Monday December 28, 2020
Phil Niekro (1939-2020)
I got the news from Joe Posnanski on Twitter, which seems appropriate. One of the great mini-bios Posnanski wrote for his “Baseball 100” series—soon to be a book—was about Phil Niekro (No. 83), and his father, and Phil's attempt to win his 300th game on the last day of the 1985 season when his father was in the hospital. Exactly. Louis B. Mayer would've killed for that story.
Here's an excerpt:
“My father was a coal miner in Eastern Ohio,” Niekro explained. “Three shifts. That thing I remember most was him coming back from the coal mine, and I wouldn't even recognize him. I mean, he was just ... black. All black. All I could see was his teeth.
”He would come home and the first thing he would do was come up to us on the front porch. Me and (my brother) Joe would be waiting for him. He'd have his lunch bucket with him, and he opened it up, and there was always something for us. There was a Twinkie in there or a banana. He would give me half. He'd give Joe half.
“And then, before anything else, we'd go into the backyard. We'd play catch, just me and my Dad. Joe would set up on the porch and watch us. We'd play catch until it got dark. Then, when it was dark, when it was over, we'd go and have dinner. Then he would go to the stove and heat some water, pour it into the tub, and he took a bath. I remember how black that water was after he was finished.
”Then my Dad would go lay down on the couch, and he'd fall asleep listening to the Cleveland Indians.“
By bWAR Niekro is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. His 97.0 would rank him the 11th greatest, just behind Christy Mathewson, and ahead of Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins and Pedro Martinez. Growing up I never would've thought it. I still don't, to be honest, and neither does Poz, since he has all those guys ahead of Phil on his list. Niekro was a five-time All-Star, never won a Cy Young, and it took him five tries to make the Hall, which, in the modern era, has to be a record for a 300-game winner. (Close. It ties him with Don Sutton.) I don't think I saw him pitch much. His team, the Braves, didn't make the postseason in the 1970s, and so weren't on TV a lot, and of course never played my Twins at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. He was just a guy on a baseball card. An old guy even then. He was a good pitcher whose younger brother Joe was good, too. They were like the Perrys, and you could have a nice argument over which pair of brothers were better. The Niekros won more games (539-529) but the Perrys got the Cys (2 for Gaylord, 1 for Jim, 0 for the Niekros). By bWAR, it's the Perrys by a nose: 131.4 to 125.7. There are other measurements.
Phil only made the postseason twice, 1969 and 1982, and got one start each time. In '69, he lost to the Mets, the eventual World Series winner, and in '82 he got a no decision in a team loss to the Cardinals, the eventual World Series winner. He was another great player who never had a chance at a ring.
Horsehide Trivia, from SABR, sent out this In Memorium quiz yesterday. For baseball fans, these aren't true quizzes, since we know the answer, but a way to honor the man.
Q: Which Hall of Famer's pitch was so effective that it actually became his nickname?
- Hint: No other pitcher won more games after the age of 40 than he did.
- Hint: He, together with his younger brother, racked up an amazing aggregates of 539 wins, the most by any two or three brothers combined in major league history.
- Hint: His brother's sole career home run came at his expense.
- Hint: His total of 24 years pitching in the majors places him in very select company and no pitcher with his specialty pitched longer or tallied more games, innings pitched or strikeouts.
- Hint: During his time in professional baseball, he witnessed the administrations of seven different U.S. presidents. In fact, he holds the record for most years pitching with one National League team.
- Hint: No slouch on defense, he won five Gold Glove awards.
- Hint: He was five times an All-Star and although he didn't win a Cy Young Award, he received consideration for the award in five separate seasons.
- Hint: He said ”Mr. Baseball“ turned his career around.
- Hint: One of his childhood friends is a Hall of Famer in another sport.
The nickname is ”Knucksie“; Bob ”Mr. Baseball" Ueker turned his career around by encouraging him to throw the knuckleball even though it made Uek, the catcher, look foolish; the childhood friend was John Havelicek.
Here's Poz's tweet. Amen to it.
Tuesday December 08, 2020
Dick Allen (1942-2020)
He was the badass of baseball when I was a kid. He held the title before Reggie, who held it for a while. I believe he was also the the highest-paid player for a time. Baseball Ref has him at $200-$250k in 1973, which seems about right for highest-paid back then. I vaguely remember my 4th grade math teacher breaking down his salary to a per-game payout, and eventually to a per-second on the field payout. How much did Dick Allen make every second he was on a baseball diamond? This. It was a math lesson but it was also a vague ethics lesson. As in, “Who could be worth so much money?” Even then, though, the ethics felt shoddy to me. We didn't do this with others, just with this man playing a boy's game. A Black man. A Loud Black man. Made me feel uneasy, though I could not articulate why.
If he was highest paid he was worth it. Look at that '72 season with the ChiSox. Led the league in HRs, RBIs, walks, slugging percentage. Led the Majors in OBP and OPS and OPS+. Nearly won the triple crown. His .308 batting average was 10 points behind Rod Carew, with Lou Piniella at .311 between them. But he wasn't a unanimous MVP. Three votes shy. One writer went with Joe Rudi of the division-winning (and eventual World Series-winning) Oakland A's as his No. 1 pick. I assume the guy thought, “Well, Rudi's team won, his batting average is close to Allen's, Rudi's the better fielder.” But that misses so much. Two other sportswriters chose pitchers, and neither was the pitcher that won the Cy Young that year—Gaylord Perry. I suppose Mickey Lolich wasn't a bad choice but he led the league in just one category: homeruns allowed. The other sportswriter went with the Yankees' Sparky Lyle, who had a good season, led the league in saves, but he was still a relief pitcher. Lyle didn't even get any first-place votes for Cy Young. He finished third for MVP and seventh for Cy. Odd.
Allen was the 1964 Rookie of the Year, the NL counterpart to my man Tony Oliva. That's a helluva rookie class, though neither man is in the Hall. Allen's advanced-numbers Hall of Fame case is about as on-the-cusp as you can get. His bWAR is a bit low (58.8 vs. 68.4 for an average HOFer) but everything else is right there. Black ink? Meaning times leading the league? Average HOFer is 27; he's 27. Gray ink, which includes top 10 appearances? Average: 144. Allen: 159. HOF Monitor? Likely HOFer: 100. Allen: 99.
I get the feeling he didn't get in before not only because they didn't break down the numbers this way, and not only because his career counting numbers weren't eye-popping (351 HRs, 1,848 hits), but because of who he was. The Loudmouth. The guy who wrote things in the dirt with his bat. I get the feeling that all of that will actually help his case now—as will his career batting line: .292/.378/.534. How many guys with a .900+ OPS over 15 seasons aren't in the Hall? Hell, maybe he should get in just for that Sports Illustrated cover. This is the badass I was talking about.
If you want more on Dick Allen's story, his turbulent career, the abuse he endured, and the horrible history of the Philadelphia Phillies when it came to integrating the game, Joe Posnanski is your man.
Wednesday December 02, 2020
A True Big Leaguer
Joe Posnanski is doing another baseball countdown over at The Athletic. This time it's the 100 best players not in the Hall of Fame—but who maybe, possibly, could or should be. He's doing the first 70 in 10-packs and then taking 30 to 1 individually. So far he's done two 10-packs that have included the likes of ... Oh hell, here they are, in countdown order: Juan Gonzalez, Fred Lynn, Rocky Colavito, Albert Belle, Jimmy Sheckard, Quincy Trouppe, Fernando Valenzuela, Darrell Evans, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker (that's 100 through 91), Frank Howard, Al Oliver, Willie Randolph, Lance Berkman, Paul Hines, Ron Guidry, Wally Berger, Doc Gooden, Elston Howard and Orel Hershiser (that's 90-81). Fun stuff. I'm waiting to see where Tony Oliva lands.
This was part of the Hershiser bio:
Hershiser actually had a decent first year on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2006. He got 58 votes — 11.2 percent of the vote — and that's not a bad starting point. He had a good case — he had some legendary achievements, he was so good in the postseason, and everybody likes him. One of my favorite baseball stories is the one Pedro Martínez tells about the day he got sent to the minors by the Dodgers. He was literally pulled off the bus. As he stood there stewing and near tears, Hershiser walked off the bus and handed Martínez a signed baseball. On it, he had written: “You're a true big leaguer, I'll see you soon. Orel.”
Friday November 20, 2020
Very bummed about the PED-revelation and year-long suspension for Robinson Cano. I guess even in our 50s we remain kids and want our baseball heroes to be clean and upstanding rather than what we know the world to be: problematic.
A short synopsis of my history with the man: Ignored/worried about him as a Yankee, counseled against the Mariners signing him for too long and too much money, wrung my hands when they did exactly that, dug him as a stellar talent on our team, empathized with his struggles with acid reflux, shook my head over his first suspension for a diuretic/PED masking agent, worried that we would trade him and Edwin Diaz during the 2018/19 off-season, wrung my hands when we did exactly that. I didn't want him to come and didn't want him to go. I guess I like stasis? No, that's not right. He grew on me. I was hoping to see him hit 3,000 at the Nei-House.
Now it looks like he won't hit 3,000 at all. He had 2,376 hits after his age-34 season in 2017, but he's only gotten 248 hits over his last three seasons, for a total of 2,624. He lost half a season to the diuretic, hit poorly in 2019, and this season, while PED-fueled, was a blip. Wait, make that 248 hits over four seasons. He's not playing in 2021. The next time he'll have a chance to get an official hit, he'll be 39 years old.
It's all a bit sad. Among active players, Cano is currently third in hits (81st all-time), third in doubles (28th all-time), seventh in batting average, fourth in bWAR (68.9).
I like this graf from Tyler Kepner's semi-obit in the Times:
If Cano had accepted [the Yankees' seven-year deal after the 2013 season], the deal would have just expired. Instead, he wisely took advantage of a bad team's desperation to be relevant. The Mariners splurged on Cano for 10 years and $240 million, and could hardly believe their luck when the Mets took the second half of the deal off their budget — and gave up the franchise's best prospect, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, for the privilege.
All that is exactly brutally right. Still sad.
Sunday November 15, 2020
Who Led the 1970s Twins in Homers?
I think I started out looking at who led the Twins in bWAR various years, then wondering how often was it Harmon Killebrew (twice: 1961 and '67), or Tony Oliva (three times) or Rod Carew (four). Who's done it the most? Believe it or not, Chuck Knoblauch, five straight years from 1993 to 1997. Then my focus narrowed to the team I grew up on, the 1970s Minnesota Twins. And eventually it led to this question:
Harmon Killebrew led all of Major League Baseball in homeruns in the 1960s with 393 longballs—meaning, obviously, he also led the Twins in that category. So who hit the most homeruns for the Twins in the 1970s?
I'll start out by saying the 1970s was not a great homerun decade for Minnesota. We had three seasons in which the team leader didn't even hit 20:
- 1973: Bobby Darwin, 18
- 1975: Dan Ford, 15
- 1978: Roy Smalley, 19
Anyway, here are some of the biggest homerun hitters for the Twins in the 1970s:
- Tony Oliva: 88 (six seasons)
- Larry Hisle: 87 (five seasons)
- Bobby Darwin: 70 (four seasons)
- Dan Ford: 57 (four seasons)
- Rod Carew: 57 (nine seasons)
- Roy Smalley: 51 (four seasons)
- Craig “Mongo” Kusick: 44 (seven seasons)
None of them, though, are the answer. The answer is ... Harmon Killebrew, who hit 113 homeruns in his five 1970s seasons with the Twins—before Calvin let him go and Killer played his final sad season in light blue for the Kansas City Royals. Those homers obviously aren't included here. Neither is his final homerun, #573, September 18, 1975. What's special about that one? He hit it at Met Stadium off the Twins' Eddie Bane in the second inning, and it proved the difference in a 4-3 Royals win. And that was that. He appeared in four more games for KC, went 1-10 with two walks, and retired.
Touch 'em all, Killer.
Monday November 09, 2020
Leading the League in Doubles, Triples and Homers: 2020 Update
Now that that's over (kinda), my mind is free enough to be curious enough to see if this year's shortened baseball season helped us come any closer to having a player who has led the league in doubles, triples and homers at some point in their career. Reminder: the last guy to do this was Johnny Mize in the 1940s. So a long time ago.
And the answer is ... kinda sorta. But not really.
I did this as a weekly quiz for SABR a few months back and we included this proviso at the end:
There are only three active players who've led the league in more than one extra-base hit category. None are likely candidates to complete the trifecta:
- Miguel Cabrera: homers and doubles two times each; hasn't hit a triple since 2016
- Albert Pujols: homers twice, doubles once, hasn't hit a triple since 2014
- Nolan Arenado: homers three times, doubles once, his career-high in triples was 7 in 2017, which tied for fifth-best in the NL. Last year he had 2.
Active players who might have a shot at this include Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Juan Soto and Mike Trout, but they all share one thing: They've never led the league in any of the three categories.
Guess what? Though Betts led the Majors in bWAR, and Soto in OBP and slugging, none of these four led the league in any of the extra-base hit categories in 2020. However, someone has joined Cabrera, Pujols and Arenado as a leader in two of the three.
Here are the 2020 league leaders in each:
- AL: Cesar Hernandez, CLE
- NL: Freddie Freeman, ATL
- AL: Kyle Tucker, HOU
- NL: Trevor Story, COL; Trea Turner, WSN; and Mike Yastrzemski, SFG
- AL: Luke Voit, NYY
- NL: Marcell Ozuna, ATL
Spot the two-fer guy? Look again. Hint: I would've had no clue.
It ain't Ozuna. He led the league in homers, ribbies and total bases, but those are the first time he'd led in anything. Voit just led the AL in homers, and ... same. Tucker's practically a rookie; he only had 144 plate appearances, spread out over two seasons, before this year, so no. As for the NL trifecta, all tied with four triples each. You'd think maybe Story for homers, considering how he began his career, but his career high of 37 in 2018 was one behind teammate Arenado. And no for Turner or grandson Yaz.
Which leaves our doubles guys. And it turns out that, yes, Freddie Freeman has led in one of the extras before. But it was doubles in 2018. Which leaves only Cesar Hernandez, who, yes—really yes this time—led the NL in triples with 11 in 2016. Which is amazing. So all he needs to complete the trifecta is dingers ... which probably won't happen. Kid is 30, he's got 49 career homers with a season-high of 15 in 2018.
Nevertheless, he does join Cabrera, Pujols and Arenado as the only active two-fers in the extra base categories. Nice things can happen even in years like this one.
Tuesday October 27, 2020
Who Has the Most World Series Losses?
In other news, I find myself oddly rooting for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2020 World Series. I should be rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays, the no-money, no-name squad that are massive underdogs and have no World Series titles to their name. In contrast, the Dodgers have some of the biggest names in baseball (Mookie, Cody, Clayton), the second-highest payroll of 2020 (to the Yankees), and six World Series championships.
True, their last title was in 1988, the Kirk Gibson World Series, which happened 10 years before the Rays organization, then known as the Devil Rays, was even born. More important, here's something else the Dodgers have that the Rays don't:
More World Series losses than any team in baseball history.
I don't know why, but I've never looked at the World Series losses before. Like everyone, I count wins. I count rings, pennants, postseasons. But over the weekend I half-wondered about this hapless squad: Do the Dodgers have more World Series losses than anyone? More even than the Yankees, who have been to the World Series twice as often?
Turns out: Yes. Before this year, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and LA have been to the Series 20 times but won it only six, meaning, for those who learned their math at Burroughs Elementary in Sexy South Minneapolis, that they lost it 14 times. They're 6-14. The Yankees have lost it a lucky 13 times; they're 27-13. The only other team in double-digit WS losses is the Giants of New York and San Francisco: 8-12.
For the curious, here's how the original 16 teams stack up when sorted by winning percentage:
I guess this could provide some solace to fans of the Pirates, for example. Sure, they haven't been to the World Series since 1979; but they haven't lost a World Series since 1927.
Whatever happens to the Dodgers this year, though, won't move them much in the standings. If they lose Games 6 and 7, they'll be tied with the Phillies for the second-worst World Series Winning Percentage (WSWP). If they win, they'll be tied with the Braves and Indians. That's what victory would mean to the Dodgers overall: a tie with the Indians. Not exactly glamour territory.
So anyway I'm rooting for the Dodgers.
Tuesday October 20, 2020
Dodgers vs. Rays: a World Series Comparison
This was kind of fun to put together. Definitely a tale of Haves and Have Nots:
|YEARS IN EXISTENCE||138||23|
|FIRST PENNANT YEAR||14th||11th|
|FIRST CHAMPIONSHIP YEAR||53rd||n/a|
|OVERALL WIN %||.528||.477|
|2020 WIN %||.717||.667|
|PRIOR NAMES||Grays, Atlantics, Bridegrooms, Grooms, Superbas, Trolley Dodgers, Robins||Devil Rays|
|FANS' QUIRK||Leave before 9th inning||Fans?|
|BEST HISTORICAL PLAYER (bWAR)||Clayton Kershaw (69.6)||Evan Longoria (51.8)|
|BEST 2020 PLAYER (bWAR)||Mookie Betts (3.4)||Brandon Lowe (2.1)|
|RETIRED NUMBERS||1 (Pee Wee Reese), 2 (Tommy Lasorda), 4 (Duke Snider), 19 (Jim Gilliam), 20 (Don Sutton), 24 (Walter Alston), 32 (Sandy Koufax), 39 (Roy Campanella), 42 (Jackie Robinson), 53 (Don Drysdale)||12 (Wade Boggs), 66 (Don Zimmer)|
|HALL OF FAMERS||Wee Willie Keeler (1939), Dazzy Vance (1955), Zack Wheat (1959), Jackie Robinson (1962), Burleigh Grimes (1964), Roy Campanella (1969), Sandy Koufax (1972), Duke Snider (1980), Walter Alston (1983), Don Drysdale (1984), Pee Wee Reese (1984), Leo Durocher (1994), Tommy Lasorda (1997), Don Sutton (1998)||n/a|
|GREAT BOOKS WRITTEN ABOUT||The Boys of Summer, Baseball's Great Experiment, Sandy Koufax, Opening Day, I Never Had It Made, 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball||n/a|
|GREAT MOVIES MADE ABOUT||42||The Rookie|
|ALL-STARS ON 2020 SQUAD||Clayton Kershaw (8x), Mookie Betts (4x), Kenley Jensen (3x), Cody Bellinger (2x), Corey Seager (2x), Alex Wood, Blake Treinen, Walker Buehler, Justin Turner, AJ Pollock, Joc Pederson, Max Muncy||Charlie Morton (2x), Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Blake Snell|
|2020 PAYROLL||$107.9 million (2nd)||$28.2 million (28th)|
How odd is it for the Dodgers to be the Haves? Historically they've been so Have Nots, particularly vis a vis the New York Yankees. At the same time, just add it up. They have the second-most postseason appearances in MLB history (34), and the second-most number of pennants (21), one more than the Giants and two more than the Cardinals. Where they lack? This very thing. Titles. Rings. They have six, nothing to sneeze at, but that puts them sixth all-time, behind the Giants (8), Red Sox (9), Athletics (9), Cardinals (11), and, of course, the damn Yankees (27).
The Rays have no titles. One of six teams with none: Rangers, Padres, Brewers, Mariners, Rockies.
I think the saddest of the above comparisons is retired numbers, mostly because the Rays' retired numbers are just sad. Zimmer was a Rays coach for the 11 seasons before he died. And yes, he was great, a flamboyant baseball character, but better known for being on other teams. And ... coach? Not a manager? How many coaches have had numbers retired? But the worst is Boggs. Played all of two seasons with the Devil Rays, his last two seasons, where he accumulated a bWAR of 1.2.
And on the other side? Not just the left-hand of God, Sandy Koufax, but Jackie Robinson, a player whose impact on the game was so great his number has been retired by every Major League team. Including the Rays.
The most important comparison, though? 2020 win percentage. It's kinda close, and that's all that matters. Plus the Rays are younger and better rested. Plus they're the team that took out the Yankees, so ... respect.
I'm rooting for 7.
ADDENDUM: I guess I'm rooting for Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation who stumbles in the postseason. Last night, during Game 1, he didn't stumble. He gave up a hit to the first batter he faced, a walk to the third, and a homer in the Xth, but that was it. Good line: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 8-1 K/BB. Trouble is, he's had a lot of good lines in the post. Then the eruptions. I'm hoping for none the rest of the way.
Sunday October 18, 2020
Joe Morgan (1943-2020)
When I was a kid growing up in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, the most imitated batting stances, in no particular order, were:
- the sudden Killebrew crouch
- Stargell's pinwheels
- the Carew leanback
- Joe Morgan chicken flap
I was in an AL city, there was no interleague play, but I saw Morgan and the Big Red Machine all the time. They were always in the thick of it, and Morgan, who died last Sunday, was one of their in-the-thick-of-it-iest players. Or was he? His overall postseason line isn't good: .182/.323/.348. Cf., Pete Rose: .321/.388/.440. Or Johnny Bench: .266/.335/.527. Both are better than their career numbers, Morgan's is way worse. I do like the leap from his awful BA to his pretty good OBP. That's so Joe. Here's a fun stat: In the 1976 NLCS against the 103-win Philadelphia Phillies, which the Reds swept, Morgan went hitless in three games: .000 BA. Guess what his OBP was? .462. Then he went on to win the 1976 World Series MVP in a four-game sweep of the Yanks, with a .333/.412/.733 line. That may have been one of the few postseason contests where I rooted for the Reds. I didn't like them. I liked Morgan and Bench and Tony Perez I guess, but my antipathy for Pete Rose trumped all.
Did we know how good Morgan was? Maybe a little. He was NL MVP two years in a row, '75 and '76, the stolid, sparkplug center of that insane lineup, so we kind of knew. But OBP wasn't yet a thing. Advanced measures weren't a thing. WAR wasn't a thing. There's a great story about Morgan's first spring training with the Reds after he was traded from the Astros in Nov. 1971 as part of an eight-player deal. He was practicing laying down bunts when Pete Rose yelled at him. “Hey, we don't do that shit here!” They didn't sacrifice. No, they took. Like Paul Muni, they stole, and Morgan wound up second to Lou Brock for most stolen bases in the 1970s. And they hit. And they hit with power. And that kind of atmosphere was exactly what Joe Morgan apparently needed.
Prior to the trade, he'd had some good seasons, particularly his 1965 rookie year (he finished second in the ROY voting) and 1971. But from '72 to '76, this is where Morgan ranked in terms of bWAR for position players in all of Major League Baseball—NL and AL:
- 1972: first
- 1973: first
- 1974: second
- 1975: first
- 1976: first
By bWAR, he's the 21st greatest position player of all time. He's ahead of Yaz, Clemente, Brett, Griffey Jr., Carew, Boggs, Kaline. He's ahead of Bench and Rose. I think we thought he was good; I just don't think we thought he was that good.
So it's funny to note, as Joe Posnanski does in his obit, that Morgan hated bWAR. All the advanced stats showed what a great player he was and yet he hated all the advanced stats. You gotta smile.
Saturday October 10, 2020
Whitey Ford (1928-2020)
And now Whitey Ford. Good god.
Have so many legendary baseball players died so close to each other before? In five weeks we've lost Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and now Whitey Ford. Plus Gale Sayers if you expand to the NFL. This in the midst of a horrific year in which Don Larsen, Al Kaline, John Prine, John Lewis, Curly Neal, Chadwick Boseman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Olivia de Havilland, and Eddie Van Halen have all died.
Whitey lived longer than those other baseball legends, which is partly why he wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The BBWAA was a bit chincey until the late '70s. It took Ford two goes, which means he didn't get inducted with fellow pitcher Warren Spahn but had to settle for going in with his great friend and teammate Mickey Mantle. Ford debuted before the Mick (1950 vs. '51), went 9-1 in 12 starts, pitched 8 2/3 shutout innings in the final game of the 1950 World Series, then lost two years to the military. He, Mantle and Billy Martin were big booze buddies, and after one particularly egregious outing at the Copacobana that made noise in the press, the Yankees looked at the trio and quickly traded Martin. Sorry, Billy. (He made his way back.)
Here's how hard it is to win 300 games: Ford pitched 16 years for one of the winningest teams of all time, and posted the lowest complete-career ERA for any starting pitcher since World War II, and he won just 236 games. I guess he was oft-injured? He didn't win 20 until 1961, when he won 25. He led the league in wins three times, ERA twice, innings pitched twice, complete games once, shutouts twice. Never in Ks. He wasn't a K machine and his career K-BB numbers aren't HOF-worthy: 1,956-1,086. Not even two-to-one. But he's much better than I thought. For a while, with a bit of an anti-Yankees bias (cough), I dismissed him as a beneficiary of those great Yankee teams rather than a great pitcher on his own. But a 2.75 ERA doesn't lie.
He owns most World Series pitching records: wins, IP, GS, Ks. After winning Game 1 of the '62 Series against the Giants, a 6-2 complete-game victory, his record stood at 10-4. He started four more World Series games and lost them all. Then the real fall. The Yankees went from unstoppable pennants winners in 1964 to bottom dwellers in '66, and two months into the '67 season, injury plagued, he hung up his spikes for good. If you look at his W-L, he was done: 2-4. If you look at his ERA, he wasn't: 1.64. His last game was the first half of a double-header in Detroit on May 21, 1967. In the bottom of the 1st, he gave up a double, a groundout, a sac fly to Al Kaline, a walk and then a groundout: P unassisted. Then he called it quits.
Elston Howard dubbed him the Chairman of the Board and the name stuck. When his retirement was announced, his longtime manager Casey Stengel told longtime New York Daily News columnist Dick Young: “I'll tell you about Mr. Ford. He was quiet, egotistical and witty. He was my banty rooster. He'd stick out his chest, like this, and walk out on the mound against any of those big pitchers. They talk about the fall of the Yankees. Well, the Yankees would've fallen a lot sooner if it wasn't for my banty rooster.”
He died Thursday night. Here's the Times obit.
Monday October 05, 2020
Ron Perranoski (1936-2020)
The above shot is from Camera Day, 1970, and Twins relief pitcher Ron Perranoski is asking me what was going on with my two missing front teeth. I was 7 and thought the world I encountered was the world as it had always been and always would be, so I remember almost a sense of betrayal when I found out Perranoski had been with the Dodgers earlier in the decade. And that he was better known for being a Dodger? What the? But he was. He led the league in saves two years as a Twin, but with the Dodgers in '63 he went 16-3 with a 1.67 ERA and saved Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees that the Dodgers won in four. He appeared on a Chuck Conners' TV show. He pitched in the '65 Series against us and gave up some runs—mostly to opposing pitcher Jim Kaat, whose two-out single opened up Game 2 for him. And us. Before he became us. Every post-season after that he faced the Baltimore Orioles ('66 WS, '69 and '70 ALCS), that great Orioles team, one of the best of all time, and it was a tough row. His career ended in 1973, before free agency and increasing wealth, but he stayed in the game, first as a minor league pitching coach for the Dodgers organization, then as the Dodgers pitching coach, then as the San Francisco Giants pitching coach.
My older brother just reminded me that we did have another encounter with him. At Met Stadium we often sat on the wooden benches along the third base/left field side, but one game we wandered the stadium and wound up in the right field stands. We were right above the bullpen, where Perranoski sat with the other relievers. I don't know how he did it but my older brother wound up dropping his glove for Perranoski to sign, and when he pleaded that he was penless, Chris dropped a green marker, too. He signed it on the back of the finger side, in green ink, and my brother had it for years. I remember being very, very jealous.
Perranoski died Friday. I heard about it a day after Bob Gibson's death, which came on the heels of Gale Sayers' death, which came on the heels of the deaths of Lou Brock and Tom Seaver. That's just sports. A one-word tweet from SABR president Mark Armour after the news about Perranoski says it all: STOP! Amen.
Sunday October 04, 2020
Bob Gibson (1935-2020)
I practically cried when I heard about this Friday night. Why in this awful year did this latest awful bit of news make me almost break down? Was it the pile-on aspect of it all—not just the horror of Trump, not just the horror of Covid, not just wildfire smoke blanketing my city, but the loss of so many towering figures: from John Prine to John Lewis; from Chadwick Boseman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the last month alone, in the world of sports alone, we've lost Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Gale Sayers. It wears you down. I think of Shakespeare: When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.
I also think it's partly this: Bob Gibson doesn't die. No. Bob Gibson stares you down and then comes at you. He brushes you inside. He plunks you in the ribs without a thought. He was so well-known for it, other players named the message pitch for him:
Dave Johnson would sometimes run in from 2nd base and say give them the Bob Gibson! I’d say, there is only 1 Bob Gibson. Wasn’t that the truth.Talented, competitive ,a warrior on the hill!So glad I got to know him. Will dearly miss him #RIP @masnOrioles— Jim Palmer (@Jim22Palmer) October 3, 2020
So many stories. He brushed back Reggie Jackson in an Old-Timers game because the previous Old-Timers game Jackson had the temerity to hit a homerun off him. He was so competitive he wouldn't talk to fellow National Leaguers during the All-Star Game because they were the enemy and he didn't want to lose his edge. The New York Times obit mentions he lost two months of the 1967 season when a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente broke his leg, but not the fact that he kept pitching in that game for three more batters. He had a broken leg and kept pitching.
This may be my favorite Gibson story. I read it in the New York Times 25 years ago. It was for a department called “A Question for...” and this question went to Gibson's former battery mate Tim McCarver, who had since become a loquacious color announcer:
What's the most boring part of baseball?
When the pitcher gets on base and they stop the game to bring him a jacket—so the guy's arm won't get cold. That's boring. What does he need a jacket for? His arm's not going to get cold. Another boring part is the small talk a first baseman will make with a base runner. They'll ask: “How ya hittin' 'em? How's the family?” And they could care less. It's the “Have a nice day” syndrome. I hated it, and Bob Gibson really hated it. One time, against the Expos, Bob got on and [ first baseman ] Ron Fairly told him, “Hey, you're throwing well.” Fairly came up to bat a couple innings later and Gibson hit him square in the ribs. I think more players ought to retaliate like that.
I laughed so hard at that. By then, Ron Fairly had become our loquacious color announcer, so all the elements were perfect. Everyone acted as they do—Fairly gabbed, Gibson plunked—and the result was comedy. One wonders if Fairly got the message. I doubt it. I assume everyone kept acting the same.
I didn't know all this at first. Gibson was in the NL, I was in an AL city, and I didn't start watching baseball really until 1969 or '70, a year or two after his great 1.12 ERA season, and the record-setting 17 Ks in the first game of the 1968 World Series. From 1964 to 1968 he won seven World Series games in a row, and for most of that he was unhittable. From Game 1 in '67 to Game 4 in '68 he started five games, completed five games, and went 5-0 with a 53-8 K/BB ratio and a 0.80 ERA. Yes, that's right: 0.80. In 45 innings, he gave up just four earned runs. The opposition batting average against him was .199. Sorry, that's the oppositiion on-base percentage. And in the most important games of the year. He dominated October—but the Octobers before I began to watch. The Cardinals didn't make the postseason when I was first watching.
No, my first impression of him was via one of those story booklets that came with Topps baseball cards in 1970. Topps made 24 of them—one for each team?—and you got a bit of a player's life but without their personality, really. Everyone had the same personality. Think Bazooka Joe:
(Thanks to RoundtheDiamond87)
The Globetrotters thing was true, and so incongruous once you realized who he was. Later, I read a quote from him dismissing his time with the Globetrotters. He said there was too much “clowning around.” That, too, made me laugh.
I think I got to know his true personality via Roger Angell and Roger Kahn and Joe Posnanski. It was from the stories the other players told. In his countdown of the greatest 100 players of all time, Posnanski put Gibson at No. 45, in honor of his number, and because it kind of felt right. He tells a story about Gibson's older brother, LeRoy, called Josh for no apparent reason, that should be made into an HBO movie. 1947 opened doors for Black Americans, and Josh saw an opportunity for his kid brother, and drilled him every day in the basics to make sure when the time came he'd bust through those doors. “It wasn't a prophecy,” Posnanski writes. “It was an order.”
Poz also told the other stories, the stories that apparently Gibson tired of, because he felt it overshadowed the other aspects of his game. But that's what happens. Who can keep the whole equation in mind? Sometimes not even friends and family. Posnanski quotes advice that Hank Aaron gave to a young Dusty Baker about Gibson and turned it into a poem. Or it was already a poem and Poz just recognized it was and broke it into lines:
Don't dig in against Bob Gibson.
He'll knock you down.
He'd knock down his own grandmother.
Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him.
He doesn't like it.
If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow.
And don't run too fast.
If you want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first.
And if he hits you, don't charge the mound.
Because he's a Golden Gloves boxer.
Baker has his own beautiful quote about the man: “The only people I ever felt intimidated by in my whole life were Bob Gibson and my daddy.”
That's the sadness of it. Even Bob Gibson. He was 84.