Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Atlanta's All-Time Baseball Team

With the Mets in Atlanta to play the Braves, this is a good time to do...

Atlanta's All-Time Baseball Team

The Atlanta Braves have the widest area of any team, now that the Arizona Diamondbacks have taken Arizona and New Mexico out of the Colorado Rockies' region. The Braves take the entire States of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Alabama, and much of the States of Tennessee and Mississippi.

This team? Pretty good pitching staff, sensational outfielders and shortstops, but a little weak behind the plate. My runner-up was... Jody Davis?

1B Willie McCovey of Mobile, Alabama. And that's not pronounced "MOH-bull," it's "Mo-BEEL." "Stretch" is in the Hall of Fame, Number 44 retired by San Francisco Giants, 500 Home Run Club, statue outside AT&T Park, 147 lifetime OPS+, 1959 National League Rookie of the Year, 1969 NL Most Valuable Player (nope, Tom Seaver didn't win it that year).

The Atlanta region is so loaded at 1st base, the starting lineup couldn't be cracked by Bill Terry of Atlanta (though he was often called "Memphis Bill," so he may have grown up in Cardinals territory; the Giants retired his Number 3); Johnny Mize of Demorest, Georgia or Frank "Big Hurt" Thomas of Columbus, Georgia (the White Sox retired his Number 35 and will dedicate a statue of him at U.S. Cellular Field next season). That's 3 HOFers at this position, and Thomas will make it 4. (The Hurt even finished with the same number of homers as McCovey, 521.)

Actually, Thomas will make it 7, along with the aforementioned and 3 legends from the Negro Leagues: Walter "Buck" Leonard of Rocky Mount, North Carolina (that town is closer to Washington than to Atlanta, but North Carolina's baseball tastes tilt toward Atlanta, partly due to its Southernness, partly due to the Durham Bulls having once been a Braves farm team); George "Mule" Suttles of Blocton, Alabama; and Ben Taylor of Anderson, South Carolina.

Of course, a lot of what we think about Leonard, a.k.a. "the black Lou Gehrig" -- he, too, was a 1st baseman who batted lefthanded and wore Number 4, and at least he lived to a ripe old age -- is not what we know. Still, The Sporting News named him to their 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999. Having played in both Washington and Pittsburgh with the Homestead Grays, he is honored on the Washington Wall of Stars at Nationals Park.

Leonard admitted that Taylor was his mentor, and Taylor had also been a fine pitcher in the years before the formal establishment of the Negro Leagues in 1920. Suttles was one of the top sluggers in Negro League history.

2B Frank White of Greenville, Mississippi. A 5-time All-Star, 8 Gold Gloves (his last, legitimately, at age 36), Number 20 retired by the Kansas City Royals, and the Royals have never reached the postseason without him -- with him, 7 times, including losing the World Series in 1980 and winning it in 1985. Also collected over 2,000 hits, so he wasn't a "good field, no hit" player, either.

Certainly, Jackie Robinson would be a better choice. But, while he was born in Cairo, Georgia, he was moved by his mother to Pasadena, California when he was 1 year old, so he qualifies for Los Angeles, not Atlanta.

SS Luke Appling of Atlanta, Georgia. They called this Hall-of-Famer "Old Aches and Pains," but he sure put a hurt on a few pitchers: He won 2 American League batting titles (his .388 average in 1936 is a record for post-19th Century shortstops), .310 lifetime batting average, 2,749 hits including 440 doubles.

He was not much of a slugger, but who cares when you can still hit .301 at age 42. Not to mention that he played his home games at the old Comiskey Park, a terrible park for hitters, for the Chicago White Sox, who retired his Number 4. Oddly, in 1982, he hit a home run (albeit over a 275-foot left-field fence) at an old-timer's game at RFK Stadium in Washington. He was 75, and lived to be 83.

Honorable Mention to Joe Sewell of Titus, Alabama. Won the World Series as a rookie with the 1920 Cleveland Indians and as a veteran with the 1932 Yankees. Batted .312 lifetime, and like Appling wasn't a home-run hitter, but hit 436 doubles. Oh yeah, and he struck out 114 times. In his entire career. That's in 8,329 plate appearances. Amazing.

3B Al Rosen of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Like the general manager who signed him for the Indians, Hank Greenberg -- and like another Greenberg protege, Ralph Kiner, briefly Rosen's teammate -- he had to quit the game too soon because of a bad back.

He hit 192 homers in only 10 seasons. He had a career OPS+ of 136. In 1953, won the AL MVP award, missing the batting title and thus the Triple Crown by .001: .336, 43 homers, 145 RBIs, despite playing his home games at cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He only played 5 games for the Indians' 1948 World Championship team, but was a key cog in their 1954 Pennant winners. Too bad he could only play 2 more years, leaving at age 32.

Later, he became the general manager of the Yankees, winning the 1978 World Series. Was also a postseason-building executive for the Giants and the Houston Astros. If he'd been able to play even to age 36, batting at the same rate, he'd be in the Hall of Fame, as he would be if they combined the player and executive categories. The Indians haven't retired his Number 7, but they have inducted him into their team Hall of Fame.

LF Joe Jackson of Greenville, South Carolina. How do I pick a guy who's not in the Hall of Fame, and played his last game at age 30, and that last game having been 90 years ago so I couldn't possibly have seen him play and there's precious little film footage of him playing so how can I really get an idea of how good he was, over 3 Hall-of-Famers who qualify here?

Namely, Henry "Heinie" Manush of Tuscumbia, Alabama (Senators star honored on the Washington Wall of Stars); Billy Williams of Whistler, Alabama (Cubs retired his Number 26); and Jim Rice of Anderson, South Carolina (Red Sox retired his Number 14)? How can I take such a guy over those 3 HOFers?

When it's Shoeless Joe Jackson, that's when. He had a career OPS+ 170. He batted .408 at age 21. His 1,772 hits included 307 doubles and 168 triples, and he had just had his best home-run year in 1920, with 12 (and a .382 average) at the dawn of the Lively Ball Era, when, uh, the other shoe dropped. Shoeless Joe was actually getting better. He played the 1917 World Series to win, and the White Sox did.

That he accepted money to throw the 1919 World Series, he confessed; that he actually played not to win is debatable. If Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had accepted the verdict of the jury, that he was "Not Guilty" of fraud, and let him play again -- or even if he'd just suspended him for the rest of the 1921 season, meaning he missed the entire year when he was 31, but could then have resumed playing -- who knows what he could have done.

Moises Alou was born in Atlanta, while his father Felipe played for the Braves, but grew up and played high school ball in the Dominican Republic. Still, I can't put him ahead of Shoeless Joe, or Heinie Manush, or Billy Williams, or Jim Rice. Nor can I rank Vincent "Bo" Jackson of Bessemer, Alabama ahead of those guys. We'll never know what the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner out of Auburn University could have done in either baseball or football if he had stuck with one or the other, although that could also be a question for me to tackle in Otherwise Sports.

While James "Cool Papa" Bell of Starkville, Mississippi was the subject of legends about his speed while playing in the Negro Leagues, we just don't have complete stats, or even film of him playing, to know with any certainty how good he was. Still, like Buck Leonard, he's in the Hall of Fame and TSN's 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

CF Willie Mays of Fairfield, Alabama. How do you sum this guy up? Not briefly. He's 1 of 3 men to play in 24 All-Star Games. The 2nd National Leaguer, after Mel Ott, to hit 500 home runs, and the first to hit 600. From 1966 (when he passed Jimmie Foxx at 534) to 1972 (when Hank Aaron passed him at 648), he was 2nd on the all-time home run list, finishing with 660. He was the 2nd man to have both 500 homers and 3,000 hits.

He played in the World Series at age 20, 23 and 31 with the Giants (1951 and '54 in New York, '62 in San Francisco), and closed his career at age 42 (in 1973) with another World Series appearance, with the Mets. "The Say Hey Kid" was a sensational hitter and baserunner, and as for his defense, well, he wasn't just the man who made the most famous defensive play in the history of sports, a.k.a. "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series, still the last that the Giants have won.

Hall of Fame, All-Century Team, Number 24 retired officially by the Giants and unofficially by the Mets, a statue outside AT&T Park, and the park's mailing address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza. And he had the best song any athlete's ever had, by The Treniers in 1954, in which you can hear the Big Band sound morphing into Rock and Roll (or, at least, into Rhythm & Blues) right before your very ear.

Honorable Mention to another legendary Negro Leaguer in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, said by some to be the all-time leading home run hitter in Negro League play. A longtime member of the Detroit Stars, he is honored with a plaque at Comerica Park in Detroit.

RF Henry Aaron of Mobile, Alabama. Another of the 3 men to play in 24 All-Star Games. (Stan Musial is the other.) He hit a home run in the Pennant-clinching game in 1957, resulting in Milwaukee's 1st major-league Pennant (after a few minor-league ones) and still the only World Series the city has ever won.

Nobody has more career total bases, extra-base hits, or runs batted in. And, if we're being honest, he is still the Home Run King, with 755. He collected 3,771 hits, which means he had over 3,000 hits even without his record home run total. In fact, he was the 1st man to get 500 homers and 3,000 hits, in 1970, beating Mays to the distinction by a few weeks.

Hall of Fame, All-Century Team, Number 44 retired by both the Braves and the Brewers, following his 1975-76 return to Milwaukee, statues outside Miller Park in Milwaukee and Turner Field in Atlanta -- whose mailing address is 755 Hank Aaron Drive.

Face it, if you don't like Hank Aaron -- whether doubting his still holding the record in 2010 or sending him nasty letters not wanting him to have the record in 1973-74 -- then there's no place for you in baseball. Oh yeah, he was the coolest person ever mentioned on Happy Days -- Sorry, Fonz.

DH Ty Cobb of Royston, Georgia. Now I don't have to justify taking the racist Cobb, whose most common position was center field, over the black Mays, who had the much better glove, anyway.

We grew up hearing that the Georgia Peach had a .367 lifetime batting average and 4,191 hits, both records. Turned out there was an error in tabulation (a 1910 game in which he got 2 hits was counted twice), so it's .366 and 4,189, and he no longer holds the record for most hits in a career, or stolen bases in a career (892), or stolen bases in a season (96), but that lifetime batting average is still far and away a record. 11 batting titles. Batted .357 at age 40. 724 doubles and and 117 triples. Career OPS+ of 168.

He led the balloting at the first Hall of Fame induction in 1936, so, technically, was the 1st man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Elected to the All-Century Team in 1999, even though his last game was 71 years earlier and most of those voting couldn't possibly have seen him play.

The Detroit Tigers cast a plaque in his honor that was on the outside wall of Tiger Stadium, and has been moved to Comerica Park, and have made a notation for him on their retired number wall, even though he played before numbers were worn. (I have seen footage of him at an old-timers' game, wearing a Tiger jersey with the Number 25 on it.)

They've also got a statue of him at Comerica, and the Braves erected a statue of Georgia's greatest native ballplayer outside Fulton County Stadium, moving it to Turner Field. A lot of people still think Cobb was the greatest player ever. Certainly, as long as he lived, he was one of those who thought he was the best ever.

C Rick Ferrell of Guilford, North Carolina. He was the brother of Wes Ferrell, a really good pitcher, and I'm not the only person who thinks the wrong brother got into the Hall of Fame. Rick got in, and while it is true that he made 7 All-Star teams and batted .300 4 times, he was never an exceptional player.

He never reached the postseason, although he came very close in his last full season, with the 1945 Washington Senators. But for most of his career, with the St. Louis Browns, Red Sox and Senators, he was the 3rd-best catcher in the AL behind Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey. Nothing special. But he's the best catcher ever to come from a State in the Braves' region.

Actually, I could have named Josh Gibson, who was born in Buena Vista, Georgia. However, he and his family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 11, so his father could take a job at a steel mill, and he was 16 before he played any kind of organized baseball -- not to be confused with "Organized Ball," which never let him in -- and that was in Pittsburgh, so he qualifies for their regional team, not Atlanta's. If there's a dispute as to a player's eligibility, it's not where he was born that matters, it's where he was trained to become a player.

SP Leroy "Satchel" Paige of Mobile, Alabama. We'll never know for sure what he could have done had he been allowed in the majors as soon as his talent would have allowed. We do know that, at the official age of 42, he helped the Cleveland Indians win the 1948 World Series.

Officially, he was the oldest player ever to appear in a Major League Baseball game, making an appearance for the Athletics in Kansas City, where he'd starred for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs, in 1965 when records suggest he was 59, although it was 1 game, 3 innings. Still, he was an effective pitcher with the Browns at age 46, playing 1 more full season.

How did he pitch so well for so long? Illegal pitches? He denied it: "I ain't never thrown an illegal pitch. But sometimes, I throw a pitch that ain't never been seen by this generation."

The 1st player elected to the Hall of Fame on the basis of a Negro League career, he gave us "Satchel Paige's Rules For Living":

*1. Avoid fried foods, which angry up the blood.

*2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

*3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

*4. Go light on the social vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful. (Satch had a bit of trouble with this rule himself.)

*5. Avoid running at all times. (You can tell Satch was a pitcher.)

*6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

After the 1934 season, Satch led a team of black all-stars against a team of white all-stars led by Dizzy Dean, who had just led the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Championship, on a "barnstorming tour." These were the 2 best pitchers on Earth at the time, although Carl Hubbell might have had something to say about that. When the tour was over, Diz put his Southern prejudices behind him and said, "Satch, if you an' me was on the same team, we'd clinch the Pennant by the 4th of July, and I'd take you fishin' until World Series time."

SP Early Wynn of Hartford, Alabama. Hall of Fame, 300 wins despite pitching his 1st 6 full seasons with the Washington Senators. He won 23 games and a Pennant with the 1954 Indians. He won 22 games, a Pennant and the Cy Young Award with the 1959 Chicago White Sox, at age 39. Known to throw at hitters, he at least had a sense of humor about it: When asked if he would throw at his own mother, he said, "I'd have to: Mom could really hit the curveball."

SP Gaylord Perry of Williamston, North Carolina. Unlike Satchel Paige, he stopped being coy about illegal pitches long enough to write a book titled Me and the Spitter. How much of what he did came from doctoring the ball? Hard to say, but he became the first man to win Cy Young Awards in both leagues (Cleveland in 1972, San Diego in 1978), the oldest man to win a Cy Young (39 in '78, breaking Wynn's record, but his has since been broken), a member of the 300 Win Club and the 3,000 Strikeout club, had a career ERA+ of 117 and a WHIP of 1.181.

He won 20 games 5 times, and at age 43 managed to win 10 games for a terrible Seattle Mariners team in 1982 (including his 300th, against the Yankees, for whom he pitched 10 games in 1980). He only reached the postseason twice, in his rookie year with the 1962 Giants and again with the 1971 Giants, but any way you slice it -- or smear it -- he was an all-time great. Hall of Fame, the Giants retired his Number 36 and elected him to their team Hall of Fame.

SP Jim "Catfish" Hunter of Hertford, North Carolina. He won his 200th game the day before his 31st birthday. The only other pitchers to win that many before turning 31 were Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. Unfortunately, overwork led to a shoulder injury that limited him to only 24 more wins. But first with the Oakland Athletics (perfect game in 1968, World Champs 1972, '73, '74) and then with the Yankees (Pennant '76, World Champs '77 and '78), the Cat was one of the best big-game pitchers ever.

Because A's owner Charlie Finley, a notorious cheapskate, made a big mistake regarding an item in Catfish's contract, he became baseball's first big free agent, and George Steinbrenner showed him the money. It worked, never better than in 1978, when Catfish bounced back from a procedure on his shoulder to win 6 straight down the stretch, making the great Yankee comeback possible. He won the pivotal Game 3 of the ALCS and the clinching Game 6 of the World Series.

Career WHIP of 1.134. Hall of Fame. A's retired his Number 27. The Yankees haven't retired the Number 29 he wore with them or given him a Monument Park Plaque, but they should.

SP Jimmy Key of Huntsville, Alabama. I couldn't quite make it an all-HOF rotation, but that's mainly because an injury finished Key at 37. He was 186-117 for his career, for a super winning percentage of .614. ERA+ of 122, WHIP of 1.229.

He reached postseason with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985, '89, '91 and '92 (winning the '92 World Series), and in '95 and '96 with the Yankees (winning the clinching Game 6 in the '96 Series). Should have made it with the Jays in '87 (but they choked) and the Yanks in '93 (fell a little short) and '94 (strike). Made it once more in '97 with the Baltimore Orioles, but then he got hurt. Because he pitched most of his career in Canada, and was overshadowed by bigger names in New York, he's never gotten the credit he deserves.

RP Hoyt Wilhelm of Cornelius, North Carolina. Clay Carroll of Clanton, Alabama saved 37 games in 1972, a major league record (which lasted all of 1 year), and was a big part of the Cincinnati Reds' Big Red Machine of the 1970s, but he doesn't get the nod here.

Wilhelm was the game's 1st true master of the knuckleball, and won 143 games despite being a reliever for most of his career. His 2.52 career ERA is the lowest of any pitcher, starter or reliever, in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era. His 227 saves were a record until Rollie Fingers came along. Career ERA+ of 147, WHIP of 1.125.

He was the 1st pitcher to appear in 1,000 games. Strangely, he hit a home run in his 1st big-league at-bat and a triple in his 2nd, and never hit another of either. He was a rookie on the 1954 Giants' World Champions, and never reached another postseason until the '69 Braves, coming close with the '60 Orioles and the '64 and '67 White Sox.

Wilhelm was the 1st reliever in the Hall of Fame, and thus inspired a lot of knuckleballers to wear his usual Number 49, including Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti, who played Wilhelm in the film 61*. Ironically, in 1961, Wilhelm was wearing Number 15 for the Orioles, and Candiotti portrays him as such.

MGR George Stallings of Augusta, Georgia. He barely played in the majors, but managed the New York Highlanders (forerunners of the Yankees) to a 2nd-place finish in 1910, then couldn't get along with the owners. (So it wasn't just in the Steinbrenner era.) Managed the Boston Braves to their "miracle" World Championship in 1914, after having been in last place on the 4th of July.

If you're going up against this all-time team, y'all better have some big guns y'self, y'hear?

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