Baseball postsThursday March 28, 2019
Opening Day 2019: Your Active Leaders
SLIDESHOW: A couple of first-ballot Hall of Famers retired (Adrian Beltre, Ichiro), while a few big names (such as Big Sexy) are in limbo—not retired, not signed—but overall it's pretty much the same list as last year. Pujols still dominates the counting numbers, Trout the percentages. Jose Altuve hasn't wrested the batting crown from Miguel Cabrera yet. In ptiching, it's C.C. for counters and C.K. in percentages. Let's go. It's Opening Day.
BATTING AVERAGE: There are only nine active players with BAs over .300, and a couple of those—Dustin Pedroia at .300, Pujols at .302—could easily drop off this season. (Albert left St. Louis with a .328 career average but never cracked .300 in the AL.) From there, it's Blackmon (.302), Cano (.304), Posey (.306), Trout (.307), Votto (.311). The difference between the top two? Miggy's at .3165 and Altuve's at .3164. That's a battle. Altuve is seven years younger so I expect this will be his in a year. Or by April 15.
ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: At .427, Joey Votto is 12th all-time, and (minus Williams and Bonds) everyone ahead of him played before WWII. Yet he has someone on his tail. Exactly: Trout, swimming upstream. Votto's OBP over the last three years is an astonishing .436 but Trout's is even better: .447. No one else in MLB has a career OBP over .400.
SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Trout's on top with .573—and rising. Pujols is second at .554—and sinking. Third is Miggy at .551—and sinking. FWIW, Aaron Judge is at .565 but only has 1,271 of the requisite 3,000 plate appearances. See you in a few years, big guy?
OPS: Six qualified players have a lifetime OPS over .900 (including Miggy, Albert, Goldschmidt and Stanton), but only two are above .950: Votto at .957 and Trout, on top, with .990. He's rising. FWIW, the $300 million man, Bryce “Future Boo Bird” Harper, is seventh at .899.
GAMES: Last year I was hoping Adrian Beltre might become the ninth man in baseball history to break 3,000 games played, but he stopped 67 games short. (I think nobody but me cares about this stat.) The new active leader is Uncle Albert at 2,692: 32nd all-time. Only three other guys have played more than 2,000 MLB games: Cabrera (2,264), Cano (2,078) and Nick Markakis, of all people (2,001). Seattle's own (for now) Edwin Encarnacion is seventh at (1,809).
HITS: It's not only the same top four here but in the same order: Pujols (3,082), Cabrera (2,676), Cano (2,470) and Nick Markakis (2,237). Markakis has never had 200 hits in a season but he's a few good seasons from knocking on 3,000. Has that ever happened, btw? Has a player ever not gotten 200 in a season but 3,000 for his career? Believe it or not, it's happened five times. These guys: Cap Anson, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Rickey Henderson. Go know.
DOUBLES: Same four, same order: Pujols (639), Miggy (556), Cano (534), and Markakis (474). Albert is 10th all-time, and another season like last (when he hit 20) and he‘ll be seventh. Can he reach 700? Only four guys in baseball history have ever done that: Speaker, Rose, Musial, Cobb. Last year’s MLB leader was Alex Bregman with 51.
TRIPLES: In 2008, something shocking happened that went unnoticed by everybody: the active leader in triples, Johnny Damon, didn't have triple digits. The last time that had happened? 1886. Thankfully, in 2010, Carl Crawford passed the triple digit barrier, and then Jose Reyes did, and Reyes would be the active leader this year but he's unsigned. And if he remains unsigned? Double digits again: Curtis Granderson will be the active leader with 94, followed by Dexter Fowler (really?) with 81, then Brett Gardner (really?) at 61. My kingdom for a Willie Wilson.
HOMERUNS: Pujols has more than 600 (633—shit, he passed Junior!); Miggy has more than 400 (465—would love to see him hit 500), and that's it for above 400. You know who's third? Double E, Edwin Encarnacion, with 380. He‘ll probably get his 400th this year—something Seattle fans can look forward to. Except, of course, if he’s doing good he‘ll be trade bait. Then it’s Nellie Cruz (360), Granderson (332), Braun (322), Cano (311), Stanton (305).
RBIs: Last season, Pujols drove in just 64 runs, tying a career low. Even so, this season, barring catastrophe, he‘ll become the fifth man in baseball history to cross the 2,000 RBI Rubicon. He’s got 1,982. Who are the four others? Aaron, Ruth, A-Rod, Cap Anson. Second on the active chart is Miggy with 1,635. Then it's a big dropoff to Cano, third, at 1,233.
RUNS: Pujols again, at 1,773, which is 22nd all-time, followed as always by Miggy at 1,388 (99th). Can you guess who's third on the active list? Not Cano—he's fourth. It's Ian Kinsler with 1,215. He's scored more runs than all but 170 players in MLB history.
BASES ON BALLS: Albert is 48th all-time with 1,279 (five more and he passes Edgar), followed by Joey Votta (1,104/78th) and Miggy (1,087/tied for 85th). They‘re the only guys north of 1,000. Only 18 guys have more than 1,500 career, and only four have more than 2,000: Teddy Ballgame (2,021), Babe Ruth (2,062), Rickey Henderson (2,190), and the Great Cheater himself, Barry Bonds, way out in front with 2,558. Sad!
STRIKEOUTS: The first player to strike out 100 or more times in a season was the Tolkienesque Sam Wise, 104 in 1884, but that was a rarity. From 1900 to 1931, the league leader K’d 100+ times in only eight seasons—all of it during the supposed deadball era rather than the big-swinging Ruthian ‘20s. This began to change in the ’30s. And the last guy to not lead the league with 100+ Ks? Duke Snider in 1949. The guy above, Mark Reynolds, was the first to 200+ in a season: 204 in 2008. Since, we‘ve only had one season (2014) where the league leader wasn’t in the 200s. Reynold's 1,870 is 12th all-time. Curtis Granderson is second on the active list with 1,818.
GROUNDED INTO DOUBLE PLAYS: All-time career leader Albert Pujols added 12 to his total last season (a down year for him) for 374. Second is Miggy with exactly 300 (he's 10th all-time), then Robinson Cano (261) and Yadier Molina (240). For comparison: How often does a speedy guy like Ichiro GDP? Nineteen years, 92 times. Hitting lead-off helps, too.
STOLEN BASES: Ichiro's retired and Jose Reyes is unsigned, so the active leader is ... Rajai Davis? Yes, with 415. The last time the active leader was that low was 1965 when Luis Aparacio had 392. Then Maury Wills zipped past him before passing the baton to Lou Brock, who passed it onto Campy, and onto Joe Morgan, and onto, yeah, Rickey who owned it for a while. Jacoby Ellsbury is second active with 343, then Dee Gordon with 309. Coming up on the outside, in fifth place, is Billy Hamilton, who has 277 after five full seasons—although last year was his first without 50+ SBs.
DEFENSIVE WAR: The king (Adrian) is dead, long live the king (Andrelton). I still have issues with this stat. Andrelton Simmons is first with 25.3 after seven seasons; second is Yadier Molina with 24.4 after 15 seasons. So seven seasons of Simmons at short is worth more than 15 years of Molina beind the plate? Who's involved in every freakin' pitch? I don't think so. After that, it goes Kinsler (18.1), Tulowitzki (16.9), Pedroia (15.5). Lorenzo Cain is the highest-ranked outfielder (7th, 13.8). The first non up-the-middle guy is Nolan Arenado (10th, 13.3).
WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: What‘s a good WAR cutoff for the Hall? Seems about 70. It’s cuspy there: Gary Carter, Barry Larkin, Ron Santo. There are first-ballot guys below you (Tony Gwynn, 69.2) and underrated guys ahead of you (Bobby Grich, 71.1; Lou Whitaker 75.1). But you‘ll definitely be in the conversation. I bring this up because two active players are exactly there: Miguel Cabrera, 69.6, and Robinson Cano, 69.3. To me, Miggy’s in: two MVPs, two Triple Crowns, tons of black ink. Cano, with no MVPs, no black ink and (mostly) a PED suspension, needs another few good years just to get in the convo again. Both men are surrounded by Angels: Albert on top with 99.9, and Mike Trout gunning toward them with 64.2.
WINS: Big Sexy, with 247 wins, ain't signed, so this one goes to C.C. Sabathia at 246. He says this is his last season, and, barring disaster, he‘ll make it to 250. Bigger question: Will he be the last to do it? In second place is Justin Verlander with 204, and he’s 36 years old. Then it's Zack Greinke (187), Jon Lester (177), King Felix (168), Max Scherzer (159), Cole Hamels (156). Clayton Kershaw has 153 wins but at 31 he's hardly a kid anymore. Either way, 300 seems a pipe dream now. The last to reach that milestone? Randy Johnson in 2009. Maybe the last ever.
ERA: Last year, an injury-plagued season, was the first since 2010 that Kershaw didn't finish in the top three in NL Cy Young balloting. Think of that for a second. And guess what? He still had a 2.73 ERA. Career, his 2.39 ERA is 27th all-time, and the only ones above him are Mariano Rivera and the ghosts of 19th-century and early 20th-century pitchers. On the active list, Chris Sale is second with 2.89, followed by Madison Bumgarner (3.03), Corey Kluber (3.08), Stephen Strasburg (3.14), and Max Scherzer (3.21). Of the six, guess which wasn't drafted in the first round? Yes, Kluber: 4th round, 2007, San Diego. They traded him to Cleveland in 2010. So it goes.
STRIKEOUTS: C.C. needs just four wins for 250 and only 14 Ks to become the 17th man in baseball history to reach 3,000 strikeouts. He's at 2,986. The 3,000-strikeout boys go in bunches. For 100 years it was just Walter Johnson until Bob Gibson joined him in 1974. Then between 1978 and 1986, 10 guys barged in: Gaylord, Nolan, Tom, Steve, Fergie, Don, Phil, Bert. Then nothing until 1998-2008 when we got six more: Roger, Randy, Greg, Curt, Pedro, John. Nothing since Schmoltzie. Until this year.
BASES ON BALLS: A year ago, I wrote, “C.C.'s the only active guy with more than 1,000 career walks” ... and he still is. He's got 1,060, Justin Verlander is second with 808. An old saw: You gotta be good to be able to walk that much. C.C. is 94th all-time. The top 5 guys career in BBs? Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Phil Niekro, Early Wynn and Bob Feller. We could build a team around that starting five.
INNINGS PITCHED: There are nine active players with more than 2,000 IP (the usual suspects), but there is only one with more than 3,000 IP, and he‘s way beyond 3,000: C.C. at 3,470. No active pitcher is within 700 IP of him. Last season, the IP leader was Max Scherzer with 220, so you do the math. Not many war horses left. With reason. Did you see “War Horse”? Who wants that?
COMPLETE GAMES: Every year of the 20th century some pitcher threw double-digit CGs. Every year. Even strike-shortened ’94 when Greg Maddux threw 10. Then the calendar flipped and the CGs just disappeared. It's like in John Updike's “Rabbit Is Rich” when the ‘70s turn into the ’80s and disco just goes POOF. In the 21st century, only two pitchers have thrown double-digit CGs: C.C. in 2008 (10) and James Shields in 2011 (11). Now it's hardly even a stat. Who led the league in CGs last season? Well, eight pitchers tied for the lead ... with two. The active leader is C.C. with 38 followed by Felix and CK, both with 25. Want to talk unbreakable records? The all-time leader is Cy Young with 749.
SHUTOUTS: This one's even less. The shutout leaders last season were 19 guys with one each. The last time there were no crooked numbers among shutout leaders? 1871! Even in 2017, you had two guys with three: Ervin Santana and Corey Kluber. Put it this way: You almost always had someone with three. No longer. Trivia: Who was the last guy to pitch at least five shutouts in a season? That would be King Felix in 2012. Felix is tied for third with Ervin Santana on the active list with 11. Second is C.C. with 12. First is C.K. with 15 but he hasn't thrown a shutout since 2016.
WILD PITCHES: This always stuns me. I never think of the King as a wild man but he's not only leading this category, he's dominating it: 151 WPs while second is Francisco Liriano's 99. (For all his IP, Sabathia has only thrown 74 WPs.) All-time record? Discounting 19th century craziness? Nolan Ryan with 277. Felix is 37th all-time. Legends loom ahead of him. Three more and he ties Walter Johnson; five more and he ties Cy Young.
SAVES: Good good, someone sign Craig Kimbrel already. Right now, his 333 saves (14th all-time) aren't the active leader because he's not active. Instead, coming out of the bullpen, we get (no, please god, no) Fernando Rodney and his 325 saves despite a career 1.36 WHIP. Read that again: Dude's got a 1.36 WHIP. For his entire career. He comes in for one inning and on average lets 1.3 guys on. Meanwhile, unsigned, is Kimbrel and his career 0.920 WHIP. And you thought baseball was a meritocracy.
WAR FOR PITCHERS: I assumed this would be C.C. again. He was leading last year and added a respectable 2.4 WAR. But the No. 2 man, Justin Verlander, kicked some serious ass, adding 6.2 WAR, his fourth-best season ever, and swamped him. It goes: JV (63.6), CC (62.1), CK (61.9), Zack (61.1). These are the only active pitchers with WARs above 60. For the record, only nine pitchers have career WARs over 100: Cy, Kid, Walter, Grover, Lefty, Tom, Roger, Greg and Randy.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): That's it, kids. Enjoy the season. ABY. *FIN*
Camera Day: Leo Cardenas, 1969
The 1960s Cincinnati Reds always seemed to be trading for pitching. Their most infamous deal was Frank Robinson for Milt Papas, but almost as bad, but a deal for which I’m eternally grateful, was one in Dec. 1964: Cesar Tovar to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Gerry Arrigo. For the next eight seasons, Tovar led off a dominant Twins offense while accumulating a 25.9 WAR and becoming a fan favorite. Arrigo spent five years, off and on, with the Reds, went 24-27 with a 3.86 ERA a 277-206 K/BB rate, and a WAR totaling 2.2.
That’s a 23.7 WAR discrepancy vs. 26.5 for Robby/Papas (32.3/5.8).
The Reds GM who engineered both of these trades, Bill DeWitt, was gone after ’66, and the man who replaced him, Bob Howsam, pulled off some great ones, acquiring Joe Morgan and George Foster in ’71. But the Twins got a steal from him as well. In Nov. 1968, they acquired shortstop Leo Cardenas for pitcher Jim Merritt.
If you look at the numbers, it seems like a wash. In 1970, Merritt won 20 games and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He won the second game of the 1970 NLCS, giving up 3 hits in 5 1/3 innings enroute to a Reds sweep. He had a tougher go in the World Series. With the Reds on the brink, he started Game 5. Spotted a 3-run lead, he gave up a 2-run homer to Frank Robinson in the bottom of the 1st, then allowed two runners in the bottom of the 2nd. With two outs, he was pulled and relief pitcher Wayne Granger allowed everyone to score, then fell apart in the next inning and that was the season.
Overall, during four seasons with the Reds, Merritt went 39-32 with a 4.26 ERA and one All-Star berth. Cardenas went three seasons with the Twins, also with one All-Star berth (1971), and his splits were shortstop-like: .263/.325/.394.
A wash, right?
Until you look at WAR:
- Merritt, Reds, four seasons: 2.7.
- Cardenas, Twins, three seasons: 11.1
I loved Leo Cardenas. I was 6, this was my first baseball team, and my favorite players—after Killebrew and Oliva—were the Reds castoffs. Tovar because he was scrappy, played everywhere, and taught me how to lead off first base; Cardenas, I don’t know why I loved him. He was good and he had a pleasant face. He seemed like a nice person. Look at his left hand in the above photo. My father always mentioned it whenever we watched slides. As he’s getting his picture taken with fans before an August 1969 Twins game, he’s picking up trash. A mensch.
What I didn’t know? He was so massively superstititious he could’ve served as a model for Pedro Cerano in “Major League.” The quotes below are from Bob Showers’ oral history/picture book “The Twins at the Met”:
Killebrew: Leo was a worried guy. He was afraid that someone was holding his bat and casting a spell on him.
Carew: He was the most superstitious guy I ever played with. He had a little sack filled with all these different herbs. Supposedly, he’d gone to a witch doctor and she prepared a potion for him. He always kept it in his back pocket during a game, and you dared not touch it.
Every day when Leo came into the locker room, he’d clean out his locker; wipe it down and then spray some stuff in there. Then he’d stand with his back to the locker, take three pennies and throw them over his shoulder: Wherever they landed is where they would stay. Then he’d pack his stuff back in the locker the same way it was.
Though Cardenas was voted the Twins Most Valuable Player in ‘71, that offseason he was traded to the California Angels—for a pitcher, of course, Dave LaRoche, who never did much for us. One wonders why we got rid of him. Did we need pitching that badly? Was it the superstitions?
More, why did the Reds back in ’68 trade him to us? They'd signed Dave Concepcion in ’67 but his ’68 minor-league numbers aren’t exactly Big Red Machine-worthy: a .594 OPS in A ball. Anyway, he didn’t make the team until ’70, so in the meantime the Reds used someone else at short. I laughed when I saw the name: Woody Woodward. As general manager of my Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, he engineered some infuriating trades of his own: Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin; Tino and Nellie for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock; a minor-league David Ortiz for a few weeks of Dave Hollins. About in ‘99, I did a phone interview with Woody for a Seattle magazine and apparently asked such tough questions the Mariners front office called my editor to complain about being “ambushed.” If I’d only known Woody helped, in some small way, to bring one of my favorite players to the ’69 Twins, I might’ve been more lenient. At the least, I would’ve asked about Leo, who is 80 now and living in Cincinnati.
Final thought: This wasn’t just a Manager's dream card, it was my dream card. Three of my favorites:
Initially, though, it confused me. Chico Cardenas? I think I thought it was his brother at first. When informed it was him, that “Chico” was a nickname, I was still confused. Why didn’t we call him that? More, how could he have been with another team? It was like finding out my brother had been with another family before he decided to hang with us.
Something else about the card: It contains three great Latin players of the 1960s and none of them have their correct given names. Bob was obviously Roberto, but for most of his career the press insisted on anglicizing it. Tony was Pedro, but he had to use his brother Tony’s passport to come from Castro's Cuba. Then Chico/Leo. I feel you could write a play or a novel about this one baseball card.
My man Joe Posnanski, on his subscription site, is counting down his (or our, via poll) top 100 candidates who never made the Baseball Hall of Fame; and for No. 83, Norm Cash, he includes a story that highlights the difference between the sports media world in 1973 and today.
It's about Nolan Ryan's second no-hitter, against Cash's Detroit Tigers, in which he also struck out 17. The record then was 19, and Ryan was cruising toward it—16 through seven innings, so an average of more than two an inning with two innings to go. Then the Angels scored 5 runs in a long bottom-of-the-7th, and for the final two innings Ryan wasn't quite as dominating. He still didn't give up a hit but only got one more K.
Anyway, it's unlikely that anyone has ever been MORE unhittable than Ryan was the first seven innings of that game. That's why it's so funny that Norm Cash came to the plate in the sixth inning with a table leg instead of a bat.
I seem to remember reading this story in one of the myriad books by umpire Ron Luciano, who happened to be behind the plate that game. As the story goes, Luciano told Cash he had to use an actual bat to which Cash famously replied: “Why? I'm not going to hit him anyway.”
But my favorite part of this is something admittedly inside-baseball: NOBODY reported it at the time. None of the sportswriters wrote about it, not one. I don't even know what to say. Could you even imagine the Twitter explosion if something like that happened now? Could you imagine the coverage that would get? We'd get an oral history within days. There would be a 30 for 30 on it by the end of the month.
But the only place I can even find the story in 1973 was buried in a baseball notebook in The Baltimore Sun. The lead item was about Reggie Jackson saying how he was rooting for Ryan. Then, a bit later, there was this cryptic note:
“Oriole catcher Andy Etchebarren relayed the story he heard from Clyde Wright earlier that day about how Norm Cash came to the plate Sunday with a table leg instead of a bat in his hands.”
That's it. Weird.
Now I want to see that “30 for 30.”
Frank Robinson (1935-2019)
Frank Robinson loomed large when I was a kid. He also seemed overlooked. It's a weird combo.
He loomed large because he was the best hitter on the best team, the 1969-71 Baltimore Orioles. He'd also been 1956 Rookie of the Year, MVP in both leagues (still the only guy to do that), and the last true Triple Crown winner in ‘66 (Yaz tied Killebrew for the HR lead in ’67, so a little asterisk there).
His team certainly clobbered my team, the Minnesota Twins, who were feared most places (see Jim Bouton's comments in “Ball Four”) but lunch in Baltimore. Two best-of-five playoff series in ‘69 and ’70 and two sweeps. Did we ever come close? I remember in August ‘71 we took our grandmother, a Black+Decker worker from Finksburg, Maryland, and a huge Orioles fan, to a Twins-Orioles game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. The day before, Harmon Killebrew became the 10th man in baseball history to hit 500 homeruns; he hit 500 and 501 off Mike Cuellar. This game seemed like it might be a pitchers’ duel: the battling Jims, Kaat vs. Palmer. But it quickly became not that. On the first pitch, Don Buford smacked a homerun. Four pitches later, with a man on first, Merv Rettenmund smacked another. Twins lost 8-2. That's how it always felt against Robby and those guys. It never felt close.
Robby was overlooked, meanwhile, because he wasn't Hank Aaron, who was approaching Babe Ruth's all-time homerun record, and he wasn't Willie Mays, who was so beloved he even had a cartoon biopic. Was Robby even the most feared hitter on the O‘s? For a while, that was Boog Powell. Was he even the most famous Robinson on the O’s? For a while, that was Brooks, who won the MVP in the 1970 World Series with a performance, both offensively but particularly defensively, that is still talked about. He had a niche: 16 Gold Gloves. Boog had a niche: big and strong and named “Boog,” for god's sake. Robby? I don't even remember if he was left field or right field.
That said, the fact that there were two superstar Robinsons on that pennant-stealing team seemed way cool in a kind of ‘70s black cop/white cop TV show way. Both became first-ballot Hall of Famers. No precedent for that: teammates, with the same last name, both going in first ballot. Frank joined in ’82, Brooks in ‘83. Even here, though, Frank was, in a way, overlooked. He went in with Hank Aaron, who received 97.8% of the vote—the second-highest percentage ever after Ty Cobb. That was the story. In the headlines, Robby, with 89% of the vote, was Aaron’s plus one.
This will strike baseball fans funny, but as a kid I got him all wrong. I always thought he was a mellow guy. I think I thought that because he seemed so composed on his baseball cards. Almost wistful. It wasn't until Ken Burns' “Baseball” in 1994 that I found out he wasn't like that at all. He was as ultra competitive as that other Robinson, Jackie. He burned. His anger made him better.
I still get him wrong. Yesterday, after news reached me of his death at the age of 83, I did the usual digging, and was surprised by how short his stint with the Orioles was. I knew it began in ‘66, because the trade—Robinson for Milt Pappas—is generally regarded as one of the most lopsided in baseball history. But I didn’t know he only lasted in Baltimore until ‘71. They traded him to the Dodgers that off-season. So his last at-bat as an O was in the 1971 World Series, Game 7, 9th inning. He popped out to short. When he arrived in Baltimore, Brooks told him, “You’re just what this team needs,” and they wound up winning the World Series that year—the first ever for that benighted franchise, which had begun as the hapless St. Louis Browns. Then they kept on winning. In the six years Frank Robinson was with that franchise, they won four pennants. In the 100+ Frank Robinson-less years, they‘ve won three.
You know what else surprised me? Not the homers. I knew he retired fourth on the all-time HR list—behind only Aaron, Ruth and Mays—because his 586 bested Harmon Killebrew’s 573 homers, and that kind of bugged me. He wasn't even a homerun hitter. He only had one 40+ season, while Killebrew had eight. But that's the way with him. He's not there, he's not there, and then he is. Why he was so overlooked.
No, what surprised me is the WAR. Among position players, Robby is 18th all time with 107.3. He's just behind Nap Lajoie and just ahead of Mike Schmidt. There are only 17 guys ahead of him in baseball history. That's his place. That high.
I still say I was right about the baseball cards. Just look at him.
‘The Handshake’ on Jackie's 100th
Today, Jackie Robinson would‘ve been 100 years old. He was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, and moved to Pasadena, Calif., at a young age. He died at 53. I’m older than he ever got to be. One wonders how long he would‘ve lived if he hadn’t had to endure, and swallow, so much.
My friend Jerry, a great writer and better person and huge baseball fan, recently pointed me to this song by Chuck Brodsky called “The Handshake.” It's worth a listen or two or 12:
The song is about April 18, 1946, a day Jules Tygiel felt important enough to make the first story in the first chapter of his seminal book, “Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.” It's Jackie's first day of professional MLB baseball. He's in the minors, sure, but he's the only non-white guy in the entire system. Branch Rickey had signed him, amid much fanfare, the previous October, and this was his debut. It took place at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ, and all eyes were upon him. So what did he do?
- 3-run HR
- Single, SB, bluff to third, and balk home
- Single, SB
- Single, another balk home
He went 4-5, with 4 runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montreal Royals win. He stole two bases and got balked home twice. Astonishing, considering the pressure he was under.
Chuck Brodsky's great song is about that second at-bat. Jackie homers with two men on, and as he's crossing home plate, the next hitter, George Shuba, is waiting for him and shakes his hand. An AP photographer took a photo, and boom: It became a symbol of racial tolerance in professional sports.
This is what Shuba said about it later:
“We'd spent 30 days at spring training, and we all knew that Jackie had been a great athlete at U.C.L.A. As far as I was concerned, he was a great ballplayer — our best. I had no problem going to the plate to shake his hand instead of waiting for him to come by me in the on-deck circle.”
My favorite part of Brodsky's song is the by-the-way nature of it; the shrugging “well, that's what you do” nature of it:
It's just something that happened
It was nothing he'd planned
A guy hit a homer
So he stuck out his hand
That part almost always makes me tear up.
Fun fact: the next day, Shuba hit three homeruns. Soon enough, though, he was sent down to AA ball, and while Jackie made the Majors the following year, Shuba had to wait until ‘48 and was basically a journeyman throughout his career. Over seven years, he had nearly 1,000 plate appearances, and hit .259 with a .779 OPS. The handshake is what he became known for. When he died in 2014, this was the headline in his New York Times obit:
George Shuba, 89, Dies; Handshake Heralded Racial Tolerance in Baseball.
He didn’t mind, either. It's the part that mattered to him:
Shuba kept only one baseball memento from his playing days in his living room, the photograph of that handshake when he was a minor leaguer. He carried a print with him when he visited schools in the Youngstown area to speak about racial tolerance.
Apparently we still need Shuba's talks.
Thanks, Jackie. Thanks, George. Thanks, Chuck. Thanks, Jerry.
“It was nothing he'd planned...”