RIP Hank Aaron, 1934-2021

24 03 2021

As an irregular and irrational baseball fan my whole life, I can’t describe the sadness I felt when I learned Hank Aaron died.  In the world of twitter today, it was reported outlets early the morning of January 22nd.  I remember hoping it wasn’t true – ESPN, CNN/SI and other major outlets were silent for over an hour that morning.  I thought maybe it was a mistake –  that Atlanta paper/website surely will go out of business.  In all the sadness brought by COVID-19, I knew that his last tweets from his account was about 10 days or two weeks earlier of him getting the COVID-19 vaccine.  I thought about the misinformation that would spread about COVID vaccines.

But mostly I thought about a hero who I’d never seen play but meant so much to my baseball fandom.

Alas, the first reporters were correct and at some level were just doing their job.  To report the passing of a legend, and more importantly, an American hero.

Hank Aaron is the first name in the baseball encyclopedia.  Just before his brother, Tommy Aaron.  It’s fitting, for so long he was the record holder of the most important record in the game.  Once that record was broken, it seemed to lose much of its luster.  In a way it was the baseball’s Berlin wall, the last abdication of the throne of America’s game to the NFL.

I’m still at a loss for words about Aaron’s death.  I met him for about 20 seconds getting an autograph.  I’ve pulled an autograph of his from a Topps pack.  Both were when he was older and clearly couldn’t pen a gem like he could in his youth or middle age.  In a way, that was all the more special.  Aaron’s beauty was always that he was human in a way that Babe Ruth (or comic book Bonds) never seemed.  When he died, he was not the greatest living player – that would belong to Mays or Bonds depending on how you want to consider PEDs.  But he was the game’s biggest icon, and a month later I still don’t feel like going through his biography on SABR like some of the other players who’ve passed away.  Pointing out that he won the 1957 MVP feels fairly insignificant.

I’d say this – Tom Stanton has a great book about the build up to Aaron’s record breaking homer to pass Ruth.  I plan on reading that again this year (and I never read a book twice!).

Rest in Peace Hank, you had a hammer and you used it to shape our country for the best.





RIP Don Sutton, 1945-2021

21 03 2021

Less than 2 weeks after Tommy LaSorda died, another Dodgers great passed away when Don Sutton died on January 19th after a long battle with cancer.  After Seaver and Niekro – Sutton was the third 300 game winner of the past year.

Sutton was a model of consistency.  He came up to the Dodgers’ big league club in 1966 at the age of 21 and went 12-12 over 225 innings for the team.  He was the 4th starter for the NL champions – but there was a lot to say for being that reliable for a top notch team.  He overlapped that one season with Sandy Koufax – Koufax (who is only 9 years older than Sutton), was finishing up the most dominant pitching stretch in modern history.  He would retire after the Dodgers were swept in the World Series by the Baltimore Orioles.  Sutton didn’t get to pitch in that World Series – and the disappointment at the game’s greatest stage became something of a theme for this all-time great.

That aside, Sutton became a workhorse like quite a few of the great pitchers of that era.  He threw over 200 innings for 20 of the next 21 seasons – only missing the 1981 strike season when he pitched 159 innings and would have almost assuredly met that mark in a full season.  Even in 1987 at the age of 42, he missed the 200 mark by a mere 8.1 innings.

I found an interesting (dubious) record for Sutton – he has the most at bats in MLB history without a homer.

Back to the postseason.  What struck me with Sutton was how unlucky he seamed to be as far as getting a World Series ring.  He lit the minor leagues on fire in 1965, going 23-7 at A and AA level but wasn’t called up when the Dodgers won the World Series.  The next year he was debatably the Dodgers 2nd best pitcher but didn’t get to pitch in the World Sereis – with the Dodgers down 3-0, Walter Alston passed him over for Don Drysdale for game 4 (Drysdale pitched great in a 1-0 loss, the Dodgers issue was their hitting which scored 2 runs in the whole series).

The Dodgers made 3 more World Series in his tenure with the team – losing 4-1 to Oakland in 1974, then dumping back to back series to the Yankees in 1977 and 1978.  After 15 seasons with the Dodgers, Sutton left via free agency to join the Astros in 1981 – and of course, LA won the World Series.  In 1982, he was traded to the Brewers, who lost to the Cardinals 4-3 (in fairness, he contributed greatly to that loss).  In 1985 he was with the fabled Angels who lost the ALCS in 7 games to the Boston Red Sox.

He went back to the Dodgers in 1988 for his last season, and though he didn’t finish the season there, he technically notched that World Series ring.  He retired as (and still is) the Dodgers all-time leader in just about every cumulative statistic – though Clayton Kershaw could pass a few of those (or at least strikeouts).

RIP to an underrated pitcher!

 





RIP Tommy LaSorda, 1927-2021

19 03 2021

It didn’t take long for 2021 to continue the trend of us losing Hall of Famers.  On January 7th, after years of scares from heart troubles, a heart attack claimed the life of former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Lasorda’s baseball life was incredible.  If he never went into managing, he would have been footnoted as a great minor leaguer who just didn’t make it at the next level.  He won 136 games in the minor leagues – 110 of them at the AAA level.  He’s the Montreal Royals (the Dodgers’ top farm team from the 40s and 50s) all-time leader in wins and is in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.  Yet he pitched in a total of 26 games at the Major League level and never notched a pitching victory: 0-4, 6.48 ERA, 37 K, 56 walks and 53 hits in 58 innings.  Clearly he had good stuff that he couldn’t control.  He did get one save!  Though I think that may have been retroactive – before MLB actually called it a stat.

Lasorda may have been the victim of bad timing, he lost 2 years (1946-47) while enlisted in the Army.  But he also was part of a great organization in the Dodgers.  He threw pitches to Roy Campanella.  He was on the same staff of Sandy Koufax and Don Newcombe in the Majors and with Don Drysdale in the Minors.  He was teammates with Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and (with the KC Athletics) Enos Slaughter. He pitched (albeit poorly) for the the “Dem Bums” team that ended the Dodgers World Series drought.

His managerial record is stellar.  1,599 wins, 2 World Series wins and 2 more appearances.  If you just looked at those 20 years at the helm for the Dodgers I don’t think that would make him the slam dunk Hall of Famer that he ended up being.  From 1948 on, with the exception of 1956 when he was with the A’s and Yankees organizations, he was a Dodger.  70+ years affiliated with the same organization in just about every capacity (minor leaguer, major leaguer, scout, minor league manager, major league coach, major league manager, front office executive and consultant).  And the pizazz and general fun that he was known for, which is well captured in the card above.  He lived a good, long life, and though the Dodgers are the reigning champs – they will miss not having Lasorda as a part of their organization for the first time since they moved to Los Angeles.

RIP Tommy Lasorda – 1927-2021.





RIP Phil Niekro, 1939-2020

11 03 2021

Back to catching up on a few more of these posts.  The next Hall of Famer who passed away doesn’t hit home for me like Joe Morgan did, but Phil Niekro’s passing does make me sad how many 300 game winners have passed away.  I am guessing Randy Johnson will be the last of that club.

Since I came into card-collecting age in the late 80’s – my cardboard memories of Phil Niekro are not with the team where he spent the overwhelming majority of his career.  In fact, the 1988 Topps Record Breaker subset (2nd in the middle row) with his brother is easily the card I think of first for him.

But he spent 20 (plus 1 additional start) of his 24 seasons with the Braves, and was a phenomenal knuckler who ate up a ton of innings for some pretty bad Braves teams.  In his career, he only pitched in 2 playoff games – 13 years apart the Braves made the 1969 and 1982 NLCS – both times swept by the eventual World Champions.  He went 0-1 with an OK 3.86 ERA over 14 innings in his 2 starts.

He was born in Blaine, Ohio, just a little past the Ohio River from West Virginia and his family moved a mile or so east to Lansing shortly after he was born.  His father, a coal miner who played some baseball in his free time, taught him the knuckleball when he was about 8 years old.  Phil practiced the pitch with his best friend growing up – John Havlicek.  Pretty amazing that in about 6 years – considering Phil, his younger brother Joe and Havlicek – the same tiny town of 500 or so could produce 26,000 NBA points and 539 MLB wins!

They attended Bridgeport High School one town over, Havlicek went on to play basketball for Ohio State while Phil was signed to play in the Braves minor league system.  Here’s a great article on Niekro and Havlicek growing up.

Niekro struggled at first, nearly getting cut from class D ball.  For comparison, Havlicek (despite going to 4 years of college and being a year younger) made it to the NBA 2 years ahead of Niekro, and Phil didn’t come up to MLB for good for another 3 years after that.  Some of that was his knuckle ball – it was hard to catch.  Some of that was that he spent 1963 away from pro ball in military service.  And finally, in 1964 when he did come up as a reliever, he was soon sent back down because the Braves realized he was good enough to become a starter.  After two more years of back and forth – he came up for good in 1967, going 11-9 with a 1.87 ERA (his lone ERA title).

From there, he became a steady workhorse for the Braves.  He went 23-13 in 1969, winning the division clinching game for the Braves that year and notching a second place Cy Young finish (which meant he got 1 vote – Tom Seaver was the runaway winner).  He has been quoted saying that was his best year – but I think he’s selling his seasons in the late 70’s short.  He probably deserved the Cy Young Award in 1978, when he threw 334 innings (74 more than winner Gaylord Perry).  But the Braves offense was awful and writer’s of the time weren’t going to reward a 19-18 record.

Here’s some highlights of looking through his statistical accomplishments – and I must say, I didn’t realize how good he was!

  • Niekro was the last pitcher to throw over 310 innings in a season (342 in 1979), and only Steve Carlton (304 the next year) has thrown 300 since.  Those 342 innings pitched were in his age 40 season!
  • From 1977 to 1979 he averaged 336 innings pitched per season, and over a 7 year span from 1974 to 1980 he averaged over 300 IP!
  • His 5,400 innings pitched place him 4th all-time, and the 3 guys ahead of him (Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson) all pitched before 1928.
  • In that 1979 season he led the National League in both wins and losses (I believe he’s the only player to do this).  He went 21-20.  Niekro and Wilbur Wood (24-20 in 1973), are the only pitchers to have 20 wins and losses in the same season since the Dead Ball era.  Nobody has had more than 34 decisions since that season.
  • Niekro won his 300th game at the age of 46 – throwing a shutout for the Yankees and becoming the oldest pitcher in history to throw a shutout (Jamie Moyer has since eclipsed that record).
  • Niekro is incredibly underrated, in part because his teams were really bad.  His career WAR of 97 is 6th since the dead ball era – behind only Clemens, Grove, Seaver, Maddux and Johnson.  That puts him ahead of Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan.  He is the all-time leader in WAR for the Braves since they moved to Atlanta – and only Spahn and Aaron have a higher WAR with the Braves franchise.  That puts him ahead of Mathews, Chipper, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Murphy, and Andruw Jones.  Yet it took the BBWAA 5 tries to elect him!

Of course, you can’t think of the older Niekro without mentioning his younger brother.  Joe, who died 14 years before Phil, was also a great pitcher.  He didn’t use the knuckleball as much his brother at first, but eventually started to after he joined his brother in Atlanta in the 1973 season.  The 539 wins they accumulated are the most of a brother duo – and they did get to play 2 seasons in Atlanta together and the end of the 1985 season in New York.

RIP to an underrated legend!





RIP Joe Morgan, 1943-2020

16 02 2021

This one hit home.  As a big Reds fan, how could it not.  I’ve got a couple things autographed by the whole Big Red Machine, and having those makes me acutely aware Joe Morgan was unfortunately the first player from the Big 8 to pass away. 

Though some didn’t like him as a broadcaster, his impact and influence on the game of baseball was undeniable.  He was active as a member of the Hall of Fame’s board.

Morgan was born in Texas but moved to Oakland with his family at the age of 5.  After being a standout athlete in multiple sports, he went to Oakland Community College and did well enough to get signed by the Houston Colt 45’s.  He was a standout in A-ball in 1963 and in AA-ball in 1964, and got cups of coffee with the Colts both years. 

I always enjoyed that his dual player rookie card with Sonny Jackson has the Colt 45’s logo – they switched to the Astros by the time he got his first solo card in 1966.

 

That 1964 season was the last time he’d play in the minors – in 1965 he was Houston’s starting 2nd baseman and was runner up for the Rookie of the Year award.  By just about every metric but RBI he was more deserving than Jim Lefebvre of the Dodgers that year.

Morgan was a very good player for 7 seasons in Houston.  He made 2 All-Star teams and probably deserved to make 2 or 3 more.  He was traded to the Reds – along with fellow BRM’er Cesar Geronimo – in a blockbuster for Lee May and Tommy Helms.  The rest, as they say was history.  Morgan’s next 6 years was the best stretch of baseball by a second baseman in the history of the game.  The Big Red Machine was ripe with incredible players.  As was Morgan – Bench, Rose and Foster were all MVP winners during their career.  And Tony Perez was a fellow Hall of Famer, while Davey Concepcion was a borderline HOF-er and Cesar Geronimo and Ken Griffey Sr were perennial all-stars.

But there’s something to be said for being the best player on the best team.  And while the Big Red Machine was a thing from roughly 1970 through 1977 – they are one of two teams in the argument for the best of all time because of the 1975 and 1976 seasons.  And those were the two years that Morgan – despite being a sabermetric darling when sabermetrics didn’t exist – won his two MVPs.  Reciting his statistics probably doesn’t do him justice, but I’ll say a few things:

  • his OBP was .456 over those 2 championship seasons in 1975 and 1976
  • his baseball-reference WAR from 1972 to 1976 averaged 9.5, which for reference is a little better than Mike Trout’s best 5 year stretch.
  • in 1972 (Bench) and 1973 (Rose) when his teammates won the award, every site I can find considers Morgan the better player on that team.  In 1974 Mike Schmidt should have been the MVP, and Morgan should have been second – but most metrics have Morgan as the best position player in baseball for 4 out of 5 years and the second best the other season.  The only players I can think of who can claim that kind of a peak are Ruth, Bonds and maybe Wagner, Cobb or Trout.  Three of those guys were way before MLB expansion and integration.  And only Wagner played the infield.
  • His batting stance and the dipping right elbow was cool AF

Morgan was greatly appreciated during his career, but hindsight shows us he was actually underappreciated because the world didn’t understand the value of getting on base.  And he had a .392 career OBP despite playing a large part of his career in eras that were very defense-leaning.

His broadcasting on Sunday Night Baseball and other avenues has been a big factor in how people viewed him in the latter part of his career.  He was something of punching bag in a prominent passage of the book Moneyball, which is funny because the book at the same time points out he was underrated as a player.  He probably had a little bit of a “get off my lawn” leaning as a broadcaster, but I always enjoyed him.  Maybe because I knew he was on my team.  Those fire Joe Morgan websites were always a bit much (actually a lot much) to me.I mention above that I have a couple autographed Big Red Machine items.  I got those autographs when I was quite a bit younger and he was always friendly in the setting.  I believe he cared about fans of baseball, and I don’t think the narrative that arose that he knew more than everyone else was fair.

Regardless of all that, I think he got his due after the fact, deservedly so.  He was well-respected in the game and had a big influence on the Hall of Fame in his later years.  His health had been deteriorating in the past decade or so, but I was so sad to hear he passed away.  Pete Rose and Johnny Bench are probably the 2 greatest Reds just because of the pure number of seasons they spent with the team, but Joe Morgan had the best stretch of any Reds player.  I always viewed the best teams in history this way.  Only two teams had multiple guys who could claim legit argument as the best player at their position.  The 1927 Yankees had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but the Big Red Machine had Bench and Morgan at their peak – but then Rose, Perez, Foster and 3 other All-Stars as well.  I’d go with the guys in Riverfront.

Rest in Peace, Joe!





RIP Whitey Ford, 1928-2020

10 02 2021

From one great World Series pitcher to another, unfortunately we lost a lot of Hall of Famers in 2020.

Edward Charles Ford was a great pitcher.  If you look at his stats, he was never viewed as dominant as some of the greats from the 50’s and 60’s.  Though I do think he gets a bit of a raw deal for two reasons.  First, he missed 2 years in his early career – when he was effectively at his prime – to the Korean War.  Unlike a number of hitters (Williams & Mays come to mind) – I don’t think that’s widely remembered about Ford.  Second, it’s believed that Casey Stengel tended to save him for the Yankees tougher matchups to make impact.  

Regardless of all that, with Whitey Ford – it was all about winning, and winning when it mattered most.  He holds the highest career winning percentage for pitchers with 200 wins – though Pedro Martinez was ahead of him briefly before his final season with the Mets, and Clayton Kershaw seems like he could pass him.  But winning 69% of your games is pretty insane.

And his World Series exploits were particularly notable.  He has won the most games (10) in the history of the Fall Classic.  Though he’s also lost (8) the most!  The Yankees won 6 titles and 11 AL pennants during his tenure as “Chairman of the Board”.  And he broke Babe Ruth’s long-standing World Series of consecutive scoreless innings pitched.  He pitched 2 complete game shutouts in the 1960 World Series.  This included a blowout game 6 that sent the Yankees to the incredible game 7 that ended in a Bill Mazeroski homer.  The next year, he helped the Yanks get back to the top of the baseball world against my Redlegs.  He started the Series off on the right foot with another CG-SHO (2-0), then won game 4 going 5 scoreless innings. 

That effort got him past Ruth’s mark, and he extended it another inning when the Yankees were back in the 1962 World Series against Mays’ Giants.  His streak actually ended on a squeeze bunt with 2 outs in the second inning that scored Mays from third.  The final tally was 33 & 2/3, and it hasn’t been reached since.  Side note – I had to check on Madison Bumgarner to be sure.  MadBum has given up 1 run in his 36 WS innings, but that run came in the middle of his 5 appearances.

As I’ve posted before – Ford is the subject of the favorite card I own.  I don’t talk about this blog much to people I know, but did send this post to my parents when he passed away.  This post probably says it as best as I can – Ford is my Dad’s baseball hero not mine.  But in many ways that makes him even more baseball royalty in my mind.

Rest in Peace, Whitey!





RIP Bob Gibson, 1935-2020

4 02 2021

The last two times I’ve posted one of these, another Hall of Famer has passed away.  I thought about doing a Hank Aaron tribute, given the enormity of what he meant to baseball.  But I’d prefer to do these in order.  I get a lot out of them – reading up on some of the greats of the game makes me appreciate them and the game of baseball.

75 B Gibson

The two HOF-ers from the 1960’s Cardinals juggernaut both passed away within a month of each other.  Gibson passed away on October 2nd of last year from pancreatic cancer.

Gibson was well before my time – like Brock, he retired before I was born.  I knew a lot about him as a kid – so many baseball history videos covered his World Series exploits.  A little bit unfairly, I think the one that gets covered the most is his last postseason game – one of only 2 that he lost.  More on that and his amazing World Series exploits later.

There are a couple autobiographies of Gibson, one written during his career and one after – and I hope to pick up one of them in the near future.  Pack Robert Gibson was born in 1935 in Omaha.  He was the youngest of 7 kids.  His father died before he was born and his oldest brother Josh became his father figure.  Josh had a college degree from Creighton and was the rec center director in the projects where the Gibsons lived.  So while their family grew up poor, Gibson had structure in his life with a focus on education and an outlet for athletics.  He was a great all-around athlete, and though he excelled at baseball, basketball was his favorite sport in high school.

He was offered a minor league contract with the Cardinals out of high school, but in part due to his brother’s influence he opted for a basketball scholarship to Creighton.  He was the first black athlete to receive such a scholarship.  I found this pretty cool – Creighton is to this day known as an excellent mid-major basketball school and its crazy to realize that one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB history is part of the foundation for that.  Gibson averaged 20.2 points for his career and was the team’s leading scorer 2 of his 3 seasons.  His jersey number 45 (which he would later wear for the Cardinals) hangs in the rafters as one of 5 retired by the basketball program.

He also played on the diamond at Creighton, where Bill Fitch (an assistant basketball coach for the Blue Jays) was his baseball coach.  Fitch would go on to become a Hall of Fame coach in the NBA and was at one point second to only Red Auerbach in career wins.  Gibson never got an NBA offer, though he did end up turning down an offer to travel with the Harlem Globetrotters once the Cardinals signed him that summer (1957).  He reported to their triple A affiliate in Omaha.  After being an effective hitter and pitcher in college, manager Johnny Keane determined he should focus on pitching.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Gibson was in the minors in 1958, then spent two seasons splitting time with the Cardinals.  He was held back by manager Solly Hemus, who displayed outright racism and tended to keep his black players on the bench.  He was replaced by Keane midway through the 1961 season, and the Cardinals were real contenders for the rest of that decade.

Gibson made his first All-Star game in 1962, and solidified himself as the Cardinals’ best pitcher.  He struck out 208 batters – his first time over 200 and good for 3rd in all of baseball.  He also posted a 2.85 ERA, good for 5th in the National League.  He continued to progress in 1963 and 1964, but he began making his legend in the World Series of 1964.  That year against the Yankees, the upstart Cardinals defeated the Yankees in 7 games.  Gibson didn’t start his World Series career off as particularly notable.  He pitched OK in game 2, giving up 4 runs in 8 innings.  He left the game down 4-2, but the Yankees bats came alive in the 9th off of the Cardinals relievers to make it a lopsided 8-3 final.

In game 5 of a 2-2 series, Gibson pitched 8 scoreless innings.  He entered the bottom of the 9th with a 2-0 lead, but after an error he allowed a game tying homer with 2 outs and the game went to extra innings.  His battery-mate Tim McCarver came through in the top of the 10th, however, hitting a 3-run homer.  Gibson allowed just a single in the bottom of the inning to register a complete game with no earned runs.

The Yankees won game 6, and Keane went to his Ace on just 2 days rest (and coming off the stressful 10-inning CG).  In game 7, the Cardinals jumped out to an early 3 run lead and extended it to 6-0 in the 5th inning.  Though Gibson didn’t pitch particularly well – he gave up 5 runs on 3 homers – that was all he needed and he finished the Yankees and the series off at 7-5.  Gibson was named the series MVP, and while it’s hard to argue – for my money McCarver (.478 BA, .552 OBP, 11 hits, 5 RBI, 4 runs) has a good case for the award.  I think what may have put Gibson over the top was the caliber of the Yankees hitters that he mostly kept at bay.

Incredibly – that was the least entertaining World Series Gibson was a part of.  The 1967 and 1968 World Series are all-time classics.  Those are probably better covered elsewhere; but suffice it to say Gibson was incredible.  He threw 6 total complete games (3 in each series), 2 of those being shutouts.  He again won the Series MVP in 1967, and his opener in the 1968 Series (17 strikeouts, is probably the best single game World Series pitching performance of all-time.

Here I’d like to point out Gibson’s overall World Series record.  He’s probably the greatest World Series pitcher of all-time.

  • That first World Series game was the only one where his manager ever needed a reliever.
  • Factoring in his 10-inning game in 1964, he actually equaled the tally of 9 CB’s – he pitched 81 innings over 9 games.
  • His WS career is bookended by losses – but he won all 7 games in between.
  • Not only is he the only pitcher to win multiple WS game 7’s (and only to start 3) – but Burleigh Grimes and Lew Burdette are the only others to start multiple game 7’s.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his 1968 season, the best in modern history.  He went 22-9, with 13 shutouts, completed 28 of his 34 starts, struck out 268 batters and posted the lowest ERA in history – an incredible 1.12.  He won the Cy Young and almost single-handedly forced MLB to lower the pitching mound.

Rest in Peace, Bob!





RIP Lou Brock, 1939-2020

21 01 2021

As I mentioned in my last post – I unfortunately have a lot of these posts to catch up on.  In fact, since I posted a tribute to Tom Seaver, the baseball world lost another 300 game winner.  So many Hall of Famers have passed away over the past 1-2 years.

Seaver, who passed away on August 31 of last year, was the first of these.  Unfortunately Lou Brock followed him less than a week later.

Like Seaver, Brock was before my time – he was a few years older and actually finished up his career in 1979, which is just before I was born.  Rickey Henderson has always been my favorite non-Reds player, and he’s always tied to Brock for the stolen base records he broke.

Louis Clark Brock was born in 1939 in Arkansas but moved to a small town in northern Louisiana shortly thereafter.   He grew up poor and black in the South, well before the Civil Rights movement.  He didn’t pick up baseball until just before High School, but when he did – he put together a stellar high school career.  From there he went to Southern University on an academic scholarship.  But he struggled in school, and lost that scholarship.  He again turned to baseball to earn a scholarship athletically.  He didn’t fare too well his freshman year, but his sophomore season (1959) he broke through, leading Southern to the NAIA championship.  It was the first and, to this day, only time a Historically Black University has won a national baseball title.  Brock returned for his junior season and Southern made it to the semifinals.

His success earned him tryouts with both Chicago teams, opting to sign with the Cubs that summer.  He starred for their minor league affiliate St. Cloud in 1961, earning a quick cup of coffee for them at the end of the season.  He made the major league squad the next spring training, batting a solid .263 and stealing a modest 16 bases.  Of course, that was the year Maury Wills lit the basepaths on fire, becoming the first player in modern times to steal 100+ bases.  This ushered in the most prolific era of stolen bases in the game’s history.

Lou’s hitting was above average and his baserunning was stellar, but as a defensive outfielder he was subpar at best.  After a slow start to the 1964 season, the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals in what became one of the most lopsided deals in MLB history.  The trade was for Ernie Broglio (along with some other players), who would go on to win only 7 more games in his big league career.

Brock, however, began to thrive in St. Louis.  He was given the green light on the basepaths, stealing 33 bases in 100 games.  He hit .348 for the Cardinals and helped them leapfrog the Phillies and Reds to win the NL pennant.  Against the Yankees, Lou had a solid World Series.  He hit .300 and smashed a home run in the deciding game 7 to help St. Louis to its first title in 18 years.

With the green light continuing, Brock stole 63 bases the next year – the first of 12 straight seasons he would steal 50 or more.  He notched his first time leading the league the year after that, swiping 74 bags.

The Cardinals made the World Series twice more in Lou’s career – 1967 and 1968.  Both series went 7 games.  In 1967 they again took home the championship against Boston.  Brock hit .414 and stole 7 bases, scoring 8 runs.  It was a performance worthy of Series MVP in most years, but his teammate Bob Gibson took that honor home by winning 3 games.  The next year the Cardinals lost to the Tigers in one of the greatest Series ever.  Brock was even better – matching his series record 7 stolen bases from the previous year.  He hit .464 and tied another series record by knocking 13 hits.  Both the steals and hits remain records for a single World Series; Brock’s 14 total WS stolen bases remained tied with Eddie Collins for the career record.

From there, Brock continued his base stealing and had a season to remember in 1974.  During his age-35 season, he stole an incredible 118 bases – shattering Wills’ record from 12 years earlier.  It was an incredible jump, even for Brock – it was 44 bases more than his second highest tally!

The Cardinals never regained their success of the mid-late 60’s, but Brock stayed with the team until 1979.  At the age of 40, he collected his 3,000th hit and hung up his cleats after a solid campaign that saw him make the All-Star team and hit .304.  He had broken Ty Cobb’s career SB record two seasons earlier.

Rickey Henderson has since broken most of Brock’s stolen base records, and the two always seem indelibly linked.  I have baseballs signed by both of them and I made sure to display them side by side in a case that holds two balls.  Brock was 81 when he passed away, so he lived a long life, but he always seemed to be in great shape when I saw him at the couple hall of fame ceremonies I went to – so at the same time he still seemed too young.  Rest in Peace, Lou!





RIP Tom Seaver, 1944-2020

18 01 2021

It’s 2021 and I’m picking the blog back up again.  Unfortunately – I have a lot of these posts to catch up on.  A number of Hall of Famers have passed away since the middle of 2020.

Tom Terrific was a little before my time – he finished up his career in 1986 when I was a year or so from getting into sports and baseball.  He’s a tad older than my parents – and because of his time in Cincinnati and having the same first name as my Dad, I’d always kind of liked him.

Tom Seaver was born in 1944 in Fresno, CA and despite his talents as a baseball youngster, he stayed local for a first couple years of college.  Eventually, though, his talent got noticed and he was recruited as a Junior to attend the prominent baseball program at USC.  After a stellar season in 1965 got him noticed – he was drafted by the Dodgers in June that year, but opted not to sign with the team.  The draft used to be in phases back then, and in the next phase of that draft (January 1966) the Braves drafted Seaver and signed him at some point in late February to a contract.  The signing bonus was for $40,000 – a hefty sum at the time – and it garnered much more news than his drafting had.  An unusual rule came into play here.  It was against MLB rules to sign a player when his college team was playing, and even though he wasn’t pitching for USC had already played some games that year.  Commissioner William Eckert voided the contract with the Braves, who had chalked the violation to an honest mistake.  Most teams hadn’t started playing their season yet, but the warm-weather Trojans had.

But Seaver was now ineligible to continue his college career due to signing the Braves contract.  It was a bit of catch-22.  Eckert determined that any teams willing to match the Braves’ initial offer would enter a lottery for Seaver’s services.  The Phillies, Mets and Indians all bid to play, and the hapless Mets were the name drawn out of the hat!

The rest as they say, is history.  Seaver pitched one season in AAA Jacksonville and in 1967 came up to the Big Leagues for good.  He won the Rookie of the Year, going 16-13 with a 2.76 ERA.  2 years later, he put in a case as the best pitcher, winning the Cy Young award (25-7, 2.21, 208 K’s) while leading the Amazin’ Mets to the most improbable World Championship in history.  That was the first of 9 straight years where he struck out more than 200 batters – matching a record set by Bob Gibson (and interestingly – never broken since then).  He won 3 Cy Young awards in that timeframe, might have deserved another, and got the Mets back to the World Series in 1973.  Though they lost in 7 games to the A’s that year – Seaver had effectively taken over from Gibson as the best pitcher in baseball.

But a few years later, in one of the more shocking trades of all-time, the Mets dealt Seaver to the Reds in the middle of the 1977 season after contract disagreements.  The most notable player the Mets got was Pat Zachry, and Seaver had a few stellar years with the Reds – including going 14-2 in the strike shortened 1981 season for the team that had the best record in baseball (but was kept out of the playoffs due to the structure).  Seaver was on the downside of his career after that.  He went back to the Mets for one season in 1983, and finished up his career in the AL with the White Sox (where he won his 300th game) and Red Sox.

While he played 40% of his career elsewhere – Seaver is forever linked with the Mets.  He’s the “one guy” for that franchise, and Mets fans mourned the day he passed away last August.  Seaver’s health had waned in recent years as he battled dementia, which along with complications from COVID-19 led to his death.  There’s an argument he’s the greatest right handed pitcher of all-time, but no argument he is up there in the discussion.





RIP Al Kaline, 1934-2020

18 05 2020

The last of my 4 missed “in memoriam” posts is Al Kaline, who died early last month.  His death didn’t quite hit as close to home as Frank Robinson’s did, but he’s a guy who I’d got an autograph before and remember him seeming super nice like many of the greats from his generation.

Al Kaline was born in December 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression in Baltimore.  His father was a semi-pro ballplayer and Al got his genes from his dad and went on to have a historic high school career.  The Tigers scout that signed him (Ed Katalinas), thought that Kaline “was the prospect that a scout creates in his mind and then prays that someone will come along to fit the pattern.”  He was signed right after high school, and because the Tigers were particularly bad in the years leading up to 1953 – he got some playing time as an 18 year-old.  He’s become one of the answers to various trivia questions like “who had 100 hits in his teens”.  In fact, Kaline won a batting title and led all of MLB in hits before he was allowed to buy a beer.  In that 1955 season, his 2nd full year (3rd season overall) with the Tigers, Kaline hit .340 with 200 hits.  He never eclipsed those totals again, but he became a metronome of consistency for the Tigers for the next two decades.

Kaline played his entire career with the Tigers, and while he never won the MVP he was the runner up twice and placed 3rd another time.  He was an All-Star 15 of his 22 seasons and was renowned for his Gold Glove winning defense in both Center and Right Field.  He could cover ground or showcase a live arm depending on what was needed.  To showcase his longevity – Kaline was a standout rookie in 1954, but in 1968 he was the best hitter on the World Series champions.  Mickey Lolich (deservedly) won the 1968 World Series MVP, but Kaline hit .379 with 8 homers and 2 RBI in the game’s biggest stage.  He finished his career with 3,007 hits, helping the Tigers to one other postseason berth in 1972.  His 399 homers are such an interesting stat – I’m glad he got over the 3k hit barrier! He’s one of those rare players who played 20+ years with the same team.  Like all the other guys I’ve posted about the last few weeks, the baseball world surely misses him.