The Sixty Special

Aaron Judge

“Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” So hollered announcer John Sterling as Aaron Judge hit number 60 Tuesday night.

If nothing else, it might have been the only time a solo home run that started a ninth-inning comeback win could possibly upstage the grand slam that finished it. That’s what happens when your teammate’s chase of baseball history precedes you.

On any other night, Yankee designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton’s ultimate grand slam, off Pirates reliever Wil Crowe, would have put a vise grip on the headlines. Even on a night the crosstown Mets came from behind against the Brewers in Milwaukee to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish on a Francisco Lindor grand slam in the seventh.

Stanton’s launch suffers a fate almost worse than that suffered by Crowe leading the inning off, when he fed Aaron Judge a 3-1 sinker that didn’t quite sink and was enough to send three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers. “Slide over, Babe, you’ve got some company!” Yankee announcer John Sterling hollered as Judge rounded second.

Cadillac once called a variant of its top-of-the-top-of-the-line Fleetwood model the Sixty Special. The marque’s Fleetwood line is long gone, of course. But what Judge did Tuesday night made it resemble a Trabant.

Not just because the Yankees went from there to win without the Pirates recording a single out. Not just because Anthony Rizzo followed Judge by reaching for a down and away changeup and doubling to center. Not just because Gleyber Torres walked on five pitches to follow. Not just because Josh Donaldson singled to right to load the pads. And, not just because Stanton turned on a 2-2 changeup and drilled it to roughly the same real estate as Judge’s milestone, if not quite as far back.

From the moment it appeared Judge really would chase the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris for the American League’s single-season home run championship at minimum, the old 154-vs.-162 game shibboleth instigated by then-commissioner Ford Frick’s capricious conflict of interest (he was, of course, a Ruth ghostwriter once upon a time) was revived a little too often by the idiot brigades of today’s social media swamp.

With Maris’s sons Roger, Jr. and Kevin among the Yankee Stadium crowd, Judge connected to finish a night on which it looked as though he might go hitless. He’d grounded out twice, struck out once, and walked once, before he launched the milestone that began the overthrow of an unlikely four-run Pirate lead. He did it in the Yankees’ 147th game, seven sooner than Ruth in 1927 and twelve sooner than Maris in 1961.

His chances of going past Ruth and Maris in the Yankees’ Sixty Special Club are overwhelming. He may or may not get to the Seventy Society populated by two men, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. But would you really bet heavily against a man who’s hit more into the ether since the All-Star break than any individual on four known teams (the Athletics, the Pirates, the Giants, the Nationals) has hit all season?

Now that Judge has met and stands on the threshold of passing Ruth, and is likely to meet and pass Maris posthaste from there, Judge may also have wrapped up the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. May.

Shohei Ohtani remains in the conversation, and the Angels’ two-way unicorn won’t go gently into the proverbial good gray night no matter how far out of contention the badly misadministered Angels are. It might not be out of bounds to ponder whether it ends up with Judge and Ohtani sharing the award. May.

It isn’t always the rule that a league MVP should play on a postseason contender. It isn’t always the rule that he shouldn’t, either. But pursuing history has its call upon MVP voters, too. Ohtani’s already made his history, with his Rookie of the Year 2018 and his MVP 2021; anything else he does merely augments it, unless he becomes crazy enough to bust a single-season home run record while winning a Cy Young Award.

Judge is doing his level best not to think about things such as that, or about things such as the ginormous free agency payday into which he’s swinging himself when the Yankee season finally ends, whenever that may be. It’s about as simple as having to face far more and far different pitching with near-guaranteed freshness every day than Ruth and Maris had to face in the conditions of their time.

“I don’t think about the numbers,” Judge told reporters postgame. “We talk about Ruth and Maris and Mantle and all these Yankee greats, you never imagine as a kid getting mentioned with them. It’s an incredible honor and something I don’t take lightly at all. But we’re not done. We’ve still got a couple of games left in this season, and hopefully more wins come with it.”

His Yankee teammates are another proposition. “Having a front seat from the on-deck circle for most of this,” says Rizzo, “has been amazing.

“He hit 60 tonight and it’s like nothing happened,” Stanton said. “He’s got more work to do, and that’s the mindset. This is just fun to be a part of.”

“The craziest thing,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole, “is that he’s gonna hit so many more. If we play baseball another six weeks, through the postseason, he’s gonna hit like 12, 13 more home runs. He’s just getting started.”

“I want him to hit a home run in every at-bat,” said catcher Kyle Higashioka, “and I think that’s the same sentiment amongst everybody else in this clubhouse, too. As good as he’s playing on the field, he’s the best teammate you could ever imagine. So there’s nobody in here who doesn’t wish for the absolute best for him.”

Judge had to be all but forced out of the dugout for a quick curtain call that amounted to nothing much more than a small wave. He tried to wave it off as nothing much and somewhat out of proportion. “I really didn’t want to do it,” he said. “Especially, we’re losing. It’s a solo shot.”

He had to know he wasn’t going to get away with that. With or without the overthrow he ignited. “I’m trying to enjoy it all, soak it all in,” he said, “but I know I still have a job to do out on the field every single day and I just have to keep my head down, keep preparing and stay mentally focused.”

Maybe forget 60. Or 61. Maybe start thinking about a Seventy Special. Even lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee haters are enjoying this. Lifelong, hard credentialed, card-carrying Yankee fans, of course, may petition to have the stadium’s Judge’s Chambers renamed the Supreme Court.

He can drive 55

Aaron Judge

Judge runs it out after driving 55 at Twins rookie Louie Varland’s expense Wednesday.

If you consider a sixty home run season the Promised Land for a power hitter, Aaron Judge awoke Thursday morning five bombs from crossing the Jordan River. And yet . . . and yet . . . the philistine contingencies continue asking the wrong questions about whether Judge will have done it, ahem, “legitimately.”

The Leaning Tower of 161st Street parked number 55—a fourth inning, leadoff blast off Twins starter Louie Varland—in the first game of a Yankee doubleheader sweep of the Twins Wednesday. Among the first notes on the blast was that it gave Judge two more homers after 136 games than Roger Maris in 1961.

If that’s among the only thing that impresses you about what Judge is trying to accomplish, so be it. If it’s second to whether and if Judge hits 60 or more by game 154, since Babe Ruth did that in 1927, so be it, too. The length of season factor was settled long enough ago. It remains far less relevant than other things.

Some of those things have been broken down and analysed splendidly by an writer, Mike Petriello. Like me, Petriello has the audacity to look at the deepest data available, refusing to accept that the thinking person’s sport, which is also the deepest sport, should be allergic to thinking and depth.

Petriello goes above and beyond the primary truth that still discomfits enough even today,  Ruth never having faced the truly best available competition in official league play, through no fault of his own and all fault of (ahem) Organised Baseball of the era. (The biracial Judge would have been persona non grata in Ruth’s game.) But Petriello makes the parallel note that in 1927 only five players were born outside the United States, while 2022 includes 418 such players.

The Babe also didn’t face a third of the volume of pitchers Judge has faced, fresh or otherwise. In 1927, Ruth faced 67 pitchers all season long; Maris in 1961 faced 101. Judge faced 224 entering Wednesday and 232 by the time the twin bill ended. The rookie Varland was 225. The poor guy had the honour of being welcomed rather rudely to the majors by a seven-year veteran advancing upon history with a roundhouse punch into the left field seats.

“With series remaining against two teams he’s not seen yet (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and the usual September roster shenanigans,” Petriello writes, “Judge might get up to around 240 or so pitchers faced, all with their own arm slots, repertoires and approaches. It will be nearly four times what Ruth saw, and more than twice what Maris saw.” Variety is the life of spice, and a challenge to the bombardier.

In Ruth’s day, too, the idea of relief pitching as we came to know it barely took hold, if at all, above and beyond the Washington Senators’ Firpo Marberry and maybe one or two more. That was then: most relievers not named Marberry were brought in only upon injury or disaster. (Sometimes both.) This is now: relief pitching is a long-sanctioned, time-enough-honoured element in baseball’s art and craft.

Ruth got to enjoy a privilege about which Judge can only fantasise now, seeing a pitcher for a third or even fourth time in a game. Petrillo then sees and raises himself: Ruth got to face a pitcher for a third time or more 35 percent of the time in 1927; Maris, 30 percent in 1961. Judge? Seventeen percent.

Even Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds among the 60+ home run club got to face pitchers a third time around more often, from Sosa’s 20 percent in 2001 to his (1998), Bonds (2001), and McGwire’s (1998) 22 percent, then to McGwire’s and Sosa’s 24 percent (1999).

It gets a little more bizarre, Petriello notes: Judge has seen only one starter a fourth time around this year, twice—and both times, it was Max Scherzer. Judge does have one bomb off Scherzer, a third-inning blast on 22 August, but he flied out the third time he faced Scherzer that day. Almost a month earlier, Judge faced Scherzer in a 6-3 Yankee loss, and Max the Knife struck him out thrice after surrendering a first inning fly out.

Petriello’s deep dive also exhumed that Ruth in 1927 hit nine home runs off relievers he got to see a second time in a game, and over half his home runs came at the expense of either starters he saw a third time or more or relievers he saw a second time around or more. Judge should be so lucky: it’s only happened to him 19 percent of the time this year.

“If [Judge] saw starters being used the same way the Babe did,” Petriello writes dryly, “he might be looking at an 80-homer season at this point.” The flip side to the coin is that if Ruth saw the volume of quality pitching Judge sees, he might have been lucky to break his own original record of 29 in 1919. (For all you 154-game season chauvinists, 1919 was a 140-game season. Shall we declare Ruth the original “illegitimate” record-breaker because he had a 154-game season to hit 54 for a new record in 1920?)

Judge has 25 games to go to pass Ruth, Maris, and the rest. His season’s average is one bomb every 2.5 games. If he stays on the pace, he might hit 65. It would be one short of Sosa’s best, five short of McGwire’s, eight shy of Bonds, and all alone atop Yankee history. For now, the Leaning Tower of 161st Street is the most prolific single-season righthanded home run hitter ever to wear the Yankee pinstripes.

“The baseball world has changed considerably since 2001, or 1961, or 1927,” Petriello writes, blissfully unconcerned for the philistine contingency which persists in thinking that the game had no business changing at all, never mind that some changes over all those decades have been nothing but beneficial to baseball’s health while others amount to calling repairmen to fix what wasn’t actually broken.

Almost all of it has changed in a way to make hitting more difficult, for any number of reasons, most revolving around velocity, pitch movement, and the endless streams of high-octane arms who don’t worry about pacing themselves to go deep into games. This, above all else, is why the strikeout rate keeps going up; the next time a batter from a half-century ago complains about today’s hitters, remember that their task is immeasurably more difficult than his was. (Emphasis added.)

Remember, too, that Judge is playing in a season in which nobody’s still really dead certain whether he’ll get to swing on a rabbit ball or a miniature medicine ball. But it almost doesn’t matter. (Almost.) You can throw Judge a ball of seaweed, and he can hit it into the upper deck.

But he might hit more than ten more homers, too. Continuing to put the lie to manager Trey Wilson (in Bull Durham) telling his stumbling team, “This—is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” If it was that simple, Judge’s height would be the only large thing about him.

“I can’t drive 55,” rocker Sammy Hagar once sang for a top-thirty hit. Judge can drive 55, and maybe a lot more before the regular season ends. There won’t be a traffic cop or highway patrolman alive who can stop him.

An epic Yankee fall?

Aaron Boone

Aaron Boone—how often does a four-game division lead feel like the next rung down of a collapse?

“If we don’t dig ourselves out,” Yankee manager Aaron Boone told reporters after the Yankees lost to the Rays 2-1 Saturday night, “you’ll have a great story to write.” Sometimes, greatness is in the eye of the beholder. If the beholder is a typical Yankee fan, this kind of greatness is the last thing the Yankees need.

There’s always been a trunk full of cliches about the Yankees. The two most significant have been a) they don’t like to lose; and, b) their fans consider no postseason legitimate unless the Yankees are in it. (The third most significant, at least since a certain man bought the team in 1973: To err is human; to forgive is not Yankee policy.)

Even the terminally optimistic Boone feels the weight. If he’s telling reporters they’ll have a “great” story to write unless the Yankees find a way out of their current spinout, there’s no joy in half of New York. The other half is hanging with the Mets, who may have a mere two-game lead in the National League East but whose fans aren’t exactly ready to call for summary executions despite their team having ended May 10.5 games ahead of their divisional pack.

The Mets’ faithful learned from the crib that there’s no such thing as an entitlement to success. (Quick: Name any Yankee team ever called a miracle team.) The Yankee faithful were spoiled so rotten by their 20th Century success that their descendants still think the World Series trophy is fraudulent unless it has the Yankee name on it.

Maybe the Yankees will dig themselves out of their present funk. But maybe they won’t. They’re 15-16 in the second half so far and went 10-18 in August alone, but they awoke Sunday morning having lost six of nine. Dropping the first pair of a weekend set with the second-place Rays is one thing, but entering that set splitting four with the sad-sack Athletics and two of three to the equally sad-sack Angels is not the look the Yankees wanted going in.

Their toughest opponents the rest of the way will be those same Rays for a three-game set in Yankee Stadium starting 9 September. They return home from Tampa Bay to host the Twins for four, and the Twins are no pushovers, but they’re not exactly up to the Rays’ performance level just yet. They’re also not quite up to the level of the suddenly-amazing Orioles, whom the Yankees host to end September and open October.

The Orioles—who looked as though they’d surrendered their heart and soul when trading Trey Mancini at the trade deadline, which could have threatened their unlikely sightline to the wild card picture. While almost nobody was looking, the Orioles not only finished July with a 16-9 month but they consummated a 17-10 August and opened September with three straight wins—one against the AL Central-leading Guardians and two against the A’s. Once upon a time the victims of a miracle team (in 1969), these Orioles may yet <em>become</em> a miracle team themselves.

They were as deep as 23 games in the AL East hole as of 2 July. They were 35-44. They’ve since gone 36-25. This regular season may yet finish with a debate over which was greater, the Yankees’ collapse from a one-time 15.5 game AL East lead or the Orioles’ resurrection from a 23-game divisional deficit to a postseason berth.

Yankee and other eyes concurrently train upon Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the 60 home run barrier across which two Yankees have gone (Hall of Famer Babe Ruth’s 60 in 1927; Roger Maris’s 61 in ’61) and—after a healthy leadoff belt in the top of the ninth off Rays reliever Jason Adam Saturday night—Judge himself is only eight shy of meeting. Some think Judge is so locked in he may even meet the 70-bomb single-season barrier head-on before the regular season expires. He’d be the first player to reach it without being under suspicion of actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, anyway.

But Yankee cynics make note that, for thirty days including Saturday night, the Yankees’ team slash line of .213/.289/.325 is only that high with Judge, himself the possessor of a .279/.446/.593 slash for the same span. Without him, they’d be .208/.268./.295. Their Lost Decade of 1965-75 looked better than that.

How on earth did the Yankees get here? Easy enough. Hal Steinbrenner isn’t the man his father was, good and bad. The good side: Prince Hal isn’t exactly the type to decide one bad inning is enough to demand heads on plates, and if he fires a manager he wouldn’t have the gall to say, “I didn’t fire him. The players did.” The bad side: He doesn’t like to invest half as much as his father did.

Say what you will about George Steinbrenner, but the man didn’t care how much he had to spend, either on the free agency market or on keeping the farm reasonably fresh. Prince Hal’s running the most profitable franchise in the American League as if they were a minor league outlier or the A’s, whichever comes first. Nobody wants the bad side of The Boss resurrected, no matter how often Yankee fans demand it now. But nobody wants the good side buried interminably, either.

Which means general manager Brian Cashman, the longest-tenured man in his job in baseball, had little choice but to cobble a roster with one proverbial hand tied behind his back. But that acknowledgement goes only so far. Cashman’s eye for diamonds in the rough has failed him long enough. The present Yankee roster makes some rebuilding teams (the Orioles, anyone?) resemble threshing machines.

Which also means Boone—the only man in Yankee history to manage back-to-back 100-game winners in his first two seasons on the bridge—looks a lot larger for his faltering in-game urgency managing and getting less than the best of the men not named Judge or (relief pitcher) Clay Holmes on his roster. So do the three Yankee hitting coaches who can’t seem to shake the non-Judge bats out of what one of them is quoted as calling the wrong case of the “[fornicate]-its.”

The definition to which those coaches hold is translated admirably by strongman designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton: “We’ve just got to give whoever is on the mound a tough at-bat, even if we get out. We’ve just gotta wear ’em down a little bit. Just be a little tougher on them.” The definition to which the Yankee bats have held mostly of late seems to be unintentional surrender.

Yes, the Yankees have been injury-addled. Yes, they’ve been playing a curious chess game with minor leaguers brought up to the club to the point where they had to send two promising pitchers back down because the roster was about as flexible as an iron gate. But the lack of urgency the Yankees seemed to feel when they looked like AL East runaways hasn’t been resolved just yet with the team looking as though they can be overtaken before this is over.

Once upon a time, New York was rocked by a Brooklyn Dodgers team that looked as though it was shooting the lights out in the National League but found itself overtaken into a pennant tie by a New York Giants team that was 13 games out at one point. That tie and subsequent playoff, of course, turned out to be as tainted as the day was long. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!)

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody’s cheated their way back into the AL East race. If the Yankees keep up their current malaise, nobody would have to. Collapsing entirely from a 15.5 game lead would stand very much alone on the roll of Yankee infamy.

The spirit of 74

Aaron Judge

Hitting number 51 against the Angels Tuesday, Aaron Judge may yet break the single-season home run record. May.

We’re well enough past the point where looking at the scores to see how the Yankees are doing has nothing to do with a certain Yankee’s performance. If you turn to see the latest in any Yankee game without checking first on Aaron Judge’s in-game doings to that point, you’re going to flunk a polygraph hooked upon that question.

The Leaning Tower of River Avenue (how the mind’s eye produces fantasies of him squaring off against such lamp post-tall pitchers as Hall of Famer Randy Johnson and the late J.R. Richard) is having his best unimpeded (yet) season since his Rookie of the Year campaign five years ago. But nobody cares a whit about anything other than what he hits over the fence.

This year, the baseballs may still come having been consciously deadened but Judge couldn’t care less. He’s sent 51 of the miniature medicine balls into the seats through this writing. Those who care will note that he did that fourteen days before Babe Ruth reached 51 in 1927 and four days after Roger Maris reached it in 1961.

That’s talking purely about single-season home run record held by Yankees, about which there was once and still often enough not always cheerful insanity. Yankee chauvinists insist that and just about any other slugging record lack legitimacy unless set or held by Yankee batters. Which is almost (underline, please) as obnoxious as their (frequent enough) insistence that the postseason is illegitimate without a Yankee team in it.

Judge is one of the most likeable players on a team with which baseball fans not roosted in New York (and enough who are) have had, shall we say, a mixed relationship. The Yankees’ history is respected and even admired, however grudgingly, but the team is not always beloved. What’s true of several other teams is true exponentially about them.

But now and then even such parochial rooting or anti-rooting steps to one side when an individual Yankee threatens to launch himself into the precincts of the gods. That polygraph’s needles will jump right off the machine and onto the floor the moment you say that you don’t care if Judge hits a hundred home runs by the time this regular season ends just as long as the Yankees don’t win.

He’s not going to hit a hundred, of course. Seventy isn’t an unrealistic expectation at his pace. Seventy-four, which is what Judge would need to become the undisputed all-time single-season home run champion, may not be as much of a pipe dream as you think.

Judge doesn’t play under the witless lash of a commissioner who insisted without true authority to do so that the record would be illegitimate if broken after 154 games. He does play under the eye of a considerable crowd praying he gets to 74, the better to knock a suspect player out of the way. The incumbent record holder was a) not a Yankee and b) suspected of using actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances to get there.

And that record holder took the record from another who was not a Yankee and suspected of actual or alleged PEDs. The point that they were quite the outliers, in a generation where numerous players using or suspected of using such substances actually saw statistical dips instead of spikes (and, yes, you can look it up), usually escapes the usually self-appointed arbiters of sports morality.

It won’t condone those users or elevate those accusers if and when Judge parks number 74. But it would be nice to remember that baseball government did nothing about the plague until that government bumped into the government government. And the government government seemed far more interested in leading players on the perp walk than they were in sending swell if hypocritical messages to kids.

Without all that, we might be allowed to watch the Judge pursuit with more joy. Without all that, we might have nothing more grave to consider than this: If Judge can send baseballs that might as well be miniature medicine balls into earth orbit, what incentive does the sport’s administration have to iron up, remove its blinders, and insist upon a uniformly made baseball that allows both pitchers and hitters a fair shake?

The only blemish I can think of that attaches to Judge was his extremely rare attack of hubris in trolling Red Sox fans after the Yankees tied their 2018 American League division series, blasting Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” (a staple in Yankee Stadium after Yankee wins) from his boom box as he departed Fenway Park.

That’d teach him. In New York, the Red Sox destroyed the Yankees in the third division series game (16-4) and hung in despite a Craig Kimbrel meltdown in the bottom of the ninth to take it with a 4-3 Game Four win. Yankee fans were grateful that, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, none of those Red Sox (who went on to win the World Series) trolled them with boom boxes blasting the Standells’s garage band classic “Dirty Water.” (Boston, you’re my home . . .)

If that’s the only crime against common sense Judge has committed in his career, it’s not exactly a rap sheet on which to hang a man. Facing his first free agency this coming off-season, Judge stands to reap a payday equal to the value of some companies and a few tiny nations. He couldn’t have made a more powerful case in his dreams.

But this is the same player who was made aware of a Blue Jays fan handing one of his mammoth-blasted balls to another Rogers Centre fan who’d made no secret of Judge being his baseball idol and hoping to have a ball hit by Judge himself.

“That’s what’s special about this game, man,” he told reporters, after learning video of the moment went viral. “It doesn’t matter what jersey you wear, everybody is fans, everybody appreciates this game. That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to check out that video. That’s special.”

He did more than check the video out. The following say, before the game, he made a point of meeting the boy and his family and the fan who handed the ball to the boy, signing the home run ball for him and giving him the batting gloves he wore while hitting it.

Judge still resembles an eager nine-year-old boy himself when he flashes his familiar snaggle-toothed grin. But in the batter’s box he resembles the Jolly Green Giant when he pumps his bat and turns a pitcher’s mistake into another long bomb. Where he does it from hardly matters. His 199 OPS+ through this writing indicates he could clear several zip codes from the Grand Canyon or the last known surviving telephone booth.

If the Leaning Tower of River Avenue does it 23 more times between this writing and the regular season’s conclusion, there shouldn’t be a single baseball fan (even of the Yankee-hating variety) declining to stand up and cheer. If he doesn’t make it, stand up and cheer, anyway. Between his pursuit of 74 and Albert Pujols’s renaissance pursuit of career number 700, they’ve made the home run fun again.

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.