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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for July 29, 2013: Baseball Legacies Ain't What They Used to Be

The recent suspension of Ryan Braun for 65 games without pay because of his involvement with PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal is the latest example of the vastly changed landscape of baseball. It used to be that salacious cheating came in the form of doctored baseballs, corked bats and stealing signs. It’s a whole new ballgame now.

The traditional forms of cheating were typically viewed with a laugh and knowing shake of the head, in addition to modest punishments being meted out. Even a Hall of Famer like Gaylord Perry wrote a book lampooning the success he reaped from his ability to make Vaseline a weapon of mass destruction. These things didn’t hurt player’s reputations; if anything it frequently made their bones, and not in a bad way.

Performance enhancers are an entirely different kettle of fish. Those caught juicing have been roundly met with disdain, while those caught multiple times or found to be tangled in a web of lies have made the remainder of their careers into punch lines. Braun is already starting to see what his reaping has sewn, as fans have firmly ensconced him as the newest poster child for baseball shame. Once he returns to the field, he may continue to put up big numbers and earn large sums of money, but for all intents and purposes, his career as he once knew it is over.

***Contrasting the recent disgrace of those associated with PEDs is a guy like Jimmy Vaughan. He was a semi-pro pitcher in the 1910s and 1920s, who made a very profitable career out of his ability to throw a spitball and otherwise doctor the ball with various substances. This article describes how Vaughan, long deceased, was an incredibly coveted player because of his goopy talents, and loved by fans because of his ability to baffle hitters. He didn’t flaunt what he did, but everyone knew he was loading up the ball. For whatever reason, cheating in baseball is now construed completely differently than in the past.

***Pitchers don’t always need substances to make the balls do funny things. Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro was a maestro in making the horsehide dance. This brief clip shows his ability to make hitters look downright foolish on an extremely off-speed pitch.

***Here is a fantastic picture of a very young Lou Gehrig. The future Hall of Famer is front and center, and in the uniform of the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. Although the picture is dated 1922, it was almost certainly taken in 1921 or 1923.

Gehrig played 12 games under a false name for Hartford in 1921 in the summer following his freshman year with Columbia University. He played incognito because being discovered would have impacted his collegiate eligibility. Of course, he was found out and forced to sit out the next year at Columbia. He returned to Hartford in 1923, and debuted with the New York Yankees later that year, establishing his legacy as the “Iron Horse.”

***Outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. will always be remembered as one of the most naturally talented players in the history of the game. He could make the most difficult of plays look effortless, both at the plate and on defense.  On May 20, 2006, his talent was great enough to overshadow a bit of history.

Facing Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya in Detroit, Griffey, who was playing for the Cincinnati Reds, he took a 104.8 MPH fastball and deposited it deep into right field stands for a grand slam. Although it was the fastest recorded pitch at the time in baseball history, Griffey negated the impact of that achievement by his big hit, which erased a 5-2 deficit for his team and helped them go on to win the game.

***This piece, which recently appeared in the Smithsonian, details the history of the baseball glove. Mitts were first developed in the 19th century to help players prevent injuries and other wear and tear on their hands from bare-handing balls and making tag plays. At first, there was actually a stigma among players about wearing gloves, but as the designs improved and their utility was proven, they became a staple. There has been an amazing evolution in gloves, which have become one of the most important pieces of equipment for a player.

***Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn’s 1957 National League Cy Young Award recently went up for auction. It was just one of hundreds of memorabilia items put up for sale by Spahn’s son Greg, who planned to distribute the proceeds (the award went for $126,000 alone!) among his siblings.

Spahn won the 1957 Cy Young after going 21-11 with a 2.69 ERA in 39 games for the Milwaukee Braves. Incredibly, although he won 20 or more games an amazing 13 times during his career, that was the only time he won the top pitching award (He did have four other top-3 finishes).

***And now, your moment of Zen. It’s a serious matter when a player is injured and has to miss time, but there have been some bizarre things that have caused boo boos. recently came up with a list of the 24 strangest injuries in major league history. From the player whose false teeth bit him in the butt when sliding in to second base, to Wade Boggs suffering a strained back attempting to put on cowboy boots, there have been some truly odd incidents. While some games were missed, and a few laughs were had at their expense, none of the players on this list suffered any long-term issues.

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