By In Stuff

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

When you first walk into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, you will find yourself looking at a baseball field with players on it. Only you will find yourself looking at that field and those players from the other side of chicken wire. The image, of course, was about separation. Through the years, I looked through that chicken wire with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols. Through the years, I stood by that chicken wire and listened to stories from Buck O’Neil and Double Duty Radcliffe and Connie Johnson and the great Monte Irvin, who on his best days, before the war and before integration, might have been the best who ever lived.

We’ll never know that about Irvin, of course, and this is the main thing I used to think about when I and looked through the wire at the statues on the field. We’ll never know. We’ll never know how good Oscar Charleston was … and we’ll never know how hard Smokey Joe Williams really threw … and we’ll never know how many home runs Turkey Stearnes hit … and we’ll never know what the Devil, Willie Wells, looked like fielding a ground ball … and we’ll never know just how fast Cool Papa Bell ran …

… and we’ll never know anything more than we can imagine.

That’s why I loved the museum so much. When people asked Buck how fast Cool Papa Bell was, he would say: “Faster than that.” In other words, Josh Gibson’s home runs traveled exactly as far as your imagination allows. And the museum was a place for imagination. It did not have a lot of memorabilia — too expensive and rare — and it did not have a lot of interactive exhibits. It was more of a spiritual experience. It was a place to think about the barbecue restaurants and the barbershops, where people would stand around and talk about whether Hilton Smith or Leon Day threw a better curveball. It was a place to think about Saturday nights in the city, neon everywhere, whiskey in the air, wild jazz playing through the windows, the wild jazz of late nights and long kisses and rattling dice, some of the music as disjointed and broken as shattered glass, some of it as new and baffling as Charlie Parker’s saxophone. It was a place to think about how good those players were, how much baseball fans lost by not getting to see Satchel Paige when he was still young, and also Jelly Taylor, the Ghost, Popsicle Toes, Mule Suttles, Ray Dandridge …

Dandridge. There’s a statue of Dandridge on the Museum’s baseball field, and Willie Mays stared at it through the chicken wire. You know when Willie Mays was a minor league playing in Minneapolis, Ray Dandridge was there too. He was in his late 30s by then, his career mostly behind him, but he was so good as a hitter (he hit .362, .311 and .324 in those years when batting average meant everything) and so smooth and beautiful a third baseman that the story goes that when the Giants told the Minneapolis team they wanted to bring up Mays, the response was “as long as you keep Ray Dandridge here.”

The Negro Leagues Museum was a place to tell those kinds of stories. For a long time, of course, the one doing most of the telling was an extraordinary man named Buck O’Neil. He did not build the museum himself — there were a lot of heroes in that painstaking story. But the museum was built in his spirit, and from my point of view it was his single-handed charm and force of will and humanity that made the museum a national success. He would be there all the time, ready to take strangers on tours. “Well, come on then,” he’d say, and people did.

A couple of years ago — and I wrote about this at the time — I broke with the museum. Well, that makes it sound more dramatic than it was. I had no official capacity with the museum — and you can’t really break from where you aren’t. I just loved the place, so I hosted most of their events, and I promoted them whenever I could, and we donated money, and I asked for many of my speaking fees to be donated to the museum and so on. I did this for friends like Buck, for my love baseball history, but more than anything because for me, the museum really was a place of imagination and, as much as anything, I believe in imagination.

A couple of years ago, though, things changed. I don’t want or need to go into it. The only part that matters now is that my dear friend Bob Kendrick — who was chosen by Buck O’Neil to run the museum after he died — was passed over and treated with contempt. I want to believe that this was done more out of blindness and arrogance than anything, but I don’t know that. I don’t want to know. I only know they made someone else president. They pointedly moved the museum away from the vision of Buck O’Neil. They lost their spirit (and a lot of money). It was reported and whispered, the museum moved to the brink of collapse. Imagination was gone.

And I stopped going to the place, stopped standing outside the chicken wire, stopped looking at the field and imagining. Every now and again, someone would ask me to come back, and they might even invoke Buck’s name … but Buck was the very reason I could not go back. The way I saw it, the museum was no longer about Buck. It no longer shared his vision, his singular purpose, his wonder, his joy. I stayed away.

Thursday, they will announce that Bob Kendrick has been named President of the Negro Leagues Museum. Bob had left the museum to run the Kansas City office of the National Sports Center for the Disabled. He loved working there — such wonderful people. But not too long ago, the board of directors seemed to realize what they had done, and they came to Bob and asked him to come back, to help the museum find its core again, to return the place to what Buck O’Neil stands for, to make it again a place of imagination.

I don’t want to speak for Bob … but I think I know his heart a little bit. He knows how hard it will be to make the museum successful again. He knows how the museum will have to do it without Buck, with a sluggish economy and with more than a few broken relationships to mend. He also knows that the board passed him over once before in a process that, well, the less said about it the better. He knows that the odds are stacked against the museum.

But … he also knows that the odds have always been stacked against the museum. It has always been a challenge to convince people that they should care about a baseball league that died a half century ago, a league of mostly unknown players from those days before Jackie Robinson stole home. It has always been a challenge to convince people that Josh Gibson might have been more powerful than Ruth, that Satchel Paige might have been more dominant than Koufax, that Oscar Charleston might have been better than Mays. It has always been hard to tease the imagination.

He knows all that, but more than anything else he knows that this museum is in his blood. He was working for the museum before it had a building. He was with Buck selling the stories before anyone knew who Buck was. He was there in meeting rooms, time and again, explaining to bored and cynical executives why they wanted to be part of this story, why they NEEDED to be part of this story, why the Negro Leagues were not about black athletes, why the Leagues were not about racism, why the leagues were not even about baseball. No, the Negro Leagues were about America, and looking through the chicken wire, and dreaming as big as the sky.

I tell a story in my book The Soul of Baseball about a time Bob, Buck and I were in the Atlanta airport, and we came upon an up escalator that wasn’t moving. We had to get upstairs, of course, and Bob wisely suggested we take the elevator. Buck, in a rare unwise moment, said we could make the walk.

And so we began climbing, step after step after step, and about a quarter of the way up I already started to feel winded. Admittedly, I was in terrible shape, but I was also 56 years younger than Buck. Bob started to sweat through his suit. And Buck … well, Buck did not look too good. Halfway up, we were even worse, but there was no going down at that point and we all knew it. What we did not know, seriously did not know, was whether Buck could make it. But we kept trudging, step by step, until finally and extraordinarily we reached the top. Buck sat down for a long time before he had enough wind to go again. I wanted to plant a flag by the Cinnabon.

Every time Bob or I come to an escalator in the Atlanta airport, we call each other to remember that absurd climb. Sure, it’s corny and overly simple to compare that climb to the climb of the Negro Leagues Museum from a one-room office with a scrapbook to a multi-million dollar building on the famous corner of 18th and Vine to a place beloved across the country and recognized by Presidents. But we do it just the same.

“Joe,” Bob said to me, and I don’t think he will mind me telling you this, “I’ve been offered the job to run the Museum. I have mixed emotions, and I know it’s a real challenge, but I know it’s the right thing to do. I know it’s what Buck would have wanted.”

“You’re right. It is what Buck would have wanted.”

“I’m going to need help.”

“You don’t even need to ask, Bob.”

And we talked for a long time about all sorts of things — baseball, community, family — but we especially talked about Buck and how he had this dream that there would be a museum to help people imagine what it was like when some of the best baseball players who ever lived played passionate games in their own league on dusty fields while most of America turned away. Buck is gone. His dream has flickered, but I hope it is still very much alive.

To join the Negro Leagues Museum, please go here. Memberships run for as little as $25.

Read more

By In Joe Vault

The Biggest Winner

January 23, 2011
Weight: 247.3 pounds
Overweight by 71.3 pounds

What does inspiration mean in sports? Strip down the word. Remove its jewelry. I was there the night Derek Jeter hit the home run at Yankee Stadium while smoke rose from Ground Zero, and the crowd sang “New York, New York,” again and again long after the game ended, as if to shout “We’re still here!” And it felt … inspiring.


Read more

By In Stuff

An Announcement

Growing up, I never could have imagined that I would write a book. In those days, I could barely imagine reading a book … unless it was something by Alfred Slote or Matt Christopher or someone like that. I remember when I was 8 or 9, my mother decided it was time I read Moby Dick. If someone had told me at any point during that agonizing process that I would write a book, any book, I would have undoubtedly thrown Moby Dick at them. And, as you know if your mother made you read Moby Dick, that would have hurt.

My first book, The Soul of Baseball, was, as the cliche goes, a labor of love. I traveled around the country with Buck O’Neil and wrote about the wisdom and joy of my friend. That book was more a calling than anything else, and I will never be prouder of a project than I am of that book. I’ll have a little more to say about Buck and callings in the next few days, by the way. There’s something very exciting happening there.

My second book, The Machine, is about the 1975 Reds and it is meant only to be fun. There are no grand literary aspirations in there (as if I have the talent to muster grand literary aspirations). There’s a lot of swearing. I had considered writing a lot of different kinds of books, most of them along the lines of Soul, but decided that what I really wanted was to write a romping baseball book from the time of my childhood, and that’s what I tried to do.

My third book … well, three is a magic number, isn’t it? I learned that back in the Schoolhouse Rock days. This time around, I really wanted to go for everything, I wanted to take on the project of my life, something that would get at how I feel about sports and life and competition and fairness and unfairness and the world around us.

Well, it’s not that easy to put together a project that can do all those things … and all the wordless things that I did not include there. I had two or three false starts. I came up with several projects that I would still like to write, but not yet, not now, not until I took on something really big and bold and exciting and meaningful.

In the last few weeks, that something big started to come together. I mentioned it in passing in a couple of interviews, teased it on Twitter, but did not say anything because … well, sure, I didn’t want it to fall apart. Well, it’s now signed.

So my announcement is that I will take the next 18 months or so to write a book for Simon & Schuster about the life and impact of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

I cannot begin to describe how excited I am about this project. I am, as you could probably tell from my previous stories on the man, a huge fan and admirer of Joe’s. But even more than that I am endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football. So writing about Joe, his triumphs, his struggles, his journey, well, it really is everything I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer. I’ll be living in State College this fall, so you can stop in and see me.

My plan is to continue to write for SI and to blog, though the numbers (and, gasp, word count) will undoubtedly diminish a bit. I don’t think I’m the kind who can just disappear into a cave and emerge with a book … I shut down this blog once before to work on a book and three months later started writing even longer posts. So I won’t try that again. We’ll just see how it plays out.

In the meantime, thank you all so much for your support and your kind words and your criticisms and your spelling corrections … this blog has been one of the great experiences of my life. I said above that as a child I never would have believed that I would write even one book. But I feel sure that if you somehow could have explained to me what a blog was when I was 10 years old, I would have thought, even then, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.”

Read more

By In Stuff

The Bonds Trial

So here’s the thing: I love courtroom scenes. Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” and Al Pacino in “And Justice for All?” Awesome. The jury room in “12 Angry Men?” Fabulous. The real culprit shouting out from the back of the court room, “Yes I did it! And I’d do it again!” in Perry Mason? Can’t get enough. I love the cross examination of Jack Nicholson (as unrealistic as the Perry Mason scenes), the literary recounting of Scopes in “Inherit the Wind,” the throwing of the briefcase on The Brady Bunch, and the yutes in “My Cousin Vinny.” Basically, I love them all.

The reason I love them, I think, is because no matter how good or bad they are, every courtroom scene offers something to root for. You want the bad guy to get punished. You want the wrongly accused to be set free. Sometimes, like in Primal Fear*, there’s a cool twist. But there’s always something to touch you emotionally.

*I have been working on a list of good movies with terrible names, and at last check Primal Fear was No. 1 on the list.

I think that, in the end, is why the Barry Bonds trial that is going on right now has no affect on me at all. I am numb to it. I hate that it’s happening. I don’t want either side to win. I don’t have a single rooting interest or a single reason to believe something good will come from this thing. I know that the ending, whatever the ending, will feel pointless and sad and like a horrible waste.

Here’s what I think most people believe: Barry Bonds used steroids to become a better baseball player. He, reportedly, does not even deny this. He does claim — and claimed before a grand jury — that he did not KNOWINGLY take steroids. To think that Barry Bonds took steroids, but not knowingly, seems ridiculous, absurd on its face, and it seems an insult to the question and the people asking it. For seven years now the U.S. Government has been trying to nail him for this unconvincing bit of nonsense.

So, on the one hand you have someone who is probably lying — and obviously we should not stand for people lying to grand juries. On the other, you have what seems an extreme use of government power and money and shaky methods to nail him for this lie. Supposedly at some point during this trial we are going to get a spurned girlfriend telling the court all about Barry Bonds’ sex life and mood swings. The whole thing feels unseemly.

And … for what? I have seen it written in numerous places that this trial will help us “get to the bottom” of the Selig Era in baseball. But, one thing that seems absolutely certain to me is that this won’t help us get to the bottom of anything. People already know Barry Bonds used steroids. People already know Mark McGwire used steroids. People already know that Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield and Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner and Ken Caminiti and numerous pitchers and many others used steroids or some kind of illegal performance enhancing drug. There are no questions left that steroid use was prominent among the biggest stars in baseball, and many non-stars too. There is nothing left on that front to “get to the bottom of.”

What we don’t know is what it means. How we should feel about it. How prevalent it was. How we should view the Selig Era. And this Barry Bonds trial most certainly will not help shape a clearer picture there.

The most popular complaint about PED use — steroid use in particular — builds around home runs. Few seem to care much about PED use in pro football, for instance. Few seem to spend much outrage about PED use by pitchers or non-home run hitters (Roger Clemens excepted, but Clemens has always been a contentious figure). The thing is home runs, and the thing can be pointed out like so:

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1972 and 1986:
1. George Foster
2. Jim Rice
3. Dave Kingman
4. Mike Schmidt

Players who hit more than 45 home runs between 1987 and 1994:
1. Mark McGwire
2. Juan Gonzalez
3. Cecil Fielder
4. Kevin Mitchell
5. Andre Dawson
6. George Bell

Players who hit hit more than 45 home runs between 1995 and 2010:
1. Alex Rodriguez (5 times)
2. Sammy Sosa (5)
3. Mark McGwire (4)
4. Ken Griffey (4)
5. Barry Bonds (4)
6. Ryan Howard (3)
7. Albert Pujols (3)
8. Jim Thome (3)
9. Albert Belle (3)
10. Prince Fielder (2)
11. David Ortiz (2)
12. Rafael Palmeiro (2)
13. Juan Gonzalez (2)
14. Jose Bautista
15. Carlos Pena
16. Alfonso Soriano
17. Derrek Lee
18. Andruw Jones
19. Adam Dunn
20. Adrian Beltre
21. Todd Helton
22. Shawn Green
23. Luis Gonzalez
24. Troy Glaus
25. Jeff Bagwell
26. Greg Vaughn
27. Vinny Castilla
28. Jose Canseco
29. Larry Walker
30. Andres Galarraga
31. Brady Anderson

Whew. No matter how many different ways you put together the home run list since the 1994 strike, it boggles the mind. And, as you can see, many of the players on the last list have either admitted steroid use, tested positive at some point or were implicated in some way. And many of the others are strongly suspected — so strongly suspected, in fact, that it has affected their Hall of Fame cases. With home runs so dominating the era, and the players hitting home runs at a pace unmatched in baseball history, we want to know what’s real and what’s unreal.

In this, the Bonds trial will not give us any satisfaction. The only satisfaction will be to those who want to see Bonds punished or to those who want to see the government case fall on its face. And that’s not much satisfaction at all.

Baseball has a flawed history. Until 1947, African Americans and dark-skinned Latin players were barred from the Major Leagues. Until the mid-1970s, players were basically the property of the teams and relied almost entirely on the generosity of owners to make their living. Great pitchers scuffed and spit on the baseball. Great hitters corked their bats. Players took amphetamines to jolt them through the long seasons. Some bet on their games, some even tried to fix those games. “Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it,” Leo Durocher rather famously said, and that philosophy, as much as any, has governed the game.

So the steroid era is not really out of character for baseball history, no matter how many old-time players say it is. Players found that using steroids could make them stronger. Baseball did not test for it — which was like an open invitation to use whatever you wanted. Baseball was coming off a devastating strike and pro football had long before surpassed baseball as America’s pastime and everyone wanted — needed — the games to be more exciting than ever before. Players from every single era, given those circumstances, would have widely used steroids. I believe that wholeheartedly. As the ultra-honest Buck O’Neil said: “The reason we didn’t use steroids is because we didn’t have them.”

We don’t know how much of a role steroids played in the power numbers. We may THINK we know. But we don’t, not really. Sure, we know they played a significant role … but there were other factors too like smaller strike zones, better home run parks, harder bats, expansion, perhaps a livelier ball. Everything was geared toward home runs and bringing people back to the park. For a long while, America celebrated baseball’s glorious new era of extreme power. Comic books were made. Commercials were filmed. Chicks dig the long ball! Baseball dominated the summer of 1998 like it had not dominated a summer in decades. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were heroes — so much so that they were on the cover of SI as ancient Olympians.

It seems to me, that it really wasn’t until Barry Bonds started hitting home runs like mad that feelings really turned. Bonds, throughout his career, was almost like a cartoon villain. He could be arrogant. He could be unfriendly. He could seem a bad teammate. I often compared him in his younger days to Ted Williams, who was also a genius of a hitter and also widely despised. I had this weird relationship with Bonds (though “relationship” is overstating things) where it seemed like whenever I needed to talk with him for a story, he was friendly and helpful and thoughtful. He could be like that. Most of the time, he was not. Anyway, when he started hitting so many home runs that managers simply stopped pitching to him, everyone seemed to agree at once that this steroid thing had gone too far. It was one thing when lovable Sammy Sosa and titanic Mark McGwire were hugging. But Bonds … no, that was too much.

So I would say Barry Bonds, more than any other player, formed the public and media sentiment on steroids in baseball. He hit 73 home runs, often to boos. He passed Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list to almost unanimous boos and angry columns. He offered some cockamamie story to the grand jury about having taken steroid-type substances from his friend (and convinced steroid distributor) Greg Anderson but he insisted that he did not know what it was, and he insisted that only his doctor actually gave him injections. Anderson has since gone to jail — and he is going back to jail — rather than talk about it.

And so, the federal government — particularly the seemingly obsessed Jeff Novitzky — has gone hard after Barry Bonds. Now, they have Bonds in court. They may get him thrown in jail for a while. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass him. Bonds meanwhile counters with a high-priced defense team that will stop at nothing to protect their client. They may get him acquitted. They may not. They will undoubtedly embarrass the government.

And the whole thing will end, and we will be right back where we started when trying to figure out the Selig Era. Well, we won’t be right back where we started … we’ll all be a little sadder. And then, we can look forward to Roger Clemens trial this summer.

Read more

By In Stuff

Terrible Timeouts

I love just about everything about the first week of March Madness. I love the wall-to-wall games. I love the upsets. I love the blowouts. I love the great individual performances. I love the close final minutes. I love the enthusiasm of the players, the fans, Kevin Harlan. The regular college basketball season doesn’t do much for me, but March makes it all worthwhile.

Except for one thing … I am SO sick of the studio hosts talking again and again and again about the officiating.

This hit home today after the North Carolina-Washington game when they spent a good 20 minutes arguing whether or not Washington (after heaving a half-court shot that a North Carolina player lost out of bounds) deserved to have a few tenths of a second more than then 0.5 seconds they actually got to take a last three-point shot. Yikes. I mean they brought in the head of officials, they they replayed it 20 times, they showed an angry Washington coach several times, they talked about it like this was one of the most important questions of our time. And even after showing it all those times:

1. I’m pretty convinced the officials got it right.
2. If they had added two- or three-tenths of a second, that almost certainly wouldn’t have meant ANYTHING.

But that was NOTHING compared to the endless and pointless talk about officiating at the end of the Texas-Arizona game. Here’s what happened. Arizona led most of the game, but Texas took the lead 69-67 with about a minute left. Arizona then had several chances to tie the game, but kept missing. With 14 seconds left, Arizona had a shot blocked, and Texas’ Jordan Hamilton got the ball. And then, inexplicably, he called timeout.

No, really, it was inexplicable. It was as bad a timeout as I can ever remember in a college basketball game. You are up two points with 14 seconds left and and the clock is running — you are breaking about 500 rules by calling timeout there. You don’t want to stop the clock. You don’t want to have to inbound the ball against a set defense (especially because you cannot move after a timeout). You don’t want to give the other team any chance at all to regroup. YOU DO NOT WANT TO STOP THE CLOCK!

I sat there with my jaw dropped open.

And neither Marv Albert — my favorite ever basketball announcer — or Steve Kerr said one word about it. I don’t think I know a lot about basketball, so I figured maybe I was somehow wrong. I didn’t really see how I could be wrong, i could not see how that timeout could possibly do ANYTHING but hurt Texas. But hey …

Of course, what followed is that Texas could not get the ball inbounds. The Longhorns did try to call timeout before the five-second call, but the official didn’t give it to them. So that was a turnover, a terrible turnover, a turnover directly caused by Texas calling a timeout they absolutely should not have called. And STILL the announcers did not talk about it. Then, Arizona did not just score but got fouled for a three-point play to take the lead — so apparently that scenario was not covered by Rick Barnes in the timeout. And then Texas went down the court, missed a shot, got a rebound and time ran out.

There are not too many cases, in my mind, where a dreadful strategic move actually costs a team a game. But I think this one was pretty close. If Texas does not call timeout, Arizona HAS to foul him. If he makes both free throws, Texas wins. If he makes one, Texas can’t lose in regulation. There were only a couple of ways Texas could lose the game in regulation with the ball in its hand, up two with 14 seconds left. Calling timeout there made one of those insane scenarios come true.

Anyway, after the game, there was not one word about the terrible timeout. Not one word. Instead, there was just minutes of tedious talk about the officials and whether they should have called a foul at the very end (it looked like time had run out). Look, basketball is a hard game to call. I have no doubt there are some bad calls being made, some mistakes being made, but frankly I’m really sick of hearing about it. If the officiating plays a major role — as it did at the end of that crazy Pittsburgh-Butler game — then, sure, talk about it.

But arguing (and I mean ARGUING) about whether the officials should have bailed out Texas with 0.1 seconds left like THAT was what the game was about?

It’s crazy. As much as college basketball coaches are lionized this time of year, as much as studio hosts talk about the coaches’ genius non-stop — so much so that in the studio the players often seem to be like extras — it would have been nice to point out that the officials didn’t cost Texas the game. The Longhorns cost themselves.

Read more

By In Stuff

Lamp Posts

Brilliant Reader Elmaquino5 just put into absolutely perfect words why I find that anti-stats crowd so baffling. He puts it it perfectly in back to back sentences in a comment, the first sentence his own, the second sentence a famous quote by Vin Scully:

First sentence: “That’s why I’m content with averages, HRs, etc. I just don’t see why you have to get too specific.”

Second sentence: “Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination”. –Vin Scully.

Why do people who so dislike advanced baseball statistics not realize that counting home runs is figuring a statistic. Batting average is a statistic. Wins — statistic. RBIs — statistic. Not only that, they are statistics first figured by the cellar-dwelling, skivvies-wearing drips of the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are the best statistics people had before computers, before the Baseball Encyclopedia, before Bill James, before Pete Palmer, before Rob Neyer, before Fangraphs, before Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, before smart people did a little figuring and determined, “These statistics are fuzzy, and they are often unrevealing, and they can lead us in the wrong direction.”

I’ve often heard people do what Elmaquino does — use the poetic Vin Scully quote to defend their own desire to avoid and jeer at the advanced statistical world. And that’s fine. I’ve always said that people should enjoy baseball the way they want to enjoy baseball. It is a sport, and it is meant to be loved, and if you love it by doing spreadsheets, if you love it by sitting down the third base line with a beer and without even knowing the players names, if you love it for its history, for its pace, for its drama, for its familiarity, for its connection to spring, for its apparent simplicity, for its apparent complexities, for the way the game reveals character, for the way the game reveals talent, for the way the game rewards consistency, for batting average and wins and RBIs, for UZR and Runs Created and FIP, for whatever … that’s great. Love the game your own way.

But Vin Scully did not first say that quote. It was probably — though this is somewhat hazy — Scottish poet Andrew Lang who said, “An unsophisticated forecaster uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts — for support rather than illumination.” Lang died in 1912, long before WAR or VORP or xFIP or wOBA or Win Shares or any of the other stats people try to mock with the quote. Even when Vin Scully first said it, that was also before WAR or VORP or xFIP or wOBA or Win Shares.

In other words: Stick with batting average if you like. Quote wins if you want. Enjoy the game because, damn it, that’s why they play the game. But I would suggest that at the very least you keep the superiority levels to a minimum. Because there’s a pretty good chance when you quote batting average and wins and RBIs and the like as definitive and authoritative and certain … well let’s just say you probably ought to hold on to a lamp-post.

Read more

By In Stuff

My Mother’s Basement

“It won’t be long before we get the first wave of nonsense from stat-crazed dunces claiming there’s nothing to be learned from a batting average, won-loss record or RBI total. Listen, just go back to bed, OK? Strip down to those fourth-day undies, head downstairs (to “your mother’s basement and your mother’s computer,” as Chipper Jones so aptly describes it) and churn out some more crap. For more than a century, .220 meant something. So did .278, .301, .350, an 18-4 record, or 118 RBIs. Now it all means nothing because a bunch of nonathletes are trying to reinvent the game?”

— San Francisco columnist Bruce Jenkins

When I was a kid in Cleveland, we had this unfinished basement where I spent a lot of my time. That probably explains my nuttiness as well as anything. It was down there that I used to put together absurdly involved sports recreations. In one of my favorite scenarios, I would put laundry baskets on each side of the basement — it was a thin rectangle of a room with yellow brick walls and a concrete floor and two three tiny windows on the left wall near the ceiling — and I would act out one-man plays of entire Cleveland Cavaliers games. I can remember being fascinated then that the Cavaliers had three guys on the team named Jim — Jim Chones, Jim Cleamons and Jim Brewer — and in my basement scenarios the three Jims were amazing. They could do anything. No matter how far behind the Cavaliers were — and I usually had them fall behind by 20 or 25 — the Jims ALWAYS brought them back. The Jims did the hard work. Then, my finisher of the day — usually Austin Carr or Bingo Smith, but sometimes Campy Russell or Footsie Walker — would come in to put the other team away. Needless to say that the Cavaliers were unbeatable in my mother’s basement.

More often, I would throw hardballs against the walls and field grounders. In these exercises, I was almost always Buddy Bell. I may have mentioned a time or two that Duane Kuiper was my hero, and he was — I spent pretty much every baseball game of my childhood pretending to be the Kuip — but the basement was for Buddy Bell because I loved watching him make that long throw across the infield. He had an amazing arm, I thought. I would spend hours and hours and hours in my mother’s basement throwing a hardball against the brick wall while pretending to have the arm of Buddy Bell.

I often would practice swinging the bat down in the basement. I tried many different times to invent a pitching-hitting game that would allow me to recreate the pitcher-hitter tension — and every now and again I would come up with a reasonably interesting thing, like one where I would throw a tennis ball against the wall, wait on the bounce, and then swing the bat — but it wasn’t quite realistic enough, and I wanted realism. So more often I simply would imagine pitches coming in. If you saw me down there, you would see a little boy with thick glasses swinging the bat over and over and over again for no apparent reason. In my mind, though, I would swing the bat at imaginary pitches thrown by Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver or Catfish Hunter. I was at my best in those moment. In actual Little League baseball games, against real young men throwing as hard as they could from 40 feet away, my nerve was shaky, and my form was a blend of tentative aggression and blatant fear, but in the basement my stance was balanced, and my swing was pure, and I hit everything on a line — exploding fastballs and filthy sliders and back-breaking curves, everything. No pitcher alive or dead could ever throw anything by me in my mother’s basement.

I shot jump shots against the stairs in my mother’s basement. If I could land the ball so it dropped on the top step, that counted as a basket. If I shot it too soft, the ball hit a lower step and ricochet unpredictably. If I shot the ball too hard, it would bang the door and make a loud sound and inspire my mother to scream and threaten. But if I shot it just right, the ball would settle up there nicely and then hop down happily, like a child skipping into Disney World.

I had another game with those stairs — I would throw a tennis ball up there and then try to prevent it from slipping past me for a goal. In this scenario, I was former NHL goalie Bernie Parent. I had just read Bernie Parent’s biography — creatively named “Bernie!” — and it was (improbably, now that I think of it) the first full sports biography I ever read. I loved every word of it, and while the thrill of reading it played its small part in making me want to write I couldn’t put that together then. So for a while I misunderstood that thrill and had the rather ill-considered goal of becoming an NHL goalie. My entire childhood I never once went skating, not even once, and so the closest I ever came to that temporary dream was kicking away and blocking tennis balls rolling down stairs in my mother’s basement.*

*Years later, as a columnist for the Cincinnati Post, I was given the chance to be a goalie for a practice with the Cincinnati Cyclones. Two memories remain. One was a player “warming me up” by flipping 70- or 80-mph wrist shots off my pads. I remember this well because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I was not nearly quick enough to move out of the way or catch the puck or any of that. So he just kept hitting my pads with the puck, again and again and again, until he asked: “You warmed up?” I had not moved.

The second memory was of the photo in the paper the next day … I was in goal and the puck was clearly pictured right beside my head, an excellent timing shot by the photographer. But the most arresting part of the photograph is that I am looking straight ahead, and am obviously completely unaware that there is a puck up by my head. I mean COMPLETELY unaware. I probably lifted my glove hand about 6 seconds later. No, I was never going to be a goalie.

I flipped baseball cards in my mother’s basement. I read books in my mother’s basement. I dreamed of becoming someone in my mother’s basement. I invented games, learned how to throw a spiral (with a Nerf ball, but still), perfected my between-the-legs dribble (sort of), played marathon games of Monopoly and generally became the person I became in my mother’s basement.

I’ve always liked and admired the work of Bruce Jenkins. But the top quote is so annoying and bizarre and convoluted and maddening … how could anyone fighting for the integrity of resplendently crappy stats like batting average, wins and RBIs call ANYONE ELSE a “stat-crazed dunce?” Why are people who hate advanced stats so interested in the underwear bloggers wear?

And the whole statistical line — .220 used to mean something, 18-4 used to mean something — is just whacked. Sure, it means something. I don’t think anyone would say there is NOTHING in batting average, wins or RBIs. Other stats just mean more. In 1973, Jimmy Wynn hit .220. He had a better year than Willy Taveras, who hit .278 in 2006, and a better year than Randall Simon when he hit .301 in 2002. Only four pitchers in baseball history have gone 18-4, and they all had good years, though I suspect most would agree that Mark Portugal’s 1993 wasn’t as good as Roger Clemens’ 2004. Anyway Roger Clemens’ 2005 was better than all of them and he went 13-8. As for RBIs … I would hope that George Brett’s 118 RBIs in 1980 might carry a little more weight in the mind than Dante Bichette’s 118 RBIs in 1997. Neither was as dominant a year as Barry Bonds in 2002 or 2004 — two of the more remarkable years of the last 50 — and he didn’t get to 118 RBIs either time.

Also … the nonathletes line at the end is nonsensical. Does Bruce think that athletes invented batting average and RBIs? Does he think Walter Johnson sat at home and devised the archaic rules to define a pitcher’s win? Lou Gehrig said “we ought to give an RBI to the guy who drives in a run?” I never stop being amazed by how much people who hate stats because they’re “flawed” quote so much more obviously flawed stats.

More than anything, though, I have to ask: How could Bruce really think that one of the biggest cliches of our time — the blogger in the mother’s basement cliche — was invented by Chipper Jones? This is like suggesting that the knock-knock joke was originated by Dermonti Dawson.

No, Bruce, that bit is ancient, and it’s dumb, and consigning the person you disagree with into their mother’s basement is just admitting you’ve run out of arguments. Anyway, it’s wrong. My mother’s basement was a wonderful place. It is, in so many ways, where I became a man. I visit there often in my mind. I’m usually wearing pants.

Read more

By In Stuff

Guest Post: Year of the Pitcher?

You probably already know about my obsession with the juicing and deadening of baseballs. I am not a conspiracy theorist by trade — that’s my wife’s department — but I remain utterly (and, I admit, bizarrely) convinced that the commissioner of baseball can dramatically influence the game by having the composition of the baseball changed even slightly. More than that, I remain convinced that commissioners HAVE dramatically influenced the game.

But, to even things out, I also believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

In any case, I think that nothing — not steroid use, not harder bats, not higher mounds, not widened strike zones — can so clearly and overwhelmingly impact offense like changes in the baseball. I believe that’s how the home run year of 1987 happened. I believe that was an important part of the offensive spike after the 1994 strike. There are numerous other smaller examples. I’m not saying — and, in all seriousness, do not really think — that this was always a masterminded plot. But whatever the reasons, I think that in baseball if you want to explain a rather sudden and shocking shift … check the baseball first.

So, naturally when Brilliant Reader Chuck sent along a theory about how he thinks 1968 might not have been the year of the pitcher as much as it was the year of the mushy baseball, well, it was like sending a hare-brained plot to Oliver Stone.

And so, I reprint it here. Please discuss:

* * *

I think I found something remarkable in looking through the split data from the late 1960’s. What got me interested was this quote from a Sports Illustrated article in early 1969:

“Last week Pitcher Jim Hannan of the Senators revealed yet another facet of this strange spring training. “In 1968,” he said, “the balls were softer than they had been before. Ken McMullen … used to sit on the bench and squeeze the horsehide up into a lump on the outside of the ball. Nine of every 10 balls I picked up seemed to be soft. Heck, one day an umpire pushed on a ball and the horsehide came up so that he could hold it between his fingers like a pendant on a chain. This year the balls feel much, much harder.” 

In compiling home run data for the NL in 1967 I noticed this strange split in the percentage of homers per batted ball:

1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.03%

That’s a pretty sizable drop. In 1966, it was 3.10% in the 1st half, 2.82% in the 2nd.

Digging a little further revealed a turning point for this NL homer rate in ’67:

April 2.56%
May 2.64%
June 2.99%
July 2.60%
August 1.82%
Sept/Oct 1.89%

Wow. That looks to me like something happened to dramatically reduce homers either at the beginning of August that season or somewhere in the back end of July.

In 1968, that low rate resumed:

1st half: 1.94%
2nd half: 1.95%
April 2.37%
May 1.69%
June 2.04%
July 1.72%
August 2.03%
Sept/Oct 2.00%

Were 1967-1968 the Years of the Deadball, rather than the Year of the Pitcher?

In the NL, the drop in the homer rate from the first 4 months of 1967 (2.72%) to that of the last two months (1.86%) was an enormous 32% drop. 

The average rate from 1966 through July of 1967: 2.87%
The average rate from August 1967 through 1968: 1.92%

Again, that is a drop of 33%, and it seems to me it did not happen gradually, from pitchers just becoming more dominant on their tall mounds and with their big strike zone, but from a change in the quality of the baseball that appeared in July or August of 1967.

Here is the rate of doubles and triples per batted ball over those periods:
1966-July, 1967: 5.70%
August 1967 – 1968: 5.18%
A drop of 9% in doubles+triples.

But the rate of singles was not affected like that:
1966 – July, 1967: 21.44%
August 1967 – 1968: 22.08%.

The singles rate rose just a bit, by 3%. It was the extra bases, particularly the homers, that dropped off the table.

In 1969, things snapped back to their former shape for homers.

Per batted ball:
1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.58%

April and September were low that season, but the middle four months of 1969 were in line with the previous NL rate, around 2.90%. 

* * *

What about the AL homer rate?
1966: 3.04%
1967: 2.68%

1st half: 2.92%
2nd half: 2.45%
April 2.71%
May 3.08%
June 2.95%
July 2.78%
August 2.40%
Sept/Oct 2.27%

Again, a sizable drop occurred either in August or partway through July, 1967. 
April – July: 2.90%
August-Oct: 2.34% 
A drop of 19.3%. Somewhat lower than in the NL, but noticeable.

The AL in 1968 had a home run rate of 2.48% overall.

1st half: 2.64%
2nd half: 2.34%
April 2.58%
May 2.75%
June 2.39%
July 2.69%
August 2.31%
Sept/Oct 2.24%

The AL in those same time frames as the NL:

1966-July 1967: 2.98%
Aug.1967 – 1968: 2.44%

The AL had a drop of 18% during the same period, less than the NL drop of 33%, but still a good-sized one.

In 1969, again, things went right back to the previous AL homer rate:
1st half: 3.11%
2nd half: 2.82%

* * *

So what might have happened in 1967?

From the following link to Rawlings’ history:

“Rawlings had … six manufacturing plants–four in Missouri and two in Puerto Rico–when it was sold in 1967 to Automatic Sprinkler Corp. of America. This conglomerate made the company a division under its prior Rawlings Sporting Goods name.”

It seems a remarkable coincidence that a change in home run rates should come in the same year that the ball manufacturer changes ownership. As yet, I’ve found no smoking gun for if or why there may have been a lapse in quality control. But I do think that MLB’s changes to the strike zone and mound height in 1969 may not have come about had the power rates not plummeted in 1967-68.

The rate of strikeouts had only gone up marginally in the NL over these years.
1966: 16.7% ( K / (ab+sf) )
1967: 17.1%
1968: 17.2%
1969: 17.6%

They actually ROSE in 1969, after the lowering of the mounds and return of the old strike zone.

In the AL the K rate went up in ’67, but actually much more so in the 1st half of the year, not the 2nd.
1966: 17.4%
1967: 18.2%
1968: 17.8%
1969: 16.4%

From 1966 through July, 1967, the AL strikeout rate was virtually the same as for the end of ’67 through 1968. 

In case you’re wondering about parks changing during this time, I looked at data on ballpark fence changes. 

In the NL the average right field foul pole distance went out by just a foot in 1967. In ’68 it went out another foot in both the left and right foul poles, but not the alleys. 1969 was when some parks brought distances in, shaving a few feet off the power alleys and center field. From 1963 through 1967, distances had actually DEcreased substantially. The average NL power alleys had come in by 7 feet in left and 4 feet in right.

In the AL, a foot was shaved OFF the power alleys in 1967, and each moved in a couple more in 1968. Home runs SHOULD have been getting more plentiful. In 1969 4 feet more came off the alleys and center field.

The “year of the pitcher” wasn’t about pitchers increasing their domination with strikeouts. It was a sudden drop in power in both leagues, much more so in the National League, that led to so many fewer runs being scored in the back end of 1967 and through 1968.

Read more

By In Stuff

Zero Intentional Walks

So I was thinking about one of the coolest statistical anomalies in baseball history — that Roger Maris was not intentionally walked a single time the year he hit 61 home runs. I first heard that stat, nerdily enough, at a baseball card show. There was some kind of trivia contest going on, and one of the questions was, “How many times was Roger Maris intentionally walked the year he hit 61 home runs?”

Bizarrely, my guess was 61. Well, how would I know? I was like 14.

In any case, once I realized it was zero — and once I realized that the REASON it was zero is because, of course, Mickey Mantle hit behind Maris, I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard. I knew, of course, about Mickey Mantle but only in that vague, historical way that my daughter knows that Elvis was once kind of popular. My father had told me Mantle stories, and I’m pretty sure I knew that he hit long home runs, that he was a switch-hitter (which meant you would never intentionally walk the guy in front to get a lefty-lefty or righty-righty matchup) and that had as good a baseball name as anyone ever. But it was after I heard that stat that Mantle grew in my mind, became something larger, a force of nature. As a kid, I LOVED books like “The Boy Who Only Hit Homers” and “The Boy Who Never Struck Out” and “The Boy Who Went To Visit Dr. Frank Jobe” and all those. When I heard the stat, Mantle became for me, “The Man You Never Wanted To Pitch To.”

Amazing that a silly little stat about intentional walks could do that for a boy.

Later, I looked up Maris’ 61-homer season and found out all sorts of cool things about it. For instance, he actually began the year hitting BEHIND Mantle — he hit fifth in the lineup in seven of the first nine games. He was hitting so poorly then, they moved him to SEVENTH in the lineup. On May 2nd, he had one home run. He was hitting .212 and slugging .308. He picked up a little and on May 17 was more or less moved full-time to the No. 3 spot just in front of Maris. He celebrated by hitting homers four games in a row. He actually hit 19 homers in his first 30 games in the No. 3 spot.

In any case, I was thinking about this, and because I’m like this I started to wonder if anyone else has ever hit even 35 home runs and not been intentionally walked in a season. Turns out, it has happened five different times.

Tony Armas (1983)
Hit 36 home runs without an intentional walk.
Main batters who hit behind him: Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Yaz.

Comment: Funny thing, but while the Red Sox seemed convinced that Armas was actually helping their offense in 1983 — he was in the cleanup role all year and (after all) he did hit 36 homers and drive in 107 RBIs — every other team seemed fully aware that he was not. Armas’ on-base percentage that season was a looks-like-a-misprint .254. He had an 85 OPS+. His WAR was minus-1.4. He was actually KILLING the Red Sox, and they were the only ones that did not seem to realize it. They just kept throwing him out there, day after day, smack in the middle of their lineup. Yes, those RBIs can trick you. Meanwhile, there was no way any manager in his right mind was going to walk the 1983 Tony Armas to face the young Boggs, the middle-aged Dewey or the aging Yaz.

Armas was markedly better in 1984, and he was intentionally walked nine times that year.

Geronimo Berroa (1996)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batters who hit behind him: Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Jason Giambi.

Comment: Actually many different batters hit behind Berroa — he moved all around the lineup that year — and it seems his lack of intentional walks had less to do with who was hitting behind and more to do with a complete lack of respect. Berroa was actually quite a decent hitter from 1994-97, but he did strike out a lot, and he hit into double plays, and managers apparently felt pretty comfortable pitching to him. The following year, he was intentionally walked four times.

Andruw Jones (2000)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batter who hit behind him: Chipper Jones.

Comment: OK, see, this was the thing I was looking for … I was trying to find players who were so good, so dominant, so fearsome that no matter what the situation and no matter how good the hitter at the plate, managers would absolutely not pitch around anyone to get to them. Mantle was obviously that good. So was Chipper Jones. Andruw Jones was a terrific player in 2000. He hit .303, crushed 36 homers, stole 21 bases, played insanely great defense — Baseball Reference actually ranks him third in WAR behind only Todd Helton and Barry Bonds.

But as good as he was, nobody wanted to pitch to Chipper Jones for that five year run from about 1998 through 2002. As a switch-hitter, he too blunted any matchup-advantages. And he just seemed to hit EVERYTHING hard. Chipper was equally great at the plate from 2005 to 2008, by the way, but he was older, and he was injured quite a bit, and he did not seem invincible like he did in his younger days. The young Chipper — you just didn’t mess with the guy. And managers didn’t.

Carlos Quentin (2008)
Hit 36 homers without an intentional walk
Main batters who hit behind him: Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Paul Konerko.

Comment: I think this was a bit of a different thing from all the others on the list … I just don’t think people believed in Quentin. His first two seasons in Arizona he hit .230/.316/.425. He struck out almost three times as often as he walked. The Diamondbacks essentially gave up on him. And so when he went to Chicago and killed the ball that year, I think managers were like: “Oh yeah, that won’t last.”

It did last for the season and by the end, maybe people started to believe. But in a way they were right … Quentin (because of injuries, perhaps) has not been nearly as good since 2008.

Alex Rodriguez (1998)
Hit 42 homers without an intentional walk
Main batter who hit behind him: Ken Griffey

Comment: Here is the golden one. Who was SO scary a hitter that managers simply refused to walk A-Rod? And, yes, A-Rod was absurdly good in 1998. He had been absurdly good for three years. He was INCREDIBLE as a 20-year-old in 1996, leading the league in hitting, runs and doubles. He was plenty good as a 21-year-old in 1997. And in 1998, he hit .310/.360/.560 with 42 homers, 123 runs, 124 RBIs, 46 steals and a league-leading 213 hits. He led the league in WAR. Oh, everyone knew all about A-Rod.

But, much like Mantle, much like Chipper, managers were not going to walk anybody to face Ken Griffey in the 1990s. Griffey mashed 56 homers in 1998, just like he had in 1997, and he did it with such style and grace … and I really do believe that plays a part in the managers’ mindsets. I mean, sure, 56 homers is 56 homers. But there was something about Griffey that seemed classical and legendary even before he WAS classical and legendary. He always felt like a player out of time — he was Buck O’Neil’s favorite player, the one who reminded him sometimes of Willie Mays, sometimes of Ted Williams, sometimes of Oscar Charleston, sometimes of Turkey Stearnes …

In any case, managers intentionally walked A-Rod TWO TIMES in more than 2,000 plate appearances from 1996-1998. That was the power of the young Ken Griffey Jr.

Read more

By In Stuff

Carrying A Team

While looking up Darrell Porter’s career for the recent Royals Hall of Fame post, I came across George Brett again. This happens every so often — George’s career is endlessly fascinating to me. And I realized that George could have won four MVP awards in his career. I’m not saying he SHOULD have won four, but he certainly could have … there’s a strong case to be made for all four. I should tell you that this post, by the end, is not specifically about George Brett … it’s about the best offensive players on World Series teams. But it will take a few paragraphs to get there.

George Brett won his only MVP award in 1980, of course. It’s one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. My first ever book idea was actually to write about Brett’s 1980 season … and how close he really came to hitting .400. I’d love to revisit that someday.

Anyway, the only stunning thing about Brett’s 1980 MVP is that he did not win it unanimously. He actually did not come especially close to winning it unanimously — he had 17 of the 28 first place votes. Reggie Jackson got five first place votes and Goose Gossage got four. Brett’s teammate Willie Wilson got one. It’s true that Brett missed some games with injuries, but it seems to me that hitting .390/.454/.664 should probably get you the unanimous vote. How ANYONE could have thought there was a more valuable player in the American League — and four thought it was a reliever who threw 99 innings — is beyond me.

Anyway, he did win that one. He could have won three others. Brett could have won it in 1976 — the year he led the league in batting average (.333), hits (215) and triples (14). He had the highest WAR for any every day player, and the Royals made the playoffs for the first time, and he was spectacular. Yankees catcher Thurman Munson won that year, and I’m always one to give catchers extra credit, but his .302/.337/.432 line doesn’t exactly jump off the page. Munson did drive in 105 RBIs, largely as a result of having Mickey Rivers and Roy White hitting ahead of him. I think that’s a miss by the voters.

Brett could have won it in 1979. He again led every player in WAR. He again led the league in hits and triples. He finished third in the MVP voting, behind Don Baylor and Ken Singleton. I certainly understand why Baylor won — we all know that many MVP voters have an RBI fetish and Baylor drove in 139 runs for an Angels team that finally broke through and won the division title. I think Brett had the best year.

Then, of course, there’s the famous 1985 MVP vote, which leads to the real point of this post. I have long thought that no player in baseball history singlehandedly carried an offense to a championship the way Brett did in 1985. It is, I admit, kind of a tricky concept. It led me to do a little research, which I think is interesting … I’m not promising any great revelations, but it’s interesting.

First, the 1985 MVP vote. Don Mattingly won the MVP over Brett in ’85. Its not hard to understand why. You look at their basic numbers — and in 1985, few looked beyond the basic numbers — and it’s pretty clear cut:

Mattingly: .345, 35 homers, 145 RBIs, 211 hits.
Brett: .335, 30 homers, 112 RBIs, 184 hits.

If you look beyond those core numbers, though, you will see that Brett had a clearly better year than Mattingly:

Mattingly: .371 OBP, .567 SLG, 107 runs. 6.4 WAR, 32 Win Shares.
Brett .436 OBP, .585 SLG, 108 runs, 8.0 WAR, 37 Win Shares.

The 65 points in on-base percentage is the most decisive of those advantages. That Brett also outslugged Mattingly and played a more demanding position just clinches his better year. Mattingly had a wonderful season, but it seems his 145 RBIs were the biggest reason he won … and the fact that he spent the entire year hitting second or third behind a guy named Rickey Henderson (who scored 146 runs) might have had a whole lot to do with it.

In fact, I think Henderson was probably the most deserving choice for MVP in 1985. But, of course, nobody was looking at OBP or leadoff hitters in 1985 and Mattingly, believe it or not, won the vote more decisively than Brett did in 1980 — he got 23 votes to Brett’s five.

Anyway, that’s been much discussed. The thing that struck me more than anything about George Brett’s 1985 season is JUST HOW BAD the Royals were as an offensive team. The only other player on the team to manage even a .325 on-base percentage was Hal McRae. I’m about to give you the most fun statistic you will hear today … I feel pretty sure about this. In 1985, the entire Royals offense — we’re talking about all 20 players who got at least one plate appearance — put up an 8.9 WAR. OK? That means all the every day player combined were worth 8.9 wins above replacement.

George Brett alone was 8.0 wins above replacement.

It’s OK to gasp.

I felt certain that no World Series team has ever been so dominated by one every day player. But feeling certain of something and having it actually be true are two different things, so here is what I did: I looked at every World Series winner since the end of World War II. And I looked to see how much of the offense their best player contributed. I wanted to make this as easy as possible, so I used Baseball References “Runs Above Replacement” as my guide. The results are kind of fun, I think, so let me give you a couple of quick points about Runs Above Replacement (RAR):

— The average World Series champ since World War II has scored about 248 runs above replacement. The highest was the 1998 Yankees with 410 RAR. The lowest, as you might imagine, was the 1985 Royals with only 91 RAR (the second-lowest was the 1995 Braves with 119 RAR).

— The average RAR for the best player on a World Series champ is about 61. Mickey Mantle in 1956, his Triple Crown year, had 122 RAR. I didn’t go back before 1946, but I suspect the biggest total for World Series winner in all of baseball history belongs to Babe Ruth in 1923, when he had 128 RAR. The lowest RAR leader for a World Series team was Ryan Klesko with the 1995 Braves — he led the team with only 28 RAR.

Now, a look at the list since 1946:

2010 Giants: Aubrey Huff 44 out of 157
2009 Yankees: Derek Jeter 62 out of 364
2008 Phillies: Chase Utley 56 out of 188
2007 Red Sox: David Ortiz 61 out of 254
2006 Cardinals: Albert Pujols 69 out of 196
2005 White Sox: Paul Konerko 35 out of 148
2004 Red Sox: Manny Ramirez 50 out of 273
2003 Marlins: Pudge Rodriguez 41 out of 201
2002 Angels: David Eckstein 45 out of 288
2001 Diamondbacks: Luis Gonzalez 71 out of 156
2000 Yankees: Derek Jeter 70 out of 220
1999 Yankees: Derek Jeter 94 out of 256
1998 Yankees: Derek Jeter 78 out of 410
1997 Marlins: Gary Sheffield 42 out of 192
1996 Yankees: Bernie Williams 50 out of 192
1995 Braves: Ryan Klesko 28 out of 119
1994 Nobody
1993 Blue Jays: John Olerud, 77 out of 278
1992 Blue Jays: Roberto Alomar 60 out of 244
1991 Twins: Kirby Puckett 37 out of 223
1990 Reds: Barry Larkin 37 out of 168
1989 A’s: Carney Lansford 49 out of 219
1988 Dodgers: Kirk Gibson 59 out of 186
1987 Twins: Kirby Puckett 53 out of 174
1986 Mets: Keith Hernandez 44 out of 309
1985 Royals: George Brett 77 out of 91 Runs Above Replacement
1984 Tigers: Alan Trammell 50 out of 289
1983 Orioles: Cal Ripken 71 out of 241
1982 Cardinals: Lonnie Smith 48 out of 175
1981 Dodgers: Ron Cey 31 out of 160
1980 Phillies: Mike Schmidt 72 out of 229
1979 Pirates: Dave Parker 60 out of 233
1978 Yankees: Graig Nettles and Willie Randolph 45 out of 254
1977 Yankees: Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson 45 out of 270
1976 Reds: Joe Morgan 91 out of 354
1975 Reds: Joe Morgan 98 out of 322
1974 A’s: Reggie Jackson 63 out of 262
1973 A’s: Sal Bando 76 out of 309
1972 A’s: Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi 47 out of 238
1971 Pirates: Willie Stargell 69 out of 332
1970 Orioles: Boog Powell 52 out of 273
1969 Mets: Cleon Jones 58 out of 183
1968 Tigers: Bill Freehan 57 out of 255
1967 Cardinals: Orlando Cepeda 59 out of 262
1966 Orioles: Frank Robinson 80 out of 274
1965 Dodgers: Maury Wills 35 out of 214
1964 Cardinals: Ken Boyer 49 out of 225
1963 Dodgers: Jim Gilliam 51 out of 240
1962 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 82 out of 274
1961 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 115 out of 304
1960 Pirates: Don Hoak 45 out of 256
1959 Dodgers: Wally Moon 43 out of 157
1958 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 95 out of 309
1957 Braves: Henry Aaron 68 out of 271
1956 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 122 out of 336
1955 Dodgers: Duke Snider 81 out of 339
1954 Giants: Willie Mays 79 out of 196
1953 Yankees: Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle 48 out of 310
1952 Yankees: Mickey Mantle 61 out of 296
1951 Yankees: Yogi Berra 46 out of 286
1950 Yankees: Phil Rizzuto 62 out of 321
1949 Yankees: Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich 45 out of 272
1948 Indians: Lou Boudreau 85 out of 266
1947 Yankees: Joe DiMaggio 59 out of 308
1946 Cardinals: Stan Musial 90 out of 274

A few thoughts:

— Most of the players who led their offenses to World Series victories are either in the Hall of Fame, will go to the Hall of Fame or merit serious consideration. There are 55 different players who led their World Series teams in RAR. Of the 55, 19 are already in the Hall. Barry Larkin will go in next year so that’s 20. Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Pudge Rodriguez are Hall of Fame locks. That makes 23. I suspect Manny Ramirez will get in, so that’s 24. It’s too early to tell about Chase Utley, but I think he certainly has a shot with a few more good years.

After that, I think Alan Trammell deserves serious consideration, so does Gary Sheffield and Ken Boyer. David Ortiz will be an interesting if he has three or four years left in that bat. Many people think Keith Hernandez, Dave Parker, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson and Bill Freehan have deserved more consideration than they received. Point is most of the players on the list are considered among the best to play the game, which makes it a fun list.

— Yes, it is really true that David Eckstein led the 2002 Angels in RAR. It’s important to note that RAR is a counting stat, meaning that getting the most plate appearances really helps and Eckstein came up 702 times that year. But he also got on base — his .363 OBP was well above average and he led the league in getting hit by pitch — and he is compared to other shortstops rather than players at every position. So he was really quite valuable.

— I’m thoroughly blown away by how overrated AND underrated Derek Jeter has been through his career. I’m not sure there’s another player who has quite that combination of hype and underappreciation. My friend Seth Mnookin tackles the subject in this month’s GQ (in full disclosure, I’m quoted in it). But it’s really staggering both how stunningly over-glorified Jeter is and yet how little respect he has received in the MVP voting.

Jeter was probably the most valuable player in baseball in 1999. I mean, you certainly could make an argument for Pedro Martinez, and it really is hard to compare pitchers and hitters. But among hitters, I don’t think there was anyone in baseball more valuable. Jeter hit .349, scored and drove in 100-plus runs, posted a .438 on-base percentage, all while playing 158 games at shortstop. I mean that is a seriously fabulous year. He was very clearly the best player on the best team, and for the second year in a row. He tied with Manny Ramirez for highest WAR among position players. And he’s Derek Jeter, much admired, much beloved, much respected Derek Jeter …

And he finished SIXTH in the MVP voting. He got one first place vote. I mean, seriously, how the heck does that happen? Bleepin’ Rafael Palmeiro got more first place votes than Jeter, and he was a designated hitter in an insane hitting park. The Jeter conundrum baffles the mind.

Finally we get to the final point … nobody, and I mean nobody, is even close to 1985 George Brett when it comes to carrying an offense. Here are the Top 10 percentages — that is the percentage of RAR by one player:

1. George Brett, 1985 Royals, 84.6%
2. Luis Gonzalez, 2001 Diamondbacks, 45.5%
3. Willie Mays, 1954 Giants, 40.3%
4. Mickey Mantle, 1961 Yankees, 37.8%
5. Derek Jeter, 1999 Yankees, 36.7%
6. Mickey Mantle, 1956 Yankees, 36.3%
7. Albert Pujols, 2006 Cardinals. 35.2%
8. Stan Musial, 1946 Cardinals, 32.8%
9. Lou Boudreau, 1948 Indians, 32.0%
10. Derek Jeter, 2000 Yankees. 31.8%

Nope. Nobody close. This is because Brett was so good and the Royals offense was so bad. Whatever the reason, though, it is I believe a season unique to baseball history.

Read more