Half-Baked Hall Profile: Fred Clarke

March 13, 2015

The Half-Baked Hall has been in existence for over a year now. The brainchild of Beau, it began as the WGOM’s alternative to the real Hall of Fame. Over the course of the past year, the voters at WGOM have worked their way through the 19th century, and up to the year 1923. By my count, 28 men have been elected. There are a few who were not eligible for Cooperstown that get their recognition at WGOM, including players who didn’t play the required 10 seasons and players who were banned for life. There are a number of members of the Cooperstown Hall that did not make the cut at the WGOM. In my mind, the unique greatness of the Half-Baked Hall is best illustrated by this discussion thread about Fred Clarke.

There is not much that I can add, but I will try.

Clarke could have made the Hall of Fame both as a player and as a manager. As an outfielder, he played 21 seasons, all with either Louisville or Pittsburgh. On the field, Clarke was an all-around player, regularly appearing near the top of the offensive leader boards, and providing a rare combination of solid hitting, speed, and defense. In addition to playing, he was a manager for 19 seasons, all but one of them were seasons in which he appeared as a player. During his tenure he led his team to four pennants and a World Series win.

Fred_Clarke
Clarke apparently lacked talent in one area: hat placement

The baseball world was not the only one in which Clarke showed all-around talent.

Blessed with mechanical as well as athletic talent, Clarke created and held patents for flip-down sunglasses, sliding pads, an additional rubber strip placed in front of the official pitching rubber to prevent pitchers from catching their spikes when they pivoted, a small equipment bag, and an early mechanical way of handling the tarpaulin;[9] he was an avid hunter and fisherman, a Kansas state champion amateur trap shooter, and an outstanding horseman who could do riding tricks;[10] and he became a prosperous rancher whose wealth was estimated at $1,000,000 in 1917—the equivalent of $81,100,000 in 2010[11]—after oil was discovered on his property the previous year.[12]

In addition, Clarke was involved in both community and national service. As a resident of the Winfield area, he was a member of the chamber of commerce, a charter member of the Rotary club, a supporter of sandlot baseball, and one of the founders of the town’s country club.[16] On the national level, he held leadership positions with the National Baseball Congress,[17] and he experimented with growing soapberry trees to see if the wood could be used to make stronger bats for the sporting goods company Hillerich & Bradsby.[18]

So, it is possible Clarke is the only member of the baseball playing, baseball managing, hunting, fishing, inventing, trap shooting, horsemanship, ranching, civic organizing, tree growing, and bat making Hall of Fame.

 


Half-Baked Hall: Home Run Baker

March 12, 2015

Nothing says “Deadball Era” like a guy who averaged 10 home runs per year earning the “Home Run” moniker without even a hint of irony. In fact, the man they called “Home Run”- Frank Baker, shared a locker room with Babe Ruth in 1921 and 1922. Over the course of those two years, Ruth fell just two home runs short of Baker’s career mark of 96 home runs, including a then unheard of 59 in 1921. From Baker’s SABR biography written by David Jones:

Perhaps envious of Ruth’s fame, Baker bemoaned the “rabbit ball” that made the home run a more frequent occurrence. “I don’t like to cast aspersions,” Baker later confided to a reporter, “but a Little Leaguer today can hit the modern ball as far as grown men could hit the ball we played with.”

Despite the fact that, in Baker’s prime years, conditions did not allow for the gaudy home run totals that he would watch Ruth attain in later years, Baker was a bona fide slugger. He led the American League in home runs for four consecutive seasons – one of only four men in history to accomplish that feat.

Home_Run_Baker_(1910_A's)_4“Home Run” admiring his work

Baseball lore suggests that Baker earned the nickname after he hit two key home runs in the 1911 World Series. While he did hit those home runs, the truth is that Baker actually earned the title before he hit his first official major league home run. A 1909 report attributed the nickname to Baker, with the following explanation:

Baker’s work has possibly been the most spectacular. On three occasions he has won close games with home runs, while his fielding inspires the belief that Mack will have the best man at the corner since the days when Lave Cross was good.”

Baker was ranked as the fifth best third baseman of all time by Bill James in 2001, enough to consider him a slam dunk in both the Half-Baked Hall and the real Hall, but it is possible that Baker could have been even better.

Baker sat out the 1915 season rather than continue to play for the same salary. He played some town ball during his year-long stare down with Connie Mack, but did not see major league pitching for 18 months. The numbers upon his return tell the story of a solid player – but nothing like he had been from 1912-1915. He was no longer the dominant player he had been, and slowly declined from there, playing out his final seasons with the Yankees.

Baker missed another full season of baseball in 1920. Though the decline in his numbers was already well established, the missed 1920 season likely took more of an emotional toll on Baker. Scarlet fever hit the Baker home, causing the death of his wife and near death of his two daughters. Initially Frank announced that he had lost his love of baseball, but ultimately after a time of grief and quarantine, returned to the Yankees to play the final two seasons of his career.

 

 

 

 


Half-Baked Hall Profile: Ed Walsh

March 10, 2015

In 1902 a 25-year-old pitcher for the independent California League’s Sacramento Gilt Edges was desperately seeking a way to extend his career. Elmer Strickett had never been a dominant pitcher, but won more games than he lost as he made his way through the minor leagues in places like Rock Island, IL and Wheeling, WV. He had been playing in Sacramento since the previous season, but had hurt his arm and by all accounts was close to losing his job.

Among the hodge-podge of teammates that came and went in Sacramento that year was a young outfielder named George Hildebrand. Hildebrand never pitched, but was nevertheless fascinated by the “drop ball” – the fact that he could make a ball break using spit. Pitchers of the era who used wet pitches typically just wet the end of their fingers, but Hildebrand experimented with different methods. He found that the more spit he used, the more the ball would break.

Hildebrand
George Hildebrand- later became an AL umpire

Strickett found Hildebrand to be a godsend. The outfielder taught his version of the spitball to Strickett, who was able to resurrect his season using the new pitch.

Strickett’s success with the wetter pitch continued the next couple of seasons until the pitcher earned his way onto the White Sox for a cup of coffee in 1907. Though he went on to pitch for three seasons with Brooklyn, Strickett’s most important contribution to baseball history may have come during his short stint in Chicago. He appeared in just a single game and it was only memorable in how bad it went – he allowed 10 runs in 7 innings pitched. While he was with the team, however, manager Fielder Jones asked Strickett to teach the spitball to his roommate, a rookie named Ed Walsh.

Walsh, of course, went on to have a lot of success with the pitch. From his SABR bio:

Not surprisingly, at the time Walsh’s spitball was considered the most effective pitch in baseball. Walsh disguised the pitch by going to his mouth before every delivery, regardless of what he was going to throw. When he did throw the spitter, according to Alfred Spink he moistened a spot on the ball between the seams an inch square. “His thumb he clinches tightly lengthwise on the opposite seam, and swinging his arm straight overhead with terrific force, he drives the ball straight at the plate,” Spink wrote. “At times it will dart two feet down and out, depending on the way his arm is swung.”

For six seasons, Walsh was an iron man for the White Sox. He led the league in innings pitched four of those seasons. In 1908, Walsh won 40 games and pitched 464 innings. Not surprisingly, he was only able to muster 230.1 innings pitched in 1909, but was back with totals of 369.2, 368.2, and 393.0 innings pitched in 1910-1912.

walsh
Ed Walsh, no doubt chewing elm bark in order to maintain his saliva supply

A staggering total of 2,248 innings over the course of six seasons was ultimately what did Walsh in. Even with the great spitter at his disposal, his arm was essentially dead after the 1912 season. He had to wait for the Old Timer’s Committee to elect him into the Hall of Fame, but ultimately Walsh is among the great pitchers of all time due to his six year peak from 1907-1912.

There is no indication that Walsh expressed any gratitude to Elmer Strickett for teaching him the spitball in his later years, but he did spend time lobbying to legalize the spitter, which had been outlawed in 1920.

He once said, “everything else favors the hitters. Ball parks are smaller and baseballs are livelier. They’ve practically got pitchers wearing straitjackets. Bah! They still allow the knuckleball and that is three times as hard to control.”


Half-Baked Hall Profile: Sam Crawford

March 9, 2015

The prevailing wisdom at beginning of the 20th century was that hitting was a “scientific” skill. Most of the top hitters of the day used a finesse game at the plate, commonly employing bunts and well placed singles as a preferred way of getting on base.

crawford-sam

Wahoo Sam Crawford was among a small handful of counter-cultural baseball stars of the deadball era who saw hitting differently.

“My idea of batting is a thing that should be done unconsciously,” he once explained. “If you get to studying it too much, to see just what fraction of a second you must swing to meet a curved ball, the chances are you will miss it altogether.”

See the ball, hit the ball hard. It was the way Crawford played in his early days as a member of a barnstorming team that traveled the plains of eastern Nebraska on a horse-drawn lumber wagon. It’s also the way he played with the Detroit Tigers, as part of the greatest outfield in baseball history.

Every good story needs a villain. For Sam Crawford that villain was long-time teammate Ty Cobb. From the time he jumped from the National League in 1902 until 1906, Crawford was the star of the Tigers. Cobb began to emerge as the game’s best player in 1906.

One might expect that a 25-year-old baseball star would have difficulty being eclipsed by a 19-year-old even if the teenage phenom was an amiable fellow. Cobb, of course, was anything but. While it is reported that early on Crawford took Cobb under his wing, Cobb held on to a bitterness that lasted long past his playing days for hazing that he said occurred early in the two stars’ careers as teammates.

Cobb “came up with an antagonistic attitude, which in his mind turned any little razzing into a life-or-death struggle,” Crawford recounted for Lawrence Ritter in The Glory of their Times years later. “He came up from the South, you know, and he was still fighting the Civil War. As far as he was concerned, we were all damn Yankees before he even met us.”

Crawford, for his part, resented the special treatment that Cobb was afforded. Crawford also had difficulty with what he perceived as the “me first” playing style of his cantankerous teammate.

Despite the friction between two of the team’s best players, the Detroit Tigers won three consecutive pennants from 1907-1909. Crawford did his part by putting up a 145 OPS+ and 63.5 rWAR over the course of his 15 seasons in Detroit. Crawford and Cobb are still considered one of the top double-steal duos in baseball history.

Crawford’s productivity as a player ended suddenly in his age 37 season. By the time he played his last big league game in 1917, Crawford’s OPS+ had dropped 80 full points from the previous season. He retired as baseball’s all-time leader in triples with 309 – a mark that still stands.

The end of Crawford’s playing career did not signal the end of his rivalry with Cobb, however. Cobb wrote a letter to the Sporting News accusing Crawford of not helping him in the outfield and fouling balls off intentionally when Cobb was trying to steal bases. Crawford responded by calling Cobb a cheapskate who placed blame for his own defensive deficiencies on his teammates. Cobb replied that Crawford was jealous. And so it went.

Despite the fact that the barbs went back and forth for the decades after their playing careers were over, it was Ty Cobb who lobbied hardest for Sam Crawford’s induction in the Hall of Fame, which ultimately led to Crawford joining Cobb in the Hall in 1957.

 

 

 


Half-Baked Hall Profile: Joe McGinnity

February 16, 2015

A boy named Tommy was born in 1870 in Manchester, England, where he and his family lived until he was 14 years old. Like most boys in Manchester his age, Tommy played cricket. When Tommy’s family immigrated to the United States in 1884, he had to learn a new game, so he naturally chose the one that looked most like his beloved cricket. Tommy’s interest in baseball, however, was less with the playing the game itself and more with the study of the rules. He read editions of Sporting Life and watched many organized games, usually as a bat boy.

By the time Tommy was 24, he had no experience playing organized baseball, but was already an umpire in the New England League. Four years later he was discovered by National League umpire Tim Hurst, who recommended Tommy as an umpire in the National League. His first few years of umpiring were tough, particularly as Tommy discovered that most of his rulings were not backed by the league president.

Enter Ban Johnson, who wanted to end “rowdyism” in his new American League in 1901, and promised umpires who would join his league that he would back them in that endeavor. Tommy Connolly signed on for the inaugural season of American League baseball and became a Hall of Fame umpire with more than a quarter century of service.

The first test of Connolly, and Ban Johnson’s promise to back him, came from 30-year-old star pitcher Joe McGinnity of the Baltimore Orioles. McGinnity had a late start to his career, but had established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball in two seasons in the National League. For reasons that remain unclear, the 5’11 bigger than his 207 lb listing McGinnity became upset with the 5’7 140 lb Connolly. The disagreement escalated quickly when McGinnity kicked Connolly and spit tobacco juice in the Englishman’s face. The skirmish quickly became a full-scale riot, including cleared benches, brawls throughout the field, and police with batons. McGinnity was arrested and brought before a judge following the melee.

Johnson, eager to make a statement, banned the instigator, McGinnity, for life.

In one of sport’s oldest and most enduring of story lines*, McGinnity’s suspension was reduced to 12 games on appeal.

*The Black Sox and Pete Rose are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Though Connolly didn’t get the backing he desired from the league president, some action ended up being all that was required. For the rest of his career, Connolly had the respect of the players, and rarely had to resort to ejection (though he did famously run Babe Ruth).

As for McGinnity, he continued his career by joining the New York Giants and becoming the rowdy counterpart to the refined Christy Mathewson. National League President Harry Pulliam once fined McGinnity for “attempting to make the ballpark a slaughterhouse” when the pitcher mounted an opposing catcher in order to throw a series of punches after a game-long verbal dispute.

Joe_McGinnity_Baseball

McGinnity was also a key player in both the original “Merkle boner” game and the replay. In the first game, McGinnity was the guy who found the ball and threw it out of the Polo Grounds in order to prevent the Cubs from recovering it and tagging second base. Johnny Evers, of course, found a ringer creating the controversy that necessitated a replay.

Prior to that replay, McGinnity was the key player in a more sinister plot. With Christy Mathewson scheduled to pitch, the team’s other ace pitcher was expendable. So it was plotted that McGinnity would bait Frank Chance, traditional Mathewson killer, into a fight that would get both ejected. Joe hurled insults at the Cubs’ star player, stepped on his toes,  even spit at him, but Chance wouldn’t bite. Frank Chance went on to get a key hit in the Chicago Cubs win over the Giants.

The Giants released McGinnity prior to the 1909 season, but it was not the end for the “Iron Man” who pitched at least 14 more seasons in the minor leagues, primarily as a player-manager.

Joe McGinnity, of course, wouldn’t have made it into the Hall of Fame (either the Half-Baked variety or the real deal), had he not been a great pitcher. Though his major league career was on the short side, he was dominant once he found the strike zone*, thanks in part to an underhand curve he called “Old Sal”. He ended with 60.4 rWAR and 120 ERA+ in 10 seasons. In addition, he distinguished himself by being the brawler that kick-started (and perhaps spit-started) the career of one of the most respected umpires in baseball history.

*In 1900 McGinnity led the league in both walks (113) and hit batsmen (40 – 3rd most in a season all time).


Half-Baked Hall Profile: Eddie Plank

February 15, 2015

Edward Stewart Plank 1875-1926

“Not the fastest. Not the trickiest, and not the possessor of the most stuff, but just the greatest,” -Eddie Collins

Eddie Plank was the kind of pitcher I would hate. If he played today, he would probably play for the Yankees or the Red Sox.

eddieplank1909pic

The lefty took his time on the mound before it was cool to take your time on the mound. He fidgeted. He fixed his cap. He fussed with his jersey. He adjusted his sleeves. He hiked up his pants. He asked the umpire for a new ball. He rubbed the new ball in his hands. He pulled his belt down closer to his hips. He adjusted his sleeves again. He asked for a new sign….

This routine, or something like it, happened every time Plank threw a pitch.

Not only did he fidget, but Plank talked to himself and the baseball. Long before “The Bird” there was “Gettysburg” Eddie.

P is for Plank,
the arm of the A’s;
When he tangled with Matty
Games lasted for days

-from “Lineup For Yesterday” by Ogden Nash

Fans would avoid Plank’s outings if they had a schedule to keep. Writers found him annoying, primarily because the length of the games he pitched made deadlines difficult to meet.

Despite all of this, Plank managed to be one of the best, if slightly overshadowed, pitchers of his era. Pitching for Connie Mack’s A’s of the early part of the 20th century meant Plank was rarely considered the “star” pitcher of his team. Even with his eccentricities on the mound, teammates such as Rube Waddell and Chief Bender tended to overshadow Plank in the popular imagination. Those who played with him tell a different story:

“Eddie Plank was one of the smartest left-hand pitchers it has been my pleasure to have on my club. He was short and light, as pitchers go, but he made up for the physical defects, if such they were, by his study of the game and his smartness when he was on the pitching peak,” – Connie Mack

Off the field, Plank was a quiet man, who rarely spoke. When he did open his mouth, however, teammates tended to listen. Plank and his teammate Bender were considered two great resources for young players. Both of them had reputations for listening and answering questions with great patience and care.

“I have always been thankful that I was thrown into such intimate contact with so inspiring a man in the days when the majority of ballplayers were of a much lower type than at the present time.” – Jack Coombs

Plank’s numbers, both the traditional counting stats and newer SABR stats, indicate that he is an inner circle Hall of Fame pitcher; probably among the top southpaws to ever take the mound. Perhaps his on the mound antics can be forgiven – after all, he never actually played for the Yankees or the Red Sox.

SABR Bio

 


Half-Baked Hall Profile: Honus Wagner

February 7, 2015

Johannes Peter Wagner 1874-1955

Honus Wagner if one of my favorite players of all time. He may not be the best ever, but he is on the short list. He had an 11.5 win season (*rWAR) in 1908, one of only five players not named Ruth or Bonds to reach that number in a single season. By all accounts Wagner was the very definition of “strapping” in appearance, and in his 21 seasons he was one of the most respected a feared players in baseball.*

*When Ty Cobb was asked about the legend of a World Series incident in which he challenged Wagner on a stolen base and got stitches in his mouth as a result, his response was there was no way that story could be true – it would be foolhardy to anger Wagner.

Much has been written about Wagner (his SABR bio is here), and there is not much more in the way of words to add to the record. For me, however, there are two pictures of Wagner that have captured the imagination of many (myself included) that help to tell his Hall of Fame Story.

t106

The first is the famous T206 baseball card bearing his image. It makes headlines every so often when it sells for an increasingly absurd amount of money (most recently for $2.1 million in 2013). As with anything that involves this much money, there is a little bit of intrigue and controversy surrounding the cards, particularly when it comes to questions of authenticity.

There is little controversy, however, surrounding the circumstances that led to the shortage of Wagner T206 baseball cards. The card was produced as part of a 1909 baseball series by the American Tobacco Company (ATC) that wanted to use the images to help sell tobacco products in a newly competitive market following Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting. When ATC sought permission of the players, Wagner denied it.

While it is impossible to know his true motives, the most likely explanation seems to be that Wagner, a regular user of chewing tobacco, did not want his image used to sell tobacco products to kids.

ATC honored Wagner’s wishes by halting production of the card, but there were already a handful printed. Thus the shortage, and thus the million-dollar-plus price tag those that are confirmed authentic fetch when auctioned.

wagner

The second photo (bigger version here) is estimated to have been taken around 1915, which would make Wagner at least 40 years old. The image of Wagner’s hulking frame, including his legendary large hands, crouched in the dugout pondering the line of bat options has become iconic. It captures a seemingly pensive man at the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. You can almost listen in to his thoughts as he  reflects on all that he has seen in the game that was his life’s work for 21 seasons.

Honus Wagner, like all of us, was far from perfect. He was accused of overly-rough play, and when Ty Cobb takes pains to avoid angering somebody there is some evidence of a temper. Still, there is something about The Flying Dutchman that makes him stand out from other baseball stars. Perhaps it was his frame, odd even for a deadball era player. Maybe it was his unflinching loyalty to Pittsburgh when it would have been easy (and more lucrative) to jump to a different league. It may be that his workman-like qualities and longevity commanded almost unanimous respect among his peers. Whatever the reason, Wagner’s legacy holds a special place in baseball – enough to make him only the second player elected into the Half-baked Hall of Fame unanimously.

 


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