Monday, September 13, 2010

"The Dodgers, Are They Still in the League?"

I love September. September means my birthday, pumpkin spice lattes, apple cider, sweaters, fall foliage and of course the excitement of pennant races! To me, the drama is much like that of a good suspense novel. I have the same physical reactions of a racing heart and shallow quick breaths during particularly tense moments. I breathe a sigh of relief when "the good guys" make a narrow escape (only to get in trouble again way too soon!). I wonder if the story will end as I predicted from the start or if there will be a shocking twist. Each September as baseball fans watch the drama play out they often look back at the most dramatic surprise endings in the past, the biggest September collapses. Bill Terry's 1934 New York Giants generally make the list. The 1934 Giants' story is complete with drama, the twist ending and foreshadowing.

Terry took over as manager of the Giants in 1932 when John McGraw swallowed his pride and asked his star first baseman to replace him at the helm. This was the first conversation between the two since an argument two years prior. Terry took the struggling Giants and led them to a World Series Championship in 1933. All signs seemed to point to the team returning to the series in 1934.

In those days, just like today, fans, players and journalists sized up the teams and predicted the season's outcome long before the first cry of "Play Ball!" rang out in the spring. This January 1934 Miami News article reports on Terry's response when asked about the threat posed by the Giants' rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers. "The Dodgers, are they still in the league?" And there it is, Chekhov's gun. The comment made national news and riled the Brooklyn fans who vowed to beat the Giants. Come September, as the season was drawing to a close, Terry's comment seemed inconsequential, however. On September 5 Hugh Fullerton wrote that the Giants had a "seven game lead and handsome prospects of settling the pennant race before they leave the Polo grounds again." On that day, the Dodgers were in sixth place, 28 games out of first place and officially eliminated from the pennant race.

A week later, it still wasn't the Dodgers that Bill Terry was concerned about, but the Pirates, who handed the Giants their third straight loss at home. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, "it's big news when the Giants lose three straight games and bigger news when they lose them in their beloved Polo Grounds." For the first time the Giants' playoff chances seemed threatened, with the Saint Louis Cardinals now only four games out of first place. Or, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, "perhaps they haven't the pennant in the bag after all."

It turns out they did not have it in the bag. The Milwaukee Journal describes what happens in the final weeks of the season,
"The way the Giants and Cardinals have been paddling backward at the pennant is a scream.... Every time the Giants faltered some sucker section of the wheel waded in and beat them. The Cards over and over appeared about to expunge themselves from the contender list but each time they stepped into a series with a lot of tough mugs, they suddenly were fighting cripples. At crucial moments the Cards got the breaks by injuries in the ranks of the Phillies, the Cubs, the Braves and the Dodgers. The Giants reached the home stretch sliding on a streak of luck as wide as the Mississippi, while the Cards scrambled home over the lame, the blind and the halt, towed by Dizzy and Daffy Dean."
With just two games left in their schedule the Giants were tied with the Cardinals for the National League title. The team they had to beat to claim the pennant? Chekhov's gun. I mean, the Dodgers. The Dodgers were reportedly, "smiling sinister smiles and licking their chops in anticipation of knocking the New Yorkers off a couple of times over the weekend." Brooklyn's fan's weren't just anxious to ruthlessly prick the Giants' gonfalon bubble because of their long standing rivalry, this Reading Eagle article reports that the fans were "still peeved over Bill Terry's disparaging remark's about their club last winter." They took both games from the Giants while the Cardinals beat the Reds in each of their final two games. The Giants finished two games behind the Cards. The Reading Eagle reported Mr. Terry found out the Dodgers were, in fact, still in the league and "performed the humiliating rite of consuming a large dish of crow." The Cardinals. led by the Dean brothers, went on to beat the Tigers and win the World Series.

Reading about the 1934 Giants' demise makes me approach the final weeks of this season with even more anticipation and an "anything can happen" attitude. It also makes me think about how what I say can come back to bite me. Oh, don't worry friends, I'm not going to stop the friendly trash talking on Facebook and my personal Twitter page. My friends know that my love for the game runs far deeper than any team allegiances. We bond over that love and enjoy the lighthearted sparring. Sure sometimes I have to eat my words when it comes to baseball, but I can handle that. Terry's dish of crow does make me think of the power of words. His words stuck with Dodgers and their fans and maybe gave them an extra incentive to play their hardest in those final games. With two daughters in junior high I have seen how statements that used to get laughed off can now result in tears. The more I use Twitter and Facebook the more I see misunderstandings or disagreements because people feel free to post whatever is on their mind, without much thought of how it will be received. I'll try to remember Bill Terry's lesson and think before I speak because I'd rather spend my September enjoying pumpkin spice lattes and not crow.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Physician of the Pitching Emergency

When New York Giants' Manger John McGraw began using Otis "Doc" Crandall regularly as a relief pitcher during the Deadball Era he employed a new strategy that would eventually become the norm. The report "From Exile to Specialist: The Evolution of the Relief Pitcher" shows that at the beginning of the 1900's more than 80% of games were completed by the starting pitcher and and when averaged out, fewer than .25 relief pitchers appeared per game. By the year 2000, less than 10% of games were complete games and approximately 2.5 relief pitchers appeared per game. This transition saw relievers move from second-rate pitchers with high earned run averages to specialists with low ERAs.

Doc Crandall is generally seen as the first true specialist in relief pitching, leading the league in relief appearances from 1909-1913. Other managers had started to experiment with pitching changes, but McGraw showed the most dedication to honing the relief pitcher strategy and settled in with Doc. Although Crandall served in the starting role as well, he flourished under pressure. In his book Pitching in a Pinch, Crandall's teammate Christy Mathewson tells of a 1911 game that Crandall started after not having served as a starting pitcher for some time. Crandall got in trouble around inning 4 or 5, with three on and none out but managed to get out of it with no runs scored. Mathewson reports,
"After he came to the bench with the threatening inning behind him, he said to me: 'Matty, I didn't feel at home out there until a lot of people got on the bases. I'll be all right now' And he was. I believe Crandall is the best pitcher in a pinch in the National League"
As with many new strategies, the "relief specialist" drew some critique. This New York Times article, "'Old Doc' Crandall Jumps to Federals; Giants' Emergency Pitcher to Cast his lot with the St. Louis 'Outlaw' Team," may have been fueled by sour grapes but it likely states what many were thinking about how Crandall spent his time:
"He's the fellow who had permanent headquarters in deep right field at the Polo Grounds. On the first day of every season Otis started to 'warm up' and when taps were sounded on the season, 'Doc' was still out in his field office 'warming up.' For several seasons he has lead the league at 'warming up.'....His task was not to save the game as much as to make the defeat look less humiliating"
More common than this critical press was praise of Crandall's calm under pressure and his ability to save games in emergency situations. Damon Runyon called him the "physician of the pitching emergency." Grantland Rice wrote,
"He hasn't even an M.D.'s diploma or a license to practice and there is no graven sign above his door. But when Death stalks in, grim and cold, where weeping friends stand around your couch, don't give up hope. Take one more chance and send for Old Doc Crandall, for as this noted specialist comes in the door, Death and the undertaker dive out through the window."
These words were written nearly 1oo years ago but today we still say relievers are called in to "stop the bleeding." I recently reviewed Sarah Freligh's book Sort of Gone. In her poem, "Relief," we see death and relief pitching paired again. This time the reliever is compared to death itself and is again a welcome sight. The starting pitcher, watching his mother die, is reminded of how he feels waiting for a reliever to rescue him from humiliation on the mound:
"Seeing her, you realize there's nothing
left, nothing to do but wait for Death
to emerge from the bullpen, begin his slow
showy walk from the outfield to the mound
black satin jacket shrouding his shoulders.
The end, at last, relief."
Whether the relief pitcher is sending death and the undertaker diving out the window, acting as merciful death himself or "leading the league in warming" up depends on perspective. There are many lessons I can learn from the evolution of relief pitching but right now I'm reminded to broaden my perspective. If I think someone is making a strange decision I can ask them, in a respectful way, what led to their choice. Maybe they are like McGraw, trying out new strategies that at the time seem strange but in the future may become the norm.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mechanicsburg Nine Wins Over New Cranks

"Two hands, two hands" the players yelled to each other from the field behind the West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. The next man came up and hit a ball soaring into the outfield. After it bounced on the dry grass, the outfielder caught the ball with his bare hands and the side was retired. This was obviously not your typical baseball game or church softball league. No, this was the first home game of the Mechanicsburg Nine Vintage Base Ball Club and they were hosting the Eurekas from Bohemia, part of the Elkton (MD) Base Ball club. Both teams are new teams in the Midatlantic Vintage Base Ball League which play by 1864 rules.

When my husband, daughter and I arrived at the field we were handed a paper, "Base Ball: 19th Century Rules & Traditions." This handout provided the fans or "cranks" with some basic information about what we could expect to see differ from a modern day game. We immediately noticed the Nine's authentic-looking uniforms and the equipment they had on their bench which set the stage so we felt as if we actually did step back into the 19th century.

My family was not exactly as excited as I was about going to the game but they were intrigued by the unique aspects of the vintage game. My daughter and I laughed as we learned that "hands" were outs. We discussed that we both had thought that the calls of "one hand" and "two hands" had referred to some rule about making one-handed or two-handed catches. Kayla said, "I thought that made sense until the first time they said "that's three hands!"

The Mechanicsburg Nine did an excellent job of explaining the rules of the game to the spectators. One time a ball came into the crowd and everyone yelled "don't touch it" and "it's still in play." Later, when asked about the play the Nine's first baseman, Justin ("Bulldog") explained that the runner could keep advancing until the ball is returned even if it goes into where we were sitting because, well, "you all wouldn't have been here!" Bulldog took time to check in with the "cranks" and answer any other questions we had about the rules. He even passed around a ball so we could all see what they call the lemon peel design.

After the game, I got a closer look at the bats and the bases, which were stuffed with hay and sawdust. I did not, however, see gloves because there were no gloves! Watching the teams catch the ball barehanded and the fact that the ball could bounce once and be caught for an out were the two aspects of the game my family commented on the most. You might be thinking that the bounce rule made it easier on the players' hands but don't forget about those line drives and even a ball caught on a bounce can sting, I'm sure. Plus, one member of the Eureka's found out what happens when you try to let a ball drop and catch it on the bounce in order to save your hands. He was booed. After the play, one of the Mechanicsburg Nine instructed us that it isn't "manly" and we should boo if anyone does that, even if it's one of their own players.
The fans cheered when the Nine ended the first game with a score of 14-8 over the Eurekas. The Nine did more than win the game, they won over the fans. I knew I would I love taking a trip back to my favorite era of baseball but the Nine made the experience educational and fun for the spectators who are NOT obsessed with baseball history like me. My daughter and husband both said they want to go back to another game!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Manager that Ever Stepped in Shoe Leather?

If your favorite team is falling behind, or worse, dead last in the division, it's not time to become depressed. It's time to rustle up hope and start believing in miracles such as the 1914 "Miracle Braves." This point in the season is when the mood started to change for George Stallings and his Boston Braves. They went from last place as late as July 15 to sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Stallings's unique management approach, while too abrasive for some, seemed to bring out the best in many of his players and played a role in the 1914 team's success.

The Georgia native wore street clothes to manage games but by all accounts his demeanor on the field was in stark contrast to the kind southern gentleman Stallings was off the field. During games Stallings would yell at his players and call them names. He could forgive mechanical errors but would attack players for dumb mistakes. He is sometimes given credit for coining the term "bonehead" in 1897 when referring to his Philadelphia Phillies team. Whether or not the Phillies are the original boneheads (sorry, this Braves fan couldn't resist), the term was one of Stallings's favorites and was used freely.

One popular Stallings story tells of him saying he'll let "bonehead" have a try at pinch hitting and five or six Braves picking up their bat, assuming they were the intended bonehead. Like many anecdotes, the details of this story vary a bit each time it's told and actually the earliest account I could find, a September 1914 newspaper article, doesn't use the term bonehead at all, but "ivory head."

Be it bonehead, ivory head, dunce, clown or simpleton, if he messed up, the player knew one of these jabs was coming his way. The 1897 Philadelphia team didn't respond to Stallings's style of management and he was soon replaced by a more mild-mannered leader. While he had his share of critics, he had as many, if not more, fans. Stallings's style was a strategy and not simply a personality. Harold Kaese explains in The Boston Braves, 1871-1953, "Stallings was a brilliant strategist and tactician, but he excelled as a handler of men. His theme song was, 'You can win, you must win, you will win.' He was a salesman who peddled determination and self-confidence."

Hub Perdue, a pitcher who played for the Braves said, "George Stallings is the greatest manager that ever stepped in shoe leather." He went on to claim,
"On the ballfield Stallings is the meanest man in the world. When he starts to 'ride' you he can tell you things about yourself that you never knew. he will make you wish the earth would open up and swallow you whole. You quit the field thinking that you are ticketed for the minors. But the next day you invariably read in the papers where Stalling says you are the best ball player on this earth or anywhere else."
Purdue claimed the only mistake the manager ever made was getting rid of him!

I can't imagine working for someone who makes me wish the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Well, that's not exactly true. I can imagine it. I've been there. What I can't imagine is wanting to work for someone who makes me feel like that! Stallings had a .495 overall winning percentage as a manager and the Miracle Braves were his only Pennant and only World Series win. Do you consider him a successful manager? Would you have found his tactics motivating?

Friday, July 9, 2010

There's No Place in America That's Not Part of a Major-League Ballfield

"There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." I just read W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and I can't get the image out of my head. Gideon Clarke's father is explaining to him why baseball is the perfect game.
"There's no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there's not limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to receive it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield."
The realist in me wants to dissect the statement but I had to let go of the realist in order to enjoy the fantasy in the rest of the book, which I did. As I was making the twelve hour drive home from vacation I imagined a baseball soaring over the highway, hit by a slugger in a faraway ballpark. What a magical thought.

Watching a ball leave the park is magical in itself, even if it doesn't cross highways and state boarders after it crosses the wall. This was especially true in the early days of baseball when home runs were less common than they are today and outside the park home runs were almost unheard of. When Roger Connor of the New York Giants became the first batter to hit a ball over the fence of the Polo Grounds in 1886 his home run was just one of 21 for the entire team that season. It took seven years of batters trying to get one out of the park before Connor was successful against Boston Beaneater Old Hoss Radbourn. The New York Times reported that Radbourn threw Connor a solid ball and "he met it squarely and it soared upward with the speed of a carrier pigeon." The crowd cheered as they watched the ball fly over the fence, and Connor was "gazed upon in wonderment by Radbourn and the other members of the Boston team."

Connor is also credited with hitting the first grand slam home run, another feat which left the opposing team gazing in wonderment, no doubt. For 23 years after retiring Connor was the all-time home run leader. When Babe Ruth hit his 139th home run in 1921 he took over the career home run crown. At that time, however, no one was aware that the title had been passed from Connor to Ruth because statistics did not hold the allure that they do to baseball fans today.

In some respects the fans have changed. They are devouring statistics and anxiously following races. In some respects the game has changed. Outside the park home runs are more common than inside the park and no longer warrant a newspaper article. In many ways, however, we have remained the same. Baseball still captures our imagination and binds fans together, binds America together. "There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." W.P. Kinsella wrote it in 1986, but William H. Rowe knew it in 1909 when he penned "With New York in 1884," a poem that appeared in Verse and Toast: Series 1. He writes of the 1884 Giants which included Roger Connor:

Buck took the bat and smashed it, The ball sailed like a bird;
It landed in a window At Third ave and Thirty-third.
Connor, Mighty Roger
He knocked it to Central Park.
Van Haltren and Mike Tiernan
Both hit a swimming shark
Away out near Coneys, That island dear and fair,
Coneys, sweet, sweet Coneys, Where your trouble sinks wid care;

There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

$11,000 Beauty or Lemon?

The rookie pitcher, called a "phenom" by the press, took the mound for the first time in a Major League uniform and hoped he could prove that he was worth the record-breaking price his team paid for him. No, this isn't another blog about Stephen Strasburg. This situation took place over 100 years ago when the New York Giants signed Minor League pitcher Rube Marquard of the Indianapolis Browns for $11,000. The previous contract record was $10,000 for Mike "King" Kelly who was a proven Major League ballplayer so the Giants manager John McGraw turned some heads by taking a chance on the young lefty. Marquard and McGraw attempted to leverage this hype and celebrity status throughout the pitcher's lifetime, at times without strict attention to truth. The results ranged from complete humiliation to enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Marquard came to the Giants during the heated pennant race with Chicago in 1908 and had only thrown a few pitches before the Cubs came to town, just 2 1/2 games back. McGraw tried to intimidate the opposition by having Marquard warm up and walk to the diamond as if he were going to pitch but at the last minute substituted another pitcher who secretly had been warming up. McGraw tried the trick for both games with Chicago and both times his strategy failed. The Cubs beat the Giants 4-3 and 2-1. Giants' fans were growing restless and the following day when Fred Merkle's mistake led to a tie game rather than a Giant win the fans were riotous.

McGraw needed to get the fans' minds off of the Merkle disaster as soon as possible. He turned to his star rookie, the "$11,000 Beauty" as the press called him, to start a game just two days later. The decision was made primarily for public relations and not strategy since the Cincinnati team hit well off of left-handed pitchers. Marquard shared his fear with teammate Christy Mathewson just before taking the mound. According to Mathewson, Marquard said the fans, "were all thinking that McGraw had paid $11,000 for me and now they were to find out whether he had gotten stuck, whether he had picked up a golden brick with the plating on it very thin. I was wondering, myself, whether I would make good." No one had to wonder for long. Mathewson reports "the official scorer got writer's cramp trying to keep track of the hits and runs" and Marquard was taken out in the fifth inning.

The "$11,000 Beauty" became the "$11,00 Lemon" overnight. For the next two years Marquard worked on his confidence and fundamentals. He won just nine games in two years. In 1911 Marquard won 24 games and, finally, the affection of the Giants' fans. Their love grew stronger the following year when he won 19 straight games (a single-season record that still stands today). Marquard used his baseball success to propel himself to celebrity status. He endorsed products, appeared on Broadway and made a silent movie. Long after his baseball career ended Rube still seemed to know the power of public relations and a good story. Marquard's selection for the Hall of Fame in 1971 is often debated. Many argue it had more to do with his captivating tales in the book The Glory of Their Times than statistics. Several of the details about his life in the book have been questioned and proven incorrect.

Sharing moving (and maybe untrue) stories about his life at a crucial time was not a new approach for Marquard. When John McGraw first signed the young pitcher and brought him to New York, the rookie thought he should write a note of introduction to the fans. Larry Mansch reprinted the letter in his book Rube Marquard. While the embellished tales in The Glory of Their Times ultimately paid off and possibly led to his election to the Hall of Fame, the initial hype of Marquard's arrival in New York and McGraw's intimidation tactics backfired.

I personally am not very good at creating the hype for myself like Marquard did. I'm not sure yet if that is good or bad. I know that I have missed out on opportunities that have gone to others who are better at selling themselves. Self-promotion is something I respect when done honestly. Marquard seemed to skirt the line on that. I actually find his own words insightful although I'm not sure he learned from them. In his 1908 letter, Marquard wrote,
"Only once did I try 'living high.' That was after I had begun pitching professional ball. I got the idea I ought to tog myself out in gay raiment, so I took the money I got for pitching and bought a gorgeous suit of clothes. It was a florid cast of countenance, and it made itself heard in the dark, it was so loud. To match it I had a pair of yellow shoes that sneezed like a man with hay fever when I walked. I thought I was the best dressed man in the country till my friends saw me, and then I heard so many things about my appearance that I shook the duds forever."
I have no idea if the story of the suit is true or if Marquard made it up in order to seem more down to earth and less like a high-paid ballplayer. Either way, he seems like a man who would often wear whatever "suit" he needed to wear in order to get ahead. I am more comfortable in my own clothes even if they don't get heard in the dark or sneeze like a man with hay fever. But, this way I'll probably never get in the hall of fame. I suppose there's a balance somewhere in the middle?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

That's The Way It Goes

The man who sat at a telegraph machine fanning himself in a hot, stuffy room overlooking a baseball field in New York in 1887 illustrates how popular baseball was at the time and how far businesses were willing to go to capitalize on its popularity. Telegraph operators relayed scores by inning to newspapers and pool rooms across the country where fans would hungrily lap up the information about their home team (or the team on which they had placed a bet). The competition between telegraph companies, Baltimore and Ohio and Western Union, was fierce. Clubs signed a contract with one company, giving them the sole rights to wire the information about games from their field for the season. The demand for baseball was so high, however, that sometimes the company that lost the contract still found a creative way to follow the game and wire scores to paying customers.

A July 1887 New York Times article tells of a Baltimore and Ohio telegraph operator working outside a ballpark that was under contract with Western Union. The operator did not let that stop him from wiring scores. He had rented a room in the spring which overlooked the field for $5 a month and had telegraph wires run to the room. It must have seemed like the perfect plan, that is until the buds appeared on the giant willow tree that stood between the room and the field. The tree that, according to the operator, "has the heaviest foliage I ever saw on any tree" blocked home plate and the infield. Fortunately he could still "obtain a fair view of the outfield."

The operator did not let this obstacle keep from reporting the score, inning by inning. Instead of relying on sight, he used sound, just as one receives information on a telegraph. After each play he waited to hear the reaction of the crowd to determine what happened on the field. He learned to interpret the silence, cheers, groans and gasps nearly perfectly. He reported, "That's the way it goes and I haven't been deceived by these signs three times this season. When the game is concluded I telegraph the total runs, base hits and errors, and unscrewing my machine, make tracks for home and make my dinner."

I love the juxtaposition of intelligence and stupidity in this story because, well, I guess I can relate to it. I have my "blonde" moments. There's something very human about a guy who took a gutsy and creative action of renting the room, rigging the machine and was then fooled by his own short-sightedness of not thinking about the tree that would obviously get leaves in the summer. I love that he didn't let his error stop him, he still persisted. He used his other senses and knowledge of the game to get the information he needed. I often say I may not be (insert various adjectives), but I'm resourceful. That's this guy! Finally, I love that at the end of the day he didn't beat himself up about what may have gone wrong. Sometimes I take myself and my actions way too seriously and I just need to relax, say "that's the way it goes" make tracks for home and make my dinner. Can you relate to the operator too or am I the only one that sometimes overlooks simple things, like trees getting leaves?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Red Dye Faded From The Stockings

"As integral to the game as are the red stitches that keep a baseball from unraveling" is how author Stephen D. Guschov describes the Cincinnati Red Stockings' legacy. In 1869 the Cincinnati Baseball Club employed Harry Wright, his brother George and eight other players to form the first official professional baseball team. Prior to this team, clubs often split the gate receipts with players or paid top performers a salary off the record. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first team to announce that all of its players were receiving a salary with the highest ($1,400) going to George Wright. The team of professionals completed 57 games during the 1869 season without a single loss. Despite their success on the field, the team was not financially successful and when the winning streak was broken in their second season fans and investors began to withdraw their support. After two seasons and less than ten losses (cumulative!) the Cincinnati ball club decided to abandon their decision and moved forward with a team consisting solely of amateur players.

The fall of the Red Stockings began in Brooklyn on June 14, 1870 when the Atlantics handed Cincinnati their first loss since becoming a professional team. The New York Times called the game "The Most Exciting Game on Record." By this point, Cincinnati had won approximately 92 games in a row. At the bottom of the 9th inning the Atlantics and the Red Stockings were tied at 5. The umpire declared the game a tie and the Atlantics began to exit the field to get changed. The Red Stockings were not, however, willing to settle with a tie. They petitioned the umpires to let the game continue into extra innings. The fans agreed, wanting a decision. They ran onto the field in an attempt to keep the Atlantics from leaving and "for a time confusion reigned supreme". Finally, the umpires declared that the game would continue. If the Atlantics didn't return to the field, the win would go to Cincinnati. Unfortunately for Harry Wright and his team, the Atlantics returned to play and went on to score three more runs to the Red Stockings' two. The final score was Brooklyn Atlantics 8, Cincinnati Red Stockings 7.

This loss shocked all of baseball. The unbeatable had been beaten. The team finished the season with no more than seven loses but this record was unacceptable to the Cincinnati fans (or cranks as they were called) and investors who expected perfection. Guschov writes, "Anything less was unacceptable. Defeat had meant dishonor to the Queen City cranks. The Red dye was fading from the stockings, and the Hose had begun to run."

The Cincinnati Base Ball Club, which barely broke even when the team was undefeated, suffered as attendance dropped. They reportedly sold pieces of lumber from the ballpark in order to stay afloat. When the Club decided it could no longer support the professional players of Harry Wright's team, its president A.P.C. Bonte released a notice stating this and added that the Club felt paying "large salaries" created jealousy and extravagance which led to problems in the team which worked against the team's success. Other teams were not convinced and were happy to bring the deserted Red Stockings players to their cities. Harry and George Wright packed up their signature red socks and moved to Boston to form the Boston Red Stockings.

Looking back it seems ridiculous that a club would abandon its team after two amazing winning seasons like those of the Red Stockings but I can't argue with Bonte's statement, "You can wave the Star Spangled Banner and talk about the glory of the Red Stockings, and the nine that meets with no defeat, but you must put your hands in your pockets and pay the bills. You can't run the club on glory." So where did the plan go wrong?

In my job I train nonprofits on how to create a solid plan before starting a project and we use Peter F. Drucker's The Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool as a guide. I doubt that the members of the Cincinnati Baseball Club considered anything close to Drucker's five questions before deciding to hire an entire staff of professional players, or when they decided to abandon their entire team. Here are some thoughts I had when looking at the Red Stockings' situation through the lens of Drucker's questions.

Question 1 What Is Our Mission? - was the Club's mission to win games or earn money?, did they identify this from the beginning and plan accordingly?

Question 2 Who Is Our Customer? - did they know enough about the fans and investors?, did the fans and investors in Cincinnati know enough about baseball?

Question 3 What Does the Customer Value? - did they value the game, winning, or making a profit?

Question 4 What Are Our Results? - were they measuring their success simply in wins or in profit? if in profit why did they not make adjustments between 1869 and 1870 since they barely broke even in the first season?

Question 5 What Is Our Plan? - did they have a plan on how to make the team successful financially? were their expectations realistic both on the field and off?

The lesson learned from the Red Stockings is just what Bonte said, you can't run a club - or any business on glory. It takes more than a good idea, passion, fame and even talent to make something a successful venture. Careful planning and assessment is crucial.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Rudder Which Guides is Judgment

John Montgomery Ward wrote that of batting, baserunning, fielding and battery work, baserunning "is the most skillful, it calls into play the keenest perception and the soundest judgment, it demands agility and speed, and it requires more daring, courage and enthusiasm than all the others combined." The Dead Ball Era was a time when games were low scoring and home runs were rare therefore skillful base running was crucial to winning games.

The 1910 book, Touching Second: The Science of Baseball co-written by reporter Hugh Fullerton
and the Chicago Cub's Johnny Evers states base-running was "fast becoming one of the lost arts of baseball." The authors believed that since the 1890's players had "subordinated their intelligence to the brains of the manager, and allow one man, or rather, insist upon one man doing the thinking for the entire team, which is an impossibility." Ty Cobb was among a few players of the time that Evers and Fullerton admired for relying on his own judgment and instincts rather than that of managers or coaches.

They recall an example of Cobb using his judgment in a World Series game between the Detroit Tigers and Evers's Cubs. With Cobb on first the batter hit a single to short right center. Rather than stopping at second base, Cobb, in an instant, assessed the throwing ability and positions of his opponents and kept going to third base without pause. When Evers got the ball he turned to second base only to realize Cobb was approaching third. In his haste to make the play, Evers made a wild throw into the stands. Evers and Fullerton claim "no manager could have told Cobb to do that, and because 99 out of every 100 base-runners would have stopped at second to await orders, they would not have made the play."
That is the keen judgment and sound perception of which Ward was speaking. Ward agreed with Evers and Fullerton, "the player must be able to see the play himself and act upon it instantly without waiting to be told."

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that Ward's Base-Ball: How to Be A Player
could be retitled Life:How to Be a A Player and wonder if Ward realized that his baseball wisdom translated so well into advice on life in general. He states,
"A runner who is thoroughly alive to all the possibilities of the game will see a chance and gain a point where another of less ready perception would find no opening. The former has learned to marshal at a glance all the attendant probabilities and possibilities and to estimate, in the same instant, the chances of success or failure."
He goes on to caution,
"Therefore, the most important faculty of all, the pendulum which regulates, and the rudder which guides, is judgment."
Although I would say I have a keen sense of perception and I don't generally question my judgment I would have failed as a baserunner in the Dead Ball Era (and not just because of my tremendous lack of athletic ability). I am not a risk taker and so the probability of success has to be pretty high for me to act. Also, I've recently become frustrated with myself because I seem to be becoming less decisive. I have started wanting several other people's opinions before making a decision. Maybe all of Fullerton, Evers and Ward's advice isn't applicable to today's baserunning situations but I think I could benefit by playing a little more like Cobb, taking more risks and trusting my own perception and judgment. What about you? Do you have the makings of a good Dead Ball Era baserunner?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Sign of Weakness or of Strength?

Opposing batters probably laughed when they saw twenty-year-old 120 pound Larry Corcoran for the first time. After they tried to hit the young player's pitches his opponents' laughter most likely turned to cursing. Cap Anson saw past the pitcher's small size and brought him to Chicago to join his Chicago White Stockings in 1880 which turned out to be one of many good decisions for Anson that year. The team, behind Anson's strategic leadership and Corcoran's powerful arm, dominated the next several years in the National League.

Anson and Corcoran have been credited with creating several key components of the modern game and while origins are difficult to verify, the White Stocking's success certainly added credibility to the new strategies they employed. One such strategy was a pitching rotation. Anson recognized that the practice of having the same pitcher start every game for a team was quickly wearing out his pitchers so he rotated starters Fred Goldsmith and Corcoran. Like many new ideas in baseball it wasn't originally accepted. Goldsmith and Corcoran were seen as weak because they needed rest. Anson didn't buckle to the criticism and the proof was in the numbers when Goldsmith had a winning percentage of .875 and Corcoran of .754 in 1880.

The rotation not only allowed the pitchers time to rest their arms but also kept opposing batters from getting too familiar with Goldsmith's curve or Corcoran's fastball. Goldsmith claimed ownership of the curveball and challenged Candy Cummings's story of its creation. Corcoran could also throw a curveball and worked it in with his fastball. He and catcher Silver Flint were credited with creating the first set of signs between a pitcher and catcher. Corcoran would shift the wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth to signal to Flint that a curve was on the way.

The White Stocking's teamwork and communication went well beyond this battery and included other strong teammates such as Mike "King" Kelly. Anson assured Corcoran and Goldsmith had the run supported needed to win games by focusing on developing the talent of his players beginning with Spring training and continuing throughout the season. The 1880 White Stockings finished the division with a .798 winning percentage, 15 games ahead of the second place team. In his autobiography, Anson states,
"The secret in the club's success in those days lay in its team work, and in the fact that a goodly portion of the time was spent in studying and developing the fine points of the game which long practice made them fairly perfect in."
Although these words describe a baseball team from 130 years ago I think they are still relevant today and apply to much more than baseball. Baseball, like many things in life, isn't about one or two superstars on a team who develop a new skill, it's about working together to put the strengths of all players on the team to the best use. Each player is dependent on his teammates to succeed.

In my job we often discuss the idea of moving people out of poverty to self-sufficiency. Are any of us really self-sufficient, or are we more like a member of a baseball team, relying on our friends, family, neighbors and government services such as roads and schools? Perhaps a better goal is a healthy interdependence. I know that at times I've been on a hitting streak and other times I've been in a slump and have relied on the help of others. I definitely need to rest my pitching arm every now and then. I'm glad to know that my team is strong enough to support me, much like Anson's White Stockings!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Prolonged Heartbreaking Struggle

"A prolonged heartbreaking struggle" is how the New York Times described the twenty six inning battle between the Boston Braves and the Brooklyn Robins on May 1, 1920. This pitchers' duel ended with a 1-1 tie when the game was called due to darkness. The pitchers, Joe Oeschger for Boston and Leon Cadore for Brooklyn, each pitched the entire game and only gave up 24 hits between them. What does a team do for an encore after a twenty-six inning game? Well if you're the 1920 Brooklyn Robins you follow it up with two more extra-inning games for a total of 58 innings in three days. Unfortunately for the team, all 58 innings were a "prolonged heartbreaking struggle" but that didn't keep the Robins (who were also called the Dodgers at this point) from going to the World Series that year.

The twenty-six inning marathon still holds the record for the most innings in a Major League game and it would have gone longer had the umpires not decided it was too dark to continue playing, much to the dismay of the players and fans. The New York Times questioned one umpire's motives for ending his long work day:
"McCormick remembered he had an appointment pretty soon with a succulent beafsteak. He wondered if it wasn't getting dark. He held out one hand as a test and in the gleaming deciding it resembled a Virginia ham. He knew it wasn't a Virginia ham and became convinced it was too dark to play ball."
The following day the Braves had a day off to recover while the Robins piled into train cars and headed to Brooklyn to face the Philadelphia Phillies. They fell to Philly in what must have felt like a short 13 inning game with just 88 total at bats versus the 171 between the two teams the day before. Following the loss to Philly, the team piled back on a train and headed to Boston to face the Braves again. Despite their inevitable exhaustion, the New York Times reported "neither team showed the effects of overwork once they got into action." This time it took 19 innings for the Robins to fall. In three games Brooklyn had played 58 innings, come up to bat 193 times, scored 4 runs and won 0 games.

The New York Times quipped that the team was going to start demanding time and a half because they had played the equivalent to six full games with "four more innings thrown in for good measure" all in the span of three days. Of course the players did not demand overtime, they kept showing up and playing their best until the work was done. They persisted through the "prolonged heartbreaking struggle" and went on to win the National League pennant that year.

This team's persistence reminds me that although I've been working long hours lately and haven't felt like I've been having success every step of the way, I must continue on. I can't let the fact that I'm feeling tired, stressed out, overworked or frustrated affect the work that I'm doing. I must show up everyday to play and in the long run it will pay off.

Thanks Bryan Rutt for suggesting I write about this topic during the 20 inning Cardinals/Mets game in April, this turned out to be a lesson I need to learn right now!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tinker to Evers to Chance and More!

These are the saddest of possible words:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double –
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
"Tinker to Evers to Chance."
Baseball's Sad Lexicon, by Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.), was published in the New York Evening Mail in the summer of 1910 and is one of the most famous baseball poems. The poem tells of the Chicago Cubs' infielders Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance and their proclivity for turning double plays against the New York Giants during the race for the pennant. Until recently the poem stood alone as a tribute to the "trio of bear cubs" but through some painstaking research Tim Wiles, the Director of Research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, discovered this one poem was part of a larger story.

In this Cover the Bases podcast, Wiles tells Joe Magennis about researching the poem in order to write an article celebrating its 100 year anniversary. Listening to the podcast you can hear the excitement in Wiles' voice as he explains the lengths he had to go to try to find the first time the poem was published and what he discovered as a result. Wiles discovered that the Chicago Tribune writers responded to the poem with their own poem! In fact, so far his research has turned up 29 poems between the two newspapers and many of them make reference to specific plays in a game. Wiles' research is continuing as he attempts to uncover all of the poems and match them up with plays. What an amazing discovery! I highly recommend listening to the podcast for more information on the original poem, F.P.A. (he was a Cub's fan!) and the research. You'll also hear some of the poems that were found!

I can't wait to read all of the poems and get a true sense of the emotions that the Cubs' and Giants' fans were feeling along the way as they were battling for the pennant. I love that their emotions are captured in verse! While we may not write poems, 100 years after the line "Tinker to Evers to Chance" was penned baseball fans still bond by talking about their team and enjoy some good "smack talk" with the opposing team. In my world this happens mostly on Twitter or Facebook but it's still capturing the same emotions (although not nearly as eloquently!). Today I can watch a game on my iphone, share the experience with others through Twitter, listen to podcasts, play fantasy baseball online, blog and share this through Facebook, and receive texts and pictures from my friend who is at a game all thanks to technology. What a different world this is from the days of F.P.A., Tinker, Evers and Chance. Despite the ever changing and fast moving world, however, hearts are still captured by baseball just as they were 100 years ago.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Katie Casey was Base ball Mad!

Do you know who Katie Casey is? If you have been to a Major League Baseball game you have probably sung her words or at least the words that Jack Norworth attributed to this fictional girl in his famous tune "Take Me Out to The Ball Game." When we sing the song now during the seventh inning stretch we skip right to the chorus and miss the context of the lyrics Norworth wrote on a subway train in 1908. The video above is a recording from 1908 featuring the entire song with the original lyrics. Although Norworth had never been to a baseball game when he wrote the song, in fact it took him 32 years to get to one, he certainly captures the love affair many of us have with the game.

Katie Casey was base ball mad.
Had the fever and had it bad;
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou Katie blew.
On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go,
To see a show but Miss Kate said,
"No, I'll tell you what you can do."

"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names;
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

"Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,
I don't care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game."

The next time you're standing for that seventh inning stretch and belting out this tune maybe you'll think of Katie Casey singing it to cheer up the boys over 100 years ago or maybe you'll think of my daughter who used to get mixed up and sing "buy me some crackers and Apple Jacks." In any case, I hope you'll think of the millions of people young and old tied together throughout the years by this one song and a love of baseball!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Six Decades Before Robinson

Who was the first black Major League baseball player? Jackie Robinson you say? Actually Moses Fleetwood Walker played Major League Ball in 1884, 63 years before Robinson's debut and many historians name him as the first black Major Leaguer. Robinson's signing with the Dodgers in 1947 had an indisputable impact on baseball and the Civil Rights movement but he was not the first black Major League player.

Fleet Walker wasn't signed by a Major League team like Robinson, rather he was signed by the Toledo Blue Stockings the year before they joined the American Association. When the Blue Stockings joined the Association in 1884, Walker became the first African-American Major League ballplayer. He played 42 games and faced more than your typical heckling from fans and opposing players. At times opposing teams would refuse to play if Walker were on the field. Even some of his own pitchers refused to take signals from their black catcher so it was not unusual for Walker to have broken fingers and ribs from catching a game not knowing the speed or direction the ball was going to be coming at him.

Eventually American Association team owners buckled to pressure of fans and players and agreed to the same unwritten rules as the National League which meant they would no longer sign black players. The face of Major League baseball remained the same for the next six decades.

Walker's demeanor and attitude hardened in the years after he left baseball, surely impacted by the harassment he faced. He struggled with alcoholism, and was arrested for mail fraud and later for attempted murder during a racially charged incident. He was found innocent of murder on the basis of self-defense. Walker also became passionate about race relations. In his pamphlet The Home Colony: The Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race in America he proclaimed that blacks should return to Africa and that blacks and whites could never be fully integrated in society.

I couldn't find a copy of the pamphlet to read in its entirety but I imagine it would scream of the the pain he felt after years of oppression which may have led to internalized oppression. The story of Walker reminds me of the danger of internalized impression and also of how privileged white players were to be able to play for so many years in the Major Leagues while the black players were denied the opportunity. While it may seem that today the playing field is fairly level (both in baseball and in life), I find this document about white privilege to be thought provoking. Fortunately pitchers aren't refusing to take signals from their African-American catchers anymore, but if that catcher gets a cut while playing, can he buy a band-aid that matches his skin tone?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Will You Be a Murray or a Merkle?

The greatest and most dramatic play he'd seen on a baseball diamond, that's how John McGraw described John "Red" Murray's catch at Forbes Field on August 16, 1909. McGraw's description was from an interview at the close of his career, twenty three years after the memorable catch. Had Murray fumbled the catch this story would be entirely different, more like that of Fred Merkle's base-running error. Baseball players sometimes gain fame or infamy from just one play especially in today's media-soaked environment but even in the 1900's the story of Murray's catch spread throughout the country.

Forbes Field was an appropriate background for this dramatic play. It had just opened in the '09 season and the three tiered structure afforded patrons views of Schenley Park, the Carnegie Museum and the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. On August 16, 1909 John McGraw's New York Giants paid a visit to the field to take on the Pirates. An afternoon thunderstorm was rolling in and the clouds darkened the sky, making the players difficult to see from even the best seats in the house.

The score was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth with two on and two out as a the batter cracked what sounded like an extra base hit. No one is quite sure what it looked like since the dark cloud cover made it impossible to follow the ball. Suddenly a crack of lighting illuminated the field and spotlighted Murray in right field as he lept for the ball. The light revealed him making an amazing one-handed catch high above his head. Instantly, the sky went dark again and the rain started so the game was never resumed and remained a 2-2 tie.

Murray's catch remained a treasured memory for all who saw it. The team often recreated the dramatic scene on train cars by turning the lights down and striking a match. When the match was lit Murray would be posed in the position he had been to make the play. These reenactments and word of mouth helped make Murray's catch a legendary play. Today it probably would have made this countdown of top plays by right fielders.

In baseball your reputation can be earned by just one play. Sometimes that works out well, like it did for Murray and other times it doesn't - think of Merkle and also of Mays. I wonder if a flash of lighting suddenly illuminated a random moment in my life how I'd look. I'd like to think that I would be caught doing something amazing and generous but what if it caught me at a time when I was overly emotional and reacted in anger to someone? What if it caught me gossiping or complaining? Or if I were doing any of the other things I wouldn't want displayed to the world? This story of Murray's catch made me realize that I need to try harder to respond with grace and maturity in all situations because you never know when something you say or do is going to be highlighted and held up to scrutiny. I hope to be Murray, not a Merkle!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Headwork than Footwork

Shacks, goats grazing in the outfield, pine trees, ankle-deep mud and a sulfur spring shower - all of these images make you think of Major League Baseball Spring Training, right? Well maybe not you, but for Connie Mack they would have. The longtime Philadelphia Athletics manager seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Spring Training beginning with an eventful first trip as a player and ending with questioning the necessity of traveling south. Throughout it all, Mack remained steadfast in his commitment to preparing his players both physically and mentally.

As a young catcher for the Washington Senators in 1888, Mack joined his teammates for their first "Southern Trip", as Spring Training was called at the time, to Jacksonville, FL. The Senators were following in the footsteps of the Chicago White Stockings and Philadelphia Phillies who started heading south for training two years earlier, going to Hot Springs, AK and Charleston, SC respectively. While the White Stockings were put up in a plush hotel, the Senators were hosted by a local woman in two shacks in the woods. Mack described the accommodations as "vile." In his book Connie Mack and the Early Years of Baseball, Norman Lee Macht describes several less than desirable Spring Training trips for Mack including one as a manager in 1903 with no baseball field, just a park with ankle-deep mud.

Despite the shabby conditions, Mack pressed on and worked with his team. Macht explains, "they concentrated more on headwork than on footwork." He wanted his team to play intelligent baseball, to know how to learn the other teams' signs, read their body language and predict their next move. One of his players, Monte Cross, later said "Connie Mack studies the moves of the other side closer than any manager I ever saw, at bat or in the field he can tell exactly what his opponents are planning and is often able to block them."

As a presenter and trainer, I may not travel south to hone my skills but I do often retreat to my basement when I have a new curriculum to practice. I've also followed Connie Mack's strategy of studying the opponent, or in my case, the audience. I try to predict what questions they will have so I am prepared to answer them. Once I prepare my presentation I practice several times until I have all the kinks worked out. This strategy has worked well for me for trainings, meetings with potential partners and even job interviews.

The strategy worked well for Mack as well. He is the longest serving manager in Major League Baseball and was with the Athletics for their first 50 years. Towards the end of Mack's career, baseball, like many industries in the country, was interrupted by World War II. Rather than travel south for Spring Training, teams stayed close to home. The Athletics held camp in Frederick, MD and Mack predicted publicly that this would mark the end of teams' annual trips to warmer climates for extra training. Most managers and baseball writers disagreed and those of us who have been counting down the days until "Pitchers and Catchers Report" know his prediction was one of the few things Mack got completely wrong. The Athletics returned to Jacksonville in 1946. I doubt today's players reporting to Spring Training have to contend with goats and sulfur showers like Mack did, but I know they are learning the intelligent and strategic brand of play that he helped to develop.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Sickening Thud

A "sickening thud," said Fred Lieb who was sitting about fifty feet behind the umpire. An "explosive sound," described Babe Ruth who was at his position in right field. That's what it sounded like as Carl Mays' pitch struck Ray Chapman in the head on August 16, 1920. Mays and Catcher Muddy Ruel both heard a crack as if the ball had hit Chapman's bat. The ball was fielded and thrown to first base. Chapman actually took a few steps towards first base before he collapsed to the ground, blood dripping from his temple. He died the next day.

Chapman was the only Major League player ever killed by a pitch which is surprising especially when you consider the baseballs of the Deadball Era were used until they nearly fell apart and the spitball was legal. By the end of a game the ball would often be so covered with tobacco juice, dirt and grass it could hardly be seen. This was especially true on an overcast afternoon such as Chapman's last game. Chapman's death was a contributing factor to outlawing the spitball, requiring a new ball to be used when the game ball became worn and the end of the Deadball Era. Batting helmets, however, were not required for another fifty years.

The amazing part of this tragedy to me is that although Chapman's teammates were stricken by grief and fear, after an initial slump, they went on to win the 1920 World Series. Mays, cleared of all guilt in the incident, also continued to pitch despite calls for his resignation. I can almost hear a player's heart pounding with fear as he came to the plate to face Mays for the first time after Chapman's death. This ability to ignore that internal voice telling you to run away in fear seems to be a required trait for a successful baseball player and probably any athlete. Think of the Olympic athletes headed down the luge track after hearing of the tragedy on the same track just days earlier.

John Montgomery Ward, in Base-Ball: How to Become a Player recognized "the most important attribute of all in the composition of a good batter is courage" and offers the following advice, "It is absolutely necessary, then, to first conquer one's self, to fight down fear and forget everything except that the ball must be hit." Once again I find baseball is parallel to life and baseball wisdom speaking to be as life advice. Too often in life I've let fear stop me and missed out on opportunities. The times that I've been able to "conquer myself" and "fight down fear" I've come out in the end feeling stronger and growing as a result. So the next time I hear the little internal voice telling me to run I'll remember Ward's advice and just focus on the ball that needs to be hit, remembering that I live in a world with batting helmets and without spitballs!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Peculiar Kind of Ball

In 1883 the New York Times declared the curveball the "greatest change ever introduced into the game" and it all may have started twenty years earlier with some boys tossing clam shells. One of those boys, William Arthur Cummings, noticed how they could make the clam shells curve when throwing them and thought, "it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way." In his article How I Pitched the First Curve, Cummings remembers, "the joke seemed so good I made a firm decision that I would try to play it."

He soon found that baseballs didn't curve quite as easily as clam shells. Despite injuries, failure and ridicule from his friends, Cummings continued in his attempt to perfect the arm, wrist and finger motions needed to make the ball curve. Finally during a game in 1867 against Harvard he saw success! The path of the ball took a slight curve as it made its way to the batter. Although it took even more time and practice for Cummings to master the pitch and gain control, batters were stunned by this new pitch.

Rules of the day allowed players to move about the field so often when Cummings was pitching the batter would be surrounded by his teammates offering advice on how to hit this mysterious curving ball. Other pitchers were also in awe. They would study Cummings' delivery and try to emulate it. He had cornered the marked on the curve for the time being. Within a few seasons, however, other pitchers learned the pitch and batters weren't caught off guard by the curving ball any more. Cummings' time in the spotlight had ended.

After his playing days, Cummings spent time defending his claim as the inventor of the curveball. Others such as Fred Goldsmith claim they were the first to invent the pitch. With the backing of Henry Chadwick, however, Cummings is most widely credited with the invention and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1939 as a result.

The introduction of the curveball gave batters more to worry about at the plate, they had to examine each pitch with a more discerning eye. In his, Base-Ball: How to Become a Player, John Montgomery Ward warned, "A nervous batter is easily 'worked,' because he is so anxious to hit that he can't wait for a good ball."

I think often in life we're faced with opportunities and we think, much like a nervous batter, we have to take them all when in fact, we should examine them a little closer and "wait for a good ball." Sometimes we say yes to opportunities too quickly and find that we were thrown a curve, that the situation isn't quite right. Maybe it's a relationship with someone who isn't who we thought they were or maybe it's a business opportunity that is not a good fit with our mission. Both situations could be avoided if we took more time up front to study the pitch.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

As Subtle as a Belch

"I've never been a yes man." That's for sure. Rogers Hornsby pretty much called it like he saw it. He didn't make a lot of friends as a player and made even fewer as a manager, but Hornsby's performance at the plate wasn't affected by his lack of popularity off the field.

Hornsby joined the St. Louis Cardinals in 1915 at the age of 19 and quickly became a standout. His extreme focus meant no smoking or drinking (not even coffee!) and no newspapers or movies for fear of ruining his eyesight. While his teammates found this dedication odd, it paid off for Hornsby. His career batting average (.358) is second only to Ty Cobb. During the 1920's he hit more home runs and brought more men home than any other player and he accomplished all this as a right-hander. Most pitchers are right-handed, giving right-handed hitters a disadvantage and making Hornsby's accomplishments even more impressive.

Although Hornsby's teammates appreciated his powerful bat they could probably have done without his powerful tongue lashings, especially when he became a player-manager. His direct approach with his players was even mentioned in a popular scene from the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. Sportswriter Lee Allen said "he was frank to the point of being cruel and as subtle as a belch."

This frankness and other distasteful behavior affected his legacy. Ask most casual baseball fans if they've heard of Rogers Hornsby and the answer will be no. He did not inspire the affection that other baseball greats got and he'd probably tell you he didn't care - he just wanted to win games!

While I can respect Hornsby's desire to tell it like it is and, to a degree not wanting to censor himself to please others, I think he could have learned about giving constructive criticism to his players. This is an area many managers struggle with, though admittedly most don't get it quite as wrong as Hornsby did! In my job I train Instructors in the Family Development Credentialing (FDC) program, a strength-based approach to working with families. By focusing on individuals' strengths rather deficits, change is more likely to occur. This approach can be used by counselors, managers, parents, coaches or anyone wanting to help someone with a change.

Hornsby, like many great players turned managers, never understood why his players couldn't become a great hitter like him. Maybe if he had participated in our FDC class he could have had better results as a manager and changed his legacy as well. But... I wouldn't have wanted to be the instructor that had to put up with him in the class!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Merkle's .... um ... Gaffe

Sure, I could have used the commonly used term for Fred Merkle's base-running mistake and I would have gotten a lot of hits on this post, but I decided to take the high road. Merkle entered the Major Leagues in 1907 and played for 16 seasons. He is remembered, however for one day in September 1908 when he made a base-running error that cost the New York Giants the game and ultimately the National League Pennant.

The moment Merkle will never forget began during a game in the midst of a tight pennant race. His Giants were tied with the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth. Merkle was on first with a runner on third. The next batter got a single which allowed the runner to head home. The crowd went crazy, assuming the Giants had won the game. Merkle, excited by the win and overwhelmed by the crowd rushing the field, started to head from first base straight to the clubhouse without touching second base. This was the custom of the time. Cub's second baseman Johnny Evers, however, was a student of baseball rules and knew that if he could find the ball and touch second base, Merkle would be out on a force play and the run would not count.

Varying accounts exist about what exactly happened next. Merkle claims he went back and stood on the base while Evers struggled to find the ball. Ultimately the umpire called Merkle out and decided the game could not continue because the field was now crawling with rowdy fans. The game would be replayed at the end of the season if needed. The game was needed and Merkle's Giants lost to the Cubs who went on to win the World Series.

Merkle never lived down this gaffe but I think Evers should have been the one to receive the attention. As pointed out in the October 18, 1908 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, what can be learned from this story is "the necessity of keeping careful track of the little details, and never passing over the seemingly insignificant things." Evers knew that that players were often not tagging the bases in these situations so he was ready to take advantage. He knew the rules and was paying attention. Merkle and the rest of the Giants learned it the hard way. In fact, the rest of baseball learned from Merkle's... gaffe.

I am someone who loves digging into the details and reading rules and policies (just ask anyone who's ever played a board game with me!). If I had been in the stands during Merkle's ill-fated game I'd have been yelling at him to go touch the base because I would have known he was putting the run at risk!
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