Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: March 9, 2009
As Opening Day Approaches, Gene Carney Reflects
DAYS OF OUR LIVES
On February 23, my desk calendar asked me who was "Most Prolific in October" -- which two players had 13 hits in a World Series? I thought one of the 13s was more recent, but I was wrong. Or was I? The calendar has Bobby Richardson with 13 as the MVP in 1960, but my record books both have him at 11-for-30, a .367 average; he was 9-for-23 and .391 the following October, but slumped to 4-for-27, .148 in 1962, and 3-for-14 in \'63. But sure enough, he rallied and got 13 hits in 32 AB in 1964, as the Yankees lost to Bob Gibson\'s Cardinals in seven. This is the second error I\'ve caught my calendar in, both involving the 1960 Series, perhaps indicating a Yankee mind at work. The other 13-hit man was Lou Brock in the 1968 Series, against Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich in six of the seven games. Not bad.
On February 24 it was multiple choice: What active pitcher has the most 20-win seasons? Pedro, Randy, Roger, or Tom Glavine? Well, Roger had six, says the Cal, but is he active? Glavine five.
Then on February 25, just the facts. In 1958, the BBWAA picked its own "Silver Anniversary Team" -- celebrating 25 years of All Star Games, I suppose. It\'s a curious lineup, causing Cal to ask if the team was more Aluminum Alloy than Silver. Anyway, the BBWAA had an infield of Gehrig, Hornsby, Wagner and Traynor; but they must have liked George Sisler, because they selected him, too, and put him in the outfield, with Ruth and Cobb -- and ahead of Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Bill Dickey was their catcher. Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Matty, and Carl Hubbell the pitching picks. John McGraw the manager -- as if this team would need one. No Satchel, no Josh, no Jackie or Roberto.
Here is my team of the Best Guys I Saw Play: McCovey, Mazeroski, Banks and Mathews in the infield; Aaron, Mays & Clemente in the outfield -- I saw all three in their prime; I also saw Barry Bonds, but in his Pirate years; still, he has to make the team; DH? Catcher, Bench or Berra? I *think* I saw Roy Campanella in late 1957, but I\'m not sure. I\'m also not sure if I ever saw Koufax in person. So I\'ll take Spahnie and Bob Gibson. Or for one game, now fifty years ago, Harvey Haddix.
Baseball is surely the sport for debaters, arguers, and anyone who likes competitive conversation. Just the phrase Unbeatable Baseball Records can stir up a fight. That happened to be the subject of my calendar on February 27, and while it is hard to argue that anyone will ever top Cy Young\'s 511 wins -- the only record noted -- it got me to thinking.
The best a pitcher can hope for these days is 300 wins, and that is simply because of opportunities. Pacing pitchers by starting them every fourth or fifth day, instead of working them like, well, horses, seems to be win-win -- not in the W column, but for both the team and the pitcher, I mean. His million-dollar income career gets extended, and the team gets his proven services for more seasons. A rookie fan might be surprised that only a handful of pitchers have won 300, since the schedule was expanded from 154 games to 162, and the opposition talent diluted by the expansion from just 16 teams to almost twice that number.
But of course, it is the number of starts that matters, not the number of games scheduled. Cy Young started 40-49 games in eleven different seasons, 30-39 eight more summers. And back in the deadball days, the line between starter and reliever was not so thickly drawn, yesterday\'s starter might be today\'s closer and toss a few middle innings tomorrow.
Well, here\'s my point. Cy Young\'s 511 wins towers over the number two man, Walter Johnson (417), and just eight pitchers in history have so far exceeded 350. But this should not bother anybody, we know there\'s a reason, and we take a certain pride and joy in explaining the record to newcomers. Same with the record for wins in a season, Old Hoss Radbourn\'s 60, turned in when he was a colt in 1884; he had 73 starts (and two games in relief) that season, and completed them all. (Two other pitchers that same season won 47 and 46 games respectively, but no one remembers that. In the American Assn, same summer, Guy Hecker won 52 for Louisville -- a lousy 52.
When Steve Carlton won 27 games for a last-place Philly team, that won just 59 games all season, he was give credit for that amazing 46% of his teams\' wins. Radbourn\'s 60 wins led his team, Providence, to a first-place finish, and was 71% of his team\'s total (84); his 12 losses were 43% of his team\'s 28, too.
Again, my point? Only this, that no one has ever suggested, as far as I know, adding an asterisk to Cy Young\'s 511 or Old Hoss\' 60. No need to, fans know, and can explain the reasons. So while there is much talk about "the Steroid Era" these days -- about bracketing off certain seasons, now under suspicion, or the seasons of certain players, etc etc and so forth -- there is no need. Fans know, and can explain the reasons.
And you know what? Instead of getting angry at A-Rod and all the rest and lumping them together, "the steroid boys of summer," why not instead ask them all to submit to some real medical scrutiny. Let them be candid about what they took, how often, and what effects they experienced -- so at least we can learn more about this stuff. Who knows, maybe some substances that are really good for you, also add to your strength or endurance or your ability to heal faster after an injury. Maybe there\'s some medicine in the bag we are tossing away as snake oil. Stuff which might be beneficial, if properly prescribed and monitored by physicians. I\'d just once like to see someone say to A-Rod, geez, man, you know you are lucky you survived that stuff? What were you thinking? Have you been checked out lately?
MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE B-SOX TRAIL
ProQuest never ceases to amaze me. Browsing for more on Nelson Algren, a "Chicago" writer who delved into the B-Sox story in prose and poetry, I found a Chicago Tribune article from September 2, 1979. It was written by Algren, weeks after the death of another Chicago writer with the B-Sox fever, James T. Farrell, an early guide on the B-Sox trail to Eliot Asinof. Algren recalled first meeting Farrell in 1933; over the years, they split sharply over politics. When they met again, on a TV talk show in the 1950s, politics were set aside, and they traded memories of the Black Sox. Algren recalled watching Eddie Cicotte fan Babe Ruth in August 1920, when he was a lad of eleven. Swede Risberg was Algren\'s favorite, though. Farrell told Algren that he had read his "Swede Was a Hard Guy" in the 1940s, and liked it. They agreed to take in a White Sox game together, but never made it happen.
The idea of Algren and Farrell talking B-Sox in the fifties was fascinating to me. What if Algren became his protege, instead of Asinof? Would we today have a definitive B-Sox book in which Swede Risberg is front and center? I want to imagine Asinof joining the pair in the 1950s, when they were all alive and writing, instead of last summer, when they weren\'t. One more imaginary target for our Time Machine.
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Reporter Ed Prell of the Chi Trib caught up with Ray Schalk in May 1959, just after Eddie Cicotte died, making Schalk the last survivor (he thought) of the 1912 White Sox. Schalk had nothing but good things to say, in "Cicotte Had Great Stuff -- Schalk" -- as we might expect, in the circumstance. Schalk said Cicotte would rub dirt into the seams of the baseball, making it do tricks -- that was his "shine ball" which Eddie threw along with his knuckler and spitter, and he\'d throw any of the trio on a 3-and-2 count. Cicotte had a great sense of humor, too, and was a vaudeville-level storyteller. About the 1919 Series, Schalk only said that if Red Faber had been healthy (Red won three games in October 1917), the Sox might have won -- despite the gamblers.
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Anyway, the news here is that I am once again mining for nuggets via ProQuest, and who is to say that we won\'t find something shiny in an obscure editorial in The Christian Science Monitor? In the world of the B-Sox, you never know.
The snippet above is from last issue, and it didn\'t take long for something interesting to turn up -- yes, in the Christian Science Monitor. And it\'s something that you would probably not find, if you were mining microfilm for B-Sox nuggets, because it appeared on February 20, 1947. I have no explanation for the timing. The headline: "Baseball\'s Biggest Scandal For Total of Only $47,000."
According to the CSM, the bribe money came from Rothstein, via Abe Attell and Bill Burns; it was to be "paid in installments of $15,000 after the first game, $20,000 after the third day, $25,000 on the morning of the fourth day, and the balance when the Series ended." Huh? Where do they get this stuff?
CSM also has a detail that, just last issue, I reported seeing in the Hartford Courant (September 29, 1920) for the first time; namely, that Joe Jackson also found his money "under his pillow at the same hotel." Maybe CSM had limited its research to the Courant?
CSM goes on to say Gandil pocketed $22 G in bribes, with the others (except for Buck Weaver) getting "amounts ranging from $1,000 to $5,000" -- but a $47,000 total. Hmmm ... let\'s see, if Eddie got his $10 G up front, and Chick took $22 G, that\'s $15 G for the rest, and we think Lefty and Shoeless got $10 G of that, leaving Felsch and McMullin to split $5,000, with Fred (we guess) getting the minimum $1,000? It doesn\'t really add up, but the figures have always been slippery.
What I\'m curious about is why this article appears in 1947, and in February. With no by-line, and no sources mentioned. And again, I wonder about the folks reading the CSM, or the Courant, and relying on those papers to be accurate. It certainly raises a question: is there more misinformation about the B-Sox, out there in the collective press and consciousness of America, than solid facts? Methinx there is.
SHINE ON? -- OR, ED\'S CRED
Back in Notes #391, about two years ago, I mentioned a series of interviews conducted with some of the living members of the 1919 White Sox, by Westbrook Pegler, in 1960. While chatting with Eddie Cicotte -- "Cicotte Calls Life Sentence Too Rough" was the headline -- Peg asked Knuckles how to pronounce his name (See-cott, not Sy-cott), and then about his famous shine ball. Cicotte denied it ever existed -- his teammates convinced the Yankees that Cicotte was throwing it, and the story spread. No paraffin, just sweaty pants.
I had not seen that before, the notion that the shine ball was a phantom pitch, an illusion, something to mess with batters\' minds, like the spitters never thrown by Gaylord Perry. But the past week, I learned that Eddie had said that same thing about his shine ball \'way back when he was at his peak.
In 1917, Cicotte -- whose previous best win total was 18, in 1913 -- went 28-12 and 1.53, as the White Sox won the AL pennant. Eddie won Game One in the Series, 2-1 over Slim Sallee and the NY Giants, but lost Game Three, 2-0, to Rube Benton. In Game Five, Eddie came on in relief in the first inning and was trailing 4-2 when he left, after tossing six innings; the Sox rallied for an 8-5 win, and Red Faber tossed a 4-2 CG win in Game Six to wrap up the Series. (So Cicotte recorded 29 wins in 1917, counting the Series, and might have had 31.)
The following spring, with the war making shambles of many teams, Eddie got off to a bad start (he would finish 12-19), but was still big news when The Sporting News got to him for an interview that appeared in their May 2 issue. "Baseball critic" George S. Robbins wrote "About the smoothest thing in baseball last year was Eddie Cicotte\'s shine ball ... [it] may have been a myth but its psychological effect remains."
Cicotte was called "the headiest pitcher in the game" for pitching by the tenet, "Keep the batsmen guessing." Whether he doctored the ball was "under dispute." TSN noted that the previous October, Cicotte "told the world the secret of his so-called shine ball."
"It was a myth, pure and simple," said Eddie. "It was all a scheme of Hap\'s [Happy Felsch] and mine to fool the batsman, who is always hanging around to be fooled.
Happy Felsch assented to all that Eddie said about the origin of the shine ball as perfected by the alert White Sox pitcher. The whole blooming thing was cooked up on an off day at the Texas training camp, according to Hap.
TSN said that Cicotte\'s mannerisms, rubbing the ball on his uniform or bringing it up to his mouth, may have just been for effect. "The shine ball may be half myth and half fact." Batters thought Cicotte was faking in pretending to use the spitball. But Eddie stuck with his story. He admitted an improved knuckler, but insisted that the shiner was "a pure freak of the imagination."
The 1918 TSN reference above was found in a book called to my attention by the ever-helpful staff at the Cooperstown library, the [Rob] Neyer/[Bill] James Guide to Pitchers (2004). Sure enough, they rank the Shine ball as Cicotte\'s #1 selection, ahead of his fast ball, curve and knuckler. They add that he learned the pitch after he joined the Sox, from Red Faber. They quote Eddie saying he threw about 75 knucklers out of a hundred pitches (in 1917). They put some weight on Frank Shellenback\'s view, that Cicotte would rub the ball in the dirt then slicken it by rubbing it on his pants, because Frank was a teammate in 1918-19. They note Cicotte\'s claim, that the shiner was imaginary, but seem to not want to believe it.
Poor Eddie. If he said it just once, you might think that was his way of messing with the batters\' minds. But when he says it again, in an interview four decades after he left baseball, when it could earn him no advantage at all, I think you might want to take him more seriously.
This reminds me, of course, of something else Eddie said, that no one wanted to believe. To the grand jury in 1920, Eddie said he pitched the 1919 Series to win, except for hitting on purpose the first batter he faced. What was reported was just the opposite. When his 1920 statements were read into the record at the 1921 trial, they went virtually unnoticed, although the Boston Globe thought they were worth reporting. They surfaced again when Eddie was deposed for the 1924 Jackson trial, but again, no one seemed to notice or care. Like his shine ball, the image of Eddie Cicotte as the guy who tossed two of his three games in October 1919 was super-glued into history. Eliot Asinof and director John Sayles added some reinforced concrete in Eight Men Out. Personally, I don\'t think it\'s so important that we know whether or not Eddie threw a shine ball. But yes, whether he pitched the 1919 Series to win or to lose, matters. Because he got "a life sentence" and even though this is a little like doing a DNA test to determine the guilt or innocence of a prisoner who is no longer in jail, but deceased -- well, he has family, and if we can learn from history, we might not repeat our mistakes.