Baseball postsFriday February 08, 2019
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...”
Boxscores: August 1, 1970, II
Earlier this year, while writing a blog post about a long-remembered 1970 game between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Pirates won by the football-like score of 20-10, I checked to see how other teams did that day. How did those 30 combined runs compare with the rest of the Majors? I was assuming there weren't other high-scoring games, but I was wrong. There was even another football-like score: St. Louis over Houston, 14-7.
Anyway, that's how I stumbled upon this high-scoring game between my team, the Twins, and a Detroit Tigers team only two years removed from winning the World Series. Twins won 12-4. Then I noticed the oddity. Wait, in 10 innings? The Twins scored eight runs in the top of the 10th?
Yes. Yes, they did.
Wow. So how many homers did they hit?
None. Three doubles, though.
That's it. This is how they did it.
FRED SCHERMAN PITCHING
- Bob Allison: K
- Cesar Tovar: 1B
- Danny Thompson: 2B (Tovar scores)
- Harmon Killebrew: IBB
- Tony Oliva: 2B (Thompson scores)
TOM TIMMERMAN REPLACES SCHERMAN
- Rick Renick: 2B (Killebrew, Oliva score)
- Rich Reese: IBB
- Leo Cardenas: 6-3
- Paul Ratliff: IBB
- Bob Allison: BB (Renick scores)
- Cesar Tovar: 1B (Reese, Ratliff score)
MIKE KILKENNY REPLACES TIMMERMAN
- Danny Thompson: 1B (Allison scores)
- Harmon Killebrew: K
Notice the three intentional walks? I immediately thought of Joe Posnanski, a longtime sportswriter who has long railed against the intentional walk. He thinks it's bad for the game for two reasons: it's 1) stupid and 2) not exactly sporting or fun. A good hitter like Harmon Killebrew comes to the plate, you want to see him swing. It's no fun seeing him not get the chance. Imagine if every time LeBron James got the ball, the other side did something so he'd have to give it up. So we couldn't see him play. No fun.
The Twins' 8-run 10th is both testament to Poz's philosophy and a refutation of it. It was obviously stupid, since it didn't help the Tigers at all. Everyone intentionally walked came around to score. At the same time, Detroit manager Mayo Smith's use of the intentional walk was so idiotic it must‘ve been fun to watch. “Really? You’re going to walk another one? Sure, have at.”
A lot of people might agree with Mayo's first free pass. At this point in the game, you‘re down by one, there’s one out, you‘ve got a not-very-fast guy, Danny Thompson, on second base, and last year’s MVP and the greatest homerun hitter of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, at the plate. Plus he's slow and the guy on deck has knee issues. A ground ball and you get out of the inning.
The trouble: The guy on deck is Tony Oliva, who was one of the best hitters of the ‘60s, and the only man to win the battle title his first two years in the Majors. And at that point in the 1970 season, he was hitting .325. (He’d wind up leading the league in hits and doubles.) So walking Killebrew to get to Oliva was like walking Ken Griffey Jr. to get to Edgar Martinez. Pick your poison. The only argument in favor of it is the lefty-right thing. Detroit's pitcher, Fred Scherman, was a lefty. That's why Mayo did it. Why you shouldn't do it? Oliva doubled.
Mayo rewards Scherman by yanking him for Tom Timmerman, a righty, to face the right-handed Rick Renick. Renick doubles, too. (BTW: The Renick at-bat is the only time during that long, long inning that first base was open with men in scoring position and Mayo didn‘t go for the IBB.)
That brings up another Double-R, Rich Reese. He’d had a good season the year before (.322/.362/.513 in 132 games), but had fallen off a bit in ‘70. At this point, he was .271/.339/.374. But he was also a lefty and now Mayo had a righty on the mound. So he intentionally walks Reese to get to Leo Cardenas, a former four-time All-Star who was hitting .281. But it kinda worked. He got the grounder he wanted, but no double play. And now two men were in scoring position.
Which brings up my favorite intentional pass of the evening.
At this point, remember, the double play is meaningless. There are two outs. A grounder and you get out of the inning. Plus you’re down by 4 anyway, in a game in August, for a team that's going nowhere. Pitch away. Go for it.
Nope. Mayo had Timmerman issue the Tigers' third intentional pass of the inning. To Paul Ratliff.
My immediate reaction upon seeing the name was “Who?” That's most people's reactions. Except that's probably their reaction to Rick Renick, Rich Reese and Danny Thompson, too, but I knew all those guys. In 1970, I was a 7-year-old with a mind like a sponge who was ga-ga over the Minnesota Twins. I collected baseball cards, I went to games, I knew them. I knew them all: Brenta Alyea, Jim Holt, George Mitterwald. They were legends to me.
But Paul Ratliff? Nothing.
Turns out he was a back-up catcher who came up in ‘63 for a cup of coffe, then not again until 1970. As of August 1, he was hitting .243 with a .706 OPS. Not exactly an intentional-pass candidate. But the lefty-righty thing. So Mayo, for the third time that half inning, played the percentages. He assumed the next guy up, a guy hitting .170, and who had started the inning with a K, would get him his out.
Except the next guy up was former All-Star Bob Allison, who, with Killebrew and Oliva, had been part of that Murderers Row Twins Club of the mid-1960s. And while he was on his last legs, and his batting average was way, way down, his OBP wasn’t: .333. He couldn't hit but he could still draw a walk. Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded. Another run.
Then Tovar singled to plate Reese and Ratliff, the two most recent IBBs, and then Thompson singled to plate Allison. The final out of the inning was made by Killebrew, the first IBB.
Anyway, that's how you get a 12-4 score in 10 innings: two singles, three doubles, and four walks—three intentional. Those IBBs weren't smart, they weren't sporting, but I bet they were a lot of fun.
Me and my brother with Rich Reese on Camera Day, 1970, a few weeks after the above game. And is the guy in the background the elulsive Paul Ratliff? Anyone know?
Don't Ban the Shift; Promote Spray Hitters
Baseball needs more guys like this, here trying on my glove at Met Stadium in 1970.
Apparently MLB is thinking of banning defensive shifts, which are preventing too many hits by players who hit too many times to the same spot.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been promoting such a ban since 2015, according to Jayson Stark, and now it's gaining traction.
This is beyond idiotic. First, how would you implement it? Tell a fielder he can't move X feet from his normal defensive position? Create fielders' boxes the way batters have a batter's box?
The bigger point: players will adjust. If they don‘t, teams will adjust—by putting a premium on players who will adjust; who can hit to all fields. We’ll eventually get better baseball because we‘ll have more spray hitters.
George Will said much the same, but smarter, on Brian Kenny’s show. His arguments against the ban are two-fold:
I just don't like the whole principle of saying, “It will be illegal for baseball to make rational decisions based on abundant good information.” That's what we‘re saying: “You can’t do it, even though it's smart.” I don't think a nation or a society or a business should ban information. Doesn't look right to me.
Then he holds up one of my childhood heroes as the spray hitter in question:
My solution is two words: Rod Carew. I know Rod Carew was a genius, I know Rod Carews don't grow on trees. But the market will eventually demand left-handed hitters who can take advantage of this, and I believe in markets. The supply will come forward. ...
Baseball has never had an equilibrium that lasted forever. ... Nothing lasts.
George Will for MLB Commissioner.
That MLB Donation to Cindy Hyde-Smith? It was at the Behest of Someone Much, Much Worse
On Sunday, I posted a bit about MLB's $5,000 donation to the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS). She's the one who brought up public hangings while running against an African-American candidate in a state that once had a habit of lynching African Americans. She didn't apologize. She was offended that anyone could be offended. She played politics with it.*
(*That said, if you look at the full quote, it's obvious she's not saying “public hanging” in a positive sense: “I would fight a circle saw for him; if he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.” She's saying, for this particular supporter, she would even go to a public hanging, as awful as that is. To her, they‘re as bad a fighting a circle saw. A shame we didn’t get more clarity on this—from either side.)
Anyway, for some reason, Major League Baseball donated $5k to her campaign even after she said this, and MLB's initial explanation didn't explain much:
“The contribution was made in connection with an event that MLB lobbyists were asked to attend.”
Give me 10 years and I don't think I could write a sentence that vague. Kudos.
Well, yesterday, more details surfaced. And it turns out the contribution didn't have anything to do with Ms. Hyde-Smith. It had to do with someone much, much worse:
When a lobbyist who works for MLB could not attend a fundraiser put on by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in mid-November, the league was asked instead to donate money to Hyde-Smith, according to sources. The league cut the check for Hyde-Smith's campaign on Nov. 12 or 13, two sources told Yahoo Sports – a day or two after the lynching comments were first made public by the Jackson Free Press. The campaign reported the contribution in a Nov. 24 filing.
First democracy, now baseball: How much of my world is Mitch McConnell going to ruin?
The above comes from an informative piece by Jeff Passan over at Yahoo Sports. It's a shitty site but excellent reporting. He sought out the numbers and crunched them. He got to the when and why and how much:
Since Major League Baseball established a foothold in the nation's capital at the turn of the century, the league has exploited a truism about politics in America: Influence is unbelievably cheap. Over the last 17 years, through its political action committee, MLB has donated slightly more than $3.7 million to 321 members of Congress, according to an analysis of federal election records by Yahoo Sports. For less than one season of the average salary for a single baseball player, the league wooed senators and House members, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, a few thousand dollars at a time, in hopes that someday their power could work in the league's favor.
So it looks like “MLB lobbyists”—a new term for most baseball fans—are in fact a 21st-century phenomenon. One hopes they go away. Mitch first.