Monday, March 31, 2014

Baltimore's All-Time Baseball Team

From 1972 to 2004, the Baltimore Orioles’ “territory” consisted of the entire State of Maryland, plus southern Delaware, all of Virginia, and a good chunk of West Virginia. And even some of south central Pennsylvania, as Gettysburg and York are actually closer to Baltimore than to Philadelphia. (See how important the Battle of Gettysburg was? If the Confederates had won... the Atlanta Braves really might have been “America’s Team.”)

But with Major League Baseball having returned to Washington, D.C., the O's now have the smallest territory by area in the majors. Unless you want to limit the Oakland Athletics to just the East Bay region, without considering that other parts of Northern California might root for the A's -- including the State capital of Sacramento, where the River Cats are the Triple-A farm team for the A’s.

Still, it’s possible to put up a pretty good all-time team of players from “the Baltimore Area,” which includes northern and eastern Maryland. Although people in the resort town of Ocean City may consider their town a “neutral zone” between the O’s and the Nats. (The town also seems to be evenly divided between Ravens and Redskins fans.)

One thing I found absolutely amazing is how many Maryland-born players played for one team or another called the Baltimore Orioles, from the 1890s National League powerhouse to the International League team of 1903 to 1954 (which won 7 straight Pennants in the 1920s and fed Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics for a few years), to the American League version that began in 1954. It’s not just the Ripken brothers: Jack Fisher, Steve Barber, Brady Anderson, and Tom Phoebus, who even threw a no-hitter for the Orioles in 1968.

9. Baltimore's All-Time Baseball Team

1B Jimmie Foxx of Sudlersville, on the Eastern Shore. He hit 534 home runs. He was 2nd on the all-time list from 1940, when he passed Lou Gehrig, until 1966, when he was finally passed by Willie Mays. He was the all-time leader among righthanded hitters until Mays passed him as well, and not until 1973, when Harmon Killebrew passed him, was he no longer the leader among AL righthanders.

It’s too bad that he lost most of his money due to drinking and bad investments, that he choked to death before he turned 60, and that he’s now remembered mostly as the basis for the Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own. He deserved better. And it doesn't help that the Oakland Athletics, while now hanging the 5 World Championship banners from their Philadelphia days, don't recognize that era's greats from their era. The Boston Red Sox have elected Foxx to their team Hall of Fame, but neither franchise has retired his Number 3. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 15 -- clearly, the publication once known as "the Bible of Baseball" remembered.

Frankly, I don’t think Mark Teixeira of Severna Park will ever take this position away from Double X, but that will hardly be his fault. Bob Robertson of Frostburg, a slugger with the 1970s Pittsburgh Pirates (he caught the last out of the ’71 Series), also doesn’t make it, but is worth mentioning.

2B Clarence “Cupid” Childs of Calvert County. Records being what they were then, a definitive town is not available, although he appears to have lived in Baltimore his entire adult life, which included a .306 lifetime batting average, and an OPS+ of 119, mostly in the 1890s with the Cleveland Spiders. He’s been dead for over 100 years (in 1912, aged only 45), but a case can be made for him for the Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Charles "Buck" Herzog of Baltimore. Not a great hitter, but a good fielder, and he stole 320 bases in a career that lasted from 1908 to 1920. He won Pennants with the New York Giants in 1911, '12, '13 and '17.

If you want one since Herzog, the best I can come up with is Jake Flowers of Chestertown, and he's not much more recent. He was never even a regular, but for whatever reason, he did get an MVP vote while with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1928. And he did play on a World Series winner, the 1931 St. Louis Cardinals.

SS Cal Ripken Jr. of Havre de Grace. Tough choice, there. After all, he holds the record of grounding into 350 double plays. And his lifetime batting average was just .276, peaking at .340 in 1999. Lou Gehrig, the man with whom he is so often linked? He batted .340 for a career. And it can be argued that Ripken's devotion to his consecutive games played streak, which eventually reached 2,632, actually hurt the Orioles, because the occasional day off might have given him the rest he needed to play better.

But who's kidding who? Cal surpassed Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas as the most popular athlete in Baltimore history, and there's plenty of reasons why: 1982 AL Rookie of the Year, 1983 and '91 AL MVP, 1983 World Championship, 19 All-Star Games, 5 .300+ seasons, 4 100+ RBI seasons, 2 Gold Gloves, OPS+ 112, 3,184 hits, 431 home runs. To put it another way: Of all players with more hits, only Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, and his longtime teammate Eddie Murray have more home runs.

Hall of Fame, All-Century Team, Number 8 retired by the Orioles. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 78. He and his brother Billy founded the minor-league Aberdeen Ironbirds (named for Cal, sort-of), right across the Susquehanna River from their HDG hometown, and through their fundraising got Ripken Stadium built -- named for the entire family.

3B Frank “Home Run” Baker of Trappe, on the Eastern Shore. The first Marylander to be a superstar for Mack’s A’s, and by no means the last, he formed "the $100,000 Infield" with shortstop Jack Barry, 2nd baseman Eddie Collins and 1st baseman Stuffy McInnis. Together, they won 4 Pennants and 3 World Series from 1910 to 1914. He would later play for the Yankees, and help them win their first 2 Pennants, in 1921 and '22.

He got his nickname from hitting a pair of key home runs for the A's against the Giants in the 1911 World Series, off future Hall-of-Famers Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson. It was the Dead Ball Era, and his career home run total was 96, and the most he ever hit in a season was 12 -- but he did lead the AL 4 straight times, 1911-14. He also led the AL in RBIs in 1912 and '13.

Lifetime batting average, .307. OPS+, 135. He hit 315 doubles and 103 triples to go with those 96 home runs, so he probably would have been considerably more productive in the Lively Ball Era. He is in the Hall of Fame, but he played before numbers were worn, so he has no number to retire.

LF Lewis Pessano “Buttercup” Dickerson of Tyaskin, Eastern Shore. I had to go way back to find a suitable left fielder, to the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration. Buttercup -- I can’t find an explanation for the nickname -- was good enough to reach the National League at age 19, to lead the League in triples at 20, and to hit .316 for the Worcester Ruby Legs at 22 in 1881. (The Rubies became the Philadelphia Phillies in 1883.)

He hit .315 in 1884, yet for some reason -- a reason apparently unknown to, which nonetheless provides dates -- he played his last game on June 1, 1885, just 26. In those days, before the invention of antibiotics, an illness easily treatable today could kill you, but he lived on until 1920, age 61. So whatever it was that ended his career, it didn’t end his life.

Italian on his mother’s side, he appears to be the first player of Italian descent to reach the major leagues, a title usually given to the later Ed Abbaticchio (who does appear to remain the first Italian-American professional football player).

I wanted to pick 1940s Yankee slugger Charlie Keller, but his home town of Middletown is in southern Maryland, and much closer to Washington than to Baltimore.

CF Wilson "Chick" Fewster of Baltimore. A fair hitter who played for the Yankees’ first Pennant winner in 1921, he was traded to the Red Sox for 3rd baseman “Jumpin’” Joe Dugan in 1922, and was the first batter at the original Yankee Stadium the following spring.

He’s best remembered now for his days with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where, in 1926, his baserunning blunder caused Babe Herman, a sensational hitter but a player to whom weird things happened, to double into a double play, due to the Dodgers having three runners -- Dazzy Vance, Fewster and Herman -- on 3rd base. Dazzy, Chick and Babe? No wonder the 1920s Dodgers were called the Daffiness Boys.

RF George Herman Ruth Jr. of Baltimore. What can we say about the Babe that hasn't already been said? Not much, so let me add this. In 1999, when The Sporting News made end-of-the-century lists for the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and the 100 Greatest Football Players, editor John Rawlings went on CBS' The NFL Today and admitted that picking the Number 1 football player was tough, as they debated whether it should be Jim Brown or Jerry Rice. But when NBC did the special for the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, host Bob Costas got Rawlings to admit that, basically, the debate was going to be about Numbers 2 through 100 (and Willie Mays came in at 2), because there was never any doubt that Babe Ruth was going to be Number 1.

From 1915 (when he was only 20) until 1918 (his last full season as a pitcher), the Babe was one of the best lefthanded pitchers in baseball. In 1917, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Then, from 1919 to 1933, he was the best hitter in baseball. Or, to put it another way: For 4 years, he was Randy Johnson without the mullet; then, for 15 years, he was Barry Bonds without the steroids. Show me another player capable of doing that, and I'll admit that he was the greatest all-around baseball player ever.

You say Mays was a better all-around player, because of speed and defense? Do you really think Mays' speed produced more runs than the Babe's power? And as for defense, who do you think can prevent more runs over the course of a season: The best-fielding center fielder who ever lived (if, indeed, Mays was that, which is hardly decided), or one of the top 3 pitchers in the game (as the Babe was in the late 1910s, along with Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander)?

You say Ruth never played against black players. This is true -- during the regular season. After the season, he would play exhibition games against teams of Negro League all-stars, and do you think the black pitchers stepped up their game to play the Babe? You bet your ass they did. Do you think they did any better against him than white pitchers did? Think again: According to the records that survive, the Babe batted well over .300 against them. Had there been a Bob Gibson, a J.R. Richard, a CC Sabathia permitted to pitch in regulation games against the Babe, he would have treated them just the way he treated Johnson and Lefty Grove. Also, while he never had to face black, Hispanic or Asian pitchers, he played in an 8-team League, with no Interleague play, so the talent pool he faced was a lot smaller than it is now. (This is also part of the case of why Wilt Chamberlain was better than Michael Jordan, and Gordie Howe was better than Wayne Gretzky.)

You say Ruth never had to fly coast-to-coast. True. But he did have to ride on a train for 24 hours. You say Ruth never had to face the split-fingered fastball, and rarely had to face the knuckleball or the screwball. True. But the knuckler and the screwgie did exist in his time, and until 1920 (and, in limited form, until 1934) he had to face the various pitches that fell under the category of "spitball." Modern players hardly ever see that, because, with so many TV cameras, it would be too hard to get away with it for long.

Also, while the Babe was the first person in America, outside of boxers, to hire what we would now call a "personal trainer" (he wasn't always fat), he hardly had modern exercise equipment, or a modern diet or exercise regimen. Imagine what the Babe could have done if he could have gotten, say, into the kind of shape as Frank "Big Hurt" Thomas. Now take him out of those 1920s ballparks with their 450-feet-plus center field fences, and put him in today's ballparks. Think Phil Rizzuto would have a few "Holy cow"s for him? Think ESPN wouldn't have a Ruth highlight every night? Oh yeah: The Babe would have loved the attention.

Hall of Fame, All-Century Team, Number 3 retired, Monument in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, statue at Camden Yards in Baltimore, and the rowhouse where he was born has been turned into a museum honoring him, and the baseball legacy of the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland.

I could, I suppose, make the Babe one of my starting pitchers, and make my starting right fielder this guy:

Honorable Mention to Al Kaline of Baltimore. In 1955, he became the youngest player to win a batting title. Ted Williams predicted he'd be the next player to bat .400. That didn't happen, but he did collect 3,007 hits (getting Number 3,000 in Baltimore), and he remains the most popular player in Detroit Tigers history. Hall of Fame, Number 6 retired, statue at Comerica Park. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 76. Unfortunately, playing where and when he did, he doesn't get the kind of acclamation (outside of Michigan, anyway) that his right field contemporaries Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson get.

How strong is right field for the Baltimore region? Chestertown native Bill “Swish” Nicholson, a slugger for the Cubs who made 4 All-Star teams, finishing 3rd in the NL MVP voting in 1943 and 2nd in '44 -- and he isn't even the 2nd-best right fielder here. Nor is Baltimore native Ron Swoboda, one of the heroes of the 1969 Mets. Nor does Princess Anne native Dick Porter, a pretty good hitter for the early 1930s Cleveland Indians. In fact, it seems a little unfair that Baltimore and its environs are so loaded at right field, but considerably weaker at left and center.

You know who else could qualify for right field on this team, but couldn't finish ahead of Ruth and Kaline? So I'll make him my designated hitter for this team:

DH Harold Baines of Easton, another Eastern Shore guy and another Marylander who played for the O’s, although he’s best remembered for his days (in 4 separate stints!) with the Chicago White Sox, who retired his Number 3 and dedicated a statue to him at U.S. Cellular Field. His usual position was right field, but he did DH a lot. He’s eligible for the Hall of Fame now, and he should be in.

C Ernest “Babe” Phelps of Odenton. Wow, 9 position players, and 2 of them are fat guys nicknamed Babe. Phelps, who was also nicknamed “Blimp,” was a .310 lifetime hitter, with an OPS+ of 125, and was one of the players that helped make the Brooklyn Dodgers respectable again after their Daffiness Boys days. Unfortunately, he ran out of gas just before the Dodgers won a Pennant in 1941, and didn’t play in the World Series. It is also unfortunate that catcher is a weak position for Maryland, but Phelps isn’t a bad choice at all.

SP Bobby Mathews of Baltimore. He might be the greatest pitcher you've never heard of. He won 297 games -- between 1871 and 1887. (Yes, he goes back to the 1st term of Ulysses S. Grant.) Because 131 of those wins were in the first professional league, the National Association, (1871-75), which is frequently considered not to have been a major league, his MLB win total is usually officially listed as 166 -- still good, but not a Hall of Fame total. If he'd gotten 3 more, to push his combined NA-NL-AA total to 300, he might be in the Hall. Then again, maybe not: Until 1893, the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate was just 50 feet, and until 1884 it was all underhand.

In 1872, pitching for his hometown Baltimore Canaries (seriously), he went 25-18. His best year was 1874, when he went 42-22 for the New York Mutuals. In 1879, he appeared in only 27 games for the Providence Grays, but his 12-6 record was enough to help them win the Pennant. He died in 1898, only 46, so he didn't exactly live long enough to speak up on his own behalf on radio, let alone on television.

SP Lefty Grove of Lonaconing. This may be stretching it a bit, as Lonaconing is in the panhandle and thus could be seen as Washington territory. But there haven’t been many pitchers in baseball history this good, and he did pitch for the IL Orioles before going on to the A’s. He helped them win 3 straight Pennants, 1929-31. He led the AL in wins 4 times, 5 times in winning percentage, 9 times in ERA, 7 times in strikeouts, 5 times in WHIP (even though that stat wasn't known then). He was chosen for the first All-Star Game in 1933, and then every year from 1935 to '39.

In 1931, in the midst of a power-hitting era, he went 31-4, had an ERA of 2.06, an ERA+ of 217, and a WHIP of 1.077. Considering the competition, it may have been the best season any pitcher has ever had. This was the first season that the Baseball Writers' Association of America gave out the modern MVP award, and Grove won it for the AL.

Tom Yawkey later bought him for the Red Sox, and was a big reason why they got back to respectability in the late 1930s. It was said that his fastball was so good, "He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf." Hall of Fame, All-Century team, 300 Wins Club, but neither the A's nor the Red Sox have retired his Number 10. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 23.

SP Eddie Rommel of Baltimore. No relation to the German field marshal. Perhaps the first great knuckleball pitcher, he was Grove’s teammate on those powerhouse A’s of 1929-31, and forged a fine 171-119 record. He later became a respected umpire.

SP Vic Willis of Cecil County. Another whose exact birthplace isn’t traced, he was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Boston Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates at the turn of the 20th Century. He went 249-205, mainly for some awful Braves teams, but was a member of the Pirates' 1909 World Champions. His career ERA+ was 117, and his WHIP was 1.209, a good figure in any era.

SP Denny Neagle of Gambrills. He went 20-5 for the 1997 Atlanta Braves, but other than that was more steady than spectacular, going 124-92. He was a 2-time All-Star, and reached the postseason with the Pirates in 1992, the Braves in 1996, '97 and '98, and the Yankees in 2000.

RP Tommy Byrne of Baltimore. He actually started a lot more games (170) than he relieved (111), but I wasn't satisfied with the relief pitching options for the region. In 2 separate stints with the Yankees, the blazing lefty helped them win Pennants in 1949, '50, '55, '56 and '57. He was an All-Star in 1950, and had 15 wins in '49 and '50 and 16 wins in '55, leading the AL in winning percentage. He won 85 games in his career, and saved 12 others. He later moved to Wake Forest, North Carolina, and was elected its Mayor. 

MGR Cal Ermer of Baltimore. He didn't manage for long, but he did get the Twins to within 1 win of the 1967 AL Pennant, and that's closer than any other Maryland native came to winning a Pennant as a manager. Certainly, it's closer than Aberdeen native Cal Ripken Sr. ever came.

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