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. 

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