Saturday, February 26, 2005

 

February 26th, 1887

Grover Cleveland Alexander Born

Of the truly great pitchers, Young, Alexander, Mathewson, Johnson, Spahn, Seaver, Clemens, etc. probably none faced more obstacles than Grover Cleveland Alexander. In addition to being named after a mediocre and forgettable President, Alexander was an alcoholic, suffered from epilepsy and was rendered partially deaf while serving with the artillery in World War I. Despite all this, Alexander won three hundred seventy-three career games (tied for third all-time and a fairly secure record) and in 1916 he threw sixteen shutouts, a record that still stands.

Alexander is perhaps best remembered for his strikeout of Tony Lazzeri in the seventh game of the 1926 World Series. With the Cardinals leading the Yankees 3-2, the Yankees loaded the bases against the Cards' Jesse Haines. Despite having pitched a complete game the day before Alexander was summoned out of the bullpen by manager Rogers Hornsby. Alexander proceeded to strike out Lazzeri and would go on to pitch the next two innings for the save.

The strikeout is what gets most attention from Alexander's appearance in that game, but the last out is of greater interest to me. It is slightly famous in its own right; after drawing a walk with two outs (and with Bob Meusel, Lou Gehrig and Lazzeri scheduled to hit) Babe Ruth took off for second base and was thrown out, the only World Series to end on a failed stolen base attempt. It is also noteworthy for being the greatest collection of talent involved in a "last play" in World Series history. In addition to Alexander (an all-time great pitcher) and Ruth (the greatest player to ever live), the catcher who made the throw down to nail Ruth was the National League MVP for that season, Bob O'Farrell and the tag was put on Ruth by Rogers Hornsby, one of the game's all-time great hitters.


Friday, February 25, 2005

 

February 25th, 1941

Babe Dahlgren Sold to Boston Braves

Having done the departure of the man who preceded Lou Gehrig, it only seems fitting to do the departure of the man who followed him, Babe Dahlgren. Dahlgren himself had earlier been displaced by a legend. He was the Boston Red Sox regular first baseman in 1935, but in 1936 the Sox acquired Jimmie Foxx; predictably Dahlgren took a seat, and eventually dropped to the minors.

Before the 1937 season Dahlgren was sold to the Yankees, where he barely played in 1937 and played in a handful of games replacing Gehrig in the later innings and at third base in 1938. By 1939 however, although the Yankees were dominating (they would finish 106-45 and merit inclusion in any discussion about the greatest team of all time) Gehrig was plainly feeling the effects of the ALS that would take his life just two years later. On May 2nd Gehrig was hitting just .143 without an extra base hit and took himself out of the lineup, with Dahlgren to replace him.

Dahlgren doubled and homered in his first game in place of the legend, perhaps giving Yankee fans hope that the drop-off from Gehrig would not be easily seen. It was false hope; Dahlgren was arguably the worst first baseman in the league, hitting just .235/.312/.377, a stark contrast from Gehrig's 1938 when despite probably feeling the beginning of his disease the Iron Horse managed a .295/.410/.523 line. Dahlgren played first base every game for the Yankees the rest of 1939 and all of 1940, and continued to hit poorly. He was sold to the Boston Braves before the 1941 season and was sold again to the Cubs in June of that year. He responded by putting up the best numbers of his career at Wrigley Field, hitting .281/.360/.476 for the
Chicago side.

It proved to be a blip however, and Dahlgren returned to his weak hitting ways in 1942. Dahlgren's career would last through the Second World War, and he finally retired after the 1946 season, having, unlike Wally Pipp, done little to make himself more than a footnote in history, the man who replaced Lou Gehrig.


Thursday, February 24, 2005

 

February 24rd, 1926

Eddie Plank Dies

Eddie Plank pitched for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A's for fourteen years, winning an average of twenty games a year. When Mack broke up the team after the 1914 season (the same break-up that would eventually send "Home Run" Baker to the Yankees) Plank jumped to the short-lived Federal League where he won twenty-one games for the St. Louis Terriers. He returned to the American League at the age of forty in 1916, playing two more seasons for the St. Louis Browns.

Plank is also notable for the 1905 World Series, one in which he was an all-time hard luck loser. He started Game One of the World Series for the A's against the New York Giants and Christy Mathewson. Plank surrendered ten hits but allowed just three runs in a complete game. It was not good enough as Mathewson pitched a shutout, allowing just four hits. The A's tied the series the next day when Chief Bender pitched a shutout of his own. Giants' manager John McGraw sent Mathewson out to pitch Game Three on two days' rest, and "Big Six" pitched another four hit shutout.

For Game Four, McGraw called on his other ace "Iron Man" Joe McGinnity to pitch on two days' rest. Mack responded with Plank on three days' rest. Plank allowed just a single unearned run in the fourth inning, but lost the game 1-0 as McGinnity pitched a shutout, the Giants' third in as many victories. Mathewson would pitch the fourth shutout the next day, ending the series and any hopes Plank had for redemption. His final series record was 0-2 despite a 1.59 ERA in seventeen innings pitched. He would get some measure of revenge in the 1911 World Series when the A's would defeat McGraw, Mathewson and the Giants in six games. But Eddie Plank's 1905 World Series will remain among the gold standards for tough luck.


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

 

February 23rd, 1969

Bubbles Hargrave Dies

Eugene "Bubbles" Hargrave (I can't find anything that explains the nickname) was a catcher in the teens and twenties for the Cubs, Reds and Yankees. He came up with the Cubs in 1913, and played three seasons, but never more than twenty five games and was returned to the minors. He re-emerged with Cincinnati in 1921 after they bought his contract for $10,000 or $25,000 or something in between (reports vary). He hit .289 his first season with the Reds and then proceeded to rattle off a string of six straight years hitting .300 or better. In 1926, he won the batting title with a .353 average, still the best single-season average for a catcher.

As was common for catchers in that era, Hargrave appeared in just ninety-three games as a catcher, although twelve pinch-hitting appearances pushed him over the one hundred game minimum needed to qualify for the batting title. Despite this, Hargrave had just 2.3 plate appearances per game, well under the 3.1 required for modern batting title qualifiers. The second place finisher was Hargrave's teammate "Cuckoo" Christensen who hit .350 but also would have been ineligible under modern rules as he had just 2.4 plate appearances per game. To find a qualifier under the current rules, one has to go all the way down to fifth place finisher Paul "Big Poison" Waner who hit .336 with 3.9 plate appearances per team game and in his rookie season no less.

Hargrave had one more good season for the Reds in 1927 and played in 1928. He went to the minors for one season in 1929 and returned to MLB in 1930 as a back-up to Yankees' catcher Bill Dickey. He retired after that season and lived in Cincinnati working as a supervisor for a valve company until his death.


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

 

February 22nd, 1934

Sparky Anderson Born

Anderson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, a deserving honor for a manager who guided his teams to five pennants, three World Series victories and a combined 2,194 wins, good for third all time, behind only Connie Mack (3731) and John McGraw (2763), although he will be passed by Tony LaRussa if the Cardinals manage to go .500 or better in 2005. Like many of his fellow managers, Anderson managed some truly great teams, but also some truly awful ones. There is just one manager in both the top ten in wins and winning percentage (Joe McCarthy) but eight managers in the top ten in both wins and losses, although that number will go down when Walter Alston is passed by Joe Torre (unless the Yankees win 119 games this season).

This isn't to knock those managers. You could do a lot worse than having anyone in the top ten manage your team, and most of them are on the losses list because of the longevity of their careers or a time when they managed the really bad teams. Truly inept managers never even make the top one-hundred for losses (let alone the top ten) because teams realize they made a letting-William-Cox-buy-a-team sort of bad decision in hiring them in the first place.

Monday, February 21, 2005

 

February 21st, 1965

Oscar Azocar Born

It may hard for people who’ve only started following baseball since the mid 90s to believe, but as recently as 1992 the Yankees lost more than eighty-five games and finished fourth in their division. If you’re curious why, players like Oscar Azocar are part of the reason. Signed in 1983 as a pitcher, Azocar pitched in the minors until 1986 when he was shifted to the outfield. Azocar hit .317 at various minor league levels from 1987 until his call-up to the Yankees in 1990. He was hailed—based largely on the batting average one imagines—as a viable prospect. Oscar’s problem was that his .317 was as empty as .317 could be. He walked every forty minor league at-bats and swung at everything. He hit home runs even more rarely, once every seventy-two minor league at-bats and never in four minor league seasons at three different levels even topped a .425 slugging percentage. There is a story (almost certainly apocryphal as it's been told about a number of players) that Azocar once swung at a pitch-out, and got a hit. Of course, being Oscar, it was probably a single. For those who wonder what the Yankees looked like when they were lousy, think of a top prospect who is a converted pitcher with no plate discipline and no power. It was not a pretty sight.


Sunday, February 20, 2005

 

February 20th, 1941

Clyde Wright Born

Clyde Wright pitched for ten years in the major leagues, winning exactly one hundred games (including twenty-two in 1970) while losing one hundred eleven (including twenty in 1974). Clyde is also one of only a handful of Major Leaguers to have his son--Jaret--play baseball and in even more exclusive company for both being pitchers. As of this writing, Jaret has just fifty-two career wins, but is still active and only twenty-eight. If he retains the form he showed in Atlanta last year (and as a Yankee fan I hope he does although I'm not holding my breath) he should pass one-hundred wins. This would allow him and his father to join Mel and Todd Stottlemyre as the only Father-Son combination with one hundred wins each (with an honorable mention to Jim Bagby Sr. and Jr., who fell three victories by Junior short).


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