Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Garland Buckeye: The magic is gone


Garland Buckeye strode to the Yankee Stadium mound for a typical Saturday afternoon start against the mighty New York club. The June weather seemed decent enough for the Cleveland Indians southpaw, but he carried no illusions about this game's importance. He'd lost his last two starts and knew that Jack McAllister1 carried no allegiance to his starting rotation. A few bad starts would send you to the bullpen to redeem yourself and against this greatest team of all time, a bad start seemed .

He'd faced his fate in the game's first two innings, but Buckeye emptied his bag of tricks to work around four singles and a walk, keeping the game scoreless. In the third inning, however, Yankees second baseman Ray Morehart led off with a double and Garland had to face Babe Ruth. 1927 Babe Ruth. The Babe Ruth of 60 home runs.

The half-filled ballpark buzzed like bees as Ruth waddled to the plate. Buckeye, the former professional football player2, reared back and let loose.

Ruth stepped. Ruth swung. Ruth connected. The ball sailed high and deep to right. To the east. Seaward. Over Nick Cullop, freshly substituted in right field.

Home run3.

Garland held his weathered mitt to his face and shouted incoherently, though news accounts of the day claimed he'd shouted "Come On!" to no one in particular.

Buckeye managed to exit the third inning down only the two runs from the homer and he retired the side in order in the fourth. In the fifth, Morehart led off with a lazy fly Ike Eichrodt in center, bringing up Ruth again.

Garland flung the ball again to the round batsmen. The moment his fingertips broke from the seams, the pitcher called "Gob" cast his eyes to the ground. He never heard the bat bruising the ball so viciously and he never turned to watch it soar majestically into the right-field seats.

His eyes gazed to the middle-distance beyond the left-handed batters' box.

"I've made a huge mistake," Gob said4.

1 Jack McAllister would only manage the Indians for one year, 1927. His trust in his pitching proved fickle, no starter made more than 30 starts. Maybe that mistrust was merited; the Indians finished the year with just 66 wins. Ironically, this proved to be Garland Buckeye's best season. He'd be out of big-league ball in just over a year.

2 Buckeye played five years of professional football as an offensive guard with the Chicago Tigers and Chicago Cardinals from 1920 to 1924. He would tackle big-league baseball again in 1925 as a burly 260-pound pitcher.

3 Buckeye gave up 15 home runs in 564 career innings pitched, which is actually not too shabby for the home-run heyday of the 1920s. Of those 15, Hall of Famers hit 10 of them. So at least Garland usually only got beat on the long ball by the best.

4 Gob would leave more of a legacy behind than Banana Grabber's lost animation rights potential and a rain of pennies. Modern hurlers Drew and Stu Pomeranz are both his great-grandsons. And there was even a decent-if-vanilla rock band called Garland Buckeye.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

George Gibson's contribution to literature: The 1932 Pittsburgh Pirates

Literary giant and Pirates' manager George 'Moon' Gibson (right) poses with Honus Wagner and Dodgers' skipper Max Carey. All three played together for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1910s.

On May 17, 1932, Pittsburgh Pirates1 manager George "Moon" Gibson2 filled out his daily lineup card the same as any other day. Except for the pitcher, the lineup contained the same players as the previous day's batting order3. Unlike the prior day, Gibson shuffled his nine to create a poetic quartet--all of whom would end up in the Hall of Fame eventually--at the top of the lineup:

L. Waner (CF)
P. Waner (RF)
Vaughan (SS)
Traynor (3B)
Barbee (LF)
Suhr (1B)
Piet (2B)
Grace (C)
Harris (P)

George Gibson created--intentional or not, we'll never know--a work of baseball literature on par with Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat," with Franklin Pierce Adams' "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," with Bill James' "Historical Baseball Abstract" and with all of those damn Matt Christopher books the boys in my third-grade class would read for book reports.

While Gibson may not have possessed a literary bone in his body, his lasting legacy should come in the form of verse:

Waner, Waner, Vaugh'n and Traynor
To bat this afternoon.
The pitcher's fear be no plainer,
This lineup drawn by Moon.

I won't say much about the players themselves, since they're all of Hall of Famers and tens of thousands of words have been inked about each of them. But since they're also Hall of Famers, how about a series of Hall of Fame haiku?

Lloyd Waner4
He, Little Poison,
A gnat in the pitcher's eye.
Paul's little brother.

Paul Waner5
Big Poison--really
Not that large--but crushed baseballs.
Vicious wolverine.

Arky Vaughan6
An Ozark shortstop,
Fleet afoot and million-eyed;
Baseball's centipede6A.

Pie Traynor7
Ain't no pastry chef
Manning the hot corner, only
A man they call Pie.

1 The 1932 Pirates were a very good baseball team. The big four in the lineup were surrounded by four average hitters, which is usually enough to compete for a pennant. But the pitching was only average, which usually isn't enough to compete. The club probably should have still won the National League pennant in '32, but a 2-15 skid in early August dropped them out of first place for good. They would eventually finish in second place, four games behind the well-balanced Chicago Cubs. The juggernaut New York Yankees then steamrolled the Cubs 4-0 in the World Series.

2 Moon Gibson had been the original tough-as-nails catcher, catching 150 of the 1909 Pirates' 152 games on the way to a dominant, 110-win World Series Championship season. From 1908 to 1910, Gibson caught 95 percent of the Pirates' games, which is an absurd percentage by any era's standards but that number is especially crazy considering that a "tough" modern catcher plays about 80 percent of his team's games. Padding and protection for catchers wasn't very good in 1909 so it's likely that Moon played with bruises, aches, and pains if not a few broken bones. He wasn't a good hitter by any stretch of the imagination, but--like most catchers of the era--he made up for it with ruggedness and solid defense. From the 1910 Baseball Almanac: "Moon plays tougher than any and when the last out is made, he holds his own in a dust-up as well as any pugilist. One of the last season's greatest treats for this author was watching Moon Gibson and Pirates' second sacker Dots Miller work over an entire bar full of rowdy Cincinnati patrons in that city after a doubleheader, of which Gibson had caught both ends. Their fists pumped like knotty cudgels, bludgeoning the Redlegs' faithful like so many cutlets of tenderized meat."2A

2A It's possible this author may have taken some liberties with the truth in this tale. 

3 The batting order is actually less-than-ideal if you look at it with modern lineup analysis tools. In fact, many interesting things have been written about optimizing batting orders, but the bottom line is that order of batters only makes a slight difference over the course of a season. Regardless of how you parse it, I find it strange on the surface that Moon chose the guy with the fewest home runs of the four--Pie Traynor--to bat cleanup. But if you look at the rate statistics, he had an almost identical season to Lloyd Waner and wasn't too far short of Vaughan's output so Traynor makes as much sense as any of the others hitting there.

4 OK, I can't resist a few words on these Hall of Famers...Lloyd Waner would have a difficult time getting into the Hall of Fame today and would be considered a borderline candidate. But nepotism doesn't hurt; part of his fame derived from playing in the Pirates' outfield alongside his brother and having a killer brother-related nickname. It's noteworthy that Waner only struck out 173 times in more than 8,000 plate appearances.

5 Paul Waner was the older and better of the Poison brothers. Playing in the spacious Forbes Field, Waner hit lots of doubles (62 of them 1932) and more than 10 triples in each of his first 10 seasons. Like his brother, he seldom struck out, but he also walked much more often, finishing with a career line of .333/.404/.473. He hung on in the majors into his 40s as the big-league ranks thinned during the early 1940s when the young, able-bodied men who usually make the best ballplayers went off to fight in Europe and the Pacific.

6 Arky Vaughan would be regarded as one of the best shortstops in history if he hadn't missed three years in his 30s because of a dispute with Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. Vaughan was the bastion of plate discipline and walked three times more often than he struck out as the Pirates infielder. He was also an above-average fielder and was what would now be called "the complete package." He should have been the 1935 NL Most Valuable Player after batting .385/.491/.607, but voters favored the pennant-winning Cubs' catcher Gabby Hartnett. Vaughan was just a 20-year-old rookie in 1932.

6A OK, so centipedes are mostly blind and can only generally tell light and dark. But they have compound eyes and detect most things by feel from antennae. Also, venom.  

7 Pie Traynor, like Lloyd Waner, would have a tough time convincing Hall-of-Fame voters today that he is worthy of enshrinement. He was similar to Waner in many ways: a guy who hit mostly singles and struck out infrequently but also didn't really draw walks. What got him into the Hall were two things: longevity and high RBI totals. Traynor drove in more than 100 runs seven times, which speaks as much to his teammates as to his ability. Traynor was still a solid hitter at what was normally considered a defensive position and was only surpassed as a third baseman by muscleman Eddie Mathews. Traynor played his entire career with the Pirates and a was a popular figure at Forbes Field. After baseball, he announced for both baseball and pro wrestling. Awesome.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Rabbits

Somehow, the annals of history include two "Rabbit" Robinsons: William Clyde Robinson, an early 20th Century utility infielder, and Paul Robinson, a sexxy Australian fiddler.

Let's compare the famous Robinsons of the family Leporidae.

Rabbit Robinson, Infielder Rabbit Robinson, Sexxy fiddler
Years in the big leagues 1903-1904, 1910 2008-Present
Born in West Virginia, haven for American hillbillies Australia, haven for the Southern Hemisphere's hillbillies
Career Highlights Fourth-best player on the wretched 1904 Detroit Tigers1. Subsequently released. Played "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" while already well south of Georgia.
Appearance Meek and reserved Sexy virtuoso (The "Steve Vai")
Career home runs 1, hit off one-year garbage pitcher John Deering in 1903 Many, with the fine fiddle-fan ladies Down Under
Positions Played Third base, shortstop, outfield, second base Duh...Fiddlers only play lead. There's no such thing as a rhythm violinist.
Nickname origin A diminutive player (5'6") who was also fleet afoot Humps a lot.
Used electricity to... ...improve his empty-bottle throwing accuracy in saloons, via the lightbulb. To amplify his hot fiddlin'.
Weapons of choice A battered leather glove and a belly full of grit2 A golden fiddle strung with the hopes and dreams of the Ute-driving masses

1 Robinson was a regular fill-in on the 1903 Washington Senators, perennial cellar dwellers who, at the time, struggled to win one-fourth of their games. Rabbit moved up to the next-to-last-place Tigers in '04. While he played more than 100 games for Detroit, he filled i at several different positions. 

2 As he was from West Virginia, Rabbit was also keen on a belly full of grits.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Holiday Post featuring Turkey Mike Donlin

Turkey Mike Donlin is thankful that he doesn't have to add your blood to the list of debaucherous stains on his gameday sweater, even though it would make a nice complement to the sticky brown of tobacco and the ever-fading patches of whiskey from benders past.

But if you snap a picture of him like that again, you may no longer possess a shutter-opening finger, if you know what Turkey Mike means. Nobody gives two craps about him the rest of the year even though he was a key part of the New York Giants' first World Series win in 1905, so stop with all the attention nowsabouts.

Instead, enjoy your Thanksgiving with some Sweetbreads to plump yourself up.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dick Selma: Dummy of misfortune

Luck is a fickle thing in big-league baseball, in case you hadn't noticed. As if the game itself didn't have enough of it, sometimes where players end up is a matter of luck.

Pitcher Spec "The Naugatuck Nugget" Shea was an average pitcher over the course of his career, but he managed to get signed by the New York Yankees just after World War II. Playing in parts of four seasons with New York, Shea won three World Series rings ('47, '49 and '51). But the Naugatuck Nugget's good luck ran out in May 1952 when the Yankees sent him to play for the lowly Washington Senators.

Some players--like pitcher Dick Selma--never got the chance to have any good luck. Over 10 seasons in the big leagues, Selma's ERA+ of 100 renders him a perfectly average pitcher of his era. And in those 10 seasons, Selma pitched for six different clubs. So the law of averages would make one think that he played for three winning teams and three losing teams or perhaps played for five seasons on a winning team. Right?

Wrong. Very wrong.

Only once did Selma's team compile a better-than-.500 record. And that one winning season stands as perhaps the most dramatic and unforgettable late-season flop in baseball history.

The kid from Fresno signed with the fledgling 1963 New York Mets. Selma debuted for the Mets by 1965 and would spend the next four seasons jumping back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, the big-league club and the minors. In that time, the Mets averaged just 62.5 wins per season, although under Gil Hodges' leadership, the Mets had won 73 games in 1968 and looked much improved. Selma  pitched very well in 1968 and appeared poised to be in the middle of the Mets' rotation.

But it was not to be; the brand-new San Diego Padres drafted Selma in the expansion draft's fifth round. Like any other expansion club, the 1969 Padres were awful, but Selma did not endure the club long. Before April had ended, San Diego shipped Dick to the Cubs for, among others, promising young knuckleballer Joe Niekro.

Selma found the Cubs to his liking. In his first five starts with the Cubs, Selma pitched two shutouts and had soon picked up an 8-2 record working as a reliever and spot starter. Cubs fans took a liking to Selma, who acted as a cheerleader to the Cubs' faithful Bleacher Bums. Because of Selma's constant chattering, his teammates called him Mortimer Snerd1 after ventriloquist's Edgar Bergen's famous dummy. But it looked like Selma had finally found a winner; the Cubs stood alone in first place at July's end.

And then the club began those two months that permanently broke many Cubs fans' hearts. Selma's first three appearances in August resulted in two wins and a save, but the North Siders nose-dived from there. From August 22 until the end of September, Selma lost five straight decisions while the first-place Cubs watched their division lead erode and then vanish. To the Mets, the previously losing team for which Selma had labored for six years (including the two in the minors).

The Miracle Mets overtook the Cubs early in September and never looked back, but the final chapter of this saga came in game No. 162 of the 1969 season, when the Mets played the Cubs at Wrigley Field on October 1. The game meant little to the season's outcome; the Mets had long since clinched the division title, but the Cubs faithful wanted one last vengeful win against their tormentors. The teams traded runs early in the game to make it a 3-3 tie after eight innings. A two-run double by Tommy Agee in the top of the ninth soured the hopes of the Wrigley crowd. The Cubs rallied in the bottom of the inning--off some kid named Nolan Ryan--to knot the score again and send it to extra innings, where neither team scored in the 10th or 11th.

In the 12th, Cubs' skipper Leo Durocher called on Mortimer Snerd to hold the game. The inning's leadoff hitter, light-hitting shortstop Bud Harrelson, roped a double to left. The next hitter was Agee, who grounded to second base, moving Harrelson to third. Durocher, having seen enough, yanked Selma from the game. His replacement was Hank Aguirre, who promptly served up an RBI single to Art Shamsky. Despite another rally, the Cubs failed to score in the bottom of the 12th and their season mercifully ended. Having allowed the run-scoring batter to reach base, Selma was charged with one last loss, his sixth in a row to end the disastrous season. It was Selma's last appearance on a "winning" team.

Perhaps for his own protection2, the Cubs dealt him to Philadelphia, where he'd pitch in relief for the abysmal Phillies for the next four seasons, having two good years and two bad. His inability to stay quiet finally got the better of him, as a Phillies' traveling secretary once punched Mortimer Snerd in the jaw for making an off-color remark.

Selma's final two seasons proved even more turbulent: The Phillies cut him loose early in 1973. Two weeks later, he caught on with the St. Louis Cardinals in the minors, only to be purchased by the California Angels at season's end.

He made a few ineffective appearances for the Angles in 1974 before the Milwaukee Brewers purchased him, only to return him after two devastating appearances. Mortimer Snerd has become defective merchandise, returned like a broken microwave. Not that any of it mattered in the grand scheme of baseball history; none of the teams Selma played on from 1970 to 1974 won more than 73 games in a season3.

After a couple of tough minor-league seasons, Selma left big-league ball and caught on with the Alaska Goldpanners for at least the 1978 season4. He ended his playing days shortly thereafter and Selma coached baseball in the Fresno area, where he'd grown up. He died in 2001 from liver cancer.

Through 1971, Dick Selma's 112 ERA+ renders him an above-average pitcher; his final few seasons of ineffectiveness brought his career ERA+ down to 1005, which is considered perfectly average.

But history seems to forget those who don't play for winners. So the next time some dreadful jerk mentions the 1969 baseball season, you'll think of Dick Selma and his tough luck. And take some solace that, exactly  a year after his last loss as a Cub, Selma won an extra inning game for the Phillies.

1Great Names in Baseball would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity acknowledge the wicked awesome 1970s rock band Mortimer Snerd, who are forever immortalized in one of the great modern literary works for being perhaps the first Kiss cover band and in an autobiographical website that describes them as having a "meteoric rise." By this, we assume the author means they were rocky and ferric. The Mortimer Snerd website conspicuously fails to mention how much tail the band got, which everyone knows is the true measure of 1970s rock and roll success. However, the site states that a reunion is "Coming Soon..." on June 6, 2010. GNIB, for one, looks forward to it and would like to know where tickets are available. Please take our money.

2Actually, we're not sure anyone can be sent to the Phillies "for protection." Phillies' fans are notoriously two-faced, relentless, and mean.

3 In actuality, the 1974 Brewers won 76 games, but Selma only made two terrible token trips to the hill.

4 While in Alaska, Selma played with future World Series winning manager Terry "Tito" Francona.

5 This is a common statistical phenomenon known as "decline." Baseball nerds have studied the phenomenon in-depth, but the relevant idea here is that Selma's peak came very early and his decline very precipitously.

Monday, May 7, 2012

John Stearns: Bad Dude

It is a well-established fact that starting a sentence with "it is" creates a sense of grammatical ambiguity. It is also a well-established fact that anyone whose nickname is "Bad Dude" cares little for grammar and is likely illiterate.

Which is why I feel completely confident in taking creative liberty with the story of former New York Mets catcher John "Bad Dude" Stearns1, a four-time All-Star on some of the worst Mets' clubs of all time.

Stearns was forged by the jotunn from the fires of Muspelheim. Information that points to Stearns' birth as a natural occurrence in 1951 in Denver was also forged, although for this the jotunn instead used a fountain pen and an early form of facsimile machine.

The norse gods created Bad Dude as a mere mortal, though he was meant to do their bidding and to enforce the gods' rule over men. They granted Stearns nearly unlimited strength, which he used in sporting contests to crush men's wills. As a linebacker on the University of Colorado football team, he removed an opposing receiver's spleen through sheer force. One shocked teammate remarked, "That's bad, dude."

Stearns, illiterate and his brain cavity clogged by spare muscle, echoed the phrase, "Bad dude?"

After being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1973, Bad Dude blasted through the minor leagues, leaving a trail of broken pitchers in his wake. He played a single game with the Phillies in 1973 before being traded to the New York Mets in the offseason.

Stearns remained with the Mets for the rest of his career, where he proved to be an above-average hitter, a solid defender and a capable receiver in spite of his muscle-clogged cranium. Opponents regarded him as a hard-nosed player, and he led the National League in Pirates of the Base Resistance Kill (POBRK) and Garrison Opportunities (GARR) in several years.

After hanging up his cleats in 1984, the jotunn finally agreed to grant Stearns a brain. In the time since, he's been a scout, manager and coach for several organizations. He also has come to grips with his role as a puppet for the Norse gods and has begun lobbying the United Nations for his international organization, Creating Awareness for the Abuses of Norse Gods (CAFANG).

Read a recent feature story on John "Bad Dude" Stearns here.

1 Not to be confused with John Stearns, who is definitely not a Bad Dude. Also, Bad Dude's resemblance to John Ritter is merely coincidental.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Good news everyone!

Baseball-Reference now hosts Negro League stats! You can find the main Negro Leagues page here.

Be sure to read the attributes and explanations, because a lot of people put a lot of work into the collection of the stats and will continue to do so, as the gathering of information is a work in progress.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Milkman Jim Turner: 'I am your father'

Everyone loves an underdog in sports. That's why the sports media had a coverage-gasm over Jeremy Lin. And why a documentary was made about Dennis Quaid's brief pitching career1.

But Quaid has nothing on Milkman Jim Turner, who spent 14 season in the independent minor leagues before arriving as a 33-year-old rookie in 1937. In those 14 seasons, he won more than 200 games and threw more than 2700 innings.

When he debuted in 1937, he shocked the baseball world by winning 20 games on a mediocre Boston Bees club and leading the league in ERA, complete games, shutouts and WHIP. He would almost certainly have been Rookie of the Year if that prize had existed at the time. As it was, he finished 4th in the MVP voting behind established veterans (and future Hall of Famers) Joe "Ducky" Medwick, Gabby "Gabby" Hartnett and Carl "Telescoping" Hubbell.

Milkman struggled for a couple years afterward with the Bees, but he found his top form again in 1940 with the Cincinnati Reds. At 36 years old, Turner helped the Reds win the World Series.

If not for the war, he would almost certainly have been done after 1942. But because he was too old to be drafted, he hung around until 1945 as a reliever for the Yankees2. The Yankees sent him to the minors in 1946 and he was finally done pitching early in 1947 at the tender age of 43.

As many ballplayers of his era did, Jim Turner worked a steady job in the offseason. As his nickname would suggest, he delivered the goods weekly to the housewives of his hometown, Nashville. And if you're from that country music crossroads, he is probably your grandfather3.

1 Far be it from me to discourage cheering for underdogs; I, too, enjoy rooting for the plucky Tampa Bay Rays. And, if you believe the broadcasting coverage of the 2005 American League Division Series, my team of preference were the underdogs. Nevermind that they had the best record and pitching staff in the league that year; there was no way they could overcome the amazing story of The Nation. The narrative-creating national media will not be denied their story, whether or not it has any resemblance to reality.

2 This was a common theme in wartime baseball. With the peak-aged players mostly being drafted, teams hung onto players who would otherwise have been out of the game. It generated less-than-ideal competition on the field, but America's pastime carried on while the war raged. Go here for an Internet site dedicate solely to baseball during World War II.

3 Naturally, this is just another example of supposition. You wish your grandpa was as cool as Milkman Jim.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dick Burns: Happy VD!!!

Nineteenth Century base ballist Dick Burns wishes you a bountiful and lecherous Feast of St. Valentine's! The sinister-handed twirler asks that you take protective precautions to prevent your prurient provocations from prying rivals. That is, be sure to load your derringer to ward off other libidinous pursuers of that special Valentine's jezebel on whom you've set your sights.