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Monday, May 13, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for May 13, 2013

Baseball in just about any context is a good thing. During the regular season, the attention of fans is typically riveted to the on-field action, but there are many fascinating nuggets of baseball awesomeness hidden all over in the form of its history. You just have to know where to look to find them. To help you on your way to discovering some of the delights from baseball’s past, I have dug up some items that should both engross and entertain.

Baseball is a game that can be enjoyed as much in the moment as it can be in projecting its future and discovering its past. Without further ado, let’s see how well I can do at putting the historian in “Baseball Historian.”

***Hall of Famer Steve Carlton is one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time. Unfortunately, he is also known for his controversial opinions. He developed this reputation after a 1994 article by Pat Jordan for Philadelphia Magazine portrayed the southpaw in a less than favorable light. The piece was meant to be a “where are they now” type of article, but it developed into much more than that. Carlton came across as paranoid and self-centered, setting the tone for his post-career legacy.

Carlton later refuted how he was portrayed, but has never been able to erase the stain from his image. He has receded into the shadows since that interview, but it’s worth giving a second look because it provides such unique insight into one of baseball’s all-time greats.

***It’s always interesting to find out what scouts thought of all-time great players before they became stars. Check out this scouting report from 1987, profiling outfielder Ken Griffey Jr.

The scout, Steve Vrablik, obviously knew what he was doing, as he designated Griffey as a five-tool player and recommended him for a maximum signing bonus of $175,000-$200,000.

Perhaps the funniest part of the report was the reference to Griffey’s “solid thighs and buttocks.” There isn’t further elaboration on whether that was in regards to lower-body strength or trying to figure out how he would look in baseball pants.

***In the unfortunate news story of last week, former outfielder Otis Nixon was arrested on drug charges following a traffic stop in Georgia. The 54-year-old was found with crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia in his car, and was initially held in jail on a nearly $12,000 bond.

Nixon was known for his speed during a 17-year major league career with nine teams, including the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox. Although he had just 180 total extra-base hits, he stole 620 bases, which currently ranks 16th all-time.

He struggled with drug abuse during his playing career, running afoul of the law and earning a 60-game suspension in 1991 for a failed drug test.

Although Nixon got sober late in his career, it appears that his decades-long battle his demons continue. Hopefully, he can turn things around once and for all and be better known as the player who stole 72 bases in 124 games in 1991 instead of what has put his name in the headlines for so long.

***’s David Eskenazi has been putting out some truly amazing articles featuring some of the best baseball players from the past that the West Coast has ever seen. One of his recent featured players was “Buffalo” Bill Schuster, one of the greatest shortstops in the history of the Pacific Coast League

Schuster played in 123 major league games over parts of five seasons, but combined for just a .234 batting average with one home run and 17 RBI. Fortunately, he found much greater success in the PCL.

Also known as “Screwball,” Schuster was as well known for his unpredictable behavior as he was his play on the field. One brilliant scouting report described him thusly: “Schuster is a big league shortstop with a bush brain. He is noisy and offensive and probably the last person in the world to be wrecked with on a desert island. Yet he hits well and fields brilliantly, which is why he is always around.”

With 2,168 hits in 16 minor league seasons added to his reputation as a character, Schuster is one old-timer who shouldn’t be forgotten.

***With few exceptions, baseball stadiums are among the most beautiful architectural achievements in the world. Fenway Park in Boston is not only the oldest major league stadium still in use, but is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing. To see what I mean, check out this fantastic photo of the “Fens.”

***Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson became the first hired  African-American manager in major league history when he assumed leadership of the Cleveland Indians in 1975. However, as the Washington Examiners’ Thom Loverro recently pointed out, Robinson was not technically the majors’ first black manager.

In 1973, Chicago Cubs coach Ernie Banks (like Robinson, also a Hall of Fame player) was forced into service as a manager, after Cubs’ manager Whitey Lockman was ejected late in a tight game against the San Diego Padres. Thanks in part to a few strategic moves on Banks’ part, the Cubs went on to win in 12 innings.

Although Banks never got a full-time gig as a manager in the major leagues, his historic turn as a skipper is an important part of baseball history and a key moment of his career.

***Finishing up this week’s post is a little moment of Zen brought to you by none other than the immortal Scott Bakula.

The Quantum Leap actor took the microphone before a game in the 1993 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays, and belted out a pretty respectable version of the National Anthem. Enjoy!

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