Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cincinnati's All-Time Baseball Team

Contrary to popular belief, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869-70 were not the first professional baseball team. They were just the first ones to admit it. Also, they lasted only those 2 seasons, and have no connection to the current Cincinnati Reds, who were founded in the American Association in 1882, joined the National League in 1892, and, while they've had some serious droughts, have also put together some excellent eras: 1918-26, 1938-44, 1956-65, 1969-80, 1985-92, 1994-2000, and since 2010.

Because of the pretense that they were "the first professional baseball team," historically, the Reds were always the first National League team to play in a season. The Washington Senators would kick off the American League season, so the President of the United States could come to throw out the ceremonial first ball.

With TV futzing everything up, as it has with so many sports, the Reds are no longer a guaranteed lid-lifter for the entire NL. However, to this day, the Reds take Opening Day very seriously, having a big parade through downtown Cincinnati before their home opener. For that alone, they are worthy of some respect.

4. Cincinnati's All-Time Baseball Team

This team consists of players from the southern half of Ohio. 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.

This team also includes players from southern Indiana, except for that little southwestern tail, and from Kentucky, except for its westernmost part – those two sections belong to the St. Louis Cardinals’ region. It also includes southern West Virginia, with the northern part of the Mountaineer State belonging to Pittsburgh and the eastern Panhandle region going to Washington, D.C. – although the only player from the Panhandle good enough for me to even consider for the D.C. regional team was John Kruk.

What does this Cincinnati All-Time Team have? Good contact hitting. Good power hitting. Good starting pitching, although most of it is old-time -- or even so old as to be "old-tyme." It's a little weak in the bullpen, though, and I'm not sure about the catcher, mainly because he hasn't played a game in 117 years (and has been dead for 108).

Still, this should be a team that would do well by the Queen City of the Midwest.  Not to be confused with Seattle, which is known as the Queen City of the Northwest; or with Charlotte, which bills itself as the Queen City of the Southeast. As far as I know, there's no "King City" anywhere in the U.S., although New York is known as the Empire State, and the aforementioned Seattle is in Washington State's King County. And, of course, New York has Kings County (the Borough of Brooklyn) and Queens County (the Borough of Queens).

1B Al Oliver of Portsmouth, Ohio.  He actually played a little bit more center field, but try cracking the starting lineup at that position on this team. So I'm putting him at 1st base, which he played well enough to earn the nickname "Scoop."

He finished 2nd to Ted Sizemore for NL Rookie of the Year in 1969, but he had a far better career than any of the others in the top 5 in the vote, making 7 All-Star Teams. He won the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971. He also helped the Pirates reach postseason play in 1970, ’72, ’74 and ’75, nearly helped the Pirates to do so in ’73 and the Texas Rangers in ’78, and got there in his final season with the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays. He led the NL in batting, hits, doubles, total bases and RBI in 1982 as a member of the Montreal Expos. He was also, starting with the ’78 Rangers (after wearing 16 for the Pirates), the first player to regularly wear the Number 0 – to represent not zero, but an O for Oliver.

He batted .303 lifetime, and had an OPS+ 121 and 2,743 hits. Of all players eligible for the Hall of Fame but not yet in, the only players with more hits are Craig Biggio, Harold Baines, Vada Pinson, and steroid cheats Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds. On’s Hall of Fame Monitor, where a “Likely HOFer” is at 100, he’s at 116, meaning he should get in; on their “Hall of Fame Standards,” where an “Average HOFer” is at 50, he’s at 40, meaning he shouldn't. On their “Most Similar Batters,” his top 10 included HOFers Zack Wheat, Roberto Clemente (his Pirate teammate), Joe Medwick and Enos Slaughter. (And the aforementioned Pinson, and another Pirate teammate who’s not in, Dave Parker.) He belongs.

Honorable Mention to Charlie Gould, the only member of the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings who was actually from Cincinnati, or even from anywhere near it. He was one of the Red Stockings who moved east to form the Boston Red Stockings -- forerunners of today's Atlanta Braves -- and led the National Association in triples in 1872, as the Red Stockings won the first of 4 straight Pennants.

That was the only Pennant Gould won as a member of a pro league, as he was gone the next season. In 1876 and '77, he played with the new Cincinnati Red Stockings of the National League, but they went out of business after the 1880 season, before the new Cincinnati Reds were formed in 1882.

Somewhat Honorable Mention to Kevin Youkilis of Cincinnati. He's one of the most annoying players of his generation, and, at age 35 and playing in Japan, he may not play in the North American majors again. But he's got a career OPS+ of 123, is a 3-time All-Star and a 1-time Gold Glove, and has appeared in 4 postseasons, including the Red Sox' tainted titles of 2004 and '07. It would have been fun if the Yankees' experiment with him had paid off; instead, he made only 118 plate appearances before getting hurt, the Yanks didn't make the Playoffs, and the Sox won another tainted title.

2B Billy Herman of New Albany, Indiana. A 10-time All-Star, he batted .304 lifetime with a 112 OPS+. He helped the Chicago Cubs win Pennants in 1932, ’35 and ’38, and the Brooklyn Dodgers in ’41, although he never won a World Series. (His injury late in ’41 was a big reason why the Dodgers didn’t win that one.) He led the NL in doubles in ’35 and in triples in ’39.

He had 2,345 career hits, including 486 doubles and 82 triples. Hall of Fame, and a member of the Cubs’ Walk of Fame outside Wrigley Field, although they’ve never retired a number for him. (He wore several, wore 4 the most.)

SS Barry Larkin of Archbishop Moeller H.S. in Cincinnati. A true hometown hero, he turned down free-agent offers from other teams to stay with the Reds. He was a 12-time All-Star, the first time at age 24 and the last in his final season at 40 – and it wasn’t an honorary thing, either, as he batted .289 that season.

He helped the Reds win the 1990 World Series, and got them into the postseason again in 1995 and ’99 (and had them in first place in the NL Central when the Strike of ’94 hit). He also won 3 Gold Gloves, and the 1995 NL Most Valuable Player award. Lifetime batting average .295, OPS+ 116, 2,340 hits including 441 doubles and 76 triples. Hall of Fame, and the Reds retired his Number 11.

Very Honorable Mention to Harold “Pee Wee” Reese of Lousville, Kentucky. He played for the Triple-A Louisville Colonels, then a Boston Red Sox farm team, and legend has it that the Sox sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers because Sox manager Joe Cronin was insecure about losing his own place as the Sox shortstop. Big mistake? Not really, because the Sox did have Johnny Pesky coming up, which also suggests that the story about Cronin's insecurity may also have been exaggerated.

He got his nickname not from being short (he was 5-foot-10) but from his childhood prowess at marbles, which were often called “peewees.” He was the best shortstop in the NL in the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s – no mean feat in an era with Marty Marion and later Alvin Dark around. A 10-time All-Star, he helped the Dodgers win 7 Pennants and nearly made it 11. He wasn't a great hitter, but he did manage 2,170 hits during his career, 330 of them doubles and 80 of them triples. He stole 232 bases, leading the NL in steals in 30. That's not an easy thing to do when your teammate is Jackie Robinson.

Which brings us to Pee Wee’s most important legacy: As Dodger Captain, and also as a white Southerner, he let it be known that Robinson would be accepted, and that anyone who wouldn’t accept him was gone – and, after that 1947 Pennant-winning season, that included Southerners Dixie Walker and Eddie Stanky, despite both having been quite popular on the team and with Dodger fans. It was the right, move, not just morally but competitively.

In May 1947, when the Dodgers were in Cincinnati – across the river from the Southern State of Kentucky and in many ways more Southern than Midwestern – Pee Wee heard so many nasty words from the stands at Crosley Field, from fans of the Reds, the team he had grown up rooting for, that he called time out, walked from his shortstop position to Jackie’s at 1st base, and put his arm around Jackie for a brief chat. No film or photograph of the event survives, but plenty of witnesses have revealed that it actually happened. What he said to Jackie isn’t recorded (though the film 42 suggests they discussed the Civil War), and it doesn’t matter. What matters is what this gesture said to the crowd: “I’m a white Southerner, and this black man is my teammate, and I’m too much of a gentleman to call you a bunch of dumb fucking rednecks in any other way.”

The moment is recreated in a statue of the two men outside MCU Park, home of the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones. Pee Wee is in the Hall of Fame, and the Dodgers retired his Number 1.

3B Mike Schmidt of Dayton, Ohio. He grew up with Cincinnati as the closest major league city, at a time when the Reds’ top player was Frank Robinson, so he wore Robinson’s Number 20 with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies have retired this number, elected him to the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame, and erected a statue of him outside Citizens Bank Park. In 1983, when the team celebrated its 100th Anniversary, they held fan balloting for their all-time team and their all-time greatest player. Schmidt was chosen their all-time greatest player. And he still had 159 homers and an MVP award to go!

Schmidt was an All-Star 12 times – including being voted the starting 3rd baseman on the NL team in 1989, after he’d already announced his retirement. He stayed true to his principles by not playing, but also stayed true to the fans who chose him by flying out to Anaheim and appearing in uniform for the event.

His career OPS+ was an astounding 147. He had 2,234 hits, including 408 doubles, 59 triples, and 548 home runs – more than any 3rd baseman in history, more than any righthanded hitter of his generation, and more than any National Leaguer of his generation. (Only Reggie Jackson, in that generation, topped him among lefties and American Leaguers.) He led the NL in homers 8 times, in RBIs 4 times, had 9 100-RBI seasons, and in 1980 hit 48 homers for a new team record that stood until Ryan Howard hit 58 in 2006. NL MVP in 1980, ’81 and ’86. And he wasn’t just a great hitter: He won 10 Gold Gloves. He is most people’s pick for the greatest 3rd baseman ever.

He helped the Phillies reach postseason play 6 times in an 8-year span from 1976 to 1983, winning the 1980 World Series (that year, he was both the regular-season and the Series MVP) and the 1983 Pennant. In addition to the awards from his team, he was elected to the Hall of Fame and the All-Century Team.  When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 28. He’s a Hall of Fame person, too.

LF Frank Howard of Columbus, Ohio. His first nickname was Hondo. At 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, it’s easy to see why they called him the Monster. He looked more like a football player, or at least a basketball player. In fact, he played those sports and baseball at The... Ohio State University. Called up too late to help the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 1959 World Series, he was NL Rookie of the Year in 1960, and helped the Dodgers win the 1963 Series before being traded to the Washington Senators, where he became known as the Capital Punisher.

He led the AL in homers in 1968 and ’70, and nearly did so in ’69 except that his predecessor as D.C.’s biggest bopper, Harmon Killebrew, hit 49 for the ex-Senators, now the Minnesota Twins, to Howard’s 48. Howard also led the AL in total bases and slugging in ’68, total bases in ’69 and RBIs in ’70. When the Senators moved to become the Texas Rangers after the ’71 season, he hit the last home run in team history. Traded to the Detroit Tigers late in ’72, he helped them win the AL East. A 4-time All-Star, he had a career OPS+ of 142, and hit 382 home runs. He did slow down at age 34 and retired at 36, after not being signed by any MLB team and injuring his back in, literally, his first swing with the Japanese club that signed him. All this makes him look like he fits the steroid profile, but at his size he wouldn’t have needed ‘em if offered: Without steroids, he was bigger than Mark McGwire.

Without that injury, he might have gotten back into the majors, and gotten well over 400 homers, and could well have gotten into the Hall of Fame. has him at “only” 61 on their HOF Monitor and 26 on their HOF Standards. And none of his 10 Most similar Batters are in. So it doesn’t look like he’ll get in. Still, at the time he retired, only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Killebrew, Jimmie Foxx and Ernie Banks were righthanded hitters with more career homers. He is honored with a statue outside Nationals Park, and is listed on the Washington Hall of Stars display at the park.

CF Ken Griffey Jr. of Archbishop Moeller H.S. in Cincinnati. At this position, the Cincinnati team is loaded. They can also call on Earle Combs of Pebworth, Kentucky, a Hall-of-Famer who preceded Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle at the position for the Yankees, winning 4 Pennants and 3 World Series before a skull fracture against the unpadded outfield walls of the time prematurely ended his career. Then there’s David “Gus” Bell of Louisville, Kentucky, who helped the Reds win the 1961 Pennant and whose son David “Buddy” Bell and grandson David Bell (apparently no nickname) also played in the majors. Then there’s Jimmy Wynn of Taft H.S. in Cincinnati. The Toy Cannon was stuck in the Astrodome, but still hit a lot of home runs, including a memorable blast in his hometown in 1967, onto the Mill Creek Expressway (Interstate 75) just beyond the left-field wall at Crosley Field.

But they all have to take a back seat to Junior, who, like his father Ken, was born in Donora, Pennsylvania (also the home town of Stan Musial), but grew up in Cincy while his father played there. Barring steroid revelations (I seriously doubt that he used them) or any other kind of ethical calamity (such as befell another Moeller grad, Pete Rose), will be elected to the Hall of Fame on his first try in 2016.

A 13-time All-Star, a 10-time Gold Glover, the 1997 AL MVP, he had a 135 career OPS+, 2,781 hits including 524 doubles and 630 home runs – 4th-best all-time among honest men – plus 1,836 RBIs. He had 8 100-RBI seasons and 7 40-homer seasons, 4 in which he led the AL, twice hitting 56, the most in an AL season since Roger Maris’ 61 in ‘61. He led the Seattle Mariners to their first 2 postseason berths, as 1995 and ’97 AL West Champions, and in particular his ’95 run saved Major League Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, as a ballot initiative passed that got Safeco Field built. He had 398 homers before his 30th birthday. He was being hailed as the new Willie Mays.

Unfortunately, injuries were never far away, and he became the new Mickey Mantle instead. Only once did he top 30 homers after age 30, and never again had 100 RBIs. Either he or Barry Bonds, also the son of a good-but-not-quite-great major leaguer, was the best player of his generation. Griffey’s reputation took a bit of a hit, but as the revelations about his contemporaries, including Bonds, began to pile up, Griffey began to look a lot better.

Aside from his comeback with the M’s in his last 2 seasons, his Number 24 has not been given back out by that team, and they will surely retire it. He deserves a statue outside Safeco: That stadium, and the team that plays there, wouldn’t be there now if it wasn’t for him. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, right in his prime, he came in at Number 93.

Honorable Mention to Oscar Charleston of Indianapolis, Indiana. Since we don’t have reliable statistics from the Negro Leagues, and since those leagues were probably, at best, made up of mostly Triple-A players, it’s hard to say how good he was. But what we do have tells us that, in 53 exhibition games against all-white teams of major leaguers, he batted .318 with 11 homers. 53 x 3 = 159, a full season today, so that’s .318 and on a pace for 33 homers. So had he played in the majors, he would probably have been as good as they came.

He also managed the Pittsburgh Crawfords to a few Pennants… while still playing for them, at close to 40 years old, which attests to both his durability and his quick mind. Baseball historian Bill James calls him the 4th-best player ever. If only we could know for sure what he could do against competition that was all (or at least mostly) major-league caliber. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 67.

RF Chuck Klein of Indianapolis, Indiana. The Hoosier Hammer is often derided by baseball historians because his hitting feats were achieved in the "bandbox" of Baker Bowl, home of the Phillies from 1895 to 1938, which had a 280-foot right field fence (albeit with a high wall in a vain attempt to discourage cheap homers), ideal for a lefthanded hitter like Klein; and did so in the homer-happy early 1930s. He was a great slugger between the ages of 23 and 28, a good one from 29 to 32, and just another player from then on, averaging only 115 games a season from then on. If any player of his era "fits the steroid profile," he's the one. Yet I can't find any record of him being injured in those latters years, only that, at some point, he developed a drinking problem that eventually caused long-term health and financial issues, and then caused his death at age 53.

But although he played in 17 separate seasons, he only played enough games to add up to 14 full seasons. So maybe his numbers deserve another look. His career home run total was "only" 300, but he hit 191 of those in his first 6 seasons, before turning 29. Just before turning 32, he had 257. If he had simply kept up that pace until he was 38, he might have had at least the 382 that Howard hit -- which would also be more than were hit by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, and his fellow oft-derided Phillies slugger Dick Allen. It would also have been as many as Jim Rice, and nearly as many as Duke Snider, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Dale Murphy and Joe Carter.

He led the NL in home runs 4 times in 5 years. The first was in 1929, when he peaked at 43. The next year, he hit 59 doubles -- on the way to 398 in his truncated career -- collected a whopping 445 total bases, and had 170 RBIs (but didn't lead the League because that was the year Hack Wilson set the all-time record of 191). He had 6 100+ RBI seasons, leading the League twice. Twice he led in hits, 3 times each in runs scored and slugging. He even led the NL in stolen bases in 1932, albeit with just 20. He won the Triple Crown in 1933, and had an amazing 176 OPS+. That concluded a 3-year stretch in which, in the first 3 years of the current format for the Most Valuable Player award, he finished 2nd, 1st and 2nd in the voting, despite the Phillies being nowhere near the Pennant race. He also represented the NL and the Phillies in the first 2 All-Star Games. In 1936, he hit 4 home runs in a game, the first National Leaguer to do so in 40 years. Even with his decline, his career OPS+ was a very strong 137 -- meaning that, in a high-offense era, he was still 37 percent better at producing runs than the average player.

And yet, after the 1933 season, his Triple Crown season, the Phillies traded him to the Cubs for Harvey Hendrick (no, I'd never heard of him, either), Ted Kleinhans (ditto) and Mark Koenig (the shortstop of the late 1920s Yankee champions but washed up by then). Were the Phillies stupid? Perhaps, but they were also desperate: It was the Depression, and the Cubs, backed by all that Wrigley chewing gum money, paid $65,000 for the best slugger in the National League; the players were the throw-ins. When Klein didn't quite work out on the North Side of Chicago, in 1936 they sent him back to North Philly. In 1939, the Phils released him, probably thinking his production was no longer making his drinking worth it. The Pirates signed him up, then released him at the end of the year, and then the Phils signed him again, and he stayed with them to the end, 1944. Within a decade, he was dead. 

Still, he was elected to the Hall of Fame, although by the Veterans Committee well after he died. He wore several numbers in his career, so the Phillies put a "P" logo for him up with their retired numbers. When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 92. Clearly, not everyone thinks he was just a Baker Bowl hitter.

Honorable Mention to Sam Thompson of Danville, Indiana. This guy goes back to Cleveland. The Presidency of Grover Cleveland. In 1887, he led the Detroit Wolverines to the NL Pennant, leading the league in batting, hits, triples, RBIs (166, a record for the time), slugging and total bases. But the Wolverines couldn’t maintain it, and had to sell him to the Philadelphia Phillies. He led the NL in homers in 1889 and ’95, hits and doubles in ’90 and ’93, and RBIs in ’94 and ’95. He retired after the 1898 season, but came back for 8 games with the new Detroit team, the AL’s Tigers, in 1906 at age 46.

He had a lifetime batting average of .331, and an OPS+ of 146, so he was great by the standards of his own time, not just benefiting from the era’s pitching conditions, especially since he was great both before and after the 1893 move-back from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame.

Honorable Mentions to 3 latter-day Yankees: Paul O’Neill of Columbus, Ohio, who helped his home-State Reds win the 1990 World Series before bringing his “Warrior” mentality to the Yankees for 4 more titles; David Justice of Covington, Kentucky, right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, who was a big part of the Atlanta Braves’ revival in the 1990s, winning 4 Pennants and the 1995 World Series, and then helping the Indians win the 1997 Pennant and the Yankees win the Series in 2000 and the Pennant in 2001; and Nick Swisher of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who enlivened the 2009 World Champions with his bat and his personality, made the All-Star team the next season, also reached the postseason with the A's and the White Sox, and is now with the Indians, sitting on a decent career home run total of 231 and an OPS+ of 118.

C William “Buck” Ewing of Hoagland, Ohio.  Think Thompson went back a long way? Ewing debuted in 1880, during the Administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. He played his best years with the New York Giants, winning NL Pennants in 1888 and ’89, and then helped the Cleveland Spiders win the Temple Cup in 1895, before closing his career with his hometown Reds in 1897.

(The Temple Cup was a trophy given to the winner of a postseason series between the NL’s 1st- and 2nd-place teams from 1894 to ’97. Because the 2nd-place team won in ’94, ’95 and ’97, people lost interest, and the Cup was withdrawn, although it’s now on display at the Hall of Fame. Imagine if baseball had kept it, and treated it the way the NHL treats the Stanley Cup. Would we now be hearing Yankee Fans ask, “How many Temple Cups has YOUR team won?” Ironically, no current team has ever won one, unless you count the 1894 Cup won by the Giants who are now in San Francisco.)

Ewing may have been the best player of the 1880s, and he was pretty good in the 1890s, too. His lifetime batting average was .303, and his OPS+ 129. He was also the first player ever to hit 10 home runs in a season, in 1883. He played every position: 636 games at catcher, 253 at 1st base, 193 in right field, 127 at 3rd base, 51 at 2nd base, 34 at shortstop, 34 in center field, 9 in left field and 9 pitching. And he was regarded as a good fielder at all of them.

He died of diabetes in 1906, age 47, and in 1939, when the Hall of Fame held an election to determine which 19th Century players were worthy, they chose Ewing, Cap Anson, Old Hoss Radbourn, Al Spalding, Charles Comiskey and Candy Cummings – although Spalding and Comiskey had credentials as executives that exceeded their impressive records as players, and Cummings got in mainly because he claimed to have invented the curveball, which he probably hadn’t actually done. And Anson was also a pretty good manager. So Ewing was the only 19th Century player who was elected mainly as a player, at a time when there were still plenty of people alive who could have seen those men play.

Honorable Mention to an even earlier player: Cal McVey of Indianapolis, Indiana. Like Charlie Gould, he was a member of the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings, and was one of the ones who formed the Boston Red Stockings. Unlike Gould, he stuck with them through the entire length of the National Association, winning Pennants in 1872, '73, '74 and '75, leading that league in hits and RBIs twice each. Like some of those Red Stockings, including Al Spalding, he went back west to form the Chicago White Stockings, forerunners of today's Cubs, and won the first NL Pennant in 1876, before returning to the NL's Cincinnati Red Stockings in their final 2 seasons, 1878 and '79.

If you want a 20th Century catcher for the Cincinnati-area team, the best I can give you is Hank Gowdy of Columbus, Ohio, and he still goes back a long way. He starred for the Boston Braves and the Giants, including the Braves' 1914 "Miracle" World Championship. He was the first MLB player to enlist in World War I, and, well after he retired from the game, became the only player to have served in both World Wars. He wasn't much of a hitter (although he did bat .299 in 1921 and .317 in '22), and only 3 times did he have more than 300 plate appearances. But he must have been a good-fielding catcher, a good handler of pitchers, or a good influence on his teammates, because, even while missing the entire 1918 season in the service, plus the 1926 and '28 seasons in the high minors before returning to the Braves for 2 years, he still played 17 seasons in the majors.

If you want one more recent than the Roaring Twenties, the best one is Rollie Hemsley of Syracuse, Ohio. He was a 5-time All-Star, batted .309 for the St. Louis Browns in 1934, and won Pennants with the Cubs in 1932 and the Yankees in 1942 and '43, and nearly did so with the Indians in 1940. Seriously, I tried to find a better one from after World War II, the post-integration era, and I just couldn't. The best I could find was Steve Swisher of Parkersburg, West Virginia, a decent fielder but a lifetime .216 hitter, who's now best known as the father of the aforementioned Nick Swisher.

SP Amos Rusie of Mooresville, Indiana. “The Hoosier Thunderbolt” was probably the fastest pitcher of the 1890s. He was just 29-34 for the New York Giants in 1890, but then, he was only 19 years old. And he did strike out 341 batters. Over the next 4 seasons his win totals were 33, 32, 33 and 36. So the 1893 increase of the pitching distance from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches appears not to have affected him at all. (Unlike Gus Weyhing of Louisville, Kentucky, who I considered for this team, since “Cannonball” won 264 games in the majors, but was 177-124 before the move-back and just 87-108 after it, making him a great pitcher from age 21 to 25 but a mediocre one from 26 to 32 and basically then being done.) Rusie led the NL in wins once, ERA twice, and strikeouts 6 times. 

He held out for the entire 1896 season in a dispute with Giants owner Andrew Freedman, who, to put it succinctly and politely, was a real piece of work. He returned in 1897 and won 28 games. Having been hit in the head by a line drive in 1898, he did not appear in a game in 1899 or 1900, and was traded by the Giants to the Cincinnati Reds on December 15, 1900. Before getting hit, he was 27 years old and had won 246 games. Afterward, he appeared in just 3 games at the major league level, and won none. The man he was traded for? He was 20 at the time of the trade, and had appeared in 6 games and won none; he went on to win 373. His name was Christy Mathewson. This may have been the most lopsided trade in baseball history. Nevertheless, Rusie was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, having died in 1942.

SP Mordecai Brown of Nyesville, Indiana. For the record, Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown was named “Centennial” because he’d been born in America's Centennial year of 1876, was nicknamed “Brownie” because of his last name, was nicknamed “Miner” because he’d been one, and was nicknamed “Three Finger” (or “Three-Fingered”) because of a farm accident which cost him his index finger and damaged the others. So unless you are dumb enough to not count the thumb, he actually had 4 fingers on his right hand, not 3. But the damage, particularly with the way it twisted his middle finger, left him with a grip that gave him a curveball and a change-up matched by few others in baseball history.

It took until age 26 for a big-league team to give him a chance, in 1903, and moving to the Chicago Cubs in 1904, it was between him and Christy Mathewson as to who was the best pitcher in the NL for the next few years. They opposed each other 24 times, usually before big crowds anxious to see a great pitchers' duel, and Brown won 13, Matty 11.

Brown won 20 or more games 6 times, 25 or more 4 times, peaking at 29-9 in 1908. Six times he had an ERA under 2.00, and five times he had a WHIP under 1.000. In 1906, he had a 0.934 WHIP, and a 1.04 ERA, still the lowest in the NL since the 1893 mound-distance moveback. Thanks in part to his pitching the makeup game, forced by Giant Fred Merkle’s “Boner,” that gave the Cubs the 1908 Pennant, he won Pennants in 1906, 1907, 1908, 1910, and, with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League, in 1915. He made 3 starts for the Cubs in the 1907 and 1908 World Series, all shutouts. Those 2 remain the only World Series the Cub franchise has ever won.

His career record was 239-130 for an outstanding .648 winning percentage, a miniscule 2.06 ERA (and an ERA+ of 139, so he wasn’t just taking advantage of the Dead Ball Era), a 1.066 career WHIP, and 55 shutouts. He also pitched in relief a lot for his era, including in the 1908 title-decider, collecting 49 saves, although that statistic was unknown at the time. Too bad, because his 13 saves in 1911 were a major league record at the time. He died in 1948, and was elected to the Hall of Fame a year later.

SP Carl Mays of Liberty, Kentucky. He would probably be in the Hall of Fame if he were not the only pitcher in major league history to have thrown a pitch that led to a player’s death. On August 16, 1920, pitching for the Yankees against the Indians, the submarine-style hurler struck Indian shortstop Ray Chapman in the head, at a time when batting helmets did not exist. Chapman got up, told Yankee catcher Wally Schang, “I’m all right. Tell Mays not to worry,” started toward 1st base, and then collapsed. He never regained consciousness, and died the next day. Mays lived another 51 years, and insisted to the end that he hadn’t tried to hit Chapman, who was, before the beaning, known for ducking into pitches. The ball rebounded back to Mays, and from the sound, he thought Chapman had hit the ball, and he’d thrown it to 1st, which suggests he was telling the truth when he called it an accident.

But people wanted to say Mays did it on purpose, because he already had a reputation for nastiness, treating teammates and team management badly. It’s what got him traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees during the 1919 season. This was the first of the Yanks-Sox transactions that Sox owner Harry Frazee made to dismantle the 1912-18 Sox champions and, for all intents and purposes, make the 1921-28 Yank champions, highlighted, of course, by Babe Ruth. Mays was a member of 6 Pennant-winning teams, 3 in Boston, 3 in New York, and pitched for the 1915, ’16, ’18 and ’23 World Champions. He peaked in 1921, going 27-9. His career record was 208-126, for a .623 winning percentage. His ERA was 2.92, his ERA+ 120, and his WHIP 1.207.

Is that good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame? According to, their HOF Monitor has him at 114 of 100 (so, yes), and their HOF Standards has him at 41 of 50 (so, no). Their 10 Most Similar Pitchers includes 3 HOFers: Stan Coveleski, Chief Bender and Jack Chesbro. Maybe, already not being a nice guy, Mays still wouldn’t be in if Chapman were still alive at his death. Of course, being white, he was no relation to Willie Mays, but a cousin a couple of times removed, Joe Mays, pitched for the Minnesota Twins a few years ago.

SP Jesse Haines of Clayton, Ohio. He was one of the players who turned the Cardinals from St. Louis’ second team (behind the Browns) into one of baseball’s first teams. He was 210-158 (not appreciably better than Carl Mays), won 20 on 3 occasions, and helped the Cards win Pennants in 1926, ’28, ’30, ’31 and ’34, winning the World Series in ’26 (he started Game 7 but developed a blister, leading to Grover Cleveland Alexander’s famed strikeout of Tony Lazzeri, but Haines was still the winning pitcher), ’31 and ’34. By the time of that last win, Haines was 40 and was not an integral member of the “Gashouse Gang.” He is in the Hall of Fame, although he is often considered one of the lesser-deserving members.

SP Jim Bunning of Southgate, Kentucky. Forget his lunacy (or was it senility?) as a Republican Senator from his home State: This guy could pitch. One of the few pitchers to throw no-hitters in both Leagues, the graduate of Cincy’s Xavier University did it in the American League for the Tigers in 1958, and in the National League with a perfect game for the Phillies in 1964.

He only had one 20-win season, going 20-8 with the ’57 Tigers, but won 19 on 4 occasions, including 1964 when it was almost enough to get the Phils the Pennant. Unfortunately, manager Gene Mauch overused him down the stretch, and that’s one of the reasons for the ’64 Phillie Phlop. Bunning was traded away in 1968, but came back in 1970, and was the winning pitcher in both the last game at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium (October 1, 1970) and the first game at Veterans Stadium (April 10, 1971) – both over the Montreal Expos.

He won 224 games, had an ERA+ of 114 and a WHIP of 1.179. It took a while for him to get into the Hall of Fame, by which point he’d already been in the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years. He was elected to the Senate in 1998, but chose not to run for re-election in 2010.

Honorable Mention to Ferdie Schupp of Louisville, Kentucky, whose 0.90 ERA in 1916 is the lowest in big-league history with at least 100 innings pitched (albeit just 140), and who went 21-7 for the 1917 Giants, helping them win the Pennant.

Honorable Mention to Paul Derringer of Springfield, Kentucky, who helped his “hometown” Reds win the 1939 Pennant and the 1940 World Series, winning 223 games and being inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mention to Carl Erskine of Anderson, Indiana, the curveball master who became one of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “Boys of Summer,” helping them win 6 Pennants and the 1955 World Series. Still alive at age 87, “Oisk” won 122 games, 4 in Los Angeles and the rest in Brooklyn).

Honorable Mention to Lew Burdette of Nitro, West Virginia, who starred for the Milwaukee Braves, winning 203 games, including 3 against the Yankees in the 1957 World Series (this after the Yanks traded him away, albeit getting the valuable Johnny Sain in the deal). He also saved 33 games, no longer a big deal for a single season but, at the time, a good total for a career.

And a very Honorable Mention to Joe Nuxhall of Hamilton, Ohio. In 1944, 2 months before his 16th birthday, World War II had left the Reds’ organization so bereft of healthy arms that he was called up, and he became the youngest player in major league history. He pitched one game, 2/3 of an inning, and got rocked, allowing 2 hits and 5 runs for a 67.50 ERA. He didn’t appear in another big-league game for 8 years.

But once he did, he was ready. From 1952 to 1966, ages 23 to 37, mostly for the Reds (he was traded away in 1961 but got back a year later), he won 135 games, losing 117, and had 19 saves. He led the NL in shutouts in 1955, albeit with 5. After retiring, he became a Reds broadcaster, teaming up with Marty Brennaman to form one of the most beloved broadcasting teams ever. The youngest man ever to appear in a big-league game began to refer to himself as “The Old Lefthander,” and was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. He died in 2007, age 79.

RP Jeff Montgomery of Wellston, Ohio. He debuted with his "hometown" Reds in 1987, but they let him go to the Kansas City Royals. With the "Nasty Boys" in their bullpen -- Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton -- it may not have been a big mistake in the short term, but in the long run, they could have used him, especially in 1995, when they got swept in the NL Championship Series. He saved 304 games for the Royals, including a League-leading 45 in 1993, resulting in what is still the franchise's best season since their 1985 title. Montgomery was a 3-time All-Star.

Honorable Mention to Woodie Fryman of Flemingsburg, Kentucky. A starter until he was 38, he then saved 46 games for the Expos over the next 4 years. His career record was only 141-155, but he also had 58 saves.

MGR Miller Huggins of Cincinnati, Ohio. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and its law school, he was a pretty good player despite his size (5-foot-6, 140 pounds), playing 2nd base for the Reds and the Cardinals, batting .304 in 1912 and leading the NL in walks 4 times.

He managed the Cardinals from 1913 to 1917, and was then hired to run the Yankees, leading them to their first 6 Pennants, a pair of three-peats: 1921, ’22, ’23, ’26, ’27 and ’28, winning the World Series in ’23, ’27 and ’28. On September 25, 1929, aged only 50 but always looking much older, he died of a blood disorder that could have been cured with today’s medicine.

On May 30, 1932, between games of a Memorial Day doubleheader, the Yankees dedicated a Monument to him, on the field in front of the flagpole at Yankee Stadium. This was the beginning of what became first “the Monuments” and then, after the 1974-75 renovation, “Monument Park.” From 1925 to 1961, the Yankees’ spring training home was at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1931, they renamed it Miller Huggins Field, using it as a practice facility while “real games” were played at Al Lang Field. When the Yanks moved across the State to Fort Lauderdale in 1962, the expansion Mets took it over, and renamed it Huggins-Stengel Field, using it until opening their Port St. Lucie complex in 1989. In 1964, Miller Huggins was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

GM Wesley Branch Rickey of Flat, Ohio. Ordinarily, I wouldn't include a GM on this team, but I had to mention Branch Rickey. He invented the farm system, allowing the Cardinals to become the dominant team in the National League between 1926 and 1946. Moving on to the Dodgers, he made them into the dominant team in the NL between 1947 and 1956. This was due in large part to an even greater innovation than the farm system, which saved teams a lot of money on scouting: He reintegrated the game, bringing in Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and others. He moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and helped them build into the 1960 World Champions. In all, the teams he built won 16 Pennants (and nearly 7 others) and 8 World Series, ranging from 1926 to 1960.

He was first involved in professional baseball in 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt was President, movies were new and didn’t talk, there was no radio broadcasting, certainly no television, hardly anyone had an automobile, the airplane was a few months from being invented, the World Series was first played, and baseball was played in stadiums with wooden grandstands and no lights, with no major league teams south of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and none more than 2 miles west of the Mississippi River. He was last involved in professional baseball at his death at age 84 in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was President, color TV was in vogue, the Space Age was underway, baseball was integrated, the majors stretched from coast to coast, and there was a team in the South, playing day games and night games under a dome.

And along the way, he changed baseball more than anyone before (except for the game’s original builders) or since. And he changed it for the better, even if he was often cheap: It was said he had money and he had players, and he didn’t like to see the two mix. But he was one of baseball’s great men, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967.

And finally... Dishonorable Mention to Pete Rose of Western Hills H.S. in Cincinnati. You blew it, Pete. You thought you were bigger than the game. No, you weren’t. Babe Ruth was bigger than baseball. Jackie Robinson was bigger than baseball. That’s it, just those 2 guys. Pete Rose was never bigger than baseball. Now, he is far smaller than it.

When The Sporting News announced its 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, he came in at Number 25. And, in light of misdeeds of more recent players, and recent revelations of misdeeds of previous players, maybe what Pete did no longer seems so bad.

It doesn't matter: He knew what the rule was, he chose to break it anyway, he got caught, and he lied about it for 14 years. If he had come clean immediately, and apologized at the time, he probably would have been reinstated a few years later, been allowed to be elected to the Hall of Fame, had a proper ceremony for the retirement of his Number 14 by the Reds (who've only issued it once since he left, briefly to his son Pete Jr.), and been re-embraced by the game, officially and otherwise. But he played us for fools, and, to this day, he gives the impression that he's not sorry that he did it, only sorry that he got caught.

Which still puts him ahead of David Ortiz, who refused to admit that he did what he did and got caught. And, while he crashed into Ray Fosse and started a fight with the much smaller Bud Harrelson, it's not like he threw a fastball to injure someone, or threw a 72-year-old man to the ground by his head, is it? Pete Rose turned himself from one of baseball's greatest heroes into one of its greatest villains, but there are worse ones.

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