Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Schools of Thought on the 1919 Black Sox

My previous post on the 1916 New York Giants concluded by noting that their loss the following year to the Chicago White Sox in the 1917 World Series set the stage for one of baseball history's most compelling dramas--the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  Much has been made of how good--or even great--that disgraced Chicago team was.  This Baseball Historical Insight addresses the question:  just how good were the White Sox-turned-Black Sox in the greater sweep of the best teams in history.

Three Schools of Thought on the 1919 Black Sox

The outlines of the Black Sox scandal are well known, so no need to replay that here.  As if the damage to the integrity of the game was not enough, requiring the establishment of an all-powerful Commissioner and--enter from stage right field--the transformational presence of the homerific Babe to repair, the cautionary tale this story tells is dramatically bolstered by the idea that the White Sox were a great team that squandered their historical legacy by the avarice of their "eight men out."  Thus the mythology that the 1919 and 1920 Chicago White Sox were one of baseball's best teams ever, done in by greed.  This assessment was based on their 1917 championship, when the White Sox won the pennant in convincing fashion with 100 wins and a nine-game margin of victory over Boston before taking out the Giants in six games in the World Series; their  cruising to the AL pennant in 1919--(after a disastrous sixth-place finish the previous year mostly because many of the team's best players were lost to war industries during World War I)--with 88 victories in an abbreviated 140-game schedule that would have translated to 97 over a full 154-game season, only to fall prey in the World Series to gamblers (and the Reds, Cincinnati fans have every right to insist); their winning 96 games in 1920, battling the Indians and Yankees in a tight race all through September until their season came undone when news of the scandal broke at the end of the month; and, finally, a player roster starring Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins (possibly the greatest second baseman in history), Ray Schalk (a Hall of Fame catcher), Eddie Cicotte (one of the best pitchers of his era), and Red Faber (a Hall of Fame pitcher for whom 1919 was a lost season because of illness and injury).

Playing into this great team mythology, various accounts of the time from players and the press box suggest that the White Sox were only as good as they wanted to be, able to ramp up their level of effort when it counted but often merely just going through the motions to stay in a competitive holding pattern.  (The irony of this assessment, of course, is that underachievement is not typically thought to be a such good thing.)  When they had to win, they won.  In 1916, for example, they set the stage for their 1917 pennant by ending the season with 24 wins in their last 33 games to move from also-ran fourth-place status to finishing second, only two games behind the Red Sox.  The White Sox blew the 1917 pennant race open with an 18-1 surge that straddled the end of August and the first half of September.  The 1919 race was never as competitive as Chicago's final 3-1/2 game margin would suggest; the White Sox were in command after mid-July, but it was 12 wins in their first 16 games in September that secured their second American League title in three years (after which they closed the season by losing six of their last seven games--when nothing was anymore at stake).  And in 1920, the White Sox did not challenge for first place until August, getting down to business with the league's best record after trailing by five games in third place on August 7.  The 1920 White Sox went on a September surge, winning 18 of 26 games to stay in the middle of a hot three-team race before being derailed, only half-a-game out of first place at the time, by the scandalous revelations about the previous World Series.

There followed, however, the revisionist sentiment whose story line went:  while conspiring with gamblers was indisputably wrong, 'twas tightwad owner Charles Comiskey's miserliness made them do it, and Shoeless Joe was a naive pawn who got caught up in the fix, but did not personally participate in the fix.  Payroll ledgers recovered many years later by Bill Veeck when he owned the club suggested that, however tightfisted Comiskey may have been and however true it was that some of his players--most notably Jackson and Cicotte--were underpaid for their actual worth as ball players, the White Sox in general were paid fair market value for their talent and services.  And defenders of Shoeless Joe make much of how well he and fellow Black Sox third baseman Buck Weaver played in the World Series, particularly offensively; Jackson had 12 hits to tie the World Series record, batted .375, and had 6 RBI, while Weaver had 11 hits and hit .324.  Many subtle things, however, could have been done, and apparently were by both men, to affect the outcome of games--missing hit-and-run signs, for example, or overthrowing the cutoff man, or failing to take an extra base, or stupidly trying for an extra base and being thrown out--precisely the sort of things that would drive the baseball-savvy Eddie Collins to conniptions.  Such things were observed at the time, though not understood in context, by scribes in the press box and "clean" players in both dugouts.

And finally there is the revisionist history, currently in vogue and largely based on statistical analysis: that whoever played whatever part in the conspiracy, the 1917, 1919, and 1920 White Sox were a good team, but hardly a great team and certainly not one of the best teams in baseball history.  They had two of the greatest players in history still at the peak of their careers in Joe Jackson and Eddie Collins, and Eddie Cicotte--who was 28-12 in 1917, 29-7 in 1919, and 21-10 in 1920--was one of the best pitchers in the game at the time.  Center fielder Happy Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and catcher Ray Schalk were three of the better players in the league, but were not the best at their positions; there were any number of better outfielders than Felsch, Larry Gardner was the league's best third baseman, and Wally Schang the best catcher.  The 1917-20 White Sox were not strong at every position.  First base (Chick Gandil), shortstop (Swede Risberg), and right field (a platoon involving the left-handed Nemo Liebold and the right-handed Shano Collins) were positions of weakness, not just on the team but relative to the league.  While pitching was a strength of the team, Lefty Williams, despite back-to-back 20-win seasons, was not one of the best at his craft in the league and was likely overrated, and Red Faber, who was 23-13 in 1920, was just coming into his own as one of the league's best pitchers.

On balance, I'm with the revisionist history school.  The 1917-20 Chicago White Sox were a very good team, but not a dominant team, and certainly not a great team.  That said, were it not for the contemptible machinations of their gang of eight, the White Sox might well have won the 1920 pennant; they were half-a-game behind and about to play the fair-to-middling St. Louis Browns for their final three games of the season when the scandal hit the news and the implicated players were banished by owner Comiskey.  And, had this team continued on with its best players and bolstered positions of weakness by integrating some of the players who joined the White Sox in the early 1920s--in particular first baseman Earl Sheely, outfielders Bibb Falk and Johnny Mostil, and third baseman Willie Kamm--they would have remained a competitive team and might have delayed the emergence of the Yankee dynasty.  That "what if" argument is made in a chapter on the 1916-20 White Sox and 1920-24 Yankees in my online manuscript,, from which this article is adapted. The following is a link to the chapter:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The 1916 Giants: Two Very Long Winning Streaks Not Enough to Compete

The Toronto Blue Jays have won 11 straight and 14 of their last 16, but that may not be enough to insinuate themselves into the AL East race because of their unexpectedly bad start to the 2013 season.  This Baseball Historical Insight recalls that the 1916 New York Giants set the record for the longest winning streak in major league history, also had the second-longest winning streak that season of any big league team, and still could do no better than finish fourth in the National League. 

The 1916 Giants:  Two Very Long Winning Streaks Not Enough to Compete

After winning three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, and being beaten in the World Series all three times, John McGraw's New York Giants suffered the indignity of being overtaken by the "Miracle" Boston Braves, who were in last place as late as July 18 and wound up winning the 1914 pennant race by 10-1/2 games over the Giants.  After that debacle, the Giants went down like a rock, finishing dead last in 1915.  The next year the Giants recovered enough to finish fourth in 1916 (just seven out), and in 1917 all was right in McGraw's world again when his team won its fourth pennant of the decade by a very comfortable 10-game margin.

The 1917 pennant was set up by a furious finish in 1916, with McGraw managing the Giants to 30 wins in their last 38 games of the season after September 1. This included an astonishing 26 consecutive victories that began on September 7, when they had a losing record of 59-62 and were 13-1/2 games behind in fourth place, and didn't end until the second game of a double-header on September 30, when the Boston Braves scored five runs in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie.  Unfortunately for the Giants, their 26-game winning streak was too little, too late, coming in the final month of the season.  They were still fourth when it ended, but had narrowed the gap between them and first-place Brooklyn to five games.  Alas, there were only five games remaining on the 1916 schedule of games.  New York's 26-game winning streak included a 27th game--the nightcap of a September 18 double-header--that was tied at 1-1 when called because of darkness.  Including that twin-bill against the Pirates, the Giants played eight double-headers during their streak, winning both games in six of them before losing that second game to the Braves on September 30.

This being long before airplanes made travel between big league cities far less time-consuming, all 26 consecutive wins came at the Polo Grounds as part of a 31-game home stand over 26 days in September.  The Giants played all seven other National League teams during their streak, outscoring their opponents by 89 runs, 122 to 33.  Nine of the 26 wins were shutouts, including back-to-back shutouts on two separate occasions and three shutouts in a row against the Braves before Boston finally got on the scoreboard to end New York's winning streak.  The Braves had been held scoreless in the first 30 innings of their four-game set at the Polo Grounds before finally scoring a pair of runs in the fourth inning of the fourth game on their way to ultimately an 8-3 win.  Jeff Tesreau, the ace of McGraw's pitching staff won seven of the 26 games, raising his record from 11-13 to 18-13; he finished the season at 18-14, losing the Giants' season finale.

As astounding as 26-in-a-row was, it was the Giants' second substantial winning streak of the 1916 season.  After getting off to a terrible start, winning only two of their first 15 games and finding themselves already 8-1/2 behind (making it seem like 1915 all over again), McGraw's guys reeled off 17 straight from May 9 to 29, putting them within a game-and-a-half of Brooklyn at the top.  In counterpoise to the 26 straight they would win in September, this winning streak was all on the road during the Giants' first western swing of the season.  The Giants outscored their opponents by 79 runs, 113 to 34, and had two shutout victories.  The second of those shutouts, coming on May 29 in Boston to extend the Giants' streak to 17, was by Christy Mathewson--the last of 79 he threw in his career.  It was also the 371st win of his career.  At 35 years old, Mathewson made only two more starts and would win only one more game for the Giants (in relief) before being traded to Cincinnati in July for the opportunity to manage.  It was in a Reds uniform that Matty won one final game for his career resume.

Let's see.  That's 17 in a row, and then 26 in a row . . . and the New York Giants only finished fourth?  No other team in the National League won more than eight in a row in 1916, which was the longest streak for both first-place Brooklyn and second-place Philadelphia, and the only American League team to come close was the fifth-place St. Louis Browns, who ran off a streak of 14 straight in July and August.  The Giants' two winning streaks accounted for fully half of their 86 victories in 1916, meaning that the rest of the year they went 43-66.  That's 23 games under .500.  If it appeared the Giants were set to compete after their 17 straight wins in May, that expectation was dashed by July 4 when they found themselves in fifth place, 8-1/2 games in the hole.  It certainly did not help that the Giants were outscored in their other 109 games by 21 percent, 437 runs for their opponents to 362 for them.

Two long winning streaks did not make the Giants competitive in the 1916 pennant race, but primed them to dominate the league the next season.  Although their longest winning streak in 1917 was only six games, the Giants had a nine-game lead by the end of July and led by as many as 13 games in mid-August.  Their triumphant return to the top ended on a sour note, however.  McGraw's Giants not only failed once again to win a World Series in 1917, but played foil to the Chicago White Sox by setting the groundwork for the myth that the "say it ain't so Shoeless Joe" White Sox of that era were one of the greatest teams in history, derailed only by the greed and/or naivete of their "eight men out."  But that is another story.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Multi-Position Regulars

With Miguel Cabrera aiming towards a possible second consecutive Triple Crown season, it is worth pondering, at what position should he take up residence as one of MLB's all-time greats, his having shifted from third to first and back again in his career.  This Baseball Historical Insight makes a case for recognizing players whose best years were as "multi-position regulars."

Multi-Position Regulars

Avid baseball fans, baseball historians, and (for that matter) MLB network in some of its off-season programming are inherently inclined towards making lists of the best players through history at each position.  The comprehensiveness and integrity of major league baseball's statistical record, which has been enhanced in recent decades by advanced statistical analysis, lends itself well to precisely this pursuit.  But lists of the best players at each position are invariably limited by the nine individual positions on the field, so that a choice must be made on where to position players who were regulars at different positions, sometimes in the same season.  For the most part, these decisions are made based on career totals of what position a given player played most often.  Tony Perez, for example, even though his best years as measured by the wins above replacement (WAR) metric of player value were mostly when he played third base for the Reds, is generally listed as a first baseman on career lists because he played 70 percent of his games at that position.  I propose, therefore, that it might be useful to distinguish players who were core regulars on their teams at multiple positions from those clearly identifiable with a specific position.

"Multi-position regulars" can be grouped into two broad categories, each with its own subset.  The first category are players who started at multiple positions for most, or the totality, of the best years in their career.  In some cases, their versatility made them prime candidates to switch positions from one year to the next, or even within seasons, depending on the needs of their team.  In others, their switching positions was more a matter of offsetting defensive liabilities (which often they carried from one position to another) by their must-have-in-the-lineup batting prowess.  Two of baseball's historically greatest players were multi-position regulars during the best years of their careers--Stan Musial, who alternated between the outfield and first base his entire career (often in the same season), and Harmon Killebrew, who did the same between first and third (and even the outfield for two years).  Neither  played any four straight years as a regular exclusively at one position.  Musial's first three years were in the outfield, his next two (after spending 1945 in the military) primarily at first, then two as an outfielder, two seasons (1950 and 1951) alternating between first and the outfield, the next three in the outfield, 1955 at first, 1956 at first and in the outfield, and the next three primarily at first before his career began to wind down with Stan the Man not-quite full-time.  Killebrew's career progression as a regular began with one season at third (1959), followed by two alternating between first and third, two in the outfield, and all his remaining years at either first or third.

The subset of this first broad category are those players whose athleticism allowed them to play any number of infield positions, including up the middle.  Gil McDougald, who had a ten-year career with the Yankees from 1951 to 1960, was the quintessential multi-position regular.  McDougald gave Casey Stengel--the only major league manager he ever played for--the prized redundancy the Old Perfessor coveted for his infield.  McDougald could, and did, play anywhere in the infield except for first base, always fielding his position well and remaining a dangerous hitter all the while. After platooning at third base and also playing second in his rookie season, McDougald was the Yankees' regular third baseman in 1952 and 1953, moved over to second base the next two years when Billy Martin was in the Army, was the Yankees' primary shortstop in 1956 and 1957 after Phil Rizzuto's first two successors didn't quite work out, and was back to being the second baseman in 1958 before ending his career coming off the bench.  In the 1,221 games McDougald started for the Yankees, 516 (42 percent) were at second, 436 (35 percent) at third, and 269 (22 percent) at short.

The second category of multi-position regulars are the crossover years when a player switched from one position to another.  Robin Yount, who shifted from shortstop to center field in 1985, and Alex Rodriguez, who shifted from shortstop to third base when he came to the Yankees in 2004, are classic examples of crossover players.  Crossover years for analytical purposes, however, are limited to a maximum of six years, including no more than three years at either position, so in many (if not most) cases, the best years of a player who changed positions are likely to be at one position or the other.  Yount's best years as a player, for example, were at shortstop.  A-Rod was one of the greatest shortstops in history in the first eight years of his career, and then became one of the greatest third basemen in history over the next five years (although how much of his "greatness" was "enhanced" appears increasingly not so much an open question as a question of, by how much).  

The subset of this second broad category are players whose best years included their crossover years from one position to another.  Johnny Pesky, for his best years of 1942 to 1949 (not including three years, 1943-45, serving in World War II), is a compelling example of such a player.  After establishing himself as one of the American League's best shortstop in his first three major league seasons, with every expectation of a long  career at the position, Pesky switched to third in 1948 when the Red Sox acquired power-hitting shortstop Vern Stephens.  Babe Ruth, however, perhaps should be considered the premier player in this category during his Red Sox years of 1915 to 1919, whose transition from outstanding pitcher to outfielder to take advantage of his prodigious power began in 1918.

As outstanding as Miguel Cabrera has been for most of his career, if he continues playing at the level he is now, his best consecutive years as a player will have been 2009 through 2013.  These years include his changing positions in 2012 from first to third so the Tigers could accommodate the acquisition of Prince Fielder to play first base.  Other prominent multi-position regulars in recent years include infielder-outfielder Martin Prado, infielder Michael Young (from second to short to third), and infielder Placido Polanco (second and third).

Based on their best consecutive years as measured by the WAR metric, the five best multi-position regulars in the National League since 1901 were: 1) Stan Musial ; 2) Frankie Frisch from 1921 to 1927, playing all around the infield until finally settling full time as the second baseman for which he is remembered; 3) Roger Bresnahan, best known as an innovative catcher but who played mostly in the outfield in the first two of his best playing years from 1903 to 1908; 4) Frank Robinson from 1956 to 1960, playing primarily the outfield his first three years in Cincinnati and first base the next two before moving full-time back to the outfield; and 5) Dick, then known as "Richie," Allen alternating between third and the outfield from his rookie season of 1964 to 1969.

Ruth is arguably the American League's best-ever multi-position regular, followed by: 2)  Killebrew; 3) Paul Molitor for his best years from 1987 to 1993, during which he transitioned from third base to become a designated hitter; 4) McDougald; and 5) Pesky.

A comprehensive listing of the best multi-position regulars in each league, successively over the 100 years of the twentieth century and through the first decade of this one, who played more than one position over any given five-year period can be found in Transparency Annex B of my online manuscript,, at the following link: