Cooperstown Confidential - Spring Training Edition - 03/12/2003
From Wells To Ellis: David Wells is not the first pitcher to claim that he threw a perfect game or no-hitter under the “influence.” While Wells’ assertion of being “half drunk” remains very much a source of debate, few baseball observers have ever disputed the similarly infamous declaration of former Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace Dock Ellis. In 1984, Ellis told a Pittsburgh writer that he had pitched a no-hitter 14 years earlier while under the influence of LSD. Unlike Wells, Ellis showed at least a morsel of sense by waiting until after his pitching career had ended to reveal the sordid details of his 1970 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. And unlike Wells, Ellis’ recollections of the incident have remained consistent over the years. Ellis has never backtracked from any of his initial claims.
“I can only remember bits and pieces of the game,” Ellis told the Pittsburgh Press in 1984—by which time he had become a drug counselor—just four years after he had first sought treatment for a severe drug problem that had plagued him throughout his big league career. “I had a feeling of euphoria. I was zeroed in on the glove [of catcher Jerry May], but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and [that] the bases were loaded two or three times.”
In actuality, Ellis hit only one batter (Padres center fielder Ivan Murrell), but he was wild—exceptionally wild. Ellis walked eight Padres that night, an unusual occurrence for a pitcher who usually featured above-average control. “My breaking pitches were breaking way out,” Ellis told Pittsburgh writer Charley Feeney immediately after the June 12th game. Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty, Ellis’ lack of control may have been caused by the effects of LSD.
Ellis’ inability to throw strikes certainly wasn’t influenced by any fear of Preston Gomez’ batting order. Other than powerful right-handed hitters like Nate Colbert and “Downtown” Ollie Brown, the Padres’ lineup featured a host of obscurities, journeymen, and assorted other “good-field, no-hit” types. The batting order included leadoff man Dave Campbell (now a fine broadcaster but then a weak-hitting second baseman), the immortal Steve Huntz, Al “Kiki” Ferrara, Chris Cannizzaro (18 lifetime home runs), and Tommy Dean (a career .180 hitter).
With such a starting lineup, one might shudder to consider the quality of the backup players on San Diego’s roster. Well, one of the Padres’ bench players almost ended Ellis’ no-hit hopes in the bottom of the seventh. Backup first baseman Ramon Webster, pinch-hitting for starting pitcher Dave Roberts, led off the inning with a line drive that appeared destined to land in right-center field. Fortunately for Ellis, the Pirates had a fellow named Bill Mazeroski playing second base that day. “When Maz dove,” Ellis said, “I knew he’d grab it.” Mazeroski thought differently. “I didn’t think I had a chance for it,” the Hall of Fame second baseman told reporters. “I just dove, hoping and hoping.” Mazeroski’s diving stab did preserve Ellis’ effort, which was also aided by Matty Alou’s knee-high catch of Colbert’s line drive the following inning. Ellis then finished off the no-no in the ninth, striking out pinch-hitter Ed Spiezio (the father of Anaheim Angels first baseman Scott Spiezio) on a called third strike. Ellis’ sixth strikeout of the night wrapped up the strange two-hour-and-thirteen-minute masterpiece.
Interestingly, none of Ellis’ post-game comments indicated that he had been toiling under the effects of a mind-altering substance. On paper, his remarks seemed logical and cohesive, and he said nothing that came close to hinting of his use of LSD. Yet, many years later, Ellis’ fuzzy recollection of one aspect of the game provided an inkling of his drug use that day. While sitting on a discussion panel with former Pirates teammate Bob Robertson, Ellis attempted to answer a question about the lineup that Pittsburgh used in the field that night in San Diego. Most no-hit pitchers can tell you the names of the infielders that played behind them on their special days, but not Ellis. As he sat amongst the panel members, Dock tried to remember the identity of the Pirates’ third baseman, but simply couldn’t come up with the name. A few moments later, Robertson informed the pitcher that it was he who was playing third base that night. That was news to Ellis.
And Another Thing: Overshadowed amidst the fervor created by Dock Ellis’ no-hitter, Willie Stargell accounted for both of the Pirates’ runs that night with a pair of solo home runs. Stargell (who played left field) and Al Oliver (the first baseman) each had two hits against San Diego pitching… The Padres stole three bases against Ellis (one each by Murrell, Campbell, and Colbert), but left nine runners on base. The frustrating loss was one of many for the Padres that season; they finished 39 games out in the National League’s Western Division.
Spring Training Sonnets: Just when the Baltimore Orioles seem to have lost all sense of hope and reason—from the offseason signing of mediocrity Deivi Cruz to showing interest in 33-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. to the lack of placing any prospects in Baseball America’s Top 50 list—they turn around and pull off a steal of a deal with the Colorado Rockies. There’s no other way to characterize Baltimore’s acquisition of Triple-A hitting stud Jack Cust for cash and middling outfielder-DH Chris Richard, who can’t even make throws from the outfield on consecutive days. Cust hit 23 home runs in half a season at Colorado Springs last year after clubbing 79 long balls in his three previous minor league seasons. Although Cust can’t field a lick in the outfield or at first base, he’s a made-to-order lefty-hitting DH who should find Camden Yards the most appealing of all the American League ballparks. Equipped with 35-home run potential, the 24-year-old Cust is four years younger than Richard, who still hasn’t fully recovered from 2001 shoulder surgery. Richard’s physical condition makes this trade even less sensible for the Rockies, unless they plan to trade Richard for someone who can play the outfield in a league with no DH… Cust might start the season at Triple-A Ottawa (Baltimore’s new affiliate, replacing Rochester) since he has one minor league option remaining, but expect him to be up with Baltimore by no later than June… In Winter Haven, Shea Hillenbrand is having a terrific spring at the plate, but he’s experienced some troubles throwing the ball from third base, which calls into further question his role—and future—with the Red Sox. Hillenbrand’s lack of patience at the plate already put him on general manager Theo Epstein’s “trade him” list from day one, while also prompting Boston’s offseason pickup of Bill Mueller. Is it possible that the addition of Mueller hurt Hillenbrand’s confidence, thus indirectly resulting in his throwing yips? Perhaps, but this much is certain: if Hillenbrand can’t throw well enough to play third base, his trade value becomes even further diminished, which may force the Sox to keep him and use him more often at the other infield corner. Hillenbrand has been playing some first base in the spring, but the Red Sox already have Kevin Millar and Julio Zuleta available as a right-handed hitting first baseman… The Mets previously had interest in Hillenbrand, but have almost completely backed out of trade talks with the Sox. General manager Steve Phillips seems willing to at least start the season with Ty Wigginton at third base—and hope for the best… Speaking of the Mets, can’t anything be done about Steve Trachsel? Major League Baseball has once again placed an emphasis on speeding up games, but if anything, Trachsel seems to be dawdling longer and longer on the mound. During a recent spring training game, Trachsel repeatedly took 30 seconds or longer in between pitches. (What exactly is he thinking about out there? It’s not like he has a Luis Tiant assortment of pitches to choose from.) If the umpires don’t enforce the 12-second rule on painstaking pitchers like Trachsel during the spring, how can they expect players to make the adjustment and speed up the pace during regular season games?... Perhaps the Mets’ players can take matters into their own hands. Infielders Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar, and Rey Sanchez should threaten Trachsel with some form of mutiny if he doesn’t pick up the pace a little bit… Now that the Padres have lost Phil Nevin for the season, they’re aggressively looking at trade possibilities in the outfield market. They’ve already initiated talks with the Yankees, who would be happy to hand over Rondell White or Raul Mondesi for a lower-level prospect, assuming that San Diego agrees to pay about half of either overpaid player’s salary… The Padres might also be willing to give Mark Quinn a look, now that the Royals have decided to release the talented but temperamental outfielder. The release of Quinn might have surprised some, but the organization had run out of patience with the injury-prone outfielder, who missed most of last year with hamstring and rib injuries. After winning a pair of minor league batting titles and hitting two home runs in his major league debut, Quinn seemed a certainty for stardom. Yet, he soon proved difficult to coach, failing to improve his defensive play in the outfield and refusing to become more patient at the plate. In 2001, Quinn went an unfathomable 241 consecutive plate appearances without a walk, a streak that even Alfonso Soriano might be hard-pressed to match. The 28-year-old Quinn is still young enough to make a career for himself, and figures to be an inexpensive salary investment for a team willing to give him a shot as a left fielder or DH. If he doesn’t find a niche somewhere else, he might just end up being the biggest bust the Royals’ organization has produced since the days of Clint Hurdle.
Card Corner: As a regular feature of “Cooperstown Confidential,” I’ll be highlighting vintage and historic baseball cards throughout the year. In this week’s lid lifting segment, let’s put the spotlight on a card that came out 30 years ago—amidst tragedy, debate, and fond reflection. At the time that Roberto Clemente died unexpectedly in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, the Topps Company had already produced his 1973 baseball card. The tragic passing of one of the game’s true stars placed Topps in a quandary: should the company proceed as planned and issue a card for a player who was deceased, or should it pull the card from distribution out of respect for the loss of the beloved superstar? After some internal debate, Topps opted to release the card, which had been assigned No. 50 in the series. Given the inherent aesthetics of the card and the reverence that fans felt toward Clemente, this seemed like the right decision. Topps also had precedence on its side, having issued a 1964 “In Memoriam” card for Ken Hubbs after the young Cubs’ second baseman died while piloting his own plane… Rather than fade into obscurity, the final regular issue card of “The Great One” has become arguably the most attractive Clemente card that Topps had ever produced. The card displays the typically dignified grace of Clemente as he stands rather regally in the right-handed batter’s box. It is also one of the few card images that shows Clemente in action, as he eyes an unknown Mets pitcher in anticipation of receiving the next pitch. The card also features Mets catcher Jerry Grote (wearing No. 15), who was regarded as one of the game’s finest defensive catchers in the early 1970s… A common misconception about the card persists. Some fans assume that it shows Clemente during his historic at-bat on September 30, 1972, when he collected his 3,000th and final major league hit against New York’s Jon Matlack. Although the Mets did indeed provide the opposition that day, that game was played at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium; the background on the front of the card and the home pinstriped Mets uniform worn by Jerry Grote indicate that either Shea Stadium or the Mets’ spring training site provided the setting for the card’s photograph… Our month-long tribute to Clemente, who was elected to the Hall of Fame 30 years ago this month, will continue with next week’s column.
Money In the Negro Leagues: Students and school groups who visit the Hall of Fame ask questions repeatedly about the Negro Leagues and the typical salaries that star players made. An especially common query involves Jackie Robinson and the salary that he made during his lone Negro Leagues season (1945) with the Kansas City Monarchs. For the answers, let’s turn to Cooperstown resident Eric Enders, the author of the fine pictorial, Ballparks: Then and Now, and an expert on Negro Leagues lore. Enders points to the example of Buck Leonard, arguably the greatest first baseman in the history of the Negro Leagues and a member of the Hall of Fame. “Let’s look at Buck Leonard’s contract with the Homestead Grays for the 1949 season. I have a copy of it here in my files,” says Enders. “It calls for him to make $700 per month for the four-and-a-half month season.” So, for the full season in 1949, Leonard made a little bit over $3,000. “Of course, that’s a superstar’s salary,” Enders says, “much more than Robinson would have made as a rookie with the Monarchs. I once interviewed a guy named Harold Adanandus, who was the trainer on the college basketball team that Robinson coached in 1945. He told me that Robinson quit the coaching job when the Monarchs offered him $250 per month, plus a $500 signing bonus, for the 1945 season.”…In addition to copies of contracts and third-party sources, other evidence of Negro Leagues salaries has been found in discussions with some of the star players themselves. “Hall of Famer Roy Campanella claimed to have made $5,000 playing baseball during 1946,” Enders says, “including both his Negro Leagues salary and the money he made playing winter ball Latin America. But again, unlike Robinson, Campy was already a well-established superstar, which would explain his higher salary.”… For those who are interested, Enders can provide research assistance on a variety of baseball subjects, in addition to the Negro Leagues. He runs his own Cooperstown-based research firm, “Triple E Productions.” To contact Enders and find out more about his research services, call 607-547-1871 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org... Enders, by the way, has a new book coming out this spring. It’s titled 100 Years of the World Series, a hardcover published by Friedman/Fairfax.
More Of The Second Generation: Last week, I spotlighted several sons-of-former-major-leaguers who might be stepping up to the big leagues within the next few years. What I didn’t include was any mention of sons-of-rock-stars who really aren’t top prospects, but nonetheless bring interesting backstories to the table. One such story involves good-field, no-hit shortstop Rex Rundgren, the 22-year-old son of 1970s rock icon Todd “Runt” Rundgren (or as Jackie of That 70s Show would say, Todd Rundiment). Although he grew up in a musical family, the younger Rundgren has wanted to play ball professionally since he was five. An 11th-round draft choice of the Florida Marlins in 2001 and a former member of the now defunct Utica Blue Sox, Rundgren has failed to advance past the lower levels of the minor leagues and is ticketed to start the season with the Class-A Jupiter Hammerheads, but has impressed most observers with his spectacular defensive play. As a member of the Kane County Cougars last season, he played well enough at shortstop to make the Midwest League all-star team. He’s also succeeded in transforming his father, who had no prior interest in the game, into a baseball fan. The elder Rundgren listens to his son’s games via streaming audio over the internet; he also attended about 10 games in person last year, creating a stir at Phillip Elfstrom Stadium. Though the father displayed no baseball-playing abilities as a youth, the son has shown some interest in pursuing his father’s career—once his baseball career has come and gone. When Rex turns in his bat and glove, he’ll pick up the ‘sticks (he’s an accomplished drummer) and also plans to learn the guitar. Yet, he doesn’t really like to listen to rock-and-roll or seventies music, preferring instead the musical selections of Eminem.
Hall of Fame Handbook: During most editions of “Cooperstown Confidential,” I’ll answer a topical question about the Hall of Fame, its voting process, or one of the Hall of Fame members. In this week’s first installment, several internet readers have asked about the eventual Hall of Fame eligibility for Rickey Henderson. If Henderson does what some people want him to do and announces his retirement now, he would have to sit out five full years and would then become eligible for Hall of Fame election in 2008. Yet, Henderson has been rumored to be looking at the possibility of signing with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. If Henderson does sign with the Saints—or another minor league team—and does not resume his major league playing career, when would the standard five-year waiting period begin? Would Henderson become eligible for the Hall’s ballot in 2008 or 2009? The answers are a little bit tricky, but bear with me. According to the Hall of Fame rules, the traditional five-year waiting period before appearing on the ballot would be affected by Henderson’s involvement with a major league team, not a minor league club. So if Henderson played in the minor leagues this year after last having played in the majors last year, and did not appear on an official Major League Baseball roster this year (either 25-man or 40-man), he would be eligible in five years—beginning in 2008. Since the St. Paul Saints are an independent minor league team, and have no affiliation with a major league club, Henderson’s timetable for the 2008 election would be unaffected… But what if Henderson signs with a major league team and is then immediately assigned to one of that team’s minor league affiliates in the National Association? In that case, Henderson would have to be placed on the major league team’s 40-man roster, and his eligibility for Hall election would have to wait an extra year—until 2009. However, a major league team could get around the 40-man roster provision by signing Henderson as a non-roster invitee this spring, then placing him on waivers in an attempt to send him to the minor leagues. If Henderson were to clear waivers, he could then be “outrighted” to the minor league team and would not have to be placed on the major league team’s 40-man roster. Under such a scenario, Henderson wouldn’t be delaying his five-year Hall of Fame timetable and would become eligible in 2008. … Now, if Henderson were to be recalled by a major league team and placed on the 25-man roster at any time this year, then his Hall eligibility would be delayed, and he would have to wait until at least 2009. (By the way, thanks to Netshrine’s Lee Sinins—the creator of the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia—for clarifying baseball’s procedural rules on the 40-man roster and the “outrighting” of players.)
Pastime Passings: Here are a few additional baseball deaths from February and March that we’ve become aware of since last week’s column.
Joe Decker (Died on March 2; age 55; head injuries suffered in a fall): A right-handed pitcher whose career spanned most of the 1970s, Decker played nine major league seasons, mostly with the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins. He reached his peak in 1974, when he won 16 games and posted a 3.29 ERA for Minnesota. He also enjoyed a 10-win season in 1973. His major league career came to an end in 1979, after a nine-game stint with the Seattle Mariners.
Jim Fridley (Died on February 28; age 78): Nicknamed “Big Jim,” the 6’2”, 205-pound Fridley played exclusively as an outfielder during a scattershot three-year career in the 1950s. He debuted for the Cleveland Indians in 1952, played for the Baltimore Orioles in 1954, and then finished his career with the Cincinnati Red Legs in 1958.
Rusty Peters (Died on February 21; age 82): The good-field, no-hit Peters played 10 seasons in the major leagues, mostly as a utility infielder. He enjoyed his best offensive season in his final year (1947), batting .340 in 47 at-bats. Curiously, Peters never played in the majors again, finishing his career with four seasons in the American Association.
Dick Whitman (Died on February 12; age 82; massive heart attack): A veteran of two World Series and six seasons, Whitman played primarily as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies. He reached the Series in 1949 with the Dodgers and in 1950 with the Phillies, but his teams lost both times to the New York Yankees. As part of the “Whiz Kids” in 1950, Whitman led the National League with 12 pinch-hits in 39 at-bats, giving him a batting average of .308 in such off-the-bench situations. Whitman also spent time as a minor league teammate of Roberto Clemente during a later stint with the Montreal Royals.
Billy Parker (Died on February 9; age 56): A hard-hitting middle infield phenom in the minor leagues, Parker played for parts of three seasons with the California Angels. In 1971, he drove in 115 runs and batted .306 for the Angels’ affiliate at Salt Lake City, with the highlight of his season coming on May 29, when he hit three home runs in consecutive at-bats. His performance with Salt Lake City earned him a call-up to California, where his first major league hit was a two-out, game-winning home run in the 12th inning. Yet, Parker otherwise struggled during his brief major league stints. Following the 1973 season, the New York Yankees drafted Parker from the Angels, but the young second baseman failed to make the big league roster. After returning to the minor leagues, Parker finished his career in the Mexican League.
Bobby Bragan Jr. (Died on February 7; age 59 or 60; effects of a heart attack): The son of the former major league catcher and manager, the younger Bragan had worked extensively in the minor leagues as the general manager of the Jacksonville Suns and owner of the Elmira Pioneers. Prior to his front office career, Bragan played two seasons in the minor leagues, playing for Atlanta Braves’ affiliates in the Florida State and Carolina leagues.
Bruce Markusen is the author of A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also written The Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One.
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