Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Atlanta's All-Time Baseball Team


19. 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? It could be the best of the bunch, since the warm weather allows practice all year long, thus explaining why Southern teams do so well in college baseball, compared to their Northeastern and Midwestern counterparts.

It's got a pretty good pitching staff, sensational outfielders and shortstops. Until 2010 or so, it was a little weak behind the plate. The first time around, my runner-up was Jody Davis of Gainesville, Georgia, the catcher for the 1984 Playoff-bound Chicago Cubs. But that has already changed, and it may change further in the next few years.

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). When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 56.

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. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 59.

Also not getting in, except as Honorable Mentions: Johnny Mize of Demorest, Georgia and Frank "Big Hurt" Thomas of Columbus, Georgia (the White Sox retired his Number 35 and dedicated a statue of him at U.S. Cellular Field). With Thomas' recent election, that's 4 HOFers at this position. (The Big Hurt even finished with the same number of homers as McCovey, 521.)

Actually, Thomas made 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, but unlike Gehrig 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.

Honorable Mention to Brandon Phillips of Stone Mountain, Georgia. He'll only give you 18 home runs a year, but he had his 1st 100+ RBI season last year (his 3rd of at least 94), to go with his 3rd All-Star appearance and his 4th Gold Glove. He's helped the Cincinnati Reds reach 3 of the last 4 postseasons.

Honorable Mention to Dan Uggla of Columbia, Tennessee. A 3-time All-Star, in 8 seasons he's got 231 doubles and 231 home runs. He's helped the Braves reach the last 2 postseasons.

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: 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. 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, he 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.

He later became the general manager of the Yankees, winning the 1978 World Series. He 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 94 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?

Well, the guy is Shoeless Joe Jackson, that's how. He had a career OPS+ of 170. That's 8th all-time, behind Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds *, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle and Dan Brouthers. (Okay, he never played into a decline, but, still, 8th all-time!) 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. Think about that: When he was banned, Shoeless Joe Jackson 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 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. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 35, so, clearly, they didn't hold his "crime" against him.

In my other blog, "Otherwise Sports," I speculated on what could have happened to him, and to the White Sox, had Shoeless Joe and the rest of the "Eight Men Out" played the '19 Series to win.

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: Bell at 66, Leonard at 47.

CF Willie Mays of Fairfield, Alabama. How do you sum this guy up? Not briefly. He was one of 3 men to play in 24 All-Star Games. He was 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. People who followed the Giants, both in New York and in San Francisco, have said that he made great catches all the time.

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. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 2, the highest-ranking player then living, and the highest-ranking National Leaguer.

And he had the best song any ballplayer's ever had, in the Giants' 1954 title season, in which you can hear the Big Band sound morphing into Rock and Roll (or, at least, into Rhythm & Blues) right before your very ears.
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.

Somewhat honorable mention to Josh Hamilton of Raleigh, North Carolina. He became a folk hero for hitting some tremendous blasts in 2008, as a member of the Texas Rangers. He batted .304 that year, hit 32 home runs that year, and led the AL with 130. In 2010, he led the Rangers to their 1st Pennant, winning the AL batting title at .359, and receiving the MVP. He made 5 straight All-Star teams, and led the Rangers to 2 straight Pennants (though they lost the World Series both times) and 3 straight postseasons, before going to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last year.

So why has he got only 182 home runs? Because in 2003, he failed a drug test. In 2004, he failed 2 more. He ended up with suspension after suspension, and at the ages of 22, 23, 24 and 25, when he should have been becoming a major league star, he wasn't even eligible. He had at least one relapse with cocaine, in 2009, after he became a folk hero; and he's had at least 2 relapses with alcohol since then. He'll be 33 in May, but he should already be approaching Hall of Fame-worthy numbers. Is he already in the "What a waste" category? You decide.

RF Henry Aaron of Mobile, Alabama. Another of the 3 men to play in 24 All-Star Games. (Stan Musial, who qualifies for the Pittsburgh team, 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 first 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. (Presumably, the Braves will move the statue to their new Cobb County Ballpark in 2017, and get the address moved there, too, after Turner Field is demolished at age 21.) When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 5.

Face it, if you don't like Hank Aaron -- whether doubting his still holding the record in 2014, 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 also the coolest person ever mentioned on Happy Days -- Sorry, Fonz.

Honorable Mention to Oscar Gamble of Montgomery, Alabama. Sadly, not only does he no longer have the most fabulous hairstyle in the history of sports -- an Afro that even ABA players had to admit was the froest of the fro -- but he's completely bald. Then again, he's 64 years old.

The Big O hit an even 200 home runs in his career, topping out at 31 with the White Sox "South Side Hit Men" of 1977. His career OPS+ was a nifty 127. He was around for some of the most interesting events of the Silly Seventies: The last game at Connie Mack Stadium (Phillies fans riot and tear the park apart), 2 Opening Days at Veterans Stadium (the first-ball drop from the helicopter, Kiteman), Ten-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland, Frank Robinson's debut as the first black manager in the major leagues, Chris Chambliss' homer to win the 1976 AL Pennant, Gaylord Perry becoming the first Cy Young winner in both leagues (when both were with the Padres in 1978), and the Thurman Munson Memorial Game in 1979 (having just returned to the Yankees, although he went 0-for-4 in that game). He was also with the Yankees when Dave Righetti pitched his 4th of July no-hitter in 1983, and back with the White Sox, against the Yankees, when Tom Seaver won his 300th game in 1985.

He went from the Texas Rangers to the Yankees on July 30, 1979, in a package that included Mickey Rivers going the other way. Oscar wasn't a whacked-out-quote machine like Mick the Quick was, but he came up with this gem: "They don't think it be like it is, but it do."

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. It turned out that there was an error in tabulation, so it's .366 and 4,189. We already knew that he no longer held 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. He won 11 batting titles. He batted .357 at age 40. He hit 724 doubles and 117 triples. His career OPS+ was 168, and that's without being a home run hitter.

He led the balloting at the first Hall of Fame induction in 1936, so, technically, he was the first man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was  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. That same year, when The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players, he came in at Number 3. 

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. 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.

But Ferrell may be replaced as the starting catcher on this team within a few years. Former Brave, new Yankee, Brian McCann of Duluth, Georgia hit 117 homes and made 7 All-Star teams before turning 30 a few weeks ago. Matt Wieters of Goose Creek, South Carolina is a 2-time All-Star and 2-time Gold Glove for the Baltimore Orioles, and has hit at least 22 home runs in each of the last 3 seasons. And Gerald "Buster" Posey of Leesburg, Georgia has already won the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year and the 2012 NL MVP, helping the Giants win the World Series both years. His career OPS+ is 143. And he won't even turn 27 for another few days.

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 is the oldest man ever to play in Major League Baseball, making one 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."

He was the first player elected to the Hall of Fame on the basis of a Negro League career, and when The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 19.

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 first 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. He was known to throw at hitters, but 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." When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 100.

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. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 97.

SP Jim "Catfish" Hunter of Hertford, North Carolina. Interesting that he and Wynn both came from towns pronounced "Hartford," but they were very different men, the biggest differences being that Wynn was great into his early 40s, and Catfish would never have thrown at a batter.

Catfish 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, a super winning percentage of .614. ERA+ of 122, WHIP of 1.229.

He reached the 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). He should have made it with the Jays in '87 (but they choked) and the Yanks in '93 (fell a little short) and '94 (strike). He made it once more in '97 with the 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.

Honorable Mention to R.A. Dickey of Nashville, Tennessee. Robert Allen didn't debut in the majors until he was 26, had a good season at 28, then didn't have another until he was 35, with the Mets. But in 2012, at 37, he went 20-6, started the All-Star Game, and won the Cy Young Award. Then the Mets, as they so often do, made a bonehead deal, and sent him to the Blue Jays, where he went 14-13, remembering that pitching in the American League is hard. He's 39 now.

Honorable Mention to Jake Peavy of Mobile, Alabama. He'll be 33 in May, and has already won 132 games. Twice, while with the San Diego Padres, led the NL in strikeouts, and has 1,869 for his career. His career WHIP is 1.177. He helped the Padres reach the postseason in 2005 and '06, and won the World Series last year with the Red Sox.

Honorable Mention to Adam Wainwright of Brunswick, Georgia. Despite spending his 1st full season, 2006, as a reliever (Met fans will remember him pitching the last postseason inning their club has yet seen), and missing all of the Cardinals' World Championship season of 2011 due to injury, he's won 99 games at age 32. He led the NL with 19 wins in both 2009 and 2013, is a 2-time All-Star, a 2-time Gold Glove, and while he's never won the Cy Young Award, he's finished in the top 3 of the voting 3 times.

Honorable Mention to David Price of Blackman, Tennessee. (No, I didn't make that town's name up. It's outside Murfreesboro.) The Rays have reached the postseason 4 times in their history, and he's been their ace for all of them. In 2012 -- not a postseason year for the Rays -- he led the AL in wins (20-5), winning percentage (.800) and ERA (2.56), and winning the Cy Young Award. He's only 28, but is already 71-39.

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 first 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.  He had a career ERA+ of 147, and a WHIP of 1.125. He was the first 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.

The first reliever elected to the Hall of Fame, Wilhelm 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. 

Honorable Mention to Craig Kimbrel of Huntsville, Alabama. The Braves' closer the last 3 years (leading the NL in saves each time), he's helped them reach the postseason the last 2. He's already got 139 saves, so if anybody's ever going to catch Mariano Rivera, this could be the guy. (If so, it still won't make him better than Mo.) In 2012, he had an ERA of 1.01 and a WHIP of 0.654. No, those aren't misprints or typos: One point oh one, and oh point six.

MGR George Stallings of Augusta, Georgia. 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?

No comments: