Monday, September 18, 2017

Book Review: Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son by Paul Dickson







As a baseball player Leo Durocher was an All-Star shortstop, a degenerate gambler and troublemaker, a profane, vicious umpire baiter and bench jockey nonpareil who very much earned the moniker Leo the Lip. As a manager, he presided over one of the biggest comeback pennant-winning teams in history and also one of the biggest late-season collapses in history. He routinely used every vile, offensive racial term, yet he was one of the early champions of integration in baseball and was virtually color blind in assessing talent. He was a selfish, roguish alpha male and a charming, accomplished ladies man. He was a charismatic first-class celebrity, an unrepentant cheater and a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame. The media hated him, but was unable to look away. In short, he was one of the most controversial and interesting baseball personalities the game has ever known.


So it's somewhat surprising that few biographers have taken on his legend. Paul Dickson does so superbly in the recently-released Leo Durocher: Baseball's Prodigal Son.




This is not a hero-worshipping tale. Dickson appropriately stays in the middle. "At his worst Durocher was a cologne-soaked bully with a talent for creating bad situations and, as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey once said, 'then making them worse,'" he writes. "At his best, Durocher was a brilliant manager with a comic timing that allowed him to play straight man to a talking horse in a 1963 episode of the sitcom Mister Ed."


All the big events are amply covered: the Babe Ruth feud, the rollicking Gashouse Gang years, the revival of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the coming of Jackie Robinson, the suspension, George Raft, Frank Sinatra, Laraine Day, the Shot Heard Round the World season, Willie Mays, the Dodger coaching gig, the Cubs and finally his short-lived job with the Astros.


With an enormous pile of great stories and controversy, both on and off the field, with which to work, Dickson plays it straight and shows remarkable restraint from the urge to go for a more sensationalized account such as Leo and his coauthor used in the highly entertaining--and often fictional-- autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last. Dickson uses his extensive research powers to stick to the facts without moralizing and often corrects the errors, exaggerations and embellishments found in Leo's self-promoting versions.


Dickson shines in illuminating the reasons behind Leo's famous suspension from baseball in 1947. Presented from Leo's point of view, Commissioner Happy Chandler comes off as an Ahab who continues to chase Durocher well into old age--long after either had the legs any longer for a chase-- Chandler unable to ever resist any opportunity to hurl the harpoon. But then, Leo had an inimitable ability to inspire those sorts of emotions.


Cub fans may be disappointed in that Dickson covers the eventful Chicago years in an economical 34 pages, but otherwise there is little to complain about. This book is exhaustively researched, well-written and deserves the title as the definitive Leo Durocher biography.





Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Old Man and the Centerfielder: Papa, Joltin' Joe and a Literary Classic








Baseball has long lent itself to use in great American literature. One of my favorite intersections of baseball and classical literature is in The Old Man in the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's 1952 Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Beyond the book. The confluence of two supernovae of twentieth century Americana is irresistible.



The main character of the book, the old man Santiago, is a small-town Cuban fisherman in the midst of a historic losing streak. One day he ventures far out alone in his small skiff and hooks into the biggest, baddest marlin anyone has ever seen. Santiago resolutely fights an epic battle of will, strength and intelligence, ultimately winning the struggle, but losing in the end as sharks claim the fish before he can make it back to land.

Besides fishing, Santiago's only other interest is the American major leagues. He is a particular fan of the Yankees and "the great DiMaggio." He never uses the first name but anyone in the civilized world would know that he is not talking about Vince or even Dominic, but the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio.



Seven times during the story, Hemingway inserts a reference to the Great DiMaggio. When Santiago's young helper mentions, "I fear the Indians of Cleveland," Santiago reassures him, "Have faith, my son. Think of the Great DiMaggio."

Perhaps as a way of connecting with his diety, Santiago notes three times that DiMaggio's father was a fisherman. "I would like to take the Great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand."

Later, when Santiago, alone and in pain after hooking the great fish, realizes he is in for the struggle of his life, he draws inspiration from DiMaggio's own heroic comeback from a much-publicized bone spur. "I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the Great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel."


As he fights the fish into a third day, enduring excruciating pain in his back, bleeding from cramped and cut hands, experiencing hunger and thirst, he wonders, "Do you believe the Great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one. . . . I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much?"

As Santiago finally brings in the fish, he takes pride with the thought, "I think the Great DiMaggio would be proud of me today. I had no bone spurs but the hand and back hurt truly."

Hemingway uses Joe DiMaggio and his heroic image as another character in the book. He could have made Santiago a boxing fan who idolized "the Great Marciano," and it might have worked, but not nearly as well. This was 1952 and the Great DiMaggio, freshly retired, was universally held as indeed great; perhaps the greatest of all-time. There was no arguing his results as far as victory: the Yankees had won a remarkable ten pennants and nine World Series in his 13 seasons.

A half-century later, when all we have are statistics that have been surpassed many times, it is easy to forget how well DiMaggio was regarded at the time. There is an old joke that made the rounds in those days: A man goes into a talent agent's office with a dog. "This is a talking dog," he excitedly tells the skeptical agent. "What's on top of a house?" he asks the dog.
"Roof," the dog answers.
"How does sandpaper feel?"
"Rough."
"Who was the greatest ballplayer in history?"
"Ruth."
The agent angrily throws the man and his dog out the door. As they are laying in the street, the frustrated dog turns to the man and asks, "I shoulda said DiMaggio?"

In 1952, even a dog understood the greatness of "the great DiMaggio."

 DiMaggio was not only a great baseball player, but a celebrity whose hero image was carefully constructed and guarded by the press. And it is this image, rather than the real man, that Hemingway uses as an extra character in the book.

Hemingway once said of his book, "The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The sharks are sharks. All the symbolism people see is shit." That's a nice thought that many brow-beaten college literature students would wish their professors to believe.
But why should we take Hemingway's word for it--he only wrote the thing. He mentions the bone spurs too many times for us to dismiss them so casually. Even as Santiago endures severe pain in a real-life struggle for survival, he somehow doesn't think his pain or struggle is as significant as that endured by the great man who was playing baseball with a sore foot. DiMaggio's bone spur--played up in the press at the time with the gravity of the thermonuclear detonations of the Cold War--is invoked numerous times. Hemingway seems to be trying to tell us something. We know bone spurs can be present for years before manifesting in painful conditions such as Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Perhaps Hemingway is using bone spurs as symbolism for any mental or physical misfortune that afflicts man. Perhaps he thinks we make too big of a deal about minor injuries to athletes while more true pain is going on around us everyday? Or perhaps our efforts to understand it are, as he so eloquently stated, shit.


It's interesting to remember that Joltin' Joe and Ernest Hemingway were contemporaries. They shared many a drink and more than a few meals at a Manhattan establishment called Toots Shor's.


The owner and namesake, Toots, was a uniquely American character, known to everyone at the time. He made a lifetime of gladhanding and schmoozing every celebrity in seemingly every American field of endeavor. On any night at Toots you might see Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Jack Dempsey, Dean Martin, the stars of whatever teams were visiting New York at the time, and the bevvy of circulating hangers-on those men invariably attracted. DiMaggio was a regular Toots man for years.

For the famous men, Toots was a great pal, quick with a joke and even quicker to come up with choice tickets to the coolest entertainment and the best games in town. Along with free food and drink and the rest, Toots offered his guys a certain protection from being groped and annoyed by fans. It was understood at Toots' that the elite, the best of the best, were not to be bothered. Minor celebrities were allowed to pay homage from a distance--"You're looking great, Joe"-- and might even receive a nod in return, but otherwise the great men were free to enjoy their meal and drinks. And the fun didn't stop when the restaurant closed. Toots kept the drinks flowing in back for his special friends for as long as they wanted to stay. Toots Shor's was a man's place for men's men. Of course, dames were welcome as long as they were gorgeous and agreeable and knew their place.


And so the author and the baseball superstar spent quite a bit of time together with Toots, acquaintances if not friends.
A story has appeared in several books, although it may be apocryphal, that one day not long after DiMaggio retired he went to a game with Toots, Hemingway and several others. DiMaggio was immediately mobbed by admiring fans wanting autographs. As one of the fans was leaving he recognized Hemingway's face from the cover of Time and Look magazines. "Hey," he said to the writer. "Aren't you somebody too?"
Hemingway answered, "No, I'm just his doctor."

This period was the zenith for both Hemingway and DiMaggio. Two years later, DiMaggio himself would hook the greatest catch in the land--Marilyn Monroe. According to her biographers, he was the only man who truly loved her. But, not unlike Santiago, he was tragically unable to keep her away from the sharks.

For Hemingway, shortly after the book was published he was seriously injured in a plane crash in Africa and spent the rest of his life in pain. Less than a decade later he took his own life at 62 years of age.

As Santiago said, "I never had a bone spur. Perhaps we have them and don't know it."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Former Cubs Player and Manager Jim Marshall--a Lucky Man




Jim Marshall went to the ballpark in Arizona the other day. Like a lot of 86-year-old men, he enjoys watching a good baseball game. Unlike most of them, however, Jim was working when he went to the ballpark. Same as the day before that, and the day before, as long as he can remember. You see, Jim's been working in professional baseball since 1950. He's never stopped; and he loves it.

Jim grew up in Compton, California in the thirties and forties. "The neighborhood has changed a little over the years," Marshall says. Jim was a three-sport star growing up. A local basketball coach named John Wooden offered him a scholarship to play at UCLA but Marshall turned him down for baseball. After attending Long Beach State for a year, he signed professionally with the Chicago White Sox.

A big guy for the times at 6'1 and 190 pounds, Jim could hit a home run. Or two. Playing in the Pacific Coast League, mostly with the Oakland Oaks, he launched 202 minor league home runs in eight seasons. In those days, with only 16 major league teams, advancing was tough. So Jim remained in AAA year after year, even as he had seasons of 24 homers and 99 RBIs, 31 and 123 and 30 and 102. "Alot of people nowadays don't realize how hard it was just to get a shot at the majors," Marshall says. "I wasn't alone. There were alot of good players stuck in the minors back then. You had to wait for your chance, and some guys never got a chance."

A trade to the Orioles finally gave Marshall his shot at the majors in 1958 when he was 27 years old.   He roomed with 21-year-old Brooks Robinson that year. "There was never any doubt about his fielding, but he really wasn't a very good hitter back then. We're still friends. In fact, I just talked to him recently. I always tell him, 'I knew you before you could hit.' But he really worked hard on his hitting and he made himself into a very, very good hitter. That's always impressed me. And you have to give [Orioles manager] Paul Richards credit, he stuck with him because he couldn't hit anything at first. Richards could see what Brooks would become."

In mid-season 1958, Jim was traded to the Cubs. The next year, he had his best season in the majors when he hit 11 home runs and 40 RBIs in 254 at bats. Those two seasons he got to witness Ernie Banks' back-to-back MVP years up close. "Ernie was just phenomenal those years. And he didn't have any protection in the line-up. It's unbelievable what he was able to do while everyone pitched around him or threw at him."

It was Marshall's misfortune to spend his major league career on bad teams and he never got a chance to play regularly. After spending two seasons with the Giants, he split 1962 with Pittsburgh and the Mets.

Marshall then made his way to Japan for the 1963 season. He was one of the first players to go from a major league roster to the Japanese baseball league. "I liked it there," Marshall says. "Of course there was a huge adjustment culturally and also with how they approached the game, their workout regimen and team attitudes. Another big problem I had initially was just in learning my teammates names and how to pronounce them."

Marshall played well in Japan, with seasons of 28 and 31 homers. He made the All-Star team where he split time each year at first base with legendary Japanese Home Run King Sadahuru Oh, who would retire with an all-time record of 868 home runs. "Sadaharu Oh was in the process of becoming a living legend in Japan in those years. In 1964 he set their record with 55 home runs in a season. It was an honor to be on the same All-Star team. I would play half the All-Star game and he would play half. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. We're still good friends."


"Oh didn't look impressive up close at first because his shoulders were kind of narrow and he wasn't that big, but he was a tremendous power hitter. He would have hit a lot of home runs anywhere. He had great timing and balance. He hit with his whole body; he launched from a crouched position. He was able to do that because of his martial arts training he had when he was young and he still did a lot of it every winter."

Returning to the States in 1968 Jim managed in the Cubs minor league system and worked his way up. He took over as the Cubs' manager midway through the 1974 season after Whitey Lockman was let go. Managing the Cubs was a difficult task in those days. The Cubs were in a penny-pinching rebuilding phase. After back to back 75-87 seasons, Jim was fired. He doesn't feel too bad about being axed by the Cubs--he had a lot of company. "In the eighties I told someone, 'The Cubs thought about hosting a reunion for former managers but they had to cancel it--there were too many of them, it would have been too expensive."

Marshall managed the A's in 1979 and has been in baseball in various posts since. He joined the Diamondbacks organization in 1997--a year before they began playing. He helped with scouting and planning for the expansion draft and later became head of their Pacific Rim scouting. "I've been working in baseball for 67 years now," Marshall says. "I love it. I've been lucky."

Marshall speaks fondly of his wife of 65 years, who he just lost last year. "She was very special. We had known each other since Junior High. I was very fortunate to have someone like her. She was a great baseball wife. That's not an easy job, you know. It takes a lot of patience and understanding. And doing all the work at home. I was lucky."


They always say you are a lucky man if you can find a good job that you love. Well, Jim Marshall is a lucky man. In more ways than one.




Sunday, August 27, 2017

Classic Book Review: The Boys of Summer








Here's an idea: take a popular former baseball team, track down the members after, say, fifteen or twenty years, see what they are doing now and write a book about it.

Sounds like a winner. Only if you present that to a publishing company today you will most likely receive a giant yawn and a "been done a million times already, bring me something original."

But if you had come up with that idea in 1970, you might have had a potential classic on your hands. That's what Roger Kahn did with this book. Kahn had been a young reporter following the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953. In 1970 he looked up the old gang, visited them at their homes and places of employment, and then wrote it all up. And in doing so, he invented a genre, one that has been copied so many times in the ensuing years that it's become passé. It's important to remember this in a historical concept when reading this book; if for no other reason than to give Kahn credit.


Of course, Kahn had a lot of luck. Not only was the team to which he was wed great, it was a team full of history and characters, and one that was on the cutting edge of the most socially prominent experiment in sports history. He had been in the perfect place at the perfect time. Had he been a young beat reporter for the Hobie Landrith, Johnny Temple, Wally Post Cincinnati Reds of the early '50s, the book wouldn't have been nearly the same.


These were the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, the first racially integrated baseball team. They were a team of immense talent and success, but one that seemed doomed by luck to fail at the most crucial times. Also when owner Walter O'Malley pulled up stakes and fled to the gold mine of Los Angeles in 1958, they came to symbolize the heartbreak of jilted fans and the western mobilization of society. Kahn excels in placing the era under well-preserved glass for future generations. Such was the impact of the book that the group of Dodgers--Jackie, Campy, Pee Wee, Oisk and the Duke of Flatbush--will forever be known as the Boys of Summer and, in fact, the term Boys of Summer has become indelibly etched into our lexicon.

The Boys of Summer is actually two books. The first part is an autobiographical narration of young Kahn as he grows to manhood in the thriving borough of Brooklyn amid post-depression Americana. He poignantly writes of his relationship with his father, a modest, henpecked man of immense intellectual powers who lacks the ambition and confrontational nature that could have made him wealthy. Father and son are united forever by the game of baseball.

Kahn contrasts his father with his mother who is described as a manipulative, nagging, pseudointellectual elitist. The viciously insensitive mother reveals the death of Kahn's grandfather, who died unexpectedly of a massive coronary while the child was away at camp, thusly: "'Would you like to see your name in the New York Times?' Olga reaches into a bureau . . . and shows me a clipping from the New York Times. Rockow, Abraham, D.D.S., suddenly on June 30. Beloved grandfather of Roger."

Interwoven in the images of his childhood, Kahn describes the team as viewed from his perch as a young writer. He conjures images of the players in their prime: strong, athletic men of diverse backgrounds who formed a close team. The autobiographical first section, while quaint and nostalgic, is not nearly as enduring as the portrayal of the men from the team, which became timeless; the players immortalized. Kahn reveals the character and personalities of the men in the clubhouse, which is often at odds with their popular heroic public images. He shows the fears and worries of the players; their raw language, prejudice, pettiness and also shows the dangerous, hard side of professional baseball.


The second part of the book finds the players in middle age, in various stages of success in their post-baseball lives. Some are executives and public figures, while others are hanging on in low-paying blue collar jobs, their previous athletic heroics all but forgotten remnants of another life. The images of the former players and their real-life tragedies are stark. The loss of youth, loss of physical powers among men who made their living based on those physical powers is an unavoidable sadness.


Before Kahn, ex-athletes were most often forgotten as the years moved on past their playing days. Remember, this was the time in which athletes were not set for life after a few years of playing--making millions of dollars in contracts with millions more awaiting in the insane memorabilia market. Back then, ex-athletes faced a lifetime of hustling employment after retiring from sports. Few members of the formerly adoring public bothered to think how these men viewed their past heroics, years removed from the spotlight.

Of course, one reason the book has endured so well is that Kahn  did it very artfully. His prose is thought-provoking, insightful and awe-inspiring at times.

He wrote of the postseason failings of the Dodgers and the affection of their fans: "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat."

When he describes his father hitting him grounders with hardballs and explains the coming of age moment millions of boys of that era experienced, he writes: "There is no faking on sharp grounders. You put your head down and follow the ball and hope that the last bounce will be true. . . . A kind of test is under way. . . Gordon Kahn is testing to see if his indulged, skinny, quick-tongued son dares show his face to hard ground balls. The bald mustached man . . . and the boy are reaching, sensing, challenging and I suppose loving one another through a fifty-cent baseball. . . . Head down, head down. The baseball smarts, but pain passes and I feel a crown of sweat and all sensations are obliterated by pride. I am showing Gordon Kahn that I am not afraid of the ball."

Of the 1951 Bobby Thomson playoff home run that beat the Dodgers out of a pennant: "Defeat, particularly dramatic defeat, confirms our worst image of ourselves. We are not effective, after all, not truly competent, not manly in crisis. . . We stand naked, before an unflattering mirror, hearing hard laughter that includes our own."

Discussing the outrage expressed by New York writers, who wrote that O'Malley had no loyalty to Brooklyn, only money, after the team left for the west coast, Kahn notes, "It amazes me to this day that once I stood in the ranks of journalists who, in the most furious words they could summon, indicted a capitalist for being motivated by a passion for greater profits."

On Kahn's first trip through the south with the team, he is appalled by the legally sanctioned segregation but is dismayed that older reporters just pull the blinds on the train and ignore it. "They accepted apartheid with a brief, angry grunt, the way they accepted a cramped press box, or a sinewy steak. . . It was odd, I thought. We wrote about the games, the players and the prospects. But, here in a wounding land, no one would report or could report the horror all about--racism. . . . unreasoning racial hate threatening then as it threatens now to shatter the country. I wish I could . . . figure a way to get the real story in the paper."

Read today, The Boys of Summer provides a historical look at attitudes on race at the time. Race is a major them throughout the book--how the players came to accept Jackie Robinson and the African American players who followed him, the challenges faced by those players, how they still faced challenges years later and the opinion of Jackie Robinson in 1970 of the status of integration and of the militant black movement that grew during the sixties. Robinson specifically denounced the violence of those who wanted to burn every trace of white society. Kahn writes, "He does not want society to burn. Burn America and you burn the achievements of Jackie Robinson. After ruinous anarchic blaze, who will remember the brave, fatherless boyhood, the fight for an inch of Army justice, the courage in baseball, the leadership and the triumph, of a free man who walked with swift and certain strides?" It is interesting to see how far we've come, or regressed, as an integrated society.

Paralleling the racial prejudice of the time is the equally appalling prejudice faced by handicapped children. The section on Carl Erskine prominently features the fact that his fourth child, Jimmy, had been born with Down's syndrome in 1960. At the time, the disease was callously referred to as Mongolism, due to the shape of their eyelids. Kahn included a medical definition of the condition which concluded with "such children are often imbeciles." While extremely stark and insulting, this definition refers back to the old classification of IQ in which below 25 was an "idiot," 26-50 was an "embicile," and 51-70 was a "moron." Unbelievable.

At the time of Jimmy's birth, Erskine and his wife were encouraged by doctors to leave Jimmy at the hospital, where he would be placed in an institution and "taken care of." They refused and brought him home to be a part of their family--almost revolutionary at the time. And even though Kahn seems to applaud the hurdles overcome by the Erskines, he is affected by the perceptions of the time as he writes about Jimmy very condescendingly, misspelling his attempted words phonetically and writing that he is overjoyed by simple accomplishments such as splashing in a pool and being able to bounce a basketball 4 or 5 times.

Overall, this book is deserving of its place on virtual every list of the top ten baseball books of all-time. The Boys of Summer may indeed lay in their ruin, but their gold tithings will never fade thanks to Roger Kahn and his magnificent book.











Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sey Hey, Thanks For the Bat Willie



I'm a softy when it comes to stories about kids and sports heroes. Especially the good ones.


I was talking to Mike Filipiak, a 69 year old lifelong Cubs fan, recently. He said he and some buddies used to go to Wrigley Field as often as possible in the late '50s. "You could get a ticket for 65 cents in those days and, with not many fans coming to games back then, a lot of times we could get right on the rail next to the field."


Mike and his friends financed their trips to Wrigley by riding around on their bikes and collecting bottles for the refund. "You got 2 cents for pop bottles and a nickel for the big beer bottles. We'd go through cluttered alleys. It didn't take long to get enough for a ticket. Also a lot of times after games, the ushers would have us those long poker sticks with points on the end and we'd go up and down and pick up trash. When we finished, they'd give us a voucher for another game." Things have certainly changed at Wrigley Field over the years--it takes more than a few bottles and some trash to get a field-side seat.


"One time the Giants were in town. Willie Mays got up and swung and the bat flew out of his hands and sailed right at me. I grabbed the bat and my buddies stood up and said, 'Forget the game. We got Willie's bat. Let's get out of here.' But just then the ushers showed up and made us give it back.Willie had come over to the rail and was waiting as the ushers walked the bat over to him. He saw us kids and he acted like he couldn't believe it: 'You guys brought my bat back? Thanks.'"


Then, the great man paused and smiled. "He tapped the bat on the top of the dugout and said, 'You know what, I think this bat is cracked. Here, you might as well have it.' And he handed it back to me. How great is that?"


Being a kid, Mike took the bat home and used it for what it was made for--he played with it in numerous backyard games until it virtually disintegrated.


That Willie Mays bat seven decades ago didn't last long. But the memory will never fade.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: The Cooperstown Casebook: Who's In the Baseball Hall of FAme, Who Should BE In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques by Jay Jaffe






The title says it all and that alone should be enough to make any baseball fan pick up a copy. And Jaffe more than comes through on the title's promise by providing plausible answers to the title's questions with compelling reasoning and modern statistical analysis.

This is not a spurious undertaking for Jaffe. He has made serious study of the subject for more than a decade, has served on the staff of Baseball Prospectus, MLB network and SI.com and can lay claim to being one of a handful of experts on the matter.

The first half of the book is excellent reading. Jaffe lays out a highly informative history of the Hall and explains the complicated, and sometimes nefarious, procedures which have been used for election over the years.

He particularly provides a very good report on the murky workings of the various veteran's committees and shows how they have caused the vast majority of Hall injustices through rampant cronyism--particularly that led by Frankie Frisch--that led to the inclusion of such laggards as Fred Lindstrom, Ross Youngs and Chick Hafey (a trio that his analysis shows to be as unworthy as we have always suspected).

The BBWAA is shown to have been a very good gatekeeper over the years--especially for those who prefer a Hall of Fame and not a Hall of Very Good. At the same time, however, they have overlooked some very qualified players by focusing solely on old school stats and career milestones, leaving more than a few great players to languish in a voting purgatory until death or later.

He also provides a succinct primer on the workings and value of modern stats such as WAR, OPS, OPS+ and the like and introduces his personal formula, named JAWS (Jaffe War Score). JAWS was introduced at Baseball Prospectus in 2004 and has been modified since. As he describes it  "JAWS uses WAR to estimate a player's total hitting, pitching, and defensive contributions while accounting for the wide variations in scoring levels from era to era and ballpark to ballpark. Via JAWS, each candidate can be objectively compared on the basis of career or peak value to the players at his position who are already in the Hall." A certainly noble intent.

The second half of the book slows considerably--but remains a valuable reference--as Jaffe goes through each position examining the JAWS of Hall players and some notable leftouts. At each position he goes into depth to examine the claim of borderline or controversial cases such as Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker and Alan Trammel.

The book provides plenty of room for arguments. Like any formula used to attempt to completely examine a fluid personal endeavor, JAWS is not perfect. It leans very heavily on WAR, and consequently on-base percentage and slugging percentage. One drawback is the fact that defensive metrics are still far from reliable and although they will continue to evolve, they may never be perfected. And any numerical system that rates Gene Tenace as being 13 notches better suited for the Hall of Fame than Roy Campanella can certainly not be considered perfect.

Conservative thinkers will be annoyed by Jaffe's approach to the steroid scandal: basically he chooses to ignore their very existence, preferring rather to adjust the worth of the abusers by comparing them against era-averages. This head-in-the-sand approach works great for numbers people, but seems very unfair to the few schmucks who may have actually played clean during those years.

And while he bestows blanket forgiveness to steroid cheats, he does not extend the same olive branch to Pete Rose, who he flatly states should "never get his plaque." While he makes excuses for the steroid abusers by stating that none have ever been convicted in a court of law and that we shouldn't use speculation and innuendo to impugn their reputations, he backs up his decision on Rose by openly speculating that Rose did indeed bet on his team to lose and "signal to gamblers that he doesn't expect to win"--apparently ignoring the fact that, regardless of evidence, Rose was never convicted in a court either (except for tax evasion).

Similarly, Jaffe questions whether Ted Simmons was excluded from the Hall because of his outspoken liberal views on the war in Vietnam, long hair and contract issues by the ultraconservative "older generation of writers", but does not seem nearly as upset when modern liberal voters openly say they are not voting for Curt Schilling due to the fact that they disagree with his conservative media warblings.

I point out the above not in an effort to detract from the book, however, but to point out the ample room for great arguments that will keep fans warm long through the winter.

Overall this is a great book and it definitely deserves a place on any baseball fans' shelf.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Talking to Darrel Chaney: An Important Cog in the Big Red Machine





I had the good fortune recently to talk to former Cincinnati Reds player Darrel Chaney, a good baseball player and an even better person. Darrel Chaney wasn’t a household name in the 1970s—except to Reds fans who realized his importance to the team known as the Big Red Machine. 

Chaney could handle a glove at second base, third base or shortstop with equal ease. He pinchhit, pinchran and could lay down a bunt or steal a base if needed. And just as importantly he was a good guy to have around the clubhouse with his selfless attitude and sense of humor. 
A three-sport star in high school in the northwest Indiana town of Hammond, Darrel was a Parade All-American quarterback on the football field. A slight of hand master on offense, he also intercepted 27 passes in three years while moonlighting on defense. He received more than 30 college football scholarship offers but turned them all down for a whopping $8,000 bonus to sign with the Cincinnati Reds who had drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) in the 1966 draft (the Reds first pick that year went to California high school pitcher Gary Nolan). While Chaney was a standout in basketball and football, it had always been his dream to play major league baseball and he never had any second doubts about his choice.
After military obligations wiped out most of Darrel’s 1967 minor league season, he turned in a solid year for Asheville in AA while playing for an unknown manager named Sparky Anderson. Sparky had managed a few years in the low levels of the Cardinal organization and was brought to the Reds system by new general manager Bob Howsam. Playing alongside future Reds Bernie Carbo and Wayne Simpson, Chaney hit 23 home runs and Asheville finished 32 games over .500 and cruised to the Southern League pennant. “I always told Sparky, ‘if it wasn’t for me you never would have made it to the big leagues,” Chaney says.

As for Chaney, it was his handy glove that helped him make the big leagues. His showing at AA earned him some reps with the big team in the spring of 1969 and the last day of camp manager Dave Bristol called the 21-year-old into his office and delivered the news he had waited his whole life to hear: “Congratulations Darrel, you made the club.”
“I had a really good spring,” Chaney says. “But it was kind of good and bad. I was happy to make the majors, but because I was one of the only guys who could play second, third and short I kind of got labeled as a utility player right off the bat. That’s unusual for someone 21 years old.”
The early move to the majors cost Chaney the much-needed time in the minors to perfect his hitting against high-level pitching. He traveled north with the Reds in the spring of 1969 with only 776 minor league at bats under his belt. It would ultimately prove to be damaging to his career. 

In June of 1969, Chaney experienced one of those moments every kid dreams of—a ballfield close encounter with his childhood idol. “I grew up a huge Ernie Banks fan,” Darrel explains. Hammond is just south of Chicago. “I admired the way he played and the way he acted. After my 12-year-old season in Little League [1960], Ernie Banks was the guest speaker at our banquet. I can still remember the speech he gave. He told us, 'When you go to work, work hard. When you play, play hard, when you pray, pray hard. And always tell the truth so you never need to remember what you said.' After Ernie talked I got to go up and meet him and get his autograph. He signed it, ‘I’ll see you in the big leagues.’ I still have that autograph framed in a collage.

June 7, 1969 the Reds were in Chicago for Darrel’s first series at Wrigley Field as a major leaguer. Ernie Banks was playing first base for the Cubs. “I got a double early in the game and so I didn’t get to stop at first. But later I got a single. I was standing on first and suddenly I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up and Ernie Banks said, ‘Darrel Chaney. I knew you’d make it. Welcome to the big leagues. It’s a long way from that banquet in Hammond, Indiana isn’t it.’ There had been a personal interest story in the paper the day before and maybe Ernie had read it, but it was so great to be standing there on first base in Wrigley Field with my parents and friends in the stands, with Ernie Banks giving me a hug.”

Chaney played solidly in the field during his rookie year, splitting time at shortstop with Woody Woodward and filling in as needed in late innings around the infield. The Reds narrowly missed winning the division that year. “We had a lot of talent in 1969,” he says. “That’s the first year they started calling us the Big Red Machine.” The Reds were tied for first as late as September 11, but a rash of pitching injuries slowed them to 12-10 the rest of the way while the Braves went 14-4 and took the flag.
That was the excuse Bob Howsam needed to give Dave Bristol the axe. “I was really surprised when Dave was let go,” says Chaney. “I loved the guy. Still do. Everybody on the team liked him. He was always in there fighting--and I mean fist fights sometimes--just to back us up. You knew if you ever got in an argument with an umpire or got thrown out he was going to back you up. Comparing the two managers, I think Dave knew more baseball than Sparky. I know that’s saying a lot because Sparky won a lot of games, but Dave really knew the game inside and out. But he was from the previous regime and Howsam wanted to bring in his own man. It’s unfortunate because Dave should be remembered as the man who helped build the Big Red Machine. He had all those guys--Bench, Pete, Perez, Helms, May—all of them in the minors. He brought them along. And we were so close in ’69.”

Under Anderson, Chaney initially platooned with young Venezuelan shortstop Dave Concepcion who struggled at the plate his first few years. “I outhit him in 1972 [.250 to .209] but when we got to camp in 1973 Sparky gave him the job fulltime.” The multi-talented Concepcion had a breakout year in 1973, winning the first of what would be nine All-Star selections over the ensuing decade. 

With second base manned by future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Chaney found himself starved for playing time. “You get on a great team like that and it’s hard to get in the lineup," Chaney says. "Sure, I wanted to play every day, but it was great just to be a part of a team that good.” 

Fans sometimes forget that everyone with enough talent and drive to make a major league roster was a star in high school and wants to play all the time. It's difficult to accept a reduced role for the good of the team, but that's what Darrel Chaney did. Once he had a heart-to-heart talk in Sparky Anderson's office about his place on the team and his future. Sparky explained that with a future Hall of Famer at every position, there was little place for Darrel as a starter with the Reds. But he reminded him that he was still valuable for all the things he could do. "Be ready when the time comes."

"And that's what I tried to do," Chaney says. "When I got my chance, whatever was needed, I tried to contribute."




Perhaps Darrel Chaney's most valuable season as a Red came in 1973. Concepcion broke his ankle sliding into a base July 22 and was lost for the year. At the time the Reds were beginning to roll--fighting their way back from a deficit to the first-place Dodgers which had been 11 games July 1--and had drawn to within five and a half games. With Chaney playing shortstop almost every game the rest of the way the Reds went 42-21, caught the Dodgers September 3 and never looked back, cruising to a 99-win season. “That was an exciting year because the Dodgers had such a big lead. But we just played great and they didn’t and their lead slipped away. We had so much hitting on that team, all I really needed to do was just catch the ball.” 



But being a part of a team that good meant that Chaney could never coast. “I went to spring training every year for seven straight seasons playing to win a roster spot. I never could relax in the spring. It was a great time, but there was a lot of pressure. I never knew what was going to happen, if I was going to get traded or something.”
The trade came in 1976. Dave Bristol had taken over as the manager of the rebuilding Braves. It says a lot that he remembered Chaney from 1969 and wanted to bring him in to the middle of his new infield. Chaney was a starter for the Braves in 1976 and hit a solid .250. “It was good that I got a chance to start in Atlanta,” he says, “but it was hard leaving Cincinnati. I had a lot of friends on the Reds.  It was such a great city and a magical time for the team; to be able to walk down the street in Cincinnati and have people say, ‘Hey, you’re Darrel Chaney. Great job.’ I was part of arguably the greatest team in baseball history.  I sat and cried when I watched them win the Series again that fall because I wasn’t a part of it anymore.”


Chaney played four years for the Braves then hung up his cleats after an eleven-year major league career. He made the Atlanta area his home and worked briefly in broadcasting before launching a successful business career. He also was involved for years in the Major League Alumni Association and as a public speaker. Now comfortably retired in the mountains of northern Georgia, he and his wife will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They raised one son and now enjoy watching another baseball Chaney—a 17-year old grandson rising senior who has been noticed by college and pro scouts.
Darrel keeps busy as a motivational/inspirational speaker. Faith has played a important role in his life and he is a big believer in the importance of character in the lives of young people. In 2013 Chaney and a minister friend published a book Welcome to the Big Leagues--Every Man's journey to Significance: The Darrel Chaney Story. More than your average baseball memoir, it is an inspirational faith-based book that takes lessons from the triumphs and struggles of his career. 

Darrel learned the value of a good role model when he was young and he tries to carry on the message. He has a strong desire to help the future generation and be a good role model. "It was so great to meet my idol Ernie Banks and have him turn out to be such a nice guy. I tell kids, 'Find out about your heroes. Don't just like a guy because he's a great player. Find out what they're really like.'"
“Baseball gave me a platform. If I can use that to make an impact on someone else’s life, especially a young person, there's nothing better than that."  You can contact Darrel to speak to your group at his website: Darrelchaney.com


Looking back on his baseball career, Chaney picks two moments that stand out above all the rest. The Ernie Banks episode of course is tops. “The second was riding down the street in Cincinnati in the parade after the 1975 World Series [the Reds’ first championship since 1940]. People were hanging out everywhere, paper and things were raining down on us from the buildings. Everybody loved everybody. You can’t realize what that felt like.”

Reds beat reporter Earl Lawson wrote in Sporting News that one winter in the early 1970s the Reds installed a universal weight machine in the clubhouse. After watching the trainer give the players a demonstration, Chaney asked one of the coaches, “If I do this will it help my batting average?”
“No,” came the smirking reply, “but you’ll look better while you’re sitting on the bench.”
Darrel Chaney always looked good for the Reds, both on the bench and the field. Every great team needs a Darrel Chaney, a good character guy willing to fill whatever role is needed.