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No. 32: Grover Cleveland Alexander

“The Winning Team” is a spectacularly bad movie. It earns the “spectacularly bad” label because it has many cool, quirky features .and somehow it is still unwatchable. As you probably know, “The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting.

“The Winning Team” also features the legendary Doris Day (originally Doris May Ann Kappelhoff), who was the biggest female star in the Hollywood. That too should add some interest. There were a few ballplayers in the movie (Bob Lemon and Hank Sauer, among others), and it’s a story about an all-time great baseball player, and it’s sort of hard to believe that “The Winning Team” doesn’t at least make for some fun kitsch watching.

But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding. It is sort of like a two hour Little Rascals episode. It begins with someone shouting “Grover Cleveland Alexander, you get down here!” And then you see Alexander at the top of a telephone pole, calling his sweetheart on a party line. She wants to surprise him with the news that her father had offered a down payment on the farmhouse! That means they can finally get married! But rascally Ol Grover Alexander goes and plays ball instead! Gets paid a buck and a quarter! Much mayhem ensues!

What separates “The Winning Team”* from other terrible movies like “The Babe” and “The Scout” and “Trouble with the Curve,” is that it boldly claims to be “The True Story of Grover Cleveland Alexander.” it is not true. It has some true elements in it, but the movie in full is the opposite of truth, it is a giddy and romantic and life-affirming story about redemption for a life that had none of those qualities.

*”The Winning Team” is put in quotation marks in the opening credits, as if even the producers appreciated the irony.

A few years ago, I traveled to Elba, Neb., the little town where Alexander grew up. It was part of a package of stories I did for the newspaper — several of the greatest pitchers came from Midwestern towns. Walter Johnson was from Humboldt, Kan. Bob Feller was from Van Meter, Iowa. Carl Hubbell was from Carthage, Mo. And Ol’ Pete Alexander, as he was known, (also Alex, Alec, Dode, Alexander the Great) was from Elba.

There wasn’t much to see in Elba — the population is about 200. The only landmark I recall seeing, beside for the school, was a bar called Grover’s. If you know the story of Grover Cleveland Alexander, you can feel the immense sadness of a bar called “Grover’s.”.

Walking around Elba, it was not hard to imagine a young Grover Alexander looking around for perfect rocks to throw. There are many great pitchers in baseball history who got their start throwing rocks — Satchel Paige wrote that growing up in Alabama, “We threw rocks. There wasn’t anything else to throw.” Even so, Alexander’s legacy is particularly tied to throwing rocks. He apparently would keep his pockets filled with the best throwing rocks, so much so that his pants often had holes in them. One great story passed down through the years was that when Grover’s mother wanted to cook one of the chickens, she would send Grover out to throw a rock at one.

Alexander’s father wanted Grover to be a lawyer, like his namesake Grover Cleveland, but apparently this was never in the cards. Alexander was never too serious about study. He did graduate from high school, and then he got a job digging holes for the telephone company. He played some ball, but he apparently did not see much of a future in it. He was 21 when someone named Jap Wagner (this apparently was his real name) asked Alexander if he wanted to play ball for a living, Pete apparently said: “Oh I can play with these farmers around here, but that’s about as far as I can go.”

Three years later, he was not only in the big leagues, he would set a Major League record — one that will almost certainly never be broken — by winning 28 games as a rookie. Alexander threw 367 innings that first year, and it is fun to think about what would happen today to a Major League manager who made a brilliant 24-year-old rookie pitcher throw 367 innings. I’m guessing: Hanging in a public square.

He was, by all accounts, a natural. Throwing all those rocks had shaped a relaxed but quick sidearm delivery. Pete Alexander threw hard in his early days, and he had one hell of a curveball. But the thing that separated him as the years went on — and it’s the same thing that separated Satchel Paige in the following decades and Greg Maddux in the years to follow  — was his impeccable, almost supernatural, control.  As much as people talk about control in baseball, it is still underrated. A pitcher who can throw the ball exactly in the right spot again and again and again without ever missing that spot doesn’t need great stuff.  Alexander famously aimed low and away, and he almost never missed the target.

From 1915-1917, Alexander won the Triple Crown of pitching each year, leading the league in wins (30-plus each year), ERA (1.54 collectively) and strikeouts. He had 32 shutouts in just those three years, an unprecedented run. He was ore or less the equal of Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, the greatest pitchers of the time. And then Alexander the Great went to war.

Nobody can say for sure when Pete Alexander started drinking heavily. His father and grandfather were hard drinkers. Pete certainly would drink the occasional beer in his younger days, but there is a chance that his drinking went beyond that. There were persistent rumors, for instance, that Alexander was suddenly and shockingly scratched for Game 5 of the 1915 World Series because he showed up to the ballpark drunk. Alexander denied it; he said that he had hurt his shoulder, and the pain was too great. The only real trouble with his version of the story is that he injured his shoulder a MONTH earlier in a game against the Dodgers. But he had pitched very well in Games 1 and 3 of that Series. It’s possible that the injury simply worsened before Game 5. It’s also possible that the drunk story makes more sense.

Either way, though, Alexander’s experiences during the war undoubtedly shaped the desolate turn his life was about to take. The two greatest National League pitchers of the Deadball Era, by far, were Pete Alexander and Christy Mathewson. Both were ultimately devastated by World War I.

Mathewson’s destruction happened quickly. He insisted on serving though he was closing in on 40. While in France, he was exposed to mustard gas during a training exercise. His life was hellish after that. He developed tuberculosis and spent several years fighting off a terrible cough. He died in 1925.

Alexander was drafted and sent to the front (the Phillies had dumped him in a trade in expectation of his getting drafted). The noise of war caused him to lose hearing in his left ear. He took a shell in his right ear, which eventually led to cancer. He badly hurt his right arm operating a howitzer. He dealt with shell shock.

All of the pain and confusion led unquestionably led Alexander to becoming an alcoholic. “In France, I had hard liquor for the first time,” he would say. He also had his first epileptic seizure. Nobody can say for sure when or why Alexander began to suffer from epilepsy. One theory is that it originated in 1909 when he was hit in the head by a throw (he was unconscious for 36 hours).

For the rest of his life, Pete Alexander would publicly suffer the horrors of alcoholism and privately suffer the horrors of epilepsy.

“The Winning Team” focuses quite a bit on Alexander’s remarkable 1926 World Series. It unquestionably was remarkable. By then, Ol’ Pete’s stuff was gone, but he still had that impeccable control. In June of 1926, Chicago’s manager Joe McCarthy — the same Joe McCarthy who later would win seven World Series with the Yankees — dumped Alexander on St. Louis for a few bucks. He’d had enough of Alexander’s drunkedness. The Cardinals player/manager Rogers Hornsby reportedly told Alexander he could drink as long as he did not let it interfere with his pitching. Alexander, at age 39, was immediately the Cardinals best pitcher.

Alexander threw 148 innings for the Cardinals and struck out just 35 hitters. But he walked just 24, and he he threw two shutouts in his 16 starts. Those Cardinals scored a bunch of runs — Hall of Famers Hornsby, Jim Bottomley were all in the lineup (as was Hall of Famer Billy Southworth, but he went into the Hall as a manager) — and went 54-37 after acquiring Alexander. They went to the World Series to face the New York Yankees.

The Yankees lineup of 1926 were fundamentally the same team as the Murderer’s Row lineup of 1927. Gehrig had not quite come into his own, but he was there (Gerig led the league in triples in 1926) as was Tony Lazzeri and Earl Combs and Bob Meusel and, of course, the Babe. The Yankees won Game 4 when Ruth hit three home runs, and they won Game 5 in the 10th inning on Lazerri’s sac fly with the bases loaded. That gave the Yankees a 3-2 series lead with the last two games going back to Yankee Stadium.

Alexander started Game 6 and pitched well, throwing nine innings, allowing two runs and holding Babe Ruth hitless. All three of Ruth’s outs were harmless infield groundouts — Ol’ Down and Away Alexander had done his job. The Cardinals forced a Game 7.

Then, in Game 7, in one of the most famous moments in World Series history, the Cardinals led 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh when the Yankees loaded the bases against Jesse Haines. Hornsby pulled Haines and called for Alexander. His walk to the mound was slow and a bit uneven … the immediate suspicion was that Alexander was drunk (Hornsby told that version of the story many times). People who have done the research seem to agree that Alexander was not drunk. Hung over? Probably. But not drunk.

In any case, he faced Lazzeri, who had driven in 117 RBIs as a rookie and who had the game-winning sac fly back in Game 5. Alexander may or may not have warmed up (several accounts said he did not, Alexander himself remembered throwing a few warmup pitches). Alexander would remember walking around the mound for a minute to “let Lazzeri stew.”

The first pitch was, of course, a curveball low and away. Lazzeri took it for a strike.

The second pitch was a fastball that did an unusual thing: It caught too much of the plate. Lazzeri turned on it and crushed it to deep left field. No one can say for sure how far foul it went. Alexander would utter the classic line about it: “A few feet made the difference between a hero and a bum.”

Third pitch, Alexander threw the low and-and-away curve one more time. Lazzeri flailed at it for strike three. And the inning was over. Alexander pitched the last two innings without giving up a hit. He was on the mound when Babe Ruth inexplicably tried to steal second base — the Babe would say that it was the Yankees only shot against Alexander. Ruth was thrown out to end the 1926 World Series.

This was the crescendo for “The Winning Team,” and it makes a nice crescendo for Alexander’s remarkable pitching career. In all, Alexander is third in victories, fourth in pitcher WAR, second with 90 shutouts, and he’s one of six or seven pitchers who has a viable argument as the greatest of all time. It is all but impossible to determine how a Deadball pitcher would fare in the 21st Century, but Pete Alexander’s staggering control would undoubtedly play in the modern game.

Sadly, though, the Pete Alexander story does not end with that strikeout. Life ain’t like bad movies. Alexander lived 24 more heartbreaking years. He was arrested. He was thrown in jail. He was sued for being a “love pirate.” He divorced the one woman who loved him (Aimee (or Amy, it is spelled differently in different places), and then got back together with her and then let their marriage break apart again. He scraped for money any way he could, pitching an inning or two in exhibition games for the House of David. For a time, he made a few bucks just telling his story in a nickel theater show in New York (“I’m tired of striking out Lazzeri,” he told friends). He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.

“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.

“Used to be,” he said.

When Pete Alexander received his plaque from the Hall of Fame, he said this: “You can’t eat a tablet.”

He died a dozen years after his induction. He longed for a job in baseball, but he never got one. Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.

Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher, told me about the time Pete Alexander came to talk at his school. Roberts was 14 or so at the time, and he was excited to see Ol’ Pete. Roberts was born barely two weeks old when Alexander struck of Lazerri.

But Roberts said he didn’t see the great pitcher. He saw a broken down man who looked much older than his age of 54. “I wasted the years and the money,” Ol’ Pete said sadly. “Don’t let it happen to you.”

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No. 33: George Brett

I’ve written a billion jillion shmillion stories about George Brett. If you want to read about the summer he almost hit. .400, there’s this. Also this. Stuff about George carrying the team, you can read this. I write about how much George hated the Yankees — that’s online somewhere. There are many, many, many more — about his father, about his fear, about his clutch-hitting, about his duels with Gossage, about … For this, let me just write a personal story.

Some years ago, I played in the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp. It was a birthday present from my wife — Lord, now that I think of it, that might have been for my 40th birthday. Could it have been that long ago? I don’t want to look it up.*

*I looked it up. It was even long ago than I remembered — it was 2004. I was 37. I’m going to cry.

That camp remains one of my favorite experiences. I carry dozens of memories with me. I think of what it was like to be coached on defense by Frank White. I remember Paul Splittorff watching me throw one pitch — just one pitch — and saying, “You will throw your arm out and be in a lot of pain by the end of camp.” (I did and was). I think of Kevin Seitzer coaching me as a hitter and being as excited as I was when I rifled a single off Mark Gubicza.

I remember Mike Boddicker asking me if I could throw strikes. “I can’t pitch,” I told him. He said, “I know that. I asked if you could throw strikes.” Bod then told the story about how Rod Carew once said to reporters that his wife took out better garbage than Boddicker threw. Bod said another time he threw a pitch and heard Kirby Puckett shout mid-swing: “THROW IT LIKE A MAN!” None of it kept Boddicker from winning 134 big league games, leading the league in ERA one year and shutouts another.

I remember a beautiful exchange between longtime utility man Greg Pryor and longtime pitcher Al Fitzmorris. Pryor was handing out the camp award for best pitcher, and he began by saying, “This is hard for me because I’ve always hated pitchers.”

To which Fitz replied: “That’s funny. Pitchers have always loved you.”

I remember Bret Saberhagen pitching. I managed a hit off Saberhagen too, but it was a cheapie, and anyway he was obviously trying lay one in there. Anyway, that’s not my favorite Saberhagen memory. He was probably 39 years old when he pitched in that camp. There were still some competitive juices flowing. I know this because someone on our team dug in against him. The hitter was a charmer named Larry. In the few days we were together, we learned: Larry liked to live enthusiastically. On Saberhagen’s first pitch, Larry fouled it back and then angrily hit the bat the way Bryce Harper might when he JUST misses.

On the next pitch, he was caught looking and he turned and complained loudly to the umpire.

Now, to this day Sabes would probably deny it — but I’m pretty sure he got ticked off. Like I say, however, he was just 39 then and, with a couple of health breaks, he would have still be pitching in the big leagues. He was a two-time Cy Young winner laying pitches in to a bunch of police officers and people in construction and factory workers and a sportswriter. He really didn’t need to deal with some guy showing him up. And so, he unleashed one. We would discuss for days after how fast he threw that pitch — it was probably mid-80s, but it could have been high 80s, it could have broken 90, hell, to us it looked to be 200 mph.

It was beautiful. There were really only two problems. One was that the catcher was a retired electrician and not Bob Boone. So while he would claim later to have seen the ball just fine, he didn’t actually lift up his arms to catch it and the ball zoomed straight into the umpire’s shoulder, making exactly the sort of sound you are imagining now.

The second problem was that not too long after the umpire shouted “OW!” Larry finally swung the bat. Why was that a problem?

“I was on it!” Larry shouted on the way back to the dugout, and he meant it.
More than anything, I remember what it was like being around George Brett. I have obviously spent a lot of time around George through the years, but nothing was quite like that time in fantasy camp. It’s strange, if you think about it. Obviously, we were not ballplayers. But it seems the mere act of putting on a uniform in the clubhouse, playing ball, getting hurt (we all got hurt), drinking with the players after the game made us ballplayers, or at least close enough that George dropped the slight guard that is up around reporters. We were, for a moment, teammates.

And George was always one hell of a teammates. He was funny, crass, competitive as hell. He told some of the greatest baseball stories I’ve ever heard about fights and near fights and pitchers he owned, pitchers who owned him. In my life, I’ve had five laughing fits that separate from the pack, the sort of breathless fits where you want to stop and don’t want to stop all at once. One was the Stonehenge scene in Spinal Tap. One was at summer camp with a the non-stop repeating of the “Ping pong balls? I thought you said …” joke. One was at a Jerry Seinfeld concert. There might be more than five. But I can tell you one was just listening to George Brett tell the story of the Royals-Rangers fight.

He did more than joke, though. He talked about his fears. He broke down hitting philosophy in ways I never heard before or since (“You have to clear your mind entirely”). He talked about his father, and the love and fury that mixed.

Mostly, though, I remember the time he came over to scout me. I had this one moment of glory at camp. We were playing against Big John Mayberry’s team, and Big John was riding me pretty hard. Big John is, in his own way, even funnier than Brett. “Big Joe!” he kept shouting. “What do you say there Big Joe? Bring in the outfield, it’s just Big Joe! Come on, let’s see what you got there Big Joe!”

I’m realizing that might not look that funny in text, but the joke was Big John’s booming voice — Big Joe! — and how that sounded. It was like a cannonball going off.  I was trying hard not to laugh in the box, and then then pitcher threw a hanging something or other — just about all fantasy camp pitches hang; you pay your money you get your hanging pitches — and I actually turned on it. I’m not going to tell you it bounced over the fence. I’m not going to tell you it one hopped the fence or two hopped it or barely rolled to the warning track — I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I crushed it well enough that I got my standup double when I heard two of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard — Big John, with newfound respect, shouting: BIG JOE!”

So, the next time that I came up, that’s when George came to scout me. He walked all the way over from another field. “Hey,” he shouted as I stepped in. “I heard there’s some sort of hitter over here. Gotta check him out.”

I was a 37-year-old man at the time, a father of one with a second daughter on the way. I was a pretty successful sportswriter who had covered a dozen World Series and about as many Super Bowls and Masters, a few Olympics. I had written about just about all of the great American athletes of my time. I had paid (well, my wife had paid) a substantial fortune so that I could be here playing ball. Point is, I was an adult.

And yet, in that moment, with Brett behind me watching, I was 13 again. I was nervous in a way that I had not been since those younger days. George Brett was more than a baseball player. He was a bit of my childhood. If you’re as old as me, you will remember … Skylab jokes. Remember? Atari football. Remember? Gnip Gnop and the Three’s Company theme song and Roger Staubach and those little reinforcements you put around the holes in notebook paper and Evel Knievel action figures and Farrah posters and Conjunction Junction and, yes, George Brett. In that one moment, as I stood in the box, I didn’t see him as the subject of my stories or the semi-friend I had gotten to know or even the baseball player I watched give a speech in Cooperstown the day of his Hall of Fame induction. Instead, I saw the titanic figure of my childhood, the guy who homered off Goose, the man who leaped up to fight Nettles, the king who stood at second base with his arms in the air as his batting average topped .400.

I don’t remember the first few pitches of the at-bat, other than the nerves. I do remember the last pitch. It was a curveball. It was five feet outside. It might have been 10 feet outside. I took the pitch. The umpire called it strike three. I turned around and saw George Brett. “Really?” he asked. “That’s why I came over here?” And then he smiled, and as he jogged back to his own field I heard him yell, “Harder than it looks, ain’t it?”

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No. 34: Mel Ott

Mel Ott is the smallest man in the 500 home run club. At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds he was roughly the same size as Davey Lopes and Bucky Dent and Don Zimmer (in his playing days). He is one of the great outliers in baseball history.

Here is the home run chart for players 5-foot-9 who weighed 175 pounds or less:

1. Mel Ott, 511

2. Earl Averill, 238

3. Davey Lopes, 155

4. Tommy Harper, 146

5. Ripper Collins, 135

I’m about to give you a Mel Ott home run statistic that will blow your mind, but before we get into that let’s say that Mel Ott was a spectacular baseball player as well as a legendary nice guy. I mean that “legendary” part literally; Mel Ott is THE archetype of baseball niceness. He was the nice guy that Leo Durocher was referring to when he offered up his legendary “Nice guys finish last” line. He watched Ott, then manager of the Giants, lead his team on the field.

“Take a look at that No. 4 there,” Durocher said referring to Ott. “A nicer guy never drew breath than that man there.” Then, after calling out the names of the Giants players who followed Ott, Durocher would remember saying: “Take a look at them. All nice guys. They’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”

Writer Arthur Daley’s contribution: “Ottie had charisma long before that overworked word emerged from the dictionary for everyday use.”

One more: The bar owner Toots Shor was supposedly talking with Sir Alexander Fleming, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered penicillin when Mel Ott walked through the door. “‘Scuse me,” Shor supposedly said as he rushed off. “Somebody important just walked in.”

Ott’s genial nature belied athletic genius. He was not a home run hitter. He was, instead, a complete and self-made hitter. Ott grew up in in a small Louisiana town called Gretna, just on the other side of the river from New Orleans. His father worked long hours in a cottonseed oil plant; Ott always said his family didn’t have much other than church, sports and each other. Ott learned baseball from two uncles who played on a local semipro team.

Ott was not the first to left his front leg high in the air in order to time pitches — the flamingo batting style dates back to the 19th century. But in that little town, through his trial and error, Ott did invent his very own batting style. The first time Giants manager John McGraw saw a 16-year-old Ott, he said, “That’s a natural hitter.”  Ott was in the big leagues at 17. He was a star by 19.

Ott never won an MVP Award though he was probably the league’s best player five or six times during his career. He hit with power, of course, led the league in walks six times and had a tremendous right field arm. He led the National League in WAR five times, finished top four every year from 1929-39, and his 107.8 career WAR is 16th in baseball history, squeezed between Nap Lajoie and Mickey Mantle. When it comes to Mel Ott’s overall play, I would say he’s been underrated by history.

But, yes, much of Ott’s legacy is tied to the home run. He was the first National Leaguer to reach 500 homers. He led the league in homers six times. And as a home run hitter, well, as Bill James has written: It’s likely no one hit more cheap home runs than Mel Ott.

The Polo Grounds (where Ott played 1,367 games) was a U-shaped ballpark situated on Coogan’s Bluff between Harlem and Washington Heights. It is probably remembered best now for its deep, deep centerfield wall. The left-center gap was 450 feet, the right-center gap was 449, and it was an insane 483 feet to straightaway center. That’s why film footage of Willie Mays’ most famous catch is so visually confusing. Cleveland’s Vic Wertz hit the ball 425 feet or so (some estimate it closer to 440) and when Mays caught it, he was, at least, four steps from the warning track, maybe more.

The deep centerfield was the focal point of the Polo Grounds, but hitters aimed down the lines. Because the outfield walls went straight out to centerfield before rounding into the U, the left and right field lines were comically close to the plate. A ball hit down the left-field line (like Bobby Thomson’s “The Giants win the pennant” homer) needed to travel 279 feet to be home runs. Balls hit down the right-field line needed to go just 258 feet.

Left-handed hitters obviously hit a lot of homers at the Polo Grounds. When Johnny Mize was 34, and it seemed unlikely he would ever be a great player again. But using the Polo Grounds wall, he hit 51 home runs (29 at home) to lead the league. The next year he hit 25 of his league-leading 40 homers at the Polo Grounds.

Hank Thompson hit 82 or his 129 career homers at the Polo Grounds. Stan Musial hit 49 homers at the Polo Grounds in his career, far and away the most he hit in any ballpark outside his own.

Nobody, though, took better advantage of the Polo Grounds than Mel Ott. He was the purest of pull hitters and in his career, he hit 323 of his 511 home runs at the Polo Grounds. That’s 63.2%, the second highest total of anybody with more than 300 home runs.

Here are the five highest percentages of homers hit at home:

1. Chuck Klein, 190 of 300, 63.3%

2. Mel Ott, 323 or 511, 63.2%

3. Ron Santo, 216 of 342, 63.2%

4. Hank Greenberg, 205 of 331, 61.9%

5. Todd Helton, 227 of 369, 61.5%

In case you are curious, the lowest percentage of home runs hit at home belongs to Joe Adcock, who hit just 137 of his 336 home runs at home (40.8%). That’s because he played the bulk of his career in massive County Stadium. Adcock, with a bit more luck (and perhaps a manager who believed in him), easily could have hit 500 homers in his career. Joe DiMaggio is second on that list, hitting just 148 of his 361 homers at Yankee Stadium. More on him down the road.

Back to Mel Ott … I still haven’t gotten to that jaw-dropping statistic. Ott took advantage of the Polo Grounds because he was a pull hitter and because he was a smart hitter. He realized early on that there was no point in trying to hit the ball to the gaps at the Polo Grounds. Ott was a different hitter on the road — in many ways, he was a BETTER hitter on the road. Ott hit 14 points higher on the road (.311 to .297), with 117 more singles, 123 more doubles, and 30 more triples. At home, he pulled the ball out of the park. That’s what the park asked him to do.

All that said,  Ott didn’t really have a crazy home run split for most of his career. Through 1940, he hit 388 home runs and 223 (57.5%) were at home. That’s a high percentage, no question, but it’s in line with some of other greats like Billy Williams, Ralph Kiner, Yogi Berra, Al Kaline and so on. Frank Robinson hit 55% of his homers at home. So did Jim Thome. Jimmie Foxx  hit 56% of his at home. Larry Walker hit 56% of his homers at home.

But going into the 1941 season, something changed with Mel Ott. He turned 32 that March and my guess is that he realized his bat speed was slowing down and his body was wearing down. After 1941, his batting average dropped, his power numbers dwindled. It’s a common story. Players talk about making adjustments when they get older. But those adjustments are tough to pull off.

What Mel Ott did, best I can tell, is this: He altered his hitting to fully take advantage of the Polo Grounds. And he didn’t even worry about what he did on the road.

Just look at the numbers:

In 1941, Ott hit .347/.490/.636 at home with 19 home runs.

That same year, he hit .236/.325/.382 on the road with 8 home runs.

He’d never had a split like that before. In 1942, of course, America was at war (Ott was too old to serve), and the talent in baseball was significantly down. Ott basically repeated the pattern. He slugged 643 at home. He slugged.347 on the road. That year, he hit 23 homers at home, 7 on the road.

Then came 1943 — but before I get to 1943, let me give you the punchline. From 1941 to 1946, Mel Ott hit 123 home runs to put himself over the 500-homer mark. And do you know how many of those 123 he hit at home? One hundred. Yeah. For those final years, he hit 81% of his homers at home. The last four years, he hit 58 homers at home and eight (yes EIGHT) on the road.

The crescendo was 1943. Baseball was obviously a mess in 1943. Just about all the good players were overseas, attendance was down to nothing (he Giants averaged fewer than 5,000 people per game) and lots of people were wondering why they were even playing baseball. The equipment was also subpar; there were always rumors about the baseballs being soft and inferior, and the power numbers around baseball were in freefall (baseball’s .344 slugging percentage in 1943 is the second-lowest since Deadball, behind only 1968’s year of the pitcher).

Ott was pretty much finished. He hit just .234. But even in full decline, he managed to hit 18 home runs which, believe it or not, was good enough for second in the National League.

He hit ALL EIGHTEEN at the Polo Grounds.

I’ll repeat that: In 1943, Mel Ott hit all 18 of his homers at home.

As mentioned earlier, none of this should be read as disparaging of Ott. He adapted marvelously to his environment. If Ott had played his career at Fenway Park, I have no doubt at all that he would have adjusted his swing to take advantage of the park. If he had played his career at Ebbetts Field, he would have probably added 10 points to his career batting average, maybe more, even if his home run total fell off a bit.

But he was a Giant. One of the reasons that doing a list like this is fun is that we can’t possibly know who was better in a neutral environment; baseball isn’t played in a laboratory. How would Babe Ruth play in 2016? How would Bryce Harper be in 1954? We can only guess. What we know is this: You play the cards you are dealt. Mel Ott played his cards beautifully.

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No. 35: Cal Ripken

Before Cal Ripken came along, there had never been a 6-foot-4 shortstop who played with any regularity in the Major Leagues. There had been a few tall shortstops through the years — Bill Almon, Ron Hansen, Tony Kubek, Roy Smalley Jr. (who was the father of the Roy Smalley who played in the 1970s) — but none of them was 6-foot-4. More to the point, none of them was built like Ripken. They were tall (as tall as 6-foot-3) but relatively slender, seemingly light on their feet. Ripken, meanwhile, looked more like a 1970s college fullback.

This might be hard to believe, but before Ripken came along, there had only been 17 everyday players in major league history (minimum 3,000 plate appearances) who were 6-foot-4 and weighed at least 200 pounds. None were shortstops. None were second basemen. None were third basemen. You look at the list of 17, and about half were big hulking power hitters without a position (Frank Howard, Dave Kingman, Ken Singleton, Dick Stuart, etc.). There are a few great athletes in there who played outfield (Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Donn Clendenon, Johnny Lindell) and a few people who could hold their own at first base or behind the plate.

In other words, Cal Ripken was a whole new kind of baseball player. He was way too big to play short. He was a sluggish runner; in his career, Ripken got caught stealing more often than he was successful. and he grounded into more double plays (350) than any player in baseball history.

It took the mad genius of Earl Weaver to see a future for this guy at shortstop. Ripken had always been a third baseman. In 1981 and early 1982, when Ripken came to the big leagues, he was a third baseman. But Weaver was aching to move the kid to shortstop. No one in the organization agreed with him — not one person. But 1982 was Weaver’s last year as manager, and he didn’t give a $*$%* what anyone thought even before he became a lame duck. On July 2, he put Ripken at shortstop to stay.  For once in his $*%%&$# life, Earl Weaver wanted to have a $&#$* shortstop who could $&%&$ hit.

“I liked the way he’s handled himself,” Weaver said after a couple of weeks. “It’s way too early to compare them but the way he moves around reminds me or Marty Marion.”

It’s always fun when someone says that it’s way too early to do something … and then does that very thing.

The early reports about Ripken’s defense at shortstop included such bland and unfulfilling words as “solid” and “capable” and “adequate.” Even Ripken himself would say, “I think I’m a better third baseman.” This, I think, is how it goes for pioneers. People can only see so clearly past their own expectations and preconceived ideas. Ripken, from the start, was perceived to be a good hitter who might hold his own at shortstop. And so that’s how people saw him. At best in those early days, he was labeled “surprisingly good.”

It was easy to miss that Cal Ripken would become one of the greatest defensive shortstops in the history of baseball.

How good was he defensively? We can throw out a few numbers as a starting point. Ripken led American League shortstops in assists seven times and in putouts six times. To contrast, Ozzie Smith led the league in assists eight times and in putouts twice. There’s defensive WAR to ponder — Ripken’s defensive WAR at shortstop is third behind the Wizard and Mark Belanger, the two players most consider the greatest defensive shortstops since at least World War II (with Andrelton Simmons closing fast).

But Ripken didn’t get credit for being that good. He only won two Gold Gloves, and they were later in his fabulous career when coaches and managers like to give out Gold Gloves like lifetime achievement Oscars (though Ripken was still a great defensive shortstop when he won those awards). Ripken didn’t get that credit because he had, more or less, invented a new way of playing great shortstop. He played deep to give himself slightly more time, and because he was utterly in sync with the pitcher, he was a genius at positioning himself.

People missed something else about Ripken: He had the greatest shortstop arm of his time. They missed it because Ripken didn’t rear back and fire the ball across the infield the way, say, Shawon Dunston did. Dunston had a bazooka of an arm, no question about it, and everyone talked about his arm while no one talked about Ripken’s. But I would bet you that Ripken got the ball to first base much quicker than Dunston did because Dunston would wind up and throw a 95-mph fastball across the infield. Ripken would catch and throw in one motion, the Aaron Rodgers, Steph Curry quick release, and the ball still had some heat on it.

The running back Eric Dickerson never looked as fast as he really was because of the way he ran. There’s a famous story where Rams coach John Robinson was getting on Dickerson’s case for not running hard, and Dickerson said, “Coach, I’m running as fast as I can go. Don’t believe me, send someone out there to try and catch me.” Robinson did. The guy couldn’t catch Dickerson.

And that, I think, also describes Ripken’s defense. He never LOOKED great. He just was great.

Between 1982-1991, Ripken posted a 127 OPS+ and averaged 34 doubles, 26 homers, 97 runs and 94 RBIs per season. These were crazy numbers for a shortstop. The only two previous shortstops who had posted those numbers for even ONE season were Ernie Banks and Vern Stephens back in the 1950s. Ripken posted them for 10. He was a Hall of Famer by age 31.

After that, well, he was barely an average hitter the last 10 years of his career, but he lasted long enough to get 3,000 hits and 400 homers and so on. He got the consecutive games streak record, of course. He also survived long enough to take that grounded-into-double-plays record from Henry Aaron.

* * *

A few words about Cal Ripken’s final year. That was 2001. People have strong feelings about how athletes go out. These days, the talk is about Kob Bryant. You hear people all the time saying it is sad to see one of the greatest players in the history of the league chuck up and clank bad shots for a dreadful team.

And I guess my question: Sad for who? Yes, of course, we never like seeing our athletes grow old. But why is Kobe Bryant out there? Is it for the money? Maybe it is, and it’s a lot of money.

But maybe it is something else driving him. Maybe he just loves playing basketball so much that he wants to play until he cannot play any longer. Is that sad? He knows how far his game has fallen. He sees the faces of people in the crowd. He hears a new kind of cheers, a kind filled with pity and remorse and nostalgia. For a guy who would walk into opponents arenas like an angry gunslinger ready to shoot the first guy who mouthed off, those cheers must sound wildly off key.

But still he plays, he endeavors, he strives, and maybe that’s not sad. Maybe it’s something else.

That something else was the feeling I had watching Ripken play his last year. He couldn’t play anymore. He posted a 70 OPS+. He had long faded away from shortstop. By WAR, he was a sub-replacement level player. And his Orioles were abysmal.

But every night, the game would end, and Ripken would go to the crowd, and he would sign autographs for as long as he could stand out there. I watched him in Kansas City. I watched him in New York. I watched him in Baltimore too. He would sign autographs and talk to fans and, though he didn’t say the words “Thank you,” well, he did not have to say them. His presence was his thank you. And the fans waiting, they did yell “thank you” right back.

And I thought: This isn’t sad at all. It can be sad when their career gets cut short. It can be sad when they leave too soon and then regret it so much they try to come back. It can be sad when they end up a bit player far from the city where they played their best.

But as Cal Ripken ran up the dugout stairs to play baseball, as he played baseball as well as he could for a 40-year-old man who would play 3,000 major league baseball games, as he signed all those autographs one after another after another, I felt the opposite of sad. I felt happy that Cal Ripken got to spend his career sharing his talent, giving us memories, living the life he wanted. And he played ball until the sun set.

 

 

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By In 100 Greatest

No. 36: Carl Yastrzemski

One of the joys of baseball is that it can prompt fury about stuff that doesn’t matter at all. And by “stuff that doesn’t matter at all,” I mean that literally — I’m not talking about arguments like “Who was better, Roberto Clemente or Al Kaline?” I don’t mean arguments like, “How good would Roger Clemens have been if steroids had never been invented?”

Those might not matter MUCH but they do matter to many of us because we’re baseball fans.

No, I’m talking about rage over something utterly irrelevant. Such rage erupted in 1967, the year of Yaz, and the funny part is that if you have not heard about it I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that by the end of this post you will be pretty ticked off too even though 48 years have gone by.

Let’s begin with this opinion: No baseball life ever led more perfectly to a crescendo than Yastrzemski’s path to 1967. He was born to have that season. His father, Karol (who later changed it to Carl), was a potato farmer by day and a baseball dreamer in his spare time. He was good enough as a young man to play professional baseball but, as fathers often said in his time, there was a Depression going on. He played some semi-pro baseball and worked the fields. He drilled all of his baseball expectations and beliefs and possibilities into his son and namesake. By the the time the young Carl was 2, he was dragging a baseball bat everywhere.

Yaz was an extraordinary athlete. You probably know that he was a great basketball player; it is often said and written that he set the Long Island high school scoring record, breaking the record of another pretty good athlete named Jim Brown. After doing a little research, I’m not sure it’s quite that clear-cut — which is to say I’m not sure he actually broke Brown’s record — but the larger point is certainly true. Jim Brown averaged 38 points a game and was an amazing high school basketball player. Yaz scored something around there and was amazing in his own right. He intended to play baseball and basketball at Notre Dame.

He ended up playing neither, at least on the varsity level. In the middle of his sophomore season at Notre Dame, he was offered a gigantic contract — it came out to more than $100,000 — to sign with the Boston Red Sox. Yaz was that kind of phenom. He played shortstop then, and he had a swing so powerful and pure that at his first spring training, Ted Williams told him, “Don’t let anyone change your swing.”

The newspapers for some reason called him Paul Yastrzemski when he first joined the Carolina League, but they soon knew him — he hit .377 with power and speed for Raleigh. He intended to make the Red Sox the next year, when he was 20, and he brought his dad along to spring training to help him get ready. Yastzemski
played pretty well that spring, but that was the last season of Ted Williams and the Red Sox wanted to shape his replacement. They sent Yaz to Minneapolis to learn how to play left field. He hit .339 and the next season was positioned in the shadow of the Green Monster and Teddy Ballgame.

Yastrzemski had numerous great seasons, of course, but it’s easy to miss because of the time when he played. For instance, in 1968, he famously led the American League in batting with a .301 average. If you convert those numbers to an average scoring environment, Yaz hit .327/.456/.538 with more than 300 total bases. He also won a Gold Glove and by advanced defensive metrics clearly deserved it. He probably should have been the MVP. He finished ninth instead.

In 1970, he led the league in runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, slugged 30 homers and stole 23 bases. He probably should have been the MVP again. He finished fourth.
In all, Yaz got MVP votes in 14 different seasons … but he only won the one. That was 1967. That was not only his magical year, it might be the most magical year any player has ever had. The Red Sox had been terrible every year of Yaz’s career to that point. They stuck in 1966, stunk in 1965, stunk in 1964 and so on. There was no real reason to believe they would be anything other than stinky in 1967 too.

The Red Sox were basically a .500 team into July, which was an improvement but not enough to matter much. After losing to Baltimore 10-0 in the second game of a doubleheader on July 13, they were in fifth place. And then, the magic happened. Over the next 10 days, Yaz hit .371 with five homers. The Red Sox won all 10 games and were suddenly a half game out.

They plodded around for a month or so and fell back into fourth place on August 18. Over the next seven games, Yaz hit .360 with three homers, nine RBIs and nine runs scored. The Red Sox won all seven games. And they were tied for the American League lead.

It was like this all year: When Yastrzemski was merely good, the Red Sox faltered. He had to be superhuman. And of course, he had to be superhuman under the intense glare of Red Sox fanhood and under the gun for the 50 or so year World Series drought. On Sunday September 17, the Red Sox lost their third game in a row and fell back into third place tie with Minnesota, a game behind Detroit and Chicago. It set up one of the wildest finishes in baseball history, a four-team scramble for a pennant.

From September 18 to October 1, the Red Sox played 12 games. Carl Yastrzemski hit .523 with five homers, 14 runs and 16 RBIs. And the Impossible Dream Red Sox won the pennant.

In those 29 key games, Carl Yastrzemski hit .433 with 13 homers, 32 runs, 36 RBIs and the Red Sox won 25 of them. He went on to hit .400 with three homers in the World Series, pushing what was probably a superior Cardinals team to seven games. Baseball is not a game where one man can singlehandedly carry a team. In 1920, Babe Ruth famously outhomered every other team in the American League. The Yankees finished third. In 1924, Rogers Hornsby hit .424 — the Cardinals finished 65-89. In 1991, Cal Ripken had one of the great seasons of our generation, an amazing 11.5 WAR season. The Orioles finished 67-95.

So for Yaz to not only have such an extraordinary season — he won the Triple Crown — but also to play at his peak exactly when the Red Sox needed it, this was the stuff of sorcery. It was a forgone conclusion that he would win the MVP Award, and he did. Of the 20 votes cast for the MVP Award in 1967, Yaz got 19.

Which means, of course, that one person did not vote for Carl Yastrzemski.

That man voted, instead, for Cesar Tovar, a utility-man for Minnesota who hit .267/.325/.367.

This is where the rage begins. There was an overwhelming amount of it in the baseball community when the results were announced. Cesar Tovar? Seriously? Baseball reporters lined up to tee off on the “homer” who voted for Tovar. “Ridiculous and irresponsible!” grumped the Boston Herald Traveler’s Bill Liston. “A first place ballot for Harmon Killebrew could have been justified. If the voter wanted to render under Cesar the things which were his, he should have given him a banjo as befitting a .267 hitter.”

Interlude: Light hitters were called “banjo hitters” in those days. OK, back to the fury.

“The vote for Tover was parochial and pathetic,” wrote Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News.

“One member of the Twins, who received MVP support himself, commented on Tovar’s first place vote,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Richard Dozer. “He told me, ‘I couldn’t believe it.’”

“If Cesar Tovar is deserving of one Most Valuable Player voter over Carl Yastrzemski,” wrote Bud Tucker of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, “my name is Isador Plotnik, and I drive a cab in Brooklyn.”

The intensity was so hot, that the St. Paul Pioneer’s Arno Goethel felt like he had to go public to say he was NOT the guy who voted for Tovar. “My vote,” he said, “went Yaz first, Killebrew second and Tovar sixth.”

When Goethel announced that he had not picked Tovar, everyone in the Baseball Writers Association knew that it had been Max Nichols of the Minneapolis Star who did. This was in the days before Twitter so nobody felt comfortable naming Nichols publicly, but everyone felt comfortable bashing him in an anonymous way. The Sporting News wrote: “We believe that the BBWAA, within its ranks, should take some action to penalize the writer for his unwise vote by banning him from ever serving again on a selection committee. The vote for Tovar was a black eye for the BBWAA.” Detroit’s Joe Falls simply ripped the vote for its “stupidity.”

But Falls did not stop there. He decided to reach out to Max Nichols. And in reaching out to Nichols, he found something surprising … Falls actually found himself gaining an odd respect for Nichols. “I still think he’s dead wrong,” Falls wrote. “But at the same time I respect his right to vote for whoever he chooses.”

See, Nichols did not back off his vote when challenged by Falls. He didn’t say, “Yeah, I kind of messed up there.” Instead, he said that if given the same chance he would vote for Tovar again. “From what I saw, Tovar was the most valuable player in the league,” he said. “He played six positions for the Twins and I saw him win games for them at all six positions. … We didn’t have the best of player relations on our club, but Tovar never got mixed up in any of the clubhouse politics. He kept plugging away no matter where they put him.”

When Falls saw that this was a thought-out vote, one made from a genuine position, he realized that even though it was a looney decision none of this really mattered. After all, Yaz won the MVP award by a landslide. There is no bonus for winning the thing unanimously. Forever more, when the trivia question comes up, “Who won the American League MVP award in 1967,” the answer will be Carl Yastrzemski. We can get so angry in baseball over such insignificant things. Falls felt so much respect for the way Nichols stood his ground, he even let Nichols finish off his column.

“I don’t know why it had to be unanimous,” Max Nichols said. “If that’s democracy — that I had to vote the same way everyone else voted — we’re living in two different democracies.”

Yes yes. Democracy gives everyone the right to vote! Hear hear!

Oh, wait, I should probably mention one tiny thing. Max Nichols stopped covering the Twins at the beginning of September 1967. He was moved to the city desk then. So, um, yeah, he voted for Cesar Tovar as MVP in a year where he didn’t see Yaz play during one of the greatest stretch runs in baseball history.

And when asked about the reasoning of his vote, he said, “I go by what I see, not by what I read in the papers or what somebody tells me. … I guess I didn’t see Yaz in his best games against the Twins.”

So … um … like I said, insignificant things in baseball can still make you pretty angry.

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No. 37: Roberto Clemente

A duet with one of my heroes and friends, David Maraniss, who aside from winning Pulitzer Prizes and writing brilliant presidential biographies, wrote the magnificent book “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” David’s words are in italics.

* * *

There are baseball names with magic in them. DiMaggio. Koufax. Mickey Mantle. Clemente. This magic is not an easily quantifiable thing. Something about the syllables, the arrangement of consonants and vowels, the way the name sounds triggers a sensation, a consciousness that sparks beyond simple memory, a door opening. Certain songs do the same thing.

The funny thing is that the songs that open my memory are rarely my favorite songs or what I would consider the best songs. U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is an infinitely better song than John Cougar’s “Ain’t Even Done With The Night,” but when I hear the latter I am transported to 1981 and a crowded swimming pool with pretty girls wearing two-piece swimsuits and geeky guys trying to look tough. It is brilliantly sunny. The air smells like barbecue. This is a wonderful but entirely involuntary journey. I love the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” so much more, but when I hear it, I only hear it.

Clemente, just those three syllables, inspires a whirl of grainy color images, a fierce right-handed swing at a neck-high pitch, a man running the bases as if he’s out of control, as if he’s running down a hill too steep, a man in the outfield chasing after a rolling baseball, gloving it, twirling, unleashing a throw with so much force that it garbles the mind for just an instant — something about the power of that throw just seems a little bit off, a little bit impossible.

The name Clemente opens a time portal. It launches us into the 1971 World Series, when no Baltimore pitcher could get him out. It transports us to 1961 when Clemente, furious about how unappreciated he was, decided to win a batting title and then, through sheer force of will, won a batting title. It transports us even to a time before memory, even for those of us too young to have seen him play.

* * *

David Maraniss:

I grew up in Wisconsin, rooting for the Milwaukee Braves, loving Aaron and Covington and Bruton and Spahnie and Mathews and Adcock, but nonetheless Clemente was my favorite player, with Vic Power a close second. I thought he was the coolest thing I had ever seen – the way he looked in a uniform, the way he walked to the plate, the way he rolled his neck, his looping underhand throws to second and his rifle shots to third and home. We all have someone in childhood, and not necessarily an athlete, that we connect to in some magical way, and for me it was Clemente. I even loved the fact that he was called a hypochondriac. I could identify with that; I am one.

But there are other athletes I loved that I would never write about. Lombardi was it for football; no interest in any other coach, and Clemente it for baseball. And the truth is I would not have written the Clemente book if it was only about his baseball abilities, which is, as it should be, the only thing that concerns your rankings. The story of a migrant worker, essentially, black and Latino, the greatest of the first wave, and someone who fought against his own pride and fears of mortality, and against the white sporting press establishment, and yet somehow emerged beloved, the fact that he was growing as a human being late in his career, the opposite trajectory of most athletes, and of course his dramatic death – those all compelled me to write the book, even as my childhood love of him drew me to him in the first place.

* * *

The Milwaukee Braves wanted Roberto Clemente most. The Braves were shrewd operators — in a seven-year span they signed Johnny Logan, Wes Covington, Del Crandall, Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron and traded for Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette and Joe Adcock. Throw in Warren Spahn and this was the fantastic nucleus of a team that would win back-to-back pennants and, in retrospect, probably should have won a lot more.

In 1954, the Braves wanted Clemente, who was playing for Santurce in the Puerto Rican League. Well, three teams wanted him — the Braves, the Giants and the Dodgers. It is telling how only National League teams were actively trying to sign Clemente; this was a sign of the times. The Yankees were not only the dominant team in the American League, they were also the overwhelming power determining how baseball in the league was played … and in would still a be a full year before the Yankees had a black player. In fact, the Senators, Tigers and Red Sox had also not used a single black player. Clemente, as a dark-skinned player from Puerto Rico, was not a viable option for about half the teams in baseball.

Remember, this was SEVEN YEARS after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

The Braves were said to have offered the most money for Clemente, but he signed with the Dodgers for $15,000 — $5,000 of it salary, $10,000 a signing bonus. In later years, Clemente would say he signed with the Dodgers because he wanted to play in New York, where there was a large Puerto Rican population. There is clarity in this. There is less clarity, though, in why the Dodgers signed him and, quickly, lost him.

The baffling rules of the time made Clemente a bonus baby, meaning that because the Dodgers had signed him for so much money that they had to keep him on the Major League roster or risk losing him in an offseason draft the following year. The Dodgers were shrewd about Bonus Babies. Later that very year of 1954,  as reported in The Sporting News, the Dodgers signed “a big Brooklyn Jewish boy” for $20,000. They did keep Sandy Koufax on their major league roster.

But the Dodgers did not keep Clemente, exposing him to the following year’s draft. Why not? There have been numerous theories. One is that the Dodgers did not want Clemente as much as they just wanted to keep Clemente away from their rival Giants. Another is that they thought they could hide Clemente in Montreal and other teams would simply miss his talent. Clemente hit just .257 with no power his one year in Montreal … and because half of baseball wasn’t even watching, the Dodgers gamble might not have been as silly as it would later seem. As it turned out, though, Branch Rickey had the first pick in the draft as vice-president of the Pirates, and obviously he didn’t care about the color of Clemente’s skin.

“We know he can field, run and throw,” Rickey said happily after selecting Clemente in the draft. “He has power for sure.”

Sadly, it is likely that the Dodgers — the team that broke the color barrier — did not keep Clemente on the big-league roster PRECISELY because of the color of his skin. At the time, the Dodgers had four dark-skinned players who were more or less in the everyday lineup — Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella, second baseman Junior Gilliam and Cuban outfielder Sandy Amoros — and Don Newcombe was in their starting rotation. Even for the most progressive baseball team, this was pushing the very limits of 1950s desegregation. To keep Clemente would have meant releasing a white player, probably Shotgun Shuba, who had homered in his only at-bat in the 1953 World Series.

SABR’s Stew Thornley wrote that he got an email from former Dodgers Vice President Buzzie Bavasi ten years ago explaining that the team had asked Jackie Robinson  what to do. According to Bavasi, Robinson had said that replacing Shuba or any other white player with a young black Latin like Clemente would be “setting our program back five years.”

All of which makes it so much more interesting to think about what might have happened if Clemente had signed with the Braves instead of the Dodgers. That would have meant having Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente in the same outfield. The mind boggles.

* * *

David Maraniss:

I have to be honest and say that when I am rooting for a team – the Brewers, the Packers, the Badgers in basketball –  the first thing I care about is the winning. If I happen to love the way they play, so much the better, but it does come second to winning, at least while the games are being played and the season is on.

But later, after it is over, and in all other cases where I am watching a sport outside of that temporal rooting interest, all I care about are the moments of uncommon beauty and skill and will. Those are the things that add meaning to life, and last so much longer in our memories than winning. Clemente won and he played a beautiful game. As a young player and an old one, he led his team to pennants and world championships. Overcoming race and language, he became the undisputed leader of the Pirates, something that WAR and all the other statistics utterly fail to measure, just as in the matter of joy and beauty they fail to measure the thrill of watching him go the wall and uncork a rope to third. If I had to pick a team, I would want Clemente in right. That is enough for me. I once spoke to Henry Aaron’s foundation for kids and he was there and I told him I loved him and the Braves but that if the Braves had signed Clemente, as they almost did, Mr. Aaron you would have been playing left. He laughed and shook his head in affirmation.

* * *

City Slickers:

Phil: Will you stop with Roberto Clemente? Henry Aaron was the greatest right fielder of our generation.

Ed: Could he run like Clemente? Could he throw like Clemente?

* * *

The wonder of Clemente is that, if you are being honest, his game was not elegant in the way that, say, DiMaggio’s game was elegant or the way Aaron’s game was elegant. He was a jarring cloud of angles — elbows, knees, shoulders, all of them going in different directions, an asterisk in motion. In the language of Hollywood, he was not conventionally beautiful. And, like Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn and Kathleen Turner and others in Hollywood, Clemente simply redefined what beauty means.

His beauty was in the passion with which he played. He ran the bases as if intending to swallow them whole. He threw with such power, people in the crowd would swear hearing the ball whistling through the air. He swung at every kind of pitch in every possible location; nothing would keep him from hitting baseballs.

Clemente’s passion was transparent in every move he made on the baseball diamond. So was his fury. His early years in the Major Leagues were peppered with misunderstanding and frustration and anger. In 1956 alone, he was fined $25 by manager Bobby Bragan for missing a sign. Several times, he was admonished for not running out fly balls. He ran through a third-base coach’s sign (scoring the winning run). sparking headlines. He was fined for missing a steal sign, though the fine was rescinded after a talk with Bragan. And so on.

And he complained. Lord, did Clemente complain. He complained about not feeling right. He complained about pain. He complained about playing when he wasn’t at his best. He complained about sportswriters mocking what they called his hypochondria. More than anything, he complained about the treatment of Latin players. Some of his complaints were well-founded and helped alter the landscape. And some … were just complaints.

“You writers are all the same,” he shouted at the Pittsburgh Press’ Phil Musick the first time they spoke and many times after that. “You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

“Anger for Roberto Clemente,”  Press columnist Roy McHugh wrote later, “is the fuel that makes the wheels turn in his never-ending pursuit of excellence. When the supply runs low, Clemente manufactures some more.”

Rage, of course, is the food of pioneers. It is what kept Jackie Robinson going when the death threats mounted. It is what spurred Jim Brown to get up no matter how hard he was hit. It was what kept Charlie Sifford coming to the golf course again and again and again even when people asked him to shine their shoes. Clemente was, of course, was an open heart, a generous spirit … his heroic final mission to bring supplies to Nicaragua after an earthquake defined the man’s true nature. But the ballplayer who found his English mocked, who was called a malingerer, who was ever aware of the cliche made of himself and other Latin ballplayers — that ballplayer fed on  rage so he could come back year after year to hit .300 and leg out doubles and triples, and unleash cannon balls from right field.

I deeply love what Phil Musick wrote after the end:

‘When I heard he died, I wished that sometime I told him I thought he was a hell of a guy. Because he was, and now it’s too late to tell him there were things he did on a ball field that made me wish I was Shakespeare.”

* * *

David Maraniss:

I think it is unproductive if not mindless to compare athletes from different generations. Everything is different. Diet, training, gene pool, equipment. People can only be assessed and judged in the context of the times in which they live and compete, in any walk of life, and perhaps sports more than most other realms. Statistics offer the illusion of an even way to judge and compare, but it is only an illusion.

Public figures who die young always have a special glow, from Marilyn Monroe to JFK. There is no afterlife, which in sports in particular can be dreary and disappointing. The fact that Clemente not only died young but died in such a heroic way certainly adds to his story and the way he is perceived, and as I said I would not have written a book about him if not for that. But I loved him long before, and it was for the way he played.

* * *

This top 100 began so long ago that, frankly, I barely remember why I started it. But I do remember that it was not because I have any faith in my rankings. I do not. If I started the 100 again tomorrow, the order would be very different and some players would probably be different. It is fun to argue about whether Eddie Collins belongs ahead of Pete Rose, or whether Albert Pujols should be in front of Jimmie Foxx. Silly fun.

But I think I began this because I wanted to write about the 100 or so greatest baseball players ever, wanted to take this journey through baseball history. The rankings are simply the machinery. I put a lot of thought into them, but only as a way to tell their stories.

Of all the players on the list, none defies a ranking more than Clemente. In a way, ranking him at all feels wrong, like caging a butterfly.  Bill James ranked him 74th on his Top 100. SABR and the Sporting News ranked him 20th. A few years ago, the fans (and a special committee) voted for baseball’s All-Century team; they voted for 10 outfielders. Clemente was not one of them. In looking over that fan list, I find several other outfielders who I think were bigger oversights.

But it brings us back to the point … Clemente did not walk much. He did not hit for great power. He did hit .317, and he played in an era that stifled offense. He played glorious defense that was left to the beholder to quantify. To rank him 37th, I place him too high. To rank him 37th, I place him too low. None of it matters. There were better players even in his time, but something about the way he played, something about his graceless gracefulness, something about his impossible right arm, something about his heroic ending, something about the music of his name — Cleh … MEN … tay — lifts him in memory. Clemente is a summer song that takes us all back.

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No. 38: Eddie Mathews

On January 16, 1974, Eddie Mathews called home to his wife after he got word that he was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In truth, he had not even come close. Of the many curiosities in the history of Hall of Fame voting, this might be the strangest.

Mathews had hit 512 home runs in his career, a record at the time for third basemen. He had played in 12 All-Star Games and finished among league leaders in homers, runs, RBIs and total bases year after year. He had been something of a World Series hero**, and he had been one of the great young phenoms in the game’s history. That year, 1974, was when Mike Schmidt and George Brett began; at that point Eddie Mathews was almost inarguably the greatest third baseman in baseball history.

He received 32.3 percent of the vote. Eight players finished ahead of him on the ballot.

The next year, his Hall of Fame percentage went up on only a few points, and he finished seventh on the ballot behind, let’s be honest, seven lesser players*. A year after that, he again picked up a few points but still wasn’t even at 50 percent of the vote.

*Kiner, Roberts, Lemon, Hodges, Slaughter, Newhouser, Reese — none of these, save Roberts, was even close to Mathews stratum.

This was all very strange. It was only in 1977 that there was any sort of turning point and the reason, I suspect, had very little to do with Mathews himself. It so happened that year that Ernie Banks was eligible. Obviously Ernie Banks was a Hall of Famer; even the grumpy old Baseball Writers Association of America wouldn’t deny that. He was elected first ballot with 83.4% of the vote.

Only then people looked and realized … there was nothing Ernie Banks did better than Eddie Mathews.

— They were both infielders at roughly the same time.

— Banks was arguably a better defender at shortstop than Mathews was at third, but he played only 1,259 games there before being moved to first. Mathews played more than 2,100 games at third. It would be hard to argue that Banks, in total, was a significantly more valuable defensive player than Mathews.

— Banks hit .274/.330/.500 with 512 home runs. Mathews hit .271/.376/.509 with 512 home runs.

— Banks played his career in a great-hitting park. Mathews played most of his in a lousy-hitting park. A couple of quick ways to show this include:

1. Matthews OPS+ is 143 to Banks’ 122.

2. Banks’ neutralized numbers are: .278/.334/.508 with 537 homers.
Mathews neutralized numbers are: .281/.388/.528 with 553 homers.

— Banks famously never played in a World Series. Mathews played in three of them and was a key player on what was legitimately a great team, the late 1950s Milwaukee Braves.

“You have to wonder,” Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “what toes Eddie Mathews stepped on.”

Mathews didn’t wonder. He knew or at least he thought he knew: He had stepped on BBWAA toes. Eddie Mathews was a surly man. He was famous for his battles; in his career, he had epic fights with Jackie Robinson, with Don Drysdale, with Frank Robinson and so on. Mostly he fought for teammates, but the larger point was that he did not back down from a fight. And, yes, he fought with the press. He did not like seeing the press show up at his wedding. He did not like hearing the press bash his defense (Mathews took great pride in his defense and, according to defensive WAR, was a fine third baseman). He did not like getting probed on private matters.

Mathews sure that the sportswriters were not voting for him because they did not like him.

He was right, at least to a point. Dick Young, probably the most read sportswriter in the country and unquestionably the most belligerent, saw himself as the gatekeeper of the great game of baseball. In one of his “Young Ideas” columns he printed a letter from a Milton Herman of Irvington, N.J.:

Dear Mr. Young: Baseball’s Hall of Fame has become strictly a popularity contest. If not, why wasn’t Eddie Mathews voted in? He hit the same total of 512 home runs that Ernie Banks did.”

The response was vintage Dick Young, a mixture of patronizing arrogance and arrogant patronizing.

Dear Mr. Herman: There is, hard to believe, more to baseball than home runs. Banks was, through much of his career, a fine shortstop who hit home runs, a rare combination. But yes, popularity does count, in baseball, in voting, in life.

Perfect. And the final sentence is key, it’s essentially an admission: Dick Young did not like Eddie Mathews and, therefore, did not vote for Eddie Mathews.

Mathews did get elected the following year, the Ernie Banks things was simply too stark a comparison. Before the vote, Mathews’ friend and a superb third baseman Al Rosen made the rounds on Mathews behalf, saying it would be a sin if he did not get elected. Upon election, Mathews gave a warm speech that included the memorable line: “I’m just a beat up old third baseman, I’m just a small part of a wonderful game.”

I have my own theory why Eddie Mathews got so little Hall of Fame support before the Ernie Banks’ comp made it impossible to keep him out. There are obvious things, of course, like sportswriter dislike and the weird purgatory that third basemen often live in. Nobody seems to have a clear picture of what a great third baseman is supposed to look like. A great shortstop, a great centerfielder, a great catcher — these are clear to the mind. Close your eyes, and you can see it. But third base … even Mike Schmidt was weirdly unappreciated, and he more or less checked every box.

Anyway, here’s my theory about Mathews: He had a hard time getting into the Hall in large part because he never won an MVP award.

The Baseball Writers began voting for an MVP award in 1931. Mathews is probably the greatest player of this era to not win one. It would come down to him, Mel Ott and Wade Boggs. Here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the 10 best players to never win an MVP award:

— Wade Boggs
— Tony Gwynn
— Derek Jeter
— Al Kaline
— Eddie Mathews
— Mel Ott
— Ozzie Smith
— Alan Trammell
— Duke Snider
— Arky Vaughan

High batting averages tend to lessen the effect — see Gwynn, Boggs, Kaline to an extent — and so can a stellar defensive reputation. But here you also see some of the underrated great players. Arky Vaughan got no Hall of Fame support at all. Snider was ignored for years. I originally had Jeff Bagwell on this list, forgetting that he did win an MVP in the strike season. Anyway, his Hall of Fame candidacy is being delayed for other reasons. I put Alan Trammell on the list instead, and he fits. And, of course, Eddie Mathews was kept in limbo for way too long.

Look at a these pairings:

Alan Trammell (70.4 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Can’t get any Hall of Fame traction.
Barry Larkin (70.2 WAR). Did win an MVP Award. Elected to Hall of Fame.

Lou Whitaker (74.9 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Knocked off ballot almost immediately.
Ryne Sandberg (67.5 WAR). Won an MVP Award. In the Hall.

Tim Raines (69.1 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Still struggling to get into the Hall.
Andre Dawson (64.5 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.

Dwight Evans (64.5 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Never seriously considered for Hall.
Jim Rice (47.4 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.

Reggie Smith (64.5 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Never seriously considered for Hall.
Willie Stargell (57.5 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.

Obviously, there are counter examples — Dave Winfield got into the Hall easily without winning an MVP, so did Paul Molitor and others. And multiple MVP winners like Dale Murphy were not elected. But I think if you look at the whole picture, the MVP Award does play a role in Hall of Fame voting. And I think terrible decisions, such as Alan Trammell getting snubbed in 1987, linger long after they were made. Mathews, by the way, had legitimate MVP seasons in 1953, 1959 and 1961.

Eddie Mathews was a classic pull hitter — he said he learned that from his mother, who used to pitch to him and would make him do extra chores if he hit the ball up the middle toward her.

Because he pulled the ball so beautifully and violently from such a young age — “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time,” Ty Cobb said after seeing him in the minors, “and this lad has one of them” — he became one of the greatest young home run hitters in baseball history. He had one of the great age-21 seasons in baseball history — he hit .302/.406/.627 with 47 home runs. Through age 23, he hit 153 home runs, still a record. At age 25, he he had 222, 100 or so more than Babe Ruth had at that same age and 40 more than his teammate Henry Aaron would.

There was a lot of talk in those days that Mathews could break Ruth’s record; he hit his 400th home run just as he turned 31 and he was still well ahead of Ruth’s pace. But, obviously, it was not meant to be. He was, however, the Atlanta Braves manager when Aaron broke the record. Aaron and Mathews still hold the record for most home runs hit by teammates, and it is truly a shared record (Aaron hit 442, Mathews 421), unlike Aaron’s other shared record.*

*Henry Aaron and Tommie Aaron still have the record for most home runs by brothers. Henry hit 755. Tommie hit 13.

Anyway, because he was so great young and because he did not challenge Ruth’s record, there was a whiff of disappointment about Mathews. I suppose that too may have had something to do with the Hall of Fame delay. Anyway, Mathews called his wife that day in 1973 after he found that he got only 30-some percent of the vote.

“I didn’t make it,” he told his wife.

“Didn’t make what?” she asked back.

* * *

**Eddie Mathews hit only .227 in the 1957 World Series and actually started out 0-for-8. But you could argue he was still hero. In Game 4, with his Braves down two games to one, Mathews came to the plate in the 10th inning with one out, the score tied and a man on second. The Yankees had led going into the inning but the Braves led off with the famous shoe-polish moment — Nippy Jones pinch hit for Warren Spahn and a pitch by Tommy Byrnes was landed near his foot. The umpire originally ruled that Jones was not hit by the pitch, but Jones pointed to shoe polish from his cleat on the ball and was given his base. He scored the tying run on Johnny Logan’s double. Then Mathews came up.

The Yankees had shown no inclination up to that point to pitch to him — they walked him three times in Game 3 — but this time they decided to pitch to him with first base open. He hit a mammoth home run for the walk-off victory.

In Game 5, Mathews singled with two outs against Whitey Ford, went to third on Aaron’s single and scored on Joe Adcock’s single. That was the only run scored in the Braves 1-0 victory.

In Game 7, Mathews hit a two-run double in the third inning and then scored himself on Aaron’s single to give the Braves a 3-0 lead. Lew Burdette threw a shutout so that was more than enough.

Burdette was named Series MVP — he won three games and gave up two runs the whole series. Aaron confirmed his super-stardom by hitting .393 with three home runs during the series. But Yankees manager Casey Stengel thought Mathews was the difference. “Without him in the lineup,” Stengel said, “it would have been a different series.”

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No. 39: Bob Gibson

gibson-color

I was planning on writing a new piece on Bob Gibson for this series … but I find that almost everything I want to say is in this piece I wrote five years ago. I have edited and reworked for context.

* * *

Bob Gibson smiles hard. It’s about to happen again. Over the years, Gibson has learned to tell when someone is about remind him how ferocious… heartless… intimidating he used to be. He has learned to brace himself for those peppy, ‘You were vicious!” compliments (they are compliments, right?) and the awed “You were a killer out there!” tributes (they are tributes, right?). He has learned to see them coming, the fans — they’re definitely fans — who remember him fondly for that glare and those up-and-in fastballs, who think of him as young and raging and invincible, with fury and pride and the purest annoyance oozing from his forehead instead of sweat.

“Mr. Gibson,” this man says. “Oh, do I remember the way you pitched. I remember all those batters you hit. They were so scared of you.”

Yes, Bob Gibson smiles hard. He shakes the man’s hand warmly, and he signs a baseball, and he says thank you in that voice that always surprises, that soft voice tinged with warmth. And it is only when the man has walked away and is long out of hearing range, that Bob Gibson asks — not angrily but with a sense of wonder — “Is that all I did? Hit batters? Is that really all they remember?”

* * *

No baseball player, not even Ty Cobb, has had so many stories told about menace. There are two — TWO — famous stories about Gibson throwing at a batter in an Old Timers’ Game.

Story 1: Gibson once plunked Pete LaCock in an Old Timers’ Game because had the gall to hit a grand slam off Gibson in the last inning of Gibson’s career in the major leagues. After he hit LaCock, Gibson shouted, “I’ve been waiting years to do that.”

Story 2:  Gibson brushed back Reggie Jackson in an Old Timers’ Game. Why? Because he had the gall to hit a home run off Gibson in an EARLIER OLD TIMERS’ GAME.

The stories are enjoyable almost entirely because Gibson is the man pitching. They would not be as fun if you replaced him with, say, Marichal or Feller or Koufax or Seaver or even another famously intimidating pitcher like Early Wynn or Don Drysdale or Roger Clemens. Gibson is a man apart. If the name “Lombardi” (as NFL Films reminds us) evokes images of duels in the snow, the name “Gibson” evokes images of a batter lying flat in a cloud of dust and the merciless man on the mound, glowering, daring, never ceding ground, never forgetting.

A quick scan of famous quotes about Gibson:

Dick Allen: “Gibson was so mean, he’d knock you down and then meet you at home plate to see if you wanted to make something of it.”

Don Sutton: “He hated everyone. He even hated Santa Claus.”

Red Schoendienst: “He couldn’t pitch today because they wouldn’t let him. The way he’d throw inside, he’d be kicked out of the game in the first inning.”

Tim McCarver: “I remember one time going out to the mound to talk with Bob Gibson. He told me to get back behind the plate where I belonged, and that the only thing I knew about pitching was that I couldn’t hit it.”

Dusty Baker: “The only people I ever felt intimidated by in my whole life were Bob Gibson and my Daddy.”

And so on. Perhaps the most telling words about Bob Gibson’s persona came from Hank Aaron in his poetic advice to Dusty Baker (as remembered by Baker):

Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson
He’ll knock you down
He’d knock down his own grandmother.

Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him.
He doesn’t like it.

If you happen to hit a home run don’t run too slow
And don’t run too fast.
If you want to celebrate get in the tunnel first.

And if he hits you don’t charge the mound
Because he’s a Golden Gloves boxer.

This is the inescapable reputation of Bob Gibson. It grows larger every year. Children whose fathers are not even old enough to have seen him pitch come up to Gibson to say he’s their favorite pitcher, not because of his 3,117 career strikeouts or his 1.12 ERA in 1968 or his unrelenting brilliance in the World Series. No, it’s because he was mean, tough, a symbol of badass. Gibson smiles when they say that, says that he appreciates it.

“The only real problem is,” he says, “they got it all wrong.”

* * *

Dusty Baker has an endless supply of Bob Gibson stories. A favorite: One night he saw Gibson in a restaurant. His teammates encouraged him to walk over and say hello. “It’s OK,” they told him. “It’s away from the field. This is a good time. Bob will be happy to talk.” Then, while those teammates snickered, Baker and his wife walked over.

Dusty said: “Excuse me, Mr. Gibson.”

Gibson looked up and snarled, “Why the *$*#&$* should I talk to you?” Then he looked past Dusty, to his wife, and said, “It’s very nice to meet you Mrs. Baker.”

The story’s punch line, though, comes years later, when Dusty retold the story to Gibson. The way Dusty remembers it, Gibson nodded. The story did not surprise him at all. “Well, what do you want?” he asked. “I said hello to your wife.”

* * *

Here’s a question: How tall do you think Bob Gibson is? Before you answer, you might remember that before he played in the big leagues, Gibson played for the Harlem Globetrotters, and he was known for his ferocious dunks. Player after player from his time will talk about the larger-than-life image of him scowling on a pitcher’s mound. “He looked like a giant out there,” his catcher and friend, Joe Torre, will tell you.

So how tall? Six-foot-four? Six-foot-five? Bigger?

No, of course not. Gibson is 6-foot-1. He was inches shorter than Drysdale and Jenkins, Sudden Sam and Gaylord Perry, Koufax and Bob Veale and the other big pitchers of the era. He was, for that matter, an inch shorter than his friend and rival Joe Torre.

See Gibson did not dominate with size, not exactly. And you know what else? He did not dominate by hitting an excessive number of batters, either. He never once led the league in hit-by-pitch. He only once finished in the top three in that category (and that was in 1963, when he was still quite wild).

Gibson’s aura grew out of something else: A need to win. t wasn’t a choice. The idea of failure threatened his very existence. Gibson has never enjoyed revealing much of himself. But he once opened up with The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell. He said this: “I’ve played a couple hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter. And she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”

This is a common theme — the much used “I want to win even if we’re playing ping-pong/tic-tac-toe/tiddlywinks” quote. But Gibson turned it on its head. He didn’t say that he would not let his daughter win at tic-tac-toe. He did not say that he hated losing even to his daughter in tic-tac-toe.

No, he said that in hundreds of games, he NEVER ONCE let his daughter win at tic-tac-toe. The games are over. The lessons, if there were lessons, have been learned. And Bob Gibson won.

* * *

What is more intimidating than a man who is hungrier, more determined, willing to go farther to win than you are? What made The Terminator in the first movie so savage, I think, was not that he was strong, and not that he was virtually indestructible, and not that he had Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles… but instead it was that The Terminator wanted to kill you more than you wanted to stay alive. There is no easy human response to that sort of intensity.

So was Gibson. He looked bigger than 6-foot-1. He may have only hit 10 or so batters a year, but those 10 never forgot. He threw his 95-mph fastball and savage slider by unfolding into a windup that screamed ancient violence. This was the windup David used this windup when smiting Goliath. That is the word. Gibson didn’t look like he was trying to strike out batters. He looked like he was trying to smite them.

“That’s a whole lot of [expletive],” Gibson says. “I wasn’t trying to intimidate anybody, are you kidding me? I was just trying to survive, man.”

* * *

Nothing came easy to Gibson. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, and his first stop was Columbus, Ga. — his memories of his eight games in the South in the 1950s are pungent and unpleasant and too personal to talk about. That was how baseball began for him. He made it to the big leagues in 1959, when he was 23, and then got beat around for a year and a half. He became a full-time starter in 1961 and led the league in walks. He was no instant sensation. He won 20 games for the first time when he was 29.

“People don’t know what it was like to be a young, black pitcher in those days,” he says, not defensively but as a point of fact. The way Gibson saw it, people wanted him to fail. Hitters wanted him to fail. Racists wanted him to fail. Opposing fans wanted him to fail. He had to beat them all. Every game was a fight to the finish, every hit him a dagger that could get him sent down, every loss a disaster from which he might not recover.

That is one of the things that people missed. It wasn’t about the fastball. It wasn’t about the slider. It wasn’t about coercion. Hell, he wasn’t getting Henry Aaron out by scaring him. Hell no, he got out Henry Aaron by mixing in slow stuff, getting the great man to twist himself into a knot. “You talk about my fastball?” he asks. “Aaron could hit God’s fastball.”

Nothing was easy. Nobody really backed down. Billy Williams owned Gibson’s slider, so he had to throw him something else. Gibson figured out how to pitch Mays, held him to a .196 average over the years. Roberto Clemente couldn’t touch Gibson. But for every Clemente and Mays, there was an Eddie Mathews or a Richie Hebner who hit him hard. He could not rely on being Bob Gibson to get easy outs. This was what people missed: There WERE NO easy outs.

So, he did things, small things nobody ever noticed, because they were enraptured with his image as bully. Never throw the same pitch in the same place to the same batter — that was Bob Gibson’s thing. Field every single bunt and ball up the middle — Gibson won nine straight Gold Gloves. Drive in every run possible — Gibson hit .206 with 24 home runs (two more in the World Series) in a low-scoring era. He was a brilliant bunter. He hit 18 sacrifice flies, more than any other pitcher since they started keeping track. Twenty-six games in his career, Gibson drove in more runs than he allowed.

“It wasn’t easy,” Gibson says. And that’s the point. Bully? Intimidator? Forget that. It wasn’t easy, but he kept on going, kept finding new ways, kept answering the challenges, kept winning. And it wasn’t easy.

* * *

Bob Gibson started nine World Series games. He finished eight of them. The only game he didn’t finish was his first — that was at Yankee Stadium, 1964. He was pulled for a pinch-hitter with the Cardinals down by three runs in the eighth inning. After that, he went 7-1 with a 1.60 ERA in World Series games. No manager dared take him out.

The complete games… this comes up often. People are always eager to ask Bob Gibson how he feels about today’s pitchers and the way they come out of games in the fifth or sixth inning. What’s wrong with America? Why can’t people finish games the way Bob Gibson did? They always want to ask him about it, always want to listen to him celebrate himself and his time. Only to ask Gibson this question is to once again misjudge him.

“Pitchers are just doing their jobs, man,” he says. “The game has changed. Pitchers today want to win as much as we did. When I pitched, you were expected to finish what you started, but it’s not like that now. Pitchers have different jobs. There are different expectations.”

Asking Gibson if he likes the new expectations is to misjudge him further. He doesn’t care all that much. He doesn’t watch a lot of baseball now. He watches the Cardinals, of course — he feels like the team has treated him well. Gibson also finds himself rooting quietly for the Dodgers, of all teams, because his close friend, Joe Torre, manages them (“I was even a Yankees fan there for a while, believe it or not,” he says). But, mostly, he has other things to do. He has a different life to live. Baseball does not define him.

This does not change. Bob Gibson has always refused to let any one thing define him.

“This guy came up to me a little while ago,” Gibson says. “Did you hear him? He goes: ‘You were so mean when you pitched. You hit all these guys.’ Stuff like that. I mean, that’s all right, people can think what they want. They can have their own memories. But you know how many times I’ve heard that? And I was thinking: Who comes up to you and says something like that?

“I wasn’t mean. I don’t buy into any of it. I was just doing my job. You hear people talk about this glare that I had. You know, I’ve been wearing glasses for almost 60 years. I wasn’t glaring… I just couldn’t see the catcher’s signals. I was just trying to see. That’s all. But people turn everything into something else.”

He shakes his head. People turn everything in something else. He’s not angry, or anyway he does not sound angry. That voice. So friendly. He seems almost amused by it all — the reputation, the aura, the way people seem endlessly fascinated by the way he looked, the way he threw a baseball. It’s like there was this part he once played, when he was young, this part of a pitcher who scowled and raged and struck out hitters on high fastballs. DeNiro will always be LaMotta, and Marilyn will always be the blonde bombshell, and Bogart will always be Rick. And Gibson will always be Gibson. The man has moved on. But the part lives on, grows bigger every year.

 

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No. 40: Eddie Collins

They called him “Cocky,” and there was nothing subtle or ironic about the nickname. Eddie Collins was a generally reserved man off the field, but on it he thoroughly believed himself to be the smartest man in baseball. He wasn’t wrong; Collins WAS the smartest player in baseball in his time or, if not, he was certainly in the photograph.

Eddie Collins was, in fact, one of the smartest players in the history of the game. And it is this — his genius for the game of baseball — that makes placing him in the Top 100 so difficult.

There is no satisfying way to compare ancient players from Deadball to the players today. For instance: There is an argument to be made, a strong one, that Eddie Collins was one of the ten best player in baseball history. If you treat the baseball of his time as equal to all other times, you almost have to rank him in that stratosphere. He ranks tenth In wins Above Replacement. He hit .333 with more than 3,000 hits, more than 700 stolen bases, more than 1,800 runs scored — only Ty Cobb has that combination.

When it comes to how his contemporaries viewed him as a player, he’s basically peerless. Connie Mack named him team captain for his all-time team. John McGraw called him the greatest second baseman ever. Cobb himself said, “If anyone tells you he wasn’t the greatest second baseman of all time, you argue with him.” As Bill James has written Collins has been at various times called the greatest bunter, greatest hit-and-run man, quickest thinker, greatest sign stealer, best defensive second baseman and best clutch performer ever.

So, yes, if you strictly compare Collins against his own time, he’s one of the dozen or so best players ever.

But there is a powerful counter-argument: The game WAS  different then. There were different circumstances, different pressures, different pitches, different conditions, different equipment. Major League Baseball was closed off to black players. It was a strictly American game. It was played in the daytime, mostly in New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Chicago. How hard were pitchers throwing then? How much ground did fielders cover? How much did those heavy wool uniforms affect the game? How worn down were pitchers in the eighth and ninth innings? Collins never hit more than six home runs in a season, but then again, in those days 10 home runs might lead the league.

How can you guess what Eddie Collins would be in 2015? He was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound competitor, a peerless bunter, a breathtaking base runner, a player with a brilliant baseball mind. Would that game play in 2015? Collins averaged — AVERAGED — more than 20 sacrifice hits per season over his 25-year career. Last year, no player had more than 13 sacrifice bunts. We don’t have complete information, but based on what we do know it seems Collins routinely would get thrown out 30 times a season attempting to steal. That obviously wouldn’t play these days. Collins seemed to get on base a lot with bunts … but even his admirers would say that he wasn’t breathtaking fast, he was just a great bunter. Would that work in 2015 against specialized defenses?

Then again he was just such a smart player — you have to believe he would adjust to modern times. Would have become a faster Dustin Pedroia? A Joe Morgan type? Your guess is probably as irrelevant as mine.

Eddie Collins — or Eddie Sullivan as he was calling himself to avoid losing his college eligibility at Columbia — was playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Rutland City, Vermont in 1906. And it just so happened that a Philadelphia Athletics pitcher named Andy Coakley was honeymooning in Vermont, and he happened to catch a semi-pro game, which tells you just how much fun that honeymoon was. He was blown away by the Sullivan kid playing second base and quickly sent word to his manager Connie Mack: “Sign this man.” Mack sent another player to make sure, and then they brought Collins to the Athletics.

There’s something pretty cool about the Coakley story. Yes, it was the day Eddie Collins was discovered. But it was also the day Andy Coakley found his true calling in life: Identifying and developing young baseball players. Coakley pitched a little while longer (though Mack dumped him that same year) and then, after failing to hang on, he coached a little at Williams, and then he asked Columbia University if he could help out as a pitching coach. Soon after, he became the head coach — and he coached at Columbia for 31 years. Andy Coakley managed Lou Gehrig.

Collins had to give up his college eligibility when Eddie Sullivan was discovered, though he did stay in school. Fun bit of trivia: It was as Eddie Sullivan that Collins got his first hit, a bunt single against Ed Walsh.

In 1909, Collins had his first great year — he hit .347 with 63 stolen bases and 104 runs — and, not coincidentally, Connie Mack’s team began its most glorious run. From 1910-1914, the Athletics won four pennants and three World Series. Collins led the league in runs three times during that stretch, he hit .344 with a .435 on-base percentage, he played breathtaking second base. Perhaps most memorably, he played brilliantly in the World Series. That’s where he gained much of his fame.

Collins was the star of what would be called the $100,000 infield, which featured first baseman Stuffy McInnis, Collins, shortstop Jack Barry and Hall of Fame third baseman Home Run Baker. Some say it was the best infield ever. Some — including this guy — would argue instead for the 1975-76 Reds infield of Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose.

The $100,000 infield, by the way, did not make $100,000 combined or, presumably, anything close. Best I can tell , Collins made roughly $12,000, Baker $8,000, McInnis and Barry considerably less than $5,000. It’s unlikely that the $100,000 infield made even $30,000 as a group.

In 1914, Connie Mack sold Collins to Chicago for $50,000. And just like with the Athletics, Collins’ arrival meant instant success for the team. The White Sox improved by 23 games, and two years later won the 1917 World Series. Of course, you already know what happened to the White Sox two years later in 1919 — Collins often said afterward that he had heard rumors about his teammates throwing the series, but he didn’t believe them.

Here’s irony for you: Collins was utterly incorruptible; even teammates who despised him knew that. But he had his worst World Series in 1919, hitting just .226 and walking only once in eight games. He also committed two errors. Three of the players banned by Kenesaw Mountain Landis — Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver and Chick Gandil — hit better and committed fewer errors. It seems to me there’s a valuable lesson in here, namely that it can be dangerous to put too much faith in reading statistics. People tend, for example, to try and use statistics to determine which players used PEDs and which players didn’t. This is a dangerous game. If you looked only at the numbers of the 1919 World Series, you would be sure that Eddie Collins was part of the fix.

Collins remained a very good player and even a pretty successful manager with Chicago in the years after the Black Sox scandal. From 1920-26, he hit .348/.435/.447, which was actually better than he’d hit the seven previous seasons. But this is a context illusion; Collins wasn’t quite as good a player but offensive numbers went up dramatically after Deadball ended, the spitball was banned and umpires started regularly putting fresh new baseballs into games. Still, Collins was a very good player even for a while after he reunited with Connie Mack and the Athletics as a 40-year-old.

He stayed in baseball for the rest of his life. He was widely regarded as a gentleman within the game, though a look at Collins’ life in baseball is incomplete without mentioning that in 1945, when he was general manager of the Red Sox, he essentially boycotted a tryout featuring Jackie Robinson. He helped create the atmosphere that made the Red Sox the last team in baseball to integrate. His views toward blacks, Jews and Catholics — among others — were backward, even by the standards of his time.

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By In 100 Greatest

No. 41: Pete Rose

The question is this: Can any boy with moderate athletic ability simply will himself into becoming a great baseball player? I’ve thought about this a lot. When I was a kid, I wanted to play Major League Baseball. Every kid I knew wanted that. I was small and not obviously talented (or even subtly talented). But I did make our league All-Star team as an 11-year-old because I fielded well and had something resembling bat control, and we weren’t going out of town on vacation the day of the All-Star game like many of the other families were.

I thought I wanted baseball success badly. I would bounce balls off a brick wall and field grounders until the baseballs had been chewed up to the yarn. I would beg my Dad or friends to pitch to me every day. I would spend hours practicing the exchange from glove to hand for the double play — for some reason I was convinced that this was to be a crucial skill for me. Even now, I suspect, I can make that lightning fast exchange.
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