Friday, April 4, 2014

What If Gil Hodges Had Lived Longer?

 April 4, 1924, 90 years ago: Gilbert Raymond Hodges is born in Princeton, Indiana.

April 2, 1972: Gil Hodges, manager of the New York Mets and formerly a superb first baseman and powerful slugger for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, dies of a heart attack at spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida.

What if the manager who had engineered the Mets' 1969 "Miracle" had lived longer?


Yogi Berra was promoted from coach to manager after Gil's death. He got the Mets to the 1973 Pennant. But he is often criticized for starting Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest in Game 6 of the World Series at the Oakland Coliseum, instead of saving him for Game 7. The Oakland Athletics beat Seaver in Game 6, and then beat Jon Matlack in Game 7.

But if not Seaver, who would Hodges have started in Game 6? Matlack was not yet available, having pitched Game 4. Jerry Koosman was not available, having pitched Game 5. The Mets' 4th starter, George Stone, had last pitched in relief in Game 2, pitching the 12th inning and getting the win, but allowing a run. Other than that, his last appearance was starting  in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds, 11 days earlier, and losing.

No, Seaver was the right pick: At that moment, Tom Seaver on 3 days' rest was better than almost anyone else on full rest. Don't blame Yogi for the choice: Almost certainly, Gil would have made it, too.

So having Hodges still alive in October 1973 doesn't make a difference. What about afterward?

With team owner Joan Payson in failing health, team chairman M. Donald Grant was pretty much doing whatever he wanted, trading away players he felt too expensive or too unwilling to go along with management. The Mets had a bad year in 1974, but finished 3rd in 1975 and 1976, winning 86 games in the latter year, so they weren't terrible.

It all came crashing down in 1977, with the most notable example being Koosman, who went from 21-10 to 8-20 (and then 3-15 in 1978, before he was traded to Minnesota and then won 36 games over the next 2 years). And, of course, on June 15, came the Midnight Massacre, Grant trading Seaver to the Reds for 4 players, and Dave Kingman (who, it should be said, was hitting very poorly at the time) to the San Diego Padres for 2 guys, one being a broken-down, washed-up Bobby Valentine.

Now, imagine that Gil Hodges, still managing the Mets at the age of 53, had told M. Donald Grant, "If you trade Seaver, I will resign."

It was Grant who hired Hodges to manage the Mets in 1968, after he'd been fired as manager of the Washington Senators. Would Grant have listened to Hodges, or called his bluff? With Mrs. Payson dead, and her daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, as owner, he could pretty much do what he wanted without "Linda" (as she preferred to be called) slapping him down. But would he really have wanted to be known as the man who pushed Tom Seaver AND Gil Hodges out of New York?

Grant calls Hodges' bluff: "Go ahead and quit."

Hodges isn't bluffing, and he tells the New York media, which loves him, what happened.

Grant makes Joe Torre the new manager. (Which happened in RL, only earlier in the year, as Joe Frazier -- not the boxer -- was fired.)

The next day, June 16, 1977, the Mets start a homestand by playing the Houston Astros. Only 8,915 fans come out. (This was the attendance in RL.) Two of them bring a banner to Shea Stadium. They unfurl it during the 7th Inning Stretch. It reads:

TOM 41 & GIL 14

Saturday, June 18 -- the same day as the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin bustup in Fenway -- 52,784 come out to Shea for Banner Day. (As in RL -- the Mets' biggest home crowd the rest of the season, aside from when Cincinnati came in with Seaver, was 24,445. 29 home games had fewer than 15,000 fans. Shea became nicknamed "Grant's Tomb.")

The banners that come out are vicious. "GRANT SUCKS" seems to be a popular theme. "GIL & TOM SI, GRANT NO" reads one carried by a group of Puerto Rican fans. A pair of Italian fans bring a banner calling Grant the profanity "SFACCIM." It gets confiscated, but the guys become Met fan heroes for all time.

Mrs. de Roulet has had enough. She doesn't want anything to do with the Mets anymore. She seeks out a buyer, and finds the team of Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, and by the close of the 1978 season, the Mets are sold out of the Payson family for the first time. Doubleday and Wilpon immediately fire Grant, and hire Hodges back as general manager.

When Torre is fired at the end of the 1981 season, he is immediately picked up as manager by the Atlanta Braves, so his story doesn't change much. But who do Doubleday and Wilpon hire as Met manager? Hodges. They move him back into the dugout, and hire Frank Cashen to be their general manager.

By early 1984, the Mets are respectable again. On October 27, 1986, the Mets are World Champions. This is the 2nd time, it's happened, and both times, Gil Hodges was the manager.

In 1987, the first time he is eligible through the Veterans Committee, Gil Hodges is elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He gets the Mets to the 1988 NL Eastern Division title, and takes Dwight Gooden out so that he doesn't get tired in Game 4, and the Mets finish the Los Angeles Dodgers off in Game 5. There is something fitting about the Mets, the spiritual successors to both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, getting their first chance against the Los Angeles team owned by the O'Malley family and beating them with Gil Hodges as their manager. But they lose the World Series to the A's, as they don't have a clutch pinch-hitter to save them in Game 1 like Kirk Gibson did for the Dodgers in RL.

On April 2, 1989, just before the new season starts, Gil Hodges dies of a heart attack at spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was just short of turning 65.

The Mets immediately retire his Number 14, joining the 37 of Casey Stengel and the 41 of Tom Seaver. Patches with the letters GRH are sewn onto the players' sleeves. The Mets' new spring-training home at Port St. Lucie is officially renamed Gil Hodges Memorial Stadium. A Statue of Gil is placed outside Shea later that year. The Marine Parkway Bridge is renamed for him. (In RL, this happened in 1978.) Tidewater Tides manager Mike Cubbage is promoted to manage the Mets, but can't maintain the excellence, and is undone by factors beyond his control, especially the injuries to, and aging of, the 1984-88 Met stars.

Before Game 3 of the 2000 World Series, Gil Hodges Jr., a securities executive, throws out the ceremonial first ball. It ends up being the only World Series game the Mets have won since October 18, 1988.

In 2009, the Mets open Citi Field. The Hodges statue is moved to the center field concourse, adjacent to Shea Bridge, much like the one of Richie Ashburn at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What If Ken Hubbs Hadn't Crashed?

February 15, 1964, 50 years ago today: Ken Hubbs is killed in a plane crash outside Provo, Utah. He was only 22 years old.
Unlike a later baseball player who died in the crash of a plane he was piloting, Thurman Munson, who genuinely loved piloting, Hubbs had been taking flying lessons to conquer a fear of flying.

In 1962, the Chicago Cubs promoted the 20-year-old 2nd baseman directly from Class B (which would be Double-A ball today). He won the National League Rookie of the Year award, and was the first rookie to be awarded a Gold Glove, setting records with 78 consecutive games and 418 total chances without an error.
He was a sensational all-around athlete: He'd won a boxing tournament at age 12, and had also been recruited by Notre Dame to play quarterback and by John Wooden to play basketball at UCLA.
The Cubs did not retire uniform numbers in those days, but the did keep his Number 16 out of circulation for 3 years.

Kenneth Douglass Hubbs was more than just another baseball player. He was the kind of athlete all games need. A devout Mormon, a cheerful leader, a picture-book player, blond-haired, healthy, generous with his time for young boys; he was the kind of youth in short supply in these selfish times.
-- Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times

In 1993, Sports Illustrated asked a few baseball writers to do short "What if?" articles. Steve Rushin speculated that, had Hubbs lived, the Cubs would have done better in 1964, and wouldn't have traded Lou Brock, and, together with Hubbs, Brock, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, the Cubs, starting in 1969, would have become "the Big Blue Machine" (instead of the Cincinnati Reds becoming the Big Red Machine that we know).
Oh really? Let me take a better look at that.
February 15, 1964: Hubbs lands safely.
June 15, 1964: The Cubs do not trade Brock, Jack Spring and Bob Toth to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Bobby Shantz and Doug Clemens. Instead, they move Brock to right field, since they already have Williams in left and the decent-hitting Billy Cowan in right.
August 15, 1964: In RL, on this date, the Cardinals sold Shantz, now 38 and playing out the string, to the Phillies. In 1952, 12 years earlier, pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics, Shantz went 24-7 for a 4th place team, and won the American League's Most Valuable Player award. He remained with the A's through their move to Kansas City, as the Phils became the owners and (after the NFL's Eagles moved to Franklin Field in 1958) sole occupiers of Shibe Park, now named Connie Mack Stadium even though Mack had nothing to do with the Phillies. Shantz would help the Yankees win 3 Pennants and the 1958 World Series.
In TTL, the Cubs sell Shantz to the Phils. This will matter.
October 4, 1964: Nope, having Brock and Hubbs doesn't help the Cubs a whole lot this season. What it does do is deny Brock to the Cardinals, meaning they don't get his great year, and they don't take advantage of the Philadelphia Phillies' 10-game losing streak near the end of the season.
But what everyone forgets is that, while the Phils were losing 10 straight, the Cards were winning 8 straight, and the Reds won 9 straight. If the Cards don't win the Pennant by 1 game over the Phils and Reds, but rather are, say, 6 or 7 games back, the Phils and Reds finish in a tie for the Pennant.
October 5, 1964: The Playoff is held at Crosley Field in Cincinnati -- there, instead of at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, because that's where both teams ended the regular season. Phils manager Gene Mauch can't use his best pitcher, Jim Bunning, since Bunning pitched the day before, beating the Reds just to keep the Playoff possible. Chris Short has had only 2 days' rest. So he goes with experience and starts... Bobby Shantz, who now has one more chance to be a Philadelphia sports hero. (In RL, the little lefty had last pitched in relief on September 29, and it was his last major league appearance.)
Dick Sisler, whose home run in the 10th inning on the final day against the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1950 Pennant for the Phillies, but now filling in as Reds manager for the dying Fred Hutchinson (of cancer), goes with Bob Purkey, one of the heroes of their 1961 Pennant.
Shantz pitches his heart out, but it's 2-1 Reds going to the top of the 9th. But Johnny Callison singles, and Richie Allen (as Dick Allen was then, to his consternation, usually called) crushes Purkey's first pitch over the left-field scoreboard, and onto Interstate 75, the Mill Creek Expressway. The Phillies win, 3-2, and take the Pennant.
October 15, 1964: With Bunning, Short and Shantz starting all games, and Callison and Allen hitting like crazy against a Yankee staff shortened by a Game 1 injury to Whitey Ford, the Phillies win the franchise's first World Championship in 82 seasons of trying, taking Game 7 at Connie Mack, 7-5. (This matches the RL score of Game 7, won by the Cardinals at the original Busch Stadium, a.k.a. Sportsman's Park.)
And so, a generation of fans in the Delaware Valley, who don't remember the 1950 Whiz Kids, are not permanently scarred by 1964.
October 1, 1967: In RL, this was the last day of the regular season, and the Cardinals had clinched the NL Pennant by 10 1/2 games over the San Francisco Giants, 17 1/2 over the Cubs, and 19 over the Reds, while the AL was a 4-team battle between the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, and with the Tigers having a rain-forced doubleheader on the last day, the Pennant wasn't even decided after the Red Sox played their 162nd game and eliminated the Twins, the ChiSox having fallen out the preceding Friday.
But in TLL, without Brock having perhaps his best season, maybe the NL race also becomes a 4-way dogfight, making this perhaps the best baseball season ever. But with Brock shifted to the Cubs and Hubbs, now 25, still alive and playing for them, the Giants still had the most talent, and they win the Pennant.
October 12, 1967: The Giants go on to ruin the Red Sox' "Impossible Dream," as Willie McCovey takes Jim Lonborg deep twice in Game 7. Willie Mays provides the exclamation point with a towering shot over the Green Monster in the 9th inning, and Juan Marichal, doing what Bob Gibson did in RL, blows the Sox away. The Giants win, 7-2, and win their first World Series since moving to California. (Something they didn't do in RL until 2010.)
September 29, 1968: In RL, the Cards won the Pennant by 9 over the Giants, 13 over the Cubs and 14 over the Reds. No Brock in St. Louis, looks like another tough fight, but the Giants win the Pennant again. This time, the Tigers beat them in the Series.

October 7, 1968: The Cardinals give up on Curt Flood a year earlier. For TTL, it doesn't matter who they trade him to, as his fight against the reserve clause turns out the same way. But even if he still gets traded, as he did in RL, to the Phillies, it won't be for Dick Allen, who, in the wake of the 1964 title, is much more popular, and much happier, in Philadelphia than he was in RL. He stays with them until 1971, at which point he goes to the White Sox, and, in 1972, helps save them from being moved as in RL.
July 8, 1969: By now, Brock is in center field, with Williams in center and Jim Hickman (ironically, an original 1962 Met) in right. Leadoff singles by Brock and Hubbs begin a 5-run Cub 1st inning, and Tom Seaver's perfect game is ended before he can get the 1st out, let alone the 27th (Jimmy Qualls in RL). The Cubs beat the Mets, and are in full control of the NL Eastern Division race, in this first season of divisional play.
September 8, 1969: Tommie Agee is incorrectly called safe at the plate, but Hubbs goes on to start a rally and the Cubs beat the Mets 4-3, instead of losing 3-2 as in RL.
September 9, 1969: Those balls that Don Young didn't catch in center field in RL? Yeah, Brock gets them. And also gets 2 key hits, as does Hubbs. Instead of losing to the Mets 7-1, the Cubs win, 5-4. The black cat is a footnote, and this 2-game series, in RL the 5th & 6th of an 8-game losing streak that knocked the Cubs out of 1st place, is instead a Cub sweep. The Mets still make a run for it, but...
October 1, 1969: As in RL, the Cubs play the Mets at Wrigley Field in the last 2 games of the regular season. Mirroring the Yankees-Red Sox race of 20 years earlier, the Cubs need to take the last 2 to win the Division. In RL, they lost this game, 6-5 in 12 innings. In TTL, they win 5-4 in regulation. It all comes down to Game 162.
October 2, 1969: As in RL, Cubs 5, Mets 3 -- and the Cubs win the NL East.
October 16, 1969: As in RL, the NL Champions shock the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in 5, clinching at home -- only in TTL, it's the Cubs doing it at Wrigley Field, taking their first World Series in 61 years.
October 1, 1973: Oh yes, Met fans, it's happening again. Banks is gone, and Brock, Williams and Santo are older. But Hubbs, now 31, is in his prime, and leads the Cubs to a 7-6 win that clinches the NL East at Wrigley on the day after the intended last day (there had been rainouts).
October 8, 1973: Hubbs decks Pete Rose, the way Bud Harrelson couldn't have, in Game 3.
October 9, 1973: Rose, still in shock, doesn't hit the game-winning homer in Game 4. Instead, it's Rick Monday whose 7th-inning homer gives the Cubs a lead they will never relinquish. They win the Pennant, although they go on to lose the World Series to the Oakland Athletics.
November 17, 1973: Frustrated at pitching his heart out, and not being able to win a Pennant in New York, Tom Seaver demands a trade from team president M. Donald Grant. The Fresno native is sent to the San Francisco Giants for prospects and cash. Met fans, even surlier than in RL, "vote with their feet," and Shea Stadium, with no Pennants to its credit, becomes known as "Grant's Tomb" even earlier.
June 15, 1977: Now 35, Hubbs is nearing the end of the line. But the Phillies aren't getting production out of 2nd base, as Dave Cash was lost to free agency, and Tom Sizemore, though a good fielder, can't hit. (In RL, this would eventually be solved by getting Manny Trillo.) So the Phils trade for Hubbs at the deadline.
October 7, 1977: In TTL, this is not "Black Friday." With Hubbs available to make the right play, the tying run doesn't score, and the Phillies beat the Dodgers, 5-4, and go on to win the Pennant the next day. It is Hubbs' 3rd Pennant.
October 18, 1977: Instead of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough, Reggie Jackson hits those 3 homers off Larry Christenson, Warren Brusstar and Gene Garber. The Yankees get revenge on the Phillies for 1964.
October 2, 1978: While the Yankees are winning an AL East Playoff at Fenway Park, the Giants win an NL West Playoff at Candlestick Park, as Tom Seaver outpitches Don Sutton. It is the 3rd time in 28 years that the Giants have been in a playoff with the Dodgers, and they've won them all.
October 7, 1978: The Giants win Game 4 of the NLCS when Johnnie LeMaster singles home Darrell Evans in the bottom of the 10th inning, beating the Phillies, 4-3 to clinch the Pennant. It is the 4th Pennant for Willie McCovey, the 1st for Tom Seaver. Hubbs, 36, retires. The Giants lose the World Series to the Yankees.

October 20, 1982: The Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers 6-3 in Game 7, and win their first World Championship in 36 years (since 1946).
October 7, 1984: The Cubs lose Game 5 of the NLCS to the San Diego Padres, 6-3. However, having won 2 Pennants in the last 16 seasons, there's less of a sting to it for their fans.
August 4, 1985: Seaver, now pitching for the White Sox, beats the Yankees 4-1 for his 300th career win. On the same day, Brock, Dick Allen, Enos Slaughter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Arky Vaughan are inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike Slaughter, whose plaque shows him wearing a Cardinal cap, Brock is shown wearing a Cub cap.
August 3, 1986: McCovey, in his 1st year of eligibility; Hubbs, in his 4th; and Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi, through the Veterans' Committee, are inducted into the Hall of Fame. (I chose that year for Hubbs to be elected, as I was actually at this induction ceremony.)
Is that the end of the story, with Hubbs, in 2014, a 72-year-old Hall-of-Famer?
No. I won't speculate on who he would have ended up marrying, or how many children he would have and what they would be doing. But I have heard that, as Hall of Fame shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau was, by Hubbs' debut, a broadcaster with the Cubs, his daughter Sharyn had been engaged to Hubbs. Instead, she ended up marrying Tiger pitcher Denny McLain, whose life has been an entirely different kind of tragedy.
October 16, 1986: Despite dominating the NL all year long, the Mets lose Game 6 of the NLCS to the Houston Astros, 7-6, in 14 innings. Without their traditions of "magic" and "miracles," they can't get the job done, and don't have "the teamwork to make the dream work." The next day, they lose Game 7 to Mike Scott, and the Astros win their first Pennant -- and also become the first team to host a World Series game indoors.
October 25, 1986: Calvin Schiraldi strikes out Astro catcher Alan Ashby for the final out, and the Red Sox win the World Series in Game 6 at the Astrodome, for their first title in 68 years. (In RL, it was the Mets' catcher, Gary Carter, who started the rally.)

August 2, 1990: Tom Seaver, Rollie Fingers, Hal Newhouser and Bill McGowan are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Seaver wears a Giant cap on his plaque. Later that season, the Giants retire his Number 41.
July 18, 1999: The Cubs hold a ceremony at Wrigley Field, honoring the 30th Anniversary of their last World Series title. In addition to the already-honored 14 of Banks and 26 of Williams, the numbers of Santo, Hubbs and Jenkins -- 10, 16 and 31 -- are retired. (This is also the day of David Cone's perfect game.)

August 1, 1999: Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, George Brett, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Selee, Smokey Joe Williams and Nestor Chylak are inducted into the Hall of Fame. Ryan, unlike in RL ('69 Mets), has never won a World Series. His only appearance in one was with the '86 Astros.

October 16, 2000: The Mets finally win their 1st Pennant, in 39 years of trying, beating the Cardinals 7-0 at Shea Stadium to win Game 5 of the NLCS. Better yet, for their fans, they get to face the Yankees.

October 26, 2000: Met fans never learn, do they?

October 15, 2003: Hubbs throws out the ceremonial first ball before Game 7 of the NLCS, the Wrigley faithful gets pumped up, the previous night's disaster is put in the past, and the Cubs beat the Florida Marlins, 5-3, and win their first Pennant in 30 years -- actually a longer drought than the 24-year drought of 1945-69.

October 22, 2003: Jeff Weaver gives up a walkoff homer in Game 4 of the World Series to that other Alex Gonzalez, this time at Wrigley rather than the Dolphins' stadium that was then the Marlins' home.

October 25, 2003: Mark Prior (rather than Josh Beckett as in RL) pitches a shutout to win Game 6 and clinch the World Series at Yankee Stadium, 3-0. It is the Cubs' 4th title.

March 8, 2004: Having lost Andy Pettitte to free agency, the Yankees need a lefthanded starter, and sign Shawn Estes of the defending World Champion Cubs -- despite his having thrown at Roger Clemens in a 2002 Yankees-Mets game at Shea. (In RL, Estes signed with the Rockies on this day, and 2004 turned out to be his last good season.)

October 20, 2004: Shawn Estes starts Game 7 of the ALCS, and, steroids or no, the Red Sox' lefty-dominated lineup can't touch him. The Yankees win, 3-2, and the Curse of the Bambino is extended for another year.

October 27, 2004: The Yankees sweep the Cardinals for their 27th World Championship. Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Mike Mussina and Ruben Sierra get their 1st rings. Estes gets his 2nd. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada get their 5th.

October 28, 2007: Not having had the experience of winning it in 2007, the Red Sox can't stop the Cleveland Indians from winning the Pennant, and the Indians sweep the Colorado Rockies to win their first World Series in 59 years.

September 28, 2008: The Mets lose to the Marlins in the last game at Shea Stadium, and blow a chance at the Playoffs. A closing ceremony is held, and the players from the 2000 National League Champions -- the only Pennant in the team's 47-year history -- get the loudest applause. Players from the near-misses of 1969, 1973, 1986 and 1988 get only polite applause. Several men who played for the Mets but had Hall of Fame careers elsewhere are invited. Yogi Berra and Willie Mays attend, and are cheered. Rickey Henderson attends, but is booed. Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Tom Glavine and Duke Snider do not attend.

November 4, 2009: The Yankees win their 28th World Championship by beating the Phillies.

October 30, 2013: The Tigers, having beaten the still-cursed Red Sox in the ALCS, beat the Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6, and win their first World Series in 29 years.

April 4, 2014: Ken Hubbs, age 72, throws out the ceremonial first ball on Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

What If Mark Fidrych Hadn't Gotten Hurt?

Once again, I have let this blog slip.  I've decided to resume it by examining what might have happened if certain great players who got hurt or died too soon had been able to complete their careers.

This was inspired by seeing The Bird, a biography of Mark Fidrych by Doug Wilson.  If you don't remember Fidrych as an active pitcher, you're not alone: His one full season was 1976.  The first season of which I have any memory is 1977.  So while I saw him (on TV, anyway), I saw a pitcher who clearly had talent, but also had too much pain to make it work.

And even though his team was then in the same division as my favorite team, this was a damn shame.  As Joe Delessio of Sports On Earth puts it in his review of the book: 

Mark Fidrych appeared in the majors in 1976 and almost immediately became a national phenomenon. With his mop-top hair and on-field quirks (like manicuring the mound and appearing to talk to the baseball), the fun-loving Fidrych drew massive crowds to Tiger Stadium during a Rookie of the Year season in which he posted a 19-9 record with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games. But injuries derailed his career the very next year, and though he'd play in parts of four more big-league seasons, he'd never again enjoy sustained success on the mound.

Mark Steven Fidrych was born on August 14, 1954, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and, in spite of being forever identified with the Detroit Tigers, nevah, evah, lahst his Mahssachusetts ahccent.  But he was no "Masshole": He was a salt-of-the-earth guy, who people genuinely came to like.

Among the weird things Fidrych did was how he reacted to his inability to throw without pain: He returned to his native Central Massachusetts and operated a farm and a contracting business.  Apparently, he made a decent income.  It certainly helped that the baseball memorabilia craze that began in the 1980s made him a star at card shows, and he had the personality that made the people running those shows want to re-invite him.  He pitched in old-timers' games, and was generally well-liked by the baseball community.

And then, tragedy struck: On April 13, 2009, he was working on the truck he used to haul gravel when something happened (it's not clear what), and he died.  He was just 54.  He left behind a wife and a daughter.


That's the personal.  What about the professional? Well, he became a superstar right before he turned 22.  But...

Think about this: Before he turned 25, Warren Spahn hadn't yet won a game in the major leagues, but, after turning 25, he won 363; after he was 26, Mark Fidrych never even threw another big-league pitch.

(That's kind of the declarative version of a trick question.  It omits the salient point that Spahn spent the seasons in which he turned 22, 23 and 24 fighting in World War II.  And I do mean "fighting": He was in combat, including the Battle of the Bulge.)

On April 20, 1976, Fidrych -- nicknamed "The Bird" because his curly blond hair reminded people of the Sesame Street character Big Bird -- made his major league debut.  Wearing Number 20 and pitching righthanded for the Tigers, he took the mound in the 9th inning against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum.  Joe Coleman had taken a 5-2 lead into the 9th, but he got tired.  (This almost certainly would not have happened today: Even an old-school manager like Ralph Houk, who had previously managed the Yankees, would have brought in the Tigers' closer, at that time John Hiller.) Coleman allowed a single and a walk.  New pitcher Jim Crawford allowed a double steal, a lineout, a walk and a game-tying single.  Fidrych was brought in, and he faced one batter, Don Baylor, who singled home the winning run.  A's 6, Tigers 5.  According to Baseball Reference, the A's had a 7 percent chance to win when the inning began.  However, the loss was hardly Fidrych's fault; blame Houk for leaving Coleman in too long.

After another 9th inning relief appearance 2 weeks later, Houk gave Fidrych his first start on May 15, against the Cleveland Indians at Tiger Stadium.  He went the distance, winning 2-1.

Now, if you're around my age, you remember the Indians being dreadful in the 1970s and '80s.  So you're probably thinking the same thing Fidrych thought of as the title for his memoir of the 1976 season: No Big Deal.

Actually, you'd be wrong: The Indians were a decent team in '76.  Frank Robinson, in his 2nd year as the majors' first black manager and his last as a player, had quite a bit of talent: Rico Carty, George Hendrick, Buddy Bell, Rick Manning, Charlie Spikes, John Lowenstein.  Robinson himself, Boog Powell and Ray Fosse were washed up, but still made some contributions.  On the mound, Robbie could call on Dennis Eckersley, Pat Dobson, Jim Bibby and Rick Waits; his bullpen had Dave LaRoche, Jim Kern and Don Hood, plus a washed-up Fritz Peterson.  With a couple of more decent hitters, the '76 Indians could have done a bit better than 81-78.  Alas, they couldn't keep it together, and in '77, they lost 90 games, fired Robinson, and got rid of a lot of those players, including the Eck, which would be a terrible mistake.  (The reason they got rid of him is worthy of its own story.  But some other time.)

It was in this game that Fidrych's eccentricities began to be noticed.  While batters doing all kinds of odd things in the batter's box had been well-documented, and smoothing out the dirt in it with your spikes was very common, seeing a pitcher smooth out the dirt on the pitcher's mound with his hand was not.  The Bird did this.

It also looked like he was talking to the ball.  This became his trademark: "Mark The Bird Fidrych Talking To The Ball." He later explained that this was not what he was doing: Rather, he was talking to himself, telling himself to settle down, you're getting too excited, calm down, you can get this guy.  Carty, from the Dominican Republic and familiar with the voodoo culture of the island of Hispanola, which includes his country and Haiti, saw Fidrych's gestures, and had an even wilder interpretation: "He was trying to hypnotize us."

Fidrych's next start was against his boyhood team, the defending American League Champion Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, 35 miles from his home town of Northborough.  He pitched pretty well, but gave up a home run to Carl Yasztrzemski, and was outpitched by Luis Tiant, 2-0.

May 31: Goes 11 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers.  Allows a run in the top of the 11th.  But the Tigers bail him out in the bottom half, winning 5-4.

June 5: Goes 11 again, outpitching Bert Blyleven to beat the Texas Rangers, 3-2.

June 11: Tiger fans begin to notice, as 36,377 come out to watch him face Nolan Ryan and the California Angels.  Fidrych outpitches the Express, and the Tigers win, 4-3.

June 16: 21,659 might not seem like much of a crowd, but this was on a Wednesday night in Detroit.  Fidrych did all he could, but going into the bottom of the 9th, the Tigers still trailed the Kansas City Royals, 3-2.  But they came from behind and won, 4-3, making him the winning pitcher.

June 20: The Bird gets plenty of runs in Minnesota, as the Tigers beat the Twins, 7-3.

June 24: back to Fenway.  The Bird goes the distance, and the Tigers win, 6-3.

June 28: This was The Mark Fidrych Game.  On ABC Monday Night Baseball, at Tiger Stadium, the Tigers faced the Yankees, who were back in first place in the American League Eastern Division and on their way to a new dynasty.  But against the Bird, on national TV, they couldn't do much.  Elrod Hendricks -- with the Yankees toward the end of a career spent mostly in the Baltimore Orioles' organization -- hit a home run off him, but that was about all the Bronx Bombers could do.  Aurelio Rodriguez -- a superb-fielding 3rd baseman, but no one ever called him "A-Rod" -- and Rusty Staub, his hair as orange as a tiger's fur, hit home runs off Ken Holtzman, and the Tigers won, 5-1.  Attendance: 47,855.  For a Monday night, in a city with a crime problem as bad as Detroit's already was, when they could have stayed home and watched on TV, this was an enormous crowd.  And when it was over, they chanted, "We want Bird! We want Bird! We want Bird!" They got him.  And, in case current Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay is reading this: The time of the game, a supremely manageable 1 hour and 51 minutes!

July 3: Fidrych tossed a 4-hit shutout in front of 51,032 at Tiger Stadium, and the Tigers beat the Baltimore Orioles, 4-0.

July 9: Fidrych loses this one, but it's hardly his fault: 51,041 see a great pitchers' duel with Dennis Leonard, and the Royals win 1-0.

Fans demanded that Fidrych be the AL's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, which (like the NBA & NHL All-Star Games and the NCAA Final Four) was being held in Philadelphia in honor of the nation's Bicentennial.  But, as the National League always seemed to do in those days, they roughed up the best the AL had to offer, and the Bird was the losing pitcher: NL 7, AL 1.

Fidrych shook off the All-Star loss, and kept winning in the 2nd half, even though the Tigers were going nowhere (74-87, 5th place, 24 games out).  On September 12, he made his only start of the year at the newly-renovated Yankee Stadium.  A crowd of 52,707 saw him outpitch Dock Ellis (15-7 for the Pennant-winning Yankees that season) with the help of a Ben Oglivie homer, and the Tigers won, 6-0.

(Dock Ellis and Mark Fidrych. The former claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while high on LSD.  The latter had the fans thinking they were on some kind of mind-altering drug.  This could well have been the all-time favorite game of Dan Epstein, Tiger fan, author of Big Hair and Plastic Grass and the soon-to-be published Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of 1976. If it isn't his favorite game ever, here's the box score so he can reconsider! And here's a link to his blog of the same title.)

Fidrych finished the season 19-7. He won the AL's Rookie of the Year award, and finished 2nd in the voting for its Cy Young Award.  Who won? Jim Palmer of the Orioles.  Good choice? Yes.  Better choice than Fidrych? Not appreciably better.  A better choice still would have been Ed Figueroa of the Pennant-winning Yankees, but he finished 4th behind those 2 and Frank Tanana of the Angels; no pitcher of the AL West Champion Royals even finished in the top 10.  The NL Cy Young was won by Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres, and that was a much better pick, as he had a year so strong that the Padres' bad season couldn't be held against him.  (Jerry Koosman was 2nd, as he became the 2nd Met after Tom Seaver, who finished 8th, and 1st Met lefthander, to win 20.)

Imagine how much hype the Bird would have gotten if he'd gotten to 20 wins. To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, If you win 20 in The Show, you can talk to the ball, and the press will say you're colorful; until you win 20 in The Show, it means you're a psycho.
Then came spring training 1977.  Fidrych was fooling around in the outfield and fell, and tore the cartilage in his knee.  He came back from the injury on May 27, and by June 29 was 6-2, including, almost a year to the day, pitching another complete-game win over the Yankees, 9 strikeouts, no walks.  But on July 12, he tore his rotator cuff, and that was pretty much it.  After that, he appeared in just 16 more big-league games.  His finale was on October 1, 1980 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, going just 5 innings but getting the win against the Blue Jays, 11-7.

Final record: 29-19.  ERA: 3.10.  ERA+: 126.  WHIP: 1.203.


So let's suppose he didn't get hurt on July 12, 1977, and had only the occasional brief injury thereafter.  How would baseball history be different?

There were 120 games left in the season.  In a 4-man rotation with Dave Rozema, Fernando Arroyo and Bob Sykes -- Fidrych's spot in the rotatin was taken by an aging Dave Roberts, a prime Milt Wilcox, and a rookie named Jack Morris -- he probably would have made 30 more starts.  (Try being a pitcher in 2013 and asking if you can make 30 starts all season long, and watch your manager hit the ceiling.) A Tiger attack that averaged 4.4 runs per game, led by Rusty Staub, Jason Thompson, Ben Oglivie, Steve Kemp and Ron LeFlore, Fidrych could have gone .600 the rest of the way.  He wouldn't have had a decision in every game, but probably in most games.  So, figure, around 16-6.

So let's imagine the Bird through the years, figuring he'd have pitched until around age 39, and averaging around 17-11 in his prime:

1976 19-9
1977 16-6
1978 17-11
1979 17-11
1980 18-12
1981 12-6
1982 17-11
1983 20-8
1984 25-5
1985 21-9
1986 18-12
1987 20-9
1988 18-12
1989 16-12
1990 14-10
1991 14-10
1992 11-12
1993 9-12

1981 was the strike year, hence his lower totals. You'll notice that he picked up a bit in 1983, because that's when the Tigers starting getting really good.  Actually, they could have taken either half of the 1981 split-season with a healthy Fidrych, but that was a year of weird happenings even without him.  So let's move on.

1983: The Tigers won 92 games, 6 games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East.  This with a rotation of Morris, Wilcox, Dan Petry, and the 4th spot split between Juan Berengeur and Dave Rozema, who, between them, went 17-8.  So, most likely, Wilcox, 33 at this point and 11-10 with the highest ERA of these guys, would have been the one displaced.  Sparky Anderson, the Tigers' manager at the time, didn't believe in the 5-man rotation.  He did, however, believe in the 5-man bullpen.  Going from Wilcox's 11-10 to Fidrych's projected 20-8, and that works out to around a 6-game difference, and if one of those games is against the O's, then the Tigers are AL East Champs.  Beat the Chicago White Sox in the AL Championship Series and the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, and it's the first title since 1968.

Then in 1984, no change: The Tigers roar out of the gate, going 35-5, finish with 104 wins, beat the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS, and the San Diego Padres in the World Series.  Back-to-back titles.  Only this time, instead of reliever Willie Hernandez, it's the Bird who gets the AL Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

The Tigers finished 15 games back in 1985, so a great year by Fidrych doesn't help.   They were 8 1/2 back in 1986... Nope, doesn't help.  They won the Division in 1987, and does Fidrych, now 33, make a difference in the ALCS against the Minnesota Twins? Probably not: The pitcher whose place in the rotation he would've taken would've been Walt Terrell, and he won the only Tiger victory in that series.

But in 1988, the Tigers finished just 1 game behind the Red Sox.  The Sox got swept by the Oakland Athletics.  Does Fidrych make a difference here? The last 4 games of the regular season were started by Terrell, Morris, Alexander and Frank Tanana.  If Fidrych pitches instead of Terrell, then... No, Fidrych would have been opposed by Dave Stewart in Game 1, and probably wouldn't have pitched any better than Bruce Hurst.  Maybe he could have made a difference later on if some other Tiger pitcher did, but I still don't see the Tigers winning this series.  Still, that's a Division title they didn't win in RL.

The Tigers had a bad year in 1989, and although they bounced back in '90 and '91, I just don't see Fidrych, at this point in his career, making much of a difference in their fortunes.  Then they fell off again in '92, and weren't contenders again until 2006.

But late in the 1993 season, he wins his 300th game.  By my count, he finishes with a career record of 302-189.  Reaching 3,000 strikeouts is probably out of the question, since even in his one full season he struck out only 97 batters.

But in 1999, the last season of Tiger Stadium -- and he was there for the closing ceremony -- he would likely have been, in his first year of eligibility, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Even if he still dies in 2009, he has 10 years to enjoy it.

The Tigers retire his Number 20.  In 1999, The Sporting News names him one of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.  He's introduced at his hometown ballfield, Fenway Park, before the 1999 All-Star Game as one of the nominees for the All-Century Team.  The next year, when Comerica Park opens, he gets a statue there, along with the other Tiger retired number honorees.

A life still too short, but much more accomplished.  And he seemed like the kind of guy who would have handled it better than many people that we could mention.

And the Tigers win an extra Pennant and World Series, in 1983, and one other Division title, in 1988.  That's not a huge increase, but for a team that's been around for over a century and has only won 4 World Series, the last one 30 years ago, that ain't bad.


But there's something else to consider.  If the Tigers win the World Series, the AL Pennant, the AL East in 1983, that means the Baltimore Orioles don't.

And with the team being owned by D.C.-based "superlawyer" Edward Bennett Williams at the time, they were in genuine danger of being moved down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.  Before his death, he signed a lease for a new ballpark, the one that would become Camden Yards, because of the reaction of the fans to their awful start in 1988, losing their first 21 games, nearly going 0-for-April, and yet the Maryland fans came out in droves to cheer their Birds on.

But in TTL, they haven't won a World Series since 1970, or a Pennant since 1979...

1989: The Orioles, now the new (or newer) Washington Senators, with their D.C. and suburban Maryland and Virginia fan base no longer having to schlep up M-295 to get to Memorial Stadium, ride the noise of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium past the Blue Jays, and win the AL East.  They lose to the A's in the ALCS, setting up the earthquake-plagued Bay Bridge Series.  But Washington has postseason baseball for the first time since the early days of the New Deal.

1994: Jacobs Field in Cleveland becomes the "retro" model for all new ballparks to follow, instead of Camden Yards.

1996: The stadium we know as Nationals Park opens, 12 years sooner.  The Senators can't beat the Yankees in the '96 ALCS, but they beat the Cleveland Indians in '97, and beat the Florida Marlins to win the World Series -- the capital's first baseball title in 73 years.

And, with Wayne Huizenga's gamble not quite paying off, he breaks up the Marlins, and in 2002, Commissioner Bud Selig authorizes their sale to a group that moves the Fish to Baltimore.  Camden Yards joins the already-built Ravens stadium.  The name Baltimore Orioles is revived, only now, we have the opposite of RL: Baltimore in the NL East, and Washington in the AL East.

The Montreal Expos still appear doomed, but where could they move to? Washington is occupied.  Miami has already failed as an MLB city, and there's no new ballpark on the horizon.  In one of his last acts as Prime Minister of Canada, Paul Martin gets the national government to fund a new ballpark for the Expos.  He just barely hung on to a minority government in RL-2004, so in TTL-2004, his Liberal Party government falls to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives 2 years early.

2012: The Washington Senators defeat the Texas Rangers for the Wild Card berth, the Yankees in the AL Division Series, the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, and the Montreal Expos in the World Series.  And in spite of having won their first Pennant ever, Montreal fans are left to wonder what would have happened in Expo management had let manager Davey Johnson use Stephen Strasburg in the postseason...

Meanwhile, as the last MLB team in Florida, Tampa Bay Rays ownership sees that attendance remains pathetic in spite of their decent record since 2008, and are now negotiating with the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area to build a new ballpark.  They'd be in the same division as the Washington Senators, and a lot closer, so there'd be a built-in rivalry.


So if Mark "the Bird" Fidrych hadn't gotten hurt, it would have been a better world, or at least a better game, for several reasons.  Especially if you live in or around Detroit, Washington and Montreal.  In Baltimore, not in the short term, but in the long term -- you won't have Cal Ripken and '96 and '97, but you also won't have Peter Angelos and Rafael Palmeiro embarrassing you.  Miami loses out, but I haven't cared what they think since November 2000.

When asked why he never used an agent, Fidrych said, "Only I know my real value, and can negotiate it."

Real value? Sadly, we never really saw it.

Monday, December 31, 2012

What If Roberto Clemente Had Lived?

December 31, 1972, 40 years ago today: On a DC-7 plane overloaded with relief supplies from his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico to earthquake-stricken Managua, Nicaragua, Roberto Clemente and his   pilot perished in a crash into the Caribbean Sea.

Clemente was 38 years old.  He was coming off a season in which he had batted .312, with an OPS+ of 138, and had collected his 3,000th career hit -- which was also his 440th double, and included 166 triples and 240 home runs, which doesn't seem like a lot for a player so often cited as an all-time great, but from 1955 to mid-1970 he played his home games at Forbes Field, whose dimensions were practically identical to the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium, and thus heavily biased against a righthanded hitter like him.  His lifetime batting average was .317, OPS+130.  He won 4 batting titles, Gold Gloves in each of the last 12 seasons, and was named to 12 All-Star teams -- all but one (1968) between 1960 and 1972.

Hank Aaron was also 38 that year, and was also a legitimate All-Star, and would also be one at ages 39 and 40.  Willie Mays was 3 years older, but had also been an All-Star and deservedly so at ages 38, 39 and 40.

It's also important to note that Clemente played in 14 World Series games -- 7 each in 1960 and 1971 -- and got a hit in every one of them.  He had 2 World Series rings.  And in each of his last 3 seasons, he had helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the National League Eastern Division.

At the time, the Pirates were a really good team, not yet known as "The Family," but already known for their booming bats as "The Lumber Company." In addition to Clemente, they had Willie Stargell, who would go on to hit 475 home runs; Al Oliver, who finished his career with a .303 average and 2,743 hits including 529 doubles; Manny Sanguillen, who batted at least .319 3 times; Richie Hebner, who batted .300 twice; Dave Cash, a good leadoff hitter who twice got over 200 hits in a season (albeit with the Philadelphia Phillies, after leaving the Red Sox); Gene Clines, who twice batted .300 as a reserve outfielder for the Pirates and nearly did it again for the Chicago Cubs; and Rennie Stennett, would would go on to bat .336 in 1977.

Don Sutton of the Los Angeles Dodgers, already into a Hall of Fame pitching career, said, "Some teams watch a pitcher and say, 'Oh boy, here comes a fastball.' Others say, 'Oh boy, here comes a curveball.' The Pirates say, 'Oh boy, here comes a baseball.'" Translation: They didn't care what you threw, they were going to hit it.

In 1973, in a special election, waiving the mandatory 5-year waiting period (not that it mattered in his case), Clemente was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  The Pirates retired his Number 21.  They wore a black patch with his number on their left sleeves.  And they converted Richie Zisk, a power-hitting young left fielder, into their right fielder, before calling up Dave Parker, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound bruiser known as the Cobra, and moving Zisk over to left field and Stargell to 1st base.

How would the history of baseball, and the Pirates in particular, have been different if Clemente had lived?


Apparently, there was a storm when the plane took off.  Both the plane and the pilot had issues.  Roberto decided to try again the next day, New Year's Day, January 1, 1973.

The plane landed in Managua without incident, and the relief supplies, due to Clemente's fame, did not get sidetracked by fascist dictator Anastasio Somoza.

In RL, there was a 5-way Pennant race in the National League East, one which no one seemed to want to win.  The Phillies were the only team in the Division that was out of it, finishing 11 1/2 games back.  The Cubs ended up 5 back -- closer than they were in their (in)famous 1969 season --  but were in 5th place.  The Montreal Expos got into their first Pennant race, and ended up 3 1/2 back.  The Pirates, victimized by a freak play against the Mets at Shea Stadium on September 20, finished 2 1/2 back.  And the St. Louis Cardinals, in their closest call between 1968 and 1982, finished 1 1/2 back.

The Mets clinched the NL East by winning the first game of a doubleheader with the Cubs at Wrigley Field, forced by rainouts to play one day after the regular season was supposed to have ended, and the second game was rained out and never rescheduled.  The Mets won the Division with an 82-79 record, the worst record of any 1st-place finisher in a Major League Baseball season that reached a conclusion.  (The Texas Rangers had a losing record but were leading the American League West when the Strike of '94 hit.)

Can we honestly say that a living Clemente, who would have turned 39 on August 18, 1973, would have made a difference? Bob Robertson, the Pirates' 1st baseman, batted just .239.  Maybe Stargell would have been moved to 1st then, and Zisk put in left, with Clemente still in right.  After all, he still had a great arm, and, in spite of injuries that unfairly got him the label of a hypochondriac, he hadn't slowed down much.  It's not hard to imagine him making juuuust that much more of a contribution to the lineup than Robertson, and the Pirates making up 3 games to win the Division.

Since the Mets beat the NL Western Division Champion Cincinnati Reds to win the Pennant, would the Pirates have done so? Maybe not: The Reds had already beaten them in the 1970 and '72 NLCS.  (When the Pirates went all the way in '71, it was the San Francisco Giants they beat in the NLCS.)

What about 1974? The Pirates won the Division again, beating the Cards by a game and a half.  But they lost the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3 games to 1.  Would a 40-year-old Clemente have made a differences? Maybe: Mays and Aaron were both still good hitters at 40.  But, overall, the Pirates batted just .194 in that series.

Even if the Pirates had won both Pennants, I don't see them beating the Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers Oakland Athletics in either the 1973 or the 1974 World Series.  And by 1975, when the Pirates got swept in the NLCS by the Reds, Clemente would have been 41.  So I'm thinking they win one more Pennant, that of 1973, and not another World Series.  That gives the Pirates 10 Pennants in their TTL-history, instead of their RL 9.

Statistically, Roberto could well have added 160 hits in '73, 140 in '74, and 80 in a '75 finale.  That would have given him 3,380 hits -- more than anybody to that point except Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, and his contemporary Hank Aaron, and more than anybody since except Pete Rose.  If he could play in '76, at age 42, and somehow add another 56, that would give him 3,436 to surpass Wagner and Aaron, and leave him 5th (now 6th) all-time.  Not that it made any difference in whether he got into the Hall of Fame or got his number retired, but it might have gotten him over the line in the balloting for the MLB All-Century Team in 1999, even without the shadow of early death.


What would Clemente have done with the rest of his life? I can see him a baseball, or a Latino, equivalent of tennis star Arthur Ashe, who, in the decade of Clemente's death, agitated for civil rights, including in apartheid-ridden South Africa.

Clemente would have seen the dangers of Communism, how it surpress freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right to vote.  But he would also have seen the dangers of fascist dictators like Somoza, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and the Argentine junta, which used religion and nationalism as excuses for the same kind of surpression.

Clemente could have done what Jackie Robinson could never quite do: Rally his people to what should have been their own cause, and other peoples to that cause, the cause of uplifting Hispanic Americans and the people of the Spanish-speaking world.  He could have conducted baseball clinics all over the Caribbean, including Mexico, Central America, South America, even the Philippines, once part of the Spanish Empire.  (Though I doubt that even his personality and charisma could have led British Commonwealth nations of the Caribbean, such as Jamaica and Barbados, away from their loves of soccer and cricket.)

I can also see him doing something that really would shape the future of baseball.  In the mid-1980s, the team that had won the 1979 World Series was gone, the "Pittsburgh Drug Trials" stained the team's image, wins were hard to come by, attendance dropped, and there was a genuine threat that the Pirates might move.  At this time, Washington had Robert F. Kennedy Stadium waiting for a team, Denver had Mile High Stadium, and Miami was building Joe Robbie Stadium.  Despite the fact that the Pirates were approaching their 100th Anniversary in 1987, it was entirely possible that they would begin the 1988 season elsewhere.

Mayor Richard Caliguiri, talked several Western Pennsylvania-based companies into banding together to form Pittsburgh Associates, and this group bought the Pirates in 1985.  These companies included U.S. Steel, PNC Financial, Mellon Financial and Westinghouse.  Had Clemente still been alive (he would have been 51), Caliguiri could well have made the task easier by asking Roberto to get involved.  Suppose that these companies had said they would do it on the condition that Roberto be involved with the Pirate organization again? So they buy the Pirates.  Clemente becomes what some sports teams call a club "ambassador."

He goes to the State legislature in Harrisburg, and convinces them to pony up the money to build a better ballpark.  It takes a while to get the plans approved, but that's okay, since it gives the Pittsburgh people a chance to see what Baltimore did with Camden Yards, and they adjust accordingly What we know as PNC Park opens not in 2001, but in 1996.  Does that make a difference? Maybe not competitively, but it gets them out of Three Rivers Stadium 5 years sooner, which the fans would have liked.  Let's face it: Three Rivers was a football stadium, not a ballpark.

Now, imagine that, all this time, Clemente has been there, to keep people involved with the Pirates.  Let's suppose that a rich man (and Pittsburgh, for all its struggles, has always had plenty of them) buys the team from Pittsburgh Associates after the 1990 NL East title.  The Bucs win 3 straight Division titles, but can't quite get past the Reds in the 1990 NLCS, or the Atlanta Braves in 1991 or '92.

Except this as-yet-hypothetical new owner does what Pittsburgh Associates was not willing to do in the RL-1992-93 off-season: Spend the money necessary to keep Barry Bonds in town.  But Clemente also talks the owner into going after the biggest free-agent pitcher: Greg Maddux.  Instead of dropping from 96-66 to 75-87 as in RL, in 1993 the Pirates make a good run before falling behind the Phillies.  In 1994, the 3-Division setup comes in, and the Pirates move to the NL Central.  That's the strike year.  In 1995, Bonds and Maddux help the Pirates win the Division, beat the Dodgers and the Braves in the Playoffs, and, in the first-ever instance of the Pittsburgh-Cleveland football rivalry ever carrying over into baseball (something that has still never happened in RL), beat the Indians in the World Series.

That inspires the Steelers, and, with the memory of what the Pirates did in their minds, instead of losing Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys, they win.  As in 1979-80, Pittsburgh in 1995-96 is "The City of Champions."

The Pirates take the Braves' place for TTL-1996 as well, winning another Pennant, before getting shocked by the Yankees in the World Series, thus revenge for 1960 is finally attained.  Bonds keeps hitting.  The Bucs win another Pennant in 1997, and again they beat the Indians in the World Series.

In 1998, the Houston Astros are too good for the Pirates, and win the NL Central.  Bonds sees the love that is poured on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they hit 70 and 66 home runs respectively, and Ken Griffey Jr. as he hits 58.  He suspects they are using performance-enhancing drugs.  With his father, Bobby Bonds, still coaching in San Francisco and thus far away, and a pair of genuine Hall-of-Famers on hand, he asks Clemente, now 64 years old, what he should do.  "Don't worry about what other people say about other people," The Great One tells Barry.  "Just do what you know you can do.  You've won two World Series.  McGwire has only one, and Sosa doesn't have any." Stargell reminds Bonds of something he'd frequently said, "Don't be sharp, don't be flat.  Just be natural." Bonds takes this to mean, "Don't take steroids." He doesn't.

But the Pirates, even with Bonds and Maddux, struggle.  The as-yet-unknown owner sells the team to Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban, who already owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, and has not yet shown himself to be too much of, well, a maverick to make MLB Commissioner Bud Selig put the kibosh on the deal.  Cuban does the unthinkable, and signs Alex Rodriguez to a contract with $252 million.

In 2001, with Stargell having died at the start of the season, Bonds hits 55 home runs, A-Rod hits 52, and Maddux goes 20-8.  They go on to beat the Yankees in an epic World Series, including coming from 2-1 down against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7.  It is their 4th Pennant and 3rd World Championship in 7 seasons.

The Pirates, led by A-Rod and Bonds finishing 1 and 2 in the NL's Most Valuable Player voting, shock the Cubs thanks to Steve Bartman and the Cubs' own shoddy defense to win the 2003 Pennant.  But this time, the Yankees win the Series.  Still, that's 5 Pennants and 3 World Championships in 9 years.  Pretty strong.

In 2006, the Pirates and the Mets are tied 1-1 in the top of the 9th of Game 7 of the NLCS at Shea.  But Ronny Paulino -- a .310 hitter but with only 6 home runs -- hits a stunning home run.  (This is the Yadier Molina homer in RL.) Rookie reliever Matt Capps fans Carlos Beltran, who never takes the bat off his shoulder, for the Pennant-clinching out.  And the Bucs take the World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers, as in 1909.  12 years, 6 Pennants, 4 World Series won.  And, oh yeah, this is the 3rd calendar year in which both the Pirates and the Steelers have won their sports' World Championships.

The Pirates win the NL Central again in 2007, but things are beginning to change.  Bonds retires at the end of the season, having hit 617 home runs.  (The Pirates retire his Number 24, and he is elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2013.) Maddux also retires (and the Pirates pack away his Number 31).  And A-Rod is getting restless, with his 1-for-13 performance in an NL Division Series sweep by the Arizona Diamondbacks having the Pitt fans turn on him, despite the fact that he was closing in on becoming the youngest player ever to join the 500 Home Run Club.  (Remember, in TTL, he has also followed Clemente's advice, and never taken steroids.)

Clemente has also retired from his active position with the Pirates, and has spoken out against steroids, especially against their use by Hispanic players.  Sosa, a Dominican who wears Number 21 in tribute to Clemente, feels betrayed, but is released by the Texas Rangers and never plays in the majors again.  A new testing system is put in place starting with the 2008 season.

Although the Pirates have not reached the Playoffs since 2007, their record is a superb one: 20 Division titles, 16 National League Pennants, 9 World Championships -- only 1 fewer than the Steelers and Penguins combined.  (In RL, the Steelers have won 6, the Pirates 5, the Penguins 3.)

If Roberto Clemente died today, December 31, 2012, at 78 having had 40 additional years of life, he could have taken the immenseness of what he had done in the first half of his life, and made the second half even greater.

It is a pity that we shall never know.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What If Jackie Robinson Had Failed?

Bernadette Pasley, author of the excellent Yankee blog "Lady at the Bat," recommended this piece.  Whether it's taken me this long to do it because I forgot about it, or it's a complex subject and it takes more time to think it through than I thought I have -- or, to put it another way, whether I was a fool or just lazy -- isn't worth discussing.  I'll still end up looking better than some of the people in this piece.

(EDIT: It must have been laziness, as I once again confused her blog with "Lady Loves Pinstripes," which is run by Kate Conroy, and is also a very good Yankee blog.  I have corrected the error.)

There are two ways of looking at it: If Jackie Robinson had failed on merit, or if he'd been sabotaged.

What does "failed on merit" mean? One of two things: Either he wasn't good enough, or he broke his promise to Brooklyn Dodgers president and part-owner Branch Rickey that he wouldn't respond to the vicious assaults on his race, no matter what.

The possibility of him not being good enough was real.  Rickey specifically chose Robinson because he seemed to be the best man for the job -- NOT the best player.

And, indeed, as late as May 8, 1947, his 15th major league game, his batting average was .241, with just 1 home run and 2 RBIs.  Granted, he was usually 1st or 2nd in the batting order at the time, which is not an RBI slot.  But Ebbets Field was a bandbox.  He should have had more than that.

But it's also worth noting that baseball wasn't his best sport -- or even his third-best.  He was a star running back at UCLA, was on the track team as a fantastic long-jumper (as was his brother Mack, who once held the world record), and had also played basketball there.  When he made his debut for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he'd previously played professional baseball for 2 seasons: 1945, with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (previously, they'd been in the Negro National League); and 1946, with the Montreal Royals of the International League.  Essentially, he'd had 2 seasons of pro ball, the 2nd at the Triple-A level, the other in a league whose talents ranged from genuine future Hall-of-Famers to players who wouldn't have made it to the previously all-white majors no matter how many barriers you strip away from history.

Why hadn't he played more? Because he was in college until 1941, played minor-league football that fall, and got drafted into the Army early the next year, and wasn't discharged until November 1944.  As with many other players, it's arguable that World War II took his most productive years -- he reached his 23rd and 24th birthdays in the Army.  He didn't play his first professional baseball game until he was 26, at which point most guys who are good at baseball are in the majors and just entering their prime.  He didn't make his major league debut until he was 28.  He had his best season at 30, his last good one (in terms of individual statistics) at 35, and his last one at 37.

He had only half a career, and because of when he got out of college and which sport he preferred, he probably wouldn't have appeared in Major League Baseball before The War even without the color barrier.  Indeed, had there been no civil rights problem in America in 1941 -- if a black person in America, at that time, could have been anything he or she wanted, with the only barriers being professional qualifications and talent -- today, you might be reading an article titled, "What If Jackie Robinson Had Played Baseball Instead of Football?" He might have gone to the Los Angeles Rams, where his former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, and another former UCLA player, later a renowned actor, Woody Strode, had reintegrated the NFL.  From 1949 to 1955, the Rams played in 4 NFL Championship Games, though they only won 1, in 1951; maybe Jackie could have made a difference there.

(Willie Mays has also claimed that football was his best sport, and that he would have been one of the top quarterbacks in college football if a white school had been willing to take him.  Imagine that: Willie Mays being better at another sport than he was at baseball! Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson was interested in taking Mickey Mantle -- and his successor, Gomer Jones, wanted another Yankee from the Sooner State, Bobby Murcer.)

Jackie broke out of his season-starting funk in 1947, getting his average up to .299 on May 17, but by June 4 it was back down to .263.  Then he took off, spending most of the season above .300, reaching .316 a couple of times before finishing at .297.

If Rickey had decided that Jackie wasn't quite ready, and sent him back down to Montreal in May, would that have been the end of the experiment? Would Jackie Robinson have been a "failure"? Hardly: He would have done what he did the year before, tear up the International League with the Royals, and would have been called back up.


So Jackie wouldn't have failed competitively.  But what if he lost his cool?

On April 22, 23 and 24, 1947, the Philadelphia Phillies came to Ebbets Field, and their manager, Nashville native Ben Chapman, a former All-Star outfielder with the Yankees, led his Phils in horrific verbal abuse, with references to cotton fields, shoe shines, and Robinson fooling around with his white teammates' wives.  He was addressed as "Boy" over and over, and also with a word that begin with N and ends with R, and it wasn't "Nor'easter."

To make matters worse -- potentially, yes, this would have been much worse, as I'll get to later -- Chapman gave his pitchers an order: If Robinson works the count to 3-0, instead of throwing ball 4, bean him.  The old saying was applied: "If you're going to put him on, you might as well hurt him." If any Philadelphia pitcher did get to 3 balls and no strikes, and then purposely hit Jackie, I've never heard about it.

Robinson admitted, years later, that he was incredibly close to saying, "To hell with Rickey's experiment." But he thought about the effect it would have on race relations.  The reprisals of racist whites against black people who had nothing to do with the incident, innocent in every aspect, would have been crushing -- physically and emotionally.  He couldn't do it.

When the Dodgers made a roadtrip to Philadelphia for games on May 9, 10 and 11, National League President Ford Frick ordered Chapman to have his picture taken shaking hands with Robinson.  He refused.  So a compromise was reached, with the two of them standing together, holding a bat.  As you can see in the photo, Jackie was willing to smile for the camera, even if it was a phony expression of emotion; Chapman was not.  In the 7 aforementioned games with the Phillies -- 3 in Brooklyn, 4 in Philly including a doubleheader -- Jackie got a hit in 6.

But let us suppose...


It's Saturday, May 10, 1947, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and the count on Jackie is 3 and 0.  Phillies pitcher Tommy Hughes -- a journeyman who is yet another player whose best years got eaten up by the fights against Hitler and Tojo -- follows his manager's orders, and hits Robinson, right in the back between the 4 and the 2.  Not enough to injure him, but enough to hurt.

(Let me note that I am not attempting to malign Hughes' character.  I don't know anything about him.  For all I know, he might have been reluctant in this situation, "just following orders" -- which was not an allowable excuse the year before in Nuremberg.)

That's it.  Jackie Robinson stops giving a damn.  He runs out to the mound, and Tommy Hughes' nose is broken with one punch.

The dugouts empty.  To the Phillies' shock, Jackie's Dodger teammates are behind him 100 percent, and knock a few Phillies out.

The Southern press of the day prints editorials claiming that this is what happens when you put (to use the term widely accepted at the time) Negroes in the white major leagues.

National League President Ford Frick fines Robinson $1,000 and suspends him for 3 games.  But he also fines Hughes $2,000 and suspends him for 6 games, double what he gave Robinson, for causing it.  And he fines Chapman $5,000 and suspends him for 30 days, for ordering it.

Jackie apologizes to Rickey and says, "I just couldn't take it anymore."

Rickey had publicly worried that, if this experiment had failed, it would be 20 years before anyone would try again.

Rickey realizes now that there is a limit to what a man can take, and he stands by his man.  And soon, statements of support come in from baseball luminaries, ranging from Babe Ruth to Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack, from aging legends like Honus Wagner and Cy Young to current stars Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and the one player who had a clue as to what Jackie was going through, the Jewish star Hank Greenberg.  (Who, in RL, was the one opposing player to go out of his way to welcome Jackie to the majors, and Jackie singled him out for thanks and praise many times.)

That gives Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck the last piece of evidence he needs.  He signs Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles -- just as he did in RL, without this extra controversy.

Frick had previously told the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball's Southernmost team and a club with a reputation for hardscrabble Southerners like Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin, and currently Enos Slaughter and Harry Walker (brother of the Dodgers' Dixie Walker), that if they carried out their threat to strike, that they, and anyone else who did, would be suspended, and "I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years." Frick told them, point-blank: "You will find that the friends you think you have, will not support you."

In other words, it would have been one thing if Jackie had simply not been proficient enough -- he proved that he was.  But if the only thing stopping him was bigotry, the baseball establishment -- Frick and Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler, himself a Southerner -- were going to stand by him.

I can even imagine President Harry Truman being asked about this.  Although he was from Missouri, he tended to think of that State as more Southern than Midwestern, and he used the N-word casually, if not maliciously.  As far as I know, he never made a statement about Robinson in RL -- but in TTL, if asked, I suspect he would have said, "Mr. Robinson has as much right to make it in his profession of choice as any other man in that profession.  As long as baseball handles it, I see no reason to step in." In RL-1948, it was Truman who desegregated the U.S. armed forces.  FDR didn't do it.  Maybe Ike, or JFK, or LBJ would have, if it had still been necessary; but Truman is the one who seized the opportunity and did it.

Edward R. Murrow does one of television news' first documentaries on Jackie and the bigotry he's faced.  Essentially, Murrow damages the opposition as much as he damaged Senator Joe McCarthy in RL-1954, and in the same way: By using their own words and pictures to show just how despicable, and just how ridiculous, they are.

The nation rallies around Jackie Robinson, the way it still does around Joe Louis, the way it once did around Jesse Owens.  Both men stand up for Jackie was well.  (I'm not sure how much they did in RL.)

The Dodgers win the Pennant, and Jackie plays in the World Series, although the Dodgers still lose to the Yankees.  His success, and Doby's, lead to the full integration of the game anyway.

If anything, Jackie Robinson becomes a bigger hero.  Instead of being the nonviolent angel who brings about change, baseball's Gandhi, he has become an avenging angel -- if not a saint.  He's not, as in RL, the man who said, "I'm playing, because I have the right.  My demand is modest enough." In TTL, he's the man who said, "Enough.  You can't treat my people this way anymore."

Strom Thurmond's segregationist candidacy of 1948 becomes a joke.  Instead of finishing 3rd behind Truman and Governor Thomas E. Dewey, he finishes 4th, behind also former Vice President Henry Wallace.

Thurmond's 1957 filibuster, the longest in Senate history at over 24 hours, falls apart quickly, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passes.

Jackie Robinson speaks at the 1963 March On Washington -- which he didn't do in RL.  It is mentioned in the press that Robinson is a Republican, and a friend of Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York -- a potential candidate to run against President John F. Kennedy the next year.  JFK invites Jackie to the White House.  Between the two of them, they manage to convince enough Congressmen and Senators in their respective parties to get on the ball.  The Civil Rights Act of 1963 is passed, and JFK signs it into law on November 19, 1963.  Then he flies to Dallas.

Jackie and Rachel Robinson attend his funeral, 6 days later.  Rockefeller does run for President in 1964, and, with Jackie seen by his side, he gets the nomination, instead of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  Rockefeller still loses to Lyndon Johnson, but it's not a wipeout.  Goldwater's hard-right forces fight even harder against Rockefeller in the 1968 primaries, but it's no use, as Richard Nixon's comeback is complete.

History reasserts itself: Even without the Goldwater nomination, the conservative movement finally nominates their man in 1980.  By which point, Jackie has been dead for 8 years.

Well, history almost reasserts itself.  In 1989, in a special election to succeed Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, Congressman Trent Lott is defeated by a man roughly the same age.  Another Congressman, who had been the first black professor at the University of Mississippi.  Emmett Till.

In 1994, presuming that the coming Republican electoral tide will sweep Till out of office, President Bill Clinton appoints him to the Supreme Court, where he still sits today, at the age of 71.


So there's failure, and attempted sabotage.  But what if the sabotage succeeds?

What if, in TTL, Hughes hits Jackie not in the back, but in the head?

The Dodgers were the first team to use batting helmets, experimenting with metal inserts after Joe Medwick (formerly of the Cardinal Gashouse Gang) was hit shortly after they acquired him in 1940.  But by 1947, although all the Dodgers were using them, they weren't nearly as good as they would become.

Jackie is rushed down Lehigh Avenue to Temple University Hospital.  His life is still in the balance the next morning.

Frick and Chandler have taken a train down to North Philadelphia, and meet with Phillies owner Bob Carpenter in Carpenter's office at Shibe Park.  They give Carpenter an ultimatum: Fire Chapman immediately, or all games played by the Phillies will be forfeited until you sell the team.

Worried that a new owner might not keep the team in Philadelphia, Carpenter -- whose wealth, taken from the pioneering Carpenter and du Pont families into which he'd been born, would have seemed to have protected him from ever needing to sell the team -- agrees.  Chapman is called up to the office immediately, and is told he has been fired, for cause.

Frick and Chandler assure Chapman that he will never work in the National League again.  They call American League President Will Harridge, and tell him what has happened.  Harridge assures them that Chapman will never work in the AL again, either.

Jackie recovers, although it appears that he will not be able to play for the rest of the season.  The 1947 All-Star Game is announced as a benefit for his family.  Before Game 1 of the World Series, between the Yankees and the Cardinals, Chandler stands by Jackie in a baseline box as he throws out the ceremonial first ball.

He returns to play for the 1948 season, and, free of the need to hold back, plays as we remember.  His career unfolds as we know it, with all the honors we know: The 1949 MVP; Pennants in '49, '52, '53, '55 and '56; the '55 World Championship; election to the Hall of Fame; and retirement of his Number 42, first by the Dodgers shortly before his death in 1972, and in 1997 for all of baseball.

Back to the Phillies: Eddie Sawyer, a year sooner than in RL, becomes manager, and the team develops into the Whiz Kids as in RL.  The dismissal of Chapman, and the message that Carpenter will not tolerate racism within the ranks of his club, leads to black fans in Philadelphia accepting that the Phillies are interested in their welfare, and attendance soars.  When the Phillies win the Pennant in 1950, they set a city attendance record that lasts until 1964.

In that summer of 1964, when the race riot happens mere blocks from what is now called Connie Mack Stadium, some black Phillies fans head for the ballpark to protect it.  The Phils have a home-field advantage that just wasn't there in RL, and the cheering from fans, black and white alike, spurs them on to hang on to their lead, and the Phillies win the Pennant, and beat the Yankees for their first World Championship.

Carpenter does his best to keep the team together.  Richie Allen and Frank Thomas don't have that carried-over tension, and there's no fight between them in 1965.  The Phils lose the Pennant to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but win it in 1966, although they lose the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles.

Richie Allen is one of baseball's most popular players, and doesn't feel the need to flout authority with late-night carousing.  When he grows sideburns and a mustache -- which he did in RL before the Oakland A's of the 1970s -- and starts asking to be called "Dick" instead of "Richie," which he says is "a little boy's name" -- and Phils legend, now broadcaster, Rich Ashburn agrees -- people seem to be fine with it.  He homers to win the last game at Connie Mack Stadium -- in 1967.  The Phils' Pennant made the desire to build a new stadium come to realization sooner, and Veterans Stadium opens in 1968.

The St. Louis Cardinals still win the World Series in 1967 and the Pennant in 1968, but not in 1964.  When they trade Curt Flood in the 1969-70 offseason, it's not to the Phillies for Dick Allen.  He still doesn't want to move, and his challenge to the reserve clause still happens.  But there's less of a racial aspect to it.  He still loses the case, but the reserve clause's days are numbered.

Allen slumps in 1969, '70 and '71.  The Phillies trade him to the Chicago White Sox, and he spends the rest of his career there, winning the AL Most Valuable Player in 1972, and leading "the South Side Hit Men" to the AL West title in 1977, before losing the ALCS to the Yankees.  From the 1964 Phillies, Allen and Johnny Callison are elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Jim Bunning is elected a bit sooner than he was in RL.  Allen's Number 15 and Callison's 6 join Bunning's 14, Ashburn's 1, Robin Roberts' 36, Mike Schmidt's 20, Steve Carlton's 32, and notations for Grover Cleveland Alexander and Chuck Klein on the wall at the Vet, and later at Citizens Bank Park, where there are statues of Allen, Schmidt, Carlton, Roberts, Mack, Ashburn and Harry Kalas.

Statues of Jackie Robinson appear at Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, the UCLA campus, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.


Sadly, in RL, the only statue of Jackie Robinson that I've ever seen is the one of him and Pee Wee Reese outside the Brooklyn Cyclones' park.  The Interborough Parkway, in Brooklyn and Queens, including cutting through the cemetery where he's buried, is named for him.  There was a school across the street from the site of Ebbets Field that was named for him, but the name has been changed to Ebbets Field Middle School.  But there is a plaque on a building built on the site of the Dodger offices in downtown Brooklyn where Jackie signed that first contract.  (In those days, most teams did not have their offices at the ballpark.) And the Mets have the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at the home plate entrance to Citi Field -- roughly the baseball equivalent of a Presidential Library.

So... What if Jackie Robinson had failed?

In the words of the immortal Susan B. Anthony, "Failure is impossible."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What If Fred Merkle Had Touched 2nd Base?

The 2012 World Series, between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants, is underway.  The Tigers have won 11 American League Pennants.  The Giants, in New York and San Francisco combined, have won 22 National League Pennants.  The Giants have won the World Series in 1905, 1921, 1922, 1933, 1954 and 2010 -- all but the last in New York.  The Tigers have won it in 1935, 1945, 1968 and 1984.  And yet, for all that glory, they have never faced each other in a World Series before.

The closest call was in 1908.  The Tigers won the 2nd of 3 straight Pennants, but the Giants blew it due to losing what became known as the Fred Merkle Game.  Merkle's Boner led to the game of September 23, 1908 being ruled a tie, and the NL season ended in a tie between the Giants and the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs.  A replay, not recognized as an official postseason game by Major League Baseball, was played on October 8, and the Cubs won.  The Cubs, for the 2nd straight year, beat the Tigers in the World Series.  Those remain the only World Series the Cubs have ever won.

The Tigers lost 3 straight World Series, 1907-08-09.  The only other team to do that was the Giants, 1911-12-13, with some of the same players who'd blown the 1908 Pennant.

On the 100th Anniversary, September 23, 2008, I did a piece, in the style of ESPN's series The Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... , on why Merkle should be let off the hook.  Check it out on my other blog, Uncle Mike's Musings.   (See link to the right.)

There's no point in rehashing what happened, or what appears to have happened, on that wacky afternoon at the Polo Grounds.  But... What if it didn't happen that way?

Suppose the fans did not rush the field, and Merkle got to 2nd base safely, and the game went into the books as a Giant win, and the Giants won the Pennant?

Well, for starters, the Cubs would, in TTL, not have won a World Series since 1907, instead of 1908.  But that is hardly a difference-maker.


If the Giants had stuck to their starting rotation, then we can safely guess who their starting pitchers would have been.  Having Christy "Big Six" Mathewson and Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity, both usually willing to start on short rest, simplifies things for them.  Remember, this was the Dead Ball Era: Nothing having to bear down on a team full of sluggers meant less wear and tear on an arm, meaning more pitches, more innings, more starts, more wins.

So, here we go, the 1908 World Series, New York Giants vs. Detroit Tigers:

Game 1, October 10, at Bennett Park, Detroit (which would be torn down after the 1911, with Navin Field, later to be known as Briggs Stadium and Tiger Stadium, builton the site): Christy Mathewson vs. Ed Killian.  Killian left in the 3rd inning and did not appear again in the Series, so he may have left due to injury.  Ed Summers came in, but couldn't stop the Cubs.  I suspect the Giants would have hit Killian and Summers equally well.  The Tigers fought back, though, with 3 runs in the 7th and 2 in the 8th, but the Cubs put it away with 5 runs in the 9th, to win it 10-6.  But they're not facing Ed Reulbach in TTL-Game 1: They're facing Matty.  Giants 10, Tigers 2.  Giants lead, 1-0.

Game 2, October 11, at Bennett Park: Joe McGinnity vs. Bill Donovan.  In RL, the Series had shifted to Chicago.  But, with New York being a lot father away, they likely would have gone with a format of 2 in Detroit, 3 in New York, 2 in Detroit -- presuming more than 4 games were necessary.  Which means there will be a day off in the TTL-1908 WS, as there was not in the RL-1908 WS.  The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the 8th, but the Cubs hung 6 on Donovan.  Today, Jim Leyland would have pulled him after the first baserunner.  In aught-eight, Tiger manager Hughie Jennings left Wild Bill in, to live up to his nickname.  (There have been a few other famous men named Bill Donovan, and they all seem to have been nicknamed Wild Bill.) The Tigers pulled a run back in the 9th, but no more.  I think the result would have been the same: Giants 6, Tigers 1.  Giants lead, 2-0.  And they haven't even played in New York yet.

Game 3, October 13, at the Polo Grounds: Red Ames vs. George Mullin.  The Cubs scored 3 in the 4, but the Tigers scored 5 in the 6th.  And that was off Jack Pfeister, a better pitcher than Ames.  Tigers 8, Giants 3.  Giants still lead, 2-1.  So far, the road team has won every game.

Game 4, October 14, at the Polo Grounds: Mathewson vs. Ed Summers.  Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, Matty's only real challenger for the title of Best Pitcher In Baseball at that time, shut the Tigers out.  No reason why Matty can't do the same.  Giants 3, Tigers 0.  Giants lead 3-1, and are 1 win away from taking it.

Game 5, October 15, at the Polo Grounds: McGinnity vs. Donovan.  Orval Overall shut the Tigers out to clinch it.  But after 3,441 innings pitched in 10 years, at age 37, McGinnity is winding down, and maybe Ty Cobb and company get to him.  Tigers 3, Giants 2.  Giants still lead 3-2, but the Series goes back to the not-yet-Motor City.

Game 6, October 17, at Bennett Park: Ames vs. Mullin.  Since this game was not played in RL, all I can do is make a somewhat-educated guess.  And here I have to throw in a monkey wrench.

We tend to think of Mathewson as one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived -- maybe the greatest.  But in the 2 biggest games of his career -- the 1908 Merkle replay and Game 8 of the 1912 World Series (forced because Game 2 was called due to darkness) -- he blew it.  Christy Mathewson, not a big game pitcher, not a clutch pitcher? Hard to believe.  But let me put it this way: There are other pitchers I would trust in Game 7 before I'd trust Mathewson.

But since the Giants didn't play the Merkle Replay in TTL, and hadn't yet played the 1912 World Series, they didn't know that.  Would they have taken it easy in Game 6, knowing they could rely on Matty in Game 7? Hell no, manager John McGraw wouldn't have allowed that.  He wanted to go for the jugular every... single... game.

But I smell a field day for the Georgia Peach: Cobb gets 3 hits, drives in 4 runs, and steals 6 bases, including home plate once.  Tigers 6, Giants 2.  We're going to a Game 7.

Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.  The first player and the first pitcher elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Numbers 3 and 7 on The Sporting News' end-of-the-century list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.  Their careers overlapped between 1905 and 1916.  And yet they never faced each other in a game that mattered.  Not in a World Series.  There was no All-Star Game back then.  They may never have even faced each other in spring training.  Now, they're going at it in Game 7 of the World Series.

Game 7, October 18, at Bennett Park: Mathewson vs. Summers.

The thing is, in RL, Cobb's lifetime postseason batting average was just .262.  That's .104 below his regular-season average.  And that was against guys like Brown, Pfeister, Overall, Reulbach, and 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers Vic Willis, Howie Camnitz and Babe Adams.  Aside from Brownie, none of those guys could touch Matty.  If Cobb was no better than, say, Nick Swisher against those guys, Mathewson would have turned him into postseason A-Rod.

In RL-1956, Don Larsen of the Yankees pitched the first no-hitter in World Series history, a perfect game.

In TTL-1956, Larsen will have to settle for the second no-hitter in World Series history.

Giants 2, Tigers 0.  Christy Mathewson pitches a no-hitter, with the only baserunner being Sam Crawford, who reaches on an error by... Fred Merkle.  But Merkle gets off a lot easier on this than he did for his RL "Boner." Mainly because Merkle doubled home 2 runs in the top of the 5th to provide the margin of victory.

This win doesn't affect the Giants' legacy much.  The difference between 1 ring and 2 isn't nearly as big as the difference between 1 ring and none.  In RL, Matty had 1 ring: 1905; Cobb had none.  In TTL, Matty has 2, Cobb still has none.

This doesn't change much.  All it really does is make the Cubs slightly more pathetic.