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Let’s Play Two

September 8, 2019

Hugh Atkins

I just read Let’s Play Two: The Legend of Mr. Cub, The Life of Ernie Banks by Ron Rapoport. It has been in my to-read stack since Father’s Day, but it was worth the wait. Obviously, this is a biography of the most popular player in Chicago Cubs history, and it is especially timely, as we are 50 years removed from the Cubs collapse in 1969 that opened the door for the Miracle Mets to win the World Series. Let’s Play Two is not merely a biography of Ernie Banks; it is a history of the Cubs during his time with the team. As such, Rapoport devotes a good deal of space to the 1969 pennant race.

Rapoport follows Banks from the days of Banks’ youth in Dallas, Texas, during his time with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, and, of course, his stellar career with the Cubs. It is well known that, despite hitting 512 home runs, winning two National League Most Valuable Player Awards, playing in 14 All-Star games, and being a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Banks never played in the World Series. While the book points out that Banks was extremely disappointed about having not played in the Fall Classic, he never let it affect his positive personality. Rapoport confirms that Banks was genuinely a good guy; he really loved baseball, and “let’s play two,” was not merely a catchphrase.

© 2019 by Ron Rapoport

Rapoport conducted interviews with some of Banks’ great contemporaries. Henry Aaron, Ferguson Jenkins, and Billy Williams all contributed to this book. But I also enjoyed reading the names of lesser-known players from the days of my youth like Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman, Randy Hundley, Rich Nye, and Gene Oliver.

The most interesting part of the book was the coverage of the collapse in 1969–and what a collapse it was. After Holtzman tossed a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on August 19, the Cubs led the New York Mets by eight games with just six weeks left in the season, but they ended up finishing eight games back; that’s a 16-game swing. Rapoport covers the details of how it all happened and provides some theories on the possible causes.

The famous Bleacher Bums of Wrigley Field get their due in the book as well, but they don’t come across as the lovable, devoted fans many of today’s Cubs enthusiasts seem to remember them being. In fact, the Bums turned on the Cubs after the collapse. Quotes from players with the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals indicate that the Cubs antics made opponents play harder against the them. Other teams also took umbrage with Ron Santo’s on-field bush-league heel-clicking following a Cub victory.

There is plenty of humor in Let’s Play Two, especially when the book gets to the point when Joe Pepitone joins the Cubs in 1970.

Perhaps the best thing about Let’s Play Two is that it refutes much of the venom Leo Durocher spouted about Banks in his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Last, published in 1975. When Durocher arrived in Chicago as the new manager in 1966, he was jealous of Banks’ popularity; he hated that Banks was known as Mr. Cub. Durocher wanted to be the center of attention, so he set out on a mission to belittle Banks, with the ultimate goal of forcing him out of Chicago, if not out of baseball completely. Banks handled the situation with his trademark grace and never said an unkind word about Durocher.

Love or hate the Chicago Cubs, Ernie Banks was a baseball treasure. Ron Rapoport tells us why in this wonderful book.

Aaron was Braves’ Original 30-30 Man

September 1, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Last Friday, Ronald Acuña, Jr. stole his 30th base of the season and joined Henry Aaron (1963), Dale Murphy (1983), and Ron Gant (1990, 1991) as the only Braves players ever to steal 30 bases and hit 30 home runs in the same season. Acuña is on pace to have a remarkable year, but I’m not sure he will equal the season Aaron had in 1963.

The Braves were still in Milwaukee in 1963, and they finished in sixth place in the National League with a record of 84-78. Aaron hit .319 with 201 hits. He led the league in runs batted in with 130, runs scored with 121, total bases with 370, slugging percentage at .576, and on-base plus slugging at .977. Aaron and Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants tied for the league lead in home runs with 44. Aaron’s on-base percentage was .391, which was second in the league to his teammate, Ed Mathews (.399). Aaron stole his 31 bases in 36 attempts. Such a season usually would be good enough for the Most Valuable Player Award, but amazingly, Aaron finished third in the voting.

© T.C.G.

Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the near unanimous choice for NL MVP in 1963. The Dodgers won the pennant and knocked off the New York Yankees in the World Series. Koufax had a phenomenal year; he was 25-5, which tied Juan Marichal of the Giants for the league lead in wins. Koufax led the league with a 1.88 earned run average, strike outs with 306, and shutouts with 11. Koufax was the unanimous choice for the only Cy Young Award given; this was before baseball gave an award to a pitcher in each league.

I lean toward the belief that pitchers should not be eligible for the MVP Award. Pitchers have their own award, which Koufax rightfully won. While Koufax had a remarkable season, he appeared in only 40 of his team’s games while Aaron played in more than four times that many (161). Koufax received 14 first-place votes to Aaron’s one.

The primary reason Koufax won the award over Aaron is that the voters lean toward players whose teams win the pennant; but that isn’t always the case. Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs won the MVP Award in1958 and 1959 despite his team having a losing record and finishing in fifth place both years.

© T.C.G.

Koufax winning the MVP Award over Aaron is one thing, but how in the world could any informed voter think that Dick Groat of the St. Louis Cardinals also had a more valuable season than Aaron?

Groat had a fine season; he matched Aaron exactly with 201 hits and a .319 average, and he led the league in doubles with 43. But from that point on, there really is no comparison. Groat hit six home runs, scored 85 runs, and drove in 73. He received four first-place votes for MVP.

Groat was a shortstop, and voters have lower expectations for middle infielders, be it in postseason awards or Hall of Fame balloting. Second baseman Jim Gilliam (.282/6/49) of the Dodgers received a first-place vote, perhaps benefiting both from being a middle infielder and being on a team that won the pennant.

Postseason awards are always fodder for debate. Aaron certainly isn’t the only player who upon further review may have deserved a MVP Award (and 1963 isn’t the only season), but there are no do-overs. If there were, Aaron would win at least one of the awards Banks received–and Paul Newman would win an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference.)

And the Winner is…

August 18, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The rules for awarding wins and losses to pitchers are a bit quirky and, at times, unfair. A starting pitcher who goes a minimum of five innings, leaves the game with his team in the lead, and his team never surrenders that lead, gets the win. However, as serious baseball fans know, when relief pitchers enter the game and the lead changes, things get complicated.

Last week the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets 6-4. Dallas Keuchel pitched six shutout innings and left the game with a 1-0 lead. Sean Newcomb started the seventh inning and gave up the tying run; Chris Martin relieved Newcomb and surrendered the go-ahead run. The Braves scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh to go up 6-2. Shane Greene pitched a scoreless eighth inning, but then Mark Melancon gave up two runs in the ninth before giving way to Jerry Blevins, who got the final out.

Martin got the win, despite giving up the lead, because he was the pitcher when the Braves permanently took the lead. Keuchel, the game’s most effective pitcher, got no decision.

The following night, Julio Teheran gave up six runs to the New York Mets and left the game before the third inning with the Braves trailing 6-0. Josh Tomlin came in, gave up a run in the third, two more in the fifth, and another in the seventh. The Braves scored single runs in the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh innings, and went into the bottom of the ninth still behind 10-4.

© T.C.G.

The Braves scored four runs in the ninth, but ultimately lost 10-8. Teheran got the loss, even though the Braves overcame the runs he surrendered. Had the Braves tied the game before Teheran left and Tomlin had given up the lead, Tomlin would have gotten the loss.

Because of these rules, win-loss records for pitchers can be misleading. Elroy Face won 18 games in relief for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, setting a record that still stands; he had only one loss. But was he as dominant as such a gaudy record suggests? Here is a breakdown of his wins:

  • 6 wins: entered a tie game and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates eventually scored the winning run
  • 5 wins: entered the game with the Pirates ahead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates came back and took the lead while he was still in the game
  • 3 wins: entered a tie game, gave up a run(s), but stayed around until the Pirates came back and won
  • 2 wins: entered a game in which the Pirates trailed and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates took the lead
  • 1 win: entered a game with the Pirates behind, gave up a run, but the Pirates came back while he was still in the game
  • 1 win: from the official scorer for being the most effective reliever in a game where the starter did not go long enough to qualify for the win

In Face’s one loss, he entered the game with the Pirates in the lead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates lost.

I’m not sure Face’s 18 wins are as impressive as they look, but he also had 10 saves. Examining each of his 57 games from that season, I found only four in which, by today’s standards, he blew a save. That is an impressive season no matter how quirky the rules for wins are.

It just goes to show that sometimes you have to look deeper than a pitcher’s win-loss record to see how good his season really was.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; all game details are from Retrosheet.)

In Defense of the Men in Blue

August 11, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Major League Baseball should implement some new rules to protect the umpires. After 150 years, it’s time for baseball to keep the managers off the field. No other major sport allows head coaches to stomp onto the field and berate their officials.

Arguing with the umpire is as old as baseball itself. Baseball likely allowed it to continue all these years because, at times, it makes good theater. As a fan, I used to enjoy seeing a manager go out and give an umpire a piece of his mind. Over the past couple of seasons, however, I began to feel that the managers have no business on the field. A recent ugly incident completely convinced me that, as soon as a manager’s foot touches the ground outside the dugout, the umpire should send him to the showers.

On July 18, New York Yankees’ manager, Aaron Boone, berated plate umpire, Brennan Miller, over Miller’s strike zone. Video coverage showed Boone pointing his fingers right in Miller’s face and screaming obscenities. Boone served only a one-game suspension for his hissy fit.

Throughout the hysterics by Boone, Miller somehow remained calm. Boone came across as a bully.

Media coverage, especially from hometown newspapers, usually defend the manager. Kristie Ackert, writing for the New York Daily News, said Boone knew MLB would suspend him because “the bill of his cap touched Miller’s,” as if that were the only justifiable reason for Boone’s punishment. Describing Boone’s meltdown, she said Boone “went on an amusing tirade.”

Original 27×41 movie poster for the 1950 film KILL THE UMPIRE, starring William Bendix. Available for purchase on ebay.

Maybe baseball should use technology to call balls and strikes. Combined with the existing replay review, then there really would be little need for the manager to argue with the umpires. Unlike some of the other proposed rule changes, reigning in the managers’ treatment of the umpires would have no effect on how the game is played; actually, it would speed up the game.

Managers would not tolerate in-game criticism from the umpires whenever the manager made an error in judgement.  Billy Martin, who wore out his welcome in several cities, was infamous for his on-field antics. But I wonder how Martin would have reacted in the Pine Tar Game had umpire Tim McClelland rushed over to the Yankee dugout, waving his arms, tossing dirt, and screaming, “I can’t believe you let Gossage face Brett again!” I’m sure as soon as McClelland turned his back, Martin would have attacked him.

Bobby Cox, the Hall-of-Fame manager of the Atlanta Braves, holds the record with 158 ejections; for that, Braves’ announcers routinely refer to him as a “players’ manager.” For me, however, that record is not aging well.

On the flip side, baseball really has no excuse for letting guys like Joe West and Angel Hernandez hang around, seemingly since Cobb was a rookie, making terrible calls. Umpires are going to make honest mistakes, but baseball should not allow incompetence to stand.

Fielders make errors in virtually every game, and these days it is acceptable for a batter to strike out 200 times in a season; but fans accept errors and strikeouts as part of the game. Umpires are the only people in the game from whom fans expect perfection. I have been as guilty as any other fan in that regard, but I am making an effort to change. After all, fans still can express their frustration with umpires–just like they do with the players and managers–by yelling at the television from the comfort of their recliners.

Umpires and referees have a thankless job, even when they perform it well. I believe it’s time to cut them some slack.

Remembering Jim Bouton

August 4, 2019

Hugh Atkins

Former major-league pitcher, Jim Bouton, passed away early last month. Most fans likely remember Bouton for his baseball memoir, Ball Four, but my first memory of him is from his 1966 Strat-O-Matic Baseball card. Bouton experienced great success early in his career, but a sore arm drove him out of baseball after the 1970 season at the age of 31.

Bouton began his big-league career with the New York Yankees in 1962 with a 7-7 record. The next season he went 21-7 with a 2.53 ERA. Bouton followed up that campaign with 18 wins in 1964 and then won the last two World Series games the Yankees would win until 1977.

Bouton’s decline began in 1965 when he went 4-15, and he would win only 11 more games over the next five seasons while trying to hang on as a knuckleball pitcher. Ball Four chronicled his 1969 season, mostly with the expansion Seattle Pilots. The tell-all book made him popular with fans, but not so much with baseball insiders.

© T.C.G.

 

I did not see Bouton pitch in his glory days with the Yankees, but photos of his delivery seem to demonstrate why he developed arm trouble. He dropped down his arm, reached way behind his back, came straight over the top of his shoulder, and fired the baseball homeward with as much force as possible. Bouton exerted so much effort that his cap flew off on most of his pitches.

Bouton started a comeback in 1975 with the independent Portland Mavericks in the Northwest League, and he was 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts. He left baseball in 1976 to work on a television series based on Ball Four, but CBS cancelled the show after five episodes, so he resurrected his comeback in 1977. Bill Veeck, owner of the Chicago White Sox, gave Bouton a shot, and he started the season in AA Knoxville of the Southern League. After a 0-6 start that included a 5.26 ERA, he was back in Portland where he was 5-1 with a 4.50 ERA.

In 1978 another unconventional owner, Ted Turner of the Atlanta Braves, gave Bouton a shot, and he spent most of the summer with AA Savannah in the Southern League. I saw Bouton pitch the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Nashville Sounds on July 5. Before a standing-room crowd of 10,140, he gave up just three hits, walked six, struck out six, and earned an 8-3 complete-game victory. The win evened his record at 5-5, and he finished the season at 11-8 with a 2.82 ERA.

Ball Four, among some other excellent baseball books, including The Long Season and The Natural.

The Braves called up Bouton to the big club, and on September 10 he made a start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Unfortunately, Bouton gave up six runs in five innings and took the loss.

In his second start, Bouton gave up one unearned run over six innings and earned a win against the San Francisco Giants; it was his first big-league victory in over eight years.

Bouton pitched well in his next two starts, receiving a no-decision and a tough-luck loss. He pitched his final game in the major leagues on September 29, and it did not go well; the Cincinnati Reds scored seven runs in three innings. Bouton’s comeback came to an end with a 1-3 record and an ERA of 4.97.

Bouton was a 20-game winner, an All-Star, and 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA for the Yankees in World Series action. That’s how fans should remember Bouton. And, oh yeah, he also wrote a bestseller.

Jim Bouton passed away on July 10 after battling dementia. He was 80 years old.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; game details are from the Nashville Banner, Retrosheet, and the Tennessean. Details of Bouton’s comeback are from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).)

All You Need to Know About Bill Buckner

June 2, 2019

Hugh Atkins

I was saddened to see the news of the passing of Bill Buckner on Memorial Day. Buckner played 22 seasons of Major League Baseball, beginning with one at-bat at the end of the season in 1969 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and ending in 1990 with his second tour of duty with the Boston Red Sox. Along the way Buckner also made stops with the Chicago Cubs, California Angels, and Kansas City Royals.

Buckner was not a slugger, but he was a good, steady hitter. His biggest season for home runs was 1986 when he hit 18 for the Red Sox; he finished his career with 174. Buckner drove in more than 100 runs three times, and he won a batting title, hitting .324 with the Cubs in 1980. Contact was Buckner’s game. He never struck out more than 39 times in a season and never walked more than 40.

© T.C.G.

Buckner was a part-time player for the Dodgers in 1970 and ‘71 but became a regular during the 1972 season. He hit .319 that year, .275 in 1973, and .314 in 1974, helping the Dodgers to the World Series. Buckner makes a cameo appearance in baseball history hanging atop the left-field fence in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as home run number 715 by Henry Aaron sailed into the Braves’ bullpen.

Buckner’s career took a turn for the worse in April of 1975. He hung his spikes on the second-base bag on a steal attempt and shredded his right ankle. Buckner was out of action for almost a month, came back and hobbled through the rest of the season, and finished the year with a .243 batting average. From that point on, Buckner was known for his limp and his high-top cleats.

Buckner bounced back and hit .301 in 1976, but the Dodgers traded him to the Cubs during the offseason for Rick Monday. Buckner had seven good years for the Cubs but was off to a slow start in 1984 when they traded him to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley.

Buckner’s first two seasons in Boston were the most productive of his career. In 1985, he hit .299 with 16 home runs and 110 RBIs. The following season, Buckner’s average dropped to .267, but he hit 18 homers and drove in 102 runs. He played in his second World Series that fall, but the team fell one game short, losing to the New York Mets.

The Red Sox traded Buckner to the Angels midway through the 1987 season. He hit .306 for his new team and finished the year with a .286 average with five homes and 74 RBIs. It would be Buckner’s last decent year.

© 2001 FLEER/SKYBOX

The Angels sent Buckner to the Royals during the 1988 season, and by 1990 he was back in Boston for an encore with the Red Sox.

I’m not sure how Buckner’s career stacks up using today’s modern metrics. Since he hit mostly line drives, his launch angle probably wasn’t much to write home about, and his highest WAR (wins above replacement) was 3.7 in 1982. His WAR for 1986, the year he helped the Red Sox make it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, was -0.3–that’s negative 0.3. How can that be? That makes it look as if the Red Sox would have been better off with Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, playing first base for them.

Bill Buckner was a joy to watch. He wrapped up his career with a .289 batting average and 2,715 hits. And at 69 years old, he died way too young.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com.)

The Life of Riley

May 19, 2019

Hugh Atkins

This past Wednesday Austin Riley became the latest Atlanta Braves player to hit a home run in his first game in the Major Leagues. On his second trip to the plate, Riley homered off right-hander Michael Wacha of the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the fourth inning. With that long ball, at the ripe old age of 22 Riley joined a not-so-exclusive club of Braves who hit home runs in their first game.

I could not find a list of Braves who hit home runs in their first game, but I seemed to remember quite a few, so I checked retrosheet.org for verification.

© T.C.G.

Bob Horner is the first Braves player I remember hitting a home run in his first game. Horner never played in the Minor Leagues; he came to the Braves straight from Arizona State University, joined the Braves on June 16, 1978, and hit a home run in his third at-bat off Bert Blyleven of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Horner hit 23 home runs that season and was the National League Rookie of the Year.

On May 17, 1993, Jermaine Dye hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat off Marcus Moore of the Cincinnati Reds. Dye hit 12 homers that season and looked as if he had a promising career ahead of him, yet the Braves traded him to the Kanas City Royals where he became one of the most feared hitters in the American League before retiring after the 2009 season with 325 career homers.

On July 7, 2005, Jeff Francoeur hit a home run in his second at-bat, a three-run shot off Glendon Rush of the Chicago Cubs. Francoeur had a couple of good seasons but began to struggle with consistency, and by 2009 he began to bounce around both leagues, changing teams with regularity. He was out of baseball at the age of 32 after the 2016 season.

On Opening Day of the 2009 season, Jordan Schafer hit a home run in his first at-bat, and it was pretty much downhill for him for the rest of his career. He bounced around for parts of six seasons with three different teams and wrapped up his career in 2015 at the age of 28 with 12 career home runs and a .228 batting average.

© T.C.G.

On Opening Day 2010, Jason Heyward hit a home run in his first at-bat against the Chicago Cubs. He had a good rookie season, hitting .277 with 18 homers and 72 runs batted in. Heyward slipped to .227 with just 14 home runs in 2011 but seemed to be on the upswing the following season when he hit 27 homers. Heyward followed with two unremarkable seasons, and the Braves traded him to the Cardinals where he had one lackluster season. For some reason, the Cubs then gave Heyward an eight-year contract worth $184 million.

Evan Gattis got sidetracked on the way to his first Big League game; he was 26 years old when he arrived in Atlanta in 2013. Gattis hit a home run in his second at-bat off Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite playing only part time that season, Gattis hit 21 homers and followed that with 22 in 2014. The Braves traded him to the Houston Astros, where in four seasons he hit 96 home runs and was on a World Series Championship team in 2017. For some reason, Gattis is without a team this season; I hope one picks him up soon.

I’m fairly certain there have been other Braves who homered in their first game, but these are the only ones I remember.

(All statistics are from baseball-reference.com; all game details are from retrosheet.org.)

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