Baseball’s Sacrificial Lamb Deserves Resurrection

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first Commissioner of Baseball, 1921

So goes the decree that banned eight ballplayers from the Chicago White Sox for their involvement in conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. But upon close examination of the statement, the last line draws special attention, as it was written for, and directed toward, one player: George “Buck” Weaver.

Much has been written about and endlessly speculated over the Black Sox, as they (perhaps erroneously, since they were called this before 1919 as a joke about their always dirty uniforms) are forever known, but therein lies the problem: Nobody really knew what was happening. Not then, and certainly not nearly a century later. It was for this uncertainty that players like Weaver kept their mouth shut during the Series. It was clear that there was some sort of problem on the field, but nobody was certain who was participating and who was playing honest. To make matters worse, virtually everyone within the White Sox organization had knowledge of it, but one man was crucified to take the fall. Let’s examine why.

During the 1921 criminal trial of the eight players, sparked after sportswriter Hugh Fullerton and others exposed the scandal, testimony from some of the gamblers as well as scorecards of the games generated enough evidence of foul play to indicate that something wasn’t right. Questionable plays in each game showed the Series was not on the level, and this was backed up by the aforementioned testimonies. However, the trial itself quickly became a bigger scandal than the Series. Signed confessions to the Grand Jury by three of the accused players mysteriously disappeared. (The accepted theory is that Charles Comiskey, along with perhaps some gambling bigwigs, paid to have them stolen in order to make the trial a wash and thus protect the business of baseball.) This lack of official admission led to the eventual aquittal of the players in court. However, behind the scenes, American League President Ban Johnson, and National League President John Heydler along with several owners, appointed Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge, as baseball’s first Commissioner. The very first ruling he made in this role was to ban the eight players forever, a decision he was within his right to make, as he was given absolute ruling power over the game of baseball.

Individually, there was little question about the involvement of six of the eight players. The other two, the gritty and ever-smiling Weaver and the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, have generated decades of sympathy and pleas for reinstatement, largely due to the sparking performance each turned in during the ’19 Series. Jackson hit .375 and the Series’ only home run, while Weaver hit .324 and played flawless defense. Jackson however, despite having Hall of Fame-worthy career statistics, has one red thumb: He accepted money for his participation in the fix. Even though he did nothing on the field to indicate he was not playing on the level, he was illegally paid. That, sadly, is enough to keep him out. Weaver on the other hand, did not take a dime, and had no participation other than simply being aware that the nefarious plan was hatched. But by Game 3 of the Series, it was completely unclear who was trying and who wasn’t. Buck tried to tell manager Kid Gleason and others, but it fell on deaf ears. Moreover, he didn’t know who to rat out or what to say! Had he made what was considered a false accusation, he could’ve implicated himself in a serious matter, so he was literally unable to resolve the situation! Landis’ statement had a special section at the end for Weaver. Why? He needed to set a precedent.

There simply was no rule in place at the time about punishing those with guilty knowledge of something, so he made one. The problem was, Weaver was by far not the only one who knew of the fix. The rest of the team, manager Kid Gleason, even owner Charles Comiskey himself had caught wind of the fix before the Series even began. But knowing Weaver was part of the “in” crowd on the clique-ridden Sox, the likes of which had orchestrated the fix to begin with, he declared Weaver guilty by association and banned him with the others. Precedent set. ‘Ol Buck was the fall guy.

Weaver’s sacrifice has not been in vain however, as through the years many gambling incidents were avoided or saved by Buck’s banishment. It became a well-known and understood fact that you could indeed face banishment for knowledge of throwing games, and thus, in an indirect and perhaps ironic way, Weaver has helped preserve the game’s integrity. All things considered, that could and should weigh heavily in his favor and be more than a bullet point in his case for reinstatement.

What happens now? For nearly a century, there has been an outpouring of support for both Jackson and Weaver’s reinstatement. This will likely never happen for Jackson, as although he had a stellar career, he did accept money for the ’19 Series. Intangibly speaking, to reinstate Shoeless Joe would be the equivalent of removing a huge chunk of baseball folklore from the world and giving a new identity to one of the games most tragic heroes. Baseball likely will not do this. Weaver by comparison, was nothing more than a bystander who was made an example of. He was ripped away from the game he adored during the prime of his career. The only third baseman that Ty Cobb would never bunt against, was cast out unjustly for the sake of establishing a rule. Now that that precedent has been set, I’d say his punishment is long, long over. It’s now up to Commissioner Rob Manfred, or any future commissioners to soften their hearts a bit, and right a wrong.

Let the Ginger Kid smile again.

2016 MLB Predictions

Alright folks. As Spring Training comes to a close, it’s time to unveil this year’s 2016 regular season predictions. Note that last word, because that’s only what they are: Predictions. Prognostications. Educated guesses. Only one pick below is based on my favorite intangible: Reverse Karma. (Hey, it works in hockey.) So without further adieu…

AL EAST

This division is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in baseball this year. It may appear front loaded with New York and Boston, but Toronto and Baltimore are packing some firepower, and Tampa Bay is the proverbial thorn.

  1. New York Yankees: Nice offseason additions, and the best bullpen in baseball lead the way here. If the Yanks have the lead in the 6th inning, they really shouldn’t relinquish it.
  2. Boston: Huge moves aquiring David Price and Craig Kimbrel, along with a solid lineup. But will it be enough?
  3. Toronto: Offense, offense, offense.
  4. Tampa Bay: Good enough to be in the picture, could turn some heads with a fast start.
  5. Baltimore: Strong offense top to bottom, but not much else, especially on the mound.

AL CENTRAL

Muck. Logjam. Crapshoot. Look at five different publications and you’ll probably see five different orders of finish predicted here. This will be fun to watch as it’s all up for grabs.

  1. Minnesota: 2015 was a big jolt of confidence for the returnees, and there is balance throughout the roster.
  2. Kansas City: A winning culture has been bred for the defending WS champs, and it’s bound to continue.
  3. Chicago White Sox: A very good offseason with key additions in Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie to backup a solid front of the rotation. If they get off to a good start, the Sox will be a factor in this division.
  4. Detroit: Some good power in the lineup and Jordan Zimmerman is a nice pickup to bolster a decent pitching staff.
  5. Cleveland: Their arms may keep them in the discussion early on, but without an extra bat or two, it could be a long second half.

AL WEST

A pretty top-heavy division with Texas and Houston, but Los Angeles and Seattle look to surprise.

  1. Texas: Cole Hamels in a full season, and a healthy Yu Darvish lead the way for this well-balanced team looking to win another division title.
  2. Houston: Last year was no fluke, but they’ll need another hot start to keep pace with the Rangers.
  3. Los Angeles Angels: Could contend for this division, but they’ll need health and consistency out of their rotation.
  4. Seattle: Lots of turnover again, but they’ll be better.
  5. Oakland: Billy Beane is in heavy rebuild mode right now.

NL EAST

In 2015, it was Washington’s division to lose…and they did. Now it’s all on the Mets.

  1. New York Mets: Pitching wins, and the Mets have tons of it. Throw in a nice player in Neil Walker to replace Daniel Murphy, and re-signing Yoenis Cespedes, and the Mets look to repeat as NL East champs.
  2. Washington: A nice team who fell short in 2015, but a lot of that can be contributed to a disagreeable clubhouse. New skipper Dusty Baker will surely fix that, and it will help the Nats slug it out for the top spot with the Mets.
  3. Miami: Some underrated talent led by manager Don Mattingly and coach Barry Bonds and this team could open a few eyes.
  4. Philadelphia: Nowhere to go but up. They’ll be better, but not by much.
  5. Atlanta: A good pipeline is waiting to be mined, but it’ll take some time.

NL CENTRAL

This division was the talk of baseball last year, with the omnipresent Cardinals, scrappy Pirates and explosive young Cubs at the top. Look for those three to juggle the division torch again, but how will they finish?

  1. St. Louis: If the Cardinals wrote any mythical book on baseball, it’s how to win with injuries. They Redbirds must deal with more, again, to start this season, but until someone knocks them off their top perch, there they will remain.
  2. Chicago Cubs: A ton of free agency cash was spent bolstering a frighteningly talented young roster led by Crazy Uncle Joe Maddon, coming off a 97-win campaign and a trip to the NLCS. Can the Cubs take that long next step?
  3. Pittsburgh: They’ll be a player again. Solid lineup and pitching, and Clint Hurdle is an excellent manager. The Bucs aren’t going anywhere.
  4. Milwaukee: Some talented players in the midst of a rebuild. Still, this team could play spoiler to one of the top three teams in August and September.
  5. Cincinnati: They’ve unloaded, and waived the white flag it would seem.

NL WEST

Not unlike the AL West, this division would seem like a two-horse race if not for a couple potential surprises.

  1. San Francisco: Skipper Bruce Bochy is one of the best in baseball, and he welcomes in a very solid roster loaded with defense, speed and several good arms. It’s also an even year…
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers: A huge payroll keeps this team a factor, likely to be in step with the Giants. But time will tell if it will be enough.
  3. Arizona: Adding Zach Greinke and Shelby Miller to the front of your rotation are moves that show they aren’t messing around. With an offense that can score, the Dbacks could be THE sleeper team in MLB. Depth may be an issue, however.
  4. San Diego: They may have won the offseason last year, but it didn’t equate to much. They’re not there yet.
  5. Colorado: See Cincinnati.

Best (most competitive, that is) Division: AL East or AL Central

Sleeper Teams: Miami, Arizona

Team that could buck the FA Trend?: Chicago Cubs

Note: No playoff predictions at this time 😉

Fullerton Unknowingly ‘Predicts’ Black Sox Scandal

We all know that historically speaking, baseball is an exceptionally spooky game. Not only in the sense of measuring all players’ success against the ghosts of those that played before them, but also in the case of delivering the inadvertent prophecy. (An eerie example is the story of Ray Chapman, which I wrote about here.)

This one is equally bizarre.

In a display of coincidental yet unmitigated clairvoyance, writer Hugh Fullerton “saw” a crucial element of the ill-fated 1919 World Series puzzle unfold four years before it happened.

As one of America’s leading sportswriters in 1915, Fullerton often wrote fictional stories in addition to his regular beat reports in the newspaper(s.) That year, he published a novel about a left-handed pitcher named “Williams” who was bribed by gamblers to lose the pennant. Four years later, in an unbelievable parallel, left-handed star pitcher Claude “Lefty” Willaims would do just that – as he and the other members of the infamous “Black Sox” would conspire with gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series.

Fullerton, who for many years had written about the dangerous gambling element in baseball, covered the Series and was the reporter who first broke news of the scandal after it ended and the Cincinnati Reds had won.

Was Fullerton psychic? Perhaps not. But some things are just too strange to be purely coincidental…

Player Spotlight: John “Honest Eddie” Murphy

In an era where old fashioned, blue collared, hardnosed ballplayers were virtually everywhere, one gentleman stands in distinction. He is John “Honest Eddie” Murphy (1891-1969), a veteran of 11 Major League seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Getting his major league start in late 1912, Murphy would be a part of two of the best clubs in the Deadball Era: Connie Mack’s powerhouse Athletics, and the White Sox, where the nickname “Honest Eddie” was crowned him in the aftermath of the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919.

Murphy made three World Series appearances in his career. In 1913 as the leadoff man on Mack’s A’s, and again in 1914, which would incidentally be his last season as an every day player. During those two years, Murphy would hit solidly (.295 and .274 respectively,) and score over 100 runs each, putting him among the league leaders. Following the disastrous 1914 World Series in which the A’s were swept by the notorious “Miracle Braves” from Boston, Connie Mack, in disgust, dismantled his pennant-winning club, which landed Murphy in Chicago with the White Sox. Although reunited there with his former A’s teammate and future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, Murphy would see his playing time diminish rapidly over the next several years, as he struggled to see much action behind outfield thumpers Shoeless Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, and the right field platoon of Nemo Liebold and John “Shano” Collins. During the infamous 1919 season, Murphy only appeared in 30 games, but hit .486 and was recognized and praised thereafter as one of the “Clean Sox.” Many years later, Murphy said of the scandal, “We might have started the dynasty that was the Yankees’ good fortune, but our best players…sold their honour and souls to the gamblers and a pennant purgutory came upon the White Sox.” (Pomrenke, 156.)

To his credit, Murphy embraced his role as a pinch hitter with the Sox from 1915-1921, hitting over .300 in four of those six years despite an inconsistent number of plate appearances and battling a couple injuries. Retiring from pro ball after 1921 before coming back for a handful of appearances with the Pirates in 1926, Murphy would tally up a strong .287 lifetime batting average and an OBP of .374. By all accounts, Murphy was a scrappy, tough ballplayer who never got the playing time he likely deserved. He was a team guy who flourished in the roles he was given throughout his career, although it’s hard not to wonder what could have been for this man if he was given the chance to play every day after 1914…

Farewell Honest Eddie. Baseball hasn’t forgotten you.

Source(s): Scandal On the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox, Jacob Pomrenke (editor) 2015, a SABR publication

Random Baseball Fact

Here’s a baseball factoid for you that’s in a word, crazy:

If a pitcher threw every inning of all 162 games in a season, for four straight seasons, he’d still have 101 fewer career complete games than Cy Young.

They don’t make ’em like they used to, folks.

 

 

 

Is This Heaven?

“There are only two seasons: Winter and baseball.”

-Bill Veeck

Embark with me on a quick journey to paradise…

Imagine winter’s steely cold veil being rolled back to reveal clear skies of the prettiest electric blue on a warm spring afternoon, with perfectly manicured grass toting gorgeus shades of emerald and shamrock, while the strong and indisputable scents of popcorn, hot dogs, fresh roasted peanuts and ice cold beer tantalize your senses. Classic, peppy organ music and a sometimes overly excited announcer boom from seemingly out of nowhere to direct and dictate the action you’re witnessing. You sit back and become enveloped in a tranquil, yet excited relaxation as you cheer on your heroes in the most graceful chess match ever played, and it becomes infinitely clear why it’s called our national pastime.

That paradise is real.

And in just a few short days, we will see it.

The 2016 baseball season is about to begin.

Connecting the Final Cubs’ Dots

All good things come to an end. Except in this case…

One good (or bad, depending on your preference) thing will be ending soon. As the offseason winds down, so does the once-enormous number of quality free agents available, as well as some long-rumored trade deals that are on the hook for the Cubs.

It’s been a weakly kept secret that the Cubs are looking for another arm in the rotation, while several teams are interested in one of the Cubs’ hot young bats. Many have been the times where IF Javy Baez and/or OF Jorge Soler have been mentioned in potential deals with teams, notably Cleveland and Tampa Bay, both of whom are in love with the young player(s). Among those free agents still available, is CF Dexter Fowler. There is one scenario where resigning Fowler, who initially rejected the Cubs’ qualifying offer in November, would make perfect sense.

Cleveland has been highly interested in Soler for some time, and a deal involving P Carlos Carrasco would be a nice fit. Should the Cubs trade Jorge Soler, the very next move would ideally be to sign Fowler, or vice versa. It’s a simple matter of connecting the dots. With Soler out of RF, the Cubs can move newly acquired Jason Heyward over to right, his natural position, and have Fowler patrol center. In addition, this would effectively load the Cubs lineup (even more than it already is), for with Fowler you have a table setter who scores runs and also has some added power.

Other potential suitors for Soler include Tampa Bay, who have been in pretty regular talks of late, for a deal for P Jake Odorizzi. Should the Cubs not want to move Soler or Baez, there are plenty of big prospect bats available that would be attractive for any number of teams.

In all, these are good problems to have. I for one, believe the Soler-Heyward-Fowler carousel, as long as they’re adding a strong SP in the process, would be the best scenario for the Cubs.

But then, how often do we get to have our cake and eat it too?

Shoeless Joe vs. Field of Dreams

I’ve long maintained that Field of Dreams is not a baseball movie.

It’s really not. It is at it’s core, a story about an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who is long racked by guilt wishing to reconcile his relationship with his deceased father, John, by way of their one mutual love, baseball, as the backdrop. The wonderful novel from which the film is based – Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, tells a noticeably richer story and like most book to film adaptations, the written version is different than the visual. The changes from book to film, due largely for pacing & budget’s sake, spin a wider and thicker web with many signficant differences. At the risk of sounding overly theoretical and metaphysical, let’s examine the main changes between the novel and film. Which is better – the book or the movie, you ask? Well, that’s entirely up to you. However, if you have not read the book, stop reading now if you wish to avoid spoilers…

Several important characters were in the book but not the film. Most crucially:

Eddie Scissons: An oldtimer who originally owned Ray’s farm. He also claims some fame as the oldest living Chicago Cub (or is he?)

Richard Kinsella: Ray’s identical twin brother. He has a girlfriend named Gypsy and whether by design or by intent, he cannot see the field or the players…

Abner Bluestein: Real estate business partner of Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law Mark.

JD Salinger: The book’s version of Terrence Mann. In real life Salinger threatened to sue if his personage was used in the film, so the fictional character of Mann, brilliantly played by James Earl Jones, was created.

Other important book to film differences:

  • In the book, “the voice” that Ray heard was not a whisper. It was in the form of an old-style PA announcer. (Think Tex Rickards and you’ll get the idea.) This type of voice really puts a spooky charge into the creation of Ray’s leap of faith endeavor.
  • Ray only built one part of the field at a time, not the whole thing like in the movie.
  • The players didn’t disappear into the cornfield. Rather they exited the ballpark through a door in the left field wall. This was historically (at least partially) accurrate as many ballparks in the deadball era didn’t have tunnels through the dugout to the clubhouse. Most parks back then had their clubhouse entrances somewhere in the outfield, and some didn’t even have visitors clubhouses at all.
  • One of the most common questions among fans of the movie is “where do the players go when they disappear?” Well, this question was directly addressed in the book. When Ray asked the players what becomes of them when they leave the field, Sox first baseman Chick Gandil answers “we sleep.” “And wait”, says Happy Felsch. “And dream…oh, how we dream,” adds Shoeless Joe Jackson. Taken literally, this would attest to what Jackson and others alluded to in the film, in that there IS an afterlife and the players are fully conscious of it. Taken figuratively, one can assume the players simply don’t know where they came from, how, or why they are there, which Jackson also hinted at in the film. This whole scene is open for endless debate. (My personal theory is that the Black Sox were in a sort of purgatory, while honest, noble players like Ray’s father, were in heaven—yet all former players got to enjoy their Lazarus-like resurrection to this Edenic field regardless of which afterlife they came from.)
  • When the field is fully built, a semi-transparent mirage of an entire stadium completes the effect, with ghostly players appearing along with the “real” players that first came to Ray’s field, which only Ray and his family can see or talk to. As such, they got to watch entire games and not just practices as were shown for much of the film.

Thus, while not surprising that the novel lays out more detail and enriches the storyline, there is no real wrong answer as to which is better. Both are excellent. Yet the novel, in several ways, delves a bit deeper into the actual baseball angle, with several subtle references and offering tidbits of folklore about the game. While many of these are not present in the film, studying the book gives one that “oh! NOW that makes sense!” feeling when watching the movie.

My advice: Enjoy both the book and film for the full experience of this magical story.

…and go have a catch with someone.