Baseball’s 100 Most Important People, Part 2

Continuing from yesterday (http://goo.gl/GwKJ4A), here we fill out the top ten. The biographies of those not in the top 20 will be briefer, commensurate with their rankings. Alan and I will lash ourselves to the mast and resist the sirens’ song beckoning us to the rocks of Scylla–rewriting to reflect a current understanding–or Charybdis–reordering the rankings.

Baseball’s 100 Most Important People

Alan Schwarz and John Thorn

3. ALEXANDER CARTWRIGHT

Cartwright Plaque

Cartwright Plaque

His Hall of Fame plaque reads: “Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. ‘Father of Modern Base Ball.’ Set bases 90 feet apart. Established nine innings a game and 9 players a team. Organized the Knickerbocker Baseball Club of N.Y. in 1845. Carried baseball to Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.” Although the three specific accomplishments credited to him on the plaque cannot be attributed to him alone, he was a powerful influence on the game’s primal years and represents all the indispensable work of his Knickerbocker club.

According to legend, Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 at Cooperstown, New York, but this story has since been thoroughly disproved. Baseball was never really “invented”; it evolved. Young Americans had played the old English games of base and ball and several American variants since the 1700s. Those games gradually metamorphosed into baseball as we know it today, and Cartwright stood tall in making baseball a “manly” and “scientific” game worthy of adult attention.

Born in New York on April 17, 1820, Cartwright left school at age 16 and entered the business world, as was common in those days. Bright and ambitious, he started as a clerk and soon advanced to a position of responsibility.

After work, Cartwright joined other young New Yorkers to play ball. The group included merchants, lawyers and clerks whose professional status allowed them to leave work in mid-afternoon to enjoy healthy recreation. Common laborers usually had to work until dusk.

According to one early Knickerbocker, Dr. Daniel Lucius Adams, the group’s game was called “base ball” rather than rounders or town ball, which in later years were said to have been the direct antecedents of the Knickerbocker, or “New York Game” of ball. Adams began playing after 1839, when he set up his medical practice in New York. His group was preceded by an earlier association, “the New York Base Ball Club,” but according to Adams it had “no definite organization” and did not last long.

Several members of the New York Base Ball Club joined other young men in a new assembly that included Cartwright. In his diary, Cartwright claims to be one of the group’s better players. The jovial and gregarious clerk was a leader of the group when it wrote a formal constitution that named it “the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of September 23, 1845.” Cartwright served as secretary and vice president.

Cartwright may have been the first to suggest to his fellow Knickerbockers that they write down the rules of baseball, thereby codifying the regulations members had been following for years. He and three other members defined 14 playing rules, only three of which differed markedly from the rules of rounders.

They laid out the field in a diamond shape rather than a square, introduced the concept of foul territory, and discarded the practice of retiring a runner by hitting him with a thrown ball (“plunking”). These rules were created out of necessity: the diamond and foul territory were suggested by the dimensions of Madison Square, where the Knickerbockers played until 1846, and plunking was eliminated as ungentlemanly and potentially hazardous.

Alex Cartwright ca. 1850.

Alex Cartwright ca. 1850.

Perhaps more interesting is what the new rules did not include. The bases were not set at 90 feet apart. The length of the game was not set at nine innings, nor were the number of players mandated as nine. Other equally important rules that led to the modern game were also not included by the Knickerbockers. The distance from the pitcher’s mound to the plate was not mentioned; the rules did not state that a ball had to be caught on the fly to record an out (the first bounce was good enough); and there was no system of balls and strikes. The only fixed dimension was the 42 paces from home to second base and from third base to first. (For many years this was interpreted as placing the bases very nearly 90 feet apart. However, the size of a “pace” in 1845 was 2.5 to 3 feet depending on which authority was consulted. The Knickerbocker bases were only about 75 feet apart if the smaller measurement is used.)

After five or more years of intramural play on Manhattan Island, with their rules in hand and their new play ground at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, the Knickerbockers sought an opponent. On June 19, 1846, they met the New York Nine at the Elysian Fields in what is often called the first modern baseball game. The Nine won, 23‑1. The score indicates that the game followed the rules of early ball games, ending after a specific number of runs rather than innings. Although Cartwright was supposedly one of the best Knickerbocker players, he umpired the game and enforced a six-cent fine, payable on the spot, for swearing.

Over the next few years the Knickerbockers rarely played with nine men on a side. More often they had eight men—three outfielders, three infielders, the pitcher, and the catcher—although ten and sometimes as many as twelve players were also used.

Cartwright went to California during the great gold rush of 1849. As he made his way across the Great Plains, he brought a Knickerbocker baseball with him and is said to have taught baseball to anyone willing to play. By August he arrived in San Francisco, too late to strike gold; after only six weeks he gave up and booked passage for New York on a boat taking the Pacific route.

Cartwright became ill and put ashore on the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii. He fell in love with the tropical islands and sent for his family, who joined him in 1851. His interest in baseball continued, and he established leagues throughout the islands. He prospered in business and died a wealthy man on September 9, 1892.

The game continued to evolve in New York. In 1849 and 1850 the position of shortstop was created to facilitate relaying outfield throws. D.L. Adams was the first to play at that position. Initially, the position was set between the outfield and the infield, for at that time the ball was so light that few outfielders could throw it all the way to the infield.

Alexander Cartwright’s contributions to the game’s development might have been forgotten had it not been for Abner Doubleday. In 1938 the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, was nearly ready to open, and a great deal of the publicity named Doubleday as the game’s inventor, following upon a three-year study by the Mills Commission that culminated in “findings” reported in the Spalding Guide of 1908.

This grated on the Cartwright family. Cartwright’s grandson Bruce presented the Hall with his grandfather’s diaries, clippings, and other paraphernalia that showed how Cartwright and the Knickerbockers had codified the transformation of rounders into baseball, thus rendering the Doubleday tale a fairy tale. But by that time publicity surrounding the Doubleday legend was too widespread for the founders of the Hall to reverse their course. After all, the general’s supposed brainstorm was the reason for building the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in the first place.

Fortunately, no one had to call the Civil War hero a liar. He never claimed to have invented baseball and had been dead for a decade before anyone else asserted that he had. The Hall of Fame wisely chose to downplay the myth, and Doubleday was never elected as Cartwright was in 1939—a de facto rejection of the Doubleday claim.

Cartwright’s role in developing the early game in New York and in spreading it across the continent to Hawaii is certainly important. But it is more accurate to view him as a symbol of all those who helped to change the game from an old English diversion and favorite of American schoolboys into our national pastime.

4. MARVIN MILLER

Marvin Miller, 1972

Marvin Miller, 1972

Few men have affected baseball’s history more than Marvin Miller. The Players Association executive director for 18 years, Miller led his union in a revolution that forever changed the balance of power between players and owners. “The players have so much power that they should get one more thing done,” Manager Paul Richards, Miller’s bitter adversary, once said. “They should get Marvin Miller inducted into Cooperstown. That man has taken over.”

Richards, of course, was being sarcastic. But the irony is that Miller might well be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day. Baseball’s establishment failed to see the players’ perspective—that Miller only taught the players how to fight and how to win.

Miller was born in Brooklyn on April 14, 1917 and grew up a staunch Dodgers fan. During World War II he served with the War Labor Board and after the war he worked for the U.S. Reconciliation Service of the Labor Department, the International Association of Machinists, and the United Auto Workers before joining the United Steelworkers of America as a staff economist in 1950. Eventually he became their chief economist and a confidant of union presidents Philip Murray and I.W. Abel.

In 1965 Miller weighed job offers from Harvard and the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace. He also considered staying with the union and ultimately running for its presidency. While he was considering his options, representatives from the Players Association, seeking to replace Judge Robert Cannon, asked to meet with him.

Originally major-league owners had seen the Players Association as a harmless company union. They even offered to fund its operation. But once Miller took over, all bets were off. After almost 100 years of absolute power the owners were not prepared to cede control. But the shrewd Miller was to turn the owners’ arrogance back upon them to devastating effect.

Quickly he took a traditionally antiunion work force and rallied it behind him. “He was able to do it because he was honest and everything he said was the actual truth,” Brooks Robinson contended. Miller was also among the smartest men in baseball. He combined a brilliant mind with an uncanny ability to lay out his position in such a logical manner that it seemed impossible to disagree with him.

In 1969 a strike threatened, but it was averted when management conceded to Miller by increasing the pension fund and the minimum major-league salary and recognizing the right of players to employ agents. But in 1972 the Players Association staged the first general work stoppage in baseball history, delaying the start of the season for 13 days and forcing the cancellation of 86 regular-season games. The players wanted a 17-percent raise in pension benefits to keep pace with the cost of living since enactment of the last Basic Agreement in 1969 and $500,000 to cover increased health-care benefits. The negotiations stalled.

On March 9 the White Sox became the first club to authorize the union’s Executive Board to strike. Through mid-March a strike was unanimously supported. Not until four negative votes were cast by the Red Sox on March 16 did anyone break rank. The final vote was 663-10 in favor of strike authorization, with two abstentions.

Dick Young of the New York Daily News, the most influential sports columnist in the country, led the anti-union movement among the media, a movement that split along generational lines. “Ballplayers are no match for him,” Young wrote of Miller. “He has a steel trap mind wrapped in a melting butter voice. He runs the players through a high-pressure spray the way an auto goes through a car wash, and that’s how they come out, brainwashed. With few exceptions, they follow him blindly, like zombies.”

The way the players saw it, Young was as blind as the owners. He refused to acknowledge that times were changing. Miller played devil’s advocate with his union whenever a strike was near. He wanted to make sure union members understood the consequences of their actions. Finally a strike was authorized by an Executive Board vote of 47-0 with only the Dodgers’ Wes Parker abstaining. Rick Reichardt, the player representative for the White Sox, characterized Miller’s behavior during the vote as “very conservative,” adding, “the whole tone of the meeting was very professional. He wasn’t an instigator.”

The strike began on April 1, five days before the start of the regular season. A storm of fan protest greeted the move. The players eventually won an increased management contribution of $490,000 to their benefits plan, plus a transfer of $400,000 in surplus pension funds to improve retirement benefits and maintain their health benefits.

“The real issues were never a question of pension or money,” Miller said. “They were more of a question of human dignity.” Lost amid the dollar figures in the newspaper stories was a very important concession that had been granted to labor—the right to arbitrate grievances. In just a few years that right would turn baseball on its head.

Coming hard on the heels of baseball’s first strike was the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 19 ruling in the Curt Flood case. Flood had challenged the reserve clause, which effectively bound a player to his team in perpetuity. By a 5-3 majority, the high court reaffirmed the game’s antitrust exemption that kept the reserve clause intact. Yet changes definitely were coming. In 1973 the players won the right to salary arbitration, a huge step for the union.

Then in December of that year arbitrator Peter Seitz voided Catfish Hunter’s Oakland contract due to owner Charles Finley’s failure to comply with its terms. By itself the decision hardly affected free agency, but the frenzied bidding war that erupted for Hunter’s services presaged what would soon come.

The Yankees signed Hunter, one of baseball’s best pitchers, to a multiyear deal worth more than $3 million. That opened a lot of eyes, especially on the players’ side. They began to understand what they would be worth on the open market.

McNally, Messersmith, and Miller.

In December 1975 Seitz let the other shoe drop when he overturned the reserve clause in the Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith cases. The way the owners had always interpreted it, the reserve clause allowed them to renew a contract in perpetuity and thus bind a player to a team for as long as the team wished. In effect, the players contended, they were slaves no matter how high their wages were.

Seitz ruled that the option year in every contract was just that: one option year that could not be renewed unilaterally. Miller was not entirely surprised. In one of Seitz’s rulings involving the National Basketball Association, the arbitrator had cited a 1969 California Court of Appeals decision. It had given Rick Barry the right to sign with an American Basketball Association team after playing out his option year with the San Francisco Warriors. The NBA’s option clause was an exact duplicate of Organized Baseball’s. After Seitz’s ruling, the players and owners worked out a new Basic Agreement that gave players the right to free agency after six years, a requirement still in effect.

Miller faced one more great battle. In 1980 owners wanted to institute compensation for teams losing free agents. Players adamantly opposed the owners’ plan since it would severely damage the players’ negotiating leverage. The first midseason strike in baseball history was barely averted. But a year later on June 11, 1981, with the issue still unresolved, the players struck.

Again public sympathy was hardly with the players, who were now earning a minimum salary of $32,000 a year and an average wage of $193,000. The strike cost the players $28 million in lost wages, and the clubs each lost anywhere from $1.6 million to $7.6 million in revenues. In many cases the losses were offset by the owners’ $50 million in strike insurance, which had been purchased at a cost of $2.2 million. Miller, who was making $160,000 a year, did not accept his salary for the duration of the strike.

The strike was settled on July 31, with one-third of the season lost, in a settlement that included complex compensation formulas. Eventually the owners scrapped the formulas because the union had insisted that all teams, not just those signing free agents, had to submit players to the compensation pool. This did not sit well with teams that opted out of the market but still lost a player.

Throughout the years Miller’s chief antagonist was Bowie Kuhn, the game’s commissioner from 1969 to 1984. He considered Miller an “old-fashioned, 19th– century trade unionist who hated management generally, and the management of baseball specifically.” For his part Miller said of Kuhn, “To paraphrase Voltaire on God, if Bowie Kuhn had never existed, we would have had to invent him.”

When Miller retired in 1984 Reggie Jackson said, “Marvin Miller took on the establishment and whipped them. We never would have been free agents without him.”

5.  BRANCH RICKEY

Robinson & Rickey.

Robinson & Rickey.

Branch Rickey was a baseball genius, the greatest front-office man the game has ever known. He was also a sanctimonious, hypocritical cheapskate, a man who would play fast and loose with the rules and go back on his word when it suited him. That he was a successful general manager for 42 consecutive years, for the Browns, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates, becomes almost irrelevant when compared to how much he did to shape the modern baseball landscape.

First, he literally invented the farm system in the early 1920s when he was with the Cardinals. Before that the minor leagues were composed of independent teams that survived by developing and then selling players to the majors.

Second, he integrated baseball. What Rickey did transcended the game and became a significant event in the history of the United States.

Finally, his plans to form a third major league in 1959 convinced the leaders of Major League Baseball that they had to expand. That was the beginning of a sports explosion in this country that continues to this day.

Raised on an Ohio farm, Wesley Branch Rickey coached and played semipro baseball and football to pay his way through Ohio Wesleyan College. A devout Methodist, he kept a promise to his mother that he would not play or work on Sundays. He wouldn’t even travel on the Sabbath. Of course, later in his career his teams played on Sundays and he always called the ballpark to check on the day’s receipts.

While at Ohio Wesleyan he also coached the baseball team. He had a black first baseman, Charles Thomas, who was refused admission to a South Bend hotel on a trip to play Notre Dame. Rickey finally persuaded hotel management to allow Thomas to share his room. In the room, according to Rickey, Thomas rubbed his hands together and cried to his 21-year-old coach, “Black skin, black skin. If only I could make it white.” Years later, Rickey tearfully retold the story and said it was the genesis of his crusade to break the color barrier in the major leagues.

A catcher with a strong arm, Rickey began his professional career in 1903, and after impressing scouts while playing for Dallas he was purchased by the Reds late in the 1904 season. But Reds manager Joe Kelley released him when he learned that Rickey wouldn’t play on Sundays. Rickey kicked around with other clubs through 1907 (not counting two cameo at bats with the Browns in 1914),

He began taking law classes at Michigan and in 1911 became the school’s baseball coach. After he got his degree and went into practice he also agreed to do some scouting for the Browns. In 1913 Rickey became a full-time employee of the Browns as an executive assistant, and soon after that became their general manager. In the final weeks of the season Hedges gave him the manager’s job as well, which Rickey kept through the 1915 season. True to his oath, he stayed home on Sundays, letting a coach handle the team.

1905 Ohio Wesleyan University; Rickey (back row, right).

1905 Ohio Wesleyan U.; Rickey (rear, right).

His on-field acumen didn’t help the Brownies, but his legal background and Michigan connection did. George Sisler had signed a professional contract as an underage high schooler without parental consent, but he had not accepted any money. He then decided to enroll at Michigan. When the pro contract threatened his eligibility, Rickey advised the family to move to invalidate the agreement. Rickey was thus able to keep the star of his team, and the grateful young Sisler signed with Rickey’s Browns when he graduated in 1915—after Rickey convinced club owner Bob Hedges to break a gentlemen’s agreement that had earmarked Sisler for the Pirates.

By the time Sisler had become a star for the Browns, Hedges had sold the team to Phil Ball, and Rickey had moved across town to the bankrupt Cardinals as club president. After serving as a major in a World War I chemical warfare unit with Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Sisler, Rickey returned to the Cardinals as president and, saving a $10,000 salary, as field manager. After the club finished seventh in 1919 while teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, Sam Breadon bought 72 percent of the stock. Rickey owned the rest.

Breadon demoted Rickey to vice president but allowed him to continue as field manager. About that time Rickey developed his farm system plan—out of necessity. The Cardinals could not afford to compete with other teams to purchase top talent from independent minor league teams. Rickey had to devise a method of acquiring teams. He had to establish a system of tracking and evaluating players in every organization in the majors. He had to hire a network of scouts and organize tryout camps. He also had to develop an organization-wide teaching system. It was a task perfectly suited to Rickey’s energy and intellect, and one he was able to carry out even though he was still the field manager. When he was done, the Cardinals farm system included 33 teams. In contrast, each major-league franchise today operates only five or six minor-league teams.

By 1942 Rickey’s contract was up in St. Louis. He was fed up with Breadon, and vice versa. No one really knows if he was fired or if he quit, but he moved over to the Dodgers without missing a beat. Rickey protégé Larry MacPhail was leaving the Dodgers club after building it into a contender, so Brooklyn hired Rickey as president and general manager. He also bought 25 percent of the team.

Rickey could now move ahead with his plans to integrate baseball. By the end of World War II Rickey sensed the timing was right. He also knew it was a smart move. More and more teams were starting to copy his farm system, and he wanted, as always, to stay a step ahead of the competition. And unlike Bill Veeck, who integrated the American League when he signed Larry Doby in 1947, Rickey never paid a Negro League team for a player, knowing Negro League owners would not want to be blamed for delaying the end of the color barrier.

Rickey’s expansion machinations began in the spring of 1945, when he announced the formation of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers to play in a new United States Baseball League and dispatched scouts to search the Negro Leagues for talent. However, the Brown Dodgers and USBL were a scam designed to hide Rickey’s real purpose—the integration of the established major leagues.

On October 23, 1945, with the approval of his Dodgers partners, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. After a brilliant 1946 season in Montreal, Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947 and was an immediate star. Rickey’s Dodgers thus got the jump on the rest of baseball, signing such black stars as pitcher Don Newcombe, catcher Roy Campanella, pitcher Joe Black, and second baseman Jim “Junior” Gilliam. As a result, between 1947 and 1956 the Dodgers won seven pennants in 10 years.

Rickey, however, did not last long enough in Brooklyn to enjoy all the fruits of his labors. Walter O’Malley, one of Rickey’s partners, wanted control of the team and after the 1950 season led a boardroom coup that forced Rickey out. Rickey, however, cried all the way to the bank because a clause in his contract forced the Dodgers to match the highest bid for his stock if he was not rehired. Rickey produced a $1.25-million offer, more than double O’Malley’s estimate of the stock’s value. O’Malley went to his grave believing the offer was a phony.

Rickey moved on to Pittsburgh, laying the foundation for the 1960 Pirates team that won the World Series. His greatest coup with the Pirates was drafting Roberto Clemente from the Dodgers, who were trying to hide him in the minors by not playing him regularly.

Rickey’s last venture was the Continental League, his response to the majors’ repeated refusal to expand beyond 16 teams. One of his fellow “owners” was Joan Payson, who eventually acquired the expansion New York Mets franchise. Rickey was 77 by then, but his involvement in the proposed new league, which presaged the American Football League, the American Basketball Association, and the World Hockey League, was enough to put the fear of God into the major leagues. By 1961 Organized Baseball initiated an expansion program that has since nearly doubled the number of major league teams.

Rickey died in 1965, less than two weeks before his 84th birthday. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967.

6. ROBERTO CLEMENTE

Clemente with Montreal, 1954.

Clemente with Montreal, 1954.

Roberto Clemente Walker played the game as if it were his and his alone. His haughty stance at the plate, the way he snared flyballs, and the way he slung the ball from right field to third base were all unique. He won four batting titles and a dozen Gold Gloves. But it is not his on-field exploits that place him this high among our Top 100. As Jackie Robinson broke a barrier for African Americans, Clemente was and remains a beacon for generations of Latin American boys who dream of playing baseball on the big stage. (Fernando Valenzuela may likewise inspire future generations of Mexican lads.)

As a youth in Puerto Rico, Clemente sneaked peeks at his favorite player, Monte Irvin, through the outfield fence. As a teenager he played in the same Puerto Rico winter league outfield with Willie Mays, and the scouts took notice. The Dodgers signed him for $10,000, although he received offers nearly three times that after agreeing to the contract. A rule at the time stated that Clemente could be drafted by any team for $4,000 if he wasn’t brought up to the majors. Yet the Dodgers sent him to their Triple A farm club in Montreal, where Clemente felt he was treated oddly. The Dodgers were trying to hide him from the Giants, but this was never explained to him, and he was so hurt and confused by the way he was handled that he thought of quitting. He recalled, “If I struck out I stayed in the lineup. If I played well I was benched. One day I hit three triples and was benched the next day. Another game I was taken out for a pinch hitter in the first inning with the bases loaded.”

After this disappointing first season Clemente returned to Puerto Rico. While he was visiting his brother, who was dying of a brain tumor, a drunk driver plowed into his car. The crash damaged three spinal discs, an injury that would plague Clemente for the rest of his career.

When the last-place Pirates met after the 1954 season to discuss who they should draft first, Clyde Sukeforth said to Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey, who had also been his boss in Brooklyn, “You will never live long enough to draft a boy with this kind of ability for $4,000 again.”

During his first two seasons as the Pirates’ right fielder Roberto Clemente gunned down 18 and 20 runners, respectively, on the bases. In his second year he hit .311. Clemente, and all of Pittsburgh, had a terrific year in 1960. He hit 16 homers and batted .314, and his 94 RBIs led the team as they shocked baseball by upsetting the powerful Yankees in the World Series.

Always a proud man, Clemente took it hard when he got the news that he had only finished eighth in the 1960 Most Valuable Player voting. It pushed him to try even harder. The next season Clemente changed his bat. To avoid over-swinging on bad balls he began to use heavier lumber and went on to enjoy 11 .300-plus seasons in the next 12 years. He won his first batting title in 1961, hitting .351 with 23 homers, 10 triples, and 89 RBIs.

That year Clemente missed the last five games of the season because a Don Drysdale fastball had chipped a bone in his right elbow, requiring off-season surgery. Because of the aggressive way he played, he suffered numerous other injuries. Unlike other players who declined to speak about their physical problems, Clemente discussed his aches and pains with anyone who asked. (“My bad shoulder feels good, but my good shoulder feels bad,” he once said.) His constant complaining about aches and pains didn’t sit well with Pittsburgh sportswriters, who accused him of being a hypochondriac, overlooking the fact that Clemente played more than 140 games for eight seasons in a row.

In 1964 and 1965 he won batting titles again, but the Pirates felt he wasn’t providing as much power as he could. Manager Harry “the Hat” Walker asked him to swing for the fences more often. Clemente responded by belting 29 homers and driving in 119 runs in 1966, although his batting average fell a dozen points to .317.

His defensive abilities never suffered. In one game, in a bases-loaded situation, a batter lined an apparent single to right. The runner on third didn’t see any need to hustle home; Clemente fired a strike to the catcher for a stunning force-out. Clemente won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1966, and he felt that the injustice of 1960 had been rectified.

He suddenly became more open, eagerly taking the reins of leadership in the clubhouse. If a young Pirate had a problem, Clemente discussed it quietly. Manager Walker failed to get new Pirate Matty Alou to quit pulling every pitch and use a heavier bat, but Clemente spoke to Alou. The newcomer responded with a 111-point increase in his batting average and won the league batting title.

With the arrival of rookies Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, and Al Oliver in 1969, Clemente’s role as a leader became even more valuable. From 1969 through 1971 Clemente hit .345,.352, and .341. The Pirates honored him in 1970 at their new Three Rivers Stadium. Puerto Rican fans, who by now viewed him as a demigod, delivered a scroll signed by 300,000 people in Puerto Rico (roughly 10 percent of the island’s population).

More than 43,000 fans showed up for the festivities and game, which the Bucs won, 11‑0. Clemente obligingly had two hits and made a great catch of a Joe Morgan line drive. He also made a running, diving grab of a foul popup by Denis Menke that meant absolutely nothing to the outcome of the game and tore his knee open in the process. “It’s the only way I know how to play baseball,” he explained.

Clemente at Ebbets Field, 1955.

Clemente at Ebbets Field, 1955.

His intensity and skill received their finest showcase in 1971. The Pirates knocked off the Giants in the 1971 National League Championship Series, with Clemente hitting .333 and driving in four runs. In the World Series against the favored Baltimore Orioles, Clemente hit in all seven games, batting .414 and slugging .759. Writer Roger Angell said, “Clemente played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before—throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of absolute perfection.”

Clemente would never scale such heights again. Injuries allowed him to play in only 102 games in 1972, but he still hit .312. His double off the Mets’ Jon Matlack on September 30 was his 3,000th hit. The Pirates again made it to the NLCS but lost on Bob Moose’s wild pitch in the ninth inning of the final game.

In late December of that year a devastating earthquake struck Nicaragua. More than 6,000 people were killed, 20,000 injured, and tens of thousands left homeless. Clemente raised money and other contributions to help the survivors. As always, he was tireless, pleading for donations personally, negotiating discounts with airlines for transporting the materials, and packing and loading boxes for shipment. While Puerto Rico celebrated the holidays, Clemente was working 16-hour days to see that earthquake victims received what they needed.

After hearing that some of the supplies sent to Nicaragua were not getting to the right people, Clemente decided to take matters into his own hands. He decided to fly to Nicaragua in a cargo plane and make sure that distribution was carried out properly. On New Year’s Eve he boarded an overloaded DC-7 that he had rented for $4,000 to fly to Nicaragua. The plane crashed into the ocean shortly after takeoff.

New Year’s Day was to have been a day of great celebration in Puerto Rico, with a new governor being inaugurated. Instead, the inaugural festivities were canceled, and the entire Pirates team flew to Puerto Rico for the funeral.

The Hall of Fame waived the five-year wait between last playing appearance and eligibility for Clemente, as it had done earlier for Lou Gehrig. The first Latin player so honored, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame on the same day as his boyhood idol, Monte Irvin. In 1971 the Commissioner’s Office had started an annual award to the player who best exemplified baseball on and off the field; in 1973 it was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award.

More than 20 years after his death, a video about Clemente on the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard produced instant, awestruck silence, followed by respectful applause and cheers touched with sadness. A statue of him was unveiled at Three Rivers Stadium at the 1994 All-Star Game. He had said in the late 1960s, “If you have an opportunity to make things better and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on this earth.”

7. HENRY CHADWICK

Henry Chadwick

Henry Chadwick

Having played cricket and rounders in his native England, Chadwick came to America with his family in 1837 at age 13. He first played baseball in 1847 and pronounced it a descendant of the earlier English games. When nearly a decade later he first saw games between skilled players, he recognized baseball’s potential to become America’s national game. His writings and influence helped make that potential a fact.

Chadwick began his reporting career with the Long Island Star in 1844. In the late 1850s, he began covering baseball games as a reporter for several newspapers, most notably the New York Clipper and the Brooklyn Eagle. In connection with this, he developed the box score and devised a system of scoring that is little changed today, although he borrowed many aspects of the system from fellow sportswriter M.J. Kelly. In his devotion to making baseball a “scientific” game, he devised new measures of player performance, championed those invented by others, and created the statistical underpinnings that bind the game’s present to its past while providing a roadmap for understanding how teams succeed or fail.

Chadwick influenced the development of playing rules, game strategies, scoring practices, and even the moral tone of the game. Most important, though, was his relentless promotion of baseball as the national pastime, a game that would be a tonic for America as cricket surely was Great Britain.

Chadwick continued to write and comment on baseball for more than 50 years. He originated the first guide, Beadle’s Dime Baseball Player, in 1860, and edited DeWitt’s Guide through the 1870s and Spalding’s Base Ball Guide from 1881 to 1908. His The Game of Base Ball (1868) was the first hardcover book published on the subject.

Widely influential for his writings, he also had a direct influence in shaping the game by serving on various rules committees, beginning in 1858. He opposed gambling, drunkenness, and rowdiness among players, sometimes to no avail. Chadwick considered himself one of “the intelligent majority” who preferred scientific hitting over slugging, and fielding prowess above all.

Chadwick did not win all his battles. He opposed professionalism among players, and chastised the National Association when it decided to pay umpires. He opposed creation of the National League, writing that the latter was “a sad blunder.” But he took on owners and players with equal gusto. In his most enduring squabble, he traced baseball’s origins to the English game of rounders, rejecting the jingoistic notion that it sprang into life fully formed on native soil. He gave credit to the Knickerbockers as the game’s true pioneers, but held fast to his belief that the game migrated to America from England. A long-standing friendly argument with nativist Albert G. Spalding over baseball’s origins prompted Spalding to form a commission to look into the matter. Headed by former NL president Abraham G. Mills, it concluded in the Spalding Guide of 1908 that the game had been invented in Cooperstown by Civil War hero Abner Doubleday.

Chadwick—more the “Father of Baseball” than Doubleday and as much as any man—died from pneumonia in 1908 after attending Opening Day in Brooklyn. Flags around the league flew at half-staff in his honor. In 1938 he was named to the Hall of Fame; he remains the only writer honored not in a separate exhibit but with his own plaque.

8. JIM CREIGHTON

Creighton, 1860.

Creighton, 1860.

Jim Creighton was baseball’s first national star, probably its first professional, and its first martyr. He was the greatest hitter of his time, and his pitching revolutionized the game. Remarkably, he accomplished all this by the age of 21.

In 1857, at the age of 16, Creighton helped to organize a neighborhood team, the Young America Base Ball Club. The next year, he and his friend George Flanley founded the Niagara Club. Creighton played both second and third base. In the ninth inning of a game between the Niagaras and the Brooklyn Stars, perhaps the best junior team in the area, he took over the pitching duties with his team well behind. From that moment on, baseball was never the same.

According to the existing rules, the ball was supposed to be “pitched”—that is, delivered with a stiff-armed, locked-wrist, underhand motion, much like a bowler’s delivery. Throwing the ball was illegal, the calling of balls and strikes was still in the future, and the pitcher’s task was simply to deliver the ball to the batter so that he could hit it. A kind of partnership developed between the pitcher and the batter. As the game grew more competitive, pitchers tried to make batters hit the ball to a location where it would produce an out. But the rules of the day, which limited pitchers to pitching underhanded, left them with few options. Most pitchers tried to keep the ball away from the batter, hoping that frustration would lead to a swing at a “bad” pitch. Consequently, with no bases on balls awarded to limit an at bat, some batters stayed at the plate for up to 15 minutes.

That changed when Creighton became a pitcher. According to an eyewitness account, “When Creighton got to work something new was seen in base ball—a low, swift delivery, the ball rising from the ground past the shoulder to the catcher. The Stars soon saw they could not cope with such pitching.” Creighton was responsible for several important innovations. He threw much faster than other pitchers did, and because there was no mound the ball’s trajectory was nearly horizontal, as opposed to the arcing lobs batters expected. Also, he put spin on the ball in such a way that his fast pitches hopped or darted as they approached the plate. These inventions changed the face of baseball.

As Creighton’s reputation grew, some claimed that he could make the ball dip, rise, or sail at will. A few historians have even suggested that he was the first man to throw a curveball, but if he did it was probably not intentional.

How did Creighton come up with such a revolutionary pitching style? He cheated. As he brought his long right arm around he imparted an almost imperceptible, and completely illegal, wrist snap. Although the ball was still being hurled underhand, Creighton was throwing it instead of pitching it like a horseshoe.

The new style sparked a great deal of controversy. Purists correctly insisted that Creighton’s tosses were illegal. Other pitchers studied Creighton, trying to imitate him. Fans were excited by the way he threw. The game moved faster and was more interesting. Umpires maintained that they saw nothing illegal. When Henry Chadwick, the era’s most influential baseball writer, commended Creighton for his “head work,” the battle was over and the groundwork laid for the game as we know it today: a mortal struggle between pitcher and batter.

After his pitching performance against the Stars, Creighton was recruited for their team. In 1859 he jumped to the top-flight Brooklyn Excelsiors (almost certainly in exchange for under-the-table “emoluments”) and traveled with them throughout the East in 1860 and 1861. With Creighton as their star they regularly won games by such inflated margins as 51‑6 and 45‑16. Not only did Creighton pitch and usually win every game, he went the entire 1860 season with an unparalleled average of zero in the outs-per-game category (which in those rudimentary days of statistical accounting meant that his number of games played exceeded the times he hit into outs). He was also an excellent fielder; and on top of all his baseball accomplishments, he was America’s top young cricket player.

Batters eventually learned how to hit Creighton’s offerings, and it soon became clear that mere speed on the pitch was not enough. Even though the balls were delivered from only 45 feet away, the best batters managed to get around on the pitches. To counter this Creighton developed the ability to change speeds, just as other pitchers of his day were learning to do.

Creighton Monument, Green-Wood Cemtery

Creighton Monument at Green-Wood.

No one knows how much the Excelsiors secretly paid their “amateur” pitching star, but today Creighton is generally considered to have been the first professional ballplayer. He became famous, and large crowds turned out to see him perform. Young players tried to duplicate his style. Teams even adopted his name. Decades later, fans who had seen him pitch would remark that while stars such as Charley Radbourn and Tim Keefe were good pitchers, they weren’t Creightons.

In late 1862, in a game between the Excelsiors and the Unions of Morrisania, a Westchester County team (Morrisania is today a neighborhood in the Bronx, and thus part of New York City), Creighton smashed a home run. As he swung, he heard something pop. Circling the bases, he remarked to George Flanley as he crossed the plate, “I must have snapped my belt.” Then he collapsed. After several days of internal hemorrhaging he died on October 18, 1862, five months shy of his 22nd birthday.

Creighton’s grief-stricken teammates erected a tall granite monument over his grave in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery. Carved on it are crossed bats, a base, a cap, a shoe, and a scorebook. A large stone baseball rests on top. The baseball has worn away over time, but the memorial baseball’s first star remains a shrine for baseball antiquarians.

9. KENESAW MOUNTAIN LANDIS 

Judge Landis, ca 1940.

Judge Landis, ca 1940.

Baseball’s first commissioner, the flinty, colorful, and often arbitrary Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis took control of the game when its integrity was in question. When he died nearly a quarter of a century later, baseball’s name had long since been restored.

Landis was the son of Dr. Abraham Landis, who had lost the use of his leg in the Civil War battle of Kennesaw Mountain in northwest Georgia. At his son’s birth on November 20, 1866, Dr. Landis suggested they call him “Kenesaw Mountain.” The name and the misspelling stuck.

His early career gave little indication of the heights Landis would later reach. A high-school dropout, his first ambition was to be a brakeman on the Vandalia and Southern Railroad, but the company’s officials rejected his application. The diminutive Landis won some fame as a bicycle racer at various Indiana fairgrounds and operated a roller-skating rink before moving to journalism. While covering court cases for Indiana’s Logansport Journal, he decided to become a lawyer and enrolled in the YMCA Law School of Cincinnati. In 1891 Landis obtained his degree from Chicago’s Union Law School.

Two of his brothers, Charles and Frederick, were Indiana congressmen. In part through their auspices, while still in his 20s Landis sat in on cabinet meetings representing the State Department. Appointed to the federal judiciary by Theodore Roosevelt, Landis quickly earned a reputation for quirky and newsworthy justice.

He fined Standard Oil $29,240,000, a record penalty at that time. He jailed Industrial Workers of the World members and Socialist Congressman Victor Berger for antiwar activities during World War I. Those cases and others placed him squarely in the public eye, even though his decisions were often overturned.

In one fiery wartime speech Landis demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm II, his six sons, and 5,000 German militarists be “lined up against a wall and shot down in justice to the world and to Germany.” Many thought him a mere grandstander. “His career typifies the heights to which dramatic talent may carry a man in America if only he has the foresight not to go on the stage,” said Heywood Broun.

But Organized Baseball had a high opinion of Landis. During the Federal League war he had done the baseball establishment a great service. The existing major leagues had faced a stiff challenge from the Federal League, both on the field and in the courts, as the upstart circuit sought to overturn baseball’s reserve clause. Landis heard the case within a month, and the owners of the established leagues held their breath.

But then Landis firmly sat on the case. Months passed and he issued no decision. It was obvious he didn’t want to issue one, because he knew what a flimsy legal structure baseball was built upon. “Both sides must understand that any blows at this thing called baseball would be regarded by this court as a blow to a national institution,” Landis had warned from the bench.

Finally, the Federal League threw in the towel, getting the best deal they could from Organized Baseball. Landis’ inaction had been the key. “Many persons felt that Landis had saved baseball in 1915,” wrote J.G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News. “Had he ruled Organized Baseball to be a gigantic trust, the Federal League contention, he could have thrown the whole game into chaos. There would have been no sanctity of baseball territory. Had he decided against the legality of the reserve and 10-day clauses, the effect would have been free agencies for all the great players of the time.”

Landis had saved the owners’ hides and they knew it. When the 1919 World Series fix became public knowledge in September 1920, they needed someone to restore confidence in the badly shaken institution. Game fixing and gambling had been pervasiv ein the game since the 1860s, with only an occasional scandal becoming public record (such as the 1877 “Louisville Crooks” swindle that nearly tore apart the National League, or Hal Chase’s all-too-open collusion with gamblers in the 1910s). Landis was an obvious choice. He demanded absolute power and got it.

Will Rogers once remarked, “The game needed a touch of class and distinction, and somebody said, ‘Get that old guy who sits behind first base all the time. He’s out here every day anyway.’ So they offered him a season pass and he grabbed it.”

In the summer of 1921 the accused “Black Sox” were acquitted under highly questionable circumstances. Long used to having his decisions overturned by higher courts, Landis, as commissioner of baseball, returned the favor and reversed the jury’s decision. “Regardless of the outcome of juries,” he said, “no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.”

Old and new scandals continued to plague baseball for the first few years of Landis’ tenure. Youthful Giants outfielder Jimmy O’Connell and Giants coach Cozy Dolan were banned from the game following a failed bribe attempt. Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs, and George Kelly were implicated but cleared by Landis. Phil Douglas was also banned after offering to throw a game. Outfielder Benny Kauff was blacklisted for implication in an auto-theft ring; as in the Black Sox scandal, Landis ignored the verdict of a jury, this time with what many critics felt was far less justification.

Landis was a headstrong, autocratic czar. Current Biography termed him “the only successful dictator in United States history.” But Organized Baseball already had a dictator in American League president Ban Johnson. Johnson was by no means ready to relinquish the hold he had on the game. Throughout the early 1920s Landis consolidated power at the expense of his rival. The proud Johnson was left humiliated and stripped of real authority.

The last great scandal of Landis’ tenure involved the biggest names in baseball—Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. In 1926 pitcher Dutch Leonard accused the two stars of conspiring to fix the last game of the 1919 season. Leonard also accused Smokey Joe Wood of placing bets on the contest for Cobb and Speaker. Landis’ verdict exonerating the accused trio has come under heavy criticism from some historians.

Landis letter to Joe Jackson, 1923.

Landis letter to Joe Jackson, 1923.

Landis was a staunch opponent of Branch Rickey’s minor-league farm system and fought it tooth and nail. “It will be the ruination of the individual minor-league club owners,” he declared. He liberated numerous minor-league players during his term in office. In one 1938 case, the commissioner freed 91 Cardinals farmhands, including Pete Reiser and Skeeter Webb. In January 1940 he hit the Detroit system, freeing scores of players and costing the Tigers an estimated $500,000.

One of Landis’ most important personnel decisions came on December 10, 1936, when he awarded young Bob Feller’s contract to Cleveland. Another significant decision involved the freeing of Tommy Henrich from the Indians’ system in April 1937. Henrich was able to sign with the Yankees for a $25,000 bonus.

Landis’ assumption of control over all World Series decisions, his well-publicized disciplining and suspension of Babe Ruth after the 1921 Series, and his removal of Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick from the field in the riotous seventh game of the 1934 World Series all created headlines.

World War II threatened to interrupt Major League Baseball, but Landis indirectly obtained President Franklin Roosevelt’s green light to continue the national pastime. His last major move was in 1943 when he banned Phillies owner William D. Cox from the game for gambling.

It was not until Landis died that Major League Baseball club owners finally integrated their teams. Many have contended that this was no coincidence. One oft-told tale contended that Landis scuttled Bill Veeck’s plan to buy and integrate the Phillies. Recent scholarship has largely debunked that story.

Just before Landis died on November 25, 1944, his contract was extended to January 1953, when he would have been 86 years old. Such was the hold of Judge Landis on baseball that, even as frail as he was, no one dared oppose him.

Shortly after he died, Landis was voted into the Hall of Fame. Despite his faults, he was passionately devoted to baseball and to preserving its integrity. “Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy,” he declared. “It is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart.”

10. GEORGE STEINBRENNER 

George M. Steinbrenner

George M. Steinbrenner

Since 1973 George Steinbrenner, the brash, bullying owner of the Yankees, has sided firmly with the long tradition of meddling management who can’t keep their hands off the baseball team. And, true to his character, he has meddled more than anyone else. Everything Steinbrenner does he does to excess. He is truly a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Fourth of July in 1930.

Love him or hate him, his influence on the game has been pervasive and undeniable. The first owner to grasp not only the perils but also the opportunities of free agency, he restored the Yankees to their accustomed perch atop the baseball world after the dismal CBS years (in 1966 the Yankees finished tenth in a ten-team league; two years later thy sported a team batting average of .214). He spent millions more than other owners on free agents because he made more millions—not at the gate, necessarily, but through lucrative, smartly negotiated media alliances.

Steinbrenner put together a money-generating empire that begins and ends with the Yankees’ coveted logo. His tactics, however unnerving, have borne fruit. His Yanks of the late 1970s and early 1980s won five division titles in a six-year span. The juggernaut clubs of the late 1990s were not dissimilar from the other Yankees teams that dominated baseball throughout the 20th century.

During his incorrigible and irrepressible tenure in baseball, Steinbrenner has hired some of the savviest players around, and sooner or later humiliated them off the payroll (usually followed by an acerbic exchange in the papers). One of the first owners to take full advantage of the free-agent system, he built a team that won back-to-back world championships in 1977 and 1978. Then he threw good money after bad on unproductive, expensive free agents, and his team fell into chaos. The once-proud Yankees became known as the “Bronx Zoo.” The 1980s marked the first decade the Yankees hadn’t won a World Series since the 1910s, but the franchise rebounded in the 1990s, culminating in an American League-record 114 regular-season wins in 1998 season and a repeat World Series sweep in 1999.

Steinbrenner was the leader of 15 limited partners who bought the Yankees from CBS for $10 million, $3.2 million less than the network had paid nine years earlier. “I won’t be active in day-to-day club operations at all,” he said at the time. It wasn’t long before one partner commented, “Nothing is more limited than being a limited partner of George’s.”

When Don Baylor was asked why he said he would reject an offer by Steinbrenner to manage the Yanks, he replied, “I came into this game sane, and I want to leave it sane.” No Steinbrenner relationship was ever more typical than his mercurial connection with the scrappy Billy Martin, a man he hired five times and fired five times. It was Martin who said of Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner, “They deserve each other. One’s a born liar, the other’s convicted.”

In 1974, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to charges of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for two years, then reinstated him after 15 months. In 1990, investigations by the commissioner’s office indicated that Steinbrenner had paid a small-time gambler $40,000 to “dig up dirt” on Dave Winfield so that Steinbrenner could back out of his contractual agreement to contribute to Winfield’s educational foundation. Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Steinbrenner from the game. Less than three years later, in one of his last acts as commissioner before he got fired, Vincent reinstated the man they called “The Boss.”

Back in baseball again in 1993, Steinbrenner lectured the press at spring training with predictions on the season and then made headlines during the regular schedule by threatening to move the Yankees to New Jersey unless the city built him a new stadium in a better part of town. The Yankees remained in the Bronx through the end of the decade, but he brought the Garden State a little closer to Yankee Stadium when he created the YankeeNets in 1999, a venture that broke apart in 2004 as the Nets were sold. The purchaser aimed to move the Nets to, of all places, Brooklyn, once the Yankees’ partner in the game’s most storied postseason rivalry.

 

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