, to the mound for the series opener. Mays, who was on his way to 26 wins in 1920, was something of an enigma. Where Ray Chapman was always ready with a smile and a warm handshake, Mays was taciturn and distant. He could also be prone to fits of rage on the mound if things went poorly and had little patience with teammates who did not measure up to his standards. However, there was no questioning his pitching ability. He had developed a devastating side armed delivery and practically brushed his pitching hand on the ground just prior to releasing the ball. The unusual arm angle also created an unpredictable break on the ball as it snapped toward the plate.

The miserly ways of baseball owners of the time, however, were sadly predictable. Baseballs cost money, umpires had the discretion to determine whether or not to keep them in play, and umpires were employed by the league. With impressive economic pragmatism, owners wasted little time in stringing the three elements together. Umpires were, therefore, instructed to remove as few baseballs as possible from play. Discoloration and/or blemished surfaces were not sufficient reasons for retirement. That such imperfections made the ball harder to see and more difficult to track were trumped by its manufacturing cost.

While clouds began to gather over the Polo Grounds, no one realized what awful fury they carried inside.

The Indians wasted little time in pressuring Mays and his teammates, scoring in the second and again in the fourth to open a 3-0 lead. Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box and likely didn’t notice how thick the air was with bad omens.

It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a horrible, horrible thing to behold – a hitter standing on top of the plate, a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery and a brooding demeanor, and a darkening ball in the fading afternoon light all amid a heated pennant race with its soupy tension simmering to a slow boil.

Like Cochrane after him, Chapman failed to pick up the flight of the ball and, because of the times, had no protective headgear to deflect the imminent blow. The horrific impact was so great that the ball deflected all the way back to Mays, who fielded it and threw to first, assuming that the pitch had struck Chapman’s bat rather than his head.

Chapman steadied himself for a moment before sinking to the ground like an untethered marionette. While the injured player lay prone in the batter’s box, Mays opted to confront the umpire by brazenly offering the fielded ball as evidence that it been roughened, the scuffed cover causing the errant arc of the pitch. The cause had clearly superseded the unnerving effect for the New York pitcher.

And the effect was dire. Chapman never recovered and became the first and only player in Major League history to die as a result of being hit by a pitch. For his part, Mays always insisted it was an accident, but the label stuck with him – the man who threw the only fatal pitch in the big leagues.

Cleveland somehow carried on, despite the heartbreak and anger. They went on to outlast both Chicago and the Yankees for the pennant and completed their mission by taking the World Series. However, the unimaginable cost of their beloved comrade forever marred the triumph. The struggle of sport paled to the hard truth of mortality.

Yet, even after these cautionary tales – Cochrane, Conigliaro, Greenberg, and especially the awful episode that took Chapman’s life – hitters and pitchers still skirmish over that prized pentagon with the intensity of a blood feud. Unfortunately, blood has been spilt and, because the key active element in the exchange – a baseball traveling at high-speed – will always carry destructive kinetic energy, that terrible potential still exists.

However, the pitcher-hitter dynamic is a complicated one. Because pitchers have such a finite area in which to ply their trade, it is understandable that they absolutely refuse to concede any amount of that precious space to the group that is in direct competitive confrontation with them. And it is equally justifiable that hitters, in turn, cannot tacitly accept a practice, regardless of intent, that carries the possibility of ending careers – or lives – merely in the name of sport. So, it remains a standoff with little chance of a resolution that would keep the delicate balance of the game intact.

One can only hope that the participants fully understand and respect the danger within the confines of this standoff and that the vagaries of chance do not happen upon another perfect storm on the diamond. More than anything, the forces of competition should never obscure the importance of valuing people over the games they play. Ray Chapman’s memory and the lesson of that tragic August afternoon deserve at least that much.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gibsobo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/drysddo01.shtml

Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cochrmi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/conigto01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/moment010818-conigliaro-beaned.html

http:www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/sports/baseball/22adam.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chapmra01.shtml

Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1920.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192008160.shtml

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