Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Kansas City's All-Time Baseball Team

While the Kansas City Royals haven't reached the postseason in 29 years, their all-time regional team is one of the best. Certainly, if "Pitching is 75 percent of baseball," then this Great Plains team could be the greatest of them all.

It's also pretty strong at 1st base, and in the outfield. Especially in center field, although the man I picked probably wouldn't want to be identified with Kansas City.

21. Kansas City's All-Time Baseball Team

Kansas City's "market" includes the western half of Missouri, the eastern 2/3 of Kansas, the eastern 2/3 of Nebraska, the southwest quadrant of Iowa, the northeast quadrant of Oklahoma, and the northwest quadrant of Arkansas.

With 6 States to sift through, this made KC one of the hardest markets. However, the first time I made this list, having all of those States in my database made it easier to go through the other big-league markets that overlap into those States (St. Louis, Colorado, Dallas, and the Cub half of Chicago -- Minnesota already having been done by that point).

1B Albert Pujols of Independence, Missouri. Born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in President Harry Truman's home town before crossing the State to star for the St. Louis Cardinals. In his first 10 seasons, he made 10 All-Star teams. He drove in at least 99 runs in each of his first 12 seasons. He won 3 National League Most Valuable Player awards, and finished 2nd 4 other times. He even won 2 Gold Gloves. He helped the Cardinals reach 7 postseasons, including winning the 2006 and 2011 World Series.

The narrative on him now is that he went to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with a gigantic contract, beginning in the 2012 season, and fell apart. But that's not true: In 2012, he batted .285, hit 30 home runs, and had 105 RBIs. In 2013, he batted .258, but he still hit 17 home runs and drove in 64 runs -- and, remember, Angel Stadium (formerly named Anaheim Stadium) is a pitcher's park.

His lifetime batting average is .321. His career OPS+ is 165, a sicko stat that is only topped by 9 players -- ever. Only 1 of them is, like Phat Albert, a righthanded hitter: Rogers Hornsby. He has 2,347 hits, including 524 doubles and 492 home runs, and 1,498 RBIs -- and, as far as we know, it's all clean. And he just turned 34. He'll probably end up with over 600 home runs, and he has a serious shot at both 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBIs. Barring a mistake as stupid as Pete Rose's, he'll be elected to the Hall of Fame in the latter half of the 2020s, and you'll be able to see his Number 5 retired and a statue dedicated in his honor at Busch Stadium. He could well be considered to be right up there with his fellow Cardinal Hornsby and Hank Aaron as one of the 3 greatest righthanded hitters who ever lived.

Honorable Mention to Dale Long of Springfield, Missouri. In 1956, the Pittsburgh Pirate homered in 8 straight games, a record that has since been matched, but not beaten. In 1958, with the Chicago Cubs, he played 2 games behind the plate, making him a rare left-handed catcher. (The only one since has also been in Chicago, Mike Squires with the 1980 and ’81 White Sox.) He went to the Yankees and played on their 1962 World Championship team. He had a career OPS+ of 115.

2B Jerry Lumpe of Lincoln, Missouri. As Casey Stengel, who managed him on the Yankees, once said, "He looks like the greatest player in the world, until you play him." But he's the best of a weak bunch, the only weak position on this team. (In contrast, when searching Missouri, I found several good 2nd basemen.)

He wasn't a bad ballplayer at all, but he was only ever going to be a reserve on a Yankee team that had Bobby Richardson at 2nd base and Tony Kubek at shortstop coming up at the same time. Still, he helped the Yankees win the American League Pennant in 1957 and '58, winning the World Series in the latter year. In 1959, the Yankees traded him to his "hometown" team, the Kansas City Athletics, and he became a regular. batting .301 with 10 homers and 83 RBIs in 1962. In 1964, with the Detroit Tigers, he was named to the All-Star Team.

SS Joe Tinker of Herington, Kansas.  If the Hall of Fame ever had to drop 10 members, Tinker might be one of them. True, he was the shortstop of the Chicago Cubs’ 1906, ’07, ’08 and ’10 Pennant winners, winning the 1907 and 1908 World Series. And had there been an All-Star Game at the time, he would have been in it a few times. But, let’s be honest, the only reason he’s in the Hall is because of Franklin P. Adams’ poem “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (a.k.a. “Tinker to Evers to Chance”).

3B Ken Boyer of Alba, Missouri. One of 14 children, and his brother Clete was himself an All-Star 3rd baseman with the Yankees, and brother Cloyd was a big-league pitcher. He succeeded Stan Musial as the superstar and captain of the Cardinals, and led them to an amazing run to the Pennant, which earned him the NL MVP. In the 1964 World Series, Ken and Clete became the first brothers to oppose each other, and to homer, in a World Series. Ken’s homer, a grand slam in Game 4, turned the Series around, and the Cards won.

His career OPS+ was 116, and his 282 home runs are a very good total for a third baseman in that era. He wasn’t quite at Hall of Fame levels, but the Cardinals retired his Number 14. He also briefly managed them.

LF Zack Wheat of Hamilton, Missouri. For all the jokes about how the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s couldn’t find a left fielder, Wheat was a great one for them in the 1910s and 1920s, including playing for the Dodgers in the 1916 and ’20 World Series (though they lost both). He won the NL batting title in 1918, had a lifetime batting average of .317, an OPS+ of 129, and 2,884 hits -- awfully close to the magic 3,000, which would probably have gotten him better remembered today.

Honorable Mention to Fred Clarke of Winterset, Iowa. He starred for the Louisville Colonels in the 1890s and, like his teammate Honus Wagner, went to the Pittsburgh Pirates when the Colonels were folded into the Pirate organization. Lifetime batting average of .312, OPS+ of 132, 2,678 career hits. He also managed the Pirates to Pennants in 1901, ’02 and ’03 and the 1909 World Series, all while still playing.

Honorable Mention to Matt Holliday of Stillwater, Oklahoma. He just turned 34, and has already made 6 All-Star teams, hit 375 doubles and 251 homers, and notched 5 100-RBI seasons. His career OPS+ is 138. He's reached the last 3 postseasons with the Cardinals, including the 2011 World Championship. But he'll be best remembered for scoring the controversial game-winning run in the 2007 NL Wild Card play-in game for the Colorado Rockies against the San Diego Padres. (Let the record show that, while a reasonable person could doubt that Holliday ever touched the plate, he certainly didn't break any rule in his attempt to score.)

CF Mickey Mantle of Commerce, Oklahoma. Though his short stay with the minor-league Kansas City Blues in the summer of 1951 was a hard part of his life, geographically he belongs in the Royals’ area. All-Century Team, Hall of Fame, Monument Park, Number 7 retired, 500 Home Run Club. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 17.

So much has been spoken and written about the Mick, so let me sum up by quoting his own summing-up, from what he said in his speech on Mickey Mantle Day, June 8, 1969: “Baseball has been really good to me, and playing 18 years in Yankee Stadium for you folks was the greatest thing that could ever happen to a ballplayer.”

Yeah, I know: That picture shows him on an Old-Timers' Day, older and overweight. Well, this picture has 2 advantages to me: A, It's in color; and 2, this is how I knew him. (Not that I actually met him, but this is how I saw him when we were in the same building together, the building being the old, although post-renovation, Yankee Stadium.)

Very Honorable Mention to Richie Ashburn of Tilden, Nebraska. That Ashburn is second to anyone is “Hard to believe, Harry,” but it’s Mickey Mantle, so "Bet your house on it, Harry." Still, Rich (or “Whitey,” nicknamed like Mickey’s pal Edward Charles Ford for his very light hair) was, rightfully, the most beloved sports figure in Philadelphia history for his long career as a player and a broadcaster, elected to the Hall of Fame, and his Number 1 retired by the Phils. The center field concourse at Citizens Bank Park is named Ashburn Alley, and a statue of him stands in the middle of it. And a Happy Birthday to the Celebre’s Twins, Plain and Pepperoni.

RF Sam Crawford of Wahoo, Nebraska. “Wahoo Sam” is baseball’s all-time leader with 309 triples. He batted .309, had an OPS+ of 144, collected 2,961 hits (another one just short of 3,000), and with Ty Cobb and Davy Jones (not the sailor or the Monkee) formed one of the greatest outfields of the Dead Ball Era, winning 3 straight AL Pennants, 1907, ’08 and ’09 -- but losing all 3 World Series. Hall of Fame, but played long before uniform numbers were worn. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 84.

C Walker Cooper of Independence, Missouri. He and his brother Mort were a major part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1942, ’43, ’44 and ’46 Pennant winners, winning the World Series in all of those except ’43. An 8-time All-Star, he had a career OPS+ of 116 and 173 homers, an extraordinary total for a catcher in that era (although somewhat inflated by a few years with the New York Giants with the cozy confines of the Polo Grounds).

Honorable Mention to Darren Daulton of Arkansas City, Kansas. Okay, let’s put aside his occult beliefs, and note that he was the heart and soul of the 1993 NL Champion Phillies, and while injuries cut his career short, he did get a ring as Charles Johnson’s backup on the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins.

And now for what has to be the most extraordinary pitching staff for any of these teams.

SP Walter Johnson of Humboldt, Kansas. This could be considered a slight bending of the rules: His family moved to Olinda, California, and he went to Fullerton Union High School, which should place him on the Anaheim team. But they moved when he was 14, so he “became a ballplayer” in the Kansas City “market.”

His 110 shutouts are the most all-time. His 3,508 strikeouts were the most all-time -- he held the career record from 1921 (surpassing Cy Young) until 1983 (surpassed by Nolan Ryan). His 417 wins are the most in AL history. And “the Big Train” did this for the Washington Senators, a ballclub which hardly ever got into a Pennant race. They finally won Pennants in 1924 and ’25, and after losing 2 games in the ’24 Series, he came in in relief in Game 7, and ended up the winning pitcher.

Neat piece of trivia: His final career appearance was not as a pitcher, but as a pinch-hitter -- he had a career OPS of .616, pretty good for a pitcher -- on September 30, 1927, the same game in which Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run of that season. He then became manager of the Newark Bears, living in nearby Millburn, New Jersey. He went on to manage the Senators and the Cleveland Indians, without much success. One of the most decent men ever involved with the game, he sadly died of a brain tumor in 1946, only 59 years old.

Outside his former home park, Griffith Stadium, there was a monument to his memory, which was moved to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, the D.C. suburb where Johnson lived during and after his career. Today, a statue of him is outside Nationals Park. He was one of the first inductees into the Hall of Fame in 1936, and in 1999 was named Number 4 on The Sporting News’ 100 Greatest Players (the highest of any pitcher) and elected to the MLB All-Century Team -- despite having been dead for 53 years and having thrown his last pitch 72 years earlier. He retired before uniform numbers were worn, but he wore 28 and 25 as Senators manager and 10 as Indians manager.

SP Grover Cleveland Alexander of St. Paul, Nebraska. This is how great Johnson was: Alexander won 373 games, tied with Christy Mathewson for most in NL history, and yet he’s only the 2nd starter on this team. (Cy Young’s 511 were split over both Leagues.)

Check out these numbers: 28, 19, 22, 27, 31, 33, 30. Those were Alexander’s win totals for the first 7 seasons of his career. He also led the NL in strikeouts 7 times, and in ERA 4 times. His career ERA+ was 135; his WHIP, 1.121. He helped the Phillies to their first Pennant in 1915, and in 1916 -- as a right-handed pitcher at Baker Bowl, where lefty hitters had a 280-foot right-field fence -- he threw 16 shutouts. Considering even aces now work hard just to get 16 wins, most of them not complete games, this record of Alex's looks safe for the foreseeable future. His 90 shutouts were second only to Johnson.

Sadly, serving in World War I shellshocked him, triggered epilepsy, and exacerbated his alcoholism. He went on to the Cubs, and the Cardinals picked him up in 1926 and won the World Series. After winning Game 6, the 39-year-old “Pete” (not sure why that was his nickname) celebrated hard, and was hungover when he was called into to pitch the 7th inning of Game 7 with the bases loaded. He struck out the Yankees’ Tony Lazzeri, perhaps the most famous strikeout in baseball history (unless you count the Mighty Casey of Mudville). He then pitched 2 more scoreless innings to finish the Yankees off.

Sadly, both Alexander and Lazzeri were epileptics who died young. Alexander’s drinking damaged his health, and he died in 1950, drinking doing him in at just 63 -- just like Mantle. He still outlived Lazzeri, who in 1946 suffered a seizure and fell down his stairs, breaking his neck, dying at only 42.

In 1952, 2 years after Alexander's death, Ronald Reagan played him in the film The Winning Team. He did live long enough to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and while he played before uniform numbers were worn, the Phils put a “P” notation on the outfield wall, first at Veterans Stadium and now at Citizens Bank Park.

SP Carl Hubbell of Meeker, Oklahoma. The first NL Player to have his number retired, the Giants retired his Number 11. He was known as King Carl and the Meal Ticket, and in the 1930s, along with Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, he was one of the 3 best pitchers on the planet. He won 253 games, and had a lifetime ERA+ of 130 and a WHIP of 1.166.

He started the first 2 All-Star Games, and in the 1934 Game, at his home park of the Polo Grounds, he struck out 6 batters in 2 innings -- including, in succession, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin, fellow Hall-of-Famers all. In 1933, he won 23 games and led the Giants to the World Championship. The Giants won Pennants again in 1936 and ’37, and over those 2 seasons, Hubbell won 24 straight games. More than anyone, even Whitey Ford, this is the greatest lefthanded pitcher in New York baseball history.

SP Bob Feller of Van Meter, Iowa. “Anybody who says sports is war has never been in a war,” Chief Petty Officer Robert William Andrew Feller, U.S. Navy, World War II, has taught us. But his 266 wins, 2,581 strikeouts and 3 no-hitters were amazing when you consider he lost 4 seasons -- at ages 23, 24, 25 and 26 -- to the fight against Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism. In 1936, he struck out a then-record-tying 17 batters in a game -- fanned 17 at age 17. In 1938, at 19, he fanned a new record of 18. (It would be 31 more years before a pitcher got 19 in a 9-inning game.)

He was the greatest pitcher of his generation, but, like Johnson, his team wasn’t up to his level. The Indians nearly won a Pennant in 1940, won the Series in 1948, and added a Pennant in 1954, but while Feller did get a ring in ’48, he never won a Series game, unlike Johnson. Hall of Fame, Number 19 retired, statue outside Progressive Field in Cleveland (formerly Jacobs Field), museum in his honor in Van Meter.

SP Bob Gibson of Omaha, Nebraska. Do you want to tell Bob Gibson he's a 5th starter? Neither do I.

The Cardinal ace was the MVP of the 1964 and ’67 World Series, winning Game 7 both times. In Game 1 in ’68, he struck out 17 Tigers, still a Series record, but he ended up losing Game 7. That season, 1968, he went 22-9, with a record-low ERA for the post-1920 Lively Ball Era, 1.12. (So how did he lose 9? The Cards didn’t hit much for a Pennant-winner.) His ERA+ that year? 258. It doesn’t seem possible. So he wasn’t just taking advantage of “the Year of the Pitcher”: Even by the standards of 1968, he was beyond great.

He was considered the most intimidating pitcher of his generation. He won 251 games, had a 128 career ERA+, a 1.188 WHIP, and he was the 1st NL pitcher, the 2nd overall, to strike out over 3,000 batters. (With Johnson dead, this meant that, from 1972 to 1978, Gibson had struck out more batters than any living person.) He even presaged Charles Barkley by a generation, by telling a reporter, “Why do I have to be a role model for your kid? You be a role model for your kid.”

Hall of Fame, All-Century Team, Number 45 retired, statue in his honor outside Busch Stadium. He recently co-wrote Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Pitcher and a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk About How the Game Is Played, with Reggie Jackson.

That’s 5 Hall of Fame starters, who were ranked 4th (Johnson), 12th (Alexander), 31st (Gibson), 36th (Feller) and 45th (Hubbell) on The Sporting News' 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- respectively, ranked 1st, 3rd, 10th, 12th and 15th among pitchers on that list. If "Good pitching beats good hitting," this team may be damn near unbeatable.

Honorable Mention to a 6th HOFer, Charles “Dazzy” Vance of Hardy, Nebraska. He struggled, not becoming a big-league regular until 1922, when he was 31. But he really made up for lost time, winning 86 games for the Brooklyn Dodgers over his first 4 seasons. He might have been the fastest pitcher of the 1920s, dazzling NL hitters (and thus the nickname). He won 197 games, and struck out 2,045 batters -- imagine if he’d found his control at age 22. His ERA+ was 125. Although the Dodgers did not retire his number (or any numbers until well after they moved to Los Angeles), he is in the Hall of Fame.

Here’s how good this rotation is: Al Orth, George Pipgras, Mel Harder (the Indians retired his Number 18), Walker’s brother Mort Cooper, Rudy May and Rick Sutcliffe? All of those men are geographically qualified for this team, and none of them make it.

RP Tom Henke of Kansas City, Missouri. (Gotta say it that way, although there were no viable candidates for this entire team from Kansas City, Kansas.) Hard to imagine a rotation of the Big Train, Alex, King Carl, Rapid Robert and Hoot, with Dazzy ready to step in if necessary, needing relief. But “the Exterminator” saved 311 games, and the Toronto Blue Jays have never reached the postseason without him. With him, they did so 5 times, including their 1992 and ’93 World Championships. Career ERA+ of 157, WHIP of 1.092.

Honorable Mention to Joel Hanrahan of Norwalk, Iowa. He's only 32, and missed most of last year due to injury, pitching just 9 games for the Red Sox, thus missing out on his best chance yet to appear in postseason play. But he's got 100 career saves, and was a 2-time All-Star for the Pirates.

MGR Casey Stengel of Kansas City, Missouri. Charles Dillon Stengel got his nickname from his hometown, “Kay Cee,” which became “Casey.” In 1942, with the Boston Braves, he had an unrealized talent named Warren Spahn on his pitching staff. In 1965, with the Mets, he had Spahn, wrapping up his career. Spahnnie said, "I'm the only guy who played for Casey both before and after he was a genius." In between, with the Yankees, he managed 12 seasons, won 10 Pennants and 7 World Championships.

His runner-up could be his Yankee successor, Ralph Houk. The aforementioned Fred Clarke, Billy Southworth and Bobby Cox could also qualify. That’s 4 Hall of Fame managers (including the newly-elected Cox), and a 5th who should be (Houk).

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