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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Yogi

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From SportsWorld:

The image that lingers is of Yogi Berra looking at the sky. He wears a New York Yankees jacket and a New York Yankees hat, and he seems to be shivering just slightly, though the air is warm. He looks up at the sky, and it is an unrelenting gray, not a sliver of blue anywhere in the state of New Jersey. A hesitant rain falls as if the sky itself cannot decide.

“They’ll play,” Yogi says quietly, almost a whisper. “They’ll play baseball today.”

RIP Yogi Berra

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By In Baseball, History

Hess, Buzz and a Minor Home Run Record

TOLEDO — The 433rd home run of Mike Hessman’s sprawling minor-league career skied toward the Fifth Third sign that towers over the scoreboard in left field. The ball easily cleared the fence and bounced in a gap underneath the Kroger sign. It landed on a concrete slab, bounced over a garbage bin, a recycling bin and a high iron gate and skipped on to Monroe Street where someone picked it up. He refused to return it. He sensed this was a famous baseball.

The Toledo Mud Hens are in negotiations with the man as we speak.

More on Mike Hessman, Buzz Arlett and the minor league home run record here at NBC SportsWorld.

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By In Baseball, History

The Integration Timeline

Over at SportsWorld, I have a piece up about one of baseball’s most overlooked legends, Luscious Luke Easter, who brought some of the Negro Leagues legends to life for white audiences. Go over and read that if you can; it’s one of my favorite pieces of late.

But the point here is this: Luscious Luke Easter was the 11th black player in Major League Baseball’s modern era. And, as I touch on in the piece, he’s a good reminder that the great integration story of baseball is often oversimplified.

In June of 1949, Luke Easter was called back from San Diego to Cleveland in order to have a knee operation. Now, think of it — June of 1949 is more than two years after Jackie Robinson “integrated” baseball; and I think you’ll see in a minute why I put “integrated” in quotations marks. The Robinson story cannot be told enough; it’s a story of courage and conviction and how hard it is to overturn injustice. But it isn’t the only story.

Two months after Jackie Robinson debuted with the Dodgers, Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League. Unlike Robinson, though, he was not an instant success and he only started one game all season. Here’s a trivia answer for you: Everyone knows Larry Doby was the second African American in modern baseball, but did you know he was actually the FOURTH to hit a home run, after Robinson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead.

Two weeks after Doby, two African American players — Hank Thompson (who would go on to become a superb player for the New York Giants) and the aforementioned Brown (who would be elected to the Hall of Fame as a Negro Leaguer) — were called up to the St. Louis Browns in what was mostly a publicity stunt. It was a disaster on all fronts. The players each lasted barely three weeks.

In August of that year, a fine Negro Leaguer named Dan Bankhead became the first African American to pitch in the big leagues. Bankhead was from Alabama and, his son once told me, he was absolutely scared to death that he was going to hit a white player with a pitch and spark a riot. Had he come up a decade later, it is possible that he would have been an excellent big league pitcher. But he did not have the soul of a pioneer. His first game, Bankhead entered in the second inning with two runners on and his Dodgers already trailing 4-0 to the Pirates. He gave up a double, a sac fiy, a single and another double to allow four runs to score.

After a 1-2-3 inning in the third, the nightmare happened in the fourth: He plunked Wally Westlake. He seemed utterly frozen by this and the next inning he gave up a triple, a single to opposing pitcher Fritz Ostermueller and a home run to Billy Cox. He was banged around a little bit more and was yanked before the end of the inning — the total damage was 10 hits and 8 runs in 3 1/3 innings. Bankhead did become just the third pitcher in the modern era to homer in his first at-bat. But I suspect that provided little comfort. He did have a nice outing in September against the Giants — four innings without allowing a run — but he was sent back to the minors. He reemerged with limited success in 1950 and 1951.

The larger point is this: After the 1947 season, the question of whether black players could handle the pressures and quality of Major League Baseball was still very much an open one. Robinson’s brilliance was irrefutable but the other four had failed in varying degrees. Doby hit just .156 in 29 games. Thompson and Brown were released. Bankhead was overmatched. There was no great rush by other teams to sign black players. In 1948, the Red Sox were supposedly alerted about an extraordinary 17-year-old outfielder playing for the Birmingham Black Barons and decided to pass on Willie Mays. The Yankees did show some interest in Birmingham’s brilliant shortstop Artie Wilson but did not follow through. The Negro Leagues was loaded with young talent, players who would yet make an impact on the big leagues like Elston Howard and Connie Johnson and Toothpick Sam Jones and Junior Gilliam and Joe Black and so on. It would be a while before they would get the call.

In fact, only two black players made the big leagues in 1948 — one was already a legend, Satchel Paige, and the other was a promising catcher named Roy Campanella.

One black player — Minnie Minoso — was called up at the beginning of the 1949 season. And he was promptly sent back down.

So, back to Easter: When he was called back to Cleveland there were FOUR black players in Major League baseball. That’s all: Robinson and Campanella on the Dodgers; Doby and Paige on the Indians. Those were the only two integrated teams. The Giants, who would play a big role in baseball’s integration story, had not yet called up Monte Irvin. The White Sox, who would also play a major role, would not have its first black player for another two years. The Cardinals would not have a black player for five more years; the Yankees waited a year after that. It would be a decade before the Red Sox finally played a black player.

It is compelling to look at the list year by year. I list off the first 12 black players in modern day baseball, which takes us all the way through the 1951 season. Yep: Four years, 12 players. That’s the trickle of baseball integration. After 1951, things began to pick up speed and I only list off select players. You will note, though, that Pumpsie Green — the first black player on the Red Sox — was the 115th black player in the Majors, and he came after all-time greats Robinson, Campanella, Mays, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson.

The fact that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey — who tried to singlehandedly hold back progress and justice while his team fell apart on the field — is in the Baseball Hall of Fame is a disgrace that makes all this talk about Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seem laughable.

1947 (5 players)

1. Jackie Robinson (Brooklyn, April 15)

2. Larry Doby (Cleveland, July 5)

3. Hank Thompson (St. Louis Browns, July 17)

4. Willard Brown (St. Louis Browns, July 19)

5. Dan Bankhead (Brooklyn, August 26, 1947)

1948 (2 players)

6. Roy Campanella (Brooklyn, April 20)

7. Satchel Paige (Cleveland, July 8)

1949 (4 players)

8. Minnie Minoso (Cleveland, April 19)

9. Don Newcombe (Brooklyn, May 20)

10. Monte Irvin (New York Giants, July 8)

11. Luke Easter (Cleveland, August 11)

1950 (1 player)

12. Sam Jethroe (Boston Braves, April 18)

1951 (8 players)

— White Sox integrate with Minoso, who had already debuted with Cleveland.

17. Willie Mays (New York Giants)

1952 (7 players)

22. George Crowe (Boston Braves)

23. Buster Clarkson (Boston Braves)

— I mention these two because the Braves were among the early teams embracing change and fair play and it was in the same town of Yawkey and the Red Sox. The idea that Boston at the time would not have accepted black players is something you something hear and it’s a copout. Boston would have happily embraced Willie Mays.

25. Joe Black (Brooklyn)

1953 (10 players)

31. Connie Johnson (White Sox)

34. Carlos Bernier (Pittsburgh)

— Bernier was a dark-skinned player from Puerto Rico but for some reason Major League Baseball recognizes Curt Roberts (who debuted in 1954) as the first black player in Pirates history. Bernier played in the Canadian Negro Leagues for a time and it is unclear why baseball does not recognize him as the man who broke the color barrier in Pittsburgh.

36. Bob Trice (Athletics)

37. Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs)

— It was at the end of the 1953 and the beginning of the 1954 season that most teams around baseball finally started to integrated. Trice and Banks were pioneers for their teams and cities.

1954 (14 players)

39. Henry Aaron (Braves)

40. Tom Alston (St. Louis Cardinals)

— First for the Cardinals.

42. Curt Roberts (Pittsburgh)

— Acknowledged by MLB as first for Pirates.

43. Nino Escalara (Cincinnati)

44. Chuck Harmon (Cincinnati)

— Escalara and Harmon broke through for Reds in the same game.

47. Jehosie Heard (Baltimore)

— Technically, Hank Thompson was the first black player in the organization when he joined the St. Louis Browns but Heard was the first black player in Baltimore.

51. Carlos Paula (Washington)

— First for the Senators. It would be seven years before the Washington Football Club would have its first black player. Of course, Washington owner and self-avowed racist George Preston Marshall is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but there’s a difference there; the Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn’t pretend to be about something larger than football. Marshall’s teams won championships and he played a big role in the growth of football. Yawkey’s team won nothing and his Hall of Fame plaque lamely credits him only with being “rated one of the sport’s finest benefactors,” whatever that means, and being the first in the American League to have his team travel by plane. You are really grasping when you are crediting a baseball owner for plane travel.

1955 (13 players)

54. Elston Howard (New York Yankees)

— First for the Yankees.

56. Roberto Clemente (Pittsburgh)

1956 (13 players)

68. Frank Robinson (Cincinnati)

71. Bill White (New York Giants)

75. Curt Flood (Cincinnati)

1957 (9 players)

83. John Kennedy (Philadelphia)

— First for Phillies

1958 (17 players)

Ozzie Virgil, who had debuted earlier, became the first black player for Detroit. 

88. Orlando Cepeda (Giants)

91. Vada Pinson (Cincinnati)

94. Mudcat Grant (Cleveland)

96. Felipe Alou (Giants)

1959 (17 players)

106. Bob Gibson (St. Louis)

107. Mike Cuellar (Cincinnati)

111. Maury Wills (Dodgers)

115. Pumpsie Green (Boston Red Sox)

— Finally. 

117. Willie McCovey (Giants)

119. Billy Williams (Cubs)

121. Tommy Davis (Dodgers)

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By In Baseball, History

A Toast to Willie Mays

Willie Mays turned 84 on Wednesday, so let me tell you quickly about two days of his life in 1967. That was the year I was born, 48 years ago now, and it seemed like Mays was finally showing his mortality after 13 years of being incomparable. He was in a death-defying slump. He looked so helpless that on August 13, for the first time in years, Mays was dropped to the fifth spot in the lineup.

The next day, facing Atlanta, something happened to him that had never happened before: A team intentionally walked a player in order to face Willie Mays. This was the top of the third inning, a man was on third, and Jim Ray Hart stepped up to the plate. Hart was a terrific player; he was hitting .300 with power. The Braves walked Hart to get to Mays.

“It wasn’t that I don’t respect Mays as a hitter,” Braves manager Billy Hitchcock told reporters. “I certainly do. But Hart is their hot hitter, and Mays hasn’t been hitting.”

“That was a good move,” Mays conceded. “If Jim Ray hit a home run, they’re down three runs.”

As it turned out, Mays singled home the run … but that was beside the point. The most fearsome player in the league for 15 years no longer frightened teams. The end seemed in sight. From August 4 to August 27, Mays hit .148 with one extra base hit (a home run off Steve Carlton). He did not steal a base. His batting average plummmeted 25 points into the .260s. He went 0-for-6 against Atlanta’s Denny Lemaster and some relievers, only the second time in his career he’d had an 0-for-6 game. Earlier in the year, for only the second time in his career, he had struck out four times in a game (against 19-year-old Gary Nolan no less).

People started asking Mays about retirement.

“I know I can’t do all the things I once did,” Mays said. He was convinced, though, that his slump had more to do with the flu than with age. He believed he still had something left. Athletes always do.

On August 28 — two days after his 0-for-6 day — Mays was facing a 22-year-old Don Sutton, who would one day join Mays in the Hall of Fame.

And Sutton threw a pitch that hit Willie Mays in the shoulder. Mays was furious. While on the ground, he clearly said something to catcher John Roseboro; he never revealed what he said, but it’s not too hard to figure out. Mays may have been too old to do all the things he once did. But he was also old enough that he no longer wanted to deal with young kids trying to earn their spurs brushing him back. “I’ve got to protect myself from that knockdown stuff,” he said to a reporter afterward.

After Mays reached second base, he was still raging inside. Then it happened: Sutton threw a wild pitch. This was it. Mays sprinted for third and then, with the rage still boiling inside him, turned the corner and headed home.Sutton was covering the plate, just like Mays knew he would. He wanted make sure this young’n understood: You don’t throw high and tight against Willie Mays.

Mays came into home plate with his spikes high. As it turned out, it was just a message slide — Sutton was standing on the first-base side and well out of harm’s way. When Mays popped up after his slide, he stood face to face with the pitcher. There was no missing the point.

“You would have cut up that young fellow,” a columnist told Mays afterward.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Mays said. “But I don’t want anybody hurting me either.”

So there it was: A 36-year-old Willie Mays had scored from second base on a wild pitch. Incredible. In the same game he stole a base and hit a two-run single.

The next day, the Giants were playing the Dodgers again. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Mays walked. Jack Hiatt came up next and cracked a single to right field. There was nothing special about the single, it was a run-of-the-mill base hit, on a line, but Mays read it well (he was, of course, one of the great base runners of all time) and rounded second, headed for third. Mays was running at full speed, and the Dodgers’ Ron Fairly realized he did not have a play. He tossed it back into the infield. Fairly did not realize: Mays was heading home.

The throw to the plate was too late. Willie Mays had just scored from first base on a single. “I haven’t done that in a while,” he said with some amazement in his voice. Next time up he homered. That meant in two days in 1967, when Willie Mays was 36 and showing it, he scored from second on a wild pitch, from first on a single, stole a base, hit a home run and let everyone know that he was still Willie Mays.

“I keep telling you,” Mays said, “I ain’t done just yet.” He was not. Mays played another five years and while he wasn’t the player he had been, he did win another Gold Glove, did lead the league in on-base percentage one year, did finish Top 10 in WAR twice.

In all, an older Willie Mays hit another 16 triples (more than Frank Thomas hit in his whole career), cracked another 96 homers (more than Rod Carew hit in his whole career) and stole another 50 bases (as many as Ernie Banks had in his whole career; more than DiMaggio and Stargell combined). He also gave a million kids a few more memories.

That’s the thing about time. You can’t beat it. The years are like a relentless boxer that never stops hammering away at the body. But, every now and again, the great ones will win one of those late rounds against time. And we all stand up and cheer.

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By In Baseball, History

Koufax

When I was in my young 20s, I sold off my entire baseball card collection. I needed the money.* But, in addition, I had this powerful impulse that it was time to grow up. True, this impulse came to me later than it does to most people, but still the day arrived when I looked at my baseball cards — legends, commons, minor stars, polypropylene page after polypropylene page of Cory Snyder and Mark McGwire and Don Mattingly and Jose Deleon rookie cards — and I was sickened by them. I wasn’t this nerdy kid anymore. I didn’t even want to associate with that kid.

*Of course, I got about 1/20th of what I had expected to get and about 1/50th of what I had paid for them.

And so I sold them all, notebook after notebook of baseball cards, shoe box after shoe box, Topps, Donruss, Fleer, O-Pee-Chee, mini cards, 7-11 baseball coins, hockey cards, football cards, basketball cards, wacky packies, every last card. I never wanted to see another baseball card in my life.

Except: I kept a 1956 Sandy Koufax baseball card and I put it on my dresser so I could look at it every single day. I still consider it the most beautiful baseball card ever made.

 

1956-Topps-Sandy-Koufax-260x177

 

My version of this card was in terrible shape — creases, worn corners some sort of discoloration above his head — and it wasn’t even his rookie card. A collector would not have given me ten cents for it. But I kept that card anyway because Sandy Koufax was, to me, something bigger than baseball, something bigger than life. I never saw him pitch; he retired a year before I was born. I had no emotional connection to the Dodgers and had never been to either Los Angeles or Brooklyn. But I loved the man with a different sort of depth from any athlete, even those I personally watched and idolized. I read every story about him I could find. I can remember, again and again, listening to Larry King’s Sandy Koufax ice cream story (which he told, again and again, on his radio show). It’s a hard thing to explain, but I had this strong connection to him, and I had this powerful feeling that every thing I loved about baseball was somehow expressed through Sanford Koufax.

So I say this with the deepest love I can muster.

Sandy Koufax ain’t one of the four greatest living ballplayers.

You might know that Major League Baseball has a Greatest Living Players contest going on right now, and it’s a pretty cool idea. They’re looking for the Greatest Living Players for every franchise and, as shown in the link above, also the four greatest living players overall. They list off eight — you can vote for four.

The eight listed:

— Henry Aaron
— Johnny Bench
— Barry Bonds
— Rickey Henderson
— Sandy Koufax
— Pedro Martinez
— Willie Mays
— Tom Seaver

I’m not sure how they came up with this list. Aaron and Mays are obviously automatics. Glad to see Bonds on there. Rickey Henderson and Tom Seaver are both excellent choices.

The other three — I don’t know. Bench has his argument as the greatest catcher ever so I can see him being on here, but I think his teammate Joe Morgan was a significantly better player. I think Mike Schmidt was also a significantly better player. And, if we need a catcher on here, I think Yogi Berra has his case.

Pedro Martinez, I’ve said this before, is the pitcher I’d want pitching for my soul should the Devil ever come with an ultimatum and an All-Star Team. His peak — unmatched. But I don’t see how you can list him here over his contemporaries Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson. I simply don’t see how you can do that.

And then there’s Koufax. He is not only on that list, he is — at last check — one of the Final Four. It’s a testament to the magnetism of Koufax and glamour of his time. Unfortunately, it has little to do with reality.

The mythology around Koufax is thick and wonderful. That mythology — the classic windup, the high fastball and staggering curve, the no-hitters, the Vin Scully perfect game call, the World Series magic, the skipping a game for Yom Kippur, the Left Arm of God hype —  is at the core of my love of baseball. But when mythology starts crossing over into overkill like this, it seems less charming. Sandy Koufax is his own category of wonderful. But putting him on this list ahead of Gibson, Maddux, Big Unit, and especially Clemens is pretty ridiculous.

Let’s look at it this way:

Sandy Koufax went 165-87 with an ERA+ of 131.

Now let’s add in the career of Johan Santana. Just add the whole career.

Koufax + Santana: 304-165, .648 win pct., 2.97 ERA, 133 ERA+, 50 shutouts, 4,384 Ks, 5 Cy Youngs.
Clemens alone: 354-184, .658 win pct., 3.12 ERA, 143 ERA, 46 shutouts, 4,672 Ks, 7 Cy Youngs.

Yeah, that’s Roger Clemens vs. Koufax AND Johan Santana. Sure I know people would prefer to forget Roger Clemens because of his public fight over steroid accusations. But Clemens wasn’t just a greater pitcher than Koufax. He was dramatically better.

If this was a serious effort to list off the four greatest living pitchers — just pitchers — I think any serious attempt would have, in alphabetical order: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Tom Seaver. Then Bob Gibson. Then Pedro Martinez. Then, only then, would Koufax come into view (and Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan have pretty strong arguments against Koufax too).

It doesn’t feel right to point this out but that’s because Koufax should be above such arguments. The point of Koufax was never to judge his career straight up against other pitchers. The point was romance. That’s one of the wonderful things about baseball. What does Robert’s Clemente’s .359 on-base percentage really have to do with anything? Nothing. Does an only moderate OBP in any way detract from the wonder of watching him play? Of course not. Does it diminish the glory of that right arm? No. Does it in any way lessen the admiration we have for him as a player and a man? Unequivocally no. Clemente, for so many people who grew up watching him play, inspires feelings and emotions that no other player can match. That is exactly how it should be, and his .359 on-base percentage does not matter at all.

But if you tell me that Roberto Clemente was a better player than Barry Bonds, now we are not dealing with romance. Now we’re in the real world. I’d have to point that Bonds’ on-base percentage was 85 points higher — and was much higher than Clemente’s even before he was suspected of steroid use. Those are outs Clemente made that Bonds did not. That’s tangible. That’s reality. We can love Clemente more. That doesn’t make him a better player.

So it goes with Koufax. The love for him is unique in baseball history, I think. Certainly it is unique among sportswriters. Koufax made only 314 stars in his major league career and yet he sailed into the Hall of Fame, first ballot, with about 87% of the vote. Nobody else did anything like that. Yes, another guy sportswriters romanticized, Dizzy Dean, was voted into the Hall of Fame with even FEWER starts than Koufax. But it took a few years and it was quite controversial. With Koufax the only controversy was with the 13% who did not vote for him.

Dazzy Vance and Bob Lemon both had about 350 starts and were eventually elected into the Hall of Fame, but not until 20 or so years after they retired. There were those who actually thought Pedro Martinez’s career was short for a Hall of Famer, but Pedro made almost 100 more starts than Koufax. Sportswriters have not had much sympathy for players who were brilliant for a short period of time. Bret Saberhagen got seven votes. Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden, Tony Oliva and many others did not get voted in.

It wasn’t just that Koufax made only 314 starts … he was only an average pitcher for the first 100 of those starts. Through the 1960 season, Koufax was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA (a 100 ERA+), a lot of strikeouts, a lot of walks — a bit too close to Oliver Perez for comfort.

Koufax was a very good pitcher in 1961 and 1962, though he gave up home runs in ’61 and had some injury problems in ’62.

Then, from 1963 to 1966, Sandy Koufax was otherworldly. It is these four years — almost by themselves — that got him into the Hall of Fame and got him on to this Greatest Living Players list. Four years. Four awesome years.

1963: 25-5, 1.88 ERA, 311 innings, 11 shutouts, 306 Ks.
1964: 19-5, 1.74 ERA, 223 innings, 7 shutouts, 223 Ks.
1965: 26-8, 2.04 ERA, 335 innings, 8 shutouts, 382 Ks.
1966: 27-9, 1.73 ERA, 323 innings, 5 shutouts, 317 Ks.

Look at those numbers. And then, like smoke, Koufax was gone.

Koufax threw four no-hitters between 1962-65 — one per year — the last a perfect game. He started six World Series games in those years and gave up one or fewer earned runs in five of them (he gave up two earned runs in the other). He was the rare sort of baseball player who defines his time. That’s the romantic story. And it’s a good story, one of my favorites.

But then … there’s reality. Koufax pitched half his games at Dodger Stadium, always one of the toughest hitting ballparks in baseball and, in those days, highlighted by a pitching mound that was roughly the height of a Volkswagen Beetle. Koufax’s home splits tell a story.

1963: 11-1, 1.38 ERA, 6 shutouts, 143 innings, 144 Ks.
1964: 12-2, 0.85 ERA, 6 shutouts, 127 innings, 124 Ks.
1965: 14-3, 1.38 ERA, 6 shutouts, 170 innings, 208 Ks.
1966: 13-5, 1.52 ERA, 3 shutouts, 171 innings, 160 Ks.

So, he was significantly better at home. And his road numbers? Superb. But … not the same.

1963: 14-4, 2.31 ERA, 5 shutouts.
1964: 7-3, 2.93 ERA, 1 shutout.
1965: 12-5, 2.72 ERA, 2 shutouts.
1966: 14-4, 1.96 ERA, s shutouts.

He was better — often MUCH better — at home every year.

Also teams were scoring very few runs during that time period. Baseball Reference has a tool that allows you to neutralize a player’s performance to what they call an average season — that would be a season where the average team scores 716 runs. In those four years, teams averaged just 656 runs a game. So basically, teams were scoring eight or nine percent less than they do in an average year. Here are Koufax’s top five neutralized ERA’s along with a Pitcher A’s Top 5.

Koufax 1964: 2.14
Pitcher A: 2.17

Koufax 1966: 2.20
Pitcher A: 2.44

Koufax 1963: 2.26
Pitcher A: 2.46

Koufax 1965: 2.59
Pitcher A: 2.58

Koufax 1962: 2.89
Pitcher A: 2.62

Fairly comparable, no? Pitcher A? The aforementioned Johan Santana who with 139 career wins I suspect won’t stay on the Hall of Fame ballot very long.

None of this changes how I or anyone else should feel about Koufax and his particular genius. If I was listing the four living players who best exemplify what baseball means to me, I would include Koufax, Mays, Aaron and Rose, those players who filled my imagination as a boy. If I was to list the four most thrilling players who are still living, I might include Koufax and Rickey, Bonds and Pedro (or Ryan). If I had to list the four most iconic players still living, I might say Yogi, Mays, Aaron and Koufax.

But four greatest living players? Realistically, Koufax just isn’t on that list.

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By In Baseball, History

A Baseball Story

When Bobby Bragan was young and in the minor leagues, people used to call him “Nig.” This was because he was of a darker complexion than most. He found this to be a funny and fitting nickname, and he embraced it. Bobby Bragan grew up in Alabama. The only black people he knew were servants and the people who worked for his father’s construction company. He did not see African Americans as fully human, and he did not even consider that his nickname might be offensive to anyone until he reached the Major Leagues and a teammate told him.

Bragan began his big-league career as a shortstop. He couldn’t hit much, and he was an erratic fielder … to say the least. In 1940, as a rookie, he made 49 errors and a year later he made 45 more. He realized that his future wasn’t bright at shortstop, so he offered to become a catcher. It was a wise baseball decision. He was traded to Brooklyn in 1943 and a couple of years later went to war. When he was discharged in 1947, he traveled straight to Cuba and the Dodgers spring training. He had himself a job as a backup catcher.

You might remember that Dodgers’ spring training in 1947 was unlike any other. That was Jackie Robinson’s spring.

There have been numerous books written and movies made about that spring and about the Dodgers’ players near revolt against Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Even so, the details are a bit murky. The Dodgers’ most popular and accomplished player the year before had been an outfielder from Georgia named Dixie Walker. He  hit .319 with 116 RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting to Stan Musial. People in Brooklyn loved him so much, they called him “The People’s Cherce” — “Cherce” being Brooklyneese for “Choice” — and his passion for baseball made him an indomitable force in the Dodgers clubhouse.

Dixie Walker, as you probably know, did not want Jackie Robinson or any other African American in the Major Leagues. He would later say that this was not personal enmity but because of pressure from home; Walker owned a hardware and sporting goods store  in Alabama, and he worried that playing with a black player would crush his business. Others believed Walker’s racism to be much stronger than that.

Whatever the motivations, Dixie Walker went about trying to start a player revolt. He had no trouble finding followers. Kirby Higbe was a hard-throwing hell-raiser from South Carolina and the grandson of a Confederate soldier. According to Jonathan Eig’s excellent book Opening Day, Higbe boasted that he built up his arm throwing rocks at black children (Higbe added, almost as a defense, that “they threw as many rocks as we did”). Hugh Casey was a hard-drinking relief pitcher from Atlanta, and his feelings about black people was as unambiguous as Higbe’s. Carl Furillo was a self-proclaimed hard hat from Pennsylvania whose rough view of the world left little room for empathy.

And then there was Bobby Bragan, the backup catcher who was just trying to stay in baseball.

Most believe Walker started an actual written petition; he denied this. There have always been questions about the petition and the group — some have said that shortstop Pee Wee Reese and second baseman Eddie Stanky were moderately involved. As the winds of history became clearer, Dixie Walker would say he never led any sort of revolt at all.

Whatever the details, manager Leo Durocher discovered that something was happening. He made his point clear.

“I don’t care if a guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a (bleepin’) zebra,” he reportedly told the team. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”

Then Branch Rickey came down and brought each of the potential traitors into his hotel room. He talked them in a personal way. He asked Furillo how he could possibly be against a man trying to make something of himself after he had seen his own father struggle for work after coming from Italy (Furillo reportedly broke down and apologized and promised he would give Robinson a chance). Higbe was defiant. He wanted, demanded, to be traded. Two weeks into the season, he and four others were sent to Pittsburgh for Al Gionfriddo and cash.

Rickey was about to trade Dixie Walker to Pittsburgh as well … but he just couldn’t do it. Walker was a critical part of the Dodgers success. And Rickey wanted to believe — maybe even NEEDED to believe — that Walker loved the game and winning too much to miss the obvious: Jackie Robinson was a helluva ballplayer and would make the Dodgers better. This was the core of Rickey’s proselytizing, that if ballplayers could only see Robinson as a teammate they would stop seeing him as a black man.

Then there was Bobby Bragan, who would confess that he was willing to give up his career to make this stand. In later years, he explained: He saw blacks as inferior to whites. He did not know how to tell his family and friends that he was playing baseball with a black person. He did not see this as hateful or even objectionable; it was simply his view of the world. Bragan asked to be traded.

The Dodgers didn’t need him. He was a backup catcher only good for a few dozen at-bats. He was popular in the clubhouse, and he was one of those players who makes the season more enjoyable for everyone. Such players are not exactly disposable. But they certainly are not essential. There seemed no reason for Rickey to deal with Bragan’s mutiny.

Branch Rickey was many things, some of them admirable, some of them less so. But, above all, he was shrewd. And that day, he saw something in Bobby Bragan that Bragan did not see in himself.

“If Jackie Robinson can play the position better than another player,” Rickey said after summoning Bragan, “then regardless of the color of his skin Jackie Robinson is going to play. You understand that Bobby?”

“Yes sir,” Bragan said.

“And how do you feel about this?”

“If it’s all the same with you, Mr. Rickey, I’d like to be traded to another team,” Bragan said.

And then, Bragan would remember, Branch Rickey leaned back. Maybe he puffed on his cigar. Maybe he didn’t. He asked Bobby Bragan a question.

“If we call Jackie Robinson up,” Rickey asked, “will you change the way you play for me?”

And here, at last, Bobby Bragan was forced to confront what kind of man he was.

“No sir,” Bragan said. “I’d still play my best.”

That was what Rickey wanted and needed to hear. He dismissed Bragan and made a note in his mind: Bobby Bragan would be OK. Bobby Bragan had it in him to change.

Of course, Bragan didn’t think so. He went into the season bitter. But he began to watch Robinson from a distance. There wasn’t an overnight conversion.”I learned,” Bragan would say. “Not fast. But I learned.” The more he watched Robinson, the more he felt — despite himself — something like grudging respect. The guy could play ball; Bragan thought he was the Dodgers’ best player more or less from his first day. Robinson kept his head down. He did not try to engage teammates in conversation. He ignored the persistent taunts from the crowds and the opposing benches. Bragan at first avoided Robinson on the train, but soon he found himself drawn as if magnetized. He would sit two rows away. He would sit one row away.

And then he sat next to Jackie Robinson. They didn’t talk much, and they didn’t talk about anything, in particular — just baseball stuff. Something about a pitcher. Something about a play. Maybe Bragan told a little joke. Maybe Robinson smiled. Maybe Bragan — again, in spite of himself — felt good that he could break Robinson’s hard exterior.

Then, they would sit next to each other again on the train. And again. Robinson joined a card game Bragan was playing. Few things can connect people quite like playing cards. Bragan would find himself sitting next to Robinson in the dugout, and they would talk, and when Bragan heard his family and friends and others discount Jackie Robinson, heard them call him less than a man, Bragan found dissent welling up inside him. “Wait a minute,” he would think. “You don’t know him.” And, to his surprise, he found himself saying that out loud.

The Dodgers in 1947 were superb, Dixie Walker hit .300 again, Eddie Stanky walked 100 times, and the group that soon would become known as the Boys of Summer — Robinson, Reese, Furillo, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider — began to come together. The Dodgers won the pennant. As Bragan would say, players of all racial viewpoints lined up with Jackie Robinson to collect their World Series checks.

Dixie Walker was traded after the season to Pittsburgh. Two players returned in the deal, Billy Cox and Preacher Roe, would become full-fledged Boys of Summer. Hugh Casey lasted in Brooklyn a few months longer and then, largely because of his ineffective pitching, was released. While pitching for Pittsburgh later that year, Casey twice threw at Jackie Robinson, hitting him once in the knee. The two men glared at each other. Three months later, Casey was out of baseball. Jackie Robinson was named the league MVP.

And Bragan? He got a big double in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series, and he stuck around for a few games the following year, but he was done as a player. Bragan knew that managing was his only way to stay in the game. He went to Fort Worth, where he served as a player-manager. Then to Hollywood for a couple of years. In 1955, he was hired to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was hired by a man named Branch Rickey. Over the years, he managed in Cleveland briefly and in Milwaukee for a while. He was not especially successful, but he had some good ideas — he was one of the first managers who tried to put his best players at the top of the lineup, regardless of how fast they were. He thought the extra at-bats made up for the lack of RBI opportunities. For instance, he put power-hitting Felipe Alou in the leadoff spot and tried power-hitting Mack Jones or Eddie Mathews in the No. 2 spot. His teams did score a lot of runs.

Brayan and Robinson became friends, real friends, the sort who would go to each other’s houses for dinner occasionally, the sort who would happily embrace whenever they came across each other. And Robinson was always proud that Bragan became known as a man who would treat people fairly, honestly, no matter the color of their skin. There are numerous examples, but the most famous happened in 1958, when Bragan was hired midseason to manage a minor-league team in Spokane. There was an angry young, black shortstop on that team who had been in the minor leagues for eight years. He was utterly miserable — both toward himself and everyone around him. “I had just about given up on myself,” the young shortstop would write. The young shortstop was Maury Wills.

Bragan took an interest. He talked to Wills every day. He boosted Wills’ confidence, spoke the good things he saw. “You have gifts,” Bragan told him. “You belong in this game.” Bragan noticed something in Maury Wills’ swing — mainly that he had real trouble swinging from the right side — and convinced him to become a switch-hitter. Bragan and Wills worked together every day on switch-hitting. And when he showed an acumen for it, Bragan called the Los Angeles Dodgers repeatedly to say, “You need a shortstop. I have your shortstop right here.”

You know the story of Maury Wills, of course. He would win the 1962 MVP Award when he stole 104 bases scored 130 runs. Many credit him for altering the game. Thing is, Maury Wills knew in 1958 that Bragan was one of the men who at first refused to play with Jackie Robinson. He knew it, and his instincts would have been to not trust such a man. But by then — more than a decade later — Bobby Bragan was a different man. His generosity of spirit had been hard earned. His enthusiasm and newfound color blindness were irresistible. Maury Wills has credited much of his success in baseball and life to the friendship and mentorship of Bobby Bragan.

In 1964, Robinson wrote an underappreciated book called “Baseball Has Done It” about integration. He asked Bobby Bragan to write about his feelings.

“I think it’s just a matter of becoming acclimated to the thing by association,” Bragan wrote. “I was exposed to integration daily under the shower, in the next locker, on the bus, in the hotel and many conversations. … All this adds up to a tolerant attitude, a little more understanding of the situation than if we’d never left Alabama.”

A year later, Branch Rickey died. In the church, in the same pew, sat Jackie Robinson and Bobby Bragan. Jackie Robinson talked afterward about how Branch Rickey changed his life. Bobby Bragan talked about the same thing.

Bragan spent a long life in the game of baseball; he died just five years ago at the age of 92 and to the very end of his life he was involved in the game, with teaching baseball to kids. One reporter asked him to name his greatest contribution to baseball, and he could have talked about Maury Wills, he could have talked about some of his managing maneuvers, he could have talked about the many players he helped during a 70-year life in baseball. He could have talked about his one at-bat, and one hit, in the World Series.

Instead, he said his greatest contribution to the game was getting out of it. He ran out of steam as a player in 1948. “Roy Campanella,” Bragan said proudly of the first black catcher in the Major Leagues, “took my place.”

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Things I learned from Strat-o-Matic

PozCard

 

Strat-o-Matic was not the first tabletop baseball game I ever played. No, first was this game called “Statis Pro Baseball,” which was this fantastic little baseball card game invented by an Iowa newspaper columnist and, later, sports gambling guru named Jim Barnes. There are two things I remember most about the game:

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By In Baseball, History

The Boudreau Shift

On July 14, 1946, Ted Williams seemed utterly invincible. He WAS in many ways invincible as as hitter, but in the middle of that 1946 season there was still reason to believe that he was so good he might actually break baseball. Remember that in 1941, he had become the first American League hitter since the twenties to hit .400. In 1942, even while distracted by his draft status (and the relentless criticism that crashed down on him when he applied for a deferment), he won the Triple Crown. And then he went to war.

When he came back in ’46, he was better than ever. He homered his first day back and was hitting .427 in early May. At that moment, there seemed no limit to his talent. Could he hit .500? Maybe. Could he drive in 200 RBIs? Perhaps. Could he break Babe Ruth’s home run record? It was possible. Anything was possible with Williams. Paul Richards, the Tigers catcher and future White Sox and Orioles manager, was in favor of walking Ted Williams every single time he came to the plate; interestingly he was not in favor of INTENTIONALLY walking Williams but instead in favor of never throwing him a strike. He might get himself out swinging at bad pitches.

Most managers agreed that there wasn’t much percentage in throwing Ted Williams strikes. He walked 156 times in ;’46, 162 times the next year and again in 1949. Only Babe Ruth in 1923 had been walked so often.

In 1946, Williams couldn’t hit the Yankees (a temporary phase; he hit .345 and slugged .600 against the Bombers in his career), but he bashed the Indians, Tigers, Senators … and what he did against St. Louis was something a level above bashing; he would end up hitting .472/.624/.847 against the Browns in 100 plate appearances that year. If not for the Yankees, many writers guessed, Teddy Ballgame would be chasing .400 again.

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By In Baseball, History, Joe Vault

Musial

Stan Musial never got thrown out of a game. Never. Think about this for a moment. Musial played in 3,026 games in his career, or about as many as his contemporaries Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky played combined. He played across different American eras — he played in the big leagues before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, and he retired a few weeks before Kennedy was shot. He played when Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller ruled the Top 40 charts, and he played when Elvis was thin, and he played when Chubby Checker twisted. He played before television, and after John Glenn orbited the earth. And he never once got thrown out of a baseball game

There was this game, early in ’54, the year that Edward Murrow went after Joe McCarthy and Roger Bannister ran a mile in four minutes, and Musial’s Cardinals trailed the Chicago Cubs 3-0 in the seventh inning. Cubs lefty pitcher Paul Minner was baffling the Cardinals — he had allowed just two singles, had faced one over the minimum. Then he found himself facing Musial with Wally Moon was on first base and two outs.

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By In Baseball, History, RIP

Bob Feller

One of my earliest memories was seeing Bob Feller in a jacket and tie. My father took me to some sort of morning meeting in Cleveland — a small room, in my memory, filled with metal folding chairs placed in uneven rows — and Bob Feller stood behind a lectern (and perhaps in front of a chalkboard; for some reason I see a chalkboard). I do not remember a single thing he said. I only remember him standing in the front of the room, and the awe he inspired, and my father telling me this: “That’s Bob Feller. He threw the ball faster than anyone who ever lived.”

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