Saturday, February 12, 2005

 

February 12th, 1985

Van Lingle Mungo Dies

Van Lingle Mungo was a pitcher for the Dodgers in the 30s and into the 40s, after which he finished his career with the Giants. In his time, Mungo was widely regarded as having the best fastball in the league. In 1935 he (along with Lefty Gomez and others) went to West Point to attempt to measure their velocity with a device used to measure the speed of bullets. Mungo was the fastest easily and repeated the feat in 1937. Mungo's problem was that despite blazing velocity, he often had no idea where the ball was going. As a rookie in 1932 he pitched 223 innings and was seventh in the league with 107 strikeouts. However, he managed just a 4.43 ERA, well over league average, because he walked 115 men, the most in the league. It was a problem that would plague him throughout his career; Mungo would lead the league in walks three times, topping one hundred each time. When he retired in 1945 after fourteen seasons, Mungo had thrown 2,113 innings and walked 868 men, nearly four per nine innings. This combined with 52 wild pitches and 33 hit batsmen to create a vivid picture of what Mungo’s control was like.

Mungo was able to have several good seasons despite his lack of control, further testament to his speed. His best year came in 1934, when he pitched 315 innings with a 3.37 ERA and won 18 games. His manager was Casey Stengel who again demonstrated a knowledge of what makes a good manager and an ability to put it glibly when he observed that "Mungo and I get along fine. I just tell him I won't stand for no nonsense, and then I duck."

Mungo's immortality was secured in 1970 when singer David Frishberg used his name for the title of his nostalgic bossa nova song, Van Lingle Mungo.


February 12th, 1945

Don Wilson Born

Happy Birthday to Don, who I've written about before.

Friday, February 11, 2005

 

February 11th, 1918

Ed Barrow Named Red Sox Manager

Barrow is in the Hall of Fame and was the first man inducted solely for his performance as general manager of a team, Barrow being credited with helping build Yankee dynasty when he joined the club in 1920. (There are others in the Hall of Fame, like Clark Griffith, who served a GM-like role but they were also managers or owners.) While that is an impressive legacy of its own, Barrow's place in the history of the game stretches far beyond that. Until this year, Barrow was the last manager to win a World Series with the Red Sox. Playing a shortened schedule in 1918, the Sox went 75-51, and won the World Series over the Cubs.

Barrow was impressed with his young pitcher Babe Ruth, but less for Ruth's pitching (which was still impressive, his ERA was ninth in the league) than for his hitting. Despite playing in fewer than one hundred games, Ruth tied for the league lead in home runs (eleven) and was second and third in doubles and RBIs respectively. In the off-season, Barrow finally managed to convince the Red Sox that Ruth's value lay not in retiring hitters, but in being one himself. It was, of course, a brilliant move as Ruth led the league in 1919 in a plethora of categories, including posting an OPS+ of 219, still one of the top twenty OPS+ of all-time. Despite Ruth's success, the Sox lost their championship form and finished 66-71 in 1919 and famously sold Ruth to the Yankees after the season. Barrow managed the Sox to a 72-81 record in 1920 and after the season moved into the Yankees' general manager position.

Barrow earned his place in the Hall of Fame for his work with the Yankees, but even if he had retired after his tenure with the Sox, he would have merited induction simply for converting Ruth to a hitter, an event as important in baseball history as the invention of the curveball or the breaking of the color barrier.


Thursday, February 10, 2005

 

February 10th, 1916

Chalres Ebbets Wins Coin Toss

It is sometimes forgotten in the frequently esoteric details of the modern game that for a long while Major League Baseball had an extremely casual attitude about elements of the game that were considered relatively minor. As recently as 1949 games featured unofficial "Courtesy Runners" that is, a player, usually one already in the line-up, pinch-running for a player temporarily unable to participate. After the inning both would return to their original position without penalty. Charles Ebbets' winning coin toss is another example of this. After the 1915 season John McGraw waived his long-time catcher Chief Meyers (Meyers real name was John. As you probably guessed, he earned his nickname on account of being an American Indian) and Meyers was claimed by both Brooklyn and Boston. Lacking the clear rules of the current system—which is based upon the record of the teams claiming the player—it was decided to settle the matter with a coin flip. Ebbets won, and Meyers was awarded to the Robins.

Meyers hit .247/.336/.314 in eighty games, seemingly not great numbers but a huge improvement on the .224/.245/.287 the Robins had gotten out of Otto Miller the previous season. With an improved offense and much improved pitching staff the Robins won the National League pennant but lost to the Red Sox (and their young ace, Babe Ruth) in five games in the World Series. Meyers would play another half a season for the Robins when he was waived and, in a twist, was picked up by the losers of the coin toss, the Boston Braves who needed a catcher to replace Hank Gowdy, who was the first ballplayer to enlist for service in World War I. After the season Meyers himself enlisted in the marines. After the war Meyers played in the minor leagues for a few years, until he retired and spent much of the rest of his life working with the Department of the Interior as an Indian supervisor. He appeared at both Dodger and Giants Old-Timer's Days (and was equally popular, perhaps the most impressive feat of his career) and passed away in 1971, moving the age of baseball as a game when a coin flip could decide player movement a bit farther into the realm of memory.


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

 

February 9th, 1914

Bill Veeck Born

There are approximately a billion Bill Veeck stories, of which perhaps ten percent are true. The best collection for these is Veeck himself and his fantastic autobiography Veeck as in Wreck. Nonetheless, it’s worth running through some of Veeck's accomplishments. The famous Ivy on the walls of Wrigley Field was planted (literally) by Veeck. He was the first owner to put names on the back of his players' uniforms. He broke the American League color barrier as owner of the Indians when he signed Larry Doby.

But Veeck is most remembered for the collection of goofy promotions he held. As owner of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck held "Grandstand Manager" day when team decisions (bunt, steal, etc.) were made by a majority vote of the crowd holding up YES or NO placards, while manager Zack Taylor watched the game from a rocking chair. The fans, proving this stuff isn’t exactly rocket science despite what George Will thinks, managed the team to a 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia A's, one of only a pair of Browns' wins in the last ten days of August. A few days prior to Grandstand Manager day, Veeck had held his most famous promotion ever, sending a midget, Eddie Gaedel, to bat. Wearing a rather unique jersey, Gaedel drew a walk on four pitches all of which, predictably, were high. Veeck happily admitted that his legacy would forever be sending Gaedel up to bat, but it is not my personal favorite Veeck promotion. During his time as owner of the Indians, a factory watchman named Joe Earley sent a letter to a Cleveland paper complaining that rich ballplayers frequently had special days to honor them, during which they would receive various gifts despite a complete lack of need. In response, Veeck held "Good Old Joe Earley Night" where the man got a new washing machine, a refrigerator, luggage and a Ford convertible.

Midgets, fans managing and special nights for complaining fans. We'll never see another owner like Bill Veeck, so at least we can enjoy the memories.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

 

February 8th, 1940

Elden Auker Sold to St. Louis Browns

Many players whose careers are seemingly ordinary are often ignored in baseball history on the theory that there is nothing of note about them. Elden Auker was a pitcher in the 30s and 40s and is an example of this being plainly untrue. Almost every major leaguer (and most minor-leaguers, too I imagine) have some interesting story. Elden Auker's is a particularly vivid example of this.

Auker was born in 1910 but his story really starts in high school when he became a football and basketball star after deciding the life of his father--a mailman who made his deliveries on horseback--was not for him and hoped to use sports to find a better way of life. His mission succeeded. While scoring nine of his team's ten points in a basketball game (basketball was a bit different back then) he was noticed by the official who was an alumnus of Kansas A&M (it has since become Kansas State
). Auker went to Kansas A&M and matured into a three-sport star, earning All-American honors at basketball, football and baseball as a pitcher. He was inducted in the KSU Hall of Fame and called the "greatest all-athlete in Kansas State history" by the University's President. Auker's only real trouble at Kansas A&M was a separated shoulder, an injury he suffered in both in his sophomore and junior years while playing football, which forced him to drop his pitching arm to a sidearm style.

Auker graduated from A&M with a pre-medical degree, and dreams of being a doctor rather than a moundsman. However, Auker had no money to pay for medical school (he had a job cleaning a diner while at A&M that earned him a dollar a day) and in the depression could not find work to earn the funds. Auker originally looked into playing football, but ended up meeting with Tigers' owner Frank Navin and signing a contract for $450 per month. He was assigned to Class B (what we would now call "high A") Decatur
where his manager was Bob Coleman, a catcher in the teens, who would later replace Casey Stengel as manager of the Boston Braves. Coleman suggested that Auker drop from his sidearm to an even lower submarine style, inspired by Carl Mays. Auker won his first game with the new style, but went to lose six straight, suffering from control problems from his new angle.

The Triple-I league, of which
Decatur was a member, then folded (this being the depression and all), and the Tigers demoted Auker to Class D (what we would call "short season A") Moline, where he improved going 6-6 with a 2.94 ERA. In 1933 Auker went to Beaumont of the Texas League and went 16-10 with a 2.50 ERA, good enough to merit a call-up to the Tigers. Auker--who like many rookies in those days--saw his first Major League game when he arrived at Comiskey Park on August 10th--pitched in his first appearance in relief of Carl Fischer. Auker had asked his wife, Mildred to come to the game. She drove from Kansas to Chicago and sat in a box with a white-haired old man, whose concentration on the game was too intense to manage conversation. After the game Mr. Auker revealed to her wife just who she watched the game with. Auker's debut also put him into exclusive company, one of just a handful of pitchers to have thrown submarine style in the Major Leagues.

Auker had his best season for new manager (and catcher) Mickey Cochrane in 1934, going 15-7 with a 3.42 ERA in 43 games (18 starts, including 10 complete games) as the Tigers, who had gone 75-79 in 1933 went 101-53 and won the pennant. Their opponents in the Series were the St. Louis Cardinals, just as the Cards' ace had predicted. The Tigers won three of the first five games, including Auker pitching a complete game in Game 4. They lost Game 6 and Auker would start Game 7. He pitched a scoreless first two frames, but then loaded the bases in the third. Frankie Frisch came up and hit what Auker described as a "little clunker over [first baseman's Hank] Greenberg's head." Auker's memory was either off or the ball was perfectly placed as it emptied the bases and Frisch ended up at second base. He was pulled for Schoolboy Rowe who had pitched a complete game in a losing effort the day before. Rowe was ineffective and was replaced by Chief Hogsett after recording just one out. Hogsett was equally ineffective failing to record the inning's third out and it was not until Tommy Bridges (who had started Game 5) came in that the Tigers got out of the inning, down seven runs. They would go onto to lose the game 11-0.

The Tigers would recover to win 93 games and the pennant again in 1935, with Auker joining the starting rotation and going 18-7, 3.83 in thirty-six games (26 starts, including 13 complete games). Auker started Game 3 at Wrigley Field against the Cubs and pitched six innings, leaving down 3-1 in a game the Tigers would go on to win 6-5 in 11 innings. He was scheduled to once again start Game 7 but the Tigers won in six games.

The Tigers would slump to 83 wins in 1936, good enough for second place but miles behind the 102-win Yankees. Auker failed to hold his form of the year before, going 13-16 with a 4.89 ERA. The Tigers increased their win total to 89 games in 1937 but were still not in shouting distance of the Yankees who again 102 games. Auker rebounded going 17-9 with a team-leading 3.88 ERA. The next season however, he was limited to fewer than 30 games for the first time since his rookie year when he suffered a pair of injuries. He was hit on the foot by a Luke Appling line drive and after recovering from that, suffered a severed sciatic nerve after a line drive hit him in the calf. Probably trying to pitch through the injuries, Auker went just 11-10 with a 5.27 ERA.

The Tigers then traded Auker to the Red Sox where he suffered through another bad season, going 9-10 with a 5.36 ERA. Auker suffered more than just poor numbers however, he found Red Sox shortstop-manager Joe Cronin intolerable, especially Cronin's habit of constant mound visits and shouting instructions from his position. After the season Auker told Sox owner Tom Yawkey that would not play for the team again and was sold, on February 8th, to the St. Louis Browns. It's possible Yawkey (or Cronin or both) saw this as punishment; the Browns had been terrible losing an average of more than 100 games the previous four seasons, including 111 the season before. Auker was just happy to be rid of Cronin however, and managed his best season since 1937, going 16-11 with a 3.96 ERA as the Browns improved to 67-87 and leapfrogged two spots out of the basement. In 1940 the Browns improved further to 70-84, despite the backtracking of Auker who still managed to go 16-11 despite a career-worst 5.50 ERA.

Auker's pitched his last season in 1942. The Browns, with new manager Luke Sewell (brother of Joe), finished over .500 for the first time since 1925 good enough for third place. Auker went 14-13 with a 4.09 ERA. He finished his career 130-101 and a 4.42 ERA, having finished in the top ten in wins six times in his ten full seasons.

Auker had been working for an engineering company since the off season of 1938 and retired in order to concentrate fully on working on the
US war effort. He worked in a factory helping build guns for planes and ships. After the war he continued working for Bay State Abrasives and when he retired in 1975 was both President and CEO, and a millionaire. Auker is still with us at age ninety-four.

Elden Auker, would-be doctor, member of the KSU Hall of Fame, in rare company as a submariner, World Champion, factory worker during the war, millionaire businessman and finally retiree is quite literally living proof that one need not be Bob Feller or Derek Jeter to have a story worth telling.


Monday, February 07, 2005

 

February 7th, 1979

Jesse Orosco Sent to Mets

Jesse Orosco was sent to complete a trade which had earlier sent Jerry Koosman to the Twins. Orosco would make his debut for the Mets in April 1979 pitching in eighteen games (including two starts) and would, of course, not stop pitching until September 2003. Orosco did not pitch more than fifty-five innings the last thirteen seasons of his career despite averaging fifty-six appearances a season. Orosco's career was remarkable in its length; he pitched in four decades (70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s) and he was the oldest player in the league every year from '99 on. He pitched through the leadership of four Soviet leaders, the fall of Communism, through one President of Russia and into the term of another. Orosco's debut game was not covered by SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight because ESPN would not be on the air until September of that year. Orosco was forty-six when he retired, old for baseball but merely just middle-aged in life. One can only assume then that Jesse has many years left on this earth, but he finally does move on, it is only a matter of time before he is officially canonized as St. Orosco, the Patron Saint of Lefties


Sunday, February 06, 2005

 

February 6th, 1895

Babe Ruth Born

You've probably heard of Ruth, who had some success as a pitcher with the Red Sox and later put up some good numbers at the dish with the Yankees. Trying to find something new to write about Babe Ruth is a little like trying to come up with an original metaphor to describe something that borders on the impossible. I can at least provide a bit of trivia that is, if not original, at least fairly recent.

For many years, Ruth was of course, the last man to win a World Series with both the Red Sox (in 1918) and the Yankees (in 1932). However,
Boston's improbable comeback against the Yankees and their sweep of St. Louis did more than just lift the "Curse of the Bambino" it crowned a new trivia answer: Ramiro Mendoza. Mendoza is now the most recent man to win a title with both teams: the Yankees (in 2000) and the Sox (in 2004). And what did Boston do with their trivia king? Why let him go of course and watched him be snapped up by the Yankees.

Mr. Shaughnessy, I think its time to start work on a new book.


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