Saturday, March 19, 2005

March 19th, 1871

Joe McGinnity Born

Joe McGinnity has been dead for three-quarters of a century but still holds the National League single-season record for innings pitched, four hundred thirty-four in 1903. McGinnity nicknamed "Iron Man" not for his durability but because he worked at a foundry in the off-season, pitched in fifty-five of the New York Giants' games, starting forty-eight of them and completing all but four of his starts. The next year he threw four hundred eight innings and led the league with a 1.61 ERA. He then went on to pitch over three hundred innings his next three seasons for John McGraw and co. until he finally faltered in 1908 when he managed just one eighty-six innings in his final season for the Giants. McGinnity would never pitch in the Major Leagues again but continued to pitch in the minor leagues until he was fifty-four, just four years before his death in 1929. He attributed his longevity to an underhand pitching motion that he claimed placed less stress on the arm than a traditional overhand motion, a belief that was shared by the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson. McGinnity was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946.

McGinnity also has the obscure honor of having played for two different Baltimore Orioles franchises, neither of which is connected to the modern Orioles. His 1899 debut Orioles were in the National League and folded after that season. In 1901, after a season in
Brooklyn, he returned to Baltimore and pitched for a new Orioles team, this one in the American League. In the midst of the 1902 season John McGraw "jumped" from the O's to the New York Giants, taking McGinnity and most of the team's stars with him. Wilbert Robinson (he of grapefruit catching fame) took over as manager of the largely gutted team. After that season, the franchise moved to New York where they became the Highlanders, and in 1913, the Yankees, a team of which you've probably heard. The 'modern' Orioles, incidentally, began their lives as the original Milwaukee Brewers in 1901, then spent just over half a century as the St. Louis Browns before being relocated to Baltimore in 1954.

Friday, March 18, 2005

March 18th, 1926

Dick Littlefield Born

Dick Littlefield was a pitcher for a variety of teams in the 50s and was traded seven times in the course of his career, but it is a trade that wasn't made that is his claim to fame on. On December 13th, 1956 Littlefield who had gone 4-6 with a 4.37 ERA for the Pirates, Cardinals and Giants the year before was traded, along with $30,000 to the Brooklyn Dodgers in exchange for Jackie Robinson. Robinson had already privately decided to retire, but the trade forced his hand and Robinson publicly announced his retirement at age thirty-seven. (Robinson did not, as some rumors suggest, retire because he felt slighted by Walter O'Malley's efforts to rid the franchise of any legacy of Branch Rickey.)

The trade was voided and Littlefield returned to the Giants. Evidently determined to get rid of the mediocre lefty, the Giants would traded Littlefield as part of a four-player deal to the Cubs before the 1957 season began. He would see very limited action for the pennant winning Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and retire after that season. He died in 1997, best remembered as the Man Almost Traded for Jackie Robinson.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

March 17th, 1919

Pete Reiser Born

Pete Reiser is a member of the "Lost It in the War" club. As a twenty-two year old rookie in 1941 Reiser won the batting title (.343) and also led the league in slugging percentage, total bases, doubles, triples, runs, OPS+ and was second in hits. He finished second in the MVP voting to teammate Dolph Camilli who led the league in the more important (to the voters, that is) statistics of home runs and RBIs. Reiser wasn't quite as good in 1942 but still hit .310/.375/.462, his overall numbers damaged by the concussion he suffered in the course of proving that in the battle of Man vs. Wall, the Wall will always win. After that season, Reiser spent three years in the Army. Reiser's first season back in 1946 he hit .277/.361/.428 and although he rebounded to post decent numbers in 1947, Reiser would never play one hundred games again and bounced from Brooklyn to the Boston Braves to the Pirates to the Indians before he retired in 1952. His pre/post war split is drastic:

Pre-War: .321/.378/.495
Post-War: .272/.377/.409

Although Reiser had a better post-war batting eye, it was necessary to simply match his OBP to the pre-war total after the loss of nearly fifty points of batting average, and he could do nothing towards making up for the loss of more than eighty-five points of slugging percentage. Pete Reiser might have never developed into a star, but spending his age twenty-four through twenty-six seasons fighting a war instead of swinging a bat significantly hurt his chances.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

March 16th, 1907

Detroit Proposes Trade

The trade, as proposed to Cleveland manager Nap Lajoie by his Tiger counterpart Hughie Jennings, would have sent nineteen year-old Ty Cobb to the Indians in exchange for thirty one year-old Elmer Flick. Cobb was coming off a .316/.355/.394 season (good for a 131 OPS+) while Flick had hit .302/.386/.412 (153 OPS+) the year before. Jennings' motivations for trading the nineteen year old had less to do with Cobb's talent than with his temperament. Earlier during spring training, Cobb (who was, as is well known, fanatically racist) had assaulted a black groundskeeper. When the man's wife objected, Cobb grabbed her by the neck and choked her. Not content with merely fighting civilians, when Tigers' catcher 'Boss' Schmidt took offense at Cobb’s actions, Cobb fought him as well. Although history does not record the results, given that Schmidt was an accomplished enough fighter to stage an exhibition against Jack Johnson, it probably did not go in Cobb's favor.

Jennings decided therefore that his young outfielder was more trouble than he was worth. Lajoie, however, evidently decided the same thing and turned down the trade. It was an incredibly lucky break for the Tigers and Jennings. Ty Cobb became Ty Cobb in 1907 leading the league in OPS+ for the first time, a lead he would not relinquish until 1916 (when he finished second) and would not fall out of the top three until 1920, all while playing very nice defense. Flick for his part would play three more seasons and retire after the 1910 season.

Babe Ruth assessed Ty Cobb by declaring that "Cobb is a prick. But he sure can hit. God almighty, that man can hit," and he was right on both counts. Cobb would leave a trail of assaults on teammates, team employees and fans in his wake, but he was also among the greatest hitters to ever live and further proved that sometimes the best move is the move not made.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

March 15th, 1949

Jim Kern Born

Jim Kern was a relief pitcher for a variety of clubs in the 70s and 80s. He was most successful with the Indians and Rangers, and his 1979 season in Texas is a demonstration of the value that a "closer" can have if used outside of the LaRussaian mold that virtually all are locked into in the modern game. Kern saved just twenty-nine games, a total which would have placed him outside of the top five in the American League in every season since 1987, but Kern also won thirteen games (third on the team) and pitched one hundred forty-three innings (fourth on the team).

Kern was able to accumulate these totals in part because early in the season he was used by manager Pat Corrales as the long man, but also because once it became clear Kern was his best reliever, Corrales was willing to use him in situations modern managers would never consider. This allowed Kern to pitch more innings and not only serve the team by earning saves but also wins when he pitched in tie games that the Rangers would go on to win. Of course, the converse of this is that while Kern was excellent in 1979 with a 1.56 ERA, he was never that good again, and especially in 1980 as he went 3-11 with a 4.83 ERA. Kern also suffered a bizarre injury in 1980 when he suffered a concussion, a cut that required nine stitches to close and mild amnesia when he was hit by a return throw from his catcher while warming up.

The question must be asked then, if a season like the one Jim Kern had in 1979 will ultimately drain a pitcher and rob him of his effectiveness. If it does, how many one hundred to one hundred forty inning seasons can be the team expect out of a reliever before he hits a wall, and is it in their best interests to ride a player as far as he will go? There isn't a simple answer to either of these questions, but it is unfortunate that the modern game seems to not even make an attempt to answer them.

Monday, March 14, 2005

March 14th, 1965

Kevin Brown Born

If Curt Flood's fate in history is to be a footnote in the players' efforts to free themselves from the Reserve Clause, Kevin Brown's will likely be as a footnote in the player's ultimate success as free agents. While Alex Rodriguez holds the all-time contract record (and is unlikely to lose it in the near future), Kevin Brown was the first player to sign a contract for a total value of over one hundred million. On the heels of helping to pitch both the 1997 Marlins and 1998 Padres to the World Series (and the Marlins to victory of course), while averaging nearly two hundred and fifty innings without topping a 2.69 ERA, the Dodgers gave Brown a generous seven year, one hundred five million dollar contract, good for an average of fifteen million a year. Brown also received a collection of generous perks, including a box at Dodger Stadium and flights for himself and his family back to his Georgia home from LA.

Although he did not pitch the Dodgers into the World Series, or even the playoffs, Brown's first two years at Chavez Ravine featured low ERAs and high innings pitched totals. However, in 2001 Brown injured himself and despite repeated surgeries and a trade to the Yankees, has ended up as yet another piece in the ever-growing collection of evidence that pitchers and long contracts are a bad combination. Despite this, Brown shares with Curt Flood immortality as a historical footnote (although Flood's case is obviously the more self-sacrificing of the two) in the ongoing battle between players and owners.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

March 13th, 1915

Wilbert Robinson Attempts to Set Record

Wilbert Robinson was a long-time catcher in the nineteenth century and would later manage the Brooklyn franchise to two pennants in an eighteen year career at their helm. In 1915 while at spring training with the club and despite being fifty-two years old, Robinson decided he wanted to set the record for the farthest distance a baseball had ever been caught from. To this end, Robinson assigned a pilot, Ruth Law, to fly a plane at 525 ft and drop a ball down, which, if everything went according to plan, "Uncle Robbie" would catch.

The first problem was that Law "forget" to bring a baseball, and took a grapefruit instead. Casey Stengel is often credited with prompting Law's bit of forgetfulness and suggesting a suitable replacement. Law dropped the grapefruit and Robinson just missed it, closely enough that it landed against his chest and, as one might imagine, exploded. Robinson was at first incredibly distressed, thinking that the baseball had penetrated his chest and the gooey substance he was feeling was his insides. He was convinced this was not the case when he noticed that rather than rushing to his aid, his team was rolling with laughter. History does not record his reaction, but I imagine his boys did a few extra laps that day.

March 13th, 1886

Frank Baker Born

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

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