101 years ago…

Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox looks to be a self-published book by Allen Wood, through iUniverse Star, in 2000. The book provides a well-researched and entertaining account of the 1918 baseball season, with a focus on Babe Ruth’s penultimate season with the Red Sox.

One of the reasons I picked this up was that it follows a club through a season a long long time ago, in the same way I have been following the 1904 Millers, (reportedly,) and I wanted to see how this writer approached it. Of course I also picked it up because of Babe Ruth, who was such a stand-out character, and the book looks at a particularly interesting time in his career. And, plus, it was only $3 on the discount shelf at Half-Price Books. So how could I go wrong? I could not, and I did not.

Anyone with an interest in baseball history would enjoy this book and probably also learn a thing or two. The author has used multiple sources and interviews to piece together a nice snapshot of the game in 1918. The U.S. had entered the First World War in April of 1917, and so by 1918 a lot of players were in the army or joining the army, and there was some discussion about canceling baseball for the duration. There were a lot of people who looked down on ballplayers for not being in the army, and that, along with so many men being in the military, led to a steep drop in attendance. Players also were dropping-out throughout the season, either being drafted into the military, or volunteering, or leaving to join some war-related industry, often steel-mills and shipyards, it seems, where they could work and also (and mostly) play ball on the company baseball teams while at the same time avoiding the draft. Owners and managers were constantly juggling their rosters throughout the season, looking for older players in the minors who could come up to the big time.

(By the way, there’s a nice piece on the Delaware River Shipbuilding League 1918 on the SABR website.)

Still, the game continued, and Babe Ruth was simply the biggest star in the game. I don’t know what made the Babe so good, how that happened. It’s really pretty inexplicable, and kind of magical, how his game was at such a higher level than everyone else’s. 1918 was the season where Babe transitioned from pitcher to outfielder, and he juggled the two roles with difficulty throughout the season, at one point even going awol because he wasn’t playing in the field as much as he wanted. In 1917 he pitched in 41 games, starting 38, and ending up 24-13, with a 2.01 ERA, while in 1918 he only pitched in 20 games, starting 19, and went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA. Meanwhile his at-bats went up  from 123 to 317, and he hit 11 home runs and drove in 61, as compared to 2 home runs and 14 rbis in 1917. Several times during the season he made mention of having a sore arm, and I wonder if that might not have been true. But he went back and forth about that, and so he wasn’t exactly a trustworthy source of information. And he loved hitting the ball, and so maybe the “sore arm” was only an attempt to get more time in the field.

It had to have been an odd experience, being Babe Ruth; coming from a poor background, the rough side of town, then raised by the catholic brothers at the boys school, and so much more talented, at every level, than the players around him. Hard to think of a comparison. He was like the Shakespeare of baseball, the Beethoven, the Beatles, the Picasso. How can experiences like that be understood? Maybe the Beatles come closest, in terms of general public popularity and also financial success. I don’t think Picasso was ever particularly popular with the masses. Shakespeare, maybe. Who else is has had that experience? How would it change you, if it happened to you?

I don’t get the sense that it changed Babe Ruth much. There’s a lot of references in this book, and others, to Ruth’s immaturity and appetites. Perhaps that was magnified by his immense talent and easy money. Ruth had a difficult and deprived childhood, and then, in a few short years, he had everything, money, success, fame. He was free to indulge for the first time in his life, and at that age there’s quite a lot to indulge in. Beethoven was probably the same way. I imagine there’s a lot of stories about young Beethoven, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Shakespeare too, I suppose. Einstein? Well, anyway. Babe Ruth for sure.

The 1918 season was, frankly, a somewhat bizarre season. With the war going on, the owners cut the season down to 140 games, and with players coming and going, team fortunes rose and fell with player availability. Attendance was dropping, and there were continuing questions as to whether the season should be cancelled or finished early. At that time the game was run by the National Commission, made up of three club owners. These are guys who probably would do well today in Trumpmerica. The players had no power and no say in things, and when the owners changed the pay structure for the World Series, they didn’t really bother to ask or explain this to the players. The championship money that formerly went to the players was to be divided up among the top four clubs in each league, which, coupled with the large drop in attendance, led to a lot less money for the players in the Series. And this led to both the Red Sox and Cubs nearly walking out of the Series in an effort to get a fairer deal and more money. In the war climate, with injured vets sitting in the stands, it was a tough stand to take. Maybe too tough.

This was a particularly interesting part of the book. A World Series walk-out seemed imminent. There were player-commission and player-owner meetings that went nowhere, and it seemed like the Series would be over. And then, suddenly, the players agreed to play, without obviously winning any concessions other than vague promises. The turnaround by the players is surprising, and the author considers the possibility that the gambling interests in play at the time had something to do with it. Was some under-the-table money changing hands, some subterfuge, some dark money? Gambling would seem to be a quick solution to the players’ money problem, and gambling on ball games was rife back then, culminating, of course, with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The author explores the history of some of the players who were shown later to be involved in gambling. There is one definite clue that the series was fixed — a scrap of paper from an individual who may have been in a position to know — but no firm conclusions can be drawn, and there’s nothing obvious in the games to raise suspicions. I suppose that it’s possible, with all the money riding on the games, that it’s also possible that the players were coerced or threatened into playing by gambling interests. But again, no one knows.

Still.

Maybe?

Another possibility is that the players realized that they had no  leverage, and that walking out of the series would have long term implications for their careers. Maybe they just thought that there’s a war on, and that now is not a good time to be complaining about money. The author’s research does not come up with any answers to this riddle. But the games go on, and the Red Sox win their championship. The Babe pitches in the Series, and sets a record for consecutive scoreless innings in the series. He goes 2-0, while hitting only .200 with no home runs. The Red Sox take the series 4 games to 2, with a lot of good pitching and tight games in the series.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read, and a nice window into baseball of 100 years ago. Everything has changed in 100 years. We all get around with our jet-packs now, instead of automobiles, and world government has made war and jingoistic patriotism a thing of the far distant past. And yet, a home run is still a home run, a game is still 9 innings, and there won’t ever be another guy like Babe Ruth.

Good game, Allen Wood. Nice job with this book.

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Yu Lose!

And so the rumor surfaces today that the Yu Darvish race is finally over, and that the Cubs, the lowly woebegone Cubs, are, for once, victorious. .

The MLB Cubs website says 6 years, $126 million, and a new ultra-high-definition 1000-inch TV for his palatial locker.

 

On the bright side, well:

  1. The Twins have saved a whole lot of money.
  2. The Twins are now able to spend heavily on ten or fifteen 36-year-old former major league pitchers who think that maybe they’ve till got one more season to play.
  3. Money that would have been spent on Yu Darvish-based promotions: saved!
  4. He’s in the National League, where he’ll probably do very well, as they have pitchers batting in that league about 10% of the time. And so we won’t have to play against him very much.
  5. We won’t be forced to watch an ancient 36-year-old Yu Darvish laboring through the last years of his fat contract.
  6. Nor will we have to worry all the time about his most valuable arm being healthy.

Seriously, the Chicago Cubs have won the booby prize here. How many pitchers with huge free-agent contracts ever win, say… 18 games in a season? I ask you. Well, let’s look at a few of the top contracts for pitchers.

David Price – $217 million contract with the Boston Red Sox:
went 17-9 in 2016, with a 3.99 ERA
went 6-3 in 2017, with a 3.63 ERA

Clayton Kershaw – $215 million contract with LA Dodgers
2014: 21-3, 1.77 ERA, Cy Young, MVP
2015: 16-7, 2.13
2016: 12-4, 1.69
2017: 18-4, 2.31

 

 

 

Max Scherzer – $210 million contract with the Washinton Nationals
2015: 14-12, 2.79
2016: 20-7, 2.96, Cy Young
2017: 16-6, 2.51, Cy Young

Zack Greinke – $206.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks
2017: 13-7, 4.37
2017: 17-7, 3.20

Justin Verlander – $180 million with the Detroit Tigers
2013: 13-12, 3.46
2014: 15-12, 4.54
2015: 5-8, 3.38
2016: 16-9, 3.04
2017: 15-8, 3.36

There. Aren’t we fortunate that we didn’t waste our money on any of these guys?

 

 

 

Roger Kahn, Memories of Summer

I recently finished reading Memories of Summer, by Roger Kahn, and enjoyed it quite a lot. Kahn’s book is a memoir, and roughly the first third of the book tells of growing up in Brooklyn, going to Ebbets field with his father, playing ball and going to school and discovering that he wants to be a writer. His father happens to know the city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and this gets 19-year-old Roger an interview and a job as a copy boy in 1946. I particularly enjoyed this part of the book, stories of how Roger learned about newspapers and sports writing from some of the greats, such as Red Smith and Heywood Broun. In 1950 he became a copyreader in the sports department ($48/week; do they still have copyreaders?), and soon after that he was out on general sports assignments, covering everything except major league baseball. (They wanted their baseball writer to be older than the players, and I suppose that’s a good general rule of thumb.) But just two years later, at the wise old age of 24, Kahn gets dispatched to Florida to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers spring training. Those were different times, obviously, but I think this speaks to Kahn’s ability as a writer, that they thought he was ready.

His first year covering the Dodgers they win the National League pennant, and (no dilly-dallying in those day, no 8 rounds of playoff games) they play the lordly New York Yankees in the World Series, and Kahn covers this experience closely in the book, and brings home the drama and personalities in the story. And there are quite a few personalities involved: Jackie Robinson, Casey Stengel, Pee Wee Reese, Mickey Mantle, Roy Campanella, Allie Reynolds. The Yankees win it in 7 games, a hard fought, well-played series. After the game, (and about a million years ago,) a reporter asked Mantle about his off season plans.

At the age of twenty, Mickey Mantle had arrived, batting .345 with two important home runs. “Nice Series, young man,” Rud Rennie said. “What are you up to now?”

“Headin’ back to Oklahoma. I got me a job working down in the mines.”

“Work in the mines? The winning share is more than $6,200. You don’t have to do that now.”

“Yes, I do,” Mantle said. “You know my dad died, and I got seven dependents who’re counting on me.” Mantle named three brothers, a sister, his mother, and his wife.

“That’s six,” Rennie said.

“A baby is due in March,” Mantle said. “I don’t know whether I’ll be in the electrical crew or the pump crew or whatever.” The Yankees’ slugging hero of the series smiled pleasantly. “I’m just lucky the mining company offered me a job.”

The second part of the book traces Kahn’s career after he leaves the newspaper, and features some chapters that focus on some individual players, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays in particular. These are thoughtful and personal character studies; Kahn tells us a lot about these legends, in a subtle and natural way.

Many of you baseball fans out there are familiar with Kahn’s other huge best-seller, The Boys of Summer. That seems like it was written a hundred years ago now, (published 1972, so, really, only 45 years ago) and it is well worth re-reading. Kahn brings the same care and skill to this book, and leaves me wanting more. And so I’m planning on tracking down another Kahn book, The Era, 1947-1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World. 

Nice to note that Roger is still with us, 89 years old, and I hope writing another book.

Good game, Roger!

Baseball and Philosophy, edited by Eric Bronson

With the coming of spring and new hope and new adventures, I’ve pulled a few old baseball books off my shelves, dusted them off, and cracked them open, searching for wisdom. I’ve owned this copy of Baseball and Philosophy for probably 6 years or so, and never managed to get past the first inning. (The book is divided into innings instead of chapters, with two essays in each. Nice.)

The book is a collection of essays written primarily by college professors, who examine various philosophical questions raised (for some) by baseball. Questions such as:

  • Is it rational to believe in the Cubs, or in any religious faith?
  • If and when everyone is cheating, is it still cheating?
  • Does a team have an ethical responsibility to play ball?
  • Is the intentional walk unethical?

Yes. Serious, thought-provoking questions indeed, and I’m sure questions that all of us baseball fans have considered at some time, if only subconsciously.

Despite these hard-hitting questions, the book in the past just didn’t resonate with me, for some reason. Despite the fact that the first article in the bottom of the first hit very close to home, a piece called “Minnesota’s ‘Homer Hanky Jurisprudence:’ Contraction, Ethics, and the Twins,” by Paul Horan and Jason Solomon. This is where I always got hung up – perhaps because the top of the first — “There’s No Place Like Home!” by Joe Kraus — also did not capture my attention so much, and, well, sometimes it’s two strikes and you’re out.

However, this being spring, fresh starts, new beginnings, I gave it another chance, and this time I steadily made my way through all nine innings and then the post game “press conference” pieces. This time I generally enjoyed the book — though with any collection of essays you’re going to find some you regret and some that shine.

This time, for some reason, I found the bottom of the first to be of more interest, as the authors discussed the legal and ethical issues raised by the foul, nefarious, dastardly and underhanded attempt of Major League Baseball, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and, it must be said, even the Twins’ kindly owner, Carl Pohlad, to contract the Major Leagues and erase the Twins and the Montreal Expos from the roster of Major League teams.

Whereas, in the past, this article lost me somewhere in the second page, this time I persevered, and found it to be a nicely illuminating essay. Perhaps I was over-tired when I picked this book up in the past. (Not an unusual state of being for me.)

As some of you may recall, in late 2001, the owners voted 28-2 to eliminate two teams from the major leagues. (I’m not sure who the two nay-sayers were, but I imagine them to be, for appearance sake, the owner of the Expos and also Carl Pohlad.) “The teams to be contracted have a long record of failing to generate enough revenues to operate a viable major league franchise,” sayeth Mr. Selig.

This, naturally, created something of a stir. A lot of pointed questions were asked, and, in fact, in December of 2001, Commissioner Selig appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, where he attempted to weasel his way out of some of these pointed questions.

League financial data was turned over to the committee, which revealed, according to Mr. Selig, that Major League Baseball was in Terrible Financial Shape, and that 25 of the 30 major league teams lost money the previous year. Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina raised the point that it sounded like most of the teams were failing to generate enough revenues to operate viable major league franchises, and then asked how contracting just two of the teams would fix baseball’s large systemic problems.

As the hearings went on the talk turned frequently to the generous tax subsidies given to baseball, and to their anti-trust exemption, and, well, things became increasingly awkward for Snidely B. Selig.

(Riveting video of these congressional hearings on the CSPAN website! Representative Watt appears at about 1:36 in the video.)

Major League Baseball (Mr. Selig) was essentially arguing that this contraction thing was just a simple business decision, an accounting problem, a question of income and outrun. Sound financial management by the guardians of our national pastime.

Minnesota Superior Court Judge Harry Seymour Crump looked at things a little differently, however, and on November 16 Judge Crump issued an injunction that ordered the Twins to stay in Minnesota for 2002, saying basically that this was not just a dollars and cents issue, and that the citizens of Minnesota would suffer irreparable harm if the Twins did not play their 2002 season in Minnesota. Judge Crump, according to the authors, picked up on baseball’s unique position in the law, which rests in part upon a utilitarian notion of the public good. Baseball, and the Twins, provide intangible assets to the community that no monetary damages can possibly recompense.

In a particularly low point for team public relations, the Twins and Major League Baseball appealed the decision, and the essay points out the awkward position they found themselves in. After years of claiming a special legal standing and status, they were now claiming, oh, hey, we’re just a business, just like everybody else… except for our anti-trust exemption. Other than that, just like anybody else. Business as usual. Nothing going on here. We aren’t so special, really. Uh, well, in some ways we are, but here, no, not in this case. You see?

All in all, I found this to be a nice little article about baseball’s odd position in the law and it’s requisite responsibilities.

The best article in the book was written by Professor Ted “The Panther” Cohen, of the University of Chicago, “There Are No Ties at First Base.” This seemed the most personal and heartfelt essay in the book, and it was also the funniest.

Ted is a guy who knows the rules of baseball, and he oversees a pick-up game for kids and parents in a local park. In one game there is a play at first base, and the runner and the ball arrive at the base at the same time, and a bit of an argument ensues:

Then an adult loped in from the outfield and with calm, good sense, and an intention to soothe, spoke softly but firmly, commanding immediate quiet and attention. “It was a tie. Let’s let him be safe.”

It was a perfect remark. It was generous and also fair. It was paternal but not patronizing. It satisfied all the children: the batting team was given a runner at first, the fielding team was given respect.

But it was wrong. I alone knew it was wrong, and had anyone else known it, I would have been alone in feeling the necessity of saying so. “If it was a tie,” I said, “then you don’t have to let him be safe; he was safe.”

The other adult turned his calm on me: “I know it’s a convention in baseball that ties go to the runner.” With that remark he put me with the children, I suppose, as if I were a perverse child and perhaps a bright one, but a child still. I had a brief thought of letting it go at that, but that thought faded like a weak throw from the outfield, and I became the kind of child-adult who is too much for any sensible man to handle. “It’s not a convention,” I said. “The rule says that the runner is safe unless the ball arrives before him. If the ball arrives at the same time, then it doesn’t arrive before him, and so he is safe.”

The other adult was silenced. The older children were in awe. I was trembling with a sense of moral triumph. I can remember nothing else from that game.

I reallyenjoyed the Panther’s quiet sense of humor in this piece. When one second baseman’s father says to him, “You’re being obnoxious,” Cohen writes:

“All the children who play regularly know this about me… but they sense that this goes with the order I give to the game…. They seem to like the structure I supply, the umpiring, and the authoritative commentary on the rules, and I think they are attracted by my obtuse scholasticism.”

After the initial “rhubarb” regarding the tie at first base, Cohen realizes that he must check the rules. “I had spoken with confidence, but I was not really sure.” He discovers, unfortunately, a contradiction in the rules, which state:

A batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.

but also:

Any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner.

In the first instance, the ball/tag has to beat the runner. Tie goes to the runner.

In the second instance, the runner has to reach the base before the tag. Tie goes to the tag!

Cohen, naturally, finds this troubling.

“With all that charm, and with their natural appeal to my philosophical sensibility, the rules had won me over. Now I found them wanting at their core.

On the other hand, I anticipated that statutory immortality that would be due me. I would effect a change in the rules. It was unlikely that I would be given a footnote in the rule book, but I might well find myself in a Roger Angell essay…”

Well, I’m not going to tell you how this all works out. Perhaps the title gives you a clue. But it was a delightful read, and I learned later that it won a Pushcart Prize in 1991.

All in all, this was a worthy little book of baseball, if not of philosophy. Sometimes it was a bit difficult for me to catch the philosophical nuances. Sometimes it seemed like they were stretching a bit. The articles on the Zen of Hitting and Japanese baseball were pretty interesting, as was the article on Baseball, Cheating, and Tradition. Some of the Press Conference pieces at the end seemed a bit cursory.

Ted “The Panther” Cohen passed away in 2014, at age 74. Good game, Panther.

Meanwhile… back in 2014….

stove - loc e

So the Twins have finally taken my advice — or at least the most expensive part of it – and signed Ervin Santana to pitch for them next year. With Danny Santana at shortstop (or center field,) we are only one short, easy, inexpensive step away from seeing Los Tres Santanas. And the last I heard (an internet search mere seconds ago) The Original Johan is still out there, a free agent, ripe for the plucking.

los tres santanas g

Looks like The Original Johan is planning on pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League this January, working on his comeback from a torn Achilles tendon. If he does okay down there in Venezuela, I won’t be surprised to see him in spring training with the Twins. Because the Twins are crazy for veterans with moxie and can-do attitude (see: Hunter, Torii.) (Add “damaged goods” and “inexpensive gamble” into the mix…)

Is Every Day Eddie Guardado available?

How about Senor Smoke, Juan Beranguer?

Who’d you rather see at first base this year, Justin (.319) Morneau or Joe Mauer?

Can Joe play third?

Put Trevor Plouffe back in the outfield?

Ahhhhh. Hot stove league. The snow is blowing out there, but in here there’s a little taste of summer going on.

swing e fr - mtpmcg714 - 5618

Foul Ball!

You couldn’t say that I’m “plowing through” the baseball books. No.  There is remarkably little time in life right now for reading right now. Yet I continue to plug away at them in a desultory fashion, and now I have just finished Foul Ball – My life and hard times trying to save an old ballpark, by Jim Bouton, of course.

Foul Ball

This was a different sort of book. In some ways it tries to be Ball Four – written in a diary style, practically a day by day account of the fight to save the old Wahconah ball park, in Pittsfield Massachusetts. But times have changed, and the topic is not as fun and lighthearted as the Pilots of ’69. On the surface this is the story of Bouton and his friends trying to save and rejuvenate a classic old small town minor league ball park. At it’s heart thought this is a story of money and politics, power, corruption, and the golden rule. (i.e., them with the gold, they make the rules.)

The powers that be in Pittsfield want to tear down old Wahconah park and build a new ballpark. That’s where the money is. The people of Pittsfield don’t want a new ball park, want to save the old ball park. Bouton and his partners, Chip Elitzer and Eric Margenau, love the old Waconah park, and come up with a plan to save it. It takes them awhile to realize that the powers that be have no interest in “saving” the ball park, and no interest in working with anyone wanting to save the old ballpark – no matter what the public thinks or how much popular support there is for saving the old park.

Pittsfield - Waconah Park

Bouton’s wry commentary does highlight some of the inherent humor in the situation – the local politicians twist and turn like eels, never saying what they think and rarely meaning what they say. Bouton and his compadres are frequently flummoxed — how can something that seems so right and proper and good be so scorned by those in power? How low will they go to sabotage the new plan? Who’s calling the shots in Pittsfield?

In the end it’s kind of a sad story. While the ball park does not get torn down, the Bouton group does not get to work their plan. There’s petty small town politics and big city greed, corporate power and just plain stupidity. It kind of brings a guy down. Bouton comes out of the experience sadder but wiser, as they say – awakened to some sad facts about Pittsfield and about life in America, it would seem. Because the fix is in, it seems. And everybody’s just going to have to live with it.

Vintage Base Ball League

Ahh, well; let’s not end on a down note.

Good book, Jim.

Keep pitchin’ ’em in there.