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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Montana Baseball History: A Review

Ever since becoming America’s national pastime, baseball has found a way to thrive in all parts of the country, no matter how remote, crowded or challenging the terrain. This includes the beautifully mountainous Montana, which is a state that may not boast any major league teams, but as it turns out has a rich history with the game. This is detailed in the new book by Skylar Browning and Jeremy Watterson, titled Montana Baseball History ($21.99, Arcadia Publishing. Available at local retailers, online bookstores, or through Arcadia Publishing and the History Press at www.arcadiapublishing.com or 888-323-2665).

If there are two people who should have a good handle on Montana baseball, its locals Browning (news editor) and Watterson (worked as a radio color man for baseball games and is a baseball historian). They put their knowledge and proximity to good use in this volume, turning out what amounts to a full-fledged historical site in 174 pages of solid writing and beautiful photographs.

Divided into four sections (baseball origins in the state; Montanans who played major league ball; major leaguers who later called Montana home; and the Pioneer League), Montana Baseball History is smartly set up so readers can either skip around to what may interest them, or can read straight through it as they would any traditional book.

Like many areas of the country, baseball first came to Montana primarily as a game played by those who worked in local industry—in this case the military and mines. From pick-up games enjoyed by soldiers in General George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated army, to spirited town ball games and leagues, the state has as rich a tradition as any when it comes to the early days.

Fewer than 25 native-born Montanans have played in the majors, so not a lot of room is needed to do them justice. Led by former Baltimore Orioles 20-game winner Dave McNally, probably the most famous of the bunch, each of these players is described with a brief history, including what they accomplished after reaching the big leagues. It’s not a star-studded roster—in fact the vast majority were players who more or less had “cups of coffee” on baseball’s biggest stage—but their sum achievements are something any region can be proud of.

Initially, the section of ballplayers who came to call Montana home in some fashion seemed a bit of a stretch. After all, most of them moved there to find economic opportunity or a home, and their connection to the region seemed a little stretched for the concept of this book. However, on closer inspection, it was nice to have the full scope of all those associated with baseball who have passed through, regardless if they were born there or discovered the state’s appeal later in life.

Browning and Watterson connect Montana’s present time to baseball with their discussion of the Pioneer League, which is still a Rookie-level circuit churning out quality major league players from raw-boned prospects. George Brett, Bobby Cox, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt are just a few of the game’s luminaries who have played the game in Big Sky Country before eventually graduating to the majors. Although their time there may have been fleeting, they make up a big part of this story.

Montana Baseball History is a basic history for the masses. No one subject is given more than two or three pages. However, given how much total ground they cover in its modest length, it’s hard to not be impressed. This is a book to pick up regardless of whether you are interested in just baseball, or if you are specifically curious of its place in the state of Montana.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Christy Mathewson and His Brothers: A Story of What Might Have Been

Right-handed pitcher Christy Mathewson was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, starring for the New York Giants for nearly 16 years in the early part of last century. He is still third all-time in wins with 373, and perhaps the greatest postseason pitcher who ever lived, posting a 0.97 ERA and completing 10 of his 11 Fall Classic starts. He also had two younger brothers who were also quite accomplished as pitchers. Sadly, neither attained the baseball success of their big brother, and through separate twists of tragic fate, both died way too young.

If everything had gone according to expectations, Christy might not have even been the best pitcher among the Mathewson boys. Two of his younger brothers, Henry (also known as Hank) and Nicholas, were both stars during their prep careers, and perhaps only circumstance prevented them from attaining the success of their big brother.

Christy rose to the major leagues following a stellar career at Bucknell University. Six years his junior, Henry followed him to the same alma mater, graduating around 1906. His proud older brother was exuberant, stating, “He now has as much speed as I had when I broke into the game. He has control and a splendid assortment of curves. All he wants is experience, and with that I am sure he will develop into a star.”

Hoping to double down on their Mathewson good fortune, the Giants signed the college lad to a deal in January, 1906. He had a rather dubious start to his professional career. Christy came down with a case of diphtheria so severe it nearly killed him, and Henry knocked out several of catcher and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Bresnahan’s teeth during warm-ups prior to a spring training game when he accidentally let go of his bat while taking practice swings.  

Realizing that he was raw, the Giants handled Henry with kid gloves for much of 1906, having him just practice with the team in New York and allowing him to occasionally pitch for local independent teams.

Giants’ skipper John McGraw was optimistic but reasonable when discussing the prospect with the press. “Henry has learned a lot about the pitching game and by next spring will be ready to make his appearance in fast society as a promising debutante. I would not say that he is going to be as great a pitcher as brother Matty, but from the form he has shown us so far, I feel I am justified in predicting that he will win more games than some of the twirlers who now are posing as stars.”

Despite the initial announcement that his debut would be held back until 1907, Henry joined the big club by the end of the 1906 season, impressing in his first game by tossing a scoreless inning to earn a save. However, his next game would tarnish his baseball reputation forever and define his career.

On October 5th, Henry made what would be his lone major league start, facing Boston Beaneaters the last game of the year. Although the Giants had won an impressive 96 games, they were eons behind that year’s National League pennant winner, the Chicago Cubs, who finished with 116 victories and a 20-game cushion. With nothing at stake, fewer than 400 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to see the hometown team off for the year. By the end of the afternoon, most of them probably regretted coming out.

Perhaps wanting to see what the young Mathewson was made of, McGraw let the young hurler pitch the entire game. It wasn’t pretty, as he gave up seven runs, largely on the back of the 14 walks he issued (then a major league record). This was no ordinary squad he was facing either. Boston was ,to put it quite plainly, putrid. Even with the win, they finished dead last with an abominable 49-102 record, and also brought up the rear of the league in team batting average, runs scored and ironically, walks drawn.

For all intents and purposes, that miserable start marked the beginning of the end for Henry’s career. He pitched one scoreless frame for the Giants the following year and played in a few minor league games over years but that was it. McGraw later quipped, “Pitching talent was hardly an inherited Mathewson characteristic.”

Not surprisingly, Christy later defended his brother against those who were disappointed with his career. “He was brought up before he was ready because I got the diphtheria at the start of the ‘06 season. The Giants’ management thought they could sell tickets if there was still a Mathewson pitching at the Polo Grounds. But they should have waited. It cost them a good ballplayer. Hank just wasn’t ready.”

By 1917, Henry developed tuberculosis and was living in Arizona in an attempt to benefit from the dry air. In what proved to be a bad choice, he went back east to Pennsylvania that summer to visit his parents. Sadly, he died on July 1st from his health complications, just 30 years old. The Mathewson brothers combined 373 wins (all by Christy) still rank fifth all-time among baseball pitcher siblings. If not for one wild day by Henry, who knows how high that total might have been.

Adding to the speculation of what heights the Mathewsons might have reached in baseball might is Nicholas. The youngest of the three, he very well may have been the greatest hurler of them all. He never lost a game during his high school career with Keystone Academy, and went unscored upon during his senior season.

During Christmas of Nick’s senior year, the Mathewson household was visited by Hughie Jennings, the manager of the Detroit Tigers, and an acquaintance of Christy (who was also on hand for the holidays). The skipper offered the youngest Mathewson pitcher a $3,000 contract to sign. By all accounts, the youngster was so gung-ho to start his professional career and play with the likes of Ty Cobb that he would have signed for less. Despite Jennings’ promise to keep Nick tied to the bench during his first year while learning the finer points of the game, his father Gilbert and Christy were opposed to him giving up his schooling and wouldn’t permit him to ink a contract.

Christy had always regretted leaving Bucknell early to join the Giants, later writing, “I would advise a boy who has exceptional ability as a ballplayer to sign no contracts and to take no money until he has finished college.” Both he and his father believed baseball would still be there for Nick once he graduated, but if he went immediately into baseball, he would never return to his education.

Nick begrudgingly obeyed the will of his family and went off to college but returned home in January, 1909, complaining of feeling ill and tired—all seemingly classic signs of depression. On the surface, he was doing well—pitching for the school’s varsity team as a freshman, and planning on playing for Nashville of the Southern League later that summer. However, he felt uneasy and was particularly concerned with falling behind at school. On January 15th, he told his family he was going out to tend to some horses, and climbed up to the hay loft of a neighbor’s barn, wrote a brief note and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He was found by Henry, who carried him home and summoned a doctor. Unfortunately, it was too late and he died the next morning in the hospital. He was only 19 years old.

Although Christy achieved baseball immortality, he also suffered a similarly sad fate as Henry and Nick. After surviving 17 major league seasons and service overseas during World War I, he succumbed at the age of 45 from the effects of gas poisoning he had suffered in battle.

The Mathewson brothers were a combination of talent and tragedy. Baseball has never seen anything like them before and likely never will again. It’s impossible to predict what may have happened if they managed to avoid some of the bad breaks that wound up determining their fates but they will always be a prime example of what might have been.

Statistics via BaseballReference.com

Bibliography:        
                                                                     









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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Examining Some Hall-of-Fame Batter and Pitcher Matchups

At any given time there are hundreds of players with active major league careers. While they all undoubtedly possess elite athleticism and skill in order to have gotten so far in the game, only a select few are dominant enough to earn membership into the elite club frequently referred to as the “all-time greats.” If we’re lucky, there might be a handful or so of these players in the majors at any one time. But what has happened when their paths have crossed and some of these legendary batters have stepped up to the plate against their pitching counterparts? The results may surprise you.

Let’s take a look at a sampling of some of the better hitter/pitcher matchups from the past. The only criteria is that both players have to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and have at least 100 plate appearances facing each other in order to provide results that are hopefully a bit more compelling than your typical baseball small sample size. Some results may be surprising, and others may not. Either way, nothing would have been better than actually being at some of those games and seeing it all go down in person.

Mickey Mantle versus Early Wynn: Mantle (.298 career batting average and 536 home runs) and Wynn (300 victories) were among the biggest stars of their generation. However, when facing each other, one clearly came out ahead. That would be the right-hander, who held the switch-hitting Commerce Comet to a .242 average, 13 home runs and 24 RBIs in 161 at-bats.

Wynn may come out with the better numbers, but the 50 walks and 48 strikeouts accumulated by Mantle in these matchups are proof that each at-bat was a grinder.

Willie Mays versus Robin Roberts: With careers that had 15 years of overlap, there was plenty of opportunity for these two to face off. The right-handed Roberts permitted 505 home runs in his career, which is still second all-time, so it would be a good bet that Mays and his 660 career round trippers teed off on him with extreme prejudice. Strangely, that was not the case. Although the outfielder touched him for a .313 batting average in 170 career at-bats, he managed just four home runs and 12 RBIs, shockingly low numbers for the historic slugger.

Ted Williams versus Bob Feller: Rapid Robert and his 100 MPH fastball against Williams, perhaps the purest hitter to ever grip a bat, must have been a magnificent sight to behold. Fortunately, for fans of the time, they faced each other quite frequently—as they both played for only one team each during their lengthy careers (Williams for the Boston Red Sox and Feller for the Cleveland Indians). The lefty-swinging outfielder torched Feller to the tune of a .371 batting average with nine home runs and 31 RBIs in 124 at-bats (data is missing for three games). He also drew 34 walks while whiffing just 10 times, helping build a .506 OBP. These numbers are even more impressive when considering Feller led the American League in strikeouts seven times and won 20 or more games six times.

Hank Aaron versus Sandy Koufax: With 165 victories and a 2.76 ERA before retiring at the age of 30 because of an arthritic elbow, the southpaw Koufax may have gone on to post even more mind-blowing numbers if granted the gift of health. On the other hand, Aaron enjoyed 23 relatively uninterrupted seasons on the way to a .305 batting average, 755 home runs, 2,297 RBIs and 3,771 base hits.

Pitting these two titans of talent against each other could well be expected to cause the skies to rumble with preternatural thunder but the results of this matchup are surprisingly one-sided. In 116 at-bats, Aaron bashed his way to a .362 batting average and seven home runs. He also whiffed just 12 times and drew five intentional walks.

Mike Schmidt versus Tom Seaver: The right-handed hitting Schmidt was one of the greatest third basemen of all time, hitting 548 home runs during his 18-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies. He had plenty of chances to face the right-handed Seaver, who spent all but the final few years of his 20 major league seasons in the National League, racking up 311 wins and 2.86 ERA.

When it comes to determining who got the better of this matchup, there was really little contest, as Seaver dominated. He struck out Schmidt 35 times, allowing just 16 hits and two home runs in 85 bats, a .188 batting average and a .294 slugging percentage, which is nearly half his career mark of .527.  Schmidt may not have fared well facing Tom Terrific but certainly took out any potential lingering frustration on other pitchers.

Willie Stargell versus Juan Marichal: Although they played on opposite sides of the country, the 13 years of their respective careers they were in the majors at the same time meant they became quite familiar with each other. Stargell’s talent, which resulted in a .282 batting average and 475 home runs, seemingly meant little to the right-handed pitcher, who was no slouch with 243 victories and a 2.89 ERA. In 109 at-bats, the first baseman managed just 19 hits (.174 batting average), three home runs and 10 RBIs. He also struck out 28 times and managed just four walks.

Statistics via BaseballReference.com.

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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Millers and the Saints: A Review

Fans have traditionally been drawn to the game of baseball for many reasons but one that keeps them coming back over and over again is the fantastic rivalries that develop between teams. These are created by regionalism, annual competitiveness and star players that are compared and contrasted against each other. Not reserved to just the Majors Leagues, all levels of baseball are rich with these rivalries. Author Rex D. Hamann has captured one of the best with his 2014 book, The Millers and the Saints: Baseball Championships of the Twin Cities Rivals, 1903-1955 (Publisher- McFarland * www.mcfarlandpub.com * Order Line- 800-253-2187).

The Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints are two of the most storied franchises in baseball history; both dating their inaugural seasons back to the 1880s. Although they weren’t always in the same circuit at the same time, they were both powerhouse members of the American Association between 1902 and 1960, providing the time frame for Hamann’s examination. During that time, they won a collective 17 championships (nine for St. Paul and eight for Minneapolis) and along the way developed a terrific regional rivalry that became known as the “Streetcar Series.”

Until the Twins came along in 1961, the Millers and the Saints were the “big leagues” for Minnesota. Hamann has captured what their matchups meant to the two most prominent cities in the state and the surrounding communities by compiling a synopsis of each of the 17 championship seasons and the 1934 campaign (where the Millers finished in first place but lost in the postseason).

Even for the sturdiest of baseball fans, digesting large chunks of history of not one but two franchises is a tall order. However, Hamann has done a neat trick of consolidating a lot of information in the 312 pages. There are not only brief accounts of the games played between the Millers and Saints during the highlighted seasons but also a liberal helping of statistics and vintage photos.

The diversity of players and managers (Hall of Famer Walt Alston sharpened his skipper skills with the Saints before being hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers) that graced the rosters of the two teams is something to behold. In true minor league tradition there were plenty of prospects (Ted Williams was a Miller in 1938) and also many former major league players finishing out their careers. Prominent among those was Joe Hauser, who was a rising slugger in the American League during the 1920s but saw his star dip due to a serious knee injury. Finding a home with the Millers, he became one of the greatest hitters the minor leagues has ever known, bashing 69 home runs alone during the 1933 season.

As with any history book worth its salt, one must look at the sources and notes. Hamann shines in this regard, as his copious end notes and bibliography reflect the tremendous amount of research that must have gone into this work.

Sadly, the arrival of the Twins spelled the end of the rivalry as it had been known for decades. The Millers and the Saints were to Minnesotans what the Red Sox/Yankees and Dodgers/Giants were to their own parts of the world. The Millers/Saints may not have received the same large-scale national attention but were every bit as important for the region they represented. The intensity of the matchup and the talent and colorful nature of the personalities that represented each team is on full display. They may be gone (The Millers folded in 1960 and the Saints play on in the independent American Association) as they were once known but they leave behind a rich legacy that did Minnesota and baseball proud.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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