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.