Saturday, November 18, 2006

November 18th, 1936

Jay Hook Born

"The '62 Mets, it seems, were having a lot of trouble defending the double steal...Stengel called a team meeting to address the problem and asked if anybody had any suggestions. Hook raised his hand and said, 'I've got an idea, Casey. When they try the double steal, why not have our pitcher intercept the throw down to second and then fire it back to the plate?'

As luck would have it, the next time the Mets were faced with a first-and-third situation, Hook was on the mound. The speedy Vada Pinson was on first and the plodding Wally Post on third. Reds' skipper Freddie Hutchinson put on the double steal...[so] Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman caught the pitch and fired a strike right over the pitcher's mound. Instead of intercepting Coleman's throw, Hook ducked and watched the ball fly toward second base. Mets' second baseman Hot Rod Kanehl took the throw in front of the bag and made a great return throw that was on target to nail the chugging Post--except that Hook, suddenly remembering the new plan, reached up and cut it off!...which allowed Post to score easily"

~Mike Shannon [Quoting Richie Ashburn], Tales from the Dugout

[That's a fairly typical Jay Hook story, Hook was by all accounts a remarkably bright guy; he had a degree in engineering from Northwestern and supposedly had a genius level IQ. Hook, however, suffered from an almost total lack of both common and baseball sense so stories like that abound. As you might've guessed by his being a member of the '62 Mets, he also rather suffered from a lack of baseball talent, finishing his career with a 5.23 ERA.]

Friday, November 17, 2006

November 17th, 1938

Aubrey Gatewood Born

You have to admire a player whose name sounds like the sort of place one that modern players would live in, as in: "although he plays for the White Sox, Jim Thome actually lives just outside the city in the wealthy suburb of Gatewood." Combined with "Aubrey" being--at least in my mind--a girl's name, and you've got a pretty good package there. (As an aside, Aubrey is apparently considered a unisex name and means "rules the elves;" that's some name.)

As it stands, the name is pretty much the best thing Gatewood had going for him. He pitched fewer than two hundred innings over a four year career. The first three came with the Angels in 1963-65 and he returned several years later with the Braves for two innings in 1970. Some sources list Gatewood as a knuckleballers, but others--notably the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers--make no mention and they have a fairly comprehensive list of guys who threw it in the big leagues.

Whatever pitches he threw, when Gatewood was healthy enough to throw them he was capable of getting outs. He had an ERA of just 2.04 over the first two years of his career and was still respectable thereafter but arm troubles plagued him, as the four year gap with no appearences in the Major Leagues indicate. I don't know what he's doing these days; perhaps he's mayor of the sort of quiet suburb that would bear his name.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

November 16th, 1886

Joint Rules Committee Meets

The “joint” part of the JRC refers to both the America Association and National League—the primary professional leagues at the time—being members of the committee. It met on this date and set a number of rules, all of which go a long way to illustrating why I don't write much about pre-1900 baseball. Among the gems from the 1886 came the decision that a strikeout would be four strikes, it would take five balls for a walk and that one side of the bat could be flat, so as to aid bunting. As you might have noticed if you happened upon a Major League baseball game any time in, say, the last hundred years, none of these rules really stuck.

To be fair, some of the rules innovations made at the 1886 meeting survive to this day. The 1886 meeting made universal the rule that batters would be awarded first base on a hit-by-pitch and the elimination of the batters' ability to call for a "high" or "low" ball. In 1886 it was decided that the home team would have the choice of first or last ups, which doubtless evolved into the more standard arrangement we know today. And, to be even fairer, the four strike rule was quickly recognized as a bad idea and eliminated by 1887.

1886 also marked the beginning of a pair of rules that have pretty much been ignored ever since. The first was that coaches had to stay in their coaching boxes. In baseball early days, this was especially important as coaches used to do things like run up-and-down the bases lines in an attempt to distract the pitcher. (Although why this didn't do just as much to distract the batter I'll never know.) Modern coaches don't do that, of course, but they also almost never stand in the proper coaches box; they more-or-less stand wherever the hell they feel like standing.

The second rule is one that has launched a million debates, and probably a thousand ejections: the strike zone. The 1886 rules defined it as from the shoulders to the knees. It has gone over a number of revisions both in height and width since then and is defined today with the top being the midpoint between the shoulders and waist (in other words, the letters) and the bottom being the knees, as illustrated here. Of course, as anyone who watched the playoffs this year can tell you, umpires tend to call the strike zone pretty much however they feel like calling it, often varying from pitch-to-pitch for no apparent reason.

The JRC might not have created a set of rules that was carved in stone and honored all the way to the present day, but did lay the groundwork for some of those rules and also helped established that a common set of rules was necessary to the growth of the game; that is likely its most important legacy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

November 15th, 1880

Hi Jasper Born

Although that might sound like the name out of a bad sequel to Who's On First? ("I'd like you meet our new pitcher, Hi Jasper" "Sure, I'll say hello" "No, Hi Jasper" and so on) 'Hi' was actually a fairly common name in the early days of baseball, with six other players going by the name. It was often short for 'Hiram' but our man today was actually named Henry and the name seems to have sometimes been applied totally at random. 'Hi' as a greeting was first recorded in 1862 (although its origin is thought to be the Middle English 'hy') but it didn't get its nearly ubiquitous status until many years later which is around when 'Hi' as a nickname began to die out.

As for Hi Jasper himself, he had a four year career beginning with the White Sox in 1914 at age thirty-three. He saw limited time for the Sox in '14 and '15 and joined the St. Louis Cardinals where he pitched the most innings of his career (over a hundred for the first and last time) before dropping out of the Majors until 1919 when he saw action in just over eighty innings for Cleveland.

Besides his late age at reaching the Majors, there are two other points about Jasper that drew my attention. (Well, three points when you count his name, but I've already pretty well beaten that into the ground.) The first is a single reference to Jasper having only one eye. I have absolutely no idea if it's true, and if so it might go some ways to explaining his nickname (Hi/Eye sounding somewhat the same). Part of me doubts this is so in no small part because Jasper managed to hit a home run in the course of his career but then it seems like an odd thing to make up.

The other notable element of Jasper's career is that during the 1916 season while toiling for the Cardinals Jasper--and the rest of the team--wore what might have been the dullest uniforms of all time. The Cards (among baseball's sharpest dressers these days) bafflingly adopted the I-can't-be-bothered-with-uniform-design look in 1909 and kept it until 1918 when they finally came to their senses. For Hi Jasper however, 1916 represented the least interesting year in his uniform career.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

November 14th, 1981

Duane Kuiper Traded

Now known best, I assume, as one of the Giants' television and radio annoucers, Duane Kuiper was previously best known for two things: a home run and a pair of triples. This is funny (in the funny-strange-kind-of-way) because over the course of his career, Kuiper was not exactly a threat to triple and definitely not a threat to hit a home run. It is the nature of those hits, however, which makes them so memorable..

First, the triples. On July 27th, 1978 the Yankees took on Kuiper's Indians in a doubleheader. The Yankees battered one-time superprospect David Clyde for six runs in an inning and two-thirds in the first game, winning an 11-0 laugher. In the second however, the Indians did some laughing of their own as they won 17-5. Six of those seventeen runs were driven in by Kuiper, and here is where the triples come into play. In his first at-bat, Kuiper came up with the bases loaded and drove a bases clearing triple. That's not unprecedented, although it is somewhat unusual. In the fifth inning, Kuiper came up again with the bases loaded and again hit a triple. That's also not unprecedented, but it's damn close. Only two players in history had even hit two bases loaded triples, Elmer Valo and Bill Bruton and now Kuiper was the third.

Now, the home run. For his career, Kuiper hit just one, single, solitary home run. On August 29th, 1977 the Indians were playing the White Sox in a nationally televised "Monday Night Baseball" game. Facing future Cy Young winner Steve Stone with the bases empty in the first inning, Kuiper drove a pitch into the right field stands for his first (and only) career home run. Kuiper's version of events is that after that home run, he began to make sure he didn't hit another one, claiming that "one is better than none, but any more than that and people begin expecting them."

But what does any of that have to do with his being traded? Well, it's partially an excuse to tell those two stories, but it is also relevant in story number three. Many people know there is a single seat in Fenway Park painted to indicate the (supposedly) longest home run ever hit there. That was not a title Kuiper was likely to ever take possession of, but upon being traded, the Indians gave their former player the seat from the right field stands where his single home run was said to have landed. I've no idea what Kuiper did with the seat--maybe he sits in it while broadcasting Giants' games--but as going away presents from team-to-player go, that's an unusual one.

Monday, November 13, 2006

November 13th, 1946

George Theodore Born

If there's something I really like in the names department, it's someone with two first names that are also two last names: George Theodore. That's pretty good. His full name: George Basil Theodore, is even better. That's three first names that can also be last names. Cramming all that in there is no easy feat. (Incidentally, whether first, last or middle, Theodore is the only man with "Basil" in his name to play in the Major Leagues.)

As it turns out, it was a good thing George Theodore had the name going for him, as his career is not the sort that inspires much in the way of commentary. Theodore only had one season in which he played significant time. As it turns out, he had the good fortune for that one season to be 1973 with the "Ya Gotta Believe!" Mets. Theodore appeared in forty-fives as an outfielder/first baseman for the Mets that season, posting an OPS+ of 80. He also saw action in two World Series games, although he received only two at-bats and went hitless.

In 1974 Theodore appeared in fifteen more games but managed forty less at-bats as he was unable to repeat even his modest success at the plate from 1973. Theodore never played in the Majors after that season and today works a youth baseball coach, where perhaps he can help another three first/last named player make it to the big leagues.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

November 12th, 1937

Peek-A-Boo Veach Dies

I've just returned from a highly enjoyable but also hugely exhausting weekend visiting friends in Washington DC. Instead of trotting out my "Nation's Best Ballplayers" column again, however, I will do something new and send you back to June of last year when we first encountered Peek-A-Boo.

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