Saturday, August 12, 2006
Harlond Clift Born
I'm not sure about this--I don't have my usual collection of research aids where I am--but I'm pretty sure that Clift got his rather unfortunate nickname, "Darkie," on account of a teammate thinking his first name to be "Harlem" and from which a nickname was born.
Clift had two genuinely great years when he was twenty-three and twenty-four (and a pretty good one at twenty-two) in 1937 and '38 for the St. Louis Browns. Playing third base, Clift posted OPS+ of 139 and 143 in back-to-back years while stealing twenty bases over the two years. He also became the first third baseman to hit thirty or more home runs when he slugged 34 in 1938. It was Clift's bad luck to be playing for the Browns, who were both woeful--they averaged over a hundred losses over the two years--and barely attended in way we can't grasp now. (The Browns had a total attendance of just over two hundred and fifty thousand for the two seasons, their per game average was below fifteen hundred.) As such, his great seasons went almost unnoticed, failing to even make the All-Star team the second year.
Had Clift continued on his career path, he would be in the Hall of Fame, even with his misfortune of being on the Browns. Those two years represented the high water mark for him however, and although he remained a solid hitter through 1942, he would drop off shortly after that. By 1945, Clift was a below average hitter and that marked his last season in the Major Leagues. All said he only played twelve years, but he remains probably one of the more underrated players in history.
Friday, August 11, 2006
Pirates and Cubs Finish Game
Being that this is, after all, a Friday in August and I've had one long entry this week (Monday) and one absolute opus (yesterday), I think today is a good day for a call back to another, shorter blog. So let's enjoy a sunny Friday (at least in New York) and look back on this entry from last year.
Thursday, August 10, 2006
Claude Osteen Finishes Game
Editor's Note: This was something of an odd game for Osteen, as he pitched two innings, allowed two hits, two walks, had two strikeouts and gave up, you guessed it, no runs. While ruining a visually appealing line, I'm sure Claude prefers that to an ERA of nine for the day.
Anyway, last year around this time, I used Clause Osteen as a jumping off point for a discussion of how the league had changed around him. Over the course of the year I developed this idea into a longer essay that I publish here--citations and all--about what I believe led to those changes, the failed attempt to begin a third Major League. Enjoy.
The White Rat
Claude Osteen debuted in 1957 for the Cincinnati Reds as a seventeen-year-old, pitching just four innings; his final season in the National League came in 1974, seventeen years later. In those seventeen years, Osteen had won—and lost—nearly two hundred games and won—and lost—a World Series with the Dodgers.
“If the baseball owners were running the United States, Kansas and Nebraska would still be trying to get into the Union”
Bill Veeck’s sentiment on the reluctance of owners to consider expansion is perhaps the most concise—and glib—summary of the issue. Despite the dramatic changing face of the country, neither the American nor National League had ever expanded since the “Original Sixteen” franchises were set in 1901, and prior to 1953 no team had shifted cities. In 1950 census data revealed that the country’s fourth and sixth biggest cities lacked Major League teams and fifteen of the twenty-five largest cities were without big league baseball. The team movements of the 1950s fixed this situation somewhat as teams moved first to the Midwest and then the West Coast. However, these moves had more to do with the cities teams were departing from than their new homes. After drawing just two hundred eighty-one thousand and change in Boston in 1952, the Braves moved to Milwaukee and increased their attendance nearly six and a half times. Following this lead, the St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia A’s, both the smaller team in a two-franchise market, departed for greener pastures in Baltimore and Kansas City respectively. Although slightly more complicated, baseball’s most famous moves of the Dodgers to Los Angeles and Giants to San Francisco also had attendance as a major factor. New York City had a population of almost eight million but the Giants drew fewer than eighty-five hundred fans a game their last two seasons at the Polo Grounds.
“The unofficial chairman of the state’s unofficial permanent government”
Robert Wagner was one of the last prominent New York City politicians to emerge from the once mighty Tammany Hall machine, winning by a dozen points. By 1957, however, the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt had put Tammany Hall into its death throes and Wagner needed all the support he could find. To that end, Wagner—who had promised at his inauguration a “government dedicated to the best interest of all people”— launched a committee to bring another Major League team back to New York City. The four man panel included a former Postmaster General and the patriarch of a prominent New York City department store family. The panel’s main force, however, was William A. Shea. Shea was a well-known attorney and Manhattan power broker; Nicholas Pileggi described him in the title quote and Shea himself admitted that what he and his firm did was as much bluff and bluster as law, telling Pileggi that “We’re not statesman, we ain’t white shoe.” This tough-nosed reputation was something of a mixed blessing: while some admired Shea’s techniques others declared the law firm “a factory of graft.” For Wagner’s purposes, there was hardly a better person to lead the cause. In addition to his figure as a power broker, Shea had a longstanding interest in baseball, having first been introduced to the game as a child.
“I was not going to be a party to moving any club, so long as that city had people willing to support it”
In the course of his meetings with Carpenter, Shea came to the realization that moving a team was not the solution he had first imagined. According to Shea, he realized that “This fellow [Carpenter] is just like me. He doesn’t want to move. Philadelphia is his town and he is going to stay there. He’s not going to pick up and leave the place just for money.” By 1959 Shea was making public statements that he was moving in the direction of “the only feasible way to bring another club to New York—towards a third Major League.”
At this point it is worth pointing out the crucial element of Shea’s statement, albeit one that is easily overlooked. Shea was proposing a third Major League, meaning a league that would integrate their franchises into Major League Baseball from day one. Shea was not attempting to create something analogous to the American Basketball Association which was founded on the hope of surviving until it merged with the NBA or to the Federal League which had hoped to compete with Major League Baseball in the teens. More than any owner then in power, Shea understood the disparity between cities that had a Major League franchise, those which could support one, and the willingness of baseball to fill that market. To that end, Shea began to explore which cities could host franchises in his new League.
In 1958 Branch Rickey, the brilliant architect of several championship clubs and the modern Minor League system, was officially the Chairman of the Board of the Pittsburgh Pirates but widely understood to be semi-retired. The only topic which seemed to pique his interest—and sufficiently so for the New York Times to write a short piece on the subject—was the possibility of his having a part in Major League expansion. With this in mind, Rickey’s name came up repeatedly in discussions over the Continental League and its creation. It was finally made official in August of 1959 as Rickey resigned his Pirates’ post and was made President of the league. At this debut press conference, Rickey set an ambitious goal for the league, declaring that “I am convinced more than ever now that we will have a third major league by 1961.” Rickey’s first meeting also included an olive branch to the current leagues as Presidents Warren Giles and Joe Cronin were the sole members of a committee created to study the issue of how the new league would acquire players.
“It’s an established fact that every 16-year-old boy today will be 19 three years from now”
While even the Times seemed caught up in Rickey’s enthusiasm for the new league and its prospects, questions remained. Perhaps the most obvious was how the new league would stock itself with players; where, the Times asked in reference in Rickey’s theoretical All-Star, “would the Continental League find the Johnny Joneses to staff its teams?” Not surprisingly, Rickey had a solution for this as well. It is important to remember that player acquisition was far more casual at the time than the process today. When Rickey was presenting his plan, the first draft was still more than five years away, college baseball a far more minor game (the College World Series barely a decade old) and even the modern minor league system, Rickey’s own brainchild, had not yet celebrated its thirtieth year. A new league had a far easier road to hoe in acquiring players than they would even ten years later.
“The only reason we would not be operating in 1961 is if we fail to have cooperation from the major leagues”
The winter of 1959 proved to be a tumultuous time for the Continental League with good news and bad coming in equal amounts, sometimes with good news one day and bad the next. Even before Rickey heard the presentations from New Orleans and Montreal, Ford Frick was expressing doubts about the league’s timeline. Speaking to a Congressional committee, Frick warned that while he still was optimistic for the CL’s overall chances of thriving, he thought it might take as much as five years for the League to be of MLB caliber, a far cry from Rickey’s estimation of the CL competing in the World Series by 1963.
“It can’t miss”
Its fate notwithstanding, the Continental League began 1960 on a positive note, although on two different fronts. On one front, Congress once again became involved in the issue of a third league when New York senator Kenneth Keating expressed his support for the league and offered to act as a negotiator between the two groups. Keating’s interest was not entirely selfless; with the announcement that Dallas and Atlanta had recently won two of the league’s remaining three spots; Keating had a keen interest in ensuring that Buffalo beat out Montreal for the third and final franchise spot.
“Negotiation with Organized Baseball is futile”
In late February of 1960, Branch Rickey announced the beginnings of the Continental League schedule, including an Opening Day set for April 18th, 1961 with simultaneous home openers for teams in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Denver. Opening Day would mark the beginning of a two-week swing across the southern CL teams for the northern franchises after which weather in cities like Buffalo and Toronto would presumably be more hospitable to baseball.
Frick, never one to back down, responded with comments of his own. He took pains to point out that Major League Baseball had laid out the guidelines that the CL would have to meet to gain admittance and pointedly observed that the CL had failed to meet even a single one. Determined to prove he was unmoved by Shea’s threat of Congressional intervention, Frick wondered aloud “if it wouldn’t help a little if we had fewer complaints, less alibiing [sic] and more positive action.”
Responding to stories like this, Branch Rickey once again mounted an offensive. He allowed that the CL might not be ready for play in 1961 but assured reporters it would be 1962 at the absolute latest. More significantly Rickey again raised the possibility of the CL playing as an “outlaw” league that would compete rather than cooperate with Major League Baseball. While more subtle than Shea, Rickey’s threat was no less noteworthy, as he publicly questioned whether it was “the purpose of organized baseball to have a third league existing outside of organized baseball?”
“I know that in their heart of hearts the present major league owners don’t want to expand—not one of them”
Deprived of its context, the titular quote would suggest great confidence in the continued existence of the Continental League; in fact, it was uttered by Branch Rickey fewer than forty-eight hours before the Continental League was officially declared stillborn. In late July of 1960, the National League officially voted to expand to ten teams if the CL did not work out and with support of the American League, it appeared the CL was now competing against the clock to make the requirements before owners became fed up and simply expanded themselves.
The Miracle Mets
In 1969 Major League Baseball expanded, its second such round since 1962, this time adding teams in Seattle, Montreal, San Diego and restoring a team to Kansas City. In latter rounds of expansion every Continental League city except Buffalo has received a team; today that city is home to the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate.
1969 also marked the first time ever an expansion team won a World Series, as the Miracle Mets triumphed over the Baltimore Orioles. The final out of that series was a fly ball caught by Cleon Jones, patrolling left in the Mets’ stadium in Flushing Meadows named for William Shea.
 This—and any other baseball statistical information unless otherwise noted—comes from BaseballReference.com
 All data from US Census: http://www.census.gov/population/documentation/twps0027/tab18.txt
 Wagner Biography: http://www.nyc.gov/html/nyc100/html/classroom/hist_info/mayors.html#wagner
 New York Times “William A. Shea, 83, Dies; Lawyer Behind Mets” October 4th, 1991
 Shea Photograph from New York Times. “Baseball Starts at 8 A.M. for Shea” July 28th, 1959
 New York Times “New York Still Hopes.” Jan 15th, 1958
 New York Times “Mayor Says His Baseball Aide Talked to Phils About Shift Here”, April 16th, 1959
 Times, April 16th, 1959
 Although Shea was willing to go either route if MLB pressed the issue, he considered this a solution of absolute last resort.
 Times. July 28th, 1959
 New York Times,” Rickey Will Head Continental League” August 19th, 1959.
 Times, August 19th, 1959
Information from Sidebar comes from New York Times “Rickey Awaits 1963 World Series” August 23rd, 1959
 Times, August 13th, 1959
 Times, August 23rd, 1959
 New York Times, “New Orleans’ Bid Heard by Rickey” September 9th, 1959
 New York Times, “Montreal Group Files Bid Here for Continental Loop Franchise.” September 18th, 1959
 New York Times, “New League To Add 3”
 New York Times. “Frick Has Doubts on Third League.” September 5th, 1959
 New York Times. “Shea Indicates Increasing Lack of Harmony Between Majors, New League.” October 5th, 1959
 New York Times. “Expansion Move Attacked as Plot.” October 23rd, 1959
 New York Times. “Not Cricket, Shea Says.” October 16th, 1959
 New York Times. “Continental League Faces Collapse if City Delays Action on Site, Shea Says.” October 20th, 1959
 New York Times. “Third League Again Threatens to be Outlaw Circuit if Needed.” November 17th, 1959
 New York Times. “Frick Defends Majors.” November 18th, 1959
 New York Times. “Third League Opens New Offices.” November 14th, 1959
 New York Times. “Sports of the Times: Year in Review.” December 20th, 1959
 New York Times. “Senator Offers to be Mediator.” January 6th, 1960.
 New York Times. “Frick Predicts Rosy Future for New League.” January 12th, 1960
 New York Times. “Franchise Seems Sure for Buffalo.” January 23rd, 1960
 New York Times. “Target for Start of Play Still ‘61” January 30th, 1960
 New York Times. “Northern Teams to Open in South.” February 19th, 1960.
 New York Times. “3D League Demands Help from Majors.” April 16th, 1960
 Frick’s resolve was shown most famously when he was National League President and members of the St. Louis Cardinals were reportedly threatening a protest in response to Jackie Robinson’s entry to the game, Frick declared any players involved would be suspended. The protest never materialized.
 New York Times. “Frick Says It’s All Talk, No Action in New Circuit.” April 18th, 1960.
 New York Times. “Majors Weigh Expansion Move.” May 21st, 1960
 New York Times. “Rickey Says Setback in Senate Won’t Halt Continental League.” June 30th, 1960
 New York Times. “National League Votes to Expand.” July 19th, 1960
 New York Times. “Baseball Men from 3 Leagues to Confer Today on Expansion.” August 2nd, 1960.
 New York Times. “Baseball to Add 4 Cities in Majors.” August 3rd, 1960.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Diamondbacks at Expos
Today represented another proud moment in the dying days of the Expos franchise. As I'm sure you know, the Expos often had an incredibly difficult time drawing fans following the 1994 strike, and so were sometimes forced to resort to silly promotions. (I myself once attended $1 hot dog night in Montreal; of course, that's $1 Canadian, so it was like eighty-three cents.) This was an especially goofy promotion though: Dog Days at the Ballpark. The point of Dog Days was that if you purchased a ticket and brought your dog--or any dog, I suppose--to the game, you could join a special parade around the field before the game with your dog.
Bafflingly, the promotion worked as the Expos drew more than twenty-one thousand, nearly ten thousand more than their average. I say that it was baffling because if you don't care about baseball enough to come to a game, why would you care enough to bring your dog to a game just so it could parade around the field? People did care though, as the Expos tallied more than seven hundred and fifty dogs. I really have no other insight to offer on this topic except to say that it only strikes me as more evidence the Québécois really ought not to govern themselves.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
Cliff Speck Born
Today seems to be the day for people whose names are also things. The best example is our title, Cliff Speck who has nouns for both his names. This is a day, however, when names that are things practically represent the rule rather than the exception. Others born today include Al Woods, Jim Miles, Johnny Temple, Marlin Stuart (that's his real name, by the way) and Tot Pressnell. That last one is a nickname, but that's ok because Tot's real name was Forrest, so I guess he's on the all-Park Service team with Al Woods.
Johnny Temple is by far the best player of his lot, the only one to have made an All-Star game (he actually made four) while the rest are a fairly underwhelming bunch so perhaps having a name that is also a thing (or, for that matter, a name that is two different things) is too much of a burden for players born on August Eighth to bear.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Jim Gray/Tyler Yates Born
It's been a while since I've done a "linkage" blog, so this one will take along the path of common teammates from the oldest (well, dead-est, but you get the idea) player born on this date through to the youngest. Before we get to them, it's only fair to do introductions. Jim Gray played in only six career games, doing so at the rather wide age range of twenty-one, twenty-seven and thirty. He finished with a career batting average of .304, but given that's just seven for twenty-three; I'd take it with a grain of salt. Appropriately for the most recent player from August 7th, Tyler Yates is from our most recent state, Hawaii. After growing up and attending college there, Yates broke into the Majors with the Mets in 2004, and while he didn't see any time at the big league level last year, he's thrown around twenty-five innings for the Braves this season. Moving along to the list then:
Jim Gray played with Bill Wilson on the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys: The very next year the team would become known as the more familiar Pirates, but this year they were differently named. However, they had much in common with the modern Pirates, as they were an awful team, posting a winning percentage equal to fewer than thirty wins across 162 games. Bill Wilson was the team's primary bench player and didn't help much, hitting just .214
Bill Wilson played with Nick Altrock on the 1898 Louisville Colonels: Altrock, of course, has been written about at length both here and elsewhere. There has been less written about the 1898 Colonels, which is little surprise as they are a largely forgettable team, and might-be totally forgettable if not for being the home of Honus Wagner's first full season. (Incidentally, Wagner played first base, of all things, that year.)
Nick Altrock played with Sam West on the 1929 Washington Senators: Anything with Altrock is kind-of cheating, since he didn't really play with Sam West, but that's life. For someone I've never heard of--although I should do an all compass points team someday--West had a long career playing sixteen seasons and batting .299 over that time. The 1929 Senators were the first team managed by the Senators' former ace Walter Johnson. Johnson had a rough start, going just 71-81 that year, but would win ninety-two or more games the next three years.
Sam West played Early Wynn on the 1941 Washington Senators: Told you West had a long career. Although to be fair he had left the Sens for a five and a half stretch with the St. Louis Browns. Wynn would of course go onto a Hall of Fame career for the Indians and the White Sox, but at this point he was just a kid trying to make it in the big leagues. Wynn would go 3-1 with an outstanding 1.58 ERA in DC that year over forty innings. Unlike Wynn, the '41 Washingtonians were not-so-outstanding, losing eighty-four games.
Early Wynn played with Tommy John on the 1963 Cleveland Indians: Talk about your long careers, when Wynn began his career, Dwight Eisenhower was just an obscure Lieutenant Colonel toiling staff jobs in Washington. Over the length of Wynn's career "Ike" would rise to command the Allied armies in World War Two and serve two full terms as President and retired as a private citizen when Wynn was still pitching. Just like Wynn, Tommy John would go onto a great (arguably Hall of Fame caliber) career, but this was his rookie season as John went 0-2 with a 2.21 ERA over twenty innings. And like Wynn's first club, John's was not-so-good, losing eighty-three games.
Tommy John played Al Leiter on the 1989 New York Yankees: Continuing our theme here, we come to another pretty good pitcher in one of his first seasons. Leiter is not the pitcher Wynn or John were, but he had some damn fine seasons. 1989 was not one of them as Leiter posted a 5.63 ERA pitching for the Yankees and Blue Jays. Of course, this was not one of the Yankees' finest seasons either, as they lost eighty-seven games one of the highest totals in franchise history.
Al Leiter played with Tyler Yates on the 2004 New York Mets: And here we return to Tyler Yates and his debut season for the hugely mediocre 2004 Mets. Our chain of largely good pitchers debuting on bad teams is complete, and it's up to Tyler to continue that tradition. No pressure, kid.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Goose Gossage Records 300th Save
There are lots of ways to demonstrate how much wider the usage of closers and the save statistic have increased over the last twenty something years. Today provides an especially vivid one. The Goose's three hundredth save was obviously not only a great personal accomplishment, but also a historic one. At the time only one other player had three hundred saves (Rollie Fingers being the other) so Gossage was putting himself into elite company. He was also thirty-six years old and clearly no longer the dominant reliever he had been during his time with the Yankees and Padres.
Fourteen years later, Robb Nen nailed down his three hundredth save. While the number was still an impressive total, it was no longer special ground. Thanks to the proliferation of closers, Nen was the sixteenth man to hit the total--twenty have now done it, most recently Billy Wagner; Armando Benitez has a shot at three hundred but after that there's no one really on the horizon. Nen was also just thirty-two years old, a full four years younger than Gossage.
In the fourteen years between them, then, the usage of closers (and pitchers generally) had been changed so dramatically that while for the first nearly ninety years of baseball history only two players managed three hundred saves, fourteen managed it in the next fourteen. That's a drop from an average of one every forty-five years to one every year. Bring on the bullpen car, I guess.