Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Selling of the Babe: A Review

Roger Kahn, Donald Honig and David Halberstam are some of the names on the short list for of the greatest baseball authors. Someone who is making a serious run at that distinction is Glenn Stout, who is submitting another entry to his resume with The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne Books)—an outstanding take on the Bambino’s famous sale from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees.

Stout is a prolific author and editor, particularly related to the Red Sox. Previous books include Red Sox Century and Fenway 1912, which are seminal works related to team history. He combines comprehensive research with an enjoyable and story-telling style of writing. The Selling of the Babe possesses all those qualities and gets down to the nitty gritty when it comes to perhaps the most infamous (and often inaccurately remembered) transaction in baseball history.

Too many baseball books get caught up in the legend of the players and stories. Stout pulls no punches while he lays out the truth. In The Selling of the Babe, he sets the record straight on a number of topics, including how Babe Ruth was a selfish player who often looked out for himself and his bank account before his team; how former Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was actually a fairly competent front office man whose ownership was impacted more by tense league politics than his first love of the theatre; and how the sale of Ruth to the Yankees was initially not seen as that much of a one-sided deal.

Unfortunately, over time, the story of Ruth’s departure from Boston has taken on mythic proportions. The slugger is typically depicted as an aw shucks child-like bumpkin whose star was just starting to surge towards its zenith when he was sent to New York by a greedy owner who was only concerned with being flush with enough cash to support his Broadway ventures. In particular, Stout puts great detail in to describing how the ownership of Frazee was fraught with interference by American League President Ban Johnson, and how when he fought back, created a power dynamic that helped force the sale of Ruth in order to maintain control of his team.

The birth of America’s obsession with the home run is another running theme. When Ruth first broke into the majors he was an excellent left-handed pitcher. At that time, baseball was in its Deadball era, and of the few home runs that were hit, many were of the inside the park variety. As the Babe was given increasing opportunities with the bat and showed an acumen to hitting long drives, the game was quite literally changed forever as fans sat at the edge of their collective seats to see what he might do next.

Components for any good baseball book include good research and detail. Stout achieves both in The Selling of the Babe, including comprehensive end notes for the buffs who may want to delve even further into particular aspects of the story. Those looking to read something about a curse or the traditional storybook version of Ruth’s sale will be disappointed. However, those wanting a well-written and detailed account of one of the most impactful and famous events in baseball history will be deeply satisfied.

So much has been written about baseball over the years that it can be difficult to find something that you feel you’re reading for the first time. While Stout tackles a subject that many people know, he is able to give it a fresh spin, which has resulted in a true home run.

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

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox: Did You Know?

Every major league baseball team has their own Mount Rushmore; their most iconic players from respective franchise histories. The Boston Red Sox are no exception, and having been in existence for more than a century, have as impressive a group as anyone. This include Hall-of-Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski, better known to fans simply as “Yaz.” Although his career has been much discussed, here are some things that you may not know.

-Best remembered for playing left field in front of the famous Green Monster for most of his career, Yastrzemski also played the other outfield positions and some first base (especially at the end of his career). What many may not recall is that he also played a little third base, appearing in 33 career games at the hot corner. 31 of those came in 1973 when he was 33 years old and filling in for injured teammate Rico Petrocelli. His 12 errors were convincing proof that it was an experiment not worth extending.

-A career .285 hitter with an .847 OPS over 23 seasons, the left-handed hitter had significant platoon splits during his career. He tuned up right-handed pitching with a .299 batting average and .891 OPS, while posting a rather pedestrian .244/.692 split versus southpaws.

-His first major league hit was a single to right field off the Kansas City Athletics’ Ray Herbert. He quickly negated that thrill by getting thrown out trying to steal second base, thus ending the inning.

-His final major league hit was an infield single down the third base line against Bud Anderson and the Cleveland Indians on October 2, 1983.

-His first major league home run was a two-run blast to the opposite field on May 9, 1961 against Jerry Casale and the Los Angeles Angels.

-His 452nd and final home run was a two-run job off Rick Sutcliffe and the Indians on September 10, 1983.

-Playing for so long meant spanning multiple generations. When Yaz first broke in, his oldest teammate was first baseman Vic Wertz, who had debuted in the majors in 1947. During Yaz’s last season in 1983, one of his teammates was Wade Boggs, who went on to play until 1999.

-The most home runs Yaz hit against any one pitcher were the seven each he parked against Mickey Lolich, Joe Coleman and Pat Dobson.

- With the three pitchers mentioned in the previous paragraph all spending at least a portion of their career with the Detroit Tigers, it’s not surprising that the team Yaz took deep the most was… the Tigers! His 65 homers against them and their formerly inviting right field porch were 13 more than he hit against the New York Yankees.

-Yaz wore out plenty of pitchers over the years but there were a few hurlers who got the best of him. The one who faced in more at bats without giving up a hit was right-hander Roger Nelson, who yielded but a solitary walk in the 17 times he faced off against the Hall-of Famer.

-The Red Sox had winning seasons in 16 of Yastrzemski’s 23 years as a player.

-Only four players (Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb and Rickey Henderson) reached base more often than the 5,304 times Yaz did in his career

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Alex George: The Teen Baseball Phenom

What would be tougher? Being good enough to play major league baseball but only get in to five games? Or having all of those five games come before your 17th birthday? Only one person knows that answer for sure, and its former shortstop Alex George, who reached the pinnacle of his baseball career as a teenager in the autumn of 1955.

Growing up in Kansas City, George was a multi-sport star and after graduating in 1955 at the age of 16, he enrolled at Kansas University with a dual scholarship in baseball and basketball. Upon reaching campus that fall he was introduced to his basketball team—including fellow newcomer, Wilt Chamberlain.

George had hardly cracked the books when he heard from his father that his hometown Kansas City Athletics wanted to sign him and have him join the team for the remainder of the season. That proved to be an offer too sweet to pass up, so he left campus and donned his glove and spikes.

The Athletics finished at 63-91 and were already well out of the pennant chase. This gave them the luxury at being able to look at prospects like George. The left-handed hitter got in five games, collecting a single and a walk in 10 official at bats. His seven strikeouts showed how overmatched he was, but he did pick up his lone hit on September 20th against fellow rookie Duke Maas and the Detroit Tigers, leading off what would be a 7-3 loss. He is still the sixth-youngest player to appear in the majors since World War I.

George spent the next seven seasons in the minors, experiencing modest levels of success (.254 batting average and 81 home runs) but never got back to the big leagues. By the time he was 24, he had been slowed by injuries to the point that it resulted in the end of his career.

He ended up returning to Kansas after his playing days were over and went on to have a successful career in radio and television sales.  Now 77 and retired, he answered a few questions about his career when I contacted him (a few years back).

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: When I signed, Lou Boudreau was the manager. I had read a lot about him playing shortstop. Harry Craft was one of the coaches and was very nice to me. He had managed the Yankees Triple-A affiliate in Kansas City; the Kansas City Blues, so he was familiar with me and my family.

What was the strangest thing you ever saw as a player?: Probably the strangest play is when two or more infielders are all calling for a pop fly and then they all stop and look at one another and the ball drops between them. It’s not that unusual of a play, but it always struck me as odd and strange that they would just let the ball drop.

Who was the toughest pitcher you ever faced?: I didn’t faze too many major league pitchers, but I’ll always remember facing Billy Pierce in Chicago. He was a lefty and I just couldn’t catch up with his fastball.

If you could do anything differently about your career, what would that be?: I would probably wait until I was 18 to sign. At 16, I was really too young.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The 2016 Boston Red Sox Outfield Has Some Questions

Hopes are high for the 2016 Boston Red Sox. A strong offseason that saw them land a number of players, including beefing up a lackluster pitching staff, has optimism running high. However, not everything is necessarily rosy. Although nary a game has been played, one area of potential concern is the outfield, which could be an area of weakness for the team if things don’t go just right.

On the surface, the Red Sox outfield is bursting with potential. 23-year-old Mookie Betts is already a star and will be manning right field. Former first round draft pick Jackie Bradley, Jr. will be the starter in center, while Rusney Castillo, the Cuban defector who snared a big contract two years ago, will guard left field. Veteran Chris Young, who can handle all three position, will be the primary backup, and super utility man Brock Holt will fill in as needed.

Betts is the crown jewel of the unit. With his dynamic skill set (.291 with 18 home runs, 21 stolen bases and above average defense in 2015), his ability to stay on the field is imperative (let’s start by keeping him away from golf carts). The other Boston outfielders certainly have talent but also come with a significant amount of unknown and risk.

Bradley is a world-class defender whose bat has gone through peaks and valleys of Kilimanjaro proportions since becoming a major leaguer. He has hit just .213 in parts of three seasons with the Red Sox but his August last year gave cause for hope, as he produced a .354/.429/.1.163 batting average/OBP/OPS split in 26 games. On the downside, that’s the only time other than July, 2014 (.278) where he has hit as high as .250 in a month while receiving regular playing time. It remains to be seen if he can produce more hot streaks than cold, or if he is simply too inconsistent to be a starter.

Likewise, the 28-year-old Castillo has been a cipher since signing with Boston. The $72 million he received reflects the kind of player the team believes he can be but scouting reports have typically been mixed. He has appeared in 90 major league games, hitting a combined .262 with seven home runs and seven stolen bases. He has also shown good defense despite being shuffled all over the outfield. Like Bradley, he was also red hot last August, producing a.338/.369/.894 split in 22 games. Unfortunately, his results were pedestrian outside of that one month. In addition to adjusting to life and playing ball in a new country, he has also battled nagging injuries. At this point it would not come as a surprise if he were to break out in 2016, or if he continued to produce underwhelming results.

Young is poised to be the primary backup. The 32-year-old right hander has some pop as evidenced by his 169 home runs in 10 major league seasons. However, he has also hit just .235 while striking out approximately once every four plate appearances during his career. Once a strong defensive player, advanced metrics indicate his glove play has slipped in recent years.

Certainly a capable backup, the Red Sox could be in trouble if circumstances necessitated regular playing time for Young. This is primarily because he struggles mightily against right-handed pitching. He has hit just .224 against them in his career and has seen his results increasingly worsen. In 2015, while playing for the New York Yankees, he hit .252 with 14 home runs but batted a measly .182 against right handers. Although he is a valuable veteran, expecting anything other than spot starts against lefties would be a mistake.

The final major component of the outfield mix is Holt. With his ability to play average to above average defense at half a dozen positions, he is a luxury for any roster—as long as he is used judiciously. Having spent all but 24 games of his major league career with Boston, the 27-year-old is a career .277 hitter.  He doesn’t possess much power or speed, so his value comes primarily filling in all over. Although he doesn’t have platoon split issues, he has consistently seen his play decline as the season wears on. For his career, he has produced a .309/.373/.803 split in the first half of the season and a .241/.294/.600 split in the second half. Since such numbers suggest his best use comes when deployed here and there instead of on a regular basis.

The Red Sox do have a wildcard lurking in their minor league system. Although he has only made it as far as Single-A, Andrew Benintendi, the team’s 2015 first-round pick, is widely regarded as a polished five-tool player who could be ready sooner rather than later. There is no need to rush him right now but he could be tapped if any of the big league outfielders falter.

The good news is that the currently projected outfield for the 2016 Red Sox has talent, depth and youth. The bad news is that they lack a track record of full-season consistency and have some players with holes in their game. Since the team is expected to contend it would be nice for that unit to have their outcome be more of a foregone conclusion, but that’s why they play the games and fans should have a good time seeing how it all shakes out.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Gavvy Cravath: From Slugger to Hard Hitting Judge

Before Babe Ruth, perhaps the most feared power hitter in baseball history was outfielder Gavvy Cravath. Leading his league in home runs in six of his nine full major league seasons during the Dead Ball Era, the right-handed hitter struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers across baseball. Despite his near-Hall of Fame career, it turned out to be his work as a judge after his playing days were over that ended up most defining the intimidating slugger.

Born Clifford Carlton Cravath in 1881, he turned to semi-pro ball in California after high school. He allegedly earned the nickname of Gavvy after hitting a ball in a game so hard that it killed an unfortunate seagull who dared to get too close to the game action. Mexican fans shouted “gaviota” (Spanish for seagull), which English speaking fans mistook for a cheer, and the name stuck.

He broke into the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1908 at the age of 27 and the following year bounced around between the Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators. It wasn’t until he landed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912 that his career finally took off. Over the next nine years, he led the National League in home runs six times, including a high of 24 in 1915. He also led in RBIs twice and was generally a .280-.300 hitter, making him one of the premium offensive players of his day.

Gravath retired following the 1920 season, having accumulated totals of a .287 batting average, 119 home runs—which set the record for most homers of any player at that time—  and 719 RBIs in 1,220 games, just as the career of Ruth was starting to soar into the hemisphere. As it turned out, the man known as the Cactus” during his playing days couldn’t stand the Bambino. His granddaughter told reporters years later that “He wasn’t much of a fan of Babe Ruth. He didn’t like Babe’s style. He thought he was a hot dog.”

Despite his star turn in baseball, he came to gain even more renown later in life during his time as a judge. In 1927, Cravath was in his mid 40s and living in Laguna Beach, California. The story goes that he and some of his friends did not like the local magistrate judge, so they drew straws to see who would run against him in the next election. Depending on the perspective, Cravath won/lost the draw, threw his hat in the ring and beat the incumbent in a landslide. He wound up spending the final 36 years of his life in law.

Although he had no legal education (or even a high school degree) or training, the former ballplayer adapted quickly to his new role, admitting that he applied many of the principles he learned in baseball to his decisions. He rapidly gained a reputation as a prickly and snappy arbiter.

Some of his judiciary exploits included:

-Being asked by the town’s mayor to resign in 1932 because of his aversion to enforcing fines that helped balance the city budget. Cravath apparently believed such relative slaps on the wrist to be petty instead of punitive

-During World War II, he declined to pass along the list of convicted speeders from his docket to the War Rationing Board as required, explaining, “I’m not going to be a stool pigeon.”

-Keeping in line with his disdain for the tattling of others, he once fined a man two pennies for catching over the legal limit of abalone. The sole reason for the exceedingly light punishment was Cravath found the game wardens’ stealthy use of binoculars as unsavory as the actual crime.

-During pre-trial preparations for a man accused of stealing, the prosecutor wanted to present jury members with instructions on how to handle the case. Cravath took them from the jury and told them, "The defendant is charged with theft. If you are so dumb you don't know what it means to steal, you shouldn't be on the jury. Now, if you find that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, convict him. If not, acquit him."

-At another theft trial, two young men who were accused of stealing asked to be allowed to join the military in lieu of a harsher sentence. This did not sit well with Cravath, who promptly denied the request, explaining "When I see a man in uniform walking down the street, I look at him with pride. You haven't earned the right to wear such a uniform bearing the honor of our country. Six months in county jail."

-Another judge once told the story of a man who was not well liked by Cravath went to him to file a lawsuit against another man for calling him a vulgar name. “Well, you are (insert vulgar name),” the judge told him, putting an end to the suit then and there.

Cravath passed away at the age of 82 in 1963. He is remarkable not only for his accomplishments in baseball but also because of the legacy he left behind with his gavel and quick wit.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Buck Weaver's Bet on His Black Sox Future

The 1919 Chicago White Sox (aka Black Sox) are perhaps the most tragic of all teams in baseball history. A powerful squad, they lost that year’s World Series to the Cincinnati Reds despite being heavily favored, and were later had eight of their players banished from the sport for their involvement or knowledge of a plot to intentionally throw the Series. One of those eight was third baseman Buck Weaver, who maintained his innocence until his death, yet was never reinstated. Unfortunately, he was sometimes his own worst enemy when it came to pleading his case.

Gambling plagued baseball during the early part of the twentieth century. Ballparks were gathering places for willing bettors who couldn’t turn around without finding someone willing to take their money on some kind of wager. In retrospect, it’s not that surprising that it finally reached the level that it did with the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

Buck Weaver was a second tier star of the White Sox, always popular but never as statistically productive as teammates like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte. The switch hitting third baseman (He was primarily a shortstop for his first five seasons) was a flashy fielder who hit .272 over nine major league seasons. He was better known for his ability to play small ball (He is still 43rd all time in sacrifice hits) and putting everything he had on the field. Therefore, when news broke about the fix, the inclusion of the infielder was more surprising than most.

On the surface, one can’t say that Weaver ever laid down during the Series. He played all eight games, hitting .324 without committing and error in the field. Although he was never proven to have done anything other than play his best that postseason, it was determined that he was generally aware of the plot of some of his teammates, and that was enough to earn his lifetime ban when baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis thundered down his ruling in August, 1921.

In hindsight, Weaver didn’t exactly help his cause leading up to his permanent suspension. A January 20, 1921 newspaper account details how he was so confident he would be exonerated and able to continue his professional career that he publically offered a group of mostly journalists a $500 bet that he would be a member of the 1921 White Sox. “I will prove to everybody that I am innocent of the charges against me,” he told a group of people. “They can’t start that trial too soon to suit me. When it is over I’ll be cleared.”

He turned out to be partially correct, as he and his teammates were cleared in court. However, they could have never imagined they would feel the wrath of Landis the way they did after proving their “innocence.”

Although there’s no evidence that Weaver’s boastful (and and most certainly tongue in cheek) attempt to secure a bet against his innocence played any role in Landis’ decision, it certainly was not the smartest thing for someone facing severe charges related to gambling could do. At least as the newspaper noted, nobody took him up on his offer.

Weaver played semi-pro ball for years after his expulsion from the majors and exerted great effort in trying to have his case appealed. He was never successful, and even now, decades after his death in 1956, he remains on the outside looking in of professional baseball.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Examining the 2016 Boston Red Sox’s Most Intriguing Non-Roster Spring Training Invitees

With a 40-man roster that’s already garnering wide praise for its projected ability to win games in 2016, the Boston Red Sox are sitting pretty heading into the upcoming spring training. That being said, even though they roll deep there’s never a way to know how they might be impacted by injury or ineffectiveness. Non-roster invitees typically generate little fanfare, but in some cases can end up becoming major contributors. The Red Sox are no exception, and have some players worth watching on their own list this year.

Allen Craig, Outfielder/First Baseman: It’s unclear what is more surprising; that Craig is entering his third season with Boston, or that he has fallen so far since his days as an All Star with the St. Louis Cardinals (as recently as 2013).

A .291 hitter in parts of five seasons with the Cardinals, since joining the Red Sox via a trade mid-season in 2014, Craig has spent most of the past two years in the minors. When he has played for Boston, he has been strikingly bad—to the tune of a .139 batting average, two home runs and five RBIs in 65 games.

Presumably healthy and still just 31, it’s a complete mystery as to how the right-handed hitter, who batted .315 with 97 RBIs in 2013 for a team that reached the World Series (and lost) to the Red Sox could seen his production go off a cliff at such a precipitous angle. That unknown (and the $21 million he is still owed through 2017) have kept him on the periphery of Boston’s roster plans. There may not be a clear role for him now but having a veteran hitter of his pedigree is a nice luxury. If he shows any sign of life this spring, he could end up with the opportunity to make a significant impact at the big league level before the season is over.

Josh Rutledge, Infielder: At this point in his career, Rutledge likely is who he is- a guy who can be a valuable backup infielder due to his ability to play multiple positions and because he won’t embarrass himself at the plate. The Red Sox saw this first hand last season after he came over from the Los Angeles Angels in the Shane Victorino trade. Appearing in 39 games with Boston (85 plate appearances), he hit .284 with a homer and 10 RBIs.

With guys like Brock Holt and Deven Marrero above him on the depth chart for the role of utility infielder, some things would need to happen to carve out a spot on the big league roster for Rutledge. However, the 26 year-old is still under team control and could bide his time in Triple-A Pawtucket if he does impress the club during spring training.

Kyle Martin, Pitcher: A ninth-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2013, the big right-hander (6’7” and 220 pounds) has made quick work of the minor leagues during his three professional seasons. In 84 games, all coming out of the bullpen, he has produced a 3.43 ERA and struck out 164 batters in 162.2 innings, while yielding 149 hits and just 42 walks.

Possessing a fastball that sits in the low 90s and a good changeup, Martin is primed to be a big league contributor out of the pen. Although it would be a surprise for him to break camp with the team, spring training is an excellent opportunity for him to leave some lasting impressions and be on the short list in the event relievers are needed during the season.

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