Baseball postsMonday March 27, 2017
Camera Day: César Tovar, 1970
“Can someone get these kids off me?” Chris, César Tovar and me; Met Stadium, 1970.
In my memory we went to many Camera Days at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., but my father's old slides show it was just two: a sunny day in 1969, when I was 6 and Billy Martin was manager, and a cloudy day in 1970, when I was 7 and Bill Rigney was manager. I don't blame Bill Rigney for the clouds. Much.
This photo is from 1970.
At the time, the most beloved players on the Twins were Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, but right behind them, particularly for me, was this guy, César Tovar, our leadoff hitter and center fielder from Caracas, Venezuela. There was something musical in the name. A family friend, Danny, used to emphasize the second syllable of each of Tovar's names, “See-SAARRRR Toh-VARRRRR,” while spreading his arms wide like an umpire calling “Safe!” Which makes sense: Tovar was speedy, and lean down to his cheekbones. When Martin was manager he stole 45 bases. Even under the more sedate and cautious Rigney he stole 30. The year above, 1970, he also led the league in doubles (36) and triples (13). The next year he'd lead the league in hits (204).
We used to play whiffle-ball in our small, south Minneapolis backyard, with bases represented by the sandbox (home plate), the tree (first), the garage (second), and the middle metal fencepost separating our property from the neighbors (third). Apparently we played before I'd ever seen a Major League game in person, because, according to family lore, after we came back from my first game, and after I hit a single, my father looked over at me next to the tree and began to laugh. Rather than continually keeping a hand on the tree, as I usually did, as if I was only safe on it, now I was several feet away, leading off with my hands on my knees. I was imitating César Tovar.
Why did I identify so much? Maybe because I could. Killebrew and Oliva were gods. How do you identify with a god who could clobber the ball into infinity? But slapping singles and being pesky and playing whatever position they needed you to play? That seemed closer to me. He seemed closer to me. He was a short guy out there, 5' 9“, and he made it work.
”The man was a dream to hit behind,“ Harmon Killebrew says in a book called ”The Greatest Team of All Time: As Selected by Baseball's Immortals, from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays.“ He adds: ”A truly great leadoff man who always seemed to be on base and who distracted the pitcher enough to benefit everyone who batted behind him.“ Killebrew calls him the teammate who never got enough credit.
He did with Billy Martin. ”Tovar was my little leader,“ Martin wrote in his 1981 autobiography, ”Number 1.“ ”He was the guy who got everyone going. When I wanted him to push Leo [Cárdenas] a little bit or if Rod [Carew] was getting down and I needed someone to give him a boost, I'd get César to do it.“
He hit for the cycle once, in 1970, finishing it with a walk-off homerun—only the second player in baseball history to do that. He kept breaking up no-hitters. Baseball Almanac counts five times he did this—providing the lone, often late hit in a pitcher's no-hit bid:
- April 30, 1967 vs. Washington Senators' Barry Moore (single in the 6th)
- May 15, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Dave McNally (single in the 9th, one out)
- August 10, 1969 vs. Baltimore Orioles' Mike Cuellar (single in the 9th, no outs)
- August 13, 1970 vs. Washington Senators' Dick Bosman (bunt single in the 1st)
- May 31, 1975 vs. New York Yankees' Catfish Hunter (single in the 6th)
He may be best known for being one of four men to play all nine positions in a nine-inning game. It was aping a stunt that Charlie Finely pulled off with Bert Campaneris in September 1965 when the Kansas City A's were no longer in the pennant hunt (which, in Kansas City, was every year). Finley was great at gimmicks and stunts, and Twins owner Calvin Griffith was great at copying other people's ideas, so he trotted out Tovar on Sept. 22, 1968. Campy started out at his natural position, shortstop, then went around the infield and outfield, before taking on pitcher and catcher. In the 9th, he bruised his shoulder in a collission at home plate and had to leave the game. The Twins went the opposite way. Tovar started out at pitcher, went to catcher, and then around the horn. It was against the A's, interestingly, so the first guy he faced was Campaneris. His inning of pitching went: foul out, stirke out (Reggie Jackson), walk (Danny Cater), balking Cater to second, foul out (Sal Bando). At the plate, he went 1-3 with a walk and a stolen base. The Twins won 2-1. Finley gave Campy a convertible for the effort. Tovar got a color TV set.
For years, I kept the December 1, 1972 newspaper with the headline, TOVAR TRADED FOR THREE PHILLIES, which felt like a death-knell on some part of my childhood. By then, Killebrew was old, Tony O injured, and now César Tovar, Pepito to his teammates, was gone, over to a team in the National League no one ever saw, while the big player we got in return had no music to his name: Joe Lis. It was barely a name at all. In one and a half years with the Twins, Lis hit .238 with 9 homers before being purchased by Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Tovar kept getting picked up by Billy Martin. ”Get me César Tovar,“ he told told Rangers ownership in December 1973. ”The little guy can beat you so many ways—his bat, his feet, his brains, his hustle.“ In '74, Tovar hit .292 for him, but after Martin was fired midway through the '75 season, Texas allowed him to be bought by the Oakland A's for their pennant run. In '76, same thing happened with the Yankees, now managed by Billy Martin, who picked up Tovar for another pennant hunt. But he hit only .154 in 13 games for them and was done. His last at-bat came on Sept. 29 vs. Boston. He flew out to center.
His last at-bat in the Majors, I should add. He kept playing—in Venezuela and in Mexico. Rory Costello over at SABR has a great bio on him that details his beginnings in the Cincinnati organization, his post-MLB career, and his death on July 14, 1994 of pancreatic cancer. ”Such was Tovar's stature in Venezuela,“ Costello writes, ”that the nation's president, Rafael Caldera, attended the funeral."
3,000 Hit Club By Decade
1910s, '70s, '90s, '20s, '70s again.
There are 30 members of the 3,000 hit club, and we'll probably have another, Adrian Beltre (2,942) this year and most likely Albert Pujols (2,825) in 2018. Next up would be Miguel Cabrera, who is at 2,519. Barring catastrophe, he seems a lock. I've also got fingers crossed for Robinson Cano, who is at 2,210 and a young 34. Plus he's signed for seven more years. If he plays all of those years, he'll just have to average 113 per, and he's never hit fewer than 155—and that was his rookie season. (Last year he hit 195.) In fact, if all goes well, he'll probably be the first guy to join the club in the 2020s.
This used to be a pretty exclusive club. From the 1860s to 1969, there were only eight members. Then, in one decade, the 1970s, we almost doubled that total with seven more.
- 1890s: Cap Anson
- 1910s: Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie
- 1920s: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins
- 1940s: Paul Waner
- 1950s: Stan Musial
- 1970s: Hank Aaron, Wilie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Pete Rose, Lou Brock, Carl Yastrzemski
- 1980s: Rod Carew
- 1990s: Robin Yount, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs
- 2000s: Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio
- 2010s: Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki
I'm old enough to remember that one of the arguments against free agency—or maybe it was hand-wringing once free agency came into existence—was that players wouldn't play into their dotage; they'd take the money and run. They wouldn't join these exclusive clubs. That certainly hasn't happened.
Other bits of 3,000-hit trivia:
- Team most represented? Cleveland. Kinda. Two players were wearing Indians jerseys (Tris Speaker and Eddie Murray), one was wearing a Cleveland Naps jersey (Nap Lajoie). But it's all the same franchise.
- Lowest batting average? Cal Ripken, Jr. at .276, followed by Rickey Henderson at .279.
- Five 3,000-hit members who aren't in the Hall of Fame? Pete Rose (gambling), Rafael Palmeiro (PEDs), and three guys who aren't eligible yet: Jeter, A-Rod, and Ichiro. Jeter and Ichiro will get in. It's less certain about A-Rod.
- Homeruns for No. 3,000? Three, by Jeter, A-Rod and Wade Boggs.
The Disappearing Art of the Steal
Luis Aparicio was the only player in the 1950s to have a 50+ stolen-base season.
Over the weekend I got lost in baseball stats, as I often do, and this time around it was single-season stolen base totals.
First, I noticed that we haven't had any blow-out years in a while (brilliant, Erik). Then, related, I noticed the number of 50+ SB seasons is way, way down. Then I noticed the 2000s have nothing on the '30s, '40s and '50s.
I'd always heard that once Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he changed the staid way of baseball—going base to base, being risk averse—and made everything jazzier and thrilling. Apparently not. Or at least not in the numbers. The '50s were our most stolen-base-less decade.
Jackie led the league twice in stolen bases, in '47 and '49, but with 29 and 37 SBs respectively. Career, he had 197, good for a five-way tie for 356th all time. It really wasn't until Aparicio in '59, and Wills in '62, that things began to rev up and go-go.
Some good trivia questions come to mind from this mix.
- For every decade since 1900, which player had the highest single-season stolen base mark? (Answer: That entire third column; good luck on the '30s and '40s.)
- Who was the only player to have the single-season high two decades in a row? (Answer: You'd thinking Rickey or Lou but it's Ty Cobb, which also makes sense.)
- Since the Henderson/Raines/Coleman heyday of the 1980s, which two players have had the highest single-season stolen base total? (Answer: Marquis Grisson and Jose Reyes with 78 each.)
But the most startling bit of trivia for me is the stolen base champ of the 1930s: Ben Chapman. That's the guy in this clip. Not Jackie or Eddie Stanky. The other guy:
Believe it or not, he had more stolen bases in his career than Jackie, too: 287. Who knew?
National Chili Day
Earlier this morning, J. Daniel, with whom I shoot the shit on Twitter about baseball, tweeted that today is National Chil Day (it is), and he included a photo of Chili Davis during his San Francisco Giants days. Made me think of the foul ball I caught off Chili in September 1995. Also made me think of that great Chili Davis story that Kirby Puckett told in his 1993 autobiography “I Love This Game!”
On a roaddtrip to Seattle, Kirby, Al Newman and Shane Mack went to their favorite seafood joint, and Mack ordered the Cajun Chicken Fettucine, which comes garnished with a large jalapeno pepper. Kirby had eaten the dish before but never the pepper. He didn't think anyone would be fool enough to eat it.
I warned Shane about this jalapeno but he said, “These things aren't hot. These aren't anything compared to the ones where I come from.” He grew up in Southern California. So he popped the entire pepper in his mouth and started chewing. His eyes exploded! He gulped his water, my water, Al's water, then signaled for more water. He was still on fire. He dranks some soda, ate some ice cream, nothing helped. ...
Now Chili Davis and the rest of the guys finally show up. We tell them the story of the pepper—Shane still can't talk—and Chili says, “Man, I'm used to hot food, bring me a bowl of those peppers.” Newman and I glance at each other. But then Chili eats the whole bowl. No problem. Doesn't even need water. Eats them like I eat oysters. Just amazing. They must have hot food in Jamaica, where Chili's from. Maybe his name is the tip-off.
Happy National Chili Day.
Carew v. Ryan Express
I've been re-reading some of Joe Posnanski's thoughts on his top 100 baseball players of all time (he stopped at No. 32, Grover Cleveland Alexander, but promises to get back to it some day: right), and I came across this nice little stat about his No. 54 pick, Rod Carew, who is just ahead of Ernie Banks and just behind Steve Carlton on his list:
Twenty five batters got 75-plus plate appearances against Nolan Ryan. Only one hit .300. Yeah. Rod Carew.
Carew hit .301/.398/.441 off Ryan. The next three in the 75+ group are: Pete Rose (.296), Steven Braun, also of the Twins (also .296) and George Brett (.287). Not a bad group of hitters.
We get some good background on Carew in the mini-bio. I knew about the train birth, didn't know it was a segregated train, knew about the doctor but not the nurse. I didn't know about the abusive father, nor the high school baseball coach. I knew about the seven batting titles, of course. No mention of Rod Carew trying on my glove. Geez, Poz, dig deeper next time.
Camera Day, Met Stadium, 1970