If cheaters don’t belong in Cooperstown . . .

Babe Ruth

“That’s a plug! This bat’s corked!”—Dave Henderson, handling one of Babe Ruth’s bats in a traveling exhibit. Soooooo . . . in the interest of keeping “cheaters” out of the Hall of Fame, do we purge the Sultan of Swat, hmmmm?

The evidence means nothing. There’s still a crowd fuming that that “cheater” David Ortiz was elected to the Hall of Fame on Tursday. Enough of that crowd fumes concurrently that “cheaters” have no place in the Hall of Fame.

Enough of them probably don’t remember, if they ever knew, sportswriting legend Heywood Broun pronouncing in 1923, in the New York World, “The tradition of professional baseball always has been agreeably free of chivalry. The rule is, ‘Do anything you can get away with’.”

Let’s take them up on the idea. Let’s start removing cheaters and their actual or alleged abetters from the Hall of Fame. Since I don’t want to be accused of even the thinnest strain of bias, I’m going to run down the list of defendants in alphabetical order.

Is everybody ready? Let’s play ball.

Richie Ashburn—The Shibe Park grounds crew did Ashburn a favour in the 1950s: sculpting the third base foul line into a kind of ridge to prevent Ashburn’s deft rolling bunts up that line from rolling over it into foul territory. Now, we don’t know if this was Ashburn’s idea or theirs, but . . .

Mr. Putt Putt’s out of the Hall of Fame on cheating grounds. If he didn’t suggest it, we’ll call this the Ashburn Rule: guilt by association, whether allowing it or enabling it in fact or by attempt. Just the way so many PED puffers snort often enough that those who played in the PED era are automatically guilty just for playing in it, regardless of whether they actually indulged.

Leo Durocher—Masterminded the from-the-center-field-clubhouse, hand-held telescopic sign-stealing scheme that helped his New York Giants come from thirteen games down to forcing a pennant playoff they won at home. (Fair disclosure: When Durocher asked his players who wanted the pilfered intelligence, Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays demurred.)

The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Therefore, loose the Lip from the Hall of Fame.

Bob Feller—The pitching great brought a little souvenir home from World War II: a hand-held spyglass. His 1948 Indians took it into the scoreboard to steal signs down the stretch and may have been stealing signs that way during the World Series they won against the Boston Braves. (First baseman Eddie Robinson blew the whistle in his memoir, Lucky Me.)

So wouldn’t you now agree? Rapid Robert should be rousted out of the Hall rapidly for providing the inappropriate apparatus.

Whitey Ford—In the later years of his career, and by his own subsequent admissions, the brainy Yankee lefthander became a sort-of Rube Goldberg of pitching subterfuge: mud balls (“Ford could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out, and sing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’,” Jim Bouton wrote of it in Ball Four), ring balls (“It was like I had my own tool bench out there,” Ford once said of the wedding ring he used to scrape balls), buckle balls. (When the ring was caught, Ford had catcher Elston Howard scrape balls on his shin guard buckles before returning them to Ford. “The buckle ball,” Bouton wrote, “sang two arias from Aida‘.”)

The Chairman of the Board is hereby deposed. From Cooperstown, at least.

Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg—Their 1940 Tigers cheated their way to a pennant, using the scope from pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle to steal signs from the outfield seats and relay them to hitters. Greenberg eventually admitted the scheme in his memoir. “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what was coming,” he once said.

Hammer down upon your heads, Mechanical Man and Hammerin’ Hank.

Rogers Hornsby—In 1962, when there seemed a move from baseball government to crack down on sign stealing, Hornsby published an article in True defending sign-stealing through scoreboards . . . which opened by denouncing then-White Sox relief pitcher Al Worthington after Worthington quit the team rather than abide by its scoreboard sign-stealing scheme.

“In my book,” wrote Hornsby, “he was a baseball misfit—he didn’t like cheating . . . I’ve been in pro baseball since 1914 and I’ve cheated or watched someone on my team cheat. You’ve got to cheat.” Hit the road, Rajah.

Connie Mack—Mack was on the 1910-1914 Philadelphia Athletics bridge while they had a novel for the times sign-stealing plot: someone standing atop a tall building beyond the ballpark fences wielding a telescope to steal signs and turning a flag one way or the other depending on the pitch to be signaled to the batter.

Nobody knows for dead last certain whether the Tall Tactician sanctioned the signs. Nor can it be proven (I think) that that had as much of a hand as pure economics in Mack’s first notorious fire sale. But . . . the Ashburn Rule is hereby invoked, and Mr. McGillicuddy shall henceforth be disappeared.

Gaylord Perry

“I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin’ around.”—Gaylord Perry.

Gaylord (It’s a Hard Slider) Perry—Even now you don’t even have to run down his record. Even if he was frisked like a street hustler but only once or twice arraigned. Just say the old gunkballer’s  name. Visions of sugar-plum K-Y jelly dance in and out of your head. Not to mention that little routine of brushing the bill of his cap, the sides of (what remained of) his hair, maybe a couple of taps on the front of his jersey, just to make batters think he was lubing up.

That ain’t peanuts, Mr. Peanut Farmer. Even if all you ever did was want them to think you had something naughty on the ball (and I can be convinced Perry’s real secret was psychological warfare), that’s a sub-clause Ashburn Rule purge for you. That’s the way the witch hunt hunts.

Frank Robinson—A member of the 1961 pennant-winning Reds whose erstwhile pitcher Jay Hook helped blow the whistle, sort of, on their ’61 scoreboard-based sign stealings during the same spring Hornsby flapped his flippers in defense of cheating. We don’t know if Robinson took stolen signs, but under the Ashburn Rule, the Judge is hereby judged unworthy of  Cooperstown. (Since Robinson is thought to be one of the creators of baseball’s clubhouse kangaroo courts, this seems even more appropriate, no?)

Babe Ruth—During 1983, the Louisville Slugger people sent a traveling exhibit of historic bats around major league clubhouses. Dave Henderson, then with the Mariners, spotted one of Ruth’s bats and saw something odd but familiar at the end of the barrel: the round end didn’t quite match the barrel’s wood. “That’s a plug!” Henderson hollered.  “This bat’s corked!” (The Babe was also once caught using a trick bat—four different wood pieces glued together—prompting American League president Ban Johnson to ban “trick bats” from game usage.)

As I see it, nothing could be more typical of Ruth than to use a corked bat if he could get by with it. Ruth tested the limits of the rules constantly; this was what made him who he was. He refused to be ordinary; he refused to accept that the rules applied to him, until it was clear that they did.

Bill James, in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

Sorry, Bambino. You might have been a corker in real life, but in baseball that pulls the cork on your Hall of Fame departure.

Casey Stengel—Watching his Yankee lefthander Eddie Lopat dueling Brooklyn Dodgers lefthander Preacher Roe in a World Series game, Stengel marveled: “Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.”

A little of this and a little of that? Swindle? Code for illicit pitches, which both pitchers were suspected of throwing. Suspicion isn’t evidence? We don’t know about Lopat, but when Roe retired he promptly owned up in a magazine article. Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer called Roe the “master of the discreet spitball.”

We’re going after the big fish on this fishing expedition. If we can bar mere suspects using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances from the Hall of Fame, who says we can’t strip a manager admiring a contest between a couple of spitball suspects, either? Oops. The Ol’ Perfesser is stripped of his tenure.

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

Earl Weaver—Once, with his pitcher Ross (Skuzz) Grimsley in a jam, Weaver counseled Grimsley: “If you know how to cheat, now’s the time.” That should be enough to have Weaver—oft ejected by indignant umpires (“That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places, and that was on days I didn’t throw him out,” Steve Palermo once said of him)—ejected from Cooperstown under the Ashburn Rule.

See what I mean? And those are just some of the ones we know.

But what to do with the freshly-purged actual or alleged cheaters, or with those who merely abetted or encouraged? We can’t just pretend their careers didn’t exist. We can’t just pretend they had as much to do with baseball history as I have to do with quantum physics. We’ve hunted down the witches, now which are the stakes on which we burn them?

Let’s re-mount their plaques in another otherwise isolated hamlet somewhere. We’ll nickname it Blooperstown. Ashburn’s plaque will be re-written in baseline chalk. Durocher’s, Feller’s, Gehringer’s, Greenberg’s, Mack’s, and Robinson’s will have little telescopes attached. Ford’s name will be re-written in mud. Hornsby’s will be re-written in Morse code. Perry’s will have a tube of K-Y jelly attached. We’ll re-mount Ruth on a cork board. Sutton’s can include a Black and Decker drill, since he once bragged he was accused so often he should get a Black and Decker commercial out of it. (He got one, too.) We still have to decide on Weaver, though.

We’ll re-inscribe their plaques in gold. Fool’s gold. In honour of the fools who think it’s that simple to consecrate a Hall of Fame filled with nothing but altar boys, boy scouts, choir boys, and monks.

And, we’ll re-mount them in George Frazier Hall, named for the one-time Yankee pitcher who responded to accusations of using foreign substances, with righteous indignation, “I don’t use foreign substances. Everything I use is made in the U.S. of A.”

Universal DH: Enough foot dragging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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