Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'50s Face Off: Indians Trio vs. Yankees Troika

The Cleveland Indians in the first half of the 1950s had one of the best front-three of any starting rotation in baseball history, as noted in a  previous post, "Maddux. Glavine. And Smoltz" (  From 1949, when they first pitched together off the same mound in Cleveland, through 1954 Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn together with Mike Garcia were three of the five best pitchers in the American League, based on their cumulative pitcher's wins above replacement. (Boston's Mel Parnell and Chicago's Billy Pierce were the two others.)  The Yankees, meanwhile, had their own starting troika of renown with Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi and Eddie Lopat.  While not the measure of Lemon, Wynn and Garcia, Reynolds, Raschi and Lopat are better known as a Pitching Trio for the Ages because they were the heart on the mound for a New York Yankee team that won five straight World Series championships, whereas the Indians were near-perennial bridesmaids.  This Insight looks at the how the two staffs fared facing off against each other as they competed for the American League pennant.

'50s Face Off:  Indians Trio vs. Yankees Troika

Superior pitching was a hallmark of the rivalry between both teams going back to 1948, the first year Reynolds (acquired by the Yankees from the Indians in 1947), Raschi (called up to stay in 1947) and Lopat (acquired from the White Sox before the season) worked the mound at Yankee Stadium as teammates. Cleveland took the pennant in a one-game playoff against Boston in 1948, and New York finished a close third, but the Yankees were the only team to have a winning record (12-10) against the Indians.  Reynolds (4-1), Lopat (5-2) and Raschi (3-1) accounted for all twelve of the Yankees anti-Cleveland dia-Tribe.  In this year before Wynn (by trade) and Garcia (as a rookie) made it to Cleveland, the Indians' top two starters--Bob Feller (2-4), still the staff ace, and Lemon (1-3), in the first of his six 20-win seasons--managed only three victories between them against the Yankees, losing seven times, but not at the cost of a pennant.

New York again won the season series between the two teams in 1949 (12-10) and 1950 (14-8) on their way to the first two of five straight pennants.  The Yankees' troika won 20 of their 26 victories, while losing 9, with Lopat beating the Indians six times without a loss in 1950.  Lemon, Wynn and Garcia won 11 of the 18 games the Indians beat the Yankees and lost 13.  Feller, still a pillar of Cleveland's staff was 3-8 against the Yankees those two years.  Although the Indians led the league in both nominal ERA (that which appears in the record books) and adjusted ERA (which takes account of home park effects and the offensive level of the time) in 1949 and 1950, winning 89 and 92 games those seasons, they were not a significant threat to the Yankees going to the World Series either year.

From 1951 to 1956, it was the Yankees and the Indians finishing first and second every year in the American League, except for 1954 when it was the other way around.  The Indians faced off against the Yankees in three close pennant races not decided till the final week of the season and lost them all. Cleveland's inability to beat out New York more than once was reflected in their season series with the Yankees.  In 1951, the Tribe was a game ahead of the Yankees with only ten remaining when they went into New York in mid-September for a two-game series. Reynolds and Lopat each threw complete game victories over Feller and Lemon, the Indians scoring only two runs in the two games. Cleveland left New York a game down but clearly defeated for the seasons, winning only three of its remaining eight games, while the Yankees won nine of their last twelve, deciding the pennant by five games in favor of New York. The 1951 Yankees overwhelmed the Indians in their season series, winning 15 of 22 games. Their trio of big-game starters—Reynolds (5-1 against Cleveland), Raschi (3-2), and Lopat (5-2)—won 13 of those 15 games, while losing five. For Cleveland, Feller—who led the league in wins with 22 in his last outstanding season—won only two of six decisions against New York, while Lemon (3-3), Wynn (1-4) and Garcia (1-3) accounted for the remainder of the Indians' seven triumphs over the Yankees, but also for ten losses. The Indians’ formidable pitching—they led the league in ERA, lowest batting average and on-base percentage against, and fewest home runs surrendered—held the Yankees to their second lowest run total against any team in the league, but the Bronx Bombers still outscored the Tribe by an average of one run per game, 99 runs (4.5 per game) to 78 (3.5 per game). 

In 1952, the Indians could get no closer than half-a-game out in the final three weeks, but never trailed by more than 2½ before being eliminated with only two games left to the season.  Cleveland was last in first place on August 22, when Garcia beat Reynolds to boost the Indians into a tie with the Yankees, but the next day a 1-0 shutout by Raschi over Wynn left New York atop the standings alone, and the Yankees never had to so much as share the lead again in a pennant they won by a mere two games. The Indians fared better head-to-head against the Yankees in 1952 but still lost the series, winning 10 and losing 12. As befitting the only other team in the American League to win 90 games, Cleveland held the Yankees to their worst record against AL teams and was the only team to batter New York pitchers, who led the league in ERA, for 100 runs. The Yankees, for their part, scored 105 runs against the Indians. This time the Yankees’ trio of starters had an 8-7 record against the Indians, while Lemon, Wynn and Garcia went 7-6, with Feller—at the beginning of the end of his great career (9-13 on the season)—winning one of four decisions against New York. 

The Yankees won their first run-away pennant under Stengel in 1953 and were never behind in the standings after only their seventh game of the season. Not that it did them any good, but this time the Indians split their season series, once again being the most difficult team for New York to beat. Reynolds pitched mostly in relief in 1953 and had no decisions against Cleveland; Raschi and Lopat won five and lost three.  All three of the Yankee starters, however, were in their mid-30s and none pitched 200 innings or started more than 26 games.  Lemon and Wynn, by now in their early 30s, and Garcia each started at least 34 games on the season and worked in excess of 250 innings.  Against the Yankees, they combined for an 11-9 record, accounting for all but two of the Indians’ decisions over New York. The two teams split their series again in 1954, this time with Cleveland winning the pennant decisively—by eight games—or as decisively as can be, considering the runner-up Yankees won 103 games of their own. Reynolds and Lopat won five and lost three against the Indians, and Raschi was denied any ability to contribute having been unceremoniously banished to the Cardinals in a pre-season trade. Lemon and Wynn went 8-5 against the Yankees, while Garcia failed to gain a victory in three decisions. This was the first time in the four years that the Indians outscored the Yankees in the season series, but just barely by 99 to 95. 

Finally, in 1955, the Indians beat the Yankees in their season series, taking 13 of 22 games, but lost the pennant by three games. This was the first time in the Stengel era that the Yankees lost a season series to any pennant race rival, of whom they faced off against eleven from 1949 to 1955. The Indians’ trio of aces had an 8-8 record against the Yankees, while New York’s vaunted trio was no longer there. But, of course, New York again came out on top of the AL standings.  And in 1956, the last year that the Indians were in any way competitive with the Yankees, Lemon, Wynn and Garcia went 6-10 against New York--who won the season series, 12 games to 10--and major league baseball's newest phenom, Herb Score, beat the Yankees three times in four decisions.

New York's trio had the edge over Cleveland's going head-to-head in the three years, 1951 to 1953, that both teams' top threesome were intact and the Yankees and Indians were the only teams directly competing for the American League pennant.   Allie Reynolds (7-5), Vic Raschi (10-4) and Ed Lopat (9-5) combined for 26 wins and 14 losses against the Indians--a .650 winning percentage, not far off their excellent collective .668  winning percentage (147-73) for those three seasons. Cleveland's top three starters combined for a 180-110 (.620) record from 1951 to 1953 and threw more than a third as many innings as New York's top three, but were only 23-25 against the Yankees, with Bob Lemon having a losing 8-9 record against the Bronx Bombers and Early Wynn a losing 6-9 record. Mike Garcia alone had a winning record against the pinstripers during those years at 9-7.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Yankees won all three pennants.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Distinction With a Difference in the Bonds, Clemens and Rose Hall of Fame Conundrum

With the Hall of Fame class of 2014 complete, their induction this summer will bring the number enshrined in Cooperstown to 306.  That number would be at least 310 had Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens not tarnished their great diamond accomplishments by their close association with steroids, and Pete Rose not violated the foremost Thou Shalt Not in major league baseball by betting on baseball games.  Rose alone among them, however, was barred from even being considered for Hall of Fame honors by Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) members eligible to cast ballots. This Insight suggests there is a meaningful distinction between the use of performance enhancing drugs--a betrayal of sportsmanship that undermines the integrity of both achievement and statistical records--and betting on baseball as Rose did (and as a manager, no less), which is a betrayal of our trust in the integrity of the game itself.

Distinction With a Difference in the Bonds, Clemens and Rose Hall of Fame Conundrum

Kostya Kennedy, whose book, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is due out in March, published an op ed article in the January 6 edition of The New York Times, "Give Rose a Shot at the Hall of Fame,", advocating that Rose "deserves his day of judgment" in BBWAA Hall of Fame voting.  Just as the balloting has concluded (so far, at least) that the performance enhancing drug (PED) allegations surrounding superstar players Clemens, Bonds and McGwire override their exceptional performances on the field of play, Kennedy argues it should be BBWAA electors--not major league baseball's permanently banished list--that determine whether Rose's betting on baseball games should preclude his residency in Cooperstown.  While sympathetic to this viewpoint, and even though Rose's prospects seem likely to be no greater than those who sold their soul to the PED devil for baseball immortality, I would argue there is a significant distinction that should not be lost between the sins of steroid users against the game and those of Pete Rose.

Much has been said about how the integrity of the game has been compromised by performance enhancing drugs like steroids and human growth hormone, particularly the credibility of sanctified baseball records broken by players presumed to have used such drugs.  The wonderful thing about baseball history, however, is that for those who care about it (and there are legions of us), there is an understanding of context in time and place which precludes the need to expunge their accomplishments as if they never happened or even the need to attach asterisks (although I would not be averse to this option).  The 1990s and the first half-decade of the twenty-first century will forever be known as the “steroids era” in baseball history, and the outsized accomplishments of that era (included sustained great performances by players well past their primes) will be evaluated in that historical context.

Because we can never know definitively who was taking what when, there are undoubtedly some players on whom suspicion will undeservedly be cast.  But the suspicions cast on McGwire, Bonds, Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, for that matter, seem deserved.  Their feats after they allegedly began using PEDs are legitimately open to question, to the point where their reputations are in tatters. But the irony is that Bonds and Clemens did so in search of greater immortality than they had already legitimately earned, forgetting there is no such thing as "greater" immortality. Immortality is immortality, and they were both there--the Hall of Fame waiting for them at the end of their careers.  For McGwire (if his Juiced teammate Jose Canseco's account is to be believed) and A-Rod, on the other hand, their entire careers are under a cloud.

Unfortunately, in the intensely competitive world of professional sports (baseball certainly included), sportsmanship--loosely identified with the trite saying, "it doesn't matter whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game that counts"--is often cast aside by players, managers, and teams writ large seeking an edge, any advantage they can get away with. Whether we’re talking about tricks played by the 1890s Baltimore Orioles of John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson (like hiding baseballs in the outfield grass or holding up base runners by grabbing their belt buckles), scuffing baseballs and throwing illegal pitches, using corked bats, stealing another team’s signals (especially from outside the confines of the playing field), or any number of other nefarious schemes, the ethic of sportsmanship has always been compromised on the diamond.

Using steroids and taking human growth hormone (or whatever the next designed performance-enhancer will be) does indeed do more than those other things to undermine the credibility and integrity of accomplishments, but does not necessarily undermine the integrity of the game itself.  It is players seeking an unfair and illegal advantage, to be sure, but the games played on the field still unfold according to rules, the strategies employed, and players’ execution.  A betrayal of sportsmanship does not compromise the basic integrity of the games as played.

A betrayal of trust--which is what betting on baseball certainly is--on the other hand, does compromise the integrity of the game, because the manager or players involved can deliberately effect the outcome based on the decisions and actions they take or fail to make.  We trust that the games are not fixed.  That is why Pete Rose’s sin of betting on baseball is irredeemable and why his lifetime ban is absolutely correct, even though there is no reason to believe he ever bet on baseball during his indisputably Hall of Fame-caliber playing career.  It does not matter that he never bet against his own team.  The edict against betting on baseball has been fiercely uncompromising since the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  It has to be, because the integrity of the game depends on it.

While in no way intending to diminish the gravity of what they did, all of the others who were banished for life from organized baseball prior to Rose--including Shoeless Joe Jackson, who has had many advocate on his behalf for Hall of Fame consideration--were players who conspired to fix games on behalf of gamblers.  Not managers.  Pete Rose was the first manager to be banned.  Whether player or manager, the damage to the integrity of the game is irreparable—betting on baseball is a betrayal of our trust in the game—but what Rose did was particularly insidious precisely because he was the manager.

Players' performances certainly determine the outcome of games, but a manager controls the game.  He is the "decider," to borrow a phrase once used by an even more important decision-maker than a baseball manager. Every decision a manager makes, and there are countless decisions in every game, can affect the outcome.  Never mind that Rose said that he never bet against his own team, implicitly reassuring us that he was managing every game to win.  Why should we not believe him?  Rose was such a competitor that it is impossible to fathom that he would ever manage to lose.  But how could we ever be sure that his betting on baseball did not affect his judgment as a manager, once a man—and manager—to whom is entrusted the integrity of the game betrays that trust?  Obviously Rose’s gambling was an addiction (he bet on all sports), and obviously his gambling debts were a grave concern to him; he needed them to go away, to reconcile with his bookies.  That’s a lot at stake, and a lot to have on his mind.  Once Pete Rose decided to go down the path of betting on baseball, and especially betting on his own team, his integrity as a manager was hopelessly compromised and one can never be sure what impact that had on the games he managed.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Radio Games

The bitter cold in the dead of winter in most parts of major league baseball's North American empire brings to mind how nice it would be to cozy in and listen to a game on the radio.  Cold winter nights are a time to gather around and embrace stories, after all, and every baseball game has its own story, which is particularly well suited to radio narrative. 

Radio Games

Baseball on the radio is like an audio book for easy and absorbing listening on a long drive or just relaxing at home, but dating far back in time to before audio books were even conceived.  Because there are no visuals, radio play-by-players are storytellers, and storytelling is an art form.  Their words and descriptions (copyrighted, of course) provide a vivid picture in the listener's mind's eye of all that is happening, covering the full breadth of the ball field whenever the action so demands.  They engage us listeners as familiar voices, almost on a personal level, sometimes into the latest hours of the night or the wee hours of the morning (whichever you prefer) for those of us on the East Coast listening to our teams play on the West Coast.  

As has certainly been poetically romanticized before, they are like family, which is why the baseball radio voices we grew up with are so beloved and never forgotten.  It is why the best in the business become emblematic of the very teams whose games they call, sometimes even more iconic than the great players whose feats they narrate and extol--because, while players come and go, even the great ones, radio voices seem eternal.  For sure, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, Maury Wills, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax, the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield that held together for nearly a decade, Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser all were heroes in Dodger blue, but their time in that blue was short-lived, not necessarily even relevant to the following generations of Dodger fans, compared to the instantly-recognizable voice of Dodgers baseball now going on 65 years, Vin Scully.  And it is why, for 162 games every year, we are loyal to, and feel most at home with, the baseball radio personalities whose voices reach our cars and homes in the city or region we live, even if we are not necessarily fans of the teams whose games they call (because so many Americans are transplanted far from where we grew up and where our rooting interests may be still--just ask the plentiful Yankee or Red Sox or Cardinals or Cubs fans all across this great land).  

For me, living in the Washington, DC, area--sixty miles south of Baltimore--my radio guys are Charlie Slowes and Dave Jaggler, who call the Washington Nationals' games, and Joe Angel and Fred Manfra, on the Baltimore Orioles' radio network.  Call me doubly blessed. When a game's on the radio, I don't even mind the traffic congestion and will usually wait out an inning in my car after pulling up the driveway.  For me, the most vivid call in recent memory, because it turned out to be so poignant, was Charlie Slowes screaming over the crowd, "Can it get any better than this?  Yes it can!" when Nationals Park was rocking with excitement and expectation (visions of a World Series dancing in heads) as the 2012 Nationals, up 7-5 in the ninth inning of Game 5, were one strike away from advancing to the NLCS--only to never get that last strike as the Cardinals ruined the dream by scoring four times before finally giving Washington that 27th out.   

On radio, the baseball as narrative format lends itself to short form or long.  If you followed the New York Mets last season, five games were the length of an epic novel going at least 15 innings and lasting more than five hours, with compelling turns and plot twists.  And Mets announcers Howie Rose and Josh Lewin narrated them all.  For baseball in the long-story form in particular, the oral (aural) traditional of storytelling can be just as absorbing as the visual of watching on TV or being at the ballpark with the advantage that the listener in their home, in their car on the road, or even in the office can do other things or just sit back and enjoy and be fully apprised of the situation, the possibilities, and the action.  The visual requires a more demanding commitment, making it more likely the person watching or just being there will tire of what may seem like a never-ending spectacle and go forth and do other things.  

From my perspective, the elements of the best radio baseball broadcasts include the play-by-play team setting up at the beginning a story line to frame expectations (is there something specific besides the outcome of the game that is at stake?  is there a particularly compelling match-up? who's hot? is a particular player struggling); identifying a narrative arc as the game develops (is a pitcher in command of his stuff or not?  is there an on-field incident that increases tensions? how are umps calling the game?); and providing telling details in their play-by-play (insightful analysis that proves prescient, relevant observations about players' positioning and posture on the field, dissecting defensive alignments in key situations, providing atmospherics about the ballpark and the fan experience) . The best commentary and analysis are absorbing and informative and have the merit of satisfying the well-versed baseball listener with all that he or she might want to know while at the same time keeping listeners who are much less knowledgeable about the game fully informed on what is happening.  The best announcers do so without sounding superficially simplistic to the knowledgeable fan or too technical or esoteric to the less-versed. If a non-baseball fan happened onto their play-by-play on the radio on any given night (just to listen to something easy and relaxing), he or she will be drawn into an absorbing story complete with plot lines and character development that can carry them to another world. 

Particularly with really cold weather and possible snow on the way within days here in the DC area, I can hardly wait for Charlie and Dave, Joe and Fred back at the mike.