No Passing This Buck
He was a good player during his nearly 20-year career in the Negro Leagues, but he has emerged as a great ambassador for the game in just the last six years—ever since his commentary on Ken Burns' highly successful Baseball documentary made him a national icon.
Former Negro League standout John Jordan O'Neil—better known as "Buck" O'Neil—paid a visit to Cooperstown this past weekend and wowed a near capacity crowd at the Hall of Fame with his cheerful and uplifting nature, engaging sense of humor, and spirited ability to tell stories. Videotapes of the vivacious O'Neil, who is 88 years old according to his birth certificate but only about 38 based on his activity level, should become required viewing for all major league and minor league players.
O'Neil is currently preparing for the upcoming meeting of the Hall's Veterans Committee, which is scheduled to convene on February 29 in Tampa, Florida. The committee will rely heavily on O'Neil's testimony in determining which Negro League great should receive enshrinement in the Hall of Fame this year. O'Neill hopes to champion the cause for former Negro League slugger Norman "Turkey" Stearnes, who is one of several candidates the committee will consider for election to the Hall. Here are thumbnail sketches of Stearnes and two other contenders that O'Neil and the rest of the Vets Committee will discuss:
Stearnes: One of the greatest left-handed home run hitters in the black leagues, this multi-talented center fielder consistently hit over .300 in league competition. Stearnes, an excellent defensive outfielder who covered plenty of ground, ran well enough to bat leadoff for a short stretch in his career
George "Mule" Suttles: A power hitting first baseman-outfielder who used a 50-ounce bat, the right-handed hitting Suttles frequently hit tape-measure home runs in the fashion of a Mickey Mantle or Mark McGwire. Tended to be more a free swinger (with a longer bat motion) than Stearnes, which accounted for his high strikeout totals. Was also limited defensively because of a lack of speed and quickness afoot, but did play an adequate first base.
Raleigh "Biz" Mackey: He may have been the greatest defensive catcher in the history of the Negro Leagues. Possessed a highly powerful throwing arm, replete with a quick release. Although his defensive play overshadowed his batting prowess, the switch-hitting Mackey batted over .300 every season from 1924 to 1931.
Next week, we'll have a preview of managers and 19th century stars being considered by the Veterans Committee.
More Than Just Semantics
Well, it's happening again. Every year around this time, the Hall of Fame announces the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award, which is given to a great and enduring baseball broadcaster. And every year, we hear members of the national media declare that "broadcaster X has just been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame." Actually, he hasn't.
The Frick Award is just what it says, an award. A prestigious award, almost certainly the most prestigious award that a baseball broadcaster can win, one that is presented annually for "major contributions to baseball broadcasting." But it is not the same as being elected and inducted to the Hall of Fame. Babe Ruth is a member of the Hall of Fame. Willie Mays is in the Hall of Fame. So is Hank Aaron. But Mel Allen is not a member of the Hall of Fame. Neither is Red Barber. Lindsey Nelson is not a Hall of Famer, nor is Jack Buck, Harry Caray, or Vin Scully. They are all previous winners of the Ford C. Frick Award, but none of them is represented with a plaque in the Hall of Fame Gallery.
In fact, no one has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame for his broadcasting achievements. Richie Ashburn, Ralph Kiner, and Phil Rizzuto, all popular broadcasters for local teams for a long time, were elected to the Hall of Fame based on their playing careers. And none of those three has ever won the Frick Award, though it's possible that they might in the future.
None of this is meant to disparage the Barbers, the Allens, the Carays, or any of the other legendary broadcasters who have won the Frick Award. These men, in some cases, have done as much to enhance our enjoyment of the game as some of the greatest players have. The excellence of these broadcasters—the best at what they do—should be rewarded. It's just that membership in the Hall of Fame is for those who actively played—or managed, or owned, or umpired, or served as pioneers in some way. Therefore, broadcasters are honored through the Frick Award, just as writers are recognized with the Spink Award. It's not a putdown, just a distinction that the media should be able to make…
While we're on the subject, the Frick Award committee made an excellent choice in tabbing Marty Brennaman for this year's award. Brennaman's unique voice, strong sense of dramatics, and willingness to speak his mind continue to make him one of the most engaging play-by-play announcers in the game today. Brennaman has been working Cincinnati's game since 1974, when he was selected from a pool of over 200 applicants to replace Al Michaels, who had left for ABC television…
All-Century, Athletics Style
Even the most casual fans know that the Yankees have won more world championships (25) than any franchise, but the owners of second place in the all-time World Series race are a little less familiar. It may surprise some to hear that the small-market Athletics are tied with the Cardinals for runner-up status, with each franchise winning the Series nine times. The A's total includes their days in Kansas City and Philadelphia, making them one of the most intriguing—and successful—of the American League's original franchises. This year, the A's are celebrating their 100th anniversary of existence with a number of special events, including a selection of an all-century team, as voted upon by a combination of fans and a specially appointed committee. Here are one writer's thoughts on the A's best players by position from 1900 to 1999:
And now the reasons behind the selections: The choice of Mickey Cochrane at catcher is an easy one. A disciplined and dangerous hitter, "Black Mike" never struck out more than 26 times in a single season and batted .320 over a 13-year career. His defense and durability behind the plate also helped the A's win three straight American League pennants from 1929 to 1931. Honorable Mentions: Terry Steinbach and Gene Tenace… Mark McGwire will likely win the popular vote at first base, but we tend not to select active players active in such team of the century polls. Besides, Jimmie Foxx won two batting crowns, led the AL in RBIs three times, led the league in home runs four times, and posted the highest slugging percentage five times. Simply put, "The Beast" was McGwire, but with a higher batting average, a greater number of doubles, and more speed. Honorable Mention: McGwire… At second base, few Hall of Famers are as underrated as Eddie Collins. A 5'9" ironman, Collins batted .333 over an incredible 25-year career. He spent only half of that time in a Philadelphia uniform, but still managed to lead the league in runs scored three times while a member of the A's. He also ranks seventh (according to Total Baseball) on the all-time stolen base list. Honorable Mention: Max "Camera Eye" Bishop and defensive wizard Dick Green… Starring at shortstop in the early 1970s, Campy Campaneris provided the glue to the A's middle infield—which featured Charlie Finley's revolving door at second base. Although miscast as a leadoff man, Campy sparked the offense with his speed and daring on the bases, leading the AL in stolen bases six times. In 1970, he showed a different side to his game when he blasted 22 home runs, or 14 more than his next-best power output. A quiet leader who always played the game hard. Honorable Mention: Dead Ball Era standout Jack Barry… At third base, the choice of Home Run Baker gives the All-Century team three Hall of Famers among the four infield spots. Baker's power statistics don't look very impressive in today's context, but keep in mind that he did play all but two of his 13 seasons during the Dead Ball Era. Although he was awkward defensively, Baker did have good range afield. Honorable Mention: Sal Bando… Another one of the underrated Hall of Famers, Al Simmons is our choice for left field. In spite of one of the more unorthodox approaches to hitting in the 20th century, "Bucketfoot Al" won two batting crowns as a member of the A's. Tends to be overshadowed by Cochrane and Foxx on those great teams of 1929-31. Honorable Mention: Joe Rudi… Rickey Henderson may be a bit of a stretch in center field, considering that he's played most of his career in left, and yes, we're breaking our own rule by picking an active player, but how can you keep the greatest leadoff man in baseball history off the A's all-century team? The game's all-time stolen base king might have reached 400-plus home runs for his career if the A's had ever asked him to hit cleanup during his prime years in the 1980s. Honorable Mention: the underrated Dwayne Murphy… The choice of Reggie Jackson in right field rounds out the everyday lineup. We tend to remember "Mr. October" as a one-dimensional slugger with the Yankees, but Jackson was actually a far better all-around player with the A's. He won the 1973 MVP Award not just with his bat, but with his cannon-like throwing arm in right field and his often overlooked speed on the bases. Honorable Mention: Jose Canseco… On the pitching staff, we don't need too much justification for Lefty Grove, since he just might be the greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time. He reached the 20-win plateau eight times, including a 31-win season in 1931, and won an incredible nine ERA titles over a 14-year span. Enough said there. Honorable Mention: Vida Blue… Our right-handed starter, Catfish Hunter, was often disparaged by opponents for his lack of intimidating stuff, but he still found a way to win 20 games for five straight seasons. In many ways, he was the spiritual leader of Charlie Finley's "Swingin' A's." When Hunter left, the A's simply stopped winning pennants and World Series. Honorable Mention: Chief Bender… And finally, perhaps our most controversial choice takes place in the bullpen, where we selected Rollie Fingers over Dennis Eckersley. Yes, Eckersley's statistics are far more impressive, but that's partially because of the way he was used: one inning at a time and almost always with a lead. Fingers pitched in an era that was far more demanding of relievers. He often pitched two, three, and four-inning stints, which raised his ERA, and frequently came into games that were already tied, thereby shrinking his save totals. We suspect that if Fingers had been used the way that Tony LaRussa used Eckersley in the late 1980s, his statistics might have been just as good, if not better. So what breaks the tie between these two relief aces? Fingers was at his best in Oakland's three World Series victories (a 1.35 ERA), while Eckersley pitched more like he did with th e Cubs (5.79 ERA) in his three seasons in the Series…
Wohlers vs. Blass, Cowley, and Saucier
The Reds have given Mark Wohlers another chance courtesy of a spring training invite, but given his combination of arm woes and a loss of control, the prognosis does not look good. Once a dominant closer with the Braves, the veteran right-hander is not only trying to return from "Tommy John surgery" to his right elbow, but also attempting to come back from what many dime store psychiatrists have termed a "psychological" problem. Assuming that Wohlers can recover fully from the surgery, the Reds are hoping that he can somehow relocate the ability to control his once overpowering fastball. If he can, the Reds may have found themselves another quality reliever in a bullpen that already features the youthful talents of Scott Williamson and Scott Sullivan. Unfortunately, history dictates that Wohlers won't.
From 1984 to 1986, Joe Cowley went 32-19 for the Yankees and White Sox. Although the colorful 28-year-old right-hander seemed on the verge of stardom, the White Sox became concerned with his occasional fits of wildness and traded him to the Phillies for outfielder Gary Redus. At the start of the 1987 season, Cowley's streak of wildness grew longer and more disturbing. He walked 17 batters in 21 innings, lost four straight decisions, and compiled an ERA of 15.43. The poor performance earned him a mid-season ticket home. Cowley would never win another game in the major leagues.
In 1981, a flaky left-hander named Kevin Saucier saved 13 games and forged an ERA of 1.65 for the Tigers. Equipped with a deceptive herky-jerky motion and a willingness to pitch inside, Saucier appeared the logical successor to long-time closer John Hiller. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. The talented and temperamental reliever, who ran by the nickname of "Hot Sauce," lasted only one more season with the Tigers. Each time he walked to the mound, he felt overcome with anxiety. The Tigers sent him to the minors in a futile effort to find his control, then gave him his unconditional release. Saucier signed a minor league deal with the minor league Richmond Braves, but his experiences on the mound only worsened. Dreading the thought of even going to the ballpark, Saucier reached rock-bottom in an exhibition game against the Columbus Clippers. When manager Eddie Haas visited the mound, Saucier begged him to take him out of the game. At the age of 27, Saucier's career as a professional pitcher had come to an end.
Saucier and Cowley are two of the most recent examples of once-successful pitchers who suddenly and mysteriously lost command of throwing strikes. Yet, they weren't the first, or the most well-known. In the 1970s, a one-time World Series hero went from baseball's ultimate level of success to the depths of failure in less than a year. His struggles became so pronounced and so publicized that baseball observers named this newly discovered pitching malady—this inability to throw the ball over the plate—after him.
Unlike Cowley and Saucier, Steve Blass of the Pirates was a fully established major league pitcher with a reasonably long track record of success. He wasn't considered particularly flaky or colorful (at least to the extent of Cowley and Saucier), and generally had good control. Fresh off his victorious performance in the seventh game of the 1971 World Series, Blass enjoyed his best season in 1972. He finished a career-best 19-8 with an earned run average of 2.49 and 11 complete games. Then, in 1973, without warning, Blass endured excruciating difficulty throwing strikes. He posted numbers so awful that they look like misprints at first glance: a 3-9 won-loss mark, a 9.85 earned run average, and perhaps most alarmingly, 84 walks in 88 and two-thirds innings. The prognosis of "Steve Blass Disease" was born.
The situation only worsened for Blass in 1974. After a disastrous early season performance against the Cubs, the Pirates demoted Blass to their Triple-A affiliate in Charleston. As a member of the minor league Charlies, Blass continued to struggle, walking an incomprehensible total of 93 batters in 56 and two-thirds innings.
Blass attempted a number of remedies in his effort to return to former glory. In addition to consultations with eye doctors, Blass underwent hypnosis; consulted the advice of managers, pitching coaches, teammates and opponents; and even listened to the suggestions of fans. Yet, none of the efforts provided a true solution to the problem.
In spring training of 1975, Blass worked only six and two-thirds innings, surrendering 13 runs and 17 walks. In what would be his last appearance in a major league uniform, Blass lasted three sad innings against the White Sox, giving up 10 runs and 11 walks. In his final inning of work, Blass surrendered eight bases on balls and forced in six runs. Just days before the start of the 1975 season, the Pirates released Blass, effectively ending his major league career.
To this day, Blass does not know why he suddenly lost command of throwing a baseball, something he had done capably for eight major league seasons. Whatever the reason, this much is certain: as soon as Blass lost the ability to control a baseball—like Cowley and Saucier in later years— he never found it again. We can only hope for a better outcome in the case of Mark Wohlers…