Entering the 2008 All-Star break, Edinson Volquez – the just-turned-25-year-old Cincinnati right-hander armed with a lightning quick, hopping fastball, swiftly-veering slider, and seemingly-stopping- once-it-gets-to-home-plate- while-concurrently-screwing- down-to- below-the-knees changeup – had checked off the following “to do in the NL” items: he led in ERA (2.29), had the second-highest strikeouts/nine innings rate (9.90), owned the second-lowest OPS-against (.606), had struck out the third-most batters (126), and had earned the second-most wins (12). Over in the AL, about 834 miles away in Texas, displaying some of the Grand Canyon-vast talents that once dropped the mouths of scouts, Josh Hamilton was tied for third in home runs (21), placed second in total bases (218), and had driven in 95 runs – the fifth-highest total since 1933, when something called the All-Star break came into existence.
Before the 2008 season began, Edinson Volquez had made 17 big league starts (over three seasons), had allowed 111 hits in 80 innings, and had given up runs with enough abundant frequency to acquire a 7.20 ERA. Before Daisuke Matsuzaka threw his first pitch in Japan on March 25 to welcome in the new season, Josh Hamilton had played a total of 90 games in the Majors, and despite his promising rookie campaign with the Reds in 2007, most of us – colored by the saga of his past, yet hopeful of the promise just uncovered – still really didn’t know what to expect from the ridiculously talented yet troubled and somewhat unproven outfielder.
On December 21, 2007, Edinson Volquez – un unestablished pitcher with a wealthy arsenal and a healthy ERA – and Josh Hamilton – a five-tooled, once-in-lifetime-former prospect still finding his way after a viciously meandering journey with multiple stops in hell – were traded for one another. The transaction at the time did make news, but then again, any move by any of the ballcubs during the hot stove season receives its share of attention and deconstruction. Regardless of the amount of words aimed toward speculation, cost-benefit analysis or projecting future performance, no one could have imagined that the trade (and subsequent performances) would command so much of our attention and daily amazement throughout April, May and June.
In a way, trades resemble the hope, expectancy, and promise of spring training. (Baseball) life begins anew and the slate beams back at us: clean, polished, willing and ready to be etched and drawn upon. The outlooks and surroundings are similarly refreshed, and endless combinations of numbers stand excitedly by, waiting to align themselves in line scores, box scores, and encyclopedia pages. We never know what will happen following a trade, and the meshing of the hope with the resultant reality serves to always color what will transpire in the future. Challenge trades (Scott Rolen for fellow third baseman Troy Glaus), swapping prospects for established veterans during the pennant race (C.C. Sabathia for Matt LaPorta), multi-player exchanges to patch holes and eliminate redundancies (Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza for Delmon Young): trades come in all shapes and sizes and cause myriad permutations of subsequent success (or failure) cycles. The trade. The simple consideration of possibilities during the offseason stands as enough reason to claim the back pages of the sports tabloids, the acquisition of a star at the trade deadline generates a palpable energetic charge, and sometimes, a simple move from one city and franchise to another provides an instant impetus for the blossoming of stardom.
More than a half-century ago, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio stood as the nonpareils of their sport. DiMaggio – a stoic, graceful, magnetic presence – patrolled centerfield for a Yankee dynasty whose dance card seemingly always carried them deep into October. The only portion of the DiMaggio presence which remained imperfect was his choice of home ballpark, for the vast left centerfield, 460 feet away from home plate at its greatest distance, swallowed up countless fly balls which otherwise might have been home runs for the right-handed hitting Yankee Clipper. Williams – a lanky, brash, brilliantly adept scientist with the bat – stood in the shadow of Fenway’s Green Monster for the team that stood in the shadow of the Yankees. The only element of the Williams’ batting story that remained outside his masterful control was that the perfect home for his sweet swing resided approximately 215 miles to the southwest, in the home of DiMaggio. Fenway Park was made for the artful, scythe-like swing of DiMaggio, with the tantalizingly close Green Monster just a shade over 300 feet away from the plate; in turn, the short right field porch snuggled into the corner of Yankee Stadium, if once constructed for the Babe, presented a sweet and easily reachable destination for the Splendid Splinter.
With these two models of near perfection so easily perceived, one night, more than a half-century ago, a couple of executives – one from the Red Sox and another from the Yankees – under the influence of perhaps a number of drinks, decided to remedy this imperfection, and agreed to trade Williams for DiMaggio. Of course, they never consummated the trade: the next morning brought clear heads to both, and struck with the knowledge that the trade would unleash a fury of commentary regarding the corresponding departure and entrance of two baseball icons, the two dreamers decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Or so the story goes.
Baseball trades never end with the handshake. The litany of deals – some good, some bad, some disastrous, some golden – punctuate the baseball storyline each season and the breaks between campaigns. They live long after the fact, for each spurs another transaction, another need for a piece, another potential what if. Trades pull us in, for we all recognize the possibilities of the fresh start, and none of us are immune to the possibilities of what that fresh start can foster. For Josh Hamilton and Edinson Volquez, the results have been splendid – each commanded the stage for the better part of three months, each took an extra bow in the All-Star game following their first half performances, and each has displayed some of the illuminating talents that made a trade so desirable in the first place. On December 21, 2007, very few (if any) baseball fans could have imagined Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton could have inspired such magic. But as long as there are five-tooled outfielders and thunder-packed pitchers, trades will imprint their own stories on the game, and Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton will be someday be overshadowed by another game-altering exchange.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com and mlb.com for information that helped with this piece.
|Red Sox||Carl Yastrzemski||3419|
|Browns/Orioles||Cal Ripken, Jr.||3184|
|White Sox||Luke Appling||2749|
|Blue Jays||Tony Fernandez||1583|
The list above represents the career hit leaders for 26 current franchises (I am excluding the four most recent expansion clubs – the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, and Rays). 17 of the 26 players (the first 17 on the list above) have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and two more (Craig Biggio & Ivan Rodriguez) almost certainly will join the group once they are eligible. Of the remaining seven players (Pete Rose, Edgar Martinez, Ed Kranepool, Bert Campaneris, Tim Wallach, Tony Fernandez, & Garret Anderson), only one – Anderson – still dons the uniform of the team he represents at the top and has the daily opportunity to add to his franchise-leading mark.
Among active players still with their first team, Garret Anderson has been with his club for longer than any other player in the American League. On June 2, 1994, he suited up for the California Angels, batted third in the lineup, collected two singles in four at-bats, and made three putouts in left field. Not a volcanic debut, but then again, Garret Anderson has never been tied to words or phrases so explosive in nature. Instead, he has worked at his craft quietly, consistently, with an air of a worker bee fulfilling his duties and adding to the overall buzz attendant to a group with a singular goal and focus. Too often, we overlook players like Garret Anderson, for our attentions, exclamations, and even our ires are reserved for the men who dance and fret their way upon the center of the stage. Sometimes, moments magnified by circumstance and achievements brightened by context do not exist in a particular career. In these scenarios, the essential data points – the numbers – can provide a glimpse into a career and create flesh where previously one only perceived a skeleton.
Since 1871, 13,303 players have mustered at least one hit in the Majors. Garret Anderson has collected more safeties than all but 122 of those players. He once doubled 56 times in a season – only 12 times in the history of the game has a player had more. With 15 more two-baggers, he will reach a milestone (500 doubles) only attained by 47 other players. And finally, in Major League history, no player has ever come to bat as often (8399 plate appearances) with as few hit-by-pitches (six). In broad strokes, these are some of the markers that have defined and provided substance to Garret Anderson’s career. We can also dig a little deeper, and find other moments to color in the outlines provided above. In 2003, he won the Home Run Derby, started in left field for the American League in the Midsummer Classic, and was named MVP of the game in honor of his three hits (including a home run) and two RBI in the junior circuit’s 7-6 victory. In 1995, after hitting .321 and slugging .505, Anderson finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, losing out to Marty Cordova. He placed fourth in MVP voting in 2002 – the year he clubbed those 56 doubles and helped lead the Angels to their first-ever pennant and World Series title. In the third inning of Game 7 of that World Series, with the score knotted at one apiece, he laced a three-run double to right field and gave the Angels a lead they would never relinquish. While Anderson stood at second base and evenly clapped his a hands a few times, the stoic look – the same countenance he had worn in the batter’s box before his game-changing swing – remained, and the entire baseball world was given a glimpse into the ballplayer whose dedication to his craft and ability to drive a baseball has seemingly followed one long consistent path toward a place atop numerous categories in the Angels’ offensive leaderboards.
Among the thousands of players who have suited up for a Major League game, only 18 have spent their entire careers with one team and stuck around for at least 20 years. It appears that Anderson – now 36-years-old and in the final stages of his 15th season – will not join that group; nor does it seem likely that, as the injuries have increased and the playing time and the adeptness with the bat has diminished, he will string together enough hits to reach 3000 for his career. But flip through an Angels’ media guide, and his presence and legacy remains undeniable. From the California Angels to the Anaheim Angels to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Garret Anderson has been a constant. He started off wearing the classic home whites and road grays with “Angels” in red block lettering across the chest and a blue and red cap emblazoned with a connected ‘C’ and ‘A’, endured the pinstriped blue period featuring angel’s wings in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and was still hitting line drives when the classic, red-hued look returned just in time for the team to win the title. Garret Anderson has played more games, scored more runs, doubled more times, driven in more runs, and been on base more often than any other player in the 48-year history of the franchise. He joined the club when Mark Langston and Chuck Finley were the aces on a team that finished 20 games under .500; now, he stands as the patriarch on a club following the lead of pitchers like John Lackey, Joe Saunders, and Francisco Rodriguez toward the second-best record in the American League. In terms of Angels’ baseball, Garret Anderson has seemingly seen and experienced it all – the vagaries, disappointments and exaltations connected to virtually any baseball story and life. Through the roller-coaster ride, he has been as steady as they come – a ballplayer focused on the goal, a ballplayer even and accomplished, a ballplayer collecting knock after knock after knock until one day he stands atop the hit-list of the only franchise he has ever known.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.
In the ever-evolving storyline of baseball, the present not only adds additional layers to the horizon; it can also provide opportunities for us as fans to expand our understanding of the past and connect with the emotions, experiences, and perceptions of older generations. Within the present-day baseball universe, we can use the moments of today to better understand and appreciate those that came before our awakening; in such a contemplation, the intimate colors what may have been superficial, and the past can leap out of the vicarious to breathe and shout in a definable and very real manner.
In the late 1990’s, when Vladimir Guerrero brandished his powerful bat and arm and started a run that has seen him make eight All-Star teams in 10 seasons, one could joyfully watch Vlad – laser beam a throw to third, or connect with a fastball 12 inches off the plate and four inches from the ground and send that pitch bee-lining into a right centerfield gap, or even amble, with that awkward, up-and-down-halt of a man with pain from hips to ankles – and perhaps gain a sense of what it must have been like to follow Roberto Clemente on the diamond. On June 2, 1998, with the Brewers in Atlanta and with both teams sporting replica uniforms of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves, I witnessed Andruw Jones, in a baggy uniform, pant legs pulled high, striped stirrups in full display, glide toward right centerfield and at last minute, drop his arms and hands to his waist, and basket catch a deep drive with all of the practiced and feigned nonchalance of a 12-year boy on his bicycle pulling off stunts in front of a group of girls. In that moment, with the happiness of watching a beautiful play performed by a virtuoso of his craft, I understood what it must have been like to watch Willie Mays patrol centerfield in the Polo Grounds.
These glimpses spring up everywhere on the baseball field – we only have to keep our eyes open and our minds on the here and then. The exercise works best when we remain patient and passive in the dynamic, and allow the game and the small moments to develop and impinge themselves upon our internal baseball library. Once there, in the manner of a prospector searching for gold, the images are sifted through, considered, the unsubstantial are rejected (or at least placed to the side for later reconsideration), and the nuggets are revealed, celebrated, and happily deposited into a reserve for further examination and contemplation. For gold does lie at the end of this baseballed-rainbow endeavor. The resultant epiphanies and understandings allow us to see the beyond the static or poorly developed past – we become better equipped to converse with those who experienced the long-ago directly, we carry on dusty legacies, and we add another perspective to the evolving framework of our connection to the game.
As we carry into the last week of August and the pennant races are placed under the broiler, I have found myself whirling amidst a drawn-out drama of the present calling up the past. Since he was traded to Milwaukee on July 7, C.C. Sabathia has started nine games for the contending Brewers and won eight of them. He has completed five of the starts to take over the NL lead in complete games, has hurled two shutouts to tie for the league in that category**, and has compiled a sparkling, twinkling, showy 1.60 ERA. C.C. Sabathia’s name rests atop the list of players in baseball’s seasonal pennant race drama; his work on the mound has recalled those not so long ago days when starters often finished what they began, and his presence has energized a city and franchise that has been left off the playoff invitation list for more than a quarter-century. No matter how the last chapter finishes, Sabathia and his run will always remain a focal element in the story of the 2008 season and the trade deadline machinations that witnessed reloading, puzzle-fitting and chance-taking, and which left the baseball world in an excited state of wondering where all of this would lead.
In 1982, 26 years before Sabathia brought his prowess to Milwaukee, a similar deadline move made by the Brewers did indeed deliver the taste of October baseball to the club and its fans. On August 30, 1982, the Brewers sent cash and three players to be named later to Houston and secured the services of a right-handed future Hall of Famer named Don Sutton to assist them in their push for the American League East division title. Heading into September, Milwaukee was already in first place, four-and-a-half games in front of the Boston Red Sox. At the time, Sutton had won 13 games for the Astros, and had already accumulated 254 victories in his career. In his first start for his new team, Sutton pitched a complete game, but took the loss as the Brewers fell to the Indians in the second game of a doubleheader. Sutton would pitch a shutout in his next start against the Tigers, and then won his next two decisions as well. He was pitching about as well as the Brewers could have hoped, and his efforts helped the team maintain their lead in the East. And then the story got really interesting.
After Sutton received a no-decision in a Brewers’ win on September 29, the team lost their next game and finished the month holding onto a three-game lead. They had four games left to play, and as all four were coming against the second-place Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee only had to win one in the series to clinch their first-ever outright division title (they had made the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season by virtue of winning the nominal second-half of the season). But when Harvey’s Wallbangers were swept in a doubleheader on Friday, October 1, the lead was cut to one precious game. When they lost again on October 2, their once seemingly insurmountable lead had vanished and the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles settled in for what amounted to a one-game, winner-take-all playoff. Adding to the intrigue and hoopla of the final contest, the starting pitchers for the two teams were two men who faced one another (although they didn’t go head-to-head) 16 years earlier in the 1966 World Series. In this one-game-for-all-the-marbles, Don Sutton took the hill for the Brewers against Baltimore’s own future Hall of Fame right-hander, Jim Palmer. Entering the game, Palmer had won 263 games in the Majors; Sutton countered with 257. By the end of the game, Palmer’s total remained the same, Sutton’s increased by one, and the Milwaukee Brewers had won the American League East. Their quest had reached the final destination, thanks in large part to the man who jumped aboard their rollicking caravan for the September push.
C.C. Sabathia – in only two more starts – has already won twice as many games as Sutton in that magical pre-autumn run of 1982. With each start, the legend of the portly southpaw gains another volume and the Brewers move one step closer to a wish they have not fulfilled since Sabathia turned two years old. Sabathia is, of course, too young to remember Don Sutton coming to the team and providing the final piece in a heated pennant race. But each time he steps toward the mound and rubs up a ball, he walks in the same footsteps and conjures up the same feelings that Sutton created all those years ago. And for us? We get to sit back and enjoy the ride: for its immediacy, for its distillation of what always remains vital and pulsating within the game, and for its ability to remind or introduce us to a series of days long ago, when the Milwaukee Brewers flashed brilliantly in the middle of a pennant race and rode the splendid arm of an ace to the promised land.
**As of August 21, Sabathia actually is tied for both the National League AND American League lead in shutouts. Before taking his show to Milwaukee, Sabathia pitched a couple of gems: one against the A’s on
May 14, and then versus the Twins on June 10, and sits atop the junior circuit leaderboard with Roy Halladay, Matt Garza, James Shields, Jon Lester and Kevin Slowey.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.
Take Me Out
Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou Katie blew.
On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go,
To see a show but Miss Kate said,
“No, I’ll tell you what you can do.”
“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don’t care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.”
Of course, the above lines represent the first verse and chorus to baseball’s musical theme, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The song, whose lyrics were penned by Jack Norworth and whose music was composed by Albert Von Tilzer, was published in 1908 and has become as much of the ballpark experience as cheering and exhorting the home team, booing the visitors, and dipping one’s hand into a box or a bag to scoop out some crackerjack or peanuts in their shells. The allure of the game resides partly in the experience at the ballpark, in which the sights, the smells, the patterns of entering, sitting, standing and cheering, and the hopes for the heroes on the field follow a pattern whose templates were built more than a century ago. Katie Casey’s sensibilities and desires are not all that different from ours – perhaps she ignored a walk across town and a ticket to a show in order to watch a player from the Pittsburgh team hit a double on his way to leading the league; maybe she eschewed a dinner at a fine restaurant because Cleveland and their ace pitcher were playing the hometown team; conceivably, Katie Casey may have turned down her young suitor’s invitation in order to make her way through a turnstile and watch the first place Cubs take on the Giants in a game with postseason implications. In baseball, the past always sits in the adjacent seat, resides upon the infield dirt and within the outfield grass, and always maintains a presence in the affairs, acting as a sheet of tracing paper over the present accounts. In this scheme – this layering, juxtaposing, and building within – anniversaries stand out for their ability to instantly perform time traveling acts whereby the past connects and molds our understanding of the present and provides a formula for projecting toward the future. As part of the baseball story in 2008, we have celebrated the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The reinvestigation of how the song has colored our appreciation of baseball’s place inside the story of America and why the song is sung in nightly unison by thousands of fans can take us back: to our childhoods, to eras consigned to the history books and black and white films, to times of day baseball and twenty-five cent tickets, to the glorious moments and achievements that have all landscaped the national pastime’s terrain. And perhaps, through these celebrations we can rediscover why the game has clung so tightly to our souls and made each of us, at some point, easily turn down an invitation and happily head out to the old ball game. I’d like to think that a little part of Katie Casey resides in all of us who care for the game; so in honor of her exhortation and with respect to the importance of anniversaries in baseball, I have selected 10 themes – one from each eighth year in the 10 decades between the publishing of the song in 1908 and the present – that may have pulled Katie Casey toward a seat in ballpark. I hope you enjoy.
1908: Addie Joss versus Ed Walsh
On Friday, October 2, 1908, the Chicago White Sox came to Cleveland’s League Park to play a game that would place a large exclamation point on the American League pennant race. The White Sox entered the game in third place in the AL, but only one game behind the first-place Detroit Tigers. Between the Tigers and the Sox stood the Indians, only a half-game out of first. The White Sox hadn’t played since Monday, when they had swept a doubleheader against the Red Sox. On that same day, the Indians had taken two from the Philadelphia Athletics and then had beaten the A’s for a third straight day on the 30th. Each team was rested, and each team placed their hopes on this Friday in the more-than-capable right hands of their respective aces. For Chicago, spitballer Ed Walsh was on the mound. Up to this point in the season, Walsh had won 39 games and pitched over 400 innings. Walsh was putting the cap on his finest season in a Hall of Fame career that would see him retire with 195 wins and the lowest career earned run average in history (1.82). For the Naps (as they were called in 1908, in honor of their Hall of Fame player-manager Napoleon Lajoie), countered with a 28-year-old named Addie Joss, who was having the best year of his career. Although still young, Joss was in his next to last year in the Majors, and only two-and-a-half years away from dying tragically from tubercular meningitis two days after his 31st birthday. Joss would end his career with the second-lowest ERA of all-time, the lowest WHIP of all-time, and 160 victories in only nine seasons. On October 2, 1908, two of the greatest pitchers of their generation faced each other in the deepest and starkest pits of the pennant race – an hour-and-a-half after the first pitch, the encounter concluded and immediately was held for framing in a hall meant for the greatest games ever played. Ed Walsh served as the hard-luck loser in this affair; for although he allowed only four hits, a walk, and struck out 15 batters, he did allow a run. And that was too much. Joss bettered his opponent, for he didn’t allow any runs at all. Nor did he surrender a single base hit or walk. Instead, Addie Joss–in the refiner’s fire of a pennant race–pitched a perfect game. Joss’s masterpiece allowed Cleveland to remain a half-game behind the Tigers (who slipped by the St. Louis Browns by the score of 7-6) and pushed Chicago back a devastating two-and-a-half games off the pace. Still, neither team would pass the Tigers (who would go on to lose the World Series in five games to the Cubs); but for one late summer afternoon, perhaps the greatest pennant race in American League history witnessed the brilliance of two pitchers at the top of their game, dueling and creating magic.
1918: Walter Johnson
In 1907, a 19-year-old Walter Johnson made his debut for the Washington Senators. Johnson would start 12 games that season and finished with a 5-9 record (for a team that concluded the year 49-102, 43.5 games out of first place). Six years later, the 25-year-old Johnson put together his best season. In a year that stands among the greatest ever, Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA, allowed 232 hits in 346 innings pitched, threw 11 shutouts, and compiled a .780 WHIP, which until Pedro Martinez and his 2000 season, was the lowest ever (ever being since 1893, when the mound had been moved back to sixty feet, six inches). Johnson led the Majors in wins, ERA, and strikeouts that season–the first time he would accomplish the feat. Five years later, in 1918, he would do it again. By 1918, Johnson was 30 years and had already pitched 3474 innings in the Majors (that total alone would rank him 74th on the all-time list). 1918 stands out as a strange year on the baseball timeline–the season was shortened by around 20 or more games, Shoeless Joe Jackson played in only 17 games (he spent most of the season working in a shipyard as part of the war effort), and for the first time in the century, Christy Mathewson was not wearing a Major League uniform (Christy had left his managerial post with the Reds in order to accept a commission as a Major in the U.S. Army). But despite these undulations in and around the game, Walter Johnson was still dominating hitters in unique and inspiring fashion. In 1918, The Big Train again led the Majors in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, and became the first pitcher since the American League came on the scene in 1901 to twice lead the Majors in all three categories. The singular prospect of watching Walter Johnson ply his craft –reason enough to head out to the old ball game.
1928: Taylor Douthit
Taylor Douthit played in the Majors for 11 seasons, from 1923 to 1933; he patrolled the outfield for the Cardinals for his first eight-and-a-half years in the league, and then moved to Cincinnati and then to Chicago to conclude his career. In 1929 and 1930, he collected over 200 hits (not necessarily a remarkable accomplishment, since over the course of those two seasons, 39 batters reached the 200-hit plateau), he finished in the top-15 in MVP voting twice (in 1928 and 1929), and played in the Cardinals’ first three World Series appearances (in 1926, 1928, and 1930). Based on the evidence above, Taylor Douthit and his career appears less than remarkable, and certainly doesn’t stand tall in a line of moments or achievements pulling one to the ballpark. However, in 1928 Taylor Douthit accomplished a very special feat–one that hadn’t been done before and hasn’t been seriously challenged since. In 1928, Taylor Douthit – playing centerfield for the NL Pennant-winning Cardinals – accumulated 548 putouts. Before Douthit began his endeavor to cover every conceivable inch of the outfield territory that season, Baby Doll Jacobsen held the record for most putouts by an outfielder: he had recorded 488 in 1924. In the years following Douthit’s landmark performance, only four other outfielders have reached 500 putouts. Richie Ashburn did it on four separate occasions, and Dwayne Murphy, Chet Lemon, and Dom DiMaggio each did it once. But no one has matched the magical 548. Ralph Kiner once said, “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.” If she were watching any Cardinals’ games in 1928, Katie Casey could have said the same for Taylor Douthit.
1938: Bob Feller
By 1938, Bob Feller was beginning his third year in the Majors. And he still hadn’t finished his teenaged years. Feller burst upon the Major League scene in 1936 as a seventeen-year-old with an electric fastball – a jaw-dropping, velocity-packed thunderbolt kind of fastball – and a grin as bright and commanding as the high stalks of corn grown in his home state of Iowa. Bob Feller was the Natural. Bob Feller was a phenomenon. In his first Major League start, he struck out 15 – one shy of the AL record. Less than a month later, he tied the Major League record with 17 punchouts. As the 1938 season began, Feller already had 226 strikeouts and 15 wins under his teenage belt. He was averaging nine-and-a-half strikeouts per nine innings; over those two seasons, the strikeouts leader–Van Lingle Mungo–averaged less than seven strikeouts per nine innings. It’s hard to imagine that kind of talent springing from the middle of the country, bursting upon the American consciousness in a thrilling and unbelievable manner. But to me, Bob Feller was always about the indescribable, the unbelievable, and the irrepressible. 1938 would mark the first season Feller led the league in strikeouts (240). He would lead the league in the next six years he pitched. 1938 would mark the first time Feller finished in the top-10 in wins. He would go on to lead the league in his next five years in the Majors. In 1938, Feller pitched the first of his 12 one-hitters. He was elected to his first All-Star game. And then on October 2, 1938 (thirty years to the day after Addie Joss pitched his perfect game to beat Ed Walsh 1-0), the Indians and their star pitcher once again took center stage in a fascinating confluence of expectation and achievement. On October 2, 1938, Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians hosted Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers in the first game of a doubleheader that would close out the season. Neither team was embroiled in the pennant race, but there was still immense anticipation and edginess at the park that afternoon, for Hank Greenberg entered that final day with 58 home runs, just two shy of tying Babe Ruth for the most in a single-season in history. When the game had concluded, however, Feller was the one commanding the spotlight. With movie cameras rolling and thousands of fans packing the ballpark, Feller set a new Major League record with 18 strikeouts. Although he fanned twice, Greenberg went 3-3 with a walk against Feller (who walked seven in total that day to bring his season total to 208 – a new league record), and would finish the season stuck on 58 home runs (still tied for the fourth-highest amount in American League history – only Roger Maris in 1961 has hit as many since). By the finish of the 1938 season, Feller had 466 strikeouts in his career–the figure still stands as the greatest amount for any player through his teens.
1948: Gene Bearden
A decade after Feller, another Cleveland Indians pitcher stood atop the mound on the final day of the regular season and pitched his way into the history books. But that’s where the comparison ends. This 28-year-old rookie threw left-handed, utilized a knuckleball, and never quite matched the enormous success he achieved in the beginning. Gene Bearden led the AL in ERA in his first real season (he pitched a third of an inning the year before) in the Majors and won 20 games. His 20th came on the final day, in the first ever one-game playoff in American League history. On October 4, Gene Bearden and the Cleveland Indians met Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox in one game at Fenway Park to decide the AL Pennant. The Indians had won seven of their last ten to force the one-game playoff (either Feller or Bearden earned the win in all seven games), and then the 28-year-old rookie went out and shut down Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Vern Stephens and Dom DiMaggio to give the Indians the crown. The lefty knuckleballer pitched a five-hit shutout over the Boston Braves in the third game of the 1948 World Series, and then came on in relief of Bob Lemon in the sixth game to close out the series-clinching victory. Bearden would never approach those heights again and the Indians haven’t won a World Series since. But in 1948, Cleveland – with a pitching staff anchored by future Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, a potent offense led by a power-hitting outfielder named Larry Doby, a third baseman named Ken Keltner, and a 30-year-old player-manager named Lou Boudreau at shortstop, and of course, a nearing-thirty rookie knuckleballer named Gene Bearden – comprised perhaps the most compelling reason to buy a ticket to a ballgame.
1958: Ernie Banks
Before the 1955 season, the record for most home runs by a shortstop in a season was 39, set by Boston’s Vern Stephens in 1949. Then, in 1955 a young, wiry right-handed shortstop for the Chicago Cubs hit 44. Three years later, that same shortstop passed by the old standard and set a new record by knocking 47 balls out of the park. Since that season, only Alex Rodriguez has ever hit more homers as a shortstop. In fact, the 10 greatest single-season home run totals at the position are held by just two men: Alex Rodriguez and Ernie Banks. In his Hall of Fame career, 1958 stands out as the apex of what Ernie Banks could do on the ballfield. He produced career bests in hits, runs, triples, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. He played every single game for the Cubs that year, and then was named the MVP of the National League. And he did all of this for a team that finished ten games under .500 and 20 games out of first place. In 1958, Ernie Banks broke new ground as the first player ever from a losing team to win the MVP, and the following year he became the first player ever to win two NL MVP awards in a row. From 1955-1950, Mr. Cub hit the most home runs in baseball: more than Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or Frank Robinson. Ernie Banks – through his joy, abilities, and eye-popping power at the plate – provided all of the incentive needed to visit Wrigley Field or any other National League ballpark.
1968: Luis Tiant
When we discuss 1968, we immediately speak of Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA or Denny McLain’s 31 wins, or his teammate Mickey Lolich winning three games in the World Series. We might even mention Carl Yastrzemski’s .301 batting average to lead the American League as further evidence of the “Year of the Pitcher.” If one decides to dig a little deeper in the mountainous statistical record of the season, however, gems of all sizes and shapes can be unearthed. Luis Tiant’s remarkable performance lies at the forefront of such a exploration, for in 1968, this whirling dervish of a pitcher carved up hitters with an aplomb that reflected the arsenal at his disposal, the conditions in his favor, and the mastery with which he could combine the two elements. Luis Tiant compiled the lowest ERA in the American League in 1968: 1.60. He struck out more than a batter an inning that year, too. And he threw nine shutouts (again, the most in the AL). These numerical markers of achievement lead the explorer to conclude that indeed, Tiant stood among the top hurlers in baseball in 1968. This empirical evidence would also lead one to wonder (as Gibson’s statistical record leads the observer to ask), how in the heck did he manage to lose nine games that year (Tiant went 21-9 for the Cleveland Indians; Gibson went 22-9 for the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals). But the wins, the shutouts, the ERA, and the strikeout ratio do not, by themselves, place Tiant at the top of the totem pole. Seven different pitchers won 20 games in 1968. Seven moundsmen (who qualified for the ERA title) finished the season with an ERA below 2.00. 12 pitchers threw at least six shutouts. And 12 topped the 200-strikeout plateau. The particular achievement – exhibit A in Tiant’s amazing résumé – which elevates his season into the stratosphere and serves as the bolded, underlined, and exclamation-pointed offering of greatness is contained within a single number: 5.295. In 1968, Luis Tiant allowed 152 hits in 258-and-a-third innings pitched, which works out to a ratio of 5.295 hits per nine innings. None of the great hurlers from the deadball era ever proved so difficult to hit. Nor did Lefty Grove or Bob Feller. Sandy Koufax had never limited batters to such a minimal degree of success. In fact, no one, in the history of the Major Leagues, had ever produced a ratio as low as Luis Tiant’s 5.295 hits/9 (Nolan Ryan, in 1972, would break Tiant’s record, which still stands as the second lowest ever). In a season when pitchers dominated to a degree that had not been seen for decades, Luis Tiant dominated in a manner that had never been seen.
1978: Jim Rice
Much has been written, on both sides of the discussion, with regards to the legitimacy of Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame argument. For example, his supporters point toward the peak of achievement and his detractors counter with the claim that the numbers are inflated because of Rice’s home ballpark. Both sides hold valid points and evidence, creating a dynamic conflict that usually apexes sometime in the winter months toward the end of the year when the impending Hall of Fame election announcements spark the fires. In 1978, the projection of Jim Rice as a future Hall of Famer lay in a much more defined and conclusive area. If one were able to look inside the 1978 Major League baseball dictionary (or thesaurus) and thumb to the page with “scary,” an image of Rice – in the home whites, eyes locked onto the mound, bat upright, the slight crouch of the upper part of the body toward the plate – would be drawn upon the page. In 1978, Rice meshed all of that scariness into a ferocious offensive assault that witnessed him become the first AL player in 41 years to accumulate 400 total bases (no player in the junior circuit has done it since) and lead the league in triples and home runs, RBI and hits, slugging percentage and OPS. He played in all 163 games of the regular season (including the one-game playoff against the New York Yankees), served as a rock-steady element in the third-hole of the lineup, and exhibited a steadying influence on a team that experienced immense highs and abject lows in their roller-coaster season. Jim Rice may never get into the Hall of Fame. But his demeanor and excellence and downright scariness in his best season will always serve as a threading and boisterous chapter in the story of 1978.
1988: Kirby Puckett
If Jim Rice connoted fear and intimidation, Kirby Puckett symbolized joy – uninhibited, unrestrained, unabated joy. In a way, his 1988 season represents a way of inferring and understanding part of Kirby’s magnetism. Puckett hit .356 that season – good enough for second in the Majors – rapped out an unsurpassed 234 hits -and walked only 23 times (in 691 plate appearances). Between 1901 and 1936, seven batters had hit as high as .350 with less than 25 walks in a season in which they accumulated 502 plate appearances. After Gee Walker – an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers – did it in 1936, the club remained closed until Kirby burst – joyously – through the door in 1988. I think of Kirby’s approach as an extension of his personality: open to anything, welcoming, antsy and anxious to begin moving. Slicing drives to every open space on the field, chopping high bounders off the turf and then bowling down the first base line to beat out an infield hit, lacing doubles into gaps, and even popping out a fair number of home runs, Kirby Puckett performed as a machine-come-to-life: dependable, rhythmic, unceasing. And he did it all with a brilliant energy and joy, as if to say to each pitcher on the mound, “Toss whatever you’d like toward the plate. I’ll be happy to hit anything you’ve got.”
1998: The Atlanta Braves Pitching Staff
In 1998, offenses exploded. Two men tore past the previous record for home runs in a season, 13 different sluggers reached the 40-homer plateau and seven players drove in at least 140 runs. Undaunted, the starting pitchers from the Atlanta Braves stood fast against the rising tide and plied their craft with the same unceasing dedication to their art and adherence to their responsibilities. The three old standbys – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz – led the way. Greg Maddux pitched to a lower ERA (2.22) than any other starter in the game. Tom Glavine quietly and determinedly kept the powerful hitters off-balance enough to win 20 games and capture his second Cy Young. And John Smoltz led all of the Major Leagues with a .850 winning percentage (he went 17-2). With the pathways cleared and the lessons demonstrated, the lesser-known members of the Atlanta Braves’ starting staff followed suit. A 23-year-old righty named Kevin Millwood won another 17 games, and a 29-year-old lefthander named Denny Neagle chipped in with 16 victories. In all, the five starters accounted for 153 of the team’s 162 starts and 88 of the club’s 106 wins (83 percent). The big three finished in the top-four of Cy Young voting and top-six in ERA, and all five were among the top-13 in wins. More than likely, 1998 will always be remembered for the offense and focus on the home run. But in Atlanta, a group of five men bravely took upon all challenges and reminded us of the beauty inherent in the composition of a well-pitched game.
What would be inspiring Katie Casey this year? Would she have been drawn into the developing storyline of the Chicago Cubs seeking to end 99 years of World Series emptiness and celebrate the 100th Anniversary of their last Fall Classic title with another? Would she have been one of the 50,000 fans chanting Josh Hamilton’s name in Yankee Stadium on July 14 when he mesmerized the baseball world with his performance in the first round of the Home Run Derby? Would she be chuckling at the sight of a submarine-ing rookie right-hander for the Oakland Athletics inducing countless groundballs on his way to setting a new Major League record for consecutive scoreless innings to begin a career? Perhaps the resonant hasn’t bubbled to the surface yet. Sometimes, we must wait patiently for the context to unfold and un-layer itself so that we can appreciate the vital and ever-lasting. And sometimes, what speaks loud and clear to one of us remains quiet and unintelligible to others. In a way, that is why the ballpark experience remains fascinating and integral. For the conversations and visual compositions that speak are inherently intimate and require our attendance to be fulfilled. And when we do hand over our ticket, find our seat, yell for a bag of popcorn or a box of crackerjack, and root, root, root for the home team, we place ourselves within the scene and re-enact the lines in an unfolding drama that was first given life a century ago.
Since 1920, 450 Major League pitchers have started at least 100 games and pitched at least 1600 innings. Of those 450, 14 have a career ERA less than three. The 14 represent an interesting assortment of names and stories. The old standbys, the inner-circle Hall of Famers, are well represented: Bob Gibson (career ERA of 2.91), Tom Seaver (2.86), Sandy Koufax (2.76), Juan Marichal (2.89) and Whitey Ford (with a 2.75 ERA, the lowest of anyone on the list) stand out, like they always do. Another baseball god – Carl Hubbell (2.98) – represents the twenties and thirties and his inclusion in the club reinforces his mastery, for he did it in an offensive era and in a league when Hack Wilson, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein and a host of other NL sluggers were tattooing balls with a ferocity that hadn’t been since the middle 1890’s. Like Hubbell, Pedro Martinez (2.86) has compiled an ERA below three for his career, and like that master of the screwball, Pedro shines a little brighter for this achievement; for he has accomplished this in an age where batters have swung their lumber with a decided advantage in the ever-oscillating struggle for balance between pitcher and hitter. There are a couple of forgotten names on this list, too. Mort Cooper (2.97) and Harry Brecheen (2.92) pitched primarily in the 1940’s and their magnificent (if short) careers seem to have been shelved in the back corners where little light ever reaches. Three others on the list seem to be better remembered for another element of their baseball lives: Don Drysdale (2.95) pitched in the shadow of his teammate Sandy Koufax, and was branded by his exceptional and record-breaking run of 582/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968; when we think of Andy Messersmith (2.86), the first moment that bows to the audience occurred in 1975 when he challenged the reserve clause, played the season without a contract, and effectively made himself a free agent; Dean Chance (2.92) won the Cy Young Award in 1964 when he was 23 (if not for Chance, perhaps Sandy Koufax would have won the award in four straight seasons), never reached those heights again, and never looked in on the target once he received the sign from the catcher. The 13th member seems forgotten for another reason: Mel Stottlemyre (2.97) had the misfortune of pitching for the Yankees during their only real World Series drought between 1921 and 1982 (although Mel did pitch in the 1964 World Series, beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Game 2 and then lost to same in Game 7). Despite the team’s pedestrian (for them) .510 winning percentage over his 11 seasons, Stottlemyre won at least 20 games on three separate occasions and of course, finished with an ERA below three.
The final member of this group pitched for the Baltimore Orioles for 19 seasons. Over the course of those 19 years in the black, orange, and white, the right-hander accumulated 268 wins (with eight 20-win seasons), won three Cy Young Awards, hurled 53 shutouts, never allowed a grand slam*, and hung ‘em up with a career 2.86 ERA: the same as Pedro (as of today), Messersmith and Seaver. Jim Palmer connected three eras of Baltimore baseball and holds the distinction of being the only player to appear in every Orioles World Series. In 1966, a 20-year-old Palmer – wearing gray flannels and a hat adorned with the head and face of a smiling Oriole with its own cap – faced off against Sandy Koufax (in his final season in the Majors) in Game 2 of the Fall Classic and beat the Dodgers 6-0 with a four-hit shutout. 17 years later, the uniform had changed: from the traditional flannels to the double-knits, from a cap in black with an orange brim to a pinwheel-like black and white shell with orange brim. But the bird was still there, and so was Palmer. The same fluid delivery with the same high leg kick, the same concentration, the same savvy. And if the stuff had slowed and had become less packed with voltage, the results still saw a “W’ next to Palmer’s name in an October box score. In Game 3 of the 1983 World Series, Jim Palmer pitched two shutout innings in relief and walked away with his fourth (and final) World Series victory; in doing so, he became the only pitcher in the history of the Fall Classic to win a game in three different decades.
Jim Palmer represents an era of Orioles baseball that has grown in significance and esteem with each passing year. He represents one third of a mantra that became synonymous with “The Oriole Way”: pitching, defense, and three-run home run. He offers a link between Mr. Oriole (Brooks Robinson) and The Iron Man (Cal Ripken, Jr.). He played with a Rookie of the Year in 1965 (Curt Blefary) and another in 1977 (Eddie Murray). He won a World Series with three different managers: Hank Bauer in 1966, Earl Weaver (his foil) in 1970, and Joe Altobelli in 1983. Palmer pitched alongside nine other 20-game winners, four different 30-home run hitters, three MVP’s, and seven different Gold Glove winners (and also won four straight Gold Gloves himself). Pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.
From 1966-1983, the Baltimore Orioles adhered to a dominating philosophy that provided a secure foundation and pushed the club toward a remarkable consistency on the ballfield. In those 18 years, they won 1668 games and posted a .588 winning percentage – both tops in the Majors during that span. They won three World Series, six pennants, and finished first in their division (or league) eight times. They accomplished most of this under the leadership of Earl Weaver – the diminutive, fiery, brilliant manager who acted as the master architect and choreographer in a grand display of baseball ballet. Pitching, defense, and the three-run home run: the essential qualities – practiced, refined, elevated – that harvested wonderful and compelling successes and brought a litany of resonant ballplayers to the center of the stage.
Sometimes, certain teams leap out from their era and the game to claim their own unique acreage in the baseball kingdom. Almost seven decades before Palmer and the rest of the Orioles began their ascension, another Baltimore club captured pennants and acclaim for their unique brand of baseball. The 1890’s Baltimore Orioles of the National League – led by brilliant baseball men such as John McGraw, Ned Hanlon, Wee Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson – fought, scrapped, cheated, and innovated their way to the top of the league. They redefined, reinterpreted and remodeled baseball in a captivating manner and still serve as symbols of all that was good and bad in the game in the final decade of the 19th century. Four decades later, the Gashouse Gang and their cast of characters – Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Pepper Martin, Ripper Collins, Ducky Medwick – colored Depression-Era baseball with an outlook and feistiness that, in retrospect, seems perfectly tailored to the conditions and sensibilities of a country grappling with financial devastation and a bleak outlook for improvement. The Baltimore Orioles from 1966-1983 own a platform in this terrain. Through a compendium of alterations in the game, through a trio of field generals, through their reliance on and dedication to a fundamental and ingrained philosophy, they won. The cast of characters on the field changed now and then, but smooth transitions – fostered by the guiding precepts – enabled the club to maintain their supremacy . When Boog Powell drifted off, Eddie Murray soon rose up and made first base his own. After Mark Belanger retired with eight Gold Gloves, Cal Ripken, Jr. emerged and helped revolutionize the shortstop position. When Paul Blair could no longer roam centerfield with his poetry and grace, Al Bumbry wrote his own storylines in the outfield at Me
morial Stadium. The two Robinsons – Frank and Brooks – although irreplaceable, were succeeded by a host of players like Ken Singleton, Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces who could bring their own invaluable talents to the club. From Cueller and Dobson and McNally to Martinez and Flanagan and McGregor, the pitching staffs changed faces and arsenals but maintained a degree of balance and aptitude rarely seen in the history of the game. And through it all, Jim Palmer took in a sign, reared back on his right leg, kicked his left leg out high, and delivered pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch.
Most franchises can point to their club Hall of Fames, statues outside the ballparks, or retired numbers on or beyond outfield walls to showcase the best and most celebrated performers who wore their colors. Ballplayers are elevated for numerous reasons: the statistics serve as the foundation and underlie the other elements that lend vibrancy to the overall picture. Often, these special ballplayers become synonymous with the franchise itself. Ernie Banks and the Cubs. George Brett and the Royals. Tony Gwynn and the Padres. Craig Biggio and the Astros. Robin Yount and the Brewers. The uniform and the player mesh characteristics and memories and create a bouillabaisse of images that speak to the fanbase in deeply personal phrases. More than the replica pennants on a façade or banners waving in the wind, the players frame a franchise – they author the moments and memories and create the imprints. Jim Palmer pitched 3948 innings for the Baltimore Orioles. In addition to being one of the 14 starters since 1920 to own a career ERA less than 3.00, he stands at or near the top of virtually every important pitching category in club history. He is more than just a brilliant pitcher who stills stands as one the greatest of his generation; he represents a team and an ideal of baseball – an ideal centered in Baltimore and summarized by the beautiful refrain, pitching, defense, and the three-run home run.
* In his career, Palmer pitched to 213 batters with the bases loaded. In those situations, he held the opposition to a .196/.230/.234/.464 line, with a mere six extra-base hits, and of course, no home runs.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.
If asked, how would you capture the essence of a Hall of Fame baseball life? If told you had a limit of 50 words to immortalize and stamp Stan Musial’s career, for example, what would you say? What numbers would you select? What achievements or moments would you focus upon? Some time over the past six months, these questions have been pondered and answered for the 2008 Hall of Fame Class: Goose Gossage, Dick Williams, Billy Southworth, Bowie Kuhn, Walter O’Malley, and Barney Dreyfuss. The question can be difficult, for there are myriad ingredients that mix and blend into a legendary career or place in baseball history. Some players become securely attached to a singular number: Hank Aaron and 755; Lou Gehrig and 2130; Ted Williams and .406; Cy Young and 511. Others rest their foundation on a singular moment: Bill Mazeroski’s bottom of the ninth home run in game seven of the 1960 World Series that enabled the Pirates to vanquish the mighty Yankees; Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in the 1905 World Series; Carl Hubbell’s five straight strikeouts of five future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All-Star Game, Carlton Fisk’s arm-directed pleading for his ball to stay fair in the 1975 World Series. Others don’t have a unique moment or number to serve as the beacon: Don Sutton employed an amazing consistency and remarkable durability on his way to 324 wins: 20 straight seasons of 200 innings pitched, Sutton reached double-digits in wins in 21 of his 23 years; Eddie Murray would churn out home runs and RBI like clockwork, each year looking amazingly like the one previous, no particular season leaping to the forefront: yet, when all was said and done, Murray placed himself alongside Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as only the third player in history to accumulate 3000 hits and 500 home runs. Still, any exercise in which we try to extract the heart and soul of a Hall of Fame career cannot rest solely on any one of these elements alone. Lou Gehrig’s true story lies beyond the 2130 straight games; Hank Aaron’s puzzle contains countless pieces, Christy Mathewson’s extraordinary time in the Majors begins before and continues long after his 1905 World Series performance, and to truly understand what Don Sutton or Eddie Murray meant to the game, particular moments can be placed under the microscope for examination and celebration.
The greatness lies in the stories and memories that surround the special ballplayers – those dictionary definitions and encyclopedia images that seek to add breadth to the statistical foundations. In those stories and images, we can gain perspective and add context, and a ballplayer can leap from the page and take on thickening dimension. A story from Dock Ellis on what is was like to watch Bill Mazeroski receive a throw from Gene Alley and turn the pivot on a double play transforms Maz from a Goliath-slaying David into something fuller and more appreciable. Ted Williams’ magical run and attainment of a .400 batting average expands in the mythology when we look into the final day of the season, when he played in a doubleheader in Philadelphia and collected six hits in eight at-bats to speed by .400 and park at .406. Carl Hubbell’s mastery of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin on July 10, 1934 retains a degree of the mystical until we seek to learn about his screwball and we hear the story of Lou Gehrig muttering to Foxx after the Iron Horse struck out, “You might as well cut away. It won’t get any higher. That guy won’t give you anything to hit.”
Of course, a Hall of Fame plaque cannot meander through these trails – in its outline of the ballplayer’s career, the words must draw out the core and proclaim the essential. For the plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame serve as abstracts: sketches that introduce, bow, and then (hoping we will follow) turn to begin the journey toward deeper understanding and appreciation. The plaques and their words are invitations to the millions of people who pass by every year: inducements to seek other sources of stories and images that bring our baseball heroes to life.
Later this week, I will be traveling to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. For two days, I will have the privilege of sitting down with some of the Hall of Famers and listening to their stories. No matter what tales are told, what memories are awakened, or what moments are recalled, the game’s history will be brought back to life. I will sit there with a widening smile, and with each phrase, sentence, and storyline, the plaques in my mind will expand and take on a more discernible texture and a deeper substance. But there are other sources available for those of you who aren’t so lucky. Five books sit in my library at home: they are smudged with fingerprints, roughed at the edges, and their dust jackets are holding on for dear life, but the contents remain vibrant and clear. These five books – oral Histories compiled and edited by Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig – bring the game’s history to life. I heartily recommend any and all of them to anyone who has ever looked at a Hall of Fame plaque and wondered about the stories that are not mentioned.
Ted Williams once said, “They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays.” More than any sentence, any statistic, or any phrase etched on his plaque in Cooperstown, this statement outlines the substance of Mays and captures his essence so perfectly as to render all of the numbers accrued over the 22-year career as mere accessories to the historical storyline. More than the Polo Grounds, Seals Stadium, Candlestick Park or Shea Stadium, I think of the All-Star game as the truest and most definitive home for The Say Hey Kid. Willie Mays manned the biggest and most eye-catching booth in a traveling carnival known as the Midsummer Classic on 24 separate occasions, and hit, ran and slid his way beyond the imaginations of the thousands of fans who saw his star take center stage and command the brightest spotlight among a troupe of iconic ballplayers. The All-Star game indeed was made for talents like Willie Mays, for on one special day each summer, this baseball genius found a singular home for the expression of the exceptional, the magical, and the everlasting. In ballparks, stadiums, and fields, the Giants’ centerfielder settled into whatever city was lucky enough to host his abilities, and left behind an encyclopedia of images, memories, oohs, and aahs which comprised a collective experience known as watching Willie Mays.
The Midsummer Classic, like Opening Day or the postseason, offers a concise and impressionable tablet onto which baseball etches its storyline. Once a year, the game’s best challenge each other and measure themselves against their peers – the results can often carry on in our memories and mythologies in a manner that sometimes subtly and sometimes directly encapsulates the past and present. Pedro Martinez’ performance in the 1999 All-Star game, in which he struck out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire in succession to begin the game lies beside Carl Hubbell’s mastery in the 1934 Midsummer Classic, when he struck out five future Hall of Famers – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin – in a row. Just this past week, Josh Hamilton capped a fairytale first half with his jaw-dropping display in the Home Run Derby. With home plate in Yankee Stadium his stage, with 50,000 fans on their feet chanting his name, Hamilton rocketed and moon-shot ball after ball into the upper deck, into the black seats in center, and even flirted with that Holy Grail of home run hitting – knocking one completely out of the stadium. Hamilton’s turn under the spotlight made me think back to the All-Star game in 1941, when another left-handed batter with prodigious talents symbolized an iconic season with a single swing of the bat. That year in Detroit, Ted Williams won the game with a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth. For Williams, whose two-for-four-day was not a part of his .406 batting average in 1941, that home run always stood at the apex of his accomplishments on the ballfield.
Reggie Jackson hitting the transformer in the 1971 game and Bo Jackson going way beyond yard off Rick Reuschel in 1989. Curt Schilling daring Alex Rodriguez to try and hit three fastballs in 2002 and Ted Williams swatting Rip Sewell’s eephus pitch into the stands in 1946. A 1-0 game in the year of the pitcher in 1968 (in which the only run was scored by Willie Mays, who led off the game with a single), and a 13-8 slugfest at Coors Field in 1998. Hank Blalock’s two-run home run against a previously untouchable Eric Gagne in 2003 (it was Gagne’s only blown save the entire year). Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All-Star history in 1933. The 1934 game in which 17 of the 18 starters eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame (Wally Berger is the only outsider). Terry Steinbach – hitting .217 in the first half of the season – winning the MVP in the 1988 game with a two-run home run that accounted for all the AL scoring in their victory. Each moment stands alone in our All-Star scrapbook, while also claiming a place as an important block in the ever-expanding timeline of baseball. The All-Star game serves as a microscope, into which we peer, examine, and celebrate the nuances and elements that separate good from the great.
As a space in which to shape, witness, and impact an amazing tableau of achievement, Yankee Stadium has stood atop the baseball mountain for the better part of nine decades. Yankee Stadium is the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, and Washington Monument rolled into one. People come to its gates to sit atop the baseball world – always cognizant of what has played out on the field in the past; and always hoping to witness one more iconic moment. Few have ever walked away disappointed.
The iconic and the grand – Babe Ruth christening the Stadium with a home run on April 18, 1923, Lou Gehrig’s speech on July 4, 1939, the perfect games twirled by Don Larsen, David Wells, and David Cone, two ninth-inning, game-tying home runs on two consecutive World Series nights in 2001, Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961, Mickey Mantle Day in 1969, All-Star games in 1939, 1960, 1977 and 2007 – have permanently lifted the ballpark to a singular position in the national pastime. But the intimate has also thickened the space with ghosts, constricting the vastness of Yankee Stadium to a deeply personal set of diary pages. We all have our own moments at the Stadium: the small gestures, accomplishments, connections and performances that have melded and contrasted to construct innumerable homes that we each call our own. These are the elements that give life to any ballpark, for the ghosts have no animation without our memories or stories. The ballpark holds onto each and every one of our recollections – protecting, burnishing, storing safely until we sit down in a seat, look out to the field, and say, “I remember when.”
On September 26, 1981, in the bottom of the ninth inning of an Orioles-Yankees game on a Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, a pinch-hitter walked to the plate. The Yankees, trailing 4-3, had the tying run on second and the winning run on first with one out. The pinch-hitter on this early fall afternoon strode to the plate, heard the volley of cheers cascading down from the nearly 31,000 fans in the seats, and took his place in the left-handed side of the batter’s box. The pinch-hitter had been in this spot many times before, and was accustomed to being the epicenter of great expectations and hopes. 16 years earlier, the pinch-hitter had made his debut for the New York Yankees against the Washington Senators. On that day, he was a 19-year-old shortstop from Oklahoma whose hometown, powerful left-handed swing and original position on the diamond necessitated comparisons to a baseball legend, Mickey Mantle. Although the 19-year-old never did match the career of Mantle, he carved out a memorable and long-lasting entry of his own. For a time, when the Yankees were suffering their worst World Series drought since their first pennant in 1921, Bobby Murcer gave fans a reason to hand a ticket over, walk through a turnstile, and take a seat at Yankee Stadium: three consecutive Top-10 MVP finishes from 1971-1973, five straight All-Star berths from 1971-1975, a Gold Glove in 1972, a few positions atop the leaderboards in various categories, the most runs driven in and scored in the AL from 1971-1974. Bobby Murcer also provided a link – he had not only been compared to Mickey Mantle, Murcer had played with him, and had eventually taken Mantle’s spot in centerfield. And so the legacy continued – from DiMaggio to Mantle to Murcer. And if that connection was interrupted by a trade to San Francisco after the 1974 season (Murcer was traded for Bobby Bonds, who had come to the big leagues saddled with comparisons to that other centerfielding legend, Willie Mays), the separation and eventual return in 1979 only reaffirmed
how much Bobby Murcer meant – as both ballplayer and symbol – to the franchise and to the fans who had grown up with tales of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle.
On September 26, 1981, with the crispness of autumn issuing a soft reminder of what was to come, I sat and watched pinch-hitter Bobby Murcer walk to the plate. Whatever chants Murcer was hearing were drowned out by a singular voice to my right. For above my right shoulder, my mother stood, hands clasped in front of her, smiling, intoning “BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby……(pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby…… (pause)……. BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby.” And then, somewhere in the moment between a pause and the intake of more air, Bobby Murcer swung and hit a ball into seats in right field to win the game.
As I watched Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller, Willie Mays, and all of the other Hall of Famers standing at their positions before this year’s All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, I thought about Bobby Murcer for a moment. Once upon a time, scouts, fans and writers saw this lefty from Oklahoma and felt enough excitement and hope to compare him to Mickey Mantle. Other comparisons to Mantle had been heard the night before the All-Star game, when Josh Hamilton stood into the left-handed batter’s box during the Home Run Derby and launched majestic home runs to very part of Yankee Stadium. And then when four Yankee legends – Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra, Goose Gossage, and Whitey Ford – took their baseballs from George Steinbrenner and made their graceful and deeply personal gestures of a hug or a kiss on the cheek, I again thought of Bobby Murcer and all the deeply personal images I have witnessed at the Stadium. Don Mattingly walking from third to first after the last out in the bottom of the third inning on September 23, 1995, when the fans rose as one and gave him a standing ovation for everything that he had represented; a chant – in order to express all of those same sentiments – for Paul O’Neill in Game Five of the 2001 World Series; Tom Seaver retiring Don Baylor on August 4, 1985 to record the final out in his 300th win; Bernie Williams crushing Randy Myers’ flat slider in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS; sitting with a friend down the left field line and watching Andy Pettitte beat the Orioles in a prelude to his wonderful 2003 playoff run; taking my own personal walk through Monument Park to gaze at the plaques. And of course, listening to my mother chanting BobbyBobbyBobbyBobby and watching a connection to the past introduce himself to a new generation.
We never know when a moment will arrive and hand us another tile for our ever expanding mosaic. Sometimes – like waiting anxiously for the moment when Mariano Rivera was going to enter this year’s All-Star game – we anticipate and hope and sweat out the proceeding moments. Sometimes – like Josh Hamilton’s awe-inspiring performance in the Home Run Derby – we consider but hold our hopes in check. Sometimes – like the pregame ceremony before the All-Star game – we are content to sit back and absorb. Sometimes – like Fernando Valenzuela striking out five straight batters in the 1986 All-Star game – the moment instantly connects to a different era and moment and seamlessly bridges generations and decades. And sometimes – like a pinch-hit home run by Bobby Murcer in 1981 – a moment lies beneath the surface, waiting for the proper amount of time and context to reveal its hidden meaning and importance. But always, our ballparks welcome us, patiently offering us the chance to witness and connect to the game and the men who assemble the shapes and memories that we know as baseball.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com and retrosheet.org for information that helped with this piece.
Once, July 4 meant doubleheaders. On America’s birthday, Major League ballparks would host thousands of fans paying once to sit down and watch their favorite players and teams play nine, rest, and then trot out for a second ballgame. Although that particular tradition belongs to another era and lives only in the memories of an older generation, the Fourth of July still commands a unique and vibrant niche in the game. It serves as a resting place along baseball’s seasonal journey – an offer to sit down for a moment, take stock of what we’ve seen, ponder what may come, project accomplishments (are there any sweeter words to the baseball optimist than “he’s on a pace for…), look forward to the Midsummer Classic, and prepare ourselves for the revving up of pennant races. And although July 4 no longer issues an opportunity to “play two”, it can still serve as the stage for some of the finest, most absurd, and most spine-tingling moments in the game’s history.
To a certain baseball population, July 4 will always connect to memories of a lanky left-hander battling extreme heat and an historic rivalry to toss a no-hitter in the Bronx. On July 4, 1983 Dave Righetti struck out Wade Boggs in the first and ninth innings (Boggs struck out only 36 times that entire season), bookending a most extraordinary performance on a day when the temperature reached 94 degrees.
To others, July 4 might induce vague memories of another left-handed pitcher not performing quite as well as Righetti. On July 4, 1956 in the first game of a doubleheader between the hometown White Sox and the visiting Kansas City Athletics, Tommy Lasorda made his penultimate appearance on the mound in the Majors, throwing five-and-two-thirds innings in relief of Jack McMahan (who had been lifted after allowing three runs in only one third of an inning).
In 1985, Dwight Gooden rose and grabbed a spot as the unquestioned ringleader in a festival that came to town every fifth day. When Dwight Gooden pitched, we watched. We watched with the anticipation of witnessing something heroic and unprecedented. We watched with the incredulity of youngsters at a magic show. We watched and we clapped and we stood, amazed by the virtuosity of a 20-year-old who had established himself as the best pitcher in the world. And even when he didn’t have his stuff, Dwight Gooden still stood securely at baseball’s epicenter. On July 4, 1985, Doctor K started for the Mets and through 49 pitches, two-and-a-third innings, and buckets of rain, allowed two hits, four walks, and a run to the Atlanta Braves. After a 41-minute rain delay, the game resumed without Gooden, who turned into a spectator for the remainder of a 19-inning affair that witnessed both teams score two runs in the 13th inning, Keith Hernandez hitting for the cycle, a home run in the eighteenth inning by pitcher Rick Camp (who had entered the game with a career batting average of .060) to tie the game at 11, and a conclusion in the 19th in which the Mets scored five in the top half (off of Camp) and then just barely held on to win 16-13. At 4:01 am on July 5, the planned fireworks show began.
Finally, to virtually anyone who has had the opportunity to grow up with and around the game, the Fourth of July directs a somber, yet celebratory finger in the direction of July 4, 1939. On that particular Independence Day, in between a doubleheader with the Washington Senators, in front of thousands of fans in Yankee Stadium, Lou Gehrig issued his farewell to baseball. Overwhelmed by the attention, uncomfortable with the words extolling his character and illustrious playing career, with only two years left to live, Lou Gehrig stepped up to a microphone at home plate and proclaimed, “[T]oday, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” These words came at the beginning of the speech that is broadly acknowledged as baseball’s Gettysburg Address and hold the essence of a man who crafted a exceptional career through a singular style and grace. The poignancy of the moment and the humility of the man shall always reverberate, for such sharp exposure to unrelenting strength is rare, and the image of Gehrig’s undeniable fortitude stands even brighter with the knowledge of how a disease ravaged his body and turned a man who once looked like a Greek statue come to life into shell of unresponding and atrophied muscles. But Gehrig’s speech offered another conclusion, for when he uttered his final words into the microphone at home plate on July 4, 1939 an era – one that had witnessed three of the greatest first basemen in the history of the game share the same league and spotlight – came to an end.
From 1933 (Hank Greenberg’s first full season) through 1938 (Gehrig’s last full season), three first basemen dominated the offensive landscape in the American League. Over those six seasons, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg finished 1-2-3 in their league in home runs, RBI, and OPS. On the career OPS list, they rank third (Gehrig at 1.0798), sixth (Foxx with a mark of 1.0376), and seventh (Greenberg at 1.0169). From 1933 through 1940, one of them started for the American League in the All-Star game at first base. The competition was so fierce at the position that in the first All-Star game in 1933, Jimmie Foxx – despite winning the Triple Crown and MVP that season – didn’t even play: he was reduced to a nine-inning spectator as Gehrig manned first base for the duration. The following year, Foxx did get to play in the game…at third base. Once again, Gehrig had first all to himself. But Foxx had it better than Greenberg. In 1935 – a year in which he amassed the seventh-highest RBI total in American League history, won the AL MVP and helped lead the Tigers to its first-ever World Series title – Greenberg didn’t even make the All-Star team. It seems almost unfathomable, until we remember Foxx and Gehrig. Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig are three of the greatest players ever at their position. They are three of the greatest players to ever walk on the field at any position. Their stat lines in the Macmillan baseball encyclopedia are littered with bold highlights, indicating league-leading totals. Their power numbers – produced during an earlier live-ball era – remain astonishing even today. Before Roger Maris, Foxx and Greenberg each challenged Babe Ruth’s magical record of 60 home runs: Foxx hit 58 in 1932 and Greenberg matched that total in 1938. Gehrig holds the highest single-season RBI total in American League history, with 184 in 1931. In 1937, Greenberg fell one short of matching Gehrig and produced the second-highest total in league history. Foxx hit more than 30 home runs in 12 straight seasons: the second-longest streak in baseball history. Gehrig and Foxx drove in more than 100 runs in 13 straight seasons – the longest streaks in baseball history. Each won two league MVP’s (Foxx won three). Gehrig (.921 RBI/game) and Greenberg (.915 RBI/game) have the second and third-highest RBI to game ratios in history. These three men hit for power, hit for average, and drove in runs at prodigious rates. And for a six-year period between 1933-1938, they were all doing it in the American League: it remains one of the greatest concentrations of talent for a specific time and place in baseball history.
Although Greenberg, Gehrig and Foxx stand at the apex, they were not the first representation of a trio of first basemen dominating their game in the same era. The ABC first basemen – Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, and Roger Connor – staked their own claim on the game during its infancy. Anson made his debut in 1871 for the Rockford Forest Citys in the National Association and when America was celebrating its 100th birthday in 1876, Anson was playing for the Chicago White Stockings during the National League’s debut season. Anson was the first player in baseball history to amass 3000 hits, and when he retired after the 1897 season, he left as the career leader in games, runs, hits, total bases, doub
les, and RBI. Brouthers – at six feet, two inches and over 200 pounds – was a giant among men in the game’s early years. He led the NL in slugging percentage in six straight seasons from 1881-1886, led the league in OPS on eight occasions, won five batting titles, and finished his 19-year career with a .342 batting average – still the ninth-highest all-time. Roger Connor became the all-time leading home run hitter in 1895 – it was a post he would own until 1921, when a pitcher turned outfielder named Babe Ruth continued his gargantuan quest to claim all of baseball’s home run records for himself. Connor, who also retired as the game’s all-time leader in triples, played first for the National League team in New York during the 1880’s when they were known as the Gothams. Connor’s stature and power stood out on the team that became known as the Giants when in 1885, manager Jim Mutrie looked at his assembled talent on the field and exclaimed, “My big fellows, my Giants.” Like Foxx, Greenberg, and Gehrig after them, the ABC first baseman were immense figures- both in stature and accomplishment. By the sheer force of their numbers, through the broadness of their bodies, these men dominated the game and the baseball consciousness in ways that still echo today.
Today, we are being treated to amazing concentrations of talent at other positions. In the NL East in 2007, a quintet of shortstops introduced themselves as the newest definition of a natural progression that began in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP, banged-out the most extra base hits for a shortstop in NL history, and became just the fourth player ever to collect 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in a season. And just maybe, it was not the best offensive season in the division. Hanley Ramirez powered the ball all over the playing field on his way to the second-most extra-base hits by a shortstop in NL history, batted .332, slugged .562, stole 51 bases, collected 212 hits, and scored 125 runs. Ramirez did all of this at the age of 23 in his second full season in the Majors, causing us to struggle to suppress our giddiness over what we may witness in the future. Jose Reyes stole 78 bases in 2007, the highest total by an NL’er in 15 years and the best effort by a shortstop since Maury Wills completed the 1965 season with 94 thefts. Edgar Renteria finished the season batting .332, which tied him with Ramirez for the fourth-highest average in the league. And when Renteria missed a considerable amount of time with various injuries, a rookie named Yunel Escobar stepped smoothly into Renteria’s role and then hit .326. All of this took place during the course of a single season in one division, a decade after the holy trinity of shortstops built upon the ground laid by Cal Ripken, Jr., Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount. In the late 1990’s, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter jumped atop the baseball landscape with a vibrant ability to play the game. Nomar won a couple of batting titles, flirted with .400, and instigated talk of the next Red Sox icon to play at Fenway. Rodriguez won a batting title at the age of 21, went 40-40 at the age of 23, and emerged as perhaps the most feared right-handed hitter in the game. Jeter – the man who would be named the Yankees captain in 2003 – collected hit after hit and ring after ring, and affected a humility, class, and grace on the field which fell directly in line with the man who was instrumental in developing the signature style and impression of the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig.
Ballgames are just as much a part of the Fourth of July as parades to celebrate the birth of our country, barbeques in the elongating shadows of late afternoon, and fireworks to conclude the day’s celebrations. Any time Major League ballgames are played, we have the opportunity to reflect on what has led us to a point. The pace of the game allows for the conversations to build and wander and the numbers entice us into conversations about the here, there, and now. The game not only instigates these musings, it benefits from them. For when we remember, we instill life, and when life is renewed, we are reintroduced to themes and ideas that have perhaps lain dormant for decades. And although July 4 doubleheaders have been relegated to the dusty shelves of memory, they too have a place, for the images of those days and sensibilities will take us on a journey from 1876 to the present, and will perhaps allow us to recall Dave Righetti, learn about Dan Brouthers, and celebrate the lives and times of Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and Lou Gehrig.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for information that helped with this piece.
In the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ 4-3 win over the Indians this past Sunday, Juan Pierre stole his 29th base of the season. Although the throw from catcher Kelly Shoppach beat Pierre to the base, the savvy baserunner pulled out one of his tricks and drew his left arm away from the glove angling down for the tag, then shifted his weight toward his right side and finally, neatly touched the far edge of the base with his right hand. High above the field, in the booth he has occupied since 1962, Vin Scully described the action, and in a move as smooth and adept as Pierre’s, immediately connected the present with the past. Before Pierre could conclude his dusting off, catching-his-breath routine, Scully was back in the early sixties, reminiscing, reminding his viewers of another base-stealer who could confound and frustrate his opponents with his own brand of aggressiveness, speed, and boldness. In an instant, Juan Pierre and Maury Wills found a home together: tied into a package known as Dodger baseball, they were intertwined by a man and voice whose experiences and memories reach back across more than a half-century of our national pastime.
Listening to a ballgame described by Vin Scully is like sitting down with a thousand baseball yearbooks. Over the course of the two or three hours of any contest, interspersed within the balls, strikes, swings, putouts and hits, in coordination with the hundreds of slight pauses in between the action, Vin Scully travels the baseball universe. The early season struggles of James Loney in 2008 may be juxtaposed with Duke Snider’s difficulties in 1947. A full-bore, all-out dive by Ryan Freel can evoke the name and attendant story of Pepper Martin. A heavy sinker from the right arm of Derek Lowe might instigate a rumination on Clem Labine. Eras and ballplayers mesh in a Vin Scully broadcast; the present – the game’s moments and actors always elevated by the narration of the broadcaster – plays out before us and offers myriad opportunities to reflect and relate. With the past sitting patiently on the stoop, waiting to be offered an opportunity to join in on the fun, Vin Scully sews together the elements, creating a colorful and vibrantly resonant quilt we know as “baseball.”
Vin Scully came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. From Carl Erskine’s first no-hitter in 1952 to Hideo Nomo’s first in 1996, from Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951 to Kirk Gibson’s improbable blast in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, from Don Drysdale’s 58.2 scoreless innings in 1968 to Orel Hershiser’s streak of 59 consecutive shutout innings in 1988, from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to the Los Angeles Coliseum to Dodger Stadium, from Roy Campanella to Mike Piazza, from Duke Snider to Shawn Green, from Maury Wills to Davey Lopes to Juan Pierre, from Johnny Podres to Fernando Valenzuela, Vin Scully has watched and described the game, and has conducted a symphonic version of the events which simplifies and expands their place in baseball’s timeline. Vin Scully serves as baseball’s great connector, in which his woven threads tie him and his audience to the game and its rich history and produce a cohesive vision and understanding many layers deep: illuminating, organizing, deciphering, and instilling affection.
In the middle of every Scully-called Dodger game, the Hall of Fame broadcaster takes a moment before the sixth inning to share a particular memory or thought with his audience. He might speak about Tommy Davis and the year in which the 23-year-old outfielder drove in 153 runs. He may talk about the 100th Anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Perhaps he’ll share a memory of Jackie Robinson in his last game with the Dodgers on October 10, 1956, when #42 swung, missed, and was thrown out at first for the final out of the 1956 World Series. These 20-second essays offer a distillation of Scully’s sensibility and character, and reveal the breadth of a man who, when it comes to the ballfield, has seemingly seen it all. On the same afternoon when Pierre collected his 29th steal of the 2008 season and Scully harmoniously connected the past with the present, Sandy Koufax stood in the center of Scully’s reminiscence. Scully spoke in reverential tones – 49 years after the fact – of a night on June 22, 1959 when Koufax struck out 16 Philadelphia Phillies during a 6-2 complete game win. “Later on in August of that year,” Vin Scully added, “He would strike out 18 Giants, leading the Dodgers to the pennant and the World Series.” And then, as he always does, Scully concluded with his warm invitation, “Let’s go back to this one.”
Vin Scully and Sandy Koufax. For me, they will forever be connected.
On a late summer night in the second week of September in 1965, at 9:46 pm, Sandy Koufax threw his final pitch in the eighth perfect game in history. Koufax’s performance on September 9 stands at the apex of an extraordinary run of excellence which found its home in the distance between mound and home plate, and flashes upon our baseball world like the brightest star in a galaxy littered with sparkles and flickers. On September 9, 1965, over the course of one hour and 43 minutes on a ballfield in Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax achieved perfection. Appropriately, this achievement was brought to life and given its due by Vin Scully’s unique voice and acute perceptions. The announcer’s description of the action on the field, his attention to the small ancillary details like the time, the attendance, and the date, his empathy for Koufax’s isolation amidst the expectation and hopefulness, and his ability to see and describe the unseen and indescribable painted a vibrant picture that elevated the action and laid magic upon the field. On September 9, 1965, at Dodger Stadium, perfection was achieved in two places: on the mound and in the broadcast booth.
The images of the present. The tones of the past. The timelessness of the game truly arises when the twin features of old and new meld their particular components and fashion a world where it all fits together. Since 1950, Vin Scully has arranged these elements in a beautiful, evolving work that invites us to remember, look ahead, and always, return to the game on the field.
For a transcript of Vin Scully’s ninth-inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, visit: http://www.salon.com/people/feature/1999/10/12/scully_koufax/
Thanks to baseball-reference.com, retrosheet.org, and mlb.com for information that helped with this piece.
“A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road at regular intervals. Milestones are constructed both to reassure the traveler that the proper path is being followed and to indicate distance traveled, or the remaining distance to the desired destination.”
Incredibly, Ken Griffey, Jr.’s Major League debut occurred more than 19 years ago. On April 3, 1989, Griffey – batting second and playing centerfield in the Mariners’ lineup on Opening Day – doubled off Dave Stewart in the top of the first for his first big league hit. Junior’s first milestone. On June 9 – 2,438 games later – the man who was once called “The Kid” drove a 3-1 pitch over the right field wall for his 600th home run. Perhaps his last milestone. For all of us who had watched and waited for the drive that placed him in the company of Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Sosa, the surprise lay not in the achievement itself, but in how long it took to get there. At some point in the mid-1990’s, most of us assumed the journey would be shorter and straighter, more celebrated, less confusing and painful, and would end with spectacular fireworks heralding the completion of a once-in-a-generation career. In between over-the-wall catches to snatch away home runs, a gazelle-like sprint from first to third to clinch a Division Series, and rifle-powered throws to cut down base-runners, Griffey launched majestic fly balls over outfield walls with rapid-fire frequency. The milestones seemingly occurred every year during his first decade in the Majors: he hit his 100th home run on June 15, 1993 at the age of 23; one year later, he collected his 500th career RBI. His 1000th hit followed in 1995, and then Griffey powered out his 200th home run in 1996. His first 50-home run season came in 1997 and served as a prelude to his 300th career home run in 1998. The milestones were flying by at breakneck speed, continually reminding us of the seemingly inevitable conclusion which grew larger and more defined as the distance closed. But when he finished the 1999 season with 398 homers, the road – one he had followed spectacularly for 11 seasons – branched off to offer a new path toward the expected destination. Griffey chose to take his march to Cincinnati – the city where his father had helped the Big Red Machine win back to back World Series titles in 1975 and 1976. And although the path changed, the milestones maintained their presence: early in that first season with the Reds in 2000, Griffey became the youngest player in Major League history to collect 400 home runs. Just 141 days past his 30th birthday, Junior was more than halfway toward equaling Hank Aaron’s majestic 755. The magical ride appeared steady, home was in sight, and Ken Griffey, Jr. was confidently driving toward immortality. And then the milestones ended and the journey – once so concise, so straight, so resolute – meandered, bogged, stuttered, and broke away from the course that we all expected. In the four years between 1997 and 2000, Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 200 home runs. Over the next four seasons, he hit 63. Injury-watches replaced gazing at the markers, and Ken Griffey was largely forgotten.
The next milestone on the road finally appeared in the middle of the summer in 2004 when Griffey became the 20th member of the 500-home run club. The rare achievement – once expected and anticipated as just another marker on the road to a feat even more unique – had been dulled by the mishaps that prolonged the march toward what we once perceived as inevitable, and Griffey’s 500th home run symbolized more of an exhale than a celebratory leap. The milestones that we had followed for so long had led us down a road we never could have expected.
The baseball encyclopedias and storybooks are littered with the unexpected. Dazzy Vance didn’t win his first game in the Major Leagues until he was 31-years-old, and then he compiled a mountainous peak of excellence that saw him lead the Majors in strikeouts in the twenties, record 197 wins, and earn induction in the Hall of Fame. A half-century before Ken Griffey, Jr. delighted us with his display of talent, another centerfielder opened up his career with immense promise and then found his path derailed by injury. In 1941, Pete Reiser won the NL batting title and finished second in MVP balloting at the age of 22. He was the youngest batting champ in league history. The next season, Reiser was hitting .383 on July 2 when he collided with the outfield wall while tracking a fly ball. It was the first (but not nearly the last) time he had to be carried off the field. Leo Durocher once said, “Willie Mays had everything. Pete Reiser had everything but luck.” In another universe, Reiser’s career would have been littered with milestones all pointing the way toward a plaque in Cooperstown.
There are others, too: men whose final destinations came from unformed beginnings.
No one could have imagined that when the Yankees made a trade with the Kansas City Athletics on December 11, 1959, their newly acquired right fielder named Roger Maris would go on to pass one of baseball’s most hallowed milestone achievements. Maris’ ascendancy in the baseball consciousness coincided with another unanticipated and startling climb. From 1955-1960, Sandy Koufax went 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA. After a season of blossoming promise in 1961, Koufax peaked like very few ballplayers in history. In his final five seasons in the Majors, Koufax averaged 22 wins, 289 strikeouts, and compiled a 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+). He won five ERA titles, led the league in wins on three occasions, struck out a (then) Major League record 382 batters in 1965, was named the NL MVP in 1963, and pitched no-hitters in four straight seasons, culminating the mastery with perfect game on September 9, 1965. Koufax’s journey did not follow the usual course, and his milestone achievements stand within his seasonal odysseys: 20 wins, 300 strikeouts, ERA’s less than two. Fall Classic dominance. Four no-hitters. A brilliance illuminated by 10,000 foot-candles of brightness. Koufax’s burst of excellence resonates for its immediacy and suddenness and its abrupt conclusion that leaves us only with those memories of greatness. The attendant milestones mark the trip with the same splendor.
More than thirty years after Sandy Koufax stepped off the mound for the last time, another left-hander began a similar run of excellence and dominance. Unlike Koufax’s meteoric rise and equally abrupt goodbye, this southpaw’s apex evolved from an earlier phase in which the milestones had begun to identify the journey. Randy Johnson made his first start for the Mariners in the same year Ken Griffey, Jr. debuted for the team, and one year later, Johnson passed his first milestone with a no-hitter against the Tigers. After that, the markers began to appear with greater and more impressive frequency. His 1000th strikeout victim swung and missed in 1993. His 99th win (not quite reaching the normal marker, but getting close enough to squint and see it in the distance) came on the last day of the 1995 season when he pitched a complete game and allowed just one run in Seattle’s victory over California in the third one-game playoff in American League history. His 2000th career strikeout came in the final game of the first season of Johnson’s rise to the top in 1997, and began a run of dominance that would end in 2002. From 1997-2002, Randy Johnson averaged 20 wins and an astounding, jaw-dropping, still hard-to-believe 340 strikeouts. There have only been nine seasons since 1893 when a pitcher struck out 340 batters in a season – Randy Johnson averaged that total for more than a half-decade. His ERA over that span was 2.58, and his ERA+ was better than Koufax’s during his run. And then, when the lightning and thunder portion of the journey wound down, the milestones kept appearing, kept passing, and kept leading toward the realization of the truly historic. 3000 strikeouts appeared before the blur of 2001, when Johnson recorded the third-highest
strikeout total in modern history, won his third straight Cy Young Award, recorded three wins in the World Series, and was named co-MVP of the Fall Classic. His 4000th strikeout came in 2004, as did a perfect game – the 17th in Major League history. After a brief time in New York, Johnson has followed the signs leading the way back to Arizona, back to the place where he reshaped the image of the strikeout pitcher in the dictionary, where he leapt to the top of the headlines, where he continued to travel toward a destination reserved for only the greatest of the game.
Randy Johnson currently sits on 288 wins. The milestone 300th win beckons, offering itself as one final indicator on this Hall of Fame journey. Ken Griffey, Jr. currently stands 269 RBI short of 2000, a few re-energized seasons away from becoming only the fourth player in history to achieve that nice, round number. Neither man needs to play another day in the Major Leagues to ensure his legacy and place in the baseball timeline. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball for a decade – he played with a flair and poetry and dynamism that few have ever approached. He made us believe in the attainment of achievements that we previously considered unapproachable. Randy Johnson revived the sensibility of another era, when pitchers could instill fear into the jelly-legged torsos of batters, and along the way, established himself as one of the greatest to ever toe the rubber. Both men – teammates for more than eight seasons – have reached and passed enough milestones to solidify their places among the game’s most elite. They will always serve as reminders of a particular place and time in the baseball world, when Griffey’s sweet swing and backwards baseball cap offered a joy and a counterpoint to the menacing glare of Randy Johnson as he prepared to unleash another slider on an overmatched batter. But Griffey’s 600th home run milestone and Johnson’s 300th win milestone remain important and essential to the story. In connection with their achievements, we will be given the opportunity to remember and recall those times when these two ballplayers showed us something all too rare and fleeting. We will be given the opportunity to relive and reassess, and the thousands of images and moments that we associate with Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson will coming flooding back to us in a gust not unlike the refreshing sensation of feeling the wind against our face with the window down on a journey to anywhere. For that is the job of milestones – to remind of us where we’ve been and to give structure to where we are headed.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com for statistical information that helped with this piece.