Thursday, March 7, 2019

Book Review: Phinally!: The Phillies, the Royals and the 1980 Baseball Season That Almost Wasn't

There are some books that are just fun to read. They bring back memories, good and bad, of a particular moment in time. Phinally! by J. Daniel is one such book. It focuses on the events of the summer of 1980, providing a perfect time-capsule of the baseball season and popular culture. The 1980 season certainly contained it's share of memorable events and personalities and Daniel does a good job of covering them all.

The book opens with an entertaining review of the Philadelphia Phillies history of ineptitude, to prepare the reader for what the fans and players of the 1980 Phillies team were up against, battling not only other baseball teams, but the weight of ingrained institutional incompetence. Although the Phillies had experienced success in the late 1970s with several divisional titles, they had won only two pennants (none since 1950) and zero World Series championships in roughly a century of professional baseball.

In addition to baseball, Daniel also supplies an ample amount of cultural nostalgia to help set the scene. He opens spring with the "Who shot J.R.?" phenomenon and intersperses tales of the Blues Brothers, The Empire Strikes Back and Airplane!.

On the baseball field, the 1980 season was momentous for a number of reasons. Nolan Ryan became the first major leaguer to sign for the now-quaint sum of one million dollars. Billy Martin resurfaced in Oakland, took a team of underachieving no-names and drove the American League crazy for four months with Billy Ball. A curious rookie named Joe Charboneau showed up in Cleveland opening beer bottles with his eyelids, snorting jello (and other things) through his nose, all while lighting up American League pitchers and generating an excitement in Cleveland that would not be seen again for a rookie until Willie Mays Hayes and Rickie "Wild Thing" Vaughn. Despite having a player break the million dollar mark, players and agents were not happy as owners sought to re-establish control of both the game and their own checkbooks. The result was a labor unrest that hung heavy over the season and would result in the catastrophic strike that wiped out a third of the 1981 season.

George Brett mesmerized the nation throughout the summer of 1980 with one of the greatest hitting seasons of the last half-century, carrying a .400 average as late as September 20. He finished with more RBIs than games and more home runs (24) than strike outs (22). As fate would have it, Brett, sitting on more hype than any other player, developed a hemorrhoid that knocked him out of a World Series game. After emergency surgery, he quipped, "Hopefully my problems are all behind me."
Mike Schmidt shook off a sometimes testy relationship with Philadelphia fans and had a monster last month to finish with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. He won the MVP award in the finest season of his Hall of Fame career and took the World Series MVP as well.

The NLCS between the Astros and Phillies was one of the most exciting postseason series in history. The last four games of the best-of-five series went into extra innings and the championship was not decided until the tenth inning of the final game--after the Phils, playing on the road, had dropped 5 runs on the Astros in the eighth, only to watch the Astros come back and tie it and send it into extra innings.

Daniel not only allows the reader to closely follow the pennant races, but gives ample time to the brawls, the oddities and the other aspects of the season. He presents the season in an organized, chronological style that moves quickly, preventing the reader from getting bogged down and shows a good eye for an anecdote.
Overall, this is a well-written, fun read. It's not just a book for Phillies fans, but baseball fans in general, particularly those who remember the 1980s or enjoy the history of the game.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

How Ernie Banks Revolutionized the Position of Shortstop*

*And where did those home runs come from?

One of the unfortunate byproducts of Ernie Banks' Mr. Cub image being so great is that sometimes it obscures exactly how good of a player he was in his prime, before bad knees forced a move to first base. The present generation may not realize how he single-handedly revolutionized the position of shortstop.

Before Ernie joined the Chicago Cubs in September of 1953, shortstops were valued for their fielding and intrinsic virtues, but little was expected of them offensively. They were almost uniformly quick, feisty, pesky little guys with names like Scooter or Pee Wee (some were even named Pesky). They were respected leaders on the field and on offense might draw a walk for you, steal second base or slap a ball to right on a hit and run. Anything more was a bonus. If their team happened to win a pennant while they were hitting .267 with 6 homers and 63 RBIs (as Marty Marion did in 1944) or .324 with 7 homers and 66 RBIs (as Phil Rizzuto did in 1950), they walked away with an MVP trophy.

And then Ernie Banks started hitting. He had a solid rookie season in 1954 with 19 home runs and 79 RBIs--well above what was normally expected for a shortstop. The next year, he loosened up and the position was never viewed the same.

Ernie hit 44 home runs (including a major league record 5 grand slams) in 1955--a year in which he would not turn 24 until December. The previous National League record for home runs by a shortstop was 23--Ernie had that by the first week of July.

He proceeded to top 40 home runs in 5 of the next 6 seasons (a wrist injury in 1956 cost him 15 games and his power over the last two months).

Ernie was no slouch as a fielder. He didn't have the range of Aparicio, Reese or Wills, but he had sure hands and rarely threw a ball away. In 1959 he set a record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop, with 12 and in 1960 he won a Gold Glove. These were nice accomplishments, but his value as a slugger in the middle of the infield would forever be unsurpassed.

Manny Machado, with his 37 home runs, generated a lot of talk last season of what an asset he was when installed into the lineup at shortstop because of his offense. Many modern writers mistakenly note that Cal Ripken is the prototype of the modern offensive-minded, slugging shortstop. While Ripken, at 6-4 and 200+ pounds, towered over Ernie's 6-1, 180 pounds (if he had 10 pounds of sweat in his flannel uniform), Ripken never hit more than 34 home runs in a season, even as he played half his career in a decade in which 66 home runs in a season wouldn't even win you a title.

In fact, until the steroid era, the top five slots for home runs by a Major League shortstop were all held by one man: Ernie Banks. And only one other player has ever topped Ernie's slugging numbers for a shortstop and that player is a documented serial steroid-abuser.

Only one other shortstop has ever hit 40 home runs in a season (Rico Petrocelli, 1969). Ernie remains as the most potent non-steroid-aided offensive force ever to take the field at shortstop in the major leagues.

But Where Did the Home Runs Come From?

Until the past few decades, amid the weight training, launch angles, walk/strike out/home run mentality and other factors, it was relatively difficult for any man to consistently hit major league pitches over the fence. While most players could hit home runs, only a few on each team did so with any regularity, say at a clip of 30 or more a year, and only a handful in each league did so for as much as a decade.

The men who were able to hit those home runs were all very impressive physical specimens. While muscles are certainly not the only requirement--extraordinary reflexes, eyesight and practice were also required--there was little doubt as to the source of the home runs of behemoths like Gehrig and Foxx.

The newer generation of power hitters in the 1950s, with Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson, used overall athleticism and bat speed rather than raw brute strength.

But, again, seeing these guys up close--looking at the menacing layers of muscles, the guns, the brawny forearms, the six-packs--leaves little doubt that you would never want to throw a mediocre-fastball in the same zip code as these mashers.

In modern times, we had the confluence of talent and science to help provide even more home runs:

And then there was Ernie Banks.

Granted, Ernie towered over traditional 1950s shortstops like Pee Wee Reese by several inches. But check out this next picture:

This was taken in Vietnam in 1968. Ernie, 37 years old and coming off a season in which he was third in the National League in home runs, is the one in the middle. The other two were 19-year-old GIs. Without the Cubs hat and familiar face, it would be difficult to predict from their builds which one of these guys was closing in on the top ten in all-time home runs. Look at Ernie's chest. He doesn't seem to have pectoral muscles--his chest is as flat as his stomach. Other than abnormally large hands, Ernie may have been the least imposing man to ever hit 500 home runs in a Major League career.

But consider the six years from 1955 to 1960:

Banks:      248 home runs,     693 RBIs
Mantle:     236                        589
Mathews:  236                        605
Mays:        214                        611
Aaron:       206                        674

Ernie was clearly the top slugger in the game over that period.

The source of Ernie's power, given his unimpressive physical attributes, sparked spirited debate during the last half of the 1950s. No one came up with a good answer. Ernie himself, along with most so-called experts, always gave credit to his wrists. But beyond basic anatomical facts (the wrist is composed of skin, bones and tendons--the muscles are in the forearms) that seems much too simplistic of an answer.

Most likely, the answer lies in the combination of many things--abnormally acute vision, a perfect weight shift, an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers and the carefully-honed ability to pull most pitches into his power field. It was a natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls; beautiful to behold but impossible to recreate in the lab or on a field.

But few could do it better with less.