Top 100 Baseball Blog

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Evar Swanson, the Fastest Player in Baseball History

Speed is a quality in baseball that can achieve the swiftest of the swift legendary status. From Hans Lobert racing a horse, to Cool Papa Bell allegedly being able to turn off the lights and be under the covers before the room got dark, there are scores of examples of players showcasing blinding speed. However, the fastest man the game has ever seen may well be little-known outfielder Evar Swanson, who circled the bases in 13.3 seconds between games of a double header in 1929, which is a record that still stands to this day.

Swanson was a freakishly good athlete, who grew up in Illinois, graduating from DeKalb High School around 1920. He starred at Lombard College in baseball, football, basketball and track. After he graduated, he played several years in the fledgling National Football League as a running back between 1924 and 1927.

A right-handed hitter, he was such a good baseball player that he made it to the major leagues in 1929 with the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 26 after having been largely away from the game for several years. He played a total of five years with them and the Chicago White Sox, hitting a combined .303 with 7 home runs, 170 RBIs and 69 stolen bases in 518 games. He played for some terrible teams, with his highest finish being the White Sox and their sixth-place finish in 1933. As a consequence, he is not remembered widely years after his career. However, he should be.

On September 15, 1929, Swanson’s Reds were playing two against the Boston Braves. In an effort to keep fans entertained and sticking around for the second game, the rookie was part of a race to circle the bases with several other players (including teammate Ethan Allen, himself a former track star) between contests. He started from a sprinter’s crouch by home plate and won easily, accomplishing the feat in 13.3 seconds. This not only beat Lobert’s previous record of 14.3 seconds by a full second, but it also earned him a $75 prize and a five-foot tall trophy.

Swanson was always modest about his feat, indicating that speed wasn’t the sole criteria that allowed him to set the record. “You’ve got to hit the bases just right and not take big turns,” he recollected in later years.

Although a number of players have come close over the years, the only person to break that record was Swanson himself, who circled the bases in 13.2 seconds in 1932, while he was playing for Columbus in the American Association. It’s fair to say that such time measurements may have been mire rudimentary during that time, but nobody was ever times better, including a number of players who were widely hailed for their speed. Mickey Rivers attempted to break the record for the Guinness Book of World Records in 1971, but slipped a bit approaching home and finished at 14.3 seconds.

Swanson had an interesting life post baseball. He played semi-pro basketball, ran a grocery store, served in his hometown’s (Galesburg, Illinois) government and was a postmaster. He passed away in 1973 at the age of 70. More than 20 years later his high school Alma Mater began awarding an annual scholarship in his name.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

Did a Young Robin Yount Almost Quit Baseball for a Career in Professional Golf?

Robin Yount forged a 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Milwaukee Brewers as a shortstop and then outfielder. He accumulated over 3000 base hits and won two Most Valuable Player Awards. However, that almost didn’t happen, as he threatened to quit baseball at the age of 22 to go join the PGA as a professional golfer.

Yount was a legend in Milwaukee during his career (1974-1993). He was a career .285 hitter with 251 home runs and 1,406 RBIs. He was also tremendous defender, especially as a shortstop. A first-round pick, he debuted in the majors at the age of 18 and not surprisingly it took him a few years to adapt into an impact player.

During spring training in 1978, Yount was 22 and had been battling through various injuries. Although he had hit a career high .288 in 1977 he had totaled only 17 home runs through his four major leagues seasons and was nowhere near the impact player he’d one day become. It was also alleged that he was unhappy the Brewers had spent their 1977 first-round pick on hotshot shortstop prospect Paul Molitor, who played his same position, was ready for the majors and might force Yount to the outfield.

Finally, and definitely not least, Yount was supposedly not that happy with his contract, which had paid him $80,000 in 1977. He told the Milwaukee Journal, “I can’t say I’ve enjoyed baseball that much. It’s not as much fun as it should be.”

Yount’s frustrations mounted to the point that he walked out of spring training, saying “I have no idea when I’ll be back. When I’m ready, I’ll talk.” It was reported that he had plans to make the dramatic change in careers and become a professional golfer. Since he had a sore foot, he was placed on the disabled list while he mulled his future.

The Brewers still believed in him and hoped to lock him into a long-term contract even though he had not yet free agency. Yount was still skeptical, telling the Milwaukee Journal, “I’m thinking. I’m just thinking about it. I’d like to sign, I guess. But I’m still thinking. I haven’t made up my mind.” 

Some of his teammates started anonymously confiding to the press that they believed he was going to leave baseball for good. Although Molitor was just 21, he was brought up to be the team’s Opening Day starting shortstop.

It was rumored that Yount was going to stay of the baseball diamond for good in 1978 to give professional golf a try. He later denied he ever talked about it seriously, but the speculation swirled nevertheless. It all came to a head in early May, when he suddenly appeared in Milwaukee and announced he was returning to the Brewers and would be ready to play within a week. Molitor soon shifted the second and team gelled with the return of their prodigal son.

Yount had the best season of his career to date in 1978 and went on to bloom even further, teaming with Molitor for 15 seasons (who left via free agency following the 1992 season). He signed a long-term extension with Milwaukee and remained with them until his retirement following the 1993 season (20 years!). The Brewers benefitted from the presence of their two stars, winning a pennant in 1982 being consistently competitive during their time with the Brew Crew.

When you’re young it can sometimes be difficult to see the trees through the forest. Yount was a baseball ingĂ©nue but came to realize the totality of his talents over the course of years instead of all at once. He experienced some frustrations that nearly steered him out of the game at an age when most people are graduating from college. Fortunately he stayed the course and turned in a legendary career that led to his enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Monday, April 2, 2018

Chance Sisco's Violation of One of Baseball's Dumbest (Unwritten) Rules

The 2018 major league baseball season is not even a week old and there is already a strong candidate for the dumbest story of the year. With his team trailing 7-0 in the ninth inning on April 1st, Baltimore Orioles’ rookie catcher Chance Sisco laid down a bunt for a single against a shift employed by the Minnesota Twins to take away holes for his left-handed swing. After the game, the Twins made it abundantly clear their belief was that one of baseball’s “unwritten rules” had been broken by this action. This type of thinking is not only absurd, but is out of date and needs to stop.

According to an article on the story by ESPN, Minnesota pitcher Jose Berrios (who ended up winning that game by complete-game shutout) was quoted as saying "I don't care if he's bunting. I just know it's not good for baseball in that situation. That's it.”

Meanwhile, Twins’ second baseman Brian Dozier weighed in. "I could've said something, but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there… I'm sure they'll address it and move forward."

Let’s examine the utter stupidity of suggesting that a player should not be trying simply because his team is behind late in a game.

-While a 7-0 deficit in the ninth inning is an unlikely scenario to come back from, it is far from impossible. As recently as 2016 the Seattle Mariners came back from 10 runs down to beat the San Diego Padres. There are numerous other examples of improbable victories. It’s early in the season, but a win can make a major difference by the end of the year. This is especially true for a team like the Orioles, who operate with a minuscule margin of error because of their existence in the annually strong American League East.

-Why is it a violation of the unwritten rules that Sisco tried to get on base during a late, out of hand game, but the Twins were in the right by shifting their fielders in an effort to get him out more easily? There is always concern in major league sports that teams are putting out maximum effort (see history of gambling, tanking, etc…). If anything, MLB should crack down on such talk that suggests that a player or team should effectively stand down because they happen to be losing by a wider margin.

-This story also comes down to dollars and cents. Players have a relatively defined period of time to make their money. For the small percentage of players who are signed by professional teams and ultimately make the majors, the average length of their career as a big leaguer is just 5.6 years. A player’s ability to get an extra base hit or two; potentially hit a home run serves to pad their stats and by proxy potentially their earnings.

Chance Sisco did nothing wrong by trying to get on base with his team losing by seven runs in the ninth inning. In baseball, the team on offense is trying to score as many runs as possible, while the team pitching and on defense is attempting to stop them by all means possible. It should literally be that simple with no in between, baseball’s unwritten rules be damned.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

2018 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees' Highs and Lows

The National Baseball Hall of Fame boasts a robust 2018 induction class, with six former players being enshrined. Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, who was tapped by the Veteran’s Committee, and Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman, who were elected by the writer’s ballot will all have brand spanking new plaques in Cooperstown this summer. They had many ups but also had some lows. Let’s take a look at who they owned during their careers and those they faced that they would have rather just seen them go away.

Vlad Guerrero: Vlad the Impaler must have licked his lips every time he saw Joey Hamilton on the pitcher’s mound. He had eight hits in 13 career at-bats with three walks, five doubles and a home run. The right-handed Hamilton was a serviceable starter who won 74 games in a 10-year career, but probably wished he had a different career every time he had to face Guerrero.

On the other hand, left-hander Al Leiter had the slugger’s number. He permitted just five hits in 44 at-bats for a measly .114 batting average. He did give up one home run, but struck him out seven times as cruel retribution.

Chipper Jones: Being a switch hitter, Jones could go up to the plate with confidence regardless of what side the pitcher was throwing from. Right-hander Armando Reynoso might have well been throwing beach balls, as he surrendered 14 hits, including two home runs, in 24 at-bats. He never did strike him out, but did give up seven walks.

The pitcher who gave Jones fits was Saul Rivera. He mustered just two hits in 22 plate appearances against him. Although he drew two walks, he struck out five times and could never figure out this little-known reliever, who pitched primarily for the Washington Nationals.

Jim Thome: There is little doubt that the left-handed slugger struck fear in the heart in just about every pitcher he faced during his illustrious 22-year career. 612 home runs and 1,699 RBIs will do that. This included the legendary Roger Clemens, who could only hold him to a .355 batting average and eight home runs in their 73 career at bats facing each other.

Another Texas-born pitcher dominated Thome. John Lackey faced off against him 22 times, and other than four walks, he retired him every other time. This included seven strikeouts, to wrap up a complete domination of their rivalry.

Trevor Hoffman: Divisional rival Todd Helton of the Colorado Rockies absolutely wore out Hoffman over the years. He had 13 hits in 25 career at-bats. This included three double and a home run, which meant that no game against the Padres was out of reach if he was batting against their closer.

Jeff Reed had a 17-year major league career as a backup catcher. However, he looked more like a little leaguer when batting against Hoffman. No doubt heavily relying on his nasty changeup, the closer permitted a lone walk in 13 plate appearances by Reed, while striking him out eight times.

Jack Morris: Wally Joyner was a fine first baseman during his career, collecting a .289 batting average over 16 seasons. He really ramped up his production against Morris, to the tune of 21 hits in 50 at bats, which was good for a .420 average. He also drew nine walks while striking out just once, meaning he reached base 64 percent of the time when facing off against this Hall-of-Famer.

When it came to Morris, the anti-Joyner was poor Ken Phelps. The left-handed batter had good pop but a career batting average of just .239. He managed a lone single in 31 at-bats, while striking out 13 times against his primary nemesis. If he had never met Morris, his career batting average would have been three points higher at .242 .

Alan Trammell: Left-hander Ed Vande Berg pitched for seven years in the majors, but must have felt he belonged elsewhere every time he faced off against the legendary shortstop. He allowed nine hits (including four home runs) in 16 at bats, which should have qualified as an assault and battery.

Vande Berg’s opposite was long reliever and spot start Sid Monge. Trammell went up to the plate to face him 15 times and each time, including three times by way of the strikeout, went back to the dugout without putting the ball in play or taking a base. 

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