November 2009

Hall of Famers and Numbers Without Wings

They don’t give me a vote.
I was once gratified to read somebody argue that they should, but if I remember correctly this was written by somebody else who also didn’t get a vote, but probably should. 
The logic behind that assertion will presumably decrease as time goes by. But it is staggering to consider that for decades, writers elected – or prevented the election of – dozens of players who they literally never saw play in a game that mattered. By the time Ron Santo was first seen by future Hall of Fame voters working in Baltimore, Boston, and all the other American League cities save for Chicago, L.A., and New York, he was a worn-out 34-year old part-time second baseman who had already hit 337 of the 342 homers he would ever hit. Seeing them on television has been the actual qualification for some large number of voter-nominee interactions since television began.
But I digress. Capsule summaries of the candidacies of those on the new ballot just released Friday:
Roberto Alomar: No, just barely. I don’t think he was as good as Sandberg and I always said Sandberg shouldn’t go in before Joe Gordon. I’m not judging Alomar on the spitting incident, I’m judging him on the fact that for whatever reason, at age 34 he not only turned from a superstar into a fringe major leaguer, but he also turned into a millstone around the neck of a franchise. The bad taste may fade with time, but right now I couldn’t vote for him.
Harold Baines: Yes, just barely. He’s hurt by the 2,866 hits – he’s in that Buckner zone. Everybody else who got to Buckner’s level of hits (2,763) has gotten in, or will, or is Pete Rose.
Bert Blyleven: Definitely. Fifth all-time in strikeouts now (passed by Clemens), by any measure one of the game’s great curveballers, and 287 wins. And by the way, those 3,701 strikeouts? They came with only 1,322 walks. 

Andre Dawson: Yes. Farcical he has had to wait.
Andres Galarraga: I just don’t see it. 399 homers in the power era just doesn’t get there.

Barry Larkin: A great player and one of my favorites, but I don’t recall ever during his playing career having had even that Alomarian sense that this could be a Hall-of-Famer. If we’re looking to put a Reds shortstop in Cooperstown, it should be David Concepcion.
Edgar Martinez: The first test of how the DH-as-position will resonate through history. I can see electing pure DH’s but to me the batting bar is a little higher for them than other batsmen who field. Two batting championships and a RBI title is not sufficient. Ferris Fain won two batting championships, too, and I don’t see a big argument for him in Cooperstown (and he did it in consecutive years, too).
Don Mattingly: Sigh, no. I wish. The back injury killed his chances – he dropped from superior to slightly-above-average. For competitive fire, diligence, class, yes. But we don’t do it that way.
Fred McGriff: Amazingly, yes. Here is the silver lining to the steroid era. Suddenly his 493 homers and ten 30-home run seasons look surprising, even refreshing, considering the worst thing he was ever accused of taking were Boring Pills. No offense, but when the Yankees had to bribe Toronto to take Dave Collins off their hands in the winter of 1982-83 and the Jays said “OK, but you have to take Dale Murray off our hands – and we want this kid McGriff,” the Yanks would have been better off saying “take Mattingly.”
Mark McGwire: Hall of Fame? For what? For pretending to Congress that nothing happened before that steroid hearing? Fine. You got your wish. Nothing happened. Your lifetime numbers are 0-0-.000. And by the way, why is it ok for him to just waltz back in as batting coach of the Cardinals? Would we let Bonds come back in? This is unacceptable, and it gives credence to the very disturbing claim that race is at play when it comes to the punishment of steroid cheats. Mark McGwire is a steroid cheater.
Jack Morris: Another beneficiary of a little perspective. I used to flinch at that 3.90 ERA. There seems very little doubt that Tom Glavine will go in on the first ballot at 3.54. I’m looking more at the 254 wins and the clutch performances. Aye.
Dale Murphy: Yes. Preposterous that he’s had to wait. Two-time MVP, thought he was tailing off at the end of one season so he went to the Instructional League that fall to work on his hitting, turned himself from a defensive disaster to a star centerfielder, and was cooperative with every fan, reporter, and vendor. During his era as an every-day starter, 1978 through 1991, he was baseball’s leading home-run hitter, and he’s not in because he hit 398 homers and not 400? And we’re seriously considering Edgar Martinez before him?
Dave Parker: To be fair, something of a victim of expectations. But when he came up he was thought to have been the best all-around talent to ascend to the majors perhaps since Mays. 339-1493-.290 with 147 steals, two batting titles, and no homer crowns, isn’t very much, I’m afraid.
Tim Raines: No. It is very close. Maybe the steals should earn him a spot. The rest of the offensive production just doesn’t.
Lee Smith: Here’s a startling question: who led his league in saves more often during his career? Lee Smith, Mariano Rivera, or Trevor Hoffman? The answer is Smith (four), though Rivera (three), and Hoffman (two) can still do something about it. But doesn’t it at least suggest Smith’s 478 saves should be taken seriously, too? I vote yes.
Alan Trammell: No. I wish it were otherwise.
I do want to see how many guys vote for Shayne Reynolds.
THE UNEXPECTED BENEFIT OF WATCHING MLB NET’S ‘ALL-TIME GAMES’:
There are at least two big heavy fascinating books devoted to no less a topic than the attempt to record all of the uniform numbers worn by big leaguers. It may not fascinate you, but it fascinated two guys, including the eminent researcher Mark Stang, to take the time to do the research, and two publishers to pay the costs.
That’s why an odd vigne
tte from an odd MLB Network choice for one of its “All-Time Games” is fascinating – to a few, anyway. It’s a black-and-white video of the Montreal Expos outlasting the Pittsburgh Pirates at Jarry Park in Montreal on September 2, 1970. And at mid-game, rookie announcer Don Drysdale starts commenting to his partner Hal Kelly about the odd spectacle he’s seeing in the visitors’ bullpen. 
This – and forgive the photographed screen grab – is the spectacle:
IMG_2007.JPG
COURTESY MLB NETWORK

The righthander in mid-pitch is John Lamb (of the Pirates’ odd Lamb/Moose/Veale pitching staff). The lefty awaiting the throw is George Brunet, and he is not an outfielder loosening up his arm to replace Roberto Clemente. He’s a lefthanded pitcher – one who pitched fifteen seasons for nine different teams, plus thirteen more in the American minors, plus teams in Mexico up until nearly the day he died in 1991 – whom the Bucs had obtained from the Washington Senators three days earlier.
And he is wearing uniform number 4. Drysdale says to Kelly that Brunet is going to change the number as soon as possible because: a) pitchers just don’t wear “low numbers” like that, and b) Brunet has told him so. Left unspoken is the fact that Brunet, listed at 6’1″, 195, was probably closer to 220 by the time he got to Pittsburgh, and they probably gave him number 4 because, in that first year in which double-knit unis were ever used in the majors, it was likely the only shirt they had that fit him.
Both those big heavy uniform books show Brunet wearing only 22 for Pittsburgh. Yet, there he is, a few moments later, years ahead of Toronto’s Number 7 Josh Towers, actually getting into his second game as a Pirate, wearing the number they would eventually get around to retiring in honor of Ralph Kiner.
IMG_2008.JPG
COURTESY MLB NETWORK

As an utter sidebar, I loved watching this game until I realized that the second of my two trips to Montreal as a kid to explore unbeatable, electric (and frigid in August with aluminum seats)  Parc Jarry, was exactly one week before this game was played. Alors! This game is newer than the last time I actually saw that old field!

Elect A New System

I got asked a lot about the contrasts between sports and politics. Here’s one hard-to-believe truth: the elections are far more screwed up in sports.

Just when I thought a baseball vote could no longer surprise me, The Writers’ Association manages to confer the Cy Young Award on the guy who got the second most first-place votes. Now, I’ve seen a lot of screwy elections in politics, but a system which is designed to permit this to happen would never last in a democracy (or anything close to it).
I say this as a supporter of Tim Lincecum for the award: look, this is simple. Why is this archaic “top three vote getters” method still in use? Is there a particular reason each voter is not asked for a selection, and then the winner – you know – wins? Where if there is a tie, either you leave it as such and give out two awards, or perhaps you hold a run-off among the electors?
The “top three” is a variation of the older long-sheet ballots the writers began using in the ’30s when they took over the MVP voting, and a cousin to the ludicrous Hall of Fame ballots. They date to a time of inferior communications where the practicality of a run-off vote was far lower. They are anachronisms, and they produce shoddy results like this one.
The Hall of Fame, obviously, should just be an up-or-down vote on each nominee, not another top ten list and percentage thresholds. The NFL has this system down: its voters convene and argue their votes, and then reach consensus.
Even that kind of system is not fool-proof. There is the story of Rick Ferrell, the long-time executive of the Detroit Tigers and, before that, long-time slightly-above-average Hall of Famer. For years, the voters on the Veterans’ Committee would sit around and talk through – and even choreograph – their voting. They’d pay tribute to this beloved figure by throwing him “courtesy votes,” so when the balloting was completed they could truthfully say “You got three, you needed six, maybe next year, Old Sport.” One year signals were supposedly crossed and twice as many guys thought they were supposed to give Rick his courtesy votes  and instead of three, he got six – and a man who hit .281, caught for eighteen years without ever backstopping a pennant-winner, and was out-homered by his pitcher/brother – got elected. Or so the story goes (those vote numbers are pulled out of thin air, incidentally).
Still, any method that permits the runner-up to win because of how few runner-up votes the leader got (Lincecum 2009), while not precluding a tie (Hernandez and Stargell, 1979), and still permits personal pique to decide (1947: one voter leaves Williams off the ballot and three leave off DiMaggio), has got to be improved upon.
Maybe the writers could leave a phone number at which they could be reached to cast a run-off ballot in the event of a tie. If that’s not too much trouble.

Recommended Reading: Nellie King

People will little note nor long remember what Steven Jackson did pitching in relief last season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For that matter, not until now, were they likely to remember what Nellie King did pitching in relief for the Bucs in 1956.
Without both of these men, and all others like them, baseball would cease to exist.
2009 was an encouraging year for Jackson. Up from Indianapolis, he pitched 40 times for a total of 43 innings, 21 strikeouts, 22 walks, two wins, three losses, and a 3.14 ERA. This was the culmination of nearly six years along a heavily-guided, clearly-lit, little-left-to-chance route that began when Howard McCullough of the Diamondbacks started scouting him at Clemson in 2003. The next year, Arizona drafted him in the tenth round, and, despite the fact he was already 22, they started him in the instruction-focused Pioneer and Northwest Leagues. The Yankees were following him, too, and when they worked out a deal to return Randy Johnson to Arizona, Jackson was one of the pitchers they demanded. New York began to work Jackson in relief in ’07 and their instructors helped him find a new arm slot that turned a mediocre sinker into an out pitch. He was the third arm the Yankees called up from the minors last April, but they wasted his last option by letting him sit in the bullpen for a week without an appearance. When they tried to sneak him off the major league roster, the Pirates pounced and picked him up on waivers. Within weeks, he was a regular in the Pittsburgh bullpen.
This tortuous recital of the provenance of Steven Jackson – scouted, trained, guided, instructed, groomed (and paid around $275,000 in his first big league season) is provided to underscore a point about ex-Pirate reliever Nellie King’s wonderful new book Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog. In King’s first full season in the bigs, in 1956, he appeared 38 times in Pittsburgh, pitched 60 innings, won four and lost one, and finished with a 3.15 ERA (and earned about $6,000 – still just $47,000 in 2009 dollars). This was the culmination of eleven years of fighting to get anybody to notice him long enough to invite him to a mass tryout camp, then possibly to spring training, then possibly onto the roster of a minor league team like the New Iberia Cardinals of the Class-D Evangeline League.
Class D.
As he vividly recounts in this warm, understated memoir, Nellie King’s career began in a time when a ballplayer had at least three jobs: what he did during the actual season, what he did delivering packages or bailing hay during the off-season, and what he had to do 24 hours a day to make sure he didn’t get released with no more than ten days’ notice and not even a bus ticket home. It is almost unfathomable to consider the pioneer-like hacking through the woods of hidden opportunity that King so fondly recalls. A part-time Cardinals’ scout liked what he saw of him in a glorified summer high school league and invited him to a tryout. He got a uniform with a three digit number on it. Hooking on with a team in Louisiana he arrived there by bus in the middle of the night, clueless of who to contact or where to go. He was released twice before his 19th birthday, and made it back into organized ball only because that first scout had gone to work filling out the rosters of some independent clubs. And that only got him into the Pittsburgh system because the owner sold those obscure franchises to the Pirates. 
And that’s when he got to begin his climb up the ladder in a Pirates’ farm system that was a little smaller than most – it only had about a dozen clubs. Having won 15 or more three separate times for Pirates’ farms (a feat which today would put him on the cover of The Baseball America Prospect Handbook) and having survived, unfazed, two years at Fort Dix during the Korean War, Nelson Joseph King finally got to the big leagues in 1954.

“It had taken me eight years, including two outright releases in 1946, plus two years in the Army, to get to this moment at Ebbets Field. I thought of all those innings and games I spent pitching in small, minor league towns such as Geneva, Ozark, Brewton, Troy, Dorhan, Greenville, Andalusia, and Enterprise, in the Class “D” Alabama State League during my first season in professional baseball. The contrast between Ebbets Field and those minor league towns and fields magnified the contrasts and the satisfaction I was feeling. Having viewed Ebbets Field only in black and white photos and on television in World Series games, I was now seeing it up close, in full color and from the center of the picture. In my eighth decade of life, the memory of that moment is so vivid I can still visualize Ebbets Field…”

Injuries would end King’s pitching career in 1957, and he went into radio – following the same steep staircase that described his playing days – through local markets in Western Pennsylvania. Finally, a decade after he stopped pitching for them, he rejoined the Pirates a decade later as an announcer, and the primary partner of the legendary Bob “The Gunner” Prince. Once again the reality of the business of today and that of an earlier time is underscored. As the third announcer of a major league team just 42 years ago, Nellie King was paid $13,000 – and even that only translates to $83,000 in today’s money.
The remarkable part of King’s story is that the struggle and the finances seem to have made every step, and every misstep, all the more satisfying. Nellie King’s story is a triumph of perseverance and contentment. Even the title comes from one of the odder of the aphorisms of the legendary Branch Rickey, for whom King worked in the Pittsburgh organization. Figures like Rickey, and Bill Mazeroski, and Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell, populate its pages, but Happiness Is Like A Cur Dog should not be mistaken for the kind of dramatic but sometimes self-important recent biographies of, say, Satchel Paige or George Steinbrenner. And though King goes into depth about the two epic Pirates’ World Championship years he covered, he does not seek to elevate either to world-changing status, such as a recent book on the 1912 Series does.
Nellie King has simply written a book about the backbone of baseball, a tale like that of 75 percent of the players in the game’s history. And in its own matter-of-fact style, it’s terrific. It’s available from the usual suspects like Amazon, but more directly (and economically) from the publisher, and Nellie and his family have also launched a blog for Cur.

CORRECTIONS AND NOTES:
In advocating for Danny Murtaugh’s Hall of Fame qualifications I gave him credit for one more NL East title than he deserved. I’d forgotten Murtaugh retired four times as Pittsburgh skipper, not three, and the 1972 crown belonged to Bill Virdon… And having composed this as MLB Network rolled out its World Series highlight films, these trivial observations about Yankee Stadium. The boxes remained in the “opera style” – no permanent seats, just as many hard wooden chairs as you needed or could fit in – through at least 1943. And the dirt stripe from the mound to the plate, most recently resurrected in Detroit and Phoenix, was in place in the Bronx through at least 1947 – but gone by 1949.

No Replay, No Problem – And The Vet Vote

Two things to consider about the General Managers’ decision not to make a decision on expanding videotape replay: A) whatever it is, baseball has almost always done it, and B) once it’s been done, baseball has almost always done more of it, later.

This is just a brief list of the things the game’s protectors and magnates have guaranteed would never, ever, happen to the great traditions and sanctity of our private world:
1. Overhand pitching
2. Integration
3. Videotape replay
4. Night games
5. Batting helmets
6. A players’ union
7. The American League
8. The banning of the spitball
9. Farming out players to the minors
10. Universal radio broadcasts. Well, okay, radio, but no television. All right, television, but never cable.

Video replay did not celebrate its first anniversary late this season; it celebrated its tenth. In October 13, 1998, third base ump John Shulock threatened to eject me and my six-inch NBC monitor from the reporter’s well next to the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium for Game Six of the ALCS, because he thought some of the Indians players might have been able to see a replay of a call Ted Hendry didn’t do a very good job on at second. Seven months later, on May 31, 1999, the venerable ump Frank Pulli decided he couldn’t decide whether Cliff Floyd’s blast in Florida was a home run or not. So he went over to a tv cameraman and asked if they’d show him some replays. Pulli decided that per the grounds rules, Floyd’s blast had been incorrectly called a homer and was in fact a double, and he so ruled. The National League got mad at him. 
Replay was fully and suddenly introduced in 2008 – by this year it played a vital role in the regular season and the World Series. Now the GM’s have demurred. Within eighteen months there will be a video replay rulebook issued to every ump and manager and included in every media guide. You watch.
FOR YOUR HALL OF FAME CONSIDERATION:

Everybody except me seems to have a vote in one of the 87 committees that may elect some managers, umpires, and executives, to Cooperstown next month. I’m in favor of putting in all deserving candidates and I really don’t care if we put it to voice vote at Dodger Stadium one night, just so long as we honor the deserving.
So here is a yes/no on each of the candidates, without getting into the woods of who’s doing the voting or how:
Manager – Charlie Grimm: No. Longevity, not results.
Manager – Whitey Herzog: Yes. 
Manager – Davey Johnson: No, but close.
Manager – Tom Kelly: Yes. Rebuilt that franchise.
Manager – Billy Martin: a controversial Yes. There’s an amazing stat on him: he only had nine full seasons of managing. Eight of those nine teams finished first or second. 
Manager – Gene Mauch: I’m sorry, no. Presided over two of the worst collapses in history.
Manager – Danny Murtaugh: You know what? Yes. Two World’s Championships, and in his last stint (1970-75) he won the second of them, and a division in four of the other five years.
Manager – Steve O’Neill: No. See Grimm.
Umpire – Doug Harvey: Yes. 
Umpire – Hank O’Day: No. There are about a dozen deserving umps. Not him. Whoever you think was right in the Merkle game, his ruling was wrong. It was either a New York win or a forfeit, not a tie.
Executive – Gene Autry: No. Bringing the A.L. to Southern California would’ve been done 20 years before he did it, had it not been for Pearl Harbor.
Executive – Sam Breadon: Yes. Saved the Cardinals from bankruptcy or moving in the ’20s, built a dynasty with Branch Rickey.
Executive – John Fetzer: No.
Executive – Bob Howsam: No. The Frank Robinson trade gets you into Cooperstown?
Executive – Ewing Kauffman: No. An elegant, dedicated man.
Executive – John McHale: No.
Executive – Marvin Miller: Yes. For good or for ill, his impact for changing the game was comparable to Babe Ruth.
Executive – Jacob Ruppert: Yes. The Yankees were a joke before him.
Executive – Bill White: Yes. Could qualify in this role, or as a player, or as an announcer. Get him in there!

What The Heck Is This?

Parked on 6th Avenue – for what purpose I have no idea – as bad a touch of sportsmanship (no matter how often it might’ve been used) as I’ve ever seen. 

And worse, what’s with the Hot Wheels paint job?IMG_1405.JPG

So How Is George Steinbrenner?

It was the (only sometimes) unspoken question always in the background for the first season of the new Yankee Stadium, and it increasingly became the undertone as the post-season accelerated.

Even this afternoon, as the minions of the nation’s media capital tried to out-do each other with more and more speculative coverage of the victory parade, a reporter who has been on the radio here for nearly half a century insisted that the highlight of the day would be the “emotional moment” when Steinbrenner accepted his key to the city. A less-senior and far more skeptical colleague asked if this was actually going to happen. The veteran’s answer: “It’s right here in the program for the ceremony!”

This is, of course, the impression the Yankees continue to give: that all is not necessarily well with their venerable owner, but that he’s still frequently involved. There was even a very sad effort just last Saturday by The New York Post to palm off a series of e-mailed answers from infamous mega-flak Howard Rubinstein as an “exclusive interview” with George Steinbrenner. To paraphrase Churchill, the answers contained every cliche except “prepare to meet thy maker,” and “employees must wash hands.”

I have seen The Boss, with whom I have had a surprisingly warm and even conspiratorial relationship since I was a teenager, only twice this year, and the information gleaned from each encounter was directly self-contradictory. In March, David Cone and I were leaving the press box at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa when the place was frozen by security – it was George on his way out and they cleared the route for him. He was in a wheelchair and looked just this side of robust – twinkly-eyed and neither gaunt nor puffy. Cone whispered that he just had to say hello, and hoped he’d get a hello back.

This is what I heard:

Cone: (mumbled greeting)

Steinbrenner: Of course I know it’s you, David. Jesus! We could’ve used you pitching out there today. Who were those kids? Are any of them ready?

So much for Cone’s fear (and mine – to this day I think of George less for the chaos of the ’70s and ’80s and more for the letter he wrote to ESPN management praising my work on the 1992 Expansion Draft, in which I roundly criticized how his team handled the non-protection of its younger prospects, or the day he spent twenty minutes recounting to Bill Clinton, of all people, virtually every encounter he and I had had since 1973, right down to the story of my mother getting hit by the Knoblauch ball and refusing to ever go back to Shea Stadium even though the Yanks were playing World Series games there).

But just weeks later, during another lockdown, I saw Steinbrenner carted through the bowels of the new ballpark in the Bronx and lifted – not helped, but moved by a guy at each end – into a wheelchair.

Over the last few years, as his health has gotten intermittent, the volume of even rumors and whispers around the Bronx about how he is has declined. When the Yankees traded for Jeff Weaver, Steinbrenner poked his head in to the press conference and asked me “What do you think? How clear-headed does he sound? Is he going to be able to handle this?” – prescient questions, as it proved. A year later I was told that everybody knew there were “awareness problems” but that to my source’s knowledge, nobody in the Yankee organization had ever heard a diagnosis, a prognosis, or even a vaguely medical-sounding term. A year after that, when he recited our history to Clinton, his memory was so sharp as to include some stories that I had forgotten – but each time he tried to say my name, all he could come up with was “uhh… this young man.” After the 2007 season, there is no question that, to some degree great or small, he was behind the nightmarish, take-it-or-leave-it dethroning of Joe Torre as manager.

There are fewer such reports these days, and not even that level of source information. There’s a lot to be said against George Steinbrenner and lord knows I’ve said much of it. But something made me feel very sad today at that Yankee ceremony: contrary to what it said “right here on the program for the ceremony!,” The Boss was indeed not there to accept the keys to the city.

 

Game Six: Godzilla Versus Mega-Damon

Fascinating subtext to Hideki Matsuis five-RBI night and Johnny Damons MVP-caliber performance over the first five games. They are in essence competing for the sane job on the 2010 Yankees. It is unlikely New York wants to trust either in leftfield next year, certainly not at these prices. But either would make – as Matsui already has proven – a top-of-the-line DH.

Game Six: Damon Hurt; Booing The Cheerable

Passing by almost without notice here in the Stadium that Johnny Damon just exited after a not-so-vigorous race from second to score the Yankees fourth run. There was no delay or dither about this; Joe Girardi bounded out of the dugout at innings end to tell Joe West about the change, apparently the result of a calf strain. One wonders if one of the Series previous hurts keyed the New York rally: Shane Victorino not only badly misread Derek Jeters fly, but seemed a little hesitant to dive for it (although obviously he was not leading with the hand hurt by the Burnett Hit By Pitch on Monday). And to prove not everybody gets it, even at Game Six of the World Series, when Pedro Martinez plunked Mark Teixeira to load the bases ahead of Rodriguez and Matsui, much of the crowd here booed. The way Teixeira hasnt hit in this Series, if he doesnt hurt him, Girardi would be happy to carry him to first base on his back if Martinez will keep hitting Teixeira all night.

Game 6: Thoughts From The Commute

Two things popped into my Big Empty Head in route: anybody remember George Steinbrenners last great personnel gasp? His insistence that the Yankees trade Andy Pettitte because he just wasnt tough enough in the critical games? This, as I recall, was in. 1999 and the deal was supposed to send him to…the Phillies. The other thought: what became of the four teams that really did blow 3-1 leads in the Series? The 1985 Cards fell below .500 in 1986 but made it back to the Series in 87 and it was five years until manager Whitey Herzog left the job. The 68 Cards never recovered but skipper Red Schoendienst lasted until 1976. But the 1958 Braves would stagger into another crisis – a tie for what wouldve been a third straight pennant in 1959. But after a disturbing playoff loss to the Dodgers, manager Fred Haney was fired, Milwaukee never again seriously contended, and within seven years the franchise was moving to Atlanta. The 1925 Senators werent competitive again until 1933 and player-manager Bucky Harris was out by 28.

The Nine Smartest Plays In World Series History

Inspired by Johnny Damon’s double-stolen base in Game Four on Sunday, I thought it was time to salute a part of the game rarely acknowledged and even more rarely listed among its greatest appeals to the fan. What they once quaintly called “good brain-work”: the nine Smartest Plays in World Series History.

We’ll be doing this on television tonight, illustrated in large part with the kind help of the folks behind one of the most remarkable contributions ever made to baseball history, The Major League Baseball World Series Film Collection, which comes out officially next week, and which, as the name suggests, is a DVD set of all of the official “films” of the Series since  ex-player Lew Fonseca started them as a service to those in the military in 1943. The amount of baseball history and the quality of the presentation (the “box” is by itself, actually a gorgeous Series history book) are equally staggering.

We start, in ascending order, with a famous name indeed, and Jackie Robinson’s steal of home in the eighth inning of the first game of the 1955 World Series. It is perhaps the iconic image of the pioneer player of our society’s history, but it was also a statement in a time when the concept was new. Ironically, the Dodgers were losing 6 to 4 when Robinson got on, on an error, moved to second on a Don Zimmer bunt, aggressively tagged up on a sacrifice fly.

Robinson was at third, but up for the Dodgers was the weak-hitting Frank Kellert. And, after all but taunting pitcher Whitey Ford and catcher Yogi Berra of the Yankees, Jackie seized the day, and broke for the plate. No catcher has more emphatically argued a call, and no moment has better summed up a player, his influence, or the changes he would bring to the game.

Ironically, that was the last run the Dodgers would score and they would lose the game. But the steal set a tone for a different Brooklyn team than the one which had tried but failed to outslug the Yankees in their previous five World Series meetings. The Dodgers would win this one, in seven games.

The eighth play on the list is another moment of base-running exuberance. In a regular season game in 1946, Enos “Country” Slaughter, on first base, had been given the run-and-hit sign by his St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Eddie Dyer. Slaughter took off, the batter swung and laced one into the outfield. As Slaughter approached third base with home in his sights, he was held up by his third base coach Mike Gonzalez. Slaughter complained to his skipper. He knew better than Gonzalez, he told Dyer, whether or not he could beat a throw home. Dyer said fine. “If it happens again and you think you can make it, run on your own. I’ll back you up.”

It indeed happened again – and in the bottom of the eighth inning of the seventh game of the 1946 Series! The visiting Red Sox had just tied the score at three, but Slaughter led off the inning with a single. Manager Dyer again flashed the run-and-hit sign, and Harry “The Hat” Walker lined Bob Klinger’s pitch over shortstop for what looked to everybody like a long single.

Everybody but Slaughter. He never slowed down. He may never have even seen third base coach Gonzalez again giving him the stop sign. When Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky turned clockwise to take the relay throw from centerfielder Leon Culberson, and, thus oddly twisted, could get little on his throw to the plate – Slaughter scored, the Cardinals led, and, an inning later, were World Champions.

The Red Sox should’ve seen it coming. Long before Pete Rose, Slaughter ran everywhere on the field, to the dugout and from it, on walks, everywhere. He said he had learned to do it in the minor leagues, when as a 20-year old he walked back from the outfield only to hear his manager say “Hey, kid, if you’re tired, I’ll get you some help.”

That manager was Eddie Dyer – the same guy who a decade later would encourage Slaughter to run any and all red lights.

The particulars of the seventh smartest play in Series history are lost in the shrouds of time: the 1907 Fall Classic between the Tigers and Cubs. This was the Detroit team of the young and ferocious Ty Cobb, but its captain was a veteran light-hitting third baseman named Bill Coughlin. In the first inning of the second game, Cubs’ lead-off man Jimmy Slagle walked, then broke for second base. Catcher Fred Payne’s throw was wild and Slagle made it to third. Coughlin knew the Tigers were in trouble.

There are two ways to do what Coughlin did next; we don’t know which he used. Later third basemen like Matt Williams were known to ask runners to step off the base so he could clean the dirt off it. Others, through nonchalance or downright misdirection, would convince the runner that they no longer had the ball. Which one Coughlin did, we don’t know. The Spalding Base Ball Guide for 1908 simply described it as “Coughlin working that ancient and decrepit trick of the ‘hidden ball,’ got ‘Rabbit’ Slagle as he stepped off the third sack. What the sleep of Slagle cost was shown the next minute when Chance singled over second.”

Coughlin snagged Slagle with what is believed to be the only successful hidden ball trick in the history of the Series.

 
Sixth among the smartest plays is another we will not likely see again. The New York Mets led the Baltimore Orioles three games to one as they played the fifth game of the 1969 World Series. But the favored Birds led that game 3-zip going into the bottom of the sixth. Then, Dave McNally bounced a breaking pitch at the feet of Cleon Jones of the Mets. Jones claimed he’d been hit by the pitch, but umpire Lou DiMuro disagreed – until Mets’ skipper Gil Hodges came out of the dugout to show DiMuro the baseball, and the smudge of shoe polish from where it had supposedly hit Jones. DiMuro changed his mind, Jones was awarded first, Donn Clendenon followed with a two-run homer, Al Weis hit one in the seventh to tie, and the Mets scored two more in the eighth to win the game and the Series.

But there were questions, most of them voiced in Baltimore, about the provenance of that baseball. Was it really the one that McNally had thrown? A nearly identical play in 1957 with Milwaukee’s Nippy Jones had helped to decide that Series. And years later an unnamed Met said that ever since, it had always been considered good planning to have a baseball in the dugout with shoe polish on it, just in case.

Today, of course, players’ shoes don’t get shined.

Hall of Fame pitcher, Hall of Fame batter, Hall of Fame manager, all involved in the fifth smartest play. But only two of them were smart in it. Reds 1, A’s nothing, one out, top of the eighth, runners on second and third, third game of the ’72 Series, and Oakland reliever Rollie Fingers struggles to a 3-2 count on Cincinnati’s legendary Johnny Bench. With great theatrics and evident anxiety, the A’s battery and manager Dick Williams agree to go ahead and throw the next pitch deliberately wide — an intentional walk.

Which is when Oakland catcher Gene Tenace jumps back behind the plate to catch the third strike that slides right past a forever-embarrassed Bench. As if to rub it in, the A’s then walked Tony Perez intentionally. For real.

Another all-time great was central to the fourth smartest play in Series history. With Mickey Mantle, you tend to think brawn, not brain, but in the seventh game of the epic 1960 Series, he was, for a moment, the smartest man in America. Mantle had just singled home a run that cut Pittsburgh’s lead over the Yankees to 9-to-8.  

With one out and Gil McDougald as the tying run at third, Yogi Berra hit a ground rocket to Pirate first baseman Rocky Nelson. Nelson, having barely moved from where he was holding Mantle on, stepped on the bag to retire Berra for the second out. Mantle, on his way into no man’s land between first and second, about to be tagged hi
mself for the final out of the Series, stopped, faded slightly towards the outfield, faked his way around Nelson, got back safely to first, and took enough time to do it, that in the process, McDougald could score the tying run.

Mantle’s quick thinking and base-running alacrity would have been one of the game’s all-time greatest plays – if only, minutes later, the 9-to-9 tie he had created, had not been erased by Bill Mazeroski’s unforgettable Series-Winning Home Run to lead off the bottom of the ninth.

 

Like the Mantle example, the gut and not the cerebellum is associated with the third smartest play in Series history. It’s Kirk Gibson’s epic home run to win the opening game of the 1988 classic. The story is well-known to this day; Gibson, aching, knees swollen, limping, somehow creeps to the batter’s box and then takes a 3-2 pitch from another hall of fame Oakland reliever, Dennis Eckersley, and turns it into the most improbable of game-winning home runs.

But the backstory involves a Dodger special assignment scout named Mel Didier. When the count reached 3-and-2, Gibson says he stepped out of the batter’s box and could hear the scouting report on Eckersley that Didier had recited to the Dodgers, in his distinctive Mississippi accent, before the Series began. On a 3-2 count, against a left-handed power hitter, you could be absolutely certain that Eckersley would throw a backdoor slider. He always did it. And as Gibson once joked, “I was a left-handed power hitter.”

So Gibson’s home run wasn’t just mind over matter. It was also mind. And it was also Mel Didier.

The second smartest play in Series history came in perhaps the greatest seventh game in modern Series history. The Braves and Twins were locked in their remorseless battle of 1991, scoreless into the eighth inning. Veteran Lonnie Smith led off the top of the frame with a single. Just like Enos Slaughter in 1946, he then got the signal to run with the pitch, and just like Harry Walker in 1946, his teammate Terry Pendleton connected.

But something was amiss at second base. Minnesota Shortstop Greg Gagne and second baseman Chuck Knoblauch were either completing a double-play, or they had decided they were the Harlem Globetrotters playing pantomime ball. Smith, at least momentarily startled by the infielders pretending to make a play on him at second, hesitated just long enough that he could not score from first as Enos Slaughter once had. He would later claim the Twins’ infielders hadn’t fooled him at all with their phantom double play – that he was just waiting to make sure the ball wasn’t caught.

But he never scored a run, nor did the Braves. The game, and the Series, ended 1-0 Minnesota, in the 10th inning on a pinch-hit single by Gene Larkin from — appropriately enough for the subject — Columbia University.
 
480-damonstealing3rd.jpg

All-stars and cup of coffee guys; fielders and hitters and baserunners and pitchers and even a scout, and stretching over a span of 102 years of Series history. And yet the smartest play is: from this past Sunday. Johnny Damon not only worked his way back from down 0-2 to a line single on the ninth pitch of the at bat against Brad Lidge, but he quickly gauged the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with which the Phillies had seemingly presented him. Few teams employ a defensive shift towards the left side or the right when there’s a runner on base. This is largely because if there is a play to be made at second or third, the fielders who would normally handle the ball are elsewhere. With Mark Teixeira up, the Phillies had shifted their infield, right.

So Damon realized.

If he tried to steal, the throw and tag would probably be the responsibility of third baseman Pedro Feliz. Feliz is superb at third base, fine at first, has experience in both outfield corners, and even caught a game for part of an inning. But his major league games up the middle total to less than 30 and this just isn’t his job. Even if Feliz didn’t botch the throw or the tag, his meager experience in the middle infield slightly increased the odds in Damon’s favor. The question really was, what would happen immediately afterwards, if Damon stole successfully: Where would Feliz go, and who would cover third base?

Damon chose a pop-up slide so he could keep running. Feliz took the throw cleanly, but did not stop his own momentum and continued to run slightly towards the center of the diamond. And nobody covered third base. All Damon needed was daylight between himself and Feliz, and Feliz would have no chance of outrunning him to third, and nobody to throw to at third.     

And all of that went through Johnny Damon’s mind, in a matter of seconds. Before anybody else could truly gauge what had happened, he had stolen two bases on one play without as much as a bad throw, let alone an error, involved. It is a play few if any have seen before, and it is unimaginable that any manager will let us ever see it again!

Thereafter, in a matter of minutes, the Yankees had turned a tie game, with them down to their last strike of the ninth inning, into a three-run rally that put them within one win of the World’s Championship. And all thanks to the Smartest Play in World Series History.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,571 other followers