Friday, August 22, 2008

Heywood Broun Rides Again

I knew about Heywood Broun for a long time before I read anything he wrote. I knew him as one of the prized wits of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, but it wasn't until I did the research for my book on Victory Faust that I experienced that wit directly. Consider this nugget from Broun's coverage of the 1911 New York Giants in the New York Morning Telegraph: "The Giants played Brooklyn twice yesterday on the Hilltop and won on both occasions. Brooklyn is something like baseball, only much easier." Eat your heart out, Keith Olbermann.

A Harvard dropout, the iconoclastic Broun leaned toward socialism, was a staunch defender of Sacco and Vanzetti, and married a militant feminist named Ruth Hale. An all-purpose journalist, he covered sports and straight news, reviewed books and plays, wrote columns, and was a war correspondent during World War I. Burly and rumpled, he went his own way during an all-too-brief lifetime at the center of New York's literary world.

He also wrote a novel, The Sun Field, published in 1923 and out of print until a fresh edition was brought out this summer by Rvive Books, a publisher whose "mission is to introduce lost literary gems and their writers to a new public." If the rest of Rvive's offerings measure up to Broun's long-lost gem, the new public is in for a lot of treats.

The Sun Field is an untraditional love triangle based on three real people who were very close to Broun. The narrator, called George Wallace, is Broun himself, an earnest, humorous sports writer who falls in love with Judith Winthrop, a Vassar-educated intellectual dynamo and feminist based on Ruth Hale. Before George can claim her heart, he makes the mistake of taking her to her first baseball game, where she becomes infatuated with "Tiny" Tyler, a hulking slugger based on Babe Ruth. Judith pursues Tiny and lands him, and the rest of the novel traces the ups and downs of their unconventional relationship.

That's really all there is to the plot, which is secondary to Broun's focus on their characters and the reasons why they behave as they do. George's character is the simplest; he's on the outside looking in, cares deeply for Judith but recognizes that the only power he has over her is the power of observation. Tiny is more complex. His baseball exploits are clearly Ruthian (though it's ironic that Judith's initial fascination with him comes from watching him make a leaping catch, not a home run), and George speaks of his undisciplined lifestyle, but in Judith's presence we see an uncultured man struggling to keep up with his sophisticated mate. Indeed that's their chief problem; she is attracted to the animal in Tiny, but he sees her as the only "good woman" he has ever known and tries to treat her too well. They're too good for each other.

George and Tiny are both helpless in the presence of the remarkable Judith, who makes the reader realize what an amazing woman Ruth Hale must have been. She is utterly unpredictable. It isn't just that you don't know what she's going to do or say next. You also can't predict what her opinions or values might be or how she will react to the actions or opinions of others. She isn't being contrary; she's being true to her original nature. Nothing gets past her. When Tiny says it must be difficult to understand what's happening at the Moscow Art Theater if you don't know the language, Judith sets him straight by saying, "Don't be silly. I saw you talking to the umpire in Cleveland when he called you out at second. I was so far away I couldn't hear a word and yet I knew exactly what you were saying and you're not an actor." No wonder Tiny, despite his two years at Holy Cross, has trouble feeling comfortable around her.

I wish this novel had been twice as long so I could have kept listening to Judith's original voice. I must admit that it helped that every time she spoke, I heard Katharine Hepburn's voice. There's a good reason for this. I believe that Ruth Hale was the model for the Hepburn character in "Woman of the Year," the 1942 film co-scripted by Ring Lardner, Jr., who probably knew Broun and Hale when he was growing up or at least would have heard all about them. Hepburn's Tess Harding and Broun's Judith Winthrop are virtually identical: highly principled journalists and activists, very intelligent, glib, feminist, passionate, eccentric, disarming, and delightful. Listen to Hepburn's voice as Judith passes judgment on William Shakespeare: "I challenge you to show me that I ever attempted to hurt Shakespeare by spoken or written word. I may have said that the actors have to be genuises to keep him alive, but that's nothing against him. Second rate interpretations of first rate work are always terrible. Of course, I'm not going to swallow Shakespeare whole. He had his off days and he wasn't smart enough or strong-minded enough to take them off and go out poaching or drinking or making love. He was too indolent to stop writing. He insisted on putting words down on paper even when he had nothing to say. A man like Shakespeare ought to be ashamed of himself to have written 'As You Like It.'"

Is it any wonder that poor George couldn't stay away from her? Or that Tiny put her on a pedestal and tried to live up to her standards? Or that I'll be heading for a library sometime soon to read more about Ruth Hale?

All I know now about Ruth Hale is what I read in the first-rate introduction to the Rvive edition of the novel, written by the esteemed baseball novelist Darryl Brock. He notes Hale's protest of the phrase "to obey" in the marriage vows and her work in forming the Lucy Stone League, which campaigned on behalf of married women keeping their maiden names, a big issue with Judith Winthrop as well. The principles raised by Judith are timeless, overcoming the small instances in which the novel is dated. Brock says it best: The Sun Field is "a one-of-a-kind vintage confection with some surprising and delightfully modern flavors."

Read it and savor it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Closer Look: Mickey Mantle's 1956

“Yankee Boosters Measure Mantle for Triple Crown” read the headline in “The Sporting News on the eve of the 1956 season. Teammates and writers were expecting great things from the 24-year-old Oklahoman, even though the statistics from his previous five big league seasons were hardly spectacular. His highest batting average so far was a modest .311, he had surpassed 100 runs batted in only once and never led his team, much less the whole American League, in that department, and his career high in home runs was 37 in 1955, a jump of ten over his previous best.

There was little question about Mantle’s talent. During spring training, Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto noted that “Everybody knows about his speed, but I don’t think many people realize how strong Mickey is. . .One of these days he’s going to take this league apart.” His speed was already legendary; he went from home to first base faster from the right-handed batter’s box than anybody in the majors got there from the left side. Hence the nickname “The Commerce Comet”.

Fans in Florida got a glimpse of things to come during the exhibition games. Mantle blasted six home runs, including the first ball ever hit over the center field fence in Miami Stadium. More importantly, Mantle didn’t strike out until his twelfth game. Like most young players, Mantle was still learning the discipline to lay off bad pitches. He had led the league in strikeouts twice already, and Yankees manager Casey Stengel hadn’t been able to curb his young slugger’s risky habit of attacking the water cooler after fanning.

But when Mantle pulled a tendon in his right leg, the fans also saw the downside: his proneness to leg injuries which were already plaguing him. Writer Dan Daniel called Mantle a “brittle hero,” and Stengel chimed in, saying “That Mickey can hit a ball farther than anybody else I have seen in baseball is a fact. . .But can he keep from getting hurt? Can he stay in the lineup?” That was the consensus heading into the 1956 season. Mantle was a brilliant talent ready to burst into stardom if he could stay healthy and hit the ball often enough. “Which way will his career turn?” Daniel asked. The answer arrived quickly.

What Mantle later termed “my favorite year” began with a double bang on Opening Day, April 17, in Washington, D.C., when he belted two mammoth home runs that thrilled President Dwight Eisenhower. Three days later, in the home opener at Yankee Stadium, he homered again and drove in four runs, but pulled a thigh muscle beating out a drag bunt. Stengel wanted him to rest the next day but Mantle insisted on playing and had three hits, including a shot into the upper deck. Nothing was going to slow him down, not even a pulled ligament in his right knee suffered on April 25. Again he refused to sit out, and by the end of the month he was hitting .415 with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 11 games.

Mantle followed that hot start with a torrid May, batting .414 in 31 games with 16 HR and 35 RBI and finally establishing himself as the biggest star in the league. On May 18 he went 4-for-4 at Chicago and homered from both sides of the plate. May 24 brought a 5-for-5 game at Detroit including a home run, and he capped his prodigious month on May 30 with a towering shot off Pedro Ramos which nearly went out of Yankee Stadium, hitting the fa├žade just two feet below the roof.

With 20 home runs (and only 21 strikeouts) in 42 games through May, Mantle had observers in awe. Bill Dickey declared that Mantle would break every record “except Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 games.” Mel Ott believed Mantle could hit 75 home runs and break the RBI record (190) as well. Mantle himself tried to deflect all the attention, saying “I don’t set any goals as far as hitting goes” and wanting only to play every day. The power surge lagged in early June as Mantle hit only one round-tripper in a dozen games, but the hoopla continued. There was no stopping the press from making comparisons between Mantle and Babe Ruth and publishing the first of continuously updated charts showing how Mantle was staying ahead of “Ruth’s pace” the year the Bambino slugged 60.

The writers felt he was “destined” to win the Triple Crown, with good reason. On June 9, Mantle’s batting average dipped below .400 for the first time since April 21, but he still held comfortable leads in all three categories. On June 15, he led Charlie Maxwell of Detroit .392 to .371 in average, his 22 home runs were six more than runner-up Yogi Berra, and only Harry Simpson of Kansas City was within 10 of his 55 RBI. The National League also sported a Triple Crown candidate in Dale Long of the Pirates, leading the league in average and home runs and second in RBI. Who could slow them down?

On June 5 at Yankee Stadium, Kansas City manager Lou Boudreau tried, unveiling a new, more extreme version of the “Williams Shift” he had devised a decade earlier to combat the best hitter in baseball, Ted Williams. No doubt desperate because Mantle was already 10-for-16 with four home runs in 1956 against his Athletics, Boudreau moved almost all of his fielders out of position when Mantle batted with nobody on base. The second baseman moved into the outfield and over toward the line, the shortstop took the normal second base position, the third baseman was stationed in short center field, the left fielder played a very deep third base, the center fielder played in deep left-center, and the right fielder manned deep right-center.

By bunching his fielders up the middle, Boudreau gave Mantle the outfield corners and the left side of the infield, invited him to push a bunt to third base, then pitched him high and tight. The shift worked. Mantle whiffed his first two times up, failing to bunt twice, but batted later in the game with a runner on, no shift, and socked a home run. Quoted as calling the shift “crazy,” Mantle failed to get a hit against it in four at-bats during the series, and went 4-for-9 when there was no shift. Later in June, at Kansas City, Mantle went 4-for-8 against the shift, but all four hits were singles, including a bunt on a 3-2 pitch.

Mantle wasn’t the only one transfixed by Boudreau’s shift. Some observers maintained that bunting would defeat it, but Stengel said Mantle would be doing the opposition a favor by bunting. A “Sporting News” editorial favored changing the rules to outlaw such gimmick defenses (“Suppose this worries him into a slump?”), and a Japanese newspaper carried an account and diagram of the shift. Other American League managers weighed in more skeptically. Bucky Harris of the Tigers said, “Let Boudreau get the credit—we’ll try to get Mantle out honestly.” White Sox skipper Marty Marion said, “I’m thinking about putting a fielder in the stands,” and Paul Richards of the Orioles suggested simply walking Mantle. That last option was chosen by Pete Ramos of the Senators, the pitcher burned twice by Mantle on Opening Day. When Ramos faced Mantle again late in June, he walked him all four times.

Harris should have taken that approach on June 18 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Mantle came up in the eighth inning of a 4-4 contest with two men on and nobody out. Paul Foytack fired a shoulder-high fastball, and Mantle launched it over the right-field pavilion and out of the ballpark. Only Ted Williams had done that before, but Mantle’s blow was longer, vanishing 20-30 feet more toward center field. Two days later, he added two more home runs to his tally, giving him 27 in 60 games, 18 fewer games than it took Ruth to reach 27 in 1927. Dan Daniel, who traveled with Ruth and the Yankees in 1927, wrote that “it was ultra-exciting, but the Mantle Story has an element of grand theater and intense interest which was not included in the Ruth achievement.”

By this time, Mantle and the Yankees were drawing record crowds on the road. American League President Will Harridge declared that Mantle now rivaled Ruth and Bob Feller as the biggest gate attractions in league history. The attention came with a price. On June 24, 47,255 fans crowded into Comiskey Park in Chicago, and the stands couldn’t hold them. As Daniel put it, “Starting in the sixth inning. . .spectators of all ages and conditions of sobriety kept dashing into the field, some to shake Mickey Mantle’s hand or just feel his uniform.” Daniel estimated the invading forces at two hundred. Those who stayed in the bleachers cursed and screamed at Mantle, who was freaked out by the ordeal. “You see fans rushing into the field, and you don’t know if they are extending a hand or a knife,” he complained. “If I were to shove a fan away, I would be hooted out of the park. You should hear what they holler at me, as it is. And those torn newspapers and scorecards, old sandwiches and fruit they throw into the field. Can’t something be done?” Mantle never did learn to feel safe in the outfield, playing in an era when fans were allowed to storm the field after the game and he frequently had to battle his way back to the safety of the dugout.

Mantle ended June with a nine-game home run drought but belted two on July 1 and led the fan balloting for the upcoming All-Star Game. Then his whole season nearly fell apart at Fenway Park on July 4. On the last play of the first game of a holiday doubleheader, Mantle twisted his right knee chasing a bloop single by Jimmy Piersall and hurt it further making a vain off-balance throw home as the winning run scored. The diagnosis was “strained lateral ligaments,” and Mantle said later that as soon as he was sidelined, he knew he couldn’t catch Ruth. After missing four games, he returned at half-speed in time for the All-Star Game (where he took Warren Spahn deep) but hit only three home runs in the next 19 games.

Late in July, Mantle revealed his statistical goals for the season: 50 home runs, 125 RBI, a .350 average, win the Triple Crown, and forget about Ruth. He told Daniel that his patience was being tested because pitchers weren’t giving him anything to hit any more, preferring to walk him (he drew 30 walks in 25 games in July). He attributed his 1956 success to a change in his left-handed batting stance; by moving away from the plate a little, he was handling the “close pitch letter-high” much better, turning his previous weakness into his new strength. If only he could lay off the bad pitches; in an 18-game stretch beginning July 17, he had eight multi-strikeout games to go with 21 walks.

August was a roller-coaster ride for Mantle the hitter. He was hot early, with a nine-game batting streak (his longest of the season) and eight home runs in an 11-game span to raise his total to 42 and re-ignite the “Ruth pace” mania. His last eight games of August brought even splashier production, as he went 16-for-32 with five home runs, including his fourth of the season off Washington’s Camilo Pascual in a game attended by President Eisenhower, to end the month with 47. In between, however, he suffered his worst slump of the season, a woeful 3-for-31, with 10 strikeouts and no extra-base hits.

He went just 2-for-17 in a four-games series at Baltimore, the only stadium where he failed to hit a home run that season. Orioles manager Paul Richards, who felt that Mantle was a better hitter than Ruth and who had only one pitcher on his staff with more than nine wins in 1956, nonetheless held Mantle to a .268 average and just two home runs. Every offensive stat for Mantle was worse against the Orioles than any other team in the league. Why? Richards said “just by trying everything. We really mixed ‘em up.” Orioles pitchers reported that changing speeds worked against the overeager Mantle. Connie Johnson (who held him hitless) said Mantle seemed “anxious, obviously going for the home run. . .He’s really dangerous, but he’s also a little ‘tight’ up there, from all the pressure he’s under.”

How much pressure was there? It wasn’t only the writers who were trumpeting Mantle’s chances of breaking Ruth’s hallowed record. The previous two challengers to Ruth’s 60 (Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, who both fell short with 58) were both quoted in the August 29 edition of “The Sporting News” as saying they thought Mantle would do it. So did Johnny Mize, who had hit 51 one year. Even Ruth’s widow said she thought Mantle “could” do it. A week earlier, a TSN editorial cited several factors working in Mantle’s favor and ended with this statement: “With a deep bow to the memory of the immortal Bambino, THE SPORTING NEWS hopes Mantle breaks his record.”

There was no mention of the Triple Crown because Mantle seemed uncatchable in all three categories. As September began, only Ted Williams was within 20 points of Mantle’s .366 average, only National Leaguer Duke Snider was within 10 home runs of his 47, and in RBI only Al Kaline, with 107, was within hailing distance of Mantle’s 118. Kaline made up four of those in the first two days of September, and continued to draw closer as Mantle fell into a two-week swoon, going 8-for-46. He failed to drive in a run in September until he nailed a solo homer on the 13th against the Athletics.

By September 15, Mantle’s RBI lead over Kaline stood at three, but that wasn’t his biggest challenge. Williams, a four-time batting champion and the last man to win the Triple Crown (1947), had passed him in the race for the batting title on the 14th and led him .351-.349. Before that battle resumed, there was one other piece of business to get out of the way. Mantle took care of that on September 18 at Chicago by belting an eleventh-inning home run to defeat the White Sox and clinch the pennant for the Yankees. Incidentally, it was Mantle’s 50th home run, making him the first American League to reach that milestone since Greenberg in 1938.

When the Yankees traveled to Boston for a three-game series starting on September 21, Williams still led, .354-.350. Mantle had three hits in the opener (including home run #51), but Williams picked up two singles to maintain a three-point lead. The race swung Mantle’s way in the second game as he stroked a single and a double while Yankees pitchers Don Larsen and Tommy Byrne held Williams hitless. A Williams hit in the ninth inning would have left them tied at .354, but his wicked line drive caromed off Byrne’s foot and right to a fielder who recorded the out.

Mantle suffered a slight muscle pull in his right thigh late in the game, and with the pennant sewed up, Stengel used his star judiciously for the rest of the season, starting him only once in the final seven games. In the Boston finale, Mantle singled as a pinch-hitter, while Williams went hitless, giving Mantle a .356-.349 lead. In the big showdown with Williams at Fenway Park, Mantle had gone 6-for-9, virtually sewing up the batting title.

All he had to worry about was Kaline and the RBI title. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the season for him. At night, he dreamt about it. During games, he thought about it. When the Tigers scored one run on September 28, the first thing Mantle did when he got to the clubhouse after the game was ask a reporter whether Kaline drove in the run. That was Mantle’s last start of the season, which he celebrated with home run #52, putting him four RBI ahead of Kaline. The next day, Stengel pinch-hit Mantle with the bases loaded, and he walked to pick up another RBI. Kaline drove in two to stay close. On September 30, the final day of the season, Stengel found another good spot for Mantle to pinch-hit, and his ground ball drove in a runner from third. That gave him 130, enough to hold off Kaline, who drove in two more to finish with 128.

His final totals for 1956 included a .353 average, 52 home runs, and 130 RBI. In the 50 seasons since then, his numbers would have been good enough for 32 batting titles, 45 home runs titles, 30 RBI titles, and 18 more Triple Crowns. He led the major leagues in all three categories, along with runs (132), total bases (376), and slugging percentage (.705). He did the most damage against Lou Boudreau’s Athletics, with a .450 average, 9 home runs, 22 RBI, and 30 runs scored in 22 games. He slugged 10 home runs against both the Tigers and Indians, while the Orioles held him to two. Yankee Stadium wasn’t the huge advantage we might assume it was; he hit .369 at home with 27 HR and 67 RBI, .336 with 25 HR and 63 RBI on the road.

Mantle had his Triple Crown, and he was rested and healed enough to hit three home runs in the World Series as the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games. He was a unanimous choice as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, and added the Hickok Award as the nation’s greatest professional athlete of 1956. His salary for 1957 nearly doubled, to $60,000. On October 20, he celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday, and nobody in baseball had a brighter future. What happened to that future is another story.

A Closer Look: Rogers Hornsby

One of my favorite parts of the Hall of Fame library’s collection is what we call the “day-by-days”. The day-by-days allow you see what individual players did game by game in a particular season. Similar data is available online at http://www.retrosheet.org/, but only here and there from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. Our library’s microfilm collection includes the whole history of the American League, the National League all the way back to 1891, and other leagues from the 1880s.

The beauty of the day-by-days is that they show you how a player compiled the impressive season totals you see in the encyclopedias. I love looking at the shape of a player’s season and seeing how he experienced the roller-coaster of a six-month march toward greatness. Taking a closer look at the best players in their best seasons always amazes me, and in this column I will examine some of the most eye-popping achievements in baseball history in more detail.

Rogers Hornsby is regarded by many historians as the best right-handed hitter ever, and his fabulous stretch from 1921-25 is the main reason why. For that five-year period, his average season included a .402 batting average, 120 RBI, 123 runs scored, 216 hits, 41 doubles, 13 triples, and 29 home runs. If injuries in 1923 hadn’t kept him from playing only 107 games, those yearly averages would look even more impressive. He won two Triple Crowns and hit over .400 three times in four years, peaking at .424, the highest average in the past hundred years. Nobody could rain base hits all over a ballpark like Hornsby, and he stayed hotter than hot for five straight years. Let’s take a closer look at some of the high points of that streak.

1921: Hornsby had 33 games with at least 3 hits, including five times in six games in July. In August he had 49 hits, and on September 25 he raised his average to .404. But he went only 5-for-22 the rest of the way, going hitless in his final two games to drop to .397. That’s how close he came to hitting .400 four times in five years.

1922: This was Hornsby’s best year, when he won the Triple Crown by hitting .401 with 42 home runs and 152 RBI. Late in the season, he put together a 33-game hit streak, batting .466 with 68 hits. He had multiple hits in 22 of the 33 games. Like Ted Williams in 1941, he was technically hitting .400 going to the last day of the season, with an average of .39967. Like Williams, he chose to play rather than protect his average. He banged out three singles to finish at .401.

1923: After missing several weeks early in the season, Hornsby came back strong in July, batting .488 with a mind-boggling 61 hits. That included a stretch of 13 straight multi-hit games, when he went 33-for-56 (.589). Hobbled by injuries in September, he saw his average drop from .396 to .384 before missing the final 19 games.

1924: Hornsby started fast, hitting .429 in April, and dipped below .400 only briefly, in June. He got hot in July, including five 3-hit games in one week. But that was nothing compared to what he did from August 20-26, arguably the best week any hitter has ever had. His Cardinals played three doubleheaders that week, so he played 10 games, starting with back-to-back twin bills. Against the Phillies on August 20, he went 6-for-7 with three doubles. The next day, facing the Giants, he went 7-for-7, giving him 13 hits in two days! The week ended with a 4-for-4 performance (three doubles and a home run) against Hall of Fame pitcher Burleigh Grimes of the Dodgers. Can you imagine someone getting 27 hits in a week? That’s what Hornsby did. He went 27-for 39 (.692), with 8 doubles, 1 triple, 6 home runs, 16 runs scored, 12 runs batted in, and a slugging percentage of 1.410. That sounds more like some bopper in a slow-pitch softball league. No, it was Rogers Hornsby at his best. He got six hits the next two days, but that was another week. For the month of August, he was 54-for 106, a .509 average.

1925: The hits kept on coming for “The Rajah” as he ran away with his second Triple Crown, hitting .403 with 39 home runs and 143 RBI. A cold July, when he missed a week and hit only .326, forced him to finish fast to surpass .400 again. On September 15, his average stood at .389, and it’s tough to gain points that late in the season. No problem for Mr. Hornsby. He got 18 hits in his final 29 at-bats. Before a September 27 doubleheader, he was hitting .399. He went 2-for-5 in the opener to stay at that mark, then had a single, a triple, a home run and a walk in the nightcap. The next day, he fouled a ball off his foot in batting practice, splitting open a toenail. That forced him to sit out the final four games of the season.

Hornsby won two other batting titles, and had another season, 1929, when he put together stats worthy of a Triple Crown (.380, 39 HR, 149 RBI) without leading the league in any of those categories. He had keen eyesight, studied pitchers, stood deep in the batter’s box, and smacked line drives wherever the pitchers dared throw the ball. A closer look at any of his great seasons reveals the ability of this marvelous hitter to punish pitchers day after day after day.

A Closer Look: Chuck Klein

When we think of the greatest hitting seasons ever, we think first of the players who set the standards in batting average and home runs. Hit over .400, reach the 60-HR plateau, or win the Triple Crown, and baseball fans and historians won’t hesitate to include you on their lists of the best seasons.

However, when I picked the top 20 batting seasons since 1900 for an upcoming book, one of them belonged to a player who led his league only in runs scored, total bases, and doubles. That was Chuck Klein, right fielder of the last-place 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, which had a team batting average of .315 while finishing 40 games behind in the standings. On such a team, how good could Klein have been to crack my top 20? A closer look will demonstrate just how great he was.

It is widely acknowledged that 1930 was a greater season for offense than even the homer-happy years of the past decade. Six of the eight National League teams had team batting averages over .300, Bill Terry of the Giants became the league’s last .400 hitter, and Hack Wilson of the Cubs set the major-league record of 191 RBI. Those last two accomplishments took care of Chuck Klein’s chances to win the Triple Crown, even though his numbers in the three categories would have been sufficient to win the Triple Crown in 57 seasons of the twentieth century.

A quick tally of Klein’s statistics from 1930 shows how impressively they rank in the big picture. His 445 total bases are the fourth-highest total ever. He had 250 hits, a figure topped only four times (one of those was Terry in 1930, keeping Klein from leading the league). He drove in 170 runs, second in National League history and tied for eighth all-time. He set two NL records, scoring 158 runs and smacking 107 extra-base hits (both totals exceeded only by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig). His 59 doubles tied for seventh all-time and third in the NL. He batted .386, #35 in the rankings, and his .687 slugging percentage cracks the top 50. His home run total was a relatively modest 40, second in the league behind Wilson’s 56 (the only year from 1929-1933 when he didn’t lead the league). Add all this up, and it’s clearly one of the best offensive seasons ever.

The 1930 National League batting race was one of the most torrid on record. Klein’s Philadelphia teammate, Lefty O’Doul, got off to the hottest start in defense of the batting crown he had won in 1929 with a .398 average and 254 hits. Twenty games into the season, O’Doul was batting .500, with nine other regulars over .400. Through 100 at-bats, Klein had a modest .360 mark, but he got hot in mid-May, reeling off a 26-game hitting streak during which he hit .486 (53-for-109) and raised his average to .426 before cooling off a bit.

After a modest 14-game hitting streak that began in late June, Klein launched another 26-game streak on July 12. Within a week, he climbed back over .400, trailing only O’Doul in the batting race and 15 points ahead of a trio of sluggers—Terry, Babe Herman of the Dodgers, and Riggs Stephenson of the Cubs. As August began, his average stood at .411, leading the league, with O’Doul just over .400 and Terry and Herman just below it.

During that second long streak, Klein batted .434 (49-for-113). Unfortunately, he followed with his only slump of the season, just 21 hits in his next 75 at-bats (.280). Over roughly the same stretch, Terry went 37-for-80 (.463) and took over the lead, with Herman also leapfrogging over Klein and .400 the same week. Klein dropped below .400 on August 16 and never reached it again, though he did reel off another 14-game hitting streak in September. When the dust settled at the end of the season, Terry took the batting crown by hitting .401, Herman’s .393 was second, and Klein finished third at .386, three points ahead of O’Doul.

Klein batted safely in 135 games in 1930, a major-league record he shares with four other hitters (most recently Ichiro Suzuki in 2001). In one stretch, he got a hit in 71 of 75 games. He had four hits in a game seven times, three hits 18 times, and two hits 58 times. That’s 83 multi-hit games in 156 games played, a remarkable number. Of those multi-hit games, 48 came at home, where he was held hitless only five times in 77 games.

“Home” was Baker Bowl in Philadelphia, which brings up the problem some historians have had with Klein’s achievements. Baker Bowl featured a cozy right field with a high tin fence, only 280 feet down the line when Klein played there and barely 300 feet to the power alley. Those dimensions helped Klein record 44 assists in 1930, still the record for outfielders. Baker Bowl was paradise for lefties like Klein and O’Doul, whose averages soared compared to their performances on the road. Here is the home-road breakdown for Klein in 1930

Games AB R H TB 2B 3B HR RBI AVG
Home 77 326 91 143 259 32 3 26 109 .439
Road 79 322 67 107 186 27 5 14 61 .332

Clearly, Klein’s home stats were spectacular and his road stats merely very good. Double his home numbers and Klein would have set records for runs, hits, total bases, and RBI. It was much the same during the other seasons of the fantastic five-year stretch (1929-1933) which eventually propelled him into the Hall of Fame. Ironically, when he finally won the Triple Crown in 1933, his stats were far from his gaudiest, about what he would have had (.368 average with 28 HR, 120 RBI) if he had played the whole 1930 season on the road.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Despiction Accolodes Award

I created the "Despiction Accolodes Award" in 2006 to dis-honor instances of conspicuous mangling of the English language. It was named for two verbal gaffes committed by Tom Seaver at the 2006 Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. Seaver was reading the text of the Ford Frick Award for broadcasting, given that year to Gene Elston. The text noted that Elston had received many accolades for his depiction of baseball action, but that isn't how it came out of Seaver's mouth. Errors on the pitcher making the presentation in front of thousands of spectators, but also a charmingly jarring phrase which seemed to me appropriate for other occasions when English has taken an inadvertant beating.

Only a couple of weeks after Seaver uttered those non-words, I announced the inaugural winner of the award, the John F. Turner Company, which produced the "2006 New York Yankees Day-by-Day Calendar." Like most sports-related calendars, this one included daily factoids and historical snippets, including this item: "In 1999, each Yankee wore a [sic] African American #5 armband in honor of Joe DiMaggio."

What?

When contacted, the company representative explained that "African American #5" was not some obscure font, but rather the result of their computer editing program deeming the word "black" to be politically incorrect in these days of modern times, and therefore not fit for publication. The editing program routinely replaced the word "black" with "African American," regardless of content.

I have not found out the name of the company which produced that editing program, but they will get an award, too, when I do. Meanwhile, the award went to John F. Turner Company for not having the common sense to re-correct that ill-conceived "correction".

That was, quite obviously, an African American day for the English language, but it does put many other things--in and out of baseball--in a new perspective. Here are some other examples of how that editing program would be mis-applied:

1) At home games, New York Yankees wear white uniforms with African American pinstripes.

2) Until Pete Rose came along, the most disgraceful gambling-related episode in baseball history was the so-called "African American Sox" scandal involving the fixed 1919 World Series.

3) The 1952 National League Rookie of the Year was Joe African American, who by sheer coincidence was African American.

4) Elizabeth Taylor had her first starring role in "African American Beauty."

5) The HUAC hearings of Joseph McCarthy resulted in ten prominent Hollywood figures being African American listed.

6) Ozzy Osbourne is the lead singer of African American Sabbath.

7) The most disastrous day in stock market history was October 29, 1929, known forever as "African American Tuesday."

8) Aspiring fraternity brothers hope and pray that they won't be African American balled.

9) I have several correspondents who regularly contact me using their African American Berrys.

10) Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith co-starred in "Men in African American."

11) The fourth-longest tenure in Supreme Court history (1937-1971) was that of Justice Hugo African American.

12) After his fight with Muhammad Ali, George Chuvalo had African American-and-blue marks all over his face.

13) There are regions all over the vast universe in which entire galaxies have vanished into African American holes.

14) In the movie "Bus Stop," Marilyn Monroe sang a scintillating version of "That Old African American Magic."

15) Kudos to the MIT students who were able to beat the Las Vegas casinos at African American jack.

16) Thank Paul McCartney for that haunting lyric, "African American bird singing in the dead of night."

17) One of the most notorious pirates was Edward Teach, better known as "African American Beard."

18) If you have a problem with African American heads, go to a pharmacy and get some ointment.

19) Beware of the venom of the African American widow (spider).

20) When an airplane crashes, the first thing investigators look for is the African American box.

21) [From George Steedle] "I'm old-fashioned, I still watch African American and white television."

Suggestions for additions to this list are welcome, as are nominations for future winners of the "Despiction Accolodes Award."