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 ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Uncategorized

Size as Well as Race Has Been a Source of Bigotry in Baseball

I was almost twenty years in writing Key to a Cold City.  I should clarify that the work began about twenty years ago, and then the project was pushed aside for a long time.  Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I’m paying renewed attention to some of those undertakings that never quite got off the ground.  This was the most challenging of them all.

The book had its origin in a lazy day of looking through the first baseball cards I ever collected: sets clipped with scissors off the backs of Post Cereal boxes in 1962 and 1963.  Believe me, there was a lot of pleasant nostalgia in revisiting those days of early childhood.  Yet as an adult, I found myself puzzled that so many young players with brilliant stats had simply dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Even today, kids know (more or less) who Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are… but Vada Pinson?  George Altman?  The statistics in the latter cases could have come from the cards of the former two: Pinson and Altman were that good in the early Sixties.  What happened?

I wondered, as I compiled more and more such cases, if racial prejudice had not utterly disappeared after Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the big-league scene in 1947.  The book began in the hypothesis that it had passed somewhat underground without actually evaporating.  Oh, there were white players who raised similar questions.  Why didn’t Don Demeter blossom as his stats promised?  Why did two-time batting champ Pete Runnels seem to spiral into oblivion in the middle of a brilliant career?  These cases, however, were fewer and also less severe most of the time.  I mean, Pistol Pete did have enough of a chance that he carried home two batting titles!

I’m not offering a review of my own book here.  I’ve made access to it available through these links: Amazon Kindle and Amazon paperback.  (I managed to ratchet the cost of the latter way down by ditching the little bit of red ink used in four graphs; the graphs themselves are relatively unimportant, the red letters should remain distinct as a lighter gray, and the price reduction was an incredible $30!)  I will only say further here of the book’s contents that I find racial issues to be immensely complex.  I’ve developed a real dislike—even a kind of smoldering fury—at how the “r” word is tossed about every time a person of color is caught in a sleazy act.  Real racism shouldn’t be deflated in this manner: its existence shouldn’t validate a “get out of jail” card for grafters and shysters.  Guys in the Sally League were having to dodge bottles and batteries as they tried to follow play from left field.  Their ordeal was nothing remotely like that of a corrupt city mayor who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

The specific reason I bring the issue of racial prejudice in the Fifties up here is that I truly believe skin color to have been a secondary factor in the discrimination I researched—a kind of ready-made “yellow star” for front-office dopes who couldn’t express their more abstract concerns.  White owners and managers at that time wanted machine-like offenses powered primarily by the home run.  The black players who were filtered to them through the Negro Leagues were well versed in bunting, chopping, hitting to all fields, base-stealing… all things that the MLB brain trust associated with a sloppy, silly, out-of-control game.  I’m sure that the association fed right into the stereotype of the kid of African descent as wild, fun-loving, and disorderly.  Here’s the point, though: the stereotype didn’t produce the distaste for creative, unpredictable baseball—the distaste came first, and (what do you know?) the young black players on trial were prime offenders.

Now, some of the recruits learned to adjust their game.  These are the household names: Mays, Aaron, Banks, Robinson.  Jackie was actually never a slugger of this caliber: I concluded the study very much convinced that Branch Rickey would have used his Negro League style as an excuse to send him back down if “the experiment” had damaged ticket sales.  It was Rickey who ruined George Altman’s prospects by pressuring him to pull the ball over the fence.  A great many other players who had dropped off history’s radar apparently had the same trouble.  Guys like Curt Flood and Floyd Robinson who could have been the next Pete Runnels were instead trying to muscle up and emulate the young Willie McCovey.  Another Willie by the last name of Kirkland was in fact given a very long leash, considering his series of miserable batting averages, because he showed promise in generating “jacks”.

I know I will irritate some people if I say that this situation comes very close to many we see at SmallBallSuccess.com.  Racial prejudice is supposed to be the ultimate misery that anyone may suffer… but to a boy or young man whose whole life is playing ball, not getting a fair chance to play ball is the ultimate misery.  Kids like Jake Wood and Ted Savage, though they were obviously five-tool players, were benched or demoted because, it was said, they struck out too much—but they were striking out too much because management was telling them to pull the hell out of everything!  That’s the precise situation in which my son found himself during his senior year in high school.  He eventually became a successful college pitcher; not every boy of smaller build has that kind of versatility.  Albie Pearson and Dick Hauser scored tons of runs during the brief time they were given to audition in the big leagues.  Though white lads, however, they seemed to be simply reserving a slot in the line-up until a taller prospect arrived at their position.  A promising Georgia boy called “Coot” Veal was taught four or five different batting styles by the “experts” until he didn’t know up from down, all because he came up as that most loathsome of creatures, a front-foot hitter.  Veal, too, was Caucasian; but I found case after case of young black prospects having to submit to precisely the same “lean back and hack” brainwashing that destroyed their success at the plate.

Well, hitting off the front foot happens to be one of the techniques we preach on this site.  The Negro Leagues, in fact, were a veritable repository of Deadball Era tactics that white baseball had consigned to the dustbin of history.  Funny how, half a century later, the game still seems to be waging that war against smaller players who employ offbeat styles to get on base.  They’re not welcome.  The 6’8” slugger who strikes out once a game and can do nothing to thwart a radical shift is on every GM’s Christmas list.

Let’s keep up the fight.  You can’t argue with winning—and eventually even the densest of coaching know-it-alls will have to give you playing time if you’re always on base.