Pete Ward, RIP: The un-cover boy

Pete Ward

Pete Ward hoists the Sports Illustrated cover on which he would have appeared if not for some guy named Muhammad Ali in 1965.

Trivia time: Name the only major league third baseman who ever got knocked out by Muhammad Ali. The answer: Pete Ward. With a real phantom punch.

No, Ward wasn’t foolish enough to step into the ring against Ali. Ward was supposed to be a 1965 cover star when Sports Illustrated planned a cover story on the White Sox’s pennant hopes. Until he wasn’t.

“They just got the pictures there in time to do it,” said Ward—who died at 84 on 16 March—to interviewer Mark Liptak in 2003. “Sports Illustrated did send me some of the covers that were supposed to have me on it though.”

Ali-Liston II put paid to that idea. Ward eventually kept one of the covers’ prints in his office at his post-baseball travel agency, signing another and giving it to the magazine’s vice president for communications, Art Berke.

When a story about Ward’s death was posted to a Facebook baseball group, one commenter made a remark about “nobodies” being hoisted. Well, now. A guy who finishes a tight second to a White Sox teammate in the 1963 American League Rookie of the Year voting is many things. A nobody isn’t one of them.

Ward was a slick third baseman who was actually worth more wins above replacement level than the infielder who bagged the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year award—a kid named Pete Rose. (Ward: 4.1; Rose: 2.4.) If only his teammate Gary Peters hadn’t led the American League with his 2.33 ERA that season.

If it hadn’t been for an April 1965 auto accident that left him with neck and back trouble, Ward might have put up better than a nine-season playing career otherwise. Over his first two full seasons, Ward averaged 33 doubles, five triples, 24 home runs, and a .478 slugging percentage; over his final six: eighteen, two, thirteen, and .364.

The accident that changed the trajectory of Ward’s career happened after the White Sox returned to Chicago following a rainout in Washington. As Ward told Liptak, he managed to score tickets for a Chicago Blackhawks hockey game for himself and pitching teammate Tommy John. It was after the game that the accident occurred:

[A]s we were leaving, I was in the front seat on the right side and Tommy was in the back seat on the left when a car rear-ended us. At the time I didn’t think that much about it, it wasn’t really that hard of a hit but the next day I woke up with a stiff neck and was sore all over. I went to see a doctor and he told me I had a case of whiplash and it bothered me the rest of the year. It just caused a lot of problems for me. Tommy also had neck problems.

As Ward told SI in due course, “I was never comfortable from that point on.” More than his batting numbers bear him out. He’d been worth eighteen defensive runs above his league average in 1964; he remained a plus defender at third in 1965 but he was worth eight such runs above league average for that season. He divided defensive time between the outfield, third base, and first base the rest of his career.

“I preferred third base,” Ward told Liptak, laughing, “because I was a bad outfielder!”

Pete Ward

As a boy, your chronicler usually opened packs to find several Pete Ward baseball cards a year during Ward’s White Sox years; this was Ward’s 1968 card.

Chicagolander though I wasn’t, I’d had a particular affinity for Ward when I was growing up in the 1960s. It seemed that his baseball cards were almost ubiquitous; I could guarantee that out of my first three packs of Topps cards on the year, there’d be at least one and maybe three Ward cards among the bunch.

Ward was an Orioles discovery with a 1962 cup of coffee for Baltimore, before he was traded to the White Sox prior to spring training 1963. Quite a trade. The White Sox sent the Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio and veteran outfielder Al Smith; the Orioles sent Ward, Hall of Fame relief pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, shortstop Ron Hansen (the American League’s 1960 Rookie of the Year), and spare outfielder Dave Nicholson.

In his memoir Safe By a Mile, then-White Sox scout/coach Charlie Metro remembered pushing then-White Sox manager Al Lopez that Ward be included or there’d be no deal:

I insisted on Pete Ward coming over to the White Sox in a deal with Baltimore because I had worked with Pete out in Vancouver. He was a pretty good hitter. He was very aggressive. He loved to play, quite a cocky kid. When the White Sox had a chance to make the trade, I said, ‘Make them throw Pete Ward in the deal. He can play, he can hit.’ Al Lopez said, ‘Well, what kind of fielder is he?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s not too good a fielder, but if you hit him a thousand ground balls at third base, he’ll do pretty fair. But he can hit, and he can drive in runs and has some power. Don’t make the deal unless you get Pete Ward.

Ward’s White Sox life ended when he was dealt to the Yankees in December 1969. Then in the middle of their Lost Decade (1965-75), the Yankees got only a shell of Ward’s former ability and released him in March 1971. But they respected Ward’s baseball mind enough to make him the manager of their Fort Lauderdale (A) farm team; he managed them to the league championship in 1974.

Ward managed two other Yankee farm teams, plus a White Sox farm team, before he left baseball to work for Miller Brewing before he opened his own successful travel agency in the Pacific Northwest, to which his family had originally moved during his childhood. The Montreal native—and son of 1935 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Maroons right wing Jimmy Ward—was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Known as much for a good sense of humour as anything else, Ward proved sanguine about his missed SI cover. “You know,” he said to SI writer Richard Deitsch at the turn of the century, “Ali was on something like forty covers. It would have been nice if he could have let me be on just one.”

God willing, Ward met Ali in the Elysian Fields and said, “You knocked Liston out with your fist, but you knocked me out with a phantom punch!” Ward’s otherwise bereft wife, children, and grandchildren surely settle proudly for knowing Ward was always their cover guy.

Strange brew? Or, Whitey’s great-grandchildren?

Whitey Ford

Could the late Hall of Famer Whitey Ford have been the great-grandfather of today’s scientific pitching brewers?

She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the glue
If you don’t watch out, it’ll stick to you–to you
What kind of fool are you?
Strange brew, kill what’s inside of you.
–Cream, in 1967,
the year before the Year of the Pitcher.

Oh. The horror. Pitchers looking for every last edge they can find—by hook, crook, and anything else they can get onto their hands and onto their pitches. What is this game coming to? It’s coming to a head that looks at once like a throwback and a future shock, that’s what.

Before the doctored ball was outlawed officially in 1920, pitchers did whatever they could think of to baseballs short of injecting explosives. Come to think of it, you could think of a few comedians who would have loaded a ball to go boom! on contact. Not the kind of boom! you associate with Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, or Ronald Vladimir Tatis, Jr., either.

Almost two months ago I observed that today’s apparent metastasis of pitchers using some new old-fashioned medicated goo (assorted elixirs of pine tar, rosin, sunscreen, glue, and who knows what the hell else) was liable to create baseball’s next cheating scandal.

As for those who still think pitchers stopped looking for every last edge they could find just because ball doctoring was banned formally after the Ray Chapman tragedy of 1920, you may find many of them lining up to place bids on that Antarctican beach club.

Sports Illustrated‘s current cover story is headlined: “The New Steroids.” The photograph shows a pitching hand gripping a ball with something running down upon it that could be taken for anything from bee honey to Log Cabin syrup to teriyaki sauce and back. I’ve heard of certain pitchers having certain hitters’ breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and vice versa), but that’s ridiculous.

SI reporters Stephanie Apstein and Alexs Prewitt may quote an unnamed Show executive as saying, “This should be the biggest scandal in sports”—but is it hard to take seriously when it’s illustrated by something flowing down a ball that looks less like a sunscreen-rosin-tar froth and more like what you have on your breakfast pancakes.

It’s also hard to take seriously, above and beyond the apparent extra creation that goes into this 21st Century version of gunkball, because the wet one has been called “the biggest scandal in sports” more than once over baseball’s life. When Roger Angell lamented the Year of the Pitcher when it finally ceased, he mentioned, not quite in passing, “the persistence of the relatively illegal spitter.”

And that was in 1968. A decade later, the advent of Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter and his split-fingered fastball (really a refinement of the forkball Pirates relief legend Elroy Face made a work of art) caused some inside and outside the game to believe the pitch’s spitter-like break made the real spitter superfluous—even while they couldn’t decide whether to condemn or laugh with Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry’s actual or alleged grease balls.

What the hey, there were those who thought Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera’s devastating cutter—the “cut” was in Rivera’s grip—made the spitter superfluous if you could learn and throw it the way The Mariano did. You could also fill a stadium with the hitters who’ve thought pitchers who owned them while getting murdered otherwise were treating them in particular to a few little tricks.

Nobody doubts that pitchers today have an upper hand—whatever they happen to have in hand, in glove, or under their hats. Apstein and Prewitt get all manner of comment about it, from a very few willing to speak on the record to an awful lot who insisted on anonymity for possible fear of hitting the unemployment line.

No one doubts that advancements in pitching analysis and mechanical applications have led to the present fetish with the rates of spin the balls take out of the pitchers’ hands. Apstein and Prewitt round up a considerably widespread belief that, whatever that new-fashioned medicated goo is, it’s turning hitters already believed undoing themselves with the concurrent launch-angle fetish into guys who look like they’re swinging pool noodles and not bats.

It’s turning professional full-time hitters into pitchers at the plate, for crying out loud!

“More recently, pitchers have begun experimenting with drumstick resin and surfboard wax,” the SI pair write. “They use Tyrus Sticky Grip, Firm Grip spray, Pelican Grip Dip stick and Spider Tack, a glue intended for use in World’s Strongest Man competitions and whose advertisements show someone using it to lift a cinder block with his palm. Some combine several of those to create their own, more sophisticated substances. They use Edgertronic high-speed cameras and TrackMan and Rapsodo pitch-tracking devices to see which one works best. Many of them spent their pandemic lockdown time perfecting their gunk.”

We’ve come a long way from Pud Galvin, Happy Jack Chesbro, Ed Walsh, Eddie (Shine Ball) Cicotte, and Burleigh Grimes. Not to mention Preacher Roe, Lew Burdette, Whitey Ford, Mudcat Grant (who got away with a soap ball—it was said—until he once rubbed too much inside his gray road uniform and the warm sun foamed it too visibly through the flannel), Phil (The Vulture) Regan, Gruesome Gaylord, Don (Black & Decker) Sutton, Mike (Scuff) Scott, and Joe (Emery) Niekro.

Just picture assorted pitchers in their garages or even their kitchens throwing this stickum, that spray, the other glue, and some particularly choice liquids otherwise into the Mixmaster. (From your ancient history: that’s what we old folks called a food processor in the mid-20th Century.) With Vincent Price grins on their faces and Dr. Frankenstinker tightening the bolts in their necks.

Apstein and Prewitt cited numerous personnel saying the new gunkballs might help pitchers keep a grip on the new, reputedly lighter baseballs in use this season, but they also tend to sound as though they’re being ripped out of the pitchers’ hands. Kind of the present fraternity of hard, bullet-throwing pitchers is ripping the bats right out of the hitter’s hands, so it is alleged.

One unnamed American League manager swore to the pair that, “You can hear the friction.” They cited an unnamed, “recently retired” relief pitcher as comparing it to ripping a particularly adhesive Band-Aid right off the skin. “A major league team executive,” they add, “says his players have examined foul balls and found the MLB logo torn straight off the leather.”

Burdette and even Perry were suspected just as often of playing mind games more than they played real spitball games. What was true in Chesbro’s day seemed true in their day and beyond. Let the hitter think you’re loading up, and you’ve got two strikes on him before you even throw the first pitch. Spitter on the brain beats tobacco juice (Burdette’s suspected lube of choice) on the hide every time.

Do today’s mad pitching lab rats have a spiritual great-grandfather? It might be Hall of Famer Ford himself. Forget the legends of his late-career mud ball, ring ball (a rasp in his wedding ring enabling him to cut balls: “It was like I had my own tool bench out there”), and buckle ball. (His later catcher Elston Howard would scrape a ball on his shin guard buckles before returning it to him.)

He also had his own strange brew. The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, then writing for SI himself, described Whitey’s secret sauce as a blend of rosin, turpentine, and baby oil. The lefthander was believed to keep the blend in an emptied-out roll-on deodorant bottle (Ban, perhaps?), claiming to use it for a better grip on his breaking ball, hee hee hee.

(Ford’s worst victim may not have been an enemy batter but his own Hall of Fame teammate Yogi Berra. Thomas Boswell once recorded that, knowing Berra was prone to nicking personal products like deodorant whenever he ran short, fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle moved Whitey’s sauce to a shelf spot where Berra couldn’t miss. Minutes later, Yogi ran screaming into the trainer’s room to have his arms shaved free of his sides.)

Have Apstein and Prewitt unlocked the true secret to this season’s hitting crisis—you know, all homer/all the time, nobody settling for measly singles, blah-blah, woof-woof—if a crisis it truly is?

I spent Friday morning looking it up. There were 1,672 major league games played at the end of business Thursday night. There were 13,061 hits in those games—an average of 7.8 hits per game. Sixty-four percent of those hits were singles; thirty-six percent were extra base hits; fifteen percent were home runs. There was an average 5.0 singles per game and 2.8 extra base hits per game.

Maybe they’re not hitting as often as they used to, but I’m having a hard time believing that whenever the hitters are making contact they’re coming out exclusively as all-or-nothing bombardiers, too. Eight percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in bases on balls; 21 percent of them ended in hits.

Maybe the pitchers and their goo, gunk, glop, and sticky balls are tying them up at the plate. But brace yourselves—24 percent of all 2021 plate appearances through Friday morning ended in batter strikeouts. They’re hitting almost as often as they’re striking out, ladies, gentlemen, and miscellaneous.

“I’m tired of hearing people say that players only want to hit home runs,” Rockies rightfielder Charlie Blackmon has told Apstein and Prewitt. “That’s not why people are striking out. They’re striking out because guys are throwing 97 mile-an-hour super sinkers, or balls that just go straight up with all this sticky stuff and the new-baseball spin rate. That’s why guys are striking out, because it’s really hard not to strike out.”

Let’s have a parallel awakening. There just might be another, legitimate reason why the hitters can’t buy base hits no matter how they shake off the launch angling and just make contact—which they’re actually doing 47 percent of the time. The reason isn’t coming strictly from the pitcher’s mound . . . or his kitchen, garage, laboratory, double-secret research facility, or friends at Dow Chemical.

You heard me. Now hear Baseball Prospectus writer Robert Arthur, who published an essay Friday morning with the following headline:


It doesn’t say “hundreds.” Arthur’s acute research also doesn’t say it’s all or even mostly the fault of those human Green Monsters crowding either side of the infield in shifts, either.

“Across the board, fielders at every position have backed away from home plate, a change so pervasive and consistent it was unlikely to come from chance alone,” Arthur writes. “I found that two positions were affected more than any other–third basemen and center fielders–and that those two positions, perhaps not coincidentally, have also driven the greatest share in the decrease in [batting average on balls in play] since 2015.”

Arthur’s findings include an analysis in which he discovered that third basemen and middle infielders have tended to play deeper with or without shifting and that outfielders are generally playing somewhat deeper almost regardless of whether the man at the plate is a spray-hitting savant or a bombardier—and not just in such alignments as the so-called “no doubles” defense, either.

A week earlier, Arthur published another essay in which he argued, persuasively “[I]t’s hard to prove definitively, [but] improved defensive tactics look like they may be partially to blame for the historic falloff in BABIP. Just as batting average was drying up, teams look to have been repositioning their fielders across the board, pushing nearly every position back a few steps. The positions that moved back most—third basemen and center fielders—appear to be responsible for almost the entire decrease in BABIP in the last few years.”

Let Commissioner Rob Manfred and his lieutenants crack down on the goo-gunk-glop-stickum-ballers. Just be sure you’re going after the real Houdinis, not just the guys who want nothing more than a better grip on these ridiculously lightened balls in use this year. And use the discretion that (of all people) Joe West did near the end of May, when all he did was order Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos to change hats and thus rid himself of the one with a little sunscreen on it.

Oh, sure, West ejected manager Mike Shildt for defending his player, and Shildt did fume post-game that they were picking “the wrong fight” because just wait until you see how much syrup is getting onto how many balls from how many pitchers. But at least Country Joe didn’t try suggesting Gallegos was up to anything more than either a good tan or ultraviolet protection, either.

You want to police some sunscreen and rosin? Go ahead,” Shildt challenged. “Get every single person in this league . . . Why don’t you start with the guys that are cheating with some stuff that’s really impacting the game?”

We’ve come a long way, too, from the day when Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver visited the mound during a jam to counsel his pitcher Ross [Skuzz] Grimsley—suspected of using his abundance of hair grease for subterfuge. “If you know how to cheat,” Weaver told Grimsley, “now’s the time.”

Don’t kid yourself that even an earnestly firm crackdown is really going to re-level the field. Especially when organisations still prefer to find human howitzers who can throw the proverbial lamb chops past a full pack of wolves without knowing where the balls are going in the first place. Especially, when wiping out today’s syrup balls won’t wipe out the tradition of pitchers looking for, finding, and deploying every last slippery cutting edge they can find to get one up on those naughty hitters—who aren’t as contact challenged as you think.

And, especially when fielders are being positioned with more deftness than even the U.S. Navy needed to win the battle of Midway.

The original spitball ban and the plain-language rule against ball-teration don’t stop the mound’s Jekyll Hydes. All a hitter can do for now—and maybe for all time—is call upon one tradition that’ll never be obsolete. Keep your eye on the ball. Wait for the one that doesn’t break. And hit it on the dry side.

Goodbye, good riddance, good luck

2019-10-25 BrandonTaubman

Now-former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman.

Some time during the 1980s, I remember picking up a magazine story and seeing a university president quoted from a board of trustees meeting. Exactly how it came up escapes my memory, but his remark doesn’t. He told his board that, dammit, he wanted a school his football team could be proud of.

It’s not unreasonable now to think it’s possible that those who play baseball in Astro uniforms might like a front office their players can be proud of. One that knows better than to shoot the messenger who exposed an assistant general manager as clueless about domestic violence.

Astro fans are in the discomfiting position of rooting for their team while clutching their stomachs over the Brandon Taubman affair. Much the way they were when the Astros acquired relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while he was still under suspension for a domestic violence incident that was yet to be resolved legally at the time of the deal.

They don’t have Taubman to trouble their stomachs any longer, at least. Perhaps getting ahead of baseball government’s investigative curve, the Astros fired Taubman on Thursday.

All that remains of the affair now, seemingly, is for the Astros’ administration to fire those in the team’s public relations department who decided upon initial exposure of Taubman’s brain damage that it was all the fault of the Sports Illustrated reporter who exposed it in the first place. And, for that administration to learn at last that winning doesn’t sweep some things under the proverbial rug.

In a near-empty Astro clubhouse, following their surrealistic pennant clinch last Saturday night, and with no Astro players known to have remained at the moment, three female reporters including SI‘s Stephanie Apstein stood adjacent to Taubman when he let fly with, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!”

Osuna was rocked in the top of the ninth of American League Championship Series Game Six when Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu hit a two-run homer off him to tie the game at four. Astro second baseman Jose Altuve won the pennant in the bottom of the ninth with a more electrifying two-run homer—ironically enough, off Aroldis Chapman, the Yankee closer with his own domestic violence history.

A team executive looking to console or brace up a pitcher humiliated in a moment like Osuna’s on the mound wouldn’t necessarily thunder like that but, rather, take the pitcher aside privately to reassure him how glad the team was to have him. Or, say it while his teammates were still in the clubhouse celebrating the pennant win.

Such an executive wouldn’t wait, as Taubman did, until he was almost alone with three women doing their jobs, one of whom (who insists her name be kept out of coverage of the affair) wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelets worn by lots of people to whom domestic violence is a grotesque crime, to holler that kind of remark about a player who was guilty of it at the time the Astros acquired him.

Apstein was one of the women on the job. And to her credit, she first sought comment from others in the Astros’ front office apparatus before writing her original story about it. Only after getting none did she publish her story early this past Monday, the day before the World Series began.

A formal team statement played the fake-news card at once, calling her story “misleading,” “completely irresponsible,” and written by someone trying to “fabricate” it. But as radio host Larry Elder would say, the fit hit the shan not just from the moment Apstein’s story hit the Internet running but from when it transpired that others aside from the three women reporters happened to be there, happened to see, and happened to hear.

Including two Houston Chronicle reporters, Chandler Rome and Hunter Atkins. “The three female reporters were approximately eight feet away and one was visibly shaken by the comment . . . eyewitnesses said,” wrote Rome. “There were no players in the area and no interviews were being conducted at the time.” Atkins pounced on the original Astro denunciation after the “fabricate” accusation emerged. “I was there,” he tweeted. “Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.”

The Astros hit the damage control button faster than Altuve’s pennant-winning homer flew off the barrel of his bat. The office of commissioner Rob Manfred jumped immediately into investigating the Taubman incident, as well it should have considering the game’s domestic violence policy in place since 2015 and the controversy when the Astros dealt for Osuna in the first place at the July 2018 trade deadline.

Finally, come Thursday, the Astros had no more choice. Their formal statement probably has no better description than that by Deadspin‘s Gabe Fernandez:

While the statement offers a meager apology to Apstein, and acknowledges that the organization was wrong with its initial response, noticeably absent is any explanation for why Houston released a strongly worded comment decrying the legitimacy of the Sports Illustrated report, allowed an employee to pull the “as a father of daughters” card while offering a non-apology of his own, and based these decisions on an investigation whose conclusion proved to be far from reality. Who were those “witnesses” who lied to smear Apstein and the other reporters present as fabulists? Who crafted that first statement? What consequences will they face?

Osuna was available in the first place because the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to be rid of him when he was hit with his domestic violence suspension, involving an assault on the woman with whom he has a now four-year-old son. Astro players, particularly ace pitcher Justin Verlander, were not exactly comfortable with the acquisition when it happened.

What a surprise. Verlander himself thundered on Twitter after Astro minor leaguer Danrys Vasquez was shown on video attacking his girl friend on a staircase, for which the Astros released him post haste. And now the Astros dealt their own beleaguered closer Ken Giles to acquire Osuna?

And, yes, Chapman caused a few temperatures to run the scales when the Yankees first acquired him, then dealt him to the Cubs in 2016 (for Gleyber Torres), then re-signed him as a free agent, all after Chapman’s incident with his lady that prompted the Dodgers to back away from a deal acquiring him during winter 2015-16.

Before you suggest that the Astros simply had no choice considering Giles’s ongoing troubles with the team creating the immediate need for an available reliever who could close, be reminded that they actually had a choice if they wanted it, at or just before the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline. (The deadline is now a single one, waiver and non-waiver alike, for all season.)

Giles’s frustrations in the 2017 World Series carried over into the 2018 season and the Astros needed to move him for his own and the club’s sake. At the same time, the Orioles going into rebuild mode were shopping Zack Britton, rehorsing after forearm issues bothered him in 2017.

The same Zack Britton who pitched to a 1.91 regular-season ERA this year and performed respectably in five ALCS appearances against the Astros, surrendering no runs to them despite walking five batters while still striking five out. Compare that to Osuna’s 2.63 ERA this season, his 3.60 ALCS ERA, and getting credit for the Game Six win as a gift from Altuve despite surrendering the game-tying bomb.

The Yankees would acquire Britton instead. Osuna’s ERA was 2.63 when the Astros traded Giles to get him from the Jays. Britton’s was 3.45 when the Yankees dealt for him, but he actually looked closer to his old self in his final eight gigs as an Oriole—his ERA in those eight single-inning gigs was 0.00. And he’d had only two appearances thus far in which he surrendered any runs all season until the trade.

The Astros could have dealt for Britton easily enough without any baggage, domestic violence or otherwise, instead of Osuna whose domestic violence case was far enough from being resolved in the Canadian courts when he finally signed a legal document in which he agreed to have no contact with his victim for a full year to follow.

But they went for Osuna. He was a “depressed asset,” as so many stories about l’affaire Taubman have described. Making the Astros look to too many people as though they, too, put baseball ahead of moral and ethical considerations. Verlander was put in the discomfiting position of straining to be diplomatic about the deal, and it was also known that the Astro front office wasn’t exactly unified about the deal, either.

There were Cub fans uncomfortable with the idea of Chapman having a role in their staggering World Series run. There remain Yankee fans uncomfortable with his presence now. But no Cub or Yankee executive was ever heard, so far as is known for certain, to have thanked his Maker for acquiring a woman beater, in listening range of any reporters.

And the Cubs were caught completely flatfoot after shortstop Addison Russell’s wife, with Russell’s domestic violence suspension carrying from the end of the 2018 season into the beginning of the 2019 season, gave a December 2018 interview in which she described the gory details of what she’d suffered at his hands.

They stood by their man regardless, though with a few qualifiers, and looked just as ridiculous. And Russell’s 2019 season, identifiable by injuries and less than stellar performances when he did play, may end up making him an ex-Cub after all. Not exactly the same thing as sending a powerful message against wife beating.

Remember: there’s no inherent, God-given right to play professional baseball. And there’s no concurrent obligation for any baseball team to tolerate crimes like domestic violence for the sake of winning, whether committed by a player or appearing to matter little to those who hire him.

Firing Taubman only begins resolving the Astro dilemna. The front office isn’t anywhere near off the hook yet. And with the Astros about to face World Series Game Three in Washington and in the hole 2-0 to the Nationals, the absolute last thing the organisation needs is a front office that looked for too long this week as though domestic violence was just a nuisance instead of a very real issue.

And, like it or not, Osuna is still an Astro. Even though the way the Series has transpired so far he hasn’t poked his nose out of his bullpen hole once yet. It’s still possible that the Astros won’t go down to the Nats without a battle, and that Osuna will yet be seen loosening up in the pen for a late-game entry.

And, that Astro fans will be torn as they didn’t have to be between rooting for their team with Osuna on the mound and wishing the front office didn’t lack the common sense God gave a turnip when dealing for a woman abuser when they could have had a late-game reliever who wasn’t one.

“It would be great if this was a case of the Astros committing to an organizational overhaul in response to not just what Taubman did, but also what others around the ballclub did to protect this employee,” Fernandez observes of the Taubman firing. “But considering how much blowback had to occur before anything of substance happened, the Astros’ delay in acting responsibly should be remembered at least as much as the fact that they eventually did.”

Should be? It probably will be. Especially by Astro fans who wish with all their hearts that they had a front office their team can be proud of.

The more things change . . .

2019-09-05 JimmieFoxxFrankieFrisch

Generational debates on player “toughness” and baseball conditions didn’t end with Jimmie Foxx (left), Frankie Frisch, and a group of fellow Hall of Famers in 1954. They won’t end ever, really.

“Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”

If I gave you that quote without attribution, you’d think it came from one of today’s old-school fans or analysts who think, erroneously, that baseball today lacks “toughness.” But it doesn’t come from one of today’s grumps. It comes from Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. And he said it to Sports Illustrated in 1954.

A present-day SI writer, Jon Tayler, exhumes it for a kind of state-of-the-game address. And it might be fun to look at what the other Hall of Famers still alive in 1954 said about the state of the game then. The title of that piece: “Are Today’s Baseball Players Sissies Compared to The Old Timers?” You may or may not be surprised at who said what.

“Baseball is a more aggressive game today,” said outfielder Paul (Big Poison) Waner, answering clearly in the negative. “The players can’t let up a bit. In my day we could. Today the pitcher has to throw hard to every man in the line-up. That’s the reason for so many substitutions. There are many more home-run hitters playing today. And there are cracker-jack fielders.”

Waner should only have been able to see the kind of hard throwing that was yet to come. In 1954, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson were playing basketball on college scholarships (Koufax at the University of Cincinnati, Gibson at Creighton University), Sudden Sam McDowell was in middle or junior high school, minor league legend Steve Dalkowski was still in high school, and Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were still in grade school.

Rogers Hornsby (second baseman), who wasn’t exactly baseball’s Mr. Congeniality (when he was canned as the St. Louis Browns’s manager in 1952, Browns players led by pitcher Ned Garver presented owner Bill Veeck with an engraved trophy), answered the headline in the affirmative. Feel like a little wager that without knowing it was Hornsby this could have been said by Goose Gossage?

“[I]t’s the fault of the managers, not the players,” Hornsby said. “They change men too often. A pitcher will be removed for one bad pitch. A left-handed batter will be removed for a right-hander, for the percentage. Would they ever have taken out Cobb, Speaker, Wagner or Frisch?”

You wonder if Hornsby wasn’t taking a jab at Casey Stengel, a product of the John McGraw school when all was said and done, but who made a dark and successful art out of changing men, playing percentages, manipulating relief pitching—and kicking the American League’s ass for most of a decade plus while he was at it—during the era Hornsby lamented.

Al Simmons (outfielder) demurred from Hornsby’s assessment. “It was soft for us,” said Bucketfoot Al. “We had no Sunday games. Besides double-headers, today’s players have to play day, night and Sunday baseball.” The doubleheader today is the exception, not the rule, but players in 2019 also have to play night, Sunday, and day baseball. Often while traveling from one coast to the other or north to south.

I bet you think the following remark could be said by any reporter, columnist, or analyst today: “Many of the players today are fully as good as most of the old-timers. But comparisons are difficult to make. One of Ty Cobb’s great assets was base-stealing; in the 1915 season he stole 96 bases . . . With the rabbit ball today, why risk an out? It’s better to wait for the long hit.”

And I bet you’re wrong. That was actually Carl Hubbell, he who wore the silks of the New York Giants while striking out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Bucketfoot Al, and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star Game. And Hubbell had a point if you consider it to be that there were (and still are) those who considered 1950s baseball, which some of today’s old schoolers still think was the game’s Golden Age, to be too little more than a big power game. (In 1954, Little Looie Aparicio was just about to start the real return of the stolen base.)

To the question in the 1954 headline Cy Young (there’s a pitching award named in his honour, I think, wink wink) said, “Yes. They can’t take it. I’ve seen some of them threaten the pitcher when a ball brushed them back. Most rugged old-timers took this as a part of the game. It’s the rule today to use several pitchers in one game. Iron Man McGinnity pitched 55 games for the Giants in 1903. He won three double-headers in one month.”

I don’t suppose it crossed Young’s mind that in the dead ball era pitchers such as himself weren’t oriented or taught all that much to try throwing the proverbial lamb chops past the proverbial wolves, or that dead-ball pitching’s number one orientation was inducing contact, the more the better, and that the lack of power pitchers in the dead ball era normally meant that getting hit by a pitch wasn’t liable to leave a welt or a splitting headache.

Would it be fair to have asked Young if he would have flinched pitching against, say, Bob Feller, and had to face retaliation from Feller if Young had knocked down or drilled one of Feller’s Indians? Would it have been fair to question Walter Johnson’s “toughness” because the legend has it that whenever the gentlemanly Big Train did hit a batter he’d be almost apologetic about it and genuinely hopeful that he didn’t injure the poor guy?

“Players today like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, Phil Rizzuto and [sic] Pee Wee Reese are as rugged as any of the old-timers,” said third baseman Pie Traynor. “The trouble is that they are handicapped by having to play day and night baseball. This shortens their careers.”

Brushing aside that Rizzuto proved to have the shortest career of the players Traynor named, and that with the exception of Mantle and Mathews all those players had playing careers interrupted by World War II service, Traynor was probably right about their toughness but not quite right about the day/night conundrum. Night ball shortened a lot of Hall of Famers’ and others’ statistics more than their careers; injuries tended to shorten their careers more.

Williams (nineteen seasons) and Musial (22 seasons) would finish very long careers the majority of which seasons were played in the night ball era. So would Feller (eighteen), Mathews (seventeen), Mantle (eighteen), Snider (eighteen), and Reese (sixteen).

In due course you would see such protracted, predominantly night ball careers, from such Hall of Famers as Mantle (eighteen years) Henry Aaron (23 years), Ernie Banks (nineteen), Johnny Bench (seventeen), George Brett (21), Lou Brock (nineteen), Chipper Jones (nineteen), Willie Mays (22), Willie McCovey (22), Joe Morgan (22), Mike Schmidt (eighteen), and Jim Thome (22) among others among the position players.

Among the mostly- or exclusively night ball-era Hall of Fame pitchers? Hello, Warren Spahn (21; “He’ll never get into the Hall of Fame, he won’t stop pitching,” Stan Musial once cracked about him), Robin Roberts (nineteen), Whitey Ford (sixteen), Bob Gibson (seventeen), Juan Marichal (sixteen), Tom Seaver (twenty), Steve Carlton (24), Ferguson Jenkins (nineteen), Dennis Eckersley (24), Greg Maddux (23), Tom Glavine (22), Randy Johnson (22), Mike Mussina (eighteen), and Mariano Rivera (nineteen), among others.

But baseball’s rolls also include too many players whose careers were compromised or shortened by injuries, especially by being foolish enough to try playing through them regardless. That kind of “toughness” gets you some immediate admiration but costs your team a useful-or-better asset and you a career.

They still talk about Mickey Mantle’s what-ifs (forgetting that what was was impossibly great regardless) despite almost his entire career being an orthopedic experiment. And, to this day, baseball fans of long standing lament the what-ifs regarding a lot of players whom injuries compromised or finished: Pistol Pete Reiser, Carl Erskine, Karl Spooner, Herb Score, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Mark (The Bird) Fidrych (who came back too soon from one injury too many), Butch Hobson, and Kirby Puckett (who made it to the Hall of Fame anyway), among others. They’re liable to do it regarding David Wright, Joe Mauer, and Buster Posey, too.

Funny that Hornsby should have mentioned his fellow second baseman Frankie Frisch. Frisch had something to say about whether players in 1954 were sissies comparied to players in his day or earlier. Which might surprise those today who remember how Frisch (and his running mate/successor Bill Terry) were so convinced nobody was as good as the good old days’ players that they corrupted the Hall of Fame by ramming as many of their Cardinals’ and Giants’ cronies into the Hall of Fame as they could get away with.

“It’s tough to say who are the tougher,” said the Fordham Flash. “Night games and the rabbit ball have changed everything. The managers seldom play for one run. And the players swing from the end of the bat. But baseball is a nicer game today. They meet you at the train and drive you to the park. TV has them hamming”

If only Frisch hadn’t concluded by adding, “But we got more fun out of the game.” Fun is obviously in the eye of the beholder. But Frisch and company in 1954 should remind us that a Hall of Fame manager named Sparky Anderson would prove right when, continuing his mastery of the double (or more) negative, he’d say in due course, “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it.”

And the more things in baseball change, the more most of them stay the same.