Saturday, October 21, 2006

October 21st, 1976

Reds at Yankees

This game marked, in essence, the last great moment of the Big Red Machine. Scoring four runs in the ninth inning, the Reds increased their lead to 7-2 and put to rest the final notions of a Yankee comeback. This was the Reds' second title in a row and while the '76 version wasn't as dominant as the '75 team they were nonetheless pretty good. They would fail to make the playoffs the next year, however, and the final dynasty of the 1970s, the Yankees, would take over. (The '70s, especially in the middle period, are perhaps the most dynastic period in baseball history as three team won seven of the World Series each winning all their titles in a row.)

This victory was also notable for marking something new. 1976 was the first time a team had gone through the entire playoff system without losing a game. It was not the first time a team had won a title without losing a postseason game, of course; the 1907 Cubs were the first to go undefeated. (Although the Cubs did tie one game in their Series, the first team to win every game was the 1914 Boston Braves.) However, starting in 1969 a team had to play two different series to win a title, and until the '76 Reds, no team had gone undefeated through both series.

In fact, until 1995 when the playoffs were expanded to a third series, no other team went undefeated through the playoffs. And as you probably know, no team has ever gone through the Division, League Championship and World Series without losing a game; although two--the '99 Yankees, and '05 White Sox--have lost just one. The Reds were therefore not only the first team to go undefeated through two rounds of playoffs, but remain the last team to win a World Championship without a losing a game. And given the difficulties of going 11-0 against playoff caliber competition, they figure to remain the last team to do it for a long, long time.

Friday, October 20, 2006

October 20th, 1897

Jigger Statz Born

I suppose, what with trying to buy the Nets, appearing in TNT's NBA ads and all, Jay-Z is probably more of a basketball guy, but I guess here we have the original Jigga, albeit spelled a bit differently. Actually, it's a shame that Jay-Z is so well associated with the Jigga name, otherwise this would make a dandy stage name if Bill James or Billy Beane ever issued a hip-hop album. He was born Arnold John Statz, I have no real idea about the nickname, although given that he was a slight man, just 5'7", 150, I imagine it comes from a supposed resemblance to the eponymous bartender's tool.

Although Statz had a relatively underwhelming Major League career, hitting .285 in a little under seven hundred games across eight seasons, he remains an all-time great in the Pacific Coast League. In those days, of course, the PCL was its own league, known as a level below the Majors, but significantly more independent than it is today. To this day Statz owns the PCL records for, among other things, games, hits, doubles and runs. Until he was passed by both Hank Aaron and Pete Rose Statz also held the all-time record for professional games played.

Playing exclusively for the Los Angeles Angels once he left the Majors, he hit over .300 nine straight times, and was part of the 1934 Angels team that is regarded by many as the best minor league team of that decade. (The other contender is the 1937 Newark Bears, a Yankee farm club featuring Charlie Keller and Joe Gordon.) In fact, the 1934 Angels (or '37 Bears) are probably the last truly great minor league team, as by after World War Two the Minor Leagues had really begun to be resigned into the feeder system for the Majors we know today.

The obvious question then is that if Statz was tearing up the PCL why some enterprising Major League team didn't try to give him another shot. The answer is that Angels were owned by William Wrigley (also owner of the Cubs, of course) and although Wrigley asked after Statz, the latter made it clear he enjoyed playing on the West Coast with its smaller ballparks and warmer weather. As such, Wrigley allowed Statz to stay in the minor leagues, where he played out his career. After his playing days Statz became a Cubs scout; he died in California in 1988.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

October 19th, 2006

Cardinals at Mets

If you are anything like me, you just got through watching a helluva game as the Cards edged past the Mets in Game Seven to capture the National League Pennant. After a game like that, I can only concede history was made, and make no attempt to overwhelm it. I'll be back tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

October 18th, 1972

Reds at A's

As you can probably guess from the timing, this was a World Series game, a Game Three as a of matter fact and like yesterday's NLCS game, it was a rescheduled rainout. The Reds would end up taking the victory 1-0 with the only run scoring on a Cesar Geronimo RBI single, scoring Tony Perez. The victory kept the Reds from going down 3-0 in the series, and although they would manage to push it to Game Seven, the A's won a 3-2 nail biter with Catfish Hunter pitching two and a two-thirds in relief on one day's rest to get the win.

What drew my attention to this game wasn't the end result of the game or the series, but rather a play that occurred in the eighth inning. After Pete Rose lined out, Joe Morgan drew a walk and Bobby Tolan singled, sending Morgan to third and bringing Rollie Fingers into the game. Tolan promptly stole second, putting two runners in scoring position with one out. At this point the game play-by-play records only note that Johnny Bench struck out swinging, Tony Perez was walked intentionally and Denis Menke popped out to end the threat. Those last two entries give you most of the story, but the bit on Bench requires more detail.

Given the situation, it is little surprise that Fingers wanted to work carefully to Bench who had already hit forty home runs in '72 and would soon be named NL MVP. With the count 3-2, the A's apparently decided to cut their losses and walk Bench to load the bases, set-up the double play, and see what Fingers could do with Perez. A's catcher Gene Tenace stood up and Bench, one assumes, began to zone out slightly in anticipation of taking his base. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way as instead of throwing one high-and-outside for ball four, Fingers instead poured one down the middle as Tenace leapt back to catch it. Bench was caught napping as home plate umpire Mel Steiner rang him up.

One final note on this play: it is still tried, every now-and-then, to this day. The most recent example I can remember came against the Yankees, when the Orioles attempted to pull it on Derek Jeter. Of course, one of the many possible flaws of the play was revealed as the O's pitcher was unable to throw a 3-2 strike, meaning Jeter watched go by the rarely seen unintentionally-thrown-intentional-ball-four. As I said, this doesn't happen much, but it's something when it does and another of the many small elements of the game worth watching for.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

October 17th, 1927

Johnny Klippstein Born

Born in Washington DC, Klippstein probably deserved mention in my entry on ballplayers from our Nation's Capital since while he is only the second winningest pitcher born there, he is the winningest to pitch in the second half of last century; indeed, the winningest DC pitcher outside of the deadball era. Klippstein began his career for the Cubs in 1950 as a twenty-two year old, supposedly after being signed at sixteen from a try-out in camp in Wisconsin by the Cards and bouncing around a series of minor-league moves.

Klippstein was sometimes credited with having one of the best fastballs in the league, with a contemporary Baseball Digest article claiming that his figure--he's listed at a rail-like 6"1', 185--"belie[d] the wickedness of his fastball." Wicked fastball or not, he was good enough to win more than a hundred games (albeit just barely) despite struggling with his control. For his career Klippstein walked nearly four and a half per nine innings; in his worse seasons he went well above, approaching six per nine in 1953.

Although he was traded from the Cubs after the 1954 season, Klippstein remained a lifelong Cubs' fan holding season tickets for the team. He died on October Tenth, just shy of both his seventy-sixth birthday and fifty-second wedding anniversary. According to his family, Klippstein died shortly after the Cubs scored the fifth (and winning) run in this playoff game which he was listening to. Given how that series turned out for the Cubbies, maybe it's best Klippstein moved into the next world, one where presumably things as silly as Billy Goat Curses and fans with good intentions but poor results aren't the same source of agony they are in this.

Monday, October 16, 2006

October 16th, 1941

Tim McCarver Born

Well, for the moment let's leave aside Tim's broadcasting prowess--or lack thereof--and look at him strictly as a player. I had always pictured McCarver as a totally brutal hitter, a Joe Girardi type who stayed in the line-up wholly on account of his glove. As it turns out, I was pretty wrong. McCarver wasn't Mike Piazza or Mickey Cochrane or anything but he could hit. As a twenty-five year old in 1967 McCarver was arguably the second-best hitter on the Cards, albeit miles behind Orlando Cepeda.

In fact, McCarver was a pretty damn good all-around player. He was quick enough to hit as many as thirteen triples in a season, had nearly a hundred home runs in his career and finished with a career 102 OPS+. Of course, my image of McCarver was at least partially true, as he was a fine defensive catcher. McCarver ended his career as Steve Carlton's personal catcher in Philly, prompting jokes that they would someday be buried sixty feet, six inches apart.

McCarver hung on with the Phillies through the 1980 season which leads us to an interesting piece of trivia. McCarver played in four decades, debuting as a rookie for St. Louis in 1959 up through his time in the City of Brotherly Love. That's something of a testament to McCarver's staying power and something of an element of trivia, of course. I imagine that most players who can claim to have seen time in four decades (or more) did so on account of debuting in the final year(s) of one decade and retiring in the first year(s) of another. It's a neat trick nonetheless, and one that merits some notice.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

October 15th, 1951

Mitchell Page Born

Continuing my series of coaches who were employed last season but who, on account of mangerial changes, are likely to be looking for work this off season we come to Mitchell Page. Page served as hitting coach for the Washington Nationals this year, a job he'd previously held for the Cards during the 2002 through 2004 seasons. Although one never knows about this kind of thing, perhaps whichever team signs Alfonso Soriano this off-season should hire Page, given Soriano's excellent season this year with the Nats.

Page had a short career in the Major Leagues, lasting just eight seasons, while seeing action in fewer than sixty games in four of those years. Like a handful of other players, Page's best season was far-and-away his rookie year. He hit .307 with a .926 OPS and forty-two stolen bases. Playing on a fairly awful Oakland A's team apparently doomed Page, as he was robbed of the Rookie of the Year award by Eddie Murray. (Funnily enough, Murray is also a hitting coach these days for the Dodgers, although he presumably has a bit more job security.) In hindsight of course that looks fine since Murray was a better player overall by a comical margin; but in 1977 Mitchell Page was clearly the man. Such, I suppose, are the vagaries of fate.

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