Over the last couple of years, I have found myself sympathizing with Ford Frick, the old commissioner of baseball. Frick is generally remembered as the guy who tried to slap an asterisk — a “distinctive mark” was his official term — on Roger Maris’ 61-home run season of 1961.
It seems a shame to me that his baseball life has largely been reduced to that one decision because Frick did so much more. He played a big role in the building of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His “10 Commandments of Umpires” is a classic. Perhaps most of all, he is an unsung hero — maybe even THE unsung hero — in the Jackie Robinson story. It was Frick, as National League President, who bravely and decisively shut down a suspected St. Louis Cardinals boycott of a Dodgers game in 1947 with these celebrated words:
“I don’t care if half the league strikes. Those who do will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended, and I don’t care if it wrecks the league for 10 years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another. “
Some — like “Boys of Summer” author Roger Kahn — have suspected that it was actually the great editor Stanley Woodward who wrote the bold words. But those words had their power because Frick stood behind them, and the boycott was crushed before it ever began. You could argue this was the most courageous and right-thinking statement ever made by a baseball leader. Frick was also a baseball radio pioneer, perhaps the first to review baseball games on the radio. This is why the Hall of Fame award given to broadcasters is named for him.
But it’s the asterisk that haunts his name about as much as it haunts Maris’. The story is well known. In 1961, the American League expanded by two teams and added eight games to the schedule, to make it the 162-game season we know today. That year, Roger Maris, who had never hit even 40 homers in a season and never would again, threatened to break Babe Ruth’s legendary mark of 60 home runs in a season. Frick was a close friend of Ruth’s, the Babe’s biographer, and this was clearly a personal thing for him. In the middle of the season he called a press conference to announce that for the record to be “official,” Maris (or Mantle, who was also threatening the mark at the time) had to break or tie the record in the 154 games that Ruth had back in 1927.
Almost immediately, newspaper columnists mocked and savaged the announcement. For one thing, the commissioner of baseball really had no authority of record books. Heck in 1961, there really wasn’t any such thing AS an official record book. But he was the commissioner, and his words carried heft, and so Roger Maris — a quiet man who generally wanted to play baseball and be left alone — suddenly had the extra pressure of trying to break the record in 154 games. We all know that the intensity of the moment weighed on Maris, he famously lost his hair during the chase, and though he hit his 61st home run on the last game of the season, his record was often afterward referred to as the “162-game record.” Ruth’s remained the “154-game record.” Friends and family say Maris carried this indignity inside for the rest of his life.
In retrospect, it does seem like an insensitive decision — supporters often point out that Maris, even with the eight extra games, got only seven more plate appearances than Ruth did in 1927* — but I’d like to stand up for Frick for a moment. You have to remember: This was the very first year of expansion and the expanded season. And suddenly, not one but TWO men are seriously threatening Babe Ruth’s home run record.
*Maris also got 50 more at-bats because Ruth walked a lot more.
Frick could not have known that this was a one-year fluke, that nobody would hit more than 52 home runs in a season for the next 35 years. He could not have known that the Maris-Mantle home run chase was a one-time event, a perfect storm of ballpark and expansion and the friendly competition of teammates. I’m sure he worried that with those extra eight games and watered down competition, people might his 60-plus home runs ALL THE TIME. It’s funny because in 1998, baseball and the media — myself included — did the exact opposite, we tried to paint 1998 as a one-time event, the summer of the home run. Only the summer bled into the next year and the next and the next, until the home run became a non-event and the home run hitters found themselves forced to defend themselves in front of Congress.
But even beyond all that … I think Frick was, at heart, right. I’m not saying he did the right thing. He should not have held that press conference, and he should not have made that silly pronouncement which diminished in many eyes the great accomplishment of Roger Maris. No, I’m saying that when you get right down to it, eight extra games DOES change the equation, right? Hitting 61 home run in 162 games is simply NOT as impressive as hitting 60 home runs in 154 games. It just isn’t.
The 61-homer season balances out to a homer ever 2.66 games.
The 60-homer season balances out to a homer ever 2.56 games.
You would have expected Ruth to hit two or three more homers given the extra games. And, of course, he could have hit many more than that. He did hit six homers in his last eight games of 1927.
I think of Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 yards in a season. That’s an amazing feat — so amazing it has held for 27 seasons. But let’s be honest: in 1973 O.J. Simpson ran for 2,003 yards in FOURTEEN GAMES. There is zero doubt — absolutely zero doubt — that given two more games, Simpson would have crushed Dickerson’s record, probably by 200 yards or more.* I’m not saying that Simpson’s record should stand. Time moves on. A season is a season. I’m saying it’s reasonable to say that Simpson’s season should not just be wiped from the record books because the NFL decided to expand its season by two games.
*Dickerson got 72 more carries in his record-setting season than O.J. Simpson did in 1973. Simpson averaged an extraordinary six-yards a carry that year. If he could have maintained that yards-per-carry average for 72 more carries, O.J. Simpson would have run for a mind-boggling 2,435 yards.
All of this, believe it or not, leads to a point. It’s something that was suggested by brilliant reader W. Franklin who puts into words what I’ve been feeling lately about baseball: I wish everybody would stop talking about “postseason numbers,” like those mean anything at all. This hit home the other day when several people reported that Chris Carpenter had passed Bob Gibson in the Cardinals record book for “postseason wins.”
Are you kidding me? Bob Gibson didn’t ever pitch in a “postseason.” Not once. Bob Gibson pitched in the WORLD SERIES, which is not the same thing. He won seven WORLD SERIES games, which is a Cardinals record, it’s a National League record, it might not ever get broken, and it definitely won’t get broken by Chris Carpenter, who has been a very good pitcher but has won exactly TWO World Series games.
Andy Pettitte has the most “postseason” wins with 19. That’s great. But to say he passed Whitey Ford on the all-time list is a joke. Whitey Ford, like Gibson, never pitched in a “postseason.” He pitched in the WORLD SERIES, and he won 10 games, which is twice as many as Andy Pettitte won.
Fox, the other day, was showing a list of the most “postseason” hits by a catcher. The answer is Jorge Posada with 97, and behind him is Yogi Berra with 60 (not far behind, with 46, is Yadier Molina, which is why the list was being shown). To Fox’s credit, both Tim McCarver and Joe Buck made reference to the fact that Yogi Berra’s 60 hits were all in the World Series (only 21 of Posada’s were).
But it seems to me that to even show a list like that is a statistical abomination. If you insist on showing “postseason numbers,” then backdate those only to 1995, when the “postseason” became a three series marathon.* Then, Derek Jeter’s 191 postseason hits can get its due credit (it’s 63 more than second-place Bernie Williams), and Manny Ramirez’s 29 postseason home runs (seven more than Bernie Williams) can be celebrated for what it’s worth.
*You could argue that the baseball “postseason” began in 1969, with the additions of the American League and National League Championship Series, but I think it was the addition of the third series that really changed the whole dynamic.
But keep the World Series records out of it. Yogi Berra doesn’t just have the most hits for any catcher in World Series history, he has the most hits for any player ever in the World Series with 71 (for 11 of those hits, he wasn’t playing catcher). Mickey Mantle’s 18 World Series home runs is three more than Ruth* and 14 more than postseason leader Manny Ramirez.
*Though, again, you can mention the asterisk: Mantle played in 24 more World Series games than Ruth.
Now, the truth is that all these career numbers — postseason, World Series, whatever — involve circumstance and chance. The greatest postseason hitter ever might be Carlos Beltran. His 1.300 OPS in the postseason is better than Ruth or Gehrig or Mantle. In 22 postseason games, he hit 11 home runs and stole eight bases without getting caught. But Beltran has never played in a World Series game. So we don’t know. Lou Brock played in three World Series and was a force in all three — if he had played in 14 World Series like Yogi Berra, he might be viewed as the greatest big moment hitter in the history of baseball. Or he might not. There’s no way to know. Bret Saberhagen started two World Series games, completed them both, threw a shutout in one and allowed a single run in the other. If he had gotten the 22 World Series starts that Whitey Ford got, who knows what his record might have been.
But those are what ifs and they are fun to talk about but not much else. The point is that the proliferation of these postseason records is watering down baseball history. I remember years ago, my friend Chuck Culpepper was covering the Great Alaska Shootout, and he was telling me a story that had something to do with whether or not a player was selected to the Second Team All-Great Alaska Shootout. He was telling me this quite easily, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but I suddenly stopped him and said: “Wait a minute, there’s a SECOND TEAM All-Great Alaska Shootout?”
That’s how I feel about postseason numbers. Look: They have been playing the World Series for more than 100 years. They have been playing a “postseason” for less than 20. If people want to count those postseason numbers and compare them and marvel that John Smoltz has 199 postseason strikeouts, most ever, hey, that’s fine, have at it. But it might be good to break out the box of asterisks* first.
*Whitey Ford has the World Series record with 94. Smoltz is ninth on that list with 52.