Monday, October 24, 2011

The DH and Other Strange Rules

I was recently on a Rolling Stones discussion site when the subject of the Designated Hitter rule came up (of all things). If there is one sure fire way to stir up the cyber equivalent of a bar fight among baseball fans, just type "I hate the DH" (or "I love the DH") and wait for the fun to begin. But the discussion got me thinking about odd or unusual rules in baseball and other sports. I do not wish to make this month's edition of FOTM exclusively about the DH, so allow me to dispense with it here, before moving on to our main topic:

Connie Mack first advocated use of a designated hitter in 1906.

In my humble opinion, the designated hitter rule is an abomination against God and Nature, a scourge on the National Game, a violation of the most basic and sacred tenets of baseball, and contrary to all that is Right and Good in the universe. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Among its many evils is that it has immeasurably dumbed down the game, taught two generations of pitchers that they needn't bother to learn how to use a bat, and is based on the false premise that more offense necessarily makes a better game. Worst of all, it violates the very first rule in the rulebook, which says "Baseball is a game of two teams of nine players each". Get that? Nine. Not ten, eleven or fifteen. You want a historical reason I'm against it? Okay. If the DH rule had existed at the time, there would have been no Babe Ruth, as Ruth was a pitcher and his batting prowess might never have seen the light of day in a major league game.

Ron Blomberg became the American League's first designated hitter on April 6, 1973. He was walked by Luis Tiant.

I can almost hear some of you go for your keyboards already. Please save yourselves (and me) some time. Yes, I know I am in the minority. I know that most "fans" prefer the DH. I know that virtually all professional and college leagues use it. I know it isn't going away. I know that you "don't pay to see managers manage". I have heard all the arguments. I've heard them and I remain unconvinced. The DH is an artificial and completely unnecessary rule, and the fact that it is still around is an embarrassment, akin to someone you know wearing an open necked polyester shirt with gold medallions long after the disco era ended. (The 70s were not a great era for baseball rule changes or popular music, but unlike the Bee Gees, the DH is still inexplicably with us). Even the name of the position - "designated hitter" - sounds forced and artificial. Yes, lots of fans prefer the DH. Lots of fans are wrong. Glad I got that off my chest, let's move on...

A rule that has always intrigued me is the uncaught third strike rule. This rule (No. 6.09) states that if there are two outs or first base is open, a strikeout victim can advance to first if the ball is not cleanly fielded by the catcher on the third strike. In one of the best examples of the wonderful symmetry of baseball, it was thought that the failure of the batter was not enough to cause an out - the defense must do its part too. In the instance where a batter reaches base successfully the pitcher is credited with a statistical strikeout, but no actual "out" is recorded. (This means that it is technically possible for a pitcher to have four or even more strikeouts in one inning). Of course, throwing the runner out is usually a formality, but in the 1941 World Series this play loomed large. With the Brooklyn Dodgers about to tie the Series at two games each, Mickey Owen's passed ball on what should have been the game-ending pitch by Hugh Casey allowed the Yankees to eventually turn the game around and take a 3-1 Series lead over Brooklyn. New York went on to win the next day and take the Series. One of the writers at the time described it like this: "The condemned jumped out of the chair and executed the warden". (Poor Mickey Owen, no one remembers that in the same season he set a National League record for most chances without an error by a catcher. When he passed away, his New York Times obituary was headlined "Mickey Owen Dies at 89, Allowed Fateful Passed Ball").

Let's turn to the great game of American football. In the early part of the 20th Century the drop kick was a popular way to score field goals and extra points. But by 1934 forward passing had become such a big part of the game that the shape of the ball was made pointed and could no longer be dropped with a reliable bounce. The last successful drop kick for decades was made by Roy "Scooter" McLean of the Chicago Bears (left) against the New York Giants in the 1941 Championship game (Joe Vetrano of the 49ers kicked one against the Browns in 1948, but at the time the two teams were in the AAFC, not the NFL). But the rule is still on the books, and Doug Flutie successfully drop kicked for an extra point on January 1, 2006 against Miami for his very last play in the NFL.

An even more obscure football rule is the fair catch kick, in which the receiving team may attempt a field goal from the spot of a successful fair catch. Unlike a field goal attempt from scrimmage, the defense must line up ten yards away. The ball is spotted at the scrimmage line and the kicker can have a full running start. A place kick or drop kick may be used. The last successful fair catch kick in the NFL was by the San Diego Chargers' Ray Wersching in 1976. (Mark Moseley attempted a record 74 yard fair catch kick against the Giants in 1979, but it fell short).

In soccer, one rule that is really not at all strange, but has been blamed in part for the past failure of professional soccer in the United States is the offside rule. Many Americans just cannot understand why perfectly good scoring drives should be nullified for no apparent reason. In the 1970s, in the interest of more scoring, the North American Soccer League modified the rule and created a "blue line" at 35 yards, similar to hockey's, but it was not enough to mollify offense-hungry Americans, and after a brief surge of popularity the league bit the dust in the 1980s. (The MLS is fairing much better). But in recent years, soccer's international governing body FIFA, has looked at eliminating the offside rule altogether. Maybe those American fans were right in the first place.

Our Flannel Of The Month is the 1934 U.S. Tour Of japan jersey. Order it with Ruth or Gehrig's number, or any number you like. Chain stitch embroidery on the chest and left sleeve patches. Red, white, and blue rayon trim. $129 (reg. $195).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ted Williams and the .400 Club

Seventy years ago, on September 27th 1941, Ted Williams achieved something in baseball no one has accomplished since - a season batting average over .400. Actually, Williams could have sat out the final day of the season - a double header in Philadelphia. At .39955, he was statistically at .400, and there was a strong likelihood that the eight or more at bats Williams would see in the two games would cause his average to dip below the .400 mark. The Bosox, already long out of the running, faced two meaningless games against the lowly Athletics, and player-manager Joe Cronin had given his permission for Williams (in only his third year with Boston) to skip the twin bill and preserve his .400. But Williams was not that kind of player, saying "If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line." The man who would become known as Teddy Ballgame went 6-for-8 on the day and finished the year at .406. (Perhaps emphasizing his point, hist last hit of the day was lined off the speaker in right-center field for a double). In seven decades, nobody has come closer than ten points to this phenomenal mark. (Williams also led the American League in home runs that year with 37, but it still wasn't enough to snag the MVP, which went to the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio).

That sweet, sweet swing...

The interesting thing is how little the Splendid Splinter's accomplishment was noted at the time. Only 10,268 souls bothered to show up at Shibe Park that late September afternoon, and most of the major newspapers failed to make much of the story. Why? In the four decades of the modern era up until that time, the .400 barrier had been broken eleven times by seven different players. Five of those times had occurred in the previous twenty years, so .400 was not considered the insurmountable achievement it would later be perceived to be. Also, another equally astonishing feat had been achieved that same season - Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and with the New Yorkers running away with the pennant that year, DiMaggio was the bigger story.

Who are the other members of the modern-era .400 club? The first was Nap Lajoie, who hit .426 for the Athletics in 1901. (In one of those delicious twists that occur in baseball, Connie Mack was Lajoie's manager for the A's in 1901, and was still the Athletics' skipper forty years later when Williams topped .400 in Philadelphia).

Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, bitter rivals and fellow .400 hitters.

Future member of the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox", Shoeless Joe Jackson, hit .408 in 1911, for Cleveland.

Ty Cobb is one of three players to hit .400 twice or more. He did it in 1911 and 1912, and would have had a .401 average in 1922 if the American League had not determined that he was wrongly awarded and extra hit by the scorekeeper in a May 15th game. (As it was Cobb finished the season with an official .399 average).

Next was St. Louis Browns first-sacker George Sisler, who hit .407 in 1920 and .420 in 1922. Sisler was never the same after an attack of sinusitis in 1923, but had a long career with the Browns, Boston Braves, and Washington Senators.

Harry Heilmann (at left in a San Francisco Seals uniform) hit .403 in 1923 while winning one of his four American League batting titles as a member of the Detroit Tigers.

Turning to the National League, the only man who broke the .400 mark three times was the Cardinals' Rogers "The Rajah" Hornsby, who hit .401 in 1922, .424 in 1924 (the live ball era record) and .403 in 1925, the same year he won the Triple Crown and incidentally, managed the Cardinals.

Rogers Hornsby was a hitting coach for Casey Stengel's expansion New York Mets in 1962. Supposedly, when asked how he thought he would fare against current pitching he said "I guess I'd hit .280 or .290". Asked why so low he replied "Well, I'm 66 years old!". Hornsby died of a heart attack in 1963.

That leaves Giants first baseman Bill Terry as the last man before Williams to reach the .400 plateau, with his .401 mark for the 1930 season. It has been eight decades and counting since a hitter from the senior circuit has hit .400.

Many factors have conspired to prevent anyone from reaching a .400 average in the last seventy years. The switch to a 162-game season is one. More games, more chances. The law of averages just works against a hitter as the at bats pile up. The evolution in relief pitching is another huge reason. A starting pitcher in 1941 was expected to go the distance. Relief pitchers were mainly for emergencies. When a hitter got a fourth or fifth look at a tiring starter, it was a huge advantage. There were no Mariano Riveras to contend with in the eight or ninth inning.

After 1941 Williams was always convinced that someone else would come along and hit .400, but it still hasn't happened. George Brett hit .390 in 1980 for Kansas City. Tony Gwynn was at .394 on August 11, 1994 before the players went on strike. In 1993 John Olerud took a .400 average into August, but ended the year at .363. And Teddy? He never hit .400 again, but he did lead the league with .388 in 1957 at the ripe old age of 39, and hit .316 in 1960, his last season, when he was 42 years old, 19 long years after he become possibly baseball's last .400 hitter.

Our Flannel Of The Month is, of course, Ted Williams's 1937 San Diego Padres jersey, bearing the young slugger's #19.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Trip To The Friendly Confines

Perhaps the only thing I like in baseball as much as historical uniforms is old ballparks. Sadly, I never got to see a game at Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Tiger Stadium, or Forbes Field. We only have two of these gems left, and the good citizens of Boston and Chicago are lucky indeed to still have Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Weeghman Park, as it looked in 1914.

The first time I visited Wrigley was in the late 1980s. I had just started the Ebbets Field Flannels, and was full of idealism and a renewed love for the game. I had already been to a Sox game at old Comiskey on this trip. The Cubs were out of town, but it was a glorious summer day, and I decided to head to the North Side anyway and have a look. After walking from the Addison L station, I stood on the sidewalk on Clark Street greedily eying the entrance. The wisp of green that lay a fleeting few steps away beckoned me. A maintenance worker was spraying the ground with a hose, and when he turned his back to me I made one of those instant decisions and slipped in behind him. I quickly made my way up the ramp into the stands and walked down the right field side looking over my shoulder, as I expected to be ejected at any moment. But no one said a word. There was just the beautiful summer day, the row upon row of empty seats, the towering hand-operated scoreboard above the bleachers, and the dazzling emrald green of the outfield. It was strangely quite and peaceful, with the only sounds being the sprinklers and the distant sounds of the neighborhood. I didn't push my luck by going down to the field, but with the park all to myself I just sat back and enjoyed the moment, then quietly left the same way I came in.

One of the most legendary - and controversial - moments in baseball history. Babe Ruth calls his shot in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field...or does he?

A recent trip to Chicago found me with some time on my hands. Again, the Cubs were out of town, and having no interest in the South Side team since they tore down old Comiskey I decided I'd be "legit" this time and take the Wrigley tour. If you are a baseball history buff like I am, it's the best 25 bucks you'll ever spend. The tour guides are informative and entertaining and you get to go into a lot of nooks and crannies of this lovely old park, including the clubhouses and press box (but alas, not the manual scoreboard in center field).

Left: The Whales won the 1915 Federal League crown behind the pitching of Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. This photo of Brown's disfigured right hand was taken at Weeghman Park.

A few fun facts, EFFers might already know: Wrigley Field started out as Weeghman Park, and was built not for the Cubbies, but for the Chicago franchise of the fledgling Federal League. Chi-Feds owner Charles Weeghman wanted to best both the Cubs and the Sox, and built the most modern facility in baseball at that time in just five weeks. The park at that time featured only the main seating bowl - no upper deck or bleachers. Also, the Cubs must have brought their own bad luck when they moved into the park later, as Weeghman saw a championship in only its second season, as the Feds (now christened the Whales) won the pennant in the Federal League's final campaign of 1915. When the league passed into history after the 1915 season, Weeghman put together a syndicate to buy the Cubs, and the National Leaguers moved into the park in 1916. It was renamed Cubs Park in 1920, and finally Wrigley Field in 1927, after the chewing gum magnate had gained control of the team.

1927 also saw the upper deck completed, and the current bleachers and scoreboard were added in 1937 by Bill Veeck, who also planted the famous ivy (amazing how often Veeck's name pops up in these stories). As we all know, lights were not installed until 1988 - the last major league park to do so.

The NFL Bears were accommodated with an extra bleacher section that held 9,000.

What struck me most about the contrast of Wrigley Field today with my first visit was not in the park itself, but across the street on Waveland and Sheffield Avenues. The apartment buildings that literally look into Wrigley always had lucky tenants who could watch the game from the rooftops. But by the early 1990s, this evolved into a full-fledged commercial operation. The tenants have been cleared from most of these buildings, and professional stadium seating (sometimes double-decked) has been installed. These seats are sold through ticket brokers, just like the seats inside the park. While it is hard to deny the role revenue plays in every aspect of major league baseball these days, this phenomenon seems not really keeping in the old neighborhood spirit of the thing. (Rather than put up a "spite" fence, the Cubs made a deal with these operators and take 17% off the top).

Wrigley, of course, has not meant just baseball. The Chicago Bears called it home until 1970. (A Northwestern University college football game was played in Wrigley last season but seats added since the Bears left meant that all offensive plays had to be run in one direction!). The NHL played its Winter Classic here in 2009.

Wrigley Field today, from the press box.

There are very few places left in the world where I can truly feel like a kid, and Wrigley is one of them. To sit in the bleachers and bask in the sun under that magnificent scoreboard while the timeless sights, sounds, and rhythms of baseball seep into your pores along with the sunshine is one of life's remaining simple pleasures. As Harry Caray might say: "Holy Cow!".

Our Flannel Of The Month is the 1915 Federal League champion Chicago Whales home jersey. The team was known as the Chifeds or simply Federals its first season, but a fan naming contest was held in 1915 and "Whales" was the second most popular entry. The top vote-getter? Chickens!.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pete Gray, The "One-Armed Wonder"

When the nation was put on a war footing after the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt decreed that professional baseball continue as a home front morale booster. Obviously the quality of the product would change due to manpower shortages, and MLB's 16 teams were stocked with older veterans, kids, men who had been classified 4-F (not fit for service), and other players who for one reason or another could not join the fight in Europe or Asia, but who could still swing a baseball bat. It was a situation, for example, in which a 15-year old by the name of Joe Nuxhall could find himself going from a high school mound to suddenly wearing a Reds uniform and staring down Stan Musial. (After leaving Cincinnati with a 67.0 ERA, Nuxhall returned to the Reds in 1952 and pitched for them for 15 seasons,and then became a beloved Reds broadcaster after his playing days).

It was also a situation in which a one-armed man wound up in the outfield of the St. Louis Browns. The brief black and white footage of Pete Gray in his Browns uniform always was conflated in my mind with the image of the midget Eddie Gaedel, who had one at-bat with the Browns in 1951: symbols of Browns ineptitude and desperation, publicity stunts, freak shows. (Side note about Gaedel: After the American League president voided Gaedel's contract, Brown's owner Bill Veeck demanded a ruling on whether Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto was a "short man or a tall midget", but we'll deal with Veeck another day.)

However the story of Pete Gray is much more complicated and interesting, as Gray was quite a ballplayer. Pete Wyshner was born on March 6, 1915 in Nanticoke, in the anthracite coal filed region of northern Pennsylvania. Six-year-old Petey lost his right arm when he was thrown from a truck and it had to be amputated above the elbow. The boy was right handed, so it took fierce determination on his part to learn how to use his left arm to bat and field, a determination that eventually led all the way to the big leagues.

Having exhausted his prospects in the local anthracite leagues, Wyshner (having changed his name to Gray to appear less "ethnic") set out for New York, where he impressed Max Rosner, owner of the Brooklyn Bushwicks. The Bushwicks were one of the top semi-pro teams in the country and faced talented opposition, including the best teams in the Negro leagues. Gray was a crowd pleaser from the beginning, and his baseball abilities attracted the attention of a scout for Trois Rivieres of the Canadian-American League. The scout had failed to mention that Gray had only one arm, and when Pete first met the Foxes manager he was, to say the least, quite surprised at his new prospect.

In the outfield, Gray developed a technique by which he could transfer the ball from his glove back to his hand and throw to the infield almost as fast as a two-armed player. It involved catching the ball, then quickly tucking his glove under the stump of his right arm while rolling the ball across his chest and into his hand. He did this so effortlessly he seemed to achieve these maneuvers in one smooth motion. At the plate Gray was an effective bunter and despite having only one arm, he managed to have very quick bat speed, although his power was limited for obvious reasons. His good eyes meant that he did not often strike out, and he was an aggressive and speedy baserunner.

Pete Gray's fielding technique

After an impressive season with Trois Rivieres, Gray's contract was purchased by the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, one step away from the majors. However after making the first cut, he was released by Toronto. (One account has it that an insult about manager Burleigh Grimes got back to the manager and that Gray was cut in retribution). After contacting over a dozen teams and coming up empty, he was finally given a shot by veteran manager Doc Prothro of the Memphis Chicks. Gray performed admirably for Memphis in 1943, batting .289 with 231 hits and 42 RBI. He distinguished himself with the gritty style of play which he had learned back in the Pennsylvania coal leagues. Gray also inspired servicemen fighting overseas, many of whom had returned home with missing or amputated limbs. He often visited recovering servicemen, and his exploits were documented in newsreels which were shown all over the country. The Memphis club invited a young boy named Nelson Gary who had also lost his arm to meet his hero and watch Gray play, and in a performance worthy of the legends associated with Babe Ruth, Pete responded by hitting two singles, a double, and a triple during the game.

But it was in 1944 that Gray peaked as a ballplayer. He hit all five of his career home runs during the '44 campaign, and his .333 average, 60 RBI and 68 stolen records (tied for the league record) were enough for him to be voted Southern Association MVP for 1944. His accomplishments did not stop at his offensive exploits, as he boasted an incredible .996 fielding percentage as well. I mention these statistics because it is important to note that despite the manpower depletion caused by the war, Pete Gray earned his promotion to the majors due to his achievements on the baseball diamond. Gray was also enormously popular with Memphis fans.

The usually lowly St. Louis Browns had seen their fortunes change in 1944 when they won the American league pennant and faced off against their intracity rivals the Cardinals in the World Series. Although the two teams shared a stadium - Sportsman's Park - that's about all they had in common, and it was usually the Redbirds who had the upper hand in the standings, as well as the box office. Led by crafty manager Luke Sewell, the Browns pitching and defense was just good enough to capture the pennant despite a .252 team batting average and no fewer than 13 players with a military 4-F classification, the most of any team in the majors. But despite the Brown's change of fortunes on the field, the club still was in a precarious financial state, and there is no doubt that owner Donald Barnes saw Gray as not just a ballplayer, but as a gate attraction, an idea that was anathema to Pete Gray, who wanted to make it purely on his skills.

Gray singled in his first major league game, against the Detroit Tigers, but then went into a slump and was removed from the starting lineup. He soon returned to form, however, and began to see more playing time. Pete was so popular with St. Louis fans that many would call the Browns' box office the day of a game to see whether he would be in the lineup before deciding to head to the park.

At left, Pete Gray's St. Louis Browns cap.

Browns' manager Luke Sewell had a dilemma. Because of Gray's popularity with fans both at home and on the road there was pressure to play him. The Browns fell behind the pace early in the season, and it was Sewell's job to win ballgames, not please fans, so although he treated Gray fairly he gave him less and less playing time as the season wore on.

Events conspired on and off the field to ensure that 1945 would be Pete Gray's only season in the majors. Pitchers soon found out that without a right arm, Gray could not check his swing or adjust very well to curve balls, so rather than trying to overpower him with fastballs, Gray was fed a steady diet of breaking pitches. Outfielders, knowing his lack of power, would play him in. Runners were able to exploit the small amount of extra time it took Gray to deliver the ball to the infield and would routinely take the extra base. VJ day meant the end of the war, and the beginning of the return of major leaguers to their rosters. When Donald Barnes sold his interest in the Browns in August, Gray no longer had a champion in the front office. Pete Gray finished the 1945 season with a disappointing .218 average and 13 RBI in 77 games. He managed to steal only five bases.

Pete's relationships with his teammates were also complicated. A few grumbled (unfairly) that he cost them a chance to repeat for the pennant because management chose to play him as a gate draw rather than a more able player. Outfielder Mike Kreevich, who had hit .301 the previous season, resented having to platoon with him. Gray, like many ballplayers of the time, was also a heavy drinker, and any tension with his fellow players could not have been helped by his alcohol intake.

The Browns organized a West Coast barnstorming trip for Pete after the season, and even arranged for him to appear in a Hollywood movie, playing himself. But when he learned he would only be paid $15,000 for his services and would have to wear a hairpiece, he nixed the idea.

Pete Gray in a Memphis Chicks uniform.

After being released by the Browns, Gray was offered a contract by the Toledo Mud Hens but almost lost his eligibility when he held out for the first month of the season. He was suspended in 1947 for failing to report, but came back and hit .290 for Elmira in '48. Pete Gray ended his professional baseball career with the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League in 1949, then returned to his hometown of Nanticoke where he lived quietly, avoiding the limelight and most interview requests, until his death in 2002.

Our Flannel Of The Month is of course Pete Gray's 1944 home Memphis Chicks jersey. It has the war-era "Health" patch on the right sleeve and Indian head patch on the left. The back is adorned with Pete Gray's #3.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's In A Name? Baseball Team Names Throughout History

Every so often someone not terribly familiar with what we do walks into the showroom and breaks into a snicker upon encountering an Atlanta Crackers jersey. "Was there really a team called that?", they invariably ask. Without missing a beat, we always say "not only was there an Atlanta Crackers, there was an Atlanta Black Crackers", at which point the snicker usually turns into a guffaw.

It may seem odd for a Negro league team to call itself the "Black Crackers" but they were simply following a common practice of adapting the major or minor league team name from the same city.

This brings us to the subject of this month's blog, which is team names. In contemporary times, tens of thousands are spent by teams on consultants, focus groups and "branding" companies to develop team "identity", which often includes a new nickname. Professional baseball at all levels is a big business today, and these things are not left to chance. Although a few clubs have hung on to their traditional identities (thank you, Rochester Red Wings, Durham Bulls and Buffalo Bisons), the trend of the past two decades has leaned toward lots of cutesy animal logos and names like SeaDogs, River Cats, Hillcats, Warthogs - you get the picture. Good or bad, nicknames today are another part of the corporate branding process. One can also argue that the contrived and trendy names many minor league clubs have adopted are at least unique and preferable to the trend of the 1960s through 1980s, which was simply to adopt the parent major league club's nickname.

It was not always thus. In the beginning (the 19th century) professional baseball teams rarely had formal nicknames. Nicknames evolved when reporters, headline writers, and fans needed a shorter and more affectionate way to refer to the local nine, so team nicknames gradually developed organically. One common way to refer to a ballclub was by the color scheme on their uniforms, so we got "Red Stockings", "White Stockings", "Browns", etc. These have evolved into some of the team names that are still with us in the majors today. Another approach was to use the league name as shorthand for the team, as in "Philadelphia Americans" as an alternative for "Athletics". Baseball cards were often marked this way, "Detroit Americans" or "Pittsburgh Nationals". (This system was slightly confused by the American League Washington club taking the name "Nationals" for a time.) Or teams were simply referred to by a plural of their city name, as in "the Brooklyns". Sometimes, a simple geographic feature could spark a nickname, as was the case for the New York Highlanders, who played at Hilltop Park (who we know know as the Yankees). The important point here is that for several decades team nicknames were unofficial and and rather elastic. Most fans know the Dodgers tried on "Bridegrooms", "Superbas" and "Robins" before settling on Dodgers, and Boston's National League club was known as the "Beaneaters" and the "Bees" before they were the Braves. It took time for clubs to develop traditions and histories which were the foundation needed to give life to names that stuck. In the rare case that club owners tried to force a new nickname on fans it was not always successful, as when Philadelphia's National league club announced in 1945 that they would henceforth be named the "Bluejays". The new name didn't stick (perhaps the fact that the team neglected to take "Phillies" off the uniform didn't help).

When the Federal League came on the scene to challenge the majors in 1914, the lack of acknowledged nicknames created an identity problem for the fledgling circuit, and baseball writers struggled to come up with names that reflected the new league's name, so we ended up with the rather awkward "Brookfeds", "Buffeds" and "Chifeds". When Indianapolis' "Hoosierfeds" moved to Newark for the 1915 season, writers dubbed them the "Newfeds" (Fortunately sanity prevailed, and the alternative "Peppers" or "Peps" seems to have won out). It was not until the second and final Federal League season that "Tip-Tops" stuck for Brooklyn, "Whales" for Chicago, etc.

Getting back to the minor leagues, hundreds of cities and towns meant hundreds of names. When you read through some of the league standings over the years, you cannot help but crack a smile at the ingenuity, humor and pure fun of many of these team names (or be puzzled by some of the odder or more archaic ones). I thought I would go over some of them, and I have divided them into several categories for your reading pleasure. One could form entire leagues just based on the nickname type:

Alliteration Division: Some names just roll off the tongue. We have the Lincoln Links, Hopkinsville Hoppers, Goldboro Goldbugs, Terre Haute Terriers, and Sioux City Soos, Palestine Pals, and Crookston Crooks. This category would not be complete, of course, without the Hannibal Cannibals, who took the Illinois-Missouri League title in 1908.

Your 1934 Lincoln Links.

Industrial Division: It was common for ballclubs to acquire a nickname related to a local industry, so we got the Brockton Shoemakers, Gloversville Glovers, Bassett Furnitute Makers, Tulsa Oilers, and all manner of Fruit Pickers, Raisin Eaters and Manufacturers. However, the Findlay Natural Gassers of the Inter-State League must have been relieved when their name was changed to Oilers.

Institutional Division: Nearby institutions led to the Joliet Convicts, Leavenworth Convicts, Auburn Prisoners, Utica Asylums, and Nevada (MO) Lunatics.

International and Ethnic Division features the Paris Parisians, Dublin Irish, London Cockneys, Rome Romans, Troy Trojans, Cairo Egyptians, Shreveport Creoles, Baton Rouge Cajuns, Edmonton Eskimos, Coronado Arabs, Shenandoah Hungarian Rioters, and, we regret to mention, the Canton Chinks of the Illinois-Missouri League. To make matters worse, Canon City, Colorado's Rocky Mountain League club was called the Swastikas, and their uniform featured the symbol on the jersey sleeve, but this was 1912 - many years before the swastika was adopted by the Nazis.

Edmonton Eskimos, Western Canada League champs, 1955

Religion anyone? We bring you the Battle Creek Adventists, St. Paul Saints, Selma Christians, Enid Evangelists, Natchez Pilgrims, Palmyra Mormons, Salt Lake City Elders, Battle Creek Adventists, and Charlotte Presbyterians.

We've done religion, now how about politics? In addition to the dozens of teams named "Senators", we also have the Marion Presidents, Guthrie Legislators, Albany Governors, and Topeka Populists. The Decatur Commies played during the McCarthy era, and was beer available in the ballpark when the Des Moines Prohibitionists took the field? One wonders.

Historical Division
: Paris Bourbonites of Kentucky played in the Blue Grass League, and it really must have been a battle when the York White Roses faced the Lancaster Red Roses in Inter-State League action.

The 1950 Hopkinsville KITTY League club had a dual nickname, as they were known as the Hoptown Hoppers.

Criminality Division: Omaha Kidnappers, Asheville Moonshiners, Lowell Highwaymen, and Corsicana Desperadoes.

Teams we feel sorry for: It's doubtful the Kirksville Osteopaths struck fear into the hearts of their opponents, and pity the poor player who had to listen to the taunts of enemy fans as a member of the San Jose Florists, Hopewell Powderpuffs, or Salem Fairies.

We could form an NFL division from these teams: Bears (Mobile), Packers (Dubuque), Lions (Lodi), Patriots (Gettysburg), Seahawks (Port Arthur), Cowboys (Tucson), Colts (Orlando), Raiders (Cedar Rapids), Bengals (Columbus), Eagles (Dallas), Browns (Valdosta), and Jets (Ponca City).

In the Oxymoron Division the Columbus (GA) Confederate Yankees must have been very confused, as were the above-mentioned Atlanta Black Crackers.

There was all manner of royalty in the minors: The Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings toiled in southeastern Arizona. The Ottumwa Coal Palace Kings took the Illinois-Iowa league crown in 1890. The Brenham Kaisers fittingly played during World War I in 1914-15, at least before the Middle Texas League folded.

Long before the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota, it was common for teams shared by two cities to be called "Twins", as in Fargo-Morehead (ND-MN), Dunn-Erwin (NC), and Sherman-Denison (TX). Leakesville-Spray-Draper, NC was of course the "Triplets". But Johnstown-Amsterdam-Gloverville, NY addressed this same challenge by calling themselves the "Hyphens".

Lastly, there are historic team names we just love that don't fit into any category: The Lima Bean Eaters, Zanesville Flood Sufferers, Memphis Fever Germs, Kearney Kapitalists, and Regina Bonepilers, to name just a few.

Our Flannel Of The Month for June has nothing to do with the subject matter of the blog, but it's a beauty nonetheless: Tony Lazzeri's 1925 Salt Lake Bees home jersey, with a glorious bee manually embroidered on the chest. Available for $129 for a limited time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Strange Story Of The Vernon Tigers

My interest in the history of the Pacific Coast League Vernon franchise was piqued by a recent story in the New York Times describing the efforts to de-certify the current city of Vernon, Cal. The municipality of Vernon is a factory town right smack in the middle of Los Angeles County that once was home to the best professional baseball team on the West Coast. Rarely has a story had such a wonderful confluence of corruption, celebrity, greed, alcohol, and baseball. Vernon has it all. What Vernon does not have are libraries, parks, schools, or people.

The city of Vernon (described by the Times recently as looking like "a backdrop to David Lynch's 'Eraserhead' ") was founded in 1905, when a few astute businessmen took note of the confluence of three major railroads five miles south of Los Angeles, and decided this would be an ideal location to attract business. One of the founders was man of Basque descent named John Leonis. In 1907 the city fathers decided to add sports as another of Vernon's attraction and built a 7,000-seat arena to house boxing matches and other events. However what was assuredly Vernon's single biggest attraction was that the sale of alcoholic beverages was legal within its city limits - as opposed to the bordering city of Los Angeles, which was dry (I know, difficult to fathom). Doyle's Tavern, which billed itself as the "longest bar in the world" was built in the town, and employed 37 bartenders to serve the thirsty patrons, mostly Angelenos who crossed the city line to enjoy the privilege of imbibing legally.

Your 1910 Vernon Tigers

Meatpacker Peter Maier was a businessman who knew a good thing when he saw it. The business-friendly atmosphere of Vernon, the ability to serve liquor, and a built-in natural rivalry with the Los Angeles Angels made for a good business opportunity. Maier Park was built next to Doyle's (the bar abutted left field, and had its own entry to the ballpark), and the Vernon Tigers were born. On the field the team struggled at first, but the popular Happy Hogan led Vernon to a second-place finish in only their third season, two games behind Portland (in an odd quirk though, the 1911 Tigers actually won five more games than the Beavers, but lost eight more).

Despite an even better finish in 1912 (one game back of champion Oakland), the Tigers were having trouble drawing fans, and the club was moved to the beachside community of Venice, 14 miles away (and not coincidentally the only other "wet" town in LA County). The first "drive in" ballpark in the country, with spaces for 80 cars, was built at the confluence of Virginia Avenue and Washington Blvd. The team played well on the field but continued to have trouble drawing fans (many "home" games were in fact played at Washington Park when the rival Angels were on the road), so in mid-season of 1915 the entire operation was moved back to Vernon. This included the ballpark itself, which was put on rollers and moved in sections, at a cost to Maier of $7,000.

In the war-shortened season of 1918, the Tigers (now led by manager Bill Essick) won the first of three consecutive PCL championships. Here's where our story takes it's next strange turn. The rotund comedian and silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the biggest (in both senses) celebrities of the era. (Arbuckle mentored the young Charlie Chaplin, discovered Buster Keaton and later, Bob Hope). Arbuckle signed a million-dollar film contract in 1918 (real money in those days) and had cash to burn. Fatty thought it would be fun to own a ballclub, and in 1919 purchased majority interest in the Vernon Tigers. Zee Nut even printed a Fatty Arbuckle baseball card.

In 1919, the three-season pennant run of the Tigers was severely tarnished by the PCL's own version of the Black Sox scandal, which occurred the same year. After whisperings that Vernon's success was due to something more than just excellent baseball skills, an investigation was launched and Tiger first baseman Babe Borton was expelled for conspiring to throw games. Other PCL players were also suspected, and just like his counterpart, Commissioner Keenesaw Mountain Landis back East, PCL president McCarthy chose to throw out all the suspected players - their actual guilt or innocence were never determined.

In the meantime owner Arbuckle had tired of his new toy, acknowledging that he was a figurehead who was just expected to sign checks, and complaining of exhaustion from all the personal appearances he was required to put in at Tigers games to promote the team. In the meantime, Prohibition had become the law of the land in 1920, and Vernon's appeal as LA's backyard den of sin immediately vanished.

In 1921 Arbuckle and a friend rented three hotel rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a party. Sometime during the festivities a minor actress with a history of instability named Virginia Rappe became ill and later died. Arbuckle was accused of sexually assaulting Rappe and endured three lengthy trials for manslaughter. With the Hearst press sensationalizing details of the incident (as well as making them up out of whole cloth) it was difficult for Arbuckle to receive a fair trial. Although eventually vindicated, his career was ruined (though he later became a director under the pseudonym William Goodrich, and enjoyed a comeback under his own name before his death in 1933 at the age of only 46).

The Vernon Tigers - now playing most of their games in Los Angeles - stumbled on for another few season. After a last-place finish in 1925, they packed up again (this time leaving the ballpark) and moved to San Francisco where they endured a dozen seasons as The City's second-favorite team, before returning to Los Angeles and adopting (ironically, perhaps) their new identity as the Hollywood Stars.

Although its dreams of sports grandeur faded, Vernon continued on as an industrial mecca and civic oddity. Studebaker built cars there, Alcoa built a factory, and at aome time there were 27 slaughterhouses in town. But with only 30 city-owned houses in its limits, and all the "residents" being beholden to the city bosses, it's municipal status was a farce and corruption was rampant. There were no elections held from 1980 to 2006, and four out of five city council members were appointed rather than elected. Mayor Leonis Malberg, grandson of founder John Leonis ruled his fiefdom for decades, though later investigations would reveal that he actually lived in upscale Hancock Park. In 2006 eight people moved into a vacant building in Vernon and three of them announced plans to run for municipal office. The city of Vernon's response was to send eviction notices and cut off power. (In another strange twist, these eight people were linked to convicted felon Albert Robles and an attempt to take over the town). In 2009 Mayor Malberg, his wife and son, were indicted of perjury and voter fraud.

With under 100 residents, the contention is that the city of Vernon is a "factory town masquerading as a city", and exists primarily as a means to enrich a small group of people. The California State Legislature and County of Los Angeles have both embarked in efforts to take away Vernon's status as a city. The city of Los Angeles would love to absorb it. Vernon is fighting back, however, and hired a former California Attorney General, as well as pricey lawyers and a PR firm to make its case. Maybe they should build a ballpark and attract a team.

About the flannel: This reverse pinstripe jersey was worn by the Venice version of the Tigers in 1913. It has a sun collar and elbow-length sleeves. No number on back in this era.

1918 Series Fixed? Say It Ain't So!

Speculation continues to build that the Chicago Cubs may have thrown the 1918 World Series to the Red Sox. The Bosox won the series, with Babe Ruth winning two games as a pitcher. A link to an article in the New York Times is here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Duke

Been away from the blog for a while. First I did some traveling last fall, to Thailand and Laos (anyone curious about my adventures there please check out my travel blog, Then there was the busy EFF Holiday season, then there was the Seattle January get the picture. I admire those bloggers who have something erudite to say on a weekly (let alone daily) basis. All I can promise is that I will try to post a bit more regularly than I have lately.

We lost the Duke this week. Edwin "Duke" Snider was the last living player who was on the field for the last out of the Dodgers' historic (and only) World Championship, in 1955, and hit the final home run at Ebbets Field. He also was an EFF customer, a fact that we were greatly honored by. Through the years he would occasionally call to order items from us, and we had the privilege of outfitting him and fellow Bums Johnny Podres and Don Zimmer for a Turn Back The Clock game in St. Petersburg, FL. Duke was always gracious when we spoke to him, and I regret I never got the chance to meet him personally.

Before joining the Dodgers, Snider played on all three top Brooklyn affiliates, getting in a couple of at-bats for Montreal in 1944 before joining the Navy. After being discharged from the service, he sported his famous #4 for the great Ft. Worth Cats team of 1946 in the Texas League. Snider's performance with St. Paul in 1947 earned him a shot with Brooklyn, but Mr. Rickey thought he needed more seasoning, and he started the 1948 season back in Montreal. He was called up to stay in mid-season, and of course went on to be one of the iconic "Boys Of Summer". Those were the days when ballplayers lived in the neighborhood, not in gated communities, and Snider lived in a rented house on Marine Avenue in Bay Ridge. He would often car pool to games at Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds with teammates Pee Wee Reese and Carl Erskine, who also lived in the neighborhood.

Snider took the Dodgers famous slide from their 13-game lead over the Giants in 1951 especially hard. His average dropped to .277, and the pressure on him was so great that he asked Walter O'Malley to be traded, reasoning he wasn't doing the Dodgers any good. Fortunately O'Malley did not heed his request, and the Silver Fox became, with Mays and Mantle, one of the three famous New York center fielders during that city's baseball Golden Age, hitting 40 or more home runs for five straight seasons from 1953-1957.

The Dodgers' move to Los Angeles was a cruel blow to the Duke's power, as he now faced the cavernous dimensions of the L.A. Coliseum. Nagging injuries also slowed him down. In 1963, he found himself part of Casey Stengel's hapless expansion Mets. When Charlie Neal refused to surrender #4, Snider wore #11 for the Amazins. While seeing Snider stride the grasses of the Polo Grounds no doubt brought tears of joy to nostalgic New York fans, it was no fun for Snider to be on such a laughable ballclub, and he was traded to the Giants for the 1964 season, his last.

Odd to see the Duke in a Giants uniform.

After doing some managing in the minors (with Spokane in 1965, Alexandria in 1972) Snider turned to broadcasting, and had a lengthy career in the booth with the Montreal Expos.

About the jersey: The Ft. Worth Cats jersey is interesting because although the trim pattern is nearly identical to the same period parent Brooklyn road, the color scheme is navy instead of royal. Also, unlike most major league players who became identified with a jersey number only after making the majors, Snider was already wearing his famous #4 in the minors with Ft. Worth.