By Glen Sparks
(The recent death of retired NBA superstar Kobe Bryant made me think about Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, who perished in an airplane crash on December 31, 1972, while on a mercy mission. Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 in southern California.)
A massive earthquake struck near Managua, Nicaragua, at about 12:29 a.m. local time, Dec. 23, 1972. The temblor measured 6.2 on the Richter scale. Within one hour, strong aftershocks of 5.0 and 5.2 struck the area.
Roberto Clemente of Carolina, Puerto Rico, grew up in a family of limited means. As a boy, Roberto worked in the fields alongside his dad, cutting down sugar cane and then loading and unloading it onto pick-up trucks. On off days, Roberto played softball and baseball. Not surprisingly, he liked to show off his arm.
Al Campanis, a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, first saw Clemente during a tryout camp in 1952. Campanis rated Clemente’s arm strength as A+, gave his fielding an A and his hitting also an A (“turns head but improving”). He had “+” running speed, according to the report. Campanis wrote down that the 18-year-old “has all the tools and likes to play. A real good-looking prospect.”
Clemente was still in high school, though. Campanis waited to sign his superstar-to-be. The Dodgers finally inked Clemente on Feb. 19, 1954, supposedly for a $5,000 salary and a $10,000 bonus. That made the prospect a “bonus baby.”
According to the rules, the Dodgers had to keep Clemente on the team’s major league roster or risk losing him during an offseason draft. Brooklyn assigned him to the minor league Montreal Royals and hoped for the best. The Pittsburgh Pirates swept in and drafted Clemente in November of ’54. “Thus, we lost Roberto,” Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi said many years later.
The Nicaragua earthquake killed approximately 6,000 people and injured another 20,000. More than 250,000 people were left homeless. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed, including most of the area hospitals. Several fires, fueled by dry-season winds, broke out. Police and soldiers patrolled against looting.
Clemente made his major league debut on April 17, 1955. He struggled to hit for power in his early years and did not reach double figures in home runs for a single season until 1960. That year, he also made his first All-Star team. He ended up playing in 15.
The right-handed batter topped the National League in hitting for the first time in 1961 (.351). He retired with four batting crowns and hit a career-high .357 in 1967. His run of 12 straight Gold Glove seasons also began in 1961. Fans, teammates, opposing players, everyone, marveled at his superhuman throwing arm from right field. Broadcaster Vin Scully once said, “He (Clemente) could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.”
Clemente won the N.L. MVP in 1966. He finished in the top 10 in voting eight times and collected at least 200 hits in a season three times. On Sept. 30, 1972, Clemente smacked a double against Jon Matlack of the New York Mets. It was his 3,000th career hit. And his final one during a regular-season game. Richie Ashburn, the Hall of Fame outfielder turned broadcaster, had asked Clemente a few months earlier when he might get his landmark hit. “Well, uh, you never know,” he responded. “I, I, uh, if I’m alive, like I said before, you never know because God tells you how long you’re going to be here. So you never know what can happen.” Vera Clemente said many times that her husband thought he would die young.
The relief effort in Nicaragua began right away. The people needed food, clothing, medical supplies. Everything. Red Cross volunteers flew in from Mexico, the United States and other countries. Tactical hospital units flew in from Fort Hood, Texas, and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Teams from Doctors Without Borders, a newly formed medical assistance group based in Paris, France, arrived.
Unfortunately, according to many reports, most of the aid did not reach the scores of needy people. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza stockpiled the supplies and kept them from the victims, especially from people who did not support his political regime. Reports of this action outraged Clemente. He decided to lead his own aid mission to Nicaragua.
The writers and Clemente didn’t always get along. Reporters described Clemente as the “dusky Puerto Rican” and the “fiery Puerto Rican,” according to David Maraniss’ 2006 book Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero. Clemente hated that. He complained that reporters called him a “hot dog” and wrote that he malingered after injuries. Some reporters and broadcasters insisted on calling him “Bob” rather than “Roberto.” Clemente hated that, too. He once said “I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America.”
So, on New Year’s Eve, while revelers partied on, Clemente and four others took off from San Juan Airport and headed for Managua. Clemente, 38, had charted a Douglas DC-7 cargo plane, an aircraft infamous for its mechanical problems. To make matters ever riskier, the plane was overloaded with relief supplies by more than 4,000 pounds. Witnesses said the plane struggled to get into the air.
The DC-7 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean minutes after take-off at a little after 9 p.m. Radio reports of the disaster soon followed. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships searched for the wreckage and for any survivors. The body of Clemente, as well as the three others in the plane, was never recovered. Besides his wife, he left behind three children.
Clemente hit 240 career home runs and batted .317 to go with his 3,000 hits. Baseball ushered him into the Hall of Fame in 1973. In death, though, this great right-fielder became more than one of the best baseball players of his time. He became a man to admire for all-time. Pirates General Manager Joe L. Brown said, “He’s a shining star to many, many people. He grows and grows over time. He doesn’t diminish.” Manager Bill Verdon, who played alongside Clemente in the outfield for several seasons, said, “It was like a nightmare when I heard (about Clemente’s death). … He was the greatest all-around baseball player during my era. He could do more things than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Pirates owner John W. Galbreath said, “The news (of Clemente’s death) has just jolted me. Roberto Clemente wasn’t only one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever known, he was one of the greatest persons I ever knew. … If you have to die, how better could your death be exemplified than by being on a mission of mercy.” Clemente himself said this: ”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
By Glen Sparks
James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast …
He once scored from first base on a sacrifice bunt.
Bell was so fast …
He once ripped a line drive, legend goes, that hit him in the butt as he slid into second base.
Bell was so fast … (Drum roll, please.)
He could get out of bed, walk across the room, turn out the lights and slip underneath the covers before the room got dark. (We can thank the great catcher Josh Gibson for that one. Satchel Paige also told the tale.)
James Bell grew up in Starkville, Miss. The family lived by a local park, and young James played ball all day. At age 17, he, along with his family, left Mississippi for St. Louis. Bigger city, better jobs. In 1922, at the age of 19, James joined the St. Louis Stars, a Negro League ballclub, as a center-fielder and a left-handed knuckleball pitcher.
They said he was “Cool” because …
He once struck out Oscar Charleston, maybe the best hitter of that time, in a tight situation to win the game. He didn’t let the pressure get to him. He was cool. (Bell also hit a home run that day.)
They called him “Papa” because …
Bill Gatewood, manager of the Stars, said “Cool” Bell wasn’t enough. His player needed something else, something to give the nickname that proper pizazz. Like “Papa.” Like “Cool Papa.”
Bell played for the Stars from 1922-31. He later enjoyed stints with the Detroit Wolves, Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and several other teams. Players liked to drink, carouse, and chase women (Times don’t change.) and smoke cigarettes as a way to relax in the dugout (maybe a little). Not Cool Papa Bell.
Teammate Ted Paige: “In fact, in all of the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smoke, take a drink, or say even one cuss word.”
Well, Bell didn’t make a big deal out of that. What he learned, he learned from home. This is what he said in 1974 for Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society:
“My mother always told me that it didn’t make any difference about the color of my skin, or how much money I had. The only thing that counted was to be an honest, clean livin’ man who cared about other people. I’ve always tried to live up to those words.”
Bell liked to hit high hoppers into the infield and beat out the throw. He scored that run from first on a bunt against the Bob Lemon All-Stars, a team made up of major-league stars. In 1933, Bell stole 175 bases in 200 games.
He was fast all right, but Buck O’Neil noted this: “Baserunning isn’t only about speed. It’s about technique, cutting the corners and keeping your balance. And Cool Papa, he was a master at all of that.”
The great Cool Papa Bell retired with a splendid .341 batting average. He never hit below .300 in any season. Bill Veeck, the long-time baseball executive, said he’d put Bell up there with Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio on his personal list of all-time great center fielders.
After his playing days, Bell did some coaching and later worked as a night watchman at St. Louis City Hall. He lived in a tough neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, and occasionally attended a Cardinals game, largely unrecognized. Unrecognized, but not bitter about not getting to play in the majors.
“Funny, but I don’t have any regrets about not playing in the majors,” he said. “They say that I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened too late.”
Voters elected Bell to the Hall of Fame on this date in 1974. Bell’s Hall of Fame induction plaque reads, in part, “Contemporaries rated him fastest man on the base paths.”
Cool Papa Bell died on March 7, 1991, age 87, only a few weeks after his wife, Clarabelle, passed way. A statue of Bell stands outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Another statue stands outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He also has a plaque on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Rightly, a marker is in place at the Little League ballpark in Starkville where Bell learned how to play ball. In 1999, The Sporting News rated Bell as the 66th best player of time.
Bell was so right …
“They used to say, ‘If we could find a good black player, we’ll sign him.’ They was lying.”
Harmon Killebrew didn’t just hit baseballs. He punished them for getting too close. Killebrew blasted 573 home runs into orbit during a 22-year career.
He mashed the first of those homers on June 24, 1955, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Detroit Tigers starter Billy Hoeft served up the pitch. Killebrew, a 19-year-old rookie, deposited it into the bleachers, the highlight of the day for the Senators, who lost 18-7. (Sign of the times: Detroit starter Hoeft gave up 12 hits and seven runs and still went the distance.) Only 4,188 fans “filled” the stands at Griffith for this Friday tussle.
“Killer” eventually led the American League in home runs six times, topping out at 49 in 1964 and 1969. The slugger stood a few inches shy of 6-feet tall but relied on forearms that would have made a lumberjack envious.
Pitchers started getting twitchy when Killebrew stood in the on-deck circle. His bat was simply a launch vehicle. Baltimore Orioles Manager Paul Richards said, “Killebrew can the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” He once hit a pitch over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in little Payette, Idaho, near the Oregon state line. His dad, Harmon Clayton Sr., went out for football at little Milliken College in Decatur, Ill, and encouraged his sons to play hard. Here is one great story:
Harmon and his brother were messing around in the yard with Dad. Katherine Killebrew took one look at the beat-up lawn and said, “You’re ruining the grass.” The game went on. Pops Killebrew simply said to his wife, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”
Payette High School never had an athlete like Harmon Killebrew Jr. The youngster earned 12 varsity letters and was signed by the Washington Senators, thanks to a tip from U.S. Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho. (It could not have been a hard sell. Killebrew was batting .847 for a local semi-pro team.)
Four days later, Killebrew made his debut with the Senators. He pinch-ran for Clyde Vollmer. Killebrew was six days shy of turning 18. Over the next few years, the muscular prospect with a compact, but powerful, right-handed swing, sat mostly on the Washington bench as a bonus baby. Only later did he get to punish young, impressionable minor-league pitchers.
Finally, in 1959, Killer played in his first full Major League season. He promptly led the A.L. with 42 home runs. He also made the All-Star team, something he would do another 11 times in his career.
The Washington Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961. Killebrew took his home-run swing with him. From 1961-64, he belted 188 balls out of the park.
He also led the league in RBI three times. And, despite a pedestrian .256 career batting average, Killebrew retired with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to a good eye and careful pitching. He topped A.L. batters in intentional walks three times.
The baseball writers elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame in 1984. His No. 3 is retired by the Minnesota Twins, of course, and a street at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., bears his name. One rumor is that the MLB logo is modeled after Killebrew
Killer now stands at No. 11 on the all-time home run list. He is tied with Rogers Hornsby at 38th on the RBI list (1,584) and is 15th on the all-time walks list (1,559). He also is Idaho’s all-time home run champ by far, 502 ahead of Vance Law.
Known for his kind heart, Killebrew organized the Danny Thomson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of a Twins teammate who died of leukemia. The tournament still goes on every year in Sun Valley, Idaho, and benefits cancer research efforts.
Killebrew spent time as a broadcaster for a few years after retiring, worked as a coach and nearly died from infections after suffering a collapsed lung and damaged esophagus in 1990. He died in hospice care of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.
“I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.” – Harmon Killebrew
By Glen Sparks
Eddie Gaedel, all 43 inches of him, stepped into the batter’s box on Aug. 19, 1951, at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. He wore uniform No. “1/8” for the Browns, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.
Gaedel, 26 years old, weighed all of 65 pounds, or as much as Ted Kluszewski’s left forearm. He did his best to strike a pose reminiscent of Joe DiMaggio and batted from the right side, as if that mattered. Detroit Tigers pitcher Bob Cain couldn’t help but laugh. “Keep it low,” Detroit catcher Bob Swift instructed.
Browns owner Bill Veeck had to be busting a gut. He came up with the prank. Later, he wrote, “(Gaedel) was, by golly, the best darn midget who ever played big-league ball. He was also the only one.”
Supposedly, a short story written in 1941 by humorist James Thurber, about a tiny baseball player, inspired Veeck. Always a showman, Veeck hired his p.r. guy to find just the right diminutive man. He added, make sure he looks good in a baseball uniform.
Gaedel, born June 8, 1925, in Chicago, fit the description. He was a performer, a card-carrying member of the American Guild of Variety Artists and did promotional work for Mercury Records.
The Browns’ traveling secretary, Bill Durney, went to Chicago and picked up Gaedel. Durney wrapped the “prospect” in blankets and smuggled him into the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. Gaedel put on a uniform belonging to Browns batboy Bill DeWitt Jr., whose dad was a team executive. (DeWitt went on to bigger and better things. He now owns the St. Louis Cardinals.) First, though, Veeck had DeWitt’s No. 6 switched to No. 1/8, just to make things even funnier.
Veeck gave Gaedel a contract worth $15,400, or $100 per day. Then, he told Gaedel to follow the plan. Don’t swing at anything, he said. Don’t think about even lifting that bat off your shoulder, he ordered. And, stand in the box with a deep crouch. (Veeck figured that Gaedel in a crouch had a strike zone of about an inch and a half.)
The Browns didn’t waste any time milking the joke. Manager Zack Taylor brought Gaedel into the game in the bottom of the first inning as a pinch hitter for outfielder Frank Saucier. (The PA announcer: “For the Browns, Number One/Eighth, Eddie Gaedel, batting for Saucier.”Umpire Ed Hurley couldn’t believe it. What the heck was going on?! “A stunned crowd (20,299 paid, 18,369 in the house) came alive with laughter at the sight of the economy-sized leadoff batter,” Broeg wrote in the next day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Hurley ordered Taylor to home plate. Taylor ran out, Gaedel’s big-league contract in hand. (Veeck had filed the contract with major league baseball on late Friday. He knew that no one would look at it until Monday morning. The doubleheader was on Sunday.)
An official big leaguer, Gaedel opened his stance DiMaggio-like and looked like he might swing. Pitcher Cain, though, couldn’t get anything close to Gaedel’s still-tiny strike zone. “Get outta that hole,” players on the Tigers bench shouted. Cain walked the batter on four pitches. Taylor immediately ordered Jim Delsing to pinch-run for Gaedel, who left the field to a standing ovation. “As the fans roared, he (Gaedel) bowed and doffed his cap repeatedly,” Broeg wrote. The smallest player in the big leagues boasted, “For a minute, I felt like Babe Ruth.”
Veeck’s stunt didn’t amuse American League president Will Harridge, who called the little affair a mockery of the game and voided Gaedel’s contract. Baseball even kept Gaedel’s official appearance out of the record books for a time. (Not that it really matters, but the Browns—predictably—lost both games of the doubleheader, 5-2 and 6-2, en route to a 52-102 campaign. The Browns lost a lot.)
Fans loved Eddie Gaedel. The former ballplayer went on to make about $17,000 in personal appearance fees. He even worked awhile in the Ringling Brothers circus. Hollywood directors beckoned, but Eddie refused to go.
Ultimately, Gaedel settled back in Chicago. He got a job at a bar and drank too much of the merchandise. That led to plenty of fights and arguments. Gaedel was a spicy drunk.
He got liquored up for a final time on June 18, 1961. Some rough guys followed him home from a bowling alley and beat him up bad. Gaedel’s mom found her son lying in bed, bruised and dead. Eddie Gaedel was just 36 years old. Bob Cain–yes, the pitcher from what is known now and forever as “the Gaedel game”–attended the funeral service, the lone representative from baseball.
Various Eddie Gaedel societies celebrate the memory of the famous pinch-hitter and the shortest player of all-time. The Los Angles chapter, for instance, offers a toast to Eddie every Aug. 19.
Gaedel’s Browns uniform is on display at the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum, located across the street from Busch Stadium.
By Glen Sparks
Don Drysdale turned at-bats into nasty business. He stood six-feet, six-inches and hurled 95 mph heat. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ right-hander struck out 2,486 batters in his 14-year career and hit 154.
You’ve heard of an uncomfortable 0-for-4. Drysdale, he was a terrifying 0-for-4. He liked to talk about his 2-for-1 policy. You hit one of my guys, he’d say, I’ll hit two of your guys. Drysdale didn’t like to issue intentional walks. He’d smack the guy and save three pitches.
Big D glared at hitters the way a drill instructor glares at buck privates. He looked like a tiger in need of a steak. He squinted in for the sign like a great white shark squints to find a lonely surfer.
Batting against Drysdale was like a Saturday at the beach. On jellyfish day. He hit guys like Joe Louis hit pikers from Palookaville. Drysdale bruised 18 opponents in 1959 and 20 in 1961.
Drysdale hailed from Van Nuys, California, born July 23, 1936, a Valley boy from a different time. He probably scared off half the kids from North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1954 for a $4,000 bonus and $600 a month.
The Dodgers promoted Drysdale to the big club in 1956, a 19-year-old, all arms, legs and fastball. He promptly went 5-for-5 with a 2.64 ERA (152 ERA+) in 99 innings. The kid was good. The next year, he went 17-9 and had a 2.69 ERA (153 ERA+)
Going Back to Cali
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to L.A. The California guy went home. Following a down year (12-13, 4.17 ERA), Drysdale won 17 games and struck out 242 batters in ’59, the most by a National League pitcher in 35 years. Even better, he led the Dodgers to a World Series title against the Chicago White Sox.
Over the next decade, Drysdale solidified his Hall of Fame career. He topped the N.L. in wins once and strikeouts two more times. The man never missed a start. Drysdale won 25 games in 1962 and took home the Cy Young Award. He finished fifth in the MVP voting. No. 53 fanned a career-high 251 the next year.
Drysdale and Sandy Koufax made a magnificent 1-2 combo. Koufax, left-handed and elegant. Drysdale, right-handed and fierce. They started games in the warm twilight at Dodger Stadium, hurling unhittable pitches fired into sunlight and shadow. For opposing line-ups, it was more like a California nightmare than a California dream.
The dynamic duo led the Dodgers to World Series titles in 1963 and ’65. Drysdale beat the Yankees, 1-0, in Game 3 of the ’63 Fall Classic. He gave up three hits and struck out nine. “How’d this guy ever lose 17 games?” one Yankee asked.
The answer: Don and Sandy didn’t get much help from the offense. Drysdale went 19-17 in 1963 but posted an admirable 2.63 ERA. (L.A. scored its lone run in Game 3 on a walk, a wild pitch and a two-out single.) The Dodgers’ attack was about as scary as your cousin Sissy’s pet beagle. The Dodgers made it home about as often as Gilligan and the Skipper.
(Supposedly, true story, probably apocryphal: On June 3, 1964, Drysdale lost an 11-inning game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which he went 10.1 innings and gave up just four hits. He then left the team to take care of personal business in Washington, D.C. On June 4, unbeknownst to Drysdale, Koufax threw a no-hitter. Some guy at the hotel told the big guy. Drysdale: “Did we win?”
Drysdale probably put up his best year in 1964. He compiled an 18-16 won-loss record, but he attached a 2.18 ERA (147 ERA+) onto that over a career-high 321.1 innings. He gave up an average of just 6.8 hits per nine innings, a career low.
In 1968, in his next-to-last season, Drysdale set a major-league record. He hurled 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and put up a 2.15 ERA (128 ERA+). And, if he tossed a few spitballs that year, well, so be it. He wasn’t the only one.
Big D started off 5-4 in 1969 with a 4.45 ERA. His strong right shoulder had thrown enough pitches. He called a press conference, shed some tears, and said he was done. Drysdale, who looked like a movie star (guest star on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch and Experiment in Terror with Glenn Ford and Lee Remick, among other Hollywood credits), retired with a 209-166 record and a 2.95 ERA (121 ERA+). He tossed 49 shutouts and hit 29 home runs. Drysdale took the ball every fourth day and led the league in starts from 1962-65. He made eight All-Star games.
Retired from playing, Drysdale turned to broadcasting. He called games for a few teams, including his beloved Dodgers, and did some national T.V. work. The writers finally voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1984.
On July 3, 1992, Drysdale died of a heart attack at his hotel room in Montreal, hours before a game that evening between the Dodgers and Expos. Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully announced his death over the radio. He began it this way: “Friends, we’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve had to make a lot of announcements, some more painful than others. But never have I been asked to make an announcement that hurts me as much as this one. And I say it to you as best I can with a broken heart.”
Reporters asked Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ manager, a long-time friend and former teammate of Drysdale’s, for a comment. There’s Tommy sitting on a stool, his uniform top partly unbuttoned, the bags heavy beneath his eyes, tearing up, the voice trying to stay strong. He looks at the camera. He says this about Drysdale, “He was a man’s man.”
Drysdale stands out today as a legendary pitcher from a tougher, by-gone era in baseball, one of high, inside baseballs and black-and-blue rib cages. Orlando Cepeda said the trick to an at-bat against Drysdale was this: “Hit him before he hits you.”
Donald Scott Drysdale was one tough pitcher.
By Glen Sparks
Supposedly, Norman Stearnes sported a potbelly as a kid. The family thought he looked like a little turkey. Another story is that he ran around the bases kind of funny, flapping his arms. Either way, we know Norman Thomas Stearnes as “Turkey” Stearnes.
Stats guru Bill James rated him the 25th best player of all time in his Historical Abstract. Which is great. And kind of a shame. James rated Frank Robinson the 24th best player and Rickey Henderson the 26th best player. We know a lot about those guys. They’re both African-American, but they competed in the era after integration.
Playing in the Negro Leagues, like Stearnes did, probably didn’t get you onto Page 1 of the sports section in too many mainstream newspapers.
Stearns was born May 8, 1901, in Nashville, Tenn. If baseball had been doing the right thing all along, he would have played alongside immortals like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby.
As it was, Stearnes got less attention and far less money to play with and compete against great players from the Negro Leagues. He traveled on rickety buses from 1921 to 1942 for teams such as the Detroit Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, the Philadelphia Stars and the Chicago American Giants. He earned as much as $600 a month, good money for a Negro League player from that time.
Do you remember Mark Fydrich? He put together a couple of big years for the Detroit Tigers in the mid-’70s before tearing up his shoulder. People loved him because he had a big smile and a mop of curly hair that made him look a bit like Big Bird of Sesame Street fame. Fydrich also had a habit of talking to the baseball.
Well, Stearnes did something like that. He liked talking to his bats. He would sit in the dugout or his hotel room and give a pep talk to his 35-ounce Louisville Slugger. Apparently, the bat responded.
This is what we know about Stearnes’ career stats in the Negro Leagues: .344 batting average, 176 home runs and a .621 slugging percentage. He played in 750 games. After retiring, Stearnes worked for 30 years at a Detroit auto plant. He died on Sept. 4, 1979 at age 78.
Hall of Famer Bell once said, “If they don’t put (Stearnes) in the Hall of Fame, they shouldn’t put anyone in. Former Detroit Stars third baseman Ray Sheppard said “If the doors would have been open to the majors, Stearnes would have been a star. He hit 35 or 40 home runs a year. My God, he was great.” Cooperstown finally agreed and enshrined Stearnes in 2000.
Like many players from the Negro Leagues, Stearnes’ story gets foggy at times. We don’t know that much about him. How many books do we have about Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio? Maybe it’s time for someone to tackle a far tougher project—The Life Story of Turkey Stearnes.
By Glen Sparks
Does Yadier Molina already have his ticket punched for the Hall of Fame? Has the St. Louis Cardinals catcher done enough to merit a plaque at Cooperstown?
Yadi, who will be 36 on July 13, signed a three-year, $60 million contract last spring that takes effect this year. He plans to retire when that deal is up after the 2020 season. Does Molina need to end his career on a high note? Will eight Gold Gloves and eight All-Star selections—through 2017—be enough for HOF voters?
How do experts view Molina’s chances? Bob Nightengale, baseball writer for USA Today, included Molina with Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre as stars who “don’t have to play another game and they’re in.”
ESPN senior baseball writer Buster Olney argued in a column last April that “he (Molina) should be elected into the Hall of Fame, easy.” Olney spoke to former St. Louis skipper Tony LaRussa about Molina and Cooperstown. LaRussa pointed out that the Redbirds have been one of baseball’s best teams during Molina’s tenure, winning two World Series. “LaRussa explained,” Olney wrote, “…. what distinguished the Cardinals In this time was Yadier Molina, a catcher bearing a set of skills that no other team could come close to replicating for about a decade.”
What about Molina’s throwing arm? Olney pointed out that “Molina has been a shutdown catcher.” Yadi became the Cardinals’ full-time catcher in 2005. Through 2016, the team had allowed 651 stolen bases, or nearly 300 fewer than the next stingiest team, the Arizona Diamondbacks (934). And, Molina is an expert at picking off careless baserunners. Between 2005 and 2016, he recorded 45 pickoffs. Russell Martin had the second most in that span, 19.
So, what does Olney conclude? Well, he may have written that “(Molina) should be elected into the Hall of Fame, easy.” He followed that with, “But he probably won’t be.” So, what’s the rub? “Offense,” Olney writes.
How do Molina’s offensive numbers stack up against other Hall of Fame catchers? The average enshrined catcher has a batting average of .289, plus 1,043 runs scored, 2,031 hits, 298 home runs, 1,210 RBI, and an OPS+ of 124. Going into 2018, Yadi has a .284 career batting average, plus 601 runs, 1,730 hits, 126 home runs, 785 RBI, and an OPS+ of 98.
Molina’s counting numbers were certainly helped by his 2017 campaign. He knocked 18 homers, the second-highest figure of his career. He also drove in a career-high 82 runs. Even so, he still just posted a 96 OPS+, down from his career mark. Assuming Yadi stays healthy over the next three seasons, he still should fall short of the HOF catchers’ average in most categories. He’ll probably end up with more than 2,031 hits. He has 301 to go.
Graham Womack wrote an article a couple of years ago for Sporting News. The headline might make a Yadi fan cringe –“Yadier Molina’s surprisingly weak Hall of Fame case.” The problem? Yes, once again, it’s offense. Womack looked at Molina’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the in-vogue stat for assessing players. The average Hall of Fame catcher has a WAR of 52.5. Molina had a WAR of 30.3 when Womack wrote his piece, 35.4 now. Three years from now, that number figures to be around 40. Will it be enough?
WAR places more emphasis on offense than defense. Yadi has a career defensive WAR of 22.1 but an offensive WAR of just 23.1. (WAR includes a positional adjustment, thus dWAR and oWAR usually do not add up to the player’s overall WAR rating.) Among Hall of Fame catchers, Ray Schalk has a comparable WAR (23.7), no one else has a lower number. (I’m not including former catchers Al Lopez, Wilbert Robinson, and Connie Mack, who earned Hall of Fame plaques more for their managerial talent than their playing ability.)
So, how does Yadi’s dWAR rank among other top catchers of all-time? He is fifth overall, behind Ivan Rodriguez (28.7), Gary Carter (25.5), Bob Boone (25.3), and Jim Sundberg (25.3). By time he retires—again, assuming he stays healthy—Molina could skip past those players. (Molina had a 1.1 dWAR in 2017, a 0.7 in 2016 and a 1.6 in 2015. If he duplicates those numbers from 2018-2020, he’ll retire with a dWAR of 25.5, tying him with HOFer Carter for second place.) It should be noted that while Rodriguez and Carter have earned spots in Cooperstown, Boone and Sundberg haven’t. (The more curious readers may be interested in Johnny Bench’s career dWAR. It is 19.3, sixth all-time among catchers.)
How does Yadi rank with the five most recent catchers elected to the Hall of Fame? We’ll go over Molina’s stats again and include a few more numbers.
Yadier Molina (2004-????), 126 HR, 785 RBI, .284, .336 on-base percentage, .403 slugging percentage, 35.4 WAR, eight Gold Gloves.
Ivan Rodriguez (1991-2011), 311 HR, 1,332 RBI, .296 Avg., .344 OBP, .464 SLG, 68.4 WAR, 13 GG
Mike Piazza: (1992-2007), 427 HR, 1,335 RBI, .308 Avg., .377 OBP, .545 SLG., 59.4 WAR, O GGs
Gary Carter: (1974-92), 324 HR, 1,225 RBI, .262 Avg., .335, OBP .439 SLG., 69.9 WAR, 3 GGs
Carlton Fisk: (1969, 1971-93), 376 HR, 1,330 RBI, .269 Avg., .341 OBP, .457 SLG., 68.3 WAR, 1 GG
Johnny Bench: (1967-83), 389 HR, 1,376 RBI, .267 Avg., .342 OBP, .476 SLG., 75.0 WAR, 10 GGs
Now, consider some other top catchers from the past few generations. All these backstops have come up short in Hall of Fame voting. Will Yadi also fall short?
Thurman Munson: (1969-79), 113, 701, .292, .346, .410, 45.9, 3 GGs
Lance Parrish: (1977-95), 324, 1,070, .252, .313. .440, .39.3., 3 GGs
Ted Simmons: (1968-88), 248, 1,389, .285, .348, .437, 50.1. O GGs
Bill Freehan: (1961, 63-78), 200, 758, .262, .340, .412, 44.7. 5 GGs
Jim Sundberg: (1974-89), 95, 624, .248, .327, .348, 40.5 6 GGs
Jim Sundberg again? Well, what about Jim Sundberg? Luis Torres wrote an article last spring for Beyond the Box Score titled “A different perspective on Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case.” Torres has some fun as he argues the merits of Molina vs. Sundberg. His conclusion? “Molina is not much different from Sundberg, and nobody pushed Sundberg’s Hall of Fame candidacy.” He adds, “I don’t doubt that Yadi’s leadership and pitching staff management were valuable, but how valuable were they? … I do not believe that Molina is a Hall of Famer right now. … The good news is that he still has time to accrue value.”
What do Redbird fans think? I’ve included a few comments from fans who wrote in after Viva el Birds (a popular Cardinals blog) published an article titled “How does Yadier Molina compare to 2017’s Hall of Fame ballot catchers?”:
ESPN has Molina going in to the hall in 2033
I think he does have an outside shot of going in, but he needs a bounce back year defensively. If he could capture 2 more gold gloves while remaining a better than average hitter, I think he will go in. However, I think it will be tough to un-seat Posey in the NL gold glove.
Nah I think he makes it in the back half of his eligibility
Yadi has such a reputation, that when you factor in the amount of innings he consistently catches, his place as the one constant of the Cardinals’ 21st century success, and the status of being the best defensive catcher of this era, I bet he makes it in around year 7 or 8.
And because I will never tire of citing Schoenfield’s ESPN article about him, this is a good spot to leave this here:
With him starting: 449-317 (.586)
Without: 94-96 (.495)
That’s a 70-game difference over less than 5 full seasons worth of games.
I think the real problem I have…
…is his peak was so short. As we currently value catchers he only had 1-2 seasons over 6 WAR and only minor MVP consideration.
Nah, his peak has been fine, you are just defining his peak based only on offense.
I realize that how to measure catcher defense and the available data are not there, and probably won’t be for a while, but that doesn’t mean that the defensive value we can’t measure doesn’t exist…just that we have a hard time placing a number on it.
It is just one opinion, but I remember Dave Cameron unequivocally answering the question, “Who is most under rated by WAR?” during a chat with, “Until we figure out how to measure catcher defense, Yadier Molina.”
Let’s go back to the “Weak Case” article for just a minute. Why? Womack offers some good news for Molina supporters. He predicts that Molina ultimately will be voted into the Hall of Fame. Yes, it may take a while. He writes: “It’s hard to describe what about Molina makes him feel like a Hall of Famer, even in spite of pedestrian offensive sabermetric stats. But there’s something about him that suggests he won’t have too many problems when he debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s ballot for Cooperstown in eight or 10 years. It may anger some in the sabermetric or online baseball writing community, but it is what it is.”
What do I think? Well, for what it’s worth (and I don’t have a vote), I think Molina will get into the Hall of Fame. I’m not sure he is a slam-dunk, no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer, but not every candidate for induction is Willie Mays, Stan Musial, or Greg Maddux. It will certainly help Molina’s case if he can stay healthy for the next few years even as St. Louis super-prospect Carson Kelly waits for his chance. As Womack wrote, Molina simply has the feel of a Hall of Famer.
What do you think? The Yadier Molina Hall of Fame debate is a fun one. It certainly comes with lots of questions.