Baseball postsTuesday March 20, 2018
The Short, Consequential Career of Pee Wee Wanninger
My father is fond of the following baseball trivia question:
Who did Lou Gehrig replace to begin his 2,130 consecutive-games-played streak?
It’s a famous baseball story—if partially apocryphal. On June 2, 1925, Wally Pipp, the Yankees longtime first baseman, complained of a headache and asked manager Miller Huggins if he could sit out a game. Huggins sent in Gehrig ... who stayed at the position for 14 years.
The apocryphal bit is the headache. If there was a headache, it was Huggins’, since the Yankees started the season poorly: 15-26, seventh in the A.L. And they’d just lost five in a row—three to the Athletics, one to Boston, and one to the Washington Senators, who were, remember, 1924 World Champions, and who at this point had as many titles as the Yanks: one. So Huggins was doing what he could to change things around. Pipp, a career .300 hitter, was down to .244. His replacement, Gehrig, wound up going 3-5, with a double, a run, and an RBI, in a 8-5 Yankee victory. The rest is history. Certainly for Pipp: In the off-season the Yanks sold him to the Cincinnati Reds for $7500. Three years later, he was out of baseball.
Anyway, that’s the famous story but it’s not the answer to the trivia question—which is why my father likes it. Because the day before this game, on June 1, 1925, Gehrig came in as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 8th inning for shortstop Pee-Wee Wanninger.
And that’s the answer: Pee-Wee Wanninger.
Dad and I were talking about this again on the phone last week, and afterwards, curious, I did a dive into Baseball Reference stats and came away with some interesting tidbits my father didn’t know.
The first game of the streak was a 5-3 loss to the Senators. The last game of the streak was a 3-2 loss to the Senators. Oh, and guess who Gehrig faced in that first game? Walter Johnson, the Big Train, one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Talk about your deep ends. He flew out to left.
But here’s the part that amazed me most.
Before Gehrig, the record-holder for consecutive games played was a shortstop named Everett Scott, who was part of that late '10s/early ‘20s migration of Red Sox players to the Yankees. His streak, 1,307 games—still the third-longest ever—began in 1916 in Boston and ended on May 5, 1925 with the Yanks. It was part of another Miller Huggins shake-up. Scott was hitting just .208, so, streak or no streak, on May 6, Huggins replaced him.
With Pee-Wee Wanninger.
Isn’t that amazing? Wanninger replaced the guy with the longest consecutive-games streak, and then, less than a month later, was replaced by the guy starting the new consecutive-games streak. Life doesn’t give us this kind of symmetry often. We need to appreciate it when we find it.
For all the baseball history he made, Wanninger didn’t last long. He was hitting .316 on June 6, but by the end of the month he was down to .291 and kept falling. End of July: .264. August: .243. He played sparsely in September, and that off-season was dealt to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. A year later, the Saints traded him to Boston. He ended his Major League career that same season in Cincinnati. Lifetime, he hit .234/.266./295. He has negative career WAR. But he could close a bar with the stories he could tell.
Boxscore, June 1, 1925
The Royal Way
Passion, check. Innocence, check. Urgency, check. Fun, double check.
“I tell players all the time. I tell them, ‘Look, your number one responsibility is to grow the game. You have an opportunity to play the game because somebody did it so well and made it look like so much fun that you thought, ’Yes! I want to be a ballplayer.'
”That's your responsibility now, to play this game so that someone watching thinks, ‘You played this game with passion, you did it through injury, you did it with innocence, you did it with urgency.’ You made it look so fun that some boy or little girl says, ‘Boy, I’d like to do this someday.' That's your calling. The rest will work itself out.“
KC Royals GM Dayton Moore, ”As Royals Reset, Moore of Same from GM," by Joe Posnanski
It's 2018: Do You Know Where Your .350 Hitters Are?
Since WWII, no one's had more .350+ seasons than this guy. Or .360+ seasons. Or .370+. Or...
Yesterday, perhaps inspired by the Seattle Mariners signing 44-year-old Ichiro Suzuki to a one-year deal, Bill James tweeted the following:
Three active players have qualified for the batting title and hit .350: Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols twice, and Ichiro Suzuki four times.— Bill James Online (@billjamesonline) March 7, 2018
That seemed about right. I'd recently researched guys who hit over .350, and in the wake of James' tweet I did it again. And yes, no one has hit .350 or better since Josh Hamilton's .359 in 2010. But wait, wasn't Hamilton an active player? Nope. Drug relapse in 2015, didn't play in 2016, and last year signed a minor-league deal with Texas but knee issues resurfaced and he was released in April. He hasn't played an official game since Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS—that crazy, Jose Bautista bat-flip game. Hamilton went 1-3 with a double and an RBI.
Anyway, looking at that 7-year gap without a .350 hitter, I began to wonder how common it was. I assumed it was kind of common. It's tough to hit .350, after all.
But no, that's the record. It's the longest baseball has gone without a .350 hitter. Ever.
The previous record was five years, 1962-1966, after they raised the mound in the wake of Maris/Mantle. Clemente hit .357 in 1967, but that was the only .350+ season during the raised-mound years.
Here's the longest dearths without seeing .350:
- 7 (and counting): 2011-2017
- 5: 1962-1966
- 4: 1952-1955
- 4: 1989-1992
No three years in a row, btw. A few scattered twos.
And here are the number of seasons per decade without a .350 hitter:
- 1900s: 0
- 1910s: 0
- 1920s: 0
- 1930s: 1
Yes. We didn't have our first .350-less year in the 20th century until 1938. We had three in the 19th century. Onward.
- 1940s: 1
- 1950s: 5
- 1960s: 8
- 1970s: 4
- 1980s: 3
- 1990s: 3
- 2000s: 2
- 2010s: 7
For the record, and not counting round-ups (.3497, for example, which knocks off one of Ichiro‘s), we’ve had 79 instances of players hitting .350 or better since Ted Williams' .400 in 1941. Tony Gwynn leads the pack—he did it six times—followed by Stan Musial and Wade Boggs with five each.
.360+ seasons since ‘41? Thirty-five: from Musial in ’46 to Joe Mauer in 2009. Boggs and Gwynn are tied for the most with four.
.370+ seasons? Twelve: from Musial in ‘48 to Ichiro in 2004. Gwynn has three. No one else has two.
.380+? Just four: Ted Williams’ .388 in ‘57, Rod Carew’s .388 in ‘77, George Brett’s .389 in ‘80 and Gwynn’s .393 in the strike-shortened ‘94 season.
And what’s the closest we‘ve come to .350 since Josh Hamilton? DJ LeMahieu’s .3478 in 2016. So we‘re not far off. We’re just not there. Unprecedentedly.
Who's Who (and White) in Baseball?
I suppose this is less trivia question than history lesson. But it's still a trivia question.
About a year ago I bought a copy of the book, “100 Years of Who's Who in Baseball,” a compendium of the annual baseball magazine's covers from 1916 to 2015—with the cover of the very first issue, a one-off in 1912, tossed in. The only cover missing is the final one in 2016, featuring Bryce Harper. The magazine stopped publishing after that.
For the kids: “Who's Who...” had a distinctive red cover and included the relevant stats of every active Major Leaguer. I think I bought it every year between 1971 and 1975 when there wasn't much else to go on, and when its appearance, like the appearance of baseball cards, signaled spring was finally here.
Those “relevant stats” are interesting, by the way. The very first issue in 1912 included only three: games, batting average, and (of all things) fielding average. By 1928, according to Marty Appel in his foreword to the book, readers could peruse six stats: games, at-bats, runs, hits, stolen bases and batting average. Appel writes: “The readers would know that Babe [Ruth] had seven stolen bases in 1927, but not 60 home runs. Crazy.” Home runs were finally added in 1940.
Flipping through the book, I began to notice something odd, and it led to this trivia question.
Who was the first African-American/person of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball”? And in what year?
The answer has several gradations, which I‘ll get to by and by.
Since the cover of “Who’s Who...” featured a dynamic player from the previous season, the first year an African-American could have been on the cover was 1948—the year after Jackie Robinson's debut. He wouldn't have been a bad choice, either: Rookie of the Year, fifth in MVP voting, changed the game forever. But not to be. WWIB opted for another good choice, “The Home Run Twins of 1947,” Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize, both of whom hit 51.
Year to year, cover subjects often switched leagues, since you didn't want one league dominating too much. For the ‘49 cover, for example, WWIB went with 1948 AL MVP winner Lou Boudreau. And if they’d switched back to the NL for the following year, Jackie Robinson, again, wouldn't have been a bad choice. He won the 1949 NL MVP, hitting .342 and slugging .528, while leading the league in stolen bases (37). By modern metrics, too, he was the best player in baseball, with a 9.6 WAR. But he didn't make the cover. (Jackie never made the cover.) Instead, WWIB stayed in the AL. It didn't highlight the AL MVP winner, either, Ted Williams (.343/.490/.650), who'd graced the cover back in ‘43, but his teammate, pitcher Mel Parnel, who went 25-7 with a 2.77 ERA. I guess they didn’t want to double up on Ted. Plus you gotta get pitchers in the mix, too.
Next year, another pitcher: NL MVP Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. The year after, they skipped over the NL MVP (Roy Campanella) for Stan Musial, who'd finished second in MVP voting, and who'd already been on the cover in ‘44. He’d certainly had a great season (.355/.449/.614), but you can begin to see a pattern emerging.
For the ‘53 cover, apparently someone on the WWIB staff thought, “Hey, why not both MVPs?” So it was done: A’s pitcher Bobby Shantz (24-7, 2.48 ERA) and Cubs slugger Hank Sauer (37 HRs, 121 RBIs). That idea (both MVPs) lasted but a year. For the ‘53 season, Al Rosen won the AL MVP, and Roy Campanella (again) the NL, and WWIB opted for ... just Rosen.
But it’s the next year that blows the lid off things. They'd just featured Rosen so the likely cover would be a National Leaguer. Maybe even the NL MVP, Willie Mays, who'd just had a season for the ages. He led the league in hitting, slugging, OPS and triples. He went .345/.411/.667. His WAR was 10.6. Plus there was that World Series catch, now known simply as “The Catch.” But they didn't choose Willie. Of course not. They didn't go AL, either. They stayed in the NL. In fact, they stayed on the same team. The ‘55 cover was Willie’s teammate, Al Dark, who hit a respectable .293/.325/.446, and finished fifth in the MVP voting. But he didn't exactly have a season for the ages.
By now the pattern has fully emerged.
I‘ll cut to the chase. Here is a list of NL MVPs from 1949 to 1963, along with the following year’s “Who's Who” cover choice. I‘ve highlighted the African-American players:
|YEAR||NL MVP||WWIB cover||Why?|
|1949||Jackie Robinson||Mel Parnell||Leader in W, ERA, IP|
|1950||Phil Konstanty||Phil Konstanty||NL MVP|
|1951||Roy Campanella||Stan Musial (2)||2nd in NL MVP|
|1952||Hank Sauer||Hank Sauer/Bobby Shantz||NL/AL MVP|
|1953||Roy Campanella||Al Rosen||AL MVP|
|1954||Willie Mays||Al Dark||5th in NL MVP|
|1955||Roy Campanella||Duke Snider||2nd in NL MVP|
|1956||Don Newcombe||Mickey Mantle||AL MVP|
|1957||Hank Aaron||Warren Spahn||MLB Cy Young|
|1958||Ernie Banks||Bob Turley||MLB Cy Young|
|1959||Ernie Banks||Don Drysdale||??|
|1960||Dick Groat||Roger Maris||AL MVP|
|1961||Frank Robinson||Whitey Ford||MLB Cy Young|
|1962||Maury Wills||Don Drysdale (2)||MLB Cy Young|
|1963||Sandy Koufax||Sandy Koufax||NL MVP/Cy Young|
In 15 years, 11 black players were voted NL MVP, and none of them wound up on the cover. In that same time, four white players were voted NL MVP and three of them wound up on the cover. Only Dick Groat, among white players, got the scroogie. Welcome to the party, pal.
The second half of that above list is particularly odd. Six pitchers in seven years? And four Dodgers and four Yankees in nine years? The Yanks, of course, were one of the last teams to integrate. The Dodgers had been the first, but somehow WWIB kept missing its black stars (Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe, Wills) but not the white (Snider, Drysdale, Koufax).
But at least we’re getting around to the answer to the trivia question. Or an answer. For the ‘64 season, Brooks Robinson won the AL MVP and Ken Boyer won the NL. And “Who’s Who” went with ... Ken Boyer.
No, Boyer wasn't black. But this was the first year that WWIB, along with its “in action” shot, included several headshots along the side of the cover. And in the ‘65 issue, those headshots included Larry Jackson (2nd in MLB Cy Young voting), Joe Torre (5th in NL MVP voting), Juan Marichal (15th in NL MVP voting) and Tony Oliva (AL batting champion/Rookie of the Year).
So that’s your answer. Tony Oliva and Juan Marichal in 1965 were the first people of color on the cover of “Who's Who in Baseball.”
At the same time, it's a bit of a cheat, isn't it? Since they‘re not the main cover subject? So that’s the follow-up: When did WWIB first feature an African-American/person of color as its main cover subject?
1966? Willie Mays had another season for the ages in ‘65, hitting .317 with 52 homers while leading the league OBP, SLG, OPS, TB, and winning his ninth Gold Glove and his second NL MVP. And he did make the cover—finally. But it’s a headshot. The bigger, dominant headshot belongs to Sandy Koufax.
1967? Frank Robinson won the ‘66 AL triple crown, and he’s one of four equal-sized headshots on the cover, sharing space with Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Jim Kaat. But he's not the feature.
The ‘67 season was all about Yaz, and WWIB made their cover all about him, too. There’s no one else on it.
And if ‘67 makes you think of Yaz, ’68 surely makes you think of Bob Gibson. And, along with Yaz and Pete Rose, he is one of three headshots on the cover. But the big “in action” shot belongs to 30-game winner Denny McLain.
Tom Seaver on the ‘70 cover makes sense, as does Johnny Bench on the ’71 cover. But ‘72? Gotta be Vida Blue, right? Dude won the 1971 AL Cy Young and MVP. He made the cover of Time magazine. He was the talk of baseball. But he’s just the headshot. The dominating photo belongs to NL MVP Joe Torre.
I‘ll cut to the chase for the second time. After ’73 (Steve Carlton) and ‘74 (Nolan Ryan), “Who’s Who in Baseball,” in 1975, finally made a person of color their main cover image. The irony is that this is one of the few seasons during these decades when no person of color won the MVP (Jeff Burroughs, Steve Garvey) or Cy Young award (Catfish Hunter and Mike Marshall). But this player performed a big feat in ‘74. He broke a record.
Not Hank Aaron. Yes, Aaron broke the most hallowed record in baseball in ’74, Babe Ruth's 714 homeruns, but he didn't make the cover. (He never made the cover—not even as a headshot.) The ‘75 cover belonged to Lou Brock, who stole 118 bases in ’74. And that's the answer to the second part of our question. The first African-American to be the featured cover subject on “Who's Who in Baseball” is Lou Brock in 1975—nearly three decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
As I said, this was both trivia question and history lesson. But the history is American rather than baseball; and the answer isn't exactly trivial.
Here's a late-January pick-me-up: a first-inning at-bat in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series between Miguel Cabrera (just a kid, 20) and Roger Clemens (41 asshole years old):
This should be a life lesson. It should be a TED Talk. They should show it in high school and have discussions about it with kids afterwards.
There are people who will throw at your head to get ahead. And you need to know what to do when that happens. You need to stay cool. Because you need to make them pay.
Miguel Cabrera did just that with Clemens. You could even say this at-bat turned the tide of the World Series and the Yankees dynasty. Marlins were down two games to one, Yanks had Roger Clemens on the mound, he's throwing at the heads of kids. I like the look Miggy gives him after that first pitch. Would be interesting to see Roger's look back. I like Miggy's rush to punish, the big swings, then pulling back when he has two strikes; and then just fighting everything off. And he finds his equilibrium again and makes Clemens pay. Tim McCarver: “There is nothing that makes a hitter feel better than being knocked off the plate and then hitting a homerun. Nothing.”
And there's nothing that makes a Yankee hater feel better.
After this at-bat, the Yankees would have the lead for just one inning more: the 1st inning in Game 5. Otherwise, it was all Marlins.
Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 13.