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.

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