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!


  1. This is really good stuff. Just found your website. Hope to see more stuff as well.

  2. Thanks Mark, I appreciate the encouragement!

  3. ...and some days I feel like a stint on the DL is the right tonic for me :-) should connect with Ed Achorn, if you haven't already, as he recently penned a great book on this era of baseball.

  4. Actually, the podcast with Ed Achorn on was what got me thinking about this topic in the first place! I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my list.


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