baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, general health, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

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It’s been a rough week.  Among other things, I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to upload to Amazon the paperback version of Landing Safeties, Second Edition.  After a long series of tests, I figured out that my local Internet connection couldn’t handle the job and managed to send the PDF to another terminal for transfer.  This edition has a great many new photos, even though I haven’t raised its price a penny over Edition One.

The present occasion, at any rate, seems like the perfect time to deliver on my promise about giving out some details on George Altman.  This standout performer of the early Sixties seemed destined for greatness–a five-tool player who could and should have taken his place among the game’s new stars of African descent.  Instead, he disappeared into a galaxy of competing talents.  He became one of my most intriguing cases when I wrote Key to a Cold City.  I have decided simply to paste in below the section of that book where I offered my discoveries about George’s all-too-common (as it turned out) case.  Incredibly, he vanished into the night because front-office fools had urged him to change his swing!

The mystery of George Altman became less opaque to me (though it did not disappear) after a discovery. First the mystery, then the discovery. George spent his first four Major League seasons with the Cubs, and his batting average improved with each year, climaxing in a sixth-place finish for the batting crown after the 1962 campaign at .318. His power numbers observed almost the same glorious ascent, peaking a year earlier with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs—and, by the way, a league-leading 12 triples. Not that ’62 witnessed a sudden power-outage: Altman’s 22 home runs and 74 RBIs were easily the second-best marks of his career, and his 27 doubles fell just one shy of the previous year’s mark.

Nevertheless, the Cubs decided to unload their All-Star outfielder to the Cardinals after the 1962 season. In return, they essentially received pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel. These two starters were a fine acquisition for a team perennially troubled by weak pitching—and, of course, the starting-rotation omelet could only be fried up by breaking a fat egg, such as a potential batting champ. That’s how trades work: teams cripple one aspect of their game to fortify another (often, alas, with a zero-sum result). In retrospect, this particular trade was about as fruitless as most—but it was more defensible than a great many.

Too bad for George Altman that he got packed off to a pitcher’s paradise (which had probably made Jackson and McDaniel look a little better than they were). His average and power figures both took a beating in 1963 (though .274 is not to be scoffed at in any ballpark). The Cardinals had apparently expected Wrigley Field numbers out of their new star, so George was again shipped out in the winter of ’63—this time in a two-for-one deal to the New York Mets, with Roger Craig being the one worth two. Craig had posted 15 wins and 46 losses during his two previous seasons with the Mets: August Busch must have taken George’s 9 homers pretty hard. It probably hadn’t helped Altman’s concentration, either, that he had been trying to fill Stan Musial’s shoes, or that Stan had announced his impending retirement in plenty of time for fans to ride George.

In any case, the bad luck didn’t wear off in New York. Though Altman saw over 400 at-bats in 1964, he batted an anemic .230, and his home runs and RBIs were ironically identical to the previous year’s tallies—which, of course, was a slight upswing if pegged to the reduced at-bats. Yet the statistics show that Altman was pressing by this point. He had always managed to draw about half as many walks as he logged strike-outs: in ’64, the ratio plummeted to 18/70. The Cubs, surely remembering his glory days with them, re-acquired him in a trade after the ’64 season, and for three miserable years George struggled to catch fire again (now, however, spending well over half his time on the bench). There was no combustion left. In 1967 he was released after appearing in only fifteen games.

In the light of my research, the mystery is not why the Cubs traded Altman, to begin with, but why some players rebound so much better than others to having the rug pulled out from under them. On paper, George’s case anticipates that of Leon Durham, another black slugger from the left side whom the Cubs rendered thunderstruck when they traded him to Cincinnati for reliever Pat Perry. Durham—would you believe it?—shortly ended up in St. Louis, where his hot bat turned to ice. He, too, never recovered from the gaping wound of being unloaded after a six year stint over which he hit 20 or more home runs five times. There was nothing ostensibly race-indexed about either of these deals, to be sure (though one may observe that neither Ron Santo nor, in 1988, Ryne Sandberg was made the sacrificial lamb to the Cubs’ ever-deficient pitching staff). Once the Cubs had recovered Altman at a discount, however, why didn’t they at least give him something like a full season to locate his missing confidence? Why obtain the former All-Star a mere two years later just to put him out to pasture?

I could muse, once again, upon the many sub-.250 seasons that Detroit tolerated from Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe en route to letting them fulfill splendid careers. On the other hand, I could meditate a little further on the resilience that allowed a Frank Robinson or a Tommy Davis to keep floating to the top after every trade. Race was not unconnected to the enormous pressures placed upon young athletes at this time, but neither, I think, was it the primary source of pressure. The mystery of what George Altman might have been had Chicago not disrupted his productive rhythm in his prime, like all mysteries of squandered potential, is at last insoluble.

In Altman’s case, though, a surprising epilogue seems to reinforce the notion that the Cubs wasted a rare opportunity. I recently discovered that George went on to have a very fine career playing ball in Japan. From 1969-1975, he hit 205 home runs for his new employers and batted a combined .309. Though insider’s wisdom has it that Japanese baseball presented less of a challenge to American-bred hitters than what they encountered in the States, one might adjust for inflation and still suppose that Altman could have posted 20 annual homers and an average around .280 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for quite some time if he had been handled with greater care. The Cub’s loss was Japan’s gain and, for once, a happy ending in those chronicles of neglect where the careers of so many black ballplayers may be found.

***

Postscript: Mr. Altman very kindly responded after I had sent him a copy of my remarks above. Below I reproduce this response in its entirety:

Your pressure theory concerning power was partly right in my St. Louis experience. I was batting over .350 three weeks into the 1963 season. Busch Stadium in St. Louis had a short porch [in right field]. Someone from the front office came to me saying Mr. Rickey, the GM or VP, wanted me (a straight-away hitter) to pull the ball to take advantage of the short porch. I mistakenly tried to heed this advice and started “stepping in the bucket” and pulling off the ball. I was pulling the ball a lot but wasn’t getting the loft needed to clear the high stands in right. I started to drop my hands and upper-cut. I also was fouling a lot of balls off my right foot. This caused me to have to wear a shin guard. This led to groin problems in trying to beat out grounders. As my average declined I developed pressure in the back of my eyes causing blurred vision. I tried glasses for a while. Finally, after my average dropped to .230, I abandoned the pull-hitter experiment and got back into the line-up on a regular basis. I was a part of the team surge in late August when we won 18 out of 19 games. I played against left-handers and righties. I had a 19-game hitting streak going when the Dodgers came to St. Louis and pitched four left-handers in the series to beat us four straight. I was benched for that series and used only sparingly as a pinch-hitter.

In 1964 I was traded to the New York Mets. I dove for a ball on the last day of spring training and dislocated my shoulder. I should have been out a month or more. Casey Stengel came to me a week later on opening day and asked me to play. It was too early and the shoulder bothered me all year.

In 1965 I returned to Chicago. I started well, batting .300. Then my groin muscle separated from the bone while I was beating out a bunt. Again I was pressured to return to the line-up too soon and had groin trouble all year.

In 1966 Leo Durocher signed to manage the Cubs. We opened in San Francisco. I hit well in that series, including a home run. I was benched for the next series in Los Angeles. Leo was officially on a youth movement. Regardless of how well I played, I was relegated to part-time duty.

In 1967, I went to the Pacific Coast League and did very well there, playing full time. When I was recalled to the Cubs, I sat for two weeks before getting a chance to play. After one or two games, back on the bench. I knew I could still play, so when the Japan offer came I took it.

I found out in Japan that I wasn’t ever in tip-top shape while playing in the Major Leagues. Even though I worked harder than most players, it wasn’t enough for me. 1961 was probably the only year that I was injury-free in the Major Leagues. I was able to play virtually injury-free in Japan due to their hard training methods.

Obviously, there must be many such cases as George’s in this section’s following thumb-nail sketches where a player’s somewhat irregular career was impacted by injuries far more than I could ever know. Ballplayers would not have thought it wise in this era to complain about an injury or to refuse the manager’s request that they start. [Stengel, by the way, was notorious for badgering injured players to get back on the field.]   In the case of black players, especially, who were routinely cut during a “youth movement” or were instantly assumed to have their best years behind them as soon as they hit a slump, the pressure to play in mangled condition must have been considerable.

I continue to believe that the identification of home runs with job security altered a great many swings besides George’s in 1963, and that theme shall recur throughout this and subsequent chapters. Branch Rickey was actually employed by the Cardinals as a senior advisor at this time (he would be carried away by a stroke within a couple of years). Rickey had always liked the pulling, slightly upper-cutting swing, and he had directed his scouts to look for it in previous years. Anyone can understand why the young George, trying hard to please his new bosses and slipped a word of advice from a living legend, would want to oblige… but the DiMaggio/Williams swing was not his style, and it certainly contributed to short-circuiting his Major League career.

An even broader theme, however, is simply that lurking sense of not being likely to receive the benefit of any doubt—a sense which might, for instance, have made George dive for a ball in a spring-training game. The hunger to silence one’s critics utterly can be almost suicidal when those critics are not susceptible to reasonable proof. Is there another case in baseball history, I wonder, of a player’s being benched after a 19-game hitting streak? I, at least, have never heard of such a thing. Any remotely thoughtful person would be bound to grow a little paranoid in such circumstances.

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