Tuesday, November 5, 2013

One pitcher, dominating a decade

It’s always a fun question to ask among friends, “Who would you give the ball to for one game if your life depended on it?” or “If the bases were loaded and your life was on the line, who would you want up?” Names such as Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Christy Mathewson, Satchel Paige, and more recently Randy Johnson would come up for pitchers. Hitters like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, or newly David Ortiz would be in the conversation. Some would have better arguments than others, regardless of what decade they came from. The stats were always there but outside factors such as fearlessness, or clutch greatness were the influences that would end those conversations.  

The All-Century team was named at Fenway Park during the 2000 All-Star game, home of perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams. Many living legends arrived from the outfield wall just like players appearing the corn stock in “Field of Dreams.” For nearly two decades, Williams punished pitchers in Boston. His six batting titles are just a portion of his awards that attributes to his hall of fame career.  The great hitter retired in 1960. With the greatest hitter hanging them up, the next 10 of 12 years fear switched from one lefty to another. However, this one made his career on the mound.

Sandy Koufax

As unconventional as they come, Koufax would become dominant, but it didn’t happen overnight. Sandy would throw as hard as he could on every pitch and for five seasons it did not work in his favor, almost causing him to quit the game after the 1960 season where he finished 8-13. He threw his glove and cleats in the trash, only to be recovered by the clubhouse manager. Koufax would come back for a ’61 season, but not until he took the winter to get into the best shape of his life. Spring Training came around and Sandy would still be rearing back and firing with all he’s got. During a “B team” game, Dodgers’ catcher Norm Sherry gave Koufax some advice which some say was the turning point in his career. A simple quote of “Don’t throw so hard.” After walking in the bases loaded, Koufax threw a shut out the next seven innings during that ballgame.  A new Koufax was created. In that 1961 campaign, Koufax would break the National League strikeout record of 267 held by the great Christy Mathewson; A record that stood for 58 years.

We would go on to learn a lot more about the southpaw in 1962.  During this season, Koufax would throw his first no-hitter and would drop his season ERA below 3.00 for the first time in his career. However, his season was hampered by a popped artery in his palm. He was prone to injuries, but he was just getting better. The next four years would be his last as he would retire at the age of 30, but it is arguably the greatest four consecutive years ever assembled by any player or pitcher.
Major League Baseball expanded the strike zone in 1963 switching the advantage from the hitters to the pitchers overnight. Koufax now in more control of his pitching than ever would begin his dynasty and reign of the Cy Young award. Sandy threw his second career no-hitter against the Giants on May 11TH outdueling fellow hall of fame pitcher Juan Marichal. In the 1963 World Series Koufax beat Whitey Ford and the Yankees 5-2 in game one, striking out 15 batters including the first five of the game.  He would take the mound in game four and close the sweep to capture the World Series championship. Koufax finished the season 25-5 with a 1.88 ERA and setting a new high in strikeouts with 306, giving him his first pitching triple crown along with the Cy Young and the 1963 MVP award. The only major league category Koufax seemed not to lead in was complete games. He had 11 while Bob Gibson recorded 13.

1964 was another great year for Sandy although an ailing elbow would cause him to miss starts. A 19-5 with a 1.74 ERA was still amongst the top of the list. The wing would not get any better going into the 1965 season. After pitching a complete spring training game in late March, Koufax woke up to see a black and blue arm, a sign of serious hemorrhaging. He would be told that pitching would be nearly impossible and soon would lose complete feeling in his arm.  Koufax would start taking medication, applying creams, and sticking his arm in ice baths after every game. Somehow that season, Sandy threw more innings than any other season, recording a lead 335.2 innings pitched. 

Then on September 9th, Koufax would become the 6th pitcher in modern-day baseball to throw a perfect game. The Dodgers would face the Minnesota Twins in the World Series and Koufax would be asked to pitch in games two, five and seven.  He won all three games he started including throwing complete games in game five and seven to bring the World Series trophy back to Los Angeles along with another Cy Young and World Series MVP award.  His season ending stats were a record of 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA and a record setting 382 strikeouts giving him yet another pitching triple crown.
It’s always a good feeling to end on a high note, and that’s exactly what Sandy Koufax did, even with all the arm pain, holding out with teammate Don Drysdale during contract talks, and even starring in a movie, Koufax would pitch one more season. 1966 would be his final campaign and he gave it all he got. Koufax would set a career high in wins with 27, again lead the league in ERA with a 1.73 and record a league leading 317 strikeouts, giving him his 3rd pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young award.  The Dodgers once again made it back to the World Series, only to get swept by Jim Palmer and the Baltimore Orioles. 

In four trips to the World Series with the Dodgers, Sandy Koufax recorded a 4-3 record in 57 innings with a 0.95 ERA including four complete games and two shutouts.  In his 12-season career, Koufax had a 165–87 record with a 2.76 ERA, 2,396 strikeouts, 137 complete games, and 40 shutouts. He was the first pitcher to average fewer than seven hits allowed per nine innings pitched in his career (6.79) and to strike out more than nine batters (9.28) per nine innings pitched in his career. He also became the 2nd pitcher in baseball history to have two games with 18 or more strikeouts, and the first to have eight games with 15 or more strikeouts. For 10 years, he was the best pitcher in the league. He will go down as the greatest left handed pitcher of all time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An A In Diamond History

This year’s postseason is a mixture of organizations with rich history who have won a championship or two in the last few decades, and others which have not won a World Series in quite a while.  There are 43 championships between the eight teams. The Cardinals, Athletics and Red Sox are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th only behind the Yankees and their 27 rings, which is what the three organizations have combined (St. Louis - 11, Red Sox - 7, Athletics - 9). The Cardinals and Red Sox have each won two since we hit the new millennium, but the A’s are close to celebrating their 25th anniversary of their last.

There are two types of ballparks around in this day in age. Wrigley and Fenway are still the temples on historic baseball ground. You can even now put Dodger Stadium in the conversation of being a landmark after 50 years and still looking great. Most others are new-age facilities with fun zones, waterfalls, luxurious
suites, and retractable roofs. Then there is the Oakland Coliseum. A colossal cinderblock dropped in south Oakland in 1966, which has been home to the Oakland Athletics since 1968. During the late 60’s through the early 90’s multi-purpose stadiums became popular to host both baseball and football games. Oakland, Houston, Anaheim, Minneapolis, Pittsburg, San Francisco, and San Diego are just a few were of the cities where both a professional baseball and football team shared a stadium.  All have moved on except Oakland.
Along with the cement stadium, the A’s don’t carry superstars, spend money on free agents, nor play in a major media market. A team that has won the AL West the last two years still finishes in the bottom third in league attendance.  The enormous foul territory at the coliseum keeps the fans a vast distance from the playing field. The upper deck is covered with tarp that visibly says “Athletics” with retired numbers on each side; 9, 24, 27, 34, & 43. Can you name them?  These players were part of the Oakland era that dominated that multi-purpose stadium timeframe; Household names that broke records and were postseason superstars: Ricky Henderson, Denise Eckersley, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Reggie Jackson. Although these players are all Hall of Famers and some part of one of the greatest dynasties in baseball history, it doesn’t tell the whole story of the Athletics organization.

Part of the original senior circuit that began in 1876, the Athletics played Boston in the first ever National League game and lost 6-5. That would be the only year the A’s would be a part of the NL finishing with a 14-45 record. It wasn’t until the junior circuit was created in 1901 that the Philadelphia Athletics were officially back in Major League Baseball.  It would be the same year Connie Mack would become the new manager coming over from the Pirates. In 1901 the A’s finished 74-62 with second baseman Nap Lajoie leading the offense, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in American League history with a .426 average, 14 home runs and 125 RBI’s.

The mascot of the Athletics was adapted in 1902 thanks to Hall of Fame manager John McGraw. McGraw resigned from being the manager of the American League Baltimore Orioles to take the job as the new New
York Giants position. McGraw called the Athletics “White Elephants” because Connie Mack was spending money without supervision. Mack did then adopt that as the new logo of his ball club, mixed with their blue and red colors. That same year, the A’s would win their first AL pennant with an 83-53 record. When the season ended, the National League decided to form a merger with the American League to provide an equal status and respect of each other’s contracts. This would create the first World Series in 1903.

Until the 1908 season, the Philadelphia Athletics were in the mix for the pennant and World Series every year with the help of dominant pitching from Rube Waddell and Eddie Plank. 1908 would be the only bump in the road during the first 14 seasons for Connie Mack’s club. They called Columbia Park home those first eight years. President Ben Shibe noticed they needed a new ballpark when 28,000 people would show up to a park that held a capacity of 9,500. It was the beginning of a new era, not just for the Athletics, but for all of baseball. Shibe hired William Steel e and Sons, creator of the city’s first skyscraper to build baseball’s first steel-reinforced grandstands to begin what author David M. Jordan called “the golden age of ballparks.” Opening day April 12, 1909, 30,000 fans piled in to watch the A’s beat Boston 8-1. A dynasty was about to begin. The next four out of five years the Athletics would make it to the World Series and win three of them (1910, 1911, 1913).  A group full of All-Stars, the Athletics had one of the greatest infields in baseball history, and they were given the nickname “$100,000 infield:  Stuffy McInnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Frank “Home Run” Baker.

John Phalen “Stuffy” McInnis
Standing at 5’ 10, young McInnis played third, short, and second in 1910 for Mack’s Athletics. In 1911 the A’s released first baseman Ben Houser after hitting just .188 and moved stocky Stuffy to first. A career .300 hitter and an outstanding career fielder, McInnis adapted quickly and hit .321 in his first year at his new position. Due to an injury, McInnis did not play in the 1911 World Series. Each of the next three years McInnis would hit over .300 and have over 90 RBI’s. Although Stuffy hit poorly the postseason throughout his career, he was still a respected hitter and a phenomenal defensive player with a career .993 fielding percentage.

Eddie Collins
1909 was the breakout season for Collins when he played every game and hit .347, beginning his journey to over 3,300 career hits. Just 22 years old, Collins led second baseman in putout, assists, double plays, and fielding percentage. He finished top three in the league in walks, steals, batting average, runs, total bases, and slugging. Playing with a chip on his shoulder, some players would be rubbed the wrong way by his confidence.  He also defined a superstitious ballplayer. Whether it was avoiding black cats, or not changing game socks during a winning streak, Collins followed all the antics. He would keep gun on the top of his cap when hitting until two strikes, then he would stick it in his mouth and start chewing. Whether myth or accurate, Collins’ practices make for good tales, but his overall play is his legacy. He won the Chalmers Award for being the leagues’ most valuable player in 1914. Shortly after, he was traded to the White Sox.

Jack Barry
Of the four infielders, Barry was the worst hitter with a .243 career average, but he was feared at the plate still because of his ability to step up in the spotlight. He was “clutch.” Barry did all the little things to get the respect of his teammates. He had the quickest hands in the league and made the most difficult plays routine. Barry called his own squeeze plays when at the plate. His double-squeezes were almost guaranteed.  As the captain of the infield he was the brains on the diamond and he seemed to do no wrong. Signing with the A’s right out of college was the glue to the team. Barry only played for 11 years, but appeared in five World Series. He would go on to manage Holy Cross for 40 years and have an .805 winning percentage.

Frank “Home Run” Baker
The biggest of the Athletics’ infielders at 5’11, Baker swung a 52-ounce piece of lumber. The nickname came during the 1911 against the New York Giants when he hit two timely home runs.  He led the league in dingers that year with 11. The following year he would lead the league in RBI’s. Barry holds a very impressive .363 batting average in World Series play. In particular, the 1913 World Series he hit .450 with seven RBI’s to help beat the Giants. Along with his raw power, Baker was considered one of the best defensive third baseman of his time, completing the $100,000 infield, which is arguably the greatest infield baseball has ever seen.

After the 1914 World Series loss to the Boston Braves, the newly formed Federal League started invading AL and NL teams for players. The Athletics would become sellers and would lose their star players. The next season the A’s won 54 fewer games than the 1914 American League pennant champion team did, and finished in last place. 1916 would be even worse when the club won only 36 games, a record low that still stands today. It was an end of a historic era. After the 1914 World Series Eddie Collins left first, and was sold to the White Sox. In the middle of the 1915 season, Jack Barry gained interest from many teams and requested to be moved closer to home, so Mack handed him to the Boston Red Sox. Baker’s contract was sold to the Yankees in 1916 after holding out the entire 1915 season. Stuffy McInnis was the last to go as he stuck around for the years with the A’s in the cellar until after the 1917 season when he was asked to take a pay-cut. Through the tough years, McInnis was still hitting .300 and refused. He would play the 1918 season with Babe Ruth and the Red Sox and win another World Series. The $100,000 infield is the foundation of an Athletics organization that has rich history and great tradition.  Four men who stood around the horn on a diamond were highly respected individual players during their time, but are immortal, immersed in greatness as a group. 

Ford C. Frick - Journalist, Commissioner, Fan

With Allen Huber “Bud” Selig announcing his plans to retire in January 2015, we can reminisce on the Seilg era, along with the other eight commissioners dating back to Judge Landis in 1921.  They have played an important role in America’s pastime, holding down the fort during mischief and mayhem. They dealt with gambling, civil rights, free agency, and drugs. One which stands out the most is the 1919 Black Sox scandal which gave baseball its first commissioner. The owners gave the key to baseball to Judge Landis who banned eight Chicago players from the game for life. A.B. “Happy” Chandler had the entrance of Jackie Robinson. Ford Frick split Maris and Ruth’s homerun record.  Kuhn was in office for free agency hearings in the US Supreme Court. Giamatti was around for the banning of Pete Rose. Finally, Selig had to handle the steroid era.  These gentlemen were men of law, military, and business. Asked to come in and run it as such. All except for one, Mr. Ford Christopher Frick.

Born just one month and 19 days before the Babe, Frick joined the New York sports writing team in 1922. He became a lifetime baseball employee when he started covering the Bambino in 1923. Just like the rest of America, Frick fell in love with the larger than life ballplayer. This was a time when Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones owned the golf world, Jack Dempsey was the great boxing champion, tennis had Tilden, Lenglen, and Wills, and Notre Dame Football had the four horsemen in the backfield.  Frick covered them all, but there was only one Ruth and he dominated the media. Baseball strategy prior to Ruth was “hit ‘em where they ain’t”, base stealing, and slashing led by Ty Cobb. The game changed because of Ruth and Frick covered it all from his Ruthian blasts to his boyish enthusiasm with fans and kids that never dimmed.

“Attempting to measure Babe Ruth’s greatness by standard rule, or mathematical formula, is like trying to thread a needle while wearing boxing gloves.” – Ford Frick

From the end of WWI until the great depression was considered the golden age of sports by most writers in that time. It was an era of laughter and excitement when America supposedly won the “war to end all wars.” For Frick it was an opportunity to cover sports as they grew internationally, but also to cover some of the greatest baseball players of all time. Of the first 108 players elected into the Hall of Fame, 52 of them played during the postwar decade. Names like: Dickey, Sisler, Gehrig, Foxx, Hornsby, Cronin, Cobb, Ruth, Speaker, and Combs; along with pitchers such as: Walter Johnson, Left Grove, Dazzy Vance, and Grover Alexander.

Judge Landis authorized the broadcasting of the World Series in 1921, which would change radio forever. The first broadcast was done by New York’s WEAF, however it would blow up in Chicago when Mr. Wrigley let all local stations broadcast Cubs games. Public interest in nearby states for the Cubs took off. WOR began broadcasting the same year Frick came to New York in 1922. The first two years of WOR, operation came out of Bamberger’s department store which sold radio sets to consumers. It wasn’t until 1924 that they had their own station. In 1930 Frick went from being a writer to becoming a broadcaster. The first local New York broadcast took place in 1931 when four local stations were invited to broadcast a game at Ebbets Field. Frick along with Ted Husing, Sid Loberfeld, and Graham McNamee sat in a box behind the plate and talked into microphones hooked up by telephone lines with one technician on hand that had the job of keeping the lines open. The fan mail poured in and the radio business would boom. Frick called the final regular season series between the Cardinals and Dodgers which decided the pennant. The Cardinals went onto win and that was as close as Dazzy Vance ever came to a world series, but it did attract a record listening audience. By the mid 1930’s, all sixteen teams were broadcasting their games. It opened up a source of income that television would soon quadruple.

1934 would be a big jump for Frick as he was elected Director of the National League Service Bureau at the beginning of the year, then National League President before Thanksgiving. What he is most known for during his time at the head of the National League is the working with hotel owner Stephen C. Clark in creating the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown New York. Clark bought a ball for $5 in 1935 that was used by youngsters in games played at Phinney pasture during the mid 1800’s. The ball was found in a trunk, blackened, torn, patched with ancient letters on it. Clark mounted the ball and displayed it through the Otsego County Historical Society which then attracted local interest.  Clark then added his own prized baseballs, paintings, and prints. He would send his staff across the country to collect other baseball artifacts to add to the collection. Within a year, his small library became a place to travel. Although the Hall of Fame opened in 1939, the first induction class came in 1936. Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner were elected. 1939 means something even more because it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the “Myth” of Abner Doubleday creating the game of baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.

From celebratory to controversy, Frick would later have to face the dispute of the first black player coming into his league. Happy Chandler was commissioner of baseball; however Jackie was going to play for the Dodgers of the National League. It was not unexpected as Robinson was assigned to Montreal the year before. Branch Rickey was a man who did not act on impulse. The idea of integrating blacks in the majors goes all the way back to the mid 1930’s, but no one could ever pull the trigger. In 1947, Frick dealt with all problems big and small with Jackie Robinson. It started with spring training in the south, hotels and restaurants, and also opposing teams. The Cardinals, now one of the classiest organizations, was one of the toughest to deal with as they set out to protest their games against the Dodgers. Frick accepted the entrance of Robinson and other black players to follow. He would then go on to warn organizations of possible suspensions for those who chose to dispute.

“I  cannot but feel that the one man, above all others, who deserves the eternal thanks of his own race, and all thinking people, for bringing about baseball’s greatest reform, is Jackie Robinson himself…Certainly baseball people should be eternally grateful for the contribution he made to his own people, and to the game.” – Ford Frick

Brooklyn would bring up Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe the next year, both competitors and gentleman. Robinson was no longer a one man crusade, although he paved the way for other greats to come. 
Happy Chandler would retire from being Major League Baseball’s commissioner in 1951, giving the reigns to Ford Frick who has been in the game since the early 1920’s as a journalist following the Sultan of Swat. The 50’s was all about the expansion west. There were meetings with the Pacific Coast League about turning the PCL into a third circuit and compete against the American and National Leagues which only went as far west as Chicago. This was immediately discouraged, however San Francisco and Los Angeles pledged ready to take on a major league team. The plan was to advance individual cities to major league status, expanding the geographic of the baseball, but keeping eight teams to each league. The Braves were the first to go in 1953, taking off for Milwaukee. Although Boston fans were bitter, they still had their Red Sox.  The following year the American League had two changes. The Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City while the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore. The major leagues expanded from 10 to 13 cities. Things then got dicey in 1957 with two New York teams traveling across the country. The Dodgers went to Los Angeles and the Giants took to San Francisco. Fans were appalled and in uproar over this massive change. New York had become a one-club city.

Immediately after, the major leagues would expand to 10 teams each. New York, Houston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis were selected. A territory rule would be stepped on with two teams playing in New York and two in Los Angeles. A long meeting with league leaders in St. Louis and with Frick as commissioner went back and forth until Mr. Ben Fiery of the American League proposed that no city could be shared between clubs if the city population is less than 4 million. After agreement, Yankees and Mets would share the Polo Grounds until Shea Stadium was built, and the Angels would temporarily use Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.

“Baseball has always been slow to accept change. Only through dire pressure can any radical change be accomplished. The move of the Giants and Dodgers from New York to California brought that pressure in abundance.” – Ford Frick

The last major historic event that took place while Frick was involved with baseball was the homerun race to catch Ruth’s 60 by Roger Maris during the same year of the expansion of two more teams in each league in 1961. Along with the expansion of the leagues was the extension of the season from 154 games to 162. On the 154th game of the season for the Yankees, Maris had 59 home runs. It wasn’t until September 26th when Maris his number 60 to tie Babe Ruth’s record. On October 1st, the last day of the season, Maris hit home run number 61 to break the record, but in 162 games. Frick would separate the two records, not giving full credit to Maris for having the new record. Some say it was because Frick was such a fan and good friend of Ruth’s he would have none of it. Players such as Roger Hornsby backed Frick comparing Ruth’s .356 average in 1927 and Maris’ .269 average in 1961. Either way, Frick did what he thought was right for the game.

“The commissioner is in a tough spot…He cannot flaunt national law. His decisions must be tempered to fit the times. He cannot roll in the mud of a labor argument one moment, and next moment don a clean shirt and assume authority as final judge and arbiter. As commanding general his job is to develop strategy to win the war, not to man the skirmish lines or lead a scouting patrol…The fact is the commissioner is a hardworking executive trying as best he can to weld scores of individual enterprises into a national institution for the purpose of providing honest competitive entertainment for a sports-minded public.” – Ford Frick

Ford Frick is the only commissioner to be built from within. He is a prominent figure in baseball history as he’s been at the forefront from radio beginnings to Astroturf.  The integrity of the game was held strong during his time in office as he paid tribute and respect to the past, but also was a pioneer in the movement and expansion of the game. No one else was as heavily involved in the revolution of baseball as Ford Frick. He was also a fan of the game, its players, and its followers.

Frick’s Players List
Happiest Player: Ernie Banks – His “nice day for a game” is a personal trademark
Most Aggressive Player: Ty Cobb – His every move was a challenge
Player with Greatest Fan Appeal: Babe Ruth – Undoubtedly
Greatest Pitching Performance: Don Larsen’s Perfect Game – vs Dodgers on October 8, 1956
Best World Series Performance: Brooks Robinson – Greatest individual exhibition I ever witnessed
Greatest World Series Thrill: Bill Mazeroski – 9th inning home run in 1960 game 7 World Series
Favorite “Bad Boy”: Frankie Frisch – I fined him and suspended him the most

*Credit for quotes: Frick, F. (1973). Games, astrisks, and people; memoirs of a lucky fan. New York, NY: Crown Publishers Inc.