On Schilling wanting off the Cooperstown ballot

Why should members of a profession for whose lynching Curt Schilling once called want to vote him into Cooperstown?

The Hall of Fame pitching a shutout in this round of Baseball Writers Association of America voting wasn’t really that big a surprise. Curt Schilling’s post-results tantrum after he fell short by a measly sixteen votes was, somewhat. What to make, then, of Schilling’s demand that the BBWAA remove him from its ballot for what would be his final bid for Hall of Fame election by them?

The bad news, for those who’ve come to consider him poisonous entirely by way of about 95 percent or more of his infamous tweets, is that neither the BBWAA nor the Hall of Fame can just send him off the ballot with a single finger snap. Yet. The BBWAA’s ballot rules enjoin against it, and the Hall of Fame may be likely to reject it on those very grounds, no matter what Schilling has asked of the Hall in that regard.

But perhaps the BBWAA should find a way to amend its rule and grant Schilling his request. Maybe the best thing would be for a future Eras Committee to contend with his candidacy. If Schilling thinks his “peers” would be more likely to elect him, someone might remind the former righthander that one of his own general managers (Ed Wade, Phillies) once called him “a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.”

Schilling’s rant included referencing his own having won a few humanitarian awards during his pitching career, but there have also been references over the years to his not quite having been the most popular or respected man in his clubhouses, too. When he teamed with Hall of Famer Randy Johnson on the 2001 World Series-winning Diamondbacks, a member of the organisation told baseball writer Joe Posnanski, “[W]ith Johnson, teammates hated him on the day he pitched, loved him the other four days. And with Schilling, teammates loved him on the day he pitched, hated him the other four days.”

I’m not a member of the BBWAA. I don’t have an official Hall of Fame vote. I am a life member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, however, and every year we, too, conduct votes symbolically for our own Hall of Fame. Sometimes, we’ve elected people before the BBWAA. We pitched a shutout this time around, too.

Back in November I wrote about my own IBWAA ballot choices and what the thinking was behind it. My choices did include Schilling. (For the record, I also voted yes on Todd Helton, Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen, Gary Sheffield, and Billy Wagner.) In the passage I wrote on behalf of that vote, I concluded, “I don’t have to love or respect Schilling as a person to respect what he did on the mound. When you take your children to Cooperstown, and you see Schilling’s plaque, just tell them he isn’t the first and won’t be the last to be a Hall of Famer at the ballpark and a Hall of Shamer away from it.”

Immediately preceding that, I cited Jay Jaffe’s essay on Schilling in The Cooperstown Casebook: “I wouldn’t invite Schilling into my own home, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to view him as a role model, but in my view nothing in his career leaves a doubt that he belongs in Cooperstown. He ranks among the all-time greats via his run prevention skill, his dominance in the game’s most elemental battle of balls and strikes, and his repeated ability to rise to the occasion when the on-field stakes were highest.”

Jaffe has since changed his mind, and not just because he knows that those who think denying Schilling his Cooperstown plaque comes purely from his support for Donald Trump aren’t thinking. Mariano Rivera made no secret of his own support for Trump before his own unanimous election to the Hall, but neither is The Mariano on record as supporting among other Schilling positions the lynching of journalists.

“[A]s a first-time [Hall of Fame] voter,” Jaffe wrote after Tuesday’s Hall shutout, “I avoided invoking the character clause . . . on the grounds that the clause was conjured up by a commissioner (Judge Landis) who spent his entire 24-year term upholding the game’s shameful color line. I viewed my omission of Schilling as a protest against the notion that he’s owed any deference for his hateful post-career conduct; if he’s ever elected, it won’t be in my name. More than ever, I stand by that decision.”

Writing as I am about to write is painful enough. I watched Schilling pitch over many years of his career. I saw how great he was on the mound, I saw the way he dominated batters whether pitching for also-ran teams or World Series champions. I saw the ways he lived for and triumphed in the biggest of the big games, sometimes despite his body attempting sedition. I also knew Schilling had (and has) a love of the game so deep he never forgot being awed at Frank Robinson managing him early, or getting to pick the brains of Hall of Fame pitchers, or admitting he’d watch Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez when they were teammates “because any day they pitched could be history.”

“He’s a horse every fifth day and a horse’s ass the other four.”—Ed Wade, Schilling’s GM with the Phillies.

I was too willing to overlook too much simply because by the record alone, the eye test and the deepest statistical look alike, Schilling belongs in the Hall of Fame. He may be the greatest or at least the toughest big-game pitcher who ever took the mound. I’ve seen a boatload of pitchers, Hall of Famers and otherwise, who stood tall and delivered big when the biggest of the big demanded it; I’ve seen a boatload of pitchers, Hall of Famers and otherwise, who didn’t. (Conspiracy theorists, if you still believe the Bloody Sock Game was fraud, you can still buy my beach club in Antarctica.)

But I’m familiar, too, with the wisdom projected in 1949 by an essayist not remembered much today outside the intellectual circles of those who believe, as I do, in something not much discussed or pondered over the past decade plus: freedom. The essayist was Frank Chodorov, today unsung often enough as a bellwether of the freedom philosophy. Writing in his one-man broadsheet analysis about the leaders of the Communist Party USA brought to trial under the Smith Act, in May 1949, Chodorov demurred from such a prosecution, despite being a staunch anti-Communist himself:

The danger, to those who hold freedom as the highest good, is not the ideas the communists espouse but the power they aspire to. Let them rant their heads off—that is their right, which we cannot afford to infringe—but let us keep from them the political means of depriving everybody else of the same right.

Schilling’s political opinions are one thing. So is criticising journalism with which he disagrees. His approval of lynching journalists (recanted swiftly enough, but hardly forgotten), and for things that would indeed amount to depriving others of their rights or at least compromising them in broad sweeps, are something else entirely.

There are journalists who dishonour their profession and our intelligence in ways too numerous. I’ve had a career as a journalist in regional daily newspapers, regional daily news radio, and trade journalism. I’m too well aware that there are and have always been such journalists. They didn’t begin or end with, for one grotesque example, Walter Duranty’s notorious use, misuse, and abuse of his New York Times berth to propagate on behalf of one of history’s bloodiest tyrannies.

There’s no such thing as the perfect, fault-free journalist, whether a straight reporter, an analyst, or a commentator. The day I claim to be one now or to have been one then, just shoot me dead. But the flip side to the precept that “fake news” is news someone (usually in authority) doesn’t want to hear or doesn’t want known is that there has been fake news as long as there’s been news at all.

If it was purely a matter of rejecting Schilling’s political opinions that would be simple business. He has the same mere right to be wrong as anyone else, regardless of what today’s “cancel culture” left, right, or over-under-sideways-down would argue to the contrary, regardless even of some of Schilling’s own remarks that imply merely being wrong should be a punishable crime.

“To be sure,” Chodorov also wrote, “our history is not free of political efforts to put limits on what people may think . . . authorities [have] sought to get at ideas by inflicting punshment on those who held them . . . It is to the credit of the American genius for freedom that ultimately the right to think as one wishes prevailed, even though too often some were made to suffer for it.”

Hall of Fame debaters, who are legion, remind others that the Hall itself hardly lacks for honourees of dubious character or thought. Such honourees are not generally known to have called for the execution of the journalists with whom they often disagreed, sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately, sometimes violently. Baseball players have never been immune to testy relations with writers who covered them. Testy relations didn’t exactly equal wanting to speed the writers’ deaths, either.

It’s not just Hall of Famers incumbent or in waiting who’ve found the baseball press equal to a castor oil over the rocks. But even Jason Vargas threatening to knock a writer the [fornicate] out for daring to question then-Mets manager Mickey Callaway over a dubious non-move that cost the Mets a ball game late wasn’t quite threatening to knock the writer the [fornicate] into the cemetery.

Let Schilling rant his head off, wherever he pleases, to whomever he pleases, from whichever forum allows, until or unless he violates that forum’s rules flagrantly enough. That is his right, which we cannot afford to infringe, and his right to rant his head off holds hands with anyone else’s concurrent right to ignore or denounce his rants. Let us just keep from him the political means of depriving everybody else of the same right.

Let us also not insist that a certain group of journalists should yet confer upon him an honour for which they have the privilege of voting since he is on the record as approving their profession’s dates with lynch mobs. Not even if giving him 71 percent of their Hall of Fame vote this time equals their telling him, “Thank you, sir, and may I have another.”

The players spurn the universal DH—for now

Marcell Ozuna is just one DH-type player in a tough 2020-21 market with the universal DH still off the table.

No, the Major League Baseball Players Association didn’t shoot themselves in the proverbial foot when they spurned the universal designated hitter this time. They want it, as should every rational baseball fan. But it’s wise to wish they’d spurned it for the best reason.

The owners were willing to let the universal DH remain permanent and not just a 2020 irregular season experiment—if the players would agree to permanently-expanded postseasons. How very big of them. The players told the owners to stuff that trade.

“Both the league and union seem to agree a universal DH is a good idea, in part because pitchers, if prevented from hitting, no longer could get injured swinging for a hit or running the bases,” observes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal. “But the league, viewing the creation of fifteen DH jobs as an economic gain for the players, wants a tradeoff. It initially suggested enacting the universal DH in exchange for the players agreeing to an expanded postseason for 2021, a concept the union rejected.”

The players know that further expanded postseasons equal further contracted competition for player signings and even trades. They know further expanded postseasons equal the next best thing to a de facto salary cap. They know further expanded postseasons equal more excuses for tanking.

So the players sacrificed something short distance that would mean a little more money in their pockets, in order to prevent something else that might take a lot more money out of players pockets long distance. Enough of the owners exposed themselves, yet again,  as refusing plain common baseball sense on behalf of continuing to make money for themselves regardless of their product’s viability.

Those owners are witless to comprehend the continuing dilution of championship play that postseasons already long expanded brought before last season’s dismal experiment of sixteen-team league postseason entries. How can we expect them to comprehend the value of the permanent universal designated hitter?

They might not be terribly impressed with arguing, well, forget the payroll question a moment and consider the play on the field. You know, the thing you’re selling in the first place. But the players and the game’s real fans should be.

This winter’s snail’s pace free agency market was a drag enough without a small but considerable group of men past their fielding prime but still loaded with hits in their bats augmenting it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s indecisiveness on consecrating the universal DH for all time helps leave those men in limbo and those owners’ teams bereft of fortified real offense.

With the permanent universal DH off the table for one more year at least, players such as Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, and Marcell Ozuna couldn’t draw a bead on their real market values this winter. Among other league-wide dilemmas, the Mets still have to juggle to keep both Pete Alonso and Dominic Smith in the lineup. As MLB Trade Rumors writer Steve Adams noted, “NL teams are left to build a lineup and a roster without knowing whether they’ll have a spot for an extra hitter.” They know now.

According to NBC Sports, six teams including three National League clubs have eyes on Ozuna. “[M]aybe one of the biggest reasons the Braves are balking on [trying to re-sign] Ozuna at the moment,” writes Jake Mastroianni of the FanSided journal Tomahawk Take, “is because his defense was even worse than they thought when they signed him last offseason.” Other NL clubs would feel a lot more comfortable adding him as a DH since Ozuna at best is a replacement-level defender.

The owners need less poison pills and more vision.

Never mind the American League teams playing this market slow enough when they’ve had the DH since the Nixon Administration. You’d think National League owners in need of more men on base or more men to drive in the runs would have stepped up and decided taking every chance to get more runs on the board than the other guys is worth ending the tradition one of their own ancestors wanted to end the year Carnegie Hall opened.

You’d think NL owners would be relieved at last not to have to risk their pitchers’ health on the rare occasions they reach base or their pitchers’ subsequent effectiveness in games during which they reach base, somehow. You’d think the money-conscious owners would want to preserve their seven-figure annual investments in good pitchers by enabling the rule that would let them sign still-useful veteran bats for half that much.

You’d also think those owners would be sick and tired at last of watching Jello bats hogging the number nine lineup slot to hit about .166 over the past century worth of Show baseball. Bad enough the so-called purists also continue whining about not just one of the nebulous sides of “tradition” but the nebulous side of preserving “strategy” that means keeping a batting order spot available for the most automatic out in baseball this side of Mario Mendoza.

Quick: Ask them how swiftly they’d sign a .166-hitting position player even if he could play the field like Keith Hernandez, Bill Mazeroski, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, or Roberto Clemente. According to how many defensive runs saved above their league averages they were, those are the greatest fielders at all non-battery positions in baseball history. All but one of whom could hit a bit. A few of whom could hit a lot.

Want the answer? See you in about a hundred years, if that soon.

Belanger was the worst hitter among the foregoing group of defensive virtuosi. No questions asked. He had 22 intentional walks in his eighteen-season career and nineteen of them came when he batted eighth in the lineup. Guess I have to come right out and say it. Opponents didn’t hand him first base on the house because he was liable to hit a three-run homer and they’d rather have chanced lesser bats doing the clutch hitting.

They put Belanger on so they could rid themselves of the Jim Palmers, Mike Cuellars, Dave McNallys, and Pat Dobsons for side retired. In Year One B.D.H. (1972), that redoubtable Oriole starting rotation hit a death-defying .161 together and—for those who still think strikeouts are worse than hitting into double plays—struck out 151 times between them.

Palmer was the most consistent hitter of the group with a whopping .224 traditional batting average. Unless you’ve got that man who’s a human Electrolux in the field, or unless you’re a tanking masochist, you’re not going to sign .224 hitters for the rest of your batting order or bench any time soon if you can help it.

So why would you insist on keeping a group that hit .166 over the past century in that number nine slot? I say again: you want “strategy,” why wouldn’t you want that spot opened up for a possible second cleanup-type hitter or a possible extra leadoff-type hitter? It’s been tried before and, when you put the right bats in in those roles, it pays off handsomely enough.

I’d rather the players spurned a deal of the universal DH for permanent further expanded postseasons because the already-expanded postseason has already diluted real championship competition. Because they were sick at the sight of even an irregular season sending six second place teams, three third-place teams, one fourth-place team, and two teams with losing records to the championship rounds.

“[I]f the bar to reach the postseason is lowered, some clubs won’t feel as compelled to spend for an extra couple of wins to push themselves over the top,” Adams observes, appropriately. “The margin for error is much greater when nearly half (or even more than half) of the teams in the game qualify for postseason play than it is when only a third of clubs do. That’s especially true when at any given point, there are a handful of teams tanking and actively doing everything they can not to win games.”

Sometimes the players, too, have to remind themselves that the common good of the game is more than just making money for or in it. Maybe while negotiating the next collective bargaining agreement they’ll push for the universal DH for all the right reasons. While they’re at it, maybe they’ll tell the owners and Commissioner Nero not to even think about making it contingent upon what’s good for the owners but bad for baseball.

Universal DH: Enough foot dragging

Pud Galvin, a Hall of Fame pitcher who looked like a mustachioed Babe Ruth but was part of a rotation that made Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle at the plate with or without the mustache. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Two fetuses gestated in 1891 America and both had impacts on baseball. William Mills Wrigley, Jr. carried his company to term and, in due course, from scouring soap and baking powder to chewing gum and himself to buying the Chicago Cubs. William Chase Temple’s fetus, the designated hitter, ended in a miscarriage.

His concept had nothing to do with extending the careers of great hitters who’d lost it (or never really had it) in the field, but because he was fed up with wasting a batting order position.

Temple owned the Pittsburgh Pirates. One group of five hitters on his 1891 team went to the plate 510 times and collected 78 hits between them in 473 official at-bats. Their collective batting average was .165. A group hitting like that should make you wonder what on earth they were doing within ten nautical miles of a major league roster.

OK, I just threw you a spitball. The quintet in question were pitchers: Hall of Famer Pud Galvin, plus Mark Baldwin, Silver King, Harry Staley, and Scott Stratton. Knowing that plus the foregoing, are you truly surprised now that Temple impregnated himself with the idea we know as the designated hitter?

Fair disclosure requires mentioning that the 1891 Pirates weren’t exactly a prehistoric Pittsburgh Lumber Company. They also finished dead last in the National League pennant race. Their worst-hitting regular position player still hit 49 points higher than that pitching staff. Connie Mack (catcher) is another Hall of Famer, but he didn’t exactly get there because he was a terrorist at the plate.

The Boston Beaneaters, ancestors of today’s Atlanta Braves, won the pennant . . . and their main pitching staff actually hit worse (.127) than the Pirate staff did. Temple had little trouble convincing fellow owner J. Walter Spalding, whose New York Giants pitchers actually could hit a little bit, that pitchers at the plate were worth as much as catchers on the mound.

The 19 December 1891 issue of The Sporting Life includes a short article citing Temple and Spalding in agreement: pitchers had no business hitting. Temple said aloud he wanted a designated hitter replacing a pitcher in the batting order. Today’s reactionary old farts would demand Temple’s impeachment and removal, preferably yesterday.

They should only know how Spalding wanted to see and raise: eliminate pitchers from batting orders entirely, without replacement, and let the batting lineups be eight men in. If you would wish Temple’s removal in irons and chains, you might wish Spalding’s public hanging.

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball,” said Sporting Life in agreement with Temple.

It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

Temple didn’t face impeachment, merely the turn-down of his proposal in a very close vote by the National League’s rules committee of the time. The vote seems to have been tipped against by Chris von der Ahe, owner of the St. Louis Browns. (Refugees from the ancient and freshly folded American Association, and starting National League play in 1892, von der Ahe’s Browns have been known since 1900 as the St. Louis Cardinals.)

Once and for all let us dispense, then, with the prejudice that the designated hitter is a product of that nefarious American League who’ve conspired since 1973 to turn the Show into a high-price softball league. The American League didn’t even think about the idea until 1906.

That’s when Mack—Pirates catcher grown up to manage (and in due course own) the Philadelphia Athletics—raised the DH seriously, after watching and tiring of his own pitching staff swinging at the plate as though their bats were made of cardboard paper roll tubes. Those 1906 A’s pitchers who got into 22 games or more—including Hall of Famers Chief Bender, Rube Waddell, and Eddie Plunk (er, Plank)—hit a collective .201.

Being only slightly better hitters than Mack’s 1891 Pirates didn’t stop the Tall Tactician from proposing a DH for the American League at season’s end. The league turned him down, too. Twenty-two years later came the next in vitro of the DH, by John Heydler—president of the National League. This time around, the American League caused the National League’s miscarriage.

None in Show would try again until the 1960s minor leagues, including the AAA-level International League, brought the baby to term successfully. That caught the eye and ear of a later, far more controversial A’s owner, Charlie Finley. The rest, of course, you know, unless you forgot that the National League tried once more to bring the fetus to full term, in 1980.

Five NL teams voted no; four voted yes; three abstained. The National League miscarried again.

It’s not that I haven’t written about the designated hitter’s true history before, but I raise it once again because at this writing Show fans still don’t know whether Commissioner Rob Manfred and the Major League Baseball Players Association will get off the proverbial schneid, get onto the same page, and consecrate the permanent, universal DH.

Manfred seems more determined to keep more abominable ideas such as the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning, and a permanently expanded postseason. He still seems unable to grok that leaving the permanent universal DH in the air did few, if any favours, for a lot of free agents more suited to designated hitting than earlier in their careers. Or, for a lot of teams who’d love to have their bats without sending them out into the field with gloves that could be tried by jury for sedition.

Not knowing whether they’d have the DH option may have factored as heavily as their current economic folderol when the Cubs decided to non-tender Kyle Schwarber. The Nationals did sign Schwarber, of course, which tells you how unafraid they are of finding him plate appearances while the most polite description of him as a defender is “suspect.” But not every National League team is quite that risk-willing.

Don’t make the mistake of believing Schwarber is just another contemporary phenomenon. There have been DH types in baseball all through the live ball era now 101 years old. They didn’t exactly begin with Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, whose butcher shop at first base was tolerated for eight of his ten major league seasons because he could and did hit baseballs across county lines.

The so-called purists merely forget or can’t bear to think about it. But ponder this: What would you do with a second baseman who can flat out hit but has limited enough fielding range and averages eighteen errors charged per year at the position in a seventeen-season playing career? Today you’d want a DH slot available to you because you don’t want to lose a bat that would lead the league in OPS six straight seasons and OPS+ seven. Shake hands with Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.

Ponder this, too: Ted Williams—arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived and, if you didn’t believe it, you could have asked him—hated fielding. He has the career defensive statistics to back him up, too: enough below his league’s averages. Now, put Williams in today’s game as a DH and turn him loose at the plate. You’re really going to get an earful about who’s the greatest hitter who ever lived and, if you don’t believe it, you’d better ask him.

Let’s give Manfred and the MLBPA a little more historic reference. The following table shows decade by decade how Show pitchers have hit beginning with 1920 (for the 1910s) because that seems the first year in which league splits by defensive positions are available:

Year BA OBP SLG OPS BA +/- MLB AVG
1920 .202 .247 .254 .500 -74
1930 .214 .254 .285 .539 -82
1940 .179 .218 .222 .441 -88
1950 .178 .231 .227 .459 -88
1960 .155 .206 .194 .401 -100
1970 .146 .188 .192 .380 -108
1980 .156 .192 .197 .390 -109
1990 .138 .172 .169 .341 -120
2000 .148 .185 .192 .377 -122
2010 .141 .175 .174 .348 -116

Notice the numbers for 1940, representing the 1930s. That was a decade in which batting statistics overall were off the charts, with the Show’s sixteen teams averaging about five runs per game and batting .267 with a .726 OPS.

Do you really want this lifetime .101/.126/.152 slash line hitting or wasting outs? (Yu Darvish.)

Now, ask yourselves whether those or any other decade’s pitchers’ batting statistics would show you a major league level hitter if you didn’t know those numbers belonged to pitchers at the plate. Instead of asking and demanding why pitchers aren’t taught “to play the whole game,” too, ask and demand to know, too, why you’d really want pitchers with valuable arms and talents wasting strength and stamina, risking their health even further when you (damn well should) know pitching itself is a health risk going in.

So pitchers can drop sacrifice bunts? Wonderful. Glad you can afford to waste outs for the nebulous sake of “strategy.” I’d rather see real hitters think about bunting against those defensive shifts for base hits a time or two during games and putting the kibosh on those shifts post haste. A few have, and there should be more. Show me all that delicious free real estate, and I’ll show you a little bunt on an outside pitch and me on first base before your alarm clocks ring.

Glad, too, that it’s little of the proverbial skin off your teeth that an effective pitcher showing no early fatigue yet might be scheduled to hit with two out, at least one man on, batting stats making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle, and side retired with no further profit.

You want “strategy?” The universal DH might actually add some. Think about a second cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type batting in that number nine slot. Some teams have. Who’d you rather have batting ninth with a man or two aboard? Who’d you rather have batting in the nine spot if it leads the next inning off? Hint: In either case, it won’t be Yu Darvish.

One more time, hand it off to Thomas Boswell, because he’s still right as rain: “It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

By the way, in full-season 2019 Show batters struck out 42,823 times. Would you like to know which non-pitching batters struck out the least that season? You can look it up: the designated hitters. They struck out a mere 2,652 times, compared to none of the other non-pitchers striking out less than 4,093 times. Joe and Jane Fan bitching about all those strikeouts should love the DH, no?

The owners are said to be more than willing to let the players have the universal DH—if the players agree in turn to permanently expanded postseasons. The players should tell them to stuff that idea. We’ve had a long enough era of the thrills, chills, and spills watching teams fighting to the last breath to finish the season . . . in second place.

We got close enough to a pair of losing teams in last year’s World Series, too. Allow that 2020 was a pandemically-imposed freak season. But remember that the 29-31 Astros got all the way to the American League Championship Series. Are you really ready for the prospect of a losing team over a full season getting the chance to play their way to the World Series or even win the Series?

The universal DH really would remove a blemish from the lineup while helping still-effective bats find fresh jobs. The so-called purists, the reactionary old farts, fight harder to stop that than to stop the continuing dilution of championship play. I could tell you another word for that kind of thinking, but then you’d have to kill me. And my fountain pen (yes, I still write with one) has light years to go before it sleeps.

Update: After this essay was published, news arrived that the MLBPA rejected the universal DH—because the owners offered to allow it contingent upon their accepting permanently-expanded postseasons. Before you say “damn fools,” remember that further dilution of championship play should not be accepted.

Henry Aaron, RIP: Inimitable

As “715” blasted in neon on the scoreboard way behind them, the entire Dodger infield—including shortstop Bill Russell (left) and second baseman Davey Lopes—shook hands with Henry Aaron rounding the bases and past Babe Ruth at last.

“I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth,” the man once said. “I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.” Among many other things, we now get to remember that Henry Aaron won’t be on this island earth to celebrate with us what he deserved to celebrate untroubled.

Aaron died at 86 this morning, almost three and a half months before the golden anniversary of his own Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The idiot brigades robbed him of the pleasure of his original triumph, but Aaron’s dignitas robs them of their ability to keep a quietly proud man in what they only think is his place.

He may have been gracious hoping another would break the record he yanked from Ruth, but only one man can claim to have pushed Ruth out of the all-time Show home run record book. The man whose childhood poverty compelled him to teach himself baseball by hitting bottlecaps with sticks eventually hit 755 baseballs over fences, past foul poles, into bullpens, and into the seats.

That childhood in the deep South compelled among other unwarranted disgraces that Aaron’s mother had to tell him and his seven siblings to hide under beds whenever the Ku Klux Klan was on the march in the neighbourhood. A visit to his native Mobile, Alabama by Jackie Robinson in 1948 compelled him to live by learning first and baseball second.

Oops. Aaron skipped school to see Robinson and ended up expelled for truancy and moved to a private school. “Jackie was speaking at a drugstore, and I said, ‘I’m not going to get this opportunity again, so I better take my chances and listen to Jackie Robinson now.’ Little did I know, I got front row seats, and next to me was my father.” Double oops.

Like his fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who once said the only way he liked school as a boy was “closed,” Aaron was on a baseball or nothing mission from almost the outset.

He signed and lasted only a month with the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Leagues teams hanging in. He lasted only the month because Show scouts were on his trail and Boston Braves owner Lou Perini had to have him, outbidding any other comer to sign him. After a short spell in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron helped integrate the old and hostile Sally League (the South Atlantic League) and won its Most Valuable Player Award.

He became a Brave at twenty after the team moved to Milwaukee. He finished fourth in the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year award. He joined white teammate/future manager Eddie Mathews as the Show’s best pair of power teammates since Ruth and Lou Gehrig, whom they surpassed in due course. (Ruth and Gehrig as Yankees: 1,150 home runs between them. Aaron and Mathews as Braves: 1,226 home runs between them. Note: Gehrig as a Yankee and Mathews as a Brave hit the same number of home runs: 493.)

He played quietly, almost stoically through continuing racial growing pains, and finally swung against Cardinals pitcher Billy Muffett with one on in the bottom of the eleventh on 23 September 1957—and hit it over the center field fence to clinch a Braves pennant.

Those Braves would win the World Series and Aaron would be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. It was the only major league MVP he’d actually win, but from then through almost all his career to follow every season he played looked like an MVP season.

The Braves moving to Atlanta for 1966 didn’t thrill him, and well he might have been un-thrilled at returning to the South of his youth that still fought bitterly enough through its racist ways. Neither did a painful 1970 divorce. He resolved his fears the best ways he knew: he joined the civil rights movement quietly and continued playing baseball likewise.

Such contemporaries as Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays so often loomed more immediately and larger in the public eye and mind. The outwardly composed Aaron didn’t hit outrageous punt-like bombs; his once-fabled quick wrists produced howitzer-like line drives, even after he began to think of home runs more consciously in 1963.

He had his ways of brushing the racists to one side. “I never doubted my ability,” he once said, “but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.”

With Mantle retired and Banks, Killebrew and Mays beginning to show their age, 1970 was also the year Aaron became noticeable as the man most likely to pass Ruth’s career home run record. It was the year after Aaron’s Braves won the National League West in the Show’s first season of divisional play but got flattened in three straight by the Miracle Mets in the first National League Championship Series despite Aaron’s efforts. (He had a 1.500 OPS for the set with three home runs, five hits, and seven runs batted in.)

Aaron’s days of postseason baseball were over. He’d just have to settle for becoming a legend. A legend who played and swung through the vilest racists bent on stopping the black man from knocking the Sacred Babe to one side, to the point where police and the FBI had to stay close to the man whose career to date was less bigness than sustained high excellence.

A portrait of the artist as a young Brave.

He knew excellence when he saw it, too. When the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver introduced himself to Aaron at his first All-Star Game and one of Aaron’s 25, Aaron said it straight: “Kid, I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will know who you are, too.”

(Let the record show Aaron once said Seaver was the toughest pitcher he faced. Lifetime against Seaver, Aaron hit a mere .205 with a .281 on-base percentage, with four home runs and sixteen hits overall in 89 plate appearances. His guarantee was hardly unfounded.)

The man Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax nicknamed Bad Henry also played and swung through the most ignorant of the non-racists who yet believed nobody had any business swinging past the Sacred Babe. And, past the manipulators on his own team who wanted nothing less than the Hammer hammering his way to meet and pass Ruth before the home audience when 1974 opened for business.

The Braves were to open in Cincinnati for a set before opening at home. Aaron entered the season needing one home run to meet Ruth and one more to pass him. If then-Braves owner Bill Bartholomay could have gotten away with it, Aaron wouldn’t have poked his nose out of the Braves dugout until they were finished with the Reds and back in Atlanta.

Word of that plan reached three New York sportswriters, Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Dave Anderson of The New York Times; and, Larry Merchant of the New York Post. They said not so fast, post haste. They denounced the plan without softening their prose or apologizing for their stance, ramping up a drumbeat on behalf of convincing then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to head the Braves off at the pass.

It turned out Kuhn didn’t need much convincing. He told Bartholomay, Braves manager Mathews, and anyone else listening that the Braves better not even think about sending a lineup to the plate in Riverfront Stadium without H. Aaron on the card. A fourth New York writer, Red Smith of the Times, nailed the point emphatically:

He explained to Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher might have been Atlanta’s sportswriting dean in that time and place, but he placed himself squarely on the wrong side of the line. Bisher led an equally passionate counterattack, denouncing the New York writers as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who would do better to demand the cleanup of Times Square before criticizing the sainted Braves one of whom was about to blast the Big Fella out of the books without wearing a uniform from New York.

Aaron had spent his entire career to that point helping to prove further that black men belonged in the Show and were perfectly capable of competing and winning with honour and talent, and Bisher and his like spent their own credibility defending a team determined to cheapen true competition so a black man could break a sacred sports record on home grounds.

Aaron squared off in the top of the first against the Reds’ Jack Billingham, a pitcher against whom he’d already hit four major league home runs. He hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up, 3-0. After he rounded the bases his congratulators included Kuhn himself. Mathews sat Aaron out of the second game in the three-game set, gaining a direct order from Kuhn to put him in the third-game lineup.

He struck out twice and grounded out once, fairly and squarely, but Kuhn’s protection of his and the game’s integrity made him wary of going to Atlanta to see Aaron get the Big One. He looked and sounded clumsy saying he’d had a previous engagement. If he’d only said honestly that he didn’t want to distract from Aaron’s achievement, it would have been better.

Every racist, every shill, every manipulator, everyone who thought a quiet guy who didn’t want to eat, drink, or fornicate the world out of house and home had no business busting the record of the loud lout who set it in the first place got it jammed right back down their throats when Aaron squared off against Dodgers lefthander Al Downing with one aboard and nobody out opening the bottom of the fourth.

Nobody described what happened next better than Dodgers broadcast virtuoso Vin Scully:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, and he’s low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . .

What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.

Henry and Billye Aaron, circa 2002.

Two young fans hit the field to run the bases with the new home run king; Aaron’s bodyguard sat in the stands with a hand on his pistol until he was sure the two young white men were there to love, not kill him. Aaron plunged across the plate into a crowd of teammates through which his parents managed to plow before his mother, Stella, hugged him to plant a big kiss on her son’s face.

“I don’t remember the noise,” Aaron said later. “Or the two kids that ran on the field. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there and she hugging me. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”

He’d retire two years later with 755 home runs and a truckload of further black ink on his resume. He remains baseball’s all time champion for total bases and runs batted in. He was a four-time single-season home run champion, he led his league in slugging four times, OPS three, and total bases eight. His Real Batting Average (RBA)—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—is .624. It’s also the second-best RBA among any Hall of Fame right fielder who played all or most of his career post-integration/post-World War II/night-ball. (Number one: Hall of Famer Stan Musial.)

Aaron wasn’t entirely wrong when he once wondered whether baseball truly appreciated who and what he was. He’d become the Show’s first African-American farm director but bristled quietly over how slow it was to embrace integrating front offices. Yet he was an annual Hall of Fame presence since his own election in 1992, and people of all races in and out of the game sought him out to pick his mind and savour his presence.

They often discovered Aaron belied his public image of composure with a fine, dry wit. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball,” he once said. “I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”

Whether squaring off against the best pitchers in the league yet giving his teammates the bigger credit for team conquests, or taking a COVID-19 vaccination shot, Aaron saw the bigger picture. “I feel wonderful,” he said as he took the needle on 5 January. “It makes you feel like you are doing something not only to help yourself, but to help your community.”

When his former Brewers boss Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner, Selig’s mistakes may have been legion but it was no mistake that Selig went out of his way to celebrate Aaron. He created the Hank Aaron Award handed since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league—its birth was on the silver anniversary of Aaron passing Ruth.

Aaron re-married happily in 1973; he and his wife, Billye, a former television journalist, had the fourth of Aaron’s three children. He enjoyed business success after his playing days, too, building a successful group of BMW dealerships in Georgia. When he played, he kept a book of Christian inspiration in his locker, Thomas a Kepmis’s The Imitation of Christ. Appropriate choice, that. Nobody could imitate either the saviour in whom Aaron believed devoutly or Aaron himself.

Lord, our grief on earth is too profound that a third Hall of Famer who defeated all who’d deflate him is brought home in just this year’s first month. But our comfort is that You have brought him home to be serene, happy, and swinging for the fences in the Elysian Fields, and that Your forgiven servant Ruth received him with a cold beer, a hearty embrace, and a garrulous “That’s the way to do it, kiddo.”

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A very few portions of this essay have been published previously.

Don Sutton, RIP: Craftsman (har, har)

Don Sutton only looked like a surfer dude.

Last year’s sad parade of Hall of Famers going to the Elysian Fields waited at least until spring to begin. This year’s began with the year a mere seven days old and the nation battered by the Capitol riot a day earlier. Tommy Lasorda died of heart failure on 7 January; one of his pitchers, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, died of cancer Tuesday night.

Sutton got to the Hall of Fame by way of his unique durability. In 23 major league seasons he didn’t miss a starting assignment until his last season, 1988. He earned credit for 324 wins despite having a 20-win season only once (in 1976, winning 21). He led his league three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio and four in walks/hits per inning pitched but never led in strikeouts while leading his league in earned run average only once.

That’s despite spending his career in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. Sutton wasn’t too gapingly different on the road; enemy batters hit .247 against him on their home turf and .226 against him on his home turf, with a .606 OPS on his grounds and a .678 OPS on theirs. His forte was workman-like speed changing, smarts, and guile, heh heh heh.

As of this morning, Baseball-Reference lists Sutton as the number 73 starting pitcher of all time with the most-similar pitcher being fellow Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Most similar doesn’t exactly mean equal value, of course; Perry is slightly above the peak and career value averages for Hall of Fame pitchers and Sutton is somewhat below those averages.

All aboard for fun time? Like Perry, Sutton was suspected very frequently of, shall we say, extracurricular craftsmanship on the mound. Like Perry, Sutton knew how to ride the suspicions well enough, even if he wasn’t half as dedicated to psychological warfare as Perry was.

Both men had mischievous senses of humour about the suspicions versus the actualities. If Perry titled his memoir Me and the Spitter and went through a famous series of motions from head to torso when he wanted hitters just to think he was going to grease them, Sutton didn’t have any particular trademark suspect gestures.

Perry looked like the Carolinas peanut farmer he was in the off-season; Sutton, despite his Alabama sharecropping roots, resembled the classic California surf rat from his rookie season to his Hall of Fame induction speech. Perry preferred to live rent-free in a hitter’s head; Sutton preferred tweaking the powers that were.

Sutton took to leaving tiny notes in the fingers of his glove for umpires to discover when they or a protesting manager thought it wise to have him patted down and frisked on the mound. A classic: “You’re getting warmer. But it’s not here.”

After frequent enough accusations that “I ought to get a Black & Decker commercial out of it,” Sutton actually got just that. “The only fun I get now,” he once said to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, “is hiding dirty notes in my uniform pockets for the umpires to find them when they search me.”

“Sutton has set such a fine example of defiance,” longtime Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller told Boswell, “that some day I expect to see a pitcher walk out to the mound with a utility belt on—you know, file, chisel, screwdriver, glue. He’ll throw a ball to the plate with bolts attached to it.”

Nobody expected Sutton to sue longtime respected umpire Doug Harvey when the latter ejected him over a “defaced” ball in 1978. While pitching against the Cardinals and leading 2-1 in the seventh on 14 July, Harvey gave Sutton the ho-heave. “I’m not saying Sutton was defacing it,” Harvey told reporters. “I’m saying he was pitching a defaced baseball and the rules state that anyone pitching a defaced ball shall be ejected from the park.”

United Press said the “defacement” may have involved Sutton scratching a mark into the ball with his fingernail. “I have one thing to say and then no questions,” he told reporters. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m to say nothing about this. I’m filing suit against Doug Harvey, the National League and whoever runs the umpiring.”

Said Lasorda, who played the game under protest: “[Harvey] is judge and jury, and depriving Sutton of his right to pitch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that; it’s the first time he’s ever been ejected.”

“It was not the first confrontation over doctored balls between Harvey and Sutton,” UPI noted. “At other times in his twelve‐year career, the pitcher has been accused of scratching the ball with his fingernail to rough the surface for a better grip.”

Sutton’s lawsuit didn’t exactly set new legal precedent. It didn’t exactly get far enough to set one, let us say. Since the only verified implement he used was his fingernail, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of applying a foreign substance. (“I don’t use foreign substances,” one-time Yankee pitcher George Frazier snarked. “Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”)

But about a decade later, when Sutton was an Angel after some traveling from the Dodgers to the Astros, the Brewers, and the Athletics, he squared off in Anaheim Stadium against Tommy John, a former Dodger teammate then with the Yankees, and a pitcher Boswell described as able “to turn a tiny scratch into a double play grounder.”

Sutton during his years as a popular Braves broadcaster.

Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, watching from his Tampa home, decided Sutton was being a little too blatant about things, calling the Yankee dugout and manager Lou Piniella. Steinbrenner demanded Piniella have Sutton frisked, arrested, arraigned, bound over, tried, convicted, and executed on the spot. Piniella tried to reason with The Boss.

“George, do you know what the score is?” Piniella asked, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, referring to the early 1-0 Yankee lead. “George, if I get the umpires to check Sutton, don’t you know that the Angels are going to check TJ? They’ll both get kicked out. Whatever they’re doing, TJ’s doing it better than Sutton. So let’s leave it alone for now.”

John was lifted after six and a third innings; Sutton pitched seven full. Each man surrendered a pair of earned runs, including Sutton surrendering a bomb to Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. After the 3-2 Yankee win, Madden and Klein recorded, a scout in the press box said, “Tommy John against Don Sutton. If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game, he ought to send it to Cooperstown.”

Sutton may have been puckish about his reputation for baseball carpentry but he often admitted candidly that he took baseball to be serious work perhaps too often. He was described often enough as a kind of blithe spirit but it seems to have been his way of protecting himself against the contradictions of the jock shop.

“[M]ost of us have similar abilities,” he once said, of fellow ballplayers and of people in general. “The differences are mental and emotional and the big thing is mental preparation. That’s where everything starts: the poise, the confidence, the concentration.” It didn’t hurt that Sutton’s rookie 1966 saw him the number four man behind a pair of Hall of Famers named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and a stolid number three in Claude Osteen, either.

Raised a devout Christian, Sutton didn’t buy into Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky routines or the manager’s celebrity style, probably because his first manager Walter Alston was the polar opposite and a man Sutton respected deeply for rejecting celebrity and respecting his players as men. Sutton often called Alston the most secure man he’d ever met in baseball and praised the manager for keeping problems and questions with his players behind closed doors.

Sometimes, Sutton discovered the hard way that a little honesty can get you into a nasty spat. When he was an Astro and admitted he hoped he could finish his career on the West Coast where his wife and children still lived, it provoked Astros general manager Al Rosen—who once ended his playing career early due to injuries and a desire to be more a family man—to spar with him in the press.

When still a Dodger in 1978, Sutton said candidly and somewhat benignly that similarly quiet outfielder Reggie Smith was the actual most valuable Dodger, praising the talented and silent Smith because he wasn’t “a facade or a Madison Avenue image.” Taken as the thinly-veiled poke at popular first baseman Steve Garvey that it was, it triggered a clubhouse argument turned brawl between Sutton and Garvey.

John once said that during the worst of the brawl, an unidentified Dodger hollered to break it up because they might kill each other—to which catcher Joe Ferguson replied, “Good.” The problem was that Sutton was actually right. Garvey’s OPS was .843 and his OPS+ for 1977-78 was 130. For the same two seasons, Smith’s OPS was .974 and his OPS+ was 165. Garvey also hit into 22 more double plays than Smith in that span, too. Garvey was worth 8.5 wins above replacement-level for those two seasons, but Smith was worth 10.6.

“I’ve tried over and over to figure out why this had to happen,” Sutton told reporters subsequently. “The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn’t being lived according to what I know, as a Christian, to be right.” That from the pitcher who once ruffled feathers, especially Lasorda’s, by saying unapologetically, “I believe in God, not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

“It took a big man to say what Don said,” said Lasorda himself, who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Sutton, “and it took God to inspire him to say it.”

Sutton’s post-pitching life was mostly as a popular Braves broadcaster, where their fans reveled as much in Sutton’s easygoing repartee as in the turnaround of the Braves from the gutter to greatness. (The Braves elected him to their team Hall of Fame in due course.) He was also an enthusiastic Hall of Fame presence following his own election in 1998.

As a rookie during the once-fabled Koufax-Drysdale joint contract holdout of spring 1966, Sutton took the long view in due course. “Baseball players today,” he told Koufax biographer Jane Leavy, “owe a lot to Curt Flood and Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. But Flood, Messersmith, and McNally owed a lot to Koufax and Drysdale. Because they were the first guys who really took a stand. This was the first challenge to the structure of baseball.”

At the Hall of Fame Sutton let himself be plain human. In the same speech in which he thanked Koufax for teaching him how to act like a baseball professional, he began by saying, “I’ve wanted this for forty years. Why am I now shaking like a leaf?” Then, he answered his own question: “I think part of it is because I’m standing in front of some of the people who were the greatest artists in a wonderful business that I’ve ever seen before.”

The man who often called himself a journeyman hack appreciated the art of the game, and of his own craft, after all. May the Lord in whom his faith was profound enough have welcomed Sutton home with the same appreciation.