Peter at the Plate – Play Ball!

Spring is in the air! Opening Day is less than 2 weeks away! Every major league team can say that they have a shot at the World Series right now. This week’s column celebrates baseball, with a potpourri of interesting facts.

A major league baseball club enters Spring Training with a core of established players. There are additional “non roster” a) invitees, as well as off season trade and free agent acquisitions, “can’t miss” rookies (some of whom sadly do) and ageing veterans trying for one last “hurrah”. All of these men are attempting to make the trip north, or the trip south, in the case of the Florida Marlins, as members of the “Opening Day” roster for their particular team.

Spring Training is a time of mixed emotions such as elation, sadness, disappointment and surprise. Each team looks at the players in camp, and decides which ones would be best suited to helping the organization achieve its goals, the ultimate of which is, of course, the World Series Championship. New comers have only a short time to make a favourable impression on the coaching staff, and struggles at the plate or bad outings as a pitcher can spell doom for a player’s career prospects, at least with that organization.  A lot of movement can result as players get released b) or are sent to the minors. Some are signed by other major league clubs, but for many of them, the dream dies. Yesteryear’s “can’t miss prospect” becomes today’s “waiver wire pickup” c).

“Major League Baseball” has existed in North America since the 1880’s, focussed at that time on the north eastern and north central part of the United States. Advances in transportation(i.e. trains to planes) and communication (i.e. telegraph to telephone and beyond) enabled it to grow to its current form. I’m going to shed a little light for you on this process, with some random anecdotes and facts. 1903 will be our starting point, as that is considered to be the start of baseball’s “Modern Era”. Enjoy the ride.

Between 1903 and 1919, the leading home run hitter in the American League hit as many as 13, and as few as 7 home runs. In seven of these seasons, the leader didn’t even reach double figures! In 1919 however, Babe Ruth hit an astounding 29, and home run hitting was  changed forever. He set the single season individual record in 1927, with 60 homers. This record lasted until 1961, when Roger Maris and his better known, (better liked?) teammate Mickey Mantle battled it out until the end of the season, Maris hitting 61 with an asterisk d). During the season he suffered from hair loss and other nervous afflictions brought on by the stress of this pursuit.

When Ruth retired in 1935, he held the major league individual career home run record of 714, an amazing feat considering the “dead ball” era he played in. This record stood until 1974, when Hank Aaron topped it early in the season. Aaron, who is black, received hate mail and death threats once it became obvious that he would break the record. Classy person that he is, he kept playing. He didn’t let hatred or fear beat him down. (Maybe we should learn from his example!)

In the late 90s and the early 00s, individual season home run records in the National League were shattered, culminating with Barry Bonds and his incredible total of 73 in 2001. However, these feats were simply a rehash of the old adage “Better Living Through Chemistry”, and sit on the pages of the record books like your neighbour’s fluorescent orange painted retaining wall. You hate to look at it, but you can’t do anything about it. Baseball got a very black eye as a result of the “steroids scandal”, one of a number of scandals it has endured.

Now let’s look at pitching. This first story, while not at the major league level, is very entertaining and typical of the man. Casey Stengel, who managed a few winning teams, was managing in the minor leagues in the 1930s. He had a very vociferous critic, the town doctor, who had a seat behind first base. All season long, every time Stengel went on the field, this doctor would heckle him. One day, late in the season, stadium packed, Stengel goes out to relieve e) his starting pitcher. A familiar voice yells “Another mistake, eh, Stengel?” Without missing a beat, Stengel turns and shouts back “Yes doctor, but MY mistake will live to pitch tomorrow!”

Baseball has had many great pitchers, such as “Cy” Young, Walter Johnston, “Dizzy” Dean, Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, “Tug” McGraw, Rollie Fingers, Dave Stieb, Ron Guidry, Tom Glavine, David Cone, Randy Johnson, Justin Verlander, David Price and Marcus Stroman. “Google” is your friend, and a mighty friend it is. A Top 20

Pitching has changed a great deal from the early days, it’s become more specialized. Where you once had “starters” and “relievers”, you now have “starters”, long relievers”, short relievers”, “set up men” and “closers” etc.. Statistics have changed as well. They still tabulate “wins”, “losses”, “innings pitched”, “strikeouts” etc., but they now also keep track of, for example, “holds” and “blown saves”. This melange of statistics is what gives baseball its innate charm to some people. If a pitcher pitches the whole game without being relieved, he has pitched a “complete game”. If he allows no runs, he has pitched a “shutout”. As long as no runs are scored, two or more pitchers can share credit for a “shutout”. There are other methods of measuring a pitcher’s performance, such as by looking at the number of batters faced in a game, and the number of hits given up. If there are no hits given up during the game, then he has thrown a “no-hitter”. Again, as long as no hits are given up, two or more pitchers can share a “no hitter”.

Since 1903, there have been only 296 “no hitters” thrown in Major League baseball. To put that in perspective, there are 30 major league teams, playing up to 162 regular season games and our period of study covers 114 seasons. Nolan Ryan holds the individual record with 7 career “no-nos” and a number of pitchers have thrown 2 in one season, including Roy Halliday, the only pitcher to throw one in the regular season and one in the same post-season so far. However, in 1938, Johnny Vander Meer threw back to back “no-hit” games, a record which I doubt will ever be equalled on an individual basis. f)

On the other hand, a “perfect game” has only ever been accomplished 21 times since 1903. In 1956, Don Larsen of the New York Yankees threw the only perfect game in World Series history, the highlight of his career. Ironically, he was one of the players whom the Yankees included later in the trade package which obtained Roger Maris from Kansas City, where Maris had started his major league career.

Editor’s NoteThis is a very rare recording of the 5th Game of the 1956 World Series in it’s entirety…Don Larson’s Perfect Game. From You Tube: Radio play by play of the iconic game on 10-8-1956 World Series 2-0 won by the Yankees over the Dodgers by Bob Neal and Bob Wolff. Don Larsen’s perfect game at Yankee’s Stadium. Its a feat that none of us will ever see again in the World Series. I think this was, in my mind, the greatest World Series ever played. We forget that 2 grand slams were hit in this World Series, Don Larsen earlier became the 1st Yankee pitcher in Game 2 to blow a 6 run lead. This was also the 1st World Series where Game # 5, 6, and 7 ended in shutouts. We would also witness Jackie Robinson get his last major league hit by driving in the winning run over Enos Slaughter head to win Game 6 1- 0 in ten innings. We would not see another subway series after the ( 1956 ) World Series until the NY Mets play the NY Yankees in the ( 2000 ) World Series

There is, of course, so much more to baseball. There’s Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot heard around the world”.

Ted Williams interrupting his career to fly combat missions both in World War II and in the Korean War. In the latter conflict, one of his squadron mates was John Glenn.

Ted Williams flashes the pilot’s traditional thumb-up sign of okay to his mechanic while taking his attack aviation refresher training in a Corsair Fighter plane at Cherry Point, NC, September 4, 1952. (AP Photo)

Ted Williams

Willie Mays making a sensational over the shoulder running catch to rob Vic Wertz of a hit in the 1954 World Series.

Baseball is the New York Mets finishing last or second last between 1962 and 1968, but winning it all in 1969, to the world’s disbelief!

There was the breaking of the colour line by Jackie Robinson in 1947 and the end to the “reserve clause”, which had essentially bound a player to his team at their pleasure for his career.

Jackie Robinson

So that’s “major league baseball for the curious”, heavily abridged. I encourage you to look up the records and careers of some of the people I have named. Time for some local colour.

In 1977, major league baseball came to Toronto. I remember one of my co workers being enthusiastic when Jerry Garvin went 5-0 at the beginning of that season. I told him that celebration might be premature, as the rest of the league was unfamiliar with Garvin’s pitching. In the event, Garvin finished that season with a respectable record of 10 wins and 18 losses. Not bad for an expansion team basically made up of castoffs.

The organization built up its farm system for player development, made some good trades and free agent signings and over time we got to the point where not only did we win the Series in 1992, but in 1993, we all thrilled to Tom Cheek shouting “Touch’em all, Joe!”

The Jays have had varied fortunes since then. While a number of stars play on and on, the career of an average baseball player is relatively short. For example, Billy Koch was the prime reliever for the Blue Jays in the 1999 season. He last pitched in the majors in 2004. He recorded 163 saves in his six year career, 144 of them in his first four seasons. There is always someone coming along who throws a little harder, or has a little more control, or can hit with more power or for a higher average than you. I met a couple of Blue Jay players at work. They need a Social Insurance Number before they can play in Toronto, and some came to me. I remember once reading that one of these players had been released by another organization about a year after I had interviewed him. That felt especially poignant.

But hey, spring is in the air! Opening day is less than 2 weeks away! Go Jays, go! Make us proud!!!

See you soon

  1. a) A player who has not been signed by the organization
  2. b) let go by the team
  3. c) a “waiver wire” is how a team publicly announces that a player has been cut
  4. d) although Maris had broken Ruth’s record, Ruth had set his in 154 games, whereas Maris took 162 games. Hence an asterisk was added by Maris’ entry in the record books.
  5. e) put in a replacement pitcher
  6. f) Very few pitchers pitch complete games anymore. e.g., Jack Chesbro led the American League with 48 complete games in 1904. Mark Mulder led the American League with 5 in 2004.

=PJM=

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