Saturday, March 05, 2005

 
March 5th, 1921

Elmer Valo Born


Elmer Valo was an outfielder with good on-base skills and occasional power who lasted twenty seasons and played in three decades: the 40s, 50s and 60s. Valo had his best full year in 1951 when he hit .302/.412/.446 for the Philadelphia A's, in the A's first ever season, incidentally, in which they were not managed by Connie Mack.

Valo is notable not so much for his career however, as the place of his birth: he is one of only two men to play Major League Baseball who was born in
Czechoslovakia. His accomplishment--actually, that's a bit of a stretch, let's call it a "feat"--is not solely that he is one of the pair (Carl Linhart is the other) from the geographical area of Czechoslovakia to play in MLB. A handful of others have likewise accomplished that. However, it is rooted in the geographical restlessness of the region. The other men who are listed as being born in "Czechoslovakia" were actually born prior to 1919, when Czechoslovakia was born out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. And unless there are prospects lurking in the minors that my search failed to turn up, the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, means Elmer Valo can rest easy (metaphorically speaking, he died in 1998) knowing he and Carl Linhart will remain forever enshrined in trivia history.



Friday, March 04, 2005

 
March 4th, 1891

Dazzy Vance Born


I actually thought I had written on Dazzy Vance before; I hadn't of course. I've done two Dizzy's (Dean and Trout) but never a Dazzy. The nickname came from a phrase Vance often used in his childhood "Ain't that a daisy!" (I imagine that's an expression of shock) except Vance pronounced the last word "Dazzy" and it stuck.

Vance is in the Hall of Fame, despite a relatively pedestrian one hundred ninety-seven wins. He probably deserves to be in however, although he had cups of coffee in 1915 and 1918, Vance did not pitch his first full season until 1922, at which point he was already thirty-one. Despite his age, he won eighteen games for
Brooklyn that year. He then went on to use his blazing fastball and excellent curveball, both delivered from an identical overhand motion to average seventeen wins over the next eleven seasons for a Brooklyn team that ranged from excellent to fairly awful. They were excellent in 1924 when Vance won twenty-eight games and the MVP (along with the $1,000 in gold coins that came with the honor that year). They were fairly awful in 1927 when Vance won just sixteen games despite finishing third in the league in ERA and had Doug McWeeny as one of his rotation mates. He also led the National League in strikeouts every year from 1922 through 1928.

He left the Dodgers in 1933 in a trade to the Cardinals and won a World Series in 1934, although he was into his decline by then. He played the last year of his career back in
Brooklyn winning three games and retired after the 1935 season. After his career he was successful in the real estate market in Florida, living up to the intelligence he was reputed to show while on the mound. He died in 1961, a few weeks short of his seventieth birthday.



Thursday, March 03, 2005

 
March 3rd, 1894

Ned Williamson Dies


From 1884 until 1919 and Babe Ruth, Ned Williamson held the single season home run record, with twenty-seven. Williamson seems an unlikely holder of the home run record; excluding his 1884 season, he hit just thirty-seven home runs for the rest of his career, an average of just three a year. In 1880 Williamson raked up three hundred eleven at bats without managing to hit a single home run. His 1884 season represents forty-two percent of his career home runs, a number that would make even Brady Anderson (second entry on that page) blush.

Despite the sudden jump in power, Williamson was not visiting some sort of nineteenth century Dr. Victor Conte. (Although that is an amusing image: do you seek gargantuan strength to power the balls out of the yard and to the knothole gang? Come see Dr. Victor Conte and get a bottle of his Amazing Super Duper Whiz-Bang Home Run Power Tonic!) Williamson's power spike came from an odd rule change. Williamson’s team, the Chicago White Stockings, held their home games in
Lake Front Park. The fences at LFP were extremely short, 180 feet to left, 300 to left-center, 252 to right-center and 196 to right. On account of this, any ball hit over the fence at LFP was a ground-rule double. Except, as you might have guessed, for 1884 when the rule was changed so that any ball hit over the fence was a home run. Home runs, predictably, exploded: Williamson hit twenty-seven, and three of his White Stocking teammates hit twenty or more.

The next year, the rule was restored to the 1883 standard, and Williamson's home run total dropped down to just three. Williamson would never hit more than nine in a season again but a rule change ensured his place in trivia history, the home run champ before the Babe.



Wednesday, March 02, 2005

 

March 2nd, 1912

Ace Adams Born


That's not a nickname, he was born that way. Ace Townsend Adams of Willows, California. Adams, like Dizzy Trout had his best years during the war, but unlike Trout, found that success unsustainable. Adams was a reliever in the Jeff Montgomery mold, featuring an assortment of pitches. Besides his fastball, Adams says his main pitch was a slider taught to him by a minor league teammate. The slider was a relatively rare pitch in those days; it would not gain true prominence until Bob Feller returned from the war and won twenty six games in 1946 throwing it.

Adams and his collection of pitches, which also included a change-up and curveballs of varying speed, were good enough to serve as the closer--as much as anyone did in that period--for the wartime Giants (whose hitting star was Mel Ott, also born today) and Adams finished second in saves in 1942 and 1943 and first in 1944 and 1945.
Adams averaged just twelve saves in those four years, which is of course a fortnight's work for some closers these days. The game does change. When the players returned from the war Adams barely pitched (just two and two-thirds innings in 1946) and got rocked when he did (an ERA of 16.88) and jumped to the then "outlaw" Mexican League, and would never pitch in the Majors again.



Tuesday, March 01, 2005

 

March 1st, 1980

Art Jorgens Dies


Holding hands at midnight
’neath a starry sky

Nice work if you can get it

And you can get it if you try

Strolling with the one girl

Sighing sigh after sigh

Nice work if you can get it

And you can get it if you try
~George Gershwin


I don't think players had music that played every time they came to bat until the nineties. Some people would say this is a good thing, but it is also a shame, because some songs were released during the playing career of certain players that fit them so perfectly. Such is the case of Art Jorgens and the classic Gershwin tune "Nice Work If You Can Get It" which debuted in a musical in 1937. Jorgens was the Yankee back-up (and sometimes, third) catcher from 1929 until 1939. During that time, the team won an average of more than one hundred games a season, and won the World Series five times, which meant Jorgens collected the all-important World Series bonus five times. Backing up Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, Jorgens averaged just twenty-eight games a season, never topping sixty.

Watching a great team from the bench, collecting World Series bonuses and rarely having to wear the tools of ignorance? Nice work if you can get it.



Monday, February 28, 2005

 

February 28th, 1972

Dizzy Trout Dies


Dizzy Trout was the ace for the Detroit Tigers for many years, starting during the Second World War, when Trout was at his best (arguably due to the weakened competition) winning twenty-seven games in 1944 and finishing second in the MVP race to his teammate Hal Newhouser, who won twenty-nine games. Together the pair accounted for fifty-six of the Tigers' eighty-eight wins (that's sixty-three percent). With no other starter able to win more than twelve games, the Tigers lost the pennant race by one game to the St. Louis Browns.

Trout, like many good but not great pitchers (and to be fair, some great ones), relied on one pitch almost exclusively, in his case a blazing fastball. Trout had a collection of other pitches, including a forkball that some have said more closely resembled a modern split-finger fastball, but he essentially lived and died with his fastball. Trout lived more than he died however, and his fastball was good enough for him to win one hundred sixty-one games with the Tigers, good for seventh all-time.


Trout was just fifty-six when he died, but had already fathered a son, Steve, who would begin his Major League career in 1978. Steve won eighty-eight games, mostly for the White Sox and Cubs, which left him and Dizzy just short of the "Fathers and Sons One Hundred Wins" Club.


Sunday, February 27, 2005

 

February 27th, 1949

John Wockenfuss Born

John Wockenfuss was a catcher, first baseman and occasional outfielder for the Tigers and Phillies in a relatively undistinguished twelve year career. Wockenfuss did have the misfortune of being traded to the Phillies the season after their 1983 World Series appearance from the Tigers the season before their 1984 World Series victory. The most interesting moment of Wockenfuss' life (to this point anyway, he's still alive so far as I know) came on May 11th, 1989. On that day, Wockenfuss was manager of the Tigers' Triple-A club, the Toledo Mud Hens. The Tigers, who were 10-21 to that point and would finish the season 59-103, came to Toledo for an exhibition game.

The Tigers started the game taking a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Matt Nokes (my favorite player when I was growing up) doubled home Chris Brown. Wockenfuss' Mud Hens responded immediately, scoring two in the bottom of the first to take a 2-1 lead. The score would remain that way into the fifth inning when the Mud Hens brought in a new pitcher...John Wockenfuss. The forty year-old had never pitched in a game before but managed to shut out his former teammates (who, to be fair, probably were not going at him one hundred percent) for five innings, allowing just three hits and one walk. The Mud Hens scored another run to make the score 3-1 and Wockenfuss was awarded the victory.

"Iron Man" Joe McGinnity, who pitched for the Giants in the beginning of the century, is thought to have earned upwards of two hundred thirty victories pitching in the minor leagues after his Major League career was over. This may be true, but I doubt any of his two hundred wins were as memorable as Wockenfuss' one.


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