Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Baseball Economics Part 3: The aftermath of the 1972 Strike and the Lost Class of Player Reps

The 1972 baseball player strike was historic as the first labor-related work stoppage in American professional sports history. During the short-lived strike, the players showed an unexpected resolve and ability to stick together and bargain collectively. It would prove to have drastic implications over the next decade and would influence player salaries in ways no one could have imagined at the time.

Often forgotten is the fate of the team player reps from that period. While some owners claimed to put the strike behind them and get on with the business of baseball, most openly viewed the union with scorn and vowed to continue the fight. Like any giant business when confronted by the threat of a pesky union, Major League baseball owners set out on a course of union-busting. They had gambled that the solidarity of the players would fragment when confronted with the prospect of missing paychecks during the strike. Instead, the union emerged stronger than ever and owners were still searching for a way to maintain the upper hand. Often the player reps made an easy target of retribution.

The position of team player rep had never seemed so important. Traditionally, the post was filled by a team vote during the spring, or during the season if the position suddenly fell open. Sometimes serious veterans, respected by their peers, who understood the issues and had a plan, guys like Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning, took the post. Other times the vote was basically a popularity contest among the few players who indicated they weren't violently opposed to taking on the job.

In Ball Four, Jim Bouton talked about committing a social faux paux one season by actively campaigning for the position. He went so far as to write up a two-page statement on why he felt he would be a good player rep, what qualities he thought they should look for in a rep and why he felt he met those requirements. Bouton, who was never the most popular man on any team, mainly because he tended to ask annoying questions and speak sometimes when he shouldn't, mimeographed his well-thought-out treatise, handed it out to his teammates for their perusal, then got exactly three votes out of the twenty-five man roster.

Player reps attended two meetings a year, one at the All-Star break and one after the season. Their job description included keeping teammates informed of health care, pension plans and other issues facing the union, along with looking after the day-to-day complaints and needs of players. For much of the 1960s, the needs of players were confined to maybe an extra shower head in the locker room or private rooms on the road for veterans. The union held about as much power as the average elementary school student council.

The hiring of Marvin Miller in 1966 to head the union drastically changed the dynamic of player-owner relations. Everyone knew that serious confrontation was coming. And the job of player rep suddenly became more important, and dangerous.

Milt Pappas, player rep for the Cubs, said being a rep was, "The most thankless job in baseball. You get abuse from the athletes as well as the front office. A lot of reps lose their jobs or are sent to the minors."

Billy Cowan, rep for the Angels, noted that while in the past reps had been given the use of a car, "All we get now is complaints and a few hearty hand clasps. And sometimes we get traded. My wife about went out of her goard [during the strike]. I was getting 15-20 phone calls a day from players, writers and broadcasters."

When the April 1-April 13,1972 strike ended and play resumed, team player reps were singled out for the most vitriolic boos in almost every major league city. Even local deity Brooks Robinson was booed in Baltimore for the first time in memory. This was not by accident. The reps had been held up as the public face of the strike, and fans, inflamed by the almost uniformly negative press, reacted as expected.

Actually, for several years the press, no doubt encouraged by management, had referred to individual reps as troublemakers and poison in their locker rooms--merely for doing their jobs. Billy Cowan was noted to be  the "Clarence Darrow of the baseball clubhouse" by The Sporting News in 1972 (a novel way of restating the overused insult "clubhouse lawyer"). Other reps reported being badgered by management for information to reveal the inner workings of the union in order to give the owners an advantage.

In addition to the mental abuse reps took, the talk of job insecurity by Pappas and Cowan was a very real threat. Between October, 1971 through the summer of 1972, an astonishing 16 of the 24 team reps were traded, sold, or released and three other resigned under duress for fear of a similar fate.

Some of the reps were of such talent and local reverence that they were obviously untouchable, like Brooks Robinson, Joe Torre, the assistant rep in St. Louis, coming off an MVP year in which he hit .363, and Tom Seaver. Twenty-five year old Johnny Bench, who took over in April of 1972 when the previous rep resigned and was in the middle of his second MVP season in three years had as much job security in Cincinnati as the Pope had in the Vatican City.

A few others, like Jim Perry of the Twins, one year removed from a Cy Young Award season, and Dave Guisti, the relief ace for the World Champion Pirates, were not quite Hall of Famers but were good enough on the field to feel safe about their employment.

Unfortunately, the majority of the reps were not so comfortably indispensable to their teams. In fact, most of the other reps soon proved to be entirely dispensable if nothing else.

Some of the players changing teams or being released could be explained by normal attrition. After all, they were mostly veterans, some nearing the end of their careers, and veterans were most likely to be traded at the time. But the sheer numbers begs the question of whether they were targeted specifically for their union activities. Many of the moves were puzzling from a baseball standpoint and are difficult to understand for any reason other than revenge or attempted union-busting.

Jim Lonborg was an intelligent, serious-minded seven-year veteran, a graduate of Stanford and the player rep for the Red Sox, as well as their pitching ace. A series of injuries had slowed his performance on the field, and a change of scenery was the reason given when he was traded to Milwaukee in October, 1971. He quickly became the player rep for the Brewers (the previous rep, Lew Krause, had been part of the deal for Lonborg). Lonborg performed very well for the miserable 1972 Brewers, going 14-12 with a 2.83 ERA. He was only 30 years old and appeared to be near the top of his game but was traded along with Ken Brett and Ken Sanders October 31, 1972 to the Phillies for Billy Champion, Don Money and John Vukovich. Although Money was a reliable third baseman, the other two did not contribute. Lonborg had 5 or 6 more productive years after the trade. Any way you look at this one, before or after, it was a terrible deal for the Brewers and one must consider the fact that Lonborg's player rep status must have figured into him being dumped.

Ray Fosse of Cleveland was a two-time All-Star catcher and only 25 years old. He had a subpar season at .241 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 1972 but was still on the short list of the better catchers in the league. Fosse took much local heat in the period leading up to the strike--especially when the Indians voted unanimously to strike. He was traded to Oakland with Jack Heideman for Dave Duncan and George Hendrick in March of 1973. Long-term, this one proved about even for the two teams, but at the time, Fosse was one of the lowly Indians' better players and a well-liked, hard-working leader--not normally the kind of guy who would be on the trading block.

Dick Dietz was a hard-hitting, below-average-fielding catcher for the Giants. In 1970 he was an All-Star who hit .300 with 22 home runs and 109 RBIs--great numbers for a catcher, especially when you throw in the fact that he usually got a lot of walks and had a great OBP. As the Giants player rep, he was in obvious danger given the hardline rhetoric from old-school owner Horace Stoneman. After a 1971 season in which he had hit 19 home runs, Dietz was surprisingly placed on waivers April 12, 1972--in the middle of the strike. He was claimed by the Dodgers and used as a backup, then sent to Atlanta for 1973. He was released and not offered a contract for 1974 by anyone and, at 32 years old, his baseball career was over. It's difficult to believe that not one American League team could have used his solid bat as a DH.

Dietz's predecessor as the Giants rep, Gaylord Perry, was a future 300-game-winner, and one of the best pitchers in the league. As such, he should have been considered untouchable. However, he had been involved in one of the 1971 postseason's blockbuster trades. On November 29, 1971 he was sent to Cleveland for their ace Sam McDowell. The trade was viewed as an even swap at the time. McDowell, incidentally, had been Cleveland's player rep and Fosse's predecessor on that hot seat. Dietz's successor in the San Francisco-rep job was the venerable Willie Mays. One of the games' highest paid players at $165,000, Mays had been a vocal supporter of the players' cause during the strike. At 41 years of age, he was obviously in decline and a liability to the team at that price. His role as player rep may or may not have hastened his exit from San Francisco because Stoneman, strapped for cash, had been looking for a way to painlessly rid himself of the Say Hey Kid's salary for some time. On May 11, 1972, Mays, the face of the Giant franchise for two decades was traded to the New York Mets.

There were other deals, not involving All-Stars, that were suspicious as well:

Jack Aker was 31 years old in 1972 and the rep for the Yankees. In 1971 he had a fine season in the bullpen, going 4-4 with a 2.59 ERA in 41 games--obviously a valuable commodity. But he was sent to the Cubs May 17, 1972 as the player-to-be-named-later for the January, 1972 deal for a broken-down Johnny Callison--a move that appears to be an obvious dump.

Cecil Upshaw was a 29-year-old, 6-year-veteran quality reliever was the rep for the Braves. Atlanta's general manger, Paul Richards, had been one of the most vocal anti-union hawks during the strike. Upshaw, who would have several more productive years, was traded in April, 1973 to Houston for backup outfielder Norm Miller, much less than he should have commanded in a fair-market deal.

Joel Horlen had been a frontline pitcher for the White Sox since 1963. At 34 years old in 1972, he was coming off a subpar, but not terrible, year of 8-9 with a 4.26 ERA. He had been the player rep in 1971 and 1972 and had openly clashed with general manager Stu Holcomb in the days leading up to the strike. The day after the strike started, April 2, 1972, Horlen was released by the White Sox. He was quickly picked up by Oakland's Charlie Finley and he played the 1972 season with the A's, going 3-4 with 3.00 in 32 games, mostly in relief. He was released in December and retired.

Although it looks suspicious, in fairness Horlen was aging and nearing the end of his career and age may have played as much a factor as being a rep in the demise of his playing time. Such was also the case with Gary Peters. A 35-year-old, 13-year veteran and one of the top ten pitchers in the league for a decade, Peters was the Red Sox rep and was coming off a solid 14-11 year. For 1972 the Sox had acquired a younger starter in Marty Pattin, picked up the ageless Luis Tiant who had a break-out year and also brought up quality younger starters Lynn McGlothlin and John Curtis. Peters found himself out of the rotation. He got just 4 starts in 33 games in 1972, compiled a 4.32 ERA and was released at the end of the season. The Red Sox were fighting for the pennant and it is unlikely that Peters' role as rep played a part in the pitching decision.

For borderline players who were reps, their fate was often settled swiftly and savagely. Some of them lost not only their position on their team, but their job in baseball as well. Ron Brand of the Expos was a 32-year-old backup catcher. Nine days after the strike was settled, he was sent to Peninsula of the International League and his salary was cut from $22,000 to $7,000. Later in the season when the club wanted to drop him further in the minors, he retired.

Reds pitcher Jim Merritt, 28 years old in 1972 and a 20-game winner in 1970, had been booed regularly throughout the 1971 season. His record of 1-11 had much to do with it, but so did the inflammatory comments against Merritt from the local press, of which the Cincinnati Enquirer was owned by the Reds majority owner. Merritt voluntarily gave up his job as player rep April 16, 1972 to Johnny Bench and was soon demoted to the minors. He spent most of 1972 at AAA Indianapolis and was traded to Texas in December. He was out of baseball within a year.

Billy Cowan, a 33-year-old veteran outfielder, had been with the Angels for three years. He had been the club's top pinch-hitter in 1971 and had received a raise to $55,000 for the 1972 season. He was released on May 2, 1972--two weeks after the strike. No other major league team offered him a contract and he went into the insurance business, his baseball career over. He and the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance, alleging that the release was due to his union activities. The Angels argued that he was released according to section 7(b) (2) of the Uniform Players Contract that said a club could terminate a player who failed to exhibit sufficient skill to be a member of the team. It's a tricky position to argue and the arbitrator ruled in the Angels' favor and Cowan was officially an insurance salesman and no longer a major league baseball player.

Cowan, incidentally, had volunteered to be the assistant rep in 1971 to help Jim Fregosi. When Fregosi was traded (little controversy here--when you get a chance to get Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, you take it) Cowan took over as the main man. At the time he said, "I believe either the rep or the alternate rep should be a player who isn't playing as a regular so he won't be distracted." While a logical thought, the fact that a player wasn't valuable enough to be playing regularly put him at a very definite risk for continued employment if he dabbled in union activities.

Indeed, borderline players should not have applied for the job. Ed Spezio, a below-average third baseman for the lowly Padres is a prime example. In 1972, Spezio was a 30-year-old, 8-year veteran; a career backup who got a chance to play for the expansion Padres and promptly showed why he had been a career backup. In 1971 he had hit .231 with 7 home runs. In the spring of 1972, he refused a demand from the Padres to take the maximum 20% pay cut and was sent to the minors. He returned to San Diego in midseason only to be sent to the White Sox in early July of 1972, thrown in for a player to be named later and cash. He was released the following March and his baseball career was over.

Thirty-something-year-old, journeyman backup players are considered to be easily replaced and there was little fanfare or questions when reps Dal Maxvill of the Cardinals, Bob Barton of the Padres, Joe Keough of the Royals, Don Mincher of Texas, Denny Lemaster of the Astros, Jim Price of the Tigers, and Tom Haller (Price's replacement) of the Tigers were traded, demoted to the minors or released within the year. Like Spezio, Cowan and Dietz, a surprising number of them were not offered contracts by any other team, raising the specter of organized blackballing.

Overall, the carnage was swift and nearly complete. When questioned point-blank by reporters, Dodger general manager Al Campanis said it was "asinine" to suggest that player reps were more prone to being traded, sold or released. The above were mere coincidences and normal business.


Maybe not.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Papelbon vs. Harper: A Study in Old-School Leadership and Team Chemistry

By now, virtually everyone on the planet who is a sports fan, and most who are not, has seen the dramatic footage of the, uh, disagreement between Nationals players Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. Harper, upset at popping up, was not pleased when he returned to the bench and was publicly castigated by Papelbon, the team's new and disappointing closer. According to lip-readers, Harper said a few words which his mother might not be particularly proud of and the two engaged in a shoving match in full view of the modern digital world.

It was upsetting for many to watch this spectacle because Harper is an unbelievably talented 22-year-old with seemingly endless potential and the Nationals are a team whose high expectations for the season have imploded. More is expected out of both.

But before everyone panics and starts slinging accusations, we need to realize that these things happen. Ultra-competitive men playing a difficult game for six months will have heated disagreements. Ideally, they will occur behind closed doors and not in front of cameras and be spread throughout the twitter-world in minutes. But it happens. Often. It goes with the territory.

It would appear to an outsider that Jon and Bryce do not particularly like each other; they are not pals off the field and they have difficulty playing well together. And that's okay too. They don't need to like each other--only perform to help the team win. And for the sake of the team, they need to take away the lesson that they approached this whole thing entirely wrong. First, the timing could not have been worse. Any competitive player who makes an out is upset--especially when the team is going bad--and getting in his face immediately afterwards is absolutely the wrong thing to do, no matter what the message. I should pause here to note that I am talking about teammates. As far as opponents, anything goes (see Fisk v. Sanders, 1990).

This is a good time to talk about leadership and team chemistry. We can look to the business world where any businessman will tell you that one of the cornerstones of the lean six sigma model for team-building cohesiveness is that conflicts between team members should ideally be resolved without one member holding the other member by the throat.

But perhaps it's best to look to baseball's own past. How would two of the greatest TEAMS in baseball history, the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles and the Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies, have handled this?

The Orioles had a great nucleus of veterans who had been together for years, but everyone understood that two men led the team, each by very different methods. Brooks Robinson, the erstwhile magician with a glove, was everyone's friend. He functioned as the bank president and Rotary Club leader of a small town. He avoided confrontation, almost by instinct, always had a good word for everyone, enjoyed a good, if not raucous, joke, frequently at his own expense, and possessed an uncanny ability to put a bad game behind him. Win, lose, greatly-played or terribly-played, he was absolutely the same in the clubhouse immediately afterwards. Teammates understood after the rare loss: no big deal, we'll get them tomorrow.

While Robinson was not the holler guy, he set an unmistakable example with his play and work ethic. His uniform was usually the dirtiest on the field as he flung himself all over Memorial Stadium while making impossible plays. He ran the bases the same way--all out--although perhaps a bit slower than most. And teammates watched as he, the possessor of innumerable Gold Gloves, spent hours in the spring taking extra grounders and fielding bunts--perfecting the already perfected art.

Frank Robinson, on the other hand, led by an altogether different standard operating procedure. He was the tough drill sargent leading his men into the machine gun nest--running full throttle at the front. Frank talked the talk and walked the walk. He was often the most athletically gifted man on the field and few men in baseball history not named Cobb ever played with more desperate intensity than Frank Robinson. He left a trail of battered fences and second basemen in his wake. Frank kept a constant witty, biting, needling barrage in the clubhouse and on the bus--no one escaped his wrath. His comments were usually made with a smile, but if a point needed to be made, if something was hurting the team, there was no mistake in his intent. Few men wanted to risk the laser-like menacing glare of a mad Frank Robinson after they loafed or failed to make a smart play. Frank dominated the team and motivated it with his sheer force of will and talent.

The Orioles famously held a kangaroo court after winning games and Frank was the judge. The fact that they were only held after victories is significant because emotions tend to be frayed after losses and regrettable things are often said. During the proceedings of the court Oriole players could be fined the great sum of one dollar for various infractions from wearing the wrong color socks to saying something stupid in an interview. They were also fined for gaffes on the field, such as not moving over a runner with less than two outs, missing a cut-off man, or failing to get a bunt down. No one was immune and sometimes the judge himself was punished. The fines were usually meted out with a laugh and a sarcastic barb but the meaning was clear and lost to no one--these things could cost ballgames and repeat offenses would not be tolerated.

And so for the Orioles, if an uber-talented youngster, in a fit of anger after popping out, failed to properly run out a ball, he would be brought in front of toughest hanging-judge in all of baseball. His offense would be laid out before the court, he would be humiliated with catcalls and even pantomime imitations of his temper tantrum, relieved of a dollar and would think twice about ever doing it again.

The Big Red Machine of the mid-seventies had incredible talent from top to bottom as well as incredibly efficient leadership. They had a centerfielder, Cesar Geronimo, who not only won Gold Gloves, but hit over .300 in 1975. Dave Concepcion was a regular Gold Glover and the best shortstop of his era. They had a left fielder, George Foster, who was rapidly becoming a beast, compiling 121 RBIs in 1976, and a right fielder, Ken Griffey, who regularly hit .300 and was one of the fastest men in baseball. But none of the these guys were leaders. Everyone understood that the leadership on the team lay within a circle of four great players with powerful personalities: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan. While each of these men could have been a great leader on his own and three of the four possessed tremendous egos, the combination worked far better than the sum of the parts, possibly because they all understood the importance, and place, of the others and the ultimate goal of the team.

Bench, Rose and Perez had been with the team for years. Morgan joined in 1972 and, by virtue of his personality and talent, immediately joined the cadre of leaders. Bench, the more serious of the bunch on the field and in the clubhouse, led by a fierce determination and overpowering natural ability. He was the "Little General" on the field, demanding--and getting--exactly what he wanted out of each pitch.

Rose and Morgan led the vocal chorus. They ran together off  the field and tried to outdo each other in biting sarcasm. They lit up the clubhouse each day. And there was no mistaking their cocky, hell-bent attitude on the field.

While never getting the outside attention, Tony Perez was the acknowledged glue to the team. He supplied what the team needed on and off the field. He was an artist at getting a run in from second base with two outs. His sarcastic wit could be the equal of anyone, but his attitude and personality made him impossible not to like. He inherently seemed to always know what to do--when to ridicule, when to smile and joke--to lift the clubhouse.

So on these Reds if a young player had failed to run out a pop up, little would have been said in the dugout. Johnny Bench would have thrown a few surly glares in the youngster's direction, and may have grumbled to himself, but there would have been no confrontation in front of others. In the clubhouse, however, Morgan and Rose would have mercilessly ripped the poor SOB to shreds with an endless barrage of poison-tipped barbs and needles, all said with an evil grin, but leaving no doubt about the intended message. Perez would have then had the final say, either an additional ruthless jab or a smile and a pat on the back--whatever was needed--and the whole thing would have been forgotten, except by the perpetrator who would have been very unlikely to be a repeat offender. The next day, they would all take the field together and kick butt.

There are right ways and wrong ways to handle each situation and the ultimate goal is to foster a team that wins. Modern players would do well to look to history to see how others have successfully handled things. Hopefully Harper and the Nationals can take a page out of history and learn. Hopefully.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Watching the World Series During School: As Good As it Gets When You're Ten

"I'm talking about the World Series Nurse Ratched. . . I haven't missed the Series in years. Even in the cooler. When I'm in the cooler they run it in there or they'll have a riot."
---R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

 As the baseball postseason approaches and I anticipate once more the struggle to stay awake well past my bedtime, fearful of missing a memorable moment just because I need to go to work the next day, I look back longingly to the 1971 World Series. That Series will always hold a special place in my heart, not because I had any affection for either of the two teams, but because of the memory of watching it and because it fell at a time in my life in which things would never again be the same--for me or for the game. That was the year they started playing World Series games at night.

You see, by 1971, despite the fact that major league baseball games had been played at night for 36    years, the games of the World Series remained exclusively daytime affairs. Baseball owners, rigid in their old-time ways, were indeed myopic in not noticing how much money they could make with primetime television World Series games--that would soon change.

In 1971 I was ten years old and in fifth grade. It was a period in which baseball was an all-consuming passion. My friends and I could scarcely fathom a time or place in which anything would ever be more important to us than the game of baseball. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mauck, was a woman of ponderous size and indeterminate age. Even before the start of the year, her reputation proceeded  her--and filled us with dread--as she ruled her class with an iron fist.

The day of the second game of the World Series, which fell on a Monday due to a rain out the day before, I was surprised and pleased to no end when my best friend Kenneth produced a small hand-held transistor radio shortly after lunch and confidently announced that he was going to listen to the game. He popped the earplug in, turned his head slightly to one side to hide it from Mrs. Mauck and tuned in to postseason baseball in the back of our classroom.

Several other guys learned what was going on and slowly gravitated toward our seats. Suddenly, there was Joey May and Tony McKinney and Alan Ravenscraft; it was a gathering of a who's who of the Morehead Little League. We had been enemies during the season, but now  we worked together for the common good. Kenneth gave us a running play-by-play account on small scraps of paper slipped forward while we watched to make sure Mrs. Mauck's back was turned.

Of course it was too good to last. We were soon busted--caught red-handed in all our glory. But then, an amazing thing happened. Instead of meting out the expected assortment of cruel and unusual punishment, Mrs. Mauck seemed to soften and become--dare I say it?--human before our very eyes. She even mentioned some of the players in the Series and amazed us by using their names appropriately in sentences. I immediately gained a new appreciation for the teaching profession as a whole.

Perhaps influenced by thoughts of red-white-and-blue bunting hanging throughout the stadium, Mrs. Mauck announced that maybe this could serve as an exercise in civics. She would let the democratic process decide: we would put it to a vote and if we could get a solid majority, we could forego our planned math class and watch the game.

I quickly estimated that the vote would be close. The guy-vote was solid. Most of the boys in our class were staunch baseball fans and our immediately appointed campaign manager and influencer-of-opinions, Rocky, would take care of the rest. Rocky was older than us by at least a year, maybe two. He sported the definite beginnings of a real mustache and had smoked since second grade. Few non-athletic guys wanted to risk Rocky's disapproval in an open show-of-hands vote.

The girl-vote was a different matter, however. The problem was that since there were more girls than boys in the class, they held our fate in their hands. Few of them cared about baseball and they were just wily enough to vote negatively as a block for the sole purpose of driving us crazy, not an altogether unprecedented move. But surprisingly the vote passed unanimously. I immediately became a convert to the idea of democracy--is this a great system of government or what?

 Mrs. Mauck walked down to the library and pushed back an ancient black-and-white television perched on an enormous rusted-metal rolling cart. We all scooted our desks as close to the front of the room as possible and watched the glorious grainy image of the second game of the 1971 World Series on the tiny screen. I can't seem to remember a single play from that day but I'm certain it was a classic--courtesy of the toughest teacher Morehead Grade School had ever known.

While we watched the game, our heads bursting with the euphoria of unexpected good luck only a ten-year-old can appreciate, we had no idea that nothing would ever be the same. Two days later the teams met in Pittsburgh for the first night game in World Series history. Future generations of kids would never know the joy we had experienced in our classroom that autumn afternoon.

We didn't know it, but in the not-too-distant future we would change also. Thoughts of baseball cards and games of hotbox would somehow and improbably become less relevant, replaced by thoughts of girls and other things. And we would never have time to wonder how the heck it all happened.

Sometimes I look back and think that maybe Mrs. Mauck wasn't as tough as she tried to let on. Maybe she knew all along what the outcome of the classroom vote would be that day 34 years ago. Maybe the American college education system had produced a teacher who truly understood young boys and the value of priceless memories. Just maybe.

Friday, September 18, 2015

What's in a Name: Baseball's Eternally Great Nicknames, Truth and Fiction

Not long ago my wife and I were driving through western Indiana looking at covered bridges and we came across an unexpected baseball treasure. In the tiny town of Nyesville, Indiana (population: a cow, three chickens and a rust-out 1954 Chevy) is a memorial to the birth place of famed Chicago Cubs pitcher Mordechai Three-Finger Brown. If you are younger than, say a hundred-and-ten, you may not remember the man who pitched the Cubs to their last world championship in 1908. As they say, it's been a rough century.

I always thought that Brown had one of baseball's all-time great nicknames. It's a well-known part of baseball lore that Brown had his hand injured in a farming accident as a child and that left him with not only a great handle but a great handle. The peculiar grip imparted by the accident gave him the unique ability to throw what Ty Cobb called the best curve ball he ever saw. I did some checking and came across the following picture of Brown's hand:

It turns out that he only lost two-thirds of his index finger. The lateral three fingers were mangled, but intact.

This immediately filled me with a strange sort of disappointment. If you can't trust well-known nicknames, what can you trust?

Obviously, Brown should have been known as Four-and-One-Third-Finger Brown or, if you are one of those jokers who insists that the thumb doesn't count, Three-and-One-Third-Finger Brown. But Three-finger, while having a much nicer ring, is a definite, and deliberately-deceiving, misnomer. And there are few nomers I find more irritating than a misnomer.

It got me to thinking about other famous baseball nicknames and how many times we as the trusting, naive public have been duped.

Fortunately, on careful inspection, I think baseball nicknames have been remarkably honest and accurate over the years. Steve Carlton was obviously a Lefty. I witnessed Charlie Hustling. There are plenty of accounts from old-timers to let us know that Robert Feller's fastball was indeed Rapid. And Leo Durocher undoubtedly gave plenty of people lots of Lip

From numerous anecdotes we can safely assume that Eddie Stanky was certainly a Brat and Dick Stuart, while not a Doctor, did attempt to play (and play is a term used loosely in his case) the field with a Strangeglove.

Watching him in his Chicago years left little doubt that Greg Luzinski was as big, if not bigger, than a prized Bull and Bill Skowron was probably as large as the occasional Moose.

Home Run Baker did hit two home runs in a single World Series--a distinctly unusual occurrence at the time, worthy of the ostentatious moniker. At 5-foot-4, Willie Keeler was decidedly Wee. It didn't take long watching them field their positions to realize that Brooks Robinson really was the closest thing on a baseball field to a vacuum cleaner, and Ozzie Smith was a Wizard with a glove on his hand.

As a Kid in his early New York days, Willie Mays reportedly said, "Say Hey" quite often. Tom Seaver was mostly Terrific for years. There was never any doubt that, with a bat in his hands, Stan was definitely The Man. Edwin Donald Snider lorded over his center field domain in Flatbush like a Duke and one only has to listen to an old tape of Enos Slaughter talk to understand that he was from far out in the Country.

Ron Cey exhibited a running gate that could be compared to nothing but a Pinguin. It doesn't take long while looking over some of his quotes to conclude that if ever a baseball player deserved to be called Spaceman, it was Bill Lee. Ron Guidry was from Louisiana and threw as fast as lightning. And Dennis Boyd assured writers that in his early days he drained more than his share of Oil Cans (his colloquialism for beer cans).

Sad Sam Jones often appeared to be morose. And when reed-thin Ewell Blackwell reached back for a side-arm fastball, it looked just like he was using a whip.

There have really been only a few glaring examples of attempts at deception in baseball nicknames. Al Hrbosky, while he certainly appeared Mad when he took the mound, staring wild-eyed at the batter with smoke coming out of his ears, surprisingly was not Hungarian, but was born in Oakland.

Joe Jackson, played every single game of his major league career with shoes on and only played Shoeless once in a minor league game.

People who watched Marv Throneberry perform for the early New York Mets thought many things of his play, but apparently Marvelous was not one of them.

Watching Lou Piniella's fiery demeanor, both as a player and a manager, leaves one to conclude that there was very little that was Sweet about him on a baseball field.

There are no reports of Orlando Cepeda actually doing the Cha Cha in the dugout or dance floor.

And it's highly unlikely that Jay Hanna Dean could have pitched the way he did while suffering from the type of chronic vertigo that would have made him Dizzy.

*                *                 *                   *
Speaking of nicknames, should we have expected trouble if Henry Hammerin' Hank Aaron sat down on the bench next to Lenny Nails Dykstra?

What if Sal the Barber Maglie squared off against Burleigh Ol' Stubblebeard Grimes? And what if he had Mark the Blade Belanger and Razor Shines behind him in the field?

What if Sparky Anderson, aka Captain Hook, was following the Yankee Clipper around the clubhouse?

What if Bill Mad dog Madlock took a seat on the bench next to Jim Kitty Kaat with a sinister look in his eye? Or Andres Big Cat Galarraga silently stalked Mark The Bird Fidrych? Or Tony Big Dog Perez was drooling while eyeing James Rabbit Maranville?

Should Fred Crimedog McGriff feel obligated to track down Harmon Killer Killebrew and Mike Hit Man Easler?

If Gary Sarge Matthews walked into a clubhouse containing Derek the Captain Jeter, Ralph The Major Houk, Pee Wee the Little Colonel Reese and Johnny the Little General Bench who would he salute first?

And, most perplexing of all, what if John The Count Montefusco, on an extremely thirsty night, encountered only Walt No-Neck Williams in a dark alley?

It's questions like these that keep baseball fans warm throughout the long winter months.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

When Pudge Met Neon Deion

Even a casual observer should have noticed the stark difference between the brash rookie lead-off hitter for the New York Yankees and the old-timer behind the plate for the Chicago White Sox as the two teams prepared to play in Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1990.

The Yankee rookie, Deion Sanders, aka Neon Deion, aka Prime Time, had been generating a surprising amount of buzz in spite of his .100 batting average. Sanders was a new-age type of baseball player, one of the first to arrive in the big leagues already sporting his own brand. He was a forerunner of the hubris and bling that would characterize athletes of the coming decade. A gifted athlete, Sanders had been a two-time All-American football player at Florida State and the fifth pick of the 1989 NFL draft. After signing a 4-year, 4 million dollar contract with the Atlanta Falcons, he convinced the New York Yankees to pay him $100,000 to play baseball as a hobby.

On the football field Sanders was transcendent--electric with a ball in his hands--and the reason the term lock-down corner was invented. In baseball, however, he was a decided neophyte. Moreover, he seemed to be playing the game only to prove that he could. He admitted in an interview that he didn't even like baseball, that he felt that it was boring, but thought that playing baseball would increase his leverage for a bigger football contract. Reporters found him disinterested and evasive until the television cameras came on, then a switch was flipped and a one thousand-watt personality radiated forth.

Sanders liked to refer to himself in the third person, by his self-given nickname as in this famous statement: "Prime Time wakes up every morning and says to the mirror, 'mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the flashiest, best-dressed of them all?' And every morning the mirror says, 'You, Prime Time.'"

By 1990 Carlton Fisk was playing in his fourth decade of major league baseball. After joining the White Sox in 1981 he had proven to be the rare big-ticket free agent signee--the guy who came through as advertised and stayed in town to earn his money. There was nothing fake or contrived about Carlton Fisk. He came from a time and place where a man's word meant something; a handshake was binding. He said what he felt, rarely sugar-coated his message, and if the truth hurt, then so be it.

Yankee Stadium had long held a special place in the heart of Carlton Fisk. His years as a member of the Boston Red Sox during the 1970s had been marked by epic wars waged against the Yankees and his pinstriped doppelganger Thurman Munson. It had been a rivalry that defined the decade for both teams.

Whereas Sanders had spent only a nominal time in the minors, not pausing to learn the intricacies of the "boring" game, Fisk had slugged his way through four years of the traditional apprenticeship of minor league baseball, enduring the anonymity, long bus rides and cramped, smelly locker rooms Sanders would never know. Although he was himself a phenomenal athlete, Fisk's career had been marked by grit and determination. He had fought through injuries that should have ended his career. He had resisted efforts, even by his own front office, to escort him out to pasture, continuing to perform better than his peers at his demanding position well into his 40s, playing long past the time when his contemporaries were either coaches, comfortably retired or pursuing other careers. He had done this by sheer force of will along with a fanatical weight-training regimen that frequently found him in the stadium weight room, sweating alone, well after his teammates had gone home after games. These experiences had given him a deep appreciation for the game to which he had devoted his life.

And so it was perhaps inevitable that when the rookie led off the Yankee first and proceeded to draw a dollar sign in the dirt around home plate, his newly self-appointed trademark, the old dinosaur behind the plate couldn't help but notice and think, "This guy is driving me crazy already."

In the third inning, with one out and a man on third, Sanders lifted a high popup to the infield. He took a couple of steps, stopped and watched the ball momentarily, then turned and loafed back toward the bench. The spectacle was more than Fisk could bear. He erupted, "Run the f***ing ball out, you piece of shit!" Sanders continued to the dugout without looking back.

As Sanders approached the plate for his next at bat, Fisk pierced him with a steely stare but Sanders refused to make eye contact. The rookie put his head down, drew his dollar sign in the dirt once more--the very dirt that Fisk and Munson had fought over so desperately in the seventies--and mumbled something.

Fisk demanded, "What did you say?"

Sanders answered, without looking up. "Hey man, the days of slavery are over."

Fisk stood up, removed his mask and stepped nose-to-nose with the rookie. "I don't care whether you are black or blue or pink or red. If you don't start playing this game right I'm going to kick your butt right here." From there the discussion became more animated and personal.

Perhaps only because they felt they should, confused players wondered in from both benches and crowded around home plate. But there was no shoving or jawing as in most baseball fights, they merely stood around and watched the show. The umpire finally separated the two players and the game continued.

Writers were initially confused as to what started the argument. A few days later, Fisk explained: "There's a right way and a wrong way to play this game. It's the Yankees pride and the Yankees pinstripes involved here. Some of these guys have got to be turning over in their graves. I play for the other team, but that offends me."

Over the next few weeks, when asked, he further offered, "It's professional etiquette. There's a right way and a wrong way to play this game."

"Me! Me! Me! I! I! I! His selfishness offends me."

"There are certain stripes you must earn before you can go about the way you put your mustard on."

Many felt that it was Carlton Fisk's finest hour--even better than a certain late-night home run he had hit in another life. He was now seen as the keeper of the game's lost old-school values. He was stating plainly what a lot of people wanted to say, but hadn't.

Deion Sanders would hit .158 for the 1990 New York Yankees and bolt the team in August when they refused his in-season demand for 2 million dollars.

Carlton Fisk continued playing baseball until he was forced out of the game in 1993, at the age of 45.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Say What You Will About Shoeless Joe, But These Things Ain't So

News arrived this week that Major League Baseball has once again turned down an appeal to reinstate Shoeless Joe Jackson. This continues a tradition going back to 1951 when Happy Chandler failed to respond to a resolution by the South Carolina Legislature. Apparently it is the policy of baseball commissioners to never reverse mandates made by a former commissioner--news that does not bode well for a certain hit king and his fans.

While reading the reports of the Jackson non-decision, it struck me that Joe Jackson may be the most misunderstood great player in baseball history. For more than 100 years, Jackson and his image have been twisted, stretched and molded to fit whatever needs are desired at the time--blending the line between fantasy, mythology and reality. This is unfortunate for Joe Jackson and his memory; his story was great enough without the perpetuated lies and inaccuracies.

First and foremost, forget Hollywood. Joe Jackson was not a sparkly-eyed, right-handed hitting, left-handed throwing Ray Liotta, speaking in a New Jersey accent about his love of the game and how being kicked out of baseball was like "having a part of me amputated," and how he would have played for food money. Jackson was, of course, a southerner who sported a decidedly hillbilly look with big ears and a bad haircut. And as for playing for mere food money, that's a quaint cliche, spread  exhaustively by those with other more mundane jobs, but that thought hasn't really been considered by the country's elite baseball players since 1869.

Joe Jackson was not the simpleton many have made him out to be. Writers of his time, playing up any angle for effect, got much print and mirth out of Jackson's illiteracy and supposed ignorance. A poem entitled "Joe Jackson" which appeared in Baseball Magazine in the mid-1910s is typical, stating in part: "Of higher mathematics I guess he doesn't think./ In fact, Phi Beta Kappa to Joe may mean a drink." Pretty hilarious stuff to be sure, but in reality he was no more of a simple-minded rube than any other young kid from a small town who showed up to play ball in the big cities at the time--albeit one who was illiterate. There is ample evidence that rumors of Jackson's lack of basic intelligence were greatly exaggerated. Joe became a shrewd businessman with time and ran a very successful dry-cleaning business in Savannah after leaving baseball. It eventually grew to involve several locations around town and provided him and his wife with a very good income (not an easy task during the Depression). They later moved to his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina where he ran a successful liquor store for the duration.
Joe Jackson was not inclined, as claimed in numerous stories perpetuated by writers like Grantland Rice, to roam hotel lobbies and the like sans footwear. His nickname--and it is one of the all-time greatest--came from one solitary minor league game in which blisters from new shoes made him do without for that day. But that was the only time he ever played shoeless and he certainly was partial to footwear on a regular basis throughout his life.

Although the story of the small boy--his little heart broken by the gravity of the gambling scandal-- who pleaded with Joe, "Say it ain't so," is unquestionably priceless and has become entrenched in baseball lore and even part of everyday vernacular, in reality it bears about as much actual truth as the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Al Gore inventing the internet. At the time journalists played free and loose with facts and never let the lack of truth hinder a good story. The legend of "say it ain't so" was first told by Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News and was said to have occurred when Jackson was leaving the courthouse after his appearance before the grand jury on September 28, 1920. It was quickly picked up and spread in all its gloria-perpetua. But Jackson himself stated in future interviews that it never happened. And no one else who was supposedly there ever confirmed it. But it was a great tale, nonetheless.

One myth that baseball owners and writers desperately wanted to spread was that Jackson and his cohorts were the only ones who had ever even considered committing the dastardly crime of gambling on baseball games. In truth, baseball at the time was lousy with gamblers--the players, owners and writers knew it. And it did indeed threatened the very fabric of the game. The truly amazing part of the World Series scandal of 1919 was not that it happened, but rather that it didn't occur earlier. Writers of the day took great pains to paint baseball in warm, fuzzy tones as the bastion of good will, fair play and all that is great about America. While baseball is certainly a great game, the rest of the stuff written was largely only of use for spreading on farm fields. Owners schmoozed, wined and dined writers and often even controlled their employment and it was understood that part of the writer's job was to build up "The Image" and ensure that the titans made money and the public had unfailing trust in the game they were watching. Something needed to be done about the gambling problem without admitting that baseball had a gambling problem. The Black Sox made convenient, if not unfortunate, scapegoats to ensure that no one would ever again question the integrity of the game.

Possibly the biggest myth about Joe Jackson was that he became a broken, embittered, sad figure who whiled away his remaining years in obscurity after his public shaming at the hands of the baseball establishment. This is told very poignantly in Ken Burns' Baseball. While the Burns series is very entertaining, it occasionally seems more interested in entertainment than stating factual accounts. Burns' section on the Black Sox scandal speaks with authority and espouses as definite fact accounts which are still highly debated by researchers. It contains the following summation from the sanctimonious soapbox of Jackson's contemporary, baseball writer Hugh Fullerton (whose efforts helped break open the scandal), speaking of Jackson: "There came a day when a crook spread money before this ignorant idol, and he fell. For a few dollars he sold his honor."

Burns then concludes with Daniel Okrent telling the sad story of  Jackson meeting Cobb years later at his store in Greenville. Jackson acted like he didn't know Cobb and when Cobb finally asked him why, Jackson supposedly stated, very morosely, "I just didn't think anyone I used to know up there wanted to recognize me again." Once again, the truth is noticeably stretched to provide an entertaining moment.

In Ty Cobb's 1961 autobiography (the one written with the aid of the questionably-reputable Al Stump) he gives this account, which he says happened in 1946: "I was motoring through Greenville, South Carolina with Grantland Rice. We'd been to the Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta, and were headed north. I told Grant, 'I've got an old friend in this town. Let's look him up.'"

Cobb asked a policeman and was directed to Jackson's store. After Jackson waited on Rice and Cobb without apparent recognition, finally Cobb said, "Don't you know me, you old so-and-so?"

"Joe spun around and grinned all over his face. 'Sure! But I didn't think you knew me after all these years. I didn't want to embarrass you or nuthin'.' I shook his hand. 'Joe, I'll tell you how well I remember you,' I said. 'Whenever I got the idea I was  good hitter, I'd stop and take a good look at you. Then I knew I could stand some improvement. I don't think I ever saw a more perfect swing than yours.' Old Joe, who died 4 years later, seemed pleased at my remark."

It's a nice, if somewhat self-serving, story but when read closely, it has a vastly different tone than the pitiful tale told by Okrent in which Jackson seems ashamed to even be recognized by a former member of the baseball establishment.

And while in Cobb's version Grantland Rice accompanied him, Rice wrote in his "The Sportlight" syndicated column on June 7, 1947 this account of the story: "Cobb, who had a deep admiration for Jackson's hitting and his outfield play, told me of the saddest story I ever heard about a man who had once known baseball greatness. 'I was passing through Greenville, South Carolina and asked where Joe worked,' said Ty . . ." Rice proceeds to give Cobb's version and concludes with, "So there was the finish of one who might be called baseball's greatest artist."

This makes it sound as if Rice was not with Cobb since he stated that Cobb told him the story. Rice and Cobb were both known to stretch and even manufacture the truth when it came to Cobb-stories over the years. Several of Jackson's friends later told writers of the day they were introduced to the great Ty Cobb by Joe Jackson in his store or on the streets of Greenville, so it's apparent that Cobb did visit Jackson, but the content of their conversation and the embarrassment of Jackson seems unlikely to be as told by Cobb and Rice and Burns.

There are many accounts from friends, relatives and former residents of Greenville that Joe Jackson was not a sad, broken, embarrassed man. Quite the opposite. His store was a known hangout to socialize and he had many friends and relatives who enjoyed his time. The people of Greenville who knew and loved Jackson in his post-baseball days remember a smiling, happy man, always ready to hand out advice or to help kids, frequently giving them baseball tips and buying them ice cream. He was very popular with the folks of his hometown and they never doubted his claims of innocence.

And Joe didn't really miss out on much baseball. He continued to play the game regularly until the early 1930s, initially barnstorming for cash in northern areas soon after his dismissal from organized ball, but later playing throughout the south--often full seasons of more than 100 games for semipro teams in places like Bastrop, Louisiana, Americus, Georgia and Waycross, Georgia. He invariably was the one of the best hitters ever seen on these fields and frequently led his teams to championships. After he stopped playing, there are numerous reports of his coaching area kids in Greenville and he remained active on semipro circuits as a manager and  even as a league president for a time.

The basic question of Joe Jackson's guilt in the Black Sox scandal and the extent of his dishonest play will never be known. Did he do it or didn't he? Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was he a knowing participant in the fix or just a guy who learned of the deceit of others but was rebuffed by management when he tried to report it? The larger question, for Joe Jackson and his supporters, is: was Kenesaw Mountain Landis' decry of a lifetime ban actually an eternal ban. The lifetime ban for the man with the .356 career major league batting average should have run out with Jackson's death in 1951. But it seems that for baseball, lifetime means a lot longer than just a man's time of life.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Brooks Robinson 1964: A September to Remember

While baseball is a team sport, it also lends itself to individual achievement--the singular warrior pulling down columns to crush Philistines. Nowhere is this more appreciated than in September during a tight pennant race; that's when legends are made. Unfortunately, some of the most heroic feats are soon forgotten merely for the reason that the hero's team did not ultimately win the pennant. But often the pennant is won with the help of luck and circumstance out of control of the individual--a key September injury by an opponent's best pitcher, a surprise drag bunt for a hit by the individual's pitcher in a late inning that starts an important rally, a bad hop or a line shot that leads to a diving stab by the opponent.

The lack of a pennant should not invalidate a heroic effort. But, unfortunately, it invariably does. With this in mind, I would like to talk about one of the most fantastic pennant-run Septembers; one compiled by Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.

The year was 1964 and the Philistines Robinson was trying to crush were from New York, winners of eight of the previous nine American League pennants, guys with names like Mantle, Maris and Ford.

The Orioles, barely out of their first decade of existence, were a team on the way up. They had recently-acquired shortstop Luis Aparicio, hulking slugger Boog Powell and great pitching from Milt Pappas, youngsters Wally Bunker (who won 19 in 1964) and Dave McNally, and future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who pitched in 13 wins as a 37-year-old.

The undisputed leader of the Baltimore team was Brooks Robinson. The  27-year-old Robinson had established himself as one of the best players in the league since finishing third in MVP balloting in 1960. He had won the past four Gold Gloves for American League third basemen (on his way to a record 16 in a row), and routinely finished in the top ten in batting average. He was already being referred to as the best fielding third baseman in baseball history. While he made spectacular, never-before-seen plays, he also rarely booted a routine chance--he was in the process of leading the league's third basemen in fielding percentage a record 11 times. Men would literally walk on the moon before the sure-handed Robinson would make three errors in one game (July 28, 1971).

In 1964, the Yankees, White Sox and Orioles battled all season for the lead in the American League and entered September with only two games separating them. And that's the way things would remain the entire month--the three teams going back and forth, never separated by more than two games. It was white-knuckle time--every game held meaning.

Brooks entered September hitting an even .300 with 86 RBIs (trailing RBI-leader Harmon Killebrew by 11), having a good, solid season.

Then, in the heart of the pennant race, he went unconscious. From September 9 through the end of the season, he hit .464 (39-84) and had 28 RBIs. He knocked in 24 RBIs in the last 17 games.

He had 4 hits against Washington September 10, 4 hits against Minnesota September 16, 4 RBIs in the first game of a double header against the Angels September 20 and added another in the second game. September 23, he had 3 hits against the Tigers. He had one stretch in which he had 14 hits in 23 at bats, including 7 hits in a row.

Moreover, he was almost single-handedly keeping the Oriole offense going. Powell was injured and out from August 20 to September 5. He returned to hit .343 in September, but no other Oriole hit over .263 for the month.

But the Yankees were the Yankees. The proud old men summoned one final September run--they won 13 of 14 from September 12-26. The Orioles could not keep the murderous pace and were finally eliminated October 2--finishing with 97 wins, two games behind the Yankees.

Robinson's September of 1964 fares well when compared to some of the more fabled pennant efforts in baseball history. One of the most celebrated, of course, is Carl Yastrzemski's 1967 season. Over the final 23 games of 1967, Yaz hit .427 (35-82) with 23 RBIs. In 1964, Robinson hit .446 (37-83) with 29 RBIs over the same period.

Robinson finished the 1964 season with a batting average of .317, trailing only Tony Oliva's .323 in the American League. He led the league with 118 RBIs and had 28 home runs.  For his efforts, he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player, easily outdistancing second-place finisher Mickey Mantle 269 to 171 points.

His season totals were nice, but it was his September that was inspiring and should be remembered. Unfortunately, it has been lost in the dust of history.