By Glen Sparks
Clay Kirby deserved better. Circumstance played some cruel tricks on the right-hander from Washington, D.C. That final one was tragic.
The St. Louis Cardinals drafted Kirby in the third round of the 1966 draft. He only pitched a few years for one of the most storied organizations in baseball history, all of them in the minors. Back then, the Cardinals had pitching prospects like Jerry Reuss and Mike Torrez on the farm. Maybe not surprisingly, St. Louis left Kirby unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft. The San Diego Padres picked him up.
Kirby progressed through the bare San Diego system. He debuted as a 20-year-old on April 11, 1969. The San Francisco Giants clobbered the Padres 8-0. Kirby gave up three earned runs in four innings. The bullpen took a hit, too.
San Diego finished its season 52-110, firmly in the cellar in the National League West. Kirby went 7-20 with a 3.80 ERA (93 ERA+) in 215.2 innings.
Kirby saved his best game, or at least his most famous, for July 21, 1970. He gave up a first-inning run against the New York Mets on a walk, two stolen bases and a fielder’s choice. But, he didn’t give up a hit. He didn’t give up a hit for the next seven innings, either. The problem was, Mets starter Jim McAndrew was tossing a shutout.
In the bottom of the eighth, his team down 1-0, San Diego Manager Preston Gomez sent in Cito Gaston to pinch hit for Kirby. The small crowd at San Diego Stadium booed with the announcement and booed even louder after Gaston struck out.
Gomez said he simply wanted to win the game and that putting in a pinch-hitter made sense. Afterward, Kirby said only that he was “surprised.”
“I don’t care if we were 160 games behind. I’d do the same thing,” Gomez said in a 2010 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The commissioner (Bowie Kuhn) called me and so did several managers, and they all said it was the only way to play the game.”
Looking back on it, Kirby said, “We were 20 or 30 games behind, and we needed something to drum up interest in the ballclub. A no-hitter would have given the franchise a much bigger boost than one more victory.”
Kirby went 10-16 that season with a 4.53 ERA (88 ERA+) for a San Diego that ended up 63-99. He pitched a total of eight seasons in the majors and retired with a 75-104 won-loss mark. He enjoyed his best season in 1971, going 15-13 with a 2.83 ERA (117 ERA+) 231 strikeouts and 13 complete games. The following year, he went 12-14 with a 3.13 ERA (105 ERA+).
San Diego traded Kirby to the Cincinnati Reds in November of 1973. These were the Reds of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench. Kirby was finally catching a break. He responded with a 12-9 mark and a 3.28 ERA (107 ERA+) in 1974 and then went 10-6 in 1975 but with a disappointing 4.72 ERA (77 ERA+). The Reds won the World Series, but Kirby didn’t even get into one game in the postseason.
Cincinnati banished Kirby to Montreal. There, he struggled to go 1-8 with a 5.72 ERA (65 ERA+). The pitcher was one and done as an Expo and retired as a player at age 28 in 1976.
Some time afterward, Kirby took over as acting chairman of the Washington, D.C., area Major League Baseball Players Alumni golf tournament. The event benefited the American Lung Association. “Former players are pretty good guys and know how to get everyone to have a good time,” Kirby said before the start of the tournament one year.
On Oct. 11, 1991, the former pitcher died of a heart attack in Arlington, Va. He was just 43 years old.
Yes, Clayton Laws Kirby Jr. deserved better.
By Glen Sparks
Pete Rose liked to say stuff like, “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” So, maybe it isn’t surprising that he barreled headfirst into home plate and tore apart Ray Fosse’s left shoulder at the 1970 All-Star game. Rose, after all, represented the winning run.
Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati hosted that memorable game. Rose, 29-years-old and in his eighth season with the Reds, was the local boy (Western Hills High School) who had made good. He was playing in his fifth All-Star game and had won National League batting titles the previous two seasons.
Fosse, 23, from Marion, Ill., was in his first full season with the Cleveland Indians, who had selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 1965 amateur draft. The good people of Marion sent Fosse a congratulatory telegram with 1,713 signatures on it when he made the All-Star team.
Tom Seaver started the 1970 Mid-Summer Classic for the National League, Jim Palmer started for the American League. The A.L. struck first, in the top of the sixth inning. Fosse singled off Gaylord Perry and went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Sam McDowell. Carl Yastrzemski singled in Fosse two batters later.
The A.L. led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning and with Catfish Hunter on the mound. Hunter gave up a solo home run to Dick Deitz and two more hits after that. Skipper Earl Weaver brought in Fritz Peterson to pitch. Peterson promptly gave up a run-scoring single to Willie McCovey and headed to the showers.
Weaver replaced Peterson with Mel Stottlemyre. Roberto Clemente, hitting for Bob Gibson, lofted a sacrifice fly to tie the game 4-4. Extra innings followed.
With two outs in the bottom of the 12th inning, Pete Rose and Billy Grabarkewitz rapped base hits off Clyde Wright, who was pitching his second inning of relief. Jim Hickman added another single, this one to center fielder Amos Otis, who fired the ball home, on the third base side of the plate.
Down the line raced Peter Edward Rose, stocky, barrel-chested and eager to win. He spread out his arms, lifted his legs and, like he probably did every other time during his 24-year career, he dove with full force. The collision broke and separated Fosse’s shoulder.
Rose, who grew up in a tough household, said later, “If I didn’t hit him the way I did, I couldn’t have talked to my father afterward.”
Fosse kept playing for the Indians. The X-rays didn’t show much. He batted .297 the rest of the season but with just two home runs after hitting 16 in the first half. The injury, he said, forced him to change his swing and robbed him of his power.
The following year, results of another round of X-rays confirmed a fracture and a separation. Even so, Fosse made the 1971 All-Star team, the last time he would be so honored. He would go on to play 12 seasons in the big leagues with four teams, batting .256 with 61 career homers. Since 1986, he has broadcast games for the Oakland A’s.
Rose, of course, retired with a major-league record 4,256 base hits. He managed the Reds for a few seasons before getting into a heap of trouble after betting on baseball games. Baseball’s all-time hits leaders remains ineligible for Hall of Fame induction.
He also served a short federal prison stint for tax evasion. Ironically, he served that time at a prison in Marion, Ill., Fosse’s hometown. The people of Marion got a kick out of that, Fosse said.
Every year at All-Star time, Fosse knows reporters will ask him about the most famous collision in the game’s history. He understands. And, he still feels the pain.
“Like a knife sticking me in the shoulder,” he said in a recent article written by Scott Miller for cbssports.com. Even so, his marriage is still going strong after 43 years, and he has plenty of children and grandchildren. “I’m fortunate,” he says. “I’m blessed.”
By Glen Sparks
Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda once disparaged light-hitting infielder Kurt Bevacqua thusly:
“Kurt Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.” (I may have eliminated some profanity from this quote.)
Bill Bergen was a worse hitter than Bevacqua. It isn’t close.
You’ll recall Mario Mendoza. He played shortstop for a few teams, most notably the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Mendoza batted less than .200 in five of his nine seasons. Slumping hitters hated to see their batting averages dip beneath the dreaded Mendoza line. (The line was usually held to be .200, but Mario himself actually ended his career at a much loftier .215, thanks to a brawny .245 campaign in 1980.).
Bill Bergen was a worse hitter than Mendoza. It isn’t close.
William Aloysius Bergen, from North Brookfield, Mass., collected hits like a slow bartender collects tips. Infrequently and not easily.
Here is a summary of Bergen’s offensive offensive stats. Be warned: They’re pretty scary. Batting coaches and .300 hitters might be especially offended. Bergen broke in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1901. He batted .179 in his rookie season (308 at-bats), was just a wee-bit better his sophomore year (.180 in 322 at-bats) and hit what would be a career high in 1903 (.227 in 207 at-bats).
The Reds shipped Bergen and his woeful bat to the Brooklyn Superbas, forerunner of the Dodgers, in 1904. He hit .162 over eight years in Brooklyn. Not too superba. Bergen retired after the 1911 season with a career batting average of .170 in 3,028 at-bats, the lowest average for any player in Major League history with at least 2,500 plate appearances.
It isn’t close.
The second most feeble bat in baseball history belongs to Billy Sullivan (1899-1916). The catcher hit .213 lifetime, .43 percentage points ahead of Bergen. (Just in case you’re wondering: Mark Belanger, .228; Rob Deer, .220 Dal Maxvill, .217)
In 1909, Bergen finished at .139, the lowest batting average post-1900 for any batting-title qualifier. Bergen didn’t help himself by taking a walk, either. He had a .194 career on-base percentage. Neither did he bring any pop to the plate. His career slugging percentage was a woeful.201.
Look at this way: Bergen hit 45 doubles in his career in 3,028 at bats, or 10 fewer doubles than the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter hit in 2013 with 2,433 fewer at-bats. Bergen drove in 193 runners in his 11 seasons, just two more than Hack Wilson did in 1931. You get the idea. Anything else would be piling on. Ok, in case you’re wondering, Bergen hit two career home runs, or as many as Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton slugs on a good night.
But, this all begs a question. How did this historically inept hitter last 11 seasons in the big leagues? He must have done something right. Right? Yes. Bill Bergen was one of the most talented defensive catchers of his time.
He ranks ninth all-time among catchers in assists despite getting into more than 100 games just twice in his career. He led the league in that category three times and recorded at least 100 assists nine times (Gary Carter and Bill Dickey did it four times, Johnny Bench did it once, Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk never got there.) Bergen also led the league in throwing out would-be base stealers in 1906 and 1909. He gunned out six Cardinals trying to steal on Aug. 3, 1909.
Woodrun’s article quotes the SABR bio article about Bergen: “Despite playing part-time, Bergen earned a reputation for the strongest throwing arm in the National League, so strong that his mere presence behind the plate was enough to intimidate base runners.”
You look up “all field, no hit” in the dictionary …
By Glen Sparks
Forget about any other baseball team you may have heard of or read about through the years. That includes the 1927 New York Yankees. None of those teams, not one of them, was as good as the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.
On May 4, 1869, the Red Stockings pummeled the Cincinnati Great Westerns 45-9 in what many call the “first professional baseball game ever.” The Red Stockings went on to compile a 57-0 won-loss record in ’69 against teams in the National Association of Base Ball Players, the forerunner of the National League.
English native Harry Wright organized the Red Stockings, managed them and starred in center field. Born the son of a professional cricket player in 1835, Wright left his homeland at the age of three when his dad took over as head groundskeeper of the old St. George’s Cricket Club in New York City.
Growing up, Harry played both cricket and baseball. He arrived in Cincinnati in March of 1865, the Civil War winding down to a bloody end back east. Harry Wright took over as head of the fledgling Cincinnati Base Ball Club in 1866.
Right away, Wright began working to turn his team into the game’s first dynasty. He sent invitations to veterans of the famed New York Knickerbockers club and other squads nearby squads, the Midwest being something of a baseball outpost at the time.
In 1869, the National Association Ok’d professionalism. The Red Stockings’ executive board members opened their thick wallets. Some players, including Harry’s brother George, a shortstop, were signed to deals seven times the average man’s wages.
The Red Stockings did not lose until June 14, 1870, in an 8-7 11-inning skirmish against the Brooklyn Atlantics. The club lost six times that year. By November of 1870, though, the Stockings board decided against paying for an team the following season. Those ballplayers were asking for too much money, the board said.
Harry Wright, eventually a Hall of Famer, just like his brother, left town. He went from working for the Cincinnati Red Stockings to working for the Boston Red Stockings, the forerunner of the Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves.
Later, Wright managed several other teams, including the Providence, R.I., Greys and the Philadelphia Quakers, the franchise that would later become the Phillies. His teams won six league championships, and Wright retired with an admirable .581 winning percentage.
By Glen Sparks
The story goes that scouts from the Cincinnati Reds were interested in a 34-year-old, hard-throwing right-hander named Orville Nuxhall. They signed his teenage son instead.
World War II was raging, and major league rosters had been depleted. Bob Feller, Jerry Coleman and others were off fighting the Germans and the Japanese. Teams needed ballplayers. But, would they really want a kid not long out of junior high?
The scouts first watched Joe Nuxhall pitch in a semi-pro game in the fall of 1943. Joe was 14 years old. They wanted to sign him then, but, Joe asked, could they please just wait until the Hamilton (Ohio) High School basketball season was over. Deal. On this date in 1944, young Joe—15 now, already a strapping 6-foot-2– signed a contract with the Reds.
Warren Giles, the Reds’ general manager, put together a plan. He would add Joe to the team but not until school let out in June. Uncle Sam was serious, though; we were right in the middle of the greatest conflict in the history of mankind. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were planning the invasion of France.
The Reds lost even more players to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines in the spring of 1944. Giles had to fill his roster. He talked to the Hamilton High principal, who made the call. Joe Nuxhall could be in uniform on opening day.
Cincinnati Manager Bill McKechie waited a few months before getting Joe into a game. The pitcher made his debut on June 10, 1944, at Crosley Field, against the St. Louis Cardinals. He was 15 years, 316 days old. And more than a bit nervous. The Reds trailed 13-0 in the ninth inning when McKethie gave the signal for Nuxhall.
Later, Nuxhall would say, “I was pitching against seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, kids 13 and 14 years old… All of a sudden, I look up and there’s Stan Musial and the likes. It was a very scary situation.”
The Cardinals’ first batter, shortstop George Fallon, hit into a groundout. Then, things unraveled. Joe gave up five walks, two hits and five runs before McKechie pulled the hook. Nuxhall spent the rest of the season in the minors.
But, the story gets better. Nuxhall worked his way back to the big leagues in 1952 at age 23. He pitched for 16 years, mostly with the Reds, compiling a 135-117 won-loss mark and a 3.90 ERA (102 ERA+). The Ol’ Lefthander, as they eventually called him, made a couple of All-Star teams and led the National League in shutouts with five in 1955.
Following his playing days, Nuxhall entered the broadcast booth. He was well-loved in the Cincinnati community until his death in 2007 at age 79. His long-time broadcast partner Marty Brennaman said, “Everybody had wonderful things to say about him. That was the essence of Joe Nuxhall.”
By Glen Sparks
“Bumpus” Jones peaked early.
The 22-year-old right-hander made his big league debut on Oct. 15, 1892, in Cincinnati. It was the last day of the regular season, the last time the pitcher’s box would be just 50 feet from home plate. Bumpus started for the Reds against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jones, undoubtedly nervous, walked the first two batters he faced. He got out of the inning, though, and wiggled his way out of another jam in the second. Pittsburgh scored an unearned run in the third on a walk, a stolen base and a Bumpus error. Then, Charles Leander “Bumpus” Jones started to cruise. He still had not given up a hit, and he didn’t give up one in the final six innings. The Reds beat the Pirates 7-1 on Bumpus Jones’ no-hitter in his first game in the majors. Bumpus walked four and struck out three.
The fans cheered for their hero, a product of nearby Xenia, and Reds owner Charles Comiskey scheduled his sensation for a nifty postseason tour. He wound up and fired in front of crowds of 1,000 and 2,000 fans.
Then, the Tale of Bumpus Jones took a tricky turn. The 1893 season began, the mound was moved back to its current 60 feet, six inches, and a local newspaper reported that Bumpus was suffering from those dreaded “kinks” in his arm. Bumpus Jones was never the same.
Bumpus only won more game in the major leagues, and it was quite an improbable win at that. He somehow got the “w” when he walked six and gave up 12 runs. Fortunately, the Reds scored 30 times and held the Louisville Colonels to a dozen (all charged to Bumpus). Cincinnati had taken a 14-0 third-inning lead, and Bumpus was summoned from the bullpen to give starter Elton Chamberlain a rest. Chamberlain still had not pitched the minimum five innings to qualify for a win. Bumpus held the lead, but, really, no lead was safe with this wild-armed, one-game sensation.
In 28.2 innings with the Reds in 1893, Bumpus Jones gave up 37 hits and 23 walks. He struck out just six batters. His ERA zoomed up to a mountainous 10.05. He pitched in six games, started five and, incredibly, finished two.
By the middle of July, Bumpus Jones was an ex-Red. The New York Giants took a chance on the still-young hurler. Could Jones re-gain some magic in the Big Apple? It was not to be. In his first game, versus the Cleveland Naps on July 14 against the great Cy Young, Bumpus walked 10 and gave up six runs. And, that was that. Bumpus Jones never pitched again in the major leagues.
Baseball still beckoned. Bumpus pitched in the minor leagues, often with great success, for the next several seasons. One year, he went 27-13. He pitched for teams such as the Sioux City (Iowa) Cornhuskers, the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Gold Bugs and the St. Paul (Minn.) Apostles.
Bumpus Jones died June 25, 1938, following a stroke. His headstone in Cederville, Ohio, is marked that he was a “no-hit” pitcher. And, so he was. On Oct. 15, 1892, Bumpus Jones had his day.
By Glen Sparks
Edd Roush gave his Hall of Fame speech–finally–at age 69. Getting into Cooperstown wasn’t easy for the outfielder, who played 18 seasons and retired with a .323 batting average.
Roush first made it onto the ballot in 1936. He garnered just 0.9 percent of the vote. Less than one percent. This for a guy who not only hit .323 lifetime, but who also led the National League in batting in 1917 (.341) and 1919 (.321) for the Cincinnati Reds.
The Oakland City, Ind., product played with the Reds for 12 of his 18 seasons. In 1918, he topped the N.L. in slugging percentage (.455), OPS (.823) and OPS+ (151).
Roush retired with 2,376 hits, 1,099 runs scored, 339 doubles, 182 triples and an OPS+ of 126. He finished in the top 10 in batting average nine times and oWAR seven times. He hit at least .339 for six straight seasons, 1920-25. The 5-foot-11-inch, 170-pounder wielded a humongous 48-ounce bat, one of the biggest in history. In addition, some players and managers rated him the top defensive center fielder of the Dead Ball era.
It still wasn’t enough for the baseball writers. Roush’s vote percentage didn’t even hit double digits until 1947 (15.5). He got 14 percent the following season but dipped below 10 percent the following three years. The best showing for Roush on the regular ballot was in 1960, in his final year of eligibility, when he garnered 54.3 percent of the vote, or 20.7 percent less than what he needed. It looked like Roush would be shut out of Cooperstown.
The Veterans Committee, though, selected him for enshrinement two years later. What took so long–31 years after retiring—for Roush to make it to the Hall of Fame? Let’s take a closer look at his career.
One argument against Roush is that he missed a lot of games. He played for the money (imagine that!), and he admitted it. He showed up late for spring training, in part because he wanted to spend more time with his family, and his contract disputes weren’t always settled by opening day. Did some Hall of Fame voters remember this, and recall Roush as a malcontent? The press leaned heavily toward the ownership’s viewpoint in those days.
Some New York voters probably remembered Roush’s uneasy days early in his career with the Giants. Supposedly, Roush despised both the Big Apple and Giants Manager John McGraw, who frequently cussed at and chewed out his players. “That didn’t go with me,” Roush is quoted in a Society for American Baseball Research article written by Jim Sandoval. Things got so bad in upper Manhattan that McGraw shipped Roush to Cincinnati. Did the writers think that Roush couldn’t handle discipline?
Interestingly, McGraw—not quite through with Roush–reacquired the outfielder after the 1926 season. Roush probably wasn’t happy. McGraw probably didn’t care. The skipper told Roush, according to the Sandoval article, “You’re either going to play for me, or you’re not going to play at all.” (One can imagine Roush rolling his eyes and thinking to himself, “Here we go again.”)
Anyway, Roush hit .304 for the Giants in 1927 and .324 in 1929, with an injury-riddled 1928 (46 games played) wrapped in between. As a 37-year-old in 1930, Roush put up the Gone Fishin’ sign. He held out the entire season. (This was just a few months after the Great Crash of ’29, remember. Presumably, a bulk of Roush’s financial portfolio was in cash.)
In 1931, Roush returned to Cincinnati and to the Reds. He batted .271 in 101 games and called it quits. He coached for one season-1938—but he ran the Montgomery County, Ind., cemetery for 35 years and also served as president of a local bank for quite some time. And, the guy who held out from spring training so many times went down to Florida in March most years to talk baseball with Reds players like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench.
Roush was most similar to players like Pie Traynor, Dixie Walker, Willie McGee, Joe Kelley and Paul Hines, some Hall of Famers, some not. He retired with just 14 Black Ink points (The average amount for a Hall of Famer is 27.) and 127 Grey Ink points (The average HOFer has 144.). Roush is rated the 36th best center-fielder of all-time, according to JAWS (Jaffe War Score System), a formula developed by sabermetrician Jay Jaffe. JAWS relies heavily on WAR performance; Roush’s career WAR was 45.2 with a seven-year peak of 31.5. His JAWS career score was 38.3, ahead of Hall of Famers such as Hack Wilson 37.3 and Hugh Duffy (36.9) but behind plenty of non-Hall of Famers (Jimmy Wynn, Willie Davis, Vada Pinson and Fred Lynn among others).
Roush lived another 25 years after being named to the Hall of Fame. He threw out the first pitch at the last game at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, June 24, 1970. Joe Morgan called Roush “the best of us all.”