Enough, already

Pete Rose

Pete Rose, shown before a Reds game in Great American Ballpark in 2018. His letter to commissioner Rob Manfred should receive a single-word answer.

Last Friday, TMZ revealed Pete Rose sent a letter to commissioner Rob Manfred four days earlier. Just how TMZ obtained the letter is open to speculation. Some might suspect someone in Manfred’s office leaked it; some might suspect Rose himself. Neither suspicion is implausible.

If you’re inclined toward charitable thought, Rose’s letter is a letter of apology, an acknowledgement of accountability, a plea for forgiveness from a man who’s been punished enough via the opprobrium he still receives as baseball’s most prominent exile.

But if you temper charity with realism, it’s yet another example of what The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal describes as words ringing hollow from a man who can’t get out of his own way. A man who still doesn’t get it. A man whose most stubborn remaining partisans still don’t get it, either.

“[F]or Rose,” Rosenthal writes, “untrustworthy behaviour is nothing new.

He spent the first fourteen years of his ban denying that he bet on baseball, including in his 1989 autobiography, Pete Rose: My Story. He served five months in prison in 1990 for filing false income tax returns. A secret meeting in Milwaukee with former commissioner Bud Selig in 2002, during which he admitted betting on baseball as a manager for the first time, also apparently went awry. News of the meeting leaked, and Rose promptly followed it with an appearance at a sports book in Las Vegas.

Two years later, Rose released a second autobiography, My Prison Without Bars, as the Hall of Fame prepared to induct two new members, Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. Rose said the timing wasn’t his fault. Nothing is ever his fault . . .

For all Manfred knows, he could reinstate Rose and then be subjected to some other bombshell. Rose has admitted to betting on baseball only after his playing career ended. But in June 2015, ESPN obtained copies of betting records from 1986 that provided the first written corroboration Rose had gambled on games as the Reds’ player-manager. It’s always something.

In August, the proof that it’s always something reared grotesquely enough after Manfred agreed to allow Rose to take part in the Phillies’ commemoration of their 1980 World Series title. Rose made it far less about that 1980 team and far more about himself.

It took nothing more than Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Alex Coffey doing nothing worse than her job, asking Rose whether his presence—considering that only the statute of limitations kept him from facing consequences over an early-1970s extramarital affair with a teenage girl—thus sent a negative message to women. Saying he wasn’t at Citizens Bank Park to talk about that, Rose added, “It was 55 years ago, babe.”

“Put aside for one moment (and only one) the message Rose’s cavalier dismissal and term of address to Coffey,” I wrote then. “Consider that his presence Sunday sent a negative message to women and men as well as baseball. For a few grotesque moments the Phillies looked like a team that couldn’t have cared less about anything beyond a cocktail of nostalgic self-celebration and the ballpark gate.”

That’s the Rose effect. He makes it all about him. In the same moment, he can and often does make it impossible to look for what he insisted to Manfred should be sought and kept under full focus.

That’s the man who hired on as a baseball predictions analyst for online sports betting site UpickTrade last year and told a presser, “For those people who are worried about the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to remember I got suspended in 1989. That’s 32 years ago. I’m not going to live the rest of my life worried about going to baseball’s Hall of Fame.” (Suspended?)

Until he is, that is. “Despite my many mistakes,” Rose wrote to Manfred now, “I am so proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player—I am the Hit King and it is my dream to be considered for the Hall of Fame. Like all of us, I believe in accountability. I am 81 years old and know that I have been held accountable and that I hold myself accountable. I write now to ask for another chance.”

A man who hung around as a player above and beyond his actual shelf life on behalf of the self-elevating pursuit of Ty Cobb’s career hits record is only slightly more hubristic than the teams enabling him to do it regardless of his actual on-field value. The publicity factor overrode the honest competition factor often enough then and still does, often enough.

Hubris often leads to tunnel vision. It did for Rose. He couldn’t (wouldn’t?) get that he could have retired right after that 1980 Phillies world championship with a no-questions-asked Hall of Fame case even if it meant falling short of Cobb by about 632 hits. There were people (including Rose himself, sometimes) who believed he had some preternatural entitlement to pass Cobb despite his actual playing value.

Rose’s wins above replacement-level [WAR] from his rookie 1963 in Cincinnati to his 1983 World Series ring with Philadelphia: 80.4. Rose’s WAR from 1981-86, when he finally surrendered to Father Time and took himself out of the Reds lineup to stay: -0.8.*

Rose being a Hit King shouldn’t make a single bit of difference to Manfred. Not now, not ever. Rose’s pride in his playing accomplishments shouldn’t make a single bit of difference. Nor, for that matter, should any of MLB’s promotional deals with this or that online legal gambling operation. (Don’t go there, Roseophiles: Gambling isn’t the only legal activity for which your employers can discipline or fire you for indulging on the job. Just ask anyone who ever lost a job for showing up high as a kite, wired up the kazoo, or bombed out of his or her trees.)

There’s only one thing Manfred should consider. It’s called Rule 21(d). The rule against betting on baseball. The rule that makes no distinction between whether you bet on or against your team. The rule that calls for permanent, not “lifetime” banishment. The rule that prompted the Hall of Fame itself—faced with the prospect of Rose’s election despite its mandated punishment—to enact its own rule barring those on baseball’s permanently ineligible list from standing for election on any Hall ballot.

Rose “can continue pleading to Manfred, appealing to public sympathy. But Rose, to borrow a term from horse racing, one of his favorite sports, is getting left at the gate,” Rosenthal writes. “His race for Cooperstown remains permanently stalled, and it’s no one’s fault but his own.”

Accordingly, the commissioner’s sole answer to Rose now and forever should be, “No.” As for any and everyone else, the answer now and forever should be, but probably won’t be, Enough, already.

——————————————————————————————————

* By contrast, Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Cal Ripken, Jr. pulled up on the positive side of the WAR ledger when they broke revered career records. Aaron, the year he broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record: 2.1. Ryan, the year he broke Hall of Famer Walter Johnson’s career strikeout record: 2.6. Ripken, the year he broke Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak: 3.9.

Come to think of it, when Ryan threw a bullet past Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to record lifetime strikeout number 5,000—with then-commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in the ballpark itching to pump his fist celebrating the milestone—he was having an All-Star caliber 5.1 WAR season in the bargain.

Ryan, of course, was an outlier even among outliers, a point forgotten often enough and conveniently enough by the ill-informed who insist on comparing pitchers since to him and wondering why simply no one has his one-of-a-kind endurance. 

Some dream

Ken Griffey, Jr.; Ken Griffey, Sr.

The Griffeys—Hall of Fame outfielder Ken, Jr., respected outfielder Ken, Sr. (right)–after entering through the corn, slip their gloves on for a father-son catch.

Maybe the best part of this year’s Field of Dreams Game was what happened before the game was played. Two generations of outfield-playing Griffeys, Ken Sr. and Hall of Famer Ken Jr., both Reds once upon a time, entered the field through the corn when Junior looked at Senior and said, only partly puckishly, “Hey, Dad, you want to have a catch?”

Dad did. Father and son tossed a ball back and forth in the outfield, joined soon enough by other such parents and children playing catch from center to right field. And, by Reds manager David Bell, himself a third-generation Show player, with Athletic writer C. Trent Rosecrans, a longtime Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Rosecrans’s father once longed for a certain nine-dollar baseball glove growing up and finally got it by saving for it. The glove was a model for Bell’s grandfather, 1950s Reds All-Star outfielder Gus Bell. It went in due course to someone else, Rosecrans writes in a lyrical ballad about his own relationship with his late father, but it found its way back to his parents in due course.

In Dyersville, Iowa before Thursday’s game, Rosecrans writes, “Gus’ grandson looked at me and told me he was thinking of me and my dad. I told him I brought my glove. He asked me, ‘Want to have a catch?'”

That was far better to ponder than such doings as commissioner Rob Manfred present, accounted for, and even signing autographs at the fabled field. Or enough of the Twittersphere demanding to know why Pete Rose wasn’t invited for the pregame hoop-de-do. You’d have had a hard time pondering which would have been more absurd.

It could have been Rose’s presence in the immediate wake of his disgraceful dismissal of a Philadelphia reporter’s question about his ancient dalliance as a thirtysomething with a short-of-legal-age girl. Not to mention his well-deserved banishment from the game and from Hall of Fame candidacy for violating the rule written and imposed in the wake of the 1919 World Series gambling scandal tainting that year’s Reds’ Series triumph.

It could have been Manfred, whose love of the game is questioned often enough and with justification enough. Bleacher Nation on Twitter asked respondents, “Fox shows Rob Manfred signing baseball at the Field of Dreams Game. What is he writing as his personalised message? Wrong answers only.” One wag, mindful that Rose’s autographed baseballs often include small gag apologies such as “I’m sorry I shot J.F.K.,” replied, “I’m sorry I shot R.F.K.”

Manfred seems to have done everything except think about the one thing tied to the game that would have made him seem a baseball statesman. Apparently, it never crossed his mind to declare, once and for all, that the 1919 Reds were (are) legitimate World Series champions who could have and just might have beaten the Black Sox if the latter had played the entire set straight, no chaser.

Assorted Reds and Cubs past and present took in the locale, its history, and the penultimate message of the film lending the event its name. (The Cubs’ Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins threw a ceremonial first pitch to the Reds’ Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.) Particularly Reds star Joey Votto, remembering to Rosecrans how the film bonded him to his father even further.

“I wish he was here,” Votto said. “I wish I could bring him to tonight’s game, we go out on the field and do something that we did from when I was eight or nine years old. It’s really eerie how much the movie allowed me to look back on that experience.”

If you build it, he will come, whispered the Voice of the late Ray Liotta’s disgraced-turned-romanticised Shoeless Joe Jackson to Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella in the 1989 film. They built it. (Actually, Chris Krug, once a Cubs catcher, built the original, with his Athletic Turf outfit.) But it cost a minimum $501 to be there Thursday. Fans in Iowa and some surrounding areas who couldn’t come couldn’t see the game at all, either, thanks to baseball’s arcane and insane broadcast blackout rules. Some dreams.

Putting the Reds into replicas of their 1919 uniforms should have been cathartic considering the 1919 Reds’ Series triumph was tainted too long by the disgrace of the Black Sox bent on throwing the Series for gamblers’ payoffs. Unfortunately, the catharsis wasn’t to be thanks to what the Reds couldn’t do Thursday evening.

Putting the Cubs into replicas of their 1914 hats and late-1920s uniforms, a mismatch not unlike many a Cub loss from 1909 through 2015, said little more than “That’s just so Cubs” before the game began. So, naturally, they went out and beat the Reds, 4-2. Only the Cubs could display a fashion fail and win regardless.

That was a century plus three years ago: Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte hit Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with Game One’s second pitch to let the gamblers know the Series fix was on. This was Thursday, opening the Field of Dreamers Game: Reds starter Nick Lodolo got two quick enough outs before hitting Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom with the fourth pitch on a 1-2 count.

That’d teach him. Neither this year’s Reds nor this year’s Cubs are going to finish the season anyplace near the postseason. But after Wisdom took his base, the Cubs behaved like contenders for a change. Seiya Suzuki whacked an 0-1 pitch to the rear of left field to send Wisdom home, Nico Hoerner singled to more shallow left and took second as the Reds tried futilely to keep Suzuki from scoring, Ian Happ doubled to center to send Hoerner home, and just like that the Cubs had a 3-0 lead that proved just enough to count.

Cubs starter Drew Smyly could have seen and raised when he plunked Reds second baseman Jonathan India on a 2-1 pitch. Instead, he like India shook it off, survived a one-out base hit, then consummated five innings of four-hit, nine-strikeout ball before handing off to his bullpen

“The first couple of innings,” Smyly told reporters after the game, “it took me a little bit to kind of get into, like catch my sights. Just a whole different feel than pitching in your usual major league baseball stadium. But I caught a little groove there at the end and that’s just a lot of fun. It just was so unique and different than what we’re used to.”

These days winning is unique and different for a Cubs team stripped of almost all the last remnants of their 2016 World Series conquest. They may be in third place in the National League Central but they have a 46-65 record after Thursday’s win. The Reds are in the division’s rock bottom at 44-67 with the fans they have left still smarting over last winter’s before-and-after-the-lockout final tear-down.

This game didn’t have a fragment of the pennant race significance last year’s Field of Dreams Game—with the White Sox’s Tim Anderson winning an 8-7 triumph over the Yankees with a bottom of the ninth home run into the corn.

But it couldn’t hurt to watch. Not really. Not even when the Reds got just frisky enough against the Cubs bullpen to open the bottom of the seventh with a double (Jose Barrero), a walk (pinch hitter Jake Fraley), and a two-run double (Mark Reynolds), before Cubs reliever Michael Rucker got the next three Red batters out in order.

Not when the Cubs threatened to actually blow the game wide open in the top of the fourth, with back-to-back inning-opening singles setting first and third up for Nick Madrigal to send Nelson Velazquez home with the fourth Cub run.

Then Willson Contreras—the veteran catcher who may not be a Cub after this off-season, and who had a scare an inning earlier when he dinged his left leg running around second on Wisdom’s base hit, tumbling to the ground as he was thrown out at third—flied into a double play when Reds right fielder Aristides Aquino caught his opposite-field drive and gunned Cubs first baseman P.J. Higgins down as Higgins dove futilely into third.

Meanwhile, somebody had the bright idea to plant a hologram of longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray in the booth for the seventh-inning stretch, from which emanated Caray’s once-familiar bellowing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The crowd in the stands sang along but they all but ignored Harry the Hologram. Except perhaps to shudder.

“Creepy,” tweeted another Athletic writer, Eno Sarris, uttering perhaps the most polite way to put it. “Please don’t make a hologram out of me when I’m dead.” Sarris probably has no worries on that score. But if anyone gets the bright idea to do a Vin Scully hologram for a future Field of Dreams Game (it won’t be played next year thanks to adjacent youth sports complex construction), there’s liable to be a war broken out.

Party like it’s 1919?

1919 Cincinnati Reds

The 1919 Reds’ threads . . .

Remarkable. Today’s Field of Dreams Game will feature the Reds vs. the Cubs, each wearing throwback replica uniforms. The Cubs will mix it up a bit: their jerseys will be replicas of their later 1920s jerseys while their hats will reproduce their 1914 hats. The Reds will wear reproductions, hats and jerseys alike, of the uniforms they wore in 1919.

On the Iowa field across which the fictitious Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by the late Ray Liotta) trod in the film after which the game is named, the true victims of that tainted World Series will wear the uniforms in which they became the game’s most tainted Series winners through absolutely no fault of their own. Cincinnati baseball doesn’t have it tough enough this year?

“Party like it’s 1919!” the Reds tweeted when the threads were revealed. Some party. And they’re going to play the game against a team so legendary as putzes between World Series championships that, whomever chose their threads, they couldn’t even get the eras coordinated. Their 1914 hats above their late-1920s jerseys? Is that so Cubs, or what?

For now let’s forget that both teams elected to, shall we say, rebuild last year. The Cubs pushed the plunger on their 2021 at the trade deadline; the Reds re-pushed one during the off-season before and after the notorious owners’ lockout. Let’s ponder instead whether the geniuses behind today’s Field of Dreams throwback uniforms really comprehend how the 1919 Reds were robbed.

Yes, it does sound strange to think of a World Series winner as a victim. Especially since it managed to go to fifteen postseasons, win ten pennants and five World Series, over the decades to follow without scandal attached. (The 1990 Reds had one in their rear view mirror, namely Pete Rose the previous year, but there was nothing like sweeping an American League behemoth to ease that pain.)

But for a century plus three years, and despite the best efforts of people to whom history has its proper truthful claims, the Reds have lived with the notion that their 1919 edition would have been squashed like house pests if the White Sox had played it straight, no chaser. I wrote of it approaching the centenary season and on the anniversary of Game Eight of that Series: those Reds weren’t the poor souls portrayed too often.

Contradictorily, the Reds approached the 1919 Series as 8-5 favourites to win the set overall but 2-1 underdogs in the first two games at Cincinnati’s Redland Field. While White Sox manager Kid Gleason trumpted loud and long his squad full of battering rams, Reds manager Pat Moran made a prediction that proved only too chilling: the Reds had a shot at winning the set if they could beat White Sox starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte in Game One.

Going into the Series the Reds actually had the better pitching picture: five healthy and solid pitchers who hadn’t been overworked: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Reuther, and Slim Sallee. The White Sox had two great starters (Cicotte and Lefty Williams) but a rookie named Dickey Kerr who was considered promising but a bit of a wild card. Injuries left their Hall of Famer Red Faber out of the Series picture entirely.

There was also the little matter of the Reds actually out-pitching the White Sox on the regular season. The Reds entered the Series with a team 2.23 ERA and 2.81 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate; the White Sox, a team 3.04 ERA and 2.88 FIP. The opposition averaged 2.8 runs against the Reds but 3.8 runs against the White Sox. I still have a tough time with arguments that the White Sox were that much of a 1919 powerhouse.

The 1919 Reds finished the regular season with a .686 winning percentage, the best single-season win percentage in the Show that decade except for the 1912 Red Sox’s .691. The 1919 White Sox finished with a .629 win percentage. Those Reds also went 47-19 in the second half of the season compared to those White Sox going 41-26. On the full season, the Reds went 38-22 against other National League pennant contenders while the White Sox went 35-25 against other American League contenders.

Down the stretch? The Reds faced other NL contenders ten times and won eight; the White Sox faced other AL contenders twelve times and went 6-6. Now you should have a tougher time hearing arguments that those White Sox, who did out-hit the Reds but weren’t that much better at scoring (4.8 runs per game to the Reds’ 4.1), were so formidable as to have the Reds reaching for the tranquilisers.

1919 Cincinnati Reds

. . . and the actual 1919 Reds, whose World Series title remains unfairly tainted.

Cicotte, of course, hit Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with the second pitch of Game One, the tipoff to the gamblers that the fix was on. He would have been suspect even if he hadn’t thrown in with Chick Gandil to seek financial backing for the Series fix from bookie Sport Sullivan and pitcher-turned-gambler Sleepy Bill Burns before bringing in more teammates: Cicotte entered the Series with a barking shoulder and arm thanks to a 306.6 inning regular season.

Two years ago, I wrote elsewhere having as close a look as possible at Jackson’s 1919 Series performance. There remain those who say his .375/.394/.563 Series slash line is evidence that he didn’t take a dive with assorted mates in the Series. It is if you don’t look deeper. If you do look deeper, you’re going to find more question marks than exclamation points.

I looked. And, as I wrote then, Jackson batted six times in that Series with men on base. He had one base hit and reached on an error in those six situations, for a .167 batting average with men on base. By the end of Game Five, the Sox were in a 4-1 Series hole and Jackson factored in the win by scoring the first of three Sox runs after he led off with a base hit.

I continued: “Then the White Sox played three straight elimination games and won the first two. Jackson batted ten times with men on base in those three games, got five hits, and reached on an error once. But in [Game Eight]—the absolute last chance for the White Sox to stay alive—he went 1-for-4 with men on base and drove in two runs with that hit when the game was still far enough beyond reach.”

Nine years ago, former New Jersey prosecutor Bill Lamb published Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation. “That Joe Jackson was a likable fellow and persistent in his claims of innocence does not change the historical record,” he wrote therein.

On the evidence, the call is not a close one . . . As he admitted under oath after first being confronted, Jackson was a knowing, if perhaps unenthusiastic, participant in the plot to fix the 1919 World Series. And damningly, Jackson was just as persistent in his demands to be paid his promised fix money as the Series progressed as he would later be in his disavowals of fix involvement. In the final analysis, Shoeless Joe Jackson, banished from playing the game that he loved while still in the prime of his career, is a sad figure. But hardly an innocent one.

If you seek those for whom the gamblers’ promises and shenanigans meant little to nothing, be reminded if you will that the Reds shook one off near the end of the Series. According to his granddaughter Susan Dellinger, Ph.D., in Red Legs and Black Sox, the Reds’ Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush told Moran he’d heard whisperings that gamblers tried getting to one or more Reds prior to Game Eight. Oops.

No oops, Dellinger exhumed. Moran called a team meeting before the game and the scheduled Reds starting pitcher, Eller, spoke up. A gambler tried to buy him off, but he’d told the gentleman firmly enough to go jump in the lake, or the Ohio River, whichever one was closest. Then, Eller went the distance for the Reds while his mates trashed Williams in the opening rumble of their 10-5 blowout.

“A nation whose citizens empathise with victims real or imagined should hark heartily to the real victims of baseball’s two most notorious gambling scandals,” I wrote in 2018. “The first compromised the integrity of the Reds’ first World Series winners through no fault of their own. The second cost the Reds a franchise icon and manager through all fault of his own.”

Surely I asked too much when I suggested the commissioner’s office might issue at least a proclamation that the 1919 Reds were (and should remain) legitimate World Series champions on the centenary of that event. I’d probably ask too much, too, if I ask for one today, before today’s Reds tangle with today’s Cubs in the Field of Dreams game. (It’s probably asking even more to ask how on earth the game can sell—so help me God—“tickets as low as $501.”)

As the teams walk onto the field across which the fictitious Black Sox were romanticised without warrant in an otherwise charming film, it would be nothing less than their due, for a Reds franchise that’s suffered enough self-inflicted indignity as well as several equally grand triumphs. It won’t help the team’s prospects for the rest of this season, but it might give Cincinnati itself a hard-earned gift.

Are Hal Chase’s statistics “meaningless?”

Hal Chase

Hal Chase—The talent said a great defensive first baseman; the corruption says otherwise. (Sporting News photo.)

If there’s one thing that baseball itself will debunk somewhere, some time, somehow when you least expect it, it’s the idea that you’ve seen everything on or off the field. The moment you satisfy yourself that you have, the game has a way of replying in a split second, “Pants on fire!”

That doesn’t work with great hits or great plays alone. You think you hear it all (over again) whenever Pete Rose’s dwindling supporters burp up yet another mealymouth argument on behalf of putting him into the Hall of Fame despite what Rule 21(d) and the Hall’s own rule about ballot eligibility say? Brace yourselves.

For whatever reason, the subjects of the day a few days ago, on a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) social media group thread, included Hal Chase, whom history still treats as perhaps the poster boy for baseball’s gambling infestation from the late 1800s through the end of the Dead Ball Era.

A thread opener cited Babe Ruth’s once-famous observation, when asked to name those he thought the best at their positions:

[T]he Prince was also a very fine hitter who played his entire career before the ball was juiced up. He couldn’t run, he could fly. And aside from Ty Cobb, he was the best baserunner I ever saw. Fielding, are you kidding? Prince Hal was the greatest fielding first baseman that ever played. He was worth the price of admission just to watch him toe-dance around first base and pick those wild throws out of the dirt.

Funny, but that’s not exactly what Chase’s statistics say. When I pointed that out in the thread, among the replies was, “And that’s what makes the stats on him useless,” which was dubious enough. But then came the real corker: “Just goes to show how much stats are useless.” Not the stats on Chase himself but stats overall. On a SABR group thread, no less.

Just about all accounts of Chase affirm that what Ruth saw in him was there. But add that it tended to happen only when Chase was of a mind to exercise it. You don’t even have to read Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella’s The Black Prince of Baseball to comprehend. The record was long enough in place attesting that, in baseball’s arguable most corrupt era, Chase was its arguable most corrupt figure.

“Chase’s talents,” wrote SABR director of editorial content Jacob Pomrenke in a 2013 essay, “were legendary: He made one-handed catches with astonishing ease, played farther off the bag than anyone had ever seen and charged sacrifice bunts with speed and agility. He also earned the reputation of being the best hit-and-run batter in the American League and frequently ranked among league leaders in batting average, RBI and stolen bases.”

There is, of course, an ocean’s worth of distance between one’s talents and one’s development and exercise of them. In this instance Pomrenke’s reminder is vivid enough:

His career in the major leagues from 1905 to 1919 was checkered with accusations of game-fixing. Two of his managers with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), George Stallings and Frank Chance, accused him of “laying down” on the team. He missed signs frequently (especially on the hit-and-run, causing base runners to be hung out to dry) and dropped balls from his infielders in such a subtle way that it made their throws look like errors. But whenever a stink was raised about his play, club owners Frank Farrell and Big Bill Devery sided with their star first baseman—and even made him the manager once, a decision that satisfied no one. Chase lasted just one full season in the role.

We’re not going to run down the entire record of Chase’s corruption here. We know that the Dead Ball Era could also have been called the Dubious Ball Era considering how many players were involved in gambling-inspired game fixing and how many owners and managers lacked clean hands themselves. (It only begins with remembering New York Giants manager John McGraw owned a piece of a pool hall belonging to and run by eventual 1919 World Series financier Arnold Rothstein.)

We won’t even go into the complete details about how Christy Mathewson—pitching star (and charter Hall of Famer) turned manager of the 1916 Reds, where Chase landed after a two-season term in the upstart/outlaw Federal League—caught Chase dead to right bribing teammates and opponents to help him fix games and suspended him, only for Chase to be let off after Mathewson entered the Army during World War I and was unable to testify at a league hearing.

Let’s hark back to the Ruthian recollection of Chase’s abilities. Far from being meaningless, Chase’s actual major league statistics do portray him the way the stats so often portray outsize talents that don’t turn them into performance at the plate or on the field:

A very fine hitter. Well, Chase won a batting title in 1916 and had four other top-ten finishes. That might speak well of a player with a short career, but Chase played fifteen major league seasons. He finished third in the batting race once, eighth once, and tenth once. For eleven major league seasons (including his Federal League years) he wasn’t a top-ten guy for batting average.

Aside from Ty Cobb, he was the best baserunner. This one’s tricky, because the stats are incomplete on how often Chase was caught stealing while he did steal 363 bases and finished in the lower third of his league’s top ten three times.

He was worth the price of admission just to watch him toe-dance around first base and pick those wild throws out of the dirt. Ruth’s hardly the only Chase contemporary or semi-contemporary to praise Chase as a fielder. But considering the full story, isn’t it possible that Chase flashed that amazing ability selectively, delivering the goods just as Pomrenke observed, when he bloody well felt like it or when it was in his personal as opposed to his teams’ interest?

Think of this, too: Forgot for the moment how dubious “errors” are (think deep and ponder that an “error” is some official scorer’s notion of what should have happened on a play no matter how tough) and consider that Chase led his league eight times (it’s the most black ink on his record), finished second three times, third twice, fourth twice, fifth once, and seventh once. All fifteen major league seasons he played show him with top ten finishes including eight league leaderships in fielding errors.

Christy Mathewson

Christy Mathewson—the charter Hall of Fame pitcher turned manager may have been the only man in baseball willing to challenge and try purging Chase and other gambling-corrupt elements in the game before the Black Sox scandal forced the game’s hand.

The final stats show Chase shaking out as the 124th best first baseman who ever played the major league position. I think the entire body of evidence shows that he didn’t just hurt his teams and his game with his game-fixing actions.

Writing The New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked him number 76, but that was published in 2001. “[W]hat greatness as a baseball player comes down to is, ‘What did he do to help his teams win?’ If you were trying to win a pennant, how badly would you want this guy? Hey, this is not Joe Jackson that we are talking about here. This is not the corrupted. This is the corrupt.”

As James pointed out further, Chase never played on a pennant winner, “and most of the teams he played for declined precipitously when he joined them and improved dramatically after he was gone.” Let’s look at that all the way. Was James right? The following table shows where Chase’s teams finished the year before he joined, right after he joined, and the year after he left:

Joined Before After Left Year After
New York (AL) 1905 2nd 6th (-) 1913 6th (push)
Chicago (AL) 1913 4th 5th (-) 1916 3rd (+)
Cincinnati (NL) 1916 7th 7th (push) 1918 1st (+)
New York (NL) 1919 2nd 2nd (push) 1919 2nd (push)

Two Chase clubs finished farther out of the race after he joined them than they finished the year before. Two finished exactly the same after he joined, but one (the 1918 Reds) won the pennant the year after he left. One (the 1919 Giants) finished the same before, with, and after Chase.

What we have is a baseball talent who elected to undermine his own skills on behalf of the worst elements in baseball during the era that climaxed with the disgraces of the Black Sox scandal. (Chase had no part in the 1919 World Series fix attempt himself, but it’s on the record that he made $40,000 betting against the White Sox.) He was avariciously corrupt enough to undermine his own abilities and thus his own final statistics.

You can run down baseball history and find scores of players who had all the talent but none of the final results that equaled the talent. Many were undermined by injuries, many squandered or eroded their talents by themselves. For every truly talented player who worked concurrently on the team-first ethic, there’s another who placed himself well beyond the team need.

Chase was a team player in the sense that he enlisted teammates and even opponents to be part of a game-tanking for profit fraternity whose purpose was to continue undermining the very essence of honest competition for his and their own profit.

Ruth and other contemporaries praising Chase’s skills so extravagantly begs the question of just how far they were willing to look the other way. How far were they willing to ignore the dark side leaving Chase with a statistical record on both sides of the ball that’s nowhere near what you expect or hope of a ballplayer that gifted who exercises and advances his talent.

You’d be as hard pressed to find a player as simultaneously gifted and corrupt as Chase as you’d be to understand what about him (other than equally corrupt or corrupted officials) enabled him to skate on numerous attempts to run him out of the game. Except perhaps his personal popularity.

Rose’s gambling issues traced back at least to the mid-1970s. But as John Helyar wrote, in The Lords of the Realm, “baseball let him get away with it. GMs wouldn’t mess with a gold-plated gate attraction. Writers had no need to expose the best quote in the business. And baseball’s security director then, Henry Fitzgibbon, limited himself to Dutch-uncle talks with Rose.”

Only when it became too flagrant to dismiss did baseball finally take steps forward. But in Peter Ueberroth’s final days as commissioner he called Rose in, listened to Rose’s flat denials, then told a reporter, “There’s nothing ominous, and there won’t be any follow-through.” Not so fast, we came to learn the hard way soon enough.

Chase was insulated similarly long enough. He was popular, according to most accounts from his time; in fact, he was the first homegrown star of the Yankee franchise. (They were known as the Highlanders when he came up; the name changed in 1913.) A game that deep in gambling corruption wasn’t that anxious to make an example of Chase, no matter how earnest the equally popular Mathewson was—and he might have been the only man in baseball willing to stand up to the gambling cancer—in trying to purge him and similar elements.

Only in 1919 as a Giant did Chase’s major league career come to a halt. Technically, he suffered an injured wrist, but even McGraw couldn’t look the other way anymore when he’s said to have caught Chase and third baseman Heinie Zimmerman trying to bribe teammates to tank a few games.

The following spring, Chase was home on the west coast playing semipro ball when his old Reds teammate Lee Magee blew the whistle: Magee and Chase conspired to throw games in 1918. Chase was also caught trying to bribe players in the Pacific Coast League in 1920. The only thing knocking those out of the headlines was the slowly revealing scandal of the 1919 World Series.

The PCL banned Chase for life. (Chase came to the Highlanders/Yankees attention originally when he starred for the PCL’s Los Angeles Angels.) Incoming baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis didn’t ban Chase formally from the rest of organised ball, but the hammer upon the Black Sox plus Chase’s age (37), injuries, and flagrant corruption meant he wasn’t going to be seen in the majors again.

Chase didn’t inaugurate baseball’s gambling corruption. That was established before he emerged as a major league first baseman. He merely found himself at home on the corrupt side. His major league statistics aren’t meaningless. They’re the outcome for a genuinely talented player who embraced instead of rejecting the game’s pre-1920 corruption.

Where Votto sits

Joey Votto

Father Time may have something to say about Joey Votto’s major league days soon enough. But Grandfather All-Time has wonderful things to say about Votto’s career as a Red.

Earlier this month, Cincinnati magazine published an audacious looking article proclaiming Joey Votto the greatest Red of all time. The hype of that headline alone was probably enough to bring Votto’s critics to a boil, and that was before such social media cracks as:

Seriously?

LMAO!!!!!!!!!!!

In your Dreams!!

Frank Robinson Pete Rose Johnny Bench Joe Morgan Concepcion just to name a few not even mention the pitcher.

They were All Much Better ballplayers and Definitely More Valuable to Their team! I might take Tony Perez at first before Votto!

Way too many crack smokers out there.

Against my better judgment, I responded to that next-to-last one first, reminding the entrant it wasn’t Votto’s fault that he didn’t (and doesn’t) have the caliber of teammates Perez had. That was after mentioning that Votto’s 63.7 wins above replacement-level (WAR) as a Red are 18.1 higher than Perez’s.

The article’s author, Chad Dotson, mentioned that since Votto’s Show premiere in 2007 only two players have more WAR than Votto: Mike Trout, and Robinson Canó. (Canó may or may not be compromised by two suspensions for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, of course.) When you’re third in the WAR race since 2007 you’ve got a powerful case as one of your time’s genuine greats.

Votto has been an on-base machine for the most part; his seven league OBP titles are matched only by Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Ted Williams, plus should-be Hall of Famer Barry Bonds. Votto’s also done something only Hornsby, Williams, and Hall of Famer Wade Boggs have done: win four straight OBP titles.

Which doesn’t impress the Votto critics—including his former general manager Walt Jocketty—who think he walks too much and passes by too many chances to put a ball in play, including (as Dotson observed) taking pokes at pitches out of the strike zone. Oh. The hor-ror. Taking pitches out of the strike zone. Didn’t they used to call that a great batting eye?

“[J]ust on the surface, it’s clear that there is more to Votto than standing in the batter’s box, bat on shoulder, waiting for ball four,” Dotson wrote. “After all, the guy has led the league in slugging percentage, doubles, and OPS and has pounded 24 or more homers in nine different seasons . . . He’s a well-rounded player who has been one of the game’s best for a long, long time.

There’s more to Votto than just those league leaderships and his career average 28 home runs per 162 games, too. Wait until you see Votto measured by way of my Real Batting Average metric. The Votto critics will discover that, among the top six WARriors as Reds, Votto looks a lot better. Not that they’ll pay attention.

One more time: Real Batting Average (RBA) does what the traditional batting average fails to do to the point of it being a fraudulent statistic. The oldest fart among baseball’s statistic traditionalists should be made to answer why we should continue living by a stat that a) treats all your hits equally and b) determines its champion by a minimum number of plate appearances even though it goes no further than dividing all hits regardless of value by official at-bats alone.

RBA accounts for just about everything a man does at the plate and uses the sum of the following parts:

Total bases (TB), which treats your hits with the unequality they deserve. (If you still think a single’s equal to a double’s equal to a triple’s equal to a home run, get thee back to sixth grade math and that may be giving you too much credit.)

Walks (BB). The only thing insulting about a walk should be that you read the strike zone better than anyone else in the park. If that’s a crime, Votto should be only too happy to plead guilty and serve sentence—namely, a trip to first base. The last I looked, one of your most valuable assets in a batting inning is baserunners.

Intentional walks (IBB). You deserve to be credited separately for the other guys preferring—for whatever reason, whether it’s your formidable swinging or the lesser man behind you they’d prefer as the easier out—that you take your base instead of their pitchers’ heads off.

Sacrifice flies (SF). Unlike the sacrifice bunt—in which you’re giving up a precious out to work with on purpose, on behalf of an advance that gives you team a better scoring chance after your bunt than before it in only one of six known “sacrifice bunt” situations—you’re not trying deliberately to make an out here. You didn’t check in at the plate thinking boy, I’m gonna hit that slop all the way for . . . an out, but your fly out brought him home. And you should damn well get some credit for it.

Hit by pitches (HBP). Their pitcher puts you on first the hard way? Let it be to your credit and on his head. You didn’t ask to get drilled, but—assuming you didn’t start a bench-clearing brawl over it and get thrown out of the game—there you are on first base. You just gave your team that much more shot at, you know, scoring.

We take the sum of all the foregoing and divide that sum by total plate appearances to get your RBA. And this is Votto as a Red according to RBA, and compared to the five other franchise WAR leaders (none of whom happens to be Tony Perez):

Player (as a Red) PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Frank Robinson 6410 3063 698 129 53 118 .634
Joey Votto 8241 3523 1309 147 48 69 .618
Joe Morgan 4973 1885 881 39 52 22 .579
Johnny Bench 8674 3644 891 135 90 19 .551
Barry Larkin 9057 3527 939 66 67 55 .514
Pete Rose 15,890 5752 1210 167 79 107 .460

Think about that. RBA places Votto as the number two Red in the history of the franchise and shows him as one of only two players among the franchise WAR leaders with a .600+ RBA in in Cincinnati uniform. The only thing missing on his resume is beyond his control. It isn’t Votto’s fault the Reds have never reached, never mind won a World Series with him.

The only alarm that ought to be raised over Votto now is whether age (he’s 38) is overtaking him for keeps at long enough last. (His .407 RBA for 2022 as of this morning is 211 points below his career mark.)

The Reds didn’t exactly look like the Dreads hosting the Cubs at Great American Ballpark Thursday afternoon. Not when they beat the Cubs 20-5 with a twenty-hit battering after the Cubs held a 3-0 lead following an inning and a half. Not with a two-run second, an eight-run third, a single-run fifth, a two-run sixth and seventh, and a five-run eighth.

Votto had only a small hand in the Reds’ destruction, scoring on a two-run single in that third. He walked twice, struck out once otherwise. But if he’s always been the kind of player who cares about improving his craft, he’s also been one of those men who couldn’t care less about his own numbers so long as his team wins.

The wins these days are about as easy to come by for the Reds as summoning up his longtime brio has been for Votto this year. About the only thing remaining intact from his younger years is Votto’s continuing passion for the game.

Remember: This is the guy who got thrown out of a 2021 game early, arguing a check swing call against him, then learned a young fan in San Diego at her first live major league game was disappointed at not being able to see him, her favourite player—and sent her a ball he signed that also said, “I am sorry I didn’t play the entire game.”

The spirit remains willing even if the reflexes are no longer fresh and the swing is no longer swift. Even if he admits to being embarrassed by the Dreads’ 14-30 season’s record thus far. Father Time may be starting to tell him that his major league days might be numbered at long enough last. Grandfather All-Time says Votto may not be the greatest ever to wear a Reds uniform but he’s at least the number two man at the plate in their long, long, storied, long history.

You tell me who needs to retire the crack pipe now.