Around the Horn (Blog)

July 22, 2021

A Headache Had Nothing to Do with It

Wally Pipp

Wally Pipp deserves a little bit of posthumous respect. He certainly had a lot of it around the American League the day a hulking Columbia graduate was awarded the position Pipp had held down for the previous ten seasons. For several years, the guy Lou Gehrig replaced as the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees was one of the best players in baseball.

When skipper Miller Huggins inserted Gehrig into the line-up in June of 1925, nobody could have imagined that the man was destined to play in the next 2,129 Yankee games. (The Iron Horse’s record of 2,130 consecutive games began the day before as a pinch-hitter.)  Pipp didn’t just fade away after that fateful day; the veteran first sacker put in four more productive seasons with a couple of other teams before retiring after the 1929 campaign.

Walter Clement Pipp began his major league baseball career in 1913 as a member of the Detroit Tigers. A 0 for 3 performance in his first game was a harbinger of the only season he would spend as a player in the Motor City. Used sparingly, Pipp managed a minuscule .161 batting average that included just three extra-base hits.  The Tigers were less-than-impressed and sent the young first baseman down to the Providence Grays, an AA team in the International League.

Pipp blossomed in 1914, hitting .314 and leading the International League in home runs with 15. He also stroked 27 triples and compiled an impressive .526 slugging percentage.

The upstart Federal League had begun operations as a major league in 1914. Seeking to gain a foothold in America’s largest market, they placed a team in Brooklyn, New York. Also, the new league announced plans to move their Indianapolis franchise to nearby Newark, New Jersey, for the 1915 season. These two new clubs would provide direct competition for fan support for the established Dodgers and Yankees. To strengthen the Yankees, who had been floundering over the previous decade, the Detroit Tigers sold Pipp and another player to them for a total of 10,000 dollars.

Pipp’s first season in Yankee pinstripes was half-decent. He only hit .246 but did smash 13 triples and registered a respectable .339 OBP. His league-leading .992 fielding percentage also saved a few runs for the pitching staff.  The young man from Chicago, Illinois, was maturing, quickly learning the major league game, and growing more confident each day.

Beginning with the 1916 season, Wally Pipp became an offensive force to be reckoned with. He hit 12 home runs to lead the American League, drove-in 92 runs to place second overall, and legged-out the league’s fifth-highest number of triples (14). The next season, Pipp once again led the league in homers (9) and finished in the top ten in triples, doubles, runs scored, total bases, and RBI.

Not just a slugger, Pipp ran the bases well.

(The home run totals might seem low to the modern reader but keep in mind, Pipp’s numbers were compiled during a time when the ball used wasn’t as lively as it is now, the dimensions of many of the ballparks were much larger, and pitchers were allowed to throw now-illegal pitches like the spit and emery “shine” balls.)

Wally continued his steady glove work in 1916 and 1917, finishing third among AL first baseman both seasons with stellar fielding averages of .992 and .990.

For the next several seasons, the lefty slugger kept getting better. From 1918 through 1925, Pipp’s batting averages ranged from .275 to .329. And although he never led the league in home runs again, he did finish in the top ten for long balls hit three times, drove in over 100 runs thrice and 94 once, and led the league in triples once.

Pipp also continued being a dandy at the first base bag during this period. Quick-as-a-cat, he was the top guy in the American League five times in turning the double play. Once, he led his first base peers in fielding percentage, once placed second, and four times finished in the top three.

The New York Times said the first baseman at this time was “a high-class specimen of the ballplayer.”

And indeed, he was. Wally Pipp might have the biggest star on the Yankees when Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920. Ruth quickly became not only the Bronx Bombers’ biggest star, but his prodigious hitting also made him one of the most famous people in the world. In his first season with New York, Ruth batted an incredible .376, pounded a then-record 54 home runs, and plated 135 of his teammates. A new, tighter-center ball had been introduced that year, a spheroid that did travel farther when solid contact was made. But no other team in the American League hit more than 50 round-trippers for the season. What the flamboyant Ruth accomplished in 1920 and during many seasons that followed was nothing short of incredible.

Pipp was a big gun at Yankee Stadium before the arrival of Babe Ruth.

There’s no indication that Pipp resented the Babe’s ascendency as the team’s number one guy. If he did, it didn’t last long as the Yankees improved by 15 games in 1920 and began to win pennants in ‘21. Fans were going through the turnstiles like-never-before, putting more cash into Yankee coffers. This resulted in more money available for player salaries. By 1923, Pipp’s baseball wages had jumped from 5,000 to 10,000 dollars-a-year.

Pipp and Ruth became friends and drinking buddies. Pipp’s daughter Mary marveled at how much alcohol the pair could consume. She said the pair “could consume a fifth of vodka and have a big game the next day.” But when Ruth criticized Pipp for making a costly error during a game in 1922, Pipp took exception, and a fight ensued. Several teammates were needed to separate the combatants. However, the two reconciled and continued to be friends. Years later, Pipp said he believed the altercation had a positive effect on a Yankee team that had been struggling:

“That fight cleared the atmosphere a lot. We stopped stumbling and fumbling as a club and went on to win the pennant.”

Babe Ruth completing another four-bagger. He and Pipp became good friends.

The hard-hitting first baseman was a bit of an iron man himself. From 1915 to 1924, Pipp played in no fewer than 136 games each season, save for one year, and in over 150 six times (an injury limited him to 91 games in 1918). Pipp managed to stay in the Yankee line-up even though he suffered from periodic, chronic headaches, the result of being hit in the head with a hockey puck as a youth.

Pipp told an interviewer in 1953 that it was a headache that forced him out of the line-up on that fateful day when Lou Gehrig replaced him at first base.  But it wasn’t one of his “usual” headaches; this one he said was caused by a beaning in batting practice the day before on June 1. Pipp added that the injury forced him to spend the following two weeks in the hospital.

The old ball player’s recollection wasn’t quite accurate. According to records, Pipp pinch-hit for Gehrig on June 3 and then entered the game as a defensive replacement in a 6-4 Yankee win over the Senators. Pipp did suffer a batting practice beaning, but it occurred on July 2 of that year, resulting in a fractured skull or concussion. The one-time starting first baseman did spend some time in the hospital following the beaning; when he was cleared to play again, the Yankees used him sparingly.

What many baseball historians believe is that skipper Miller Huggins replaced a slumping Pipp (who was only hitting .244 at the time) with Gehrig to revitalize an underachieving Yankee squad. At that point in the season, the Bronx Bombers were scuffling with a poor record of 15-26 and had dropped five-straight. Huggins benched several veterans in hopes of rekindling a Yankee attack that had captured three pennants over the previous four years. These efforts failed as the Yankees plummeted all the way to seventh place with a 69-85 record.

Yankees skipper Miller Huggins during his playing days. It’s unlikely that he replaced Pipp with Gehrig because of a headache.

When weighing the documented evidence (or lack thereof), the belief that Pipp asked to be taken out of the lineup because of a headache is a myth. This piece of false baseball lore was almost assuredly abetted by Pipp’s own inaccurate account of the events that surrounded Gehrig’s insertion as New York’s starting first baseman. Plus, the established fact that Pipp did suffer from chronic headaches added validity to the untrue narrative that he lost his job because he was a malingerer who was just looking for a day off.

Lou Gehrig

In a little more-than-half-a-season, Gehrig finished 1925 with 20 home runs, 68 RBIs, and a .295 average. The Yankees had a productive new first baseman, one that was ten years younger than the fellow who previously filled the position. Wally Pipp, who ended the season with a .230 average, was purchased by the Cincinnati Reds in the off-season. Was he bitter about his banishment from Yankee pinstripes?

“Huggins would have been a complete dope to give my job back,” Pipp said in his later years.

The 6’1”, 180-pounder was solid in his first season in Cincy. A healthy Pipp played in 155 games, hit .291, and knocked-in 99 runs.  As-sure-handed with the glove as ever, he placed second overall among National League first sackers in fielding percentage (.992).

In 1927, he ranked first in fielding (.996), but his batting average dipped to .260. A future Hall-of-Famer by the name of George “High Pockets” Kelly outplayed him in 1928 to earn the Reds’ starting first base job. Pipp performed well as a part-timer, batting .283 with a respectable .341 OBP in 95 games.

After the 1928 campaign, Pipp and the Reds parted ways. The former Catholic University of America student wrapped-up his baseball career at the age of 36 as a member of the minor league Newark Bears in 1929. Pipp went out in style, hitting .312 for the International League club while smashing 30 doubles and 12 home runs.

Wally Pipp experienced an active and eventful life after hanging up his spikes. A heavy investor in the Stock Market, he was nearly wiped out financially in the 1929 crash. He owed a lot of people a ton of money and nearly needed to declare bankruptcy but eventually managed to pay off his creditors.

The former star first baseman was devastated financially by the Wall Street crash of 1929.

For several years he hosted a pre-game radio show for the Detroit Tigers. Pipp also wrote a cautionary book about his bad experiences in the stock market and was involved in starting baseball programs for young people across the country. During World War II, the man who finished with a .281 lifetime major league average worked at a factory building bomber planes. Later, he made a living selling machine parts to various industries.

Pipp was residing in a Michigan nursing home when a series of strokes claimed his life in 1965. The former star first baseman was 71.

It’s a shame that Pipp is mainly remembered today as the man Lou Gehrig replaced at first base. It’s unfair that his legacy has been tarnished by the fairy tale that he used a headache as an excuse to ask his manager for a day off. The idea that he wanted a day to chill on the bench doesn’t seem logical. Mr. Pipp, who suffered from headaches all his adult life, must have performed though more-than-a-few of them over the previous ten seasons, nine of which he was in the line-up practically every day.

Being replaced by a great player like Lou Gehrig was no dishonor. Pipp was very good but never put up the type of incredible numbers “Laruppin’ Lou” did during his illustrious 17-year-career.  However, how many players (not just first basemen) over the years have?  Precious few. 

Gehrig’s predecessor ought to be mainly remembered for his many on-the-field accomplishments in Yankee pinstripes.

The fact is Wally Pipp was one heckuva player.

Pipp was no Gehrig but he could play a little.

(“A Headache Had Nothing to Do With It” is a sample chapter from my book Stealing First and Other Old Time Baseball Stories. If you’d like to know more, go to: Stealing First and Other Old-Time Baseball Stories – Sunbury Press Bookstore

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June 6, 2021

What follows is a chapter from an unpublished manuscript of mine. The characters are fictionalized but are solidly based on a baseball-related joke one of my friends and I played on a newspaper in the spring of 1971.

Any chances that Stuart would someday be the next Johnny Bench seemed to be dashed when his name didn’t appear on the final roster list.

Statistics Don’t Lie

   “This stinks,” I muttered as I studied the sheet of names posted on the board outside of the Athletic Department Office.

   I checked it again.

   And again.

   And again.

   And again.

   Not to mention several other times besides.

   My name was nowhere to be found.

   I had tried-out for the JV baseball team as a catcher and wasn’t listed as having made the final cut. Marcus Root made it, which wasn’t a surprise, because he was an excellent hitter and fielder. Me? I admit, I wasn’t the greatest prospect in the world but I was half-decent with the glove. I had hoped that my defensive skills would cause the coach to look past the difficulty I had hitting the curve ball and grant me a spot on the team.

   Sorry. 

   Good field, no hit catchers need not apply.

   After five minutes or so of staring at the names on the board, I finally came to grips with the fact that I had been cut.

   I’d probably ride the bench anyway.

 The coach is an idiot.

A big, dumb monkey!

Stuart didn’t think the JV baseball coach was very smart.

   I sat down next to Tom on the bus ride that afternoon.

   “Didn’t make it, huh?” he asked.

It seemed like the coach wasn’t impressed with his talents as a catcher.

   I shook my head.

   “Nah. Can’t hit the breaking stuff.”

   “That’s not so easy,” he said just as the driver twisted the bus into gear. With a groan, the gigantic yellow vehicle began to move.

    “Marcus sure can,” I said without any bitterness.

   “Yeah,” Tom responded. “He’s good at everything.”

   I nodded before leaning back and closing my eyes.

  “Wanna hang out when we get home?” Tom asked.

   “Sure. With the Fatman and Scipio?”

   Tom shook his head.

   “Fatman had to stay after school. Detention.”

   “Really? What did he do?”

   “Used the word ‘bitch’ in gym class. More than once.”

   “Oh. What about Scipio?” I replied, opening my eyes again.

  “He wasn’t in school today. His allergies are really acting up,” Tom said as the bus pulled out of the school parking lot and on to the main road.

   “They’re really bad this time-of-year, aren’t they?” I asked.

   Tom nodded.

   “What do you want to do?”

   “I dunno. Ping pong?”

   “OK.”

   The ping-pong table was over at Tom’s house, so that’s where we hung-out. We never hung-out at my place; the stress level from the usual craziness was invariably too high and made having fun virtually impossible.  Plus, the house was usually an untidy mess. I was too embarrassed to bring my pals into it.

This is a ping pong ball. The game of Ping Pong is also known as “Table Tennis”. Interesting stuff, huh?

   “That’s it!” I exclaimed after dodging Tom’s power shots during six or seven straight routs. I laid my paddle on the table and did a mock bow.

   With a smile, Tom tossed his paddle next to mine.

   “What do we do now?” he asked.

   With a shrug, I dropped into a giant bean-bag chair. The previous day’s newspaper sports page was lying nearby.

   “OK if I read this?” I asked, picking it up.

   “Yeah,” Tom laughed as he sat on the edge of the bed. “Since when did you need my permission to read the newspaper?”

   “Well, it’s not mine and I was trying to be polite,” I replied with a grin.

   Tom rolled his eyes.

   I scaned the sports headlines.

  After a while, Tom asked if I had found anything interesting.

   “Didn’t you read this yourself?”

  “Yeah. But that was yesterday.”

   “Phillies pitcher Jim Bunning says this will be his last season,” I said.

   “No surprise. He gets bombed every time he goes out there,” Tom responded.

A newspaper article about future Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning’s pending retirement triggered a bold prank.

   “Sure is a lot of ‘who gives-a-crap?’ stories in here,” I said.

   “Whaddya mean?” Tom asked.

   “It seems like the box score for every stinking game played in every stinking league in the Philadelphia area has been printed.”

   Tom rolled off the bed and found a seat on the floor next to me.

   “I noticed that, too. It’s stupid.”

   “Yeah. Who the hell cares that Tire World beat Julian’s Tavern 27-15 in the ‘Pee Wee Division’ of the Parkerstown Eastern Little League? And that ‘W Sterner’ got eight hits?”

   “Maybe a few parents but I know I don’t give a rats’ ass,’” Tom replied.

   “And there’s a ton more…I wonder.”

   “What?”

   “How do we know that some of this stuff isn’t just made up? No way the newspaper has that many reporters on staff. They couldn’t possibly cover all these games in-person.”

   “I guess someone phones in the results,” Tom said, taking the newspaper from my hands.

   “Yeah,” I replied. “And a lot of this stuff could be bull crap. Maybe W Sterner didn’t really get eight hits. Maybe the little dweeb struck-out six times and made ten errors.”

   “Maybe he couldn’t hurt the curve,” Tom chuckled.

    “Watch it,” I said, pulling the newspaper closer so we could both see it at the same time.

    “I think if they made up stats someone who went to the game would see it and call them out on it,” Tom said.

    “Probably,” I responded and thought for a moment.

   An idea was hatching in my brain.

   “Bu what if no one went to the game?” I asked.

   “Except for the players and the umps?”

   I shook my head as I reclaimed complete possession of the sports page.

   “Not even them. No one.”

   “You’re losing me, man.”

   “Look,” I said, pointing to a small ad on the bottom of the page inviting area leagues to “share” their scores with the newspaper. It included a “scores hotline” number to phone-in results.

    Tom gave me a puzzled look.

   “So?” he asked.

   “Why don’t we come up with our own league and call in the scores?” I answered.

   “What?”

   “Let’s make up a phony league and have the paper print bogus box scores.”

   Tom straightened his back, bit his lip and then grinned.

   “That would be kinda wild,” he said. “But couldn’t we get in a lot of trouble?”

    “I guess maybe,” I answered. “But what are they going to do, throw us in jail?”

    “I don’t know. Seems pretty risky. The cops might arrest us.”

   “C’mon. Let’s do it just once. It’ll be a riot,” I said.

   Tom looked at me, looked at the ad in the paper, and then at me again.

   “It would be very funny,” he said, smiling again.

    “Ready to go where no man has gone before?” I asked.

    “OK. But just once,” he replied.

The guys weren’t too worried about going to jail.

   Thus, “The Nispal Youth League” was born. For the rest of the afternoon, Tom and I worked on creating our fake baseball league. Named after one of our shop teachers, an owlish fellow named Theodore Nispal, we came-up with three realistic looking but thoroughly bogus box scores. As an added touch, we included ourselves in one line score, each of us delivering home runs for our teams.

    “This is sooo wrong,” Tom said as I began to dial the newspaper’s phone number.

    “Shhhhhhhhhhh,” I replied as the line began to ring.

    Everything went smoothly until the person at the newspaper wanted to know where this new league for 13-15-year-olds played their games. That was something we hadn’t considered.

   “Where do we play our games?” I repeated, buying for time.

   “Yes,” was the reply. “I didn’t know a new league was starting and was curious.”

   I paused and then blurted-out the first thing that popped into my head.

   “Parkerstown High School,” I said.

   “Parkerstown, huh?”

   “Yeah. On the field near the football stadium.”

   “Certainly a lot of room there to play ball. Do you have anything else?”

   “No. That’s it.”

   “OK. Keep in touch.”

   “We will. Thanks.”

   Click.

   I took a deep breath and turned towards Tom.

   “We did it,” I said.

   “Think he believed us?” Tom asked.

   “Sounds like he did,” I answered, “I guess we’ll find-out for sure when the paper comes out.”

   Well, he did.

   In the very next edition, the latest results from “The Nispal Youth League” were included with the myriad of scores printed on the sports page.

Alexander Graham Bell. One has to wonder what he would have thought about the guys’ prank.

   “Morons,” I laughed.

   “I can’t believe that they were that dumb,” Tom said.

   “Let’s do it again,” I said.

  “Oh, man. I don’t know”-

   “Don’t be a wienie. We got ‘em going now. Let’s hit again.”

   “What if we get caught?”

   “Know what will happen? Nothing. They’ll do diddly squat.”

   “How do you know?” Tom asked as he rolled-up the sports page.

   “They ain’t gonna throw us into jail for spoofing the newspaper,” I answered.

   “Maybe not. But my mom and dad might get pissed,” my friend said while gently tapping my shoulder with the rolled-up sports page.

   “Once more and then we’ll quit,” I said.

   “What about your parents?” Tom asked.

   “Mom might freak out but I’m used to it,” I answered.

   “Just once more?” he asked.

   “Yep.”

   Tom gritted his teeth and patted his chin.

   “All right,” he finally said. “One more time.”

   And much to Tom’s relief, we got away with it again. Totally bogus box scores from a phony league appeared for a second-straight day in the newspaper. I was tempted to go for a third but Tom didn’t want anything to do with it.

   “Go ahead. But, you’re on your own,” Tom emphatically told me.

      “Bummer. I wanted to pitch a perfect game,” I responded.

   It was too much work for me to do by myself so “The Nispal Youth League” quietly passed away after two days of existence.  I wonder if anyone at the newspaper ever caught on and if they did, what did they think?

    I bet they laughed.

    A few days later, I passed the coach of the JV baseball team in the hallway. Still slightly miffed that I hadn’t made the team, I tried to ignore him.

    Big, dumb monkey.

    “Hey Stuart,” Mr. Tozer called.

   I pretended not to hear him.

   “Mr. Stewart?” he intoned in a voice that vibrated in the nearby hall lockers.

   I turned around and said, “Yes, Sir?”

   “Why aren’t you going to practice?” he asked.

   “Practice, Sir?”

   “Yes. Baseball practice. I thought when you tried out you wanted to make the team.”

  Totally confused, I looked into his bloodshot brown eyes. Rumor had it that Mr. Tozer had a certain fondness for adult beverages.

    “But I didn’t make the team,” I replied.

    “Yes you did. I wanted to carry three catchers this year,” he said.

   “But my name wasn’t on the list.”

   “It wasn’t?”

   “Yes, Sir. I checked it a bunch of times to make sure.”

   This hulking man with large hands and big feet bit his lip and thought for a few seconds.

   “My secretary must have forgotten to type it in,” he finally said. “But you’re on the team, that is, if you want to be.”

Coach Tozer blamed his secretary for the mix-up.

    “I do!” I exclaimed. “Thanks!”

   “See you after school?” he asked..

   “You bet!”

    Mr. Tozer smiled before turning away and heading down the hallway.

   Making the JV baseball team was a bit-of-an accomplishment. If I stayed in shape and worked hard, there was a great chance that I’d make the varsity club in the 11th grade.  And I figured if improved my hitting, maybe I could earn the number one catching slot or be valuable at some other position.

    “He probably thought that too,” I said to myself as I watched him turn a corner and disappear.

In Stuart’s mind, the only person smarter than his baseball coach.

     Smart man.

c) 2015 Chris Williams

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May 12, 2021

The Good, The Bad, and The Phillies (1915-73)

I once spent a year in Philadelphia,

I think it was on a Sunday.

  –W. C. Fields

Jim Bunning was one of the all-time greats to finish their careers with a woebegone Phillies team.

   The famed comedian joked about the “City of Brotherly Love” often during his years as a stage, screen and radio performer. Fields probably didn’t hate Philadelphia. He grew-up in nearby Darby and had relatives that lived in the area. Some film historians speculate that Fields used Philly’s then-reputation for being militantly blue-nosed as sort-of-a “straight man,” something that was easy for the hard-drinking entertainer to poke fun at.

   The outrageous funny man with the big nose may not have been serious when jibing the city but for many years, a stop with the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team was no laughing matter for once-productive-but aging ballplayers.

   The Phillies were one of the sorriest franchises in baseball for much of the 20th century.  The franchise would occasionally field decent teams but for every good season, it seemed like fans would have to suffer through at least seven-or-eight lousy ones.

   Many Phillies teams were flat-out terrible. For a long time, it seemed like getting-traded-to or signing a contract with the club ended-up being the career death-knell for former stars.

   Hack Wilson is an excellent example. The Hall-of-Fame outfielder had slammed 244 homeruns during his career, including 56 in 1930, before signing with the Phillies in August 1934. Brooklyn had just released him; Hack was probably hoping the friendly confines of tiny Baker Bowl would revive his career. Perhaps he thought if everything worked out, a contending team would make a deal for his services.

Hall-of-Famer Hack Wilson was at the end of the line when he Joined the Phillies.

   It’s not known what Hack was thinking at the time but what is known is that he underwhelmed the competition as a Phillie. In seven games, the once-feared hitter batted .100 with no extra base hits.

   Wilson was released in early September and never played another game in the major leagues.

   Four years earlier, another Hall-of-Famer was looking to rejuvenate his career with the Phillies. Traded to Philly by the Cardinals, Pete Alexander had won 190 games for the Phils from 1911-17. He was coming off an OK nine win, 3.89 era season in ’29 with the Red Birds so there was some hope.

   However, Old Pete’s stats had been steadily declining since 1926 and the Cardinals figured they had gotten everything out-of the 43-year-old Alexander there was to get.

   They were right.

   The man who had averaged 20-wins-a-season over his long career was only a shell of his former self. In 21 innings of work, Alexander allowed 40 hits for a 9.14 era. Even the lowly Phillies had standards and parted company with the once-great hurler in late June.

The once-great Pete Alexander wasn’t so great in his second stint with the Phillies.

   Failing to see the proverbial writing-on-the-wall, Pete signed with Class A Dallas in the Texas League. Appearing in five games, Alexander went 1-2 with an 8.25 era, numbers that hastened his retirement at the end of the ’30 season.

   Wally Berger made the National League All-Star team four times as a member of the Boston Braves (1934-36). The power-hitting outfielder slugged 34 home runs and knocked-in 121 in 1934. The Chicago, Ill native plated 130 more runs in ’35, thanks in-large-part to another 34 dingers and 39 doubles.

   Late in his career, Berger played for the Reds from 1938-40. As a part-timer, Berger hit a total of 30 home runs over the ’38 and ’39 campaigns. Believing the 34-year-old Berger was too old, Cincy gave-up on him early in the 1940 season.

Despite the fact that he was hitting .317 at the time, the Phillies inexplicably released slugger Wally Berger in July 1940.

   The Phillies, who were on their way to another 100-plus loss season, signed Berger a few days later. The centerfielder was playing well (.317 avg, .378 obp) for Philly when, for some bizarre reason, they released Berger on July 5th.

   Perhaps it was too much of a good thing for the moribund Phillies!

   One of the few decent players to wear a Phillies’ uniform in the early-to-mid 1940s was Ron Northey. Nicknamed “The Round Man,” the left-hand hitting outfielder was a hustling, fan-favorite. Patrolling right field at Shibe Park with a rifle arm, his best season in Philly was 1944 when he drilled 22 homeruns, drove-in 104 and batted .288.

   After playing five-years for awful Phillies teams, Northey got his chance to play for a genuine contender when he was dealt to the Cardinals in 1947. St. Louis was not disappointed; Northey batted .293 for them in ’47 and upped it to .321 in ’48.

   The man from Mahanoy City, PA also played for the Giants, Cubs and White Sox. As-a-member of the ChiSox in ’56, Northey hit a lusty .354 coming off the bench.

   After struggling at the plate in 1957 for the Southsiders (.185 average in 40 games), Northey was released on July 29th. The Phillies, who were in contention, signed him for a little added bench strength the next day.

Ron Northey as a St. Louis Cardinal.

   It looked like a great move when Northey hit a game-winning, pinch-hit homerun in his first at-bat back in Philly. But that long ball would be the only extra-base hit the 195 pounder would collect in 33 plate appearances.  The Phillies returned to form and slumped badly the last two months of the season to finish 77-77.

   Used strictly as a pinch-hitter, Northey batted a quiet .269 for the Phils and called-it-quits in October.

   One of the best utility men of the 1960s was Jose Pagan. Jose Antonio Rodriguez Pagan could play just about anywhere and not hurt you with the glove or bat. From 1959-65, he was a valuable member of the San Francisco Giants. He was traded to the Pirates in ’65, where he continued plugging holes at short, third, first and the outfield when needed.

   His best years at the plate were 1967 and ’69 when he hit .289 and .285 respectively for the Bucs. Pagan was also a bit of a clutch player in big games, hitting a combined .324 in 34 World Series at-bats.

   But, by the early 70s, Pagan’s defense had become a problem. In 1972, even though he had hit a not-too-bad .252, a terrible .899 fielding percentage convinced the Pirates that the 37-year-old jack-of-all-trades had become a liability. They released him after the season.

Utility man Jose Pagan had some good years with the Pirates but by the time he joined the Phils in 1973, his tank had run out of gas.

   Pagan was obviously slowing down in the field but ball players can be stubborn. In 1973, the Phillies were coming off, guess what, another last-place finish and Jose agreed to a contract. Philadelphia’s farm system had begun to produce some real talent but their prospects needed seasoning. Management tried to keep fan interest while the young guys cut their teeth by signing well-known veterans like Jose Pagan, hoping they’d at least show flashes of their old brilliance.

    For Jose, there was nothing left. Like many other once-good players before him, he probably should have quit before putting on a Phillies uniform. The versatile Puerto Rican continued to struggle in the field (.958 pct.) and any snap he had in his bat was gone (.205 avg.).

   The curtain on Jose Pagan’s major league career came down when the Phillies let him go in August of ’73.

   Some of the other fine players who finished up toiling for mediocre-to-terrible Phillies clubs included Kid Nichols, Jimmie Foxx, Schoolboy Rowe, Jim Tabor, Gus Mancuso, Frank Linzy, and Jim Bunning. 

Jimmie Foxx (left) in his glory days. His best years were way behind him when he joined a bad Phillies team in 1945.

   W.C. Fields may have joked about Philadelphia but it usually wasn’t very funny for those who put on a Phillies uniform after stand-out careers.

   For many years, the Phillies were the last stop on the major league line.

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April 26, 2021

Should Dick Allen Be in the Hall of Fame?

Dick Allen taking a rip at a pitch from Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson. Should Allen join him in the Hall?

Dick Allen was one of the best players to ever wear a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. He also starred for three other teams during his 15-year career. Some fans believe that Allen wasn’t just an outstanding Phillie; they feel he was one of the greatest players in major league baseball history.

Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

***

To begin, let’s examine Allen’s entire career. Baseball is a game where numbers have been faithfully and carefully accumulated for over 100 years, and therefore you can compare players from wildly different eras. Allen’s stats are impressive, no matter how you count them or whose you compare them to. During his first full season (1964), he hit .318 with 29 homeruns and 91 RBI to earn National League Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Two seasons later, he tore apart opposition pitching with a .317 average that included 40 homeruns and 110 RBI. (His 1966 figures would have been even more impressive had he not missed 20 games due to an injury.)

A young and happy Dick Allen, a year-and-a-half before things in Philly went sour.

But Allen was not just a run-of-the-mill power hitter. He was a force of nature. Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver listed the man from Wampum, Pennsylvania, as the player who scared him the most. Allen didn’t just hit homeruns; his round-trippers were often titanic blasts. During his first stint with the Phillies (1963-1969), the club played their home games at Connie Mack Stadium, which featured a two-deck grandstand in left field. Allen crushed balls that landed on and over the roof of these stands on several occasions.

In 1967, Allen hit a pitch thrown by Nelson Briles of the Cardinals at the old ballpark that traveled an estimated 529 feet. The ball was last seen sailing past the flagpole in dead center field. A year later, Number 15 hit one that cleared the gigantic 75-foot-high scoreboard in right field.

***

Not everybody came to Connie Mack Stadium to boo and verbally abuse Number 15.

Allen’s offensive production continued through the late 1960s, but his relationship with many Philly fans was terrible. The problem began in 1965 when he and veteran journeyman Frank J. Thomas (not The Big Hurt) were both on the Phillies and were involved a pre-game altercation with racial overtones. This fight led to Thomas’ release, resulting in fans booing Allen unmercifully whenever he came to bat or made a mistake in the field. Of course, the boos would be replaced by thunderous cheers whenever the slugger would launch another moonshot into the North Philadelphia night sky.

Allen had been forced to tolerate verbal taunts from hometown Philly fans, including racial epithets. Some fans took to throwing small items at him from the stands, such as batteries, bolts, and coins. To protect himself from thrown objects, Allen wore a batting helmet while playing the field. Hate mail addressed to him regularly arrived at Connie Mack Stadium.

In the face of near-constant abuse, Allen publicly expressed his desire to be traded. Club management demurred, not wanting to part-company with their talented slugger. In frustration, Allen began to do things he felt would force the Phillies to deal him to another team. He showed-up late for games, occasionally arrived at the ballpark under the influence of alcohol and missed team buses and planes. It was during this phase of his career that Allen gained a reputation as a troublemaking problem child.

Allen himself has admitted that he didn’t always handle the adversity in the best manner. “At the time, I thought I was the victim of racism,” he explained years later. “I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did.”

After the incident with Frank Thomas, some fans threw items from the stands at Allen.

To be fair, Allen was under a pressure that few have had to experience in any walk of life, not just baseball. Was it his responsibility to “just take it” from thousands of hometown fans who attended games at Connie Mack Stadium? Can he be faulted for trying to do something to improve his life and pursue his career? Would the morons who heaped abuse on this man stick around under similar circumstances or would they have looked for a way to escape?

The answers to these questions seem obvious.

***

The Phillies finally traded Allen after the 1969 season.

Allen finally got his wish after the 1969 campaign when he was dealt to the Cardinals. After posting good stats for St. Louis in 1970 and the Dodgers in 1971, Allen found himself a member of the Chicago White Sox in the spring of 1972. There he enjoyed his best season since 1966. He hit .308 while walloping 37 homeruns and drove in 113 runs to go along with a .603 OBP. Allen was never considered a great fielder, but in 1972 he finished 2nd in the AL in first base fielding percentage. For his efforts, Dick Allen was named the American League MVP. It was a golden year and the highwater mark of his career. Injuries limited Allen’s playing time in 1973, but in 1974 he led the AL in homeruns (32) before announcing his retirement in September.

With the Phillies playing the next year in a new ballpark and expected to be in contention Allen was convinced to rejoin the team in 1975, but the layoff coupled with no spring training took its toll; Allen only hit .233 with 12 long balls in 1975. He rebounded somewhat in 1976 and was hitting well over .300 at the All-Star break when an injury slowed him down in the 2nd half and limited his playing time. In 85 games that year, Allen hit 15 homeruns and drove-in 49. Had he maintained that level of production over the entire season, his finally tally would have been close to 30 homers and over 90 RBI.

Allen was a NL All-Star third baseman in 1965 and 1966.

After the1976 season, the Phillies and Allen parted company again. The Oakland A’s were looking for some pop in their lineup and signed the aging slugger for 1977. After appearing in 54 games, Allen decided to call it quits for good.

***

The question of whether Dick Allen deserves a spot in Cooperstown can be answered by comparing his career numbers with those who are already in the Hall. It would be easy to favorably compare Number 15’s stats with those of, let’s say, Rabbit Maranville or Bill Mazeroski. Offensively, neither of these outstanding players came close to doing what Allen did at the plate. But that would be too easy and a bit unfair. Rabbit and Bill were tremendous glove men who got their share of hits, and they were also vital members of some great teams. But neither of them put up the kind of numbers that Allen did. Conversely, Allen never approached their greatness as fielders.

An excellent comparison can be made, however, between Allen and Tony Perez. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000, Perez played 23 years in the major leagues. Like Allen, he spent most of his career at third and first. They both played during the same era, so statistical adjustments won’t need to be made for factors like the dead ball, day-time baseball, seasonal league hitting and pitching norms, etc.

Let’s compare their overall career stats:

Perez .279 AVG, .341 OBP, .463 SLG, 379 HR, 1652 RBI, 1272 runs

Allen  .292 AVG, .378 OBP, .534 SLG, 351 HR, 1119 RBI, 1099 runs

So, you can see that Dick Allen’s 15-year career compares favorably with Perez’s. It’s true that Perez had more life-time homers, ribbies, and runs than Allen, but he played eight more seasons. What kind of numbers would the “Wampum Walloper” have compiled had his career lasted 23 years? Allen had a higher lifetime average and on-base percentage than Perez, and in eight less seasons hit just 28 less homeruns. According to the Baseball Reference website, here what “typical” seasons for both players looked like:

Perez  22 HR, 96 RBI, .463 SLG, 74 runs

Allen   33 HR, 104 RBI, .534 SLG, 102 runs

As an every-day player, Dick Allen was clearly a better hitter than Perez. The genial Cuban, Perez, who spent most of his career with the Reds, added to his lifetime stats by playing several seasons at the tail end as a part-timer, including one year with the Phillies (1983). 

Perez does get points for being an important part of some outstanding ball clubs, but should Dick Allen be penalized because his fate was to play for a few mediocre teams? It’s hard to imagine the 1964 Phillies almost winning the pennant without Allen in the lineup. And in 1972, Allen’s performance helped lift the White Sox into playoff contention.

The purpose of this comparison is not to diminish the fine career of Tony Perez. He was a gamer and one of baseball’s best clutch hitters. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. But if he does, so does Dick Allen.

A typical Allen season also compares favorably to other Hall of Famers who played first/third and played about 15 years. The power numbers for Frank Chance and Jimmy Collins are low because they played during an era when the balls weren’t as lively as they would be later in the twentieth century. It was harder to hit homeruns back then:

George Kell (15 years)     .306 AVG, .367 OBP, .414 SLG, 7 HR, 79 RBI, 79 runs

Frank Chance (17 years) .296 AVG, .394 OBP, .394 SLG, 3 HR, 75 RBI, 100 runs

Jimmy Collins (14 years)  .294 AVG, .343 OBP, .409 SLG, HR, 92 RBI, 99 runs

Dick Allen (15 years)        .292 AVG, .378  OBP, .534 SLG, 33 HR,104 RBI, 102 runs

David Fleming points out at Bill James Online that Dick Allen was the best hitter in baseball over a ten-year period, using the “adjusted on-base-plus-slugging” stat (ops+). Here are the ops+ numbers for players between 1964 and 1973 (Allen’s prime). Seventeen Hall of Famers played 1000 or more games during those ten years. Dick Allen had a better ops+ than all of them, and there are some pretty good names on the list:

Nameops+
Dick Allen165
Hank Aaron161
Willie McCovey161
Frank Robinson161
Harmon Killebrew152
Willie Stargell152
Roberto Clemente    151
Willie Mays148
Frank Howard147
Carl Yastrzemski145
Al Kaline140
Boog Powell140
Billy Williams139
Tony Oliva137
Ron Santo136
  
Ted Williams pouted about the press, made profane gestures at the fans, and once got so mad that he let flyballs to the outfield drop in front of him. He’s in the Hall-of-Fame.
Allen had a higher OPS than Pirate legend Willie Stargell

As Fleming concludes: “Dick Allen really was the best hitter in baseball, for a span of ten years.”

***

So, Dick Allen was one of the premier sluggers of his era and racked-up numbers equal-to or better-than many who are already in the Hall of Fame. The main stumbling block to his candidacy seems to be the rap that he was a troublemaking bad boy who caused problems in the clubhouse. Even if this was true (and there are many who played alongside Allen who said this was not the case), since when is a bad-boy image criteria for exclusion from baseball’s immortals? Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and even Ted Williams were all self-absorbed jerks at times. Those troubled souls are in the Hall of Fame and nobody asks why. (And let’s not even get into the steroid-era debate. Imagine what Allen would have done if he had been on the juice, which he never was.)

My argument is that—based on the statistics alone—Number 15 belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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April 20, 2021

Visit to an Old Friend

What follows first appeared as Chapter 14 of my book Stealing First and Other Old-Time Baseball Stories (Sunbury Press 2020)

   The late summer morning had begun gray and had evolved lazily into a gloomy afternoon. On the train rumbling toward North Philadelphia, I passed the time apprehensively looking up at the sky through the tinted rail window. The horizon was swollen and dark. Unlike some of my friends, I couldn’t afford to waste money on train fare just to find out the game had been canceled. So I hoped, prayed and crossed my fingers that the Phillies would play the Houston Astros as scheduled.

    I grew-up in the 1960s and 70s in that famous suburb northeast of Philly, Levittown, PA. We played a lot of sports in my neighborhood; with the “baby Boom” in full-swing, it was never hard to find enough kids to get a game to get a pick-up game of something going.  And every now and then, a bunch of us would hop a train to Philly to see the Phillies play baseball at Connie Mack Stadium. The Phillies back then were terrible but it was still fun to take the 45-minute train ride to see the big boys play ball. Plus my pals and I always had a lot of laughs, even if the game stunk.

For 50 cents we could take a train from Levittown station to North Philadelphia where the stadium was located.

   By the time of my last visit, Connie Mack Stadium had deteriorated in proportion to the Phillies chronic lack of success on the field. The ballpark, built in 1909, was basically a dump. I remember ancient, filthy bathrooms that smelled awful and mildew that clung to the walls under the grandstand. Seating was bad; spectators paid for a couple of hours in hard, wooden chairs that had been painted numerous times to mask their age. A thin, opaque grime had settled on the ballpark, a gift courtesy of the smokestack industries that surrounded the neighborhood and the city.

   Despite this, Connie Mack Stadium possessed certain charms, such as a neatly-manicured, lush green grass playing surface. Beyond the stinky rest rooms, your sense of smell was massaged by the aroma of hot dogs, popcorn and beer. And if you weren’t saddled with a seat obstructed by metal support beam, it was a great place to watch a game. Fans were close to the action and you didn’t need binoculars to see the players.

    I remember the air being oppressively heavy and moist that afternoon in August as my friends and I walked the six blocks from the train station to Connie Mack Stadium. 

   They’ll NEVER play, I thought.

   But I began to feel encouraged when the ballpark’s prominent arc light standards became visible above the skyline. With each step, Connie Mack Stadium grew larger and larger, and soon seemed bigger than anything nature could hurl its way.

   Traffic around the ballpark was light, a harbinger of the eventual sparse crowd of less-than-4,000.  The stadium’s capacity was 33,000; few would have wanted to spend the afternoon in the sunshine watching the Phillies muddle their way through another hapless nine-innings, even less in what looked like an approaching rain storm.

Jesus Alou was very friendly to fans and seemed to enjoy signing autographs.

   Lines at the ticket windows were nonexistent.  My friends and I purchased our one dollar admission tickets, bought programs for 50 cents that included a free, small red pencil to keep score with and headed for the dugout areas. Our seats were in the upper deck “nose bleed” section but we wanted to get a few autographs before the game started. In those days, it was easier to do. There was less of a preoccupation with keeping fans away from the players.

   The first player we pestered was Jesus Alou of the Astros. He was good-natured, talkative and seemed to appreciate the attention.

   “What is this?” he asked when my friend, Tim, handed him a program to sign. Alou pointed towards a photo of All-Star Mets pitcher Tom Seaver featured prominently on the front.

   “How come no Phillies on the cover?”  Alou asked. “They have some good players, no?”

No,” someone, I forget who, wisecracked.  Alou smiled as we snickered and scribbled his signature with one of those little red pencils across Tom Seaver’s face.

   Alou looked at me and said “Maybe you be on this cover someday, no?”

   The Houston outfielder was a large, muscular man and being so close to him was a little intimidating. I smiled nervously and handed him my program. Alou quickly signed his name and reached for another souvenir.

    A few minutes later, we migrated to the lower deck seating area near the left field foul pole. Several Phillies were running wind sprints in the outfield. Grizzled veteran Jim Bunning seemed to be working the hardest.

Future Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning

   As Bunning stopped momentarily to catch his breath, I leaned up against the rusty, metal screen and hollered “Hey Jim! Do you think you’d have a better record if you pitched for a better team?”

   Hands on his knees, Bunning looked up at me, and looked like he was thinking.

   “Son, I can’t answer that,” he finally said and then took off toward centerfield.

    “He’s washed-up,” another one of my pals, Brian said.

    Lee, nicknamed “Fatman”, shouted “OLD GEEZER!” loud enough for everyone in the ballpark to hear.

    Of all the guys-in-the-neighborhood, Lee was the one you could count on to say or do something outrageous.

    “You better watch it, Fatman,” Bobby warned. “He might come back and kick your butt.”

   Bobby was the leader of our pack; a smart kid with tons of athletic ability. He was a year older than me I was 13 at the time); if Bobby had had a bent towards crime, we would have all probably ended up in jail. Instead, we kept ourselves busy much of the time playing sports.

   Lee stuck out his chin, straightened his shoulders and clenched a fist.

   “I’ll kick HIS butt!” he announced.

    The rest of us hooted and Bobby said, “Yeah, right!”

    Reserve infielder and pinch hitter Rick Joseph stretched his bulky sinews near the third base coaching box. With a bead of perspiration rolling down his cheek, he glanced at the clouds that loitered over the stadium and muttered, “C’mon thundershower!”

    Bobby and I watched him for a few moments and then whispered, “What a lazy bum.”

    Joseph was a little bit too close for Bobby to express himself any louder. I agreed with the analysis and nodded.

   Just then, mountainous Houston first baseman John Mayberry walked by. He dwarfed me and my buddies, and if the sun had been out, seemed like he could have cast a shadow on half of the lower deck.

   We waited until it was almost game time to go to our seats. On the way up, all of us except Lee bought sodas; he bought a plastic cup of vanilla ice cream.

   A few rows down, an old man in a battered Phillies cap champed on a fat cigar.

    “This ice cream sucks,” Lee announced.

   “Like you,” my friend Tim said, several seats away and out of Lee’s’s beefy reach.

    “Ooooooooooooooo!” went the rest of us.

   Lee flipped him the bird and then stood-up. At first, I thought he was going to take a poke at Tim. Instead, the Fatman walked down to the edge of the upper deck.

    “You guys dare me to throw this at Joseph?” he asked.

   “You better not,” cautious Jerry warned. “We might get in trouble.”

    “Shut-up, Spigot,” Brian hissed. (“Spigot” was Jerry’s nickname.)

   “Yeah,” I added. “Stop being a wienie!”

    Jerry responded with rolled eyes and a shake of the head.

    “You won’t do it,” Bobby told Lee.

    “Wanna bet?”

    “You’re a wuss, you won’t do it.”

   “Oh, yeah? Get down here and you’ll see.”

   Everyone, except Jerry, scrambled down several rows to join Lee.

   “OK, there he is,” Tim said, pointing at the target who was standing near the Phillies dugout.

   With a mighty wind-up, Lee gave the partially-eaten ice cream cup a pitch. The frozen novelty whizzed over the shoulder of an usher and landed PLOP! smack-dab-on-top of the infielder’s head.

   “Nice shot, Sonny,” the old fellow with the cigar said through clenched teeth.

   It took Joseph a couple of seconds to realize what happened. When the partially-melted ice cream began to ooze into his eyes, the infielder began to stomp around, wiping his face with his sleeves, and saying things veryloudly in Spanish.

    After regaining his composure, Joseph looked up menacingly in our direction. All he saw were rows and rows of empty seats, an old guy with a beat-up Phillies cap, and five young choir boys, sitting innocently in anticipation of an afternoon of baseball.

    We waited until Joseph stepped into the Phillies dugout and then we laughed and laughed.

   Even Jerry

   The rain held off and the game was played in its’ entirety. The sun even made several brief appearances; each time casting a sickly yellow glow over the playing field.  Surprisingly, the Phillies won 4-0.  Whoopee! It wasn’t exactly the seventh game of the World Series, but back then, us Phillies fans took everything we could get.

Phillies first baseman Deron Johnson hit a long homerun in the club’s 4-0 victory.

   From our perch along the first base line, I remember feeling a gnawing sadness as I gazed around the nearly-empty ballpark several times.  The Phillies were scheduled to move into a shiny, new stadium in 1971.  On one level, I looked forward to the change. A new ballpark would be cool, I thought. But as the game progressed, one thought dampened any enjoyment I might have experienced at the rare occurrence of a Phillies victory:

   I was losing a friend.

 Sure, Connie Mack Stadium was stinky and decrepit. But it had been a part of my life, all my life.

   Soon, it would be gone.

   Forever.

I’ll never forget visiting my old friend, Connie Mack Stadium.

   If my pals hadn’t been around, I might have cried.

    After the game, as we headed back to the train station for the trip home, I turned around slowly in the parking lot and took one long, last look at the old ball yard.

   Large raindrops began to fall around us. A low rumble of thunder followed a moment later.

   “We better roll or we’ll get soaked!” Bobby exclaimed.

    With a sigh, I joined my pals as we began to run for the train.

______________________________________________________________________________________

April 2, 2021

BOOOOOOO!!!

Del Ennis was a prototype of the typical 1950s power hitter. He consistently drove-in 100 or more runs and hit more-than-a-few long balls. When the Philadelphia native broke into the majors in 1946, he came highly-touted. While Ennis served in the military, more than one time tried to wrest the muscular outfielder away from the Phillies.

Outfielder Del Ennis was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Phillies uniform.

Ennis had a fine rookie campaign, hitting .313 with 17 home runs and 73 runs-batted-in. These numbers might not seem so impressive now but keep in mind that this was during the pre-steroid era when a player built muscle mass without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Back then, 30-35 home runs (and sometimes less) was usually enough to lead one of the major leagues in homers.

 For many years in the first half of the 20th century, the Phillies were one of the worst franchises in baseball, if not the worst. 90-100 loss seasons were common until the late 1940s when the team began to improve. Fueled by an owner who didn’t hesitate to spend money to sign and keep outstanding young players, the “Whiz Kids” Phillies won the pennant in 1950. Ennis had his best season in ’50, hitting .311 with 126 RBI. In July of that year, the slugging outfielder drove-in 41 of his teammates, still a club record for one month.

 The ’50 campaign established Ennis as the Phillies’ power guy and expectations were high every time he came to the plate. As-a-matter-of-fact, expectations were too high. When Ennis slumped in 1951 (only 71 RBI), the infamous Philly boo-birds made him their regular target. Ennis responded to the pressure beautifully in 1952 and beyond:

1952   107 RBI

1953   125 RBI

1954   119 RBI

1955   120 RBI

1956     95 RBI

Ennis Bowman Gum card from the 1950s

 In a game against St. Louis in 1954, Ennis dropped a fly ball that allowed the Cardinals to score three unearned runs. For the next few innings, thunderous boos rained down upon Ennis from every corner of a jam-packed Connie Mack Stadium. The right-handed slugger got his revenge in the 9th inning when he crushed a baseball up on the roof in left field for a three-run homer and a Phillies victory.

Del Ennis was also good with the glove. Twice, he led NL left fielders in fielding percentage and four times in assists. The two-time All-Star was not a slow-footed behemoth, stealing 45 bases in his career. Ricky Henderson can rest easy but, along with the glove work, it is proof that Ennis could hurt you with more than his potent bat.

The Phillies began to dismantle the aging “Whiz Kids” in the late 50s; Ennis was sent to St. Louis where he slammed 24 home runs and plated 105 in ’57. After playing another season with the Cardinals, Ennis finished his playing career as a part-timer with the Reds and White Sox in 1959.

Fans at Connie Mack Stadium perfected the art of the baseball “Boo!”

For his career, the 190-pounder crashed 288 home runs and knocked-in 1284 runs. In 1983, Ennis was named to the Philadelphia Phillies Centennial Team and the team has also honored their one-time leftfielder with a plaque on their Wall-of-Fame at Citizen’s Bank Park.

   After hanging up his spikes, Ennis ran a successful bowling alley in suburban Philadelphia and bred greyhound dogs for use in racing. He passed away in 1996 from complications from diabetes. He was 70.

The boo birds didn’t appreciate the man, as they wouldn’t appreciate the enormous talent known as Richard Anthony Allen in the 1960s.

But that was their loss.

In the mid to late 1960s, Phillies star Dick Allen was the target of relentless booing EXCEPT when he crashed one of those long home runs.

Some things just don’t make any rational sense.

Like booing two of the finest players ever to wear Phillies uniforms.

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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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