The list of the top ten Home Run hitters in World Series history is fascinating, but not for the reasons you’d think.
Mickey Mantle still leads (and almost certainly will; Albert Pujols trails him by 14, cluster-hitter Nellie Cruz trails him by 15, and Alex Rodriguez trails him by 17). Babe Ruth (15) and Yogi Berra (12) follow. Duke Snider is fourth with 11, Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson tied for fifth at 10. The rest of the top ten are three men tied with eight homers each: Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, and Moose Skowron.
Bill “Moose” Skowron died today after a fight with cancer. He was 81. He was one of the most appreciated, most fun, most filter-free guys in baseball history (“Keith Olbermann! You look great! But, Jeez, ya put on a little weight, huh?”). For the last 40 years he had gradually become the stuff of anecdotal legend, roaming the various parks of the White Sox and dropping into almost anybody’s broadcast booth and inevitably being asked about the stash of Mantle-signed baseballs he supposedly kept locked away somewhere (“Oh, now don’t start on me about that again, Sheesh, I’m not talkin’ about that again”).
What got lost in all this merriment – and that’s the word for it, Bill Skowron was almost unstoppably merry – was that he was a helluva first baseman, mostly for the New York Yankees. And unless somebody gets on the stick, he is going to be in the top ten in all-time World Series home runs for quite awhile. Because while you may or may not be able to prove that there is such a thing as clutch hitting, Moose Skowron played in 39 World Series games, got 39 hits, hit his eight homers, and drove in 29 runs. He slugged .519, hit two homers in the same Series in two different years, and in the dramatic 7th Game in 1958, with the Yankees having just broken a 2-2 tie in the 8th Inning, he hit a two-out three-run job to kill off the Braves and Lew Burdette (who had only won the Series from the year before by pitching three victories for Milwaukee).
To throw more numbers at you:
Most Career World Series RBI
1. Mickey Mantle 40
2. Yogi Berra 39
3. Lou Gehrig 35
4. Babe Ruth 33
5. Joe DiMaggio 30
6. Bill Skowron 29
Something else to consider about this cascade of stats. Moose would be the first person to tell you he was no Mickey Mantle and certainly no Babe Ruth. But he put up World Series numbers that approach both of them, with far fewer opportunities. In his first three Series, Skowron was platooned by Casey Stengel. He only batted four times in the ’57 Classic.
Skowron only had 142 World Series plate appearances. Mantle had 273, Berra 295, DiMaggio 220. Mantle homered once every 15.2 ups, Skowron once every 17.75, Berra once every 24.6, DiMaggio once every 27.5.
The RBI rate is even more impressive. Rewrite that list based on plate appearances (lower is better), with the caveat that a tack-on Grand Slam, like the Moose hit in Game 7 in 1956, can go a long way.
Plate Appearances Per World Series RBI:
1. Gehrig 4.0
2. Skowron 4.9
3. Ruth 5.0
4. Mantle 6.8
5. DiMaggio 7.3
6. Berra 7.6
Again, Bill’s explanation for this was pretty easy (“I was real lucky”). In point of fact, he produced in this way even though, almost invariably, Mantle, Berra, and later Maris, were batting ahead of him. As often as he might have added tack-on runs, he was probably much more often coming up after one of the epic sluggers had cleaned off the bases. He hit when it counted.
But ultimately, Moose (and although he went to Purdue on a football scholarship he was 5’11” 195 – the “Moose” came from a haircut that made the childhood Bill look like the Italian dictator Mussolini) was just endless good fun. I had the great luck to be invited by Tony Kubek to join his family at the 2009 Hall of Fame inductions. Kubek’s first roomate was Skowron, and they were proud enough of their Polish heritage that Skowron introduced the rookie Kubek to a fellow countryman, Stan Musial to get some batting tips. Moose was sitting next to be as Kubek got up to begin his acceptance of his entry into the Broadcasters’ wing. Kubek smiled towards us and said “I have to start with a story about my first year in the majors, and my first roomie, Moose Skowron, and when he introduced me to Stan Musial.”
Moose buried his head in his hands. “Oh, Jeez, Tony, don’t tell that story,” he muttered, “Jeez, don’t tell that story!” As the MLB Network cameraman raced towards us to get a reaction shot, Bill muttered again, “Keith, can’t you do something to stop this? You’re on tv, ain’t ya?” When I pointed out that I was part Polish, too, Bill sat upright and said “You’re one of us? Well, I guess that means you can’t. I’ll just have to sit here and take this.”
When Braves’ minor league manager Luis Salazar was hit by a line drive in the dugout two days ago, the players and media who could see what happened all thought the same thing – that the former big league outfielder was dead. Today, Atlanta General Manager Frank Wren says Salazar could be back to work, managing, this season. “The doctors have told us ‘no reason why not.'” Wren says Salazar underwent surgery the day of the nightmare, then had an operation on his eye and faces a second one, probably today. But while the ex-Padre has multiple facial fractures, as his facial swelling has receded, the extent of his good fortune has been revealed.
Within hours, Salazar was speaking and visiting with his family, including his son-in-law Franklin Gutierrez, the center fielder of the Seattle Mariners who traveled from their Arizona training camp to be at his bedside. “It’s obviously very encouraging that he’s looking to get back on the field,” Wren noted as he reflected on how the situation has improved from the initial sense of fatality. It is not all good news, however; Braves sources say – and the second operation today seems to confirm – that Salazar’s vision in his left eye is still in jeopardy.
Brian McCann played today for the first time since he hit the line drive that hit Salazar. Friends say he has been cheered by the improving news, after being so shaken initially that he doubted he could ever play again. McCann went 0-for-3 against the Yankees, left early, and will not play Saturday, but happily not for reasons related to the injury. He had already been given half of Friday and all of Saturday off by manager Fredi Gonzalez, so he could participate in a wedding (and even the rehearsal) elsewhere in Florida.
ON AN EVEN HAPPIER HEALTH NOTE:
Yogi Berra is fine after he tripped on a carpet edge while reaching for some broth at Clearwater on Thursday and landing on his derriere (and being hospitalized for a few hours to make sure that nothing was damaged besides his dignity).
The Hall-of-Famer was asked how he enjoyed the trip to the Phillies’ camp. Reply? “I didn’t like the soup.”
CLEARWATER – As the Yankees hoped that after his minor stumble on some balky carpet that Yogi Berra has that insurance, you know, the kind that pays you cash, which is just as good as money, CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay met up in Clearwater in a dream match-up. Literally a dream, because you don’t need to spend looking much time at either roster to realize that despite the Phillies’ glittering rotation and the Yankees’ three Hall-of-Famers in waiting, neither of these teams is going very deep in the post-season (presuming they make it at all). This is contrary to Conventional Wisdom, which was last heard from telling you that Cliff Lee was going to the Yankees last winter, just as it had told you he was going to them last July. Lee is part of the Yankees’ most obvious problem: based on performance so far, Bartolo Colon is a) a vampire and b) their number two starter. Colon, with his ten-pitch warm-up sessions and newly refound control, has been a joyous mystery even to his new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. But comebacks like his almost always fizzle before the first of June and the Yanks have a long way to before Manny Banuelos, Andrew Brackman, and/or Dellin Betances join the rotation or buy them a veteran starter. The Yankees are also aging alarmingly. I will spare you my usual pronouncements on how moribund Derek Jeter is, but the recent pronouncement that Jorge Posada would not even be used as a temporary back-up catcher should tell you exactly how little the Yanks think he has left. The joke around here is that Cameron Diaz was feeding Alex Rodriguez popcorn in that Super Bowl luxury suite because he now gets too tired doing it himself. Jesus Montero offers a glimmer of youth but the reality is that in two at bats today, Roy Halladay made him look like he’d never been to the plate before (to be fair, Halladay did the same thing to Robby Cano). The Yanks only matchup with Boston at the back of the bullpen and if their lineup is better than Tampa’s, it isn’t much better. The Phils have an advantage the Yanks don’t – the NL East may be as bad as the AL East is good, but they have two enormous crises. I ran into my old friend Ruben Amaro in the hallway just before first pitch and he swore he felt better than he looked – and he looked exactly like a General Manager of a team with a devastating rotation and no second baseman or right fielder. Chase Utley’s injury is a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside some tendinitis and it would be called “indefinite” if only Amaro was that certain. Nobody has any idea what’s next, and Utley’s absence not only puts a Wilson Valdez or Josh Barfield in the lineup, but it also deranges their batting order and perhaps places Jimmy Rollins hitting in a three-hole for which he is ill-suited. Right field may be a bigger problem still. You could make a viable platoon out of Ben Francisco (who absolutely kills lefties) and John Mayberry, Jr (he homered again today) but both hit right-handed. In news that should terrify every Philadelphian, Domonic Brown’s replacement four of the last five days has been Delwyn Young, a scat back of a utility infielder who was not good enough to stick with the Pirates. This is a team that is suddenly in deep trouble on offense – Halladay looked gorgeous for six innings today but they got him only three hits before Sabathia left) and as awe-inspiring as the Four Aces look, having Brad Lidge close for them is like owning four Maseratis and employing a staff of blind valet parkers.
So Adrian Beltre is going to cost the Texas Rangers $16 million a year for six years, and Derek Jeter is going to cost the New York Yankees $17 million a year for three years (maybe more).
Update: Within an hour of posting this, I got an email from an old friend who used to be a national baseball writer for a major metropolitan newspaper. He reports that when Buck Showalter was the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he pulled the same stunt on him as I outlined here. So we have a recidivist Manager-Who-Throws-His-Players-Under-The-Bus.
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.
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.