Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the Amerircan League- A Review

Jackie Robinson is one of the two or three most commonly known figures in baseball of all time. This is due in part to his Hall-of-Fame playing career and to him integrating the game when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Not nearly as much attention has been paid to the man who came right after him and became the first black player in the American League—Larry Doby.  Seeking to remedy this is Douglas M. Branson’s Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Branson contends that Doby has been largely ignored when the platitudes are doled out about the best and most influential players in baseball history. Although the former outfielder is also in the Hall of Fame (but not until 1998; nearly 40 years after he retired from playing), this contention is entirely accurate.

The bulk of Greatness in the Shadows is an effort to bolster Doby’s legacy. In addition to discussing his reputation as being a good person at length, there is an examination of his statistics, which are very good but pale in comparison to many of his Cooperstown brethren because his career ended somewhat abruptly in his mid-30s, as he was slowed by injuries.

Some of Branson’s arguments are simple yet totally valid. As he points out, everybody remembers who was first but rarely recall or care who was second. Doby faced similar challenges and barriers as Robinson, debuting with the Cleveland Indians just months after his National League counterpart, but received just a fraction of the attention—both in the moment and in remembrance.

While this book has plenty of positive notes, it also goes off the tracks in places. In an effort to canonize Doby, Branson leaves no stone unturned. This includes examining some of the outfielder’s peers and offering arguments of why they may have received credit that detracted from Doby. When talking about Willie Mays and how the legendary outfielder dealt with segregation as minor league player, he suggests the experience may not have been as bad some historians/writers may have you believe because the food at the boarding houses, where black players had to stay instead of at a hotel with their white teammates, was “far superior to hotel fare of the time.” This seems like an unnecessary and ineffective way of making his argument.

Some of Branson’s other arguments are compelling but fly in the face of popular baseball history. Doby toiled in relative obscurity in large part because he played the bulk of his career in Cleveland, which was a secondary media market. He was also frequently overshadowed by other players who were either more flamboyant or held in higher regard by journalists. It is noted that pitcher Satchel Paige (a teammate of Doby) has much higher renown despite a reputation for selfishness, and having a playing record that he does not believe stands up to the legend (i.e. a losing career major league record of 28-31).

Outfielder Mickey Mantle is another example proffered in the case for Doby. While Branson does not deny he was a great player, he also believes his gregarious nature enhanced his legacy, such as exaggerated home run distances, and elevated him to god-like status to the detriment of Doby.

Stat heads might argue that Doby was a great player who just doesn’t measure up numerically to the all-time greats. Unfortunately, Branson largely passes on this area, admitting he doesn’t fully understand newer advanced statistics, and also claiming the outfielder played in more of a pitching era where advanced statistics are not as readily available. However, a quick review of a site like BaseballReference.com gives a lot of good information demonstrating Doby was a titan in his day.

Ultimately, Branson has put a lot of good research and thought into supporting Doby as deserving a greater place in baseball history. Not all of his contentions hit the mark but there is plenty to chew on, and any baseball fan would do well to learn more about the dynamic outfielder who helped transform the game.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Did Bony Knees Cost Lou Gehrig a Hollywood Career?

Lou Gehrig is an iconic figure in baseball history, both for his legendary career with the New York Yankees as a slugging first baseman, and because of his tragic death from an eponymous disease at the age of 37. Despite his exploits on the field, he nearly had another star turn—that of Hollywood actor. At one point he was actually poised to assume the role of Tarzan in the movies but was ultimately passed over; possibly due to knobby knees.

The Iron Horse captivated the baseball world during his 17-year run with the Yankees. He walloped the baseball to the tune of a .340 career batting average with 493 home runs, 1,995 RBIs and six World Series championships. Having studied at prestigious Columbia University, he was more educated, and perhaps as a consequence, more taciturn than other stars of the day, especially his teammate Babe Ruth. Accordingly, he did not receive the same amount of attention when it came to the cross-branding some like the Bambino did with baseball and the burgeoning Hollywood business. However, his big nearly came in 1936, when he was 33 and coming off an MVP season and there was a search for the next Tarzan.

Johnny Weismuller, a chiseled winner of multiple Olympic gold medals as a swimmer, created a lucrative secondary career playing Tarzan in a number of successful movies. After he decided to work on other projects, a replacement was sought. Christy Walsh, Gehrig’s business manager, knew an opportunity when he saw it and pushed for his client to be given the role.

In an effort to boost his candidacy, Gehrig went public with his desire to don the loin cloth of fame. When asked if he was afraid of animals, he played up his baseball experience and his flair for the dramatic, exclaiming, “No! At least I’m not afraid of Tigers—I’ve faced many of ‘em in 12 years of baseball—but those Lions, well, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Sex was not discussed as openly as it is today but was still an integral part of selling movies. When Walsh first contacted producer Sol Lesser about getting Gehrig a screen test, one of the first things they did was ask for more revealing photographs of the slugger, as the only frame of reference they had as to how he might look were the pictures of him in his baggy baseball uniform. “I guess the public’s entitled to a look at my body,” Gehrig acknowledged after news of this spread.

Walsh was unabashedly brash in promoting his client, telling reporters, “Lou’s got everything to go over big in the movies. He stands six-feet-one and weighs 210 pounds. If he gets a chance with lions and tigers there’ll probably be a scarcity of those species after he gets through with them. The next move is up to Hollywood.”

Gehrig was asked who he’d like to have as a leading lady. Although he admitted actress Irene Dunne was his favorite, he did say “I could act much better with my wife in my arms.” When the matter of matching the sex appeal of Weismuller was brought up, Gehrig let that one go by, simply stating, “I’ll leave that up to you fellows and the ladies—If I get the chance.”

Initially, it appeared that Gehrig had nabbed the role. Walsh cryptically told reporters, “Nothing definite has been done but the possibilities have been discussed and Gehrig will be glad to consider the details, if and when they develop.” The papers even started speculating how much money would coax the first baseman on to the big screen.

In late October, 1936, a deal seemed imminent but then quickly went south. The press had printed a photo of Gehrig in his Tarzan leopard cloth dress, wielding a cudgel and making a “jungle call.” Although the world-class athlete had a phenomenal physique, his less-developed knees were allegedly noticeable right away by the Hollywood set who needed to make sure that their next scantily clad hero was unimpeachable when it his level of studliness.

No less than Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original author of Tarzan, went public with his gallon of gasoline he threw on the fire. He sent the aspiring actor a chilly telegram, confirming he didn’t think he had what it took. “Having seen several pictures of you as Tarzan and paid about $50 for newspaper clippings on the subject, I want to congratulate you on being a swell first baseman,” the writer wired sarcastically. Sadly, Hollywood decided to go in another direction with a different actor (Olympic decathlete Glenn Morris) and left Gehrig to continue his career on the baseball diamond.

Gehrig was purported to claim he was the one who turned the role down because being in costume made him feel “too naked.” As a consolation prize, the movie studio gave him a contract “to appear in other pictures.” This led to just one movie role—though a starring one. He received top billing in the 1938 film, Rawhide, whose plot is described by IMDB as “Baseball superstar Gehrig is one of several ranchers being coerced by a bunch of bandits. His sister and her lawyer/lover organize the ranchers.”

It’s indisputable that Lou Gehrig was a much better baseball player than actor. However, he may have gotten a chance to prove otherwise if his apparently non-shapely knees didn’t prevent him from taking over a legendary Hollywood franchise.

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Bill Sarni: A Baseball Career Interrupted

Former catcher Bill Sarni had immense ups and downs during his 13-year playing career; perhaps more of a disparity than anyone before him or since. A teen-aged phenom, he started in the Pacific Coast League as a 15-year-old and ultimately made himself into a solid big league receiver. Unfortunately, his story was not to be a happy one, as he was forced to retire at the age of 29 due to a heart attack suffered while playing pepper with teammates before a spring training game.

A native of Los Angeles, Sarni was the size of a full-grown man before most and attracted the interest of the local Los Angeles Angels (affiliated with the Chicago Cubs) in 1943. This was due in equal parts to his ability, the baseball talent drain during that time because of World War II, and because the team lost two catchers in quick succession to injury. He settled in quickly, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and by the end of the season was the team’s starting catcher. This was no ordinary minor league team either. They ultimately finished with a 110-45 record and had a roster packed with future major leaguers, including the likes of Andy Pafko and Ken Raffensberger.

The right-handed hitting Sarni more than held his own during his inaugural season, hitting .229 with a home run in 33 games. He continued to improve with age, even hitting .295 in 105 games as a 17-year-old in 1945.

Although, he did not put up star numbers, he continued to progress as a good defensive catcher with a decent bat. For whatever reason, it took him a bit longer to break into the majors, but he finally got his shot in 1951 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sarni finally stuck as a major league regular in 1954 with the Cardinals. The 26 year-old, more than a decade after he started his career, emerged as a borderline star behind the plate. In 123 games, he hit an even .300 with 9 home runs and 70 RBIs. He also nabbed an impressive 56 percent of the base runners attempting to steal on him. Although he followed that up with more modest numbers the next year, he was finally established.

Mid-way through the 1956 season, the catcher was involved in a nine-player trade between the Cardinals and the New York Giants that sent him east. He struggled a bit in his new surroundings but still hit a combined .254 with a career-high 10 home runs and 45 RBIs in 121 games. He was strong as ever against the run, gunning down 45 percent of runners.

Looking to start off the 1957 season on a good foot, the catcher instead encountered tragedy that spelled the end of his career. On February 27th, while playing pepper with some teammates during the team’s first spring training work out, he collapsed with what would be diagnosed as a heart attack. Since he was just 28 at the time, doctors were initially reluctant at making that conclusion, but the subsequent tests bore out the sobering news.

Giants’ President Horace Stoneham told the press “The doctors told me Bill is the second youngest man he ever treated for a heart attack. They said the attack was similar to the one suffered by President Eisenhower. Sarni will be able to live normally otherwise but they told me he never will be able to play baseball again.”

Stoneham was magnanimous in the wake of Sarni’s hospitalization, vowing to employ him as a coach as soon as he was well enough in order to earn him enough service time to qualify for baseball’s five-year pension requirement. This was a promise he kept after his former backstop was released from the hospital a month after his initial admittance.

Despite seeing his career end in the cruelest of ways in the midst of his prime, Sarni picked up the pieces and took up coaching. Towards the end of the 1957 season, he explained, “Some people may feel sorry for me but I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world just being around the boys again and getting a chance to remain in baseball… I’ve thought about catching again but I came to realize there were two important factors to be considered. First, I have a responsibility to my family, my wife and my little boy and girls. Second, who would sign me to play? They’d be taking a big chance. The Giants have been wonderful to me.”

Given a new lease on life, Sarni did not become a baseball lifer. Instead, as reported by the Baseball Necrology, he became a general partner in a brokerage firm in St. Louis. Sadly, he passed away in 1983 from another heart attack at the young age of 55. In parts of five major league seasons, he appeared in 390 games, hitting .263 with 22 home runs and 151 RBIs.

Although he didn’t get to finish playing on his own terms, Sarni made his mark on the game, which is more than most can say. Once a hotshot whiz kid, he never became a super star but was well on his way to a solid career before being knocked out of the game by his heart. It’s safe to say baseball has never seen another player with a journey to the majors like him before or since. 

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

5 Things About the 2016 Boston Red Sox That Aren’t Being Talked About Enough

After finishing the 2015 season in last place, the Boston Red Sox look much better this year, currently on a pace for 93 wins. While some things have gone very well, there are others that have not. Despite the chatter that seems to perpetually swirl around the team, some things haven’t received the attention they deserve. Here are five of them (keeping in mind the season is only about a sixth of the way over):

The Way Outfielder Chris Young is Being Used: Signed by the Red Sox this past offseason, the veteran right-handed hitter figured to be the fourth outfielder, getting the bulk of his playing time against lefthanders because of his severe career splits (.224/.292/.410 BA/OBP/SLG against righties and .263/.362/.474 against southpaws). His struggles against right-handed pitchers have become particularly pronounced in recent seasons, as evidenced by his combined .211 batting average against them in his last three seasons entering 2016.

Given Young’s strengths and weaknesses are as defined as any player on the roster, it’s been surprising to see him getting so much playing time thus far against his right-handed nemeses. He has fared predictably, collecting just two hits and eight strikeouts in his 17 at-bats against them, compared to 3-for-13 with just two whiffs against lefties. The Red Sox may not have faced a ton of left-handed starting pitcher so far on the young season but that’s no reason to put Young in situations where he has less of a chance to help the team.

Jackie Bradley Jr. Has Arrived: After several years of struggling to transition from a 2011 first-round draft choice to a major league regular, it appears the 26-year-old outfielder has finally made the leap. Although he may not be a star, he has developed into quite a useful player, contributing terrific defense and enough with the bat to make him a solid starter. In 25 games this year he has hit .276 with an American League leading four triples, a home run and 13 RBIs. He has also cut back a bit on his strikeouts, whiffing about once every four at-bats instead of the once every three at-bats during the earlier part of his career.

The Weird Start of Hanley Ramirez: After a disappointing 2015 season, and a nightmare of a time playing outfield, Ramirez impressed with a relatively seamless transition to the team’s starting first baseman. While he has worked hard and not been a distraction, he is a mixed bag so far at the plate. Although he is hitting a respectable .284, he has just two home runs and walked an uncharacteristic four times against 25 strikeouts (which is putting him on pace for the highest rate in his career—approximately once every four at bats).

However, his .351 BABIP is a bit higher than his .328 career rate, but not enough to scream regression is ahead. His 36.7% Hard Percentage (balls put in play hit hard) is also above his career rate. Still just 32, the physical specimen should still be more or less in his prime, so the numbers suggest he may be on the verge of breaking out in the near future.

Heath Hembree May Have Locked Down a Bullpen Spot: The 27-year-old right-hander has been on the Boston-Pawtucket yo-yo the past couple of years but has been lights out since being called up to the Red Sox this year. In four relief appearances, spanning nine innings, he has permitted just five hits and a lone walk while striking out 11. His fastball has jumped a tick (now averaging about 94 MPH) from when he first reached the majors in 2013 with the San Francisco Giants. His success in the long relief role has been particularly valuable because of the inconsistencies of the starting rotation.

Boston’s Offense is Flourishing Because of Small Ball; Not the Long Ball: Entering this season, hopes were high that the team would field a strong lineup. Although they have produced handsomely, how they have done so is a bit different than most might have expected. Currently, the Red Sox lead the American League in runs (135), batting average (.280), doubles (67), triples (9), and are tied with the Kansas City Royals for the lead in stolen bases (22). However, the team is tied for second-to-last in home runs (22).

Boston lineups in recent years have been headlined by sluggers who were more apt to put a game out of reach with a three-run home run than by maintaining a rally by taking an extra base. The rise of talented youngsters like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who have more well-rounded games than big power, has led to this shift. With designated hitter David Ortiz playing in his final season, it’s possible that the team will continue to find even more ways to score runs in the coming years than putting balls over the fence.

Although the season has just entered its second month, there’s already a lot to chew on for fans of the Red Sox. As things continue to play out, there are a lot of things flying under the radar as the team continues to find its identity and see what they can accomplish as a unit in 2016.

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