Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Top 10 Greatest Brooklyn Dodgers



I had hoped to get this all-time teams for all the New York Tri-State Area major league teams project done before February ends. Looks like that's not going to happen.

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The Dodgers played in Brooklyn from 1883 to 1957 -- in 1883 in the Eastern League, 1884 to 1889 in the American Association, and from 1890 onward in the National League.

As the team of the City that, in an 1898 referendum to create "Greater New York", became a Borough (and was easily the closest vote of the 5 Boroughs), and didn't always like it, the Dodgers became the living embodiment of Brooklynites' contradictory desires of wanting to belong to the big City but also their anger at it. They became something romantic, whether good (1916-24, 1939-57) or bad (in between those eras).

Brooklyn, to this day, considers itself both part of New York City and separate from it. My grandmother, born in Brooklyn and growing up in Queens as a Dodger fan, confirmed something I once read in a book: That people going from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the Subway considered it "a major border crossing." (Could have been due to the heavy immigrant population in the Borough, who may have crossed European borders in those days before the Eurozone.)

So the Dodgers became something special, and the Dodger-Giant and Dodger-Yankee (in the World Series) rivalries became the American equivalent of English soccer "derbies." This is why the 1951 loss in the NL Playoff to the Giants is still the most painful defeat in the history of New York sports -- although that distinction should go to the Mets' loss to the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

That's the most painful defeat. The most painful loss was the move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles by owner Walter O'Malley, who can be retroactively nicknamed Lord Waltemort. The details have been discussed in previous posts on this blog, and will be again.

Although, as a Yankee Fan, back then I probably would not have liked the Dodgers, this time, I come to praise them, not to bury them.

If we were to include the Dodgers' honors with the Mets, it would read as follows:

National League Champions 1890 1899 1900 1916 1920 1941 1947 1949 1952 1953 1955 1956 1969 1973 1986 2000. 16 Pennants.

World Champions 1890 1899 1900 1955 1969 1986. 6 Titles.

Still well behind the Yankees, but more than most teams have done.

Top 10 Greatest Brooklyn Dodgers

Honorable Mention to Dodger Hall-of-Famers who didn’t make this list: Willie Keeler, Joe Kelley and Billy Herman; managers Wilbert Robinson, Leo Durocher and Walter Alston; team presidents Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey; and broadcasters Walter "Red" Barber and Vin Scully. And, while he's not in the Hall of Fame, team owner and ballpark builder Charlie Ebbets. (Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale debuted with the team while it was in Brooklyn, but didn't become Hall of Fame quality until after the move.)

The toughest call was Keeler, who played 4 seasons with the team in its Superba days (1899-1902) and 1 before that when they were the Bridegrooms (1893). Although he was still a pretty good hitter with the Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) up until 1908, thus sort of bridging the gap between the 19th Century and 20th Century rules, he just wasn’t a Brooklyn player for long enough. Too bad, because he was a Brooklyn native. If I were doing the top 100 New York baseball players, I’d have to combine what he did for the teams later known as the Dodgers and the Yankees, and he’d probably be in the top 30.

Also Honorable Mention to Floyd "Babe" Herman, who wasn't with the Dodgers for as long as people seemed to think, but, in spite of his fielding difficulties -- he once angrily denied having ever been hit on the head by a fly ball, but when asked about being hit on the shoulder said, "That doesn't count" -- was a great hitter. Phil Rizzuto, born in Brooklyn and grew up a Dodger fan in Queens, said that Herman belongs in the Hall of Fame. He had a case.

Also, Honorable Mention to the players profiled in The Boys of Summer, the 1972 book written by Roger Kahn, the Brooklyn native who'd been the Dodgers beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952 and '53. In addition to those in the Top 10, there were Elwin "Preacher" Roe, Billy Cox, Joe Black, Clem Labine, Andy Pafko and George "Shotgun" Shuba.

Also, Honorable Mention to the 2 men without whom the one and only Brooklyn World Series win would not have happened: Pitcher Johnny Podres and left fielder Edmundo "Sandy" Amoros.

And let me note that the Dodgers retired no numbers until June 4, 1972, when, in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium, they retired Jackie Robinson's 42, Roy Campanella's 39, and Sandy Koufax' 32.

10. Carl Furillo, Number 6, right field, 1946-57. (Actually 1946-60, but I'm not going to include these players' Los Angeles service in their qualifications for this list.) The Reading Rifle not only had one of the best outfield arms of all time, but was so good with the glove that he never allowed a single ball to hit the "HIT SIGN WIN SUIT - ABE STARK, BROOKLYN'S LEADING CLOTHIER" sign at the base of the right-field scoreboard at Ebbets Field. Told that Furillo had saved him a lot of money, someone told Stark to give Furillo a free suit. He did. Stark's sign made him so famous that he was elected President of the City Council in the Fifties and Borough President in the Sixties.

Furillo was also a really good hitter, batting .344 to win the 1953 NL batting title, 7 times driving in at least 88 runs, and posting a career OPS+ of 112.

9. Burleigh Grimes, Number 37, pitcher, 1918-26. (Wore the number as Dodger manager, 1937-38.) The last legal spitballer (with the Yankees in 1934), he won 270 games in the major leagues, 158 for the Dodgers, including 4 20-win seasons. He helped the Dodgers win the 1916 and 1920 Pennants. He's in the Hall of Fame.

8. Don Newcombe, Number 36, pitcher, 1949-57. (Actually 1949-51 and 1954-59, as he missed 2 seasons due to military service and remained after the L.A. move.) The native of Jefferson Township, Morris County, New Jersey played with Monte Irvin and Larry Doby on the 1946 Negro League Champion Newark Eagles. He was the first black pitcher to be a regular starter in the majors and the first to start a World Series game. World Champion with the Dodgers in 1955, going 20-5 and hitting 7 home runs. First-ever Cy Young Award winner and NL MVP in 1956, going 27-7 -- only 3 pitchers since have matched those 27 wins (Denny McLain's 31 in 1968, Steve Carlton's 27 in 1972 and Bob Welch's 27 in 1990).

Missing nearly 3 years due to the Korean War, and heavy drinking, cost him his chance at the Hall of Fame -- he had his last good season at age 33 and was out of the majors a year later -- but he did win 149 games against just 90 losses for a fine .623 winning percentage. Career ERA 3.56, but an ERA+ of 114. Career WHIP a nice 1.203. He later quit drinking and became a substance-abuse counselor. Now 85 years old and living in the Colonia section of Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey, he, along with Carl Erskine, is one of the last 2 men to turn to for doing interviews about the Brooklyn "Boys of Summer." His son Donald Jr. briefly played in the Dodger organization in 1984.

7. Harold "Pee Wee" Reese, Number 1, shortstop, 1940-57. (Actually 1940-42 and 1946-58.) The only man to bridge all the Pennants the Dodgers won from 1921 until the 1957 move: 1941, '47, '49, '52, '53, '55 and '56. He was the Captain from '49 onward, and arguably the most beloved Dodger. Jackie Robinson never would have made it if this Southerner (Louisville, Kentucky) hadn't stood by him in his darkest hour. Pee Wee is well deserving of his place in the Hall of Fame, of the retirement of his number, and of getting to field the last out (a ground ball hit by Elston Howard) on October 4, 1955, to get Dem Bums the out that clinched a World Series win for the one and only time.

And let me dispel a legend: Yes, it's true, Pee Wee was in the Boston Red Sox' minor-league system (his hometown Louisville Colonels were their top farm team in 1939); and, yes, it's true, Red Sox manager Joe Cronin had him traded while he, Cronin, was still the starting shortstop. But if Cronin saw Reese as a threat to his own (playing) position, why did he not trade away Johnny Pesky, who turned out to be an All-Star? Whatever you want to say about Cronin (and he was no angel), getting rid of Pee Wee Reese was not one of his mistakes, because Pesky was a very good player.

6. Gil Hodges, Number 14, 1st base, 1943-57. (Actually 1943 & 1946-61.) They don't let guys into the Hall of Fame by combining their achievements as player and as manager; if they did, it would be insane to keep out an 8-time All-Star who also managed the New York Mets to a World Series win. He hit 370 home runs at a time when very few players had hit more than that. He won Gold Gloves in the first 3 seasons in which they were awarded, meaning he probably should have won 7 or 8 more. To put Hodges into modern terms, he was Keith Hernandez without the ego.

5. Jackie Robinson, Number 42, 2nd base, 1947-56. If we put aside the pioneers of the game, the 2 most important players in the history of baseball were Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth -- without whose contributions baseball might not have become a grand enough stage on which to attempt Branch Rickey's "great experiment." Once on that stage, Jackie became a symbol of determination, courage, and brotherhood.

The story of Jackie Robinson the trailblazers is familiar, but what about Jackie Robinson the player? He was damn good: A .311 lifetime batting average, a 131 OPS+, and his 1,518 career hits in 10 seasons (and only enough games to add up to 9 full) means that, had he been allowed a full career (assuming that, had American work life already been fully integrated, he would still have wanted to play baseball, which is by no means a given), he would have had a good shot at 3,000 hits. He stole 197 bases in those 10 seasons, and what might not be possible to calculate with any accuracy is how many added bases and runs he led to by threatening to steal and making pitchers nervous and causing walks and balks. Jackie is often said to have brought the Negro League style of play into the majors, so he changed how the game was played, not just by whom.

And he helped the Dodgers win 6 Pennants (and very nearly 2 others) and the 1955 World Series. (Not now, Yogi.) Putting him at Number 5 on this list seems a little low, but then, this is based on on-field performance rather than cultural significance, he did play "only" 10 seasons, there is significant competition. To wit...

4. Arthur "Dazzy" Vance, Number 15, pitcher, 1922-32, with a brief comeback in 1935. Like Koufax, it took him a while until he found his control, but, when he did, wow.

Before his 31st birthday, his major league won-lost record was 0-8. (This included 0-3 with the 1915 and '18 Yankees.) After he turned 31, he was 197-132. Pretty strong. He might have been the fastest pitcher of the Roaring Twenties, his fastball "dazzling" hitters and giving him his nickname. His career ERA+ was 125. Seven straight years, 1922-28, he led the NL in strikeouts, in 5 leading the entire majors, eventually fanning 2,045 batters in a career that essentially lasted 15 full seasons. Had there been decent pitching coaches back then, he could've been the first NLer to top 3,000. (It would take until 1974 for that to happen, with Bob Gibson.) And he did this for a Brooklyn team that only twice in his 11 seasons with them finished higher than 4th (2nd in '24 and 3rd in '32). Imagine if he'd had the Yankee, or even the Giant, bats behind him. As it was, he lived long enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

3. Roy Campanella, Number 39, catcher, 1948-57. Three NL Most Valuable Player awards. Eight All-Star Games. 242 home runs in a career shortened to 10 years by the color barrier at the front (though he excelled for the Negro Leagues' Baltimore Elite Giants, even at age 16) and a paralyzing car crash at the back (though he was already starting to fade and the starting catcher position was beginning to be given to John Roseboro). After Jackie Robinson, the 2nd black player elected to the Hall of Fame. "Baseball is a man's game," he supposedly said, "but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too."

2. Zack Wheat, pre-number era, left field, 1909-26. Collected 2,884 hits, 2,804 of them with Brooklyn, still a Dodger record (even if the team was known as the Robins, for manager Wilbert Robinson, for most of Wheat's time in the Borough). Batted .317 lifetime, with an OPS+ of 129. Not really a Lively Ball Era player, only 132 home runs, but 476 doubles and 172 triples. Played 19 MLB seasons, in 18 of them batted at least .284, in 16 at least .290, in 11 at least .312, in 8 at least .320, and in 1923 and '24 batted .375 each time. (Only won 1 batting title, with .335 in 1918, but part of that was due to Honus Wagner early on and Rogers Hornsby late.)

Apparently, he was a great fielder, too: In 1917, Baseball Magazine had this to say: "What (Napoleon) Lajoie was to infielders, Zach Wheat is to outfielders, the finest mechanical craftsman of them all... Wheat is the easiest, most graceful of outfielders with no close rivals." It's kind of funny that, in their Forties and Fifties glory days, the Dodgers were mocked for never finding a permanent left fielder, yet the man who might have been their greatest ever player -- as well as the man who finally cinched the Series for them, Sandy Amoros -- was a left fielder.

But Wheat might not have been their greatest player. I think this man was:

1. Edwin "Duke" Snider, Number 4, center field, 1947-57. (Actually 1947-62.) One of the great ironies of North American sports history is that, while the greatest of all Los Angeles Dodgers, Sandy Koufax, was from Brooklyn but didn't find his control until after the move, the 2 men often cited as the greatest Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson and Snider, were both from Los Angeles. (Well, Jackie was born in Georgia and grew up in Pasadena, while the Duke was, I swear I'm not making this up, straight outta Compton.)

Snider hit 407 home runs. Today, there's some real donkeys with more than that, but, when he retired in 1964, the only ones with more were Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Eddie Mathews and Mickey Mantle. His 389 homers in a Dodger uniform is still a franchise record, regardless of coast; Eric Karros is the L.A. leader with a mere 289. Duke's lifetime batting average was .292, and 8 times he hit at least .300. His career OPS+ was a whopping 140. He wasn't as good in center field as Mays, but he was roughly as good as Mantle.

And that brings up the inevitable question of the three New York center fielders: Willie, Mickey, and the Duke. Who was better? Looking at their career stats, it seems silly to put the Duke into the equation; it's got to be either the Say Hey Kid or the Mick, not the Duke.

And yet...

Mickey and Willie entered the majors in 1951. Duke was in his 5th full season. Makes sense, he was 5 years older:

* Edwin Donald Snider, born September 19, 1926 in Los Angeles.
* Willie Howard Mays Jr., born May 6, 1931 in Westfield, Alabama.
* Mickey Charles Mantle, born October 20, 1931 in Spavinaw, Oklahoma.

If you look at what they did while all 3 were together, the case for the Duke gets a lot better:

* In 1951, Willie had a sensational rookie season, while the Duke a pretty good season, and Mickey struggled and got sent down to the minors before regaining his stroke and keeping it for a generation. Willie 1st, Duke 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1952, Willie was drafted into the Army early on, and missed most of the season. The Duke's stats went down a little. Mickey, still only 20 until right after the World Series, had a little bit better year. Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd (not that it was his fault).

* In 1953, Willie was still in the Korean War, but the Duke bounced back with a season in which he led both leagues in slugging percentage and OPS+ (not that the former was then mentioned much or the latter, well, at all). Mickey's season was more bark than bite, as some of his 21 homers were of the variety that came to be called "tape measure" due to their distance, hitting shots that were contenders for the title of longest ever hit in Washington, Philadelphia and St. Louis. But he didn't have as good a season as the Duke. Duke 1st, Mickey 2nd, Willie 3rd (again, through no fault of his own).

* In 1954, Willie returned with his best season, a batting title and a World Championship. The Duke had a sensational season, but not quite as sensational as Willie's. In spite of the Yankees not winning the Pennant for the first time since he arrived, Mickey had his best season yet, but not as good as the other two. Willie 1st, Duke 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1955, the Duke had his best season, and not just because the Dodgers finally went all the way. I don't want to say Campy didn't deserve the MVP, but the Duke led both leagues in RBIs and he, as much as Podres, was deserving of being named MVP of the '55 Series. Willie had another great year, and Mickey finally began to not just hit the tar out of the ball, but do so with consistency. Great year, but not as good as the other two. Duke 1st, Willie 2nd, Mickey 3rd.

* In 1956, Mickey came into his own, winning the Triple Crown -- in fact, becoming the last player to date to lead both leagues in all 3 categories. The Duke had another great year, leading the NL with a career-high 43 homers. By almost anybody else's standards, Willie had a great year, but not as good as the other two. Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd.

* In 1957, the last season of all 3 teams in New York, Mickey won another MVP had batted .365, a figure neither Willie nor the Duke ever approached (in fact, no New York-based player has since). The Duke was still quite productive; his tailoff in 1958 can be attributed to going from the cozy confines of Ebbets Field to the misshapen field at the L.A. Coliseum, but he still had 88 RBIs in leading what was now his hometown team to the 1959 World Championship and a .296 average in 1961. It was only with the move to Dodger Stadium in 1962 that he really began to slow down, at age 35/36, and he was gone 2 years later, playing, ironically, at the Polo Grounds for the Mets and then closing with the Giants. Willie had another really good year, but not quite up to the standard that was being set by New York center fielders; he didn't really have a subpar year until 1969 and was still pretty productive until 1971 when he was 40. So, in '57, Mickey 1st, Duke 2nd, Willie 3rd.

Willie: 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd; average, 2.29.
Mickey: 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 1st; average, 2.00.
Duke: 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd; average, 1.72.

Surprise! Granted, this takes into account Willie's 2 missing seasons, but even if you count only '51, '54, '55, '56 and '57, the Duke still holds his own, no worse than 2nd each time.

If this Duke wasn't quite a king, he was certainly no bum.

1 comment:

Bill Hall said...

Your #6 (Gil Hodges) isn't in the Hall of Fame yet. For anyone who supports his election, please consider signing this online petition: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/gil-hodges-belongs-in-the-baseball-hall-of-fame