Around the Horn

February 1, 2021

THE (ONCE) GREATEST LEFT-HANDER IN PHILLIES HISTORY

Chris Short put up some impressive numbers for Philly in the 1960s. Prior to the arrival of Steve Carlton, many considered him the greatest lefty in Phillies history.

Chris Short

Conventional wisdom in baseball says that left-handed pitchers usually take longer to develop than righties. The man who wore number 41 for the Phillies throughout the 1960s offers ample evidence to prove that axiom and the Phils deserved an A+ for sticking with him.

Chris Short benefited from the fact that the team was bad and had little to lose by giving the young lefty a look-see. In 1959, Short was pounded for an 8.36 era in 14 innings. In 1960, the Milford, DE native improved to 3.95 in the era department in 107 innings but in 1961 digressed to a terrible 5.95 era in 127 innings of work.

It took Short a couple of seasons to figure out National League hitters.

Short began to figure things out in 1962, winning 11 games and lowering his era to a respectable 3.42. In 1963, the 215 pound port-sider blossomed into one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. In 198 innings of work, Short fanned 160 batters and lowered his earned run average to 2.95. The team itself was on the way up, playing the best baseball in the league during the 2nd half of the season. Short’s ascension was a big reason why the club won 87 games, their most since their pennant winning year of 1950.

The Phillies nearly won the pennant in 1964, thanks in part to Short’s 17 wins and tiny 2.20 era. When the team was team was making its epic September swoon, blowing a 6.5 game lead with 12 to play. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the ill-fated Phillies, and in desperation, Manager Gene Mauch, decided use him and right-handed ace Jim Bunning in eight of the last 12 games of the season. Despite his arm being tired, Short pitched well, allowing six runs in 18 innings of work during the collapse.

The 1964 Phillies

Short upped his win total to 18 in ’65 and in 1966, Short became the first Phillies lefty to win 20 games since 1916 when he posted a 20-10 record for a good 4th place club.

Chris Short figured out what to do on the mound but apparently didn’t have much of a clue when it came to fashion. His baseball nickname “Styles” was an ironic reference to his reported penchant for wearing mismatched and ill-fitted clothing off-the-field. Short took the kidding in stride but according to people like Tim McCarver, his teammate on the Phillies in the early 70s, the lefty hurler never quite understood what the teasing was all about. Short thought he looked just fine.

Injuries limited Short in 1967 but he rebounded in 1968. While pitching for an aging team that finished deep in the 2nd division, Number 41 won 19 games and fanned 202 batters. Injuries plagued Short again in ’69 and when he returned in ’70, a couple of inches were missing from his fastball. Over the next three seasons he won a total of just 17 games, with earned run averages hovering near or above 4.00, and dramatically declining strikeout numbers.

When Short returned in 1970, he was no longer the overpowering lefty he had been.

The Phillies parted company with Short after the 1972 season. Looking for pitching help, the Brewers signed the veteran lefty for the ’73 season in hopes that Short might discover a bit of the magic that stymied hitters in the mid-sixties.

However, a comeback was not in the cards as Short logged an obscene 5.13 era in 72 innings of work with Milwaukee. Following the ’73 campaign, the man from Delaware called it quits.

Short wrapped his career as a Milwaukee Brewer.

In 1979, Short was inducted in to the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall-of-Fame.

During retirement, the former Phillie taught aspiring pitchers at youth camp in Warrington, PA for several years. He was also a regular at Philadelphia area baseball memorabilia shows, signing autographs and chatting with fans about his years as a big league pitcher.

After attending a memorabilia show in 1988, Short suffered a ruptured aneurysm and slipped into a coma. Never regaining consciousness, the two-time NL All-Star (’64 and ’67) passed away in 1991 at the age of 53.

Prior to the arrival of Steve Carlton, Chris Short was considered the best left-handed starter in Phillies history. Hall-of-Famer Eppa Rixey did compile more impressive lifetime stats but most of his success came while a member of Reds and not as a Phillie.  The only names that surpass his effectiveness as a Phillie are Pete Alexander, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, and Carlton.

Alexander, Roberts and Bunning were all right-handed pitchers.

(Roy Halladay pitched extremely well in Philadelphia but his time in the team’s uniform was relatively brief).

Chris Short, at his peak, was one of the team’s all-time greats.

If you doubt it, as Casey Stengel once said, “You can look it up!”

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November 25, 2020

Sympathy for a Devil?

Albert Belle

   One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990’s was Albert Belle. The 6’1” muscular outfielder averaged 40 home runs and 130 runs-batted-in per 162 games over a 12-year career. Along with terrifying opposing pitchers, Belle also created a ton of anxiety for many of the people he came in contact with, on and off the diamond. A perpetual grouch, Belle often seemed like he was going out of his way to cultivate a nasty image.

   Belle displayed a personal fierceness as a ball player that sometimes made the irascible Hall-of-Famer Ty Cobb look like gentle Mr. Rogers. For example, before one of the games of the 1995 World Series, the temperamental slugger launched a curse-filled, in-your-face tirade against a group of media covering the event. Later, when asked if he planned to apologize, Belle was militantly unrepentant.

   “I apologize for nothing!” he huffed.

   On another occasion, the strong-armed Belle fired a ball at fan in the stands that had been heckling him. He justified the angry throw by saying the guy “deserved it.” And the Belle-hating media joyfully reported the time the hot-tempered outfielder got in his car and chased Halloween vandals who he said were throwing eggs at his home.

   The outfielder made more negative sports headlines in 1996 when he devastated Brewers infielder Fernando Vina with a stand-up, arm-shiver take-out between first and second base. To those in attendance, watching the game at home, or saw on a TV replay, it looked mean-spirited and completely unnecessary. Knocking Vina on his butt did nothing to enhance Belle’s reputation.

   Belle didn’t endear himself to many of his teammates with his insistence that the clubhouse thermostat be set below 60 degrees. This selfish quirk earned him the nickname “Mr. Freeze.”

Kenny Lofton’s boom box felt the brunt of Albert’s anger.

   He was also well-known for his post-game destructive clubhouse rampages. It usually didn’t matter if his club won or not; if the outfielder had a bad game an explosion was a real possibility. Teammate Kenny Lofton’s boom box radio suffered an inglorious end when Belle smashed it to pieces with a bat during a particularly notable rage.

   Speaking of bats, the most-infamous incident involving the muscular player occurred in 1994 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Belle, a member of the Indians at the time, was at the plate when the White Sox decided to challenge Belle’s bat, believing it to be corked. The piece of lumber was confiscated and placed in the umpire’s dressing room under lock and key. Plans were to inspect the bat later but the Indians, knowing it was in-fact corked, attempted to retrieve it.  They sent one of their players, not Belle, through a false ceiling to the ump’s room and managed to replace the corked bat with an uncorked specimen.

   Any chance the Tribe had of getting away with the switch was ruined when a janitor discovered clusters of ceiling tile on the floor directly under twisted metal brackets in the ceiling. The umpiring crew also noticed that the bat was different than the one that had been confiscated. An investigation was launched, one that included Chicago Police and the FBI. To make a long story short, the Indians were implicated and were forced to turn over Belle’s bat.

    The lumber was x-rayed and then sawed-off, both actions clearly revealing the suspected cork. Albert Belle was suspended for ten games, a sentence that was later shortened to seven contests.

Belle was caught using a corked bat in 1994.

   Many believe the 1994 cheating episode is one of the main reasons why Belle has not garnered more support for inclusion into baseball’s Hall-of-Fame. In addition, his surly attitude towards the media, refusing to give pre-game interviews because he said they interfered with his ability to mentally prepare to play doesn’t help his cause. The whole situation is unfortunate because his stats are nothing-less-than-impressive; had he been a lovable Stan Musial-type personality he’d almost-assuredly be in the Hall-of-Fame now. Consider some of Belle’s career accomplishments:

  1. Belle was a five-time American League All-Star (1993-97).
  2. His .295 lifetime average is higher than those of many post-dead ball era players already in the Hall, including comparable sluggers such as Ernie Banks (.274), Johnny Bench (.267), Harmon Killebrew (.256) and Willie Stargell (.282).
  3. The controversial outfielder knocked-in 1,239 runs over 12 seasons, a greater lifetime total than lively-ball Hall-of-Famers Hack Wilson (1063), Joe Morgan (1133), Ralph Kiner (1011), and Craig Biggio (1175).
  4. In 1995, Belle became the first major leaguer to hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a season with figures of 50 long-balls and 52 two-baggers.
  5. Sir Albert’s 381 lifetime home runs tops a few other power hitters already enshrined in Cooperstown including Yogi Berra (321), George Brett (317), Joe DiMaggio (361) and Chuck Klein (300).
  6. Belle was a clutch hitter in the post-season, compiling a lofty .405 on-base-percentage, six home runs, 14 runs-batted-in, and .557 slugging average in 61 at-bats.

  Many of Albert Belle’s detractors point to the corking incident as proof that he was a cheater and feel this dishonesty disqualifies him for inclusion in the Hall-of-Fame.

   This argument might hold a lot of moral weight if there was concrete proof that Belle often used corked bats for the majority of his career. The problem with it is that there’s no evidence that the man used corked lumber before or after that occasion in 1994. Admittedly, it’s quite possible that Belle used a doctored bat at various times prior to that night in Chicago. But Albert is a highly intelligent person and must have known that, from then on, he would be under close scrutiny. He was a high-profile, controversial player and many fans, media persons, and members of other teams hated his guts. It’s reasonable to believe that had he attempted to sneak another doctored bat into play somebody, somewhere would have relished the opportunity to pass on their suspicions to the proper authorities.

A rare smile from the muscular slugger.

   Belle’s stats during the seasons prior to the Comiskey Park episode:

1991   123 games   28 hr., 95 rbi, .282 avg., .540 slg.

1992   153 games   34 hr., 112 rbi., .260 avg., .477 slg.

1993   159 games   38 hr., 129 rbi., .290 avg., .522 slg.

1994   106 games   36 hr., 101 rbi., .357 avg., .714 slg.

   Pretty darn good, huh?  OK, suppose all those numbers were unfairly boosted by the occasional use of a corked bat. Belle was discovered shortly before the players went on strike in the summer of ’94 and didn’t return to action until the following spring.  The man is not stupid and it’s easy to imagine him making the intelligent decision to go back to relying exclusively on his immense talent to hit a baseball. Without any evidence to the contrary, it’s logical to believe that Belle compiled the following impressive stats “naturally”:

1995   143 games  50 hr., 126 rbi., .317 avg., .690 slg.

1996   158  games 48 hr., 148 rbi., .311 avg., .623 slg.

1997   161 games, 30 hr., 116 rbi., .274 avg., .491 slg.

1998   163 games  49 hr., 152 rbi., .328 avg., .655 slg.

1999   161 games  37 hr., 117 rbi., .297 avg., .541 slg.

2000   141 games  23 hr., 101 rbi., .281 avg., .474 slg.

   Belle’s offensive production actually dramatically increased in the two seasons (’95, ’96) following the corked bat incident and remained high until his untimely retirement due to back problems after the 2000 season. If he had been largely dependent in ’94 and before on illegal help one would think his stats would have tanked in subsequent seasons. They didn’t and Belle remained one of the most feared hitters in baseball.

   The problem with the use of performance-enhancing steroids became a major issue in the 1990s. Belle says he didn’t use them and his intelligent explanation rings true.

    “I was always afraid of the side effects,” he explained. “You could die. You may not die instantly. You may die sooner than later. You just never know.”

You can hate him but those impressive numbers were compiled without the help of banned substances.

   Belle says he’s opposed to players who have been proven to be steroid users being admitted to the Hall-of-Fame.

   “It’s just unfair to the guys that didn’t use it,” he said.

   Since there is absolutely no evidence or even rumor that Albert Belle used steroids in the 90s, his detractors can’t use that as an excuse for their Hall-of-Fame snub.

   So, it gets back to the statistics. Based on the numbers, it’s hard to understand why Belle has fared so poorly in Hall-of-Fame voting. In 2006, he received just 7% of the vote and in 2007 only 3.5% of the voters thought he was worthy of inclusion into baseball’s pantheon of immortals. It appears that many either think Belle was a total jerk when he was a player or have heard and believe the negative press that surrounded this talented athlete. If Belle’s troublesome personality is the main criteria from which they are making their judgments, it is wrong and totally unfair.

   There are other “problem children” in the Hall, players who were generally disliked or hated by the fans, press and members of other teams. Guys like Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, and Ty Cobb come immediately to mind as players who had less-than-engaging personalities. This is not to say that Belle was as good as those three diamond immortals but his on-the-field performance should be used as the main criteria for inclusion in the Hall-of-Fame, not personal feelings and judgments about what kind of person the candidate is.

   And not everyone who knew or played with Albert Belle thought he was without any redeeming qualities. Here are just a few quotes:

“Albert is not as bad a guy as people think. We knew him differently”-former White Sox teammate Frank Thomas

“People are shocked when I say that Albert is a nice guy but it’s the truth”-a reporter for the Minneapolis-St, Paul Tribune

“He’s really a good teammate all-around and gives 100 percent”-Former Oriole teammate Jeff Reubolett

“He’s done some things that weren’t smart but I think he’s a great guy”-outfielder Tony Phillips

“He’s really different from how he’s portrayed…Everything is blown out of proportion”-Hall-of-Famer Ken Griffey, Jr.

Ken Griffey, Jr. thought Belle was an OK guy.

When discussing the Hall-of-Fame, Belle is adamant.

   “Sooner or later, people are going to recognize how good my numbers were for the short amount of games,” Belle says.

   Do you think he deserves a berth in the Hall-of-Fame?

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October 28, 2020

Pittsburgh’s Hit Machine of the 1960s

   The Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1970s we nicknamed “Lumber Company” because of their devastating offensive attack.  This offensive juggernaut captured six divisional titles, two National League pennants and two World Championships. The “Bucs” were definitely-the-stuff of legends.

   But there was another “lumber company” in Pittsburgh’s history. Senior circuit hurlers in the mid-to-late 1960s were forced to deal with hitters as lethal as the ones that would populate the Pirates’ lineup in the next decade. The overall stats may not look as impressive as those compiled in the 70s; the 60s featured high pitching mounds, expanded strike zones and plummeting batting averages. Many historians consider the 1960s a second “dead ball” era. Despite the challenges, “Lumber Company 1.0” struck fear in the hearts of National League pitchers

   The decade began with a Pirate pennant and an exciting World Series triumph over a powerful Yankees team. Second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic 7th game, championship-winning home run was one of the most-famous blasts in baseball history. Led by Dick Groat (.325 BA) and Roberto Clemente (.314 BA), the club’s lineup was solid but not as formidable as it would later become. Hall-of-Famer Pie Traynor had high praise for Clemente:

He’s a four-letter man. He can hit, run, field and throw. You won’t find many with all these qualifications. Some have two or three but not many have all four.

Roberto Clemente spent the 1960s spraying hits all over National League playing fields.

   Pittsburgh was mostly down over the next four seasons. In a ten-team league, they finished 6th, 4th, 8th and then 6th. Clemente continued his assault on National League pitchers during this period, logging batting averages of .351, .312, .320, and .339.

   Despite the team’s struggles, good things were happening in Steel Town. Blue-chip prospects who would later become the core of Lumber Company 1.0 made their debuts in the years from 1962-64. Future stars Willie Stargell, Gene Alley, Manny Mota and Bob Bailey all logged playing time. The feeling around the franchise was that the best was yet to come.

   And it was.

Years before he became “Pops”, young Willie Stargell was a feared power hitter in the ’60s.

   In 1965, “Lumber Company 1.0” began to make their presence known. Stargell (27 HR, 107 RBI, .511 SLG) and Clemente (.329 BA, 14 triples, .378 OBP) were the hub of Pittsburgh’s attack. Perfectly complementing this devastating duo was first baseman Don Clendenon who drove-in 96, ripped 32 doubles and14 triples. Seven members of the starting line-up hit .271 or higher (the overall league average was .249). Besides Stargell’s 27 circuit blasts, four other Bucs finished in double digits in home runs. The Pirates were 2nd in the NL in hits (1506), batting average (.276), on-base-percentage (.330) and triples (57). The team was in contention most-of-the-season and improved 12 games better than ’63 to post a fine 90-72 record, good for a solid third-place finish. Pittsburgh looked poised to seriously challenge for the1966 pennant.

Matty Alou blossomed as a hitter after being traded from the Giants to the Pirates.

   When the Pirates obtained an under-achieving outfielder from the Giants in the off-season, expectations weren’t particularly high. Over six campaigns, Matty Alou had logged a so-so .260 batting average. Blessed with plenty of speed and a decent glove, Alou was expected to help patrol the vast outfield area of Forbes Field and perhaps sling in a few base hits from time-to-time. However, Manager and former batting champion Harry Walker worked with Matty and the results were amazing. The 27-year-old would win the 1966 NL batting title with a sizzling .342 average. As the team’s center fielder and lead-off hitter, Alou set-the-table for a line-up that would be highly difficult for opposing pitchers:

Don Clendenon, 1B      .299 BA   28 HR   98 RBI

Bill Mazeroski, 2B        .262 BA   16 HR  82 RBI

Gene Alley, SS              .299 BA   7 HR    43 RBI

Bob Bailey, 3B               .278 BA   13 HR  46 RBI

Willie Stargell, LF          .315 BA   33 HR  102 RBI

Roberto Clemente, RF     .317 BA  29 HR 119 RBI

   Also logging significant playing time was outfielder Manny Mota, who hit a blistering .332 over 359 at-bats. Back-up catcher Jesse Gonder smacked seven home runs in limited playing time and jack-of-all-trades Jose Pagan managed to drive-in 54 runs in his 109 games played. Overall, Pittsburgh ranked first in the NL in hits (1586), doubles (238), triples (66), batting average (.279), on-base-percentage (.329), slugging (.428) and total bases (430). The Bucs also slammed 158 home runs, the third highest total in the league. The long ball figure is impressive considering-the-fact that the Pirates played their home games in spacious Forbes, a venue not-exactly-friendly to home run hitters.

   Willie Stargell wondered why pitchers got mad whenever he knocked one out-of-the-park:

When I strike out, I don’t get angry at the pitcher, I get angry at myself. I would think that if a pitcher threw up a home run ball, he should be angry at himself.

   The 1966 National League pennant race was hotly contested; the winner wasn’t decided until the final weekend. The Pirates were right there, within a couple of games of first before being swept by the Giants in a three-game series. The Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax beat the Phillies on short rest on the last game of the season to capture the pennant for the denizens of Chavez Ravine. The Bucs finished three games back, behind the Giants and the Dodgers.

   Pittsburgh continued their slugging ways in 1967. Despite off seasons from Stargell (20 HR, 73 RBI) and Clendenon (13 HR, 56 RBI), the Bucs still racked-up some outstanding individual performances. Clemente won the batting title (.357 BA), poled 23 homeruns and knocked-in 110 teammates. Matty Alou had another stellar year at the plate, finishing third in the batting title race with a .338 average. Maury Wills, obtained in a trade with the Dodgers, hit .302 and Gene Alley kept-up his hitting ways with a .287 average. On the bench were Manny Mota (.321 BA) and Jose Pagan (.289 BA). Offense was not Pittsburgh’s problem in ’67, Once again they led the league in hits, average and on-base-percentage plus the finished third in runs scored.

Slick-fielding shortstop Gene Alley was also a pretty darn good hitter.

   It was the team’s pitching that the precipitated a fall from 3rd to 6th place. Any hopes for a Pittsburgh pennant were dashed by a staff that finished 9th (out of 10 teams) in earned-run-average, hits allowed, runs allowed and earned runs allowed. They finished dead last in strikeouts and walks. Pirate prospects looked great going into the ’67 campaign and when the team sputtered to a 42-42 start, skipper Walker was canned and replaced by the man who had led the club to the 1960 World Championship. However, Danny Murtaugh could work no magic and the Pirates won 39 and lost 39 with him at the helm to finish the season 81-81, 20 ½ games behind the pennant-winning Cardinals.

   The trend had begun in1963 when baseball expanded the strike zone to cut down on “cheap” home runs. By 1968, batting averages had plummeted. Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average. Nobody else in the American League hit .300. In 1962, the composite average across both leagues was .258 and on-base-percentage was .326. By ’68, the overall batting average had fallen to .237 and the OBP was a paltry .299.

   Considering the decline, Lumber Company 1.0 didn’t fare too poorly. Willie Stargell only hit .237 but did manage to launch 24 home runs. However, lack of teammates ahead of him resulted in just 67 RBI. Don Clendenon had a good year (17 HR, 87 RBI) but Clemente’s string of .300 seasons ended with a .291 average. The Bucs did finish 2nd in batting average and hits but things were nothing like the hit-laden days of 1965-67.

   Baseball fans were bored, resulting in tumbling attendance figures. In-an-effort to bring folks back to the ballparks, Major League Baseball instituted new rules for the 1969 campaign. The size of the strike zone was decreased, and teams were ordered to bring the height of pitcher’s mounds in their home ballparks into compliance with established specifications. The rules had been largely ignored, giving pitchers a decided advantage. The regulations would now be enforced.

   Offensive output increased immediately. Together, both leagues averaged .248 with a .320 OBP. Home run totals jumped from 1995 in ’68 to 3119 in ’69.  The upward trend continued in 1970 (.254 BA, .326 OBP, 3429 HR) and beyond.

   Thanks to the rule changes, Lumber Company 1.0 re-emerged with a vengeance in ’69. Young studs joined some of the oldsters to help reestablish anxiety in the hearts of opposing pitchers. Check out these numbers:

Clemente          .345 BA, .411 OBP, 19 HR, 91 RBI

Alou                  .331 BA, .369 OBP, 41 doubles, 105 runs

Sanguillen         .301 BA, 57 RBI

Stargell              .307 BA, .382 OBP, 29 HR, 31 doubles, 92 RBI

Hebner               .301 BA, .380 OBP

Oliver                 .285 BA, 17 HR, 70 RBI

Taylor                 .348 BA, .432 OBP, 33 RBI (in 261 plate appearances)

Pagan                  .285 BA, 9 HR, 42 RBI (in 298 plate appearances)

   The club finished first in the NL in average (.277) and triples (52). They also ranked 2nd in hits (5626), runs (725), on-base-percentage (.334) and slugging (.398). It was largely this lusty hitting that enabled the club to finish with a good 88-74 record and a third-place finish. The pitching staff was OK but not of genuine contender quality, finishing from 6th to 8th in several important categories.  

Catching star Manny Sanguillen became a regular in 1969.

   1969 was really the year that Lumber Company 1.0 began to morph in the better-known “Lumber Company” of the 1970s. Clemente would post outstanding stats through the ’72 season before tragically losing his life delivering relief supplies to earthquake ravaged Nicaragua. Stargell continued his ball bopping throughout the decade. Productive veterans like Matty Alou, Bob Robertson, Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley would serve for a while longer before being replaced in the line-up by talented guys like Dave Cash, Freddie Patek, Richie Zisk and Rennie Stennet. And who can forget the booming bat of Dave Parker, who joined the team in 1973 and went on to win two batting titles and an MVP award?

   Yep, the hits just kept coming in the 70s.

   But the fun began in the mid 1960s

Hitting machine Dave Parker.

Click the link below for more Diamond Memories from AROUND THE HORN:

https://authorchriswilliams.com/blog/

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