Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

It was inevitable that Alvin Dark obituaries after he passed away on November 13 would include the controversy provoked by a pair of Long Island (New York) Newsday columns in the midst of the 1964 pennant race in which, as manager of the competing San Francisco Giants, he was quoted as saying that "Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team ... are just not able to perform up to the white players when it comes to mental alertness." Coming at a time when black and Latin players were among the very best in the game, and as integration was being consolidated in the major leagues with increasing numbers of minority players making big league rosters as core regulars on their teams, Dark's comments were a reminder that major league baseball was still grappling with the race issue.

Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

Dark's ill-fated remarks were made to Stan Isaacs, a respected sports columnist who was out West on assignment (meaning he was not there to cover the Mets), on July 22 after the Giants had lost seven of nine games. The Giants were playing badly and Dark clearly felt his team could have been, indeed should have been, maybe two or three games up in the standings instead of in second place, one game behind the Phillies. He specifically singled out Puerto Rican-born Orlando Cepeda and Dominican-born Jesus Alou for "dumb" base-running mistakes. Giants regulars who were "Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team" also included shortstop Jose Pagan from Puerto Rico and pitching ace Juan Marichal from the Dominican Republic, not to mention Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and 1964 rookie sensation Jim Ray Hart (who missed out on NL Rookie of the Year honors only because Philadelphia's Dick--then known as "Richie"--Allen was even more sensational).

Aside from the public relations firestorm Dark, as quoted by Isaacs, created for the Giants, the team's Latin players in particular were incensed by their manager's opinions of them, which primarily concerned their baseball work ethic. Said Dark: "You can't get Negro and Spanish players to have the pride in their team that you can get from white players." ... "You can't make them subordinate themselves to the best interests of the team." ... "They [their mistakes] are not the kind of things a manager can correct--missed signs and such--but they are inabilities to cope with game situations when they come up." And he topped it off by saying, "I only know what I've seen on this team and other baseball teams."

Dark's remarks were disturbing on several levels. As the manager, and one who emphasized the importance of the team over the individual, he singled out a particular subset of players for criticism, which was not only inappropriate but foolish because the Giants' best players were blacks and Latinos and now he seriously undermined their faith in his leadership. Dark quickly tried to backtrack, claiming he was misquoted and that his remarks were presented out of context by Isaacs.

Even if Dark had not really meant what he said, but rather was venting because his whole team was playing below their collective potential, he nonetheless betrayed prejudices that, at their most benign, were reflected in persistent casual racial and ethnic stereotypes that were not unusual in America at the time. While certainly insensitive and ill-informed, the racial and ethnic stereotypes held by many in America's overwhelmingly majority-white population were not necessarily mean spirited (it was not, for example, unusual for stereotypes to be played for comic effect on television shows during the 1960s), but they were revealing of widely-held perceptions in a still largely-segregated society about specific minorities that many quite likely believed contained seeds of truth. In the absence of a more integrated society than there was at the time, and when it was still popular to see the United States as a great "melting pot" where all citizens of whatever background assimilate into the dominant culture (although this concept was beginning to unravel in the 1960s), there was little understanding of cultural differences and the perspectives of minorities, and little effort was made to understand them. Nor was there much doubt that the dominant white-majority culture offered the best that was possible in America.

In major league baseball, despite their no longer being any doubt that blacks could play--and star--at the major league level, black players continued to be dogged by racial stereotypes whose characteristics were rarely impugned on white players who failed to meet expectations. What was particularly insidious about these stereotypes was that they repeated the same arguments about the "personal characteristics" (if you will) attributed to blacks that major league owners had used nearly twenty years before to justify their opposition to the integration of organized (white) baseball. And these stereotypes were brought into the cultural realm when it came to Latin players from Caribbean basin nations as they became more prevalent on big league rosters.

According to James S. Hirsch in his 2010 authorized biography of Willie Mays, it was Mays who quelled a clubhouse rebellion by convincing his black and Latin teammates not to give up on Dark because they were in the heat of a pennant race. Mays forcefully argued that regardless of what they thought about Al Dark, a managerial change in mid-season would derail their pennant prospects. As it was, Isaacs' columns hit the news in the San Francisco area in early August, when the Giants were hanging on to second place, close behind the front-running Phillies. Whether Dark's opinion of them depressed the pennant-chase drive of the Giants' black and Latin players is unknowable, particularly because of the month-long loss of Marichal--who was 15-5 through July--with back problems, but the team lost six in a row in mid-August, after which they were in third place, 8-1/2 games behind and fading fast.

That the Giants got back into the pennant race was only because the Phillies' monumental collapse in September breathed unexpected life into their prospects. Notwithstanding that in 1962 he had led the Giants to their first pennant since moving to San Francisco in only his second year as manager, Alvin Dark was unable to recover from his controversial remarks, not to mention an outside-of-baseball lifestyle that was equally controversial as far as Giants' owner Horace Stoneham was concerned, and was fired when the season was over. Dark went on to manage the Kansas City Athletics, Cleveland Indians, Oakland Athletics--who he skippered to two division titles in 1974 and 1975 and one World Series championship (1974) in his two years there--and finally the San Diego Padres before the sands of time ran out on his dugout years. (He later served in the front offices of both Chicago teams.)

Although he might best be remembered today for his career as a manager, let's not forget that from the late 1940s into the mid-1950s, Alvin Dark was one of baseball's premier shortstops--along with Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees and Pee Wee Reese of the Dodgers. He was an indispensable player on three pennant-winning teams: the 1948 Boston Braves in his rookie season, in which his .322 batting average helped earn him Rookie of the Year honors; the 1951 New York Giants, the team that Bobby Thomson made famous; and the 1954 Giants that Willie Mays made famous with arguably the catch of the century that helped spark a four-game sweep in the World Series of the favored 111-win Cleveland Indians.

The following is a link to The New York Times obituary on Alvin Dark:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Thinking About That "Dynasty" Word

As soon as they won their third World Series in five years, the word "dynasty" was bandied about when considering this San Francisco Giants team's place in history. But what does that even mean? This Insight, one of occasional articles intended to be provocative in thinking about how we think about baseball, frames the "dynasty" issue in the context of great teams, great franchises and whether the modern 21st century game changes how we should think about dynasties.

Thinking About That "Dynasty" Word

No sooner did Pablo Sandoval squeeze the last out than Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight site proclaimed, "The San Francisco Giants are now a Dynasty," and used an algorithm developed by Bill James to substantiate the point. ( A Reuters release called the Giants "a different kind of Major League Baseball dynasty," the "best at juggling budget and talent" in an age of parity." (   World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner said at the Giants' victory parade back home in San Francisco, "Like they've been saying, this is a dynasty." Even before Game 6, New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner titled a column, "Unconventional Dynasty in the Making" and asked "Are they really a dynasty?" ( Kepner goes on to say, "The term connotes a higher level of team achievement, but is open to interpretation." Let's take it from there.

Until arguably the mid-1990s with the advent of three divisions in each league, the introduction of a "wild card" team for post-season playoffs and the resulting two rounds of playoffs in each league to determine a pennant winner, a particular team's winning accomplishments seems a suitable baseline standard for beginning a discussion about dynasties. These can be measured in the number of first-place finishes--whether in the unitary league format that prevailed until the second-wave expansion to twelve teams in each league in 1969 or division titles since then--pennants and World Series won over a period of at least five years. While acknowledging that very few teams not named the Yankees would win even as many as three championships in any five-year period, I would suggest that for any team to be considered a "dynasty" based on this standard, it should not have had a losing season in any year of its five-year dynasty-qualifying run and in fact have been competitive all five years.

On top of that, the extent to which a team dominates its era, not merely in championship achievements but in overpowering the competition, should be factored into the "dynasty" equation. Some combination of number of years with 100 or more victories, winning pennant races by large margins, being among the top two teams in scoring or fewest runs allowed can be important considerations when considering which teams are dynasties. The 1906-10 Chicago Cubs with four pennants in five years, three won by decisive margins of at least ten games, four times winning at least 100 games (including in 1909, the one year they did not win the pennant); the 1936-42 Yankees from Joe DiMaggio's rookie season until he went off to war, averaging over 100 wins a year, with six pennants in seven years all won by at least nine games, and leading the league in scoring six times and in fewest runs allowed six times; and the 1972-76 Cincinnati Reds, with four division titles--three by margins of at least 10 games--three pennants and two championship rings are three of the best examples of team dynasties.

Each of these teams was also identifiable with a core group of players for all or most of their run: Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance and Three-Finger Brown (the Cubs); DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller, Red Rolfe, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez and Johnny Murphy (the Yankees); Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez (the Big Red Machine).

Aside from dynastic teams identifiable by a core group of players for a specific period of time, there are four franchises that were "dynasties" over a period of at least two decades by virtue of sustained success. Most obvious are the New York Yankees, beginning in 1921 (when they won the American League pennant for the first time) pretty much to the present day with really only two non-dynastic spells therein--from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and from the early-1980s until the mid-1990s. The Yankee dynasty seamlessly transitioned from the Ruth and Gehrig, to the DiMaggio, to the Mantle eras famously winning 29 pennants and 20 World Series in 44 years between 1921 and 1964. The most recent iteration of the Yankee dynasty lasted from 1995 to at least 2007, bearing the names of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera, with 13 consecutive postseason appearances. (The Yankees won nine consecutive AL East titles during these years.).

The three other franchise dynasties were the New York Giants with 10 pennants but only 3 World Series championships in 21 years from 1904 to 1924; the St. Louis Cardinals with 9 pennants and 6 World Series championships in 21 years between 1926 and 1946; and the Brooklyn-to-Los Angeles Dodgers with 13 pennants (6 in Brooklyn) but only 4 World Series triumphs (3 in L.A.) in 32 years between 1947 and 1978.

That 21-year Cardinal dynasty just mentioned is particularly interesting because they won with no team by itself worthy of being called a "dynasty" for any five-year period, with the possible exception of the 1942-46 Cards that won four pennants in five years, two of which however were when major league rosters were depleted because of ballplayers suiting up for Uncle Sam in the Second World War, which took a far greater toll on arch-rival Brooklyn than St. Louis. Even when St. Louis went to three World Series and won two in five years between 1930 and 1934, the Cardinals finished fifth and sixth in an eight-team league in the two years they did not win the pennant. Branch Rickey kept the Cardinals competitive with the vast number of minor league affiliates under St. Louis control and shrewd trading according to the principle of better to trade a star player approaching his career pivot point of decline a year too soon than a year too late.

With an additional round of playoffs, the wild card era should change how we think about dynasties. Division winners now have to navigate a five-game series and then a seven-game series to get to the World Series. Short series can be fickle, making winning division titles in long 162-game seasons a more true test of how good a team really is than the number of championship rings.

The Atlanta Braves from 1991 to 2005 won an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles that included six 100-win seasons, eight time finishing first by a blowout margin of at least 8 games, and nine times having the best record in the National League ... but those accomplishments seem somehow diminished because they went to only five World Series and won only one. It should be noted that two of their five pennants were before MLB's three-division / wild card structure came into being when they had only to survive a seven-game League Championship Series to compete in the World Series, and that they were eliminated in the five-game Division Series first round in five of their last six consecutive seasons as division champions. And this was a team that not only dominated the league, but included a significant number of historically great players--Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones--at the peak of their careers.

The New York Yankees from 1996 to 2001 are the only team in the current three divisions / wild card era that can claim a "dynasty" by the traditional dynastic standards of winning pennants and World Series. They survived two American League playoff rounds to make it to five World Series in six years (including four in a row from '98 to '01) and won four championships. Throw in 2003, and it's six pennants and four World Series triumphs in eight years. Since then, even the Jeter-Rivera variant of the Yankee dynasty, having been eliminated in the opening Division Series round in four of their last eight post-season appearances (although they did win it all in 2009), has been snakebit by the number of postseason series now required to be won for baseball's championship.

By winning their third Series in five years, the San Francisco Giants accomplished something not done by any team since the 1996-2001 Yankees. There is no question about that Yankee team being a dynasty, not to mention an extension in the nearing-a-century-long dynasty of the Yankee franchise. But the 2010-14 Giants won their division only twice in five years (remember, they were a wild card this year), only once by as many as eight games (in 2012); never won more than 94 games on the season; never had the best record in the league (they were second-best in 2010); followed their 2010 and 2012 championships with disappointing noncompetitive seasons; and have only the third best record in the National League (after the Cardinals and the Braves) over the last five years.

Whatever can and should be said about the Giants and their accomplishments, they have not dominated the National League in the way one would expect of a dynasty--not in any of the last five years. As has been noted by various experts, however, General Manager Brian Sabean's record in making high-impact trades (such as for Hunter Pence) and bringing in journeymen players to fill sudden holes has kept the Giants in the competitive mix, capable of recovering quickly from disappointing years. They maybe are not quite a dynasty given their actual record over the last five years--not yet, anyway, and certainly not by traditional definitions--but the way the game has evolved and the difficulty of sustaining a winning team, today's San Francisco Giants may be the team that redefines how we consider the concept of "dynasties."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

World Series Reflections: The Muff, The Cat and the Power of 12

Madison Bumgarner's brilliant pitching in the World Series and the Giants' escaping harm from Gregor Blanco's error bring to mind Harry Brecheen and Fred Snodgrass (not necessarily in that order), and let's not forget that Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence both had 12 hits apiece. 

World Series Reflections: The Muff, The Cat and the Power of 12

When Gregor Blanco played Alex Gordon's single into effectively a triple (he was charged with a two-base error), Giants' fan versed in their team's history dating back to the Polo Grounds in New York City and the dead ball era might have had nightmarish visions of another Giant center fielder's misplay which in fact cost the Giants a World Series.

The year was 1912. The place was Fenway Park. The Series was tied at three games apiece. The deciding Game 8 (Game 2 had ended in a tie called by darkness) was tied at 1-1 going into extra innings. The Giants scored a run in the top of the tenth off Red Sox ace Smokey Joe Wood (34-5 during the season), working his third inning in relief. As their ace, Christy Mathewson, took the mound for the last of the tenth, the Giants needed three outs to win their second World Series (having won in 1905 but lost the previous year). Working on his third complete game start of the Series, Mathewson had given up only one run in the game, just three earned runs in 28 innings in the Series so far for a 0.96 ERA, and in nine starts over three World Series in his career to this point had an ERA less than one (0.99), having surrendered only 9 earned runs in 82 Fall Classic innings.

Clyde Engel, who hit only .234 in 58 games during the season, pinch hit for Wood to lead off for Boston in the tenth and reached second with the tying run when center fielder Fred Snodgrass dropped his routine fly ball. Having committed the error that would keep his name from being forgotten in baseball history, Snodgrass then made a great running catch to rob Harry Hooper of an extra base hit, but he could not prevent Engel from advancing to third with the would-be tying run after the catch. A walk put runners on the corners and Tris Speaker--one of the greatest hitters in the game--hit a pop foul along the first base line that should have been an easy second out in the inning for the Giants ... except that catcher Chief Meyers and first baseman Fred Merkle let the ball drop between them. With a new lease on the at bat, Speaker singled to right field and the game was tied. Significantly, the runner on first who was the possible winning run sped around to third on Speaker's hit and Spoke himself went to second on the throw toward third. After an intentional walk to load the bases and set up a double play situation, a sacrifice fly drove home the World Series-winning run. In 11 World Series starts, including two the next year (1913), Mathewson had a 0.97 ERA in 101.2 innings of classic Classic work.

(When Salvador Perez hit that foul popup off the third base line that secured the Series, Giants fans with historical perspective might have had visions of catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval perhaps also miscommunicating between them and allowing a sure out foul ball to drop and Perez, with a new lease on his at bat, driving in the tying run or perhaps even hitting a Game 7 walk-off come-from-behind game-winning, World Series-winning home run--something never before done in World Series history; Mazeroski's seventh game walk-off home run to win the 1960 Series came with the score tied and nobody on base. Posey stayed clear of the play, Sandoval caught the pop foul, and Blanco was spared having to be remembered in history for an error that cost his team the World Championship--unlike Snodgrass and his "$30,000 Muff," so called because that was the amount he and his teammates would have had in extra earnings had they won the World Series.)

Madison Bumgarner's two stellar starts followed by five innings of shutout relief on just two days of rest after pitching a complete game shutout in Game 5 to put the Giants in command of the Series brings to mind the work of St. Louis Cardinals southpaw Harry "the Cat" Brecheen in the 1946 World Series.

Brecheen, who had a 15-15 record with a 2.49 earned run average, was not the ace of the St. Louis staff in 1946--that was fellow-lefty Howie Pollet with a 21-10, 2.10 record during the season--but he was superb in the final two months of the season allowing only 19 runs in 99 innings (a 1.73 ERA) while going 8-5 in 13 starts and earning 3 saves in 4 relief appearances. These were critical games because his team's fight with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant ended in the first-ever tie after the 154-game schedule was completed, forcing a best-of-three games playoff for the title. Brecheen pitched a complete game in the next-to-last scheduled game to keep the Cardinals in a tie with the Dodgers, and three days later in the second game of the playoff (St. Louis with a one-game lead) came on in relief in the ninth inning to staunch a Brooklyn rally and secure the final two outs of an 8-3 victory that sent St. Louis to the World Series ... against the Red Sox, who were in their first Fall Classic since 1918, back when Babe Ruth was still resident in Boston.

After his team lost the first game, Brecheen threw a complete game 4-hit shutout in Game 2 to even the Series at one game apiece. Six days later, in Game 6 with the Red Sox holding a three games-to-two advantage as the Series returned to St. Louis, the Cat gave up one run on seven hits in another complete game to force a Game 7. With the Cardinals holding a 3-1 lead in the decisive seventh game, Brecheen was called on to bail out St. Louis starter Murry Dickson in the eighth inning with runners on second and third and nobody out. Not up to Bumgarner standards, Brecheen allowed both runners to score, which tied the game, but was himself bailed out by Country Slaughter's scoring from first base on aggressive base running when Boston shortstop Johnny Pesky double clutched on the relay from the outfield. Brecheen gave up back-to-back singles to start the ninth but, facing the bottom third of the order, retired the next three hitters to win his third game of the Series and send the Cardinals home for the winter as World Series champions for the third time in five years (shades of the 2014 Giants).

Harry Brecheen gave up only one run and 14 hits in 20 innings for a 0.45 ERA in the 1946 Series. All told, appearing in three Fall Classics, Brecheen had a 4-1 record and a 0.83 ERA in the 32.2 innings he pitched in World Series competition, including complete game victories in each of his three career World Series starts.

Finally, lost in the spectacular World Series pitching performance of Madison Bumgarner--arguably the best ever after that of Christy Mathewson's three complete game shutout victories in the 1905 Series--was the equally-important hitting prowess of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence, batting fourth and fifth for the 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Sandoval and Pence each had 12 hits. The record for hits in a World Series is 13, reached by only three players (Bobby Richardson in 1964, Lou Brock in 1968 and Marty Barrett in 1986--all three, ironically, in losing causes). Only 16 players--now including Sandoval and Pence--have had 12 hits in a single World Series. Sandoval and Pence are only the third pair of teammates to both have 12 hits in one World Series, following Willie Stargell and Phil Garner of the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates and Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar of the 1993 World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. Sandoval and Pence accounted directly for 70 percent of the Giants' 30 total runs in the Series, scoring or driving in 21 (not double-counting Pence driving in himself with his two-run home run in Game 2 on behalf of Mr. Bumgarner).

Monday, October 20, 2014

Giant Years II: Less Dynastic, More Episodic

The Giants' 2014 National League pennant is the 21st pennant for the franchise since the beginning of the 20th century, but only their eleventh in the last 90 years and the Giants' sixth in San Francisco, and four of those NL flags are in this century. After winning 10 pennants in 21 years between 1904 and 1924, the Giants' stretch of competing teams became less frequent. Having already discussed the teams of the John McGraw-built and managed New York Giants baseball dynasty in the first quarter of the 20th century, this is the second of two articles looking chronologically at the Giants' best teams over any five-year period. 

Giant Years II: Less Dynastic, More Episodic

At the time John McGraw stepped down as Giants manager early in the 1932 season, the Giants' 10 pennants were the most of any major league team since the start of the modern era, said to have begun when the American League declared itself "major" in 1901. But the Giants had been mostly inconsequential since their last pennant and dismaying World Series defeat in 1924.

'Twas first baseman player-manager Bill Terry led the Giants to their next string of pennants--three in five years between 1933 and 1937. After winning the franchise's eleventh pennant in 1933 (at the time, still the most of any major league team since the start of the 20th century) and beating Washington in the World Series, the Terry Giants blew big leads in each of the next two years before winning back-to-back pennants in 1936, when they overcame a 10½-game deficit in mid-July, and 1937. Unfortunately, both years the Giants had the dubious honor of playing their excellent Joe DiMaggio-Lou Gehrig-led New York rivals across the Harlem River. Enough said. By the time the 1937 Yankees' mauling of the Giants was done, the Yankees had clearly usurped the Giants' dynastic mantle, with now nine pennants of their own (all in the previous 16 years) and more World Series championships--six--than any other team. For more on the 1933-37 Giants, please see my post from October 2, "Nationals vs. Giants (1933):

Through the remainder of Bill Terry's tenure, which ended in 1941, and all of Mel Ott's as manager, 1942-1948, the New York Giants were mostly a second-division club. Leo Durocher changed that when he took over from Ott in July 1948. Refashioning the Giants from a plodding, powerhouse team that set a record with 221 home runs in 1947, Durocher strengthened the team's infield defense and top of the order by acquiring second baseman Eddie Stanky and shortstop Alvin Dark from the Braves in 1950; rehabilitated pitcher Sal Maglie to bolster a starting rotation headlined by Larry Jansen; and welcomed the integration of the Giants with infielder Hank Thompson and Hall of Fame outfielders Monte Irvin and Willie Mays.

If not for the Korean War, which claimed Mays for the US armed forces in 1952 and 1953, the New York Giants from 1950 to 1954 might have challenged the Brooklyn Dodgers as the best National League team in the first half of the 1950s. The Giants finished strong to end up in third place in 1950, with the best record of NL teams after July 4th; shocked the world with their relentless pursuit of the Dodgers in 1951 that culminated in Bobby Thomson's (and radio broadcaster Russ Hodges') moment in history; finished second--4½ back--in 1952 without Mays in the line-up, which means they might well have overtaken Brooklyn if they had the Say Hey Kid; and in 1954 won both the franchise's final pennant--their 15th--and World Series--only five--in New York. 

Even though they won only one pennant--and that required a three-game playoff in 1962 against the Los Angeles Dodgers--the 1962-66 Giants are arguably the best Giants team over any five-year period since the move to San Francisco in 1958. In three tight Dodgers-Giants pennant races in '62, '65 and '66 the two teams played to a virtual draw in their regular-season series, an even split in 1962 and 1966 with nine wins each, and the Dodgers held a two-game edge (10 wins to 8) in 1965, which turned out to be exactly LA's pennant-winning margin of victory. The Giants were also in the pennant hunt till the final weekend of the 1964 season, while the Dodgers were out of that race by the mid-season.

This Giants team, especially in retrospect but even at the time, seemed more imposing than their direct contemporary 1962-66 Dodgers. Their core regulars during these years included five future Hall of Fame players—Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry. (The Dodgers had only two future Hall of Famers among their core regulars; of course, they were Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.) While the Dodgers had superb pitching to compensate for a mediocre offense, San Francisco had a far more powerful offense and their own dominant pitcher in Marichal, who won 18 in 1962 and then had four straight 20-win seasons, including 25 in both 1963 and 1966.  Mays for those exact five years put together the best five-year stretch of any National League position player in history based on the wins above replacement metric for player value, marginally better than Barry Bonds's cumulative WAR from 2000 to 2004. 

Although they won division titles in 1971 and 1987, the Giants' second pennant in San Francisco did not come until 1989. That flag was in a stretch when they finished first in their division only twice in five years between 1986 and 1990 and were otherwise middle of the pack. It wasn't until 2000 to 2004 that the Giants had their first stretch of five straight 90-win seasons since Bill Terry's 1933-37 Giants. The 2000-04 Giants, however, were first in the NL West only twice and won their only pennant during these years in 2002 as the National League's wild card team. Even though they were powered by Barry Bonds at his controversial best, including those 73 home runs in 2001, and second baseman Jeff Kent (through 2002), this San Fran team was never better than second in the league in runs scored (and then, only once).

The Giants are now poised to win their third World Series in five years with a team that finished first in the NL West and won 90 games only twice since 2010, had only the sixth-best record in the National League and the eighth-best in the odd-number years between their pennants, and which won the pennant this season as a wild card team tied with the other NL wild card team--the Pirates--for the fourth-best record in the league. Catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval are the only position players who were regulars in manager Bruce Bochy's line-up back in 2010; first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford and right fielder Hunter Pence were there for the Giants' 2012 championship. The Giants have had more continuity on their pitching staff with starting pitchers Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain (who missed most of this season because of injury), Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincicum (who was demoted to the bullpen late season) and relievers Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo (closer in 2012) and Santiago Casilla (closer since mid-season 2014). 

All that now stands in their way is Kansas City, although even with a third Series triumph in five years it would be difficult to call the 2010-14 Giants "dynastic"--at least not yet, what with their disappointing odd-number seasons.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Giant Years, Part I: Winning the National League's Napoleonic Wars

The San Francisco Giants have advanced to their third World Series in five years, with a chance to also win their third in five years. Should they do so, this San Francisco team would have a legitimate claim to call themselves the best in franchise history over any five-year period--and the Giants franchise is the most successful in the National League since 1901 with their 21 pennants, including this year, the most in major league history after the Yankees' 40. Nearly half of those pennants were won in the first quarter of the 20th century. This Insight is the first of two looking chronologically at the Giants' best teams, beginning with New York's Napoleonic Era--when John McGraw was their manager.. 

Giant Years: Winning the National League's Napoleonic Wars

The Giants were a losing franchise at the time John McGraw defected to New York from the upstart American League in July 1902, where he had been manager of the Baltimore Orioles and had endless conflicts with league president Ban Johnson, but they had a priceless asset in the right arm of one Christy Mathewson. McGraw brought his pitching ace Joe McGinnity and the versatile catcher-outfielder Roger Bresnahan with him from Baltimore, wasting little time building the New York Giants into a baseball powerhouse. 

McGraw's first great team was the 1904-08 Giants, who won back-to-back pennants the first two of those years in dominating fashion: 106 wins and a 13-game margin of victory in 1904 and 105 wins, nine games ahead of their closest competitor, and a World Series championship over Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in 1905. The Giants then had the misfortunes of having to contend against the 1906-10 Chicago Cubs of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame that won four pennants in five years; having one relatively bad season in the mix--1907, when they were a poor man’s fourth, 25½ games back of the Cubs; and enduring the frustration and heartbreak in 1908 of having a critical late-season victory over the Cubs in a tense three-team race for the pennant taken from them on a technicality because rookie Fred Merkle, running from first, failed to touch second (which was not an unusual practice at the time) on what was otherwise a walk-off game-winning single. With the two teams tied at the end of the 1908 season, the Giants lost the make-up game to the Cubs, who went on to capture the last World Series they would ever win. 

Mathewson was at the peak of his career--vying with the Red Sox' Cy Young as the best pitcher in baseball during these years--with three 30-win seasons, including 37 in 1908, and McGinnity won 35 in 1904 and 27 in 1906 before ending his career in 1908. Third baseman Art Devlin and catcher Bresnahan were the offensive stars on this team, both among the ten best National League position players by the WAR metric between 1904 and 1908. 

Mathewson remained central to McGraw's next great team, the 1910-14 Giants that won three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, all by at least 7½ games and twice winning better than 100, sandwiched between second-place endings. This was McGraw's most dominant team relative to their time. Mathewson won at least 23 games all five of those seasons, Rube Marquard had the three best years of his Hall of Fame pitching career--and his only three 20-win seasons--when the Giants won three straight, Jeff Tesreau won 20 in both 1913 and 1914, and Doc Crandall was the first pitcher to be used by his manager almost exclusively in relief over successive seasons. Second baseman Larry Doyle, who said "It's great to be young and a Giant," was the best position player on a team that led the league in scoring in each of the even-number years between 1910 and 1914. 

The legacy of this team, however, is undermined by the Giants losing all three of their consecutive World Series appearances and was irrevocably damaged by what happened one hundred years ago this season--in 1914, when they were overtaken by the Boston "Miracle" Braves, who surged from last place in late July to win the pennant by 10½ games over McGraw's Guys. Mathewson had the last of his twelve consecutive 20-win seasons in 1914, with a 24-13 record, but it was his least impressive performance. His  ERA of 3.00 was Mathewson's highest since breaking into the starting rotation in 1901, and the Giants’ record indicates that age and fatigue may have caught up with him in the stretch drive of 1914. After July 18, when the Braves began their drive from last place, the Giants were only 9-9 in games started by Mathewson and 5-14 in games started by Marquard, whose record that year was a horrible 12-22.

The Giants won their sixth pennant in 1917, but lost their fourth straight World Series to the White Sox (who would be mired in scandal after consorting to throw the Fall Classic two years later). Despite winning the pennant by a convincing 10 games, the 1917 Giants were a team in transition between the 1910-14 Giants and the 1920-24 Giants

After finishing second in 1920, McGraw's Giants became the first major league team in history--including the 19th century--to win four straight pennants. They also won the World Series in 1921 and 1922, and--but for catcher Hank Gowdy tripping over his mask and failing to catch a foul pop and a pebble or divot causing a bad hop over rookie teenage third baseman Freddie Lindstrom's head--the Giants might have won the 1924 World Series as well. Four of the Giants' six core position players during these years are in the Hall of Fame. Frankie Frisch, a versatile infielder who didn’t settle full-time at second base until 1923, is beyond question deserving of his Cooperstown enshrinement, but the selections of first baseman George Kelly, shortstop Dave Bancroft and right fielder Ross Youngs--all eventually voted in by the Veterans Committee--remain controversial.

While indisputably the best team in the National League during these years, the Giants were hardly a dominant team when winning four in a row between 1921 and 1924. Only in 1923 were the Giants relatively comfortably ahead for most of the season, and in 1924 the Giants squandered the 9½-game lead they held on August 8 to spend all of September never more than two games ahead of pennant rivals Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. As was typical of McGraw teams, this Giants team won with a combination of the best overall offense and some of the best pitching in the league. While Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in the early 1920s were offending McGraw’s "scientific baseball" sensibilities with their power game, the Giants were not averse to playing such a game themselves. The Giants were consistently one of the NL’s top teams in extra-base hits and were first or second in the league in slugging percentage each of the four years they won the pennant. 

These were the last pennants won by John McGraw, baseball's Napoleon, giving the Giants 10 pennants but only three World Series championships in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Next UP: Giant Years since their Napoleonic Era

Monday, October 6, 2014

The '64 Phillies Finale: The Perils of Mauch's Genius

The 1964 World Series began on October 7 ... without the Philadelphia Phillies. But it should be noted that the 1964 Phillies probably would not even have been in position to win the pennant without Gene Mauch as their manager. After taking over in Philadelphia in 1960, Mauch quickly earned a reputation for being a thinking, hands-on manager who was masterful in his direction of the game, getting the most out of his roster and outmaneuvering the manager in the opposite dugout.  But managerial brilliance can be a tricky thing. Managers are both strategists and tacticians in the dugout. They must navigate a delicate line between managing too much and managing too little. The question remains whether Mauch's constant maneuvers to try to wrest competitive advantages--both big and small--may have caught up with him in the final weeks of the season and cost his team what proved to be their one best chance to get to the World Series. 

The '64 Phillies Finale: The Perils of Mauch's Genius

When it was over, Gene Mauch blamed himself for the debacle. This was telling not so much because he attempted to remove the stigma of the collapse from his players but because, in the final weeks, he may have put on himself too much of the burden to win games instead of allowing the games to play out with less urgency. Baseball can be unforgiving, quick to smack down those who think they can master the flow of the game. Mauch's intensity and overwhelming desire to maintain tight control over each game--(perhaps for fear of the second-guessing that comes with losing?)--became counterproductive as the Phillies' losses began mounting. His trying hard to force the action began to convey panic with the result that his players became increasingly tight in pressure situations. This was a criticism that Dick Allen in particular made, and in various accounts of what happened.

While Mauch arguably made any number of questionable tactical in-game decisions discussed in this series, his primary miscalculation was strategic, with ultimately unforgiving cascading effects. His big mistake was quite likely beginning to prepare for the World Series prematurely when on September 16, with a six-game lead, he started his ace Jim Bunning on short rest, probably so he would be aligned to start Game 1 of the Series. This mistake was compounded the very next day by his rush to clinch the pennant, manifested by his using two pitchers--Rick Wise and Bobby Shantz--as effectively one starter in LA even though his starting rotation was in disarray because of injuries to Ray Culp and Dennis Bennett. This made Shantz unavailable two days later when Mauch desperately needed a seasoned southpaw--as opposed to an untested rookie lefty--to try to prevent the Dodgers from winning a game already in the 16th inning.

Then he overreacted to a string of defeats, especially to the Reds, that still left the Phillies in control of the pennant race with fewer than 10 games remaining, even if no longer in commanding control. Then, as the defeats piled on, Mauch panicked as he tried desperately to pick up wins by starting his two best pitchers--Bunning and Chris Short--twice consecutively on short rest, when they, and especially Bunning, would have been more effective with normal rest. In particular, starting both pitchers on short rest against Milwaukee, when Philadelphia still had the lead, was arguably a mistake that ultimately forced him to resort to doing so a second time in St. Louis as the Phillies' lead was now gone.

The Phillies lost the pennant by one game. Even if they had lost all of the games where Mauch had no obvious starting pitcher, Culp being unable to pitch because of his elbow and Bennett badly hampered by a bum shoulder, Bunning and Short would have been more likely to pitch effectively and gain a victory on normal rest--as Bunning proved in both of his stretch drive victories, against the Dodgers on September 20 (the usual four days after his short-rest start in Houston ended badly) and on the final day of the season (four days after his third start on short rest also ended badly). Just one additional win by both Bunning and Short, or two by either, could have changed the outcome of the pennant race. In effect, it may be that Mauch turned possible wins into losses by panicking rather than accepting losses for the sake of maximizing the odds of winning when his two best pitchers started.

If Mauch made his decision to start Bunning on September 16 in Houston on only two days' rest in order to line up his ace's remaining starts on normal rest with Game 1 of the World Series--and this seems to be the only plausible explanation, if you study the calendar--it suggests that at that point he took the pennant for granted. Mauch was apparently willing to risk a loss by Bunning on short rest for the purpose of setting him up for the Series even though the National League pennant had not yet been clinched. With a six-game lead at this point, there probably still would have been time enough for Mauch to arrange his rotation for Bunning to start Game 1 of the Series with the appropriate rest between his final regular season starts had he waited for the Phillies to officially cinch the pennant.

While the impact of his starting Bunning in Houston on September 16 could still have been mitigated had Mauch thereafter kept his ace on the normal schedule he apparently had planned, his decision had a cascading effect as the Phillies went into their 10-game losing streak because Bunning turned out not to be available to start against one of the remaining contending clubs, the Reds. In trying to prepare for the World Series, Gene Mauch outsmarted himself and forgot the importance of starting his best pitchers in their appropriate turns to keep them in rhythm.

Baseball has a way of punishing hubris.

This concludes Baseball Historical Insight's series on what happened in the epic collapse of the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies ... fifty years ago.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Nationals vs. Giants (1933)

The last time the Nationals and the Giants faced off in the post-season was in 1933. Of course, Washington was in the American League and playing in Griffith Stadium ... the Giants were in New York playing at the Polo Grounds ... they met in the World Series ... and they were on opposite trajectories.

Nationals vs. Giants (1933)

The Washington Nationals in 1933 were at what proved to be the end of the road for the longest period of success in Washington baseball that began with back-to-back pennants in 1924 and 1925 after the franchise had already become the back end of the old joke about being first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. For the ten years from 1924 to 1933, which included three pennants and a World Series triumph in 1924, the Nationals with their 878-651 (.574) record had the third-highest winning percentage in major league baseball. The New York Yankees, with four pennants, three World Series championships and a 926-607 (.604) record, and the Philadelphia Athletics, with three pennants, two World Series wins and a 917-605 (.602) record were the only teams who did better. Over in the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals won four pennants and two World Series in that time, but their record of 843-692 (.549) would have put them four games behind the Nationals in the equivalent of a single 154-game season.

Despite winning at least 90 games for three consecutive years from 1930 to 1932, the Nationals finished second once and third twice and never seriously contended for the pennant because the Athletics ran away from the field in 1930 and 1931 and the Yankees did the same in 1932. The Nationals made it four 90-win seasons in a row with 99--the most by any team in Washington's major league history--and their own runaway pennant in 1933 under their new manager, Joe Cronin, who was not only the best all-around shortstop in the American League but also owner Clark Griffith's son-in-law. Even though he was the manager, Cronin was the youngest player among the Nationals' core of eight position regulars, each of who played at least 131 of the team's 153 games.

Besides Cronin, the Nationals featured two other Hall of Fame players--outfielders Heinie Manush and Goose Goslin--in an imposing line-up that was third in the league in scoring after (yep) the Yankees and Athletics. With the best pitching in the league--paced by right-hander Alvin "General" Crowder (24-15) and southpaw Earl Whitehill (22-8), both 34-year-old veterans--the Nationals gave up the fewest runs in the American League and had the best run-differential of any AL team. (Crowder was nicknamed "General" after a real US Army General, Enoch Crowder, who in addition to being the brains behind the Selective Service System put in place to draft soldiers to fight for the US in World War I, actually commanded cavalry troops in the last of the Old West Indian Wars on the American frontier.)

The following post from last year, "The Rise and Fall of the 1933 Washington Nationals"-- in greater depth the make-up of this team.

The Nationals were only one game up on the Yankees after losing a double header to them in New York on August 7, but only two weeks later had an 8-1/2 game lead on the merits of a 13-game winning streak that for all intents broke the back of the Yankees. They eventually won the pennant by seven games to go to the World Series, where they met--

--The New York Giants, back at the top of the National League for the first time since 1924, when they lost the World Series to ... the Washington Nationals. Like Washington, the Giants were also led by a star player who was also their manager. First baseman Bill Terry was in his first full season as manager of the Giants after replacing John McGraw 41 games into the 1932 season. The Giants had been mostly inconsequential since their 1924 pennant in the waning years of their Napoleonic Era, but with Terry (who was a seldom-starting rookie for McGraw in 1924), pitching gem Carl Hubbell (a rookie in 1928) and right fielder Mel Ott (who broke into the starting line-up as a 19-year old, also in 1928) at or just entering the peak of their careers, the Giants were primed to win.

The 1933 Giants went into first place on June 4th and never again were forced to look up at a team ahead of them. But they did not have a relatively safe and secure lead until the beginning of September, and more because other would-be contenders--the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates--failed to keep pace rather than the Giants going on a hot streak similar to Washington's over in the American League. Both pennant-winning teams limped rather than surged into the World Series, the Giants losing eight of their last eleven games on the National League schedule, while the Nationals were losing six of their last ten over in the AL. It was the Giants who went on to win the World Series--only the fourth in franchise history to go with eleven pennants, and their first since 1922--in five games, the last two in extra innings. Hubbell pitched an 11-inning complete game to win Game 4, 2-1, with the one run he surrendered being unearned, and Ott hit a home run in the 10th inning of Game 5 to secure the championship.

Winning pennants again in both 1936 and 1937, Bill Terry's Giants might have become the first team in history to win five straight pennants (with 1933 their first) had they not squandered big leads in each of the two previous years. The 1934 Giants had a seven-game lead on September 6, but were done in by a 13-14 month of September while the Cardinals were going 21-7. Losing their last five games of the season and six of their last seven when they still had a three-game lead sealed the Giants' fate. The last two of those losses, famously, came on the last weekend of the season--which New York entered tied for first with St. Louis--when Terry's smart ass sound-bite back in spring training rhetorically asking whether Brooklyn was still in the league came back to bite him hard. And in 1935 the Giants held a nine-game lead over second-place St. Louis and were 10-1/2 ahead of the fourth-place Cubs on July 4th, presumably cruising to the pennant, only to finish the season 44-43 the rest of the way while Chicago went 62-23 to win the right to go to the World Series.

As for the Nationals, whatever expectations they might have had to remain competitive foundered on the fact that five of their starting position players were already in their 30s, as were three of their top four starting pitchers. Unable to make up for the toll of age and injuries to key players--notably Cronin and first baseman Joe Kuhel--the Nationals plummeted to seventh place with only 66 wins in 1934. The Nationals had a winning record in only three of the 26 years they had left in Washington before the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins. Two of those winning seasons were during World War II.