Thursday, December 16, 2010

Checking A Swing--And Checking It Twice

Baseball fans and historians received an early Christmas present last night from the MLB Network with its special telecast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Only a few months after a long-forgotten kinescope was found in the vault of Bing Crosby, part-owner of the Pirates in 1960, MLB Network staged a long-to-be-remembered event in Pittsburgh as participants in the Series watched complete-game footage of one of the most thrilling Series games ever. As the 9th inning began, Bobby Richardson--the lone member of the losing Yankees in attendance--said to Dick Groat, "this is exciting." Indeed it was.

A few things made a strong impression on me. One was the sparse commentary of the two announcers, Bob Prince and Mel Allen. We're so inundated today with the repetitious over-explanation by analysts of everything under the sun that it was refreshing to hear a solitary announcer simply describing the action. On the other hand, even though today's telecasts also overuse replays (do we really need six camera angles on every play?), it would've been helpful to have just a few judiciously added replays 50 years ago. Mel Allen, for instance, could only tell us that Tony Kubek had been hit "in the face" by Bill Virdon's bad-hop bouncer in the 8th inning. One brief slow-motion view would've showed that Kubek was hit in the Adam's Apple, making it clear why he had to leave the game. Two other plays would have been clearer with one or two extra views: Bob Prince was sure that Yogi Berra's 6th-inning blast was foul, but it was ruled a home run, and I would've liked a different angle showing how far inside the pole it was; in the top of the 9th there was the bizarre play on which the tying run scored while Mickey Mantle eluded Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson on a bang-bang play at first. SABR members have debated this play for a long time, trying to figure out whether Nelson was at fault, Mantle was brilliant, or the whole thing was just dumb luck. On last night's telecast, Richardson quoted Mantle as telling him that he "froze" on the play (making it dumb luck), but it appeared that Nelson took a step toward second base, giving Mantle just enough room to dive away from his tag. A view looking along the baseline between first and second would help us see exactly how the two players moved.

In the discussion after the telecast, Dick Groat noted how horrible the infield looked. I noticed it early in the game, too. Every footstep on the infield dirt seemed to leave a large imprint, and there were rough spots all over the place. It seemed to me that the infield was not "dragged" after the 5th inning, as is customary today. If so, that would account for the wicked hop that turned an easy double-play ball into the end of Kubek's season, setting the stage for the five-run rally that gave the Pirates the lead heading to the 9th inning.

Another thing I couldn't help noticing was that Roberto Clemente looked horrible. I know how great his career was, and it was touching to hear his widow Vera telling the crowd at the Pittsburgh theater how he loved Pittsburgh and how strong his presence remains. However, he looked sloppy while fumbling two base hits, and I'm at a loss to explain his batting style. From the first pitch he saw, he stepped in the bucket more than any player I've ever seen. In that first at-bat, I thought perhaps he was stepping away from the plate because he expected to be knocked down after the previous batter, Nelson, homered. But he continued with that surprising style the rest of the game. He started with a closed stance, his left foot close to the plate, and as the pitch was released he stepped way to his left, putting his foot down nearly on the batter's box line closest to the third-base dugout. Could Al Simmons, the earlier Hall of Famer dubbed "Bucketfoot," have stepped any further from the plate? I don't see how. Clemente hit the ball weakly every time up, and I wondered whether he was making an extreme adjustment because the Yankees were pitching him inside. Nope. In the 8th inning, he finally got a hit--on an outside pitch. He stepped way in the bucket, extended his long arms as far as he could, flailed at the pitch, caught it weakly on the end of his bat, and hit a chopper which went for a hit only because the pitcher failed to cover first base. I saw Clemente play a lot of games in the second half of his career, and I don't remember him stepping in the bucket like he did in 1960. Help me out, Pirates fans--did you see what I saw, and did he keep doing that for the rest of his career?

But that's not why I'm here today. I want to talk about check-swings. That's what I was looking for in the telecast, and that's what I found. Watching video of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series several years ago, I noticed back-to-back pitches by Sandy Koufax on which Don Mincher took mighty swings that stopped with the bat pointed (more or less) at the foul pole--in other words, about 80% of a full swing. Both pitches were called balls, and the announcer remarked matter-of-factly that Mincher had held up his swing. This was long before the home-plate umpire was willing to yield to a base umpire on this call, and it was accepted as a check-swing. Today, we see strikes called on swings that are maybe 20% of a full swing. So yes, I'm saying that Mincher went four times further past the "plane" that determines the call today than today's players go when their check-swings are called strikes. I wondered whether I'd find more evidence of what I see as just about the only rule of the 1960s that went against pitchers.

Boy, did I! Did you? Can you picture them before you read further? The two I saw happened to come on two key at-bats, and they made a material difference in the outcome of the game. Without them, the Pirates would still have been playing catch-up after Bill Mazeroski's home run.

The first one occurred in the top of the 6th inning. The Yankees trailed, 4-1, and Richardson led off with a single, bringing up Kubek. With two strikes, Kubek made a whip-like swing on a borderline pitch, swinging about as far as Mincher did, so that when the bat's motion stopped it was pointing somewhere between right fielder Clemente and the right-field foul line. "He checked it," said Mel Allen as home plate umpire Bill Jackowski called it a ball. We could hear some Pirates fans yelping, but that was the extent of the protest. Kubek eventually walked, putting two runners on base for the heart of the Yankees order. Mickey Mantle singled in a run, and Berra's three-run home run put the Yankees ahead 5-4. If Kubek had struck out--as he would have today on the check-swing--the score would have been 4-4 at most.

But that was nothing compared to what happened in the bottom of the 8th. Trailing 7-4, the Pirates rallied thanks to the bad hop which nailed Kubek in the throat. (Was that karma for his getting away with the swing in the 6th?) With two outs, Clemente's cheap hit got the Pirates close at 7-6, leaving two runners on for catcher Hal Smith. Did you see what happened next?

On a 1-1 pitch, Smith took a hellacious swing, trying to hit the ball a mile. He missed by a mile for strike two. On the next pitch, he started to do the same thing, breaking his wrists but snapping the bat back about the time it was pointed at the left-field foul pole. Another 80% swing. Ball two, according to Jackowski. Catcher John Blanchard said something to him and Casey Stengel paced the Yankees bench, but there was no argument. That's the way the check-swing rule (which has always been the vaguest rule in the book and still is, which is why today's umpires display no consistency in applying it) was interpreted then. If you didn't follow through completely on a swing, it was a check-swing and a ball.

On the 2-2 pitch, Smith took another hellacious swing, and this time he connected for a three-run home run. He should've been out on strikes, but no. Instead he came close to being one of the all-time World Series heroes. Only a two-run rally in the top of the 9th by the Yankees stole Smith's glory, leaving the game tied, 9-9, and setting the stage for Mazeroski to become the enduring hero.

If the swings by Kubek and Smith occurred today, they both would've been rung up by the home plate umpire, with not a murmur of protest. The Yankees would've led 6-4 instead of 7-4 going to the bottom of the 8th, and Smith's strikeout would've left the teams tied 6-6. The Yankees would've gone ahead 8-6 in the 9th, and Mazeroski's blast would've made it 8-7, with the Pirates still batting. Of course, as everyone agreed at the Pittsburgh event where the kinescope was played, the Pirates' destiny was to keep coming back in 1960, and they would've won anyway. Somehow. But not the way we know it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fraudulent History 101

So Marvin Miller got screwed again this week in the Hall of Fame balloting. Who didn't see that coming? Miller certainly saw it coming, undoubtedly the reason why he requested that his name be kept off future Veterans Committee ballots after being snubbed in 2008. That time around, the committee was heavily stacked against him, loaded with executives who had been bested by Miller in labor negotiations and exacted their revenge by shutting him out. This time, the new composition of the committee gave Miller a chance, but he still fell a tantalizing one vote short.

Miller issued a blistering statement that put a lot of things into focus. Here is part of what he said: "Many years ago those who control the Hall decided to rewrite history instead of recording it. The aim was to eradicate the history of the tremendous impact of the players' union on the progress and development of the game as a competitive sport, as entertainment, and as an industry. The union was the moving force in bringing Major League Baseball from the 19th century to the 21st century. . . .That is a difficult record to eradicate--and the Hall has failed to do it. A long time ago, it became apparent that the Hall sought to bury me long before my time, as a metaphor for burying the union and eradicating its real influence. Its failure is exemplified by the fact that I and the union of players have received far more support, publicity, and appreciation from countless fans, players, writers, scholars, experts in labor management relations, than if the Hall had not embarked on its futile and fraudent attempt to rewrite history."

There was more, but that's the gist of it. I'd like to bypass the personal issues here and focus on the history itself, starting with Miller's assertion about taking baseball from the 19th century to the 21st. I think he's understating it; I'd say he took baseball forward from the 17th century. That's when thousands of people moved to the United States as indentured servants, just a step or two above slavery. There was a time limit to the servitude of indentured servants, but the people who had contracted them could transfer their work obligation to someone else. It wasn't outright ownership like slavery, but the servant had no say in whom he would be working for from one day to the next.

That's what the reserve clause in baseball did. Created in 1879, by the mid-1880s the reserve clause was a tool the owners used to make money by selling players' services to other teams. The player had no choice but to report to his new team--or be blacklisted entirely from the professional sport. More than 80 years later, when Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause, he was blasted by owners (and sympathetic writers) for daring to defy an owner who was paying him $90,000 a year. Flood replied that "a well-paid slave is a slave nonetheless." Actually, he was an exception--by being well-paid. Most of his teammates and fellow major leaguers were poorly paid slaves.

When Marvin Miller was hired to run the players' union in 1966, the minimum salary was $6,000, roughly what it had been for decades. Miller was vilified by owners and the press as a Communist or, worse, the pawn of "The Mob". They raised the specter of Jimmy Hoffa coming into clubhouses to dictate policy and strategy. The players hired Miller primarily because they had doubts about management's ability to administer the players' pension plan. But he realized right away that the players had been brainwashed for decades to believe that the owners were benevolent sportsmen who must love baseball because they weren't making any money from it. It took another 40 years for owners to admit that they've been making a fortune all along and to stop stonewalling the players' union during negotiations by poor-mouthing themselves.

I had the good fortune to interview Marvin Miller in 1992. He and his wife graciously hosted me at their Manhattan apartment, where Miller and I talked for two hours. I got a first-hand lesson in why owners thought he brainwashed the players. A union rabble-rou ser is generally portrayed as some combination of agitated, strident, angry, bullying, fast-talking, and overbearing. Miller was none of these things. He was calm, soft-spoken, and patient. As the players' representative, he was outraged at the conditions he discovered, indignant about how badly the players were treated, and confident in taking the moral high ground on their behalf. Those were the qualities that enabled him to outlast the owners every time. He knew he was right and knew that the owners' self-interest would prevent them from remaining unified in the long run.

Of course, Miller is best-known for overturning the reserve clause, which existed for nearly one century and was considered the backbone of the baseball business. Here's where his statement about "eradicating" history applies. Unless you were around at the time, you have no idea of how tenaciously management clung to the notion of the reserve clause as essential. Time and again, the owners and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that if the reserve clause disappeared, baseball would go out of business. It was that simple. A milder statement of this conviction appeared in Kuhn's book Hardball: "There was no doubt in my mind that the game's integrity and public confidence were at stake in the potential destruction of the reserve system." The key argument advanced was that if players became free agents and could sign wherever they wanted, the "rich" clubs would buy up all the best players and destroy the notion of competitive balance (that's what Kuhn meant by "the game's integrity").

In fact, there was only a myth of competitive balance. From 1921-1968, a 48-year span leading up to the "playoff era," the Yankees won 29 American League pennants (60%). In the National League, the Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers combined to win 33 pennants (69%). What kind of competitive balance was that? In the last ten years, nine different franchises have won the World Series, and 14 franchises have made the World Series (with only the Yankees appearing more than twice). That is competitive balance, and it exists because there is no longer a reserve clause.

Miller's 15-year tenure as executive director of the MLBPA (and post-retirement advisor/guru status with subsequent union leaders) was not just about making the players rich or creating a lucrative pension plan well beyond the dreams of the men who hired him. No issue was too small for him when a principle or the welfare of players was involved. When I interviewed him, for instance, he told me that he continually had to remind the owners that "the players are your only assets". Take Royals Stadium, which opened in 1970 and was designated as the site for that year's All-Star Game. Miller learned that the "warning track" at the new park was not a cinder or dirt section but rather a part of the outfield Astroturf painted a different color! He brought this dangerous situation to the attention of Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, whose response was "well, outfielders pretty much know where the fences are." Miller had to point out that an outfielder chasing a long fly ball is looking up at the ball, not down to see where the Astroturf changes color. Kauffman refused to do anything about it--until Miller threatened to have the players boycott the All-Star Game. Only then did Kauffman put in a warning track that the players could feel as they ran toward the wall. Same thing with padded walls, an innovation he had to fight for. I would've thought that the first time Pete Reiser ran into a wall back in the 1940s and received last rites on the field, owners would've padded the walls. But no. It wasn't until Miller came along that players were protected from running into concrete walls and chain-link fences. It was the right thing to do, and he plugged away until it was done.

Let's cut to the chase: is it accurate to say that the Hall of Fame has embarked on a "futile and fraudulent attempt to rewrite history"? Yes. Has it done so by excluding Miller from the ranks of inductees? I don't think so. The first time Miller came up for election, the majority of voters were living Hall of Famers, and that was the most shocking failure of an electorate to enshrine Miller. If the players who benefited so greatly from his work didn't overwhelmingly elect him, that was strong evidence of Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson's statement after this week's election that this is a reminder of just how tough it is to get elected. Yes, the Hall of Fame stacked the deck against Miller in 2008. I don't think that was the case this year. Miller needed 12 votes out of 16. There were eight players and four writers on the committee. There is no rational reason why he shouldn't have gotten all 12 of those votes. The one person who (no doubt) joined the four executives in refusing to vote for Miller is the asshole who should be strung up. I don't think you can pin this one on the Hall of Fame.

However, I don't think Miller was simply referring to his own non-election as this "fraudulent attempt to rewrite history". I think he was referring to the 2008 election of Bowie Kuhn to the Hall of Fame (by the same management-loaded voting body that gave Miller his lowest percentage of votes), an election viewed by a large portion of the Hall of Fame staff as the biggest joke since Morgan Bulkeley was elected back in 1937 because he was a one-year figurehead president of the National League.

One of my duties as a Hall of Fame library researcher was to copy-edit and critique proposed plaque text for newly elected Hall of Famers. I pointed out several inaccuracies in the proposed text for Kuhn, who was apparently being immortalized for things he didn't do. I am chagrined to report that my suggested changes were not adopted, and the inaccuracies remain on the plaque that is hanging in the main gallery of the Hall of Fame museum in Cooperstown.

When the person who wrote the original text described Kuhn's administration as "proactive and inventive," I wrote a note in the margin asking for some clarification of what those adjectives meant when applied to Kuhn, and requested some specific examples of what was meant. I'm still waiting for a response apart from the fact that those vague adjectives made it onto the final plaque. If you read a book like John Helyar's Lords of the Realm, you get a portrait of Kuhn as a man who fought progress and innovation on almost every front. He led the battle against the reserve clause and kept his head firmly planted in the sand on nearly every issue involving the balance of power between the owners and players. This was perfectly understandable: he was hired by the owners and owed his power to Walter O'Malley and the other owners who actually ran the game.

Let's look at some of the other statements on Kuhn's plaque. The one I fought the hardest to delete was the claim that Kuhn "extended postseason with creation of the league championship series." That simply is not so. Kuhn's tenure as commissioner began in February, 1969. The expansion from 20 to 24 teams occurred in 1969, as did the institution of divisional play and the second tier of playoffs, the LCS, which preceded the World Series. The Hall of Fame would like us to believe that Kuhn created all of this in the two months between the date when he took office and the start of the 1969. That's bullshit. Expansion was okayed two years before that, the expansion draft occurred in 1968, and the playoff system was solidly in place before the owners turned to Kuhn as a one-year compromise commissioner when they couldn't elect anyone else. Kuhn had nothing to do with the creation of the LCS.

Another statement of purported fact which I protested was the assertion that Kuhn "tripled major league attendance" during his tenure (1969-1984). That simply isn't true. In 1962, the first year when there were 20 major league teams, MLB attendance totaled 22,519,278. That's a little over 1.1 million per team. Attendance in the 1960s peaked at a little over 25 million in 1966, and in 1968, the last year before Kuhn became commissioner, it was 23,102,745. That was still less than 1.2 million per team.

The highest attendance during Kuhn's tenure was 45,540,302, in 1983. In his final year, 1984, attendance was 44,742,863. These figures are less than twice the figures from 1968, so how this translates into tripling attendance is beyond me. Moreover, by the 1980s the majors had expanded from 20 to 26 teams. The average attendance in 1984 was roughly 1.7 million per team. That's barely a 50% increase over 1968. That's way further from tripling attendance (or 300%, for those of you keeping score at home) than the total figure. But that's what his plaque in Cooperstown says he did. Huh?

In fact, it was Kuhn's poor business record which caused owners to oust him in 1984. As Expos owner Charles Bronfman put it (quoted in Helyar's book), "the economics of the industry were in bad shape and Bowie wouldn't do anything to help. As salaries started to escalate, you had to improve revenue streams." Gee, it sounds as though MLB needed a commissioner who was "proactive and inventive" to come in and save the day, because Kuhn was neither of those things. So they hired Peter Ueberroth, who proved to be proactive and inventive by instituting the collusion policy which later cost MLB some $280 million in lawsuits. But that's another story.

I'm far from the first observer to point out that Bowie Kuhn being in the Hall of Fame while Marvin Miller is not, is the biggest travesty of recent baseball history. It's that simple, and it definitely constitutes fraudulent history. Nobody has had a bigger influence on the past 40 years of baseball than Miller. What Branch Rickey did for African-American ballplayers, Miller did for all ballplayers. He freed them. He liberated them over the strident protests of Kuhn and the owners that he would kill baseball by doing so. Say what you want about the balance of power possibly tipping too far in the players' favor in recent years. Maybe it's 60-40% in favor of the players today, and that might or might not be a good thing. Before Miller took over, it was 100-0% in favor of the owners, an evil only he was patient and shrewd enough to overcome. For that, he should've been elected 20 years ago.