Baseball postsSunday July 27, 2014
The Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told is a Roger Angell Story
Yesterday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Roger Angell, 93, the longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, who wrote a few baseball essays on the side, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Hall’s writing honor. (Spink, in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, was the longtime publisher of The Sporting News; he died in 1962.)
About time, I say. I spent the fall of ’94, our first fall without a World Series since 1903, reading Roger Angell. He was my compensation. I read all of him, chronologically, and there are great baseball stories throughout, but this may be my favorite. It’s from the essay, “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” from the book, “Five Seasons,” originally published in the summer of 1976. Our Bicentennial summer.
It’s really Tommy Lasorda’s story but Angell tells it so well. Have I told it before? Here? I tried to find it but couldn’t. So here it is again. Or for the first time.
LaSorda, it can be proved, is a patient sort of man. He grew up in Morristown, Pennsylvania, and became a serious baseball fan at an early age. When he was 12 or 13, he volunteered for duty as a crossing guard at his parochial school because he knew that the reward for this service was a free trip to a big-league baseball game—an event he had yet to witness. The great day came at last, the sun shone, and the party of nuns and junior fuzz repaired to Shibe Park, where the Phillies were playing the Giants. Young Tom LaSorda had a wonderful afternoon, and just before the game ended he and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
“C’n I have your autograph, please, mister?” he said.
“Outta my way, kid,” the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom LaSorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was the first big-league player I’d ever seen up close—the first one I ever dared speak to—and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back—you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it.”
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom LaSorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box.
The park loudspeaker made the introduction: “Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!”
LaSorda was transfixed. “I looked in,” he says, “and it was the same man!”
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the button from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under the Adam’s apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, LaSorda was dressing in the visitor’s locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. “Listen, kid,” he said to LaSorda, “did I ever meet you before?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said.
“Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?”
“Well, why were you tryin’ to take my head off out there?”
LaSorda spread his hands wide. “You didn’t give me your autograph,” he said.
Tom LaSorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you,” he says gravely. “You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”
The Last Dismal Years of Babe Ruth's Career Weren't So Dismal
I can get lost in baseball statistics.
I was on Babe Ruth's Baseball Reference page this evening, for example, and noticed his OPS for the last years of his career. Generally people say Ruth began to fade as a slugger in the early 1930s, and it's true his HR totals kept going down: 49, 46, 41, 34, 22, 6 and out. The “6” was for his last truncated season with the Boston Braves. He only played 28 games, with 72 at-bats and 13 hits. That's a .188 batting average. Dismal.
Except guess what? His OBP was still .359. You know how many 2014 Seattle Mariners have an OBP of greater than .359? One: Robinson Cano. Everyone else is worse. They're all worse than the last, dismal year of Babe Ruth's career.
The year before that for Ruth? 1934? His last dismal year with the Yankees? When he was deemed washed up? Sure, he batted below .300 for the first time since his misbegotten 1925 campaign, which was the first time he'd batted below .300 since 1916. To be exact, he hit .288 in 1934. But his OPS? .985. You know how many Major League baseball players have an OPS greater than .985 so far this year? Two: Troy Tulowitzski and Mike Trout. That's it. C'est tout. Everyone else in Major League baseball is worse than the last, dismal year Babe Ruth had with the New York Yankees in 1934—a year so bad they had to cut him loose.
Anyway, those aren't even the baseball stats I wanted to talk about. (I told you I get lost in this stuff.) I wanted to talk about strikeouts.
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that when I interviewed David Boies last January I had to correct him on the all-time strikeout leader. He thought Babe Ruth. I told him Ruth had long been surpassed; it was now Reggie Jackson. But I didn't know how long ago, and by how much, Ruth had been surpassed. I knew Mantle had done it, but I didn't know it was in 1964. I also didin't know Ruth had so few career strikeouts (1,330) for someone who was the career leader for so long (more than 30 years). I also didn't know Mantle's final career total of 1710 was surpassed in 1978 by Willie Stargell, who wound up with 1,936. But Stargell held the mark for only four years, until he was surpassed in 1982 by Reggie Jackson, who wound up with 2,597, or almost twice as many Ks as Ruth had.
The current active leader is Adam Dunn (2,323), and before him it was Jim Thome (who stopped at 2,548), and before him it was Sammy Sosa (2,306), and before him, Andres Galarraga (2,003). And so for 10 years now, since the end of the 2003 season, our active career leader in strikeouts has had more than 2,000 Ks.
Here's the trivia question: When was the last time the active career leader in strikeouts had fewer than 1,500?
Answer in the Comments field.
Ruth, in the last, dismal year of his career, still had a better OBP than all but one of the 2014 Seattle Mariners. And that guy is making a quarter of a billion dollars.
Why Pete Rose is a Jerk
I came across this quote from Pete Rose in a NY Times article on last night's All-Star Game. In the 9th inning of a game in 1978, Braves closer Gene Garber threw Rose back-to-back changeups to strike him out and end his assault on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak at 44 games (tied with Wee Willie Keeler for second-longest):
Afterward, Rose criticized Garber for pitching “like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”
Earlier in the week, again in the Times, there was a piece on Rose crashing into Ray Fosse to end the 1970 All-Star Game, an incident which separated Fosse's shoulder and curtailed his early, promising career. Was the linebackerish tackle too much for an exhibition game? Among Rose's comments was this:
“Nobody told me they changed it to girls’ softball between third and home.”
So playing all-out is well and good and manly if you're Pete Rose. If you're doing it to Pete Rose, well, god, what's the matter with you? Why do you gotta be so competitive?
Nice projection there, Mr. Charlie.
More Homers than Strikeouts: How Rare?
I know, I’m late to the Victor Martinez story. USA Today was on it a month and a half ago.
But I was checking out the stats on ESPN.com the other night, intrigued mostly by Mike Trout’s incredible numbers again this year—.313/.406/.616—when I noticed that Trout, for all his glory, still struck out a lot: 87 Ks to 51 BBs. But the guy with the second-best OPS in the AL? Victor Martinez? He’d struck out only 23 times. Against 33 walks. And 21 homers.
Twenty-one homers and 23 Ks? That’s Joe DiMaggio territory. So I began to wonder when was the last time someone had a season where they homered more than they struck out? With, say, a minimum of 20 HRs?
Turns out it was 10 years ago: Barry Bonds during his Hulk-Smash period, so feel free to discount it. In which case, it hasn’t happened since George Brett’s .390 year in 1980, when he hit 24 homers against 22 strikeouts. The time before that? 1956: Both Ted Kluszewski and Yogi Berra.
All in all, according to Baseball Reference, it’s only been done 45 times in baseball history: seven times by DiMaggio, five by Yogi Berra, four by Kluszewski. And only once (discounting Bonds) in the last 58 years.
Martinez’s year is not only an anomaly for MLB but for Martinez. Career, he’s got 178 HRs against 618 Ks. Compare that with, say, Albert Pujols, who has 510 HRs against 873 Ks. That’s not bad for this day and age. But DiMaggio is still the touchstone: 361 HRs, 369 Ks.
Tony Gwynn (1960-2014)
About to put the ball in play.
Tony Gwynn is tied for 18th on the career batting average list with a .338 mark. The main thing you need to know about that is that almost every one of the 17 guys in front of him played in the 19th century. The closest contemporary to Gwynn among the 17 is Ted Williams (.344), who played from 1939 to 1960. Gwynn was born in 1960. Nobody who played later than the year he was born had a higher career batting average than Tony Gwynn.
Tony Gwynn is 112th on the career on-base percentage list with a .388 mark. The main thing you need to know about that is though he was not a bases-on-balls man, he still walked nearly twice as often as he struck out. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who simply walked more than they struck out, but Gwynn’s career walk-strikeout numbers are superb: 790 to 434. That’s actually comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s career walk-strikeout numbers: 790 to 369. Keep in mind: DiMaggio barely struck out in an age when few people did. Tony Gwynn barely struck out in an age when strikeout records were falling left and right. But he was a man who put the ball in play.
Tony Gwynn is 187th on the career OPS list with a .847 mark. The main thing you need to know about that is the guys who are behind him: Reggie Jackson (.845), Carl Yastrzemski (.841) and Roberto Clemente (.834). Gwynn’s secondary numbers might not have been superlative, in other words, but his primary numbers were so good they lifted everything else up.
He led the league in hits seven times and in hitting eight times. Only Ty Cobb led the league more often in hitting. But the main thing I can offer, that you can’t find on baseballreference.com or ESPN.com, is an incident with my friend Adam at the inaugural game at Safeco Field in July 1999.
The Seattle Mariners moved to Safeco mid-season, and chose for an opponent, or had chosen for them, their offical rivals, the San Diego Padres—truly the dullest, most manufactured rivalry in all professional sports. My friend Adam, a magazine editor, was on the field during batting practice. At one point, a batting-practice ball rolled up to him. Instant souvenir! Or was it? Should he, a member of the press, take it or leave it alone? But this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So he took it.
Did Adam look up? Did he know the dude was talking to him? Did he assume it was for someone else?
Hey you! Put that ball back!
And Adam looked over to see Tony Gwynn advancing toward him. He was shouting loudly. He was letting everyone know the awful thing Adam, now blushing crimson, had done. It’s pretty funny when you think about it. Balls getting hit left and right. Getting hit into the stands. Getting tossed into the stands by players. And here’s this future Hall of Famer, advancing on poor Adam because of one lousy ball.
Then Tony Gwynn broke into a grin to let him know he was giving him shit. Adam still has that ball.
54? Too fucking young.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard