Friday, January 29, 2010

Roger Bresnahan and the 1905 World Series

"It's great to be young and a Giant." Larry Doyle, played 1907 - 20

That was Roger Bresnahan in 1905.

Bresnahan had started as a pitcher for the Senators at the end of 1897. He bounced around in the minors after that; he wound up with the New York Giants 5 years later. In 1903, playing mainly center field, he hit a career high .350 with 34 stolen bases.

When the Giants lost their starting catcher at the end of 1904, Giants' manager John McGraw decided to try Bresnahan.

It was genius.

McGraw and Branch Rickey called Bresnahan the finest catcher they ever saw. The Giant's great pitcher Christy Mathewson (at left) went 31-9 in 1905, no longer having to worry about whether his breaking ball would find a catcher's mitt.

Bresnahan produced more than defense. He was the Giant's lead-off hitter. He hit .302, had speed, and knew how to work the count. His OBP that year was .411.

The Giants repeated as the National League champion and faced the Philadelphia Athletics in the first league-sanctioned World Series.

Bresnahan scored the winning run in the first 2 Giant victories. At the Polo Grounds in New York, his double in the bottom of the eighth in what would be the deciding fifth game set up an important insurance run in a 1-0 game.

The Giants won the series 4-1. Mathewson pitched 3 complete game shutouts. Iron Joe McGinnity pitched another. All with Bresnahan behind the plate. He led all hitters with a .313 average and a .500 OBP.

But the stars would never again align so favorably for him. Bresnahan played 3 more years for the Giants during which he introduced shin guards and padded masks for catchers. After the 1908 season, McGraw traded Bresnahan to the St. Louis Cardinals. He played 7 more years as a part time catcher and a sometime manager for the Cardinals and the Cubs.

His most valued baseball cards were released after his years with the Giants. At left is his 1911 Broadleaf Gold Borders Card. Below right is a portrait, from the 1909-11 T-206 set from my collection.

Bresnahan today is remembered less for his play than the spotlight he always found. He once told everyone he had been born in Tralee Ireland.

The press saw a good story and called him the Duke of Tralee.

It wasn't true. He was from Toledo.

He baited umpires mercilessly. Sometimes the police had to be called to remove him from games.

He died in 1944; the next year he was elected as the first catcher in the Hall of Fame. His election was as controversial as his temper. He had played as a regular for only 7 years - and had great numbers in only 2 seasons. But the ones who knew his play best - his peers – voted him in the Hall, not the baseball writers. When Walter Johnson was called on to pitch to Babe Ruth in an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds in 1943, it was Bresnahan who was called on to catch.

Perhaps the players saw in Bresnahan something that the passing years have obscured. Or something that those who never played the game cannot see.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stan Musial - The Cardinals' Prince

When Stan Musial hit the ground diving for a flyball in the summer of 1940, his career should have been over. He blew out his arm; not good for a pitching prospect playing in his third year of Class D ball - glorified semi-pro. The Cardinals had almost released him after his underwhelming first year (6-6, 4.66 ERA) for being wild and inconsistent.

But a friend encouraged Musial to try the outfield. Musial had no home run power (2 homers in over 500 ABs) but he could hit a little in the gaps and could run.

The next year, he started as a border-line prospect in Class C and wound up in late September with the St. Louis Cardinals in a pennant race. He hit .426 in 12 games - with power. By 1943 he was the league’s MVP. The Cardinals won four pennants and 3 World Championships in Musial’s first four full years.

And then he got better.

In 1948, he hit .376, with 39 homers and 131 RBIs. Musial won his 3rd MVP award but missed the Triple Crown by one home run. Blame the St. Louis Browns. The Cardinals had beaten the Browns in the World Series in 1944. The usually inept St. Louis Browns owned Sportsman's Park where the Cardinals played. The Browns had covered the right field stands in 1929 with a wire screen on an off-day after they had been hammered with home runs by the Tigers. (Four of Ruth's 60 home runs in 1927 had been at Sportsman's Park.) In 1948 Musial must have caromed a couple of his 46 doubles that year off the screen that, but for the Browns, would have been home runs. The Browns had their revenge for 1944.

1948 produced Musial's 2 "rookie" cards. (The card business had taken a breather during World War II.) The more famous of the 2 was a black and white portrait known as Bowman #36. To the right is a chrome refractor reprint of #36, serial numbered 255/299.

In 1952, Bowman produced another Musial classic card #196. Musial is shown in his batting stance wearing a Cardinals' home jersey with his signature at the top of the card. A beautiful card - but the artist may have failed to capture Musial's famous crouch. (Click on this link to view a video of Musial in his batting stance and see what you think.)

In Musial's first 16 years, he never hit below .300. He had a particular fondness for Dodger pitching. Carl Erskine, the fine Dodger pitcher of the '50s, said of Musial "I've had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third." One day at Ebbetts Field the Dodger fans in the bleachers started chanting: "Here comes that man again." whenever Musial came to bat.

Musial had a nickname: "The Man."

Musial was an exciting hitter, shooting the gaps and always gunning for the extra base. He hit 177 triples (the most exciting play in baseball) in his career - more than any other player since 1940. He was the National League batting champion 7 times. He was also the glue of the city. Cardinal fans would listen to the games on their front porches. Listening to Harry Carey on sultry summer nights. Drinking Busch Bavarian beer. Waiting for Musial to come to bat. Vin Scully said Musial took your breath away when he played.

And he may have been a better man. He was universally respected by the players. Ty Cobb was an outspoken admirer. Musial rarely argued a call. Was never thrown out of a game. He was generous with his time. When Dickie Kerr, the man who had encouraged him to stay in baseball as an outfielder, fell on hard times, Musial didn't send flowers. He bought Kerr a new home.

Musial was a part owner of a bowling alley on the South side of St. Louis. In the 5th grade I bowled in a league there. My team won the championship. Trophies were to be passed out on a Saturday morning. That day, Musial was there dressed in a gray suit, passing out trophies to somebody else's kids. Instead of sleeping in, he game them a memory to last a lifetime.

Musial faded a bit toward the end of his career but he still had enough pop to hit .330 as a semi-regular in 1962 when he was almost 42 years old. He stayed in St. Louis after he retired in 1963. He became the Cardinals' general manager for 1 year in 1967. They beat the Red Sox in 7 games in the World Series that year.

He still lives in St. Louis with his wife of 70 years. The Cardinals have had maybe more great players than any other team in baseball not named the Yankees. Hornsby, Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith and now Pujols are some. But none compares to Musial who Bob Costas described as representing "more than two decades of sustained excellence and complete decency as a human being."

My son Caleb and I have been lucky in pulling 2 of Musial's autographed cards. One came from a 2006 Topps Sterling pack, shown above left. The card features Musial's September call-up in 1941 with what looks like a mid-career photo of him in the midst of a swing. Musial's signature is in blue ink and readable. The card is numbered 7 of 10.
Die cut on the left side of the card is the year "1941" inside of which are embedded 2 swatches of material from a flannel home jersey,1 swatch of a flannel road jersey, and a piece of one of Musial's bats. The second autograph came from a pack my son ripped from a box of 2004 Leaf Certified Cuts. The player featured on the box was Musial. The card is serial numbered 1 of 14.

The more that time has separated fans from Musial's playing days, the more his star has dimmed compared to his American League counterpart Ted Williams. Perhaps it's because Williams' darker personality attracts more interest than Musial's gentle optimism. Bill James in his HIstorical Abstract published in 1986 rated Musial as the best left fielder of all time. Williams was 2nd. (Musial, interestingly, played positions other than left field most of his career.) In James's second edition, published 15 years later, he ranked Williams ahead of Musial - without explanation. With 2 players as great as Musial and Williams perhaps you shouldn't rank them.

But if you have to, I think James had it right the first time.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Red Faber - The Man Who Could Have Saved the 1919 World Series

Babe Ruth called Red Faber the nicest man in the world. But apparently not between the lines. Faber pitched inside - knocking down Ty Cobb on 3 consecutive pitches once.

Faber was famous for 2 things: what he did in the 1917 World Series and what he didn't do in the 1919 World Series.

Faber was born on a farm in a small town in Iowa - where the cold winters insure that folks work hard and take care of one another. When Faber started out, he could throw hard. But just when he was about to break into the Big Leagues, he injured his arm. He saved his career by learning the spitter. The White Sox signed him for the 1914 season. He would pitch the next 21 years with them.

The White Sox were a power house in 1917. They played the Giants in the World Series. Faber, after a so-so season, as the number 2 starter, won 3 games for Chicago in the Series, including the clinching 6th game.

But then the US entered the Great War. Faber enlisted in the Navy and spent 1918 in Michigan. When he got out of the service for the 1919 season he had ankle and arm problems. Toward the end of the season he caught the flu - the year the Spanish Influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million persons world-wide. Faber got hammered in a game in August and spent the rest of the season on the bench - sick and in pain.

He was also on the bench (but on the roster) for the 1919 World Series - the year the Black Sox threw the Series. Ray Schalk, Faber's friend and battery-mate, said that had Faber been well, the Series would never have been fixed. I think he was right. Look at it from the gambler's viewpoint. They needed to be sure that the key players would take a dive. And that meant the pitching. Once Ed Cicotte, the Sox' best pitcher, and Lefty Williams, number 2, were on board, the gamblers had their sure thing. But Faber would have been the number 2 starter had he been well. Dickey Kerr, the number 4 rookie pitcher for the Sox, won 2 games in the Series.

If Faber had been well, the odds would have favored the White Sox even with 5 key players intentionally underperforming. The gamblers would never have offered the money to buy off the players. And remember, the White Sox almost won the Series anyway, losing 5 games to 3 to Cincinnati. With Faber healthy, it is certain that the Series would have played out differently.

The Black Sox scandal led to the White Sox becoming a perennial second division team. But Faber had his greatest success during the 3 years starting in 1921. He went 69 - 45 for threadbare White Sox teams.

After that he remained steady. The spitball was outlawed after the 1920 season but Faber was one of the fewer than 20 pitchers allowed to use the pitch for the rest of his career. He hung on until 1933 when he was 45 years old. His career record was 254 - 213. His career and stats are comparable to the Phillies' Jamie Moyer. Moyer has a career record of 258-195. Moyer was still pitching last year at 46. (No word on whether Moyer plans to retire now that he's 47.) Moyer was also a soft tosser who caught fire in the middle of his career and remained steady thereafter for a long time.

After Faber retired, he knocked around selling cars until he caught on with Cook County, Illinois as a survey crewman. He worked at the job until he was nearly 80.
Faber just missed being included in the classic T-206 baseball card set. Most of the cards featuring him during his career were forgettable black and white issues like the 1922 Caramel seen above and to the left. That card is interesting, though, for showing Faber in a black White Sox uniform. By hanging on until 1933, Faber caught a break. He was included in the 1933 Goudey set - his most famous card. I have a copy of that card (#79) in my collection. Faber is shown just after he's completed throwing a pitch in a thoroughly white uniform unadorned by any team logos. The Veteran's Committee elected him into the Hall in 1964. He died in his adopted hometown of Chicago in 1976.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert Moses Grove - The Greatest Forgotten Player

Lefty Grove had the face of a coal miner. Like one of those photographs by Walker Evans during the Depression. And he might have become one - he was from the coal mining region of Maryland - if he hadn't been able to throw a baseball faster than just about anyone ever has. His photos show sunken cheeks that you'd think would belong to a person who might be tall and thin - even skinny. But you'd be wrong: he stood 6 foot 3 and weighed 190 pounds. And came off the hill with a fluid motion and intimidation that might remind you of Randy Johnson. (Click for You Tube link.)

Most fans have heard of Lefty Grove but know nothing about him. (Tris Speaker is like that.) I think it's because there's no story attached to him, like Grover Cleveland Alexander striking out Tony Lazzeri in the '26 World Series, that has stuck in the fans' subconscious.

But he was some kind of a player - and man.

His career won lost record was 300 - 141. He would have won 400 games had the owner of his minor league team, the Baltimore Orioles, been willing to sell him to a major league team during his first 5 years as a pro. (Grove won 108 games during those 5 years.) Instead he toiled in the minors until Connie Mack paid the most ever at that time for a player to join his Philadelphia A's - $100,000.00.

Grove played 9 years with the A's starting in 1925. The A's won 3 penants in a row starting in 1929 and 2 World Championships with Grove as their ace. The A's and Grove peaked in 1931. The A's beat the Yankees that year by 13.5 games - against a Yankee team that had 9 future Hall of Famers on the roster. Grove went 31-4. He was voted the major league's Most Valuable Player. The A's lost the Series that year in 7 games to a very good Cardinals' team but not because of Grove. He won the first and 6th games of the Series.

He was known for his temper and his competitiveness - like an earlier, more intense Bob Gibson, maybe. It's said that after he retired he used to express regret for the stories of his youthful outbursts. But perhaps his passion and competitiveness were essential to a man who wanted to win and knew how to do it - unless somebody else failed to do their part.

The A's traded him to the Red Sox after the 1933 season; he played 8 years for Boston. He hurt his arm almost immediately after he was traded and had to pitch with guile and brains after that. Yet he still found a way to win over a hundred games for the Red Sox. In 1941, Grove was stuck on victory 299 for awhile. Finally he got number 300 with the help of some timely hitting by Ted Williams. He pitched a few more games after that but never won again.

He retired after that year, went home to Maryland and bought a bowling alley. He held court at the bowling alley where stories about his career were be tossed around. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1947 and died in 1975.

Bill James ranks him as the best lefthander who ever pitched. If you've seen Spahn, Koufax, Randy Johnson, or Steve Carlton, well, that means Grove was better than those guys. Can you imagine.

Grove's baseball cards are as undervalued compared to his greatness as his career is. My favorite is a 1932 Caramel pictured on the left. He also is featured on a famous 1933 DeLong card. I have in my collection a 2002 SP Legendary Cuts autograph card (above and to the right) of Grove that I treasure. He had a bold, large signature, which was easily readable. He signed a lot of autographs but like many of the great players, Babe Ruth notably, he appears to have taken the time to sign each autograph with care. I bet the fans who saw him play - and who have mostly passed on by now - knew how lucky they were to watch such a great player. I know I would have.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Earl of Snohomish

Earl Averill was 27 years old when he broke into the Big Leagues with the Cleveland Indians. He had gotten married at 20 and was working as a florist when at 26, somehow he was recruited to play for the San Francisco Seals. Maybe he thought playing ball was not a sound career choice for a married man. Maybe, because he was stuck up in Snohomish, Washington (about 30 miles northeast of Seattle) in the Pacific Northwest, nobody scouted him. Regardless, after one year in the minors, in 1929, he was the starting centerfielder for the Cleveland Indians. Almost immediately he was the best one in the American League - until a guy named Dimaggio started playing later in the decade. The Indians were never contenders during Averill's career - they usually hovered a little over .500. But Averill could play a little. At age 34 in 1936 he had 232 hits, 28 homers, 126 RBIs, and batted .378. He was traded to the Tigers in 1939 and got to play in the 1940 World Series when the Tigers lost to the Reds. Averill went hitless in 3 at bats as a pinch hitter.

Averill's timing when it came to baseball cards was good. He was playing at his peak when the classic 1933 Goudey set came out. He was shown on card #194 batting left-handed in front of some blurry powder blue baseball fans. I have in my collection the other classic card of Averill during that time period. It's the 1935 Diamond Stars card #35 that shows Averill about to toss a ball right-handed from center field. There is a red advertisement above the center field fence.
His uniform is pin-striped.

Averill went home after playing a few games for the Boston Braves in 1941 and died in Everett, Washington in 1983. Grady Sizemore, the Indians' current center fielder, had been born the year before. He would grow up in the same town where Averill died.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Andre Dawson - The Hall's Newest Inductee

This blog is about baseball players in the Hall of Fame and cards that I've collected or found on the web featuring those players.

I collect baseball cards and am a big baseball fan. Within the last year or so, I decided to focus on Hall of Fame players. When I did, I saw that well over half of the players enshrined in Cooperstown I either had never heard of (e.g. Stan Covaleski) or had heard of but knew nothing about (e.g. Al Simmons). In this blog I hope to tell something interesting about each of the slightly over 200 players in the Hall of Fame and show a card or two that for one reason or another I've collected or that I found as an image on the web that I like. I hope that if anyone winds up reading these posts that they will add comments about other interesting facts, anecdotes, or personal contacts about the player I've written about or share an interesting photo or card.

I thought I'd start with Andre Dawson, who was elected last week and will be enshrined next summer. Dawson started with the Expos in 1976 and played there for a little over 10 years. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1977. His parents must have foreseen he'd play in Quebec when they gave him the name Andre - hardly a common name, I'd think, in Miami, where he was born. He was known for his power-speed production - one of my favorite combinations in baseball. He hit over 400 home runs and stole over 300 bases. One of the few players ever to do so. (I think Willie Mays was the other.) He was also a great center fielder until his knees went bad and he was shifted to right field. He won 8 Gold Gloves. Power, speed, and defense. I love those kind of players. He famously moved in 1987 to Chicago during the collusion years and offered to play for the Cubs for any amount they wanted to pay him. The Cubs low-balled him that year but signed him; he hit 49 homers and won the NL MVP even though the Cubs finished last. He played for the Cubs for 6 years before finishing out his career with the Red Sox (2 years) and the Marlins (2 years). Bill James wote in his Historical Abstract that Dawson did not deserve the NL MVP in 1987 and that there were over 20 players who deserved it more that year. Hard to imagine given the numbers Dawson produced that year. Dawson's numbers benefited from moving from a bad offensive park in Montreal to a good offensive park at Wrigley field. His numbers make it look like he got better (or at least stayed the same) as the years rolled on when the real reason for his increased or steady production was the change in where he played. The player that he most resembles in this respect to me anyway is Henry Aaron who moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. I don't remember ever seeing Dawson play even though I was a fan during his entire career. I follow the Mariners up here in Seattle and Dawson only played 2 years in the American League. My only opportunity to see him would have been in the playoffs or World Series. But amazingly, he played in only two post-season series during his 20-year career - with the Expos in the strike-shortened 1981 Divisional Series and with the Cubs in 1989. Each team was eliminated in the first round.

I was happy to see Dawson (nicknamed "The Hawk") elected to the Hall because I pulled a card from a Topps Triple Threads pack back in 2007 that I really like. Now I have a new addition to my Hall of Fame collection. The card has a sticker autograph, two bat chips, and a very cool patch swatch that looks like it came from a Cubs' road jersey. The card is serial numbered 9/9. His signature is elegant in bright blue ink but you have to know it's his signature. It's unreadable. He's wearing a Cubs' uniform in the photo, which is apparently how he's going to be featured at Cooperstown. I would rather he be shown as an Expo. I loved their uniforms - especially their caps. I thought it was very cool to have a team that played in Montreal. It's the most European of North American cities that I've been too. It's the only place in Canada where I feel I'm really in a different country except maybe for Victoria, BC (which is as British as Montreal is French). Gary Carter is the only player who is currently enshrined as an Expo. I guess he'll be the only one. Dawson is said to be a great gentleman. I imagine that there are fewer of those in the Hall than we'd like - just as in everyday life. Maybe Cal Ripken and Stan Musial can show The Hawk around.