By In Baseball, History

A Baseball Story

Here on Jackie Robinson’s birthday, wanted to repost this story I wrote a couple of years ago.

When Bobby Bragan was young, people used to call him “Nig.” He was of a darker complexion than most. He liked the nickname.  Bobby Bragan grew up in Alabama. The only black people he knew served food and worked for his father’s construction company. He did not even consider that his nickname might be offensive to anyone until he reached the Major Leagues and a teammate told him.

Bragan began his big-league career as a shortstop. He couldn’t hit, and he was an erratic fielder … an unhappy combination. In 1940, as a rookie, he made 49 errors. A year later he made 45 more. That’s when he realized that becoming backup catcher was safer. He was traded to Brooklyn in 1943 and a couple of years later went to war. When discharged in 1947, he traveled straight to Cuba and Dodgers spring training. He wanted to reclaim his job as backup catcher.

That was Jackie Robinson’s spring.

That was also Dixie Walker’s spring.

Dixie Walker was the most beloved player in Brooklyn. He was a gifted hitter — he finished second in the MVP voting to Stan Musial in 1946 — and, as Jonathan Eig writes in Opening Day, he had an aw-shucks Southern humility that drew people in. Musial was the Man in St. Louis. In Brooklyn, they called Walker “The People’s Cherce” — “Cherce” being Brooklyneese for “Choice.”


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By In Baseball, Stuff

Managing A Food Store

Buttermaker: “You’re putting the tying run on first base, you imbecile!”
Turner: “Couldn’t even manage a food store, he’s managing a baseball team.”
— The Bad News Bears

* * *

If you have spend much time here at the Ol’ JoeBlogs, you might know that we’re not too crazy about the intentional walk. There are two reasons for this. One is an overriding distaste for it. The intentional walk is anti-competitive. It drains the excitement and tension out of a game that, by its very nature, builds very deliberately toward excitement and tension. When Bryce Harper or Paul Goldschmidt or Mike Trout or Jose Altuve come up with two runners on in a tie game, we would like to actually SEE Joey Votto or Aaron Judge or or Carlos Correa or Andrew McCutchen hit.

The intentional walk is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. You wait in a six-hour line for Mr. Toad, your kids are screaming and pleading, the ice cream cone you got them at the start is long gone (and they are wearing most of it on their shirts), and then you finally get to the front, finally get on the ride … and it’s VVVVVVVPPPPPP, OK, ride’s over, thanks for coming.

And you think — as the great philosophers and Peggy Lee have thought — “Is that all there is?”

In truth, though, my overall beef with the intentional walk has lost some of its steam because over the last five or six seasons it has all but disappeared. The IBB has ticked up ever so slightly this year, but we’re talking about the difference of .19 IBBs per game to .20 IBBs, which is nothing. Teams issue intentional walks once every five games or so, and most of those are walks to get to the pitcher. So while, yes, every intentional walk is an abomination upon the earth, well, it’s hard to build up much righteous anger for rare birds.

The second reason we here loathe the intentional walk, though, is strategic. The intentional walk is often a preposterously stupid strategy.

And so we take you to Los Angeles, California.

The Dodgers are ridiculously good. I mean RIDICULOUSLY good. I spent a couple of hours with GM Farhan Zaidi back in March — always a joy, by the way — and we went over the team piece and by piece and at some point I said, “Your team is ridiculously good, isn’t it?” That was before I knew that Cody Bellinger would unload or that Alex Wood would decide to be Clayton Kershaw, but anyway the team is really good. I saw Dodgers president Stan Kasten at the Hall of Fame ceremony on Sunday, and let’s just say he seemed pretty happy.

So the Dodgers and Giants played on Sunday at Dodger Stadium, rivals having very different seasons, and the Giants led 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth. If you have followed the Giants the last couple of years you know, leading 1-0 going into the bottom of the ninth is not their favorite place to be … to be honest, I suspect Giants fans were pleased that the Dodgers only scored one run to send the game into extra innings. The run, by the way, was scored by Chase Utley who led off with an infield single, stole second and scored on Yasiel Puig’s single. This is noteworthy because Chase Utley is 483 years old.

Anyway, into the 10th … into the 11th … and the Giants scored a run when Joe Panik’s ground ball single scored Kelby Tomlinson. Then came the bottom of the 11th — Giants in their favorite position, up one run going into the last — and with one out Corey Seager smashed a double because that’s what Corey Seager does.

Up came Justin Turner. Now if you are an astute baseball fan, as I know you are, you realize that the Giants pitcher Alberto Suarez had created something of a pickle for himself. The tying run is on second base, in what many call “scoring position.” And Justin Turner is one whiz-bang of a hitter; he currently has the highest batting average in the National League.

A pickle, indeed!

So what is there for Suarez and manager Bruce Bochy to do? Well, on the one hand they could try to get Turner out — as good as he is, most pitchers DO get him out. Or, well, sure, first base is open so he could intentionally walk Turner.

Intentionally walking Turner, though, puts the winning run on base.

You never put the winning run on base.


Never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever …

No, wait a minute, stop (hammer time), there is one situation when you should purposely put the winning run on base. That situation is: If you are facing Roy Hobbs and Glenn Close wearing white stands up in the stands. Then it’s OK. Otherwise, um, no.

Glenn Close did not stand up. Justin Turner is not Roy Hobbs. The Giants intentionally walked Turner anyway because the guy on deck was someone named Kyle Farmer, and he had come to the plate exactly zero times in his Major League career. Yes, this was his Major League debut and Bochy decided that “facing a rookie in his first at-bat” was as good a reason to intentionally walk the winning run as “Glenn Close standing up.”

It is not. It most decidedly is not.

Kyle Farmer promptly doubled to win the game because the intentional walk has no honor … and the baseball Gods were watching.

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By In Baseball, Joe Vault

Vault: The Heart of Los Angeles

This piece originally ran about five years ago. After I wrote it, I got a hand-written note in the mail. It was from Vin Scully. It said, simply, “Joe, this is the best story anyone has ever written about me.” I feel entirely sure it is not. But that’s the class of Vin Scully.

* * *

The evening sky does not darken in Los Angeles in late summer so much as it dulls into lighter and lighter shades of blue. In time, the blue goes cloudy white, then gray, then very slowly fades to black; you can almost hear a director shouting: “We’re losing our light.” It is the end of summer in the City of Angels. You know this because the Dodgers are out of the pennant race. Traffic stops and starts on The 101, violently at times, car horns and squealed tires and middle fingers. The names on the exit signs along the side of highway are startlingly familiar for a stranger. Sunset Boulevard. Hollywood Boulevard. Vine Street. The Hollywood Bowl. Los Angeles is one of those few cities in the world where you can be lost and know exactly where you are at precisely the same time. And another car horn. Another tire squeal. Another middle finger.


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By In Baseball, History, Stuff

The Rose Ballot

One of the questions people ask all the time is this: Why won’t the Pete Rose thing just go away? Rose was banned from baseball 27 years ago. Over those 27 years, he has denied betting on baseball … admitted betting on baseball but not on the Reds when he was manager … admitted betting on the Reds as manager but never to lose. He has sold autographed baseballs in Cooperstown when the Hall of Fame ceremonies were going on. He has continued to gamble, even on baseball, and has wondered aloud why this would give baseball pause in considering his reinstatement. He has done all sorts of cheesy things that have not exactly redeemed him in the public’s eye.

In other words: Why is anyone still talking about this? (more…)

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Vault: The Willie Mays Hall of Fame

Today’s Vault addition: For Brilliant Reader John Williamson, who requested it.

Bob Costas on Wednesday said something I’ve heard a lot of people say through the years. But because he’s Bob Costas, and I think the world of the guy, his words inspired this post. Bob thinks the Baseball Hall of Fame is too big. He did not go into detail, but he made it very clear — and I believe the reference point was Bert Blyleven– that the Hall of Fame was supposed to be for the “great” and, over the years, it became for the “very good.” He did not elaborate out of respect for the very good players who are already in the Hall of Fame. But I suspect that if it could be done clandestinely — that is to say if it could be done without anyone noticing and without hurting anybody — Bob and a lot of other people would throw a lot of players out of their Baseball Hall of Fame.*

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By In Baseball, Golf

A Sad Day

Some days, rare days every so often, it’s not a lot of fun being a sportswriter. (more…)

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By In Baseball

Last Call

There are two outs now, bottom of the ninth here under a full moon at Dodger Stadium. The bases are still loaded, and the Dodgers still trail by a run. And, well now, it looks like Lasorda is calling back Steve Garvey. This is a surprise. The Dodgers are going to send up a pinch-hitter to face Warren Spahn. And it looks like, yes, it’s going to be Vincent Edward Scully. Well, they say strange things happen on nights when there is a full moon, and this is certainly strange.

Vin Scully, well, there’s certainly no need to tell you much about him. He has been with the Dodgers since they were in Brooklyn a few million years ago. Everything about him is familiar, even in this most unfamiliar of positions. Two outs. Bases loaded. And the Dodgers trail by a run.


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By In Baseball, History

Pennant Porch and Great American

Before we get into the remarkable — and painful — dinger-dinged pitching season for the Cincinnati Reds, we should talk for a good while about Pennant Porch and the 1964 Kansas City Athletics.  We should always take time, every now and again, to talk about Pennant Porch.

No team had ever given up 200 home runs in a season before 1964. The closest had been … the 1962 Kansas City Athletics, who gave up 199. Well, the Kansas City Athletics did love to give up the the long ball. The 1956 Athletics still hold the record for most homers allowed to one team … you can guess the team. That was the year Mickey Mantle won the triple crown, and he hit nine of his 52 homers against the A’s. Even more impressively, Hank Bauer hit 10 of his 26 homers against the A’s, and Yogi Berra hit nine of his 30 homers against the A’s. All in all, the Yankees hit an astonishing 56 home runs in 22 games against Kansas City.


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By In Baseball, History

Do Geese See God?

Got a few changes coming — pretty big changes, I think. Exciting, I hope. We’ll talk about them as they come up.

In the meantime, based on a Brilliant Reader comment I saw on Facebook, I believe these are all the last-name palindromes in baseball history.

— Truck Hannah. He earned some fame as a catcher for the Yankees from 1918-20; he was generally known as the player who helped settle disputes between Babe Ruth and manager Miller Huggins. He played baseball forever; Hannah got his first at-bat when he was 20 in Tacoma, and he got his last at-bat 31 years later when he got six at-bats for the Memphis Chickasaws of the old Southern Association.

But the coolest Truck Hannah fact I can come up with is that his daughter, Helen, had one of the most remarkable lives imaginable. Someday, I have to write the Helen Hannah Campbell story. She was a high school friend of Richard Nixon (he may or may not have had a crush on her). She was a chaperone in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. And she was one of the first women to become a Marine. What a life.

— Johnny Reder got a few games in with the 1932 Boston Red Sox. The highlight of his career is probably the RBI infield single he got off of future Hall of Famer Red Faber. In the game, Reder got that single, two walks and scored twice.

— Eddie Kazak is one of the truly remarkable stories in baseball history. He, like Musial and dozens of other future Major Leaguers, grew up in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. He was working the mines when he got his chance to play Class D ball in Valdosta in 1940. A year later, he signed with the Cardinals and ripped up the Georgia-Florida league, hitting .378 with 118 RBIs for Albany. A year later, he cooled off while playing for Houston. And then he went to war.

Kazak became a paratrooper and was part of the D-Day invasion. He was stabbed by a bayonet and lost a lot of blood. A bit later, he was hit in the right elbow by shrapnel. He would spend 18 months in a hospital. He was done playing baseball.

Only, he wasn’t. Though he would feel searing pain in his right arm every time he threw a baseball, he kept on playing. First he went to Columbus and hit. Then he went to Omaha and hit. Then he went to Rochester and hit. When he was 27, the Cardinals called him up to play in a few games. When he was 28, he hit .304 in 92 games and made the All-Star team.

That was the highlight — he fell off in 1950 and was out of baseball by 1952. Still: What a career. He also hit .321 in 28 at-bats off fellow World War II vet Warren Spahn, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but whose name spelled backward is Nhaps.

— Dick and Robb Nen. Dick was a first baseman for the Dodgers, Senators and Cubs in the 1960s. He homered off St. Louis’ Ron Taylor in the ninth inning of his first game to send the game into extra innings. And throughout his career, he owned Catfish Hunter. He hit .407 with three homers in 32 at-bats against the Catfish.

His son Robb had the nastiest of sliders, a pitch some called “The Terminator” for the way it would finish off hitters. He struck out 793 in 718 innings over his career, made three All-Star teams, led the league in saves once and utterly owned Todd Helton, who went 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts against forward-or-backward Nen.

— Toby Harrah. My favorite of the palindromes, Toby Harrah had a superb career. He had almost 2,000 hits, almost 200 homers, almost 1000 RBIs. It was like that. Harrah played 2,155 games — 712 of them for my beloved Cleveland Indians. He was traded straight up in 1978 for Buddy Bell, and while Buddy was the better player, Harrah was good, and anyway they were destined for the same fate. Combined they played 4,560 big league games … and not one postseason game.

Harrah was a legitimately great player in 1975. That year he hit .293 with 20 homers, he walked 98 times, he stole 23 bases and he played an excellent shortstop. He was never quite that good again, though he hit 27 homers and led the league with 109 walked in 1977, and he was an all-star in 1982 for the Tribe when he hit .304 with 25 homers, walked 84 times, stole 17 of 20 bases and scored 100 runs. I’m not sure if he’s in the Hall of Very Good but he should be …

He owned Vida Blue (.424 with a .644 slugging percentage), homered five times off Bert Blyleven and would be in the Hall of Fame if he could have just faced John Cumberland over and over. He faced Cumberland three times. Harrah hit two homers and a double.

— Mark Salas. Fernando Salas. Juan Salas. Marino Salas.

Mark was a backup catcher for six different teams in the 1980s and early 1990s. He actually had a surprisingly solid rookie season, hitting .300 and slugging .458; he had the same WAR as Ozzie Guillen, who won the Rookie of the Year award. He fell off from there, though he did hit .378 with some power for Minnesota in 1987 before the Twins dealt him to the Yankees for Joe Niekro. Salas, rather famously, did not get a World Series ring from that team for some reason. They gave him a watch instead. Salas crushed the knuckleball — he hit .433 with three homers in 35 plate appearances against Charlie Hough. Admittedly, he wasn’t quite as good against Tom Candiotti (.222 with a double).

Fernando was (and is) a substantial relief pitcher who saved 24 games for the 2011 World Series Cardinals. You might remember that the Cardinals went with Jason Motte as their closer in the postseason. One of my favorite little facts about Fernando Salas is that he was driven and inspired by one of my old childhood heroes, Sid Monge, who pushed Fernando when he was in the Mexican League. Andrew McCuthen has never gotten a hit off Fernando, though Cutch has walked four of the eight times the two have faced.

Juan pitched in 47 big league games, most of them with the 2007 Devil Rays. Remember when they were the Devil Rays? He faced Brian Roberts five times and got him out all five.

Marino Salas will forever be unbeaten — his career record is 1-0. He also will forever have an 8.47 ERA. The game he won for Pittsburgh was his first game against St. Louis. He came into the game in the bottom of the ninth with the scored tied. He walked Aaron Miles, gave up a sacrifice bunt to Adam Wainwright, intentionally walked Skip Schumaker (of course), struck out Brendan Ryan, semi-intentionally walked Albert Pujols and got Ryan Ludwick to fly out. The Pirates scored four the next inning to give him the victory.

— Dave Otto. Super-tall left-handed pitcher for four teams in the last 1980s and early 1990s. Otto grew up in Chicago and went to the University of Missouri — he was taken in the second round twice, first by Baltimore (didn’t sign) and then by Oakland. For such a tall pitcher, Otto hardly struck out anybody. In his last three years, when he was trying to put a relief pitching career together, he struck out just 81 in 193 innings. He did give Cal Ripken fits, though. Ripken went 0-for-8 against Otto — the only time he got on was an intentional walk.


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By In Baseball


You might have seen it — I just wrote a piece about Albert Pujols that was mostly intended to celebrate the player that Pujols was not so long ago. It seems amazing to me that Pujols is coming to the end of his fifth season with the Angels, which means that there are is a whole new generation of baseball fans who have never seen anything other than THIS Pujols — aging, one-dimensional, a DH, beat up, limited as a hitter. They should hear about the real Albert Pujols.

In doing so, however, I did want to ask the obvious question: Why do we keep believing that baseball players age better than they do?

I’ve gotten quite a bit of response — with much of the response insisting that Pujols has aged just fine and is obviously having a SUPERB year because he has a lot of ribbies. I don’t believe this to be true at all, and included why in the piece. Pujols’ 101 RBIs look great to the naked eye, but they are in large part an illusion. Pujols is now a roughly league average hitter who gets to hit in the middle of the Angels lineup, meaning he comes to the plate with many more men on base than anyone else in baseball.

The fact people still want to believe so deeply in the power of RBIs — “Runs win games, not your stupid statistics,” as a brilliant reader so eloquently put it — tells you the power of conditioning. We of a certain age grew up being told that only three hitting statistics last forever — batting average, home runs and RBIs — and the greatest of these is RBIs. The gospel was hammered in out heads, again and again, by newspapers, by television, by radio, by magazines, by conversations, by math teachers.

In 2005, the Kansas City Royals gave the everyday left field job to a minor-league journeyman named Emil Brown. He had kicked around baseball for a decade or so. He was drafted by Oakland, taken by Pittsburgh in Rule 5 draft, traded to San Diego, at which point he signed free agency deals with Tampa Bay, with Cincinnati, with St. Louis and with Houston. He had played ball in Modesto, in Nashville, in Grand Rapids and Durham and Louisville and Memphis, in Campeche of the Mexican League, in New Orleans and Portland, not to mention San Diego and Pittsburgh. He was 30 years old when he came to Kansas City.

Royals general manager Allard Baird loved giving guys like Emil Brown a chance. There were a couple of reasons for this. One, Baird loved (and loves) the process of discovery, of seeing something more in a player. He helped save the career of Raul Ibanez by giving him an everyday job when Raul was on the brink of being washed out of the game.

Two, the Royals didn’t really have anyone else to play left field.

So the Royals gave Brown the full-time left fielder’s job — and he was terrible. In early May he was hitting .194 with five extra-base hits. It was exactly as you would have expected — up to that point, Brown had been given 450 career plate appearances and his lifetime average was .200. Brown, as Denny Green might say, was who we thought he was.

Only, he wasn’t. The Royals stuck with him. And something funny happened. Thirty-year-old minor league journeyman Emil Brown started hitting. Over the next two months, he hit .319/.384/.484, hit a bunch of doubles, brought his season average to .286. He kept his average there for the rest of the year, hit with a bit more power as September came along, and finished with surprisingly decent looking counting numbers: .286, 17, 86.

He led the Kansas City Royals in RBIs.

A year later he had almost EXACTLY the same year — .287, 15, 81 — only with a few more doubles and walks. He again led the Royals in RBIs, this time by a lot.

Now, it should be said that when you took everything into consideration, Emil Brown’s flaws countered his hitting. He was, by the numbers and the eyesight, a subpar defender. In his first year, his 2.4 offensive WAR was wiped out by his -2.8 defensive WAR.

But that’s not the point here. The point is that the single most valuable thing for an everyday player in baseball is opportunity. It is plate appearances. It is the chance to hit with runners on base. When Emil Brown got those plate appearances — and kept getting them even after he struggled — he put up numbers. When there were runners on base, he drove in runs.

Albert Pujols will keep getting plate appearances — and keep getting them in the middle of the Angels lineup — because he’s Albert Pujols. But, based on pure performance, should he?

He’s hitting .259/.321/.446.

League average is: .258/.321/.424.

Even giving Pujols a few points because he does hit in a tough home ballpark, league average hitting is usually not good enough to get someone the No. 3 or No. 4 spot in a lineup behind Mike Trout. Plus, it’s important to mention that Pujols’ only value is as a hitter; when you look at league average you are including all the positions that are demanding defensively. Here is the American League average for players who play DH, 1B, RF and 3B:

Average: .261/.330/.449

Pujols has come to the plate with 431 runners on base, that’s 51 more than any other player in the American League. He has done a nice job of hitting with runners on base — he is Albert Pujols, after all — but not significantly better than Emil Brown did in 2005.  If Brown came to the plate with as many people on as Pujols has, you would expect based on his numbers to drive in 100 runs this year. True, Pujols will drive in 120, mostly because he hits more home runs. But, again, we are comparing Albert Pujols and EMIL BROWN.

I wrote in my piece that there are a half dozen sluggers in Triple A who, given Pujols’ spot every day in the middle of the Angels lineup, would thrive and knock in a bunch of runs. Some took offense to that, and I can understand that it doesn’t sound all that polite, but I feel sure it’s true. Emil Brown convinced me of that. There are a handful — not a lot, but a handful — of minor league players who will never get the opportunity to play every day in the big leagues because of defensive liabilities or age issues or something else that’s lacking. But if given 600 plate appearances in the Angels lineup, they probably could hit about as well as Albert Pujols is hitting this year. I don’t say that to insult Pujols — he is one of the greatest players in baseball history and it has been an honor watching him.

But he is 36, and he is aging because even the greatest players do. Ben Lindbergh reported on Twitter that in the Detroit broadcasting booth they were actually arguing whether Pujols or Trout is having the better year, and someone apparently said: “Pujols has better numbers–24 and 100 — Trout at 24 and 82.” Nonsense like that doesn’t do anybody any good, and it insults the memory of Albert Pujols when he really was the best player in the the game.


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