Back in March of this year I added a post in which I introduced The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr. At the time of that post I had only glanced at the introduction of the book and I took issue with Bradlee’s statement that “nobody combined power and average the way Williams did.” In my post, entitled “The Big Bambino and the Kid,” I posited that Bradlee’s contention completely ignores the fact that Babe Ruth hit 193 more home runs than Williams and that the Babe’s lifetime batting average was only two points lower than Williams’ (.342 vs. .344).
In that post I also said that it was unfair to judge a 775-page book on one sentence on page 22 and that I would follow up with a review once I finished reading it. About a month ago I finally finished wading through Bradlee’s tome of the Splendid Splinter and I have to say that I was disappointed in it.
Bradlee interviewed several of Williams’ Boston Red Sox teammates, including Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky. Bradlee identifies Doerr as the teammate who told Williams how impressed he would be with Jimmie Foxx. On a train trip across the country to spring training, Doerr told Williams, “Wait til (sic) you see Foxx hit these shots.” Williams replied, “Yeah, wait til (sic) he sees me hit.”
Bradlee includes details that show the Red Sox knew they had a special player right at the onset of Williams’ career and that they were willing to make accommodations for him. For instance, the Red Sox moved the outfield fences in at Fenway Park after Williams’ rookie season to accommodate his left-handed power. The Red Sox shortened the distance down the right-field line from 332 feet to 302. They also moved the fence in right-center from 402 feet to 380.
Bradlee’s book has detail after detail and even more details of Williams’ celebrated feud with the Boston newspaper writers, whom Williams dubbed the “Knights of the Keyboard.” Williams frequently would sound off and then find himself issuing public apologies later. He claimed that criticism by the press actually made him try harder and that the writers inspired him to play at a higher level.
Williams’ feuding with the press likely cost him the American League Most Valuable Player Award in his .400 season when Joe DiMaggio won the award; it certainly cost him the MVP the following season when Joe Gordon, also of the New York Yankees, won it despite Williams winning the Triple Crown with a .356 average, 37 home runs, and 137 RBIs.
Bradlee devotes quite a few paragraphs to the Boudreau Shift, a defense implemented by Cleveland Indians’ manager, Lou Boudreau, in which the infielders shifted to the right side of the diamond to take hits away from the notorious pull-hitting Williams. Williams resisted changing his approach and years later claimed the shift, which other teams also employed, cost him 15 points on his lifetime batting average.
Bradlee is so intent on anointing Williams as the greatest hitter in the history of the game that a glaring error slipped by him and his editors. On page 265, Bradlee says, “…he (Williams) still won four batting titles after the shift was implemented, lost another by just two-tenths of a percentage point, and lost a sixth because he lacked the requisite number of official at-bats–a title he would have won had present rules on a walk not counting as an at bat been in effect.”
At no point in Williams’ career did a walk count as an at bat. Bradlee must have meant that Williams would have won the batting title in 1954 had present rules basing qualification on plate appearances rather than at bats been in effect.
.406 and a Homer in his Final At Bat
Of course, no book on Williams would be complete without the details of the final day of the 1941 season. Williams entered that day with an average of .3995, which rounds up to .400. But Williams put his .400 average on the line, played in both games of a doubleheader, banged out six hits in eight at-bats, and finished with a .406 (.4057) average. It was a truly courageous performance.
Another story that holds almost as much esteem for those who make the case that Williams was the greatest hitter of all time involves Williams hitting a home run in the final at bat of his career. While that is quite an accomplishment, whenever the story of Williams’ final homer is told, rarely, if ever, is it mentioned that the Red Sox still had three games left on the schedule and that Williams sat out the final road trip to New York. Bradlee mentions it in this book, but he does not make a case that Williams skipping the final three games guaranteed that he would end his career with a home run in his final at bat. It seems to me that constantly praising Williams for playing in the season-ending doubleheader in 1941 and not noting the significance of Williams sitting out the final three games of the 1960 season is allowing the Williams legacy to have it both ways.
Bradlee’s book has a full account of Williams’ heroic service to our county in both World War II and the Korean conflict. Williams was a Marine flight instructor during WWII and flew 39 combat missions in Korea, including one that ended in a crash landing after his plane was hit by enemy fire.
Williams had a legitimate 3A classification that gave him an exemption from the draft because he was the sole supporter of his mother. But when so many young men were being called up for service, there was an outcry that many able-bodied athletes were not serving. There was a perception that Williams was receiving special treatment because of his status as a superstar athlete. So in response to the criticism, the draft board reclassified Williams to 1A and drafted him. Williams worked behind the scenes to have his legitimate 3A classification restored. He rightly maintained that, while he deserved no special treatment in order to avoid having to serve, his celebrity status should not work against him.
The negative publicity surrounding Williams’ service status caused Quaker Oats to cancel an endorsement contract with him. Williams was so angry at the company for cancelling the contract that he refused to ever eat a Quaker Oats product again. Williams agreed to remain in the Reserves after WWII to help with recruiting with the understanding that he would not be recalled to active duty, so he really resented being called back into service for the Korean conflict and he harbored ill feelings about it for the remainder of his life.
The baseball portions of Bradlee’s book are great, but he tosses in seemingly endless details of Williams’ personal life, including the stormy relations he had with each of his wives and all three of his children. Williams sat out the beginning of the 1955 season because he did not want his first wife to get a percentage of any new contract he signed with the Red Sox. His wife thought Williams would cave and waited until May 9 of that year before agreeing to settle. Williams did not join the team until May28.
I think that up to a certain point, details of Williams’ personal life are necessary to accurately portray the type of person he was. But, at times, it seemed as if I were reading from the pages of a supermarket tabloid. I think Bradlee included far too much on Williams’ personal life.
Bradlee balanced some of the more lurid and uncomplimentary aspects of Williams’ life with stories of his seemingly unlimited generosity, especially in his life-long devotion to the Jimmy Fund, which supports research for new cancer treatments and cures for both adults and children at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. By the way, while most people associate the Jimmy Fund with the Boston Red Sox and former Red Sox players Ted Williams and Mike Andrews, the institution was started as a result of a radio broadcast of several members of the Boston Braves visiting a young cancer patient, alias Jimmy. Funds began to pour in to buy Jimmy a television so he could watch the Braves play.
Williams was ahead of his time in lobbying for inducting great players from the Negro Leagues into the Hall of Fame. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Williams said, “And I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the Negro players that are not here only because they were not given a chance.”
Bradlee reserves some of his most unflattering details for the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Bradlee contends that for most of his life, and especially toward the end of it, DiMaggio was arrogant, greedy, and standoffish. DiMaggio frequently was critical of Williams and did his best to perpetrate a myth that he, DiMaggio, was the superior player. Williams, for his part, always took the high road and praised DiMaggio when told of his comments.
One particular story about DiMaggio that Bradlee includes involved the 50th Anniversary celebration of the great 1941 season; that was the year Williams hit .406 and DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games. Williams, DiMaggio, and a few select dignitaries flew to Toronto for the 1991 All-Star Game aboard Air Force One with President George H.W. Bush, who is a huge baseball fan. Before leaving the White House, President Bush, Williams, and DiMaggio posed for a picture together. One hundred autographed copies of the photo were to be split among the three, with one of them receiving 34. DiMaggio didn’t want his share of the photos, so Williams said he would take them. DiMaggio provided them to Williams–for $500 each.
Bradlee’s best work is his treatment of Williams’ son, John-Henry Williams. Bradlee gives all the gory details of John-Henry’s manipulation of his father, which resulted in the older Williams’ body being cryonically frozen and stored for possible reanimation at some point in the future. While most accounts of what happened to the earthly remains of Ted Williams question John-Henry’s motives, Bradlee points out that John-Henry really believed there was a possibility that, through cryonics, he and his father might some day be reunited. John-Henry died shortly after his father passed away and his remains also are cryonically frozen in the same facility as his father’s.
Bradlee doesn’t make John-Henry look like a prince; in fact, John-Henry comes across as the arrogant, spoiled brat that he likely was. But Bradlee makes the case that John-Henry decided that, if his father was going to be exploited for money, then he and his father should be the ones benefiting from it. There is no doubt that John-Henry loved his father and was devoted to him.
The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams is full of material that many baseball fans will love. However, it is not for the squeamish or for those who are easily offended by foul language. Maybe Bradlee feels that including so much foul language makes the book somehow more authentic. I’m no prude, but I believe Bradlee overdid it; the same goes for the details of Williams’ personal life. I’m not in favor of a return to the sanitized biographies of yesteryear, but I don’t think a book about a baseball player should read like an issue of the National Enquirer.
I didn’t really enjoy this book, but if you are a fan of Ted Williams, then maybe you should give it a read; you also should read Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero; at 400 pages it is a more concise account of the life of the Splendid Splinter. And I recently noticed that Williams’ daughter, Claudia, now has a book called Ted Williams, My Father. I’ll probably take a pass on that one.
Finally, Bradlee includes what Williams himself had to say in February of 2000 to those who claim that he was the greatest hitter of all time. He said he never believed it when he was a player. “I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, they were so good.”
I will never argue that Henry Aaron was as great a hitter as Ted Williams, but even Ted Williams knew that Babe Ruth was the greatest hitter of them all.
Click on “Teddy Ballgame” to access a review of Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero by Leigh Montville that I wrote in November 2006.
A couple of weeks ago the Atkins clan headed west to the City by the Bay–San Francisco, California. The Bay area has natural appeal to baseball fans because there are two teams, one on each side of the Bay. But there is so much more to see in San Francisco than the Giants and the Athletics.
When we arrived in San Francisco, our first stop was Pier 39. We could see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and Angel Island from the pier and we stopped by to see the sea lions lounging in the Bay. We walked to Bistro Boudin for dinner and enjoyed some of their world-famous sourdough bread. After dinner we made our first trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, exited on the north end, and made several pictures of San Francisco from across the Bay.
On our first full day we visited the Marin Headlands, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. We saw Fort Barry, Fort Cronkhite, the NIKE Missile site, and the 150-year-old Point Bonita lighthouse. The drive along Conzelman Road from the northern foot of the Golden Gate Bridge to Point Bonita has several spots to pull over for magnificent views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, and the city of San Francisco. We toured the Point Bonita lighthouse and then made several pictures from high above the Bay.
We headed north and crossed the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (officially the John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge) into Oakland for the Monday night match-up between the first-place Athletics and the Chicago White Sox. The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge is 5.5 miles long and is the northern-most of the east-west crossings of the San Francisco Bay. The bridge has a huge dip in the center, making it seem like a long roller coaster ride.
The Athletics play in O.co Coliseum, which doesn’t look any better than the name sounds. The Coliseum has been home to the Athletics since they arrived in Oakland in 1968 and honesty compels me to say that they are way overdue for a new ballpark. Oakland is the last of the now old-style modern stadiums built in the 1960s and it has not aged well.
The venue aside, we were treated to a fine evening of baseball. Right-hander Jesse Chavez held the hard-hitting White Sox to one run through the first eight innings and took a 5-1 lead into the ninth. But after a lead-off home run from Jose Abreu, Athletic’s manager Bob Melvin turned the game over to the bullpen and things got interesting. Fernando Abad replaced Chavez and promptly walked Adam Dunn; that was the end of the night for Abad. Jim Johnson entered the game and surrendered a double and a single, making the score 5-3; that was the end of the night for Johnson. Next came Sean Doolittle to face pinch hitter, Paul Konerko, who lifted a sacrifice fly to center field, making the score 5-4. But Doolittle struck out the next two hitters to preserve the win.
Even though the Athletics were in first place and had more wins than any other American League team, only 10,120 fans attended the game on a perfect night for baseball. We left the stadium, strolled to our car, and drove away as if we were leaving a shopping mall. There were no traffic issues whatsoever.
On our second day we went back across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco and browsed around Pier 39 until it was time for our ferry ride out to Alcatraz Island. If you ever visit San Francisco, you must take this tour. In 1972 Alcatraz Island became a national recreation area and is part of the National Park Service included in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Alcatraz Island served as a military fort, a military prison, and a federal penitentiary. While it is most famous as the prison that housed Al Capone and Robert “the Birdman” Stroud, Alcatraz was a prison for only 20 years (1934-1963) before closing due to the high cost of operations.
We hiked the quarter-mile from the dock to the prison–a 130-foot rise–while listening to our guide, Ranger Matt, give us the history of the island. Ranger Matt loves his job and told us, among other things, how the island is a sanctuary for birds. The Western Gull is the dominant species on the island, but among the other birds you can see are Snowy Egrets, Night-Herons, Black Oystercatchers, Cormorants, and Pigeon Guillemots. Interestingly, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, never had any birds while on the island.
The plants and flowers are beautiful, as well, and Alcatraz Island is home to the first lighthouse on the western coast of the U.S.
In 1969 a group of American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in an attempt to claim it and establish a cultural and educational center. After 18 months U.S. Marshals removed the last of the occupiers.
We walked through the building listening to a recorded tour guide and visited the cell blocks, the cafeteria, the offices, recreation yard, and lighthouse. When we reached the gift shop, we met William “Bill” Baker, who at age 83 may be the last surviving inmate from Alcatraz. Baker was signing and selling copies of his book, Alcatraz #1259, so I got in line and made a purchase. Baker asked us where we were from and he then told us that he grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky and that he spent lots of time in Nashville, Clarksville, and Fort Campbell.
After we got back to the mainland we caught a street car and then jumped on a cable car that took us up and over some of the famous hilly streets of San Francisco.
Our third day began with a trip south across the Gold Gate Bridge to AT&T Park, the Dealey Plaza of the baseball world, home of the San Francisco Giants. We were to witness a battle of first-place teams, as the Atlanta Braves were in town.
The original name of the park was Pac Bell Park. It became SBC Park in 2003 after they gobbled up Pacific Bell and became AT&T Park after SBC merged with AT&T. I suppose it will remain AT&T Park until the Giants’ current cell phone agreement runs out and they are due an upgrade.
The park opened in 2000 and is situated right against the San Francisco Bay. Just over the short right-field pavilion is McCovey Cove where many a “splash down” homer has entered the Bay. It is a beautiful park, but it’s difficult for me to feel good about the place since it is the scene of so many crimes against the sport of baseball.
In 2002 Barry Bonds somehow managed to fit his over-sized cranium onto the field at AT&T Park and further tarnish Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Commissioner Bud Selig stood idle as Bonds continued his performance-enhancing-drugs-induced rampage on the record books. AT&T Park is the site where Bonds committed the most heinous crime against baseball and stands as a monument to the sport’s steroids era. But I digress.
The concourse at AT&T Park has lots of pictures of great Giants players of the past and they have a display featuring their World Series trophies from 2010 and 2012. They have a display case with the bat Bonds used to make a mockery of baseball’s legitimate home run record. I searched the display for a hypodermic needle, but the Giants have chosen not to display the actual source of Bonds’ power.
As a Braves fan the game we witnessed wasn’t much to see. The Braves jumped out in front 2-0 on a single by Tyler Pastornicky and doubles from Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson. With Julio Teheran on the mound for the Braves, we felt pretty good. But it was not Teheran’s day; the Braves’ lead was gone before he even recorded an out. Lead-off man Gregor Blanco walked and Hunter Pence followed with a home run. Before the bottom of the first was over, the Giants had a 3-2 lead.
The Giants tacked on another run in the bottom of the second inning and then the Braves tied it in the top of the fourth on doubles from Evan Gattis and Johnson and a triple from Andrelton Simmons. Manager Fredi Gonzalez stuck with Teheran, who struck out the first batter he faced in the bottom of the fourth, but then surrendered three straight singles and the lead was gone. Alex Wood came on and got out of the inning without further damage, but was not so sharp when he returned for the fifth inning and the rout was on. The Giants won going away 10-4.
Unlike the Monday night game in Oakland, a crowd of 41,253 showed up for the afternoon game played in record-breaking heat at AT&T Park.
After the game we headed north, back across the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Muir Woods National Monument. Muir Woods is an old-growth forest of coastal redwoods, the tallest living organism in the world. The Muir Woods National Monument is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
By the early part of the 20th century most of the redwood forests had been cut. This area north of the San Francisco Bay, called Redwood Canyon, was relatively inaccessible and remained uncut. Congressman William Kent and his wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, purchased the woods from the Tamalpais Land and Water Company for $45,000, intending to protect the redwoods. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a National Monument and it was suggested that the area be named for the Kents. However, Kent insisted that it be named after John Muir, whose efforts helped establish the National Park System.
As soon as you enter the trail through the Muir Woods, you are among the coastal redwoods and they are a daunting and humbling sight. According to the Muir Woods National Monument website, the tallest coastal redwood in the Muir Woods is 258 feet.
We hiked through the woods on a boardwalk trail and then took the Hillside Trail back to the tour’s starting point. Along the way we saw several Steller’s jays and heard pileated woodpeckers banging around high above our heads. Near the end of the trail Sean and I spotted some movement about 15 feet above the ground on the trunk of a huge redwood. I was able to zoom in with my video camera and see a hatchling about the size of my thumb sitting in a nest tucked into the bark of the tree. I sent a photo and some video of the bird to a representative from the National Park Service in hopes of someone being able to identify the species, but have not yet heard back from them.
After leaving Muir Woods we drove the winding road back toward the interstate and made a stop at Muir Beach, a cove along the coastline and home to many shorebirds.
If you go to San Francisco you must make time for a stop at the Muir Woods National Monument. You need to plan to be their by 9:00 a.m. or wait until 4:00 p.m. because parking is limited.
The next day we headed further north through Sonoma to Napa to visit the wine country. We are not wine drinkers, but we thought it would be interesting to see the Napa Valley and tour a winery and learn how wines are produced.
We visited Mumm Napa and took a guided tour of their beautiful facility and grounds. Mumm Napa produces sparkling wines and, as we learned during the tour, produced the sparkling wine that the San Francisco Giants used to celebrate their victory in the 2010 World Series. They even have bottles of wine that feature the Giants’ logo on the label.
After leaving Napa we headed south and crossed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge back into San Francisco. This magnificent bridge spills you out in downtown San Francisco very close to AT&T Park. Prior to the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936, the only way for drivers to get from San Francisco to Oakland was by ferry; the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. At 4.5 miles, the Bay Bridge was the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built.
We boarded an open-air bus and took a tour of downtown San Francisco. We got off the bus for extended visits to the Palace of Fine Arts and Washington Square, where we were able to go to the top of the Coit Tower in the Telegraph Hill district and get wonderful views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay.
We crammed as much activity into our time in San Francisco as we could, leaving our hotel early each morning and not returning until late each night; I’m sure we never even scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in the City by the Bay.
Baseball can be a quirky game, especially if you’re a pitcher. Take the case of lefty Luis Avilan of the Atlanta Braves, who appeared in 111 games before suffering his first loss. Avilan came up with the Braves in 2012, appeared in 32 games, and had a record of 1-0. He had a fine season in 2013, appearing in 75 games with a record of 5-0 and an earned run average of 1.52. He made it through three appearances this season before suffering his first big league loss on April 10.
Avilan entered that game in the top of the seventh inning with the score tied 4-4. He gave up a single to Daniel Murphy and then struck out David Wright. With Curtis Granderson batting, Murphy advanced to second on a wild pitch; Granderson walked and Murphy stole third. Avilan rallied and retired Ike Davis on a pop up. With two on and two out, manager Fredi Gonzalez made a pitching change, bringing in rookie Gus Schlosser. Juan Legares greeted Schlosser with a soft single into right field, scoring Murphy and putting the Mets on top 5-4. The Braves never overcame the lead and, since Murphy reached base while Avilan was pitching, Avilan took the loss.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, since 1900, only three pitchers made more appearances than the 111 Avilan made before suffering their first loss. Clay Rapada was 8-0 in 152 games with the California Angels from 2007-2013 before taking a loss. Mike Gallo appeared in 135 games with the Houston Astros from 2003-2005, went 3-0 before his first loss. Manny Delcarmen appeared in 115 games with the Boston Red Sox from 2005-2008 and had two wins before his first loss. And Josh Roenicke also appeared in 111 games with the Cincinnati Reds, Toronto Blue Jays, and Colorado Rockies between 2008 and 2012 and had five wins before suffering his first loss.
Going so long before being charged with a loss is more a sign of the times than a testament to these pitchers’ ability. In this day of specialization in baseball, Avilan appeared in 75 games last season, but pitched just 65 innings.
But baseball has an odd way of evening things out. Four days after Avilan suffered his first loss, he entered the game against the Philadelphia Phillies in the top of the eighth inning with the Braves leading 5-1. Avilan’s bread and butter is getting out left-handed hitters and the Phillies had three lefties and a switch hitter due up. But Avilan got off to a shaky start when he walked Tony Gwynn leading off the inning; consecutive singles by Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley loaded the bases. Avilan then demonstrated what makes him such a valuable component of the Braves’ bullpen by carving up slugger Ryan Howard and getting a strikeout.
Gonzalez decided to stay with Avilan with the right-handed-swinging Marlon Byrd coming to the plate. Gonzalez perhaps was looking ahead to the next batter, lefty Domonic Brown. Byrd foiled the strategy with a single to right field, scoring Gwynn and Rollins; the Braves still led 5-3. While Gonzalez slept, Brown launched a three-run homer to right-center field and, just like that, the Braves trailed 6-5.
For some reason, even after giving up five runs, Avilan stayed in the game. After the horse clearly had bolted, Avilan finally slammed the stable door by retiring Carlos Ruiz on a fly to right and Cody Asche on a pop to first base.
But Ryne Sandberg must have gotten a hold of the same sleeping potion that affected Gonzalez. With regular closer, Jonathan Papelbon, unavailable, Sandberg called on lefty Jake Diekman to nail down the win. Diekman immediately got into trouble by walking lead-off batter B.J. Upton. Freddie Freeman hit a slow grounder that Utley slowly flipped to second, too late to retire Upton; a walk to Justin Upton loaded the bases. Diekman bore down and struck out Evan Gattis on three pitches, leaving himself with a chance to escape if he could get Dan Uggla to hit into a double play. But Diekman served up a slow, dangling slider that hung out over the plate and Uggla sent it deep into the left-center field seats. The Braves led 9-6 and David Carpenter came in and retired the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth to earn the save. The win went to Avilan, which sort of evened things out for him taking the loss a few days earlier.
Another quirky aspect of this game came when Phillies’ reliever B.J. Rosenberg gave up consecutive home runs to Gattis, Uggla and Andrelton Simmons. According to Retrosheet, it was the first time a relief pitcher had given up home runs to the only three batters he faced in a game.
In Defense of Bryce Harper
The Washington Nationals, picked by many experts to win the National League East this season, are off to a so-so start after the first month of the season. On April 19, their new manager, Matt Williams, decided to yank Bryce Harper from the lineup due to “lack of hustle.”
In the sixth inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Harper chopped a one-hopper directly to pitcher Lance Lynn, who tossed it to first base. Harper did not run hard out of the batter’s box and he peeled off the baseline as soon as first baseman Matt Adams caught the toss from Lynn.
Even if Adams had somehow misplayed the toss from Lynn, Harper’s effort, or lack thereof, would have had no effect on the play. If Adams had bobbled or dropped the ball, he had plenty of time to recover to get the out no matter how fast Harper had been running. And if Adams had completely missed the toss from Lynn, then Harper could have walked the rest of the way to first base. Short of Harper pulling a pistol and shooting either Lynn or Adams, he was going to be out on the play. No amount of hustle was going to make a difference.
Hustle is perhaps the most overvalued commodity in sports and it amazes me how many fans, managers, and broadcasters buy into the myth that hustle erases the gap between good and mediocre players. Worse are those in baseball who do not recognize false hustle: dashing to first base on walks, diving headfirst into bases when there isn’t even a need to slide, diving for balls when the fielder has absolutely no chance of gloving the baseball. It’s ironic that Williams chose to bench Harper for lack of hustle when one of Harper’s most irritating traits is his tendency to employ false hustle.
Matt Williams has been around baseball for a long time. As a first-year manager, he is going to make some mistakes; benching Harper for lack of hustle, in this instance, was his first.
Speaking of Over-valued Commodities
Just below hustle, the sacrifice bunt, and the stolen base, the most over-valued statistic in baseball is the save. A relief pitcher can earn a save by: finishing the game without relinquishing a lead of three runs or less; finishing the game and preserving the lead if at the time the relief pitcher enters the game, the potential tying run is in the on-deck circle; pitching at least the final three innings of a game without giving up the lead.
I’m not saying relief pitchers cannot save games, I just don’t believe a pitcher necessarily deserves a save for finishing a game without giving up the lead. Most saves seem to go to relief pitchers who enter the game in the ninth inning with no runners on base and finish the game without giving up the lead.
In a game between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves on April 23, starting pitcher Aaron Harang began the seventh inning of a 1-1 game by walking Casey McGehee and then giving up a single to Derek Dietrich. Manager Gonzalez summoned right-hander Jared Walden from the bullpen. Walden promptly struck out Adeiny Hechararria, Jarod Saltalamacchia, and Greg Dobbs. The Braves scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth and then closer Craig Kimbrel shut down the Marlins in the top of the ninth.
Kimbrel received the save but, in reality, Walden actually “saved” the game. When Walden entered the game, the score was tied and the Marlins had two runners on base, one of whom was in scoring position. If baseball insists on awarding saves, they at least should give them to the pitchers who actually get their teams out of danger.
After Further Review
After a month of watching the new instant replay system, I think baseball should pull the plug on reviewing calls and go back to letting the umpires do their jobs. The replay system stops the game while the umpires stand around and wait for someone in New York to second guess their calls. And, as is the case in the NFL, even with the replay, they still don’t get all the calls correct.
But my problem with the replay is more basic. Fans, players, managers, and general managers accept that players will make errors; heck, baseball even accepts players who strike out more than 200 times a year. But, apparently, the only people in baseball (or other sports, for that matter) who are not allowed to make mistakes are the umpires.
Baseball was just fine without the designated hitter, inter-league play, and giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star game. And baseball was a better game before this instant replay nonsense infected the game.
Can it really be that 40 years have passed since Henry Aaron lined a pitch from Al Downing over the left-centerfield fence at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to move past Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list? I was 15 years old at the time and, back then, 40 years seemed like an eternity. Heck, the six months Aaron was sitting on 713 homers during the off-season seemed like an eternity.
Forty years after the fact, history, chemistry, and a sense of irony cause me to consider Aaron’s final total of 755 home runs from three different perspectives. With homer number 715, Aaron became the player with the most home runs in major league history; he never became the greatest home-run hitter of all time. That is a distinction that belongs to the Babe and I do not see anyone dethroning the Sultan of Swat any time soon.
As I frequently point out, Ruth hit his 714 home runs in 10,622 plate appearances while Aaron hit number 715 in his 12,717th trip to the plate. That doesn’t mean there should be an asterisk by Aaron’s total; he hit more home runs than any other player, but that doesn’t make him the greatest home run hitter of all time.
As I think back to the night Aaron hit number 715, many memories come to mind. Downing basically pitched around Aaron in his first at-bat. I remember Dodgers’ left fielder, Bill Buckner, hanging on the fence as if he had a chance to actually catch the ball; Billy Buck probably wishes that was the lasting memory most fans have of his career. Braves’ reliever Tom House caught the home run ball well into the hometown bullpen. Who can forget the two yahoos who ran onto the field and patted Aaron on the back between second and third base? And then there was Mrs. Estella Aaron, Henry’s mom, clutching her son tightly around the neck, so proud and so relieved at the same time.
I also remember the controversy leading up to the big game. Aaron took care of business on home run 714 with a bolt of lightning at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium on Opening Day. The Braves, in a heavy-handed PR move, announced that Aaron would not play in the remaining games in Cincinnati in order to give him a chance at breaking the record–and packing the park–at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. I don’t believe there was anything wrong with that decision, as the team and the manager should be setting the lineup; but they should have had more sense than make such an announcement.
It was at this point that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who always claimed to have “the best interest of baseball” in mind, got in on, and caused, the controversy. Kuhn ordered the Braves to play Aaron in at least one of the two remaining games in the Cincinnati series. The Braves, of course, were outraged. Aaron sat out the second game, but was back in the lineup the following day. He struck out looking in his first two at-bats while grounding out third-to-first in his third time up. The Braves replaced him defensively in the sixth inning.
After the game, some writers suggested that Aaron was not giving it his all in the game because he resented Kuhn’s interference. Aaron, of course, denied such an accusation, but it was easy to see why the writers would have jumped to that conclusion. I remember Aaron arguing both third-strike calls, something he rarely did; but I must admit that the same thought ran through my head when I was following the game.
Even though Aaron played in the series finale, Kuhn was not finished poking the slugger and his team in the eye. Kuhn decided, I suppose in “the best interest of baseball,” that he had bigger fish to fry than attend the upcoming series against the Dodgers in which Aaron broke the record. It seems that Kuhn thought it more appropriate to attend a meeting of the Yahoo Club in Cleveland than to be on hand in the event that the most recognizable record in sports history were to fall. Kuhn sent public relations specialist, Monte Irvin, instead. Kuhn’s absence is a slight that I’m sure Aaron still resents.
I’ll cover the chemistry perspective rather quickly as anyone interested in baseball to the point that they are reading this blog knows right off the bat that I’m talking about the effect of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) on the record book. The man listed in the record book with the most home runs is not the legitimate career leader. An asterisk beside his total is not enough to correct the injustice of him hitting more home runs that Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and a long list of other sluggers. That man’s statistics should be stricken altogether.
The Braves have a grand celebration scheduled to mark the 40th anniversary of the record-breaking home run. I’m sure plenty of Aaron’s former teammates will be there, as will many local and national dignitaries. And this time, the Commissioner of Baseball will be there, as well. This is where irony enters into the situation.
There perhaps is no bigger fan of Henry Aaron than Bud Selig. Years ago when Aaron played for the Milwaukee Braves, Selig and Aaron became friends and Selig engineered the deal and crafted the contract that allowed Aaron to play the final two seasons of his career in Milwaukee. Selig frequently seeks Aaron’s advice and attends many charity events the former slugger headlines.
But Selig is the commissioner who kept his head in the sand while the PED epidemic infected baseball. He rammed through inner league play and gave the home field advantage to the league who wins the All-Star Game in reaction to the mid-summer exhibition ending in a tie in 2002. But he apparently could not be moved to action when players were hitting over 60 home runs in a season with alarming regularity; one player did it three times while not even lead his league in homers in any of those seasons. He finally got on board with a testing and punishment program, but his inaction officially wiped out baseball’s two most cherished records: Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 and Aaron’s career total of 755.
I find it ironic that Selig will be in Atlanta on this historic anniversary when the commissioner at the time could not tear himself away from a booster club meeting in Cleveland. But, if Bud Selig had been more like Bowie Kuhn, and acted in the best interest of baseball, then he would not only be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Aaron’s historic achievement, he could also introduce Aaron as baseball’s reigning Home Run King.
“In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball.” All right, Tennyson actually mentioned something other than baseball, but, hey, it’s Opening Day for the Atlanta Braves, so I’m taking a little poetic license here.
A little later today the Braves will play the Milwaukee Brewers and it will be the first time the Braves have opened the season in Milwaukee since 1961. The Braves were the home team back then and they hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in a game that went 10 innings. Daryl Spenser of the Cards hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the top of the 10th and Lindy McDaniel retired the Braves in order in the bottom of the inning to preserve a 2-1 win.
The Braves moved to Atlanta after the 1965 season and there was no team in Milwaukee until the Seattle Pilots moved there in 1970 and became the Brewers. The new Milwaukee team was an American League franchise until the 1998 season, so it is no mystery why there have been 53 years between Opening Days in Milwaukee for the Braves.
Opening Day 1967
I started following baseball shortly after the 1966 season began, so the first Opening Day I remember was 1967 when the Braves opened against the Houston Astros in the Astrodome. During the off-season the Braves had a changing of the guard at third base and on Opening Day the Braves’ new third baseman squared off against their old one.
It all started on the last day of November 1966. I remember seeing an article in the Nashville Tennessean announcing that the Braves had made a trade with the New York Yankees. I recently went to the main branch of the Nashville Public Library and found the article about the trade. The headline read: BRAVES ACQUIRE CLETE BOYER. Here’s how the article started:
The Los Angeles Dodgers traded two-time batting champion Tommy Davis to the New York Mets for Ron Hunt in a deal involving two other players while the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves pulled off the first inter-league trade of the season yesterday at the annual baseball winter meetings.
The article went on to explain the details of the Dodgers’ deal with the Mets. The Dodgers sent Derrell Griffith and Davis to the Mets for Jim Hickman and Hunt. The article then picked up with the Braves/Yankees trade:
Several hours later the Yankees announced a deal sending long-time Yank third baseman Clete Boyer to the Braves for outfielder Bill Robinson, who played for Richmond in the International League last season.
The Yankees will include a player to be named later, to be sent to the Braves’ Richmond farm team later. Atlanta threw in pitcher Federico (Chi Chi) Olivo, who is being assigned to the Yanks’ Syracuse farm team roster in the IL.
Boyer, 29, has played eight seasons for the Yankees, and hit .240 with 47 home runs and 57 runs batted in last season. Oliva, a right-hander, had a 5-4 record in 47 appearances with the Braves last season. He had a 4.23 earned run average.
I remembered Olivo from following the Braves in 1966, but this was the first I had heard of Bill Robinson. I knew about Boyer, as well, since my brother, John, liked to keep up with the Yankees a little on the side. Whoever wrote the article made some mistakes. He spelled Olivo with an “a” at the end the second time he mentioned his name. And he said Boyer hit 47 home runs in 1966. I wasn’t sure how many homers Boyer actually hit, but I knew it wasn’t close to 47 (it was 14). If he had hit 47 home runs then the Yankees likely would not be trading him, especially for Chi Chi Olivo and an outfielder I did not know.
The article went on to talk about how the trade would affect the Yankees and the Braves:
Robinson, a right-handed hitter, hit .312 with Richmond last season, with 20 homers and 79 runs batted in.
‘He has the best throwing arm I’ve ever seen with the exception of Al Kaline,” the Braves’ John McHale said. “He was one of the top products in our system. With Boyer and Ed Mathews in our third base picture, it gives us good balance.”
I couldn’t understand why the Braves had traded for Boyer, a third baseman, when they had Ed Mathews. He was the team captain. He had 493 career home runs. My knowledge of baseball at the time was not sophisticated enough for me to speculate that the Braves might be planning to platoon Boyer and Mathews, playing the right-handed-hitting Boyer against left-handed pitchers while Mathews would play against right-handers. But the reasoning behind the trade became very clear a month later.
On December 31, 1966, the Braves traded Ed Mathews to the Astros; they received pitcher Bob Bruce and outfielder Dave Nicholson in return.
At the end of the 1966 season, Mathews was tied with Lou Gehrig for seventh place in career homers. Only Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Mickey Mantle had more home runs than Mathews. Mantle had 496 home runs and, like Mathews, his skills had deteriorated. But, unlike the Braves, there is no way the Yankees would have traded Mantle at that point in his career.
So on Opening Night 1967, the Braves, with Boyer at third base, took on the Astros, with Mathews at first base. The Atkins clan
gathered around the television to watch a rare telecast of a Braves game. The game turned out to be a pitcher’s duel between two fine lefties, Denny Lemaster for the Braves and Mike Cuellar for the Astros. The game was scoreless until the Braves broke the ice with two outs in the top of the seventh inning–on a home run by their new third baseman, Clete Boyer.
The way Lemaster was pitching, it appeared that Boyer’s homer might hold up. But Lemaster walked Bob Aspromonte to leadoff the bottom of the inning. Manager Billy Hitchcock brought in left-hander Dick Kelly since the next two Houston hitters were left-handed. The first hitter, Rusty Staub, bunted Aspromonte to third base. That brought up the second left-handed hitter–Ed Mathews.
Mathews clobbered a booming fly into the cavernous nether regions of the Astrodome. In most any other park, Mathews would have had his 494th career home run, but in the Dome, he settled for a triple—and a huge measure of revenge.
The night was over for Kelly. Clay Carroll came in, dashed some gasoline on the fire, and before the smoke had cleared, Houston led 6-1; that was the final score.
Clete Boyer went on to hit 26 home runs and drive in 96 runs in his first season in Atlanta. Mathews hit 10 homers for the Astros—including his 500th on July 14—before Houston traded him to the Detroit Tigers for a late-season run at the pennant. He hit six more home runs for Detroit.
I don’t know how today’s game in Milwaukee will end, but I am fairly certain that there will not be any drama to match the Braves’ 1967 opener. And neither starting pitcher will be around for the ninth inning, much less pitch into extra innings.
It’s Opening Day and, according to Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Every team starts out in first place (unless they are in the National League West, where the Dodgers have already played three games, the Diamondbacks have played two and the Padres have played one). Even the Chicago Cubs can hope that his will be the “next year” they have been waiting for since 1908 when they last won the World Series.
“Welcome to Opening Day, when all the teams are strong, all the players are good looking, and all the managers are above average.” With apologies to Garrison Keillor for that last bit of poetic license, I end by simply saying, PLAY BALL!
Rick Ankiel, who first burst onto the big league stage as a flame-throwing left-hander with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 20 in 1999, announced his retirement last week. Ankiel is retiring as an outfielder after control problems drove him from the mound to the depths of the minor leagues and back.
In the top of the first inning of Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series, Ankiel retired the Atlanta Braves in order; the Cardinals then jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the inning. Ankiel had a relatively easy top of the second: a strikeout, a double and then a double play. Everything seemed to be going well for Ankiel up to that point in his career. There was no reason for anyone to anticipate what was about to happen. The top of the third inning was the beginning of the end of Rick Ankiel’s career as a major league pitcher. The following summary of that inning from the website, Retrosheet.org, best describes the catastrophe that struck:
BRAVES 3RD: Maddux walked; Furcal popped to first in foul territory; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [Maddux to third]; A. Jones walked; Ankiel threw a wild pitch [A. Jones to second]; C. Jones was called out on strikes; Galarraga walked [Maddux scored on a wild pitch, A. Jones to third]; Jordan singled to left [A. Jones scored, Galarraga to second]; Ankiel threw a wild pitch (Galarraga to third, Jordan to second); Sanders walked; Weiss singled to left [Galarraga scored, Jordan scored, Sanders to second]; JAMES REPLACED ANKIEL (PITCHING); Lopez popped to second; 4 R, 2 H, 0 E, 2 LOB. Braves 4, Cardinals 6.
When the dust had finally settled, Ankiel had walked four batters while throwing five wild pitches. I remember watching this inning while eating lunch at Logan’s Roadhouse. As a Braves fan, I was glad my team scored four runs to get back in the game, but anyone with a heart had to feel badly for the 21-year-old Ankiel.
As I sat watching Ankiel struggle, I kept wondering why his manager, Tony LaRussa, did not put an end to his torture. I realize it’s difficult to know when to throw in the towel, but it seems to me that any manager should have known that there was no way in the world that Ankiel–or any other pitcher, for that matter–should have been allowed to throw another pitch after the wild pitch on ball four to Andres Galarraga that also allowed Maddux to score. Yet, it took two more wild pitches and two base hits before LaRussa removed Ankiel from the game.
Ankiel’s problems continued in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. In Game 2, he lasted but 2/3 of an inning, walked three batters, threw two wild pitches, and gave up two runs. Ankiel made a relief appearance in the seventh inning of Game 5 of that series. His final warm-up toss went all the way to the backstop and he walked the first batter he faced. After a sacrifice and a strikeout, he threw two wild pitches in the process of walking a batter, with a run scoring on the second one. He did not compete the inning.
Back to the minors
Again, Rick Ankiel was only 21 years old when he suddenly lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate. His pitching career may have taken the same path had LaRussa intervened earlier, but it seems to me that Ankiel’s confidence was irreversibly shaken after that disastrous third inning.
Things did not get better for Ankiel the following season and by May 10 he was back in the minor leagues. He struggled at Memphis (AAA)–17 walks in 4 1/3 innings–but dominated at Johnson City (A)–158 strikeouts and only 18 walks in 87 2/3 innings. Ankiel missed the entire 2002 season with an injury and then struggled through 2003 with the Tennessee Smokies (AA), going 2-6 with a 6.29 earned run average. He pitched just 23 2/3 innings in the minors in 2004, but returned to St. Louis at the end of the season where he had a 5.40 ERA in 10 innings of work.
Ankiel in the outfield
It was at this point in his career that Ankiel decided to try to make it back to the big leagues as a hitter. He returned to the minors for the 2005 season and hit 21 home runs while splitting time between Quad Cities (A) and Springfield (AA). He missed the 2006 season and then broke out with 32 homers in 102 games at Memphis in 2007. The Cardinals brought Ankiel back to the big club for 47 games that season and he hit 11 more home runs and had a .285 average. Rick Ankiel was back and the future looked bright.
In 2008 Ankiel hit 25 home runs, drove in 71 runs, and hit .264; he also struck out 100 times in 463 plate appearances, which was a harbinger of things to come. Ankiel swung hard and when he connected, he could hit the ball as far as anyone; but his swing made him vulnerable to inside fastballs. Ankiel dropped to 11 homers, a .231 average, and 99 strikeouts in only 404 plate appearances in 2009. It would be his final season with the Cardinals.
Life after St. Louis
Ankiel’s last three seasons were an odyssey in which he made stops in Kansas City, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Houston, and New York. The Mets released him last June and no other team came calling.
The Braves picked up Ankiel at the trade deadline in 2010. Before he got to Atlanta, I had seen enough of his swing to realize he was going to have trouble making consistent enough contact to remain in the major leagues. However, before the Braves picked him up, I did not realize how good he was defensively in the outfield–especially when it came to his throwing ability.
The Atkins clan was at Wrigley Field on August 20 for a game between the Braves and the Cubs. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Koyie Hill hit what appeared to be a sure double. But Ankiel fired a rocket into second base and nailed Koyie as he slid into the bag. It remains the best throw from an outfielder that I have ever witnessed in person.
The grandest moment of Ankiel’s career occurred during his brief stay with the Braves. In the second game of the 2010 National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants with the scored tied at 4-4 in the top of the 11th inning, Ankiel launched a home run into McCovey Cove that provided the Braves with their only win of the series. Ankiel’s heroics came 10 years after his meltdown on the mound with the Cardinals–ironically against the Braves.
I hate to see Rick Ankiel leave baseball. He overcame adversity as a pitcher, reinvented himself, and returned to the big leagues as an outfielder; he is still only 34 years old. I believe, with some small adjustments to his swing, Ankiel still could be a productive major league hitter. Maybe some team will give him a shot.
I am making progress on the stack of books I received as Christmas presents. A couple of nights ago, I picked up The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, the latest biography of baseball’s last player to hit .400. This version is by Ben Bradlee, Jr. and is 775 pages long, not counting the appendices, notes and index.
I must confess that I start this book with a measure of curiosity about what else there is to discover about the Splendid Splinter, especially since one of Bradlee’s former colleagues at the Boston Globe, Leigh Montville, wrote a fantastic biography of Williams back in 2004 entitled Ted Williams: An American Hero.
As Montville pointed out in his book, and I’m sure Bradlee will cover in his, many myths follow Ted Williams. There is a story of Williams’s first Spring Training with the Boston Red Sox involving slugger Jimmie Foxx taking batting practice. Someone supposedly said to Williams, “Wait ‘til you see Jimmie Foxx hit.” To which Williams supposedly replied, “Wait ‘til Jimmie Foxx sees me hit.” Montville could find no one who actually heard this exchange.
One of the most famous stories about Williams is that, as a stated goal, he wanted “to have people say, ‘there goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’” I believe Williams actually made this statement. The myth surrounding this story is that Williams actually achieved this goal. Bradlee perpetuates the myth in the introduction to The Kid:
Ty Cobb may have hit for higher average, and Babe Ruth with more power, but nobody combined power and average the way Williams did.
It is simple enough to verify that Cobb hit for a higher average–.366 life time to Williams’s .344. And Ruth, with his 714 home runs to Williams’s 521, obviously confirms that the Big Bambino hit with more power. But for Bradlee to state that “nobody combined power and average the way Williams did” is just plain nonsense.
As I just mentioned, Williams hit .344 in his career and he was the last of the .400 hitters, topping that mark with a .406 average in 1941. But Ruth finished his career with a .342 batting average; if my math is correct, that’s two points lower than Williams.
Williams possibly gets more notice as a player who hit for higher average due to his .406 season. But Ruth had eight seasons in which he hit .350 or better, including six seasons where he hit over .370. While it’s true that he never hit .400, he hit .393 in 1923.
Williams had five seasons in which he hit .350 or better, including two where he hit over .370. Even if you give Williams credit for the 1952 (4-10, .400) and 1953 (37-110, .407) seasons, he still falls short of Ruth’s accomplishment.
Ruth’s on-base percentage was eight points lower than that of Williams (.474 to .482). But Ruth topped Williams in slugging percentage (.690 to .634) and, in the new category of OPS (on-base + slugging), Ruth outdistanced Williams 1.164 to 1.116.
Both Ruth and Williams had quirks in their careers that affected their life-time batting totals. Ruth did not become a full-time hitter until 1919, his sixth season in the major leagues and baseball did not introduce the livelier baseball until 1920. Both of these factors reduced Ruth’s career home run total to the point that one could make a good case that, had Ruth been a full-time player from the beginning of his career, he would still hold the record for most home runs in a career.
Williams lost three full seasons (1943-45) and most of two others (1952-53) to military service. He certainly would have hit a lot more home runs had he not served his country as a Marine pilot. But Williams topped 40 homers in a season just once (43 in 1949), so those who say that Williams would have hit more homers than Ruth had he not lost time to the Marines must be assuming that Williams would have hit substantially more home runs in each of those seasons than he hit at any other time in his career. It just would not have happened.
I do not make this comparison of Ruth and Williams to disparage Williams’ greatness as a hitter. I think the numbers presented here make a strong case that people seeing Williams on the street could have accurately said, “There goes Ted Williams, next to Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
Once I wade through Bradlee’s entire book, I’ll follow up with a review. It wouldn’t be fair to judge a 775-page book on one sentence on page 22.