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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for July 8, 2013: The Rise of the Golden Oldies

Although often attributed to performance enhancers and other nefarious training methodology, older players have become increasingly more productive and relevant in baseball. Two current examples are 40-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon and 41-year-old designated hitter Raul Ibanez.

Colon is 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA for the Oakland Athletics, and an improbable mid-season candidate for the American League Cy Young. While the girthy right-hander has been conclusively linked to PEDs, there is no evidence that this season is being aided by anything other than veteran know-how and ballpark cheeseburgers.

Ibanez should see his production fall off a cliff because of his advancing age. Instead, he continues to mash home runs. As a mostly regular player for the Seattle Mariners, he has already cranked 21 homers in just 65 games this season. Amazingly, he is on pace to shatter his career high of 34 home runs, which he set in 2009.

The success of players like Colon and Ibanez just goes to show that some things do get better with age. Baseball may have an emphasis on young stars like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado, but some of the old boys can still play a little too.

***SBNation’s Larry Granillo recently wrote about the 1973 season of Hall-of-Fame outfielder Hank Aaron, who earned his place among the senior citizen All-Stars by bashing 40 home runs that year at the age of 39. It marked the eighth time that “Hammerin’ Hank” hit at least 40 homers in a season, and left him with 713 at the end of that year, which was one behind then all-time leader Babe Ruth.

Aaron went on to break the home run record and play another three seasons. While his home run mark was later eclipsed by Barry Bonds, many still consider him to be the true home run king; a feat that was helped by the way he so gracefully aged without the alleged aid of steroids.

***Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig represent the most fearsome duo any lineup has ever boasted, as they terrorized opposing pitchers for the 12 years they spent together as teammates with the New York Yankees. In 1931, they tied for the American League lead by each swatting 46 home runs, but there was one pitcher they couldn’t solve. Her name was Jackie Mitchell.

The 17-year-old southpaw was signed as a promotional stunt by the Chattanooga Lookouts; as much for her skill as for the novelty of her gender. She had allegedly been tutored by pitching great Dazzy Vance and developed a high aptitude for hurling. The Lookouts signed her in part to prepare for their hosting of the Yankees in an exhibition game in April, 1931.

Prior to the game, Chattanooga paraded Mitchell around in sexist fashion; having her powder her nose before taking the mound. She then astonished the crowd by displaying impressive stuff and whiffing Babe and Gehrig in succession.

Mitchell went on to barnstorm around the country, even playing for the legendarily hairy House of David team. While there is no evidence to the contrary, some have speculated that her two famous strikeout victims were in on the act. However, in the absence of any proof, I prefer to chalk it up as another great story in the pantheon of baseball history.

***It seems that with each passing year, the rings crafted and presented to the players of the winning team in the World Series get more expensive and elaborate. But sometimes you just can’t beat classic simplicity. Check out this ring, which was one of those presented to the members of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers after they won that year’s  Fall Classic.  It may not weigh five pounds and be encrusted with a cache of precious gems, but it sure looks like it was worth playing for.

***Ty Cobb and Ted Williams are among the top handful of batters baseball has ever known. While they also developed reputations for their prickly and sometimes offensive behavior, they are still best-remembered for their hitting prowess.

With Cobb (.367) and Williams (.344) ranking first and seventh all time respectively in career batting average, the two left-handed hitters were in their own stratosphere. Unfortunately, they never played against each other, as Cobb played his final major league game 11 years before the “Splendid Splinter” played his first. However, this photograph shows that the two did meet and interact, and no doubt talked about their favorite subject—hitting.

***Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland is in his 22nd year managing in the major leagues. He has won three pennants and a World Series during his career, while earning a reputation as a fiery and effective leader.

 Some things never change, at least according to legendary Tigers’ second baseman Lou Whitaker. He recently recalled how Leyland was his manager in 1976 when they were both young pups and with the Lakeland Tigers. Not only does Whitaker believe his former skipper has maintained the edge that whipped him into shape as a youngster, he also pointed out Leyland still has the nasty chain smoking habit some 30 years later.

***And now, a moment of Zen. Besides the classic ditty “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball isn’t well known for its musical pursuits. It’s time to crown another baseball song as being worthy of your time. That would be Terry Cashman’s “Talking Baseball,” which was released in 1981. The lyrical rundown of some of the best players in baseball history is a whimsical look at how much fans enjoy discussing the game.  If only it could get more play time at stadiums around the country, it might make a serious run at the title of top baseball song…

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

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