Saturday, March 11, 2006

March 11th, 1972

Zach Wheat Dies

I'm back in New York today, as Spring Break as begun for me. I'm having more travels in a bit, but we'll reveal those as they happen. I like being home of course, but part of the problem with being home is that I'm largely separated from the resources that keep this blog going. I have still have internet access (obviously) and therefore the capacity to search the divine BaseballReference database but my assorted books that provide me with both essential information and random trivia aren't available. Facing such dire straights, I have to improvise.

Today's improvisation is Zach "Buck" Wheat. Wheat is a relatively obscure figure in baseball history, which is odd given that he's both in the Hall of Fame and the all-time leader in a number of important statistics for one of the most famous teams, the Dodgers. Despite having not played for the Dodgers since 1926 (and having been dead since 1972) Wheat is still the all-time leader in hits (2,804 miles ahead of Pee Wee Reese), doubles (464, about a hundred ahead of Duke Snider), triples (171, ahead of Willie Davis) and total bases (4,003 ahead again of the Duke).

None of that is what drew my attention to Wheat, however. A context-less look at his career would seem to show an incredible, almost Bonds like late surge, Wheat hit just .319/.377/.452 in his age twenty-six season, but managed a powerful .359/.403/.541 in his age thirty-seven season. Wheat wasn't on the Juice; he simply had the good fortune to begin his career in the deadball era but end it in the Age of Ruth. When league and park are considered, Wheat's age twenty-six season (in 1914) is actually better than his age thirty-seven season (in 1925).

Statistics can tell us a lot about the game and its player, but it is crucial to always remember that without the proper context, they are at best useless and at worst outright deceptive.

Friday, March 10, 2006

March 10th, 1995

Michael Jordan Retires

For those of you keeping track, this was Jordan's second retirement overall, but first (and only) one from baseball; he still, had of course, two more basketball retirements left in him. Officially Jordan cited labor strife has the reason behind his leaving the game; the more cynical explanation is that Jordan (who hit just .202 in Double-A) realized he wasn't a Major League caliber player and returned to his best sport.

Jordan's baseball career has always been something of an enigma--the rumor that MJ was serving a secret gambling suspension notwithstanding. Jordan told the media that playing baseball had been a childhood dream, and I suppose part of it came from Jordan's legendary desire to prove he could be the best in anything he does, from basketball to playing at a casino. (I think that was a big part of the reason he came back after his second retirement.) Frustrated with his inability to excel at baseball, perhaps, Michael packed it in, and in just over a week later announced his return to the Bulls.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

March 9th, 1893

Billy Southwith Born

It is no mystery why Billy Southwith the player is not in the Hall of Fame. Although he had a respectable thirteen year career, hitting .297 across nearly five thousand plate appearances, he only once led the league in any category (triples, in 1919) and overall a good but not great player.

It is a mystery however, why Billy Southwith the manager isn't in the Hall of Fame. Over the course of thirteen seasons, Southwith won over a thousand games, with a career .597 winning percentage. That percentage is good for sixth all-time, ahead of several Hall of Fame managers, and a handful of modern managers (Joe Torre, Bobby Cox) who someday will be. Southwith thrice won over a hundred games, in addition to two World Series with the Cardinals, plus an additional pennant in St. Louis and one with the Boston Braves.

The primary reason keeping Southwith out of the Hall is the time period in which he had his greatest success: during the Second World War. Southwith's three Cardinals pennants (and two World Series wins) came from 1942-44, that was also his one hundred victory seasons. That being said, Southwith also led the Braves, post-war, to their first pennant since 1914 and he still averaged nearly eighty-three wins--in the one hundred and fifty-four game schedule--with the Braves.

Billy Martin is probably still the most deserving manager on the outside looking in at the Hall of Fame but just behind him is Billy Southwith.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

March 8th, 1984

Richard Barbieri Born

It's my birthday--up to number twenty-two this year--so I'm taking the day off. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

March 7th, 1951

Jeff Burroughs Born

"When Burroughs reached the majors in 1970 his first manager was Ted Williams. The two sincerely hated one another. One retold by [Shelby] Whitfield is that Burroughs, who chewed gum constantly, would take out his gum at night and stick it on the bed post. The hotel maids didn't appreciate that and one of the maids wrote Burroughs a note asking him to throw the gum in the trash. Burroughs (or one of his teammates) wrote back a note telling the hotel maid to go____ herself. Ted Williams had to talk to the rookie and tell him not to stick gum on the bed post and write nasty notes to the maid."

~Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Abstract

Burroughs (whose son Sean is currently enjoying a mediocre career with the San Diego Padres) was at his best a truly quality hitter, he won the MVP Award in 1974, in what was his second full season in the Major Leagues. Those first two years he posted an OPS+ of 140 and 161 but perhaps raising expectations he would be a truly great hitter, but Burroughs was never that good in two consecutive seasons again. He ended his career with a still respectable 121 OPS+ and is probably one of the top hundred right fielders of all time (Bill James puts him seventieth). But whether from lack of maturity or just because he was playing over his head, the Jeff Burroughs of 1973 and '74 was not the Jeff Burroughs of his career.

Monday, March 06, 2006

March 6th, 1915

Pete Gray Born

One look at Pete Gray reveals what makes him something of a compelling story: Gray only had one arm. Although naturally right handed, Gray lost the arm to a truck accident when he was young. Gray nonetheless taught himself to play left handed despite having just one arm. Gray played the outfield and would catch the ball before tucking the glove under his arm, roll the ball under his chest and throw in one (ideally) seamless motion and was also noted for his speed and overall base running abilites.

Gray got his start playing semi-pro ball in his hometown and began playing professionally in 1942. He hit decently in the minors--and demonstarted a capacity for stealing bases--and made the bigs with the St. Louis Browns in 1945. Even given the lowered level of talent on account of the Second World War Gray was simply not a Major League caliber player. He hit .213 and, perhaps even more disapointingly, stole just five of eleven bases.

As the players returned in 1946, Gray was returned to the minors where he continued to play--on and off--through the 1950s before retiring. Truth be told, Gray was something of a novelty during his time in the Majors, the "Freak Show" come to the ballpark. But that was only half the story, he wasn't an Eddie Gaedel-type there simply for the novelty. Pete Gray had one arm and made the Major Leagues. There have been people with far more who accompilshed far less.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

March 5th, 1957

Jerry Ujdur Born

For someone with a distinctive name, there is surprisingly little information out there about Jerry Ujdur. I can find his stats of course (more on them in a minute) and I can find a little picture of him. I know that Jerry was born in Duluth Minnesota and went on to attend the University of Minnesota and that he's still alive but other than that, the trail goes dead.

But I can at least tell you what I know about his Major League career. Ujdur came up with the Tigers in 1980 and pitched twenty-one disastrous innings (7.59 ERA) and then pitched fourteen almost equally bad innings in 1981 (6.43 ERA). Whatever was troubling him those years got worked out however as Ujdur entered the starting rotation in 1982 and put together a good year, going 10-10 in twenty-five starts with a 3.69 ERA. However, Ujdur lost his form once form in 1983 and pitched just thirty-four innings at a 7.15 ERA, going 0-4.

The Tigers finally gave up on Ujdur and released him in the spring of 1984 and he signed with the Indians shortly before the season started. He was no more effective in Cleveland as he had been in Detroit, however pitched just fourteen and a third innings with an ERA just under seven. Despite being just twenty-seven, Ujdur was finished as a Major League player and, as I mentioned earlier, his trail goes dead.

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