“When I was a boy growing up in Kansas,” an elderly Dwight David Eisenhower recalled, “a friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”
When we were young our first heroes were Mom and Dad. Cast in their mold, we soon sought to be heroes ourselves—ballplayers or movie stars, battlefield stalwarts or national leaders. But we learn that even a hero can go only so far on his own. Playing ball or defending our values, it takes a team.
The upcoming Major League Baseball game at Fort Bragg—the first regular-season game of a professional sport ever played on an active military base—gives rise to thoughts about baseball’s long relationship with our armed services. Indeed, our national pastime’s origin, once thought to be the brainstorm of a boy who grew up to become a hero in battle, goes even farther back, beyond Abner Doubleday to … George Washington!
First in war, first in peace, and first president to play ball: General Washington was documented as playing a game of wicket, a bat-and-ball rival to baseball, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1778. Revolutionary War soldier George Ewing wrote in a letter: “This day His Excellency [i.e., Washington] dined with G[eneral] Nox [Knox] and after dinner did us the honor to play at Wicket with us.”
Washington the ball club came to be described by sportswriter Charlie Dryden in 1909 as “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” But we can’t blame that on Old George.
Soldiers played variant games of baseball throughout the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The group of who in 1845 would form the pioneer Knickerbocker Base Ball Club began to gather for ball-playing exercise at New York City’s Madison Square three years earlier. Before it would be formally opened as a municipal park in 1847, the Square had consisted of a military arsenal and parade grounds.
While Abner Doubleday did not start baseball, he may be said to have started the Civil War, ordering the first Union barrage in response to the Confederate attach on Fort Sumter in 1861. Not to hint at his paternity, but it is an oddity that Doubleday served in the Mexican War at Saltillo, where on January 30, 1847, Adolph Engelmann, an Illinois volunteer, reported: “During the past week we had much horse racing and the drill ground was fairly often in use for ball games.” The great battle of Buena Vista occurred a few weeks later.
To discover the first clear influence of the military on baseball, we must look to the Civil War. Competitive baseball clubs had proliferated in the years before the war, and many men on both sides of the conflict continued their play when not in active combat. Troops on the march took time out to play ball, prisoners of war staged games, and several men who would go on to play in baseball’s first professional league, the National Association of 1871-75, were veterans of the conflict.
Professional baseball players went on to serve with distinction in the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The stories are legion—those who died like Eddie Grant, Elmer Gedeon, and Harry O’Neill; those who returned to play with grievous injuries, like Bert Shepard and Lew Brissie; those who gave up their prime years in the game to defend their nation, like Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams. Hundreds of major-league players served; Warren Spahn was in the Battle of the Bulge, while Yogi Berra was at Normandy.
During World War II even oldtimers like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb donned uniforms in service of their country—baseball uniforms, as they staged exhibitions on behalf of war bonds. Servicemen overseas looked to letters from home and the box scores in The Sporting News to keep them in touch with what they had left behind, and what they were fighting for—an American way of life that was a beacon for a world in which the light of freedom had been nearly extinguished.
Pledging allegiance to our national game and our national service, cheering our representatives in victory, sharing their sorrow in defeat, permits us to become larger than our solitary selves, to stand up for our values and honor … to be American. Their heroism becomes, even if in small measure, ours. We are one.
My friend Richard Hershberger called this article to my attention last week, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of June 16, 1884, quoting extensively a story from the New York Sun. I know of no better description of the activity in the stands at a big-league game–even though its anonymous author casually insults each of the various “types” found at the Polo Grounds. This ballpark, by the way, is not the one at that hosted the Giants or the Mets, beneath Coogan’s Bluff, up at 157th Street. This was the first Polo Grounds, which hosted the New York National League club from 1883 through 1888, at 110th to 112th Street, with the first-base line running along Fifth Avenue. The New York Mets of the rival American Association also used this park in 1883-1885.
In Total Baseball, Phil Lowry added: “The Polo Grounds opened for baseball use September 29, 1880. There was a large flagpole in short center field, with a flag saying “NEW YORK.” There were two diamonds here. The NL Gothams and AA Mets both used the Southeast Diamond, until the Southwest Diamond was completed on May 30, 1883. However, the Southwest Diamond was so bad that the Mets always preferred playing on the Southeast Diamond, and would do so whenever they could, sometimes even playing their game there before a Gothams game just so they could avoid playing on the Southwest Diamond. (Raw garbage was used as landfill to make the infield here, so players also hated this diamond, and the Mets would again play at Southeast Diamond whenever they could avoid playing here. Mets’ pitcher Jack Lynch said you could get malaria by just fielding a ground ball.) Baseball ended at this Polo Grounds when the city built 111th Stret through center and right fields in the fall of 1888. The ballpark burned down in the spring of 1889.
Now, let’s step back to June 1884.
LOVERS AND CRANKS.
Some of the Familiar Faces Seen at Base Ball Games.
Base-ball crowds are so similar in their style, complexion and personnel that the following article from the New York Sun will be read with considerable interest. The writer has been making pre-Raphaelite observations and his pen pictures will be immediately recognized.
The first thing that impresses one on a visit to the Polo Grounds on any day of the week is the number of spectators. It makes no difference what day it is or which clubs are to compete, there are always crowds on hand to watch a match. On Fridays and Saturdays there are more persons than on other days. But a match between two of the more prominent nines of the League will call out 7,000 or 8,000 persons, no matter what the day may be. The wonder to a man who works for his living is how so many people can spare the time for the sport. They are obliged to leave their offices down town at 2 or 3 o’clock in order to get to the polo grounds in time, and very many of them are constant attendants on the field. The next thing that impresses the visitor is the absolute and perfect knowledge of base-ball which every visitor at the grounds possesses. Nearly every boy and man keeps his own score, registering base hits, runs and errors as the game goes along, and the slightest hint of unfairness on the part of the umpire will bring a yell from thousands of throats instantaneously. The third notable characteristic of the gathering at the polo grounds is the good nature, affability, and friendliness of the crowd. The slim schoolboy ten years of age, and the fat lager-beer saloon proprietor of fifty talk gracefully about the game as it progresses as though they had known each other for years. Men exchange opinions freely about the game with persons they never saw before, and everybody seems good-natured and happy.
THE MAJORITY OF THE MEN
are intensely interested in the game. Most of them come well provided with their own cigars, and sedulously evade the eye of the man who peddles “sody-water, sarss-a-parilla, lemonade, pea-nuts and seegars.” There is little drinking of any sort and much smoking. Boys peddling cushions “for 5 cents during the hull [whole] game” and score cards push their way into the crowd. When the afternoon papers come up scores of ragged little urchins invade the grand stand, shriek their wares at the top of their lungs and push in among the seats. The spectators take all these interruptions good-naturedly and languidly make room for the boys, while still keeping up their interest in the game. At times when the umpire renders a decision that does not meet with popular approval, there will be a terrific outbreak, and for the next ten minutes the offending one is guyed unmercifully. Every decision he renders is received with jeers, and sarcastic comments are made upon the play. The good sense of the crowd gets the better of this boyishness, however, and unless the umpire is decidedly biased, which rarely occurs, the crowd soon settles back into its accustomed condition of contentment.
Any little incident is seized upon by the spectators if it affords any amusing features. The other day a foul ball flew off the bat and lodged in one of the awnings. The man sitting nearest the awning ropes wore & white nigh hat, a spring suit elaborately faced with drab silk, a red necktie and a small mustache. He smoked cigarettes and looked more or less girlish. He rose daintily from his seat and seized the awning rope. As he did so at least two thousand men bawled such sentiments as, “Ah, there!” “Look out, it will bite!” “Treat it gentry, Geawge,” “Careful, baby,” “How very provoking,” “Deah me,” and the like. He grew very red, made the mistake of showing his anger and pulled very hard at the rope. He succeeded in yanking the awning a little, but not very much. A yell went up which fairly shook the building. Then everyone cried at once: “One, two, three—now let her go.” At the final word the dude made one more frightful effort, but again failed; then, gathering all his strength, he gave a final jerk which dislodged the ball from the creases in the awning. The outburst of applause and congratulations made everybody on the field smile.
AGAIN ANOTHER FOUL BALL
spun from a bat, directly toward an overdressed and effeminate-looking man, who sat at the western end of the grand stand. As the ball came toward him he jumped away from the rest of the crowd and yelled excitedly. The yell was somewhat shrill, and riveted the attention of the crowd. It happened that the bail struck the chair of the overdressed young man, and he picked it up daintily in his loved hand. As he did so two or three hundred voices shouted as though by preconcerted signal:
He did it. Then there was a shout of’ laughter. He looked around foolishly, picked up the ball pettishly, and made a feint to throw it overhand, as women usually throw. As he drew his hand back over his head the crowd again, as though in one voice, cried:
The man hesitated for an instant, and then angrily threw the ball into the field. There was a burst of applause, derision, and comment, above which could be distinctly heard the chorus: “There, you sassy thing!”
Any pretext for a laugh is eagerly seized upon. If any unusually fat man wanders into the grand stand and mates his way blandly to a seat many eyes follow his progress, and the chances are that the time honored “take care” will set his heart palpitating, just as he attempts to take his seat. If he is so unfortunate as to break down a chair, or to break the back—which occasionally happens-—the delight of the spectators is unbounded.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic and expert spectators at the Polo grounds are the stockily built young Irishmen, They may be bartenders, light porters, expressmen, clerks, loungers, policemen off duty, or merchants out on a holiday. One of them is a type of a thousand others. He is usually square-shouldered and well built. Probably he has had a taste of athletics himself and plays base-ball in a vacant lot on Sunday mornings even yet. He wears a cutaway coat, turn-down collar, a modest tie, trousers which are close to the leg but bulge at the bottom, and heavy-soled shoes. His hands do not look as though recently operated upon by a manicure, and there is one day’s growth of beard upon a good-natured and typical Irish face. His pocket usually holds some 5-cent cigars, which he is liberal in offering to his neighbors, and he sits forward in his seat, his elbows on his knees, a cigar in his mouth, and his eyes on the field.
HE KNOWS EVERY MAN
in both the nines by name, remembers where Ward and Welch pitched last, where Ewing made his best record, about a ball that McKinnon batted last year, and so on indefinitely, Sometimes he doesn’t bother with a card, keeps the run of the game in his mind, and is as liberal with censure as with applause. He seldom bets upon the game, and he enjoys the sport thoroughly for the sake of the sport itself. When a man bustles in late, steps on his coat tails, leans on his shoulder, and sits down beside him, he seems utterly unconscious of interruption, and when the man continues to intrude himself upon notice by thumping him in the ribs, and asking him what the score is, he turns around with thorough amiability, explains the game in a few words, adds a sentence of criticism upon the player who happens to be at the bat, takes a fresh light and resumes his inspection of the play. When the game is over he bounces from his seat and races across the ground with 500 other men. If he patronizes the 10-cent hacks he is always ready to help some man upon the box-seat, and then collects the fare for the driver He is companionable and jolly up the tedious flight of stairs to the elevated railroad, and he talks base-ball in the cars with such animation that the conductor forgets to call out the stations.
It has often been remarked that there are at the Polo grounds every day
AN EXTRAORDINARY NUMBER OF FAT MEN.
No one can tell why this is. It is said that men of extraordinary avoirdupois who find it impracticable, inelegant, and more or less sensational to throw hand-springs, steal bases, and run swiftly at 250 pounds weight, enjoy the spectacle of the cat-like and rapid movements of the athletes on the field. A man, in commenting on the prevalence of fat men at the Polo grounds yesterday, said: “I remember, not long ago, there was an extraordinary run of fat women at the Casino. It astonished the managers, demoralized the orchestra and gave rise to derisive comments on the part of the chorus. Fat women swarmed there (it was during the run of “The Merry War”), but there was nothing in the opera to account for the patronage of women of tremendous weight. The battalion which was wont a year ago to disport itself in barrel-shaped bathing suits at Coney Island patronized the Casino assiduously. One night it was observed that three particularly large women occupied a box on the south side of the stage, and that they smiled largely and with dimpled and wrinkled satisfaction whenever Perugini came on the stage. They even went so far as to throw bouquets to him. It was evident that Perugini was the attraction of the fat women.
A good many gray heads and gray beards are to be seen on the grand stand. They belong to men who have been base-bail enthusiasts from boyhood up. They enjoy the sport more than they would any play, horse or boat race, and they are full of reminiscences of the game. Scattered in among them are bright-faced boys, who are well dressed, well mannered and intelligent. They are looked upon by the men as of enough importance to warrant sober treatment, and their opinions are as gravely accepted as those of men. Another pronounced type is the young business man. Hundreds of spruce, well-dressed and wide-awake young men, who are apparently clerks, brokers or business men from down town, are to be seen about the grounds. They talk ball and stocks, but principally ball. They may not know as much about it as the school-boys or the solid young Irishman, but they make up in enthusiasm what they lack in knowledge. Their interest in the game consists largely in the money they have on it. They always bet freely among themselves, and return home happy or crestfallen, according to their winnings.
There are among the ladies who attend ball matches a few, perhaps a dozen in all, who thoroughly understand the game, and are actually and warmly interested in the sport. Most of them, however, have such a superficial knowledge of the game that they grow tired before the ninth inning is reached, and conceal their weariness when they leave early, by expressing a desire to avoid the crowd. Some of them, though, are profound admirers of ball, and sit every match out. There is one little woman whose excitement is watched with a good deal of amusement by the men who sit near her. She usually comes accompanied by a boy about 19 years of age, and sits on the upper floor of the grand stand. She attempts to keep score, but becomes so excited when there is any lively play that she forgets all about it until the game gets ahead of her, when she copies it from the boy, who in turn gets it from the man next to him. When there is an exciting play she rises in her seat, utters a series of inarticulate and half-smothered cries, claps her hands excitedly, and applauds vigorously when the home team make a point. When they are unsuccessful she departs dejectedly. The New York nine say she gives them luck.
I wrote this story in fifteen minutes Saturday morning, when the planets were in alignment, and posted it to “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” (ESPN.com/1927), where I appear now and then and which I commend to your attention. Thanks to the 1927 team for its gracious permission to share this with readers of Our Game.
Witnessing the past week’s outpouring of grief and tribute for the departed champ, Muhammad Ali, puts me in mind of — surprise, surprise — baseball.
Ali was a hero larger than life, a legend in his own time, and not only in areas of race and religion. He was True North, a lodestone for a generation wishing to free itself from a troubling past and an uncertain future. We know today, if we did not know it before, how our nation and our world felt about a man who rose from the streets of a racially divided city to become a role model of achievement, principle, and concern for others.
I once said about Jackie Robinson:
For me, baseball’s finest moment is the day Jackie Robinson set foot on a major league field for the first time. . . I’m most proud to be an American, most proud to be a baseball fan when baseball has led America rather than followed it. It has done so several times, but this is the most transforming incident.
Jackie Robinson is my great hero among baseball heroes and he’s my great hero as an American. He is an individual who shaped the crowd.
That pretty well describes what it is a hero does. Unlike the rest of us, he is determined to be himself even while he is acting on behalf of others, or knows that his every move will affect others — which is why these words of Ali’s stuck with me especially:
I don’t have to be what you want me to be.
Nodding toward the responsibility implicit in being a role model for millions, Ali and Jackie became heroes by going their own way. We may respect public servants, but we love those who question the rules, stand up to them, break them.
For those of my age, Jackie was our childhood hero. We graduated to appreciate and today venerate Ali.
For me, Babe Ruth has always been a distant figure of lore and legend, and I love him because I love a good story (I love Davy Crockett and P.T. Barnum, too). But with the passing of Ali, the veil lifts for me regarding how a nation thought about the Babe while he walked among them, and how they felt about him when he, and a piece of them, died in the summer of 1948.
I understand better what it was like to be alive back then, before I was born. And that seems to me the true goal for a historian, one who gathers and reshapes the tales that we tell around the campfire at night to assure ourselves of tomorrow.
You can find a complete collection of my essays for ESPN’s 1927 project at this page.
In 1975, as a youngish book editor at Hart Publishing in New York, I helped to create a line of “Hart Classics”–reissues of once notable volumes that were no longer in print. Among the musty titles I proposed was Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, an anthology of more than 160 stories by such revered if today unread authors as Ambrose Bierce, Josh Billings, Eugene Field, Joel C. Harris, Bret Harte, Oliver W. Holmes, William D. Howells, Bill Nye, and Artemus Ward. Mark Twain contributed twenty of his own stories, while asserting on the book’s flyleaf page that, “Those selections in this book which are from my own works were made by my two assistant compilers, not by me. This is why there are not more.” Because I had not for decades lifted this compendium of jollification from my shelves, I had forgotten that one of the contributors, James M. Bailey (represented with four selections), had contributed a story titled “A Female Base-Ball Club.” It has been forgotten for good reason, perhaps, but it does illustrate how men once viewed the idea of women playing baseball (not to mention other sports), and thus may have some instructive value today. At the very least it is an oddity that scholars will appreciate.
Twain plucked this story from Bailey’s Life in Danbury, published by Shepard & Gill in 1873 and “carefully compiled with a pair of eight-dollar shears, by the compiler” from the pages of the Danbury News. The story thus reflects the state of women’s baseball at some time before the advent of novelty nines later in the decade (Blondes versus Brunettes, and similarly described “pulchritudinous nines”). Now let’s permit Mark Twain to introduce us to the author and his tale.
JAMES MONTGOMERY BAILEY, so widely known as the Danbury News Man, was born at Albany, N. Y., September 25, 1841, and after receiving a common-school education, learned the carpenter’s trade. He fought through the war in a Connecticut regiment, and settled in Danbury at the close as editor of the News.
The only attempt on record of Danbury trying to organize a female base-ball club occurred last week. It was a rather incipient affair, but it demonstrated everything necessary, and in that particular answered every purpose. The idea was cogitated and carried out by six young ladies. It was merely designed for an experiment on which to base future action. The young ladies were at the house of one of their number when the subject was brought up. The premises arc capacious, and include quite a piece of turf, hidden from the street by several drooping, luxuriant, old-fashioned apple-trees. The young lady of the house has a brother who is fond of base-ball, and has the necessary machinery for a game. This was taken out on the turf under the trees. The ladies assembled, and divided themselves into two nines of three each. The first three took the bat, and the second three went to the bases, one as catcher, one as pitcher, and the other as chaser, or, more technically, fielder. The pitcher was a lively brunette, with eyes full of dead earnestness. The catcher and batter were blondes, with faces aflame with expectation. The pitcher took the ball, braced herself, put her arm straight out from her shoulder, then moved it around to her back without modifying in the least its delightful rigidity, and then threw it. The batter did not catch it. This was owing to the pitcher looking directly at the batter when she aimed it. The fielder got a long pole and soon succeeded in poking the ball from an apple-tree back of the pitcher, where it had lodged. Business was then resumed again, although with a faint semblance of uneasiness generally visible.
The pitcher was very red in the face, and said “I declare!” several times. This time she took a more careful aim, but still neglected to look in some other direction than toward the batter, and the ball was presently poked out of another tree.
“Why, this is dreadful!” said the batter, whose nerves had been kept at a pretty stiff tension.
“Perfectly dreadful!” chimed in the catcher, with a long sigh.
“I think you had better get up in one of the trees,” mildly suggested the fielder to the batter.
The observations somewhat nettled the pitcher, and she declared she would not try again, whereupon a change was made with the fielder. She was certainly more sensible. Just as soon as she was ready to let drive, she shut her eyes so tight as to loosen two of her puffs and pull out her back comb, and madly fired away. The ball flew directly at the batter, which so startled that lady, who had the bat clinched in both hands with desperate grip, that she involuntarily cried, “Oh, my!” and let it drop, and ran. This movement uncovered the catcher, who had both hands extended about three feet apart, in readiness for the catch, but being intently absorbed in studying the coil on the back of the batter’s head, she was not able to recover in time, and the ball caught her in the bodice with sufficient force to deprive her of all her breath, which left her lips with earpiercing shrillness. There was a lull in the proceedings for ten minutes, to enable the other members of the club to arrange their hair.
The batter again took position, When one of the party, discovering that she was holding the bat very much as a woman carries a broom when she is after a cow in the garden, showed her that the tip must rest on the ground and at her side, with her body a trifle inclined in that direction. The suggester took the bat and showed just how it was done, and brought around the batt with such vehemence as to almost carry her from her feet, and to nearly brain the catcher. That party shivered, and moved back some fifteen feet.
The batter took her place, and laid the tip of the bat on the ground, and the pitcher shut her eyes again as tightly as before, and let drive. The fielder had taken the precaution to get back of a tree, or otherwise she must have been disfigured for life. The ball was recovered. The pitcher looked heated and vexed. She didn’t throw it this time. She just gave it a pitching motion, but not letting go of it in time it went over her head, and caused her to sit down with considerable unexpectedness.
Thereupon she declared she would never throw another ball as long as she lived, and changed off with the catcher. This young lady was somewhat determined, which augured success. Then she looked in an altogether different direction from that to the batter.
And this did the business. The batter was ready. She had a tight hold on the bat. Just as soon as she saw the ball start, she made a tremendous lunge with the bat, let go of it, and turned around in time to catch the ball in the small of her back, while the bat, being on its own hook, and seeing a stone figure holding a vase of flowers, neatly clipped off its arm at the elbow and let the flowers to the ground.
There was a chorus of screams, and some confusion of skirts, and then the following dialogue took place:
No. 1. “Let’s give up the nasty thing.”
No. 2. “Let’s.”
No. 3. “So I say.”
No. 4. “It’s just horrid.”
This being a majority, the adjournment was made.
The game was merely an experiment. And it is just as well it was. Had it been a real game, it is likely that someone would have been killed outright.
BONUS Bailey clip from the Danbury News:
One of the passengers at the depot yesterday attracted the sympathetic attention of every beholder. The fingers on both hands were horribly deformed. One arm was bent backward at the elbow, and part of one ear was gone. His nose showed the scar of having been broken in two or three places; one eye was entirely gone; the right arm had been fractured, and all the upper front teeth were swept away. There were two scars of scalp wounds, and one long one on the right cheek. There was much speculation as to the cause of these misfortunes. Some thought he must have slipped into a raw volcano when a child; others believed he had attempted to part two colliding locomotives; while others still were equally confident that at some time in his life he had been overtaken by a mowing machine. None of these contemplated the true state of the case, as it afterward transpired that the grand cripple was the captain of a champion base-ball club.
We date the birth of Major League Baseball to a game played April 22, 1876 between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics, at the home of the latter. We know that Boston won 6-5, that Boston’s Jim O’Rourke secured the first hit, and many other things about the game. See:
But no one has, to my knowledge, ever given credit to the lone umpire in this inaugural contest: Billy McLean, a former boxer who had no trouble standing up to players in a dignified fashion. Such reserve was not common, as was demonstrated on July 24, 1873, when umpire Bob Ferguson picked up a bat and swung it to break the forearm of obstreperous catcher Nat Hicks.
Last year I stumbled upon this photograph of McLean as a boxer at an auction, and snapped it up. It testifies to the character demanded of an umpire in those rough-and ready days, when the hometown crowd and the players of both teams stood in opposition to every close call he made.
In his memoir, A Ball Player’s Career, Cap Anson wrote of taking boxing lessons from McLean during his Philadelphia baseball tenure (1872-75):
I towered over McLean like a mountain over a mole hill, and I remember well that the first time that I faced him I thought what an easy matter it would be for me to knock his reputation into a cocked hat…. McLean went around me very much as a cooper goes around a barrel, hitting me wherever and whenever he pleased, and the worst of the matter was that I could not hit him at all.
So great was McLean’s judgment, temperament, and fair-mindedness that National League officials in 1876 agreed to his demands for the unheard of fee of $5 per game. Prior to this year there had been no professional class of umpires; instead, the hometown club provided the umpire, with predictably uneven results. (Baseball did not begin to use two umpires, except for postseason play, until 1898.)
The great sporting weekly of that time, The New York Clipper, commented of McLean: “Though he did not court popularity, he was very sensitive respecting the spectators’ appreciation, and, rather than bear the insults and abuse of partisans, who are to be found among the spectators at every game, he has recently decided to abandon the onerous and thankless task of umpiring. In his retirement baseball will lose one of its best umpires, and one who has always endeavored to be impartial in his decisions.”
McLean was born December 3, 1835, at Preston, England, and at the age of seven accompanied his parents to this country, settling in New York City. In 1866 he moved to Philadelphia, where he played cricket and baseball. He began his umpiring career in the National Association, the first professional league, in 1872, and despite occasional feints at retirement he continued to umpire big-league games until 1890. He died in Philadelphia on February 3, 1927.
Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats. I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/BkxPPk)—-the product of research first undertaken in 1988.
30. Rufino Linares, October 6, 1985. Linares’s slogan was “I hit in any league.” Until his 30th birthday, however, the only ones in which he got the chance were the minor and the winter leagues. In 1980, the outfielder hit safely in 43 of his first 44 games for Savannah, finally attracting some attention. A year later, he was a 30-year-old rookie on the Braves, with a swing that reminded writer Furman Bisher of “a house painter falling off a ladder.”
Linares batted .265 for the Braves in 1981, and .298 in ’82. That winter, he suffered a devastating ankle fracture in winter league play, causing him to miss most of the 1983 season. After slipping to .207 for the Braves in ’84, he was released, winding up back in the minors. A year later, he was picked up by the Angels.
Linares homered in his first at bat for California on July 20, and in his last on October 6. He came to bat just 43 times for the Angels, but collected three game-winning homers. The last came off Rick Surhoff at Texas.
Going into the eighth inning of the season finale, the Rangers held a one-run lead. Linares, who had already singled twice and scored a run, now connected for a three-run homer. The Angels won, 6-4.
Linares returned to the minors for two more seasons. In his last, 1987, he finished second in the Mexican League in doubles and batting average, hitting a blistering .389. Rufino returned to his native San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, where he died in a 1998 auto accident.
37. Gregg Olson, April 20, 1998. Pitcher Gregg Olson led his high school team to four straight Omaha State championships with a 27-0 record. He went on to Auburn University, earning two All-America selections. At age 21, he became the fourth overall pick in the 1988 draft.
Olson was pitching for the hapless Orioles less than three months later. In 1989, Olson helped the O’s improve from 54 wins to 87 with a 5-2 record, an AL rookie record 27 saves, and a 1.69 ERA. He did not allow a run after July, and won the Rookie of the Year Award over Tom Gordon and Ken Griffey, Jr.
In 1990, Olson completed a run of 29 straight scoreless appearances, encompassing 41 innings, and made the All-Star team. He went on to become the first man to earn 20+ saves in each of his first four full seasons, and extended it to five in 1993. On September 21 of that year, he became the first Oriole pitcher to bat since 1972. He struck out.
But also that year, Olson suffered a partially-torn ligament in his pitching elbow. Over the next four years, he bounced from the Orioles to the Braves, Indians, Royals, Tigers, Astros, and Twins, plus a stint in the minors, earning a total of just 12 big league saves.
Olson made a nice comeback with the Diamondbacks in 1998. He saved 30 games with a 3.01 ERA over 64 appearances, and he even contributed with the bat. On April 20, Olson came to the plate for just the fourth time in his career, and slammed a 403-foot home run, helping Arizona pad a 15-4 victory.
Olson appeared in 160 more games over the next four seasons with the D’backs and Dodgers, but never again came to bat. He finished his career with 217 saves and a 1.000 slugging percentage.
39. Albert Belle, October 1, 2000. Few players have encountered as much controversy as Albert Jojuan Belle. After playing parts of two seasons as .220-hitting Joey Belle, the youngster went through alcoholism treatment, returning in 1991 as Albert Belle, and becoming one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Over the next decade, Belle would average 37 homers, 120 RBIs, and a .298 average each year.
But almost every year was marred by controversy linked to his erratic behavior and temper. In 1991, Belle was suspended for throwing a ball at a fan’s chest. He was suspended in each of the next three seasons as well, for infractions including a corked bat, charging the mound, destroying a bathroom, and hitting a fan with a Ping-Pong paddle. In 1995, he was fined for a World Series clubhouse tirade against reporter Hannah Storm, and sued for knocking down a kid who had egged his house on Halloween. In 1996 he fired a ball at a Sports Illustrated reporter’s hand, and earned a suspension for stiff-arming 170-pound second baseman Fernando Viña on a force play. In 1997, he was fined for an obscene gesture toward fans, and named in a gambling scandal. In 1998, he was charged with battery in a domestic dispute. He staged a clubhouse tirade in spring training, 1999. Along the way, Belle beat out Barry Bonds in a sportswriters’ poll to name “Baseball’s Biggest Jerk.” Even after his career, Belle made headlines with a DUI in 2002 and a stalking charge in 2006.
But, oh, how Belle could hit a baseball. In 1993, he led the AL with 129 RBIs. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, he batted .357 with 36 homers and 101 RBIs (projecting to 52-145 over a full season). In 1995, also abbreviated by strike, Belle led the league in runs (121), doubles (52), homers (50), RBIs (126), and slugging (.690), becoming the first man ever to hit 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same season; pro-rated for 162 games, he might have amassed 59 doubles and 56 homers. In 1996, he won his third RBI title, collecting 48 homers and knocking in 148 runs. After joining the White Sox as a free agent, and becoming the highest-paid player in the game, Belle came through with 49 homers, 152 RBIs, and a league-leading .655 slugging average in 1998.
Late in 2000, Belle was en route to his ninth straight 100-RBI season, but suffering from the pain of an arthritic, degenerative hip. Few could have guessed that his career was coming to a close at age 33. Belle’s home run off Denny Neagle, helping the Orioles to a 7-3 win, proved to be the final swing of his career. He retired the next spring, naturally amidst controversy: he fought to have insurance pay his salary for the remaining years of his contract.
Belle finished his career with 381 homers and a .564 slugging average over 1539 games.
39. Todd Zeile, October 3, 2004. Todd Zeile was born in Dodger country – Van Nuys, California – on the same day Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game at Dodger Stadium. He grew up wanting to play for the Dodgers, and got his wish – but they were only one of 11 teams Zeile played for.
Zeile began his career with the Cardinals in 1989, replacing popular catcher Tony Peña. He would be converted to third base in 1991 and first base in 2000, also playing the outfield and pitching during his career.
Zeile had his ups and down in St. Louis. After a decent rookie year and solid second season, he slumped in 1992 and was demoted to the minors. He came back to knock in 103 runs for the Cards in 1993 and 75 in the strike-shortened ’94 season, but a dispute with management the next year sent him packing. Thus began the most nomadic decade in any player’s career, as Zeile went from the Cardinals to the Cubs, Phillies, Orioles, Dodgers, Marlins, Rangers, Mets, Rockies, Yankees, and Expos – 11 teams in a little over eight years.
But he produced almost everywhere he went, including 99 RBIs in 1996, 90 in ’97, 94 in ’98, and 98 in ’99. He reached his career high of 31 homers with the Dodgers in 1997, and became the first player ever to hit home runs for ten and then eleven different teams. Two of his bats made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Zeile returned to the Mets for one last season in 2004. He planned to pursue a career in film-making after the season. He couldn’t have written a better script for what happened on his last day in the majors.
Before the game, the Mets honored Zeile with a ceremony, including a video tribute to his career and a framed uniform. Wanting to go out the way he came in, Zeile donned the tools of ignorance to catch one last game. It was also reliever John Franco’s final game, and Zeile made the putout on Franco’s last pitch.
Zeile came to bat with two on in the sixth inning, and blasted a 3-1 pitch off the Newsday sign on the facing of the mezzanine level in left field for a home run. Two innings later, he strolled to the plate for one last ovation, then was replaced by pinch-hitter Daniel Garcia. The Mets won, 8-1. Zeile finished his career with 2004 hits and 253 homers.
“I can’t tell you how special it was,” Zeile said after the game. “I can’t even describe that at bat right now. The moment doesn’t seem real. I don’t think anything went through my mind. You can’t process things at moments like that. I’m glad I went out this way [instead of somebody] telling me to take the uniform off.”
40. Ray Lankford, October 3, 2004. Duplicating the feat of long-time teammate Zeile earlier in the afternoon, Ray Lankford ended his colorful career with a home run. Lankford batted for pitcher Dan Haren with a 4-3 lead, helping the Cardinals to a 9-4 victory. Lankford came up once more in the game, but walked. “It might be my last regular-season game,” said Lankford of finishing with a bang. “Yeah, I thought about that.” Lankford finished as the all-time Busch Stadium home run leader (123), a record later broken by Albert Pujols. The Cards went on to the World Series, but Lankford did not play in the postseason.
Lankford began his career with the Cardinals in August, 1990, replacing Willie McGee in center field. Retaining his rookie status for ’91, he led the majors with 15 triples, stole 44 bases, and hit for the cycle. He had a dozen mostly productive seasons with the Cards before landing in Tony LaRussa’s dog-house in 2001. He was traded to San Diego, but played only 121 games there before sitting out the 2003 season with a hamstring injury.
Lankford returned to the Cardinals for one last shot in 2004, but lost his starting job due to nagging injuries. He finished his career with 238 home runs, 258 stolen bases, and a .272 average.
46. Jim Edmonds, September 21, 2010. With 393 career home runs, Jim Edmonds ranks behind only Ted Williams among players who homered in their final at bats.
Edmonds made it to the majors with the Angels in 1993, remaining with the team through 1999. Rod Carew took him under his wing early on, and Edmonds blossomed as a hitter, averaging 28 homers, 86 RBIs, and a .298 average from 1995-98. He also became one of the best defensive center fielders in the game’s history, winning his first of eight Gold Glove Awards. Many consider his 1997 catch against Kansas City’s David Howard – Edmonds sprinted back and caught the ball over his shoulder while diving into the warning track – the greatest of all time.
Edmonds suffered a severely injured right shoulder in 1999, and missed the first four months of the season after arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum. His shoulder, as well as the foot he broke (but kept playing on) in 1995, plagued him the rest of his career. For some reason, Edmonds had also acquired a negative reputation in Anaheim: someone who didn’t always play hard, who showed off, who wasn’t a team player. In March, 2000, the Angels traded him to the Cardinals for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy.
Edmonds played with the Cardinals from 2000-07, helping them to two World Series, and earning the nickname “Jimmy Ballgame.” He finished in the top five in MVP voting in 2000 (42 homers, 108 RBIs, .295) and 2004 (42, 111, .301). Edmonds starred in the 2004 NLCS, hitting a 12th-inning homer to win Game Six, and making a miraculous catch to save Game Seven.
Injuries cut into Edmonds’ playing time in his last two years with the Cards, and they dealt him to San Diego for future postseason hero David Freese after the 2007 season. Edmonds lasted barely a month with the Padres before they released him. Picked up by the Cubs, Edmonds had a strong performance in a reserve role, but then took the 2009 season off. He returned to play in 2010 for the Brewers and Reds, finishing his career with 1949 hits, 437 doubles, 393 homers, 1199 RBIs, a .284 batting average, and a .527 slugging mark.
Edmonds’ final homer was a second-inning solo shot off Milwaukee’s David Bush. He was signed by the Cardinals to a minor league contract in February, 2011, but retired for good two weeks later. He threw out the Cards’ ceremonial first pitch in Game Four of the NLCS that October.
47. Adam Kennedy, September 7, 2012. Adam Kennedy was never considered a power hitter, yet he had several home run highlights. In 2000, he narrowly missed becoming the 12th player to hit two grand slams in one game. In 2002, he became just the fifth player ever to belt three homers in a postseason contest. And in 2012, he finished his career with a four-bagger in his last at bat.
A shortstop-second baseman, Kennedy was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1997 draft. He moved up quickly and was named the Cards’ minor league player of the year in 1999, after batting .327 in 91 games. That earned him his first call to The Show.
But on March 21, 2000, Kennedy was traded to the Angels along with pitcher Kent Bottenfield – ironically, in exchange for Jim Edmonds, another future “Out with a Bang” player. Kennedy wasted no time in making his mark in Anaheim. On April 18, he knocked in eight runs in one game, with a grand slam, a bases-loaded triple off the center field wall, and an RBI single among his four hits.
Kennedy’s career highlight came on October 13, 2002, in the final game of the American League Championship Series. He slammed three home runs – the last after a failed sacrifice bunt attempt – in a 4-for-4 day that clinched the pennant. Kennedy was named ALCS MVP, and his bat wound up going to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He then helped the Angels to a World Series win over the Giants, finishing with a batting average of .340 and slugging percentage of .660 in postseason play that year.
Kennedy had a nomadic career after that, going to the Dodgers, Cardinals, Rays (minor league organization), A’s, Nats, Mariners, and back to the Dodgers between 2005-12. He batted .312 in 2002 and .300 in ’05 (helping the Dodgers to the NLCS), but never hit more than 13 home runs in a season.
Kennedy’s final homer came in the sixth inning with no one on base, off the Giants’ two-time Cy Young Award-winner, Tim Lincecum. It was pulled down the right field line at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. Kennedy was replaced by Luis Cruz, and the Dodgers went on to lose, 5-2. Kennedy never played again, finishing his 14-year career with 80 homers and a .272 average.
53. Nyjer Morgan, May 11, 2014. Morgan was not a strong candidate to homer in any at bat, never mind his last. He had only 12 round-trippers in 1953 major league ABs, in one season failing to homer in 509 trips.
While not a power-hitter, Morgan was a dynamic leadoff man and center fielder with an equally dynamic personality. He could be the most popular player on a team, or the biggest troublemaker. He gave colorful nicknames to his teammates, and even created one for himself: “Tony Plush.” In a 2012 Sports Illustrated poll of 297 players, Morgan was easily voted the most eccentric player in the bigs, receiving 19 percent of the votes; Giants’ closer Brian Wilson was a distant second with 12 percent.
Morgan’s first love was hockey, and he pursued a pro career in that sport. By age 20, all he had to show were seven games in the minor Western Hockey League, and he shifted his focus to baseball. Morgan was drafted in the 33rd round in 2002, and was 27 when he finally reached the majors with the Pirates in 2007.
Morgan was traded to Washington in a four-player deal on June 30, 2009, and thrived for his new team, batting .351 the rest of the year, though he was sidelined after breaking his hand sliding on August 27. He still finished the season second in the NL in stolen bases (42) and tenth in batting (.307).
Morgan’s 2010 season was not as good (.253), and was punctuated by an eight-game suspension for multiple altercations involving opposing players and fans. He was traded to the Brewers on March 27, 2011.
Once again, Morgan had a rebirth in his new surroundings. He batted .304 and became a fan favorite. Morgan’s walk-off single in Game Five of the NLDS sent the Brewers to the League Championship Series.
But once again, he sputtered (.239) in his second year with the team. Morgan wound up going to Japan for the 2013 season.
Morgan resurfaced with the Indians in 2014 and, true to form, got off to a fast start. After his homer to deep right-center field on May 11, he was batting .341. But in his next game three days later, Morgan sprained his right knee in the outfield before he could bat again. When he finally got off the DL in August, the Indians released him.
Morgan signed to play in South Korea for 2015, but after just ten games there he hung up his spikes.
56. Ramon Santiago, September 27, 2014. The Dominican-born Santiago joined the Tigers in 2002, starting a 13-year career as a good-field-no-hit reserve infielder. Other than stops in Seattle (2004-05) and Cincinnati (2014), his whole career was with Detroit.
Santiago had just 30 homers in 2436 career at bats, but the final one stands as the most dramatic final at bat in baseball history. On September 27, 2014, he connected for a tenth-inning, walk-off grand slam to give the Reds a 10-6 win over the Pirates. He is the only man to hit a bases-loaded homer in his final at bat.
Santiago signed with the Blue Jays on February 3, 2015, but hit just .202 in 33 games with their AAA team in Buffalo.
Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats. I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, continued from yesterday (http://goo.gl/kWhaon)–the product of research first undertaken in 1988.
16. Marv Blaylock, September 28, 1957. Blaylock was in the throes of an 0-for-summer slump: he had not had a hit (in 16 at bats) since June 15, and had not even come to bat since July 27. The Phillies’ first baseman had lost his starting job to rookie Ed Bouchee, and was now finishing his career as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Jim Hearn.
Batting against Brooklyn’s Rene Valdez in the fifth inning, Blaylock blasted a solo home run. “The ball cleared the scoreboard in right center field in Connie Mack Stadium, which was a good distance,” recalled Blaylock more than 30 years later. The Phils lost, 8-4, and Blaylock’s contract was sold to Cincinnati after the season. The Reds “wanted me to report to Havana or Seattle,” Blaylock said in explaining the end of his career. “I refused.”
Blaylock died at age 64 on October 23, 1993. A few years before his death, he expressed appreciation for this research effort, and his inclusion on the list. “It’s nice to be remembered,” he said.
19. Don Gile, September 30, 1962. Gile was playing first base for Boston the day Ted Williams hit his farewell homer, but no one would have dreamed Gile would end his career in similarly dramatic fashion two years later.
The 6’6” Gile, who also caught for the Sox during his four-year career, entered his final day in the big leagues with a lifetime average of .142 – more than 200 points lower than Williams’s – and all of two home runs. In this season, he had a perfect record: 34 times up, 34 times retired. He broke the slump with a single in the first game of a season-ending doubleheader but, by the last inning of the nitecap, his 1962 record stood at 1-for-40. It seemed clear that Gile’s services would no longer be required after this.
Boston’s Bill Monbouquette and Washington’s Jack Jenkins were engaged in a pitchers’ duel. There had been 16 strikeouts and only 12 hits in the game. Going into the bottom of the ninth, the score stood at 1-1, as it had since the third. Boston had one out and a man on first, with the bottom of the order due up: Gile (.025), Chuck Schilling (.230), and Monbouquette (.096), a combined 0-for-9 in the game. Extra innings seemed imminent, but Gile stepped to the plate and boom! As suddenly as the ball disappeared from the confines of Fenway Park, it was all over: the game, the season, and Don Gile’s big league career.
20. Ed Hobaugh, September 2, 1963. “Hoby” had been called up from the minors for the third and final time. He had been pitching professionally since 1956, when he went 11-4 (including a no-hitter) in the Three-I League, and had won 9 of 19 decisions in his previous trials with the hapless Senators. On this day, he was picked to start at Cleveland in the second game of a doubleheader.
Cleveland led, 3-2, going into the fourth, when homers by Don Zimmer and Ed Brinkman gave Washington three runs. Jerry Walker then came in to pitch to Hobaugh, a career .111 hitter with nary a home run to his credit. Nevertheless, Hobaugh recalled “a very strong feeling that I was going to hit the ball out of the park.” Walker delivered a high fastball, and Hobaugh deposited it over the left-center field fence.
Hobaugh was knocked out of the box in the bottom of the inning, but the Nats held on to win, 8-7. The 29-year-old righty would appear in eight more games, all in relief, and walk in his only plate appearance on September 7 (he didn’t remember whether he offered at any pitch). After the season, Hobaugh was traded to the Pittsburgh organization. He pitched for six more years in the minors, finishing his pro career with 97 wins and 68 losses, then became a manager in the Pirates’ system.
Hobaugh was aware he had homered in his final at bat. It provided him little satisfaction, however, serving only to remind him that “It ended too soon for me.”
21. Tony Kubek, October 3, 1965. You might say that Kubek was born to play ball: his father and two uncles all played in the high minors. Raised in a “Polish ghetto” in Milwaukee, Tony excelled in football, basketball, and track, in addition to baseball, in high school. He passed up scholarship offers to go straight to the minor leagues, where he jumped from Class-D to Triple-A in two years, batting over .330 at each level. His propensity to hit line drives earned him the nickname “Rope.”
Kubek joined the Yankees in 1957, alternating between third base, second base, left field and center field. He batted .297 in 127 games, technically earning unanimous selection as A.L. Rookie of the Year (the lone dissenting vote went to an ineligible player). Teammate Mickey Mantle called him “the best young ballplayer I ever saw.” To cap it all off, Kubek starred in the first World Series game ever played in his hometown. On October 5, after manager Casey Stengel had predicted “Tony will do something big yet in this Series,” Kubek blasted two homers and drove in four runs to lead the Yanks to a 12-3 victory over Milwaukee.
Kubek became the team’s regular shortstop, making the All-Star team three times, and helping the Yankees to seven pennants. He reached a peak salary of $37,500, big money in the early 1960s. However, his batting averages started to tumble after 1962, a year in which he was in military service until August. Tony didn’t realize it then, but a touch-football injury suffered in the service had literally broken his neck: three vertebrae in the cervical section of the neck were crushed, imperiling his spinal cord and impairing his reflexes and mobility. The injury was finally diagnosed after the 1965 season, and Kubek was forced to retire at age 29 rather than risk permanent paralysis. He finished with a .266 career average and 57 homers.
Before he quit, Kubek had had one last hurrah. In his final game, at Boston’s Fenway Park, he went 3-for-4 with a sacrifice and three RBIs. In his last at bat, facing monstrous relief pitcher Dick Radatz in the ninth inning, Tony poled a two-run homer to pad a New York victory. Kubek didn’t realize he had homered in his last at bat until 1988, when he and Radatz were chatting near the batting cage at Fenway. “Dick talked about how easily he got Mickey out and the trouble he had with me,” recalls Kubek.
With his playing career over, the well-read Kubek had several other activities to fall back on. He had done some radio announcing for WRIT in Milwaukee. He was vice-president and sales manager of a cheese company in Wausau, Wisconsin. He was a team ring salesman in the same area. And, he was signed to scout for the Yankees in 1966. In the end, broadcasting won out over the vocations.
Kubek was hired to do color commentary for NBC-TV’s “Game of the Week” series starting in 1966. Three years later, he was promoted from the backup-game team to join Curt Gowdy in the national booth. Kubek became known as a bright, outspoken analyst, not afraid to ruffle feathers. He sometimes became embroiled in controversies with those he criticized, most notably George Steinbrenner in 1978.
Kubek was with NBC until 1988, also doing telecasts for CBC in Toronto. He later broadcast Yankees’ games for the MSG cable network. In 2009, Kubek won the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting.
23. Ken McMullen, September 14, 1977. Unlike most of the players on this list, McMullen was an accomplished slugger. Despite playing his entire career in pitchers’ parks, he hit 156 home runs, reaching double figures seven times in a row. His last circuit clout was unexpected, however.
McMullen was signed by the Dodgers as an 18-year-old bonus player in 1961, having been a three-sport standout in high school. After two solid seasons in the minors, the youngster was called up for his first taste of the majors at the end of the ’62 season. Ken helped the Dodgers into the 1963 World Series, although a leg injury kept him out of the Fall Classic. The team couldn’t find a regular lineup spot for him, however, and they sent him to Washington with Frank Howard in a six-player deal following the 1964 campaign.
With the Senators, McMullen blossomed into one of the best third basemen in the AL. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player in 1965, after hitting 18 homers for a ninth-place club. A year later, he tied an all-time record with 11 assists in a nine-inning game. Mickey Mantle called him “the most underrated player in the league.”
McMullen socked 20 home runs in 1968, “the year of the pitcher,” then had his best all-around year under manager Ted Williams in 1969: 19 homers, 87 RBI, and a .272 average, plus his usual sterling defense. A year later he was traded for two solid players to California, where he hit 21 homers in 1971 and won the Owner’s Trophy as the club’s MVP. After the 1972 season, McMullen and Andy Messersmith were traded to the Dodgers in exchange for five players, including future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
McMullen was troubled by a bad back during Spring Training, 1973, and his position was filled by rookie Ron Cey. McMullen became a Wally Pipp story: Cey did not give up the job for ten years, and McMullen was relegated to the sidelines. Ken became a star pinch-hitter for the Dodgers over the next three seasons, but had only 191 at bats over that period, being typecast as a bench player. He also suffered personal tragedy during this time, as his 30-year-old wife, Bobbie, died of lymphatic cancer four months after giving birth to the couple’s third child.
McMullen went to Oakland in 1976, the year he remarried, then finished up his career with Milwaukee in ’77. His last appearance came a week after he tore a nail off one of his fingers. “I didn’t expect to hit for another week,” recalls McMullen, “but (I) got called to pinch hit [for Jim Gantner] and was just trying to hit a sacrifice fly to score the run.” It was the eighth inning of a game at Seattle, and the Brewers were clinging to a 6-5 lead. Tom House – best-remembered as the man who caught Hank Aaron’s 715th home run ball in the Braves’ bullpen in 1974 – was on the mound. “I took a pitch for a strike,” says Ken, “and then swung at the next pitch almost one-handed and it went out.” Milwaukee won, 8-5.
McMullen was released on December 14, then retired to his Camarillo, California home. He began devoting more time to his hobbies of golf, tennis, and gardening, to the “Ken McMullen Baseball Camp” he had established during his playing career, and to watching his kids grow up.
McMullen was aware of his last-at bat feat. “I’ve never wanted to brag about it,” he says, “but it’s the only way to finish a career.”
25. Mike Cubbage, October 3, 1981. Cubbage hit only 34 home runs during his eight-year career, but many were noteworthy ones. Four were grand slams, one each in 1975 (his first major league hit), ’76, ’77 (when he drove in five runs in one inning), and ’78. One was part of a “cycle” performance in 1978. And, one was hit off the last pitch he received in the majors in 1981.
After playing two years of semipro ball, and attending the University of Virginia (where he was a shortstop and quarterback), Cubbage began his pro career in 1971. He moved up the ladder and made his first big league appearance at age 23 with the 1974 Texas Rangers. Two years later he was dealt to the Twins, developing into a solid third baseman. After an injury-plagued 1980 season, Cubbage signed a lucrative free agent deal with the New York Mets. He was expected to solve the team’s third base problems, but instead lost his job to rookie Hubie Brooks. By the season’s final weekend, Cubbage had accumulated just 79 at bats, with no home runs.
With the Mets down by two runs against the visiting Expos, Cubbage came in to pinch-hit for Doug Flynn in the bottom of the eighth. Facing ace reliever Jeff Reardon, Cubbage cracked a solo home run, but the Mets lost anyway, 5-4. Cubbage was released during spring training, 1982, agreeing to a demotion to the minors. He remained with the organization, becoming the Mets’ third base coach and serving a seven-game stint as their manager.
26. Joe Rudi, October 3, 1982. Of the perpetrators of this feat, only Ted Williams had hit more than the 179 home runs collected by Rudi. And, Rudi is the only man to homer in his last at bats in both regular-season and World Series play.
His Norwegian-born father “kept telling me to stop this foolishness and concentrate on preparing myself for a real career,” Rudi recalls. Nevertheless, Joe went straight from high school (where he lettered in baseball, football, and wrestling) to the minor leagues in 1964. He began a long climb, failing in three trials with the A’s in the late 1960s. He finally stuck with the big club in 1970, batting .309 in 106 games, with help from Oakland batting coach Charlie Lau. Joe would reach his zenith two years later.
In 1972, Rudi led the A.L. in hits and triples, batted .305, and finished second in the league MVP voting. The outfielder made the All-Star team, and paced his club to the first of three consecutive world championships. In Game 2 of the World Series, his homer provided the margin of victory in a 2-1 contest, and his spectacular leaping, wall-crashing, backhanded catch – one of the best in Series history – in the bottom of the ninth saved the game for Oakland.
Rudi had another big year in ’74, leading the A.L. in doubles and total bases, and again finishing second in MVP balloting (he is one of 13 players to twice finish second without ever winning the award). He also won his first of three straight Gold Glove Awards. “Fundamentally, the best player of this generation,” marveled rival manager Billy Martin. “He’s one of the best ever to play this game, and nobody knows him!” Rudi’s teammate, Reggie Jackson, concurred. “Nicest guy in the league,” said Reggie, known more for talking about himself than about others. “Underrated, underpaid, a self-made ballplayer, and the best left fielder in the American League.” Others, including broadcaster Tony Kubek, picked up on Rudi’s “underrated” label. “I get more ink about not getting any ink than about the things I do,” noted Joe.
Rudi, who owned two sporting goods stores in California, stayed with Oakland through 1976, before signing a rich free agent deal with the Angels. Hampered by injuries, his career spiraled downhill. He went to Boston in 1981, then finished out his career back with Oakland in ’82. This set the stage for his farewell homer.
Rudi was not a stranger to dramatic dingers. On June 7, 1970, fresh out of service in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Joe arrived in the eighth inning of a game against Detroit and hit a three-run, pinch homer to win the game, 5-3. In September 1972, having been sidelined for two days due to dizzy spells and fatigue, Rudi climbed out of bed to again beat the Tigers with a three-run homer. In the final game of the 1974 World Series, Joe homered in his last at bat to give Oakland a 3-2 win and the world title.
On this date – a year to the day after Mike Cubbage’s farewell homer – Oakland was wrapping up its season at Kansas City. Rudi had doubled and scored (on a homer by Dave McKay, also playing his last game) in the second, and the game was tied at three when Joe came to bat in the fourth. Rudi walloped a two-run homer off Larry Gura, and was replaced by rookie Kelvin Moore. Rudi watched as the A’s held on to win, 6-3.
Bothered by a torn Achilles tendon, Rudi retired following the season. He did not realize he had homered in his last at bat, recalling “nothing unusual” about the event.
29. Willie Aikens, April 27, 1985. When Aikens’s mother gave birth to a boy in 1954, 15 days after Willie Mays’s historic World Series catch off Vic Wertz, she named him after his uncle, Willie. The doctor who delivered him suggested the middle name “Mays” (although it was never officially added to the birth certificate), predicting that the newborn would become a “famous ballplayer.” Two decades later, the prediction was well on its way to realization, as Willie Mays Aikens became the Angels’ number one pick in the January 1975 free agent draft.
The big first baseman led the Midwest League in RBIs in ’75, then topped the Texas League in runs, homers, and RBIs the following year. Aikens got a shot at the majors in 1977, but didn’t stick. After winning the PCL home run crown in ’78, Willie was called up to stay.
Aikens helped the Angels to the AL West title in 1979, batting .280 with 21 homers and 81 RBIs in 116 games before tearing knee ligaments while sliding late in the season. In December he was traded to the Mets, but the deal was quashed, and he went instead to Kansas City (taking uniform #24, the one used by Mays). Aikens had 20 homers, 98 RBI, and a .278 average for the Royals, helping them to the 1980 World Series.
Aikens excelled in the Fall Classic. In Game One, on his 26th birthday, Aikens smashed two home runs and drove in four runs, becoming just the third player to collect two round-trippers in his first Series game. In Game Four he became the first player ever to have a pair of two-homer games in one World Series, leading the Royals to a 5-3 win. All told, Aikens batted .400 in the six-game Series loss, with a triple (his first in the majors), four homers, eight RBIs, and a 1.100 slugging percentage.
Aikens helped KC to the postseason again in 1981, batted .281 in ’82, and reached career highs with 23 homers and a .302 average in ’83. Regrettably, those were not the only highs Aikens experienced that year. Convicted of cocaine possession, Willie spent three months in a Fort Worth, Texas prison, and was suspended for the 1984 season. The suspension was lifted on May 15, 1984, by which time Aikens had spent time in rehabilitation and been traded to the Blue Jays.
Aikens played sparingly in 1984, batting just .205, and by early 1985 the writing was on the wall. On April 27, he came to bat for the last time, pinch-hitting at Texas in the ninth inning. Batting for Tony Fernandez against Tommy Boggs, Aikens crashed a dramatic, game-tying, two-run homer, and Toronto went on to win, 9-8. Three days later, Aikens was “designated for assignment,” winding up in the minor leagues. “There’s no doubt in my mind I can still hit,” said Aikens. “I don’t think it’s over yet.” But it was.
Aikens batted .311 for the Syracuse Chiefs, but never got the call back to the bigs. He became convinced that he was persona non grata in U.S. baseball. Released by Syracuse, Aikens signed with the Puebla Black Angels of the Mexican League for 1986, at a salary of $2,500 per month.
Aikens had one of the best seasons in minor league history that year. In 129 games for Puebla, he led the league with 202 hits, 154 RBIs, and a staggering .454 batting average. He scored 134 runs, hit 46 homers, and had a slugging percentage of .863. Surely, this performance would earn him a call back to the majors, Aikens thought. But the call never came.
Willie stayed in the Mexican League for five more seasons, batting .354, .352, .395, .358, and .299, still wondering why lesser hitters were in the majors and he was not. He finished his minor league career with 276 home runs and a .344 average; combined with his major league figures, he had amassed 386 homers, 1524 RBIs, and a .318 mark. Aikens also played in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association in the winter of 1989-90. For the last-place St. Lucie Legends, Aikens batted .345 with 12 homers and 58 RBIs in 66 games.
Willie Mays Aikens lived in Seneca, South Carolina, but made an unplanned move. On August 17, 1994, he was convicted by a federal jury on four counts of distributing crack cocaine and one count of using a gun in a drug transaction. He was fined $18,000 and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, without parole.
Part Three tomorrow!
Over dinner in Cooperstown last month, my old friend Bill Deane, a paragon of records study, advised me of his new book-length project on players who homered in their final major league at bats. I asked him to provide a taste for readers of Our Game. Here it is, from research first undertaken in 1988.
I had heard it claimed that Williams was the only player ever to finish his career with a homer, but found it hard to believe. In 1988 – long before Retrosheet or Baseball Reference – I set out to research it. I started by sitting down with The Baseball Encyclopedia for some 30 hours, going page by page and player by player. I looked at the statistics of each of the nearly 14,000 men who had played major league baseball, noting each one who hit at least one home run in his last season (or his last season with any official times at bat). This left me with a list of a little more than 2,000 candidates for the “home run, last at bat” feat.
Next, I went to the official day-by-day sheets for each of these 2,000 player-seasons. The official sheets are housed at the National Baseball Library & Archive in Cooperstown, New York, and show each player’s day-by-day record, as recorded by the league statisticians, for virtually every season. In years for which no official sheets were available, an organization called Information Concepts, Inc. (ICI) assembled computerized unofficial day-by-day sheets, from boxscores and game accounts, in preparation for the first Macmillan Encyclopedia. The ICI sheets (except those for the 1876-90 N.L. seasons) are also on file at the NBL&A. Examination of these sheets whittled my list of 2,000+ down to about 80 players who had homered in their last big league games, or their last games with any at bats. Among these were Benny Kauff (July 2, 1920) and Jackie Robinson (September 30, 1956). Dozens more, incidentally, homered in their next-to-last games, including Harry Hooper, Walter Johnson, Wally Pipp, Moe Berg, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Kluszewski, Jackie Jensen, Tony Perez, Jose Cruz, Ron Kittle, and Joe Carter. Cruz’s homer was a grand slam, and Anson and Pipp each hit two homers in his next-to-last contest.
The final part of the process was examining accounts of the 80 or so contests in which a player homered in his final game, to see which of those had done it in his last at bat. This was the only part which required serious detective work, with which I received invaluable help from SABR members Bob McConnell and Bob Tiemann. This left a list of 31 players who had “gone out with a bang”; the number is now up to 56 (among players inactive in 2015), listed at the end of this article.
I gathered biographical information on the perpetrators from the clipping files at the NBL&A. I wrote to most of the living ones, receiving responses from ten. I accumulated data on the historic games and on tangential subjects. And, having completed the fun parts of the project, I procrastinated for years before finally putting all the material together for SABR Presents the Home Run Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1996).
Each year after 1988, I checked all the players who had homered in the previous season but not batted in the current year, spending a couple of hours to update the list each year. In 2000, Dave Smith of Retrosheet created a program to do this task in minutes. With the help of Smith and Dave Vincent, I now have the list complete and up-to-date to include all players who didn’t play in 2015.
Most of these men performed their feats in virtual anonymity, with observers neither realizing nor caring that a career was coming to a close. Record books duly note players who homer in their first major league appearances, but none had ever listed those that did it in their last, because it had never been documented. The list includes a few well-known names and a whole lot of little-known ones. There is a story to go with each name, and this article will tell some of those stories.
3. Hercules Burnett, September 29, 1895. He was not the first to accomplish this feat, having been preceded by Cleveland’s Buck West in the National League of 1890 and the Phillies’ Frank O’Connor in 1893 (see below for the full list corresponding to this part of the essay). Playing in his sixth and final major league contest, center fielder Burnett had already singled, tripled, stolen a base, and scored two runs when he came up in the seventh inning. Facing Cleveland’s Phil Knell, Burnett completed his Herculean performance by drilling a solo home run. His Louisville Colonels (NL) won, 13-8, in a home game stopped by darkness after eight innings. Louisville was not only Burnett’s team, but his home: he was born there in 1865, and died there in 1936.
4. Ed Scott, August 3, 1901. In one of the most dramatic ends to a career, Scott pitched a 10-inning victory at Milwaukee, and hit the game-winning home run over the left field fence. It came off Bill Reidy with nobody aboard in the top of the tenth, and gave Cleveland an 8-7 win in an American League game marked by “wretched” umpiring. Ed had hit only one homer in 170 previous big league at bats. Scott was employed at the Toledo Furnace Company after his playing career, and he died in that city at age 63 in 1933.
5. Chick Stahl, October 6, 1906. Stahl was completing his tenth season in the majors, having established himself as a star of the game. The outfielder sported a .305 lifetime average and had played for four pennant-winners, all in Boston. He was now acting manager of the Red Sox, who were closing their season at home against the New York Highlanders.
New York led by three when Stahl batted in the bottom of the eighth. Stahl was not much of a home run threat, having hit but 35 in 5,068 previous big league at bats; nevertheless, he connected for a two-run shot off Tom Hughes. It wasn’t enough, as the Sox lost 5-4.
Less than six months later, Chick Stahl was dead at age 34. Though his career had ended with a bang, his life ended with a gulp. The papers reported that he had been despondent and overcome by the pressures of managing (he resigned as manager three days before his death). More likely, he was overwhelmed by the demands of a pregnant groupie with whom he had had an extramarital affair. In any case, Stahl ended his life by drinking three ounces of carbolic acid on March 28, 1907.
8. Walt Kinney, May 9, 1923. Kinney was a hurler for Connie Mack’s Athletics during one of their hapless periods. He had more success during his career as a batter (.280 average) than as a pitcher (11-20 record). On this day, the 29-year-old Kinney was brought into a game at St. Louis, inheriting a 3-0 deficit score in the third inning. He held the Browns at bay until the sixth, when Philadelphia scored three to tie up the game. Contributing to his own cause, Kinney hit an Urban Shocker pitch into the right field stands for a solo homer. But, in the bottom of the frame, Kinney was knocked out of the box during a four-run rally. The A’s lost, 10-5; ironically, as it turned out, Kinney’s homer had made him the pitcher of record – on the losing side!
Kinney was out of organized baseball for four years, put on the “ineligible list” for playing in an outlaw league. He returned to pitch six seasons in the Pacific Coast League before retiring in 1932, and died 39 years later.
10. Johnny Schulte, September 20, 1932. Schulte had joined the Braves late in the 1932 season, having been literally plucked from the stands for a job. Released by the Browns earlier that year, the St. Louis native was watching a Cardinals’ home game when Boston catcher Pinky Hargrave broke a leg. Manager Bill McKechnie sent a courier into the stands to fetch Schulte, and signed him after the game. It was the second time that year Schulte had been hired out of the Sportsman’s Park seats, having joined the Browns when Rick Ferrell broke his hand in a game Johnny was watching. Schulte made a career out of being in the right place at the right time.
In Schulte’s final big league appearance, he drove a solo home run into the lower right field stands at New York’s Polo Grounds. It came off the Giants’ Fred Fitzsimmons in the ninth inning, but did not prevent a 13-3 New York victory. It was Schulte’s 14th major league homer, but his first in four years. This merely ended one chapter of his remarkable career.
Schulte had played semipro baseball and soccer in St. Louis before starting his pro career in 1916. The catcher had his first cup of big league coffee with the Browns in 1923, then resurfaced with the rival Cardinals four years later. There he picked up the nickname “Eagle Eye,” when he twice within a week drew game-winning, bases-loaded walks in pinch-hitting appearances, both on 3-2 counts. From St. Louis, Schulte went to the Phillies in 1928 and the pennant-winning Cubs in ’29. It was at Chicago that he established a professional relationship with Joe McCarthy that would keep him employed until 1950. Schulte was a coach for McCarthy with the Yankees from 1934-48 (being part of eight pennant-winners and seven World Championships), and with the Red Sox in 1949-50.
“As a catcher,” said historian Bob Broeg, “Johnny Schulte was a better coach. As a coach, he was an even better scout.” Indeed, it was for his scouting tips as a Yanks’ coach that Johnny was best remembered. He was principally responsible for the signing and development of Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford. Following his coaching career, Schulte scouted for Cleveland before retiring in 1963. He died of cancer in 1978, aged 81.
11. Mickey Cochrane, May 25, 1937. When Cochrane hit a game-tying solo home run off the Yankees’ Bump Hadley in the third inning, nobody realized it would be the final official at bat of Mickey’s career. At 34, the Tigers’ catcher-manager was still at the top of his game. The homer had brought his season average over the .300 mark for the ninth time in his 13 big league seasons. Cochrane was regarded as the best all-around catcher in the sport, probably the best of all time.
Two innings later, Cochrane lay prostrate at Yankee Stadium’s home plate, his skull fractured in three places. A Hadley fastball on a 3-1 count (3-2, by some sources) had sailed inside, crashing into Cochrane’s temple with a sickening sound. “Good God Almighty,” Mickey mumbled. “I lost the ball.” He would battle for his life, slipping into and out of consciousness for some ten days before recuperating. Except for a one-inning stint in a 1938 exhibition game, Mickey Cochrane would never play again. His career had ended not with a bang, but with a thud.
Cochrane was hardly a one-dimensional performer. While attending Bridgewater State Teachers’ College and Boston University, he had starred in football, basketball, track, and boxing, in addition to baseball. He later became an expert trap shooter, an amateur glider pilot, and a saxophone player. As a ballplayer, he had speed enough to bat leadoff, power enough to hit three home runs in one game (May 21, 1925), and defensive skills that would earn him accolades as “the most successful handler of pitchers baseball ever had.” Cochrane began his pro career in 1923, using the name “Frank King.” Some say he did this to protect his amateur status, but Cochrane explained that “if I was a flop, nobody would know who I was, and I could start all over again someplace else.”
Mickey made it to the majors with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in 1925. On April 14, Cochrane batted for regular catcher Cy Perkins and drilled a two-run single, helping the A’s to a come-from-behind 9-8 win. “I knew I’d lost my job,” Perkins recalled. Cochrane went on to bat .331 in 134 games, leading the A’s to a surprise second-place finish and their first winning season since 1914.
Cochrane continued to excel, winning the American League Award as the circuit’s most valuable player in 1928, and sparking his team to three consecutive league titles in 1929-31. “More than any other player,” said Mack, “he was responsible for the three pennants.” Financial straits forced Mack to sell off his stars shortly after this. The Detroit Tigers were looking for a player-manager for the 1934 season, and bypassed Babe Ruth to get Cochrane for the princely sum of $100,000.
Mickey promptly led the Tigers to their first pennant since 1909, winning his second MVP Award to boot. Detroit won again in 1935, and Cochrane scored the winning run in the World Series. But, with the team struggling the next year, the intensely competitive catcher suffered a nervous breakdown. He spent weeks at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital and recuperated at a Wyoming ranch.
Back on the lines in 1937, Cochrane seemed to have his life on track again. The Tigers were battling the Yankees in the pennant race as the two teams began a crucial series on May 25. “This first game is all-important,” said Cochrane. “If we can win it we’ll take the series.” He had respect for the opposing pitcher that day. “He has everything,” Cochrane had once said of Hadley. “A fastball that buzzes by your chin, and a curve that has you breaking your back when you swing at it.” When Cochrane poled a Hadley pitch into the right field stands, the score stood at 1-1. It was the same when Mickey batted two innings later. “I relaxed, thinking it would go by,” Cochrane later said about the fateful pitch. “All of a sudden I lost sight of it…. I think I could have played four or five more years, but there’s nothing that can be done about that now.” Mickey finished his career with a .320 lifetime average.
Cochrane returned as Tigers’ manager in 1938, but without the same fire. He just wasn’t able to lead as effectively from the bench as from the field. With Detroit in fifth place, he was fired on August 6. Mickey made a few brief returns to baseball: as a coach and later general manager with the Athletics in 1950; as a scout with the Yankees in 1955; and as a scout and later vice-president of the Tigers between 1960-62. On July 21, 1947, Cochrane was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with former battery-mate Lefty Grove, who had debuted in the majors on the same day as Mickey.
Between his baseball sojourns, Cochrane’s post-playing career included a job with the Dryden Rubber Company in Chicago; a three-year hitch as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy; and operations of a Detroit-to-Chicago trucking line, a dude ranch in Montana, and an automobile sales agency. Following a long illness, Mickey Cochrane died in 1962.
13, Paul Gillespie, September 29, 1945. In the second game of a doubleheader at Pittsburgh, Gillespie hit a two-run homer off Rip Sewell. It keyed a five-run rally in the fourth frame, two innings before darkness ended the contest with the Cubs victorious, 5-0. It completed their 20th doubleheader sweep of the season, a record that is surely safe for all time. Gillespie did appear in a game the following day, but did not come to bat; the catcher also played in the 1945 World Series against Detroit, going 0-for-6, but retained his distinction of homering in his last regular-season at bat. Gillespie had also connected in his first big league at bat, for the Cubs on September 11, 1942; thus, two of his six career four-baggers made history.
Gillespie returned to the minor leagues, playing until 1949. He died in 1970, aged 49.
14. Bert Haas, August 26, 1951. Haas knew that he was going to be released outright the following day, allowing him to hook on with Montreal of the International League. The 37-year-old utility player had played in nine big league seasons for five teams, and had accumulated just 21 career home runs in 2,439 at bats. The youngest and most successful of nine ballplaying brothers, Haas had begun his pro career in 1936, and became an All-Star with the Reds before suffering a fractured skull in 1948. He would perform as a minor league player and manager until 1962.
The White Sox sent him up to pinch-hit for pitcher Howie Judson in game two of this Comiskey Park doubleheader against the Yankees. It was the seventh inning, there was a man on base, and lefty Art Schallock was pitching. “I knew (Yankee manager Casey Stengel) thought he could get me out by having Schallock throw me a curve ball,” Haas recalled decades later. Schallock did, and Haas deposited it out of reach. The Sox lost, 8-6, but Haas had ended his big league career in style. “At the time I thought it was great,” Haas wrote me from his Tampa, Florida home. “And still do.” Haas died in Tampa in 1999.
Part Two tomorrow!
Matinee-idol good looks; a lithe, powerful frame; offhand, unaffected charm; blistering intensity—that was the catalog of Ted Williams you formed in the first minute you met him. But there was more to the man, far more, so much of it visible beneath the thin skin that we were tempted to think we knew him, really knew what made him tick. We didn’t.
Once he was gone, the knights of the keyboard (Ted’s memorably derisive term for sportswriters) recalled his heroics and his frailties and tried to assign him his place in the history of baseball. Yet even in death Ted resists categorization: Was he our last classic American hero, in the style of John Wayne (who once said to Ted, “I only play the hero; you live it”)? Did he live the life he wanted, his way, without regret? How did he transform himself from Terrible Ted, the pincushion of the Boston scribes, to become patron saint of the game and paterfamilias to a new generation of stars? Did Ted mellow in his later years, or did he remain the same, always True North, while our compass needles slowly swung around to him?
Inevitably, the question baseball fans will wish to argue is this: Was Ted Williams the greatest hitter who ever lived, or was it Babe Ruth? Both may be challenged by Barry Bonds or Ty Cobb, but today, nearly 15 years after Ted’s passing, it seems to most observers that he and Ruth have the field to themselves.
To choose between them is a statistical, historical, and philosophical conundrum. We cannot know what numbers Ruth would have compiled had he not missed so many at bats in the five years in which he was principally a pitcher; nor can we know what prodigious figures Williams would have amassed if we could restore to him the nearly five years he was serving his country; and so on. Then there are the differences in the state of the baseball world in 1914-35 (the 22-year period of Ruth’s ascendancy) and 1939-60 (the 22-year tenure, with interruptions, of Williams), and the level of competition and the quality of the pitching in those respective eras.
The Babe and The Kid: not only their nicknames but also their life stories make them better suited as companions than combatants. Though neither was an orphan, both wandered the streets (of Baltimore for Ruth, San Diego for Williams) as their parents allowed them to raise themselves. The Ruths had their saloon to manage; May Williams had the Salvation Army, which she joined in 1904 and made her single-minded mission until she died in 1961. (“Ted is a wonderful son,” she said in 1948. “He loves baseball just like I love my Salvation Army work.”)
At the age of seven Ruth was incarcerated in the St. Mary’s juvenile home for orphans and incorrigible youth, where he stayed until he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles at age nineteen; Williams made a home of the North Park playground, often coming back to his nominal home long after dark to find that no one was there. It was during these years that Ted recalled looking up at the night sky and wishing to the stars that he could become the greatest hitter who ever lived, greater even than Babe Ruth. Baseball turned out to be the one thing each of these lost boys would love that could give love back.
In 1935, as Ruth’s career was winding down, Ted was the star pitcher and slugger of San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School. In 1935, as a junior, he batted .586 and the pro scouts took notice. When he reported to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1936, Ted had reached his full height of 6’3”, but he weighed only 150 pounds. (His appearance was so ghastly that Detroit Tiger scout Marty Krug declined to sign him, saying that a year of professional ball would kill him.) Where did the power come from? Not from the physique, although that would become impressive over time, but from technique: God-given talent harnessed with hard, hard work. Amid the swirl of accusations about steroid use in baseball, it is worthwhile to reflect that the basic formula for success has not changed.
When the splintery youth first reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in 1938, after two years of methodically stuffing himself with eggs, milkshakes, bananas, and ice cream, his reputation had preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than he was; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.
When Ruth had come to Boston after a brief minor-league career in Baltimore and Providence, teammates were amazed at what a “green pea” he was. He knew his baseball, all right, but he knew nothing about the wide world, from table manners, to courteous talk with women, to managing money. He was utterly if sometimes charmingly without self-control. After all, Ruth had spent more than a decade in an orphanage, without a single visit from either of his parents. The world was a wading pool for him, and he joyously splashed about with few civilizing restraints.
Williams was less naïve, but just as needy; without praise at home, he praised himself, inspiring scorn and laughter from teammates, management, and writers. His unvarnished directness and unyielding intensity didn’t seem to fit in Boston. Whatever Ted did: talk, hit, fish—all were done with that characteristic, magnetic force. Fly-tying was always a way for him to relax, but Ted even relaxed intensely. He used to laugh when people attributed his prowess to a natural hitting ability, or to exceptional eyesight. Ted knew that his greatness was inseparable from his intensity, that it was in fact a product of it, as it had been for Ty Cobb or Jackie Robinson, if not Babe Ruth.
Baseball in the 1940s belonged to Ted. Starting out, he wrote in My Turn at Bat, “I had been a fresh kid. I did a lot of yakking, partly to hide a rather large inferiority complex.” By mid-decade, feeling spurned and still no more comfortable with himself at the core, he stopped pursuing acclaim as if it were love and substituted the solitary pleasure that comes with achievement. He withdrew from the fans, which seemed only to heighten their ardor for him (as it had with Joe DiMaggio). Although he bade farewell to baseball repeatedly in the 1950s, each closing of the curtain proved only a curtain call.
Returning from Korea to play his first full season in three years, the Kid broke his shoulder in spring training of 1954 and missed the early going, but showed he had not lost his zest or his eye by hitting .345 with 136 walks in 117 games. (The walks cost him the 400 at bats then required to qualify for the batting title, which Bobby Avila won with a mark of .341.) Critics complained that he would have been more valuable to his team had he gone after the bad balls. By the time that same “failing” attached to Barry Bonds, the value of reaching base had been broadly accepted and the critics were easily dismissed. In Williams’ day, this charge was difficult to refute. The concept of on-base average was understood by only a few in baseball, and the statistical congruency of on-base percentage and slugging percentage to team run-scoring was altogether unknown. Indeed, when Williams retired after the 1960 season, with the all-time record for on-base percentage of .482, no one, including Williams himself, knew it.
Ruth ranks second in lifetime on-base percentage (.474) but the roles reverse when it comes to slugging percentage, the other key measure of offensive prowess, with Ruth’s .690 mark comparing to Williams’ .634. When you combine the two statistics to produce the now ubiquitous On Base Plus Slugging (OPS), and then refine the comparison by adjusting each record for the era in which it was achieved (measuring against league average performance) and even for the home parks of each, Ruth still stands above Williams. There are other measures of Ruth’s dominance—his 60 homers in 1927 when no other team in the American League (besides his own Yankees) hit that many; his leading the league in slugging percentage 13 years out of 14, and more. In terms of dominance, Williams can’t match Ruth.
Yet that is precisely why we ought to evaluate Williams’ record more highly. Ruth’s dominance was not only the measure of Ruth; it was also the measure of the competition he faced. To the extent that the league performs at a low level, a colossus may so far outdistance his peers as to create records that are unapproachable for all time. When Williams retired, it was beyond comprehension that we could reasonably compare batters of one era against batters of another simply by measuring the extent to which they surpassed the league average; now it is commonplace.
But the large question that remains unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable, is: how to compare the average level of play of one era to that of another. In swimming, track, basketball, football, hockey, golf—any sport you can name—the presumption is that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, better trained, and, on average, more proficient. A star in one era would probably be outstanding, if not equally dominant, in another, if he could be magically transported in time and enjoy the benefits of enhanced training and nutrition. But the average baseball player of 1876 or 1920 might well find it difficult to make a big-league roster today.
In the case of Williams and Ruth, reflecting on the distinctions between their eras does provide a strong guide. Reflect that Ruth faced pitchers who threw complete games about half the time (today it is barely 2 percent), and thus faced the same delivery through four to six plate appearances (not to mention that he faced no relievers as we understand them today, dominant closers). Reflect that Ruth never had to hit at night. Reflect that African Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they done so, many white players would have lost their positions and the overall level of competition would have risen. One could add that Ruth never faced a slider or a split-fingered fastball; rarely faced a pitcher who would throw a breaking ball when behind in the count; and on. Ruth may have been greater than any baseball player ever was or will be (though I for one don’t believe so); however, it defies reason to claim that Ruth’s opposition was likewise better.
Baseball was better in Williams’ day than it was in Ruth’s; it is better yet today. Ted did succeed in precisely the goal he established for himself as a skinny, lonely San Diego teenager: he became the greatest hitter who ever lived.
And when that title passes on some kid who is now playing tee-ball with a strange and wonderful intensity, that’s just as Ted would have had it.
Subscribers to Our Game will not have received notice of a significant update to an older, somewhat forlorn story that in its first form dates to mid-2005. For the uplifting conclusion to the story of James Whyte Davis, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/12/31/too-late-to-reach-home-plate/