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.
By Glen Sparks
The great–and disgraced–“Shoeless Joe” Jackson died on this day in 1951. One of the best players ever, Jackson batted .356 over a 13-year career. Commissioner “Kennesaw Mountain” Landis kicked Joe and seven other Chicago White Sox players out of baseball after they allegedly threw the 1919 World Series for $5,000 apiece.
Jackson’s story—the part about how his career ended, at least– is sports tragedy. The early part is pure Americana, Southern style. Joseph Jefferson Jackson was born on July 16, 1887, in rural Pickens County, South Carolina. He began working as a millhand at age six or seven and almost died following a bout with the measles when he was 10. A few years later, young Joe began playing baseball on a mill team.
(Why “Shoeless” Joe? Well, the story goes back to the mill days. Joe put on some new, uncomfortable, cleats. His feet ached. So, he took of his shoes. He stood barefoot in the outfield. He stood barefoot as walked into the batter’s box. Not surprisingly, the other players noticed.)
Jackson signed with the Philadelphia A’s in 1908. He didn’t play much in his first two seasons. The A’s traded Jackson to the Cleveland Naps in 1910. Jackson hit .408 in 1911, .395 in 1912 and .373 in 1913. The outfielder established himself as one of the game’s great players. He could still barely read.
The White Sox traded for Jackson in August 1915. Shoeless Joe batted .341 in 1916 and helped Chicago to a World Series championship the following year. Jackson blended in with other great White Sox players from this era, including Buck Weaver, Eddie Collins, Eddie Cicotte and “Lefty” Williams.
Chicago’s 1919 squad went 88-52 and captured the American League pennant. The White Sox met the Cincinnati Reds in the fall classic. There had been rumors of a fix long before Cincinnati’s “Dutch” Ruether threw the first pitch on Oct. 1 at Redland Field. Many White Sox players loathed owner Charles Comiskey. He was a cheapskate, the ballplayers swore. If they could get a few extra bucks out of a bigshot gambler like Arnold Rothstein, so be it. Rothstein, a New York City mobster, bankrolled the scandal.
Cincinnati took a 2-0 lead in the Series, but Chicago tied things up after four games. The Reds won the best-of-nine match-up five games to three. Alfred “Greasy” Neale led Cincinnati. The outfielder batted .357 (10-for-28) with three runs scored and four RBIs. Pitcher Horace “Hod” Eller won both his starts. The right-hander hurled two complete games, gave up four runs and struck out 15.
Jackson batted .375 in the Series (12-for-32) and knocked the lone home run. He hit .351 in the regular season. A Chicago grand jury acquitted Jackson and the others in 1921. Even so, the all-powerful Landis banned them all. Said Landis: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” (Eddie Collins, never implicated in the scandal, batted .226 in the World Series. The future Hall of Fame hit .319 in the regular season.)
Jackson retired to his native South Carolina and proclaimed himself innocent. Was he? Well, we’ll probably never know for sure. Reportedly, he refused the money. We know that Jackson’s .375 batting average led all hitters in the Series, White Sox and Reds. He not only hit the only Series home run, he also handled 30 chances and didn’t commit an error. Jackson threw out five baserunners.
Some experts point out that Jackson hit just .286 in Chicago’s five losses. Well, OK. But, .286 is still respectable batting. (National and American league hitters averaged .263 in the 1919 season.) And, he split his six RBIs between wins and losses. That home run? Jackson ripped it in a 10-5 loss in Game 8.
It probably didn’t help Jackson’s cause that he had White Sox team attorney Alfred Austrian representing him. Austrian, among other things, talked Jackson into signing a waiver of immunity from prosecution. Supposedly, Jackson never confessed to throwing the Series, as Eliot Asinof claimed in the 1963 book Eight Men Out.
(You may know that the most famous story connected with the Black Sox scandal never happened. The story goes that a kid, with tears in his eyes, afraid that his favorite team had thrown the World Series for money, races up the Chicago courthouse steps, tugs at the pants of the great—now sullied—Jackson and pleads to his fallen hero, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”
Jackson, not a really articulate guy, solemnly says, “It is so, kid.” He then takes one more step toward the clicking cameras, the eager reporters and his doomed, and sealed, fate.
The story is a good one; it certainly captures the poignancy of the moment. Jackson, though, later said that no one–not a crying kid, not a hotshot news man—spoke to him as the grand jury testimony concluded. Apparently, he left through a back entrance and hitched a ride home with a court deputy.)
Baseball expert Bill James has rated Jackson as the 33rd greatest player of all-time. He is, nevertheless, banned from any Hall of Fame honors (If he could get in, he’d be in). Joseph Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, dead now for 66 years, remains—like all the Black Sox players—on baseball’s ineligible list.
By Glen Sparks
Stan Musial wrote about hitting a home run that didn’t count in 1948. His blast, stricken from the record book following a rainout at the Polo Grounds, cost him the National League Triple Crown.
That is one version of the story. Details about the homer remain sketchy. When exactly did the St. Louis Cardinals’ superstar hit the home run? Who was the pitcher? No one seems to know. Legendary St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Bob Broeg reported on the “lost” home run in his 1995 autobiography. He doesn’t go in-depth on the subject, though. “He (Musial) missed tying for the top in homers by one rained-out homer.” Musial mentioned the homer in an oral history, The Spirit of St. Louis, and in a memoir co-written with Broeg.
Several researchers have come up empty in trying to locate this missing round-tripper. St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold wrote an article several years ago about Musial’s home run that wasn’t.
This was not just any ol’ lost home run, either. As mentioned, one more home run would have earned the 27-year-old Musial a Triple Crown. Only nine major leaguers had won a Triple Crown since 1900. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby did it twice each.
Musial led hitters in several categories in 1948 and picked up his third and final NL MVP award. The Donora, Pa., native finished first in hits (230), runs scored (135), doubles (46), triples (18), total bases (429), on-base percentage (.450) and slugging percentage (.702). He also topped the league in batting average (.376) and RBI (131), two of the three Triple Crown categories. The New York Giants’ Johnny Mize and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Ralph Kiner both hit 40 homes. Musial hit 39. Or, did he hit 40?
Following Gould’s article, David Vincent opined on Stan’s “missing” homer. Many baseball fans knew Vincent, who died July 2, 2017, at age 67, as Mr. Home Run and The Sultan of Swat Stats. He published the SABR Tattersall-McConnell Home Run Log, a list of every home run hit in the major leagues since 1871. If anyone would know whether Musial hit a washed-out home run, it would be Vincent, right?
Well, Vincent didn’t mince words when he sent this e-mail to Gould: “I should also point out that the lost homer in New York never happened – at least not that season. We have already thoroughly researched this one.”
Another researcher, Dave Smith, looked at all the games in 1948 between the Cards and Giants at the Polo Grounds. The local newspapers should have mentioned any rain-shortened action that year. “There is none,” Smith wrote.
A researcher from The Sporting News looked through archives in search of a missing Musial homer. Steve Gietschie examined articles from August and in November, after Musial was awarded MVP. Surely, a writer would mention a rained-out round-tripper, given that Stan would have won the Triple Crown. “No, no mention,” according to Goold.
Broeg wrote The Sporting News article on Musial winning MVP honors. He didn’t mention a lost homer. Of note, on Aug. 4, 1948, the St. Louis Star-Times reported “Musial Wallops Longest Out” at the Polo Grounds. Stan mashed a 450-foot ball to right-center field. Giants right-fielder Wilbert Marshall grabbed the ball in the ninth inning of a 7-2 Cardinals victory on Aug. 4.
Baseball fans recall the Polo Grounds, razed in 1964, as a quirky ballpark. It was just 279 feet from home plate down the left-field line and a mere 258 feet down the right-field line. But, it was 483 feet to dead center.
According to the Star-Times, “Because of the shape of the Polo Grounds, the Giants shade their right-fielder in the gap, allowing for the catch at the 455-foot mark near the bullpen. The ball would have departed any other major-league ball park …” Did Stan’s long out get mis-remembered over time into a lost home run?
Back to Smith. He zeroed in on two make-up doubleheaders that the Cardinals and Giants played, one Aug. 4 and the other Sept 19. Musial slammed a homer in the first game of the August double-dip and in the second game of the September twin bill. Smith: “We have to assign one of the games as the scheduled one and the other as the make-up. I always think of the second one as the makeup, but I have heard from others that apparently the standard is that the first one is the makeup.”
So, if Musial did indeed knock a rain-cancelled home run, he probably hit at least one homer to make up for it. Maybe Stan didn’t get cheated out of a Triple Crown, after all.
The search for any “lost” dinger continues. One thing we do know: Musial’s power surge in 1948 was for real. He had just 70 homers through his first six seasons (1941=44, 46-47). After belting 39 in ’48, he knocked at least 30 home runs in five more seasons and retired after the 1963 campaign with 475.
Or, was it 476?
(Baseball announced that Orlando Cepeda had won the N.L. Most Valuable Player award on this date in 1967.)
By Glen Sparks
Orlando Cepeda loved San Francisco. He took to the nightlife and frequented the city’s many jazz clubs. Cepeda, the son of a Puerto Rican baseball legend, kicked back and listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the Black Hawk on Hyde Street. Cool music filled the air, and fog cooled the streets.
“Right from the beginning, I fell in love with that city,” Cepeda told Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite in 1960.
The Giants had promoted Cepeda to the big club in 1958. It was the team’s first year on the west coast. Cepeda, just 20 years old during his rookie season, hit major-league pitching from the start. Cepeda played nine seasons in San Francisco. He established himself as one of the game’s elite hitters.
It should have been a fun time. The Giants signed several Latin American players over the years. Shortstop Jose Pagan, like Cepeda, grew up in Puerto Rico. Brothers Felipe and Matty Alou, both outfielders, hailed from the Dominican Republic. So did pitcher Juan Marichal.
But, Manager Alvin Dark didn’t like that the Latin players spoke Spanish. Speak English only, he said. Dark, hired in 1960, also didn’t like that Cepeda and the others laughed a lot. You’re not taking the game seriously, he’d say. Cepeda broiled.
Oh, he kept hitting. He could always hit. Just like his dad could always hit. Pedro “Perucho” Anibal Cepeda began bashing baseballs around the Caribbean in the mid-1920s and kept going for more than 20 years. He had several chances to play in the Negro leagues in the United States, but he declined. U.S. segregation laws kept him on the island.
Orlando Manuel Cepeda Pennes, born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, grew up close to the game. He began playing ball as a kid and served as batboy one season for the famous Santurce Crabbers. He, along with a handful of other Puerto Rican players, went to a big-league tryout camp in Florida in 1954. The New York Giants liked Cepeda’s line-drive swing. They signed him to a contract and paid him a $500 bonus.
Lonely at first as a minor leaguer in small-town America, Cepeda struggled. Soon enough, his bat heated up. He hit .393 for the Giants’ Kokomo, Indiana, farm club as a 17-year-old. He won a Triple Crown the following season, batting .355 with 26 home runs and 112 RBI for St. Cloud, Minnesota, of the Northern League.
The Giants promoted Cepeda to the big club out of spring training in 1958. The muscular right-handed hitter (6-feet-2 inches, 210 pounds) made a quick impression. By May 31, he had slammed 13 home runs.
Cepeda earned Rookie of the Year honors. The first baseman ended up with 25 home runs and 96 RBI to go with a .312 batting average and .512 slugging percentage. The Baby Bull, as some people called him (Baseball fans back in Puerto Rico knew Perucho as “the Bull.”), led the National League with 38 doubles.
The following year, Cepeda put up more big numbers. He hit 27 homers, drove in 105 runs and batted .317 with 35 doubles and a .522 slugging percentage. Cepeda enjoyed another good season in 1960 (24/96/.297) and really busted out in 1961. He topped the N.L. with 46 homers and 142 RBI. Cepeda hit .311 and slugged .609.
Dark continued to be a problem for Cepeda. The ballplayer complained too much about a sore right knee, Dark told the press. Cepeda, who had injured the knee during a collision at home plate in 1961, was sure that the skipper didn’t like him. The club also had another first baseman. His name was Willie McCovey. Big Mac earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1959, the year after Cepeda. The lefty hitter struggled against southpaw pitching, though. Cepeda split time between the first base and left field.
The Giants fired Dark after the 1964 season. By then, Cepeda had cracked 222 home runs and had a .309 career batting average. He was one of the game’s great stars. Unfortunately, new manager Herman Franks didn’t want to hear about Cepeda’s sore knee, either. Inevitably, Franks and Cepeda clashed.
Finally, Cepeda went under the knee in 1965. He returned late in the season and hit just .176 in 34 at-bats. In the spring of 1966, McCovey was officially the Giants’ first baseman. San Francisco shipped Cepeda to St. Louis for pitcher Ray Sadecki on May 8. He hit .308 with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 123 games the rest of the way.
Cepeda won the National League Most Valuable Player award in his first full season in St. Louis. As a first baseman. The 10-year veteran slammed 25 home runs, knocked in 111 runs and batted .325 with a .399 on-base percentage. The Cardinals finished 101-60 and won the N.L. pennant. Orlando Cepeda laughed in the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse. He joked around and manager Red Schoendienst smiled. He hit line drives, of course. Teammates called him “Cha Cha” after his love for jazz music. Life felt good in the summer of ’67.
“If I do all this (joking around) in San Francisco, they would give me a funny look all the time,” Cepeda said in a 1967 Sports Illustrated article.
The Cards went on to beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. It looked like Cepeda had found a comfortable home next to the Mississippi River. He only played two seasons in St. Louis, though. Cepeda slumped badly in 1968, finishing with career lows in home runs (16), RBI (73) and batting average (.248). St. Louis traded Cepeda to the Atlanta Braves in the offseason.
Cha Cha played six more seasons in the major leagues. He hit 34 home runs for the Braves in 1970, his last big year in the majors. He also played for the Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals before hanging up the uniform. The 11-time All Star retired with 379 homers and a .297 batting average.
Life after baseball was rough for Cepeda. Police busted him in Florida in late 1975 for trying to move 170 pounds of marijuana. Cepeda served 10 months of a five-year sentence.
Upon release, Cepeda worked as a coach for a while and eventually moved back to the San Francisco area. He helped at Giants fantasy camps and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. A statue of Cha Cha, the Baby Bull, stands near the 2nd Street entrance of AT&T Park in San Francisco.
By Glen Sparks
The Brooklyn Dodgers’ first baseman and former U.S. Marine Gil Hodges knocked four baseballs into the left-field bleachers at Ebbets Field on August 31, 1950. He was only the fifth major-leaguer to hit four homers in one game.
Hodges mashed his home runs off four different Boston Braves pitchers. He drove home nine runs as Brooklyn trounced Boston 19-3 in front of 14,226 fans. The muscular 26-year-old from Princeton, Indiana, came to bat six times. He added a single and equaled the major-league mark of 17 total bases. Hodges’ wife, Joan, watched and cheered from the stands.
“It was the biggest night of my life, mainly because my wife was there to see it,” Hodges said.
Boston, 68-53 going into the action, held a brief lead in this ballgame. Left fielder Sid Gordon, batting sixth in the order, knocked a solo homer in the top of the second inning off Brooklyn starter Carl Erskine.
Hodges smacked his first home run, a two-run blast, against Braves starter Warren Spahn in the second inning. The Dodgers, 68-50 when the game began, touched up Spahn for seven hits and five runs in two-plus innings of work.
Boston skipper Billy Southworth sent Spahn to the showers after Jackie Robinson and Carl Furillo led off the third inning with back-to-back singles. Southworth asked Normie Ray to provide some relief. The first batter Ray faced was Hodges, who promptly launched a three-run homer. Ray lasted three more batters and only got one of them out. Southworth called to his bullpen once again.
This time, reliever left-handed Mickey Haefner, pitching in his final big-league season, ran to the mound. The scoring continued. It was 10-1 after three innings. Hodges grounded out with one out and no one on base in the fourth. Relief pitcher Bob Hall entered the game for Boston to start the fifth. The score was still 10-1.
Furillo led off the sixth by walking. Hodges followed with his third home run of the game, another two-run job. The Dodgers went ahead 12-1 and added two more runs in the frame.
Hodges singled with one out in the seventh. Brooklyn scored three times and went ahead 17-1. Now, the only question was this: Could Hodges crack a fourth home run on the day.
“I never thought I’d have another chance when I missed in the seventh,” Hodges said.
Erskine gave up two runs in the top of the eighth. Hodges came up to bat in the bottom of the inning. Johnny Antonelli was pitching for Boston. Bobby Morgan began the inning for Brooklyn by walking. Furillo followed Morgan by hitting into a force play.
With Furillo inching off first base, Hodges roped a liner into the stands. He tied a record that had previously been set by Bobby Lowe (1894, Boston Nationals), Ed Delehanty (1896, Philadelphia Nationals), Lou Gehrig (1932, New York Yankees), Chuck Klein (1936, Philadelphia Phillies), and Pat Serrey (1948, Chicago White Sox).
“Fastball, curveball, fastball, curve,” Hodges said of the pitches that he hit. He added, “I’m mighty proud to be mentioned with Gehrig. This is something that happens just once in a lifetime.”
Hodges upped his batting average to .300 on the season. He now had 23 homers and 84 RBI. Hodges ended up with 32 homers, 113 RBI, a .283 batting average, and a .367 on-base percentage.
This was Hodges’ fifth season in the big leagues, his third year as a regular. He came up to bat three times as a 19-year-old in 1943, then he went off to war. Hodges missed two seasons of baseball action, serving two years in the South Pacific. He earned a Bronze Star for heroism.
Returning to Brooklyn in 1947 after some seasoning in the minors, Hodges managed one homer in 91 at-bats. He took over full-time duties at first base in 1948, a job he held for the next decade.
Hodges played 18 seasons in the majors on a handful of pennant winners and a World Series championship team in 1955. He retired with 370 home runs and as one of the most beloved players in the game’s history. Later a manager, he led the New York Mets–the Miracle Mets of ’69–to a World Series championship.
He died of a heart attack in 1972 in West Palm Beach, Florida, just 47 years old.
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 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 drill instructors glare at buck privates. He looked like a tiger in need of a steak. He squinted in for the sign the way 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 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 first year at home (12-13, 4.17 ERA), Drysdale won 17 games and struck out 242 batters in 1959, 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, but he led it in strikeouts two more times. 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. They didn’t get much help from the offense, either. 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 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.