Archive for December 2009

These Men Changed Baseball: Minnie Minoso

12/31/2009

Today, we get to the last of the integrators with a serious case for the Hall of Fame just on his own merits that is not already in.  When you factor in the adversity these players faced or the amount of time lost to racism, this case for Hall of Fame induction might expand.  Minnie Minoso, though, has a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame, even before you factor in years spent in the Negro Leagues because of segregation. Let us talk, then, about one of the greatest Chicago White Sox ever to play the game.

For starters, Minoso was born at some point in the 1920’s in Cuba. The exact date is uncertain. While he played, his birth year was given at 1922. Starting in the early 1990’s his birth year has been given as 1925. He is known to have given both in interviews. The currently accepted year is 1925, which adjusts perception of how much major league time he lost. Regardless, in 1945, at the age of 20 or 23, Minoso broke in with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League as their third baseman. He would lead the team to the Negro World Series title in 1947, beating out Sam Jethroe‘s Cleveland Buckeyes. He was a dominant leadoff hitter, and he was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1948. He slipped into the majors for 9 games in 1949, before disappearing back to the minors. He spent two seasons in San Diego, playing very well while he bounced between third base and the outfield. Early in the 1951 season, he was sent to the Chicago White Sox as part of a three-team, 7-player trade. He would debut for Chicago on May 1, 1951, and he would become the first black player to play for Chicago. On the day, Chicago would be destroyed by the Yankees 9-3, but history was still made.

In 1951, Minoso exploded onto the scene in Chicago. For his rookie year, he was somewhere between 25 and 28. Given his batting line, an older age makes a bit more sense. He hit .326 with a .422 OBP and .500 SLG. He led the league in triples, stolen bases, and HBP, establishing the pattern of his career. He would be elected to the All Star team for the first of 9 times, come in 4th in the MVP voting, yet lose the Rookie of the Year to Gil McDougald by 2 votes. Minoso would not cool off for 10 years. He led the American League in triples 3 times, stolen bases 3 times, and HBP 10 times. He would also lead the league in hits, doubles, and total bases once each. For his career, Minoso put up an OPS+ of 130, and he was worth 52.7 WAR, good for 150th among all position players. Given the lost years to the Negro Leagues, he looks like a fairly easy choice for the Hall of Fame. That has not been the case. So what happened to Minnie Minoso?

First, Minoso retired with a .298 batting average. If it is 2 points higher, he might have squeaked in. If he retired after the 1962 season, instead of 1964, he would have retired hitting .303. Second, his record is tarnished by his last three seasons. He hit .196, .229, and .226 in 1962, 1963, and 1964. Minoso was through, either at age 36 or 39, but he tried to hold on a bit longer. Third, his serial returns to play in the 1970’s and 1980’s added a bit of sideshow image to his legacy. That of course does not explain why he was not elected prior to his 1976 return. Here the quirks of the Hall of Fame come into play. Minoso first appeared on the ballot in 1969, receiving only 6 votes. The 1969 ballot elected Stan Musial and Roy Campanella, and it also held 14 other future Hall of Famers. It was easy for a player as good as Minoso to get lost. For what it’s worth, Minoso was 6th on the ballot in career OPS+, behind only Musial, Johnny Mize, Charlie Keller, Ralph Kiner, and Tommy Henrich. After 1969, Minoso disappeared until 1986 when he would receive 20% of the vote. From there he would linger on the Veterans’ Committe ballot through 1999, when he had dropped to 14% of the vote. He was considered for Negro League induction in 2005 but did not make it.

The White Sox recognized him by retiring his number in 1983. The Hall of Fame has not. Given lost years and the segregation he had to daily overcome, I think Minoso should go into the Hall of Fame. Without time in the Negro Leagues, he would be a borderline case, sitting just outside the Hall with comparable players like Carl Furillo, Ken Griffey, Sr., and Cy Williams. None of those players lost time to the color of their skin. He did not make the 10-player, post-1943 ballot used in the 2009 election. Unfortunately, for Minoso to enter the Hall of Fame, the Veterans’ Committee would have to show a willingness to elect players. That, it appears, they steadfastly will not do.

The Best Player Not in the Hall of Fame?

12/30/2009

To get at the question posed in the title, let me clear away a bit of clutter first. This post is not about Roy Smalley, despite his being the clearly correct answer to the question. Second, it excludes all players not eligible. No active players, no banned players, no players retired for 5 or less years (i.e. not even the players coming up for election for the first time next month.) Finally, it excludes Bert Blyleven. I think that he is the real answer to the question, but the internet, and especially sabermetric sites, are full of Blyleven support, as they should be. Instead, I want to focus on a player just below Blyleven’s stature but nonetheless even more overlooked. I would like to talk a bit about Lou Whitaker.

Sean Smith, at his Baseball Projection site, ranks all position players by his version of Wins Above Replacement. The list contains no adjustments, instead being a straight ranking by this one stat. The first eligible player not in the Hall of Fame is Bill Dahlen, ranked 42nd with 75.9 WAR. This places him between Sam Crawford and Frank Thomas. Dahlen was a shortstop who spent half his career in the 19th Century. For his first two years, pitchers still threw from 50 feet away, instead of 60’6″. Given that, I want to exclude Dahlen from consideration and move to the next eligible missing player, Lou Whittaker. Whitaker ranks 55th, between Billy Hamilton and Harry Heilmann, with 69.5 WAR. Despite such lofty praise, Whitaker was on the Hall of Fame ballot only once, in 2001, earning 15 votes, just two more than former teammate Kirk Gibson. What happened? Why did Whitaker get ignored?

Whitaker is the sort of player easy to overlook by Hall of Fame voters. Consider his stats. He had 2,369 hits for his career, hitting .276 with 244 home runs. None of those numbers are spectacular. None of them catch the eye. Similarly he hit .204 in three postseason series. Again, nothing to help his case. Whitaker’s case for the Hall of Fame is only partially about the traditional stats. As a second basemen, his numbers instantly start looking better. But look farther. For his career, Whitaker walked almost 100 times more than he struck out. He only grounded into double-digit double plays three times in his career. He won three gold gloves and was a consistently above average fielder at a position that thrives on fielding prowess. Unfortunately, Whitaker was overshadowed for most of his career by Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg ended his career with more hits, more home runs, and a higher batting average. He also won more gold gloves. For what it’s worth, Smith’s ranking considers Sandberg overrated, putting his fielding only slightly better than Whitaker and giving a serious edge because of his longer career.

Without any number to hang a voter’s hat on, Whitaker slipped through the cracks. He came up for the vote on a strong ballot. Two players, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, were both elected that year in their first year of eligibility. The next four players, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage, would all be elected soon thereafter. He slipped through the cracks. Sadly, Whitaker will have to wait until the Veterans’ Committee considers him 10 or so years from now.

Who do you think is the best eligible player not in?

Roy Smalley, Superstar

12/29/2009

If I ever made it to Cooperstown, I would be a bit disappointed that there was not an entire wing devoted to the greatness of Roy Smalley. Sadly, Smalley never sniffed the Hall of Fame, and even more sadly his exclusion is entirely correct. Nevertheless, if I had my own personal Hall, he would be a charter member. I think many baseball fans have a player like Roy Smalley in their background, someone they loved when they were younger for reasons that are a bit tricky to articulate. As a matter of fact, most folks I know tended to have two favorite players as kids, one true superstar and one truly unique to the fan. In my case, I loved Kirby Puckett, but I loved Smalley first. So today, let’s here the tale of Roy Smalley, one time shortstop for the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees.

As a shortstop, Roy Smalley was a failed prototype of the Cal Ripken model. Smalley was the first overall pick in the January amateur draft in 1974, a draft open to players who graduated from high school or college in December. (This draft was discontinued in 1986.) Smalley came out of USC, where he had won the College World Series every year he was in college. Taken by the Rangers, Smalley quickly became one of the larger shortstops in baseball, and an early power-hitting shortstop. Compare him to two top shortstops of the time, Mark Belanger and Dave Concepcion.

Belanger was 6’1″, and weighed 170 lbs. In his biggest power year, he hit 5 home runs in 1974. Concepcion was slightly bigger, at 6’1″, 180. He hit double digit home runs twice in his career, with 14 in 1974 and 16 in 1979. Smalley, a rookie in 1975, was 6’1″, 185, but he combined the slightly higher weight with legitimate home run power for a shortstop. He would hit double digit home runs 9 times, topping 20 on 4 separate occasions. During the 1976 season, he was traded to the Twins for, among others, Bert Blyleven. While with the Twins, he would be one of the best hitting shortstops in the American League, trailing Robin Yount. He would make the All Star team once, in 1979, also the only time he received an MVP vote. In 1982, the promise of the power-hitting shortstop, first seen in Ernie Banks and then revived by Roy Smalley would come to fruition in Cal Ripken, Jr. While Smalley would hit double digit home runs 9 times and top 20 4 times, Ripken would top 20 home runs each of his first 10 full seasons. Smalley was an important part of that transition, but obviously his numbers don’t stack up to his Hall of Fame contemporaries.

For his last hurrah, Smalley would make the World Series with the 1987 Twins, in his last season. He would pinch hit four times, going 1 for 2 with a double and two walks. For his career, Smalley hit .257 with 163 home runs. He had an OPS+ of 103. He was a fairly average fielder, with a fielding percentage nearly identical with the league average for shortstops and a range factor slightly above the average. This is not the resume of a Hall of Famer, though it is arguably the resume of the best shortstop the Twins have ever had.  Smalley was a good player, and in his best years he was very good.  Unfortunately, that description pretty accurately fits many players that have been or will be long forgotten.

Who are the completely random players that would make your own personal Hall of Fame?

Back to Blogging

12/28/2009

To return to the swing of blogging after a brief holiday break, let me give you a couple of links from the last couple of days:

Jackie Robinson was not the first African American to play major league baseball? No, Fleetwood Walker was. Read, and be reminded why Robinson would be necessary.

Should Edgar Martinez be in the Hall of Fame? Of course.

Want to learn more about the Negro Leagues than the little bit I write here? Here is a good beginning reading list.

With the Winter Olympics coming up in less than two months, will they have any impact on the major sports? Well, hockey teams that send lots of players to the Olympics tend to win more games but lose more quickly in the playoffs.

Tomorrow, I will be back with a bit more substance. Hope all had a great Christmas!

These Men Changed Baseball: Sam Jethroe

12/24/2009

Sam Jethroe has one of the most interesting careers on this list.  He played only four seasons, winning two stolen base titles, coming in second once, and then being completely done.  Want to look at the career of a player destroyed by segregation?  Look at Jethroe.  So who had this unusual career?  Let’s take a look at Sam Jethroe in a little more depth.

Jethroe was born in 1918 in East St. Louis, making him a full year older than Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin. Jethroe came up briefly with the Indianapolis ABC’s in 1938, then disappeared into the world of semi-pro baseball. He returned to the Negro Leagues in 1942 with the Cincinnati/Cleveland Buckeyes. He had a physical deferment, and thus he did not lose any years to military service. He played center field, winning a pair of batting titles and becoming the Negro Leagues dominant base stealer. He led the Buckeyes to a Negro League World Series win in 1945 and a loss in 1947. In 1948, he impressed the Dodgers enough that they signed him to a minor league contract with their Montreal affiliate. Jethroe lit up the minors, but the 1949 Dodgers already had a budding star in center named Duke Snider. The Dodgers traded Jethroe to the Boston Braves for the immortal Al Epperly, Damon Phillips, and Don Thompson. He debuted on April 18, 1950, at the age of 32, breaking the color barrier in Boston. He was an instant star.

In his rookie year, Jethroe hit .273, with 18 homers and 35 stolen bases. Caught stealing numbers are only available for his next two seasons, when he stole them at an 82% clip, good for one of the best percentages ever. He cruised to the Rookie of the Year, his age is the most relevant part in predicting his performance going forward. After this year at age 32, he followed it up with another excellent year at 33, hitting .280 with 18 homers and 35 stolen bases, leading the league in steals for the second time. Then the wheels came off at 34. In 1952, Jethroe still stole 29 bases, good for second in the league, but his home runs fell to 13 and his average to .232. He spent 1953 in the minors in Toledo, at which point the Braves traded him to Pittsburgh for Danny O’Connell, who had finished 3rd in the ROY voting to Jethroe in 1950. He narrowly missed integrating the Pirates. Curt Roberts would integrate the team on April 13th, while Jethroe played his last two MLB games on the 14th and 15th. In his last play, he pinch hit for the pitcher and hit into a fielder’s choice. He was sent down to Toronto the next day, where he played 5 more seasons.

After leaving baseball, Jethroe moved to Erie, PA, where he owned a bar. He died in 2001, completely forgotten. What might have been? Consider this: On April 16, 1945, the Boston Red Sox invited three Negro League players for a tryout, Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams, and Jethroe. But Hall of Fame owner Tom Yawkey kept his lily-white roster until 1959, after every other team in baseball had integrated. Robinson would go on to the Hall of Fame, and Jethroe would wait and become the oldest Rookie of the Year in baseball history. In 1997, he won a long-running fight with major league baseball, getting pensions for negro league players that had, due to segregation, been unable to play long enough to qualify by the normal pension system. To quote Sam Jethroe, “over the years, I gave baseball a lot more than it gave me.”

The Myth of the Negro Leagues

12/23/2009

Joe Posnanski gives us a long article on the Negro Leagues, honoring the creation of a Negro League card set for Strat-o-Matic. As one of the few places that talks much about the Negro Leagues, I felt a sort of duty to comment on it. Posnanski, author of a classic book on Buck O’Neill called The Soul of Baseball, gets at many of the complexities of looking back on the Negro Leagues. We know that many of the best players in the Negro Leagues would have been the best players in the major leagues; at the least, I hope my series on the first people to integrate baseball has made that clear. Robinson, Doby, and Irvin, Hall of Famers and superstars all, were not considered the best players ever to play in the Negro Leagues, yet they lit up the majors. But the question is, why are the Negro Leagues so hard to grasp?

Three reasons explain why the Negro Leagues are so easy to forget. First, they are old. Modern baseball fans forget the Negro Leagues, but they also forget Honus Wagner. We forget Buck Leonard, but we also forget Jimmie Foxx. We forget Mule Suttles, and we forget Mel Ott. People rarely remember things that happened 60 years ago, and that is the timeframe for the end of the Negro Leagues. The last World Series was in 1948, followed by the collapse of the Negro National League. The last recognized champion of the Negro American League were the Kansas City Monarchs in 1957, long after the Monarchs had ceased to be anything more than minor league team. It has been 50 years since the Negro Leagues existed in any form. Sadly, that means they have been forgotten.

Second, the Negro Leagues lack statistics. As Posnanski notes, the genesis of the Strat-o-Matic card set was a collection of 3,000 Negro League box scores that Scott Simkus had. That is one of the largest collections in the world. In contrast, I can go to Retrosheet and see box scores for nearly every MLB game back to 1952, with a sprinkling of earlier games, without leaving my house. Baseball is defined by its statistics. Look at the forgotten names listed above. Many have forgotten who Mel Ott was, or that he hit a home run in the 10th inning to win the 1933 World Series. Anytime someone looks at a list of 500-home run hitters, though, his name appears. The same cannot be done for Negro League stars. What did Turkey Stearnes hit from 1933-1935? “Unofficial records” put him at .342, .374, and .430, but the record is too spotty to put much faith in those numbers. Was he a great hitter? Yes, but it is hard to prove by pointing at his statistics.

Third, the Negro Leagues are almost overwhelmed by their myths. According to Posnanski, Buck O’Neill considered stories about the Negro Leagues essential to keeping them alive in the popular imagination. The stories lend depth to otherwise faceless players on a sheet of paper. But the clearly mythical content, i.e. Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn out the lights and be in bed before the room got dark, cast some unfair aspersions on all of these stories. Are these stories any more outrageous than stories about Babe Ruth? Of course not. Exaggeration is inherent in story-telling, but the lack of statistics or box scores makes it easy for the exaggeration to overwhelm the history. Ruth stories are certainly exaggerated, but I can see that he hit 714 home runs, regardless. I cannot do the same for Cool Papa Bell. Despite the best efforts of people like the late-Buck O’Neill, we lose sight of the real human beings that played the game.

This is a charitable interpretation of why we forget the Negro Leagues. It can also be blamed on racism, and that surely is a part of the story. Why wouldn’t leagues that existed primarily because of the racism of white baseball owners be forgotten at least partially because of the racism of white baseball fans? Yet racism is no more than part of the story. In order to capture the richness of baseball history, we must remember the Negro Leagues.  They are an essential part of our past and our pasttime.

Undervaluing Martin Brodeur

12/22/2009

On Monday night, Martin Brodeur set the NHL record for most career shutouts.  I think I am not dissimilar from most hockey fans in giving Brodeur less praise than he rightly has earned.  For reasons that I cannot exactly explain, Brodeur never appeared to me to be one of the greatest goalies I have ever seen.  Dominik Hasek looked better; Patrick Roy looked better.  Yet Brodeur has the numbers.  He has won more games than any other goalie, he has the most shutouts, he has played the most minutes.  Why is it so hard to recognize Brodeur’s greatness?

The best baseball comparison to Brodeur is a pitcher like Cy Young or Warren Spahn. Neither were flashy pitchers, but both were models of consistency. Brodeur is the same way as a goalie. If I needed one goalie to make a single spectacular stop, I would pick Hasek. He made spectacular plays. But what about making 30 routine saves or playing 70 solid games? No one is better than Brodeur. Look at Brodeur’s career numbers. First notice his games played. From 1995 to 2008, he played between 67 and 78 games every year. He was astonishingly healthy every year. His goals against dipped below 2 only twice and above 2.5 only once. His save percentage ranged from .906 to .927. Every year for more than a decade, the New Jersey Devils knew that Martin Brodeur would play around 75 games, give up just over 2 goals a game, and stop a little more than 90% of shots on goal.

Contrast with Dominik Hasek. From 1993 to 2008, Hasek ranged from 14 to 72 games, playing less than 50 four times. But Hasek led the league in save percentage 6 straight seasons, winning the Vezina Trophy (for best goalie) 6 times, and the Hart Trophy (MVP) twice. In contrast, Brodeur’s consistency only netted him the Vezina 4 times and never the Hart. Brodeur’s consistency, though, has led his team to 3 Stanley Cups, while Hasek only won 2. Hasek has the great rate stats, with the highest save percentage in history and a lower goals against than Brodeur or any other modern goalie. But Brodeur has the wins, the shutouts, and the cups.

Consistency is hard to grasp as a fan. To judge consistency, stats are essential. It is tough to watch a single game and think, “Wow, he is playing as well today as he did three weeks ago and three years ago.” It is much simpler to go, “Wow, look at that save.” For that reason, players like Brodeur are consistently undervalued. If you get the chance, watch a New Jersey Devils game. You will be watching quite possibly the best goalie ever to play the game.