Friday, January 18, 2013

Volutatibus Him Plathai Echei Ouden

Over the life of this blog I seem to have completely lost the ability to write an introductory paragraph; so I am just going to dive straightforward into the subject and hope I can get out some of the points I wanted to make in a reasonably coherent manner.

I am going to write about baseball cards.

They are special baseball cards however, in that I got them at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981 (the set consists of all of the members of the Hall at that time) and many of them are autographed by the players depicted on them. I had never realized that in fact they are rather garish. I was going to put up pictures of them but I am having issues at the moment both with my camera and the amount of space on my computer for storing pictures, plus I packed up the box again and shoved it back into the bottom of the linen closet. So I think I will skip the pictures.

The Baseball Hall of Fame was in the news this last week, and in recent years, between the combination of the advent of modern statistical analysis and the widespread suspicion of steroid use by superstar players in recent decades, the institution has been undergoing one of its more pronounced existential crises in the face of disputes over who belongs in it and who does not, and what I detect to be a general lack of love for it among the most sophisticated modern fans. All of this led me to take out my box of old baseball memorabilia that I have looked at maybe 3 times in the last 30 years this week.

From 1981 to about 1984, but mainly during about an 18 month period from the fall of '81 to the winter of '83 I wrote to several hundred old ballplayers, most from the pre-1945 period, asking for autographs. This was just before the time when people figured out that famous players anyway could charge money for autographs, so, perhaps surprisingly, most responded. Of course I suppose there is no way to authenticate that the actual guy signed the card, but I suspect in most cases the signature is genuine. Not that it matters a great deal to me at this point anyway. I was able to write to all these players because I had (and still have) this book:

(This is not the exact edition I have, but it's close enough)

The idea of writing to players asking for autographs was really my father's, although I wrote all of the letters, and once the initial enquiries were returned, my enthusiasm and confidence in the project were greatly invigorated. My father being my father, he thought I should first send out all of the cards from the Hall of Fame set to those players who were still alive, so we started, in effect, at the top. Not every guy responded, but looking over the set, it is quite remarkable how many did. That was going to be the object of the post, to go down the list, and note who wrote back, who didn't, and any special impressions I might have about a particular player, with (for my own benefit) follow-up biographical updates--basically when guys died, as I have not kept up with that.

Carl Hubbell--Yes (i.e., he responded to my letter). Died in 1988, aged 85.

 I am going to go on about Carl a little bit. One of the more annoying aspects of the explosion of advanced baseball statistics, combined with the ability to pontificate on the internet regarding the same, is that inevitably you start to come across people whose breaking down of the numbers have convinced them that Carl Hubbell is a borderline Hall of Famer at best. As with all movements that one picks up on in youth that don't peter out, I seem to have been left behind in the last few years by the ongoing advancements in baseball statistical measurement. I have enjoyed nearly all of Bill James's books over the years, and generally found little in his conclusions that struck me as outrageous. Especially in his earlier books, he tended to clarify or expand upon things that one had already suspected or known, but had not examined with much sophistication, such as that Larry Bowa was one of the worst offensive players of all time who had a ten year career, or that too many of Frankie Frisch's mediocre teammates had gotten voted into the Hall of Fame when Frankie was the head of the Veteran's Committee. His study of the statistics was a supplement to watching thousands of games intently as well as being immersed in the sport's historical literature, aspects which seem to be missing in the current crop of baseball philosophers, who seem to lack much of a feel for the game as it unfolds on the field and across eras, and expect their various pet statistics to be the final word on players hardly anyone living ever saw play, and who by conventional measurements were often not merely good but dominant players.

Carl Hubbell was almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League during the 1930s, and other than perhaps Lefty Grove, there is no obviously superior candidate in the American League during that era either. Satchel Paige might have been the greatest pitcher in the world during this period, or he might not have been, but popular opinion of the time suggests that he ought to be admitted as a contender. The second best pitcher in the National League during this decade was Dizzy Dean, an iconic figure of the Depression and superstar pitcher for about four years whose story also leaves many modern statheads, who consider his body of work unworthy of his Hall of Fame status, cold. Had the Cy Young award existed in the 1930s, Hubbell would almost assuredly have won it in 1933, 1936 and 1937, and Dean in 1934 and '35. This is especially true as Hubbell actually won the MVP award in '33 and '36, and Dean in '34. According to the tabulators of WAR, the top pitcher in the league in 1935 was Cy Blanton of Pittsburgh (18-13, 2.58 4 shutouts, 7.89 hits/9 innings; Dean was 28-12, 3.04, 29 complete games, 325.1 innings pitched, 190 strikeouts) and in '37 was Jim Turner of Boston (20-11, 2.38. 24 complete games, 5 shutouts; Hubbell was 22-8, 3.20, 159 strikeouts). I suppose there is an argument for Turner, though I suspect the voters would have given Hubbell the award, as his year was equal to the naked eye both statistically and in terms of impression made during the course of the season, not to mention that everybody by 1937 thought of Carl Hubbell as a great pitcher compared to the Jim Turners of the world. I think it is safe to say that nobody who was alive in 1935 considered Cy Blanton to have had a superior season to Dizzy Dean, and I don't either.

Hubbell still holds the major league for consecutive decisions in which he was awarded a victory (regular season) with 24, over two seasons, 1936 & '37. Pitcher "wins", as traditionally recorded, are not held in the high esteem they used to be by up to date statistics analysts, due to their being the result of circumstances that are inadequately consistent, but I still think if you are consistently able to achieve them, that it is an indication of significant quality. Hubbell had 253 such wins during his career, 195 during the decade from 1929 to 1938.

From 1927 to 1939 the New York Yankees appeared in 7 World Series, won all of them, 5 via sweeps, and racked up a combined record of 28-3 in these 7 series. Carl Hubbell was 2-2 against them in this span, the rest of the National League 1-26, with the other win being in a high scoring extra inning game. This contributed to the high esteem in which Hubbell was held in his time, as no other National League pitcher offered any effective resistance to the Yankee juggernaut throughout the whole of this period. In the other World Series in which he appeared, in 1933 against the less imposing Washington Senators, Hubbell won 2 complete game victories, the second in 11 innings, as the Giants won in 5 games. This guy is not a Hall of Famer?

Charlie Gehringer--Yes. Died 1993, aged 89.

I always liked Charlie Gehringer too. He was from the North (Michigan) and attended the University of Michigan, though I don't think he finished. Still, very few ballplayers in that generation went to college at all, and it gave him a little polish compared to the most of the players. He was interviewed for one of the oral histories of old time baseball that came out in the 1960s and 70s that were among my favorite books at the time, and he struck me as one of the more intelligent and insightful contributors, in a understated way (By the way, the book Gehringer was in was Baseball When the Grass Was Real, which came out in 1975 and covered the decades of the 1920s and 30s. Ironically the grass in baseball is mostly real again, I believe Toronto and Tampa Bay being the only teams now that still play on Astroturf. Baseball on Astroturf is one of those things that was lamented as a catastrophe throughout most of my childhood, was a major issue in player's careers--the carpet in Montreal was supposed to have destroyed Andre Dawson's knees for example--and then was largely corrected throughout the late 90s and early 2000s without anybody seeming to notice. Another big development of my youth I remember old-timers hating, or at least being considerably annoyed by, was batting gloves. The opinion on these was they were somewhere between extravagant and unmanly, but nobody saw the need for for them because Ted Williams had never used them and he had a .344 lifetime average.

Bill Dickey--Yes. Died 1993, aged 86.

First Yankee on the list. Appeared as himself, along with Babe Ruth and several other players, in The Pride of the Yankees, along with Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright, in what I am quite sure is the greatest baseball movie of all time.

Bill Terry--Yes. Died 1989, aged 90.

First guy born in the 1800s on the list. High batting average player, succeeded John McGraw as manager of the Giants while still a top player. I always considered him a solid Hall of Famer, but I feel like the statheads have their issues with him. Their objections I think would qualify as nit-picking however.

Joe DiMaggio--Yes. Died 1999, aged 84. Joe DiMaggio answered his fan mail, or at least saw that it was answered. I wonder if his iconic status is not declining. Most the media footage of him that exists is neither very revealing nor exciting by our standards. He was much beloved by his own generation and the one just after it who were young during the 1930s and 40s, both for his personality and his ballplaying but these cohorts are rapidly dying out. He was by all accounts a most riveting player, but he retired in 1951, which in sports, and especially sports media terms is a really long time ago now.  In his various television and commercial appearances on Youtube the further you go back in time the more genial and comfortable with the world he seems, perhaps because people understood how to treat him and talk to him. The more he is removed from own time the more inaccessible he seemed to become.

Ted Lyons--Yes. Died 1986, aged 85.

Not my actual card, but I do have one of these, out of around ten cards I have from the 1933 Goudey series. Mine has a crease in the middle. This was one of my favorite cards on account of the armpit holes. I was fascinated by them.

Joe Cronin--Yes. Died 1984, Aged 77.

When I saw his card, I thought, wow, Joe Cronin is a completely forgotten man. I had not myself had occasion to recall the man in many years, though he was ubiquitous within the sport for decades as a Hall of Fame shortstop, "Boy Wonder" player-manager of the Senators, longtime player-manager and then manager, and then general manager, of the Red Sox, and eventually president of the American League for 14 years. This career ran unbroken from 1926 to 1973. His name still resonated as that of a big man in the game when I first became aware of him. But he has faded.

Hank Greenberg--Yes. Died 1986. Aged 75.

Great slugger. I don't have any especial anecdotes regarding him though.

Bob Feller--Yes. Died 2010, aged 92.

After sending my letter with cards enclosed to Rapid Robert Feller, I did not get a response for about six months and figured, well, he was a major star and is probably a busy person. One day however I arrived home from school and found a mysterious little packet waiting for me. Enclosed was a note from Bob Feller apologizing for having misplaced my cards and two 8x10 autographed glossy photos, one a blown up image of his 1953 Topps baseball card (in color), and the other a black and white picture of him running off the field and being congratulated by his teammates after his opening day no-hitter in 1940, which at that time was the only such no-hitter in history, and still may be. One of the greatest pitchers of all time. Missed four years in his absolute prime (ages 23-26) during WWII and still won 266 games.

Edd Roush--Yes. Died 1988, aged 94.

Prime was at the tail end of the dead ball era. Batting champ 1917 and '19. Played on winning side in doomed 1919 World Series.

Luke Appling--Yes. Died 1991, aged 83.

Burleigh Grimes--Yes. Died 1985, aged 92. Some of these ballplayers are pretty darn long-lived.

Last pitcher legally permitted to throw the spitball--unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka's gyroball, this was a real pitch. I am glad there is a place for the likes of Burleigh Grimes in the Hall of Fame, because he was quite a remarkable pitcher in his own unconventional fashion. I wonder what his pitch counts were like. Looking at one sample year, 1923 say, he went 21-18, 3.58, with 33 complete games in 38 starts, toiling for 327 innings, allowing 356 hits and 100 walks. That was actually his best year at keeping guys off base in a 6 year span.

Ted Williams--Yes. Died 2002, aged 83. Unfortunately the card has gone missing during the 20 year interval that I was without my collection.

In his youth of course, Ted Williams was considered to be about the biggest jerk in the game. As he aged his image evolved into that of the gruff old-timer, a war hero and active outdoorsman who shot straight and reminded us of the days when men were men. He grew more palatable because while he was still quite a bit of a know it all jerk, I think he reminded people of their grandfathers. He never really came across as a snob, dismissing or mistreating people outright based on their status, which had begun to grow predominant in the society. One of my favorite stories about the older Williams involved an interviewer who went down to his house in Florida to find the old man in an apparently foul mood, lamenting that he had agreed to the interview and so on, and promptly getting up and leaving the room without explanation, returning after a few minutes with a plate of cheese and crackers for the reporter that he had apparently thrown together himself, after which he seemed to feel better and went on to talk quite a bit. His garrulity as he got older was in contrast to his formerly far more popular rival Joe DiMaggio, who became increasingly reticent and seemingly bored with the world in his old age and was reputed to have become an obsessive miser.

Red Ruffing--No! Died 1986, aged 80. My first rejection. He was never supposed to be a very nice guy, but then neither was Ted Williams or Bill Terry or several other players who did respond. Also of course he was old and may have been ill, though I think I have read somewhere that he never responded to autograph requests.

Lloyd Waner---Yes. Died 1982, aged 76. I must have written to him just a few months before he died. He was one of only two Hall of Famers to sign the card on the back. Widely considered now to be among the worst players in the Hall, and I won't argue against that, though I think his brother, who was already long dead by the time I was writing to players, was a bona fide H of F'r.

Roy Campanella--Yes. Died 1993, aged 71. Roy Campanella was of course paralyzed in a car accident in 1957 so his signature came back in the form of a rubber stamp. This card has gone missing too. Very highly regarded player in his time, won 3 MVP awards ('51-'53-'55) as catcher on beloved "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers teams, gets less love from modern statistics interpreters. Didn't reach big leagues until age 26 due to color line. Grew up in Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia to a black mother and Italian father.

Stan Coveleski--Yes. Died 1984, aged 94. One of the players interviewed for the seminal Glory of Their Times, the original of the series of oral histories and the one which dealt with the pre-1920 era, which came out in 1965. Several of the players featured in the book, Coveleski among them, were subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame, likely as a result of the book's popularity. Coveleski was the son of Polish immigrants in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania who himself entered the mines at age 12. His was one of the more memorable stories in the book. It was truly a different country, but there is a lot that is still largely recognizable, the culture of baseball and sports in general being among them, which I think contributes to the book's interest.

Waite Hoyt--Yes. Died 1984, aged 84.

Stan Musial--Yes. Stan Musial is the first guy on this list who is still alive. He is currently 92. It is often opined that the general public has forgotten how good he was. He is a legitimate candidate for the greatest living baseball player. He was a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James level celebrity during the 1940s and 50s. Here is a television appearance either from late 1963 or early 1964. John F Kennedy is already being referenced as "late" but Musial is being treated as if he were not yet retired, though he never played again after the 1963 season.

Lou Boudreau--Yes. Died 2001, aged 84. Last player-manager to both to win the MVP award and the World Series, of course, in 1948. Up until 1940 both of these accomplishments were fairly frequent.

Satchel Paige--Yes. Died 1982, allegedly aged 75. Another one I must have just caught by a matter of months. For what it's worth, all of the living Negro League Hall of Famers I wrote to replied. The players with a reputation for being more ornery, such as Josh Gibson, tended to have died young.

Yogi Berra--Yes. Yogi is the other guy who signed the back of the card. Yogi lives on, though at 87, I believe he may finally have retired from coaching.

Lefty Gomez--No. Died 1989, aged 80. Teammate of Red Ruffing. There is some question about his Hall of Fame worthiness at well, but there is a good chance he would have won 2 or 3 AL Cy Young Awards, ('34 and '37 definitely, and there was another year--'32, '33, '38?--where there was no overwhelming favorite that he might have been able to garner enough votes to win), and he was 6-0 in the World Series.

Sandy Koufax--Yes. Still living, 77 years old. Hasn't pitched in 47 years. Time moves on.

Buck Leonard--Yes. Died 1997, aged 90.

Early Wynn--Yes. Died 1999, aged 79. Didn't sign my card because he had not authorized the company that distributed them to reproduce his likeness and I guess was in a dispute with them, but he did send a signed photo of himself in his capacity as a broadcaster for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Monte Irvin--Yes. Still alive, now 93. Didn't make to the regular big leagues until he was 30 due to the color line. In the Hall of Fame on account of his Negro League career at the tail end of that era. Had a couple of very good seasons with the Giants in the early 50s, but his major league numbers don't really indicate a Hall of Fame player. Probably one of the least known players in the Hall, as far as what kind of talent he was, especially among those still living.

George "Highpockets" Kelly--Yes. Died 1984, aged 89. Another popular contender for worst player in the Hall. They really should not have put this guy in.

Warren Spahn--Yes. Died 2003, aged 82. Analogous to Stan Musial as an iconic player of the 50s who played in the midwest, lacked color or whatever it is that constitutes star power by modern standards and has become somewhat forgotten (although in the clip above, Musial comes off as rather suave. It goes to show you how much dressing like an adult and carrying yourself according to a higher standard of social expectation than what prevails among us will do for the impression you can produce on other people). Warren Spahn won 363 games, was a 20 game winner 13 times, and was a constant presence at the top of the league in all the traditional pitching stats throughout the 50s and early 60s. I understand the point about pitchers' wins being a deceptive statistic when somebody like John Burkett rips off a 22-7 season, and I know we are not supposed to look at them too reverently, but surely 363 of them, and a consistent 18-20 a year for two decades must mean something in the grand scheme of baseball history. By the numbers:

Spahn led the league in WAR, the most honored statistic of the moment, just once, in 1947, (and actually he tied for the lead with Ewell Blackwell). He was 21-10, 2.33 in that season. He led in ERA+ twice ('47 & '53). He led in wins 8 times, including 5 years in a row from 1957-61. He led 3 times in straight ERA, 9 times in the now totally irrelevant statistic of complete games, including 7 years running from '57 to '63. He led in innings pitched only 4 times, but threw at least 259 2/3 innings in 16 out of 17 years (with 245 in the 17th). He led in strikeouts 4 straight years ('49-'52) early in his career, though he never reached 200 in a season. None of his single seasons are terribly spectacular in themselves, but seeing all 17 of them piled up one after the other is still impressive.

Cool Papa Bell--Yes. Died 1991, aged 87.

Jocko Conlan--Yes. Died 1989, aged 89. In the Hall as an umpire, though he did play in 128 games for the White Sox before he took up that calling.

Whitey Ford--No. Still around at age 84. According to Baseball, Whitey Ford never led the league in WAR. In 1961, when he went 25-4 and won the Cy Young Award, they claim the league leader in this category to have been Jack Kralick, who went 13-11, 3.61 for the Twins. But don't think I am laughing at or doubting WAR. It is evidently an amazing tool for measuring real performance, though I do not quite see what there is about it that is so completely satisfying to contemporary analysts.

Mickey Mantle--No. Died 1995, aged 63. Interesting that all four of the guys so far who did not reply so far were Yankees.

Earl Averill--Yes. Died 1983, aged 81.

Billy Herman--Yes. Died 1992, aged 83. Another guy who was interviewed for Baseball When the Grass Was Real whose story was relayed in a manner that was more than usually perceptive. Another midwesterner, from New Albany, Indiana. Given name William Jennings Bryan Herman. He think he may have come to the big leagues just a little too late to have faced Grover Cleveland Alexander. His granddaughter is the wife of the current governor of Indiana (she is actually married to him for a second time, after taking a four year hiatus during the 90s when she was married to somebody else).

Judy Johnson--Yes. Died 1989, aged 89.

Ralph Kiner--Yes. I thought he had died, but evidently he is still around, now 90. He is another guy from the World War II generation who was not well-loved as a person in his playing days, but who, as the country evidently became more acclimated to whatever characteristics he had that so irritated people in the 40s and 50s, seemed less obnoxious as he grew older. He did TV commentary for the Mets on WOR-9 in the 80s--we got this channel in our first cable package, with the box and all of that--and he seemed perfectly fine to me. Of course at the time the announcer I most wanted to see dangled by the ankles over a vat of boiling oil was the sainted Vin Scully, so I may not be the most trustworthy judge in these matters.

Bob Lemon--Yes. Died 2000, aged 79. Not counting Bob Feller, who was past his prime by that time anyway, Bob Lemon was overall the best pitcher of the vaunted Cleveland staff of the 1950s. Nothing about him ever really caught my imagination though.

Robin Roberts--Yes. Died 2010, aged 83. At the time he was the only living Phillie in the Hall. A truly great pitcher, he even led the league in WAR 6 times, including 5 straight seasons from 1950-54.

Ernie Banks--No. Still living, now 81 years old. I was a little surprised when Mr "Let's play two", the friendliest guy in baseball, did not eagerly respond to my letter to him.

Al Lopez--Yes. Died 2005, aged 97.

Joe Sewell--Yes. Died 1990, aged 91. Wrote a nice note back to me verifying that Babe Ruth did indeed call his shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, and that I should have no doubts on that subject. So I do not.

Eddie Mathews--Yes. Died 2001, aged 69. I always think of Eddie Mathews as a very 50s kind of guy. He had the look, and of course it probably didn't hurt that he played in Milwaukee.

Willie Mays--Yes. Willie Mays is 81. Sworn by many who saw him play to be the greatest player ever. Considering how near he is to us in time there is remarkably little variety in the film footage of him that seems to be available. There's the legendary catch in the '54 World Series, the stickball game in the streets of Harlem, and the sad clip of him falling down as an old man (well, my current age as it happens) in the '73 Series. Do we have anything else?

Duke Snider--Yes. Died 2011, aged 84. The Duke was another guy considered surly as a young man, and an underachiever to boot, whose stock both as a personality and a player has risen in recent years. I am getting the impression that young men of superior natural ability who were also cocky were not liked much in the 1940s and 50s. It went against the ethos of the time. Of course we, or at least our media, have in our day no problem with this type of character. Indeed, it is what we expect. People who express genuine humility risk being ridiculed as weak. I realize that many golden boy types--Mickey Mantle comes obviously to mind--were idolized during the period. Mickey Mantle did often present himself as a kind of aw-shucks-not-especially-brilliant type of guy, which the press of the day liked.

Al Kaline--Yes. He is still around, is now 78.

These are other players I got autographs from who were now Hall of Famers at the time but were inducted later:

Johnny Mize, the Big Cat. Died 1993, aged 80. One of the more underrated hitters of all time. Took a very long time getting into the Hall. Had monster seasons from 1937-40, and again in in '47-48.

Travis Jackson. Died 1987, aged 83.

Hank Aaron. 78 years old.

George Kell. Died 2009, aged 86.

Brooks Robinson. 75 years old.

Rick Ferrell. Died 1995, aged 89. One of the more dubious Hall of Famers.

Pee Wee Reese. Died 1999 aged 81.

Enos Slaughter. Died 2002, age 86. Enos Slaughter did not give up the game easily, hitting .171 in 85 games as a 43 year old in 1959. That is what is called reaching the end.

Leo Durocher. Died 1991, aged 86. Another legendary a**hole who took the time to answer his fan mail.

Richie Ashburn. Died 1997, aged 70. Was along with Harry Kalas the broadcaster for the Phillies my entire childhood. I am a fan of both guys. Ashburn had an outstanding sense of the relative importance of various issues that would come up during games, both inside and outside of the box.

Jim Bunning. Age 81 now...

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