Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cleveland's All-Time Baseball Team

It's now clear that I won't get all 30 teams done for this project before Opening Day (this coming Monday afternoon). Of course, if I were doing this for football, with all the various positions available, it would take a lot longer.

But an All-Northern Ohio football team would be better than one for baseball. It would also be one of the best regional teams anywhere, because, while Ohio loves its baseball (both the Cleveland and the Cincinnati sides), it is nuts about football.

Nevertheless, I move on:

13. Cleveland’s All-Time Baseball Team

This team consists of players from the northern half of Ohio -- including the northwest corner, the Toledo metropolitan area, which is closer to Detroit than it is to Cleveland, and in fact the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens have been a Tiger farm team for as long as I can remember.

Still, if you ask a Toledo-area athlete if he would rather accept a scholarship to The... Ohio State University or to the University of Michigan, he would be less likely to say “M Go Blue” and more likely to say, “Go Bucks, Michigan Sucks.”

The dividing line is pretty much the northern edge of Interstate 270, the “beltway” around the State capital of Columbus. The State House is 107 miles from Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, and 142 miles from Jacobs Field, or whatever the Indians are calling it now.

When Jim Tressel, now working for the University of Akron but best known as the head coach at Ohio State, was the head coach at Youngstown State University, about halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, he called the stretch of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania between them “The State of Youngstown.” It helped with recruiting. It also seems to have inspired former Rutgers University and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano to call the region that includes the entire States of New Jersey and Delaware, plus the rest of the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, “The State of Rutgers.”

This might be a better team than an all-time Indians' squad, and does have a few Indians on it. It certainly has one hell of a pitching staff. But it's also worth noting that not one member of this team played in a major league game after 1987.

1B George Sisler of Akron. Because he starred in the late 1910s and the 1920s, well before the TV era, he has been virtually forgotten. Even in 2004, when Ichiro Suzuki broke his 84-year-old single-season record of 257 hits, it barely got any notice.

Gorgeous George batted .340 -- for a career. He won 2 American League batting titles, batting over .400 both times. He stole 375 bases, 4 times leading the AL. In 1922, he nearly led the St. Louis Browns to the Pennant, and was named AL Most Valuable Player. He was also regarded as the best-fielding 1st baseman of his time. He was, without question, the best player in Browns history.

He played before uniform numbers were worn, so there's no retired number for him. And the Browns moved after the 1953 season to become the Baltimore Orioles, who make no reference at Camden Yards to their St. Louis heritage, so there's no team to remember him. But he was one of the first inductees into the Hall of Fame, in 1939. In 1999, The Sporting News remembered him: On their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, he came in at Number 33.

Honorable Mention to Joe Kuhel of Cleveland Heights. Playing in the AL in the 1930s and ‘40s, he was not going to break through onto the All-Star team with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg in the way. But the Washington Senator was 3 times a .300 hitter, twice a 100-RBI man, and collected 2,212 hits.

Honorable Mention to Bill White of Warren, who won Gold Gloves and hit well for the St. Louis Cardinals, helping them win the 1964 World Series, before becoming a Yankee broadcaster from 1971 to 1988 and President of the National League from 1989 to 1993. He could have been the first black Commissioner... but that would have required the baseball team owners to think forward, and they usually don't do that. He should be in the Hall of Fame for all his contributions.

Honorable Mention also to Fred Merkle, whose baserunning blunder (a.k.a. Merkle's Boner) seemed to cost the New York Giants the 1908 Pennant. Actually, his blown popup in the 12th inning of the deciding Game 8 (yes, Game 8) of the 1912 World Series was much more his own fault, and perhaps more damaging. He had a career OPS+ of 109, and won Pennants with the Giants (1911, '12 and '13), Brooklyn Dodges (1916), and, ironically considering they benefited from his Boner 10 years earlier, the Chicago Cubs (1918). He was a very good player.

2B Bill Mazeroski of Tiltonville. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, closer to the team he ended up playing for, the Pittsburgh Pirates, although Ohio is Ohio, so he’s in the Indians’ sphere of influence. He hit the only home run ever to win a Game 7 of a World Series, in 1960. He also won a Series with the Pirates in 1971 -- the only Pirate besides Roberto Clemente to have played on both of those World champions.

He was a member of 7 All-Star teams, won 8 Gold Gloves, and is often considered the greatest-fielding second baseman ever. Hall of Fame, Number 9 retired.

Honorable Mention to Bill Wambsganss of Cleveland. A hometown hero for the Indians, he was a member of their 1920 World Champions, and, of course, pulled off the only triple play in the history of postseason baseball thus far -- an unassisted triple play. He wasn’t much of a batter, but in 1920 he stroked 11 triples, and in 1921 and ’22, he led the AL in sacrifice hits.

Honorable Mention to Solomon "Sol" White of Bellaire. He played on all-black teams in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and in 1907 he wrote what is believed to be the first published history of black baseball, Sol White's History of Colored Baseball. He later became an organizer of black leagues and teams. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in its making-up-for-lost-time election of 2006.

SS Roger Peckinpaugh of Cleveland. He debuted in the majors in 1910 with the Indians, at age 19. In 1914, he was traded to the Yankees, and at the end of the 1915 season, he was named the interim manager for the last 15 games -- at age 23, even younger than Lou Boudreau was when he took over the Indians a generation later.

He went on to help the Senators win their first 2 Pennants, winning the World Series in 1924, but he’s probably best known now for the 8 errors he made in the ’25 Series, including 2 in Game 7, bracketing an RBI, going from goat to hero to goat real fast. He was named Most Valuable Player in the AL in 1925, although this is a predecessor award to the official one recognized by MLB that began in 1931. He would manage the Indians in 2 later terms, but never won another Pennant.

3B Sal Bando of Cleveland. The Captain of the Oakland Athletics dynasty of the early 1970s, he was a 4-time All-Star, hit 242 homers despite playing most of his home games at the Oakland Coliseum and Milwaukee County Stadium, and twice drove in 100 or more runs. In 1973 he led the AL in doubles and total bases. He later served as general manager of the Indians, while his brother Chris was their catcher.

LF Ed Delahanty of Cleveland. The best of a set of 5 brothers to reach the majors, a record, the others being Frank, Jim, Joe and Tom. He had a lifetime batting average .346, 3 times batted .400, 7 times had 100 RBIs in the Dead Ball Era, hit 522 doubles, had an OPS+ of 152, and collected 2,597 hits. Clearly, he was one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. But he was an alcoholic, and died under mysterious circumstances in 1903. He was only 35. He’s in the Hall of Fame, and the Phillies inducted him into the Philadelphia Baseball Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Gene Woodling of Akron. He batted .300 4 times, led the AL in on-base percentage in 1953, and won 5 straight World Series with the Yankees, 1949 to 1953. The Yankees traded him to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1954 season, the trade that brought pitchers Bob Turley and Don Larsen. Unfortunately, he was one of several ex-New York baseball stars brought in to the early Mets, but he was 39 and done. Still, he was a Yankee star and should be remembered.

CF William Ellsworth Hoy of Houcktown. Some called him Billy, because they didn’t want to use the usual nickname that deaf people got at the time, which was then used to describe those unable to speak but was becoming a slur meaning stupid. But after learning to speak, he told people, “Call me Dummy.”

He first reached the majors in 1886 with the NL version of the Washington Senators, and led the league in stolen bases. He had his best seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, and had a lifetime batting average of .288, and 2,048 hits in just 14 seasons. At the time of his retirement, he held the career record for games played and putouts by a center fielder.

In 1961, at the age of 99, he was invited to throw out the first ball at a World Series game between the Yankees and Reds at Crosley Field, which was built on the site of a previous Reds ballpark in which he played. He got a standing ovation that he could see, if not hear. He died shortly thereafter, and was then believed to be the oldest living former player ever. He is in the Reds’ Hall of Fame, and count me in with the people who believe he should be in Cooperstown, even if the story that he was the originator of baseball umpires’ left hand for balls, right hand for strikes calls is probably untrue.

RF Elmer Flick of Bedford. He started with the Philadelphia Phillies, and led the NL in RBIs in 1900, before becoming one of the NL players raided by the AL. He led the AL in batting, slugging, on-base percentage and triples in 1905; and in runs, triples and stolen bases in 1906. He also led it in stolen bases in 1904 and triples in 1907.

There were no MVP awards or all-star teams in his era, but his lifetime batting average was .313, and his OPS+ a mighty 149. He never appeared in postseason play, so he can’t be remembered that way, and there were no uniform numbers to retire in his time, so there’s no number of his on the wall at Jacobs Field. But he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he is honored in the Indians’ Hall of Fame in the Jake’s Heritage Park, so he won’t be completely forgotten.

Honorable Mention to Tommy Henrich of Massillon. He was such a great clutch hitter that Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen nicknamed him Old Reliable. He’s probably best known for a strikeout: In Game 4 of the 1941 World Series, he swung and missed for what seemed to be the last out, but Brooklyn Dodger catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t hang on to the third strike, and Henrich reached first, starting a Yankee rally that ended with a Series win in the next day’s Game 5.

He led the AL in triples in 1947 and ’48. In Game 1 of the 1949 Series, also against the Dodgers, Henrich hit a home run to break up a scoreless duel between Allie Reynolds and Don Newcombe, the first-ever walkoff homer (as we would now call it) in postseason history. He reached 5 All-Star teams, played on 8 Pennant winners and 7 World Champions from 1937 to 1950. His career OPS+ was 132. He hit 183 home runs despite only playing 11 major-league seasons -- he didn’t reach the majors until he was 24 and missed 3 years in the Coast Guard in World War II.

When he died in 2010 at age 96, he was the oldest living ex-Yankee. It’s a shame that the Yankees have never given him a Monument Park Plaque.

C Thurman Munson of Canton. AL Rookie of the Year in 1970, MVP in 1976, he is still the only Yankee ever to win both awards. He was the first Yankee to be awarded the team captaincy since Lou Gehrig. He won 3 Pennants and 2 World Championships, and was named to 7 All-Star Games.

Let me tell you why I love Thurman: In Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS, when the Yankees most needed a home run from him, he hit the longest home run of his career, appropriately enough into Monument Park. Sadly, he would be the next Yankee to be honored there. Number 15 retired.

Utility: Roger Bresnahan of Toledo. Played every position, including pitcher, but best known as a catcher for the New York Giants. A member of their 1905 World Championship teams, he would have made at least 9 All-Star Games had they been played in his time. He had a lifetime OPS+ of 126. Hall of Fame.

Special Mentions to Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker and his brother Welday Walker of Steubenville, briefly the first black players in Major League Baseball before the blacklist came down in 1884; and to Elmer Gedeon of Cleveland, who played 5 games in the outfield for the 1939 Senators, before being killed in World War II.

SP Denton True Young of Newcomerstown. In his first professional tryout, he threw a ball so hard it smashed through a fence. His manager said it looked like it had been wrecked by a cyclone. So Dent Young became Cyclone Young, later shortened to Cy Young.

We’ve all heard the words “Cy Young Award” so many times that the man for whom the most valuable pitcher award is named gets lost in the shuffle. So here’s the facts: He pitched for the NL Cleveland Spiders, the Boston Red Sox (winning the first World Series in 1903), and the AL Indians. He holds these records, which will be unbreakable until the rules are significantly changed to again favor pitchers and reduce wear and tear on their arms: Most career wins, 511; losses, 313; games started, 815; complete games, 749; innings pitched, 7,355; and batters faced, 29,565. Think about that: Nearly 30,000 times, he faced a big-league batter.

Career winning percentage, .618; ERA, 2.63; ERA+, 138; WHIP, 1.130; no-hitters, 3, including the first perfect game under the 60-feet-6-inches pitching distance in 1904; and strikeouts, 2,803, most ever until Walter Johnson surpassed him.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in its second class in 1937, and to the MLB All-Century Team in 1999, even though nearly half his career was in the 19th Century. That same year, when The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players, he came in at Number 14 -- 88 years after his last game, they knew he was more than just the name on an award.

In Boston, on the campus of Northeastern University, roughly on the site of the pitcher’s mound of the Huntington Avenue Grounds, the Red Sox’ home before Fenway Park, there is a statue of Young. And his former home in Newcomerstown is a museum in his honor. He pitched before uniform numbers, but I’ve seen film of him in an old-timers’ game wearing Number 29.

SP Richard “Rube” Marquard of Cleveland. When the New York Giants signed him, his bonus was $11,000, a record at the time. The lefty’s first few games were poor, and he was called The $11,000 Lemon. Then he found his control, and he became The $11,000 Beauty. He was nicknamed Rube after another superstar lefty pitcher, Rube Waddell.

He won 201 games, and is one of the few pitchers to pitch in the World Series for both the Giants (1911, ’12 and ’13) and the Dodgers (1916 and ’20). Hall of Fame, although he played before uniform numbers.

SP Hubert “Dutch” Leonard of Birmingham. That’s Ohio, not Alabama, or Michigan. A master of the knuckleball, well before the Ohio-born Niekro brothers, in 1914 he set a major-league record for lowest ERA in a season, 0.96. His ERA+ that season? A touched-by-God 279. He helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series in 1915, ’16 and ’18. He finished with a 139-118 record and an ERA+ of 115. Not to be confused with a later pitcher, Emil “Dutch” Leonard of Illinois, also a knuckleballer.

SP Urban Shocker of Cleveland. The Yankees traded him to the St. Louis Browns in 1918, and that proved to be a bit of a mistake: They won the Pennant in 1921, ’22 and ’23, but not in ’20 and ’24, and Shocker’s pitching nearly got the Browns past the Yanks in ’22. He won 27 games in ’21, and the Yanks undid one of their worst trades with one of their best, getting him back in ’25, helping them to win the ’26 Pennant and the ’27 World Series.

He compiled a record of 187-117 with an ERA+ of 124. He was 18-6 in his last full season, 1927, before a heart defect killed him at age 37. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, but he should be. And what a great name: Although this man of French-Canadian descent was born Urbain Jacques Schockor, his nom de horsehide makes him sound like a hardcore rapper: "Urban Shocker."

SP Phil Niekro of Blaine. The master of the knuckleball, the last remaining active player for the Milwaukee Braves, and the first great pitcher for the Atlanta edition. He was a member of the 300 Win and 3,000 Strikeout Clubs. With his brother Joe (who doesn’t quite make this team), he formed the winningest brother combination ever. Hall of Fame, Number 35 retired, and he got a statue outside Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was moved to Turner Field (and will, presumably, be moved to the Braves' new Cobb County ballpark).

The rotation for this Cleveland area team is so strong it has no room for Joe Niekro (who won 221 games), George Uhle of Cleveland (who won an even 200 games, mostly for his hometown Indians), Denny Galehouse of Doylestown and Ned Garver of Ney (both pitching for the only St. Louis Browns Pennant ever in 1944), two great pitchers named Sam Jones (Sad Sam of Woodsfield and the 1920s Yankee dynasty, and Toothpick Sam of Stewartsville who in 1959 became the first black pitcher who threw a no-hitter in the majors), Dean Chance of Wayne (1964 Cy Young winner -- both Leagues), Steve Stone of Lyndhurst (1980 AL Cy Young winner) and Dave Dravecky of Youngstown (a former All-Star whose comeback story first inspired, then saddened).
Also, while Jim Bagby Jr. was born in Cleveland while his father Jim Sr. pitched for them, and pitched pretty well for the Indians himself, both grew up in Georgia, and would have qualified for the Atlanta team rather than for this one.

Honorable Mention to Ray Brown of Alger, who pitched for the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues, and was elected to the Hall of Fame for his contributions. We may not be able to trust the stats we have available, but in 1938, the Pittsburgh Courier, a black paper, suggested 5 Negro League players to the Pirates in a telegram: Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. That was pretty good company that Brown was in. The telegram was never answered. Brown was already 39 when Jackie Robinson debuted, and never made it to the majors.

RP Rollie Fingers of Steubenville. He was the fireman -- as was said at the time, not the “closer” -- of the 1970s Oakland Athletics dynasty, before becoming the first big-money reliever with the San Diego Padres and then the Milwaukee Brewers, winning the AL MVP in 1981 (28 saves and an ERA of 1.04!). He was on the mound to close out the World Series for the A’s in 1972, ’73 and ’74, and also pitched for the Brewers in the ’82 Series.

When he retired, his 341 saves were the most all-time. Both the A’s and the Brewers retired his Number 34. He is the only pitcher with a losing record in the Hall of Fame, but who cares about that? When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 96. Oh yeah, he had that handlebar mustache. The bullpen could also include Dick Drago of Toledo and Brett Tomko of Cleveland.

MGR Walter Alston of Darrtown. He had just one at-bat as a major league player, a strikeout with the 1936 St. Louis Cardinals. But with the Dodgers, in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, 4 World Series (1955, ‘59, ’63 and ’65) and 3 other Pennants (add ’56, ’66 and ’74, plus a lost Playoff in ‘62).

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