Saturday, June 17, 2006

June 17th, 1965

Mike Magnante Born

"It was late July, which is to say that Mike Magnante had picked a bad time to pitch poorly.‘Mags,’ as everyone called him, had come in against Cleveland in the top of the seventh with two runners on and a three-run lead. The first thing he did was to walk Jim Thome--not one could blame him for that. He then gave up a bloop single to Milton Bradley and the inherited runners scored--just plain bad luck, that. But then he threw three straight balls to Lee Stevens. Stevens dutifully took a strike, then waited for Mags to throw his fifth pitch.


Mike Magnante goes into his stretch and looks in for the signal. He just last month turned thirty-seven, and is four days shy of the ten full years of big league service he needs to collect a full pension...He makes an almost perfect pitcher to Lee Stevens, a fastball low and away. The catcher is set up low and outside. When you saw the replay, you understood that he'd hit the spot. It's the pitch Mike Magnante wanted to make. Good pitch, bad count. The ball catches the fat part of the bat. It rises and rises and the two runners on base begin to circle ahead of the hitter. Mags can only stand and watch...he's given up five runs and gotten nobody out. It wasn't the first time he'd been knocked out of the game, but it wasn't often he'd been knocked out on his pitch.

[In reaction to that game--and Magnante's performance the whole year--Billy Beane traded for Ricardo Rincon, turning Magnante into an ineffective and extraneous piece]

Phone in hand, almost casually, Billy says to Paul DePodesta, now seated on Billy's sofa, ‘Do you want to go down and release Magnante?’
‘Do I want to?’ says Paul. He looks right, then left, as if Billy must be talking to some other person, someone who enjoys telling a thirty-seven-year-old relief pitcher that he's washed up...It wasn't that Mags was just four days short of his ten-year goal. He'd get his pension. It was that, in all likelihood, Mags was finished in the big leagues.”

~Michael Lewis, Moneyball

Friday, June 16, 2006

June 16th, 1914

Johnnie Wittig Born

Or, as Chris Berman might say Johnnie "It would've been better for all involved if Hamlet had stayed at" Wittig(berg). Then again, maybe not, that's a trifle long for Chris, to say nothing of the Hamlet reference being fairly obscure, even for fans of the play. But never mind, on to the career of Mr. Wittig. He saw limited time in 1938, '39 and '41 for the Giants pitching generally ineffectively (141 and a 1/3 innings, 5.60 ERA) and not demonstrating anything that would suggest he would ever see regular time for any franchise. As it turned out, Wittig would instead spend a season in 1943 as a regular, and regularly ineffective, member of the Giants rotation. He got there thanks to a helping hand from these sort of people, who required the attentions of many of the men who would ordinarily have been pitching those innings.

All of this got me thinking however, how many guys have careers of any note--as much as careers like Wittig's can be described as of note--purely on account of the Second World War? It's true that while some players (Ted Williams, most famously) saw actual action during the course of the war, many others, possibly a majority, were assigned to moral and fund raising activities. The Hall of Fame writes that "nearly all everyday players served overseas" during the War, while other sources produce less grand statements but generally agree a majority of Big Leaguers went into the service.

If that's so, and I have no reason to believe it isn't, it would seem that the Johnnie Wittig's of the world are more common than I could've previously imagined. There were still only sixteen teams back then, but working on the theory that at least two-thirds of players went to the war efforts, that means there were around two hundred and fifty players who either made the Majors, or saw significant time in them that otherwise would've been retired or playing the Newark, New Jersey and Columbus, Ohio’s of the world. That's a big group of guys, and might even be a conservative estimate. So maybe Johnnie Wittig deserves more recognition than as a would-be Bermanism, he's now my representative for the small army (pardon the pun) of ballplayers who spent their time at the top of the game on account of the war.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

June 15th, 1946

Champ Summers Born

Champ Summers has another great broadcasting name; I'm going to assume he hosts the sports segment on Fargo's Channel 16 Eyewitness News, ably anchored by Stoney McGlynn. In his spare time, of course, Summers was also a Major League player, born as John Junior Summers. Summers was a pretty good hitter, finishing with a career 112 OPS+, and demonstrating excellent command of the strike zone, with a career OBP almost a hundred points higher than his batting average.

For such a decent hitter, Summers bounced around a fair amount, playing for (in order) the A's, Cubs, Reds, Tigers, Giants and Padres over the course of an eleven year career. He also had something of a late start, coming up to the Majors at age twenty-eight; he was only signed by the A's at age twenty-five, so Summers obviously took some time to get noticed. He was only a starter for one year in his career--1980 with the Tigers, as the DH--but spent much of his career as a pinch-hitter, appearing in more games as such than any other "position."

Summers was out of the Majors after his appearance in the World Series with the Padres in '84, but continued to have a love of the game, appearing in the short-lived Seniors Professional Baseball Association for the Fort Myers franchise in 1989. I haven't found anything on Summers' status since then, but I'm going to take a chance and say that now, at age sixty, he's at least retired from the playing part of the game.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

June 14th, 1933

Jim Constable Born

I've been known to complain--as in the first paragraph of this entry--that current baseball nicknames are nothing special at best and downright dull at worst. That's true, but it's also true that while really good baseball nicknames used to be more plentiful, there were also some there were rather facile. Such is the case of Jim Constable. For someone named "Constable" the nickname is almost inevitable and so it is little surprise that during his playing career he was more widely known as "Sheriff."

That's actually a fairly common nickname; thirteen men have been known as Sheriff (or "The Sheriff") in their careers, including one, John Blake, who went into the Encyclopedia with it. Like most uncommon nicknames, it fell out of use after the Second World War, but unlike most of them, it was revived in the 80s and 90s by reliever Norm Charlton who was "The Sheriff," as a member of the Nasty Boys. Continuing the police theme, Charlton's partner in the bullpen in those days, Rob Dibble, was known as "Officer" Dibble. So maybe nicknames aren't a completely dead art, but they're at least on life support.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

June 13th, 1922

Mel Parnell Born

I happen to like rhyming names--I'm easily entertained that way--but there's a good story here so everyone wins. Bill James ranks Parnell as the 100th best pitcher of all-time; it's pretty close once you get down there, but Parnell wins out the spot so he can claim he's one of the greatest moundsmen of all-time.

Parnell would probably rank higher on his other numbers, a 3.50 ERA (125 ERA+) and an average of nearly two hundred and thirty innings a year, but Parnell had a tremendously short career, just ten years. A couple of those years are real gems; in 1949 he was the best pitcher in the league going 25-7 with a 2.77 ERA while throwing nearly three hundred innings for the Red Sox. Parnell spent his whole career with the Red Sox, arriving in 1947 the year after the Sox had lost a heart-breaker in the World Series to the Cards. The Red Sox weren't terribly good in 1947, but Parnell led the team in ERA in both '48 and '49. In those years the Sox had Ted Williams in his prime, Dom DiMaggio, Vern Stephens and a handful of other good to great players. Unfortunately for them, Cleveland and New York were just slightly better, as they lost a one-game playoff to the Indians in '48 and blew the pennant in the season's final weekend to the Yankees the next year.

The Sox settled into a mediocre rut the rest of Parnell's career, finishing third or fourth every year save 1952 and winning exactly eighty-four games three times. Parnell had his last great season in 1953 going 21-8 with a 3.06 ERA but was plagued by injuries (Parnell had elbow problems) and ineffectiveness the rest of his career, although he did throw a no-hitter in 1956. He remains the Sox all-time leader in wins, innings and games started by a left-handed pitcher.

Parnell later served as a broadcaster for the Red and White Sox; he is now perhaps most famous for having coined the phrase "Pesky Pole" to refer to the right field foul pole at Fenway Park. Accounts vary as to when, or even if, Parnell actually coined the phase but for now the legend is presevered.

Monday, June 12, 2006

June 12th, 1988

Merle Settlemire Dies

To me, that sounds like the alternative reality name of Mel Stottlemyre. In that reality "Merle Settlemire" led the long struggling Yankees (who had tolerated the inept center field stylings of Nicky Nantle for several years previously) to their first championship since the glory days of Babe Ruth. While I'm sure Mel might enjoy that, the actual Merle Settlemire was a pitcher in his own right, albeit not much of one.

Actually, not much of one is pretty kind; Settlemire pitched just one year in the big leagues, throwing eighty-two and a third innings with a 5.47 ERA for the Red Sox, posting a painful 0-6 record. Settlemire had good control, walking fewer than four per nine innings. Unfortunately for Settlemire he was probably too hittable, giving up nearly thirteen hits per nine innings while striking out just over one per nine innings.

Settlemire presumably saw more time in the minor leagues, but his big league record remained an 0-6 for all-time, which is rather depressing. His obiturary does, at least, confirm that he married and had children before dying at age eighty-five, so we can hope that he found joy somewhere away from the ball field.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

June 11th, 1999

Dodgers at A's

One hears a great deal about the evolution of the shortstop position. Although they occasionally still exist--hello, Neifi Perez--the no-hit shortstop of the Mark Belanger or Ray Oyler type is all but gone; almost no team is willing to carry a guy who can't hit at all to play short. In the age of hitting shortstops like Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada (to say nothing of Alex Rodriguez, an all-time great hitter moved off the position for factors beyond his competency there) it's important to remember that for most of baseball history, shortstops hit like pitchers. Or pitchers hit like shortstops. Honus Wagner aside, it's really either way.

There are lots of ways to illustrate this point, but today provides an especially vivid one. The aforementioned Tejada had a great day, leading his A's to a 12-6 victory over the Dodgers. Tejada drove in five runs on the back of three home runs, a tremendous one game accomplishment. Obviously, few people have ever hit three home runs in one game (and perhaps no one has done it on a bigger stage than Reggie Jackson) but in the thousands (millions?) of games that had been played to that point, Tejada was only the tenth man to hit three home runs in a game while playing shortstop all nine innings.

Think about that for a minute. All the games that have been played in history, around a hundred years worth (depending on how one counts it) and a shortstop only managed to hit three home runs in a game ten times. Derek Jeter may represent the modern shortstop, but if want to see the historical variety; it's all about Neifi Perez.

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