Tagged: Old Hoss Radbourn

Ken Burns’ Baseball

If anything positive can come from having pneumonia, it is the illness requires rest. Recovery is a slow process and the uninviting cold of Winter did not tempt me to leave my couch. Stuck at home for a month gave me time to watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Baseball. I have tried to watch the series before. The 11 episodes, each at least two hours long, are a commitment I normally struggled to keep. I would watch the first two episodes before wandering off. Life is busy until it comes to a screeching halt.  

It is impossible to include every piece of baseball history in a documentary. Baseball missed events and people, like Old Hoss Radbourn and his 60 wins for the 1884 Providence Grays. However, Ken Burns does an excellent job of delving into plenty of baseball history. Every documentary has flaws. Yet Baseballprovides plenty of segments that sparked excitement. Reminders of Pete Browning and the origins of Louisville Slugger. The dominance of Babe Ruth the pitcher. The unrelenting speed of Rickey Henderson. Die hard baseball fans too often focus on the trees and miss the forest of baseball. 

The original 9 Innings, episodes, end just before the 1994 Strike. Baseball began airing on September 18, 1994, just four days after acting Commissioner Bud Selig announced the Postseason was canceled. Not the best timing. Each inning examines a decade of the game, starting with the origins of the game. Burns spends time on the superstars, normal players, the biggest games and moments, and the people who shaped the game. He examines the rise of the National League and later the American League, the ill fated Federal League, and the greatness of the Negro Leagues. As the documentary progresses the abilities of the players becomes more evident, as little is left to the imagination by better photography and film. Players and personalities come to life. Watching the legends of the game play gives viewers an understanding why these legends live on far beyond their playing days.

Ken Burns’ Baseball is great for every baseball fan, from die hard to the casual fan. (Florentine Films)

Ken Burns does an excellent job using photographs, film, story telling, and interviews to express the beauty of baseball. The game and the people are not perfect, but he shows the good baseball has created. Baseball reminds viewers why they fell in love with the game and why they come back each summer. While books and other films highlight portions of baseball, Ken Burns  masterfully captures the game and creates an avenue for die-hard and casual fans to enjoy the history of baseball.

The 10th Inning covered much of my childhood and the years I fell in love with baseball. The feelings Baseball evoked are similar to the anticipation of Opening Day or walking out of the tunnel and seeing the green grass of a Major League field laid out before you. The butterflies and pure awe are captured in Baseball. Dedicate yourself to watching the series, it is a worthwhile reflection of the beauty and grandeur of the game. Baseball is ever changing and it is important to see the changes, good and bad, that led to the game played today. 


The 1%

One of the many reasons I am not a big football fan is due to the lack of games. I understand why there are so few games each year, but the lack of action leaves plenty to be desired. The dead time between games results in hours and days of continuous talking about what happened in the last game and the matchups for the next game. There is only so much anyone can talk about a game before or after it is played until you begin to repeat the same thing over and over again. There is no justification that I can find to spend more than 30 minutes discussing the upcoming Week 6 football game between the Chicago Bears and the Jacksonville Jaguars unless it is to recreate the Saturday Night Live Bill Swerski Superfans skits. Sadly, dozens of hours will be spent discussing a game that will most likely be forgotten in the not so distant future. In baseball you might spend 30 minutes before and after each game discussing the match up and what happened, but even that can be a stretch.

Da Bears
Not much to do between games but talk about DA BEARS. (nbc.com)

Football kills time between games by talking in circles about the same thing week after week. The beauty of baseball is once the post-game armchair manager talk is wrapped up, the discussion may continue to the future by looking at the minor leagues or reframe the present with a look to the past. Sometimes a quirky event about the game warrants a focused look on the great players in baseball history for an interesting connection.

I was invited to attend a talk by Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, by my fiancée’s work colleague. The talk was at the Green Diamond Gallery, which is the largest privately held baseball collection in the world. The talk centered mainly on the Hall of Fame and its current efforts to preserve baseball history and educate the fans. After the talk, Jeff Idelson began answering questions from the audience. Several of the questions had to do with the election process and potential changes to the induction process. The standard Pete Rose questions were asked, as the Green Diamond Gallery is located in Cincinnati. Finally someone asked “Who do you [Jeff Idelson] think should be in the Hall of Fame that is not?” He did the appropriate tap dance around the question so as to not give a definite answer. Then he gave the best possible answer.

Rose HOF
Is the Reds Hall of Fame the closest Pete Rose will ever get to Cooperstown? Probably (Kareem Elgazzar/ Cincinnati.com)

There are 312 individuals enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame; 28 executives, 22 managers, 10 umpires, 35 Negro League players, and 217 Major League players. There have been over 18,700 individual players in Major League history. This means only the top 1% of players are eventually enshrined. You can argue that every player that is in Cooperstown belongs there, plus many more who are not. However, there is little to be argued that the players enshrined do not deserve to be there.

There are plenty of players for whom the argument can be made that they should be enshrined in Cooperstown, but more is not always better. The NBA and NHL both have 30 teams and 16 of those 30 teams (53%) will make the playoffs. The Houston Rockets made the playoffs this year with a 41-41 record, why is a .500 team going to the playoffs? Yes there have been some dreadful divisions in Major League Baseball, the 2005 National League West was won by the San Diego Padres with an 82-80 record, but those are rare. The more slots you have in the playoffs, the worse the competition. It is better to leave a good team at home than to have a terrible team advance, although this is tough to say when the team you root for is that good team. The same is true for the Hall of Fame. Admitting more players means detracting from the significance of the honor. This only serves to muddle the difference between greatness and the very good.

The Green Diamond Gallery is an amazing collection of any and everything that is baseball. (www.greendiamondgallery.com)

Eliminating the players who are known or highly suspected of using steroids and those who are on the permanently ineligible list, there are several players for whom a convincing argument can be made that they belong in Cooperstown. These are player who are no longer on the ballot for election by the baseball writers. Don Mattingly, Tim Raines, Gil Hodges, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, Jim Kaat, Dale Murphy, Roger Maris, Bret Saberhagen, Maury Wills, Thurman Munson, and the list goes on.

Would the Hall of Fame be better with these players enshrined, I would say so. Is the Hall of Fame seen as incomplete without these players, I do not think so. The Hall of Fame is reserved for the top 1% of players. Every generation has players who were spectacular on the field, yet begin to fade with time.

Dale Murphy
Multiple MVP Awards failed to get Dale Murphy enshrined in Cooperstown. (mlb.com)

Kevin Brown, Hideo Nomo, Mo Vaughn, and Brett Butler were all outstanding players in the early to mid 1990’s. Were they as emblematic of baseball excellence as Ken Griffey Jr, Tony Gwynn, Randy Johnson, or Greg Maddux? Those enshrined in Cooperstown should be the players who can be compared against players from every generation and hold their own. Joe DiMaggio was not the best or most powerful hitter, but his skills and statistics hold up against players from every generation.

Records and awards are designed to recognize greatness, not designed to settle debates. Ichiro now has more hits in professional baseball than Pete Rose. However, Rose got all of his hits in the Majors while Ichiro has split his time between the Majors and Japan. Who is the better hitter? It would be easy to insert Tony Gwynn, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Miguel Cabrera into the debate. Is Cy Young the greatest pitcher of all time because he has the most wins or Nolan Ryan because he has the most strikeouts? I doubt you will find many people so easily convinced. What about Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Greg Maddux, Bob Feller, or Old Hoss Radbourn?

What could Bob Feller have done on the mound had his service in World War II not cost him nearly four full seasons early in his career. (http://vanmeteria.gov/)

Jeff Idelson repeatedly pointed to the democratic way that players are elected to the Hall of Fame. He understands that the process is not perfect, but ultimately gets it right. The recent changes to the voting process, revoking the voting rights of writers who have not actively covered baseball in the past 10 years and reducing the number of years on the ballot from 15 to 10, should help to reduce and then prevent a backlog of worthy players getting the look they deserve. This is not to say they will be elected, but that they will get a fair shot. The top 1% of players will rise to the top during voting as they did during their playing careers. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s mission is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.” Players and their accomplishments are never cast aside regardless of how short or long their careers. Thousands of players have taken the field and many have made a case for their inclusion with the legends of the game. However, those enshrined in Cooperstown leave no doubt about their worthiness in the history of the game. It is those who came so close to joining this exclusive club, yet have come up just short, that allows the debate to flourish over what makes a Hall of Fame player.


Baseball Lifer: Connie Mack

Baseball lifers are bridges that connect different eras and players to each other. The majorifoty of players, coaches, and managers spend just a few years in the Majors before their time is over. Not everyone walks away from the game willingly, often due to injury or poor performance. Then there are those that spend their lives living, breathing, and working in baseball. These baseball lifers come to the game young and leave when they are old. One such baseball lifer is Connie Mack and we may never see a lifer of his significance ever again..

Cornelius McGillicuddy, shortened to Connie Mack in childhood, spent 65 years in baseball as a player and manager. He played for 11 seasons from 1886 to 1896 with three different teams: the Washington Nationals, the Buffalo Bisons of the Players League, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. A career .244 BA, Mack was primarily a catcher during the days when catchers truly took a beating. He logged 5,186 innings behind the plate and an additional 985 in the field. Mack led the Majors in a statistical category only three times during his playing career: two he would have rather not (1890- 20 HBP and 1887- 76 Passed Balls) and one he should be proud of accomplishing (1892- 47% CS (base stealers were 136 for 257)). While not a remarkable playing career, Mack parlayed his career on the field into one in managing.

Connie Mack HoF
Connie Mack saw it all in his life in baseball. (www.baseballhall.org)

Late in the 1894 season, Connie Mack was named the player-manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates went 149 and 134 under Mack, with a winning record each season, but fell short of ownership expectations. He was fired following the 1896 season. Retired as a player and recently fired from his Major League managing job, Connie Mack went to the minor leagues to manage and occasionally catch for the Milwaukee Brewers over the next four seasons.

In 1901, Connie Mack embarked upon his legendary career as the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. He began managing the A’s in 1901 at the age of 38 and finally retired in 1950 at the age of 87. During Mack’s 50 years managing in Philadelphia, the A’s record was 3,582 and 3,814, a .484 Winning Percentage. The A’s won nine American League Pennants (1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1929, 1930, and 1931) and five World Series titles (1910, 1911, 1913, 1929, and 1930). Mack’s Winning Percentage can be misleading, as many agree he managed for 18 years too long. In his first 32 seasons in Philadelphia, the A’s went 2,517 and 2,253 with a .527 Winning Percentage. In the final 18 seasons of his career, the A’s went 1,065 and 1,561 with a .406 Winning Percentage. As he got older, Mack was unable to keep pace with the tactical and financial changes in baseball. The financial changes also meant that the A’s were no longer viable in Philadelphia, and by 1955 the team moved to Kansas City. Mack did not know when to walk away from the game. Like a player hanging on for too long, managers also have to know when their skills have declined and when it is time to call it a career.

Connie Mack wanted to win baseball games and build better men. (United States Library of Congress)

Connie Mack saw the development of baseball through the good times and the bad. From the early rough and tumble years in the late 1800’s to the Black Sox Scandal to the rise of Babe Ruth and the Yankees to integration. Mack saw it all from the dugout. He demanded from his players that they play to the best of their abilities, but he was not overbearing. Mack let his players be who they were, but he wanted them to be smart and make intelligent decisions when they were on the field. Unlike the other hardened men of the time, Mack went beyond the results on the diamond; he wanted his players to be better people. After the 1916 season, Mack created a Code of Conduct for his players.

  • I will always play the game to the best of my ability.
  • I will always play to win, but if I lose, I will not look for an excuse to detract from my opponent’s victory.
  • I will never take an unfair advantage in order to win.
  • I will always abide by the rules of the game—on the diamond as well as in my daily life.
  • I will always conduct myself as a true sportsman—on and off the playing field.
  • I will always strive for the good of the entire team rather than for my own glory.
  • I will never gloat in victory or pity myself in defeat.
  • I will do my utmost to keep myself clean—physically, mentally, and morally.
  • I will always judge a teammate or an opponent as an individual and never on the basis of race or religion.

Mack’s rules came at a time when the Major Leagues excluded African-Americans. While not necessarily pushing for the reintegration of baseball, the Code of Conduct helped change baseball from a game played by rough men to a game that families could enjoy.

Connie Mack’s career has left an indelible mark on baseball. He was ahead of his time with his attitude about race, religion, and playing customs in baseball. He disliked small ball and would rather play for the big inning instead of sacrificing for a single run. The rise of playing for the big inning became more common when home runs became more plentiful. Mack however decided his team had a better chance to win when putting multiple runs in an inning rather than a single run here or there. In the first 35 years of his managerial career, few could argue otherwise.

Connie Mack is forever immortalized in Cooperstown. (www.phillymag.com)

In 1937, Connie Mack was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame even though he was actively managing. He would conclude his managerial career with the most wins (3,731), losses (3,948), games managed (7,755) for any manager in baseball history, and tied for second for most Pennants (9 with Joe McCarthy). He won 968 more games than John McGraw, who is second on the list for most career wins. Mack managed 2,658 more games than second place Tony LaRussa. If he had retired after the 1932 season, Mack’s .527 Winning Percentage would be higher than that of fellow Hall of Fame managers Tommy Lasorda, Red Schoendienst, Dick Williams, and Casey Stengel among others. If Connie Mack had only know when to walk away.

Understanding Connie Mack’s impact on the game of baseball goes beyond the numbers. He was with baseball during the good times and the bad. His story connects modern baseball to its historical roots. In 1886, 34-year-old Cap Anson was playing his 16th season of professional baseball and 31-year-old Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn was still pitching, just two seasons removed from winning 59 games for the Providence Grays. In 1950, Duke Snider was a fourth year outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Whitey Ford won the American League Rookie of the Year award with the Yankees. Connie Mack was the commonality between those events that took place over nearly a lifetime apart. This week marks the 60th anniversary of his death. Connie Mack saw just about everything there was to see in baseball. By connecting us to the past, let us not forget the baseball lifers in the game today who are important in helping maintain our perspective where the game has come from and where the game is going.


The Disappearance of the Left-Handed Catcher

The men behind the masks who call the games often do not receive the notoriety or praise they deserve for the abuse they receive in playing their position. These masked men take foul tips off their mask, hand, or occasionally the unmentionable. They do not leave the game unscathed due to the abuse on their knees from squatting, their arms from throwing, and their hands from catching. The tools of ignorance are what band them together; however there is a select group who stand apart from the rest. Led by Jack Clements, the first catcher to use a chest protector, this group is among the most selective in baseball. The left-handed catcher. How rare is a left-handed catcher? Since 1901, the year after Clements retired; there have been 7 left-handed catchers in the Major Leagues. They have caught a collective 62 games. Since 1908, there have only been 7 games caught total and this was achieved through three players. Left-handed catchers are a rarity; their history should be celebrated, not forgotten.

Jack Clements is, and most likely will remain, the gold standard for left-handed catchers. He is the only member of this select group to have caught more than 400 games in the Major Leagues. Over the course of his 17 year career, Clements caught 1,076 games. He began his career with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association in 1884, the same year Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the unbreakable record for most wins in a single season by a pitcher with 59. By the end of the 1884 season, Clements was playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, who would later become the Phillies in 1890. He stayed with the Quakers through the 1897 season. In 1895, Clements set the Major League record for highest batting for a single season for a catcher with a .394 mark. He then bounced around to three different teams at the end of his career. In 1898 he played for the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, and finished his career in 1900 with the Boston Beaneaters.

Jack Clements

Jack Clements

Jack Clements enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 1891. He played in 107 games, he hit .310, .380 OBP, 29 doubles, 75 RBI, and walked 43 times against 19 strikeouts. Defensively he was an above average backstop, throwing out 32% of base stealers. He has 415 putouts, good for third in the Major Leagues, and 108 assists, which was good for 2nd in the Major Leagues. Clements is the only 19th century player with more home runs than triples (minimum of 1,000 games played).

The successful career of Jack Clements makes the scarcity of left-handed catchers all the more surprising. Why have there been so few left-handed catchers? There are three technical concerns which arise from using a left-handed catcher and one logistical issue.

Ricky Henderson never needed any extra advantage on the base paths.

Ricky Henderson never needed any extra advantage on the base paths.

Among the many duties of a catcher is to throw out base stealers. Preventing a runner from going from first to second would be a little more difficult for a left-handed catcher. There are more right-handed batters than left-handed batters. This means that a left-handed catcher would be more likely to be throwing to second with the batters’ box occupied on the side of their throwing arm. While right-handed catchers do face this challenge, left-handed catchers would face this challenge more often. This requires the catcher to throw more over the top than if the batters’ box on their throwing arm side is empty. This minor adjustment can cause a slight delay in the delivery of the ball to the middle infielder. Interference can be called by the umpire, but the hindrance would be more likely to cause a runner to safe, than the likelihood of interference to be called. The other issue presented to left-handed catchers when throwing to second base is the tendency of the baseball to fade. Right-handed catchers benefit from the fade going towards the second baseman’s side, whereas left-handed catchers would be faced with a baseball which tended to fade towards the shortstop side of second. The necessity of the middle infielder to catch the ball and then bring it back to the proper side of the base would cost even more time. Base stealers already possess an advantage over the defense in stealing bases, unfortunately the nature of the game would shift the advantage a little further to the runner should a catcher be left-handed.

The second issue with having a left-handed catcher shows itself once the base stealer has reached second base. Stealing third base is much more difficult than stealing second. A runner can gain a few steps before the catcher sees him going if a left-handed batter is up, by shielding his view; whereas a runner on second is in full view of the catcher. The distance from home to third is much shorter than home to third. When throwing to third base, a right-handed catcher can receive the pitch and then step into his throw. The same is not true for a left-handed catcher. He would have to receive the pitch, pivot, and then throw. This takes additional time and baseball is a game of inches. Giving the opponent additional time means giving them additional distance when they are running the bases. The inability to make snap throws to third base would have a detrimental impact upon a team as the opposing team would be more likely to steal third base; thus shortening the necessary distance to score a run from 180 feet to 90 feet. A runner on second requires a base hit to score, but a runner on third only requires a ball to be hit deep enough into the outfield for the runner to tag up and race home.

Young or old, left-handed catcher fast unique problems.

Young or old, left-handed catcher fast unique problems.

The third issue with having a left-handed catcher rears its ugly head once a runner is on third base. The new rule regarding home plate collisions will prevent more of the hard hits which catchers have long endured from runners racing home. Hitting a sacrifice fly and the runner tagging up lends itself to a play at the plate. The new rule means catchers will have to perfect the sweep tag. This puts left-handed catchers at a disadvantage as they will have to sweep across their body. Again this can add additional time to applying the tag to the runner, but it could also put the catcher out of position and result in their blocking the plate. Even an inadvertent blocking of the plate will result in the umpire calling the runner safe and awarding the opposing team the run. A right-handed catcher has the ability to stay a bit further away from any resemblance of blocking the plate and can more easily sweep across the plate. This prevents any accidental blocking of the plate and having the runner called safe according to the new rules, while also giving the catcher a greater ability to apply the sweep tag. This issue with protecting home plate is due to the simple logistics of the game, and cannot be overcome. Unfortunately for left-handed catchers, teams are unlikely to utilize a left-handed catcher due to the advantages they give to the opposing team, however small they might be.

Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher?

Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher?

I have shown just a sample of the disadvantages which a left-handed catcher would have in preventing the runner from moving from base to base and scoring. However, there is a more fundamental issue as to why there are currently no left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball, and why this is unlikely to change. It is nearly impossible to find a catcher’s mitt for someone who throws left handed. Even when you can find a left-handed catcher’s mitt, the cost can be prohibitive for many people. The inaccessibility of the equipment prevents many Little Leaguers who do not live in a community which has the financial means with which to purchase this specialized equipment from ever catching. Every Major Leaguer began as a Little Leaguer. The fundamentals and development begin there and the lack of a pool of left-handed catchers means the few left-handed catchers there are face even greater odds of making it to the Majors.

Almost as rare of a sighting as a left-handed catcher.

Almost as rare of a sighting as a left-handed catcher.

The sighting of a left-handed catcher is nearly as rare as a sighting of Big Foot. Unlike Big Foot though, a left-handed catcher could go unnoticed unless an astute observer recognized the importance of the moment. Only 30 men have ever caught a professional baseball game at the highest level, and of these 30, only six have caught at least 100 games. Since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, only three left-handed catchers have appeared in a game. Dale Long appeared in 2 games for the 1958 Chicago Cubs. Mike Squires appeared in 2 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980. The last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game was Benny Distefano, who appeared in 3 games for the 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates.

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game. Such a long stretch between appearances raises the question: have we seen the last of this rare breed? I certainly hope not, but I hold out little hope that this endangers species can survive for much longer, if it is not already gone.