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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Arky Vaughan: Baseball's Forgotten Star

Shortstop Arky Vaughan is a Hall-of-Fame baseball player yet remains one of the least remembered and under-appreciated players in the history of the game. Described by New York Times columnist Red Smith as “baseball's most superbly forgotten man,” his relative absence from the collective baseball memory can be attributed to a number of things, including his untimely death at the age of 40 in a extinct volcano crater lake.

Born in Clifty, Arkansas in 1912, Floyd Ellis Vaughan (He later changed his name to Joseph Floyd after converting to Catholicism) was raised in California and grew up to be a tremendously talented athlete. Among his schoolmates was one Richard Milhous Nixon. Although Vaughan only briefly lived in the Razorback State, his nickname stuck throughout his life.

After a stand-out prep career at Fullerton High School and for organized community leagues, the shortstop was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winter of 1931 after his neighbor passed along information about the talented youngster to a scout.

The left-handed hitting Vaughan played his first professional season in 1931 with the Wichita Aviators, hitting .338 with 21 home runs. That was more than enough to earn him a ticket to play for the Pirates the following year. Still raw in different areas of the game, especially in the field, he was put under the tutelage of former Pittsburgh shortstop great Honus Wagner, who worked almost exclusively with him—with outstanding results.

During a 14-year career with the Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers (1932-1948), Vaughan hit a combined .318 with 96 home runs and 2,103 base hits. He was also a terrific defender, and his 72.9 career WAR is 83rd best of all time. He was out of baseball from 1944 through 1946 because of a decision to retire early but came back for his two final seasons.

His other achievements include:

He hit at least .300 in all 10 of his seasons with the Pirates.

He walked 937 times during his career while striking out on just 276 occasions.

In 1941, he became the first player to hit two home runs in an All Star game when he took Sid Hudson and Eddie Smith deep.

He made nine All-Star teams.

His 136 career OPS+ is better than many baseball greats, including George Brett (135), Joe Morgan (132), Roberto Clemente (130) and Carl Yastrzemski (130).

Despite his quiet demeanor, he joined many of his teammates in portraying themselves in the 1943 Red Skelton film, Whistling in Brooklyn.

His three year “retirement” came at the end of the 1943 season with the Dodgers after standing up to manager Leo Durocher for berating teammate Bobo Newsome

Although there were undoubtedly other reasons why he decided to stay home, the confrontation was certainly an aberration from his day-to-day persona. Perhaps it was for the best that he decided to return in 1947, which was the year Durocher was suspended for his association with gamblers.

Vaughan’s re-entry to baseball had a positive impact on at least one person. Years later, Jackie Robinson would tell a New York Times reporter "He was one fellow who went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a rookie. I needed it." The man who broke baseball’s color barrier faced many challenges that first season, so it was important to have the support of such a respected veteran.

After he retired, Vaughan never received more than 29 percent of the votes from the writer’s Hall of Fame ballots and ultimately had to wait until 1985 when he was finally enshrined via the Veteran’s Committee, thus confirming his relative anonymity in the modern day. That point was truly driven home when the Hall released commemorative envelopes to celebrate his impending induction with his last name spelled “Vaughn.” Even when he was being appreciated he was under-appreciated.

Sadly, he never lived to see his induction or how his baseball legacy was shaped following his playing days. In 1952, just four years after his final major league season, he was dead from a strange accident at the age of 40.

After leaving baseball, he returned to California to live with his wife and four children on their sheep ranch in Eagleville. He was also an avid fisherman, and on August 30, 1952 he and his friend, Bill, took a boat out on nearby Lost Lake. It wasn’t your standard lake, as the water actually sat in the crater of a long-extinct volcano.

In the midst of their fishing, the boat capsized. The two men struggled to make it to shore. Just moments from hitting land they both succumbed in 20-foot deep water.

Initially, there were conflicting reports that the accident had been caused by a sudden storm or Vaughan had gotten entangled in fishing gear. However, a full account of the actual events was reported by Bill McCurdie in a January 13, 1986 issue of the Los Angeles Times:

On Aug. 30, 1952, Bill Wimer, Arky's friend and neighbor, visited the Vaughan ranch to talk Arky into going fishing. Arky declined, saying he had too much work to do that day, but Wimer convinced him to change his mind, saying the work would be there when he returned.
Arky asked his wife, Margaret, who had grown to love the outdoors nearly as much as her husband, if she wanted to join them, but she declined. Had she gone, one relative said, they would have fished from the shore of the lake instead of going out in the boat…
When Arky and his companion found a place where the trout were biting, Wimer, a logger and a hulking man of more than 200 pounds, stood in the boat to cast. Verne Wheeler, an elderly man who witnessed the incident from the shore of Lost Lake, told authorities of how the boat overturned, sending both men into the chilly water.
Arky was a good swimmer but Wimer apparently was not. Both men headed toward the shore but Wimer began to struggle long before he got there. Once he realized his plight, Wimer began to panic. Arky tried to help his companion, but, outweighed by more than 50 pounds, was unsuccessful. About 25 feet from shore, both men went under and never resurfaced. Their bodies were recovered the next day.
The Fullerton Daily News Tribune, Vaughan’s hometown newspaper, eulogized their quiet hero with an observation that he would likely see his record fade more quickly than most of his peers. “He lacked only one thing—a colorful personality. Those who knew him best believe he would have been one of the game's greatest heroes had he been endowed with the sparkling personality that made lesser players great.”

His younger brother Bob remembered him similarly in later years. “It's like I said when Arky was inducted to the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame (in 1982), if Arky would have been there, he would have said, 'Thank You.' And that would have been it. But he'd have meant it."

In 1999, Pittsburgh Pirates fans were polled on their opinion of the greatest shortstop in team history. Of the more than 14,000 votes cast, Wagner was the justifiably clear-cut winner with over 11,000 tallies. Dick Groat and Jay Bell trailed with just under 1,000 votes a piece. Sadly, Vaughan barely registered on the ballot with 264 votes, affirming his status as baseball’s forgotten star.

Arky Vaughan was a baseball gem whose accomplishments have sadly faded like old photographs. He may have had a quiet demeanor and met an early end but none of that should detract from what he did on the field. Hopefully, his legacy will experience a comeback, much like the final years of his playing career, and he will be forever remembered in the way he should have been from the start.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Shoeless Joe Jackson Interview: An Analysis

The October, 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine published something that has never been seen before or since. It was an interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, focusing on the 1919 Black Sox scandal and his expulsion from baseball. He had previously declined to publicly discuss the subject, and while it’s unclear why he made this exception, it provides fascinating insight into one of the most mythical figures in baseball history.

“This Is The Truth!” was conducted by Furman Bisher, who wrote the piece in narrative form, as it was told to him by Jackson. Bisher was a young journalist from the South, who went on to write for heavy-hitting publications like Sports IllustratedSporting News, and The Saturday Evening Post. His lengthy career included a Red Smith Award for sports journalism, and incredibly he retired in 2010 after more than 70 years at the typewriter.

The entire Jackson interview is available online at http://www.blackbetsy.com/theTruth.html. For the sake of analysis, I am pulling out what I found to be the most interesting portions of his statements, and including my own thoughts in italics.

Jackson was not looking for forgiveness: “I had been acquitted by a twelve-man jury in a civil court of all charges and I was an innocent man in the records. I have never made any request to be reinstated in baseball, and I have never made any campaign to have my name cleared in the baseball records. This is not a plea of any kind. This is just my story. I’m telling it simply because it seems that 30 years after that World Series, the world may want to hear what I have to say.

If I had been the kind of fellow who brooded when things went wrong, I probably would have gone out of my mind when Judge Landis ruled me out of baseball. I would have lived in regret. I would have been bitter and resentful because I felt I had been wronged.

But I haven’t been resentful at all. I thought when my trial was over that Judge Landis might have restored me to good standing. But he never did. And until he died I had never gone before him, sent a representative before him, or placed before him any written matter pleading my case. I gave baseball my best and if the game didn’t care enough to see me get a square deal, then I wouldn’t go out of my way to get back in it.”

Hollywood is the primary culprit for perpetuating the image of a haunted Jackson, pining until his death to be allowed to play the game he loved so much. If his statement is to be fully believed, he received the only vindication he felt he needed when he was acquitted in a court of law.

Jackson believed he was banned from baseball for the company he kept: “It was never explained to me officially, but I was told that Judge Landis had said I was banned because of the company I kept. I roomed with Claude Williams, the pitcher, one of the ringleaders, they told me, and one of the eight White Sox players banned. But I had to take whoever they assigned to room with me on the road. I had no power over that.”

Jackson may have been trying to distance himself from the betting scandal with this statement. While historians point to his .375 batting average and no errors in the 1919 World Series, it’s clear he knew of the plot, and is very probable that he accepted money. In his mind, he may have felt that if he played his hardest, he was only being blamed because of the influence of others.

Comiskey was tipped off by Jackson that the Series was not on the level: “When the talk got so bad just before the World Series with Cincinnati, I went to Mr. Charles Comiskey’s room the night before the Series started and asked him to keep me out of the line-up. Mr. Comiskey was the owner of the White Sox. He refused, and I begged him: ‘Tell the newspapers you just suspended me for being drunk, or anything, but leave me out of the Series and then there can be no question.’

Hugh Fullerton, the old time New York sportswriter who’s dead now, was in the room and heard the whole thing. He offered to testify for me at my trial later, and he came all the way out to Chicago to do it.”

This statement contradicts Jackson’s previous assertion that he was banned from baseball for simply associating with the wrong players on the team. It’s possible that after being in on the plot and/or receiving money, Jackson came to realize he was dealing with some pretty serious people. Trying to beg out of playing may have been his initial knee-jerk reaction to evacuating the mess without having to throw the games or double cross the gamblers by playing well.

Say it ain’t so! The little boy never said that to Joe when he left the court house: “I guess the biggest joke of all was that story that got out about ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’ Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News was responsible for that, but there wasn’t a bit of truth in it. It was supposed to have happened the day I was arrested in September of 1920, when I came out of the courtroom.

There weren’t any words passed between anybody except me and a deputy sheriff. When I came out of the building this deputy asked me where I was going, and I told him to the Southside. He asked me for a ride and we got in the car together and left. There was a big crowd hanging around the front of the building, but nobody else said anything to me. It just didn’t happen, that’s all. Charley Owens just made up a good story and wrote it. Oh, I would have said it ain’t so, all right, just like I’m saying it now.

This comes as no great surprise. This always made for a good story and it turns out that’s just what it was. If Jackson’s bravado is to be believed, it’s amazing to consider the contrast between his reality and the tragic narrative that has been built by Jackson supporters and baseball romantics over the years.

Did a Ban Johnson vendetta against Comiskey lead to the expulsion of the eight players?: “I’ll tell you the story behind the whole thing. The trouble was in the front office. Ban Johnson, the president of the American League, had sworn he’d get even with Mr. Comiskey a few years before, and that was how he did it. It was all over some fish Mr. Comiskey had sent to Mr. Johnson from his Wisconsin hunting lodge back about 1917. Mr. Comiskey had caught two big trout and they were such beauties he sent them to Mr. Johnson. He packed the fish in ice and expressed them, but by the time they got to Chicago the ice had melted and the fish had spoiled. They smelled awful and Mr. Johnson always thought Mr. Comiskey had deliberately pulled a joke on him. He never would believe it any other way.

That fish incident was the cause of it all. When Mr. Johnson got a chance to get even with Mr. Comiskey, he did it. He was the man who ruled us ineligible. He was the man who caused the thing to go into the courts. He did everything he could against Mr. Comiskey.

I’ll show you how much he had it in for him. I sued Mr. Comiskey for the salary I had coming to me under the five year contract I had with the White Sox. When I won the verdict –I got only a little out of it –the first one I heard from was Mr. Johnson. He wired me congratulations on beating Mr. Comiskey and his son, Louis.”

I doubt there is much merit to this claim. Johnson and Comiskey were former close friends who did have a falling out. However, weakening the White Sox would have hurt both men equally. Johnson, as the president of the American League, had fought for years to bring the junior circuit to prominence. While he would have wanted to disassociate himself from any type of betting scandal, banning the players simply out of spite would have given a major edge to the National League in a key city like Chicago. The Black Sox also led to the creation of the position of Baseball Commissioner, which greatly usurped Johnson’s hold over the American League.

Jackson may not have returned to the major leagues if he had been reinstated: “I doubt if I’d have gone back into baseball, anyway, even if Judge Landis had reinstated me after the trial. I had a good valet business in Savannah, Georgia with 22 people working for me, and I had to look after it. I was away from it about a year waiting for the trial. They served papers on me which ordered me not to leave Illinois. I finally opened up a little place of business at 55th and Woodlawn, across from the University of Chicago. It was a sort of pool room and sports center and I got a lot of business from the University students.

I made my home in Chicago, but I didn’t follow orders completely. I sneaked out of Illinois now and then to play with semi-pro teams in Indiana and Wisconsin. I always asked my lawyer, Mr. Benedictine Short, first and he told me to go if I could get that kind of money…

I have read now and then that I am one of the most tragic figures in baseball. Well, maybe that’s the way some people look at it, but I don’t quite see it that way myself. I guess one of the reasons I never fought my suspension any harder than I did was that I thought I had spent a pretty full life in the big leagues. I was 32 years old at the time, and I had been in the majors 13 years; I had a life time batting average of .356; I held the all-time throwing record for distance; and I had made pretty good salaries for those days. There wasn’t much left for me in the big leagues.”

While it may be hard for lovers of baseball to believe, Jackson was undoubtedly like many other players of that era, or any era for that matter; in that he played more for the money than love for the game. If he realized he was making more money as a civilian, he would not have had much incentive to return; especially given the amount of scrutiny the notoriously reticent Jackson would have experienced.

The origins of the “Shoeless” nickname:  When I was with Greenville back in 1908, we only had 12 men on the roster. I was first off a pitcher, but when I wasn’t pitching I played the outfield. I played in a new pair of shoes one day and they wore big blisters on my feet. The next day we came up short of players, a couple of men hurt and one missing. Tommy Stouch –he was a sportswriter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the last I heard of him–was the manager, and he told me I’d just have to play, blisters or not.

I tried it with my old shoes on and just couldn’t make it. He told me I’d have to play anyway, so I threw away the shoes and went to the outfield in my stockinged feet. I hadn’t put out much until along about the seventh inning I hit a long triple and I turned it on. That was in Anderson, and the bleachers were close to the baselines there. As I pulled into third, some big guy stood up and hollered ‘You shoeless sonofagun, you!’

They picked it up and started calling me Shoeless Joe all around the league, and it stuck. I never played the outfield barefoot, and that was the only day I ever played in my stockinged feet, but it stuck with me.”

It is good to get confirmation that this beloved pearl of baseball history is based in reality. They don’t make nicknames like they used to.

Jackson had the final word: “Well, that’s my story. I repeat what I said when I started out — that I have no axe to grind, that I’m not asking anybody for anything. It’s all water over the dam as far as I am concerned. I can say that my conscience is clear and that I’ll stand on my record in that World Series. I’m not what you call a good Christian, but I believe in the Good Book, particularly where it says “what you sow, so shall you reap.” I have asked the Lord for guidance before, and I am sure He gave it to me. I’m willing to let the Lord be my judge.”

This statement is a far cry from the Joe Jackson so often identified as the tortured soul fading into a ghostly Iowa cornfield, lamenting his banishment from baseball. Throughout the interview, it seems that Jackson’s attitude towards being thrown out of baseball was roughly the same as somebody who was fired from any job. It may have bothered him at first, but once he saw that he could move on and be successful at something else, it softened the blow quite a bit.

With “Shoeless” Joe Jackson being so liberally portrayed in literature, film, and conjecture, it is nice to have at least one source where he sets the record straight in his own words. This interview is a fascinating glimpse at the man, who exists only as a legend for most. His words shatter the myth of how he left baseball as a broken man, never able to regain his sense of worth and belonging. Say it ain’t so.

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Corey Black: An Interview with the Chicago Cubs' Pitching Prospect

Right-handed pitcher Corey Black is one of the up-and-rising prospects in baseball. With his ongoing development and steady production, he finds himself knocking on the door of the major leagues for a team with one of the most promising futures—the Chicago Cubs.

Now 23, Black was selected by the New York Yankees in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. The California native dominated the small conference, going 11-2 with a 1.53 ERA in 2012.

Despite a strong showing in the early going in the minors with the Yankees, Black was traded in 2013 along with significant financial considerations to the Cubs for aging star Alfonso Soriano. The hurler showed why he was so coveted, as he went 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA in five starts in high Single-A following the deal.

Now 23, Black is pitching, and pitching well, in Double-A. He has the arsenal to be a starter in the majors but could also be a valuable piece in the bullpen, at least to start his career. As the Cubs continue to make significant strides towards relevance, don’t be surprised to see him making contributions in the Windy City as the summer days grow longer.

I was able to interview Black in the winter of 2014. Continue reading for more on this exciting pitching prospect, and check him out on Twitter to keep up with him as the season progresses.

Corey Black Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: I grew up an Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. fan. I loved the athleticism from both athletes, and of course the power. Growing up as a position player only, I strived to be as good as them.

Can you think of a particular moment in your past when you thought professional baseball could be in the cards for you?: Probably when I was 14. I played with 18-year-olds that had just made the Aflac All-American team, and I was holding my own with these amazing players.

Can you describe what the draft process was like for you?: It was stressful for me. I had been told so much going into the draft, I was expecting too much. All in all, it all worked out for me.

What pitches do you throw and which do you think you need to work on the most?: Fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. I love the way all of my pitches have progressed. Of all my pitches I think I need to work on my slider because last year with the Yankees, we tried changing my slider to a cutter, and then back to a slider, so it was inconsistent until the very end of last year.

You throw very hard, especially for someone who is considered "smaller" for a pitcher. Do you get a lot of surprised reactions from hitters/coaches/scouts?: Not as much anymore because everybody has a scouting report. So everyone knows who is who no matter the size.

What was it like finding out you had been traded to the Cubs in exchange for a star like Alfonso Soriano?: It was crazy! I had never ever thought of myself being traded straight up for someone I grew up watching. It goes to show the Cubs really like me and I am doing everything I can to make it to the big club and help out. 

Who has been your most influential coach or manager?: My most influential coach was my coach in college my junior year (Faulkner University). Coach McCarthy taught me that it is just a game, to have fun and don't be so tense because you could be doing much worse like sitting behind a desk.

What are some differences you have noticed between the Chicago and New York franchises?: Not much. Both are historic franchises and both do things the right way. One thing is that the Cubs are a little more laid back and let you play a little bit more.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Boston Red Sox: 10 Thoughts About The Start of Their 2015 Season

The Boston Red Sox are now nearly an eighth of the way through the 2015 regular season. With a record of 10-9, they have been decidedly uneven thus far, and much remains to be seen as to what they can and can’t accomplish by the time October rolls around. Although it is admittedly early, here are ten thoughts that have come to mind in watching the team in the early going.

-New left fielder Hanley Ramirez is just a professional hitter. He has been far and away the best player on the offensive side of the ball for Boston. With eight of his 21 hits having cleared the fences, it’s looking like playing his home games in cozy Fenway Park may help him raise his power numbers (although six of his homers have been on the road) even more than the 15-20 you can typically depend on from him.

-Will 40-year-old closer Kohi Uehara make it through the entire season without losing his job? Although he has had just one truly bad outing so far, there are alarming warning signs. Never a hard thrower to begin with, his fastball has declined significantly, with the average velocity on his heater in 2015 clocking in at 86.1 MPH according to FanGraphs. Similarly, the site shows he has thrown his fastball on just 15.3 percent of his offerings this year, which is about a third of his previous lowest rate. It’s reasonable to extrapolate that he, or perhaps the team, doesn’t have much confidence in that pitch right now.

-While on the topic of velocity, what’s the deal with starter Justin Masterson? The big righty has sat in the low 90s for much of his career but is logging a career-low 87.2 MPH fastball average in the early going according to FanGraphs. Many pitchers take the early part of their season to get their arms tuned up, but with Masterson’s injury woes last year, his continued drop in velocity might be a red flag. SBNation’s Justin Schultz explored this topic in depth last year.

-At one time, 25-year-old right-hander Matt Barnes was the top starting pitching prospect in the Red Sox’s system. However, he has worked exclusively out of the bullpen in two brief major league call-ups during the past two years, including this past week. It seems like it would behoove the team to see what they may have with him as a reliever. His mid-90s fastball and biting slider might just be what their relief corps (which lacks power arms) could use.

-Designated hitter David Ortiz has been striking out at the rate of once a game this year. While many players routinely post similar or higher rates this is noteworthy for him because he has not been this prolific at getting punched out since 2010 when his overall numbers were down and many believed he was nearing the end of his career. He subsequently made some adjustments in his approach and enjoyed several fine seasons since. At 39, he is in the waning years of his career and it has to be wondered if he is in decline and how many adjustments he may have left in him.

-Since being traded to Boston last summer, Allen Craig has combined for 16 hits in 120 at-bats, which computes to a miserable .133 average. That stint also includes 43 strikeouts and just three RBIs. He has never been able to regain his prior All-Star level production, and getting 2-3 at-bats a week with the Red Sox is not going to help remedy that. Barring needing him to fill in for a significant injury, it may be getting time to think about finding him a new start elsewhere.

-One pitcher who seems to be back to his old tricks is left-handed reliever Craig Breslow. After a stellar 2013 season, he bombed in 2014 to the tune of a 5.96 ERA and a 1.86 WHIP. It appears that the southpaw has tightened up his arsenal and is throwing his fastball and changeup more than he ever has previously, as shown by FanGraphs. The results have been 11 scoreless innings over his first seven appearances out of the bullpen, and being the early frontrunner for most reliable of all Boston relievers.

-Youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts have had varying degrees of success this season but the talents both flash indicate the team has two long-term impact players on their roster. Both have shown impressive plate discipline for players their age (both 22) and the fact they are getting lots of playing time will only speed up their development.

-The next prospect that needs similar treatment to the aforementioned Bogaerts and Betts is outfielder Rusney Castillo. Although the Cuban defector has been injured, the team did not pay him over $70 million to stay long in his current location of Triple-A Pawtucket. Right field has been a revolving door so far this year in Boston, so now that he nearly back healthy, it would seemingly make little sense to keep him down on the farm much longer.

-Finally, the Red Sox appear to have a lot of intriguing options at Triple-A in addition to Castillo should the need to augment their roster arise. Catcher Blake Swihart and outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bryce Brentz are swinging hot bats. Left-handed starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson have been almost unhittable in their first three starts. Even though fellow southpaw Henry Owens has uncharacteristic control problems, he has been more of an enemy to himself than any opposing hitters. Having an excess of young talent like this is an enviable problem for any big league team.

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