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No. 42: Jackie Robinson

The story of Jackie Robinson has been deconstructed a million different ways … let’s try something a little bit different. Let’s try to look at his familiar and well-worn story through a very specific lens. Let’s try to see him not as the great Jackie Robinson, American hero, baseball pioneer, man who changed American sports.

Let’s try to see him, if we can, as one of the craziest baseball stories — one of the craziest sports stories — in American history.
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No. 43: Warren Spahn

First we’ll use Spahn
then we’ll use Sain
Then an off day
followed by rain
Back will come Spahn
followed by Sain
And followed
we hope
by two days of rain.

— Gerald V. Hern poem on the 1948 Braves

* * *

Let’s start with a completely unrelated story involving the great hitter Billy Williams. When I was maybe 21 or 22 years old ,I was covering a Charlotte Knights Class AA baseball game, and by pure chance I found myself in the press box sitting next to Billy Williams. The Knights were a Cubs farm system then and I guess Williams was a roving hitting instructor.

To this day, I’m not sure how or why I did it: I probably should have been too embarrassed to ask that basic a question. I But I asked Williams if he could explain to me the difference between a slider and a curve. He happily did. He explained for the next hour or so. It was unbelievable, one of my favorite ever baseball experiences. He took a sheet of paper, showed me the different breaks, explained why he had some success against Gibson’s slider (he hit 10 home runs off Gibby) and why he couldn’t do a thing against Bert Blyleven’s curve (one hit in 15 at-bats). It was like getting physics lessons from Einstein.
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No. 44: Pedro Martinez

Tony Pena still owns the house where he grew up in the Dominican Republic. The floor is dirt and you see bits of the sky as you look through the roof and the walls are as thin and brittle as graham crackers. But it still stands and Tony Pena comes by every so often to see it and to remember. His life is a miracle. That’s the thing he wants to remember. There was so little hope in that poor little town of Palo Verde. Life inescapably led to the banana fields. Only his life did not. Because … baseball.

The day he showed us the house there was a woman living there, and she is still there … she is a family friend and lives there for free. There is only one thing Tony Pena asks. She must not change things. This house must remain as it was because this house is what connects Tony Pena to a past he must remember. He was an All-Star catcher. He was a baseball manager. He has long been a bench coach for the New York Yankees. He is a hero to his people. He cannot accomplish all that he must do if he does not remember.

But even in this, the woman does not have to keep everything exactly the same. It is her home now.

“Right there,” Pena said as he pointed at a photo on the wall, “there used to be a picture of Jesus.”

The picture is now of Pedro Martinez.

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No. 59: Reggie Jackson

Jim Sundberg told me not too long ago that Reggie Jackson was the smartest hitter he ever matched wits with as a catcher. Now, it is true that Reggie Jackson was standing right next to us when Sundberg said it — Reggie nodded kind of knowingly — but Sundberg has said the same thing on other occasions. He explained how Jackson used to anticipate pitches, how he used to goad pitchers into challenging him, how he would do things with outside pitches than Sundberg has never seen anyone else do.

“He never got credit for that,” Sundberg said. “This guy was the smartest hitter I ever saw.”

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No. 60: Brooks Robinson

About 25 years after we moved from Cleveland, I came back to our old house. It was way smaller than I remembered. That’s obvious. Everyone says that about where they grew up. It did seem extreme in this case, though. The whole house looks roughly the size of the cereal boxes at Costco. I walked around it and looked at the backyard. That too was was smaller than I remembered too, and I expected that too.

Only … no. Not really. Maybe I expected the backyard to look small. But I did not expect it to look THAT small. I mean if our backyard was a parking lot, it would have a “Compact Cars Only” sign. It was a half-bath of a backyard, a mass-market paperback of a backyard, a travel-size toothpaste box of a backyard. As I gazed over the chain link fence — which in my memory had been absurdly high but now came up barely to my waist — I could barely even calculate how we could have played baseball games back there. I’m not even sure how you could get more than three people into that backyard. Bunts would soar over the fence.

But we did play baseball games back there, countless baseball games, and in those games I was one of two people: Duane Kuiper or Brooks Robinson. I was Kuiper because he was the second baseman of the Cleveland Indians, my Cleveland Indians, and so he was living the greatest life I could imagine.

I was Brooks Robinson because my father loved him.
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No. 61: Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell

Sure, it’s a copout making this a tie*, but Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell are so inextricable, so linked, that I see no way around it. They were both power-hitting, right-handed first basemen of the 1990s who hit right around .300, walked a ton, scored about 1,500 career runs, hit 39-plus homers six times, led the league in doubles once and won a 1994 MVP Award. Jeff Bagwell is Frank Thomas’ No. 1 Baseball Reference comp. Frank Thomas if Jeff Bagwell’s No. 2 Baseball Reference comp.

*In retrospect, I actually wish I had made one other joint entry. You can probably guess who that involves. I’ll fix that for the book version.

But the most amazing part of all is that they were both born on May 27, 1968. There is simply nothing else like it in baseball — two great players, so similar, born on the same day.
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No. 62: Robin Yount

So, you have probably heard the sad story of Larry Yount. He was Houston’s fifth-round pick in 1968 as an 18-year-old. He was a right-handed pitcher with pretty good stuff — his second year in Rookie Ball and Class A he was pretty dominant, and he got a spring training invitation from the Astros.

Then in 1971, he got a September call up to the Astros. And on September 15 — this is quirky, it was one day before his younger brother Robin turned 16 years old — Larry Yount was called from the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning of a game against Atlanta. The score was 4-2, it was in the Astrodome, the remnants of 6,513 fans in the stands. These are the moments you don’t forget.

Larry Yount began warming up for his Major League debut. He has described the awesome feeling of being right there, at the cusp of the biggest dream he’d had up to that point in his life. His elbow had hurt while warming up in the pen but obviously he would not allow something like that to interfere with the moment.

Only as he threw one, then two, then three warm-up pitches, he found that his elbow actually hurt A LOT. This was not nervous pain or a limpness he could simply work through. His elbow hurt so much that he could not pitch. He called out his catcher and the team trainer and said he couldn’t do it. They asked him if he was sure. He nodded. He came out of the game without throwing a single pitch.

And he never returned to the Major Leagues.

You can look up his Baseball Reference Page. Larry Yount is the only player in baseball history to be credited for a Major League game without ever actually playing in a Major League game.

Twenty-one months later his younger brother Robin Yount was drafted with the third overall pick of the 1973 amateur draft.
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No. 63: Charlie Gehringer

So, I have this friend everyone calls “Ghost.” We call him that because he has this tendency to just sort of disappear. It’s strange. You will be talking to him, turn around for a second, and he’s gone. You will be working in the chair next to him, and you turn to ask him a question and he’s not there. Then, you turn again, and he’s sitting there. Odd.

Ghost will tell you he always had this elusive quality. Once when he went on a family vacation, he went to the rest room at a gas station and when he came out, his parents had gone. They did not come back for more than an hour. It was at least 30 minutes down the road before they realized he wasn’t sitting in the back seat.

“What did you do?” I asked him.

“I sat down on the curb and waited,” he said. “I knew they’d be back.”
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No. 64: Eddie Murray

Here’s a question: How good was Los Angeles’ Locke High School baseball team in 1973? Eddie Murray was the first baseman. Ozzie Smith was the shortstop.

* * *

In 1979, during the Baltimore-Pittsburgh World Series, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote a column that changed Eddie Murray’s life. Young was the sort of newspaper sports columnist that doesn’t probably doesn’t exist anymore, a lot like the Robert Duvall character in “The Natural.” He began as a baseball writer and there he changed the rules by being one of the first to go to the clubhouse, to get inside dirt, to challenge convention.

“You’re gonna write the games most of the time,” he told Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer. “Nothing you can do about that, and it ain’t bad. But anytime, you hear me, ANYTIME you can get your story off the game you got to do it. Because that’s unusual and people read unusual things. Fights. Bean balls. Whatever. Write them, not the game.”

It’s as if, in 1952, Dick Young already understood the Internet.
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No. 65: Kid Nichols

It’s always fun to play the Player A/Player B game. Here are the first 10 seasons of two pitchers, both right-handed, born about 18 months apart. They started their careers the same year.

Player A: 267-151, 3.05 ERA, 1,125 Ks, 768 walks, 28 shutouts, 1.242 WHIP, 139 ERA+.
Player B: 297-151, 2.97 ERA, 1,484 Ks, 1,001 walks, 36 shutouts, 1.234 WHIP, 146 ERA+.

Both were obviously extraordinary pitchers. But, if you look closely, maybe Player B was just a little bit better. More wins (back when wins has a little more meaning since pitchers completed just about every game they started) More strikeouts. More shutouts. Better ERA, Slightly lower WHIP.

Player B is Kid Nichols.
Player A is Cy Young.

Cy Young conceded that Nichols was the better pitcher those early few years. Of course, Cy Young’s greatness continued intact on for another decade, which is how he won 511 games and why there’s a pretty famous award named for him. Kid Nichols’s career would nose downward after he turned 30, and even though he would end up with 361 victories and was better than Cy Young the first decade of their careers, most baseball fans have never heard of him.
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