Marvin and Ted, a love story revisited

Marvin Miller, Joe Torre

Marvin Miller (left) with then-Cardinals catcher-turned-third baseman Joe Torre at a 1972 press conference.

Yes, Marvin Miller decided before his death that being elected to the Hall of Fame was no longer worth it. Not even if it was no less than his due. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

But there’ll be a nice synergy in Miller and catcher Ted Simmons being inducted into Cooperstown Wednesday, along with two more from last year’s class, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. Miller and Simmons were joined in an unlikely way early in Simmons’s career.

The pan-damn-ic then told the new Hall of Famers, “Wait ’till next year.” Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields, perhaps Miller has bumped into Charlie Watts, the lifelong drummer for a band that once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you just might find/you get what you need.”

What Miller and Simmons needed from the last-convened Modern Era Committee in 2019 was twelve votes minimum. Miller got the twelve, one shy of Simmons’s thirteen. Both men deserved Hall of Fame plaques long enough before they finally got them. And one inadvertently provided the other with invaluable intelligence.

At age 22 Simmons found himself the Cardinals’ regular catcher entering spring training 1972. Self-aware enough, Simmons decided his emergence should be worth more than a $6,000 raise. He refused to sign a new contract that would pay him one penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, holding the team’s offer to somewhere in the lower $20,000s.

That was while Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day in the Supreme Court. (Flood, alas, would lose there, but he’d kick open a door that refused to be shut again.) Simmons started the reason without a signed new contract. The Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed.

Everyone in baseball trained their eyes upon the sophomore catcher who belied the usual athletic stereotypes. (Among other things, Simmons would serve active and knowledgeable time on the board of a St. Louis art museum in due course.) They also trained their eyes on the reserve clause abused so long by the owners to bind their players like chattel, until they damn well felt like selling, trading, or releasing them.

Simmons played his way onto the National League’s 1972 All-Star team as its backup catcher. Once he went to Atlanta for the game, Devine rang his hotel phone post haste. Would Simmons kindly accept a mere $75,000—as in, the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place, plus $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons a little nervously, too, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court himself. He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal. But Simmons handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy even on the black market: Those  owners would rather have handed a barely-seasoned kid $75,000 than let any arbitrator get a look at the reserve clause even long distance through a telescope.

Miller had once been a United Steelworkers of America economist. After a players committee including two Hall of Famers (pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning) and two respected other veterans (pitcher Bob Friend, outfielder Harvey Kuenn) chose him to run their embryonic union, Miller won the rest of the players over by being just who he was—a brain, not a bludgeon. It didn’t hurt that Miller instilled an open-door policy: “It’s your union,” he insisted.

Miller didn’t follow the stereotypical union playbook, either. He may have kept the players’ eyes on the ultimate prize, but he knew and convinced them reasonably that it had to be done step by step, from pension and clubhouse issues forward. Even as he told them, as often as need be, “You are the game. Without you, there is no game.”

His two signature triumphs came almost by accident. The first was when then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter filed a grievance and won. He also became subject of a game-wide bidding war that reached the millions and ended with him taking the third-most lucrative offer put in front of him.

Why only the third? Because the Yankees (whose representative Clyde Kluttz was the former A’s scout who signed Hunter for the A’s in the first place) were willing to divide the dollars Hunter’s way, right down to a certain amount put into an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. It was still enough to make Hunter a rich man on a fair, open market.

But Hunter was a single, isolated case. His triumph didn’t mean the end of the reserve era just yet. To do that, it took then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis making contract talks far too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s taste in spring training 1975. Messersmith promptly refused to talk to anyone below team president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any contract that didn’t include a no-trade clause.

The Dodgers merely harrumphed that they’d never given no-trade clauses before and they weren’t about to start now. Messersmith said, essentially, that he’d rather be caught naked in a barracuda school than let the Al Campanises dictate his baseball future. He, too, refused to sign a 1975 contract. The Dodgers, too, renewed him automatically under the old rules.

Messersmith pitched on and pitched very well. (He’d lead the National League in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while throwing seven shutouts and finishing second with a 2.29 ERA.) He withstood the snark of both indignant, ignorant fans and indignant, artery-hardened sportswriters.

“Every time he took the ball,” Simmons once said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed.” Just as long as they didn’t have to bat against him. (The National League’s hitters batted a mere .213 against Messersmith in 1975.)

By that August, Messersmith found himself receiving two things: continuing Dodger offers for then-glandular dollars, and an education from Miller about the reserve clause itself. He was also the only active player left that season who hadn’t signed a 1975 contract. By September, the Dodgers offered him a pot of $540,000 for three years including 1975. “Where’s that no-trade clause?” Messersmith retorted, essentially. Without it, he wouldn’t budge.

When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant. The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and Dick [Moss, the players’ union’s general counsel]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

Ted Simmons

Now a Hall of Fame catcher, Ted Simmons as a Cardinal helped Miller build his leverage against the old reserve clause abuse.

That August, too, Messersmith agreed to file a grievance seeking his free agency if he remained unsigned. The season ended; Messersmith’s stout pitching alone couldn’t keep the Dodgers from finishing second in the National League West. He filed the grievance.

(Arm-and-shoulder-troubled pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired after leaving the Expos in June, agreed to join the grievance in August, upon Miller’s persuasion—as insurance, in case the Dodger dollars finally seduced Messersmith, who refused to be seduced by dollars alone.)

The owners had no essential argument better than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The evidence in the grievance included a newspaper article, in which penurious Twins owner Calvin Griffith basically admitted proper reserve clause application allowed a player’s free agency after one contracted season and a second team option season and no more.

Messersmith won. (The owners promptly fired arbitrator Peter Seitz.) The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar described Simmons as “choked up” when he said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all. Even he recognised teams had certain rights in players they developed, even as he insisted baseball players deserved the same rights as any other American—from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive—to test their value on a fair, open job market when no longer under contract.

It did far more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of 1975 would have had you believe, especially when they mourned the death of “competitive balance.” Pace Mark Twain, the rumours of that death would prove greatly exaggerated. More teams have won the World Series since the Messersmith triumph than won the Series before it.

It’s not the players’ fault that the owners since have tried everything in their power, and sometimes beyond it, to try putting them back into their “places.” (The 1980s collusion, anyone? Isolated front-office executives willingly handing the gold to players who’d barely proven themselves worth copper? The 1994 strike born of the owners insisting the players stop them before they overspent/mis-spent/mal-spent again? Tanking?)

And they said free agency would destroy the undestroyable game. If you’d asked former commissioner Fay Vincent about that, he’d tell you what he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009: Blaming Miller for “destroying” baseball was “like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business,” which didn’t happen, either.

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the owners’ post-Messersmith chicaneries was the years passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not so popular with his former clients (he left the union in 1982) as his work on their behalf. No less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said the Hall of Fame should be for players only. You wonder what he thought when the Hall inducted Effa Manley—co-owner of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles—as a pioneer in 2006.

“Instead of pointing to the sky,” the late Jim Bouton told Crasnick, referring to gestures often made by players crossing the plate after hitting home runs, “today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller.” As also to Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and others who collaborated to do the once unthinkable.

Simmons himself went on to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown. His peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall ballot. Exactly why never really seemed clear. If he was a better hitter than catcher, the metrics simple and complex alike still show him the number eleven catcher ever to strap it on.

Maybe it was residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog. (Herzog traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined moving to another field position. Yet Herzog eventually became a member of the Modern Era Committee that finally elected Simmons.) Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board member.

Miller died in 2012 with only one other regret: not having been able to convince the MLBPA to revisit the 1980 pension realignment that froze players with short careers prior to 1980 out of the pension plan. Players since 1980 need only 43 days major league time to receive a pension and one day to receive health benefits.

The only thing the frozen-out have received since comes from a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA leader Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. Before you say that’s something, at least, be reminded that they can’t pass those dollars to their loved ones if they pass before the final dollars are collected.

The MLBPA leadership since Miller’s departure has little to no known desire anywhere in its ranks to redress that or anything else involving the pension freeze-out. Attrition has reduced the number of affected players from over 1,100 to just over 600. Would anyone with leverage in the game now think to resolve Miller’s regret?

“Nobody has picked it up,” former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the affected, told me last December. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

Listening was one of Miller’s strong suits. “It took forever for each of us to get in,” Simmons has said. “He was the real deal. During my career, Marvin was the Players Association. He was an incredible man who was very special to me specifically. It’s an honor to be inducted with him. It’s bittersweet for his family but I’m lucky I can arrive in the flesh.”

Simmons has also said he hoped restoring the Hall inductions would be a stride in the right direction of returning life to something resembling normalcy. Surely he knows that “normalcy” doesn’t always mean without hiccups or pratfalls, both of which baseball has had in abundance for too long.

Portions of this essay have been published previously.

So what really made the Year of the Pitcher?

Bob Gibson, whose talismanic 1.12 ERA may remain the best-remembered element of 1968’s Year of the Pitcher. But . . .

When Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at 84 last Friday night, two things above all seemed looming large over any retrospective of the St. Louis Cardinals marksman who was just as good a man as a pitcher. Even above his striking overall World Series performance record.

Thing One: Gibson’s still somewhat exaggerated image as an intimidator. So much so that a friend hailed me aboard a social media platform to remember Gibson saying he’d knock his own grandmother down if she dared to challenge him. It took me a short while to convince him Gibson never said that about his grandmother or any other relative.

For the record, Hall of Famer Henry Aaron plagiarised Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn to say Gibson would knock his grandma down, and Aaron mis-plagiarised Wynn about the challenge part. Wynn had actually said he’d knock Grandma down if she dug in against him. Apple sauce and orange chicken.

The closest Gibson ever came to admitting he insisted upon going one-up on family members is when he admitted, a little puckishly, when asked if competitiveness was his more-or-less lifelong companion, “I guess you could say so. I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter, and she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”

Which leads to Thing Two, since Gibson revealed his tic-tac-toe conquering during the same year’s World Series: 1.12. That was Gibson’s earned run average in 1968. A number at least as talismanic for baseball fans ancient and modern as have been numbers such as 60, 61, 511, 714, 755, 2,130, and 5,714.

To this day you can meet people who think 1.12 was the reason, maybe the only reason, or the reason first above lesser challengers, why the Year of the Pitcher freaked the Show’s government enough to deliver a couple of rules changes after 1968 that were just as significant as the change that made the damn season almost necessary in the first place.

Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell, who admires and loves top-of-the-line pitching as deeply as he does top-of-the-line hitting and defense, observed in an October 1968 essay (“A Little Noise at Twilight“) that, by mid-July 1968, “it was plain to even the most inattentive or optimistic fans that something had gone wrong with their game.”

Why were the pitchers so good? Where were the .320 hitters? What had happened to the high-scoring slugfest, the late rally, the bases-clearing double? The answers to these questions are difficult and speculative, but some attempt must be made at them before we proceed to the releasing but somewhat irrelevant pleasures of the World Series. To begin with: Yes, the pitchers are better—or, rather, pitching is better. All the technical and strategic innovation of recent years have helped the defenses of baseball; none have favoured the batter. Bigger ballparks with bigger outfields, the infielders’ enormous crab-claw gloves, more night games, the mastery of the relatively new slider pitch, the persistence of the relatively illegal spitter, and the instantaneous managerial finger-wag to the bullpen at the first hint of an enemy rally have all tipped the balance of this delicately balanced game.

Gibson didn’t need the Year of the Pitcher to prove his greatness or make himself a Hall of Famer. He’d established that in a gradual buildup from his first major league gigs in 1959 forward, including and especially during two previous World Series. (1964, 1967.) His ERA over those nine seasons was 3.12; his fielding-independent pitching, 3.10. Among his fellow righthanded pitchers across those seasons, only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (2.67 ERA; 3.00 FIP) was better.

Gibson pitched seven more seasons after 1968. His ERA over those seven: 3.01; his FIP over the seven: 2.87. You could look at his FIP and argue he was a slightly better pitcher than he’d been before 1968, and that’s without getting another chance to pitch in the postseason before his 1975 retirement.

Let’s look at some of Gibson’s other critical measurements, various key pitching averages, comparing his pre-1968 seasons and his post-1968 seasons:

Averages Sho BB K WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB.9 K/9 K/BB
1959-1967 3 78 176 1.22 7.6 0.7 3.3 7.5 2.25
1968 13 62 268 0.85 5.8 0.3 1.8 7.9 4.32
1969-75 3 81 181 1.22 7.9 0.5 3.1 6.8 2.22

Gibson himself rejected the idea, though not impolitely, but even he had to know that even the greatest of the great have had fluke seasons, outlying seasons. (One-time teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had one in 1972, to name one.) His 1968 is a no-questions-asked outlier, if not a flat-out fluke. His 1967 ERA  was 2.98, and that’s despite being rudely interrupted by Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s liner breaking his leg that July. Any pitcher’s ERA dropping 1.86 below the previous season’s mark, which is exactly what Gibson’s 1968 ERA did, is a drop comparable to the poor soul who falls from the apex of the Gateway Arch.

And, whether his most stubborn partisans like it or not, Gibson had only too much help both making the Year of the Pitcher and inspiring subsequent rules changes.

You probably remember some of that help better than others. Maybe the help you remember best is Denny McLain, the gifted but self-destructive Detroit Tigers pitcher, credited with 31 wins—the first pitcher to cross the 30 threshold since Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean in 1934, the 31 equaling Lefty Grove’s 31 in 1931.

Those still foolish enough to think those 31 wins (when you get four-plus runs support to work with while you’re on the mound you’d better win thirty-one games) mean McLain was better than Gibson that year (because, wins!), think again:

  Sho BB K WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB.9 K/9 K/BB
McLain ‘68 6 63 280 0.91 6.5 0.8 1.7 7.5 4.44
Gibson ‘68 13 62 268 0.85 5.8 0.3 1.8 7.9 4.32

Maybe the help you remember second best is another Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale, breaking Walter Johnson’s 55-year-old mark by pitching 58.1 scoreless innings across six complete-game shutouts. Maybe the help you remember third best is yet another Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski, delivering the lowest-ever average (.3005, rounded to .301) for any league batting champion.

Now, here’s some of Gibson’s Year of the Pitcher help that you may not remember quite so well. Such help as:

* The entire Show posting a 2.98 ERA and FIP.

* The American League slugging .339—the lowest in the league since 1915, and the same number as there were shutouts pitched by the entire Show.

* Gibson’s Cardinals pitching 30 shutouts, followed in order by the Mets (25), the Indians (23), the Los Angeles Dodgers (23), and the Giants (20.)

* The whole Show’s combined .237 batting average was the lowest in major league history to that point and lower than the .240 team average of the 1962 Mets. The American League’s .230 remains the lowest league batting average in history.

* Luis Tiant, the Cleveland Indians’ lefthander, posting a 1.68 ERA and a 2.04 FIP, both of which led the American League. (McLain’s FIP: 2.53, the lowest of his career by very far.)

* Jerry Koosman, rookie New York Mets lefthander, pitching seven shutouts. (He lost the Rookie of the Year award to Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, a year after the late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver won the award.)

* Ray Washburn (journeyman St. Louis Cardinals pitcher) and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry (San Francisco Giants) pitching no-hitters on consecutive days, against each other’s teams, in Candlestick Park.

* Everything else meaning nobody sat up bolt upright in amazement when Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter—who managed somehow to avoid posting a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP—pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in early May. (It probably didn’t help that, in his next start, the Twins battered him for eight earned runs on eight hits and five walks.)

“The 1968 season has been named the Year of the Pitcher,” Angell wrote earlier in his essay, “which is only a kinder way of saying the Year of the Infield Pop-Up. The final records only confirm what so many fans, homeward bound after still another shutout, had already discovered for themselves; almost no one, it seemed, could hit the damn ball anymore.”

You’ll note Angell wrote “almost”: three teams—the Cincinnati Reds (.273), the Atlanta Braves (.252), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (also .252)—managed to hit .250 or better as teams. Gibson’s Cardinals hit .249 collectively; McLain’s Tigers hit two points below the Show average. The worst hitting team in the Show, further evidence of their sad post-1964 Lost Decade, was the New York Yankees—the Bronx Bombers disarmed to Bronx Busts—and their team .214 average.

The two 1968 World Series combatants, the Cardinals and the Tigers, batted .242 between them in a season that wasn’t just the Year of the Pitcher but one in which the last pre-divisional play pennant races were all but decided by the middle of July. Old-school fans probably throve on the idea of a World Series matching a pair of old-time franchises who’d previously played a thriller of a 1934 Series that ended in a trash riot (over Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick) and a Cardinals triumph.

But the Tigers pitched nineteen shutouts to the Cardinals’ staggering 30 going in—and hung on to beat the Cardinals in seven games only three of which could be called thrillers. Three others were no-questions-asked blowouts, with Gibson and the Tigers’ eventual World Series MVP Mickey Lolich benefiting from one blowout apiece.

McLain himself pitched six shutouts but Lolich—the portly lefthander who lived on a mix of off-speed pitches and a sinkerball that got deadlier as he tired by late innings—pitched four, including three down the stretch after he was restored to the Tigers’ starting rotation in late August. Gibson, though, accounted for almost half his team’s shutouts with thirteen. He’d also pitch the Series’ lone shutout, the Game One in which he broke Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s record for strikeouts in a single Series game.

The ’68 Series is also remembered for the two phenomenally-anticipated pitching matchups between Gibson and McLain that turned into mismatches with McLain coming out on the short end. Well, only one of the pair was a real mismatch: Game Four, the Cardinals battering McLain for four runs (three earned) in two and two-thirds, two more runs by Joe Sparma in a third of an inning, then prying John Hiller without an out in the eighth, including Hall of Famer Lou Brock’s three-run double.

That kind of run support must have staggered Gibson, who’d enjoyed 2.8 runs of support while he was in the game during his regular-season starts.

It’s so simple even now to think that when push came to shove Gibson simply out-classed McLain and McLain was exposed as a paper Tiger, but there was a backstory to it: McLain was pitching with shoulder trouble that began when he felt a pop in a 1965 start. And, by 1967-68, McLain was taking copious cortisone shots to pitch with that shoulder. Should you really be shocked, after all, that after another full-out 1969 (and a second straight American League Cy Young Award) McLain’s career took a nose-dive into Lake Michigan?

Some may remember, years after he retired, McLain fuming, “The name of the game back then was you gotta win one for the Gipper. [Fornicate] the Gipper!” He wasn’t referring to Ronald Reagan, either. “McLain’s bitterness was well earned,” wrote Sridhar Pappu in The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. (2017.)

Those cortisone shots would cost him his major league career. The myth that baseball players were tougher and more resilient back in the day, that they were willing to endure anything for the sheer love of the game, is just that—a myth. In truth, they were victims of terrible medical advice, merciless management, and unforgiving fans who believed that a worn-out, hurting arm signaled a kind of moral weakness.

Excessive cortisone administration doesn’t just cause the kind of visual issues that can result in blindness such as afflicts former Mets/Senators/Tigers pitcher Bill Denehy (who joined the Tigers the season after McLain’s departure), who received a multitude of such shots after a shoulder injury in his rookie 1967. Citing pitcher Mike Marshall (reliever in 37 games for the 1967 Tigers; eventual 1974 Cy Young winner who earned a subsequent doctorate in exercise physiology), Pappu wrote ominously:

Marshall even then understood what cortisone is: not a cure-all for pain, but a corrosive that softens the bone and weakens the ligaments. [Marshall] could see McLain growing addicted to it. Despite what doctors might have said, cortisone was more of an analgesic than a curative treatment. And, ultimately, it would destroy McLain’s career.

McLain was reckless, a self-destructive self-promoter, most likely due to the early death of a father who yearned for his son to escape the hard paycheck-to-paycheck labourer’s life and taught that yearning with ferocious, excessive beatings. (Bob Gibson never knew his father, who died three months before he was born, but his older siblings and mother taught him with firm but loving hearts.)  Whatever else you’ve read about McLain’s worst, the real cause of his baseball death was his shoulder trouble and his excess dependence on cortisone.

Removing the 1968 World Series from the equation, the question before the house is the same which the political humourist P.J. O’Rourke attached to his book about the 2016 presidential election as a title: How the hell did this happen? Well, this is how the hell the Year of the Pitcher happened:

Hint: Sandy Koufax won the first of his record three MLB Cy Young Awards (it became an each-league prize after Koufax retired) and beat the Yankees twice in that World Series, including the Game One in which he set the strikeout record Gibson broke.

From 1950-1962, the strike zone was between the batters’ arm pits and his knees, however they stood at the plate, whether crouching little pests like Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, or more upright demolition experts like Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Then the Baseball Rules Committee decided the hitters were having too much fun and the pitchers needed a reasonable break.

So, in 1963, they expanded the strike zone, from the top of the batters’ shoulders to the bottoms of their knees. Oops.

That Rules Committee “apparently thought they were, in taking this action, returning the strike zone to what it had been prior to 1950; that, at least, is what they announced at the time,” wrote Bill James in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. “They overshot the mark just a little; the definition used prior to 1950 was from the player’s knees to his shoulders; the new definition said from the bottom of the knees to the shoulders.”

The effect of this redefinition was dramatic. The action was taken, quietly, because there was a feeling that runs (and in particular home runs) had become too cheap. Roger Maris’s breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record contributed to that feeling. The thinking was that, by giving the pitchers a few inches at the top and bottom of the strike zone, they could whittle the offense down just a little bit.

Denny McLain, at the painful height of his career.

Baseball observers and analysts of the 1960s, bless them, didn’t stop to think that, yes, Roger Maris, a compact but muscular lefthanded pull hitter who hit booming high line drives instead of parabolic bombs, did have a delicious short porch at which to aim in Yankee Stadium . . . but he hit one less home run at home in 1961 than he did on the road. And, that five out of Maris’s nine road ballparks were rated pitchers’ parks that year.

James also argued, like Angell, that the ballparks themselves contributed to a game weighted to pitching by the 1960s as a whole and 1968 in particular: every ballpark change between 1930 and 1968 took hits out of the leagues with increasing volume of foul territory. Nor did anyone in either league or from the commissioner’s offices bothered checking height or slope of pitching mounds visibly higher than the rules allowed.

There was also the nocturnal factor. Night ball continued growing. In elementary terms, you tell me how simple it might be to swing on and connect with a 95 mph-plus fastball. You tell me if you’d like to face Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, or Nolan Ryan—or even Juan Marichal with that multiple array of windups and leg kicks—in the dead of night no matter how well lit the ballpark might be.

This is the total of night games played in each season from 1963, when the new pitcher-delicious strike zone took effect, through the end of the Year of the Pitcher:

Season Day Games Night Games +/- Night ERA
1963 4,209 3,837 -372 3.46
1964 4,326 4,055 -271 3.58
1965 4,402 4,197 -205 3.50
1966 4,120 4,385 +265 3.52
1967 3,986 4,442 +456 3.31
1968 3,731 4,309 +576 2.98

The Show played 576 more night than day games in 1968, compared to 456 more night than day in 1967 and 73 more night than day games in 1966. Baseball also played 204 more night games in 1968 than 1963. More to the point: marry that -0.33 drop in the Show’s ERA from 1967 to 1968 to that still-expanded strike zone.

Even allowing the gradual pre-1967 adjustments to night ball and the 3.53 ERA from 1964-66, now should it have been that much of a shock that the season would come in which the pitchers had that tight a grip on the game?

Gibson pitched 23 of his 34 1968 starts at night and threw nine of his thirteen shutouts at night. McLain also pitched 23 night games out of 41 starts in 1968, and he threw five of his six shutouts at night. Tiant, the American League’s ERA/FIP champion, also led the league with nine shutouts. Like Gibson, El Tiante started 34 games in ’68. He started sixteen night games and threw three of his nine shutouts at night. But he also pitched in maybe the most cavernous of the trio’s home ballparks, Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. (The Mistake on the Lake.)

Let’s look further at 1968’s major league shutout leaders:

Pitcher ’68 Starts ’68 Sho Sho-night Sho-day Sho%
Bob Gibson 34 13 9 4 38
Luis Tiant 32 9 3 6 28
Don Drysdale 31 8 4 4 26
Jerry Koosman 34 7 4 3 21
Steve Blass 31 7 5 2 23
Ray Culp 30 6 5 1 20
Ray Sadecki 36 6 2 4 17
Mel Stottlemyre 36 6 3 3 17
Jim Nash 33 6 2 4 18
Dean Chance 39 6 4 2 15
Bill Singer 36 6 3 3 17
Denny McLain 41 6 5 1 15

(While I was looking them up, I noticed that if the 1968 Boston Red Sox were smarter, or at least less afraid of vampires, they’d have pitched Ray Culp strictly at night. Culp had a 1.91 ERA after dark but a whopping 4.02 ERA in broad daylight.)

Notice that six of those pitchers had twenty percent or better of their starts result in shutouts; four threw more shutouts at night than in daylight; and, that two—Denny McLain and Ray Culp—threw all but one of their shutouts at night. But if you broaden the cut, and look at all 339 of the Show’s 1968 shutouts, 163 were pitched at night—48 percent. Nearly half the shutouts in 1968 were pitched at night.

That was in a season during which 1,404 games had two runs or less and the Show ERA for those games was 2.99; 1,224 had between 3-5 runs, with an ERA of 2.86; and, a mere 622 featured six or more runs, with a 3.17 ERA. Strangely enough, in 1967 the percentage of shutouts thrown at night was 52 percent—but there were also 113 fewer shutouts (226 total) thrown.

However you care to slice and dice it, the pitcher’s parks coming online between the 1950s and the 1960s, the 1963 strike zone expansion, and the non-existent enforcement of uniform and reasonable mound heights, made it perhaps inevitable that the decade wouldn’t end before such an outlying, fluky season as the Year of the Pitcher was played.

Starting in 1969, the mounds were required to be no higher than ten inches and the requirement was enforced strictly. Also for the first time, ever, the Show’s government mandated protection for the hitters’ visual backgrounds, which until then were dominated by bleachers, center field wall advertisements, or both. Finally, as James’s Abstract reminds us, several teams either moved in the fences or moved home plate out toward the fences.

The official strike zone got re-shrunk, too. Back to its pre-1963 dimensions.

Strangely enough, the Year of the Pitcher’s five no-hitters (Cincinnati’s George Culver and Baltimore’s Tom Phoebus also pitched 1968 no-nos) weren’t the most in any major league season. There were six in 1915 (including Hall of Famer Rube Marquard) and 1917 (including eventual Black Sox confessor Eddie Cicotte and the legendary Babe Ruth-to-Ernie Shore game). There would be seven in 1990.

The five no-nos were just about the only way 1968 wasn’t an outlier: in 1969, after the re-shrunk strike zone and shaved-down pitcher’s mounds, five no-hitters were also pitched—by Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, plus Ken Holtzman, Jim Maloney*, Bob Moose, Bill Stoneman, and Don Wilson.

McLain’s shoulder-compromised demise began in 1970. Even before he was suspended for the season for carrying a gun on a Tigers team flight, his ERA in fourteen starts was 4.63 and his FIP was 5.22. In a miserable 1971 with the Washington Senators, he was not only hung with 22 losses to lead the entire Show, his ERA was 4.28 even if his FIP came down to 4.40. But after a ghastly 6.37 ERA and 5.43 FIP in 1972 (twenty games, thirteen starts, with Oakland and Atlanta), McLain’s career was over.

Gibson was more fortunate. He had seven seasons to pitch following 1969, with a few highs, no more postseasons, and the advent of arthritis and knee trouble. He thought of retiring after 1974, but the end of his first marriage compelled him to pitch 1975, partially to cope and partially because he needed the money.  But after he surrendered a grand slam to Chicago Cubs spare-part spaghetti bat Pete LaCock, Gibson retired.

Don Drysdale, who’d already had long-term knee and shoulder issues (Koufax once told a reporter privately Drysdale would have retired if he could have in 1966), proved not long for baseball’s world, too. In early 1969, however, his load finish its final toll, too—his rotator cuff vaporised. With no surgery then available to repair it, Drysdale’s career was history, too.

The Tigers finally won the World Series, with a lot of help from Lolich’s career week and no little help from Curt Flood’s sad mishap in the top of the seventh, the great center fielder losing Jim Northrup’s high liner in the sun for just long enough to reverse on a dime and kick up some grass while the ball out-raced him to the fence for a two-run, scoreless tie-breaking triple.

Perhaps remarkably, considering the season it ended, the Tigers posted a .718 Series OPS with 56 hits, eight home runs, and fifteen total extra base hits. “It was still the Year of the Pitcher,” Angell concluded, “right to the last, but the Tiger hitters had restored the life and noise that seemed to go out of baseball this year.”

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* Jim Maloney, like McLain, suffered long-term shoulder trouble but with even less understanding from his team than McLain incurred.

Jim Maloney (right) confabs with Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

In 1969, Jim Maloney was pitching for the Reds and losing his war against constant, searing pain. He still had enough to pitch a no-hitter against the Mets, but in the process he hurt his arm just at a time when the team that would come to dominate the next decade really needed him. When pitching in another start against the Mets, he simply didn’t have it in him to go on. He ached so much that he had the gall to ask his manager, Dave Bristol, to take him out of the game. An enraged Bristol—soon to be replaced by Hall of Fame manager [Sparky] Anderson—called a meeting with his pitchers and told them that he wouldn’t accept pain as an excuse, that they simply had to play through it.

“Listen, if a guy’s arm is sore he wouldn’t even be able to throw the ball,” Bristol said. “Right? If he can throw it up to the plate and get somebody out, then it can’t be that sore, so he’s gotta stay in there.”

—Sridhar Pappu, in The Year of the Pitcher.

Once one of the National League’s premier power pitchers—with Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, he co-led the Show with five shutouts in 1966, and had a 2.70 ERA and 2.68 FIP from 1963-66—Maloney suffered especially under a tragic change in regime.

His first major league manager, Fred Hutchinson, himself a former pitcher, once lifted Maloney while the righthander had a no-hitter going against Sandy Koufax, of all people—when Maloney suffered a muscle strain in his arm. “When a fellow has an arm like that,” Hutch told the press, “you just don’t take chances.” That’s one up for Uncle Fred!

But when Hutchinson’s cancer took him out late in the 1964 season, successor managers Dick Sisler and Dave Bristol weren’t so careful with Maloney. By 1967 at least, he, too, was taking numerous cortisone shots. In time, Maloney would have a contentious relationship with teammates, fans, and the press, inflamed by then-Reds GM Bob Howsam questioning his injuries and his commitment.

Ironically, it was a baserunning injury—a torn Achilles tendon in 1970—that put paid to Maloney’s career for all intent and purpose. His last thirteen major league games were as a worn-down, ineffective spot reliever for the 1971 California Angels. After baseball, he worked for his father’s car dealership before his first marriage collapsed as he fought a battle with the bottle.

Maloney sobered up, re-married happily, and became his native Fresno’s director for its Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council until his retirement.

Marvin and Ted, a love story

2019-12-08 TedSimmonsMarvin Miller Press ConferenceWhen all was said and finally done, Marvin Miller got what he no longer wanted. He’d said it expressly and pointedly enough, citing specifically the assorted Veterans Committees he believed with certain merit were often enough stacked for certain results. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

Miller’s name turned up on the Modern Era Committee ballot now concluded, and there emerged a bristling debate as to whether Miller’s express wishes did or didn’t supercede the prospect that, at long enough last, he would attain even posthumously the honour many believed too long overdue but his family believed should be set aside according to his very own wishes.

More than most baseball men Miller knew that the Rolling Stones were right about one thing at least, namely that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need. What he needed from this year’s Modern Era Committee to go into the Hall of Fame was twelve votes, and he got them, one shy of the thirteen awarded to enshrine former catcher Ted Simmons.

Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields now, Miller didn’t get what he wanted but got what he needed, and it’s to lament that previous Veterans Committees or their 21st Century successors-by-category didn’t give it to him while he was still alive and well enough to accept and appreciate it. But there’s a nice synergy in Miller going in however posthumously with Simmons who is very much alive, well, and working as an Atlanta Braves scout today.

Even as Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day before the Supreme Court, Simmons himself came close enough to challenging the clause himself, entering his second year as the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular catcher, who thought establishing himself thus even at age 22 was worthy of just a little bit more than a $6,000 or thereabout pay raise.

Simmons refused to sign for 1972 for a penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, and held in the lowest $20,000s. Simmons opened the season without a contract, the Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed, and everyone in baseball cast their jeweler’s eyes upon the sophomore catcher who defied the athletic stereotype (among other things, he’d serve time on the board of a St. Louis art museum and a knowledgeable one at that) and the clause that owners abused for generations to bind their players like chattel until they damn well felt like trading, selling, or releasing them.

This wasn’t a veteran who’d seen too much and heard too much more; this was a kid whom you might have thought had everything to lose but who lived as though principle trumped even a three-run homer. He played onward and refused any Cardinals entreaty that didn’t equal a $30,000 salary, then went to Atlanta the selected All-Star choice as the National League’s backup catcher. He’d barely landed and checked in when Devine rang the phone. Would Simmons kindly accept $75,000; or, the $30,000 he asked for for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons very nervously, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court if things came that way, never mind that Flood had yet to get his Supreme Court ruling. (And lost, alas.) He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal, but the Simmons case handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy on the black market or otherwise: the owners would rather hand a lad $75,000 than let any arbitrator get to within ten nautical miles of the reserve clause.

A former United Steelworkers of America economist, Miller won skeptical players over in the first place by being just who he was, and he wasn’t the stereotypical union man with a bludgeon instead of a brain, pressing hardest on the point that no concern of theirs was out of bounds and that the doors to the Players Association’s office would remain open whenever they wanted. His mantra was, “It’s your union,” a mantra one wishes was that of numerous other American labour unions to whom the rank and file were and often still are, generally, to be seen and not heard.

Ahead of the Simmons issue still lay Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter to shine a light on what a fair, open market portended for baseball players, when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on insurance payments mandated in Hunter’s contract, and an arbitrator hearing Hunter’s grievance ruled in favour of the righthander. At once, Hunter’s Hertford, North Carolina home hamlet became baseball’s hottest address, teams swooping in prepared to offer him the moon, the stars, safe passage through the Klingon Empire, and grazing rights on the planets of his choice.

Hunter merely astonished one and all by finally signing the third-richest offer in front of him, at seven figures plus for the next five seasons, and one that came at almost the eleventh minute, because the Yankees—whose representative Clyde Kluttz went back with Hunter his entire career to that point—were willing to divide the dollars according to his wishes, right down to an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. After writing the division on a napkin in a diner nook, Hunter’s first question ahead of the dollars to be done was whether the Yankees could or would do that. They could. They did.

And ahead of that, still, lay Andy Messersmith, one of the game’s best pitchers, pitching for and haggling contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring 1975. When those hagglings turned a little too personal for Messersmith’s taste, thanks to general manager Al Campanis injecting personal and not baseball issues and stinging the pitcher to his soul (and to this day he refuses to discuss it), Messersmith refused to talk to any executive lower than heir apparent Peter O’Malley and demanded a no-trade clause in the contract to come.

Like Simmons, Messersmith refused to sign unless he got the clause, out of refusing now to let the Al Campanises dictate his future if he could help it. Like Simmons, Messersmith played on in 1975, pitching well enough that when fans and artery-hardened sportswriters weren’t needling him about his unsigned contract the Dodgers were trying to fatten his calf in dollar terms. They offered him princely six-figure annual salaries at three years, but they refused to capitulate on the no-trade clause.

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association,” Messersmith, ordinarily what John Helyar (in The Lords of the Realm) described as happy-go-lucky and a little flaky, said much later. “At the start it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” Indeed not until August 1975 did Miller reach out to the still-unsigned Messersmith, the last man standing among six players who opened 1975 without signed contracts. Only then did Messersmith agree to file a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

Messersmith followed through. (Retiring pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired, agreed to join the grievance as insurance in case the Dodgers’ dollars seduced Messersmith, who wouldn’t be seduced.) The owners refused to listen when such representatives of their own as their Player Relations Committee leader (and then-Milwaukee Brewers chairman) Ed Fitzgerald, pleaded with them to consider negotiating a revision of the reserve system. “We need to negotiate while we’re in a power position,” he pleaded. Plea denied with the very pronounced sound of a gunshot’s bullet going through the owners’ feet.

And—abetted among other evidence by a newspaper article, in which no less than Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith acknowledged a proper reserve clause application would make a player a free agent after one signed season and one option season, properly applied—arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in Messersmith’s favour. “Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons would say. (Helyar described him as choked up.) “[Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all, recognising as he did that teams did have certain rights in players they developed even as he knew, and insisted, that baseball players should have the same rights as any other American from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive to test themselves on a fair, open job market when they were no longer under contract.

It did more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of the day would have allowed, especially in their lamentations over the coming death of competitive balance. (Pace Mark Twain, the reports of its death were extremely exaggerated, and still are: among other things, more teams have won World Series since the Messersmith ruling than won the Series before it.) But few things were more astonishing than the owners’ subsequent chicaneries, unless it was seeing the years go passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not as popular with many of his former clients as his work on their behalf.

Simmons, of course, went forward to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown; his peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Exactly why never seemed clear, other than perhaps residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog (who traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined repositioning the field), but the advanced metrics show Simmons the tenth best catcher to strap it on, ever. Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board director.