Saturday, January 15, 2005

January 15th, 1969

Delino DeShields Born

Delino DeShields holds the relatively obscure distinction of being the best Major League player born in Delaware. He is in fairly rare company, only forty-seven Major Leaguers were born in Delaware, which is one of the lowest totals among the states, although ahead of a handful including obvious ones like Alaska (just nine, although five of them played in 2004, including Curt Schilling) and Vermont but also Nevada which has only managed twenty-two Major Leaguers. California being a large warm weather state has far and the away the most (1,762) ahead of Pennsylvania (1,309) and New York (1,092) the only states above one thousand players. Not surprisingly the Dominican Republic is the largest source of foreign players with three-hundred eighty-five trailed by Canada (two hundred and three). Western Europe is obviously somewhat short on Major Leaguers, Ireland leads the way with thirty-nine but like its nearby neighbor England (who can boast thirty) the vast majority of them played in the 1800s, suggesting they were likely converted cricket (or rounders) players. Scotland has nine, again largely from the 1800s, although one Scot hit arguably the most famous walk-off home run in history: Bobby Thomson, who was born in Glasgow. Among Asian nations, Japan leads the way with twenty-nine, followed by South Korea (ten) with various others having one or two each.

Getting off that geographical tangent and back to DeShields, he is probably best remembered today for having been traded--straight-up--to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Pedro Martinez. In hindsight, of course, the trade seems laughable. DeShields wasn't a bad player (and he was versatile, capable of playing everywhere but the battery) but Pedro Martinez was (and on some days still is) Pedro Martinez. There is a point however, at which one uses too much hindsight. At the time, DeShields was a young player coming off a season where he hit nearly .300 (and gotten on-base at nearly a .400 clip) and Martinez was a twenty-one year old with major durability questions, albeit coming off an excellent season (10-5, 2.61 in 107 IP) in his own right. DeShields is also notably for having been one of the first modern ballplayers to wear his socks at knee level, which he did as a tribute to the players of the Negro Leagues.
Delaware’s best ballplayer retired after the 2002 season into the legend of other famous First Staters.

Friday, January 14, 2005

January 14th, 1954

Joe DiMaggio Marries Marilyn Monroe

This isn't really baseball history per se, but it is an interesting event to remember and reflect on. These days people tend to look back at this with the distance of fifty years and view it as nothing special. Athletes marrying celebrities isn't that unusual, the most recent being the Are-They-or-Aren't-They? couple of Enrique Iglesias and Anna Kournikova. I think this beguiles the scale of the marriage in the popular consensus at the time. An approximate modern-day equivalent would be if Michael Jordan married Cameron Diaz. DiMaggio had been retired from the Yankees for three years but had been very popular during his time with them, making the All-Star team each of his thirteen seasons and won three MVPs. Monroe was coming off the release of How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentleman Prefer Blondes. One of America's most popular athletes marrying one its most popular actresses was seen as genuine news, the New York Times dedicated a full page of their main section to a photo and story about the marriage--something I don't think Anna and Enrique got.

DiMaggio probably did not enjoy the publicity, he would later say that he "never thought [the marriage] was anybody's business " but his own. Although the couple divorced by October--although due to the vagaries of
California divorce law they would stay legally married until October 1955--DiMaggio clearly still cared for Monroe. After her death, he claimed the body, arranged the funeral and paid for the casket and crypt. Furthermore until his own death in 1999, DiMaggio had red roses placed on her grave three times a week. Like many celebrity couples, they may not have lasted long, but it is a shame that the magnitude of the marriage is now mostly forgotten.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

January 13th, 1962

Kevin Mitchell Born

In honor of Kevin Mitchell's 43rd birthday, we bring you seven links (that's 4 + 3, you see) that touch on the highlights and lowlights of Kevin's Career and Life

(1) Mitchell makes his debut as a pinch-hitter in the Mets 12-2 loss to the Cardinals on September 4th, 1984
(2) After being put in RF for an ejected Darryl Strawberry, Mitchell is himself ejected (along with Ray Knight, Eric Davis and Mario Soto) from this game for a brawl, forcing Met manager Davey Johnson to Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell (both pitchers by trade) at once, with Orosco pitching to the lefites while McDowell played LF and McDowell pitching to the righties while Orosco played RF. Incredibly, the plan works as the Mets score 3 runs in the top of the 14th (including Orosco who draws a walk off Carl Willis) and win the game 6-3.
(3) Despite reportedly being in the clubhouse making plane reservations to fly back to his native San Diego when called upon, Mitchell singles off Calvin Schiraldi in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and would come around to score the game's tying run off a Bob Stanley wild pitch.
(4) According to "Doc" Gooden at some point in his Mets' tenure, Mitchell takes a kitchen knife and cuts the head off his girlfriends' cat. Mitchell claims the story is false, but it remains, at best, murky.
(5) The final game of Mitchell's finest season, 1989, when he hit .291/.388/.635 with 47 home runs, despite playing in cavernous, windy, Candlestick Park. Mitchell won the MVP netting 20 of 24 first place votes, and propelled the Giants' to the World Series. Mitchell's own scorching NLCS (.353/.429/.706) was overlooked, however, by the play of teammate Will Clark and his counterpart at first base the Cubs' Mark Grace both of whom hit over .600.
(6) The incomprehensible to non-Japanese speaking website of the Fukuoka Daniei Hawks, the team Mitchell played for briefly in 1995. Just as many American visiting that site find it baffling, so Mitchell found Japanese baseball. Although he intially got off well (as another slugger travelling the other way, Hideki Matsui, would do many years later, Mitchell hit a grand slam his first at-bat) Mitchell had a bitter disagreement with the team over the nature of a knee injury and went AWOL to the United States for "treatment" on his knee. Despite being the league's highest paid player at 4.5 million (US), Mitchell played in just 37 games and by mutual agreement retuned to the United States for the 1996 season.
(7) Mitchell plays his last Major League game (he would bounce around independent and minor leagues), like Mitchell's first game, it is a blowout as his Oakland A's lose 14-1 to the Yankees.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

January 12th, 1921

Kenesaw Mountain Landis Becomes Commissioner

That’s a great name, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Sounds like the patriarch of a soap opera family or something. His father, Dr. Abraham H. Landis insisted on naming him that for the Civil War battle where he nearly lost a leg while acting as a surgeon for the army of General Sherman. He did however, manage to misspell it, the actual Kennesaw Mountain is spelled with two n’s. You don’t really get names like that anymore, which might be for the best really, otherwise I could be “Major Deegan Exit #4” Barbieri, for the spot where my father once broke his leg while driving.

Landis is far and away most famously remembered as the first Commissioner although he had a fairly distinguished career as an attorney and federal judge prior to his twenty-three run of absolute power at the head of Major League Baseball. Appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to the Federal Bench, Landis presided over the Standard Oil antitrust trial, fining them $29 million, quite a sum in those days (it's roughly $560 million in 2005 dollars) although the judgment was eventually set aside. Landis also presided over the trial of one-hundred and one members of the Industrial Workers of the World which resulted in a conviction for the lot under the World War I Espionage Act and on frequently shaky evidence. Landis nevertheless sentenced some to terms as long as twenty years.

Landis’ place in history was secured however when he decided to take the position as the first Commissioner. Like a fair number of Presidents, Landis’ first major act remains his most famous, the banishment of eight members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” from the game. A common misconception is that the eight were banned shortly after the series, in fact seven of the players who would be end up banned played in 1920 season (Arnold “Chick” Gandil was the exception) and the Sox won 96 games, finishing just two games behind Cleveland for the pennant. Nonetheless, a grand jury was convened to investigate the matter, and after both Joe Jackson and pitcher Eddie Cicotte confessed, the case went to trial. The players were acquitted after key evidence, notably the signed confessions of Jackson and Cicotte went missing and the pair recanted. (The confessions would turn up many years later in the office of Charles Comiskey’s lawyer.) Landis was appointed to investigate the matter and despite the acquittals, banned the players for life, most controversially Buck Weaver who had knowledge of the fix but by all accounts did not participate.

Landis served as Commissioner until his death in 1944 (when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in a special election and the MVP award was renamed for him, a legacy that remains, although virtually unknown, to this day) and is still a controversial figure not only for his banning of the Sox, but also for his much-debated role in maintain the segregation of baseball. Landis’ reputation has shifted considerably; many now view him as a bigoted man who unjustly banned Weaver and Joe Jackson. The truth, as always, is considerably more complicated, but the influence Landis held on the game is easy to see.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

January 11th, 1983

Billy Martin Hired As Yankees' Manager

This was Billy’s third go-round with the Yankees (he’d have five altogether), and marked a return to the Stadium where he had been both manager and player previously. Martin was, like many managers, a mediocre player but probably the best manager at turning a team around, even if he couldn’t always sustain that success. Martin was first hired to manage the Minnesota Twins in 1969. Taking over a team that had gone 79-83 and finished 7th under Cal Ermer the season before, Martin went 97-65 and won the AL West, falling to the Baltimore Orioles 3-0 in the ALCS, losing the first two games in extra innings before being blown out in game 3. Despite his success, Martin was fired after the season, partially for ignoring owner Calvin Griffith but mostly for having punched out Twins’ pitcher Dave Boswell.

Martin was next hired in 1971 to take over yet another team that had gone 79-83 the previous season, the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers improved under Martin to 91-71 and finished second in the AL East. The next season, the Tigers dropped to 86-70 but nonetheless won the division by a half-game over the Red Sox, passing Boston on the season’s final weekend. Despite being down 2-0, the Tigers pushed the eventual World Champion Oakland A’s to a decisive fifth game, losing 2-1. Martin led the Tigers to a 71-63 record in 1973 until being fired for allegedly ordering his pitchers to throw at batters. Martin was replaced by Joe Schultz, who you may have heard of.

Martin was not unemployed for long. He was fired on August 30th by the Tigers and hired by the Texas Rangers to replace Whitey Herzog on September 8th. Martin led the Rangers to just a 9-14 (.391) record finishing the season, although that was actually an improvement on their 48-91 (.345) record prior to Martin. The next season, taking much of the same 100+ loss roster, Martin went 84-76 and put the team in second place. He was fired the next season, going just 44-51, his first significant stretch under .500.

Martin was again not out of work for long, being fired by the Rangers on July 20th and hired by George Steinbrenner on August 2nd, replacing Bill Virdon and improving the Yankees’ winning percentage more than twenty-five points in their final fifty games. In 1976, he took the Yankees to their first World Series since 1964 (and Martin’s first ever career post-season series victory in the ’76 ALCS over Kansas City) before being swept by the Big Red Machine in the World Series. In 1977 Martin won one-hundred games and the World Series, both unique in his managerial career. Martin resigned midway through the 1978, after noting that his star player and owner “deserve each other. One’s a born liar [Reggie Jackson] and the other’s convicted [Steinbrenner, who was convicted of obstructing justice in 1974].” The Yankees would go onto to win the World Series again, but in 1979 Steinbrenner was unhappy with manager Bob Lemon’s efforts and Martin was hired again as manager on June 19th. He lasted through the season but was replaced by Dick Howser for 1980.

Martin soon found work, taking over another terrible team, the Oakland Athletics, who had lost 108 games the season before. Perfecting his style of “Billyball” Martin managed another miraculous turnaround, leading the team to an 83-79 record, good for 2nd place in the AL West, albeit well behind the Kansas City Royals. 1981 was a strike-shortened two-part season, and the A’s won the first-half and defeated the Royals in the one-half of first-ever ALDS, but lost out to the Yankees (and his old replacement, Bob Lemon) in the ALCS. In 1982 the A’s young pitching collapsed—arguably due to overwork from Martin—and the team sunk to just 68-94, Martin’s worst full season ever.

Not put off by this, Steinbrenner nonetheless re-hired his former manager, and Martin led a team that had finished 79-83 (seemingly the record of every team Martin took over) to a 91 win season, but just third place. Steinbrenner fired Martin for Yogi Berra for all of 1984 but dissatisfied with Berra he fired him after just sixteen games in 1985 (an event that would have long-lasting consequences for Yogi and the Boss) and installed Martin. Martin took over a 6-10 team and went 91-54 (.628) his best winning percentage ever, but the 97 win Yankees still fell two games short of the playoffs. Martin would manage the Yankees one more time for a 68 game stretch in 1988, going 40-28 for a team that played below .500 without him at the helm.

He was working as a special consultant for the Yankees when he was killed in a car accident on Christmas Day, 1989, at age 61. The driver of the pick-up truck Martin was in was drunk and (like Martin) not wearing his seat belt, but survived anyway. Martin’s #1 was retired by the Yankees the next season. This remains one of his few honors, despite obviously qualifications—he has a better career winning percentage than Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda or Joe Torre—he has not been voted into the Hall of Fame, easily its most glaring omission with regards to managers.

Monday, January 10, 2005

January 10th, 1996

Joe Schultz Dies

That is indeed the Joe Schultz of Ball Four, immortalized by Jim Bouton as the more-than-slightly inept manager of the more-than-slightly inept Seattle Pilots. Schultz was an interim manager in Detroit in 1973, taking over for Billy Martin and going 14-14 but would never have a full season as a manager after Seattle. His time in Detroit did serve to bring his career managerial record above .400, from the .395 of Seattle to .411, which is admittedly nothing special, but it beats .395, anyway. Schultz was a weak-hitting catcher, who played nine seasons for the Pirates and St. Louis Browns, establishing a career batting line not much more impressive than his managerial one: .259/.334/.314, with 1 HR in 328 at-bats.

Of course, being a poor major leaguer does not disqualify one from competent (or better) managerial ability. Of the truly successful managers, a significant number were mediocre major leaguers or never reached the majors themselves. Joe McCarthy won 2,125 games (5th all-time) with the best winning percentage of all-time (.615%) and never played a game in the major leagues. No one has ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player and then later, as a manager. The closest case anyone has might belong to Joe Torre who is a former MVP and borderline Hall of Famer as a player, and an obvious sure thing as a manager. Some have even go so far as to argue that mediocre and role players make the best managers.

An oft-quoted line of Shakespeare reminds us that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." Joe Schultz may have been born great, but acheieved only mediocrity
and then had mediocrity; in this case thy name is Pilots, thrust upon him.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

January 9th, 2001

Indians Sign Juan Gonzalez

Juan Gonzalez signed a one-year deal with Cleveland as the Indians hoped to fill the hole left by Manny Ramriez who had signed the Red Sox. For his part, Gonzalez who was coming off an injury-plagued year with the Tigers and hoped to reestablish his value. The deal worked out for both sides, and Gonzalez batted .325/.370/.505 with 35 home runs, and helped the Indians win 91 games and stretch the 116 win Seattle Mariners to five games in ALDS.

Of course, the real irony of Gonzalez's contract was that the previous off-season he had turned down Detroit
's 8-year, 143 million dollar extension. That's 17.875 million a year, average. Since he turned down that contract, "Juan Gone" made 10 million with Cleveland, a combined 24 million over two years with Texas and 4 million with Kansas City in 2004. As of his moment, he is apparently signing a minor-league deal with those same Indians for 2005, a season where he could be making, for the fifth year in a row, 17.875 million, with three years left. Gonzalez will obviously never be hard-up, but the contrast between what one could have in life and what one does is rarely quite so clear.

January 9th, 1990

Spud Chandler Dies

Chandler won 109 games in 11 years with the Yankees, good for 14th all-time with the club, and did it against just 43 losses, good for a .717 winning percentage. Chandler's 14th place is fairly secure, the closest active Yankee is Mike Mussina, with just 64. Chandler also remains the only Yankee pitcher to have won an MVP award, which he got in 1943 after going 20-4. For good measure, if WS MVPs were distributed then (they weren’t until 1955), Chandler almost certainly would have won that too, as he won games 1 and 5 for the Yankees, throwing complete games both times, a shutout in the clinching game 5.

Spud, by the way, is not a nickname in reference to him being from Idaho
or anything, its short for Spurgeon, his given name. The name may be after the English preacher Charles Spurgeon (1837-1892) but that's speculation on my part.

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