Fished from the small creek that runs next to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, NY, a simple baseball has turned into an epic quest spanning across the United States of America and beyond. Since August 2010, The Hall Ball has criss-crossed the country on a journey to have its picture taken with each member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, both living and deceased. Now, The Hall Ball is in its final stages before it is ready to be donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The stories that accompany its journey are as varied, funny, moving and powerful as any in the history of the game. Please explore to learn more about The Hall Ball Project, the members of the Hall and to discover what you can do to contribute to the completion of the first crowd-sourced artifact donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
To find out about the history of The Hall Ball, go here.
January 28, 2015-Located just a few miles to the west of the Port of Havana, lies the Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón. Americans better know this cemetery’s namesake by the Anglicized version of Christopher Columbus, though, to be fair, his Genoan birth name was in fact Cristoforo Columbo. There is no better way to start an exploration of Cuba then with the world’s most famous invader who is still, to this day, credited with “discovering” the new world, a claim that has only slightly more credence than Doubleday’s influence on the creation of baseball.
Prior to 1492, three distinct indigenous peoples existed on the Cuban island: the Guanahatabeyes, the Ciboneyes and the Taínos. When Columbus arrived in October of that seminal year, it signaled the doom of these cultures, just as it would cause the near extinction of their Indian neighbors to the North. As with America, small pockets of these native people still exist in Cuba today, but their way of life was annihilated by Columbus’s benefactors, the Spanish.
Over the next four-hundred years Cuba would be subject to Spanish rule. Besides serving as an agricultural resource, providing fertile land for coffee, sugar and molasses, Cuba was also a convenient hub for the Spanish slave trade. Cuban law, however, did allow opportunity for slaves to buy their freedom. By the start of the 19th century, frequent small slave rebellions, ironically indebted to the thirst for democracy created by the American Revolution, coupled with those who had purchased their emancipation, led to a sizable free black population. Palenques, Spanish for “walled city,” began to sprout up around Cuba; protected communities outside of the reach of the law, made up entirely of free blacks or, gente libre de color.
Large-scale rebellion came to Cuba in 1868, just three years after the end of the Unites States Civil War. The goal of the conflict, which would come to be known as The Ten Years’ War, was to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. They were not successful, although Spain did promise greater autonomy to the country in the 1878 pact that brought about an end to the fighting. That agreement, known as the Pact of Zanjón, also guaranteed the freedom of any black who fought on either side of the war. It was an important step and just eight years later, on October 6, 1886 slavery would be completely abolished throughout the nation.
Twenty-two months prior to that historic day (sources vary as to the exact date), José de la Caridad Méndez was born in Cárdenas, in the Matanzas Province, roughy one-hundred miles east of Havana. Méndez was ebony-skinned and small for a ballplayer, only 5’ 8” and roughly 160 lbs. (again sources vary as to his exact size). But, this did not prevent him from becoming one of history’s most dominating pitchers and the first superstar Cuban export to North American baseball.
The Cuban League was founded the same year the Ten Years’ War ended, in 1878, and was strengthened with Cuba’s eventual independence in 1898. In fact, it would operate continuously until 1961, when Fidel Castro dissolved the league along with the rest of professional sport throughout the country. When Méndez began his professional career during the 1907/08 season, he joined the Almendares, one of the Cuban League’s charter franchises. The club was in the middle of quite a successful run, having won the championships of the 1904/05 and 1906/07 seasons.
Méndez’s presence made a good team better. Almendares had an .826 winning percentage his rookie year and the twenty-three year old set the league on fire. He posted an 8-0 mark, pitching two shutouts in seven games started. He was a little wild, walking thirty-two in seventy-five innings, but he still managed a minuscule 0.48 ERA. Along with offensive powerhouse Emilio Palomino, he led the club to another championship, finishing five and a half games ahead of Habana.
In 1908, during the Cuban League off-season, he joined the Cuban Stars of Havana, members of the Independent National Association of Colored Professional Clubs of the United States and Cuba, a long-winded name that would mercifully shorten over the ensuing years. Members of the pre-Rube Foster disconnected Negro Leagues, the small league would feature the Brooklyn Royal Giants, who would play an exciting exhibition series against Almandares in Cuba later that year. It also included the Sol White-led Philadelphia Giants and the misnamed Cuban Giants. Unlike the Stars of Havana, who actually were Cuban, the Giants were made up of Americans who capitalized on the mystique surrounding Cuban baseball.
The Stars never played home games, appearing mostly in ballparks in the Northeast, and fared poorly, finishing 8-12 that season. However, Méndez’s return to Almendares brought immediate success. Picking up where he left off his freshman year, he won fourteen league games in 1908/09, and an additional three in exhibition play against the Brooklyn Royal Giants and the Major League Cincinnati Reds, who visited Cuba in November of that year. Méndez dominated the white big leaguers, pitching two shutouts and declining to give up a run in his twenty-five innings of work. His status in Cuba, and abroad, had become legendary.
He would play with Almendares for seven seasons, his last in 1915/16 and would help them win four more championships along the way. He would also play with the Cuban Stars until 1912, winning twenty games with them over his career, including a stellar 9-0 mark in 1911. Méndez was likely the most celebrated athlete in Cuba when, in 1916, he joined the Kansas City All Nations of the Western Independent Clubs of the American Negro Leagues.
By then, his arm had given out and he was no longer able to command his lightning fastball. Enticed by All Nations owner and fellow Hall of Famer J.L. Wilkinson, he converted to shortstop. Despite mixed success at the new position, he would spend the next five years playing exclusively in the United States. Appearing with the Chicago American Giants in 1918 and the Detroit Stars in 1919, he found a new home in 1920 with the Kansas City Monarchs, again working for Wilkinson.
A charter club of Foster’s Negro National League that season, Méndez would serve as the first player/manager of one of the most famous franchises in Negro League history. His playing time would lessen as he reached his mid-thirties, but he would lead the Monarchs to championships in 1923 and 1924. He even pitched, as a thirty-nine year old, in the first Negro League World Series in ‘24, defeating the Hilldale Daisies twice and allowing only four runs over nineteen innings of work. It would be his final hurrah with the Monarchs.
He would return to Cuba briefly, for the 1920/21 season, playing one more time for Almendares, and would return for good after he left the Monarchs. He would play for Santa Clara in 1923-25, Habana in 1925/26 and Alacranes of the newly formed Triangular League for 1926/27. The league lasted for only a season, but was well funded and could afford to hire legendary names like Méndez. The Alacranes would win the special season that was created for the three new teams, bringing Méndez one more championship in his storied career. He would never pitch professionally again.
Less than two years after he was out of baseball, Méndez died in Havana on October 31, 1928, likely of tuberculosis. He was buried in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, and his name was inscribed on the 1951 Monument to Baseballists. He was inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of 1939, and he joined the elite at Cooperstown in 2006, one of the members of the final class of Negro Leaguers voted in under current rules. His nickname in life had been El Diamante Negro, the Black Diamond, and today, 108 years after he made his professional debut, Méndez remains the premier jewel in the crown of Cuban baseball elites.
January 23, 2015-We are saddened by the news of the passing of Ernie Banks. We have lost a piece of American history tonight. Not only was he the most beloved Cub in that venerable franchise’s long history, but he was one of the few remaining on this earth who played in the Negro Leagues.
There will always be another game tomorrow, but life reminds us that the time of the men who play it is short.
January 16, 2015-The Hall Ball would like to extend its most sincere congratulations to newly elected Hall of Famers Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. This most deserving class brings the total number of Hall members up to 310, with 70 of them still alive, the most since we started working on The Hall Ball four and half years ago. As much as we are moved by the sanctity of visiting the graves of the members who are no longer with us, we would of course prefer to visit with them while they are alive. The dead, after all, tell no tales and they certainly don’t move you to tears of laughter when they keep asking you to take the picture over again because their hair doesn’t look right, like Hall Ball favorite Lou Brock.
As we announced on facebook, we recently added our 213th member, Cincinnati Reds legend Barry Larkin. Mr. Larkin was warm and encouraging when we told him about the project and his smile in the photo was genuine. There are two more living members who will be in the New York City area in the next few weeks, but as always we will wait to announce them until we’ve succeeded in getting the pictures. Baseball is filled with superstitions and just as it’s inappropriate to mention a no-hitter when you’re in the middle of it, we aren’t comfortable with talking about the “possibles” until they become the “definites.”
Most exciting to us, however, is the upcoming trip to Cuba. All of the pieces are nearly in place and we are just over a month away from visiting this tiny country that has been very big news of late. In preparation for the trip we have been boning up on the history of not only baseball within Cuba, but the country itself. Its story is one of beauty, tragedy, optimism, revolution and the realities of trying to create a socialist utopia in a capitalist world.
The mistakes of the Castro regime have been legion and looked at in the context of the original goals of Fidel’s barbudos, they are also poignantly sad. Prior to the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba was one of the more prosperous Latin American countries. However, it was also rife with Mafia-led crime and excess along with governmental sanctioned economic disparity. When Batista, who was once the democratically elected President of Cuba, took over in a bloodless coup in 1952, it was in part because the poor had been suffering terribly for nearly a decade under the ruling Los Auténticos, or Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party.
Unfortunately, conditions under Batista’s corrupt regime only worsened. Thus, when Fidel, with folk anti-hero Che Guevara by his side, rode out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains to oust Batista in 1959, the Cuban people looked to him with optimism. He spoke, charismatically, of a great revolution that would end hunger and poverty, and make each Cuban the equal of their fellow man. It was only later, after Castro found a friend in Nikita Khrushchev, that his revolution became a communist one. We now know that the communism experiment is a failure, and Castro’s self-serving, oppressive and, at times, violent reign of over five decades has prevented Cuba from reaching its dreams of self-sustaining equality, despite his successful efforts to lower crime and increase literacy. The Castro legacy will always be a complicated one.
Despite this, Cubans have found their pleasures where they could. This has always included baseball. Cuban baseball is barely two decades younger than American baseball. When the Cuban League was founded in 1878, just two years after the National League, it became the first baseball league outside of the borders of the United States. Like everything else, baseball has been effected by Castro’s reign, as the professional sport was abolished in 1961. Since then, the Baseball Federation of Cuba has lead a multi-league amateur coalition made up of teams representing each of Cuba’s provinces. It has cultivated some of the most sought after and talented athletes in the history of the game and at times dominated the world stage.
I am honored that one of my guides will be the amazing Peter Bjarkman. He is the leading authority on Cuban baseball. With the recent announcements about the shift in Cuban/American relations, Peter has become ubiquitous, including an appearance on the NBC Nightly News last month. His expertise guarantees that this trip will be a most enlightening one. I have much to learn about the country and its game.
There are three members of the Hall of Fame who we believe are buried in Cuba. If that sentence sounds a little non-committal, that’s because it is. The accepted wisdom is that Negro League greats José Méndez, Cristóbal Torriente and Martín Dihigo are all buried on their native soil. For two of them, there is some question as to the exact accuracy of this. Both Méndez and Torriente are listed on the Monument to Baseballists in Havana’s Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, but that was not erected until 1951, years after their deaths. Records to confirm that their bodies have actually been placed alongside their fellow ballplayers remain undiscovered.
This mystery is part of what we’ll be exploring between now and when we leave. Over the next few weeks I will writing about these three men. I will look at their impact on baseball, both in America and Cuba, as well as the role Cuba played in black baseball and vice-versa. Just as the complicated political history of Cuba is intrinsically intertwined with that of America, so is our game. Now, at the dawn of a new normal, we will say goodbye to the end of an epoch by examining the men who helped define it. Join us.
December 7, 2014-Normally, if a player slogs through eight and a half seasons of playing in the minor leagues that individual would be lucky if they ever made it to a Major League roster at all. The fact that Maury Wills, whose minor league career stretched from 1951-1959, is a potential Hall of Famer is a testament to just how good he was, when he was good.
Signed by the Brooklyn Dodger organization as an eighteen-year old out of Cardozo High School in Washington, DC, Wills spent his first and second year in professional ball playing for the Hornell Dodgers in upstate New York. That was just the first stop in an odyssey that would see him spend time in Miami, Pueblo, Fort Worth, Spokane and Seattle before playing in his first major league game. He would be a part of the minor league rosters of not only the Dodgers, but the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers before ultimately making his big league debut for the team that originally signed him. Of course, his journey to get there was so long that by the time he stepped to the plate on June 6, 1959, the Dodgers were now stationed in Los Angeles.
While he may have regretted how long it took him to arrive at The Show, his patience was quickly rewarded as the Dodgers found themselves squaring off against the Chicago White Sox in the World Series during his initial campaign. Wills was firmly the starting shortstop for the Dodgers by the season’s end and he started all six games of the Series that year. The rookie acquitted himself well, batting .250 in the postseason, knocking in a run and stealing a base. The Dodgers would win their second title and four months into his major league career, Wills had a championship ring.
Wills may have struggled at the plate in his minor league days, but one thing that was always certain was that he had tremendous speed. The Dodgers were cautious with the newcomer that first season, only asking him to steal ten times in 83 games. It would be the following year, when Wills would play his first full major league season in 1960, that they set him loose. He immediately responded by leading the league with fifty steals, eighteen more than runner up Vada Pinson. It would be the first of six straight seasons that he would lead in stolen bases.
1961 saw Wills play in his first All Star Game, an honor he would repeat four more times, and win his first Gold Glove. He would also lead the league in a more dubious stat, one that is a risk a manager takes with a base stealer. Over his career, Wills would lead the league in caught stealing seven times, including a disastrous 1966 that saw him caught 24 times with only 38 successful steals for a lowly 61% success rate. Today, Wills ranks 20th all-time in stolen bases, but is fifth in career caught stealing.
Wills would have an incredible 1962, including playing in a major league record 165 games. In addition to Wills stamina and avoidance of injury, this feat was thanks to a three-game tiebreaker series played against the San Francisco Giants at the end of the year that counted as regular season games. Because this format is no longer used, it is extremely unlikely this record will ever be broken. More importantly, that season Wills also became the first player in the twentieth century to steal more than a hundred bases, swiping 104 bags total. For his efforts he was awarded the National League MVP.
He would steal another 94 in 1965, and would star in the Dodgers 1965 title run, his third with the club (they also won in 1963). That Series he batted .367, had three doubles, three RBIs and three stolen bases and the Dodgers would beat the Twins in seven. But, a huge drop off to 38 steals the following year (and a measly .077 average in the 1966 Series) meant that Wills had a new home in Pittsburgh in 1967. He would bat .302 in his first year with the Pirates, and steal 52 bases in 1968, but the Bucs offered him up in the expansion draft and he began 1969 playing for the newly minted Montreal Expos.
His stay north of the border was short and unsuccessful. He was only batting .222 on June 11 when he was traded back to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Here, his career would come full circle, including a 1971 campaign in which he once again figured in the MVP voting, coming in sixth, despite only batting .281 for the year and having no other significantly noticeable stats. By 1972, he began the season as a starting shortstop and third baseman. By mid-season, his anemic batting average limited him to late-inning duty, and only occasionally at that. Finishing the season with a .129, he was released by the Dodgers in October and subsequently retired.
He spent some time as a television analyst and even had a short tenure as the manager of the Seattle Mariners. He steered a total of 82 games in parts of the 1980 and 1981 season, but he quickly became known for in-game errors more seasoned managers wouldn’t make (including calling in a relief pitcher that hadn’t warmed up). His record of 25-56 is one of the worst winning percentages in managerial history. His son, Bump Wills, had a six-year career of his own that saw him hit 36 home runs, sixteen more lifetime than his father.
That completes our examination of the ten candidates being looked at by the Veteran’s Committee this year. They will be making their announcement tomorrow and the Hall Ball is looking forward to seeing how their decision effects this crazy journey that we’re on. A few of the candidates, like Hodges and Boyer, are no longer with us. Most of them, however, would actually be able to ascend the steps of the dais at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown to receive the ultimate prize of the baseball world. The next chapter of The Hall Ball is about to be written. We hope you’ll keep on reading.
December 5, 2014-Luis Tiant marks the third Cuban born candidate on this year’s ballot, an absolutely incredible number when one considers that only four native-born Cubans have ever been elected to the Hall in its 75-year history. Tiant’s professional career had the interesting synchronicity of beginning at the end of the Cuban Revolution. He spent three years playing ball in the Mexican Leagues when his contract was purchased by the Cleveland Indians after the 1961 campaign. Fearful that he would not be allowed into the United States from Cuba, he stayed in Mexico after the season and went straight to the U.S.
His rookie minor league season was unsuccessful but by 1963 he was much improved. In 1964 he went an astounding 15-1 with a 2.04 ERA and 0.934 WHIP for Pacific Coast League (AAA) Portland. His performance was so impressive that by July he was with the Indians. His premiere was perhaps one of the most masterful first game outings by a rookie in the history of the sport. Facing a vaunted Yankees line up that included Tony Kubek, Joe Pepitone and Roger Maris, Tiant pitched a four hit shutout with eleven strikeouts, beating Whitey Ford. He would complete the season with 10-4 record and 2.83 ERA.
Over the next two seasons Tiant would pitch to mixed success, splitting his time between starting and the bullpen. He did pitch a league leading five shutouts in 1966, and would have sub 3.00 ERAs in ’66 and 1967. However, the lowly Indians offered their staff little in the way of support. It was not until the 1968 3rd place finish, the highest the Indians would achieve in Tiant’s time with the team, that he would be able to truly have a breakout season. He won an impressive 21 games that year and led the league in ERA (1.60) and shutouts (9). He made his first All Star appearance, starting the Midsummer Classic, and finished fifth in MVP voting.
The following season, the first with a lower mound and smaller strike zone, was a disaster for Tiant and the Indians. He would lead the league in losses (20!), home runs allowed and walks. Few could remember someone falling so far, so fast. He was quickly traded to the Minnesota Twins for the 1970 season where things improved, although he was limited in action by a shoulder injury. He was back in time for the American League Championship Series, only appearing in Game 2. He pitched the last 2/3 of the ninth inning, but not before he and fellow reliever Ron Perranoski had given up seven runs, turning a tight game into an 11-3 laugher for Baltimore. The Orioles would advance to the World Series the following day.
He was released by the Twins in the offseason and signed with the Atlanta Braves. Not encouraged by what they were seeing, the Braves started him in Triple-A Richmond before he was released in May. Two days later he was picked up the Boston Red Sox and a future love affair was born. He remained in Triple-A for a month, this time with Louisville, until June when he was brought up to Boston. For the most part the season showed little evidence of what he was to become as he finished with a record of 1-7 and a bloated 4.85 ERA. There was a singular moment of brilliance when he pitched ten innings of shutout ball against Minnesota on July 15th, a game the Sox would ultimately win 3-0 in the 13th.
It was not until 1972 that Tiant proved that his 1968 season wasn’t a fluke, and it began a run of concentrated excellence for the next half a decade. That year he lowered his ERA to 1.91, nearly 3.00 points lower than the previous year, and lead the league in that category. He would follow that with his second twenty-win campaign the following year, going 20-13 and this time leading the league in WHIP, with a 1.085. He would win 22 in 1974 and would once again lead the league in shutouts. He would finish fourth in Cy Young voting that year, the closest he would ever get. He also had an incredible 7.8 WAR, third in the American League out of all players, not just pitchers.
By 1975 Tiant was a full blown hero in Boston. Thus, his subpar year (an ERA over 4.00) went unnoticed as he helped lead the Sox to their first World Series since 1967. It would be one of the most memorable Series in baseball history, and Tiant was right in the thick of it. He pitched a complete game, three-hit victory in the first game of the ALCS and he was back on the mound a week later to start Game 1 of the Series. He was again dominant, pitching a five-hit shutout against the Cincinnati Reds, not allowing a runner past second base the whole game. He started Game 4 and while he was not quite as overpowering, he pitched another complete game and lead the Sox to a 5-4 victory, evening up the Series at two wins a piece.
Tiant took the hill again for Game 6, possibly the greatest game in Series lore. Tiant would have his weakest start that October, giving up six runs in 7+ innings and on the hook for the loss until the Sox scored three in the bottom of the 7th on Bernie Carbo’s home run. Out of the game, Tiant watched in excitement as the Sox held on for four more innings before Carlton Fisk hit his famous home run, waving it just fair of the pole, allowing Boston to survive one more day. They would lose the Series the following night by a heartbreaking score of 4-3, the winning run coming in the 9th inning on a Joe Morgan single that plated Ken Griffey.
Undaunted, Tiant would win 21 games the following year, his final 20-win season. He would also make his third and final All-Star appearance to go with 38 starts, tying his career high. The Sox would finish in second in 1977 and would come within a game of winning the AL East again in 1978. Tiant did what he could, defeating the Toronto Blue Jays on the final day of the season with a brilliant two-hit shutout and tying the Sox with the Yankees for the division lead. Unfortunately for Boston, the tie-breaking game would live in Beantown infamy as light-hitting Bucky Dent hit a three run home run in the seventh inning off of starter Mike Torrez, seizing the lead for the Yankees. They would hold on to win the game and ultimately beat the Royals in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the World Series to capture their twenty-second Championship.
For Sox fans, more heartbreak would follow as Tiant would sign with the hated Yankees as a free agent in November of that painful year. To lose one of the most popular pitchers in Sox history hurt. To lose him to New York was unbearable. He would face the Sox three times that season and the Yankees would win two of those starts. Tiant himself would finish 13-8, an identical record to the year before, though his ERA jumped over half a point to 3.91. By 1980 he was 39 years old and it started to show. He finished with a 8-9 record and only started 25 games, his lowest total since 1972 when he was still working out of the pen.
He would do a stint with Pittsburgh in 1981 and California in 1982, but he only appeared in fifteen games total over those two seasons. He would retire after the ’82 campaign with a lifetime record of 229-172 and a 3.30 ERA. He remains to this day an icon not only in Boston, where school children imitated his distinctive corkscrew delivery for nearly a generation, but also in his native Cuba. Because of the embargo, it would be forty-six years after Tiant left his family behind to pitch for the Cleveland Indians that he was allowed to return to his home country. The tale of that visit was documented in the film, “The Lost Son of Havana.”
Join us next time as we take a look at the final candidate being considered this year, Maury Wills.
December 2, 2014-A phenom in high school, Billy Pierce was on the opening day roster of the 1945 Detroit Tigers, just two weeks past his eighteenth birthday. After riding the pine for the first six weeks of the season, he finally appeared in his first big league game on June 1st. Starter Walter Wilson was being pummeled in Boston by the Red Sox and was pulled by manager Steve O’Neill with two outs in the fifth for the erstwhile rookie. Pierce made the most of his appearance, completing the game and only surrendering a single hit and two walks over 3.1 innings.
He would make two more appearances that June before management decided he would be better served playing more often in the minors. He was sent down to the International League Buffalo Bisons, where he would start thirteen games, finishing eight of them. He would end the season with a less than stellar 5-7 record and with a 5.42 ERA. He briefly rejoined the big club in September, appearing two more times in relief, but after that it would take him nearly two years before he got another chance to face major league hitters.
He spent the entirety of the 1946 and 1947 season in Buffalo, working on his control. While the youth had good speed, he lacked the ability to consistently place the ball. He walked 240 batters in 290 innings of minor league pitching. Despite this, his 1947 was impressive enough, winning 14 and lowering his ERA to 3.87, that he was once again on the Tigers opening day roster in 1948. He appeared in twenty-two games that season, starting five of them, and got his first career win on August 8th. He battled the Washington Senators for 7.2 innings, walking three and surrendering ten hits, but Art Houtteman was scoreless in relief and helped secure the 6-5 victory for Pierce.
A native of Detroit, it was a huge blow to Pierce when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in November of 1948. It would turn out to be a huge boon for his career however, as Chicago gave him the opportunity to become a regular player, something that never happened for him on the Tigers. He would start 26 games that year, the fewest he would start in any season for the next twelve years. In that time he would win 186 games for Chicago, still fourth on the all-time list for the South Siders. He would continue to battle control issues, walking 112 in 1949 and 137 in 1950, although he was solidly the best pitcher on the team in ’50, leading the staff with a 3.5 WAR.
It was with the coming of new manager Paul Richards in 1951 that Pierce started to put things together. He did lead the league in losses, with 14, but he also lowered his ERA to an impressive 3.03. Most importantly for Pierce, though, he walked only 73 batters in 240.1 innings pitched. It marked the first time he struck out more batters than he walked. He would continue to improve in 1952, lowering his ERA to an outstanding 2.57 and pitching four shutouts. In 1953 he led the league in strikeouts, with 186. He won 18 and appeared on his first All-Star team. He also had a sub 3.00 ERA for the second year in a row.
A down year in 1954, including only two appearances after August 30th, was followed by what may have been his career year in 1955. Sporting a ridiculous 1.97 ERA and a 1.099 WHIP, he led the league in both categories. Finally mastering the art of control, he walked only 64 and pitched six shutouts. He would reach a career pinnacle in 1956, winning twenty games for the first time and leading the league by completing twenty-one of them. Interestingly, he came in fifth in MVP voting that year, but did not figure in the Cy Young award, the first time the pitching honor was given out.
He would win twenty again the following year, this time leading the league in that seminal stat. It would be the only time he led the league in wins. He would continue to be a workhorse, leading the league in complete games in ’57 and again in 1958. He would pitch well over the last three seasons of his tenure with the White Sox, but his WHIP would continue to grow as he battled injuries and age. He would make three appearances out of the bullpen for the Sox in the 1959 World Series, facing seventeen batters in 4 innings and giving up only two hits and two walks. His best appearance, three innings in Game 4, kept the Los Angeles Dodgers at bay but four early runs given up by Early Wynn was more than the Sox could overcome. They would eventually lose the Series in six games.
In November 1961 he found himself being traded, along with Don Drysdale, to the San Francisco Giants for four other players. While his truly dominant days were past him, his first visit to the National League went well as he finished 16-6 and came in third in Cy Young voting, the closest he would ever get. His inning totals were down, however, and 1962 marked the last time he pitched more than 100 innings. He also appeared in his second World Series in ’62, starting Games 3 and 6. He would suffer a tough 3-2 loss in the first one but would pitch a brilliant complete game victory in the second, allowing only three New York Yankee hits. Sadly for Pierce, the Yanks would win the Series the following night when the Sox failed to get to World Series mainstay Whitey Ford.
Pierce would spend two more seasons in San Francisco, appearing in 72 games over that time and even pitching one more shutout in 1963 in his first game of the season. He would be relegated to spot starts for the rest of the season and by 1964 was working almost exclusively out of the bullpen. He would retire after the ’64 campaign at the age of 37. Moving back to Chicago, he would do some occasional scouting for the Sox but spent the bulk of the remainder of his working days in sales. In 1987 the White Sox retired his number 19 and in 2007 they installed a statue of Pierce at US Cellular Field.
Only two more to go. Check in next time when we take a look at our third Cuban-born player nominated this year, Red Sox hero Luis Tiant.
November 29, 2014-Like our previously profiled candidate, Tony Oliva hails from Cuba. And, as with Minoso, there is some uncertainty as to his actual birthdate. Likely born in 1938, he was the son of a former semi-pro ballplayer in the Pinar del Rio Province. While still a teenager, young Pedro (his birth name) appeared on local ball clubs and made quite a name for himself with his uncanny hitting abilities. Eventually, he was discovered by a Cuban-based Minnesota scout, Joe Cambria. Impressed with what he saw, Cambria signed Oliva in 1961.
Batting over .400 for the Wytheville Twins of the Appalachian League in his first minor league season, Oliva would continue to shine the following year for the Class A Charlotte Hornets. He batted .350 and appeared in the South Atlantic League All-Star game. His success would get him called up to the Twins during the September roster expansion. He would get four hits and three walks in twelve plate appearances that season, batting a sparkling .444 in this admittedly tiny sample against big league pitching.
The Twins decided they wanted their young phenom to have one more season of minor league training, and he spent 1962 with the AAA Dallas/Ft. Worth Rangers. He once again topped the .300 mark and had his best minor league season in regards to power numbers, hitting 23 home runs. He would join the parent club in September again, this time getting even fewer opportunities at the plate than the previous year. However, this time his visit to the majors was the beginning of 14 more consecutive seasons in Minnesota.
A member of the opening day roster in 1964, he immediately amazed the baseball world by dominating that season. He led the league in runs (109), hits (217), doubles (43), batting average (.323) and total bases (374). He was also one triple shy of tying for the lead league in that category and finished sixth with 32 home runs. It was an unprecedented rookie season and he won Rookie of the Year honors in a race that wasn’t even close, getting nineteen of twenty first place votes. He also appeared in the first of eight consecutive All-Star games and finished fourth in MVP voting that year.
Expectations were high for 1965 and Oliva did not disappoint. He once again led the league in hits and batting average, this time compiling a .321 mark. The upstart Twins also surprised folks by making it all the way to the World Series. As discussed in our bio of Jim Kaat, the Series went seven games and was ultimately decided in the final game on a brilliant shutout by Sandy Koufax. Unfortunately for Oliva, the ’65 Series marked the first time that he showed any signs of mortality, batting a paltry .192 with one home run and two RBIs against the vaunted Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff. It would be Oliva’s last opportunity to appear in a World Series.
He didn’t let his poor showing in the postseason effect his play when he returned the following year, as he would once again lead the American League in hits in 1966. His batting average would fall to .307, but he would also win his one Gold Glove, splitting time between Center and Right Field, where he spent the bulk of his career. In 1967 his batting average dipped below .300 for the first time, .289 for the year, but he still lead the league in doubles. He would match that average the following year, but would return to form in 1969, hitting .309 and once again leading the league in hits and doubles. By 1970, his average was up to .325 and for the second time in his career he had more than 200 hits. Like his 1965 campaign, he finished second in MVP voting, the closest he would ever come.
1971 started out with typical Oliva excellence, but his career would be inexorably altered halfway through the campaign. In late June, he was hitting at a scorching .375 mark when he injured his knee diving for a ball. The injury kept him out of most of the next two weeks and would persist, even after he returned. He struggled through until mid-September before he finally had surgery, but his play obviously suffered. He would win the batting title for the third and final time that year. Despite his early exit he had enough at-bats to qualify. However, his final mark of .337 (still quite impressive), was nearly .040 below where he was hitting prior to the injury.
Worse for Oliva, despite the surgery, he was never the same player. He missed almost all of the 1972 season, appearing in only ten games, as he required additional surgery on the knee. He was able to extend his career when he returned in 1973 to the newly accepted DH rule in the American League. In his new role Oliva fared well, hitting a respectable .291 and having the honor of being the first DH to ever hit a home run. But, he had the lowest slugging percentage of his career, not counting the aborted previous campaign. His average would continue to drop to .285 in 1974 and .270 in 1975.
By 1976 his ruined knees left him able to do little more than make occasional pinch hit appearances. Batting a lowly .211 for the year, Oliva retired at the end of the season. He would continue to serve as a coach and instructor in various capacities with the Twins into the 1990s. His number 6 was retired by the club and there is a statue of him outside of the Twins home ballpark. To this day he and his family live in the Minnesota area. He is one of the Twins most beloved icons.
Stop in next time when we look at White Sox ace, Billy Pierce.
November 26, 2014-Orestes “Minnie” Minoso is one of those whose final career statistics belie his true measure, at least in part because of baseball’s infamous color line. Born in La Habana, Cuba in 1925 (some sources say 1922), Minoso found solace from his work in the cane fields on the ball field when he was just a boy. Inspired by the great Martin Dihigo, Minoso learned to play every position, including pitcher, and became a leader on the sandlots around his home. By the time he was twenty, he was playing for the Ambrosia Candy team in Havana.
After a year in the Caribbean winter league, Minoso was signed to play with the Negro National League New York Cubans, owned by flamboyant Hall of Famer Alex Pompez. Tempted by a huge payday in the Mexican League that same season, Minoso decided to stay in the United States. He would play well in 1947, hitting close to .280 and helping to lead the Cubans to the World Series Championship.
He was tearing up the NNL in 1948, batting nearly .400, when he was discovered by scouts for Bill Veeck and was signed by the Cleveland Indians. This time, it was bad timing that stalled Minoso’s career. He would appear in nine games for the Indians in 1949, but a backlog of talent in Cleveland left him languishing in the minors, where he continued to hit well. He would not return to the majors until 1951, when a hot start that year made him juicy trade bait. He was sent to the Chicago White Sox just ten games into the season. It was the best thing that could have happened to his career.
In Chicago he played often, appearing in 1032 games over the next seven seasons, and immediately. In his first year as a full-time major leaguer he led the league in stolen bases and triples and batted an incredible .326. He would finish second in Rookie of the Year voting, behind Gil McDougald for the Yankees. Most amazingly for a rookie, he would also finish fourth in MVP voting. Curiously, he had sixty more MVP votes than McDougald, but he would ultimately lose to another Yankee, Yogi Berra.
He would lead the league in stolen bases again in 1952 and 1953. His eagerness as a young player was evident, however, as he also led the league in caught stealing those same years, as well as in 1954. He was also a master of a little used weapon in the hitter’s arsenal, the hit-by-pitch. Minoso would lead the league in HBP in his rookie year of 1951 and would repeat the feat nine more times.
He had another incredible season in 1957, batting .310, the sixth of nine times he would achieve
a .300+ campaign. Thus, it was a blockbuster trade in December of that year, when he and Fred Hatfield were sent to the Indians for Al Smith and future Hall of Famer Early Wynn. He would continue his success at the dish, hitting for identical .302 marks in 1958 and 1959. Then, in 1960 his original booster, Bill Veeck, took ownership of the White Sox and Minoso found himself being traded back to Chicago, performing a rare double-take in his career between Cleveland and the Windy City.
He immediately paid dividends, leading the league in games and hits that season and raising his average to .311. For the fourth time in his career, he would finish fourth in MVP voting. Sadly, it was to be his final year of excellence. His average dipped .030 the following season and in 1962 he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Injury would limit him to 39 games that year and he would hit a career worst .196. Before the start of the following season he would be sold to the Washington Senators, and although he would appear in over 100 games this time, his average would still finish at a poor .229.
He signed on with the White Sox for the third time in April of 1964, but after batting .226 in thirty games, mostly as a pinch hitter he was released. It seemed to be the end of the road for Minoso’s days in the Major Leagues. Still ready to play and immensely popular, he would continue to appear in the Mexican Leagues, continuing to hit above .300. He finally retired in 1973 at the age of 48 (or 50).
But his time in Chicago wasn’t done, nor was his MLB playing career. Veeck had once again purchased the White Sox in 1975 and he hired Minoso as a coach. Ever one to see an opportunity for the odd, Veeck convinced Minoso to DH in three games late that year. On September 11, 1976, twelve years after his previous Major League at bat, Minoso would go 0 for 3, flying out twice. He appeared again the following night, and this time he would get a single off of Sid Monge in the second inning, joining a rare class of individuals who have gotten a hit after the half-century mark.
Veeck would repeat the nod four years later, tapping Minoso to make two pinch hitting appearances in 1980. While neither at bat resulted in one more dramatic hit from the old man, they did allow him to become one of only two individuals to make an appearance in the big leagues in five different decades. He also made appearances for the St. Paul Saints (an independent team owned by Veeck’s son, Mike) in 1993 and 2003, including a base on balls in the latter try, when he was nearly eighty years old. His “record” of playing professional ball in seven different decades is one that will likely never be touched, if only because it would take the special combination of not only another Minnie Minoso, but another Veeck family.
Minoso’s final batting average was .298, losing a point from his post-retirement at bats. He had 1963 hits, 205 stolen bases and was hit by 192 pitches, still ninth all-time. Likely because of his relatively low power numbers, and the truncated start to his career, he got only 1.8% of the vote in his first time on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1969. This was a low enough total that he did not appear on it a second time until his cause was picked up by the Veteran’s Committee, first in 1986. We’ll see if 2015, when the still living Minoso will be 90 years old (or 93), turns out to finally be his year.
Next time we’ll be taking a peek at Tony Oliva. Until then, have a great Thanksgiving!
November 24, 2014-Only four men played more seasons in Major League Baseball than Jim Kaat, and two them spent the bulk of their career in the 19th century. Over a career that would span five different teams and twenty-five seasons, Jim Kaat won 283 games, struck out 2461 batters and pitched 4530.1 innings. He also served as a model of consistency that is nearly unparalleled in baseball history.
Born in Zeeland, Michigan Kaat made his major league debut in 1959, appearing in three lackluster games in August and September for the Washington Senators. Although he started two of those games, he only pitched five innings during his first season and finished with a 12.60 ERA. The Senators saw enough promise in the twenty-year old to bring him back to DC for the start of the 1960 season. Kaat started promisingly, getting his first career win in his second start of the season, defeating the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, it would be almost a whole year before he won his second.
It was not until the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961 that Kaat became a full-time fixture on the club, but once there he never started fewer than twenty-seven games in a season until he left the club in the middle of the 1973 season. 1962 was a breakout year for him, leading the league in shutouts with five. He also lead the league that season in wild pitches and hit batters, effectively keeping hitters off guard with his unpredictability. He would win his first Gold Glove that year, an honor he would repeat 15 more times in his career, including twelve in a row.
1963 was a bit of a down year, as he finished at 10-10 with an ERA of 4.19, but he bounced back in 1964. 17-11 with an ERA a full point lower than the previous year, Kaat was the team leader in wins and a rare bright spot on a club that finished in sixth place, 20 games behind the Yankees.
The New York dynasty was fading, however. The following year Kaat, along with Mudcat Grant, led the Minnesota franchise to its first appearance in a World Series since 1933, with the two pitchers winning a combined 39 games. The pair shocked the Los Angeles Dodgers, and most of the baseball world, when they won the first two games of the World Series, Grant defeating Don Drysdale and Kaat beating the great Sandy Koufax. The series would go a full seven games, with Kaat squaring off against Koufax a second time in the final match. This time, Kaat wouldn’t fare as well, giving up two runs in three innings. Koufax was nearly flawless, pitching a three hit shutout and securing the Dodgers their fourth World Championship.
1966 would be a career year for Kaat, leading the American League with a career high 25 wins, 19 complete games and 304.2 innings pitched. The final year in which only a single Cy Young Award was given out for both leagues, this early rule likely cost Kaat the award. He once again lost out to Sandy Koufax, whose Dodgers were in the rival National League. Kaat’s performance, however, was impressive enough to see him finish fifth in MVP voting that year.
He would pitch for the Twins for seven more seasons, winning 190 games with the franchise, second only to the immortal Walter Johnson. Placed on waivers in the middle of the 1973 season, he would join the Chicago White Sox in August. The move briefly rejuvenated his career as he won twenty-one games in 1974 and twenty more in 1975. He would appear in his third and final All-Star game in ’75 and would finish in the top five in Cy Young voting, but it would also be his final year as a dominant pitcher.
1976 saw his first visit to the National League, joining the Philadelphia Phillies. He would make a start for the Phillies in the National League Championship Series that year, giving up two runs in six innings. He left the game with a three-run lead, only to see the bullpen meltdown in an eventual 7-6 loss to the World Series bound Cincinnati Reds. He would never do better in Philly, seeing his ERA ballon to 5.39 the year after the post-season run and by 1979 he found his contract being sold to the New York Yankees.
His time in New York was brief, not lasting a full season, and a month into the 1980 campaign he would be sold to the St. Louis Cardinals. He would play for the Cards until 1983, finally winning his first World Series in 1982. He made four appearances out of the bullpen in the Series, three of them scoreless. Only a disastrous seventh inning in game four, in which Kaat and two other Cardinal pitchers gave up six runs, marred his postseason.
He would retire following the 1983 season and would immediately begin a career as a broadcaster. He first called Yankee games regularly in 1986, but by 1988 he had joined the booth of the Twins where he would remain until 1993. He would spend time with CBS, NBC and ESPN before returning to the Yankees in 1995 and would remain a stalwart of the New York broadcast team until 2006. Today, he still provides occasional color commentary for MLB Network as well as writes a blog for the MLBlogs Network, the official blog center for Major League Baseball.
Check in next time when we take a look at fan favorite, Minnie Minoso.
November 17, 2014-The lone executive on this year’s ballot, Bob Howsam was born on February 28, 1918 in Denver, Colorado. At the tender age of twenty-one he married Janet Johnson, the daughter of Edwin Johnson, former (and future) Governor of his home state and United States Senator from Colorado at the time of the wedding. Johnson had interests beyond politics, and was also a founder of the Class A Western League in 1947. Howsam had been a test pilot during World War II and after serving briefly as Johnson’s personal assistant following the war, his father in-law tasked him with becoming the league’s executive secretary during that initial year.
After the inaugural season, the owners of the Western League Denver Bears wanted to sell. Howsam convinced his own father to put up the $75,000 to purchase the team. This opportunity for complete control, especially at such a young age, would make it more difficult for Howsam to work collaboratively later in life as his career progressed. It would also prove to be one of the more successful stories to ever emerge from the minor leagues.
Howsam brought immediate results, building a new stadium for the Bears. The field, which would carry the team name for the first twenty years of its existence, eventually became known as Mile High Stadium in 1969, and would become more closely linked to the Denver Broncos. Howsam, in fact, was the original owner of what is now one of the National Football League’s premiere franchises, having won two Super Bowls and made twenty playoff appearances in their 55-year existence.
This foray into football was possible because in the ten years leading up to the Bronco’s creation, Howsam had proved himself to be one of the most astute executives in Minor League baseball history. His commitment to providing fans with as professional an experience as possible, including a well-manicured stadium as well as clean, polite staff, led to the Bears drawing nearly a half a million fans in 1949, an astronomical total for a minor league team. His success did not go unnoticed and in 1951 he was The Sporting News Single-A Executive of the Year. The Bears would go on to win the Western League Championship in 1952 and 1954.
Capitalizing on his success, Howsam bought the American Association Kansas City Blues before the 1955 season, and moved them to Denver. There, they retained the Bears moniker and became the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. They would continue to lead the league in attendance and won the AA Championship in 1957. In 1959, Howsam would win his second The Sporting News award, this time as a Triple-A Executive.
Howsam decided he was ready for the big time at this point and became a major force in the attempt to create the Continental League. The CL was conceived as a rival third Major League, which would not only return a second franchise to New York City, but would include teams from Minneapolis, Houston, Toronto, Atlanta and Denver. Howsam rallied for the Denver franchise, but the expansion of the existing American and National Leagues killed that dream. Denver would have to wait thirty more years for big league baseball.
It was then that Howsam had his brief visit into professional football, owning the Broncos for a single year in 1960. It was the lone time his business ventures were a failure, as the team cost him the bulk of his fortune. He was forced to sell after that first season and was out of professional sports until 1964. Then, he got a call from Branch Rickey. Howsam had gotten to know Rickey when the Bears had been an affiliate of the Pirates in the early 1950s. Now an executive consultant with the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey convinced club owner August Busch to fire GM Bing Devine and bring in Howsam.
Howsam had the good timing of joining the club at a point in which their fortunes were on an upswing, and in his very first season the Cardinals won the World Series, defeating the New York Yankees in seven games. Howsam, who made virtually no player moves after he joined the club in August of that year, credited Devine with the team’s success. The Cardinals would fall to seventh place the following year and Howsam began to shed the aging players on the team, bringing in Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris in 1966. This would ultimately result in two more World Series appearances in 1967 and 1968, but by then Howsam had moved to Cincinnati.
Lured by more control and a bigger paycheck, Howsam took over the Reds in 1967. Again, he inherited a surfeit of talent. However, the team continued to perform below expectations, reaching no higher than third place during his first three years. It was in 1970, when Howsam decided to hire little known minor league skipper Sparky Anderson, that the most important piece of the famed “Big Red Machine” was in place. The Reds would have immediate success, winning 102 games that year before falling to the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
The Reds would go on to make four more post-season appearances before Howsam abdicated the role of GM in 1978, including World Series Championships in 1975 and 1976. But, the changing zeitgeist of baseball, specifically the advent of free agency, disturbed the controlling Howsam. He saw this new era as one that would cede power to the players, and he gave his title to Dick Wagner while Howsam himself became vice-chairman of the board. He would return briefly to his GM position midway through the 1983 season, bringing Pete Rose back after a five year absence. However, despite the fact that the Reds were once again showing improvement in the standings, the sixty-seven year old Howsam would retire in the middle of the 1985 season. Unlike many of his peers, his retirement was for real and Bob Howsam’s days as a baseball executive were over, despite the fact that he lived another 23 years, dying in his home in Sun City, AZ in 2008.
Check in again soon as we take a look at 283 game winner, Jim Kaat.
November 10, 2014-Like our previously profiled candidate, Ken Boyer, the start of Gil Hodges storybook career was delayed by the reality of war. He was a youth of 19 when he played in one game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the last day of the 1943 season. By opening day of the following year, he was in combat with the US Navy in the Pacific Theatre. His big league dreams would need to wait almost three and a half more years before they were allowed to continue.
When he returned to the Dodgers in 1947, it was as a back up catcher. He appeared in only twenty-eight total games that season, and batted a paltry .156. With the arrival of Roy Campanella in 1948, it became increasingly clear that if Hodges was going to get the playing time the team felt he deserved, a position change was in order. They began the transition to first base that season, and it would become his home for the majority of the remainder of his career.
Finally becoming a full-time player, Hodges began to put up the numbers to support the Dodgers’ trust in 1949. That year he had the first of eleven straight 20+ home run seasons
and the first of seven straight 100+ RBI campaigns. He also appeared in his first All Star Game, an honor he would repeat seven more times (although he would only play in five of those games). His power numbers would continue to increase as well, hitting more than 200 home runs over the course of the next six seasons, including a career high 42 in 1954.
Over that span, his personality began to play as much of a role in his place on the Dodgers as his performance. Mild-mannered and an on-field peacemaker, even during his occasional slumps the people of Brooklyn embraced and supported Hodges as they had perhaps no other in their history. While Jackie Robinson provided the Dodgers with fire, and Pee Wee Reese offered the steady hand of leadership, it was Hodges who quickly came to symbolize the “heart” of Brooklyn.
By 1950 ‘dem bums had put together a dynasty and, along with Campanella, Reese, Robinson, Carl Furillo, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe and a host of other famous names, Hodges would play a major role in the Golden Age of New York baseball. He would appear in six World Series with Brooklyn and a seventh in 1959 after the team made their famous trek across the country to Los Angeles. When the Dodgers finally ended 71 years of futility in 1955, it was Hodges who took the throw from Reese on Elston Howard’s ground ball to secure the final out of game seven, allowing the club to hoist the first championship banner in their long history.
While never a league leader in any major offensive statistical category, he was often near the top of the annual power numbers. He finished in the top ten in slugging in 1951-1954 and again in 1959, and in home runs from 1950-1954 as well as 1956. He missed the home run crown by just two round trippers in 1951, losing out to ‘50s powerhouse Ralph Kiner. He also performed well on the field, winning Gold Gloves in 1957 (the initial year of the honor), 1958 and 1959.
By 1960, age and injuries had started to hurt his performance and by the conclusion of the 1961 season, it was clear his time with the Dodgers was done. When the expansion draft of that year came around, the newly formed New York Mets grabbed Hodges, along with a host of other former New York stars, to help bring the fans out to the ballpark. Little did they know that they would be securing one of the most beloved figures in Mets history. While only appearing in 54 games in 1962, he did hit the first home run in Mets history. He also showed a level of leadership that would bring him back to the Mets six years later.
Batting just .227 two months into the 1963 season, it was clear that his time as a player was nearly over. When the Washington Senators made an offer to the Mets in May to trade Jimmy Piersall so that Hodges could become their new manager, New York brass agreed. Over the next five seasons Hodges would pull the wretched Senators out of the basement and bring them closer to respectability. In each of the five years he led the team, their record improved. They went from a tenth place club with a .347 winning percentage in 1963, to a sixth place club with a .472 mark in 1967.
The Mets, however, had not forgotten the role he had played as a leader on their nascent club, and when they found themselves looking for a skipper before the 1968 season, they reached out to him. Hodges still lived in Brooklyn and thought of New York as his home, so it was not a difficult decision for him to make. The results were immediate, as the club finished that year with a record of 73-89, 7 more wins than had ever before been achieved in club history. It was the following year, though, that would cement his legacy in Queens forever. Winning 100 games and pummeling the shocked Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, Hodges’ Miracle Mets became World Champions in 1969 and forever became a “feel-good” part of baseball lore.
After the success of 1969, the following two seasons were a bit of a disappointment, as the Mets had identical 83-79 third place finishes both years. Then, prior to the start of the 1972 season, the unthinkable happened. After a round of golf, Hodges died from a heart attack. The city of New York, as well as the world of baseball, were stunned. The beloved icon of two separate franchises was gone.
It is unlikely that anyone else has so often gotten as close to the Hall without actually being enshrined as Gil Hodges. He would first appear on a Hall of Fame ballot in 1969, when he got 24.1% of the vote. The following year, after his success in the World Series, that support jumped to 48.3%. Those numbers would vacillate over the next fifteen years, getting as high as 63.4% in his final year of eligibility in 1983, but he never achieved the 75% needed from the Baseball Writers of America. He would go on to appear on multiple Veteran’s Committee ballots, sometimes coming within just a couple of votes of enshrinement. Sadly for the Hodges family, as well as the thousands of individuals who have been mystified for years as to why he is still on the outside looking in, he has not achieved the magic number, yet. Perhaps 2015 will be the year.
I’d like to give a huge thanks to baseball-reference.com, as well as the SABR Bio Project, two resources that have been invaluable to me as I create these bios. Check in next time when we look at the only executive on this year’s ballot, Reds and Cardinals architect Bob Howsam.
November 8, 2014-Today we look at the second of ten candidates nominated by the Golden Era Veteran’s Committee. Ken Boyer, like so many ball players from his time, had to delay his career for Uncle Sam. After two seasons in the minors, he spent two years with the Army overseas during the Korean War before returning to play minor league ball in 1954. Originally a pitcher, his coaches soon noticed that he was better at the plate than on the mound. When he finally joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1955, he had been fully converted to a third baseman.
His rookie season was solid enough, hitting eighteen home runs, sixty-two RBIs and batting .264, but it was during his second year that Boyer began to establish himself as a hitter to be feared. Joining his first All-Star team, he hit .306 for the season, the first of five times he would break the .300 mark. His power also increased, raising his slugging average almost seventy points to .494. Although his offensive numbers slipped in 1957, he proved his versatility by spending the year touring center field, a whole new position for him, where he led the league in fielding percentage.
A model of health and consistency, Boyer never appeared in fewer than 142 games in the eleven years he played for the Cardinals. He hit 24 home runs each of four straight seasons from 1961-1964 and appeared in ten more All-Star Games between 1959 and what would be his greatest season, 1964. That year he led the league in RBIs, knocking in a career high 119. He was awarded his sole MVP title for his efforts, but it was his post season that would forever make him a part of Cardinal lore.
His grand slam in game four of the ’64 World Series accounted for the total of the Cards offense and allowed them to beat the Yankees 4-3, evening up the Series at two games apiece. Then, in the climactic game seven, Boyer’s seventh inning home run gave Series MVP Bob Gibson some breathing room and helped secure the Redbirds seventh Championship. He and his Yankee brother, Clete, also hold the distinction of being the only siblings to both homer in a World Series game.
He would be with the Cardinals for one more season before he was traded to the New York Mets in 1966. Only two years removed from his MVP, the hope was that Boyer’s experience and success would bring some legitimacy to the struggling Mets, whose ineptitude had evolved from the lovable to the laughable by their fifth season. Unfortunately for the Mets, and Boyer, his greatest years were behind him. After a respectable but uninspiring initial season (.266/14/61), Boyer would play 56 more games for the club in 1967 before being traded to the Chicago White Sox. There, the cycle would repeat itself and in May 1968, after being released by the Sox, Boyer was off to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He would finish his playing career in LA, retiring at the end of the following season after hitting an abysmal .206.
Boyer would stay active in baseball and in 1978 became the manager of his beloved Cardinals, taking over when the previous skipper, Vernon Rapp, was fired just a few weeks into the season. His most successful year as a manager was the 1979 campaign, when he finished with an 86-76 record, 12 games behind the division champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cardinals began the 1980 season with a record of 18-33 and Boyer was shown the door, although he stayed active within the organization until his death on September 7, 1982, from lung cancer. His WAR during the years he played for the Cards was 58, ranking him sixth all-time in the history of the franchise, behind Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Bob Gibson, Albert Pujols and Ozzie Smith and just ahead of Enos Slaughter.
Join us next time when we take a look at Dodger and Mets legend, Gil Hodges.
November 6, 2014- The Golden Era Veteran’s Committee at the Hall of Fame has announced their slate of ten candidates for 2015 and The Hall Ball has decided to jump into the dangerous and murky waters of taking a peek at their careers. At The Hall Ball, we try to not spend too much time judging who does and does not belong in the Hall. Not only is it a philosophical exercise that, for the most part, does not have a wrong or right answer (okay, Morgan Bulkeley does NOT belong, but that’s as far as we’re going), but it’s not like we get a vote. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t examine the accomplishments of the men being considered this year and explore the reasons why they are on the cusp of baseball’s greatest honor.
We begin with Dick Allen, who made his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1963, appearing briefly in ten games, before becoming a full time player the following year. A dominant slugger in the minors, there was great anticipation about Allen at the start of the ’64 season. He did not disappoint, leading the league in Runs, Triples and Total Bases and taking home Rookie of the Year honors. He also hit .318, the first of seven seasons in which he would top the .300 mark.
Powerfully built, Allen hit 20+ home runs in his first nine full seasons and ten times overall. He would lead the league in slugging three times, including an incredible 1966 campaign in which he hit 40 home runs and knocked in 110 RBIs. He finished fourth in MVP voting that year, but a mere two years later his batting average had dipped to .263 and, despite hitting 33 home runs and ninety RBIs, he also struck out a career-high 161 times. His lower numbers, coupled with his ongoing personal conflicts with the Phillies, resulted in him being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 1970 season in one of the most important trades in Major League Baseball history. The Cardinals attempted to include Curt Flood in the deal and Flood’s refusal to report, and the ensuing legal battle, opened the door for Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith to finally defeat the dreaded Reserve Clause six years later.
Allen, meanwhile, had a brief stay with the Cardinals. A 1970 All-Star, he also topped 100 RBIs and hit 34 home runs, but he still found himself being traded to the Dodgers for the 1971 season. Now 29, his single season in Los Angeles saw his average climb back up to .295, but the following year found him on his fourth team in four years. Now a member of the Chicago White Sox, and first time American Leaguer, Allen feasted on AL pitching and had the best season of his career. He led the league in home runs, RBIs, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging. He finished just .010 points behind Rod Carew for the batting title, missing the Triple Crown but securing the MVP award for the first and only time in his career.
His time in Chicago was a renaissance for Allen, despite missing a large portion of the 1973 season due to a broken leg. He would bat over .300 in each of the three seasons he was with the Sox and would lead the league in home runs and slugging again in 1974. Despite his success that season, Allen announced in September that he would be retiring at the end of that year. However, failing to file the proper paperwork, Allen was still under contract with the White Sox in December, who chose to trade him to the Atlanta Braves. Having endured virulent racism throughout his career, Allen refused to report to Atlanta and the Braves responded by trading him back to Philadelphia, where his career had began.
By then, however, age and injuries had finally caught up to the slugger and he was just a shadow of his former self. He stuck with the Phillies until 1976 and even appeared in 54 games for his final team, the Oakland Athletics, in 1977 before finally calling it a career mid-season. He would retire with a career batting average of .298, and hit 351 home runs and 1119 RBIs in fifteen seasons. His lifetime oWAR of 69.9 is 60th all-time and neatly sandwiches him between Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Johnny Mize.
According to his SABR bio, Allen and his wife now split their time between their homes in his native Wampum, PA and Los Angeles. While his career was shorter than most Hall of Famers, resulting in lower cumulative numbers than most voters like to see these days, Allen was a dominant hitter during a period of baseball history that was better known for its amazing pitching feats. Because of the new structure of Veteran’s Committee voting enacted in 2010, this year marks the first time Allen has been eligible for election since 2008, when he received the fewest votes of the ten candidates, none of whom were ultimately chosen.
That’s all for now, but stop by again soon as we take a look at the next candidate, Cardinals great, Ken Boyer.
October 19, 2014- An incredibly successful weekend for The Hall Ball Project.
Since the dedication ceremony for Sol White’s headstone, I have peripherally been a part of Jim Overmyer’s search for Sol’s descendents. He’s kept me in the loop as he discovered that, despite most of the conventional wisdom, it’s very possible that there is a living grandchild of the 19th century Negro League pioneer walking around right now who has no idea of their pedigree. Jim discovered Sol’s marriage certificate and learned from the census that he and his wife did in fact have a daughter, Marian. The New York Amsterdam News mentions in his 1955 obit that her name was also Mrs. Charles Ewell. Jim went on to learn that she and her husband lived in Philadelphia for almost 40 years before they both disappear. No obituary for either has been discovered, yet, although a Marian Ewell did die in 1992 in Pittsburgh, almost five hours away from Philly.
Tired of sitting on the sidelines, I went down to Philadelphia to see what I could discover. Unfortunately, birth and death records are locked up pretty tight in Pennsylvania. A visit to the city archives was fruitless because they only have records until 1915. The city Department of Health, where more modern records are housed, was equally disappointing as they will only release them to family (a bitter irony). I proceeded to the Free Library of Philadelphia where, after bumping into Cornel West in the lobby, I spent a couple of hours in front of a microfilm machine. There, I confirmed the earlier find that Marian and Charles did in fact live at 1603 Oxford St from 1950 until at least 1990.
Still having no new information, I decided to visit the house they owned. It was in a particularly blighted section of town, with multiple neighboring houses completely boarded up. I was pleased to discover that 1603, however, was still active. Currently, it contains a group of Temple University students. None had lived there for more than few months, but they did share the name and number of their landlord. I spoke to him briefly yesterday and he asked for me to call him back on Monday when he was in the office and could look at the paperwork. He does remember buying the house in 2008 from a police auction. I visited the rest of the houses on the block to see if anyone had been living there in the 1990s who might recall Charles and Marian, but none of the residents had been there for more than a few years.
Disappointed that I hadn’t learned more, but optimistic that the landlord will be able to get me back a few more years on the house, I ended my search for the day. It was small progress, but progress nonetheless. If they lived in the house for forty years, there has to be a paper trail. If there was a child, I should be able to discover what school he or she attended. We still do not know if Sol has a descendent, but all avenues have not been closed to us. The hunt continues!
Saturday and Sunday marked the Fanatics Authentic Sport Spectacular in nearby Oaks, PA. While there were a number of Hall of Famers in attendance, there were two in particular in which I was interested. I am very pleased to announce that 211-Mike Schmidt and 212-Bob Gibson are now a part of The Hall Ball. Gibson was particularly exciting as I have attempted to get him three times in the past without any success. This means that we have now photographed 53 living members (two, Ralph Kiner and Tony Gwynn, have subsequently passed). It also means that there are now only 15 more living members for that phase of the project to be complete!
I’d like to give a huge thanks to the folks at Fanatics Authentic for their help with Schmidt. It was the first time I had attended one of their shows and their guest list, as well as their vendors, were impressive. I even got to see my third, real live T206 Honus Wagner.
That’s all for now, but stay tuned everyone. There’s some big announcements coming down the pike, including an important update about Cuba. If I don’t check in before Tuesday, enjoy the first game of the World Series!
October 11, 2014- Just for fun, we’ve made a collage of the first 100 photos we took for the project. Tell us what you think.
October 4, 2014-In-between Hall Ball trips, I have been working on an exciting project called Protoball. Begun by SABR historian Larry McCray nearly a decade ago, it is a very ambitious database that seeks to compile every team and game of baseball (and its predecessors) before it became a professional enterprise in 1871. The site counts on local historians to access hometown media records to help make the examination of the spread of the game as comprehensive as possible. Despite (or perhaps because of) its importance as the cradle of the game, the Greater New York City area and the mountain of data that went with it has been relatively unclaimed. John Zinn, who has literally written the book on New Jersey, is tackling the Garden State. Richard Hershberger and the late Craig Waff have done marvelous jobs of compiling teams and a great majority of the games played up to 1860 in GNYC, but none of the data has been linked to each other. I have been performing the sometimes frustrating task of linking the hundreds of clubs to the 1300 games, all while looking out for the duplicates that are always a risk with a wiki. I have also been researching and inputting new information on Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island. This includes the names of hundreds of players who never made a dime from the game, but had a hell of a time doing it. It has been a crash course in the evolution of the sport, and I am excited to be a part. Just when you think you know everything, there’s always something else to learn.
For example, I now have a new favorite old-timey team. Well, perhaps favorite isn’t the right word, considering that the Mutual Club of New York was founded in 1857 by Tammany Hall cronies. Boss Tweed himself was on the Board of Directors. Featuring a cast of characters that included the obligatory combative (and drunk) Irishman, cops, politicians, butchers, coroners and many more, they are a rare example of a team surviving through multiple epochs of baseball’s adolescence. When most teams were weakened by the Civil War, the Mutual’s connections kept many of them from the front lines. They were still able to field a solid nine and capitalized on their success. When baseball officially became a profession in 1871 with the forming of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, they were a founding club of the NA, recognized as the first Major League. They even spent a single season in the subsequent and still existent National League when it was founded in 1876. Unfortunately for the Mutuals, the more professional their opponents became the less successful they were, suffering a dreadful 21-35-1 season in their lone year in the NL. Deciding that the costs of the travel were not going to be offset by the ticket sales his club inspired (teams shared the gate receipts back then) manager William Cammeyer chose to not send his team on their final road trip. Defying league rule, the team was kicked out. As a result, not a single team from the city of New York was represented in the Major Leagues in 1877, and wouldn’t until the New York Gothams joined the NL in 1883. Coincidentally, 1876 marked the last time Boss Tweed walked on this earth a free man. After escaping authorities, he was re-incarcerated in November and died in prison two years later. The Mutuals never recovered either.
Side note. Those 1883 New York Gothams have evolved into the team that is currently in the middle of the 15th inning of their second game against the Washington Nationals in the 2014 Division Series. Gotta love this game.
If you get a chance and would like to dive into some real baseball esoterica, stop by Protoball. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
September 13, 2014-We’ve just discovered that our trip to Cuba, which was tentatively scheduled for February, is actually happening in November. Only two months away! We need your help. If you’ve been thinking of donating, now is the time. If you haven’t visited our gofundme page, stop on by and find out about the amazing rewards you can get for your donation. But, even more importantly, you get to become a part of the first crowd-sourced artifact ever donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame. How cool is that?
Special thanks to All-Star Bill Cornell for his donation today. Visit our thanks page to find out who else is joining us on our trip to the Hall.
September 3, 2014-Lots of updates to the website today, including bios for Richie Ashburn, Johnny Bench, Bert Blyleven, George Brett, Joe McCarthy, Sam Thompson, Lloyd Waner and Hack Wilson. Even more exciting, we’ve added 48 more photos of the Ball with your favorite Hall of Famers. In addition to the names above, you can now also view the ball with Dave Bancroft, Jimmy Collins, Charles Comiskey, Kiki Cuyler, Rube Foster, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Josh Gibson, Pat Gillick, Burleigh Grimes, Jesse Haines, Harry Heilmann, Whitey Herzog, Pete Hill, Reggie Jackson, Walter Johnson, Judy Johnson, Al Kaline, Buck Leonard, Larry MacPhail, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Rube Marquard, Joe Morgan, Hal Newhouser, Phil NIekro, Hank O’Day, Jim Palmer, Alex Pompez, Ron Santo, Louis Santop, Al Simmons, Enos Slaughter, Turkey Stearnes, Ben Taylor, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Willie Wells, Smokey Joe Williams, Jud Wilson, Hack Wilson and Early Wynn.
Be sure to check out Santo and Wynn. They were both cremated and their ashes were spread in very special places.
Keep checking in. With 210 of the 306 Hall of Famers already a part of the project, there’s even more to come as we make the final push for the completion of The Hall Ball.
August 30, 2014-Hall Ball creator Ralph Carhart has taken the #icebucketchallenge. Take a peek at http://youtu.be/L8BmM4jl3hU. If you like it, spread the word. #ALSIronHorse
In an effort to do something different with his video he decided to “choose to nominate no one to follow me. Instead, I want to ask each of you that has the ability to throw an extra $25 to a charity you believe in to please do so. No video necessary (although I do appreciate the more creative ones). I did, in fact, give my money to ALSA because… well, watch the video and you’ll understand.”
August 23, 2014-The journey of The Hall Ball has been filled with a number of amazing “small world” stories, like many baseball tales. There are, after all, only a finite number of men who have played the game professionally and winnowing them down to the 306 individuals in the Hall makes the pool even smaller. But something downright bizarre happened in Bloomington, IL that reached far beyond the game.
Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourne is buried in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington. Yesterday he became either number 208 or 209, depending on the Chicago Cubs, in the quest to complete The Hall Ball (explanation to come later-a different story). I was waiting for Jeremy Krock, the founder of the amazing Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project, to join me on my visit to Old Hoss and struck up a conversation with the woman who ran the cemetery.
She knew where and who Radbourne was immediately and she asked where the idea for the project came from. I told her the story of our discovery of the grave of Abner Doubleday (1757-1812), “our” Abner’s grandfather. (If you want the whole tale go here.) That’s when she cried, “Oh, yes, Abner’s father is buried here.”
I was certain she was confused. It just couldn’t be possible. The National Geological Survey claims there are 109,000 cemeteries in the United States. For me to accidentally stumble on grandpa was unusual, although somewhat explainable by location. For me to then, four years later, as I begin what will hopefully be the final leg of this journey, also trip over his father’s grave 782 miles away borders on the divine.
She wasn’t confused. She showed me the booklet she had written about some of the other more famous interments, which included Adlai Stevenson and Dorothy Gage, the five month old infant who inspired the name of L. Frank Baum’s Oz heroine. She knew exactly what she was talking about. Sadly, however, she did not have an exact location of the grave.
Ulysses Doubleday (1792-1866) was a successful printer apprenticing in Cooperstown before moving on to become an editor in Ballston Spa and Auburn, NY. In 1831 he became a member of the United State House of Representatives. But, in 1837, he lost his fortune when the Stock Market crashed. He spent time as a merchant and farmer, but never recovered his wealth. When he retired he moved to Bloomington and when he died he was either buried without a marker, or with one so modest that it has since been swallowed up by the earth. The photo below is of the general area in which he lays.
There are a number of obstacles that stand in my way when it comes to successfully completing this project. I still don’t know how I’m going to pay for the thing and I need the cooperation of a number of the more reclusive living members of the Hall. But, I just have to believe that if the fates are going to have serendipity like this be a part of the story, it is meant to get done.
You can help. Tell your friends. Become a part of the journey.
August 14, 2014-After a brief hiatus (we took a small break to direct a play about potential Hall of Famer, Dummy Hoy), The Hall Ball is back in full force and there’s lots of exciting things happening!
We crossed the second century mark over the last two days as we took photos of 195-Joe McCarthy, 196-Jimmy Collins, 197-Turkey Stearnes, 198-Charlie Gehringer, 199-Harry Heilmann, 200-Hal Newhouser and 201-Sam Thompson. Bios and photos will be uploaded soon, so be sure to check back often.
We’ll also be reporting on all of the presentations from the 17th Annual SABR Jerry Malloy Conference on Negro Leagues Baseball in Detroit, MI on our facebook page, so be sure you “like” us in order to get all the lowdown.
After the Conference our journey will continue through Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois as we complete the first of the ten final trips in the adventure of The Hall Ball. Stay tuned for all the updates.