baseball history, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, umpires

They All Built Cooperstown, Though Only a Few Are Enshrined There

George McQuinn

I completely whiffed on Lou Brock’s passing, even when I began last week’s post by citing all the notable baseball departures from our world that I’d left uneulogized.  It’s not as though 2020 has lacked distraction, either at the public or the personal level; so I’m not going to tender an abject apology.  Yet I have to say that… well, Lou’s mortality shocked me in much the same way that my own did this past summer.  The evidence is pretty conclusive now that my prostate cancer is hereditary.  That explains why my always-fastidious diet and my quasi-religious commitment to regular exercise were no defense.  Still, Lou Brock… I haven’t researched his cause of death, but if ever anyone might have been predicted to live a century… sigh.  As old Seneca wrote, Nemo contigit impune nasci—which means, in liberal translation, that everybody has to die of something.

One thing I recall reading about Lou that I’ve never forgotten was that he numbered among the three ballplayers ever to power a homerun over the center-field fence at the Polo Grounds.  Picture Willie Mays running off into that infinite real estate to grab Vic Wertz’s drive over his shoulder… and then picture Brock hitting one that cleared all that grass and then cleared the wall.  Lou had tremendous power.  He could have been a homerun king had he not identified his gifts properly and determined that he would be of more use to his team as a get-on-base, take-an-extra-base kind of player.  The deep hitch with which he loaded his barrel created momentum at the stick’s end which didn’t require Killebrew-esque muscles to impart pop; and a less-than-all-out lowering of barrel into ball would also allow split-second adjustments to pitches that would spray them hither and yon around the park.  In an era when homerun fever was already epidemic in the Majors (ruining the careers of a lot of young black players, by the way, who’d figured out that they needed to hit like Frank Robinson rather than Bob Boyd to stick around), Lou was a throwback.  His patented stroke, his running game, and his mental approach have all long struck me as belonging to the Twenties or the Thirties rather than the Sixties.  Coming from my keyboard, that is supreme adulation.

The one other footnote I feel compelled to add about Brock is that the ultimate base thief was himself robbed in the critical final game 1968 World Series.  Lou, I’m sure, had been planning it earlier during the seven-game face-off: he would take a ridiculously long lead that forced a throw-over, then beat first-baseman Norm Cash’s peg to second.  He did so in the late innings of Game Seven off Mickey Lolich… only the umpire missed the call.  The preserved TV broadcast of the game offers a slow-motion replay of the action around second base.  Brock clearly beats the throw.  Harry Caray and his partner in the booth let an awkward, suspicious silence surround the replay.  In those days, broadcasters would never have questioned an umpire’s call—not on national television, and seldom on a local broadcast.  Yet the replay’s evidence is unequivocal.  Lou had done something that the second-base arbiter had never seen before.  If the pitcher surprises you by throwing over just as you leave in a sprint, and if the first-sacker delivers his relay on target, you’re supposed to be out.  It’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t be out.  The umpire called the play he saw in his mind rather than the one he saw with his eyes.

Lou could do that to you: he could make you think you hadn’t seen what you just saw.

I’m going to devote the second half of this post to what may seem a complete shift of subject… but I think it could be taken as part of my farewell to Lou.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about poets a few months before he went missing during the final month of the West’s great war against fascism, good poets need bad poets; for the unsuccessful struggle, undertaken by many, to create beautiful poetry generates an atmosphere in which the poetic genius of a few is appreciated.

George McQuinn was one of those many not-so-great poets.  He was an above-average poet-in-cleats, and sometimes a pretty darn good one.  I came to know of him while watching highlights of the 1944 World Series—the only fall classic in which the hapless St. Louis Browns ever competed (and which they lost, of course, to the Cardinals).  I grew curious about the lanky six-footer with the sweet inside-out swing who led all Series participants in hits.  That drew me into the pages of a story which turns out to be a wide-open mystery, and whose resolution nobody with my meager resources will ever figure out.

McQuinn’s curtailed rookie adventure in 1936 didn’t set the world on fire, but had interest.  Though batting only .201 in 146 plate appearances, George logged four doubles and three triples among his 27 safeties.  Then, for four years, he took off.  In 1938, he batted .324 and smacked 42 doubles.  (Henry Aaron topped 40 only once in his 23-year career.)  McQuinn followed up with .316, .279, and .297 seasons, with the total of two-baggers registering 37, 39, and 28.  His triples reached double digits in two of these three golden years; and his homeruns, by the way, rang up respectable numbers at 20, 16, and 18.  For three out of George’s first four full seasons—1938 through 1941—his On Base Percentage flirted with .400: .384, .383, .343, and .388.  He was an All Star for the two middle seasons, and again in 1942. After the 1939 campaign, he ranked thirteenth in the MVP balloting.

And the numbers for All Star season of 1942, just before which I’ve drawn my dividing line, remained… well, okay.  Maybe the fans didn’t have much to choose from, since so many regulars were in uniform—in Uncle Sam’s uniform—by that time.  Yet the great mystery about George McQuinn strikes me as precisely that he fell off so steeply during those war years when the competition was light.  In 1943, he batted a mere .243 and struck only 33 extra-base hits of any kind; while in 1944, with a handful more of AB’s, those figures were .250 and 40.  The OBP lingered in the mid-300’s, because he had learned to draw more walks (or was being walked more by weaker pitching), with a career-high in free passes (85) occurring in 1944.  Still, there were no Brian Kenneys alerting the public that a walk’s as good as a hit during the Forties.

With the Yankees rather than the St. Louis Browns in 1947, McQuinn staged an impressive comeback: .304, a mere 40 extra-base hits again, but a career-best .395 OBP.  The following season, his at-bats almost cut in half, George nevertheless came within two of his previous year’s homerun total (11 and 13) but fell off over fifty points in both average and OBP.  Thus ends the career of one George McQuinn.

When I scribbled a book titled Key to a Cold City several years ago—a somewhat whimsical study of black ballplayers of the Fifties, undertaken on the suspicion that Jackie R. hadn’t really exploded the color barrier—I got used to looking at careers like George’s.  Of course, McQuinn was Caucasian… and therein lies the rub.  You think you see evidence of great promise being cheated by reduced playing time or undue pressure off the field—but maybe you don’t.  Maybe, like the umpire who wrongly called Lou out at second, you’re only seeing figments of the imagination.  What makes a career like McQuinn’s go south?  Injury?  Divorce?  Dissension with management or ownership?  Mere overreach—trying to be what you’re not?  Vada Pinson and Curt Flood, for instance, were two speed-merchants who declined to take Brock’s path and chased after power numbers instead of stolen bases… to the detriment of their overall offensive productivity.  But then, as I noted above, there was a lot of pressure on young black stars of that day to secure their place by whacking round-trippers.

What was George’s excuse?  Can anyone like me—anyone without a press pass or other golden bough that would win him admittance to locker rooms—ever know?  What ever happened to Jim Gentile after a couple of phenomenal seasons?  I only lately learned that Tom Tresh, like Tommy Davis, fell off the track to superstardom thanks to injury.

Lou Brock made it big in a profession where lots and lots of guys almost make it big, or make it big for a couple of years… maybe five or six.  And the reason that Pinson or Flood or Davis—or, for that matter, George McQuinn—is not Lou Brock may not really have much to do with Lou’s inherent superiority.  Baseball isn’t necessarily the ultimate meritocracy, as it has been called.  It’s also a poetic riddle whose imponderable answers are gathered together, in a kind of surrender, under the word “luck”.  A few very gifted and hard-working boys grow up to be Sweet Lou.  Many others grow up to be Pete Reeser, and wear themselves out running into walls.

Part of the glory of guys like Lou is that the sun shone fondly upon them throughout their day.  They knew that, too.  It inspired that speechless humility that you saw in them when they stood up to deliver a few words in Cooperstown.  The rest of us may try to make them irresistible demigods, always in full control of their own fate… but I think they all must know that something very special happened in their lives—something unresponsive to their personal direction.  Such is the grand mystery of success and failure, all bound up into human reality. And because many have failed—because most fail somewhere along the journey—a very few are left standing for all of us to admire.

Cooperstown is for everyone who ever tried.  I think Lou would like us to understand that.

baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Four Random Comments About Lower-Echelon and Old-School Baseball

“push-hitting” a pitch (Red Schoendienst)

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan… so many unforgettable ballplayers have lately been called up to the highest league of all that commenting upon their loss–upon our loss of them–is simply beyond me. I’ve decided, instead, to go with a few stray ideas that have been swirling in my head for weeks. I think, just maybe, they would have preferred it this way.

I’ll get this one off my chest first.  Are you a dad of a relief pitcher who throws junk—“unbarrelable” junk that hitters put into play as bloopers and twelve-hoppers?  Then you know the anguish of watching your boy trying to shine in high school, on a summer travel team, or even in college.

I thought about this a lot during the years of torture when I’d watch my son’s successes at inducing weak contact be undermined, over and over, by shoddy fielding.  Relief pitchers tend to enter the game with runners on base.  One of these runners may well be on second.  Young shortstops have been coached since their first pair of cleats to bird-dog the runner on second as he takes his lead.  Owen was a righty, most hitters are righties, and most of my son’s wipe-out sliders were therefore going to be pulled to the left side… just where the shortstop is supposed to be playing.  But Studs Superstar is too busy yoyoing around the second sack to play his position… so bowling balls keep rolling to the outfield grass.

This is the coach’s fault.  It’s the fault of coaches even at college-level.  My son had a great inside pick-off move and, over the years, had compiled a formidable list of scalps when runners wandered too far from second.  He was so good at catching them off guard that the coach should actually have wanted them to get a big lead, as a spider wants a fly to check out its bright, shiny silk.  Instead… instead, Owen’s ERA would painfully inflate on a series of bleeders that reflected the very type of contact he was called in to induce.

Then, too, you have the inevitable but regrettable obsession of adolescents with offense.  Hitting becomes such a fixation that Jason over there at second is still brooding about his strikeout when an easy grounder comes his way, and Daz over at third is still replaying his homer in slo-mo as a ground ball almost chews off his shoelaces.  Of course, such butchery isn’t deficited to the pitcher’s ERA… but a loss or a blown save still shows up on his account if the miscues of others prove fatal; and, more importantly, the coach comes to feel that letting him pitch is a risk, though not due to the boy’s own ineptitude.

Over time, I believe this largely subconscious prejudice of coaches infects even the professional game.  Why do we have so many flamethrowers in the MLB who can’t put away a pivotal hitter in the inning?  Because, from Little League on up, gas was always the ticket.  Even in Double A, the change-up was something Mr. Potential could work on—but the heater was what got him that far up the ladder.  Junk-ballers whose fast one can’t break out of the mid-80’s won’t get a serious look.  All they do is get people out… but then, as I argued above, they are not perceived as getting outs “reliably” in the lower echelons.  In my humble opinion, this is one reason for the immensely boring quality of today’s Major League game.  Walks and strikeouts abound: the excitement of balls put in play thanks to hurlers who pitch to contact is a rarity.

Now, if you shun the junkster to favor the fireballer, you’re going to get a bunch of Mighty Caseys on the other side of the ball.  My next two comments have to do with how much the slugger mentality has contributed to making The Show a bore-fest.  The other night, I heard Buck Showalter and Jim Kaat (of all people… don’t they know better?) subscribing to the proposition that radical shifts be outlawed.  I have another idea.  How about we teach hitters how to hit?  During my recent stints of reviewing old ballgames as I sit in the sauna, I’ve made the following mental list of middle-of-the-order guys who dropped bunts during World Series play: in chronological order, Walker Cooper, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Steve Garvey.  All four were successful in some measure with their bunts.  Cooper got his sacrifice down, as did Hank (I think one of these was thrown away by panicky defenders); Teddy—those who have ears, let them hear!—was bunting against the shift for a hit, which he easily accomplished; and Steve actually misunderstood manager Dick Williams’ instructions, laying down a perfect sacrifice rather than bunting for a safety up the vacated third-base line.  What’s radiantly clear is that all of these bruisers were practiced, competent bunters.  So… geez, if Hank Greenberg can do it, guys, why can’t you?  You think your offensive contribution with the all-out swing is of a higher quality than Hank Greenberg’s?  Really?

Now, there’s more than one way to beat a shift or advance base-runners.  Stroking a line drive to the opposite field works, too… but when is the last time you saw somebody do that today?  I’m talking about a drive that the runners can read quickly, so that they proceed to take an extra base with confidence: these are not bloopers squirreled off the end of the bat in lunging contact.  Time after time, relatively pedestrian players of over half a century ago would go the other way when a Bob Feller, a Spuds Chandler, or a Robin Roberts had shut them down earlier in the afternoon.  They processed failure and found a formula for success.  They learned: they adjusted.  Marty Marion, Alvin Dark, Jimmy Outlaw, Earl Torgeson, George McQuinn, Billy Cox… these fellows knew how to play the game.  Yes, they had longer bats.  I guess you have to be able to reach the outside corner before you can drive a pitch the other way from down there.  But don’t leave out the footwork.  Tommy Holmes would actually set up on top of the plate, stride open, and trail his barrel so as to make late contact: the opposite field seems to have been his preferred target for pitches in all quadrants.  And I’d swear that I saw Dark shuffle his feet as the delivery was in progress so as to angle his barrel the off-field.

Footwork: where do you see that now?  Guys spread out in the box and hardly take a stride… or else they heave up the front foot and then slam it down, not so much orienting the body to the pitch as starting a loop of energy for a fiercely descending barrel to follow.  I love to watch Nolan Arenado’s busy, jittery feet; but most of those widespread pairs of legs are doing nothing to extend the bat path farther into the pitch (also known as front-foot hitting).  Their feet are, as my cousin the Royal Navy commander once told me in defining a ship, a “platform for guns”.

A last stray observation that I must squeeze in: umpires.  Would you believe that the arbiters of 70 or 80 years ago just about never got riled?  I saw one runner get called out at second, jump up, and bump the umpire with his chest (no, I don’t have any names: note-taking isn’t easy in a sauna).  The man-in-blue’s response was… to pat the guy on the shoulder and calm him down.  Another irate competitor turned toward the umpire after a called third strike and beat his bat upon the ground within three feet of the man’s shoes.  Response: nothing.  Just look at him and watch him skulk back to the dugout.  And there were numerous scenes where a first- or third-baseman became very animated after a close play.  Even from cameras lodged several rows up in the stands, you could see neck muscles and veins working through the skin.  Cover the children’s ears!  But never was any of these human firecrackers tossed from the game.

Umpires, too, were different in the old days.  They knew that nobody had bought a ticket to see them, they knew they weren’t perfect, they knew the young men before them were at the highest pitch of competitive ardor, and they knew… well, a war had just ended.  Maybe they knew that it was good to be home playing ball again.  Call it perspective.  As one great referee of the period said when challenged, “Yeah, I probably missed the call.  So what do you want me to do?”

The show can go on after a bad call—but it can’t go on when no calls are firm and final.  Wow… when did we forget that in the broader context of life?  Is there any chance that we may soon rediscover its truth?