Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Greatest Player Never to Win A World Series

"Whatever you do, don't come home a failure."

This was the advice he received from his father as he set out on his career.  His family was a famous family in the history of Georgia and baseball was definitively not the profession for the son of  a respected, well-to-do college professor.

He certainly had not failed.  He played two years in the minor leagues and 24 in the majors.  Even today he ranks among the highest in the all time stats lists: 4189 hits (2nd all time), 2246 runs (2nd all time), 724 doubles (4th all time), 295 triples (2nd all time), 1938 RBI (8th all time), 897 Stolen Bases (4th all time).366 lifetime batting average (highest of all time).  In the first Hall of Fame ballot he received votes on 222 of 226 ballots.  When he died, just five months short of his 75th birthday, he still swore he could hit .300 against the pitchers at that time.

Photo Courtesy of: Philly Sports History

26 years after leaving home to prove to his father that he could make his family proud by playing a child's game for money, Ty Cobb sat at his breakfast table reading the newspaper.  It was Tuesday, October 15, 1929 and he instinctively turned to the sports page to see the results of yesterdays game.  It confirmed what he expected.  The Philadelphia Athletics had beaten the Chicago Cubs in 5 games, including a Game 4, 7th inning rally that saw them score 10 runs and overcome an 8-0 deficit.  This team was unstoppable.  Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Max Bishop, Mule Haas, Bing Miller, Lefty Grove, George Earnshaw.  This team was built to win...and they did.  They just did it one year too late for Cobb.

The decision to sign a contract with the Athletics was a difficult one.  Even today he is synonymous with the Detroit Tigers and most people forget he ended his career as an Athletic. He was there for the glory days of the Tiger organization.  More accurately, he was the glory days.  Cobb and Sam Crawford terrorized the American League for the first decade of the league's existence.  They reached the World Series three years in a row.

Photo Courtesy: Bleacher Report

In 1907 they lost to the Cubs and he hit .200 as his team became the first ever to be swept in a Series. 1908 saw a second appearance in the World Series and another loss to the Cubs.  This time no one could call him a failure.  He hit .368 in a five game series but still no championship.  The Cubs fell off in 1909 but the American League was still chasing the Tigers.  They became the first American League team to reach the World Series three years in a row and they played the Pirates.  It was Cobb vs. Honus Wagner.  The hated vs. the beloved.  The devil vs. the baseball god.  The fan's dart board vs. the fan's favorite.  Today's equivalent of Barry Bonds vs. Cal Ripken.

1909 was a vicious, hard fought, bloody battle.  Anger and chaos ruled that year.  At one point Cobb was on first base and yelled to Wagner at shortstop "Look out krauthead. I'm coming down on the next pitch."  Cobb took off with the pitch and Wagner was there to cover.  Depending on the version you believe, Cobb spiked Wagner, or Wagner spiked Cobb or Wagner tagged Cobb out by punching him in the face with the ball.  Cobb denied any of this happened.  It was a tense, exciting World Series and for the first time ever it went to a final deciding game 7.  The hype was immense.  The pressure was almost unbearable.  The result was a let down.  Pirates 8, Tigers 0 and the Tigers were the first team to lose three straight World Series.

He had spent 22 years in blue and orange with an old english D on his hat. Then came the accusations, the shame.  He had been no stranger to controversy but this was different.  Dutch Leonard, a marginal pitcher at best, had ruined his reputation over night.  The sport had weathered the storm of the Black Sox scandal and was regaining the passionate fans.  Then Leonard fired a cannonball into the baseball world.  According to Leonard during a late season meaningless game between Cleveland and Detroit in 1925 there was an agreement between Leonard and Cobb from the Tigers and Tris Speaker and Smokey Joe Wood of the Indians to throw a game the Tigers way.  It would help the Tigers jump up to the first division and get a cut of the post season earnings.

Kaboom!  Leonard fired the shot.  Cobb, Speaker and Wood denied it.  Leonard insisted.  Commissioner Landis suspended them all pending an investigation.  Leonard insisted.  Landis demanded proof.  Leonard claimed he had letters from Cobb and Wood.  Cobb was indignant.  Landis demanded Leonard show up and testify and give proof.  Leonard never showed.  Cobb demanded that he be cleared.  The owners asked Speaker and Cobb to quietly walk away.  Nothing more would be said of the incident but they were done.

(Smokey Joe Wood seen here in 1912 with Boston, was accused of throwing a game in 1925 along with Tris Speaker and Cobb while Woood was a member of the Indians.)
Photo Courtesy of: Bleacher Report

Cobb didn't do anything quietly and he screamed to the world that he was wronged.  It didn't matter to the Tigers owner Frank Navin.  Cobb was done as a Tiger and he was free to sign a contract with anyone crazy enough to take him. No one thought Philadelphia was an option.  Cobb had what at best could be called a hate-hate relationship with the city but Connie Mack was building a strong young team and wanted some veteran leadership. 

1927 was intended to be the rise of the Athletics dynasty.  The Philadelphia phoenix rising from the ashes of the continuing disaster that was the fire sale of talent from 1914.  Cobb may not have been friendly with anyone on the team but he knew hitting and could teach hitting.  As the manager in Detroit he taught Harry Heilmann to become a consistent .400 hitter.  In Philadelphia he would help Al Simmons become a Hall of Fame hitter.  All of this talent on one team couldn't fail.  Apparently no one told the 1927 Yankees that the A's were supposed to win.  New York put together one of the greatest (and many experts claim the absolute greatest) teams of all time.

Cobb played well.  He hit .357, stole 22 bases and struck out only 12 times but he got frustrated and jumped the team with two weeks left.  He said he was unsure about next year.  He might play. He might not.

He did play but he played less.  Bing Miller and Al Simmons had grown in 1927 and Mack could tell the future of the team was in the youth.  Cobb played only 95 games but hit over .300.  On September 11, 1928 he made his last appearance and retired at the end of the year.  He told the world that he wanted to retire with some hits left in his bat.  The A's were in a pennant race but ultimately lost by four and a half games to the Yankees.  Cobb once said that one of his greatest disappointments was failing to win Connie Mack one more World Series (or reading between the lines, winning one for himself) in that 1928 race.

1929 Philadelphia Athletics
Photo Courtesy: Sports Encyclopedia
His retirement may have been a bit premature as the 1929 A's were a rival to the 1927 Yankees as one of the greatest teams of all time and he certainly couldn't have hurt that reputation.  They won the American League by 18 games and crushed the Cubs in the World Series.  As the young A's celebrated the start of the last great Philadelphia A's era (they would win the World Series in 1929 and 1930 and lose a 7th game in 1931), Cobb sat at home.  Wondering.  "What if I had hung on for one more season?"

He held some amazing records.  He was generally considered (along with Ruth and Wagner) as one of the top three players of all time.  He was rich (Cobb smartly invested his money in two small time companies before they hit it big: Coca Cola and Oldsmobile).  He was the first millionaire baseball player and the money came independent of baseball.  He had all of this.  Yet 26 years after he left home, he had failed to gain that one elusive World Series win.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"...if you were the last batter in a perfect game or no hitter?"

He threw the last pitch of the 8th inning. He let it go, followed through and felt the sweat fly off his hand as the ball twisted towards the plate.  Watching Joe Collins, the big Yankee first baseman, swing through the pitch he heard the "tick" of the foul tip and the "smack" of the ball hitting Campanella's glove. Sal Maglie walked off the mound toward the visitors dugout.  He had done his job and it was a hell of a job.  8 innings pitched, 5 hits allowed, only 2 runs allowed, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts.  Giving up only 2 runs to the powerful Yankees with the reigning World Champs backing him should have been enough to win, now he trusted they would do their job.

Maglie may have reflected on the oddity of being in this position. It had been an odd season, truly surreal. It started in Spring Training when he was told he wasn't good enough to be a starter for the Cleveland Indians. He did his best to convince them he was good but try being sharp when you only  pitch once a month.  He begged Hank Greenberg, the General Manager, to play him, trade him release him, anything.  Just give him a chance.  So he got his chance.  An exhibition  game against a minor league team.  Fortunately for Maglie he pitched great and fortunately for Greenberg, the Dodgers saw the performance.  Looking for one last pitcher to help shore up the staff, the Dodgers took a chance and bought Maglie's contract.  There was only one problem:  Maglie hated the Dodgers with a passion and the feeling was mutual.  Maglie pitching for the Dodgers would be today's equivalent of Jeter wearing red socks, a grey jersey and Boston written on the chest or Chipper Jones pulling on a red pin striped Phillies' uniform. 

Photo Courtesy of:  Bleacher Report

Once, while pitching for the Giants, Maglie threw a fastball at Carl "the Reading Rifle" Furillo's head.  The next thing you know Furillo's in the Giant's dugout with Leo Durocher in a headlock.  Durocher's turning purple, Giants players are telling Furillo to stop and the umpire's begging Furillo to kill Durocher.  Total chaos and it all happened on the "Game of the Week" for the world to see. The Dodgers players nicknamed Maglie "the Barber" because he would pitch so close to your chin that he would give you a trim.  The professional "do your job" culture that dominated the Brooklyn Dodgers of that era kept Furillo from killing Maglie when he walked into the Dodgers clubhouse and the 13-5 record he posted after arriving didn't hurt.

He wouldn't have questioned that his day was done as he left the mound.  That's the thing about being a pitcher late in the game.  If your spot in the order is due to bat the announcers refuse to even acknowledge you as an option.  They'll say "the pitcher's spot is due up third" and you know late in the game your manager won't allow a .129 hitter to come to the plate when someone who is actually allowed to take batting practice can take your place.  He had done his job and now his teammates had to do theirs.

This series was a crossroads moment in baseball history.  It put the final stamp of historical interpretation on the era of to franchises.  Since 1941 these two teams had met repeatedly in the World Series. In 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953 it was always close, usually went six or seven games and provided some of the greatest World Series memories in history.  This series would stamp the Dodgers as "lucky" to have finally gotten the 1955 win or stamp them as the new dynasty, defeating the aging, beaten, crumbling Yankees.

The top of the 9th started with Furillo, a consistent .300 hitter, flying out to right field.  Campanella grounded to second for the second out and then came "the pitcher's spot".  There was really no thought to the process.  As unpredictable and random as this game can be this was inevitable and well planned out.  There was one choice that made sense.  The Dodgers needed a pinch hitter.  A right handed batter was needed to face Don Larsen, the left handed pitcher.  Preferably someone who had faced the pitcher before and knew his pitch pattern and his motion.

By about the 5th or 6th inning Dale Mitchell likely would have been thinking his name would come up if things kept going the way they were going.  Sitting on the bench leaves a lot of time for thinking and observing and "what if...?" 

The "what if" was here.  Top of the ninth, 2 out the team is down 2-0, Game 5 of the 1956 World Series and, oh yeah, Don Larsen is pitching a perfect game.  Mitchell likely thought "Don Larsen, of all people, is pitching a perfect game.  For God's sake, they call him 'Googly Bird', and somehow not a single Brooklyn Dodger had reached base.  If Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella can't get a hit off this guy, what do they expect me to do?"

Mitchell was a professional.  He was in his tenth major league season and had told the Indians at the beginning of this year that it would be his last.  It had been a great career:  he had been on the Indians World Series champs team of 1948, had made great contributions to the 1954 juggernaut Indians that were shocked by the Giants, had made two All Star Games and had received MVP votes in 4 different seasons.  Mitchell was a professional, a good one, and he knew what was coming.  Go up there and start a rally.
Photo Courtesy of: Bleacher Report

Dale Mitchell struck out looking...and argued to the day he died that the pitch was high and outside.  Replays are difficult to tell but he was probably right.

This morning my friend asked me "if you were the last batter and the opposing pitcher is pitching a no hitter or perfect game, would you give up and let the guy have a no hitter, would you try to get a hit, or would you lay down a bunt and try to sneak a hit in there?"  Basically, "If you were Dale Mitchell...?"

A no hitter or perfect game is a rare and amazing thing, but only if the pitcher earns it.  Dale Mitchell may have struck out looking to give Don Larsen a perfect game but he didn't "GIVE" it to him.  Mitchell's at bat was a 5 pitch struggle that ended on a questionable strike call.  He didn't think "this guy is going to pitch a perfect game in the World Series" he thought "if I find a way to get on base I have the most powerful lineup in the world behind me and this guy will have forgotten about the 26 guys in a row he retired."  I am also fairly certain that Sal Maglie wasn't thinking "I hope this guy gets it."  He was thinking "if we can just get one guy on base we are still in this thing."

I'm not a pitcher so I can't say for sure but I doubt any pitcher would want to be given the last three outs of a no hitter.  They would want to earn that achievement.  In 1988 Dave Stieb, a pitcher for the Blue Jays took a no hitter into the 9th inning and with 2 strikes on the last batter gave up a hit.  Devastating.  It gets worse.  One start later the same thing happened.  It gets worse.  In 1989 it happened again.  Finally in September of 1990 Stieb got a no hitter.  Imagine how great it must have felt for him to finally get that accomplishment and have earned it as opposed to having someone give it to him.

Photo Courtesy of: Sports Net

As a batter your job is to go from a batter to a base runner and help your team win the game.  If you are lucky you will get four or five chances a game to make that happen and you can't give those chances up.  Pitchers are creatures of habit and rely on a rhythm to be effective.  If a pitcher is getting into a rhythm your best bet is to step out of the box as he is getting set to throw, take as much time as you can in between pitches and bunt.  Make him come off the mound and force him to get out of rhythm.  If you want a chance to win your best bet is to get him out of his rhythm early, by the third or fourth inning.  If you're being no hit early in the game lay down a bunt.  Rafael Furcal of the Cardinals is the best at this right now.

I can't tell you how many times I've watched a game where a pitcher is rolling along through the lineup and hitter after hitter is up there hacking at the first pitch popping up or grounding out.  No one steps out of the box and makes the pitcher think a little.  No one takes a pitch and makes the pitcher work to get you out.  These situations in the 4th, 5th or 6th innings are where the pitchers really earn the no hitter or perfect game.

"If I were the last batter in a no hit game..." I'd fight to get a solid hit but I'd be screwed because my team didn't get the pitcher out of rhythm earlier in the game.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Welcome to the Baseball Eras Blog

I have always loved reading, studying, watching and talking baseball.  Everything about it.  The details, the theories, the history and the characters of the past.  Some of my closest friends can tell you that there is nothing that gets me more excited than a question that starts with: "If you were the manager, what would you do in this situation...?"

When I made my marriage vows, I promised my wife that I would keep my boring baseball rants to a minimum.  I've done my best to keep this promise, however, it has led to way too much pent up baseball talk that needs to come out. 

A few days ago I thought it might be nice to start a blog to get the pent up baseball out of my system but I was on the fence on whether or not it would be a good idea.  My biggest concern was this:  are my ideas really that important that they need to be blasted out to the universe.  Of course, the answer is no.  My ideas are not that important and quite likely not even the most unique but I'll give them to you anyways.

After debating the pros and cons of this idea I decided to get an idea of how many people would actually read this.  Amazingly I had several people tell me that they would be very interested in reading it.  I still wasn't sure I wanted to do the blog until I got a text from a great friend asking me "what would you do if...?".  His second text message said: "There's your first blog.  Let me know when you post it."

In the posts to follow I will be giving interesting stories from the history of the game and comparing them to the game today.  You will see posts providing team histories, player histories, comparisons of players between eras and, of course, answers to questions of "what would you do if...?"

I welcome all comments (as long as they are constructive, polite and family appropriate) and look forward to any questions you have.  If I mention something in one blog that you would like more information on or if you think something needs more details please email me at baseballeras (at) gmail (dot) com.

Thanks for your support and Play Ball!