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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Orator Shafer: The rhetorical device of never shutting up

Right fielder George "Orator" Shafer earned his nickname by engaging in long soliloquys on the nature of the game (and other topics of interest) betwixt innings. If a contest fell to doldrums, Shafer would even halt play during an at-bat to recite impromptu poetry on the connection between the ball's stitches, which held the leather hide on, and the ball itself, which held together the fabric of communities. He invented the seventh-inning stretch's precursor, regularly reading prepared pages after the fifth inning's conclusion.

Crowds enjoyed the recitations, and the roughshod partisans honored Orator's orations by hurling coins at him and, later, by insisting he run for mayor of Philadelphia under the Discourse Party ticket1. Orator also invented the phrase "Lecture Circuit" as a means of describing the 1880s National League.

He was universally loved and accepted and lived the rest of his life in glory...

...which is all patently false, excepting his name. In fact, he picked up the nickname from being a particularly chatty player2. Players of the era were almost universally suspicious of talkative players3, so Shafer was apparently not very popular. In 13 professional seasons, he played with 9 different clubs.

He not only talked to umpires, teammates and opponents, but also he apparently talked to himself. Most teammates preferred these one-person, two-sided conversations. They preferred it so much that Shafer, a top-notch third baseman4, was relegated to right field because he annoyed the living hell out of them. Orator occasionally found conversational partners, who soon wearied of Shafer's braggadocio.

Who's Who Among Base Ballists 1883 included this about Orator Shafer's screeds:

"Cleveland teammates frequently remarked that Shafer loves to talk about his own exploits, but moreso he loves to talk about the exploits of his many children from many mothers. Cleveland hurler George Bradley added that Shafer once began every statement for two hours 'My illegitimate child this...' and 'My illegitimate child that...' League rumors abound that Shafer's gonads are actually sterile and the claims are empty posturing.

Orator Shafer, ne'er in need of social lubricants, partakes in spirits nonetheless, frequently to his own detriment. In a well-known instance, he challenged diminutive second baseman Joe Quest to a drinking contest before a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds. The contest's score remains unclear, but the outcome does not. Quest, weary of Shafer's rambling tongue, ended the contest by bludgeoning the Orator with the half-empty bottle, spraying shards and brown liquor everywhere within 20 feet of home plate, where the contest was occurring."

Orator Shafer, however, was a pretty good young player5. He had his best seasons from 1877 to 1880, a period of four seasons in which he played for four separate National League clubs (Louisvile Grays, Indianapolis Blues, Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Taupes6). In that period, he hit .297/.322/.385 with an OPS+ of 129. His services were well above-average then, including a red-hot 1878 in Indianapolis.

His skills quickly declined, however, and Shafer jumped the National League ship in 1884, heading for the Unicorn Association, where he was a star for the St. Louis Maroons. When the Association folded at season's end, the Maroons returned to the NL and Shafer proved washed up. He played a little for the American Association's Philadelphia Athletics in the two years thereafter but then disappeared for three years.

He resurfaced again in 1890 to play decently in 100 games, but Orator called it quits and took his talking talents to the race track, where he worked as a bookie.

He died of verbal diarrhea in 1922.

1 Shafer lost the election due to salary concerns, which largely surrounded his inadequate pay to purchase a plurality of votes.

2 This was, however, somewhat true of Hall of Famer "Orator" Jim O'Rourke, one of Shafer's contemporaries. O'Rourke, a learned gentleman, frequently espoused his point of view through both impromptu rhetoric and well-rehearsed passages. Bill James, in his Historical Abstract, notes that Orator Jim's pregame ritual involved reciting Hamlet's famous soliloquy. O'Rourke is famous for, among many other things, playing a single game for John McGraw's New York Giants in 19042A. Orator Jim was 53 at the time, and his 1-for-4 performance gives him the legacy of being the oldest man to hit safely in a major league game. Read Orator Jim's story here. O'Rourke again made a name for himself as a prominent member of the Louisville noise/math rock community in the 1990s and later as a record producer. He still records and tours, despite being the relatively advanced age of 161.

2A At the time, Orator Jim was actually running a club in his hometown, the aptly named Bridgeport Orators of the Connecticut State League. Orator Jim played occasionally on the Orators until 1909, when he was 58. Orator's Orators also rostered his son, Queenie O'Rourke, for several years. Minor league superstar/resident giant Hi Ladd was an Orator for 10 seasons from 1902-1911 some years after a brief trial with a couple big league clubs.

3 Once again, I am unable to substantiate this claim. But really, nobody likes a man who runs his mouth constantly.

4 Perhaps it's a stretch to consider Shafer a "good" third baseman, given that his fielding percentage in 148 games there was awful: .798. Granted, third base is a tough position to play with a modern glove, let alone doing it barehanded or with the primitive mitts of the 1880s. But Orator Shafer was perhaps too busy bragging about his illegitimate children, who were far more violent than those of Dad Clarkson.

5 According to this bizarre and creepy rendering of him5A, Orator Shafer was 1877's Top Hitter or something, which is the second-most awesome champion-related title for any base ballist. The first, of course, is everybody's dream title: Champion of America.

5A That screenshot is from something called Out of The Park Baseball, a sort of game played on a video screen. I know very little about it, but would appreciate someone of experience with it pontificating on its merits and drawbacks.

6 The Cleveland club was actually called the Blues. Team nicknames at the time were mostly based around uniform color and/or attributes rather than predatory animals, mystical beings, geographical features or siblings.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sam Wise: Nice gams, gee

Many years before an English man invented nerds, a young gardener1 from Akron named Sam Wise underwent an arduous journey...

Young Sam Wise, nicknamed "Modoc," was a top-notch semi-professional ballplayer on his hometown club, which at one time also included Tony Mullane. In 1882, he left home for the faraway land of Boston, where he played several infield positions for the Beaneaters. Wise struck out a great deal in his first years with the club and seldom drew a base on balls. In 1884, Boston skipper John Morrill proclaimed: "One does not simply walk Modoc2."

Wise eventually dumped the Beaneaters' Fellowship in 1890 to play for the Buffalo Bisons of the Players League. When the Players League collapsed after its inaugural season, he ventured to the mysterious land of the Orioles, where a dwarf named John McGraw taught Sam Wise the wonders of distilled spirits, broads and extreme ire. Sam fared poorly in this environ, however, and soon faced despair in 1892 with no club in which to be quartered.

But he redeemed himself in 1893 by returning to the National League as the Washington Senators' second baseman. Wise batted .311/.375/.457 that year and walked nearly twice as much as he struck out3. But the highlight of his career came that season when Sam Wise saved teammate and Senators' pitcher Jouett Meekin from a giant [Cleveland] Spider named Shelob Cy Young4.

It would be beginning of the end, as Sam Wise would play a few brief seasons disguised as an orc before returning west to his home and former occupation.

Read a little about Sam Wise's semi-pro career in Akron here.

1 Alright, Sam Wise was a firefighter rather than a gardener, but they're virtually the same thing, right: Hoses? Check. Hoes? Check. Sexy calendars? Check.

2 Sam Wise could create his own baseball fellowship.

3 It's worth noting that his batting exploits were probably inflated by the fact that the pitching mound was moved back 10 feet while he was away from the game for a year. But no bother; heroes always remain heroes.

4 Ostensibly, this would have involved Meekin's team to be trailing Young's until the ninth, when Sam Wise would strike a dagger into Young's weak underbelly by driving in the game-winning run. Unfortunately, this is completely false, as the Senators lost every single game against the Spiders in 1893.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Cinders O'Brien: Flame on!

[Editor's Note: Please excuse the absence, as I went on a bit of a scouting trip for three weeks to find a liquor store that was easy to rob more players about whom to post. -Ossee]

"I shall strike down my opponent and make ashes of him."

Nineteenth Century hurler John F. "Cinders" O'Brien once told this to my imagination, which was at the time working on a dinosaur ranch as a fighter pilot and freelance sheriff. O'Brien promptly burned the ranch and my imagination, which is why I started a blog.

O'Brien, a fiery competitor, earned his nickname by burning down stadiums in which he lost ballgames. As he played in Cleveland, this naturally meant that Cinders constantly set stadiums ablaze. From 1888 to 1890, O'Brien led the league each year in arson.

He moved to Boston in 1891, where he played for the Boston Reds, winners of the American Association title. Boston skipper Arthur "Doc" Irwin managed to keep Cinders in check all season by having O'Brien instead focus on improving his pregrame preparations. However, when the AA folded at season's end, Cinders set ablaze the Congress Street Grounds with a roaring inferno fueled by the team's collected, gin-soaked uniforms and his own boiling rage.

The only remaining professional team in town, the Boston Beaneaters, already featured a budding arsonist in Charlie Ganzel and so needed not the services of John O'Brien in 1892.

O'Brien traveled west to see if the Spiders once again needed a worker of flames. But before he reached Cleveland, Cinders fell ill with pneumonia. He lay bedridden for months before dying at the age of 24.

Sources say that his last act was to send a simple telegram to his last manager, Doc Irwin: "I have been struck down and shall return to ashes myself."

Irwin, enjoying a fine cigar at the time in his new office for the Washington Senators, accidentally lit the telegram ablaze. In the following frenzy, Irwin knocked over an oil lamp and ignited a conflagration that burned down part of Boundary Field.

To date, this is the only recorded instance of posthumous arson and the second incident of arson-by-telegram.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chicken Wolf: Wait for it...

1889 was a promising year that turned wretched for many people. A naval battle between Germany and the U.S. was won by a cyclone. Vincent Van Gogh painted "Starry Night," but no one cared much. Henrietta Hitler gave birth to a poorly mustached baby named Adolf. The state of Montana was added to the union and, within minutes, residents formed at least 43 militias.

And in Louisville, the Colonels of baseball's American Association played one of the worst seasons in baseball, finishing with 27 wins and 111 losses. Responsible for approximately half of those outcomes was one of four player-managers, William "Chicken" Wolf1. Chicken played right field and was, however, one of the few bright spots as a player that season, batting .291/.333/.377.

Wolf, the youngest of seven children born to German immigrants, had grown up in Louisville and earned a roster spot with the hometown club in 1882. He mostly played the outfield and was an above-average hitter his entire career. In 1890, Chicken led a resurgent Colonels club to the American Association title by hitting .363/.421/.479.

William Wolf went by several nom de plumes2, including "Jimmie," though he earned the nickname Chicken because of his severe, irrational fear of poultry.

Like a typical baseballist of the era, Wolf managed his fear through doctor recommendations. As such, he was frequently heard to utter phrases interpreted as descriptions of hallucinations. Chicken never described any pink elephants, but teammate Skyrocket Smith wrote in his memoirs that Wolf often conversed with a flying canine in the dugout.

Wolf played in the last World Series between the National League and the American Association in his monstrous season of 1890. In the series, Chicken employed his then-famous tactic of hitting the baseball where opposing players weren't3, batting .389 and driving in 8 runs. Like all great postseason series, the 1890 classic ended in a tie. Wolf was unable to enjoy his postseason fruits of victory, which were, in fact, not fruit but rather whole chickens.

Wolf's career essentially ended with the collapse of the American Association after the 1891 season. He attempted to play for the St. Louis Browns of the national league in 1892, but he only played 3 games before being sent to the gulags.

On Easter Sunday in 1903, Wolf finally conquered his fear of poultry by vanquishing an entire 34-lb. turkey in one sitting. Unfortunately, the bird had been improperly cooked and Wolf contracted salmonella poisoning, thereby justifying his lifelong fear of delicious, delicious poultry. The turkey was his undoing, as he died in May of that year at the age of 41.

The coroner delighted in the ironic humor of the situation while writing Wolf's death certificate:

"Cause of death: Foul fowl."

Read Chicken Wolf's actual story here.

1 You can listen to a biographical account of Wolf's life here. You can also go here to learn the intricacies of the bass guitar and how it relates to 19th Century baseball. The host alleges it is "a lot of fun."

2 Nom de Plume is, of course, Swahili for "opening of Purgatory."

3 This philosophy was summed up best by baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler when he said, "Strike the ball into the location that opposing baseballists do not occupy."