August 5, John Olerud “heads” into 47

Photo via: Chris Creamer's sportslogos.net

Photo via: Chris Creamer’s sportslogos.net

After 17 MLB seasons with five different teams, the one unique thing that John Olerud will be remembered for in 25 years is wearing a helmet at first base. He won a 1993 batting title and contributed to some of the best teams of his time. But the helmet always took away from Olerud’s identity as a player.

First, let’s get to why the ubiquitous helmet always sat on John’s head in the field.

In his senior season at Washington State, Olerud suffered from a brain aneurysm during a workout with the team. Doctors immediately drilled into his head to remove it. The life-threatening condition settled after the procedure.

But the question of baseball remained. The lefty certainly had his sights on the big leagues, coming off a .464 average with 23 home runs in his senior season. Since the aneurysm happened in January, he got cleared to finish out his senior year at Wash State. All this info comes from this Seattle article.

Olerud legitimately came from high school to the Major Leagues, jumping on with Toronto at the right time. Better, there was hardly any adjustment period. In his rookie year, the 21-year-old batted .265 in 111 games.

His breakthrough season came in Toronto’s magical 1993 season. As late as August, Olerud batted with a .400 average. That’s when everyone started paying attention and jumping to cover his story. This Chicago Tribune spot, obviously reactionary to his potent numbers, exemplify the hype around the first baseman.

He always wore the helmet – making fun of himself for wearing it, but knowing that after invasive brain surgery it was a necessity.

The helmet took on an identity of its own. Early in 2000, there was a funny story reported by ESPN and Sports Illustrated where Rickey Henderson mistook Olerud for himself. The tale got straightened out and revealed as lighthearted fun. Here are a few other versions of the tale.

His career nearly ended at Washington State, where his father also played baseball. But in 2007, his numbers for the Cougars earned him a spot in the College Baseball Hall of Fame. The award for the best two-way player is now named after Olerud, who also finished 24-4 on the mound at WSU.

The only break Olerud ever took from the east coast was back in his native Seattle. At first base, he finished .302/.401/.472 for the 116-win Mariners.

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July 29, Félix Mantilla turns 81

Photo from milwaukeebraves.info

Photo from milwaukeebraves.info

With proximity to some of the best players of the 1950s, Félix Mantilla played 11 years of Major League baseball. His first six years in Milwaukee introduced him to Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn and Red Schoendienst. Underratedly , Bobby Thompson also joined the Braves for their 1957 World Series Chapmionship.

But of all the names on the team that beat out the Yankees in Game 7, one knew Mantilla better than the rest. That player, Hank Aaron, roomed with Mantilla as teenagers who just joined the Braves’ farm system.

Born in Puerto Rico, he signed with the Boston Braves in 1952. Just before the 1953 season started, the National League unanimously voted to allow the team into Milwaukee.

Mantilla’s 160-pound frame landed him in the middle infield. When the Jacksonville Braves switched Major-League affiliates in 1953, Mantilla and Aaron started up the middle. But as Charlie Vascaerllaro’s book describes, they joined Horace Garner, Junior Reedy and Al Isreal as the first five black players to integrate the, “fifty-year history of the South Atlantic League.”

The Minors moved much slower to integrate than the Major League. Instead, big league teams dipped into the Negro Leagues to bring black talent to their squads. But nobody at the in the Minors (or Majors, for that matter) could Aaron’s bat. He skipped over AAA baseball. By the time Mantilla and Aaron joined the Braves in Milwaukee, the color barrier hardly existed anymore.

Read the anecdote from Vascerllaro’s book on page 38. To summarize, Aaron, Garner and Mantilla responded about as well as you could to ignorant remarks from a 1953 Minor League fan.

For a summer or two of Puerto Rican winter baseball (a safe hideout from American segregation) Mantilla and Aaron played together under manager Mickey Owen. Allegedly, Owen turned Aaron into an outfielder.

Eventually, Hank and Felix got the call to the Majors, bringing Milwaukee its first championship. Mantilla only got 200 plate appearances that season behind All-Star Johnny Logan. Aaron, who ascended to the Braves in 1954, batted .322 with 44 RBI.

Only once did Felix enjoy a nearly-full season of MLB action. In his 1965 All-Star year with Boston, he batted .275.

Listen to Mantilla, still a big deal in the Milwaukee area, talk about his time with the Braves here. Interesting stuff.

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July 28, Vida Blue’s 66th birthday

Picture from: tippingpitchers.com

Picture from: tippingpitchers.com

Ok, ok been off for a while. But today’s birthday boy is more than just the answer to a trivia question. Vida Blue won the Cy Young Award and MVP in the same 1971 season, yes. Other players who have done that: Justin Verlander (2011), Roger Clemens (1986), Bob Gibson and Denny McLain (1968).

The lefty’s 24-8 breakout season landed him on Sports Illustrated, Time and randomly in the movie Black GunnHe was untouchable. Barely able to drink, Blue and the A’s made their move to the American League’s best.

From the Bayou originally, Blue’s career started in Oakland, during an incredible 1970s run with Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers.

His rookie season made him a superstar, and rightly so. But the 21-year-old got a little too big for his britches, entering tough contract negotiations with Oakland’s famous owner Charles Finely.

Read about Finley here. He’s important in the story of the southpaw’s career, and for the sport in general.

That Jaffe article documents the struggle that they both had, and correctly points out that it’s impossible to exactly pin the 6-10 sophomore slump on the offseason shenanigans.

Shoddy though it is, this tells about other factors that possibly contributed to his poor 1972 season. But he did bounce back after that year.

Keep in mind, Oakland’s three straight World Series came right after the league lowered the pitching mound. Still, on the back of Hunter, Fingers and Ken Holtzman, the A’s finished with a 2.58 team ERA. Blue fit fourth into the rotation – a five man bunch, each finishing with a sub-three ERA in 1972.

As defending champions, manager Dick Williams moved Blue into a larger role. Three pitchers on the 1973 A’s tallied 20-win seasons, on the team’s way to the second of three straight championships. Blue’s 17-win 1974 season come to the forefront with a complete game shutout in the ALCS.

He kept his ERA low that season, 3.25, but only finished two games above .500.

In one of the more heavy-handed moves from a commissioner, Bowie Kuhn rejected the move that proposed to send Blue to the tail-end, 1978 Big Red Machine (entertaining though the color scheme could’ve been). Kuhn implored Cincinnati to give up more for the deal, making it a fair trade.

Kuhn rejected the monopolization of Cincy, saying a deal, “would surely enhance the Reds’ position and further separate the Dodgers and Reds from the other four clubs in the division.” The decision marked Kuhn’s second watershed act against Finley.

Recognizing that he could get value for his outstanding contracts rather than waiting till free agency, Finley tried to send Fingers and Joe Rudi to Boston. At the same time, he wanted to ship Blue’s contract to New York. Kuhn voided both moves.

Instead, Blue went across the harbor to San Francisco, pitching six years with a 3.52 combined ERA. Never after 1975 did he hit 20 wins again. Still, he made three more All-Star Games with the Giants.

Finely acted as Steinbrenner before Steinbrenner. He basically constructed the three World Series teams on his own and masterminded profits on promotions. Read this story about turning facial hair into the identity of the A’s best players.

More on Finley later. The important part is Blue’s 66th birthday.

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July 23, Nomar “hits” 42

Nomar prospect card available on Amazon. Apparently in pretty good shape still. Go get it: http://www.amazon.com/Topps-Traded-Baseball-Garciaparra-Rookie/dp/B007CNPCW4

Nomar prospect card available on Amazon. Apparently in pretty good shape still. Go get it: http://www.amazon.com/Topps-Traded-Baseball-Garciaparra-Rookie/dp/B007CNPCW4

All right, so two Hall of Famers, Don Drysdale (HoF 1984) and Pee Wee Reese (also, HoF 1984) celebrate birthdays today. There’s plenty of literature on them including Drysdale’s sudden death and scoreless streak.

But my favorite baseball player also has a birthday today, so I’m choosing to write about Nomar Garciaparra instead.

I grew up idolizing Garciaparra. I wore No. 5 because of him and even modeled his unique, hyper-OCD routine between pitches. The mid 1990s placed the future of baseball in the shortstop position. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada accompanied Garciaparra in the six hole. That group combined for two Rookie of the Year awards and four total MVPs.

He only hit for great power numbers two or three times, but astonished fans with his average. Twice he took American League batting titles, the first righty to do so since DiMaggio. In 2000, he gave a .400 batting average a good run for its money – throwing his hitting in the same conversation as Ted Williams.

The Georgia Tech product battled injuries in the early 2000s. His Achilles and wrists regularly interrupted respectable seasons at the plate. But he easily made Red Sox fans fall in love with his play when he returned.

In 2001 Nomar returned from a wrist injury and went 2-4 with a home run to the deepest part of Fenway Park. The guy hadn’t even gone to Spring Training and the first game back he jacks a liner over the 420 triangle in center field. I remember watching this on like a 16-inch television in Montogmery, AL at my neighbors’ lake house.

On another occasion, my dad let me stay up till about 1 am (East coast time, because the Sox were in Seattle) and the game ended with Nomar’s perfect relay throw to get the winning run at the plate.

To tie into the birthday theme, he went deep three times on his 29th birthday.

For as much of a Boston icon that “Nomahhh” became, his exaggerated injuries grew old.

Nomar’s time in Boston ended on rocky terms. Nomar made no secret throughout his career that he hoped to return to California one day to play ball. So he basically tanked – or at least made injuries linger to get traded. This Dave D’Onofrio article best summarizes the final days and foreshadowing of Nomar’s career.

Then there are articles like this one questioning the legitimacy of Garciaparra’s clean play. His power numbers spiked around 2000, but he entered his prime then. His injuries and miraculous turnaround both raised eyebrows (granted that’s a Yankees blog).

He may have even admitted to using PEDs during his career. Not helping pictures like this and possibly more explanations about his health.

Nomar got his chance to play in California, he actually ended his career out there with Oakland. The end of his career, between LA, Chicago and Oakland, embodies a fizzle out.

Everyone now just awaits the athlete that he and Mia Hamm will pop out. Happy birthday, Nomar.

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July 22, Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle celebrates his 71st

Great card from a great blog https://shlabotnikreport.wordpress.com/

Great card from a great blog https://shlabotnikreport.wordpress.com/

Before their late 1990s dynasty under Joe Torre, the Yankees controlled the 1970s under Billy Martin. With bats like Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, and Mickey Rivers, the Yanks almost always had a lead. Martin turned to Sparky Lyle to protect those leads.

Lyle finished his career with 238 saves before the closer position took on the role as we understand it today. Over the course of 1976-1978 World Series teams, he closed 58 games successfully.

It wasn’t until about ten years later that Tony LaRussa made Dennis Eckersley famous with the exclusively-9th-inning closer (read about that here, about half way down).

With that in mind, Eckersley caught the blessing the Lyle noted during his career, saying, “why pitch nine innings when you can get just as famous pitching two?”

He enjoyed so much success in the tail end of ballgames that he became the first American League reliever to win a Cy Young Award. Over 16 years and 899 career appearances, the lefty never started a Major League game. He twice led the league in saves including 35 in 1972.

His fastball complemented a sharp breaking ball – a pitch that came about by picking the mind of the game’s best hitter. The following, from the SABR Baseball Biography Project:

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 4.18.51 PM

Even though Lyle enjoyed success himself, he mostly set the table for closers to take over the 9th inning leaguewide. Rollie Fingers (HoF 1992) broke Lyle’s American League saves record in 1980 and Dave Righetti snatched his Yankee save record before Mariano Rivera did.

But Yankee reliever Goose Gossage (HoF 2008) forced Lyle out the door as much as anyone. Moving to the bullpen fulltime in 1977, Gossage took 27 saves the next season while Lyle only finished with nine.

The Yanks turned him into a long reliever, catching onto the closer trend and outsourcing Lyle. When his time with the Yankees came to a close, he reportedly considered a dishwashing job in Florida, uncertain of his baseball career.

Texas, Philadelphia and the Chicago White Sox all game him a chance. In parts of six more seasons, he just barely cracked 200 innings.

Lyle turned into a manager for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball after his playing days. He still stands as the League’s winningest manager.

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July 21, Johnny Evers “turns” 134

Johnny-Evers-620x330

Rather than turning a double play, the middle portion of baseball’s best double play combination would turn 134 today.

Evers’ height pigeonholed him as a second baseman. In his 1903 rookie season, he found himself sharing an infield with Joe Tinker and Frank Chance. That trio turned into the famous Tinker to Evers to Chance, about which Franklin Pierce Adams wrote in 1910.

The poem grieves the Giants’ lack of success against the dynasty in Chicago. (Side note: Adams jotted his most famous piece of work on accident, it seems).

The Cubs rattled off National League pennants in 1906, ’07, ’08 and 1910 and particularly dominated the Giants, going 46-32 in that window. The 1906 squad nearly doubled their opponents’ runs on the season.

Keep in mind, this is the era of 152-game seasons. The stout defense allowed only 2.5 runs per contest. That led the Cubs to a 116-36 record, the best winning percentage of any team to date.

The infield triumvirate certainly contributed to the teams’ successes. For nine seasons, Tinker, Evers and Chance turned double plays and won a pair of World Series.

For as much as the three gelled on the diamond, they remained distant as teammates. As told in Pete Cava’s Tales from the Cubs Dugout, Evers and Tinker openly brawled in the middle of a September game.

Tinker and Evers never made up until 1946 when both players made the Hall of Fame, along with Chance’s posthumous induction.

At just 5’9” and 125 pounds in his Major League days, Evers represents an era of defensive appreciation. He batted over .300 just once in his career, but helped turn 689 double plays over 18 seasons.

His baseball IQ noticed a missed call by umpires in 1908 which then turned into a dominant part of the storyline of Merkle’s Boner. But to make a long story short, Evers noticed that Fred Merkle never touched second base on, what we consider, a walkoff base hit. Evers forced Merkle out by touching second.

Player-coach at the time, Chance argued in Evers’ defense and the play caused a new ballgame weeks later. The Cubs won, and took the World Series in the same season. More on that story at a later date.

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July 20, Heinie Manush 114 years later

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 2.33.01 PM

Born Henry Manush, the baseballer known as Heinie made up some of the best outfields in baseball history. Today would be his 114th birthday.

A native of Alabama, the Detroit Tigers signed Manush at age 20. The Tigers finished in with dismal records at that time. Even with Ty Cobb in 1920, they finished 14th out of 16 teams in Major League Baseball. The 61-93 record put them 7th out of 8 in the American League.

Technique-wise, Manush and Cobb shared the same approach at the plate – with a short, quick motion to the baseball. Cobb, who made choking up on the bat famous along with Honus Wagner, played and coached with Manush until 1926.

This is a great link about Cobb’s approach at the plate and how he passed it down to Manush. Must read.

Detroit rattled off five straight winning seasons after Manush joined the Major League squad, in large part due to their four-man outfield rotation.

Veterans Bobby Veach and Henry Heilmann joined Cobb and newcomer Manush to the Navin Field (not an easy outfield to navigate).

The group of position players is still considered by some fans the best hitting outfield of all time. When you factor in Fatty Fothergill, each player batted over .300 that season. They finished with a combined batting average of .350.
As a player-coach, Cobb led the team to an 83-71 record in 1923. Manush doubled his at bats as a starter the next season, with a .289 average at the end of the year.

His best season at the plate came in tandum with Heilmann and Fothergill. On the last day of the regular season, Manush went 6 for 9 to take the batting title away from his teammates. And Babe Ruth.

In 1928, Heinie doubled his salary in St. Louis. He posted a .378 batting average, tying his career high, and led the American League with 47 doubles.

It was in Washington where he reached his only World Series and All-Star Game. He shared the outfield with Goose Goslin (HoF 1968) and led the team to a 93-59 American League pennant in 1933. Lefty batter Manush led the AL with 221 hits and 17 triples that year.

At 32-years-old, Heinie batted .349/.392/.523 on an otherwise disappointing 1934 squad. All in all, he totaled six years with the Senators and wears their cap in the Hall of Fame.

Manush hit .330 for his career, which is tied for 30th best all time and five points above Fothergill.

Also on this day, this awesome story unfolded.

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