Category Archives: Baseball

Baseball from a left-wing Bay Area perspective.

Pitchers in Postseason

The Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t get very far in the 2017 playoffs, getting swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS. There was a memorable moment in the wildcard game they won to advance to that series, however. In their 11-8 win over the Colorado Rockies, reliever Archie Bradley hit a triple — the first triple ever hit by a relief pitcher in a postseason game. It was all the more unexpected coming from a player with a career batting average of .098 and no extra base hits in 61 at bats, which included 37 strikeouts. (Bradley than gave back the two runs his triple knocked in by giving up two consecutive homers in the top of the next inning, but that’s another story.)

Bradley

These are the kind of moments that make some fans wish so hard for pitchers to continue to be able to bat in major league games, at least in the National League. It’s hard to believe it’s been about 45 years since the designated hitter rule was adopted by the American League, but despite periodic rumblings of discussions that pitchers should bat in both leagues (or not bat in either), it looks like the DH is here to stay in the AL at the very least. Which robs of the unexpected lightning bolts like Bradley’s two-run triple, not to mention the occasional genuinely good-hitting pitcher like Madison Bumgarner, whose 17 lifetime home runs include two on opening day in 2017.

I’m an advocate of having pitchers bat in professional baseball. The overall pros and cons of the DH rule is a lengthy debate for another time that could probably fill up a book, but my rationale is one I never hear: that the game’s simply fairer when each player has to play both offense and defense (or go out of the game for good if he’s pinch-hit for). Bradley’s triple, however, did get me thinking about how many memorable hits by pitchers there have been in post-season play.

If you want a long list of such blasts as evidence the DH rule should be discarded, you’ll be displeased to know that pitchers’ performances in the postseason do not make for a compelling case. I don’t have a lifetime figure for how pitchers as a whole have fared since 1903 (perhaps one has never been compiled), but generally they’ve done pretty poorly — more so since the DH has been instituted, and less pitchers bat less frequently in the majors (or at any level). But I did think of about a dozen memorable instances in which hits by hurlers have been surprising or important, albeit virtually all in World Series competition. We can start with the most famously good-hitting pitcher of all: Babe Ruth.

Ruth

Primarily a pitcher in his first four years in the majors, Ruth was already considered a good enough hitter in his first full season that he pinch-hit in the 1915 World Series. In fact, that was his only appearance in the series, though he’d won 18 games in the regular season. By 1918, he was splitting time between the mound and the outfield (as well as some first base), as it became evident that he had unprecedented power at the plate.

In the 1918 World Series, however, he appeared mostly as a pitcher, starting and winning two games (though he pinch-hit in another). He only had one hit in his five at-bats, but it was a big one — a two-run triple to deep right-center field that proved the margin of difference in his 3-2 victory over the Cubs.

Ruth would play in seven more Series, all as an outfielder for the Yankees. He actually got off to a slow start as a hitter in these, getting injured in the 1921 Series and hitting .118 the next year. But then he asserted himself as one of the best postseason sluggers (in an era when the only postseason games were the World Series, of course), ending up with fifteen homeruns and a .326 average.

If any World Series hitting feat by a pitcher deserves an asterisk, it’s probably the one in the opener of next year’s series. Won 9-1 by the Reds over the White Sox, this was of course the infamous series in which much of the Sox team threw games for money. In that opener, winning pitcher Dutch Ruether hit not one, but two triples, as well as a single (and walking once), knocking in three runs. His hits are among many plays cited in retrospect as evidence that many of the Sox were deliberately losing, including that day’s opening pitcher, Eddie Cicotte. It’s interesting to note, however, that one of the triples was tagged off a mop-up reliever not involved in the fix, Grover Lowdermilk.

Reuther

Ruether is probably best known as one of the pitchers on the fabled 1927 Yankees, for whom he went 13-6 in his final year (though he didn’t appear in the World Series). He was a good-hitting pitcher (though no Babe Ruth), with a lifetime .258 average and seven home runs, and an ace on the Reds that year, winning nineteen games and losing six. It’s sometimes overlooked that the Reds were a very good team in 1919, going 96-44 in a season shortened to 140 games in the year after World War I.  It’s probable that the series would have been very competitive had the Sox played it straight, but we’ll never know.

This was a good stretch for Series hitting by pitchers, as in 1920, the Indians’ Jim Bagby clubbed the first homer by a pitcher in series history. This was about as interesting as an 8-1 game can get, as it also saw the first World Series grand slam, hit by Elmer Smith right after the bases loaded with no outs in the first inning. It’s most famous, however, for the unassisted triple play by Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganss later in the contest — a rare play in any game, let alone in the World Series.

s-l225

It was a capper on a great year for Bagby, who won 31 games in the regular season. He was a fair but not great-hitting pitcher, with a lifetime .218 average, and just two homers outside of World Series play (though he’d been pretty good at the plate  in 1920, hitting .252 with eleven extra-base hits in 131 at-bats).

Wrote Bill James in The Baseball Book 1992, for the series game in which Bagby homered (the fifth, in a series the Indians went on to win), “In order to increase attendance, [Cleveland] owner Jim Dunn had shrunk the field of play by installing temporary bleachers in center and right field. When manager Tris Speaker warned Bagby before the game to pitch with extra care to the Dodger home run threats, he replied, ‘Ah think ah’ll bust one out to those wooden seats. They seem just about right for me to hit.’ In the fourth inning, with two men on, Bagby was as good as his word, sending a fly to right center that barely made the bleachers.”

Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean is known more both for his pitching and his overall zaniness than his hitting, but he wasn’t bad with the bat, hitting .225 with eight homers. In his only World Series in 1934, he went three-for-twelve with a couple doubles (besides winning a couple games on the mound). Two of those hits, and one of those doubles, came in one inning in the seventh game — a seven-run inning that broke open the game, won by the Cardinals 11-0.

Dizzy-Dean-246x300

Facing elimination in the sixth game of the 1940 World Series, the Reds shut out the Tigers 4-0 behind Bucky Walters, who also homered and drove in two runs. In winning the second game 5-3, Walters had doubled and scored. The Reds won the series, and it’s not an exaggeration to speculate they might not have without Walters on the mound and at the plate. It wasn’t a secret, but Walters did have an advantage over most other pitchers: he’d actually started his major league career as a poor-hitting third baseman, switching to pitching after a few years, at which he excelled, winning almost 200 games. That changed him from a bad-hitting infielder to a good-hitting pitcher, ending his career with a .243 average and 23 homers.

Walters

Jumping ahead to 1967, that year’s World Series had two home runs by pitchers. The first was a shocker: Red Sox hurler Jose Santiago, who hit .173 lifetime with just one homer, cleared the fences off Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the opener. It tied the game 1-1, the Cards pullng the game out 2-1.  Besides being a much better pitcher than Santiago, Gibson was a much better hitter, with 24 lifetime home runs. And he homered off Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg  in the deciding game seven, in his third win of the series.

Santiago

Gibson

Gibson also homered in the 1968 series, making him the first player to hit two World Series homers as a pitcher.  (Oddly, he didn’t homer in either the 1967 or 1968 regular season.) But the unlikeliest homer in World Series history, perhaps, belonged to the opposite team that year. Mickey Lolich, a poor hitter with a lifetime .110 average, belted his only major league home run off Nelson Briles while winning the second game 8-1. He’d also win the seventh and final game of the series for the Tigers (his third win of the series), outdueling Gibson, though neither pitcher homered in that game.

Lolich

It took just a couple more years for Dave McNally to become the second pitcher to homer more than once in World Series play. He did  his bit to try to spoil the Mets’ upset victory over the Orioles by hitting a roundtripper in the fifth and final game in 1969. In 1970, he hit the only grand slam by a pitcher in the World Seres against the Reds in a game he won, and a series the Orioles won. McNally actually wasn’t very good at the plate, with a .133 lifetime average, though he did manage nine home runs. In the 1973 and 1974 postseason, he wouldn’t even get a chance to bat, the DH having been instituted in the American League (including in the championship series, which the Orioles reached in both of those years, though they lost both).

McNally

Pitchers could still bat in the World Series, however — in fact, they were required to between 1973 and 1975, before the World Series began permitting DH action (soon to be limited to National League home games in those contests). The team that beat the Orioles in 1973 and 1974, the A’s, benefited greatly from that requirement, even though their pitchers hadn’t batted at all before advancing to the World Series.

For in 1973, A’s pitcher Ken Holtzman hit two doubles and scored two runs in three at-bats. In the A’s win in the 2-1 opener, one of those runs he scored was crucial. He also scored the opening run in winning the seventh game. The next year, he did even better, homering and doubling in four at-bats (and walking once). supplying key hits and runs in two of the A’s four victories over the Dodgers. Holtzman actually wasn’t that great a hitter even for a pitcher (.163 lifetime average, two regular season homers), but the A’s were sure glad he was there when they needed him.

Holtzman

In that way, Holtzman was sort of a poster guy for advocates of banning the DH. So you think he might have personally objected to the DH rule, right? No. “I personally like the DH because it enabled me to stay in the game longer and not be pinch hit for,” he told Dan Epstein in a 2016 interview for the Jewish Baseball Museum website. “I never wanted to be taken out of a game, regardless of the score or situation, and the DH enabled me to pitch more innings, even though I would have to face one more tough hitter in a line-up than existed in the National League.”

An A’s pitcher also struck a key blow for their final World Series title to date, though it doesn’t seem as well remembered as many of the other feats on this list. In the fourth game of their 1989 sweep of the Giants, winning moundsman Mike Moore struck a two-run double. Having spent his whole career in the American League, Moore had batted exactly once in the majors before the series (and would never bat in the majors after this game, spending the rest of his days in the AL too). The A’s needed those two runs, too, as the final score was 9-6. The actual baseball of the 1989 World Series, however, tends not to be remembered too well, overshadowed by the earthquake that interrupted the series after the first couple games.

Moore

Jump ahead almost twenty years, and we have the only pitcher besides Mickey Lolich to strike his only major league home run in World Series play. Joe Blanton of the Phillies did so as the winner of a 10-2 blowout over the Rays in 2008. If Lolich was a bad hitter, Blanton was even worse, hitting .106 with no extra base hits in 216 career at-bats (and 92 strikeouts). Lolich did at least have five doubles and two triples, albeit over a longer career.

Asked at the time when he’d last hit a homer at any level, Blanton guessed it was high school. “I’m not a hitter,” he admitted. “I’m just going to close my eyes and swing as hard as I can, just in case I make contact.”

Blanton

Blanton and Lolich are the only pitchers to have hit their only major league homers in the World Series, but another deserves honorable mention, to break up the chronological flow of this post just once. Don Gullett’s homer in his opening win over the Pirates in the 1975 National League championship series was his only such major league blast. The Reds pitcher also singled in that game, driving in three runs in all. He actually wasn’t so bad at the dish, hitting .194 for his career, though without a four-bagger in regular season play.

Barry Zito had seldom batted in the regular season before starting a highly-paid and largely disappointing seven-year stint with the Giants. He was a legendarily bad hitter, chalking up a lifetime .102 mark with no extra base hits, though he did at least conscientiously work to improve his bunting during his time in the National League. You had the sense he even had trouble reaching the outfield on the fly, but he did come up with a surprise RBI single against superstar Justin Verlander  in his opening win over the Tigers in the 2012 World Series. He’d also driven in a run with a bunt single in his Game Five win against the Cardinals a few days earlier, in a key contest where the Giants were facing elimination.

Zito

Often reviled during his struggles with the Giants, those hits — and those wins, in his one fairly good year with the team — were enough to justify that big contract, at least to serious Giants fans. Are they enough to justify getting rid of the DH rule? That’s up for debate, but those occasional blows pitchers strike in the games that matter most do matter.

 

Part-Time MVP Contenders, Past and Present

For a few weeks last year, Yoenis Cespedes was being touted as a credible National League MVP candidate. He hadn’t played with the New York Mets much more than a few weeks after getting traded from Detroit at the end of July. But he was in the midst of a ridiculously hot streak, and the rationale was that the Mets wouldn’t be where they were without him. He cooled off some near the end of the season, and so did talk of Yoenis for MVP, Cespedes (who had 17 home runs and a .942 OPS in 57 games) finishing 13th in the voting with 24 points.

Cespedes

It struck me as kind of ridiculous that any player could be considered for MVP on the basis of just a few great weeks, or indeed on less than a whole season. I hoped to post about this at the time, but I didn’t have time at the time, and by the time I had time, the season was over. Spring training for 2016 has just started, however, and now’s the time to blog about it, as belated as it is.

No one’s won an MVP for his work on a team for whom he didn’t play the entire season, and no one’s won an MVP who has missed as much as a third of the year (though some MVPs have missed signficant time, as George Brett did in 1980, when he hit .390 in 117 games). During the brief Cespedes-for-MVP campaign, I became curious as to how many players with similar partial seasons attracted MVP votes. I knew there were some, but a little to my surprise, there were quite a few, and not all from the distant past, when the ever-debatable notions as to what constitutes an MVP weren’t as solidified. There are too many, indeed, to list in a blog like this without going into several thousand words. So this is a survey of some of the more credible or interesting half or partial season would-be MVPs.

Candidates in this category factored into the MVP voting from the very beginning of the award, or any rate its predecessor, the Chalmers Award (only given from 1911 to 1915). In 1911, A’s catcher Ira Thomas finished eighth in the AL MVP voting despite only playing 103 games with 337 plate appearances, and batting a respectable but hardly notable .273 in the dead-ball era. Catchers with modest (and sometimes, as in the case of Al Lopez, even poor) batting stats in general fared much better in the early years of MVP voting than they would in more recent times, perhaps being viewed as team leaders or semi-managers at a time when there were far less coaches. In 1913, A’s catcher Wally Schang finished tenth despite playing just 79 games with 252 plate appearances, and an okay but not-too-threatening batting line.

Ira Thomas, in the days when some baseball cards didn't even have the players' first names.

Ira Thomas, in the days when some baseball cards didn’t even have the players’ first names.

Even putting catchers aside, some of the players getting stray votes in early MVP contests were strange, even indefensibly weird choices — anomalies that occur throughout the history of MVP voting, if less frequently now than then. In 1925, Boston second baseman Doc Gautreau got a couple votes for NL MVP despite playing just 68 games and notching a decidedly unimpressive .676 OPS. (Listed at just five-foot four and 129 pounds, he must have been one of the smallest players of an era.) In the 1930s and early 1940s, a few part-time players with what would now be called “outlier” seasons got down-ballot votes, like A’s catcher Earle Brucker did by batting .374 in 53 games in 1937, and Cardinals reserve outfielder Estel Crabtree did in 1941 by hitting .341 (at the age of 37, after an eight-year absence from the majors) in 198 plate appearances. Senators backup outfielder Dave Harris got five points in 1932 despite just 177 plate appearances, though he did hit well in those, with a .938 OPS.

Estel Crabtree.

As the back of his baseball card made clear, Estel Crabtree spent years in the minors before getting called back up for his breakthrough 1941 season.

The most credible part-time MVP candidates emerged during World War II, when many players were in the military for entire seasons or parts of season, affecting both the quality and predictability of major league ball for a few years. In 1943, the first of the three years in which many players were in the military (though some had entered with increasing numbers in 1941 and 1942), Bill Dickey finished eighth with 85 games and 284 plate appearances. He did have a very good year for the pennant-winning Yankees, hitting .351 at a time when offense was depressed by a less lively ball. (In 1938, fellow Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett finished tenth in the NL with just a bit more playing time, his cause no doubt helped by managing the pennant-winning Cubs as well.)

In 1944, for the first time, a non-catching half-timer was a serious MVP threat. Detroit Tigers outfielder Dick Wakefield, who’d finished sixth in his 1943 rookie year, finished fifth despite playing just half a season. In that half season, he was spectacular, hitting .355 with power for a 1.040 OPS. Had he played the whole year, there’s little doubt the Tigers would have won the AL pennant instead of finishing just a game behind the St. Louis Browns (who won their only pennant that year). Of course, all times were missing key players in those years, and many would have won significantly more or less games had the war not been raging.

Wakefield

When you look at Wakefield’s record, you’d logically assume he had to miss the second half of the season, almost all players who missed partial years being called up after play had begun. Oddly, he missed the first half of the year and played the second. He was in the Navy, but was discharged when his aviation program was discontinued, though he was called up again at the end of 1944 and missed 1945. Though he looked like he’d be a superstar, Wakefield, like some other players who had great years during the war, didn’t come close to matching his previous stats after 1945, and was just a journeyman after the war.

In 1945, there were strong part-season MVP candidates in each league. Pitcher Hank Borowy was famously sold to the Chicago Cubs for $100,000 after clearing waivers in the American League, despite having a 10-5 record. With the Cubs, he was great, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA and basically providing the difference that gave them a slight edge over the Cardinals and put them into (as of this writing, their most recent) World Series. Borowy was sixth in the MVP voting, and although a couple Yankees rookies (Tiny Bonham in 1940 and Whitey Ford in 1950) got a few votes for spectacular debut years in which they had just a dozen starts, there would be just a couple subsequent occasions on which such pitchers would figure strongly in MVP contests.

Borowy

There’s still uncertainty and controversy over how Borowy managed to clear waivers, and why the Yankees let him go. The Yankees claimed he’d become ineffective, though his good (if not quite great) performance with them in 1945 indicates otherwise. It’s been speculated that the Yankees really wanted the $100,000 more than they wanted to get rid of Borowy, and that the other American League clubs didn’t claim him on waivers (necessary to enable his sale to an NL club) because they figured the Yankees would withdraw him from being available if that happened. A la Dick Wakefield, Borowy had just a brief and so-so career in the years after the war ended.

Also in 1945, the Detroit Tigers had one of the most serious half-season MVP candidates in baseball history, though he oddly underperformed in the voting itself. Superstar slugger Hank Greenberg spent most of 1941 and all of 1942-44 in the military, getting out in time to play the second half of 1945 with the Detroit Tigers. In that half year he hit .311 with power at a time when, again, offense was way down because of a less lively ball. Had he doubled his stats, he would have won the Triple Crown. He also hit the game-ending (actually season-ending), come-from-behind grand slam that clinched the pennant for the Tigers in their last game (though they would have been able to play one more game to clinch the pennant had they lost). The Tigers certainly wouldn’t have gone to the World Series (which they won, over Hank Borowy’s Cubs) had Greenberg not returned for the final half of the schedule.

Hank Greenberg crosses the plate after his pennant-winning grand slam in 1945.

Hank Greenberg crosses the plate after his pennant-winning grand slam in 1945.

Yet Greenberg was just 14th in the MVP balloting. #1, deservedly so, was another Tiger, pitcher Hal Newhouser, who won 25 games. It’s strange, though, that average-hitting, not-quite-full-time (83 games) Tiger catcher Paul Richards finished tenth, ahead of Greenberg. Indians shortstop Lou Boudreau was limited to 97 games, but finished eighth. Maybe Greenberg was unpopular with some writers; maybe there were too many other Tigers getting votes; or maybe they figured he’d already won a couple MVPs (in 1935 and 1940). Greenberg probably wasn’t too hurt, as he was able to play for a World Series winner.

“That was the biggest thrill of all,” Greenberg later said of his pennant-winning homer, hit shortly before darkness would have ended the game on a rain-sodden field. “What was going through my mind is that only a few months before I was in India, wondering if the war would ever end. Now I had just hit a pennant-winning grand-slam home run. I wasn’t sure whether I was awake or dreaming.”

Another great slugger of the era had a great half season in a close pennant race a few years later. Joe DiMaggio was out with an injury for the first half of 1949, but came back with a .346 average, 14 homers, 67 RBI, and a 1.055 in the second half. The Yankees beat the Red Sox by just a game, and certainly wouldn’t have gone to the World Series if DiMaggio had played significantly less than what he managed. Of course, had DiMag not been injured for such a long time, likely the pennant race wouldn’t have been as close as it was. But even if you doubled Joe’s stats, they wouldn’t have matched those of the MVP and Triple Crown winner Ted Williams. DiMaggio finished only twelfth in the voting, behind four of his own teammates.

A few years later, Williams became the only position player to get an MVP vote with less than 100 at-bats. Serving in Korea for much of 1953, he was able to play in 37 games near the end of the year, and had the best season — easily — of any player in history with less than 100 AB, hitting .407 with 13 homers and 34 RBI in 91 at-bats for an astronomical 1.410 OPS. The greatest month in history can’t win you an MVP award if you don’t play much of the rest of the year, though, and he just got one point, perhaps from a sympathetic journalist who recognized Ted’s sacrifice in going into the military for a second stint (he’d also served in 1943-45). Less well known is that in the previous year, Monte Irvin got five points despite only getting 126 at-bats due to a broken leg, again perhaps from a journalist who sympathized with a bad break.

TedWilliams

In 1955, Williams became the first position player missing more than a third of his team’s games to place in the top five vote-getters for the MVP award. Playing 98 games, he finished fourth. It was a testament to how good he was in those games — he hit .356 with a 1.200 OPS. He didn’t play the whole year as he didn’t sign a contract until May 13, and didn’t play his first game until May 28. He’d briefly retired, though according to the Society for American Baseball Research’s online Williams bio, “it seemed as though retirement was a strategic move in a divorce.” Finishing fifth, right behind Williams, in the MVP voting was Mickey Mantle, who really should have won that year, as he played 147 games and easily had the best WAR (wins above replacement) mark in the league at 9.5 (Williams had 6.9).

Ballot placings by part-timers became more infrequent in the next three decades, though there were still oddities like votes for spare outfielders/pinch-hitters Dusty Rhodes and Jerry Lynch, and 16 points for Wes Covington when he had a fine 90-game season (.330, 24 home runs) in 1958. Although he managed to play exactly two-thirds of the 162-game schedule, mention should be made of Elston Howard’s seven points in 1967, when he began the year with the Yankees before joining the Red Sox. Howard, a fine player for many seasons, was terrible at the plate that year, hitting .178 with a .478 OPS. The vote was probably in the recognition of stability he brought to the pennant-winning Red Sox’s catching position and his veteran leadership, but that kind of hitting really shouldn’t be recognized in MVP balloting under any circumstances. And he was even worse with the Sox than the Yanks, hitting .147 in 116 at-bats (and getting just two hits, both singles, in 18 World Series at-bats, though post-season performances aren’t considered as part of the MVP voting).

1968 Elston Howard (f)

In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe became the only starting pitcher to both seriously contend for an MVP award and not even qualify for the ERA title. After coming over from the Cleveland Indians (where he was 4-5 with a 5.15 ERA), Sutcliffe was sensational in 20 starts for the Cubs, where he was 16-1. That put him at a quite respectable fourth place (and 151 points) in the MVP contest, though teammate Ryne Sandberg won the award. Sutcliffe did win the NL Cy Young, and remains the only Cy Young winner who split the year between two different leagues.

Sutcliffe

Just three years later, Doyle Alexander finished 13th in the American League MVP voting on the basis of going 9-0 with the Detroit Tigers after coming over from the Atlanta Braves (where he was mediocre, with a 5-10 record and 4.13 ERA). As great as his eleven starts (with a 1.53 ERA) with the Tigers were, they probably weren’t enough to justify any MVP votes, or Cy Young votes, though he did even better there, finishing fourth. It wouldn’t be the last time a pitcher got some MVP votes for a strong finish after getting traded, Randy Johnson picking up a couple points for his 10-1 charge with the Astros in 1998, and another ace ranking much higher with a similar situation in the twenty-first century (see a few paragraphs down).

Doyle

In 1997, Mark McGwire split his year between the A’s and Cardinals, leading the majors with 58 homers, 24 for the Cardinals in 51 games — which was enough to get him six MVP points, although he got none in the American League, where he’d hit just as well for the A’s in about twice as much playing time. Interleague trades can still result in votes for few games played, Mark Teixeira getting a point for a sizzling third of a season with the Angles in 2008. That was the year not one but two players finished in the top six of the NL voting with portions of full seasons.

The fourth-place player was Manny Ramirez, who had an amazing 53 games with the Dodgers, hitting .396 with 17 homers and a 1.232 OPS. That blaze of glory has since been diminished by PED use revelations. Not far behind him, in sixth place, was C.C. Sabathia, 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts for the Brewers after a so-so 18 starts for the Indians. Unlike Sutcliffe, Sabathia didn’t fare much better in the Cy Young sweepstakes, where he finished fifth. This was less than ten years ago, and while Yoenis Cespedes, to bring us back to where we started, wasn’t quite as phenomenal as Ramirez and Sabathia were over similar part-seasons, they did establish part of the precedent for taking Cespedes seriously as an MVP candidate. So, in a different and lesser way,  was another Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez, who was eighth in the 2013 voting despite playing just more than half (86) of the games for his team, the Dodgers, hitting .345 with 20 homers.

Manny Ramirez in younger, more innocent times in 1992.

Manny Ramirez in younger, more innocent times in 1992.

Is any player worthy of a first-place MVP ballot who plays less than two-thirds of a season for his team, let alone just one-third of a season, as Cespedes did? No, I would contend. But contending teams will continue to land players like Cespedes near the trading deadline, and they’ll continue to get MVP votes if they get hot at the right time.

Travis Ishikawa and Other One-Hit Wonders

Travis Ishikawa, who won the last round of the National League playoffs for the San Francisco Giants last year with a game-ending home run, was designated for assignment by the club a few weeks ago. You can never count this guy out considering how often he’s been up and down (and not just with the Giants) for the last ten years, but he’s probably finished in San Francisco, especially since it’s the second time he’s been DFA’d this year. (He has subsequently hooked on with the Pittsburgh Pirates.)

Ishikawa

I happened to be at the game in late June marking his first time at bat in the big leagues since last year’s postseason, and typical of how this year’s gone for him, he struck out. He’s never gotten much playing time since his first call-up in 2006, and there’s no place for a subpar outfielder on a club with two guys ahead of him at his real position, first base. Sure, he helped the team win the World Series last year, especially with his mighty playoff blow. But as the chairman said in that Monty Python sketch where an accountant is fired for embezzling a penny, “There’s no room for sentiment in big business.”

Ishikawa’s demotion did get me thinking about how many players in major league history with otherwise undistinguished careers are known just for one hit, or one game, or even one play. No doubt there are interesting instances absent from the list below, especially from baseball’s early years. Here, however, are a few of them, some by players who compiled much more impressive career records than Ishikawa, and some who were yet more marginal.

Howard Ehmke: It’s a pretty well known story in World Series lore: how a veteran pitcher, on the verge of getting released, got the first start of the 1929 World Series and excels, setting a record (since broken, but which stood for many years) by striking out 13 batters. His team, the Philadelphia A’s, went on to win that series, in part because of a miraculous comeback from an 8-0 deficit with a ten-run inning in one game.

ehmke

Some colorful retellings have it that Ehmke convinced manager Connie Mack to start him, telling him he had one good game left in his arm, Mack sending him to scout the Chicago Cubs hitters in advance. Actually, however, Ehmke had pitched very well (if seldom) during the regular season, going 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA in a hitters’ era. He won a couple games in September, too, making it doubtful he was on the verge of getting let go. This article at seamheads.com has a lot of interesting detail exploding the myths around Mack’s decision to start Ehmke, which was likely a shrewd, if risky, hunch that his delivery would be tough on the Cubs’ hitters.

When this tale is told, the impression is sometimes given that it was Ehmke’s last game. That would make for a great story, but again, it wasn’t the case. He also started the last game of the series, and didn’t do nearly as well, getting removed in the fourth inning (perhaps the Cubs were on to his delivery by then), though the A’s won the game. He also pitched in three regular season games for the A’s in 1930, getting bombed to the tune of an 11.70 ERA before leaving the bigs for good.

Ehmke was actually a pretty good pitcher, with a career record of 166-166, sometimes for pretty bad teams. His other big claim to fame, though not nearly as celebrated as his 13 strikeouts, is nearly pitching two no-hitters in a row in 1923. In the no-hitter, a batter hit what seemed to be a double, but was called out for missing first base; in the one-hitter that followed, an apparent error was called a hit by the official scorer.

Floyd Giebell: When a close three-way race for the American League 1940 pennant came down to the final three games, the Detroit Tigers needed to win just one of the three they were playing against the Cleveland Indians (also in the race) to clinch. Pitching for the Indians in the first game was Bob Feller, one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and perhaps the best pitcher in the game at that particular time.

giebell

It was assumed the Tigers would pitch one of their front-line guys, like Bobo Newsom, Tommy Bridges, or Schoolboy Rowe, all among the better pitchers of the era. Instead they selected Floyd Giebell, a 30-year-old rookie whose major league experience consisted of 24 innings. As Tigers outfielder Barney McCosky remembers in Cobb Would Have Caught It (a fine oral history book of vintage Tigers stories), “We didn’t want to throw one of our best pitchers against Bob in the first game. So we had a meeting. We had Newhouser, Hutchinson, and a young guy called Floyd Giebell. We took a vote and we picked Giebell.” In Baseball When the Grass Was Real, Feller speculates the Tigers wanted to have all of their best pitchers available for the last two games, and were willing to concede the first, figuring it was unlikely to best Bob.

One of the finest relatively obscure baseball books is this oral history of the Detroit Tigers from 1920-1950.

One of the finest relatively obscure baseball books is this oral history of the Detroit Tigers from 1920-1950.

And guess what? Giebell pitched a shutout, and the Tigers won, 2-0, clinching the pennant. Giebell had pitched a complete-game victory nine days before (when the team had to play doubleheaders on two consecutive days), in his only other appearance that year. But he’d joined the club too late to be ineligible to pitch in the World Series (which the Tigers lost), and after 34 innings with a 6.03 ERA and an 0-0 record the following year, he never played in another major league game. “We stopped down in Virginia once to see if he was still there,” said McCosky in Cobb Would Have Caught It. “We looked in the phone book, but no luck.”

As another odd footnote, during this memorable game, as Richard Bak wrote in Cobb Would Have Caught It, “Indian fans peppered their guests with obscenities and trash. [Catcher] Birdie Tebbetts, minding his own business in the bullpen, was knocked out when someone in the upper deck dropped a basket of empty beer bottles and garbage on him.”

Bill Bevens: It’s a surprise to me that the fourth game of the 1947 World Series doesn’t show up more often on lists of the greatest baseball games ever played. The ending, at least, couldn’t have been more dramatic. For Yankees pitcher Bill Bevens was just one out away from a no-hitter, only to lose it – and the game – on the very last pitch, when Cookie Lavagetto doubled in two runs to win it for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 3-2.

Bevens

The game’s often been written about, but here are a couple things sometimes forgotten about:

Bevens, who’d had a couple pretty good years for the Yankees in the mid-1940s, never pitched in the majors after 1947, when he wasn’t so great (with a 7-13 record). However, this loss wasn’t the last game he ever pitched in the big leagues. He redeemed himself with two and two-thirds innings of scoreless relief in game seven of the world series, which the Yankees won, though Bevens wasn’t the winning pitcher.

Lavagetto might not have ever gotten to the plate if it wasn’t for yet another hero-for-a-minute, reserve outfielder Al Gionfriddo, stealing second as a pinch runner in the bottom of the ninth. Gionfriddo is mostly known for robbing Joe DiMaggio with a big catch later in the series, but his steal set up the Yankees’ controversial intentional walk of a hobbling, injured Pete Reiser. That put the winning run on base, another pinch runner (Eddie Miksis) scoring that on Lavagetto’s double.

Great graphic showing the motion and positioning of players on the field when Cookie Lavagetto broke up Bill Bevens's no-hitter with a game-winning double.

Great graphic showing the motion and positioning of players on the field when Cookie Lavagetto broke up Bill Bevens’s no-hitter with a game-winning double.

Part of the reason he was struggling to win a no-hitter in the first place was that he’d walked ten batters. Had Bevens finished the no-hitter, it would still be the record for most walks in a no-hitter in any major league game (or at least tied for the record, Jim Maloney walking ten batters in a 1965 no-hitter during the regular season).

I can’t find the source for this quote, but I remember watching a special on the 1947 World Series on public television as a young teenager back in the mid-1970s. If I remember correctly, as the story was told on the program, one of the announcers of the game apologized to Bevens the next day for jinxing the no-hitter by letting listeners know it was happening as it was in progress. Bevens told the announcer that the announcer hadn’t lost the game; the bases on balls had lost the game.

Al Gionfriddo: The 1947 World Series was quite the series for unlikely heroes (and goats). Gionfriddo is solely remembered for robbing Joe DiMaggio of an extra-base hit with a catch near the fence in the sixth game. The memory was ensured by a shot of DiMaggio, at a time when games such as these were just starting to be filmed and broadcast, kicking the dirt in anger in a rare display of public emotion. This was indeed Gionfriddo’s final major league game; he didn’t play in game seven, though as noted above he had a crucial role in winning game four.

Gionfriddo

Cookie Lavagetto: The guy who hit the double that broke up Bevens’s no-hitter actually had a fair major league career, with several seasons as the Dodgers’ regular third baseman (including 1941, when they also lost to the Yankees in the World Series). He was an infrequently used reserve in 1947, however. Like Bevens and Gionfriddo, he didn’t play in the majors after 1947. But although his double was his last big-league hit, it wasn’t his last big-league appearance, Lavagetto going hitless in four at-bats later in the series.

lavagetto

Nippy Jones: Skipping ahead ten years, in 1957 Nippy Jones was a seldom-used pinch-hitter/backup first basemen for the Milwaukee Braves. He’d seen some regular playing time for the Cardinals in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and batted .300 one year, but didn’t have enough power to stick with the big club. He didn’t even play in the majors from 1953 to 1956.

Game four of the 1957 World Series was an incredibly tense one that would be much better remembered if it was a game seven. Leading 4-1 against the Yankees with two out in the ninth, Hall of Famer Warren Spahn gave up a three-run homer to Elston Howard. The Yankees went ahead 5-4 in the top of the tenth, and Jones pinch-hit for Spahn to lead off the bottom half.

nippy

Tommy Byrne’s first pitch went by Yogi Berra, and Jones argued that it had hit him in the foot. He wouldn’t have won that argument if he hadn’t shown umpire Augie Donatelli a mark that his shoe polish had made on the ball. He took first base and left the game for a pinch runner—and he’d never appear in another major league game.

Which wouldn’t mean much, except the pinch runner scored, setting up a game-winning home run by Johnny Logan. Here’s something I didn’t know until reading the chapter on Tommy Byrne in the recent book Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees: “Byrne said that if Berra had thrown the ball back to him instead of holding onto it for Donatelli, Byrne would have marked it up so that nobody could spot the shoe polish.”

Incredibly enough, in the final game of the 1969 World Series, a very similar scenario played out with another player named Jones. The New York Mets’ Cleon Jones claimed a ball had hit him on the foot; manager Gil Hodges showed the shoe-polish mark on the ball to the umpire; Jones took first base; and a home run followed, starting their comeback from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Orioles. The game-tying home run the next inning was by light-hitting utility infielder Al Weis, who might also qualify for this list, although he had a pretty lengthy career and some other moments of note in that series (in which he hit .455).

Dick Nen: Nen only had one hit as a Dodger, but it was a big one: a pinch-hit home run that helped win a crucial game in the 1963 pennant race. It was also his first hit in the major leagues.

Dick Nen got a 1964 rookie card after hitting a key home run for the Dodgers in 1963, but never played another game for the Dodgers in 1964 or any other year.

Dick Nen got a 1964 rookie card after hitting a key home run for the Dodgers in 1963, but never played another game for the Dodgers in 1964 or any other year.

I’d wondered whether the importance of this hit had been blown up over the years, since the Dodgers did win the pennant by six games that year. At the time, however, it did seem that way. They went into a three-game series in St. Louis in mid-September leading by just a game. If Nen’s home run hadn’t tied the game in the ninth (the Dodgers went on to win 6-5 in 13 innings), they would have left St. Louis just two games ahead with nine to go.

Although Nen had some decent years in the minors, he never did play that regularly or well in the majors, where he spent a few years with the Washington Senators (and one with the Cubs). Ken Harrelson’s memoir Hawk tells of how Nen was embarrassed to be getting the opening day start in 1967 ahead of Hawk, who wasn’t getting along well with Senators manager Gil Hodges. To Giants fans, Dick Nen’s most known for being the father of Robb Nen, their relief ace from 1998-2002.

Moe Drabowsky: After faring rather poorly as a starter for his first few years, Drabowsky had a pretty good career as a reliever for the final half or so of his time in the big leagues, though he was never an ace. His best years were for the Orioles in the late 1960s, and though he was lost to the Royals in the expansion draft, he came back to Baltimore during the 1970 season to contribute to their world championship that year.

moe

His contribution to their 1966 World Series win, however, was far greater and more memorable. In the first game of the series, he relieved a struggling Dave McNally and struck out 11 batters (including six straight at one point) in 6 2/3 innings, giving up just one hit. That would be an excellent start, and as a relief appearance, it’s easily the most impressive in World Series history. All 11 strikeout victims went down swinging.

Other than for this game, Drabowsky is most notable as one of baseball’s most notorious practical jokers. Some of these (like giving the hotfoot or scaring teammates with snakes) aren’t all that interesting to read about. But his best one—impersonating (while he was with the visiting Orioles) Kansas City A’s’ manager Alvin Dark on calls to the A’s bullpen, getting A’s pitcher Lew Krausse to needlessly warm up—is classic.

Billy Rohr and Gary Waslewski: The Boston Red Sox’ “impossible dream” pennant victory of 1967 has lots of interesting stories, two of which belong to some of their least successful players. On April 13, rookie Billy Rohr almost got a no-hitter in his very first major league game, the Yankees’ Elston Howard breaking it up with a single with two out in the bottom of the ninth. One pitcher in the modern (post-1900) era has thrown a no-hitter in his first big-league start (Bobo Holloman in 1953), but to this day, no one has done so in his first game. But that was his main contribution to the team that season. He began the year as the Red Sox’ third starter, but pitched poorly after that sensational debut, getting sent down to the minors a couple months later after just one more victory, and winning only three games total in his major league career.

Although Bill Rohr got a 1968 Red Sox rookie card (still being a few innings short of losing his rookie status), he didn't pitch for the Red Sox in 1968 or any year after that, though he appeared in some games for the Indians in 1968.

Although Bill Rohr got a 1968 Red Sox rookie card (still being a few innings short of losing his rookie status), he didn’t pitch for the Red Sox in 1968 or any year after that, though he appeared in some games for the Indians in 1968.

Rohr didn’t pitch for the Red Sox in the World Series, but a barely more experienced hurler ending up starting a crucial game. Gary Waslewski was a seldom-used rookie on the team that year, compiling a 2-2 record in twelve games, eight stars, and 42 innings. He was only eligible for the series because another pitcher, Darrell Brandon, had to be replaced due to an injury. He hadn’t started since July 29. But on October 11, with the Sox facing elimination down three games to two against the Cardinals, Waslewski, who’d pitched well in relief in a loss in game three, got the ball to start. He didn’t do great, but he did well enough, getting into the sixth and keeping the Red Sox in the game, which they won 8-4 (though Gary didn’t get the victory, and the Sox lost the series in game seven).

Waslewski

Waslewski bounced between a few teams over the next five years, never pitching more than 130 innings in a year, and ending his career with a 12-26 record. Is that the least impressive career won-loss record for any World Series starter?

Jim Qualls: On July 9, 1969, in the midst of the Miracle Mets’ run toward the World Series, ace Tom Seaver brought a perfect game into the ninth inning against the team they were chasing for the Eastern Division lead, the Cubs. With one out, a little-known rookie reserve outfielder named Jim Qualls stroked a clean single to left field. It remains his only claim to modest fame, Qualls finishing the year with a fairly poor .608 OPS in just 124 plate appearances. He did play a bit for the Expos and White Sox in 1970 and 1972, but with even less distinction, going 1-19 post-1969, and ending his career without a home run.

QuallsJim

“When I got to first base, I was never booed so bad in my life,” said Qualls in this article on him for the SABR Baseball Biography Project. “We got back to Chicago and I got all this hate mail. You could tell by the handwriting it was just kids, little Mets fans: ‘You bum, don’t show up in New York.’ I don’t get any letters like that anymore.” The only subsequent meeting between Qualls and Seaver came less than a week later when they crossed paths while running in the outfield, Seaver telling Qualls, “You little (bum), you cost me a million dollars!”

Seldom remembered, incidentally, is that the batter before Qualls, Randy Hundley, had tried to bunt for a base hit, though the Cubs were down 4-0. Bunting for a base hit to break up a no-hitter is still considered violating an unwritten law, and would have probably sparked enormous controversy had Hundley beaten it out. The Mets got their revenge in early September when one of their runners was called safe at the plate in a key close game against the Cubs, despite Hundley’s furious protests.

The darkness to Qualls’s light, perhaps, was supplied the previous day by another Cubs rookie outfielder, Don Young. Young remains known almost solely for misplaying a couple flyballs in the ninth inning of a game against the Mets on July 8, helping lead to a come-from-behind 4-3 victory for New York. The misplays also stirred up controversy in the Cubs clubhouse after the game when All-Star third baseman Ron Santo and manager Leo Durocher harshly criticized Young to the press (Santo subsequently apologized to Young in prive and public), though the Cubs’ true collapse didn’t start until about a month and a half later.

Dave Augustine: In one of the weirdest key pennant-race games of all time, Pirates rookie reserve outfielder Dave Augustine appeared to have put Pittsburgh ahead of the New York Mets on September 20, 1973 with a home run in the top of the thirteenth. The ball landed at the very top of the fence, but took a freak bounce back to outfielder Cleon Jones, and via a relay from third baseman Wayne Garrett, Pirates runner Richie Zisk was thrown out at the plate. The Mets went on to win in the bottom of the inning, and win, narrowly, the Eastern Division, going on to win the pennant before losing the World Series in seven to the A’s. This was a big game, bigger than the one Dick Nen won in 1963; had they lost, the Mets (who won the division by a game and a half) would have been two and a half games out of first with eight to go, instead of just a half game back.

In the cruelest footnote, not only was Augustine denied his Dick Nen moment. Having come as close as possible to a home run (in one of only seven at-bats he had in 1973) without getting it, he never did hit a home run in his big-league career, which lasted just 29 games and 29 at-bats.

Augustine1

After his 1973 near-homer, Dave Augustine got rookie cards in both 1974 and 1975, but didn't come close to getting enough at-bats to lose his rookie status.

After his 1973 near-homer, Dave Augustine got rookie cards in both 1974 and 1975, but didn’t come close to getting enough at-bats to lose his rookie status.

Bucky Dent: Probably the most famous instance of a player-known-for-just-one-thing—even more so than Bill Bevens—is light-hitting Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, whose three-run homer keyed their dramatic 5-4 one-game playoff win over the Red Sox to win the 1978 Eastern Division. Dent actually had a respectable twelve-year career, though he was known more for his defense than his offense, hitting .247 lifetime with just 40 home runs (and only five in 1978). Volumes have been written about that game, and season, some participants and observers (especially Red Sox fans) viewing it as a cheap homer over Fenway Park’s notoriously short-distance left-field wall. But hey—the Red Sox also had chances to hit homers there that game.

dent

It’s sometimes forgotten that Dent had an excellent World Series that year, hitting .417, driving in seven runs, and winning the series MVP award. The even unlikelier hero of that series, however, was…

Brian Doyle: Rookie Brian Doyle had an undistinguished year for the Yankees in 1978, hitting .192 in 52 at-bats with no extra-base hits or walks. Regular Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph got injured before the post-season, however, and Doyle got most of the playing time at the position in the World Series. And he delivered, going 7-for-16 with, most dramatically, four hits in the series-winning victory in game six, including a double—his first extra-base hit in the majors.

Brian_Doyle

Doyle did play for three more years in the majors, but not well, ending up with a .161 average in 199 at bats, and just four extra-base hits (though one of them was a home run). He is, incidentally, the younger brother of Denny Doyle—who, though he had a better and much lengthier career as a second baseman, is also most famous for a World Series game, though in a negative way. Denny Doyle’s error on a potential inning-ending double-play ball in the seventh game of the 1975 World Series set up a two-run homer by Tony Perez, in a game the Red Sox lost by one run.

Mark Brouhard: One of the least familiar names on this round-up, reserve outfielder/DH Brouhard is perhaps the greatest one-game wonder in postseason history. In game four of the 1982 American League playoffs, he hit two doubles and a home run, leading the Brewers to victory over the Angels in a five-game series they won after being down 2-0. Playing in place of injured outfielder Ben Oglivie, Brouhard somehow never got in another game either that series or in the World Series, which the Brewers lost in seven games.

BrouhardMark3

Brouhard did have a six-year career as a part-timer, and not such a great one, with a .705 OPS and 25 home runs. “It was frustrating at the time,” Brouhard told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 of his failure to appear in the World Series. “I felt that I deserved a chance to play some in the World Series. I felt like I had earned it.

But (manager Harvey Kuenn) felt that this might be the veterans’ one shot to play in the World Series and he went with them…As it turned out, we lost anyway.”

Tom Lawless: For a player with such an unremarkable career as a multi-position reserve, Lawless has had some remarkable highlights. One, if you can call it a highlight, was being traded for Pete Rose late in the 1984 season, near the end of Rose’s time as a player. Another was hitting a home run in the 1985 World Series, after a season in which he’d gone 2-25 for an .080 batting average. It was his only hit in ten at-bats that series, which his Cardinals lost in seven games to the Twins. He wasn’t much better over the course of his playing days, chalking up a measly .521 OPS and two homers in eight years, during which he accumulated just 590 plate appearances.

lawlesstom

On the brighter side, he was 53-66 lifetime as a base stealer; in fact, between 1986 and 1989, he was a rather splendid 28-30. He also managed the Houston Astros for 24 games last September, though it was just an interim position for the luckless Lawless.

Billy Bates: Bates had the least distinguished career of any player on this list. He appeared in 25 games as a pinch-runner and second-baseman, hitting .125 with one extra-base hit (a double) in 48 at-bats. But the Reds picked him up for some roster depth at the end of 1990, which made him eligible for the World Series that year. In game two he delivered his only hit in a Cincinnati Reds uniform (he’d gone 0-5 for them in the regular season) by beating out an infield single as a pinch-hitter, scoring the game-winning run in a series the Reds swept from the A’s.

bates

A la Nippy Jones, Bates never played in a major-league game after scoring this run (though he at least got to stay in the game after reaching base). Another strange footnote: it was his only hit against a right-handed pitcher in his career, coming against Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, no less.

Gene Larkin: The seven-game 1991 World Series between the Braves and the Twins is pretty well-remembered. So is Gene Larkin, though even some fans who watched the series forget that he’s the guy who delivered the single that won the game for the Twins in the bottom of the tenth inning of the seventh game.

larkin

Larkin had a pretty nondescript career as a multi-positional player for the Twins from 1987-1993. He never quite established himself as a regular, had a .723 OPS, and only made twelve plate appearances in the 1987 and 1991 postseasons. His game-winning hit, over a drawn-in outfield, would in most situations have been an average flyball (if deep enough to score runners from third). But, more than almost any player in baseball history, he was in the right place at the right time.

“I was a role player,” he acknowledged to Baseball Digest in 2002. “An average player at best. If I didn’t get this hit, I’d be just another player who had a so-so career.” But as the article reported, “It doesn’t matter here he goes or what he’s doing…shopping, eating, playing golf, or just going for a walk. People are always shaking his hand or patting him on the back. ‘Every time I play golf, it happens. Just a few days ago, a gentleman I didn’t know said, “Thanks a lot for ’91.” People want to thank me, congratulate me or tell me how happy that hit makes them feel.’”

Francisco Cabrera: A reserve catcher and first baseman for the Atlanta Braves in the early 1990s, Cabrera had just 374 at-bats over the course of a five-year career. He wasn’t that bad, hitting 17 home runs in that span, and posting an okay .747 OPS. He was never good enough, however, to get regular playing time, and had just ten at-bats in the Braves’ 1992 pennant-winning season.

1992_Stadium_Club

He still got on their playoff roster, and was the pinch-hitter chosen when the Braves were one out from elimination against the Pittsburgh Pirates. With his team down 2-1 and two out in the bottom of the ninth, he hit a two-run single that won the pennant for Atlanta and sent the Pirates home.

There’s some speculation, incidentally, that had a superstar on the other team been playing the game more astutely, the outcome could have been very different. Wrote Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams in Game of Shadows, when Cabrera came to the plate, “Andy Van Slyke, the Pirates’ centerfielder, whistled to Bonds, then signalled with his glove for him to move in and to his left. Bonds looked at Van Slyke, but didn’t move. Instead, he stayed just where he was, deep, guarding the left-field line. Until he won his first MVP in 1990, Bonds had been paid less than Van Slyke, and he still resented it. Bonds called him ‘the Great White Hope.’

“Cabrera slapped a base hit to left field, about where Van Slyke had tried to get Bonds to play. The runner on third, David Justice, trotted home with the tying run. On second for the Braves was the slow-footed Sid Bream, a former Pirate who once said that everybody in the Pittsburgh clubhouse had wanted to punch Barry out at one time or another. As Bonds played the ball, Bream rounded third and lumbered home. Bonds’s throw was strong, but it was up the first base line. Bream scored, and the Braves were in the World Series.”

Chad Curtis: An unhappier ending was in store for Chad Curtis, an outfielder with a ten-year career that was better than Larkin’s, but not much. He did manage to clear 100 homers and 1000 hits, with a .745 OPS. And though his 1999 season wasn’t that special (five homers and a .767 OPS in 245 plate appearances), in game three of the World Series he hit two home runs for the Yankees, the second winning the game in walk-off fashion.

93fleerultra

Right after the game, Curtis was interviewed on national TV by sportscaster Jim Gray. Well, not quite interviewed: Curtis told Gray, on-camera, that he wouldn’t speak to him because of a critical interview Gray had done with Pete Rose before game two. At that moment, it was hard to decide who was more unlikable, Curtis or the characteristically irritating Gray.

While his refusal to be interviewed had no negative consequences on his reputation as far as I can tell, an off-field incident many years later did. On October 3, 2013, Curtis was sentenced to seven to fifteen years in prison for six counts of criminal sexual misconduct, stemming from accusations of sexual harassment from several female students at the high school where he was coaching.

Geoff Blum: The 2005 World Series is disdained by those who want higher-profile matchups than the Astros vs. the White Sox, or seven-game series, not four-game sweeps. Actually, however, this series was about as exciting as four-game sweeps got, with close games and quite a bit of drama and strategy. The crucial blow in the most exciting game was a two-out homer in the top of the 14th inning by Geoff Blum, an infielder (for the most part) for 14 years, and several teams, without ever quite gaining a regular job. He had a lifetime .694 OPS and 99 home runs – 100, however, if you add that World Series shot.

blum

Blum only had 99 plate appearances for the White Sox that year (and just one home run in the regular season for the team), and would never play for the Sox again. What’s even more notable about his home run than its timing, however, is that it was his only World Series appearance, for the White Sox or anyone else. He is, incidentally, not the only player to hit a homer in his only World Series at-bat, the other being the yet more obscure infielder Jim Mason, who hit his for the Yankees in the third game of the 1976 World Series. The Yankees were swept in that series, and Mason was one of the worst players in this roundup, with a lifetime OPS of .534 and 12 home runs in nine years of mostly part-time service.

DeWayne Wise: Most of the players on this list performed their heroics or near-heroics in the post-season or the heat of the pennant race. Here’s an instance, however, of a spurt of brilliance that happened in a regular season game, and not a particularly meaningful one. On July 23, 2009, Mark Buehrle’s perfect game was saved in the ninth inning by reserve outfield DeWayne Wise, who was in as a defensive replacement and robbed the Tampa Bay Rays’ Gabe Kapler of a home run. To quote Wikipedia, “To thank Wise for his play Mark Buehrle gave him a bottle of Crown Royal XR in a cloth bag embroidered with his name and the date of the perfect game.”

wise

On the strength of his defense and base-running, Wise scratched out an eleven-year career despite a subpar .645 OPS. Another perfect-game saving play was made a few years ago by Giants outfielder Gregor Blanco, who made a spectacular diving catch in the seventh inning to preserve Matt Cain’s June 13, 2012 gem. That’s probably what Blanco will be most remembered for, though he’s building a career as a modestly useful Giants reserve outfielder.

Yusmeiro Petit: As long as we’re talking Giants, the last name on this list is a teammate of Blanco’s and, for that matter, Travis Ishikawa (or at least he was a teammate of Ishikawa before this month). Yusmeiro Petit, on the Giants’ staff as I write this, has had a journeyman career, with a lifetime ERA of 4.72 and a win-loss record of 20-27. He’s had his moments with the Giants, however, losing a perfect game on September 6, 2013 with a 3-2 count and two out in the ninth inning.  The following year, he set a major league record by retiring 46 batters in a row (over the course of eight appearances). More memorably, he pitched six scoreless innings out of the bullpen to get the win in an 18-inning playoff game against the Nationals in 2014, with seven strikeouts and just one hit allowed—not as impressive a performance as Moe Drabowsky’s, but still an amazing one, given the circumstances.

petit

In this post, I haven’t cited the numerous players who are known primarily for an on-field failure. And there are many: Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series, Fred Merkle’s failure to touch second base on a (nearly) game-ending single in a key game in the 1908 pennant race, Donnie Moore giving up Dave Henderson’s home run to erase what seemed a certain victory in the 1986 playoffs, etc. Maybe those will be a subject for a future post. Because the infinite possibilities of how baseball games play out will certainly leave room for more remembered-only-for-this feats in the future, good and bad.

The 1960 World Series: The Game Remains the Same

With my hometown team, the San Francisco Giants, winning a world series in seven games this year, I got to thinking about other game sevens. These days, you can do more than think about them; you can watch them, or at least parts of some of them. The match often cited as the best game seven of all, the Pirates vs. the Yankees in 1960, is now online, or at least the last three innings of it.

1961th

It’s been 54 years since that game, which the Pirates won 10-9, the home team winning when Bill Mazeroski hit a home run to open the bottom of the ninth. The game of baseball itself has changed a lot since then, and so has television. What surprised me the most on viewing these three innings, however, was how little baseball has changed in some respects. I’m not a fan of the other major sports, but I imagine if you saw a football or basketball game from 1960, it would look quite a bit different than it does today.

There’s been a lot of talk, mostly justified, lately about speeding up the pace of major league baseball, with many games dragging over three hours or more (four hours or more, sometimes, in the postseason). Watching games on TV is itself a much different experience than it was in the twentieth century, both in the barrage of commercials, in-house network promotions (often in the middle of innings), and onslaught of statistics that were largely inaccessible a few decades ago. Yet for all that, it’s not at all hard to follow the 1960 World Series game, even if you’re unfamiliar with the teams and players.

True, compared to what you see nowadays, the camerawork can seem elementary. There are just a few angles, and no instant replay. When Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek, for instance, is famously struck in the throat by a bad hop on a grounder that looked like a double play, there are no replays, where today there would likely be a dozen or so. The camera lingers on the scene for literally minutes as Kubek struggles, unsuccessfully, to recover and stay in the game.

Kub1

I’m not one of those purists who laments all the statistics on hand for broadcasters nowadays. I like hearing the OPS, BABIP, left-handed averages, and so forth, as long as it’s integrated smoothly into the flow. I have to say, however, that it’s a little refreshing hearing the announcer (Mel Allen) just stick to the action, and describe it very well. No frills, no bells and whistles, just acute play-by-play description of what’s going on, which in this game seven was very complex indeed, with several tough fielding plays, lead shifts, dramatic home runs, and a really strange play where Mickey Mantle evaded a tag to dive back into first to evade getting erased on a groundball double play that would have ended the game in the top of the ninth. Aside from the relative lack of those interminable delays when batters step out of the box to adjust things, or pitchers taking forever between pitches, it’s very close to the way the game’s still played today.

Here are a couple of notable differences, however. One is the lack of African-Americans and Latin-Americans. There are just a couple blacks: Hall of Fame Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente (from Puerto Rico) and Pirates pinch runner Joe Christopher (from the Virgin Islands). (If you’re wondering about the Yankees’ Elston Howard, the fine African-American catcher did not play that day.) These days just about every club has several Latin Americans on the rosters, and often several from the Dominican Republic alone.

A less expected difference was the absolutely atrocious state of the infield dirt. Yes, groundskeeping was less refined back then. But this is a World Series game, and the infield looks like golfers have been chopping out divots for hours the night before. No wonder Kubek got struck by that grounder – which, if not for that bad hop, probably would have been a double play and resulted in a far less dramatic Yankee victory, though of course the Pirates infielders had to contend with the same conditions.

Every year, there’s a hailstorm of moans and groans about how baseball’s slipping in popularity, is losing traction with young kids, doesn’t get high World Series ratings, etc. And every year, traditionalists bemoan how the game isn’t what it used to be, that it was better and more meaningful “back then,” whether 1960 or 1990. And really, play the game sevens (both close nail-biters) of 1960 and 2014 back-to-back, and there’s ultimately little difference in their ability to rivet with their suspense. As much as things have changed, that’s remained the same.

A 1960 World Series program.

A 1960 World Series program.

Memories of Philadelphia Ballparks Past

As I wrote in a post a while ago, Candlestick Park, former home of the San Francisco Giants, is due for demolition pretty soon. That got me thinking of other major league ballparks I’ve been to that no longer exist. There aren’t that many – Connie Mack Stadium (Philadelphia Phillies), Veterans Stadium (also Phillies), the Kingdome (Seattle Mariners), Memorial Stadium (the Baltimore Orioles, which I only went to once), and the old Yankee Stadium (also only visited once).

Connie Mack

Since I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I know Veterans Stadium by far the best of these parks, though I never went there after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1980s. Retrospectives of the Vet, as it was known locally, emphasize the most famous moments – the 1980 World Series victory, the feats of Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, the 1993 pennant with rowdy characters like Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk, and colorful glove-thumping of reliever Tug McGraw, and Pete Rose coming to the Phillies for a few years near the end of his career. This post, though, will recap some of the odder moments of Phillies baseball I saw in person, none of which are likely to get much if any coverage in baseball books.

As a preamble, the very first major league games I saw were in Connie Mack Stadium, the facility (formerly known as Shibe Park) the Phillies played in from 1938 to 1970. When I was seven, I saw my first games at a doubleheader against the Pirates on June 22. The Phillies were pretty bad then, and thought of as pretty star-crossed, never having won a World Series, and having blown the 1964 pennant by losing ten games in a row near the end of the season. Their superstar, Richie (later Dick) Allen, was generating enormous controversy for his knack for irritating management and fans (even writing messages to them in the infield dirt), and in fact would get suspended for about a month just a couple days later for failing to show up for games in New York.

DA 1966

Even at that age, I could tell the neighborhood surrounding Connie Mack Stadium was pretty bad, too. Bad enough that you could, even at that age, tell parents were pretty nervous parking around there, which was just one reason the team moved to a much safer (if more isolated) area in the early 1970s.

The only two other games I saw were a doubleheader against the Giants in 1970. (My parents were very economy-minded, and if they had to take the family to a ballpark, they’d do it just once a year, and get two games out of the way at once.) The Phillies were still bad, but they swept the twinight doubleheader, though in a fashion that still managed to accent their futility. In the first game, Jim Bunning had the chance to become the first pitcher after Cy Young to win 100 games in both the American and National Leagues. He left a 5-4 lead in the hands of ace reliever Dick Selma, who struck out the first two batters in the top of the ninth (the second of them Willie Mays). Then he faced Willie McCovey, and though I can’t look up the count, as I remember got two strikes on him. And then – McCovey hit a home run. The 100th win for Jim Bunning in the national league would have to wait.

It almost looks like this photo was snapped right after Dick Selma gave up a game-tying homer to Willie McCovey, delaying Jim Bunning's chance to become the second pitcher to win 100 games in both the American and National Leagues.

It almost looks like this photo was snapped right after Dick Selma gave up a game-tying homer to Willie McCovey, delaying Jim Bunning’s chance to become the second pitcher to win 100 games in both the American and National Leagues.

Looking back at the Phillies’ 1970 schedule, as you can easily do online these days, I’m struck by how differently games could get bunched up back then. Probably due to a makeup game, the Phillies had also played a twinight doubleheader against the Giants the previous day. And that wasn’t the only time they played doubleheaders on consecutive days that year – they’d done so about a month earlier in two different cities (Montreal and Philadelphia) on July 1 and July 2, that after playing two games in St. Louis on June 28. And dig this – after playing doubleheaders against the Giants on both Friday, July 31 and Saturday, August 1, the Phils would play two-fers against the Pirates August 6 and the Cubs August 9, with no off days the whole while. That’s fourteen games in ten days. Can you imagine the Players Association letting MLB get away with that now?

Also, the day I went to Connie Mack on 1970, it actually hosted a triple-header. How’s that possible, you ask? Well, in the afternoon, the festivities started with the Double-A Eastern League All-Star game, the Phillies having a double-A affiliate not far away in Reading, Pennsylvania. Three games in one day was just too much for my parents, and we saw just a few innings of the All-Star game, in which I’m pretty sure future Phillies slugger Greg Luzinski played. What sticks with me the most, however, is that between the double-header and the first “real” game, I saw one of the Eastern Leaguers, still in uniform, on the concession ramp, talking earnestly with a woman I assume was his wife. Can you imagine that happening at a big-league ballpark these days?

Luzinski

When Veterans Stadium was torn down about a decade ago, I was amused to hear it referred to as something of a decrepit, characterless structure. Back when it opened in 1971, it (along with two similar, now-demolished stadiums that opened at around the same time, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium and Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium) was considered cutting-edge state-of-the-art. Not only was it bigger and safer (and in a safer neighborhood with more parking), it had a big electric scoreboard that showed player stats – still something of a novelty then – and cannons, fountains, and a Liberty Bell that were supposed to go off with Phillie home runs.

As it happened, our family went to the second game ever played there, against the Montreal Expos on April 11. The Phils’ big hope that year was new right-fielder Roger Freed, who’d been trapped in an Orioles minor league system overflowing with talent. In 1970 in triple-A, he was the International League’s MVP, hitting .334 with 24 homers and 130 RBIs. The Phillies traded one of their starting pitchers (Grant Jackson, coming off a bad year) to get him. There was even a story in a national magazine (Sport, if I remember correctly) titled something like “Freed at Last.” And, wouldn’t you know it, Freed hit a grand slam, setting off all those artificial fireworks we were hoping to see.

RogerFreed

Except, in a portent of things to come, the fireworks didn’t work. At least, not all at once or like the cannon, fountains, and bell were supposed to. The Phillies did win that game 11-4, but Freed turned out to be a bust, hitting .221 with six homers, getting relegated to part-time duty the following year, and returning to the minors the year after that, never playing regularly in the bigs (or at all for the Phils) again. Grant Jackson didn’t exactly become a star, but he was a good reliever for a long time for the Orioles and the Pirates, winning a game for the latter in the 1979 World Series.

Another odd play that sticks out came four years later, when the Phillies had gotten much better and were finally contenders. In the first game of a Memorial Day twinight doubleheader against the Cubs, Mike Schmidt, who’d ascended to superstardom the previous year after a tough 1973 rookie season, hit a triple in the bottom of the first. In the eyes of one of my relatives also at the game, Schmidt – despite his impressive statistics – could do no right, always failing in the clutch, striking out, or making physical or mental errors at big moments. And as if on cue, Schmidt thought about going for an inside-the-park homer, thought better of it, scampered back to third – and got called out. They didn’t score that inning, and lost the game 7-5. I cannot remember another time I witnessed a player getting tagged out after rounding third on a triple and trying to return to the bag.

1973+Topps+Mike+Schmidt

The Phillies continued to get better, despite this mishap, and got into the playoffs in 1976, 1977, and 1978. But they failed to advance to the World Series each time, and despite adding Pete Rose in 1979, they fell out of contention by late summer. I saw what was probably their last hurrah – a 12-inning walk-off victory against their chief rivals (and eventual world champion that year), the Pirates, in the first game of a twinight doubleheader on August 10. Ex-Met Bud Harrelson, whose acquisition my friends and I had soundly derided, knocked in the winning run with a single with two outs in the bottom of the 12th. The Phillies lost the second game, however, and it wouldn’t be until 1980 that they finally cleared the hurdle to the World Series and, against the Royals, won a world championship.

When I think of the earlier years when the Phillies were struggling to first rise to respectability and then to keep from choking themselves in the post-season, one symbol stands out in greater relief than any other. For opening day, the Phillies would hire this guy named “Kiteman” to sort of ski, sans snow, down a ramp in the stands, lift off into the air as if he was an Olympian ski jumper, and make a parachute landing on the field, hopefully on the pitcher’s mound. The thing was, like the Cone of Silence in Get Smart, it never worked, though they tried it more than once. In fact, on Kiteman’s first attempt (actually the first Kiteman’s attempt, since various Kitemen assumed that role over the years), he kind of skidded off the ramp and crashed in the stands, though fortunately he wasn’t seriously hurt. It wasn’t until 1990, in fact, that a Kiteman made it to the pitcher’s mound.

media-catalog-product-b-r-bringbackkitemantshirtphilly

Nor was having “the Great Wallenda,” tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, walk on a rope suspended high above the field from foul pole to foul pole exactly common between-games (back in the days when there were scheduled doubleheaders) fare. Quite fortunately for all involved, he made those journeys without accident, even standing on his head in the middle of the rope on one televised walk. When Wallenda did fall to his death, it wasn’t at the Vet, but far away, on a walk between two towers in Puerto Rico.

Candlestick Memories

As you might have heard even if you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Candlestick Park is going to be demolished soon. Paul McCartney pretty much gave it a send-off on August 14, playing a concert that was as much closure for him (since the Beatles’ last official show was at Candlestick on August 29, 1966) as the city and its residents. I have to admit I hadn’t been to Candlestick for about fifteen years; the Giants moved away at the end of the 1990s, and though the 49ers stayed, I’m not a football fan. The imminent departure made me think about some of the most memorable moments in baseball games I saw in person there, all between the late 1980s and late 1990s.

I’m a firm believer that the most interesting things you see at the park are not what are usually blown up as such in the media. All-stars and Hall of Famers setting records, getting retired in sentimental pregame ceremonies, getting standing ovations, winning their twentieth game, or hitting their fortieth homer are actually not the most dramatic occurrences within the games themselves. Those often belong to uncelebrated players in mid-season contests that, in the scheme of who makes the playoffs, are meaningless. I’m celebrating some of those in this post.

The most exciting game I ever saw came in the midst of a hugely disappointing season for the Giants — 1996,  in which they finished in last place (though they somehow won all five of the games I saw at Candlestick that year). On June 18, they were beating the Florida (as they were then called) Marlins 8-1 going into the bottom of the eighth inning. The Marlins tied it with a huge rally, sending the game into extra innings — the Giants working without Barry Bonds, then in his prime, as he’d been taken out in the eighth inning, the game seemingly in the bag. After a half-dozen scoreless see-saw frames, the Giants won with two outs in the bottom of the fifteenth — on an intentional walk by Pat Rapp.

Pat Rapp

How can that happen, you say? Well, it wasn’t exactly on an intentional walk, but in the middle of an intentional walk to slugger Matt Williams. There was a runner on third, and, unbelievably, Rapp threw a wild pitch while giving Williams a free pass. Marvin Benard scampered home, and the Giants were winners, 9-8.

Benard

How many others times has that happened in major league baseball history? Any? It’s not even the kind of thing you can look up, as it’s simply marked as a wild pitch in the box score, without any note that it was in the midst of an intentional walk. Trying to research this, I couldn’t come up with any other examples, though I did find a somewhat similar incident in a college game between Auburn and the University of Mississippi in April 2014, where an extra-inning game ended when a hitter smacked what was meant to be a pitch from an intentional walk for a walk-off homer. It’s proof of the old adage that no matter how many baseball games you watch, you’re bound to come across something you’ve never seen before.

The play at home was close enough, by the way, that had it happened today, the Marlins certainly would have used a replay challenge. I’m not as down on expanded replays as some fans are, but waiting around for a few minutes for the umpires to get the verdict sure would have made the game more anti-climactic than that instant “safe!” call. As it was, I had the suspicion the home plate umpire (it was a day game) was getting hungry and tired, and wanted any excuse to get the thing over with. I would have had a closer view (these being the 15,000-strong-crowd Candlestick days when ushers actually didn’t mind if you sneaked into empty front rows at long games like these), except the guy I was with hadn’t dressed properly for the Candlestick chill, and insisted that we had to stay in seats that were catching some sunlight.

Such wet blankets were a factor in another memorable game I saw — the first one I ever saw at Candlestick, actually. On the night of September 19, 1989, the Giants beat the Dodgers 3-2 on their way to the National League pennant, beating one of the top pitchers of the era, Orel Herschiser. All three runs scored on a three-run double by one of their least heralded bench scrubs, Mike Laga.

Mike Laga

Laga, who only had twenty at-bats for the Giants that year, was one of those classic AAAA (four-A, quad-A) hitters. With 16 homers in 449 major league ABs, he had some power, but not much else, batting .199, striking out 115 times, and taking only 22 walks. He cranked out 220 homers in the minors, but by 1991 he was playing in Japan, hitting 32 homers (but batting just .236) before getting cut loose after just a dozen games there the following year. But for that one night, he was the big hero. Not that it impressed the out-of-town friend I went with, who spent much of the game (as did many visitors, or even San Francisco residents) complaining about how cold it was.

In 1990, I went to about a dozen games, having a job where I worked at home and could often take off for things like this during weekdays. On July 31, the match against the Astros ended on a walk-off pinch-hit single by…Don Robinson, a pitcher. That’s gotta be a rarity, too — a game ending on a pinch-hit by a pitcher. But Robinson was known as one of the very best-hitting pitchers of his time, hitting .231 lifetime with 13 home runs.

Don Robinson

Robinson’s nickname was “Caveman,” and the friend with whom I attended the game had brought — no joke — a caveman bat into the park the day, on the chance that Robinson just might be pinch-hitting. When Don came to the plate, he waved the stick with gusto. And gleefully took the credit for the win, which was dampened a bit when enthusiastic spectators leaped onto the field to scoop up the ball Robinson had hit, only to be escorted off by police.

One of the weirdest plays, and weirdest games, I saw was on June 13, 1996, again against the Astros. On a third strike to Steve Scarsone, catcher Rick Wilkins failed to catch it on the fly, but had an easy play to throw out the runner at first base. He threw it way down the right-field line, allowing Marvin Benard (there he is again) to score all the way from second, and Scarsone to go all the way to second. It was the most Little League-like play I’d ever seen at a big-league game. That helped stake the Giants to a 9-0 lead, which they almost blew before recovering to win 12-8. More astonishingly, the Giants actually acquired Wilkins later that year, apparently unbothered by his shaky defensive skills.

Rick Wilkins

Far better defensive play at the plate was showcased back in 1990 by Steve Decker. I can’t pin down an exact date for this one (even now, when detailed box scores and even play-by-plays for MLB games are on the Internet), though it may have been September 24 against the Padres. As a runner tried to score from third on a flyball, Decker nonchalantly stared ahead as if the ball was nowhere near him — and then grabbed the throw from the outfield and slapped the tag on the runner for an out.

Steve Decker

As a September call-up, Decker had a good month, also hitting .296 with three home runs. Great things were expected of him, but he became one of the biggest Giants busts, hitting just .206 in an extended shot at the regular catching job the following year, and never managing to become a regular in the bigs despite playing parts of seven years for four teams. For that one night, though, he looked like an all-star.

Candlestick was not a good place to see a game, usually. It was often windy and cold, public transportation to the stadium was sparse, and the surrounding neighborhoods were dilapidated (and still are to no small degree). Many locals and out-of-towners greeted the news of its demolition with “it’s about time” or some equivalent. But don’t let anyone tell you that you couldn’t have a good time there if you were a baseball fan (and brought several layers of clothing). Not to mention how you could get a fairly good bleacher seat for $2.50-4.00, almost always get into the park on game day (even if it was sometimes so cavernously empty that you could hear what the players were saying during batting practice), and usually sneak down to better seats on the third-base line without the ushers minding. It might be less windy at the Giants’ current home, AT&T park. But you can’t do any of that there, and probably never will.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

Oddities at the Baseball Hall of Fame

My friends find it hard to believe since I’ve followed the game so long, but it wasn’t until last month — at the age of 52 — that I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. You’ve got to admit it’s in the middle of nowhere, or, at least, very hard to access by public transportation from New York City, which is usually the closest I get to Cooperstown. On my last trip to the East Coast I finally bit the bullet, rented a car for a couple days, and made the pilgrimage in early June.

I’m not so big on bats, balls, gloves, and uniforms belonging to historic feats and players, though if that’s your thing, the Hall has plenty of those. I’m more drawn to the offbeat items on display, like these:

Fernando_cover.preview

That’s a real record, which has to be heard to be believed (and can be easily heard online). Musically it’s an average mariachi-flavored tune, but the lyrics are something else, delivered by Lalo Guerrero in a strained, proudly melodramatic, operatic bellow:

He walks out to the mound, like a matador, without a suit of lights,

The crowd lets out a mighty roar, as he steps out of the night

His baseball is his weapon, deadly to his foes

His screwball is his (), this every hitter knows!

Fernando!, you’re a breath of fresh air to us all

And when you’re pitching the ball

You do it with style and grace

You’ve got us all back in the race!

(I admit my Spanish isn’t good enough to make out the description of his screwball, though I’m sure it’s highly complimentary; corrections welcome at this address.)

A silly novelty, yes, but also a testament to just how huge Valenzuela’s impact was in his 1981 rookie season. He won his first eight games (four of those wins were shutouts); the Mexican was a huge draw for the huge Southern Californian Latino community; the Dodgers won the World Series; and he even hit pretty well, for a pitcher. He had a pretty good career, but he didn’t make the Hall of Fame, unless you count this piece of vinyl.

It’s in one of the Hall’s best sections, devoted to Latino players. Here’s another part of the exhibit that caught my eye, though the reflection on the glass case makes it hard to photograph with perfect definition:

Venez

I admit I didn’t know there were baseball cards in Venezuela. Here you see 1996-97 cards, not much different in design than their US counterparts, of big league stars who were playing winter ball in the country: Bobby Abreu, Omar Vizquel, Maglio Ordonez, Andres Galarraga, and Ozzie Guillen, here identified as “Oswaldo Guillen.”

To the Hall’s credit, it has solid sections on minorities who haven’t always (or to this day) gotten a fair shake in the majors: Latinos, African-Americans (including players in the Negro Leagues), and women. Here’s something I didn’t know about a contribution to our pastime from a woman musician:

NancyFaust

So that’s how that started. The weird history of the band who made it a #1 hit in 1969, Steam, is too lengthy to recount here. But basically it was a studio-only group who thought of the tune as a throwaway B-side, only to see it become such a megasmash that another group of musicians was enlisted to tour under the Steam name. Thanks to Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust, it’s now had a far longer life than even many #1 hit singles, though I think its use as the crowd’s kiss-off to George W. Bush’s helicopter at Obama’s inauguration trumps any occasion at which it’s been sung at a sporting event.

Steam

Faust, by the way, wasn’t the only woman organist of note at the ballpark. Gladys Gooding was the organist at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and her “Follow the Dodgers” disc is also on exhibit, though most of the woman’s wing is properly devoted to their athletic feats on the field.

What about the many controversies that have threatened the game’s image and integrity since the 1800s? The Hall doesn’t entirely skirt those, though in the case of the baseball’s biggest recent scandal, it kind of mumbles. This smallish card near the entrance to a section devoted to some of the game’s most revered records (of the statistical kind, not the musical sort) might easily be missed by many visitors:

Peds

If you want to read the text without squinting, here’s what it says:

“In documenting baseball history, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) cannot be ignored, although a complete list of players who have used banned substances throughout time may never be known. In this museum you will find artifacts, images and stories of players who have either admitted to or have been suspected of using banned substances. Even though you will not always find specific references to this issue, this museum is committed to telling the story of PEDs within the game’s historical context.”

At least there’s something, even if it’s buried as deeply as those warnings not to operate heavy machinery on the medicine your primary care physician prescribes for persistent coughs.

Ending on a more upbeat note, here’s a guitar whose design is customized to honor the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Can’t tell you how it sounds, though, as like virtually everything else at the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s under glass and out of reach:

FenwayGuitar

Greg Bollo: He Bowled ‘Em Over With His Fastball

Things might have changed now that they’re such collectibles, but when I was real young in the late 1960s, baseball cards were often considered wasteful frivolities. Maybe the stale bubblegum sticks that came with them were, but in my own case, the cards themselves were greatly undervalued aids for teaching me how to read. When I was five and six years old, the kids’ stories in textbooks weren’t really sparking my appetite for learning. No, the first things I avidly read on my own were Peanuts cartoons and — the backs of baseball cards. You’ve got to start somewhere, and while I probably would have learned to read (and write!) with the moralistic kiddie tales in first-grade lessons, nothing stokes the hunger for knowledge as much as subjects in which you’re actually interested. Peanuts, and baseball, were those things (the Beatles wouldn’t come until about two years later).

Looking back at the backs of the cards, you can tell how relentlessly optimistic the brief text was, as if every day was the first day of spring training, hope not so much springing as gushing eternal. The term “media spin” wasn’t in use then, but the concept was certainly used, and frequently, in building up every single player who’d been granted a Topps card, no matter how marginal their chances of becoming a regular. You knew someone was really marginal when Topps’ anonymous writer-cum-PR-person really didn’t know what to say in the little cartoons that accompanied the one or two sentences of text. Like this 1966 card for White Sox pitcher Greg Bollo:

BolloBack

Even back then, that struck me as a weird and kind of creepy image, like Greg Bollo had actually thrown a bowling ball at the hitter instead of a baseball, leaving the batsman with an irreparable hole in his soul. Topps’s loss for words was a pretty good indicator that Bollo might not stick at the big league level, and indeed he didn’t. Now that the Internet’s at hand more than 50 years later to fill in the gaps, though, Bollo’s story — and those of who knows how many other on-the-cusp players — turns out to be more interesting than the print that could fit onto the back of his baseball card.

After pitching very well at the single-A level in 1964, Bollo was promoted to the big club and spent the entire 1965 season with the White Sox. It might be more precise to say that he didn’t play in the minors that year, since he somehow appeared in just 15 games. With no wins, no losses, and no saves, it’s safe to assume he was mostly or wholly used in mop-up roles. Was he injured for part of the year? Was he carried on the big league roster to give him experience, but not thought of as truly ready for the big time, and thus relegated to what we would these day call “low-leverage” situations? It’s pretty rare for a pitcher to be used so seldom over the course of a full year (and downright unknown these days) at the major league level.

The front of Bollo's 1966 baseball card.

The front of Bollo’s 1966 baseball card.

Bollo spent most of 1966 back in single A, where he had a fair — not great — year for Lynchburg. You’re riding a strange yo-yo when you’re called up from single A to the bigs and sent back down to single A, a string made stranger by Bollo’s return to the White Sox in September. After a couple more no-decision relief appearances, someone took pity on the poor fellow and let him start the final game of the year on October 2, against the Yankees. He didn’t do too badly — giving up one run in four innings (though he walked three) — but that was enough to tag him with the loss, in a game the Sox lost 2-0. And as Bollo never got into another major league game, that was also enough to tag him with a permanent 0-1 lifetime record.

(As an aside, on the very last day of the season the previous year, the Yankees had dealt the only decision — a loss, again — to another hard-luck picture, Arnold Earley, who had managed to get into 56 games without a win, loss, or save before losing the final game of 1965 for the Red Sox. Read about that story here.)

Only 22 at the time, Bollo kept at it in the White Sox organization until 1970. He spent two years and part of another in triple A, but never did conquer his control problems. He wasn’t quite bowling them over with his fastball. But his brief time in the majors did generate that one indelible image, left behind in a closet or drawer by an older brother, and doing its share to cultivate literacy in a place where mainstream culture least expected it.

In contrast to Greg Bollo, the pitcher who shared his 1965 rookie card, Bob Locker, enjoyed a fairly long and successful career, appearing in 576 games (all as a reliever) and pitching for the Oakland A's in the 1972 World Series (which the A's won).

In contrast to Greg Bollo, the pitcher who shared his 1965 rookie card, Bob Locker, enjoyed a fairly long and successful career, appearing in 576 games (all as a reliever) and pitching for the Oakland A’s in the 1972 World Series (which the A’s won).

 

An Indians Game At Progressive Field: Low-Key Baseball for Out-of-Town Fans

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a major league baseball game outside of San Francisco or Oakland. An absurdly long time, maybe, considering how much time I spend listening to games on the radio. It’s been maybe ten years since the last one I saw out of town, in Seattle. Until today, that is, when I went to Progressive Field to see the A’s beat the Indians 13-3 in downtown Cleveland.

Progressive Field, with downtown Cleveland in the background, May 18, 2014.

Progressive Field, with downtown Cleveland in the background, May 18, 2014.

When it opened twenty years ago, Progressive Field (named Jacobs Field until 2008) was one of the first wave of the new, modern downtown ballparks springing up in the wake of Baltimore’s Camden Yards. It might be a little less impressive now than it was then, now that somewhat more spectacular stadiums have opened in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, and quite a few other teams have relocated to spiffy downtown spaces. It’s still a good place to see a game, though, and has its advantages even over AT&T Park in San Francisco, if maybe not always the ones that fans and owners would like.

The view as you approach the entrance to Progressive Field.

The view as you approach the entrance to Progressive Field.

One that no one would object to is the friendliness of the staff. Nothing’s free in San Francisco, so it was with some astonishment that I was handed a free program guide upon entering, the helpful fellow also giving us unhurried, precise directions to our seats. Not that AT&T’s staff aren’t friendly, but the friendliness is a lot less frenetic when there aren’t tens of thousands of fans swarming into the gates at once. Which is the advantage for a visitor like me that the average Clevelander probably wouldn’t like to see happening. One reason the pace is so relaxed is that fans aren’t turning out to Jacobs Field like they used to, let alone like they do in San Francisco, where there’s been years of consecutive sellouts. Here’s a shot of some outfield seats just minutes before game time:

Left field seats at Progressive Field aren't sold out these days, like they were in the old days.

Left field seats at Progressive Field aren’t sold out these days, like they were in the old days.

Nice to see former Indian greats honored on the billboards, anyway. In this shot, we see images of Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League, and Herb Score, the pitcher who got off to a sensational start in his first couple seasons in the mid-1950s before his career was derailed when he was hit in the face by a line drive. (Score went on to broadcast Indian games on TV and radio for more than 30 years.)

It’s hard to believe now, but the Indians used to sell out games for years at a time. The stadium isn’t as novel now, and the team (despite a good year in 2013) isn’t as good, currently residing in the cellar ten games out of first. Looking on the bright side, that does mean you get a much more, dare I say, mellow experience from the stands, with plenty of room to stretch out, and fan banter so low-key that it’s easy to hold a conversation in normal voice (when they’re not blasting Queen between innings). My friend Laura was even able to yell her beer order to a vendor from almost a dozen seats over with no problem getting heard.

As it was in the sixties and sunny, it was a great mid-May Sunday to be at the ballpark. It wasn’t so great for the Indians, who fell behind pretty early and just kept losing ground. Pitching changes such as the one below were all-too-common sights, though that didn’t keep the strangely attired mascot from dancing on the dugout late in the contest:

Another pitching change as the Indians fell farther and farther behind the A's.

Another pitching change as the Indians fell farther and farther behind the A’s.

Strange peanut mascot dances on the dugout, much as Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Strange peanut mascot dances on the dugout, much as Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

We were also able to walk over the bridge to the stadium from the neighborhood where I was staying. Which was worth it for this view of downtown, dominated by Terminal Tower:

Terminal Tower (the leftmost of the two tall buildings here) dominates this view of downtown Cleveland.

Terminal Tower (the leftmost of the two tall buildings here) dominates this view of downtown Cleveland.

No No: Not a Rockumentary, But a Dockumentary

There aren’t many documentaries about individual baseball players, at least if you don’t count the ones I don’t see that probably air on cable TV. No No: A Dockumentary is a recent theatrical release, but probably won’t be seen by a whole lot of people due to its niche subject matter, detailing the life of one of the most colorful players of the 1970s, Dock Ellis. I saw it last night at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and it does a pretty good job of covering the mercurial career of a good-but-not-great pitcher who’s still most notorious for proclaiming he threw a no-hitter under the influence of LSD.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

Dock Ellis, as he looked around the time he threw a no-hitter in 1970.

The highlights of Dock’s career – that 1970 no-hitter, his unabashed use of drugs and drink, wearing curlers in his hair on the field, getting into conflicts with the baseball establishment for his outspoken opinions on racial injustice, starting the 1971 All-Star game for the National League, and his post-baseball life as a drug counselor – are fairly well known to serious baseball fans. They’re decently Doc-umented in No No (with a good soundtrack of obscure vintage soul-funk), so this post will focus on some of the more surprising things that cropped up in my viewing.

With the passage of decades since Dock’s heyday, other players from the era are also becoming frank about the widespread drug use within the game. Fans already knew it existed after pitcher Jim Bouton wrote about the ingestion of amphetamines, known within baseball as “greenies,” in his classic Ball Four diary of the 1969 season. That was one of many things about the book that infuriated the baseball establishment, but in retrospect, it seems that if anything, Bouton might have toned down the reality of the situation. After all, he felt their benefits were limited, making you think as though you had better stuff than you did, and didn’t quite state that virtually every player used them.

But in No No, a number of other players (and quite a few, interestingly, are interviewed throughout the film) from Dock’s time do. They even give percentages. One, pitcher Scipio Spinks (one of the great baseball names) — a very promising hurler who won just seven games in a career cut short by injury — even put the percentage of users at 95 or 96 percent. There’s been much outrage over steroid use by ballplayers (and other athletes) in the early twenty-first century, but this reminds us that the history of drug use in the sport far predates our own era, and was not just present, but prevalent.

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport's greatest names, though not one of baseball's greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Scipio Spinks, owner of one of professional sport’s greatest names, though not one of baseball’s greatest lifetime records (7 wins, 11 losses).

Ellis, however, was an outsize drug user even by these standards. He claimed to have even taken sixteen or seventeen pills at once. No harm done if he wasn’t a pusher, some might say; his two wives, both victims of horrifying instances of domestic abuse, would say otherwise. When he was on these substances, observes one of his spouses, “I think he thought he was taking them over, but it was the other way around” — one of the most concise, on-target summaries of drug abuse I’ve ever heard.

Despite and sometimes because of his excesses, Dock was generally beloved by his teammates, friends, and family. The early-to-mid-1970s Oakland A’s are generally remembered as the most colorful of the period’s major league teams, but this movie also reminds us that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave them a run for their money. Pitcher Bruce Kison even goes as far as to remark that Pirates hated getting traded away because it was so boring being on other teams. (For a good portrait of the young Kison – speeding to his wedding just hours after helping the Pirates beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series, Santana blasting on the car stereo – see the chapter on Bruce in Pat Jordan’s fine book The Suitors of Spring.)

Pat Jordan's first book, The Suitors of Spring, collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers.

Pat Jordan’s 1972 The Suitors of Spring collected profiles of various major and minor league players and coaches, mostly pitchers, including a young Bruce Kison.

The Pirates were also notable for not just featuring more blacks than most teams, but fielding the first all-black lineup in major league baseball history on September 1, 1971. A few of the Pirates remember the occasion in No No, one of them claiming that the Buccos fell behind 7-0 in the first inning, not even thinking about the all-black personnel as they needed all their focus to pull out a 9-7 win. That wasn’t quite how it happened: they did fall behind to the Phillies (with Ellis on the mound) 2-0 and 6-5 in the early innings, but did indeed win 10-7. And they won the World Series the next month, though Ellis was sidelined by an arm injury after losing the first game.

Not everyone was as enamored of Ellis as his fellow Pirates, all of whom (including Kison, Steve Blass, Al Oliver, Gene Clines, and Dave Cash) speak of him in glowing terms in No No. Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg’s impression of Ellis when the pitcher was on other teams: “I don’t want to meet him in an alleyway.” After Ellis was traded to the Rangers, Sundberg, who did not indulge in drug use, kept their relationship strictly professional.

The mid-‘70s Cincinnati Reds probably held no great love for Dock either. In an incident almost notorious as his LSD no-hitter, he began the first inning of a May 1, 1974 game against the Big Red Machine by intentionally hitting the first three batters. Joe Morgan, it’s remembered, thought Ellis wouldn’t hit him because Morgan was a “brother.” On the mound, though, all opponents were equal, Ellis plunking Morgan when the Hall of Famer took his turn at bat. Dock went on to walk Tony Perez with the bases loaded before getting removed from the game.

As an aside, one of the oddest things about No No is its use of clips from a way-obscure promo film of the early 1980s, Dugout. Though it’s hard to tell from the brief excerpts, it seems to have been a short designed to scare Little Leaguers away from drugs. Ellis doesn’t appear in it, but, even more unexpectedly, Bo Belinsky — another talented pitcher who threw a no-hitter early in his career — does. Unlike Ellis, Belinsky never had much other success in the big leagues, finishing with a 28-51 lifetime record. Despite that 1962 no-hitter for the Los Angeles Angels (as they were called then), Belinsky was regarded as never fulfilling his potential, largely in part not to drug use, but to being a playboy, dating Mamie Van Doren (to whom he was briefly engaged), Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens, and Tina Louise, as well as marrying Playboy Playmate of the Year Jo Collins.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

Bo Belinsky, a better playboy than a pitcher.

From what little we see of Belinsky in the excerpts from Dugout used in No No, he seems to be warning kids away from drugs, in the wooden manner common to charismatic non-actor celebrities. The kids seem to be taking his cautions seriously, but here’s betting that no one could successfully warn aspiring big leaguers to stay away from the likes of Ann-Margret and Tina Louise. As it happens, Pat Jordan’s The Suitors of Spring also has a fascinating profile of Belinsky, who seemed to living it up just as hard right after getting out of the big leagues as he did in his brief peak.

Like Ellis, Belinsky would become a counselor (for alcohol abuse). One of Ellis’s clients, if that’s the right word, came as a surprise to me. Texas Rangers owner Brad Corbett, Sr., as his son reveals in the movie, was an alcoholic. Ellis remained friendly with Corbett after his brief time in Rangers uniform, and helped Corbett with his drink problem, Dock spending (according to at least one account in the film) almost all of his post-baseball life sober before his death in 2008.

It was a productive comeback of sorts considering how poorly Ellis, like many athletes, handled the sudden loss of his skills and end of his career. I’d forgotten that Dock briefly returned to the Pirates to finish his career at the end of 1979. The Pirates were fighting for a playoff spot (which they got, going on to win the World Series), and picked up Ellis with just a week or so to go in the season. He didn’t pitch too badly in his three games and seven innings, going four frames and getting a no-decision in the one game he did start, the second game of a September 24 doubleheader. (I’m guessing that doubleheader is probably the reason he got picked up, to make an emergency start to help out a heavily worked staff.) He confessed to Bruce Kison, however, that his arm was shot, and never appeared in a big league game after the regular schedule was over, being ineligible for the postseason roster. A five-hour session of abusing his second wife — including holding a gun in her mouth, and afterward demanding she have sex with him — was, she says in the film, fallout from his anger over getting released shortly afterward.

Lots of athletes have similarly ugly falls from grace when the cheering stops, even in a time when high salaries would seem to make post-career financial security a given. Not many athletes make something from themselves after the worst of it, as Ellis did, judging from that documentary. Which might have been the greatest saving grace of a man who, in another of the film’s surprises, received a letter of admiration from Jackie Robinson shortly before Robinson’s early-‘70s death. In many respects, Robinson was not nearly as controversial a figure; he was not a substance abuser, did not call attention to himself with antics like wearing hair curlers on the field, and even supported the Republican Party after his playing days had finished. In those ways, they weren’t kindred spirits. But in refusing to back down against a world in which racial discrimination was too prevalent, they were very much united.

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