Friday, August 20, 2010

Pittsburgh's All-Time Baseball Team

There's a lot to talk about, what with the Yankees taking 3 out of 4 from a Detroit Tiger team that's better than their current record suggests, the Mets continuing to hit poorly and only briefly get away with it, Roger Clemens being indicted, and the Brett Favre saga continuing (of course it does).

But I want to keep going with this regional all-time teams project. Tonight, the Mets begin a series in Pittsburgh against the Pirates.

Pittsburgh's All-Time Baseball Team

All of these players are from Pennsylvania, west of the Susquehanna River. Players from northern West Virginia were eligible, but I decided only one would make the team, and then only as an Honorable Mention -- although Bill Mazeroski, the legendary Pirates 2nd baseman, was born in Wheeling but grew up in southeastern Ohio, and I put him on the Cleveland Indians' regional all-time team.

1B James “Ripper” Collins of Altoona. A rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals when they won the 1931 World Series, led the National League in games, home runs, total bases and slugging in their 1934 World Championship “Gashouse Gang” season. Appeared in 3 All-Star Games and 3 World Series, also going to the 1938 edition with the Chicago Cubs. Only played 8 full seasons (debuting at 27 and only playing one after 34), but a .296 lifetime hitter, OPS+ 126.

2B Jacob Nelson “Nellie” Fox of St. Thomas. After the 1949 season, when he’d played a grand total of 98 games, the Philadelphia Athletics traded him to the Chicago White Sox for Joe Tipton. (Who?) A backup catcher and a .236 lifetime hitter, that’s who. We’ll never know if Nellie could have helped the A’s enough to keep them in Philly. We do know he gave the South Siders 14 good seasons, 12 of them All-Star seasons, before wrapping it up with the Houston Astros. Led the American League in hits 4 times. Had 6 .300 seasons and just missed 2 others. Struck out just 216 times in 19 big-league seasons. Won 3 of the first 4 Gold Gloves awarded to 2nd basemen. With Chico Carrasquel, formed a very good double-play combination; then, with Luis Aparicio, formed one of the best ever, now immortalized in a pair of statues at U.S. Cellular Field. In 1959, hit only 2 home runs, but batted .306, drove in 70, collected 191 hits including 34 doubles, and fielded brilliantly, helping the White Sox win their only Pennant between 1919 and 2005, and winning the AL’s Most Valuable Player award.

Died in 1975 of skin cancer when he was just short of his 48th birthday, and did not reach the Hall of Fame until well after his death, but is now there. The White Sox have retired his Number 2. Writer, radio host and humorist Jean Shepherd, best known for writing the book that became the film A Christmas Story, which he narrated, was a die-hard White Sox fan, and narrated the team’s official history videotape in 1987, saying that Fox was his favorite ballplayer of all time.

SS Bobby Wallace of Pittsburgh. Reached the majors in 1894 and played until 1918. How long ago was that? So long ago that he played for a Cleveland team in the National League (the Spiders) and a St. Louis team in the American League (the Browns). A great fielder by the standards of his time, and hit .300 and drove in 100 runs twice each. Collected 2,309 hits including 391 doubles and 143 triples. Wasn’t a bad pitcher, either. In fact, of all players in the Hall of Fame who played at least half their careers in the 20th Century, he made more mound appearances than anybody not usually thought of as a pitcher except Babe Ruth, 57. Went 12-14 for the 1895 Spiders (with Cy Young also in the rotation, and they beat the original Baltimore Orioles in a postseason series for the Temple Cup – more an equivalent to English soccer’s FA Cup than any “world championship”) and 10-7 for the 1896 edition (which played the Orioles in the Temple Cup again, but lost). In the Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Dick Groat of Swissvale. Perhaps the first great basketball player at Duke University, he chose baseball instead, and was 4 times an All-Star for his hometown Pirates. In 1960, led the NL in batting with a .325 average, won the MVP, and took the Pirates to the World Championship. Traded to the Cardinals in 1963, and nearly won another MVP, finishing 2nd to Sandy Koufax as he led the NL with 43 doubles, before helping them win the World Series in 1964 – both his rings coming against the Yankees. Had 2,138 hits in just 14 seasons (missed some time due to Korean War service and retired at 36). Had he not had to serve in the Army, he might have put up another good season or two, and we’d be thinking about him for the Hall of Fame.

3B Dick Allen of Wampum. Don’t call him “Richie,” although most references to the 1964 Phillies still list him as such. NL Rookie of the Year that season, leading the League in runs, triples and total bases, batting .318 with 29 homers and 91 RBIs. A 7-time All-Star, he was as good a hitter as the game has ever seen from the time he was 22 until he was 32, 1964 to 1974. Chased out of Philadelphia in 1969, he got to the Chicago White Sox in 1972 (and playing mostly 1st base from then on), and that year won the AL MVP, leading in home runs with 37, RBI with 113, OBP with .420, slugging with .603 and OPS with 1.023, batting .308. Lots of people in Chicago, noting that the ChiSox had been struggling financially and had come closing to moving once already, say that the crowds coming to see Allen’s drives (he also led the AL in homers in 1974) saved the franchise from being moved. Lifetime batting average .292, on-base percentage .378, slugging percentage a hefty .534, OPS .912, OPS+ 156. This guy should have gone to the Hall of Fame.

So what happened? The Phils went on a 10-game losing streak and just missed the Pennant in 1964, although Allen hit like hell that month, so you can’t blame him. The next year, he got into a fight with teammate Frank Thomas (not to be confused with the later White Sox slugger), which was apparently racially motivated. Management took the side of the better-hitting Allen, and traded Thomas. But Philly’s white fans didn’t forgive him for that, and booed him terribly until he finally got his wish to be traded. He began to be paranoid about racial matters, drank heavily, gambled a lot on horse racing, and frequently showed up late for games. He ended up quitting on the White Sox in 1974, and managed to get back with the Phillies, whose fans, no longer in the black neighborhood that Connie Mack Stadium was in, cheered him vociferously at Veterans Stadium. But despite reaching the postseason in ’76, his demons remained, and a year later he was out of baseball. He hit “only” 351 home runs, despite playing his entire career in pitchers’ parks (Connie Mack Stadium, a year at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, a year at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Comiskey Park, the Vet, and his last year at the Oakland Coliseum) and having his last productive season at age 34.

Allen took his passion for racehorses in a positive direction, training them, and returned to the Phillies in a front-office capacity, and remains with them today. Some people believe he should be in the Hall. Many have squelched the notion that he was underachieving and divisive, including Hall-of-Fame teammates Goose Gossage and Mike Schmidt, and former managers Red Schoendienst, Chuck Tanner and, shortly before his death, Gene Mauch. Both the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame (at Citizens Bank Park) and the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame (at Hawthorne Race Course) have inducted him.

Honorable Mention to Eddie Miller of Pittsburgh. Hard to tell why this Boston Brave and Cincinnati Red appeared in 6 All-Star Games. Either he must have been a good fielder, or in the years between Pie Traynor and Eddie Matthews, the NL must’ve been hard-up for good 3rd basemen, so they took this guy with an 80 career OPS+ and a peak batting average of .276. Still, he led the NL with 38 doubles in 1947.

LF Stan Musial of Donora. Once, at a Hall of Fame induction weekend, Stan, the greatest National League hitter of his generation, was talking with his American League counterpart, Ted Williams. Afterwards, Ted’s son, John Henry Williams, asked his father, known for wanting people to call him the greatest hitter who ever lived, “Dad, do you think Musial was as good a hitter as you were?” Ted said, “Yes, I do.” If Ted said it, then, indeed, Stan was The Man.

In his first 4 full seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals – minus 1941, when he had a late-season callup and the Cards just missed, and 1945 when he was in the Navy for World War II – they won the World Series in 1942, the Pennant in 1943, the World Series in 1944, and the World Series in 1946. They never won another Pennant with him, but that didn’t stop him. He was the NL MVP in 1943, 1946 and 1948, and finished 2nd in the voting in ’49, ’50, ’51 and ’57 – winning Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award that year. His lifetime batting average was .331, his OPS+ a whopping 159. He led the league in batting 6 times (topping out at .376 in 1948), hits 6 times, runs 5 times, doubles 8 times, triples 5 times, and RBIs twice with 10 100-RBI seasons. He hit 725 doubles (2nd all-time to Tris Speaker) 177 triples, and 475 home runs, not counting what we would now call a walkoff homer in the 1955 All-Star Game. Speaking of which, because of the 2 ASGs played per season from 1958 to 1962, he played in 24, a record that would be tied by Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, but not broken. At the 1962 ASG in Washington, when he was 41, the 45-year-old President John F. Kennedy told him, “They said I was too young to be President and you were too old to play baseball. I guess we showed them.”

He was once the NL’s all-time hits leader with 3,630 – 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. You cannot make this stuff up. He was once the all-time leader in both extra-base hits and total bases, until surpassed by Aaron. Hall of Fame. All-Century Team. Number 6 retired by the Cardinals, and a statue dedicated outside Busch Stadium, inscribed with a quote attributed to former Commissioner Ford Frick: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."

Honorable Mention to Jesse Burkett of Wheeling, West Virginia. Only 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, he nonetheless had a lifetime batting average of .338, an OPS+ of 140, and 2,850 hits. He won 3 batting titles, in 1895 (.405) and 1896 (.410) with the NL's Cleveland Spiders, and in 1901 (.376) with the St. Louis Cardinals, before moving on to the St. Louis Browns of the AL. (Cleveland in the NL? St. Louis in the AL? It was a different time.) He's the only West Virginia product in the Hall of Fame. (Bill Mazeroski and George Brett were born there, but grew up elsewhere.)

Honorable Mention to Hank Sauer of Pittsburgh. In 1952 he won the NL’s MVP despite playing for a Cub team that finished 5, as he led the League in homer swith37 and RBIs with 121. Was so popular with Cub fans that he became known as the Mayor of Wrigley Field, before Ernie Banks arrived and well before Harry Caray did. Career OPS+ of 123, and hit 288 home runs.

Honorable Mention to John Preston “Pete” Hill of Pittsburgh. Born in Culpeper county, Virginia, he grew up in the Steel City, and played for several all-black teams from 1899 to 1925, the longest with the Chicago American Giants, whose owner, manager and ace pitcher Rube Foster called him “my field general” and “my second manager.” He played against what could hardly be called entirely big-league caliber competition, and with records woefully incomplete, but Cumberland “Cum” Posey, owner of the Homestead Grays, said that Hill was “the most consistent hitter of his time.” When in 2006 the Hall of Fame had a special committee consider Negro League players that they might have missed, Hill was one of those elected.

CF Lewis “Hack” Wilson of Ellwood City. Might be the most defensively lacking center fielder on any of these teams, but what can you do when Ken Griffey Jr. doesn’t qualify? (Explanation below.) Besides, as his nickname might suggest, Hack might have been a more powerful hitter. He was just 5-foot-6, and at 190 pounds it was suggested that he was “shaped like a beer barrel, and not unfamiliar with its contents.” Despite playing all but his last season in the Prohibition era, few athletes were ever more identified with drunkenness. And, due to his size, he wasn’t the most mobile of outfielders. Legend has it that he was standing in the outfield at Baker Bowl in Philadelphia during batting practice before a Cubs-Phillies game, and he had his head down so he didn’t have to aim his heavy, bloodshot eyes at the hot sun. But a teammate hit a ball off the park’s close, tall right field wall. The sound of horsehide on tin shook him out of his stupor, and he grabbed the ball and threw a perfect strike back to the infield, and got a standing ovation – shades of the Dick Stuart hot-dog wrapper story.

But, when sober, boy could he hit. In just 12 seasons, he hit 244 homers, with a batting average of .307 and an OPS+ of 144. He led the NL in homers 4 times, including 56 in 1930, a record that stood until 1998 (or 2006, if you think Ryan Howard is clean, as he so far appears to be). That same year, a year after driving in 159 runs, Hack had 191 RBIs, an all-time single-season record. But the drinking took its toll, and he had just one season of more than 61 RBIs after that. He did help the New York Giants win the Pennant in 1924 and the Cubs do it in 1929. But, frustrated by his drinking, the Cubs traded him in 1932, and he did not play for that Pennant winner. Drinking killed him in 1948, age 48. A sad story. But he is in the Hall of Fame, and is honored in the Cubs’ Walk of Fame outside Wrigley Field, although he did not wear a number that could be retired for him until after he left the Cubs (Number 4).

RF Ken Griffey of Donora. While his son, George Kenneth Griffey Jr., was also born in Donora, he grew up in Cincinnati, and attended the prestigious Archbishop Moeller High School, as did MLB players Buddy Bell (son of former Reds star Gus Bell), his son David Bell, and Barry Larkin; and former Chicago Bear turned ESPN 1000 host Tom Waddle. Therefore, Junior qualifies for the Reds’ regional team, not the Pirates’.

Ken Sr. was no slouch. In 19 seasons, he batted .296, with an OPS+ of 118, 2,143 hits including 364 doubles. He wasn’t a big slugger, as he only topped 14 homers and 74 RBIs once each. But he was a 3-time All-Star, and helped the Reds win the 1975 and ’76 World Series and the ’79 NL West title, nearly helped get the Yankees to the 1985 AL East title, and finished his career in 1990 and ’91 with his son on the Seattle Mariners.

UT John Montgomery Ward of Bellefonte. This pioneer of the game could play just about anywhere, including pitching. “Monte” had 3 .300 seasons, and while stolen-base records were not kept from his 1878 debut (at age 18!) until 1886, he is credited with 540, including 111 in 1887. (The rules for what constituted a “stolen base,” like a lot of rules, were a little different then.) He won NL Pennants with the Providence Grays in 1879, and the New York Giants in 1888 and 1889. A practicing attorney in the off-season, he led the Players’ League revolt of 1890, and almost freed the players’ from the yoke of the owners’ reserve clause. If he had just held out a little longer... But he did play long enough to get into the Hall of Fame.

C Harold Delano “Butch” Wynegar of York. I’m stretching it a bit, as York is closer to Philly, but it is west of the Susquehanna. A 2-time All-Star as a catcher with the Minnesota Twins, he was traded to the Yankees in 1982 and caught Dave Righetti’s no-hitter the next season. A 9th-inning home run against Toronto on the 3rd-from-last game of the 1985 season kept the Yankees in the AL East race until the next day.

SP George “Rube” Waddell of Bradford. In 1904, he struck out 349 batters, a single-season record in the majors until 1965 (Sandy Koufax) and in the AL until 1973 (Nolan Ryan) – although it was miscounted as 343 for many years, and Bob Feller was thought to have broken it with 346 in 1946. In 1905, he went 27-10 with a 1.48 ERA. He helped the Philadelphia Athletics win Pennants in 1902 and 1905, and nearly another in 1907.

But... I don’t know if he was retarded, or had the worst case of attention-deficit disorder in baseball history, but he could never focus on anything, a situation he didn’t make any easier by becoming an alcoholic. A’s manager Connie Mack finally had enough, and in 1908 sold him to the St. Louis Browns. By 1910, age 33, he was done. In 1914, age 37, he died of tuberculosis. But he’s in the Hall of Fame. His career record was 193-143, a 2.16 ERA, a 135 ERA+, and 2,316 strikeouts despite only 11 full seasons. If he’d played today, a team psychologist would probably have figured out what was wrong, and they might’ve known what to do. Instead, he pitched his last big-league game 100 years ago – to the month, August 1, 1910 – and nobody understood.

SP Eddie Plank of Gettysburg. Another stretch, although Gettysburg is further to the west than York. In fact, like York, it’s closer to Baltimore and Washington than it is to Philadelphia – and now you know why Robert E. Lee wanted it so badly in 1863, and why the Union defended it fiercely enough to beat the Confederates back across the Mason-Dixon Line.

Plank was Waddell’s teammate from 1902 to 1907, and, fortunately, Connie Mack had a much easier time with this great lefthander. He helped the A’s win Pennants in 1902, 1905, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1914, winning the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913. His record was 326-194, winning 26 twice, 24 on 2 other occasions and 23 on 2 others. Career ERA 2.35, ERA+ of 122. A’s teammate Eddie Collins said, “Plank was not the fastest, not the trickiest and not the possessor of the most stuff, but he was just the greatest.” Hall of Fame.

SP Bob Purkey of Pittsburgh. The graduate of South Hills H.S. both began (1954-57) and ended (1966) his career with his hometown Pirates, but he’s best-remembered with the Cincinnati Reds, helping them to win the Pennant in 1961 with a 16-12 record. He was even better in 1962, going 23-5. Won 129 games in his career, and is a member of the Reds’ Hall of Fame.

SP Gary Peters of Mercer. Pitched only 2 games as a rookie for the Pennant-winning “Go-Go White Sox” of 1959, and didn’t stick in the majors until 1963, when he was already 26. But what a stick that season: 19-8, a League-leading 2.33 ERA, and the Rookie of the Year. In 1964, he was even better, 20-8, as the Sox finished just 1 game behind the Yankees. Led the AL in ERA again in 1966 with 1.98, and in 1967 went 16-11 with 2.28 as the Sox came close again, finishing 3 games behind Boston. Probably would have won more had he pitched for, say, the White Sox of 1917-19, or the 1977 “South Side Hit Men,” or the Frank Thomas teams of the 1990s, but still won 124 games.

SP Sam McDowell of Pittsburgh. Probably the best left arm ever to come out of the city’s Central Catholic H.S. – with Dan Marino having the best right arm. In 1965, “Sudden Sam” went 17-11 for a weak Cleveland Indians team, and led the AL in ERA with 2.18 and strikeouts with 325 – and he was only 22 years old. He led the AL in strikeouts 5 times, and went 20-12 for an even weaker Tribe in 1970.

But he was wild, on and off the field. He led the AL in walks 5 times and wild pitches 3, and his drinking got out of control. In 1972, the Indians traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Gaylord Perry. A rare great trade by the Indians, as Perry won the Cy Young Award, while, at 29, McDowell was basically through, going just 19-25 away from Cleveland after going 122-109 with them. Still, he did pitch in 6 All-Star Games, win 141 games, struck out a substantial 2,453 batters despite having only 10 full seasons, and his ERA+ was 112. Having gone through treatment, he is now a substance abuse counselor and sports psychologist. In that latter role, he worked with the Toronto Blue Jays and was awarded a World Series ring in 1993. An urban legend has it that the Cheers character Sam Malone was based on McDowell, although “Mayday” was righthanded and actually assisted other people’s drinking by running a bar.

RP Albert “Sparky” Lyle of DuBois. He was a rookie on the Pennant-winning “Impossible Dream” Red Sox of 1967, but the team’s management didn’t understand him. He was the stereotypical flaky lefthander – or, if you prefer, the stereotypical flaky reliever. So, after the 1971 season, they traded him to the Yankees for Danny Cater and Mario Guerrero. Cater was the key: He always hit well in Fenway Park, so why not play him at Fenway 81 times a year? Big mistake: Cater and Guerrero did nothing for Boston.

Sparky in The Bronx? He set an AL record (which lasted all of one year) with 35 saves in 1972. He was a major force in the Yanks’ return to glory, winning the Pennant in 1976 and the World Series in 1977, a season in which he became the first AL reliever to win the Cy Young Award. The Yanks had had good relievers before (see below), but Sparky kicked it up to a new level, which would one day be reached and surpassed by Dave Righetti and Mariano Rivera. Unfortunately for Sparky, that level would first be reached by Rich “Goose” Gossage, and, in just one year, according to teammate Graig Nettles, “Sparky went from Cy Young to Sayanora.” His tell-all book, The Bronx Zoo, became a best-seller, and he ended up getting another ring with the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies. In fact, as far as I know, he’s the only man ever to win Pennants with the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox.

He saved 238 games in his career, 141 for the Yankees. His ERA+ is 128. He hasn’t yet received a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, and his Number 28 has been kept in circulation (currently worn by manager Joe Girardi, to signify the goal of a 28th World Championship). But he has been the subject of a YES Network Yankeeography. Since 1998, Sparky has been the manager of the Bridgewater, New Jersey-based Somerset Patriots, whose 5 Pennants have made them the most successful team in Atlantic League history. Sparky’s trademark bushy mustache led to the design of the Pats’ mascot, a large schnauzer named Sparkee.

Honorable Mention to Joe Page of Cherry Valley. He really only had 2 effective seasons, but those were 1947 (14-8 with 17 saves) and 1949 (13-8 with 27 saves, a record at the time), and both times the Yankees won the World Series. In the latter year, when the Yanks and Red Sox went down to the wire, the key was that the Yankees had Page in their bullpen, and the Red Sox didn’t. He was the first reliever to be known as a “Fireman,” because he “put out fires.” He mopped up for Allie Reynolds so much that a joke circulated among New York baseball fans. Q: Who’s pitching for the Yankees today? A: Reynolds and Page. And when Joe DiMaggio was asked about whether he was excited about his upcoming marriage to Marilyn Monroe, he supposedly said, “It’s got to be better than rooming with Joe Page.”

MGR Bill McKechnie of Wilkinsburg. The manager of the only New Jersey-based MLB team ever, the 1915 Newark Peppers of the Federal League (they finished 5th), “the Deacon” managed the Pirates to the 1925 World Championship, the Cardinals to the 1928 NL Pennant, and the Reds to the 1939 NL Pennant and the 1940 World Championship. He is in the Hall of Fame.

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