More Golden Age Baseball

Statistical Overkill


Computers are great, and easily accessible information enables our play-by-play and color analysts to enrich our enjoyment of a game telecast. It's interesting to know the last time someone had 20 home runs by May 15 and how many he ended the season with. It heightens the batter-pitcher confrontation to learn that they've faced each other 25 times before and what the results have been. Pitch counts are often, if not always, important.

But in this 70th anniversary year of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak do we gain anything by being told that the current batter has a four-game streak going? Or that the current pitcher has a 1.90 earned run average in his last three outings? Or even how someone has performed with two outs and the bases loaded? These stats are based on so few observations and subject to such rapid change that they are virtually worthless. Think of how many times you've heard one of these data points and found it indicative of what came next.

Those of us who grew up in the pencil-and-paper era had to be content with the batting averages, home run totals, won-loss records, and ERA's going into the game. With Mel Allen, Red Barber, Harry Caray, Bob Prince, Ernie Harwell, Jack Buck, and other greats of that time, we got a clear and authentic picture of what was actually happening on the field and some speculation on what might be developing: a tiring pitcher, who's available to pinch hit or pinch run, who has to be held out for the next series, e.g. Looking back, did we have an inferior listening or viewing experience?

Obviously, fans differ as to what information enhances that experience. But for me, much of the incessant flow of stats, like the ones I mentioned above, distracts and even becomes ludicrous. That's one man's opinion. How about yours?

The Strange Career of Bobo Newsom

The most traveled player of the pre-free agent era that ended in the 1970's was undoubtedly Bobo Newsom, who won over 200 games for nine of the then 16 major league clubs.  Along the way, he also lost more than he won, but that could be attributed to the weakness of many of the teams for which he pitched. 

Newsom broke in with the non-contending Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) in 1929 but wasn't a regular until 1934, when he led the American League in losses with 20 for the also-ran St. Louis Browns. Traded to the Washington Senators the next year, he continued his losing ways until he went 17-15 for the Senators in 1936.   In 1938, with the Browns again, he began a streak of three 20-victory seasons, capped in 1940 by a 21-5 mark and two World Series wins for the Detroit Tigers in their seven-game loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

But that was no breakthrough for Bobo.  In 1941, he was again a league-leading loser with 20, and he didn't manage a winning season again until 1946 with a combined 14-13 for the Senators and the Philadelphia Athletics.  The following year, the Yankees picked him up in midseason for pennant race insurance as two of their starters suffered injuries, and he went 7-5 for them down the stretch, appearing briefly in one losing Series game as well.  The 1947 ring was the last high spot of his career, as he pitched only occasionally thereafter for the New York Giants and again the Senators and A's, finishing at age 45 in 1953 with a lifetime record of 211-222.

Newsom, as his nickname might suggest, was also an entertaining personality on some dismal teams, referring to himself as Ol' Bobo and most everyone else as Bobo. 

 

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1946: The First Tie-breaker

The big leagues had sharply contrasting pennant races in 1946, the first postwar season.  The Boston Red Sox won 104 games and ran away with the American League flag by 12 games.  In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers finished with identical 96-58 records, necessitating the first tie-breaking playoff in history.

The Cards, with the stars of their 1942-44 league champions back from the war, were preseason favorites to resume their pennant-winning ways.  The Dodgers, a combination of youngsters and veterans, were well regarded but thought to be a year or two short of first place calibre. 

But it was the Dodgers, managed by the firebrand Leo Durocher, who got off to the better start, grabbed the top spot in mid-May, and led the Cards by seven games on July 4, the traditional half way mark.  First-year Cards skipper Eddie Dyer then got his talented club going and by August 22, St. Louis was in first place.  Brooklyn refused to cave.  Their offense was led by the veteran Dixie Walker, with a .319 batting average and 116 runs batted in, while Kirby Higbe was the top pitcher with 17 wins.  For the Cardinals, superstar Stan Musial had one of his career years at .365, Enos Slaughter was the league's leading run producer at 130, and Howie Pollett won 20 games during the regular season.   

It was a tense battle down the stretch, Brooklyn pulling into a tie on the next to last day and each team then losing its final game.  The situation was unprecedented, but league rules called for a two-of-three playoff to establish the pennant winner. 

Pitching at home, Pollett, the St. Louis ace, stifled the Dodgers, 4-2, for his leagu-leading 21st victory.  The next day, in Brooklyn, the Cardinals ran up an 8-1 lead and held off a furious ninth-inning Dodger rally to win 8-4 and clinch the title.  Murry Dickson got his 15th win but needed relief help from Harry (The Cat) Brecheen, who srtruck out the last two batters.  Ironically, Brecheen, as a starter and reliever, would go on to win three games in the World Series, in which the Cards defeated the Red Sox, four games to three. 

 

      

1947: Ewell Blackwell Whips the NL

Few pitchers have so dominated a season as Ewell Blackwell in 1947. Even fewer have then gone on to not much more than a mediocre career.

Blackwell had shown considerable promise as a Cincinnati Reds rookie righthander in 1946, leading the National League with six shutouts and a 2.45 earned run average despite a 9-13 record for a losing team. But it was in 1947 that his whip-like sidearm delivery made him a national sensation with a 22-8 record, league-leading totals in strikeouts and complete games, and a three-inning, one hit, four strikeout performance in the All star Game.

Quickly nicknamed The Whip, Blackwell ran off 16 consecutive victories for his fifth place club. Perhaps the highlight of his remarkable year was coming within two outs of becoming the second man to throw two no-hitters in a row. After no-hitting the Boston Braves, he had one out in the ninth inning against the eventual pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers before he yielded two hits. Ironically, Johnny Vandermeer, who in 1938 became the first and only hurler to achieve two straight no-hit games, was still on the Reds pitching staff and was in the dugout waiting to salute Blackwell if he had gotten those outs before the hits.

The strain of the whip-like delivery may have been too much, as arm troubles contributed to disappointing records of 7-9 and 5-5 the next two years. Blackwell came back to go 17-15 and 16-15 in 1950 and 1951, respectively, but a 3-12 start in 1952 ended his career with the Reds. The New York Yankees picked him up in mid-season and he pitched a few innings of effective relief for them, enough to earn a start in the fifth game of the World Series that year. He went five innings and gave up four runs in a no decision.

With a recurrence of his injuries, the one-time Whip appeared in only eight games in 1953, stayed out of baseball the entire following year, and made an unsuccessful two-game comeback attempt with Kansas City in 1955.  He finished with a lifetime won-loss record of 82-78, far short of what was expected after his spectacular 1947 season.

Boom and Bust: The 1954 Indians

Coming into 1954, the Cleveland Indians had been runnerups to Casey Stengel's New York Yankees three straight times. The three-time bridesmaids were about to have one of the best regular seasons in baseball history and then fizzle in a memorable World Series.

Grabbing first place on June 12, Al Lopez's Indians held it for the rest of the year. Their 111 wins broke the American League record of 110 set by the fabled Ruth-Gehrig-led 1927 Yankees and ended the Yanks' record streak of five consecutive pennants and World Series. Ironically, the Bronx Bombers won 103 in defeat, more than they had in the five pennant years.

The Tribe's offense was led by batting champion second baseman Roberto Avila at .341, league home run and runs batted in leader Larry Doby, and slugging third baseman Al Rosen, who hit .300 with 24 home runs and 102 RBI's despite injuries that cost him 17 games.

One of the finest pitching staffs ever put together had two 23-game winners, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn, a 19-game winner, Mike Garcia, and consistent contributions from Art Houtemann, 15-7, and 35-year-old Bob Feller, 13-3.  Moreover, Ray Narleski and Don Mossi gave them a potent righty-lefty relief duo which effectively suppressed opposing rallies.

Yet this superb record-breaking team was swept in the World Series by the less regarded New York Giants, illustrating the vagaries of a short series.  Game 1, a ten-inning affair, was "saved" by Giants' superstar Willie Mays's celebrated going-away catch off Vic Wertz with two runners on base and won by a pinch home run that barely made it into the shortest right field stands in the major leagues.  The pinch hitter, Dusty Rhodes, produced game winners in the next two games as well, and the stunned Indians were done in four straight.

They did have the satisfaction of a fabulous regular season and their record of 111 wins in a 154-game season stood until the 1998 Yankees won 114 in a 162-game campaign.

Cy Young, All time top winner
Cy Young, All time top winner | Source

The Best Pitchers of All Time

Although the National League began functioning in 1876, most "all time" ratings begin with 1901, when the American League opened. The more important reason is that rules like balls and strikes and fouls, playing conditions, and equipment stabilized about that time. Another chronological dividing line, particularly for pitchers, is 1920, when the dead ball became lively and the spit ball was banned, shifting the power balance to the hitters.

Cy Young, for whom the pitching excellence award is named, spanned the turn of the nineteenth-to-twentieth century symmetrically, with 11 seasons before and after. Since he is baseball's top winner by far with 511, and was about as phenomenal before and after 1900, he is generally included in the all-timers. Walter Johnson, number two in wins with 417, but a greater strikeout and shutout artist than Young, is a consensus pre-1920 choice along with Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland (Pete) Alexander, both of whom won 373.  Alexancer actually starred before and after 1920.

The "modern era" of nine decades involves more pitchers and more controversy. The list can start with the top-winning lefthander of all time, Warren Spahn, with 363, but invariably includes also Lefty Grove, with exactly 300. Greg Maddux, with 355, Steve Carlton, 329, and Nolan Ryan, 324 and a record seven no-hitters are popular picks, but Roger Clemens, with 354, is on hold with many because of the unresolved steroid accusations.

From the 30's and 40's, when only Grove reached 300 (and barely), there is strong support for Carl Hubbell, who won 253, and Bob Feller, who won 266, but lost four prime seasons to World War II service.  Finally, controversy extends to whether pitchers with brilliant careers cut short by injuries, like Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax, are entitled to places in the very top ranks.   

Dixie Walker, The People's Cherce

Brooklyn Dodger fans epitomized the fanaticism that made them "fans.". When they liked players or managers, they adored them, and when they didn't like them, they scorned them. One of the enduring objects of their affections in the 1940's was outfielder Dixie Walker, whose timely hitting and fine fielding earned him the title of "The People's Cherce. (Brooklyn pronunciation).

Walker had actually come up to the big leagues as a part-timer with the New York Yankees in the early 30's, the tail end of the Ruth-Gehrig era, but he made little impact there and was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1936.  A full-time player for the first time in 1937, he blossomed with a .302 batting average and a league-leading 16 triples.  Traded to the Detroit Tigers the following year, he batted .308, but was traded again in mid-39 to the Dodgers despite the fact that he was hitting .305 at the time.

Beginning with his first full season in Brooklyn, 1940, Walker batted .300 or better in all but one of the next eight years, falling short at .290 only in 1942.  His .311 in 1941 was an important factor in the first Dodger pennant in 21 years, and he led the league with .357 in 1944 for a war-depleted team that tumbled around him to seventh place.  He turned in one of his best performances in 1946 with a .319 batting average and 116 runs batted in as the Brooks tied the St. Louis Cardinals for first place only to lose in a playoff.  

1947 was a dramatic and ironic up-and-down conclusion to Walker's popular run in Brooklyn.  He helped the Dodgers to another pennant with his .306 hitting but was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates soon after the seven-game World series loss.  Dixie, from Alabama, had become identified as one of the Southern players who had tried to prevent Jackie Robinson from joining the team that year, and Jackie was definitely staying.  Brooklyn's love affair with Dixie Walker was over.

He batted .316 for the Pirates in 1948, but after slumping to .282 as a part-timer in 1949, he retired at age 38.  Years later, Walker confided to his daughter that he had no personal or racial animosity against Robinson but feared that his acceptance of the breaking of the color line would adversely impact the hardware business he ran in the offseason back home.  

Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner
Pittsburgh slugger Ralph Kiner | Source

Ralph Kiner, Home Run Hitter

The ascending record-breaking home run production of recent decades, some natural, some artificially assisted, has tended to obscure the memories of some of the authentic sluggers of yesteryear. Ralph Kiner, better known as a New York Mets broadcaster since the early 60's, is an example.

Kiner came up with the Pitsburgh Pirates in 1946. Benefiting from a mid-season hand injury to Johnny Mize of the New York Giants, Kiner won the National League home run title with a modest 23 to Mize's 22. The following year, he benefited doubly from Pittsburgh's acquisition of the reigning American League home run king, Hank Greenberg. The Pirates management pulled in the left field bleachers by about 30 feet to provide the aging Greenberg with a better target, dubbed "Greenberg Gardens." And Hank took a liking to young Kiner and tutored him on some of the finer points of heavy hitting.

While Greenberg faded out in 1947 with only 25 homers, Kiner blossomed with 51, tying Mize, who played a full season this time. The two tied again with 40 in 1948, but it was all Kiner from then through 1952. Hitting his career peak of 54 in '49, Ralph won or tied for three more crowns with totals of 47, 42, and 37. His seven consecutive titles broke one of Babe Ruth's records.

Traded to the Chicago Cubs in mid-1953, Kiner was finally eclipsed that year when he dropped to a still-respectable 35 homers.  Back troubles cut short his playing career in 1955. In only 10 seasons, he had hit 369 home runs, a very impressive one every 14.1 at-bats.

Joe McCarthy, the Baseball Manager

In their three decades in the American League, the New York Yankees had had only one pennant-winning manager.  Miller Huggins won six of them in the 1920's, along with three world championships.  But as the Yankees were being supplanted by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1929, Huggins died just before the end of the season.

Star pitcher Bob Shawkey was given a shot at managing in 1930, but a third place finish turned Yankee management toward Joe McCarthy, just fired by the Chicago Cubs despite having won a National League pennant for them in 1929.  McCarthy piloted the Yanks to second place in 1931 as the A's were finishing their three-peat run.  The following year, the Yanks easily won the pennant and McCarthy had the satisfaction of sweeping his old ballclub, the Cubs, in the World Series.

But McCarthy realized that he had won with some of the aging leftovers of the Babe Ruth-led Murderers Row of the 1920's and that the team needed substantial revamping for sustained competitiveness.  Three consecutive second-place finishes preceded the 1936 unveiling of the Bronx Bombers, built around first baseman Lou Gehrig and catcher Bill Dickey, still in their primes, rookie outfielder Joe DiMaggio, and a marvelous pitching staff led by righthander Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez.

The Bombers won four straight pennants and World Series through 1939, the first team to take more than two Series in a row, lost in 1940, and won three more pennants and two World Series from 1941 through 1943.  McCarthy had racked up a record seven world championships, while his eight pennants with the Yankees and nine overall tied Connie Mack and trailed only John McGraw's ten.

Managing the Yankees through the war years, Joe resigned early in a disappointing 1946 season.  He returned to the dugout as manager of the Boston Red Sox in 1948, experiencing more disappointment in a tie-breaking playoff loss to the Cleveland Indians that year and a last-day defeat at the hands of the Yankees in 1949.  He retired again in mid-1950 with the highest lifetime winning percentage for a manager and was elected to the Hall of Fame.     

Hammering Hank Greenberg
Hammering Hank Greenberg | Source

Hank Greenberg's Comeback

Hank Greenberg was one of the most feared sluggers of the 1930's. A consistent .300 hitter since becoming a Detroit Tigers regular in 1933, he had come within two home runs of Babe Ruth's then record of 60 and within one of Lou Gehrig's still-standing American League record of 184 runs batted in. His leading role in Tiger pennants in 1934, 1935, and 1940 was recognized with Most Valuable Player awards in the latter two years, one at first base and one in left field.

But the one-year prewar draft kept Hank out of almost all of the 1941 season and, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, he became the first major leaguer to enlist. Missing the 1942, 1943, and 1944 seasons, he was discharged after the war in Europe was over in time to play 78 games in 1945.  Greenberg batted .311 and hit 13 homers to help get the Tigers to the last day needing one win in a doubleheader to capture the pennant.

Trailing by one run in the ninth inning of the first game (and with the game about to be called for darkness in the pre-lights era), the Tigers loaded the bases and Hammering Hank smacked a grand slam to clinch the AL flag.  He hit two homers in the Tigers' winning effort in the World Series.

Greenberg's dramatic comeback continued with league home run and RBI crowns, with 44 and 127, respectively, in 1946, but a contract dispute after the season resulted in his sale to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  There his home run total fell to 25 and convinced him it was time to retire.  But he had two important impacts that year. He gave hitting advice to young Ralph Kiner that the latter credited with raising his home run production from 23 to 51 in 1947 and making him the National League's home run king for seven straight years.  And he encouraged Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson to persevere in the face of the bigotry directed at him just as Greenberg had faced down anti-Semitism in the 1930's.   

Billy Martin, Scrappy Second Baseman

Some players inspire a phrase which attaches itself to their name. Billy Martin, scrappy second baseman of the New York Yankees, earned that description with his aggressive play as well as a few on and off the field fights. Although his manager and teammates valued him for hustle, reliable fielding, and often timely hitting, he couldn't accurately be called a .300 hitter, a slugger, or a notably brilliant fielder. So scrappy best fit him.

But Martin was also valued because he was one of those who rose above his normal level under pressure, or "in the clutch." A .257 lifetime batter, he hit .333 in five World Series, highlighted by a six-game Series record of 12 hits, including the walk-off winning one, in 24 times up in 1953. With only 64 home runs spread over 11 seasons with the Yanks and, subsequently, five other teams, he smacked five in those five World Series

And who from the Golden Age of baseball can forget his shoetop catch of a pop fly that seemed about to fall near the pitcher's mound with three Dodger baserunners on the move in a climactic thriller in 1952?

Field manager Casey Stengel was a big fan, but General manager George Weiss wasn't, so after a night club "scrap" involving Martin, he was shipped off to the Kansas City Athletics in 1957. His later managerial career, alternating between spectacular successes and crash landings, showed him no less scrappy.

The Mays Catch, 1954
The Mays Catch, 1954 | Source

Two Great Polo Grounds Catches

Wilie Mays's back-to-the-plate catch of Vic Wertz's blast in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds has properly been celebrated ever since. Estimated to have been anywhere from 420 to 460 feet from home plate, it saved a tie ball game and enabled an eventual Giant win to start a Series sweep. Caught live on TV, the footage has been shown time and time again, clearly demonstrating to new generations the talent of Mays, perhaps the greatest centerfielder of all time.

But another contender for that honor is credited in pre-TV accounts with a catch at least as brilliant in the same venue. Joe DiMaggio, then the rookie centerfielder of the New York Yankees, made a game-ending running catch in Game 2 of the 1936 World Series at the foot of the steps leading to the Polo Grounds clubhouses, 490 feet from home plate. DiMaggio, it is reported, began to lope up the steps but paused as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a game attendee, was conveyed across the outfield in his limousine on his way out of the park. FDR waved to Joe to acknowledge the spectacular catch.

The story of DiMaggio's catch is preserved in Stanley Frank's 1947 book,, "Diamonds Are Rough All Over."  Without a video record and with most of that generation of fans departed, it's not surprising that it has been largely forgotten.  It also lacked the game impact of Mays's feat because it merely preserved an 18-4 series-tying blowout.  Ironically, Mays told reporters that he had made better catches than the one on Wertz, including a bare-handed one.    

Shoeless Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson | Source

The Black Sox Weren't Convicted

One of the most curious, as well as saddest, episodes in baseball history is the saga of the powerful Chicago White Sox team that is generally regarded to have "thrown" the 1919 World Series. Known ever since as the Black Sox, eight players were banned from organized baseball for life after they were indicted by a grand jury for taking bribes to lose the Series.

The story is well told in a number of books as well as the 1988 movie, "Eight Men Out."  Briefly, several of the Sox, said to be aggrieved at the pennypinching treatment of the club's owner, Charles Comiskey, met with gamblers and agreed to lose in return for money.  In a best five-of-nine Series, they managed to lose in eight games, since some of the better performers weren't in on the deal, including two-game winner Dickie Kerr and future Hall of Famers Eddie Collins and Ray Schalk.

An Illinois grand jury, impaneled because of bribery rumors, heard their confessions and indicted the eight, including superstar "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a lifetime .356 batter who apparently couldn't help hitting .375 in the Series.   They were promptly and permanently thrown out of baseball by its new commissioner, former federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

But when the case came to trial, the grand jury transcript had disappeared, the defendants recanted their confesions, and the jury acquitted them all.  Landis's ban stood because they did admit meeting with gamblers to discuss their proposition.   

Hall of Famer Bob Feller
Hall of Famer Bob Feller | Source

Feller vs. Newhouser

One of the eagerly anticipated "matchups' of 1946, the first postwar season, was Cleveland's Bob Feller vs. Detroit's Hal Newhouser. Feller, one of the first ballplayers to volunteer for the military after Pearl Harbor, had gone off to war on the heels of three consecutive 24-plus wins seasons and four consecutive strikeout titles. He was indisputably the top hurler in the American League if not in all baseball. Newhouser, who had never had a winning record since joining the Tigers in 1939, had "blossomed" during the last two war years with 29 and 25 victories, respectively, earning Most Valuable Player honors both times as he led his team to a second-place finish in 1944 and the world championship in 1945.

Some Feller backers pointed to the fact that "Prince Hal's" achievements had come against the clearly inferior lineups of the war years and predicted that he would fade back to his earlier mediocre level. They expected Feller, who had returned for the last months of the 1945 season, to take up right where he left off.

They were right about Feller. Pitching a no-hitter against the New York Yankees in April, he maintained his individual excellence all year long on a sixth-place team to attain a 26-15 record, a 2.18 earned run average, and a league-leading 348 strikeouts, one shy of the then all-time record.  But Newhouser, backed by the second-place Tigers, surprised many by going 26-9 with a 1.94 earned run average and an impressive 275 strikeouts to squelch the claims that he was a wartime wonder.

After 1946, Feller had only two more 20-win seasons and Newhouser one, but both had several more winning years.  Rapid Robert pitched for two pennant winners, in 1948 and 1954, and, ironically, in the latter year Newhouser, closing out his career, was a teammate.  Feller, who won 266 games despite the loss of almost four war years, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible; Prince Hal, with 207 wins, had to wait 30 years to enter via the Veterans Committee.     

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