Friday, March 30, 2018

Off The Shelf: I Was Right On Time, by Buck O'Neil

Shortly after the debut of the seminal documentary Baseball by Ken Burns, Buck O'Neil found himself getting more and more requests to speak and travel and share the stories of his life and the Negro Leagues. With the assistance of Steve Wulf and David Conrads, O'Neil put many of those anecdotes in print as a memoir. I Was Right On Time is a straightforward re-telling of O'Neil's life from birth through his playing, coaching, and scouting days. The book contains many of the stories shared in the documentary, though he is about to fill in the stories with greater detail.  

The Negro Leagues had been long overdue for discussion and recognition by the rest of the sporting world for decades. At the time this book was published there was finally a more keen interest in the men and women that shaped the game. O'Neil's book is greatly overshadowed by his magnetic presence- it seems like a more sterile and silted version of the enthusiastic and passionate man many of us got to know through his interviews.

He names his all-time team from the Negro Leagues in the book, starting with the prodigiously powerful catcher Josh Gibson. Gibson's story of incredible talent and eventual tragedy is worthy of many deeper re-tellings.

Buck Leonard was compared to Lou Gehrig offensively, and Hal Chase defensively. Buck O describes Buck L as the most studious ballplayer he ever knew, and would often be seen in the hotel lobbies working on crosswords or buried in a book before games or travel. As Gibson's teammate, they led a formidable offensive attack in Pittsburgh and captured 9 consecutive pennants. 

At second base, Buck selected the diminutive Newt Allen, a 22 year veteran in Kansas City and Saint Louis. Newt was known for his strong throwing arm and impressive speed.

At Short, Buck chose Willie Wells. He compares Wells to Ozzie Smith in the field, with excellent range and powerful throws from the hole. Wells was also a great hitter - statistical records of course for the league are still being disputed and collected, but he's credited with a .320 lifetime average over 22 seasons in the Negro Leagues. He hit .420 in 1930 for the Saint Louis Stars, and was known to aggressively take the extra base, stretching singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

At the Hot Corner, Buck named the great Ray Dandridge, who was never given a chance in the majors but did see some time in the Giants' farm system towards the end of his playing days. The photo above is from his time in Minneapolis with the Millers.

Buck's anecdote about Ray's bowlegs - "On the field, they said a train would have a better chance going through Ray's legs than a baseball, and I do believe they were right."

Turkey Stearnes is Buck's selection in Left Field. He was six time HR leader, and was known to talk to his bats. He would carry the bats around in a special case, not unlike Ichiro today.

While Buck talks at length about Cool Papa Bell (There's even a great story about the legend that Cool Papa was "so fast, he could turn off the lights and jump into bed before the room got dark"), the fact is that Oscar Charleston was going to be the Centerfielder on Buck's team. The truth is we'll never know how great he was, but names like Cobb, Ruth, Mays, etc. are a good start. Charleston was a complete player in every sense of the word. He was said to be able to "cover more ground than grass," hit for power and average, and in his later years was a respected mentor to young players. As Buck put it "This man not only encompassed the Negro Leagues, he symbolized the Negro Leagues, with his heart and his spirit and his talent." 

From a Turkey in Left to a Mule in Right. Mule Suttles rivaled Josh Gibson in terms of raw power. He swung a 50 ounce bat! Suttles was a coal miner like Honus Wagner, and his roughness was on display with every moon shot he blasted into the stands. His numbers are Ruthian, with astronomical slugging and on base figures. 

Buck's best friend during their playing days was also one of the greatest pitchers of all time. There are many great stories about Satchel in the book, including the story about why he called Buck "Nancy" for most of his life. Paige of course was finally given the opportunity to pitch in the majors when he well past his pitching prime, but his ability and knowledge were still impressive enough to help lead Cleveland to their most recent World Series victory.

This book was a quick read, and a fun read. I'd also recommend Joe Posnanski's travelogue with Buck O'Neil, The Soul of Baseball. There are some great stories in I Was Right On Time, it's definitely worth your time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Joe Mauer in the 1960s Happy #NationalJoeDay

The Senators' final year in D.C. came and went, but not without a bang.  The rumors swirling about the Griffith's imminent departure did not have an affect on the bat of young slugger Joe Mauer, now in his 5th full season. The 26 year old has already done the unthinkable- winning a batting title from behind the plate. In 1960, Joe made it three batting titles in four seasons! The Senators acquired young catcher Earl Battey (and Don Mincher) in a head scratcher from Chicago in exchange for veteran slugger Roy Sievers. Battey was admirable filling in for Mauer behind the plate in a pinch, but the talented backstop finds himself in a familiar situation watching another player at the top of his manager's lineup card. Battey's time may have to come with yet another Team, as Joe Mauer wins an MVP in 1960. Fan Favorite Yankee Bombers Maris and Mantle split the votes on Broadway, paving the way to Joe's big win. 

1961:  The Senators are on the move! Mauer finds himself feeling right at home in Bloomington, MN, just a few miles from his childhood home in Saint Paul. He speaks fondly of attending minor league games in the 50s as a youth, pitting the Minneapolis Millers against his hometown Saint Paul Saints in a "Minnesota Nice" rivalry. The newly named Twins get their moniker for Joe's hometown and its neighboring "Twin" City of Minneapolis. Mauer again tops the .300 mark, and for the third straight season he wins a silver slugger and a gold glove, the new awards that seem to have been crafted with Mauer's unique blend of skills in mind. Mauer was also the starting catcher on the 1961 AL All-Star team.

1962: Mauer on the Mend.  The position where Joe Mauer plys his trade is not for the faint of heart. A lingering issue with his legs early in the season derailed what promised to be another typical Mauer season of excellence. Earl Battey finally gets his chance to shine and earns his first Gold Glove, carrying the torch for the Minnesota franchise, along with the fine fielding feline fireballer pitcher Jim Kaat.

1963: Mind over Mauer. Joe's patience prevails, and he returns after a tough season to nearly lead the league in on base percentage, finishing with a .416 mark, just two points behind Young Yaz in Boston, but well ahead of the rest of the pack. He returned again to the AL All-star squad, now for the 5th time. His teammate Bob Allison probably should have been league MVP, as he led the league in WAR (your kids are gonna love it), OPS, and runs scored. 

1964: Mild Mannered Mauer. Not much fanfare, and another bite from the injury bug threatened to ruin an up and coming Twins team. Veteran Joe Mauer hasn't hit for big power numbers, but his ability to get on base frequently and avoid strikeouts has certainly helped teammates' Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison's RBI totals. Young phenom Tony Oliva and Jimmie Hall provided plenty of pop as well for the Twins, seemingly poised to take the next step in the American League standings. 

1965: Mauer Misses Mid-Summer Meet Up. The leg injuries and the more recent mysterious head injuries have taken their toll on Mauer, who has moved from behind the plate to first base. Previously a fixture at the All-Star Game each summer, Mauer is not selected to the squad despite the game being hosted in his home stadium. Mauer serves instead as a "Goodwill Ambassador" for the game and the people of the Twin Cities.   

1966: Mauer, Mercurial. While playing in the most games in his major league career in the 1966 season, Mauer nonetheless seems to be battling old demons again. Despite the joy of reaching the World Series last year, the bittersweet memory of losing Game 7 to the Golden Arm of Sandy Koufax will linger for some time to come. Mauer's 1966 season was promising in some respects, though he had career highs in strikeouts, and career lows in batting average.

1967: Mauer Missing Missles. The hard contact that typified the prime years of Mauer's career come less often now, but there are still flashes of brilliance for the hometown hero. His rate stats and counting stats don't show it, and his second position of First Base is being usurped by other walking wounded players like Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, but Mauer continued his march on history in 1967. His heroics late in the season were nearly enough to avert disaster, but the Red Sox still won those last games in August to seize the pennant from a shocked Twins club.

1968: reMade Mauer? A Renaissance of sorts happened for Mauer in 1968, eclipsing the .300 mark for the first time since 1964, and once again showing the patient approach at the plate that made him one of the Junior Circuits' finest hitters. Nearly missing the postseason in 1967 has sharpened the Twins' resolve, and while there is a bit of a competition to find playing time for the teams' lumbering giants, Mauer was still able to shine in his role as a team leader.

1969: Milestone Mauer.  Joe reached 400 Doubles in 1968, and is poised to hit several marks in 1969. With a healthy season, Mauer can expect to crack his 2,000th career hit, score his 1,000th run, and reach 900 career runs batted in. We'll be very interested to watch his progress, and to see how his low key approach will mesh with new manager Billy Martin, a fiery and passionate former New York Yankee.     

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The 1974 Topps Rookie All-Star Team - Mike Hargrove

Here they are - the Topps All-Star Rookie Team, selected "by the Youth of America" following the 1974 season and featured in the 1975 Topps set. 

I have completed the run of these up through 2018 Series One, at least all regular issue cards that bear the All-Star Rookie Trophy. 

Topps decided to skip the Trophies on the 1974 Topps Set, but they made a triumphant return in 1975. I wanted to show my appreciation for this expression of good judgement, so for the 1974 Lineup, I will do a separate post for each player. This was a pretty good crop of players, so let's dive in! 
First Baseman - Mike Hargrove

Mike Hargrove burst onto the scene in 1974, and battled the great Rod Carew for the AL batting crown all season long. He ultimately did not have enough plate appearances to qualify, but his .323 average was second only to Carew's .364 mark.

The hitting prowess was not a complete surprise- the year before his rookie season he outpaced his league in batting average by over 50 points - no other player in his league cracked .300. He finished the season with .351. Hargrove was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1974, even with teammate Jim Sundberg finishing the year with a higher WAR (most of that coming defensively as a catcher).

Things went quite well for Hargrove in his home state of Texas, making the All-Star squad in 1975 for the first and only time in his career. He was a very patient hitter. His deliberate and extensive routine before each plate appearance and between each pitch earned the ire of opposing pitchers and the nickname "The Human Rain Delay." Between each pitch Hargrove would step out of the batter's box, adjust his helmet, re-fasten each batting glove, hitch up each sleeve, and wipe each hand on his pants before returning to the box. To add to the frustration on the mound, he was also notoriously difficult to strike out and was adept at fouling off two strike offerings.

Following the 1978 season, Hargrove was included in a package of players to San Diego in exchange for, among others, Oscar Gamble. Hargove's stint in San Diego might be best described as "Forgettable." He played in 52 games, hit just .195 with no home runs. He was promptly traded in June of 1979 to Cleveland for outfielder Paul Dade. The next chapter of his career was much sunnier, away from the 17 foot high walls of San Diego and into the Mistake by the Lake, Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. In Cleveland, Hargrove had 5 more productive seasons, leading the AL in OBP in 1981, and continuing his patient approach at the plate. His career OBP is .396, 75th All-Time, which puts him in the same company as players like Rod Carew (.395), John Olerud (.398), and Richie Ashburn (.396) to name a few.

His career in baseball did not stop with his playing days. Following his retirement in 1985, he became a coach, then minor league manager. He made his way up through the Cleveland system quickly, and was named Manager mid way through the 1991 Season. He led Cleveland to AL Division titles every year from 1995 through 1999, and in 1997 was a game away from winning a World Series title. He had brief stops in Baltimore and Seattle. He left the Mariners in the midst of a 7 game winning streak in 2007. Others speculated that there was feud between Hargrove and Ichiro, but Hargove denies this and stated he left the team because he no longer felt the competitive fire he once did.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

OMG They Waived Kennys -- You Bastards!

It was a foregone conclusion that Kennys Vargas would not be on the Twins' 40 Man Roster after the signing of Logan Morrison. The team just did not have the space on the major league club with Morrison and Joe Mauer playing first base. With no minor league options remaining, the Twins placed Kennys on waivers and he was claimed on Thursday by the Cincinnati Reds.

Signed as an "international" free agent from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in 2009, meaning he was the 2nd longest tenured Twin on the Roster after Joe Mauer. Brian Dozier was drafted by the Twins a few months later.

The switch hitting Vargas is one of a kind, and while he is not likely to become the next David Ortiz, I will continue to root for him, regardless of the uniform. Best of luck to Vargas in Cincinnati!


Oh, well then... It's not often that a player is re-claimed that quickly. The dance will continue, however, as the Twins will still need to pass Vargas through waivers again if the want to keep him in the organization but in the minor leagues.

Hey - I am still looking for the 2015 Topps Clear parallel of Vargas. It looks like the card above, but with a back like the card below. It's numbered to just 10 copies, so most of these are probably trapped inside unopened hobby boxes somewhere.

Good to have you back, Kennys, hope you can stick around for a while!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Gopher Cards? Required Learning!

Here in MN, the Golden Gophers have been about as fierce as they sound during my lifetime in baseball and football. But there was a period of time in the 70s when the University saw several outstanding athletes. Jim from cards as i see them sent over a mailer highlighted by some Hall of Fame locals.

Morris went to Brigham Young, but just like Winfield and Molitor, he spent his high school career in Saint Paul, MN.

Jim sent along several more Twins, including a snazzy metallic blue Ozzie Arcia rookie, numbered to just 250.

Hoping for a healthy and productive season for phenom Byron Buxton, and on the other end of the spectrum, Rick Stelmaszek was a fixture on the Twins' bench for 32 years - the longest tenure of any Twins coach. He was briefly a MLB catcher (his only career homer cam against HOFer Don Sutton), but made his mark in coaching, serving as bullpen coach and bench for 5 different Twins skippers.

The toast of the town in 1987 and 1988? Frank Viola!

Thanks again, Jim - I've always got an eye out for Dodgers for ya.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Theory of Everything

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is, and why it exists at all.   -- Stephen Hawking

My goal is simple - collecting a Joe Mauer card in every flagship Topps design. Mauer's career began just after Topps started its tour of Heritage designs, and as a result he's been featured on quite a few different designs over the years.

Joe was still working his way up from the Minors when the 1955 Topps Heritage set came out, but he was featured on this 2014 3X5 ad for Topps online cards.

He's been on a Heritage card every year since then, racking up designs throughout the 50s and 1960s.

Even with his brief minor league career, he's been on Topps flagship every year since 2002, including one of the few "rookie / prospect" cards to feature 2 league MVPs. The 2018 Topps card just arrived today via Jim aka GCRL -- Thanks Jim! More from that mailing coming soon.

It's probably easier to list out the years that he's still missing- though I'm not sure the 1976 OPC above should count.  He should get a 1970 Heritage card next year, leaving 1973, 74, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 88, 92, 93, 94, 95, 97, 98, 99, 00, and 01. Several of those designs were featured in Archives, but Joe either was on one of the other designs or omitted from the set that year altogether.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Twins Spring Forward and Go All Lynn

Well, it looks like the Twins were not satisfied with Anibal Sanchez filling out the rotation in 2018, so they went out and signed long-time Cardinal Lance Lynn to a one-year deal. Lynn led the league in 2017 with 33 starts and had a nice comeback season. He was an All-Star in 2012, and has been a fixture in the middle of the Cardinals' rotation ever since.

He's logged nearly 1,000 Innings and sports an ERA under 4, which is definitely going to help out a rotation that will be missing its ace, Ervin Santana, until at least May. Lynn was offered a 2 year deal from the Twins earlier in the offseason, which he declined because he (and/or his agency) believed it to be a lowball offer. Lynn missed all of 2016 due to injury, and signing him means the Twins will forfeit a draft pick in 2018 to the Cardinals, both of which may have hurt Lynn's value.  Daylight Savings Time apparently applies to free agents, too. 

No one's going to be asking me to make customs anytime soon, but I decided to make myself laugh with this silly cut and paste job. Welcome to the Twins, Lance!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Guess Who *Else* Is Coming To Spring Training?

"Hmm, is that a sunset? I don't think so!"

Ichiro is 44 years old, but he still has the fire and desire to play at the major league level.

It's been a slow off-season for a lot of veteran players, and it was starting to look like Ichiro was going to have to find work back in Japan.

Not yet! The Seattle Mariners have stepped up to make a 1 year offer to the all-time great. No Sunset for Ichiro, we're going to get to enjoy him a little bit longer.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Guess Who's Coming To Spring Training?

The Twins have rarely been active in free agency. The Wild Card berth last season, combined with new front office personnel has changed things a bit. They saw big needs in the bullpen and in the rotation, and the first big signing of the off-season was the Mercurial Mercenary, right handed closer Fernando Rodney. The soon to be 41 year old is a 3-time All-Star, with 300 career saves. For his career, he averages a strikeout per inning, which is something the bullpen desperately needed.

Thankfully, the Twins did not stop there, bolstering the bullpen further with another pair of high quality arms. Lefty specialist Zach Duke battled the injury bug in 2017 -- pitching just 18.1 innings for the Cardinals. The Twins are counting on him regaining the magic from 2014 through 2016, when he piled up over 200 strikeouts for Milwaukee, Chicago, and Saint Louis. Addison Reed split last season with the Mets and the Red Sox, closing games for New York, and setting up for Kimbrel in Boston. He too struck out batters with regularity in recent years, providing velocity, depth, and a veteran presence.

The Twins still had work to do on the mound, and after missing out on Yu Darvish, acquired Jake Odorizzi from the Rays in exchange for minor leaguer Jermaine Palacios. This was the third time Jake had been traded, first from the Brewers in the Zach Grienke trade, then to the Rays along with Wil Myers for James Shields. Last season, his ERA+ was exactly league average, and he had his lowest innings total since his rookie season. He certainly doesn't replace Darvish, and he won't out pitch Ervin Santana's 2017 production either. But the fact is that even a league average arm helps the Twins' rotation immensely.

The surprise signing of the spring was Logan Morrison, who seemed destined to go wherever Eric Hosmer didn't go between KC and San Diego. The addition of a 30+ homer bat to the middle of the lineup is nothing to sneeze at. Morrison decided to come to the Twins over KC (who also submitted an offer) because he wanted to play for a team with a chance to contend. This was a pleasant surprise - however it probably means the end of the line for my favorite Twin, Kennys Vargas, who is now out of minor league options.

I had been waiting to make this post because I was hoping the Twins would add another starter, especially considering that Ervin Santana will miss a month or so to start the season. They instead gave a contract to Anibal Sanchez, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. If he is healthy and can figure out the mechanical issues that derailed his final years in Detroit, he could make for a decent 5th starter. The Twins also signed a trio of former MLB regulars to minor league deals to provide depth and some injury insurance. Chris Heisey, Jordan Pacheco, and Erick Aybar aren't likely to crack the 25 Man Roster, but having these guys in camp provides a little competition for the younger players like backup catcher Mitch Garver, and incentive for veterans like Robbie Grossman and Eduardo Escobar to stay on their toes.