WARREN SPAHN

Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)

Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.

EDDIE ROMMEL

Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.

I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.

Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.

Fr ALOYSIUS TRAVERS

The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.

Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.

But who’s counting?

You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.

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JACK REED

The 20-inning game the Mets won on Saturday got me to thinking about a 22-inning game between the Yankees and the Tigers in June 1962. I was watching that game at home, but I left, drove about 10 miles to visit a friend for several hours, and then drove home and found my brother watching the Yankees and the Tigers. That was long before VCRs and the YES Network’s “encores,” and I was dumbfounded when Tony told me it was the same game I had been watching before I left. It ended exactly seven hours after it had started. The Yankees won, 9-7.

As if the game wasn’t enough of a curiosity in itself, the way it ended was one of those delightful surprises that baseball is so good at providing. For a few years back then, the Yankees carried on their roster an outfielder named Jack Reed, whose job was to play center field in the very late innings so that Mickey Mantle, near the end of his career, could rest his battered and diseased legs.

CLETIS BOYER

Nothing more was expected of Reed, and usually nothing more was forthcoming. But the young man from Silver City, Mississippi, picked the top of the 22nd inning in that game to hit the only home run of his career, providing the Yankees with the runs they needed to win. Reed, incidentally, may not have spent much time in major league baseball, but he is one of a handful of players who can boast of appearing in both the World Series and a college bowl game – three games with the Yankees in the 1961 fall classic, and the 1953 Sugar Bowl with Ole Miss.

Yankee third baseman Cletis Boyer had hit a three-run homer in the first inning off Tigers starter Frank Lary, who was usually hard on the Yankees.

ROCKY COLAVITO

And while Rocky Colavito probably would have said that he’d rather the Tigers had won, even if he had gone hitless — ballplayers always say things like that — he had one of the biggest days of his career, collecting seven hits in ten times at bat. Meanwhile, the Tigers pitchers held the Yankees scoreless for 19 consecutive innings in that game — two shutouts, end to end.

Another note: Yogi Berra, who was 37 years old, caught the complete game.

DEREK JETERThe coverage this week of Derek Jeter receiving the Roberto Clemente Award got me to wondering again about how he will be regarded a few decades from now. I’m not questioning Jeter’s qualifications; the performance and the stats are there. But baseball immortality, if that’s the right word, comes in more than one form. Many players of at least Jeter’s ability are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and their statistics are indelibly spread upon the record book, but they are largely forgotten except by people like me who have nothing better to occupy their minds.

Jeter isn’t done, and his career base-hits total promises that his name will come up again and again when that category is open for discussion. But whether he will take on a more transcendent presence in the baseball conversation of the future — especially outside the New York area — is not at all certain.

JOE SEWELLA player who comes to mind in this regard is Joe Sewell, who was a starting infielder in the American League from 1920 to 1933, the last three years with the Yankees and the rest with the Cleveland Indians. Sewell got into the Indians’ everyday lineup as a replacement for Ray Chapman, who was killed by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays. A couple of Sewell’s batting statistics compare favorably to Jeter’s. His lifetime batting average was .312 compared to Jeter’s .317, and his on-base percentage was .391 compared to Jeter’s .388. But hidden in that on-base percentage was a factor that made Sewell one of the most remarkable players in history.

plaque_122023Sewell was the hardest man to strike out in the history of the game. Not by a little bit, by a lot. No one else comes close. He came to bat 7,132 times, and he struck out 114 times. Nick Swisher, to pick a convenient example, strikes out more than  that every year — 129 times in 2009, for instance. There were four seasons in which Sewell played every day and struck out only four times — only three times in 1932, which is the all-time record. He once went 115 consecutive at-bats without a strikeout — also the record. Over his career, he averaged one strikeout per 63 at-bats. The closest challenger is George Stone who, over seven years in the early 20th century, struck out once in every 50 at-bats.

It’s always risky to talk about sports records that will never be broken, but it’s safe to say that I’ll be shagging flies with Shoeless Joe and “Moonlight” Graham long before anyone makes contact better than Old Whatshisname.

The human element

October 10, 2009

RON GARDENHIRE

RON GARDENHIRE

Ron Gardenhire is a stand-up guy.

I liked his reaction to the terrible call — against the Minnesota Twins — in last night’s playoff game against the Yankees. The mistake by right-field baseline umpire Phil Cuzzi couldn’t have come at a worse time as he ruled what should have been a double by Joe Mauer a foul ball. The replay clearly showed that Cuzzi was wrong, even though he was in a perfect position to see the play.

Instead of railing at Cuzzi or at umpires in general or at the Fates, Gardenhire said that what’s done is done. He didn’t mention — so far as I know — that his team was the beneficiary of a bad call in its one-game playoff with the Tigers when plate umpire Randy Marsh missed the call when Brandon Inge was brushed by a pitch in the top of the 12th inning – a call that would have scored a run for the Tigers, who lost the game in the bottom of the 12th.

PHIL CUZZI

PHIL CUZZI

The conventional wisdom is that bad calls even out, which is a lot more demonstrable in a 162-game regular season than it is in a one-game playoff. Still, I was glad to see Gardenhire’s observation when he was asked if more videotape reviews should be introduced in baseball.

“The great thing about baseball,” he said, is the human element …. and I hope we keep it that way.”

I’m with Gardenhire. Probably enough technology exists to eliminate umpires altogether, but where would be the fun in that? I don’t like when the call goes against my team, but I’d miss complaining about it — and gloating when the call goes the other way.

Just stand in and hit.


Talkin’ baseball

September 3, 2009

DEREK JETER

DEREK JETER

Derek Jeter is on the verge of accumulating the most hits by any member of the New York Yankees – surpassing the record of 2,720 held since 1939 by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig would have had more, of course, had he not come down with ALS and died before he was 37 years old. That’s not Jeter’s fault; he got his hits one at a time like everybody else, and he deserves whatever recognition comes with them.

This not the kind of record that is subject to rationalization by people who don’t like the player — like those who say that Alex Rodriguez built up his records by driving in runs when his team didn’t need them. When a man gets 2,700 hits, there’s only one reason for it. He’s damn good.

LOU GEHRIG

LOU GEHRIG

Still, there will be some hint of melancholy around the hit that breaks Lou’s record. Maybe this is a generational thing. I don’t remember Gehrig, but I didn’t miss him by much, and my father — who saw him play scores of times throughout his career — kept the memory alive in our house. Younger people may not feel the regret that someone my age will feel when Lou is no longer Number One on that list.

One of the charms of baseball has always been that everyone who has ever played is still in the game. Today’s players compete against yesterday’s players in statistics and in memory. I wonder, though, if that is waning. I notice, for instance, that the frame of reference for the play-by-play and color announcers usually extends back only as far as they can remember. References to people like Gehrig are rare, and they often sound like references to fictional characters.

BILL DICKEY

BILL DICKEY

I was in the Yankee clubhouse with Ed Lucas one day about 15 years ago, and Ed was talking to a young player who had come up from the farm for a cup of coffee. In the conversation, Ed mentioned Yogi Berra. Ed is blind, but I noticed the blank look on the player’s face, and I said, “You know who Yogi Berra is, don’t you?” The guy said: “I’ve heard of the gentleman.” I guess there would have been no point in asking the young man if he knew who Bill Dickey was — the Hall of Fame catcher who preceded Berra on the Yankees.

People of my generation lived through the phenomenon of grieving a record when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break the mark set by Babe Ruth in 1927. I was rooting for Maris, partly, I suppose, because Ruth’s transcendent place in the game doesn’t depend on any of his individual records. But a lot of people resented Maris and said so. If anyone broke that record, it should have been Mickey Mantle, a legitimate power hitter year after year and a lifetime Yankee. That was the feeling. We were at Yankee Stadium the day Maris broke that record; the excitement was muted, to put it mildly, Phil Rizzuto notwithstanding. Henry Aaron went through something similar when he broke Ruth’s lifetime home run mark — and there was a strong racial ingredient in that — but Aaron was such a great all-around player for so many years, that only cranks were against him.

CARL HUBBELL

CARL HUBBELL

Speaking of Bill Dickey, he came to mind the other day when a friend of mine mentioned Carl Hubbell’s well-known feat in the 1933 All-Star Game, striking out in succession Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Joe Cronin, and Al Simmons — all future Hall of Famers. Hubbell, a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, was a screwball-throwing left-hander and one of the best of his time — many would say all time.

It doesn’t come up often, but the batter who followed Simmons was Bill Dickey, who got a hit to break Hubbell’s streak. The next batter was Lefty Gomez, a pitcher with the Yankees and one of the great humorists of the game, and a notoriously bad hitter in the days when American League pitchers were fully employed and took their turn at bat.

LEFTY GOMEZ

LEFTY GOMEZ

Gomez struck out, and when he went back to the dugout, he was ripping mad at Dickey.

“What did I do?” asked Dickey, who was flabbergasted. “It’s going to go down in history,” Gomez told him, “that Hubbell struck out five of the greatest hitters in baseball. If you had had the decency to strike out, it would have been seven, and I would have been one of them!”

The Times has a story about Jeter’s achievement in the context of the end of Gehrig’s career. It’s at this link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/sports/baseball/04gehrig.html?hp

BOSTON RED SOX

BOSTON RED SOX

One thing that is unlikely to appear in a photograph of Boston Red Sox players is red socks. Players for Boston, like most players in professional baseball, have forsaken the knickers and high stockings that have been a distinctive element of the baseball uniform for 140 years.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame web site, knickers were introduced to the game in 1868 by the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The innovation met with some resistence. The Hall of Fame site reports as follows:

“The showing of the manly leg in varied-colored hose … [was] unheard of, and when [team captain] Harry Wright occasionally appeared with the scarlet stockings, young ladies’ faces blushed as red, and many high-toned members of the club denounced the innovation as immoral and indecent.”

ALEX RODRIGUEZ

ALEX RODRIGUEZ

But stockings quickly became de riguer in the game and remained so for many decades. Now, however, in this epoch in which everyone does what he pleases, this tie to the past has been withering away. During last night’s game between the Yankees and the Twins, I counted only four men on the field wearing high stockings: Alex Rodriguez, R.A. Dickey, Joe Crede, and Brendan Harris. The rest looked like they were wearing their pajama bottoms — and walking on the hems at that. Besides looking foolish, they’re monkeying with something essential about The Game — its tradition.

Remember what Terence Mann told Ray Kinsella at the climax of “Field of Dreams”?

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

1869 CINCINNAT RED STOCKINGS

1869 CINCINNAT RED STOCKINGS