Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2014 Hall Of Fame Class

A year ago the Hall of Fame induction weekend was a disappointment.  Some long time worthy individuals (Hank O'Day, Jacob Ruppert and Deacon White) were voted in by the veteran's committee, although, they were given little attention since the BBWAA failed to vote anyone into the Hall of Fame.

I have already discussed what makes a Hall of Fame player and why I feel the voters missed out on voting in some very deserving candidates.  I certainly encourage you to read those articles, however, I don't want to distract from the inductees this season who are clear Hall of Fame players.

Without further delay, here is your Hall of Fame Class of 2014:

Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox the player spent the majority of his team in the minors bouncing from minor league team to minor league team and organization to organization.  Drafted as a minor leaguer in 1959 by the Dodgers.  He went from the Dodgers to the Cubs to the Braves to the Yankees.  If the organizations were not enough, the stops throughout the minors were even greater:  Reno, Panama City, Salem, Great Falls, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Austin, Tacoma, Richmond, Syracuse and Fort Lauderdale.  In all that time he spent one and a half seasons in the majors.

By 1978 Cox was back in the majors but not as a player, as a manager.  He was hired by the struggling Braves organization to turn around the bottom dweller.  With the Reds and Dodgers at the top of the division, the Braves were rebuilding around a young group led by Dale Murphy, Ken Oberkfell, Bruce Benedict and Glenn Hubbard.  His first tenure in Atlanta lasted four seasons.  It was not a success.  Cox was replaced at the end of the 1981 season by Joe Torre.

Cox moved on to take over another struggling organization, the Toronto Blue Jays.  Toronto had only been in the league since 1977 and struggled to compete with the Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Yankees.  Even the Brewers were improving ahead of the expansion Jays.  Although the talent was blossoming with Alfredo Griffin, Ernie Whitt, Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield in place the Blue Jays still finished in 6th place.  They slowly improved moving up to 4th in 1983 and 2nd in 1984, even putting a scare into the nearly unbeatable Tigers.  1985 was the Blue Jays year.  They ended the year in the top AL East perch, ahead of one of the most talented teams not to make the playoffs in the Yankees.  They got ahead to a three games to one lead in the ALCS.  It was the first year the series went to the best of seven format.  The Blue Jays then became the first team to lose an ALCS when leading 3-1.  The tough loss was Cox's last game as manager in Toronto.  The tough loss would also become the theme of his career.

Cox was named Manager of the Year, left Toronto and was hired on as the General Manager of the Braves.  As General Manager Bobby Cox was responsible for the acquisition of Kent Merker, Mike Stanton, Keith Mitchell, Brian Hunter, Lonnie Smith, Mark Wohlers, Ryan Klesko, Glavine, Avery, Greg Olson, Gant, Justice, Smoltz and Chipper Jones.  The team that was in place when Cox took over as General Manager was much less talented as the Braves were struggling at the bottom of the division.  Cox knew the team had talent in the pipeline and he also felt that manager Russ Nixon was not the man to lead them.  In 1989, with the Braves in last place, Cox replaced Nixon in the dugout.  Everyone could see that the Braves had talent, but they were thought to be a few years away.  The 1990 team finished in last and the slow climb to the top was just beginning.  Cox, however, turned things around quickly.  He knew this talent better than anyone and in 1991 he took the Braves to the playoffs for the first time since 1982.  They came within an eyelash of winning it all and Cox was named Manager of the Year for the second time.  The Braves would not miss the playoffs again until 2006.  During this successful run (1991-2006) the Braves would reach the World Series five times and won the World Series in 1995.  During the run of success he faced off against his Hall of Fame Classmate managers four times (twice against LaRussa's Cardinals and twice against Torre's Yankees).  When he retired after the 2010 season, his 29th season as manager, Cox had 2504 career managerial wins, four Manager of the Year Awards, a World Series title and the record for the most career ejections as a manager.  The 2504 wins places him fourth on the all time list behind Connie Mack, John McGraw and Tony LaRussa.

Tom Glavine
On June 4, 1984 in the second round of the major league draft, Tom Glavine was drafted by the Atlanta Braves.  He was a young, skinny kid out of Massachusetts, he had a ton of potential but every kid being drafted had a ton of potential.  The important thing was not how much potential you had but what you did with the potential you had.  Tom Glavine did more than anyone could have possibly imagined.  He made his major league debut on August 17, 1987 and started against the defending NL West champions Houston Astros.  It did not end well.  In 3 2/3 innings he gave up 19 hits, walked 5 and allowed six runs.  The rest of the year would not be spectacular as he finished 2-4. 1988 would be worse as his record was 7-17.  But the Braves were building a team and Glavine was learning to pitch in the big leagues.  By 1991 he had everything figured out.  Glavine won 20 games for the first time as the Braves went from worst to first.  Glavine would go on to win 15 or more games 10 times.  In five of those years he won 20 or more,  As the Braves rotation changed all star after all star behind him, Glavine remained the ace.  Glavine helped a talented group lead the Braves to the playoffs every year from 1991-2002.  At the end of the 2002 season, Glavine became a free agent and signed with the division rival New York Mets.  All he did in New York was help lead the team to the 2006 NLCS with a 15-8 record.  Glavine retired in 2008.  When all was said and done Glavine finished with a 305-203 record, a 3.54 ERA, 2 Cy Young Awards (and four more finishes in the top 3 in voting) and ten All Star Appearances.  You can add to that 14  post season wins, a World Series Title and the 1995 World Series MVP.  Tom Glavine was without a doubt a first ballot Hall of Fame player.

Tony LaRussa
Tony LaRussa is one of the many talented players to come out of the Tampa, FL area.  Growing up in the large shadow of Al Lopez, the original Tampa area star, LaRussa was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in June of 1962.  LaRussa would play parts of six years with in the majors with the Athletics, Braves and Cubs.  His final career batting average was .199.  After retiring as a player LaRussa went back to school, graduated from Florida State University and passed the bar exam but continued coaching in the minor leagues.  Midway through the 1979 season LaRussa was hired to replace Don Kessinger as manager of the struggling Chicago White Sox franchise.  The team had not reached the post season since Al Lopez led the team to the 1959 World Series.  It seemed like a slow climb but the White Sox finally made the post season in 1983, although they were ousted in the ALCS by the eventual World Champion Orioles.  LaRussa would remain on as manager with the White Sox through mid 1986.  Unhappy with the direction the team was taking LaRussa walked away and was replaced by Doug Rader for a few games before Jim Fregosi officially took over.  He was not out of work long as he was very quickly hired by the Oakland A's.  Taking over a team that was 31-52 he led the team to a 45-34 record the rest of the year.  LaRussa went into the 1987 season with some strong young talent.  Jose Canseco had won the Rookie of the Year award in 1986.  The team also had young talent like McGwire, Walt Weiss, Tony Phillips, Stan Javier, Terry Steinbach and Mike Gallegos.  The core of the team was there.  Now they needed something to bring it all together.  The 1988 team took over the league and LaRussa was the genius behind it all.  The A's would go on to win the AL West four of the next five years and would reach the World Series three straight years, winning the 1989 World Series.  As the talent moved on and the reality of the new free agent system took it's toll, the A's struggled to compete with the other teams in the division.  LaRussa finished the 1995 season in Oakland and said goodbye.

He moved on to St.Louis where the Cardinals were rebuilding.  The team was transitioning from the end of the Whitey Herzog era and had a few failed seasons under Joe Torre.  LaRussa immediately got the team headed in the right direction.  The team advanced to the NLCS and jumped out to a 3 games to 2 lead over Bobby Cox and the Braves but failed to advance.  Cox would go on to lose to Joe Torre and the Yankees.  Just as he had done in Oakland, LaRussa would constantly have his team in a playoff fight.  LaRussa would spend 16 years in St. Louis.  His teams would reach the post season eight times.  This included three World Series appearances (2004, 2006 and 2011) and two World Series wins.  Adding the appearance with the White Sox, and the four in Oakland, this gave LaRussa 13 post season berths in a 33 year managerial career, Six world series appearances and three World Series titles.  He is third on the all time wins list. won four manager of the year awards and eight other times finished in the top three in voting.

Greg Maddux
In 1984  the Cubs made the NLCS for the first time, though it was with a collection of mostly over the hill stars.  They really needed to rebuild around Ryne Sandberg and Bob Dernier.  As part of that rebuilding process they made a shrewd move in the 1984 draft when they drafted a young Greg Maddux in the second round.  He made his debut in 1986 and finished with a record of 2-4.  His second year in the league was no better than Glavine's second year.  Maddux finished at 6-14.  1988 was the start of the greatness.  He went 18-8 and made the All Star Team for the first time.  1989 was even better at 19-12 and he finished third in Cy Young voting.  Over the next three years he continued to excel and gain the reputation alternately as "Mad Dog" for his fierceness on the mound and "the Professor" for his studious approach of charting every pitch to every batter.  1992 was his final year with the Cubs.  He went 20-11, made his second All Star appearance and won his first Cy Young Award.

During the offseason Maddux moved on to Atlanta, joining Avery, Glavine and Smoltz on what was already considered the best rotation in the game.  Maddux would continue to gain a reputation for his control, his dedication and his dominance.  He again won the Cy Young in 1993, 1994 and 1995 as the Braves continued to dominate the National League.  Maddux would remain with the Braves until 2003.  During his years there he would win three Cy Young awards (finishing in the top 5 an additional four times), appear in seven All Star Games and 9 Gold Gloves (added to the three he had already on in Chicago.  He won a total of 194 games in Atlanta in 11 years there.

 After the 2003 season Maddux was again a free agent and he decided to return to his roots where the Cubs appeared to be building a strong young team.  The Professor was beginning to show his age slightly (although he won 16 games) and the Cubs were not quite as good as originally believed.  Injuries took a major toll on the Cubs and midway through the 2006 season Maddux was traded to the Dodgers in the middle of a playoff run.  He helped the Dodgers with a 6-3 record but was not able to get them past the first round.  He spent 2007 with the Padres and finished the year at 14-11 as the Padres collapsed down the stretch and finished just out of the playoffs.  He started 2008 with the Padres but as the Dodgers made another run to the playoffs Maddux ended his career in blue.  The Dodgers could not overcome the Phillies and Maddux walked away after the year with the reputation of one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game.

Maddux finished his career with four Cy Young Awards, 355 wins, 8 All Star appearances, 18 Gold Gloves, 11 career playoff wins and one World Series title.

Frank Thomas
Last summer I was having a conversation with a good friend and fellow baseball fan when the name of Frank Thomas came up.  The friend said he felt that Thomas was one of the most disappointing franchise players in history.  While it is certainly true that Thomas did not lead the White Sox to the World Series he certainly can't be called disappointing.

Thomas was drafted in 1989 with the 7th overall pick and joined a franchise with one post season appearance in the previous thirty years.  The team had gone through rebuilding after rebuilding and finally had the player that would lead them to the post season.  Thomas made an immediate impact on the organization.  The White Sox went almost over night from a bottom of the league, after thought to an annual playoff contender.  Thomas was the unquestioned leader of the group.  In 1991, his first full year in the league, he began a streak of greatness that produced 8 straight years over 100 RBI, 6 straight years over 20 Home Runs (all but two of those above 30) and seven straight years above .300.  To be honest, Thomas was a bit of a throw back.  In an era where it became accepted for players like McGwire, Canseco, and Prince Fielder to strike out 100-150 times a year and hit .250 or so, as long as they drove the ball over the fence, Thomas was the opposite.  In the prime years of his career, as he was challenging for the triple crown each year, his strike outs were below 100 (with the exception of his first full year with 112 years).  Ironically, for a man who was nicknamed the Big Hurt, he never led the league in Home Runs or RBI.  He did, however, win a batting title in 1997.  Thomas made five All Star Games during these years, won two consecutive MVP's and became the face of the White Sox organization.

It was 2001 when injuries started to truly take their toll.  Frank's father passed away early in the season and a few days later he learned that he needed season ending surgery to repair a torn bicep.  It would happen at the worst of times.  As Thomas continued to fight back to regain his place at the top of the league, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and seemingly everyone in the league was getting stronger.  Thomas would continue to put up impressive numbers but his injuries crept up with his age.  As the White Sox picked up Paul Konerko, Thomas's playing time diminished.  Sadly, as the White Sox pushed to their first World Series win since 1917, Thomas sat by and watched.

He moved on to the Athletics for the 2006 season and was a big reason for the A's reaching the ALCS.  He hit .270 with 39 Home Runs (impressive in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum) and drove in 114 runs and finished fourth in MVP voting.  He played 2007 in Toronto on what was expected to be a playoff contender.  Thomas certainly had a good season with 26 Home Runs, 95 RBI and a .277 average.  The rest of the talent did not contribute as hoped and the Jays fell flat.  He returned to start the 2008 season with the Jays but after just 16 games Thomas was released. He resigned with the A's and finished his year out with 55 games in Oakland.

When all was said and done Thomas finished his career with two MVP awards (four other top five finishes), 495 doubles, 521 Home Runs, 1704 RBI and a .301 average.  What was more, in an era when players were routinely suspected of steroid use with little or no proof, there was never a question that Thomas had played the right way.

Joe Torre
As a player Joe Torre was a 9 time All Star, an MVP and a very respected Catcher with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets.  He played in over 2000 career games but never played on a team that reached the playoffs.  With 2342 hits, 252 career Home Runs and 1185 RBI Torre's playing career got him some consideration for the Hall but he fell far short of induction.

Torre played his final games in 1977 with the Mets.  45 games into the season he became the player manager for the Mets.  The Mets were in between the Seaver era and the Strawberry-Gooden era and the team was suffering.  At no point did the team finish higher than 4th.  At the end of the 1981 season Torre left the Mets.

There was another National League team that needed a manager as Bobby Cox had moved on from the Braves to the Blue Jays.  Torre stepped in for Atlanta and led the Braves to their first playoff appearance since 1969.  It was an encouraging start but it didn't last.  The Braves fell to second place in his second year and third in his third year. He had no more chances to guide the Braves.

Near the end of the 1990 season he got one more chance at the helm.  This time it was in St.Louis and he replaced the legendary Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog.  He took over a Cardinals team in transition.  The core of the Cardinals team (Pendleton, Tudor, Cox, Coleman, Lonnie Smith, Milt Thompson) were gone.  In their place were young talent like Pagnozzi, Zeile, Gilkey and Whitten.  The pitching was not quite good enough and the Cardinals struggled.  The team was accused of under achieving with a string of second and third place finishes and part way through the 1995 season Torre was let go and labeled as a failure.  He was replaced in St.Louis with Tony LaRussa

Meanwhile, in New York, George Steinbrenner had grown upset with manager Buck Showalter.  Despite leading the Yankees to their first post season appearance since 1981, Steinbrenner constantly questioned Showalter's decisions.  When Torre became available, Steinbrenner demanded that the Yankees get him.  The Yankees baseball people told Steinbrenner that Torre was not the right man for the job.  Torre, they said, had failed with the talented Cardinals and the fact that LaRussa took them to the NLCS in their first year was proof that Torre wouldn't work.  Steinbrenner wanted him anyway.  In his first year in New York Torre took the Yankees to the World Series and faced Bobby Cox's Braves, who had beaten LaRussa's (formerly Torre's) Cardinals in the NLCS).  The Braves jumped out to a 2 games to 0 lead but the Yankees battled back and won the World Series, their first since 1978.  It was the start an unimaginably successful stretch for the Yankees.  They won the World Series again in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and came within an extra innings loss of winning the 2001 World Series.  The Yankees, under Torre's leadership, became the dominant team in baseball.  They were once again the powerhouse of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson and Jackson.  The team made the playoffs every year under Torre's leadership until 2007.  Unfortunately for Torre, despite the poor performance of the high priced free agents, Torre took the blame.  He was unceremoniously fired by Steinbrenner following the 2007 season.

Just as happened after he left St.Louis, he was not unemployed long.  The Dodgers quickly hired Torre to lead the team.  In his first year with the team, he led the Dodgers to the NLCS.  It was the first time the Dodgers had won a playoff series since Kirk Gibson's dramatic 1988 Home Run.  They fought tooth and nail (and very nearly hand to hand) with the Phillies who won a dramatic, tight, tense series.  With the help of Manny Ramirez, the Dodgers became a serious contender.  2009 saw Ramirez suspended for PED's but with the emergence of Ethier, Kemp and Russell Martin, the Dodgers again advanced to the NLCS. Again they fought the Phillies and it looked like they were set to take control of the series when Jimmy Rollins broke the heart of Dodger fans with an RBI triple to tip the series back in the Phillies direction.  The 2010 season was a disaster for the Dodgers as Johnathon Broxton struggled in the bull pen, Russell Martin injured himself and Matt Kemp fought with Torre and the coaching staff.  While this was going on the ownership group was tearing itself apart in divorce court.  At the end of the year Torre walked away.  He currently works for the Commissioner's office.  Torre retired with 2326 regular season wins, six World Series appearances and four World Series victories.

Connie Mack, John McGraw, Tony LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre make up the top five winningest managers of all time.  Who rounds out the top 10?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Cy Young first pitched in the Major Leagues in 1890.  The World Series as we know it would not start until 1903.  In 1892 the Cleveland Spiders took on the Boston Beaneaters in the National League Championship Series.  Cy Young appeared in this championship series but his Cleveland Spiders lost 5-0 with 1 tie game.  When the American League opened for business in 1901 Cy Young signed with the new Boston franchise and when they took on Pittsburgh in the 1903 World Series, the first ever, Young and Bill Dinneeen were the aces of the Boston staff.  Young went 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA in  four appearances.  Boston beat Pittsburgh in the first ever World Series

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Pitcher Walter Johnson

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore one of the Pitchers I chose for the series: Walter Johnson.

Growing Up in Smallville and The Move West
The ancestors of Walter Johnson arrived in America in the mid 1600's and were typical Americans every step of the way.  Farmers, volunteer soldiers, patriots.  The lineage served in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  Johnson's  maternal grandfather served in the 4th Pennsylvania cavalry regiment in the Civil War.  The regiment was formed at the start of the war in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.  They fought at all of the major battles including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.  The regiment also took place in the ill planned Mud March in the spring of 1863 as well as the battle of Brandy Station that finally put a taint on the legend of J.E.B. Stuart.

Following the war the Johnson's moved west to Missouri and eventually to Kansas during troubling times on the border states, the family set up stakes on the Kansas plains and worked a farm in Humboldt.  It was here that Walter was born on November 6, 1887.  The story of young Clark Kent growing up on a farm and learning to use his strengths while becoming a likable, young man could have been Johnson's story.  He loved to play baseball but likely had little to no knowledge of the Major Leagues.  There were, of course, minor league teams all over the country but between working on the farm and school there was little time to do anything more than play a quick game with friends.  Who had time to watch others play?

Farming was not the most profitable job in the world and when Walter's uncle visited from Southern California he told the family of the riches he had earned working in the oil fields.  The Johnson's moved west with 14 year old Walter in tow.  They landed in Olinda, CA, a suburb of Brea, CA.  Olinda was the sight of one of the southland's biggest oil fields and Walter's father joined the work force.  Olinda had their very own baseball team but not their own field, so on Sundays the team would travel the roughly 15 miles to Anaheim to take on teams in the area.  Young Walter would go with his dad to watch the games.  As a young teen Walter may have dreamed of joining the team.  When Johnson played after school with the other kids he showed how good he could be.  No one could touch his pitches.  Stories spread around town and he was eventually brought on to the Olinda Oil Wells team.  On July 24, 1904 Walter made his semi pro debut and immediately became a sensation.

There was no minor league system, it was two decades in the future, so players wanting to hook on in the majors had to hope for word of mouth and the luck of a scout being in the right place at the right time.  Walter was impressive and word started to spread.  Still without hopes of a big league career and graduated from Fullerton High School, Johnson took courses at Orange County Business College.  Johnson continued pitching for the Olinda Oil Wells until he got a telegraph from a previous team mate now playing in Tacoma, WA.  It was a job offer to work in the local business while playing for the company team.  As Johnson took the train up the coast, San Francisco was busy recovering from the great earthquake.  The shifting of the earth matched the shifting of the baseball landscape in the Pacific Northwest.  The Pacific Coast League disbanded while the Northwestern League reorganized and added some of the teams from the PCL.  The Tacoma owner wanted to sign the newly free talent of the old PCL and told Walter "as a pitcher you make a great outfielder".  Walter dreaded going home a failure, a similar fear that Ty Cobb would display after being released in his first attempt as a professional, so he migrated east to a small Idaho town.

The Weiser Wonder
Walter landed in Weiser, ID in 1906 and immediately found the team was baseball mad.  He was given a $90.00 a month salary to "work" for Pacific Bell, though he was really just a ringer.  The town certainly got their money's worth as Walter dominated the league.  His strikeouts were routinely in the double digits and the other team rarely touched him.  In one 12-0 win he struck out twelve and held the opposition to one hit.  The 12-0 shutout was not his only shutout.  They were almost all shutouts. He threw 58 consecutive scoreless innings, a record for the majors or minors at the time.  Word of his feats spread and he received a request from the Washington Senators to come east for a tryout.  He declined and said he would stay in Weiser.

Washington's manager didn't give up. He sent his injured Catcher, Cliff Blankenship east and told him not to come back without this kid.  His boss at the time remembered Walter's feelings.  "He didn't want to go.  He couldn't believe he was ready for the big leagues."  Walter struggled with the decision.  "I was nothing but a green country boy and jumping to a city the size of Washington was a real sensation to me.  I was about as nervous as it was possible to be"

The Big Train and Pongo Joe
Joining the Washington Senators at the turn of the century was technically a step up from the minor leagues but realistically it was a questionable career move.  The Senators were the joke of baseball.  Led by Joe Canitllon, known as "Pongo Joe", the Senators were terrible.  They would finish 1907 at 49-102.  News of the signing hit the papers immediately and the anticipation grew as Walter made his way east.  He arrived on July 26, 1907 and the next morning he was pitching batting practice to Major League batters. Jim Delahanty was the first to face him. Cantillion said no human had ever thrown so fast before and asked Delahanty how Walter's curve was.  "I don't know and I'm not getting back in there to find out until I find out how his control is."  Actually his control was already legendary.  One scout had already said he had to have control because otherwise there would be a trail of dead players all over the north west.

On August 2, 1907 Walter Johnson made his major league debut.  His first opponent was Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and the Detroit Tigers.  Cobb wasn't scared.  "He was only a rookie and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington.  Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon...had picked a rube out of the corn fields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us...We began to ride him as the game opened.  One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing and we hollered at Cantillon 'Get the pitchfork ready, Joe.  Your hayseed's on his way back to the barn.'...The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy wind up and then something went past me that made me flinch....The thing just hissed with danger.  We couldn't touch him and so we just waited, expecting the kid to turn wild and start issuing walks.  But after four innings he
hadn't thrown more than a dozen balls."

Johnson would pitch in 14 games in that first season in the Majors (12 of them were starts and 11 of those were complete games).  He would impress everyone immediately.  In 110 1/3 innings Walter would give up only 35 runs, only 23 of those were earned runs, and finish with an ERA of 1.88.  That translated into a record of 5-9.

The team behind Walter did not improve but Walter did.  He improved to 14-14 for 1908 and managed to lower his ERA to 1.65.  Injuries and a poor team in 1909 saw him pitch nearly 300 innings and hold opponents to 2.22 runs per nine innings but his record again failed to reflect his talent as he finished with a 13-25 record.

1910 was his true breakout season.  The team behind him certainly was no better but Walter just refused to allow the other team to hit the ball.  He pitched 370 innings, struck out 313 hitters and had a 1.36 ERA.  The numbers today would be unheard of.  He walked less than 90 batters, had a WHIP of 0.914 and won 25 games.  He also lost 17.  A pattern was forming in Walter's career.  He would often hold the opponents to one run and lose a game when his own team failed to score.

1911 continued the pattern.  Walter pitched as often as possible for the Nationals.  His new manager Jimmy McAleer had no interest in pitch counts, pitching rotations or saving the pitchers arm.  Cantillon had once used Walter in four straight games, all complete games, and McAleer had no intention of saving Walter either.  The Senators continued to be terrible and continued to use Walter without restraint.

1912 saw Walter dominate the league but lose attention as Smokey Joe Wood of the Red Sox had a season for the ages.  From July 3 through August 28th, Johnson won 16 straight games.  Today that would be a good season for a pitcher.  For Johnson, that was two months of the season.  While Johnson was winning, so was Wood.  Wood won 13 straight when the Senators and Johnson came into town.  Nationals new manager Clark Griffith personally challenged Wood to take on Johnson and told the nation that Wood was a coward if he didn't put his mark up against Johnson face to face.  Johnson pitched masterfully, allowing only 5 hits all game and walked only one.  Wood allowed six hits and walked three.  The Red Sox were allowed to push one run across and the Senators were not.  The final score was 1-0 and Wood tied Johnson's record of consecutive wins.  Walter would finish the season at 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA.

1913 would be even better with a 36-7 record and a 1.14 ERA.  Where most pitchers now would kill for a 20 win season with an ERA south of the 3.00 mark, Johnson was struggling along with a poor team behind him.  He continued to lose games he should have won if the offense supported him. His 36-7 record won him an MVP award as his dominance helped the lowly Senators reach the heights of second place, six and a half games behind the dominant A's of the $100,000 infield.

It seemed a never ending cycle.  Johnson pitched well.  The other team would score maybe one or two runs and his team scored none.  Johnson was likely frustrated, though his personality stopped him from expressing it publicly.  He thought he had found his way out after the 1914 season.  He was approached by the Chicago Whales of the newly formed Federal League and was offered a significant raise to join the rival league.  Johnson agreed.  Clark Griffith, the Senators owner, was outraged and terrified.  He already had an agreement with Johnson and if he lost Johnson he had no team.  Griffith reportedly approached Charles Comiskey for a loan.  Comiskey refused at first telling Griffith it was his problem and he should deal with it.  Nevermind, Griffith told him, it would be Comiskey's problem soon enough when Chicago fans started going to see Johnson pitch for the Whales instead of going to see Comiskey's White Sox.  Comiskey helped Griffith and Johnson stayed in the nation's capital.

America's Hero
While Walter continued to work hard he saw other teams reach the promised land.  Since he had entered the league he had seen the Tigers, A's, Red Sox, White Sox and even the Indians and Yankees reach the top while his Senators remained near the bottom, seldom competing.  That was starting to change as the country roared into the 1920's.  His reputation as the hard working, long suffering good guy was growing and the nation often read stories about how sad it was that the best pitcher in baseball played for such a lousy team.  That lousy team was beginning to improve.  They slowly started adding talented players like Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Ossie Bluege and Bucky Harris.

In 1924 Clark Griffith made the odd choice for a new manager when he named Harris as his manager.  Harris was considered far too young to manage but the fiery young Harris brought a fighting spirit to the team and when the Yankees suffered injuries and fell off the Senators did what no one thought possible.  They won.

The talented team behind Johnson were the underdogs as they faced the Giants in their fourth straight World Series.  As the series neared Johnson was over loaded with letters, telegrams, visits, phone calls and general shouts of well wishes.  He felt that everyone was counting on him to beat the Giants.  He started Game 1 and pitched 12 innings allowing 14 hits and 4 runs.  He struck out 12 Giants but his opponent, Art Nehf was just slightly better pitching 12 innings and allowing only 3 runs.  The Giants took a 1-0 series lead.  Johnson pitched again in Game 5, although he was not nearly as sharp.  He gave up 14 hits and six runs in a complete game effort but lost as the Giants took a 3-2 lead in the Series.  The Senators tied up the series in Game 6 but the talk of the sports world was the sad sight of Johnson losing two games.  It was expected that the Giants would take the final game and that Johnson would sit by watching it happen.  The two teams entered the 9th inning tied thanks to a bad hop ground ball that was said to have hit a pebble.  The story goes that the baseball gods could not stand to see Walter lose so they caused the ball to take the funny hop.Walter entered the game in the top of the 9th and the stadium was a bundle of nerves. If he won the reaction would be ecstasy.  If he lost it would be devastation. A one out triple in the 9th made it look like the end for Johnson but he worked out of it.  A lead off walk in the 10th made the fans squirm but a strikeout and double play ball saved the day.  A lead off single in the 11th again caused the crowd to stir but the Giants couldn't score.  It was like the bad old days when Johnson kept his team in the game as long as they could and his team failed to take advantage.  Another single led off the Giants 12th but Walter shut them down after that.  Now in his 4th inning of relief he was walking a tight rope that seemed to get thinner with each inning.  Finally, in the bottom of the 12th with the help of the baseball gods again, the Senators won on another bad hop single to third base.
The unthinkable had happened.  The Senators had won the World Series.

No longer the underdogs, the Senators entered 1925 with confidence and expectations.  Johnson was his usual spectacular self winning 20 games (20-7) for the 12th and final time in his career.  Now playing with confidence it was the opposition Pirates who were the underdogs.  The Senators took a 1-0 series lead when Johnson shut down the Bucs 4-1 in the first game allowing only 5 hits.  He was even better in Game 4, allowing six hits but winning 4-0 and the Senators took a 3-1 series lead.  Two straight losses tied the series at 3 games each leading to a Game 7 with Johnson on the mound.  The conditions were terrible.  The skies opened up and the field was a sloppy mess.  The fielders had trouble all game, which is reflected in the 3 Pirate errors and the 2 Senators errors.  Johnson allowed 15 hits.  Wheelbarrows of saw dust were applied to the mound to soak up the puddles.  Several times Johnson filled his hat with saw dust to soak up the rain and keep himself dry.  Nothing worked.  The Senators took a 6-3 lead and Commissioner Landis was ready to call the game early.  The Senators refused to take the easy way out and they kept playing.  In the end the Pirates came back beating Walter with five runs in the 7th and 8th.  It was a tough loss to take.

Walter Walks Away
Walter pitched for two more seasons after the World Series appearances.  The team was not as sharp as it had been in those years and with a healthy Ruth and Gehrig in New York the Yankees were really the dominant team.  Johnson's 1926 season was one of his worst.  He fell to 15-16 with a career high 3.63 ERA and the Senators fell to fourth.

Walter came back in 1927 to give it one more shot at the age of 39.  His speed had all but disappeared and his arm was finally worn out.  He pitched in only 15 games, went 5-6 and had a 5.10 ERA.

The Manager's Troubles

Walter retired after the 1927 season and had hopes of buying into a minor league franchise.  After failing to do so he finally accepted a position as manager of the Newark Bears of the International League.  The team had several players with Major League experience including Jim Bagby, formerly of the Indians and Jack Bentley, one of Johnson's opponents in the 1924 World Series.  Walter missed the opening of the season after the death of his sister and a bout with the flu. When he did return he dealt with angry veterans, bitter over their fall from grace.  The team finished with a losing record.  Walter would not be back in Newark the next year.

Instead  He replaced his old friend and manager Bucky Harris as the Senators manager for 1929.  The team still had talent but Johnson heard criticism that he was too lenient on the players and the team finished fifth.  Johnson was determined to improve for the next year and started to enforce discipline on the team.  His new assertive attitude led to a feud with star outfielder Goose Goslin who demanded a trade.  He was sent to the lowly Browns.  Despite the turmoil the team finished second in the league but never really challenged the great Philadelphia Athletics team.  The Athletics again dominated the league in 1931.  Johnson kept the Senators in the first division but they finished 18 games behind the Athletics in third place.  1932 was another third place finish but another season where the team was never really in the race.  The Nationals needed to make a change.  Although he had not done badly Johnson suffered and lost his job.

The Senators replaced Walter with another boy manager in Joe Cronin.  Walter was not out of a job for long.  He didn't start the year with a managing job but in June he got an unexpected visit from Billy Evans, former umpire and now Indians General Manger.  He replaced a former team mate and close friend Roger Peckinpaugh as manager of the Indians in mid June. The team had several talented players like Earl Averill, Wes Ferrell and Mel Harder, however, the rest of the team was not good.  They managed to finish at 75-76 in 4th place as the Senators, led by Joe Cronin and a returned Goose Goslin, won the American League.  The Indians added Sam Rice from the Senators, former teammate of Johnson's and one of his stars while he managed in Washington, and the Indians finished in third but they were 16 games behind Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin and the Tigers.

Cleveland sports fans are not known for their patience.  They expected a winner and expected it now.  They wouldn't get it.  On August 4th 1935 the team lost their third straight game.  Stuck in 5h place, 13.5 games out of first, Walter Johnson was let go as manager of the Indians and replaced with Indians legend Steve O'Neill. O'Neill had the team playing better and they finished in third but they were no where close to the Tigers in the first spot.

The Greatest Ever?
Johnson's managerial career ended in 1935 but the honors were not done coming in.  The first class of Hall of Fame players were elected in 1936.  Among them, the list of the greatest of the great, were three pitchers: Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.  Johnson was clearly a Hall of Famer but was he the best pitcher ever?

Johnson finished his career with 417 wins, second all time to Cy Young.  The next closest pitchers are Grover Cleveland Alexander and Christy Mathewson at 373 (44 games behind).  12 times in his career he won 20 or more games.  In seven of those years he won 25 or more and three of those years he won 30 or more.  In 5914 1/3 career innings, Johnson's ERA was 2.17.  He led the league in Wins five times, ERA  five times and strikeouts 12 times.  110 times he held the oppositions scoreless.  28 times in his career he held the opposition to two hits or less.  65 times his team lost without scoring while Johnson pitched.  26 times in his career he held the opposition to one run and lost 1-0.  Had he had even a decent offense behind him in his prime he could have won another 100 games.  Even more than that, the reason he is so beloved, was his attitude.  The humility and genuine nice guy, the darling of the sporting world, the lovable underdog.  With all the attention and idolatry he could have turned into Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.  Instead he remained the same nice guy from Kansas who loved his family and retired as King of the Pitchers.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Walter Johnson please check out
Ken Burns Baseball


Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Trains by Henry w. Thomas
The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Pugs, Players and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912
Inside the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the National Baseball Hall of Fame
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac by Baseball America

Because he won the most games all time (511) the Award for the best pitcher each year is named after Cy Young.  How many World Series titles did Cy Young win?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
The All Star Game was first played in 1933 with the AL winning the game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.  The AL won the first three games.  It has been played every year (with the exception of 1945 because of World War II).  For a few years there were two All Star Games a year.  Overall there have been a total of 85 All Star Games played.  Each league has traded long stretches of success.  There have been two ties in All Star Game History (1961 and 2002).  The National League has a slight advantage with 43 wins against the 40 wins of the American League.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Forgotten Great All Star Moments: 7/7/1964

The Major League All Star Game, for me, has always been special.  I realize that when I was growing up the win or loss technically meant nothing.  It didn't count in the standings.  I don't remember what the first year I was aware of the All Star Game was.  It was probably 1987 or 1988.  I remember catching bits of the game on TV as I flipped through my baseball cards.  I remember being astonished by the idea of having a team where Yankees played with Red Sox.  Dodgers played with Giants and they didn't punch each other on sight.

The first All Star Game I actually watched was 1989.  The pregame show had the "Bo Knows" commercials every five minutes, they were brand new at the time, and then Bo proved that he was worth all the hype.  He crushed a pitch off Rick Reuschel to dead center field.  That was followed by a Wade Boggs Home Run and the AL went on to win.

There was something special about the whole thing.  The NHL All Star game alters the game.  There is no defense, no checking and it usually turns into a scoring bonanza.  the NBA All Star game turns into a slam dunk contest.  The NFL Pro Bowl turns into flag football.  The MLB All Star Game is the only one that continues to keep the competitive edge despite the exhibition status.  The baseball mid summer classic has given us many classic moments, many of which get lost throughout the years.

Fifty years ago this week one of the best All Star Games took place but it is one that few still talk about.

The National League had not hosted an All Star Game in New York since 1949.  Things in the league had changed drastically since then.  The Braves, of Boston, were the defending National League champions that year.  The Giants still played at the Polo Grounds.  The Dodgers hosted the game at Ebbets Field and there was no team farther west than St.Louis.  Speaking of St. Louis, they still had the Cardinals and Browns at the time.

Now, in 1964, the two leagues got ready for a game in the brand new Shea Stadium.  As the teams entered the All Star break the National League was being led by the Phillies.  It was attributed more to the failure of the rest of the league, rather than to their success.  Koufax and Drysdale suffered early injuries.  The Cardinals were struggling to find their identity without Stan Musial, although they had picked up a young outfielder named Lou Brock who jump started their offense far beyond expectations.  The Reds were hanging around led by Frank Robinson.  The hosting team, the Mets, were sitting in the basement where everyone expected.

The American League was as big a mess as the National.  Everything was upside down.  The Yankees, the four time reigning AL Champs, were sitting in second, tied with the White Sox three games behind the Orioles.  How the hell were the Orioles in first?  No one could figure it out.  In 4th place was the Twins, seven games out.  The Yankees were struggling along, frustrated by injuries and lazy play.  They almost seemed to assume the team would win in the end.  Of course, with the Orioles on top it could be forgiven.  The Orioles had no real chance.

The National League All Star Squad had a great collection of talent starting: Roberto Clemente (RF, Pirates). Dick Groat (SS, Cardinals), Billy Williams (LF, Cubs). Willie Mays (CF, Giants), Orlando Cepeda (1B Giants), Ken Boyer (3B Cardinals), Joe Torre (C, Braves), Ron Hunt (2B Mets), Don Drysdale (P, Dodgers).  Ron Hunt represented the home team with pride in the starting lineup.  Although the Mets were in last it was not much of a surprise that they were represented in the starting lineup.  The bigger surprise is the lack of Phillies and Reds given their lead at the top of the standings.

The American League All Star squad had nothing to be ashamed of itself:  Jim Fregosi (SS, Angels), Tony Oliva (RF, Twins), Mickey Mantle (CF, Yankees), Harmon Killebrew (LF, Twins), Bob Allison (1B, Twins), Brooks Robinson (3B, Orioles) Bobby Richardson (2B, Yankees), Elston Howard (C, Yankees) Dean Chance (P, Angels).  Similar to the National League the surprise in looking at the starters is not the Yankees but more the lack of any White Sox representatives and the abundance of Twins and Angels.

The starting pitchers could not be more different. Drysdale was intense, focused, almost sinister on the mound.  He had playboy good looks but when he crossed those lines that smile turned to a scowl.  He had suffered some soreness in his shoulder and his partner in crime, Koufax, had missed significant time but Drysdale managed to compile an 11-7 record and had won five of his last seven decisions heading into the break.  Chance was the exact opposite.  A goofy, playful kid, he was the last person chosen in the Angels expansion draft with the resigned statement "We'll take a chance on Chance."  Chance entered the game with a 5-5 record and 4 saves.  The best part of his year was yet to come as he won15 of his 19 decisons after the break to finish the season at 20-9 and win the AL Cy Young.

After the introductions and the Star Spangled Banner were complete, Drysdale took his warm up pitches and prepared for the first special event game of Shea Stadium's history.  Drysdale seemed a bit off to start the game.  Fregosi singled to left and when Torre allowed a passed ball Fregosi advanced to Second.  When Oliva grounded back to Drysdale and Mantle struck out it looked like Drysdale might get out of the trouble he had made for himself.  If he relaxed a bit he did so a bit too soon.  Killebrew drove a pitch to left field for a single in front of Billy Williams and Fregosi came around to give the AL a 1-0 lead.  A wild pitch moved Killer to second but Allison struck out leaving his team mate standing.

For Dean Chance, staring down the top of the NL lineup must have been intimidating.  To start off with, Roberto Clemente was, well, he was Roberto Clemente.  Apparently for Chase it was no problem.  Strikeout number 1.  Clemente was a tough strike out with only 36 k's in 296 at bats to this point in the season.  Dick Groat was an even tougher strikeout.  He had struck out only 17 times in 321 at bats. Still no problem for Chance.  Groat was struck out victim number 2.  Chance then got Billy Williams to pop out to Fregosi and the AL took their lead to the second.

The two pitchers kept the bases mostly quiet through the next few innings.  The home town fans got some excitement when Ron Hunt singled in his first at bat to lead off the bottom of the third.  Drysdale was due up next but Willie Stargell pinch hit and grounded out, moving Hunt to second although he was stranded there.

The Phillies Jim Bunning replaced Drysdale on the mound.  Bunning, at 9-2, was a big reason the Phillies were at the top of the league.  He had even pitched a no hitter on father's day of 1964.  He got Mickey Mantle to start the 4th but Killebrew got his second single of the game.  After an Allison strikeout, Brooks Robinson singled Killebrew to second but Bunning worked his way out of trouble and the lead stayed at 1-0.

Dean Chance's night was done.  He was replaced by the Kansas City Athletics's John Wyatt.  Wyatt entered the game with a 5-4 record and 15 saves, but he had also blown four saves, including one in his final appearance before the All Star Break.  Casey Stengel may have wanted to look at that stat before he sent him in.  Billy Williams of the Cubs tied up the game with one swing.  Wyatt got Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda but Ken Boyer got Wyatt.  One of two Cardinals in the starting lineup, Boyer drove a ball to left field giving the NL the lead.

The All Star Game before the mid 2000's technically meant nothing but you couldn't convince the managers of that.  They gave their pre game speeches about trying to get everyone in the game but they wanted to win this thing.  There was still that hatred of "us vs them".  The rivalry left over from the start of the leagues.  Walter Alston started the chess match by replacing Joe Torre with Johnny Edwards of the Reds.  Bunning was still pitching and he got Elston Howard swinging.  Norm Siebern pinch hit for Wyatt and flew out to Mays and Fregosi struck out to end the inning.

When the AL took the field for the bottom of the 5th, Camilo Pascual took the mound.  He had started the year at 9-2 for the Twins but he lost his last four heading into the break.  Pascual started the inning easily getting Ron Hunt to ground out and pinch hitter Johnny Callison of the Phillies (pinch hitting for his team mate Bunning) popped to short.  Two quick outs.  Then Roberto Clemente singled to second.  Dick Groat followed with a double sending Clemente home and giving the NL a 3-1 lead.  Groat exited for Pinch Runner Leo Cardenas of the Reds.  Cardenas went no farther when Billy Williams grounded out.

Anyone keeping a scorecard at the game may have thrown up their hands and given up at this point.  Chris Short of the Phillies came in to pitch.  Cardenas stayed in the game at short and Callison replaced Clemente in right field.  Short was another big reason for the Phillies success.  He had allowed only three earned runs by the end of May and he had a 7-4 record.  With a three run lead a pitcher who rarely gave up runs should have an easy inning.  It started out easy enough.  Oliva struck out.  Mantle singled.  Killebrew followed with his third single of the night.  After Allison flew out to Mays the Orioles' Brooks Robinson stepped to the plate.  He was known for his defensive prowess.  He would win the World Series MVP in 1970 but his glove would pose for more pictures than he did.  Brooks drove a ball between Mays and Callison in right-center.  Alston may have wondered if Clemente could have gotten to it had he been in there.  No one got to this one.  The ball shot the gap and Robinson tore around the bases.  Mantle limped home followed by a lumbering Killebrew and Robinson had tied the game with a triple.  He was stranded but more than half way through the game everyone was starting over.

Pascual impressed the NL by getting Mays, Cepeda and Boyer in order in the 7th.  Turk Farrell was a veteran pitcher in his ninth major league season.  He was representing the Colt .45's and likely would have gotten consideration for a starting assignment.  He started the year at 10-1 and was now at 10-3 entering the game.  He faced Elston Howard to start the top of the 8th and hit Howard with the pitch.  With Pascual due up the AL sent up Rocky Colavito to pinch hit.  A veteran, Colavito had been a fan favorite wherever he went.  Fans in Cleveland were devastated when he was traded to the Tigers.  He was now representing the Athletics and he represented them well with a double to left-center.  With nearly anyone else running the AL may have taken the lead there.  Instead, the slower Howard was held at third.  Fregosi's sacrifice fly to Mays scored Howard and put the AL back on top.  Farrell was able to avoid further damage by getting Oliva to pop up and striking out Mickey Mantle.

The stadium took their little stretch time, sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and Tony Oliva was taken out of the ball game.  Colavito jogged out to right and Dick Radatz took the mound.  Pitching well for a poor Red Sox team Radatz was 8-4 and had saved 14 games.  This was a save situation so it was a good choice for the AL.  Radatz breezed through the bottom of the 7th easily.  Farrell remained on the mound for the 8th and retired Killebrew for the first time of the night.  Bob Allison walked to reach base for the first time that night and Joe Pepitone entered the game as a pinch runner.  The suddenly feared Brooks Robinson flew out to Mays.  Bobby Richardson singled Pepitone to second but the Yankee rally died when Elston Howard flew out to Mays.

The NL got ready for the 8th inning with the pitcher's spot due up.  First, the AL made some more switches.  Chuck Hinton, representing the new Senators, replaced Harmon Killebrew in right field representing the Twins (the old Senators).  Joe Pepitone stayed in the game at first.  Now the NL had to decide what to do about that pitcher's spot.  Bill White of the Cardinals pinch hit for Farrell and struck out.  So did Cardenas.  Billy Williams grounded out and the AL was just one inning from a victory.

Juan Marichal, the Dominican Dandy, of the Giants took the mound.  He used that high leg kick to get Colavito,  Fregosi (still in the game) and Dick Radatz allowed to hit for himself.  Manager Al Lopez allowed Radatz to hit despite having Bill Freehan and Al Kaline on the bench and Whitey Ford in the bullpen.  Radatz had already thrown two perfect innings but he was facing some of the best hitters in history with more great hitters on the bench.

Leading 4-3 Radatz needed just three outs to win the game.  He started poorly by walking Mays, who quickly stole second.  Cepeda popped a ball just over first base into right field.  Mays broke for third.  Pepitone sprinted back and fielded the ball as he, Richardson and Colavito converged.  Pepitone turned, assumed Mays was running and unleashed a wild throw home. Mays had stopped at third but Pepitone's throw bounced away from Howard.  Mays scored, sliding home in a cloud of dust,  and Cepeda advanced to second.  The save for Radatz was gone but the AL could still hang on and go to extras.  Curt Flood, the great talented Cardinals Centerfielder, came in to run for Cepeda. In just a few years the two would be teammates in St.Louis, now they were rivals in the middle of a temporary cease fire.  While Flood loosened up at second, his team mate Ken Boyer stepped in at the plate.  With the game now tied, Boyer could win it with a single swing.  Radatz got Boyer to pop out to third.  There was now one out.  Radatz walked Johnny Edwards intentionally  to set up a force while Ron Hunt, the home town hero, stood on deck.

How great would this be?  The Mets had so few chances to prove they belonged in this league.  This was their chance to prove they were part of this game.  The fans waited for Hunt to approach the plate.  The stadium was loud.  Instead, walking to the plate was Hank Aaron.  Aaron was having another great season.  Batting over .300, he had hit 12 Home Runs and 14 doubles.  He had driven in 45 runs.  His current teammates asked him to just drive in one more.  The fans wanted Hunt to get the glory but they would settle for an NL win.  Instead Aaron struck out for the second out.

The crowd deflated.  Radatz had blown four saves this season, and had blown another tonight, but he didn't lose games.  The hopes were not great.  Striding to the plate was Johnny Callison.  A Phillie?  Seriously?  We could have seen the home town team finally make their mark on the league but instead we have to rely on a damn Phillie?  Mets fans may not have had a lot to cheer about but the Phillies were the Mets before there was a Mets.  Radatz delivered the first pitch and Callison turned on the pitch.  The crowd turned and watched the ball.  It looked like it might go but Colavito was heading towards the wall.  The crowd was silent, leaning forward.  It was that short few moments that seem like hours.  Will it get over the fence?  Will it carry?  Will the fielder get there and jump to catch it?

The ball disappeared over the fence.  Flood and Edwards scored ahead of Callison and the entire National League was represented at the plate greeting the Phillies' star.  It gave the Philadelphia fans, the ones who were shocked to have the team at the top of the standings,  a good feeling about the rest of the year. Finally, the Phillies were the heroes.

Which league has won the most All Star Games?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Carl Furillo was known for his strong, accurate throwing arm, earning him the nickname the "Reading Rifle".  He ended his career with 151 outfield assists.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Outfield: Carl Furillo

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore one of the outfielders I chose for the series: Carl Furillo.

If you are just joining the blog don't miss the other players in the Players I Love More Than I Should series: Yogi BerraHank GreenbergJoe MorganCal Ripken, Frank "Home Run" Baker,  Frank Robinson and Larry Herndon.

Humble Beginnings:
The 1920's in the Reading, Pennsylvania area were not tremendous.  Although most of the country was running high on the "Roaring 20's" attitude of anything goes, the hub of the railroad was struggling.  With the creation of the automobile, the need for railroad transportation decreased.  As the automobile increased in popularity, the uses for the vehicle increased.  The railroad started to slowly suffer.  As the country went into prohibition, the city was kept from running dry by racketeer Tony Moran.  Moran kept the underground going with gambling, black market whiskey and women.  According to the Berks County Historical Society's website, Moran kept gambling dens and speakeasies at 529 Cherry Street as well as 529 Penn Street.  He must have had deep pockets because the Historical Society tells us that many speak easies were shut down but Moran never had a raid, despite being known city wide.

Five miles east of the city, in the suburb of Stony Creek Mills on March 8, 1922 Carl Furillo was born.  Baseball in the Reading area was a big deal.  The first minor league team started in Reading in 1919 as the Reading Coal Barons in the International League and finished 8th with a 51-93 record.  The team remained in the International League but continuously changed names.  They were called the Marines (1919), Aces (1921-1922), Keystones (1923-1932), Red Sox (1932-1935) and then minor league baseball disappeared from Reading for a few years.  Furillo's older brother Nick played on the Stony Creek baseball team while Carl, the adoring younger brother, was the bat boy.  By 1940 Furillo had shown that he was clearly the best player in the city and he was able to hook on with the Pocomoke City Chicks in Maryland.  Furillo hit .319 and played with future Dodgers team mate Gene Hermanski.

He also played for the Reading Chicks that year where he played all of 6 games and hit .320 (8-25 with no extra base hits).  The Dodgers bought into the rights of the Reading organization and in 1941 renamed the team the Reading Brooks.  The legend says that they only bought the team because of the air conditioned bus and Carl Furillo.  Furillo's team mate on the 1941 team would loom large in the history, although not as a player.  Al Campanis played 108 games for the team.  He would go on to spend decades in baseball front offices, including the Dodgers.   Furillo continued to impress as he hit .313 with 23 doubles, 16 triples and 10 Home Runs.  It was enough to get him promoted to the Dodgers' Montreal Royals team.  The Royals team would be filled with players moving up to the majors though only Stan Rojek and Alex Kampouris would have more than a cup of coffee.

Furillo planned to move up to the majors for the next year but instead he moved out to Europe. He was enlisted in the army, saw significant combat, was injured in combat but refused to accept the purple heart.  After three years with the military Furillo returned a much matured young man, ready to finish what he was so close to starting before he had left.

Breaking In:
Furillo went to spring training in 1946 and picked up where he left off.  Although he immediately took a dislike to his manager.  After an argument over salary and Durocher's misperception of Furillo's drinking habits the two got off on the wrong foot and never got back on track.  Furillo would play 117 games and hit only .286 for the year.  It was his defense that caught every one's attention.  Furillo played all three outfield positions and got attention for the strength of  his arm.  He fired the ball like a bullet from a rifle earning him the nickname "the Reading Rifle".  He even received a vote for MVP.  The team finished the regular season tied for first with the St. Louis Cardinals and had a two game playoff.  Furillo started the first game in Centerfield.  Furillo went 0-4 (though he did reach on an error in the second) as Joe Garagiola, Stan Musial and fellow Reading, PA native Whitey Kurowski took game 1 4-2.Game 2 went little better.  In the bottom of the 9th, trailing 8-1, the Dodgers made a late push to extend the season.  Furillo singled with a runner on 3rd and came around to score.  It was too little too late as the Dodgers lost 8-4.

The team would be drastically different the following year.  1947 would be the year of Jackie Robinson and would start with great turmoil.  A number of players signed a petition, led by Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe, asking the team not to bring Jackie to the Brooklyn team.  Higbe swore to the day he died that Furillo was one of the signers.  Just as adamant was Furillo who swore he never signed it. "We went to Havana for spring training, and one day when I was at the ball field, and I don't remember who it was anymore, whether it was Bragan or Dixie Howell, he said to me 'Furillo, what would you do if he came after your job?' And I wasn't thinking.  I just said 'I'd cut his legs off."  And the remark got in the papers, and before you know it, I was the guy in the middle."...I had made it and it was too late.  You couldn't retract it.  But I got along good with Jackie.  And I told Jackie about it. I said 'I'm sorry but I didn't mean it the way they put it."   Even more infuriating for Carl was the way he was portrayed in the Jackie Robinson Story film released. Although his name was not used, he felt that the Italian outfielder who protested against Jackie playing with the Dodgers was representative of him. The incident led to a new attitude from Furillo.  He became a loner in the Dodgers locker room.  He rarely associated with the other players.  "I didn't associate with any of them.  I lived in Flushing, and the rest of them lived in Brooklyn.  When the game was over, they went their way, and I went mine."  The Dodgers reached the World Series and Furillo had a great series.  He hit .353 with 2 doubles and 3 RBI.  It wasn't enough.  The Dodgers fell to the Yankees 4 games to 2.

The Dodgers fell off in 1948 but Furillo continued to improve. What did not improve was his relationship with Durocher.  His playing time diminished and when Durocher moved on to the Giants no one was happier than Furillo.

The Dodgers were building something special.  They already had players like Furillo, Reese and Robinson. They added to this Campanella, Hodges, and Duke Snider to build a National League powerhouse.  Year in and year out the Dodgers were on the top of the league and year in and year out they were losing to the Yankees in the World Series.  Furillo was a big part of that success.  He worked perfectly with Snider in Centerfield to patrol the outfield.  Local merchant Abe Stark had an advertisement in right field for years.  It was a target for opposing hitters.  The ad said "Hit sign, win suit".  Eventually Abe Stark gave Furillo a suit because his defense in the outfield had prevented Stark from ever having to give a hitter a suit.  He was a quiet, often sullen personality in the club house.  He got along fine with his team mates when he was in the locker room and on the field but he rarely socialized with them after the games.  He became known as "Skoonj" around the locker room because his favorite food was Scungili.

Campanella, Robinson, Snider and Reese would all make the Hall of Fame.  Hodges would become remembered forever for battling a terrible slump in the 1952 World Series and being the manager who led the Mets to respectability.  Branca would be remembered for giving up the Home Run to Bobby Thompson.  Even Cal Abrams, Sandy Amoros, Cookie Lavagetto and Al Gionfriddo would gain more notoriety.  With all of this Furillo somehow became the forgotten Dodger.  Every year he would hit near or above .300.  He won the 1953 batting title at .344.Every year he would work like a machine to keep the legendary Brooklyn teams in the pennant race.  Every year they would lose to the Yankees.  The Yankees-Dodgers October match up became an annual tradition

1947, 1949, 1952, 1953.   Every season the Yankees would win.  Furillo performed well most post seasons.   In 1947 the Dodgers lost in six games.  Furillo hit .353, scored 2, drove in 3 and walked three times.  1949 and 1952 were down series for him.  He  hit .125 and .174.  1953 was a six game battle and Furillo did everything he could to get past the now Mantle led Yankees.  Furillo had 8 hits (including 2 doubles and a Home Run), scored four runs, drove in four and had a .333 average for the series.

It seemed it would never change.  The 1955 series started as expected.  The Yankees won the first two games of the series.  The Dodgers came back and won the next three.  Furillo's offense and defense helped the Dodgers take a lead in the series.  The Yankees tied it up with a win in Game 6 and everyone expected 1955 to end the same way the other years did.  Furillo did not have a hit in the final game but his ground ball in the 4th moved Campanella to third where he scored easily on Gil Hodges's single.  In the 6th with Reese on second and Snider on first the Yankees chose to intentionally walk Furillo to load the bases.  By Furillo getting on base and moving Reese to third, the Dodgers were able to score the second and final run of the game giving them a 2-0 win and the first World Series Championship in the team's history.

If the Yankees-Dodgers match ups were tradition, the  Giants-Dodgers matchups were vicious.  "We hated them.  We just hated the uniforms." Furillo said.  "I hated Halloween.  There was too much orange and black." Duke Snider would say.  The hatred that many of the players had for Durocher (Jackie and Furillo mainly among them) and the bitterness Durocher had towards the Dodgers led to many an ugly scene.  Not the least of witch was the ugly brawl on the Game of the Week.  Furillo approached the plate and heard Durocher's voice from the Giants bench.  "Stick it in his ear."  The next pitch hit Carl on the wrist.  As he trotted down to first he looked into the Giants dugout.  By at least one account Durocher flipped off Furillo.  Others said Durocher motioned for Furillo to come and get him.  Whatever it was Furillo tore into the enemy dugout with fists flying.  In the chaos that followed Furillo had Durocher in a headlock and was apparently ready to kill.  It was said that Leo was turning purple.  As the story goes, Furillo's hand was stepped on in the skirmish and he broke his finger.  Furillo tells it differently.  According to Carl no one stepped on his finger.  Leo personally bent it backwards until it broke.

In 1958, after decades of fighting for the same city, the Dodgers and Giants decided to move west and fight over the same coastline.  Many of the Dodgers moved with the team including Snider, Reese, Hodges and Furillo.  The first year, playing in the bizarre dimensions of the Los Angeles Coliseum, Furillo performed admirably but the adjustment was difficult.  Koufax and Drysdale were still learning and Erskine and Newcombe were struggling with health issues.  The odd shape of the outfield led to greatly diminished power numbers for everyone (Snider hit only 15) but Furillo hit 18 Home Runs and led the team with 83 RBI.  It was not a successful season for the Dodgers but Furillo's performance earned him one MVP vote.  Jim Gilliam (4 votes) was the only other Dodger to receive votes.

The Downfall
The 1959 season was the first successful season for the Dodgers in Los Angeles.  It was a disaster for Furillo.  He had seen limited action when he entered the game on June 29.  He had only 58 at bats, 19 hits, 2 doubles and no Home Runs.  On June 29th Carl entered the game as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth.  The Dodgers trailed by a run and had runners on 2nd and 3rd.  Furillo hit a sacrifice fly to score the tying run, sending the game into extra innings.  In the bottom of the 11th Carl came to the plate with a runner on first.  He singled to right field and as he ran down the line he felt a pain in the back of his leg.  He had torn a calf muscle.  Furillo missed a month of the season but returned in time for the Dodgers to help the Dodgers in the final push for a pennant.  As the season ended the Dodgers tied with the Braves and had a best of three playoff to advance to the World Series.  The Dodgers won Game 1 but Furillo stayed on the bench.  With the Braves' star Lew Burdette on the mound for Game 2, runners on first and third with no out, and the Dodgers down a run, Furillo hit a sac fly to tie the game and send it into the 10th.  In the bottom of the 11th Furillo singled with a runner on first but was stranded there.  The Braves went in order in the top of the 12th riveting up the pressure exponentially.  Wally Moon and Stan Williams went down quickly in the Dodgers half of the 12th and it looked like the Braves might possibly stay alive for one more chance at bat.  If they could do so they would have Eddie Matthews and Hank Aaron coming up.  Instead, Gil Hodges walked and Joe Pignatano singled.  Furillo stepped in hoping to send the Dodgers to the World Series.  The Braves hoped the 38 year old would end the inning and extend their year.  He took the first pitch for a called strike.  He watched the second pitch for a ball.  On pitch three he fouled the ball off.  On the fourth pitch Furillo grounded the ball to shortstop and Braves fans breathed a sigh of relief, until the throw went wild and Hodges scored to send the Dodgers to the World Series.

The Dodgers faced the Go Go White Sox in the 1959 World Series.  The Sox ran away with the first game of the series with an 11-0 win.  The Dodgers tied it up in Game 2, although Carl had little to do with either game.    Game 3 went into the bottom of the 7th scoreless.  With two out and the bases loaded in the 7th Furillo pinch hit for Don Demeter.  His two run single gave the Dodgers the lead in the game and eventually the series as they won 3-1.  It was his only hit in 4 at bats in the series and it tipped the scale to the Dodgers as they won their first West Coast World Series.  It was not the best performance of the series as Chuck Essegian pinch hit two Home Runs and Larry Sherry won 2 games and saved 2 more.  It was the performance of the professional who knew his role in the team's success and did what was needed to win.

As the 1950's ended and the 1960's began the Dodgers had to find a way to transition the aging players to the younger products of the strong farm system.  Norm Larker replaced Gil Hodges at first base.  Maury Wills starred where Pee Wee Rees had formerly led.  In the outfield Ron Fairly, Willie Davis, Tommy Davis and Wally Moon started to push Furillo and Snider to the sidelines.  Although Snider still got significant playing time, the outfield was too crowded.  Furillo played in 8 games but by May 7 he was out of the rotation.  On May 17th he was released.

According to the Dodgers they offered  Furillo a chance to play in the minors or a few options to coach.  According Furillo he was never offered a job, only a minor league option.  Furillo asked to be allowed to find another team that was willing to take a chance.  This was refused.  Nearly a decade before Curt Flood, Furillo decided to fight the reserve clause.  He wrote a letter to Senator Estes Kefauver, known as a politician who fought for fair business practices and against monopolies.  Ultimately the appeal to Kefauver went nowhere.  Not until the end of the 1960's would another serious challenge be made to the reserve clause.  Furillo's claim for the rest of his life was that he had been blacklisted because of his attempt to challenge the reserve clause.

Furillo retired with 1910 hits, 324 doubles, 56 triples, 192 Home Runs, 895 Runs and 1085 RBI. His final career  average was .299.  His numbers are not amazingly eye popping.  They don't bring immediate comparisons to Ruth, Aaron, DiMaggio and Frank Robinson.  They do, however, compare nicely with some other Hall of Fame Players.  He should certainly have received more consideration for the Hall of Fame than he has.  Along with Furillo, Gil Hodges has been locked out of the Hall of Fame, though Hodges's reputation through the years has been much more protected.  Few teams have ever had the run of success that the 1940's-1950's Dodgers teams had.  The teams are heavily represented in the Hall of Fame with Snider, Campanella, Robinson and Reese.  The legend around the contributions of Branca, Erskine, Podres, Abrams, Gionfriddo and Amoros has grown over he years.  The one who has been lost in the shuffle is Carl Furillo.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Carl Furillo please check out

Ken Burns Baseball
Dodger Blue: The Championship Years
The Official World Series Film Collection


The Boys of Summer by Roger Khan
Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Ronald Rampersad
The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together by Michael Shapiro
Summer of '49 by David Halberstam
Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers by Peter Golenbock
I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson
Perfect: Don Laren's Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen by Lew Paper
Forever Blue: The Story of Walter O'Malley, Baseball's Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles by Michael D'Antonio
Carl Furillo: The Forgotten Dodger by Bill Ninfo
A Tale of Three Cities: The 1962 Baseball Season in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco by Steven Travers
Duke of Flatbush by Duke Snider
Baseball in Reading by Charles J. Adams III
Brooklyn Dodgers: The Last Great Pennant Drive,1957 by John R. Nordell, Jr
Bums No More: The Championshio Season of 1955 by Stewart Wolpin
The Perfect Yankee: The Incredible Story of the Greatest Miracle in Baseball History by Don Larsen with Mark Shaw

Carl Furillo earned the nickname "Reading Rifle" based on his home town of Reading, PA and his strong, accurate throwing arm.  How many career Outfield assists did Furillo have?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Larry Herndon played in three Post Season Series, a total of 10 games, and won two of them.  Herndon played in 2 games of the 1984 ALCS against the Royals and went 1-5 with a Home Run.  He played in all five games of the 1984 World Series against the Padres and went 5-15.  Herndon also played in three of the five games in the 1987 ALCS against the Twins and went 3-9.  This brings his total hits/at bats in the post season to 9-29 for a .333 career post season average.