Saturday, November 12, 2005

 
November 12th, 1968

Sammy Sosa Born


In 2001 Sammy Sosa finished second in the MVP vote behind Barry Bonds. While Bonds had a fantastic (BACLOnian?) season in 2001, Sosa was fantastic in his own right, posting a .328/.437/.737 line, good for a 201 OPS+. He had sixty-four home runs, drove in one hundred sixty runs while scoring one hundred forty-six. He also walked one hundred sixteen times (including thirty-seven intentional) and played in all but two games.

Since then, as you probably are aware, it has been nothing but downhill for Sammy. However, his performance is remarkable in its overall decline. Sosa's average has gone from .328 to .288 to .279 to .253 all the way to .221 this year in
Baltimore. Similarly, his OPS+ has gone from 201 to 160 to 135 to 110 down to a nearly twenty percent below league average 82 this year. He played in barely over one hundred games last year, drawing just thirty-nine walks, only two more than his intentional walk total from 2001. As if his fourteen homeruns and .376 slugging percentage didn't show just how far Sosa had fallen as a feared hitter, the fact that he received just three intentional walks, the same total Barry Bonds was issued in just fourteen games.

Popular speculation centers on Sosa removing himself from PEDs as the cause of his decline, but it's worth noting that another number might have had as much to do with it. In fact, it is the only meaningful number of Sosa's which has been increasing lately, as Sosa has gone from being age thirty-two to being age thirty-six. Is Sosa off the PEDs? Possibly. But four years is a lot in a baseball player's career, especially four in the thirties.



Friday, November 11, 2005

 
November 11th, 1899

Bill Lange Retires


When players retire they often cite a desire to spend more time with their families. It's probably true of course, but very few players retire--and stay retired--in their prime (or close to it) for more family time. Bill Lange however, was definitely no poseur in that department. Nicknamed "Little Eva," Lange was a great ballplayer, finishing with a career .330 average (albeit against a league average of .298) and 124 OPS+. Lange still holds the Cubs' single-season batting average record at .389 in 1895. He was also a demon on the base paths, and for a long while considered the last man prior to Maury Wills to steal one hundred bases, although the number has since been reduced to eighty-four. Lange also contributed to the Cubs by convincing them to sign "The Peerless Leader," Frank Chance.

Lange's career lasted only seven years however, in large part because of the social conventions of the time. Lange was in love with a young woman, the daughter of a
San Francisco real estate tycoon. Given that at the time ballplayers were--to some extent fairly--regarded as little better than drunken ruffians, the woman's father refused to let his daughter marry a ballplayer. Forced to choose between his fiancee and baseball, Lange retired so that the wedding could go on.

Although his marriage would eventually end in divorce--so much for spending more time with the family on that front--Lange never returned to the game and spent the rest of his life in
San Francisco, dying there in 1950.



Thursday, November 10, 2005

 
November 10th, 1978

Yankees Trade Sparky Lyle


This was part of a larger trade as the Yankees sent Lyle and four other players to the Rangers for five players, most notably Dave Righetti. This is also the trade that inspired Graig Nettles' line that Lyle had gone from Cy Young to sayonara in one year. In 1977 Lyle was indeed the Cy Young winner, as went 13-5, with twenty-six saves with a 2.17 ERA. However, in the 1977 the Yankees signed Rich "Goose" Gossage as a free agent. Gossage had been even more effective than Lyle in 1977, also saving twenty-six games but doing so with a 1.62 ERA.

Despite having big shoes to fill, Gossage stepped in as the Yankee closer and was again excellent, saving twenty-seven games, winning ten more and posting a 2.01 ERA, while Lyle slumped to a 3.47 ERA, just better than league average. Feeling that the best years of the now thirty-three year old Lyle's career were behind him, he was deemed expandable and sent to
Texas.

As it turned out, the Yankees were correct and Lyle never again came close to his 1977 form again and retired after the 1982 season. Gossage was still closing for the Yankees then, and would do so for another year until being replaced in 1984 by the very man his predecessor had been traded for, Dave Righetti.



Wednesday, November 09, 2005

 
November 9th, 1977

Fred Haney Dies


In the past I've written about managers who had a bad first go around but improved with time. Fred Haney might be the most drastic example of this in all of managerial time. Haney's first go-round came with the St. Louis Browns from 1939 until 1941. Haney was taking over a team which had averaged one-hundred losses over the previous three seasons (this was still a 154 game schedule remember) but Haney's first season was nothing short of disaster, as the Browns went 43-111 (that's a .279 winning percentage) while finishing nearly sixty-five games out of first place, and they never won more than two games in a row all season. The Browns improved to 67-87 (.435) the next season, but after a 15-29 start in 1941, Haney was fired. He left the Browns with a 125-227 record (.355) record.

Perhaps inspired by the kind of thinking described in my earlier blog, Haney was hired by the Pirates in 1953 to manage their team. Haney was again taking over a relatively desperate squad; the Pirates hadn't lost fewer than ninety games since 1949 and had lost 112 the season before. Haney improved the Pirates' record, but only marginally as the team went 50-104 (.325) in Haney's first season. Things were little better in 1954 though the Pirates improved to 53-101 (.344) and while the team was brought under 100 losses for the first time by Haney in 1955, as they finished 60-94 (.390), he was nonetheless let go finishing with a lifetime record at Pittsburgh of 163-299 (.353).

Having now managed in the Majors for six years, Haney had managed a collective 288-814 (.353) record, or an average season of roughly 48 wins and eighty-eight losses, with only one full season of fewer than ninety losses. Despite all this, Haney was hired in the midst of the very next season, 1956, to manage the Milwaukee Braves, taking over for "Jolly Cholly" Grimm. Haney posted his first winning stretch ever in 1956 guiding the Braves to a 68-40 (.630) record and second place in the National League, just a game behind the Dodgers. In 1957 Haney's winning percentage would decrease slightly to .617 but across a full season that was good for ninety-five wins and a National League pennant and a trip to the World Series to face the Yankees. The series would go to seven games and in the seventh Haney choose to start Lew Burdette on just two days' rest in the final game. The decision paid off brilliantly as Burdette pitched a shutout and the Braves won their first and only title in
Milwaukee.

The Braves would drop to ninety-two wins in 1958 but that was again enough to secure the pennant. This year however, the Yankees took revenge in the World Series, when Burdette--again going on two days' rest in the final game--gave up four runs in the eighth. The Braves slumped to eighty-six wins in 1959 but finished tied with the Dodgers as the season came to a close. The Braves lost the pennant playoff series however, and the pennant. Still, after three and a half years in
Milwaukee, Haney had now won at an almost sixty percent pace, and had two pennants and one World Series victory to his credit. Despite all that, Haney was fired and would never manage again, moving on to the GM job with the expansion Angels.

Fred Haney then is the ultimate example of a manager in contrast. His first two times on the job were brutal, barely cracking a .350 winning percentage. Put in front of a talented team however, Haney showed he knew what he was doing and managed an almost .600 winning percentage. Interestingly, perhaps the most similar recent manager to Haney is one experiencing great success at this moment, but whose career started unsuccessfully where Haney had his best success,
Houston's Phil Garner.



Tuesday, November 08, 2005

 
November 8th, 1907

Tony Cuccinello Born


In the department of "I don't know what this has to do with anything but its late and I'm tired" Tony Cuccinello, a pretty good second baseman for a variety of teams in thirties and forties was declared 4-F (that is, ineligible) for the draft in World War II because he had chronic laryngitis. This may seem like a rather lame aliment to constitute missing a war for, but, according to Bill James, Cuccinello was "at one point...unable to talk above a whisper for three years."

On a hugely unrelated note, another one of my able Guest Writers, Phil Coorey, has started his own blog. Phil, a dedicated member of Red Sox Nation has decided to track what progress the team makes without their "Boy Genius" Theo Epstein at the helm, at the aptly named "Red Sox Post Theo" blog. As with all my links, it comes both highly and personally recommended.



Monday, November 07, 2005

 
November 7th, 1857

Edward Nolan Born


Edward Nolan was a pitcher in the nineteenth century for a variety of teams in a variety of leagues (including the 1884 Wilmington Quicksteps of the Union Association, which is bafflingly considered a Major League even though its standings are, in a word, laughable). Anyway, he is much better known as "The Only Nolan." The nickname presumably comes from the fact that at the time of Nolan's debut in 1878 no other Nolan was in professional baseball, and in fact, no man with Nolan has either his first or last name would play in the Majors until 1966 when the famous Nolan, Ryan, made his debut for the Mets. Since then there've been Gary Nolan and Joe Nolan and a couple of players with Nolan as their middle name. It is still a fairly unrepresented name as these things go.

However, I have also heard another theory about the origins of the nickname, one so bizarre that I would be remiss in not sharing it. It does require some back-story, however. In the period following the Civil War, a minstrel performer named Francis Leon rose to prominence performing a burlesque act while simultaneously in both blackface and drag.
Leon was wildly successful in a way that is hard to imagine now, earning huge sums for his performances and prompting a sea of imitators. In response, Leon began billing himself and his act as, you guessed it, "The Only Leon." The theory follows then that Ed Nolan somehow reminded an observer of Leon (out of costume, one can only hope) and from there a nickname was born.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

 
November 6th, 1935

Billy Sunday Dies


Billy Sunday was much better known in his time than he is in ours, which is a shame, because he's an interesting figure, albeit one who is likely prone to controversy. Sunday was first recruited into baseball by Cap Anson, and was famed for his speed. Sunday stole two hundred forty-six bases we have a record of, and once dominated a footrace with Arlie Latham that was held to determine "the fastest man in baseball."

Sunday is of greater note however, for having walked away from the game at age twenty-seven to go into preaching. Sunday's version is that he was sitting on a stoop outside of a bar with Ned Williamson, both drunk, when he was invited to attend services by the Pacific Garden Mission. Sunday got up, told Williamson "Good bye, I'm going to Jesus Christ," and did just that. Sunday retired from baseball (some reports have him heroically turning down offers of $2,000 a month from teams in favor of spreading God's word but these totals are almost surely exaggerated) and began a career as a preacher.

Sunday was a "fire-and-brimstone" style preacher, noted for an emphatic style (as you can see here) warning of the evils of, among other things, evolution, liberalism and most of all, alcohol. Sunday was fiercely opposed to drinking, once declaring famously that "whiskey and beer are alright in their place, but their place is in hell." Sunday was one of the first preachers to make use of radio and this spread his national prestige as did his association with the prohibition movement.

Sunday's legacy had declined by time of his death in 1935; prohibition had been repealed in 1933 and his style was seen as out of step with the American public. He was still popular in some quarters however, and died a wealthy man--despite being the midst of the Great Depression--thanks to the many small contributions he had accumulated over the years. Sunday's reputation has been restored somewhat as the Fundamentalist movement has taken him in and his sermons are still read today.



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