Category Archives: Major League Baseball

WILBER’S 3 HISTORIC SWINGS

In 1951, a field level box seat for a baseball game in Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, was $2.50, a reserved seat cost $2. and the average price of a ticket in the ballpark, according to the Sabre Project was $1.45. A hot dog and coke cost the princely sum of 35 cents.

In those days, before doubleheaders required two admissions, a single ticket got you into both games of a doubleheader. So, for $2.50 you could see two major league games and I won’t even begin to compare those prices with today’s because everybody in the world, including me, has already done that.

On Monday, August 27, 1951, the Phillies were hosting the Cincinnati Reds in one of those doubleheaders, the second in two days. For $5.00 you could have seen a doubleheader two days in a row. The Reds won Game 1 of the Sunday doubleheader by a score of 4-2. Two of the top pitchers in baseball pitched the game. Ewell ‘The Whip’ Blackwell pitched a complete game for the win, besting the Phillies’ Robin Roberts, who had led the Phils to the pennant the previous year. Roberts went eight innings, giving up three runs on ten hits for the loss.

The Phils, behind a three hit, complete game, shutout by Rookie Niles Jordan, won Game 2, 2-0. Jordan, a 26 year old left hander, was pitching in his first Major League game. After such a great start he would lose three and win just one more that year before being traded the Reds after the season. He would pitch in just three games the next year losing one, and never pitch in the Majors again. The losing pitcher in that game was Willie Ramsdell, who also threw a complete game three hitter but gave up two runs, one of which scored on a line drive out to center field by the rookie pitcher Jordan.

If you had a second $2.50 to spend, in Game 1, on Monday, Jocko Thompson of the Phillies pitched a complete game shut out, giving up three hits, to best the Reds’ Herman Wehmeier, who pitched a complete game four hitter as the Reds lost again, 2-0. The second consecutive game in which both starters had pitched a complete game.

In the second game of the Monday doubleheader, Ken Johnson started for the Phils and Ken Raffensberger started for the Reds. Johnson pitched a complete game shutting out the Reds on seven hits and Raffensberger giving up three runs and nine hits in seven innings for the loss. Pitching was not the whole story of the game, though.

Johnson held the Reds scoreless in the first three innings and Raffensberger shut out the Phils in the first two. In the bottom of the third, however, the Phils’ catcher Del Wilber, leading off the inning, hit the first pitch he swung at high over the left center field wall for a solo homer to put the Phils up 1-0. The score stayed that way until the sixth. In the last of the sixth, Wilber led off again and, this time, again hit the first pitch he swung at over the left field wall for his second homer, and it was 2-0.

In the bottom of the seventh, with the score still 2-0, Raffensberger got the first batter, Putsy Caballero, to ground out. With one out, Wilber came to the plate again and hit the first pitch he swung at over the left field wall for his third home run of the game, on three pitches.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what would have happened if Wilber had come to bat again in that game. He would have been the second batter in the last of the ninth but the game ended after 8½ innings with the Phils winning 3-0.

As best I can determine, no other player in the history of baseball has hit three home runs on three swings, driving in and scoring all of the runs scored in a game. In his eight year playing career, Del Wilber hit a total of only19 home runs but, on that one day, he was a power hitter and came as close to having a perfect game as any hitter ever did.

He would be traded to the Red Sox the following year and play three seasons in Boston, getting into 129 games and batting .231. His career average for his eight years playing was .242. He managed and coached in the minors and coached in the major leagues for many years after his retirement and, as an interim manager with the Texas Rangers in 1973, won the only game he managed giving him a perfect 1.000 winning percentage as a manager.

With six complete games pitched in the space of two days, three shutouts and Wilber’s remarkable feat, the fans who paid $5.00 for their tickets to those four games certainly got their money’s worth.

Del Wilber and his family had a long love affair with baseball. Two of his sons, Del Wilber, Jr. and Bob Wilber, manage the family’s The Perfect Game Foundation which provides funding to ‘open doors and create opportunities for those who aspire to a business career in sports’.

Bob contacted me after reading my column about 80 Years of Loving Baseball and we have had some interesting correspondence about players in that era. He was the bat boy for the AAA Denver Bears when his Father managed there and my friend Jimmy Driscoll from New Hampshire played for him. You can bet that Del Wilber, another of those special people that devoted his life to this great game, will end up in Volume IV of THE BASEBALL BUFF’S BATHROOM BOOKS, which will be out this spring.

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CATFISH HUNTER’S LEGACY

Thirty years ago yesterday, James Augustus Hunter, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, getting 315 of the 413 ballots cast, just 76.3% of the vote, barely surpassing the required 75% for induction.

In the eight year period from 1971 until 1978, James ‘Catfish’ Hunter won 149 games and lost just 79, a .654 win/loss percentage; played in the Post Season seven times; played in six World Series’, five of which he was on the winning team, three times in succession from 1972-1974, with the Oakland Athletics and twice with the New York Yankees. He started 268 games in that period and finished an amazing 130 of them, with 29 shutouts, was named to the All Star Team five times and won the Cy Young Award in 1974. He averaged 19 wins and 10 losses per year, 34 starts, 16 complete games and 254 innings pitched per year.

From 1971 until 1974, with the Oakland Athletics, he won 20 or more games four years in a row for a total of 88 wins and just 35 losses and went 4-0 while leading Oakland to three consecutive World Series’ titles.

There have been pitchers who had better careers in the history of baseball than Catfish Hunter but few, if any, have had a run of consistent success like Catfish had in those periods. His plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame reads

‘ The bigger the game, the better he pitched. One of baseball’s most dominant pitchers from 1971-76, winning over 20 five straight years, Compiled 224-166 mark with 3.26 ERA before arm trouble ended his career at age 33.’

Jim Hunter was born in Hertford, North Carolina on April 8, 1946. He led his Perquiman’s High School teams to state championships in baseball, football and track and was signed by the Kansas City Athletics on June 8, 1964, shortly after he led his high school team to the state championship.

He played for the Athletics team in the Florida Instructional League in 1964, compiling a 3-5 record with a 3.76 ERA, starting eight games and pitching five complete games, one of them a shut out.

The following season, he made the huge jump to the Majors and made his debut on May 13, 1965, in relief. He finished that year with an 8-8 record and a 4.26 ERA but had three complete games and two shut outs in 20 starts. Not a particularly good start for a future Hall of Famer but not bad for a 19 year old with no Minor League experience. Over the next two years, 1966 and 1967, with a Kansas City team that won just 136 and lost 185 to finish seventh and tenth in the American League, he won 22 and lost 28 with a 3.30 ERA and 17 complete games and five shutouts in 60 starts.

On May 8, 1967 he pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in Oakland at age 22, only the seventh perfect game in the Modern Era.

The Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968 and, during his first three years in Oakland, Catfish won 43 and lost 42 with a 3.51 ERA, 30 complete games and 10 shutouts.

In 1971, led by 25 year old Hunter with a 21-11 record, a 2.96 ERA, 16 complete games and four shut outs, the A’s won the American League West with a 101-60 record. In the ALCS, they were swept in three games by the Eastern Division Champion Baltimore Orioles and Catfish started and lost Game, 5-1, despite pitching a complete game.

Over the next three years, the A’s won the pennant and World Series each year. In 1972, he won 21 and lost 7 with a 2.04 ERA, finishing fourth in the Cy Young Award balloting. In the ALCS, against Detroit, he started Game 1, going eight innings and giving up just one run on four hits in a game the A’s eventually won in 11 innings 3-2. In Game 4, Catfish started again and lasted 7 1/3 innings, giving up just one run on six hits in a game the A’s lost in 10 innings, 4-3.

In the World Series that year, which the A’s won in seven games against the Cincinnati Reds, he won Game 2, going 8 2/3 innings and giving up one run on six hits and started Game 5, leaving ahead 4-3 in the fifth in a game the A’s lost 5-4 but he came back to get the win in Game 7, relieving in the fifth and pitching 2 2/3 innings giving up just one run as the A’s won the game and the series.

In 1973, he had a sensational 21-5 record with a 3.34 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting as the A’s won the West again. In the ALCS, he started and won Game 2, 6-3 and four days later, came back to throw a complete game five hitter in Game 5 to send the A’s to the World Series again. In the Series, he started Game 3, which the A’s won in 11 innings, 3-2, going six innings and giving up just two runs on seven hits. In Game 6, with the A’s down 3 games to 2 and facing elimination, he started and held the Mets to one run on four hits through 7 1/3 innings and got the win as the A’s won, 3-1 to extend the Series to seven games. The A’s won Game 7, 5-2, to take their second consecutive Series.

The A’s went all the way again in 1974, with Catfish winning 25 and losing 12 and posting a league leading 2.49 ERA with 23 complete games of 41 starts and 6 shutouts. He was named the Cy Young Award winner. In the Playoffs, which the Athletics won, four games to two, against the Orioles, he started and lost Game 1, leaving in the fifth, behind 6-1, after giving up a homer to Brooks Robinson and a grand slam to Paul Blair. He came back in Game 4 and pitched a three hit shutout for seven innings and the win to take the A’s to the Series.

In the Series, in which the A’s beat the Dodgers in five games, Hunter came in in relief with two outs in the ninth and the tying run at the plate in Game 1 and struck out Joe Ferguson for the game and the save. He started and won Game 3, holding the Dodgers to one run on five hits as the A’s won 3-2 to go up four games to one.

 

After the 1974 season was over in the disposition of a dispute over Finley refusing to pay some benefits in his contract, he was declared a Free Agent and signed with the Yankees for $3.75 million for five years and became the first Free Agent.

 

In his first year with the Yankees, he won 23 and lost 14 and led the league in complete games with 30 and innings with 328. He had a 2.58 ERA and 7 shutouts and finished second to Jim Palmer in the Cy Young balloting. He went on to help the Yankees to three World Series appearances in the next four years, two of which they won. He won 63 and lost 53 in his five years in New York but the toll on his arm and his diabetes that reduced his effectiveness those last years caused him to retire at 33. He was one of only four pitchers to win 200 games by the age of 31.

 

After the 1979 season, in which, at age 33, he won just two and lost nine with a 5.31 ERA, Catfish was forced to retire due to his diabetes. He passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease on September 9, 1999. Despite his career being cut short, Catfish Hunter had one of the most productive careers of any pitcher in Major League history.

80 YEARS OF LOVING BASEBALL

As my eightieth birthday quickly approaches, I can’t help but reflect on the many ways in which the sport of baseball has made my life better. One of my earliest baseball memories was sitting in the Sea Village Restaurant on Hancock Street in my hometown of Stonington, Connecticut, and watching the Great Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, walk into the dining area. What greater thrill for an eight year old Yankee fan than to shake the hand of Joe D. No one will ever convince me that he wasn’t the greatest all around ball player of all time and I don’t think meeting him at the Sea Village colors my thinking.

We didn’t have Little League baseball at that time, instead, we went to the ball field on Saturday mornings and the Community Center Director, Frank Turek, ran the closest thing to organized baseball that we had by ‘picking up’ teams. During the week, we would have pick up games almost every day, on our own, with anywhere from four or five to 18 of us playing. You never went anywhere without a ball and/or glove because you might find a game.

At ten years old, I was the scorekeeper for the men’s twilight league in Stonington and I have many memories of wanting to grow up and graduate from Twilight League to the Majors. What ten year old boy had not had that dream in those days?

At 12 years old, I was small for my age. In my eighth grade graduation picture, I look like someone’s little brother that snuck into the picture. My size hampered my ability to compete but never my love of playing. After growing to my present height, (but not my present weight), I played baseball and softball into my fifties and dreaded the day I would have to stop playing.

Along with tens of thousands of other 12 year old boys, I watched in 1950 in awe as 21 year old, 5 foot ten inch tall, rookie, Ed ‘Whitey’ Ford won 9 of 10 starts to lead the Yankees to their second of what would be five consecutive World Series Championships, proving to us that our dreams of playing in the Major Leagues were possible.

The following year, 1951, I was in the original Yankee Stadium, with 39,037 other fans on September 28 when Allie Reynolds no hit the Red Sox in Game 1 of a double header to clinch the pennant for the Yankees. It was Reynolds’ second no hitter of the year, the second pitcher ever to throw two in a year, the other was Johnny Vander Meer. Allie’s no hitter was made more special when he got the great Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, for the third out in the ninth. He got Ted to pop a foul ball near the first base dugout and, unbelievably, Yogi Berra dropped it. With the crowd in shock, Reynolds went back to the mound and got Ted to hit another foul pop which Yogi caught to end the no hitter.

Five days later, watching the first nationally televised sporting event ever, from a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, I saw the New York Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit ‘The Shot Heard Round The World’ off the Brooklyn Dodgers Ralph Branca to give the Giants the win in Game 3 of a Playoff for the National League Pennant.

In the early fifties, when I was 14 and 15, we had a Junior League for 13-15 year olds. Each surrounding town had a team and ours was sponsored by the American Velvet Company. We were the Velvet Giants due to a connection the owners of the plant had with the New York Giants. After winning the League, we were taken to New York to see a doubleheader between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals and I got to see probably the second greatest hitter of all time, Stan Musial, up close and personal

I watched Don Larsen pitch the only perfect game in World Series history in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series from Glidden Hall at Nasson College, as a Sophomore, in Sanford on October 8, on a black and white television.

Forgotten after the perfect game was the fact that Larsen had started Game 2 and taken a 6-0 lead into the second inning, courtesy mostly because of a grand slam homer by Yogi and loaded the bases on a single, error and walk before Roy Campanella hit a sac fly to make it 6-1. After getting an out on a foul fly, he walked Jim Gilliam to reload the bases and was replaced by Johnny Kucks who gave up a two run single to make it 6-3 and Tommy Byrne came in and gave up a three run homer to Duke Snyder to tie the score at six in a game that Brooklyn eventually won 13-8. If there was any doubt in my mind that baseball was an unpredictable game, Larsen’s performance in those two games, three days apart, would have ended it.

I could go on and on with my memories including 13 years of coaching my own kids’ teams in Little League, playing in the Westerly, RI Twilight League, the Morgan Park League in New London, CT and the Norwich, CT City League as well as tournaments all over. I was fortunate to be in Fenway when the Sox completed the Impossible Dream on the last day of the season in 1967 and when Brunanski made the sliding catch in 1990 to preserve the pennant.

I saw J. R. Richard, one of the greatest talents ever to set foot on a mound strike out ten in the Astrodome, before a stroke ended his career, and Nolan Ryan pitch in the Ballpark at Arlington. I watched games in the Kingdome, Shea Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Braves Field, (In Boston), Schibe Park, Crosley Field, and so many others that are now gone.

As many of you know, I have spent a lot of my time in recent years writing and publishing books about baseball. What better way to end a lifelong love affair with the game. Through my books and book signing events, I have met and talked with many interesting people, fans and players alike.

I have always recognized the fact that Major League Baseball players are a special breed. In order to make it to the top of the greatest game of them all they need, first and foremost, the God Given physical ability to develop the skills necessary to play the game at that level. But that God Given ability is not enough to make it. They need the desire and the ambition to put in the kind of time it takes to hone those skills to the point that they are the best of the best.

Those that have those qualities almost invariably are intelligent, articulate, outgoing people who put baseball’s best foot forward through their personal appearances, work within their communities and their class and presence. Obviously, there are exceptions, but these are generally the more gifted who don’t have to work as hard as others.

Over the past few years I have met many major league ball players, from Super Stars to short term players. I have met players like Jimmy Driscoll, who had a brief, two year career with the Athletics and Rangers, and spent 30 years scouting, and comes to my book signings regularly, to Dave Stenhouse, who was gracious enough to help me with a program at the Westerly, RI, Library, and who was the first rookie pitcher to start the All Star Game but had a career cut short due to arm problems, to Luis Tiant, one of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, who signed autographs with me while I had a book signing at Goodall Park in Sanford, they stand out in a crowd, not just for their baseball ability and career but as special people.

All three mentioned above are nearly as old or older than I and you would still recognize that they and other typical Major Leaguers are special no matter what kind of a setting you encountered them in. They are what makes baseball the greatest game of them all and they are the role models we have always wanted our professional athletes to be.

BASEBALL AND TECHNOLOGY

In one of his recent thrillers, ‘Origin’, published this year, Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, has a character that says ‘ ..the meek were supposed to inherit the earth, but instead it has gone to the young – the technically inclined, those who stare into video screens rather than into their own souls.’

I’ll bet a lot of my readers are wondering what that quote is doing in a column entitled Baseball World. It was the phrase ‘the technically inclined’ that caught my baseball eye.

In baseball, probably more so than in any other sport, ‘those who stare into video screens’ have changed the game more in the first few years of this century than it had changed in the previous hundred plus years.

Granted there were a few changes in the game before computers began to take over our world.

Until the Williams Shift was invented by Cleveland Indians’ Player Manager Lou Boudreau on July 14, 1946, infielders and outfielders generally stayed within their assigned traditional areas. There had been some minor shifts in players’ positions based upon the tendency of hitters to pull the ball, notably Babe Ruth and Cy Williams, a notorious pull hitter, but none so radical as the one Boudreau employed after Ted drove in eight runs in the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians that day.

In Boudreau’s version, the first baseman played directly behind the first base bag on the line, the shortstop, in this case Boudreau himself, moved to the normal second base position, the second baseman played on the outfield grass 30-50 feet beyond the infield, the third baseman stayed in almost his normal position and the center fielder moved into right center and the right fielder played almost at the wall in right field.

In the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Red Sox that year, Cardinal Manager Eddie Dyer used modifications of the shift against Ted. Ted went only 5 for 25 in the World Series against the shift after batting .342 during the season, but obviously that’s a very small sample. ( It is interesting to note that, against the shift, in Game 3, Ted bunted to third for a base hit with the infield shifted. )

Over the years, the shift has been utilized more and more as Managers began to rely on statistical analysis in making their moves. This trend is not just in fielding positions but also in the selection of relief pitchers based upon their record against specific batters. Where the Manager traditionally took into account the fact that a left handed hitter generally didn’t do as well against a left handed pitcher as a right hander and vice versa when deciding what reliever or pinch hitter to use, now there are statistics available showing what each batter has done against each individual pitcher and how that performance differs from situation to situation.

Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, when he was at Tampa Bay, probably did more to popularize the shift as a regular tool than any other manager until today when some type of shift is used against almost every batter.

Baseball has changed dramatically in response to the advances in technology. Statisticians, particularly those with the Society of American Baseball Research, have done studies that indicate that the bunt is a waste of an out and, as a consequence it has almost disappeared from the game, even as a sacrifice to get a runner in scoring position. For example, in 2000, the average American League team sacrifice bunted 40 times and, by 2017, the average was down to 18 times.

Between the elimination of the bunt and the emphasis on hitting the ball over the shifted fielders for home runs, the average team in baseball hit a home run in 2017, the year of the homer, every 26 at bats compared to just every 31 at bats in 2000. In 2000, the average American League team hit 192 home runs and that number increased to 211 by 2017, a 10% increase.

Last year, despite the largest number of homers ever recorded in a single year, American League teams averaged just 763 runs scored and in all of baseball the average was 753. In 2000, the average American League team scored 857 runs and in all of baseball the teams average 832 runs. From 2000 until 2017, the average number of runs scored per team in the American League increased by 11%.

As far as batting averages are concerned, the average American League team’s average fell from .276 in 2000 to .256 in 2017, a decrease of 7%.

With home runs increasing and batting averages decreasing over the eighteen year period, teams were still scoring 11% more runs in 2000 than they are today.

It would appear that the shift and the emphasis on statistics is working because batting averages are going down, however, there is no way to calculate the effect the emphasis on home runs has had on decreasing the average. Sluggers like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, for example, hit 85 home runs from 2015-2016 but struck out 427 times and batted a poor .241.

Of course, on the other side, all the statistical experts have their formulas to determine which pitcher should pitch to which batter, what he should throw in what situation and that effects the ups and downs of hitting and scoring as well.

Unfortunately, while baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten the length of the game to increase fan interest, no one is concerned that the thing that brings the most fans into the ball game, not the home run, but the action that occurs when the runner makes his way around the bases and crosses the plate is happening less and less frequently.

No one has or will ever prove that, in the totality of a baseball game, shifting the fielders all over the field and relying on statistics, which merely reflect past performance, makes a better team or a better game. As the people who try to sell us on buying their recommended stocks say in their disclaimers ‘ past performance is no guarantee of future success ‘ and that is nowhere truer than on the baseball field, as every Red Sox fan is painfully aware.

SOX NEED NEW HITTING COACH

Prior to the All Star Break, the Boston Red Sox were showing some signs of life. They had won nine of their last fourteen games and were just 6 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East. In the last series, against the red hot Yankees, the Sox had lost two of three games but had won four consecutive series before that.

Despite the fact that they were 42-47, in last place, they were only three games out of second place and had been gaining ground on the leaders.

One week after the break ended, the Sox are still in last place but now they are 42-54, 12 games behind the first place Yankees and nine games out of second. In six days, they have lost seven in a row and been outscored 39-13. If you do the math, you will realize that that’s an average of almost six runs per game they have given up while scoring less than two.

All year long Red Sox management and staff have bemoaned the fact that their pitching had been terrible. They unloaded their pitching coach Juan Nieves in May because the staff was not performing. The best pitching staff in the world cannot win consistently with under two runs per game support.

The Sox have a new hitting coach this year in Chili Davis. The veterans on this team, ( with the exception of Dustin Pedroia, and I don’t consider Brock Holt or Xander Bogaerts veterans, ) Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and David Ortiz are all hitting for significantly lower averages than last year. In order, they have dropped 20, 19, 42, 21 and 29 batting average points over last year.

Two other experienced players who have spent most of the year at Pawtucket because of their lack of hitting, Daniel Nava and Alan Craig, dropped from
.270 to .159 and .215 to .135 respectively. The Sox, who hit .277 as a team in 2013, are hitting .253 right now.

Pitching is the name of the game but without effective hitting to back it up pitching can’t do it alone. The Red Sox, in case you haven’t figured it out, need help with their hitting. They obviously are not getting it from their hitting coach. It’s time for a change.