28 February 2010

Book Review - Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye

"History binds Josh [Gibson] and Satchel at the hip as the two towering figures of the Negro Leagues, but nature left them as mismatched as yin and yang. Josh was a hitter who mashed pitches, Satchel a pitcher who undid batters. Josh's power emanated from his huge arms and torso, Satchel's from his string-bean legs. The differences, however, went deeper. Josh steered clear of the limelight. Satchel lived in and monopolized it. Josh was eaten up by the limits of his ravaged knees and his Jim Crow world, consoling himself with booze, which had been legalized, and opiates, which had not. Satchel learned to cope and triumph. Josh was a player's player with a bench full of friends. Satchel played to the crowd, which made his teammates admire more than love him."

- Satchel, by Larry Tye, p 73

King Arthur. Davy Crockett. Paul Bunyan.

There are individuals throughout history who so inspire us that their legends grow well beyond their actual stature, becoming so entangled in the stories of their lives that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the man ends and the lore begins. Such is the case with Leroy “Satchel” Paige, about whom Larry Tye has penned a new biography, simply entitled, “Satchel”.

For a man who may have been seen in person by more spectators than anyone else in history, there was precious little written about Satchel Paige, at least little that can be called 'reliable', anyway. Perhaps the task of unraveling the mystery surrounding the man appeared so daunting to so many. Perhaps many felt that clearing up those mysteries would take something away from the man himself. Tye has managed to do the former without sacrificing the latter, though it took him two years to accomplish it.

Having pored over every available reference on his subject, Tye sifted and sorted and deciphered all of the available information on Satchel and weaved it into not only a coherent whole, but a telling, endearing and interesting story as well. It’s well written without being pretentious or excessively verbose, making for a very accessible and easily read narrative that flows well. Tye provides sufficient background on people and places without boring you and without feeling the need to inform the reader of every possible nuance about a given individual or situation, and most important, without making the reader feel that he's gotten off track.

He manages to point out and discuss the various social injustices of Satchel’s day without sounding condescending or sanctimonious, something too many who have written about the Negro Leagues seem to feel is their duty. This makes it possible for the reader to enjoy the narrative for what it is, to appreciate the charming, nostalgic aspects, to react with distaste when he discusses racial slights and slurs, but not to become so overburdened with guilt that the reading becomes less than enjoyable. Indeed, few would read such a book if they had to fear being scolded for long-past wrongs they never committed on every other page.

Tye begins at the beginning, which is not as easy at is sounds in the case of Satchel Paige, whose birth name was Leroy Page and whose birth date was virtually anybody’s guess. I won’t ruin the surprise, except to say that part of Satchel’s mystery included the fact that throughout most of his professional life, nobody knew exactly how old he was. The birth date mystery was such a part of his legend that there was even a Trivial Pursuit card that included three possible birthdates as the clue to "Satchel Paige".

Tye describes Leroy’s difficult youth in Mobile, Alabama, one of many children in a very poor family, beholden to an alcoholic father who died young. Leroy had trouble with authority even then and spent a third of his youth in a reform school, which helped shape him into both the man and the ballplayer he would eventually become. Upon his release, he almost immediately took up with a local semipro team, was given his famous moniker (though there are even more stories as to how he became Satchel than there are potential birth dates, it seems) and as he realized that his skills could take him much farther, he began to hone them.

Trips through the minors of Black Ball in the 1920’s took him all over the South, to Mexico, the Caribbean, and eventually to Pittsburgh, to the Black major leagues, where he would become a star. Not that he stayed there long. Contracts in the Negro Leagues were looked at as something to do until something better came along, and for the likes of Satchel Paige, it frequently did. He hopped around North America, playing in Pittsburgh, certainly, but also in North Dakota, California, Colorado, and Kansas City, as he felt inclined.

Effa Manley bought his rights twice for the Newark Eagles, though he never suited up for them. He also went back to the Caribbean, playing in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and even Venezuela, where he was nearly killed by natives, if you believe his story. It was probably Satchel, not Babe Ruth (or, as James Hirsch would have you believe, Willie Mays) who was baseball's first true international superstar, and this before he ever suited up for the major leagues.

But believing Satchel’s stories is exactly what makes writing his biography so difficult. There are lots of stories that have trickled down from Satchel Paige and other stars of the Negro leagues, and many of them, if they are true at all, are only slightly so. But they’ve been told and retold so many times that few know the difference anymore.

Part of the charm of the Negro leagues, it seems, was that in an industry that either did not have the money or did not have the interest in recording every event meticulously, the history became entangled with the tall tales, and everyone was basically OK with that. The men who played there lived their lives and spun their fables, never with malice in mind, and they made for good stories and good story tellers, which was what people wanted anyway. Why bother to point out that Satchel never really struck out Babe Ruth in a barnstorming game at Yankee Stadium? He could have, everyone knew, and that was all that counted.

Along the way, Tye describes interactions and exploits with some of the greats of both black and white baseball, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Double Duty Radcliffe, Oscar Robertson, and Cool Papa Bell, to name a few, but also Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and many of the barnstorming stars of Major League Baseball.

Satchel eventually made it to the major leagues, the first pitcher to break the color barrier. He had been more than a bit irked by the fact that Branch Rickey did not come calling for him, rather than Jackie Robinson, who had played barely one year in the Negro Leagues, whereas Satchel had paid his dues for almost two decades. But Satchel, besides being over 40 years old, was never one to honor a contract or turn the other cheek, so Rickey deemed that he was something less than an ideal candidate for his grand experiment.

Instead, Indians' owner Bill Veeck took a chance on Satchel and made him the American League's first black pitcher. Satchel, at 41, became the oldest "rookie" in major league history, and four years later, its oldest All Star, and then in 1965, he became the oldest pitcher in MLB history, throwing three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox, at the age of 58. The Los Angeles Times story on the game called it, "A gimmick, yes. A joke, no."

Veeck and Paige would enjoy a life long relationship, and Paige could thank Veeck for giving him second and third chances when he wore out his welcome with previous employers, as he seemingly always did. Veeck brought Paige in to pitch for the St. Louis Browns and then later on for the Miami Marlins, a minor league team for whom Satchel pitched in his 50's.

Because he'd never saved any of his money and didn't have the kinds of sponsorship opportunities afforded to either today's athletes or white stars of Satchel's heyday, Paige never did stop pitching, really. He just kept going, barnstorming in places like Alaska, North Dakota, California, and Missouri, just to make ends meet. Even after he was finally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, Satchel kept on making appearances and pitching. He was paid as a consultant when a film was made about his life, but otherwise, he rarely had the luxury of not pitching if he didn't feel like it.

As far as Tye's book goes, it is a joy to read. It's his first baseball book, I believe, and he gets a few of the minute details wrong, such as referring to Joe DiMaggio as "Jumpin' Joe" or indicating that the number of games in the baseball season was 151, rather than 154, but these are minor and forgivable offenses. Tye gets the main and plain things very right, and goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing this book (as attested to by the fact that he has almost 80 pages of notes and bibliography).

Satchel Paige was the kind of interesting, incredible, lovable, frustrating, talented but flawed character that we all wish we could have known or could have been. The stories of his life, such as they are shared in Tye's book, fill out the holes in the legend probably more than Paige would have wished, but no less than his legend deserves.

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12 February 2010

Big Re-Hash: Frank Thomas Retires - Now What About the Hall of Fame?

Most of this material was penned almost four years ago, but since Frank Thomas announced his retirement today, I thought it might be worthwhile to freshen this up a bit.

There's been some discussion and debate over the last few years about whether Frank Thomas really belongs in the Hall of Fame. Based mostly on the fact that the second half of his MLB career constituted such a severe drop off from the level he established in the first half, many have said that he'[s only a marginal candidate.

This is poppycock.

Frank Thomas Posted by Hello

This is about the silliest thing I've heard all week. I could understand if they were saying that Frank Thomas, moderately productive outfielder of several 1950s and '60s National League teams, didn't belong in the Hall of Fame. That Frank Thomas hit .266 in 16 seasons, never hitting .300 in any of them, finishing in the top ten of the MVP ballot only once (4th in 1958), and never leading his league in anything but games played, hit-by-pitch and sacrifice flies (once each). That Frank Thomas certainly doesn't belong in Cooperstown.

But this one? The Big Hurt? The 1B/DH who has terrorized American league pitchers for the last decade and a half? Let's look at his credentials, along with someone else's, shall we?

Name      AB     R    H     2B   HR   RBI
Hurt 10074 1494 2468 495 521 1704
Splint 9791 1798 2654 525 521 1839

Hurt .301 .419 .555 974 156
Splint .344 .482 .642 1116 191

The 'Hurt' line is, of course, Frank Thomas' career. The second line is that of the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams. Four years ago I compared these two, up to a similar point in their careers, and now it turns out that they will both complete their careers with exactly 521 home runs. I'll be issuing lottery predictions for 2014, later tonight, thank you.

In all seriousness, though, are they the same? Of course not. Nobody was as good as Ted Williams, in his generation or any other, save perhaps Ruth and Bonds. But are they close? You're damn right they are. Williams had a few more of just about everything, but not a lot more of anything. He struck out a lot less, but so did everyone else at the time. Pitchers throw harder now, and relief pitchers are trained to get the strikeout, with Thomas having to face them much more often than Williams did.

The second set of stats, their averages, shows a much greater difference between them, but it also shows something else. That last statistic is park and league-adjusted OPS (On-base plus Slugging), a rough but effective measure of a hitter's prowess. Ted Williams ranks second all time, behind only the Babe. Thomas is tied for 19th, with 13 of the 20 guys who are either tied or ahead of him already in the Hall.

Among the other seven, four are not eligible for Cooperstown because they didn't play at least ten seasons (Dave Orr), are banned from baseball for gambling issues (Shoeless Joe Jackson) or have not yet been retired for five years (Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds).

Bonds' case is a little sketchy, given that of Mark McGwire, who's also ahead of Thomas on the OPS+ list, but who has failed to garner more than about a third of the votes he needs in his first three seasons on the ballot. But based on numbers alone, both Bonds and McGwire are no-doubt Hall of Famers.

The sixth is Dick Allen, who was a heckuva hitter, but who played only a dozen full seasons and who was basically washed up by age 35. Also, as I understand it, he was kind of a jerk to the sportswriters, but then they didn't exactly hold that against Ted Williams.

The last is Pete Browning, who played almost half of his ~1,200 game career in the 1880s American Association, beating up on sub-standard pitching while all the best players were in the National League.

Thomas is one of only 14 players to hit over .300/.400/.500 in a career of over 2,000 games. Almost all of the rest are in Cooperstown or will be some time soon. Here's that list:

Already in the Hall of Fame:
Cobb, Ty
Foxx, Jimmie
Gehrig, Lou
Heilmann, Harry
Hornsby, Rogers
Musial, Stan
Ott, Mel
Ruth, Babe
Speaker, Tris
Williams, Ted

Still active or recently retired (years played):

Thomas, Frank (19)
Martinez, Edgar (18)
Ramirez, Manny (17)
Jones, Chipper (16)

Edgar Martinez, despite playing one fewer season than Thomas, played in only 267 fewer games, and did not hit for nearly as much power ("only" 309 homers). He got about 36% of the BBWAA vote in his first year on the ballot, which bodes well for his candidacy overall.

Ramirez and Jones, both excellent players, aren't likely to improve upon their current career averages being already 37 years old, but are having Cooperstown-worthy careers.

So that's 10 Hall of Famers, one potential Hall of Famer in Edgar, two guys who should be enshrined eventually if they follow normal career paths (and if the voters don't hold Manny's PED suspension against him). Pretty good company, I think.

Let's look at where Thomas falls in history:
Stat:   R  2B  XBH  HR  RBI  BB  TB  TOB  OBP  SLG  OPS
Rank: 68 55 26 18 22 9 37 28 21 25 15

Overall, he's got to be one of the two dozen or so best hitters in history, and maybe only beneath Jimmy Foxx and Joe DiMaggio among right-handed hitters, both of whom have less playing time on their resumes than Thomas does. Even without giving him credit for time he's spent injured, his numbers are clearly Hall-Worthy.

Bill James listed him as the tenth best firstbaseman ever back in the 2000 edition of his Historical Baseball Abstract, and since then he's had two and a half productive seasons, and one and a half seasons lost to injury. That still adds to his career value, in my mind.

Criticisms of Thomas as a Hall of Famer center around the argument that because Thomas was injured so much the last several years, and because he didn't maintain the pace he started in the early 1990s, and "didn't do anything in the playoffs", his Hall of Fame credentials are somehow weak. While certainly the first two of those things are true, should they really cause us not to vote for Thomas when he becomes eligible for Cooperstown?

From 1991 to 1998, Thomas racked up eight consecutive seasons with at least 100 runs, 100 walks and 100 RBI. No, he didn't maintain that pace, but since no one had ever put together more than four such seasons consecutively before, why should we expect it from him? (Jeff Bagwell later had six.) And that streak includes not one but two strike-shortened seasons, making it all the more impressive.

Thomas made five All-Star Games in that span, and won two MVP Awards, in 1993 and 1994. He's also finished in the top ten in the MVP voting seven other times, finishing 4th at the age of 38, and 15th one other time. Only a dozen players in history have amassed more MVP shares than Thomas, and they're all in the Hall, except Bonds, Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Those guys all won at least three MVPs and are not yet eligible because they're either still active or too recently retired ot have come up for the vote.

For that matter, 12 of the next 13 players on that list after Thomas are also in the Hall, and the 13th is Pete Rose. (I guess 13 isn't his lucky number.) Only three of the next 25 or so elligible players have not been elected, and Thomas is obviously far above them. In short, anyone considered so frequently and so seriously as the MVP of his league is by definition a Hall of Famer.

Thomas was one of the greatest hitters in history over the course of his career, though as Rob Neyer points out, "only" about the 45th greatest player, given what a lousy defender and baserunner he proved to be. But still, 45th out of something like a bajillion players? That's pretty rarefied air. But if he isn't elected to the Hall of Fame when his time comes? That would really be a Big Hurt.

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02 February 2010

Is Ryan Howard the Greatest Slugger in Phillies History?

Metro is a newspaper given out for free in some of the larger cities in the northeast. It's a short paper, intentionally so as it's usually read on on public transportation, and therefore rarely gets more than half an hour of attention from any one reader. Most of its stories lack any real depth of insight and given the youth of most of its staff, any real perspective on life. I usually don't bother with it, but as I happened to have nothing better to read on the train on the way to work (and really, how much Tetris Mania can one man play on his phone?) I decided to peruse the rag.

What I found both shocked and appalled me.

Angelo Cataldi is a talking head on Philadelphia's WIP radio, and he fills a few inches of space in the sports columns for Metro on occasion. Among his offerings today is a brief column entitled "Which Phillie is Werth it?", addressing the need for Philadelphia Phillies' GM Reuben Amaro, Jr. to decide whether he will sign OF Jayson Werth after the 2010 season ends and he becomes a free agent, or save his money and wait for 2011 to re-sign 1B Ryan Howard.

Cataldi unfortunately doesn't conclude anything, but remarks that his radio show callers apparently preferred Werth, though he does not indicate whether it was presented to them as an either/or decision or a both/and. This was not the shocking or appalling part.

Buried in the middle of this largely pointless column is this little gem of revisionist history:

"[Ryan] Howard is a superstar.

Already, he is the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had — and don’t forget that a fellow named Mike Schmidt once played here."


That's a huge statement to just throw into the middle of a couple of paragraphs on impending free agency, don't you think? Is Ryan Howard really "the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had"? Can you seriously dismiss Mike Schmidt so easily?

By the end of his age 29 season, Schmidt had three National League HR titles (to Howard's two) and had led the NL in slugging percentage once already, something Howard has never done. While he had not yet won an MVP award at this age, Schmidt would go on to win three of them, as many as anybody had ever won before Barry Bonds and his friendly, neighborhood steroid dealer came along.

Howard has one MVP already, but probably won't ever win another. For that matter, even the one he has probably should have gone to Albert Pujols, who was a slightly better hitter and a much better fielder at the same position in 2006. But most of the BBWAA writers like home runs and RBIs the way monkeys like shiny objects, so, Howard has an MVP award. Congrats.

At this age, Schmidt had more of everything - more home runs, doubles, triples, RBIs, runs scored, hits, a LOT more walks - and all of that in an era when power hitting was not such a cheap commodity. Much of that difference is because Schmidt was talented enough to get into the lineup two years earlier than Howard did, though it helped that he wasn't being blocked by Jim Thome, as Howard was. Schmidt was also talented enough to stick around for another ten years after his age 29 season, a lot longer than the generously-proportioned Howard probably will.

Schmidt would go on to lead his league in home runs eight times, more than anybody in history not named "Babe Ruth". He led the NL in slugging and OPS five times each, in adjusted OPS six times, in walks and RBIs four times each, in OBP and total bases three times each, in intentional walks twice and even once in runs scored.

By contrast, Howard has those two HR titles, three RBI crowns (which depend largely on how many baserunners happen to get on base in front of you), and one time leading the NL in total bases. That's it.

And as far as his accomplishments as a Phillie, Howard has amassed only 222 career home runs. Don't you think he should set his sights on Pat Burrell (251) before he takes aim at Mike Schmidt (548)?

Howard does have a slightly higher career slugging percentage (.586) than Schmidt (.527), but then when you adjust for the eras and ballparks in which they played, Schmidt has the higher career OPS+, 147 to 142. Put Mike Schmidt's bat in Philadelphia in the 2000's and he would hit almost 650 homers, according to baseball-reference.com's era translator. If Howard plays ten more years, as Schmidt did, his rate stats are bound to drop off a bit.

It seems to me that sports fans, as a rule, tend toward one or the other extreme when comparing current players to those of eras past. Either they think that the players of yesteryear were much better than today's players, an error rooted mostly in nostalgia and the fact that they were like eight years old when they first saw those guys play*, or they assume that today's players are much better, an error rooted in misunderstanding the ways in which the game has changed over the years. I would have guessed that Cataldi would be prone to the former, given that he's almost 60 years old, but alas, he seems to have lost the perspective that all his years should have afforded him.

*Sort of like when you recall those great, big cookies your grandma used to make when you were a kid, but then you see them as an adult and they're about the size of a silver dollar, it turns out. Or maybe that's just me.

Don't get me wrong here. Ryan Howard is a great player, and the Phillies would be fools not to re-sign him when his contract is up. He's had a pretty nice run, but he's had roughly one-third of Mike Schmidt's career so far. Let's not relegate the greatest third baseman who ever lived, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the best and most prolific slugger in Philadelphia history to second fiddle just yet.

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